Like most movies, Autumn in New York has a way of stating its themes in dialogue, so we don’t miss the point. In one scene, hip restaurateur Richard Gere asks his best buddy why he should continue a relationship with a much younger woman with a serious illness. The buddy, played by Anthony LaPaglia, shrugs in the down-to-earth way of movie best buddies and says, “Maybe it makes a sad girl happy and a desperate guy think.”
There are two parts to the title Dr. T and the Women. Let’s take each part separately.
The women are the ladies in the orbit of Dr. Sully Travis, a Dallas gynecologist. Dr. T has a wife (Farrah Fawcett) who is quietly losing her mind, a sister-in-law (Laura Dern) with Ivana Trump inclinations, and two daughters. The elder daughter (Kate Hudson, of Almost Famous), a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, is about to get married, causing much hullabaloo; the younger daughter (Tara Reid, from American Pie) gives tours of the JFK assassination plaza, and sees conspiracies wherever she looks. A golf pro (Helen Hunt) at Dr. T’s country club also figures in his life, as a possible new direction for his emotional energy.
[originally published in The Weekly, February 5, 1986]
I saw a movie the other day and (you probably aren’t going to believe this, but hear me out) it said that politicians can be confected and marketed just like any other commodity. It seems that when we, as citizens of a democracy, bear witness to a political campaign, we aren’t necessarily being given a fair chance to make an informed judgment about the values, or even the authentic personal identities, of the candidates. The campaigns are, to a large extent, managed events, smokescreens, projections of cosmetic fictions designed and orchestrated by behind-the-scenes consultants called (pardon me while I check my notes here) media wizards. These highly paid people conduct a kind of advertising war in which the consumer/voter is persuaded to prefer Brand X to Brand Y largely on the basis of images—unflattering images of Brand Y, heroic images of Brand X—that don’t always correspond to the candidates’ realities or have much to do with the kind of job each candidate wants to do and would do upon achieving elective office. Moreover, these media wizards may not care whether Candidate X or Y will be good for the country, state, or whatever. They may even have been hired by (where did I put those notes again?) special interests looking to protect some business that could be affected by government policy and legislation. Theirs is a dirty job, such consultants may admit, but it is a job: “As long as our candidate polls 39 percent or better, it makes us look good.” Talk about cynicism! (Yeah, I knew you wouldn’t believe it.)
Power is an overweeningly silly movie that seems to have been made for, if not by, residents of one of the moons of Saturn. No one else, certainly no one who has come in contact with the American political process in the past several decades, would regard the appalled revelations of this motion picture as news. They’re still less likely to find it entertaining.
How did I get here? By what pixilated logic do find myself in the position of defending Francis Coppola’s The Cotton Club?
For years I’ve been pointing derisively at F.F. Crapola as a totem of pseudo-style who plunders the inspiration of better artists, and confuses art with state-of-the-art—seeking to make depth and resonance a function of how many layers he can mix on a soundtrack, how seamlessly he can bleed images together by adapting video technology to the cinema. I inveighed against reviewers who hailed the phantasmagorical bombast of ApocalypseNow as “visual power,” the chi-chi poster art of the Coppola-produced The BlackStallion as “visual poetry.” I complained that even in TheConversation (surely one of Coppola’s most respectable efforts), the central ambiguity was not only, in the last analysis, a cheat, but ambiguity by the numbers (“I could have shot this scene all these different ways” instead of “I shot it right the first time and locked everything in”). I likened the director to his sound-surveillance protagonist in that movie, who was capable of emotional involvement only with the phantoms evoked through his ultra-sophisticated sound system. And about the time One fromtheHeart emerged ice-cold from the dead air of Zoetrope Studios, most of the press had come to feel the same way.
It’s hard not to see the Zoetrope years as so much wandering in the wilderness of Coppola’s own studio “vineyard.” The best films to wear the Zoetrope logo have borne it as a letter of transit rather than a stamp of manufacture: Jean-Luc Godard’s Sauvequipeut/LaVie, Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, Phillip Borsos’ TheGrey Fox, the Kevin Brownlow reconstruction of Napoleon.
