I think both Alexei German's Hard To Be A God (above) and Abderrahamane Sisako's Timbuktu are masterpieces, but they're also films that demonstrate the necessary elasticity of the possibly overused term. German's film, decades in the making, insistently unpleasant if not harrowing, replete with narrative difficulty and sleeve-tugging if not wedgie-pulling subtext, a meticulous immersion into an awful created world that's a mirror of our own, feels very much like a magnum opus. Sisako's film, gorgeous, quietly virtuosic, telling a tragic and at times harrowing story but also graced with moments of quiet beauty and suffused with an abiding wisdom that it shares with a subdued but entirely righteous anger seems "merely" like a story Sisako wants to tell. How much these apprehensions/intuitions have to do with the fact that German's is a posthumous film and Sisako, at age 53, has many more movies to make, is of course an open question In the meantime, I review both films for RogerEbert.com at the links attached to the titles.
The German film's run at NYC's Anthology Film Archives is part of a substantial retrospective of the great director's work, including such wonders as 1971's Trial On The Road (further proof of my maxim that the Russians made the absolute best World War II films) and the harrowing, phantasmagoric 1998 Khrustalyov, My Car!, both of which I wrote a bit about here. I hope to write more on German (or Guerman) soon.
Dear Professional Film Critic,
does the movie American Sniper really “glorify a killer?”
Well, gosh, you put it that way, it sounds pretty terrible. But some outlets and individuals are using that term to frame the movie, so…
Anyway, here’s the thing. American Sniper does take the war in Iraq at face value, as in it was a war and that the United States was within its right to wage it and all that. And, you know, in a war, the body waging it sends soldiers, and one thing soldiers do, one of the main things soldiers do, some would argue, is kill. Killing is something every soldier is trained to do, I think. You know, I bet even the nice chaplain played by Leon Ames in Battleground is probably trained to kill. I doubt that he’s encouraged to kill, but he probably knows how to do it, and can if necessary. What the hell do I know about the military, I was 13 when they ended the draft and too old to enlist by the time people (none that I knew, though) would tell you it was the patriotic thing to do. Although come to think of it the Army might have made a better career than the one I’m enjoying now. But enough about me. In any event, given that Special Forces operative Chris Kyle, the subject of the movie, was trained and employed as a very specific kind of soldier, one who pretty much did nothing BUT kill, and because he did a pretty good job of it, by both the official record and his own accounting (which many have taken issue with, although the official record is apparently acknowledged as solid), and since the movie doesn’t really take issue with the notion that Kyle was what is generally referred to as a “war hero,” then yes, I guess the movie CAN be seen as “glorifying” a “killer.” But there’d have to be a lot of, what are they these days in sports records?...asterisk?...next to “killer” if you’re gonna go that route. I mean it’s not like he did all this killing in Iraq and then came home to face charges. It was all, like, state-sanctioned killing. Seems a little unfair to get all up in his face for that, no?
Dear Professional Film Critic,
what’s the deal with the robot baby in the movie?
Did that bother you? I mean, I kind of noticed it when I looked specifically for it and yeah it was a little goofy but I don’t know. Frankly I’m a little bugged when real newborns get explicit exposure in movies. In the battle between verisimilitude and lobster-red naked infants squirming uncomfortably before cameras and lights I’m something of a conscientious objector. Although the tradition does go back quite a ways: I was surprised, watching King Vidor’s 1928 classic The Crowd again recently, to see that the birth of its hero John is handled with not just a real live baby in full view of the camera but a real live baby in full view of the camera if you know what I’m saying etc. In any event, word from the film’s screenwriter is that the movie’s first live baby showed up with fever, the second was a no-show, and that’s when director Clint Eastwood called in the prop department. Eastwood’s a real git-er-done kind of director. Here he explains that it was Don Siegel who taught him this, so complain to Don Siegel, you philistine: “Don knew exactly which shots to shoot. But he wasn’t rigid. He could add or change a shot at the last minute. I’ve worked with directors who are completely pole-axed if you suggest a change in a scene. I bumped my head while we were shooting In The Line Of Fire. To hide the bruise, I asked Wolfgang Petersen whether I could enter a shot from the right rather than the left. Wolfgang had a lot of trouble reorganizing the scene, because he’d imagined it all from the one angle. A detail had changed and it threw him off balance. This was never the case with Don. Sergio would have taken time to think and probably have said OK, but Don wouldn’t have blinked an eyelid. He believed that there were no rules, or if there were rules, they were made to be broken.” That’s from a piece by Eastwood in the invaluable collection Projections 4 ½ (in association with Positif). You should check it out. I trust I don’t have to explain to you who “Sergio” is.
