Jean Renoir: A Day in the Country (1936)

May 23, 2017


One of Jean Renoir’s most beloved films is one he wasn’t interested in finishing. While making A Day in the Country, Renoir was in pre-production on both The Lower Depths (1936) and Grand Illusion (1937). Once A Day in the Country ran into money problems he put it to the side, leaving it to be finished by his producer Pierre Braunberger. Shot in 1936, it wasn’t released until 1946 as a 40-minute short, whereupon it swiftly entered the pantheon. A suggestive slip of a movie, adapted from a Maupassant short story, it portrays the dueling desires of a bourgeois Parisian family and two country layabouts out for a bit of flirtatious sport. What transpires is beyond their respective imaginings, a transformative lust that lingers well beyond that afternoon under the summer sun.

Jean Renoir was eager to work again with Sylvia Bataille, who he had just directed in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936). So he pitched her a number of ideas for their next collaboration. Bataille recalled, as quoted in Pascal Merigeau’s Jean Renoir: A Biography, “We’d thought about two or three screenplays before we hit upon the idea of A Day in the Country. The others were original ideas from Renoir. Then he reread Maupassant, had me read it, we talked about it, and we made the film. I liked it a lot more than the screenplays he’d offered me before.” A reluctant performer, Merigeau describes her as “extremely cultured and very exacting,” and was the driving creative force on the other side of the camera. She was separated from her husband Georges Bataille, though they remained friendly, and Bataille made a cameo in A Day in the Country as a priest alongside photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. She would later marry the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who is much abused in film theory classes to this day. It was, as usual for Renoir, a familial set, and was shot in Marlotte, the town Renoir had made his home for the previous fifteen years.


Renoir adapted the Maupassant tale himself, which concerns the arrival of a Parisian family to Marlotte for a weekend getaway. They are led by the blustering shop owner Monsieur Dufour (Andre Gabriello), huffing and puffing with necktie always askew. He brings his chirping wife Madame Dufour (Jane Marken), his lissome daughter Henriette (Sylvia Bataille), and his bumbling shop assistant Anatole (Paul Temps), who is being groomed to win Henriette’s hand in marriage. When they arrive at the local seafood restaurant, operated by the blustering Poulain (Renoir), they are spotted by a couple of bored lotharios, who accept both Madame Dufour and Henriette as fetching challenges. The aggressively mustachioed Rodolphe (Jacques B. Brunius) targets Henriette, while the lower key Henri agrees to flirt with Madame. But the paths of lust get twisted, and one of the riverside trysts haunts its lovers for the remainder of their years.

I had always assumed that it was intended as a feature, but survived as this fragmentary piece. But Merigeau writes it was always intended to be short of feature length. “The contract assigning the rights to the story, signed on May 15, 1936, with Editions Albin Michel on behalf of Simone de Maupassant, specified ‘a prefeature opener film no longer than 800 meters [about 29 minutes].’” They were to pay an additional fee if they went over 1,000 meters (32 minutes). Merigeau estimates that Renoir’s final script would have run 56 minutes if it had been completed – the version that exists runs a svelte 41 minutes.


The film begins with an unusual text introduction, indicating the fragmentary nature of the finished product:

Due to circumstances beyond his control, Jean Renoir was unable to finish this film. As he is currently in America, we chose to present it without modification, to respect his work and style. Two title cards were added to aid comprehension.

Shooting was slated to begin on June 27, but rains kept delaying them and racking up expenses. They ended production on July 18th, with Braunberger out of money and needing to time to find more. He secured short-term financing by August 6th, but the next day Renoir left for Paris to start casting on The Lower Depths. He left instructions for his crew (which included costume designer/prop master Luchino Visconti), but Merigeau estimates 23 shots were made without Renoir present (they were likely directed by his assistant Jacques Becker). Bataille was furious at Renoir abandoning the film, reportedly yelling at him, “You’re really despicable, a coward!” Renoir responded, “Fine, then, you won’t be appearing in The Lower Depths.” And he kept his word.


It is remarkable that in spite of this off-screen upheaval, A Day in the Country is a such a lucid, beautifully performed movie. Renoir has great fun with the Dufour family’s foibles – the bickering antics between the lumbering Monsieur and the whippet sized Anatole are comparable to Laurel and Hardy (as noted by my mother, who watched it with me last night). Rodolphe is another charming comic creation, who is introduced taking off his handlebar moustache holder (a hair net for his ‘stache), and leering exaggeratedly at Henriette out the window. Later he does a prancing faun dance around Madame Dufour, for him love is a show that he’ll perform for any audience. Henri is the reluctant player in the game, the glum romantic who Rodolphe chides for his serial monogamy. Henriette is attracted to his silence, as compared to Rodolphe’s theatrical fakery. Henriette is introduced as the poetic one in her family, talking dreamily about our connection to nature, the humanity of the bugs in the ground. In Henri’s silence she hears a kindred soul.

Their meeting is brief but fateful, and Renoir handles their encounter in shorthand, punctuated by one of the great close-ups in cinema. It closes in on Henriette and is an image of overwhelming exhaustion. Henri is not who she thought he was. Henriette is not who he thought she was. And so they are left together with a memory they will keep close to their hearts and never tell another soul.

This is the fifth part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. The previous entries:

 Whirlpool of Fate (1925)

 Nana (1926)

 La Chienne (1931) 

Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

The Tramp: Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

May 16, 2017


“From Boudu I have learned that one of the attitudes to take toward society is to loathe it.” – Michel Simon

In Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) Michel Simon plays a bearded bum who has lost interest in humanity. Boudu would prefer to stroll in the park with his dog or drown at the bottom of the Seine than re-enter the world of neckties and table manners and responsibility. But he is dragged into it by a bourgeois bookseller who hopes to “save” him from his “plight.” But instead of praise Boudu brings chaos, destabilizing the household from within. Simon closely collaborated with director Jean Renoir on the production, and it is a tour de force performance, with Simon a loose-limbed satyr, extending his gangly frame in all the wrong directions so as to most annoy his hosts. It is something of a thematic sequel to La Chienne (1931), which Renoir and Simon completed the previous year and which I wrote about last week. They both center Simon as a sympathetic monster, one who commits despicable acts but only because they are being true to themselves. It is Boudu’s nature to drift, so if he is not allowed to drown in the undercurrent, he will coast above it, roiling all the lives he touches along the way.

Boudu Saved From Drowning was the first production for Les Productions Michel Simon, which the actor created in January of 1932, having hopes of many collaborations with Renoir. At the time the director said, as quoted in Pascal Merigeau’s Jean Renoir: A Biography: “We have a superb understanding of each other; he hates the outrageous complications of the world of film as much as I do…and we really want to remain independent. We have the capital, the screenplays, and we know what we want. You know what a wonderful comic actor Simon is; so we’re going to make a comedy every year.” It turned out that Boudu was the first and last film for the company.

