Coming Soon: Daniel Kremer's Book, Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films

University Press of Kentucky Screen Classics Series is releasing Daniel Kremer's first book Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films on November 5, 2015. Award-winning biographer Patrick McGilligan is the series editor at Screen Classics, and the Foreword of the book was written by Piers Handling, head of the Toronto International Film Festival. Learn more about the book here and pre-order it on Amazon.com here. The same press also published Nick Dawson's Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel and Marilyn Ann Moss's Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood's Legendary Director.  Their recent releases include Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical, by Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo, and Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance, by Brent Phillips. Kremer's book, written and researched with the collaboration and cooperation of Sidney J. Furie himself, details the life of the venerable director of The Ipcress File (1965), The Leather Boys (1964), Lady Sings the Blues (1972), The Appaloosa (1966), Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970), The Boys in Company C (1978), The Entity (1982), Iron Eagle (1986), and many others.  The book features interviews with Michael Caine, Rita Tushingham, R. Lee Ermey, Billy Dee Williams, and many others.  A full-length biographical documentary film, Sidney J. Furie: Fire Up the Carousel!, is also in production as the veteran director steps into making one last personal film on a shoestring budget in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The title originates from the Frank Borzage quote, "When you make pictures for studios, you are just operating the carousel, disengaged but vigilant. When you make personal pictures, you fire up the carousel."  Stay tuned for further updates!

"How wonderful that there is finally a book about Sidney Furie, one of the best directors in the whole of my career . . . and one of my greatest friends. I wouldn't have had a career without him!" ―Michael Caine

"One hell of a book on one hell of a director, with one hell of a career! I originally wanted to make The Godfather with him but wound up working with him on two other pictures―and had about as good a time as I ever had on a movie set. Sidney J. Furie is one of the favorite directors of my career, and now, finally, there is a book to tell his story. He has survived fifty years as a filmmaker on grit, determination, and genius . . . especially genius!" ―Albert S. Ruddy, producer of The Godfather, The Longest Yard, and Million Dollar Baby

Meanwhile, Kremer is signing with Oxford University Press, under series editor Gary Giddins (Warning Shadows: Home Alone With Classic Cinema, Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of the Second Century), for his book on director Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, Chilly Scenes of Winter, Crossing Delancey).

ConFluence-Film Moves to the San Francisco Bay Area!

I’m moving to San Francisco this week, so on the eve of this momentous relocation, I took a moment to consider my favorite San Francisco-set films and decided to write about them. I am going to bypass the usual titles included on such a list, so please do not kvetch about my neglect of Vertigo, Bullitt, The Conversation, Dirty Harry, Point Blank, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Zodiac or any of the other canonical San Francisco titles. Briefly, I will digress and just say, for the record, that Zodiac is my favorite Fincher film, and beyond that, simply sounds the least “recited” and the least overwritten of Fincher’s films.  I found his most recent offering, Gone Girl, distasteful, far-fetched and flat-out ridiculous, and I felt overly conscious of the actors reciting "precision-timed" dialogue.


1. The Strawberry Statement (1970, Stuart Hagmann) Whenever I think San Francisco and film, I think immediately of this movie, produced by MGM during a troubled era of their history that saw studio head James Aubrey greenlighting unusual projects like this one, then taking power away from the director in final cut.  Nothing much happened to this one in that department, thankfully.  I saw it at the age of twelve or thirteen, and it became what San Francisco and the Bay Area means cinematically to me. Winner of the Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, it is intriguingly packed with visual gimmicks, some that are of course dated, and others that are ravishing and still original. While its source, James Kunen’s book The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary, covers Columbia’s student activism, the film’s subject, the Berkeley campus riots, is rife with rich Bay Area history, and its soundtrack, by Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Neil Young solo, Thunderclap Newman, Buffy Saint-Marie and others, is out of this world. I had the pleasure back in 2009 of meeting actor Bruce Davison at a DGA screening of a Henry Jaglom film, and speaking with him about making The Strawberry Statement.  Rembering the brouhahas surrounding the shooting of the film on the Berkeley campus put a nostalgic smile on his face. Davison's comments to me about shooting echoed the opening title crawl that coyly thanked the school with a detectable degree of tongue-in-cheek irony. Critics of the time dug it, then, within just a few years, trashed it in retrospect as a faded relic. I love it and have seen it a ton of times and know many of the lines by heart. We are all conditioned by films we see at the youngest of ages, and I find that I am prone to connecting specific early viewing experiences to places, feelings, dreams I had for my own future. Of all movies, Brian De Palma’s Greetings! (1968) exemplified the call of New York City.  The Strawberry Statement is my San Francisco, a San Francisco best defined in my own mind. The film is filled with a line-up of memorable sequences, including its frightening finale, a harrowing, graphically violent police raid during a student sit-in. The supporting cast is something of a who’s-who, including Bud Cort, Jeannie Berlin, Bob Balaban, James Coco, Michael Margotta, Bert Remsen (an Altman and Ashby repertory player), and the film’s screenwriter, playwright Israel Horovitz.  Recently, the Warner Archive Collection of DVD's released the film on a double-disc set, one with the original theatrical cut and the other with an extended international version.  Boy, do I love distributors who care about stuff like that!


