[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), December 14, 1977]
It’s getting harder and harder for a movie to just happen anymore. I’m not talking about the ways movies get made (although, to be sure, that’s become an extremely messy business), but the ways movies and audiences get together. In the absence of a vast public that simply “goes to the movies,” film-selling has become a matter of creating Events—Events that may or may not live up to the induced expectations but which in any, er, event have an uphill fight to stay alive and spontaneous. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is having a harder time than most. It’s a $20 million film that a lot of people are anxious to recover their money on. It’s a film in a genre, sci-fi, variously blessed and burdened with an enthusiastic/rabid following whose specialized requirements for satisfaction do not necessarily have much to do with a film’s being good as a film. It’s a film in a genre, moreover, that has recently given the cinema its Number One Box-Office Champ, Star Wars, and hence become newly embattled among critics and commentators who deplore the preeminence of “mindless,” two-dimensional, feel-good flicks on the top-grossing charts.
[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 24, July-August 1973]
That our final glimpse of John Dillinger should be out of focus is appropriate. Dillinger promised to be an exciting directorial debut for John Milius—promised especially hard in the first quarter of an hour—and the role of Dillinger himself presented Warren Oates with the perfect opportunity to etch one of the great characterizations of the American screen, as well as to win widespread recognition at long last. That Oates has failed to achieve either scarcely seems his fault since, whenever he is given screen time, he hovers on the verge of discovering a dangerous and original persona—and, it must be added, he looks historically perfect, unsettlingly so. But Dillinger and anyone else resembling a character are essentially lost sight of, except as gunmen and targets, from about the midpoint of the film onward—that is, starting with the Mason City, Iowa, massacre. The mayhem is powerfully filmed and individual shots are often vividly visualized, but Milius fails completely to give sequences or whole sections of the film any cohesion or sense of purpose beyond slam slam slam.
[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
“Hey look, it floats!” cries Duddy Kravitz, from the bathtub. Duddy’s fellow Jew and fellow admirer of the bathtub buoyancy phenomenon, the diffident Leopold Bloom, luxuriated in a fantasy of himself lying, at the end of the day, “laved in a womb of warmth,” gazing at his limp member—a “languid floating flower.” Duddy, antihero of the Canadian Film Development Corporation’s almost-$1-million gamble, the poor urban Jew as 19-year-old Pischer, simply grins at his girl and points at his Putz. Yet float he does, Canada’s crass Duddy, no less than classic Bloom; and although he’d probably be the last one in the world to appreciate it, arch-individualist that he is, what gets this screen incarnation of Mordecai Richler’s supercharged, driven young Montreal “comer” aloft immediately and keeps it there is … teamwork. The ApprenticeshipofDuddyKravitz is a movie full of brilliant things—sharp dialogue, “star” and ”cameo” performances, fluent camerawork, period accuracy—that don’t call attention to themselves. Credit for this, surely, goes to director Ted Kotcheff. With his editor, he establishes from the start exactly that brisk, behavioral rhythm best suited to Duddy’s galvanic personality and to the story of the Kravitz apprenticeship in ruthlessness. The crux of Richard Dreyfuss’s great title performance is the quick take. Kotcheff makes the camera very fast on the uptake, too; it’s as simple as that. The result: we get caught up, willynilly, in Duddy’s own metabolism. The instant Duddy picks up on something—a facial expression, a gesture, some remark that cuts both ways—we get a quick look at Dreyfuss’s face; we catch his hair-trigger response; and Kotcheff cuts away. More often than not, that ends the scene. Goddam! I caught him, he cheats at gin rummy, my dad—the shyster! Cut away. Oh, I get it: he’s pimping! A burst of delighted laughter; cut away. Ha! what he’s doing over there, he’s masturbating, the phony, that Irwin! These quick takes and cutaways express Duddy’s quicksilver native intelligence, and more: his appetite for life, and his capacity to be surprised—to learn.
[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]
Jaws begins with a chillingly realistic sequence of shots that are at the same time metaphysically portentous and eerily beautiful. The camera pans slowly across a group of college people singing and drinking around a beach campfire, cuts a fluid swath along a bluish twilight New England sand dune, eases into a placid sea behind a pretty girl, and follows her as she swims fatefully out over those murky depths where we all know what is waiting. As the girl splashes innocently against a postcard sunset, we cut to a couple of quick shots whose point of view is somewhere below the water, evilly hovering, gazing up at the girl’s form and the dusk sky which swims and shimmers above her like an out-of-focus image of another world. The underwater camera and the presence it represents move progressively closer, intercut with shots of the girl from the surface, until finally she gets this funny look on her face, bobs once or twice like a cork floater on a fishing line, and goes shooting through the water at shark speed. And then she’s gone. There’s this silence, this beautiful fading sunset, a few harmless waves lapping the beach….
