Saturday, January 18, 2014

Illusion Travels By Streetcar (episode #1)

Today we present, for your edification, the inauguration of a new podcast, wherein Joseph Garza Medina and Tom Sutpen set themselves to the task of explaining the medium of motion pictures to a bewildered public,

This is Episode #1.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Letter to a Young Cinephile

Dear Young Cinephile,

Go on the needle. It will get you to where you're going much faster, and the moments of despair will be fewer and farther between.

Go thou and sin no more, you luckless so-and-so. Oblivion awaits.

Yours Sincerely,


Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Confession

I like movies that have nothing for everyone.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Notepad Recovery:
Kiss Me, Stupid (Billy Wilder; 1964)

What follows is a series of excerpts from what I freely confess is a still-unfinished article on Billy Wilder's Kiss Me Stupid. That's right. Excerpts. This is not the final result; it's barely even close to a workable draft.

When I started this piece it was supposed to be a relatively straightforward retrospective review; one that ultimately sought to explore no more than this film in the context of Wilder's own, oft-repeated admiration for the work of Ernst Lubitsch. As I started compiling notes for the thing, however, I found that my somewhat modest inner-mandate had atomized and run off in a number of different directions; all of which could, I realized, be made to harmonize within the piece through one strategic arrangement of sentences or another. I could have ignored this development and proceeded according to my initial intent, of course, but I shortly came to realize that the sole chance this article
ever had of justifying its existence was to light out for the territory, so to speak, and perform that compositional magic trick with as much mellifluous, Gibbon-esque polish as I could possibly muster. Swell. Unfortunately, whatever literary skill is required to resolve four, seemingly unrelated sub-topics within the spectrum of a single film, to make them echo off one another while sustaining an acceptable prose quality, is not, I fear, a skill that I fully possess; certainly not sufficient to yield a final result that could keep me out of the firing range of my more . . . unforgiving . . . colleagues in this (you'll pardon the expression) racket.

In any event, the excerpts that follow are more or less sequential (beginning at the beginning), and they represent, roughly, half of what I've written on this film to date. These are the only passages I can (or will) permit myself to post in a public forum. I make no claim for either the quality of its prose, nor the dexterity of its insight. I can only say, in all honesty, that it is what it is.


"He was way ahead of his time", Ray Walston once said about Billy Wilder, "He foresaw what was gonna happen."

Walston was referring to a conversation he'd had with the director during the production of Kiss Me, Stupid, some weeks after he had assumed its lead role from a reportedly ailing Peter Sellers. And there wasn’t a thing about it . . . not the conversation or the moment itself or anyone’s recollection of either . . . that you could call happy.

"I never liked that picture very much", Wilder would later say in an interview with a former music industry publicist-turned movie director, "I would not have liked it better with Peter Sellers." Walston, on the other hand, required no hindsight. By his account he began harboring deep misgivings about Kiss Me, Stupid from the moment he read its screenplay; saddled as it was with an aggressively uncertain third act and a vast, gamy parade float of sledgehammer sex gags. "I said when I finished it," he recalled, "'It's not good' But one doesn't say that about a Billy Wilder-I.A.L. Diamond script. The feeling was that they'd repair it." Now, more than a month after production had resumed, no repair seemed forthcoming and all doubt turned to sheer bafflement. It was very simple: He could not fathom how this director, this critical and commercial titan of Hollywood for two solid decades, expected anybody to release the picture he was shooting.

It wasn't shaping up to be a run-of-the-mill bedroom farce; that much was clear. The scenario, the dialogue, Wilder's direction of the performances, everything about the film as it emerged came off as though it had been deliberately arranged in the most sordid of keys, and not in the service of anything normally considered comedy. "What are people in this business gonna say about you?” Walston remembered asking finally, no longer able to hold his tongue, “How are you gonna get away with some of this stuff?” “Lemme tell you something," Wilder began; at last unsheathing the larger vision that would put sense to the perceived madness. "I'm going to tell you what's going to happen in pictures. You are going to see nudity. Profanity. Things that you are never going to believe in your life that you would see in movies”

"Movies are gonna take a big, long leap", he concluded. "And it's gonna be a big, long leap toward things on the screen you would never believe.”

If he thought this leap heralded a new birth of progress for his chosen medium, he gave no indication of it. He merely did his Criswell shtick, got the pain-in-the-ass Star off his back, then returned to directing the film that, in no small measure, helped usher his words that day into the realm of temporal reality. Was it his true rationale? Anything's possible. Billy Wilder was, I think we can stipulate, perceptive enough to notice just how frail the battlements of Production Code enforcement had lately become (everyone else was noticing it that year, after all). He may also have spotted, within the contours of that frailty, the dim outline of a more forbidding spectacle: that of old-line Hollywood . . . the increasingly scabby epicenter of America’s film industry in whose bosom he had flourished since his arrival three decades earlier . . . speeding headlong to a terminus as grim as it was inexorable. His instinct for what he could get away with at any moment had thus far proven sharp, possibly the sharpest in the business; and it almost certainly informed the calculus behind making this film at an hour when some degree of institutional rot had begun to settle in. But for all its shrewdness of vision and Photoplay-caliber prescience, Wilder’s declaration to Ray Walston was, at bottom, a shuck; no more than glib evasion masquerading as prophecy. For when it all came to pass, and the big, long leap was finally taken, and the slow, steady snowfall of blood and flesh and all the things once hidden from the eyes of America’s innocent, lamb-like moviegoers began in earnest, chroniclers of onscreen prurience the world over would still have a thankless chore on their hands finding anything from a major American director quite so jaundiced in tone, so leering, so completely and resolutely . . . dirty-minded as 1964’s Kiss Me, Stupid.

It was adapted loosely (one might even say corrosively) from a 1944 stage comedy by Anna Bonacci. Set in Victoria’s Britain, L’Ora della fantasia was the tale of a provincial church Organist and would-be composer, reluctantly induced into a scheme that finds his wife accidentally trading places for an evening with a local prostitute; all in the hope of winning favor and patronage from a visiting High Sheriff. A game attempt at reviving the deep dish ribaldry of early Restoration landmarks such as William Wycherly's The Country Wife, Bonacci’s play proved surprisingly popular with audiences; spawning productions everywhere from Sweden to Portugal to France and Mexico; everywhere, it seems, but Broadway. In 1952 it was adapted for the screen by Mario Camerini, with an Italian setting this time, as Moglie per una notte (Wife for a Night) . . . a film whose most visible achievement was making Gina Lollobrigida look convincingly dowdy for the first few reels. L’Ora della fantasia was hardly the kind of play that gave so-called popular theater a bad name, nor could it usefully be called a distinguished effort in that realm. It was utterly benign, and durable, and . . . just as works of its stripe had been three centuries before . . . it was the sort of thing considered prime adult fare in its day.

For whether we're discussing the lost craftsmanship of Restoration farce, or the cheapest swill poured out onto the Great White Way after the Second World War, sex comedies have had an enduring presence in so-called popular entertainment; embracing a standard that would eventually become more time worn and mechanistic and ultimately chaste than anyone toiling in that vineyard ever realized.


Billy Wilder had already demonstrated a marked facility for this sort of thing as early as 1955, with his otherwise middling adaptation of George Axelrod's noisemaker, The Seven Year Itch for 20th Century-Fox; and despite the relative absence of such works in his filmography to date, it had been clear from the more recent evidence of Some Like It Hot and Irma la Douce that he would never fully estrange himself from the curious magic of the double-entendre. Like all masters of the form . . . a pantheon ranging from Geoffrey Chaucer and Armenter Chatmon to James Joyce and Benny Hill . . . his attraction to it was real and abiding. As a confirmed devotee of Ernst Lubitsch and his fabled ’Touch’, however, Wilder was also capable of investing the most sniggering innuendos with a dash of wit and a wholly tender, yet never treacly, sentiment. Charm. That was the condition his well-honed technique sought; and in his direction of such actresses as Marilyn Monroe and Shirley MacLaine, he became the only artist in American cinema who could find whole reservoirs of sweetness, even grace, in all the things that make men drool.

