This is my brief writeup of Good Night, and Good Luck from the only previous time I saw it, soon after its DVD release:
Good Night, and Good Luck, the stark and well-told tale of Edward Murrow’s televised confrontations with Joseph McCarthy, is not as good as George Clooney’s masterful first film as director, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but it is just as risky and entertaining. Its one major flaw is that it seems to exist in a bubble, where no one outside the world of television is engrossed in the happenings of the McCarthy period. Outside of a few select moments, most of them coming via stock footage, we see little of the effect of the communism witch hunt on the outside world.
But the wonderful music gives the movie the breath of life, the performances are beautifully understated, and the whole thing comes together thanks to the visual brilliance of the production, photographed in glorious black and white. It is via Clooney’s uncompromising insistence on not condescending to the audience or accepting any commercial motivation that the film’s ideology (and idyllic vision of people living their lives as they wish, and must) becomes its powerful, haunting story without the overreaching tackiness found in so many politically-charged movies.
First of all: big lapse into Peter Travers-style critspeak there, but my horizons were pretty small back then. Fascinated by McCarthy, the blacklist and the “Red Scare” since I was a teen — and immensely fond of black & white movies as an aesthetic unto themselves, not to mention intricately detailed fact-based stories about this period specifically (see Quiz Show) — I was almost automatically predisposed to like this film. Frankly I still am: it corresponds to many of my personal interests and superficial fetishes, enough that on revisiting it now I did greatly enjoy myself, especially viewing it on our projector and thus allowing it to become especially immersive. Cinematically and dramatically, however, the film has many issues that are difficult to ignore. As with Steven Spielberg’s The Post, these aren’t enough to distract me from having an unabashed good time with it, but they do stick out, and they’re instructive in terms of how the film itself and American political culture have aged as well as how I have aged, which may not be interesting for you to hear about but may provide some helpful context for other things you read here.
It seems worthwhile to give a more cogent and detailed explanation of what the film is and the context into which it was born. In 1953, American journalist Edward R. Murrow, known and beloved for his radio dispatches from London during World War II, was cohost and cocreator of a CBS newsmagazine called See It Now, which among other things became famous for a series of incendiary exposés of the Second Red Scare of the 1950s and an extended confrontation with loathsome crackpot Joseph McCarthy that preceded his downfall in the Army-McCarthy hearings. The environment of early television news, with a generally accurate depiction of the production team behind See It Now, provides the backdrop and a sort of wispy context for the meat of the production, which reenacts Murrow’s famous monologues that anchored his big reports about McCarthyism, dramatizing the behind-the-scenes nervousness over a sponsored TV show directly confronting any aspect of U.S. politics that extends to CBS chief William Paley (Frank Langella). Murrow is portrayed with outstanding subtlety and sensitivity by David Strathairn; Clooney delivers nothing of the man’s life outside of his work (this is not a biopic) but nonetheless Strathairn finds considerable depth in the limited scope provided. There’s one particular moment, at the close of his last depicted broadcast about McCarthy, when the cameras turn off and he switches out of his network-TV dignity and is overtaken by a certain stoic uncertainty, beautifully played: modesty and integrity side by side, the way you like to imagine your idols.
McCarthy himself appears at length in archive footage, including in his famously incoherent direct rebuttal to Murrow and his doddering confrontation of Pentagon staffer Annie Lee Moss. Other tangentially related CBS dramas of the time play out succinctly: the secret marriage of Joseph and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey Jr., fun to remember as a fine and not at all smug actor before the superhero industrial complex swallowed him whole, and Patricia Clarkson at her best respectively), the suicide of Don Hollenbeck (a tragically miscast Ray Wise, who is just too schlocky for the role) and Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly (Clooney)’s repeated head-to-head fights with the network itself over the fate of journalistic integrity within a haven of commercialism such as TV, culminating in Murrow struggling through interviews with the likes of Liberace, quizzing him about potential wives.
For all its merit as history and art, Good Night, and Good Luck — named for Murrow’s traditional signoff — is a fairly archetypal example of the Hollywood liberal cinema of the 2000s, specifically the era of Air America, Michael Moore and the Kerry campaign and the ineffectual attempts of all of the above at protesting one of the most egregious shames in the nation’s history, the Iraq War. Directed generally competently by Clooney, whose previous film was certainly imaginative but I don’t know about “masterful” (I haven’t seen it in many years now and most of my memories of it have to do with Sam Rockwell), it utilizes as a framing device a bruising speech of Murrow’s from 1958 about the doom forecast by network television’s social emptiness and trend toward irresponsibility. This speech bears some resemblance to Holly Hunter’s unsuccessful lecture about superficial newscasts toward the beginning of Broadcast News not to mention the entire satiric message of Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, both of which were certainly influenced by Murrow’s philosophy and skepticism about the form that made him an infallible cultural figure.
But somehow, Clooney’s use of Murrow’s actual words feels less like a commentary about the world and more a tirade directed at the audience itself, either as validation or as admonishment. Murrow’s words had undeniable relevance to the world in 2005 — no doubt the rise of Fox was on everyone’s minds at the time — and even today, when he accuses TV of being wires in a box divorced from its social purpose he could just as easily be talking about the internet. But Clooney does little with these thoughts and information besides simply present them straightforwardly, and while this isn’t an embarrassing choice by any means, as a result the film provides little that a documentary or book about the events in question couldn’t — and moreover, for all his lack of intrusion he clearly wants us to feel a wink and a nudge with every word out of Murrow’s mouth. Lumet and James L. Brooks were talking about the times in which their films were made, and the results have continued relevance because of their honesty. Clooney is using 1953 to talk about 2004, and the results feel tied to the latter time much more than the former, but what he has to say about 2004 isn’t terribly interesting or insightful. Again it is the same way in which Spielberg uses the Pentagon Papers to address the Trump era, none too intelligently. To specifically address the crimes of our century in mainstream American cinema is viewed as gauche, which is our loss.
As I hinted at in my original writeup, the story might well seem more perceptive if it was as much about the social impact of McCarthy’s power-tripping insanity as it is about the tireless heroism of journalism and “resistance” itself. On the exceptional podcast Michael & Us, Will Sloan and Luke Savage have pointed out a tendency toward “politics — what a concept!” as a thesis statement of so many intensely charged social-issue films of this period; there is the uncomfortable suggestion that Clooney is less interested in what McCarthy’s accusations and the surrounding red-baiting meant than he is in the fact that Murrow et al. were the heroes who Fought Back; the repeated moments when characters scattered around the studio applaud Murrow’s speeches feel terribly indulgent and self-satisfied. The poster tagline “We will not walk in fear of one another” feels as weak and ineffectual coming from this source as “Democracy dies in darkness.” Because McCarthy wasn’t defeated, nor was TV commercialism; these ideas would only continue to undermine American life — and Clooney knows this, but he cannot fully resist the idea of a heroic crescendo.
Clooney’s instincts don’t fail him entirely; one of his biggest dramatic coups is the presentation of several extended portions of real film of McCarthy himself at the most dastardly moments of his career. There is a long excerpt of the ceaselessly astonishing Annie Lee Moss interrogation, which McCarthy can’t even be bothered to linger around for, and a couple of the most earth-shaking extracts of the Army-McCarthy hearings themselves. The problem is that when Clooney repeatedly interrupts this with (however enjoyable) song performances by jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves — a bit of atmospheric padding that is evidently justified strictly by CBS subsidiary Columbia Records occupying the same 52nd Street building — and long sequences of journalists and producers carousing around restaurants smoking and reading the newspaper reviews of their broadcasts (one clear sign of the intellectual divide between print and TV journalism), you can’t escape the sensation of retreating into — as I put it in 2006 — a bubble, one that’s all too stylistically seductive for the bracing import of this subject matter. It’s as though the story is being treated as a two-hander between McCarthy and CBS, with only the most rudimentary evidence of any effect on a broader universe.
And frankly, it hurts a bit that every intriguing element of this narrative is better served now by several other means. The relevant broadcasts of See It Now are easily accessible on Youtube, as are multiple documentaries about Murrow and McCarthy’s lives. Emile de Antonio’s magnificent verité documentary Point of Order! is a brilliantly edited compilation of Congressional footage that does more to indict McCarthy and McCarthyism than any Hollywood picture ever could. But what of the immediate pleasures of Robert Elswit’s cinematography, Straithairn and Clarkson’s performances, the generalized feeling of immediacy you get from a focused, serious dissection like this? Well, those things are irreplaceable, although what once seemed otherworldy in its stark essence seems less so once you’ve seen a earlier film like Bob Fosse’s Lenny that goes much farther with its expressionistic view of seismic events through photographic ingenuity, with the lighting up of life as cinema as a smart undercutting of received-wisdom mythos. Clooney can’t match that, not with his color film stock in a fit of masquerade, and not with his often perfunctory and predictable rhythms and blocking.
