When the controllers of the living-room monoculture graduated from radio to television, there was inevitably a moment when the power of transmission of commerce and sponsorship into every family’s private home became absolutely clear in its incalculability, when the forces that dictated the forms that popular culture would take in the decades to come got their most inarguable taste of what sheer lightning they now wielded. Arguably, that moment corresponded with the quiz show scandals of the middle 1950s, a fascinating episode that tells us a great deal about America’s character as a nation and how that character was permanently altered by TV. It also tells us how quickly the networks and their sponsors learned how far they could push the American public, and how they could tweak those limits. The events themselves were simple enough: at the height of the primetime game show craze that took hold near the end of network television’s first decade, several programs — most notably NBC’s Twenty-One, though the first domino to fall was actually the short-lived, Colgate-sponsored Dotto — were found to have been feeding contestants answers in an effort to control the personalities that kept appearing before the cameras week after week, thus affecting ratings and advertisers, but as an ancillary result managing to alter the unspoken conventional wisdom over whose visage actually belonged on the glowing screens of the United States, and what impressions and thoughts those personalities were capable of or interested in implanting into us.
Charles Van Doren was an unlikely yet somehow impeccable superstar of the moment; as a long-running Twenty-One contestant whose clean-cut demeanor and seemingly boundless knowledge made him a pop culture phenomenon (on the cover of TV Guide and Time in 1957, accompanied on the latter by a caption that says much: “brains vs. dollars on TV”), he was beloved by his network for his mass appeal as a comforting and competent presence — he brought eyes to sets, relaxed sex appeal and the tension of the ticking clock and all. But in the exact same America in which Dwight Eisenhower had won two elections over grousing about his opponent Adlai Stevenson’s eggheadedness, Van Doren’s popularity had the unexpected effect also of adding an intellectual appeal to the burgeoning medium; he was the privileged offspring of Mark and Dorothy Van Doren, upper-crust academic writers and editors both. It’s relatively low on his list of achievements, but Mark Van Doren was film critic for The Nation in the 1930s, where he said of Modern Times: “The film as a whole means no more than Charlie Chaplin means.” So it goes: Mark’s son Charles meant whatever America needed him to mean, and in 1994’s Quiz Show he means what director Robert Redford needs him to mean, largely regardless of his own consent or, as far as Van Doren seems to want us to realize, willpower. He became another contestant on Twenty-One, the most charismatic, amiable and reassuring of all (think of an anti-Arthur Chu), enough so that hordes of the public became invested in his becoming rich, a life of hard work and intelligence paying off at last. He was also, like his predecessor the eventual whistleblower Herb Stempel (John Turturro, in a somewhat off-the-handle performance that’s nevertheless deeply compelling), a contestant to whom the answers were given. The justification by his benefactors and by his own conscience was that he would have known or been able to learn the answers himself, so high-level were his faculties, so in his case it wasn’t even really a “lie.” Was it? And how could he say no?
Redford’s lengthy exploration of this rich narrative, forging a bond between the audience and the characters that’s formed into what may or may not be even higher drama than the game shows that inspired it, is a long movie but one that’s worth every second — it doesn’t entirely escape the superficial period-piece indulgences common to Hollywood reenactments of things that, at time of production, were still in something like conscious cultural memory, but there’s very little of that unfortunate winking to distract us from what is actually an incredibly nuanced portrait less of a long-ago zeitgeist than of a handful of people whose lives were forever altered by that moment. The cracking screenplay by Paul Attanasio demonizes no one, but also leaves little doubt of its adherence to a coherent point of view: that is to say, the key players and Van Doren in particular all performed according to their instincts, but those instincts were often revealing darker forces that had formed both who these figures were, what kind of world they were occupying and where that world was heading. There’s sympathy and wit, and a masterfully ambiguous fate for each of three major figures, but there is also a sense of sickening inevitability. The investigation becomes a tragedy of sorts; it can uncover something that should very well be obvious to all, but somehow it seems impossible to stop the forces it underlines: the permeation of commercially motivated popular culture into every aspect of day to day life, and the reigning over all else of privilege, the most benign elements of which are made less benign by how plainly they benefit from the more blatant, less apologetic forces of greed.
Quiz Show has a real-world urgency that calls to mind the Redford-produced and -starring All the President’s Men, part of a subgenre of procedural based-on-fact narratives that at their best (The Insider, Shattered Glass, Zodiac and Spotlight to name a few) are as exciting and breathless as great thrillers. Such films ride overwhelmingly on detail rather than emotion, even though the best of them overcome this limitation through the great work of actors or through a deep recognition of human truth underneath all the gripping process-nerd, investigative action. In this case Redford locates the human core of the film both in the righteousness of plucky Harvard Law grad Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow, a good anchor despite controversial accent) who’s working for a congressional subcommittee to investigate the quiz shows, and in the film’s overall sense of alignment with a country’s collective fascination with early television and disappointment when the oft-illusory nature of its vicarious thrills is uncovered, at least for a while. Erring toward subtlety even at its big dramatic crescendoes, the film locates verisimilitude everywhere, in minor characters like Goodwin’s wife Sandra played by Mira Sorvino, whose believable coolness adds considerable vitality to the film’s scattered domestic scenes, or in the depictions of NBC as a slick capitalist machine to churn out undemanding product in one direction, eyeballs and money in another. The scandal is simply so readymade for this kind of intricate, point by point storytelling it feels as though Redford scarcely has to create much in the way of additional drama.
What he does create is the space for several actors to run with their characterizations and create remarkable, larger-than-life impressions carved from telecined memories. Every role in the picture is beautifully cast down to the smallest (even Martin Scorsese shows up barking orders over telephones as a rep for Twenty-One sponsor Geritol), but the heart of it is Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren. Fiennes’ youth and eagerness here are striking when compared to most of his other signature rules, including a year earlier in Schindler’s List; but his evocation of Van Doren, the budding educator and golden child, the well-bred academic and the NBC pop star, is incredibly perceptive and full-bodied in its projection of both discomfort and unchecked, nearly unconscious self-regard. It would be simple enough to depict Van Doren as a sort of naive and railroaded alien, too pure for the machinations overtaking his life, too pure even to realize the depth of his own wrongdoing; equally the film could flaunt the lie at the core of so much “white collar” crime — what I do is not wrong because I am the one doing it and I do not act badly — and shame him into submission. Fiennes takes neither route; we’re privy in every second to his self-torture over the basic dishonesty of his new life, but also to why it’s so extraordinarily beneficial to him and why it feeds into his extant ego. The core of his personage is laid out nicely in his onscreen relationship to his father (Paul Scofield, stoic but sensitive) and the way its easy intellectual repartee, and the yearning of one to impress the other, is disrupted from the beginning by NBC glamour. But simultaneously, the story of the film is in the elder Van Doren’s expectations for his son, and the elbow room the entire family is provided by an illusory, society-wide sense of what it means to be “important.” In this sense we see that Charles Van Doren, and network game shows, only reinforce and finally extend the power of an established order spanning generations. On a person to person level, it’s not even malicious; what’s being blindly upholded comes to feel like just the natural order, but when a transgression like this occurs, and it’s plainly visible who is being cast aside in favor of it — Stempel for sure in this case, whose undoing comes as a result of being requested to miss an embarrassing question about Marty, but even the investigator and semi-protagonist Goodwin whose moral compass requires no external validation to measure itself, and who would never be at the receiving end of the adulation Van Doren briefly finds — that’s when we get a picture of something that’s much longer lived than a television trend.
This is how Quiz Show ultimately manages to provide one of the most salient and economical portraits of privilege in cinema. (It’s a lovely accident of fate that Marty, about working class New Yorkers, becomes such a thematic linchpin.) It flows downward from the top and ends where it wishes: NBC chairman Robert Kintner (Allan Rich, who again is ingeniously cast) having a friendly chat about their last shared golf game to the congressman (Oren Harris) chairing the committee that’s about to interrogate him — golf, incidentally, as the ultimate symbol of tone-deaf prestige, something I really don’t believe most movies of this commercial caliber would point out — but more than anything in the way that Van Doren is brought down to earth in ways he can’t even fathom. Selling himself as the eternal gifted child who was led astray and giving a self-congratulatory statement about his valiant struggle to tell the truth, he receives the expected commendations from several members of the panel, only to then be castigated by Steven Derounian, who pointedly announces that he’s from “a different part of New York” than Van Doren. His monologue is from the historical record: “Mr. Van Doren, I am happy that you made the statement, but I cannot agree with most of my colleagues who commended you for telling the truth, because I don’t think an adult of your intelligence ought to be commended for telling the truth.” The chamber then erupts in applause, an injection of anti-classism into the moment. It’s bittersweet for Goodwin: unlike his wife, who (in a speech that makes one particularly sad that Sorvino’s career stalled after the mid-’90s) gathers that Van Doren is more of a phony, seduced by high regard, than he lets on even to intimates, he has no interest in destroying a person, even as he recognizes that obliviously meaning well is not enough to redeem such a man. He understands the catharsis this moment allows for deceived Americans, but also realizes that the NBC executives in the room, like the opportunistic double-teaming parrots Dan Enright and Albert Freedman (David Paymer and Hank Azaria), will hear this outburst of populist anger and the cogs will start turning: how can this impulse be turned into our favor? We would gradually find out, and we certainly know now. “Television is gonna get us,” he says. It’s on the nose and it’s also indisputable.
[Includes some scattered leftover work from a 2005 review of the film.]
!!!!! AVOID !!!!!
JFK could very well be the most risible film ever nominated for an Academy Award; it may not be the worst film ever made, as there are too many possible avenues of ineptitude and evil corroding the marketplace that could potentially result in tangibly visible motion pictures, but fortunately most of us will never have to see them or even know about them or their creators. It’s essentially impossible to care about movies and not know who Oliver Stone is or what JFK is about; if you were alive when it was new, you’ll recall it was the subject of breathless news stories, innumerable parodies and even awards season hype. A box office hit and a video store phenomenon (on two tapes!). And if you weren’t, then the disgusting residue from it still permeates your media intake whether you know it or not; start with the defining ’90s artifact The X-Files, which seems to have been lifted wholesale from a stoned surfer’s weekend renting this, All the President’s Men and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But also, enterprising filmmaker Stone, who’s just like your scary Vietnam vet uncle who hoards canned goods in a converted school bus buried in his backyard except it’s somehow for “leftist” reasons, really harnessed the culture more than he defined it — he latched onto a long-lived countercultural phenomenon, non-exclusively but conspicuously popular among parties with very lax critical thinking skills, of inventing ever more intricate narratives around the murder of President Kennedy. Forever after, conspiracy talk would inevitably be tied to memories of this film, a rather ingenious cultural association that’s paid off handsomely; it’s scarcely relevant to its commercial, critical and cultural acumen that artistically and narratively, Stone’s film is a failure on absolutely every conceivable front.
None of this is brought up here to make an ideological point. While I share Stone’s feelings about the Vietnam War and war in general, I’m skeptical of the presentation of John F. Kennedy as peacenik killed for his radical views, which is hardly the only reason that I feel many of the alleged conspiracies surrounding the assassination are much ado about nothing. I feel persuaded that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone crackpot; but if he was one of multiple crackpots or an entire hemisphere of crackpots, it really doesn’t deeply interest me personally in light of the much more egregious crimes of current relevance we might spend our time poring over. I wasted a respectable amount of time reading about Kennedy’s death in my youth, have since been required to waste considerably more on the same topic for my job although at least then I got paid for it, and I don’t especially want to wander through enough of that muck again to make a coherent argument about my views here, so you can consider them irrelevant to what follows. I just want it stated emphatically that I am not strictly opposed to this film because of a lack of alignment with its conclusions about the assassination. It goes a lot deeper than that, and using that as the basis for a castigation on this level would require me to be a lot more passionate on this subject than I am, by far.
Paranoia is a great subject for a character study; Stone’s intent here is undoubtedly to revise the black-hearted, singleminded obsessiveness so richly laid out in 1970s New Hollywood films like those of Alan J. Pakula, not to mention Francis Coppola’s The Conversation. A well-directed and compelling version of the story of Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), the district attorney who was the only lawyer ever to bring anyone to criminal trial for the Kennedy assassination, seems well within the grasp of Hollywood cinema; a great piece of conspiracy propaganda, if you’re not generous. No medium is superior to film at the compelling dispensation of bullshit presented as palpable reality, from Flaherty to Griffith to Riefenstahl; and if you don’t accept the premise that it’s bullshit, fine, imagine the Eisenstein or Pudovkin investigation of Kennedy’s death. The point is that there is undeniably a compelling story to be told here, irrespective of the viewer’s relationship to it.
But somewhere along the way, Stone appears to have carried the reasonable enough expectation of “dramatic license” to an absurd conclusion; available literature suggests that rather than interpret the contradictory evidence that’s said to surround JFK in such a manner to suggest a specific and carefully reasoned point of view, he like some disgruntled Alice in Wonderland accepts and articulates seemingly every possible theory that has ever been associated with the conspiracy legend and presents them all, simultaneously, as the forbidden Truth. The bulging mass of semi-information, a ratking of half-truths and unformed ideas, is simply thrown at the wall in a manner that inundates rather than even explicating anything on its own terms; it’s never obvious what anyone’s talking about in the pages and pages of fast-‘n’-furious dialogue, and that seems to be the intention. You’re sunken into the paranoid mire, and I’m reminded of a defense I once heard from someone who was trying to get me to watch a very lengthy 9/11 Truther video back in the heyday of that stuff: “there’s so much in there, how can you not think that some of it is true?” This sort of credulity is, for whatever reason, what Stone sought; he cannot even provide the most basically believable dramatic interpretation of real life without flying off a bridge of wide-eyed madness. And it’s impossible to make the argument that this confusion is the artistic function he sought here; his admitted goal was to open minds to the cause of reinvestigation, parroting Garrison’s Fiat justitia ruat caelum statements in the film. Would that not be an easier task with a more cohesive narrative?
The conclusion has to be that the obfuscation in the film was by design. It would take a book or two to follow the many trails here that lead nowhere, most of them so mundane that it wouldn’t be a terribly rewarding task. But such is the fragility of the film’s house of cards that a blind sweep in any given direction will generally encounter a spurious “factoid” or several, all of which are presented with great dramatic weight as though they are shocking revelations, designed like a Fox News telecast to burrow under the skin of the audience and nag at them. Take, for example, the moment when Garrison and an associate linger outside the building containing Guy Banister’s office (Banister was a wackjob racist working as a p.i. who conspiracists often link to the assassination) and solemnly muse that two of its entrances, facing different streets, reach the same destination, a complete fabrication and actually the opposite of reality, but treated here with the heart-stopping import of a breakthrough. Why? Or better yet, the controversial matter of the “Clay Bertrand” alias, attributed by Garrison to the defendant at his trial, well-to-do New Orleanian Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones). Stone runs with an assertion made at some point by a random cop that Shaw admitted to the alias when questioned, a weak link that was never otherwise corroborated, but the way that he stages this moment is screamingly funny, with Shaw quite nonchalantly delivering the smoking gun as soon as he’s asked if he has any other names, at which point it’s dutifully typed onto the arrest report. In reality, said report was apparently filled out prior to the arrest, which seems to have resulted in it being declared inadmissable as evidence by the judge in the trial, which creates a big moment of righteous indignation in the film.
Another example: one of the most compelling moments in the film explores the infamous “single bullet theory” of Kennedy’s killing. The Warren Commission declared that Oswald shot three shots in about nine seconds — not six as the film repeatedly attests — one of which missed, one of which was the fatal shot that hit him in the back of the head, leaving a middle shot which wounded both Kennedy and John Connally. In the conspiratorial conception of this theory, delivered well by Costner in one of the few moments when Stone seems to trust his material enough to let the film breathe, it seems quite ridiculous; as Garrison says, the bullet is required to make all sorts of bizarre manuevers in order to inflict all of the necessary injuries on both men. Except that this dismissive notion of the “magic bullet” requires one to ignore the radically different heights of the seats occupied by Kennedy and Connally, and their uneven positioning in the limousine; modern computer modeling backs up the Commission’s argument that one bullet could easily be responsible for all of that damage. But how inconvenient in the face of an opportunity to let Costner lecture us on the nefarious forces at play in Dallas, that some piece of random dumb luck could destroy so much in a heartbeat. Once you’re aware of this, the scene becomes almost unbearably smug, with the same energy as a man battering you with a photo of the moon landing demanding to know why the flag is “moving.”
Perhaps most irksome of all is one of the shocking bombshells unveiled by a “man on the inside” Stone gleefully names “X,” apparently based on ex-JFK White House official Fletcher Prouty (who, being a very above-board non-scumbag, later did some PR for the Church of Scientology). The entire ideology of the film is formed around the notion that John F. Kennedy, in National Security Action Memorandum 263 (NSAM-263), announced intent to withdraw troops from Vietnam, thus curtailing the war to come; but when he was killed, Lyndon Johnson approved NSAM-273 which walked back this removal. This is so disingenuous in every respect it beggars belief; the withdrawal as originally conceived was dependent on the absence of events like a coup d’etat that occurred twenty days before Kennedy’s assassination, yet nevertheless, the memo signed by Johnson continued to promote the same long-term withdrawal. The narrative as Stone presents lacks even a casual relationship with the truth and requires a nonsensically simplistic notion of who both presidents were, and of how the U.S. military operates. All this begs the question of how much of this stuff Stone himself believes, and how much of it is his own opportunistic pandering to an understandably on-edge populace. His defense would undoubtedly be “dramatic license,” to make his story more cinematic, but if the facts as they exist are so compelling why must one not just boost them a bit but invent them wholecloth? If his intention is merely to present a fairy story of a lonely lawyer fighting back against the system, why is it necessary to adopt the iconography of a shared lived experience like the assassination of a president? The only conclusion one can make is that a movie about a fictitious assassination that nonetheless explored well-justified concerns over the draconian and murderous United States government wouldn’t have sold so many tickets and rentals, and wouldn’t have so thoroughly invaded the cable news cycle, at a time when such free publicity was manna from heaven.
Somehow, even this fails to really address the actual frustrations of JFK as a film. There’s some theory of reality in which you watch the movie and Stone tells you all of this stuff with style, verve and urgency and it blows your mind; and then you go home and look it up and get steamed because the bulk of it is make-believe. At least in that scenario, the structure of these revelations and the drama surrounding them is compelling. But Stone is such a dreadful filmmaker, and so infatuated with his prowess as a theoretically important artist, that he can’t even let us have this. This can’t even be a well-made, fun dumb movie; it has to be a sledgehammer-force, corny, self-important, juvenile and dramatically rote dumb movie, all gawking slow-motion gay orgies (Garrison was very preoccupied in his lifetime with “the homosexual underworld”) and celebrity cameos trotted out like it’s Judgment at Nuremberg all over again. The picture opens with Martin Sheen narrating the history of the U.S. during the Kennedy administration with the affect of an announcer who thinks it’s heart-stoppingly important that he sell you the right brand of mashed potatoes; soon enough John Williams’ bombastic, sentimental score kicks in, reminding us of why that now-univeraslly beloved figure was so difficult to tolerate when his work was still ubiquitous outside the whiz-bang genre. The movie has already declared itself a monument to ego-stroking chutzpah before it even really starts.
Stone’s dramatic shortcomings were culturally familiar well ahead of this; Platoon took home the Best Picture Oscar for 1986, and the Ron Kovic biopic Born on the Fourth of July, starring Tom Cruise, furthered that film’s uncomfortable mixture of unironic male bonding, mom-and-apple-pie sentimentality and the bold-colors, nuance-free exploration of war and politics. But the real roadmap for his sensibility is Alan Parker’s Midnight Express, which Stone won his first Oscar for writing nearly a decade before Platoon. It’s all there: the gay panic, the slick ugliness, the unwavering, jugular-hit dramatics, the freewheeling spin of actual events into a wild and wooly tale for the masses, all packaged in a manner as loud and as friendly to the needs of macho posturing as possible. His films, including that one, are auteurist through and through; to see them is to view the entire world through Oliver Stone-colored lenses. (How else would whiny one-dimensional Republicans populate more frames than not; how else would someone find a way to complain in vaguest possible terms about “hippies running around on drugs” in a scene that takes place in 1966?)
As in all of Stone’s films, everything is on the nose, which is why Jim Morrison was such an ideal subject for him; even the lighting seems to be trying to doubly convince us of something we’ve already gleaned. All the dialogue has grandiosity such that when Costner begins reading closing statements at the trial it doesn’t seem like he’s behaving any differently. Bereft of any real sense of threat, the film travels down into realms of pure cheese: Costner researching and flashing back and indulging in the flailing frustration of Jane Fonda in Julia; Jack Lemmon beaten up in slow motion, Joe Pesci’s eyebrows, John Candy entertaining interrogators with jive talk. The relationship of all this to real life doesn’t matter much when Stone only sees it as a way to sand it all down into cute caricature.
The larger problem is that even the ostensible point of the film is diluted by the incompetence with which it usually doles it out. The integration of documentary and staged footage is the least of the concerns; Stone isn’t great at pulling it off without really straining credulity, but few directors are. Other techniques are more bothersome: on two occasions, monologues by different characters — Walter Matthau on a plane, Donald Sutherland in a park — go on for so long that Stone breaks them up with stock footage, the music video affect of which only worsens the problem of basically being forced to listen to someone drone on at length (something like half an hour in Sutherland’s case; that might be an unfair exaggeration but I learned from the best) in interruption rather than complement to whatever story we’re meant to be following. Constant use of endless expository dialogue and flashbacks to explain all of this seems like an uncinematic methodology (imagine if All the President’s Men had constantly broken into Nixon B-roll) and, in addition to just sowing additional confusion, feels lazy; so much of the film is finally comprised of actors talking, talking and talking some more over footage: sometimes documentary footage, sometimes goofy impressionistic montages. Worse yet it nearly always seems to be talking past us rather than to us, an incomprehensible and unstructured flood of meaningless information whose only purpose is to have the final effect of feeling like, well, a lot. So much, again, that there just must be something there. That’s the essence of Stone’s strategy, and it seems not only wrongheaded but unwarranted.