But Kiss Me, Stupid was different. It was a film that drooled. It drooled openly, lavishly, with absolute impunity. There was nothing especially charming or even adult about its humor . . . not in the conventional meaning of that word. What had once been rendered so light and beguiling so many times before was now unleashed before the camera with wild, pre-adolescent abandon; as if wit or grace or any redemptive, feather-like 'Touch' had always been a bald-face lie; a cruelly deployed con job that, once exposed, could never easily gain purchase on a viewer's sensibility again. Like any bedroom farce with its origins on the stage, Kiss Me, Stupid was essentially a machine; a careful, slightly soulless arrangement of social components . . . . in this case a neurotic piano instructor; his too good-natured wife; a demimonde cocktail waitress; and a predatory Vegas headliner, recording artist and film actor everyone calls Dino . . . . where the fullest measure of art is achieved in the intricacy of their eventual collision. As such it was an adroit, often brilliantly reductive assault upon the expectations of everyone, but that alone could not save it from being dismissed with something close to unanimity on its release as unreconstructed smut; entering the measly annals of screen censorship as the last film officially condemned by the Catholic Church’s tottering Legion of Decency (this despite some last-minute alterations on Wilder's part to avoid what had otherwise become a pitfall of dwindling relevance). They needn't have bothered. In more than one sense, Kiss Me, Stupid was a film that condemned itself.


Few critics of the moment would cast their perspective (such as it was) beyond its almost studied tawdriness; few tried. The anonymous reviewer for Time called Kiss Me, Stupid, “one of the longest traveling-salesman stories ever committed to film,” complaining that Wilder was not "celebrating sex as a glorious human temptation; he is exploiting it as a commodity – and he wears a lascivious grin where his satirical smile ought to be.“ A.H. Weiler, girding the loins of New York Times readers, thought its anarchic vision of marital infidelity “sleazy and forbidding.“ Judith Crist over at the Herald Tribune, simply wrote it off with a shudder as “the slimiest movie of the year." And it wasn't just time-serving mediocrities in the Film Criticism community who found Kiss Me, Stupid sour and detestable, however; the esteemed mediocrities did as well (Andrew Sarris, in full alliterative flower for The Village Voice, declared it "an exercise in joylessly jejune cynicism"). The thrashing made the rest inevitable.

Released by United Artists on its Art-house purgatory imprint, Lopert Pictures, and hauled out just in time for Christmas (December 22, 1964, to be exact), Kiss Me, Stupid was projected onto a few screens in major cities and then plummeted to the leprous state it was almost destined for. And that is where it would languish for a few decades, until . . . in a circumstance so common among maudit works in the American canon as to achieve the status of a ritual . . . the usual flocks of latter-day movie reviewers and cinephiles without portfolio, forever seeking to redress critical wrongs, real or imagined, rode in on their half-wild stallions, looked back and . . . as they always would . . . began to see it magically anew.


Orville Spooner (Ray Walston) is an amateur songwriter living in a dusty Nevada armpit called Climax; teaching Für Elise to schoolkids for pennies and riding an Organ for the town's Congregational Church while, on the side, composing lackluster Tin Pan Alley retreads with an amoral auto-mechanic named Barney Millsap (Cliff Osmond). His life and ambitions are heading nowhere. He's also insanely paranoid about his wife Zelda's potential for infidelity (a prospect apparent only to him); suspecting her and every man who sets eyes upon her . . . the milkman, her Dentist, his kid piano students . . . of the foulest clandestine assignations his overheated brain can conjure.

When Dino (Dean Martin) and his cool, white, Hollywood-bound Dual Ghia convertible are redirected off the main highway by the Nevada State Police and into Climax, Barney grabs opportunity by the forelock and sabotages the vehicle; leaving the weary show business titan stranded in their dead backwater for the evening. It's a perfect set up, he imagines, to pitch a few of those dreadful songs they've been writing. But soon it becomes clear that their guest expects Action, and lots of it, in return for one evening of his time and patronage in Snoresville; instantly training his sights and his prodigious libido upon Mrs. Spooner (Felicia Farr). At first Orville descends into full-scale panic (it's the Spooners' fifth wedding anniversary, after all), but Barney quickly comes to the rescue with his breed of ingenious solution: Since Dino hasn’t actually seen Zelda in the proverbial flesh (his ardor is such that this is not a requirement), all Orville needs to do is get rid of her . . . start a fight, smack her in the face with a grapefruit, anything . . . bring in Climax's best, most cost-effective slut, Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak), say she's the wife and throw her at Dino for the night ("While you're plugging the songs, he'll be . . . "). Guy won't know the difference.


It has to be said, in the service of complete fairness, that Billy Wilder didn’t make it easy for that first batch of critics to read his film in anything other than its original light. Sex comedies were such a debased sub-genre by the mid-1960s that their very presence constituted a kind of shrill white noise that, in retrospect, probably did more than big ugly Musicals to ultimately destroy the very standard of mainstream Cinema which had given them such totally unwarranted shelter for so long. The only way to tell Who's Got the Action? from Happy Anniversary from The Marriage Go-Round from Goodbye, Charlie was by their casts (Hollywood veterans just beginning to go to seed); and even then these movies had an unrelenting tendency to blur, even dissolve in the blaring, widescreen ether of fake urbanity. In this sense, Billy Wilder's film may have struck its earliest critics as just an extreme entry in an oppressively tiresome cycle. But what sets Kiss Me, Stupid apart from other farces of its time . . . so far apart that its contemporary detractors can still be condemned for not noting that something quite unique was unfolding before them . . . is the unmistakable sense one gets that Billy Wilder was, from the first, fully aware of just how witless and dreary this kind of motion picture had become. And rather than redeem the form, deliver it to a higher plane of wit and sophistication, as he had every ability to do, he instead accepted the rot; he didn't exploit every cheap and meretricious implication in Anna Bonacci's play; just the opposite. Through every element, from his and I.A.L. Diamond's script to the baroque dinginess of Joeph LaShelle's cinematography and Alexander Trauner's production design, he seemed to embrace it wholeheartedly.


Unique as Kiss Me, Stupid was in its day, there had been a precedent for such a work in Billy Wilder’s prior filmography; and on the surface it was anything but obvious:

Ace in the Hole (the follow-up to his 1950 triumph, Sunset Blvd.) was the story of a failed newspaper reporter, slugging it out on a penny-ante sheet in New Mexico, who yearns so desperately for a return to his days of glory in New York City that he arranges to keep a man trapped inside a mountain after a horrible accident, milking the tragedy for every scrap of Human Interest slop he can peddle, transforming it into a gaudy entertainment for the American public. Almost apocalyptic in its cynicism, it was a film that revealed perhaps more about Billy Wilder than Billy Wilder ever intended; marinating in the pathological scorn of Kirk Douglas's Chuck Tatum toward everyone and everything around him until it flowed over the rim of fiction to saturate its creator; character and author curdling as one. Nowhere in its twilit human landscape was there a man or a woman with a decent impulse who wasn't a fool or an impotent cretin, nor a moment when the film's cruel trajectory didn't feel like a noose slowly tightening around the viewer's neck. In the final minutes of Sunset Blvd., Wilder broke the fourth wall for one extraordinary moment and had Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond acknowledge us, those wonderful people out there in the dark, as something no less central to her damaged identity than the Cecil B. DeMille of her last, inextinguishable delusion (thereby implicating us in the construction of her madness); but Ace in the Hole was a feature-length address to the audience, to all audiences. And what it had to say, more in bitterness than disappointment, about all that we, the entertained, make possible were not what moviegoers had ever been accustomed to hearing.

Kiss Me, Stupid . . . a comic farce, no matter how nihilistic it remains at its core . . . isn't the towering indictment of the human race Ace in the Hole was, but it retains that film's flagrantly cynical disposition and, in a sense, broadens it. Like fugitives from an early 30s Warner Brothers musical, Orville and Barney may appear to be driven by the prospect of show business success and all that it implies in terms of mammon and public adoration, but theirs in truth is a quest to sell their souls, with the cheapest forms of sex exploitation the only paths to achievement they either know or can understand. For all his rectitude and position in that dried out community, Orville really has no qualms when it comes to pimping out his wife to Dino . . . as long as she's not really his wife. His is not, then, a case of small-town hypocrisy ripped from the pages of everyone from Sherwood Anderson to Grace Metalious; far from it. In a struggle endemic to Wilder’s protagonists, the man Orville sees himself as is fatally at war with the man he really is, and it’s a losing struggle at both ends. But once he commits himself to Barney's scheme and employs Polly to be his wife for the evening, ultimately in every respect, he finds he can cut it all loose: the ambition, the rectitude, the fidelity, the whole meaningless shot. In the earlier film Chuck Tatum is immolated by the fruits of his ambition . . . his final self-sacrifice seems less like an eleventh-hour bid for redemption than a purebred act of suicide . . . but Orville prevails. Barney's scheme, lurid and byzantine as it is, works; Dino gets some quality, cash-on-the-barrelhead action with Mrs. Spooner; Polly fulfills her inchoate longing for domesticity before being sent back to her trick wagon; the Spooners' mutual adultery is forgiven; and nothing is spoiled by this anarchic gavotte of sex and avarice that wasn't already rotten long, long before.


