And back in the day indeed it was; I joke in my own head, above, about wanting to have Tony for a dad, but he's a full seven years younger than my creaky self, and besides, I don't mean it. (I'd send hugs and kisses to my own father here, but, as he tries to follow the example of Anthony Lane in all possible respects, he doesn't read blogs.) But Scott's free-and-easy (only to a point, as we'll see) attitude brought back some amusing memories of my early days as a freakishly young cinephile.
This weird-ass French stuff was one thing, but the R-rated material I had clamored to see was something else entirely. Back in '69, a summer-school teacher had rhapsodized to a group of his charges about Easy Rider, a film that said A LOT, he insisted, about where "this country" "was at" today, and I begged my folks to let me see it, but they said, no, I was ten and that was it. Then I got pneumonia and they bought me the movie's soundtrack album as a sympathy gift. By '72, as students of that era of filmmaking may recall, almost every picture worth seeing was R-rated, but my parents weren't budging. It wasn't as if, pace Mr. Scott, they were gonna feel guilty for exposing me to this material. They just DID NOT WANT me exposed to this material. But I was insistent, a.k.a., whiny. When Slaughterhouse-Five came out in early summer, I touted its literary value. Come on—I already KNEW what the adult content would be (mass death, Montana Wildhack's beautiful tits—I didn't say "tits"), having read the book. What further harm could be done? My folks gave up, kind of. Their terms: If I could get an adult other than themselves to take me (it was tacitly understood that said adult needed to be a relative), then, fine.
Score. I enlisted an uncle—my mom's younger brother, about ten years older than me, a with-it guy who was kind of a buddy (he used to get a kick out of reading my MAD magazines) and who'd been in 'Nam. This was a pretty cozy screening. Richie (the uncle) brought a girlfriend. I don't remember if he had read the book or not, but I recall we both agreed that the casting of Valerie Perrine as Montana Wildhack was just right.
So far, so good, I thought. Soon after Slaughterhouse Five, master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock was making a comeback of sorts, with his first feature since 1969's rather flat Topaz: Frenzy, an apparently daring and "modern" variant on his "wrong man" formula, about a down-on-his-luck fellow mistaken for a notorious rapist-strangler. The real rapist-strangler is, of course, a prosperous, well-liked "friend" of the suspect.
Well. Frenzy was rated R, too, and my parents weren't having it, but they held out the same deal they did for Slaughterhouse Five. And so I appealed to Nanny Kenny, my 73-year-old grandmother on my father's side. The last Hitchcock picture she had seen was Rebecca, and she recalled it fondly. I was set.
Things went smoothly enough at first. The nude female corpse floating in the Thames was a little grisly, but at least she was face down, and Hitchcock's funny cameo was around that time, so it was okay. What neither Nanny Kenny nor myself were prepared for was the first scene in which we see the necktie strangler, Robert Rusk (played by Barry Foster) take a victim—in this case the estranged wife of the "wrong man" Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), a rather prim woman who runs a matchmaking agency.
It's not, as those familiar with the movie know, that Rusk kills Brenda. He first submits her to humiliating exposure, baring her breasts and pronouncing them "lovely." He then rapes her in her office chair, repeating the word "lovely" with every thrust, as Brenda, poignantly, tragically, recites the 91st Psalm. This seems to go on forever.
And it's only after Rusk is, um, finished that he strangles Brenda to death with his necktie.
And there I am, twelve years old, sitting next to my grandmother, watching this.
Man, that was some awkward drive home that night.
Fortunately, shortly after this, I had a freakish growth spurt that shot my height up to six foot four inches. I could be my own "adult guardian," or rather, my pals' adult guardian. And so we went—to Magnum Force,Chinatown, Blazing Saddles, The Exorcist, etc. And we lied to our parent about it. "What did you and Joseph do today?" "We went to the movies." "What did you see?" "Mame." [pregnant pause.] "With Lucille Ball?" "Yup." [equally pregnant pause.] "Did you...like it?"
Early in his piece, Scott says: "I'm not going to advise anyone to subject young eyeballs to the cruelty of There Will Be Blood [...] or the menace of No Country For Old Men."
And there's the rub. Because, honest to God, I know that if I was 12 years old today, those are the movies I'd be clamoring to see.
In the early spring of 2001 I got a call from Tom Bissell, who was then an editor at Henry Holt. I had been referred to Tom by David Foster Wallace. Tom had this great idea for an essay collection, and Henry Holt had agreed to publish the collection, but there was a hitch: he couldn’t be the editor of record on the book because he worked full time, more or less, at Holt. Yeah, I didn’t quite get it either. The other thing was that because of the book’s subject, he, and his superiors at Holt, thought it would be a good idea to get A Known Film Critic to be the editor. Tom asked some writer friends for recommendations and Dave Wallace was kind enough to recommend me. This in spite of the fact that the last piece we’d worked together on at Premiere, in 1998, had left Dave so infuriated with Premiere and Hachette and magazines and everything (and to my mind this infuriation was justified on his part) that he’d made it clear he’d never do anything for Premiere again. If I ever went to another magazine, at another company, he’d be happy to work with me again—our personal relations had, gratefully, survived the debacle—but not Premiere, not Hachette. (Readers aware of the current disposition of Little, Brown may detect some small possible present irony here.)