The film was based on a play by René Fauchois that debuted in 1919, though Simon had performed as Boudu in the 1925 revival. Renoir deviated wildly from the original, retaining only the first two acts, and, as Merigeau reports, adding a prologue and epilogue. Fauchois was so enraged by Renoir’s changes that he rushed a new stage version of the play, with an added fourth act, that premiered while the film was still in theaters. The biggest difference in the productions is the fate of Boudu. Fauchois’s original has him successfully saved by the bookseller, married to his maid and a new member of the middle class. Renoir’s Boudu rejects this life, opting for a radical, disruptive freedom.


As with La ChienneBoudu opens with theatrical artifice – that of a satyr and nymph playacting in front of a drop cloth. He pursues and she resists, until he pulls her in for a kiss, the camera pulls back, and there is a dissolve to the spiral staircase of the Lestringuez residence. There is a pan left to the window, where round bookshop owner Edouard (Charles Granval) is trilling sweet nothings and pawing at his mistress (and maid) Chloë (Sévérine Lerczinska) before his wife Emma (Marcelle Hainia) sarcastically enters. The household is now associated with stagecraft and fakery, while Boudu is introduced in nature, lazing under a tree while his dog plays in a pond (water imagery surrounds Boudu throughout). When his dog wanders off, Boudu disconsolately goes out on a search. But no one is willing to help a bum, as cops and civilians run away at the sight of him. He wanders the background of shots as a rich lady gets the attention of the whole park with a story of her missing pekingese. Experimenting with deep focus, Renoir and his DP Georges Asselin often isolate Boudu in the distance, a tiny figure hiding behind trees or propping himself up in a door frame. The closer to the front of the frame he is, the more trouble he causes. It is technically brilliant but registers casually, offhand. André Bazin wrote that, “One of the most paradoxically appealing aspects of Jean Renoir’s work is that everything in it is so casual. He is the only film maker in the world who can afford to treat the cinema with such apparent offhandedness. … If one had to describe the art of Renoir in a word, one could define it as an aesthetic of discrepancy.”

Still hurting from the loss of a dog, or for other reasons never stated, Boudu wanders to a bridge and jumps off. Across the street Edouard is watching ladies with his telescope and witnesses the suicide attempt. Shocked into action, he rushes to the scene and dives to rescue Boudu from the water. Edouard becomes something of a local hero, Boudu’s rescue representative of the right mindedness of the bourgeoisie. But Boudu had no interest in being rescued – he’d either die or float downriver, and either outcome would be OK with him. Instead he’s stuck at the Lestringuez home as a charity case, a way for the family to feel good about themselves, and justify the morality of the middle class. He is a totem of their sensitivity.


In return Boudu proves his unsuitability for civilized life, spreading shoe polish over the bed linens, flooding the kitchen, and in the ultimate outrage, spitting in a volume of Balzac. Boudu is a monster and a man of principle. He doesn’t grow or change or learn a thing over the course of the film’s running time, but remains irrepressibly himself, destroying property and blithely telling uncomfortable truths. He also seduces Chl0ë AND Emma, but the artistically minded Edouard doesn’t mind that intrusion too much, he seems to take it as a compliment. And sex, which has become business to Chloë and infrequent for Emma, becomes a source of pleasure again for both of them.  In fact the Lestringuez family is not wrecked by Boudu’s depredations, but awakened by them. Boudu trashing their place makes them drop their artificial posing and look at each other truthfully, at least for a little while.

Boudu returns to nature, first flinging off his fitted suit and putting on the tattered clothes of a scarecrow, and then flinging his fedora into the Marne River. Then the camera detaches itself from Boudu’s POV, a privileged moment of documentary. The last we see him, Boudu lies back in the grass and looks at the sky. But the camera pans and follows the trajectory of his hat, floating down the river. We see the activity of the waterway, rowers practicing, the current flowing and the particular haze surrounding a blade of grass. Bazin puts it better than I can:

“What moves us is not the fact that this countryside is once again Boudu’s domain, but that the banks of the Marne, in all the richness of their detail, are intrinsically beautiful. At the end of the pan, the camera picks up a bit of grass where, in close-up, one can see distinctly the white dust that the heat and the wind have lifted from the path. One can almost feel it between one’s fingers. Boudu is going to stir it up with his foot. If I were deprived of the pleasure of seeing Boudu again for the rest of my days, I would never forget that grass, that dust, and their relationship to the liberty of a tramp.”

This is the fourth part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. The first entry on Whirlpool of Fate (1925) is here. The second entry on Nana (1926) is here. The third entry on La Chienne (1931) is here.

Jean Renoir: Whirlpool of Fate (1925)

April 25, 2017


In a fortuitous sequence of events, right after I acquired Pascal Mérigeau‘s biography of Jean Renoir, FilmStruck started streaming 16 of the director’s features and shorts. I’ve skimmed over the surface of Renoir’s career, having seen the acknowledged masterpieces like The Rules of the Game (1939) and Grand Illusion (1937), but never managed to explore much beyond that. So over the next few weeks I will be discussing an individual Renoir film, providing production info gleaned from Mérigeau‘s exhaustively researched tome. First up is the hypnagogic melodrama Whirlpool of Fate (the original French title is La Fille de l’eau, The Girl in the Water, 1925), starring his Gloria Swanson-worshipping wife Andree Heuschling (using the screen name Catherine Hessling). Though he received a co-directing credit on 1924′s Catherine (aka Backbiters), Fate is the first film where he had complete control, and he used it to experiment with a range of tones and techniques, from poetic realism to flights of expressionist fancy.

The scenario for Whirlpool of Fate was written by Renoir’s friend Pierre Lestringuez, and was shot in and around Paul Cézanne’s property, La Nicotiere, in the town of Marlotte. Cézanne was a family friend, and Jean spent many afternoons there as a youth, counting his Sundays there “among my happiest memories” (as recalled in My Life and My Films). So he was intimately familiar with the grounds, and he gets a fairy tale beauty out of the streams running through the area. The film opens with a houseboat cruising down a waterway on a sun dappled morning, shot by cinematographers Jean Bachelet (who would later shoot The Rules of the Game) and Alphonse Gibory.