NOTE: I started writing this article at a time when the question of why I pursue this endeavor had reached something like the apogee of its persistence . . . and, after more than two and one-half years, it is still a far distance from being in any way finished. For those who may be curious, here's a brief rundown of what I did not post (though all of it is alluded to in these excerpts):

* A few paragraphs on the diversionary social function of Sex farces, beginning with their active patronage by King Charles II (court and courtiers alike) at the outset of the English Restoration, and ending with the explosion of their more artless descendants on Broadway during the 1950s, when the general purpose of mainstream American culture was to induce a state of narcolepsy in the general population.

* An extremely long passage on the institutional and, yes, spiritual disintegration of mainstream American cinema after 1960; the gradual expulsion of the
auteur class (FordHawksWalshWellesRay . . . eventually Wilder); and the cinephile hordes (or, as I put it, "the vast army of Orville Spooners and Barney Milsaps") who swooped in like a pack of vultures and, in the name of their 'love' of cinema, made any number of killings off the whole tragic spectacle.

* An equally long, concluding section on Ernst Lubitsch, The Lubitsch Touch (both as a critical and aesthetic phenomenon), Billy Wilder's career-long obsession with replicating said Touch in his own cinema, and my overarching thesis that Kiss Me, Stupid is the single most perfect emanation of The Lubitsch Touch in Cinema; but with every fiber of charm and continental sophistication scraped off the surface.

This afterword has already gone past its 'Sell by' date, but if anyone finds these matters intriguing in the context of the article and wishes to know why I left out this material . . . in the event that the reason isn't immediately apparent . . . I'll be only too happy to explicate in the Comments section.

And that, as they say, is all.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

One Observation on Inglourious Basterds

Having seen Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds just last evening, I scarcely know what to say. It's a cataclysm of a movie; the kind of blistering, near incantatory work no other medium is remotely capable of; but with implications those who unconditionally love the moving image will require a long long time to process. It's a film that will not rest.

I can, however, say one thing with absolute, rock-ribbed certainty:

The final moment, the final shot, the final line of dialogue in this film is the greatest expression of punk bravado in the history of cinema.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Personal Indulgence

Might I be permitted to take up a moment of your time for something you may very well think dubious? I am, for the most part, convinced that my motive for the following is not to boast, not to place before some of you an encomium that had been aimed in the direction of this reporter as if I thought such placement would alter my standing among the cinephile brethren; nor is it meant to service my narcissistic tendencies in a backhanded manner. No, I offer this only because it is, frankly, a mystery to me:

Kevin Lee, over at his estimable blog Shooting Down Pictures, trained his sights about ten days ago on Allen Baron's late-noir masterpiece Blast of Silence (1961). In the course of this entry he quotes from a rather large sampling of articles that have been generated, mostly over the last few years as that film's profile has, with absolute justice, elevated to such a point that even the folks at Criterion sat up, took notice and put the thing out on the market (I do wish they'd retained Baron's commentary from the slightly earlier Region 2 edition; but you can't have everything, I guess).

For those who followed the link I have provided, and may need a bit of direction, I would like you to scroll down just to the point where you see a quotation from Eugene Archer's fogbound New York Times review, then you come upon an image from the film; whereupon the sampling resumes, headlined by what I can only describe as an extraordinary assertion.

I'm not quoting it here; nor will I allude to its character. If you want to know what it says, go forth and behold all. I saw this entry slightly more than a week ago, and I can sum up my thoughts in four words:

I don't understand it.

Of course I understand the words; don't let's be silly. I just don't get . . . the sentiment. I don't know what it means; or what it could mean. I don't see it; particularly in the context of what surrounds it in that entry.

I wrote that article back in the Spring of 2005; no more than four months after I'd started writing for publication again. What's more, I wrote it in less than twelve hours. Now, those among you who routinely conjure three times that amount of, um, writing in one-tenth the time will undoubtedly think that a pathetic rate of production; but in comparison to my present rate of non-productivity, those twelve hours are (were) as all lightning.

My point is, it simply isn't that good; and I don't see what makes it . . . what he said it is. Admittedly this is no one's problem but mine own (and the idea that he might have been kidding has crossed my mind more than once); but this . . . along with another indicator this week that, at least by implication, points in quite the other direction . . . raises in my mind once again the question of what in hell it is I'm doing pursuing any of this nonsense; why I'm subjecting myself to a non-stop cycle of confusion/demoralization when I know that, as rewards go, that is as good as it's ever going to get.

In closing, I think it behooves me to tell those who may be inclined to express such sentiments, that I'm not posting this because I'm soliciting compliments. I thank you for them, but they are, in truth, the very last thing I am looking for. If you have to call it anything, this post is a way of creating a dialogue with myself; a function this here blogger requires from time to time; a personal indulgence, if you will. No more, no less.

Something to Ponder

If it had accomplished nothing else, David Fincher's Zodiac would be invaluable simply for reminding those who may have forgotten it (or who may never have known) the lost beauty of AM radio sound, drifting through the vastness of what a very learned man once called "the new American night."

Friday, July 31, 2009

Old Stuff: Two Obits from Two Years Ago

Two years ago, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni passed away within twenty-four hours of one another. What follows are two Obit entries I wrote for my other blog a few days thereafter. They are what they are:

The Most Happy Auteur

Ingmar Bergman, who passed away earlier this week at the age of 89, was already one of the most celebrated film artists on earth by the age of forty; and not without good cause. Over the preceding fifteen years (and more than one decade thereafter) he had, through the force of his will and his talent alone, accomplished a feat that was almost miraculous: He brought to bear upon narrative cinema the most directly personal vision it had ever witnessed. Think about it. Personal expression in film arguably goes all the way back to the Brothers Lumiere, and directors always, to greater or lesser degrees, used their work to cast perspective on matters of far more immediate concern to them than the audience or their putative collaborators. But when people speak (rightfully) of intensely private dimensions in the work of, say, Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock, it has to be remembered that whatever core of inward reflection these directors sought could not have been achieved without the protective armor of commercially-viable genres. Inside the contours of a Western or a Suspense number they were, very often, poets; outside them, they were considered unemployable.

After a half-decade of slugging it out in the trenches of Sweden's film industry, Bergman had truck with genres only rarely, and when he did they never adhered to anyone's conventions. His was a process, almost from the start, of striking personal thematic chords again and again and again. With very few exceptions he wrote every film he directed, and not one could have been conceivable as the product of any other. His works were his, or they were no one's.

He was, in this sense, on the fast track of history. In 1948, just two years after Bergman commenced his directorial career, the novelist Alexandre Astruc thundered across the pages of L'Ecrain Francais with a piece that in its time was seen less an essay than a call to arms. In this article, "The Birth of a New Avant-Garde", he advanced the idea of 'Le camera-stylo', and argued that film artists could only realize the full potentialities of the medium by means of direct, singular authorship, an authorship at once similar to that of a novelist or a painter but wholly dissimilar in that its methods were exclusively those of cinema. It was idealism run rampant, but that only made its allure, for some, all the more alluring.

It's a proposition with which one can, of course, dispute endlessly, but in the realm of narrative filmmaking Ingmar Bergman consummated Astruc's ideal more completely than any director of his day. So it falls, then, as naturally as night falls upon day, that in the full flower of his creativity he would often find himself dismissed by the high tide of auteurist movie reviewers, usually American, whose critical mandate was virtually fueled by such outlandishly romantic proclamations as Astruc's. The reason for this had little to do with his movies and everything to do with the attitudes of a certain breed of reviewer: Auteurist criticism, as it came to be, was essentially a sport, one where each critic mined a body of work for the oft-hidden authorial hand of its director and then wrote their way (often poorly) to Olympus. It's an engaging preoccupation, always good for passing the time, but Bergman made it too easy.

No one, after all, had to look very far or for very long to find the evidence of his hand. It was manifest from first frame to last. What else was there to say? When Jonas Mekas (more gadfly than auteurist was he) once stated somewhat foolishly that there was more cinema in Hawks's Air Force than in the entirety of Ingmar Bergman's ouvre, it was not without a particle or two of real frustration. It was as if, by so closely incarnating the auteur model, Bergman was somehow playing dirty pool. If he'd been laboring in the charnel house of a severely regimented film industry such as Hollywood's, cranking out genre assignments and sneaking whatever he could of himself into the most rote, impersonal material, then he'd be presenting critics with a challenge, something they could work with. But the way he was doing it, the way he always did it, there was nothing for them to write about. It was no fair; no fun.