All of which is made worse by the absolutely terrible portions of JFK in which Stone attempts to fashion it into a domestic drama, presumably as an extra narrative hook (again, a ridiculous error in judgment that Pakula never made, though he also had the advantage of directing a movie about something that actually happened). In over 200 minutes, Stone never establishes Garrison as much of a character except insofar as he says “oh, no!” when Kennedy is shot, announces that he’s ashamed to be an American that same day (you just wait, pal) and likes to demand that people tell him if they remember their “Hemingway” and “Shakespeare,” which makes these scenes particularly hard to take — they are so vague, so familiar and so heinously half-formed that they come across as a sub-Saturday Night Live sketch about an inattentive father. Sissy Spacek, who is too good an actress for this maltreatment but you wouldn’t know it from what she does here, gets to play the pathetically undercomposed nagging wife role, reminding him it’s 4:30 in the morning and that he’s too busy making speeches to watch his kids grow up. “I think you care more about John Kennedy than your own family!” she announces, proclaiming that she wants her life back only to be confronted with a torrent of such kooky declarations to satisyingly dance around the problem as “You just don’t get it, do you!?” and “The government wants you to be scared!”. If it’s too late for Costner’s Garrison to redeem himself in the eyes of his wife and kids, who cry when Mommy and Daddy fight, then at least he has the compensation that his “eyes have opened”; what’s more important, attending a dinner with your family or interviewing Pesci’s eyebrows? In the end, of course, Mrs. Garrison will appear dutifully in the courtroom just at the climactic showing of the Zapruder film, still his last and best supporter, and the picture will end on their walk into the future. They are America, or something.
It all rings ceaselessly false, like so much of Stone’s work, and builds up its self-regard on the underhanded illusion of naivete; what good does it do for Stone to parrot a line like “I can’t believe they killed him because he wanted to change things!”, to act therefore as though the pie-in-the-sky belief in an apparently miraculously competent government conspiracy is the obvious and unquestionable position of anyone who wants a better world. (In fairness to Stone, the fact that conspiracy-debunking falls so much to conservative and libertarian crackpots scarcely helps matters.) And it seems surprising that someone who flaunts his skepticism of institutions as much as Stone does would encourage so sycophantic a statement as the attribution of Kennedy as “your dying king.” In trying to get a handle on all this you’re left with the feeling of having to clean up a terrible mess; unlike Garrison, I don’t think it’s worth much more effort. The film is ideologically incoherent, silly and self-regarding, and it succeeded in every fantasy Stone had about it: generating just the right level of controversy at the time to render it inescapable as an artifact and to reframe the narrative around Kennedy’s assassination. It’s not just David Crosby-like doofuses who believe this stuff anymore; now there are plenty of people who took it on good faith that Stone was a decent enough soldier. He did, after all, dedicate the film to the youth of the planet, suggesting that they alone would be the harbingers of truth. What a nice sentiment, like the one at the end of Platoon. But the enterprise is really just cynicism; that’s Stone’s entire covert brand, and what’s worse is how many people understand this and still find reasons to praise him as a great schlock merchant, a charlatan with a conscience, whatever. JFK is the quintessential Oliver Stone propaganda piece designed for the further thriving and development of Oliver Stone’s career. It’s also the ultimate fruition of Hollywood’s — and auteurism’s — very worst promises.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
[Note: please see here for our previous writeup of the film, which covers more of “the basics” about it than this does.]
There was a time when I watched The Graduate nearly every year; not only did I adore it quite fervently, naming it for a good while as my all-time favorite film, but there was also something that felt tantalizingly unresolved about it to me. It seemed that each time I saw it I came away with a different interpretation of what it was actually telling me, questioning on each occasion my previous impressions. Now, seeing it for the first time in nearly a decade and therefore the first time in my thirties, it continues to unfold with fresh secrets, unexpected meanings and chords that strike altogether differently than they once did. Although it no longer occupies the shrine I once afforded it in my heart, it still may be the classic movie that fascinates me the most, the one whose implications I still don’t believe I’ve fully appreciated even after roughly ten encounters, and a lifetime’s worth of mulling it over. That’s why it now becomes the first film to receive a second essay in this space; I don’t know whether others will — it’s certainly possible — but I can guarantee this still won’t be the last time I try to wrap my head around the whole of The Graduate.
What has never really wavered — with the passage of time, the aging of the film’s initial audience (most of its key creative operators are now deceased, while all were still working in 2000 when I first saw it), and the generations of interpretation, appreciation and reinterpretation greeting The Graduate — is that its basic structure is that of a young adult rite of passage; and not necessarily, as some uncharitable readings would have it, a male rite of passage. That is to say: fighting as hard as you can to end up in a situation you never especially wanted. The hippie movement that was once associated with the movie, despite actual radicals’ and leftists’ misgivings about its apolitical tone, has receded into a relatively quiet subculture; the squares of 1967 are now the corpses of 2020, the rebels (at least those who sprang up as a result of the cultural ubiquity of a certain revolutionary mindset, rather than those who came about rebellion by way of naturally evolving belief) have become the squares and then some. Babies born in that year are now older than Murray Hamilton, who plays Mr. Robinson, the epitome of out-of-touch masculinity, was then.
It’s fair enough to argue that Mike Nichols and Buck Henry must have seemed tonedeaf at the time by ignoring the student demonstrations at Berkeley and the protests across the country that were reaching a boiling point, by only acknowledging the flowering of a growing morality in the youth of those heady days through a throwaway joke about “outside agitators” (a line that unexpectedly became funny and incisive again in 2020), through the disapproving sneers and glares directed at Benjamin and Elaine at the climax, and through Mr. Robinson’s weighty line of inquiry “Is there something I’ve said that’s caused this contempt, or just the things I stand for that you despise?” But in point of fact, what Robinson “stands for” is what has ailed Ben from the first moments of the film, a sullen youth aboard an airplane, and what the film thus spends its time investigating, and what it concludes he hasn’t the werewithal, discipline or self-reflection to really understand or, certainly, to destroy. (It was a very different case for the author of the novel The Graduate is based on, Charles Webb, but more on that in a moment.)
Beyond its sheer fleet ingenuity in scriptwriting, acting and directing terms, the ticket to the film’s continued relevance is America itself, and by extension capitalism: more and more a system designed to beat down individuality while also shunning the collective love and compassion that might once have saved us. Benjamin, like many, knows he wants his life to be different, but knows no imaginative way to achieve this: his great radical act is nothing more than the disruption of two marriages and the implied forging of a new one, and the ideological limits of this solution to his travails are apparent from the moment we leave him behind. But what else is he supposed to fight for? What love can he know beyond that which is handed over to him, predetermined? Conversely, Ben’s “time” (meaning the late ’60s) is basically meaningless to his story; the outer world beyond his tortured introspection and his brightened moments of respite from same, at least the parts of it which are visible to us, are no more or less banal than what any of us might face outside our own narratives any day of our lives: a college bonehead feeding cereal to his dog, for instance; the mocking “do not tease” sign that greets him in a private moment of misery outside the monkey house at the zoo.
There is also the specter of Benjamin’s life before his return home, subsumed in culture shock like somebody coming back from the war, and his dalliance with Mrs. Robinson — what were those “college experiences” he had no interest in discussing with her? It seems most likely they were no more inspiring than her time as an art student, or Elaine’s at Berkeley; it just ended with a note of more auspicious and conventional success. Much as the creeping familiarity and destructive inanity of the stories that sprang up from Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court coronation two years ago just pointed up how little boring people have changed in the specific and malicious manner of their boredom across generations, the tortuous flatness of the world around Benjamin does not feel particularly divergent from anything we ourselves know today; he is too sheltered to have to struggle for livelihood, but he is also too protected and too assured of his position in a well-oiled machine to experience anything like a real emotional cycle or, frankly, a human connection of any serious depth. When we meet him he lives for others, zombielike, with half-hearted, ingrained eagerness to please (even upholding a phony sexual prowess with a performative wink when an older woman sets him up for a boast about being past “the teenybopper stage”), surrounded by predatory actions and people; the only people he knows, it seems, are his parents’ friends, up to and including the one he has an affair with mostly, it seems in the beginning, to be polite.
You can track the ever-present banality of the passing years within the characterizations of Ben’s parents (Elizabeth Wilson and William Daniels); not only are these caricatures familiar, they are essentially identical to what a comedic depiction of the affluent suburban couple and lifestyle would be to this day. He is a lifestyle symbol to them; any moment in which he asks them to listen is met with impatience and derision. It’s undoubtedly the Braddocks that have given Ben the constant sense that he is being watched, even on the rare occasion when he isn’t; twice he demands to know what other, absent people would say if they saw what he was doing “right now.” Little wonder he constantly finds himself literally unsure of where to stand or where to go. Little wonder that he warms to the idea of being seduced then immerses himself in it, shutting out everything else. It becomes his only escape from the prison of preordained convention into which he was born.
Little wonder also that he leaps, equally headfirst, into his first encounter (since college, at least) with someone his own age; they don’t necessarily have much in common besides their youth and the social status of the families they come from — the Robinsons’ is a broken marriage, but it presents an outward portrait of normalcy — but after the inept, cruel date he tries to take Elaine on, he discovers or rediscovers the supernatural wonder of bullshitting with someone while eating french fries in the car (which nonetheless underlines the lack of a place for him in the purgatory between the straight world and the counterculture, as he spars with some local groovies over their loud music). Elaine’s “the first person” he can “stand to be with,” he says, later ominously adding the only direct statement of his mindset he ever offers: “My whole life is just a waste; there’s just nothing.” At first blush it feels like Katharine Ross, who really does look like she could be Anne Bancroft’s daughter, isn’t given much to do as Elaine — while Nichols and Henry are careful to show empathy toward her in the various kinds of pain and inconvenience she’s dealt in the course of the narrative, she also has to justify the central joke that Benjamin falls in love, or thinks he falls in love, with the absolute first person he runs across back home, and the exact person both his parents and Elaine’s dad were insisting that he take out, and this is his act of defiance!
But Elaine is just as confused as Ben is, and Ben is less of a monster than is sometimes reported; there is some intentional menace, and more than a slight touch of the pathetic, in the way he wanders around following Elaine after she discovers the truth about his affair with her mother, but it’s also just an oversized illustration of the way unrequited love sometimes makes a simpering fool out of everybody, and moreover, Elaine herself is clearly conflicted about Benjamin: quite attracted to and interested in him but finding it impossible — for familial reasons — to pursue anything but the most permanent union with him, and understandably uncertain about committing to that. Meanwhile the extremely naive Ben is all-in immediately because the idea of marrying Elaine feels like a clarification and a resolution for the great fear he’s been expressing throughout the film, about “the future” — a vague expression of inarticulate dread he keeps returning to because he has no better words for what’s upsetting him, then a motif he keeps returning to in order to explain away (to himself or to others) why that fear and dread won’t go away. It goes away when he talks to Elaine because he’s comfortable around her, opens up to her and admits to his compulsion to be rude to the people who are constantly demanding him to uphold a certain image, exhausting him; it even seems to go away later when her absence gives him something to pine for, as though playing the part of a seasoned suave playboy tormenting an exasperated woman gives him an identity. It’s telling that he seems oblivious to the moral implications of basically becoming a stalker, but feels scummy and irredeemable when doing something as primal and human as having an affair.
It may be easier for Benjamin to talk to Elaine, but the person who actually understands his mindset and what troubles him is her mother, who spins his vague discontent into the actions of someone who long ago dropped all pretense, outside the confines of her suburban prison, to living for anything except unassuming pleasure. When he asks her “Are you always this much afraid of being alone?” and she bluntly replies “yes,” she is speaking for his destiny — at least on the assumption he continues to live a life “playing a game” in which “the rules don’t make any sense to me.” The later fast food conversation with Elaine is the resolution of what he asked for when he requested that Mrs. Robinson talk to him instead of just fucking him (“I don’t think we have much to say to each other,” she answered); that simple yearning for a connection in fact required far less of a conversational partner than her mother seemed to assume, even if perhaps it’s because she knows where such vulnerability can lead.
This is borne out by Mrs. Robinson’s own arc of insecurity and alcoholism — she “had” to leave college and marry her husband, and her face when she says the word “art” for the second time reveals the same exhaustion Benjamin knows from years of trying to play along with his parents’ social circle and their class-conscious hectoring as much as it parallels the departure from school that the film’s climax will require of Elaine. She has a narcissistic streak as well: when he makes any sort of objection to their arrangement, she reacts nastily, at one point prodding him along with “I’m disgusting to you,” and manages to so completely short-circuit his attempts at conversation that he ends a long argument with the ultimate concession, “Let’s not talk at all.” If it’s unfair that Ben thinks of Mrs. Robinson as a brief respite from the boredom of his summer at home, it’s fair to say that she thinks equally little of him, in fact seems to view him as trash because of her own self-loathing — but it’s equally possible that, in trying to circumvent a doomed partnership in the latter part of the film, she’s just serving as a kind of conscience for the film, just trying to prevent another loveless marriage, another pair of tanked lives. Her “goodbye Benjamin” after Elaine discovers their affair is the first time she doesn’t place herself above him somehow; they’re in the same desperate club now and, at least in her conception, always will be. But you can see why Ben comes to think of her as just another of those parental satellites chipping away at him; all he seeks is the young and simple and fresh love that should be anyone’s inalienable right. But he has walked into a spider web of a kind. The fact remains that he is leaping from one illusion to another, spinning the relationship his parents wanted him to have in the first place into an act of rebellion.
If Buck Henry did not revolt against this conception of Benjamin’s, Mike Nichols certainly did, first off in his refusal to demonize Mrs. Robinson (which the novel arguably does) and then in one of the most refreshingly and fascinatingly ambiguous endings to any film. The cloud of uncertainty and terror that slowly settles on Ben and Elaine’s faces in the last scene as “The Sound of Silence” reappears on the soundtrack — the end referring back to the beginning and plainly but not childishly giving an eloquent voice to what’s happening onscreen — is masterfully executed, and it remains distinctly unsettling even long after passing into the annals of popular culture. Frankly, there is no simple way to “explain” what is happening to these two people on that bus and why, just like there is no really handy simplification for the three-way conflict between Benjamin, Elaine and Mrs. Robinson. It seems to hang in the air after the fade, completely circumventing any temptation to take a simple black and white view of anything that happens in the preceding film. I can attest to this myself, if you’ll indulge me. I first saw The Graduate in July of 2000, the night before my girlfriend — who I’d never met face to face; we’d been fellow internet message board denizens in good old Web 1.0 — came to visit me for the first time to stay for a week. Our relationship had suffered much skepticism from my parents as well as hers, and coordinating this visit had been a Sisyphean task for a couple of powerless high schoolers. I was deep into a committed “love conquers all” mentality at the time, struggling through an emotionally taxing year by thinking of this relationship as the grand Odyssean quest of my life, and interpreted virtually all art I encountered during this period as somehow being about the importance and all-consuming inevitability of True Love, forever and for always, etc.
So of course, I found it cathartic when Elaine cried out Ben’s name and went running to him in the chapel, willfully missing (because deep down, I knew) that it was an expression of confusion, not love. I especially loved it when Elaine has her moment of revelation about the world being against the two of them, when she sees her parents and husband-to-be chiding her and cursing Ben in a series of impressionistic POV shots that demonstrate for the first time that she has now experienced the way that other people look at Ben. That us-versus-them mentality carries a universal ring of truth, especially in a world like ours that so often loudly presents genuine ideological enemies as targets for our resentment, but it undeniably sounds its bell loudest of all when you’re sixteen. Of course I howled with laughter at the outrageous moment when Ben wards off the wedding party and guests with a cross, then stops the door with it — it was funny and it felt good. And when the two of them boarded the bus and began to laugh at what had just happened, I laughed with them, thinking this film the perfect expression of what it felt like to fall in love and for no outsider to understand. I knew what was coming, of course; you couldn’t grow up watching television and not know, but it was still a rude shock in proper context — when Hoffman and Ross fell into that uncomfortable silence and started to look pensive, their hearts almost visibly sinking, I was left shaken. I wanted to deny what it was saying; I wanted to censure it as yet another missive from squares who thought they knew better than me — after all, the film showed no real solidarity with “the kids” either, passing Simon & Garfunkel (who I basically liked, and love now, though they were very much my parents’ music in a way that even the Beatles weren’t) as rock & roll and castigating nameless teens for making too much noise. I also loved the suggestion of unstated complexity; I found it truly haunting, but it all made the film so much more difficult to file away as validation for the sullen introvert who just wants to lay everything down for what he thinks, in his complete absence of lived experience and confronted with curt and emotionally limited surroundings, is love. I pushed the film out of my mind for a while, not finding its complex statements immediately useful and actually rather disturbed by them, but when I did recall it a couple of years later and sought out the shooting script I found myself retroactively thrilled by the bleak ambiguity of this finale, which by then had already borne itself out for me in a romance that had grown far more complicated than I once believed it would.
But the ending is not, in reality, a sharp rejection of Ben and Elaine’s courtship; that’s just the most obvious suggestion of Nichols’ decision to stage it in this manner. For the actual creator of The Graduate‘s story, novelist Charles Webb, the point is much different. Webb died in 2020, prompting the publication of a rather engrossing New York Times obituary, laying out among other things the narrative of Webb’s marriage and lifelong relationship with artist Eve Rudd, later known as Fred. Their own union mirrored that of Ben Braddock and Elaine Robinson, running afoul of disapproving authority figures and born of a general disillusionment with the establishment, and specifically with education. (“What was the point of that four years of hard work?” “You got me.”) The novel shares much of its dialogue with the film in between a good deal of intentionally barren prose but paints a broader kind of morality, with more explicit class consciousness. It ends with Elaine grabbing Benjamin’s hand and the simple statement “The bus began to move.” For the characters’ real life counterparts, a life in the suburban complacency (or anguish) of their parents was not in the cards — the Webbs lived a simple, anti-materialist lifestyle and shirked traditional capitalist values, confounding observers for their entire life. They remained together, often on the edge of self-imposed poverty, for the rest of their lives. In reality, Benjamin’s yearning for something “different” came true.
Still, a very different current runs through the film; Webb apparently viewed it as Nichols and the producers surveying the love story in the same condescending manner as the adults in the film, but this seems like an example of the same sort of black and white thinking that’s often evident, for good or ill, in the book. Ben and Elaine in the film don’t come across as budding creatives or left-wing idealists; their connection could amount to something, but for now it’s tentative and superficial as almost any relationship is in the first hours of its existence. And while the film’s ending does not preclude the utopian, romantic eventuality lived out by Charles and Fred, it also doesn’t court it; many liberal viewers did correctly interpret the picture as a rejection of the bourgeois and of the postwar California aspirational class, but the specific nature of that rejection was less apparent. Webb’s finale is a question mark, a mystery, teeming with possibility; the film’s could be read the same way, or it could just as easily be a treatise against conformity, a missive from a future filled with mistakes. In either case, it is so much more than a mere ride into the sunset — it is a cry from the soul, a refusal to resolve any kind of roadmap of life for us, and an intimidating insistence that we attempt to do so ourselves. Earlier in the film, at the stage when Ben confesses to Elaine that he’s having an affair but not with whom, she asks if it’s all over now. “Yes,” he proclaims, and we can see that he means it; and that is the only note of finality The Graduate offers — everything else is the oblivion of the unknowable, in all its promise, terror and impossible absurdity.
Still on lockdown, more or less. Who knows how many more of these we’ll get through before things are remotely back to normal again! I’m on kind of a roll with watching and reviewing stuff and I don’t want to slow down, so I’m going to race right into this here… it covers films viewed between May 3rd and July 7th of this year.
Full reviews this cycle: Few things give me more pleasure than writing about Hitchcock, but most (not all) of the masterpieces are now covered, so we move into the second tier with the still very fine if somewhat unnecessary remake of one of his early greats, the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (Lboxd — revisit, no change, last seen 2008), which I returned to for the 1950s canon project — and I must say, Universal’s Blu-ray release is a vast improvement on the old DVD. Few things are more difficult than writing about a film I love as much or consider as great as Deliverance (Lboxd — revisit, no change, last seen 2010) but I did that recently too, for the Best Picture nominees project.
Other films seen (with Lboxd links):
– For the continuing 2010s rewatch project, I revisited: Christine; Coco; Weekend; Certain Women; Manchester by the Sea; Get Out. All lived up to my original impressions and then some.
– I showed Amber Roma; Rolling Thunder Revue; and Playtime and the same goes for those as well.
– Corresponding with new Blu-rays, of which more below, I returned to Dodsworth and The End of St. Petersburg.
Non-feature or non-cinema screened:
– Quite a lot recently, but most of it’s covered in the Blu-ray section below. That said: while I rediscovered the old “scary stories” VHS favorite Teeny Tiny and the Witch Woman a few years back, I’d nearly forgotten about Ruth Brown’s exquisite readalong A Dark, Dark Tale until I ran across it a bit ago. Stick it out for the shocker ending!
– We’ve slowly continued Twin Peaks and have now reached the mediocre episodes I’d never seen, after the point when I gave up on it back in 2002 or so. We’ve stalled but we’ll finish it. I think.
– In the ’80s there was a PBS series called Alive from the Off-Center, a showcase for avant garde shorts and the like. My sister used to record it and many years later I ran across those tapes; one of the numerous faintly-remembered gems from those days was the early computer-assisted music video Concrete People, which the artiste himself has now posted online. Someday when I get around to transferring my old VHS tapes, dubbed from the air and from my sister’s collection, I will post more wonderful and bizarre stuff like this provided it doesn’t run up against any copyright claims.
– For Ringo Starr’s recent 80th, please feast your eyes on this wonderful interview with him and George Harrison from Ringo’s flamboyant “soused celeb” period of the 1980s.
– Talking of Beatles content, it is somehow new information to me that there was a video game based on the legedarily terrible Paul McCartney film Give My Regards to Broad Street, which regular readers will know is one of the ten worst films I’ve ever seen. Here is a mindbending, hypnotic walkthrough of said game.
Recent Blu-ray releases:
– Roma (The Criterion Collection): Criterion’s first venture into rescuing a streaming-only venture for the physical media marketplace does this remarkable film proud, though I think my favorite feature of all may be the package itself, its thick booklet full of photos and essays, and truly gorgeous design. But the included documentaries are plenty immersive and give a great deal of insight on how much the finished film reflects Alfonso Cuarón’s own life and the world of his childhood in painstaking, compassionate detail.
