Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2010: SIFFtings I

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, May 19, 2010]

Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy scope out opening-week films

Prince of Tears (Yonfan, Hong Kong/Taiwan, 2009; 122 mins.)

Who knew that about the same time (the early 1950s) McCarthyism was peaking in the United States, a parallel reign of terror was sweeping the supposedly free island of Formosa. The official bugaboo in both cases was Communism. McCarthy wrecked careers, but on Formosa suspicion of collaboration with the Red Chinese across the Taiwan Strait could get you imprisoned or executed — sometimes right on the spot.

Prince of Tears aims to illuminate this period by way of something very like a fairy tale, centered on a family torn asunder by historical forces and personal pathology. Sounds worthy and interesting. Unfortunately, writer-director Yonfan looks to be the anti–Hou Hsiao-hsien; unlike that Taiwanese master, he has no interest in ambiguity and no talent for the kind of patient, non-manipulative observation that allows connections and truths to be discovered out of the corner of one’s eye (or not at all). Everything is simpleminded — and no, “fairy tale” doesn’t have to mean simpleminded — as amped up and brainless as the surges of flagrantly heightened color that occasionally inflame the pretty landscape. Oh yeah, Yonfan’s an art director, too. —RTJ

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Reviews, Sam Peckinpah

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

[originally published in The Austin Chronicle, October 22, 1999]

Nowadays, most movies look factory-made, mechanically repeating cast, storyline, or F/X from the last big blockbuster. They touch us skin-deep, ask nothing of us but box-office, kill time and vanish. In contrast, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is like getting accosted by a wild-eyed Ancient Mariner, a colorful dreg who draws you willy-nilly into his tragi-comic tale about an albatross, love, and death. The grizzled fellow’s story literally rubs your nose in the stink and sweat of Mexico, Sam Peckinpah’s earthiest haven from the Dream Factory. Playing Head‘s anti-hero Benny is anti-star Warren Oates, five-foot-three sleazebag, he of sheepish gaze and shit-eating grin. Suffering through an ever more hallucinatory journey, this latter-day Bogey pursues Peckinpavian Treasure of the Sierra Madre: a rotting head. Not politely stowed off screen, not tricked out in horror-movie makeup, but an inescapably flesh-and-blood thing that oozes, draws moscas, thunks off a car seat — and grossest insult, this revolting memento mori is flung right into our collective face!

Peckinpah means for his Head, his movie, to be hard to take. Every frame, cut, dissolve, line of dialogue, performance is chosen, sewn together to weave a seamless, searing pattern, its style inextricable from its substance. This black-humored parable exposes cruel conception and labor, the ugly agony of an outlaw artist’s desperation to make movies in spite of heartless moneymen in Muzak’d executive suites — and his own self-crucifying sins. Pulling critics and consumers down into the bloody muck of his artworld getting born, Peckinpah revels in images of himself as whore, martyr, vengeful creator.

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Reviews, Sam Peckinpah

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 17 Number 1, January/February 1981]

“Ah know you. You’re the guy in the hole.”
—Gold Hat to Fred C. Dobbs, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Toward the end of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, just before his self-shattering execution of Kris Kristofferson’s Billy, James Coburn as Pat Garrett stops to exchange a few words with a coffinmaker, mysteriously at work in the gathering dusk. Addressed as Will, this artisan declines the offer of a comradely drink, then leans over his handiwork and says, “So you finally figured it out?” The speaker is Sam Peckinpah, and he seems to have something more in mind than Garrett’s determining that his quarry can be found within the adobe walls of Fort Sumner.

The effect of this apparition and query is disorienting, to say the least. Scarcely the artist off paring his nails in the wings, Peckinpah, instigator of this and so many other desperate quests for self-definition, materializes in the midst of mythic action as if to ascertain the degree of enlightenment his own imaginative creation has achieved. He even provides his principal player with a last rueful cue for action: “Ya better get it over with. ”

That’s all one hears in the theatrical release prints of the film: this dark, broody, heartbreakingly beautiful movie was to become, at the hands of MGM president James Aubrey, one of the most mangled works in Peckinpah’s much-mangled oeuvre. For whatever reason, network-TV prints of the picture include some reinstated scenes and parts of scenes (while lacking, of course, much of the R-rated material on Panavision view in theaters). On TV, the two foregoing remarks form part of a longer speech. Over the child’s coffin he is working on, the grizzled framer of death-as-apotheosis announces his own projected itinerary even as his latest stellar surrogate approaches the end of his particular road: “Know what I’m gonna do? Put everything I own right here [in the coffin], bury it, and leave the territory.” And then: “When are you gonna learn you can’t trust anybody—not even yourself, Garrett?”

