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February 28, 2014


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Great dish - in both senses of the word!

Let me add my 5 Cents worth of comments and try to ever-so-gently rankle "the auteurist" Glenn a little bit in the process.

71: "A Man for all Seasons" - Of course it's dull, it's based on a play by Robert Bolt, so what did you expect?

67: "Oliver! Carol Reed: What Happened?" - Nothing happened. Reed just lavished the same talent and craftsmanship on material that auteurists (and most Americans) don't care about. This is not the place, but I will always insist that "Oliver!" is a much better (stage) musical than "The Sound of Music".

61: "Braveheart" - I would argue that one can actually draw a line of inspiration for this movie's battle scenes beyond Kurosawa to Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevskji". How wonderful that a right-wing nut should be inspired by one of the staunchest communists in cinema history!
By the way: is there anyone (apart from Quentin Tarantino) who in the last 25 years has done more work that obviously defines him as an "auteur" than Mel Gibson? In all of his films one can clearly detect the same skills and thematic pre-occupations. So: is there a special place in auteur heaaven for misogynistic, homophobic Christian extremists?

29: "From Here to Eternity" - it's always fun to see an auteurist twist himself into knots in order to defend a movie that he shouldn't like because it's not directed by an accepted master. So in this case, suddenly "direction or even story" don't matter...

See, nobody can convince me that "Million Dollar Baby" is a great movie, simply because it was directed by Clint Eastwood, or that "An American in Paris" is better than "Gigi" because it is a prime example of the unique auteurist qualities of Vincente Minnelli (it has Oscar Levant and Georges Guétary, for heaven's sake...)

I always thought that Andrew Sarris must have been punished enough for his apoplectic, dogmatic dismissal of great directors like William Wyler, Fred Zinnemannn and Billy Wilder by spending endless hours dissecting "gems" such as "Topaz" or (later in his life) "The Eiger Sanction" or "Heartbreak Ridge" in order to prove his point that the worst of an auteurist's output is still far more interesting than anything by a lesser mortal, while the rest of the world enjoyed watching "Jezebel", "Wuthering Heights", "The Little Foxes", "The Heiress", "Roman Holiday" or "The Search", "The Member of the Wedding", "The Nun's Story", "The Sundowners", or "Double Indemnity", "Sunset Boulevard" and "Some Like It Hot"...

Thanks for the list, Glenn - keep it cooking!


The hard-core auteurists' insistence that (say) 'Land of the Pharaohs' must be superior to 'Treasure of the Sierra Madre' is like the planetary epicycles of Ptolemaic cosmology: it's a very clever and detailed theory, but it's still wrong.

Joel Bocko

You know, I actually like Forrest Gump. Quite a bit. I'm not interested in defending it on an intellectual or even really an aesthetic level - a narrative level, I suppose. Its sentimentality doesn't bother me much, I find it quite funny at times (it has a drier sense of humor than people remember), and hell I'm just a sucker for anything that employs the "wandering narrative" storytelling style in which the character can be somewhere completely different (literally as well as figuratively) and unexpected in a matter of like 15 minutes. I also like films that traverse periods of time, observing the changes even at the expense of a tighter, more cogent focus. For that reason I'm also more forgiving of, yes, Cimarron than most (though Platform it isn't, it's still got that thing going for it).

Basically I could trade places with your sensibilities on Sound of Music - that's a film that (without loathing or anything) I just don't get the appeal of, especially given its popularity. It seems much smaller in scope and less multidimensional than other audience favorites like, say, Gone With the Wind, Wizard of Oz, E.T., Star Wars, etc. Go figure.

Hope the sauce was good.

P.S. fwiw, this is my only Oscar-related activity of the day; moving on...

Chris Labarthe

23: The most emotionally satisfying of the late-career awards to the Film School/Brat-sum-Easy Riders Raging Bulls generation, De Palma's brutal, self-referential, formally experimental film was also the most unconventional film ever honored by the Acad-- oh, shit. Slipped into an alternate universe there fro a sec.

Brian Dauth

My ten (alpha order)

12 Years a Slave
All About Eve
The Apartment
How Green Was My Valley
The Godfather Part II
It Happened One Night
Million Dollar Baby
My Fair Lady -- leaden direction? George Cukor was aesthetically incapable of ever being leaden. His work soars.
The Sting (a most brilliant queering of 1930's movie texts)


Why should Kate Aurthur get flack? She placed ALL ABOUT EVE at number one -- its rightful position. What more can be expected?

As for LAND OF THE PHARAOHS -- it is better than THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, and one does not have to be hardcore anything to reach such a conclusion. The film is Hawks most despairing and conflicted meditation on male/female relations. After making it (and then going on the longest break in his career), he returns with his late films which are noticeably more positive/less anxious about women.


Who needs Sarris around to defend 'Topaz' when we've still got Brian, bless 'im?

Brian Dauth

Thank you Oliver. And I do defend TOPAZ -- I think the final five Hitchcocks are among his best films -- he remakes VERTIGO with MARNIE and then using natural light in TORN CURTAIN goes places in terms of aesthetics that he had never explored before. In the process he does abandon Romantic Modernism (thank goodness), and as a result these late works have not gotten the credit that they are due. Instead, they are seen as a falling off rather than the inspired re-imaginings they are. Hitchcock was doing in cinema what queers and postmodernists were doing in philosophy and other art media.

