Sunday, April 29, 2007


It's been a while coming, but Barbara Stanwyck is currently winning a tug of war for status as my favorite actress, overcoming long-time titleholder Carole Lombard. This being Stanwyck's centennial year, and after having revisited wonders like Forty Guns, The Violent Men, The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity, Baby Face and the velvety sass of her Sugarpuss O’Shea in Ball of Fire (above) all fairly recently, the victory is all but a given. Time to start looking at some of the superb writing available about this great star and marvelous actress, and there’s no better place to begin than with Jim Emerson, who wrote this about Stanwyck last month in his post “Bow Down to Babs”:

“In both The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire -- two of her most dazzling and endearing comic performances, from the same year! -- Stanwyck acts as a leveling life-force, puncturing all pretensions and knocking her co-stars' bumbling intellectual noggins out of the hazy cerebral clouds. What she achieves is not unlike what a much ditzier, flakier, upper-crust screwball heroine, Katharine Hepburn, does for/to bespectacled paleontologist Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby. But Stanwyck brings salvation from the streets rather than the penthouse. Jean Arthur in Easy Living (1937) -- written by Sturges -- is a delightful working gal, but Stanwyck is far more streetwise. Tough, strong, and smart, but no less feminine than some of her screwball sisters, she has learned to survive in a cut-throat world, living by her wits. She's at her best when she's in control, and she usually is. In many of her most famous movies the unspoken truth of any given scene is that she knows exactly what she's doing -- until, perhaps, her emotions sneak up on her and overthrow her instincts, by unexpectedly allowing her to fall head-over-heels for her (relatively) naive and helpless male prey.”

David Hudson and GreenCine Daily point the way toward Terrence Rafferty’s ”The Infinite Variety of the Lady Stanwyck”, which highlights her 100th birthday in light of a brief career retrospective beginning Wednesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music:

”There are only a few ways to be a movie star, and Barbara Stanwyck, Brooklyn-born 100 years ago, took the hardest and probably the best one: she kept the audience guessing. She wasn’t jaw-droppingly beautiful (though her eyes were lovely and her legs were famously good). She didn’t have an outsize, force-of-nature personality. And she wasn’t an instantly recognizable type — a vamp or girl next door or ‘career woman’ or high-society madcap, to name a few of the popular personae available to actresses of her era. She played versions of all those roles at one time or another, without getting stuck in any of them. You couldn’t tell who Barbara Stanwyck was just by looking at her; it took a little trouble to get to know her, and she had the ability — a star’s ability — to make millions of viewers believe she was worth the trouble.”

Finally, Anthony Lane at The New Yorker checks in with a piece that is fine and lengthy and as suitably reverent as Lane is ever apt to be. It’s called “Lady be Good”:

”Seventeen years after her death, there has been a shift in Stanwyck’s reputation. To addicts of old Hollywood, as to pining critics, no actress delivered a more accomplished body of work; to the general public, however, her name is fading into the past. All we have of Stanwyck is a collection of films—but what a collection—and thus the temptation to conflate the woman with her roles is overpowering. Think of a jockey riding multiple mounts in an afternoon and you have some idea of the Stanwyck who had four pictures released in 1941 and again in 1946. Like many stars, she was loaned out on contract from one stable to another, but she made the switches work to her advantage, so that neither Columbia nor Warner Bros., for instance, both of whom worked her hard in the early years, was able to fence her in. In later years, she negotiated short contracts with M-G-M, R.K.O., Paramount, and Twentieth Century Fox. Nobody seemed to own her: not the studios, not her husbands, not Frank Capra or Preston Sturges, not Zeppo Marx, her agent in the thirties. She had self-possession, and that was ownership enough. Samuel Goldwyn tried for three other Sugarpusses—Ginger Rogers, Jean Arthur, and Carole Lombard—before settling on Stanwyck, yet the role now seems inconceivable in the hands of anyone else. That is the way with the brightest stars: as much by accident as by design, they pull toward them the scripts and directors most likely to enrich, even to mythologize, our sense of who they are. We feel as if we have some share in a great public secret. All in all, as Sugarpuss says, ‘Pretty good getting, for a gal that came up the hard way.’”

Barbara Stanwyck was born on July 16, 1907, and in between now and that day this year hopefully there will be one tribute after another, in hopes of celebrating this fascinating, tough and alluring actress’s career and counteracting what Lane sees as a fading of her star in the eyes of the general public. There’s lots more to read about Stanwyck than just these three fine pieces. Go ahead. Google “Barbara Stanwyck,” and let’s get started.

