At Brett Smiley's wake on the evening of January 13, a week after he died in his Carroll Gardens apartment (thank God), his people had set up a small TV display, and were playing DVD-Rs of some of his performances in the early aughts, backed by a band that featured his childhood pal Errol Bulut on lead guitar. They were taped at places like Pianos, the Lower East Side back room, and some joint on Chrystie Street where there's a sliding glass door leading to the sidewalk behind the stage. As we watched, another friend, a musician himself, observed of Brett, "He's really on point here." He was/is; singing voice strong, his right hand steady and straight across the strings of his black Ovation Celebrity. He sang some songs from his much-hyped but abortive 1974 debut album Breathlessly Brett, which was finally released to what they call "cult acclaim" in 2003, and a bunch of newer tunes. solid if not world-shaking stuff. The exception being the anti-anthemic "I Ain't So Cool Anymore," in which a onetime cock-of-the-walk looks back on some ruins. "I went to the doctor and he looked at my blood/a Fifty-five Scotch and a forty-five slug/He said you ain't/so cool/anymore." Of course the fact that the character/singer/Brett could still stand up and sing the song suggested that there was some cool in reserve. And anyway, yeah, he and his band were delivering. We asked Errol when the performances dated from; he said 2005, 2006.
I first met Brett in 2010. Something had clearly gone wrong, or maybe I should say further wrong, in the interim.
Brett and I made our acquaintance a short while after I had taken my last drink. The correspondence was not coincidental. We had a shared interest in staying away from drink and drugs, and in short order, a mutual friend—a well-intentioned but somewhat brash and pushy fellow in certain respects—suggested it would be a capital idea were I to "work" with Brett on more actively promoting that interest. I did not consider myself competent to do so in any way, shape, or form, but Brett was actually rather eager for me to help him out, so there I was.
Even though he could be very chatty, I was not the recipient of the raconteur material Brett could lavish on wide-eyed interlocutors from various and sundry fanzines as they tracked him down over the years. The story of how at a performing arts high school in Los Angeles he was in a woodshop class with Michael Jackson, and how he and Jackson were partnered on making a chessboard and how they got a D on the project—I only heard about that the other night, at Brett’s wake. I had seen the Breathlessly Brett CD at Other Music when it had came out, and I knew of Nina Antonia’s book The Prettiest Star: Whatever Happened to Brett Smiley, but I never put together my Brett with Brett Smiley, not until about seven months after we’d really started to get to know each other, and someone said, “Oh you’ve never seen Brett’s infamous British talk show debut?” I had not. Eventually Brett had mentioned the book, and I looked at the clip from the Russell Harty Show in 1974 on YouTube. "Well, that was interesting," I said, discussing it a little later. He looked at me as if he was expecting me to follow up with "What the hell did you go and do to yourself," but I did not, so he said, "You know, I was never really into glam rock." And I said something like "Pshaw. You were into rock, and you were into dressing up. Of course you were into glam rock." As a Broadway baby, though, he was more enamored of traditional "quality" vocalizing than the contorted, strained post-Anthony-Newley-isms of David Bowie's Stardust period. Nor did he have much use for Varispeed Munchkinized backing vocals. A bit of a classicist, as his "Over The Rainbow" on Breathlessly Brett testifies.
By spring and early summer of 2012 we'd developed a bit of a routine: early morning at the place where we got coffee, then off with one or two other coffee-drinkers to Court Street Grocers, where we'd get a proper breakfast. When Brett was in an up mood, he could get awfully garrulous. "Eat your sandwich, Brett," I'd have to say to him periodically. I once timed him. Ninety minutes for one Breakfast Sandwich. It was unbelievable. I don't remember what he was talking about.
There had been one time when we were chatting, about stuff he was going to do—there was always stuff he was going to do—and he mentioned that he'd recently found some demos he'd made in the late '70s, that Del Shannon had produced. "Ooh, Del Shannon," I said, as one will. Yes, Brett replied, Del Shannon. This time in Del's life had not been good, he continued, laying out some observations on Shannon's drinking, and some struggles involving sexuality. "Hold on, hold on," I interjected. "Del Shannon was gay? Wow, all of a sudden so much makes sense..."
Couple months later and we're doing the Breakfast With Brett Club and somehow the subject comes up again, out of my mouth. And Brett looks at me like I'm nuts.
"Del Shannon wasn't gay." His somewhat nasal speaking voice crackled a bit when he was mildly agitated. "Who told you Del Shannon was gay?"
I sputtered, as one will. Okay, as I will. "Dude, you did."
He rolled his eyes. "Oh forget it. Del Shannon wasn't gay." He paused reflectively and looked at me again. "Everyone experiments."
He had me there.
If I were going to write a memorial of Proustian length I would make it about Brett's Roommate Situation, because I could, but I'll limit myself to one anecdote, which I file under "Brett Smiley's Iron Will." Sometime wintery time in 2011, I think, Brett had acquired a roommate, a sort-of musician who looked like an aged prototype for Father John Misty and/or one of the Deliverance rapists. I did not really warm to him, and kept my distance. One day Brett told me the fellow had found a turntable out on the street, brought it back to the apartment and worked on it a bit, and now, when they weren't sniping at each other over nothing, they were enjoying Classic Rock (Beatles, etc.) On Vinyl. Groovy. Eventually Brett decided this guy had got to go, and he asked that I come by the apartment on the day of the move and help the guy take his stuff down from the fourth-floor walkup, and make sure nothing untoward happened during this fellow's departure. "Sure," I said.
"There's one thing though."
"I'm keeping that turntable."
So I spent about ninety minutes reasoning with Brett as to why if this guy wanted to take the turntable out with him, he was entirely entitled, and that this kind of self-centered thinking went against several important principles and that insisting on keeping the turntable would hinder Brett's SPIRITUAL GROWTH. And Brett was very calm and very receptive and said, "Everything you are saying is absolutely one hundred percent right."
"But I want to keep the turntable."
How could you not love this guy? Really.
Anyway. The time came when the beardo was pretty much all packed, and he didn't even mention the turntable, so that was the end of that. "Don't gloat," I said to Brett. "Oh I won't," he said.
For all that steel, he could not get it together to do what he had done on those stages a relatively mere half-decade before. I will not go into the shambolic gigs I and his good roommates would escort him to and from. Suffice it to say that if you think the bottom of the barrel in New York rock-and-roll is sitting in the Continental at 2 a.m. enduring some seventh-billed band while trying to shake off the cocaine and Jagermeister sweats, you ought to consider yourself lucky. The poor guy. A couple of years ago I acquired a snazzy new Gibson guitar of storied model number and I showed it off to him one day. "It's heavy," he said as he lifted it. He played a verse and a chorus of "I Ain't So Cool Anymore." Without swagger. It was pretty heartbreaking. His body was dealing with a huge variety of ailments—various outlets have named hepatitis and HIV. I don't want to be indiscreet but honestly that was the tip of the iceberg. He was pretty funny about it sometimes. There was this outpatient facility he went to that he called "HIV Romper Room." Addicts in recovery like to say that drinking and drugs had made their lives unmanageable, but the thing about Brett that I often got was that he'd never had any schooling on managing his own life in the first place. And by the time I met him, he was in such crummy shape physically that I don't think there was a single day that he wasn't in some kind of pain. I took him to the hospital at least once for every year I knew him. After which I'd buy him a Vonnegut book (that was his favorite author) and encourage him to stay in the hospital for as long as he could. He needed full time care, I always thought, but the intersection of America's highly frayed social safety net and the aforementioned Iron Will meant this was not possible.
What stories he told me in these down times weren't of past rock and roll glories, but of lost loves and fuckups. He was gratified that I knew of Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith, with whom he costarred in a '70s softcore pastiche of Cinderella (which I have on DVD but have never had the heart, or lack of it, to watch), and who died of a heroin overdose in 2002. A tale of a particularly harrowing arrest in Broward County—he still had a warrant outstanding in Florida in recent years, and we were both rather flummoxed about what he could do about it—was how I learned that he had actually had a bit part in American Gigolo, because he associated his part in the picture with his time in jail.
That's Brett at far left, number 1. Richard Gere, far right, is number 5.
Once or twice in our travels, Brett and I ran into a female friend of mine, someone not in our shared circle. She told me recently that, his haggardness and slightly distracted mien notwithstanding, she could see a "flare" of his still-present charisma emanating from him. Indeed. But even that started to go out once he injured himself in a way that further damaged his appearance, and at that time, a few months before the August 2013 photo was taken, I began to worry even more about what life was going to bring to Brett. At his wake, Brett's brother-in-law, the writer Richard Pyle, observed that throughout his life, Brett had experienced "all the luck in the world." ALL OF IT, he emphasized—the good and the bad. In the past couple of years the luck had been a lot of bad. It was absolutely a mercy that when his terribly, terribly frail body went out on him for the very last time, he was at home, not out on the street, out on the subway, out in some bad company. It's a shame, though, that he was alone. I miss him terribly. He drove his poor sister Brenda completely crazy over so many years, and at his funeral, she quoted Hamlet—yes, Act Five, Scene Two. "Now cracks a noble heart/good night, sweet prince." And yes, exactly, I feel exactly the same goddamn way.
UPDATE: With respect to Cheryl Smith's cause of death, see Paulina Victoria's comment below. My citation derived from a recollection of a conversation with Brett. The Wikipedia entry cites complications from liver disease and hepatitis. I don't want to be the cause of more confusion so I've struck (as of January 20 2016) the information in this post.
Personal thanks to Gered Mankowitz for allowing me to use his beautiful images, and supplying me with the materials.
For Jaime Grijalba
In the last scene of Bigger Than Life, the 1956 film directed by Nicholas Ray and produced by its star, James Mason, Ed Avery, the middle-class teacher played by Mason, is lying in a hospital bed after a psychotic episode brought on, ostensibly, by cortisone abuse. That episode was previously depicted in a scene much beloved of cinephiles, a scene in which Avery enacts the Biblical passage in which God demands that Abraham sacrifice his son. When Avery’s wife Lou (Barbara Rush) reminds Ed that God subsequently rescinded his merciless demand, Ed thunders, “God was wrong!” In any event, Ed, now subdued, and having experienced what his doctor (Robert Simon) describes as “a deep, refreshing sleep,” may now see his family. A moment of truth awaits. If the psychotic episode was indeed a definitive break with reality, Ed may not be the same kind and thoughtful family man he was before cortisone began twisting up his personality.
Ed’s awakening is not initially promising. “Turn out the sun,” he says, referring, as it turns out, to his room’s overhead lamp. Then, looking at his doctor, he asks the usual questions and admits: “I’m disappointed.”
“About what?” asks his doctor.
“You’re a poor substitute for Abraham Lincoln.”
The seeming non sequitur strongly suggests that Ed’s still loony, but no: he recognizes his family, he remembers his breakdown, he grows emotional, beckons for his son, and says, “I was dreaming. I walked with Lincoln. He was as big, and ugly, and beautiful, as he was in life. Abraham.”
And then he remembers.
“Abraham!” he shouts.
