Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Directors, Interviews

William Richert on ‘Winter Kills’

[Originally published in The Weekly, September 15-21, 1982]

Bill Richert and Tony Perkins were standing on top of the world when somebody cut the power. From this eyrie, banked by vast computers and embraced by a luminous diorama of the solar system, John Cerruti (Perkins) could monitor every salient fact on the face of the globe, catalogue it, and consider its implications for the financial and political future of the Keegan dynasty—the Kennedyesque family and megaconglomerate whose ins and outs define the texture of modern reality in Richard Condon’s dazzling novel Winter Kills. Richert had whipped this kaleidoscopic narrative into a fluid screenplay and was halfway through the process of realizing the film itself. But in the giddy orbits of other, less reliably monitored galaxies, the source money twinkled away. Now, on the soundstage floor far below, studio representatives with no sense of irony were killing the lights, shutting his picture down. It stayed shut down for a year and a half.

It’s been like that throughout the history of this brilliant film. The $6.5-million project was announced in 1976: a major production to be shot on locations round the globe, and literally all-star at every level. Jeff Bridges and John Huston headed a cast that also included Perkins, Richard Boone, Toshiro Mifune, Sterling Hayden, Eli Wallach, Dorothy Malone, Tomas Milian, Ralph Meeker, and an unbilled Elizabeth Taylor. The production designer was Hitchcock mainstay Robert Boyle; the cameraman, Vilmos Zsigmond. Maurice Jarre would compose the score. And the story! Just as Richard Condon had anticipated the assassination era with his Manchurian Candidate, so in Winter Kills had he supplied the perfect metaphor for life after Watergate—a surrealistic study of Power from an incestuous inside view, with lashings of assassination conspiracy arcana and roman à clef titillation. A more unlikely candidate for shelving would be hard to imagine.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews

Hard Eight

[Originally published in Film Comment, March-April 1997]

Black screen; the sound of a truck starting. Fade in on a drab morning, the parking lot of a roadside diner, and the truck itself, a long freighter that hauls itself into, across, and out of a Super-35 frame that, for one satisfying instant, it perfectly fills. As the engine roar recedes, a trenchcoated back looms in frame right, pauses a beat, then approaches the diner, camera following at elbow level. There is a young man seated on the ground near the diner entrance, head bowed, legs drawn up to his chest, like a fetus that has learned to sit up. The man in the trenchcoat stops and speaks to him—an older man’s voice: “Want a cup of coffee? Want a cigarette?” The young man takes his time looking up, as if he’d been somewhere else, and had already accepted that in that place he would never be spoken to again. He can see the man who’s standing over him; except for a blurred reflection in the nearby door, we still haven’t.

Gaston Monescu once observed that beginnings are always difficult. With movies, just the opposite is often true. The audience is eager to be caught up in something—a story, a vision, a mood—or they wouldn’t be there. It’s child’s play to turn on the engine; riding out the trip is hard. Hard Eight, Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature debut, has a classical beaut of a beginning. The better, rarer news is that, having confidently taken the wheel, Anderson never loses his grip or his way. Like its opening shot, Hard Eight keeps us wanting to see more, and is equally satisfying in the ways that it does and doesn’t permit that to happen.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Television

TV: Lou Grant – hail

[Originally published in The Weekly, November 30, 1977]

He’s stacking frozen dinners in his shopping cart when he notices an attractive woman, fortyish, coming in out of the blank L.A. sun. She turns down another aisle; he decides he has to go to that part of the market too. She can’t quite reach a box on the top shelf; he gets it for her, gives an amiable no-sweat smile, cannily steers his cart elsewhere.

A minute later, he’s back beside her at the produce section. She smiles politely. He grabs an avocado and beams, “These are really great here!”

Her smile gets a little strained as she glances around the commonplace market: “Here?”

“California….”

He’s losing the moment. “The only trouble is, there’s too much for one person. No matter what ya do, that other half is gonna turn black”—his cowpie grin spreads wider in desperation—”and rotten“—things aren’t going quite the way he hoped—”and slimy!” She’s gone.

