Posted in: by Robert Horton, by Tom Keogh, Film Reviews, remembrance

In Memoriam: Tom Keogh

On September 28, 2021, the Seattle film community (and many other communities) lost a mainstay in Tom Keogh, and I lost my closest friend. Tom wore different hats in his life, but his interest in movies and his passion for writing about them was a constant.

I am sure I will write and talk about Tom many times in the future, but I thought it would be good to let him speak in his own voice. Thus we are re-printing a piece Tom wrote for The Informer, the monthly newsletter of the Seattle Film Society, in November 1984. This in itself was a kind of memorial: Truffaut had just died, and I wanted to do a tribute in The Informer. So I published a program note I’d written about Jules and Jim, and Tom wrote this piece on The Wild Child, which the SFS has just screened on a bill with Truffaut’s short, Les mistons.

I thought the piece, which begins with an adolescent memory, marked a turning point in Tom’s writing. I believe Tom did too. Some of his obsessions are here, and his communion with cinema, and his strong feeling for childhood. This piece is insightful on a particular film, but it also shows you a writer – which is what good film writing does. I hope it helps you appreciate our friend. (Thanks to Marni Wiebe-Keogh and Kevin Keogh for their blessing and the photo of Tom.) – Robert Horton

‘The Wild Child’

The Wild Child

by Tom Keogh

In the relations between artist and critic, everything takes place in terms of power, and curiously, the critic never loses sight of the fact that in the power relationship he is the weaker even if he tries to hide the fact with an aggressive tone; while the artist constantly loses sight of his metaphysical supremacy. The artist’s lack of perspective can be attributed to emotionalism, sensitivity (or sentimentality), and certainly to the more or less powerful dose of paranoia that seems to be his lot.

When I was a critic, I thought that a successful film had simultaneously to express an idea of the world and an idea of cinema; La règle du jeu and Citizen Kane corresponded to this definition perfectly. Today, I demand that a film express with the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not interested in those films that do not pulse.

–Francois Truffaut, “What Do Critics Dream About?

Seventeen years ago, I was a fat, morbid Catholic schoolkid in dreamland, sitting politely in a rented movie theater in Honolulu with a thousand other Catholic schoolkids who were, largely, running amok and having a better time than me for it. Why I was missing my freshman English that day and even (shudder) mixing with girls for this, I didn’t know. Then a local priest, popular with kids for his gentleness and slightly maverick reputation, walked slowly in front of the screen and quieted everyone.

“This is an experiment,” he said. “I asked your schools to let you be here for something new. I want you to really look at this movie today. Look for symbols, especially Christ symbols. See if you can understand why the hero is a Christ symbol. Then go back to your schools and talk about it.”

I looked. It was the first time I really looked at a movie at all: On the Waterfront. Afterward, I sensed there was more to talk about than how many times Marlon Brando fell and rose again, unaided, Christ-like, before wobbling all the way to the dock and redeeming the lifeless workers, but it didn’t matter. “Christ symbols” gave me a strange way to read a movie, but I got the idea I could do better. There was something living in the film, and now, between coming out of the closet about loving rock and roll (the anti-Christ in grade school; a valuable teaching tool in high school) and a desire to see more films, I had something to do with myself. Enter Francois Truffaut.

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Posted in: by Ken Eisler, Contributors, Film Reviews, Horror

Review: Black Christmas

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

“The Film Funding Corporation Limited in association with Vision IV” has produced a serviceable-enough Canadian low-budget shocker in Black Christmas and pitched it at the end-of-year trade. Unless I’ve missed some subtle subtext, the tie to Christmas is tenuous: an establishing shot of wassail seen through the windows of Gothic-looking Hart House, University of Toronto (decked out with Christmas lights and disguised as a sorority house in the college town of “Bedford”), and an advertising campaign built around a Christmas wreath gift-labeled “Season’s Greeting’s” and enclosing a still of a polyethylene-wrapped corpse propped in a rockingchair. One question about this campaign teases my mind more persistently than any puzzle propounded by the film itself. Did the merchandiser who dreamed it up personally place the apostrophe before that plural s in “Greetings,” as unselfconsciously as if he were scrawling the words on a wrapped Christmas gift in the sanctity of his own home; or could FCC Ltd./Vision IV in fact be trying to hip us, via their use of this endemic seasonal illiteracy (see also: Greetings from the Smith’s, The Smith’s Live Here, etc.) to their extraordinary concern in Black Christmas for the exact social detail?

