Posted in: by Greg Way, Contributors, Essays

Woody Allen: Together Again for the First Time

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

Take the Money and Run and Bananas, Woody Allen’s first films as a writer-director-actor, were energetic messes redeemed by the novelty of seeing Allen’s comic vision transferred to the screen minus the dilutions of What’s New, Pussycat? and Casino Royale, on which he performed script and acting chores only. (Allen also worked on the experimental What’s Up Tiger Lily?, unseen by this viewer; and Don’t Drink the Water was based on an Allen stageplay.) Take the Money and Run and Bananas invoke far less the Buster Keaton–Charles Chaplin tradition of comedy actor-directors than they do the indulgent tradition of vehicle comedians such as the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, the excesses of whose generally funny films one almost invariably must be blind to in order to call the films themselves—as opposed to the comic performances—successful. In these early efforts one could forgive Allen his excesses, too, in order to get to the laughs because, after all, the man was still learning his craft.

‘Play It Again, Sam’

Nineteen-seventy-two was the year that Allen seemed to arrive as a filmmaker and performer. The Allen-scripted, Herbert Ross–directed Play It Again, Sam benefited from the discipline Allen found necessary to include in its stageplay antecedent, and the cinematic and cosmic inevitability of its Casablanca-remake conclusion carried with it a surprisingly touching and self-informed realization of Allen’s comic persona. In contrast to Allen’s own egocentric directorial tendencies, Ross’s generally undistinguished direction contained two minor, but in retrospect significant, virtues: Meaningful presences other than Allen were permitted onscreen—Diane Keaton, Jerry Lacey, Viva, Susan Anspach; and for once Allen himself was guided successfully through a physical universe. Compare the economy and dramatic utility of the record-casting gag in Play It Again, Sam with the pace-, grace-, and proportionlessness (this from a man who studied with Martha Graham, and fancies himself a jazz musician) of another prop gag, the basketball business in Bananas, a bit that is flatfootedly typical of actor Allen’s attempts under his own direction at the sight-gag subspecies of physical comedy. (There are exceptions, of course: The wheelchair business in Sleeper, Allen’s fourth film as a director, comes instantly to mind, but even here actor Allen is subservient to the scene’s dramatic tension—the risk of discovery—and the upfront emphasis on mechanical anarchy.) Klutziness requires grace to define it, and the relative gracefulness of Play It Again, Sam‘s physical and behavioral environments imparted to Allen’s physical comedy a sense of chaotic interruption that his own (up until then) perpetually chaotic film environments did not underscore.

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Posted in: by Peter Richards, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Noir, Orson Welles

The Earth Is Made Of Glass: Orson Welles’s ‘The Stranger’

The standard wisdom about Orson Welles’s 1946 thriller The Stranger—broadly, that it’s Welles’s weakest film, the runt in his otherwise superlative litter—needs challenging, even if Welles himself seemed mostly disinclined to do so. Only in 1982, three years before his death, did he appear to suggest, to BBC interviewers, that it wasn’t so terrible after all. (It had been cut, by about 20 minutes, by producer Sam Spiegel, who had also imposed Edward G. Robinson on the proceedings in the role of an implacable war crimes investigator—Welles had wanted Agnes Moorehead!) By 1982, Welles seemed altogether less pleased with Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report), perhaps because it was a more personal project. To the present writer, Arkadin is clearly the better film, but The Stranger is nonetheless, at the very least, a fascinating curio, and if it’s a minor film (if…), then it’s the sort of minor film that only a really major talent could make, and an excellent example of what the Cahiers du Cinéma critics meant about the failures of the great being better films than the best work of lesser talents.

