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.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Personal Indulgence:
Hands Across Iraq (2008)

Hands Across Iraq
(Tom Sutpen; 2008)

This is a mere trifle I cooked up in March of this year to commemorate the fifth anniversary of US agression in Iraq. I post it here because . . . well, why not? When I put it together I posted it on the other blog I'm connected with; might as well get it out of the way on this one as well.

It is what it is.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Film Audio: Loving Leni

In this adventure in Q&A conducted at New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage in May of 2007, unrepentant Dietrich biographer and former United Artists Production chief . . . before he unleashed all vengeance in his book Final Cut . . . Steven Bach discusses the life, times and cinema of Leni Riefenstahl; the only woman on earth to give Dr. Goebbels a hard time (read that however you wish) and live to tell the tale. The discussion is moderated by Gabriel Sanders, former associate editor of the Jewish Daily Forward.

Note: An interval -- during which the diving sequence of Riefenstahl's Olympia 2. Teil: Fest der Schönheit is unfurled in all its breathtaking majesty before the assembed audience -- has been edited from this recording (I mean, I love Herbert Windt's score; but without the images, it's music that's really only good if you're getting psyched up to conquer Poland).

Update: Yes, I'm aware that this is perhaps an unconscionably cheap way of generating content for this blog, but given my chronic inability to construct a sentence that is of even remote interest to anyone (myself included . . . I might even say myself principally), it was either this or something in a similar vein. You have my apologies on that score . . . and no other.

Friday, September 26, 2008

I'm flattered, but . . .

From an email I received earlier today:

My name is Tracy Frey and I am the Senior Director of Community and Strategic Partnerships at Widgetbox. I have read your blog, Dave Kehr, which I discovered in my research for top Movies bloggers.

Maybe I'm not quite so horrible at this racket as I think I am, but I have to say this bit of flattery (however unintended . . . I hope) almost qualifies as obscene!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Film Audio:
The Pauline Factor, '68

How much provocation can one speaker pack into just 54 minutes? In this recording of a talk given at UC Berkeley on April 26, 1968, the then-newly-hired film critic for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael, goes a great distance toward answering that question as she brutalizes Underground cinema, Arthur Penn, and the institutional imperatives of mass-market film criticism.

And those are but three of the targets upon which she opens fire.

It's a cheap and perhaps underhanded method of generating content for this blog, but I've little doubt even the cinephile contingent will find something in this recording to chew over (if not here, then elsewhere). For this is, without question, the single most compelling extemporaneous presentation on the subject of film I've ever heard.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Film Between Covers
Sleazoid Express
(by Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford; 2002)

Here in America we have something that, with the straightest of faces, we call our Film Heritage.

What people usually mean when they invoke this solemn, unconscionably sentimental honorific is not just any movie made here in these United States, but a specific kind of movie: Something more or less old, and at one time accorded a form of honor (industry awards and acceptance, vast commercial success, etc) deemed permissible by the caretakers of our culture. That these keepers of the cultural flame generally know and understand nothing about motion pictures is something little remarked upon in public. It certainly doesn't seem to bother anyone . . . anyone other than those who actually care about the medium, that is . . . that the movies, as well as the moviegoers, said to represent our so-called 'Heritage' entail but a small fraction of the cinematic experience in this country.

In Sleazoid Express (2002), two tireless cinephiles, Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford, expose and explore something closer to our actual film heritage. What falls under the microscope in this volume is a specific time and place in the annals of American moviegoing: the halcyon days of Grindhouse Cinema on The Deuce, Manhattan's Times Square, where a series of crumbling, rat-infested movie dumps . . . originally designed in their day to recreate the scale and opulence of such venues as the Opéra-Comique . . . offered diversion night after night, day after day to an audience consisting mainly of wineheads, junkies, madmen, TV hookers, johns, hustlers, pickpockets, derelicts and a few unsuspecting tourists every now and again.

Strung like Arapaho beads among the Playland Arcade, the Live Nude shows, the Adult Bookstores, Peep-Shows and Triple-X houses of 42nd st., a group of once-'legitimate' cinemas such as the Lyric, the Harris, the Avon and the New Amsterdam (where no less than Florenz Ziegfeld staged his "Follies" so many lifetimes ago), played host to an amalgam of New York City low life who gathered therein to behold . . . basically, anything you could run through a projector. They didn't care. These were not studious, discerning cinephiles who marched into repertory and revival houses like the British forces at Balaclava to exult in the splendor of the Moving Image. The people who went to Grindhouses had come in out of the endless twilight that was their lives usually for more prosaic reasons: To sleep, perhaps; to give a quick $10 blowjob; to get a quick $10 blowjob; to lift a few wallets, maybe; to escape the voices inside their heads. Any reason at all. And if you caught a movie while doing it, then that was just fine. In fact, anything to divert their attention was fine. If only for just a moment . . . or for a night.