2. Signal 7 (1983, Rob Nilsson) One of the earliest film shot in video and then transferred to 35mm, this ensemble film about actors moonlighting as taxi drivers is inspirational to any filmmaker directing flicks on the cheap.  It proves Rob's status as a pioneer and true visionary.  I wrote about the film back in ’09 here.


3. Bushman (1971, David Schickele) I feel grateful that Rob Nilsson was kind enough to get the filmmaker's widow Gail Schickele to send me a video copy of this just a few months ago. Rob, who had been close personal friends with David Schickele (the brother of P.D.Q. Bach creator Peter Schickele), spoke to me of it many times as a masterpiece and as one of his favorite films. He also formally named it as one of the best films ever made in the Bay Area in a Focus Films website showcase. Rob couldn't be more on-point in this case. It's one of the most stellar examples of the fiction-documentary hybrid, much like Robert Kramer’s Milestones (1975), but somewhat less sprawling and more focused towards an engagement with its chief subject. Shot in gritty black and white, Bushman has Schickele following an African student named Gabriel who matriculates into a San Francisco college and struggles to resolve personal and racial issues that have become central to his life after having uprooted himself. It is almost as if Bay Area filmmaker Marlon Riggs’s seminal documentary Black Is, Black Ain’t (1994) picks up where this film leaves off, especially in a scene in which Gabriel’s girlfriend instructs him on the finer points of the black-American street dialect, only to humorously fail. The San Francisco Film Society says it best when they write, “One is immediately struck by the juxtaposition of African outlooks and California urban life, especially in the sudden flashback to Gabriel’s Nigerian village, with its simplicities contrasted to the complex life-hustle of a Fillmore existence. For the first time in American cinema, an educated African elucidates in a no-nonsense manner, the bewildering ineptness of American society to live humanistically, with every opportunity to do this either ignored or thwarted. Because one begins to see black-American life through African eyes, certain revelations occur.” Bushman is an astounding, tragically obscure wonder that should be seen by a much wider audience. Schickele, who saw to editing duties for John Korty’s Funnyman (1967), Corr and Gessner’s Over-Under Sideways-Down (covered below), and Rob Nilsson’s Chalk (also covered below), also directed other deserving but unseen films like Give Me a Riddle (1966) and Tuscarora (1992). Bushman, though, seems his greatest personal contribution to the art, taking home the Chicago International Film Festival's award for Best First Feature.


4. Over-Under Sideways-Down (1977, Eugene Corr) I had the great pleasure of meeting filmmaker Gene Corr through Rob, and Gene was kind enough to procure me a DVD copy of the film a couple years ago. Produced by the Socialist film collective Cine Manifest (of which Rob and Eugene were members, and which also produced the award-winning Northern Lights), this is one of the best depictions of the working class that has ever been committed to screen, with an excellent lead performance by Robert Viharo, a seeming staple performer in San Francisco independent cinema. In terms of American cinema, I'd put it next to Paul Schrader's Blue Collar (1978). I wrote about this in 2013 here.