Dear Professional Film Critic,
does the movie view/portray the Iraqi people as irredeemable savages?
This is kind of a tough one. I would say “no,” but I will admit that the movie frames Iraq within severely straitened circumstances, circumstances specific to the condition and the mission of its lead character, the aforementioned Chris Kyle, an American sniper. The title of the movie, we may recall, is “American Sniper,” not “American Ambassador” or “Civilian Outreach Guy.” Inasmuch as there even was such a thing as civil or civic society in Iraq after we were greeted as liberators there (and again, for reasons explained above, I myself cannot claim any direct experience with respect to any of this, thank God), from what accounts I’ve read it was pretty, um, fraught, and the U.S. Special Forces weren’t really sent to places that weren’t particularly fraught. And so on. Not to drag Boyhood into this, but remember the second stepdad in Boyhood, Jim, before he’s the stepdad and he’s just a student of Patricia Arquette’s and he seems kind of not an asshole and he’s telling the story about one of his tours in Iraq and the differences between the approaches of different squadrons when entering Iraqi territories and interacting with civilians? Right, well, that’s a whole movie right there. And the experience of a special forces operative, I think—and this goes back to the first question—has to do with touching down and securing areas wherein and from which you are only supposed to kill. Notice I’m not saying “kill bad guys.” I’m not here to make judgments. But, no, it’s true—the movie doesn’t feature many Iraqi nice guys or even recognizably regular Iraqis. There’s one who’s particularly holy-shit-inducing in his malevolence, and is pitted against a very fearful native of the country who has cooperated with the Americans. These depictions, to my eye, are conceptualized toward conveying the mind-melting hell of violent conflict that is the everyday working world for the title character, rather than a programmatic attempt to get the audience hissing at an entire race of people as villains. The perspective is, I admit, narrow, but as someone who likes the film, I want to believe it’s necessarily so. A friend who disagrees is reminded of Alan Dershowitz’s heinous 2006 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece titled “’Civilian Casualty? That’s A Gray Area.”
“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” Hunter S. Thompson used that Samuel Johnson observation as the epigraph for his 1971 Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, and one of the many things Thompson achieved in that ruthless work was in revealing the pain that even good men are capable of inflicting once they’ve made beasts of themselves. It’s not for nothing that Terry Gilliam, adapting that book into a film in 1998, made Chapter Eight of Part Two of that book, in which Thompson and his “attorney” terrorize a diner waitress, into the most nakedly exposed raw nerve of the story (Ellen Barkin is exceptionally jarring in the waitress role). In his extremely appropriate adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson makes some very distinct shifts of stress to, among other things, bring an almost Gravity’s Rainbow level of despair and pessimism to bear on what is, I reckon, the coziest finale of a Pynchon book to date. And, as in Gilliam’s adaptation of Thompson, the shift into a darker tone finds its footing in a scene of unpleasant interaction between man and woman.