In a 1972 interview with John Simon . . . published in Ingmar Bergman Directs; a book, by contrast, almost tumescent with admiration for its subject ("To be the most important man in the most important art must be a terrible responsibility. Does it bother you?") . . . he spoke of what inspired his works. "It starts with a sort of tension or a specific scene, some lines, a picture or something, a piece of music. It just starts as a very, very small scene. And from this little scene comes a trembling. I look at it and try to pull it out. And sometimes it remains just this little thing.. But sometimes it's more; I can't stop and suddenly I have a lot of material." If we warrant that this is so . . . and the thousand evasions movie directors employed in interviews could often be an art unto itself; one worthy of fuller exploration at another time . . . then what is remarkable about Ingmar Bergman is not that he would draw inspiration from seemingly odd and random elements, but that his engagement with his own sensibility, his supreme confidence in it, up to and including an acceptance of its unknowable corridors, was such that he could then use those random elements to construct, as he did, a wholly coherent, utterly compelling body of cinema.

By using his imagination to plumb the deepest recesses of himself, he in turn gave us something we could then use to see ourselves, thereby succeeding where so many navel-gazers (and film critics) fail.

The Director of the Moment

It's an appropriate image, don't you think?

Not that he was any more at home in the treacherous expanse of Death Valley than Erich von Stroheim had been forty-five years earlier. Nor would I say that he emerged from that red-gold desert with a film anyone would call a triumph in the art of the motion picture (it was, in fact, the worst of his films; though not without its moments). No, I merely make this observation to point out that Michelangelo Antonioni, who passed away last week at the age of 94, could find more in empty spaces and relative silences than any filmmaker in history. "I want my characters to suggest the background in themselves, even when it is not visible." he once said, "I want them to be so powerfully realized that we cannot imagine them apart from their physical and social context even when we see them in empty space."

It was Antonioni's limning of that social context, his greater or lesser understanding of it, that enabled these realizations, gave them breath. Unlike Federico Fellini, the director he was so often and so foolishly pitted against by movie reviewers in the early 1960s, Antonioni had little interest in cramming his frames to their edges with human bric-a-brac (beauties, grotesques, endless, endless talkers) and a filming style unhinged yet, at its core, severely disciplined. He instead stripped the universe his narratives dwelled in of everything they (and, by extension, we) didn't need, making all he left in that much more stark and forbidding. With its awful history and abundant life-force, Italy is a country whose arts were never easily dispassionate, and no medium practiced there was ever more manic than its cinema (it's the one crucial, unbreakable link between that country's commercial filmmaking and its so-called Art cinema), yet Antonioni's work, at first glance, seemed oddly cold-blooded in comparison with . . . just about everyone's. But that was only their surface. His films were, in fact, intensely dramatic at their best, though totally bereft of the thousand manipulations of melodrama; and they could be excruciating in the utter persistence with which the background, as he put it, of his characters made itself known to us.

Michelangelo Antonioni was, if nothing else, a director of moments. This is not to say that he excelled at individual sequences at the expense of the whole, or even that he had an abiding gift for dramatic, carefully constructed epiphanies. His unique gift, his genius (to use a word pressed into backbreaking service this week) lay in depicting with immense precision the most agonizing hours of inner torment, documenting on film that which cannot be documented so directly: The moment when an artist begins to know the limits of art; the moment when a marriage can no longer go on; the moment when a man's inanition of will finally reduces every personal illusion to dust; the moment when a revolutionary impulse dies; the moment when loss becomes irretrievable. It was something no other filmmaker, then or now, was capable of. It was literally like photographing heartbreak.

In New York magazine earlier this week, Bilge Ebiri squeezed out the reflexive teardrop; lamenting the passing of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, placing these doubly sad events in contrast to the foul success of someone like Brett Ratner, then reading into it all the usual, sinister implications. Doesn't bode well for us, does it? Well, who knows. I won't go the Cassandra route (not this time) and foretell a dour and detestable future for those of us who are hopelessly obsessed with cinema. Frankly, I'm of the opinion (sometimes) that we cinephiles only rarely deserve to have artists like Antonioni . . . or Bergman . . . or whatever giant falls next (Godard? Rivette? Kenneth Anger??) walk among us and bring forth their works.

Let's just be thankful we have them for as long as they're around.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

My Judicious Answers to . . .

I've always wanted to participate in one of the periodic quizzes set before them what's in the film blogosphere by Dennis Cozzalio, author of one of the great blogs in this realm, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Dunno why I haven't . . . mebbe I thought I'd be tempted to cheat; pay somebody to slip me the answers. Any event, I'm doing this one, so here's my contribution:

1) Second-favorite Stanley Kubrick film.

Toss up between Lolita and Full Metal Jacket; probably the latter. I could do a riff on the final scene of FMJ, and how it represents a kind of apotheosis of irony in his work . . . but I won't

2) Most significant/important/interesting trend in movies over the past decade, for good or evil.

Mumblecore. For evil if it keeps on the way it's going; for good if its core aesthetic is applied to a wider range of cinema (coughMusicalscough) and/or storytelling. As it is, it's shriveling faster than Dogme '95 did . . . and I didn't think that was possible.

3) Bronco Billy (Clint Eastwood) or Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman)?

Buffalo Bill . . . even if he ain't ridin' that horse right, I took him for a King.

4) Best Film of 1949.

The Small Back Room (The Archers)

5) Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) or Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore)?

Oscar Jaffe. Barrymore can take your breath away.

6) Has the hand-held shaky-cam directorial style become a visual cliché?

Depends. When it's used for effect (the camera operator deliberately destabilizing the image), as it is approx. 80% of the time, it's worse than a cliche; it's agressively phony. The other kind . . . where the cameraman is trying to keep it still . . . is not.

7) What was the first foreign-language film you ever saw?

M (1931); back in 1980-1981. On a public television station that routinely ran Public Domain features in wretched-quality prints.

8) Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) or Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre)?

Moto. Peter Lorre's just-under-the-surface sense of the absurdity of his being cast in that role is a unending presence in these films.

9) Favorite World War II drama (1950-1970).

Robert Aldrich's Attack

(shameful self-promotion, I agree; but at least my answer is true)

10) Favorite animal movie star.

Bitsy. He wasn't a big star, but he did a lot of film and television work from the 30s to the 70s . . . including a few of the RKO 'Tarzan' pictures of the late 40s . . . but his most famous (or infamous) work was in a film he was fired from: 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, the only scene in which he appears was removed by Stanley Kubrick just after the New York premiere; mainly to cut down the 'Dawn of Man' sequence.

I actually have the transcript of an interview conducted with Bitsy several years ago for a book on Kubrick I was going to write for Produit d'appel Press's Film Studies line where Bitsy describes the scene which was cut. I haven't yet decided whether to post it here or not, since Bitsy doesn't have much good to say about Kubrick . . . by contrast he was positively effusive in his praise of Kurt Neumann: "Kurt coulda wrapped that 'Space Odyssey' shit in two days; no overtime." . . . and he has a real enmity against Orson Welles ("You wouldn't believe what I got on him."), based on something he overheard at the Beverly-Wilshire back in 1962. Frankly, I don't know what to make of it.

Close Second: Flike.

11) Who or whatever is to blame, name an irresponsible moment in cinema.

It's a terrible film from a terrible filmmaker, and had this not been done, for all I know the film would have been even worse; but when James L. Brooks removed all the musical numbers from I'll Do Anything based upon test screenings, he only codified that warped (and never aggressively challenged) view that there's something fundamentally dysfunctional about the relationship of cinema and the Musical form (aka, people breaking into song).

I can't get too crazy about it, because it's just one more chapter among many in the wretched history of that luckless genre; and, as I say, it may have saved us from an even worse film than the tabescent blob of good nature which finally surfaced.

12) Best Film of 1969.

The Wild Bunch (followed none-too-distantly by Aram Avakian's End of the Road)

(what's up wit' 1959?)

13) Name the last movie you saw theatrically, and also on DVD or Blu-ray.

Theatrically: There Will Be Blood. (I had to)

DVD: Ed Pincus's Diaries (1971-1976)

14) Second-favorite Robert Altman film.

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1988)

15) What is your favorite independent outlet for reading about movies, either online or in print?

Since I'm unsure what's meant by "independent outlet", I'll answer this one thisaway:

I own probably 400-500 books dealing in whole or in part with some element of cinema or another. About 6 years ago I bought the magazine collection of a now-deceased Canadian film critic (couple hundred issues of Film Comment, American Film, Sight and Sound, Film Quarterly, Cineaste, Film Culture; you name it); and I continue adding to both these collections.

And yet . . .

I try to read about film as little as I possibly can.

