The journalist-turned-screenwriter Joe Eszterhas has, either in spite or because of his standing as something of a self-important clod, made several significant contributions to the lexicon of show business. I was reminded recently of his late ‘80s citation of his former agent, the diminuitive and feisty Michael Ovitz. Ovitz, according to Eszterhas, responded to Eszterhas’ announcement that he was leaving Ovitz and his agency CAA by telling Eszterhas that he, Ovitz, had “foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day” who would “blow [Eszterhas’] brains out.” Such colorful language. Hollywood, like so many other fields of endeavor, is full of emotionally disturbed people who often fancy themselves tough guys.
What brought the denied-by-Ovitz Ovitz pronouncement to mind was a piece that appeared on New York magazine’s Vulture website nearly two weeks ago, by one Brian McGreevy, entitled “Don’t Call Lena Dunham ‘Brave.’” I need not go into the larger substance of the piece here; I’m not a television critic and I’ve already (I think) expressed my opinions on the use of the word “brave” as applied to performers, artists, what have you. What struck me was what came after McGreevy’s largely sensible exhortation that Lena Dunham’s public persona does not necessarily line up with Lena Dunham’s function as a creator or artist. “Lena Dunham is not weak,” McGreevy warns the reader. “Lena Dunham will cut your throat in your sleep.”
“She will do no such thing,” I laughed. I laughed even more because prior to his fulminations in this vein (and there are a lot of them), McGreevy included a clause reading “as a producer.” What has McGreevy produced? According to his bio below the piece, he has executive-produced a Netflix series based on a book he has written.
I know that David Foster Wallace once made mild fun of Susan Faludi for referring to a porn movie set as an “ecology,” but reading McGreevy’s piece I myself found myself contemplating a cultural ecology in which an individual with precisely one producing credit to his name feels sufficiently confident to swing an inflated rhetorical dick around like he’s Mace Neufeld or something (I’ve actually met Mace Neufeld and I doubt he’d stoop to anything so vulgar, or unnecessary). A cultural ecology in which the Internet arm of a major publication will pay probably-not-that-good money for the inflated rhetorical dick swinging. And most of all, a cultural ecology in which consumers are expected to be pleased to be told that Lena Dunham will cut their throats in their sleep.
“[A]ll art is a product of shameless opportunism that deserves to be applauded,” McGreevy continues. “[Dunham] is a woman who has risen through a masculine power hierarchy to become one of the most important culture-makers of the 21st century without compromising her artistic identity, and is fucking a rock star, this is more or less as baller as it gets.”
The unfortunate adolescent quality of McGreevy’s language aside, we are, once again, quite a long way from the ethos of our old friend Andrei Tarkovsky, who once wrote: “Ultimately artists work at their profession not for the sake of telling someone about something but as an assertion of their will to serve people. I am staggered by artists who assume that they freely create themselves, that it is actually possible to do so; for it is the lot of the artist to accept that he is created by his time and the people amongst whom he lives. As Pasternak put it:
“Keep awake, keep awake, artist,
Do not give in to sleep…
You are eternity’s hostage
And prisoner of time.
“And I’m convinced that if an artist succeeds in doing something, he does so nly because that is what people need—even if they are not aware of it at the time. And so it’s always the audience who win, who gain something, while the artist loses, and has to pay out.”
Call me crazy, but I see a pretty straight line connecting a skepticism toward the “difficult” in art and “We Saw Your Boobs,” a production number I’ll admit to having missed during its initial broadcast, and still haven’t caught up with. Hostile, ugly, sexist: these are the words that The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson uses to describe Oscar host Seth MacFarlane’s schtick as host of the ceremonies. I have to admit my reaction to some of the outrage (not Davidson's, I hasten to add), in part, is to say, in my imagination, and now here, to a certain breed of multi-disciplinary pop-culture enthusiast, well, you picked your poison, now you can choke on it. It’s all well and good to make “fun,” “irreverence,” “FUBU” or any number of related qualities the rocks upon which you build the church of your aesthetic, or your worldview. But you might want to remember the precise parameters of the choices you made on the occasion that they bite you on the ass. Not to mix metaphors or anything.
Also published on the Internet around two weeks ago, on the website Buzzfeed, was something I guess is referred to as a listicle, entitled “What’s The Deal With Jazz?” in which the author, Amy Rose Spiegel, expressed her immense disdain for the musical form in digital rebus style. She takes immaculate care to only lampoon the white, and rather hackish (per conventional wisdom), practitioners of the form, until the very end, in which she allows “But really, the worst part of despising jazz is when people say ‘No, no, you just haven’t heard the good stuff! Blah blah blah Miles Davis Charles Mingus blah blah blerg.’ Actually, I have. I have, and I hate it.”
