Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Documentary, Essays

Elvis and the Death of the American Dream, Through Movies

Elvis Presley is ostensibly the subject of The King, Eugene Jarecki’s expansive road movie of a documentary. The award-winning director drives Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce across the US, from Mississippi and Memphis to Nashville, New York, Las Vegas, Hollywood, and elsewhere, talking to historians, musicians, members of Presley’s inner circle, and everyday Americans. Elvis centers the film but is also a starting point for a much more wide-ranging discussion of the state of American life, and that discussion takes off in all directions. That Jarecki began his odyssey in the months leading up the 2016 election and ended up on the other side of it only adds fuel to the discussion.

Not of political identity, mind you, but of America itself. Elvis is the touchstone that centers it all, with Jarecki using his life and legacy as both a roadmap for the cultural odyssey and as a metaphor for the state of contemporary America.

And at the heart of the film is the question: Is the American dream dead, a victim of greed, excess, and increasing isolation?

Continue reading at Independent Lens

Posted in: Bernardo Bertolucci, by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Essays

Bernard Bertolucci’s ‘Partner’

[originally written for NoShame Films, August 27, 2005]

Our subject is primarily life, but if you feel that life’s missing something, steal a camera and try to give life a style.

Partner, Bernardo Bertolucci’s third feature film, has always been one of the most elusive of the director’s endeavors: a forthrightly experimental work—”a film that comes from the head,” in Bertolucci’s own phrase, “a totally deconstructed film”—that willfully declines to satisfy audiences’ conventional expectations regarding narrative and emotional identification with characters. Nominally based on the Dostoevsky novella The Double, the movie centers on—and largely transpires in the imagination of—a rather priggish young drama teacher in Rome played by Pierre Clémenti. Clémenti also plays the wilder, looser alter ego who begins to share the teacher’s life and, to an extent, identity; both go by the name of Giacobbe (or Jacob, in English-language commentaries).

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Posted in: Bernardo Bertolucci, biography, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Directors, Essays

Bernardo Bertolucci

[originally published in a booklet for the DVD release of Partner by NoShame in 2005]

The political and the sensual meet in the cinema of Bernardo Bertolucci. His visually dense and stylistically labyrinthine films are among the most beautiful — and the most provocative (The Last Tango in Paris) — ever made.His career straddles canvases both epic (1900,The Last Emperor) and intimate (Luna, Besieged), from defiantly Italian stories that reverberate with the echoes of Italy’s Fascist past to international dramas that explore culture,history, and spirituality around the world. All of them are beautifully crafted works attuned the texture of experience and the magic of the moment.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays

Sex, lies and, Soderbergh

[Originally published on IndieWire on January 15, 2014]

sex, lies, and videotape was released this week in a Criterion special edition on Blu-ray and DVD. Parallax View republishes this archival piece to mark the occasion.

“When I was coming up, making an independent film and trying to reach an audience was like, trying to hit a thrown baseball. This is like trying to hit a thrown baseball but with another thrown baseball.” – Steven Soderbergh at the San Francisco International Film Festival, 2013

Did the Sundance Film Festival make sex, lies, and videotape or did sex, lies, and videotape put Sundance on the festival map? The debut feature by Steven Soderbergh, modestly budgeted at $1.2 million and starring a cast of recognizable but hardly famous actors on the rise, lost the Grand Jury Prize to Nancy Savoca’s True Love but took home the Audience Award and, more importantly, a deal with Miramax, who broke the film out of the limited arthouse circuit and put it into suburban theaters. The confluence of Sundance and “sex” was a seismic shift in American independent film culture: the “big bang of the modern indie film movement,” in the words of industry historian Peter Biskind.

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

Review: The Tree of Wooden Clogs

[originally presented as a program note for the 1983 University of Washington film series “The Epic Tradition in World Cinema”]

“Those who are wretched are nearer to God.” A peasant woman speaks that line early in The Tree of Wooden Clogs, by way of chiding two of her numerous children for giggling at the simpleminded vagrant whose peregrinations intersect the course of the film from time to time. Taken in isolation, the line is open to dispute: are the random peasant types at the beginning of Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff, for instance, imaginably nearer to God than the self-sacrificing governor who places himself (and his family, as it turns out) in jeopardy in their behalf? By reverse token, the line might be invoked as the keynote of any number of kneejerk-liberal tracts, at once patronizing and self-congratulatory, that propose or presume the moral and spiritual superiority of the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Or it might be put in the mouth of a suffering peasant type for the purpose of irony—to nudge us toward an awareness of how religion can serve as “the opiate of the proletariat,” a formula of self-consolation that defangs the spirit of revolution and reform, and thus helps sustain corrupt sociopolitical systems.

