Posted in: Essays

13 Ways of Looking at The Parallax View

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

1.

parallax_view_poster
The Parallax View

The Parallax View is an interesting suspense thriller with a thin plot involving a newspaper reporter named Frady (Warren Beatty) and his independent investigation of an employment bureau for assassins.

2.

The Parallax View is Alan Pakula’s hommage to Alfred Hitchcock, employing many of the Master’s techniques and devices, particularly his penchant for experimenting with different kinds of suspense and various ways of fulfilling—or not fulfilling—audience expectation. Pakula primes us for Hitchcock allusions with his precredit sequence, a high-altitude assassination and fistfight culminating in a fall from the Space Needle. The Needle is used even more casually than Hitchcock used the Statue of Liberty (Saboteur) and Mount Rushmore (North by Northwest).

3.

Like much of Hitchcock’s best work, and like Truffaut’s La Mariée était en noir, The Parallax View works consistently against its soundtrack. The film’s most arresting sequences take place while the track booms away irrelevantly with parade marches, political speeches, patriotic music. There is almost no crucial dialogue, and whole scenes—most notably one aboard an airplane threatened by a bomb—are played out against a subdued jumble of background noise. Later, a politician is murdered while his pre-recorded speech drones on. But while a blind person could not begin to follow the film, neither could a deaf person fully grasp its impact; for the ironic contrast between sight and sound in The Parallax View significantly amplifies the film’s theme of deliberately deceptive appearances. Michael Small’s sparse music score nicely reflects this irony in its use of a quick series of falling notes for solo trumpet. At its best moments, it calls to mind heroic aspirations echoing ineffectually off the spacious, sterile architecture that becomes the film’s principal and most memorable visual image.

Read More “13 Ways of Looking at The Parallax View”

Posted in: Film Reviews

St. Nick in Seattle

David Patrick Lowery’s new film—and first feature—St. Nick was showcased at the shorts film festival Rawstock 5 at the end of July. Having liked all of Lowery’s earlier work that I had seen, I didn’t want to miss it, or the rare chance to meet the film maker in person.

St. Nick
St. Nick

My anticipation was not misplaced. St. Nick is a constant adventure in light, shape, texture, and color. There’s narrative, too, to be sure. But it emerges only after the film and its central mystery have hooked you through images and episodes that tickle your sense of wonder and tease your curiosity.

How did these two kids get to where they are? How far are they from home? Why are they on their own? Lowery lets these questions hang in the back of his film. His interest lies not in their back story or motivation but in their resourcefulness, their sense of adventure, the enthusiasm with which they embrace the world. In a word, their kid-ness.

Read More “St. Nick in Seattle”

Posted in: Essays

Off the Beach: Fellini Satyricon

Fellini has been widely perceived as a moralist, ruthlessly portraying the corruption he saw around him in the social, political, and cultural flounderings of postwar Italy. But to regard him as a sometimes appreciative but more often critical observer of his world is to see only half the puzzle—the less interesting half. For Fellini always knew that he was part of the world he beheld, and what haunted him most was the impossibility of objectivity. The quasi-documentary approach of neorealist film-making became meaningful—and honest—only in combination with the self-examination more commonly associated with expressionism.

satyricon031
Fellini Satyricon: Bodies as landscape

La dolce vita and 8½, still for most viewers the two jewels in Fellini’s crown, present unapologetic self-portraits of the director at two stages of his creative life: the passionate would-be novelist, underemployed as a gossip reporter, unable to avoid becoming what he beheld; and the celebrated film director struggling to reconcile his creative visions with the expectations of an increasingly demanding public and to find common ground between his personal life and his public image. They also reflect a pivotal two-step process by which Fellini moves away from the linear neorealism of his earlier work and toward the surreal episodic narrative form that to one degree or another informs all of his later work.

Read More “Off the Beach: Fellini Satyricon”

Posted in: Film music, Film Noir

Keeping Score – Musique Noir: Investigating the Sound of Film Noir

The sound of noir—plaintive sax solos, blue cocktail piano, the wail of a distant trumpet through dark, wet alleyways, hot Latin beats oozing like a neon glow from the half-shuttered windows of forbidden nightspots. You walk the sidewalks of big, lonely towns, with no destination in mind, following only the sounds, guided by them, wondering where they come from, what hurt souls cry out with such tones.

No one invented the sound of film noir. It grew over seven decades, teased and shaped by the touch and mood of particular composers, particular films, particular times.

