saddle the wind (1958)

The 1950s was the decade of the hoodlum.  Movies like The Wild One (1953), starring an iconic Marlon Brando, and Rebel Without a Cause (1955), with an equally iconic James Dean, were doing cinematically what Elvis Presley was doing with rock ‘n’ roll: making alienation sexy.  Teenage angst sold big and the Western was not immune to the trend.  Over the course of the decade, the genre changed considerably, and many films showed that they could incorporate broader thematic concerns into their narratives other than a traditional good guy versus bad guy dynamic.  Pictures like Broken Arrow (1950) were trying to significantly change the way Native Americans were represented on screen, showing them as something more than just agents of terror, and High Noon introduced a strong element of social commentary into the genre, influencing a number of other movies in the process.  The plight of angry, anti-social, mumbling American young men would trickle down onto the open range as well.  Juvenile delinquency and amoral violence would not be relegated to just the urban wastelands.  Characters wracked with existential uneasiness were nothing new for the Western, but the recent fashion of teenage rebellion was unique.  Probably the most memorable of this new breed was Arthur Penn’s feature film directorial debut, The Left Handed Gun (1958), starring Paul Newman as the ultimate maladjusted rebel, Billy the Kid.  That same year, John Cassavetes–who like Newman was also a Method-trained actor–played the gun-crazy younger brother of rancher Robert Taylor in Saddle the Wind (1958).  Scripted by Rod Serling, the film is a standard though gripping psychological Western, the type of entertaining oater that could regularly be seen during that decade.  It’s nowhere near as great as the work of Anthony Mann or Budd Boetticher during that same period, but it’s good stuff nonetheless and far better than its critical reputation would have you believe.  It’s the type of solid, well-crafted, non-epic Western I wish was still being made today.

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random moments in film criticism #3

I finally got my copy of When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade, the first collection of Dave Kehr’s writing from his years as the head film critic at the Chicago Reader.  I couldn’t be happier, although I’m sure if someone told me that an intact print of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons had been discovered in a steamer trunk in Peru or that the latest Dario Argento movie was actually pretty good, that would make my day as well.  But there’s something about reading great criticism that’s… well, it opens the pores and scrubs out the cobwebs of the mind.  It sharpens you up to see and think in new ways, to engage with not only movies (or books or whatever) with a fresh insight, but to deal with the world outside of the frame in a renewed manner.  It’s not simply about finding out if the critic liked or disliked a movie.  It’s about understanding how the critic engaged with it and if you as a reader and watcher can engage with the work on your own terms.  A great critic doesn’t shut down the argument; they keep it evolving and widen participation.

I know how we physically engage with movies is drastically changing, as is the very definition of what a movie is nowadays, or at least it seems to be.  Film criticism has significantly changed with it.  Note that I don’t think it’s getting worse or better necessarily.  It’s just changed and evolved into something different.  As print movie journalism has dwarfed in recent years, quite alarmingly so, movie blogs catering to all persuasions have flourished as well, like weeds sprouting in the concrete fissures of an abandoned parking lot.  I think that aspects of the change, for instance the proliferation of well-informed and well-written blogs by amateurs and pros alike, is great.  What’s not so fantastic is the disintegration of intelligent movie criticism that is aimed at a large audience that was regularly found in magazines and newspapers in the 1970s or even in the 1980s, the decade when I first started reading film criticism.  It’s all niche-driven now, like most things.  As Kehr points out in his introduction, there is academic writing on one side and mainstream writing on the other and the two rarely if ever meet in the middle.  That’s a shame.  I’m not even going to touch upon the overflow of so-called fanboy blogs, which seem from afar to be nothing more than extensions of studio marketing divisions.  But plenty of movie reviewers on mainstream sites and in print publications also seem to be uncritical minions for p.r. departments.  The ability to talk to a wide audience about complex ideas intelligently though without obfuscating meaning with distracting jargon seems like a rare talent.

Which is why Kehr’s book is worth picking up and should make anyone happy who still cares about the cinematic medium and good writing.  Reading his 1978 review for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, a film I know well, made me want to put down the book and immediately pop the Blu-ray on.  Almost, I say, because then that would have required me to stop reading… no way was I going to do that.  Kehr’s examination of how the film utilizes Old Testament myths for its own narrative purposes is far more enlightening, but the following passage nevertheless evokes clear, resonant images in my mind.

