The word "maverick" has come in for a lot of ridicule in recent months, for reasons we a loathe to reiterate here, so in a sense, the series currently unspooling at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, "Mavericks and Outsiders: Positif Celebrates American Cinema" can be seen as an attempt to "take back" the term. I half-jokingly suggested this idea to the venerable Michel Ciment, editor of the legendary French film magazine Positif, when I interviewed him for The Auteurs late last week. He chuckled wryly but didn't elaborate much.
The series, which runs through February 5, is, true to Positif's ethos, very much about strong individual voices, from Toback with Fingers to Lodge Kerrigan with Keane. Barbara Loden's galvanizing, still-influential Wanda is honored, as is the freewheeling Jim McBride/L.M. Kit Carson sendup of the notion of cinema-as-salvation, David Holtzman's Diary.
"A lot of the films [in the series] are also first pictures, because I believe that—well, first off let me talk about what I don't believe, I don't believe in this cliche that you sometimes encounter when you speak to a colleague you say, 'I like that first film.' And your colleague says, 'Yes, it's not bad for a first feature.' I happen to think that first features are very often the best films of their directors, because when you start to make a film, a first feature, you don't know how many difficulties you will meet on your way. But because you are fresh, you have thought about this first film for years, there is a kind of intensity and density in the first feature. And the filmmaker doesn't have the full experience of the problems of the press, of the producers, of the audience, all the things that little by little demolish the directors. And so many directors have such difficulty in making a fifth or a sixth feature, because they have given up in a sense. In the cases of [Wanda director] Barbara Loden and [The Honeymoon Killers director] Leonard Kastle, they didn't even get to direct a second feature."
L.M. Kit Carson in David Holzman's Diary, Jim McBride, 1967
"And evident by the scathing reviews from Sundance of John Krasinski's Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, it appears another film about academia has failed to make a strong case for the subject matter. Too bad for the late David Foster Wallace, whose stories were adapted for the film, that Gus van Sant wasn't at the helm"—10 Best Films About Academia, Christopher Campbell, Spout.
Yeah, too bad for Wallace, who must be livid, up there in the afterlife he didn't believe in, from which he's no doubt avidly following all the Sundance coverage.
Campbell's passage could have been worse, I suppose; he could have said Krasinski's film "failed to make the grade," ar ar ar.
"...[Barbara] Loden had no practical background or training in filmmaking when she landed on the idea of directing this intensely personal project. But her drive to realize it drove her to forgo looking for conventional studio financing, ignore sound judgment (most of it coming from her then husband, Elia Kazan), and simply throw herself face-first into the process."—Wanda—Nowhere Woman, Mary Bronstein, Hammer To Nail.
So children, what have we learned today? What was it that drove Barbara Loden?
That's right—it was Barbara Loden's drive that drove Barbara Loden. Very good.
I also enjoy "landed on the idea." Keep it up, Mary! You write pretty some day!
Thinking about Hawks for my contribution to the "Early Hawks Blogathon," it was the reflection from the late work which helped determine my subject in treating the early work. And that, in turn, led me to look at some of the late work in more detail. What the hell. To do so is certainly more fun than contemplating much of the contemporary cinematic scene. Although I do think I'm gonna go see He's Not That Into You next week. Looks like a clueless big-budget remake of Swanberg's LOL. Hence, I feel I must check it out before launching any contra-Swanberg salvo. So. Anyway...
"No story, just characters," is, according to some reports, how Howard Hawks described his project El Dorado to Robert Mitchum when offering him a co-lead in the film. "You and Duke play a couple of old cowboys." That's a fun story, one that inspired Godard, and it may have the benefit of actually being true, but watching El Dorado is hardly anything like a plot-free experience along the lines of Jeanne Dielman. There's a very definite story here, and how Hawks tells it showcases his acute sense, which by this point must have been second nature to him, of dramatic compression and expansion.
The film is made up of three narrative modules, as it were. In the first, we meet gunman Cole Thornton (John Wayne, the aforementioned "Duke") and Sheriff J.P. Harrah (Mitchum), old friends who, in typical Hawksian mode, have loved the same woman (Charlene Holt's Maudie). Cole's in town to enforce for would-be land baron Bart Jason (Ed Asner), a typical won't-get-his=hands-dirty-villain, but Harrah tells Cole that Jason isn't a right guy, and that, if anyone, he ought to take the side of the MacDonald family, who for years have been working the land Jason wants to grab. A series of misunderstandings culminates with a young MacDonald dead and Cole with a bullet dangerously close to his spine, courtesy of would-be avenging MacDonald Joey (as in Josephine, played by Michele Carey). Thornton leaves town to seek other work and tend to his wound.
Some time later, Thornton returns to El Dorado, with a young, poetry-spouting, knife-throwing (because he's so lousy with a gun) would-be adventurer named Mississippi (nee Alan Bourdillion Traherne) in tow. Where he finds J.P. pretty much dead drunk in the jailhouse, attended by old coot Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt), and unable to cope with the coming storm of Bart Jason's gunmen. So, okay, here's a young pup named after a river/state, an alcoholic lawman, a posse of bad guys...sounds like Rio Bravo very redux. According to Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy, El Dorado's screenwriter Leigh Brackett (who adapted the story from the far darker tale The Stars In Their Courses by Harry Brown) called her initial work "the best script I've ever written," deplored the reworking Hawks gave the story, and called the end result The Son of Rio Bravo Rides Again.
