Sunday, July 14, 2019


Yesterday, “the feel-fantastic movie of the summer” (Billboard magazine), jumps off from an undeniably juicy premise—What if you woke up one day and everyone had forgotten about the Beatles except you?—then proceeds to develop almost nothing about that premise, preferring to use the music, its meaning and its influences, as a Macguffin on the way to selling yet another cliché-cute romantic dramedy about getting out of your own way long enough to recognize the presence of your true love. (The screenplay is by Richard Curtis, who wrote Love, Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral, and by the time Yesterday was finished I had another prolific artist in mind whose work I’d like to suddenly lose all awareness of.) 

The problem with Yesterday isn’t its actors, though newcomer Hamish Patel, as Jack, the blessed/beleaguered singer/songwriter who decides to pass off the Beatles’ songbook as his own work, isn’t encouraged by director Danny Boyle to do much other than conjure an open-mouthed stare, as if confronting an oncoming bus, as the implications of gaining worldwide stardom on someone else’s genius begin to overwhelm him. As his manager/would-be-soon-to-be girlfriend Ellie, Lily James is charming, but on autopilot—you get the feeling she’d have a grand romantic comedy in her if someone could figure out how best to employ her instinctive comic flair, her ability to listen and be engaged by her fellow actors (who are frequently far less interesting than she), and that lovely, distinctive overbite, which allows her smile to burrow deep into whoever happens to be in its path. And Kate McKinnon flirts with overkill as Jack’s ingratiatingly snide manager—another performance or two like this might reveal that the talented comedian has fewer tools in her case than we once hoped, causing a once-fresh approach to turn stale in the same way that Jane Lynch managed when the sarcasm of Sue Sylvester congealed into overexposed routine. Fortunately, Danny Boyle approaches the film with his customary zeal, though the frothy nothing Curtis serves up as a script causes the typically frenetic director of Trainspotting and 127 Hours to too often break a visible sweat. 

No, the real fly in Yesterday’s ointment is that its juicy premise, courtesy of Curtis, hasn’t been even halfway thought through, by the writer or Boyle, and no one seems to even care as the picture barrels through to its inevitably triumphant conclusion. Incredibly, Yesterday reduces the music of the Beatles, which the film keeps reminding us is of 100% masterpiece status, to the background. Curtis and Boyle are either ill-equipped or uninterested in considering the actual implications of a world without the Beatles, a process of thought that would tend to derail the familiar notions of puppy love that are their actual aim. When Jack begins to reintroduce the music to the world in his bland singer-songwritery way, at first he concludes that his audience’s initial indifference has to be chalked up to him—a tough argument to refute, even as Jack’s/Patel’s sincere, if nondescript interpretations fail to muffle the limber beauty of the material.

But as Jack begins to gain fame passing off Beatles tunes as stuff he just conjures Mozart-like out of thin air, the movie sidesteps ever considering the importance of the social and cultural context of that music, that society as a whole was prepared to respond to it in a specific way. Absent that context, watching the fans in the movie respond to songs as varied in their style as “She Loves You,” “A Day in the Life,” “Carry That Weight,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” as if they were instant revelations, bestowals of unvarnished genius laid upon the great unwashed, robs the songs of their power, their meaning. When someone asks Jack what is meant by the phrase “A Hard Day’s Night” and he offers a confused shrug followed by an “I don’t know,” the movie crystalizes its central problem with uncomfortable precision. A parrot can make beautiful noise, but absent an understanding of its purpose it’s just noise. Yesterday rather cynically counts on our own associations with the music of John, Paul, George and Ringo to fill in all the weird lapses of common sense that it blithely skates over in the name of feeling “fantastic.”

Frustratingly, the movie doesn’t even play by its own rules. The mysterious solar surge phenomenon that causes the mass memory wipeout, a blip meant to conjure ghosts of Y2K panic, eliminates the music in a blast of electromagnetic randomness. But also, if a cameo that occurs late in the movie is to be believed (and, like most of what happens in this movie, it isn’t), that electrical phenomenon ends up amounting to some ill-defined time-shift-warp, meaning that certain things which happened in Beatles history, and human history, did not happen—rendering the continued presence of artists like Coldplay, Ed Sheeran (who plays himself, without much wit), and Pulp, all of whom would probably not exist had the Beatles not also, a bit of a puzzling development. And Curtis can’t resist sacrificing logic to a cheap joke either—late in the game another citizen, like Jack, whose Beatles recall was not eliminated, commiserates with him on the importance of keeping the music in the world. She complains of not being able to remember the words, and is so glad that Jack is able to, but then proceeds to gently berate Jack for flubbing the words to “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” the words to which must be clear enough in her mind to justify a zippy one-liner. A nit to be picked, perhaps, but when enough nits build up, it’s an infestation and no fun for anyone, especially the picker.

The one thing the filmmakers inarguably do right by their audience is letting us hear the actual Beatles recording of “Hey, Jude” over the end credits. After two hours of listless interpretations and endless proclamations that the Beatles were the Shakespeares of pop music, experiencing the songs as they actually sounded when they captured the imaginations and the ardor of the world is intoxicating. Sure, if the last thing you hear before being shown the door back into the real world, where Beatles music is still known and revered, is Paul McCartney’s unleashed vocalizing over one of the Beatles’ most epically emotional tunes, then yeah, you’ll probably leave Yesterday feeling “fantastic.” But it’ll be because the Beatles did the work that these filmmakers couldn’t manage—making our spirits soar while bringing an understanding of why we loved, and love, not only these songs, but the performances, and why a world that never knew them couldn’t possibly be affected by them in the same way if they were served up entirely out the context from whence they sprang. Yesterday retrofits history to serve up a condescending compliment to its audience, while the emotional transportation and transcendence it aims to traffic in, and misses almost entirely, is nowhere to be found in the movie. Instead, to quote the Beatles’ contemporary, Pete Townshend, it turns out, no surprise, that it’s all there on the vinyl. Let it be.


Friday, June 21, 2019


(Editor's note: Wow. It's been over a month since I posted to this page? I'm either getting old or distracted, or both... But that's a question for another time...)