“Days of Heaven is a uniquely palpable film: the breath of the wind, the texture of the grain, light snow melting on a woman’s hair—we see, we hear, but somehow, we touch, too.  Nester Almendros’s prickly-sharp cinematography (the film was made in 70mm, but, unfortunately, is playing Chicago in only 35mm) finds its match in the crispness and subtlety of the Dolby sound.  Crickets sing, a windmill hums, and the image is opened up.  One of the most moving moments in the film occurs as the farmer (Sam Shepard) rolls a blade of wheat between his fingers, testing its ripeness.  The chaff crinkles off, and the farmer blows it away with a light, delicate breath.  In that second, the screen dissolves: not simply sound and image, the film becomes touch, taste, and smell.”

I guess I know what I’m re-watching later this evening.  After I finish the book, of course.

sidney lumet 1924-2011

Film director Sidney Lumet died on Saturday of lymphoma.  He got his start as a child actor working on stage, co-starring in the 1939 movie One Third of a Nation, and later he studied acting at the famed Actors Studio in New York.  In the 1950s, Lumet made a name for himself working in television, directing such shows as The Best of Broadway and You Are There.  He also directed Boris Karloff and Grace Kelly in a 1952 production of Don Quixote.  Sadly, it was not taped for posterity.

But feature film work was where Lumet would shine.  He was no auteur in the manner that the next generation of filmmakers would become—Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, De Palma, et al—but his handling of actors was equal if not better than any of them.  Lumet’s gifts as a director were not imprinted on every frame of film like many of the aggressive stylists that typified the later so-called New Hollywood directors, though his work always stressed consistent thematic concerns that were easily identifiable in his best movies—the belief in liberal democracy, the strength of the individual over the group, and the need for the individual to combat corruption embedded within a justice system set up to curb criminality but that paradoxically, frequently exacerbated it.  Crime and the way an individual takes a moral stand against it, or not, is a thematic corner stone for arguably his most important productions, the movies that have made the biggest impression on me, at least.

Lumet’s first movie 12 Angry Men (1957) and much of his work through the next decade—The Fugitive Kind (1959), Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962), The Pawnbroker (1964), Fail-Safe (1964), The Hill (1965), The Deadly Affair (1967), and The Appointment (1969)—all have their strong points.  But his movies throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s are the ones I connect with the most.  The Anderson Tapes (1971), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), Prince of the City (1981), The Verdict (1982), Running on Empty (1988), and Q & A (1990), all made huge impressions on me as a young moviegoer, helping me understand that special chemistry between an actor and a director.  Throughout his career, Lumet regularly extracted career-best performances from many of his leading performers, such as Al Pacino, Sean Connery, Treat Williams, Nick Nolte, and River Phoenix.  As a viewer, the result on screen was frequently brilliant to watch.  Pacino–who for me seemed to rely more and more on showboating technique as his career ground on—never appeared as real and vulnerable and human as he did in his work in the 1970s, particularly in his collaborations with Lumet.

It’s been gratifying to see so much appreciation for Lumet’s work over the last couple of days.  These are strange times for anyone who loves drama and naturalism in American movies.  What used to be a routine stylistic approach for Hollywood, especially since the late 1960s, has been relegated of late to independent movies or television shows like David Simon’s The Wire or Treme.  Todd Haynes’s recent HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain, has been an extraordinary reminder of how rich naturalism can be when utilized by a director with an affinity for it and how working in that mode does not mean one is working sans artistry.

Lumet knew how to capture New York City on film, making it snap, feel lived-in and pulsing with life.  The city is not just a backdrop for the characters to move through or for the cinematographer to manipulate and exaggerate as needed.  Like other directors who have made New York City their location of choice–Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Abel Ferrara, and Spike Lee, to name a few of the more notable and recent ones—Lumet had no compunction about showing the city in all its unromantic, gritty reality.  But it’s not simply a negative portrait of the city either.

Edited by the great Dede Allen and utilizing the Elton John song “Amoreena” to great effect, Lumet’s montage takes a characteristically realistic approach, showing the city in all its multiplicity.  In just a few minutes, the city of New York is brilliantly and succinctly established as a character itself, a location crammed with people of all ethnicities, gender, age, and economic classes which exist beyond the narrowness of the plot that will quickly commandeer the movie.  But it won’t remain in the background for long.  As the plot progresses, with Al Pacino and John Cazale desperately trying to maintain control of a hostage situation that has turned into a media event, the city will once again re-establish itself within the narrative, and linger long in the memory once the credits role.  The movie was the first Lumet I’d seen, I think, and it nestled deep within me.  It’s still my favorite of his movies, as well as my favorite Al Pacino performance.