– Tex Avery: Screwball Classics Vol. 1 (Warner Archive): At last, new classic animation on Blu-ray from the most storied archive of such material there is; this gathering of many of Avery’s biggest shorts from his MGM period (after he left the Schlesinger studio in the early 1940s) omits my all-time favorite of his non-Warner cartoons, King Size Canary, but has the iconic, wonderful Red Hot Riding Hood, wildly funny and inventive entries like Who Killed Who, and childhood favorites like Symphony in Slang that, to be perfectly honest, haven’t aged as immaculately as I’d hoped. Avery was a great and distinctive director, though I maintain he did his best work in the weeds at Termite Terrace; but the completely manic and unrestrained nature of his MGM work is like Harvey Kurtzman leaving Mad to go work for the slick Hefner pub Trump, except actually successful. (Avery is probably better known as an MGM director nowadays than as one for Warners.) The cartoons look incredible, full of character and vibrant life; not all are spectacular but all are creative, at times astonishingly so. The genius-level peaks here and there compensate for the lack of Warner-like charm or the artistic singularity of a Clampett or Jones.
That holds for the stand-alone films included; things decline a bit with the entrance of Avery’s recurring characters. The three Droopy shorts included here are too repetitive to be collectively impressive; the single joke of the premise never really goes anywhere, and Droopy actually becomes less nuanced and well-drawn over the course of the series. I’ve never been a great fan of Screwball Squirrel — creating a character whose entire gimmick is his lack of any moral or aesthetic limit feels like a game of netless tennis to me — but the staggering darkness of something like The Hick Chick is vastly more fun and interesting than anything you could do with a character as one-dimensional as Droopy. And this illustrates an overall problem with MGM’s output (see below): it’s mostly just Warner Bros. with a higher budget covering up a surfeit of enthusiasm. There’s a bit of an adolescent vibe to Avery’s work that frequently makes it refreshingly uninhibited but just as often exposes the limitations of a very specific and very narrow kind of juvenile humor; you’re left with little doubt that a version of Avery born in a subsequent generation would be as likely to engage in the emptiness of Kricfalusi-like shock value as in the relative sophistication of the best Warner cartoons (but even if a modern animator wanted to do the latter, where and how would they pull it off?).
Don’t let any of those minor complaints deter you from this set, which is an absolute must-have for all sorts of reasons, and should be purchased to encourage further releases of its kind. If the Avery disc proves successful, it seems entirely possible we could see similar director-based collections with other cartoons in similarly immaculate condition. Plus, if the exuberant, naughty, absolutely irresistible Red Hot Riding Hood isn’t in your film collection, there’s no real point in having one.
– Tom and Jerry Golden Collection, Vol. 1 (Warner Archive): I have some memories of enjoying Tom and Jerry cartoons as a young kid on VHS as well as a little later in cable reruns, but these recollections are completely nonspecific except that I have always vividly remembered The Cat Concerto strictly because of the nearly identical Bugs Bunny cartoon (Rhapsody Rabbit, directed by Friz Freleng). Since I became intensely (re-)interested in classic animation when I was around 21, the majority of the childhood chestnuts I’ve revisited have lived up to my elevated affections. The Disney and Warner Bros. films are obviously on the highest artistic plane, and even the DePatie-Freleng Pink Panther cartoons, while obviously no great shakes artistically, continue to make me laugh thanks to their wonderful poses, comic timing and vaguely “modern art” leanings. Somehow I never got around to revisiting any of the Tom and Jerrys in the DVD era but I was sure that my disdain for Hanna and Barbera’s TV work wouldn’t carry over to their fully realized theatrical series that’s remained so iconic, I assumed deservedly so. When Warner Archive rereleased this set on Blu-ray early this year I jumped at the chance to dip back in and assumed I’d have a blast.
But with the important caveat that these clearly are not made to be viewed in lengthy chunks like this, rather to be seen individually and quite far apart, I have found that I do not like these films really at all. It’s not even that I think them lackluster compared to the best of Disney, Warners, UPA, the Fleischers, Tex Avery at MGM, etc., it’s that I think they are basically just bad. And to answer that caveat, watching multiple Chuck Jones-directed Road Runner cartoons in a row has never made them this monotonous to me; one of the problems with Tom and Jerry is that they are akin to what would happen if each of Wile E. Coyote’s failures was followed by a blunt-force sequence of the Road Runner attempting to kill or maim him. The “gags,” such as they are, land with a thud and more often than not are astonishingly sadistic — I lost count of how many times Tom emitted bloodcurdling screams, had his teeth broken out, or was threatened with a very un-cartoonish object like an axe. The satire of these cartoons on The Simpsons, “Itchy & Scratchy,” turns out barely to have been an exaggeration. To add to the mindnumbing violence, the characters are not consistently designed, their relationship doesn’t make any real sense (Tom usually shows no interest in actually consuming Jerry; theirs is more of a sibling-ish rivalry), and the cartoons feel extremely long due to bad pacing. The repetition from one short to the next is irksome, sure, but what’s worse is the repetition within the cartoons, and the sense that across each of them nothing interesting actually happens.
I don’t know if I’d quite go as far as saying that I regret buying this; these are an important part of American animation history — they took home armloads of Oscars, which says a lot more about the Oscars and MGM’s power over them than about the films — and they are smoothly and impressively well-animated. In fact, I must admit that the animation is often technically tremendous; neither the character designs nor the extremely banal backgrounds can keep up with the wildly expressive poses that occasionally show up on a character like Tom, who registers much more believably as an actual cat than, say, Sylvester (whose design is nonetheless inherently hilarious to me — he’s the only one of the Looney Tunes cast that I find hysterically funny just by looking at his model sheet). While Jerry’s elasticity and lack of discernible identity works against the whole, there are a good number of remarkable chase scenes scattered through this set that give the student of classic full animation a lot to study, which is even more ironic when you consider the kind of stilted TV trash Hanna-Barbera would become known for. Sadly these works fail to differ with television series like The Flintstones and Huckleberry Hound in the sense that they usually aren’t the least bit funny; I rarely cracked so much as a smile and found Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mouse to be the only consistently amusing short out of the nearly forty contained here. Kitty Foiled starts out well before running out of steam, and The Night Before Christmas is rather cute… but that’s honestly it, except for moments here and there. In the end I found it all quite a slog, especially going through it just after the breathlessly exciting Tex Avery set and while simultaneously plowing through the sixth volume of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection boxes — I’ve kept watching those in a trickle for years now because I don’t want to be finished with them, whereas I couldn’t wait to get this stupid cat and mouse out of my hair. I’m guessing I will probably not pick up future volumes in the series unless I’m persuaded that a purchase of it will be looked upon as a vote for more Looney Tunes.
– Dodworth (Warner Archive): The eye-popping restoration of this masterpiece, one of the great American films, was made with the assistance of the George Lucas Family Foundation. So looking upon this beautiful transfer of a film I never imagined could look so good marks the first time since I was about six years old that I’m actually glad Star Wars exists.
– The Bolshevik Trilogy: Three Films by Vsevolod Pudovkin (Flicker Alley): This was a disappointment, though I don’t think it’s really Flicker Alley’s fault. Here they bring three essential Soviet propaganda films of Pudovkin’s to hi-def for the first time, a task that amounts to a public service. Mother is one of the most emotionally effective Russian films of its era; I was less high on The End of St. Petersburg but was still happy to see it again; and Storm Over Asia was new to me and I fucking loved it (capsule below), and not only because it was so lovely to return to the seemingly bottomless well of silent cinema again. The supplements here are quite good as well; Peter Bagrov’s commentary on Mother is informative but a little dry, while Jan-Christopher Horak’s on Storm Over Asia is extremely strong. Best of all, the set includes Pudovkin’s hilarious and incredibly engaging short Chess Fever, which essentially predicts “geek culture” some sixty years in advance, or perhaps indicates it was there all along. And the transfers are perfectly OK, but the awful condition of the print of Mother is truly dispiriting — it’s deteriorated and clearly unrestored, though likely the best it’s ever looked on home video (and maybe the best it can look, short of an influx of funds that’s not likely forthcoming for a ninety year-old Soviet silent film). The End of St. Petersburg looks all right but according to Kristin Thompson has cropping issues, being based on the same print that’s circulated for decades. Storm Over Asia has actually been restored by Lobster Films, though even it has some flickering. I’ll still take it, but looking at all this right after Dodsworth is more than a little depressing. Still a valiant effort though, and I’m certainly glad these films are finally on the shelf and have been afforded even this much respect.
– Alice Guy-Blaché, Volumes 1 & 2 (Kino): Part of Kino’s Pioneer Women Filmmakers series, this is a deep (but by no means complete) dive into one of the first female directors and producers in cinema. Born in 1873, Guy-Blaché (frequently credited and probably more correctly known as Alice Guy) was also the head of two studios, Gaumont from 1896 to 1906 and Solax, which she cofounded, from 1910 to near the end of that decade. But her bona fides go deeper than that; an attendee of the first public exhibition of the Lumières’ Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (the first-ever theatrical showing of a moving film) in 1895, she’s long been credited in cinephilia circles and silent-film scholarship for the first “narrative” (non-actuality) film made one year later, Fairy of the Cabbages. Kino’s two separately sold discs are a highlight reel of Guy’s career from 1896 to 1914, restored as much as possible (some from fraying nitrate or weak paper prints) and presented in the highest quality in which you’re likely to ever see them, a massive step up from Youtube streams of these public domain films.
If you’re interested in the formative early decades of cinema and especially in the 1905-15 transitional era when the feature and modern forms of exhibition gradually came to prominence, these sets are invaluable whether you come away with a great deal of regard for Guy herself or not; the collections include most of her better-known films but they also incorporate films she produced rather than directed, not a bad idea as she was a pioneer in both capacities, but the lack of documentation or guidance on the discs themselves can be confusing when you’re watching something as fascinating as the Feuillade-lite crime short The Sewer and end up discovering later from the notes that it wasn’t a Guy-directed project. The two volumes are unevenly divided between Guy’s work for Gaumont and Solax; the former is short, has a lot of filler, and is mostly interesting as a clinical exploration of early cinema, sort of like Kino’s The Movies Begin with less iconic material, some of which really should be better known. Highlights among these shorts — in terms of historical importance as well as engagement — beyond the very odd Cabbages (which lifts a “babies as cabbages” concept that was then ubiquitous) include the amusing Madame Has Her Cravings, about a woman who steals food to satisfy pregnancy-related urges, the simple but effective sight gag A Sticky Woman, and the enjoyably elaborate juvenile-delinquent comedy The Glue. Best of all is the semi-legendary The Consequences of Feminism, in which men become fey layabouts as soon as women are in charge, which shows off Guy’s prescient sense of irony and comic timing; hers are among the funniest comedies of this vintage. Among the bonus films there is also a splendid piece of chase-scene slapstick called Race for the Sausage, which Guy may not have directed herself (precise credits in this era of studio filmmaking are sometimes unclear). There are also a number of Gaumont “actualities” included, some of which are experiments with synchronized sound that are of historical interest only — they are short clips of singers performing — but I got the biggest rush out of Alice Guy-Blaché Films a Photoscene, which — staged or not — is just about the only opportunity we’ll ever have to watch a 113 year-old film being made and certainly one of the only opportunities you can expect to actually watch a woman directing a film in the first few decades of the twentieth century. It’s a thunderous experience and a privilege to look at.
(One of Guy’s best-known credits is The Birth, Life and Death of Christ; for some unknown reason, perhaps a lack of clarity over her role in the production, it is in the bonus films. It’s a fairly perfunctory piece but it’s almost universally listed as a Guy project and is certainly fascinating to watch, though its relative overlength is a bit jarring when compared to the rest of this material.)
The Solax set is much more engrossing, and runs a great deal longer, with many films that warrant an unreserved recommendation: the genuinely very funny A Comedy of Errors which boasts a great performance by Guy stock player Blanche Cornwall; the surprisingly progressive cross-dressing farce Cousins of Sherlocko; a trio of exquisite-looking early westerns, especially the Griffith-like melodrama Frozen on Love’s Trail; plus the fine satires Making an American Citizen and Mr. Bruce Wins at Cards (with more perverse set design that’s half Les Vampires and half Get Smart, the very un-Eisenstein The Strike, and the solid domestic drama The Girl in the Arm-Chair. Talking of Griffith, as unwoke as it sounds to compare the Most Cancelled Director of All to a woman who’s finally having her moment thanks to the slight reduction of sexism in film scholarship, how you feel about his often delightful Biograph shorts is a good indicator of how much you’ll enjoy Guy’s films; their sensibilities, and the distinctive voices they deliver, are quite similar, though Guy’s focus on family and children is undoubtedly more sincere.
Of course most of these films make no attempt to transcend hardline social mores of their time and will prove totally foreign to a lot of viewers as a result; they’re not strong enough in a storytelling sense to put across the kind of connection you might find in Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration or William Hart’s Hell’s Hinges just a couple of years down the line… and to boot, even for seasoned viewers of films from this period, the odd placement of title cards in much of Guy’s work is jarring and doesn’t seem to find its grammatical groove for some time. (Caveat: who knows whether this is inherent to the films or just the surviving prints of them that were available to Kino.) However, technically the two sets track remarkable advancements and capture the early history and evolution of an artform with striking intimacy and focus. Plus the imperfections are often arresting in their way; there’s something about the gigantic block letters in these prints of the Solax pictures that I find very humorous, and the flawed, incomplete restorations we’re forced to contend with are sometimes in the process of disintegrating in rather beautifully ugly ways. I don’t miss frayed public domain prints of silent pictures flooding the marketplace, but I will admit that in the age of pristine Masters of Cinema copies of various European silent masterpieces there’s something alluring about seeing the decay of nitrate film preserved in high definition, although it doesn’t sully the heartbreak of Pudovkin’s Mother looking as bad as it does.
Mainly I would say it’s worth buying these two collections just to support further work in this regard from Kino; they’re by no means the perfect company, but apart from the underfunded Flicker Alley they’re the only American outlet that really puts time and effort into this kind of thing and it’s a boon to cinephiles that they’re doing this often thankless work. I wish I could praise the sets more unreservedly, then, but as so often I really wish Kino would put things through more stringent q.c. — there is a massively annoying problem with the first set whereby the “bonus films” (a gaggle of Gaumont shorts and featurettes dating from Guy’s tenure with the studio but in which, in many cases, her exact involvement is difficult to discern) that occupy the bulk of the disc’s running time have no Play All feature and will return you to the main menu after each title completes, forcing you to navigate a series of sub-menus to get back to where you were, which makes the whole thing a bit of a chore. It’s also somewhat irritating that every single film of any length has a full collection of restoration logos and credits; I want those companies to get all the credit in the world for what they’ve done too — though Lobster Films is really pushing it by periodically adding a bug in the corner of the frame of the shorts they worked on — but I wonder why it wasn’t possible to present something like the NFPF did in their Treasures series, constructing a whole separate section giving full credit to the restoration outlets and some attention to the work they do. All the same, it’s wonderful that a collection like this can even exist in 2020, and I do recommend checking them both out if you can.
Wow, that went on, didn’t it? Anyway, thirty capsule reviews of new-to-me films follow.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019, Céline Sciamma) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] I’ll level with you: this movie knocked me out to the point that whatever words I come up with seem grossly inefficient; it’s only not an A+ because I don’t trust myself to be able to write coherently about it yet, and there’s always the possibility I’m just a simp. It may be the greatest expression of love in cinema. It may be the greatest film ever made. I’m not sure. But transcendent experiences like this are not something you should pass by.
Shoplifters (2018, Hirokazu Kore-eda) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] Kore-da’s fusion of naturalism and acerbic Billy Wilder comedy looks great, packing the frame with information but never cluttering it, and never allowing its constant seeking of minor beauty to feel stilted or practiced; but what’s most remarkable about it is what a master class in pure, classic cinematic storytelling it is. If all you know is that it’s a film about a poor family unit supplementing their meager income with stolen goods from local shops, then perfect — just sit and watch where it takes you. The falling into place of the narrative afterward is both joyous and harrowing to witness: incendiary but never didactic, and wholly endearing.
The Burial of Kojo (2018, Blitz Bazawule) [c]
Maybe not without its merits as a magical-realist story (birds, upside down people, mystics, and yes, a live “burial”) with the feel of folklore, but so formally obnoxious it doesn’t matter. No disrespect intended but this plainly trusts neither its script nor its audience, unnecessarily underlining every moment with excess camera and editing trickery that just looks amateurish and not in the charming manner of actual outsider cinema but more along the lines of a first-year film student who’s excited about the medium but hasn’t yet determined the need in narrative films for some sort of basis to this kind of visual hyperactivity.
Babylon (1980, Franco Rosso) [hr]
Electrifying slice of chaos set in working class Brixton, where we meet a late-twenties reggae DJ and car mechanic known as Blue (Brinsley Forde) and his group of young, male and mostly black friends; the film follows the numerous obstacles that he and they encounter over the course of a week, from garnering up the right tunes and equipment for a soundsystem party to coping with irritating bosses, dictatorial parents and racist aggressors. Unreleased in the U.S. until 2019, this is one vibrant film whose lived-in and detailed world is refreshingly blunt in its realism. The score by the great Dennis Bovell pulsates, simmers and explodes.
Under the Silver Lake (2018, David Robert Mitchell)
[2010s catchup project.] Undeniably original, out-on-a-limb but unbearably smug fake noir in which Andrew Garfield slowly goes off his rocker hunting for a neighbor who disappeared; along the way we get a whole lot of edgelordy digressions in which the director of the anti-premarital sex PSA It Follows pretends to scold us but finally just demonstrates his own utter emptiness.
Booksmart (2019, Olivia Wilde) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] A John Hughes variant with improved social politics: it’s the last night before graduation and a couple of nerds (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, both superb) want to party finally, but in typical Hollywood structure-nerd fashion, that’s not enough; there has to be a whole bunch of labored “reasoning” behind their decision to do so, as well as a lot of unnecessarily protracted conflict. The film would be vastly better if it stuck to the smaller, more convincing situations that are the source of its actual laughs. Ideal for viewers who desperately wanted to spend more time with Tracy Flick.
The Steel Helmet (1951, Samuel Fuller) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] Korean War story is one of the few American films to uphold the uncompromising vision of violence and despair seen two decades earlier in All Quiet on the Western Front; not surprisingly, it was independently produced. Involving all across its minimalist 85 minutes, it tracking the movements of a Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans), lone survivor of his outfit, joining up with a young South Korean boy and a black medic (James Edwards), followed by an entire company setting up a post in a temple. The performances bring these vibrantly drawn characters to life, with complicated emotions, relationships and societal implications captured thoroughly and economically.
Pain and Glory (2019, Pedro Almodóvar) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] Almodóvar’s reputation precedes his 8½ and/or Cinema Paradiso riff insofar as one continually expects it to become much more outlandish than it actually is; in fact its restraint, sincerity and sublimely executed sensuality are refreshing, although as with the aforementioned influences, individual scenes feel more charming and significant than the whole. Antonio Banderas is admirably low-key here as the director’s stand-in growing old and ruminating.
Toni Erdmann (2016, Maren Ade) [c]
[2010s catchup project.] Excruciatingly overlong glorified afterschool special about an annoying eccentric trying to teach his grown daughter how to enjoy life. One of the most celebrated indie comedies of recent years, this is nails-on-chalkboard insufferable if you don’t immediately subscribe to its sensibility, or find middle-aged goofballs pulling faces to be inherently funny, and there’s no logical reason for it to be this long, ponderous and astoundingly banal.
Good Morning (1959, Yasujiro Ozu) [r]
[1950s canon project.] Charming enough, if atypically superficial, Ozu comedy (with a stunning color palette) about the petty bickering among occupants of a suburban neighborhood and how they’re affected by two young boys’ vow of silence to try and get their parents to buy a TV set. Supposedly a remake of the director’s superior silent I Was Born, But…, which it only slightly resembles in practice. It’s fun to see Ozu play with relatively cheerful themes, but there are only a few big laughs and the scattered moments of quiet emotional truth are stunted a bit by how lightweight it all is.
An Unmarried Woman (1978, Paul Mazursky) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Pleasingly naturalist drama about a woman whose world is rattled by the sudden departure of her husband and the subsequent immersion in female friendships, new lovers and a total reframing of day to day life. Jill Clayburgh’s astonishing performance more than makes up for the minor shortcomings of Mazursky’s script, and the New York found here is rich and lived-in, conveying how much every story like this takes its place in a much broader sweep of time, place, memory. Despite the larger feminist point about a woman molding her own life, it’s telling that the film does not strain to impose structure upon a confused, uncertain moment of real life.
Jackie (2016, Pablo Larraín) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] Chronologically jumbled-up narrative of Jacqueline Kennedy’s life in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination exemplifies a brand of biopic that tends to be tiresome and workmanlike, overly reliant on cultural memory. But it’s rendered in this case with impressive intimacy, and savvy about how various kinds of media form a cult of personality. Even though Natalie Portman’s performance has the artificially tic-ridden quality of so many actors attempting to ape well-documented people, it’s also sensitive; after a while, her plight is gripping enough to hypnotize you whether or not you care about the comings and goings of the American royal family.
Jauja (2014, Lisandro Alonso) [c]
[2010s catchup project.] Viggo Mortensen and Adrián Fondari put on pants; there are also landscapes. Absolutely nothing resonates. Garden-variety emotionally distant arthouse dud.
Storm Over Asia (1928, Vsevolod Pudovkin) [hr]
Always the master of rendering the political as personal and vice versa, Pudovkin was every bit the director Eisenstein was, and perhaps even more well-controlled as a storyteller. In this picture he proves himself far ahead of his time, finding an intersection of class and racial commentary and issuing a surprisingly acerbic attack on Orientalism in the story of a Mongolian trapper who gets recruited as a puppet-regime patsy by a maliciously rendered British garrison. Compelling and beautifully acted throughout, it offers one of the most cathartic climaxes of any of the canonical Soviet propaganda titles.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978, Michael Schultz) [NO]
[Beatles film canon project for music blog.] (Revisit, no change; last seen approximately 1993. I kept my old capsule but added a few new thoughts at the link. I’d just like to mention that my taste was already well enough formed at age ten that I could tell this was a fucking shitshow.) A strange and enormous put-on indeed, this bizarre Bee Gees movie attempts to form the songs of Beatles’ fake concept album into a “plot”; result is offensive, monstrous anti-rock & roll propaganda attempting to leech off the image of a great band in the name of the glory of corporate rock. A sickening time is guaranteed for all.