5. Riverrun (1970, John Korty) Next to Nilsson and Schickele, Korty is certainly my favorite Bay Area filmmaker and this is my favorite of his films. I could just as easily write about and include his films The Crazy-Quilt (1966) and Funnyman (1967) on this list, and in many ways this is more a John Korty entry on the list than it is one that is solely about Riverrun. Shot in Mill Valley, the latter is a simple three-character drama, and exemplifies what good, down and dirty independent filmmaking spirit is all about. And the kicker: this was financed by Columbia Pictures in the immediate aftermath of the success of their own Easy Rider (1969). At that time, they also had a multi-picture deal with BBS Productions (which produced the latter, as well as Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show and others), but gave Riverrun much less heft than those indie-esque enterprises, unceremoniously dumping this unapologetically arty picture. Drop-dead beautiful images play in concert with some interesting performances by three unknowns. The poster had the perspicacity to recognize how the movie considers how the characters assume archetypal roles in nature: “Air, Earth, Fire, Water. Mother, Son, Father, Daughter. All the elements are in Riverrun.” Korty once said in an interview that, “My first thought was, I want to make a film about salt water and grass and earth and wind and old wood, the texture of the farmhouse, and about animals and about flesh. To me, these are the building blocks.” This artistic intent is fulfilled as early as in the film’s opening, which focuses closely on these textures and surfaces, and in later sequences as in the one in which the young man and woman witness in amazement the birth of a new baby sheep. Even in the scene in which the young woman gives birth to her own child, there is a preoccupation with textures that one can feel with everything that surrounds her, because the audience has become so predisposed to noticing such things by that point in the picture. One might call such seeming digressions “still lifes,” but there is something about the way Korty frames all of this, stitches into the very fabric of the film, which makes all this about the environs somehow very much alive.


6. Good Neighbor Sam (David Swift, 1964) I’ll “go Hollywood” for this entry. The underrated and now obscure David Swift was the director of sixties screwball-ish comedies, specifically in the Hawks tradition, with more than a dash of Frank Tashlin…but all with a decidedly different set of vocal cords. How Sarris missed Swift in his otherwise comprehensive 1968 auteurist study, The American Cinema, is a head-scratcher. In this old-fashioned but incongruously irreverent 130-minute romp, adapted from a comic novel by the author of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Swift keenly satirizes the American preoccupation with conservative “wholesome family values” based in quasi-Puritanical morality, the loathsome deception beneath, and the standards and expectations within an obstinate society that holds such rooted things as paramount. Arching over all of this is a simultaneously caustic and zany view of corporate America, and the individual conformists and yes-men within it. The film, then, remarkably, remains relevant and perceptive even today, despite the period trappings themselves having dated -- and, specifically as a self-aware snapshot of sixties suburbia, it also manages to be quite discerning about the essential American delusion. Jack Lemmon plays a San Francisco ad agency man (and Marin suburbanite) whose career takes a turn towards upward mobility when he scores a major account, that of a dairy corporation run by a wholesome, pious family man (played by none other than Edward G. Robinson) who is a notorious and almost Fascistic self-appointed spokesperson for the aforementioned wholesome family values (Anita Bryant, anyone?). When Lemmon’s wife’s old college friend (Romy Schneider) moves next door, and announces that she stands to inherit $15 million from her grandfather’s estate, things look even rosier. However, according to a clause in her grandfather’s will, she must be happily married, and living according to the expectations of conventional western womanhood, before she can even lay her hands on a dime. When Lemmon and his wife agree that he should masquerade as her husband for a percentage of the take, hijinks ensue. The film’s sprawling third act, in which Lemmon goes on a rampage of defacing his company’s billboards, stacks the set pieces, and veers further into becoming a frenetic, high-impact farce. One must, as always, consider the time in which this film was made. America in 1964 was on the very doorstep of the cultural and political breakdown, and a revolution that, for the first time, would call into question the values roasted in this film.  The revolution would attempt to radically subvert these values, and this film does so satirically well before the culture took hold of itself. Apart from that, its use of San Francisco as a location is often unique and, for the time of its release, quite fresh. Corporate satires were, after all, far more prevalent in the New York milieu. And that cast! Lemmon, Robinson, Schneider, Dorothy Provine, and a host of recognizable character actors are all clearly having a good time.

Endnote: Someone should do a study of Swift’s career (not that it would gross any sizable audience, but he should be given a new look somewhere). He is perhaps most known for directing the Disney vehicles Polyanna (1960) and The Parent Trap (1961), but developed into more of an auteur when he broke free of the Disney machine. Other films include: The Interns (1962), Love is a Ball (1963), Under the Yum-Yum Tree (1963) and the big screen adaptation of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967).