All that said, the film retains a lot of dramatic heft, even if outside events are largely responsible for its feeling of urgency, and even if other media, words as well as film, does much of the film’s work for it. At the same time, the film breezes quite beautifully by in its 93 minutes, free of excess, and as with All the President’s Men, what seems rushed and fragmented on a first viewing eventually comes to seem appropriately unsentimental and minimalist. But it’s more a kind of blissful escapism for a certain breed of righteously outraged nerd who lives for this shit — myself included, and again, I had a great fucking time watching this again — than a really illuminating piece of modern history.
Recently restored by the Sundance Institute and Oscilloscope Labs, The Hours and Times is a model of absolutely uncompromising DIY independent film production the likes of which would be rare until the late 2000s and the retreat of film itself as a physical medium. It had essentially no budget, no cinematographer and no art director; shot quickly around Barcelona by calling in lots of favors, it only really aimed higher, aesthetically, in terms of its casting, and even then, there were few roles to cast in what amounted to a chamber piece. Once it was filmed — in the summer of 1988 — writer-director Christopher Münch spent three years in postproduction, only able to begin editing once he convinced a lab to develop the cans of film, themselves a cut-rate purchase from another production, on credit. But thanks to the delay, the movie then rode the wave of the new queer cinema and the independent film movement, both of which it prefigured in conception and production, and became broadly and deservedly acclaimed by critics. One wonders, however, if the film — which never played widely thanks to its niche appeal, black & white photography and modest length of 55 minutes — would even have achieved the notoriety it did if not for its central subject matter; in other words, would this yearning, personal and tiny-scaled film be a known commodity, worth festival screenings and a high-profile restoration, at all if it didn’t have something to do with the most famous pop culture story of the 20th century?
That would be, of course, the story of the Beatles. Münch was a big enough fan to fall, as many of those of us who’ve passed over into pure obsession with the band have, into frenzied speculation about certain events in their career. The one he builds his debut from is a storied and hotly debated weekend in the spring of 1963, at a moment when the Beatles’ success in England was just reaching its height, when John Lennon went on holiday to Spain with the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, a gay man — at a time when being such in Great Britain amounted to constantly living at risk of your life and freedom — who has been speculated by some to have held a romantic torch for Lennon. Intrigue over whether or not any sexual encounter took place goes back literally decades, and in fact prompted one of the most infamous of the violent episodes that littered Lennon’s life, when he beat Cavern DJ Bob Wooler to a pulp after Wooler made a homophobic joke about the pair’s getaway. As to the reality of what happened, Lennon himself told Jann Wenner that it was a romance without consummation, and talked about being driven by curiosity; but according to his lifelong friend Pete Shotton, who’s generally a reliable narrator of the parts of the Beatles’ history he witnessed, Lennon said privately that some sort of physical contact did take place.
The matter is regarded at various lengths in every major biography of Lennon and most books about the Beatles (Münch named Philip Norman and Peter Brown’s books, Shout! and The Love You Make respectively as influences; for the record, these are two of the most contentious and salacious of the major Beatles books), sometimes dismissively, but there is enough dramatic potential in the story, not just for the unknowable elements of it but for the curious position it occupies chronologically within the band’s and Lennon’s lore, to generate the backdrop for a fascinating and emotionally rich screenplay, which is precisely what Münch has written. It would be very easy to spin the Lennon-Epstein story into something exploitative or lurid, or to harness it for some variety of “fan service.” But in the bizarre subgenre of Movies About the Beatles, the films that attempt to make grand statements about the vitality of the band’s music (Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe most notably, but also the Bee Gees vehicle Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the dreadful stock footage collage All This and World War II) tend to fail miserably, and to accidentally minimize the Beatles as personalities and as musicians as so much tired kitsch. Conversely, movies that approach small pieces of the Beatles’ legend and attempt to make some collectively rewarding sense of them have often proven much more engrossing — for instance: Robert Zemeckis’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand, about one momentous weekend not long after this one; and Iain Softley’s Backbeat, about the band’s time in Hamburg and their ill-fated bassist Stuart Sutcliffe — because, divorced of the larger social implications of the Beatles’ music or the sheer magnitude of their sonic and cultural footprint, we’re left with the much less limited possibilities of chipping away at the outskirts: taking a little cross-section of it all and exhausting its dramatic (or comedic) possibilities.
Therefore, what makes The Hours and Times so hard-hitting and effective is its unapologetic smallness. That’s “unapologetic” only in the sense that its logistical limitations scarcely prevent it from fulfilling the entire potential of its idea. It is true that there is not a note of Beatles music in the piece, that the film operates on the assumption that the viewer is aware of who both Lennon and Epstein are, yet this also manages to become largely incidental as the drama grows ever more compelling. As Ian Hart, the actor who plays Lennon, later pointed out, the movie works even just as the story of two men who have a close if unorthodox friendship and are on the cusp of something momentous that goes far beyond their mortal imaginations. The characterizations are sufficiently well-defined that the neophyte can quickly get a respectably complete view of who these men are: Epstein the terrified and dignified child of a family of refinement and “quality,” who’s alarmed them first via his sexuality and then by resting his fate upon the destiny of a rock & roll band, at a time when such diversions didn’t tend to be seen as the least bit legitimate; and in the other corner, Lennon, a troubled and tempestuous personality completely blindsided by the uncontrollable largeness of the world he’s entering, as contrasted by the tiny new family he has left behind in doing so — terribly young, terribly frustrated, terribly confused, but unmistakably brilliant and passionate. To this lifelong acolyte of the Beatles who has spent years reading about them, Münch captures both men with impressive perspicacity; and instead of doing so in service of some winking nostalgia piece, he does it in a way that captures their obviously unknowable inner lives as believably as could conceivably happen.
Münch gets considerable help in this capacity from the actors at the core of this two-hander; David Angus’ performance as Brian Epstein is shattering in its vividness and sensitivity, which seems to incorporate not just his known history as a pop manager but his classical shyness, his air of practiced dignity (visible in the interviews and candid footage that survive of him, such as the haunting clip of him riding in a taxi in New York in Albert and David Maysles’ documentary The First U.S. Visit). There’s a moment late in the film when he recounts the true story of Epstein’s potentially life-ruining blackmail episode, wherein he propositioned a stranger outside a restroom and was beaten and robbed then taunted remotely, which his parents encouraged him to pursue legally, and does so with the self-deprecating flavor of someone who’s ruminated on the incident for years now — the dialogue is flowery but, coming from a figure like Epstein, entirely believable. As for Hart, a great actor saddled in the unenviable position of portraying a real-life character with whom everyone is familiar, he sometimes falters into aping the vocal mannerisms of Lennon’s public speech; this comes off like an impression of the John we see in Richard Lester’s films, but from Lennon’s more unguarded moments on Beatles bootlegs, home tapes and even in certain press conferences, we sense that this practiced and deadpan way of speaking was not likely representative of his private communications. This, however, is the only flaw in a riveting performance that’s otherwise often uncanny; there is such palpable soul in his unpredictability and restlessness, and there is the constant sense of something those who knew Lennon have continually reported: the visibility of the cogs turning, the constant decision-making of whom to regard and how. It feels electric, and you can sense why and how he so torments the Brian we come to know here, and why his charisma would eventually set the world on its head.
Hart plays well opposite not just Angus but also Stephanie Pack as a stewardess who visits John in his hotel room for a possible tryst, only to find him in an unexpectedly ornery state (just after he kisses Brian and then walks away disgusted); she is compassionate but unsentimental and quickly sizes up the nature of the situation, which leads to some scintillating repartee between them that has a certain despair at its center; one senses that Pack’s character Marianne, more than any other, gleans the entirety of the destiny of these two men, which is something the film only fleetingly glances at. He immediately recognizes that he’s met his match, no effusive or submissive groupie here, and their exchanges to follow resemble nothing so much as the wondrous first meeting between Janet Leigh and Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate. John is confounding, unsettled, playful but cruel and incisive; and she meets him at every last turn, in fact outpaces him. They talk past one another, saying everything except what they directly mean, and somehow size up one another and the situation perfectly. She walks away with every bit of her dignity, and he with the knowledge of the counterintuitively small world he has let himself inhabit. (One provocative scene earlier on has John in a lengthy discussion with another woman, his wife Cynthia, portrayed with grave accuracy by an uncredited voice actress; it’s a difficult scene to watch, and one that feels uncomfortably true to life and well-researched, especially in terms of their relatively abrupt segue into discussion of art. Cyn hangs like a shadow over the entire film, as does Julian; and the meaning of their presence remains as distressingly unresolved as it does for 22 year-old John himself.)
The only remaining major cast member is Robin McDonald as a traveling Spaniard named Quinones whom John attempts to “recruit” for Brian’s benefit, prompting an argument between them back at the hotel. Arguments and conversations of various intensities comprise, essentially, the whole of The Hours and Times, which in some ways is a very theatrical film — setting these heated discussions and liaisons in a tiny handful of locations: planes, rooms, bars, a park bench — but nevertheless it achieves a distinctly cinematic intimacy with the camera, with the faces of the actors drawn far from one another and close to the camera, and with the secrets that come from these close interactions that couldn’t be evident in another medium. Münch’s visual reference point is one of the Beatles’ own films, Lester’s masterpiece A Hard Day’s Night that captures the band’s original design and attitude in stone for eternity; but this film is A Hard Day’s Night as though reimagined by Kelly Reichardt — its chronicle of showbiz torn asunder from within, its barrage of youth and promise and its fleeting suggestion of impermanence funneled into a display of insurmountable loneliness.