Tom’s book was, or was to be, an essay collection about the lasting cultural impact of the Star Wars movies. Our first meeting, at this Mexican place that had been Sullivan’s in the Ed Sullivan Theater building, saw us getting in synch almost immediately. He had a pretty good list of literary folk he thought would be game, I was in charge of pursuing film critic and filmmaker types, and we banged our heads together wondering who or what we were missing. I wondered whether the book could accommodate graphic treatments; wouldn’t it be great, I said, to have a Tom Tomorrow strip, or better still, something by The Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder, in the book. Etc. And we both said at the same time, “We should get someone from The Onion to do something.”
The Onion had just moved its headquarters to New York. Tom and I were both in awe of the publication, not just because it was awesome but precisely because it had come out of what many metropolitan types refer to as “nowhere” and it as a result also seemed extremely mysterious to us. Was the publication, we wondered, so contemptuous of the mainstream of publishing that any approach from representatives of Henry Holt would be laughed out of their office.
Well, no. “Their head writer is an insane Star Wars guy, it turns out,” Bissell reported to me soon after. “Went to opening night of The Phantom Menace in an Obi-Wan Kenobi costume.”
“Holy shit,” I said. So this head writer, Todd Hanson, wanted to write an essay about the crushing, overwhelming disappointment he felt upon actually seeing The Phantom Menace. Well, yes. This was a good idea.
The book began to come together over the summer. The first commissioned piece we actually received was from Jonathan Lethem. Titled “13, 1977, 21,” it was the account of how he saw Star Wars: A New Hope, as it is now called, 21 times in the summer of 1977, the summer it opened, which was also the summer his mom died of brain cancer. It was a tender, gently devastating, typically Lethem-sharp piece. Bissell and I knew it was going to be the opening essay of the book. Very serendipitous, we thought.
9/11 caused us—me, Tom, Henry Holt—to rethink whether we were gonna go on with the book at all. We were, but a handful of commissioned writers who hadn’t turned in pieces yet dropped out. This was unfortunate but understandable. By early 2002 we had much of the book in place. The editor was reserving a page’s worth of space in the introduction into which I’d cram some thoughts about Attack of the Clones once I saw it in May. All was well. Except I didn’t have the essay from The Onion guy yet.
I had only spoken to Todd once or twice since we first made the agreement but now I had to get after him a little harder. Over a couple of weeks we seemed to make good progress with respect to how he was feeling about the writing, and then we hit a bit of a wall. He finally fessed up. “The thing is, it’s really long right now. It’s like, ridiculously long.”
“Well why don’t you let me see it and I’ll be the judge of that.” It didn’t go quite that easy, but he did send it, and I did read it.
He was right: it was long. It was also wonderful. It was fucking wonderful. It was laugh-out-loud funny—of course it was—it was genuinely literary, it was filled with thoroughly trenchant insights on pop culture and American culture and American life, and it was poignant, and, oh, it was laugh-out-loud funny. I loved it and I told him so.
“I don’t know, man, I don’t know,” was something like his reply. And now I didn’t know how to make Todd feel my sincerity. One way, it occurred to me, was by socializing. We began to hang out a bit; one of Todd's best friends lived in my Carroll Gardens neighborhood, so we’d meet for a bit of a smoke-up at his pal’s, and then go over to Finn, this bar nearby, and get completely shit-faced. A couple of younger regulars there who were friends of mine were blown away that I was bringing the head writer for The Onion to our local, and they got shit-faced with us in an eager-apostle-type style. It was fun. Todd eventually opened up to me about his doubts: writing something for a book, he thought, was a really big deal, and his friends agreed with this notion, and some of them advised him that submitting a 20,000 word essay when you’d been asked to submit something between 2,000 and 5,000 words was bad form—it looked greedy and undisciplined and unprofessional, and it would screw up his chances to do essay writing elsewhere, and so on.
“Your friends are idiots,” I said to Todd, as I would. “And also: You know who always went WILDLY over the fucking word count whenever I worked with him? David Foster Wallace.” Todd knew that Bissell and I knew Wallace and looked at him as a kind of guardian angel of the project and were hoping to get a blurb from him when the book was in galleys. (As to why Wallace didn’t do a piece—of course we asked—he, like the Tom Tomorrow guy, just wasn’t that into Star Wars. He’d seen the first one just once. Dubbed into French. Because he was in France at the time, whenever it was. Didn’t make an impression. “Definitely count on me if you do a book on the Lord of the Rings movies, though,” he said. )
Now might be a good time to admit that there was a certain way in which I was acting in enlightened or unenlightened self-interest, depending on how you want to read it. I have to admit here to what some might see as not 100 percent enlightened self interest. Until I got Todd’s piece, the book was a little more than a bit under the 60,000 word MS total that was specified in my contract. Todd’s essay, at its submission length, put it slightly over 60,000, so a big weight was off my mind. BUT. I reiterate: Todd’s piece was brilliant, I didn’t want to cut a word of it.
