FILM DISCOVERIES OF 2016

December 27, 2016

TOO LATE FOR TEARS, Dan Duryea, Lizabeth Scott, 1949

As 2016 staggers to a close, I am looking back at the pockets of film pleasure I enjoyed from the year that was. This season is clogged with lists, and here I offer another, though one more suited to the historically minded viewers of TCM and FilmStruck. It is a list of my favorite old movies that I viewed for the first time over the past twelve months. These came from all over – rare MoMA film prints, old Warner Brothers DVDs, and yes, from streaming titles on FilmStruck. It’s an eclectic grouping of arts high and low, from all over the world. I hope it points you in some different cinema directions in 2017, or at least diverts your attention from current events for a few minutes. So prematurely, let me wish you all a Happy New Year, and I hope you’ll continue reading our little blog in the year to come.

The below list is in alphabetical order

 

Any Which Way You Can (1980), directed by Buddy Van Horn

Raucously entertaining Clint Eastwood-orangutan buddy comedy in which a bare knuckle brawl tears down Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The sequel to Every Which Way But Loose (1978), this one shunts tough guy Philo Beddoe (Eastwood) into a mob-backed big money fight against infamous fighter Jack Wilson (William Smith). Most of the run time is spent on the road, as Eastwood pals around with his yokel brother Orville (Geoffrey Lewis) on a trip to Wyoming. Ruth Gordon is on hand as their combative battle ax mother, tougher than both her kids combined. The real star, of course, is Clyde the orangutan, an expressive primate who loves Philo and despises the cops who try to break up their fun. The chaos builds into a full-on brawling blowout that tears up the Jackson Hole countryside. All that plus a killer title song sung by Ray Charles and Clint himself.

 

Emperor of the North (1973), directed by Robert Aldrich

In Emperor of the North (1973) the Hobo and the Railroad Man are respective avatars of chaos and order, bloody abstractions who engage in a near-wordless duel to the death on a train rumbling through the Pacific Northwest. They have no back stories or personal motivation, they simply fight because it is in their nature, and the other one is there. Though the film is set in 1933 during the Depression, the story seems to take place outside history on a plane of pure hatred. Director Robert Aldrich expertly channels this hate in an elemental chase film in which stars Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin tear out chunks of each other’s flesh to perpetuate their mutually solitary ways of life. It was released last year on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

 

Her Man (1930), directed by Tay Garnett

Tay Garnett’s Her Man (1930) has had a small but enduring auteurist cult, for those lucky enough to have seen the Cinematheque Francaise print that circulated in the ’50s and ’60s. In his American Cinema, Andrew Sarris wrote of its “extraordinarily fluid camera movements that dispel the myth of static talkies,” while British critic Raymond Durgnat compared it favorably to Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (1928). Poet John Ashbery saw it in Paris in the late ’50s, and it was an inspiration for his “Pavane pour Helen Twelvetrees,” which you can read here.  The film has seemingly disappeared from view since then, with David Thomson erroneously stating that it was a “lost film” in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. It wasn’t lost, but just hiding. The camera negative was discovered in the Columbia Pictures collection at the Library of Congress, and a 4K restoration was performed by Sony Pictures, with funding provided by the Film Foundation (I viewed the restoration at MoMA earlier this year). Her Man is a redemptive romance that takes place in one of the scummiest bars in Havana: the Thalia. There Garnett winds his camera through a knockabout group of con artists, drunks and killers to get to his dewy-eyed lovers, who strong-arm their way out the door.

 

The Heroic Trio (1993), directed by Johnnie To

A deliriously entertaining Hong Kong superhero movie starring the unbeatable trio of Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, and Maggie Cheung. I went to see a battered but beautiful print at the Metrograph in NYC, and was whisked away by the elegant wirework fight scenes and breathless plot mechanics that mashes up kung fu/comic book/horror tropes. Anita Mui is Wonder Woman (no relation), intent on breaking the nefarious baby stealing underworld demon king known only as Evil Master. She is reluctantly joined by fast talking mercenary Chat (aka Thief Catcher – Maggie Cheung) and Ching (Michelle Yeoh), who has access to an invisibility robe (it’s a long story). The three actresses slice through the film with grace and aplomb, but Cheung is the acid-tongued standout – introduced flying over the police’s heads on a motorcycle, and then riding a dynamited barrel into a hostage situation. It’s a well-carpentered, ever surprising entertainment that I’d take over any of the Marvel movies thus far.

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In Vanda’s Room (2001)

The second film in Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas Trilogy, three remarkable features that depict the everyday life of a slum in Lisbon. Vanda Duarte, who portrayed one of the maids in Ossos, becomes the central character here, playing herself as she and her friends smoke heroin, play cards and gossip. The destruction and relocation of Fontainhas’ residents had already begun, so half the neighborhood is rubble. With the shift to digital Costa experiments in recording in very low light and extremely long takes. He is able to shape hieratic, exalted images with these limited means, turning Vanda and her friends into saints. Whether Vanda is snorting H, hacking up a cough or napping, the waver and hum of the blacks as they buffet her angelic face lend the images a religious intensity. Available to view on the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck.

MEN DON'T LEAVE

Men Don’t Leave (1990)

Paul Brickman took seven years to make his follow-up to Risky Business, and Men Don’t Leave is a finely tuned family melodrama about the loss of a husband and father – and the aftershocks of grief. But it failed to find an audience and swiftly disappeared from view. Brickman has not directed a feature since. Men Don’t Leave, now streaming on FilmStruck, should have been the start of the next phase of his career instead of an abrupt end. It is a film of empathy and grace, led by a thorny performance by Jessica Lange as a widowed, exhausted single mother trying to raise two kids and make ends meet.