Saturday, April 28, 2007


In digging up that picture of the Cinemagic Theater in Portland, Oregon that I used on the previous post, I stumbled upon a real treasure chest for those who love to look at photos of the fading facades of the American moviegoing past. Photographer Don Lewis, whose shot of the Cinemagic that is, has posted a wonderful 336-picture slideshow entitled Vanishing Movie Theaters that really should be seen by anyone who still fondly remembers the days before the multiplex was king. Some of the theaters in Lewis’s collection are still open—the Bagdad in Portland, Oregon, seen above, is now a McMenamin’s-owned pub and theater, but it’s still cranking. However, many are not—for them, the last picture show faded a long time ago. I’ll never forget what it was like to walk up at dusk to the box-office of my local movie palace—it was located under a field of bright bulbs that covered the underside of the marquee overhang, and when I was a kid it made the Alger Theater seem like the most wonderful place on Earth. Even when the bright sunlight revealed that it was hardly that, it still managed to retain a special aura. Lewis’ photographs, even the saddest shots of dilapidated and neglected facades and marquees, have that aura too, and I suspect they will for anyone who remembers when movies were shown in big and small palaces, buildings that bestowed magic on them whether they deserved it or not


Being part of Adam Ross's "Friday Screen Tests" is a whole lot better than getting my name in the new phone book!

Anyone who has spent any time in the blogosphere, either as a reader or writer, knows that one of the great pleasures of being involved in it is becoming acquainted with new people-- fellow bloggers, readers, critics, people from all over the world. Other than getting to keep my own writing muscles in tone, after having let them lay dormant for so many years, this has easily been the most fruitful and satisfying element of starting this blog two and a half years ago. I have received e-mails and worked with several critics who I’d read for several years prior to the inception of SLIFR, which has been thrilling enough. But on top of that, I’ve met and even become friends with several other bloggers and critics and readers who I’d never had the pleasure of knowing before, some who come from my own backyards (Oregon and California), many from all points throughout the country, and several from the other side of the planet. For someone for whom the world has never really been very big, these meetings and friendships have been a very happy revelation. It’s pretty great to be so connected to a world of people who may not always think like you do, but who share that same passion for the possibilities of the art of film, people who won’t automatically fall asleep or shoo you out the door when you start going on about your love for Gloria Grahame, Cinemascope, or a movie that no one else gives two shits about. And you just never know who’s gonna come calling next. A couple of months ago I received an e-mail from fellow blogger Adam Ross, who comments here occasionally and runs his very own site entitled DVD Panache, a delightful smorgasblog that is never less than sharp, often thoughtful and, on occasion, exhaustive. Lately Adam has taken to highlighting the blogs he finds himself returning to over and over again in a series entitled Friday Screen Tests, in which he poses a series of questions to the bloggers in his sights and lets them have free rein on his site to answer them. Recently he has given space to Ted Pigeon of The Cinematic Art, Tuwa of Stairs in Movies as well as Tuwa’s Shanty and the Roots Canal, and Corvallis, Oregon’s own Damian Arlyn of Windmills of My Mind. When he contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in taking part, I was indeed honored, though I must say I took a molasses-in-January approach to returning my answers to him. And they weren’t questions that could be easily tossed off—it took me some time to figure out what the answers were and how best to formulate them— kind of like the professor quizzes on my own site, only this time I wasn’t writing the questions. Here are the ten posers Adam tossed my way:

1. Describe the frequency of your movie watching

2. Has there been a movie recently that absolutely shattered your expectations (good or bad)?

3. Can you give a singular answer to the question "what is your favorite movie?"

4. You hear someone say "I hate old movies" -- what movie would you have them watch?

5. What about "movies never scare me"?

6. What was the first time in your life when you saw a movie and immediately wanted to either write about it or have a group discussion about it?

7. If you could go back in time and see any movie during its original theatrical run (staying only in your seat so as not to alter time),what would it be?