No one, save for a very willful person, would insist that Quentin Tarantino is an artist with an overweening, or maybe one would better say primary, interest in morality. Either in the abstract or in practice. Tarantino is, though, an artist who has a great deal of interest in manipulating audiences with respect to affinity and empathy. And as a filmmaker whose biggest point of reference is genre cinema, he owes a lot, in terms of ideas if not overt technique, to the genre cinema artist nonpareil, Alfred Hitchcock. Tarantino’s affinity for genre cinema also ties in with a certain sadistic streak (we should remember that no less a figure than André Bazin detected a similar streak in Hitchcock, and found it largely if not wholly objectionable). This sadistic streak, more than just compelling him to depict galvanically hyperbolic acts of violence in the goriest of details, also drives him to concoct ethical conundrums that place audience in uncomfortable and uncomfortably shifting positions.
So, The Hateful Eight. It opens, more or less, with a shot of sadly hanging wooden Christ in the snow, and for a long time the image seems merely generically cheeky. There’s a stagecoach, with John “The Hangman” Ruth inside, chained to Daisy Domergue, a prisoner for whom he intends to collects $10,000 for in a town called Red Rock. On a sled ahead of the stage, stranded in snow are piled several male corpses. These belong to another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren, an African-American Civil War veteran who prefersto kill his prey before bringing them in for his reward. These three, and the exempted-from-hatefulness stage driver O.B., are the first characters the viewer meets in the film.
While they are played by movie stars who are expert at turning on the charm, and they participate in several exchanges that peg them as intelligent, articulate, and even ingratiating, Kurt Russell’s John Ruth and Samuel L. Jackson’s Marquis Warren are not “good” guys, or “good guys,” except in the context of their circumscribed and mutually agreed-upon worlds. These men are killers; they make their living at it. I think one has to take Tarantino’s word with respect to his title—these and the characters to come are indeed hateful, regardless of how the movie will continue to undermine that fact. As for Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue, she does not charm, not in a conventional sense—her greeting to Warren is an dryly perky “Howdy, nigger!” about which more in a bit. She is unusually cheerful for a woman chained to a man who continually elbows her in the face and smites her with the butt of his handgun. Tarantino’s film, like several of his others, is divided into designated chapters, and the chapter right after is intermission is called “Domergue’s Got A Secret.” But Daisy acts as if she has a secret very early on, giving Warren insinuating looks, and even a wink at one point. Could be she’s crazy—her wild eyes and seethingly inappropriate grin suggest as much. As it happens, she is not, at least not in the sense of being delusional.
On the ride to Minnie’s, Ruth and Warren revive an acquaintance that had begun some months before, and buttress their affinity via the sharing of what they refer to as “the Lincoln letter,” that is, a letter to Marquis from Abraham Lincoln that the Major keeps as a particularly proud souvenir.
Just as the viewer may have begun to cozy up to Major Warren, who is one the one hand a bounty hunter, but on the other hand isn’t persistently punching a defenseless woman in the face, a new stage passenger, Walton Goggins’ would-be Red Rock sheriff Chris Mannix, tries to pour cold water on any coziness. After Mannix recounts the tale of just how Warren escaped from a Confederate prison. Warren shrugs at Mannix’s indignation. “The whole damn place was made out of kindling…so I burnt it down,” he notes. Everybody in the stage laughs except Mannix, who points out that the fruits of Warren’s labors, his escape aside, were “47 men, burned to a crisp.” He then raises on his hand, so to speak, claiming that those men included more Union casualties than rebel. “You joined the war to keep niggers in chains,” Warren says with no small irritation. “I joined the war to kill white southern crackers.” John Ruth finds this amusing enough.
The interactions between the four male characters that turn out to not be in cahoots with Daisy are all about, as it happens, overturning whatever positive impressions the viewers may have formed. A basic knowledge of Civil War history will enable one to connect the dots between “Mannix’s raiders Marauders” and “Quantrill’s Raiders,” and the resultant pictures a viewer may derive from that are not pretty. Marquis Warren’s grudge against confederate general Smithers extends beyond the general fact that Smithers was a leader of white southern crackers and harks back to a specific incident suffered by Warren. So, the guys we are offered as possible heroes (I’m including Smithers in this bunch not because it’s particularly logical, but because you never know, especially up until five minutes or so before the film’s intermission) are, to recap, a bounty hunter who’s especially meticulous about making sure his captives are subjected to a grisly and sadistic method of execution; a man who shrugs off the indiscriminate slaughter of nearly 50 souls that resulted from his deliberately undertaken actions; and two out-and-out war criminals at least.
This is not, I would have to argue, insignificant. These really are not good people. But the audience’s sympathies and their manipulation rely on some of them being considered at some point in time to be less non-good than some of the others. And then, more. The twists in the moral dynamic do bring to mind the action of a corkscrew, but by the same token the movie’s narrative is so dispersive and discursive—such a splatter, eventually—that another metaphor might be that of a ping-pong game in which the ball very frequently gets banged far away from the table. Whatever the metaphor, one is obliged to admit that even the characters capable of behaving in a charming, ingratiating, sympathetic way all lack a certain, shall we say, emotional maturity. (This may also be true, as seems to be a particularly popular line these days, of the man who wrote these characters. But let’s not get carried away, either; Tarantino, as far as I know, has never actually killed anyone.)
Given these circumstances, it’s only proper in a certain scheme of things that these characters all behave in ways that ultimately doom them. The critic Armond White has astutely pointed out that in this film Samuel L. Jackson’s character serves as an alter ego for the director himself. This conclusion can be bolstered via examination of some of Tarantino’s more ostentatiously fulsome interviews, in which he’s claimed explicit forms of identification with African-American men. Inasmuch as Warren can be seen as the ultimate “hero” of The Hateful Eight, it is also noteworthy that he’s the character who solves, at least in part, its central mystery; he’s the Hercule Poirot of what Tarantino’s called, more than once, his “Agatha Christie mystery.”
But he is ultimately a self-defeating character. The big scene that ends the first half of the movie shows Warren at first (seemingly) caught in a lie, and then, having rationalized his lie, shows him settling, rather arbitrarily, a very personal score. It’s here that the movie, which up until this point has been so narratively straightforward as to seem not just conventional but stage bound and potentially stagnant, starts to break out of its shell. Tarantino’s manic declared “hatred” of John Ford notwithstanding, it’s also here that the ironies of Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance relative to truth and fable start to resonate in a rather ghastly register. After the authenticity of the “Lincoln letter” is very credibly dismantled by Mannix, Warren seems genuinely crestfallen, but rather than dismiss his interlocutors in a huff, he deigns to rationalize his choices. He seems particularly unhappy to have disappointed John Ruth. (“Guess it’s true what they say about you people. Can’t trust a fucking word that comes out of your mouth,” spits a disgusted Ruth, and perhaps the word he’s looking for is “shifty?” Polite but defiant—and obviously trying to maintain relations out of a certain self-interest—Warren counters, “I know I’m the only black son of a bitch you ever conversed with so I’m gonna cut you some slack.”) But, he insists, he has his reasons, and they are, he insists, good. The man whom everybody in the cabin save Ruth, stage driver O.B., and the Mexican Bob call “nigger” over and over says ““The only time black folks is safe is when white folks is disarmed. And this letter had the desired effect of disarming white folks.” As for his ultimate justification, he reminds John Ruth that the Lincoln letter was, in a very real sense, the thing that got him on to the stagecoach with Ruth. Saved his life, in other words.
After which Warren starts right in on General Smithers. While it may well be “true” that Warren did meet and kill Smithers’ son, the evidence that Warren is making up the story of torture and sexual abuse is strong indeed. It’s in the visual language: not so much the “flashback” visualizing the incident in the tale Warren tells (which, like the soon-to-come narration, are bold strokes of meta-directorial intervention), but the close-ups of Smithers’ eyes when Warren’s tongue rolls out another particularly juicy detail. “Big black pecker out of my pants,” say, and then that near-avuncular smile as Warren explains “it was full of blood so it was warm.” This leads up to what is currently and will likely remain the films most famous and quotable line: “You’re starting to see pictures, ain’t ya?” Indeed he is, as is the audience, literally, because Tarantino’s putting the improbable images up there. In a recent interview in the Guardian, the poet Claudia Rankine said “Blackness in the white imagination has nothing to do with black people” and continued “When white men are shooting black people, some of it is malice and some an out-of-control image of blackness in their minds. Darren Wilson told the jury that he shot Michael Brown because he looked ‘like a demon.’ And I don’t disbelieve that.” When Smithers goes for his gun, Warren looks even more like a demon to him than he did when he first entered the cabin. Warren was, of course, counting on that. It enables him to get the drop on the guy, and blow a hole right through his chest.
But this ultimately will prove a pyrrhic victory. Consider: when Marquis Warren arrives at Minnie’s Haberdashery, he notices that Bob’s a Mexican, he notices that the chair that only Sweet Dave is allowed to sit in is occupied by another person, he notices that a jellybean is on the floor. But rather than try to get any of this sorted right away, he indulges in a diversion that ends with him killing a man who, as it turns out, is of no material threat to him. And he does so in a way that creates a sufficient distraction for one of Daisy Domergue’s cronies to poison the coffee. (Or, as Tarantino’s in-need-of-a-copy-edit narration puts it, “something equally as important happened.” Oy.)
“Domergue, to you this is MAJOR Warren,” John Ruth says as he’s about to let Warren on the stagecoach. Daisy gives a droll little wave and says “Howdy nigger,” implying a bit of unspoken knowledge: here, she sees, is someone a rung or two, or three, below her on the social ladder—despite her being both a woman and a despised criminal.
Nevertheless, up to the point when Warren kills General Smithers in “self defense,” as Tarantino’s narrator (who is Tarantino himself) tells us was the general consensus of the cabin’s inhabitants at the time of the shooting, Daisy Domergue has been the only person on the receiving end of staggering physical violence, which she almost invariably grins at once the smarting stops. In an article for Variety by Kris Tapley, about the notion that the film is misogynist, Tarantino insists, “You’re supposed to say, ‘Oh my God. John Ruth is a brutal bastard!’” Okay, but by the same token, most of John Ruth’s shots at Daisy are performed and timed like gags in a Three Stooges short, particularly the bit where he tosses a bowlful of stew in her face. You don’t have to be a woman-hater to laugh, because the brutality—its realism in a certain dimension notwithstanding—is played for comedy.
Tapley’s piece also quotes critic Stephanie Zacharek to the effect that Daisy’s continued defiance in the face of her abuse registers as the “triumphant opposite” of misogyny.
But is Daisy’s triumph, if you want to call it that, really worth celebrating? For me the most staggering sequence in The Hateful Eight is its Chapter Five, “The Four Passengers.” It represents one of the most audacious and effective uses of flashback structuring I’ve seen in a Tarantino film, and if you know Tarantino’s films, you know he does a lot of flashback structuring. The chapter shows just what happened at Minnie’s Haberdashery prior to the arrival of Warren, Ruth, Domergue, and O.B.. It introduces the audience to the only good, and only truly likable, characters in the film: The coach drivers Ed and Six-Horse Judy, and the crew of Minnie’s Haberdashery: Minnie, Gemma, Sweet Dave, and a day laborer named Charlie. These folks are total innocents, kind, welcoming, good-humored. And given what the audience knows at this point in the film, the audience now also has to know that it is about to see them die.
