Friday, November 26, 2010


Jonah Hex, the movie, opens with a flurry of visual storytelling—marked more, and tellingly so, by wide vistas and lap dissolves than the usual Cuisinart-a-thon cutting-- that initiates you into the foundation of the movie’s central revenge scenario in such a brisk and tidy manner that at first you might feel as though you missed something. “War and me got along real well,” says Hex, the titular protagonist (Josh Brolin), a Confederate soldier who tells us further in his opening narration that he was always motivated to fight because he always did so believing it was the right thing to do. But after resisting the implementation of a bit of terrorism ordered by the vicious general Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), whose son is both his best friend and fellow soldier, Hex betrays his regiment to a Yankee outfit, which allows him to avoid execution. The general’s son is not so lucky, and after escaping a similar fate himself General Turnbull arranges for the crucifixion of his ex-soldier, forcing Hex to watch his own son and wife die. Turnbull tops off the atrocity by branding Hex with a “QT” on his face to remind him of the general’s wrath. (Hex’s signature disfigurement, a massively scarred cheek and a gnarled strip of flesh which bridges his upper and lower lip, is a gift Hex gives himself, the result of an attempt to unload the brand with the edge of a white-hot hatchet blade. It’s a look that cements his somewhat demonic countenance, but it also makes downing a shot of rye a necessarily more measured and difficult act.)

All this happens, with the help of montage and some visual suggestion, in the first five minutes of the movie. Soon Hex is off on his mission of revenge, hunting down Turnbull and his band of raiders, who have plans even more grand and dastardly than those of real-life Confederate raider William Quantrill, whose notorious image Turnbull's name is meant to conjure. Malkovich is relatively subdued as Turnbull, oozing self-righteous fury and contempt as only this actor can, albeit with the effects dialed down to 8 or 9 this go-around. All the better for leaving the serious scenery gobbling to Michael Fassbender who, after a run of serious roles in films like Inglourious Basterds, Hunger and Centurion, obviously gets a huge buzz from playing a cackling, tattooed Irish terrorist, Turnbull’s A-1 henchman-sadist. “Jonah Hex!” he shouts with twisted delight upon encountering our hero, “I’d recognize that undercooked pie hole anywhere!” The buzz is translated to the audience— Fassbender is, as always, magnetic. He’s the thinking person’s Sam Worthington, and as such it'll be no shock that he hasn't yet nailed the role that would make him a global star. (He and we might be better off if he ultimately doesn't.) But the movie rests on the weary but wide shoulders of Josh Brolin as the disfigured, disconsolate but ever-motivated Hex, a character drawn from a series of mid-70s DC comics whose revival in graphic novel form presaged this movie adaptation. On the page Hex has a personage much more resonant of hell-spawned demons than the more human carriage of guilt and fury weighing down Brolin’s Hex as he travels the prairies and mountains, first as a bounty hunter, then as a supernaturally-aided avenger. But even without the white-hot brimstone packaging, the temptation might have been to play Hex exclusively for his grim purity, a single-minded vision of hate-filled eyes burning for revenge, Clint Eastwood by way of Coffin Joe. Brolin, fortunately, allows for some humor—he has a way with a slightly upturned eyebrow when measuring his enemies that would make any good comic envious. And he does well with the obligatory dry one-liners— “What happened to your face?” taunts one of Turnbull’s goons, to which Hex responds with a tomahawk to the neck and an elegantly tossed-off “I’m all out of wise-ass answers,” a clue to Hex’s weariness as well as a nifty rejoinder to a couple decades worth of witty (and more often wilted) movie comeback lines.

What’s most surprising about Jonah Hex is the way in which it inhabits the traditions and ambience of the movie western. There’s real mournfulness when Hex rides his horse through a Confederate graveyard—director Jimmy Hayward (Horton Hears a Who!) gives us the time to soak in the image rather than force us to play it back in our minds, an afterimage left by a squall of too-quickly-successive visual jolts. The echoes of the genre’s most revered and not-so-revered ancestry coursing through this movie’s DNA are plentiful, none perhaps so welcome as its insistence, despite its multimillion-dollar budget, upon alternating those wide-screen vistas with a playfulness that keeps this violent movie from getting dour. Hayward retains a sense of splendor at the western landscape that isn’t violated by editing the images into reflective, incoherent shards (something that might have happened had the movie been directed by its scenarists, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the auteurs responsible for the Crank movies), all the while keeping with the pace and purpose of a full-color version of one of John Wayne’s pre-Stagecoach Republic Pictures. (Jonah Hex, which maybe could have actually used a little more meat on its bones, runs a snappy, bloat-free 82 minutes.) The movie’s neatest conceit is Hex’s ability to revive the dead with a touch, an ability not derived from the original comic books, if memory serves. It’s here bestowed on him by Neveldine and Taylor through the intervention of Native American healers after the physical and emotional violence of Turnbull’s assault. This ability turns out to be a lively way to dealing with that ol’ exposition problem, and it sets up a terrific scene between Hex and his dead, ex-best friend, Jed Turnbull, who hops out of the grave ready to continue the fight Hex ended his life on.

Admittedly, Jonah Hex’s aspirations exceed its reach—tonally, the movie never strikes a proper balance between its western roots, the overtly supernatural elements that occasionally lead it into blackly humorous Tales from the Crypt territory, and its own desires to fulfill the visual ambitions of the stock Hollywood blockbuster. Turnbull hopes to take his own personal extension of the War Between the States to a national level with the help of a high-tech weapon which fires little gold cannonballs that deliver much pictorially impressive destruction. But as Jonah inches closer to foiling Turnbull’s plot, the movie inches closer to a more 21st-century Hollywood conventional conclusion, an episode of Mission: Impossible on horseback, or worse yet, an unfortunate reminder of another TV western adaptation which this leaner, meaner movie thankfully far outstrips. And certainly I would have appreciated the casting of someone other than the plasticine Megan Fox as Hex’s romantic interest. This Flavor of the Moment’s heavy-lidded beauty and flat-line vocal expressions remind me of nothing so much as a blow-up doll on opiates; she hasn’t the spark to make me believe in her character’s feisty survival instincts. (Think what an equally beautiful but far more interesting actress like Mila Kunis or Maggie Q could have brought to this role. Fox, on the other hand, only makes me think she’d like nothing more than to blow off this movie stuff, curl up in her trailer and go to sleep.)

I was an avid reader of the comic’s initial incarnation in 1977, but stopped reading well before its cancellation in 1985, yet I only caught the movie on DVD a few nights ago after having missed it during its short theatrical run. And I was more than a little surprised by the fact that I enjoyed Jonah Hex quite a lot. Even so, I feel like I was holding my breath for at least the first half in dread of stumbling upon the moment when the movie would turn into the stinker I’d been led to believe it was from the multitude of dismissive reviews rained upon it this past June. Strangely, it never came. After the movie ended, it was no surprise to check out the roster of writers who had issues with the movie, some more intelligently expressed than others, to be sure. And I had remembered than Armond White liked it. But White’s prose reads like the words of someone desperate to justify his enjoyment of the movie by avoiding addressing it with anything like its own tone. When White writes, “Jonah’s post-Civil War adventure parallels contemporary malaise. N&T adapt the… comic book to fit their timely sense of disquiet and cultural confusion—that post 9/11 dread that Bruce Springsteen aptly described as ‘a fairy tale so tragic,’” well, let’s just say we differ as to why we liked Jonah Hex.