So that's what proprietors of Grindhouses gave them: Refuge from their daily nightmare in the form of Splatter films, Blaxploitation, Spaghetti Westerns, Kung Fu melodramas, Italian Zombie pictures, Old School Nudies, Soft-core Porn, Hard-core Porn; anything cheap and fast, preferably with vast quantities of blood or tits or both. For anyone from another time . . . which might as well be another planet . . . who walked into one of these joints harboring any delusions about moviegoing, it represented a quick, razor-sharp schooling in the way many Americans consume the art of Cinema.

Longtime Times Square habitué (and unrepentant biographer of Kenneth Anger) Bill Landis writes about the time and the places and the movies therein with just the proper degree of affection and respect. This book may be a remembrance of things past, but it's not a treacly one; nor is it sanitized. He and his co-author Michelle Clifford hold back nothing. You get it all in Sleazoid Express; in vivid, almost Technicolor detail. Theirs is an effort to set down some sense of what 42nd st. Grindhouses were like in the days of their immense, gaudy decay; what it entailed to actually sit inside one of them and see a movie you would very likely never be able to see anywhere else. Now that the era has long since passed, and Times Square in its present incarnation seeks to offer up a family-friendly (read: tourist-friendly) environment while visually approximating the neon sensory-overload of downtown Tokyo, this book could not be a more crucial document in the canon of film writing.

I mean, perhaps it's only me, but there's just something fundamentally American about troubled individuals in a vast urban setting gathering together in a falling-apart movie theatre originally designed to look like La Scala and watching Cannibal Holocaust on a screen the size of a midwestern liquor store.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Something to Ponder

I often think that if one were to pinpoint and enumerate, with complete precision, every single defect in Russell Rouse's nightmarishly inept 1966 film The Oscar, glaring and otherwise, then it could be possible to know what went so horribly wrong with mainstream American cinema after 1960.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Show & Tell:
Danses cosmopolites à transformation
(Segundo de Chomón; 1902)

The dance team in Segundo de Chomón's Danses cosmopolites à transformation (1902) are standard figures of so-called Trick films of that epoch. Indelicate to say it like this, but they're essentially mannequins, capable of some mobility, upon whom the filmmaker cast merely the latest optical construct his overheated imagination had wrought. In those lawless pioneer days when screen acting, as such, was unheard of, little else was ever sought from anyone before the camera. The couple in this film go through a routine not unlike any number of Vaudeville performers in America . . . somewhat clumsily, yes, but conveying errant wisps of both continental verve and never-say-die showmanship as they endure the filmmaker's persistence in hurling them from the ornaments of one cosmopolitan culture to another.

Neither eye-popping nor formally complex (relatively speaking, I hasten to add), Danses cosmopolites à transformation nevertheless has a charm that was very often hidden within the visual, hand-tinted tumult of Segundo de Chomón's later and more celebrated achievements. Employed initially by Pathé, Chomón was a filmmaker of extraordinary gift whose name just about always appears in the same paragraphs as Georges Méliès; and for marginally good reason. Both men were pioneers; both had more than a hand in the development of its various techniques of optical hocus-pocus (multiple-exposures, time-lapse gimmicks, dissolves); both gave their filmmaking over to extravagant, impossible visions that made America's rather staid pioneer class look utterly moribund by comparison. But Chomon's determination to embrace the illusory power of what was then a new medium . . . in its known totality . . . often gave his visions an incantatory force that would have rendered them, in retrospect, fairly insufferable were it not for an equivalent spirit of playfulness at their heart (a spirit laid bare in Danses). His wizardry was never dolorous or solemn. It exulted in a joyous sense of potential made positively radiant by the new technology and its vast, still undiscovered galaxies of expression.

In 1964, Jonas Mekas referred to Andy Warhol's films as, in a sense, "a cinema of happiness."

I sometimes think he picked the wrong filmmaker.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Film Blog Focus: mardecortesbaja

For at least a year and a half, possibly two, I've been an avid reader of Lloyd Fonvielle's ongoing and often astounding survey of the twists and turns of visual culture, mardecortesbaja. Combining a choice selection of imagery and a generous helping of extremely good film writing (with more than occasional trips out and into other media), mardecortesbaja gives those who may grow weary at the insularity of some sites (no names, please) a rare opportunity to step back and begin to marvel at the fundamental interconnectedness of all that we create for ourselves to look at: the high and the low, the garish and the sublime, the seen and the unforseeable.

Among recent, noteworthy entries:

A brief meditation on Winslow Homer's Summer Night (with a Tennyson chaser).

