[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
Film directors have come from many backgrounds, in the past more so than today; but with Electra Glide in Blue a new source has been tapped. James William Guercio is a prominent record producer. The influence of his background in the recording industry becomes immediately apparent when, in the first several minutes of the film, we witness a “suicide” while a weepy piano tune plays on a hand-cranked phonograph. Guercio has a feeling for music and film, and he blends both into an expressive statement. Certainly one of the most poetic of these expressions is a chase scene which begins slowly, the characters in floating telephoto shots seen through waves of heat rising from the pavement and the sands of the Arizona desert; with the addition of music to the soundtrack it becomes a ballet that moves inexorably toward its climax.
[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
by Gregory Dean Way
Two priests chant “The power of Christ compels you!” as the possessed child floats in the air above her bed. The shot is a static one, both visually and behaviorally, one of the few inert moments in a film full of forward energy: The child remains rigid, resistant to the droning incantation. Paradoxically, it is at this most static moment that The Exorcist hints at truly coming alive as a worthwhile experience, by suggesting the agony of endurance that its symbolic battle of good against evil requires. However, one’s hopeful expectations go unfulfilled: The child gravitates downward far too soon; the potential for truly subjective, protracted participation by the viewer in the elemental confrontation of this two-hour picture is cast aside (one suspects because of the filmmakers’ fear of an impatient, negative viewer response to unfamiliar, nonlinear film experience). That TheExorcist should cast aside (i.e., spend so little time developing) one of its thematically most significant moments, yet sum to overkill its moments of more cretinously comprehensible shock, is a telling comment on the locus of Friedkin and Blatty’s concerns.
[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
There is a group of films which are meant to be entertaining, are seldom noteworthy, and are usually G-rated. They can be termed entertainment films and customarily offer nothing for something. It is their habit to stay clear of anything that anyone might consider controversial. So extreme is this fear of controversy that they often end up virtually without content. Technical expertise is not generally one of their assets…. With all this on the debit side, it’s surprising that they ever succeed. But successful entertainment films of a special variety were turned out by one studio with remarkable consistency. The studio was MGM. The special films were musicals. To succeed where others failed, MGM had a formula involving two basic elements: use the best talent available, both in front of and behind the camera.
[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]
by Albert F. Nussbaum
I’m a contentious SOB. I’d rather knock you down than walk around you. However, if someone else knocked you down first, I’d probably pause long enough to help you up, brush you off, and tell the next man in line that you’re not a bad guy. A paradox? Sure it is, but if you’ve reached the age of puberty you should know that life isn’t always fair, and action and reaction aren’t always logical even when they are sincere.
This may explain why I’m writing about State of Siege, though. After reading critiques that found fault with its intellectual, artistic, and political content, I finally saw the film and wasn’t particularly troubled by these things. In fact, I liked it. Very much. I thought it was a good film and I hope the next guy who comes along doesn’t knock it unfairly.
[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
Normand F. Lareau, a longtime friend of Movietone News, is a resident of New York City, a confirmed addict of the cinema (especially the films of François Truffaut), a vendor of movie stills, a filmmaker, and a kindhearted connoisseur of cats and people. He is currently engaged in a yearlong bike trek around Europe. —Ed.
A friend in New York gave me the name of a dialogue coach working for an Italian film company and said, “Look her up. She’s fun; she’ll show you a good time.” It seemed that the company was doing location work in Bad Aussee, Austria, and if I hurried I could maybe watch them filming. As it happened, the day I arrived in tiny Bad Aussee the crew had been up until 3 a.m. in hellish weather shooting the climactic rain-and-fire sequence of the film; it couldn’t be done “day for night” and everyone had to be there whether or not they were needed.
[Note: The UCLA kindly let me view the entire available copies of Oboler Comedy Theatre; however, I was not allowed to take pictures of any of the episodes. Therefore, this article will not have pictures from the program. I could not view one episode called Dog’s Eye View, because the kinescope negative was never developed. Additionally, it is unclear whether the final episode of the series, Mrs. Kinsley’s Report was ever filmed.]