 

My Little Loves (1974), directed by Jean Eustache

Jean Eustache’s My Little Loves (1974) is about a boy. Twelve-year-old Daniel climbs trees, flirts with girls and punches classmates in the stomach. He is poised between youth and adolescence, and the film seeks to capture all the moments, and all the silences, of this befuddling transition. After Eustache’s coruscating The Mother and the Whore (1973), a logorrheic portrait of post-May ’68 despair, My Little Loves seems startlingly quiet and gentle. But each are after a kind of completism, of leaving nothing out. Discussing My Little Loves, Eustache told his fellow filmmaker, and Cahierdu Cinema habitue, Luc Moullet, that he wanted “to reconstruct [my] childhood: every wall section, every tree, every light pole.” With the help of cinematographer Nestor Almendros, All My Loves becomes a sensorial memory object. There isn’t much of a narrative – it drifts – but it builds up the fabric and texture of Eustache’s childhood in the small rural town of Pessac (outside of Bordeaux), and the industrial city of Narbonnes, on the Mediterranean coast.

PLACIDO, Spanish poster art, 1961

Placido (1961), directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga

Placido (1961) takes place over the course of one chaotic Christmas Eve night as a provincial Spanish town desperately tries to prove its Christian charity. It is a ferociously funny black comedy about performative morality, in which the homeless are used as props to stroke the middle classes’ ego. It is directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga (The Executioner) with intricately orchestrated long takes in which a chorus of self-serving characters negotiate the social corridors of Franco’s Spain. With its rhythmic rapid-fire dialogue and cutting use of caricature, it reminded me most of Preston Sturges (and the small town misunderstandings of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek [1944]). Placido is now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, along with four other Berlanga features.

 

A Summer’s Tale (1996), directed by Eric Rohmer

Like all of Eric Rohmer’s summer vacation films, it is about hesitation and uncertainty, the holidays a transient borderland before the return to adulthood, when decisions have to be made. A Summer’s Tale involves a moody engineering student and hopeful musician named Gaspard who is romantically entangled with three women on the beach. He is entranced by the idea of love but is rather afraid of the physical reality, and masters the art of the indeterminate reply, a master of escape. One of Rohmer’s few male protagonists (the film often feels like a throwback to the masculine bull sessions of the Moral Tales), Gaspard is reported to be a highly autobiographical character who runs through a composite of events from the director’s life. Rohmer doesn’t look back with nostalgia, but with a lucid gimlet eye, his Gaspard one of high ideals and evasive, indecisive actions. A Summer’s Tale is streaming on Netflix, and is available on DVD from Big World Pictures.

TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949)

Too Late For Tears (1949), directed by Byron Haskin

After viewing Too Late For Tears (1949), I would advise all couples against accepting cash-stuffed valises of mysterious origin. Sure, it would be nice to be raised up out of your dead-end middle-class marriage, but there is the whole issue of the money’s origin, and the pile-up of bodies that keeping the cash may entail. Too Late For Tears is a vicious little film noir with a flinty, sociopathic performance by Lizabeth Scott, but it had been in public domain purgatory for decades, circulating in muddy transfers under its re-release title Killer Bait. The Film Noir Foundation has lobbied for its restoration for years, and with the help of a Hollywood Foreign Press grant, the UCLA Film and Television Archive was able to reconstruct the film from a 35mm nitrate French dupe negative, a 35mm acetate re-issue print, and a 16mm acetate. The result can be seen in a superb new Blu-ray from Flicker Alley.

GEORGIA ON MY MIND: MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL (1997)

October 11, 2016

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Clint Eastwood’s improbable late career run continues with Sully, an exquisite multi-perspective rendering of Sully Sullenberger’s “Miracle on the Hudson” emergency plane landing. Replaying the pivotal moment over and over, from the point-of-view of the plane crew, air traffic controllers, and Coast Guard, Eastwood displays how Sully’s heroism was the result of dozens of professionals working in concert. Eastwood took a similar approach to Midnight in the Garden Of Good and Evil, his box-office failure from 1997. Adapted from the phenomenally popular true crime novel by John Berendt (at the time it was the record holder for longest time spent on the New York Times bestseller list – 216 weeks), it is a portrait of the vices and virtues of an eccentric Savannah community – and how those interlocking society pieces led to the murder of an errand boy. Digressive and character driven, Eastwood’s film spends a leisurely 155 minutes to reach an ambiguous Rashomon-like conclusion. In the wake of Sully’s critical and box office success, it is worth revisiting Midnight, which was just released in a fine-looking Blu-ray by the Warner Archive.

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Eastwood became aware of the project when screenwriter John Lee Hancock, who wrote the script for A Perfect World, showed him his stab at an adaptation. The book was considered unfilmable, due to the proliferating number of characters and the labyrinthine details of the plot. Hancock did a lot of condensing, collapsing four murder trials into one while excising characters. According to Eastwood’s interview with Michael David Henry (published in Clint Eastwood: Interviews), Warner Brothers was considering turning the property into an outright comedy, but he convinced them to go with Hancock’s script, which he would direct. Being able to include one of his favorite songwriters (Savannah’s Johnny Mercer) all over the soundtrack probably helped goad him to take the job.

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The story circles around Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), a nouveau riche Savannah socialite and closeted homosexual who kills one of his employees and lovers Billy Hanson (Jude Law) after one of his famed Christmas parties. He claims self defense, but the police believe the scene to have been contrived, and that Billy was shot in cold blood. Into this mystery steps freelance writer John Kelso (John Cusack), in town to churn out a puff piece on the party, but who sees a much bigger story in the killing. Williams grants Kelso access into his world in return for a free exchange of information  – and the two form an uneasy alliance. Kelso is the Berendt and audience stand-in who stumbles around Savannah getting to know the city’s  people, including nightclub singer Mandy (Alison Eastwood, Clint’s daughter), the drag queen MC Lady Chablis (playing herself – she passed away earlier this year), and voodoo priestess Minerva (Irma P. Hall).