However, reading Stephanie Zacharek’s review was a bit like getting a friendly zap from a joy buzzer. Were it not for the fact of her superior ability to express herself and use language that sounds as if she speaking with you rather than at you, I would have thought I’d written the review myself, so close was it to my own experience with the movie. Of course, the percentage to which one agrees or disagrees with a critic is no measure of that critic’s worth to her subject or as a writer in general, and I have differed with Ms. Zacharek enough during my history of reading her to say this with absolute conviction. (She still hasn’t seen the light on Speed Racer.) But what marks her as a smart, independent voice is not so much her willingness to speak her mind in the face of a publicist’s wet dream of prefab conventional wisdom-- she has registered early, well-articulated objections to The Dark Knight, Inception, Up and any number of other reliably well-received hits—but a quality I value even more, a willingness to step up to the plate for pictures with bad buzz or built-in resistance to being taken seriously even as disposably enjoyable mass entertainment. Some of my favorite pieces by Zacharek in the past few years have been her spirited defenses of the low-brow pleasures of movies and series like The Transporter or The Fantastic Four, or performances like Sandra Bullock’s in The Blind Side, about which seemingly every right-thinking, multiculturally oriented liberal had already decided had gone too easy on the movie’s Bible-thumping Southern Christian protagonist (and, of course, by extension, Bible-thumping Southern Christianity) who would exorcise her white guilt by lending a hand to the Po’ Black Man.

Well, add Zacharek’s keen review of Jonah Hex, published last June on Movieline, to that list. Zacharek starts off with a line that might lead you to think you’re in for one of those “It’s so bad it’s good” pieces: “There’s something to be said for low expectations, especially when it comes to summer movies.” Let the nudge-nudge-wink-wink condescension begin, right? Well, no. This critic then proceeds to neatly sum up precisely why the movie worked for her, in language that suggests she enjoys engaging with it on its own lowdown terms. It has something to do with Josh Brolin playing Hex “with a wink and a snarl” and “a relatively restrained John Malkovich — for once he cuts the scenery into bite-size morsels before chewing it.” But after elaborating where the movie also doesn’t work for her (including a train robbery sequence that, despite a horrifically explosion conclusion, fizzles for momentum’s sake), she settles on praising director Hayward for the “downright leisurely” way he approaches the film’s visual strategy. In the essay's highlight, Zacharek writes:

“Jonah’s suffering is the usual alone-in-the-landscape business, but Hayward at least tries to find some poetry in his desolation. At one point Jonah approaches a cemetery on horseback — there’s a corpse in there what needs talkin’ to — and Hayward uses a simple wide shot to capture the idea that, among a mass of white headstones with rotting bodies beneath them, Jonah at least has the meager advantage of being alive.”

That’s called seeing the movie. It’s also why I’ve come to value Stephanie Zacharek’s writing—as Hex himself might say, she’s quick, she’s got herself a lip, and she ain’t no snob. (She’s also not blind—check out her review of Skyline if you think she’s a sucker for every piece of junk that appears-- appears-- to aim low.) Now, if I could only get her to see the light on the Wachowski Brother’s masterpiece…


Thursday, November 25, 2010


Thanksgiving Day morning, 2010. The house feels like a meat locker, which means though it’s sunny it is a bit chilly outside. There’s something I’m thankful for—an autumn holiday in Los Angeles that that occurs on a day that actually feels something like autumn. I’m also happy that the house feels cold—I like it when my senses get to participate in the illusion of holiday weather. (It helps that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is there to remind me of places where weather doesn’t have to be conjured in the mind or by leaving one’s socks off.)

Gee, let’s see, what else am I thankful for? I’m thankful that Sarah Palin, author of the thrilling new tome America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag, just can’t seem to keep her perky Alaskan mouth shut. Each time she parts her lips and allows the genius to flow forth it rekindles the hope that even the dimmest Tea Partier won’t be dim enough to actually roll out the red White House carpet for her in 2012. I’d take the prognosticative properties of the Mayan calendar over that election. (I suspect too that Dan Quayle is probably grateful for her possible usurping of his place as the Single Silliest Person to Ever Hold High Office in the United States.)

Every month I give thanks in my own way for Michael Torgan, Phil Blankenship, Julia Marchese and all the staff that tend the New Beverly Cinema, Hadrian Belove and the good folks at the Cinefamily, Gwen Deglise, Grant Moninger and David Moninger at the American Cinematheque, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the as-yet-still-running-and-relevant film program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Downtown Independent, the Art Theater in Long Beach, the Bay Theater in Seal Beach, and everywhere else that regularly or irregularly provides revival and alternative film programming for lucky bastards like me who live here in Los Angeles. I recently overheard someone loudly complaining in that whiny, entitled way that we hear occasionally from certain ostentatious connoisseurs (think the guy in the movie line with Annie and Alvy) about the size of the screen at one of these local cinema treasures and how, oh, my TV at home is just as big, maybe bigger, blah, blah, blah. He didn’t much care for my comment that yeah, it really is a damn shame that everything can’t be perfect and meet our exceedingly high standards. But really, what perfect interior world do some of us live in that we can’t put away the attitude for 90 minutes in the presence of a brand-new print of a perfectly wonderful movie that we’ve taken the time to come out and pay to see? Presumably this person could have stayed at home and watched the DVD in near-HD quality (it is available). But rather than enjoy the presentation, which featured that beautiful print, fine projection and sound and the company of a throng of viewers who were loving every minute of it, this guy just had to make it known that he knew better, that for him there’s always room for improvement. Well, maybe there is, but there’s also plenty more opportunity to swallow our niggling perfectionism and just be grateful that there are people in this city who have devoted their careers and lives to making sure the rest of us have chances to see amazing things on big (and less big) screens all around the town. On this Thanksgiving Day, and on every other day for that matter, how about a little gratitude for that?

I continue to be grateful for the people I know who have been close friends for years and who I’m so happy and honored to be able to call new friends—Bruce Lundy (A #1, the Duke of New York) and his wife Pattie, Don Mancini, Danny Getzoff, Andy Torres, Paul Reilly, Brian Conboy, Katie Warrener, Mark Wagers, Beverly Pura, Dottie Soghomonian, Stephanie Zacharek, David Edelstein, Charles Taylor, Farran Smith Nehme, Jim Emerson, Ali Arikan, Matt Zoller Seitz, Bob Westal, Paul Brunick, Bill Ryan, Greg Ferrara, Sheila O’Malley, Ray Young, Peter Nellhaus and everyone else who I’m too foggy to remember while watching the Radio City Rockettes showing off all that flesh while Al Roker is bundled up in his heavy-duty coat and hat.

And on each day of the year I’m also grateful for the love and devotion and support of my wife Patty, her generous and high-spirited parents, my own energetic and more open-minded-than-ever mom and dad, and the inspired lunacy and pure joy that radiate from my daughters, all of which I would defend from the grandest 3D CGI beastie Hollywood could ever concoct. The everyday challenges are more difficult than those imaginary demons could ever be, and I know that the fight against them is not one that I manage on my own. We’re all in it together, ladies and gentlemen, and I know that no matter what life throws us—and it has thrown us some doozies lately—as long as we have the ability to hold each other up and have a laugh and enjoy each other’s company and just plain ol’ love each other, well, we may never be rich, but we might just be happy.