8. Is there a movie for you that epitomizes the phrase "so bad it's good"?

9. Has there ever been a movie that made you seriously consider changing careers (or career paths)?

10. On the worst day of your life, what movie will you put in?

Adam assured me that he would let me know when my day on DVD Panache was to come. Well, dear readers, my day was yesterday! And now you can head directly to DVD Panache your own selves and find out what my answers to these questions are, and at the same time discover, if you haven’t yet already, why Adam’s blog occupies a spot on my sidebar. Adam has lots of kind and generous things to say about this blog— he claims it was the first film blog he ever read! He even likes all the sidebar links to favorite movie theaters throughout Oregon, though he gently chastises me for leaving out his favorite from Portland, the Cinemagic. The theater was, I thought, an unknown quantity to me until I realized that during my day it was an art house known as the Fine Arts. So I do know it, Adam, and you’re right—it’s a beauty. I hope you, and everyone else, enjoys the pic of the former Fine Arts that I was able to unearth from the link you provided. And thanks a ton, Adam, for including me in your project. Hopefully someday you’ll have enough for a whole book!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

DOUBLE SECRET PROBATION: Dennis Bench-presses Professor Irwin Corey's Spring Break Quiz

Well, it’s been just over a month since Professor Irwin Corey submitted his Foremostly Authoritative Spring Break Quiz for your amusement (or, perhaps, for your frustration), and as is becoming some kind of tradition/pattern/growing body of evidence as to my laziness, I have finally now gotten around to posting my own answers to the professor’s queries. Many have mentioned in the comments column how this batch seemed a little more difficult than usual, and as usual I really didn’t think so—until I sat down to try to answer them myself. Often, as I read the questions for the first time, I have some kind of idea floating in the back of my head as to what my answer of at least some of them might be. But this time around, I have to agree with those who claim that the professor is more demanding than other staff members of the past have been. My No. 2 lead pencil is but a nub now, and my brain feels similarly abused. But that’s not to say it hasn’t been fun. This batch of answers submitted by the professor’s diligent and intelligent student body have really risen to the occasion too, and I look forward, sometime between now and the upcoming summer quiz, to gathering up Professor Corey’s teacher’s pets and highlighting them in the same way I did those of Professor Dave Jennings. But for now, behold the results of turning Prof. Corey’s inquisition in on myself. The results are often not pretty, but if you’ve read this site for any length of time I’m sure you’ve come to expect that. So, with that in mind, let’s open up my Blue Book and see what’s inside…

1) What movie did you have to see multiple times before deciding whether you liked or disliked it?

Back in my college days, when I could and would see just about everything that came out (what other reason could there possibly be for seeing agonizing artifacts Chapter Two or Same Time, Next Year on the big screen or at all?) it was not unusual for me to see movies more than once, even ones I didn’t like—for when the urge to NOT study was dominating all other more responsible impulses, the movies were always the first option for my friends and I. Sometimes all that was available was romantic bilge water like the two movies cited above, or perhaps a 1970 Raquel Welch movie (Restless) released to unsuspecting viewers in 1978 as if it were brand-spanking-new. But there were other movies that actually latched onto my consciousness, movies that I didn’t like and in some cases still don’t like, that I saw with my friends more than once. For me, going back to see a movie like Apocalypse Now or Altered States more than once was to acknowledge that there were elements at play that were often far more interesting than in more conventional films that I could say with more certainty that I “liked.” And, strangely enough, the jury is still out for me on those two movies. Just about the time I thought I’d settled on a pretty positive view of Apocalypse Now, after about 12 times around and a very checkered history with it, along came Apocalypse Now Redux to muddy up the waters for me all over again. Blaaagh and I threw in the DVD of Altered States last summer—a movie he’s always liked more than I have—and I had to admit that revisiting it was captivating and went beyond nostalgia for the spring of 1980. Though I still found the overcooked academia of the dialogue stilted and forbidding, I also got tugged in by the story and by Ken Russell’s hallucinatory amalgam of Revelation-based religious imagery, Castaneda-esque folderol and the way he (and Paddy Chayefsky) fuse it to a Jekyll-and-Hyde horror template. We didn’t finish watching it last summer, but I long to, just to see if 20 years or so have changed my ultimately negative response.

But the movie I can say I flat-out hated when I saw it twice on the big screen during its Christmas 1979 run was Steven Spielberg’s 1941. Critics and magazine reporters eager to watch the wunderkind responsible for Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind belly-flop on a grand scale set the tone for the shaky reception of 1941 early on—before any of us knew the term “buzz,” the movie had a ton of negative word-of-mouth working against it right up to the day of its release. Critical response was typified by the New York TimesVincent Canby (whose review I read in the university library before I saw the movie):

“The huge, profligate scale on which Mr. Spielberg… has constructed 1941 works against the intended hilarity. There are too many characters who aren't immediately comic. There are too many simultaneous actions that necessitate a lot of cross-cutting, and cross-cutting between unrelated anecdotes can kill a laugh faster than a yawn.”