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The film was shot on location in Savannah, and starred some of the real people from the story – most significantly Lady Chablis plays herself, and she sashays away with the film. In an interview with The Advocate close to the film’s release, Eastwood discusses the casting of Chablis: “I thought, why go beyond the real thing when the real thing is any good? This is Chablis’ whole life. She lives this day in day out, so she can play it effortlessly. I didn’t want the film to have the usual gay cliches. I wanted the gay element of Savannah to have a reality to it and not be some straight guy’s interpretation.” Lady Chablis had been disappointed in straight guys’ interpretation of the drag lifestyle before, telling The Advocate , “I don’t enjoy movies like To Wong Foo. I do not like anything stereotypical at all. In To Wong Foo, Wesley Snipes was just like big old Wesley Snipes in a dress — making fun of, you know, people who do this very seriously.”

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Lady Chablis is a very serious performer, a slinky acid-tongued presence that seems to bend the film to her will, suspending narrative time to make room for her act. In her scenes with John Cusack, who does his fine hesitating everyman routine, Cusack becomes just another spectator, watching as she extemporizes folk wisdom (“Two tears in a bucket, motherfuck it”), or tears up the dance floor at a black cotillion ball. Eastwood clearly loved working with her, since he grants her whole sequences that have very little to do with the central narrative, including the trip to the cotillion, in which she shows up in a tight sequined gown and dirty dances with one of the straitlaced male guests. Eastwood said he could have “easily dropped” this sequence, “but for me, such details, the way they compose an atmosphere, are what makes the film more than a straight court drama.”

It is perhaps these details, the focus on local color and sense of place, that soured critics and moviegoers. There is little traditional tension and release here. Kevin Spacey’s character is a charismatic, sympathetic figure, a collector of beautiful things whose sexuality made him a curiosity as long as it was an open secret. Once it became an open fact, all his friends faded away. But there is no clarity to his crime, as he offers two different versions of events at different parts in the film, never revealing what is the real truth. It was either self defense or cold blooded murder, but either way he will get his comeuppance in the next life. Spacey has made a career out of these smoothly insinuating egomaniacs, and he is wonderful here, his Williams has compartmentalized every aspect of his life so well he has become naive – shocked that his “friends” leave him after his arrest and seemingly blissfully unaware of the dangers that face him.

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The murder is replayed many times in re-enactments that keep shifting the more the story is told. Unlike Sully there is only one surviving perspective, that of Williams, so there is no certainty, no closure. Where Sully finds heroism in the everyday execution of work, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil only finds mystery. Perhaps it is this ambiguity that doomed Midnight, or maybe it is the film’s loping sprawl, allowing star turns from Lady Chablis and extended cameos from dogs both invisible (a porter takes a long dead canine on a daily stroll) and of local fame – the Georgia Bulldog mascot Uga makes a memorable extended cameo huffing and puffing down a Savannah park.

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Eastwood told Michael David Henry his theory for the film’s failure: “What amuses me is the state of confusion this country’s critics are in. They keep complaining that we are not making character-driven films like in the 1930s and ’40s, but on the other hand they rave about action-driven movies that are devoid of any complexity. I think the influence of television has transformed the way movies are perceived. There is a whole generation, the MTV generation, which wants things to keep rolling all the time. You never linger, you never revisit anything. Whatever the case may be, I can’t worry about it. I filmed the story that I wanted to film.”  I would be curious to hear Eastwood’s opinion on the glut of contemporary “prestige” television programming, and whether that has brought back an appreciation for his kind of character-driven films. In any case it’s a pleasure to watch Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil now, the normal courtroom drama trappings subsumed in an exploration of the gay community of Savannah, Georgia, standing as a tribute to the dynamic presence, humor, and humanity of the late Lady Chablis.

AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVE KEHR

April 5, 2011

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It’s taken as long as the caravan journey in The Big Trail, but we finally have a collection of film criticism from Dave Kehr, who currently writes the essential DVD and Blu-Ray column at the NY Times.  When Movies Mattered (University of Chicago Press) gathers his work from his period at the Chicago Reader, from 1974 – 1986. For years I’ve consulted his capsule reviews to guide my viewing habits, still available at the Reader website, but his long-form pieces have long been out of circulation. So this is a cause for celebration, although the resulting party would drive other critics to drink out of jealousy rather than selflessness. His prose is patient and lucid, laying bare stylistic and thematic mechanisms with the graceful invisible style of one of his favored Hollywood auteurs.

I was able to sit down with Mr. Kehr to talk about some of his favorite directors, as well as those not given much critical attention. So we range from Raoul Walsh to Godard and from Eastwood to Paul W.S. Anderson. Something for everyone! And it should be noted that the University of Chicago Press is doing an incredible job, releasing not just Kehr’s book, but also the most recent writings of Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson.

RES:  It’s easy to get caught up in Raoul Walsh’s energy, but it’s hard to pin down his specific style. Could you break it down?

DK:  Well, he goes through a few different periods. If you’ve seen Regeneration, from 1915, the longest feature that survives, he’s really doing Griffith.  There are standard set-ups, moving into close-ups for moments of emotional intensity or alienation. And then we don’t have anything until 1922, something called Kindred of the Dust which is at the Eastman House. In that one he’s already doing wider angles, longer takes, and more staging of action in depth. He’s doing a lot less cutting. He’s moved in a different direction than Griffith at that point. That becomes very obvious in Thief of Baghdad (1924) and What Price Glory(1926). He becomes more about bodies moving through space and less about shots following shots.