On board are Gudule (called Virginie in some versions, played by Heuschling), her father and her roustabout uncle Jeff (Pierre Lestringuez). The father dies in a freak accident, and Jeff squanders the family inheritance on booze, and often shows up drunk and physically abusive towards Gudule. So she runs away from home, and takes up with a small time crook nicknamed “The Weasel.” They travel the countryside together, nicking food from nearby farms when they can get away with that. Just when Gudule is acclimating herself to a new life, she falls down a steep quarry wall and loses her memory. The Weasel disappears, and instead she is cared for by Georges (Harold Levingston), the son of a bourgeois family who brings her food and drink to stay alive. Suffering from terrible fevers, Gudule begins experiencing severe hallucinations – or incredible lucid dreams, in which Renoir experiments with double (and triple) exposures, associative editing and random shots of lizards. Once she comes to, Gudule regains her memory, only to run into Jeff again. She can’t fully re-emerge into adulthood until Jeff agrees to let her go.


The film is a charming travelogue of La Nicotiere, with a barely-there episodic narrative guiding Gudule through the wooded paths. Heuschling/Hessling was a great admirer of Gloria Swanson, and she applies her lipstick into a pert bowtie shape that mimics that of Swanson’s in Zaza (1923). She admirably underplays her melodramatic role, and her calm carries the film through it’s many twists and turns. Already Renoir was operating a film set like a family get together, emphasizing fun above all. Mérigeau writes that “A team was being put together, and with it one of the essential prerequisites of a Renoir film: Jean Renoir at the head of the gang, whose members constituted a kind of family, producing a self-organizing system.” It was shot at the familial locale of La Nicotiere and filled with friends and family, including painter André Derain, who plays a distressed innkeeper with a toothache.

What reputation the film has today rests on its dream sequence, which Renoir directed “in a studio where he had had a cylinder built and painted completely black so that a camera placed on a dolly permitted a 360-degree panoramic view and could follow a horse at a gallop. On the same roll of film, he next shot superimposed clouds.” This sequence has the charm of a Melies short in its analog magic. In its most abstractly beautiful section, Gudule is floating against a black sky, her translucent gown fluttering in the wind. Then she flutters back down to earth, emerging from a columnar set from which a lizard just poked out its head. It conveys weightlessness above all, appropriate for Gudule, whose body has brought her nothing but pain and sorrow thus far. An enterprising theatrical producer named Jean Tedesco would book programs of excerpts from feature films, essentially mixtapes of his favorite sequences. In 1925 he included the dream sequence from Whirpool in one of his programs. At first Renoir was annoyed at the bootlegging, but the scene was wildly applauded at the screening, which grew even louder when they saw the duo in the theater. This for a film that had received minimal bookings in Paris, to muted response. It was the same abroad. Tedesco continued to play the dream sequence in Paris to much acclaim.

Renoir considered Nana (1925) to be his first true feature, and I will write about that one next week, but Whirlpool of Fate is not worthy of disavowal, what with its inventive cinematography (both the natural light of the “realist” outdoor sequences and the madly expressionist studio dream sequence) and the laid-back brio of the performers. Renoir already seemed to have a knack for eliciting relaxed performances, and it was a pleasure to spend time with the Renoir family on this intimate affair.


November 24, 2015


C. Jack Lewis saw a lot in his 84 years. A Marine Corps veteran of three wars, he was also a self-described “reporter, drunk, editor and hobo” who spent decades on the fringes of Hollywood. A fan of Westerns since childhood, he broke into screenwriting just as the B-Western business was collapsing, thanks to the arrival of television. He managed to sell a few scripts for budget stars like Lash LaRue and Johnny Mack Brown, but would spend the majority his career as a journalist for horse and army publications (he was the founder of Gun World magazine). During that time he met all of the stars of his youth as they sank down the Hollywood food chain, making a living as extras on TV Westerns or as special attractions at traveling circuses. In his affecting memoir White Horse, Black Hat, published in 2002 by Scarecrow Press, Lewis wrote thumbnail portraits of these faded stars, a collection which captured the end of the B industry and the itinerant careers of the low-budget cowboy.


Jack Lewis was born to a military family in 1924 Iowa. His father was an officer in the Army cavalry, and Lewis followed suit by enlisting with the Marines when he turned 18,. He saw action in WWII as a machine gunner, received a Bronze Star for bravery as a combat correspondent during the Korean War, and served as a Reserve Major for the Marine Amphibious Force in Vietnam. Throughout his service he was thinking up scenarios, specifically for the B-Westerns starring the likes of Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, and Hoot Gibson that dominated his youth. Lewis writes that “from the age of twelve, I insisted I was going to be in the Western movie business. My mother wanted me to be a lawyer and my old man just wanted me to seem reasonably sane.” As a kid he wrote a fifty page script for The Range Busters series and sent it to the Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. It was rejected for being too expensive to produce. This would be an early lesson in economics that Lewis would encounter throughout his career, as he struggled to get his work up on screen.


In 1945 Lewis was training in Pendleton, California for an invasion of Japan, but on his off days would hitchhike to Hollywood and talk his way onto studio lots. One day he weaseled his way into Eagle-Lion, and managed to speak to producer Robert Tansey and a young actor named Al LaRue. A few years later Al would be rebranded as “Lash” LaRue, for whom Lewis would write one of his first screenplays, King of the Bullwhip, It was produced and directed by Ron Ormond for his Western Adventures Pictures, Inc. for  $40,000. Lewis describes the pre-production:

I went to the Hollywood library and checked out a book on screenwriting. A week later, I was in Ormond’s office in the San Fernando valley, script in hand. “This isn’t bad, he said. “I think we can use it, but have you ever seen Lash act?” I admitted I had. “Then take it back and cut all of his lines to ten words or less. Otherwise we’ll never get the picture made!”

Ormond would become one of Lewis’ close friends and collaborators as they tried to make a living on the edges of Hollywood. LaRue, according to Lewis, became another sad story, getting fired from the Wyatt Earp TV show before moving on to appearances at country fairs and rodeos. He eventually hit the bottle, and “at one point, when a police officer drew a pistol on him, the old actor challenged him to fire and ‘put me out of my misery.’” This story is representative of the characters Lewis meets throughout the book, men discarded by Hollywood and clinging to the embers of their fame. What makes White Hat, Black Hat so engaging is the complete lack of judgment. Lewis is very upfront about his own troubles with alcoholism, and treats each story with a matter-of-fact distance. And LaRue’s story does not end in the gutter. He dried himself out , became an evangelist named “Doctor Lash”, and bounced around North Carolina and Los Angeles. Lewis stayed in touch until his last days, whereupon his ashes were lost by the cemetery. “I’m certain he has to be laughing like hell at the final excitement he created!”