The Film Scores of Adolph Deutsch

You need to start somewhere, and the best place is probably with Adolphe Deutsch. Though capable of creating melody, Deutsch indulged in his noir scores a tonal experimentation that suggests the influence of Schönberg—an appropriate choice for a film genre so heavily indebted to the look and feel of German expressionism. With scores for The Maltese Falcon and The Mask of Dimitrios, Deutsch laid the foundations for a language of film noir with specific tonal gestures evocative of foreboding, suspense, surprise, high action, the shock of sudden recognition. And with Dimitrios especially (my vote for the first great noir score), he began building the orchestral sound of film noir.

The same year as Dimitrios, however, Miklos Rosza played a different card in his score for Double Indemnity. Rosza, an unapologetic romantic and exemplar of the Wagnerian strain in film scoring whose love of big melody made him the go-to guy for epic spectaculars in the 50s and 60s (and persona non grata for most of the remainder of his career), created in Double Indemnity a wondrous score, a suite of which was recently made available as an extra on Disc 3 of Tadlow’s magnificent complete El Cid. Billy Wilder gave Rosza both light and dark to work with, and Rosza rose brilliantly to the challenge. To the mood-pinned underscorings of the Deutsch approach, Rosza added melody, and threw the noir sound decisively forward. The spectacular, ominous main theme blankets the film with the sense of doom of a guy who knew all along he should have known better; the resigned, almost despairing love theme points toward his celebrated music for Hitchcock’s Spellbound two years later.

Read More “Keeping Score – Musique Noir: Investigating the Sound of Film Noir”

Posted in: Essays, Film Reviews

Learning to Do It Right: “The Wild Bunch” – A Personal Reflection

Law and order and grace and understanding are things that have to be taught. … People are born to survive. They have instincts that go back millions of years. Unfortunately, some of those instincts are based on violence. There is a great streak of violence in every human being. If it is not channeled and understood, it will break out in war or in madness. … [The children’s torture of ants and scorpions at the beginning of the film is] an ugly game, but it’s a game children play—unless they’re taught different. They would have had to be taught not to play that game. And man was a killer millions of years before he served a God.

—Sam Peckinpah, interviewed by Aljean Harmetz, The New York Times, 1969

The Wild Bunch is certainly Sam Peckinpah’s clearest, most heartfelt and poetic statement of his deeply-held belief that we are born animals, and that if we become human at all, it is by learning—from others and from our own experiences. We are not what nature or God makes us, but what we make of ourselves.

"The Wild Bunch" - the original poster
“The Wild Bunch” – the original poster

Whether you share that view or not, you’re a fool if you don’t confront it, and an orphan if you don’t let Sam Peckinpah take you on this spiritual journey to the darkest and the brightest sides of human capability.

When The Wild Bunch premiered in 1969, most viewers and reviewers reviled its uncompromising and unprecedented depiction of violence. Peckinpah himself became widely regarded as a violent personality who reveled in displays of brutality; and that legend only widened with Straw Dogs (1971) and The Getaway (1972).

Rarely have a director’s vision and career been so willfully misunderstood. Peckinpah was haunted by violence, physical and psychological, in his personal life and his profession, and he dared to confront it as few artists in any era or any medium have ever done. The fact that, after forty intervening years of de-sensitizing reality, movie violence, and gore technology, The Wild Bunch still has the power to shock and disturb is ample evidence that this film is no simple-minded kill-spree.

As those who refuse to classify Peckinpah and put him away in the box marked “violence” can readily tell you, both the man and the artist had a big, loving heart, and it was apparent to anyone who had eyes, not only in the gentle, understanding Ride the High Country (1962), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and Junior Bonner (1971), but also right alongside the savage violence of his masterpiece The Wild Bunch.

The Wild Bunch addresses violence not only as an individual but as a communal phenomenon, as a way of life and a facet of culture. It’s no accident that this tale of a band of outlaws who “share very few sentiments with our government” and take their last chance as gunrunners to a ruthless generalissimo in the Mexican revolution was written, filmed, and released at the height of our country’s ill-fated adventure in Vietnam. That the American experience has so often been a violent experience is part of the film’s core vision. But The Wild Bunch is neither pro- nor anti-Vietnam. Peckinpah was never as simple as that. And because he wasn’t simple about it, The Wild Bunch remains one of a very few films that capture the complexity of the upheaval in American politics and culture that occurred in the Sixties.

Read More “Learning to Do It Right: “The Wild Bunch” – A Personal Reflection”

Posted in: Film music, Horror

Keeping Score – Scary Music: the Sequel

For last Halloween, I offered a list of 13 movie scores that I believe stand out as landmarks in the in the history of scary movie music. I got some comments from a few readers who were disappointed that some of their own favorite fright film scores and composers weren’t represented. Well, there’s a lot more great stuff out there, and so, with Friday the 13th upon us, here’s a second set of 13.

princeofdarkness
John Carpenter and Alan Howarth: "Prince of Darkness"

13. Prince of Darkness, John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, 1987.

This remarkable film and its score came in for new and long-delayed recognition in 2008 with the release of a two-disc recording of the Carpenter-Howarth score, probably the best of their many collaborations. There’s an insistent underbeat throughout the film, the advance of relentless evil, over which Carpenter and Howarth weave motifs of traditional Gothic sound in non-traditional electronic instrumentation.