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Posted in: by Robert Horton, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Orson Welles

An American in King Henry’s Court: Orson Welles’ ‘Chimes at Midnight’

Originally published in Linguaculture, Volume 8, Number 2, 2017

Orson Welles, a boy from Kenosha, Wisconsin, was one of the most audacious Shakespearians who ever lived. He recited soliloquies as a child, wrote a book on the plays as a teenager, and at age 17 roamed across Ireland before brazenly (and successfully) presenting himself at the Abbey Theatre as a distinguished American actor. Welles also created three of the most ambitious Shakespeare films. As an American pretender, a colonial presuming to re-interpret the greatest British writer, Welles approached Shakespeare with a mix of bravado and insecurity. This paper explores how Welles’ American nature informs these roles and, especially, his final Shakespeare film, Chimes at Midnight (1965). In this production, Welles plays Falstaff and is understandably identified with the role, but it could be argued that he speaks more directly through Prince Hal, whose anxiety about inheriting the throne might be reflected in the way an American Shakespearian seeks to be accepted by the British keepers of the text. The words of Hal’s father, Henry IV— Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown —might apply to Welles’ American-inflected depictions of kings and princes who do not entirely believe in their own royal agency. The tension between Welles‘ brashness and his fretfulness created some of the most memorable Shakespeare in the cinema.

Continue reading at Linguaculture (.pdf alert)

Posted in: by Bruce Reid, Contributors, Essays, Obituary / Remembrance, remembrance

How do you not find that hilarious? Celebrating Jerry Lewis

Take it from experience: one of the first questions asked of any Jerry Lewis fan who declares his admiration is, “Do you really find him funny?” The question isn’t as confrontational as it seems; read generously, there’s even a bit of a back-handed compliment in there. Sure, he’s an interesting case study in American celebrity, worthy of attention; the acknowledgement that, depending on the age and viewing habits of the interlocuter, he gave surprisingly supple, moving dramatic turns in The King of Comedy, Wiseguy, Funny Bones; and all right, he made you laugh as a kid. But now? Funny?

Well, I really do and always have. Lewis’s reaction to calamity—the spasmodic efforts at extraction, interspersed by rounds of disturbing calm, building to the burst of apoplectic frenzy that proves as futile as any other measure tried—is as iconic and hilarious as Keaton’s unperturbed fatalism or Groucho’s peevish snipes. Lazy impersonations of Lewis focus on the mania and miss those pauses the perfectionist, preternaturally gifted physical comedian would lace into his bits. A random limb swiftly raised then replaced just as quickly, the intention realized as useless almost the instant it’s conceived; the trailing-off sentence fragments and swallowed coughs, a need to articulate the dilemma strangled by the pointlessness (or impossibility?) of the effort; the childlike defensive stance, crouched so his butt sticks out and face juts forward, and cautious tread—more a single legged-pivot with, somehow, forward momentum—around the problem; the hand briefly cradling the brow beginning to seethe. It’s a magnificent collection of cancelled gestures and never-stated oaths, as if even Lewis’s frustration was being frustrated. And then—and only then, snarky shouters of nasal freundlavens should note—the explosion.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays

Now That You’ve Seen the Solar Eclipse, Watch These Movies

The solar eclipse has held an almost mystical fascination for humans from the moment we first looked into the heavens. To civilizations throughout history that depended on the cycles of the sun and moon and the seasons for survival, it was an inexplicable event, the work of gods or demons and a harbinger of ill tidings. Even after Copernicus and Galileo established the heliocentric models of the solar system that not only explained but could predict a solar eclipse, the awesome power of the celestial event could still overcome reason and instill feelings of anxiety and dread.