Death is everywhere in this book, there are more heart-attacks per page than the New York Times’ collected obituaries. Comedian Al St. John was in a motel room in Vidalia, Georgia eating grapes when “he just fell over and he was dead.” Charles King had started as an extra in the silents, and ended his life and career the same way, working background for TV’s Gunsmoke. The legend goes that he had just finished playing a corpse on-screen when he suffered the heart attack that killed him.  Tex Ritter had a heart attack in a Nashville jail cell, visiting a friend. Regarding Ritter, Lewis writes: “This was a man I wish I had known better.” The whole book is an attempt to resurrect an era from memory, and Lewis is open and regretful for the gaps therein. Of flight instructor and bit actor Dennis Moore he writes: “I felt a little relieved to find that I was not the only one who never really knew Dennis Moore, but it’s really too bad. No one should have to be that much of a loner.”

Lewis is the Forrest Gump of B-Westerns, seeming to have encountered every star who passed through Poverty Row.  Even if he met someone in passing, or in Tom Mix’s case, talked to his ghost, he makes room for them in this generous book. An empathetic collector of characters, White Horse and Black Hat opens up a lost world depicting the twilight of the B movie, and the real human consequences of its loss. The majority of people mentioned by Lewis will never have monographs written about them, but here their art, their lives and their deaths are made to matter. “They don’t really forget you in Hollywood”, according to prolific B-Western actor Frank Yaconelli, “They just park you beside the road so you can watch as the rest of them marched on.” With this book, Lewis looks to those left behind, and gives them their final fade-out.



Repertory cinema regulars can be off-putting types. They log their screenings like kids with baseball cards, reducing art to a collectible. This is the stereotype, at least, of shut-in cinephile obsessives. And these people exist – head to any Friday night screening at MoMA, where the rustle of plastic bags replaces human interaction. One might say this is not a promising milieu for a novel, but then they might not have the effervescent prose of Farran Smith Nehme’s Missing Reels. Smith Nehme is better known as the Self-Styled Siren, classic film blogger extraordinaire, undoubtedly familiar to readers of this site. A contagiously enthusiastic writer, she also has the rare talent of focusing in on performances – from the elaboration of star personas down to the minutest detail of their fashion choices. Missing Reels is her first novel, and it faithfully recreates the repertory movie scene in late 1980s NYC, focusing specifically on the silent movie nut crowd. It begins as a bittersweet screwball romance about being young and poor in the city, and develops into a shaggy dog mystery involving a lost silent feature that may yet be found.

The epigraph to MISSING REELS

Ceinwen (pronounced KINE-wen) is a young escapee from Yazoo City, Mississippi, scraping by as a sales assistant at a vintage clothing store. She is something of a film obsessive, but not so much of the collector kind (always more of a sweaty male pursuit). She embraces it as a lifestyle, trying to model her behavior and fashion off her favorite stars (Jean Harlow, especially) in order to distract herself from the daily grind of her existence. She lives in a flat on Avenue C with two gay roommates (Talmadge and Jim), who tolerate her particular strain of movie madness. Things start percolating when Ceinwen becomes fascinated with her buttoned-up old neighbor Miriam, whom she is convinced has a Hollywood past. Then Matthew enters her clothing store. A British mathematics postdoc at NYU, he ambles in looking for a gift for his Italian girlfriend, and an on-and-off whirlwind romance ensues. Ceinwen pursues both Miriam and Matthew, though when she discovers that Miriam did star in one forgotten silent, The Mysteries of Udolpho (invented for the book), she is hell bent on finding a surviving 35mm print. Both the print and Matthew seem to be equally elusive.


The book’s early stages take time to establish the precariousness of Ceinwen’s existence. She often doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from. Chapter two begins:

It was Wednesday. Payday was Thursday. The rain started soon after Ceinwen arrived, and there were few customers. When Lily told her to go to lunch she laid her assets on the counter and totaled them up. $1.28 in small change and half a pack of Marlboro Lights. As expected, Ceinwen was broke.

Afterward is a precise breakdown of how she can stretch that cash – with a coffee cup and a buttered roll, and the possibility of a handout from Jim. Ceinwen has loving names for all of the elements in her discounted life. There is the “Smelly Deli” (self-explanatory) as well as the “Busted” coffee, a pseudonym for Bustelo, a particularly gritty coffee familiar to underpaid New Yorkers. But though she can barely eat, she is able to maintain a glamorous vintage wardrobe, partly through the help of Talmadge’s light fingers. Nehme is adept at describing the materiality of her clothes, their texture and fit. Here is a descriptive passage of a dress she is to wear with one of her first dates with Matthew:

Sleeveless, dropped waist, obviously from the 1920s. The fabric was silk velvet, a greenish bronze that shimmered even under their dim lights. The neckline was deep and the skirt was gathered a bit in front, the ham cascading down to about mid-calf. No lace, no trimming, just the gleam of the fabric.

The clothes allow Ceinwen to traverse different worlds, to a feel a part of something outside the Smelly Deli, and connect to a lineage that runs through Harlow’s stockings.

The author Farran Smith Nehme

Though Ceinwen had watched classic film since she was a child, she is no match for the obsessives she meets in her journeys. The most generous is Matthew’s department head, Harry, who has the enthusiastic generosity of a true believer (and who would make an ideal blogger). Here he is making rapid-fire recommendations for Ceinwen’s viewing schedule:

“There was a French New Wave series at The New Yorker, they needed to see Breathless and The 400 Blows and Le Bonnes Femmes. How about Walsh, how about Wellman, check out Ophuls, how much Lubitsch have you seen, how about this Fritz Lang. See here Matthew, you want macho, I’ll give you macho. Sam Fuller. Anthony Mann. John Huston double feature at Theater 80.”

Nehme lovingly details these real and long-gone rep houses, from the shoddy rear projection at Theater 80 to the wobbly floors at the Thalia. They were landmarks for Nehme’s heroic age of moviegoing, and all had disappeared by the time of my arrival in New York City. I can’t help but feel deprived. The book is as much about the death of a certain kind of moviegoing in NYC as anything else. There are still wonderful rep houses in NYC, but just not nearly as varied or cheap or disreputable.

The central thread of the book deals with Miriam’s secret life in film, and the ultimate fate of her doomed feature The Mysteries of Udolpho, an erotic melodrama directed be self-destructive German by the name of Emil Arnheim (a nod to early film critic Rudolf Arnheim). During the search Ceinwen uncovers an entire production history, the kind of original research necessary for any kind for film history or criticism, or in this case – narrative. Nehme skillfully balances the film plot and the screwball romance one, bouncing them off each other as equally tangled mysteries. Both the existence of a film print and Matthew’s emotions are impossible to gauge. The plot curlicues are never less than crisp and engaging, but I value the book the most for its evocation of a time and place – and the rather understated way in which it states how film history, and especially the effort put into discovering this history, has an intrinsic value. It recaptures a past – one that Miriam may want to forget – but a past that would have disappeared without Ceinwen’s efforts. And now those efforts can be built upon by future fictional scholars, wackos and obsessives, in the novels hopefully in Nehme’s future.


