flagpole and me

Just a quick update… I will be posting some substantial stuff very soon though.

I’m now reviewing movies for the fine Athens, Georgia publication Flagpole, a free newsweekly that’s just about damn everywhere in town.  I’m very happy to be a contributor to the paper and I hope to be writing for them for a long time.  For you out-of-towners, you can read the paper and my reviews online tooMy first review was for the documentary Senna, chronicling the life of famed Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, who died in a crash in 1994.  I have no interest in automobiles and thought the movie was fantastic, so that should tell you something.  And this week I reviewed actress Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut Higher Ground.  Next week I’ll be looking at either Drive, The Future (Miranda July’s return to the screen), and/or Beats, Rhymes and Life, a documentary about the influential hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest.  I haven’t decided which one yet.

I’d love to see some of you over at the Flagpole web site leaving comments…  wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

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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.

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.

random moments in film criticism #1

The Getaway is an utter bore.  A failure as drama, as film, as entertainment.  It is morally corrupt, artistically arid, conceptually outdated and in sum as thoroughly unredeemable a piece of shit as has been released this year, and the horror and wonder of it, is that it came from such massive talents.”

The above quote is from the always outspoken Harlan Ellison, writing in the January 19, 1973 edition of The Staff about Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 crime movie The Getaway, starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw.  The review is collected in the book Harlan Ellison’s Watching.  As good a quote as any to inaugurate this new blog feature.

Below is a scene from the movie, giving you a little taste of what Bloody Sam did best.  If you haven’t seen it before and plan to, you may want to back off.  Plot lines are resolved and not everyone makes it out alive.  Good scene.

ADDITION:

I think you could argue that Ellison is the godfather of the kind of belligerent, smartypants writing that blankets the internet nowadays.  The sort of hostile over-the-top typing that is frequently mistaken for having an opinion.  The big difference is that Ellison could write and he was informed about his opinions.  He harangued the reader, but it came loaded with just as much brains as brawn.  Most of the time.    

the phantom empire #1

Photo © Scott Seymour. All rights reserved.

It’s the dream of every cinephile, I think, to own a cinema.  If not to own their own cinema then, at least, they wish to be employed at a liberal-minded establishment that would allow them to program whatever they wished to screen.  It’s an idea I’ve often fantasized about.  It would be a single screen joint (a huge one, of course, because bigger really is better in this case), project real film (of course), and have excellent sound.  Beer and wine would be available, as well as coffee, tea, and a few soda pops.  Fresh buttered popcorn, black and red licorice, and a couple of chocolate bars would also be offered.  Vintage movie posters, lobby cards, and stills would decorate the walls of the foyer, and the place would definitely have an old fashioned neon marquee out front above the glass ticket booth.  The place would seat about 425 people.  Old trailers would be shown before every movie, a cartoon also (Looney Tunes, the Fleischer brothers’ Popeye the Sailor cartoons from the 1930s, and Tom and Jerry), and appropriate soundtrack music would play before each feature as people found their seats.  A different double-feature would appear every couple nights.  Friday and Saturday nights would have midnight movies.  Late mornings and afternoons on the weekends would show kid-friendly fare.  There would also be theme weeks periodically or showcases for a particular actor or director.  No genre would be excluded and discussion/arguments would be encouraged.  I wouldn’t care about profits.  Each double-feature would be $0.99 just like the old Broadway theater in Portland.  The old one.  The rundown one back in the 1980s where I once took a girlfriend on a first date to see Day of the Dead and where I witnessed, with another girlfriend, the subversive horrors of Lynch’s Blue Velvet while I was frying on multiple hits of acid.  Oh, the stamina of youth!

It would be what I imagine the afterlife to be like.

But the challenging thing about the place would be what to show.  I mean, it’s easy to come up with titles.  It’s the order of things I would be concerned about.  A good programmer would serve much like a dj or someone who makes mix discs.  It’s all about the perfect combo, the correct flow of things, and making sure it’s always entertaining.  Unless… you’re trying to fry their little brains or something.

So what would my first double-feature be?

I could go with my favorite films, but I’ll wait to do that later.  I could go with some childhood favorites, but I’ll pass for now.  I’m figuring that the premiere screenings would be in the evening… so no kid movies then.  How about something simple?  Yes, I’ll stick with two easy but pivotal and life-altering choices.  These were two of the earliest films I remember seeing and they, I believe, set me on a path of image intoxication.  I was forever doomed.  And though the love affair with movies has hit snags from time to time, careened down detours leading to nowhere, and occasionally offered only heartbreak (mostly in my teen years, I should emphasize)… it’s been a love affair well worth indulging in.  It’s not like I really have a choice in the matter.  I am forever doomed after all.

