Friday, June 29, 2007

The Last Sunset

At the end of Aldrich's The Last Sunset (spoilers from beginning to end of this post), there is an unusual series of long shots that transform the final location into a kind of imaginative space. The climactic shootout happens in an empty dirt lot, and Aldrich announces his visual plan with a static shot from high overhead that shows both combatants in the featureless, shadowless space, with a railroad track curving through one side of the frame to impose an unsettling sense of geometrical emptiness. After the shooting, the four main characters are gathered on the final set, and Aldrich poses them allegorically, with a lack of concern for psychology: Kirk Douglas lies dead on the ground, lovers Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone are frozen in embrace near the body, Carol Lynley mourns Douglas on her knees. The oddest thing about this tableau is not that it is not naturalistic, but rather that it is reiterated through more than one shot: the dimensionality of the space is asserted even as the contents of the space are ritualized into abstraction. The effect was not unlike a 3-D video game, where a computer can regenerate a space infinitely but cannot make it seem real. I made a mental note to try this template for size on the rest of the director's work. When one thinks of Aldrich's visual style, one perceives two elements that seem at odds with each other: a deliberate and formalized compositional sense; and decoupage that runs a little wild, and can even seem messy. In the scene I described above, it occurred to me for the first time how those two elements might work together.

On the whole, I didn't care a lot for the film, despite some appealing hard-edged long-shot compositions. The acting is very uneven and ungoverned (though Lynley is wonderful), and there's something middlebrow about the way that the script is constructed in non-psychological terms (get these people on a cattle drive together, and don't bother me with the details! says some imaginary mogul) and yet must still exert itself to pretend that the characters are motivated by psychology. The introduction of the incest theme into 60s Hollywood only heightens the middlebrow effect: suicide is an implausible solution to Douglas's problems, but an acceptable way to soothe the audience's discomfort. (Like I said, spoilers from beginning to end.)

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Artifice or Fantasy, Part II

I've been hesitating to tackle this follow-up to last month's "Artifice or Fantasy" post, because I see serious problems with my line of reasoning. But let's get it over with.

Recently I discussed my realism/fantasy idea with a friend who's a visual artist. When I talked about photographic realism as a medium-based element that the artist's fantasies must encounter and make terms with, she said that the visual artist's materials serve a function like that for her: that her initial ideas must in some way take on a new or modified identity when they meet the materials with which she is working. I liked that parallel, and especially liked the corollary implication that photographic realism was the filmmaker's material: it's a sort of rephrase of Bazin's preoccupation with the ontology of the photographic image as the basis of cinema.

(Of course, there is a strand of filmmaking and film theory that is an extension of the visual arts, and that is based on the simpler, visual-arts-like argument that a filmmaker's materials are the emulsion, the flicker of the projected image, etc. I would argue that this literalism misses the unique qualities of cinema, and it certainly misses out on the beauties of Bazin's insight; but I wouldn't argue that it creates bad movies. In a way, the works generated by these two aesthetics could be described as belonging to completely different art forms.)

Having described the idea that artifice somehow needs to make terms with the realism of the medium, I must confess that I question how generally it applies. There are certainly many fine moments in cinema that depend for much of their impact on the intractability of the image, on the way that the image's documentation of the world is so much more, or so much other, than anything the fiction can offer. But I have good experiences at the movies that can't be described adequately in these terms. For instance, without searching very hard, I come across my recent blog entry on Noel Black's direction of actors in A Change of Seasons. There is no sense in which the acting ideas that I discussed could be described as the fusion of a fictional fantasy and a medium-based realism. It wouldn't even make sense to talk here about behavioral realism. If I were going to describe what's going on in A Change of Seasons using the language of my model, I'd have to say that Black is arranging for the fantasy of a certain story archetype to collide with a surprising, equally fantastic vision of behavior and intimacy, one built upon a bemused, intimate connection between people that expresses itself even when the story is in the process of driving those people apart.