Making the case for no less than Arthur Freed as a Producer/auteur of equivalent creative stature to Val Lewton . . . or Walt Disney, even.

The latest in a superb series of essays on the single most romanticized movie reviewer in human history.

A short, sharp look back at Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail (more about which in a future post on this blog).

A Keats Poem for Today

A pre-broadcast run-through of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre On the Air adaptation of The 39 Steps (part of another ongoing series).

The creative embrace of George Gershwin.

And . . .

A couple of entries on Vincente Minnelli. First, the "peculiar culture of perversity" reflected in 1952's The Bad and the Beautiful; then, a wholly honorable defense of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), featuring one passage that this correspondent dearly wishes he had written:

The problem is that Meet Me In St. Louis is the story of a functional family -- a concept which modern critics simply don't have the intellectual tools to engage. They're like art critics who are physically repulsed by the color brown trying to write sensibly about Rembrandt.

No way I can top that one.
One note, in closing: Those who peruse mardecortesbaja will eventually happen upon an exceptionally nice, entry-length endorsement for this blogospheric enterprise; and will, as a matter of course, think these sentiments little more than reciprocal, Mutual Admiration Society guff.


If Lloyd had damned this blog to hell before all the world the moment he laid eyes on it, I could not find it in me to dislike mardecortesbaja (though I could find it in me to keep my mouth shut about it). Unlike other blogs that merely try (and fail) to suggest the vastness of that terrain which art and life have created, mardecortesbaja is drawing us a map of it, line by line; and then explains, beautifully, what we'll find on the everlasting journey.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Show & Tell:
Across the Universe
(Paul Thomas Anderson; 1998)

Amid every rash, destructive, feral thing that happens in the mere four minutes of Paul Thomas Anderson's Across the Universe (1998), the overall bearing of Fiona Apple is perhaps the most mysteriously compelling of all. Somehow . . . within the slow-motion, monochromatic chaos that is its backdrop of epic Soda Shop vandalism . . . this woman carries herself with neither authority nor submission; neither blissful ignorance of all that is happening around her, nor knowing assent. She seems a world (or two) apart from the ceaseless shower of paper napkins. straws, menus, flying glass shards, ballbats, ice cream scoops, gumballs, crowbars, venetian blinds, chairs and tables hurled in every conceivable direction; yet nevertheless appears to draw an odd, private strength from it in the same instant. Singing John Lennon's hymn to an exalted state of being as if it were a lament, she shines brightly.

Across the Universe is a music video produced in connection with an immensely obvious and stupid movie of the late-nineties entitled Pleasantville (a film Anderson otherwise had nothing to do with); and if you have to call it something; give it a name . . . something you must always do in film criticism, whether the work under review deserves to be embalmed in words or not . . . you could say that you were seeing the one perfect expression of post-Christian martyrdom our culture has seen fit to cough up.

You could say it; and I'd probably agree with you.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Notepad Recovery:
Swamp Water (Jean Renoir; 1941)

Back in January of 2005 I began writing an article on Jean Renoir's first American film, Swamp Water. I thought of the piece as primarily narrative in structure, a work of non-fiction film criticism (for once), although I fully intended to render such unperishable thoughts as I had on the substance of the film when the moment presented itself.
It's part of the uniform, you see.

In any event, here are two very brief fragments from the abandoned article, beginning with its opening paragraph:

When residents of Waycross, Georgia started to send live baby alligators through the mail to executives at 20th Century-Fox in the summer of 1941, Darryl F. Zanuck instantly realized that the time had now come to begin taking these people seriously. For weeks, ever since a company under the direction of Jean Renoir had completed location shooting in the area for a film entitled Swamp Water, the locals had been positively consumed by the idea of having the film’s premiere in their midst; just as Gone With the Wind had had its debut in Atlanta two years prior. At first, as it would with normal people, their campaign entailed the usual raft of letters and petitions. But when those failed to persuade anyone at Fox, alligators were pressed into service. Zanuck -- who felt he’d already expended more than enough attention on this film, and realizing the multitudes would not be denied -- soon relented; whereupon the citizens of Waycross set about according Swamp Water all the civic hoopla that normally obtains when a movie premieres somewhere out on the American road: Parades, cheering crowds, decorations, ceremonies, honors galore. Vereen Bell, the local writer of Boy’s Adventure tales who authored the novel upon which the film was based, was proclaimed Guest of Honor, and no less a figure than Eugene Talmadge, Governor of the state of Georgia, declared that day, October 23, 1941, to be Swamp Water Day: the biggest celebration ever held, in this country or any other, to honor a film directed by Jean Renoir.

Jean Renoir did not attend.