Speaking of happy, I hope everyone reading this, and all the multitudes who are not, find happiness and good cheer on this holiday. We all deserve it, and to some it’s a gift, but we all need it and I hope we can all be a little bit better at being the delivery system for it in the coming year. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

Coming tonight: “I’d recognize that undercooked pie hole anywhere!” Giving thanks for one of the year’s most maligned treats and the movie critic who stood up for it.

And now, because it seems to now be a tradition of sorts around here:


Tuesday, November 23, 2010


From Greg Ferrara comes word this morning of the death of beloved Hammer horror actress Ingrid Pitt. Born Ingoushka Petrov in Poland in 1937, Pitt became a cult star in Hammer productions such as The Vampire Lovers and Countess Dracula. She also appeared in cult classics like The House That Dripped Blood, The Wicker Man and in what was perhaps her most mainstream effort, Where Eagles Dare (1969) alongside Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. Pitt was preceded in death by Roy Ward Baker, the director of one of her most popular films, The Vampire Lovers, only just a few weeks ago. The actress suffered a recent collapse and was told that she was suffering from heart failure. Despite this development, according to her daughter Stephanie Blake the loss of her mother came as “a huge surprise.”

I initially became familiar with Ingrid Pitt not through her films, exactly, but by the fact that stills from those films kept reliably popping up in all the monster mags of the early to mid ‘70s of which I was a faithful reader. She always seemed to be in some various state of undress, or at least baring her heaving bosom while bent over another attractive young lady for whom she had the bloodlust, ready to put fangs to virgin neck. Of course I loved her! But when I finally saw in the movies themselves, in motion, my love for her was sealed with a bloodstained kiss. My first exposure came with her appearance popping out of a coffin, in full vampire mode, at the climax of The House That Dripped Blood (1971), a terrific Amicus anthology picture, one in which the filmmakers truly did save the best for last. Not long after that I was lucky enough to see her best performance, as the mad countess (based on the real-life Elizabeth Bathory) who discovers that bathing in the rich blood of young virgins allows her to reverse the aging process, in Hammer’s Countess Dracula (1971). In addition to being Pitt’s best role and best work as an actress, the movie also benefited, particularly from my 12-year-old boy’s point of view, from the then-relatively permissive guidelines of the MPAA, which gave this movie a “GP” rating (the nonsensical equivalent of today’s “PG”), despite the fact that Pitt is seen fully, frontally nude is several scenes. It wasn’t until I was much older that I saw her supremely erotic performance in The Vampire Lovers (1970), which is clearly the best of her Hammer vampire pictures, soaked as it is in gory excess and the exploration of the boundaries of a storyline in which Pitt’s is not the only heaving bosom of interest. Those bosoms are frequently pitted (no pun intended) against each other in one of the earliest and best lesbian-oriented horror tales, taking full advantage of the early days of the rating system’s tolerance for risqué behavior on screen.

Of course Pitt also appeared in The Wicker Man (1973), fitting in beautifully amongst the sexual abandon of the mysterious island off the Welsh coast so arrogantly disturbed by Edward Woodward’s Christian authority. She worked frequently in lesser roles in later years, though she did make many memorable TV appearances, including stints on Doctor Who and Smiley’s People. But the relatively brief period she appeared in horror films—those three films in two years— was enough to secure her a spot in the personal horror hall of fame of most every fan my age. In my growing up it was a great pleasure to find out that she was as solid an actress, and as well-known for being a genuinely kind and approachable person, as she was a seductive icon of eroticized horror. By many accounts a fine writer as well, Pitt was well known, as Hammer historian Marcus Hearn observed, for being “gloriously uninhibited” and very proud of becoming Hammer’s first female horror star. Pitt’s own daughter hopes she is remembered as the star with the "wonderful teeth and the wonderful bosom.” All that and more, Ingrid Pitt has certainly achieved a place in cinematic immortality even as she must now leave us with our memories and, of course, the terrific movies she made.


Sunday, November 21, 2010


One day, a looooooooooong time ago, Farran Smith Nehme and I came up with a couple of titles as suggestions for movies outside each other’s comfort zone that we would recommend the other view and then review. Farran was openly relieved that my suggestion for her-- Freebie and the Bean-- had little in the way of beheadings or cannibalism or any other obvious monstrous behavior. (I save those kinds of challenges for my sisters!) And about two months ago Farran posted her end of the bargain. Two months later, just about enough time for Farran to have finally thrown up her hands, convinced that I would never come through, I have finally prepared my thoughts on the movie she chose for me, Julien Duvivier’s La Fin du Jour (1939), sometimes known, if it is known at all in this country, by its English title The End of the Day. Duvivier’s film doesn’t feature any cannibalism or beheadings or satanic sacrifice or brains being scooped out and eaten on camera—dammit—though there is some talk of an off-screen character being blasted by a shotgun. What is does feature is intimate character drama that is dependent on emotion and expression instead of all the perhaps more obvious cinematic fireworks. Of course, because that’s usually the way Farran rolls, the movie turned out to be exquisite, and I must thank her immensely because without her procuring a PAL DVD and sending it my way, I might not have ever seen the film, and certainly not right now, during a moment when I seemingly needed to see it. For that, and for your enduring friendship and willingness to sit down for a long talk, which was posted here and here, I also thank you, Farran, for that talk and the resulting enjoyment taken in it by a whole passel of readers. It turned out to be one of the most genuinely wonderful things that happened to me all year, perhaps in many years. The blogosphere is good for many things, but most unexpectedly in its ability to bring people together who would have never otherwise met, and for the happenstance that brought Farran and I and many, many others into the same circle I kick off this Thanksgiving week with the first of many pronouncements of humble appreciation.


Director Julien Duvivier’s dramatic comedy La Fin du Jour opens, as do most films set in the world of the theater, in a flurry of action—technicians and backstage staff whizzing to and fro, fretting about schedules and cues, bemoaning the sorry state of attendance. (The cinema and the circus routinely outstrip their meager but sincere performances at the box office, leading one wag to proclaim, “Art has had it.”) Meanwhile the play presses on, the actors unaware of the stirrings and attendant madness that allows their moments in the spotlight, their onstage collusion with character, their interior identification that gets projected far into the cheap seats. In these opening scenes La Fin du Jour will stir memories and associations with everything from All About Eve, To Be or Not to Be and Children of Paradise to The Red Shoes, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and A Prairie Home Companion. Whether it served as direct or indirect inspiration for the worlds conjured in these films is debatable (and perhaps immaterial)—it is enough that it evokes, in a brief sequence lasting no more than seven or eight minutes, the same strong sense of abandon to the spirit of the theater that occupies these more well-known films, films that it predated by as much as 60 years. By the time it was finished, I wasn’t much surprised that its intimacy and profound sense of community within its cast of characters had me believing that it might be the greatest of these, the best movie I’d ever seen about the way actors see the world.

Duvivier, a great director with whom this would be my first exposure (his Pepe le Moko, an established classic, is next on my list), has a feather-light touch in introducing his players, one which will not preclude our eventual emotional involvement in their various plights. No sooner than we’re witness to the overwrought Barrymore-esque St. Clair (Louis Jouvet) performing in a scene during which he murders his true love, the theater’s season is over and the company disperses. In his evangelistic piece on the film at his blog Shadowplay, David Cairns sums up St. Clair with a precise clarity worthy of a master jeweler:

“St. Clair is a complete egomaniac, introduced as such, whose character development consists of a slide into madness which is really just an exaggeration of his normal personality… Other people just don’t exist for St. Clair, except as an audience for his greatness. So there’s no possible malice in him. But he’s blithely unaware of the emotional destruction he leaves in his wake. If somebody kills themselves over him, that’s just fuel to his ego. He’s perhaps the most stupendously selfish character ever written, and it seems he got this way just by basking in the audience’s affection.”

