If you’ve never heard of South of Heaven, West of Hell, there’s an excellent reason. If you have heard of it, it’s probably because you stumbled upon the information that it marks the directorial debut of singer-actor Dwight Yoakam, who managed to sweet-talk a spectacularly quirky cast into abetting the enterprise: current girlfriend Bridget Fonda and her papa Peter; indie-world luminaries Vince Vaughn and Billy Bob Thornton (for whom Yoakam made a memorably loathsome villain in Sling Blade); character-acting stalwarts Bo Hopkins, Matt Clark, Luke Askew, and Scott Wilson; and such icons of the florid fringe as Bud Cort, Paul Reubens, and Michael Jeter. All should file for workman’s comp and alienation of audience affection because they got themselves mired in one of the dumbest, most inept, most tediously self-indulgent messes in the history of showbiz hubris.
[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]
The most interesting aspect of WhiteLightning is the squandering of available authenticity. Thanks to Fouad Said’s Cinemobile systems, there’s nowhere in this country a filmmaking crew can’t go and get a movie in the can. The latest Burt Reynolds venture, set in the Deep South, shores up its careless trashmanship with equally careless but atmospherically persuasive hunks of environment and lifestyle. The constant sheen of sweat on faces, the rotting-alive quality of colors and textures, the sense of both landscapes and society as a vast morass—these are commodities ripe for the taking, and they tend to condone the most accidental of scenarios by lending a general signification to anything that happens. Add to this the South’s conspicuous availability for mythmaking and the lackadaisical narrator is home free.
[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
American Graffiti begins with a shot of Curt, a recent high school graduate, driving up to Mel’s Drive-in, and it ends with Curt watching a white Thunderbird from his airplane seat as he goes off to college. Structurally speaking, therefore, the film revolves around him and his problems as he tries to decide whether or not he’s really going to get on that morning plane and leave behind him his familiar southern California hometown and its ways of life. But in between these two structural goalposts, it’s very hard at any given moment to assign Curt or anyone else the role of principal protagonist, since Lucas deliberately and very effectively plunges us into the seethingly mobile and unstable world of smalltown late adolescence à la 1962, whose coalescence and flux he creates through dispersion of characters and intrigues, crosscut to join them back together. The method is both daring and difficult since so many sets of characters pursuing their various goals could very easily get out of hand, resulting in real narrative chaos. But Lucas and his editors triumph handily over the perils and end up creating an admirably controlled narrative that describes a chaotic evening without ever descending into chaos itself.
[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
Ever since the Lumière brothers first fascinated audiences with cinematic recreations of trains entering stations, waves breaking on shores, and street traffic in Paris, theories of Realism have been the aesthetic engines of the film medium. A language with an almost mystical capacity to replicate reality, film has for three-quarters of a century created and recreated its own aesthetics and, although the spectrum of approaches to film art is vast and various, nearly all of the critical theories that have been functionally important have been in some intimate way connected to that primal mimetic power of the medium. Even Expressionist theories, for 75 years opposed in dialectical tension to the Realist theories, have substance simply because the language of film is so highly replicative: if film did not have the innate power to capture reality, it certainly would not hold much interest for those whose desire is to distort it. Forty years ago Rudolf Arnheim warned against the rapid technological development of the medium which would of course only increase the power of replication and therefore limit the freedom of the artist to create “art” and relegate the camera “to the position of a mere mechanical recording machine.”
The history of film is marked by Realist mileposts: French poetic realism in the 1930s; Italian neorealism in the late Forties; the British documentary tradition; the Eastern European humanist heritage; and finally the New Wave of the last 15 years, so thoroughly rooted in the thought of André Bazin, whose influence is still central even now almost 20 years after his death. In our own country theories of realism have had a much more muted effect, especially if we judge our own film traditions against those of France or Italy or England. Yet, within its limited context, much of the best of American film shows the force of realism, from King Vidor and Raoul Walsh to John Cassavetes, from Scarface to On theWaterfront, the styles and subjects of Realism have provided American films with vitality and relevance. During the brightest period of American film—the Thirties and Forties—Warner Brothers, the studio most closely associated with the Realist tradition, is now increasingly seen to have been the major force in the studio system. The gritty and direct Warner Brothers style marked a body of films which surpass in many ways the slicker output of MGM and Paramount and give us a much more exciting and intriguing image of that past America. If the witch-hunts and Blacklists of the late Forties and early Fifties purged the studios of much of the talent that had created that emerging realist tradition, nevertheless we still had the films of Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan during the period that followed. The American film tradition, moribund in the Fifties, was near death in the Sixties and the focus of attention turned, even for most American cinephiles, to European cinema.