That loneliness is the greatest fringe benefit of the picture’s modesty; like the work of another of the film’s explicit reference points, Ingmar Bergman (a screening of whose Silence is attended by Brian and John in the course of the film), it forges a vision of psychological unease as though physically manifested; no matter how beautiful Barcelona is, the world to which these two men are confined feels dismayingly limited. And in reality, this was a grave lesson of the middle ’60s for both Lennon and Epstein, both of whom found that success and its attendant comforts did little to settle the lingering questions and dissatisfactions that haunted them. In the case of Lennon, who by 1965 would be contending with a serious state of despondency and emptiness that he attempted to exorcise in songs like “Help!” and “Nowhere Man,” it was a matter of searching for a degree of stimulation and purpose he would only find upon meeting the Japanese avant garde artist and writer Yoko Ono in 1966. Though Lennon like Epstein died young, the former at least achieved some degree of contentment for a time; Epstein never had the opportunity, dying of an overdose in the same year that homosexual activity was decriminalized in the United Kingdom. Perhaps the riskiest of Münch’s “fan fiction” ponderings here places the two men in a park, where Epstein insists that Lennon agree to meet him in this very spot ten years hence, in April 1973; it’s a heartbreaking moment with the recognition of where Epstein would be by that year, to say nothing of the thought of where Lennon would be in a mere twenty.
Some viewers may find it odd to label that successfully touching scene the film’s most potentially wrongheaded stroke of speculation (only because it could easily come across as emotionally manipulative in a way that most of this film isn’t), given that this is indeed a film that depicts Epstein and Lennon making out nude in a bathtub and later implies that they spend the night in bed together and presumably have sex. But this is depicted so gracefully and believably that it’s hard to imagine anyone actually objecting to it, at least today; in fact it could probably have gone much farther without seeming crass or untoward, but of course times were different — Ray Coleman’s biography of Lennon is one of a number of books that takes considerable pains to reassure readers that John was not gay or bisexual, as though this would have been some sort of horrid insult to not just the man but his fans. Norman’s book is a very different matter, hinting around liberally about John’s ambiguous sexuality. (Neither here nor there, but: in a rather moving interview that accompanies the paperback edition, Ono soon after her husband’s death remembers teasing John over how often he complimented her for looking androgynous.) We will likely come closest to knowing everything we could know about the Barcelona episode in a few years when Mark Lewisohn, the most even-handed and ruthlessly accurate historian ever to write about the Beatles, publishes the second volume in his history of the band.
But to me, what did or didn’t happen seems hardly the point — the emotional essence of Münch’s film lines up perfectly with what we do, or can, know; and the halting awkwardness of the initial encounter depicted here seems entirely true to life to anyone who’s familiar with the experiences of people taking their first steps toward questioning or asserting their sexuality. And, perhaps more importantly, it feels like the lived-in reality of a temporary step into romantic or sexual expression between friends. These moments of connection — which, again, could and maybe even should be more explicit — are crescendos in a film that feels often like a piece of music, one with many blank spaces into which it’s easy to insert oneself, one’s own state of mind, one’s own sense of loss.
As noted, we never hear any Beatles songs in the picture — the production could not possibly had afforded them and, in the 1990s, actual Beatles performances were generally not made available to film producers for any price anyway — but there are two fascinating aural substitutes: there is a moment when Brian stands off alone after waking up next to John in bed and we hear, on the soundtrack, the vague hiss of an audience of screaming teenagers and an emcee, in muffled tones, announcing the names of four men, an eruption of high-pitched cheers after each. The chaos is too pronounced to be the memory of anything that had happened that spring or even would happen that fall, when the Beatles would mount their triumphant national tour that would remain etched in the cultural memory of Great Britain for generations; no, we know that he is thinking about America, about a future of incalculable fame and mastery. The look on his face speaks volumes: if he cannot have what he wants on a personal level, this is where his fulfillment will come, at least for a while.
Yet the film’s most spiritually transcendent and powerful moment comes a bit earlier, and it’s the one sequence in which we somewhat glean “what it’s really all about” in the abstract. Marianne, the woman from the plane, enters John’s room with a 7″ record smuggled over from the States; it’s a new Little Richard — credited, in fact, to the Upsetters, a bouncing and gleeful cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m in Love Again.” John recalls (accurately) opening for Richard the previous year and also (inaccurately) describes how the first-generation rocker would only really speak to Brian, a not-so-covert reference to their shared sexuality. (In point of fact, it was Ringo Starr, then new to the band, with whom the notoriously promiscuous Richard was sexually intrigued, but he was convivial with all of them and later praised them to the skies as a white band with a “Negro sound,” the rare unambiguously positive interaction they had with one of their influences: Elvis met them in a stiff and awkward state afflicted by mutual suspicion, Gene Vincent terrified them with his penchant for weaponry and joyriding, and Carole King was such a hero to John that he, fully starstruck, stiffened up and was unable to speak when they met.) Suddenly the teenager excited and obsessive over rock & roll comes roaring back; just like when he and Paul would haunt the NEMS record store for the latest sounds, he takes the 45 to the turntable and begins widely grinning as soon as the intro starts — then he and Marianne, alone in this room, share a silent and joyous dance, an expression of every buried feeling of oblivious ecstasy that rock & roll can bring out, a reminder of what — at bottom — the mission of the Beatles and every other great pop musician was destined to be: to express the inexpressible, the things that fill the space between people in these rooms.
The Hours and Times is a compelling drama in and of itself, but it’s also a profound piece of reactive art to the Beatles and their following because it takes seriously their importance as a cultural phenomenon and suggests that theirs is such a large story that this miniscule slice of it can tell us something about ourselves. Perhaps that would be the endless hours of wonder we might engage in about whether most of us in the world could maintain our mental health upon receiving that level of international adoration so suddenly, at such a young age, before even having the time to process the loss of one parent and abandonment of another; perhaps it is through the narrative it brings us of the injustice, shame and secrecy of being gay in England in those times, or the continued microaggressions or worse one might still face virtually anywhere if one isn’t straight. To graft the universal feelings explored by these characters upon such a famous and well-trodden story is a strong suggestion of the love and devotion that story has inspired; a tale like the Beatles’ could provoke an infinite number of such speculative pieces of small drama. But Münch brings us his particular interpretation with such impeccable judgment, subtlety and tough-minded honesty despite the complete lack of real means at his disposal, that it’s difficult to imagine anyone bettering his remarkable achievement in this hauntingly minimalist film.
As autumn sets in I finally put the brakes on catching up with modern-ish films for a while; they were just getting on my nerves and I stopped being able to judge them fairly around the time I sat through The Great Beauty and Hunt for the Wilderpeople in the same week. The post, after the usual housekeeping segments, covers everything I watched from July 12th to September 24th of this year. I’ve hit a bit of a rash of classics on the ’50s list that don’t much resonate with me, but that’s all right; that project also further reinforced how Ozu has rapidly become one of my favorite filmmakers of all time.
Full reviews this cycle: It was a pleasure to write four long reviews this summer, including one for the ’50s project and two Best Picture nominees. Once upon a time I posted three every week, but not only were these often revisions of my old writings, when looking back now (I’m still in the midst of reformatting all of the old posts here) I often find that they are not up to the standards of the work I try to produce now, I guess because I’ve continued to evolve since 2012 or so which is probably a good thing. (It’s also alarming, especially in the cases when I was “improving” older work I then considered unsatisfactory.) Among these fully new pieces was the first-ever “second” essay about a film here, dedicated to my onetime all-time favorite and still perhaps the film I find most fascinating on the largest number of different planes, Mike Nichols’ immortal The Graduate (lboxd / tenth (?) viewing). Years back when I still held out some real ambitions of writing actual legitimately published “books” someday, I used to fantasize about a whole monograph dedicated to The Graduate and I certainly knew I’d have enough material. That was in my late teens and early twenties; now, of course, the film looks very different to me and so I have even more material. This turned out to be one of the most satisfying pieces I’ve written for this blog. The more you examine the picture, the more it seems to reveal; and you learn about it even when you don’t intend to, such as this month when I saw a later Nichols film, Working Girl, and realized how much the philosophical differences between the two were saying about the respective films and the worlds they were born into.
Two of the other long reviews I posted — for Quiz Show (lboxd / third viewing, slight downgrade, last seen 2010) and Rififi (lboxd / second viewing, slight downgrade, last seen 2008) were quite expected from the moment their titles appeared in the lists I was working on. I wrote about Quiz Show way back when I first saw it (2005) but, naturally, that piece was unusable. Rififi I had only ever talked about at one-paragraph length; both are wonderful and I had fun writing about them. But the wildcard was JFK (lboxd / second viewing, last seen 2000); I went back and forth on whether the movie I once called the worst ever made really needed multiple paragraphs explaining why I deemed it such, but on reflection I realized that saying my piece about it now should stave off any future need to see it a third time, which I rather hope I won’t. This too turned out to be, I think, one of the better pieces of writing I’ve offered here, and considering the manic hatred I feel for the film, it also strikes me as clearer-headed than I would’ve feared.