12. Orson Welles’s Great Mysteries, John Barry, 1973.

For a little-watched and little-remembered television anthology series, John Barry created one of his best themes, an infectious melody with a distinctively creepy, almost threatening reach.

11. Cannibal Holocaust, Riz Ortolani, 1980.

Ortolani, who remains best known for “More,” the popular theme tune from Mondo Cane (1962), had a stock in trade of putting music to the graphic horrors of Italian shockumentary, and the ensuing cannibal cycle of film-making that assayed previously unimagined depths of gore and cruelty. The notorious Cannibal Holocaust boasts a score that features one pretty melody, several jaunty passages set to a Latin beat, and several savage musical embodiments of horror and revulsion.

Read More “Keeping Score – Scary Music: the Sequel”

Posted in: Essays

Observations, Reflections, and Ruminations from 2008

No, this is not a top ten of the year, nor even a fair bid at a summation of the year in movies. It’s just a grab-bag of passing thoughts teased into being by some of the films I saw this past year, and an effort to say a few things that no one else is likely to.

australia-kidman-jackman
Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman and the Outback

Australia: Instant guilty pleasure. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t anyone like Nicole Kidman around in early 20th century Australia, and that no person of the time, white or black, really wanted a child of the Stolen Generation the way Lady Sarah Ashley and wily old King George both wanted Nullah. I’m also pretty sure that doesn’t matter a bit to Baz Luhrmann … or to me as a viewer of his film. Throughout its considerable running time, a voice like that of the servants of imperial Roman heroes at triumph whispers in my ear that this is not a masterpiece, not perhaps even an especially good movie. Yet how can I resist its joyous celebration of the movies, how they transform and redeem us, how they enable us to contrapose what should have been to what was? Drawing from screwball comedy, epic western, epic war movie, from acknowledged classics (The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Red River) and forgotten oddities (Donovan’s Reef, The Devil at Four o’Clock), Luhrmann gives us an infectious re-invention of his native land made in the image of what is most important to him, the movies. –And what a joy to see again, together, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, and David Gulpilil—giants of the now-distant golden age of Australian film.

Changeling and Gran Torino: This year’s Eastwood two-fer underscored once again what is strongest and weakest about the vision of the man who is perhaps the last quintessentially American film maker. On the good side: a strong sense of story and story-telling, of a thoroughly visual narrative style, and of the power of an honestly observed character (Oscar nominations be damned, no performance of 2008 arrested my admiration more than that of Michael Kelly as Changeling’s Detective Ybarra). On the down side: a stubborn simple-mindedness when it comes to corruption and evil. The flat portrayals of the gang members of Gran Torino and the LAPD top brass and their sanitarium cronies in Changeling reduce what might have been to something much less. On the other hand, if Eastwood is indeed the last American film maker who sees with truly American eyes, there may be a lesson for us all in his bull-headed conviction that good guys are complex personalities with a compelling dark side, but bad guys are just plain bad—and stupid and expendable into the bargain. Dirty Harry and The Man with No Name still battle for possession of Eastwood’s soul, and every film he makes is to some degree a new skirmish in his continuing war against the staying-power of his own screen image.

Read More “Observations, Reflections, and Ruminations from 2008”

Posted in: Film music

Keeping Score – “Ennio Morricone: The Complete Edition”

Fifteen CDs is a big set—and a bargain for $99.95. But in what sense is GDM’s big holiday release a “Complete Edition”? Obviously it’s not everything the Maestro has written; that couldn’t be done in ten times as many discs.

emcompleteedThe avowed effort here is, for the first time in a single collection, to offer a sampling of Ennio Morricone’s work in every one of the specialized fields of musical composition in which he has worked. The set is organized accordingly: Music for Cinema (9 discs); Music for Television (2 discs); and one disc each covering Contemporary Classical Music, Orchestral Arrangements, Hit Song Arrangements, and Original Songs.

If you bought GDM’s previous extravaganza, Ennio Morricone: The Super Gold Edition (GDM Music srl, 0168292GDM; 6 discs, avail. at $45-85), you may well wonder whether the cinema music portion of this new collection replaces that previous set. No, it doesn’t. While the vast majority of the cuts on the previous set are also included in the present one, there are several instances in which a film represented in the earlier box set is represented this time by a different excerpt, or none at all. So if you buy the new box, there’s reason to hang on to the earlier one as well.