As anyone of taste and discernment must know, Lou Grant lost his job at the end of last TV season when he and Mary Richards and Murray Slaughter—everybody except Ted Baxter—got fired from the news department at WJM-TV, Minneapolis. It was The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s unorthodox way of writing finis to itself after seven years as one of the most successful comedy series in the annals of the medium.

The MTM team wanted to quit while the show was still at top form—an admirable ambition, but one that threatened to leave a number of fine character actors at loose ends, and at least one splendidly ripened (far from rotten or slimy) character in syndicated limbo.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Television

TV: ‘Lou Grant’ farewell

[Originally published in The Weekly, July 7, 1982]

My wife just told me that Lou Grant is going to be on in Lou Grant‘s time slot this week. This is something new and different. It had looked as if CBS, not content with having cancelled one of the best dramatic series in television history, wouldn’t even let it die in its own bed: for the past few weeks, the 10pm Monday berth has been consecrated to pumping ratings life into a piece of dreck called Cagney and Lacey. Lou’s fans had begun to wonder whether they’d have a chance to bid him farewell.

Actually, part of me has always been getting ready to live with Lou Grant‘s cancellation. Fear of that eventuality brought me out of the closet in November 1977 to do my first television review. This terrific show had been on for about a month and hardly anyone I knew, people who ought to like and value it, was watching. (They didn’t know about it; it was on too late for a weeknight; “I only watch public television.”)

Quality in television scored one of its rare victories that season: Lou Grant survived despite slow-building ratings. On ABC or NBC it would have been chopped after thirteen weeks, if not sooner. But CBS had a tradition of nurturing distinguished slow starters (including The Mary Tyler Moore Show where Lou Grant, if not Lou Grant, had been born). The network remained patient. Critics spread the word and so did more and more regular folks. The show’s viewing strength grew. Come one miraculous week in the summer of ’78, a Lou Grant rerun copped number-one position in the Nielsens and Ed Asner beamed at us from the cover of People.

I breathed a sigh of relief along with Lou’s other fans, but remained apprehensive. That summer fluke aside (what else was there to watch that week?), the program’s numbers weren’t that great. Any time I happened to notice the weekly top 10, or even top 20, shows listed in TV Guide, Lou Grant wasn’t among them. Although it was being spoken of casually as a “hit,” and had begun to be treated like an institution, the possibility of permanency still seemed remote. A network can’t make big bucks off an only moderate hit, no matter how regularly it wins Emmys for its star (1978) or itself (1979).

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Film Noir, Film Reviews

Coup de Torchon

[Original published in The Weekly (Seattle), July 13, 1983]

It’s 1938 in the French-African village of Bourkassa and Lucien Cordier, the one-man local constabulary, can’t get no respect. The lone inhabitant of the jail, an ancient black trustee who once poisoned his wife, must have been incarcerated long before Lucien’s time, because Lucien never arrests anybody. Let one of the locals start getting rowdy and Lucien, if he can’t run the other way, does his damnedest to look the other way. Small wonder that the principal resident predators, a pair of bored pimps, don’t hesitate to make public sport of him, or that his immediate superior, a half-day’s train journey removed, treats him the same way. Lucien fares little better in his own home: his wife Huguette refuses to sleep with him out of general disgust and also because she’s busy carrying on with a live-in lout named Nono, who may or may not be her brother. All in all, Lucien Cordier is a congenital, if affable, loser.

He’s such a loser that when he finally, grandly announces “a decision,” it’s that “I decided I don’t know what to do.” This decision is imparted to his big-town superior, Marcel, who has his usual fun scrambling Lucien’s already-dim wits and booting his ass. Somewhere in the course of this lazy-afternoon exercise, Marcel carelessly gifts Lucien with An Idea: if you’re kicked, kick back twice as hard. Serenely bearing what he takes as carte blanche for retribution, Lucien climbs back on the train, returns to Bourkassa, and straightaway shoots down the pimps.