The credited editor of The Stranger is Ernest Nims, a veteran whose main function in Hollywood seems to have been recutting films to maximise their perceived box-office highlights. It was he who later recut Touch of Evil against Welles’s desires and took a butcher’s cleaver to Franklin Schaffner’s The War Lord, greatly to the well-publicised anguish of both films’ star, Charlton Heston. That someone has been nibbling away at Welles’s footage is immediately clear as The Stranger‘s credits conclude. The escape from custody of war criminal Konrad Meineke (a fine, but now rather brief, performance by Konstantin Shayne) is managed with ridiculous-seeming ease and speed, and he manages to get from Europe to New England (via South America) in no time. Once arrived in a rural college town, Meineke reveals his presence to Franz Kindler, formerly the master brain of the Thousand Year Reich but now, thanks to his life-long avoidance of personal publicity and his mastery of an American accent, a respected local lecturer under the pseudonym of Charles Rankin. Meineke also reveals that he’s got religion in jail, and so has to be murdered by his onetime bludbruder.

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Posted in: by Jeff Shannon, Contributors, Documentary, Essays, Television

The Promised Land Will Be Wheelchair-Accessible

“Lives Worth Living” premieres on the PBS series “Independent Lens” on October 27th at 10:00 p.m. (ET/PT). For more information, visit the film’s PBS website and filmmaker Eric Neudel’s website.

To be disabled in America, in 2011, is to occupy the midpoint of a metaphorical highway, some stretches smooth and evenly paved, others rocky and difficult to navigate. When you look back at the road behind, you feel proud and satisfied that people with disabilities (PWD) have made significant progress since the days when we had no voice, no place in society, no civil rights whatsoever. Looking ahead, you see fewer physical obstacles but other remaining barriers, in terms of backward attitudes and ongoing exclusion, that society is still stubbornly reluctant to remove.

title card-fred fay.jpgLike those of us with disabilities, Eric Neudel’s documentary Lives Worth Living is situated at that halfway point on the rocky road of progress. In just 54 inspiring and informative minutes, Neudel’s exceptional film (airing Oct. 27th at 10pm on the PBS series Independent Lens) provides a concise primer on the history of the disability rights movement in America. The film culminates with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26th, 1990.

And yet, it’s only half the story. In a perfect world, PBS would immediately finance a sequel so Neudel (who has devoted his career to documenting political and civil rights struggles) could chronicle the first 20 years of the ADA. That history is still unfolding, and the struggle to enforce and fully implement the ADA is just as compelling as the struggle for disability rights throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

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

Richard Lester

[Written in 1996 as part of a cine-bio project that never saw the light of day.]

Richard Lester, just like he was before he was

Richard Lester
aka Dick Lester
Birth:  January 19, 1932; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Education:  University of Pennsylvania (clinical psychology)

My whole metabolism is that I’m inclined to do the sum at the end and then realize that I’ve left out one of the parts I’m adding up…. I like a feeling of rough excitement in films. I like to shoot rehearsals rather than actual performances…. A director to me is a highly paid dustman. —Richard Lester, quoted by biographer Andrew Yule

Physical descriptions are rarely key to directorial bios, yet one cannot ignore George Melly’s word-portrait of Richard Lester: “an amiable space creature, very thin, with a great domed bald head, tiny childlike features, and large, kind eyes.” How else would you want to picture the force behind some of the most prodigiously pixilated and breathlessly inventive films of the Sixties? For a brief span of two, maybe three years in the middle of that anarchic film decade, Lester reigned as the master spirit, combining the freewheeling legacy of the French New Wave, the daft Goon Show line in British drollery, and intuitions of an absurdist bleakness whose exemplars were Beckett and Buster Keaton. Then he dropped off the map till the mid-Seventies, when he returned to make several of his finest films in as brief a period … then winked away again.

He was born an American, and still claims on his passport to be one. His father was a failed playwright, onetime title-writer for silent movies, and a Philadelphia schoolteacher his life long. A child prodigy, young Richard scored 186 on his first IQ test—“high genius.” He entered school early and consequently grew up as a perennial outsider, three years younger than his peers. He taught himself to play the piano, then the clarinet, then a host of other instruments. Enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania at age 15 to study clinical psychology, he devoted more of his energies to writing music and forming a vocal group (who called themselves Vocal Group—is this a Richard Lester movie waiting to happen, or what?). They performed at a local television station and were almost immediately invited not to return. Lester, however, stayed on, and worked his way up to directing within a year.