Or at least that’s how I see it. Funny how reasonable people can differ, and as we move forward be warned, I’ll be getting into a little detail about the plotting and scenes of Anderson’s movie. Here’s my friend Manohla Dargis’ description of the scene I have in mind, from her New York Times review of the movie: “a strip scene that’s straight from the book and is at once bleak—the woman disrobing confesses to selling herself out—and a fantasy of female erotic power. It’s a beautifully staged and played interlude, but also the one time when Mr. Anderson is himself seduced by an illusion. It harshed my mellow.” I see the bleakness of the scene to be sure; indeed, I think the bleakness is entirely the point. As for whether or not it’s a fantasy of female erotic power, while I don’t want to overshare, I don’t find the exchange as it’s depicted under the circumstances to be entirely far-fetched. (Although I’ve seen even more affronted reactions to it in social media, including one person who comes close to suggesting that Anderson’s treatment of actress Katherine Waterson in the scene skirts sexual assault.) As for Manohla’s observation with respect to her mellow, I think the whole point of the scene is to harsh, if not entirely deprive you, of your mellow. It’s the emotional fulcrum of the whole movie, and in a way an apologia (in the classical sense) for Joaquin Pheonix’s Phoenix's completely uningratiating performance in a role that one might have assumed was MEANT to be a likable one (like Jeff Lebowski, “Doc” Sportello is intended in certain respects as a cannabis-infused spiritual heir to Philip Marlowe). Especially after the film’s rainy-day flashback that gorgeously sentimentalizes the Doc-Shasta romance, the curdled eroticism of the strip scene shows the two characters in a thoroughly broken context, communicating through various languages of power that they never wanted to learn or maybe even acknowledge in the first place. Not only does it shockingly put the movie on a new track, it also recontextualizes a lot of the seemingly aimless goofiness that went on previously. What ruined these former flower children? Late capitalism, lack of faith, the Golden Fang? Whatever the root cause (and the movie doesn’t put a finger on it) the rot has set in, and that’s why Anderson rejigger’s Pynchon’s ending. The book’s final note is one of warm affection between Doc and Coy Harlingen, and Anderson stages their exchange in person rather than over the phone, showing Doc at a remove from the family life Harlingen is now getting a second chance at; the movie then continues with a grotesquely comic but also shudderingly poignant scene cementing Doc’s relationship as not-so-secret-sharer with fascist cop Bigfoot (Josh Brolin). This hearkens back, in a way, to the Freddie Quell/Lancaster Dodd dynamic in The Master, which is a topic for another time, perhaps. I'm suggesting a rich web of emotional and cultural association, and it's this web that makes Inherent Vice so outstanding and haunting, and one reason why (spoiler alert) it’s my top film of the year.
Back in 1985, when I was beginning my “career” as a relatively feisty and entirely earnest rock critic, I began dating a woman of my own age (25) who worked (as a stockbroker) and lived (in a studio apartment in a cramped arrangement with another woman who wasn’t quite living with her fiancé, and who became so used to my presence in the place that she once inadvertently started changing her clothes as I sat at the small table by the fridge) in Manhattan. As I was still living in my mom’s basement in West Paterson, New Jersey, at the time, this was a big deal. Also big deals: she was stunningly beautiful, incredibly witty, prodigiously energetic and worldly in ways that I’d never even known existed. She introduced me to sushi.
Early on in our dating, we were discussing music, as I, a rock critic (not full-time, mind you; I also worked, spectacularly badly, in telemarketing) would have been wont to do; I mentioned that one of my favorite bands was Pere Ubu, then known largely as an aggressively abrasive post-punk combo distinguished by a heavyset frontman who made a performance virtue out of being tone deaf. “Oh, I love Pere Ubu,” said My First New York Girlfriend. “When I was at Antioch, I used their song ‘Chinese Radiation’ as the soundtrack for my Sight And Sound film!”
“Oh really?” thought I to myself at the time. All this and she likes Pere Ubu, too? How lucky can you get?
The romantic component of our relationship didn’t last much longer than a year. At some point before that, she confessed to me—not angrily, or bitterly, or anything; it was more that we had just gotten comfortable enough with each other that we knew that, whatever else was going on or was going to go on, we both really liked and enjoyed each other, as human beings and stuff—that she actually didn’t really like Pere Ubu at all, and she had not used “Chinese Radiation” as the soundtrack to her etc. etc. “That was Suzi who did that,” she revealed, referring to her best friend. (Who later went on to found ISSUE Project Room, and died in 2009.) “I just thought if I told you that you would like me more.”
I was gobsmacked, honestly. Because there was no real way at the time that I could have liked her more, for the reasons I mentioned above and a few others. I was genuinely moved that she’d had such an interest in impressing me, an opinionated loudmouth schmuck from Jersey with impressively thick hair and some slightly marketable writing skills. And while she and I fell out of touch for a long time, and now just intermittently catch up without being in regular communication, she has ended up being a really important friend to me in very trying times. So, you know—all good.