It still holds up. Because it is, I think, one of the best expressions of indignation at American Pop Culture that also critiques indignation at American Pop Culture and celebrates a specific aspect of American Pop Culture: the essay’s title, after all, is “A Big Dumb Movie About Space Wizards.” One of its animating themes is an Ahab-like anger at the very notion of the character Jar-Jar Binks, who, at around the midpoint of the essay, is redubbed He Who Shall Not Be Named/HWSNBN. (“An UberBarney with the Voice from Beyond Elmo” is one of my favorite descriptions of the misbegotten character.) One of its most welcome features is a lightly-worn and entirely non-academic/unpretentious erudition that has nothing to do with the defensive crouch that’s become too common in critical writing about pop culture in today’s Internet this-is-water.
My enthusiasm possibly failed to really convince Todd, but he was eventually mollified. It would have been very poetic had the essay, which ended up being the last I signed off on, ended up being the lat piece in the book, but it was more like whatever you call the ante-penultimate (if you don’t count the acknowledgements). In early June of 2002 the book was in galleys and I sent a copy to Wallace in the hope of getting a blurb. Also of course because I figured he’d be curious about what Bissell and I had come up with. Dave read it pretty much right away and called to tell me, yes, he liked it, but alas, no, he wasn’t gonna blurb it. I imagined that he put himself through his customary ethical torture before making the decision—he sounded genuinely regretful—but the combination of his relative alienation from the book’s subject matter combined with the Professional Complications Inherent In Bestowing A Blurb If You Are David Foster Wallace made a polite demurral his only option. I wasn’t going to argue or beg. After we got over that hump, he said, “The nearly-last piece, the one by the Onion guy, Hanson? That was fantastic. Best thing in the book.”
“I’ll make sure to tell him that,” I said. And I did, and that very nearly made Todd positively happy about having done the piece as he had done it. Todd never got to meet up with Dave, which is a shame, and he, like a lot of people, took it pretty hard when Dave took his own life in September of 2008. Todd told me, one night when we hung out and got soused near the end of that year, that Wallace and Thomas Disch had been his two favorite living authors—Disch had killed himself on the Fourth of July of that same year. Great writers killing themselves becoming a Thing—we didn’t see much hope in that, at the time.
Why am I writing this and subsequently posting it? Good question. Possible answers:
1) To prove, Ana Marie Cox and Andrew Sullivan notwithstanding, that blogging’s not dead. Whoo-fucking-hoo.
2) There was that whole thing on social media recently, when the all-female Ghostbusters was announced with dismal sexist dudes complaining in all earnest that an all-female Ghostbusters is just wrong, and treating Ghostbusters as a sacred text, and of course the whole pushback on this from Responsible Professionals deploring the social media sexism. But it occurred to me that these ostensibly deplorable expressions of opinion are an entirely organic feature of the “everyone’s a critic culture” that Jeff Jarvis once found so entirely salutary. And that the perception of something like Ghostbusters as something sacrosanct is not entirely unrelated to a certain tendency in pop culture writing, an anti-intellectualism that insists on aggressively expressing a distaste for “difficult” art and demanding to be taken seriously for its myriad of perceptions concerning every single television show, etc., etc. These observations were leading me, thought-wise, down a path I had trod before (“generations have trod, have trod, have trod”) and I was largely set to penning Yet Another Ineffectual Indictment Of The Usual Fucking Subjects. And I thought, why not, as an alternative to the same old thing, think about a piece of writing about pop culture that I actually admire? (One that, among many its other advantages, say, doesn’t use rape as a metaphor, as in “George Lucas raped my childhood.”)
3) This impulse dissolved, cinematically even, into memories of David Foster Wallace, on account of the movie The End Of The Tour, which premiered at Sundance and garnered very favorable reviews, many of them waxing enthusiastic on the theme “Who Would Have Thought That Jason Segel Could Bring David Foster Wallace To Life Like That?” And already you see some resentment on my part, no? Yes. I suppose on some level I ought to feel gratified that the movie is, apparently, a sensitive and well-made one. I know James Ponsoldt is a good filmmaker. We have more than a few mutual friends. I’m also friendly with a lot of people at the company that produced the movie (although the producers themselves are not known to me). On the other hand I’m also friendly with at least one person who’s part of Wallace’s estate. Various reports about End of the Tour have stated that Wallace’s estate tried to block the movie from being made. As far as I know that’s untrue. What the estate did do, and is entirely within its rights and even obligations in so doing, is state that it did not authorize the movie, which is based on a book by David Lipsky. The people who were closest to Dave—and those are, as it happen, the people who make up the entity that is called his “estate”—are acutely aware that had Dave not killed himself in 2008, Lipsky’s book would not have come into being; had Lipsky’s book not come into being, it would not have had motion picture rights to be sold; had motion picture rights not been sold, David Margulies could not have written a screenplay based on the book; etcetera, etcetera. All leading up to the logical conclusion that had David Foster Wallace not killed himself, Jason Segel would not have been able to sit down at a video shoot at “Variety Studio” (“presented by Dockers”) and say things like “I was really lucky to have three really good friends who had read Infinite Jest read it again with me.” I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that if you consider yourself a David Foster Wallace “fan” and you can’t understand why for some people this particular course of events might really hurt some people, then maybe you might want to read some more of Wallace’s work, and a little more carefully. Even allowing the idea that The End of the Tour might indeed be an objectively conscientious and sensitive work, I can’t even look at Jason Segel for more than ten seconds at a time right now. (And I wasn’t even THAT CLOSE to Wallace, I know.) And I can’t think about The End of the Tour without having the Captain Beefheart lyric come into my head. You know the one, from “Sue Egypt” on Doc At The Radar Station: “I think of all those people that ride on my bones.”
