My recent film-watching has largely been a series of "self-check" meta-experiences insofar as that I have been engaged in watching works pertaining to cinemania, with which I am proudly "afflicted" with no regrets -- and no pretensions that entail me failing to consider myself more or less obsessive about film. I am self-aware, and that is a saving grace...I think. In any case, the films to be considered in this entry are Film Geek and the German-produced documentary Cinemania, two works that explore the compulsively fanatical "buffery" of respective individuals regarding their fixation with cinema. To say they hit close to home was putting it lightly.
To start, I had one of the most astounding coincidences of my recent life last week. I found myself sitting near the entrance to the uptown subway station at Astor Place, talking to a friend of mine on the phone at 1:00 a.m. (a film conversation lasting roughly an hour and a half...because when I talk film, I mean business, har har). I was telling this friend about the documentary Cinemania and about the five cinemaniacs profiled therein...when all of a sudden, before me, appeared one of the cinemaniacs in person, a character in the film whom I had been describing just but twenty seconds prior! Roberta Hill, the so-called "Queen of New York Cinephiles," and one of the major figures profiled in the film, was walking directly towards me. I stood in amazement. It was like "boom," there she was, and it was indescribably surreal, like a reality I was suddenly and inadvertently creating, as if I had conjured her up or something. She hobbled over towards me, taking feeble, insecure baby-steps (she is probably well into her late 70's) and then made eyes at me when she became aware I had noticed her, begging the question if she gets notices like this often from people. When she looked a second time, this time directly to my right about two feet away from me, I decided to say something. "Excuse me," I began, "but are you Roberta?" Keep in mind that I was still very much on the phone with my friend, who overheard everything. Proudly and in a downright jolly tenor, she replied, "Yes, I am!"
I introduced myself as a fellow cinemaniac (using those exact words, mind you). I was sporting a Mondo Kim's bag and she saw that I was on the phone. I told her of the funny coincidence at hand, explaining that I had just been talking about the film and had described her as a key figure in the documentary less than thirty seconds ago when she suddenly appeared. She seemed absolutely tickled. I showed her what was within my bright yellow Kim's bag. I had just purchased a copy of Jim McBride's Glen and Randa, a new DVD release. We briefly acknowledged that there had been a recent McBride retrospective at BAM the previous week. She then said with a certain degree of disgust, "That's one thing I've never fallen in for...video!" She then told me a little about her upcoming schedule, describing the screenings she planned to attend at the Tribeca Film Festival and many others. Keep in mind if you haven't seen the film, her whole life is going to film screenings in New York, wherever they may be, like a full-time job. She then asked me where I was going, to which I replied, "Catching the uptown subway." "Oh, what a shame. I would have loved to have talked to you some more. But if you're a cinemaniac, we'll certainly be seeing each other again!"
Before she walked off and slowly crossed at Cooper Union, I told her of my belief that I had encountered one of her Cinemania compatriots at one of the Jules Dassin screenings and told her he was sitting directly behind me. She asked who it was, to which I replied, after sputtering and trying to remember for a few seconds, "Eric." She got all flummoxed and responded "Eric?! No, he never goes out!" I was obviously mistaking the names in the film. She, however, was after all, by far, the most memorable of the four profiled, perhaps because she was the only woman. And so we parted. Still absolutely dumbfounded, I returned fully to the phone conversation Roberta had unwittingly interrupted.
So that was my freaky coincidence of the year. In any case, I was watching Cinemania and, at various points, you will observe these characters attempting to figure out a movie question. I would audibly respond with things like "That's so easy" and so forth. Example: Two of the male characters are attempting to figure out the original French comedy that inspired Billy Wilder's Buddy, Buddy (1981). Right away, I knew it was the Lino Ventura/Jacques Brel farce A Pain in the Ass (1977). All of a sudden, this wicked sense of self-awareness kicked in. Should I have been proud of the fact that I, in this particular case, knew more than these willfully anti-social savants did? When I say anti-social, I mean that film nerdhood involves social interaction, but a black hole envelopes those "worthy" of being included and repels others. What delivered me from this momentary existential crisis was that I was convinced I had a life outside of film as well, even though film is still a dominant. Even though I guzzle movies like one would guzzle water after a lengthy desert stroll, I nonetheless travel and socialize much more with others concerning other subjects...hey, I was alright (not that there's anything wrong with that, to use the words of Seinfeld). But it was just simply the fact that the film forced me to examine my own movie-obsessiveness in a way that made me slightly uncomfortable and disconcerted me a little. The question of pathology enters into it with one of the cinemaniacs in the film. He fails to see it as truly pathological. I might add that a profound surprise came in one of the DVD extras. In a taped Q&A session with the cinemaniacs, when asked if any of them ever tried making their own films, other than a few ambivalent responses, the answer was a resounding No.
What was fascinating was that each cinephile profiled in the documentary had a decided niche. You had the omnivore Harvey who consumed any bit of celluloid you put in front of him and relished it, even if the movie was poor. You had the intense lover of classic Hollywood, Eric, who loves musicals and comedies of the 30's and 40's, and has a thing for Alice Faye (among others). For others, you had the foreign film buff Francophile, and the ecclectic but somehow strangely selective and well-read lad with sexual designs on long-gone Hollywood starlets. I asked myself what my niche was. I decided rather immediately that it would be pre-1990 obscure films, domestic and foreign, that fell between the cracks and were awaiting rediscovery. Yup, that was it! If it's obscure, bring it on. I wonder what that would translate to in Latin because it should go on my name-crest...or perhaps I could translate it into a Buddhist mantra.
James Westby's fictional comedy Film Geek I was much less taken with, although it certainly amused me in spots. The main liability and a glaring inaccuracy, and this is fatal, is that no film geek I know is even nearly as much of a reckless fawner as the Scotty character is ("Peter Jackson is awesome!," "David Cronenberg is awesome!," etc.). Cinephiles are haters. Profound haters. I'm a hater. Leave it to real cinephiles (Scotty is discounted), when discussing Jackson or Cronenberg, to say something like, "I thought Dead Ringers was good, but Crash, what was that man thinking?! And A History of Violence was so incredibly half-baked." They wouldn't make whopping general statements like "Cronenberg is awesome." Also, film nerds will never streamline their conversation into talking about what they thought was good about a given movie, but will instead focus predominantly on what is deficient. Cinemaniac Eric Charbourne in Cinemania is a prime example, as he opines about everything from Alain Resnais to Paula Prentiss. It is about living up to a respective film geek's ideal, often unrealistic (we all have our ultimates)...and if a film falls short in any way, it's dead meat and cinemaniacs will nitpick it to shreds, and sometimes blow it to smithereens with harsh words common in passionate diatribes. I do that. Every cinephile I know, and I know plenty, does that. Scotty, in this sense, is just not real and, because he is the center of the movie, I don't buy the movie. I mean, jeez, look what I am doing now for Pete's sake. I am being a hater, admit it! My favorite director is Jacques Rivette, and despite the fact that he is my favorite, I still can criticize his films with regularity and take a poke at his lesser efforts. It's a game of one-sided fisticuffs, the film geeks taking punches at the films they see. It is my opinion that in the true cinemaniac, absolutely nothing is sacred, even those directors and films you love.
Now, I have reasons why I hate things, and undoubtedly so do the people profiled in Cinemania. One of the greatest moments in the documentary was when two of the cinemaniacs are going through a collection of soundtracks. One of them digs out the LP soundtrack to the film The Deadly Affair, directed by Sidney Lumet. "That's a great movie!," one of them exclaims. Without missing a beat, the other venomously intones, "This is not a good movie. This movie sucks!" I laughed out loud.
