Thursday, September 09, 2010

MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW: Thoughts on Aging, Aging Icons and Other Notes from a Lost Weekend

Since I turned 50 years old last August, I’ve become convinced that being 50 doesn’t mean the same thing to men and women of our generation—and even less to subsequent generations—than it meant to folks like my parents and my grandparents when they turned 50. When I was 20, even 30, the number 50 seemed far away, and the people who were that age seemed, well, old and tired and visibly in preparation to shuffle off into infinity. (Of course they weren't, but, you know, perception is reality, especially when you're a 20-year-old who thinks he's gonna live forever.) I mean, look at this picture of Knute Rockne. The man died in a plane crash at age 47, yet even in his 30s he looked like my grandpa in his 60s. Of course styles of clothing, along with photographic technology and the overall quality of image reproduction, have a lot to do with how we perceive people of a different era, like Rockne, but among people I’ve known who I’ve not had to experience through old photo albums and archives, we really do seem to age differently these days. And there’s got to be something behind it other than the old “it ain’t gonna happen to me” vanity. I’ve thought about this a lot since my last birthday, naturally, and I wonder if some of it doesn’t have to do with the way we process art—movies, music, books—and what the media has meant to people my age and to those who grew up in generations after I did.

It’s certainly true when comparing my parents and grandparents to me. Neither my mom nor my dad ever put any particular lasting value on the pop culture of the day. They enjoyed it in the moment, sure, just like every kid did, but they soon more or less disposed of it when it came time to grow up. By the time they hit age 50 they weren’t spending any time looking back and reflecting on the movies and the music of the ‘50s in the way that I routinely dig through my past and reevaluate the landmarks of pop culture that shaped and defined my upbringing in the ‘70s. Those I know who are my age and are engaged in the process of thinking about, experiencing, evaluating and creating art in various forms, whether it be through writing, acting or just enjoying what’s on the landscape in a more than simply passive way, seem to have retained, in some substantial way, a youthful way of looking at the world, even if sometimes our bodies tend to want to betray our sensibilities. Some might characterize that as a lack of seriousness, as if paying attention to something other than The Wall Street Journal constituted frivolity, but I don’t. Sometimes, though, I’m tricked into thinking with my dad’s thoughts and wondering how I’ve managed to waste my life up to this point and why I couldn’t have just gotten a normal job and settled down into the same patterns as everyone else I grew up with, regardless of how happy or unhappy they might be. Soon (but often not soon enough) I snap out of it and I realize that maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll never entirely see myself as a grown-up, in that stodgy, put-me-in-a-drawer-and-leave-me-alone kind of way, and if exercising my brain about movies helps me retain that attitude, then what’s not to like? I’ve spent about three weeks reveling in the fact that I didn’t feel particularly old—why, I’ve barely felt a day over 49! And that’s the way it should be.

That said, by the time the Labor Day Weekend was over I felt old. Saturday started out beautifully. My daughter and I took a terrific morning bike ride in the hills above the city where I live, I did some writing while eating a really good sandwich for lunch, and I managed to get away to see Suspiria and Deep Red at a rare (for me) New Beverly Cinema Saturday matinee. But by Sunday I was feeling rundown and sick again, a holdover from the previous week, I had a ton of office work to do— nothing like laboring on Labor Day to cheer one up—and a short window of time in which to do it, and ironically too much time to hash over all my usual health and financial worries and other mind-eroding minutiae of the everyday. By Monday it was sitting on me like one of Monty Python’s 16-ton weights. The downturn in my attitude was just a valley of the expected kind, but it was the first one where I let myself “feel my age” in anything but a positive way. If nothing else it convinced me that the efforts we (I) make to keep ourselves healthy—not to delude or distract ourselves, but to enrich ourselves with the kind of mental ammunition we need to battle these kinds of momentary losses of faith-- are so much more important just vehicles for the passage of time. Throwing myself into a fascinating personal post written by a great writer, or a piece on a 50-year-old movie in the Los Angeles Times, or even just receiving an e-mail from someone I may have never heard of about a question I’d forgotten that I asked—these were all ways I managed to engage and exercise my mind during my weekend lull in order to come to the realization that the world is bigger than just me. Seems obvious, but I think everybody should be lucky enough to be reminded of that every so often, especially when the tank is running low.