Going in, everyone seemed to know that 1941 was best viewed as Spielberg’s comeuppance, though for what I’m not sure—perhaps for making three terrific movies in a row? (I’m including the box-office dud The Sugarland Express in this delightful trio.) And when I saw it I thought Canby was right. Again, my friend Blaaagh seemed to like it more than the average bear, and when we went back to see it again together I told myself it was kind of an expedition to take further note of what Spielberg did wrong. And note the wrong-headedness of 1941 I dutifully did.

Cut to a late night about two years later. I encountered 1941 on HBO, and somehow, scaled down to a 19-inch TV screen, stripped of the deafening soundtrack and rumble of artillery and exploding bombs coming at me from every which way, I discovered myself laughing. A couple more viewings and I became convinced I was completely wrong about this movie from the start. How could I have missed the brilliance of the USO dance set-piece? Or the maniacal wonder of Warren Oates’s sputtering Colonel “Madman” Maddox? Or the subversive glee in which Spielberg, and just as importantly scenarists Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, dismantle a nation’s paranoia and jingoistic fury in the context of this nation’s last great, justifiable war? Or the way the movie comedically embraces and simultaneously dismantles prevalent racist stereotypes of the era? Or the way John Williams’ score (his best and most joyous, in my opinion) dances about and accentuates the big moments as well as the small? (I collapsed in delight upon noticing the flourishes of flutes that sonically decorate puffs of smoke erupting from the cigar of psychotic pilot Wild Bill Kelso, played by John Belushi as Bluto Squared, and furious.)

I’ve seen 1941 at least 20 times in various formats since its 1979 release—I even got to create the closed-captions for the re-release on video and laserdisc of the uncut version that Universal unveiled in the mid ‘90s. And though the conventional critical wisdom is still largely negative, it was absolutely wonderful to discover some years later than Pauline Kael, who never wrote a full review of the movie, was a fan of 1941. In her review of Used Cars (which she also loved, God bless her), she wrote of Spielberg’s movie:

1941 had a choppy beginning; it seemed to start with the story already under way, and Spielberg overdid some of the broad, cartoon aspects—some of the performers seemed to be carrying placards telling you what was wacko about them. But the U.S.O. jitterbug number is one of the greatest pieces of film choreography I’ve ever seen, and the film overall is an amazing, orgiastic comedy, with the pop culture of an era compacted into a day and a night. Its commercial failure in this country didn’t make much sense to me. It was accused of gigantism, and it did seem huge, though part of what was so disarmingly fresh about it was the miniature recreation of Hollywood Boulevard at night in 1941, with little floodlights illuminating the toy cars tootling around the corners and toy planes flying so low they were buzzing through the streets.”

And I was delighted to find out online friend and film critic Paul Matwychuk is quoted on as proclaiming 1941 as “"the most underrated film of Steven Spielberg's entire career." (Unfortunately, there’s no link to a review. How can I get your review, Paul?!)

But for all of my experience with 1941 since its original release, the irony is, I’ll probably never again get the opportunity to see it the way it was meant to be seen-- on the big screen. I’d love another chance to experience 1941 the way I should have back in 1979, with my newfound appreciation, and the movie’s gigantism, intact. And in this time of war, I wonder if Spielberg and Zemeckis and Gale’s none-too-flattering picture of American patriotic fervor and fear of The Other turned in on itself might find a more sympathetic audience.

(Speaking of gigantism, I’ll try not to be so logorrheic from here on out!)

Press play for a look at the teaser trailer for 1941 featuring Belushi as the atavistic fighter pilot known here as Wild Wayne Kelso (by the time the movie came out, the name was changed to Wild Bill). This trailer was apparently in theaters the Christmas before the movie was actually released.

2) Inaugural entry into the Academy of the Overrated
How about Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up? Around Thanksgiving of 2005 I wrote briefly about my thoughts on this movie, and nothing has much changed: “Alienation Cinema’s equivalent to a Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic—let’s dance around and frug and fret with the denizens of swinging 1960s-era London and secretly dig all the
happenings that we’ll constantly insist, through our visual grammar and sound design, are symptoms of the sick soul of society. (The zombified supermodels David Hemmings makes a living taking pictures of didn’t look like they were having that bad of a time.) Antonioni is so distanced—coolly, deliberately—from his subjects and their world that the movie comes off as being one of those muted, nebulous templates for whatever concerns and/or meanings the viewer wishes to project upon it. And to top it off, the movie begins and ends with mimes running madly about London and engaging in a tennis game with no net, no rackets and, of course, no balls. I’ve nothing against ennui, but please, let it feel more felt (or would that be authentically numbed), less trendy and manufactured than what Antonioni concocts for Blow-up.”