Victor Francen (center) and Louis Jouvet in La Fin du Jour

At first seems as though St. Clair will be the film’s ostensible protagonist, and although it is true that much of the film’s sense of melodrama focuses on his past and his relationship with the other characters, St. Clair’s departure after the performance is simply the film’s device to transport us to its real stage, the Hospice of St. Jean la Riviere, a retirement home for theatrical actors where the residents are facing possible eviction, expulsion from the protective cocoon where they can spin tales of past triumphs and revel in a good-natured late life, one often expressly lacking in luxuries, spent with like-minded friends and fellow artists. Though many of the hospice’s number are eagerly anticipating the arrival of the star, whose plan it is to stay only until the start of the next season, there is at least one resident who harbors some ambivalence about his presence. That person would be Marny (Victor Francen). Stodgy and self-important on initial observation, he will form the second in a triad of personalities around which Duvivier and his scenarist, Charles Spaak, will weave the intricacies of the “plot” and the relationships from which it is composed. Marny’s frequent claim is that of being an actor without an audience, and he does seem an unlikely candidate for letting down his guard long enough to inhabit a character that an audience could connect to emotionally. Perhaps making a statement about her husband’s stiff, impregnable dignity, Marny’s wife left him long ago and wound up in St. Clair’s arms, only to die in a hunting accident for which Marny holds St. Clair responsible. St. Clair regards Marny, condescendingly but without contempt, as “a great actor, a failed star,” while undoubtedly seeing no such shortcoming in his own countenance.

Then there is Michel Simon as Cabrissade. A character who might be simple comic relief in another film of this ilk, Cabrissade is never in any danger of sloughing off the more complex cloak presented him by Duvivier by virtue of the director’s own apparent ambivalence toward the character and the audience’s immediate connection to and empathy with him (even in his more apparently childlike moments). According to Cairns, Duvivier’s politics were somewhat conservative, which may account for a fascinating ambivalence in his approach to Cabrissade. There’s a certain relish apparent in allowing this foolish leftist pot-stirrer, whom the director sees as socially hamstrung by his own childish impulses, to shuffle off into obscurity, even as we sense Duvivier may see him as the bright core of intelligence and passion that proves a bridge between Marny’s diffidence and St. Clair’s increasingly dangerous delusions. When considering St. Clair’s return, Cabrissade comically assures one of the female residents of his own comfort as a cuckold while skewering St. Clair’s reputation as a literal lady-killer: “Mme. Chabert, I’d hate to make you blush, but if I killed my rival every time I was deceived, France would be a necropolis.” Most importantly, Cabrissade must fight not only his own reputation as a failed actor (his moment onstage, paralyzed by fear and an inability to remember his lines, is one of the film’s most immediately potent) but by the insistent realization that, despite his best efforts, age is not a force that can be fought off by simple attitude. “Being sensible means being resigned and being resigned means being old,” he tells another resident, “and I can’t grow old—it’s against my nature.” It’s a point of view that seemingly consigns Cabrissade to the tears of a clown, but one of the great triumphs of La Fin du Jour is how Duvivier rescues Cabrissade from indignity and embarrassment, finally allowing him the film’s greatest moment of tribute, that of a faithful, obscure and marvelous dreamer.

(It’s worth noting that neither Simon nor Cabrissade is diminished by the actor’s resemblance to Charles Laughton here—the through-line between the overarching hamminess and intense passion of one fictional actor to one quite anchored in the real world made for some fascinating comparisons in attitude and style while I was watching La Fin du Jour. And I was further amused afterward by Cairns’ note about Simon, that he was “only 44 when he made the film… with the face of a compressed buffalo.” How attracted we so often are to actors with exaggerated visages such as these. There often seems to be so much more a direct line to our sympathies—easy—but also, and more difficult, our empathies. This kind of directness comes in handy when a character like Cabrissade has a boorish, scabrous side to go along with his cutting comic observations.)

La Fin du Jour is also notable, as a film about actors, for the way in which it restricts the stage experience itself, outside of St. Clair’s introduction and Cabrissade’s disaster, to the halls of memory. A lesser film might be full of moments in which the actors are given scenes intended not to accentuate their talents as actors but to reflect upon or otherwise embody the dramatic arcs the screenwriter and director might be too lazy to map out for themselves. But here the drama is “confined” to moments like Marny’s struggle to accept St. Clair’s overwrought sense of himself, and at the same time his questionable explanation for the fate of his wife, or the way in which St. Clair seduces the female residents with his romantic fatalism, or the pain and regret and fear stirred up by the possible closure of the home. The one scene that seems structured to appeal to this apparent need to see the actors at their business is the one in which Marny and the aforementioned Mme. Chabert, who once divided her attentions between Marny and St. Clair (and perhaps others), perform Romeo and Juliet in the presence of a reporter. The two stage the scene in a barn, away from the larger company, and for Duvivier it is enough for us to know why they would feel moved to present the scene for an outsider—- the moment is contrived to stir support in the press for maintaining the hospice, but the actors also gently seize the opportunity to reconnect with their love for performing and their desire to once again experience something like the sensation of youthful romance. What’s remarkable is that Duvivier cuts away just as the scene is getting started—it’s that love of theater that sustains us, conveys what it is that makes the act of creation on stage important for them, and Duvivier, incredibly, brilliantly cuts away just as the poetry begins. He has the good sense to treat it as a private moment.

Scene after scene, La Fin du Jour establishes itself among the great films about the way the process, the memory, the sensation of acting embodies itself in the inner lives of those who practice it, for better and for worse. It shares a romantic vision that is remarkably unclouded by sentiment and false hope. And in its regard for the lost youth that echoes amongst the residents of this old actors’ home La Fin du Jour has a certain integrity and fearlessness in depicting the reality of being aged that elevates it to a plane on which it can be seriously considered alongside Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow as one of the movies’ great acts of empathy for senior citizenry, regardless of artistic or political bent. I can only hope, perhaps through the good graces of the folks at Criterion, that one day the curtain will be lifted on Julien Duvivier’s lithe, intricate and overwhelming jewel of a movie, revealing it to a potentially appreciative audience from which it has long been hidden, an audience that will undoubtedly be transported by its generosity, its humor, its inquisitive nature and its longing for opportunities for artistic expression for those who can only access their youth emotionally, abstractly, as well as for those who still revel in it.

(Again, my thanks to Farran Smith Nehme for insisting I see La Fin du Jour, and to David Cairns for his contagious and expansive appreciation of it.)


Thursday, November 18, 2010


It seems my home cat Biscuit is as enamored of the November New Beverly Cinema schedule as I am. Just wait till she hears about that Christmas Godfather celebration, plus the Penn, Godard, Rudolph, Refn and Tartovsky bills already locked in for December. But of course she’s most interested in this Saturday night’s midnight movie:

I have been instructed to request a triple bill of The Cat from Outer Space, That Darn Cat! (the original) and Cat’s Eye for early 2011, otherwise apparently my soul will be sucked out through my mouth some night soon while I’m fast asleep.