So, in this case, not fantasy vs. realism, but fantasy vs. fantasy. And, really, when one thinks about it: probably all moments in all films contain a fantasy vs. fantasy structure on some level. How common is it for a movie to express a single pre-artistic fantasy, counterbalanced only by the realism of the photographic image? Very very uncommon, and perhaps unheard of. Even film moments that depend crucially on the photograph, moments that could never have existed in a novel, never be rendered by an animation: even these moments tend to be based on the collision of multiple, interacting layers of expression that do not pertain to the photograph.

This takes a great deal of the fun out of my fantasy vs. realism model. If realism doesn't come from the image, from the nature of the medium, then it's really more like just another fantasy, like something the artist dreamed up to counterbalance something else that he or she dreamed up.

So, for now, I'm thinking that, though "fantasy vs. realism" might describe something, I shouldn't be trying to promote it into a more comprehensive theory of how art works.

Just as a footnote (and to tick off one of the "to do" items at the end of the first "Artifice or Fantasy" post): you can see in my argument a pervasive assumption that good moments in art depend on some complication, some collision of levels, some way in which expression meets a meaningful obstacle. This model is more or less axiomatic for me, and I don't think it's very controversial at this point in history: it seems built into most modern discussions of art. Is it universal and timeless? I wonder about this. Did whoever drew those animals on the Altamira caves build in a layer of contradiction? What about all those medieval paintings intended to glorify God? Of course, the fact that the Altamira dude didn't intend to throw us any curveballs doesn't prevent us from identifying and appreciating such curveballs in the work. Still, I hesitate to define "art" in terms of collision and complication, even if I can't appreciate any art that doesn't make me feel complicated.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Donovan's Reef, or the Soft Underbelly of Auteurism

"One sees the danger," said Andre Bazin of the fledgling politique des auteurs, "which is an aesthetic cult of personality." I thought of Bazin's warning as I revisited Donovan's Reef at MOMA last night. It's rather an amazing film, a John Ford home movie shot in Hawaii at Paramount's expense, a completely personal project that shows off Ford's effortless command of visual storytelling. It's also the distilled essence of all the bad taste that ever found its way into a Ford film. I watched openmouthed, astonished at how dense was the weave of unfunny jokes, offenses against human dignity, and ill-judged narrative tics.

I love John Ford, and I certainly feel the power of his regard in every one of the beautiful full shots that both propel the action and abstract each moment into a state of timelessness. But what does an auteurist do with a movie like this? It's like a child with Down Syndrome: perhaps at one point abortion might have been an option, but now that it's here, your parental instincts kick in, and in any case you can't just push it out the door.

Of course, a great many auteurists love the film without reservation. Would they be as enthusiastic if it were Ford's only film, if there were no career for it to be the summation of, if they hadn't received homeopathic doses of this vulgarity in even Ford's masterpieces? I think some of them would love the film for its own sake. And I can relate. But, jeez Louise, love or no love, it's a real problem for auteurism if we just advocate for movies like this without grappling with their peculiar problems of sensibility.

Just a note for the record: it's in the scenes of drunken, brawling male cameraderie where Donovan's Reef feels most natural and achieves some comic subtlety. The best thing about the film is Lee Marvin's Gilhooley, a force of destructive masculinity who, perhaps thanks to an improvised script, becomes a sort of domesticated housepet, idling childlike on the periphery of scenes, contained by social forces and not unhappy for it.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

More on Noel Black

In the comments to my last post on Pretty Poison, Peter Nellhaus mentioned that Noel Black had been removed from the 1980 A Change of Seasons after shooting the first half of the film. I just reread the article I wrote on A Change of Seasons at the time; though I wasn't aware then that Black had been involved with the film, I wrote about its acting in terms that dovetail nicely with the issues I raised about Pretty Poison. And, unlike most of what I wrote 25 years ago, the piece doesn't embarrass me. So here it is. It originally appeared in the L.A. Reader's January 11, 1981 issue.