4) So I thought rather than go nuts about all that, I’d write something, you know, fond.
I think both Alexei German's Hard To Be A God (above) and Abderrahamane Sisako's Timbuktu are masterpieces, but they're also films that demonstrate the necessary elasticity of the possibly overused term. German's film, decades in the making, insistently unpleasant if not harrowing, replete with narrative difficulty and sleeve-tugging if not wedgie-pulling subtext, a meticulous immersion into an awful created world that's a mirror of our own, feels very much like a magnum opus. Sisako's film, gorgeous, quietly virtuosic, telling a tragic and at times harrowing story but also graced with moments of quiet beauty and suffused with an abiding wisdom that it shares with a subdued but entirely righteous anger seems "merely" like a story Sisako wants to tell. How much these apprehensions/intuitions have to do with the fact that German's is a posthumous film and Sisako, at age 53, has many more movies to make, is of course an open question In the meantime, I review both films for RogerEbert.com at the links attached to the titles.
The German film's run at NYC's Anthology Film Archives is part of a substantial retrospective of the great director's work, including such wonders as 1971's Trial On The Road (further proof of my maxim that the Russians made the absolute best World War II films) and the harrowing, phantasmagoric 1998 Khrustalyov, My Car!, both of which I wrote a bit about here. I hope to write more on German (or Guerman) soon.
This week, for RogerEbert.com, I explain why I'm not as crazy about Peter Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy (from which the above pretty picture derives) as a person like myself perhaps ought to be. And it gets more problematic from there, with reviews of the George-Lucas-originated (or perhaps the correct word is "misbegotten") Strange Magic, and finally, the execrable Mommy, from Xavier Dolan, who puts the English-language "terrible" into "enfant terrible."
Dear Professional Film Critic,
does the movie American Sniper really “glorify a killer?”
Well, gosh, you put it that way, it sounds pretty terrible. But some outlets and individuals are using that term to frame the movie, so…
Anyway, here’s the thing. American Sniper does take the war in Iraq at face value, as in it was a war and that the United States was within its right to wage it and all that. And, you know, in a war, the body waging it sends soldiers, and one thing soldiers do, one of the main things soldiers do, some would argue, is kill. Killing is something every soldier is trained to do, I think. You know, I bet even the nice chaplain played by Leon Ames in Battleground is probably trained to kill. I doubt that he’s encouraged to kill, but he probably knows how to do it, and can if necessary. What the hell do I know about the military, I was 13 when they ended the draft and too old to enlist by the time people (none that I knew, though) would tell you it was the patriotic thing to do. Although come to think of it the Army might have made a better career than the one I’m enjoying now. But enough about me. In any event, given that Special Forces operative Chris Kyle, the subject of the movie, was trained and employed as a very specific kind of soldier, one who pretty much did nothing BUT kill, and because he did a pretty good job of it, by both the official record and his own accounting (which many have taken issue with, although the official record is apparently acknowledged as solid), and since the movie doesn’t really take issue with the notion that Kyle was what is generally referred to as a “war hero,” then yes, I guess the movie CAN be seen as “glorifying” a “killer.” But there’d have to be a lot of, what are they these days in sports records?...asterisk?...next to “killer” if you’re gonna go that route. I mean it’s not like he did all this killing in Iraq and then came home to face charges. It was all, like, state-sanctioned killing. Seems a little unfair to get all up in his face for that, no?
Dear Professional Film Critic,
what’s the deal with the robot baby in the movie?
Did that bother you? I mean, I kind of noticed it when I looked specifically for it and yeah it was a little goofy but I don’t know. Frankly I’m a little bugged when real newborns get explicit exposure in movies. In the battle between verisimilitude and lobster-red naked infants squirming uncomfortably before cameras and lights I’m something of a conscientious objector. Although the tradition does go back quite a ways: I was surprised, watching King Vidor’s 1928 classic The Crowd again recently, to see that the birth of its hero John is handled with not just a real live baby in full view of the camera but a real live baby in full view of the camera if you know what I’m saying etc. In any event, word from the film’s screenwriter is that the movie’s first live baby showed up with fever, the second was a no-show, and that’s when director Clint Eastwood called in the prop department. Eastwood’s a real git-er-done kind of director. Here he explains that it was Don Siegel who taught him this, so complain to Don Siegel, you philistine: “Don knew exactly which shots to shoot. But he wasn’t rigid. He could add or change a shot at the last minute. I’ve worked with directors who are completely pole-axed if you suggest a change in a scene. I bumped my head while we were shooting In The Line Of Fire. To hide the bruise, I asked Wolfgang Petersen whether I could enter a shot from the right rather than the left. Wolfgang had a lot of trouble reorganizing the scene, because he’d imagined it all from the one angle. A detail had changed and it threw him off balance. This was never the case with Don. Sergio would have taken time to think and probably have said OK, but Don wouldn’t have blinked an eyelid. He believed that there were no rules, or if there were rules, they were made to be broken.” That’s from a piece by Eastwood in the invaluable collection Projections 4 ½ (in association with Positif). You should check it out. I trust I don’t have to explain to you who “Sergio” is.
