Richard T. Jameson has been editor of Movietone News (1971-81) and Film Comment (1990-2000) magazines, as well as Seattle’s Queen Anne News (2003-07). A member of the National Society of Film Critics since 1980, he edited the NSFC's 1994 anthology They Went Thataway: Redefining Film Genres.
[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
Lifeguard belongs to that elect, if scarcely elite, class of film fondly designated “the nice little movie.” It would be a poor summer indeed that didn’t yield one or two specimens of this type (which I say rhetorically since it is a miserable movie summer but there’s Lifeguard anyway)—not that its modest feeling for decent folks of no particular distinction getting on with their lives as best they can would be out of season at any time. The storyline isn’t much; its cinematic narration, still less so. But it’s a friendly movie that manages to be ingratiating without flashing too bright a smile or scuffing its soles ostentatiously in the sand. Watching it, you like the people and expect to remember them—looks, stances, tones of voice—like a pleasant vacation in years to come.
[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
Things break fast in Seattle. The light, for instance. A fellow can come home to his rooftop pad, take a sniff of midafternoon air, follow that up with a quick shower, and drift into the livingroom to find it invaded by not only a ski-masked burglar but also the mellow gold of sunset. The apartment looks lovely at just that moment, right out of an ad for Northwest living; one is reminded that cameraman Laszlo Pal more frequently occupies himself hymning the Weyerhaeuser Corporation and otherwise shooting commercials. But, to pay quickly what compliments can be paid in connection with Scorchy,our latest made-righcheer-in-town movie, much of Pal’s color camerawork is more attractive and expensive-looking than what we are accustomed to see in grindhouse actioners—which, anywhere except its home shooting base, is the category Scorchywill fall into. Presumably he cannot be blamed for the absence of any coherent directorial notion of where the camera should be put, no more than ace Aldrich editor Michael Luciano can do much about a series of one-shots which, when spliced together, suggest interlocutor A was facing due west while interlocutor B kept his gaze rigidly focused south-southeast.
[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
Surely Richard Harris presents a problem to directors, one that few of them have managed to surmount, camouflage, or get around, much less turn on its head and use to their advantage. To Antonioni he was mostly a carrot-topped fleshtone against emotionally apt pastel backdrops (Red Desert);Peckinpah was about two-thirds successful in exploiting his egocentric theatricality as an expression of selfdestructive romanticism on the part of a defeated Confederate officer (Major Dundee); Frankenheimer turned the whole world around him into such a comic-strip environment that his posturing became a comedically apt way of occupying frame space (99 & 44/100% Dead); Lester gave him the kind of ultra-professional specialty role in which his tics seemed existentially permissible as definitions of life lived in an unending series of vacuum pockets pressurized by imminent catastrophe (Juggernaut), and elsewhere (Robin and Marian) enabled him to attain sublimity as a mad monarch who seemed almost relieved to die an absurdist death before his actions could further subvert his heroic identity. Irvin Kershner, who has worked well with such problematical stars as Robert Shaw (The Luck of Ginger Coffey), Sean Connery (A Fine Madness), and George Segal (Loving), was virtually tripped at the starting gate by Harris’ dual influence on the Man Called Horse films as star and executive producer; indeed, the auteur of Return of a Man Called Horseis very probably Richard Harris himself. What a c1ayfooted Brando complex is at work here! What serene conviction that the viewer will vicariously relish his communion with Nature and a Nobler Way of Life, his stone-browed rages, his lingering postures of moral superiority and periodic, protracted drops into a hectoring whisper. (Leaving the theater I suggested to my companion that it’d be nice to see Harris get through an entire movie without once whispering a speech to a hall-sized body of listeners, then immediately amended my wish to see a film in which he does whisper and we cut to an interlocutor who says, “I can’t understand a fuckin’ word you’re saying!”)