He had arrived in America more than ten months earlier -- shortly before New Year’s, 1941, to be precise -- disembarking in New Jersey after a journey of some months duration that began with the onset of Nazi occupation in France that spring. Renoir was understandably reluctant to leave the country where, since 1924, he had been steadily forging a presence in cinema that had few parallels anywhere. So during a stopover in Lisbon that autumn, he sought to figure a way he could possibly remain in France as a working director now that so much had changed. It was not an easy decision. His long association with the Popular Front notwithstanding, Jean Renoir had not been loath to accommodate fascists on absolutely every occasion. Soon after the commercial debacle of La Règle du jeu in 1939 he, along with Carl Koch and Luchino Visconti, had begun work on a dramatic adaptation of Tosca. In Italy, and at the personal invitation of Benito Mussolini himself.

He’d already been approached by Vichy representatives about staying put and continuing his career where he started it, but no matter how tempting the overture, he ultimately had no wish to accept an offer that would transform him into a puppet of the new regime in the eyes of the world (he needn't have worried; collaborating with the Nazis never proved especially damaging to anyone's career). In the end it was a communication from Robert Flaherty, urging him to come work in Hollywood, that decided the course which ultimately led to what Renoir would later call his destiny. Hollywood now beckoned -- at least in this indirect form -- so he joined an already sizable number of European emigre filmmakers on an adventure whose attendant frustrations most of them learned to live with; even, in some cases, capitalize upon. Renoir would not be one of those.

As it turned out I never completed this piece; nor did I get very far with it. Normally when I throw in the towel on something like this (as I'm wont to do more often than I care to admit in detail) it's because I can see the thing isn't going well for one reason or another. This occasion was different, however. While I was gathering the material (such as it was), I happened to track down a 1982 Georgia Review article by Renoir scholar Alexander Sesonske that covered . . . just about every square inch of narrative ground I was set to hike across. That ended that, far as I was concerned. I had nothing to write about. Sure, I could have scraped together some rote analysis of Swamp Water, its place in the Renoir canon, how its use of locations anticipate The River; I could have used the component parts to add one more such piece to the literally hundreds of such pieces extant . . . if I wanted to. I didn't. It would have been purely, utterly mechanical and . . . let's be honest . . . does anyone really need another article of that sort?

I thought not.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Family Plot (Alfred Hitchcock; 1976)

It took him long enough . . . thirty-six years if you want to be precise about it . . . but in what eventually stood as his last film, Family Plot (1976), Alfred Hitchcock finally recaptured the swift, eccentric life-force that defined so much of his filmmaking prior to 1940. If there had been a drawback, a major one, to casting his lot with Hollywood, it was the necessary abandonment of a certain flexibility in his creative profile. In Britain he had developed a highly enigmatic approach to storytelling that permitted him to move with unusual ease from adaptations of John Galsworthy and Noel Coward to the prototypical (and slightly peculiar) suspense pieces that delivered him to the attention of America's film industry; working from a vision of the world that was relentlessly droll and off-center, but not without an active sense of the living darkness that might advance upon it at any hour (his mid-20s baptism in German expressionist tomfoolery was crucial to realizing this; without it he may have been merely, and hopelessly, eccentric). Once brought to these shores, however, that came to an abrupt end. His vision went underground. Like so many other directors, the range of what he was permitted to make became narrower; despite the occasional attempt at breaking out of the Romantic Suspense paradigm (as stated elsewhere, I firmly believe this was the key motivating factor behind his directing Mr. and Mrs. Smith for RKO in 1941; the most overt escape attempt he would ever make). Hitchcock's style was forever personal, but in America it was significantly less idiosyncratic; that is, until the very end. Ernest Lehman's screenplay for Family Plot, a concoction about a fake spiritualist, man-and-wife kidnappers and the search for a lost heir (drawn from a typically negligible source; something called The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning) was constructed in the same semi-comic vein as his work on 1959's North By Northwest, but where that film's offbeat elements were leavened with a couple of Hitchcock's more skillfully wrought set-pieces . . . as well as a double shot of late 50s Manhattan chic, Family Plot largely eschews its polished surface for a look not far removed from that of a Columbo episode (Universal's tight-fisted production methods might have played a hand in that, but I doubt if it was the entire cause). More important, the tightly . . . or, better still, too-tightly . . . controlled filming style that had come to cripple so much of Hitchcock's later filmmaking was now relaxed; scenes, moments were given some room to breathe. It's not a sloppily-made film, exactly (though the undisguised artificiality in his use of rear-projection at times seems almost as deliberate as Clyde Bruckman's in The Fatal Glass of Beer); nor is it what many critics dismissed it as at the time: the work of a totally exhausted man. Family Plot, never intended to be Hitchcock's final film . . . indeed, the film he was preparing at the time of his death was shaping up to be a truly grim piece . . . is the work of a man who has just taken a few well-earned steps back; who looks at the world around him and laughs to himself (and to us) at the thought that everything . . . everything and everyone . . . is still just as it was when he started.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Some Remarks On . . .
FilmCrit and The Skidoo Epiphany