There is nothing wrong with Oboler Comedy Theatre (1949), except that it is rarely funny and is almost unwatchable. Oboler basically films some of his comic radio plays without any eye towards adapting them to a visual medium, directing with a visual style so static that he makes Herschel Gordon Lewis look like Max Ophüls. Without competent visual collaborators, Oboler is lost at sea. The only reason to watch these shows is to see Oboler’s radio troupe make rare appearances in a visual medium.
Oboler did not direct a film between 1947 and 1951; his last film for a studio was the MGM-produced The Arnelo Affair (1947). In interviews, Oboler stated that he was tired of directing filmed adaptations of his radio plays, yet the majority of the episodes of Oboler Comedy Theatreare adapted from his own radio plays. In 1948, Oboler toured Africa for eight months to gather sound for the Frederick W. Ziv radio company, recordings that later aired on NBC’s documentary radio program Monitor. Oboler was also finding it increasingly difficult to work with collaborators. He penned only three radio shows for The James and Pamela Mason Show (1949) before leaving the program. By the time he made Oboler Comedy Theatre, which was independently produced and aired over ABC, Oboler was an independent artist.
At first, Oboler was excited about the new medium of television, yet despite several attempts over a fifteen year period, Oboler never found the success that he sought in TV. Oboler’s failure may have prompted him to make the anti-television satire The Twonky (1953). The Twonky is much more interesting than Oboler Comedy Theatre; however, for the most part, the film demonstrates Oboler’s inability to handle comedy.
In his two films for MGM—Bewitched (1945) and The Arnelo Affair—Oboler brought his trademark stream-of-consciousness style to moviemaking. These films are stunningly photographed by Charles Salerno, and Bewitched, especially, has some impressive camera work; particularly, a crane shot, which starts at a window and tracks all the way down to an alley. Oboler did not use the stream-of-consciousness style in his comic radio plays, and that style is also absent from Oboler Comedy Theatre.
Even in radio, Oboler’s was rarely adept at comedy. His fortes were suspense, fantasy, and horror. From the get-go, these TV plays fail to elicit laughs. Oboler introduces the episodes by dubbing an attractive woman with his voice. He explains this odd choice in the following way: “even as the world needs laughter, what it needs more is pretty faces.” The four episodes that I discuss in this article are Ostrich in Bed; Love, Love, Love; Triple Feature; and Mr. Dydee.
I don’t worry about Google searches, but if the NSA profiles people by what they rent at Scarecrow Video, I’m on a few watch lists.
On a recent two-for-one Wednesday, I’ve got a Nazisploitation flick, a couple of? ’60s Eurospy Bond knockoffs, and a spaghetti Western. Plus early-’70s Satanic-possession and women’s-prison movies on VHS that’ve never been on DVD.
“Stack o’ trash,” I say sheepishly at the counter. The clerk doesn’t judge me. She’s seen the particularly vile horror title in the stack. (Martyrs. You’re warned.) She recommends something similar for next time.
I began gorging each week when I recently considered leaving Seattle. I’d previously written for The Seattle Times that Scarecrow was the Alexandria library of video stores, and I wanted to take advantage while I could. (Disclosure: The store contributes surplus DVDs to my podcast.)
Recently I’d seen a couple of their jaw-dropping rare-clip compilations at the nearby Grand Illusion. A new espresso bar has a screening area with tables. Beer is even served during the free screenings—currently including Monday-night servings of the 1994 Showtime series Rebel Highway; the reggae documentary True Born African: The Story of Winston “Flames” Jarrett, who’ll attend the 6 p.m. Friday event; a crazy VHS compilation at 8 p.m. Saturday; and Sunday’s All About Eve (1 p.m.) and three TV episodes of Saved by the Bell (5 p.m.).
In addition to a powerful, searchable website, Scarecrow even has a podcast. It would appear that the iconic store—a perennial winner in our Best of Seattle® readers poll—is flourishing.
“What you’re seeing there is us trying new things to try to keep the store open,” owner Carl Tostevin tells me. “I would say we are struggling to the point that I just don’t know how long we are going to last.”