[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]
Maybe one of the reasons I don’t much care for the John Schlesinger film of Day of the Locust is an attitude towards his characters—Nathanael West’s characters in this case—which he has avoided in other films. In Sunday BloodySunday there was no overt judgment, no condescension towards his people, and in fact the film’s openness was a way of questioning the successfulness and validity of relationships between people whose strengths were admirable and whose weaknesses were sympathetically portrayed. Even in MidnightCowboy there was the redeeming love and friendship between Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo that gave some value to an ugly world. But in Dayofthe Locust Schlesinger handles his characters as though at the end of a long stick, turning irony into a cruel form of entrapment by making them seem so bereft of normally human characteristics that we wonder how they could ever possibly rise above their bathetic gropings and mutual fear and hatred of each other.
[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]
All right. Posse is an unusual Western. But not that unusual. And it doesn’t end like nothing I’ve ever seen. In fact, it ends very much like a number of other films I’ve seen (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was only the first of several to come to mind). The sociopolitical message of the confrontation between a brilliant outlaw and a self-serving politician offers little that Abe Polonsky’s Tell ThemWillieBoyIsHere didn’t provide with greater subtlety—and few people have ever accused Polonsky of understatement. Posse really doesn’t have much to say, old or new, yet it does keep insisting. The grizzled typesetter’s comment that “All politicians are full of shit” might as well have Author’s Message flashed over it. A flagrant anachronism, neither appropriate nor cute, is the remark of a newspaper editor—a double amputee whom we are forced to think of in terms of Vietnam—that “This is the age of New Journalism.” And it’s not clear whether the highly visible eagle logo at the beginning and end of the film—”To the Polls, Ye Sons of Freedom”—is intended to exhort (we should all go out and vote to keep Howard Nightingales out of office) or to ring ironically (why vote at all when “all politicians are, etc.”?). This has less to do with ambiguity than with sloppiness, a sloppiness that carries over to the film’s style.
[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]
Despite its director’s solid critical and commercial reputation and a Cannes Festival showing, TheNickel Ridearrived in Seattle well over a year late, as a first-run second feature to a new film being ballyhooed via the moronic action-film come-on. (That the new film happens to be a fine one, meriting very different advertising and going largely unseen by its proper audience as a result of its unpleasant sell—Robert Aldrich’s Hustle—ismomentarily beside the point.) It’s easy to see why the film has been neglected by its distributor and downplayed by reviewers: a “depressing” story, set mostly in a dim, unglamorous locale, unfolding apparently within a generic context where hard and/or shrill action melodrama is the normal order of business—crime and those who practice or live on the edge of it—but without delivering the customary goods at the customary rhythms of shock and bruised relief, shock and bruised relief….
And to be perfectly fair, we ought to point out that TheNickel Rideis more an honorable failure than, when ya get right down to it, a good movie. Like so many of his contemporaries, from prestigious directors like Penn to the younger program picturemakers with a view to being “taken seriously,” Mulligan has turned to the film noir as a framework for spiritual dissection of the world we seem to be living in and some of the ways we elect for going about it. His frames, his spaces, his people’s movements bespeak a selfconsciousness and seriousness as impeccable as, say, Antonioni’s. Indeed, a good deal of TheNickel Rideconsists of Jason Miller’s dark, massive, weary head sloped to a telephone receiver at the extreme right or extreme left of a wide Panavision rectangle hung in some gray-brown second-story space. Miller plays Cooper—Coop, if you want to be iconographic about it, though Mulligan manages not to insist—the “key-man” who holds the means of access to clandestine warehouses more violent types rely on as places to dump their freshly ill-gotten gains until the heat’s off. Cooper is also the long-established Anglo-Saxon equivalent of a godfather to his neighborhood where fixing fights and staking petty heist artists appear to be the most extreme forms of criminal behavior. It’s a job, and as Cooper leans milky-blue–suited through the gashing early-morning sun and pauses to listen to a bar-owner pal gripe about the rat race before hauling a carton of milk up to his office, anyone who has ever grown accustomed to the rituals and rhythms of a neighborhood while babysitting a store or office there will feel the correspondences in his gut.
[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
Sam Peckinpah’s newest film opens with a whirling drill bit boring through a wall. But, whether by design or accident, The Killer Eliteis not the study of espionage screwings and counter-screwings it might have been. In fact, for all its action, it is essentially a talk film. Everybody talks at for-hire protection agent Mike Locken, though he’s almost never interested. His killer-corporation boss, visiting him in the hospital after Locken has been wounded, reflects on the irony of his own situation: “My father was a minister. That’s what he wanted me to be.” To this embarrassingly inappropriate reverie Locken retorts, “Who the hell cares?” winning the applause of the viewer impatient with Strange Interludes. “Heroism is Out,” another character reminds him; but Locken curiously doesn’t sense the sterility in a new age when murder is no longer the passionate response of an individual but the paid service of a corporation.