The guidelines for what receives a “full review” have changed over the years, as you’re probably aware, but it bears mentioning that I do have a certain baseline in mind that tells me when something is canonical and noteworthy enough to need that level of attention. Any film I love deserves a full review, which is why the lion’s share I write now are “positive” — I hesitate to use that terminology since, as things have scoped outward, they’re not so much reviews as essays — but also any film with a certain degree of notoriety that seems “major” in any sense, as long as it’s not superhero shit, will probably eventually be tackled, at least in theory. So maybe you’ll see more long takedowns like the one for JFK, though they take an awful lot of energy so also maybe not.
Other films seen (with Lboxd links):
– For the continuing 2010s rewatch project, I revisited: The Meyerowitz Stories; The Lobster; and mother!; all second viewings, all with Amber.
– I also showed Amber Gun Crazy (second viewing, on Warner Archive’s blu) and, in memory of Carl Reiner, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (my third viewing, I’m not writing about it yet but I will someday — actually I think there’s a review somewhere at the old blog, but I was just returning to it for fun this time, don’t make me write or edit anything plz).
– I saw Walk the Line for the third time, which I’d been meaning to do ever since reading Johnny Cash’s memoir Cash. I was also hoping to be re-persuaded that Joaquin Phoenix is a good actor after Joker. Mixed results, but I do really love Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter.
Non-feature or non-cinema screened:
– New Hitchcock things don’t come across the desk very often, so there’s some reason to cheer for this recently discovered tidbit of him fake-directing William Shatner for a primetime special about cancer.
– My lingering obsession with quack medical cures and the like prompted me to follow a coworker’s recommendation over to the Essential Oils episode of Netflix’s Unwell, which wasn’t any great shakes but gave us lots of weird shit to laugh at… a nice reminder of media as a communal force!
– Several years ago I received, as a gift, the complete Looney Tunes Golden Collection set; that’s “complete” insofar as it contains all of the Looney Tunes that were released on DVD from 2003 to 2008, not complete in terms of housing all 1,000 cartoons in the series, which Warner Bros. has done a poor job at getting out into the marketplace in full. At any rate, I intended to savor this and I’m just now on the last two discs. The penultimate one was comprised strictly of black & white cartoons, most of them made by directors who left the studio before its height (Harman and Ising, notably); infamously the early cartoons made by the Schlesinger studio weren’t much beyond second-rate Disney imitations, largely uninspired, but they’re still interesting to see, and it’s always fun to catch some really bizarre moments of stretch-and-squash animation. The disc also contains a deeply weird live-action short Schlesinger produced called Cryin’ for the Carolines, which I might as well admit I now remember more vividly than any of the cartoons I fucking just watched.
– Haven’t had much MST3K time lately but I did revisit Cave Dwellers and Pod People and it’s pretty wonderful when something you knew by heart in eighth grade can still make you laugh.
– My wife and I are starting to venture slightly into the world with carefully socially distanced and masked-up dates with friends here and there (the library’s back open so it’s not like I can totally avoid humans anymore even if I wanted to), but overall we continue to try to make our own fun, which has occasioned more frequent drinking and loud music at our house than is even the norm. It’s getting pretty crazy here, folks. Anyway one tradition is to throw in a DVD with weird things on it while this is going on. You like weird stuff, right? My go-to has long been Image’s now decades-old compilation Landmarks of Early Film, but I recently returned to the first couple of discs of the classic box Treasures from American Film Archives. Some particularly well-suited selections from this set are Tony Sarg’s silhouette animation The Original Movie (1922), Scott Bartlett’s masterful abstract video creation OffOn (1972), and Richard Protovin & Franklin Backus’ inexpressibly beautiful Battery Film (1985). All are viewable on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website; and better academic libraries should still have the DVD set, which is fascinating and sadly out of print.
– Do not ask me to explain why this is so engrossing but I have sat and watched this long commercial break from my local NBC affiliate in the 1980s twice now; and Amber and I are particularly obsessed with the anger directed toward peas in the commercial at the 13-minute mark.
– Some music videos that really need your attention for reasons that aren’t strictly tied to the music in them, all shot on video in the early 1980s: Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message” (can’t find a director credit, does anyone know!?); Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless” (directed by Toni Basil, included on the Heads’ VHS/DVD collection Storytelling Giant but without the opening shot and closing credits seen in this version); and M’s “Pop Muzik” (directed by Brian Grant). These are so hard-hitting and/or stylish and exciting to watch!
– As part of my research for my essay about Quiz Show I watched the American Experience documentary about the Twenty-One scandal. It’s very interesting, although sadly the rip that’s uploaded is in very poor quality. (PBS seems to have offered a stream at some point but it’s currently offline.)
– A long-standing and indefensible fascination of mine is corporate training videos, an interest I’ve recently had somewhat validated by Street Fight Radio who regularly riff on them. One of the most incredible ones I’ve ever encountered is this 1988 morsel from Pizza Hut, in which a very enthusiastic young woman is taught by a slightly older woman, unmistakably a bit of a Mrs. Danvers figure, how to follow the Pizza Hut protocol for keeping the customers happy. As the video unfolds an increasingly complex relationship becomes evident. Not teacher and pupil exactly, not exactly a friendship, but a mutual trust and eagerness to please that suggests something deeper, something almost haunting in its subtle and mysterious dynamic. What happened after the pizzas were made? We can but speculate.
– I’m in the middle of Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland which has inevitably sent me down a series of video rabbit holes. Have you ever seen Anita Bryant take a pie to the face? And what about this astoundingly apathetic campaign ad Pearl Bailey made for Gerald Ford? Finally, I wouldn’t recommend watching the whole thing (zzzz) but there’s an incredible sequence in the first Ford v. Carter debate when the audio drops out for nearly half an hour and absolutely no one knows what to do, and both candidates stand there with an awkwardness that could make you cringe out of your skin even now, unwilling to sit down so as not to appear weak, as stiff as plastic dolls. Amazing.
– The regular lists projects at the Criterion Forum are, as you may know, the source of my “canon” projects here; and since 2012 I’ve tried to participate in most of them. We’ve actually cycled around to the ’50s again; the last goround was the first of these for which I submitted a ballot, and by coincidence I’m also in the middle of the ’50s currently for my own blog pursuits. My new ballot is quite different from the first one I sent, in part because of everything I’ve seen since then and in part because I realized shorts could be included. So in order to double-check my convictions on my new list I revisited the following shorts, all of which I would give the highest of recommendations and the first few of which are masterpieces: Tout la memoire du monde (Resnais 1956); The Tell-Tale Heart (Parmelee 1953); Night and Fog (Resnais 1956, more on this coming soon); Rooty Toot Toot (Hubley 1951); The Red Balloon (Lamoirisse 1956); Duck Amuck (Jones 1953, more on this coming soon as well); One Froggy Evening (Jones 1955); The Three Little Bops (Freleng 1957); and What’s Opera, Doc? (Jones 1957). I’ll post my full ballots on Twitter after the project is done. (The list you can see by clicking “top 50s” at the top of this page only includes features.)
– But most importantly we have the only unambiguously good thing that ever happens on local news: a bird invasion of a weather report. Forget the header, This Is Cinema.
Recent Blu-ray releases:
– The Maya Deren Collection (Kino): Almost by default one of my favorite Blu-ray discs I’ve purchased so far, helpfully gathering all of the films by America’s premier avant garde director, contextualizing them and documenting their (often slow-rolling) impacts. As with most Kino releases, there are shortcomings: the prints are often not in great shape, or suffer from flawed digital restorations; every film, no matter how short, is preceded by the same irritating sequence of logos; and the liner notes are largely just straightforward descriptions of the films. But as a cohesive viewing experience it’s hard to quarrel with the program as presented. The set begins, of course, with Meshes of the Afternoon, one of the best short films ever made (previously addressed in our 1940s canon writeup). I had never previously seen her follow-up films At Land and Ritual in Transfigured Time and found both just as provocative, sensual and masterful as her debut. The last one in particular is a shattering survey of the confusion of modern life that is completely undiminished by its sixty-four years. There is also the charming The Private Life of a Cat, though Deren only contributes its narration (her Meshes collaborator and onetime husband, Alexander Hammid, is credited as director).
After that, Deren’s filmography takes a major turn toward so-called “ethnographic” documentary, occasioned by her consumption with Haitian culture (and voodoo). These films aren’t as striking as her earliest works; Meditation on Violence, for instance, feels more like an art installation than a film, comprised of Chao-Li Chi performing martial arts and sort of dancing with the camera, more engrossing in theory than in practice; it draws on Deren’s earlier Study in Choreography for Camera, but that film was only three minutes rather than fifteen and thus seemed less repetitive. Deren’s only credited feature, Divine Horsemen (completed and released decades after her death), is a documentary that directly studies Haitian ritual. It’s reviewed below, as is the included documentary Invocation, Lastly, The Very Eye of Night is a charming, slightly corny experiment that has students from the Metropolitan Ballet performing, overlaid over footage of the stars.