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
I was going to put Looking for Mr. Goodbaron my end-of-the-year list as “Best Film of 1967.” But although Richard Brooks’ self-consciously flashy techniques are at least that dated, I think even a decade ago his shallow, cheating approach to both subject and audience would have been seen for what it is. Several times in the course of the film, Brooks segues his narrative line into a surprising but dead-end sequence thatâ€”after a shock-cut back to realityâ€”proves to have been a fantasy of the main character, Terry Dunn. The first couple of times this happens, the audience has no basis for regarding the sequence as fantasy, since Terry is never portrayed as a woman who can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy. Even later, the audience picks up on the cutaways to fantasy only because by now it is on to Brooks’s tricks. Never does the device have any integral bearing on the film’s theme or style.
[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven seems made for Dolby stereo, in the way that certain films were made for Cinerama and not just in Cinerama. I was immediately struck by the film’s showy, deliberately unrealistic use of sound: left and right speakers cutting in and out, sound associated with an onscreen image coming noticeably from an offscreen location, bigger-than-life sound disembodied from its source in the frame. Indeed, Malick and Nestor Almendros have so tightly composed the frames of Days of Heaventhat this use of sound is the only clue that a world exists beyond the frame; and that suits the purposes of this big, stark movie, separating its private worlds from the larger world in which its characters dwell. The crisp, sharp photography, and Jack Fisk’s meticulous art direction, offer us a very tidy world, with the same keen-edged precision seen in the worlds of, for example, Jan Troell’s The Emigrants, Werner Herzog’s Herz aus Glas, or Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A. Undiffused light seems not merely to illuminate the images but actually to define them. And the result is a world so precise as to seem frozen, as if in an album, or in a memoryâ€”which is, of course, what Days of Heaven is, and why its tidiness bespeaks a deceptive simplicity. The frame is filled with what the girl-narrator remembers, not with realistic re-creations of an era. No one actually seems to live and work in the rooms and fields of Days of Heaven;rather, people and the environment seem to coexist as elements of a studied harmonic compositionâ€”a composition we must see as the apprehension and re-ordering of reality by the girl’s remembering mind. The fact that the film depicts many scenes that the girl could not have witnessed only further justifies the stylized simplicity with which Malick portrays events that are necessarily more of the imagination than of history.
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
As the donkey regards the carrot, so John Schlesinger looks on his screenplays: he either follows or swallows them. A follow-my-leader under the deadly misapprehension that he is an auteur, Schlesinger is happiest when partnering writers who share his tendency to scream Look at me, I’m an artist! With a Frederic Raphael (Darling) or a William Goldman (Marathon Man), he’s in show-off’s heaven, and his inability to provide the real impetus, the backbone, the solid core of a movie, the way a real artist would, is snugly disguised amidst a great deal of visual and verbal shouting. The cheesy verbal wisecracks of Darling are fleshed out by Schlesinger’s no less cheesy imagistic ones (e.g., fat ladies wolfing down the eats at an Oxfam bash), just as the greasy, lapel-seizing prose of Marathon Man is aptly pictorialised via such characteristic Schlesinger conceits as the shot of Lord Olivier framed distortingly through a glass tray whilst he slavers hammily at its contents, assorted gems. In both these movies, writer and director are as one in pretentious mediocrity, and each butters up the other. But with Schlesinger’s new film, Yanks, the screenwriters are two gentlemen with reputations for low-key, understated work, who would furthermore seem to have no great keenness for Schlesingerian ego-tripping. Colin Welland (the actor who played the cleric in Straw Dogs, and one of Britain’s best TV playwrights) and Walter Bernstein (The Front) appear only too ready to put their faith in their director and let him be the boss, guiding their scenario where’er he would lead it. And Schlesinger has no idea at all of how to be the leader, with the result that everyone gets swiftly lost.
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
Yanksis probably John Schlesingerâ€™s best movie since Sunday Bloody Sunday,and certainly one of the best of his career. But for me thatâ€™s not really saying much, since I continue to have serious problems with this directorâ€™s approach, a self-congratulatory mock-sensitivity that seems insincere at best and often downright wrong. Here, at least, for the first time in years, Schlesinger has foregone his irritating penchant for unproductive intercuts and flashbacks, opting instead for a straight, period-faithful, romantic storyline about the impact of American soldiers-without-women on a Britain without men. But no matter how polished and relatively controlled he gets, there is always something about Schlesingerâ€™s work that strikes me as shallow and ultimatelyinconsequential.
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
Hereâ€™s the problem: (1) American Gigolohas 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 Gigolois not a good movie, no matter that itâ€™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 isâ€”far from being a weaknessâ€”essential to the filmâ€™s design.