Film Geek misses that aspect of cinemania entirely. We're haters, Mr. Westby, not inarticulate gravelers who know few words beyond "awesome". Also, on another note, how many shots do we need to see of the character's ass when he jerks off into a sink repeatedly during the movie? Once maybe, but six times is absolutely superfluous. And if you think the people in Cinemania were pathological, wait until you meet Scotty. Not only is he pathological, but he is also pathological in a cardboard, very fictional way, and not even in a way suitable to farcical comedy. You just don't buy it as an illusion of any reality. I am not even going to go into the shot choices, which were often jaw-droppingly clumsy and distracting. The ending, also, was ill-realized. What could have been a clever riff on Taxi Driver's possibly real, possibly imagined denouement is simply soft-in-the-head wish fulfillment. Harsh criticism for this film, no? Ah ha, but I am a cinephile. I'm like the scorpion who gives the unfortunate and ill-fated frog a ride. It's my nature.
I was drawn into seeing Film Geek upon seeing the trailer for it online. The first scene is a clincher. Watch it below.
Unfortunately, Film Geek doesn't keep its promise. So, in my run-in(s) with one, possibly two, of the cinemaniacs in Cinemania, do I feel a sense of kinship with them? In one sense no, in another sense yes. Yes in that I feel all cinephiles share a brother/sisterhood, and a common love of something close and important to them. No in that professing a sense of this brotherhood in a microworld that defies such brotherhood is futile and silly. I mean, look at it this way: At the Jules Dassin screening where I may have encountered one of the cinephiles, I felt so strongly a need to interject into his conversation he was having directly behind me with a bit of my own connoisseurship. I did not because I would have been enveloped in a kind of impromptu contest. I know this because it has happened before. But we share a common love and a common penchant for hatership that one film depicts and celebrates and another film obliviously ignores. The great thing about Cinemania also is that it does not criticize its subjects, and even treats them as human beings as opposed to subjects most of the time. Film Geek reaches a point of mean-spiritedness when it inflicts a variety of painful happenstance on a character with a serious social handicap and expects us to laugh at it. We laugh with the cinephiles in Cinemania, never at them. That's the fundamental difference between these two films.
POST SCRIPTUM: I ran into one of the other cinemaniacs of Cinemania, Harvey Schwartz, some time later at a rare MoMA screening of Ingmar Bergman's English-language The Touch (1971), starring Elliott Gould and Bibi Andersson. After a conversation about soundtracks (specifically T.R. Baskin's) and running times (specifically Born to Win's), he informed me that Roberta had passed away not too long ago. She had been in ill health for awhile. There was some kind of memorial service for her, at which they screened a few of her favorite films. I have encountered another of the profiled folks after writing this as well: Bill Heidbreder, who was rather rude and seemed angry when I confronted him to complement him on his part in the film. When I told him that I encountered Roberta, he literally yelled at me, "Robert is dying!" Well, that relationship's out the window, I guess.
The word "auteur" gets bandied around a great deal in conversation among cineastes. Authorship is a sticky business in the world of cinema for reasons that have been examined far too often with an elitist form of vagueness, smugness -- and ultimately with little to no efficacy in outlining any conclusive "qualifying marks" for assuming definitive film authorship. But, in the cases I intend to illustrate, there is just cause to call the directors I profile auteurs in an unconditional sense. We can examine each individual director's ouevre and glean a defining sense of who they are as filmmakers. Thus, we can take into account when a film they make counters their trademark content and/or style in any way, shape or form. So with that in mind, have you ever taken into account that the last films of many pre-1960 Hollywood auteurs are always the most incongruous to the other films made throughout their distinguished careers? Many last films by big-name classic Hollywood directors sometimes even defined the word "anomaly" and often clung unerringly to their roots in melodrama. It is an ambition of mine to eventually write a book about this phenomenon, but for now, a blog post will do as a primer.
There are many theories I have as to why this could be the case. (1) These "auteurs" who worked within the confines of the Production Code were trying much too hard to validate their work within a liberated post-Code Hollywood and the efforts became too strenuous and hence specious, (2) they were able to perceive a nearing end to their career and felt the irresistible desire to experiment in different degrees to add spice to their grand finale, (3) they were striving desperately to survive within an industry that had unceremoniously declared them relics and had either relegated them to sub-par projects or surreptitiously searched for polite (read: expensive), roundabout ways to phase them out elsehow, (4) the directors were so larger-than-life that they wielded their reputation around as if they were still working in the halcyon days of their autonomy or (5) they just lost grip and self-destructed...or even all of the above. Thus, they were all forced into an evolution to which they were undoubtedly resistant, yet retained a stubborn remembrance of their former glory and deliberate ignorance of emerging vogues. In any case, here are thirteen case studies:
1. John Ford, who spent his career honing classic, milestone, daresay testosterone-driven Westerns like The Searchers, My Darling Clementine and Fort Apache, ends his career with a story about seven women, missionaries in China, appropriately titled 7 Women (1966). Who would have thought? For the longest time, I thought his last film was 1964's epic Western Cheyenne Autumn...until I chance-encountered this one. I was stunned to realize that, not only was it directed by Ford, but that it was also made after Cheyenne Autumn. But in the words of Orson Welles, "Who are the best directors? The old greats of course, and by that, I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford."
2. William Wyler, whose classic films include The Best Years of Our Lives, Jezebel and Ben-Hur, ends his career with a blaxploitation thriller/ melodrama called The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970). It's not a very good film, but Elmer Bernstein does a pretty mean score for it. Sterling Silliphant, on the heels of his Oscar for In the Heat of the Night, is the screenwriter of this race-relations drama/thriller, and the man for whom lightning did not strike twice in this particular case. But you can catch a young Lee Majors as a young newlywed lawyer new to the town where the film takes place, Barbara Hershey as Majors' wife (who curiously does not get much screentime in the film), Lola Falana, who is certainly never hard to look at, and a respectable performance from Roscoe Lee Browne in the title role. The film is not easy to see, but if you go to a number of underground video stores, you are likely to catch a DVD burned directly from the movie's only VHS release, available from Blax Video, a low-echelon company focused on releasing rare 70's black cinema.
3. Jules Dassin, one of the most deft noir directors in cinema history and one of the most artful orchestators of grit in 1940's and 50's American cinema, whose touchstone films include The Naked City, Night and the City and Brute Force, ends his career with a tepid and (depending on your sensibility) even surreal May-December romance melodrama entitled Circle of Two (1980), lensed in Canada and starring Richard Burton as an over-the-hill artist and lover to Tatum O'Neal's precocious teenager. Yes, the then 16-year-old O'Neal has a nude scene in this one, but Dassin thankfully doesn't go for the cheap thrill, but some stretches of this one sometimes might make you wish he did. It got to the point where, if one more character said something like, "She's a big girl now" and tried to rationalize the central relationship in a long-winded way, I felt like throwing the TV through the window.
4. George Stevens , director of Giant and A Place in the Sun, ends his career with a feather-weight sex comedy/drama called The Only Game in Town (1970), starring Liz Taylor and Warren Beatty as love interests, shot in a sound stage that doubled for Las Vegas. I really do not have too much to say about this one. It's okay. It's not horrible, but it's not good either. Frank D. Gilroy, who (in my opinion) often allows his dialogue to far too often verge into baroque prosiness across the board, writes a functional screenplay, but there is really not too much happening here...just a turgid romance with sluggish pacing. New York Times critic Vincent Canby put it best in the headline of his review of the film: "Major stars converge on a minor script." To quote from Canby's actual review, "Miss Taylor's face is still one of the great scenic attractions of our time, but the performance is awfully royal. Beatty, who can be an interesting actor, is required to deliver breezy, bad comedy lines that have the effect of making him look and act like George Hamilton. [George] Stevens's treatment of the romantic but not necessarily dishonest script is epic. Time passes in lap dissolves that are so long and portentious that one fully expects an army to materialize, instead of a head against a pillow." Ditto.