7. Chalk (1996, Rob Nilsson) Another great Nilsson film, set in a murky world of pool hustlers and two-bit bikers and barroom denizens, and his longest at 139 minutes. It does feel ambitious and epic and it is, again, inspirational. And no film, with its candy-colored neon smoke and haze, looks like it.  As per standard procedure, Nilsson also directs the action so that we buy that what we are seeing is actually happening in reality, to an extent that even the most able and nimble of directors would flagellate themselves for a lack of.


8. Watched! (1974, John Parsons) An independently produced foray into pre-Watergate paranoia cinema, set in a then-future 1980, starring Stacy Keach as an ex-District Attorney busted on a 1969 drug charge who is now holed up in a rundown loft trying to make sense of his past via old home movies, reel-to-reel audio tapes, diaries, and black-and-white police surveillance footage. Through flashbacks, we as the audience piece everything together. Once Keach’s character gussies himself up as a Mafia kingpin in an effort to exact revenge on his old nemesis, played by Harris Yulin (Keach’s personal friend and co-star in 1970’s equally surreal End of the Road), things get batshit-crazy. A critic at the Atlanta Film Festival called the film “a fantastic cocaine nightmare.” One wonders what Keach was doing with this, slumming it in what appears to be a weird experimental, underground movie. This one, overall, in story and content, is a head-scratcher, but as I see it, a fascinating and worthwhile head-scratcher. Dig it…and dig for it.


9. Nocturnal Jake (2009, Deniz Demirer) I wrote about this film, directed by my good friend Deniz Demirer, in the early part of 2013. You can read that review here.


10. Shoot the Moon (1982, Alan Parker) This MGM-produced chamber drama, about a messy divorce between Albert Finney and Diane Keaton, features one of the most jaw-dropping domestic scenes I can recall. In it, the eldest of Finney and Keaton’s four daughters refuses the birthday gift that Finney has brought to the house after moving out and taking up with mistress Karen Allen. When Keaton also attempts to keep him out of the house, he forces his way in, literally throws Keaton outside on her ass, then charges up the steps to his daughter’s bedroom. When his daughter likewise shuts the door on him, he breaks that one down and proceeds to give her a whipping for disrespecting him and his love. A free-for-all develops between Finney, the victimized daughter and the rest of the girls. The thing of it is, that, up until that point in the movie, Finney’s character has been depicted as a non-violent and quite loving father. This bout of domestic abuse and violence is unusual for him and shocking to us. This flawed film, scripted by Bo Goldman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Melvin and Howard), is full of moments you would never expect from such a studio endeavor. Indeed, in scenes like these, the film almost feels like Cassavetes at his most frantic. Interestingly enough, I saw this at the age of fourteen on my first visit to the Bay Area, staying with longtime friend and documentarian Peter Nicks (The Waiting Room). Pete, do you remember watching this one with me and being equally shocked by the scene I describe? I’ll never forget what I felt when I saw that traumatic scene at that young, tender age.


Honorable Mentions:


The Laughing Policeman (1973, Stuart Rosenberg) Many homophobic slurs are let loose in this decidedly non-progressive detective story/cop thriller, which despite its title has nothing comedic whatsoever to justify its name, even Walter Matthau in the lead role. However, there are many things about it that make it more than just palatable. The descent into the “underworld” of porn theaters, strip clubs and the like of San Francisco that Matthau and his partner Bruce Dern take, makes for memorable detective cinema, as they attempt to find the gunman of a transit-bus massacre through learning as much as they can about the dead victims of it. The final chase sequence is one I’d stack against any other from a filmic era armed to the teeth with chase sequences.


A Christmas Without Snow (1980, John Korty) John Korty directed this made-for-television picture, more promising than its exhibitional fate would indicate, casting John Houseman in a classic Paper Chase-esque role, as a stern church choirmaster who attempts to whip a team of amateur vocalists in shape for a Christmas performance of Handel’s Messiah. It features a memorable monologue by Houseman, about the origin of the word “amateur”: "Mrs. Burns is right, of course; you are amateurs, unlike certain pseudo-professionals like myself who insist on slave wages. Your voluntary and steadfast attendance at these rehearsals fully qualifies you for any definition of the word "amateur". What Mrs. Burns and many others are wrong about is the meaning of the word, which has to do with motivation, not quality. Remember "amo, amat, amas", the Latin verb "to love". The meaning of "amateur" is "he or she who does a thing for the love of it". There is no higher reason for singing than the love of doing it. In that respect, you do qualify as amateurs. And I salute you for it."