[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
The recurrence of certain thematic ideas clues us to a consistency of vision at work in Steven Spielberg’s last three films. For one thing, all are “disaster films” in the sense that they deal with the revelation of character in time of stress. Each of the three films, in one way or another, treats of a battle to the death between a pursuer and a pursued, each respecting and fearing the other’s power. Most fascinating, though, is the fact that all three films deal in some significant way with people’s relationship to machines. (It comes as no surprise that Spielberg’s current work-in-progress, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is about human encounters with UFOs.) Even his earliest television work is marked by an interest in the struggle of the human against the Object. The second section of the Rod Serling trilogy Night Gallery(1969) starred Joan Crawford as an art collector who arranges for an eye transplant, and awakes from the operation just in time for a New York power blackout, with frantic results. A more mature made-for-TV feature, Something Evil(1970), pitted Sandy Dennis against a houseful of poltergeists. But it was with Duel(1972) that Spielberg first dealt specifically with that curiously American simultaneous dependence upon and fear of machines.
Richard Matheson’s script for Duel is a vertiginous plunge into the American collective unconscious, with an enormous, wheezing tank truck metamorphosed into a contemporary dragon that irrationally menaces the allegorically surnamed hero, David Mann. His first name is as apt as his surname: the fact that the driver of the truck remains unseen turns the truck itself into a giant Philistine enemy opposing this modern David. Spielberg presents the truck to us not from the point-of-view of Mann’s eyes, but from a fragile point deep inside the mind of the threatened salesman. In closeup, the truck is always overpoweringly huge; in middle- and longshot its size is emphasized by comparison with Mann’s car, making the truck more than ever an insatiable monster bent on gobbling up helpless prey.
The metaphoric impact of all this is heightened by the fact that Mann has chosen to drive this winding, hilly country road to avoid freeway traffic. Inhis life’s journey he has strayed—but willingly—fromthe Dantean true path, and found himself confronted by a ravening beast. The snake, too, that most allegorical of creatures, makes its appearance in one of the film’s most interesting scenes, Mann’s stop at a garage that, in the tradition of Cable Hogue’s “Cable Springs” stagecoach stop, offers an exhibit of snakes as a roadside attraction. Interestingly, the snake sequence comes just after an incident in which the truck has nearly forced Mann into the path of a train at a crossing, and precedes the climactic sequence in which a radiator hose gives out and spews steam about as Mann’s car grinds to a halt on a steep grade. Whether this is an intentional proliferation of phallic symbolism or merely a sequence of variations on shape, Spielberg’s emphatic treatment of the images demonstrates his awareness of the coincidence.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
As everyone must know by now, the title of Steven Spielberg’s science-fiction extravaganza refers to an actual meeting with an extraterrestrial visitant; or, as the advertising more directly puts it, “contact.” “Contact” is very much what the movie is all about. No film since 2001: A Space Odysseyhas applied E.M. Forster’s “Only connect” dictum so spectacularly. Explanations are unimportant, but understanding, intuitive and visceral, is paramount. Like 2001, Close Encounters is a stunning visual experience (both films feature the dazzling work of special effects man Douglas Trumbull, who also directed the excellent SilentRunningin 1972); if it’s intellectually less profound, it has a more direct appeal to the emotions, and whether or not it’s in the same league as Kubrick’s masterpiece couldn’t concern me less. In other words, it’s good enough, for all Kubrick’s obvious influence on it, to stand on its own as a classic of the science-fiction genre, and also outside any genre considerations. And there aren’t many s-f films you can say that about.
Rumour has it that Spielberg planned to end the film by using “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the hit song from Disney’s cartoon Pinocchio,as the tune behind the closing credits.* It’s as well he didn’t; that would be spelling things out, which the film elsewhere avoids admirably, and also a touch twee. But it gives a hint of one of the film’s main aspects. It’s a magical movie, a film that exults in the potency of cinema, in the type of experience you can get only from a film, in the tools whereby a filmmaker can excite, entice and provoke his audience. And thus it becomes a film about films, and also about filmmaking. One of Spielberg’s leading actors (taking, indeed, nearly all the acting honours going) is François Truffaut, the artist as actor as critic, the man who not only came up with the longest-ever Hitchcock interview, but also once suggested that Howard Hawks’s big-game-catcher movie Hatari!was secretly an essay on the topic of filmmaking. A similar interpretation of Close Encounters holds a lot of water. When, at the film’s climax, Truffaut marshals enormous human and technical resources, shouting “Plus vite!” and “Allez!” whilst striding to and fro and waving his arms, he is, to all intents and purposes, a director controlling a set, the biggest in film history.