[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
Even though it may initially seem one of the least impressive of Buñuel’s works, Subidaalcielo (American title: MexicanBusride) is more than a footnote to his career. The story itself is simple and obvious enough. Oliviero, a young man in a relatively primitive village which has no church, gets married, but his honeymoon is interrupted when he must travel to a distant town to arrange his dying mother’s financial affairs for her. The journey itself has frequent interruptions, including the seduction of Oliviero by the flamboyantly sexual Raquel—who is not his new bride—but he eventually saves his mother’s money from his conniving brothers and returns to begin his honeymoon voyage once again.
[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
Paris, 1929: the height of the surrealist and the Dada boom. Two young Spaniards decide to submit a film to the reigning lions of the movement, who had their doubts about the viability of cinema to their poetics. Others had already worked in the vein—notably Jean Epstein and René Clair in his amiable mystification Entr’acte—but no one had yet created a serious masterpiece, major or minor. The Spaniards, in order to gain the approval of their masters, wanted to make an incomprehensible film, one that would carry out the surrealist precepts of “poetry freed from the ballast of reason and tradition,” as Buñuel himself put it. Down the drain with centuries of rational and logical notions of narrative order; to become free, cinema must purify itself of the past. To accomplish that goal, Buñuel and Dalí shot the film together, then Buñuel took over and began the laborious cutting process. They showed the workprint over and over, trying to exorcise any intrusion of narrative coherence or conventional sense. Whenever somebody would say to them, “Oh yeah, I get it,” they would whip out their cutting shears until eventually they satisfied themselves, as they said at the time, that “NOTHING in this film means ANYTHING.” The first public showing was a tumultuous one, accompanied by a destroyed screen and a smelly battle in the theater between partisans and vegetable-throwing detractors.
One could call the result the first great anti-narrative film in the history of cinema. Clair’s Entr’acte of five years earlier doesn’t qualify because it is a non-narrative picture, one that doesn’t care very much about the Western narrative tradition and the expectations it creates in audiences. It takes a goodnatured spoofing attitude toward storytelling, but does not mount a compulsive reactionary rejection of traditional narrative methods. Un Chien andalou, on the other hand, is militantly, vehemently, and very consciously directed against received ideas of storytelling, and its very anti-narrative attitude is surely the most important component of its lasting fame and continuing success with film audiences around the world.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot more to the film than its narrative distinction. That extra something, however, is available almost exclusively to Buñuel fans, the people who have seen enough of his films to know what his interests and preoccupations are. Only they can really see this film not so much as a shocker that succeeds principally on its narrative mechanics, but rather as a perverse sort of preview trailer for all of Buñuel’s subsequent creative corpus—a trailer not in narrative terms, but rather in imagistic ones; in the terms that set Buñuel so far and so distinctly apart from every other director in the world.
By Carlos Fuentes, selected and translated by Ken Eisler
[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
…Buñuel is of medium height, round-shouldered, powerful (an amateur boxer, military service in Spain; he also enjoys disguising himself as Guardia Civil, but with Garcia Lorca he used to disguise himself as a nun, both of them shaved very close, very powdered, and mount the Madrid trams at their busiest hours, jostling coquettishly with the male passengers, flirting with grimaces, winking at them, collective panic). Winking? Buñuel? No. A gaze unfathomable, fixed, infinitely remote, transformed only by the big infant’s grin and robust guffaw of a perpetually youthful man. He knows how to laugh until the tears come. An ingenuous-appearing humor, a series of practical jokes and remembered gags, put into action or previsualized. Spain, Mexico, and surrealism, a triple-whammy black humor.
I completely lack a conceptual memory. For me, only visual memory exists. For SimonoftheDesert I settled myself into the National Library of Paris for several months, I read everything that had been written on the life of the medieval anchorites, including Latin folios. I looked into what the stylites ate, prayed, wore, everything. Useless. Culture contributed nothing. The movie is a series of visual and verbal gags.
[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]
What do Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) have in common? Quite a lot, it seems to me. And yet, in all my reading on film, I have run across only one brief speculation on the subject: Andrew Sarris’s, in the context of his rebuttals to Pauline Kael’s Kane articles.
Both films, to begin with, deal with the search for a hidden secret in the life of an important man, and both use a flashback framework as means of narration (though Rebecca maintains a single point of view through most of its story, while CitizenKane crisscrosses the memories of several characters in a network of flashbacks). Both films are informed by the presence of a dead person, though Charles Foster Kane is the central character in Welles’s film, while Hitchcock’s title character never appears. Nevertheless, each film’s ghostly presence is signaled by the recurrent motif of an initial-monogram, ‘R’ and ‘K,’ respectively. In each film a scandal—hushed up in Rebecca, headlined in Kane—attends the end of the important man’s first marriage, and overshadows his second marriage to a “common” woman.
You may know him as Sandy Ryerson on Glee or Stu Beggs on Californication or Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day—the overly ingratiating insurance salesman Bill Murray punches. Face come to mind now? Bing!
But thanks to his popular podcast and subsequent PRI radio show The Tobolowsky Files, Stephen Tobolowsky has become almost as well-known a storyteller as a busy Hollywood character actor. And there’s a Seattle connection to his unlikely success: a Belltown techie named David Chen who produces The Tobolowsky Files and has now directed a performance documentary featuring Tobolowsky at the Moore, The Primary Instinct, which will premiere at SIFF.