[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
Although I rapped it in MTN 25, the previous Gator McKlusky adventure White Lightninglingers in the memory as a middlin’-competent entry in the fast-driving, grin-and-punch genre of Southern melodrama—nothing to urge on discriminating audiences, but undeserving of particular scorn. Burt Reynolds had yet to be intelligently directed (Aldrich and Bogdanovich were just around the bend) but as long as Joseph Sargent had Ned Beatty, Bo Hopkins, Matt Clark, and Diane Ladd to fall back on, that wasn’t an insuperable liability. Unfortunately, Reynolds has joined the list of superstars who can’t resist the compulsion to direct themselves—and also the list, nearly as long, of superstars who can’t direct. Gatorproposes another instance of the slaphappy ’shine-runner McKlusky enlisting—this time under pressure from the authorities—to bust up the countywide crime empire of a baaaad country boy, one Bama McCall, and the film attempts to duplicate the modest success of its predecessor partly by duplicating quite a few of its elements and strategies. The implacable glide of canoes through swamp at the opening of WhiteLightning,as crooked sheriff Ned Beatty prepared to drown McKlusky’s college-boy brother and a fellow protestor, is reiterated here in the convergence of revenuers’ motorboats on Gator’s familial sanctum among the mangroves, Gator’s several car chases are compressed into a single James Bond–y boat pursuit here (although automotive destructiveness rears its hood in subsequent scenes); Gator gets drunk/drugged in a steamy nighttime sequence again, and director Reynolds even recaps director Sargent’s angular strategies as a smitten female stands poised above the hero and bares her charms.
[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
If George Armitage has any consciousness of the existence of film critics and their predilection for creating cult figures, he’s doubtlessly waiting for some little-magazine commentator who hasn’t turned over a rock lately to hail him as an “American primitive.” His credentials? A storyline so incredible a generous soul might mistake it for zany. Characters that beg to be taken at face value as stereotypes but don’t make sense even that way. Comic-strip pretensions toward social consciousness. A shooting style so crude and undisciplined it must express a boundless dynamism (incompetence is unthinkable). You’ve-got-to-be-kidding images like the hero’s daughter, dressed in Uncle Sam costume, running to embrace Daddy after the successful conclusion of the final purgative shootout. Etc.
Hearts of the West will be shown on Turner Classic Movies this coming Friday, Nov. 4, at 9 a.m. West Coast time, 12 noon Eastern. Here’s the program note from the “Marvelous Modern Scripts” screening. —RTJ
There isn’t really a whole lot that needs to be teased out of Hearts of the West. It’s a pleasant film—from its opening 1.33:1 masking of the old monochrome MGM logo, a movie full of affection for the absurdities, inanities, and tacky pleasures of El Cheapo filmmaking and fictionmaking. Its gentle teasing of would-be writers steeped in formulae and short on living experience is readily apparent. Offsetting this is our pleasurable awareness that “The Kid” Lewis Tater writes about and the enthusiastic “kid” that he is probably both reflect aspects of the local kid—Rob Thompson of Bothell—whose first script this was. He took it to Hollywood and a couple of days later he had sold it to producer Tony Bill, who happened to be having an afternoon drink in the same bar where Thompson and a mutual friend were sitting. The rest is history, of a sort: Hearts of the West got made to the satisfaction of those involved, critics and film festival audiences warmed to it, MGM gave it the wrong ad campaign, and mostly people didn’t go to see it. A lost masterpiece it’s not; a nice movie to make the acquaintance of, it remains.
For years I’ve listened to people rave about the Vancouver International Film Festival. Several Seattle-based film critic friends swear by it, attending every year; and I understand it’s the absolute personal favorite festival of a certain stellar pair of film scholars who catch a lot of these around the globe. Somehow, I’ve never quite made it there, except for what may have been a VIFF event a couple of decades back, when Jeanne Moreau and Lillian Gish were onstage to introduce the younger screen legend’s film portrait of her elder colleague. But this autumn we finally got it together, secured accreditation, and booked a pleasant, not-too-costly motel room within a few minutes walk of festival HQ and most of the venues.