3) Favorite sly or not-so-sly reference to another film or bit of pop culture within another film.
I’m trying very hard just to think of something off the top of my head, and like a Rorschach ink blot test, where first impressions are most important, here’s what came bubbling up to the surface: the commercials for Goo-Goo Clusters sung on stage at the Grand Ole Opry before Haven Hamilton takes the Opry stage in Nashville-- “Go get a Goo-Goo… it’s good!” (Here’s a link to a story about how the Opry and Goo-Goo Clusters recently parted ways.) Come to think of it, Nashville’s opening credits also serve as a hilarious parody of those old mile-a-minute K-Tel record album commercials, and that’s pretty damn spiffy too!

4) Favorite Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger movie
It’s got to be the magical realism of A Canterbury Tale, one of the most disarming and transporting movies I’ve ever seen.

5) Your favorite Oscar moment
Several have already mentioned William Holden’s impromptu tribute to Barbara Stanwyck, to whose generosity, professional dignity, and friendship he attributed the success of his career. (When Stanwyck finally did get an honorary Oscar, the same year Holden passed away, she dedicated her award to her good friend.) But here are the two I know I’ll always remember, one profoundly moving, one profoundly silly and delightful. The first is, of course, the wonderful tribute given by Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep to Robert Altman
(in which they tweaked both the canned, badly written lines usually read by uncomfortable actors in introducing awards, as well as Altman’s own singular style of overlapping dialogue), followed, of course, by Altman’s appearance immediately afterwards, during which he revealed his 10-year-old heart transplant and his desire to keep on making movies. The second came somewhere in the mid ‘70s. John Huston is onstage ready to introduce a young singer who was at that time just beginning to make strides into the world of acting on the strength of a couple of successful runs at the TV variety show format. Imagine the gruff, portentous, and slightly impish tones of Huston wrapping themselves around this intro: “Ladies and gentlemen… the incomparable…Cher-r-r-r-r-r-r-r!” It ain’t no streaker, but it makes me smile. (Though if this ever happens on the Oscars, it’ll automatically make my top five!)

UPDATE 4/26/07: Reader Bob Turnbull has graciously pointed that the William Holden-Barbara Stanwyck Oscar moment could be found on (where else?) YouTube. Press play and enjoy. Thanks, Bob.

6) Hugo Weaving or Guy Pearce?
As much as I love Weaving’s voice in Happy Feet and Babe, and his performances in the first Matrix movie and V for Vendetta, I have to give the edge to Guy Pearce on the strength of The Proposition, Memento. L.A. Confidential and, most importantly, Ravenous.

7) Movie that you feel gave you the greatest insight into a world/culture/person/place/event that you had no understanding of before seeing it
Barbara Kopple's Harlan County U.S.A.

8) Favorite Samuel Fuller movie
Right now it’s a three-way tie between Pickup on South Street, The Naked Kiss and the unexpectedly splendid Run of the Arrow. I just saw The Steel Helmet for the first time, however, and it was pretty impressive.

9) Monica Bellucci or Maria Grazia Cucinotta?

Maria Grazia Cucinotta is spectacularly lovely, and her brief appearance as a doomed villainess was the best thing about the otherwise forgettable James Bond entry The World Is Not Enough. But Monica Bellucci wins by virtue of the poster for Malena alone (I still haven’t seen the movie) and the way director Christopher Gans, in perhaps the greatest instance of graphic continuity in the history of cinema (maybe!), lap dissolves from a rolling mountain range to Bellucci in a reclining position, the splendid, undulating curves of her body matching the mountains peak for peak.

10) What movie can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?
There are a lot of movies I can think of that work on me like a tonic-- His Girl Friday, Rio Bravo, Only Angels Have Wings, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes-- some of them are even directed by someone other than Howard Hawks (Singin’ in the Rain, The Long Goodbye, Amarcord, The Big Lebowski, Dressed to Kill). But again, going with the first title that bubbles to the surface seems to be working here, because there can be no denying that a visit to the bustling campus of Huxley College, in the company of Pinky, Baravelli and Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, is always good for what ails me. I speak, of course, of the Marx Brothers and Horse Feathers.

11) Conversely, what movie can destroy a day’s worth of good humor just by catching a glimpse of it while channel surfing?

Just about any movie by Alan Parker will do the trick, but most egregiously Midnight Express and Mississippi Burning, for the particular way they aestheticize and misrepresent the factual basis of their stories in favor of Parker’s favorite M.O., the picturesque and utterly senseless sucker punch to the gut.