The acidic satire Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky, is another great one and is resonant now as it was when first released.  Lumet maintains his humanistic approach to the material, grounding Chayefsky’s broad satire in the realistic rhythms he’s most comfortable in, but it’s an exaggerated naturalism that showcases Chayefsky’s aggressive stamp over that of Lumet’s.  Excellent stuff nevertheless.

Many of Lumet’s movies, particularly Prince of the City, Running on Empty, and Q & A, seem ripe for re-evaluation.  By the 1990s, in light of the attitude-heavy posturing of a post-modernist filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino, Lumet’s straight dramatic take on crime and punishment seemed old fashioned and he fell off the radar for me.  I knew Family Business (1989), A Stranger Among Us (1992), Guilty as Sin (1993), and Night Falls on Manhattan (1997) had been released, but they were also sadly easy to ignore.  Most critics thought the productions were far from Lumet’s prime, and audiences stayed away.  Lumet kept working sporadically though the next decade, though no one would have called you a fool if you’d declared him done artistically.  Kaput.

In 2007, though, Lumet came roaring back with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a movie that in every shot showed a director at the height of his craft and artistry, and who deftly turned what could have been a rudimentary heist picture into the most layered of tragedies.  Melodrama is a term that’s frequently used as a pejorative because so many filmmakers have contempt for the form and wield it as if it’s incapable of psychological or moral depth.  But the movie is one of the most incisive explorations of moral fragility and desperation that I’ve seen in many years, while still maintaining its generic function as a crime picture.  That ability to balance both content and form is not unique when talking about crime fiction—there are countless examples of novels that say something important while giving us the requisite page-turning excitement we crave—but in the post-Tarantino crime world, most filmmakers go for sensation, style, and garish hyper-realism only.  The movies feel alienated from everyday life and removed from any real, tangible human experience.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead couldn’t feel more relevant or alive.  There’s an urgency to the movie, a kinetic energy that kicks in from the first shocking moments—no, I’m not talking about the scene of a naked, narcissistic Philip Seymour Hoffman watching himself in the mirror while he has sex with Marisa Tomei, but the scene of the jewelry store robbery gone horribly awry–and never lets up until the finale.  Constructed in a non-linear manner, the movie feels fresh in a way that Lumet’s movies hadn’t felt in decades.  Filmmaking is a young man’s game and many a great director has petered out artistically before his actual physical time.  For Lumet to deliver such a knockout experience that late in his career is remarkable and was a foreshadow of more great work to come.

But there won’t be any more movies from him.  It’s the lament of every cinephile the world over who has ever mourned a favorite director or a writer.  No more…. There is, though, a body of work to re-discover.  For anyone who cares about drama, actors, and stories that have resonance to our adult lives, that are rooted in timeless narratives but that speak to us as contemporaries, the death of Sidney Lumet is a passing that should not go by unacknowledged.  Hollywood in recent decades has become an industry solely catering to the teen male mind or that of children, with only an adult-focused movie here and there.  In recent years, that narrowness of experience has become increasingly the only dream for sale to audiences.  That’s tragic for artists like Lumet and for those of us who need something more than CGI and Power of Myth narratives to entertain.

random moments in film criticism #2

“The pure horror movie would be that in which the forces of evil succeeded in taking over, the one they would themselves direct: pure, and therefore unrealizable.  Carmilla, the gorgeous undead girl (invented by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu) who infiltrated bourgeois households in Blood and Roses and The Vampire Lovers, was the advance agent for a New Order, but you would never get to see what sort of a world that would be.  There would never be The Last Man on Earth II, detailing what happened on virus-ridden Earth in the aftermath of Sidney Salkow’s unforgettably downbeat 1964 production, after there was no one left except vampires.  The inheritors, in such a scenario, would propose a ravenous alternative dispensation, in which the lords of chaos in their unrestrained domesticity could give themselves over to a voracity without end.”

The evocative passage above was by the writer/critic/editor Geoffrey O’Brien and taken from his superb, impressionistic analysis of movies and memory, The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century, originally published in 1993.  It’s not a traditional critical examination at all, but it’s brilliantly written and contains many insights that keep me going back to it all these years later.  Reading the above paragraph immediately reminded me of the movie below.