Experiment in Terror (1963, Blake Edwards) Edwards took a radical turn away from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Days of Wine and Roses (1962) with this intriguing genre “experiment,” certainly a far cry from his other work. With scenes set all over the San Francisco area, including Twin Peaks and a finale in Candlestick Park, this is a good one to catch on a lonely night. It also features one of Henry Mancini’s greatest scores.


P.S. I don't "get" the love letters and homilies written to Richard Lester's San Francisco-set Petulia (1968) and I feel very alone on this front. I’ve heard the word “masterpiece” bandied about in regard to this film. Far from it, really. Very far from it. It’s interesting in many ways, and has its moments, but is alas incredibly flawed.  I respect Lester and understand his important place in the history of cinema, but I am rather personally immune to many of his charms.  A Hard Day's Night (1964), The Bed-Sitting Room (1969) and Juggernaut (1974) are actually the only films of his I can take seriously, though I grew up with the Superman films and think there is intellectually (yes, intellectually) more to Superman III than meets the eye, despite a considerably larger number of flaws.  If only Petulia had been directed by its cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, then it might have been something more.  Sorry, this is just my personal opinion.  It does use the city well, though.  I'll say that for it.

Update: Raise Your Kids on Seltzer, Coming in Summer 2015




 The official trailer for Raise Your Kids on Seltzer has been released.  Click the above video window or watch the trailer on Vimeo.  The poster art, courtesy of Philadelphia artist Juan Hurtado, has also been released and can be viewed below.  The film's release is slated for the summer of 2015, with a premiere in San Francisco.  Other updates coming soon!


New Literary Projects, In Utero

As my first book, a biography/monograph of film director Sidney J. Furie, awaits publication in August 2015 from University Press of Kentucky's Screen Classics Series, I have taken on two other literary projects akin to this first one.  One is the first published biography on the life of film actress Karen Black.  Black's widower Stephen Eckelberry, an old friend, has brought me on to pen the project.  I personally knew Karen Black quite well, having lived with her and Stephen for a couple months in the summer of 2008.  The other is the first biography of film director Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, Chilly Scenes of Winter, Crossing Delancey, Between the Lines, Finnegan Begin Again).  I am currently taping sessions with Joan Micklin Silver in New York, after having met her at an anniversary screening of Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979) at the IFC Centre.  In addition to all this, my upcoming feature-length drama, Raise Your Kids on Seltzer, has a projected completion of March 2015.  That's just two months away!  Stay tuned, and happy new year!


On the Critic-Proofing of Artists, and the Irresistible Allure of Flaws

This is the first post I have made on this blog in quite some time.  The manuscript of my upcoming book, Sidney J. Furie: A Filmmaker Works the Angles, has finally been submitted to my publisher and I am moving on to finish editing on my two features, Ezer Kenegdo and Raise Your Kids on Seltzer.  More to come on the blog soon, including Aaron Hollander's long-awaited article, a survey piece on the horror genre.


I realized something about myself over the course of writing my first book -- that I, in many ways, strive to be the champion of the un-championed and under-championed when it comes to my study of film.  Fair enough, you say, but why is this such an epiphany?

I feel that identifying as such gets regularly equated with being a contrarian.  I actually do not see myself as a contrarian, but if you wish to label me thus, I suppose it is not so far off, in a way.  In conversations with people about film over the years, though, I find myself immediately peeved over the fact that there are some directors I am not free to openly criticize, filmmakers with works to which I am supposed to feel beholden -- or, works that I am cornered into blindly admiring to suit the expectations of canonists.  As someone who routinely (and religiously) consults Andrew Sarris's milestone text The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, and as one without hesitation in valuing Sarris's work over Pauline Kael's in their infamous schism, I still cannot help feeling that, in many ways, Sarris pigeonholed auteurist study, and became too much of a taste-maker for his own good, inadvertently or otherwise.  He deserves credit most of all for importing the auteur theory of France to America, but he also did his part in critic-proofing many directors he used to make his case.