12) Favorite John Boorman movie

Boorman’s best movies, in my estimation, are probably also his most celebrated-- Deliverance and Hope and Glory. But I also hold a soft spot for one of his most ignored pictures, the disarmingly personal family comedy Where the Heart Is, starring Uma Thurman, Dabney Coleman and Crispin Glover. And though I find it hard to defend on any basis other than visual, Exorcist II: The Heretic, by any standard a hoary and miscalculated folly from start to finish, is a movie I’ve always wanted to see again. I remain in awe of just how defiantly Boorman flew in the face of audience expectations in pursuit of something that must have felt awfully real to him. Boorman's a Jungian naturalist whose florid imaginings of man’s fall from grace, visual and thematic motifs apparent in almost all his features, never found more perverse expression than they did here.

13) Warren Oates or Bruce Dern?

Don’t get me wrong. I love Bruce Dern. He’ll always have Marnie, The Wild Angels, The Trip, Hang ‘Em High, Bloody Mama, The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant, Silent Running, Smile, Black Sunday, Coming Home, The Driver and The ‘burbs.

But can those really compete with Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, The Shooting, In the Heat of the Night, The Wild Bunch, There Was a Crooked Man…, The Hired Hand, Dillinger, Badlands, The White Dawn, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Cockfighter, Rancho Deluxe, Race with the Devil, 1941 and Stripes? Oh, and I just finished watching Two-Lane Blacktop again, which I’m now convinced is one of the great American movies, of the ‘70s or anytime. Dern it, it can only be Warren Oates.

14) Your favorite aspect ratio

Cinemascope 2.35.1. I’m also partial to Panavision and Super Panavision 70. But I like the answer someone else gave earlier: whatever one the director chose.

15) Before he died in 1984, Francois Truffaut once said: “The film of tomorrow will resemble the person who made it.” Is there any evidence that Truffaut was right? Is it Truffaut’s tomorrow yet?
I think Truffaut’s own movies prove clearly enough that his tomorrow was already here when he was making movies himself. From all we know of him, who else could have made The 400 Blows or The Wild Child or Small Change? And as much as the blow-‘em-up-real-good aesthetic of Michael Bay reigns so supreme in Hollywood today (even though Bay’s name is no longer synonymous with unbridled B.O. success), I would venture to guess that bloated, brainless pictures like Bad Boys II and The Island probably resemble Michael Bay to an uncomfortable degree too. Quentin Tarantino. Paul Verhoeven. The Coen Brothers. Jonathan Caouette. Walter Hill. Brian De Palma. Uwe Boll. There was no need for Truffaut to be speaking in the future tense.

16) Favorite Werner Herzog movie

I had a thorny relationship with Aguirre, the Wrath of God when I was coming of age cinema-wise in college—it was a huge film for cineastes in the mid to late ‘70s, but I was insufficiently unwrapped from my cocoon of familiar American fare to deal with it when I saw it. As much as I suspect I’d love it now, I must leave it off my list-- The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser too—and believe me, Netflix has been informed that I need to see both of these movies, and several other Herzog films, again. Honestly speaking, right now I’d choose either Grizzly Man or the ethereal lunacy of The Wild Blue Yonder (all the while cheering mightily for The White Diamond and Little Dieter Needs to Fly). And since they wouldn’t exist without him, I would also include two brilliant documents from filmmaker Les Blank-- Burden of Dreams and Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. And I can’t wait to see Incident at Loch Ness!

17) Favorite movie featuring a rampaging, oversized or otherwise mutated beast, or beasts

Six months ago I would have said Godzilla vs. Mothra, or perhaps Tarantula, or Them! But in April of 2007 there is only one answer for me—no, Filmbrain, it is not too soon to choose The Host.

(You may have already seen this trailer—it’s the Korean version—or the one attached to the U.S. release, and hopefully you’ve seen the movie. But if you haven’t and you’ve any inclination to see a superior example of just how supple and adaptable the horror genre can be when it is approached with imagination, seriousness and a unique comic vision—all of which this trailer hints at without giving away the entire game—then you really must see The Host.)

18) Sandra Bernhard or Sarah Silverman?

I think I’d probably rather spend time with Sarah Silverman, and Jesus Is Magic is, well, magic. But Sandra Bernhard has The King of Comedy and Without You I’m Nothing and those wonderful, awful, aggressively uncomfortable appearances on the old Late Night with David Letterman show in her column. Advantage: Bernhard.

