“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.
While John Michael McDonagh's Calvary opens with the words of St. Augustine, James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy opens with the sounds of 10cc's "I'm Not In Love." Now 10cc is arguably some kind of art-rock outfit, so maybe the distinction isn't as enormous as what I'm positing here. But it probably is. I liked both movies (guess which one the above image is from!), and review them at RogerEbert.com.
Channing Pollock is, I think, pretty great in Georges Franju's Judex. In the segments in which he appears unmasked, he's got a stolid near-blank affect that is, I think, entirely apropos to the unusual revised conception Franju applied to the character—a somewhat puritanical, stiff avenger, and hardly an omnipotent hero. Pollock's mien is often attributed to the fact that he was, indeed, a stage magician and not an actor. But an effective performance is an effective performance, and Pollock deserves credit. As I write in my piece for the Criterion Collection's Current blog, Pollock never achieved international cinematic fame but he was a VERY big deal in the worlds of magic and nightclub showbiz. I've always been fascinated by this disparity, and the recent Criterion release of a beautiful edition of Franju's film gave the the pretext to explore it further. Check out my findings here.
Below, Pollock as a jewel thief, and another iconic character in French pop culture of the time, in Rocambole, released the same year as Judex.
Hey, a fella can change his mind, right? Lest my juxtaposition be misinterpreted, lemme say I'm psyched that Smith is psyched. I'm mostly acting on a self-interest that will become crystal clear in a moment.
"I [...] could no longer be considered a die-hard fan. While I still had mountains of respect for what Lucas had created, and enough affection for what I felt were just some old movies that meant a lot for me growing up to keep referencing them in movies I now found myself making, I'd long since gotten divorced from my childhood marriage to Star Wars. [...] Lest you think I'm a total dork in denial, though, I'd like to point out for the record that I finally extricated myself from the stranglehold Star Wars seemed to have on my life by not naming our kid Leia or Boba, tempting as that might have been. I mean, sooner or later, you've gotta grow up, right? So we named our daughter Harley Quinn.
I've been pretty busy pursuing other projects and thus didn't have the temporal opportunities to see all that many of the movies screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Cinemafest, but those pictures I have seen, four in all so far, have been very good to extraordinary. Three of them have already screened at the fest, the fourth will be there on Thursday.
Richard Linklater's Boyhood, the opening night picture, is one I imagine you've heard a lot about, and I agree with all the enthusiastic and maybe even gushing things said about it. It really IS all that; one of the things that's remarkable about it is the way Linklater stuck to the cinematic grammar he had decided on—a simple but not unsophisticated one—throughout the twelve-year shooting process, and how this grammar yields a relaxed, seamless viewing experience that gathers emotional power in ways the viewer won't necessarily notice until very near the end. The movie also has one of the absolute greatest final shots in cinema. When I first saw it (and I plan on seeing it again, and maybe again, and with pleasure), I mentioned on social media that it was "Edward Yang-level great." Let me expand on that: the movie has the compassions and directness of Yi-Yi and the ambition and concentration of A Brighter Summer Day. (One thing it does not have is Yang's anger, which is undetectable in Yi-Yi, the movie more than once cited by "I did SO like a three-hour movie" types who might be in for a rude shock if they ever happen to see Summer Day.) I think every resident of the United States ought to see this movie; I don't know if IFC can pull that off, but they release the picture on July 11.
The erudite and perspicacious young film critic Ignatiy Vishnavetsky went an unusual route for his deput picture, Ellie Lumme, contriving a haunting, satisfyingly feature-like experience within a barely (not even, even!) 45-minute running time. Set and shot in Vishnavetsky’s home base of Chicago, Ellie Lumme begins, it seems, as another examination of The Mating Rituals Of Today’s Irritating Young People. But via increments, in specific camera movements, lighting shifts, and cuts, it mutates into something odder and disquieting. Stephen Cone, a filmmaker who also was a coproducer on this, is excellent as Ned, the initially indifferent fellow who becomes a persistently bothersome presence in the life of the title character, played a few notes higher and finer above the Generic-Indie-Female register by Allison Torem (above). The movie's cinephilic currents are kind of subterranean, which is all to the good; in particular, Cone's character reminded me of a '40 or '50s noir demon, a persistent negative presence in the mode of, say, Robert Ryan in Fritz Lang's persistently great 1952 Clash By Night; but that's not quite it.