Like the earlier box, this new set’s CDs are all in matching format, featuring the same superb pencil portrait of Morricone at mid-age; unlike the earlier box, the new one has color-coded the CDs, so one can always grab the right sleeve to consult the contents of the current disc. A big difference between the new set and the old one is that the works on the new set are presented in chronological order, enabling you to trace the evolution of the Morricone touch from the late ’50s right through to last year, spotting patterns, repetitions, variations, and increasingly complex and inventive stylistic gestures.

Read More “Keeping Score – “Ennio Morricone: The Complete Edition””

Posted in: Essays, Film Reviews

There Will Be Choice: Why Gone Baby Gone Is the Best Film of 2007

[Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is currently reissuing a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. Author Robert Cumbow is a member of the Parallax View collective and his essays are being published simultaneously on Parallax View. The essay below was first published on 11/05/2008, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).]

I always believed it was the things you don’t choose that make you who you are: your city, your neighborhood, your family. People here take pride in those things.
–Patrick Kenzie

Gosh, what a great year 2007 was for movies. You could wipe out the Academy’s five Best Picture nominees, replace them with five others, and still have an honorable rack of best-picture candidates. One of those second five could easily be Ben Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone—my personal vote for best film of the year.

A well-crafted film, richly deserving of the honors it has received, No Country for Old Men nevertheless too often feels like a collection of highlights from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, sometimes about one guy, sometimes about another, never matching the novel’s more focused vision. There Will Be Blood is even more all over the map—gorgeous to look at, but without the discipline of knowing where it’s coming from, where it’s headed, and what, if anything, those two points have to do with each other. Michael Clayton bounces between rich characterization and caricature, moral complexity and empty-headed mantras about corporations. Atonement seems to be about one thing, but only for the purpose of revealing ultimately that it is about something else altogether—not romance or betrayal but the power of art to liberate, and the impossibility of such liberation. And it takes that war-epic detour in the middle, as if to say, “Hey, guys, this isn’t a chick flick! Honest!” Juno is primarily about language, but uneasily so, since its characters, who are all sharply defined and mostly well-rounded, nevertheless all speak with the same voice—the impossibly quick-witted and widely experienced voice of one clever writer. And the language of the film’s characters is an end, not a means, never satisfactorily bound to the film’s moral theme about decision-making.

Gone Baby Gone is also about decision-making; but unlike the Academy’s five nominees, it is a film that from the first to the last frame never forgets what it’s about, and remains unrelentingly faithful to its theme throughout. Director Ben Affleck shows an unerring eye and a concentration of intent that makes this film really special.

Read More “There Will Be Choice: Why Gone Baby Gone Is the Best Film of 2007”

Posted in: Essays

David Lynch Folds Space: Because He Is the Kwisatz Haderach!…

[Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is currently reissuing a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. Author Robert C. Cumbow is a member of the Parallax View collective and his essays are being published simultaneously on Parallax View. The essay below was first published on 16/11/2006, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).]

 

The spice extends life. The spice expands consciousness. The spice is vital to space travel. The Spacing Guild and its Navigators, whom the spice has mutated over four thousand years, use the orange spice gas, which gives them the ability to fold space; that is, to travel to any part of the known universe without moving.
Princess Irulan, in David Lynchs Dune

That’s what David Lynch’s Dune does: It gets us from place to place and from beginning to end without ever seeming to move—at least in the way that a more conventional science-fiction action thriller is expected to move. The unkindest viewers and critics have called it boring.

Even the film’s action sequences sit in the memory more as tableaux than as moving images. “My movies are film-paintings,” Lynch said, in a 1984 interview during post-production on Dune. What strikes us even as we watch the film, and comes back most in our recalling of it, is the composition more than the dynamic—posture more than gesture:

  • Paul with his hand in the box, his imagination conspiring with the mental powers of the Bene Gesserit to objectify a pain that exists only in the suggestible mind
  • Paul’s mentors, Gurney Halleck, Thufir Hawat, and Wellington Yueh, introduced to us as a human triptych
  • Feyd Rautha in his futuristic g-string, posing as if for a beefcake photo
  • Alia, in a transport of ecstasy, holding aloft her crysknife as the Fremen overrun the imperial forces, a nightmarish composition by Lynch out of Bosch, all darkness, and a fully-formed witch who should be no more than a little girl, lit by fires and explosions, wrapped in Bene Gesserit robe and headpiece, with an expression on her face of triumph in slaughter that no little girl ever wore

This emphasis on the static over the kinetic is not so remarkable in an artist who, after all, began his career in—and remains committed to—the compositional rigors of painting, collage, and sculpture. But to see how it relates to folding space, we must further illuminate this concept of traveling without moving.

 

Read More “David Lynch Folds Space: Because He Is the Kwisatz Haderach!…”