Over the weekend I was reading an essay on J.D. Salinger that Janet Malcom published in the New York Review of Books back in June of 2001. Though I still incline toward the negative conclusions arrived at by his contemporary critics, it was an altogether admirable defense of America's best known, best selling literary recluse (only Thomas Pynchon . . . who once was rumored to be Salinger . . . approaches his mystique, if not his sales figures). She argues that the immensely long and overconfident non-stories he trotted out like unbalanced show ponies in his last decade as a publishing writer represented something approaching the full weight of Salinger's literary musculature; that they were far more inventive and original works than critics of the day could perceive. In short, she was saying that Alfred Kazin and John Updike and Mary McCarthy (among many others) were struck by a sudden contagion of critical blindness. It is, as I say, a position one could easily dispute. Very easily.

In any event, I was reading this essay when I came across the following; from which I quote:

"Like the contemporary criticism of Olympia, for example, which jeered at Manet for his crude indecency, or that of War and Peace, which condescended to Tolstoy for the inept "shapelessness" of the novel, it [criticism of Salinger in the early 1960s] now seems magnificently misguided. However—as T.J. Clark and Gary Saul Morson have shown in their respective exemplary studies of Manet and Tolstoy—negative contemporary criticism of a masterpiece can be helpful to later critics, acting as a kind of radar that picks up the ping of the work's originality. The "mistakes" and 'excesses' that early critics complain of are often precisely the innovations that have given the work its power."

Maybe. In the realm of film criticism there are no analogs for, say, Alfred Kazin; there have only been shadows, no more. The reasons for this are too varied and, frankly, too obvious to enumerate in full. Suffice it to say for now that cinema is a medium of such unprecedented volatility that those entrusted with evaluating its many-hued issue are forced, almost as a mechanism of sheer survival, to fall back on one warhorse gimmick or another from which the reader, poor excluded slob, can then divine what narrowly-cast critical sensibility is ascendant. For a critic it's either that or surrender to the irrational nature of the art and acknowledge a baseline cynicism in the critical enterprise. Whether it's mass-market critics tailoring reviews to their own, abysmally low opinion of the audience, or the merry band of Stepford Cinephiles across the globe knocking great viscous balls of reflexive, often identically-worded CriticSpeak back and forth at one another in the most incestuous game of linguistic volley ball imaginable, the imperatives of film criticism will undoubtedly forever reside as far from the true nature of motion pictures as its practitioners can get away with. It literally has to be that way. After all, what film critic on earth . . . good or bad; esteemed or despised . . . wants to voluntarily bring the ballgame to a halt by admitting that words, in the end, will never get the job done?

That said, if FilmCrit is indeed a sweet racket . . . and I don't say that it isn't; at least for those who do it well . . . it does, however, invite certain impulses that can mis-shape the perspective of otherwise unsuspecting readers. I'm speaking, in the main, of the potential for abuse in retrospective analysis; a widely-practiced critical phenomenon (for those of you playing along at home) wherein a work that once suffered foul injustice at the hands of its contemporary jurists is re-heard by a subsequent generation of critics; picked up, dusted off, resurrected; very often reborn into a higher form.

In other words, exactly what Janet Malcom tried to do for poor old J.D. Salinger back in 2001. She's correct that the blinkered estimates of yesteryear can assist a later critic in gauging just how poorly (or not) this work or that work was treated, and for every such rescue mission in literary criticism, I daresay there must be a dozen or more in the arena of cinema. It's a worthy and valuable function, on its face, but the possibility that it could easily get out of hand occurred to me the other night when I had opportunity to revisit Otto Preminger's panavision trainwreck, Skidoo, and reflect on my own critical attitudes (such as they were) when first I bore witness to it.

I saw Skidoo for the first time on television (where else) sometime in the mid 1980s. I'll confess to being somewhat eager beforehand. You see, I was already a confirmed fanatic when it came to its director. More crucially, I was still careening heedlessly through the as-yet-undiscovered (by me) niches and alleyways and hidey-holes of cinema; fully intoxicated by that post-adolescent auteurist fever-dream where something . . . anything . . . could always be found that would redeem even the most maudit of maudit works.