Dear Professional Film Critic,
does the movie view/portray the Iraqi people as irredeemable savages?
This is kind of a tough one. I would say “no,” but I will admit that the movie frames Iraq within severely straitened circumstances, circumstances specific to the condition and the mission of its lead character, the aforementioned Chris Kyle, an American sniper. The title of the movie, we may recall, is “American Sniper,” not “American Ambassador” or “Civilian Outreach Guy.” Inasmuch as there even was such a thing as civil or civic society in Iraq after we were greeted as liberators there (and again, for reasons explained above, I myself cannot claim any direct experience with respect to any of this, thank God), from what accounts I’ve read it was pretty, um, fraught, and the U.S. Special Forces weren’t really sent to places that weren’t particularly fraught. And so on. Not to drag Boyhood into this, but remember the second stepdad in Boyhood, Jim, before he’s the stepdad and he’s just a student of Patricia Arquette’s and he seems kind of not an asshole and he’s telling the story about one of his tours in Iraq and the differences between the approaches of different squadrons when entering Iraqi territories and interacting with civilians? Right, well, that’s a whole movie right there. And the experience of a special forces operative, I think—and this goes back to the first question—has to do with touching down and securing areas wherein and from which you are only supposed to kill. Notice I’m not saying “kill bad guys.” I’m not here to make judgments. But, no, it’s true—the movie doesn’t feature many Iraqi nice guys or even recognizably regular Iraqis. There’s one who’s particularly holy-shit-inducing in his malevolence, and is pitted against a very fearful native of the country who has cooperated with the Americans. These depictions, to my eye, are conceptualized toward conveying the mind-melting hell of violent conflict that is the everyday working world for the title character, rather than a programmatic attempt to get the audience hissing at an entire race of people as villains. The perspective is, I admit, narrow, but as someone who likes the film, I want to believe it’s necessarily so. A friend who disagrees is reminded of Alan Dershowitz’s heinous 2006 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece titled “’Civilian Casualty? That’s A Gray Area.”
When I saw Ava DuVernay’s Selma last December, I, like many other critics, was terrifically taken with it. And I was also a little surprised. I was not surprised that it was good—DuVernay’s 2012 Middle of Nowhere demonstrated she had both considerable talent and considerable perspective—but at the way it was good. DuVernay stuck to her metaphorical guns with respect to perspective and declined to deliver a Great Man biopic. Instead she wove a drama of considerable intelligence, empathy, and analytical chops. She made a film sufficiently unconventional so as to be called radical, a film whose style—or perhaps the better word for what I mean is “mode”—I thought, owed more to Steven Soderbergh’s Che than it did to Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.
Right-wing Internet gadfly John Nolte probably hit the nails on the heads of hundreds of voting AMPAS members when he wrote, on Twitter, “Selma's biggest problem is that it just doesn't soar at the end. You wait for that emotional release. It never comes. Real failure.” This is an interesting point, for a number of reasons, one of which would arguably center around the request “Define ‘soar’.” (It would be in poor taste for me to speculate as to what kind of film with Martin Luther King as its central character would “soar” for Nolte, whose Twitter feed after the quoted observation has since, as of this writing, been dedicated to all-caps yelling at Ava DuVernay fans about how Martin Scorsese didn’t get an Oscar for Raging Bull either and how they should just shut up.) But Nolte’s not exactly wrong. I was moved by Selma, and by its ending, but that ending, which breaks away from the staged drama of the march and the speech from Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) to intercut actual documentary footage of the events and people. It’s a stirring moment, yes, but it’s a distinctly anti-manipulative one. Instead of using cinematic craft and guile to provide a you-are-there feel, and then perhaps to force an idea of being transported on the viewer, the movie steps back and says “this happened.” Your “emotional release” may vary—as I said, I myself was moved—but the movie’s sense of integrity eschews a particular kind of sentimentality. It won’t indulge deceit.