The video clip is taken from the experimental movie Begotten, directed by E. Elias Merhige, from 1991.  It’s not really a horror movie, although it contains plenty of macabre imagery and feels unwholesome in that way only the best horror movies can exude.  It looks and feels as if it had been unearthed from ancient soil and screened as a sacrament to unnameable gods.  It feels like something they would screen for themselves for a night of entertainment, when their bellies were too bloated to continue their ritualistic sacrifices.

some of my favorite things #8: patricia arquette

I almost got fired for this woman.

It was sometime during the summer of 1993 and I was working at an independent video store in Northwest Portland.  It was a great job and I worked there for years.  Of course, one of the perks was that we’d get free passes to see movies every now and then.  I lucked out and was given one for two to see True Romance at the Lloyd Center Cinemas.  The catch, though, was that I couldn’t leave work early to see it.  I got off at 7:00.  The movie started at 7:30.  I had to race out, jump on a #15 bus and ride it downtown, then bolt onto the MAX and ride that across the river to the cinema, then try to get a seat.  No way was I going to get in that screening on time and I had to see this movie.

It was based on a Quentin Tarantino script, the first release after Reservoir Dogs, and a year or so before Pulp Fiction shook the film world.  It had a great cast and it co-starred the lovely Patricia Arquette, who I’d had a crush on since seeing her in that third Nightmare on Elm Street movie.  We’re roughly the same age (I think she’s a year older) and I was smitten.  I was going to get into that fucking movie.

I left about ten minutes early.  I got in.  I loved the movie.  And I almost got fired the next day when I slunk into the store and was given a serious reprimand by the co-owner who had checked up on me.  I apologized… sincerely… and was grateful to still have my cool job.

But it was all worth it.  She was worth it.

It’s Arquette’s birthday today and she is definitely one of my favorite things when it comes to modern actors.  I don’t like everything she does–she’s woefully miscast in John Boorman’s screechingly earnest Beyond Rangoon–and she doesn’t have a lot of dramatic range.  But so what?  She made for a perfect cinematic dream girl for this movie-mad American male during the 1990s.  And she’s still lovely.

David Lynch obviously thought she made for the perfect object of unobtainable desire in his superbly creepy and sexy 1997 neo-noir Lost Highway, my favorite of his movies.  Playing duel roles in it, duel symbols of a sometimes frightening female sexual power, Arquette entered that rarefied realm of ultimate noir siren.  A siren worth risking it all for.

And like all great cinematic sirens, particularly of the noir variety, she is forever out of reach.

But that’s what repeat viewing was intended for.

… only one colossus: alexander revisited (2007)

Oliver Stone’s Alexander, released in 2004, is an easy movie to mock, let alone hate—it’s long, it’s about some king dude who lived, uh, lived a long time ago and like killed a bunch of people or something, and all of the actors talk in funny accents that aren’t American.  Oh, and the lead dude, he’s gay.  I think.  In fact, the whole movie is about gay people.  And that loudmouthed liberal Oliver Stone made it.  It’s stupid.  How do I know?  Well, I’ve never actually seen it.

A lot of people in the U.S. never saw it.  Before the movie plopped into theaters, rumors had already leaked that it was bad in that special way only bloated self-indulgent Hollywood studio projects can be.  There were also plenty of outraged citizens that were upset because Stone was going to portray the mighty Alexander as bisexual, which he was, and then a whole other group was mad because he wasn’t going to be bisexual enough.  It was also supposed to be boring, the worst cinematic sin of them all.  I’d initially wanted to see it, especially on the big screen, but I chickened out.  I’d wait for it to come out on DVD.  Also, at that time, I didn’t particularly like Colin Farrell or Angelina Jolie.  I still don’t care for La Jolie, although I’ve changed my mind about Farrell after he appeared in Terrence Malick’s The New World.  That lad’s got some acting chops after all.

I never did see the theatrical version of Alexander on DVD.  I took the leap sometime later when the second version of the film, the “director’s cut,” was released on disc.  You can scrupulously check Wikipedia if I’m right, but I think Stone lopped off 20 minutes from the theatrical version then added ten new minutes of footage or so.  I wanted to like it and approached it with an open mind, but so much of it felt off.  The varying acting styles were jarring, the pacing lead-footed, and the Freudian psychoanalyzing simplistic.  I was impressed with its scope, its grandness, and with Stone’s ambition in presenting his subject in such complex, deeply flawed terms.  But it just wasn’t very good, was it?