I was familiar with Skidoo's generally foul reputation, of course . . . I doubt if I had ever come across a positive word said in its behalf . . . but I couldn't have cared less. In those days I was trying to make my way as a 'working' film critic (translation: trying to land a paying gig); casting perspective where I could on the medium's discharges, old and new. So I had, you could say, a sense of mission inside my heart. No, it wasn't morbid curiosity driving me (as it would be today); it wasn't even a basic interest in seeing a heretofore unseen film by a director I admired extravagantly. If anything I was, in that moment, possessed by an overwhelming desire to redress a critical wrong and ride to the rescue of a work that just . . . had to be . . . far more worthy than everyone said it was. The very fact that critics of its time dismissed the thing with no more than a few paragraphs and a shudder only gave this determination to welcome it and clasp it to my critical bosom a greater urgency than I had anticipated.

Turns out that I wasn't up to the task. Perhaps it was because I hadn't yet seen other Preminger failures of the late 60s/early 70s and didn't really know what to expect (it must be said that a film like Skidoo comes as a considerable shock when you only know this man's work, as I did then, from relative masterworks such as The Cardinal, Anatomy of a Murder, Daisy Kenyon; Bunny Lake is Missing, even); perhaps the abominable Pan 'n' Scan transfer only served to magnify flaws that would not have been quite so obvious if I was seeing it in its correct aspect ratio; perhaps my capacity for willful self-delusion simply wasn't as vast as the enterprise of film criticism requires; perhaps it was all three. Fact is, I still don't know why my iron-clad determination to admire Skidoo at any cost suddenly vanished midway into the opening sequence. I only know that it did.

I won't say that I was apalled enough to switch it off, or that I could have written it off as just a prosaically bad movie; even as a lesser work in the Preminger canon. The minor films of his that I'd seen by then . . . Saint Joan and (I think) The Moon is Blue . . . had a degree of logic to their failings; they harmonized with the kind of filmmaker I already believed Otto Preminger to be. But Skidoo, with its mystifying blend of capering farce and counter-cultural lip service, its battalion of Hollywood veterans throwing their dignity onto the pyre en masse, was . . . something else, and I watched it unfold in all its garish, mind-breaking wrongness with an unambiguous species of fascination. I couldn't begin to tell if it was some kind of failed satire, or a misguided joke on the audience; though I knew one thing almost instantly: Skidoo was a stillborn child inseminated by shrieking miscalculations; the kind that I, card-carrying Teenage Auteurist, was simply not accustomed to attributing to favored directors. It stood tall in the psychedelic saddle as a depraved and unexpected challenge to my fundamental conception of Otto Preminger as an artist, and I didn't like that. I didn't like it at all.

I watched it again two nights ago, after the mighty Turner Classic Movies hauled it out of the formless void where it had been dangling on a hook for a couple of decades and slapped it onto their weekly TCM Underground presentation. Still Pan 'n' Scan (I'm told that TCM wouldn't plunk down the coin for a widescreen edition, thereby foregoing what would at least have been a premiere run in that format), but of far better image quality than washed-out bootlegs and my dim recollection. I won't say that my fundamental opinion of it shifted to any degree, but it puzzled and absorbed me nevertheless, far more than it had twenty-odd years ago, and the realization stole upon me as I watched it that I could, if I so desired (and I practically did at that moment), unpack my adjectives and write something positive . . . if not, perhaps, glowing with praise . . . about it in this blog. The unchecked, impulsive half of my brain was aware that Skidoo was still, by any rational measure, absolutely lousy; but the other half, my supposedly rational and sober critical faculty, was once again prepared to dive in like an overeager lifeguard and breathe a good name into the lungs of this godawful movie that it has otherwise never enjoyed. The feeling passed after a few hours, but it was replaced by a disturbing recognition of my own cynicism. Not the cynicism of coming here to more or less deliberately inflate a reaction that was at best highly ambiguous into a misleading form of exuberance (though there was that). I mean the impulses of my misspent youth that got me itching to rush to this movie's defense before I'd actually seen it.

Oh, you may say I was being idealistic then; indulging a weakness endemic to youth and all that rhythm. But not only do I find it questionable in my case, I have a wisp of suspicion that almost every such resurrection in FilmCrit (planned or executed; wrong or righteous) is accompanied by a like degree of calculation. For anyone in this racket with so much as an ounce of ambition . . . and I plead guilty to harboring more than one ounce . . . will discover that idealism and cynicism are so fatally joined, so inexorably intertwined, that after awhile you can't tell one condition from the other; what's more, you don't even want to. It won't get you anywhere. Latter-day cinephiles and movie reviewers (and I number myself in this concord) should, it can be argued, preserve their morale and remain in perpetual flight from the reality of what they're doing. But when our enthusiasm, our true and everlasting love for cinema becomes so omnivorous, so all-embracing that even crap like Skidoo starts looking good to us, then I sometimes wonder if it might not be time to honor the medium at the center of our souls and find another, slightly less honorable preoccupation.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Crime Without Passion
(Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur; 1934)