Well, as Dean of SLIFR University (that'd be Lord Hy Muckitymuck to you), I'm happy to announce that I'm off with my family on  a much-needed summer vacation, the vagaries and responsibilities of overseeing an institution like SLIFR-U being quite trying at times-- one of the younger film history professors on staff actually told her classes that "I suppose D.W. Griffith deserves a mention," before proceeding to dismiss further discussion of his work and suggesting that her students should rely on her testimony that The Birth of a Nation was reprehensible and feel no obligation to investigate it for themselves. I personally... corrected  her, and when she didn't show up in class the following session she was summarily dismissed from the staff. (Strangely, no one has seen her since. But I insist that I know nothing about what I suppose must be described as her sudden disappearance.)

One of our more reliable tenured instructors provides a more solid foundation for his journey of discovery with his students into the world of art history, and that would be the host of this most recent SLIFR U Movie Quiz, Dr. Jonathan Hemlock. When we approached Dr. Hemlock for his ideas for a new quiz, he was enthusiastic, especially since it had been such a long time since one had been published-- "It's a hell of a honor to be asked to kick-start such a grand tradition," the super-sexy and down-to-earth historian proclaimed, before excusing himself to discuss a poor assignment performance with one of his preposterously luscious female students, who was apparently much more fascinated by the possibilities of her art history class than her grades would indicate. Dr. Hemlock is indeed popular with his students, and a very busy man who somehow always finds time to moonlight as a mountain climbing instructor and guide, a side interest which is apparently a lucrative one, which would account for his possession of an extensive personal collection whose value would seem to far exceed the reach of a professor's pay grade, even one as esteemed as himself.

So hopefully you'll understand why we consider having him contribute to the SLIFR Movie Quiz canon to be such a coup. Dr. Hemlock invites you along to participate and expects you to get a good grade. If you don't, he's made it incumbent upon us to insist that those who score unsatisfactorily be made to accompany him on his next climb for a bit of instruction in the sport "which he sincerely hopes you will survive." (We have not yet determined exactly what Dr. Hemlock means by this vaguely threatening statement, but we feel sure you have nothing to fear. Perhaps he knows something about the disappearance of our film history professor. Hmm...)

At any rate, time to get to the new quiz, which hopefully you have been hankering for. The usual reminders are in order. You can post your answers in the comments column below, and when you do please copy and paste the questions as well as your answers so readers will know to what your answers refers without having to scroll back up to this post to be reminded. You can also link to your own blog page or Facebook page if you prefer to post your questions/answers there.

And please, don't feel you have to post short answers. For this quiz, as all SLIFR quizzes, the longer, more discursive answers are almost always more interesting to read. But short answers can be great too-- if you've got a witty, quippy reply, feel free to cut loose and run.

With all that in mind, submit now to Dr. Jonathan Hemlock's particular talent at compiling quizzes and have at his Artsy-Fartsy, Historical-Schmistorical Sanctionistic Summer Vacation Movie Quiz. Your grade, or your life, may depend on it.

* Questions submitted by Dr. Hemlock's teaching assistant, Emma Cozzalio


1) Name a musician who never starred in a movie who you feel could have been a movie star or at least had a compelling cinematic presence

2) Akira or Ghost in the Shell *

3) Charles Lee Ray or Freddy Krueger? *

4) Most excruciating moment/scene you've ever sat through in a film 

5) Henry Cavill or Armie Hammer?

6) Name a movie you introduced to a young person, one which was out of their expressed line of interest or experience, which they came to either appreciate or flat-out love

7) Second favorite Robert Rossellini film

8) What movie shaped your perceptions of New York City, Los Angeles and/or Chicago before you ever went there and experienced the cities for yourself.

9) Name another movie that shaped, for better or worse, another city or location that you eventually visited or came to know well.

10) Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee? *

11) Elizabeth Debicki or Alicia Vikander?

12) The last movie you saw theatrically? The last on physical media? Via streaming?

13) Who are the actors, classic and contemporary you are always glad to see?

14) Second favorite Federico Fellini film

15) Tessa Thompson or Danai Gurira *

16) The Black Bird or The Two Jakes?

17) Your favorite movie title

18) Second favorite Luchino Visconti film

19) Given the recent trend, what's the movie that seems like an all-too-obvious candidate for a splashy adaptation to Broadway?

20) Name a director you feel is consistently misunderstood

21) Chris Evans or Chris Hemsworth? *

22) What's the film that most unexpectedly grew in your estimation from trivial, or unworthy, or simply enjoyable, to a true favorite with some actual meat on its bones?

23) I Am Curious (Yellow), yes or no?

24) Second favorite Lucio Fulci film

25) Are the movies as we now know them coming to an end? (


Saturday, May 18, 2019


Here’s what happens when the need to see takes over and I start pulling DVDs off the shelf with only my dark heart as a guide…

The sleazy, claustrophobic, catch-as-catch-can transience of the carnival world, with its ever-changing roster of freaks, geeks, disappointed con men and women with few options, all clinging to shreds of dignity and eyeing a better life while digging themselves deeper into the one from which they want to flee, seems a naturally cinematic subject. Yet there are surprisingly few movies that have ever captured the symbiotic push-pull of vibrant show-biz fakery and dark personal obsessions that lurk behind the curtain, beyond the barker’s call. Somewhere between the boy’s wish-fulfillment of Toby Tyler and the mind-wrenching funhouse mirror reflections of Tod Browning, Tobe Hooper and Rob Zombie, Edmund Goulding’s film of W.L. Greshman’s Nightmare Alley (1947), from a script by Jules Furthman (reportedly quite faithful to the novel), captures the attraction of the fairway for the suckers and the sham artists running the games, as well as the desperation to trade the sawdust floors of tented arenas for brighter, shinier halls where the sheep waiting to be fleeced have thicker wool and far deeper pockets.