This past week the Telluride Film Festival unspooled in the mountains of Colorado, just another film festival I’m lucky enough to read about but not lucky enough to attend. My experience at the TCM Film Festival this past April has only whetted my appetite to experience more of these kinds of rarified cinephiliactivities, and maybe one day I’ll be able to find my way to more of them. But Telluride had me really hoping for some sort of blue fairy or sugar daddy to appear at my doorstep with plane tickets, hotel vouchers and press credentials, not because of the undoubtedly stellar line-up of films, but because of the appearance of a certain Italian movie goddess who was scheduled to be celebrated as one of the festival highlights. Richard Harland Smith let out the word early last week that the one and only Claudia Cardinale, now age 71 and carrying her special radiance brilliantly onto the senior circuit, would appear along with a rare screening of Valerio Zurlini’s Girl in a Suitcase (1961). Richard’s piece on Movie Morlocks was one part announcement and, gloriously, nine parts career overview and close look at Zurlini’s film and Cardinale’s place in it. Not enough, in my estimation, as been written about this actress, who the author correctly characterizes as “the rare movie bombshell who can really act.” His assessment of Cardinale’s performance, and the film itself, make a strong case for an esteemed place for her in cinema history, as both an achingly gorgeous icon and underrated film actress who had the raw talent and potential for stardom right from the beginning.

And to hear Todd McCarthy tell it, her appearance at Telluride was a glorious occasion indeed. Cardinale starred opposite Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, which had its American premiere at Telluride in 1982, and the director returned to the festival this year with Cardinale on his arm, escorting her to the theater where she would be honored. McCarthy writes, “Cardinale never ceases to be asked about Sergio Leone, and it was spine-tingling on the first night of the festival, walking down from a mountainside dinner under brilliantly bright stars, to hear the moaning harmonica of Once Upon a Time in the West wafting up through the night,” knowing full well that Cardinale herself was present. McCarthy’s noted the star’s “gregarious high spirits” and looks that “any 71-year-old grandmother would die for,” while going on to describe her demeanor while being interviewed as guarded as to the details of her private life. And though “she made a point of saying that she had a policy never to have a romance with an actor,” she then went on to express regret that she never took Marlon Brando up on a rather obvious offer he made to her when she first arrived in Hollywood. McCarthy’s piece provides nice background on Cardinale’s past as well (Italian was her fourth language, one she learned as a teenager!) and a lovely anecdote about the radiant star holding hands with Alain Delon while the two of them watched the restored version of Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, in which they both starred, this past May at Cannes. The only thing missing is pictures. When Claudia Cardinale comes to town, any town, the reader wants a picture or two of her, not a big byline close-up of Todd McCarthy. (No offense, Todd, but you ain’t no Claudia Cardinale!) Perhaps not ageless, Cardinale remains a star presence, all the while proving that aging gracefully is no barrier to seemingly eternal beauty.


The night one of my dreams came true: I met Pam Grier!

Another gracefully aging icon of the movies was revealed to me and others this weekend in a very young incarnation, thanks to a comment left on this site in regard to an article written over four years ago. In June of 2006 Fox DVD released a stunning two-disc version of Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and I gave it a big write-up, focusing primarily on the film, of course, but also on screenwriter Roger Ebert’s casually compelling audio commentary. At one point in the piece I wondered aloud about the mysterious credited appearance of one Pamela Grier:

“(Ebert) addresses one of the mysteries surrounding Beyond the Valley of the Dolls that has always concerned me—the credited appearance, but apparent absence, of Pam Grier. BVD is, according to IMDb, the first movie in which the celebrated star of Coffy, Foxy Brown and Jackie Brown ever appeared—she’s credited during the final roll as “Fourth Woman” and is supposedly roaming about somewhere in the first big party scene. But being the Pam Grier enthusiast that I am, it’s always been a point of frustration for me that I’ve never been able to spot her in the film. And Ebert, bless his heart, can’t figure out where the hell she is either! He’s even concerned enough about not knowing where to look for her that he mentions it more than once. More than likely she was the victim of that familiar cutting-room-floor syndrome, but it is odd that even someone as closely connected to the movie as Ebert, who was on the set, has no idea how Pam (here Pamela) Grier fits into the enduring mystique of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (Of course, if anyone knows the whereabouts of Ms. Grier on this DVD, I’d love to know about it, and so would Mr. Ebert, I’d wager.)”