[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]
Only Angels Have Wings is one of Hawks’s “male adventurer” films, but it is also one of his comedies—and is perhaps best understood as such. It’s comedy in the sense that it has its share of wisecracks and a hint of slapstick—but also, and more importantly, in that it gives humor a place as a value and subtly undercuts “masculine” toughness in a way that parallels the rug-pulling comedy in Bringing Up Baby, I Was a Male War Bride, and other more obviously comic Hawks films.
[This is a program note written for “The Cinema of Orson Welles,” the Autumn 1971 film series of the University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts, and distributed at the November 9, 1971, showing of the film.]
Mr. Arkadin is another of Welles’s European productions. The soundtrack is consequently erratic, and this, plus the fact that the storyline is so crowded with events and characters, suggests the advisability of offering a brief outline of the scenario for reference either before or after viewing:
*Pre-title sequence. Typed words: “A certain great and powerful king said to a poet, ‘What can I give you of all that I have?’ He wisely replied, ‘Anything, sir … except your secret.'” A plane is seen sweeping over a barren landscape. The director’s voice tells us that this pilotless craft was sighted one Christmas morning, that investigation of the incident “reached into the highest circles,” and that the attendant scandal very nearly toppled a government. “This motion picture is a fictionalized reconstruction of the events leading up to the murder, and to the appearance, last Christmas morning, of the empty plane.”
*The titles. The main title is formed out of newspaper cuttings. The cast is introduced in order of appearance, each seen in a subsequent shot from the film. Various other shots are seen now, to be repeated in context later.
“[I]t’s my own picture, unspoiled in the cutting or anything else…. The producers were heroic and got it made, and there isn’t anything I had to compromise—except no sets, and I was happy with the other solution, as it turned out, even though I was kind of in love with all the work I’d done. Still, I was happy enough to scuttle it, as I always am.”
–Orson Welles on The Trial, from This is Orson Welles
Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil(1959) is now celebrated as a masterpiece, but the version released in 1959 was not the film that Welles had intended and it was largely dismissed as a glorified B-movie. It had been for Welles one last attempt to make films inside the studio system and he brought the film in on time and on budget. Yet Universal thought that his labyrinthine nightmare of a crime movie was too dark and confusing for audiences and took the editing from his hands. Welles’ famous fifty-eight-page memo (which became the basis of a 1998 revision undertaken by producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch) was politic, polite and even supportive of some of the changes made by Universal’s editor as it made the case for editing refinements. Welles played by the rules right to the end, attempting to work with the producers rather than fight them, but it became clear that Hollywood simply did not want the kinds of films that Welles made and he left for Europe. Never again did he work with the budgets or the resources of a major studio production. That was his trade-off for creative control.
The Trial (1963) was not Welles’ first project after Touch of Evil—he started shooting Don Quixote in Mexico and Spain and made a series of documentaries for Spanish TV—but it was the first film he completed after leaving Hollywood.
When handed the raw materials from an unfinished documentary about Elmyr de Hory, an art forger whose life was being written up by biographer Clifford Irving, Orson Welles took the opportunity to make something far beyond the concept of the traditional documentary. F for Fake has been called the Orson Welles’ first essay film, a true enough statement if you limit the accounting to feature films, but he had been doing short-form non-fiction since 1955, when he made Around the World with Orson Welles (a.k.a. Around the World) for British television.
It was ostensibly a series of travelogues, shot on location with Welles as tour guide, host, and narrator. Welles himself described them as “all sort of home movies—a vacation documented…,” but these are sort of home movies that only Welles could make. They are built on Welles’s public persona as much as on his directorial personality. He is “as always, obediently yours,” the worldly yet personable host who casts a spell with his voice, disarms with a boyish grin and invites the audience into his confidence as he tosses out cultural observations and historical asides.
This piece dates to a program note written for a Welles series in 1986. I was a co-founder, with Tom Keogh, of a nonprofit called Seattle Filmhouse, and we brought a few notable critics (Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Thomson among them), as well as Welles’ hard-working latterday cinematographer, Gary Graver, to Seattle to talk about the movies and the life. The note on The Magnificent Ambersons was meant to be read in close proximity to seeing the movie, of course, and reads that way. – Robert Horton
There are films that creep up on you, and there are films that astonish from the first frame. The films of Orson Welles may do many things, but they do not creep, and almost all of his movies begin with a striking image or sequence. None begins more beautifully than The Magnificent Ambersons; in this beginning is the word, Welles’ voice (his only presence as an actor in the movie), which starts its rolling rumble even before the fist image appears onscreen. “The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873,” he says, and the screen is still black until a gorgeously-appointed mansion emerges, looming majestically, dominating and defining the lithograph-like composition of the shot—as, indeed, the Amberson mansion and all the rich and sad meaning it embodies will seem to dominate and define and even obliterate the family it houses. Welles’ voice is rich and sad too, with that first line setting a nostalgic tone: listen to the rhyming sounds—magnificence, Ambersons, began—and consider the name Amberson itself, golden and preserving but also smoky, dark, fading, like the amber Sun or the amber son. (Kudos to Booth Tarkington, author of a novel that was partly based on Orson Welles’ father, for the canny choice.)