It is kind of droll that Tarantino cast Channing Tatum, the Prom King of Gawker Nation (this is through no fault of his own, I feel compelled to note), in the role of what is in fact the movie’s most loathsome character, the ringleader of the killers “Mobray,” “Joe Gage,” and “Bob.” Tarantino even obliges Tatum to utter the phrase “pile of niggers,” which is close to Pulp Fiction’s ostentatious and perpetually distasteful “dead nigger storage” on the objectionability scale, not once, but twice. (Discussing the supposedly rampant use of the racial epithet at a recent panel, Jackson amusedly speculated that prior to having to say her first line in the film, Jennifer Jason Leigh had probably never uttered the word “nigger” in her life. He continued: ““It’s not disingenuous, it’s honest, and it’s coming out of characters’ mouths from an honest place, especially in that particular time. People are just getting past a war that divided a country, that freed a bunch of people that a bunch of people didn’t want freed, and they’re running around free, so who are we talking about? Oh those ‘free colored people?’ Um, no. Nobody was saying that.” Discussing the supposed preponderance of the word in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown in 1998, the novelist Elmore Leonard said, ““Spike Lee said the word was used 38 times. I wondered how many would be acceptable. Maybe 19? If that’s the way the character talks, if that’s his sound, you gotta go with it. You can’t say, `Oh, he has to stop at 20.’”) This is really not very nice at all. But nothing in this scene is nice or comforting. The violence isn’t choreographed or played out for the least comedic effect, as it has been and will be a little later.
“Mobray” and “Gage” and “Bob” dispatch their victims with brisk relish; it’s particularly awful to see Tim Roth’s impassive Pete/“Mobray” put a second bullet into Brenda Owino’s Gemma. And then to watch Michael Madsen’s “Joe Gage” do the same to Zoe Bell’s Judy. (It has been noted that Tarantino, fond of what are likely first-draft nomenclature in-jokes, gave Madsen’s character’s alias the name of a director of all-male porn; similarly, Marquis Warren is a gloss on Charles Marquis Warren, a real-life Western movie and TV director.) It makes all the male bonding stuff Tatum’s Jody and his gang engage in play as masculinity at its most toxic. And the violence is so immediate that it’s easy to forget, I suppose, that it’s all being executed for Daisy’s sake, and in Daisy’s name. And nothing she says or does in the actual diegesis suggests that she has any objections whatsoever, which fact could lead a viewer to infer that she’d have no problem doing it herself. This perhaps opens up the question as to whether any of the violence done to her, or her grisly final moments, were “deserved.” Like the man in Unforgiven (the Western in which no single character even commented on the fact that the main character’s companion/hunting partner was African American) said, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it,” and he may have been right. But if he was right, it's cold comfort for the victims of the massacre in this movie.
Like Bigger Than Life, a film many critics have interpreted as being about a very particularly American kind of grandiose madness, The Hateful Eight ends with an invocation/evocation of Abraham Lincoln. As the probably mortally wounded Mannix and Warren hang Daisy Domergue, Mannix reads aloud Warren’s “Lincoln letter.”
Previously decried by Mannix as a fake, it’s at his request that Marquis Warren retrieves it, for what the audience has every reason to believe is its last reading anywhere. For some reason, Mannix now wants to believe. “Nothing can bring together a black man and a white, a young man and an old, a country man and a city man, than a dollar placed between them,” the critic and historian Nick Tosches. But what’s bringing Mannix and Warren together at the end is…a thirst for vengeance? Well, sure, but one ought to remember that unless he really is lying, Mannix is the duly appointed sheriff of Red Rock, and by putting in with Warren and executing Daisy Domergue, the fellows form
one nation under God perpetrating the opposite of “frontier justice.” But deriving great personal satisfaction from their work nonetheless. Regardless of how you interpret what they’re up to, what they’re up to is very nasty indeed (the hanging figure of Domergue does come to perversely resemble the hanging wooden Christ of the movie’s opening), and part of this film’s cinematic jolt, if it carries any power for you at all, derives from the sensibility dissonance in which a grindhouse ethos is mounted in an overblown “distinguished” presentation. The UltraPanavision, the overture, the intermission; the second-rateness and claustrophobia of Ice Station Zebra do not quite provide precedent for the Italian zombie-movie gore and Euro-redolent extremes of pessimism and cynicism that distinguish this movie’s vision. (By the same token, much Euro-sadistic cinema doesn’t have the visual clarity and fluidity that Tarantino brings to this largely in-close-quarters narrative; in terms of making every space a cinematic space, Tarantino is not Kubrick, it’s true, but he gets the job largely done.) Said pessimism and cynicism has sent more than one writing viewer of the film to the Good Liberal Fainting Couch, and I can’t say that’s not understandable. Tarantino’s approach does have, undeniably, more than a touch of “giggly viciousness.” I think “giggly viciousness” is Martin Amis’ phrase, and if I continue to remember correctly he coined it as a description of something he’s proud to have grown out of. Some people, some artists, never do. It’s an open question as to whether unexamined self-righteousness is the most apt response to an artist who does not.
I don’t think it’s particularly constructive to spend a lot of time speculating as to whether the cynicism and pessimism of The Hateful Eight is “earned” or not. One recollects Sam Fuller’s original ending for his 1957 Western Forty Guns. This would have showed his ostensible hero, Griff, as a guy who would actually kill the woman he professed to love in order to then gun down the foe who shot his brother. This was not permitted, so Fuller concocted a ridiculous but ultimately very pleasing compromise: he made Griff so good a shot that he could plug the woman he loved so accurately that the woman he loved would fall but not suffer permanent or even vaguely life-threatening injury, clearing the way for him to then kill the foe who was holding her as a shield. Had Fuller been permitted to go with his original ending, could he have been said to have “earned” it?
Whatever Tarantino’s intentions or aspirations, the cynicism and pessimism of the movie is, I think, inarguably pertinent. Because Tarantino arguably revels in a mess rather than even trying to offer a solution, does that make him part of the problem? The extent to which this is or is not genuinely troubling would depend on the extent to which you rely on film and film criticism to be “problem”-oriented.
But let’s go with it a little. If Aretha Franklin’s performance of Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors in December can be seen as the most inspiringly optimistic vision of race relations in America in 2015/2016, The Hateful Eight can be seen as a purposefully rebarbative nightmare vision of same. This ought not surprise. As an individual, Tarantino may well have a social conscience, and even a social consciousness, but there’s no way that he’s ever been what you could call a socially responsible filmmaker. A few years ago, in a “State of the Cinema” address at the San Francisco Film International Festival, Steven Soderbergh, with mordant facetiousness, advised young filmmakers, when seeking financing, to “in the process of telling [your] story, , stop yourself in the middle of a sentence and act like you’re having an epiphany, and say: “You know what, at the end of this day, this is a movie about hope.’” One ought give credit where it’s due, finally: Tarantino, cinema sensationalist nonpareil, has made a movie entirely not about hope, for what it’s worth.
One of the many limitations of an early education in auteurist-based cinephilia is that you tend to look exclusively for directorial signatures. Or you tend to look at just about everything noteworthy in a given film as an indication of the directorial signature. Yes, the art is collaborative, and yes, Orson Welles put cinematographer Gregg Toland on the same title card as his on Citizen Kane, but unless we'd also read Bazin's rhapsodies on the deep focus in The Little Foxes, we weren't necessarily identifying a Toland style. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was reportedly proud of the fact that no one film he shot looked the same as another, but that's not to say that he didn't have a signature, a style, a vision.
It was My Close Personal Friend Ron Goldberg™ who first pointed out to me what he considered a classic Zsigmond effect, in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There are several shots in the scene a little under 45 minutes in, in the Mission Control Receiving Center, when Bob Balaban's character blows everybody's minds by revealing that the signals they've been getting from outer space are coordinates. Zsigmond shoots the high-ceilinged, gray-walled, largely blue-lit room so that the backgrounds are always a little out of focus; in the shot where Balaban's character is picking up the readouts coming out of the printer he's the only actor in perfect focus. The white-haired actor in the blue suit in front of him is also a little blurry, and a little blue light glints off his white hair. These manipulations of focus and lighting marked Zsigmond, to my mind, as a kind of stealth Impressionist. There was never a skimping on filling the frame with the visual information to get the point of the shot across, but there were also pockets of evocative beauty in the frames; in this scene they offset the workaday realism of the speculations and the calculations of the befuddles scientist and kept the film's other foot where it always wants to be, in a realm of wonder.
When MCPFRG™ hipped me to this, it was pretty early in our relationship, late 1978 I guess, and we soon embarked on a several-year-long-project of getting high and seeing lots of movies in Manhattan rep houses, and I determined to pay more attention to cinematography. So when I saw McCabe & Mrs. Miller for the first time shortly thereafter, Zsigmond's impressionism, or Impressionism I guess, walloped me again, despite it being in an entirely different register than that of Close Encounters. And it worked wonders in the context of director Robert Altman's gritty, cold, frontier pessimism and fatalism as it did in that of Spielberg's wish-upon-a-star vision. It also works a treat in Altman's The Long Goodbye, and in a lesser-known Altman that's raggedy and brittle and doesn't quite pull off its conceit, but which I love anyway because of when I saw it, who's in it, and how it looks. That is, 1972's Images, from which I took the top image and from which the next three still captures are derived (the other actors besides York and Harrison are Rene Auberjonois and Hugh Millais).
Like Lee Garmes, like Gregg Toland, like John Alton, like Raoul Coutard, like his friend and fellow emigre László Kovács, like Gordon Willis, Michael Chapman, Michael Ballhaus, and many others, Zsigmond's way of shooting (and exposing) film derived directly from a way of looking at the world, and processing what he saw, not from the pursuit of a contrived ideal. He was one of cinema's great artists, for sure.
A couple of notes: this year the movies I loved and the movies I actually got to review did not overlap as much as they might have, as you'll see particularly in the uppermost twenty. You will see more documentaries than I normally put on such lists, and this is because I'm seeing more documentaries, a surprisingly pleasant side benefit, it turns out, of freelancing at The New York Times.
1) Hard To Be A God (Alexei German)
2) Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson)
3) Girlhood (Céline Sciamma)
This is a picture I saw more or less cold, at this year’s EbertFest, and it just floored me. Not just in its commitment to its characters and its setting, but in its cinematic fluidity, which is best, or most noticeably, expressed in a scene in which its partying girl squad lip-syncs the Rihanna song “Diamonds.” I am about as far as you can get from a Rihanna admirer, incidentally.
4) Horse Money (Pedro Costa)
Wherein Costa’s collaboration with the personage known as Ventura veers off from a statuesque poetic not-quite-realism into a realm of nearly sci-fi dystopia and dread. Intimations of the underworld and the very real spectre of fascism are given utterly convincing form in a shudderingly beautiful film.
5) Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
6) Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson)
7) Heaven Knows What (Josh Safdie and Ben Safdie)
The first five or so minutes of this film, which opens with an almost anti-virtuoso traveling shot through a fluorescent-ugly medical facility while electronic music blares very loudly and unheard characters scream at each other, constitute a sort of endurance test. Not that the remainder of the film is a picnic, but once you settle in, the movie tells the terrifying story of the routine life of junkiedom. I remember someone like Burroughs saying that addiction had a very organizing effect on one’s life, to wit, you got up whenever you got up knowing that you had to do two things that day: cop and shoot up. Everything else is leisure time. I have not seen another film that put across the algebra of need to pitilessly and accurately. A horrific masterpiece.
8) Brooklyn (John Crowley)
9) The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)
It’s nice to see an actively anti-social Quentin Tarantino working his malevolent magic again. His sprawling but surprisingly fluid not-properly-locked-room mystery could have stayed within the prickly, racially incendiary whodunit conventions it seems to be setting up in its first half, but when the violence really explodes in the second half, Tarantino achieves Authentic Sadistic Cinema. Yes, by all means call it “objectionable.” It is.
10) Shaun The Sheep Movie (Mark Burton and Richard Starzak)
Another beautifully realized movie, perfection from stem to stern, almost every pertinent detail the introduction to an observation or a gag that will pay off beautifully, sometimes within seconds, sometimes not until the end credits. Also a sincerely sunny and sweet-natured work that’s never cloying.
11) Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
I spoke about this picture with a filmmaker friend of mine and we both expressed a kind of irritated mystification about it: how did Alex Garland, an experienced novelist and screenwriter, become such a goddamn good director his first time out? It’s kind of maddening. Complaints about the film’s ostensible sexism are really…kind of sad, because it’s clear that the people making them haven’t really thought the piece through, and that questions of gender construction get kind of complicated when artificial intelligence engineered by a horny chauvinist are concerned. For further on the film's larger topic, see Heinrich von Kleist’s story “On The Marionette Theater.”
12) Phoenix (Christian Petzold)
Classical form in cinema still has its uses. Petzold’s survivor tragedy tells a story that’s squalid and irrational in equal measure, and tells it with measured, masterly detachment. Killer ending.
13) Son of Saul (László Nemes)
My friend and colleague Manohla Dargis angrily condemned this film as “radically dehistoricized” and while the characterization is correct I kind of think that a form of dehistoricization was part of director László Nemes’ point. His demonic conception and execution of his Holocaust story, holding claustrophobically tight on his doomed lead character, removes the viewer from the realm of historical contemplation and into the realm of experiential phenomenology. It is a cinematically virtuosic “you are there” movie, completely harrowing and upsetting and confusing and nobody knows what time it is and death is all around and it’s coming for you. One recalls what Stanley Kubrick said to Fredric Raphael about Schindler’s List: “Think that's about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn'’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.” Son of Saul is a film about The Holocaust—in miniature.
14) Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams)
It takes a very smart storyteller to come up with the very simple idea that makes this movie work so well. J.J. Abrams understood the only way to unfuck the franchise—or the myth, if you really believe it’s a myth—was to go back to First Principles. So he remade Star Wars, or, A New Hope if you’re like that. And did a damn good job of it.
15) The Assassin (Hou Hsiao Hsien)
I enjoyed the visuals and I understood the plot. So no worries.
16) Inside Out (Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen)
As I observed elsewhere, really would make an excellent double feature with Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
17) Carol (Haynes)
Tender, seductive, immaculately crafted. Also displays a side of Rooney Mara I really enjoy seeing, one in which she seems kind of happy. There was a rumor a while back that she was moving into my neighborhood (see entry for Mistress America, below) and I was worried that she’d issue edicts requiring everyone wear black, that no one make eye contact with her, or laugh, anywhere, ever. If she continues performances in this vein my perhaps mistaken impression of her as a person will abate. And she didn’t end up moving into my neighborhood anyway.
18) The Mend (Magary)
19) Timbuktu (Sissako)
20) Creed (Coogler)
You can look at this two ways: Director Ryan Coogler’s spectacularly engaging follow-up to his powerful debut feature Fruitvale Station, or an effective and rousing entry in a franchise that had squandered a good deal of its integrity and juice over the years. The direction and the acting are energized, invigorating, but I was also really taken with the construction—satisfying boxing-movie narratives aren’t as common as all that these days.
21) Fort Tilden (Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers)
22) Clouds Of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
23) The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñarritu)
Iñarritu’s much-dreaded-by-me return to heavyosity turned out to be not so overbearing in its heavyosity as I’d dreaded, so I was kind of able to enjoy this as a drawn-out brutalist Western with spiritual touches. I know, I know—I said “overbearing!”
24) Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs)
It’s a bit of a no-no for me to include this but to hell with it, it was a super fun movie and Greg Jacobs is a fantastic director and also one of my favorite people, as are a few others who worked on this.
25) The Forbidden Room (Maddin and Johnson)
At first I thought this ripe-rot-suffused pastiche of serial, Expressionist, and Doris Wishman stylizations was on the drawn-out side, but on considering its spectacular climactic payoff and more, I think I’d like to see the three-hour version of which I’ve heard tell.
26) Experimenter (Michael Almereyda)
Both playful and earnest, Almereyda’s unconventional film about Stanley Milgram is as engaged with his ideas as it is with his life. Peter Sarsgaard takes his uncanny ability to come off like the world’s biggest know-it-all up to eleven, and makes you like it.
27) Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry)
This tightly-focused exercise in Finding The Bad In People is even more assured and discomfiting that Perry’s Listen Up Philip. When will Mr. Perry meet people that he sincerely likes, and feels he can be himself with, and when and if this happens, will this change his art? Stay tuned.
28) Hitchcock/Truffaut (Jones)
Another movie directed by a friend, the great critic and programmer Kent Jones…and a pleasingly thorough examination of two filmmakers, their sensibilities, and the collaboration that produced one of the great texts on cinema.
29) Democrats (Nielsson)
30) Field Niggas (Allah)
31) Bridge of Spies (Spielberg)
Mr. Spielberg’s Cold War picture is a frequent nail-biter even if, like this old man, you know how the story turns out. It is very Spielbergy but without crossing that line many say Munich crossed. I was one of a relative few people who thought it was hilarious that Eve Hewson had a part in a movie in which Francis Gary Powers was a character.
32) Eden (Nilsson-Love)
Discussed very briefly here.
33) Mistress America (Baumbach)
I've lived in the same Brooklyn neighborhood since 1990. When I first moved in it was still a pretty solid Italian-American working-to-middle-class enclave with small pockets of quasi-bohemian folk, and the ensuing years have seen, well I don't really have to tell you, do I? The influx has been a mixed bag, from ambitious restaurateurs who buy their mozzarella from the local guy to sneery hipsters who giggle at the shrines to Padre Pio on some front stoops. As I get older, I find myself almost reflexively less amused by the self-regarding Bright Young Things and their strollers and such, but I try to maintain tolerance, understanding that aging will do that to you. Still. A couple of years ago a bistro opened around the corner from me, in a one-time eyebrow-raising doom spot, and with its big front windows, low-key lighting, and pricey menu in small type, made me think they might as well have put an equivalent of one of those debt-clock countdown signs on the roof, telling me how long I had before I was completely priced out of the neighborhood. I have to admit that one night there were a bunch of kids causing a ruckus at the park nearby, and as they sort-of dispersed, a few of them made some aggressive gestures into those aforementioned windows, and I was not displeased at the napkin-clutching of some of the patrons. I avoided the place on principle for a while, but recently I was coaxed in for a brunch with some friends and it was really, really good. I feel rather similarly toward this movie, for reasons I can't quite articulate.
34) Crimson Peak (Del Toro)
No, I did not find the narrative particularly satisfying. Yes, I really would rather see Del Toro get all the money to make all the Lovecraft adaptations. Still. Not just the visual ravishment but the clear emotional swoon-lust that animates this movie caught me up but good.
35) Grandma (Weitz)
36) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (McQuarrie)
A neat if slightly hoary elliptical narrative, sweet action set pieces, and Rebecca Ferguson.
37) Trainwreck (Apatow)
When “full disclosure” looks like name-dropping, I don’t disclose. So. Beyond that, I thought, some dips into celebrity absurdism at the end notwithstanding (I am totally fine with LeBron James’ role though), the movie worked very well as a credible, intelligent 21st century rom-com. I am, I have to admit, tired of all the Bra Sex in Judd Apatow’s movies. Which should not be misconstrued as a call for topless woman exposure. It’s just…try some different angles, maybe. Nobody has Bra Sex as a matter of course unless there’s a mild fetish involved.
38) Blackhat (Mann)
The old “Pure Cinema” defense applies here. Quite convincingly dynamic.
39) The Martian (Scott)
A minor peak in sci-fi optimism. Make NASA Great Again!
40) Love and Mercy (Pohlad)
41) Tangerine (Baker)
I like its vitality and its small innovations but it’s still a straight white man’s view of trans culture, which, you know, I could do MYSELF.
42) Spotlight (McCarthy)
This is a compelling story, well-acted. I’m not entirely certain how well-told it is. What’s funny is that should one observe that it’s visually flat, one runs the risk of being accussed of being some kind of shill for “pure cinema” (see above), which means you’re only interested in things like flashy camerawork and show-offy editing, and that’s bad, you see, because the thing about storytelling is that technique is supposed to be invisible. Only problem is, technique is also not invisible when it’s BORING. In terms of pacing, Spotlight is beyond pedestrian. Every scene is a very neat little package of a few minutes, one after the other, each one fixed on a single topic or action that will move the narrative to the next square, until all the squares have been covered. The possibility of surprise, spontaneity, perversity, anything that is not specifically related to The Lesson, has been squeezed out of the work probably before the first scene was lit. Even if Tom McCarthy had wanted to do something along the lines of the seven-minute split-diopter shot of Redford making the Dahlberg call, he couldn’t have, because there’s nothing for it in the script. Again: a compelling story, well-acted. And competently told. But if it hadn’t been so well-acted the competence would seem like mediocrity.
43) The Duke Of Burgundy (Strickland)
44) The Big Short (McKay)
45) Ant Man (Reed)
46) I’ll See You In My Dreams (Haley)
47) Ballet 422 (Lipes)
So. A couple of months, or weeks, or something, ago—my sense of time grows simultaneously more compressed and expanded as I grow older—someone on social media asked me where I ranked Bond movie X, and it reminded me that a few years back I labored somewhat mightily for my then-freelance-client, an entity called MSN Movies, on a lengthy piece in which I ranked the Bond pictures. That piece, published in annoying multi-click "gallery" form, has been purged from what is left of the MSN website, along with pretty much everything else I did for it. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I've been keeping my original submitted versions of much if not all of my work for my freelance clients backed up. So I thought, well, now that Spectre's coming out, everybody else is ranking the Bond films, why shouldn't I get some of that Secret Agent Traffic?