The credit sequence of A Change of Seasons delivers on the promise of the ad campaign - Bo Derek and Anthony Hopkins frolic naked in a hot tub in leering, repetitive slow motion designed to make even the most pure-minded admirer of the female form feel like a sleazy pervert. Interestingly, Derek doesn't appear in the nude again during the entire course of the movie (although she is seen behind the frosted glass of a shower door in one scene). Could it be that the credit sequence was shot as a last-minute attempt by producers to avert rioting in the theaters by Derek's frustrated fans? Be that as it may, posterity will undoubtedly remember A Change of Seasons as that film with Bo Derek in the hot tub, and the vulgar and deceptive advertising will probably ensure that this intelligent, subtle comedy of manners will never find its proper audience. Surprisingly few filmgoers are able to deal with the oft-proven fact that the way in which a film is promoted has nothing whatsoever to do with the film itself.

A Change of Seasons is an actors' film, but the basic principles behind the diverse performances are so consistent from actor to actor that one must credit director Richard Lang with the overall plan. Lang, whose work in TV includes the pilots to Vegas and Fantasy Island and the miniseries The Word, emerged from the tube in 1980 with the unjustly neglected The Mountain Men, an elegiac tale of the last days of the trappers in the American Northwest. Faced with the formidable task of resurrecting a genre, Lang somehow found the level of abstraction necessary to integrate the film's rowdy humor and grim violence into an epic format. Apart from a penchant for emphatic foreground-background opposition, Lang's style in A Change of Seasons doesn't bear any obvious resemblance to the style of The Mountain Men. But nothing in the earlier film is an impressive as Seasons's shifting, contrapuntal characterizations and the extraordinary balance between grown-up humor and melancholy that they create. The script by Erich Segal, Ronni Kern, and Fred Segal leaves little to be desired, but if one does the mental work necessary to disassociate the lines from the line readings, one can see that a much more conventional movie could have been made from the same script, a movie in which good guys, bad guys, and messages were underlined much more clearly than in Lang's realization.

The film begins with a stereotypic situation that is quickly deepened in the character development. Within a few minutes of the opening credits, literature professor Anthony Hopkins, walking home from an evening out with his wife Shirley MacLaine, is confronted with her knowledge of his affair with one of his students. The ensuing discussion, carried on during the couple's evening domestic routine, is the film's first impressive display of tangled, offbeat character interaction. Hopkins's attempts at justifying his actions continually snarl on his nervous self-consciousness and a nagging awareness of guilt. When he tries to explain to MacLaine that men have special compulsions, he says, "Our needs are more...baroque," a line scripted to evoke audience disdain. But Hopkins creates a new meaning by grimacing as he delivers the awful intellectual's euphemism, fidgeting desperately with a sense of the absurdity of the phrase. MacLaine, on her part, admirably steers past the trap of self-righteousness, mixing her hostile retreats into humor with quiet, dignified expressions of her pain. Much of the script's wisecracking humor is deflated by the basic gravity of the scene; the victim of a well chosen zinger is liable to retreat in helplessness, leaving the other to ponder his or her solitude.

Hopkins's relationship with his lover Derek, partly based on mutual contempt, is nearly as complex and well conceived as the relationship with MacLaine. Derek, clear-eyed and better able to ride the instability of the situation than Hopkins, can barely contain her amusement at his constant uneasiness; she uses her directness as a playful means of tipping the power balance of the relationship. Hopkins absorbs all of her aggression with little, evanescent smiles and scaled-down reactions; one sees in him an occasional flicker of gleeful self-satisfaction that is more truly demonic than Derek's unconcealed pleasure in domination.

Meanwhile, MacLaine vents her frustration by taking up with Michael Brandon, an itinerant handyman whom she finds working in the house. Of all the dangers that the film averts, the one that must have taken the most effort was the likelihood that Brandon's character would emerge as the classic carefree nonconformist who gets to put all the straight characters in their place. Despite hints in the script of the character's destiny, Brandon totally skirts this pitfall, playing with a soft-spoken gentleness and vulnerability that takes the edge off his hippie wisdom. With both husband and wife ensconced in their own relationships, the plot thickens when MacLaine informs Hopkins that if he intends to take Derek to the family's country house over a holiday vacation, he can expect a foursome. The script here reads, approximately: Hopkins: "Are you serious?" MacLaine: "Yes." Hopkins: "I think that's disgusting." The touches that make the moment as filmed so delightful - and so characteristic of Lang's contrapuntal approach - are MacLaine's relaxed good humor and the weird smile of complicity that creeps across Hopkins's face as he delivers his lines. Once more, the characterizations serve not only to deepen a conventional situation but also to make the characters more sympathetic.