At the time, That Little Round-headed Boy (aka Larry Aydlette) offered some information as to her possible presence, but even he seemed unsure: “I think she may appear at 28 minutes, 36 seconds, in the closing moments of the Sweet Talking Candyman song. She's standing between two men, she's wearing an orange dress, with a big bouffant hairdo, far from the look she'd sport in later films (and she looks mighty young, but she would have been much younger at the time). There's also a shot at 27 minutes, 38 seconds, where she's far in the background at the left (you can spot her because she's next to a guy in a turban and suit). Of course, looking at it again, I'm starting to wonder, but the cleavage looks right!” And even star one of the movie’s stars, Cynthia Meyers, who played Carrie Nations bassist Casey Anderson, chimed in on the Grier search: “I know Pam (Grier) was wearing a gold colored crocheted/macrame dress in a party scene.” But four years and three months later, I am excited to report that an intrepid reader/Russ Meyer fan has the scoop, and he delivered it to the long-dormant comments thread on this BVD post over the weekend. Known to us only as “Tony,” the reader posted the following:

“I know I'm a little late to this party, but better late than never huh? Anyway, regarding Pam Grier being spotted in the film, on my PAL version of the DVD (so times may differ slightly if checking on an NTSC version) she can definitely be seen at 13 mins and 44 seconds. Straight after the scene of a couple in the bath there is a scene with a couple dancing (bloke with mustard shirt and brown jacket, back towards us, and a woman with a gold necklace, gold eye make-up facing us), and just behind them is another bloke in a black stripey shirt occasionally dancing in front of Pam wearing the gold crocheted dress! I haven't checked any further to see if she appears elsewhere as I thought for now one definite confirmation was enough!”

"Pamela Grier" at about 14:22 into Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Larry’s guess was a good one, but adjusting for NTSC, Tony is the one who found her. And to give this appearance a credit as “Fourth Woman” appears to have been a mighty generous gesture on Meyer’s part, which makes me wonder if there might be more footage of her in a vault somewhere. The odd thing is, it’s not the kind of leftovers that suggest a whittled-down appearance; Pam looks to be doing simple extra work here. So good for her that she got her first credit here, but better that she achieved her stardom a little further down the road. Tony, thanks for finally solving the mystery of Pam Grier and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls Just in case Mr. Ebert has not yet been informed, I will make sure he finds out!


Two of my favorite comments culled from emails this weekend that made me acutely aware of what I was missing by being stuck inside nauseous and at work:

The first comes from Colonel Mortimer, the proprietor behind the eponymously named Colonel Mortimer Will Have His Revenge, who submitted his answers to Professor David Huxley’s quiz and inadvertently, with his answer to #11, stuck this knife in my heart and twisted for all it was worth:

“ Labor Day weekend was a great movie watching weekend for me as I saw two double features at the New Beverly (Deep Red & Suspiria; Tell Them Willie Boy is Here & Ulzana's Raid) and Machete at the Vista (the manager taking tickets was in costume as the titular character).”

Aaagghh… I did manage to make it out for Suspiria and Deep Red, the latter still riveting despite the deeply faded pink-tinted print provided to the New Beverly, but it truly killed me to miss Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid on the big screen. I mean, it killed me, as in sapped me of my very life force—I’m writing this now while sitting next to not-quite-famed would-be screenwriter Joe Gillis in a steam bath located somewhere just north of Hell. And then the Colonel had to really seal the death deal with his description of the Vista manager’s garb. Manager Victor Martinez has made a tradition of dressing up like characters from the blockbusters that frequent the Vista, the tiny Silver Lake neighborhood theater that probably has the best sound in all of Los Angeles. (I saw Grindhouse there, and when Stuntman Mike revved the engine of his tricked-up Nova I honestly felt my internal organs vibrating.) Just this past year Martinez donned outfits from Watchmen (he was Rorschach), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (the titular wizard) and the superhero known as Iron Man, and it would have been a real hoot to see his take on Danny Trejo’s overly-muscled assassin. If I could be assured Martinez would be in his gear this weekend, I might trade my scheduled Saturday night drive-in screening of Machete. for seeing it at this funky little palace. But instead I’ll just be satisfied with the Colonel’s acknowledgment, comforted by the fact that Martinez and his uniquely interactive theater management style is holding down the fort for East Hollywood movie geeks in high style.