5. George Cukor, the almost unrivalled "greatest director of women talent in Hollywood history," who helmed The Women, The Philadelphia Story and 1954's A Star is Born, makes his "cinexit" with a self-consciously "hot" little number starring Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bisset, a rather misbegotten remake of the Bette Davis vehicle Old Acquaintance, called Rich and Famous. I am not a fan of the film, nor was much of anyone when it was initially released. Many critics were rather vocal about their having difficulty with the image of the beloved 82-year-old Cukor, a well-regarded director of Code-era films, directing the kind of steamy sex scenes that were growing increasingly popular among the emerging directors of the early 80's. I don't really take issue with that as much. It's just the film itself that is rather bleh.
6. John Huston, whose The African Queen defined, for once and for all time, the great Hollywood romantic adventure movie and whose The Treasure of the Sierra Madre still remains gold standard, ended his career with not just one but a series of fascinatingly unusual "small" films, like the absurdist satire Wise Blood (1979), the nearly sublime Fat City (1972), the blackest of black comedies Prizzi's Honor (1985) and the spellbinding adaptation of the "unadaptable" novel Under the Volcano (1984). For Huston's definitive final effort, he turned to a labor of love, yet another adaptation of a so-called "unadaptable" literary work, of James Joyce's novella The Dead, the final story in the classic collection Dubliners. What we get from this final Huston film is Huston's "testament film" (although its status as anomalous to Huston's body of work is more or less uncontested. "Testament film" is a Cahiers du Cinema-coined term which defines a film which states a given director's philosophy of life and philosophy of filmmaking. It is perhaps the most overtly personal film of Huston's career.
7. Otto Preminger, a man who founded his career on American motion-picture taboo-breaking while tackling many of the major pervasive social issues of his time, ended his career with a morality-play in espionage-movie clothes. Based on a Graham Greene novel, the film was financed and filmed in Great Britain with a British cast and crew. As legend has it, the money ran out and no one got paid for the film. There are times when the limitations of the budget show, but the distinguished British actors on display are fabulous and Preminger proved that, at the latest stage of his career, he still had the capability of making a good film. However, considering the way the film was made, its non-topicality (relative to Preminger's other films) and where it was funded and shot, The Human Factor is yet another example of a director's most atypical work coming at the eleventh hour. And never will you see another Preminger film that builds so steadily at such a deliberate, even leisurely pace. After a series of flamboyant Preminger films like Skidoo (1968), Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970) and Such Good Friends (1971), it is fascinating to see Preminger return to a more mannerly mode of direction. Foster Hirsch, in his recent biography of Preminger, reappraises The Human Factor as one of Preminger's most important, personal and humanistic films.
8. Stanley Kramer , the Message Man, ended his career similarly to that of Preminger...with a drama heavy on the moralizing. Preminger and Kramer, it would seem, have a really great deal in common. Both were producer-directors, and showmen at that, whose name under the producer-director credit sold the film to audiencese, and filmmakers who were perhaps the most socially conscious and attuned directors in Hollywood, even if the label seemed often to be self-proclaimed and sometimes wanton, willful and/or arbitrary. Their respective filmographies have some wild, cosmic parallels. Quite often, both men were making the same kind of film at the same time. In any case, this is off-topic and perhaps grounds for another post. Kramer's final film (and films, plural, for that matter) was a bust. It is a forgotten drama about a priest who falls in love with a nun. Oy gevault! Fun, fun, fun in the sun! Kramer's latter films were all quite unusual. Look no further than to also consider Kramer's paranoia assassination-plot thriller The Domino Principle which opens with a vague designation and speculation, via a portentous voice-over narration, concerning a mysterious "them" who conspire towards something dastardly and dangerously unknown. Okay, good, Stanley, good...now excuse me, please, because I need a drink.
9. Alfred Hitchcock ended his career with an amusing treacle of a film. Following the great success of Frenzy, which was also Hitchcock's first go at taking advantage of the liberation of post-Production Code filmmaking, Hitchcock for his third consecutive film had forsaken the big-name stars for relatively lesser known actors (Topaz being his first experiment with this). Karen Black was popular at the time, as was Bruce Dern (albeit to a slightly lesser degree), but the back-up, which includes William Devane and Barbara Harris were excellent, certainly competent but second-tier for a director like Hitchcock. His eschewal of the star-system in his final three films is a point of fascination, because it shows that Hitchcock was somewhat conscious that the star-system, while never the least bit dead, was not the only road to travel in casting. As for the film itself, it is pleasant enough, and certainly many sequences demonstrate that the Master of Suspense has never lost his touch, but the whole affair seems frustratingly by-the-numbers a great deal of the time. And the climactic scene is not much of a climax, even though the final wink-wink, which is the only time Hitchcock breaks the fourth wall in any of his films, is certainly charming. In point of fact, "charming" might very well define the entire movie.
10. Vincente Minnelli , one of my favorite directors, ended his career with what most consider his worst effort, which is a bold statement considering his The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1963) wasn't so hot either. With that one, I personally had a problem with Glenn Ford playing a Latin Don Juan, but I suppose it is not all Minnelli's fault because MGM would not let him cast the more suited Alain Delon in that role. In A Matter of Time, he directs his daughter Liza, casting her against the immortal Ingrid Bergman, who in turn co-stars with her own daughter Isabella Rossellini. The film does have great appeal in more than a few scenes, but it is best to say that it is not what it could have been. Then again, being a Liza fan helps. I personally would have loved New York, New York more without her in the lead, but I thought she was astonishing in The Sterile Cuckoo. What is truly fascinating is that the film uses a familiar formula, the "makeover" story, in this case that of a poor maid to a contessa who is transformed into a great beauty of wealth and esteem. In this film, however, Minnelli uses the theme of memory and its near-tangibility to render the story all the more resonant. I am not saying this is an altogether successful film, but it is certainly better than its reviews would suggest. Incidentally, as well as being Vincente Minnelli's final film, it is also co-star Charles Boyer's final movie, playing Bergman's estanged husband (think Gaslight).
11. Anthony Mann became synonymous with James Stewart during a certain time in his career, and there was a long succession of pictures on which the two worked together, including Winchester '73, The Glenn Miller Story, The Naked Spur and Strategic Air Command to name just a few of the many. Mann also directed what many consider one of the finest Westerns in the history of the genre with The Furies. Mann was altogether one of the iconoclasts of the Hollywood "big genre" movie, helming actioneers, thrillers, Westerns and war films. His last film, a very civil 1969 British espionage drama (a parallel to Mr. Preminger), adapted from a Derek Marlowe novel, called A Dandy in Aspic, was completed by star Laurence Harvey when Mann died midway during its production. The film followed a time when Mann was the official director-for-hire on blockbusters for mega-epic impresario Samuel Bronston (El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire). So, Mann likewise ends his career on his most anomalous work, and thus maybe even on a head-scratching note. I personally enjoyed the film when I had the chance of seeing it on an old VHS, but most people possess a gross distaste for the film. How can you not appreciate an espionage film with a cast of character actors like this? In the leads, you have Harvey against Mia Farrow still in full emaciated-mode following Rosemary's Baby, but you also have Lionel Stander (perhaps my favorite character actor bar none), Per Oscarsson, Peter Cook (fresh off his role as The Devil in 1968's Bedazzled), Calvin Lockhart and Harry Andrews (as usual, sitting idly on the killjoy-overload button). I can understand why the film is disregarded and mostly forgotten, but it is just one of those oddities of the time. Quincy Jones provide the harpsichord-themed score (featured in an excellent Binderesque opening title sequence) and the tonal quality, while not really akin to Mann, is certainly a bold experiment for the man. And you get those 60's styles and that 60's flavor here, there and everywhere. Ahh...the days of the 60's potboiler espionage movie.
