[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
No event exists without the process by which it is apprehended and understood. It is irrelevant and impossible to refer it to an absolute standard like realism because the means of measurement cannot be extricated from the observation. The relationship between the real and the surreal is not distinct but blurred —David Thomson, Movie Man
The cinemas alone stayed open, twinkling with lights and turning the night into dark velvet. The cinema comes to life with dark—like Dracula.
—David Thomson, America in the Dark
It all begins in the dark. This is a point of crucial poetic and philosophic importance for David Thomson; he is obsessed with the fact that the delicate interplay of light and dark images on the screen, as produced by film and projector, is possible only after a room has been completely darkened and a shaft of light sent streaking across that room to illuminate the screen. Illumination occurs elsewhere. For the adolescent David Thomson, sitting in a cinema in South London, it strikes him while watching and rewatching Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The realization that an intelligence guiding the camera was commenting on movie-viewing itself—a man sitting in the dark, watching people move in a box—was a stimulating experience, and Thomson works with the tangled mesh of art, life, observation, and participation in his three books Movie Man (1967), A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1975), and America in the Dark: Hollywood and the Gift of Unreality (1977). The very private relationship he maintains with films, even when he expands his notions to include theories and pronouncements on all society, is passionate and idiosyncratic (need I add, subjective?). Thomson refuses to be pinned down or to wear a label; humanist, auteurist, structuralist, whateverist, he remains doggedly an individual, exploring his personal contact with movies—with prejudices, usually acknowledged, but always with a real determination to get at the roots of the power that has hold of him: cinema.
Andrew Sarris came to Seattle for a talk on the night of March 12, 1987. My friend Tom Keogh and I had recently founded a non-profit organization dedicated to showing movie repertory, the Seattle Filmhouse, at just exactly the wrong moment to found such a thing. But before that enterprise fell apart, we managed to get Sarris out to talk about what a film critic was, and what film criticism was for, and—oh, whatever he wanted to talk about.
His arrival at the airport, and his presence over the next couple of days, somehow embodied every idea I had about a vintage New Yorker. The rumpled trenchcoat, the garrulous manner, the roving intellect, the way food would not stay in his mouth as he talked over some urgent subject at dinner—all these things seemed exactly from that classic world of the East Coast, so juiced-up in comparison to our laid-back Northwest ways. (In leaving a restaurant, he grabbed someone else’s raincoat, which we had to return the next day—a mix-up discovered when Andrew found parole papers in the guy’s pocket.)
The day of his lecture, Tom and I schlepped him around to radio stations for publicity interviews, and I got worried. He looked pretty exhausted, though gracious in beating the drum on our behalf. Then came the talk in Kane Hall at the University of Washington, and Sarris was on, gliding from autobiographical anecdote to concise recaps of the Kael rivalry to piercing quick takes on movies in release at that moment (the Oscars were imminent—Platoon was the odds-on favorite, but he said his favorite of the year was Eric Rohmer’s Summer). He could ramble, yes, but then yank back the train of thought with some arresting observation.
Continue reading at Film Comment here. The transcript of Andrew Sarris’s appearance at the Seattle Filmhouse in 1987 is also at film comment in two parts, here and here.
CinemaScope was de rigueur at Fox at this moment (1955), so here is Samuel Fuller going widescreen for a bright-lit color-filled noir shot in Japan. Like Hell and High Water just before it, it feels as though Fuller is not yet happy about ‘Scope, and unless you have a giant TV it looks very tableau-heavy, with small figures moving around in large spaces.
However, Fuller does juice things up, rolling the camera through the midst of a traditional dance (a movement broken up by the blundering of the hero) and, especially, finding dynamic angles on a rooftop climax, where the final showdown plays out on a large, rickety globe that spins as it hangs out over Tokyo. Another gangster story where the boss thinks the world is his.