If I could only resolve this question of intent, I suspect it would help with other questions in the body of the film. Such as: when the roster of missing persons keeps swelling at that sorority house, and the bodies of murdered women are piling up in the attic, and conscientious, intelligent Lieut. Fuller (John Saxon) finally takes charge of the investigation, is his elementary failure to have the house thoroughly searched a sophisticated Hitchcockian reversal of audience expectations (1ook how sober and competent this cop seems … you assumed he’d be a great detective, didn’t you? … horse on you, chaps!)? or does it merely reflect the filmmakers’ helplessness in the face of the tact that one peek into the attic would reveal the dead bodies, the extension from which the killer has been making wildly obscene phone calls after each of his depradations within the house, and maybe the killer himself, thus ending the film? Similarly: when director Bob Clark hits us over the head for 85 minutes with the same soundtrack red herring, an ominous twang of piano strings, and then, in the last five minutes, unashamedly exposes his own dishonesty, does he expect us a) to retrospectively erase the sounds, and visual clues, too, that he has attached to shots of the killer at work? b) to laugh with him at this clever imposture? or c) to forgive him almost anything just because he transmutes a trick ending into cinematic gold? I confess to c. The conclusion is beautiful: a meld of fading sounds, shadows, and reflected lights; a smooth, slow travelling shot, a high overhead; a cop warming his hands outside the darkened, hulking Hart House; a sedated girl lying on the bed in a pitchblack room; silence; a phone ringing.

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Posted in: by Rick Hermann, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Black Christmas

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Black Christmas starts to get interesting in the last two minutes. After a series of killings in a college-town sorority house at the beginning of the Christmas holidays, the supposed murderer, in a scene we don’t actually get to see, has been done in by his own girlfriend and a handy firepoker when she thinks that he’s set on making her his latest victim. The movie is about to end on a shot looking from the hallway of the house into the bedroom where the girl (Olivia Hussey) is sleeping, having been left alone to rest until her parents show up in a few hours. Then, with the recurrence of a few familiarly ominous chords on the soundtrack, the camera begins slowly to pan to the right through the dimly lit hallway, pausing at each doorway where a murder has occurred. So far it’s just a kind of chilly atmospheric effect, prolonging the tone of malaise and spookiness, leaving us slightly off balance even though things have been pretty well wrapped up. But that ain’t all. The camera just keeps on trucking, and we begin to hear the maddened jabberings of the heard-but-not-seen psychotic killer who apparently is still around and who apparently wasn’t Keir Dullea, the boyfriend, after all. The latch on the attic trapdoor springs shut once again (that’s his hideaway), he gently rocks a dead girl—his first victim—who sits wrapped inside a plastic bag on a rocking chair (still we don’t see him), and the final scene of the movie looks at the house from a slightly elevated perspective across the street; a cop stands guard on the front walkway, listening to a phone ring inside. The killer, who made it a habit of saying obscene things over the phone before he murdered someone, still seems to be on the loose. Strange, but it doesn’t really seem to matter much by now.