The extras are mostly very informative, especially to the new scholar of Deren’s work. Thomas Beard provides good commentaries for three of the films; Moira Jean Sullivan does the same for the other three Deren-directed projects. (There is no commentary for The Private Life of a Cat.) I preferred Beard’s earnest engagement to Sullivan’s collegiate lecturing, though both have their moments; I was surprised to learn that John Cage and Anaïs Nin both apppear in films of Deren’s (which ones? buy the set to find out!). This collection, regardless of supplemental material, is a cornerstone to any serious student of experimental and wholly independent filmmaking. Deren’s work is electric: kinetic, restless and vivid in its intelligence, boundless curiosity and irresistible beauty. Her films’ purity as art is far beyond what critical analysis can try and lay out — it’s too visceral to be reduced to any other medium, certainly including words.
– Sergio Leone Westerns (Kino Lorber): I have a pile-up of new Blu-rays to go through but this one ended up dominating my summer because it has so much material. I picked up this five-disc set chiefly because I love two of Leone’s films, both included here (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West) and have some lingering childhood affection, especially stylistic, for the other two movies he made with Clint Eastwood, which were the only westerns that resonated with me at all when my dad showed them to me thanks to their humor and keenly visualized action. Having seen all these movies again for the blog over the years, I found that Ugly gained a lot in my estimation, that the other two Dollars films now seemed all too emotionally limited in comparison to their influences, and that Once Upon a Time in the West towered above the rest of them with its lyricism, scope, its gleeful taunting of Hollywood traditionalism, and the sweep of history it embodied.
Problems with Leone’s films that may be tolerated by many viewers who watch a greater number of “macho” films than I do are very hard for me to deal with, namely their staggering misogyny, which is most egregious in his last film, the non-western Once Upon a Time in America which isn’t included here, but is certainly evident throughout his filmography in its treatment of female characters and non-characters. Once Upon a Time in the West overcomes this somewhat (women are largely absent in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) because its protagonist is played by Claudia Cardinale, but even she comes in for some rather brash treatment — one of the film’s big emotional crescendos revolves around how it’s necessary for her to tolerate being groped by male workers because it’s no big deal. I’m sure someone can launch back at me with a litany of movies I’ve highly praised that are horribly regressive or were made by dreadful men, but all I can tell you is, Leone’s treatment of women generates a recoiling that I can’t ignore, and I’m not alone; this is addressed many times in the thoughtful extra features all across this set, including by leading Leone acolyte Sir Christopher Frayling. The biggest mystery is that Leone’s key influences, like Nicholas Ray and John Ford and Howard Hawks, don’t display this contempt (in their films) at all; something like Johnny Guitar is practically a feminist screed by comparison.
Nonetheless, few moments in cinema have the impact of Cardinale’s walk out onto the railroad in that last scene and the crane shot that follows; “breathtaking” doesn’t seem like enough. Leone was a poet, no doubt, and might well have been a master if his choice of material (and, possibly, his ideology) didn’t limit his range. And on the other hand, he’s smarter about violence — how to portray and process it, and how to balance its excitement and humor with the moral reckoning it portends — than perhaps any other major director, certainly more than the likes of Martin Scorsese or Sam Peckinpah.
The Kino box repackages four of their own releases and one of Paramount’s, but being a Blu-ray latecomer I’d never seen any of these movies on Blu; I like the boxed set because, individually, it’s unlikely I’d have purchased the first two Dollars films or A Fistful of Dynamite (which I’d never seen at all until now; it’s reviewed below), and it’s nice to have them all on the shelf. The transfers are fine, apart from A Fistful of Dollars having a strange yellow sheen that inexplicably renders the sky a pale green color. The other films look magnificent, especially For a Few Dollars More, which is hard to recognize from Dad’s old pan & scan VHS tape. These movies, on top of being post-dubbed like nearly all Italian features, were shot in Techniscope, a weird process that uses half the celluloid frame to make a faux-Cinemascope picture and apparently makes restoration a headache. They’ve also all been cut, restored and recut numerous times in their various exports over the years, which has led to endless mindnumbing arguments among fans about the definitive versions of each film, and Kino evidently displeased some by using the theatrical cut of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly here (their stand-alone release has a second disc that’s missing here and features the other cut), but this is what my ancient MGM DVD has anyway and I can watch the missing scenes on that disc, where they’re included as bonus features, if I want to.
A Fistful of Dollars sets the stage extras-wise; there’s a wealth of material, a lot of it inherited from MGM’s older DVD releases and really so much that it’s the most overwhelmed I remember being by a package of supplements in years. But they were so interesting that I kept watching, even though I initially planned to skipped straight to the two movies I really cared about. The most interesting offerings here include a censorship-motivated prologue shot for the film’s TV premiere in the 1970s by Monte Hellman (!) featuring an extra portraying Clint Eastwood from the back; it’s just as fun to learn that the film itself is lost and had to be sourced form a private collector who happened to be taping that broadcast. Eastwood himself is interviewed (in 2003) for both this and For a Few Dollars More and is more coherent and insightful than you’d probably expect from his modern-day persona. There’s a more recent, and amazing, interview with Marianne Koch, who went on to become a doctor and a TV personality and is engagingly critical of the film’s violence. Christopher Frayling, Leone’s biographer who’s omnipresent on this collection, shows up with his reams of memorabilia for the film — really amusing to learn that Leone and his crew removed their names from the original release, replacing them with generic American-sounding names, so people wouldn’t realize it was an Italian movie. There are also nice image galleries and a pretty good Tim Lucas commentary (which is actually new to Kino’s release). It made me a bit melancholy to flash back to when DVD extras were a big enough deal to be a selling point for random normals purchasing movies at Best Buy — big enough for a studio to get Eastwood to sit down for them. I never thought I’d be so nostalgic for the 2003-04 DVD zeitgeist.
For a Few Dollars More offers more of the same, adding Alex Cox — another constant contributor to this set — running around showing what the various locations look like today, tying it to the punk years somehow. You learn a lot about how these films were shot but even more about how they were marketed. This one’s got two commentaries, good for different reasons: Tim Lucas is more analytical, Frayling gets into the technical weeds and the mythos. I was entertained and I don’t even like this movie that much. Lucas does all right again on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, his commentary the only major supplement for that film since the bonus disc isn’t included. Then we have a Paramount interlude, porting over the contents of their old two-DVD set for Once Upon a Time in the West which I owned but never delved into; it’s a much more superficial collection of material rather typical of studio fluff from the time, although unlike Kino/MGM, Paramount actually shows Leone himself being interviewed (briefly), to say nothing of Henry Fonda (vintage) and Claudia Cardinale (modern as of ’03)! But whereas Kino would likely have opted to include these interviews at full length, Paramount prefers to edit bits of them into a hacky documentary that’s dominated by modern interviews with famous people who like the film, my absolute least favorite type of supplemental material; you get John Milius (jesus, no wonder John Goodman was cast in that role in The Big Lebowski), John Carpenter, Cox again (interviewed in a bar with a camera apparently mounted on the ceiling?), and Bernardo Bertolucci (who did work on the script, so that’s a bit different). The commentary is similar, with the various filmmakers mostly just narrating the proceedings apart from a really patronizing sexist remark from Milius, and scholar Frayling who quite engagingly walks us through the beginning and end of the picture; it’s really disappointing when the track wanders away from him. Carpenter is the worst since all he does is speculate on what’s location and what’s a set; Frayling actually knows what’s what (several scenes gain even more poignance knowing they were shot in Monument Valley) so why not just let him talk through the film?
Somehow the most interesting disc of all may be the one for A Fistful of Dynamite (a.k.a. Duck You Sucker!, Leone’s preferred title but one most people hate — I kind of like it actually), the one film here I had never seen. It has two commentaries, another terrific one by Frayling who seems to have devoted his whole life to documenting Leone’s career and one from Alex Cox, who’s charming but mostly sounds like, I dunno, me talking over a movie without any preparation, which he does from his “cabin in Oregon” (and this before COVID!). The featurettes on this disc are also particularly good: a rundown by Frayling on the movie’s very interesting history, its revolving door of directors (one of whom will come as a big surprise to anybody who didn’t listen to the exquisite recent season of Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This about Polly Platt) and its atypically high budget; and a fascinating look at the restoration process (pre-Blu) plus a tantalizing feature on an extensive exhibit about Leone that stood at the Autry Museum of the American West for a few years, opening in 2005 and of course long gone by now, but I’m very glad Kino chose to include the feature which unexpectedly offers an interesting perspective on how museum exhibitions are put together. (The exhibition was curated by Estella Chung, who’s interviewed at some length here — I won’t lie, it’s rather reassuring to see a woman’s input somewhere on this set.) After going through all this, I’m officially Leoned out for a good while but there really is great stuff here, and the set is a true bargain.