"I find it hilarious that most of the stuff being written about movies is how conventional they are, and then you have people [...] upset that something's not conventional," Steven Soderbergh remarked at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, responding to some critical slings and arrows hurled at Che when it played there that May. (Soderbergh would take a form of revenge against critics later that year, hiring an actual walrus to give an unflattering portrayal of an escort-reviewer in his 2009 release The Girlfriend Experience.) I imagine that there is if not upset, at least a fair amount of discomfort concerning the unconventional aspects of Selma within the more barnacle-crusted ranks of the Academy. As for the movie’s alleged smear of Lyndon Johnson: whether it is one or not, and its actual extent if it is one, is arguable. But I thought it was within DuVernay’s rights, as an artist and maybe particularly as a black artist, to have Johnson’s character stand in for some particular manifestations of white fear. Johnson’s mild resentment at King’s insistence, as depicted in the film, is revelatory. It’s also rather funny—a good bit—that Johnson decides to act as King has asked largely because Johnson becomes more pissed off at George Wallace than he has been, or ever gets, with King. Whether this is factually true or not is less important in this film’s scheme than not just the dramatic truth of the scenes themselves, but also the truth the scenes demonstrate. Truth about how history, or rather, what we come to see as “History,” is made; almost by accident, pivoted on the pettiest of motivations, perhaps. Similarly, DuVernay’s conception of King seems very much informed by, among other things, what for lack of a better term I’ll call her female tolerance. Clearly DuVernay and her film admire King, but Selma doesn’t quite worship him. It’s not just a matter of acknowledging his flaws and failings as a husband, or depicting him smoking a cigarette while composing a difficult letter. There’s a larger, more intellectual dynamic at work here too. It’s seen in the way DuVernay insists that King, while the most publicly prominent leader of the Civil Rights movement, was not the SOLE leader of it. DuVernay’s careful staging of tactics meetings, her vividly limned portraits of younger figures such as John Lewis, even the single scene in which Malcolm X appears, all stress the value of collective action—that is, the importance of the Civil Rights movement as a movement. And here too the movie resists sentimentality. Not only that, it suggests a continuity and sounds, implicitly, a call to action. Call-to-action movies are not the sort of thing the Academy enjoys. It likes a nice neat social justice movie that sits back and says “problem solved” after the Great Man at its center has done his work. Or, in the case of the aforementioned Gandhi, says “isn’t it a shame things went so wrong, too bad nothing really can be done.” Selma is not just a movie about getting a job done, it’s about thinking things through, and it very often depicts its characters thinking things through. There’s nothing to which Old Hollywood is more hostile than actual thought, except maybe its cinematic depiction. And yes, I know that movies about Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking also got nominated for Best Picture Oscars. But those movies are hardly concerned with thought.
Against Jerry Lewis in Hollywood Or Bust, Frank Tashlin, 1956.
Ekberg, who died yesterday at age 83, is the first of Bob Dylan's "Country'll Grow" trinity to shuffle off this mortal coil. To call her the poster girl for the Male Gaze is both somewhat apt and entirely reductive. Nevertheless, here is a rendering of her mouth as it appears on a giant advertisement for Call Me Bwana in From Russia With Love.
For some reason, I thought that it might be fun over the Christmas holiday to give myself more work. With little to nothing going on in terms of “real” work during this period, I figured I’d go on a sort of cinema vacation: revisit a group of films just for the hell of it. Actually, only partially for the hell of it; I thought, the better to revive the enthusiasms that led me to write about motion pictures in the first place, I’d revisit pictures that were essential to the formation of my sensibility. A rather mordant sensibility, it turns out. What’s up with that? I was crazy about movies for a very long time before I even began to conceive of forming a critical apparatus with which to deal with them, but I knew from almost right off the bat (the first movie I remember watching in its entirety was The Haunting) what I wanted from movies. I did not go to cinema in search of beings akin to me (God forbid that, in fact), but I was not looking for a non-mindful form of “escape;” rather, I wanted intoxicants, narcotics. This is one reason why, whenever I am compiling some kind of “greatest ever” movies list in private, I sometimes have to remind myself about, say, Rules of the Game. A great work of art but not one that affected me in the same way as The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, if you get what I’m saying.
This was not a hard rule regarding my selection, though. As you’ll see, there was a Current Events Pretext for picking one film, and the World War II movie popped into my head via a stray social media remark from my friend Tom Carson. As for the others, though, they were/are each in some way parts of my personal pantheon, other people’s work that nevertheless hangs in The Museum Of Me. Would spending time with them invigorate my enthusiasm for The Work? Interesting question. Below are the observations I made on each of them.
King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack [and Willis O’Brien], 1933)
The movie seems a lot less innocent the older it, and I, get. Not that this is a source of great concern to me; in a sense I find its relentless malevolent lurid sensationalism kind of admirable, and I understand why some of the Surrealists did too. It’s also funny in the way the diegesis begins with a heap of delightful idiomatic sassy Pre-Code dialogue (“I go out and sweat blood to make a swell picture,” etc.) and then a long central section of the movie leading up to Kong’s rout of Skull Island seems to have literally nothing on the soundtrack but harsh screams and animal noises and the crackle of Kong breaking that dead dinosaur’s jaw. And yes, of course the movie is a complete mess of racialism. I wondered, idly, as I watched, the extent to which the completely African-American-free depiction of Manhattan was actually calculated. Also noteworthy was how the giant animatronic Kong head used in close-ups is an entirely different character from Willis O’Brien’s clearly more beloved full-body model Kong.