August 19, 2014


“Sixty seconds before the baby shot its father, leaves fell lazily in Central Park.” -the first line of Sam Fuller’s Brainquake

Sam Fuller was not one for the slow burn. He preferred instant incineration. He learned his potent pulp technique in the NYC tabloids as a crime reporter, where an attention grabbing lede was all that mattered. The same skill is applied to his movie potboilers, as in The Naked Kiss‘ gonzo opener, where a bald prostitute assaults a john with her purse. His penchant for arresting opening scenes also appears in his novels – one of which is appearing in English for the first time this year. Fuller wrote Brainquake in the early 1990s, but it was only published in French and Japanese, rejected by U.S. editors for being too “European”. Intrepid pulp purveyors Hard Case Crime have corrected this injustice by releasing Brainquake last week in its English debut, complete with a gloriously seamy cover painting by Glen Orbik. The book is a densely plotted crime fiction farrago, deeply informed by Fuller’s experience as an exile. Ever since his inflammatory anti-racist White Dog was banned from U.S. cinemas, Fuller could only find work in Europe, and so he moved there with his wife Christa. The center of Brainquake is a monosyllabic bagman for the NYC mob who ends up on the lam in Paris. The bagman also happens to suffer from hallucination-inducing migraines that lend the book its title. Stacked with memorable characters, from a serial killer in priest’s garb to a melancholy French resistance fighter, the book is an overheated, overstuffed and never less than entertaining slab of Fuller’s expansive pulp imagination.


In 1990 Fuller was working on the British-French co-production Chiller, a TV anthology adapted from the short stories of Patricia Highsmith. For his episode Fuller chose The Day of Reckoning, a violent eco-parable about industrial chicken farming that ends with the patriarch getting pecked to death. Fuller had twelve days to shoot it, and didn’t have time to thoroughly vet each location. For the climactic pecking, they chose a small farm with hundreds of chickens. What they weren’t aware of was how they animals would react to being exposed to sunlight – and that the owner of the farm was more than willing to let them die, since they were headed for the slaughter. And so, Fuller recalls, “Blinded and terrified, the maniacal chickens scurried around until they finally dropped dead on the ground right in front of our crew.” But Fuller could always look on the bright side:  “The good thing about all those insane chickens was that they got my creative juices really stirred up.”

It was at this point, with images of horrific chicken deaths dancing through his head, that he completed Brainquake at a place outside Avignon, with his manuscript and “a couple boxes of cigars”. The story circles around Paul, a former mute who learned to speak in gravelly croaks, and who is a reliable bagman for the mob. He is perfect for the job – anonymous, quiet and reliable. Except for those hallucination-inducing migraines, which Paul dubs “brainquakes”, and are preceded by the sound of a flute and flickering color. He is life is upended when he becomes infatuated with mob wife Michelle. Her husband, a low level bookie, is the one who is gunned down by his baby, thanks to a booby-trapped stroller. Paul is overcome by a desire to protect her, and instead becomes a pawn in Michelle’s long con.


This is a massive condensation of the book, which introduces fascinating, seemingly central characters, only to gruesomely kill them off a few pages later. Also emerging as pivotal are the inflexible black  detective Zara, the star of the force who becomes enveloped in the case. Then there is the bureaucratic machine of the mob, made human in the figure of “The Boss”, the mother-figure whom Paul reports to, and Hampshire, the big boss who calls the shots from afar. In Brainquake the whole world is controlled by the rackets, with little hope for those who toil under its thumb. Fuller uses imagery of fleshy decay. Here he describes a corpse:

The tunnel between Al’s lower teeth at closest focus was a cutaneous crypt. His tongue drooped down a corner of his mouth through red lava. Fingernail scratches were red trenches in a Sahara wadi. The ceiling bulb reflecting in his frozen eyes was elliptical Daliism. Taken by the police photographer for his personal collection, the photos would eventually win acclaim when he published them in an art book selling for fifty dollars a copy.

His style consists of these quick jabs of imagery, staccato sentences that sketch out scenes of vivid immediacy. These are the strongest passages of the book, and convey the same giddy collision of high and low art as his punchy kino fist movies. The book bogs down in interior monologues, set off by italics. He reserves these to describe Paul’s brainquakes, but they are repetitive and brake the narrative velocity to a screeching halt. There is also a French resistance fighter who narrates his own nightmares, a beloved hero who is carrying an unrelievable guilt for an act of cowardice during the Occupation. There are no heroes in Fuller’s world, only survivors.


On July 13th, 1934 the madcap RKO comedy We’re Rich Again was released, the sixth collaboration between director William A. Seiter and star Marian Nixon.  They married soon after, and five years later they collaborated in the birth of Jessica Seiter (now Jessica Seiter Niblo), whose Movietown Baby Grows Up is a breezily entertaining memoir of her upbringing in Hollywood. Published at an Espresso Book Machine at her local bookstore, it was intended as a gift for her family, but she is also selling it through Facebook for those interested in the careers and personalities of her talented parents.  Seiter Niblo has a warm conversational tone, relating her parents’ romantic foibles and career bumps as if she were flipping the pages of a family album with you over a mug of Irish coffee.

William A. Seiter was the heir to a silver, crystal and china shop in NYC before he found his first wife in bed with another man, whereupon he “flew out the door, onto a train, and headed for Los Angeles to start life anew.”  He paid the bills as a Western stuntman and a Keystone cop in Mack Sennett comedies before working his way up the ladder, directing his first silent feature, The Kentucky Colonel, in 1920. Seiter Niblo relates that “Bill’s private life moved along at a reckless pace, trying marriage again with Jill (I was never informed of her last name) who chased him around their cottage with a meat cleaver.” Maybe that harrowing slapstick experience informed the movies  he would later make with comedy teams Wheeler and Woolsey and Laurel and Hardy.

Following the more amicable split with third wife Laura LaPlante, Seiter tied the knot for an even number with Nixon, who at the time was dubbed “The Nicest Girl in Hollywood”. She was born in Wisconsin “in a year she would never reveal – but most likely 1904″, to a family of poor Finnish immigrants, and showed a talent for dance, taking lessons in ballet and tap. She joined a touring group at a young age, and was abandoned in L.A. when tour director Paisley Noone absconded with “some handsome young man in Hollywood.” Nixon refused to return home, and tried her hand at acting, getting her first break with a casting director noticed her “threading a needle with ‘notable vigor’”. She earned her first leading role in the Buck Jones Western Big Dan (1923) directed by a young William Wellman.nixon

Nixon had her own lovesick blues, with a short-lived marriage to boxer Joe Benjamin, who made the gossip rags by popping two bullets into Nixon’s home after a spat. She climbed the social ladder for her second marriage, to Chicago department store heir Edward Hillman, Jr., who never held down a job, but simply “drinks and plays polo”.  His alcoholism cracks up the marriage, and Seiter and Nixon get hitched mere days after both their divorces are finalized.