Now all this is arguably ignorant, arguably hateful, arguably racist. It excited a fair amount of disapprobation in my circle on Twitter, where it became clear that some of the people complaining about it were friendly with the piece’s “editor,” to whom I myself expressed some displeasure, and she in turn expressed displeasure that I was making it “personal.” Call me crazy, again, but I can’t see too much of a way not to respond “personally” to such a piece. Plenty of people in the “conversation” allowed that, well, Buzzfeed DOES do great things, but that this wasn’t one of them, and that it was regrettable. I see it completely the opposite way. I see “What’s The Deal With Jazz?” as absolutely emblematic of Buzzfeed and all it stands for, just as I see the charming piece called “Django Unattained: How Al Sharpton Ruined A Cool Collector’s Item” as absolutely emblematic of the site Film School Rejects. I know I’m possibly coming off like Susan Sontag yammering about how a million Mozarts could not cancel out the fact that the white race is the cancer of civilization. I’m aware of the good that is out there. But let’s face it: Robert Fure, Amy Rose Spiegel, and tens of thousands of others are eager to bulldoze it, and the Jeff Jarvises of the world are happy to let them do it, if only because it will prove their theories about the Internet to be correct.
In 1998 a couple of writer friends, who I’ll call K and L, made me the gift of a personal introduction to a man I’ll call D, whose work as a journalist and an artist I had long admired. Our first dinner was at a steakhouse on Tenth Avenue, after which we went to see P.J. Harvey at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Great show, you shoulda been there. Anyway, during the course of the dinner conversation, K was talking about how he had recently seen the movie Belly, a kind of hip-hop gangster movie starring DMX and Nas and directed by Hype Williams. K described his discomfort with the movie and some of its depictions, but was having trouble articulating that discomfort. D, a person of exceptional perspicacity and directness, and someone who had been something of a professional mentor to K in the past, cut to the chase.
“Did you find it morally objectionable?”
K thought this over for a bit. It was clear that he did not want to seem prim. It was also clear that trying to bullshit D wouldn’t do.
“Yes,’ he said. “Yes, I found it morally objectionable.”
D smiled and cut into his steak and said, “Well then you should say: ‘I found it morally objectionable.’”
On the ground floor of Reykjavik's Hotel Natura, in the wing holding the conference rooms, in a corner adjoining the entrance to conference room number one, is a display dedicated largely to Bobby Fischer, the highlight of which is a chessboard signed by both Fischer and Boris Spassky. Presumably THE chessboard. Fischer stayed at this hotel for the 1972 match, when it was called the Hotel Loftledir.
The above image is from the magnificent, endlessly upsetting 1998 Khrustalyov, My Car, which may well be the last completed film by this now-departed master. I wrote at a little length about his work here, on the occasion of a superb retrospective. Current conditions oblige me to be largely off the grid for the time being, but I'll likely have more thoughts next week. A cataclysmic loss, to put it mildly.
Here's a clip from a documentary in which the musician recalls an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, followed by a rendition of "May I?" by his incredible Whole World band, which at the time featured Lol Coxhill and Mike Oldfield. My first exposure to the tune was a somewhat more raucous rendition from the legendary concert album June 1, 1974.
The obituary from Mojo is worth a read. I haven't much to say at the moment except that Ayer's music meant a lot to me growing up, and continues to.
Well. Talk about the best-laid plans. Last time we spoke in the context of this feature, I was all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about future prospects, having set up ground rules that were going to allow me to run the Consumer Guide on a regular basis. Almost four months later and with no natural disaster to REALLY keep me in the house, here we are, with a Consumer Guide you’ll find to be pretty low on really NEW stuff.
What can I tell you? Among other things, I found myself consumed by what Jack Torrance would call “a new writing project” which turned into a nearly compulsive pursuit. That’s finished, and now I am trying to, as they say, monetize the result. And while, to my surprise, I now find that I have enough of a new idea in my head that I could just start on something similar now, for various reasons I’m not going to. Which left me to come back to this. I might as well face it: the only way this is going to become a regular monthly thing is if I’m paid to do it, and the format’s still too niche, and my approach still to ostensibly cinepilic to make it something any organ wants to pay for, let’s not even talk about pay what I would want for it.
So I’m just going to accept reality, a specific reality, which is that this feature’s only ever going to appear on a sporadic basis, a basis that will be decided according to my whim and/or whether I’m physically available to do the work necessary for the feature to exist. Which isn’t to say I’m giving up. There’s plenty piled up in my home theater “staging area” to look at, and things are going to be chilly outside for a good thirty days or so more. Who knows what could happen. In the meantime, there’s a pretty impressive bunch of stuff considered below. Thanks as ever. Before we start, here is a very amusing snapshot of a bit of the end credits of the Streisand A Star Is Born.
Equipment: Playstation 3 for domestic discs, OPPO BDP 83 for import discs, Panasonic Viera TCP50S30 plasma display, Pioneer Elite VSX-817 AV amplifier/reciever.