Friday, November 12, 2010


Every so often someone wonders out loud or in print (and undoubtedly much more frequently to themselves) about the value of personal experience in writing about films—how far does a good writer go interjecting themselves or their life experience into a review as a point of reference or mode of analyzing what’s happening on screen? My own suspicion is that good film criticism, or at least the kind I’m most interested in reading, can’t not betray the mind and the personality of the person writing it— using every tool at their disposal to literally guide the reader to re-view a film from a specific perspective (theirs) is usually a journey worth taking, regardless of the final verdict. This is decidedly not the kind of writing I was first exposed to (and made to cough up myself) when I was studying film in college. I have no bone to pick with academia, but I’ve had to conclude, after 35 years or so, that dry scholastic exegeses and self-consciously overwritten prose about the movies is not the best way for me to enter into a discussion about them. Yet I can think of specific pieces by Pauline Kael, David Edelstein, Stephanie Zacharek, Jim Emerson, Matt Zoller Seitz, Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell and just about every other critic that I admire that have approached movies with intelligence and style, but also with an eye toward not being ashamed or resistant to how their own life experience, political perspectives, awareness of their own moods and prejudices, can enrich the consideration of the film for the reader. It’s not hard to imagine this being a through- line for all the reading about film that appeals to me, and that includes the people I admire who are writing about film online.

One such person is Bill Ryan, proprietor of The Kind of Face You Hate, who consistent writes interesting pieces about what he’s seeing with no regard to trends and prevalent attitudes. Bill’s pieces are primarily his reaction to what he’s seeing, and if that sounds reductive I don’t mean it to. He has an intellect that prevents him from frequently jumping to visceral conclusions without at least wondering why it is he’s feeling that way, a simple requirement for any good critic. But he’s not afraid of his initial reactions either—anyone who followed the discussion the two of us had about Inglourious Basterds the summer before last will know this to be true. Bill’s taste in films is also happily, unselfconsciously eclectic and hard to pin down, and his enthusiasms can be very convincing. (He is almost entirely responsible for turning this David Mamet resister into someone who can appreciate the likes of Spartan and Redbelt and, most astonishingly, Homicide-- but don’t get me started on that dull puppet show called House of Games.) So I was very interested in what Bill was going to make of seeing Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 cult hit House, which has just been released on DVD and Blu-ray. The only thing I knew I could count on from Bill was honesty, no matter what his final assessment, and that’s exactly what I got:

House is a true cult item, and it's recent DVD release from the good people at Criterion has turned it into one that all the kids are talking about … A plot summary of House is futile, and would be boring... This review may well turn out to be that anyway, but if so at least I'll go about it my own way. The problem is, I do not know what to do with a film like House… Don't be fooled into thinking that House is nothing but an incoherent mess, however. It sort of isn't! In terms of narrative, and logic, and all that stuff, sure, but visually -- which you sort of have to sense is what really matters to Obayashi -- it really is pretty consistent. Theoretically, I suppose that's easy enough to accomplish in a film where anything goes, but you can't watch House and not understand that Obayashi is a director who knows what he wants. Whether or not you want the same thing is an entirely different matter, and as captivatingly absurd as the film can be at times, I found it at least as often to be the kind of movie that I wanted to tell to go fuck itself.”

The preceding paragraph, it should be understood, was assembled from a few sentences peppered throughout the first couple of paragraphs of Bill’s piece. There’s a lot of consideration of what’s happening visually in Obayashi’s film that you can read for yourself, and I hope you do, because futile or not, Bill has a good time recounting some of the strange things that happen in House on his way to describing his own ambivalence about the film. And as the above excerpt indicates, I definitely think Bill is ambivalent about the movie. Frankly, I wouldn’t trust anyone who didn’t have the capacity to contain a lot of contradictory emotions and reactions to a movie like this. And I don’t think that ambivalence, especially in this case, is necessarily cleaved to a connotation of negativity. In fact, it may be an indication of a desire for further inquiry or experience, or at least a certain joy in the recounting of one’s own warring impulses while watching a film, impulses which certainly provide the structure of Bill’s piece.


But one thing I was led to think about while reading Bill’s post was the nature of seeing something like House, especially for the first time, in relative isolation. Peter Nellhaus was thinking along the same lines and started out a lively (if uncharacteristically, for Bill’s place, brief) comment thread wondering about the difference between seeing House in a packed auditorium and watching the DVD at home, presumably alone or at least with minimal distraction. I can’t imagine that seeing the movie with an audience would have led Bill to paper over or simply not have some of the reactions he had to seeing House on DVD. But I do think that the energy of seeing it communally with an appreciative audience would have lent a different energy to the experience. Would he have wanted to tell the film to go fuck itself as much? Or maybe more? (I can recall certain experiences seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show that made me seriously consider arson.) Who knows? It’s not a question that can necessarily even be answered by a second screening in a theater—that first experience is what it is. But I think there’s a lot to be said for that theatrical experience, whenever it might come, and I’d be very curious to read Bill on the movie after such a screening. My own first experience with House was on a big screen with an audience, which as any theatrical frequenter of cult movies knows, can be fraught with its own perils. Seeing the image and hearing the sound amplified to this scale is always a good thing, but a crowd’s behavior can color the experience in both positive and negative ways. The group of 200 or so viewers I saw it with was primed for an odd experience, to be sure, and eventually (maybe due to the late hour—it was a midnight screening) they settled down. But at first the audience was as much about itself—overeager laughter, loud wisecracks and other semi-boorish noise intended to clue others in that they “get” the movie—as it was about the cacophonic insanity of Obayashi’s imagery.

A little of this kind of nonsense can go a long way toward spoiling a movie (at least for me), and sometimes the gulf between what an audience is experiencing in the same theater can be too much. When I saw Antichrist, a couple of months after its original, brief theatrical run had ended, the auditorium was pocketed with small groups of people determined to make their own dissatisfied reaction to the film known. The jokester element reacted as if they were watching Andy Warhol’s Bad, unconcerned with how callous and rude their unmodulated braying came across in this context. Everybody’s got a story like this. It’s the potential trade-off you make, especially in this age of cell phones and PDAs and iPods and video games—the possibility that someone in a crowd will make the effort, consciously or unconsciously, to fuck up the communal bliss of sitting in the dark at the mercy of any movie, whether it’s House (1977), or House (1986), or House (2008), or even House! (2000).


Even film festivals, where you’d think common courtesy might be in more generous supply, are not immune to thoughtless distractions. The guy sitting next to me at the AFI Fest screening of Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams was clearly being overwhelmed by the movie’s majestic, though at times claustrophobic imagery. Several times, while the mysterious images captured by Herzog’s 3D camera were ostensibly seducing the audience, this guy, someone supposedly interested enough in film to take the trouble to seek this movie out at a festival, opened up his cell phone several times to check his messages or perform some other very important function. Of course the bright light emanating from his phone screen was plenty enough to break the spell being cast by the film, so after about the third instance of this inconsiderate boob’s phone jockeying I decided to take a page from someone I read about whose patience had reached its limit with his own neighboring agent of distraction. I began noticeably turning my attention away from the screen and toward his phone. This happened twice, and neither time did I actually say anything—I just suddenly turned my head and shifted my gaze from the big screen to his tiny one, where there must be something more fascinating going on. Right? Well, after the second time I did this (a little more obviously than the first) Mr. Verizon clapped his phone shut and it stayed that way for the rest of the film. But the fact that it would have occurred even once leads me to some pretty depressing conclusions about the way we seem to have lost touch with common sense courtesies when it comes to interacting with others in public situations, and it’s not unreasonable to presume that much of this ineptitude can be traced to how much more easy it is in the 21st century to experience films and other arts and entertainments in a solitary fashion, where it doesn’t matter if you burp or fart or snore or check your phone every five minutes, where you can rewind to catch a piece of dialogue you might have missed whilst snoring, or punch up the display function to see how much more this boring art snoozer you feel obligated to endure has left to go before the merciful end. Then again, there’s always the possibility that home theater convenience is less to blame than we’re willing to concede. Maybe these people are just self-centered assholes.