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Movie Controversies

Seattle Film Community calls for the release of Jafar Panahi

In March 2010, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, The Circle, Crimson Gold and Offside) was arrested and locked up in Tehran’s Evin prison, initially for “unspecified crimes,” then on charges directly related to his work. Though Mr. Panahi’s award-winning films have brought credit to his native land, his countrymen have been banned from seeing his work during the last ten years. Worse yet, this outstanding director has essentially been prevented from making movies in recent years. Panahi suffers from a heart condition and there are serious concerns about his health.

Filmmakers, film festivals and film critics all over the world have protested the incarceration of Mr. Panahi, a respected artist who should enjoy the freedom to make and screen movies for the pleasure and admiration of audiences everywhere.

As members of the film community in Seattle, Washington, we the undersigne deplore the detention of Jafar Panahi and strongly urge the government of Iran to release him immediately.

Jafar Panahi
Jafar Panahi

Tim Appelo, critic
Sean Axmaker, critic
Justine Barda, programmer, SIFF
Sheila Benson, critic
James Bernhard, teacher
Yomi Braester, faculty, University of Washington
Peggy Case, producer
Robert Cumbow, author
Ryan Davis, NWFilm Forum
Robinson Devor, filmmaker
Jim Emerson, critic
Janice Findley, filmmaker
Ted Fry, critic
Claudia Gorbman, faculty, University of Washington
Kevin Hamedini, filmmaker
John Hartl, critic
Ruth Hayler, film buyer, Landmark Theater
Robin Held, curator, Frye Museum
Nick Henderson, graphic artist
Robert Horton, critic
Wayne Karrfalt, writer
Tom Keogh, critic
Richard Jameson, critic
Moira Macdonald, critic
Kathleen Murphy, critic
Paula Nechak, critic
Bruce Reid, writer
Adam Sekuler, NWFilm Forum
Jeff Shannon, critic
Kevin Shannon, manager, Scarecrow Video
Lynn Shelton, filmmaker
Mark Steiner, buyer, Scarecrow Video
Tom Tangney, KIRO radio personality
Andrew Wright, critic

Links to other statements and petitions:

Board of the European Film Academy
Berlin International Film Festival
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
International Film Festival Rotterdam
Toronto Film Critics Association
Petition of Hollywood Directors
Jafar Panahi: Petition for release of Jafar Panahi, signed by more than 150 film makers around the world! (Facebook page)
Free Jafar Panahi (PetitionOnline)
HOPI Petition
plus Eight Things You Can Do Now

If you are a member of the Seattle film community who would like to add your name to the list, please contact the editor of Parallax View here.

Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Reviews, Movie Controversies, Sam Peckinpah

The Ballad Of David Sumner: A Peckinpah Psychodrama

[Originally published in Movietone News 10, January 1972]

Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs reminds us that in our rush to civilization, we too often deny the violent origins of our favorite myths and rituals—and pretend that the primal power of our lizard brains never was. Who wants to recall that Christian Communion is a sanitized version of the actual sacrifice—sometimes involving dismemberment and cannibalism—at the heart of innumerable pagan religions? In the time of Sophocles, it was considered beneficial to communally cathect archetypal fantasies. Now we believe that if we just aren’t reminded too often (via the movies, for instance) of the dark underside of human experience, the unpleasantness will all go away, and we’ll all be polite and peaceful together. Isn’t evil all out there, not stubbornly in residence within us? Or if within us, it’s just a matter of biochemical misfires. Retro filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah should chill out, instead of unreeling incendiary words and images.

Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner
Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner

In Straw Dogs, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), in Cornwall to do mathematical research, ignores the possibility of forces and emotions which cannot be contained in neat theorems or controlled by the rational mind. The Cornwall locals question him about what he’s seen of the “troubles” in America—”Did you take part, sir?”—and he quips, “Just between commercials.” For him, the reality of disorder and violence is a made-for-TV movie safely sandwiched between the plasticized fantasy-worlds of Madison Avenue. The irrational is closer to the surface in David’s wife, Amy (Susan George), who deliberately changes the pluses to minuses in David’s neat little equations, trying to tell him that his mathematical framework fails to include certain realities. (For a screwball comedy take on Peckinpah’s psychodrama, check out Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, in which Cary Grant’s scientist, unmanned and paralyzed by living too much in the head, and Katharine Hepburn, a bundle of impulse, irrationality and energy, survive by finding a point of balance between creative chaos and rigid order.)

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Sam Peckinpah

Sam Peckinpah: No Bleeding Heart

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 21 Number 2, April 1985]

There is the grand truth …. He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no,—why, they … cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpetbag, —that is to say, the Ego.
–Herman Melville, in a letter to and about Nathaniel Hawthorne

“It’s not so much dyin’ you hate,” confides gravel-voiced Cable Hogue, sinking fast. “It’s not knowing what they’re goin’ to say about you when you’re gone.” Sam Peckinpah’s 14-film gallery is crowded with broken mirrors of himself; Cable Hogue was his wholest and holiest reflection. Betrayed, left for dead by his colleagues in outlawry, Peckinpah’s desert rat “finds water where it wasn’t” and shapes a corner of wasteland into a ramshackle, low-down Eden. Just another Peckinpavian parable about making water—movies, that is–in the City of raptor Angels. Hogue was the complexly comedic upside of the American hunger artist Sam Peckinpah took himself to be–and projected, cruelly, in film after film.

a1965-sam-peckinpah
Sam Peckinpah

So it’s only right that the dying Hogue, Sam’s surrogate, should prompt and prod his last critic, preacher and fellow-snake-in-the-grass Joshua Duncan Sloane, into composing a devoutly ironic funeral oration: “Don’t make me out to be a saint, but don’t put me down too deep.” The process of deathbed creation is cut; overvoiced into graveside performance, dissolving the time and space that separated Cable alive, Cable dead and buried, and Cable “gone into the whole torrent of years with the souls that pass and never stop.” Time may kill men; Peckinpah’s montage aims to kill time. His camera roams around Hogue’s kingdom, eulogizing, in the gathering dusk, the signatures and stations of his life, the mise en scene of The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Easy to see Sam in the skinny coyote that laps water in this unlikely oasis.

Sam Peckinpah died on December 28, 1984. That evening, Entertainment Tonight buried him in a Mary Hart-slot of throwaway news: Dead at 59. Director of The Wild Bunch. Known for extremely realistic violence. Hart’s empty-headed epitaph distilled the kind of shallow reading that plagued Peckinpah’s work while he was alive. Most reviewers trivialized his art. Brandishing critical-moral cudgels, they beat film form and style down to barebones plot recital. Concerned, educated liberals would sooner have given up jogging forever than witness one of his orgies of “realistic violence.” (Only the aesthetically illiterate would describe Peckinpah’s dances of death as realistic.) Often, they’d never seen the devil’s work for themselves; knee-jerk-wise, his name alone was sufficient deterrent. Now, even notoriety can’t hold him. Like Alfredo Garcia’s head, the man’s a cinematic relic.

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, by Ken Eisler, by Peter Hogue, by Richard T. Jameson, by Rick Hermann, by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors

For Barbara: The agony and the ecstasy of 1974

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

Something was missing in Film Year 1974 and I’ve never been able to isolate quite what it is. There were good films in town; I wrote down more than 40 titles before starting to rank anything, and they cover a broad range of style, subject matter, country of origin, production values, acting achievements, filmmakers new, old, and new-old. Very early in the year several Seattle Film Society premieres set standards of both excellence and originality that seemed hard to beat, and only two subsequent films managed to beat them, for my money. Those early excellences hung over the year, and so did carryovers from 1973, as always in this Northwest outpost. Such factors help create a sense of Read More “For Barbara: The agony and the ecstasy of 1974”