– Quai Des Orfevres (Kino Lorber): One great mystery here is what makes something a “Kino Lorber Studio Classic” versus just a regular Kino release. Neither this nor most of the Leone films were American studio films, but I digress. I broke up the creation of this post on a busy Sunday watching the extras here. You get amazing vintage TV interviews with Henri-Georges Clouzot and the cast on this disc, wherein he openly admits to physically bullying his actors, who also cheerfully confirm that he was pretty liberal with the on-set slaps. A truly scary human being! Nick Pinkerton offers a superb commentary that addresses all this and more; he’s so much more colorful than most people who do these things nowadays, and his closing summation of the film’s appeal is all-time shit. Also the movie looks flawless here.
I’ve got some time off coming up so, on top of #living #live, I will probably stay up late a few nights and bask in some of the other new discs I’ve gotten recently, some of which I’m really excited to watch and write about.
Thirty-one new capsules follow. Housekeeping note re alternate titles: three films below are labeled differently on their current home media releases than the way they’ve traditionally been known in English-speaking territories. I will add separate listings for two of these (A Story from Chikamatsu née The Crucified Lovers; A Fistful of Dynamite née Duck, You Sucker!) directing readers to the proper location of the capsule reviews, even though in both cases I prefer the “old” titles. As for Europa ’51, I just stuck with the Italian name since anyone looking will find it anyway and it really doesn’t sound right to me to call it Europe ’51, even though Criterion disagrees! Meanwhile I don’t consider Il Postino a controversy, since no one ever calls it The Postman if they remember the film at all, which they don’t.
The Arbor (2010, Clio Barnard) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] Haunting illustration of the short, tragic life of English playwright Andrea Dunbar is harder hitting than a conventional documentary; it fuses archival footage with on-location performances of her best-known work and actors very capably miming interviews with Dunbar’s family and intimates. It’s rare that the medium gives us so direct an opportunity to explore the effect of words and actions upon others across years and even decades, to say nothing of its troubling implications about motherhood, the responsibility of adults to children and the repetition of cycles of abuse and neglect.
Elena (2011, Andrey Zvyagintsev)
[2010s catchup project.] Zvyagintsev shows a real flair for composition and for directing actors in this domestic chronicle of a middle-aged woman’s dispute with her rich husband over finances, but it’s ponderous and prolonged enough that even when something ultimately does actually happen it feels strangely inconsequential, as if the mere suggestion of possible events constituted drama.
Street of Shame (1956, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] Mizoguchi’s last film, about a group of prostitutes coping with the fickleness of day-to-day life amid the looming possibility of a ban on sex work that could leave them destitute, an issue it tackles without demonizing or glorifying anyone. As usual for the director, one of cinema’s greatest and most sensitive, it’s incredibly prescient, and beautifully acted and observed. Maybe not as hard-hitting as Women of the Night and Sisters of the Gion, which deal with similar situations and themes, but equally lyrical and haunting — especially that final shot. Exquisite score by Toshiro Mayuzumi.
Here Comes the Navy (1934, Lloyd Bacon) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Uneven peacetime Warner Bros. war movie, with lots of drop-of-a-hat fistfights, whose tone is hard to figure; it’s too wacky to be a drama and too infatuated with its characters’ machismo to be a comedy. James Cagney is a diminutive local tough who joins the Navy explicitly to get revenge on a random guy who slighted him once, in what may be the pettiest scheme ever recorded in a Hollywood picture. The film’s engaging enough due to Cagney but it’s just too silly to carry much weight and its Best Picture nomination is hard to swallow.
Fire at Sea (2016, Gianfranco Rosi)
[2010s catchup project.] This illustration of the mid-2010s migrant crisis, shot around Sicily, is stunningly intimate — so much so that it often feels more like a narrative fiction film than a documentary — but it’s constantly interrupted by a slingshot-building kid who seems to be practicing for a future gig as a talk show host. The apparent point, that people’s problems are on vastly different scales, strikes me as trite.
Graduation (2016, Cristian Mungiu)
[2010s catchup project.] Claustrophobic drama, about a middle-aged shlub bumbling around trying to juggle various problems that spring up when his daughter is sexually assaulted, is well-acted and not without dramatic gravitas but simply feels too much like a hundred other acclaimed arthouse films of its era; Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills was much better because its characters were so much less predictable.
Senso (1954, Luchino Visconti) [r]
[1950s canon project.] Visconti’s distractingly gorgeous Technicolor effort at a Madame de…-like story of the fractured heart of a noblewoman stands out from his earlier work with its concerns of sexual liberation and self-torture. Alida Valli leans fully into the unpolished melodrama of her role as an Italian countess with Nationalist sympathies (and a cousin in the rebellion) who falls in love with a cad among the occupying Austraian army, a rather miscast and surprisingly unrecognizable Farley Granger. With better casting, this might well have been truly extraordinary (Visctonti wanted Brando and Bergman).
Flirtation Walk (1934, Frank Borzage)
[Best Picture nominees project.] A disjointed mess of a military comedy-musical in which Dick Powell, in over his head, stars as a hotheaded Army private who revels in a rebellious give-and-take with his button-down commanding officer and derails his career after a coitus interruptus episode involving a higher-up’s daughter (Ruby Keeler, game but ineffectual); his response to an offhanded insult is to go to West Point to prove his mettle, where he transforms into a stoic asshole. The film then inexplicably turns into a big “put on a show” routine that has Powell and Keeler singing some insipid numbers. The best you can say about the whole enterprise is that it’s well-photographed.
The Great Beauty (2013, Paolo Sorrentino) [NO]
[2010s catchup project.] Loud, screaming, flashy and unflaggingly obnoxious modern homage to La Dolce Vita has a journalist and onetime novelist played by Toni Servillo wrestling with the moral quandary of being surrounded by decadence among the Roman jet set, the weight of the city’s history and the meaninglessness of this and that within his personal life as well as on a higher level. All the worst tendencies of lifestyle-porn arthouse, geared toward the sort of people who go to the movies to find out where to book their next Hilton excursion.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016, Taika Waititi) [NO]
[2010s catchup project.] All the trash kids rented at Blockbuster in the ’90s except unbearably smug, courtesy of one of the most shamelessly self-regarding charlatans working in the movies today.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] Brilliantly executed and creepily effective horror/sci-fi about a small-town doctor stumbling upon a phenomenon that, initially, can’t even be quantified enough to seem improbable but is unmistakable to those who witness it. Like Cat People, this is genre fiction that uses the wildest of fantastic ideas to explore vividly human, deeply uncomfortable emotional issues. Siegel studiously avoids either dull exposition or making things too explicit, though there’s plenty of delightful visual audacity to balance what is ultimately a rather serious parable.
Fanny (1961, Joshua Logan) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Charles Boyer and Maurice Chevalier get the band back together like some Hollywood Francophile precursor to The Irishman in this picturesque (shot beautifully by Jack Cardiff) romance inspired by Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy of plays and films about a love triangle of sorts in ’20s Marseille. It’s called “Fanny” (Leslie Caron) but it’s really about the men around her — discussing her, sizing her up, planning her destiny. Logan proves adept enough at the sometimes thorny emotions within the situation depicted that the rather forced slapstick and moments of wacky levity seem like wasteful distractions.
In Jackson Heights (2015, Frederick Wiseman) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] In this mosaic of processes and exchanges from a year or so in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, everything we see is a furthering of the stark reality of the entirety of the human race essentially being abandoned by capitalism; some still survive within it or sit in denial of its failure, but for how long? The compassion and understanding of Wiseman’s camera is a given, but it never asserts itself; the only thing that does is his unflagging interest in nearly every aspect of day-to-day life. When splendor and grace do enter, it’s through the perseverance of the humanity and zeal for life, even if muted, common to every face he captures.
Midsommar (2019, Ari Aster)
[2010s catchup project.] Frustratingly silly, overlong and sloppily written horror film has Florence Pugh, her useless boyfriend and his bros — including a convenient anthropology student — following a friend to Sweden where he exposes them to the sinister behaviors and practices of the cult in which he grew up. Production designer Henrik Svensson does much of the work here to make this visually interesting; the story and script are truly dreadful, with boring characterizations and every movement telegraphed from the first moment each theme is unveiled.
Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985, Maya Deren) [r]
The only feature film credited to the pioneering avant garde director Deren, most famous for Meshes of the Afternoon although she made several other films that were equally brilliant, was shot in the late 1940s and assembled posthumously by her husband Teiji Ito. It’s a documentary in which Deren takes an experimental approach to filming a series of dances, ceremonies and practices of Haitian Vodou; the trust she earned in this process is evidenced in just how intimate much of the footage is, though it doesn’t entirely escape the “othering” that is so common to midcentury explorations of non-Western cultures.
Invocation: Maya Deren (1986, Jo Ann Kaplan) [r]
Overly rushed and slightly credulous but often remarkable overview of the life and career of one of the greatest American filmmakers to work completely outside of standard narrative cinema, with many surprising primary-source inclusions plus interviews with her collaborators. There is a haunting sense of loss hanging over the film and its incidental capturing of NYC Bohemian culture of the war and postwar periods; Deren’s presence in every sense, including her physical stature, looms engagingly over every moment.