Baron Blood (Kino/Lorber)
This movie is, I think, better than its reputation as subpar Bava would suggest, and I think that Bava biographer Tim Lucas agrees with me, as his audio commentary on this early-‘70s item is affectionate as well as informative. This haunted-castle number has plenty of baroque scares, lots of icky gore makeup effects (what’s all that tissue hanging from the spikes in the iron maiden, ugh), and Elke Sommer running around in a mini-skirt screaming, which isn’t as exciting as Elke Sommer naked (see Lisa and the Devil) but nothing to sneeze at either. The Blu-ray has a terrific picture, more impressive than that of Black Sunday, I must say: good solid colors throughout and a consistently clean image. —A
The Big Trail (Fox)
A cinematic curio: a 70mm widescreen picture made in…1930, pretty much the dawn of the sound era. The process here was called “Grandeur,” and director Raoul Walsh also shot the film in regular 35mm. The Fox presentation here is very conscientious, including both version of the film, from restored prints and transferred well in either case. The story of a young character played by recent discovery John Wayne leading a caravan across the West feels more like a regular Walsh film in the 35mm version, which is shorter, more direct and narratively-oriented. The widescreen version is stodgier, full of longer takes that don’t have much dramatic interest but show off a lot of scenery and panoramas and such. But truth to tell, both versions are pretty stodgy; neither has the vulgar dynamism that distinguished such Walsh classics of the era as For Me And My Gal or even Sailor’s Luck. No, this movie’s predetermined fate as a prestige item seems to have hemmed in the filmmakers to an extent. Not that this is a bad picture; it’s certainly of historic interest for technical reasons alone. But as an entertainment, it’s not even close to the first Walsh or Wayne Western I’d pick off a shelf. For cinephile collectors only. —B+
Bonfire of the Vanities (Warner)
This notorious failure, the disastrous making of which was chronicled in the still seminal and satisfyingly dishy book The Devil’s Candy, seems an unlikely candidate for Blu-ray preservations, but stranger things have made it to the format. So how bad IS this, really? Well, it’s not good, but there’s a part of me that thinks the smirky thing is exactly the adaptation that Tom Wolfe’s shitty little book deserves. Some sections, on the other hand, give the DePalma maven a sense of what a big-budget version of Hi Mom! Might have looked like. In any event, it has the most apt casting of Geraldo Rivera of any movie of all time. And a lot of virtuoso camera movement and cheeky image juxtapositions, all of which is captured quite nicely on the disc. The Hanks/Willis subay meet-up makes the DeNiro/Pacino summit in Heat look like the DeNiro Pacino summit in Heat, on the other hand. For DePalma nuts only. —C+
Bonjour Tristesse (Twilight Time)
One of my all-time favorite movies, or one of my all-time favorite Preminger movies, what’s the dif, a thoroughly beautiful and audacious picture that is still structurally and pictorially more vibrant anything you’d care to compare it to. You’d figure I’d be satisfied with just a really good transfer of it…and I am. Some of the black-and-white sequences are little more sepia than I’ve seen in theatrical presentations, but other than that the image is clean and bright and beautifully colored. —A
The Boogens (Olive)
Stephen King, blurbed on the cover, is right—this really is “wildly energetic monster movie.” Okay, it’s an energetic monster movie, at least. It represents one of my favored subgenres, being an independent non-Hollywood production; regional horror pictures have intrigued me since Carnival of Souls. While the title is still a problem, this is a strong presentation of the monsters-from-a-long-disused mine story. A good clean image, not mind-blowing, but definitely better than a step up from standard-def in terms of detail, which always makes a difference with such scares-in-the-dark material. There’s some source-material based speckling about 15 minutes in, but this is not entirely incongruous with what the theatrical experience might have been like. The commentary from director James Conway, co-writer David O’Malley, and star Rebecca Balding, who’s married to Conway, is lively and dishy and pretty funny on the subject of de rigueur female nudity in ‘80s horror movies .—B
The 1950 animated version of the fairy tale came at a transition point for Disney, who needed a big hit and got one here; this was to be the last of his pictures distributed by RKO the success of this picture enabled him to set up Buena Vista and self-distribute a couple of movies later. The anthropomorphized animals—goofy helpful mice, a fussy fat cat named Lucifer (boy, some people would have a field day with that name now)—show the pop influence of Looney Tunes on the studio, and the lead characters are crafted for postwar teen appeal. Not particularly daring, and nor would be the three films that followed (Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Lady And The Tramp) 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, with its bold color design and use of widescreen, has more appeal for Blu-ray buyers looking for Innovation In Animation. But in terms of beauty this has a bunch, most notably the soap-bubble fantasy set piece, very nice indeed. And kids love it!. The usual stellar transfer job, generous extras. If you like this stuff at all you can’t lose with these packages. —A
Cleopatra (Eureka/Masters Of Cinema Region B U.K. Import)