In any event, many years later, around the turn of the century, I made the acquaintance of a woman who was at the time in her senior year of college (“I don’t wanna talk about it”—Warren Zevon) and in one of our conversations she bemoaned the fact that a fair number of the fellows she had dated on campus were extremely eager to put anal sex on the table right away, as in, pretty much before appetizers were finished if they were even bothering to take her out to dinner in the first place. I considered this pushy, at best, as well as an interesting if not entirely palatable example of the weird kind of sex-entitlement guys who grow up around a lot of porn are likely prone to. I distinctly remember thinking of a phrase from Robert Christgau: “This reflects poorly on the moral and intellectual resources of young people today.”
Similarly, in 2010, considering Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture, in which Dunham’s character, Aura, is treated like a doormat with a vagina by at least one male character, and stands for it, I wrote, “one is rather used to men being awful in Manhattan-set films concerning the romantic travails of young women, but man, if these two guys are really representative of the dating pool these days, ladies, you have my utmost sympathy.”
Somehow this all brings us to Gone Girl, both Gillian Flynn’s novel and Flynn and director David Fincher’s film version of it, in which Amy Dunne’s massive resentment of what she calls the “Cool Girl” construct compels what one might charitably characterize as several overreactions. As articulated in the novel, and reproduced (I think) pretty much verbatim in the film, it goes like this: “Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.”
Cross this with Dunham’s vision of sexual relations and a young woman is likely to get a very disturbing message: you should consider yourself lucky if a guy is engaged enough to even put you up for consideration as a “Cool Girl.”
Of course Flynn/Amy’s complaint exaggerates somewhat, for both comic and grotesque effect. The “shit on me” business, if taken entirely literally, is a bit of a reach; statistically speaking, Today’s Man isn’t that much into scat. Or maybe he is, how do I know. But Gone Girl’s overstatement is useful not just for its considerable genre entertainment value, but for indirectly pointing out the really toxic roots of this construction that, no matter how much it might seem is being willingly adopted by women, is entirely male. Esquire magazine’s “Funny Joke From A Beautiful Woman” is Cool Girl nonsense writ small. Any profile of a young female celeb who is depicted liking a dish that involves rib sauce, same thing. Those Chris Evans and Channing Tatum profiles were Cool Girls Who Know Where To Draw The Line (Or Did They?) buy-ins—written by women, but in men’s magazines, so there you are. As my wife pointed out to me the other day when I brought up the topic, the economics of this game are pretty potentially devastating; for instance, these days a bikini wax is considered de rigueur, and a bikini wax is about fifty dollars: fifty dollars that goes out of a woman’s pocket and into, mostly, a man’s. And by the same token (this was my observation, not my wife’s), as sex is further and further commoditized through porn, the actual having of pubic hair itself becomes a fetish. In the first anecdote I cited, you can discern some kind of grey area; My First New York Girlfriend, a genuinely terrific person, maybe wasn’t going for Cool Girl status, but just putting on a small mask to make herself more appealing at a particular stage of our relationship. I guess I did the same thing, by pretending that I was a person fit for gainful employment. But anyway. That’s not to say the construct didn’t exist back in the day, but I’d still argue that in the days before Tad Friend coined the egregious phrase “Do-Me Feminism,” a bit of misogynist water-muddying if there ever was one, there existed among young heterosexuals a certain raised consciousness. Sexism wasn’t banished; hell, I don’t think my own socially-conditioned/ingrained sexism is even close to a thing of the past, my best efforts notwithstanding. If Gone Girl has any "relevance"—and I have to say that I have little patience with a lot of the breathless “rips the lid off American marriage” and “The Way We Live Now” proclamations—it’s in the truth it unveils, in a Fractured Fairy Tale fashion, about how sexist expectations can drive someone from Amazing to Avenging. Andrea Dworkin got a lot of shit during her lifetime for, among other things, her absolute refusal to tailor her presentation to what might have been appealing or even ingratiating to men. Some say she went too far, that the worthwhile things about her message got lost as a result. I’m beginning to wonder if in her way she was not exactly correct.