Watching Nightmare Alley today, it’s plain to see that while the divide between the carnies and the upper classes awash in dough is as marked as ever (maybe more so), the desperation for recognition, for reward, is no longer a simple symptom of poverty. But in 1947 it must have been quite a shock to see a handsome star like Tyrone Power give himself over to a role for which audiences wouldn’t have been expected to have much empathy. Power’s opportunistic Stan Carlisle is so thoroughly at home amongst the shadows and hidden compartments of the carnival setting that it’s almost a surprise to hear that he has aspirations beyond it. However, his eagerness to expand his talents to more sophisticated scams for more sophisticated targets soon sucks in both the essentially good-natured Zeena (Joan Blondell) and the relatively innocent Molly (Colleen Gray) into a world where the lies get bigger, thornier, more perverse, and the inevitable fall back to earth is all the more devastating.

Cinematographer Lee Garmes brilliantly conjures the film’s first half in chiaroscuro patterns and recesses formed by the impermanent tents and wagons, all of which coexist almost subconsciously with the ballrooms and theaters of the slightly less compelling second half. But Nightmare Alley’s central power lies in the faces of its actors, the carnival life lived as painted in the creases on their faces, in smiles and banter meant to hide the truth, in haunted looks and, conversely, averted eyes. Joan Blondell is smashing as Zeena, accidentally widowed by Stan’s (subconscious?) enabling of her alcoholic husband. She carries the weight of an entire disappointed life in her big, beautiful, forlorn eyes. 

As for Power, he couldn’t have been, and probably never was better than he was in this movie. Critic Charles Taylor observes about Power’s towering performance that the actor conjures Stan’s essence in that “he manages always to look away from anyone declaring any tenderness for him… His gaze is always fixed on where he’s going.” The commitment which Power, Goulding and Furthman show toward Gresham’s concept of Stan’s corruption is that which Hitchcock could not follow through on in flirting with villainy for Cary Grant in Suspicion. The blasphemous blackness in Stan’s heart is given near full reign down the darkest nightmare-fueled alleys in the film; it sticks its chilling effect in our hearts like a stake pounded into soft ground, a stake meant to anchor a carnival tent in place long enough to provide cover while the movie takes us for all we’re worth.

Electra Glide in Blue (1973) has the trappings of an action movie, but the crime investigation at the center of its plot feels more like a Macguffin, a concession to genre that more effectively plays as a diversion leading toward the movie’s ambient incertitude. Its real subject is the tug of war internalized within John Wintergreen (Robert Blake), a Vietnam veteran who returns to life as a motorcycle cop and is (like we are) seduced by the cold sheen imagery and laconic bravado surrounding his post-war profession. Wintergreen is torn between sympathy for the freedom of outlaw bikers and structure and discipline of police work, and Blake’s well-modulated performance—gritty, funny, sympathetic, but hardly pleading—suits the humor and the toughened mettle of a man who may not be big enough (or paranoid enough) for the job.

The visions coaxed to life by Conrad Hall justify Wintergreen’s shifting self-regard— the celebrated director of photography conjures motorcycles cruising through air, warped by heat and compressed by long lenses-- images which have energy and forward thrust, but which are also powered by the ethereal beauty of strange, misplaced beasts in motion. Hall teases out the iconography of motorcycle-powered justice toward a much more ambiguous, unsettling end, intimating a very uneasy ride just ahead.

But director James William Guercio’s movie (his one and only, shot between gigs as producer of the music group Chicago, and featuring some of the band members in minor roles) finds just as much potency in immobility. It’s there in the looming monuments of the country through which those Arizona highways snake and wind. It’s there in the moments of repose when Wintergreen and his partner Zipper Davis (Billy Green Bush) are parked by the side of the asphalt, thinking and talking about everything and nothing. (Hall finds poetry in close Panavision glimpses of the hard gravel and sagebrush along the edges of the highway —you can almost smell the desert dust and feel the heat radiating off the pavement, warping the relentless sunshine.) And it’s there in the movie’s horrifying final image, in which a cop is installed on the road like one of those monuments looming behind him, perhaps as yet another reminder of a bloody American past and the many fallen, aggressors and victims who couldn’t reconcile themselves to a country bent on tearing itself apart. Electra Glide in Blue refashions the countercultural martyrdom of Easy Rider into a blunt blow toward an entire nation profoundly divided, the darkest fate reserved for those who see both sides yet end up in the middle of the road.

Maniac Cop 2 (1990; William Lustig) is mostly disposable junk—it has that signature blue steel sheen once fetishized by John Carpenter and James Cameron and a script that, to my tin ears and eyes at least, makes close to no sense. But even though it was partially shot in Los Angeles, it also makes good use of its nighttime New York City locations. It’s like a time capsule glimpse back to a city that no longer exists, at least not in precisely the same way, and it has a pleasurably scuzzy 42nd Street vibe. How could it not with Robert Davi’s gruff detective skulking around alleyways, investigating the apparent reappearance of the titular imposing figure of menace? (Davi is so tough, he smokes in hospitals!) 
Fortunately, there’s also Claudia Christian as Davi’s antagonist, a sympathetic cop psychologist who comes to believe the wild stories about a wronged, killed and resurrected cop who’s out there taking out innocents and baddies alike; Bruce Campbell reprising his role as the lead investigator from the first movie (he doesn’t last quite so long this time); Michael Lerner picking up a (small) check as the corrupt police commissioner; Clarence Williams III finding one good note and playing it into the sunset as a loony death row inmate; and Leo Rossi hamming it up as a bushy-haired serial killer who befriends Cordell, the Maniac Cop, essayed as always (there was a third one, you know) by B-movie stalwart Robert Z’Dar, he of the hulking frame and XXL lantern jaw. Z’Dar sports the worst scary makeup job of all time, but at least he-- or, more accurately, his stuntman-- gets in some top-notch asbestos suit time when he gets set on fire near the end of the picture. 

(Asbestos suit stunts are among my favorites, yet another harkening back to a more "innocent" age of filmmaking where if you wanted to show a guy on fire, you couldn’t decorate him with pixels, you had to really set him on fire… and all that protective outerwear still makes a giant like Z’Dar’s Cordell look like going up in flames somehow caused him to instantly gain about 75 pounds.)