For good or ill, that is me in a nutshell.

16) Who wins? Angela Mao or Meiko Kaji? (Thanks, Peter!)

I'm far from competent enough to answer that one, I regret to say.

17) Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) or Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly)?

The lady with the mystic smile (or her namesake)

18) Favorite movie that features a carnival setting or sequence.

Nightmare Alley. Are you kidding? Jesus. Any movie set in both the Carnival and Spook rackets is something to cherish. Close Second (and another carny/spook melodrama) is Roy Del Ruth's The Mind Reader (1933)

19) Best use of high-definition video on the big screen to date.

I . . . couldn't tell ya.

20) Favorite movie that is equal parts genre film and a deconstruction or consideration of that same genre.

Unforgiven. (1992)

Let me amend this post-posting:

If the kind of movies Steven Spielberg made between 1976 and 1985 (in particular Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.) constitute a genre, then Joe Dante's vastly underrated Explorers should be placed in answer.

21) Best Film of 1979.

Derek and Clive Get the Horn.

(sorry, it was the first one I could think of)

22) Most realistic and/or sincere depiction of small-town life in the movies.

Dadetown (1995)

23) Best horror movie creature (non-giant division).

It's as much Science Fiction as Horror, but that big-ass demon in the sky at the end of Quatermass and the Pit is still memorable.

24) Second-favorite Francis Ford Coppola film.

The Rain People. For a filmmaker who spent most of the 1960s trying to imitate Richard Lester (and who, for whatever reason, became successful the minute he stopped), the first half-hour of that film is as close as he ever got.

25) Name a one-off movie that could have produced a franchise you would have wanted to see.

Umberto D.

I tellya, that wily old codger and his pup; gettin' into all kindsa mischief. There's a series in that!

26) Favorite sequence from a Brian De Palma film.

Three words: Be. Black. Baby.

If the Brian DePalma who directed that sequence had been on the set of Bonfire of the Vanities, it would have been a masterpiece.

27) Favorite moment in three-strip Technicolor.

Any randomly-chosen moment from The Gang's All Here (1943)

28) Favorite Alan Smithee film. (Thanks, Peter!)

An Alan Smithee Film: Burn, Hollywood, Burn (1995)

(yes, I actually like that film)

29) Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) or Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau)?

I'm sorry, but . . . once you get past Lloyd Bacon's Kill the Umpire (1950) I have zero tolerance for Baseball pictures. Too reverent.

30) Best post-Crimes and Misdemeanors Woody Allen film.

Manhattan Murder Mystery . . . though maybe that's just his most underrated since 1989.

31) Best Film of 1999.



32) Favorite movie tag line.

"Real Life Shown More Daringly Than It's Ever Been Before"
-- The Magnificent Ambersons.

33) Favorite B-movie western.

Sissies 'n' Sixguns
(1940; dir. by Al Rogell).

From the Wikipedia entry:

Franklin Pangborn plays Osgood Boldwicket, a dressmaker from the east who moves west with his nephew Ambrose (Grady Sutton) to run The Stone Wall Saloon, a Sarsaparilla parlor he's just inherited. When it becomes wildly popular with the hands working at the Bar None Ranch, the owner of a rival saloon, Bertram 'Daddykins' Triller (Edward Everett Horton) tasks his most seductive Saloon Girl, Opal (Pert Kelton) to beguile the men of the Bar None away from their new haunt and back to his establishment, The Screaming Cowpoke. Daddykins' hopes are dashed when Opal instead falls head-over-heels for Ambrose; prompting him to hire professional gunfighter Ruff T. Rade (Ernest Truex) to shoot it out with the neophyte saloon-keeper in broad daylight on his wedding day. The worst is averted, however, when Daddykins discovers that he and Osgood were roommates at boarding school many years before, causing the two businessmen to merge in the final reel.

Though never released in the United States -- all prints of Sissies 'n' Sixguns were said to have been burned, then shredded, then dissolved in acid at the direct order of Republic Pictures chief, Herbert J. Yates -- rumors of prints languishing in Cinematheques all across Europe nevertheless persisted for the years; until 2003, when a complete 16mm print was discovered in Washington D.C., during the course of a routine inventory of the private film collection of J. Edgar Hoover.

34) Overall, the author best served by movie adaptations of her or his work.

Dashiell Hammett. Two extraordinary versions of Red Harvest (three if you count Miller's Crossing); two versions of The Maltese Falcon (one very good, the other fantastic); two outstanding adaptations of The Glass Key (three if you count Miller's Crossing); one lovely film of The Thin Man.

I haven't seen the Television adaptation of The Dain Curse from the 1970s, but unless it's utterly stinkola, it might as well be listed here.

35) Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) or Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard)?

Irene Bullock. Call it heresy, but I don't think Hepburn was good at the Screwball stuff (brilliant at almost everything else, however). Bringing Up Baby succeeds in spite of her oddly self-conscious performance, not because of it.

36) Favorite musical cameo in a non-musical movie.

37) Bruno (the character, if you haven’t seen the movie, or the film, if you have): subversive satire or purveyor of stereotyping?

'Subversve satire'. That's the idea anyway, but Cohen isn't doing anything in principle that Alan Abel (a true guerrila satirist) hasn't been doing more effectively for the last 50 years.

38) Five film folks, living or deceased, you would love to meet. (Thanks, Rick!)

Adolph Zukor
D.W. Griffith
Erich von Stroheim
Gloria Swanson
Cecil B. DeMille

But only if I get to meet them at the same time, in the same restaurant, and at the same table. And one more thing . . . almost forgot . . . only if I get to referee.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Something to Ponder . . .

Just occurred to me while re-watching Inland Empire (had to hit the Pause button and everything):

Where would David Lynch be without Grace Zabriskie's cheekbones?

We now return you to 'Inmate Umpire', already in progress.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Old Stuff:
A Post on Avant-Garde Cinema in America (2006)

I wrote this short piece for my other blog back in the summer of 2006, when I participated in Girish Shambu's Avant-Garde Cinema blog-a-thon. Since it touches on some of the themes that emerged in the last few entries of this blog, I thought it warranted a re-posting here:

This is a description of a blog post on the subject of Avant-Garde Cinema in the United States. The post consists of 7 paragraphs, is exactly 1,500 words in length, and was composed by its author between the hours of 7:00 PM and 11:00 PM on Tuesday, August 1, 2006. It begins with specific information about the post's contents, the hour of its creation, and then moves into a series of observations on non-narrative, structural forms of cinematic expression throughout most of the 20th century. In the interim, the author briefly lists some of the terms used over time to designate these works, such as Avant-Garde Cinema, Experimental Cinema, Underground and Independent Cinema, before remarking that those are just the terms which come to him offhand. He then observes that any species of cinema which goes by that many names is perhaps too multi-varied in content to comfortably fit within any one of them, and that when one discusses the avant-garde one is more accurately discussing a cultural attitude rather than a particular work or body of work or mode of expression.

With a weakness for history, the author then outlines the dawn of this filmmaking in America in the late 1920s and early 1930s, citing seminal works by Melville Webber & James Sibley Watson (The Fall of the House of Usher in 1928; Lot in Sodom in 1933), as well as Robert Florey & Slavko Vorkapich's The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra from 1928, and Jay Leyda's A Bronx Morning in 1931. The author then states that the earliest avant-garde works in the United States owed a great deal more in terms of their formal grammar to both so-called German Expressionism and the more baroque, montage-oriented cinema coming out of the Soviet Union in the 1920s than they ever owed to the thriving avant-garde of France in that same period. After pointing out that this condition would change, albeit gradually, the author of the post then names several film artists who kept the movement, if movement it could be called, alive in North America until the mid-1940s. The artists mentioned in this sentence include such diverse voices as Joseph Cornell, Norman McLaren, John and James Whitney, Harry Smith, Willard Maas, and the only filmmaker who, it is said by the author, truly bridged the two periods, Maya Deren. The author then makes the point that Deren's earliest films bear a deeper mark of the French avant-garde school than any American so-called experimental works prior to their creation, and then asks a question: Why did it take roughly two decades for a school of filmmaking that would have such a defining influence on the American avant-garde to assert its aesthetic presence? Having only a vague outline of an answer . . . largely concerned with the propensity for trends and events from overseas, working almost in concord, to inform the direction of even the most putatively independent art in this one . . . the author of the post steals into the next point.

