Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

“…[W]e are afflicted with a secret police of a sort which I do not think a democratic republic ought to support. In theory, the FBI is necessary. For the investigation of crime. But in all the years that the FBI has been in existence, the major criminals – the Mafia, the Cosa Nostra – have operated freely and happily … the FBI has not shown much interest in big crime. Its time has been devoted to spying on Americans whose political beliefs did not please the late J. Edgar Hoover, a man who hated Commies, blacks and women in more or less that order.” Thus Gore Vidal (in Matters of Fact and of Fiction); thus, too, Larry Cohen, whose biopic of “America’s top cop” delivers a kick to the bureaucratic teeth with such uninhibited zest that as much exhilaration rubs off on the audience as outraged wrath.

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Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: American Gigolo

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Here’s the problem: (1) American Gigolo has just garnered a set of bad reviews of a kind that tell much more about reviewers, their blind spots and complacent assumptions, than they do about the movie. One would love to rub their professional faces in it, except that (2) American Gigolo is not a good movie, no matter that it’s a different kind of ungood movie than they suggested. Your basic consumer-reports journalist watches the bad guy open a window high above L.A. just before contemptuously dismissing the hero, and advises his readership that this is a very bad movie because the bad man is so obviously set up to fall to his well-deserved death. Basic c.-r. type has not noticed, save perhaps as a bewildering distraction, that most of the setups and movements in the film have involved people making pilgrimages from one frame-within-a-frame zone to another (against or outside windows, in or adjacent to doorways, against bookshelves, in cars, on beds; moreover, most of the time slashed, crisscrossed, and/or boxed by bold shadows). That another such frame-within-a-frame should figure so prominently, even flout plausibility, at such a crucial juncture in the narrative pilgrimage is—far from being a weakness—essential to the film’s design.

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Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: The Wanderers

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

One of the most affecting moments in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the swamping of the soundtrack with an amplified-bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace” as the remaining human searched the night world for a means of escape. The cargo ship whose radio is the source of the music turns out to be loading up with pods, and as the hero sees this and the door is shut on his hopes of a getaway, the radio dial is turned from “Grace” to a newscaster’s flat voice. This scene is dramatically different from the counterpart sequence in Don Siegel’s original Body Snatchers: there the hero heard some Spanish singing, had his hopes raised that he was among feeling humans again, excitedly climbed over a hill to meet them—and discovered simultaneously that these are pod people and that that’s only a radio, not a woman singing, as the station is abruptly changed. The difference between the two versions is that Kaufman does not pretend that the music is anything but artificial, while Siegel surehandedly goes after the shock we feel when the station is switched; Kaufman seems interested in the mythic proportions of the music itself (the lyrics of the hymn, not sung but surely known by 75 percent of the audience, comment suggestively on the organized, sheeplike groups of pods: “I once was lost, but now I’m found—was blind, but now I see”), especially as they are set against the tiny visual representation of the hero. All of which finally comes around to the observation that this guy Kaufman can put music and images together real well, and that his latest film, The Wanderers, displays this talent for much of its running time.

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Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: 10

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Blake Edwards’s new film is really the oldest story in the world, done up with refreshing wit and literacy and the slightest touch of softcore porn. 10 is a balanced and honest look at romantic love and the sexual world of the artist as a prematurely middle-aged man. As he turns 42, two crucial events befall song composer George Webber: the sweating-out of a brilliant new song, and the torturous collision between youthful sexual fantasy and a more settled midlife adulthood, into which George does not go gentle. George’s sweetheart, Samantha Taylor, is the still point of the film, to which he is continually drawn despite his efforts to pull away toward the self-indulgent freedom of his fantasies. As Samantha, Julie Andrews is at her most controlled and engaging—looking, in fact, pretty and sexy enough for one to resent the film’s reputation as a vehicle for Bo Derek. It’s a tribute, among other things, to Edwards’s wife, and a richly deserved one. And appropriately, there is more than a little Blake Edwards in George Webber. Dudley Moore plays him something like the type of bungling would-be romancer that Peter Sellers used to play in films like Only Two Can Play before he became a permanent Clouseau: a basically intelligent, stylish, graceful sort whose smallest action seems capable of setting off a chain reaction of disasters, mounting to catastrophic proportions. Whether dribbling coffee through a novocaine-frozen jaw, tumbling down a bluff behind his house, driving head-on into a police car, or knocking himself headlong into his own swimming pool, Moore is always up to the task, and his George Webber is sensitively drawn as the constant victim of a comedy of pain.