O.J.: Made in America (2016, Ezra Edelman) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] Engrossing, exhaustive documentary about the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the impenetrably complicated racial and cultural context surrounding it. Seven and a half hours, not a moment of which feels wasted. There’s a lot to juggle here, as crime reportage and as sociological investigation, and it’s done with mastery and grace. Edelman repeatedly reminds us of the grisly nature of the murder itself, something that frequently got away from us when it was constantly the butt of late-night jokes and cheap novelty books and such. One of the definitive L.A. movies of all time.
Knight of Cups (2015, Terrence Malick) [NO]
[2010s catchup project.] This insulting display of Hallmark card platitudes overlaying hazy cinematography of nothing much seems to intimate that there’s no bottom to how cheap and insipid a once-great filmmaker’s work can come to be if he approaches it with sufficient laziness.
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994, Mike Newell)
[Best Picture Nominees project.] Inoffensive romantic comedy that structures itself on the social events of the title, but hinges on a pairing (Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell) that doesn’t make much sense — Grant plays a serial monogamist with a string of resentful exes and a suspiciously large number of ride-or-die pals who get engaged every few minutes, but somehow the American MacDowell who has less personality than anyone else in the ensemble is the person he suddenly feels he can spend the rest of his life with, albeit not before further wrecking the lives of several other insecure women he knows. It’s all pretty cynical, but it’s presented so breezily it’s hard to dislike.
Nocturnal Animals (2016, Tom Ford) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] An intellectual exercise in revenge fantasy: Amy Adams is an unhappily married artist who seems unsatisfied by her work and seemingly everything else; she receives a novel in the post written by her ex-husband, about whom her feelings have remained warm through the years despite an acrimonious breakup. We then see much of that novel visualized, occasioning a number of adept and terrifying suspense sequences despite the hackneyed noir plot: a family gets run off the road and terrorized, the survivor (Jake Gyllenhaal) spending the rest of the story trying to avenge his wife and daughter. Absorbing as hell, but builds to a terribly facile conclusion.
The Immigrant (2013, James Gray)
[2010s catchup project.] Formally correct, pure Hollywood stuff in an indie getup with Marion Cotillard as a Polish woman turning the other cheek at length when faced with all sorts of sepia-toned 1921 torture at the hands of a range of institutions and people, most notably Joaquin Phoenix doing what seems to be a Michael Scott impression. Gray traffics here in standard awards-season fare, all very dour; Cotillard is fine but the narrative is just so straightforward and obvious, there’s nothing here to look at or feel apart from the sumptuous period flavor.
In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] An unerringly played melodrama of the first order; Ray’s camera seems completely powered by emotions, including deeply troubling ones, in a manner intense enough to make you swoon. Humphrey Bogart is a decrepit mug of a washed-up screenwriter who’s burned lots of bridges with his assholery. On the night he’s speciously connected to the murder of a local girl, he happens also to fall hard for an independent-minded neighbor (Gloria Grahame) whose will he proceeds almost inadvertently to break down as they fall further and further into the hole of his buried misery and violence. As potent an examination of what we now call “toxic masculinity” as exists.
Quo Vadis (1951, Mervyn LeRoy) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Surprisingly entertaining trash on the traditional Hollywood epic scale via MGM, audacious and playful despite being approximately on the dramatic level of an ambitious school play. Parallel stories of hubris track the hated Roman emperor Nero — courtesy of a dynamically decadent, funny and flamboyantly wardrobed Peter Ustinov having an absolute field day — and a lusty Christ-skeptical general played with brazen, you-can’t-look-away incompetence by Robert Taylor. Add to this the breathtaking production values and some of the most eye-popping crowd scenes in history and, despite the usual overlength, how can you really object?
The Lego Movie (2014, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller)
[2010s catchup project.] Commercials with “clever” jokes are still commercials.
Son of Saul (2015, László Nemes) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] Raw, visceral Holocaust drama begins and ends brilliantly; in between, there is a not-always-assured attempt at spinning the accuracy and tragedy of the setting into something more personalized: Géza Röhrig’s Saul sees a dying boy and, believing he may be his illegitimate son, spends the rest of the film attempting to locate a Rabbi so that he can properly bury him. This smartly lays bare the impossibility of any sort of normal activity within the death camps, but it also has the effect of making the story feel uncomfortably like a series of video game quests (not least because the semi-POV gimmick sticks for so much of the film).
Bonjour Tristesse (1958, Otto Preminger)
[1950s canon project.] Despite Preminger’s vibrant visual rendering of it, this weird, vaguely scummy Jean Seberg vehicle that has her reading every line like “New York Herald Tribune” amounts to little more than a tragic version of The Parent Trap. Seberg’s dad is David Niven (in the film’s only good performance) who’s running around with a much younger woman who talks a lot about her cracking, oozing sunburns — until fun-hating Deborah Kerr returns to his life and insists that his daughter commit herself exclusively to homework. Gorgeously shot, color and black & white both, and riddled with body-horror perversity.
Atlantic City (1980, Louis Malle) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Low-key lite noir has a decent degree of atmosphere and solidly smoky character development, though its main conceit is that it’s populated with totally modern boring screwups rather than the titanic heroes and villains of Dashiel Hammett; Susan Sarandon, whose fucked up family leeches off her, and her neighbor Burt Lancaster (truly splendid as a grayed out faux-gangster who never got the opportunity to do much with his life) get caught up in narcotics dealings in the titular gambling capital, though this is much less a city symphony than you’d expect, with the languid feeling of a Donald Westlake or Elmore Leonard novel.
Winter Sleep (2014, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
[2010s catchup project.] Photographs of an asshole talking.
Animal Kingdom (2010, David Michôd)
[2010s catchup project.] Compellingly executed and acted but amateurishly scripted Mob movie about a purportedly close-knit family in the Melbourne underground that mostly deals in armed robberies but are on the cusp of branching out into drug trafficking when a Troubled Youth, an estranged grandson of the matriarch, shows up because he doesn’t know where else to go. His tendency not to know where to go or what to do drives the entirety of the remaining narrative. While the film uses real events as its inspiration, much of it makes very little sense; it doesn’t feel like a great deal of thought went into much besides its high body count.
Dick Whittington and His Cat (1913, Alice Guy-Blaché) [r]
A retelling of a bit of folklore revolving around the onetime Lord Mayor of London who came into the city as an impoverished dreamer and supposedly made a fortune by rather cruelly letting go of a rat-hunting feline, this early feature is reasonably entertaining despite the usual dramatic contrivances and technical limitations associated with this transitional era of narrative cinema. There are gorgeous compositions, a few splendidly weird moments — especially a comic setpiece revolving around a doorbell — and some astonishing footage of a ship set ablaze.
All This and World War II (1976, Susan Winslow) [NO]
[Beatles film canon project for music blog.] Stock newsreel footage of World War II and clips of Hollywood movies set in the war edited to the rhythm of a collection of dreadful Beatles covers. Maybe not inherently worthless as a free-associative montage, but terribly misguided as a gimmick and lacking any discernible point of view, unless you think following stock footage of Hiroshima being bombed with a droning chorus of “Give Peace a Chance” constitutes insight. Neither the seismic societal reframing of the War nor the enormity and passion of the Beatles’ work deserves to be flatlined into kitsch; it’s all so morbidly disrespectful.
The legend that’s developed around Alfred Hitchcock over the decades has been dependent on a number of half-truths, many propagated by the director himself: he storyboarded every shot, planning his films so meticulously that they already existed in his head before a frame was shot; he hated actors and only cared about the placement of the camera; and he loathed location shooting. In fact: Notorious went into production without a complete script and was largely written “in camera”; no small number of grand Hollywood personalities gave their best-ever performances under his aegis; and, most significantly, after studying the notion of storytelling within all sorts of experimental confinement, peaking with Rear Window, Hitchcock made a whopping six location-porn pictures in a row, all neatly placed within his greatest decade of output.
This film was the third in that sequence, set and shot mostly in Morocco and London, following To Catch a Thief (the south of France), The Trouble with Harry (New England) and preceding The Wrong Man (New York City), Vertigo (San Francisco) and North by Northwest (a veritable U.S. travelogue). It also holds the unique distinction of being a remake of one of Hitchcock’s own films, his 1934 masterpiece The Man Who Knew Too Much, a scrappy and breathless thriller he made at Gaumont, which offers a handy primer on the way his approach to storytelling changed in the intervening two decades. That relatively simple, action-packed story is expanded here into a sprawling Technicolor Hollywood epic of sorts, spanning two continents and powered by a couple of huge stars at career peaks, to say nothing of the presence of the squad of experts that made Hitchcock’s run from the 1950s to the middle-’60s such a well-oiled machine: composer Bernard Herrmann, editor George Thomasini, cinematographer Robert Burks, production designer Robert Boyle, producer Herbert Coleman. To say it’s more polished than its predecessor would be a brash understatement.
In the original Man Who Knew Too Much, Leslie Banks and Edna Best portrayed jolly travelers in the Swiss Alps who got mixed up in an espionage plot, with their teenage daughter kidnapped to keep them silent, that climaxed at the Royal Albert Hall. In 1956 the Alps become North Africa, the quirky working class vacationers become a well-off doctor (James Stewart) and his wife, a celebrity singer (Doris Day); their sprightly daughter becomes a rather tiresome sitcom-ish little boy who tries to look adorable while making bad jokes that adults laugh at. And yet, the basic story points (and the Albert Hall) are retained. Both couples befriend a man — with considerable erotic suggestiveness in the 1934 film, none whatsoever in the remake — who is killed in front of them and imparts secrets to one of our heroes with his dying breath. Upon learning that their child has been kidnapped, Stewart (the man who knows too much in 1956) and Best (the woman, in point of fact, who knew too much in 1934) both choose to keep the big secret to themselves rather than spill to the police and therefore take matters into their own hands; but the personal responses of the male characters in these films almost couldn’t be more different. Banks’ Bob Lawrence is the classic Hitchcock “ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances,” intelligent but hapless, employing understated humor at even the bleakest moments; Stewart’s Ben McKenna is, comparatively, suave in a manner that seems to deliberately skirt close identification with the audience — he’s also prone to violent outbursts and behaves more than a little abusively toward his wife.
As is the case in all the films Stewart made with Hitchcock, his is a surprisingly dark characterization. This enriches the film, though it sets it considerably apart from something like The Wrong Man or even The 39 Steps in which so much hinges on us being in the same corner with our protagonist. Stewart seems to have been encouraged to inject quite a bit of mystery into his portrayal of the character, so that we never quite know what he’s thinking; nearly all of his dialogue is accompanied by weighty, enigmatic silences that underscore his all-too-stoic, classically masculine demeanor. You get the sense that 1934’s Bob was a character Hitchcock related to; Ben is one of a sort he finds intriguing, but from a considerable distance, and one he intends to break down and even slightly humiliate: what little comedy there is in the film is never generated from Ben’s own dialogue or actions but from his own unfamiliarity and ineptitude, which give the lie to his outer confidence. In some ways it’s a dry run of sorts for Stewart’s even more conflicted and tortured Scotty in Vertigo two years later, and this is not the only way in which the remade The Man Who Knew Too Much feels as much like a look forward as backward.
One of the clearly demarcated ways in which we can track Hitchcock’s evolution as a filmmaker is in the average length of his movies; his British thrillers were tight and ruthless and typically wrapped up within around ninety minutes. But on the move to Hollywood, his running times tend increasingly to sprawl out; The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is a rather shocking forty-five minutes longer than The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and arguments can and should be made about what the story gains or (mostly) loses with this vastly increased legroom. Nearly all of Hitchcock’s sound films carry a sense of urgency, but there is no question the flavor of a 75-minute thriller is different from a methodically paced one like this even if the stakes are technically the same. There also isn’t any reason to believe that the newer film has deeper, more resonant characterizations or more believable relationships — the ’34 film tells us more about its occupants with greater economy, and they’re inherently more interesting as people to boot — but there’s nevertheless a great deal of interest in how the extra time is used. Superficially, you can say that Hitchcock is now, as he said himself, a “professional”: gone are the awkward jump cuts and haphazard staging that even survived, a little, into his early Hollywood career — every scene in this film is seamlessly executed and clearly the work both of the rarest kind of master of his craft and of a deep-pocketed studio. Looking a bit more carefully, though, what this film is indicating is that Hitchcock’s ambition at this stage in his career went beyond the mere bells and whistles of creating and sustaining suspense, and into the possibilities of building up then exploiting real emotional attachments. It doesn’t fully succeed, but its lessons would prove fruitful.
It would later be the most defining feature of both Psycho and The Birds: a lengthy buildup laying out relationships and conflicts within and between characters that might be enough for a cracking story all their own, only to have these carefully cultivated associations abruptly employed in favor of a very different scenario. Think of the way the flavor of Psycho changes when Norman is introduced, or how one has nearly forgotten what film they’ve signed up to watch up to the point when Melanie is first attacked by an errant seagull in The Birds. Both these moments are preceded by elaborate, lengthy setups that carry a kind of dreadful pregnancy with them, something that would eventually be familiar enough to become a key trope of the modern horror film, enough to become an exhausting cliché. But here, in the long space of benign, minor conflict that passes through the whole half hour before the man who knew too much learns too much, we find ourselves curiously riveted, acting as voyeurs — defying the supposedly stilted context of the Hollywood studio picture, we feel we’re looking into someone’s life in the moments just before their world caught fire.
John Michael Hayes — in the last of his several collaborations with Hitchcock — played a major role in this structure; as recounted in Bill Krohn’s Hitchcock at Work, his fascination with career-marriage conflicts that served him so well in Rear Window was eventually an albatross here, with Hitchcock seemingly disinterested in making the McKennas’ relationship the major subject of the film. In the original version, any threats to the central couple’s mutual feelings are pointedly omitted, which lends that film some of its vitality; one supposes Hitchcock preferred a similar structure here, both because it would be a rather unorthodox (at least since The Thin Man) Hollywood interpretation of romance, and because it would allow for the thriller elements to take the lead in the narrative. However, the compromise the two of them reach is handily provocative; the character arcs are essentially a clone of Rear Window, with Doris Day’s inevitable moment of breaking into song fused well with the story — quietly dismissed as an artifact of the past by Ben, her talent and notoriety end up saving their son’s life.
All that’s missing is the precise indication of future change — in the characters, and in the world — that signaled the end of Rear Window; instead the film ends very abruptly with a quick joke, which is possible to interpret as a fuck-you to Hayes, leaving unresolved the hidden rockiness in the marriage itself. But to provide the payoff of Day singing Livingston-Evans’ “Que Sera, Sera,” written especially for the film (and winning it the rare competitive Oscar for a Hitchcock movie), Hitchcock and Hayes expertly weave a lengthy first act that exposes the McKennas’ strengths and weaknesses as a couple, with ample suggestions of how their lives will play out once fate strikes. After their son literally stumbles into a confrontation on a bus, they’re rescued by an enigmatic Frenchman named Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin) — one of the few character names and nationalities consistent in the two versions of the film — who takes an oddly disproportionate interest in their having a nice time in Morocco. It eventually turns out that Louis is a spy who mistook them for another out-of-place American couple, who are involved in an assassination plot; those would be the Draytons (Brenda de Banzie and Bernard Miles), who maybe a bit too coincidentally end up having dinner at a restaurant with the McKennas, who then spy Louis Bernard with what appears to be a date.
The dinner scene is a remarkable microcosm of how engrossing Hitchcock’s work can be even when not very much is happening — the truth of course being that a very great deal is happening, but much of it is unknown to us at the time. The first-time audience sees the mingling of two upper-class couples (the McKennas rather flaunt their privilege all through the picture, joking about whose kidney operation paid for what, a sign of the prosperous times for sure but also something that son-of-a-greengrocer but by now wealthy Hitchcock would not have interpreted without irony), then an ornery husband whose increasing furor when he sees Bernard canoodling a few tables over, sparking an argument with his wife, creates understandable and very apparent discomfort in their guests. We eventually learn that their discomfort comes from their being startled at the McKennas’ familiarity with Bernard, since he is targeting them; in the moment, however, it’s a vivid example of Hitchcock’s nearly supernatural strength with both characters and actors. Underplayed and spontaneous, the more relaxed and even the more troublesome moments, helped along by Stewart and Day’s impressively easy chemistry, feel as though one is watching real people interact, not the schmoozing of Hollywood actors. This presentation of naturalism in the context of grandiose thriller scenarios is one of the real keys to Hitchcock’s ingenuity and lasting appeal; it goes all the way back to the remarkable shots of chorus girls chatting in downtime in The Lodger thirty years ahead of this.
Still, the scene and the film as a whole are nothing without Stewart and Day, who are both extraordinary and do much of the work to lift this up beyond a very middle-tier Hitchcock picture artistically. An extremely underrated actress whose singing career and uncomfortably impeccable image overshadowed her immense talents, Day here offers one of her finest performances, completely convincing as a woman underestimated in every respect by her husband and, perhaps, her audience in the film as well as in the real world. Jo McKenna runs into fans everywhere she goes and takes it in stride to the unspoken but occasionally visible consternation of Dr. McKenna, who clearly prides himself on upholding the 1950s ideal of the male breadwinner. Jo brings up wanting to return to the stage, but she also mentions wanting another child, both ideas that get smugly dismissed by Ben, although they also seem initially to have a decent relationship, exchanging repartee with easy charm, which harkens back of course to the Lawrences in the earlier film.
That is, until the startling moment when Ben learns their son has been kidnapped and then drugs his wife, essentially forcing her to take a sedative before she has learned what’s happened; Stewart is genuinely unnerving in this scene, his usual tentative speech patterns suggesting like never before a degree of coldness that simultaneously says something about the necessary detachment of his profession and about his inability to look upon the humans in his life as much aside from mere patients. Stewart would of course tap into this well again in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, though in that film he would at least present as a somewhat warm-hearted figure at times, and in Vertigo, whose Scotty is uncertain and weak in ways that Dr. McKenna isn’t. It’s a surprisingly troubling performance, brilliantly well-tuned, and further gives the lie to Stewart’s reputation as the American cinema’s resident Eagle Scout. And when Jo finds out what he’s done, Day plays the moment with totally believable horror and anger, an injection of impassioned anguish from the last source an audience of today would tend to expect. She maintains that pitch for the rest of the film; while Edna Best too ended up saving her child with one final act of badassery in the 1934 film, Day too is permitted to play the operative role in securing her son, though she does it by luring him out of the woodwork with music, rather than firing a gun.
For all these virtues and for all the miraculous confidence of an undeniable master at work, this isn’t a film with the beating heart and immense emotional sophistication of Hitchcock’s best films; it even lacks his usual touches of lovable perversity, save in the casting of an uncredited Betty Baskcomb as a wonderfully bizarre, bespectacled church organist (and spy) and the totally superflous but outstanding comic setpiece, replacing the dentist sequence in the 1934 film (which still had more relevance to the story), that has Stewart misinterpreting “Ambrose Chapel,” Louis’ dying tipoff, as a reference to a man named Ambrose Chappell who turns out to be a taxidermist and not to take kindly to off-the-street weirdos hurling accusations at him. That Hitchcock sets this up, in the manner of the sinister projectionist in David Fincher’s Zodiac, with fully taunting and foreboding camera work and frightening stillness and such indicates simultaneously his brilliance and his boredom. On the whole, as entertaining as the film is, for the seasoned viewer it is like the concurrent To Catch a Thief a work of small pleasures, if admittedly numerous ones, both for their own enjoyable features and for the ways in which they call other Hitchcock pictures, particularly those contemporary to this one, to mind: those shots of the ambassador’s house as Day’s voice echoes through it, the entire church scene which is a pristine example of Hitchcock’s flawless fortitude with the camera and with the setting of mood (and smartly one-ups a gag from the first film; when Day and Stewart begin to have a conversation to the tune of the hymn being sung by the parishioners around them, Day distracts everyone with the strength of her voice, the opposite of what happened to Hugh Wakefield), and of course there is the golden opportunity to watch Bernard Herrmann on screen actually conducting.
This was Herrmann’s second collaboration with Hitchcock, following his lovely score for The Trouble with Harry; he would go on to write the music (or help design the sound, in the case of The Birds) for every film the director made until their acrimonious split during the postproduction of Torn Curtain in 1966. Knowledge of the fruits of this relationship, including several of the most iconic film scores ever produced as well as one of the most unheralded masterpieces of the form (his score for Marnie), to say nothing of his marvelous scores for other works ranging from Citizen Kane to The Twilight Zone, it’s quite touching to watch him at work here conducting the orchestra at the Albert Hall for the first of the two protracted musical climaxes in the film. Interestingly, Herrmann chose not to write a new piece for this sequence but actually used the one specially written by Australia’s Arthur Benjamin for the 1934 film, Storm Clouds Cantana, configured so that the pivotal shot could be fired simultaneously with the crash of cymbals, of which much is made in both films, especially by their startled leading ladies. Herrmann expanded the suite to ten minutes at Hitchcock’s request, which illustrates how much more protracted the Albert Hall scene is in the newer film (in addition to having actually been filmed there!), building suspense from every possible angle with increasingly frantic editing including a shot of Herrmann’s sheet music. It’s effective and fun, even if it shows a relative paucity of real ideas compared to some of Hitchcock’s greatest setpieces, since all it really has to show is the orchestra building, the preparation of the assassin, and Day watching helplessly. In so many ways, this single sequence illustrates everything grand and disappointing about the remake; and, some cynics would undoubtedly argue, with Hitchcock’s Hollywood career compared to his British work.
More had changed since 1934 than Alfred Hitchcock or the film business. Back in the early 2000s, when I was transforming from a Hitchcock buff to an obsessive partisan, I ran across an IMDB comment by someone known as larcher-2 that all these years has never left my mind, so concisely does it attack the core issue in play dividing the two films. Perhaps unethically, I will reproduce it without permission here:
There were better women then — and children — that is, before the 1950s. Hitchcock made this picture twice, and the two versions are practically a feminist text about the fall. In 1934, woman is athlete, expert in firearms, able to save her child when every man around her is paralyzed with fear. In 1956, woman is Doris Day, able only to wail a song that the child hears and wails back at. In 1934 the child is a delightfully and slightly impudent half-adolescent girl; in 1956, an ineffectual little boy. In 1934, woman can tease her husband with another man, but without in any sense betraying him; in 1956, she is a possession who has given up her career to cater to him. The 1934 movie is a good thriller, with a good subtext about real marriage; the limp 1956 remake is a mere simulation of tension covering bland propaganda for the sort of ’50s marriage that inevitably produced both feminism and widespread divorce.