I’ve had a weird thing for Claudette Colbert ever since I saw a picture of her in an old paperback reprint of a buncha Photoplay magazines, the photo depicting her in costume as “Cigarette” in the movie Under Two Flags. I’ve never been able to see that thing, come to think of it. Anyway, it wasn’t that weird a thing, except, you know, she was 56 years older than me and a movie star. Anyway. She’s still the greatest, particularly in her early work, of which this is a stellar, sexy example, director Cecil B. DeMille in his cheeky-historical-epic mode. Colbert’s presentation to Warren William’s Caesar remains one of the all-time classic moments in dramatic depiction. The near-kitsch extrapolations on ancient world design are pretty spectacular too. This is a bee-yooo-ti-ful high-def transfer with lotsa healthy grain (which noticeably upticks during optical effects such as dissolves) and incredible detail. While the movie doesn’t offer any moments quite as ineffable as Colbert’s milk bath in DeMille’s subsequent prior, even more outrageous The Sign Of The Cross (can we have THAT in high-def, pretty please?), it’s still got plenty of her sass, which is also very healthy. The informative F.X. Feeney commentary is imported from the Universal 2009 domestic “Anniversary Edition” DVD of the movie. —A+
Grand Hotel (Warner)
While it is undeniably true that digital technology cannot reproduce that mercury glisten that makes a silver nitrate print feel so special, what it CAN reproduce is not to be deplored, and this high-def version of the old more-stars-than-there-are-in-heaven chestnut gets a lot of at the very least SILVER into the picture. Which is to say it looks truly grand. My most cherished memory of this movie is seeing it at Paris’ legendary Cinema MacMahon in May of 1990, and the way I remember the film looking…well, what I remember, because of the theater and its cachet and the magic of Paris and all that, may well have been an illusion, but this disc re-conjures it. —A
The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp (ITV Region B U.K. Import)
One supposes that there will be a domestic issue of this latest restoration in due time, but if you have a region-free player and can’t wait, well, yes; this is remarkable. I was privileged to see the restoration on a 35mm print on the big screen up at Suffern’s Lafayette Theater. Every time this gets another pass through restoration—and I’ve been looking at this on home video since the Criterion laser disc—it’s like another pane of streaky glass has been removed from in front of the image. The difference is palpable from the opening credits tapestry. Really SO beautiful…although nothing beats seeing it in a theater, on a theater size screen, with an audience willing to be swept up by it. Like the Kazan film discussed later in this guide, Blimp is a unique object. No other film has precisely what it has. And this disc of it it impeccable. (UPDATE: I missed the announcement, but this is indeed in the works from Criterion, here's hoping the movie Scorsese/Powell commentary from way back makes it on to that edition...)—A+
Looney Tunes Platinum Collection Volume Two (Warner)
Okay, I’ll fess up. I haven’t sat through every minute of this three-disc, six-hour-not-including (some not in high-def) extras package. It is also worth recalling that the brash, not inordinately nuanced style of the Tunes, while it of course does benefit from the high-def treatment, is not the sort of thing that yields incredible revelation in that format. (That’s an arguable point, I suppose, but that’s my assessment of the issue. I am willing to entertain countering perspectives.) But damn, any package that includes eleven Tex Avery MGM shorts as an EXTRA is gonna get a pretty high grade from me, even if those eleven do not include “L’il Tinker.” (Can’t have everything.) Not to mention the incredibly range of this thing—the entertaining and informative documentaries, the appallingly vulgar and racist Private Snafu shorts, the attention to detail in the choices of cartoons featuring music-and-effects-only options. It’s really paradise for fans, and it includes the complete “Tortoise and Hare” and “Buzzards” series, and more, and yes, the high-def transfers of the material are eye-poppingly gorgeous if not necessarily “revelatory,” so hell yes, this gets an… —A+
On The Waterfront (Criterion)
The last DVD of this title was actually a rather telling example of how a transfer that somehow emphasizes too much of the wrong picture detail can skew the way a film reads. I hesitate to use the word “wrong,” but bear with me. The Sony DVD’s particular quality, which was overbrightnes, tended to washout the skin tone and boost the visibility of the face makeup on Marlon Brando, particularly his eyebrows, one of which has a scar cutting through it. The dark eyebrows and the pallor of his face gave him a Kabuki-like aspect which made the the feminized qualities of the character/performance stand out more. Also, he didn’t look as if he had any facial hair. Interesting, but perhaps not what the filmmakers were going for. The new transfer corrects this. I’ve taken screen caps from standard-def editions. Look at Brando’s chin in the Sony, left. It's soft, white. Now look at the capture from the Criterion capture; he’s a man who shaves. The feminization is not quite gone, but it’s tempered. Given its proper place in the gestalt of the film as it were, which remains a, yes, unique achievement for as much previous films informed it at the time. As for the rest? Criterion at its best, and the aspect-ratio extra a concise education. —A+
The Passion of Joan Of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc’s lidelse og dod) (Eureka!Masters Of Cinema Region B U.K. import)