12. Billy Wilder, the very man who introduced Jack Lemmon to Walter Matthau on the silver screen in The Fortune Cookie (1966) ended his career with Buddy Buddy (1981), essentially an excuse for the fourth pairing of the beloved comedy team (the fifth, actually, if you count Lemmon directing Matthau in 1971's Kotch). Wilder had directed two of the Lemmon-Matthau vehicles previous to this one (including 1974's The Front Page). What makes this one so different? To start off, on display we have the incomparable Klaus Kinski co-starring as a sex-starved "love doctor" who runs a kinky desert sex clinic. The film is a remake of a French comedy entitled A Pain in the Ass (1977), starring Lino Ventura and Jacques Brel. I suppose you can guess which of them took over the Ventura role. Co-starring also is Paula Prentiss as Lemmon's grossly disenchanted wife who cuckolds him with Kinski's sexually liberated guidance. Every once in awhile you get flashes of brilliance (Matthau, in Catholic priest disguise, doing a faux Irish accent and giving hilarious last rites to a man just assassinated), but you can see and feel the strain placed upon Wilder in the days when the formula of a popular comedy team was growing rather tired. Only more than a full decade later would they reteam to great effect in 1993's Grumpy Old Men, but here we have yet another example of a fine director at odds with himself and at odds with a changing climate.
13. Howard Hawks ended his career in 1970 with an entertaining but deadeningly routine late John Wayne Western. Again, while the film is certainly passable, the film is certainly not worthy of great Howard Hawks cinema. Nowhere is a sequence that broaches the intensity of the prison break scene in The Criminal Code, the infectious energy of the yeehaw scene in Red River or dialogue that even begins to broach the brilliant rapid-fire rhythms of His Girl Friday. Still, as Ebert claims, "We go to see a John Wayne Western not to see anything new but to see the old done again," so maybe that is the point of the exercise. Nonetheless, I would have preferred a more significant coda for a director like Howard Hawks. On that note, a John Wayne Western was perhaps the last thing that was in style in a post-Easy Rider industry, particularly after Wayne came out in favor of the war in Vietnam. Old habits die hard, I suppose.
So there you have them, eleven case-studies of last films. To reiterate, it is my ambition to one day write a book about these films and others -- the films which ultimately became these legendary film directors last works all have unique stories as to how they came to fruition. Most were, in the great auteurist tradition, tailor-made for their sensibilities, but nonetheless, all are in one way or another astounding anomalies. The films themselves are head-over-heels fascinating documents of how old auteurs were forced into an evolution that started in mid-60's American cinema. Many remained stubborn but still forged curious journeys into new territories while still embracing their traditional approaches (e.g. John Ford, William Wyler), some self-destructed (e.g. Stanley Kramer, Jules Dassin), some were oblivious, tenacious or fell into routine (e.g. Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock) and some, but very few, made a final artistic coup to tidy up and summarize a lifetime of deeply rooted feelings about life and their chosen vocation (e.g. John Huston). In any case, I feel that all these results need to be taken into account to rationalize how many of these projects came to exist with auteurs of yore at the helm. For them, it was always, without a doubt, a question of adaptability.
Revisiting Weekend at Bernie's as Allegory: A Remembrance of the End of Reagan's America in Popular Cinema
Okay, you are probably reading the title of this post and thinking, "This sounds absolutely moronic! Who the hell writes such nonsense?" Well, on this blog, you will have read a wide variety of posts concerning all kinds of subjects, mostly about so-called "intelligent" middle-to-highbrow films -- that is, if you have been following. But this blog prides itself in being eclectic and sometimes "less exclusive" regarding its discourse on film, filmmaking and film studies. In recently viewing 1989's now-classic "stupid comedy" tour-de-force Weekend at Bernie's following an exhausting 12-hour shooting-day at work (hey, I do have times and particular moments where I need "cinematic sustenance" apart from the often cerebral art-house offerings I voraciously consume 90% of the time), I was strangely attentive during this viewing in considering the era in which the movie was conceived and created, and what it has to say (yes, say!) in retrospect about a very precisely distinguished end of an era. Okay, so enough self-justification.
For those of those who are not familiar with Weekend at Bernie's, I suppose you can say it is a riff on Alfred Hitchcock's dark comedy The Trouble With Harry (1955), which concerns a corpse that keeps reappearing often in the unlikeliest of places. It tells the story of "two schmucks" low on the corporate ladder at a Manhattan insurance company who get invited for the weekend to the so-called "Hampton Island" luxury mega-home of their salt-of-the-earth boss Bernie to sort out a $2 million error in the company. When they arrive, Bernie has been murdered and an impromptu party spontaneously launches in Bernie's pad with bizarre guests armed to the teeth in champagne, peculiar banter and the best (or worst) in late 80's fashion. On a tangent, I ask you, what was it with the color turquoise being so in style in 1980's America? How long will the party go on until the bikini-clad "babes" and coke-sniffers realize that Bernie is a corpse? Getting a sense of the allegory early on now? Good. Ultimately, the two schmucks must make it appear to the party guests and to the seriously confused hitman who rubbed him out that the dead Bernie is very much alive, even if keeping up the illusion means propping him up and sometimes unwittingly inflicting a wide variety of painful slapstick on a man who should very well be resting in peace. Hijinks ensue.
The word "illusion" is of the essence here and I will follow up with that. Check out a clip from the film below in which the schmucks find themselves in the presence of their corporate-superman boss. This sequence is followed by a scene involving Mafioso characters explaining to Bernie that they, too, have become corporatized.
So what's all this about Reagan? I maybe being really over-analytical -- in fact, I know I am being over-analytical, but who cares because there are times when being over-analytical can be fun -- but it is possible for Weekend at Bernie's to be viewed as allegory. "Dude, man! Far out!" Seriously, bear with me, here. There were a fair number of major Hollywood film comedies throughout the mid-to-late 1980's which could have been and were branded "yuppie films". Predominantly, these yuppie films were shot in New York City and, consequently, these films characterized a conscious popular desire of the time: to "make it," to ascend to the throne of wealth, success and prosperity, to live it up in the U.S.A. in the classic capitalist tradition. Studio products often even used yuppiedom and the midtown corporate obelisks where yuppiedom prevailed without rival as a milieu for a number of formula-stories. There is the young-innocent-abroad story (e.g. The Secret of My Success, Wall Street), updated versions of timeless fables about things like wish-fulfillment (e.g. Big) and comic tales about the glass ceiling and women in the workplace (e.g. Baby Boom, Working Girl, Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead). Fascinatingly enough, whereas the 70's yuppie film (if such a thing were to exist) would fancy the theme of escape, in the 1980's, the theme of escape was unfashionable, because the need to "make it" was so pervasive and deeply rooted in an era of Reaganomics and Reagan-era economic policy. Compare that to the later escapist wish-fulfillment of 1998's Office Space a full decade later. A decidedly much different world had taken hold by that time. Also, in the 80's, the presence of a fashionable jingoism drove a great deal of these yuppie films. "America's the best!," "We rock!," "We're number one!," etc...or even, "The corporate world is America!," "Get them before they get you!," "Win! Win! Win!" -- social Darwinism and hot-blooded national pride during the decade of Cold War tension, perestroika and glasnost.
In Weekend at Bernie's, two underlings, or "schmucks" to be consistent with the movie's nomenclature, who are intent on making it big in the Reaganomics-driven 1980's corporate world are initially traumatized when the boss they so fervently idolize and worship dies unexpectedly once they arrive for what they believe will be a wild, mirthful, frolicsome weekend. The salt-of-the-earth Bernie is a symbol...the very symbol of success, of corporate wealth, of fortune, of prestige, of the corporate superman-on-the-move in the 1980's, of 1980's excellence while a GOP ex-actor played cowboy in the Oval Office.