The director himself wouldn’t have been unaware of these ideas, at least superficially; this very divide between real love and false marriage is the entire subject of his own Rich and Strange from 1931. The comment may take a slightly harsh view of the McKennas’ relationship, which is problematic but does not seem unrealistic, and it also somewhat fails to account for the fact that the unequal footing on which Jo and Ben stand in their relationship is being challenged by the story as it progresses — though of course, the facile ending somewhat scrubs this clean. To label it propaganda is extreme when one compares the film to something like Pillow Talk, also starring Day, whose narrow view of the role of women in the world is much harder to take today; or even to films that take a nonchalant but stalwart view of the incidental role of the housewife in their stories, like for instance Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets and Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, both wonderful films that all the same have a more limited, relegated role for their female leads than was ever the case for Hitchcock at any point in his career.
But the reason those remarks have stayed me all these years is really less that I agree the 1956 film is lackluster, and more that I believe it explains what makes the 1934 film transcendent and powerful, and therefore what is lacking in the serviceable good time Hitchcock, Hayes and company provide here. It was once fashionable to charge the director’s films with being empty and having nothing to say, an assertion one can readily challenge when the subject at hand is, say, Sabotage or the self-reflexive, clever North by Northwest; but here, apart from the relatively desultory challenges the script lays against what seems a placid life for a couple of normies and their kid, you can sort of see the critics’ point. There just isn’t much to really sweep us up: the family is all too ordinary, their roles clearly marked (never again would Hitchcock revolve a film around a nuclear family of this sort, unless you count The Wrong Man, a true story of one that gets torn apart), the villains a perfunctory couple of dullards in place of Peter Lorre, whose freaky smile is inherited here by the marksman played by Reggie Nalder. That it looks gorgeous and is absorbing isn’t beside the point — this is Hitchcock, after all — but indicates more how much he could sculpt with less than ideal material than that the story as it’s laid out here is up to standard. In other words, if you want to see how persuasive the usual Hitchcock techniques are in service of the bare minimum of good narrative content, this is your movie.
Nevertheless, it should be acknowledged that one improvement made here is in allowing Day to play a larger role in the film’s action than Best did, though in the end this really just amounts to her participation in the outstanding Ambrose Chapel scene; when Best and Banks split in the older film, that’s the only real story point she misses. Jo is still a proactive character, more than competently participating in all the detective work, and when her despair is visible it’s sympathetic as a motivator. It would be useful if her son were replaced with a better actor than Christopher Olsen, who reads all of his lines in the same tone throughout the picture and doesn’t have a particularly tactile or convincing relationship with his parents. Hitchcock brushes past their reunion at the close of the film with good reason; Stewart and Day feel like a couple, but they and Olsen do not feel like a family, which does harm to the otherwise well-designed second climax in which the boy is called out to via song by his mother — that scene should feel more urgent, more emotional, than it does.
Given that unaffectionate mothers are a fixture of Hitchcock, it’s difficult to say whether the pair’s distance from their child was an accident or not, but it certainly results in the conspicuous absence of the moment of bliss shared between the Lawrences and their daughter (Nova Pilbeam) in the prior version. One outlying quirk here to match is that Brenda de Banzie, as the kidnapper and co-conspirator Mrs. Drayton, is something of a reversal to the typically sinister Hitchcock mother-figure, with her maternal instinct ultimately serving as much to save the boy as Jo’s actions. De Banzie does well in her role, in contrast to Bernard Miles’ totally forgettable work as her husband. In perhaps the film’s weakest moment, he figures in an attempt to replicate or at least recall the breathtaking finale of Notorious that has Claude Rains darkly escorted downstairs by Cary Grant as the former’s Nazi cohorts look on. In this context, this attempt at a getaway falls flat enough that the incomprehensible way it which it wraps up makes very little difference; it just seems like a superfluous addition to a story that’s already over.
You’re left wondering why Hitchcock elected to remake one of his own films, much less this one, though it seems that he personally wasn’t satisfied with the 1934 version, not surprising given that it was virtually the beginning of his career as a thriller director. It’s not hard to see someone being happier with this one on a technical level, given the full resources of Paramount and all the star power thus entailed, but to the modern viewer screening a cleaned-up print of the lean and magical British film, it’s hard to imagine most audiences preferring this one. All the same, in 1956 Hitchcock was at the peak of his career both commercially and artistically, and everything he touched carried a kind of wisdom and explosiveness that remains unique to his work. It’s easy to get lost in memories of this film’s slight failings: the ending, the casting of the boy and many of the smaller parts, the absence of that cathartic embrace of the restored family, the relatively slight story and the overextended feeling of many of the individual scenes… but the fact remains that no one else has made movies that look or feel like Hitchcock’s, especially like those he made in the ’50s, and that canon has such value as a piece that each individual title lifts up the others. The Man Who Knew Too Much may not be a great film in itself, but it’s an indispensable portion of one of the greatest bodies of work in all cinema and, like all the others, carries within it so much that can still inspire and transport an audience even today.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
John Boorman’s film of James Dickey’s brooding, terrifying novel Deliverance is both one of the most perfectly realized of all American movies and perhaps the most successful example of a major work adapted for cinema into another major work. The language in Dickey’s novel is photographic in its evocation of place, mood and eventually pain; it’s a tortuously graphic book whose seemingly benign premise of four wannabe good-ol’-boys attempting to traverse a wild Appalachian river during a weekend getaway is belied by the unspeakable violence and despair it contains. In this sense, the novel is mirrored by the mystery and invisible horror of a fictionalized version of Georgia’s Coosawattee River; the film attains the same traits by transferring Dickey’s lyricism to breathtaking texture and atmosphere. No director has ever captured the sights, smells and uncertainty of the wilderness as Boorman does here, and his willingness to bend to the realities of this ruthless and devastatingly beautiful environment make seamless his gradual change of tone from wonder to misery, both of which in his hands come to feel intrinsic to the soil. Deliverance greets us with four disaprate man who range from insufferably cocky to powerlessly naive, all of whom have no idea of the scope and madness of their immediate destiny. On repeat viewings, this dramatic irony can just about cripple you.
When trying to evaluate and interpret Deliverance, as visceral as it is, it’s easy to get lost in the spectacular technical and narrative details rather than its more pertinent essence; it should, however, be noted quickly that the film’s economy is astonishing. These four characters, carefully and completely established through offhand and perfunctory dialogue, are driven to the brink and (in some cases) back again within 109 minutes, all with a distinctive sense of place and danger put across more immersively than any number of three-hour Hollywood epics one might name. Because the production was uninsured, the actors actually performed all of their utterly insane on-location stunts themselves, a totally irresponsible decision that caused injury and catastrophe and only mercifully nothing that derailed anyone’s life; but the upshot is that the scenes on the river look absolutely magnificent. Not only is it unlikely another director would stage them as impeccably as Boorman does, it would now essentially be impossible to shoot the film in this manner; so as with Merian Cooper’s early documentaries, your temptation is to decry Boorman and the studio for being idiots but you also cannot deny that we are incredibly lucky this footage exists — the actors careening along rapids and reacting accordingly (which has a neatly grounding effect on their performances), Jon Voight actually climbing the cliff his character is meant to be climbing (eat it, Brando) and Burt Reynolds actually being shackled to the bottom of a canoe that nearly capsizes multiple times even though you can barely see him. Our response to the encroaching threats of the forest and its occupants is of course only enhanced by this disturbing sense of documentarian reality. All the while, Boorman’s frame never fails to place the danger within its counter-intuitively stoic if not placid context: trees and mountains reaching overhead like a canopy that can be only helplessly gazed at from below like the tall trees that portend Judy being driven to her death in Vertigo.
Boorman demonstrates master storytelling here by virtue of the fact that the mechanics are never obvious; it’s a beautifully structured script (a rewrite of novelist Dickey’s own treatment) but not in the manner befitting labored film-school analysis. Rather, like some sublime piece of music, its elements fall together naturally. The most important change from the novel is the transition from a vivid, highly personal first-person narration to the virtually equal complexity of four central characters, all played by actors at the peak of their prowess: Ed (Voight), Lewis (Reynolds, in the greatest performance of his career), Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox). Ed remains the audience vessel, the one whose often agonized, endlessly expressive face most consistently reflects our own responses to the turmoil that unfolds, but the three men joining him for this venture are no less full-bodied and convincing. They are all businessmen, city boys out of Atlanta, stepping out (reluctantly, in some cases) from middle-class comfort to engage with the world on the occasional weekend. Their de facto leader is Lewis, just as much a coddled urbanite as his pals but one who evidently works out a lot and considers himself a woodsman and survivalist of sorts, the familiar sort who romanticizes a rugged outsider status he doesn’t truly understand, who claims to long for civilization-ending anarchy.
Bobby, meanwhile, is the most sheltered of all, impatient with even the most trivial annoyances of the outdoors and completely unimpressed with Lewis’ performative machismo; his chosen pasttime is the telling of loudly heterosexual dirty jokes. The guitar player Drew is the most sensitive and cannily honest of the lot, in touch with and unafraid of his emotions in a manner that seems essentially alien to the others (early on he meets Lewis’ grandstanding about the untouched wild with unironic, awestruck glee that he does not filter; at every point, he is as earnest as Lewis pretends to be). Ed stands somewhere between Bobby and Drew, kind-hearted and mild-mannered but less convicted than the other three, at least outwardly, present themselves as being; he willingly goes along with Lewis’ ideas and schemes despite finding his philosophy somewhat ludicrous, yet somehow it’s Lewis to whom he seems closest. He loves his domesticated existence (the book expands on this by fleshing out his marriage and indicating that his deepest bond of all is not with any male friend but with his wife) but somehow still feels uncertain enough about his destiny to wonder a bit at what frays the edges of it.
Lewis’ perspective is the one that undergoes the most challenge and ridicule in the film; breaking his unjustified confidence down is, in essence, the point of the entire exercise. Yet the film, even more than the novel, does give Lewis one bit of validation by permitting some concession to his opening monologue about the final untouched portions of nature falling away to make way for tomorrow. There is a kind of symmetry here: the picture opens with the conversation embodying Lewis’ lament for the soon-to-be-dead Cahulawassee River amid a montage of damming in progress; in the final moments, the characters drive through a small town in the process of being dismantled for the manmade flood, dam, cities and lakes to come. The men attempted to subvert an onslaught of modernism that they actually represent, and Ed is newly aware that the world has no more business imposing itself on these backwood territories than they did. But there is no talking a capitalistic society itself out of crushing forward; four little men with no real idea where they are, however, are easy to conquer and destroy, as they have discovered this weekend.
Before the film takes its abrupt turn toward the macabre, there are already myriad occasions to provoke the kind of reactions in these four idle canoers that tell us all we need to know about who they are; at every turn they encounter the blanket hostility toward “city folk” that any audience member will view as inevitable. Of course this cultural chasm eventually takes on gargantuan proportions, but prior to that curtain’s turning we find a justifiable skepticism that runs through to the end of the film, when novelist Dickey himself (playing a small-town sheriff but it may as well be authorial voice) chides what remains of the gang never to do anything so reckless again. Deliverance occasionally has come under fire for playing up “hillbilly” stereotypes; being a Southerner myself, I’m sympathetic to this response, but it’s difficult for me to find cause for an interpretation of the film in which we are meant uniformly to side with the hotheads drifting through a world far beyond their actual lived experience. You can read the stresses and histories on the faces of the minor characters, of those we only fleetingly glimpse, as easily as we can on those of Voight, Beatty et al.
The glimpses we get of poverty and pride — the young and old members of a family that operates and lingers around a truck stop, including a mute boy who’s a banjo virtuoso and whose haunted demeanor achingly foreshadows the coming storm — ring authentically even if they can easily be accused of approximating, to some audiences, a classic freakshow; but as usual we must ask how can one depict the most neglected corners of society without the possibility of malicious interpretation? The more important element here is the dichotomy of civilization as Ed envisions it, as Fred fantasizes about it, and as it actually exists; and regardless of whether the people encountered by the troupe are ultimately decent or evil — and, as in any stratosphere, they come upon both extremes and everything in between — the flavor of wandering into a place where one does not and cannot belong is familiar to anyone who’s lived here among the strange Gothic forests, avenues and rivers. Seldom have the corresponding sensations been so eerily captured as by Boorman, ironically a British director, reversing the Straw Dogs standard of an American casting the rural brutes of England as the trial by fire of upper-middle-class male comfort and confidence.
There is little need to outline the disruption and tragedy at the core of Deliverance, the events that rupture the film and these lives; the moments comprising it are still as ubiquitous in pop culture as any iconic sequence in film of the 1970s, even if sometimes parroted in a strangely reductive manner. (“Squeal like a pig” in an Academy Awards montage and so forth.) The agony exhibited in the key scene by Beatty and the menace of villains Bill McKinney and Herbert Coward have been the subject of endless parody, not because they are ineffective but because they are completely unforgettable. This sort of narrative trapdoor is familiar from horror pictures going back to Psycho; and as in Psycho, its gravity is made more so by the realism of all that preceded it. To Hitchcock’s bag of tricks Boorman adds, via widescreen framing, the unchanging wall of nature surrounding the characters making a greater mockery of their travails than future comedians ever could. Beatty’s legacy does not sit solely with the scene in which he is the victim of perhaps the most infamous rape in cinema — and certainly one of the most distressing scenes in American film — but his shock and horror, and lingering trauma afterward, are masterfully realized enough to seem like the apex of a distinguished career.
Everything declines quickly. Lewis gets to play the role he’s always wanted — the salt-of-the-earth hero conquering evil — for exactly one scene, then like Wile E. Coyote catching the Road Runner he holds up a sign reading “what now?”. Badly injured just afterward on the canoe after a democratically-voted quick burial that visibly wrecks Drew in particular, Lewis’ sufferings nonetheless may not quite be on the scale of Drew’s and Bobby’s, but it is Lewis’ vision of the world that the film’s events come around to decimate. Apart from Deliverance‘s more generalized askance view at the entire concept of “male bonding” (it is the cinematic rebuttal-in-advance to Iron John), it actively demonstrates the neutering of machismo itself. This refers less to the rape and murder, though Bobby clearly and needlessly takes it as an affront to his manhood, than to everything afterward: all four characters but especially Lewis are brought to their knees, in the manner of Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII, when the great King’s nullified bravado serves only to strangle him as he pathetically attempts to wrestle in front of the Royal Court. The mayhem into which they slide demonstrates every emptiness of the men’s “city slicker” origins, but moreover indicates the problem of any habit of careening headfirst into the unknown purely out of a surplus of ego.
Drew receives the worst fate and, as Ed points out in his short eulogy, deserves it the least: he is still his old fearlessly straightforward self when chasing the surviving mountain-man assailant out of the clearing, but grows quickly apprehensive and then outright despondent during the act of hiding Lewis’ murder of the other man. After appearing manic while helping to dig the man’s grave, he never recovers and, in what may against all odds be the film’s most chilling moment, suddenly leans forward and falls out of the boat he’s meant to be paddling, his face blank yet utterly tortured. This leads to a chain reaction: the loss of a canoe and Lewis nearly being killed and spending the rest of the story in near-intolerable pain (the film’s only slightly cheeky comeuppance for his overbearing confidence), then a Conversation-like debate over what actually caused Drew to fall over. Between grunts of despair Lewis claims repeatedly that Drew was shot from atop the mountain, presumably by the surviving attacker that wasn’t killed; quickly convinced — because how could you not be convinced by Lewis? — Ed arduously climbs to the peak and kills a man with an arrow, but there is then the added uncertainty of whether it is even the same man (followed by the possible absence of a gunshot wound when they find Drew’s body), if this was a needless crime to add to the two existing corpses.
In the woods and on the river, Boorman lingers unapologetically on the images of death: the rapist with the arrow in his back foregrounds shot after shot of the four leads debating, his eyes and mouth frozen in obscene fellating of a thin tree. He is carried as a sack of meat to his resting place, his lifeless face still demanding our eyes and attention. Are we to simply find him a figure of horror, to take pity on him somehow, or more likely, to recognize already that his malicious ways have spelled the end of life for all four of these men, if only literally for one? There is later the hanging body of the man Ed kills, descending down the mountain via rope, displayed for the river below like a Medieval trophy despite the disgust of all involved at what was now deemed necessary for survival. And most disturbingly, the deceased Drew discovered along the route of return now in rigor mortis, functioning suddenly as a horrible and still monument.
Quickly afterward Ed and Bobby paddle the incapacitated Lewis back to town at last, their inarticulate trauma preceding them everywhere like a shadow. The town and hospital are saviors, symbols of the social progress Lewis began the film so smugly denouncing. If we accept the notion of a narrative film as the purveyor of a point of view — and I do not find this to be a universally useful conceit — then Deliverance with its foolish white men brought too late back from the brink of untold physical torture and death by a coalition of men and women white and black, civilians and medical workers and ordinary folks who cook well, their only obvious lingering enemies the strictly white redneck police force, it is hard not to interpret it as a kind of unintentional antithesis to one of the most acclaimed films of the ’70s, Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which the deep promise of white male greatness is weakened and destroyed not by its own hubris but by the personification of a wicked witch and her African-American helpers. Deliverance resonates so much more strongly today than that movie because, of the two, its perspective bears so much closer relation to the actual world we still occupy.
All that said, in some ways what makes Deliverance such an effective film is the way that it steps out of that baseline reality and touches upon something improbably, almost supernaturally terrible; in other words, its adherence to horror (and exploitation) film conventions within a relatively, deceptively mundane framework. It’s possible to view the film with some detachment as a bit of demented fun; you wonder at the implications when the sheriff makes noises about wanting the town to glide peacefully into the good night, or when the cab driver carting Ed around at the end mentions that Aintry being flooded out and ceasing to exist is the best thing that could ever happen to it. There are these vague, playful indications of something strange and invisible compelling forces of evil to converge upon this place, as though the demolition of it all were spiritually justified. But truthfully, this is Boorman playing with perspective more than anything; little wonder that the three survivors would look back on this place and time with understandable torment for the rest of their lives, but this in so many ways is a hive that they pushed. The novel bookends its tale with interludes illustrating that Ed enjoys a carefully cultivated peace but can now never be fully rested, for better or worse; the film makes this explicit with another Psycho illusion (or, reaching back further, perhaps a Blackmail allusion) — presenting first the nightmare and then the equally unsettling reality of the very spot in which destiny met these men, and will never entirely leave them alone. Deliverance is about stones that, once turned, cannot be unturned, in men as well as in society — and the nagging suspicion that there are worlds best left unconquered, truths left unlearned, fears left untested.
Before we get to this newest collection of movie capsules, which cover the period from February 20th to May 3rd of this year, I need to ask for your attention briefly. We’re all in lockdown, presumably watching movies. I’d like to share a recent tweet from Nick Pinkerton:
A nonstop stream of self-curated world historical masterpieces seen in perfect comfort at my home < Watching Book Club projected without proper masking while drinking a $12 plastic cup pilsner from the MacGuffin's Bar at the AMC Westwood Town Center 6.
— 💜💜Tԋυԃ Bυƚƚ💜💜 (@NickPinkerton) May 2, 2020
I’ve bitched and whined about the theatrical experience in my hometown for years; the selection blows, the experience is often infuriating and disappointing. And I do disgaree with Pinkerton in that I don’t uniformly prefer seeing films projected to seeing them at home; two of the best movie experiences I ever had were downright blasphemous, Fantasia while lying on the floor in my old apartment with headphones on, and The Turin Horse on a tiny Dell Inspiron laptop while bedridden with a common cold. Nevertheless, his point basically stands insofar as I find myself really missing the procedure of the whole thing. And sometimes it’s wonderful, regardless of inconvenience.
Here are a few of the theatrical experiences that have stuck in my mind over the years, roughly chronologically:
1. On the occasion of Bambi‘s July 1988 rerelease (thanks to IMDB for allowing me to finally put a date to this), my parents took me and it had the expected effect, magnified and remembered terribly fondly throughout the seventeen-year gap between that experience and the second time I saw the movie, on DVD in 2005. I was four years old but can still vividly recall the reaction of the child in front of me at the film’s key moment, and the exact phrasing of the question he posed to his mom when trying to decipher what had just happened. Curiously, I don’t remember my own reaction to that same moment very clearly; in fact, I believe my mom may well have warned me before we saw the film of the decisive event, which was probably wise.
2. Our attempts to see Jurassic Park on its opening weekend in Wilmington were curbed; every single screening was sold out. Being exactly the target age and gender for Spielberg’s dinosaur opus, I was already predisposed to love the film (and had even prematurely purchased a pencil box with the logo), but tried to mute my anticipation for it because even then, something about appearing too excited about anything felt gauche. My parents — who were slightly worried I’d be excessively frightened by the film — had some sort of an argument that afternoon, I cannot remember about what, but at the last possible second during our long trek from Wilmington back to Oak Island, Dad — whose car Mom and I were following in another vehicle — abruptly put his turn signal on and headed into the small four-screener in Southport, formerly a rinky-dink second run outlet where we’d watched Batman Returns several months after its initial release. It was the latest at night I’d been to a movie, probably 9 or 10pm, and my major response was laughter. The entire thing was so thrillingly destructive, I couldn’t contain myself. It was an absolutely joyous experience that the film itself can never possibly live up to, though I will say that when it was reissued in 2013 for its twentieth anniversary, I got choked up at the sight of the “park entrance” (and the images of limping Richard Attenborough) when it showed up in a trailer while I sat next to my mom for an IMAX screening of Skyfall. It was one of the first times I was really confronted with my advancing age.
3. The first movie I saw without adult accompaniment: spring 1995, the racist Disney comedy Man of the House starring Chevy Chase and Jonathan Taylor Thomas. The film wasn’t the least bit funny even then, although the friend I was with laughed at pretty much everything until he gave up on the movie and started goofing around behind the curtains that lined the walls with a group of other kids. It felt very sophisticated to be out “on my own” until that happened, even though I was watching Chevy Chase in Native American garb. Similar firsts: the first R-rated movie I saw theatrically, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow in 1999, though I was still just young enough that a family member had to tag along; the first movie I saw by myself, Along Came a Spider, a Morgan Freeman vehicle I have completely forgotten, in 2001; and the first actually good (or at least decent) movie I saw by myself, Tim Burton’s (!) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005.