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

Blu-ray: Jackie Brown

[Expanded from a feature originally published in 1997 in Seattle Weekly]

“Amateurs borrow, professionals steal,” goes the maxim. Quentin Tarantino steals like a pro. Where directors of the previous generation peppered their films with classic cinematic quotes, Tarantino plunders the films of his formative years for ideas – mostly B-movies and exploitation films about cars and capers and criminals – and riffs on them with a mix of reverence and sly playfulness.

Tarantino’s films aren’t so much stories as strings of anecdotes: movie moments, urban myths, conversations strewn with pop culture references. His challenge with Jackie Brown is how make someone else’s story—Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, to be specific—his own. His solution: set it in his own reference riddled world. From the film’s opening shot—a quote from The Graduate overlaid with early seventies movie lettering and set to a Motown tune—we know we’re in Tarantino territory.

Pam Grier’s entrance in her retro stewardess outfit introduces the kick-ass star of Foxy Brown and Friday Foster gracefully aging into the modern world. Robert Forster, the almost star of the late 60s turned exploitation film stalwart (see Alligator and Vigilante), brings the understated authority that marked his genre pictures to the lived-in ease age brings. That’s the genius of Tarantino’s casting. Jackie Brown is not some stand-in for Foxy Brown but a projection of where she might be 25 years later. Grier’s persona is intertwined with the role, a middle aged woman with her back to wall who turns her situation around: from victim to player. With the weight of her career as an action star, Grier makes Jackie her own and dominates the screen with her energy and charisma.

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

Götterdämmerung in Technicolor: Fritz Lang’s ‘Rancho Notorious’

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

O listen … listen well:
Listen to the Legend of Chuck-a-Luck,
Chuck-a-Luck,
Listen to the song of the gambler’s wheel,
A souvenir of a bygone year,
Spinning a tale of the old frontier
And a man of steel,
And the passion that drove him on, and on, and on.

It began, they say, one summer’s day
When the sun was blazing down;
‘Twas back in the early Seventies
In a little Wyoming town.
So, listen to the Legend of Chuck-a-Luck, Chuck-a-Luck,
Listen to the Wheel of Fate
As round and round with a whispering sound
It spins, it spins
The old, old story of
Hate, Murder and Revenge!

Any movie that gets underway with a song like that is going to be a little strange. And Rancho Notorious is strange. Peculiar. Outrageous. Utterly distinctive. I can only sympathize with any Western fan who dropped into his local grindhouse some night in 1952 for an hour-and-a-half of vicarious gunplay and eye-soothing scenery. Although it includes a goodly amount of shooting, a jailbreak, a bank holdup, a vicious fistfight and some token (very second-unit–style) hard riding, Rancho Notorious offers little in the way of genre compensations. Its theme ballad forgoes the customary easy jogging rhythms of most Western music for a tortuous, neurotic progression all its own; the mode is epic, but closer to Brechtian Epic than big-country epic. Indeed, the song bids to be exemplary: we are advised to “listen, listen well.” The didactic note is consistent with the previous work of a director who has specialized in putting his protagonists through hellish learning experiences (a character in one film speaks of having watched himself burn to death a dozen times over in a newsreel of his “lynching”; another Lang film consists mostly of a dream wherein the protagonist witnesses himself succumbing to what seems a single harmless temptation, then being lost in a morass of guilty complications that serve to confirm his waking self in straitlaced morality). And the film is exotically personal. It is drolly, thrillingly right that the last four words of the chorus should coincide with the credit title DIRECTED BY FRITZ LANG: Rancho Notorious is a Teutonic revenge drama that partakes of the conventions and uses of the American Western—gunmen on horseback settling disputes against mythic backgrounds—without ever leaving the Fritz Lang universe. Siegfried, Kriemhild, and Hagen Tronje would feel right at home at Chuck-a-Luck.