19) Your favorite, or most despised, movie cliché
The apparently dead main character who is copiously wept over and treated to a monumental swelling of the orchestral score, and then somehow manages to pop back up, wide-eyed and wondrous, just before all the test screening audiences storm out of the theater in a huff over being bummed out because somebody died at the end of a movie. E.T. did this effectively, and every other time I’ve seen it since then it has pissed me off. No, I don’t want every main character to die at the end of every movie. Just when it’s right for the movie, that’s all. One movie discussed in this post flirts with this phenomenon, then pulls back at the last second, gets it right, and miraculously allows us to feel something besides relief at being let off the hook. I’ll let you figure out which movie that is.

Also, I can’t stand it when someone says “I’m too old for this shit” before embarking on some boneheaded misadventure designed to blow up things real good in Cinemascope and/or Panavision. And especially when Danny Glover says it, I definitely am.

20) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom-- yes or no?

I’m willing to give it another try, especially since I did such a 180 on 1941. And Temple of Doom does have that spectacular “Anything Goes” opening number and subsequent slapstick scramble for a giant diamond that is so reminiscent of the U.S.O. number in 1941. But, God, did this movie give m a headache in 1984. I actually liked the movie’s grisly tendencies, but the incessant chattering and squawking and screaming of sidekicks Kate Capshaw (no Karen Allen she) and Ke Huy Quan, and the movie’s visual hyperactivity, wore me out. That said, I think it’s high time I give it one more go around.

21) Favorite Nicholas Ray movie

In a walk, In a Lonely Place, with Johnny Guitar a very close second.

22) Inaugural entry into the Academy of the Underrated

Ron Shelton’s uncompromising, brutal and profound Cobb, ignored by most and misunderstood by many who did see it when it was briefly released in 1994, it is perhaps the most bitter and truthful examination of the concept of hero in sport legend ever made.

23) Your favorite movie dealing with the subject of television

For cheerful nostalgia: My Favorite Year
For belly laughs: The Groove Tube
For the frightening possibilities and hope for the New Flesh: Videodrome

24) Bruno Ganz or Patrick Bauchau?

Patrick Bauchau for The State of Things, though if what I’ve heard holds true, when I finally see Downfall I may want to go back and change this answer.

25) Your favorite documentary, or non-fiction, film

I know I’m spineless, but I couldn’t do anything here but a three-way tie: Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A., which had a more profound impact on me when I saw it on PBS at age 17 that I could have ever anticipated;

Ken Burns’ Baseball, which in 1994 introduced me to a whole new world that I couldn’t live without today;

and Kristian Fraga’s Anytown U.S.A., as devastating a portrait of American politics as I have ever seen.

26) According to Orson Welles, the director’s job is to “preside over accidents.” Name a favorite moment from a movie that seems like an accident, or a unintended, privileged moment. How did it enhance or distract from the total experience of the movie?

There is a moment in The Stunt Man when possibly Satanic director Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole) first speaks to the fugitive Cameron (Steve Railsback)—the man on the run has just jumped in the ocean to save someone he thinks is an old lady who has fallen off a rock into the sea. He is shocked to discover the old lady is a very famous, very young actress, Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey), and as he pulls himself up onto the shore, he is met by Cross, who recognizes him as the man he saw running from the police who may have caused a deadly accident during the shooting of a stunt. Cross decides to blackmail Cameron into replacing the stunt man who died in the accident, thus providing a hiding place for the man and supplying himself a pawn for his delusions of grandeur on the set. As Cross circles the exhausted Cameron, who sits slumped on the beach, and taunts him with thinly veiled threats as well as promises of a peek into the glamorous world of movies, the camera supplies a circular panning motion to match Cross’s movements. In the background, as Cross continues to speak, a wave crests and appears to ride along the top of the breaker wall behind Cross, and it breaks at exactly the pace and speed of the camera movement, as if being led by the camera, or as if being dictated as a visual flourish by Cross and/or the actual director of The Stunt Man, Richard Rush. The impossible timing of that breaking wave can only be explained by good fortune, yet its appearance is so lovely, so perfect, that it lends subtle visual credence to the movie’s underlying theme of obsessive movie directors as possibly Satanic deities who truly can bend nature to their will for the sake of their films, who may be out only to use people like Cameron for their films and then destroy them. It’s a breathtaking moment, a beautiful accident, yet you could miss it if you’re not watching carefully-- quite fitting for the whole of The Stunt Man, a movie that it pays to watch very carefully.

27) Favorite Wim Wenders movie

It has to be The State of Things, followed very, very closely by Kings of the Road.

28) Elizabeth Pena or Penelope Cruz?