4. December 19, 1997 — Titanic‘s opening night, before its gargantuan status as a cultural phenomenon had time to take hold. I was totally enchanted, so much so that I basically promised myself I wouldn’t watch it again being fully aware it wouldn’t hold up a second time (a rule I finally broke in 2012 or 2013 for this blog; to my surprise I still liked the film a lot) though my prevailing memory of the experience is the mother in front of me covering the eyes of a young boy of about ten every time Kate Winslet’s breasts showed up.
5. In mid-2005 my girlfriend and I saw Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds with the rowdiest audience I’ve encountered before or since; people openly talked to the screen, cell phones went off, people were darting between seats and in and out of the theater, and someone probably had sex somewhere in the room. All were there to fawn at the massive visage of Tom Cruise, “father of Suri,” the biggest and most notorious celebrity in the universe at the time — the Special Guest Villain in all of our lives. Ordinarily mortified by this sort of thing, I had no choice in this case but to embrace the chaos, and I was probably a stronger person for it. Speaking of Spielberg, my favorite solo movie experience came in the first week of 2006, when I attended a midnight screening of Munich on the cusp of a bounty: a whopping two full days off from my grocery store job. The world seemed to spread out into infinity, and I was treated with exactly the kind of slavishly historical thriller I loved most at the time.
6. Woody Allen was for many years my favorite active director — again, largely a question of my being precisely his target age and demographic at the time — and I must say that seeing Match Point on a rainy night was an unforgettable experience. I was at first miffed when a group of older folks came and sat immediately next to me despite our positionining in a largely empty screening room, but it was somewhat worth it when various climactic events made them audibly gasp. And I can fondly remember Midnight in Paris a few years after this and being unable to stop smiling the entire time; again, it could never possibly have the same effect now.
7. Within the span of a few months, seeing Children of Men, Zodiac and Ratatouille in theaters made for a consecutive procession of actual American masterpieces I don’t suspect I’ll be able to match. I had been enough of a Pixar diehard thanks to their early films to request a night off on the occasion of the opening of Cars, which of course had ended up being a dud, though I was in denial about it for a while, searching for hidden reasons why it was actually covertly brilliant and subversive. But then I wandered into a showing of Ratatouille that sold out immediately after I bought my ticket, which meant I was trapped far too close to the screen… and then I remembered what it’s like to watch a beautiful film you don’t have to make excuses for. My feeling after leaving the theater that night was absolute, unexaggerated elation; I spent the rest of the summer trying to convince people to go see it with me, unsuccessfully. This still stands as my favorite theatrical screening of a first-run film I’ve attended. Two years later I met my wife who sat in rapt attention with me as we watched Up. Pixar then quickly started to suck; the relationship just got better beyond this early signifier.
8. The only movie I’ve seen in another country: The Darjeeling Limited at the Eldorado in Brisbane, Australia, a former silent movie house built in 1925. Gorgeous. As my ex and I were leaving an old man stopped us to say “s’a nice place, India.”
9. Melancholia at Thalian Hall’s Cinematique event in 2011 — on an actual 35mm film print, their projection system not yet having DCP capability at the time — and all the olds complaining about it in the lobby afterward. One instructive Cinematique event later came when we saw the innocuous To Rome with Love and a man disrupted the entire massive room to yell at his wife for forgetting to turn her ringer off, a sound absolutely no one had noticed.
10. I went to the local Carmike to watch The Master by myself and was greeted with an audibly apathetic crowd who spent the film laughing derisively. But as I was walking out, I followed a middle-aged couple, the husband clearly affected by what he’d just seen and saying “that was a remarkable movie.” His wife’s eyes were darting around and she spotted something that intrigued her. “Hey — kiss me.” “What?” “That boy who works here just kissed his girlfriend and was trying to make sure nobody was watching. Kiss me.” So they did. Relationship goals.
11. My two (so far) NYC movie nights. The monumental experience of watching Frances Ha at the IFC in New York with Amber and a rapturous crowd. To a much lesser extent, Stories We Tell at the Angelika a few days later, only because I now get all the jokes about the noisy train passing and pretend I’m really cultured and shit when someone mentions it. Three years later in Maryland at the AFI Silver, we got to see Shoot the Piano Player and Nosferatu with live music on 35mm… but I think Frances Ha is still my favorite out-of-state experience thus far, maybe just because of the buoyancy it has the heart to leave you with.
12. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity in 3D IMAX at the Marbles Children’s Museum in Raleigh; probably, sadly, not the best screen to see that film on, but standing in line for it and being rallied for the happening by employees who were clearly more accustomed to interacting with eight year-olds was unforgettable. Also, a woman loudly accused a man of calling her a cunt when she tried to cut him in line, at which point she raised her hand and voice to get everyone’s attention and yelled the letters “C-U-N-T,” the ideal introductory vignette for Cuaron’s space epic.
13. There was an endearingly bizarre chain theater, a Carmike, in Greenville where Amber went to college. It was halfway to being totally dead; it got first-run movies but the screenings were always half-empty and there was a concession stand in the hallway that seemed to have been in disuse for years. I found this place much more endearing than the flashier Regal across town. The one time we saw it crowded was at Gone Girl, and the staff seemed unclear on how to handle a popular event on its scale, because an entire room’s worth of people was staggered outside the door waiting to be let in several minutes past showtime. When the previous showing finally let out and the doors popped open, everyone flooded out looking like they had PTSD; again, a wonderful prelude to an incredible film.
14. 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm had been on my wishlist for as long as I could remember; in 2018 we got to see the next-best thing, a digital print in IMAX, and it was playing right out here at the damn Regal during an improbable national rollout by Warners. It was everything I wanted it to be, and solidifed my conviction that living this ridiculous life for art’s sake is all I really want to do.
15. And finally, Parasite… knowing nothing about Parasite‘s plot except what the trailers had let on, and experiencing it in a theater. It wouldn’t have been the same anyplace else.
I typically go through cycles with this. An experience like seeing Moonlight incompetently projected a few years back or having to listen to the entirety of the latest Star Wars while ostensibly watching Manchester by the Sea at Surf Cinemas in Southport will send me screaming back to my home and our modest TV and projector for some months. But eventually I come around; and of course, currently, I cannot. The least of our problems, for sure, the greatest of our problems being the morons now crowding the waterfront era; but it is somewhat ironic that Amber and I had recently returned to our ritual of going out to the movies nearly every week just before all this happened. Our last theatrical experience before the doors closed amid COVID-19 was a wonderful and long-desired one, North by Northwest (the first Hitchcock I’ve seen theatrically, and number two on my list of most-wanted big screen experiences after 2001). I truly think we’ll be back in the awful chain sixteen-screeners that surround us soon enough, and I don’t exactly want to sentimentalize them, but on the offchance that it’s all over, North by Northwest was probably the best note to go out on.
Now back to regular business.
Full reviews this cycle:
– The Compleat Beatles (LBoxd capsule; at least fifteenth viewing, last seen around 2010); and I Wanna Hold Your Hand (LBoxd capsule; seventh or eighth viewing, last seen around 2011) for the Beatles cinema project, which in terms of full-on essays is now probably finished.
– Throne of Blood (LBoxd capsule; third viewing, last seen 2016) — previously capsuled at this blog — to fill in a gap with the ’50s project since I’ve never really properly addressed it previously, and of course someday I’d like all of Kurosawa’s films to have long reviews here, so this was a perfect time to tackle this one.
Other films seen:
– Revival screenings before social distancing measures had to be taken: The Color Purple (second viewing, last seen 2018); and North by Northwest (ninth or tenth viewing, last seen 2012).
– Revisits to show to someone: Atlantics (second viewing, last seen earlier this year).
– Revisits due to Blu-ray releases: The Golem (second viewing, last seen 2015, although this time I watched the edited U.S. version); All About Eve (ninth or tenth viewing I think, last seen 2017); Holiday (1938 version — second viewing, last seen 2017).
– For 2010s revisit project (LBoxd pages linked): American Hustle (second viewing, last seen 2014); Isle of Dogs (second viewing, last seen 2018); and Sightseers (second viewing, last seen 2015).
Non-feature or non-cinema screened:
– I somehow failed to mention this when cataloging Kino Lorber’s release of Last Year at Marienbad a couple of months back, but Alain Resnais’ Toute la mémoire du monde — about the National Bibliotechque of France is hauntingly beautiful, vaguely menacing, and simply sublime for anyone in my profession or anyone who loves libraries. You can watch it yourself here.
– Was reacquainted recently with one of my favorite early short films, Segundo de Chomon’s The Golden Beetle, a marvel in hand-tinting and special effects.
– The most informative video I’ve seen in some time: 1997’s How to Have Cybersex on the Internet, excerpted here.
– I don’t normally bring up this sort of thing here, but the absolute insanity of this video by A Flock of Seagulls (1985) needs to be more widely recognized.
Recent Blu-ray releases:
– All About Eve (Criterion): Yet another superb Criterion package (the drawings that populate the cover and booklet are magnificent) despite some early problems with the packaging that were, by the time I picked it up, wholly fixed. Eve has been issued on Blu before and I understand the image isn’t a big upgrade (although dazzling), but Criterion just contexualizes this stuff like no one else. The set carries over the supplements from the old Fox Studio Classics DVD, which are fine, but the material I’d personally never seen before was staggering in its breadth. There’s an amazing and admirably unpolished long interview with Joseph L. Mankiewicz that moves well past feature length and is considerably above par for talking-head documentaries. This is joined up by an informative look at the film’s costume designs and, from a subsequent DVD release by Fox, a decent featurette about Mankiewicz’s personal life and a short, winningly lurid tidbit about the feud between the author of the source material and its actual inspiration. I had great fun watching the two Dick Cavett episodes included, one interviewing Bette Davis (during the course of which it “becomes” the 1970s) and one with Gary Merrill, both insightful and fun subjects. I do wish the commentaries were new or scholarly instead of the old ones from the Fox discs which aren’t very good. The slightly disappointing booklet contains a mediocre essay and the short story The Wisdom of Eve, and wow, it’s really something that Mankiewicz managed to get this script out of that piece of piffle.
– The Golem (Masters of Cinema): Features a weak scholarly commentary track that focuses too little on history and too much on editorializing of the real-world mechanics of a Golem. But the restoration is sincerely jaw-dropping and the video essays are interesting, though some extrapolate pretty far out into wilderness to find continued evidence of the Golem in Jewish horror. It’s really just wonderful to see Eureka!/MoC tackling Weimar cinema again like old times.
– The African Queen (Masters of Cinema): On the other hand, this handsome package is one of the best MoC releases to date; admittedly there isn’t a whole lot of original content, instead consolidating a lot of existing material. But the long documentary and video essays are robust and informative, there’s a bloody fascinating interview with cowriter Peter Viertel as well as an audio Q&A with John Huston who’s always a treat, and even the commentary by Jack Cardiff and brief Q&A by Lauren Bacall don’t suffer from the haziness that you often encounter with that sort of material. The booklet is great, and the whole thing just looks terrific, in terms of both the packaging and the restoration itself. An incredibly strong set, really.
– Holiday (Criterion): The best package we’ll ever likely see for this film but not Criterion’s strongest effort. The big extra here is a welcome one, the entirety of the earlier 1930 film version of the play (reviewed below); it’s fun to see even though it’s much more of an ordinary early talkie and play adaptation than Cukor’s version. I’m very glad Criterion included it as it really gives you a chance to study what makes the classic 1938 version work so well. The other supplements are thin: a somewhat interesting but ho-hum conversation between two critics (Michael Sragow and Michael Schlesinger) about the film, which is upstaged by Dana Stevens’ excellent essay in the booklet. There’s an OK audio interview with George Cukor, who talks pretty extensively about specifics on adapting the play to the screen versus the older version. It’s a good set, no real complaints here, and the main thing is the film, which I’m so glad they saw fit to release in this form and looks utterly spectacular.
– Fail Safe (Criterion): Another astonishing release, comprised mostly of inherited materials all of which are very strong: a 2000 documentary featurette from the old Sony DVD, a surprisingly in-depth Sidney Lumet commentary (there are dead spots as usual with these old director tracks, but I mind that less and less these days, and everything he says is quite interesting, especially when he ties the whole plot to some skepticism about the 2000 presidential candidates!), the new J. Hoberman interview provides some welcome and informed Cold War context, and the Bilge Ebiri essay in the foldout, while inconvenient to read in that form, is validating for someone who’s celebrated this film for a long time. Plus I learned something new: the animation we see throughout the film on the “war room” screens was provided by Faith and John Hubley, about whom Lumet gushes multiple times throughout the commentary! Everything continues to tie together…
– Soon to come: Criterion’s Roma, a whole lot of cartoons and Dodsworth from Warner Archive, Flicker Alley’s “Bolshevik Trilogy” set of Pudovkin films, and a host of early cinema, avant garde and Leone westerns plus a Clouzot from Kino Lorber. Lot of catching up to do…
Venture below to find 30 new capsules, to be added to the Movie Guide immediately, with slightly longer Letterboxd writeups linked.
Umberto D. (1952, Vittorio de Sica) [r]
[1950s canon project.] (Second viewing, no change; last seen 2008.) Irresistibly sad neorealist film about an unlucky retired man unable to make ends meet on his pension and about to be evicted by a self-obsessed landlord. His only allies are a terminally dispirited maid and an impossibly cute doggie. Lyrically examines divisions and unity among young and old, rich and poor, human and animal, man and woman. De Sica undeniably stacks the decks so high it feels downright absurd, regardless of how true to life it clearly is — the characters mostly feel so faintly sketched-in that the tale comes off as simultaneously ageless and strangely obvious, even a bit sentimental, though I do prefer it muchly to Bicycle Thieves.
Random Harvest (1942, Mervyn LeRoy) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] This good-looking MGM production banks on your attraction to big emotional crescendos with little buildup; over the decade and a half after WWI, an amnesiac mental patient (Ronald Colman) creates a modest new life for himself with a highly nurturing and patient wife (the luminous Greer Garson) only to then, hilariously, suffer yet another concussion and suddenly become his old self. Would make a hell of a backdoor pilot for a Krazy Kat-meets-The Love Boat sitcom in which Colman hits his head and enters a new marriage each week. Think of the potential guest stars!
The Salesman (2016, Asghar Farhadi) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] A married couple who are members of a theater troupe seek out a new home after the apartment they’re staying in collapses, which leads them to an unexpected moment of brutality that threatens their lives in every sense. This is a harrowing odyssey of not just the complicated matter of juggling roles as member of family and member of society and of knowing how radically the idea of protecting someone you love can change on a dime, but of how men view themselves and construct narratively and socially convenient personalities for themselves, and the stories they and their loved ones tell each other to continue the illusion.
Short Term 12 (2013, Destin Daniel Cretton) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] Parts of this surprisingly warm drama about the staff and occupants of a group home for teens have the ring of painful honesty, not only in its portrayal of the inner worlds of the adolescent characters (especially Lakeith Stanfield’s Marcus and Kaitlyn Dever’s Jayden) but in that of the supervisor played with extraordinary wisdom by Brie Larson and her slightly troubled romance with a coworker (John Gallagher Jr.). Writer-director Cretton is a little too preoccupied with that last element, but it’s hard to object too much to a film that probes mental health and abuse in an honest manner yet remains ultimately winning and even optimistic.
Bergman Island (2004, Marie Nyreröd) [r]
Filmed four years before Ingmar Bergman’s death at age 89, this intimate if slightly workmanlike documentary finds the fabled director in an introspective mood, puttering around his house on the island of Fårö where he filmed Through a Glass Darkly and subsequently made his isolated home. He is queried about life, legacy and filmmaking by Nyreröd, who doesn’t shy away from posing difficult questions that go far beyond technical or thematic concerns. When the man’s eccentricities come to the forefront, all you can think is, here is a person we’re not ever going to replace.
Ingrid Goes West (2017, Matt Spicer) [c]
[2010s catchup project.] Billed as a black comedy, this is really a car-crash rubbernecking observation of a mentally ill young woman (a credible Aubrey Plaza) whose entire world is centered on her Instagram likes, her desperation for friendship and stalking of a hapless influencer. Spicer is good at ramping up thriller scenarios but this is a strange context for them, especially when the mood is so frequently disrupted by bouts of rather broad jokes and commentary about the ugly world of life lived exclusively via social network. Ingrid feels more like a outsider’s punching-bag caricature of the needy online denizen than a person who’s hurting and slowly collapsing.
Starlet (2012, Sean Baker) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] The L.A. colors are ugly, the hellscape of bingo nights and garage sales relentlessly bleak, but somehow everything in Baker’s story about weird friendships and unspoken pasts eventually seems to shout out with calm humanism. Dree Hemingway’s Jane has a sunny demeanor initially tireless enough that you wonder if it’s for real, but this coalesces into charm as her sheer pluck becomes clear. It’s a winning characterization matched well by Besedka Johnson in her first and only film as the cantankerous Sadie; their hard-won relationship is as believable as if you lived through it. The film is funny, but its great virtue is what it doesn’t laugh at.
Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] The storyline in this effortlessly modern, progressive-feeling western isn’t that far removed from the conventions of the genre, but Ray’s sublimely serious-minded yet unpretentious execution places it in its own class, as does the extraordinary cast led by Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge and Sterling Hayden, those first two embodying powerful and sophisticated female characters that aren’t easily boxed into traditional hero or villain roles. Riveting and intriguingly modern all the way through.
Madame Curie (1943, Mervyn LeRoy)
[Best Picture nominees project.] Splashy all-star MGM biopic fusses up its depiction of the pioneering physicist (Greer Garson) who discovered radium with a bunch of cutesy exposition focusing on the wacky concept of a Lady Scientist plus the utterly banal depiction of her relationship to husband Pierre, inadequately played by Walter Pidgeon. Garson’s fine performance and some adventurous photography from the great Joseph Ruttenberg are all that recommend this tiresome, formulaic picture, which suffers from the same narratively inert dead ends as something like The Story of Louis Pasteur and serves little purpose outside the middle school science classroom.
Tangerine (2015, Sean Baker) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] Baker’s compassion toward his subjects isn’t really questionable; where one might philosophically differ with him is in what seems to be a morbid fascination with people in their most desperate moments. Here he folds pure comic mania and well-observed detail into the day-to-day plight of two trans sex workers and their noirish gallery of associates and clients as a woman tries to confront her cheating partner in the course of a single 24-hour period. The more ridiculous and elevated it all gets, however, the more one wonders if it’s really meant to function as a gawking comic freakshow rather than a slice of life.
Cloverfield (2008, Matt Reeves) [r]
Inordinately entertaining and technically impressive found-footage thriller overcomes its very goofy premise (a Godzilla-like monster terrorizes New York City) with clever, resourceful direction and amiable enough actors, although the characterizations are dull enough that one is more than a little anxious for the carnage to set in. Drew Goddard contributed the script which lays the irony on a little too thickly, often feeling like something a teenager would write; most of the value here is in Matt Reeves’ startlingly intelligent staging of utterly ridiculous events.
Judy (2019, Rupert Goold)
[Academy Awards catchup.] Pandering exploration of Judy Garland’s final months is made a lot worse by Renee Zellweger’s caricatured, tic-ridden performance (although she does sing well) and poor, inconsistent writing that fails to make any of its real-life characters convincingly robust as people rather than historical figures.
Jojo Rabbit (2019, Taika Waititi) [NO]
[Academy Awards catchup/Best Picture nominees project.] A young anti-Semitic boy suffers a crisis of conscience after he makes friends with a Jewish girl to the chagrin of his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler; if that summary makes you want to see this, I’d like a word. The numerous tonal and sociopolitical problems with this deeply wrongheaded misfire pale next to just how aggressively unfunny it is — not one joke even kind of lands. The script is built from anachronistic Avengers-like smarmy dialogue, and the story is wildly overstuffed with ideas in a way that smacks of deep insecurity; it’s the most tone-deaf film to attain its level of notoriety since Life Is Beautiful.
The Life of Oharu (1952, Kenji Mizoguchi) [r]
[1950s canon project.] Much as Women of the Night was Mizoguchi doing Neorealism, this is Mizoguchi doing Bresson — essentially an episodic parade of oppression suffered by the title character (Kinuyo Tanaka, superb) at the hands of powerful men in 17th century Japan. We meet her as the disgraced daughter of a Samurai warrior who’s been censured and castigated as the result of a love affair and watch as she suffers one indignity, tragedy and humiliation after another. While formally beautiful and arresting, the story eventually becomes so one-note that it verges on the ridiculous; only the promise of eternal nothingness can offer redemption.
Arrowsmith (1931, John Ford) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Little of Sinclair Lewis’ sophistication or bite survives the Hollywood formatting of his novel about an innovative doctor’s career; this becomes a rudimentary character sketch, though an out-of-his-element Ford does come through with some striking indoor compositions. The film’s on solid dramatic ground in the early country doctor sequences then loses its grip when it travels to the West Indies, where Clarence Brooks is memorable in a refreshingly uncaricatured role as a black doctor. Arrowsmith’s interpersonal relationships offer more entertainment, partly because Helen Hayes is clearly more comfortable in her role than Ronald Colman is in his.
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016, Dan Trachtenberg) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] The tenuous connection to 2008’s Cloverfield barely even registers in this genuinely tense, frightening confinement thriller that has survivalist John Goodman holding two people hostage in his bunker, warning them of terrors outside; Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are phenomenal, the latter holding us completelhy in her corner for the duration. Each of the various horrifying turns the plot takes in the last half packs a real punch, like a whole season of Breaking Bad packed into a few minutes.
Things to Come (2016, Mia Hansen-Løve)
[2010s catchup project.] Not only is Isabelle Huppert brilliant and an absolute marvel to watch in this, Hansen-Løve gives her an extraordinarily well-drawn character with enough flaws and contradictions to approximate an actual human being. But she then gives that character almost nothing to work with; the story here is a banal, aimless odyssey of a well-off philosophy teacher enduring several personal crises (including the end of her relationship with her husband, also a philosophy teacher!?) and heavy-handed metaphors about life and death. It’s a bizarre combination of dramatic subtlety and thematic sledgehammering with nothing that rings false but nothing that surprises.