“Much of the pre-Second World War character of Chicago and New York hardly exists anymore. Everybody builds these mirror boxes, and every second front is a front that didn’t exist in the ‘30s. […] I’ve been to New York many times in the last few years, and I have no sense of coming back to a town where I used to live. There’s a little corner here and there, and that’s about it. Ah, Roger.” So said Orson Welles to his old friend and one-time teacher and always mentor Roger Hill in the late fall of 1984, when Welles was hoping to direct the film The Cradle Will Rock, an account of the making of a rather well-known theatrical production he had some involvement in. (His discussions with Hill about the approach he would take, which can be found in the conversations in the splendid book Orson Welles And Roger Hill: A Friendship In Three Acts, by Todd Tarbox, Hill's grandson, show Welles both wryly and earnestly juggling the extent to which he desired to balance accurate historical representation with score-settling; the film eventually directed by Tim Robbins is not nearly as arreststing as Welles' own verbal joustings with the material at hand.) Welles did not have, in his film career, much occasion to document the town where he used to live, the town where he made his name. Contemporary New York City proper is depicted in 1941's Citizen Kane pretty sparingly: a dark screening room, an old-age hospital in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, that's pretty much it. The rise of the New York Enquirer takes place in early 20th-Century Manhattan, it's Currier and Ives and Thomas Nast, not the frantic radio days of Welles' tenure in town. The opening of the deathless The Lady From Shanghai has some rear-projection views of Central Park in the dark, then an expert Hollywood recreation of an NYC parking garage. And that's it for Welles and New York, cinematically.
So one of the draws of Too Much Johnson, the shot-in-1938 footage—it really won't do to call the thing a movie, alas—that Welles wanted to form an early multimedia experience out of, and had to scotch because of money and timing issues, is its made-in-New-York quality. In the event you haven't been keeping up with film preservation news lately, Johnson, which as recently as 2007 was categorized as a "lost film" (see Jonathan Rosenbaum's superb Discovering Orson Welles, the filmography of which notes “the only copy of the film was lost in a fire at Welles’ villa in Madrid (during Welles’ absence) in August 1970"), turned up, as a 66-minute workprint, and was restored in Italy, and has just been put on the website of the invaluable National Film Preservation Foundation's website for free viewing and downloading. The précis on the NFP page for the film provides background: Too Much Johnson was a late 19th Century farce by William Gillette, whose chief claim to fame was his stage portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Just why Welles and the Mercury Theatre opted to stage it is not entirely clear, but once the decision was made to do so, Welles came up with the notion of linking the onstage action to filmed interludes. The sixty-six minutes of the Too Much Johnson film is essentially a linear assemblage of footage; according to the NFP, only the first seven minutes or so can be said to constitute a proper edit. Those seven minutes, which see Joseph Cotten trysting, being found out, and then attempting to escape an irate husband, constitute an energetic, racy, and slightly surreal pastiche of slapstick farce. Once Cotten acrobatically descend from the top of a tenement, it's chase time, and the irate cuckold tracks Cotten through a warehouse whose stacks presage the basement of Xanadu at the end of Kane, and then over several city rooftops.
These scenes see Cotten doing dangerous stunt work of the sort you never associated with him in his Hollywood career. If you look at the signs on the buildings whose corners he rushes around, you see business names such as "Saml. Werner" and "Krakaur Poultry Company;" both of these concerns can be referenced in R.L. Polk and Co.'s 1915 Copartnership and Corporation Directory, which also tells you these concerns were part of the West Washington Market, located in what became New York's city's meat-packing district and is now the more fashionable High Line district. In one or two shots you can also see the then-functional railroad tracks of the elevated train line. Once Cotten comes down to earth, he strolls past a store named Taffae & Bellion; this, I learned, was a coffee importer on Wall Street. After a long hat-snatching set piece that suggests Jean Vigo and/or Rene Clair (it is perhaps no accident that several years prior to Johnson, the Mercury Theatre did an adaptation of The Italian Straw Hat, also the source material for a famed Clair picture) Johnson sets to sea; the footage grows ever more haphazard (there's a brief shot of a crowd of onlookers in then-modern dress at 43:16 or so) and the movie starts to look more like an outtake reel. More gems of imagery are in store: a lovely sunset on the water, Erskine Sanford turning up as a graveyard mourner, low-angle shots of symmetrically arranged palm trees.