Of course, even this year circumstances conspired to shortchange me a bit. What had been planned as a sojourn of a week or so at the fest’s beginning got reduced to five days in midfest for Kathleen Murphy and two-days-and-one-day for me (with an interruption to drive back to Seattle for a postfilm talk about Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear in the Seattle Art Museum film noir series). I ended up seeing only six films—eight if we separate Dreileben into its three feature-length parts. It was a bummer to learn that the tickets to Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre had “been gone for weeks,” and a delay at the border made me late for an intended midday show of something else. Still, I’m more than satisfied.
VIFF runs for 14 days, which makes it a few days longer than its younger but bigger sister festival in Toronto, and a week-and-a-half shorter than the May-June leviathan to the south. A postfestival press release notes that the 2011 edition—the 30th anniversary, as it happens—offered 240 feature films, 20 featurettes, and a few dozen shorts. The majority of them played at a seven-screen Empire multiplex on Granville Street, which certainly made things handy. The several other venues, including Vancouver’s venerable Cinematheque, were either catercorner across the street or a couple of blocks away.
During my too-brief visit(s), I didn’t see a frame of film out of focus or dimly projected, and with one entirely pardonable exception, every show started at its announced time. I didn’t encounter a single ticket issuer, ticket taker, or other staffperson who was impolite, uninformed, or afflicted with a zombielike fixity of expression. The festival program book and especially its intelligently designed screenings calendar are exemplary. And the Vancouverites who queue patiently for screening after screening appear to be as enthusiastic and affable as their counterparts at the Toronto fest (which I attended for 18 of the past 22 years).
The one movie that got off to a slightly late start was the Iranian A Separation, among some half-dozen pictures being shown in Vancouver within days of their appearance in the prestigious New York Film Festival. A Separation was playing at the Vogue, a capacious showplace—two-tiered balcony, big screen—that I gather had only recently reopened after a renovation. The place was packed, or in the process of becoming so; Kathleen and I ended up watching the movie about as far separated as we could get—she on a folding chair in an improvised front row of the orchestra, I up under the roof at the very top of the balcony aisle (nothing in my sightline and lotsa leg room!). I’m told Vancouver has a sizable Iranian or Iranian-Canadian population; there couldn’t have been many of them absent from the Vogue that evening, and they were in for a triumph.
Asghar Farhadi’s film has been wowing festival audiences everywhere—starting with a record number of awards at Berlin, including ensemble Best Actor and Best Actress, fully merited. It opens with one of those patient, plain-as-day compositions that just accrete power as they go along: a wife (Leila Hatami) and husband (Peyman Moaddi) sitting before an unseen judge and explaining why, even though they have the highest regard for each other, they must be divorced. She aims to leave the country, where she doesn’t want their daughter, age 10, growing up “in the present circumstances.” (How’d that line get past the powers-that-be?) Fine, she can go—but not the daughter unless the husband agrees, which of course he doesn’t. The separation begins, but the husband, Naader, hires a woman (Sareh Bayat) to look after his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), lost to dementia. The woman is a good and conscientious soul, but life is complicated—a small daughter of her own, an out-of-work husband, a pregnancy nearing term—and one day there is a terrible misunderstanding that results in the whole lot of them being swept up in the justice system. Someone writing about the film has invoked Jean Renoir’s line about “everyone having their reasons, everyone being right,” and A Separation is worthy of the allusion.
So, a great night at the Vogue. And it began at a high peak, with festival director Alan Franey welcoming the capacity crowd with the announcement that, although initially there had not been plans to distribute A Separation in Canada, on the strength of the demonstrable interest on the part of the VIFF audience, that decision had been reversed. Which is as good a testimonial to the value and power of film festivals as I’ve encountered.