The Flowers of St. Francis (1950, Roberto Rossellini)
[1950s canon project.] Rossellini’s illustration of vignettes from the life of Francis of Assisi relies on a sympathy if not outright subscription to Christianity and maybe even specifically Catholicism in order not to seem silly, flippant and unnecessary — although it is lovely to look at.
Lola Montès (1955, Max Ophüls) [r]
[1950s canon project.] The balletic “ringmaster” scenes of this very Ophüls reenactment of the Montès legend are magnificent. The narrative material falls short, although Martine Carol is wonderful throughout.
Across the Universe (2007, Julie Taymor) [c]
[Beatles film project for music blog.] Another musical fashioned in perfunctorily strung-together Beatles tunes along the lines of the Bee Gees version of Sgt. Pepper, filtered here through much greater self-importance and idealized ’60s nostalgia. Taymor senses grace notes in the Beatles’ work and treats it as hallowed ground, but the threadbare story she and her cowriters concocted here provides no context with any real depth or meaning unless you think conflating the Beatles with Vietnam is a profound idea. The song performances are mostly as rote and uninspired as their placement in the “narrative,” and in the cases of Bono and Eddie Izzard’s cameos, downright humiliating.
First Cow (2019, Kelly Reichardt) [hr]
A film boundless in both its knowing cynicism about capitalism and generosity toward humans (and animals!), about early American settlers finding success through their enterprising use of a nearby cow; a beautiful chronicle of a deep friendship, sensitive and well-performed with the same touch of melancholy that marks all of Reichardt’s best work, and subtly hilarious in the most invitingly dorky manner to boot.
Il Postino (1994, Michael Radford)
[Best Picture nominees project.] Harmless semi-romcom from Italy about a layabout who takes a job delivering mail to renowned poet Pablo Neruda (in exile from the political situation in Chile) and ends up harnessing him as a sort of Cyrano figure as he attempts to seduce a dreadfully underwritten bartender. Pleasant-looking and completely unmemorable, this won a lot of acclaim in its day up to and including a Best Picture nomination courtesy of the Weinstein machine and some understandable sentimentality toward its deceased star Massimo Troisi; it’s all sweet-natured but fatally banal.
The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] An even more profound and achingly sad portrait of an emotionally distant marriage than Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, with the same harrowingly direct portrayal of awkward interactions and fatal miscommunications. Along the way there is also the gentle prodding of the generation gap and the lingering feudal tradition of arranged marriage. Of course our director’s eye is unfailing, and the performances are shattering.
Working Girl (1988, Mike Nichols) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Romantic comedy concerning corporate ladder-climbing on the part of an ambitious secretary charmingly played by Melanie Griffith is a pure morsel of late ’80s nostalgia; she’s oddly third-billed under perfunctory hapless-foil and screeching villain roles by Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver respectively. Writer Kevin Wade has the usual infatuation with “structure” that makes so many big comedies of this era feel so schematic, but for sheer entertainment value this certainly delivers from beginning to end. (Half the reason you’ll want to see it, though, is its time-capsule view of ’88 New York.)
Monte Carlo (1930, Ernst Lubitsch) [r]
The second entry in Lubitsch’s cycle of Paramount musical comedies from the very early talkie period is just as winning and exuberant as The Love Parade but there’s a large Maurice Chevalier-sized hole in it and the far less charismatic Jack Buchanan is only a passable stand-in. Jeanette MacDonald easily makes up for his inefficiencies in her deliciously sensual lead role as an impoverished countess who falls hard, in a reverse-Love Me Tonight scenario, for a nobleman passing himself off as a hairdresser. Claud Allister steals the film in a wrenchingly hilarious role as her useless fiancé, and the whole affair is bubbly and delightful.
Passing Fancy (1933, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
Lovely slice of life from Ozu’s late-lingering silent period is just as compelling as his more beloved later works, with every shot beautifully composed, every character lovingly defined. Takeshi Sakamoto stars as the widower and single father Kihachi, who’s only sporadically attentive to his son (Tokkan Kozou) in between flirting with women who are much too young for him and drinking too much; complications arise when Kihachi attempts to take a destitute girl under his wing only for her to be drawn to a cynical coworker of his. This feels like it’s scarcely aged a day and is particularly astute about the strain that comes out of “parentizing” a young child.
The Crucified Lovers (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi): see A Story from Chikamatsu
A Story from Chikamatsu [The Crucified Lovers] (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] Absorbing and rapidly paced Romeo and Juliet-like narrative, set within feudal Japan and adapted from an eighteenth century play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, juggles the same themes as all of Mizoguchi’s major works — traditional society’s inhumanity to women and celebration of capital, all in all — but is set apart from them in its fast-moving energy and wonderfully sharp sense of irony, and like all of his work it’s immaculately shot and composed.
One Night of Love (1934, Victor Schertzinger)
[Best Picture nominees project.] Innocuous opera-comedy about an up-and-coming singer played by the sadly ill-fated Grace Moore, wringing her through the usual beats about her sparring with a controlling lover-manager (Tullio Carminati). Cheap-looking and weakly directed, this just barely passes muster thanks to several unexpectedly witty jokes, surely the result of some rogue dialogue insertions on the part of somebody among the five credited screenwriters; the leads do OK but can’t really conquer their inconsistent and quite persistently unlikable characterizations. The performance numbers, mostly just straight lifts from M. Butterfly and Carmen, are thoroughly forgettable.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020, Charlie Kaufman) [r]
A Charlie Kaufman road movie that goes about the way you’d expect: lonely claustrophobia, some moments of awe-inspiring ingenuity, and a really sharp comic sensibility that unfortunately, by the end, haven’t really found a cohesive groove and just come to feel loose and random in their execution, especially when the pop culture references take over. Still a singular experience, with a stunning lead performance from Jessie Buckley, plus one scene set at an ice cream store that could be one of the most inspired moments in modern cinema.
Duck, You Sucker! (1971, Sergio Leone): see A Fistful of Dynamite
A Fistful of Dynamite [Duck, You Sucker!] (1971, Sergio Leone) [r]
Leone brings considerable humor and excitement to what might well have been a relatively pedestrian story about a Mexican bandito (improbably portrayed by Rod Steiger) joining forces with an Irish revolutionary (James Coburn, shiny-toothed and ridiculous) to rob a bank only to accidentally become a political hero. Not nearly enough plot here to justify the exorbitant length and it really amounts to a padded-out and regurgitated version of themes and ideas Leone had already explored quite extensively, but he was a true poet of the camera and this is still great fun to watch.
Europa ’51 (1952, Roberto Rossellini) [r]
[1950s canon project.] Achingly tragic scenario of Ingrid Bergman as a self-involved woman trying to come to terms with her aloofness as a mother when her young son commits suicide, with rich performances and often stunning visual flourishes and settings, collapses into a religious parable about saintliness that just feels all too well-trodden and obvious. Rossellini’s moral uncertainty rescues it from total banality but, as with The Flowers of St. Francis, for a nonbeliever it all just seems like a gross misappropriation of beauty.
Via Villa! (1934, Jack Conway) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Very pre-Code, very handsome MGM biopic of Pancho Villa (Wallace Beery, in a slurring and goofy performance) openly admits to being largely fabricated and wears its catchphrase-driven proto-sitcom sensibility proudly. Biggest debit is Stuart Erwin as a boring white journalist who follows Villa around and manages to witness every major event in his life; he saps the film’s energy and keeps it from being a full-on Mexican Revolution Scarlet Empress. As the movie stands, it’s a bit politically suspect but also fun (and wildly violent, even amoral), and it certainly looks spectacular, especially the early sequences.
The film noir that sprang up in Hollywood in the 1940s and ’50s — hard-boiled fiction transferred to cinema with a gargantuan, Biblical moralism attached — could encompass much that was repugnant as often as alluring, sometimes in the same picture. Lust leads to protracted murder-suicide in Double Indemnity, which is nonetheless enveloping because we witness each step of its doomed protagonist’s psychic collapse and all of them are crushingly believable. The central romance in Gun Crazy is sparkling enough in its lust that the viciousness of the violence it courts feels like a gradually warming bath that we only belatedly realize has become intolerable. In Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, the thrill of watching an intricately planned ripoff spring into action is a momentary but exhilarating distraction from the oppressive bleakness of the lives surrounding the event.
More typical, however, are the noirs in which nihilism rules the day. In Out of the Past, the entire world conspires against one who believed he “got out,” the implication being that one toe stepped out of saintliness is enough to permanently wreck a life; and in The Maltese Falcon, murder itself becomes so casual an occurrence that the characters and film come to treat it as window dressing, puzzle pieces in a convoluted narrative. Everything is card sharks, smoked-out hallways and clubs, pop-up diners and service stations, dank alleyways and slimy apartments, the symbols of poverty that mainstream American cinema only acknowledges in order to conflate with banal, quick-buck evil.
