[originally published in The Weekly, March 26, 1986]
“When I wrote the script it was never as exotic. It was more a straightforward kind of movie. Which it still is. It just takes longer to get straight.”
That’s Alan Rudolph talking about his movie TroubleinMind, which he wrote “with Seattle in mind” and shot here a year ago this month. How well you take to its exoticism and how patiently you wait for the straightforwardness to assert itself will depend on your tolerance of, or enthusiasm for, Rudolph’s highly stylized brand of filmmaking. I happen to consider him one of the most dynamic, and certainly most distinctive, of modern American filmmakers, and find that his latest feature combines the haunt and vibrancy of ChooseMe with the fleetness and wit of Songwriter. That opinion may be disputed. What no one will dispute is that TroubleinMind makes more exciting use of Seattle as a movie location than any other film ever shot here.
[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]
During one phase of their rising-and-falling marriage Susan Anspach says to George Segal, “We’re always putting somebody down.” One of the conspicuously consistent things about Paul Mazursky’s three films as a director—BobandCarol andTedandAlice, Alexin Wonderland, BlumeinLove—is that he doesn’t put anybody down. The frantic chicness of the assumed lifestyles in B&C&T&A was the source of many laughs, but there was a winning innocence about the whole enterprise, on the characters’ part and on Mazursky’s, that saved the film from the sterile socioaesthetic oneupmanship that claims most endeavors in that risky genre. It was the director’s innocence that sustained Alex in Wonderland even amid the protracted, slavish, unimaginative gaucherie of those sub-Fellini pastiches and stillborn “Hooray for Hollywood” highjinks. And the colors of innocence and naïveté continue to fly in his latest film, and they help make Blume in Love a distinct pleasure to behold and share.
[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.
“Do I have any lines? I don’t want any lines. How about I do nothing? How about silence?”
Harry Dean Stanton, the veteran character actor with (by his own count) over 250 film appearances to his credit, would rather not talk about himself. Or about his family, his life, his career, or the craft of acting. Which makes him a curious subject for a documentary. Director Sophie Huber follows him around Los Angeles, films him hanging out at his favorite L.A. bar, Dan Tana’s, where he’s known the bartender for more than 40 years, and shoots him in his home singing folk songs and standards between sessions trying to get the actor to open up.
“How would you describe yourself?” asks friend and frequent director David Lynch. “There is no self,” he answers, his craggy, lined face maintaining a nearly unreadable stoniness. “How would you like to be remembered?” “Doesn’t matter.” He’s not simply an actor with nothing to prove. He’s a private man who prefers to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself and a few chosen friends. Stanton opens up a little over coffee and cigarettes with Lynch, who makes a game of lobbing questions from a card provided by Huber and then spins off in remembrances of their long history together, and he eases into reminiscing with Kris Kristofferson, who credits Stanton for his first film role in Cisco Pike and then launches into his iconic song “The Pilgrim”: “He’s a poet, he’s a picker. He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher. He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned.” Stanton was one of the inspirations for those lyrics, according to Kristofferson, along with a few others, and the two start checking off all those early seventies characters who fit the bill.
[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
If George Armitage has any consciousness of the existence of film critics and their predilection for creating cult figures, he’s doubtlessly waiting for some little-magazine commentator who hasn’t turned over a rock lately to hail him as an “American primitive.” His credentials? A storyline so incredible a generous soul might mistake it for zany. Characters that beg to be taken at face value as stereotypes but don’t make sense even that way. Comic-strip pretensions toward social consciousness. A shooting style so crude and undisciplined it must express a boundless dynamism (incompetence is unthinkable). You’ve-got-to-be-kidding images like the hero’s daughter, dressed in Uncle Sam costume, running to embrace Daddy after the successful conclusion of the final purgative shootout. Etc.
The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle (Tribeca)
The feature debut of award winning short film director David Russo begins as a journey through the strange life of late-night janitors and ends up a very different kind of odyssey. Marshall Allman is the cubicle monkey Dory, a “Data Meister” who flips out at work and ends up with a janitorial service that cleans up after a market research firm working on an experimental (and, it turns out, highly-addictive) “self-heating cookie.” Given that the cleaners like to sample the goodies left out in the offices, they make perfect test subjects: oblivious, unwitting and unlikely to sue.
The side-effects of these chemical-laced snacks are unusual to say the least, at least for the men: cramps, cravings, hallucination and finally giving birth to a living creature. Really: they poop out a little blue fish-like creature. It sounds funny and much of the time it is—Russo has a grand time with this misfit community of night-workers and much of the humor of their work and their social fun and games is drawn from his own years as an after-hours janitor. Plus it delivers one of the great lines of the year, spoken as a couple of janitors peer over what they assume is a weird blue poop left in a toilet: “You guys name your dumps?” “The great ones name themselves.” But when those men face the life that came out of their body, flipping and squirming and gasping for life before expiring, the primal force of those unformed, confused emotions—helplessness, loss, the primitive biological imperative to protect this thing, as alien as it is, that came from their body—is terribly touching.