The two pairs of lovers head off to the Vermont country house, setting up a farce situation that is successfully deemphasized for quite a while. Strangely, the characters become closer to each other instead of exploding into jealous hatred; this idea is written into the script, but is given force by the way the actors invariably soften their characters' responses to the script's insult humor. Hopkins is particularly good at taking put-downs with a genuine appreciation for the wit of his adversary. In one notable scene, Hopkins begins reading a verse from Marvell with the intention of mocking his rival's supposed intellectual poverty; Brandon, ever so slightly piqued beneath his usual good nature, finishes the verse from memory and turns a sarcastic comment by Hopkins neatly around. Brandon's controlled flair of hostility and Hopkins's amused perspective bring the two vastly different personalities to a momentary resemblance, and a spark of mutual appreciation is struck.

After a little more than an hour of screen time, the film's tone shifts a little toward a more conventional, less textured comedy, and the shift correlates roughly with the intrusion of other characters into the menage a quatre. With the arrival of Hopkins's and MacLaine's daughter Mary Beth Hurt at the country house, the farce conventions of the story become clearer; the film actually grows funnier at this point, but it loses much of the complexity of characterization of its first two-thirds. Hurt's boyfriend Paul Regina and Derek's father Ed Winter also get their chance to be baffled by the household's unconventional living arrangements; each of the three late arrivals delivers his or her lines with a comic abstraction that would not seem amiss if the rest of the film hadn't used a different acting style. Furthermore, a mild didacticism sets in during this last part of the film, as various characters dabble in pointing out the lessons of the story for us. Still, the last half-hour suffers only in comparison with what had come before, and is rather acceptable on its own terms. As a whole, A Change of Seasons remains the best light comedy since Head Over Heels, and Anthony Hopkins's brilliant performance alone is more than enough reason for a recommendation.

It remains to be seen whether 20th Century-Fox's misleading ad campaign will benefit the movie's box office. Merchandizing "10" on the strength of Bo Derek's physical appeal worked, but then "10" was actually constructed around a core of sex fantasy. Its credit sequence aside, A Change of Seasons doesn't really have much to do with sex one way or another, and I'm curious how audiences will react when they find that out. At any rate, there's no point in blaming Bo Derek for the excesses that she inspires in ad men. She hasn't starred in a bad film yet.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Pretty Poison, or Direction Hiding in Plain Sight

Some of the most important things a director can do are practically invisible even to specialists. Case in point: Pretty Poison, directed by Noel Black from a script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. Semple's script is quite self-sufficient in terms of both characterization and structure, and one can be forgiven for thinking that the director simply yelled "Action!" into a megaphone. (This post will contain a few spoilers.)

The script has potential problems. In its first half, it exemplifies the "wacky nonconformist" comedy that loomed large in America's movie mythology in the late 60s and early 70s. The danger in WNC comedy, for me at least, is that the filmmakers will get, and give, too much pleasure from the wit and power of the wacky protagonist as he or she evades the strictures of a dour society, and that the film will reduce to an us-vs.-them power fantasy.

As the film shifts into a noir register in its second half, a new set of dangers crops up. Innocent people are dying, and yet the film is presented as a love story. One of the protagonists has no conscience about her murders; the other cares mostly for the murderer rather than the victims. Will the movie seem as casual about killing as its characters? Can it give us genre pleasure while maintaining some sense of gravity? I mean, some viewers might not care about this sort of thing, but I do.

Noel Black isn't well remembered these days. I like him in general: in addition to Pretty Poison, I'd recommend I'm a Fool; A Man, a Woman and a Bank; and A Change of Seasons (allegedly largely directed by Black without credit). The visual scheme of Pretty Poison is pockmarked by the craft confusion that 1968 was all about - Old Hollywood or New? - but Black has a pleasing penchant for serene long shots that not only place the characters squarely in the bucolic-but-industrial small town environment, but also give full play to Anthony Perkins' unique bodily grace.