I enjoy playing a game I invented called the Auteur Game, i.e. coming up with a pithy statement that encapsulates a given director's work when it comes to theme and approach.  We often play it on my movie sets, at lunches and the occasional downtime between takes.  For instance, Norman Jewison: "Easy-to-package, easy-to-digest messages, often with a salt-of-the-earth ethnic angle (Jews in Fiddler on the Roof, Italians in Moonstruck, Russians in The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!  Bohunks and Eastern Europeans in F.I.S.T.)"  It is also rather fun to consider what Sarris might have written about filmmakers who arrived on the scene after his book was published in 1969.  A good one for Ted Kotcheff (Wake in Fright, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Weekend at Bernie's): "Renders stories about often reckless social climbers, or less specifically, people looking to break out of some kind of trap, in whatever degree of comedy or tragedy."  Who knows what Sarris would have made of Paul Thomas Anderson or Richard Linklater?

When the spirit moves me to check into a book about Hitchcock, I first turn to the chapter about Topaz (1969), one of his major flops.  In my recent reading of Jared Brown's biography on Alan J. Pakula, the very first thing I did was open to the chapter on Dream Lover (1984), Orphans (1987) and See You in the Morning (1989), to see what Pakula possibly had to say about three of his biggest misfires.  This to me is more of a window into the soul of an artist.  It says much more than any masterpiece (and the holy-holies and hosannahs that a masterpiece incites) can ever say.  When I look at any book on Joseph Losey, I first turn to the chapters on Modesty Blaise (1966) and/or Boom! (1967), two of his most embarrassing flops.  I also place great value on self-critical directors, and was delighted to discover that Pakula spoke frankly about what he perceived as drawbacks, even in his hits.  That's real.  That's the good stuff, and I do not care that anyone else may think I'm misguided in this approach.  I learn the most as a filmmaker and as a film scholar from excerpts like these.  I can faintly hear a Hitch cultist protesting, "Hitchcock had no need to call out his own cinematic flaws!"  What a pity -- we might have learned something more incisive about the man's art!  Instead, we just have people making vacuous Hitchcock homages without understanding what they mean.  A flop, a bomb, a misfire, or whatever you care to call a perceived failure, is an index, one that emboldens and guides deeper study.

I am not denying the fact that figures like Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford and others have the right to be called masters, definitive ones at that, but when I am to accept them as infallible demigods and when I am nothing but obliged to stand back in awe without being given the courtesy of looking at their respective corpus with a real critical eye, one that I feel might truly get to the heart of them and what they are about, as individuals as well as artists, I start losing interest in them.  I will try to divert a conversation about Hitchcock to a conversation about something or someone else.  If I cannot discuss them in this way, what worth are they to me?  Kubrick has likewise positioned himself as untouchable, I believe partly because of the personal mythologies that have built up around the man as a recluse, an eccentric, an iconoclast, an obsessive, a...genius (though, I still emphasize that I love Kubrick's work, flaws and all, and revisit his pictures at least once a year).  In certain cases, it would seem that this critic-proofing centers around the cult of the personality.

But, as Mozart says in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, "Come on now, be honest!  Which one of you wouldn't rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules?  Or Horatius, or Orpheus...people so lofty they sound as if they shit marble!"  This is not to equate Hitchcock or Kubrick with Hercules or Orpheus, or to equate my contenders with hairdressers.  What I look for in true artistry, however, are beautiful flaws, ones that canonists are often eager to claim do not exist in works that they deem beyond reproach, despite lame protestations on their part that this is not so.  Sarris was among this breed, though his writings are deserving of praise and were rightly groundbreaking in their time.  There is also Jonathan Rosenbaum's text Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons to perpetuate these tendencies.


[from Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks (1999)]
David (Hugh Grant): What type of paintings are you interested in buying for your collection?
Frenchy (Tracey Ullman): Uh, Rembrandt, Picasso, Michelangelo.  You know, the boys.
David: [sarcastically] Uh huh, yes.  I'm afraid I might be out of Michelangelos at the moment.


My Sidney J. Furie literary project has been met with as much intrigue and applause as it has met with cold but courteous dismissal.  It is interesting to note that the personalities in the film world that originally mattered the most to me are the ones who ultimately saw the value in it when I finally met or made contact with them.  (Intuition is a funny thing.)  The detractors, who shall remain nameless, are people who, in the ensuing time it took to write the book, were keen to write the umpteenth piece that worships one of "the boys" (Hitch, Hawks, Ford, et al.).  I can cite at least three examples, and I would do so here if I didn't have to fear retribution, even the meager variety brandished by scholars, aesthetes and film snobs.  To me, it just spells ignorance and obstinance.  Thankfully, I found a leading publisher and a series editor who found the project ripe with potential.  I was also consoled by this thought: Who in the U.S. took Howard Hawks seriously before Peter Bogdanovich's famous Hawks monograph?