Christian-- or, more accurately, her stuntwoman— also gets a rousing action set piece about half an hour in when the Maniac Cop handcuffs her to a steering wheel and sets the car in high-speed motion down a crowded boulevard. It’s easily the highlight of the movie, especially if you don’t stop to think about who’s keeping the car hurtling forward with their foot on the gas. (Answer: no one.) After that it’s pretty much downhill (the movie, not the car—that would’ve explained things) straight toward the rote gory shoot-‘em-up, stab-‘em-up, set’-em-on-fire conclusion, which is topped, as many thought-disabled genre pictures have been since Carrie White and Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees rose from the dead, by the usual jolt that screams "Sequel!" 

Maniac Cop 2 isn’t even close to good, but it’s the most well-paced and acted of the movies in the Cordell saga made so far, and its violence, though ridiculous and once considered on the extreme side, now seems almost period quaint. (Rumors that Nicholas Winding Refn was set to direct a Maniac Cop prequel seem to have dissipated, maybe because the grue-minded auteur never figured out a way to one-up the original’s enthusiastic scuzz factor.) You could chuck a dismembered limb or flame-charred skull in any direction and hit a far better movie, but as brainless, gory action-horror hybrids go you could also hit far worse (like Maniac Cop 3, for example). For all its clunky echoes of The Terminator and scores of other superior low-budget action thrillers, Maniac Cop 2 does manage to leave some grimy stains and a not entirely unpleasant aftertaste of its own. It's the B-movie equivalent of a bong shot of Ripple guzzled near a Dumpster behind a strip bar, which at times, by the adjusted standards of the grindhouse anyway, gets within shouting distance of mean, dirty, stupid fun.

A night flight through a darkened wood opens Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) with a heightened pulse—a woman races down a deserted highway eyeing her rear-view mirror, fearful of the intent of cars approaching from behind but also keeping an eye on the passenger in the back seat. Soon the passenger, hidden in a too-big trench coat and hat, slumps forward, and the movie begins its steep descent into the interior of a twisted morality well worthy of being cloaked in a dark forest of secrets. A French-Italian coproduction released in Europe in 1960 (the same year Psycho was released) but not seen in the U.S. until two years later, Eyes Without a Face plays like a Grand Guignol fairy tale with imagery that, unlike the unforgiving slashes and sharp angles of Hitchcock’s landmark, seeps into the viewer’s subconscious with poetic assurance and smears the boundaries of our sympathies at the same time.

In an isolated mansion somewhere in that darkened wood a surgeon (Pierre Brasseur) familiar with past glories has instigated an escalating series of skin graft experiments in a desperate attempt to restore the face of his young daughter (Edith Scob), horribly disfigured in a car accident. The surgeon kidnaps young Parisian girls to use as unwilling epidermal donors with the help of his devoted assistant (Alida Valli), a former patient whose own successful facial reconstruction has blinded her to her savior’s madness. Given the elusive, seductive strangeness of the movie’s surrealist mise-en-scène, 21st-century viewers might be surprised at the film’s notorious centerpiece, a shockingly clinical surgical scene in which Franju’s camera barely glances away from the horrific procedure being performed, and then only to scan the landscape of moral conflict glistening like cold sweat across the faces of the doctor and his helper. But perhaps even more unsettling and ultimately frightening is the degree to which Franju allows us access not only to sympathy for the victims, but also for the daughter, whose dawning realization of what her father is doing might be as devastating as her own disfigurement, and even for the surgeon and his assistant, their genial manner and misguided, sincere love for the girl incapable of coexisting with their heinous deeds. 

The movie is a masterpiece of raised goose flesh. Even during the film’s most ostensibly placid moments Franju burrows under our skin with image and sound— over unadorned tracking shots of the girl moving aimlessly through the empty halls of the house a faint, insistent, inexplicable barking can be heard, soon revealed as coming from the basement of the house, where the doctor’s very first victims are still penned. If Eyes Without a Face ends on a note of release best suited for a fairy tale it is a grim tale indeed, tainted by blood, destroyed loyalties and the prospect of a bleak future of isolation, as if a masked, faceless sleeping beauty had escaped the evil queen and made her way into the woods to find only suffocating darkness where magic should reside.


Sunday, May 05, 2019


(The following post comes to you plot- and spoiler-free.) 
Haters gonna hate, and yeah, some folks will take, and have taken, their devotion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe to ridiculous lengths, in the same way that just about every pop culture phenomenon since Beatlemania has inspired people to do. But the likelihood is, if you’ve ever felt any kind of investment, however intermittent or intense, in the movies that comprise the Marvel movie franchise since the release of Iron Man in 2008, you’ll probably find Avengers: Endgame at the very least satisfying, and at the very most just about everything you could hope for from a grand, emotional summing-up such as this. It’s a movie that, for all of its bowing to spectacle and the interactivity of its universe, puts the characters that have come to populate that universe first and foremost, and it takes its sweet time honoring each and every one of them in a dramatically complete way. 
A:E bestows upon the concept of fan service-- just a fancy 21st-century polish on the notion of giving the customer what they want, as far as I can tell-- a good name for once, and the tears and goodwill it inspires are well and truly earned. (That’s as close to a spoiler you’re going to get here, so fret no further.) Over the course of the movie’s three hours and one minute, you will see just about everyone who’s ever appeared in one of those 21 Marvel movies in a heroic capacity before this epic has had its way with you. Yet for a movie that practically redefines the notion of an overstuffed narrative it’s never lumbering or graceless, and it’s the furthest thing from bloated— these 181 minutes felt like half the time spent watching any random mutt from the DC kennel or, dare I say it, the comparatively desultory Captain Marvel, or even the comparatively logy and scattershot prequel, Avengers: Infinity War
And for all the good stuff going on inside of it, there’s room in the movie for a genuine surprise or two. No more than a half hour in I found myself astonished to discover that, though I suspected the general trajectory of what had to happen, I was pleased to also discover that I had no idea how the movie planned to go about achieving it, which allowed me to relax into the experience of seeing A:E like no Marvel movie had ever allowed. This final chapter caps a grand story in the style of and with the emotional depth of a real movie, with an intelligent construction and storytelling savvy that lifts it to the top of the MCU, where a real peak should be. It even leaves room amidst the chaos for introspection and encouragement, both for the characters who must contemplate their own destinies as well as that of the universe, and for the audience, who will return to the real world when the lights go up faced with more than one of their own Thanos stand-ins, on a personal and a global level, to deal with. 