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Posted in: Film Reviews, Musicals

Review: Quadrophenia

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The movie starts out with a pretty good indication of what it’s going to be made of: A young man stares out over the golden ocean towards the sun, then turns and walks toward the camera, his silhouette remaining in the streak of sun on the waves. The camera tilts slightly so the sun is in the middle of the frame, and we cut suddenly to the front headlight of a motor scooter, charging forward at the reeling camera and driven by the same young man. Energy: that’s what Quadrophenia is about and what it is made up of. The characters in the story, British kids in the early-to-mid-Sixties, pour their energies into pills, violence, and sex, and into the collective search for self that found its expression in being part of a group—in this case, either of two extremist music factions: the rockers (getting behind Gene Vincent and traditional rock’n’roll) or the mods (The Who and the Kinks). We focus on one denizen of this world, a boy, Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels), who finds a more important family within the mods than he does at home, and who is happiest when popping blues and starting fights. Director Franc Roddam manages to make Jimmy a sympathetic character as we examine his isolation amid the spurious togetherness of the mods, and his search for identity. Yet unlike the James Dean character in Rebel without a Cause (which this film echoes occasionally), Jimmy doesn’t always seem to be aware of his own pathetic state. If he were a little more detached from his situation, we would at least have the feeling that there was a chance he’d break out of it. A shot of Jimmy sitting on his scooter, as we see his face reflected from four different angles in the rearview mirrors surrounding him, sums up his fragmentation: different sides, no center. His parents, who cannot understand (his father asks him “Who do yer think y’are, anyway?”—and Jimmy honestly does not know); the advertising agency for which he works, which manufactures images of phony-pretty reality; and his group, with their desperate/exultant dance after a riot, chanting “We are the mods!” repeatedly—they are all, as Rebel’s Jim had it, “tearing him apart.”

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Posted in: Uncategorized

Bertolucci’s ‘Luna’: The Surrealist’s Stratagem

By Peter Hogue and Marion Bronson

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Luna is just a word, a magic word, by means of which everyone can project his or her own dream. The moon, of course, is a very rich symbol, but the only reference to it Id accept is the simplest one: just as the moon has two faces, so every character and situation in the film has two facesthat which appears and that which is hidden.
—Bernardo Bertolucci in Sight and Sound

Luna is, in a very important sense, a surrealist film which makes use of the stylistic possibilities opened up by Buñuel in the 1960s. Belle de jour, for example, used a basically realistic mise-en-scène for all of its sequences: dreams, fantasies, and flashbacks were permitted to exist on the same plane with everyday experience; no perceptual reality, no level of experience, was treated as more (or less) real than any other. Advancing the surrealist attack on the conventional distinction between dream and reality, Buñuel demonstrated that matter-of-fact realism is much more appropriate than expressionistic exaggeration in presenting the basic validity of surrealist perception.

The stuff of dreams
The stuff of dreams

Luna, in turn, might be viewed as a seamless blend of realistic narrative and surrealist psychology. In Belle de jour, one can still deduce that some scenes are dreams and others are not—though the film’s stylistics render this process comparatively irrelevant. But in Luna, Bertolucci extends this ploy even further: no scene is clearly marked as a fantasy or dream, and none is entirely free of the irrational associations and impulse that we customarily link with the world of dreams. With or without the director’s public statements about the film’s conception springing from his own dreams and memories, Luna‘s events are simultaneously the stuff of dreams and the stuff of realistic drama.

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Posted in: Film Reviews

Out of the Past: Skidoo

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Otto Preminger’s stabs at comedy are few, and none got more lethal notices than this one. The public stayed away and even Preminger’s customary apologists avoided it. Gerald Pratley’s book on the director doesn’t actually make much of a case for it, just hints that the film is, you know, not really all that, well, bad, not really. The only person I know of who’ll concede that the film generates a certain amount of interest is Jonathan Rosenbaum, a critic who, for all his insight and scholarship, has not infrequently sent me clambering up the nearest wall. So when I saw the film recently, it was a surprise when it turned out to be an enjoyable curiosity.