In Crime Without Passion (1934), Claude Rains is cast as Lee Gentry, the 'Champion of the Damned'; a flamboyantly corrupt, womanizing mouthpiece with an evil reputation for successfully defending the least defensible transgressors in society. It's a reputation he exults in lavishly; scaling the heights of smug self-satisfaction until his arrogance achieves a weird, irresistable kind of purity. When he accidentally shoots a girlfriend (Margo) he's otherwise trying to unload, Fate (the melodramatic kind) enters the picture and things unravel. Gentry's efforts to rig an after-the-fact alibi become desperate; his once-golden touch now appears unsure; a nasty fall portends. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (along with the crucial assistance of cinematographer Lee Garmes) co-wrote and directed Crime Without Passion; making little effort to obscure the bald theatricality of their tale, every jagged twist and turn of it. As playwrights they could be deft, almost machine-like (albeit sublimely so); as filmmakers they seemed intrinsically undisciplined, even incapable of a light touch. Between 1934 and 1936 they produced four, more or less independent features for Paramount at the studio's facilities on Long Island (far from the prying eyes of Adolph Zukor). And strange creations they were; born of strange methods . . . like sentries standing watch, the two men would essentially take turns directing the actors each day, while Garmes handled the pictorial end. Having seen all but one of these films (1935's Once in a Blue Moon), I can't say I'm shocked at their having fallen into relative obscurity, despite their flashes of wit and occasional cinematic joy. Crime Without Passion, the first and by far the best Hecht-MacArthur production, endures in the cinephile consciousness, mainly for a breathtaking opening montage by Slavko Vorkapich; a wild, truly unhinged emanation that loudly and triumphantly introduced the avant-garde into mainstream American filmmaking. Vorkapich's opening has so much visual impact that it's nigh impossible to imagine what this film would have been like without it. It has the effect of amplifying the melodrama, virtually forcing everything thereafter into something very like a tabloid newspaperman's idea of expressionism: Caligari, by way of Walter Burns.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Some Remarks on . . .
Bruce Conner and Report (1967)

Entering into negotiations with executives at Time, Inc. over the sale of a film he'd shot in Dallas on November 22, 1963, Abraham Zapruder was adamant that his 26.6 seconds of 8mm Kodachrome safety stock be used in the most dignified manner possible. He had visions, awful nightmare visions of seedy people ducking into some armpit of a movie theater in Times Square to watch the now-former President John F. Kennedy get his head blown apart in something more than living color; and the very notion of such a thing made him positively ill. But once he was given the proper assurances, the old man forked over both the film and all publication rights thereto for a final sum of two hundred grand.

Thus did Abraham Zapruder become the first man on earth to make a buck off of the Kennedy assassination.

At the time it would have been hard for American innocents (and they were still legion in '63) to see it in those terms. I mean . . . think about it . . . surely, only the most curdled and irretrievably cynical could dare think that everything, even a filmed record of a political assassination, could become a creature of the marketplace, a mere commodity to be bought or sold. It would not, however, have been a revelation to Bruce Conner. Beginning in the mid 1950s this native of Kansas constructed a large measure of his creative identity through the simple act of gathering together what freedom's land had seen fit to discard; incorporating a mass of found objects, like a Beat generation Duchamp, into a series of assemblages; enigmatic sculptures that, in the aggregate, acted as a critique of American life (among other themes) while investing the individual parts with an aesthetic force not one of them could have had on their own. Furniture pieces, rhinestone necklaces, doll limbs, once-fashionable ladies garments; they'd all been products at one time or another; things, objects, that people paid money to call their own. Now, after their liberation from the trash heap or the thrift shop, they stood transformed and resonant.

When he jumped into the realm of cinema, a move that was only inevitable, Bruce Conner employed a somewhat similar methodology. A Movie (1958), drew its substance from a variety of sources: stock footage, educational films, newsreels. Like the assemblages, there was little of significance in each individual snippet, but when joined together the effect was mordant . . . a term that could be spread evenly across virtually the entire spectrum of American avant-garde filmmaking of that time . . . and more than a little grim (1961's Cosmic Ray utilized roughly the same technique, but to a more frenzied effect). For those who have need of such things, it was a landmark; a status underlined by its inclusion in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry . . . the same mortuary of American film where, coincidentally (?), Abraham Zapruder's film now resides.

