Jonathan Mostow made his feature-directing debut a couple of seasons ago with Breakdown, a tense road-movie-cum-chase-thriller that pitted motorist and husband Kurt Russell against a sinister good-old-boy trucker (the late J.T. Walsh) who had somehow kidnapped Russell’s wife in broad daylight and the wide open spaces of the desert Southwest. The picture became a sleeper hit, and industry and fans alike marked Mostow as somebody to watch. U-571 won’t undo his career — it bids to be another palm-sweater, and technically delivers often enough to keep the popcorn crowd in their seats. But this movie seems to have no reason for existing except as an answer to the rhetorical question: “Do you think somebody nowadays could make an old-fashioned, straight-ahead submarine flick like the ones they did during World War II?” Mostow must have said, “Why not?” whereas many would have ended their riposte one word sooner.
Recklessness, combined with a passionate, headstrong commitment to see things through to the end, can be deliriously exciting to brush up against, or it can be ruthlessly self-absorbed. No filmmaker balances between these poles, and is more daringly reckless, than Jane Campion. Her characters are often so wrapped up in their own certainties, they barely communicate with the outside world. (Campion’s most famous heroine is a mute, after all.) But her films are a constant stream of glorious, thought-provoking images, racing from one to the next without waiting for the audience to catch up.
Martin Scorsese’ incendiary 1976 masterpiece of alienation and anger and urban anxiety may be the most maverick vision of seventies American cinema. It is certainly one of the most visceral portraits of the American urban underbelly ever put on film, a movie bathed in blood as much as in light, and almost forty years later it still has the power sink the audience into the mind and filthy, fetid world of Travis Bickle.
Directed by the ambitious young Scorsese, who confesses that he was driven to make this silent scream turned psychotic explosion of a script by Paul Schrader, and starring Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, it is a primal portrait and uncompromising vision carved out of the New York night, the summer heat and the garbage of the Times Square cesspool. Bickle, a character inspired by Schrader’s own spiral into self-obsessed urban loneliness, is no hero. The restless, insomniac Vietnam veteran who takes a job driving a taxi on the night shift and muses over the urban cesspool that he wanders through in his nocturnal prowlings in a hateful gutter poetry has convinced himself that he’s “God’s lonely man,” the self-appointed avenging angel out to clean up the garbage on the streets.
Moonrise Kingdom (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Wes Anderson has made a career exploring the childhood neuroses that keep adult characters in an arrested state of adolescence and stasis. It’s been a lively career with creatively energetic high points like Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums but an approach with diminishing returns. Until Fantastic Mr. Fox, a film that refracted his portraits of dysfunctional families and modern anxieties through a storybook world.
In Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Anderson finally builds a film around the troubled kids themselves. Kara Hayward’s Suzy, a book-loving loner with anger issues, and Jared Gilman’s Sam, an eccentric orphan out of step with his fellow Khaki Scouts, are two misfit adolescents who instantly recognize the other as a kindred soul and run away together into the wilds of a small New England island. Which, admittedly, makes escape a little difficult, what with a small army of Khaki scout trackers and a storm on the way.
It’s funny, it’s playful, it’s full of nostalgic blasts and period trappings, but most of all it is loving: accepting of the headstrong kids determined to find their place in the world, forgiving of the oblivious adults around them, affectionate in its storybook imagery and narrative playfulness.
[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 42, July 1975]
In MeanStreets Scorsese used a relatively unknown but near-perfectly cast group of actors to play out his sort-of-autobiographical story of smalltime gangsters enmeshed in the violence, death, and deadendedness of a grotto in the New York underworld. In AliceDoesn’t LiveHereAnymore he has peopled the screen with a warm little community of transient characters whose slightly better-known faces communicate a greater sense of familiarity. Long before Kris Kristofferson edges his way almost imperceptibly into the corner of a frame, we’ve already been treated to a number of vivid character portrayals and bit-part niceties including Billy Green Bush’s role as Alice’s first husband, Harvey Keitel’s as Ben, Harry Northup’s brief appearance as the gosh-and-golly yokel bartender in Joe and Jim’s Café, to name but a few. No one’s around for very long—just long enough—and of course transience is one of the things with which Alice is concerned, just as MeanStreets was preoccupied with identity, fear, and mortality.
“The Duel” is one of the most mysterious stories Joseph Conrad ever wrote. Ostensibly based in fact, it recounts the bizarre involvement of two career officers in Napoleon’s Grande Armée who, in the first year of the Little Corporal’s reign, become adversaries in a private quarrel no other man—and perhaps only one of the participants—understands.
Feraud, low-born, impetuous, wholly committed to his emperor and a relentless code of honor, consecrates his every energy to defending both. In battle a tiger, off the field of armies he moves from one duel, one test of strength, to another. D’Hubert is a career officer by aristocratic avocation; he meets both advancement and setback with an air of ironical amusement, an aesthete’s sense of form.
Their initial combat is forced upon D’Hubert. Almost accidentally, he emerges from it the victor, and sends his personal surgeon to tend Feraud’s wounds. Feraud demands a rematch, wounds D’Hubert this time, but refuses to call it even. To his annoyance and eventually his horror, D’Hubert realizes that the man intends to pursue the matter to the death.
And so it goes each time fate throws them together—for nearly two decades: from the cosmopolitan coziness of German billets to the icy retreat from Moscow; through the collapse of two Napoleonic regimes, to the dawn of what ought to be D’Hubert’s easy middle age as a country gentleman and doting husband.
This enigmatic tale, missing from most contemporary anthologies of Conrad’s work, provides the basis of an extraordinary film, The Duellists, written by Gerald Vaughn-Hughes and directed by Ridley Scott. It created a sensation at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival exactly one full year ago, but its American distributor has only now got round to releasing it. Indeed, they haven’t so much released it as absentmindedly permitted it to wander off on its own.
[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
Although the advertising works hard to suggest Mother, Jugs and Speedis “a black and blue comedy” in the tradition of M*A*S*H, the actual film bears little resemblance to Altman’s in the areas that count. It’s a cynical comedy and it deals with unsentimental souls on the periphery of the medical profession; there the resemblance ends. Peter Yates’ direction and the agreeable-enough performances come nowhere near the textural crossriffling of Altman’s movie, and the script’s gestures toward the acknowledgment of human pain in the world out there feel as if they’d been plotted on a graph, rather than simultaneously emerging from and validating the subterranean desperation of the characters’ lifestyle.