Russo hasn’t quite mastered narrative but his compassion for the characters is genuine and the spiritual hunger of these dropouts flailing around for meaning and direction—Dory sampling his way through the faiths of the world, trying each on like a new suit and seeing how it fits, and alpha janitor O.C. (Vince Vieluf ) turning his work into outsider art—has an authenticity to it. And then there is the deliriously imaginative imagery created largely by Russo in the distinctive, largely hand-made animation style of his shorts. Even when they create their own little film within the film, like the pixilated swim of the fish from the barroom painting through Dory’s chemical-addled consciousness, they are less special effects than dreamy side-trips through experiences we don’t usually get in indie features. Russo doesn’t strive for verisimilitude or realism, he embraces the unreality of their break with the real world. The fishes, however, are both real and unreal, glowing and hyper-present, natural and unnatural, flopping around like a desperate creature trying to escape a terrifying situation, as vivid and organic as Lynch’s Eraserhead baby.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August, 1978]
Convoycontinues Peckinpah’s voyage into “nihilist poetry,” in the phrase of Pauline Kael, which began to be dreamily insistent in The Killer Elite and became the whole show in Cross of Iron. At a glance, the new film looks closer to conventional narrative than that Yugoslav-based war picture, filmed in a nightmare neverneverland of green mud and orange blossoms of flame, with nary a Bo Hopkins or L.Q. Jones among Sgt. Steyner’s Teutonic Wild Bunch to certify the place as home. Convoyrumbles down a linear track in the modern American Southwest, accommodating a couple of days’ time in the lives of legendary badass trucker Rubber Ducky (Kris Kristofferson) and an ever-increasing number of his confreres, gathering initial impetus from a run-in with a trucker-hating, dirty-tricks-playing sheriff (Ernest Borgnine), and escalating through a series of deliriously ill-advised acts of rebellion that virtually compel the retributive/destructive force of The Law to come down on the vagabond heroesâ€”these “modern cowboys,” as both a fatuous politician and the logic of Peckinpah’s own career would have it. Rubber Duck and some half-dozen good buddies, barreling toward the state line, gradually find themselves the vanguard of a vast caravan and the focus of a boundless populist movement whereby all sorts of abused “little punks” (Frank Capra’s phrase this time) get to sound off about everything from Nam and Watergate to the infamous “double nickel” national speed limit, which restricts private-enterprise commerce and just plain interferes with a fella going down his own road (cf. Jr. Bonner)at his own good time. The poetry comes in less through the occasional overlap ballet of trucks amid backlighted dust clouds—a rather film-student-y idea carried off no better than the average film student might–than in the bemusement with which Peckinpah piles on the improbabilities. Finally, Rubber Ducky and cohorts are no more driving through a real piece of the American Southwest than Sgt. Steyner and his platoon were walking through a documentary version of the Second World War on the Russian front.
[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 17 Number 1, January/February 1981]
“Ah know you. You’re the guy in the hole.”
—Gold Hat to Fred C. Dobbs, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Toward the end of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, just before his self-shattering execution of Kris Kristofferson’s Billy, James Coburn as Pat Garrett stops to exchange a few words with a coffinmaker, mysteriously at work in the gathering dusk. Addressed as Will, this artisan declines the offer of a comradely drink, then leans over his handiwork and says, “So you finally figured it out?” The speaker is Sam Peckinpah, and he seems to have something more in mind than Garrett’s determining that his quarry can be found within the adobe walls of Fort Sumner.
The effect of this apparition and query is disorienting, to say the least. Scarcely the artist off paring his nails in the wings, Peckinpah, instigator of this and so many other desperate quests for self-definition, materializes in the midst of mythic action as if to ascertain the degree of enlightenment his own imaginative creation has achieved. He even provides his principal player with a last rueful cue for action: “Ya better get it over with. ”
That’s all one hears in the theatrical release prints of the film: this dark, broody, heartbreakingly beautiful movie was to become, at the hands of MGM president James Aubrey, one of the most mangled works in Peckinpah’s much-mangled oeuvre. For whatever reason, network-TV prints of the picture include some reinstated scenes and parts of scenes (while lacking, of course, much of the R-rated material on Panavision view in theaters). On TV, the two foregoing remarks form part of a longer speech. Over the child’s coffin he is working on, the grizzled framer of death-as-apotheosis announces his own projected itinerary even as his latest stellar surrogate approaches the end of his particular road: “Know what I’m gonna do? Put everything I own right here [in the coffin], bury it, and leave the territory.” And then: “When are you gonna learn you can’t trust anybodyâ€”not even yourself, Garrett?”
[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kidvies with The Ballad of Cable Hogueas Sam Peckinpah’s most personal film. Not that Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Junior Bonner, The Getaway,or even that compromised early project The Deadly Companionscould have been made by any other man. But those films at least flirt with conventional notions of how movies are built, notions derived from viewing other men’s work. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kidis thoroughly perverse in conception and realization—and in its refusal (several people have remarked it independently) to get out of one’s skull the day after one has seen it, and the day after that. It is not my intention, here, to do much more than to record my astonishment, admiration, and awe, and (since it has been graced by a particularly contemptible, willfully misrepresentative review in the local evening paper) to urge anyone who cares for movies to see the picture at the earliest opportunity. M-G-M hasn’t so much released the film as set it outside the company vault and wait to see whether some passerby notices; it opened locally at two drive-ins and a plaza twin in Bellevue. Impatient moviegoers are warned: aside from the generally known fact that Sheriff Pat Garrett was somehow involved in the death of William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid, the viewer has nothing to go on but his faith in the eventual emergence of a narrative; characters appear, seem to be known to the other characters, are not pointedly introduced or given time to develop the sort of identity we normally expect from a motion picture inhabitant, and may in fact die before we’re clear on who they were or why they appeared in the first place (though often we learn much more about them later, from the effect their absence has). Violence-baiters are also admonished: this is possibly Peckinpah’s bloodiest film, certainly the most carcass-strewn since The Wild Bunch;virtually every sequence is built around a killing, usually more than one.