Stopping with that chillingly evocative camera drift would perhaps have been a wiser move than such a clumsy attempt to inject a little Polanski-esque, Dance of the Vampires, evil-is-still-loose pessimism into Black Christmas‘s modest cosmos of unabstract scariness. In plain narrative terms, the ending is a cop-out because the movie’s tensions have been based on the slowly and quite carefully developed implication of Keir Dullea as the culprit. We see him sweating over his piano during a demonic recital that consummates eight years of study at the conservatory, then smashing it with a microphone stand when he’s failed, ostensibly because his pregnant girl told him she wasn’t going to have the kid. Something he says to his girlfriend about abortion is repeated over the phone by a voice we have come to associate with the killer. And Dullea’s always lurking around the house, or in it, which renders him even more suspect since the killer is making his obscene phonecalls from an upstairs bedroom (why doesn’t anyone ever hear his crazy yappings, or bother to look in the house for the missing bodies?). But the final turn which Black Christmas takes transforms the convention of the “twist” ending into the empty gesture of look-we-fooled-you; whereas, say, Donald Sutherland discovering that his red-hooded orphan is a murderous dwarf in Don’t Look Now is an example of a surprise ending that suddenly lends coherence to a mystery tale, the end of Black Christmas only adds another narrative possibility to an already concluded yarn.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Television

TV: Lou Grant – hail

[Originally published in The Weekly, November 30, 1977]

He’s stacking frozen dinners in his shopping cart when he notices an attractive woman, fortyish, coming in out of the blank L.A. sun. She turns down another aisle; he decides he has to go to that part of the market too. She can’t quite reach a box on the top shelf; he gets it for her, gives an amiable no-sweat smile, cannily steers his cart elsewhere.

A minute later, he’s back beside her at the produce section. She smiles politely. He grabs an avocado and beams, “These are really great here!”

Her smile gets a little strained as she glances around the commonplace market: “Here?”

“California….”

He’s losing the moment. “The only trouble is, there’s too much for one person. No matter what ya do, that other half is gonna turn black”—his cowpie grin spreads wider in desperation—”and rotten“—things aren’t going quite the way he hoped—”and slimy!” She’s gone.

As anyone of taste and discernment must know, Lou Grant lost his job at the end of last TV season when he and Mary Richards and Murray Slaughter—everybody except Ted Baxter—got fired from the news department at WJM-TV, Minneapolis. It was The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s unorthodox way of writing finis to itself after seven years as one of the most successful comedy series in the annals of the medium.

The MTM team wanted to quit while the show was still at top form—an admirable ambition, but one that threatened to leave a number of fine character actors at loose ends, and at least one splendidly ripened (far from rotten or slimy) character in syndicated limbo.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Television

TV: ‘Lou Grant’ farewell

[Originally published in The Weekly, July 7, 1982]

My wife just told me that Lou Grant is going to be on in Lou Grant‘s time slot this week. This is something new and different. It had looked as if CBS, not content with having cancelled one of the best dramatic series in television history, wouldn’t even let it die in its own bed: for the past few weeks, the 10pm Monday berth has been consecrated to pumping ratings life into a piece of dreck called Cagney and Lacey. Lou’s fans had begun to wonder whether they’d have a chance to bid him farewell.

Actually, part of me has always been getting ready to live with Lou Grant‘s cancellation. Fear of that eventuality brought me out of the closet in November 1977 to do my first television review. This terrific show had been on for about a month and hardly anyone I knew, people who ought to like and value it, was watching. (They didn’t know about it; it was on too late for a weeknight; “I only watch public television.”)

Quality in television scored one of its rare victories that season: Lou Grant survived despite slow-building ratings. On ABC or NBC it would have been chopped after thirteen weeks, if not sooner. But CBS had a tradition of nurturing distinguished slow starters (including The Mary Tyler Moore Show where Lou Grant, if not Lou Grant, had been born). The network remained patient. Critics spread the word and so did more and more regular folks. The show’s viewing strength grew. Come one miraculous week in the summer of ’78, a Lou Grant rerun copped number-one position in the Nielsens and Ed Asner beamed at us from the cover of People.