It may be that I’ll find Avengers: Endgame to be the turning point in my interest in further Marvel epics, though if the upcoming Spider-Man: Far from Home continues the lighthearted vibe generated by Spider-Man: Homecoming from two summers ago, I’ll gladly follow this new iteration of Peter Parker wherever he chooses to slings his webs. And the same goes for a new Guardians of the Galaxy movie under James Gunn’s restored tutelage-- I doubt I could ever deny myself another dose of Dave Bautista’s Drax, and I needed more of him than what A:E ultimately provided. But that’s what’s magnificent about Avengers: Endgame-- it has the finality of a truly satisfying epic that leaves you wanting more, while also leaving you with the understanding that more is not necessary.
To paraphrase my friend Christopher Atwell upon seeing the film last weekend, Avengers: Endgame should not be the occasion to bemoan the weariness of the film industry under the unwieldy burden of what might turn out to be this generation’s ultimate blockbuster. Instead, it marks the moment to celebrate the completion of a huge interlaced story very well-told, surely one not without its flaws and down-swings over 21 movies, but also one brought to a brilliant conclusion designed to captivate all but the most miserly and disinterested. Let me return to the well and steal the sentiment of yet another eloquent friend, a dear college professor of mine who once said of the conclusion of Nashville that if you can see the end of that movie without shedding a tear, you’re a better man than me. Regarding Avengers: Endgame I can only say, bring a box of tissues, Gunga Din.

I’m not sure why it took me, of all people, to discover a documentary by the name of Sad Hill Unearthed (2017) on Netflix, but now that I have I must pass along my heartiest recommendation, especially if the films of Sergio Leone, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in particular, mean anything to you at all. The movie begins with a title card: “In July 1966 the Spanish army raised a huge graveyard in Burgos. That cemetery had over 5,000 graves… and no one buried in them.” Dissolve to a shot of the Mirandilla Valley in Burgos, Spain, in 2015, nearly 50 years later, and an overgrown, but strangely beautiful patch of land, long given up to the ravaging care of nature. 
It is, of course, the site of the famous cemetery showdown that concludes The Good, The Bad and the Ugly in which Clint Eastwood’s Blondie, Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes and Eli Wallach’s Tuco converge in pursuit of treasure buried in an inconveniently unmarked grave. The location itself held such sway over a disparate group of the film’s fans, mostly residing in Burgos and surrounding villages throughout Spain and Western Europe, that in 2015 they took it upon themselves to restore the fictional graveyard to the original hardscrabble glory it enjoyed in the film. That’s the story Sad Hill Unearthed tells, and in addition to making you want to watch The Good, The Bad and the Ugly immediately after finishing the documentary, seeing this account of what it took to bring the land back into recognizable shape made me initially shake my head at the depth of their obsession, and then of course ultimately submit to it, in the process understanding an expression of the love for the film that is at once similar and also far more tangible than my own, one that literally gives back to the film’s fans and to the land where their obsession took shape. 

Once the restoration has been completed, there’s a screening of the film in the graveyard for those who worked so hard to realize this cockeyed and wonderful dream, and seeing Clint Eastwood looming over the location once again (in more ways than one, as it turns out) will fill the heart of anyone who might wish, as I did, that I could have been there, either then or perhaps someday down the line. This movie, a valentine to Leone’s achievement and to the people for whom it has become more than a movie-- perhaps the movie-- joyfully redefines fan service.

Sunday, April 21, 2019


The 10th annual TCM Classic Film Festival is finally in the books, yet another fabulous, frustrating and altogether delirium-inducing gathering in the heart of Hollywood to designed to revel in the history of movies and encourage the continued appreciation of the value of understanding where the movies have come from, how they’ve come to the place they are, and even a moment or two to consider possible futures, both for the path on which the movies find themselves and for the future of the festival itself. As always, I have filed my report on this year's activities—movies watched, schedules contemplated, favorite people visited—for Slant magazine’s blog The House Next Door—and if I come off in that report a little crankier than usual, that dissatisfaction is borne from love for what TCMFF does so well every year and concern for some of the more commerce-oriented choices that seem to get in the way of the festival’s main thrust. Each year it seems more and more like a good idea to keep in mind, as a fellow festivalgoer and friend frequently reminds me, this festival is, more than ever, not for “us,” the more all-consuming cinema addicts and historians, but more for the general audience of film buffs and fans who don’t have as many opportunities to indulge in the wealth of classic, independent, repertory and international cinema that hose of us who live in urban centers like Los Angeles and New York routinely do. And if one can keep that sentiment in mind, the TCM Classic Film Festival will continue to be a place where fans, fanatics and more serious denizens of film culture can co-exist and enjoy the chance to see the familiar and the forgotten in the best possible venues.

As I said, this was the festival’s tenth year, and I have been privileged, through the good graces of TCMFF and my editor at Slant, Ed Gonzalez, to attend all ten. That adds up to a lot of movies--141 so far, on average about 15 movies a festival—and a lot of Vizine. You can read my annual coverage for Slant by clicking here, but for SLIFR I thought it might be fun to take a look back and point out the highlights of my festival experiences from each year, from the very beginning straight through last weekend. So, let’s delay no longer. Take a trip back with me over ten years of moviemaking and moviegoing magic, and while we cast a glance over our shoulder we can also begin the process of looking forward to what TCMFF may have in store as they begin their second decade of this unique film festival.