Not just a great film but a film with its own language that’s never been replicated or used since. Which is one way of saying its barrage of intense close-ups is in a sense very deeply weird and likely to flummox the inexperienced viewer. This Blu-ray is remarkable not just in its feature presentation but its scholarly chops, as in its inclusion of the “Lo Duca” version of the film, the critic-modified version that was the one first seen by much of this film’s original audience. Not to mention the 100-page booklet. To have the film like this is one thing; the supplements make it a genuine “critical edition,” raising the bar for creators of cinephile product everywhere. —A+
One can, if one is feeling particularly know-somethingish, have a look at this 1950 picture and pronounce it “minor Kurosawa” in spite of the fact that its central trope was once part of what used to be called the lingua franca. (I remember when people who had not even seen the film would talk about a “’Rashomon” situation;” these days not so much…not to mention the devolution to “he said/she said,” which is itself attached to a REALLY minor film.) Something to do with…well, never mind what it has to do with, it’s not a fight I’m gonna get into in the context of this service journalism feature. My point is that if you watch this high-def disc of the movie, you will be almost instantaneously disabused of the notion that the movie is minor ANYTHING, because it’s just that pictorially beautiful, not to mention inventive. That rain! That forest! Seriously Essential. — A+
The Sound and The Fury (Twilight Time)
In which the pioneering label continues its unusual tradition of taking great care in issuing oddly marginal major studio movies in very viewable editions. This one has sunk into sufficient obscurity that I had to create a page for it in order to log it in to my Letterboxd viewing diary. One would like to say that while it ain’t Faulkner, it ain’t nothing, but by the same token, a movie that switches the gender of one major character, then casts Yul Brynner as Jason and Jack Warden as Benjy has problems that go beyond standard adaptation issues. If you can forget its source material, it’s not a bad ‘50s big studio Southern melodrama, but, come on. Stuff like this weighs heavier for the “Martin Ritt was a minor director” argument than No Money Down weighs for the “no he wasn’t” argument, at least in my book. So are you ready to buy this yet? Well, this IS a handsome edition of a film that represents a certain apex of studio craft, although if it indeed was a Fox Four-Track Stereo sound recording, it’s too bad the disc doesn’t reproduce that, and instead goes with a two-channel soundtrack and an isolated track of Alex North’s score, also in two-channel stereo (hell, Fox itself put the four-channel soundtrack on its standard-def disc of House of Bamboo). Don’t knock three-or-four channel mixes ‘til you’ve tried ‘em, they’re pretty sweet. —B-
A Star Is Born (Warner)
What is the matter with me? Why did I look at the high-def iteration of this almost universally-derided iteration of the alkie-showbiz classic before even cracking open the Blu-ray of Cabaret, which is at least a decent movie and also features a truckload of Liza Minnelli sideboob? Who can say. Maybe I had a repressed memory of Montrose’s “Rock Candy” being on the soundtrack, and that attracted me. No, that’s not it. Anyway, the good news is that it looks pretty good: Robert Surtees in his grittiest ‘70s mode, lots of edible blacks and an enveloping warmth that never succumbs to gloss. This is reputedly the first picture with a Dolby surround soundtrack and some of the But Jesus, this movie. Do Joan Didion fans give her a pass for this kind of crap? Because the stuff that’s most irritating and false in this movie’s depiction of its milieu (e.g. the Rolling Stone “journalist” who beds Kristofferson’s character in a bid to get an interview with Streisand’s) practically reeks of Didion, or of Eve Babitz trying to channel Didion, which makes no sense, I know. On the other hand, Ms. Streisand’s commentary, while digressive in that way that can be a little difficult to listen to, is also REAL interesting. I like the way she laughs at the beginning when speaking the words “Jon Peters, who wanted to be a producer.” —B+
Taxi For Tobruk (Olive)
This 1960 WWII adventure of some Free French troops driving through the desert with a German officer who toggles between reluctant ally and captive is like a more downbeat, fatalist variant on the amiable 1958 Ice Cold In Alex. If that latter name means anything to you, you’re likely to eat this up. The film is also an excellent source of Lino Ventura, Charles Aznouver, and Hardy Kruger. The transfer of this wide-screen (French-bred Dyalliscope, same process as The 400 Blows, not CinemaScope...although...oh nevr mind) black-and-white picture is pretty much crystal clear so connoisseurs of the format will also be pleased. —A-
The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse) (Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Region B U.K. Import)
Amazing. This 1930 Prophetic Book Of Fritz Lang is still startling in its odd audacity. Not just technical audacity; everything about it is off-the-wall in its particular genius. This edition makes it all palpable. Because Lang’s experiments with sound and cutting were so bold, they’re not as seamless in their effects as they might have been, but they make the movie crackle with electric discovery. Some of the images are so crisp and spectacular the restoration feels like a miracle. And it is, because the film itself is a kind of miracle. —A+
Universal Classic Monster Collection (Universal)