I breathed a sigh of relief along with Lou’s other fans, but remained apprehensive. That summer fluke aside (what else was there to watch that week?), the program’s numbers weren’t that great. Any time I happened to notice the weekly top 10, or even top 20, shows listed in TV Guide, Lou Grant wasn’t among them. Although it was being spoken of casually as a “hit,” and had begun to be treated like an institution, the possibility of permanency still seemed remote. A network can’t make big bucks off an only moderate hit, no matter how regularly it wins Emmys for its star (1978) or itself (1979).

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews

Blu-ray: Walter Hill’s ‘Streets of Fire’ on Shout! Factory

A self-described “A Rock and Roll Fable” from “another time, another place,” I think of Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984) as a rock and roll western dropped into the urban badlands of a brick and neon noir. It opens on what appears to be the 1950s frozen in time, a working class neighborhood forgotten in the explosion of the post-war American big city dreams. It could be Chicago (where some of the film was shot) or New York or any city, really, a film noir in comic book color, and it’s where former soldier turned shaggy soldier of fortune Tom Cody (Michael Paré) returns to play reluctant hero.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews

Blu-ray: ‘The Lovers on the Bridge’ on Kino Lorber

The Lovers on the Bridge (France, 1991) (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray), Leos Carax’s tale of l’amour fou, was the most expensive film ever made in France at the time and one of the most ravishing made anywhere ever. It was also a commercial disaster, alternately celebrated as a triumph of personal expression and vilified as the French equivalent of Heaven’s Gate, and despite the presence of Juliette Binoche it was almost a decade before the film finally made it to American shores. The Lovers on the Bridge is the American title, a rather prosaic translation of Les Amant du Pont-Neuf. In French, the title references the oldest bridge spanning the Seine in Paris and all the history and romance that name embodies.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Interviews

Monte Hellman on “Road to Nowhere”

[originally published August 11, 2011]

Road to Nowhere is Monte Hellman’s first feature in 21 years. The director of The Shooting and Two-Lane Blacktop, a resolutely personal director who turned out drive-in pictures for Roger Corman and spent his career largely transforming work-for-hire productions into distinctive and mysterious films, spent years taking jobs as editor and second-unit director while one project after another failed to come together. Among his projects during that time was working with the Sundance institute, where he helped a young filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino workshop a film called Reservoir Dogs. Hellman signed on as executive producer and helped Tarantino get his film made. The role of educator and mentor eventually took him to CalArts, the private arts college where he has been teaching for the past six years.

Road to Nowhere is a welcome return by a master filmmaker. It’s a film about making a film and a film within a film, with an unknown actress (played by Shannyn Sossamon) hired to play a role in a film based on a murky true story about a politician who embezzled $100 million and disappeared with a young woman. She may or may not in fact be the very woman she is portraying on film. The mystery may be real or a fiction within the film. This film’s director, Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan), shares the same initials as Monte Hellman, and the echoes don’t end there.

This is a film aware of its existence as a film, constantly pushing against the nature of representation and storytelling. It’s a mystery where part of the mystery is what the mystery is really about. It’s the best film about the nature of filmmaking since The Stunt Man but with a very different approach to the blurring of life and art. Its name could serve as the alternate title to Hellman’s 1971 masterpiece Two-Lane Blacktop and its play with doubles and characters in reflection recalls The Shooting, his starkly abstract 1968 western. It is a film with imagery as rich as paintings and characters roiling with anxiety even as they appear frozen in space. And it is a film in love with the mystery of cinema, a film about characters playing characters, about stories that shift as they are put on film, shift again as they are placed beside other stories in the editing, and once again shift as the audience pieces together the elements of the narrative. American filmmakers seem unable to stop and watch a character be. Hellman finds the most revealing moments between the beats of action, where characters at rest let their facades down. Or do they simply put on a different character for us to see?

Road to Nowhere opens Friday, August 19, for a week at Grand Illusion in Seattle’s U-District. I had the opportunity to speak with Monte Hellman by phone and discuss the film, his return to filmmaking and his unique take on cinematic storytelling.