The Big Trail (1930) is a huge breakthrough for him. The effect of working in what was essentially CinemaScope in 1930 makes him reconsider everything. Suddenly he’s got this equipment that will give him dead sharp focus over a range of like 5 miles. And he sees the possibilities instantly, which is what I find so fascinating. It has these incredible deep focus compositions, so you can see every aspect of a shot unfolding in the same image. There is a shot of the wagons being lowered down the mountains in the background, and people approaching in the foreground. Conceptually it’s incredible; multiple planes, multiple focal points. A lot of the stuff people think Welles and Tati invented is already pretty much there in The Big Trail. The other thing he finds there is this sense of background motion which becomes really important for him. He’ll have static figures having a conversation in the foreground, but have a lot of crossing in the background, with isolated pockets of action. You get the feeling these extras could star in their own movie. He develops that in a lot of different ways  in the early ‘30s.

RES: How did he carry the lessons of framing for widescreen back to Academy ratio after The Big Trail?

DK: Well, then he starts working on the deep focus. He works with James Wong Howe on Yellow Ticket (1931) which is a really fascinating film, and I wish Fox would make a print of it. They don’t quite have lenses that are fast enough, and they don’t have enough light, but conceptually they are 100% in Gregg Toland, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles land. They’ve got it all figured out. There are shots in that movie that could have come straight out of Citizen Kane.

RES: Did Andre Bazin ever write anything about Walsh?

DK: Not to my knowledge. These films were pretty hard to see. The Fox stuff dropped out of circulation after the studio fire.  I don’t think people were looking at these movies.

RES: When Walsh began making widescreen films again later in his career, do you see any shift in style from The Big Trail?

DK: It’s like he picks up where he left off. Even before that, when he makes his 3D movie, Gun Fury (1953). He had been making movies in 3D all the time. The irony being that he was blind in one eye. He doesn’t do anything differently in Gun Fury than the way he was staging stuff in The Lawless Breed which comes out the same year. He has that natural sense of depth. He identified cues of perspective and how to nestle characters within a space. It works brilliantly in 3D when you see it projected.

RES: How would you characterize his handling of actors?

DK: Well he likes a very distinctive kind of performer. He didn’t do a lot with Douglas Fairbanks, but he was at the same studio, Triangle, for five years. But when he finally does get to direct him there’s an immediate chemistry: this is the man in action. This is the Walsh hero. He carries this over in different forms. With Fairbanks it’s all light and jolly and weightless. It’s the same with James Dunn in Sailor’s Luck. There’s always something that kicks these people into action, and it can be a conventional goal, or it could be this animal sense of, “I have to keep moving.” And in the case of Sailor’s Luck I think it’s sex. The sexual attraction between those two characters is staggering. Obviously a year later you couldn’t do anything remotely like it. They just have to get together.

Then you get to Errol Flynn, who kind of picks up the Fairbanks stuff, but it’s a little darker, a little nuttier. He’s kind of angry and violent. In Flynn’s first few films he’s juvenile in an irresponsible way, taking unnecessary chances that’ll get him in trouble. And as he works with Walsh, from They Died With Their Boots On (1941) through Operation Burma (1945), that character grows up in really interesting ways.

Flynn achieves manhood for Walsh’s heroes in Operation Burma, and then you get those baroque variations from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Most famously, White Heat (1949), where the character is plainly psychotic. He’s no longer just dangerous, he’s fucking crazy. That performance is so gutsy. It seems so modern to this day. Chewing on a chicken leg as he walks over to the trunk to shoot the guy….

RES: Even in something like The Strawberry Blonde, Cagney is a little insane.

DK: It’s got that Walsh energy, but it’s more coiled and manic than Flynn, and certainly more than Victor McGlaglen. There’s always the sense that something is pushing these guys forward. It could be something as benign as that spirit of adventure of Fairbanks, or as psychotic as what Cagney does.

RES:  I heard you will be writing a new regular column for Film Comment starting a few issues from now. Will it be about directors like Walsh, who have not been written about much?

DK: Yes. For some reason research on American directors stopped with Andrew Sarris. Probably something to do with the fact that theory came swooping in around that same time, and we all had to pretend there was no such thing as authors for a few years. In the meantime directors are dying left and right and prints are dropping out of circulation. The older I get the more amazed I am by the size of the classical Hollywood cinema, how many interesting people there were, and how many films. It’s gigantic. I don’t think any writer has gotten their head around the enormity of this thing.

RES: Have you selected some filmmakers you’ll discuss?

DK: Two of the people I was planning on writing about… One was a guy who worked at Republic in the 30s and 40s named John H. Auer. And another guy named William Nigh who started at Warners in the teens, worked at MGM and ended up on Poverty Row in the 30s and 40s. He had an interesting late career. I thought I would call the column “The Auer is Nigh”, but they didn’t like it…[laughs]

RES: Are there any unpretentious action directors working today worth paying attention to?

DK:  Yeah. Paul W.S. Anderson I think is pretty talented. I always enjoy his films. I’m not sure he’s any kind of thematic auteur, but he certainly knows how to shoot action. And David Twohy, who did Pitch Black (2000) and A Perfect Getaway (2009). This is a sad example. The guy has directed four movies in the last eleven years . How many films would Raoul Walsh have made in that time? You just don’t have the chance to get good anymore.

RES: I’m happy you named Paul W.S. Anderson, who I get a lot of shit for liking. He’s always attracted to constrained spaces…

DK: Yeah, he’s kind of Langian. He loves these underground chambers. In every movie there’s people penetrating a gigantic spaceship [Event Horizon (1997)] or the bowels of the corporate headquarters in the Resident Evil movies. His first film just came out on DVD, Shopping, which is an art film compared to what came later.

RES: You devote a whole section to Jean-Luc Godard in your book, who at that time (the early-to-mid 80s) was re-engaging with, and questioning, narrative. You wrote that he was “concerned with breaking through a media poisoned world to something clear, clean and transcendent.” How would you contrast that with his recent work, which seems like a return to more experimental formal structures, interested in layering images and ideas rather than “breaking through”?