Let us take, for example, more recognized directors whose careers often took left turns.  Case study number one: Robert Altman.  Whereas Altman is certainly beloved, and no one will begrudge him his successes and the advancements he made in the form, he still has not ascended the canonical heights the way that "the boys" have.  For every Nashville (1975), there is an O.C. & Stiggs (1985).  For every McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), there is a Beyond Therapy (1987).  This is not to mention other written-off works in Altman's wildly scattershot, but seductively fascinating, oeuvre, like Quintet (1979), Popeye (1980), HealtH (1980), Ready to Wear (1994), The Gingerbread Man (1998), Dr. T and the Women (1999).

However, the truth in my case is that I would rather watch any of those films in lieu of seeing Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Psycho (1960) repeated times, just because of how beautifully flawed all those films are, and how ready and enthusiastic the Altman fans are to discuss these flaws.  If I told Hitchcock cultists that The Birds (1963) is a horrendous piece of shit (as I believe it is) and Hitch's worst film by far, I would be ostracized and ridiculed, even if I were to specifically, respectfully and responsibly remunerate why I believed such a thing.  Same with Hawks's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), another work I find wildly overpraised.  Or Ford's The Searchers (1956), though I know for a fact that I'm not alone in this sentiment regarding that particular film.

Altman's work has a vulnerability when put under the critical microscope.  That to me is attractive, because it more fully reveals the man who is behind and beneath the work.  What makes his work most worthy of note is that Altman strikes an assured balance of quality and vulnerability (in which case, it often appears that a given work teeters on the edge of falling flat on its face, yet somehow doesn't).  This is part of what makes him one of my personal filmmaking masters.

Case study number two: Woody Allen.  People run hot and cold on Woody, and this has been so from the very outset of his career.  Like Altman, for every hit, there is a flop, and though he is a stalwart in the form and style he has established for himself, he is nonetheless still erratic and unpredictable.  However, in lesser appreciated works like September (1987) and Celebrity (1998), for all their faults, I get more of a sense about the truth of him as an individual than in many of his other films, by sheer virtue of the fact that most discard them as failures.  I personally don't think Celebrity is nearly as bad as folks make it out to be.

With Sidney J. Furie, I had to contend with folks who had only a memory of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), Ladybugs (1992) and his string of direct-to-video quickies, rather than the works as I deem as so-called "masterpieces," including The Leather Boys, The Ipcress File, Lady Sings the Blues, The Boys in Company C and The Entity.  It was a case of selective memory, and this was enough to cast him out of the "cool kids club."  That said, I dislike using the word "masterpiece" in really any case.  It makes me very uncomfortable, because it tends to negate a work, to strip it of its individuality, as I discussed above.

I happen to know someone who wrote and published a book on one of "the boys," and when last year I e-mailed him to discuss George Cukor, another favorite director of mine (one who was having a retrospective in New York at the time), he responded: "Strangely, I prefer Cukor to Hitchcock and many other higher rated directors.  I never say so publicly.  But I much prefer his subject matter and his humanism."  This comment was wholly unsolicited by my own feelings, and we had not even been discussing them when he brought it up.  This, dear readers, is what I mean by the critic-proofing of artists.  There is such a thing as sacrilege in film conversations, but it pays to be irreverent.  Here we have a thoughtful film scholar and cineaste who is silenced into canonist submission.  So, I'll just say it.  Hitchcock is great, but flawed.  There, I said it.  Before anyone gets sore or sour, and if you haven't guessed by now, here is my point: A substantive discussion of film should not consist of a flood of adulation, an oohing and ahhing at those who rest at the top of some ad hoc food chain.  Sure, a biographer or the author of any work must insure that a work will sell, and that there will be interest, and canonical directors are certainly ones readers know.  Who wants to invest in a work of such scale if it will only see an audience of one?  The focus, however, has skewed to the point where "the boys" have the monopoly, and the rigidity of canons becomes obstructive and, in many ways, destructive.  To quote Carol Burnett in Alan Alda's marital dramedy The Four Seasons (1981), "When you call me perfect, I cease to exist!"