This one sticks, and a family sprouts up. Seiter Niblo relays the whirl of being a Hollywood brat, moving from house to house ten times according to the curve of her Dad’s career. As a 2-year-old she sings “Dearly Beloved” to Jerome Kern, and Delmer Daves gives her a book of his calligraphy. Nixon curtails her acting in order to raise a family, but remains fascinated with the business, sending her daughter Mike Connolly’s column from the Hollywood Reporter every week through Jessica’s four years at Stanford. Nixon is essential to maintaining the loose community Seiter created on set, delivering “personal Christmas gifts from my father to his ‘staff’, especially Glen Tryon and Sam Mintz, his right hand men.”

Dave Kehr discusses this communal spirit in his Film Comment essay (Jan/Feb 2012) on William A. Seiter, which is re-printed in the back of the book. He emphasizes that “the thrust of his work is not to dominate his performers but to enframe and enhance them”. He uses Ginger Rogers as an example, as her non-nonsense persona is perfected from Professional Sweetheart (1933) through In Person (1935).  Seiter Niblo has learned to do the same for her family, letting their lives and personality emerge through her tough and loving portrait of two charismatic Hollywood talents.

As she proudly notes, her children have continued the family’s string of success in Hollywood. Ted Griffin is a screenwriter whose worked on everything from the cannibal thriller Ravenous (1999, a personal favorite) to the broad Brett Ratner comedy Tower Heist (2011). He collaborated with his brother Nick on Matchstick Men (2003) and the short-lived but much loved TV drama Terriers. So while the Seiter name has long been absent from silver screens, his family still knows how to entertain.


October 16, 2012

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Devin McKinney has written a biography of uncommon urgency and feeling, about a man not prone to either.  Henry Fonda’s performances and, the book suggests, his private life, were built on varieties of withholding. Fonda’s greatest performances are models of underplaying, using his middle-Western sincerity to mask the losses that fissured his characters, manifesting only as haunted stares.   McKinney’s The Man Who Saw A Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda traces the tragedies in turn that marked Fonda’s personal life, those which lined his face and lie hidden behind his icy blue eyes. McKinney draws broad conclusions from these traumas, finding constant echoes in Fonda’s screen roles, an occasionally problematic approach that tends to reduce collaborative film efforts to manifestations of Fonda’s personality. But McKinney is a seductive and patient writer, and whenever he focuses on the physical details of a Fonda performance, his various postures and gaits, it is a revelation of the actor’s craft, how Fonda positioned himself most often to disappear, whether by shading his face or turning his back. McKinney exalts him for this reserve and modesty, a reticence and chastened demeanor the author will trace back to the ghosts that populate Fonda’s past and present, the human wreckage he has left behind in his fabulously successful life. Of all the iconic Hollywood screen presences, McKinney argues, Fonda stands apart, a symbol not of American exceptionalism but of hesitation and regret for the country that could have been.

McKinney is up front about the intent of his biographical project. It is not a data dump, replete with detailed production histories on all of Fonda’s stage and screen ventures, but selective, with “many interesting data, anecdotes, postulates, and possibilities…left out because they contributed insufficiently to the whole.” It is a crafted, thematic work, and might disappoint those looking for a linear immersion into his life. McKinney is after something grander, to position Fonda as a divided, haunted figure, his best performances “animated by the dark energy of contradiction”. He goes on to describe the types that fuel this dark energy, the “satisfied man’s paranoia, the good man’s bad urge, the hero’s despairing shade, and the patriot’s doubting conscience.” McKinney will then pair these fictional shades with Fonda’s real life losses, which include a spate of suicides of loved ones, his four busted marriages, and most paramount for McKinney, his witnessing a lynching at the age of fourteen in Omaha, Nebraska (anticipating the scenes in Young Mr. Lincoln and The Ox Bow Incident). McKinney argues that these real-life events creep their way into his work, and that through his performances “the hidden becomes visible, specters are raised, and shadows begin to move on their own.”

There is a grandiloquent intensity to these early passages in the book, using a dualistic template (light/dark, hidden/visible) that treats Fonda more as myth and symbol than as a man.  McKinney is mythologizing Fonda as much as Fonda did with Lincoln, which made him wary to take on the part. To such mythologizing, John Ford, director of Young Mr. Lincoln, responded with (as McKinney quotes): “What the fuck is all this shit about you not wanting to play this picture? You think Lincoln’s a great fucking Emancipator, huh? He’s a young jack-legged lawyer from Springfield, for Christ sake.” Early on, McKinney seems to forget that Fonda is a jack-legged actor from Grand Island, Nebraska, and not only a fading symbol of a conflicted America. But the book has a flashback structure which fills in Fonda’s life, his jack-legged roots, in between analyses of the myths he was creating in his movies. Patience is required to recognize the edifice McKinney is constructing.

Even as the structure goes up, there is plenty to inspect, as McKinney digs into the features he considers central to his career. He is dazzling when describing Fonda’s meticulous performance, but perfunctory and vague with questions of film style, or how Fonda worked with his directors or fellow actors. Consider this stunning bit on Fonda’s turn in The Grapes of Wrath:

From the start, Fonda’s body stance is nervous but composed, tense and ready. Skinny body in its black suit with high-water cuffs, arms angled outward to stick hands in pockets, pelvis jutting slightly; lots of sunlight between the bony elbows and narrow hips. Watchful eyes in a rectangular head, topped by a huge cloth cap shadowing the eyes throughout the story.

This is a conjuring act, making Fonda’s awkwardly intense Tom Joad appear before your mind’s eye, and indicating how he creates the character through angled limbs and and that insouciantly rebellious “pelvis jutting slightly.” Compare that to his description of John Ford’s compositions:  “Ford is in complete command of his early scenes… He shoots in high-contrast light and rough-hewn settings, pruning Steinbeck’s flowers of prose to leave only stalk and stem.”  Later he will say  the movie “threatens to break down when overheated by bad acting or false framing” without elaborating upon what would make a framing “false”.  I had hoped for more detail of how Fonda worked with collaborators on set, but that is something in rich supply during his extended Broadway period, which pulled him away from Hollywood for a while with the smash hit Mister Roberts (1948,  made into a film in 1955).

It is a tragi-comic navy tale for which Fonda will wear his own Navy blues, having recently been demobilized after serving as an officer on the U.S.S. Curtiss during WWII, deployed in the Marshall Islands. Mister Roberts  ends with a devastating kamikaze attack, one which Fonda himself narrowly escaped during his years of enlistment. The show was a huge hit, but Fonda still played things great interiority and reserve. Director Joshua Logan said that Fonda, “always wanted  to face upstage. I had to use tricks to get him so the audience could see him work.” As Tom Joad shades his eyes, Roberts turns away, and, McKinney writes, “the audience is again left to feel what is hidden.”