Moving abruptly away from an historical treatment to a polemical consideration of America's problematic approach to Modernism, the author recalls Cecilia Tichi's 1987 study Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature and Culture in Modernist America, where she posited the view that the rise of old Modernism in American culture and the advance of what came to be known as the Machine Age were not coincidental to one another. She spots a rough interrelationship (if not an outright commonality) between the two that informed the character, if not always the content, of America's Modern art to a greater degree than the influence of its counterpart expressions in the Old World. In this realm the very thing-ness of a creation . . . its standing, if you will, as an object of art (accent on 'object'), bereft of any non-quantifiable, and therefore 'useless' dimension . . . assumed a sharper focus in developing critical evaluations than anyone could have thought possible in the days when Impressionism held its dominion. The hideous secret laying at the foot of this putative connection, of course, is the implication that Modern Art in America, rather than standing as a reaction to the soullessness of industrial capitalism, was in fact an outgrowth of that socio-economic disease. The author then advises readers who may balk at this suggestion to remember that so many of the museums and temples of Modernism still with us today were underwritten and patronized by the same Robber Barons (Rockefeller, Morgan, Frick, Carnegie, Whitney) who were responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of thousands and the economic misery of generations. Fully in keeping with the fundamental social disengagement of the enterprise, American Modernism gave birth to a body of critical theory wholly preoccupied with examining a work of art through its component parts, a relentless emphasis on formal properties. As theory it was pointless; as literature it was fiction without narrative.

But nothing prevented this theory-driven form of criticism from being carried over into considerations of America's Avant-Garde Cinema after the second world war; even if, unlike all other mediums of expression upon which it had been applied, the films themselves militated against such treatment. Given the overwhelming power of Cinema, the values (or, as the author of the post puts it somewhat nastily, the absence of values) at the heart of formal/textual analysis proved not only inadequate in comparison to direct experience, they served to invade and sever and destroy whatever bond might be forged between the filmmaker and his or her otherwise disinterested audience; replacing it with an empty discourse where critics state and restate official pieties to one another ceaselessly in a squalid, insular exchange of platitudes, long ago drained of meaning, materiality and relevance. The author seems to think that those who would analyze a work of Cinema as if dissecting an organism with a scalpel are at best neglecting to recognize that they're cutting into, pulling apart and ultimately killing a living thing.

After that hair-raising passage, the post rolls into a treatment of the explosion in non-narrative cinema which took place in the quarter century between 1945 and 1970 (roughly coinciding with the rise and solidification of Television in our culture). It betrays yet another jaundiced view, this time the tendency by some of the principal figures in the avant-garde to organize and make of alternate voices an institution. The author's disdain stands in stark contrast to his considerable affection for most of the films and filmmakers of the period, yet he believes it utterly. He even, in one sentence, adopts the stance that if one admires, say, Jonas Mekas as a filmmaker, there's something terribly contradictory in also admiring the idea, if not the reality, of such Mekas-generated entities as Film Culture (the magazine he founded in 1955 which was, to the Underground, what Photoplay was to Hollywood), the Film Makers' Cooperative, and good old Anthology Film Archives. He avows that Mekas was the single most indispensible figure in the history of Avant-Garde film in America, and that one would be hard put to read even the smallest degree of cynicism into any of his labors on its behalf. But this small truism, to him, does little to diminish the bigger truism that, regardless of anyone's intentions, artists and critics organize only to exclude. Their cooperatives and collectives and fronts and movements and guilds result almost organically in the establishment of bloated social structures, dominated not by art, but by strategic alliances that resemble nothing so much as the old Soviet politburo . . . or the Republican Party in the United States.

Without really exploring his fundamentally conflicted attitude . . . a line of inquiry that, if the author really cared about it, might have yielded some insight into the sensibility of anyone who numbers themselves among the ranks of avant-garde enthusiasts . . . the author plunges forward with yet another list of names: Kenneth Anger, Ed Emshwiller, Stan Brakhage, Robert Breer, Jordan Belson, Bruce Bailie, Marie Menken, Stan Vanderbeek, Curtis Harrington, Bruce Conner, Paul Sharits, Ken Jacobs, Jack Smith, Gregory Markopoulos, Storm deHirsch, Ernie Gehr, Shirley Clarke, Hollis Frampton. He remarks that he could probably go on, cheerfully typing them for an hour or more, all the while not coming to his fundamental point that the avant-garde reflected in this roll call is as diverse and extraordinary a panoply of filmmaking as any on earth, and that to corral and brand it all with an inelegant umbrella term such as The New American Cinema (to name but one), while certainly making it easy for true enthusiasts like Mekas to conjure the Us vs. Them ether that became so vital to its public identity, ultimately serves it ill.

Not wishing to further be a forum for its author's opressive, Bressonian negativity, the post sidesteps his last observation . . . how the rise of a more democratic spirit of protest in the United States in the late 1960s and the overall decline of the avant-garde were, like everything else, anything but coincidental . . . and abruptly terminates, right in the middle of the last

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ceiling Zero
(Howard Hawks; 1936)

I thought it best to wait a long while after the pre-1938 Howard Hawks Blog-a-thon had passed before posting my entry (lest I be accused of attempting to spoil a good thing by inserting myself into it). I had been asked by that particular blog-a-thon's host to write about a specific Hawks feature from 1929 that I not only have never seen, but (and I'm sure this is JUST a coincidence) is impossible to obtain. Since I wasn't able to do that, and since anything I might say on the general subject no doubt would be regarded askance (for starters) by those who participated in that fiesta some months back, I thought I would call upon the perspective of a professional film scholar to supply the necessary gravitas that would enable a Serious discussion in these pages.

Prof. Thomas Marlowe is chair of Film and Media Studies at Tait College in Culver City, CA, and author of the groundbreaking 2003 study If I Were King: Identity Politics, American Cinema and the Emerging Framework of Global Patriarchy, Ur-Fascism and the Foundations of Radical Monetarism and Ideological Order in the Era of the Hollywood Studio System: 1935-1937 (published by Produit d'appel Press). I asked Prof. Marlowe by email where he would place Ceiling Zero in the developing Hawksian universe, and he was kind enough to momentarily halt production on the second volume of this work to respond:

To characterize Ceiling Zero within a specific theoretical superstructure, the natural principle which normally diminishes Tiger Shark or Hatari! raises serious doubts about the requirement that montage not be tolerated within the dominance scope of a symbology so complex as Hawks's. We instead have evidence in favor of the following thesis: that an important property of Ceiling Zero is defined by Hawks in such a way as to impose an important distinction in critical perspective. Note, by contrast, that this analysis does not affect the structure of the traditional practice of film theory with respect to underpinnings of male dominance in Only Angels Have Wings.

This suggests that the framework which would reduce I Was a Male War Bride in the perspective of critical analysis may remedy and, at the same time, eliminate an abstract underlying order deep within the Hawksian worldview. For one, a subset of dialogue scenes, deemed interesting on quite independent grounds, does not affect the structure of action to place the construction of thought into various pre-determined genres. Furthermore, the viewer's intuition should not be considered in determining the nondistinctness of critical language in the sense of distinctive theory; though many film scholars would find the construction of that idea simplistic. It may be, then, that most of the methodological work in modern cinema is not quite equivalent to irrelevant intervening contexts in genres with sharply defined symbols. Clearly relational theory, in practice, is not subject to the levels of acceptability from fairly close readings to that of interlocking texts.

For any transformative reading of Hawks that is sufficiently diversified in application to be of critical interest in the context of Ceiling Zero, his systemic use of patriarchal symbology can be defined by film theorists in such a way as to oppose the capacity of any underlying conclusion. I suggested in my book that these results would naturally follow from an assumption that the descriptive power of images is, apparently, determined by a system of neural sensation exclusive to genres. One consequence of this approach, which I outlined, is that a critical intuition is necessary to impose an interpretation on seemingly irrelevant contexts. Comparing the theoretical usefulness of Ceiling Zero in comparison to Red Line 7000 and The Crowd Roars, we see that the critical foundations developed earlier suffice to account for that conclusion as it applies to any rational understanding of cinema.

Prof. Marlowe's conclusion is one with which I am generally in agreement . . . though I do question whether he was simplifying it a bit too much in his email . . . but he leaves, I think, more than enough here for the purpose of lively disucssion.

After all, isn't that why anyone makes or watches movies in the first place?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

7 Random Matters


From time to time over the years, people who know me have said . . . always in passing, always as if it were a self-evident proposition, and always as if they were engaging in understatement . . . some variation on "Boy, you really love film, don't you". I've been hearing it most of my life, and God knows I've provided people with enough cause to make that observation, but . . . frankly, I don't know that I do, or that I ever did.