The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin, 1940)
I picked this because why not, given all the chatter about The Interview and the comparisons (specious, it can confidently be said even if one hasn’t seen The Interview, which I haven’t) and all that. Ron Rosenbaum hates this movie, considering it both arrogant and a squandered opportunity. By the same token, as much of a genius as Chaplin was, I imagine he’d have to be even more of a genius and something of a saint in order, by 1938, to perceive Hitler in a position of utter detachment from his own (Chaplin’s, that is) ego. (Note this observation from around the same year, in the Spectator, cited in David Robinson’s biography of Chaplin: “In Herr Hitler the angel [i.e. Chaplin] has become a devil. The soleless boots have become Reitstiefel; the shapeless trousers, riding breeches; the cane, a riding crop; the bowler, a forage cap. The Tramp has become a storm trooper; only the moustache is the same.” It is almost impossible for anyone alive today to imagine a pre-Holocaust Hitler, but that is, for better or worse, the Hitler Chaplin was addressing with his film, and that combined with Chaplin’s ego-driven indignation at the effrontery of this character are large parts of what make the film fall flat, seen today. Another problem is that while Chaplin was great at parables he’s not that good with satire (“kill off the Jews…wipe out the brunettes,” ugh) and, as smart as he was, he wasn’t quite what you call an intellectual. His ambition, which in this film includes the desire (slight, admittedly) to be seen as one, wreak havoc with his better artistic instincts here; a sinking feeling intrudes as one endures the painfully unfunny Great War prologue. Interestingly enough, the movie only begins to find its footing when Paulette Goddard shows up. There is no other film about which this can be said, I think. (Not to disrespect Miss Goddard, mind you.) Roberto Rossellini called Chaplin’s much-maligned 1957 A King In New York “the film of a free man,” this, too, is the film of a free man, albeit a freeman flailing. Certain of its infelicities are kind of fascination: Chaplin’s Mack Sennett-derived conception of storm troopers has some interesting side effects, one of them being that Billy Gilbert makes more sense here than he does in His Girl Friday. For all that…I do find the movie’s closing speech strangely stirring, and I felt (that is, registered) Chaplin’s desire to be sincere in an almost awkward way as I took these notes from it: “The power they took from the people will return to the people…you are not machines…you have the love of humanity in your hearts…don’t fight for slavery…the power to create happiness…”
Battleground (William Wellman, 1949)
This sketch of the siege of Bastogne is a great stealth Christmas film, and also a marvelous kind of “hangout film” despite the context being one that you’d never want to hangout in. Atmospheric, quiet, almost no “plot.” Equal measures of lyricism (Montalban’s character, Rodrigues, has never seen snow before), warmth, and dread. Even the seemingly manufactured-for-uplift coda (sounding what Paul Fussell called the “one optimistic and morale-sustaining voice” of the Hollywood WWII film) is handled in a downbeat, matter-of-fact fashion. There are remarkable performances from all the members of what Jeanine Basinger dubbed “the universal platoon.”
Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
In its levels of detail and immersion, possibly the most convincingly novelistic movie ever made. How did they do all that action stuff in that rain (real or manufactured as it might have been)?
Diabolique (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)
All things considered, maybe I shoulda watched The Murderer Lives At Number 21, a much earlier Clouzot picture I haven’t seen before. Not that this was bad, not at all, but it didn’t hit me in the way I was hoping. And anyway, the whole point of this exercise was to watch stuff I HAD seen before. Despite it coming after Wages of Fear, Diabolique has stretches in which if feels way less assured. A good deal of the French Provincial stuff is really kind of cringe inducing, e.g. the innkeeper’s histrionics when the clanging of the pipes is making it impossible for him to hear his radio show. Jesus. The point’s supposed to be one of suspense: is he going to get so mad that he’s gonna go upstairs and see S. Signoret and V. Clouzot with a dead guy in the filled tub? Instead Clouzot lets Nöel Roquevert make a full-fledged “comedy” routine out of it. Hitchcock would have never allowed such a thing, which is one reason Hitchcock’s a consistently/demonstrably better director than Clouzot. Still. There’s some pretty strong stuff here. What are you gonna do.
Belle de jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)
I believe J. Hoberman has called this “a perfect film” and he is indeed correct. Not only is there nothing wrong with it, there’s everything right with it. So much is going on, and yet all of it seems effortless, comfortable in mastery and drollery. The choppiness of the cuts in the opening “dream” sequence is bracing (and reminiscent of the dedication ceremony scene in L’age d’or somehow) but also weirdly sets the film’s fluidity of tone. Also noteworthy: the way Buñuel both sends up and respects the prerogatives of the “women’s picture” and/or melodrama. It’s kind of staggering, too, especially given Buñuel’s admitted delight in indulging his own kinks/fetishes here, how non-“masculine” or macho the film is. In a sense the auteur is like Flaubert, and not just in a “Madame Bovary, ç’est moi” way. Part of it is his refusal to be heavy-handed, as in the way he cuts from a client of Severine’s discovering “you like the rough stuff” to a shot of Mme Anais and her girls playing gin rummy. (I don’t imagine you will find anything even vaguely equivalent to this transition in the film of Fifty Shades of Derp.) I love how the buzzing box brandished by the nonsense-speaking Asian client is treated as a throwaway, as is the robbery committed by Francisco Rabal and Pierre Clementi that introduces those two knucklehead characters. The picture is also full of weirdly numinous dialogue: brothel maid Pallas saying “I even dream about you sometimes” or Rabal’s “I’d slit my father’s throat for less.” Also: the elaborate dolly-then-zoom in the duel dream sequence. Clementi’s steel teeth. God, this movie.