The core collection, all given superb restoration and cleanup treatments and one of them displaying overindulgence on digital noise reduction and all that. Everything here is beautiful in its way. The 1931 Dracula is the biggest revelation. The cleaned-up frames reveal more depth to the mise-en-scene and more detail in the performances themselves. The movie takes on a more accurate dimension and feels less stodgy and leaden than the latter-day criticisms of it chide it for. Freund’s The Mummy is also remarkable, silver and shadow melding in creepy grandeur. Which isn’t to take away from the magnificent two Frankensteins. The Wolf Man is handsome but not my favorite of the Universal horrors. People love to slag the Claude Rains Phantom of the Opera because it’s really an operetta musical instead of a horror movie, but that Technicolor still is glorious (although in certain shots some registration problems are visible). The Creature From The Black Lagoon is what it is. I only wish for a Blu-ray collection of the sequels, the B-horror pictures (Ulmer’s The Black Cat, come on!), pretty much everything else in this mode that can be upgraded. Not gonna happen. —A+
Wowsers, I have never seen this movie looking so good! I know, I say that all the time. But this is genuinely a revelation. The early scenes with Mireille Darc and her therapist or boyfriend or whatever the hell he is (the new picture clarity doesn’t answer ALL of the movie’s mysteries) going over the supposedly disgusting erotic anecdote (frankly I’ve heard worse) was pretty much impossible to SEE in just about every prior home version. Here it is entirely visible, albeit in its proper alienating silhouette. The rest looks pretty hot, too, if you can take it; people talk about Joe D’Amato movies and the animal killing in those, but caveat emptor, prescient social commentary radical despair or no, some of the stuff at the end of this would get Godard in big trouble with PETA if there were any cinephiles in PETA. —A+
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Warner)
Between this and The Legend of Lylah Claire you almost gotta wonder where Robert Aldrich got his dog-food-ad hard-on from, but he certainly did put an edge on it, and then put it to good use. This really is another Warner home run on a classic title. Ohmigod that face makeup on Davis—like she put it on with a trowel. And yes,in this case it IS supposed to be visible. Every frame is crystal-clear without giving the impression it’s been killed with DNR, and the added detail provides new things to really see; I never before noticed the very visible silent “bitch” Bette David articulates after “you miserable” early in the film. Not so much a camp classic as one of the most knowing, and saddest, movies about Old Hollywood, not to mention alcoholism, ever made. —A+
My friend Brian Koppelman has a piece up at Grantland as part of its "Oscar Travesties" mini-series, called "The Boning of Goodfellas." It treats, of course, what a sham of a mockery of a sham it was that Kevin Costner's more do-gooderish Dances With Wolves swept the Oscars for 1990. While I feel Brian's pain, I can't share his indignation, for a number of reasons. But reading his feisty, funny, and for all that entirely evenhanded piece, I couldn't help recall the very first time I met Martin Scorsese, which was in late 1989, when he was in the very final stages of editing what was then called Good Fellas.
At the time I was an editor at Video Review magazine, self-advertised on its covers as "The World Authority On Home Entertainment." The book was about to celebrate its tenth anniversary, and I, having worked my way up from editing the magazine's very tech-wonky equipment test reports (I swear I've forgotten more about this technology than most people have ever known), was one of several staffers deputized to fetch prognosticating soundbites and in some cases full essays from luminaries literary, cinematic, and otherwise. (J.G. Ballard: "I look forward to the day when specialty video producers—the equivalent of Sun Records and the like in the music business 20, 30 years ago, and the equivalent of small publishers in the book trade—really can begin to reach out to the public." Paula Abdul: "The big movie musical will return to prominence in this decade, as recording artists take the video music concept one step further.") I had already fielded essays by Paul Slansky and Dave Barry and of course the idea of approaching Martin Scorsese to do one was a no-brainer. I contacted his office and laid out our idea and terms (which were pretty good) and got a guardedly enthusiastic response from Scorsese's then-assistant. Two issues were of concern: Scorsese's schedule, which was tied up in finishing his latest film, and Scorsese's comfort level with respect to sitting down and writing something. Not a problem: I could come up to Scorsese's office with a legal pad and a tape recorder and go over the topics we wanted to cover, I'd draft an essay out of it, he'd dictate changes where necessary, then approve, and there we were. Deal, Scorsese's assistant said.
It was right before the Christmas holiday when I went up to Scorsese's office, which was then in the Brill Building. The man immediately struck me as, sure, intense, but also warm, friendly, considerate. Not at all intimidating. We talked about the work in progress, and he invoked the old television series The Untouchables, in terms of both the pace and the brutality. The last thing on his mind was Oscars; there was a sense, almost palpable, of his delight that he was trying something really new for him, and also a slight sense of trepidation, as in "what are they gonna make of this?" And of course the work was consuming. "I ran into Paul Schrader in the hall the other day, he's finishing his movie. I said to him, 'It figures I see you here, we're the only two guys who are gonna work through Christmas'," Scorsese said, laughing the slightly nervous laugh he had back then.