The other e-mail came from my best friend, who finally got a chance to see one of the movies of the summer, after much cajoling from me, and he turned in this vivid report (This e-mail excerpt requires a major SPOILER ALERT):

“And yes, of course I was tormented when Kelly Brook's hair was dragging in the water so those little undeserving fuckers could nip at her gorgeous self and terrorize my girlfriend! Why, oh, why couldn't the filmmakers have spared her? She could've made it to the other boat and then removed her top in celebration and offered Jake a shot of tequila from her belly button! Yikes...I actually was in suspense and jumping out of my seat a lot, despite the fact that I was laughing so much and was aware of how silly it all was. Loved it, in other words.”


Some good writing to direct your noses and eyeballs toward:

Charles Taylor on Sean Wilentz, historian and author of the new book Bob Dylan in America,, which Taylor describes as being “about how the strains of American music and American history have come together in one man over the course of a nearly 50-year career… (A)ppropriate for a historian, the book is a vision of how the past becomes part of our living present.” Wilentz hopes that his position as an academic won’t be held against him given his subject. He tells Taylor, “I'm interested in a lot of different things, and do my best — and work just as hard — to write about them with my sense of American history and its multitude of webs and contexts. If that confounds critics and readers, so be it; I just hope enough of them will get it and that others get over the reverse snobbism that says no serious professor — none — can be taken seriously writing about popular music." It’s a typically well-observed portrait of a writer seeking to frame his own perspective on Dylan, and it’s a particularly pleasurable read coming from Taylor, himself one of our best commentators on popular culture.


During our recent “Blogger’s Summit,” Farran Nehme Smith asked me about the role of the personal in writing about film. Just two weeks later she would provide her own lovely, heartfelt response to her own question with a post entitled “Watching Movies with My Mother-in-Law (Love in Karnak (Gharam fi al Karnak, 1965),” in which she rather intimately and vividly describes sitting down with her husband’s Lebanese mother Zahra to watch one of the woman’s favorites. Farran immediately sets the scene with the same ease and confidence she has with her mother-in-law, thus making us all equals in intimacy as she lays the background of the experience to come:

“With Zahra I've watched dance numbers by the exquisite Samia Gamal, romantic scenes with the actress Raqiya Ibrahim, songs from Leila Mourad. I've watched social dramas like one set in a hospital in a desert, which had an extraordinary sequence showing a riot for water. None of them were subtitled, and the Siren often hasn't bothered to ask for a translation, especially for songs, as the reply is so frequently `She's singing about loooove.’ From Zahra I hear about what she thought of the actresses and the movies, what she heard of the stars in magazines and newspapers, which scenes she remembers best.

On this visit, we came across a musical number from a film starring the Syrian-Egyptian singer Asmahan, the one big rival to Umm Kulthum. Asmahan died in 1944, age 25, under circumstances even the non-conspiracy-minded Siren finds fishy. The Siren watched with Zahra as ball-attired men and women waltzed around Asmahan. The singer's voice was magnificent and she had presence so strong you barely notice what else is in the frame.

`Is she singing about loooove?’ inquired the Siren.

`No,’ retorted Zahra, as one who says take that, smart aleck. `She is singing about Vienna. How beautiful is Vienna.’ The chorus sank to the floor, champagne glasses aloft, and Zahra added solemnly, `And they should interdire this song.’

`But why?’

`She is telling everyone to drink!’ Zahra threw back her head and roared with laughter.”

Later, when Farran discovers something about the films she’s watching with Zahra and her own wedding ceremony, the reader gets the sort of frisson of delight usually reserved for a blissfully contrived moment in fiction. Farran’s precise and sensitive relating of her experience is unadorned with overly flowery language, yet each economical word is supremely well chosen and the post achieves a kind of poetry worthy of a really potent folk tale. And it has a subtle emotional punch to match. What better way to get an introduction to Egyptian cinema and perhaps even shed a tear or two for loving mother/daughter-in-law relations than to click over to Farran’s place, avail yourself of the various links and clips, and settle in for a piece of great film criticism disguised as a homey cross-cultural anecdote? (I’m tempted to e-mail a copy of Farran’s fine piece to this asshole.)