DK: Passion (1982) is probably my favorite of the late Godards. That one almost seems like a Dreyer film, completely spiritual. It’s all about the transcendent, how do we get out of here, what’s in the next room if there is one. After that he falls back into the argumentative mode.

Film Socialism (2010), which is in three parts, seems to correspond to three stages of his career. You get the opening sequence, which is the big beautiful and lyrical piece, of the stunning images he was doing in the 80s and 90s. Then you get the up close and personal family interaction stuff that he was doing in Numero deux (1975) and the films from the 70s that nobody sees anymore. And then it ends up with an essay-ish section which is very much like the Histoire(s) du Cinema. So he seems to be conscious of playing with his different manners. A retrospective film.

RES: Another of your pieces that struck me was your review of Sudden Impact (1983), and Eastwood in that period. I assume he was not taken seriously as a director at that time. Could you talk about Eastwood’s place in relationship to the New Hollywood, whom you often seem to be reacting against?

DK:  I was somewhat alienated from the whole Bob Rafelson, Easy Rider thing. I don’t think I would write those things as negatively now as I did then. It was a polemical moment.  I liked Clint because of his association with Don Siegel. I thought his first film showed an awful lot of personal investment, and particularly in the way he was looking at himself as an object. It’s a theme that continues, consistently imagining his own disappearance, his own death, obsessively. Sudden Impact is the best of the Dirty Harrys because it gives him such a powerful, other form, a Dirty Harriet, which it was often called at the time. He more than meets his match. Directed masculine energy meets undirected female anger.

RES:  The way Eastwood pares away any affect in his performances, I think you even called it “Bressonian” in your review, really stands out in Firefox (1982) in which he barely emotes, like one of Bresson’s models.

DK: I know, and that’s a great example of him imagining his own disappearance. Because at the end of the movie he flies off away from the camera into this little dot.

RES: Another interesting aspect is how, as a secret agent in Firefox, he’s supposed to be a good actor, but he keeps screwing up. He’s portraying himself as a bad actor.

DK:  Which is what I loved about Pink Cadillac (1989). That was a movie I got a lot of crap for liking, but this is a movie about why Clint likes acting, and why he’s not very good at it.

RES: His movies are so rich because of how he interrogates his own persona…

DK: Yeah, once he stops doing that, his work really dries up for me. His last great film was Gran Torino (2008), which is the summation of that theme, a film I found emotionally devastating. Literally handing over the keys to the new generation. Again he’s imagining his own death and irrelevance, but this time something comes after that.

RES: Could you talk a bit more about his work post-Gran Torino? It seems the craft is still there but not the same level of personal involvement.

DK: I don’t find them very personal at all. It seems like he’s taking whatever hot, Oscar-ish script of the moment is. He’s getting people like Brian Grazer to make his movies, and they’re prestige oriented stuff.

RES: What about the WWII diptych, which I felt was very strong.

DK: Yeah, the first one I thought was good, the second was really good. In Flags of Our Fathers (2006) he was aiming a little too hard for social significance – it didn’t feel like an Eastwood film. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) is just the opposite .

RES: You felt the same about Invictus (2009) and Hereafter (2010)…

DK: Invictus I just couldn’t get into at all and Hereafter I thought was actually bad. Very disappointing. We’ll see about J. Edgar. Sounds like another Oscar candidate.

RES: Another director you devote two pieces to is Blake Edwards…

DK: Edwards was important because he was a full-fledged studio auteur who was still working at a peak level when I was writing those pieces. Just the perfect example of someone was could make very personal films in a very commercial context.

RES: Would you put him with Eastwood as the last of that breed?

DK: I suppose. I don’t want to sound all apocalyptic or anything. Joe Dante is still in there plugging. And John Carpenter…he’s a real independent. He released through studios but made maybe one studio produced film,The Thing (1982) through Universal. He has that studio ethic without being a studio guy. He fought to keep his independence so he could make movies as if he were working for an old studio.

RES: I wonder when we’ll get to see Carpenter’s The Ward (2010)…

DK: It’s played all over Europe. And Monte Hellman’s got a new picture with no distribution [UPDATE: Monterey Media has acquired Hellman’s ROAD TO NOWHERE]. And Joe’s last picture [The Hole (2010)] never got distribution.

RES: Was The Hole’s fate decided because studios booked all the 3D screens?

DK: He explained it to me. The problem selling it was it wasn’t scary enough for teenagers and it was too scary for twelve year olds. A tweener.

RES: Continuing with more recent work, you wrote that great piece on The Cable Guy (1996) recently, so could you expand your thoughts on Apatow’s output? He has his champions.

DK: He does, but I don’t think he’s that innovative. He’s never done anything as far out as The Cable Guy again. He wrote a lot of it and didn’t put his name on it, but he learned his lesson on that one. Keep it friendly, keep it nice.

RES: Funny People (2009) did seem very personal…

DK: It did, but not in such great ways. It kind of gets preachy on you. I didn’t like how he was layering the characters where the people at the center were these three dimensional, psychologically complex types, but the further you got from them the more grotesque and cheap sitcom-y they got. When they finally meet the husband, he’s this total cartoon. He’s no real competition, there’s no real drama between those two guys. The guy’s a joke. It was an easy way out of that dramatic situation. I generally find the Farrelly’s more interesting, although they kind of ran out of steam. They’re not as funny as they used to be.

RES: I’m a big Stuck on You (2003) partisan.

DK: Yeah, I like that. And Kingpin (1996), I just love it.

RES: Is is their anarchic qualities you admire?

DK: That’s where the real energy is now. Comedy and horror is where you can break the rules. You don’t have people breathing down your neck because executives don’t care about these genre things, they don’t watch them half the time.