I'm sure that, aside from her understandable irritation at the circumstance, my old pal Anne Thompson is at least a little chuffed to see her layoff from Variety cited as pretty much akin to the opening of the seventh seal in the Book of Revelations or some such thing, by no less an authority as Carpetbagger David Carr. This is "the kind of layoff that signals that something in the middle is breaking, that something besides retrenchment is underway," Carr trembles. And, again, as much as I respect the man, I have to note that it must be awfully cozy over on his floor at the Times, because pretty much everybody I know, Anne included, has been well aware for quite some time that whatever the fuck it is that's going on, it's never been anything quite so benign as a, um, "retrenchment."
I was actually speaking to Anne yesterday, before the news of the fallen axe, and I don't think I'm betraying any confidences when I say I got a sense from her that there was some writing going up on the wall some time soon. I don't think, in the long run, being relieved of her Variety duties is going to be much more than a minor inconvenience for her. That is, the loss is more Variety's than Thompson's. She absolutely belonged there, and brought a huge amount of experience and contacts to the table. I don't get their logic. She shoulda been able to stick around there as long as that Army Archerd guy.
John Drew Barrymore, here acting under the name John Barrymore, Jr., seeks salvation in The Big Night, a typically intense and direct early Joseph Losey picture—the last he made before emigrating to Europe. It's a fascinating picture on many levels, and it's the subject of today's Foreign Region DVD Report, at The Auteurs'.
Took me forever to get a copy of the Sony "The Films Of Michael Powell" double-feature DVD. Didn't get the review copy, and Sony apparently didn't initially manufacture enough to meet demand, which in a sense is good news. In any case, it is a lovely thing...but it seems that most of its reviewers are giving all the love to the first film of the set, the very long-awaited Region 1 disc debut of A Matter of Life And Death, the wartime classic from Powell and Pressburger a.k.a. The Archers. So it seems only fitting for me to pay tribute here to the Pressburger-less 1969 Age of Consent, shot on the Great Barrier Reef, and starring James Mason and—as a feisty young muse—Helen Mirren, she appearing on film for the first time. Despite its sometimes weak dramatic argumentation, very dated sexual humor, and male-fantasy ending (n.b., I personally fully allow for the fact that male fantasies often do come true, but I'm just saying), Consent is an almost ceaselessly beautiful, and eventually, in commenter Kent Jones' word, moving film. If you feel that the top image of this set is NSFW, I strongly urge you to find another job—your office is WAY too uptight, not to mention philistine.
Bonus image: Say what you will about Powell, he only stole from the best, as witness this Consent rip from Black Narcissus.
Sylvia Pinal as Satan as Jesus in Simon of the Desert, Bunuel, 1965
"Thank God I'm an atheist," the great director Luis Bunuel was fond of repeating in his later years, and he was only half-joking, I think. Bunuel was educated by Jesuits and even recalled witnessing a miracle in his home town of Calanda, Spain. But, at public high school, after being expelled by the Jesuits, philosophically galvanized by "Spencer, Marx, Rousseau [and] Darwin," he lost "what little faith" he still had at around the same time as he lost his virginity, in a Saragossa brothel. Sade and surrealism still had yet to exert their influence, but the die was cast.
Bunuel was one of those atheists to watch out for—the kind that knows Catholic Church history and doctrine backwards and forwards. Late in life he made a close friend of at least one Jesuit priest, largely, I infer, because by the late 20th century a Jesuit priest was the only person you could still talk about that kind of stuff with. As someone just barely old enough to remember the Latin mass, I have a special affection for the two films Bunuel made that deal most explicitly with the myriad mysteries of the church itself (as opposed to religious sentiment and philosophy in action, the subject of 1959''s great Nazarin), 1972 1969's The Milky Way and 1965's SImon of the Desert. Criterion released a swell version of The Milky Way in 2007; Simon, with the equally essential 1963 The Exterminating Angel, is released by the company February 11.
A droll riff on the life of ascetic Simeon Stylites, who stood on a pillar praying for almost 40 years back in the earliest A.D.'s, the 45-minute Simon is, depending on who you believe, either a would-be feature that went uncompleted due to lack of funding (Bunuel's version), or the first part of a two-part anthology film starring Sylvia Pinal, which went uncompleted because the varied directors Pinal and producer/husband Gustavo Alatriste approached to do part two wanted to employ their spouses instead. (Pinal, still living an a genuine superstar in Mexico to this day, tells her version in most entertaining fashion in one of the extras on the Criterion disc.) Its compact form is one of the things that make it so special, so engaging. No sooner does one bit of business mixing what appears to be actual religious credulity with bracing cynicism end than another begins, vying to top the last one. Pinal plays a female Satan who adopts some quite outrageous disguises, as above, but is always found out by the stoic, fearsomely-bearded pillar-topper Simon. She finally achieves her goal by taking him to the one place where they'll be forced to be friends. Because that's all that Satan, the fallen angel, really wants—for oh-so-holy Simon to somehow admit that they're kindred spirits after all.