Entirely separated from the glow of nearby iPhones, Herzog’ movie has much to recommend it. The irascible, gloomily funny director narrates his own admittance into a very exclusive club—the perfectly preserved 1,300-square-foot Chauvet cave complex discovered by explorers in 1994 onto which humans had not laid eyes for some 35,000 years. The fascination lies in the paintings drawn on the walls of this cave, the contours and recessions and surface textures of which were used by these primitive artists to tell stories and effective “animate” the figures of horses and bears and other elements of early life during mankind being depicted. Despite his own reservations regarding the limitations of 3D (which Herzog elucidated with conviction after the screening during a brief Q&A), his use of the once-again-popular technology in this context turns out to be a master stroke. Seen flat, the paintings retain their historical and geological fascination, but it seems possible that they would not survive the ecstatic scrutiny to which Herzog’s camera (manned by masterful cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, working with video cameras he and his crew had to assemble once inside the cave) subjects them without the illusion of depth. In 3D, however, Herzog is able to tease out every ounce of fascination with the paintings—the contours which the artists used to simulate motion and movement pop out at us subtly, as they would if we were seeing them in the cave ourselves. The 3D, combined with the geological composition of the cave walls themselves, sparkling and glistening with untold geologic treasures and compounds, completes the illusion for us—these paintings often do seem alive. The tactile experience is enhanced by the play of light across the cave surfaces, used to illuminate the images for us, of course, but also inadvertently simulating the flickering torchlight by which the artists themselves created the paintings and experienced them as depictions designed to bestow life onto the images. There are even drawings of animals with eight or more legs rendered in a kind of blur, which Herzog, in that omniscient narrator’s voice we’ve all come to love, speculates were created to imply movement, much like in a series of drawings designed for an animated film, a quality Herzog dubs “proto-cinematic.”

The 3D technology works surprisingly well considering the relatively low-tech and very quick shoot (six days), though there are shots which provide too much tension for the eye and were difficult (at least for this relative experienced 3D watcher) to comfortably, naturally process. But those moments are natural by-products of Herzog’s priorities. It will be no surprise that 3D imagery is not the end itself for him but instead a means one; his use of the trendy medium is refreshingly casual. In fact, in the Q&A afterward Herzog himself made a convincing case against 3D. His argument is that 3D limits what can be gleaned from the imagery, by means of suggestion or other artistic strategies, due to the fact that it is designed to specifically guide your eye to seeing the image in a certain specific and (for him) limited way. For Herzog, the theoretically 3D guide cannot yield up anything more than what is shown—the screen becomes, ironically, shallow and impenetrable, sealed off from interpretation. But Herzog’s career has often embodied a gulf between what’s on screen and the director’s expressions of intent and theory, and that is most certainly the case here. Herzog discounts the very aspects of 3D that accentuate the most amazing elements of his subject matter here. With 3D we can see the recreation of the illusion of these cave drawings taking on life, which then leads to our own flights of imagination regarding how the images were created, how the effects were achieved, the physical experience of seeing the paintings in the cave and, of course what others secrets the cave might hold. Surely he’s correct that 3D instructs the eye to process the image in a certain way. But in the hands of directors like Herzog, or Joe Dante, or Despicable Me’s Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud , the 3D image isn’t a limitation but an invitation to experience the heightened reality of a physical and emotional response to the images being choreographed and recorded in 3D. It’s precisely the brilliantly intuitive use to which Herzog puts the process, alongside the passion of inquiry and empathy and interpretation that the director typically brings to his documentary work, that elevates Cave of Forgotten Dreams into another dimension.


The audience seemed enthralled by Herzog’s film (with one obvious exception, of course), and it was a real treat to have him there in person, doubly so because the crowd (over 1,000 people filled the big auditorium) was atypically large—just ask anyone who has paid to see a Werner Herzog movie on a Saturday night anytime over the past 20 years--Grizzly Man included, I would guess. And though the director, who flew in Florida where he had been filming that very morning just for the Wednesday evening screening, was clearly exhausted, he reveled in the audience’s enthusiasm and took several of their questions with articulate, good humor. The irascible Burden of Dreams-variety Herzog did make a brief appearance, however, much to the delight of at least the folks in my general vicinity. Near the end of the film Herzog’s crew makes their way to a strange biosphere located on a river just downstream from France’s largest nuclear power plant. Inside he discovers a crocodile breeding farm, from which have emerged two albino crocodiles. Herzog’s 3D camera captures some fascinating, intimate and unsettling shots of these reptiles swimming and being reflected by the water’s surface. The appearance of these ghostly creatures also gives Herzog the opportunity to go metaphor hunting, and he bags a juicy one, speculating in that clipped German accent about these creatures, mutated from exposure to nearby radioactivity, and how they see the world. Do they see it with the same kind of detachment that we gaze upon those cave paintings? How would the crocodiles see those paintings? It’s precisely these kinds of lunatic flights that make Herzog movies Herzog movies—we even got an iguana’s eye-view of the world in last year’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

But during the Q&A Herzog, that Teutonic rascal, revealed with some relish that the albino crocodiles were actually alligators and that, despite the information he propagated in the movie, were not born in the biosphere but instead imported by its owners from Louisiana, and that he merely appropriated their image as a jumping-off point for the strangely poetic, left-field conclusion to his documentary. As Herzog said, it was a factual manipulation employed to get at a different, deeper perception. The audience then laughed and the director suddenly looked somewhat perturbed (which made me wonder how much he bristled during the occasional laughter, usually directed at the text and timbre of his narration, heard during the film itself). When he repeated his assertion about the use of his artistic license, somebody in the audience piped up, “The lie that tells the truth!” Herzog stiffened, and over the lingering laughter he turned toward the voice and said, testily, “What did you say?” The commenter shouted out his observation again: “The lie that tells the truth!” Herzog's face, friendly up to that point, morphed into one of his patented scowls. “I am not lying!” he flung back, and proceeded to give a mini-lecture to the offending audience member, and anyone else who might have had the same thought, about the moral imperatives behind reaching for a kind of ecstatic poetry that transcends the limitations of the facts, or at least allows for the creative scrambling of them. It was a giddy and somewhat unexpected way to end an evening spent with Herzog’s transcendent, somber and awestruck documentary. I only wish that he’d noticed that jerk sitting next to me all aglow and stomped his way down to our seats mid-film to give him a good Germanic what-for as well.