Jeff McMahon

The final five Hitchcocks are _not_ his best films, and the more committed an auteurist is, the more apparent are the holes in the arguments.

Brian Dauth

Jeff: I must disagree. These late films are great works of queer deconstruction. Do they operate like VERTIGO and other earlier films as High Modernist works of art? No. So if a viewer approaches them from a Modernist/non-queer perspective, they will experience the films as failures (in much the same fashion that supporters of traditional marriage are distressed by and cannot abide same-sex marriage since it varies from -- and in their minds corrupts -- their understanding of what marriage should be).

It is the job of an auteurist to follow the artist where she goes, and if she shifts and the viewer fails to do so, then the fault is with the viewer and not the art. Auteurism is robust enough to operate in modernist/postmodern/queer realms, but those who adopt it as an approach must be careful that their calibration of it is so narrow as to render it useless.


I suppose the self-sealing tomb-trap climax of 'Land of the Pharaohs' is, at least, memorable. Now 'Red Line 7000' on the other hand...

Jeff McMahon

Mr. Dauth, you are a tiresome, blinkered apologist.

That said, I adore Marnie.

That Fuzzy Bastard

"if a viewer approaches them from a Modernist/non-queer perspective, they will experience the films as failures (in much the same fashion that supporters of traditional marriage are distressed by and cannot abide same-sex marriage since it varies from -- and in their minds corrupts -- their understanding of what marriage should be)."

Or a brilliant, skilled parodist.

Asher Steinberg

I won't pretend to know what Brian's talking about, but TOPAZ is a great film, as Richard Jameson eloquently explains here.* To see it properly you have to see the theatrical version (which you can find on the Internet or watch at home if you have a multiregion DVD player that can play the German disc), not the uncut version on American DVDs that contains twenty extra minutes of dreadful business between Frederick Stafford and Dany Robin and the Truffaut actors who play Stafford's daughter and son-in-law. After the film went over badly at screenings, Hitchcock boldly cut virtually all of Stafford's family scenes, but Universal for some reason has insisted on "restoring" them to us and changing the meaning of the film.

* http://parallax-view.org/2009/07/30/hitchcock's-topaz-revisited/

Brian Dauth

Jeff: why does approaching film from a queer perspective make me a "tired, blinkered apologist"? What I am apologizing for? For seeing success where others experience failure? I will admit that being queer opened up critical avenues for me that might be closed to non-queer viewers since a significant portion of my life experience was devoted to finding success in what society stigmatized as deviant, dirty and disreputable.

But just as the fact of my queerness inflects my aesthetic, so another cinephile's non-queerness does the same for her aesthetic. In my view, TOPAZ behaves much differently than many previous Hitchcock films. The film does not offer up a central performance for the audience to identify with (in this way TOPAZ seems an extension of the second half of TORN CURTAIN where Michael and Sarah's agency is gradually reduced to the point where they are replaced visually by two costume baskets – the actor is her clothing).

Some viewers will find the removal of identification figures in these two films to be a signature failure of these movies. But this failure is true only if one first posits the aesthetic axiom that all successful narrative works of art have characters at their center with whom an audience can identify. I find these late films to be vigorously re-thinking this proposition. Again, coming from a queer perspective I am comfortable with films which choose not to offer identification figures since a) the majority of the time such characters are conceived of in heterosexualist terms which I can experience as problematic; b) going against the grain of convention has insured survival for me, so when I see such behavior in a work of art I am cheered. In a similar fashion, viewers who prefer identification figures may find TOPAZ to be unfocused and disorganized since the film is not built around the spine of an identification figure – it is a diffuse film and this diffusion can be experienced by such viewers as failure. I do not agree with that verdict, but I can understand how someone can plausibly arrive at such a conclusion. In the same way, some people do not believe atonal music to have any merit while other listeners do.

Asher: I hope the above helps clarify what I am talking about. I often find that while viewers will acknowledge that spectatorship is a subjective practice, they are much less eager to embrace the conclusions that flow logically from this position – in fact, after acknowledging subjectivity, they then endorse the Romantic fiction that a work of art is a universal confection binding an audience together in a spell of transcendent truth and/or beauty. This spell obviates the differences between spectators (so much for subjectivity), uniting them in a blob of undifferentiated humanity. But what if we are as Ferlinghetti describes us: a melting pot in which nothing ever melts? What if the metaphor of a mosaic rather than a melting pot is more apt, and that as spectators what unites us is the practice of an appreciative critical engagement of the work of art and not a consensus/unified judgment of its worth?

The aesthetic tools a viewer brings to a film are her blinkers – to use Jeff’s term. All viewers have them – in fact, some spectators have several pairs. But no one is without them. The goal in my opinion is to understand deeply the contours of one’s own particular blinkers while simultaneously gaining at least a rudimentary knowledge of those of other viewers. As I said above, I can understand how a viewer with a particular set of aesthetic tools/blinkers could find TOPAZ a disagreeable failure. But differently equipped viewers can with equal conviction find it a success. The outcome depends on a) how a spectator defines aesthetic success and b) what her parameters of aesthetic pleasure are. Hence my comparison to the current debate over the nature of marriage: some people say marriage must be understood in only one fashion – the uniting of one man with one woman in a procreative bond focused on the raising of a family. On this question, their blinkers are quite narrow. Other people’s blinkers are wider and allow for a plurality of views about what should and should not be considered a marriage.

So is TOPAZ a great film? Yes, when engaged from some (but not all) perspectives.

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