Still, I'd say that composition is a relatively small factor in how the direction helped out this project. The two story dangers that I described above aren't handled adequately in the scriptwriting. Semple did some writing work to keep the film in balance in the second half, but he didn't make the script foolproof; and I think he was way too seduced by WNC comedy in the first half. By my accounting, he left Black with one big problem that needed to be fixed, and one minefield to walk through.

A director can do a lot to level the tone of a script without being conspicuous about it. Black and Perkins take an interesting approach to the WNC comedy: Perkins spits out his wackiest lines with heavy sarcasm, or spins his CIA fantasy with straight-man dispatch that reveals a wry self-awareness. Instead of living in the character's fantasy world and being expected to like it, we find ourselves watching a smart guy coping with the real world, and revealing his personality in the process. Perkins is subtly marked as an object of study rather than as an identification figure. If the WNC problem isn't erased altogether, the film at least manages to lay the basis for a workable characterization while Black treads water, waiting for the next act.

As the noir plot engages, Black does the film an even bigger service by pegging its tone more and more to Perkins' Sternberg-like, resigned awareness that his love is fatal, and yet still redemptive for him. The riskiest scene occurs two-thirds of the way through the film, when Perkins proposes to Weld the morning after she has murdered for the first time and turned him into a fugitive. To pull the trick off, Black and Semple need to make Perkins' love so important to him, and so darkly portentous, that it can share the film's moral focus even though a body is floating in the river behind the lovers. I think Black manages this balancing act, and keeps Perkins' distracted romantic transcendence on the front burner through all the noir machinations that take the film to the finish line.

All this stuff is direction, just as much as a fancy camera angle is; and the auteurist aesthetic doesn't hold up well unless such subtlety can be documented.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Zorn's Lemma

I can't think of any movie experience remotely like Hollis Frampton's Zorn's Lemma (I think I'll just use the apostrophe in the title until someone tells me that Frampton didn't want it). Certainly I've never worked so damned hard keeping up with a movie. Interestingly, Frampton is clearly holding the audience by the hand as he teaches us his alphabet of images: he gives us ample time to learn each change before slipping us a new one. So the hard work was at least rewarded with a sense of achievement.

The bizarre experience of taking a test during a movie was completely distracting, so that I absorbed the materiality and the narrativity of the alphabet images only indirectly, during brief rest periods. Somehow this strengthened my investment in the images: I don't think I would have found the "letter H" guy's walk around the corner very interesting in itself, but that corner took on mythic spatial qualities for me.

At the risk of being philistinish, I wish Frampton had given us one or two more cycles of the completed image-alphabet. I think he owed that much to the letter C.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Rossellini and Drama

While watching Rossellini's A Pilot Returns tonight (rather good, despite an unremarkable first half hour), it occurred to me that Rossellini creates what might be called "partial drama." Rossellini often works with dramatic, even melodramatic, material, and creates audience expectations about important events on the way. (One of the things in his films that amps up the drama is his brother Renzo's music, which is often sweeping and insistent.) But then the important event is often robbed of its full emphasis: a cut will take away too much connecting material, or the payoff speeds up and leaves us in the aftermath. Some viewers come to the conclusion that Rossellini is a crude director because of these stuttering, hasty climaxes. At any rate, the effect depends on Rossellini observing the letter of the dramatic contract, but not its spirit.

I posted some further thoughts on Rossellini on a_film_by after last fall's retrospective at MOMA.