The film immediately following on this penultimate evening of the AFI Fest was the Los Angeles premiere of Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, Film Socialisme, which premiered to much scandal and tumult at Cannes earlier this year. It would be the first time I’d have seen a new Godard movie theatrically since (I think) Detective back in 1985, and the irony of the movie—any Godard movie—making an appearance at the upstairs Chinese complex, located in the Hollywood and Highland outdoor mall complex, hopefully wasn’t lost on everyone. This is the place that, as my friend Matthew David Wilder observed in a Facebook note posted the morning after the screening, features a central courtyard modeled after the gargantuan sets used in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, located as it is mere yards from the Knickerbocker Hotel where it is said Griffith died. Adding to the odd vibe was the fact that here was a late-period Godard film, one made long after the director had sloughed off any pretense to narrative in favor of the audio-visual collage style that would mark his final separation from the low cinema he once so rigorously referenced, playing to probably the largest audience assembled for any Godard film in America since the days of Contempt. (The main auditorium of the upstairs Chinese complex where Film Socialisme screened has over 1,000 seats.) So it was with not a small amount of expectation and anticipation that my friend and I sat down for what was surely going to be a unique, characteristically “difficult” experience. In fact, the AFI staffer who introduced the film was quite deliberate in letting anyone who may have just wandered in because the tickets were free just what they were in for, right down to describing Godard’s use of “Navajo subtitles,” a form of broken English meant to parody the rudimentary fashion by which even non-English speakers experience English as a “common language,” subtitles which would, as Wilder describes them, “further complicate (Godard’s) blizzard of Babel without once plainly elucidating the dialogue.” In other words, here was a director not satisfied with sending his film off to be subtitled by some anonymous post-production house, come what may of the translation. Instead, the subtitles were, to my understanding, intended to play a key role in how Godard designed his film to be perceived, especially by audiences unfamiliar with the French, German and other languages used in the film. I was looking forward to seeing how this conscious use of translation would jibe or contrast with the images (I couldn’t look forward to making the same kind of distinction with the language, as English is the only one I speak and understand.) My friend, who claims about 75% fluency with French, might have an even richer experience.

Imagine our surprise then when, after about five minutes of film sans subtitles, the lights went up and another AFI staffer had the unpleasant task of reminding the audience that what we were seeing was an entirely digital presentation and that, through some unbelievable oversight, the film arrived to AFI downloaded without the subtitles. Since it’s seems a reach to imagine that subtitles would have to be downloaded separately for theatrical exhibitions such as these, I’m not sure I buy the initial explanation. Why would they not be burned onto the image in the standard fashion? But whether or not the subtitles were indeed missing or just inaccessible because of operator unfamiliarity with the system for retrieving them, it was clear that we are all invited to stay and watch the film sans subtitles. According to Wilder, whose own French, he admits, could be better, the entirety of the audience, minus a few walkouts, stayed, even though it could be reasonably assumed that most of those who stayed were even less conversant in the film’s primary language than Wilder, who wrote of the unintended language barrier, “Afterwards, everyone explained their incomprehension of the movie by saying, ‘Well, I don't speak French!’” (Could it be that the secret to enjoying Godard's late-period films is to shut off the subtitles?)

Wilder ended up writing some interesting notes on the film regardless, but it’s time to admit that my friend and I were among the few who didn’t mind being seen walking out of a Godard film that night. Even a French speaker, after all, would have had to contend with the myriad different languages represented in Godard’s audio text, so it would seem subtitles would have been if not a necessity, then at least an aid (Godard’s own subversion of understanding aside) in interpreting the information on screen. But to a monolingual such as myself, I could not be satisfied with looking at 91 minutes of Godard’s admittedly astonishing digital imagery. And given that the subtitles were reportedly designed by Godard to be an integral part of the experience for English-speaking viewers, the AFI, through this screw-up which could have at least been detected before the actual screening, facilitated showing a version of Film Socialisme that was missing an element deemed crucial by the none-too-permissive director himself. Congratulations to those who were there to be seen attending a Godard film—duly noted. My embarrassment at walking out, however, pales next to how pretentious I would have felt had I stayed. Leaving seemed far more preferable to being seen filing out by all the rest of the hardy, unaffected crowd, pretending the movie meant anything more to me than a series of compelling pictures out of context, a Pink Floyd Laserium show for the film snob hiding within. There are rumors, as there always are, of a possible theatrical release for this new Godard film. If it happens, I’ll be there. I just hope they send along something to read as well.


There are fewer experiences in movies more pleasurable than connecting with an audience, particular with horror films and comedies, where vocal expression of the audience’s reaction is frequently part of what we appreciate about them—the raucous laughter, the collective scream. Seeing House minus that sense of discovering something along with 200 other people that gives no clue as what will happen next, or as Bill says the sense that anything could happen, and will, is a key to the whole experience, I think. Without it, the experience becomes slightly detached. Appreciation is still possible, and so is emotional involvement; immersion in the film’s world is tougher. Over the past year I had occasion to see two of my favorite movies-- W.C. Fields’ Never Give a Sucker and Even Break and Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, on DVD and then in theaters. I had loved both of them for a long time and remembered them both as being hilarious, but on DVD, without the infectious participation of a crowd surrounding me with laughter, prompting me to respond in kind to what they thought was funny (if and when those two perceptions should ever differ), both were much more calm, measured affairs. I smiled a lot, and I chuckled a lot, but belly laughs were largely absent. Luckily for me (and everyone who managed to attend), both movies recently screened at the New Beverly Cinema, and no more impressive comparison need ever be made. I brought my entire family, including my in-laws, to see W.C. Fields, and it was thrilling to hear a full house erupt into spasms of laughter at the Great Man’s every utterance.

But seeing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was as close to a genuine revelation as I’ve had at the movies in years. The New Beverly screened a brand-new, never-before-seen 35mm Technicolor print that was stunningly beautiful—each widening of Monroe’s eyes was as clear and striking as a sunrise seen through cut diamond, and every element of the design of the movie, from the wild and wonderful costumes to the ornate sets lit up to heaven by cinematographer Harry J. Wild, seemed to be beamed in with laser-sharp intensity. Though I’ve long loved it, the movie never seemed more than a funny, fanciful trifle before. But as the first strains “Just Two Little Girls from Little Rock” rang out over the New Beverly’s sound system last Saturday night I felt something akin to a physical sensation of my own senses being heightened, and not just slightly. I was overwhelmed by the information I was receiving, a sort of excitement I have rarely felt watching any movie. As the film proceeded, I felt like Max Renn in Videodrome, my neural receptors having been opened up to a new experience that was there lying latent under the surface of the movie since 1953 just waiting to be unleashed. What was always just a cute comedy and a charming musical before was certainly still both of those things, but suddenly, in high relief, I could also see an incredibly sharp reversal of sexual roles and morality in which Marilyn and Jane reveled in playing by the man’s rules and having their surface-crass intentions revealed as the moral and social high ground in romantic/sexual relationships. This film was produced in 1953, when most women other than stars like Monroe and Russell were still living out lives of subservience to men, on the professional as well as domestic circuit. But why should this have been so surprising, coming as it did from the director of Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings and His Girl Friday, a director who has never shied away from depicting women as able to stand ground with men on their own terms as well as that of their male colleagues and rivals? Last Saturday night Gentlemen Prefer Blondes gained in stature for me, morphing from a favorite to a masterpiece, and it took seeing it under the most perfect of conditions, in a favorite place, projected from a beautiful new print, and in the presence of a room full of people who were open to it in every way, for that to happen. I’ll still cherish my DVD, but I couldn’t feel any more lucky or privileged to have had the chance to see it this way.