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Posted in: 2000 Eyes, by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews

2000 Eyes: In the Mood for Love

[Written for Mr. Showbiz]

Listed in the Cannes festival catalog as “Untitled” and shown via a print lacking its final sound mix, Wong Kar-wai’s new picture is both more of the same and a tentative step in a new direction. Although the Hong Kong director continues his fruitful partnership with first-rate, Australian-born cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and although In the Mood for Love is often gorgeously framed, lit, and color designed, there’s virtually none of the swoopy/slithery camera moves that frequently outran purpose and sense in Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, and Happy Together. Instead the visuals respect the discretion and emotional delicacy of the two principal characters, nextdoor neighbors (Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai) who gradually realize that their respective spouses are having an affair. Mutual pain draws them together, after a fashion (the spouses themselves are scarcely seen and remain faceless even then). But this being the hyperromantic yet inveterately lonely world of Wong Kar-wai, we should know not to count on the fulfillment that the wall-to-wall Nat “King” Cole song track yearns for.

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Posted in: 2000 Eyes, by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews

2000 Eyes: South of Heaven, West of Hell

[Written for Amazon.com]

If you’ve never heard of South of Heaven, West of Hell, there’s an excellent reason. If you have heard of it, it’s probably because you stumbled upon the information that it marks the directorial debut of singer-actor Dwight Yoakam, who managed to sweet-talk a spectacularly quirky cast into abetting the enterprise: current girlfriend Bridget Fonda and her papa Peter; indie-world luminaries Vince Vaughn and Billy Bob Thornton (for whom Yoakam made a memorably loathsome villain in Sling Blade); character-acting stalwarts Bo Hopkins, Matt Clark, Luke Askew, and Scott Wilson; and such icons of the florid fringe as Bud Cort, Paul Reubens, and Michael Jeter. All should file for workman’s comp and alienation of audience affection because they got themselves mired in one of the dumbest, most inept, most tediously self-indulgent messes in the history of showbiz hubris.

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Posted in: 2000 Eyes, by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews, Horror

2000 Eyes: Shadow of the Vampire

[Written for Mr. Showbiz]

One of the most eagerly anticipated offerings at Cannes this year, Shadow of the Vampire is the first feature in a decade from E. Elias Merhige, whose only previous effort was the one-of-a-kind avant-garde feature Begotten (1990). That amazing film visualized a timeless cycle of birth, death, and regeneration, in Druidic images at once primeval and postapocalyptic, that seem to have been developed on protoplasmic stock and projected with a flickering bioluminescence. What more appropriate directorial casting, then, for an imaginary (?) account of how F.W. Murnau, the cinema’s first poet of the supernatural, might have made Nosferatu, the first, albeit unofficial, screen version of Dracula.

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Posted in: 2000 Eyes, by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews

2000 Eyes: Bossa Nova

[Written for Mr. Showbiz]

What’s sadder than a would-be lilting comedy that just doesn’t lilt? It doesn’t help when someone decides to name the thing Bossa Nova and fill it with the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim. The music sounds as sea-breezy and listenable as ever, but Bruno Barreto’s movie is flatfooted to the max.

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Posted in: 2000 Eyes, by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews

2000 Eyes: Gohatto (aka Tabou)

[Written for Mr. Showbiz]

“Have you ever killed a man? … Have you ever made love?” It’s tempting to call this latest film by Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses, Max Mon Amour) a meditation on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gays in the military — except that in Kyoto’s Shinsengumi militia in 1865 it almost seems that every third warrior “leans that way,” with at least half the rest precariously susceptible to feeling the same, or fearing that they might start feeling the same, at any moment. There doesn’t appear to be notable scorn for the practice, but veterans like Captain Hijikata (Takeshi Kitano) worry that excessive fascination with a pretty boy like the new kid, Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda), can mess up morale and, er, take the edge off military preparedness.

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