In Volver Penelope Cruz was captivating beyond my every expectation, erasing the horror, if only for two hours, of her appearances in movies like Blow and Gothika. (And I must admit a prurient interest in seeing Bandidas.) But this isn’t even a real contest. From the first time I saw Elizabeth Pena, as a maid, sultry and smoking while sitting in an upstairs window sill awaiting the arrival of her lover (and employer) Richard Dreyfuss in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, I knew I’d discovered a talented screen beauty I’d follow anywhere. Not surprisingly, she’s never had as many great parts as she deserves, and she’s been in a lot of forgettable stuff-- Jacob’s Ladder, Batteries Not Included, Vibes. But she was funny in La Bamba, riveting in Lone Star, indescribably sexy and sharp in Shannon’s Deal (both for John Sayles) and flat-out great in Joe Dante’s The Second Civil War, and it was a genuine thrill to hear her sultry voice coming out of the mouth of Mirage, the villainous sidekick from The Incredibles. I even liked her in the sitcom dud I Married Dora! My wife and I were eating in a modest little sushi restaurant at the corner of Fountain and Sunset in Hollywood about 10 years ago when Pena and a man I assumed to be her husband walked in and sat down near us. I was so star-struck at that moment I never did manage to gather enough reserve to interrupt her dinner and say something. I regret that, and at the same time I’m glad I didn’t too. For me, just seeing Pena on screen is plenty wonderful enough, and I look forward to those rare moments when the movies give her something to do that is worthy of her exciting talent and exceptional screen presence.

29) Your favorite movie tag line (Thanks, Jim!)

Sorry. I’m weak. It’s a tie:

"Sister, sister, oh so fair, why is there blood all over your hair?"-- What Ever happened to Baby Jane? (1962; Robert Aldrich)

and... "Due to the horrifying nature of this film, no one will be admitted to the theatre"-- Schlock (1971; John Landis)

30) As a reader, filmgoer, or film critic, what do you want from a film critic, or from film criticism? And where do you see film criticism in general headed?

I love to read reviewers and critics who use the language to inform and to entertain and throw light on the subject that they are passionate about, and not as a cudgel to browbeat readers (or other critics) or attempt to make themselves out to be the only word that matters. I want to read a writer who isn’t concerned with regurgitating plot, who isn’t worried about seeming foolish for going out on a limb, who doesn’t rub my nose in his/her eclectic taste or contrarianism for contrariness’s sake, who can tell me what he or she thinks about a movie without saying “I liked it!” or “I hated it!” Because a critic’s opinion isn’t even half the story—it’s how he or she can show me the movie as they saw it through their own eyes that matters to me. If they can do that, that opinion doesn’t have to be so baldly stated—it’ll be there in the passion of the language and the commitment to the experience. As for the future of the art form that is film criticism, we’re seeing a shift in the way people see it and experience it right now, and it’s got a lot to do with the way criticism itself is being rethought and made interactive on sites like Jim Emerson’s Scanners, David Hudson’s Green Cine Daily, Matt Zoller Seitz’s The House Next Door, Slant magazine and a lot of the smart, serious, and fun blogs (maybe even this one) that exist as creative satellites in that same universe. It’s exciting to be even a peripheral part of rethinking how criticism is produced and consumed, and even though I don’t have a clue what it’s going to mean for the future, the right here and now has been made plenty exciting by these new developments. We’re all the beneficiaries of a lot of free-floating wisdom and passion and respect for history and probing critical acumen on these sites, and that’s something to be both excited about and very grateful for.

EXTRA CREDIT: Do movies still matter?

Movie classics and films from the classical era of movies always will matter, as historical pieces and as works that can speak to us from across the temporal divide. It may not seem that new movies matter as much if your only source for what’s happening now is the entertainment pages of your local newspaper, where two-page ads for A Night at the Museum make despair seem like the only sane response. But a little digging, and a little clicking along the sidebar on the right side of this page, will reveal treasures of cinema that will restore your faith. They often come from far-flung places all around the globe, and as difficult as it is to see many of these films on big screens in America in the 21st century, something as simple and inexpensive as a Netflix membership can literally open up a whole new world. So the short answer is, yes.

Friday, April 20, 2007


Another long and busy week, and no new posts in eight days? What the hell?! Well, there is a story to be told. I just haven't figured out whether it's of any interest, or how to tell it yet. But the cheap and dirty fact is, I'm still here, and I've got some stuff planned for blogging this the weekend, plus some thoughts on the immediate future as well. But right now, in just trolling around for something wonderful to leave you with for the weekend, I couldn't top this. Thanks for sticking around through a more or less dormant week at SLIFR. For now, just press play and enjoy!