Originally published in Straight Shooting, October 31, 2011
Setting out to say something about Sleeping Sickness, a film by Ulrich Köhler shown in the recent Vancouver International Film Festival, I looked up the blurb I wrote nearly a decade ago for the director’s maiden feature Bungalow:
An army truck convoy pulls into a rest stop, disgorging the troops for a brief coffee break. One soldier (Lennie Burmeister) unobtrusively fails to remount, and hitches a ride to a little bungalow outside a rural village. The place is deserted and closed up, and at first it seems that the young man is breaking into the home of strangers. And perhaps he is, though in fact the home is his own. Soon his older brother turns up with Danish would-be movie starlet (Trine Dyrholm) in tow. Tensions arc through the lazy summer air like furtive breezes, and over the town nearby an explosion leaves its mark in the sky. Is there terrorist activity afoot? Is the young soldier himself planning something apocalyptic? The army phones up periodically, and patrols come by to look for him. The young man, who speaks vaguely of making a trip to Africa, is reluctantly spirited away by his alienated brother, yet somehow fails to take the train awaiting him. And so it goes, as the actress—who mostly speaks to the young man in English (though not to her lover)—becomes alternately more exasperated and intrigued by his growing fascination with her. A fellow SIFF programmer characterized the film, aptly and admiringly, as “a slow-motion train wreck.” Director Ulrich Köhler and cameraman Patrick Orth map the titular bungalow and the surrounding trees and hillsides with a chilling precision that never ruffles the laidback summer calm, and the film builds to a masterly, metaphysically charged long-take climax worthy of Antonioni.
Turns out I was already saying something about Sleeping Sickness. Like Bungalow, the new Köhler picture (his third) drifts in an eerie suspension, at once beautifully attentive to mood, place, and what we might call the climate of people’s souls, yet holding the press of story and theme at arm’s-length. The setting is the Africa the young man in Bungalow didn’t get to, though the director himself spent much of his childhood there. Heady and hefty issues crowd round demanding to be noticed and addressed—tensions between Europeans and the native population, and among the Europeans themselves; the legitimacy vs. the presumptuousness and built-in condescension of foreign-aid programs; the breakdown of a family living with one foot in Western culture and the other in the Third World—yet Köhler refuses to take a neat, complacent, problem-picture approach to any of them. That would just get in the way of the movie’s suffusing sense of being-there.
There, geographically speaking, is Cameroon, where German doctor Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma) has worked for two decades. The sleeping sickness of the title has been the nominal focus of his mission, though we hear little of it during the movie. Partly that’s because Velten has been too successful: the number of cases has dropped so dramatically that the medical bureaucrats back in Europe have begun to consider defunding his operation. But also, sleeping sickness is the metaphorical condition Velten himself has contracted, and although the early reels of the film show him preparing to pack up and return to Europe with his wife (Maria Elise Miller) and teenage daughter (Jenny Schily), we eventually learn that he never left.
I say eventually because the film blacks out half an hour or so in, suddenly the setting is Europe three years later, and our point of view shifts to another doctor, Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly). He is in some ways Velten’s opposite number, a black Frenchman born to Congolese parents who has never been to Africa. That will be remedied shortly, as Nzila is delegated to go make a definitive assessment of Velten’s operation. His early scenes in the backcountry are pitched somewhere between comedy-of-distraction and utter perplexity, with Velten nowhere to be seen and the staff and locals content to leave Nzila, not unkindly, to his own resources as he sweats through one humid night after another with only a flashlight for consolation in the unrelieved darkness.
Velten does reappear after a time—the first moment he’s really needed—and he’s at one and the same time recognizably the same fellow we were watching half an hour ago and a man utterly transformed. (Pierre Bokma’s performance is uncanny.) The remainder of the film will constitute a running conversation, as it were, between the fully assimilated white man and the European black who’s effectively whiter than Velten. This is a genuinely mysterious movie, and I suspect it’s going to leave some viewers frustrated and impatient. But I’m taken with Köhler’s line of country. Gone native, perhaps.