A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
If Dr. Strangelove is Stanley Kubrick on Mad Magazine, Clockwork is Stanley Kubrick on Zap! Comix, or something like that. Almost all of Kubrick’s films have a cartoonish element, but I think there’s three of them that qualify as full-on comic books of a sort: Strangelove, Clockwork, and Lolita. Right, I know what you’re thinking: my putting Lolita on that list is as quirky and brilliant and provocative as Robin Wood saying, “But Scarface belongs with the comedies.” Wait, you’re not thinking that? Anyway. The first fifteen minutes of the movie are just one in-your-face violation of taste and propriety and morality after another, and there’s no point in denying the extent to which Kubrick enjoys the spectacle. In John Baxter’s bio of the director, actor Adrienne Corri, who was a social friend of Kubrick’s, recalled lobbying for the part of the victim of the brutal rape in the movie’s first section (I don’t recall that either Corri or Baxter clarifies why on earth any sentient being would actively lobby for that part, but hey) and having Kubrick respond “But Corri, what if I don’t like the tits?” Do not hold it against me for noticing that the, um, tits displayed throughout the film are all highly likable. In point of fact maybe they’re the only outright attractive features in the film. There’s so much here that’s dispiriting, puzzling; there’s an amazing amount of bravura, too-bravura, filmmaking done in the service of a vision so narrow and monochromatic that it’s almost…hell, I don’t know what it is. Things I flashed on: The frost-breath of Alex as he invites Billy and his gang to fight. The pan as the would-be victim of Billy’s gang runs off stage. The Pythonesque stylings of the chief prison guard played by Michael Bates. The shot of the lightning, very Universal Pictures…and Alex’s voiceover reflection during a Ludovico session “it’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on a screen,” which may just be what the whole damn film is really only about anyway.
Lisa and the Devil (Mario Bava, 1973)
I loved Bava’s images—a coach floating through a menacing forest in slow-motion, Barbara Steele’s haughty-cheekboned grinning/grimacing face bearing the punctures of a medieval torture device—before I knew who the man even was. So of course I became a rabid fan once I did know. This 1973 vision existed for years only in a risible, mutilated version that still had plenty of oneiric mojo. As with so many International Co-Production Genre Pictures there’s a realm of compromise in which even the undiluted vision dwells, one in which the viewer is obliged to accept a lollipop-snarfing Telly Savalas as the embodiment of death and/or evil. His interpretation of the responsibility is largely…interesting, but I can’t get past the nagging feeling that he’s just not taking his job very seriously. Such is the puzzlement faced by not just this Bava fan, I think. On the other hand: one cannot deny the treatment of space that’s as acute in its way as Antonioni’s, the way Bava shoots the lovely Elke Sommer as if she’s a mannequin throughout, the way the labyrinthine plotting recalls both The Old Dark House and Castle of Blood, the late revelation that between Alida Valli’s final moments here and the climax of Black Sabbath’s “A Drop Of Water” sequence, it had to be Bava who inspired Ernest Dickerson to concoct the rolling-walk show with Spike Lee…and so on. Always just a magnificent experience, Lisa is.
I did not, I have to admit, come away from all this consumption with a sense of the World Remade Anew. I mean, I suppose it’s nice for me that I have such “interesting” taste, or at least taste that satisfies certain aspects of Cinephile Conventional Wisdom on the one hand and deviates from that in “interesting” ways which are still, you know, acceptable, but so what. There are a lot of people out there with taste. I was reading a piece by David Ehrlich in Slate the other day about the irresistible rise of Jennifer Aniston’s Best Actress Academy Award nomination odds; in that piece he describes the process by which things came to this apparently sorry pass, and refers to Deadline Hollywood’s Pete Hammond, who apparently got this ball rolling, as “a humanoid pull-quote machine whom the studios pass around like the office stapler.” A funny line, and possibly not an inaccurate characterization, but for some reason I flashed back to 2009, when Robin Wood died, and an Internet “columnist” wrote something vaguely disparaging about Wood’s affection for Rio Bravo, and who chimed in with a comment in defense of Wood, a comment that showed a pretty thorough conversance with the critic’s work? Well, Pete Hammond, whose current line of work doesn’t call for such appreciation, when you come right down to it. And yet, there it was. A few weeks ago I was in the midst of reading a pretty thick tome about a relatively esoteric branch of African-American music, which I had with me at a screening; the book was noticed by a guy who’s pretty well-known on the screening circuit and who’s something of a figure of fun to younger and/or more gainfully employed/socially adept writers, and God knows I’ve had occasion to have ungenerous jest at his expense. “I’d like to check that book out,” he said, after he had wrested its title from me, who displayed I suppose considerable awkward unease at having to conduct a conversation with him. “That music meant a lot to me when I was younger.”
I remember, in Money, Martin Amis’s John Self proclaiming “’Confidence’ I now regard as a psychopathic state. Confidence, it’s a cry for help. I mean, you look at all that out there, and what you feel is confidence?” And I also remember, not in Money, the phrase “there but for the grace of God go I.” All of this was buzzing in my head after I watched my eight films, and before the events in Paris. That’s where I ended up after going back to the well.