Speaking of traveling overseas, Stephanie Zacharek is just back from Venice (and now headed to Toronto—ah, the life of the international jet-setting critic d’estime!), and she has left a series of vivid, funny and evocative dispatches from the film festival located in that watery Italian city for Movieline. These will make you pine to feel the rain in Italy, or at least go hide out in a movie theater in Italy while it rains.


I caught a reading by author and critic Saul Austerlitz at Book Soup in West Hollywood Tuesday night that was a lot of fun. Austerlitz, author of Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes, has a new book called Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy, which was released on September 7, and he read a bit from the chapters on Mae West and Cary Grant, accompanied by an illustratively insinuating clip from She Done Him Wrong (1932), the first of two collaborations between the bigger-than-life Broadway star turned movie comedienne and the as-yet-nascent actor who would become the Cary Grant we all know and love in just a few pictures’ time.

Austerlitz is a smart, sharp writer who knows his stuff—the book is broken down into 30 chapters, each one an essay on a legitimate giant in the field, and then 100 further entries which could be thought of as the World’s Funniest Honorable Mention. But the book is not just an occasion for Austerlitz to tell his favorite funny parts from these movies. Instead, he takes on the considerably daunting task of examining how comedy works, why it’s such a subjective form, all illustrated with vivid examples from the films themselves as well as the performer’s history. And he does it without killing the joy in the comedy, which is the risk one takes in overanalyzing the source of laughter. I haven’t yet finished my copy, but when I do I will report on the book in more detail and hopefully have a short interview with Saul Austerlitz as well. Stay tuned. (If you want to hear Austerlitz being interviewed, check out Mr. Media’s podcast interview with the writer from earlier this week.)


Finally, two new blogs (at least they're new to me) to recommend highly. First, Turtleneck Films is home to independent filmmakers Tom and Mary Russell, who have been making and self-distributing films in Michigan for, well, a good while now. In addition to the films they have to show for it (including The Man Who Loved (2007) and Son of a Sea Horse (2008), they have this wonderful blog, which provides fascinating, homespun insights into the world of underfunded, underpublicized people who make films because they love to and maybe because they have to. It’s full of information about current and past projects, of course, but it’s also a forum for Tom and Mary to discuss the films they love, some of which reside where you might expect them to and some which don’t. At any rate, what you get with Turtleneck Films is a well-designed, well-written blog that traverses the probing imaginations of these filmmakers as they trace their steps in a world where doing what you love isn’t always the easiest thing to do:

Second, Ron Deutsch’s Chef du Cinema is a foodie film buff’s dream come true. Ever imagined trying to make spaghetti sauce the way Clemenza does it in The Godfather? What about the brownies Katharine Hepburn whips up in George Cukor’s Holiday? Or how about a Moroccan feast that would have the cast of Casablanca all drooling like Sydney Greenstreet? Deutsch is a self-described filmmaker, cook, journalist, author and “general gadabout” who has constructed his blog as an extension of “Chef du Cinema” classes he teaches where “students learn to prepare a four-course menu which relates to the movie we will show after the demonstration.” Then Deutsch and his students kick on the DVD player and sit down to eat and watch. Chef du Cinema is packed with delightful information and posts to get the adrenalin of anyone who has ever wanted to make a timpano like Stanley Tucci and Tony Shaloub do in Big Night pumping in a big way. (I’ve made ‘em a few times myself from Tucci's cookbook, and they are molto delicioso!) But Deutsch also provides good writing, reasoned, interesting takes on the classic films that provide his recipes, not criticism so much as context for the meal. Then comes a history of the food, and then, in proper dramatic fashion, the recipe(s). Anyone who fancies her/himself a film buff and a food fanatic will find plenty to get excited about inside the digital pages of Chef du Cinema, which hasn’t a large archive yet as it is a relatively new endeavor. But check it out and see if there isn’t something you’ll pine to make for yourself or your loved ones based on Ron’s love for the food of films, and the films about food. (He even provides a great list of movies from which he refuses to cook, most of which will garner the approval of all but the most adventurous cinematic epicure.)


Finally, let’s check in with the Los Angeles Times. Regarding the number-one status of The American at the domestic box office, industry analyst Ben Fritz, in a piece printed Monday entitled “It’s No. 1, But Not Popular,” built his entire brief thesis around this nugget:

“Despite exit polls that indicated it was the most disliked movie released so far in 2010, Clooney's The American opened No. 1 at the box office this weekend, collecting an estimated $16.4 million in the U.S. and Canada from Friday through the Monday holiday and $19.5 million since it opened Wednesday.”