But there's surely something poignant and illuminating in the fact that, the one time that he had the opportunity to make a film in New York, the then 23-year-old Welles, the larger-than-life boy wonder and talk of the town, chose to try to capture what Welles biographer Simon Callow cites as "little old New York." It was not any kind of mere nostalgia that ceaselessly bore Welles' art into the past: memory, loss, these are the themes that are never far beneath the surface of his movies. While Too Much Johnson's cinematic component was far from an amateur hour outing—Welles was allowed oodles of costumed extras, he staged a parade, he rented those palm trees—it couldn't afford too much polish, and every now and then in the background of a shot you see cars scooting over a road, or some early version of what Welles calls a "mirror box" pokes its way into a background corner. Far from break the spell, it enhances a spell of a different kind, the spell of artistry trying to will the past to manifest itself before you.
UPDATE: The Honorable Joseph McBride's now-updated essay on the film, for Bright Lights, is invaluable.
So I was at the gym this morning and I put on TCM, as one does, and it took me just two shots to figure out the channel was showing Le Feu Follet, Louis Malle's 1963 proto-mumblecore movie (not really) and it's the dinner party scene before the blunt/sad ending, and Henre Serre, best known from Jules et Jim, shows up in a bit part and I think, "Whoa, he looks like someone."
And I remembered this photo, which was e-mailed to me yesterday by my frenemy Jeff "Captain Cockatoo" Wells, presumably to ride me because I don't much like the new movie that Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass co-star in (point of fact, I called it "yuppie puke" in an exchange with Jeff, which was more just to rile him up than anything else; that said, no, don't like the movie), and I thought, "That's kinda funny, I should do a blog post on that."
Because that's what it's come to at this blog, I guess.
Since I got you here I'll tell you my one meager Louis Malle story. It's sometime between 1986 and 1988, and I'm hanging out in Tower Video on Lafayette and West 4 in Manhattan. And one of the floor guys, a stout young African American fellow, is walking about in the laserdisc section, holding a copy of the laser of Atlantic City. And trailing behind him is an older gentleman, white, distinguished, short of stature, with salt-and-pepper hair and a bemused look on his face. The Tower employee says to another Tower employee, "This gentleman is looking for all of the movies on laser disc directed by a Lewis Mal."
A cinephile, I think, and I consider intervening. I then notice the older gentleman is wearing a brown leather quasi-aviator jacket, on the back of which is sewn on a large decal, bearing the logo of "FYI," the fictional television program on which the fictional sitcom character Murphy Brown worked. And then it hit me—the guy actually WAS Malle. Because he was married to Candice Bergen and all. At which point I got all sorta starstruck and didn't intervene after all.
Lest you infer that Malle was on some sorta ego trip, remember that in this period home video was only just becoming a really big thing, and prior to this the idea of the "director approved" video version of a movie was only forming. So I suspect that what Malle was up to was some catch-up.
Robert Montgomery in They Were Expendable, John Ford, 1945.
Writing of the movie's lukewarm critical and box office reception in his indispensible new book Five Came Back, Mark Harris observes, "For Ford, an honorable defeat was, in a way, the apt coda to a journey through the war that had begun with a prescient commitment to service more than a year before Pearl Harbor and had ended with a drunken collapse on the coast of France. Although he would shortly resume a robust and prolific career behind the camera as a civilian, there was no avoiding the fact that the years in Field Photo had drained him of some of the vigor that had allowed him to make seven films in three years before the war. When he had left Hollywood in 1941, his children Barbara and Pat were still teenagers; four years later, he had come back to his family and their home on Odin Street with hair that was going white, a bad eye, and ten missing teeth, a grandfather of two who had earned the nickname that many of his colleagues would use for the rest of his career, the 'Old Man.'"