What I've done is reproduce my original text below, in the format in which it was submitted (in accordance with the MSN Movies style book, such as it was, I've kept titles in quotation marks, which is contrary to this blog's style book, such as it is, which does italics. The only change I've made is to include ranking numbers for both Skyfall and Spectre, which I give my rationale for in an appendix at the bottom of the post. Enjoy!
It’s the 50th anniversary…not of James Bond himself, who was invented by author Ian Fleming in 1953. But it is the 50th anniversary of the first official Bond movie, 1962’s “Dr. No,” which also marked actor Sean Connery’s debut in the role. It’s not too well known, but the first Ian Fleming Bond novel, “Casino Royale,” had already been adapted for the screen--the small, black and white TV screen--some years before. You’ll find out more about that below. With a new official Bond film (that is, a Bond film produced by Eon, the production entity founded by then-partners Harry Saltzman and Albert “Cubby” Broccoli back in the day) opening soon, and a massive DVD/Blu-ray disc box set collecting all the films in the series, it’s an opportune time to look at the action/espionage franchise that, at various points, set the bar for its genre. For this assessment, we enlisted MSN Movies’ chief film critic, Glenn Kenny, to put his license to judge on the line and actually rate the Bond pictures from worst to best. We’ve also thrown in two Bond movies that are NOT part of the official series, for reasons that will become clear. Agree? Disagree? Hopefully the ranking will leave you not shaken, but rather stirred to check out the best of the Bond movies one more time.
26) "Octopussy" (1983)
For Bond, swinging from a vine is the same as jumping the shark. Well, let’s be more detailed: swinging from a vine and having a vintage Tarzan yell emanate from the general direction of his mouth. Faced with the likes of blockbuster competition that they’d never seen before (for instance, the “Star Wars” pictures and “Jaws,” both of which inspired some bad miscalculations for “Moonraker”) the Bond producers threw a lot of lousy ideas at the wall in a bid to both “keep up” and appeal to a younger audience. With this 1983 film, however, it looks as if they just stopped caring—to call it “going through the motions” is too kind, especially considering how much money and second-unit effort was thrown at each successive Bond film. Roger Moore wanted out of the role, and nowhere was it more evident than here. Fun fact: James Brolin screen=tested for the Bond role at around this time. Other fun fact: Maud Adams, here playing the title role, was a Bond girl for the second time here: the first time was in the snoozy but entirely more dignified “The Man With The Golden Gun” in 1974.
25) "Moonraker" (1979)
The sins of this one are many, and a lot of James Bond fans boil it down to one, that is the idea of James Bond in space. That itself is not as bad as the cute stylizations added to Richard Kiel’s wannabe Odd Job, the physically formidable but conceptually goofy “Jaws” (get it?). The risible way that Bond “turns” this enforcer against his villain master Drax is a real low point too. Lois Chiles, while attractive, is rather bland for her tasteless Bond girl moniker “Holly Goodhead.” Michael Lonsdale is a fine idea for a Bond villain in theory: he’s remarkably good at effete condescension. But he’s kneecapped by goofy costuming choices. Instead of a harbinger for the apocalypse, he looks more like a guy who thinks the chicks dig fake-futuristic variants of the Nehru jacket. So when it’s not being outright silly, it’s piling on the near-misses. Decent effects for its time, though. And it features the final appearance from the great Bernard Lee as “M.”
24) "Never Say Never Again" (1983)
Bad Bond movies were not the sole provenance of producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman and/or their production entity Eon. “Thunderball” co-writer Kevin McClory took advantage of a judgment that allowed him to make that scenario as a movie on his own, and he persuaded Sean Connery to revive the Bond character for it, and “Empire Strikes Back” director Irving Kershner to go behind the cameras for it. The result was…a not very good remake of “Thunderball.” Which, depending on what you think of “Thunderball” to begin with, isn’t very encouraging. The movie looks kind of cheap from the get-go: the carefully built-up Bond look was so fresh in viewers’ mind that any kind of reboot was bound to look shoddy. Among its innovations: Connery’s Bond and villain Klaus Maria Brandaur engage in video game battle. Ugh. It’s better than that year’s “official” Bond movie, “Octopussy,” but not by as much as you might expect.
23) "Casino Royale" (1967)
Longtime Hollywood player (as both producer and talent agent) Charles Feldman acquired the rights to Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, in which the fate of the world kind of hinges on a game of baccarat, after it had already been adapted for a one-hour TV movie in which Barry Nelson (later Jack Nicholson’s boss in “The Shining!”) played an Americanized Bond with a great “card sense.” When the series with Connery took off in the ‘60s, Feldman approached producers Saltzman and Broccoli about a collaboration, and they balked. Feldman himself balked at Connery’s million-dollar-asking price. And then he had an idea from which the stuff of legends is born. Since his last picture, the Woody-Allen-scripted “What’s New Pussycat,” made a ton of money spoofing the emerging sexual mores of the ‘60s, and romantic comedies themselves, why not make a spoof version of the Fleming book. The bizarre cinematic monster that emerged had no fewer than five directors, at least three “James Bond”s, and was a sprawling, semiotically incoherent mess with few genuine laughs. It’s long been said a great movie could be made of the making of this: costars Peter Sellers and Orson Welles hated each other with the heart of a thousand suns, which made shooting their climactic (sort of) baccarat face-off something of a challenge. (Welles threw in as a favor to Feldman, who produced his great “Macbeth” back in the day; Woody Allen, whom Feldman broke in as a screenwriter, was involved for similar help-a-brother-out reasons.) The various Bond girls, including “Dr. No”’s Ursula Andress, perky Joanna Pettet as a Bond daughter (long story), and early Jacqueline Bisset, are all delightful, as is the Burt Bacharach score. Any movie that features Deborah Kerr pronouncing the line “ Doodle me, Jamie” to David Niven can’t be all bad.
22) "Quantum Of Solace" (2008)
A real let down after the confident and largely successful reboot of “Casino Royale,” which introduced Daniel Craig in the Bond role. At 106 minutes, it’s the shortest of the official Bond pictures. (The great ”Goldfinger” is a ‘60s pop song longer.) That might be considered refreshing in a secret-agent action thriller series that many complained was overblown and far-removed from reality. But in point of fact, “Quantum of Solace” feels like a sketch for a James Bond picture. It’s too bad: the great French actor Mathieu Amalric gives awesome crazy-man stare as the otherwise uninspired villain, an eco-terrorist of sorts (where’s SPECTRE and SMERSH when you need them, a viewer may well ask), Jeffrey Wright sets a good precedent by being the first actor to play C.I.A. ally Felix Leiter twice in a row, and Olga Kurylenko is an apt Bond girl. But the whole thing feels simultaneously rushed and underdeveloped and the climactic battle is overwhelming. Also, the scant attempts at humor are pretty lame: if naming an agent “Strawberry Fields” is supposed to constitute some kind of apology for Bond dissing the Beatles in “Goldfinger,” well, they needn’t have bothered. Also, the title song, performed by the talented but otherwise inexplicable duo of Jack White and Alicia Keys, is kind of “huh?”
21) "Die Another Day" (2002)
Speaking of bad title songs…while Madonna’s theme tune here might be a not-bad standalone Madonna tune, Bond music it’s too cheekily individualistic. Somebody shoulda given her a little editing upon hearing the deathly dire “Paging Dr. Freud” opening lyric. In any event, this, Pierce Brosnan’s last hurrah in the Bond role, has several things to commend it, for instance, an interracial romance that’s not portrayed patronizingly or as any sort of a big deal. The opposite number for said romance is Halle Berry at her most Halle-esque, so that’s a plus too. But the movie tries to have it both ways. It ostensibly “humanizes” Bond a bit by having him held in captivity by North Korea for over a year, and looking mighty bad as a result. But by the time the convoluted plot has the movie’s action taking place among all manner of ice-structures, it might as well by “The Never Ending Story.”
20) "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971)
When a Bond film is working, it achieves a balance of humor and not-quite-gravitas that makes it a thoroughly engaging experience. Tilt the balance too far in one direction, and you’ve got problems. We see this in the second-to-last Roger Moore Bond, “Octopussy,” and it’s also the case here, in the final “official” Bond film to star Sean Connery. As “The Psychotronic Encyclopedia Of Film” so memorably put it, “It’s the worst. Everything leads to sausage kind Jimmy Dean.” Indeed. It also doesn’t help that arch-villain Blofeld is here played by Charles Gray, who played a doomed ally in “You Only Live Twice” but, more crucially, went on to play the Inspector in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Jill St. John makes for a brittle Bond girl (Lana Wood is more sympathetic, in many respects, but doesn’t get to stick around for long) and Connery acts like he’d rather be golfing throughout. The addition of possibly gay assassins Wint and Kidd was an “interesting” innovation; that Wint was played by Crispin Glover’s dad Bruce and Kidd was played by Putter Smith, a jazz bassist who’d worked with Thelonious Monk, makes it sound more interesting than the characters actually play, alas.
19) "The Man With The Golden Gun" (1974)
For genre nuts, the prospect of British horror great Christopher Lee playing a Bond villain was practically catnip. And while Lee (who was a relative and friend of Bond creator Ian Fleming) certainly sinks his teeth into the role of Scaramanga, the villain with not only a golden gun but a third nipple, the movie itself is simultaneously on the dry/boring side (the narrative is convoluted without ever building to anything spectacular) and the panicky-about-keeping-up-with-the-times side (it brings some Asian martial-arts stylings, which the kids were starting to go crazy about, into the fight scenes). Hence, Roger Moore’s second outing as Bond proves a less than satisfactory mission. Bond girls Britt Ekland and Maud Adams are easy on the eyes but kind of bland, as is, oddly enough, little Hervé Villechaize as what’s supposed to be a creepy henchman. The movie also makes the mistake of bringing back “funny” redneck sheriff J.W. Pepper from “Live And Let Die.”
18) "Live And Let Die" (1973)
After Connery decided he was done with the Bond character for good, or so he thought (hence the title of the later, non-official “Never Say Never Again”), producers Saltzman and Broccoli gave the Bond role to the far more lightweight Roger Moore. But “Live and Let Die” brought the character back with a bang, with the title song from Paul McCartney and Wings ostensibly blowing out the cobwebs from the series. (Tellingly, the prior Bond picture, “Diamonds Are Forever” had a theme sung by Shirley Bassey of “Goldfinger” fame.) The movie itself is really not bad at all, despite being dogged throughout by some embarrassing racial depictions (which are kind of generic to a lot of Hollywood product of the time). Oh, and the sexual politics, while always dicey, are here beginning to show as such: much is made of the fact that this film’s Bond girl, psychic Solitaire (Jane Seymour) begins the scenario as a virgin, and that this is central to her gift. Ugh. In any event, though, Bond traipsing through the mean streets of Manhattan and the maze of New Orleans and beyond is good globe-trotting action, and Yaphet Kotto is a highly credible villain. And while Moore’s relatively callow next to Connery, here he’s comfortable enough not to overdo the arched eyebrows and so on. The introduction of J.W. Pepper remains highly regrettable.