We settled in to his private office and got started. He mostly stood and paced, and sometimes took a hit off of his inhaler—his asthma was acting up a little—and I'd just suggest a specific topic and off he would go. It did not take all that much more than an hour, and when we were through, I asked him to sign my copy of the then-new interview book Scorsese on Scorsese, published by Faber. I'm sitting here looking at it now; he inscribed it "To Glenn Kenny/Thanks & appreciation/Martin Scorsese/1989."
The piece came out well, I think. I was more interested in preserving Scorsese's voice than in making it work as an essay, and it shows, but I don't think that's necessarily bad. In subsequent years I would commission and edit other essays by him for Premiere, including his double obit for James Stewart and Robert Mitchum called "The Men Who Knew Too Much;" by this time, his comfort level with respect to prose writing had increased, so our interaction was a more simple matter of request and acknowledgement.
In any case, the piece called "The Second Screen" has always held a special place for me, and even though it is now an extremely anachronistic look at the technology that has, indeed, transformed cinema and cinephilia, I think it still bears reading. So, without permission, I've inputted it into document form from my old and increasingly raggedy copy of the April 1990 edition of Video Review magazine, and am reproducing it here below the jump. Enjoy.
The waitress kept asking him if he wanted anything else.
It distracted him from looking out at the street. She had a band on her finger, so finally he said "What's the matter, don't you get enough from your husband?" So after that she left him alone.
She glared awhile from the other end of the counter, but he could ignore that.
—The Hunter, Richard Stark, 1962
Now the room was comfortable, illuminated in pools of amber. Crossing to sit on the right side of the sofa, he said, "Tell me what you think you've got so far."
"You're a wooden nickel, that's all I know right now," she said. "Linda usually keeps white wine in the refrigerator here. Want some?"
She herself did, of course; keeping the tension held down below the surface was hard work. He said, "If you do."
She smiled. "At last, a human response."
—Flashfire, Richard Stark, 2000
Lee Marvin in Point Blank, John Boorman, 1967
Jason Statham in Parker, Taylor Hackford, 2013
While it is not likely to be remembered as any kind of major cinematic event, Parker was a pretty decent caper/revenge picture that, contrary to many expectations, did not entirely, or even in all that annoyingly substantive a way, piss on its source material, the above-quoted novel Flashfire by Richard Stark. The reason this distinction is more noteworthy than it ordinarily might be is that the Parker novels by Stark (a not-particularly-well-guarded pen name of Donald E. Westlake, who also wrote dozens of highly-regarded crime novels under his actual name) are rightly beloved by genre aficionados, who have long marveled at Hollywood's seeming unwillingness to bring an undiluted version of the character to the screen. This especially given the brisk, deliberately flat storytelling of these procedurals, which play out for the reader as clean vivid amoral word-movies.
The problem a lot of the time, of course, is the amorality. Recently on Twitter, the former comic book writer turned television scripter and producer Gerry Conway, expressing his disappointment at the new Parker film, described Stark's original character as an "autistic bank robber." That's an interesting way of putting it. But it summarizes why a Hollywood story editor might consider such a character difficult to "relate" to. The unforgettable opening of the first Parker novel, The Hunter, published in 1962, establishes Parker as practically a T-101 of 2oth century criminality. After walking across the George Washington Bridge into New York, he creates an identity for himself, ransacks some poor sap's bank account, and "raises" eight hundred 1962 dollars by three in the afternoon—seed money for his mission, to retrieve the tens of thousands that a former partner has stolen from him. He is a man of very few words, not someone eager to start fights, but someone who doesn't care about smashing a face in if that's what it takes to get something done. In short, he is what some might call a complete "badass," and part of the enjoyment of reading the Parker books is in the unhealthy thrill of seeing him get away with all manner of extremely antisocial behavior and even enjoying some of what his ill-gotten gains can by, although it isn't too long into the series that one is given to understand that the professional thief's life can be as much of a workaday drag as that of any office-bound stiff's.
Stark/Westlake admired the first English-language movie made from a Parker novel, 1967's Point Blank, directed by John Boorman and starring Lee Marvin. While Marvin is an exemplary Parker in every respect, Westlake noted in interviews that when he created the character, he had actually pictured Jack Palance. To judge from interviews, Westlake, who died in 2008, was one of those artists who had a pretty thorough understanding of what they were about. Discussing Point Blank with Patrick McGilligan, he calls it "a terrific film" and observes "the film is more stylized than the book, more mannerist, whereas the Richard Stark books are very flat." Whereas the Parker of The Hunter is practically robotic, Lee Marvin's Walker (Westlake had a rule about selling the rights to Parker novels: unless the producer was going to make a series of Parker films, they'd be obliged to change the name of the character), while exceptionally grim and limited in expression, has a touch of atavism to him. Via the smashed-linearity flashbacks of the movie, the viewer's also given the idea that Walker had some feelings to hurt; his relationship to the partner-in-crime who jilts him, Mal Reese (John Vernon) is portrayed far more warmly than in the book, in which Parker proceeds warily and gets burned anyway.
