Saturday, August 19, 2017


The history of the Muriel Awards stretches aaaalllll the way back to 2006, which means that this coming season will be a special anniversary, marking 10 years of observing the annual quality and achievement of the year in film. (If you don’t know about the Muriels, you can check up on that history here.) The voting group, of which I am a proud member, having participated since Year One, has also made its personal nod to film history by always having incorporated 10, 25 and 50-year anniversary awards, saluting what is agreed upon by ballot to be the best films from those anniversaries during each annual voting process.

But more recently, in 2013, Muriels founders Paul Clark and Steven Carlson decided to expand the Muriels purview and further acknowledge the great achievements in international film by instituting The Muriels Hall of Fame. Each year a new group of films of varying number would be voted upon and, based on the support each title received, chosen for admittance into the hall. In 2013, the inaugural group of Muriel Hall of Fame films were Casablanca, Citizen Kane, La Jetee, Lawrence of Arabia, M, Man With a Movie Camera, North by Northwest, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Psycho, Rear Window, The Rules of the Game, Sansho the Bailiff, The Seventh Seal, Sunrise, The Third Man, Vertigo and Yojimbo. (Alfred Hitchcock did very well for himself that first year.)

There have been three other voting years since, and in that period 37 other great films have been inducted. And now the 2017 group is ready for their close-up. There was a slight change in the voting this year, aimed at expanding the focus of the HoF a bit further beyond the realm of American, British and French films, which have been the countries most represented in the voters’ choices up till now. In years past, Muriels voters have nominated their favorite eligible movies (ones that haven’t already made it in) and then everyone simply picked from those nominees. “But this year, in the interest of diversity,” says Clark, “I decided to split up the ballot by region—the US, Western Europe, and the rest of the world.” 

The 2017 inductees have been being revealed two a day now for about a week, so by now we’ll have a stronger idea of whether Clark’s strategy of expanding the focus has worked.
But in any case, the Muriels Hall of Fame provides a strong opportunity not only to examine film history but to showcase some excellent, impassioned writing on that history, essays written about movies which might be thought to have been somewhat exhausted by the attention paid to them by critics and fans. Given the nature of the Hall of Fame, the choices aren’t always necessarily surprising, but the writing about them that Clark and Carlson gather together frequently is, which is what makes participating in the Muriels as a voter and critic consistent and challenging fun.

So, let’s see what made it in this year. Beginning on August 12, and leading up to today, August 19, here are your Muriels Hall of Fame inductees so far, along with the names of the writers and a taste of what they had to say (including my own contribution, which dropped yesterday).

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966; Sergio Leone) “How many hundreds of times have we heard Morricone's iconic coyote-howl theme used to signify ‘this is a western’? It's ironic that Leone's deconstruction of the genre has become one of its benchmarks, its imagery and sounds as famous as anything it was meant to satirize. But then again, it makes perfect sense. Even severed of its original meaning by the passage of time, its power as a piece of filmmaking is undeniable. Few movies are as entertaining, as beautiful, as unabashedly cinematic.” (Vern)

Rashomon (1950; Akira Kurosawa) “Most modern works in which unreliable narrators reveal their motives and deceptive self-images by constructing competing narratives around the same event end up playing the discrepancies for laughs, or, worse, use it as a set-up before triumphantly revealing what ‘really’ happened. Rashomon leaves you uncertain about everything that happened... Now that the film is canonical, many people may overlook the fact that using a visual meeting that capitalizes on people's inclination to believe whatever their eyes are telling them to convey this message is highly subversive.” (Phillip Dyess-Nugent)

Persona (1966; Ingmar Bergman)Any number of established classics are good, even great, films to watch and re-watch, but how many of them possess this ability to turn themselves and the viewer inside out every time? How many can show you something new, no matter how many times you come back to them?” (Cole Roulain)

Andrei Rublev (1966; Andrei Tartovsky) “No other filmmaker has ever rivaled Tarkovsky’s ability to make the dreariest of settings feel sublimely beautiful. Andrei Rublev is a testament to the power of the artist to transcend—and transform—the world around him.” (Ian Scott Todd)

Viridiana (1961; Luis Bunuel) “Viridiana marked Luis Buñuel’s return to shooting films in his home country of Spain. His decision raised as many eyebrows as his Palme D’Or-winning film ultimately did. For biting the hand that thought it was feeding him, Buñuel had his most delicious provocation banned by the Catholic Church and Franco’s government of Spain." (Odie Henderson)

Last Year at Marienbad (1961; Alain Resnais) “Representative of cinema as modern art, Last Year at Marienbad moved away from narrative and resists precise elucidation. The viewer must work to assign meaning in the film only to find the film evades any single interpretation... Marienbad points the way toward the postmodern.” (George Wu)