A couple of years ago, U.S. festival and arthouse audiences were riveted by Red Riding Trilogy, a production for Britain’s Channel Four exploring a history of crime, of both the organized and the darkly obsessive varieties, twisting its way through a community in the North of England over the span of a decade. The trilogy was a unified work pursuing a narrative involving a teeming cast of characters, yet each of the three feature-length components (“1974,” “1980,” and “1983”) was handled by a different director, and each director took his own, quite distinct stylistic approach to his part of the saga.
Much the same is true for Dreileben, a 2011 triptych for German television that played this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. Again, three different directors have made three feature films linked by a crime—more precisely, by the hunt for an escaped murderer in and around the picturesque village of the title—and if anything the results differ more in tone, style, and focus than the three parts of Red Riding. The time frame is much more limited, a matter of days or weeks. At least, that’s true of the manhunt. In a larger sense, Dreileben reaches far back into the past, especially in parts two and three, as new information emerges about aspects of characters’ histories that had been imperfectly understood, or even unsuspected, before.
Perhaps the most striking difference between the trilogies is that Red Riding, no matter how many characters it juggled and how wide-ranging its plots and subplots, was always “about” the crimes at the center of the story; Dreileben, more often than not, focuses its attention elsewhere. In the first film, Christian Petzold’s Beats Being Dead, a young intern named Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) working at a clinic in a bucolic setting is on a cozy career path, given that the chief surgeon’s attractive daughter (Vijessna Ferkic) is sweet on him and daddy’s eager to recommend him for higher things. Then a cute biker chick blows him a kiss, and even though the immediate aftermath of that gesture is painful for both of them, a romance ensues. When not accommodating the biker gang, Ana (Luna Mijovic) works as a maid in a nearby hotel, and as she and Johannes traverse the woods and roads and bridges between their respective workplaces, we hear distant sirens, glimpse roadblocks, detours, and other signs of the manhunt in progress. We also glimpse how the manhunt begins, an incidental blunder by Johannes himself, who opens a door when he shouldn’t and unwittingly enables the escape of a man believed to be a homicidal maniac.
The principal focus of Beats Being Dead remains the affair between Johannes and Ana. A Bosnian refugee, she too has an air of hunted animal about her, and the emotional demands she begins to make of him have soon set both Johannes and the viewer on edge. So does the drift of the narrative. It’s as though we were encountering the hallmarks of the slasher movie—e.g., a floating camera perspective that may indicate Somebody Watching or may be just a casual change of angle and coverage—but rather than setting us up for cheap shocks, these stylistic tropes serve a contemplative mode infused with ambiguity and unease. Ana’s biker gang arcs back into view from time to time, though their potential for menace ebbs away, mutating into something more like embarrassment. And still out there somewhere—often as not caught, like Ana herself, on a municipal video monitor to which apparently no one pays attention—is Molesch the murderer (Stefan Kurt), who perhaps hasn’t actually murdered anyone, but may yet.
It’s unnecessary—and would be dirty pool—to reveal here the outcome of Johannes and Ana’s stories, shared or separate. The concluding scenes are powerful, the fulfillment of itineraries no less disturbing for our coming to “understand” them. In this,Beats Being Dead is consistent with the mission of Dreileben overall: to define the incompleteness of “truth,” to underscore the impossibility of “seeing” everything, even about ourselves.
The second installment in the trilogy, Don’t Follow Me Around by Dominik Graf, takes an almost absentminded approach to the Molesch manhunt—an especially odd tactic since the main character, Johanna (Jeanette Hain), is a forensic psychologist summoned to Dreileben to help design the best plan for recapturing the escapee. Confusion about her hotel reservation leads her to look up an old friend, Vera (Susanne Wolff), who offers the guest room in her perennially under-renovation house. To be sure, the film vouchsafes plenty of scenes with Jo on the job, incidentally enlarging on the personalities and quirks of police personnel peripherally seen in Beats Being Dead; we even touch base with a scene from the previous film in which Jo was literally a passer-by. But the heart of part two is Jo’s personal story: her single-parenthood; her relationship with the young daughter (Malou Hain) she’s left back home with loving grandparents (wonderful to reencounter two denizens of Wim-Wenders-world, Rüdiger Vogler and Lisa Kreuzer, touchingly aged); the renewal of the old friendship that proves to have been more ambivalent than Jo or Vera cares to remember, and to turn on rivalry over a lover they didn’t know they shared. Further complication is supplied by Vera’s schlock-novelist husband Bruno (Misel Maticevic), who goodhumoredly tries to ride out the rising tide of female emotionality and erotic attraction, but fails.
