[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
American Graffiti begins with a shot of Curt, a recent high school graduate, driving up to Mel’s Drive-in, and it ends with Curt watching a white Thunderbird from his airplane seat as he goes off to college. Structurally speaking, therefore, the film revolves around him and his problems as he tries to decide whether or not he’s really going to get on that morning plane and leave behind him his familiar southern California hometown and its ways of life. But in between these two structural goalposts, it’s very hard at any given moment to assign Curt or anyone else the role of principal protagonist, since Lucas deliberately and very effectively plunges us into the seethingly mobile and unstable world of smalltown late adolescence à la 1962, whose coalescence and flux he creates through dispersion of characters and intrigues, crosscut to join them back together. The method is both daring and difficult since so many sets of characters pursuing their various goals could very easily get out of hand, resulting in real narrative chaos. But Lucas and his editors triumph handily over the perils and end up creating an admirably controlled narrative that describes a chaotic evening without ever descending into chaos itself.
[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]
I was particularly looking forward to this film for two big reasons. The picture, recently revived by a New York distributor who claims to have reopened a Technicolor lab to obtain a genuine oldfashioned imbibition-dye print, offers the combined interest of showing us Berkeley both working in color and directing a musical all the way through. Would this be the flowering of his art, for which his decade of choreographing and directing black-and-white production numbers at Warners had served him as apprentice years? Only a few of those Thirties musicals—most notably the Lloyd Bacon–Berkeley FootlightParade—had any sort of allover rhythm to them, and one could otherwise always feel the terrible jolt whenever Berkeley left off and the “story” director picked up the narrative. What a treat it would be to see Berkeley doing his stuff from beginning to end in a sustained narrative laced with chromatically spectacular production numbers!
[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]
Sleeper is the funniest new film I’ve seen in years. TakingOff was the last recently made film that left me laughed out, and Sleeper reduced me to complete helplessness. In it, writer-director-actor Woody Allen projects himself into the year 2173 as a result of having been frozen for preservation some two hundred years earlier. The picture abounds in delicious detail, almost entirely of a satirical nature, but I’ll pass up the temptation to cannibalize his wit by recounting any of it, and talk instead about the progress his career is making.
[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]
One of life’s great delights is surprise, and this surprising picture gives great delight indeed. For me, the chief element of surprise comes from TheLastDetail‘s constant manipulation of my expectations in terms of genre. Ordinarily, when I sit down to a film about which I know nothing beforehand—the case with this picture—the first shot or two tell me, among other things, what genre the film will belong to. Any given genre carries its own set of conventions governing characters, treatment, resolutions, tone, and any number of other ingredients, so part of my pleasure comes from watching the filmmakers elaborating, working, and fulfilling those conventions and my expectations. But TheLastDetail doesn’t do that at all; instead it quite resolutely refuses to submit to genre conventions while playing deftly on our expectations like a graceful bullfighter executing countless veronicas as we rush by him time after time trying to pin him down to earth. In other words, one never knows quite where this film is going until it has reached its end, and even its ending defies any genre convention that I’m acquainted with.
[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]
The print of The Seduction of Mimi currently being shown in Seattle has had about 30 minutes out from it. According to a friend who saw it whole two years ago at the San Francisco Film Festival, the abridgements improve the film. I find myself wondering whether they don’t partially account for its present weaknesses, which appear mainly in its overall construction. It seemed to me, as I watched the picture, that Wertmüller habitually projected her audience’s indulgence, that she counted on our goodwill to model sinew, muscle and flesh over the bare bones that join the various parts of her otherwise well-developed corpus together. It looks as if she were trying to make a complex and ambitious film using the erosion of political and social consciousness as a serious web on whioh to weave her comic woof. But since I haven’t seen the film as she intended it to be seen, I can only speculate that the occasional failures of cohesion are less her fault than that of the New Line Cinema people who subsequently hacked out that missing half-hour.
[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
Paris, 1929: the height of the surrealist and the Dada boom. Two young Spaniards decide to submit a film to the reigning lions of the movement, who had their doubts about the viability of cinema to their poetics. Others had already worked in the vein—notably Jean Epstein and René Clair in his amiable mystification Entr’acte—but no one had yet created a serious masterpiece, major or minor. The Spaniards, in order to gain the approval of their masters, wanted to make an incomprehensible film, one that would carry out the surrealist precepts of “poetry freed from the ballast of reason and tradition,” as Buñuel himself put it. Down the drain with centuries of rational and logical notions of narrative order; to become free, cinema must purify itself of the past. To accomplish that goal, Buñuel and Dalí shot the film together, then Buñuel took over and began the laborious cutting process. They showed the workprint over and over, trying to exorcise any intrusion of narrative coherence or conventional sense. Whenever somebody would say to them, “Oh yeah, I get it,” they would whip out their cutting shears until eventually they satisfied themselves, as they said at the time, that “NOTHING in this film means ANYTHING.” The first public showing was a tumultuous one, accompanied by a destroyed screen and a smelly battle in the theater between partisans and vegetable-throwing detractors.
One could call the result the first great anti-narrative film in the history of cinema. Clair’s Entr’acte of five years earlier doesn’t qualify because it is a non-narrative picture, one that doesn’t care very much about the Western narrative tradition and the expectations it creates in audiences. It takes a goodnatured spoofing attitude toward storytelling, but does not mount a compulsive reactionary rejection of traditional narrative methods. Un Chien andalou, on the other hand, is militantly, vehemently, and very consciously directed against received ideas of storytelling, and its very anti-narrative attitude is surely the most important component of its lasting fame and continuing success with film audiences around the world.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot more to the film than its narrative distinction. That extra something, however, is available almost exclusively to Buñuel fans, the people who have seen enough of his films to know what his interests and preoccupations are. Only they can really see this film not so much as a shocker that succeeds principally on its narrative mechanics, but rather as a perverse sort of preview trailer for all of Buñuel’s subsequent creative corpus—a trailer not in narrative terms, but rather in imagistic ones; in the terms that set Buñuel so far and so distinctly apart from every other director in the world.