As McKinney returns again and again to Fonda’s deflective, recessionary performance style, and outlines his similarly distant relationship to his wives and children (although despite a rocky relationship, Jane’s political misadventures eventually do turn him against the Vietnam War), his arguments gain heft and weight. Fonda commits stage suicide in A Gift of Time, “a private act of empathy and remembering” for his ex-wife, Frances, who took her own life. The deaths that had marked his life continue to enter his work, until even offstage, his body begins to erode, and Henry Fonda is as synonymous with America as Abraham Lincoln. That McKinney can make one weep for the loss of his talent makes it a powerful biography, but then cry again for the evanescence of what he used to represent – the memory of a dream of a just United States, makes it a work of art.


February 21, 2012

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Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) is the latest beneficiary of Geoff Dyer’s cultural immersion method. Zona, which comes out today from Pantheon Books, is a pellucid scene-by-scene ramble through Tarkovsky’s sci-fi head trip, alive to the film’s textures as much as its ideas.  In his non-fiction works, Dyer is a dilettante angling for expertise, his books (whether on jazz, photography, or WWI) documents of an enlightenment-in-progress. Like a student prone to daydreaming, Dyer often strays off-topic, doodling in the corners of his notebook, not Van Halen logos, but on his susceptibility to boredom, how his wife looks like Natasha McElhone in the Solaris remake, or simply on his love of knapsacks. These detours are maddening and lovely, bracing returns to everyday neuroses in the midst of high-minded esthetic ruminations. It’s this whiplash between objective and subjective modes, from high to low (he’ll go from quoting William James to thoughts on three-ways), that makes his work so addictive.   The pleasure of Zona lies in Dyer’s method, in its constant sense of discovery, as if he had just stumbled out of a screening and was sharing his thoughts with you after a beer or three.

Dyer originally intended to give the book 142 chapters, one for each shot in the film, but found, “I kept losing track of where one shot ended and another began.” Instead, he splits the book into two parts, corresponding to the rather arbitrary split in the film itself. It is not a rigorous textual analysis, although it has some striking instances of that, but “an account of watchings, rememberings, and forgettings”, of how the film has implanted itself in his memories and his working life, not as a static object. It is a similar approach to what Jonathan Rosenbaum attempted in Moving Places, his cinematic autobiography, on how films affected, and were affected by, the time and place he watched them. Zona is less personal and more attuned to the active viewing experience, a kind of diary of his eye as it wanders around the screen.

He first gazed upon Stalker on February 8th, 1981, which is also the day I was born. A transformative day for us both, although perhaps more life-changing for Dyer, who says that if he had not seen the film in his twenties, “my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished.” For the uninitiated, the film follows a stalker (a kind of mystical tour guide) as he leads a Writer and a Professor through the cordoned off area of the Zone, said to contain a Room that grants one’s innermost wish (it was adapted from the Russian sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic, which is receiving a new English translation that comes out May 1st). In the more conventional analytical sections of the book, Dyer does a fine job of breaking down the film’s use of time, space and language, all of which expand and contract in the amorphous landscapes of the Zone.

The Zone is surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, but when the Stalker’s wife protests his latest jaunt, he proclaims that everywhere is a prison. As Dyer demonstrates, the language of the Gulag permeates the world of Stalker. He quotes Anne Appelbaum’s Gulag: “the world outside the barbed wire was not referred to as ‘freedom’, but as the bolshoya zona, the ‘big prison zone’ larger and less deadly than the ‘small zone’ of the camp, but no more human – and certainly no more humane.” Then there is the most dangerous section of the Zone, the “meat grinder”, which is how prisoners often referred to the Gulag. But in the Zone, these definitions are not fixed, as each new sector provides both new freedoms (of solitude and silence) and new forms of imprisonment (forcing you to reside inside your own head).

Dyer’s sense of Tarkovsky Time is generated through the history of Russia and of cinema. He first brings it up in the context of war strategy, one that “had done for Napoleon and would do for Hitler too: ‘Trade space for time’, a message Tarkovsky took to heart.” Russian army strategists gave up chunks of land for more time to defend it, and Tarkovsky traverses a delimited amount of space (there are only a few sets in Stalker) but explores every inch of it in his heavingly slow zoom-ins and tracking shots. Then Dyer describes his first viewing of Antonioni’s L’Avventura (“the nearest I have ever come to pure cinematic agony”), in which “every second lasted a minute, every minute lasted an hour, and an hour a year, and so on. Trade time for a bigger unit of time.” Tarkovsky pushes Antonioni-time even further, where in a minute an eternity could have passed, what Tarkovsky said, required “a special intensity of attention”. Dyer has this intensity in spades, although not for another slow-footed European modernist, the recently deceased Theo Angelopolous, of whose Ulysses’ Gaze he describes as “another nail in the coffin of European art cinema.”

Dyer has plenty of tossed off, heretical bon mots like this, designed to raise the hackles of any passionate cinephile. He says that Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Belle du Jour “sucked”, Godard’s Breathless was “unwatchable”, Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique “made straight-ahead porn seem tasteful”, Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control was “vacuous” and that Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist was “a highly crafted diminution of the possibilities of cinema”. These are all stashed away in the footnotes, and in the adrenaline provided by my indignant rage, serve as potent energy boosters to binge-read through the rest of the book.

In any case, let’s remain thankful he wrote about Stalker, and not Bunuel. His obsessive viewings of the film have given him an innate sense of the atmosphere and landscapes of the film. The book is a marvel of tactility, no more so when Dyer describes the trio’s first landing in the Zone:

It is every bit as lovely as Stalker Claims – and, at the same time, quite ordinary. The air is full of the sound of birds, of wind in the trees, running water. Mist, muted greens. Weeds and plants swaying in the breeze. The tangled wires of a tiled telegraph pole. The rusting remains of a car. We are in another world that is no more than this world perceived with unprecedented attentiveness. Landscapes like this had been seen before Tarkovsky but – I don’t know how else to put it – their beingness had not been seen in this way.

Then, after noting rhyming images with Walker Evans’s “sagging shacks” and Bresson’s dictum to “Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen’, Dyer embarks one of his more majestic digressions, of his own childhood adventures in a decaying industrial landscape, an old train station at Leckhampton. “Faded, rain-buckled, the timetable was still displayed – a memorial to its own passing.” This memory fits what Dyer would later define to be “quintessentially Tarkovskyian…: the magic of the discarded ordinary, the filmic archaeology of the everyday.” This is the elegiac highlight of the book, in which Dyer alchemically lifts his childhood memory into the realm of art, and brings Stalker, as mysterious an object as cinema has given us, deep down into the swampy earth.