This is where allegory enters. The success-consumed (and now traumatized) schmucks, who both have mega-delusions of corporate grandeur, thus provide the illusion to the other characters that this human symbol of corporate success (and the popular pursuit of it) is not dead but very much alive amidst rapidly evolving times. There is no life left for the symbol and what it signifies after it has been cut short, but the illusion to unsuspecting others (the teeming masses in the context of the allegory) is what matters. The American people wanted largely to sustain the illusion of such, even if it soon proved impossible. At a point early on, Andrew McCarthy's character admires the at-that-point alive Bernie ("Beautiful apartment, house at the beach, babes, a boat, a car...do you know how much it costs to park a car in Manhattan every month? More than my rent!"). In this respect, Weekend at Bernie's is the ultimate allegory for America at the conclusion of Reagan's World. Also, the two lead characters juxtapose each other quite considerably. Jonathan Silverman's naive, straight-laced, idealistic Richard ("All this can be yours if you set your goals and work hard") seriously offsets the sloppy and fun-loving but world-weary defeatist Larry ("My old man worked hard and all they did was give him more work!"). Early on in the film, one of the two schmucks laments, "We're gonna be here our whole lives!" when they find themselves in the office at work on Saturday, and of course it is the defeatist who makes this comment. In Bernie, the symbol of "making it" in corporate America, provides them with a role-model, a god in a corporate world that lacks a God. Weekend at Bernie's characterizes the end of 80's yuppiedom just as a film like Visconti's The Leopard (1963) characterizes the Risorgimento and the end of the opulence of the elite class in Italy.
Isn't this fun, guys? It just goes to prove that virtually any film can be looked at in a variety of ways and with different methods of interpretation. So what does all this prove? Maybe nothing ultimately, but at least to me, this is what I am attempting to communicate: every film made is indicative of the times and the spirit of the times (in this case, the economic times) within which it was created. Look at a lot of the box-office hooey we are witnessing now amidst economic crisis. Even a silly "non-think" movie like Weekend at Bernie's can act as a historical marker and can characterize a time in the past where a sentiment(s) was prevalent in the popular American psyche. I was five when Weekend at Bernie's was released. I was not conscious of the economic shifts occuring in the world around me. Now I can look at the film and absorb a sense of what it meant to live in an era when the last breath of that era was being drawn. With this in mind, is Paul Blart, Mall Cop a historical film? It may be more Hollywood nonsense, but it is certainly historical and connotes the spirit of these often discouraging (economic) times.
Now onto Weekend at Bernie's 2 as allegory. Hmm...ouch, that's a tough one. Sorry, guys. You're on your own with that one!
You might call this post a gung-ho "recon" rescue operation. This article is a kind of addendum to a post I made a few weeks ago about the budget DVD market, which is a market comprised of a collection of mostly obscure titles. The films on this list are seldom-seen, seldom-discussed and seemingly never-screened works which, in my belief, if given the chance, could easily find their niches. Needless to say, if you have been a loyal reader of this blog, you will have realized by now that I am a lover of beneath-the-radar cinema. I am not widely crowned the King of Esoterica for nothing. My interest lies in the countless works throughout film history that have come and gone and, as a result of which, have been largely ignored. In fact, this atypical interest is a steady devotion that has kept me devoted since I was a pre-teenager, at that time itching to make movies of my own. These "beneath-the-radar" movies were, interestingly enough, the ones that inspired me and kept me going in my pursuit of a filmmaking career. You may say, "Won't that perhaps be prescient for your own career if you so admire movies that fell between the cracks?" I honestly hope not, but I can only dream of some guy like myself encountering a given "lost movie" of mine, even accidentally, and loving whatever it is I have to offer and doing his/her part to make it more known. In my quest for "hidden gems" and great filmmaking hidden amongst a rabble of other obscure and esoteric (and, yes, often poor) films I have witnessed, here are some noteworthy ones that stood apart from the rest as examples of good and just plain compelling filmmaking. Sometimes, it seems like finding these "hidden gems" is like picking the fly-shit out of the pepper. It is a daunting task, but in my book, these misunderstood works are masterpieces. Resurrection now!
PLEASE NOTE: No recent films (post-1990) will appear on this list. Those films need time to determine if they will ultimately find an audience or not, considering their initial reception. Also, no non-English language films will appear on the list. Foreign films are my forte, but I have many reasons for their exclusion from this list.
1. DEAR MR. WONDERFUL (1982, Peter Lilienthal) Starring Joe Pesci, Karen Ludwig, Evan Handler, Frank Vincent. A rather unpredictable #1 pick, ay? In terms of unpredictable, you ain't seen nothin' yet! Okay, so, to start with this title, I have mentioned this movie twice in two respective blog-posts (i.e. the New York-on-film entry and the budget-DVD entry). Why do I keep bringing it up? Simple...because everytime I see it, I am profoundly affected in every way: emotionally, intellectually and even spiritually, and without even a single sign of manipulation or pandering from the creators. Peter Lilienthal, one of the more low-key directors of the New German Cinema movement who helmed the highly regarded Holocaust film David (1979), is one of many mid-to-high profile European directors who came to the United States to direct a film about the American experience from an "outsider's perspective". Others who have attempted this include Wenders (with Paris, Texas), Herzog (with Stroszek), Antonioni (with Zabriskie Point) and Renoir (with The Southerner). What distinguishes this one from most of the others? Lilienthal, it would seem, is more of a humanist than a pedagogue or a weary romanticist, which were both traps many of the other directors had succumbed to. In effect, many of these "outsider films" ultimately become ponderous novelties and/or analytically specious.
Dear Mr. Wonderful is an exquisitely simple film, deliberately paced, more generous with thorough character development than most any other element, although Michael Ballhaus' camerawork, even in its shoddy video pan-and-scan, is certainly handsome. Pesci, in his first starring role after his success in Raging Bull, stars as Ruby Dennis, a Jewish working-class dreamer who owns a bowling alley where he croons Rat Pack-style songs in a lounge area adjacent to where people bowl. He writes and composes his own songs, then belts out old Sammy Cahn tunes with a drink in one hand and a cigarette he doesn't smoke in the other, and dreams of hitting the big-time as a Las Vegas headliner, which he seems to know down deep is a major pipe dream. Pesci's singing voice leaves something to be desired (that is certainly the point of it, however, although his songs are catchy and some like New York Times critic Janet Maslin have actually complemented Pesci's singing voice, so maybe I am the one who is off). It should be noted that Pesci, in real life, was a child singing star who released an album called "Little Joey Sings" (you can't make this stuff up). Ruby lives with his sister Paula (Karen Ludwig, who played Meryl Streep's partner in Manhattan) and her son Raymond (Evan Handler). He spends a great deal of screentime wooing a promising aspiring singer named Sharon (Ivy Ray Browning, who has a lovely voice). His bowling alley is in danger of closing. Credit is being withdrawn and equipment is being slowly taken away by loan sharks (led by Scorsese regular Frank Vincent) who have a very apparent distaste for the "singing kike" Ruby who is more consumed with his lounge-singing than concerned with running a business ("Tell them not to bowl in the outer lanes when I'm singing. Just tell them nicely, 'The man is singing.'") This is something else worthy of mention. Dear Mr. Wonderful has an unabashedly Jewish flavor, which is something to notice because of how refreshingly anomalous it seems, particularly in a day when explicitly Jewish voices were customarily being downplayed or downright eliminated in cinema here and abroad, lest there was a megastar involved or the Jewishness was the driving force or the subject of the given film. Here, in this film, it is part of a much broader canvas, a richer and more encompassing one. The film opens with a simultaneously good-humored and tense Passover seder sequence which rather immediately immerses and absorbs the viewer in the world of the movie. A fish swims around in a shallow bathtub and Pesci kills it with a baseball bat (offscreen) for dinner. In keeping with the alleged Jewish subtext, ultimately the film is also, unequivocally, a thoughtful, complex meditation on a Talmudic precept which states, "A rich man is he who is content with what he has" (which makes sense considering director Lilienthal's Orthodox Jewish background). This meditation is not simply on Ruby's character, but also on the character of Ruby's sister, who leaves her family behind to "save the world" through an underprivileged co-worker of hers, and through Ruby's nephew, who turns to snatching gold necklaces right off of the necks of ladies in the street. The film possesses that quiet kitchen-sink flavor, and the humor of the scenes always keeps you rooting for everyone, despite themselves. The New York City of the film, which I discuss in the respective blog entry, is one that is lost today (it should be noted that while there are plenty of NYC exteriors, a great deal of the interiors were shot in Germany).