But while the earlier works could, as I say, be darkly humorous, 1967's Report is simply dark. In its final form (the film endured numerous revisions over the years of its creation) it is a repetition of newsreel footage from that godawful Friday in Dallas . . . the motorcade, the limo, the chaos, the Mannlicher-Carcano held aloft for all to see, on and on . . . punctuated by long blasts of film leader and set to the song of overheated radio reports; eventually joined, in a terrible communion, by an avalanche of other media: TV commercials, industrial films, commercial cinema (ecstatic shots from James Whale's Frankenstein and Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front), sport newsreels, footage of the Kennedys in better times; all of it creating, in its final moments, a bleak, if all-too-recognizable, vortex; as if the great national tragedy that had the world riveted for a time had been pulled down into the fever and ague of the hour and become just as matter of fact, and as marketable, as everything else.

Report is sensory overload with a conscience, but I seriously doubt if Bruce Conner, who passed away on July 7 at the age of 74, could have ever made much money off of it.

(Update - 07/10: At the request of an attorney representing Bruce Conner's widow, I've removed Report. I'm told that Conner was adamant that his work not be shown online, and that is a wish I shall respect. Believe you me, I would not have removed it for anyone else).

Monday, July 7, 2008

Tell Them Who You Are (Mark Wexler; 2004)

An overtly smug session of film festival psychotherapy done on the cheap, Tell Them Who You Are is nominally Mark Wexler's shot-on-video portrait of his father, the cinematographer and filmmaker Haskell Wexler. More to the point, it is a determined effort to paint the old man as a remote, hopelessly irascible, leftist prick. Forget the brilliant career and aversion to compromise, the lifelong committment to causes larger than winning an Academy Award. Mark has issues, folks, and the political divide between father and son . . . he seems to think sprawling at the feet of George W. Bush on Air Force One itself represents an achievement of some weight . . . is only the beginning of where he wants to drag us. For despite the wealth of detail and testimony spread throughout, Tell Them Who You Are isn't really about Haskell Wexler or what he has accomplished. It's about family relationships, unresolved issues, generational gulfstreams; and nary a moment goes by when the viewer isn't confronted by the filmmaker's mewling resolve to offer us something more 'meaningful' than the study of a man whose extraordinary eye helped to reshape American cinema. With its unconscionably patronizing, resentful tone it bears a striking resemblence to that other navel-gazing landmark in the annals of filial ambush, Aiyana Elliott's The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack (2000) but without the relief of that film's concomitant interest in its subject as an artist. While Haskell Wexler's true achievement and often implacable will would inspire any halfway decent documentarian to dig into the marrow of the man (or die trying), Mark Wexler simply packs up the car and drives it headlong into Oprah country, where all mediocrities go to waste their time (and ours) without stopping for gas.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Film Blog Focus: The Auteurs' Notebook

"The Auteurs," by their own account, "is a web site with a uniquely curated library of films delivered through high-definition streaming and download on demand. It is an online cinematheque where film lovers around the world come together to watch, discuss, and read about the best of cinema." For our present purposes, their site features The Auteurs' Notebook, an exceptional blog collecting all the things that make the cinephile heart beat that much faster.

In recent entries:

Dan Sallit swoons (with slight reservations) over a pair of Hiroki Ryuichi entries at the 2008 NYAFF

David Phelps makes this correspondent swoon with a report on Ken Jacobs' Razzle Dazzle

In another NYAFF dispatch, Daniel Kasman riffs on 'The Kubrick Stare' and its residue in Cheang Pou-soi's Shamo

m swiezynski continues a series on the strange, wondrous influence Marfa, Texas and its unforgiving moonscape have had on our cinema, with a flotilla of images from Paul Thomas Anderson's unruly jeremiad on the American soul, There Will Be Blood.

And . . .

An unsigned and (frankly) overly generous plug for some blog that's been running a series of Alfred Hitchcock interview recordings.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Notepad Recovery: Hello, Metropolis!

Two nights ago, I was rooting through a tower of legal pads I have around the house. I mainly use them to memorialize notes (both random and purposeful), stray phrases, and sentences I intended to use in the composition of this piece or that one (this is, of course, back when I was still actively engaged in writing about film). As I say, I was going through the shapeless mass of these contents when I came across the following; written well over a year ago, and for a purpose I'm unable to recall:

Metropolis, that occult skyscraper of vision piled atop ever more crazed vision; of fairy tale narrative and futuristic nightmare; of half-buried eroticism and a mystic symbology lifted, with all the weightless ease of an empty bottle, from the Old Testament; all in service to a vaguely Socialist fever dream its director, Fritz Lang, had no real interest in. That tattered Metropolis, in all of its deranged willfulness and splendor, will almost certainly never be seen in its entirety again.

On this auspicious day . . . a day on which that blinkered observation is reduced to joyous ash with the discovery, at long last, of all that has been missing from Lang's half-sane masterwork . . . I feel chuffed enuff to go solo, as it were, and start the cine-blog you are reading now.