For all that, Point Blank represented a pretty accurate representation of the Parker character in terms of menace and relentlessness. Westlake rated the never-released-in-the-U.S. Mise en sac, made in 1966 and adapted from The Score, as "modest but good." Godard's Made In USA, let's face it, does not really count as a Parker picture. Westlake describes the director of the Jim-Brown-starring The Split (based on The Seventh) as "a lox," and the movie's pretty lousy, although it's got a helluva cast, including Ernest Borgnine and Gene Hackman. 1973's The Outfit, directed by John Flynn, who'd go on to make Rolling Thunder, was highly rated by Westlake: "[It's] the one movie made from the Stark books that got the feeling right. The movie was done flat, just like the books." You can judge this yourself by watching the Warner Archive DVD of the movie, or coming to see it at the Brooklyn Public Library on February 26 when I present it as part of the series "Original Gangsters." However. The movie does, in its final shot. make its main characters rather more ingratiating than they are in the book. And there's one scene that kind of exemplifies just what Hollywood can't help but do with this kind of material. In the 1963 book, also called The Outfit, Parker, now unrecognizable to many of his former associates on account of necessary plastic surgery, needs some automobile service, and he gets into a spot of trouble at a Georgia garage-for-reprobates after a woman of the house, who had come on to him, accuses him of raping her. Here's how she's described in the book: "She was very fat, forty or forty-five, with a fat white face under [...] orange hair. She was wearing a dark blue dress with pink flowers on it." Later, she is depicted as grinning at Parker, "showing spaces where she'd lost teeth."
In the movie she is played by Sheree North, with all her teeth, looking like so.
Anyway, I seem to be straying from what I intended as my point. While the current Parker movie has a little too much Parker-explaining-himself stuff ("I never steal from people who can't afford it") I was mildly surprised, when looking at the book from which the movie was adapted, that this Stark-penned Parker actually IS a more socialized character than the one we meet in The Hunter. In the eight-year run in which Westlake/Stark wrote sixteen Parker novels, he maintained the character's grim pragmatism but added some complicating factors, including a girlfriend and eventual housemate, Claire. Parker had accumulated enough partners who did not burn him that they could be brought together for a relatively epic Parker adventure, the initial finale to the series, Butcher's Moon. One of those partners, a funny, voluble stage actor named Alan Grofield (who I always imagine as being played in a movie by Edward Norton...never gonna happen...), is goofy enough to function as a comic foil to Parker's gruffness, and he's more in line with the characters Westlake created in his novels featuring the relative anti-Parker, John Dortmunder. (The Westlake omniverse is one of the great underappreciated delights of genre literature but too complicated to treat much here.) But the what one realizes at the end of Butcher's Moon is that Parker is in fact, rather fond of the guy, despite the fact that he allows him to be...well, I don't want to spoil it for anyone. If you're reading this you really ought to check out the Parker books, all but four of which are now available from the University of Chicago Press.
The people who made Parker were smart to adapt one of the novels from the post comeback, or post Comeback (for that is indeed the name of the novel in which the ageless Parker returned, after an over twenty-year layoff) run, not just because the old-school crimes that Parker committed in the '60s could largely only be commited in the '60s, but because the Parker who came back IS appreciably different from the guy in the first sixteen. He hasn't become nice, not in the least, but he has acquired not the veneer but the actual cachet of an old pro who knows his dirty business inside and out and whose criminal pragmatism also contains an element of actually conscious restraint. Watching the movie without having looked back at the book first, I tried to recall whether the character of the cop with an eye for Parker's non-criminal helpmate real-estate agent figured in the book at all. (In the movie they're played by Bobby Canavalle and Jennifer Lopez respectively.) He does, and in fact in the book he gets into a bit more of a cat-and-mouse game with Parker, and at the end of the book—this isn't really a spoiler, all things being equal—the two characters practically banter with each other. The Parker of The Hunter did not banter.
This is not to say that Westlake/Stark compromised his creation. He created Parker out of an intuition, and after a spell of writing, realized this was a character/conceit that he could have some fun with. What followed was not a self-conscious stab at "character growth" or anything so boring but rather playing with the parameters of what he was doing so as to continue having fun. That the Parker series of novels is so thoroughly engrossing is a testimony to both his instincts and skill. And the Statham/Hackford cinematic realization of Parker is sufficiently in the spirit of the original that I would not mind seeing another such adaptation from these guys.