RES: That’s why I’m a big fan of the Will Ferrell/Adam McKay comedies, especially Step Brothers (2008), which becomes incredibly anarchic.

DK: Yeah, I have to see that. Ferrell, I can’t quite figure him out. There’s something a little condescending in what he does. It’s not mean spirited, he just likes playing stupid people. He lets you know he’s smarter than they are all the time. Something about that bothers me. You can see him working down, where you could never see Stan Laurel working down.

RES: Step Brothers takes that as its subject. They are literally overgrown children, these men in their 40s, so I think it takes on that criticism. By the end of the film the narrative totally dissipates, into a series of non-sequitur gags. The Other Guys (2010) is more conventional…

DK: I saw that. It was a buddy cop movie that kept telling you, “this is a parody of a buddy cop movie.” But it was doing all the things a buddy cop movie does.

RES: It got caught up in the plot for some reason…

DK: Isn’t this a great parody?  No, it’s just like everything else.

RES: There was a flare-up recently in your blog’s lively comments section recently, this time about Tony Scott, who also has his critical defenders.

DK: I guess so. I was kind of amazed to discover that all of the Lisandro Alonso fans also like Tony Scott. I can’t reconcile this. Looks like the same guy to me who made Top Gun (1986). Just run and gun, shoot, shoot shoot, and maybe we can massage this into something that makes sense but we’ll worry about it later.

RES: So you didn’t find any coherent visual scheme.

DK:  I couldn’t find a pattern in what Pat Graham was talking about in Unstoppable (2010), supposedly mirrored, up and down panning shots. If they’re there, I totally missed it. One little trick for getting a quick sense of a director’s visual style is to fast forward through the movie.

RES: Do you do that often?

DK: Not often, but once in a while. So you’re not distracted by the trivialities of plot and character and acting [laughs]. But a quick fast-forward through and you get a good sense of the visual vocabulary. I just ran Unstoppable, the ten minute version, and there didn’t seem to be anything particularly organized about it. He takes these really banal screenplays and embroiders them with these big effects, which is what everybody does. He’s a little more creative technically, he’s willing to go the extra mile of bringing in the helicopter.

RES: I admit I’ve enjoyed his last few movies. I’d say he’s the main exponent of Bordwell’s “intensified continuity”. He’s able to take this style and pare it down where it moves and still makes sense, even if there is no overarching visual structure.

DK: But there are those push-ins at the end of close-ups, for no effect. It doesn’t mean anything. He uses it here but doesn’t use it there. It’s what someone called “refreshing the screen”. It’s just to keep something happening to keep kids from getting bored. Stimulating the optic nerves to keep people interested.

RES: I can’t argue that. But I also think he’s an efficient storyteller.

DK: That’s the kind of filmmaking I value. I just don’t get him, or “the working class metaphysics.”

RES: That quote from Mark Peranson in Cinema Scope (read here) really got under your skin.

DK: That phrase stuck in my craw. It’s too easy. What’s working class about that movie? It’s not about the Hawksian pleasures of doing your job or the Walshian pleasures of community. It’s your typical Hollywood heroes acting in complete isolation. The thematic is tired old therapy stuff. By stopping this train we’ll become better husbands and fathers.

RES: Let’s talk about your blog, and the great community you’ve created there.

DK: I don’t think I created anything. It’s just there aren’t that many places where you can discuss these issues without having the same tired argument over and over again, “is the director the author of the film?” I’m too old, I don’t want to talk about that anymore.

RES: The discussions get intense sometimes. Do you think it recreates the polemical atmosphere of the Kael-Sarris period of your writing, of “When Movies Mattered”?

DK: I hope so. The thing about Tony Scott was a pretty good example of that. I really enjoyed that, it got tense.

RES: In the blog you mentioned that I Saw the Devil (2010) is the natural endpoint of the revenge film cycle kicked back off by Tarantino. Could you elaborate on that?

DK: It’s just hard to imagine things going any further. It’s the old gag where the cop is as crazy as the criminal, but in this case the competition is about who can cause the other greater pain. The pain is registered with such force and originality, it really shook me up. He’s not nearly the craftsman that Park Chan-wook is, but his color sense is magnificent in that great opening shot of the face created in the rear view mirror.  You don’t know whose point of view it is until a half-hour into the movie. It has that old-fashioned craftsmanship that cares about composition and texture and color. You see it in the Korean films coming out now, which I guess is inspired by Park Chan-wook. It’s not happening in many other places now.

RES: Is there anywhere else?

DK: Well, we seem to be living in this post-mise-en-scene world, with a few pockets of it remaining. Johnnie To mainly, the couple guys in Korea, David Fincher, David Twohy, and I’m sure a few others but not that many. Now it’s all about acting and framing the performance. Most mise-en-scene is just finding some way to separate the actor from the background. And that’s all they’re thinking about, how to isolate this face. I was sitting through Sucker Punch (2011) last week, and I thought, what am I doing here? I could have watched three Allan Dwan films in the time it took me to watch it!

UNDERRATED EASTWOOD: FIREFOX (1982)

July 6, 2010

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Beginning on July 9th, the Film Society at Lincoln Center in NYC will be mounting their misleadingly titled“Complete Clint Eastwood” series, which will run all the films he directed, but only a select few of his key acting turns (it’s a superb program regardless). It’s in honor of his 80th birthday, which our own Susan Doll celebrated a few months back. With Clint well represented on home video, it’s easy for anyone outside NYC to curate their own Eastwood retrospective, and one that I suggest deserves re-evaluation is his 1982 spy thriller, Firefox. His entire early 80s output, from Bronco Billy (1980) through Sudden Impact (1983), is extraordinary and relatively forgotten, but Firefox, perhaps due to its bizarre sci-fi trappings, has been judged harshly and dumped into the late-night cable dustbin.