Holiday (1930, Edward H. Griffith) [r]
The first adaptation of Philip Barry’s play, later the basis for one of the most charming and resonant Hollywood comedies of the ’30s, is neither cast nor scripted with anything like the wisdom and grace of George Cukor’s film. The story is still compelling, but it plays much more as theater than real life. Ann Harding and Robert Ames simply don’t put across the chemistry required for the central roles, nor does Ames have the charisma to inspire a line like “life walked into this house this morning.” You do get a fine Mary Astor performance as non-“black sheep” sister Julia, but that’s the only note on which this version is at all preferable.
Cameraperson (2016, Kirsten Johnson) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] Johnson puts together a kind of highlight reel of footage she’s shot as cinemtaographer for various documentaries over the years, placing an emphasis on moments that deeply challenge the separation between filmmaker and subject, and therefore the ethics of their relationship. This is a bit like Kiarostami’s Close-Up in its buried meta-narrative and erasing of the line between truth and cinema, but its conglomeration of basically unrelated clips ping-pongs so rapidly between emotional extremes that it’s actually a bit numbing.
First Reformed (2017, Paul Schrader) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] Another Schrader chronicle of a man’s deterioration, but this one is stronger in its sense of doom and claustrophobia, more inspired and elegant in its choice of premise, and finally more personally affecting despite its clear debts to Robert Bresson. Part of its success hinges on the extent to which it’s able to force identification, through the good work of both Schrader and an unexpectedly masterful Ethan Hawke, with the pastor of a tourist-trap Dutch Reformed church in New England as he copes with his anxieties, which already seem insurmountable before the building blocks of his worldview begin to tumble.
The Cranes Are Flying (1957, Mikhail Kalatozov) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] This is many things — a Soviet response to the trauma of World War II, a persuasive depiction of youthful romance in full bloom — but above everything it’s an example of a film in which the camera is wholly responsive to the moods and emotions of its characters, such that the specifics of those characters are less important than how easily Kalatozov and Sergey Urusevsky put their inner lives across in a manner transcending all verbal language. The camera behaves in ways that don’t seem physically possible; this is avant garde technique at perhaps its apex in service of something remarkably universal that never feels vague or rudimentary.
A Few Good Men (1992, Rob Reiner) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Wildly entertaining if somewhat dated courtroom drama has hotshot military lawyer Tom Cruise teaming up with compassionate cohort Demi Moore and just-kinda-there Kevin Pollak to defend a couple of Marines accused of hazing, on the basis that the murder they (accidentally?) committed was an order from on high. “On high” translates to top brass memorably portrayed by Jack Nicholson, who gives what may be his least subtle performance — which is saying something. Despite the broadly cartoonish energy Nicholson brings and the usual sexist indulgences of writer Aaron Sorkin, this is gripping and fun.
Sorry to Bother You (2018, Boots Riley) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] An anti-capitalist comedy — the fast-moving, witty directorial debut of the Coup’s Riley — about a man (Lakeith Stanfield, note-perfect) who finds success in his telemarketing job only upon adopting a “white voice.” Wonderfully original in its flights of fancy and painfully well-observed when it hews closer to lived-in reality; a movie of the moment, and a well-timed piece of true working class soldiarity from a real artist. Terrific music throughout from the Coup (naturally) and Tune-Yards.
First Man (2018, Damien Chazelle)
[2010s catchup project.] Even if the thesis of this frustrating chronicle of Neil Armstrong’s career through 1969 is that he was outwardly unable to express himself, thus limiting his private relationships, Ryan Gosling lacks the range to portray even this emotional distance competently. Chazelle concentrates heavily on appropriating elements of Kubrick, on playing up a contemporary-ish notion of what the moon landing “meant,” and on depicting NASA history in an in-your-face manner, but his attempt to turn this into a Malickian Right Stuff demonstrates that intentionally banal dialogue doesn’t turn your work into Pure Cinema if your compositions are equally rote.
Fail Safe (1964, Sidney Lumet) [hr]
(Second viewing, last seen 2000; no change and basically same old capsule.) Stanley Kubrick kept this film out of wide release in 1964 because it shared source material with his Dr. Strangelove, and he felt that a comedy couldn’t compete with a drama that had the same subject matter. Of course Strangelove is better, and Kubrick was probably right. All the same, it’s a missed opportunity that this is not a more famous movie, because it’s a real firecracker. Lumet, as usual, avoids Hollywood trappings and creates something with stylistic ingenuity and breathless intensity. Excellent performances all around, too.
Sherpa (2015, Jennifer Peedom) [r]
As their job becomes more dangerous due to climate change, the Nepalese Sherpas who escort white western tourists to the peak of Mt. Everest are experiencing greater risk and loss of life, and the divide between them and their clients has become more pronounced. Australian documentarian Peedom expected to make a film about how a veteran Sherpa (Phurba Tashi) and his family feel about his work, but she ended up inadvertently capturing the aftermath of a tragic avalanche that killed sixteen people and the absence of compassion from the powers that be. There’s impressive mountaineering footage, but the real subject is race and class, as it must be.
Game Night (2018, John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein)
[2010s catchup project.] Part of the new subgenre that also includes The Nice Guys and Spy: half-assed action thriller plus half-assed zaniness equals whatever this is. An enthusiastic cast led by Rachel McAdams (who’s quite fun) and Jason Bateman (who’s Jason Bateman) act out a sketchy script about a Fincheresque “game” initiated by Bateman’s well-off and popular brother Kyle Chandler going awry when actual criminals get involved. There are some laughs, but the frantic plotting so outpaces the humor in a desperation to maintain the interest of an audience given no credit whatsoever that it feels like a prolonged bludgeoning.
Private Life (2018, Tamara Jenkins) [c]
[2010s catchup project.] In this slice-of-life dramedy, the two most annoying and vapid people in the world are trying to have a child in their forties; Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn’s lead performances are hard to sit with for two hours, so imagine living with them. The monotony is broken a bit by Kayli Carter (as a niece and egg donor) and John Carroll Lynch (as her dad) who are both like an oasis in the desert but can’t overcome the scattershot writing and sheer tonedeafness that surrounds them.
The Big Heat (1953, Fritz Lang) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] Ferocious and brutal Lang film noir about a cop at the breaking point with citywide corruption. Not as hauntingly grim perhaps as Scarlet Street, but as usual in Lang’s American films it all feels strikingly uncompromised. Glenn Ford is masterful as an outwardly controlled tempest of emotional chaos, Lee Marvin chillingly believable in all his casual violence. A real thrill all in all.
King Solomon’s Mines (1950, Andrew Marton & Compton Bennett) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] The usual flagrantly racist Trader Horn African safari nonsense, but with above-par performances by Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr, and the MGM production team delivering some remarkable images of not just wild animals cavorting gorgeously in the African plains but of genuine indigenous dances and culture seldom captured on film (though far be it from me to make claim that it was ethical for MGM to be the ones to package all this for American consumption). Plus its adventure episodes are consistently exciting and look flawless thanks to cinematographer Robert Surtees. Problematic as all get-out, no question, but solidly entertaining in its fashion.
Of Shakespeare’s major tragedies, Macbeth is perhaps the least enjoyable to read. Seeing it performed may well be a different matter, but keeping in mind that criticizing Shakespeare is a fool’s errand and is of course meant in a strictly relative sense, the play feels rushed and even perfunctory in its early stages, perhaps in keeping with the theories that the text that exists is highly butchered. Most troubling are the characterizations: whereas entire books can be and have been written about even minor figures and their relationships in King Lear and Hamlet, Macbeth is really exclusively populated by just two significant characters, one of whom — iconic and poetic though her dialogue may be — is a curiously flat villainous caricature whose various transitions make little sense beyond our inclination to accept them because they’re second nature to literature and theater at this point. Macbeth himself is one of the fuzziest and most ineffectual protagonists in Shakespeare, seemingly meant as little more than a target for mockery, like — not coincidentally? — a Coen brothers character. Finally, this is personal bias, but to a person fond of the comedies and their idiosyncrasies, and Hamlet and its elaborately constructed plot, that Macbeth ends with something so basically ordinary as the siege of a castle seems disappointing. The play amounts to escalation and little else.
That said, Macbeth‘s relative simplicity also allows room for sophisticated interpretations of minimalist and maximalist variety, hence those for instance of Orson Welles (on stage and screen) and Roman Polanski (in cinema), which bring their creators’ specific fixations to a perfect blank slate. Oddly, since it retains none of Shakespeare’s dialogue, the most straightforward adaptation of the work in storytelling terms may in fact be Akira Kurosawa’s celebrated Throne of Blood, which transfers the action to feudal Japan and is cited by Harold Bloom among others as perhaps the greatest film of a Shakespeare play. But while Kurosawa was a master of the cinematic art adapting the indisputable master of English language storytelling, Throne of Blood cannot rise above the shortcomings of its source text, nor can it fully realize its virtues that are so intricately tied with the playwright’s mastery of language. Absent of the poetry in already one of Shakespeare’s less poetic works, we are left only with the pure drama — which carries us through for a while, at least — and with the lyricism of Kurosawa’s camera and mise en scene, which are of course largely enough to make this an indispensable film all the same.
In microcosm, for example, there is no real way of appropriating Macbeth‘s bird and horse omens in an original and not heavy-handed fashion, but in the hands of Kurosawa and his longtime cinematographer Asakazu Nakai they are so lovingly staged (calling ahead conspicuously to two future Hitchcock films) that they become fresh and genuinely entrancing. It’s this kind of effect of rendering the familiar with fiery conviction that’s called for by the task of adapting Shakespeare to the screen. The most breathtaking moments in Throne of Blood involve Kurosawa’s staging of the inevitable violence at the play’s center: the murder (45 minutes into the 110-minute film), though staged chillingly off camera, is played with pointed, sighing despair appropriate to Toshiro Mifune’s interpretation of an often muddled character, here renamed Washizu. Later, Washizu’s death is one of the most outrageous and brutal of Kurosawa’s setpieces, in which his bravado and betrayal are met with a hail of arrows that cripple him slowly, with palpable physical agony reading across Mifune’s expressive face. This protracted bit of action is a smart cover for the play’s inconclusiveness. Best of all, however, is one of the play’s most dependable acting showcases, and the one Kurosawa essentially allows to sit as-is; his staging of the ghost scene, despite the playfulness of Banquo’s non-chair, is the most theatrical in the film but uncommonly effective, with Mifune permitted to build to organic and frightening heights in his performance as he illustrates a grieving insanity that his wife (Isuzu Yamada) is quick to try and suppress.
However, what Throne of Blood cannot fully overcome, and what it is too direct and quick to be capable of masking, is the bareness of the intrigue in the play and its slightly curious structure of systematic, grisly fulfillment of prophecy. As bodies and severed heads pile up in the second half, we feel a certain disjointedness from the languid pacing of the earlier scenes. The entire first half hour is as bizarrely protracted as the early portions of Ran, a much longer Shakespeare adaptation Kurosawa made decades later. The establishment of Washizu and his best friend and fellow Samurai Miki (the film’s Banquo, portrayed with intelligent restraint by Minoru Chiaki) as heroes in battle followed by their lengthy journey through the labyrinthine forest and their stumbling upon an Evil Spirit (changed from the play’s three witches) feel plodding enough before being superseded by a seemingly endless series of shots of the pair wandering lost through the fog that has descended on the outskirts of the castle of Lord Tsuzuki — the film’s King Malcolm. Washizu and Miki then sit in a field, express their exhaustion and repeat everything that has already been stated in the film’s first quarter-hour; it’s a gorgeous shot, the castle looming in deep focus, but while likely attempting to pad out Shakespeare’s atypically breakneck Act I (again, believed by some scholars to have survived in incomplete form), it’s guilty of the same talkiness and overstatement that sometimes mars the far less sprawled-out Rashomon, and it creates a situation in which the film that later becomes so lurid and nightmarish seems to have little actual relation to the careful setting up of place, time and people, which renders it ultimately less successful as a narrative.
You’re left to conclude that Kurosawa failed to connect these dots not because he couldn’t fully make sense of the play’s characters or underlying themes, because we have ample evidence that that wasn’t a problem for him, but because his intimate examination of Macbeth showed that there was very little beyond the superficial to find and express. Most of the individual scenes feel like a greatest-hits procession of the recognizable moments of the play, but there is no way to make them breathe as something with a sense of reality or, crucially, timelessness. The early scenes are related in painstaking detail, while later events are rushed through via wipe dissolves. Thus the events and the characters are approached as something to illustrate, not as a springboard for an incisive or revealing adaptation, apart from in the aesthetic sense. That said, Kurosawa’s engagement is different enough from the other major auteurist variations on the play that he’s able to present serious questions about the source’s central themes that aren’t necessarily present in other films; the emphasis he places on the forest’s lonely prophet (the “Spirit of the Spider’s Web Forest” played by Chieko Naniwa) as a more mysterious, truly eerie figure than the typical sneering witches who are out to troll the future monarch provides for a more ambiguous divide between cause and effect: is Washizu destroyed by pure ambition, by the ambition of others, by the interference of the supernatural, or by his own determination to fulfill a blind belief in prophecy? “Without ambition,” his wife opines at one point, “man is not a man”; one is tempted to read this as the real core of the concerns and fixations of the director’s that are stroked by this story, especially since his rebuke of it isn’t far from the eventual “long life eating porridge” thesis of Yojimbo, and this conflict is emphasized chiefly because we’re seeing the one adaptation of the play in which the “witches” are a more fascinating presence than Lady Macbeth.
Here Lady Macbeth is Washizu’s wife Asaji, certainly a distinctive performance that does not conquer the inherent incompleteness of the play’s character, long a focus of feminist critique of Shakespeare, nor Kurosawa’s worsening of those problems. Sexism is not foreign to Kurosawa’s work (particularly witness Yojimbo), nor is it terribly insidious or pervasive in either his art or — typically — Shakespeare’s. Nevertheless it’s difficult to argue with the perception of Lady Macbeth or Asaji as a one-dimensional force of evil designed almost exclusively to henpeck her husband into inflicting all manner of power-mad violence to live up to the predictions of what amounts to a hallucination. Yamada’s Mrs. Danvers-like stillness is a delight to watch, but to the viewer who is aware of Kurosawa’s later revision of King Lear‘s Edmund to “Lady Keane” (Mieko Harada) in Ran, it’s greatly disappointing that Asaji only appears in the moments of narrative convenience: we see her egging on the murder, we see her trying to calm him down to save face at the banquet, and we see her desperately trying to rid herself of nonexistent blood; the cycling between these modes as well as into her ultimate decline is absent, even more than in the source, and this despite the added plot device of a pregnancy and stillbirth. Kurosawa slightly worsens this situation by placing considerable emphasis on the remarkably tense introduction of Asaji about thirty minutes into the film; she sits still and gazing straight ahead with a storm in her eyes — one naturally expects her already unstable state of mind to become more important to the rest of the story than it ultimately is, but it’s largely cast aside in favor of playing the drama on a larger stage.
As to the other performances, except for Mifune and Chiaki, they tend to be pitched at a full hundred from the first and thus have nowhere to go; Kurosawa’s heavy concentration on facial expressions and the subtle tic doesn’t work when the acting is this broad. Conversely, this is one of Mifune’s most tentative and uncertain performances, which somewhat fits the character. As characterized not just by Kurosawa but by Shakespeare, Macbeth is sort of a clueless oaf who’s led by his worst instincts; the film rather ingeniously stages his grandiose speech after receiving the “moving forest” prophecy (Throne excludes the “born of a woman” proviso) as a bit of boorish comedy that has chest-out Mifune parading around a balcony like Charles Laughton or, sigh, Donald Trump. And Chiaki’s Miki, eyes clearly beloved by the director, is a splendid concoction whose obvious sincerity manages to render the larger-than-life monstrosity of the central couple feel more artificial yet. The concern we feel when Asaji wonders if Miki knows “what lies” in Washizu’s heart is the most significant bit of human compassion the film requests of us.
If Throne of Blood is guilty of streamlining an already streamlined play, it’s worth stating that it’s also an opportunity for Kurosawa to let his impulses take over, and this is as pure a cinematic expression of his deepest interests as any. The proof of this is in the future: in 1985 he would adapt the much more intricate and fruitful King Lear as the visually overwhelming three-hour epic Ran. It’s a flawed film that sometimes feels just as protracted and inhuman as this one, but it’s also the work of a filmmaker whose confidence is absolute and who is able to do even more with the raw materials provided by the play than he was in the ’50s; even if Ran isn’t exactly your ideal variety of entertainment, if you’ve seen it then watching Throne of Blood you find yourself longing for that later film, which goes farther with all of the ideas sketched out here. The similarities are numerous, offset by dreamlike color photography and the expanded length, but even the opening battles and conferences are cut from the same pattern despite the major differences in the two plays. Kurosawa is still fixated upon the cycles of murder and power that are already immobile before his tales open, still drawn to and repelled by the bloodstains of the “traitors,” and still eventually finding himself drawing the same devastating conclusion, as articulated explicitly in Throne of Blood: “This is a wicked world.”
The setting of Robert Zemeckis’ debut film is New York City on February 9, 1964, the night of the Beatles’ first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the bellwether event of the British Invasion and of the re-ignition of rock & roll in general. A group of New Jersey teenagers descend on CBS Studio 50 with disparate motivations: a Fabs fanatic (Wendie Jo Sperber) who hooks up with fellow Beatles obsessive Richard a.k.a. Ringo (the inimitable Eddie Deezen), an ambitious young photographer (Theresa Saldana) with a simping would-be boyfriend (Marc McClure) whose dad unknowingly provides the car, Nancy Allen as a prudish, tentative bride-to-be who ends up in the Beatles’ hotel room, and a stuck-up Peter, Paul & Mary fan (Susan Kendall Newman, daughter of Paul) determined to stamp out the Beatles. They’re joined by laughably clueless tough guy Tony Smerko (Bobby Di Cicco), a kid whose militaristic father thinks he needs a haircut, and of course the Beatles, whose presence is felt everywhere — the picture taking its name, sort of, from their breakthrough single in the U.S., which had sparked stateside Beatlemania via groundswell starting in December 1963 — even though they’re only seen in archive footage, or (as mimicked by actors) in vague silhouette.
The frantic comedy that builds from all this has the same urgent, blissful atmosphere of electricity that makes Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night such an endless delight, and even if Zemeckis can’t match the inherent cultural importance of the earlier film, he certainly can evoke its spirit along with that of the (liberally invoked) Ed Sullivan Show itself and Albert and David Maysles’ fascinating documentary footage of the band’s initial trip to America and the ensuing chaos. Watch the Maysles brothers’ film and you’ll know that Zemeckis isn’t exaggerating about the Beatles as a phenomenon and the absolute orgasmic insanity of this specific weekend. The characters are all flawlessly developed, and the various payoffs never feel like cheats. It helps Zemeckis and cowriter Bob Gale that the Beatles were such a brilliant band — their music lights the movie up — but the real subject here is less the specifics of 1964 than the broader matter of fandom and youth, mostly utilizing the Beatles for the symbolism they provide as a natural roadmap for explosive youth culture henceforth; theirs is a more genuine, much warmer (and, not insignificantly, overwhelmingly feminine) variant on George Lucas’ American Graffiti, helped along by the fact that its leads don’t seem like Happy Days caricatures.
The other films that spring to mind as sharing the particular delightful speed and screwball intensity of I Wanna Hold Your Hand are the next two that Zemeckis and Gale made together, Used Cars and Back to the Future, as well as — less successfully — the one they scripted for Steven Spielberg with many of the same cast members, 1941. Zemeckis’ student films at USC were imaginative, sardonic crowd-pleasers with a lot of energy, and like Francis Coppola before him, he successfully transfers that scrappy inventiveness to his early features. This one in particular is smartly blocked and incredibly assured; producer Spielberg’s belief in him displays commercial instincts that may not have immediately paid off — the film, like Used Cars two years later, did poorly at the box office — but forecasts the boom in ensemble teen films during the decade to follow while setting the table for Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit in its ruthless build toward a manic climax and thrilling double-back conclusion.
Yet talking about Hold Your Hand in these terms that liken it to blockbuster pyrotechnics of the looming Reagan era sells it short; frankly, so does associating it exclusively with the Beatles even though it is arguably the most salient cinematic response to their work and cultural enormity since Yellow Submarine. Zemeckis does prove himself a dependable and resourceful filmmaker, less a stylist than an extremely strong and sure-handed adopter of traditional film grammar; but you could say the same of even his worst efforts, the risible milquetoast of Forrest Gump or the detritus of his incomprehensible 2000s love affair with motion capture. (You wonder, how can this be the same person?) The consequence is that in order to talk about why I Wanna Hold Your Hand still feels so special and engaging, we must talk about less about its director than about its script and performances, without discounting Zemeckis’ surely invaluable hand in both.
Bob Gale was a classmate of Zemeckis’ at USC who would ride with him through nearly two decades’ worth of spectacular success and failure; blamed for giving Spielberg his first directorial bomb with 1941, they repaid his faith in them by taking the beloved comedy juggernaut Back to the Future to his production company. That seismic hit seems to have altered their shared future, with Zemeckis pivoting to antiseptic Hollywood awards bait and Gale largely, charmingly circling the underground of fan and geek culture ever since. Together, however, they penned a whole run of surprisingly exquisite scripts, and in this first effort, they prove adept not just at the technical stunt of cross-threading four individual plots with brevity and clarity, but at defining and developing characters, a skill that would gradually fall by the wayside in the documents of adolescence that ended up being ubiquitous in American cinema in the ’80s.
Perhaps their single greatest asset in this regard — and what keeps the film in one’s mind after it ends — is their embrace of an unseen external life in the people they write about, a slight air of mystery even, as with the unexplained and therefore particularly evocative alliance between Marty and Dr. Brown in Back to the Future. It’s telling that when Allen’s character Pam mentions an aborted sleepover with Sperber’s Rosie and Saldana’s Grace in an early scene, the conceivable film about the three of them just hanging out sounds just as interesting as the one about them following the Beatles around — enough so that, on one’s ninth or tenth viewing and even with great anticipation for all the fun that lays ahead, one can almost feel disappointed that we don’t get to see it. What this implies, and what is so often missing from the popcorn movies often lumped in with Zemeckis’ early whiz-kid work, is his and Gale’s innate curiosity about people, which makes all the difference here and is really the deeper driving force behind this narrative — more than the Beatles, more than what the Beatles did to those who loved and loathed them, this is a story of being young and thoroughly devoted to what seems vitally, unshakeably more important than anything else in the world at a given moment. Maybe occasionally they’re right and it even really is that important… but that hardly matters.