One of the most heartbreaking movie scenes of the 1980's, in my opinion, and one where you can almost physically feel the character's humiliation, comes in Tony Martin's cameo. Real-life singer/actor Tony Martin comes to visit Ruby's Palace to listen to him sing, after his nephew Ray invites him via a letter earlier in the movie. I won't spoil the scene, but it's almost gut-wrenching, and the character's arc comes at such a moment of profound humiliation, followed by insult, followed by the most naked vulnerability. Every critic who reviewed the film mentions this scene as being among the most memorable of its era. And the film's ending...perfect understatement and a perfect open ending! I am not going to say any more about this film other than to see it and get back to me when you do. I have been dying to talk to someone about this one!
2. KINGS AND DESPERATE MEN (1981, Alexis Kanner) Starring Patrick McGoohan, Alexis Kanner, Andrea Marcovicci, Margaret Trudeau. Prisoner-fans take note, if you haven't already. This film reunites Prisoner star Patrick McGoohan with frequent Prisoner player Alexis Kanner. This undoubtedly started as one of those "concept movie projects". Get a load of this story: Charismatic, histrionic ex-actor turned Montreal radio talk-show host John Kingsley (Patrick McGoohan) is held hostage in his own private luxury radio-studio by a group of crusaders who want an on-the-air retrial of a man they feel was wrongly convicted and oversentenced at that, kidnapping the original judge who tried the first trial and detaining him elsewhere, then designating the listening audience as the phone-in jury. When I first read this description on the back of the video cover at a Pittsburgh flea-market circa 2001, I put down my two dollars because I was instantly hooked and intrigued. McGoohan's involvement certainly didn't hurt the prospect of my purchase...and, hey hey hey, it was obscure! Just my cup of tea! Ha ha! So, I popped the tape into the VCR and the movie underwent the customary Kremer Hidden-Gem Test (the KGMTs...funner than the SATs and GREs, and more efficient!). It passed in flying colors, but not in the way I would have ever predicted. Its execution was almost...otherworldly. The camera placement is sometimes highly unorthodox, the sound design highly experimental, the acting decidedly stylized, the editing complexly fragmentary and elliptical, the politics offbeat even in the left-wing sense of the word, the narrative progression delightfully perplexing. What an interesting, strange creature this film was to me...and still is!
This is one of those movies that, as a cinephile, I became obsessed with for years after first seeing, and it was a mighty quest to learn as much as I could about it inception, conception and reception. It plays out like an experimental film in some stretches, and renders its hook/reel-in of a plot summary a curiously distinctive thriller with a nearly inimitable sense of voice. By voice, I mean camera voice, montage voice, narrative voice and even soundscape voice. That's a lot of voices there, and a lot of films do not even have one type of those uniquenesses. This is a motion picture that is difficult to describe to the fullest using just words. Kings and Desperate Men is definitively a thriller, without question. It uses the conventions and the narrative traditions of genre (e.g. the unstable captor, periodic showdowns between captor and captive, etc) but uses a flamboyant, barbed cinema language and a twisting dialogic verbiage, courtesy mostly of McGoohan's purposefully melodramatic portrayal of the lead, and elaborate use of the filmmaking's "plastic" elements to deliver to its audience something completely in opposition to other offerings of its genre.
The film had a scattered release. It was shot in the winter of late 1977, was screened once in Montreal in late 1978, was widely released in its native Canada three years later in 1981 after its struggle to find additional completion funds, was later re-released only in Canada in 1983, premiered at the London Film Festival in 1985 and then finally hit the United States over a full decade later in 1989. That is quite a history. The film was met with accolades at the London Film Festival, but only The Los Angeles Times gave the film good reviews in the U.S. In point of fact, The Los Angeles Times gave it glowing reviews. Most critics obtusely complained of McGoohan's overacting, and every major U.S. review I read was facile, fast and artless. It definitely says something when a critic's dismissals are coy and mirthless. Vis a vis McGoohan's so-called "overacting," that's the point, folks! It's not hard to get! The story itself unfolds by sheer virtue of his character's history as an ex-actor and the writer-director's statement is made via McGoohan's character's titanic "emceeing" of the events at hand. Look at the art direction. Theater posters from the character's past are prominently on display. The film, when all is said and done, has a bold and (believe it or not) original message about media treatment of exploitable circumstance. I mean, the subject has been done before, but never like this. Again, all more I can really say is do your best to see it. This one is actually a little tougher to locate than Dear Mr. Wonderful because it is only on VHS, but if you still have your VCR (if you are a real film fan and ditched yours, you are doing yourself no favors), I recommend tracking it down. In a post scriptum, I gave my copy to a friend to borrow. He definitely joined the film's micro-cult after seeing it. Rise to the occasion and join us!
3. SIGNAL 7 (1986, Rob Nilsson) Starring a cast of unknowns and featuring an onscreen dedication to John Cassavetes, Signal 7 was a feature-film shot over a period of five consecutive nights on 3/4 VHS tape and then transferred to 16mm, and then to 35mm. The innovative and singularly unique image quality almost makes me want to go and do the same. Frankly, it looks gorgeous. The film follows a night in the life of cab-drivers who work out of the DeSoto Taxi Company in San Francisco. Many of the characters are actors who have taken to driving a taxi to make ends meet. The film's ostensibly improvisatory feeling is effectively juxtaposed with solid writing, solid structuring, solid acting and fluid camerawork and editing...thankfully without gas! Okay, that was cheesy, all in an effort to say that, contrary to other films of its type, this is not a bloated exercise that is an excuse for a film but a real working piece of cinema. In any case, describing a plot for this film beyond this premise is futile. Just check it out -- and you're not likely to find another film that looks like this. "You are the egg!"
4. COLD TURKEY (1971, Norman Lear) Starring Dick Van Dyke, Jean Stapleton, Vincent Gardenia, Bob Newhart. This is yet another premise movie: Eagle Rock, a small Midwestern town, will be given a large cash-prize reward if all its citizens quit smoking for thirty days and the local minister (Dick Van Dyke) whips the chain smokers into shape to take the gold. But on this foundation of the "premise project" is built an extremely funny film that is given a kind of strange immediacy and social importance by its grim, weighty and perversely poetic denouement (involving a clever visual trope). It also uses other jarring, if only periodic, visual techniques to sell it as "more than just a silly treacle of a comedy" (look at the film's lyrical opening title sequence). All the films on the list have, in different ways and using different methods, transcended conventional genre elements and do their own thing, and Cold Turkey is certainly no exception. Also, if you've ever smoked and strived oh so desperately to quit, this one may hit close to home, despite the humor. All in all, this is one of the best esoteric comedies out there -- and character actor Barnard Hughes' delirious "cold turkey" attempts at communication put me in stitches with every viewing ("The Dr. Proctor hoctor. The hospitoctor of Dr. Proctor..."). And then you could always watch the over-the-hill "Christopher Mott Society" hard at work. For fans of Randy Newman, the spiritually dirge-like opening title hymn "He Gives Us All His Love" (from Newman's album "Sail Away") is featured, and Newman also composes the film's original score...in perhaps one of the best opening title sequences I have seen heretofore. The sequence is inspiring and inspired in its poetic simplicity. Who knew the creator of "All in the Family" could be so poetic with his images? You can take a look at this title sequence below, courtesy of YouTube.