Comment Feeds Now Working

With the help of a nice chap on the Blogger forums, I managed to work around an apparent Blogger bug and get feeds working for comments. So you can now click the "Subscribe to Comments" link on the left to get notification for any comments on the blog, or the "subscribe to this post's comments" link at the bottom of each post to get notification only of comments to that post. (If you don't understand about feeds, read this.)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Friedkin, Auteurism, and Bug

William Friedkin was for many years held in low regard by auteurist tastemakers. Part of the reason may have been that auteurism retained some of its original affinity for the filmmaking values of the classical cinema, and Friedkin seemed allied with the forces of dissolution: it was easy in the early 70s to dismiss his jagged cutting and irregular rhythms as messy semi-competence, at a time when many film lovers were worried about the destruction of Old Hollywood craft. And another part of the reason may have been that auteurism had traditionally been aligned with values that were religious or redemptive or in some way affirmative. Truffaut kicked the shooting match off with an essay that condemned the nastiness and anticlericalism of the French Tradition of Quality; Sarris felt obliged to exile his beloved Billy Wilder on charges of cynicism and sourness; Robin Wood linked auteurism to Leavis's moralist valuation of art. Whereas Friedkin's true metier is existential horror, and one finds no trace of uplift anywhere in his style.

However, there's a different sense in which Friedkin fits quite well into auteurist praxis. American auteurism had an M.O. that was fitted to the way Old Hollywood worked: auteurism's compelling message was that submerged directors who looked like anonymous hacks to the undiscerning eye were in fact transcending the limitations of the system and making art. When Old Hollywood collapsed, and New Hollywood began promoting the director as superstar in the hope of creating an un-television-like sense of event, auteurists found themselves in possession of an outmoded archetype. And, not surprisingly, they have had trouble ever since agreeing on which modern superstars are hip and which are square. Meanwhile, the workaday commercial cinema, where auteurism had always scored its big coups in America, began to look so rote and conformist that auteurists (with only a few exceptions, such as Michael E. Grost) couldn't force themselves to sift through it in search of a new generation of heroes.

Not too many careers these days fit the old auteurist model, but lo and behold, Friedkin's is one of them. From the high-water mark of The French Connection and The Exorcist, his clout gradually declined to the point where he needed to accept assignments of truly unpromising material. But he never seemed completely to lie down for his corporate masters, and on a few occasions (like Rules of Engagement and The Hunted), he actually managed to realize the auteurist dream and put across a semi-coherent, powerful vision over the dead body of his scripts. With the exception of Jim McBride (where are you, Jim?), I can't think of another director of his generation who waged a successful fight against such adverse commercial conditions.

The only thing this discussion has to do with Bug, Friedkin's new release, is that Friedkin has for the moment given up trying to turn sow's ears into silk purses, instead mounting a film version of a rather good play by Tracy Letts. I like Bug, and there's no doubt that it's more of a piece than anything Friedkin has done lately. But the auteurist in me resists the idea that Friedkin is "back"; and, after all, filming theater is tricky business, maybe trickier than filming mediocre action scripts.

I said just about all I have to say about Friedkin's style in an old 24fps piece on The Hunted. Bug doesn't show off Friedkin's sensibility as much as some of his films, but it's a smart movie, and not just on the script level. I was especially impressed by the way Friedkin approached the film's most dangerous scene, in which Ashley Judd delivers a long manic monologue that doesn't travel all that well from the stage. Yet Friedkin almost manages the trick by using cross-cutting to throw emphasis upon Michael Shannon's joyous, nearly tearful reaction to the speech; the effect is to move Judd out from under the stage spotlight and make us see her as an object of scrutiny rather than a vessel of pure drama.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Thing from Another World: MOMA, June 17

My first mission as a young cinephile was to absorb the filmography of Howard Hawks; as a result, I often find that I've practically memorized a Hawks film, yet haven't gotten around to revisiting it in decades. It can be a lot of fun to bring one's more mature sensibility to bear on a film that's part of one's DNA.

I saw The Thing from Another World last week at MOMA for the first time in 21 years, and found it even more brilliant and organic than before. This time around, I was struck by how political the film was, and how completely the politics were a function of form. Hawks and his scriptwriters (Charles Lederer and the uncredited Ben Hecht) conceive the movie as a struggle for supremacy between two genres: the fairly new 50s sci-fi genre, and the adventure/action genre that his protagonists improvise. In the movie's rendering, the sci-fi genre is intrinsically liberal: the scientists are consumed with the wonder of extraterrestrial life, think only of making a mutually enriching contact. But the protagonists are soldiers whose instincts, even before the Thing's agenda is clear, are conservative: assume the worst, be armed, head off catastrophe. The struggle between genres is not just a nuance: scenes are built around the collision between different styles of acting, different ideas about where the plot should go. (The genre conflict peaks in the hilarious scene where Carrington, the head scientist, declaims in theatrical terms the urgent need to keep the Thing alive, only to be hustled unceremously out of the frame when commanding officer Hendry mutters under his breath, "Get him out of here.")