August 9, 2011

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You know this gaunt growler. He lurks in the disreputable direct-to-video section of your local video store, if it still exists, or pops up on Netflix in a low-budget creeper rated with one reluctant star. He is, of course, Lance Henriksen, a tireless worker and a real character of a character actor. In his wild, circuitous life he’s compiled a trunk-full of  anecdotes and chastened life lessons. With the help of co-writer Joseph Maddrey, he packed all of them into his autobiography, Not Bad For A Human. It lays bare his poverty-stricken youth and job-hustling acting career with a disarming lack of vanity and a rhythmic sense of cursing.

“‘You know, Lance, you’re not going to work much until you’re older.’ Why’s that Charlie? ‘Because you look funny.” – Charles Durning to Henriksen, on the set of Dog Day Afternoon


Henriksen had a face he needed to grow into. His Easter Island head needed the ballast of sagging cheeks and the proliferating slashes of wrinkles to ease his transition from awkwardly handsome man to sage and unsettling elder. The transformation was complete with the addition of a cigarette-scarred rasp to his low rumble, able to modulate between wise or psychotic with the turn of a script page.

One of Henriksen’s many forthright confessions is that he wouldn’t be able to read those scripts until he was thirty. He was born in NYC on May 5th, 1940 to James Henriksen and Marguerite Healey. James was never around, and Marguerite worked waitressing jobs to keep her kids fed. She flailed for stability, with “great dreams for her life, but she had no education and she kept marrying men for the sake of being taken care of.” She married five times. In between men there were financial troubles, and one way to make money was acting on television:

There was this talk show in New York where you’d go on the air and tell a bleeding heart story, and listeners would call in and make contributions. My mother got me on that show when I was a little kid, and we would tell these awful lies. It was like we were were a family of grifters…

Lance bounced between family members, but once his maternal grandmother Floss died, he had no reliable guardians to speak of. He ended up at an orphanage at Hastings-on-Hudson and, as Henriksen recounts:

They were impatient with me because I couldn’t read. I was just a little kid, but they got me up in front of the class and I couldn’t read, so they humiliated me. And that was the end of reading. I just thought, Fuck reading. in my heart, I just…turned it off. And school. Fuck school.

He worked as a shoeshine boy and lived on the streets of New York, only finding the sense of community he sought in the movies. His favorite at that time was Howard Hawks’ Western The Big Sky (1952). The love between Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin as they venture through the Grand Teton Mountains struck a chord with the lonely and adventurous Henriksen. When he watched it, he said he was a “Method movie viewer”, bringing a “knapsack, a canteen, a frying pan…and what I thought was a sleeping bag…. I brought all the stuff into the theater with me…and I watched the movie maybe eight times. I’d fall asleep for a while and wake up and watch it some more.”

After years of wandering, through San Francisco and a short stint in the Navy, he ended up in New York with a yen for acting. Still unable to read, he would have a friend recite his dialogue parts into a recorder, from which he would memorize lines. Eventually he taught himself to read, although he claims a nagging sense of inferiority at his lack of education throughout his career.

He was immediately drawn to the physicality of Method acting, and became a part of The Actors’ Studio community, although he was never an official member. Henriksen says Lee Strasberg simply, “wasn’t my kind of guy.” He also rejected studying with Sandy Meisner, who asked him to quit acting for five years if he wanted him as a teacher. Henriksen didn’t think he could afford to live under those circumstances and responded, “Yeah, okay, I’ll do it…but if you fail me, I’m gonna kick your ass.” Meisner declined to accept him as a student.

As with reading, Henriksen learned acting through osmosis and practice. His process was to immerse himself totally in his characters, building elaborate backstories not included in the script, and designing his own costumes and props that he would react to spontaneously in scenes. Inside of this invented world he would feel free to act instinctually instead of mechanically. Part of this process required playing his characters on and off set. When he was playing Wally Schirra in The Right Stuff, a good-hearted family kid, he went looking for his biological father and reunited him with his mother: “My mom really liked Wally. Here she had this son who was attentive to her, didn’t swear around her, took her out to dinner…I think she wishes Wally would have stayed around!”

The impressive thing about Henriksen’s ethic is that he applied it to every project, whether a prestige Hollywood item like The Right Stuff or a ridiculous action film like Stone Cold (1991). Henriksen has invented a useful vocabulary for the roles he would take on. There were the “fart-catcher” roles, which were essentially background players who would absorb the leads’ precious gases. Then there were the “alimony films”, which he took on after his two divorces, and the “jet-lag” gigs, for the low-budget Eastern European movies. For the latter, “I wouldn’t even get an eight hour turn-around before I had to start reciting all this shit.” The first of these was Antibody (2002), in which he plays an “FBI agent who gets injected into the bloodstream of a terrorist.” Henriksen has an extraordinary ability to compartmentalize his performance from the films he appears in. His method allows him to act the movie he has constructed in his head, which the final product rarely lives up to.

Stone Cold falls outside these categories, one of the few films in which he had complete creative control. A vehicle for NFL bust Brian Bosworth, the creative chaos on the set allowed him to finally act without restrictions. The original director was fired and Craig R. Baxley was hired to replace him. He was dissatisfied with the dialogue for his character, the villain Chains Cooper, and requested he be able to improvise all of it.  Baxley agreed and Henriksen, “got so deep into the role that I’d just say whatever came into my mind.” He was given similar freedom on Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, which along with Aliens is one of the few films worthy of his talents. He told Jarmusch that “I don’t want to say one line that you’ve written for this character in the script. I want to improvise the whole thing”. The director trusted him, although Lance’s conviction went to frightening lengths. Jarmusch remembers:

He stayed in character a lot of the time, which was a little scary. Some actors can just walk off the set and become themselves again, but Lance puts so much of himself into a performance that it takes him a little while [to get out of character]. It’s always percolating. And like all really fine actors, he doesn’t act out the stuff; he reacts.

Henriksen is one of the great reactors of the cinema, even if the environment around him isn’t worth reacting to. On my last trip home, my Dad was flipping through the channels and found the direct-to-video alimony film Sasquatch (aka The Untold, 2006). His first reaction was, “any movie with Lance Henriksen has got to be good.” As I watched Lance on-screen,  manfully staggering after a man in a rubber suit with wide-eyed desperation, grief over his daughter’s death doubling the carved lines on his face, it was clear my Dad’s dictum was correct. Lance Henriksen justifies the existence of any movie he appears in, however threadbare.

I’ll leave him with the last word:

If I get another script that says “The Sasquatch looks around the tree”, I’m going to go, “No way, leave me alone, man.”