5. QUACKSER FORTUNE HAS A COUSIN IN THE BRONX (1970, Waris Hussein) Starring Gene Wilder, Margot Kidder. Gene Wilder, in his recent autobiography, remembers how none other than the legendary Jean Renoir was originally slated to direct this weird little comedy-drama. As many things go in Movieland, this plan did not pan out. Nonetheless, BBC director turned filmmaker Waris Hussein, an emigree from British colonial India, took over the directing reins and delivers a wonderfully eccentric study of a man who makes his living selling waste...in the most literal sense of the word. The film tells the story of a nonconformist horse-dung salesman who independently follows the horses-and-carts around Dublin selling their caca as fertilizer. Right around the time the horses are to be replaced by motor-carts, and it looks like Quackser is about to be deprived of his livelihood, he meets and falls for an American exchange student at Trinity College while figuring out what to do with the rest of his life after the doodoo disappears. Gene Wilder is as endearing as in any other film he has been in, even if the efficacy of his Irish accent is vexingly come-and-go. Dublin as a location, particularly in the hyper-industrialized, working-class milieu it depicts in the film, is as good of a shooting location as a filmmaker could ever find. It is a curious film -- maybe you could even call it a curiosity. However, it does what it sets out to do and functions as an excellent motion-picture exercise in originality for those looking for something a trifle more offbeat. And the film is not just original...it is highly original. The scene where Quackser sets the horses free from the slaughterhouse is a moment of exhilarating release. Nearly everything about this movie marches to the beat of a different drummer, even though it is nonetheless very traditionally (what's wrong with that?), however very competently, structured and shot (by Polanski regular Gilbert Taylor). Check out this blog entry at Moon in the Gutter.
6. GET TO KNOW YOUR RABBIT (1972, Brian De Palma) Starring Tom Smothers, John Astin, Katharine Ross, Orson Welles. If Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx blithely celebrates the spirit of nonconformity, the irreverent Get to Know Your Rabbit parodies it, while still upholding the validity of nonconformity within a tediously monotonous world. The making of Get to Know Your Rabbit sounds rather tumultuous, with Warner Brothers firing director Brian De Palma early on during the editing of the film (this was his first major studio film). Despite this, I consider it among De Palma's finest work -- although keep in mind, I much prefer the early Greetings!/Hi, Mom!/Phantom of the Paradise De Palma period to the Hitchcock-ripoff/campy-genre-film De Palma period. This comedy tells the story of a corporate ad executive who throws everything away, rejecting his materialistic bourgeois existence to fulfill his dream of becoming a tap-dancing magician. The film features appearances from a parade of great character actors (the incomparable Allen Garfield discusses "Mediterannean overtones" when feeling up a voluptuous kewpie doll's large melon breasts), and a number of hilariously absurdist, Pythonesque moments (one of the first scenes involves a random visit from a destitute piano-tuner who knocks on doors soliciting customers who do not own pianos). This is all without even mentioning the orotund presence of Orson Welles as the mysterious magic expert D'Alessandro who gravely intones "You're holding your rabbit...wrong!" to crestfallen wannabe tap-dancing magician Tom Smothers. This role actually came before F for Fake. The movie is brilliant, exquisite comedy, sometimes hysterically funny, and very much in the vein of anti-establishment movies of the time -- without ever once resorting to tiresome polemicism or dated, overt 60's American cinema sentiments, a la 'screw the system'. Ultimately though, De Palma's message is that everything eventually becomes commodified, even the ostensibly novel idea of escape from a world of commodity and commodification gets bought and sold like any other product. The film's ideology is very much in line with Downey's Putney Swope (1969). You have to love the acronymic cleverness in the closing act's revelation that a Tap Dancing Magician Corporation has been established (TDM, get it?). Check out this write-up at Reverse Shot.
7. CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER (1979, Joan Micklin Silver) Starring John Heard, Mary Beth Hurt, Peter Riegert, Griffin Dunne. What became of the children of the 60's after Woodstock when, at the end of the day, they felt compelled to find their other half and cash in their idealism for a shot at stability? At one point, a character exlaims, "What do you want from a child her age? She never even went to Woodstock!" Another character replies, "Well, neither did we." The first character retorts, "But we could have!" Adapted from Ann Beattie's novel of the same name, Chilly Scenes of Winter sports endlessly quotable dialogue ("Did you know that if you spread yogurt on your nipples it makes them pink?", "Gift-wrap the Turtle Wax" or "I'm an unemployed jacket salesman") and deeply felt direction ("con affetuoso" if you are content with applying musical terminology to film). This one is also something of a Kremer family favorite, thanks particularly to a scene involving a senile mother's forgetting to cook Thanksgiving dinner when her son and his friend have arrived to eat. In any case, the movie functions mostly as a character study of a hopelessly-in-love man's desperate attempts to win back his soul-mate from a bumpkin-y husband named Ox. On an ideological level, the film is fascinating too. Beneath the surface "simple love story" proceedings lies a deep-rooted, pervasive nostalgia for the youth the characters celebrated in the 60's (the lead character's obsession with Janis Joplin notwithstanding). The film has a devoted cult following, but still remains largely obscure. This is another one that is, for some unknown reason, still not on DVD, despite its loyal following. Turner Classic Movies shows it occasionally. I remember I was in a hotel room in Iowa for a film festival when I caught it on TCM. One day, kids, one day it will make it to DVD. And while I'm at it, I might just mention Ivan Passer's Cutter's Way (1981), which features another stunning performance from John Heard, is tied for this spot, although that film is slightly more known than this one is, so I am choosing not to include it officially.
8. THAT'S THE WAY OF THE WORLD (1975, Sig Shore) Starring Harvey Keitel and Earth, Wind & Fire. "Wow! Keitel starring with Earth, Wind & Fire?! That's chemistry, babe!" That's not even all, folks! Wholesome real-life "Miss America" singer Bert Parks plays a child molester and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" singer Jimmy Boyd plays an obnoxious drug addict who dabbles in everything, whether it be needle, nose or smoke, throughout the film's length. But don't count your chickens yet because this one is not what it seems. From the creator of Superfly comes this scathing indictment of pop-culture, hegemonic influence and "selling cool," which was released on DVD for the first time not too long ago, complete with excellent liner notes by Roger Thompson, a professor of American Culture at VMI. What Network did for television That's the Way of the World just as scathingly does for the corrupt music industry. Keitel plays The Man with the Golden Ear, Coleman Buckmaster. He is a genius recording technician who, as the chintzy ads and trailers to the movie read, can "take the best and make them sound better or turn the worst into number one." Keitel must put aside recording the earthy, hopeful, vital, gritty sounds of The Group (Earth, Wind & Fire) to record with a naseatingly saccharine, all-American, mom's-apple-pie family group called The Pages whose hit-single-to-be would try to have you believe that everything is "joy, joy, joy." Just think of the bubble-gum music of the 70's popularized by such groups as The Carpenters. This movie has no illusions, no pretensions and no overriding, superficial need to please. It does so on its own, with an unusual sense of honesty. The extended sequence in which Keitel toils away in the studio trying to make the ghastly-sounding, grossly untalented Pages sound sterling is excruciatingly intricate. Brass is introduced, then strings, then percussion, etc. all the way down the line. The film shows in super-fine detail what goes into recording music in the professional world...or the way it was at the time. Director Sig Shore seems to take great pains to do so.