Richard Linklater’s cinema is made of moments. This is not to say that his films are valuable only in pieces, or that the parts are greater than the whole, but rather, that Linklater’s films find deepest insights through small gestures and hushed glances. For all of the hyper-articulate dialogue spouted by Linklater’s characters, it is the quiet moments that slowly build to flashes of revelation and human connection. They come on subtly, taking both the characters and the viewer by surprise. Fleeting and impermanent as these revelations are, Linklater cannot help but recognize their sublimity; these moments are magic.
That Linklater elevates mundane occurrences with a distinctly unfussy style makes them all the more remarkable. Perhaps the most powerful example of one such moment occurs partway through Before Sunset, Linklater’s middle-aged sequel to his youthful romance Before Sunrise. Nine years after Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse’s (Ethan Hawke) 24-hour affair, spent wandering around nocturnal Vienna, they are reunited in Paris. As in the previous film, they have a short time before they must part; Jesse has a plane to catch. But before he leaves, they meander through the streets and gardens of the city. After some initial awkwardness, it becomes clear that neither their deep affection nor their penchant for intelligent conversation have dimmed in the intervening years.
Their roaming conversation covers politics, love, and that night in Vienna. Linklater shoots their exchanges in real-time, via a series of unassuming long-takes. This choice forces the viewer to feel time as it progresses in the film, underscoring the transient nature of Celine and Jesse’s reunion. It gives Before Sunset uncommon urgency and emotional heft. The long-takes also compress the space between Celine and Jesse; they are consistently framed together in medium shots. This visual pattern culminates in one brief gesture, lasting a mere three seconds, framed in a typically unpretentious two-shot.
In the back of a taxicab, Celine finally lets down her emotional shield. Their banter can no longer mask her heartache and sense of loss. She tells him that their reunion has stirred up emotions she hoped to ignore. In an outburst of confused rage, Celine tells Jesse to leave the cab. Suddenly, Jesse, who has feigned the romantic optimism of his youthful self, reveals that he too has been wounded by the disappointments and compromises of growing older. His marriage is in shambles; he can’t remember the last time he was happy.
After cutting back and forth between close-ups of Jesse and Celine, Linklater cuts back to a two-shot. Jesse, on the left of the frame, briefly looks out the car window, holding back tears. On the right side of the frame, Celine’s face expresses her embarrassment and recognition of shared pain. The negative space of the back windshield splits the frame, emphasizing the gulf between them. But in a stunning moment of empathy, Celine hesitatingly reaches her hand towards the back of Jesse’s head, her hand crossing the divide of the windshield. Her hand hovers for two seconds. Before she can fully reach out to him, Jesse turns his head back and she quickly pulls it out of sight. Linklater cuts back to a close-up of Jesse, isolating these characters in their respective spaces once again.
In this moment, a flash of revelation occurs. But it is not Celine’s, nor Jesse’s. The revelation is ours. Unexpectedly, we recall words Celine spoke to Jesse nine years earlier:
“I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.”
Jesse and Celine may have forgotten these words, but we have not. Nine years and two movies have built to this seemingly simple moment of attempted human connection. Linklater is too wise to suggest that the heartache of lost time can be healed in one gesture. But Celine’s words echo in our minds, and give us hope; something sacred exists in that flickering space between her hand and his head. In this single, humble shot Linklater reminds us that there is a kind of magic in this world. For a moment, it’s right there up on the screen.
[Note: The television production of Night of the Auk is not available on home video in any format. The UCLA film library kindly let me view a video cassette of the production. However, I was not allowed to take any photos; nonetheless, there are pre-existing photos of the TV production, on the Internet, that are included here. Unfortunately, the quality is somewhat poor. Additionally, there are low fidelity video clips available at the links below.]
On May 2, 1960, William Shatner took his maiden voyage on a spaceship in a television production of Arch Oboler’s ill fated Broadway play Night of the Auk. Shatner plays Lewis Rohnen, the megalomaniacal leader of mankind’s first expedition to the moon, which at the start of the play, is making its return to Earth. Auk is written entirely in a Walt Whitmanesque poetic form and watching Shatner declaim his lines in blank verse is immensely entertaining, akin to the pleasure of watching him speak Esperanto in Incubus.