As P.P. Arnold, Cat Stevens and Rod Stewart have been wont to remind us, the first cut is the deepest, and so it was with the inaugural TCM Classic Film Festival in 2010. And though during this festival I saw Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner introduce Imitation of Life,  as well as spectacular screenings of Playtime, Leave Her to Heaven, North by Northwest, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and the restored Metropolis, the absolute highlight, and one of my favorite festival memories of all came right out of the gate, poolside at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel:

As I trailed into the open poolside area, I observed there must have been a couple hundred people buzzing around the edges of the pool, many more than I thought could have fit comfortably. All the seats near the screen were of course snapped up, and the only place I could find to settle in was at the corner of the pool furthest from the screen, which was barely visible to these weary eyes from that distance. But I was just glad to be inside, and so I plopped down on the nicely padded chair and made fast pals with my chaise mates, Roger and Joe, two very excited gentlemen from Atlanta who were staying at the Roosevelt. (Talk about splurging for the full experience.) We traded small talk about the festival, the places we lived, and of course our lousy position re the evening’s events. But as the lights dimmed and the spotlight landed on TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, who would introduce and interview the honored guests of the evening, our attitude began to change. Mankiewicz was positioned about 10 feet from where we were sitting, and as he made his way through his genial introductory repartee I turned to Roger and said, ‘I think we lucked out in a big way’—the understatement of the evening, as it turned out. We heard Mankiewicz say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Esther Williams and Betty Garrett!’ and a few seconds later Betty Garrett, 89, with the help of a cane and a lovely escort, and Esther Williams, 87, wheelchair-bound but lively as hell, made their way right past Roger and Joe and I in our now not-so-crummy seats.

(You can read more about Esther and Betty and me, and everything else 2010 TCMFF-related, by clicking here.)

2011 at TCMFF was the year that I got to see one of my favorite films, Billy Wilder’s One Two Three (1961), projected in front of an audience for the very first time. And with expert context provided by film historian Michael Schlesinger, it was a home run before a single frame of the film was shown:

Schlesinger… delivered, with Wilderian brio and delightful deadpan wit, several wonderful anecdotes centered on the director’s personal style and personality related to the making of the movie. He explained to those virgins in the audience who had little idea what they were in for a bit about the pace of the movie, including the indications in Wilder and Diamond’s script (based on an already brisk Ferenc Molnar play) that the movie be relentlessly, breathlessly paced. (Kevin Lally’s biography of the director, Wilder Times, quotes the screenplay as demanding a rapid-fire ‘molto furioso’ tempo—'Suggested speed: 100 miles an hour—on the curves—140 miles an hour on the straightaway.’) And Schlesinger was at his best in piquing the audience’s anticipation in relating a story in which James Cagney as C. R. MacNamara, head of the Berlin branch of the Coca-Cola company, rattles off a manic swath of dialogue during a scene in which he evaluates various pieces of wardrobe central to the makeover of his boss’s new son-in-law, Otto Ludwig Piffl (Horst Bucholz), from youthfully zealous commie to a faux European count worthy of marrying into decadent American capitalism. Cagney applied every ounce of a dancer’s agility and energy to the scene (which, finished, is a marvel of explosive, relentless speed, the essence of molto furioso) but was, not surprisingly, having difficulty with some of the tongue-twisting verbiage. Fifty-two takes later, one perfect run-through of which was ruined by a bit player’s miscue, and Wilder had the scene the way he wanted it, but Cagney was spent, physically and psychologically; his experience on One Two Three led to his 20-year retirement from the movies.”
(Get the full story on Schlesinger and One Two Three,  and the entirety of the 2011 TCMFF, right here.)

My writing about TCMFF 2012 has gone missing, but in lieu of verbiage, here’s a list of the films I saw, in the order that I saw them: Cover Girl (Charles Vidor; 1944), I’m No Angel (Wesley Ruggles; 1933), Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room (Vera Iwerebor; 2012), Son of Frankenstein (Rowland V. Lee; 1939); Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls; 1948), Phase IV (Saul Bass; 1974), Who Done It? (Erle C. Kenton; 1942), Dr. No (Terence Young; 1962), The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer; 1934), Lonesome (Paul Fejos; 1928), Call Her Savage (John Francis Dillon; 1932), Black Narcissus (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger; 1947), Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch; 1932), Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks; 1959), and Black Sunday (John Frankenheimer; 1977). The best of the lot, seeing Black Narcissus and Rio Bravo in the presence of, respectively, Thelma Schoonmaker and Angie Dickinson—but with a lineup like that no complaints could be possibly be either credible or tolerated.

The Friday of 2013 TCMFF was perhaps the most “movie” I’ve ever crammed into a single day, and probably one of the most rewarding. My coverage came in four parts here at the blog that year, and all four days were crammed with moments to last a lifetime, including a reunion of the cast and director of Deliverance before a grand screening of the film itself. But that came on Saturday. Let me give you a taste of how that glorious Friday ended, and perhaps you’ll want to read more after that. 

“The coffee I gulped eight hours earlier was still working its magic, so Richard Harland Smith and I made our way into the TCM Underground-sponsored midnight show, a very rare 35mm presentation, in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio, of Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s Plan Nine from Outer Space (1958). Richard, in his own piece for TCM, rightly pointed out, with no small amount of ‘take that!’ satisfaction, that though this movie gained much of its notoriety from the Golden Turkey phenomenon spearheaded by Harry and Michael Medved, who dubbed it the worst movie ever made, it’s the Medved books that now languish in indifference while Ed Wood’s movie is screening at the TCM Film Festival! That ‘Worst Movie Ever’ moniker has stuck like a piece of used gum to Wood’s movie, but, as comedian-writer Dana Gould (The Simpsons) pointed out in his hilarious introduction to the film, it’s one that the movie doesn’t really deserve. No movie that’s as entertaining as this one, inept as it most assuredly is, could possibly be the worst ever made. (I offer the somnambulant Lily Tomlin-John Travolta romance Moment by Moment as one possible replacement for this dishonor.) The key to Wood’s ‘failure’ is, of course, the many well-documented ways in which the movie falls short of even the basest standards of production value and acting discipline, but lording it over such an obviously impaired picture on those grounds is really only part of the fun. As suggested by Tim Burton’s great Ed Wood, what’s fascinating about looking at Plan Nine from Outer Space, especially in a print that probably looks better than the movie has ever been seen by even its most snarkily ardent followers, is its sincerity. He may have been a terrible writer and an insufficient storyteller, but Wood was most definitely a believer. Even as it builds to its gloriously incoherent climax, I was hard-pressed to detect so much as a single frame of cynicism in his demented mise-en-scene. And seeing it at midnight, the capper to a day which saw six films before it, was the perfect, delirious way to end what I’d wager was the single greatest day of movie-watching I’ve ever experienced over my four-year history with the TCM Classic Film Festival, and maybe even of my entire movie-watching life.”