Amazingly enough, That's the Way of the World has a great deal to say about race and the role it plays in relation to corporate media hegemony, which is bold considering this is not just an underlying theme but one that is manifest throughout. The record company in the movie, the fictional A-Chord Records, is more than ambivalent about marketing an all-black group like "The Group" with a musical message that, while not downbeat or bleak, is a hell of a lot more practical and truthful vision of the world than the inane "joy, joy, joy"s of the opposing group. Keitel's character wants the musical acts he develops and ushers to the top of the charts to tell the truth, and is disgusted that his company has sold him out for such tripe. The ending is sweetly vindicating to the audience, while still retaining a kind of darkness, and without pandering or losing its sense of overriding honesty. All of this to examine how the people will buy whatever garbage is put in front of them and that everything in the world is bought and sold. That's the way of the world! All of this is without mentioning the classic, awesome Earth, Wind & Fire soundtrack which features "Shining Star," "Reasons" and the eponymous tune "That's the Way of the World". It should be mentioned that Earth, Wind & Fire are not in the movie very much as actual characters, so there are none of the customary embarrassments synonymous with music-movie enterprises where non-actor musicians must hone their acting chops up against much more skilled actors.
9. THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972, Bob Rafelson) Starring Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn. Yep, this is the one where Jack Nicholson is cast against type...as a depressive, cerebral, anhedoniac, bespectacled nerd. Sounds like him, doesn't it? Of course I am kidding. On a personal note, my brother recently watched Five Easy Pieces for the first time, which was likewise directed by Bob Rafelson and stars Jack Nicholson. Overall, he seemed to dislike that film. I recommended that he see The King of Marvin Gardens before passing judgment on Five Easy Pieces because I see the two films as definite companion pieces. The movie, throughout its opening ten minutes, seems very mannered and almost courtly in its narrative progression. The first scene, which you can watch below via YouTube, is an extended 8-minute monologue, done in a single unbroken long-take, in close-up, as Nicholson discusses a vivid memory from childhood involving his brother and his grandfather. The writing here is baroque and descriptive in a prosey, novel-esque sense, but purposefully so. Nicholson's part is that of a radio-show host who, in lieu of playing records or discussing news items, engages his audience with long-winded autobiographical stories based in personal memory. The opening title sequence is pure 70's American arthouse, i.e. no musical accompaniment, careful framing (courtesy of the great Laszlo Kovacs), following a character on his way home through the night as muted wee-hour city sounds haunt the soundtrack. Soon, the constipated Nicholson is summoned from his uneventful life in Philadelphia to Atlantic City by his brother (played with yeoman bravado by Bruce Dern). It is there on the austerely picaresque boardwalks and beaches where he learns that his brother has plans to buy an island near Hawaii which he plans to develop into a resort, with the help of some pilfered funds. Considering how everything is set up early on, the film could have fulfilled an implicit promise of finally being pretentious and obstinate, but it thankfully does not uphold this promise. His brother's lover is played by Ellen Burstyn, and her performance is the consummate example of a performance that builds and builds and builds cumulatively, and it is perhaps the most fascinating (I use this word in a functional sense) and exploratory of her career.
The film is comprised of a great deal of set-pieces juxtaposed with less ambitious but still powerful "smaller" scenes. This delicate mix of scene-types is never contrapuntal and all the sequences work in surprisingly effective and logical confluence. For example, I automatically think of a scene in an empty amphitheater involving a fictional two-person Miss America competition, as well as a hilarious scene where Japanese businessmen, potential investors in the resort, are eating with Nicholson, Dern and Burstyn in a lobster restaurant. In the scene, all the characters wear these ridiculous bibs while Nicholson expounds on an idea involving humans fulfilling the sexual desires of dolphins as a potential tourist attraction on their island. Another scene involves a bonfire on a beach, which is one of Burstyn's finest moments in the film. The sequencing is astoundingly never fragile. Also, it is not just Burstyn but the film itself that builds and builds in a cumulative sense. It develops from something that is at first innocuously original to a final profound sense of dramatic urgency and crescendo that we cannot instantly perceive or realize in any sense, until the final devastating dramatic act has been committed. The audience's radar will have difficulty detecting much of anything until the impact hits them hard with the final fade-out. It's a wow-inducing moment, and one that leaves you speechless. In its final shot, the film is summed up by one incendiary, illuminating, encapsulating image -- and yet another example of how filmmaking can be poetic.
10. THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY (1968, Hubert Cornfield) Starring Marlon Brando, Richard Boone, Rita Moreno. Made officially during Brando's so-called pre-Godfather "slump period" when his very name was box-office poison, The Night of the Following Day is one of those films that casts a strong spell, at least over me. It's a hallucinatory, ethereal, eerie, paranoia-inducing, puzzle-like, even surrealist thriller. Stanley Myers' musical score is unnerving and experimental at times, giving the audience more of a sense of rigid unrest. It's a thriller about a kidnapping operation gone haywire that gradually falls apart at the seams. An heiress is abducted as she is leaving Orly Airport and is taken to a secluded beach-house in the south of France where the kidnappers await their ransom. Brando, doing the fluorescent blonde-hair thing, plays one of the stoical kidnappers who attempts to come to the rescue when he realizes that one of his compatriots in the extortion plot is a psychotic, violence-prone sadist who appears to making eyes towards their captive. Meanwhile, Rita Moreno, playing another one of the extortionists, habitually zonks out on heroin and starts getting paranoid about a fishing-happy policeman who conspicuously has asked her maybe too many "innocent" questions. Brando is, as usual, magnetic in the lead and Richard Boone is quite scary and imposing in the role of the sadist. This one is pretty easy to track down on DVD. Usually, I have to be in a very particular mood to see this because the film's aftertaste leaves you cloudy and distant in a way that is useless to describe, at least it does me. The so-called "surprise ending" is slightly irksome because it is something we have seen far too much before, but somehow it seems to suit the film's original objective. Once again, we have some beautiful camerawork, from Willy Kurant, on display. Kurant is the man Orson Welles called "my Rembrandt," and that is certainly true here. Many of Kurant's images are quite painterly. Note: If you are intrigued enough afterwards to listen to director Hubert Cornfield's audio commentary for the film, I would be curious to see how long you last. Cornfield has a gurgly voice-box following a bout with throat-cancer and the commentary is often trying to listen to. But you get to hear some funny stories about the unruly (and downright naughty) behavior of Brando on the set and about how Kubrick originally wanted to shoot the film as adapted from the Lionel White novel (he wound up adapting and directing White's The Killing instead).
HONORABLE MENTIONS (IN NO ORDER): The Ninth Configuration (William Peter Blatty, 1979), Without Reservations (Mervyn LeRoy, 1946), Law and Disorder (Ivan Passer, 1974), Born to Win (Ivan Passer, 1971), Undercurrent (Vincente Minnelli, 1946), Two Weeks in Another Town (Vincente Minnelli, 1962), Inserts (John Byrum, 1976), Forbidden Zone (Richard Elfman, 1980), Slade in Flame (Richard Loncraine, 1976), Out (Eli Hollander, 1982), Such Good Friends (Otto Preminger, 1971), Romance of a Horsethief (Abraham Polonsky, 1971), Adam at 6 A.M. (Robert Scheerer, 1970), Secret Ceremony (Joseph Losey, 1968), T.R. Baskin (Herbert Ross, 1971), Desperate Characters (Frank D. Gilroy, 1971), In MacArthur Park (Bruce Schwartz, 1977)
SO WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? SEE THESE MOVIES THEN LET'S CHAT!!!