The first film screened would be the 1931 Universal horror film Dracula starring Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning.  The second feature would be James Whale’s 1931 film Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff, also from Universal.  Like I said, nothing radically adventurous, but they each made significant impressions on me as a child.  In many ways they shaped my future love of the medium and set me on a path of loving horror movies in particular.  I first watched both films with my father when I was around four years old.  Back in the 1970s there used to be a Creature Features-type horror movie program on KATU in Portland, Oregon after the news ended on Saturday nights called Sinister Cinema, hosted by Victor Ives.

What could I possibly say about these films that haven’t been said before?  Well, nothing really.  They both contain two iconic monster movie performances, they’re both well-crafted and contain moments of exceptional poetry and beauty (as do many of the early Universal horror productions), but they’re not exactly created equally.  Dracula betrays its stage origins a bit too much for my taste, especially after the initial brilliant cinematic scenes with Renfield (Dwight Frye) journeying to Count Dracula’s Transylvania castle.  Even as a child it slightly bored me.  It doesn’t now, although I’m always a little disappointed at how talky much of the film is.  I guess in the end, I like the later Hammer version better.  However, it never seduced me like Browning’s creation did.  Dracula may not be perfect, but it ensnared me darkly with its images.  Anyway, like so many horror movies, it’s not about the entirety… it’s those individual moments of aesthetic beauty, poetry, and/or genuine terror that reward the patient viewer.

Unlike now, I wasn’t exactly a night owl at the age of four.  But I tried to keep up.  I only made it through the opening few scenes of Dracula… the best part actually.  I nodded off quickly after.  But the image that burned itself into my brain is the moment when I snapped awake to see Renfield laughing maniacally when the authorities discover him inside the hull of the ship carrying Count Dracula to the shores of England.  I think I passed out afterward from the fright.

Frankenstein is even better, although I don’t recall one specific moment that sent me over the edge.  The whole film cast a spell on me–the sets, lighting, music, the monster himself–and the first three Frankenstein films have been favorites of mine ever since.  Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the sequel, is even more effective in its fusion of dark humor, melodrama, visual poetry, and melancholy.  But I didn’t see that film until much later.  This is the one that left its mark on my imagination… and for that I’m thankful.

Back in 1991 or so when I was in my early 20s, Dracula and Frankenstein were both screened at a small theater in NE Portland.  I lived on the other side of the city, didn’t drive, though I made sure I got to the screening.  It was great to finally see both films on the big screen with an appreciative audience of youngsters and older people.  And though I’d seen each of them numerous times over the years via videocassette, each unruly monster seemed to flourish unleashed in the flickering dark before a packed house of eager viewers.  Lugosi and Karloff were reborn.  Resurrected for a whole new generation of monster kids… a reminder to older ones that these cinematic creations still mattered.

By the time I watched these films in the theater, I was already a veteran horror film watcher–from silent classics to Hammer horrors to cannibal holocausts to necromantik evil dead maniac butchers… I had the psychic eyeball scars to prove my cred.  And though these Universal horror films would never be able to compete with their modern day unholy brethren in terms of graphicness or intensity, they did excel when it came to lyricism, imagery, pathos, and wit.  So for nostalgic and artistic reasons, Lugosi and Karloff would open the show… hopefully luring a whole new generation into the phantom empire.*

Stay tuned for further screenings….

 

 

* The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century is a book by critic Geoffrey O’Brien.  It’s sort of an impressionistic, subjective, secret history of the medium–obsessive, fetishistic, and cosmic.  It’s a brilliant piece of writing and one of my favorite non-traditional books about cinema.  I would name my theater in its honor.

 

appearing at the decatur book festival september 5

I’ll be appearing at the AJC Decatur Book Festival this weekend, Sunday at 1:30 in the afternoon on the Emerging Authors stage.  This book festival is the largest independent book fest in the country, so you’re bound to find an author to your taste, a panel worth taking in, or maybe even “discover” a new writer you’ve previously never heard of.  I’m certainly looking forward to it.  Will talk a bit about my first book Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers and do a short signing afterward.