Eastwood plays Mitchell Gant, a retired Air Force pilot suffering from hallucinations of his time as a POW in the Vietnam War. He’s called back into action after the U.S. learns that the USSR had completed construction of a high-tech MiG-31 plane, code-named Firefox. Able to fly at 6-times the speed of sound, invisible to radar, and with a weapons system commanded by the pilot’s mind, eliminating reaction time during dogfights, it could swing the arms race and the momentum of the Cold War. Gant is tasked to steal it because of his language skills, since the plane’s system will work only with someone thinking in Russian. In comparing it to his more satiric Eiger Sanction, Eastwood said, “Firefox was more ‘square’, more traditional. It was about bad guys with pink eyes, but ordinary characters faced with an impossible mission.”

Gant is so ordinary as to be anonymous. Thrust rather unwillingly into the teeth of the Cold War, he is a bundle of anxiety. Eastwood works out various permutations of uneasiness on his face, raising his lips in grimaces and lowering them in scowls representative of a man supremely uncomfortable in his own skin. Shuttled from disguise to disguise and personality to personality (from an American heroin dealer to a tourist to a Russian pilot) acts as a subtle commentary on his own constructed personas. The ironic anti-heroism of his Man With no Name and the obsessive obstreperousness of Dirty Harry, then, are merely other skins, and his queasy performance reflects his ambiguous relationship to them. All of his films, it seems, are re-evaluations and deconstructions of his own personality, and Firefox is one of the earliest and smartest examples of this (taken up later by Sudden Impact straight through to Unforgiven and Gran Torino).

Gant isn’t a heroic figure as much as a man buoyed by circumstance. He never seems in control, pushed forward by his CIA handlers, then handed off to his resistance contacts in Russia, always instructed carefully, never in charge of his own fake lives. In fact, Gant is repeatedly chastised for his performances, encouraged to feign sickness to cover-up his awkward acting chops. His awkwardness and ever-present fear make this film more in the vein of John Le Carre than James Bond, and Bruce Surtees’ low-light photography perfectly expressive of its harshly deterministic narrative. Each of the men he meets is invested body and soul for the future of Russia, and stoically give up their lives for their cause, while Gant is a confused hired gun doing the job because he’s the only one who can. He seems without ideology, disturbed by the resistance fighters heroic sacrifices, giving their lives on the slim chance that Gant will succeed. It’s a utilitarian spy movie,  a morbid landscape where bodies are disposed of after they fulfill their mission, a grim game where deaths are freely given for the slim hope of success. Dave Kehr has even described the film’s terseness as “Bressonian” in his Chicago Reader capsule review, and it’s hard to disagree, or even think of another 80s action movie where that could even be remotely applicable.

In an interview with Michael Henry, he says that Firefox “is the only one of my pictures I used storyboards on.” And while he specifically mentions how he mapped out the final plane special effects sequences, the film as a whole seems finely structured. The major movement is from the dark spy sequences to the bright blue skies of the flight out of Russia, but there are micro-movements inside, including some expertly paced cross-cutting sequences. The opener cuts between the U.S. government war room and the attempt to convince Gant to join the mission at his woodsy home.

It quickly dispenses with the back-story while introducing the idea that Gant is a small pawn in major geo-political movements. This becomes clear during the final cross-cutting sequence, which shifts between the Soviet and U.S. war rooms tracking Gant’s movements in the air, with Gant himself caught in the middle, speaking Russian to an obliging super-plane.

Gant seems happiest in this final movement, cut off from humanity, and submerging his personality into a machine.He’s destroying his individuality while ostensibly flying to freedom. The images brighten as thematically the film grows even darker – self-annihilation as a kind of euphoric release.

THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS: BRUCE SURTEES

July 28, 2009

I remember one thing I wanted to do is get a shot in darkness illuminated by a single candle. The old way to get a picture of someone walking with a candle was to set up a complicated series of controlled lights, dimmers clicking on, synchronized to the step of the person with the candle. […] I didn’t want that kind of thing again. So I picked young Bruce Surtees, and said, “You’ve got to do it without dimmers.” If I’d said that to an old-timer, he would have said goodbye. But Bruce would try to find a way to do anything I asked him. For that candle scene, he put a little bulb in the base of the candleholder and we shot. It took guts. We realized we might get nothing, and we knew we would have to intensify it, send it through a special lab. When we saw the film, most of the screen was black except for a circle of light showing the girl’s face. We didn’t care that it was black, that it wouldn’t show up on a television screen when the studio sold the picture to some network in a couple of years. Screw them. We liked it. It was exciting.’ Don Siegel on The Beguiled [From ‘Don Siegel: Director’ by Stuart M. Kaminsky, 1974.]

This “young” cinematographer Bruce Surtees turned 72 yesterday, and it’s time to celebrate his remarkable career. He’s been on my mind lately, as for much of the last year I’ve been familiarizing myself with the early directorial efforts of Clint Eastwood.  Surtees was his go-to cinematographer from Play Misty For Me (1971) to Pale Rider (1985, see top image from DVD Beaver), where the Malpaso (Eastwood’s production company) house style was established: location shooting draped in deep chiaroscuro blacks paired with hard, desaturated light (plus lots of back-lighting, and no fill lights). It was during this period he was dubbed “The Prince of Darkness.” [Suzi points out that Gordon Willis had the same nickname, but both are worthy!] He did great work with other directors, with Arthur Penn on Night Moves, Bob Fosse on Lenny (which earned him an Oscar nomination) and Sam Fuller on White Dog, but his Clint work is what he’ll forever be associated with.