Q: You've talked about the irony of how some critics referred to Prince of the City as "realistic" whereas you deliberately made it in a more expressive style—in terms of the lenses you used, forced perspectives, making certain objects prominent in the frame. It's almost as if you did your job too well, because the viewer does get caught up in the emotional reality of the story.
A: Prince of the City is a highly stylized movie. And one of the reasons I'm glad it's not discussed from a stylistic point of view is, to me, it's bad style if people spot it. However, I'm not letting critics off the hook. You're a critic because you should be able to spot it. You know, you're not a critic just for your opinion. My elevator man has got an opinion. Theoretically, you know movies enough technically so that you can recognize what lenses are being used, so that you can recognize a color palette. The color palette in The Verdict is wonderful and so carefully worked out. You know the color blue appears only once in that movie? I couldn't get the sky out of the shot. And I looked for a way to change the lens, but I needed that lens for another reason. But that kind of control on a movie is what my work is about.
And then I said, "Wow, I didn't notice that about The Verdict at all," and then Lumet punched me in the mouth and said "Go! And never darken my towels again!" and then...
But seriously, that's from my 2007 interview with Lumet, in the Fall edition of the DGA Quarterly for that year. The whole thing is available on line here. I put this up as my contribution to the Great "What Should A Film Critic Know" Debate Of 2014, of which this Criticwire survey response and this impassioned manifesto by Matt Zoller Seitz are major parts.
For some reason I am also reminded of Martin Scorsese's recollection of Sergio Leone's reaction to Scorsese's The King of Comedy: "When it was shown at the first night of the Cannes Festival, I went backstage with Sergio Leone and he looked at me and said, 'Martin, that's your most mature film.' I don't know if it was his way of saying he didn't like it. I guess that comes to mind because over the years my friends and I have had a running joke about slow movies, where the camera doesn't move, as being 'mature.'"
In the still-vital book Hitchcock/Truffaut, made up mostly (and in the first edition, pretty much entirely) of interviews between the former critic and filmmaker François Truffaut and the director Alfred Hitchcock conducted in the summer of 1962—over fifty years ago, now—the older director discusses his 1957 1958 film Vertigo mostly in terms of disappointment. While the filmmaker who at the time was known as the "Master of Suspense" seems pleased with the daring of the movie's scenario—"To put it plainly, the man wants to go to bed with a woman who's dead; he is indulging in a form of necrophilia"—and is understandably proud of the way he pulled off an ostensibly impossible track-out/forward zoom shot—"it only cost us nineteen thousand dollars"—for most of his exchange with Truffaut he plays the skeptic while the younger filmmaker tries to reassure him of the movie's strength. It's hard to remember, reading this book now, just how much its very existence was an argument for what few in the mainstream of movie culture at the time believed, e.g., that Hitchcock was a great artist. While the through-line of the perception of the greatness of Citizen Kane has been a largely consistent one, the world in which Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock is one that's a rather long way from a world in which Vertigo is proclaimed the greatest film of all time, or any such thing.
Hitchcock had originally planned to put Vera Miles in the lead role of Vertigo, and the details of their relationship and falling out are, as they've been revealed over the years, pretty unpleasant, and don't reflect well on Hitchcock. Hitchcock's account to Truffaut is both plain and enigmatic: "[S]he became pregnant just before the part that was going to turn her into a star. After that I lost interest; I couldn't get the rhythm going with her again."
Truffaut moves on: "I take it, from some of your interviews, that you weren't too happy with Kim Novak, but I thought she was perfect for the picture. There was a passive, animal quality about her that was exactly right for the part."
As it happens, one is now able to hear the actual tapes of the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews through the agency of various archives, online and off. I have not audited the discussion of Vertigo, but I can't help imagining Hitchcock emitting a long exhalation, if not an outright sigh, before saying: "Miss Novak arrived on the set with all sorts of preconceived notions that I couldn't possibly go along with. You know, I don't like to argue with a performer on the set; there's no reason to bring the electricians in on our troubles. I went to Kim Novak's dressing room and told her about the dressed and hairdos that I had been planning for several months. I also explained that the story was of less importance to me than the over-all visual impact on the screen, once the picture is completed."