17) "The World Is Not Enough" (1999)
Pierce Brosnan’s third outing as Bond has two really hysterically funny elements, and they’re the female leads. Between Sophie Marceau’s “I’m mad, I tell you, mad!” oil-heiress villainess and Denise Richards getting them rolling in the aisles merely by introducing herself as a nuclear physicist, the movie seems to want you to laugh at the Bond girls’ Those two errantly ridiculous albeit attractive factors aside, this is actually a better-than-not-bad Bond, in both the plot and villain departments. The plot has the villains trying to raise oil prices by blowing a nuclear reactor (an idea that was revived in “Cloud Atlas,” of all things) and the main villain is a guy who can’t feel pain on account of a bullet in his brain wiping out his senses. As played by excellent screen crazy person Robert Carlyle, Renard is scrappier and less imperious than your average Bond villain, which is a pretty neat switcheroo. By now, the stunt-spectacle pre-credits sequence for a Bond film had become something of a sacrament; the one here, involving a motorboat chase on the Thames and ending with some hot-air balloons, is one of the best in the series.
16) "A View To A Kill" (1985)
This is the last Bond picture to star Roger Moore, so he leaves with a little more dignity than the prior “Octopussy” would have allowed him to, but still doesn’t quite go out with a bang. Making Christopher Walken into a Bond villain wasn’t bad idea on paper: making him into a Bond villain who looks as if he spends his off hours selling cocaine at the Mudd Club was a mistake though. (As it happened, David Bowie had originally been considered for Walken’s role as Zorin, an overly ambitious industrialist.) Grace Jones does intriguing duty as Zorin’s appropriately stone-faced and lethal consort. Tanya Roberts is a surprisingly forgettable Bond girl. While the Golden-Gate-bridge set climax is one of the more impressive set pieces of the Moore tenure, it only suffices to elevate this Bond picture up to a little above ordinary.
15) "The Living Daylights" (1987)
If the critical and fan consensus was that the Roger Moore Bond films took the franchise into a too-comedic direction, the casting of more stolid, younger, and more menacing Timothy Dalton as Bond was a corrective. There was also the added attraction, ostensibly, that Dalton was a Serious Thespian With Classical Training and all that. The downside to this was the “what am I doing here” look that came across Dalton’s face in certain of the more risible situations Bond would find himself in. This has less spectacle than what the Moore Bond films so unwisely chased after: its plot line is a pretty straightforward one of defectors and betrayers, one of the last Bond scenarios to take advantage of the real-world Cold War. On the other hand, it’s a little on the dry side, and while the movie clearly wants to make a genuine character instead of a sex object cartoon out of Bond girl Maryam D’Abo, it can’t find an entirely credible way to do so.. And the theme song, by A-ha, is so awful it makes the largely reviled Duran Duran title song from “View To A Kill” sound like, well, “Goldfinger.” Joe Don Baker makes a great ugly American turncoat though.
14) "Tomorrow Never Dies" (1997)
The second Bond movie to star Pierce Brosnan, this is an extremely mixed bag. There are some absolutely first rate elements: Brosnan’s Bond and Hong Kong legend Michelle Yeoh’s motorcycle-pursued-by-helicopter scene is an action movie set piece for the ages. And the casting of Yeoh, an action heroine in her own right, was inspired. On the minus side, the weirdly jokey supervillain played by Jonathan Pryce is a bit of media-mogul-skewering inside baseball that’s kind of a snooze, and the weirdnesses involving the movie’s initial Bond girl, played by Teri Hatcher, and her fate at the hands of an extremely unethical physician played by Vincent Schiavelli seem to have been imported from a film by a very bad Terry Gilliam impersonator. The movie picks up substantially after her character disappears, and after Pryce himself recedes and lets his character’s machines and martial-arts fluent henchpeople do his work.
13) "License To Kill" (1989)
The second and last Timothy Dalton Bond picture was originally titled “License Revoked,” but that was rejected because too large a number of potential viewers polled did not know the meaning of the word “revoked.” Or so we hear. How depressing. In any event the original title was more accurate, as it’s what happens in the movie: after Bond’s pal Felix Leiter is maimed and his new bride killed, Bond decides to go after those villains, which displeases his bosses at MI6, who take away his license to kill. And Bond kills anyway. This picture does a little better by way of giving us a more full-bodied (in terms of personality and accomplishment, we mean; get your mind out of the gutter) Bond girl in the way of Carey Lowell. Robert Davi, bless him, still seems like too much of a conscienceless henchman type to handle the role of the full villain. But the movie offers the gratifying spectacle of a really ticked-off Bond, and while the ending is weird--the usually disapproving old equipment guru Q suddenly goes all avuncular, and the avenged Leiter is a little too cheerful for someone with no legs and a dead wife as of a week before--this is largely satisfying latter-day Bond.
12) "GoldenEye" (1995)
After a nearly six-year layoff following “License To Kill,” Bond came back in the form of very credible Irish leading man Pierce Brosnan, whose tough-guy qualities always seemed to go hand in hand with an ability to laugh at himself. The challenges for a post-Cold-War Bond were inextricably linked to the dearth of plot points the new world order yielded, so this movie smartly planted its story seeds in pre-Glasnost Soviet Russia and then made its bad guys renegades in the S.S.R. aftermath. The further shaking up of the Bond world includes a female M, Judi Dench, who has, with “Skyfall,” appeared in seven Bond pictures—still not very close to Bernard Lee’s eleven, but enough to establish a strong, familiar presence. “GoldenEye” is often a weird muddle: we still haven’t figured out why Minnie Driver shows up singing in a Russian club wearing a cowboy hat. But it is very energetic, globe-trotting, action-packed, and all that. And Famke Janssen is both sufficiently beautiful and a good enough actress to make her ridiculously named femme fatale Xenia Onatopp (because she likes to strangle dudes with her thighs while she’s on-a-top of them, get it?) almost credible.
11) "Spectre" (2015) See Appendix, below
10) "Skyfall" (2012) See Appendix, below
9) "For Your Eyes Only" (1981)
In between the disasters that were “Moonraker” and “Octopussy” it occurred to the producers of the Bond series that it might be a good idea to just go out and make a James Bond movie rather than an attempt to one-up every stupid and meretricious new-styled sci-fi or action blockbuster now competing with the franchise. This proved to be a very good idea indeed and in fact yielded the second-best Roger-Moore-starring film in the series. The storyline is good old-fashioned high-tech spy stuff involving a sunken weapons system and a race between our side and the Soviets to get it. Complicating matters is a smuggler who wants to get on the Soviets’ good side. And take some of their money. The only Bond adventure so far to feature the star of a Luis Buñuel masterpiece as Bond girl: Gorgeous Carole Bouquet had beguiled Fernando Rey in Buñuel’s bamboozling surrealist masterpiece “The Obscure Object Of Desire” four year prior. The Sheena-Easton-sung theme song is a lavishly satisfying bit of pop pap, too. Also notable for a weird subplot involving a sexually precocious young figure skater played by real-life skater Lynn-Holly Johnson.
8) "Casino Royale" (2006)
The Bond reboot-for-the-21st-Century was on a very good track in almost every particular. The casting of steely Daniel Craig was inspired, as is the new intensity he brings to the role: he’s the most intimidating Bond since Connery. Giving he character a slightly more complex emotional life also worked out well, although overdoing this in future installments may prove a problem. Doing a very straight adaptation of the long-elusive-to-filmmakers Bond debut novel by Ian Fleming, a tightly plotted and diabolically emotionally knotty piece of espionage storytelling, was also a terrific idea. Casting Eva Green as Vesper Lynd, possibly the Only Woman Bond Could Ever Really Love, magnificent. And Jeffrey Wright as C.I.A. pally Felix Leiter? Brilliant. Changing the card game from baccarat to poker, and, more specifically, to Texas Hold ‘Em? As Homer Simpson would put it… That aside, an inspired effort.
7) "The Spy Who Loved Me" (1977)
Among other things, this is the picture that made it de rigueur for all future Bond movies to open with a spectacular Bond-led action sequence that would not necessarily have anything to do with the subsequent action, in this case a spectacular ski chase ending with the cheesy gag of a British flag parasail thingy. All of the movie’s humor is at about that level: mildly groan-inducing but never awful And yes, this IS the movie that introduces the gigantic villain named “Jaws,” and yes, he does bite a shark to death herein. But Jaws has his roots in an actual Ian-Fleming-created bad guy, and this movie probably melds Roger Moore’s own insouciant style to an action thriller more organically and effectively than any of the other movies he played Bond in. Barbara Bach is also very good as a Bond girl not to far removed from the one in the immortal “From Russia With Love.”
6) "You Only Live Twice" (1967)
Rumor had had it that Sean Connery, for all the worldwide fame his efforts as Bond had brought him, was getting pretty tired of the role and the pigeonholing it had earned him. But still, audiences didn’t necessarily expect to see Bond trapped in a Murphy-bed style contraption and machine-gunned to death in the first scene of the follow-up to “Thunderball.” This socko opening led into a truly great theme song sung by Nancy Sinatra. While the subsequent proceedings, in which Bond had to masquerade as a Japanese man to infiltrate a Blofeld-initiated spaceship-snatching scheme designed to start a global war, are a bit on the racially insensitive and arguably overblown side, the movie’s a triumph of both action and gigantic set design, a really impressive spectacle. The Bond girls here are equally adorable Mie Hama and Akika Wakabyashi, themselves veterans of Japanese spy movies. In fact they also starred in “Key Of Keys,” the Japanese thriller that was redubbed in English by Woody Allen for the crazy pastiche comedy “What’s Up Tiger Lily.” The movie also features a gone-native-in-Japan MI6 agent played by Charles Gray who mistakenly notes that Bond takes his martini “stirred not shaken.” We can only assume that Bond was too polite to correct him.
5) "Thunderball" (1965)
In a sense, any movie following the sublime “Goldfinger” was going to have to be something of a disappointment. But “Thunderball” has a lot going for it. Fishing for nuclear weapons is an excellent plot hook for a spy movie in a real world still reeling from the Cuban missile crisis. The diabolical scheme involving a dead pilot and a ringer turned into his double via plastic surgery is still a pretty creepy gambit. The Bahamas as a setting for intrigue and adventure both professional and recreational. Claudine Auger as Domino is not a Bond girl to sneeze at. The faults here are minimal but significant: first off, the storytelling is a little logy: where “Goldfinger” logged in at a very tight hour and fifty minutes, this dawdles a bit at 130 minutes. But the main offender is the villain, Largo, played by Adolfo Celli. Rather than convincing the viewer he’s a diabolical madman intent on world domination and being very very rich, the lumbering, white-haired Celli comes across merely as a petulant piece of Eurotrash who enjoys severely undertipping valet parking guys. Villain fail.