Blow-Up (1966; Michelangelo Antonioni) “Like its cinematic cousins... Blow-Up uses the ‘sculpting in time’ element of film to shatter time itself. It’s at once a capsule of a place/culture/era and a living, breathing item that may or may not be completely different the next time we view it. Like those images the photographer pulls out of his negatives, the film reveals stranger and stranger layers the more we obsess over it." (Philip Tatler IV)

Notorious (1946; Alfred Hitchcock) "It may be an espionage-fueled film noir, with Grant’s cynical G-man recruiting Bergman’s tormented daughter-of-a-Nazi-spy to infiltrate a Brazil-based crew of Nazis by getting close to one (Claude Rains), who just happens to be an old flame of hers. But no matter how suspenseful and intrigue-infested this movie gets, you’re always reminded that Notorious is about two people whose desire for each other is so palpable, so intense, so friggin’ sexy, they can’t hide it...!" (Craig D. Lindsey)

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953; Max Ophuls) “Someone once said of Max Ophüls that the mere mention of his name makes all cameras stand rigidly to attention. Never was it more evident than here in this wonderfully cynical yet romantic eulogy to the very idea of romance and, indeed, truth."

High and Low (1963; Akira Kurosawa) “What follows is an exciting thriller-slash-police procedural, a real nail-biter of a yarn that's all the more remarkable in light of Kurosawa's meticulous planning, framing and choreography. High and Low is so heavily micromanaged that by all rights it should be dull and plodding, but Kurosawa is a master of cinematic control." (Stacia Jones)

Only Angels Have Wings (1939; Howard Hawks) “"Only Angels Have Wings seems to me, each time I see it, to rank as the greatest movie Hollywood ever produced. It’s Hawks’ perfect, profound, entirely unfussy fusion of his love of adventure, his admiration of professional aptitude and passion, for simple (but not simplistic) skill, and even his own deftness with strains of melodrama and comic energy, the template for the sort of action experience that seems more and more out of the reach of modern filmmakers with each passing, terminally bloated and self-important season." (Dennis Cozzalio)

Keep your eyes peeled and pointed toward the official Muriels website, Our Science is Too Tight, for additional Hall of Fame inductees which will announced during the coming week, and feel free to start making a list. The Muriels Hall of Fame is a great place to start filling in those gaps in your own movie-watching history.


Friday, August 11, 2017


It was only recently that I saw, for the very first time, Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s novel Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), and as it was designed to do, it chilled me to the bone. The movie descends like a shroud upon the lives of Myra (Kim Stanley), a would-be psychic who seems at the beginning of the film to be what one might describe as dotty and demanding, and her cowed husband Bill (Richard Attenborough), a milquetoast of a man who seems far too acquiescent to her insistent personality. But Myra is more than just a bit dotty, she’s borderline demented, and she has emotionally pummeled her husband into participating in a bizarre kidnapping plan— they’ll "borrow" the daughter of a wealthy businessman and then achieve fame and riches by helping police to discover her whereabouts. As the crime progresses, Séance reveals itself to be a disturbing, suspenseful movie, built not on whether the young victim will survive, but instead on just how deeply Myra will devolve into her own fantasies of parenthood, and it’s this aspect that made me begin to get a little nervous when I was watching it at home.

We’ve been told that the room in which the young girl is being held was once that of Myra and Bill’s son Arthur, who apparently died while still a young boy, and whose psychic contact with Myra is the basis of her claim to conversancy with the dead. But the real nightmare of the film is sparked when the line between Myra’s self-defensive delusions and a much purer madness dissolves completely. It’s soon revealed that Myra, who still believes she can speak with Arthur, never actually knew the boy—he was, in fact, stillborn, the room upstairs lying for years in a perfect state of waiting for a child who would never play or sleep in it. And under the pressure of keeping the kidnapping scheme from being discovered, she’s begun to believe that the best thing for Arthur is to send the little girl to the other side—to murder her—so that her precious baby would be lonely no more, and perhaps leave her tortured mind alone in the process.

Kim Stanley touches plenty of raw nerves depicting Myra’s desperation to connect with the way she envisions the world is supposed to be, but Richard Attenborough is in his own way just as effective, pinpointing the futility of Bill’s balancing act between empathy and comfort and a desire to force his wife (and, of course, himself) to deal with their grief rationally, expressively. But as I descended deeper into the movie, I had to question the wisdom, especially around this time of year, of seeing a movie about a muted, near defeated couple who have been haunted by devastating loss into making the worst decision possible as a means of reintroducing themselves to the world. In many ways I feel like I’ve been hiding out for the past 20 years, trying in my own way, like Bill, to help myself and my wife ride the wake of an event that just can’t be rationalized or explained away with homilies or assurances that everything happens for a reason-- What reason could possibly suffice? For 20 years I’ve been trying to find a place where the grief over my own lost son, Charlie, who was stillborn on this day in 1997, can somehow be grappled with, made sense of, instead of just routinely crushing me like a bug under a boulder.