Truffaut counters with a "there, there" variant: "It seems to me these unpleasant formalities make you unfair in assessing the whole picture. I can assure you that those who admire Vertigo like Kim Novak in it. Very few American actresses are quite as carnal on the screen. When you see Judy walking on the street, the tawny hair and make-up convey an animal-like sensuality. That quality is accentuated, I suppose, by the fact that she wears no brassiere."
While his erotic predilictions, both those that were obvious fifty years ago and have since been gone into in further detail, do not suggest that Hitchcock was much of what we call "a breast man," he does perk up here, and responds, "That's right, she doesn't wear a brassiere. As a matter of fact, she's particularly proud of that."
Animal-like sensuality? Hell, for the whole exchange Hitchcock and Truffaut do sound as if they're discussing some exotic zoo exhibit. And Truffaut's demural concerning "unpleasant formalities?" It's called directing, guys. While his routing condemnation on account of that "cattle" quip is indeed unfair, it's kind of undeniable that Hitchcock didn't have much patience with fussy performers. Not just the females—Paul Newman drove him up the wall. And when he wanted to play Pygmalion, watch out. It's also revealing to see the ostensibly more "progressive" Truffaut so naturally sliding into the alienated patriarchal mode of perception. In the event you were ever wondering why The Feminine Mystique needed to be written, it's all here in a nutshell. (It came out in 1963.) And yet, who would argue, if we look at the work by itself, that both Hitchcock and Truffaut were among the greatest directors of women, and among the most consistent providers of substantial roles for women. (Even at their most ornamental, Hitchcock women are never cardboard cutouts.)
Do directors talk about actresses as if they're objects because they (the directors) are men, or because they are directors, people whose job is, in a sense, to make subjects out of objects? In a 1960 interview with the journalist Archer Winsten, the director Richard Quine, talking about his latest film, Strangers When We Meet, said of Novak, the female lead in that film, "She's tremendously sensitive." He was quick to add a caveat: "If she doesn't know what she's doing, she draws a blank. Like in Pal Joey, she's innocuous." "Innocuous" is maybe the worst word you can apply to a performer. Perhaps Quine had a special investment in trying to sound professional, objective, in charge; he and Novak were romantically involved at the time of Strangers' making.
My friend Farran Smith Nehme recently posted, on her blog, a short essay about the largely lacking-in-compassion, and, to my mind and hardly incidentally, anti-feminist reaction to Novak's appearance at last Sunday's Oscar ceremony, and in that piece she examines the boorish, opportunistic treatment of Novak by Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn. If Novak had anything like a knight in shining armor at the studio, it was Quine, a one-time comic actor who had a number of B-pictures to his name as a director when Cohn assigned him to handle Novak's first starring vehicle, 1954's Pushover. If one of Pushover's most special features is just how prominent Novak's bralessness registers in a film girdled by the Production Code (honestly, not since Sign of the Cross has their been a more jarringly out-of-its-time reveal), Quine's overall treatment of Novak signals an appreciation of the depths that lurk beneath the breathtakingly alabaster surface. And in fact that is the theme of his next two films with Novak. In Bell, Book and Candle, Novak plays a character who can be rendered impotent by revealing her vulnerability. In Strangers When We Meet she plays a woman whose gorgeous looks back her into a neighborhood-sexpot corner that her gentle true nature inhibits her from clawing her way out of; all of her subsequent actions in the movie are determined by her impossible position. Of his four films with Novak, it's the final one, 1962's The Notorious Landlady, made after their romantic involvement ended, that iterates this dilemma as farce (Novak's character is suspected of a murder that of course she did not commit).
This, I think, adds up to a cinematic paradox that is both glorious and tragic. That Harry Cohn's best/worst efforts notwithstanding, Kim Novak became a great screen actress, and that at her greatest, the subject of her work was the difficulty of being "Kim Novak." See also Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid, the most frenetic and confused and strangely exhilarating of meta-movie farces, and Aldrich's The Legend of Lylah Clare, the most vicious of meta-movie expressions of self-loathing.