In this section of Dreileben we’re immersed still more deeply in the theme of what-story-are-we-telling-here-anyway? Each scene, interaction, or apparent digression is worth watching, yet the eschewal of anything resembling a conventional narrative agenda grows more insistent as the movie proceeds. Violence erupts a couple of times, not always in connection with the Molesch thread; one burst of mayhem on the part of a passing motorist serves as an accidental (but no less pointed for that) echo of a verbally recalled gaffe from Jo’s hard-drinking past. Molesch himself intersects the narrative like a phantom out of the forbidden zone of the imagination just at the moment Jo and Bruno are, well, most indisposed to be interrupted.
Whereas Petzold’s movie had the startling clarity of hi-def digital photography, Graf’s is shot in the fogged colors and spongelike textures of 16-millimeter celluloid blown up to 35. Although initially disconcerting when seen right after (well, 15 minutes after) the Petzold portion of Dreileben, this almost home-movie-like palette suits the mood of reassessment and reverie, frequently alcohol enhanced, that dominates Don’t Follow Me Around—especially in the coda when, the Molesch case abruptly concluded, Johanna returns home to pick up the pieces of the other “case” that’s come to preoccupy her.
After the way Dreileben‘s first two sections provocatively steer around the manhunt in pursuit of other narrative and aesthetic issues, it’s initially somewhat disappointing to realize that part three, Christoph Höchhausler’s One Minute of Darkness, will feature Molesch himself as the point-of-view character. No worries. Höchhausler has no interest in shifting to conventional thriller mode, or sentimentalizing the madman or leaching him of dangerousness. Before this final chapter has ended, we’ll have a better idea of the extent and nature of Molesch’s madness and guilt, but without explaining them away or reducing their horror. We’ll have revisited scenes from the earlier movies, but from a different angle and within a different context that adjusts meaning, motive, and understanding. This third section, like the first, is shot in razor-sharp hi-def, and needs it.
In case you’re wondering how three directors collaborating with different writers could manage to respect the same core reality while framing their individual interpretations of it—they don’t, not entirely. There are inconsistencies. What happens in one movie, with the characters standing thus-and-so, is not necessarily replicated when the same scene is played in another of the movies. Even depictions of the capture of Molesch differ to the point of contradicting each other. Do such discrepancies, divergences, invalidate Dreileben, betoken sloppiness or indecision? You must know by this point I’m not about to answer that in the affirmative. I don’t know which director is “right” in solving this case. I do know that it’s right that none of us, with absoluteness, finally can.
Among the many pleasures afforded by L.A. Confidential, the smashing new movie about corruption and redemption and murder in early-Fifties Hollywood, is that its excellence is so unexpected. Curtis Hanson, a onetime film critic, has labored nearly two decades in the Hollywood vineyards doing screenplays, writing and directing modest thrillers, and eventually making the box-office big time with The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild. Nothing prepared us for the texture, pungency, assured storytelling, or moral complexity of his new picture.
True, Hanson’s source is a characteristically textured/pungent/complex novel by James Ellroy, whose intimacy with the fragrant, poisonous history of Los Angeles makes Raymond Chandler seem like a daydreamer. But faithfully filming a novel doesn’t ensure that you’ll replicate its metabolism, feel the same sting of acid in the narrative bloodstream. Ellroy loves the movie, which honors his book but also stands on its own—the first L.A. movie in more than twenty years to come within hailing distance of the historical, cultural, and mythic resonance of Chinatown.