American director Jules Dassin’s French noir Rififi seems at first glance to belong in the latter category; unlike Kubrick a year later, Dassin finds no perverse pleasure or humor in the company he keeps during this two-hour descent into Hell, even if Hell in this case is just the wrong side of picturesque downtown Paris, into the gutter of the bottom-of-the-barrel sleaze that the heavens spit out. It is absolutely not attractive or inviting, nor is there any yearning for a palpable world beyond this dead end that you sense in something like The Asphalt Jungle (at least in the novel by W.R. Burnett). The crooks that populate Rififi are seemingly beyond redemption; there is even scorn to cast upon the amiable family man Jo, played by Carl Möhner, whose miraculous avoidance of prison for an extravagant theft, thanks to a buddy who took the rap, has done nothing to dissuade him from risking his wife and kid’s lives for the sake of another big score. That Tony, “le Stéphanois,” the ride-or-die who went down for Jo and is now fresh out of prison, isn’t meant to glean our good graces is unmistakable — he’s a nasty, sadistic motherfucker whose beating of an ex-girlfriend rather starkly dominates one of the first scenes in the film. For all the dignity and regret cast all over Jean Servais’ wearied face, he isn’t even an anti-hero, he’s unambiguously villainous — capable of unforgivable, unglamorous hatred — while feeling more like an actual lifer than the half-baked gangsters populating so much American noir. We’re thankfully never asked to believe in some sort of hidden gold in Tony’s heart, only that there is a certain perverse integrity, or at least consistency, to his outlook — and therein lies the real essence of the story here.
It may or may not be beside the point that there’s also something weirdly intoxicating about all this misery, in the same way that the despair in an early Ingmar Bergman picture such as Prison can become curiously comforting. Quite apart from the elevated visuals — that tauntingly doomed Third Man-like shot of a tied-up body being regretfully finished off then left behind, for instance, outlines the potential emotional range of a story like this in seconds — Dassin’s story makes no secret of its contempt for its unscrupulous central figures; but in contrast to the Hollywood pictures that delve this unapologetically into the underworld, there’s a certain empathy here toward forbidden emotions: greed is not treated as a source of shame, but the virtually inevitable outgrowth of human nature — we’re not expected here to scold ourselves for being somewhat aroused at the thought of an illicit life on easy street, or the directionless, smoky lust of a dim nightclub, or the empty possessiveness of the most toxic kind of love affair. It is rather the weakness of those men who succumb to these basic, seemingly inevitable elements of their nature that Dassin serves up to rebuke.
What’s not beside the point is that the real subject of Rififi, apart from the sheer outrageous dramatics of the central heist scene, of which more shortly, is the idea of moral relativism within the underworld: the “criminal code,” so to speak. It is a given that an above-board existence is either impossible or out of the question for the four highly skilled architects of this film’s big jewel robbery — theirs is life on an entirely different plane, one in which things look and sound different and the boundaries vary wildly from those of the seldom-glimpsed straight world. But throughout the final third of Rififi, starting at the point when our hoods become dogged by an even more ruthless set of hoods who’ve stumbled on the truth about the recent operation, we gradually discover where almost everyone’s limits are: for multiple characters, the involvement of a child is beyond the pale, sloppy and underhanded and vile in a way that casts the gamesmanship of mere ordinary con artistry into stark relief.
One is reminded, inevitably, of the kangaroo court in Fritz Lang’s M, in which the whole of Berlin’s illegitimate underclass becomes vigilante and takes Peter Lorre’s child molester to task out of both moral outrage and self-interest. And in a way, it can all still be read as self-interest: Jo finds his commitments impossible to keep when confronted with the loss of the child for whom he claimed he was fighting in the first place. Tony’s own specific protectiveness of Jo makes him dedicated to the rescue of the child but he’s also invested in the recovery of the operation’s stability, so it’s more telling that his most decisive action in the ugly aftermath of the crime is to murder the Italian safecracker (played by the director himself) who gave the game away and informed on his partners. But simultaneously, it casts a fascinating divide, again, between “our” hoods and the “other” hoods — and Dassin challenges us to examine and question the depth of the differences. Much as each character has his or her definition of “too far,” we are meant to locate our own. (The script is adapted from a novel by Auguste Le Breton, written in dialect and apparently very difficult to translate; Dassin disliked the book, largely due to the racist characterization of the “villain” gang as Arab and African criminals exclusively, and removed this offensive undertone. At least one French critic, François Truffaut, commented upon the immensity of the improvements Dassin and his cowriters made to the novel.)
Dassin had been an assistant to Alfred Hitchcock during one of his earliest American films, the screwball comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, before moving on to direct shorts then features at MGM. There and at Fox he would become one of the accidental architects of noir; then, like so many other Hollywood filmmakers and performers with leftist or communist sympathies, he was blacklisted in the late 1940s and forced to exile himself to Europe, where he would make Rififi — his first picture outside Hollywood — and became so renowned in France he would for the rest of his career be frequently mistaken for a native director. There is a certain catharsis to the film’s absolutely unwavering cynicism, but also a feeling of profound loss and pointlessness; in some ways it resembles a picture like Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko or Renoir’s La Bête humaine, even Hitchcock’s 1936 pre-Hollywood Sabotage, more than any American thriller of its era, because there is no compensatory sense of iconography to avoid a sensation of falling into the abyss. No Bogie, no Edward G. Robinson, no lovable lug of a Cagney, just regular people who’ve already fucked themselves over fucking themselves over more.
But there is one important difference; Renoir, Hitchcock and Duvivier’s films were stark and unsentimental in their examination of amoral or misguided lives falling apart. Dassin takes a rather surprisingly gleeful pleasure in it; like Henri-Georges Clouzot, who was in the midst of his artistic peak around this time, he isn’t exactly cold-blooded in his treatment of his hopeless characters, but he does receive an unmistakable joy from the deliciousness of a narrative that functions in the end as a perfectly formed trap for its occupants. Beginning at the halfway point, there is something uncomfortably fun about watching all of this go awry. The first half of the film shows Tony only reluctantly agreeing to interrupt his gambling activities to participate in the big heist; he’s already physically and emotionally in the dregs, unforgivable, and the robbery is essentially an act of final, writhing desperation. Once the crime is underway, however, and as soon as we let ourselves forget the poor elderly upstairs neighbors knocked out and tied up in chairs, it’s thrilling to watch the pattern of grand theft and grander comeuppance pay off. There are scattered hints of a certain smug pleasure in play during the slowly paced first act — the unexpectedly stylish song sequence, for example, which feels like something out of The Pink Panther in all its phony jet-set decadence — but the latter half of the picture harnesses unpleasant characters and dread-ridden situations for a purely thrilling exercise in capital-c Cinema.
The most famous card up Rififi‘s sleeve, and really one of the centerpieces of film noir (ceaselessly imitated forever after, including by Dassin himself), is its thirty-minute burglary scene, played fully without dialogue and with few sound effects, as intricate and painstakingly detailed as A Man Escaped and as nail-bitingly intense as the drive across the mud pits in The Wages of Fear; there’s even a somewhat tragic hint of the male camarederie that surrounds the wild scheme in the Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob. All this for a bag of jewels that must be filtered through a fence, divided up and scattered — it’s no accident that the act of retrieval is more exciting than the actual goal, certainly for us and maybe even for these career criminals. Over the course of an entire intense night, the jewelry shop must be invaded from above, the safe must be cracked meticulously, which takes hours, and everyone has to make their escape under cover of dawn. Every moment seems poised to make your breath catch or your heart sink.
Whenever a film is structurally dependent on a showstopping sequence like this — take The Red Shoes to name one — there is the risk that everything afterward, everything required to actually resolve the story, is going to be hung over and sickly in comparison and will make its denouement a chore. But Rififi remains energized up to its conclusion; the heist is a success, and it’s only some time later after a bit of loose-lipped philandering by one of the involved parties that everything begins to unravel, but it does so spectacularly, giving us even lower rungs of bestial dirt to sift through. It eventually falls upon Tony to deliver us back out of the fantasy in which all this could somehow end in something harmonious, literally dying during a chaotic drive through Paris with a jolly shouting child (whose demonic presence calls forward to Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook) that ends in an anticlimactic one-car collision. All of which hits very differently from the Hollywood fantasy in which no crime goes unpunished — the tone here is not of moral righteousness but of philosophical silence at the pointlessness of it all, as in Renoir’s La Chienne: it all just adds up to nothing. The money will offer no deliverance, will go nowhere, and life will continue in its endless, useless circle.
But Dassin does let a sliver of judgment show when he briefly gives the floor to Jo’s wife, who provides this incendiary monologue: “There’s something I always wanted to tell you. There are kids, millions of kids, who’ve grown up poor like you. How did it happen? What difference was there between them and you, that you became a hood, a tough guy, and not them? Know what I think, Jo? They’re the tough guys, not you.” For all its detail and danger and intrigue, Rififi dismisses the illusory toughness of its characters — the gritty real world its characters inhabit is more of a fantasy than the private one in which the little boy lives during that final car ride, gazing at the sky and the trees and his toy plane. He’s more alive than any of them.
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.