[Originally written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
The revolution will not be televised, but if John Waters has his way it may play at a theater near you.
A spoof of independent filmmaking at its most absurdly radical (and contradictory) fringe, Cecil B. Demented affectionately lampoons both Hollywood and guerrilla cinema in a bizarre revision of the Patty Hearst story. Shrill, bitchy Hollywood screen queen Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith, whose kewpie doll voice and aging baby face are right at home) is kidnapped by shaggy bottle-blonde would-be auteur Cecil (Stephen Dorff) and his slogan-spouting crew of cinema outlaws “The Sprocket Holes,” a combination guerrilla cell, filmmaking collective, and cinema cult.
[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]
Films dealing with crises of identity, as opposed to celebrations of identity, in films by Peckinpah and perhaps Mazursky, are beginning to come out with a frequency that reflects a genuine urge to explore the phenomenon of contemporary selfconsciousness. Karel Reisz’ confused but curiously honest TheGambler, Coppola’s TheConversation, and, most recently, Antonioni’s ThePassenger all deal with people who end up with no clearly delineated ideas about just who they might (or might not) be, even after looking at and for themselves in a variety of existential nooks and crannies throughout the films. Gene Hackman, who also starred in Coppola’s movie about a paranoid wiretapper, is now the self-searching protagonist of Arthur Penn’s Night Moves—a fittingly equivocal title for a film in which the potential dynamism of an action genre is suppressed to the level of creeping lethargy, while the metaphor of motion remains valid in terms of the shifting currents of personality and identity with which Penn is chiefly preoccupied. Hackman informs the movie with a bleak sense of non-heroism as a private eye who handles divorce cases, a man who distances himself from life by assuming a disinterested, often bitterly cynical point of view, prying out a1l the answers (it seems) while missing the meaning, until finally there is no discernible meaning, just a lot of dead or almost dead people swirling in the washed-out glare of an overexposed sea.
[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
First Artists’ logo appears at the beginning of TheDrowningPool, and the first artist to think about most of the way through the film is Paul Newman, for whom the production has been conspicuously tailored even if the cut is ultimately unflattering. Newman scored a hit with—and by his own testimony “had a ball” making—Harper, the 1966 retooling of an early Lew Archer book (TheMovingTarget). If director Jack Smight and screenwriter William Goldman observably strained to maintain an illusion of wry deftness, they were still clever and remained rather ingratiating about the whole thing; and Newman, cracking wise with just the right degree of collegiate selfconsciousness, seemed like a dream older-brother. Newman is almost a decade older now and his Lew Harper has moved cinemagenically closer to the Lew Archer of later Ross Macdonald novels (although TheDrowning Pool happens to be an early one). As Harper brought onscreen a divorced wife who was only mentioned in the novels, TheDrowningPool has been adjusted so that the lady who calls the private eye to come to her assistance in Louisiana bayou country (a location change from the Southern California of the books, doubtlessly for the sake of fresh scenic resources) is the same slightly fading flower who shared a cozy week with him while vacationing in his territory some years earlier. Aside from permitting the husband-and-wife team of Newman-Woodward a screen relationship more satisfying to their fans, and lending new kinkiness to the play the lady’s adolescent daughter makes for Harper, the alteration serves no good purpose.
[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]
The bilious purple lettering of the credits prepares us for Conrad Hall’s photographic style through the first half or so of Smile: motion aside, everything appears as it might in a drugstore-developed roll of Kodacolor snapped on a picnic. Smile takes us to Santa Rosa, California—cinematically immortalized as the iconographically ideal American smalltown in Hitchcock’s Shadowof a Doubt (1943)—and plunges us eyeball-deep into American camp, several strata below kitsch. The Young American Miss beauty pageant, or rather the sub-pageant designed to yield a contender to represent the state of California, is tooling up. Bruce Dern, as a used-car and trailer dealer known to one and all by the loaded moniker “Big Bob” Freedlander, is deeply touched to learn that Barbara Feldon, a one-time Young American Miss now in charge of marshalling the girls, has provided a special gold nametag for him as head judge. His ole buddy—and Feldon’s hubby Nicholas Pryor—is less than enchanted with her nonstop pageant trip, which condemns him to evenings of TV dinners and booze, and with the initiatory ordeal approaching him: on the eve of turning 35, he must kiss a dead chicken’s ass while his brother, over-the-hill business pals cheer.
Brian De Palma makes movies about the movie experience. He takes great pleasure in playing with the artificiality of movies, with audience expectations and the way we identify with characters, with the idea of playing parts and giving performances. Body Double, like many of his films, even begins with a movie within the movie, in this case a cheesy vampire flick by way of an eighties rock video. The film open in saturated giallo color and hokey old clichés like the graveyard with headstones and crosses and howling wolves on the soundtrack. As the camera cranes down through the earth and into a vampire’s coffin, the permed bloodsucker awake in the casket freezes: the actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) is claustrophobic. The take is halted and Jake is sent home but as far as De Palma is concerned we’re still in a movie; every shot of Jake is against some artificial backdrop or set piece being moved across the studio lot. It’s Scully in De Palma-land, and that’s just the beginning.
Jake is a born patsy, the meek, trusting nice guy with performance anxiety and a potentially fatal weakness in crippling claustrophobia. Returning home early, flowers in hand for his girlfriend, he hears the sounds of heavy breathing and moaning as he strolls through his house but his expression is merely quizzical, a dazed smile and a cocked head, as if he was pondering what the neighbors could possibly be up to as he approaches the bedroom. Apparently his girl (Stuart Gordon favorite Barbara Crampton in a brief but revealing appearance) found someone less reserved. Betrayed and rejected, he flees, and counts himself lucky when he runs into a guy in acting class with a sublet that is too good to be true. This space age bachelor pad, which resembles a mini-Space Needle or a flying saucer on stilts, is a real-life Los Angeles landmark called the Chemosphere and it has a direct view into the open window of an exhibitionist beauty who performs a strip tease every night to her unseen audience. A telescope is helpfully positioned for optimal viewing.