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

The Great American Eating Machine

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

The recurrence of certain thematic ideas clues us to a consistency of vision at work in Steven Spielberg’s last three films. For one thing, all are “disaster films” in the sense that they deal with the revelation of character in time of stress. Each of the three films, in one way or another, treats of a battle to the death between a pursuer and a pursued, each respecting and fearing the other’s power. Most fascinating, though, is the fact that all three films deal in some significant way with people’s relationship to machines. (It comes as no surprise that Spielberg’s current work-in-progress, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is about human encounters with UFOs.) Even his earliest television work is marked by an interest in the struggle of the human against the Object. The second section of the Rod Serling trilogy Night Gallery (1969) starred Joan Crawford as an art collector who arranges for an eye transplant, and awakes from the operation just in time for a New York power blackout, with frantic results. A more mature made-for-TV feature, Something Evil (1970), pitted Sandy Dennis against a houseful of poltergeists. But it was with Duel (1972) that Spielberg first dealt specifically with that curiously American simultaneous dependence upon and fear of machines.

"Duel" - The tank truck metamorphosed into a contemporary dragon

Richard Matheson’s script for Duel is a vertiginous plunge into the American collective unconscious, with an enormous, wheezing tank truck metamorphosed into a contemporary dragon that irrationally menaces the allegorically surnamed hero, David Mann. His first name is as apt as his surname: the fact that the driver of the truck remains unseen turns the truck itself into a giant Philistine enemy opposing this modern David. Spielberg presents the truck to us not from the point-of-view of Mann’s eyes, but from a fragile point deep inside the mind of the threatened salesman. In closeup, the truck is always overpoweringly huge; in middle- and longshot its size is emphasized by comparison with Mann’s car, making the truck more than ever an insatiable monster bent on gobbling up helpless prey.

The metaphoric impact of all this is heightened by the fact that Mann has chosen to drive this winding, hilly country road to avoid freeway traffic. In his life’s journey he has strayed—but willingly—from the Dantean true path, and found himself confronted by a ravening beast. The snake, too, that most allegorical of creatures, makes its appearance in one of the film’s most interesting scenes, Mann’s stop at a garage that, in the tradition of Cable Hogue’s “Cable Springs” stagecoach stop, offers an exhibit of snakes as a roadside attraction. Interestingly, the snake sequence comes just after an incident in which the truck has nearly forced Mann into the path of a train at a crossing, and precedes the climactic sequence in which a radiator hose gives out and spews steam about as Mann’s car grinds to a halt on a steep grade. Whether this is an intentional proliferation of phallic symbolism or merely a sequence of variations on shape, Spielberg’s emphatic treatment of the images demonstrates his awareness of the coincidence.

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Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Essays, Film Reviews, Horror

The New Life Begins: Dantean Obsession in ‘Obsession’

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Once you’ve experienced the multiple twists and revelations in the last reel of Brian De Palma’s Obsession, and you think about what’s gone before, the basic storyline appears not only terribly contrived but in several ways downright impossible. But the film nevertheless works by the sheer power of a marvelously inventive, multi-layered screenplay brought to life by the simultaneously literary and stylistic genius of one of the most important young American directors. A story as involved and rich as Paul Schrader’s scenario must be firmly grounded in explicable plot; but Vilmos Zsigmond’s richly suggestive cinematography and Paul Hirsch’s relentless-pace editing, under the careful and inspired direction of De Palma, mix memory and desire even more effectively than Schrader’s story. The ultimate achievement of Obsession is not a matching of style to content so much as a resolution of content into pure style.