It ought to be readily apparent to anyone even casually observing the movie industry, let alone an analyst in the Los Angeles Times, that this is, despite their desperation to spin it otherwise, information that illustrates business as usual. The operating principle here is that age-old, exhausted assumption (one which studio marketing geniuses use to bolster the significance of their opening weekend numbers) which states that initial box office figures have anything at all to do with whether or not the audience actually liked the movie. Of course, when some ratbag like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen tears it up at the box office, the studio head is always out there on Monday morning crowing about how the audiences really responded to the movie and to the fact that the studio is, despite what those party-pooping critics have to say, giving them what they want. Well, of course the majority of moviegoers who wasted their money on either or both of those movies would be the first to convey their disappointment over the ratio of dollars spent to pleasure received. But a movie like Transformers: ROTF, or Inception, a much better movie that of course didn’t please everyone across the board, are movies that institutions like Paramount and Warner Bros., and the Los Angeles Times, have a huge stake in presenting as though they were demographic-flattening audience-pleasers. But when a movie like The American comes along, a movie that Universal sold as a Bourne-like action thriller and reportedly dumped into theaters with little fanfare, a movie that, whatever your feeling for it, certainly doesn’t look for feel like the usual product, suddenly those numbers that ranked it number one are overlooked in favor of the letter score that conveys the message they want people to hear about the picture—that it’s really a dud in winner’s clothing, the recipient of the worst exit-poll rating (a D-) of any major movie this year. (And remember, Vampires Suck came out just a couple of weeks ago.) Despite it being a George Clooney vehicle, the suits don’t want to be besmirched with the stench of a dud, whether it’s No. 1 or not. Cue the Times with a story all about how suddenly it’s not the opening weekend numbers that mean so much as how much it drops off on the second weekend.

And of course folks like Fritz are shocked-- shocked-- that audiences don’t seem to much care for it. What did these people expect? What did Universal expect? Their own deceptive ad campaign, which emphasized the movie’s few moments of kinetic action, purposely misleads the Clooney fan base into thinking they’re going to a Paul Greengrass movie when in fact they’re signing up for a contemplative movie about an assassin literally in waiting, paranoia slowing overtaking his better judgment, a retooling of Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (a movie that drove me up a tree with its self-conscious artiness) in movie star duds. In fact, I wrote this past Friday of my own anticipation about seeing it, and in that piece I speculated about the movie’s seemingly bleak box-office future:

“As soon as audiences get wind that the movie is not a high-octane Bourne-in-the-north of-Italy type picture but instead one that values the connection to placid moments of existential contemplation in between assassination attempts that are the hallmark of filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni, the movie is likely via col vento (gone with the wind).”

It’s the breathless reportage about the movie’s reception with audiences that gets me. Is this the first glaring gap between a big opening weekend box office take and an alarmingly low Cinemascore rating? The only thing that the gulf between audience expectations for The American and their supposed ultimate lack of satisfaction indicates is a common-sense affirmation that box office take is an indication only of response to advertising. Otherwise, what is the story here? Studio marketing whizzes will pitch a movie any which way they think will encourage you to part with your dollar and, surprise, surprise, Los Angeles Times, they don’t give two shits what you think on your way out. This is news? Of course it makes the suits less nervous if customers are not left moaning about a movie being too slow and boring, but if they do, well, there’s always the pitch to home viewers who were left unmoved by the TV and newspaper pitch for the theatrical release. Besides, we knew it was a tough sell from the beginning. (Translation: They’ve created their own self-fulfilling prophecy about the ultimate box office fate of the film by telegraphing their own disdain for it, signals which are then eagerly picked up and translated by the Los Angeles Times entertainment section.)