William Shatner, as Lewis Rohnen, is the heavy of this five act tragedy. Rohnen is a spoiled billionaire who has privately funded the expedition. In order for Rohnen to receive the prize money for his venture, the expedition must both land on the moon and one of its crew must walk on its surface. However, upon landing on the moon, Rohnen discovers that its surface is radioactive. Undeterred, Rohnen gets one of the crew members drunk and encourages him to walk on its surface. However, before the ill fated crew-member returns, Rohnen’s expedition accidentally blasts off for home. To make matters even worse, Rohnen touches off a nuclear war when, during a radio broadcast to Earth, he claims the moon for the United States. William Shatner turns in a compelling performance as a neurotic egomaniac and even his occasional overacting seems to befit the role of a larger than life schmuck whose actions cause the end of the world as we know it. Shatner is supported by an able cast including Warner Anderson (Oboler’s The Arnelo Affair) as a hardened military General and James MacArthur (Swiss Family Robinson) as a wide-eyed communications expert.
It is unclear how much of a hand Oboler had in the production. But, given the presence of Warner Anderson, and of Oboler favorite Raymond Edward Johnson as the narrator, it appears that he had some involvement.
The piece is directed by the Broadway maestro Nikos Psacharapoulis. Despite the fact that Oboler’s play is cut by nearly a third, Psacharapoulis remains true to Oboler’s vision. Nothing of Oboler’s play feels lost, and its pacing may, in fact, be improved. Psacharapoulis seems to have cut some of Oboler’s more confusing language—his director’s script is filled with question marks. Given the limited set and space, Psacharapoulis does a surprisingly good job of using an active camera, with tracking shots, overhead shots, and few close-ups. The piece is shot entirely on black and white video.
The set is very minimal and somewhat amusing. It looks like a multi-platformed conversation pit, with filing cabinets, levers, a ticker-tape machine, and an airlock in the rear wall. The props are similarly minimal and somewhat comical. For example, the actors use absurdly long binoculars to see Earth from the ship. The majority of the cast wears jumpsuits with pocket protectors, which makes them look like big interstellar nerds. But for some reason, the ship’s scientist, Dr. Bruner wears a button down sweater.
Overall, Night of the Auk is worth watching and is genuinely compelling entertainment despite its limited visual appeal.
Alfred Hitchcock’s career proper begins with a blonde girl’s dying scream and ends on a similarly coiffed woman’s knowing wink. These bookends aren’t indicative of some tonal change over the course of the master’s work; Hitchcock the tragedian and Hitchcock the jester have been here all along, harmoniously sharing the same stage from the start. But it matters that Hitch closes his final film with a sparkle in his—and Blanche’s—eye. For a cinematic genius whose greatest masterpieces plumb the dark depths of primal obsession, chronic guilt, and abhorrent violence, the last shot of Family Plot glitters with a surprising whimsy. And while it’s hardly the crown jewel of his career, Hitchcock bids adieu with a film appropriately studded in gleaming diamonds.
But contra Hitch himself, Family Plot is no simple slice of cake. It oozes with corrosive greed, sadistic sex, and casual death, all festering under the blisteringly omnipresent California sunshine. It slowly peels back the shiny baubles to reveal a world built upon deceit in all its forms: financial, personal, and cinematic. In other words, Family Plot takes place in Hollywood.
The vaguely defined San Fernando setting—a handful of scenes appear to take place in San Francisco—connects the film to Hitchcock’s other California films: Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. And like those films, Family Plot places a clear emphasis on acting. Everyone must, in some way or another, perform a lie to get what he or she wants. Many of Hitchcock’s previous characters were forced to act, as a means to save their skin or hide their sick desires. But something about the Golden State—with its relentless demand for optimism and association with Tinseltown—brings performance to the foreground in the California films. No surprise, then, that Family Plot opens with a spurious, sarcastic séance.
Hitchcock drops us into the middle of one of Blanche Taylor’s (Barbara Harris) psychic experiences. The hints of the supernatural in Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, and The Birds might lead us to assume something genuinely paranormal is going on. But Hitchcock quickly reveals how normal this situation is. As Blanche quickly peeks her eye out from behind her hands—subtly hinting at the film’s final wink—we realize how often she has performed this little masquerade. It’s an amusing moment that sets up the film’s comic tone. But it also cues us to the role acting, and its connection to deceit and money making, will play as the story unfolds.