One reason Bunuel was a lot more fun than the various stern-faced atheists railing against faith these days is that Bunuel was smart enough to understand that here was a battle he'd never win. One actually senses, sometimes, that he didn't want it won—he needed an enemy, or at least what you'd call an opponent, to keep the juices flowing. In Milky Way, an angrier film than SImon, he places religion in the context of the continuity of human stupidity.
One of the most mordantly funny bits in Simon occurs when the ascetic performs an actual miracle, restoring the hands of a crippled peasant, who then nonchalantly rushes his family away from the scene without even so much as a "thank you," and smacks one of his daughters on the back of the head for good measure. "Here a priest could say you are a believer," the critic Tomas Perez Turrent notes in conversation with Bunuel in the indispensable interview book Objects of Desire, a part of which is reproduced in Simon's DVD booklet. Bunuel shrugs him off. "[M]ust you exclude everything that is not materialist and provable from a work of imagination? No. There is an element of mystery, of doubt, of ambiguity. I'm always ambiguous. Ambiguity is a part of my nature because it breaks with immutable preconceived ideas.Where is truth? Truth is a myth. I am a materialist; however, that doesn't mean that I deny the imagination, fantasy, or that even certain unexplainable things can exist. Rationally, I don't believe that a handless man can grow hands, but I can act as though I believe it because I'm interested in what comes afterward. Besides, I am working in cinema, which is a machine that manufactures miracles."
So, the Oscar nominations were announced some time last week, and I didn't have much to say about them, because I can't be arsed, for reasons that I think can be inferred from what I wrote here. That said, I have to say I'm a bit surprised at how predictable some of the main nominees are, particularly from the vantage point of, say, six months ago. I honestly figured that Happy-Go-Lucky's Sally Hawkins had pretty much nudged Frozen River's Melissa Leo out of Best Actress consideration, indie/arthouse division. And I thought that the Oscar buzz for Richard Jenkins in The Visitor had pretty much faded. I'm glad to see Jenkins get the nod, not so much because I'm crazy about the film itself; just think it's super cool when great character actors get the nod.
The overall consensus—from, I must emphasize, people who get paid to make their analyses—is that the nominations represent a net gain for "excellence." Any cinephile worth his salt knows that that's a crock, that "excellence" in these cases is usually just a synonym for "quality," and that quality is in these cases always putative, and a few more steps and, voila, we're back to what the New Wave firebrands used to call "le cinema du papa" and what I, at Premiere, used to denigrate as "the distinguished film."
How lazy have most Oscar cud-chewers been about this? So lazy that the best perspective on the major categories I've seen comes from a political blog, Lawyers, Guns and Money, whose Scott Lemieux (who's stopped by these parts to comment from time to time, and has very graciously linked from there to here on occasion) takes apart usually astute Times-man David Carr's bromides on "rewarding excellence" with just good plain common sense, asking, "does anybody want to make the case that The Reader is one of the best film of the year?" and other pertinent questions.
Rose Hobart (yes, that one) regards good-for-nothing Charles Farrell in Borzage's Liliom, 1930.
One of the near-inexhaustible pleasures/opportunities for discovery provided by the Murnau, Borzage and Fox box set is Liliom, Borzage's otherworldly 1930 adaptation of Molnar's play. The play was adapted four years later in France by no less a master as Fritz Lang; I view the contrasts between the two pictures over at The Auteurs'.
In Joseph McBride's indespensible Hawks on Hawks, its subject, Howard, reflects on the narrative function of what McBride calls "the old man character" in Hawks' westerns, the most famous of which is quite probably Walter Brennan's extremely ornery Stumpy in 1959's Rio Bravo. "I think it's a way of telling the story, telling the plot. They tell it in an interesting way. You're not conscious that you're getting the plot; you're being amused by him." No fool, Hawks—he knew what Shakespeare knew about so-called fools, and how they could amuse while also putting forward necessary (but often dreary) expository stuff.
We think of Hawks as a great story-teller, and he was, but there's another side of him, a side exemplified by an anecdote related to me recently by the above-mentioned Mr. Szabo (which he cited by way of explaining some of Godard's inspiration for Made In USA) and also found in George Eel's biography of Robert Mitchum: "Hawks approached [Mitchum] about costarring with John Wayne in El Dorado...[Mitchum] inquired what the story was. 'Story? There's no story,' he later claimed Hawks replied. 'You and Duke play two old cowboys.'" Other versions of the anecdote have Hawks saying, "No story, just characters," but you get the idea. In any case, while Rio Bravo's Stumpy serves an exemplary narrative function while utterly delighting us, Hawks' casting and subsequent use of Walter Brennan as Old Atrocity in 1935's Barbary Coast—the first of the six collaborations between the actor and the director—show the "no story, just characters" ethos at work.