In the 21st century, an age of (relative) reason and knowledge, and in a culture that has spent the last few weeks talking about the coming eclipse, we’re still fascinated. Partly because it’s such a rarity—there’s a solar eclipse somewhere in the world about every 18 months, but in any single location it can be hundreds of years between events—and in part because of its primal power. The sun, the source of light and heat and life, is momentarily obliterated, plunging the Earth (or at least that part from which the eclipse is visible) into darkness and letting us see the cosmos in the sky in daytime. We know the science of how and why it happens, but the awesome sight has a power over us beyond reason.

Continue reading at Fandor

Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Essays

MC Squared: David Patrick Lowery’s ‘A Ghost Story’

“I think these things matter.”—David Patrick Lowery, Some Analog Lines, 2006

The first thing that strikes you is the frame.

The classic 4:3 ratio, but with rounded corners, looking for all the world like shape of the old family-vacation slide shows of two generations ago.

In fact, we’ve seen this before. Movies sometimes start with that slide-show effect to evoke a series of memory captures, perhaps filling us in on a past that will become important to us when the movie slips into a more conventional, more contemporary frame to give us the film-proper.

But this is no prologue. This is the film, and the frame ration stays for the full running time, rounded corners and all.

The last film I remember that immediately confronted me with an unexpected frame and then defiantly kept to it—celebrated it—for its entire running time was Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt’s overhaul of the western, with which David Lowery’s A Ghost Story shares a relentless sense of being lost rather than destined.

A Ghost Story is, among other things, a meditation on the frame and its possibilities. The frame is an apt metaphor for the condition of Lowery’s ghost, stuck in space but free in time, like, perhaps, a note painted into a crack in the grain of a wooden wall-frame, or a message hidden under a rock to be discovered—or not—by some yet unimagined other.

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Posted in: DVD, Essays

Pagnol’s Marseilles Trilogy and its Screen Incarnations

Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite tearjerker, I answer Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles Trilogy – and its mostly faithful offspring. In all of its screen incarnations, it’s an epic tale of thwarted romance that unfolds over a period of several years.

If the original six-hour French-language trilogy—Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and Cesar (1936)—sounds unfamiliar, you might remember it in the form of Joshua Logan’s condensed American remake, Fanny, which played for many weeks in the summer of 1961 and earned Oscar nominations for best picture, actor (Charles Boyer), cinematography and music. In this most famous version, Leslie Caron and Horst Buchholz play the frustrated lovers whose lives are irrevocably altered by one crucial decision that drives the narrative and accounts for most of the heartbreak.

The 1932 "Fanny
The 1932 “Fanny”

The films tell essentially the same story of a would-be sailor, Marius, and his childhood sweetheart, Fanny, who have grown up on the Marseilles waterfront and are clearly meant for each other. But he’s driven by the desire to find adventure at sea, and after one night of passion she helps him escape on a ship that’s not likely to return soon. When she becomes pregnant, she is married off to a wealthy merchant, Panisse, who has never been able to have children and is happy to have a “seven-month baby.” After the child is born, Marius returns and nearly restarts their affair. But Marius’ father, Cesar, stops them, and the story’s real heartache kicks in.

Although the Pagnol films have been available for some time on DVD, the 1961 Fanny only recently made its disc debut. The extras include the first CD release of the original soundtrack album, based on the melodies of Harold Rome, who captures the unrequitable longing of the central characters.

The first American adaptation of Pagnol’s films, MGM’s underrated Port of Seven Seas (1938), was an all-star event behind and in front of the cameras. Written by Preston Sturges, it was directed by James Whale, scored by Franz Waxman and photographed by Karl Freund; the actors included Wallace Beery as Cesar, Maureen O’Sullivan as Fanny (renamed Madelon) and Frank Morgan as Panisse. Although it’s in legal limbo and won’t likely turn up soon anywhere, it was revived several years ago at the Seattle International Film Festival. Sometimes dismissed as overly sentimental and unnecessarily swift (it runs only 81 minutes), it’s a more-than-reasonable adaptation, with an especially poignant turn by Morgan, just before he transformed himself into the wizard of Oz.

There’s also a mid-1950s musical stage version, called Fanny, which is the source of the Rome music. The songs, which were turned into background music in the 1961 film, include Marius’ hymn to impatience, “Restless Heart,” and Panisse’s late-bloomer anthem, “Never Too Late for Love.”

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