I'm certainly obsessed with cinema; have been from the time I was a lad of just fourteen years. It's a story I've told elsewhere, and perhaps I'll retail it here some day, but from that age my life was centered, almost inexorably, around this strange, incantatory medium; consuming and being consumed by it in (roughly) equal measure. Like so many cinephiles I would never begin to count the hours I've spent watching, reading, writing (trying to) and talking about the twisted splendor of the moving image. The final tally would, I'm sure, be too depressing, too nakedly revelatory. I couldn't handle that numerical epiphany, not even with 80 proof fortification to pave the way. I question how many cinephiles could.


A friend of mine . . . one who makes his living teaching otherwise sensible adults with too much disposable income on their hands how to watch motion pictures . . . gushed to me a couple of years ago in an email about meeting a movie reviewer of immense status among his peers. His excitement was palpable (and by the way, this is not some annoyingly reverent and idealistic kid cinephile we're talking about here; this guy is middle-aged working on superannuated) So much so that when he highlighted the fact that this eminence had actually consented to shake his hand, a thought instantly occurred to me:

We cinephiles really are the Arts equivalent of Trekkies, aren't we.


About five months ago I posted a few cryptic words about receiving an incensed email from a film studies professional. I never disclosed any of the specifics then, but I will now.

The scholar in question is one Berenice Reynaud, who teaches (though she does not like that word) at CalArts. Her outrage was occasioned by my referring to her as a "schoolteacher" in an article on Barbara Loden's 1970 film 'Wanda. It was published in 2006, during my short association with Ray Young's majestic Flickhead.

Why it took her two solid years to express her outrage (I mean, even if she hadn't seen the piece, surely someone would have passed along word of so grievous an insult); indeed, why she appeared so determined to be outraged, that's something which I fear will remain always a mystery . . . and not a terribly interesting one.


I'm seriously thinking of taking my name off the roster over at Bright Lights After Dark.

The thought has been rolling around my skull for a while now. I can't remember when I contributed anything to it that didn't originate either here or at that other blog I'm involved with; and even if I had I can't believe they've been thrilled to have me since my stream of articles for Bright Lights Film Journal itself fell to nothing almost two years ago. As I say, it's a course I've been considering for some time, but as is usually the case with these things, I've heretofore been reluctant to pull the trigger, as it were.

I think I am now.

The other day a post appeared in that blog which, for reasons I will confess are not entirely known to me, left me both pissed off and marginally outraged for quite a long while. I'll not go into details except to say that that it contained a plug for a certain film jourinal whose talentless majordomo once attempted to play a very very filthy trick on this reporter; one that would have finished me off in this racket more thoroughly than if I had photographed myself pouring pig's blood over the George Eastman House archives and emailing the spectacle to every cinephile in Christendom. Other words, Instead of it taking a year for me to be deemed unpublishable by any so-called serious film journal, this would have done me over in a matter of weeks.

Now in absolute fairness, the plug-ger at Bright Lights After Dark could not have known any of this, and I've got no beef with anyone over there. I only mention it because my inner-reaction surprised me: It was lethally (and, as I say, inexplicably) cold; and for whatever reason, it boiled down to a single sentence: I can quit this blog now.

Dunno if I'll actually do it, but I now realize (as I did not before) that I can.


A sentence I wrote last evening:

Paul Thomas Anderson, the candy-colored Renoir who may yet be the last major American filmmaker to have emerged in the twentieth century, entered this one with a project that, by any rational measure, seemed to have doom written all over it.

Don't ask me why I write this way . . . if anything, I understand it even less than you do.


As you no doubt can tell, my resolve to maintain silence on this blog until October 1 . . . when an agressively unfinished, rather bleak article on Billy Wilder, 1964's Kiss Me, Stupid, the death of the American 'auteur' and the cinephile vultures who profited from it (then and now) is supposed to materialize . . . has gone the way of all flesh.

That said, I don't know that there'll be another post on this blog before the fall arrives. I only know that the last post wasn't the penultimate post. For all I know, this one is.


A Relevant Quote:

"And then I got just plain lonely and just so fed up with all the badness in my life and in the world and I said to myself, 'Please, God, just make me a bird - that's all I ever really wanted - a white graceful bird free of shame and taint and fear of loneliness, and give me other white birds among which to fly, and give me a sky so big and wide that if I never wanted to land, I would never have to.'

"But instead God gave me these words, and I speak them here."
-- Douglas Coupland

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A Dilemma . . . for your enjoyment.

Other day, I was forwarded a long email from a film studies professional, objecting in what I can only describe as vivid and (it seemed to me) marginally unhinged terms to something I had written in one paragraph of a DVD review published over two years ago. I'd like to respond to it, and since I have some reason to suspect that the contents of the email were originally intended for more eyes than mine own (there was talk of an aborted public posting before it was sent to me) I would like to do so here before the multitudes.

But ultimately is was not made public, and I fear I would cause this individual some embarrassment if I raised the curtain on this tantrum, even before an audience as small as this. That said, I think some of the issues raised in the email . . . the vision that segments of the cinephile community thoughtlessly devote themselves to . . . are worthy of exposure.

As David Mamet would put it, d'you see?

One voice I trust says don't make it any more public than it is; another (trusted equally) tells me I have a gold mine on my hands and to run up and down the épater le bourgeois countryside with it. What does I do?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Something to Ponder

How successful will I ever be in this racket, d'you suppose, when I'm reluctant to admit seeing any movie?

Friday, December 5, 2008

In Remembrance:
Forrest J. Ackerman (1916-2008)

This streetcar pauses, yes it does, in fond remembrance of Forrest J. Ackerman: publisher, memorabilia collector and the only man in history capable of wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a set of fake Vampire choppers, while losing not a speck of credibility in the process. He was a true renaissance man . . . possibly the only interesting one in the last fifty years . . . and an even more genuine ecumenist of film. It is much more a comment on the times than on the man that he will no doubt be missed in some segments far less than he deserves.

Spreading the Word:
The 'Early Hawks Blog-a-thon'

At the risk of alienating a fellow blogger . . . and that is truly something I have no wish for . . . I'm going to do something that I may have been asked to do by mistake; namely use this blog, at this hour, as a vehicle of promotion.

Here's the story: A few days ago, I received an email from Ed Howard, proprietor and author of Only the Cinema, alerting me to his upcoming Blog-a-thon centered on the pre-1938 output of one Howard Hawks, and asking that word of it be cast from these pages, as far as it could go on its own steam. My immediate thought was that this had obviously been sent to me by mistake. Not only is this blog read by no more than a thimbleful of readers, at best, but my own track record along the blog-a-thon trail has, let us say, not been one that would cause other bloggers' hearts to soften with gladness at the prospect of my involvement in their projects (I may, in fact, be the only individual in the blogosphere who has been asked . . . on two separate occasions . . . not to participate in these clambakes). But then I saw that notice of Ed Howard's impending Hawks fiesta had been posted on a blog that I'm connected with peripherally (and believe me, they likes it peripheral), so I figured I would err on the side of the implausible, risk a possible Cease & Desist order and assume that the request for a plug was righteous and not a momentary lapse of reason.

All the relevant information on this Blog-a-thonic bacchanal can be found here, but essentially what we're looking at is an event set to transpire over the course of two weeks (January 12th to the 23rd), and focused exclusively on those films directed by Howard Hawks prior to his 1938 celebration of human chaos, Bringing Up Baby; films such as Today We Live and Tiger Shark and Barbary Coast (named here solely to link this post with the above image, taken during its production). And even though I know it's the Kiss of Death in some quarters, I heartily recommend that all film bloggers who read these words (one . . . two . . . three . . . ) participate, and do so with the greatest of relish.

Now, in order to ameliorate whatever damage my endorsement has wrought to the fortunes of this endeavor (for I genuinely wish it, and its host, well), I will at this moment solemnly vow to forego any intention I may or may not have had to explicate my pensées on the director of Trent's Last Case and his formative years of combat in the auteur arena. I will officially keep my mouth shut for the duration. Thus, it is hoped, will I have done my part in ensuring a more vast and better-affiliated body of contributions.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Alternative Cinema Alphabet Meme:
A is for About Me: A Musical
(Robert Frank; 1971)

As a shifty way of generating content here (you may well ask what other ways I have resorted to, and I would be forced to say none other), I thought I should tackle, uninvited, the ongoing, viral Alphabet Meme that's been bouncing around the blogosphere recently . . . BUT . . . I elected to give it a slight and admittedly self-serving twist.