Even if a studio dumps a movie like The American here, they know it stands a decent chance of doing well in those ancillary markets or perhaps in Europe, where a movie that looks and feels like this one won’t seem so, well, foreign. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times is there watching out for the average consumer, making sure that audiences are made aware that most people don’t like this movie, therefore you should maybe save your entertainment dollar for something that doesn’t seem so perversely different from the tried and true. There’s hardly an element of what exists of a plot in The American that could be said to be original, which one would think might be a point in its favor where audiences in 2010 are concerned. But the movie harkens back to a style of filmmaking that recalls the maverick artistic sensibilities that were the norm in the early ‘70s, and unfortunately audiences don’t want to hop in a time machine and align themselves with movie-goers of the time who were up to an occasional challenge such as this one. They remain stubbornly modern, sophisticated in the ways of technological triumphs but impatient with a movie built on the tension inherent in silence, the heightened sense of observing, the restless ambiguity in the act of waiting, the small gestures of reaching out from loneliness when reaching out is the last thing one should do.

(Jim Emerson liked The American a lot, and his post "The American: Watching and Waiting”, is well worth a look if you liked the film or think you might. There’s lots of great images from the film on tap as well as the usual array of intelligent discussion, pro and con, afterward.)


Finally, I feel extremely remiss in not mentioning this before now, but Movie Geeks United have been doing a week-long tribute to the thriller films of Brian De Palma, who turns 70 years old on Saturday, starting this past Monday and finishing up tonight (Friday). If you haven't checked in yet, I highly recommend that you do. The line up of guests has been tremendous (Nancy Allen, Edward Pressman and Armond White, to name but just a few), and word is they'll be taking calls during the final podcast if there's something you want to ask the esteemed panel of self-proclaimed Movie Geeks about this great filmmaker. The past episodes are all available on the archive at the Movie Geeks United site on Blog Talk radio, and as of today they are also available right here on the sidebar at SLIFR for extra easy access. Please join the MGU staff in celebrating the work of Brian De Palma this week, and consider making them a habit. I put 'em on my iPod and take them grocery shopping. Does that make me a Movie Geek too? I hope so!



Robert Fiore said...

Apropos of Pam Grier, you might want to note that the UCLA film archive will be having a Blacksploitation retrospective at the Billy Wilder Theater in October. Coffy and Cleopatra Jones show on the 17th.

tlrhb said...

Ah, I must have defective detective skills. I'm throwing my badge in the river like Dirty Harry.

le0pard13 said...

I'm so jealous, Dennis! You met Pam Grier (and she probably signed your copy of her book, too)! Anyway, that's great.

I also second the Movie Geeks United doing that week-long tribute to the thriller films of Brian De Palma. My good friend and author John Kenneth Muir is participating in this outstanding event and contributing some great insights to the conversation re: these fantastic thrillers.

Great post, my friend. Thanks.

L. Rob Hubb said...

Just picked up Pam's bio this week!
She was in more of the party sequence - if you go to the Photo Gallery section on the Extras disc of BVOTD, you'll find several stills of her.

The Siren said...

I also can't believe you met Pam Grier. Way cool.

Thank you so, so much for your lovely words about my watching-movies-with-Zahra post. They made my week. I must offer a small correction, though: Zahra is Lebanese. I am not sure I made that completely clear myself! The movies she watched growing up were Egyptian, as the Arab movie industry was (and I suppose to an extent remains) focused in Egypt. She also watched a lot of American movies, but that is universal it seems.

I'm also very, very glad to have contributed in any small way to a riposte to the man you so accurately describe as "this asshole."

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Yeah, gentlemen, Farran, Pam Grier! Pretty cool, huh? She was incredible friendly and sweet. When I made it up to the table, I stumbled around for words and ultimately just babbled on about seeing her movies when I was a teenager in the '70s and never thinking the day would come when my dream would come true and I'd get to meet her. She looked at me, smiled, reached over and grabbed my hand and said, "Oh, honey!" SWOON! I can die now!

And she was a knockout from six inches away, lemme tell ya. Just this morning I read one of Stephanie Zacharek's posts from Toronto and she was talking about the new doc on Roger Corman's slate of '70s action movies that were shot in the Phillippines called Machete Maidens Unleashed. She refers to two movies in this genre directed by Jack Hill "both featuring the great Pam Grier" and then goes on to say:

"(Incidentally, many of these B-movie actresses, now in their 60s, look pretty terrific with no signs of plastic surgery; let that be a lesson to their A-list contemporaries.)"

I loved that line and that sentiment.

Farran, I always get tickled whenever I seen you've dropped a comment! And by the way, the brain fart was entirely of my concoction. I knew your mother-in-law was Lebanese, but my head and my fingers insisted otherwise. The facts have been adjusted to now actually be true!