The film's stand is unambiguous: the conservatives have the correct opinion in every dispute, the conservatives win in the end and can afford to be generous to the defeated liberals. One cannot legitimately call the film fascist. Not only does Hendry talk a good game about not enjoying giving orders, but the film demonstrates its openness in action, most concretely in the very funny plot thread in which soldier Dewey Martin, who comes up with most of the film's good ideas, eventually stops waiting for Hendry to rubber-stamp his decisions, with Hendry's approval. The film enjoys deflating the cult of authority.

More than any director I can think of, Hawks depends on genre for his effects, needs to play against an established genre backdrop. He devotes a fraction of his cinematic resources to building up genre presence, but the bulk of his resources to executing dialogue and action in a casual style that explodes the genre mood, releases the potential energy in the genre abstraction. Todd McCarthy's bio of Hawks mentions that RKO was puzzled about why a powerful director like Hawks wanted to waste time on a cheap sci-fi thriller. I'm not surprised at all: I can imagine Hawks thinking, "Cool! A new genre to play with!"

Godard (or was it Truffaut?) once called Hawks the most intelligent of American directors. It seems like an odd comment at first: Hawks certainly does not give the most intelligent interviews among American directors. But The Thing illustrates the point beautifully: Hawks felt empowered to construct an entire movie around a series of problems that are solved on-screen, quickly and without fuss.

The Thing will screen again at MOMA on Sunday, June 17 at 3 pm.

Monday, June 11, 2007

DVD Advertisement

The readers of this blog may not be expecting product promotions. But anyway, my last two movies, Honeymoon (1998) and All the Ships at Sea (2004) are now available on DVD via CustomFlix, at the above links.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Artifice or Fantasy: Slight Return

There is some action in the comments section for the "Artifice or Fantasy: Part I" post. If the original post wasn't up your alley, neither will the comments be.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Brooklyn International Film Festival

The Brooklyn Film Festival started on Friday, and I didn't even hear about it until today. But someone did a very nice job with their website: their list of features is well organized and contains just about all the info one could want, including director filmographies, each film's festival history, and trailers for nearly every title. Interestingly, the trailers that appealed to me were for titles that had not looked promising at all: Cover Boy...Last Revolution, The Rocket, and Forfeit. There's something mysterious about the lighting and the grain of the images in the Rocket trailer that really grabs me.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Antonio Pietrangeli, BAM, July 6 and 26; and Other Italian Matters

I'm going out on a limb to recommend these films, as I haven't seen them since the 80s. Italian director Antonio Pietrangeli had a small reputation in the 60s, died in an accident at the end of the decade, and hasn't been spoken of much since. But his films made a strong impression on me when I ran across them, and the two titles I liked the most are playing in BAM's July "Leading Ladies of Italian Cinema" retrospective. In my memory at least, the movies are intimate, closeup-laden, female-centered, and quietly emotional. My favorite, La Visita (The Visitor), screens on July 26; before that comes Io la conoscevo bene (I Knew Her Well) on July 6. I don't know of much literature on Pietrangeli in English; Paolo Vecchi wrote a nice entry on him in The Encyclopedia of European Cinema, edited by Ginette Vincendeau.

The series runs from July 6 to 29, and contains other films I like, including Luigi Comencini's Bread, Love and Dreams, which was a big hit in its day.

As the subject is Italian cinema: the Walter Reade's annual "Open Roads" series is coming up June 6-14. For those who want to explore, I found trailers for a lot of the titles at the site. The best known film in the series is The Family Friend by Paolo Sorrentino, who's placed a few films in competition at Cannes; for some reason I'm also interested in In Memory of Me, and maybe even Schopenhauer, just because it sounds so weird.

These days I'm big on finding online trailers when I want to research festivals.