I met Mr. V., with whom I’ve had a number of invigorating (and sometimes intemperate—my fault as usual, and sorry) exchanges online over the years, at a social gathering on Saturday after the movie’s BAM screening, and he’s an impressive fellow, and taller than I had imagined as well. At the party I remarked to another friend that I thought it was kind of a shame that Ignatiy had made the movie a longer-than-average short; it felt to me that he could have taken this story to a more conventional feature length without stretching the material too thin. “Sure,” my friend said, “but isn’t it admirable that he went and made the movie he wanted to make?” So okay, there’s that.
The Mend, which screened Sunday evening, is not just a staggering debut feature, it’s a staggering movie full stop. The scenario setup might seem on the conventional side: One seeming hellion of a brother (Mat, played by Josh Lucas [seen above] with what one might call phlegmatic commitment, among other things) reconnects with the other attempting-to-be-a-normal-person-in-Upper-Manhattan brother (Alan, an excellently often-recessive Stephen Plunkett). But that’s the only thing conventional about it. Writer/director John Magary opens with an arresting iris-out opening image that recalls Arnaud Desplechin, and the movie, like many of Desplechin's, has a deliriously packed feel. Content arrives in the form of dialogue, inflection, eye movement, camera movement, cutting, lighting, music, sometimes all at once, but nothing’s ever on-the-nose; seldom does a shot or a sequence resolve on a consonant note. But Magary’s in full control of his dissonance. The movie is never not profanely hilarious, but it’s also almost nerve-wrackingly tense throughout. The movie’s opening is a good example of how Magary confounds standard film grammar, cutting from a down-and-dirty seduction scene to a screeching shit fit in which the seducee banishes the seducer, without depicting the precipitating act. In the hands of a less assured filmmaker this kind of ellipsis can seem affected, but Magary makes you like it, as he does the long, alternately mortifying, titillating, and immersive party scene that follows. The movie’s side-steps into genuine surrealism, largely centered around a dodgy power situation in Alan’s apartment, are also consistently exhilarating. I should make a disclosure here that Magary is a cordial acquaintance who’s been a longtime commenter on this blog, so I came to The Mend with some good feelings and high hopes. The movie itself exceeded them, I have to say. Magary is definitely a Director To Watch and I hope The Mend finds distribution soon so it can find an audience. It deserves a big, smart one.
Paul Harrill’s Something, Anything, which screens this Thursday, June 26 at 7 p.m., is a substantially quieter film than any of the above. It’s a beautifully concentrated story of a young woman in Knoxville, Tennessee (Peggy, played by Ashley Shelton, seen above) who’s living her life in the way everyone, including herself, expects of her. Works as a real estate broker, marries a hotshot young professional from the social circle she’s likely been in since high school, etcetera. An inopportune turn of events that everyone around her, including her husband, treats as a life-glitch sends Peggy into a tailspin, and a postcard from a former high-school acquaintance who’s now a monk inspires her to undertake a spiritual quest. She doesn’t quite get into Diary of a Country Priest or Meetings With Extraordinary Men territory, but her embrace of a particular asceticism confuses the people around her, including the estranged husband. Harrill’s writing and directing is sensitive in the best way possible, highlighting small details of behavior sharply but unfussily. And Shelton’s performance has a steady intensity that gives off a soft but beautiful light throughout.
It is possibly indicative of the insularity of the world inhabited by filmmaker Mike Myers and the interview subjects of his non-fiction feature (you can't, or shouldn't, really call it a documentary) Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon) that the t-shirt worn by Mr. Gordon during his '70s heyday is referenced as if it's kind of charming. We can make an excuse for the Funkadelic song because it's a piece of sociological observation as well as a funk monster. Anyway, Supermensch is one of the three motion pictures I review for RogerEbert.com this week, the other two being Ti West's not-bad The Sacrament and Clark Gregg's highly unfortunate Trust Me. As far as Edge of Tomorrow is concerned, I'm for it, although one of these days I'm going to have to develop a unified field theory of the Final 25 Minute Blockbuster Fizz Out. And that movie based on the YA novel, I haven't seen it, but good God I wish I'd written the book because then I'd be in Maui or Paris right now.
Don't get too excited. The Protector 2, from which the above still is derived, and which I review at RogerEbert.com, is pretty bad. And Rhatha Phongam doesn't figure in it as prominently as she might. Phongam was last "widely" seen in these parts in Only God Forgives, so she's due for a karmic break soon, I'd reckon.
Also in my reviewing sights this week are two films of worthy ambition that don't quite get to where they ought: Decoding Annie Parker and Belle, the latter of which does not have any relation to an Al Green record, which is too bad.
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.'"