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.