It’s not exactly hilarious, I grant you; it fascinates rather than convulses. The screenwriter of record is Doran William Cannon, later of the even more bizarre, but absolutely splendid, Brewster McCloud. That film was, we have since learned, rewritten top-to-tail by the uncredited Brian McKay and, according to Pratley, this one had some last-minute rewrites from Elliot Baker, author of the highly enjoyable novel A Fine Madness and a few less enjoyable films. Cannon doesn’t seem to have much luck. The only other movie I know him to have worked on is one I haven’t seen, an odd-sounding 1973 item called Hex, from a story by Cannon and Vernon Zimmerman (director of The Unholy Rollers). It could be, quite simply, that Cannon is a terrible writer who occasionally has grabby ideas. Certainly Skidoo is far more intriguing on a level of mise-en-scene than on levels of dialogue, jokes or plot. But Preminger’s direction is pretty interesting and also uncharacteristically flamboyant. As a result, I prefer this weirdo movie, for all its clear faults, to other, generally more-discussed Preminger efforts; amongst his critical flops, it’s less interesting than the excellent Saint Joan, but ahead of The Human Factor or Hurry Sundown or The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell. I also prefer it to at least one of his critical successes, the initially absorbing but finally very disappointing Bunny Lake Is Missing.

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Posted in: Essays

Limeys in Lotusland: “The Loved One” Reappraised

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Shortly after World War II there occurred a meeting as potent, in its own way, as the confrontation of Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man: Evelyn Waugh went Hollywood. M-G-M had purchased the film rights to Brideshead Revisited and its eccentric author had a tedious time arguing with producer Leon Gordon and writer James Kevin McGuinness as to how it should be filmed. In the end, everyone gave it up as a bad job, the movie went unmade, and Waugh returned to Somerset. But the stopover in Tinseltown had one major by-product, which appeared in 1948: Waugh’s short, scathing novel about Los Angeles, its weird ways, and in particular its burial habits: The Loved One.

As the book accumulated celebrity, Hollywood forgave and forgot in its usual way, and snapped it up for filming. Waugh himself at one time had plans to work on a film version with his friend Alec Guinness (England’s only major international film star of the time) playing Dennis Barlow, the not-very-innocent abroad who is the novel’s central character. It was also a pet project of Luis Buñuel’s (ah, what might have been!), but, despite these eminences, a film never seemed to get made.

The Loved One
The Loved One

Finally, in 1964 or thereabouts, Metro and Filmways put together what must have seemed a classic example of the great Hollywood artform, the deal. The director signed for the film was the then exceptionally hot Tony Richardson, fresh from the $40 million grossed first time round by Tom Jones (which had been forecast throughout the industry as a certain money-loser, even on its slender budget) and from the Oscar ceremonies. Inked instantly as screenwriter was the Bad Boy of American letters, the outrageous humorist Terry Southern, who was also hot as a result of co-scripting Dr. Strangelove, a significant breakthrough in terms of black or bad-taste humour.

They could do no wrong. Richardson demanded and, unusually for those days, got final cut privileges. He refused to film in a studio, although bits of Culver City turned up as location. He went a million or more over the already sizeable budget. Stars came and went. Christopher Isherwood, like Dennis Barlow a minor English writer who’d come to California (and stayed), came in to do extra scripting – an ominous sign, as he was unlikely to have forgiven Waugh for caricaturing him so contemptuously in his 1942 novel Put Out More Flags. Martin Ransohoff, of Filmways, and Robert H. O’Brien, of M-G-M, got nervous, only to find themselves in the ignominious position of being barred from the film. Richardson wouldn’t even let them see the rushes. They offered to buy him out, as they couldn’t get him on his contract. He, brimming over with cheek, offered to buy them out. Now, no one, not even a foreign Oscar-winner, can do that to a studio head and get away with it unless he can be absolutely certain of delivering the goods and making big bucks on top. Here the English flyboy came unstuck; and it is not unreasonable to say that he has been unstuck ever since. The Loved One was perhaps no end of fun as a play-with whilst the filmic ball was rolling. But when it came to hammering the rushes into some sort of final shape, the limey wunderkind found himself with an inchoate mass of celluloid. With observable difficulty, he and three editors finally turned it into an exhibitable movie (opening in the U.S. late in 1965), only to find it widely hated. The public did not come, and it cannot be said that M-G-M was in any way keen to persuade them to.

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