For the purposes of this edition, I chose my passel of favorites from among American films made outside our cinema's industrial sector, Hollowood. In other words, the films I selected have to have been made in the United States, by filmmakers residing (if not in every case born) here, but they could not have been either financed, produced or distributed by any well-established film production entity (the whole range of them, from MGM and Warner Brothers, to Monogram, PRC and American-International). To make the task all the more nightmarish for myself . . . and, once again, to pump-up the word count here . . . I decided to drag things out inordinately and make it an ongoing project; which means I'll be writing (cue coffee-spewing) a teeny-tiny bit about each film, one at a time, over the course of twenty-six entries (for you usenet denizens, that's one entry for each letter). And if I want to get cute I could follow up at the end with some nonsense about Brakhage's 23rd Psalm . . . but don't hold your breath waiting for it, because at the rate my brain cooks up half-respectable sentences, I'll more than likely be at this for over a year before I ever get to the letter L (and that's my idea of optimism).

With that, let us begin.


Like many of Robert Frank's films, About Me: A Musical drifted from its initial concept to an inevitable destination: "My project was to make a film about music in America", he announces at the start. "Fuck the music. I just decided to make the film about myself."

One's heart may sink upon that declaration, particularly if one has previously beheld the king-size narcissus pool whose shallowest end such intentions always seem to land in once they fall to the earth, regardless of the filmmaker (additionally, the participation of veteran exhibitionists like Hugh Romney, Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg in this film positively spells doom from the outset). I mean, so much of America's alternative film movements, and there have been many over the long decades (just take your pick), found themselves shepherded by artists directing their gaze inward with such immense, usually unwarranted fascination, that you can very often read their chroniclers/critics preoccupation with formal properties as the half-embarassed rescue mission it sometimes is . . . virtually imploring readers to keep their eyes on the light and figure show; and, pleeease, pay no attention to that self-involved structuralist baring his or her utterly lackluster soul behind the curtain.

But over the course of its thirty minutes, About Me proves an altogether pleasant disappointment to viewers whose expectations may have been schooled in the ways of Su Friedrich (or even Ross McElwee), as it leaps nimbly between staged scenes of an actress portraying Frank (casting reflection on his life and work and what it all means), to musical performances ranging from Indian ragas to a band of nouveau-bohos working their fringy way through Bacharach and David's Baby it's You; to prosaic cinema verite snippets and the film's conclusion of what might be the most charming man-on-the-street interview ever filmed. And if you're one of those people who thinks the musical, as a form, represents the direct antithesis of personal expression in cinema . . . a propostion instantly reduced to dust the moment Busby Berkeley walked upon a soundstage. . . you could not find a more graceful refutation if you picked up a camera, went out on the street yourself and looked high and low for it.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Question for the Multitudes:
The Lost Keaton Feature (resolved)

I'm beginning to realize that it's a lot easier for me to write on this blog when something crops up unbidden and unexpected, that strikes within me a primal chord, thus driving me up the proverbial wall and back again. Only then, when larger events conspire to irritate the bejesus out of me, does the act of annealing my furies and casting them into words hereabouts seem at all tenable.

Just such a moment arrived today . . . actually in the wee small hours of this morning, while the whole wide world (except me) was fast asleep . . . but before I give full license to my spleen, I should perhaps make an inquiry that bears somewhat upon the matter at hand:

Was anyone reading these words aware that a "a radically different version" of a Buster Keaton feature from the early 20s had been unearthed within the last nine months?

I know this all seems terribly cryptic at the moment but, believe me, it's better for the fortunes of what I was intending to post today that I first get a read on how bloody typical this matter really is.

Update (11/23): It now seems that no detonation from this quarter will be necessary. It had been my suspicion that a rediscovered 46-minute work-print of Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality (which was screened in Muskegon, Michigan on October 3 and has not been heard of since) was falling prey to a very old and depraved and all-too typical impulse. Namely that this once-lost alternate version was, for all intent, about to get itself lost again. I learn now that an intended press release has been held up these last two months due to illness.

There's more detail (not a lot more, but more) in the comment section of this post, but it's of little consequence. I certainly can't prove anything, so I'll table this . . . for now . . . and eagerly await the next stage of this film's public unveiling.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Some Remarks On . . .
The David Lynch Liquidation Sale

Watching David Lynch stuff a pair of women's panties into his mouth got me to thinking.

Okay, maybe I should back up for a second.

Yesterday, someone forwarded to me via email a demented YouTube video from about five years ago wherein the aforementioned auteur consumes the aforementioned article of ladies lingerie. God knows I would not have sought it out voluntarily. But it was sent to me with the query, "Is David Lynch a good director?" . . . as if the measure of Lynch as a film artist could ever be drawn from another instance of his growing penchant for half-witted exhibitionism . . . and since I'm such a sucker for the role of Sage Cinephile, I figured I'd at least take a gander at the thing and see what it was that inspired the question before launching into performance mode.

Now, before anyone asks why I was posed such a seemingly elementary question, I should probably point out here that no one I know outside the confines of the internet has a fleeting interest in cinema beyond its diversionary function. It means nothing, less than nothing, to anyone I'm even casually acquainted with; and speaking about it with so much as a particle of enthusiasm . . . as I sometimes do when I'm unable to govern the impulse properly . . . gets you either amused chuckles or uncomprehending stares (take your pick). For all the social good it does, you might as well tell people you've been moonlighting as a part-time carnival geek.

At any rate, I suspect (actually, I know) that the individual who bid me to disclose myself on the subject of David Lynch yesterday was just looking for some cheap amusement on an otherwise slow Friday. Fine by me, captain. So before winding myself up I watched the video I was so graciously sent.

It's not a new production. In fact, I understand that what I saw is someone else's remix (always a bad thing) of a piece that debuted on the Premium section of Lynch's website. Watching it, all I could think was that David Lynch is a filmmaker of true and immense gift who puts an awful lot of effort into acting strange; far more than the task would require if it ever came to him naturally.

From what I can piece together through the remix madness (no, I'm not linking to it here; go run a Google search and it'll come back a hundred-fold), it goes like this: He's sitting in front of a red velvet curtain left over from Twin Peaks, looking for all the world as though he just woke up after eight hours slumber on a park bench, togged out in that trademark black suitjacket and white shirt buttoned up to the adam's apple (an exceptionally hip clothing selection . . . for 1985). There's a girl sitting next to him who I think is supposed to be a fan (probably an actress or somebody who works in his office). He announces that the little lady is going to remove her panties, hand them off to him; whereupon, with nothing up his sleeves, he will stuff them into his mouth. Swell. She gets to her feet, removes her garment (off camera; which is not the only clue that she wasn't actually wearing them), he exclaims with what was once called boyish enthusiasm that they're still warm!! (hubba hubba), stuffs them into his yap, chews them audibly ("num . . num . . num"), and . . .

You know, there's really something wrong with this guy. David Lynch, I mean. A few years back, when he put out a series of ringtones (ringtones?!?!) on that website of his . . . the one where he sells hats and t-shirts and mugs like some paranoid major market disc-jockey who thinks it's all going to vanish into thin air tomorrow, so why not cash in now (what kind of waterhead, I ask you, spends ten bucks on a Dumbland coffee mug?) . . . I remember being somewhat unconvinced that this is the sort of thing a filmmaker of his caliber ought to be spending his time on. After all, it's not as if our cinemas are about to be crushed under the weight of all this great filmmaking we've been getting lately. We could use a little bit more, at least. I know that if I were advising Lynch I'd say, "Look, maybe you should forget about moving the merchandise for a while and . . . I dunno . . . make movies or something; since you seem to do that tolerably well. Granted it may not be as creatively fulfilling as taking twenties off your audience for hats with ERASERHEAD embroidered across the front, but I'm sure it has its rewards."

I won't even go into the TM pimping or dragging a cow hither and yon to promote Inland Empire, or the rest of that arrant foolishness he engages in routinely now, except to say that it's all in keeping with something like that video I bore witness to yesterday. In another forum where I was discussing this crackbrained stunt, someone who will almost certainly wish to go unidentified here wrote the following:

Watching the bonus material on the Inland Empire DVD I was
struck how Lynch's gimmicky celebrity weirdness, his marketed schtick,
might look contrived but he gives off the aura of someone who,
underneath all that, really is odd and maybe not all that likeable.
It's like the Lynchian strangeness we've come to know and love all
these decades is cover for some Lynchian strangeness we might not like
as much.

Maybe. Of course a comprehensive examination of that would require closer analysis of Lynch than cinephilic discourse could ever bear; and anyway, who in hell wants the thankless task of rooting around the interior of that skull? Personally I think this is simply the way David Lynch has chosen to market himself; literally going into a kind of creative liquidation as he enters the autumn (if not the twilight) of his years. I just wish he did it with a little more dignity. Jesus. I mean, if Carl Dreyer were still with us, you think he'd be spending his days working on a line of Ordet screensavers?

Yeah. I don't either.