Wrapping up a theme, here’s one last great audience moment-- the Cinefamily’s wild and woolly Halloween offering, The 100 Most Outrageous Kills , is poised for a repeat this coming Saturday, November 13, at 10:00 p.m. Let the Cinefamily ‘splain itself, in their own words:

“From the golden age of gore-mastery to the innovative new technologies of modern effects wizards, cinema is littered with the bodies of the awesomely dispatched -- and cold-blooded murder, in the hands of innovative filmmakers who present it in ways we’ve never seen before, can be a heavenly fine art. Tonight, in a show originated at Austin, Texas’s Alamo Drafthouse, we’ll be celebrating the absolute finest in on-screen annihilation with a non-stop nightmare of intestine-ripping, head-bursting, unrepentant baby-eating and other crimson-soaked savagery! This night is intended for the most severe and iron-stomached bloodhounds around, and we accept absolutely no responsibility for lost lunches. Wimps and weekend horrormeisters, leave the hall; if you can’t stand the meat, stay out of the kitchen. See all you death beasts in the murder pit!!!!”


Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I never did get around to posting my answers from the SLIFR summer quiz, and I vowed I would not let the next one pass before I managed to put my own answers down for posterity. I have been meticulously preparing the path for undertaking this task, and now, just as my level of enthusiasm is approaching the perfect height to finally grapple with my own quiz, along comes another distraction, this one of the highest order. Anne Thompson alerted me this morning that the esteemed writer and critic David Thomson has just updated The New Biographical Dictionary of Film for a fifth edition, but there’s something special to accompany it that Anne cheerfully passed along to readers of her Thompson on Hollywood blog at IndieWIRE.

It seems that Mr. Thomson, no doubt inspired by years of SLIFR quizzes (…) and perhaps just a little encyclopedic knowledge of his own, has devised a 50-question quiz to commemorate the fifth edition of his essential tome, which he sent along to Anne. Anne published the quiz this morning and is offering copies of the fifth edition of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, signed by Mr. Thomson, to the first three of her readers to submit 50 correct answers to Thomson’s puzzler before 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, November 14, 2010. If no one guesses all 50, then the three entries with the most correct answers will be declared the winners. (Participants in the recent SLIFR Great Halloween Horror Screengrab Contest will be familiar with this wrinkle.) The questions are all derived from information straight out of Thomson’s volume, but this is going to be a hard one to cheat on open-book style—you’re gonna have to know your stuff to get one of these prizes. Here’s a sample question or four:

6. Name a director who has filmed material from Ed McBain, Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare.

13. What’s the bond between The Third Man and Johnny Guitar?

15. In the Cut and Panic Room – who’s the missing link?

39. What links Sunrise and A Place in the Sun?

Whew. Just looking over the list of questions there might be-- might-- be 10 that I can answer off the top of my head without hesitation or fear of looking stupid. The rest are going to take some serious caffeine and much grinding and gnashing off teeth. But what else do you and I have to do? Contact Anne at with your answers—don’t deposit them in her comments thread, because all you’ll be doing then is giving away answers to everybody that not everybody may have. And for God’s sake, don’t put ‘em in my comments thread—they won’t do you a lick of good there. Although, wait— Um, y-yeah, yeah. Go ahead and put your answers in my comments thread, or better yet, send ‘em to my e-mail address. I’ll make sure that Anne gets ‘em, and in a timely fashion too. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. Yeah…

It’s David Thomson’s 50-question quiz now playing through November 14 exclusively at Thompson on Hollywood. Have fun!


Friday, November 05, 2010


My latest Tweet: “I'm going to see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes tomorrow with my daughter and the two of us will pretend this whole Madonna thing never happened.”

I’m hardly a fanatical Marilyn Monroe completist by any stretch of the imagination. I was introduced to Monroe by proxy, as I’m sure many of my generation were, through the wiles and saucy charm of Tina Louise’s Ginger. It doesn’t particularly bother me that I have yet to see Niagara or The Prince and the Showgirl, though I am a bit annoyed that I still haven’t found time for Don’t Bother to Knock, with it just sitting there in my Netflix Instant Play queue and all. And though I have had a copy of the mass market paperback of Norman Mailer’s book on the actress, I must admit I’ve read Pauline Kael’s fascinating probe of Mailer’s prose at least 15 times since my senior year in college. (Times I’ve read Mailer’s book: zero, though I fully intend to one day.) But there is just something so pure and magical and undiluted about Monroe’s carnal gold-diggery in Hawks’ musical—not one of the great musicals, I don’t think, but certainly one of my favorites—that even 57 years later it’s as clear and suggestive as one of the actress’s patented giggles why Monroe became a superstar in life and transcended such earthbound classifications in death.

The Seven-Year Itch wasn’t her best film (or Billy Wilder’s), but it gave birth to her single most enduring image-- a gust of wind from a passing subway car whooshing up through a sidewalk grating, lifting her billowing skirt above her knees and up toward the firmament of Hollywood legend while Monroe beams with unexpected pleasure. (It’s one that has certainly been parodied and appropriated to death, but Anna Faris managed to find a little steam left in it when she did her own version over a percolating manhole in The House Bunny.) And who’s to say that her work for Wilder in The Seven-Year Itch and, of course, Some Like It Hot, doesn’t represent the Marilyn that most movie fans—the ones who are predisposed to treasure her image, anyway—carry with them in their hearts? Personally, I’ll take Lorelei Lee, on stage in that hot pink dance number that Madonna pilfered and rejiggered to fit her own amorphous ends, just hanging out and matching curves with Jane Russell, and especially stuck in a porthole trying to charm the preternaturally composed Georgie Winslow’s Henry Spofford III. Jane and her shade will take comfort in the fact that not all gentlemen prefer the fair-haired type (and you know Jane Russell never believed that shit for a second), but for 91 minutes in a movie directed by Howard Hawks you will believe that a blonde can sing, dance, and maybe even fly, and at the same time fill up every nook and cranny of a viewer’s desire-filled heart. But not just any blonde. It’s an arguable point, of course, but for me the legend of Marilyn Monroe begins with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Rack up another eclectic weekend coming up. In addition to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, there is still a sliver of hope that I’ll get in to the AFI fest screening of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives on Saturday night, though that sliver is at this point as see-through as one of Paul Sorvino’s garlic slices:

I’m much more likely to get a ticket to see Fredrick Wiseman’s Boxing Gym, which opens this weekend theatrically, so any old schmoe can see it:

Then again, I have not yet done my duty to my funny bone and seen Jackass 3D yet, and right now I could definitely use a heart attack-inducing laugh:

There are a couple of treats waiting for me at home which will void the temptation to spend $39 on popcorn and sodas (that’s just for me, of course) by going to the theater. Ever since I finished Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1,280 I’ve had Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon at the ready, and this weekend it might just be time:

And somehow a copy of the beautiful new Criterion Blu-ray of House made it into my, well, house last night, and my, does that movie look good in 1080p full high definition. My manga-crazy daughter, who finds the poster image frightening as hell, took a brief look last night and was intrigued, but my youngest, who loves to draw the goriest horror movie posters imaginable, saw the trailer and when the girl gets eaten by the piano—just the sort of imagery she revels in when it’s coming out of her own head—she screamed and proclaimed she would never, never, never watch this movie! (Pay close attention to the souped-up subtitles, courtesy of my colleagues Haruka Sometani and new daddy Colin Walker.)

So what’s on your screening menu for the weekend? Whatever it might be, I hope you enjoy it and have a great couple of days off. I feel like all I've been doing for the past two weeks is writing, so I'm gonna take a little break over the weekend, but we’re back in the swing of things on Monday. I owe a certain Self-Styled Siren an essay, after all, and it’s time to pay up! And, oh, yeah, my wife and I will be toasting our 17th anniversary over sushi and The Social Network on Saturday night. Parents night out once a year? Nah, more like two or three times. But this one is special. Happy anniversary, sweetheart. Marilyn's got nothing on you.