4) "Dr. No" (1962)
The first movie in the franchise is a lean, largely gadget-free espionage thriller (it’s most spectacular element is a so-called “dragon” with which its title villain protects his private island, which is in fact a kind of tank with a flame-thrower). Licensed-to-kill agent Bond is summoned away from the baccarat table, given a scolding on weaponry from boss M (who makes him replace his Walther PPK with a Beretta) and dispatched to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of an MI6 agent there. Among the calypso dancers and exotic seashells he discovers the world-domination bent Doctor, whom he squelches, after some shrug-offable radiation exposure. Ursula Andress is a great first Bond girl even if her acting is laughable. The locations are gorgeous, and Connery’s Bond is gratifyingly nasty (immortal line, right before he dispatches a villain minion who’s out of ammo: “You’ve had your six”), if not all that impressively competent. Of course the agent has to get into dangerous situations, but he walks into more traps and abductions here than average. Fun trivia: A junior location scout on the movie was Chris Blackwell, future music industry legend as founder of Island Records.
3) "On Her Majesty’s Secret Service" (1969)
The jokey opening, with new guy George Lazenby laughing that such things never happened to “the other guy” is the only meta touch in this movie that handed Lazenby the seemingly impossible task of filling Sean Connery’s shoes after “You Only Live Twice” marked the original actor’s exit from the series. The critical lambasting the movie and Lazenby took, and the shortfall in box office drawing power (the movie was in fact a hit, but not as much of one as the Connery pictures had been) the movie showed threw the producers into a panic, and Lazenby was quickly thrown under a bus, or an Aston-Martin, or some such vehicle. As it happens, though, he’s a pretty good Bond, and “Secret Service” is an excellent Bond picture, a solid attempt to provide Bond with emotional depth almost forty years before the Daniel-Craig-starring movies. Here Bond falls in love with poor-little-rich-girl Tracy, played by Diana Rigg, and actually marries her. A more mobile Blofeld, played here by Telly Savalas during the period when you could still take him seriously as a psychotic, has other plans for the couple that don’t allow for much in the way of domestic bliss. This still remains the best mixing of character study and action in a Bond movie. Also features Louis Armstrong singing a great John Barry song, “We Have All The Time In The World.”
2) "From Russia, With Love" (1963)
The second Bond film is the ultimate Bond Cold War movie, and its ends with a spectacular thaw centered on blackmail-intended 8mm footage of what we would nowadays call a “sex tape.” Up until the current Bond series, which has some continuity built around Bond’s “Casino Royale” lover Vesper Lynd, this was the only Bond movie to have a Bond-girl continuity, character wise; as we are introduced to the real Bond (a look-alike is killed in the opening scene by an assassin in training played by a never-to-be-in-such-great-shape-again Robert Shaw) he’s still dallying with Sylvia Trench, who he picked up at the baccarat table in “Dr. No.” But there’s not much time for that, as he has to traipse all over Europe chasing a Russian coding device, in the sights of ace, knife-in-the-boot-toe villainess Rosa Klebb (the great Lotte Lenya), witnessing Gypsy catfights with Turkish op Kerim Bey (Mexican-born Pedro Armendariz, who else?), and falling hard for Soviet maybe-defector Tatiana, my personal favorite Bond girl, played by Daniel Bianchi. Lots of action; the train battle between Shaw’s character and the real Bond is one of the greatest fist-fight blowouts in the history of the franchise, if not CINEMA ITSELF. Super awesome, even if few people can actually name the guy who sang the theme song without the help of Wikipedia (it’s Matt Monro, and in fairness to him, he was cheated; an instrumental version of the tune plays over the opening credits).
1) "Goldfinger" (1964)
As fond as we are of “From Russia With Love,” which is widely acclaimed as the best Bond, we think this beats it. While Rosa Klebb and her minions were great, they were playing second fiddle in “Russia” to an unseen number one bad guy; with Auric Goldfinger, we get a master villain who’s formidable and vulgar, more credible than the sci-fi inflected Dr. No, one who gives really good catchphrase (as in” No Mr. Bond I expect you to DIE”), and one who’s his own boss. The set design, while not as gargantuan as that in “You Only Live Twice,” shows Ken Adam at his most imaginative; who doesn’t WANT Goldfinger’s pool room? The three Bond women, played by Shirley Eaton, Tania Mallet, and Honor Blackman, are engaging and beautiful. The strongman henchman, Odd Job, is weirdly formidable. The globe trotting, from the Swiss Alps to Kentucky horse country (one shot even shows an early KFC restaurant) is awesome. And it has the best theme song of any Bond film ever. Still. Such is our case. What’s yours?
LIKE I SAID, the only change I made to the original text I submitted to MSN Movies, which, if I recollect correctly, was published in more or less the form submitted, was to include rankings of Skyfall and Spectre, I reckon that at 10 and 11 respectively, some might protest that I'm ranking them WAY too high. I understand the objection. My reasons are as follows: 1) Once one (and by "one," I mean "me," pretty much) really grows accustomed to the facts that these movies are part of an actual reboot, rather than existing within the (let's face it) poorly maintained continuity of all the prior Eon films, their logic and especially their tone become easier to process. 2) Daniel Craig does a better po-faced Bond than Timothy Dalton did. He just does. 3) The movies are superbly cast. Albert Finney is in Skyfall! Okay, Dave Bautista in Spectre struts around as if he really thinks he's the better of Robert Shaw and Richard Kiel combined, and he's not even close, but nobody's perfect. 4) The movies aren't completely humorous. Bond failing to make the car he nicked do what he wants to do in the Rome chase sequence in Spectre is pretty funny. 5) While overlong and a tad self-serious, the two movies are very well-made espionage thrillers, with Skyfall benefitting in particular from breathtaking cinematography by Roger Deakins. So there.
Below, the opening and closing passages of "Art And The Spirit," the eleventh chapter of Robert Coover's 1991 Pinocchio In Venice. This elaborate, highly profane philosophical fantasy is a direct sequel to Carlo Collodi's original serial fable and also, Coover being Coover, refers extensively to Disney's version, and any reader looking to look further into this book would be well advised to become conversant again with both of those works (NYRB put out a good translation of Collodi a couple of years back). In Coover's novel, the real live boy our hero became at the end of both tellings is now an ancient and celebrated academic—Professor Pinenut, the "he" of the passages below—who has returned to Venice ("The Island of Busy Bees" in Collodi) to complete a magnum opus entitled Mamma. Think about it. At any rate, all manner of disasters befall the already deeply melancholy fellow almost immediately upon disembarking at Santa Lucia. (Do the cat and the fox return? They certainly do.) To make matters worse, he's turning back into wood. "Art And The Spirt" sees Our Hero deposited for safekeeping at San Sebastiano, one of Venice's plague churches, featuring notable works by Paolo Veronese and Paris Bordone.
The monster fish that swallowed Jonah, sucking him up as a raw egg is sucked, was a pious creature devoted to virtue and orthodoxy, a kind of blubbery angel, conjured up by a God who liked to flesh out his metaphors. He—or she, the anatomy is uncertain, "belly" perhaps a euphemism—kept the runaway prophet dutifully in his or her belly or whatever for three days and three nights, long enough for Jonah to get a poem written and promise to do as he was told, and then, with a kind of abject courtesy, vomited him up, if that is not also a euphemism, on dry land. This is what Bordone's dark stormy picture, sitting like a mummy-brown bruise on the stone wall near the front entrance, is trying to show: Jonah disgorged like the metaphor's tenor emerging gracefully from its vehicle. He has often tried to see his own experience in the same light. In his now-lost Mamma chapter, "The Undigested Truth," for example, he has compared his brawling, boozing, recalcitrant father with the wicked Ninevites whom Jonah was reluctant to exhort, and from whom the prophet felt even more estranged once he'd saved them, has asked whether it was really truancy that landed Jonah in the fish's entrails, or whether God, like the Blue-Haired Fairy in her goat suit, might not somehow have lured the prophet into his crisis for reasons of pedagogy, and has indicated thereby how both his and Jonah's maritime adventures, often interpreted symbolically in Christian terms of baptism and rebirth, or else Judaic ones of exile and return (in Hollywood, quite literally: the raw and the cooked) might be understood more accurately—and more profoundly perhaps—as violent forms of occupational therapy.
Look on the bright side, he admonishes himself, beginning to wheeze. No more deadlines. No more biographical evidence to amass. No more words. Up on the Nun's Choir, there are representations of saints holding what he takes to be the instruments of their martyrdom. Some of them are holding books. He can appreciate this. A kind of plague, reading them maybe even worse than writing them, and no end to it. The terrible martyrdom of the ever-rolling stone. Saint Pinocchio. He and his father, a new heavenly host. And now, think of it, for the first time in his life, he does not have a book to write. That martyrdom at least is over. He is free at last. Which is probably just what they told poor Sebastian when they stripped his armor off him. "Free, my tortured chiappie!" he seems to be yelling, as they stuff him, up there beside the altar, into his second death. Trouble is, as martyrdoms go, the first was better than the second. This one hurts more and the compensations are more obscure. And this time: this time, no one's watching.
"Oh my Ga-ahd!" exclaims a loud nasal American voice, blowing in behind him. The professor makes a movement which to his own inner eye is that of shrinking down in his seat, though it may be invisible to others, as the intruder, stamping her feet and shaking herself audibly, comes blustering down the aisle. "Lookit this! Brrr! What a creepshow, man! Everybody's dead in here!"
The memorial encomiums for Maureen O'Hara have tended to stress the same bunch of movies—Hunchback Of Notre Dame, How Green Was My Valley, Miracle on 34th Street, The Quiet Man. Which is all well and good, except, you know, they're not the only pictures O'Hara made that are of cinephile or even general interest.
Jamaica Inn (Alfred Hitchcock, 1939)
O'Hara's more-or-less debut film (her first, at least, under her stage name) is frequently pooh-poohed as "minor Hitchcock," and the director himself disparages it in Hitchcock/Truffaut on account of having been given a hard time by Charles Laughton, but let us never forget that "minor Hitchcock" is better than 95 percent of "major" whoever. This is a highly cracking, cinema-wise, period piece—"[Hitchcock] did not fall into the trap of historical reconstruction but focused instead on making a baroque and highly embellished work," Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol aptly enthused in their study of Hitch—and young Maureen, entrusted with the job of both carrying the narrative and acting as audience surrogate, does an exceptional job, especially for an 18-year-old.
The Immortal Sergeant (Stahl, 1943)
Andrew Sarris: "In The Immortal Sergeant, for instance, Henry Fonda is in the desert with a mental image of Maureen O'Hara emerging dripping wet from a swimming pool. This is the cinema of audacity to the point of madness, and yet always preferable to the relative sanity of discretion." I won't tell Jeffrey "I always had this fantasy O'Hara was great in the sack" Wells about this if you won't.
This Land Is Mine (Renoir, 1943)
It is interesting to contrast Renoir's affectionate near-exasperation with Laughton with Hitchcock's dismissive account of his frustration. But we're not here to discuss Laughton, O'Hara's mentor (had her under contract and everything). This too-little seen wartime quasi-allegory (set "Somewhere In Europe") features O'Hara quite convincingly portraying an ordinary person under extraordinary circumstances, a school teacher beloved of sad-sack colleague Laughton, who finds his courage and voice after being accused of killing O'Hara's quisling boyfriend (George Sanders!). Renoir seems hemmed-in by RKO's backlots, but the movie is not without its touches—a firing-squad scene witnessed by Laughton, the relative nuance of Una O'Connor, of all people, and more.