Road to Nowhere opens with a character taking a DVD that has “Road to Nowhere” written across it in black marker, dropping it into a laptop DVD-ROM tray and watching a film called “Road to Nowhere” with its own credits sequence of fictional names. Why do you foreground the act of watching a movie at the beginning of us watching your movie?

Because it is a movie within a movie, or if you like, it’s all the movie within the movie. Maybe everything we’re watching is what he puts into that laptop.

I see a director making a film based on a “real life event” and getting father and farther from the event itself because he was finding the story that he wanted to tell, which didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the event. He is searching for a story true to him, not true to the foggy facts of the mystery that inspired the script.

I think this is not untypical of making all movies. I think we start out with an idea and the movie, certainly this one, took over and it let us know what it wanted to be. It was a very interesting process. It was a process for me of letting go, of giving up on some of my concepts of being a control freak.

You’ve know Steve Gaydos, who wrote the screenplay, for years. He worked on Cockfighter almost 40 years ago and wrote the scripts to a number of your films. Did he write this original script specifically for you?

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Film Reviews

A Sunday in the Country

[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle)]

Bertrand Tavernier’s achingly beautiful A Sunday in the Country records one bittersweet day in the turn-of-the-century life of Monsieur Ladmiral (Louis Ducreux), a 76-year-old painter in pastoral retirement. It’s Indian summer, that lavishly spendthrift season poised at the edge of winter. Edouard and Irène, the old man’s offspring, pay him a visit. An uneventful day, really, punctuated by little pleasures, small-scale estrangements and reunions a family gathering is always sure to promote. Still, in the privileged time-warp of this particular Sunday in the country, M. Ladmiral meets himself coming and going, from playful child to played-out graybeard. Every frame of the film mirrors a life’s promises and foreclosures.

Tavernier begins with an evocative prologue, uninsistently establishing the visual and spiritual dialectic that ultimately sums up a man and his art. While the screen’s still a black background for credits, we hear childish voices singing. Once in a while, a mildly remonstrating adult interrupts, bringing their spontaneity to heel. Then, an exasperated, maternal query: “When will you stop asking so much of life, Irène?” Black screen gives way to the film’s first image, window-framed: an exquisite Monet landscape of trees banked beyond a lawn, leaves and grass shimmering in liquid light. The camera passes through the open window so that the outdoor scene seems to become accidental art, uncomposed—but still held within the film’s own painterly frame of reference.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Film Noir, Film Reviews

Coup de Torchon

[Original published in The Weekly (Seattle), July 13, 1983]

It’s 1938 in the French-African village of Bourkassa and Lucien Cordier, the one-man local constabulary, can’t get no respect. The lone inhabitant of the jail, an ancient black trustee who once poisoned his wife, must have been incarcerated long before Lucien’s time, because Lucien never arrests anybody. Let one of the locals start getting rowdy and Lucien, if he can’t run the other way, does his damnedest to look the other way. Small wonder that the principal resident predators, a pair of bored pimps, don’t hesitate to make public sport of him, or that his immediate superior, a half-day’s train journey removed, treats him the same way. Lucien fares little better in his own home: his wife Huguette refuses to sleep with him out of general disgust and also because she’s busy carrying on with a live-in lout named Nono, who may or may not be her brother. All in all, Lucien Cordier is a congenital, if affable, loser.

He’s such a loser that when he finally, grandly announces “a decision,” it’s that “I decided I don’t know what to do.” This decision is imparted to his big-town superior, Marcel, who has his usual fun scrambling Lucien’s already-dim wits and booting his ass. Somewhere in the course of this lazy-afternoon exercise, Marcel carelessly gifts Lucien with An Idea: if you’re kicked, kick back twice as hard. Serenely bearing what he takes as carte blanche for retribution, Lucien climbs back on the train, returns to Bourkassa, and straightaway shoots down the pimps.

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