That story: American Robert Stack (nothing but voice and trenchcoat, already auditioning for Eliot Ness) is the blunderer, come to Japan to find a dead buddy and initiating contact with the buddy’s widow (Shirley Yamaguchi). After trying to lean on a few pachinko-parlor managers, Stack gets leaned on by the real local Ichiban, Robert Ryan, who runs protection (and the occasional bank robbery) with his loyal harem of flunkies. Ryan is introduced when Stack is sent flying through a screen wall in the back of the frame and we discover the boss perched here, amused at the crudeness of this newcomer.
A splendid year, in both quality and quantity. These were all shown for the first time in the Washington, DC area in 2010.
The best film is a tie: Certified Copy-Kiarostami Carlos-Assayas
The next seven, in roughly descending order: A Prophet-Jacques Audiard Somewhere-Coppola The Social Network-Fincher TheGhost Writer-Polanski The Strange Case of Angelica-Oliviera Red Riding Trilogy-in total, with James Marsh’s 1980 segment putting it on the list The Kids are Alright-Cholodenko
And for the final entry, a pairing I couldn’t resist: Police, Adjective-Poromboiu Winter’s Bone-Debra Granik
Truth proved far stranger than fiction in many of 2010’s best films. My favorite was Craig Ferguson’s devastating documentary, Inside Job, which painstakingly demonstrates just how our economy was hijacked by greed and ideology. In Roman Polanski’s Ghost Writer, Pierce Brosnan gives a career-best performance as a politician clearly based on Tony Blair. In Doug Liman’s Fair Game, Naomi Watts is equally persuasive as Valerie Plame Wilson, a vulnerable spy whose marriage is nearly demolished in a political feud. James Franco wins this year’s versatility award for convincingly reincarnating two exceptionally different people: Allen Ginsberg in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s underrated Howl and a carefree rock climber in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours. Jesse Eisenberg deftly captures the drive and insecurities of Facebook’s billionaire chief, Mark Zuckerberg, in David Fincher’s The Social Network. The shameless wartime exploitation of the late Pat Tillman’s heroism is the focus of Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story, an excellent documentary that goes behind the headlines to suggest the personal extent of that loss. Jim Carrey’s excesses are tapped and artfully used in I Love You Phillip Morris, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s mostly true comedy about a con artist who is locked away in prison, but for how long? More fictional, but still quite strange, are Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, a brave portrait of a mid-life washout played by Ben Stiller, and Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, with Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling daring to play the walking wounded in an impossible marriage.
A second 10: The King’s Speech, Animal Kingdom, Cairo Time, Life During Wartime, Toy Story 3, Never Let Me Go, Shutter Island, Restrepo, Cell 211, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.
1. A Prophet
2. Winter’s Bone
3. Four Lions
5. The Ghost Writer
6. Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl
7. Mid-August Lunch
8. True Grit
9. The Kids Are All Right
This was written in 1990 for a film series called “Myth of the West” at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. As a program note, it’s a brief introduction to Ride the High Country; its references to Peckinpah beginning to fade from film history are even keener now that it’s been over a quarter-century since his death. – Robert Horton
John Ford made something like 125 films in his fifty-year career in Hollywood, and in that time he created a cohesive, wholecloth world, especially in films of the American West. Sam Peckinpah worked in feature films from The Deadly Companions (1961) to The Osterman Weekend (1983); a dozen or so films, as well as television beginning in the late 1950sâ€”a little over twenty years of work. Yet Peckinpah’s legacy is as rich as any modern director’s, and as unmistakable; you always know when you’re watching a Peckinpah movie. And Peckinpah did his most important work in the Western.
But it may be more appropriate to say that Peckinpah made end-of-the-Westerns. His Western films are poised at the moment of death, the passing of one life, one era, to another (maybe that’s why he used slow-motion to show his characters getting killedâ€”he was saving, examining that final moment). The Wild Bunch (1969) is one long last gasp; the American West is disappearing, to the extent that the outlaw heroes must go to Mexico, where they find a brief glimpse of Eden. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) is explicitly constructed as an American folk ballad (Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan are among the actors), the stanzas of which describe two old friends who used to live a wild, wide-open life. Now, one of them has joined the side of the law, and has betrayed the other for the sake of employment and civilization. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), the hero, a man who has a waterhole in the middle of nowhere, is killed byâ€¦ a motorcar.