(Read all about TCMFF 2013 here: PART 1 PART 2 PART 3 PART 4)


The great beyond seemed to loom large at TCMFF 2014, as a recurring theme in the programming I gravitated toward, and also in the spirit of the festival itself, as exemplified by a chance to see Maureen O’Hara interviewed just a few months before her passing, at a screening of How Green Was My Valley:

In the shadow of the recent death of Hollywood icon Mickey Rooney, who passed away just four days before the festival opened, the actors who could be glimpsed at various TCMFF functions and on stage before the films they starred in were especially appreciative of the attention lavished on them. But one legendary Hollywood actress interviewed by TCM’s own iconic headmaster, Robert Osborne, seemed to be looking as much forward as back toward the past, openly acknowledging and even embracing her own slow approach to the end of the line. Maureen O’Hara, wheelchair-bound at 93, joined Osborne on stage before the screening of How Green Was My Valley (1941), and she, too, was somewhat awed by all the reverence and love directed her way. The Queen of Technicolor, a sobriquet bestowed upon her for her many appearances in splashy, intensely hued swashbucklers like Flame of Araby (1951), At Sword’s Point (1952), and Against All Flags (1952), was feisty right out of the gate too. When Osborne began with a question about John Ford, she played the audience like a well-tuned fiddle by responding with mock indignation: “I thought this was supposed to be about me!”

But further sincere inquiry from the host was more often politely sidelined by the actress, who seemed far more interested in conveying to the audience her deep satisfaction with a life well-lived and also, more importantly, her acceptance of its close and inevitable end. She frequently implored the audience to take stock of their own paths and assured us that this known life was not the last stop, even singling out one woman whose cough O’Hara, a good Irish Catholic with a lovely brogue to match, insisted with seriousness and delight was a happy noise that was floating directly up to God. In such a pristine, digitally restored state as we would witness, How Green Was My Valley itself would even add a bit of convincing evidence to O’Hara’s conviction. As O’Hara’s unspeakably lovely Angharad, daughter of the Morgan clan, leaves the chapel after her wedding to a man she does not love, the wind picks up the train of her veil, causing it to dance and reach skyward with such gorgeous, fortuitous choreography that one could be forgiven for imagining its movement providential, as if God himself was laying the groundwork for the actress’s own heavenly assurance with an invitation that would only be accepted some 50 or so years later.

(The entirety of my coverage of TCMFF 2014 is available here.)

All great films aside, the best thing about TCMFF 2015 was attending it with my best pal, and TCMFF served up another great poolside screening (and a surprise after the fest was over) which seemed pitched just for the two of us:

You might initially wonder, as many undoubtedly did (myself included), what the hell a trashy epic like Earthquake was doing among the finery of TCMFF presentations. After all, even those of us who savor it would be hard-pressed to consider it a classic. My favorite comment about the movie came from Pauline Kael’s review, in which she compared it to the studio’s other disaster picture, Airport 1975, which was released only a month earlier: “The picture is swill, but at least it’s not cut-rate swill.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Years later, Kael’s comment was used as a pull quote on the DVD, and a single misplaced vowel turned her wisecracking condemnation into a rave: “The picture is swell!” Earthquake’s status as a classic is completely arguable, but as rich opportunities for indulging in all manner of Hollywood decadence go, this event was a doozy. My very first experience with TCMFF in 2010 was taken in beside this same pool, listening to Esther Williams being interviewed, then watching her take in a special presentation of aquatic choreography performed right there in the water, all leading up to a screening of her delightful Neptune’s Daughter from 1947. But I think seeing Earthquake last Saturday night may have eclipsed even that wonderful bit of Hollywood happiness. There was nothing on the four-day schedule to match the welcome relaxation of kicking back in a chaise lounge under palm trees at the edge of a pool in the center of a history-soaked hotel, sipping complimentary gin and tonics like they were soda pop (and they weren’t, as the bartender was in a very generous mood) and tempting fate in the most casually ironic manner. There was a definite sense that any temblor coinciding with the screening would have drawn screams, and then applause even louder than that which greeted star Richard Roundtree, who was interviewed before the show by TCM stalwart and actress Illeana Douglas, granddaughter of actor Melvyn Douglas.”

And that surprise I mentioned? A TCM photographer caught a great image of the silhouettes of myself and my pal relaxing by the water while Douglas and Roundtree gabbed on in the background, surely the best TCMFF souvenir I or anyone could have asked for. (Read all about the rest of the best of the fest right here.)

What of TCMFF 2016, you ask? A chance to see Anna Karina talk before a screening of Band of Outsiders was most definitely a highlight, one that sparked an unexpected train of thought about the nature of nostalgia:

Early on (in Band of Outsiders), our heroes sit for an English class in which their teacher, readying them for a lesson in Romeo and Juliet, emphasizes T.S. Eliot’s observation that “Everything that is new is thereby automatically traditional” as a way of softening her students’ resistance to material that might seem musty or forbidding in any language. The quote suggests not only the teacher’s belief that new texts can reorganize tradition, but also ways in which classic texts can achieve modernity, not just through themselves, but through constant recontextualization over time. Always one to recognize a movie convention, Godard uses the classroom scene to establish his modus operandi in much the same way as hundreds of films before and since have done. The teacher even spells it out on the chalkboard: to be classic is to be modern.

As Band of Outsiders washed over me, I thought about the apparent swelling of interest in TCMFF among young people, who were noticeably out in droves at this year’s festival and coming close to matching in numbers the relatively elderly population of movie fans who might be expected to most ardently embrace the festival’s riches. If Nora Fiore, a.k.a. Nitrate Diva, a 25-year-old blogger and TCMFF enthusiast is to be believed, it’s possible that classic movie fare of the ‘30s and ‘40s may resonate with millennials more than anyone may have previously understood. ‘I think my generation responds to the subversive sides of old Hollywood, especially pre-Code films and film noir,’ Fiore said in a recent L.A. Weekly piece, ‘Why Young People Go Nuts for the TCM Classic Film Festival,’ adding that ‘studio-era films were often thrilling, shocking and, in some ways, ahead of where Hollywood is now.’