And frankly, the rather more agnostic turn my life has taken in the shadow of Charlie’s death—a direction it was already headed in, by the way—has been for me more of a comfort than the ostensibly reassuring thought that Charlie is somewhere hanging out in spiritual limbo somewhere, waiting to be reunited with the loved ones God saw fit to deprive him of at literally the last minute before he was to be born. In my mind, it is more strangely comforting to believe that what happened to Charlie was not the design of some sadistic deity who does things for his own self-absorbed reasons without the apparent need to let us poor earthbound bastards in on them. I’d rather just accept that the uterine abruption which resulted in his death occurred simply because it was within the realm of the physically possible for it to have occurred. It was not a proactive referendum on my or my wife’s abilities as parents, and we were not being punished for some presumed, speculative offense, like insufficient fealty and praise to a codependent Creator. So, despite the temptation (and, oh, how we have been tempted), guilt has never been a satisfactory option-- at least not for me-- in thinking about all the ways in which things might have turned out differently during that summer 20 years ago. 

But despite all my attempts at setting things at ease rationally, there is still the grief to be understood, and it’s here that I found myself empathizing not with Myra’s actions, but instead her disorientation and panic at not knowing what to do with that grief. If her dogged insistence that on some level it should all make sense is something to which I cannot subscribe, I can at least understand her inability to deal with the power of that grief and its repercussions. At times I wish I did believe, like Myra with her Arthur, that Charlie was constantly by my side, or somehow accessible in his incorporeal state, because it might—might—make life a little easier to live when I start thinking about him a little too deeply, a little too sadly. That comfort is, after all, what memories are for. But there are no memories of a baby boy lost at birth that are not utterly, overwhelmingly sad—even those revolving around the happiness of anticipation are necessarily, unavoidably colored by the pain of what was to come.

And it is no comfort either to think of him separated from us by a mere dimension or two, our reunion to come at a time still to be determined. Yet in the immediate smothering of that grief, oh, how I wanted, just like the shattered, flailing Myra, to believe. A couple of weeks after my wife had returned from the hospital we were, of course, still reeling and trying to find a way to put our hopes and dreams back together. We had gone out to a local mall, and as I sat waiting for my wife to complete some piece of business, a little girl, probably no more than two years old, waddled up to me, looked me right in the eye, said, "Hi, Daddy," and then just as matter-of-factly waddled away.

It took every bit of energy I could muster to keep my composure in this public place and not explode in a thunderstorm of rage and tears, and for years I held on to that strange encounter as evidence of perhaps an actual contact between Charlie’s spirit and my own. I don’t believe that anymore—I can’t believe that anymore, because too many things have accrued in my relatively meager experience, Charlie’s death being but one, to make me call into question beliefs my Catholic/Christian upbringing have insisted I take for granted, on unquestioning faith. But I remembered that experience anew when I saw Séance on a Wet Afternoon and it made me realize that confronting my own experience through this movie wasn’t a thing to be feared after all. My own loss made connecting with the dark insistence on spiritual redemption that fuels Myra’s clearly unacceptable, psychotic actions a little bit easier, a little bit more artistically rewarding, the recognition of a strange bit of empathy directed toward a woman who might seem too far gone for simple understanding.

I still love my boy, and I know I will grieve for him in my own way until my own candle goes out—I can’t, as so many were quick to advise us in the earliest moments when our wounds were still so fresh, just move on. I also know that I don’t need to hang on to hopes of ghostly encounters and heavenly reunions to keep that love alive. But while I never want to wallow in past agonies I don’t want to forget the pain either—it is now and forever a part of what binds our lost child to us. I do believe Charlie knows the peace we’ll all know someday, and that, to me, is a thought which is happy enough. It’s the only one, in fact, that could possibly compete, after being separated from him for 20 years now, with actually knowing that 20-year-old young man, being his dad in this world, experiencing the love I’ve always felt for him reflected back on me like sunlight. That is a thought I’ll allow myself to dream on occasionally, and I will not feel ashamed for my tears.



There's so much I wish we could have done and seen together... I would have liked to take you fishing, for long bike rides, and of course to the movies...

In honor of the 20th anniversary of the loss of our son Charlie, who didn't quite make it to us on this day in 1997, 101 movies I wish I could have shared and experienced with him.

In no particular order...