Buffalo Bill (Wellman, 1944)
One of Wellman's goofier pictures but not unattractive visually—like the more-frequently-cited (with not illegitimate reason, I suppose) The Black Swan, it's part of O'Hara's claim to "Queen Of Technicolor"
The Long Gray Line (Ford, 1955)
Many would call this Pedro Costa favorite a truly improbably tearjerker, but it gets me every time. Must be some Irish thing. Seriously, though, this is a remarkably rich movie and O'Hara's character is one of her damnedest, in a way an even more stubborn lass than The Quiet Man's Mary Kate. Tag Gallagher cites "Maureen O'Hara's marvelously full-bodied stylization, contrasting with Tyrone Power's woodenness."
The Deadly Companions (Peckinpah 1961)
Early Peckinpah in lyrical mode, with Brian Keith as a scarred (in many respects) ex-soldier and O'Hara as a dance hall girl whose son Keith has accidentally killed. They band together to cross Apache territory to bury the dead by his father. O'Hara (who found Peckinpah "objectionable") is fiery in grief; the chemistry between her and Keith is rather different than what they displayed in The Parent Trap, on screen that same year.
Spencer's Mountain (Daves, 1963)
O'Hara and Henry Fonda, two decades after Immortal Sergeant, in a proto-Waltons family saga based on a novel by Earl Hammer, Jr., who'd later go on to create...The Waltons. Solid in that Daves way, with Mimsy Farmer adding some jaw-dropping-for-their-time notes of hotsie-totsieness as a girlfriend of a Spencer clan member.
My young friend Diana Drumm, a fine writer on film and a family friend of Ms. O'Hara, commended me, on Twitter, to Sentimental Journey, a 1946 film directed by Walter Lang. Diana cited a "bizarre plot that goes off the emotional deep end" and adds "O'Hara is wonderful in it." After The Quiet Man, Diana says, it was a "great personal favorite" of O'Hara's.
Mr. Joseph Failla, whom George Harrison might refer to as "a friend to us all," wrote to me to say "Don't forget about Dance, Girl, Dance (Arzner/Del Ruth, 1940), which may be my favorite Maureen O'Hara film outside the group that is normally mentioned. The difficulty here is that most people recall it as having Lucille Ball's best performance (which it does) but O'Hara gets her chance to shine here too as a hard working young woman who pursues her dream to be a ballet dancer. It's also refreshing to see in a movie of this vintage, the leading lady choose her profession over a man and believe in herself."
And below, in comments, The Self-Styled Siren extols the virtues of The Forbidden Street (Negulesco, 1949).
By the way, when we visited Robbe-Grillet, his petite, pretty wife, a young actress, had dressed herself a la gamine in my honor, pretending to be Lolita, and she continued the performance the next day, when we met again at a publisher’s luncheon in a restaurant. After pouring wine for everyone but her, the waiter asked, “Voulez-vous un Coca-Cola, Mademoiselle?” It was very funny, and Robbe-Grillet, who looks so solemn in photographs, roared with laughter.
—Vladimir Nabokov; in an interview with Alfred Appel, Jr., conducted August 1970, collected in Strong Opinions, 1973, McGraw-Hill
Brian Boyd’s biography of Nabokov places this meeting in 1959. By this time, Catherine Robbe-Grillet, née Rastakian, has already published her first novel, The Image, published by Editions du Minuet under the pen name Jean De Berg in 1956, when she is 26. She married Robbe-Grillet in 1957. The Image is a detailed account of a sado-masochistic relationship; it was made into a film, shot on location in Paris, by Radley Metzger in 1975. Robbe-Grillet appeared in two of her husband’s films, both among his best, 1963’s L’Immortelle and 1966’s Trans-Europe Express. In the years since her husband’s death (he passed away in 2008) she has gained a second reputation; for a very rare speaking appearance in New York, held by the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) on Tuesday evening, she was referred to more than once as “France’s most famous dominatrix.” The evening, which was prefaced by an edited version of La ceremonie, Lina Mannheimer’s documentary about Madame Robbe-Grillet, which also features extensive interviews with Robbe-Grillet’s companion and, …well,… it’s hard to put a name to it, and “slave” will not do…in any event, a good deal of the post-film discussion focused on how Beverly Charpentier, who spoke quite a bit herself while serving as Madame’s translator, could, as an extremely accomplished heterosexual woman with two grown children, have given her whole life over to the care and obedience of Catherine.
The panel was moderated by Toni Bentley, the one-time ballet dancer whose writings have come to chronicle her own explorations of sado-masochism. Wearing a near-crimson dress, Bentley, who authored the recent Vanity Fair article which introduced Madame Robbe-Grillet and her life work/style to an American audience, asked a series of questions, told the audience that she expected their own questions to be “bold,” and related a tale of her own participation in a bondage ritual with Robbe-Grillet and Charpentier.
So, you know, it was not an entirely literary evening. (It’s part of the French Alliance’s “Art of Sex And Seduction” series.) I myself am not terribly interested in S&M as a practice (despite my having penned, pseudonymously, an account of an evening at The Vault for a Guccione publication back in the ‘80s; like they say, once a philosopher, twice a…never mind…), but like all closed or semi-closed social systems, it is certainly interesting, and Madame Robbe-Grillet, a woman of fierce and formidable intelligence, brings her perceptual acuity to bear on the phenomenon in a dispassionate way when necessary. Looking very proper in her black dress suit and white headband, Madame, now 85 years of age, reflected on the fact that, from what statistics she could glean, 90 percent of all the individuals with an interest in sadomasochism are males, and that the disproportion creates, among other things, a certain kind of complicity among women who participate in the lifestyle. Also discussed were the differences between professional dominatrices and those who practice discipline as a lifestyle; Madame Robbe-Grillet, who does the latter, does not disdain sex workers—indeed, she has heartfelt praise for them—but does not take money herself; it redefines the nature of the whole exchange, she says, and of course she is correct. As for Charpentier, answering why a woman as accomplished as herself should be in the position she’s chosen, wondered aloud why it would be considered so unusual, and cited the motto of the American college fraternity Phi Kappa Psi, “joy in service.” A not dissimilar concept animates some practices within twelve step programs, but I wasn’t gonna bring that up necessarily.
There was much laughter in the talk. “Obviously, if you’ve read or seen 50 Shades of Gray, you know that a predilection for sadomasochism is the result of something terrible that happened to you as a child,” Madame Robbe-Grillet said, luxuriating in mild, rancor-free irony. “It’s reassuring for people to tie it in to some childhood trauma, but I can’t say that there’s any that I myself remember.” She went on to say that sexuality was still a place of mystery, and while “çe me derange pas” that psychoanalysts, both amateur and professional, have tried to figure out “why” she spent decades as a submissive before turning dominant, or any of the other features of her erotic life, she herself had/has “no need to find out where my desires come from.” I was delighted when, at the question of how long she intended to keep up her practice of rituals now that she’s in her ninth decade of life, Madame cited the example of Portuguese filmmaker Manoel De Oliviera, who continued making films even past the age of 100.
It is a tricky business, sado-masochism, and particularly in these times. At one point, Madame made mention of the fact that a genuine sadist derives no pleasure from inflicting pain on a person who enjoys receiving pain, as that goes against the whole ethos of sadism; the implications of this statement were left to hang as Madame continued by speaking of ideas of consent. Consent, I infer, is one of the rationales that inform the ritualistic practices in Robbe-Grillet’s mode of living. But these practices are not all she lives for. Again without irritation, she noted, “I know I’m billed as France’s most famous dominatrix, and I am, but I’m also a nice little old lady who’s interested in the theatre, music, and literature, and who makes jam!”
There was not much time for audience questions. The house, Florence Gould Hall, was packed, and the male-to-female ratio was something like 60:40, and of course I thought more than once of old Woody Allen jokes about the personal ads in the New York Review Of Books. The questions were not terribly “bold,” and I didn’t get to ask either of mine, the first of which was to solicit her own recollection of the meeting with Nabokov so very long ago (in the year of my own birth, as it happens), the second would have been about the extent to which she’d been involved in the making of the film version of The Image, and her impression of the picture. There was a book-signing afterwards, though, and I got to be third on line.
Alain Robbe-Grillet’s final published fiction, A Sentimental Novel, is so replete with elaborate erotic fantasies of such atrocities as child murder and such that it’s easy to ignore its ingenious structure, a variant of that of Raymond Roussel’s long poem “La Vue”—a structure that in some way inoculates the work from genuine moral condemnation, or should, or, oh, I don’t know. Although Robbe-Grillet doesn’t get into it in his wonderful memoir, published in English translation in 1988 as Ghosts In The Mirror, his marriage to Catherine was, among other things, a long-held S&M relationship. (His depiction of the marriage in the book is in fact, especially for this author, downright romantic. The book contains an account of how the couple survived the first crash of an Air France Boeing 707 in 1961, and how his main regret from that event was that in his incinerated luggage was a bracelet he had brought for Catherine in commemoration of their meeting exactly ten years before, while he was stuck on his novel Les Gommes and took a trip to Istanbul on impulse—the couple met on the Orient Express!) The cover of the paperback edition of Madame’s memoir of her husband, Alain, is a picture of the two locked in an impossibly tender embrace that has an emotional echo of Annie Leibovitz’s famed 1980 Lennon/Ono shot. The book is a series of alphabetically arranged vignettes/observations, some several pages, others only a paragraph or two. I certainly hope an English translation is in the offing; here is my own probably very not-good and certainly completely unauthorized translation of the entry called “Fax.”
My man has a happy relationship with tools, but with technology…?
Apart from the fax, he never puts aside his obstinate refusal of technical innovations (digital photo, computer, mobile phone). Only the fax finds grace with Alain; he has it in constant use after I buy him a simple model. He will not even hear of a credit card, even after being tricked up in a Canadian hotel, or it becomes a requirement for accessing an international phone line. He will never change; he’d rather suffer than bend.
Fortunately, without being infatuated with them, I have no issue with electronics, domestic or otherwise, and everything works out.
Tools, that’s him; electronics, me.
It was Alain that I chose for Madame to sign. Charpentier was by her side to translate, and I mentioned right off that I was an admirer of hers and a longtime admirer of her husband’s. Madame said something to Charpentier, and Charpentier said to me “You are a good person;” by way of amplifying this, Madame—who despite her tiny frame gives the impression of being a formidably strong person, and is unfailingly alert, with vivacious eyes—continued, “Tous les amateurs de Robbe-Grillet sont bonnes.”
Q: Do you like Bellochio?
BUÑUEL: I've seen Fists in the Pockets—I don't find it the slightest bit interesting; it's repulsive and far too facile. It's really completely overdone—the blind mother, the retarded brother...the son putting his feet on the mother's coffin—it's too easy...While he was at it, why not show him shitting on his mother's head? It's the only thing he spared us.
—From "Two Interviews With Luis Buñuel," translated from a Cahiers du Cinema article, reprinted in Modern Film Scripts: 'Belle De Jour,' Simon And Schuster, 1971