Even if young fans like Fiore are more niche than norm (most young people I know still have an allergic aversion to black-and-white film stock and anything that predates the Marvel Cinematic Universe), it’s hard not to take some degree of encouragement from seeing so many millennials wallowing in so much cinematic history, even if it’s primarily Hollywood-oriented. In fact, what ended up being most exciting for me at TCMFF 2016 was the realization of just how much modernity there was in that wallow, even if some of the more fascinating films in that light had to fight to be noticed over some of the more ostentatious attractions.” 
And speaking of unexpected modernity, there was a nearly forgotten pre-Code western that sparked the biggest flame for me at the festival that year:
Another presumably musty relic, this one from the pre-Code vaults of Universal Pictures and producer Carl Laemmle Jr., was Edward L. Cahn’s excellent, surprisingly moving 1932 western Law and Order, which belies the dominantly jaunty disposable tone that characterized most pre-Stagecoach B-movie westerns and makes unexpected moves forward toward a depth of feeling and technique which links it, however improbably, to The Wild Bunch. The film, essentially the Gunfight at the OK Corral with the names changed (to protect the mythological?), stars Walter Huston as notorious gunslinger-turned-marshal Frame “Saint” Johnson, née Wyatt Earp, and Cahn, who would eventually become a prolific but often mediocre director of agreeable schlock (Dragstrip Girl) and the occasionally noteworthy genre effort (It! The Terror From Beyond Space), lends Law and Order a somber, elegiac attitude toward death. The numerous killings here have a gravitas absent from the average horse opera of the day, and the film’s final shootout set piece has been choreographed and edited with a surprising degree of poetry that made me think of Sam Peckinpah more than once.
(More on TCMFF 2016 here.)
At TCMFF 2017, I was thinking a lot about the spirits of the dead:

“Almost by definition, any festival dedicated exclusively to the treasures, glories, and the occasional folly of the past is likely to be visited by ghosts, and the spirits of the dead are practically a staple at the TCM Classic Film Festival, which held its eighth gathering in the heart of Hollywood this past weekend. The memory of the late Debbie Reynolds, who had made several in-person appearances at TCMFF over the past eight years, was invoked through yet another screening (the festival’s third) of the indisputable classic Singin’ in the Rain, in which Reynolds made her first big Hollywood splash back in 1952, and at a screening of Postcards from the Edge (classic status somewhat more disputable), before which Reynolds and her daughter, Carrie Fisher, were remembered fondly by Todd Fisher, Reynolds’s son.
Even though he wasn’t represented at the festival on screen, Don Rickles, who passed away on April 6, the festival’s opening day, couldn’t be ignored. Rickles’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located on Hollywood Boulevard across the street from the Chinese Theater complex, and as I made my way through the usual crush of tourists, desperadoes, and TCMFF pass holders toward my first screening on Thursday afternoon I wasn’t surprised to see the little square of sidewalk devoted to Rickles surrounded by flowers, curious bystanders, and entertainment reporters trolling for soundbites, and even adorned by one fan’s thoughtful memorial: a brand-new hockey puck.
The ghost that made its presence felt at almost every turn of this year’s festival belonged, of course, to TCM’s beloved host Robert Osborne, who died one month to the day before the launch of this year’s festival.

(More on TCMFF 2017 can be found here.)

TCMFF 2018 was all about the power of words, which made a certain film loom large, perhaps larger than all the others:
TCMFF 2018 did offer various opportunities to celebrate talented, perhaps less zingy writer-directors such as Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career); James Ivory (Maurice); Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer); Melvin van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a salute which makes me happy even though my mind remains boggled that it ever managed to happen); and Ron Shelton (Bull Durham), whose gem-laden career bears an inordinate degree of dedication to making sports movies the way Hollywood doesn’t like to make ’em—raunchy, unpredictable, often melancholy—and then proving that audiences would come to see them anyway.

One filmmaker who couldn’t be in attendance was highlighted with a feature so strong and bracing you could practically feel the one-two punches smashing against your torso and smell the cigar smoke from his ever-present stogie wafting down the back of your neck. Sam Fuller, who died in 1997, would have been thrilled with the festival showcase afforded his favorite film, 1952’s Park Row. Fuller’s urgency isn’t an empty exercise designed to get an audience’s collective pulse racing. His own experiences as a newspaper copy boy, coupled with his passion for the primacy and importance of the fourth estate, inform this gloriously claustrophobic, booze-soaked, relentlessly forceful tale of how one (fictional) editor, played by Gene Evans, a veteran of Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, flies in the face of corruption and illegal influence, and against the baser instincts of a rival publisher once his boss (Mary Welch), in the pursuit of journalistic standards to honor the statues of Horace Greeley and Benjamin Franklin which anchor Park Row itself.

Another writer-director who was himself, like Fuller, at the forefront of a particularly important moment in the history of American independent film, John Sayles, used his time introducing Park Row to eloquently characterize the film, in one of the overall best, most informed, beautifully delivered speaker presentations I’ve ever seen at TCMFF, as ‘Citizen Kane printed on butcher paper.’ You could almost hear Fuller chuckle with approval.”

(Extra! Extra! Read all about the rest of TCMFF 2018 right here.)

And then there’s 2019, year 10 of TCMFF, when I complained perhaps more openly than ever before, about the festival’s turn toward those audience pictures that haven’t got as much classics credibility:

While its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.

Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration ofWhen Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyondWhen Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger ‘I’ll have what she’s having,’ if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics.”

(The rest of my TCMFF 2019 experience is right here. See you in 2020!)

(My favorite photo from TCMFF 2019: me and my best pal Bruce, who attended with me again this year, in the company of TCM programmer Millie De Chirico and film critic Michael Sragow.)