Inferno

At its most immediately obvious, the film’s title refers to New Orleans businessman Mike Courtland’s fixation on, first, the death of his young wife Elizabeth in a 1959 kidnap plot; second, his guilt for her death, in having delivered false money to the kidnappers; and, third, the stunning resemblance of a young Florentine art student, met 16 years later, to his dead wife. Court’s is the central experience of the film, the one which most drives its development.

Yet a second association with the idea of “obsession” arises when Court’s psychiatrist describes the student, Sandra Portinari, whom Court has brought back from Florence to his home, as having become “obsessed” with the idea of Elizabeth, to the point of hoping completely to replace the woman she so dramatically resembles. (This is the turning-back point for those who have not seen Obsession; reading on can irreparably harm one’s experience of the film.) When, toward the end of the movie, we learn that Sandra is really Amy, the daughter of Court and Elizabeth presumed killed with her mother 16 years earlier, we perceive yet another obsession motivating her: a methodic repetition of the events of 1959, with the hope of either restoring lost certainty of a father’s love or confirming forever his guilt and avenging herself on him for her mother’s death.

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

Jean Gabin

Turner Classic Movies inspired the love and gratitude of cinephiles—yet again—by devoting one day (August 18) of its annual “Summer Under the Stars” extravaganza to the iconic French actor Jean Gabin. Moreover, apart from La Grande Illusion, La Bête humaine, Pépé le Moko, and Le Jour se lève, most of the 24 hours’ worth of features would be new to Stateside viewers. The event gave me an excuse to post a cine-bio of Gabin written for a 1996 project but never published. —RTJ

JEAN GABIN
Born as Jean-Alexis Moncorge, May 17, 1904; Meriel, France
Death:  November 16, 1976

With his earthy presence, working-class features, and imperturbable gaze that has seen everything life has to show him, Jean Gabin was an icon of French cinema—and French manhood—for more than four decades. His trademark roles were weary drifters, taciturn lovers, and victims of blind destiny, and he eventually became rather too familiar in them. But he was also capable of an extraordinary sensitivity, the more affecting for his stoical calm, and in his best films he was an exemplary screen actor.

His parents were café entertainers, and he made his own first foray into show business at 19 as—hard to imagine—a Folies-Bergère dancer. He rose to leading man opposite the legendary Mistinguette, and also worked in music halls and operettas. None of this comports with the screen image Gabin began to develop in 1930, at age 34. A star from Maria Chapdelaine in 1934, he played opposite Josephine Baker in Zou-Zou (1934) and, in 1936, made his first film with Jean Renoir, Les Bas-fonds/The Lower Depths; its closing image—Gabin and the leading lady setting off down a bleak road with little hope but in good cheer—could be the emblem of his filmography. Renoir straightaway cast him as the proletarian pilot opposite Pierre Fresnay’s refined aristocrat in the WWI prisoner-of-war classic La Grande Illusion (1937), and his international reputation was launched.

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

After Sunset

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Take out the word “Chainsaw” and it could be the title of a Western. And what do you know? It is.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre takes place over one day, from sunrise after a night of grave desecrations to sunrise after a night of unspeakable murderous horror. Sunset comes not at the end of the film but at its center.

The Texas Chainsaw landscape

The east-to-west movement of the sun has stood, as long as there has been poetry, for two eternal kinds of motion: the adventurous drive toward discovery and new frontier, pulling what passes for civilization from central Asia to Europe, from Europe to America, and from America’s East to her beckoning West; and also the inevitable progress of every being, human or otherwise, toward that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler ever returns. Unlike the sun, we do not rise again with each new day.

Between the emphatic shots of sun (and later, moon) that punctuate The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the film relies on shots that never allow us to lose sight of the unobstructed rural Texas landscape. But these are not the widescreen landscapes, the cloud-studded bright sky blues and warm golds of sun-kissed grain so familiar from the cinematized western mythos. Instead they are the bleached browns of desiccation, the pale greens of decay.

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