For some reason I checked the movie out again when Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut was released on DVD in 2007.  This was the longer, “road show” version of the movie, which added 30 minutes of new footage.  But more importantly, the movie was significantly re-edited and restructured.  This third, radically altered version was like watching an entirely different movie in many ways.  I sort of loved it, albeit the love one has for a crazy friend or ex-lover.  It’s not particular healthy, but what can I do?  I’m sort of a loose one when it comes to historical epics.  I realize that for an otherwise respectable, educated middle-aged American male, that’s akin to admitting you still like heavy metal or the band Rush.  Some would argue, that’s it’s just a step up from still living in your parents’ basement or storing your urine in large water cooler bottles and hiding it in your closet.  But I can’t take it back now, can I?  I dig epics, particularly set in ancient times.

Is there any cinematic genre more stylistically cumbersome or old fashioned than the historical epic?  It’s a genre steeped in the past, rooted in images of military might, and even in the best productions, despite grandiose scenes of well-staged battles and carnage, there are moments padded with sometimes excruciating sequences of old white guys standing around pontificating about the death of empire or conspiring to wage war against other nations.  That’s a huge generalization, of course, and perhaps unfair since there are a whole lot of movies of this ilk—I’m thinking of the Italian peplum genre from the 1960s, usually focusing on the heroic exploits of Hercules or Machiste or Samson—whose production values were so piss poor they couldn’t even pull off convincing action sequences, although they were still entertaining in many ways.  But at its best, the genre could do wonders, cinematically speaking.  I’m thinking here of Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and El Cid; Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus; Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Kagemusha, and Ran; William Wyler’s Ben-Hur; The 300 Spartans; the Taylor and Burton fiasco Cleopatra, that nevertheless has many extraordinary moments; and on and on.  And then there are the neo-epics, like Braveheart, Gladiator, Troy, and the like.  None of the latter ones are brilliant, but all of them have moments of great emotional power and melodramatic allure.

Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut may be the best of the newer crop.  I can feel you running away from your computer, if you haven’t already, but it’s true.  It’s still flawed, although many of the missteps of the earlier versions have now been corrected—pacing most of all—and despite its longer running time, it flows much easier, and dare I say, it’s even relaxed.  For me, there are always going to be campy excesses that simply don’t appeal—Jolie’s performance, for example.  However, a certain level of kitsch and melodrama are simply things one must put up with when watching historical epics of this kind.  It’s part of the territory, at least in the productions coming from the West.  As a fan, you learn to ignore it or revel in it.

Stone’s aggressively muscular style and penchant for hallucinatory visuals makes him perfectly suited for this genre.  I’m surprised it took him so long to embrace it.  But he embraced it with his characteristic gusto.  And while it’s not great cinema, it is a fascinating and intelligent failure that is far more interesting to me than any number of slick, impersonal Hollywood productions from the last decade.  Alexander Revisited may come wrapped in the guise of big budget entertainment, but it’s as personal as any so-called mumblecore toss-off and as politically resonant as any of the many anti-Bush documentaries that came out over the last decade.  While it’s certainly debatable whether one should glorify a butcher, however charismatic they perhaps were, as Stone does here, I do appreciate his (along with his fellow co-screenwriters Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis) intricate and sometimes contradictory appraisal of Alexander.  The movie is about the myth-making of Alexander as much as it is about the conqueror himself.  Also, Stone, quite simply, has the guts to risk playing the fool.  And I can’t help but admire that in a filmmaker.

So what’s with all the rambling about a movie much of the American critical establishment didn’t get and that audiences over here rejected outright?[1] Because I’m not alone in my appreciation of the movie.  Earlier this week I came across a blog post–written back in March–by Dennis Cozzalio at the nifty Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule on Alexander Revisited‘s first theatrical screening at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.  Cozzalio also conducted an interview with director Oliver Stone, which offers plenty to ponder.  I don’t always link to other blogs here, but it was a nice surprise to see this movie given some proper attention after its initial beat down.  It’s a movie worthy of reappraisal and hopefully that theatrical screening won’t be the first and last we see of it.

[1] It did well overseas and on video, hence the multiple versions released.