If Bruce was the Prince of Darkness, then his dad Robert would be one of the Kings of Golden Age Color. He had a dizzying career, acting as an assistant to Gregg Toland before lensing Vicente Minnelli’s operatic satire The Bad and the Beautiful as well the popping colors of Oklahoma! and George Cukor’s Les Girls . He made his name on these latter stunners, later winning an Oscar for Ben-Hur in 1959. He shifted gears in his late period, opting for more intimate dramas and subdued palettes like The Graduate (1967), the 70s dramas of Robert Mulligan (from Summer of ’42 (1971) through Same Time, Next Year (1978)), and the supple B&W of The Last Picture Show (1971).

For his gig on Mark Robson’s Lost Command (1966), Robert hired Bruce as one of his camera operators. Foot firmly in the door, Bruce was then hired on in the same position for Don Siegel, where he worked on Coogan’s Bluff (1968, he’s operating the camera during the motorcycle chase near the Cloisters) and Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970). Eastwood told Michael Henry that on the latter shoot, there were some communication problems with the legendary Mexican DP Gabriel Figueroa, and that Surtees was an invaluable interlocutor. Eastwood and Siegel agreed they would elevate him to DP as soon as they could.

It didn’t take long, and with Siegel’s The Beguiled in 1971, Surtees was hired as director of photography. The opening quote refers to Surtees’ inventive work on this Civil War American gothic. Leeched of color, aside from fetid greens and browns, the palette is close to the sepia tone of Matthew Brady’s photographs, and is loaded with examples of low-key lighting, including the one Siegel emphasizes. It is a tale of barely repressed sexual hysteria, as a Southern female boarding school nurses Clint’s Yank back to health. It looks like Surtees used the candle trick that Siegel discusses multiple times, as various girls sneak into Clint’s room with that one pinprick of light. They are soon enveloped by the deep blacks in Surtees’ photography, subsumed in their awakening sexual desires.

Even early on, Surtees was adept at matching lighting to the emotional tenor of the scene, as his protege (and future Eastwood DP) Jack Green (Unforgiven) can attest. Green was recently profiled in American Cinematographer magazine:

He recalls cinematographer Bruce Surtees (Pale Rider, Tightrope) “standing on a set and giving instructions to the gaffer using his hand as if it were a paintbrush. You would swear there was paint coming out of his fingers! Bruce was a lighting minimalist. If he walked onto a set and saw four lights burning, he’d tell the gaffer to turn one off. I realized the fewer lights you had, the fewer complications there were. It was fascinating to see how Bruce expressed himself to his gaffer and electricians. To this day, I try to duplicate that as best I can.” Green listened to how Surtees and Eastwood would describe lighting in emotional terms. “In Pale Rider, Clint was talking about the scene where the bad guys are standing in the mayor’s house at a fireplace, planning what they’re going to do. He described them as ‘the devil’s advocates,’ and he wanted them surrounded by this boiling firelight. I learned from him and Bruce how to think about lighting in an emotional way.”

He painted with light, as John Alton so poetically phrased it. After crystallizing the hard blue light of Dirty Harry, Surtees would elaborate his gothically dark approach further on Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty For Me. That film, pitched at a similar level of sexual hysteria, etches the phenomenally unhinged performance by Jessica Walter out of backlit shadows and unnaturally hard California light. In ’73, with High Plains Drifter, Surtees shot the landscape with unusually wide apertures, so that, as Ric Gentry puts it in the collected Clint Eastwood Interviews, “everything in the town appears visually scorched by the light, almost flaming.” Appropriate for a town that Eastwood’s ghost rennames HELL.

The Malpaso image doesn’t fully cohere until Outlaw Josey Wales, in 1976. There, with a few more infernal notes, would be the palette Eastwood and his collaborators painted with the rest of their career. Eastwood told Ric Gentry some of the tricks from that film’s particular vision:

“Bruce came up with a suggestion that i thought was very innovative,” Eastwood recalls. “At that time they were going to stop manufacturing a certain film stock, a much slower stock than is used presently. We were scheduled to begin shooting in the fall of the year, which is a great time to shoot a Western because the sun stays low in the sky, though you do run the risk of an early winter setting in. But Bruce said, ‘Why don’t we use this slow stock? We’ll have to use a little more light for certain scenes, but for outdoors it gets richer blacks. The only trouble is they’re running out of it.’

Now, I love rich blacks in a film. I can’t stand it when the blacks go grey and come out milky. In fact, I worked with one cinematographer who wanted to force everything, but I didn’t have the patience for the way the blacks would curdle and go milky. But Bruce doesn’t do that. He has a hard light effect and I wanted to backlight the whole movie. He knew what I liked, the blacks and the contrast, and he wanted to use this stock.”

Eastwood goes on to say that they shot sunsets for sunrises, to “get that very heavy cross light”, and which adds heightened sense of decay in this story of a man haunted and hunted by violence. By the time Pale Rider came around in 1985, Surtees had played around with the dark gleaming surfaces of the surprisingly existential thriller mechanics of Firefox (1982, the sullen physicality of this movie could be called Bressonian), the dusty penumbras of Honkytonk Man (1982), and the moody nightscapes of the severely underrated Dirty Harry vehicle, Sudden Impact (1983, would you believe me if I said it was his Vertigo?). This is without even mentioning his work with other directors, including the epochal fogged Chicago in Risky Business (1983). But with Pale Rider Surtees reached the limit of his style with Eastwood. A self-conscious homage to the Westerns of Boetticher and Leone, it’s perhaps Eastwood’s most stylized work (see the lineup of duster jackets). It has the feel of a summing up, and for Surtees, it was to be his final collaboration with the director. His assistant, Jack Green, would take over up through Space Cowboys in 2000, after which Tom Stern took the helm. There’s an amazing continuity to Eastwood’s production team over the years.

So here’s to you, Prince of Darkness. Happy Birthday.