It also doesn’t particularly matter, even as it riles up the nerd lurking in many of us, that Zemeckis and Gale play fast and loose with history, chronology and locations. There was no money to shoot in New York, so: that’s not the Ed Sullivan Theater, that isn’t the Plaza Hotel, and that certainly isn’t Broadway, it’s the Universal backlot and a random, amusingly tiny venue somewhere in Hollywood. That is Murray the “K,” so-called fifth Beatle and NYC hanger-on during the peak of the Mania, the only real-life figure playing himself, faced with the same mixture of bemusement and derision he encountered during these real events. Straight, knowing lies are told about the sequencing of the Beatles’ first Sullivan appearance; they weren’t the last act but they are made such for the sake of the narrative, and they certainly didn’t close with (the studio version of) “She Loves You,” the only song they actually play in the film, chosen in homage to the exuberant finale of Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night. (Other Beatles tunes pepper the narrative as a dependably joyous and ironic song score; oddly enough it may be the only time Zemeckis’ music clearance choices weren’t painfully obvious, which given the context is saying something.) But the film nevertheless captures the pure spirit of a singular time when mainstream show business and buttoned-up life in general were forced to contend with a defiantly teenage cultural sensation, one that — despite the massive marketing push provided at the eleventh hour by Capitol Records — really did spring up organically from a gaggle of working class youths who were inspired to pick up guitars by the equally natural phenomenon of 1950s American rock & roll, which they compressed, maxed out, re-infused.
Maybe the reason it is able to present this so evocatively, now to an audience that largely did not witness the event in question, is that in some ways the Beatles experience wasn’t so singular. It was actually the beginning of something much bigger, if bigger in a different fashion than this one night, something that actually is as easily marked by boys with long hair and entrepreneurs frantically selling bedsheets and kids throwing jelly babies as it is by any 7″ or 12″ slab of vinyl. If it seems like it’s overselling the continued vitality of the Beatles to argue that February 1964 was an earth-shaking moment, it does seem worth pointing out that the things Lester and Maysles witnessed in 1964 and the things that seemed important enough to Zemeckis and Gale to reprise only fourteen years later are things that we still talk about, think about, celebrate, and that had still-lingering effects on the place that music appealing to teenagers holds in the public consciousness, not to mention on how seriously it is taken. (Historians’ writing about the Beatles, apart from that of Mark Lewisohn and Erin Weber, all too often skirts past the true substance and volume of the band’s enormous female following in favor of pretentious hippie-grade theory and analysis, which means that Zemeckis’ film gets at something that was more or less ignored by nearly every book about the band that existed at the time of its release, save as a funhouse mirror of outrageous teen behavior. This is an ironic problem with a band for whom girl groups and Brill Building pop were so immensely important.)
But even if you hate the Beatles and never want to hear another word about them, there’s still a sense in which this film has your number, as it is far less interested in cultural critique or in idealized, simple nostalgia than it is in why the young people in the film feel the way they do — including those, seemingly forgotten elsewhere in the mythology surrounding ’64, who are emphatically irritated by the group’s existence. The conclusions it draws have little to do with pounding beats or trebly guitars or “helter skelter,” much more to do with the grand equalization that takes place when we dare to take the passions of young people seriously. Zemeckis and Gale’s greatest triumph, in fact, is that there’s no ironic winking here in the manner of George Lucas’ interpretation of 1962 teens, no Enlightened Adult perspective to persuade us that all this nonsense is something we’ll collectively grow out of and weren’t we dunces for falling for it in the first place. Instead, they view the plight of all of the characters on good faith, and film these events in such a way that they are persuasively just as massive and life-changing as they must feel to the movie’s occupants.
For some of us, of course, following the Beatles around on Sullivan Day really is an ecstatic fantasy of sorts, but the underlying meaning of all this holds regardless. The Beatles would go on, and have continued to go on, and most likely will keep going on until long after any of those who were “there” will still walk among us; but what doesn’t go on for the majority of us is the irresistible impulse to delve into the weeds of this kind of a phenomenal situation — to not only love a band or a piece of music “so much that it hurts,” as Fairuza Balk says in Almost Famous (which is about the world the Beatles and their hair sparked), but to completely live for them, to make them the entirely of your world. Like the young girls in George Roy Hill’s The World of Henry Orient or Sarah Cracknell singing wistfully about her history as a muso in Saint Etienne’s “Over the Border” (“when I got married / and when I had kids / would Marc Bolan still be so important?”), Rosie and her friends will not always be like this, and they will not be able to live exclusively for this, or at this pace, for more than a sliver of their lives. Even Rosie, in the course of the film, seems aware of the fleeting nature of this connection, and also quite importantly embraces it. Capturing this is poignant and beautiful, and it’s worth mentioning that for all the film’s unabashed worship of the Beatles, Zemeckis and Gale make plain that the real essence of why this moment matters for these people is the easy camaraderie it inspires, the connections forged by a mutual thirst for something that isn’t level-headed or easily definable, certainly not to an outsider. The point is that we can’t live here forever, but returning to the purity of this kind of moment, even for those of us who were seldom lucky enough to experience anything like it at the correct and crucial time in our growth, seems like an important way to reconnect to a part of us that is too often made dormant by adulthood.
As for Zemeckis’ capability with actors, quite frankly it’s a mixed bag at this stage. The confidence of both Newman and Saldana varies throughout the film, while Di Cicco — overall hilarious (watch the proto-Biff Tannen moment of his clunkily mocking a kid for dropping his tray in a restaurant) — occasionally collapses into caricature, McClure is better in his sadsack moments (when his crush asks if she can pass for a college student, he nervously responds “Sure, you get good grades!”) than in those that call for a belligerent Buster Keaton, and even Nancy Allen makes a stronger impression with her physicality (her phallic embraces of the Beatles’ equipment in their empty hotel room are terribly amusing) than her line readings. Since Allen is very good in her films with Spielberg and Brian de Palma, it seems this is most likely down to a new director’s inexperience in helping to craft a performance, and Allen is nevertheless appealing and appropriate. On the other hand, the innate talent of two of Zemeckis’ actors, who are wisely teamed up, is the miracle that completely sells the film as both documentary and comedy. The nasal-voiced, hyperactive Eddie Deezen is almost too perfect for the role of infallible Beatles nerd Ringo Klaus, and he lives inside the character’s eccentricity with an indomitable spirit and a complete refusal to submit to humiliation; rarely has a character so obnoxious been somehow such a treat to see and hear. The sort of large gestures that McClure isn’t fully able to sell are like putty in Deezen’s hands, from the Daffy Duck-like pantomimes and fights with roving policemen to the liberal slathering of “official Beatles talcum powder” all over his face.
As distinctive as Deezen is, we also know from his subsequent films that he’s of course a one-note actor, and while that one note strikes a glorious chord here, even he is merely the supporting act to the incredible Wendie Jo Sperber, whose outrageous yet totally believable Rosie provides us with a comedic performance for the history books, regardless of whether it was ever recognized as such. Sperber’s character was inspired by the sorts of desperate-sounding, plucky young women so often seen and heard in newsreels of Beatlemania vintage, along the lines of the girl in The Compleat Beatles who wants to present Paul McCartney with a portrait of him she’s painted and then marry him. But there is also a lived-in realism to Sperber’s work, a recognition that she is embracing a moment of hedonism without sacrificing her integrity for it; she’s well matched to Zemeckis and Gale in that for all the broad slapstick gestures, the moments that tell us who she is are the subtleties, much like it’s those in the script that articulate its mission more than the flummoxed “business” of it all. It’s a magnificently controlled, impeccably nuanced performance despite its adherence to screwball gesticulating, but it also feels like the presentation of a person you might well know, and one who you would probably love with your entire heart: the way that she so serenely demarcates the line between real life and fantasy in a scene that has her casually referring to Deezen as her boyfriend, which he takes as an affront because it implies she isn’t faithful to her true love Paul McCartney, yet completely embodies and writhes in her maniacal devotion to the Beatles — it just feels like the most empathetic and compassionate portrait of adolescent fandom that one could possibly devise. Watching her in her more active and humorous scenes, you’re left feeling as if a freight train hit you. Sperber should have won awards for her performance and, afterward, should have been a huge star. Like Saldana, she would lead a difficult life after this and ultimately leave us all too soon, something else that adds to the feeling that I Wanna Hold Your Hand, like the Beatles themselves, is capturing things that were destined never to be bottled for our continued enjoyment again.
By the finale of I Wanna Hold Your Hand, each character save Deezen’s (too busy sparring with Ed Sullivan) has experienced some sort of an awakening, all of which come along organically and all of which are heartening. Smerko won’t become a Beatles fan but will accept the way the wind is blowing, the unstoppable destiny Zemeckis cleverly implies God has laid out for them. Newman’s Janis will witness Beatles fans rising up as a collective against an oppressive cop and will come to realize that there is common cause between rock & roll and her beloved Bob Dylan and Joan Baez records. Pam will have a sexual awakening by herself in the Beatles’ hotel room that all of a sudden makes a future with her bland, sour husband-to-be (a salesman of plastic furniture covers!) completely unappealing; of course what her heart and loins are telling her is not that she needs to follow the Beatles for the rest of her life but that if she marries, it should be to someone who’d have no objections to her following the Beatles for the rest of her life. The long-haired elementary schooler Peter will outsmart his dad and his locks will live to see another day, and at the theater he’ll look like he’s having the time of his life with new people who accept him. Rosie will pass out and sleep through the Sullivan performance and will excitedly accept this as her place in history; it was always only about being there for her — strangely, she’s really the most mature of them all. Only the photography student Grace will fail to make it to Sullivan, using a hard-won fifty bucks instead to bail out McClure’s hapless Larry; she’s in the middle of asking him on a date when, abruptly, a quartet of anxious Liverpudlians enter the back seat of the limousine thinking it’s theirs.
If all this tells us anything about the Beatles’ story, it’s likely extraneous to any of what makes either the film or the band truly memorable; you can hear these needledrops of Introducing the Beatles and Meet the Beatles! anywhere, and you don’t really need to watch actors pretending to be them while monitors present the real deal in the foreground in an admittedly remarkable feat of continuity. (The only recorded reaction to the film from the Beatles’ camp I could locate came from a legal representative of Ringo’s, who according to Gale informed one of the producers “We all watched your movie and decided we would not sue.” Critics were ecstatic about the film, as were the few audiences who saw it, making it the only remote triumph among a whole slew of cinematic Beatle revivals in the ’70s. Danny Boyle and Julie Taymor notwithstanding, the field has since quieted.) It may, however, tell us quite a bit about the composition of the Beatles’ fanbase with what can be read either as remarkable prescience or a sign that some things never change: there will always be lustful acolytes and insufferable nerds, something Vsevolod Pudovkin was already telling us in his hilarious Chess Fever, which laid out the composition of gaming culture in 1925 in a manner that has never wavered from truth. Therefore, I Wanna Hold Your Hand tells us a lot about any band’s fanbase, thus about anything that strikes an honest chord with teenagers, and thus about teenagers. To put it simply, we ignore them or discount the depth, depravity and sophistication of their inner lives at our own risks. And that’s if we even manage to evolve beyond them ourselves. If we don’t, if screaming over the Beatles circa ’64 is as much of a collective human experience we ever have… maybe you’ll disagree, but I believe there are worse things to build your world around.
[Part of a continuing series on the Beatles’ cinematic legacy, meant to complement my series on their musical output at my other blog. Watch in the next couple of months for my huge Beatles discography and introduction over there that will tie it all together.]
As with the now-obscure Bugs Bunny Superstar, my affection for and history with this documentary, a onetime VHS staple in my room growing up, probably far outweighs its importance and utility in the world — though I will make the case here that it’s something big Beatles fans too young to have seen it in the ’80s or ’90s should really check out if given the (probably illegal) opportunity. At the outset, however, let me say that along with the kids’ biography The Boys from Liverpool (written by Nicholas Schaffner, one of this film’s interviewees), this film was my real introduction to the remarkable narrative of the Beatles, the twentieth century story that has beguiled, obsessed and tormented me more than any other (even Watergate!) for most of my life now. I watched it over and over again and it was really my roadmap to understanding the entire mythos; seeing it today, it helps that its accuracy is basically sound and that it’s sympathetic to the Beatles’ cause and their art without feeling excessively sycophantic toward them. That narrative, of course, is so inherently riveting that it does much of the movie’s work for it, but this remains an atypically concise and well-told version of it, not least because it features deeply engaging narration by Malcolm McDowell — sounding worlds more dignified and erudite than he did in A Clockwork Orange all of a decade earlier.
Being a movie about the Beatles, Compleat is a feast for the eyes and ears by default — these four men looked and sounded truly great and unique at every phase of their career — but it does far more than you might expect with the limited material at its disposal, and with no participation from any actual band members. That last point requires us to compare this to the “canon” Beatles documentary, the ten-hour Beatles Anthology from 1995, which told the tale in the words of the band and a trio of insiders, the only overlap between the two projects being George Martin; that’s a primary source and it’s indispensable, but there are a number of reasons it does not supersede or replace The Compleat Beatles even though it’s done so in the minds of many scholars and viewers. If Anthology explored the Beatles’ history from the inside, Compleat regales us with the phenomenon as it was experienced by the public and by the first layer of protection around them, as a cultural tornado within the context of the ’60s, and as a unique and singular moment; it does not strain for this with excessive context — the focus is always on the music, the things it synthesized — but the whole world seems to be within this film in a manner that just doesn’t happen with Anthology.
One reason for this is that the way it’s shot and edited — mostly on 16mm it appears, though IMDB says 35 — lends itself to a kind of seriousness that we’d be hard pressed to find in a modern documentary, or certainly one from the era in which Anthology came to pass; film as opposed to video makes these things more elevated and artful, even when all they’re doing is zooming into or scrolling across still images (hundreds of them here, joined by original and stock footage with a few live performances). Director Patrick Montgomery, who hailed from an archivist background, takes a similar approach to that of his engrossing, informative film about the great silent cinema maverick Erich von Stroheim, The Man You Loved to Hate, and proves equally adept here at providing straightforward education about cultural titans without any sense of condescension; both Montgomery’s films are as compelling if you’re intimately familiar with the subject at hand as they are if you’re hearing these tales for the first time. The superb script for McDowall’s narration, by one David Silver, is impressive in just how broadly correct it is in its interpretations of the band’s history and music, which have a distinct and occasionally idiosyncratic point of view without pushing any sort of an agenda — it’s smart, thorough and surprisingly touching.
In the case of the Beatles, Montgomery makes use of newsreel footage and archive and publicity materials that would one day form the nucleus of any number of dreaded bargain-bin DVD documentaries about the group, but his and editor Pamela Page’s use of this motherlode is vastly more resourceful, and narratively persuasive, than the norm. McDowell’s narration, the Beatles’ music and a few pieces of atmospheric scoring coalesce into what is at times an almost lyrical exploration of the Beatles and their era in which the occasional disconnection — and what some might term the uninspired nature of the visuals themselves, as with the repeated motif of Montgomery and his camera crew shooting closeups of album tracklists — can take ages to even notice and often doesn’t matter, at least to the sheer power and enjoyment of the experience, when one does. There’s one remarkably insane moment when Revolver and its relationship to LSD is being discussed, and the filmmakers throw a bit of “Tomorrow Never Knows” over about thirty seconds of wild, psychedlic new footage… of the album cover. The camera whips around, twirls, and wobbles like it’s zooming in on the statue from Jules and Jim, but all you’re seeing is a copy of Revolver sitting on the floor; and somehow, the results are wildly evocative. (When I was a kid, this portion of the film so piqued my imagination I’m amazed I never had the inclination to try what McDowell’s narration calls “mind-expanding chemicals.”)
Perhaps even more impressive an act of emblazoning history on viewers’ heads is the way that Montgomery and company convey the misery of the Beatles’ life on the road in 1966, which is done by joining relatively innocuous footage of the group landing at an airport and weaving through a mob of fans with extremely ominous music and an elegy of sorts in voiceover from George Martin; this gets the strangeness and claustrophobia of this era in the Beatles’ history more elegantly than even the Anthology, with the band’s direct input, manages… and all through the magic of editing. You could make a similar argument for the montage about the breakup that peaks with a fracturing portrait of the band to the irony-free strains of “I’m So Tired,” for the harrowing exploration of the U.S. backlash and record-burnings (a remarkable collection of footage) after John’s Jesus remarks melded with the scenes of chaos in Vancouver and a relatively minor furor over rock star hotel business in Minneapolis, or certainly for the rather poetic scene-setting of Hamburg in the first and strongest portion of the film. Regardless of where “there” is at any given moment, the film seems to capture it, as much with ambient sound and montage as with music. And all this is done with scarcely any unique footage; it’s simply put together that intelligently. (To be fair, the clip of nude mud wrestling on the Reeperbahn doesn’t show up in most Beatles documentaries.)
All that said, Montgomery does glean some rather astounding original footage, and it’s for this reason that the film constitutes a major untapped source for Beatles scholars, and causes one to hope that a treasure trove of additional material exists somewhere. (In an old forum comment, Montgomery claimed that his first cut ran four hours!) The interviews Montgomery manages to pick up are almost uniformly impressive, and generally are of peripheral figures who seldom spoke at such length about their relationship to the band on camera. Among the provocative interview subjects are Allan Williams (their first manager and a pivotal figure in their early history), Tony Sheridan (vocalist on their first publicly released recording “My Bonnie,” seen here in a long-haired phase), Bill Harry (editor of the Liverpool music rag Mersey Beat), Horst Fascher (former boxer, bouncer and house manager at the Star Club, audible on the 1977 live album recorded at that club in ’62 singing “Hallelujah, I Love Her So”), Liverpool scenesters and later semi-rock stars Gary Marsden and Billy J. Kramer, Cavern DJ Bob Wooler (famously beaten to a pulp by John Lennon, an incident unmentioned here), the great Billy Preston and Marianne Faithfull, and most invaluably, George Martin in one of the most wide-ranging and insightful interviews he ever gave. (His diagnosis of why the Beatles were successful is the most eloquent I’ve ever heard.) There are also cultural commentators ranging from Lenny Kaye to the aforementioned Nicholas Schaffner to honorary Beach Boy Bruce Johnston to musicologist Wilfred Mellers, who wrote a highrow music theory tome about the band’s output called Twilight of the Gods, which judging by his remarks in the film is likely as pretentious as its title. For the Sheridan and Williams talking-head sequences alone, Compleat is a riveting source of oft-forgotten angles of the Beatles’ story rivaled only by Mark Lewisohn’s book Tune In; it would be wonderful to see the full breadth of what they had to say, all of it shot quite impeccably on film to boot.
None of this is to argue that Compleat is a major work outside Beatle context, that it lacks flaws or that it doesn’t suffer in some respects when compared to the length and breadth of Anthology. There are a few moments when the mismatches of footage to narrative content are rather egregious, as when Ringo appears drumming at the Cavern Club before he has even been introduced to the plot, or when various songs (including the Royal Variety Command Performance) are laid over different performances of different songs. The women in the Beatles’ orbit are virtually ignored until (inevitably) the appearance of Yoko Ono — who’s treated, credit where it’s due, with respect by both the narration and by Billy Preston, the only interviewee who mentions her — and indeed fellow Maharishi acolyte Mia Farrow merits more of a mention than Cynthia Powell (completely absent), or Patti Boyd or Maureen Cox (seen in photos, names unstated). While Julia Lennon is referenced at the outset, her death is never addressed. Later: the sequence on the White Album is absurdly dismissive, though somewhat amusing, labeling it “disorganized” while “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” blares on the soundtrack. Yellow Submarine isn’t really a matter of enough importance to the Beatles themselves, great as it is, to justify the time spent on dutifully explaining it here. The film generally is much more fascinating and informative in regard to the early, pre-Beatlemania years than it is when exploring stardom and bold artistic leaps. There’s more inherent excitement to watching them emerge from the strange context of skiffle in England, hurled into the exotic sensuality of the Reeperbahn. This is a problem that occurs with many Beatles narratives, in part because the basic touchstones of their major label career have been covered so endlessly; but what specifically hurts here is that, aside from George Martin, we find ourselves suddenly left with few outside perspectives, and the film becomes in structural terms a routine hitting of the highlights, despite remarkable clips of press conferences and the like. If one isn’t familiar with the band’s history backwards and forwards, the midsection of the film will obviously hold more appeal. Finally, it must be said: this has perhaps the dumbest title of any motion picture in the annals of cinema. It’s meant to be a pun, but that certainly is setting the bar low.
Released initially onto videotape and laserdisc after Montgomery cut it down to an acceptable two hours, The Compleat Beatles proved so successful that it was picked up by MGM/UA (!) and released theatrically, then remained in print on home video for over a decade before Paul McCartney and/or Apple (accounts differ) purchased the rights and the negative, apparently in order to keep it out of circulation. Montgomery says this was to avoid competition with The Beatles Anthology, although one naturally wonders if Paul objected to something in the film. Either way, it’s a pity; the film is successfuly suppressed from most of the popular video upload sites and the version that circulates as a torrent is ripped from a clearly degrading VHS tape. You can buy used copies cheaply, but most of them are also VHS and therefore not necessarily a major improvement on the download; there are also bootleg DVD copies, and if they are sourced from the laserdisc version, that may be the best way to see this in decent quality short of picking up the laserdisc (and a laserdisc player) yourself. I would stop short of saying it is as essential to fans as any of the films the Beatles were actually involved in making, or even Anthology, but if you like the Beatles even casually, I think you’d get quite a lot out of it — and in contrast to its replacement, it’s something you can actually watch in one sitting. When I personally look at it now in all its appropriate drama and its determination to take the Beatles’ legacy seriously, I get a lot of joy out of remembering all the mysteries it unraveled for me, the new questions it gave me and the curiosities it left me with, setting me on a lifelong journey that still continues.