Tuesday, May 24, 2011


"The Movie Orgy isn’t really a movie. It’s more like a hallucinatory party for the certifiably movie mad. What began in 1968 as a lark instigated by two creative movie fans (Dante and his close friend, future producer Jon Davison) soon became an event, an explosion of movie geek love that morphed into a small cult phenomenon-- the one existing print toured college campuses in the dark shadows of the Democratic Convention in Chicago, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War before being retired in the early ‘70s. Dante says before transferring it to DVD just before last Tuesday’s screening that he hadn’t seen it himself in nearly 30 years. And for years those who remember seeing it back in the day would recount their experiences with it to fans of Dante’s work who could only imagine the anarchic sensibility of the Orgy, the best evidence of it being the myriad ways it seemed to have informed Dante’s subsequent movies and his identity as a director... In addition to being as spasmodically, recklessly entertaining as any four and a half-hour-long movie marathon I’ve ever seen (hmm, have I seen any others?), The Movie Orgy (is) remarkable as an opportunity to peek inside the brain of a brilliant movie director and see the nascent manifestation of a comic sensibility, political worldview and all-encompassing passion for low-fi moving images all rolled up and twisted together in an untamed package that can be directly correlated to the films he would spend the next 40 years bringing to life."

So I opined back in 2008 when The Movie Orgy was unveiled for an audience for the first time in 30 years or so, as the keynote presentation in Joe Dante's first Dante's Inferno series at the New Beverly Cinema. Those of us who were lucky enough to pack the New Beverly that night back in June three years ago knew we were in for something magical and insane, and it was a thrill unlike any other theatrical experience I've ever had to be there with so many other genuine movie geeks to see it in the presence of Dante himself. But as much mainlined fun as TMO was to see, its images jutting and cascading and hurling themselves out to a roomful of the most receptive possible eyeballs, it was even more fun to try to write about, to attempt to describe the methods behind its madness, to try to convey the experience of seeing it without turning the account into a blow-by-blow regurgitation of all the best bits. I figured out early on that such an exercise would be the epitome of futility, because The Movie Orgy is so much about the sum of its many fragmented parts and the cumulative effect its aural/visual attack that any such attempt to approach recounting it in this way would come up pitifully short.

After years of existing primarily as a legend whispered about in film geek circles, the relative few who have actually seen it at the two New Beverly screenings and, most recently, at the Venice Film Festival brag on the experience as one of the movies' great Holy Grail-type experiences. (I know I have!) And now, through the auspices of Trailers from Hell, Joe Dante has premiered a juicy four and a half-minute chunk of The Movie Orgy online at Trailers from Hell just to further whet the appetite of those who have yet gone without and tantalize those of us who have seen it with the prospect of a second helping. The clip, introduced by a generous portion of my original review, gives but a surreal taste of the Orgy's grand design, but it's a tasty taste. Dante hints that Los Angeles viewers who have yet to experience the Orgy for themselves, including one of TV's most genuinely bizarre broadcasts courtesy of Andy Devine, will get their chance sometime this summer courtesy of the Cinefamily. For now, click on over to Trailers from Hell for their exclusive clip from one of the great movie geek treasures ever assembled, Joe Dante's The Movie Orgy.


Friday, May 20, 2011


Okay, ladies and gentlemen, this is it. We’ve got somewhere around 36 hours until life as you and I know it changes forever and not necessarily for the good. Some of you, around 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 21, 2011 (that’s tomorrow) will suddenly, “in the twinkling of an eye,” be transported off this mortal coil and into the friendly confines of heaven. It’s called the rapture, and according to evangelist and Christian radio magnate Harold Camping it’s gonna happen tomorrow at the date and time stated above, which Camping has rigorously determined from calculations, associations and assumptions interpreted from biblical language. What happens to the rest of us, the nonbelievers, or the believers who didn’t quite get it right, who didn’t embrace all of God’s irrefutable doctrine, His infallible word, or who interpreted it in such a way that was displeasing to Him?

Well, Harold Camping says he doesn’t know, and from all evidence of his interviews on the subject matter he doesn’t appear to care because, well, he’s not going to be here. But some think they do know. Folks like famed tribulation expert Hal Lindsey have made evangelical careers out of amassing “evidence” of the coming end times and what life holds in store for those who are “left behind” to endure the increasing trials and horrors that will occur between the rapture and the actual Second Coming of Christ, which Camping says will go down in October of this year. Lindsey, for the record, thinks Camping is a false prophet, his predictions the product of dangerous religious quackery which will provoke ridicule and distract from more serious consideration of the sort of end-times scholarship in which Lindsey has cast his lot. One does wonder if Lindsey, the author of the best-selling The Late, Great Planet Earth (and the inevitable movie adaptation) might be just a little possessive of claims to authority on this particular subject. But he and others make a good theological point about Camping and his Timex-accurate predictions: the Bible itself is quite specific that predicting the exact time and date of the end of the world is none of our business, the logical extension of which is that those who do dabble in this kind of apocalyptic soothsaying probably aren’t the most trustworthy sources when it comes to parsing and interpreting divine intent and meaning.

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone,” speaks Matthew in the 24th chapter of that all-time best-seller, and it is this one sentence alone that ought to encourage believers and simultaneously frustrate them too. One hopes that Camping and his minions will allow camera crews to accompany them as the final minutes approach, because if it happens that’s going to be a hell of a scoop. But if it doesn’t happen, people are going to see what it looks like when a religious figurehead who has had the temerity to put God on a schedule has to do some serious backtracking and repositioning. And really, despite Camping’s multitude of assurances that there is no Plan B, that one is not necessary because the rapture is going to happen precisely when he says it will, it’s an awfully large horse pill to swallow that Camping wouldn’t have some sort of contingency plan at the ready to explain away the fact that he and his millions of followers, spurred on by a pervasive radio, TV and billboard campaign through his Family Radio network, are still flesh and blood on planet Earth come Sunday morning, May 22.

I suspect the company line will probably be drawn somewhere in the vicinity of citing the precedent of Yahweh’s sparing of the people of Nineveh, who were amply warned that if they didn’t shape up that destruction of their city and death of its citizenry lay in wait. At the last minute, with the same kind of drama the Lord employed to let Abraham off the nasty hook of potential filicide, Nineveh was spared because God saw they had given up their wicked behavior, so he changed his mind about his declaration about smiting them out of existence. (I’ve always found this instance of God deciding to not do what he said he’d do curious, given most Christians’ insistence on the notion that God is the same now as he always has been and that his word is never-changing. But perhaps it’s a source of comfort for those believers who would like to think that, ah, maybe he’ll show us some last-minute mercy and call off this whole Revelation plan eventually.)

It’s this scenario, or one like it, that Camping is surely banking on. We’re likely to suddenly hear that maybe there’s been a sudden upswing in Christian conversion in the last few months, all due undoubtedly to Camping’s campaign, so God decided that we all weren’t worthy of Gomorrah-esque intervention after all. I mean, sure, there’s still the gay problem and the promiscuity problem and the Democrat problem and the thousands-of-other-religions-that-aren’t-Christianity problem, but those have become less urgent because the fear of eternal damnation, of being left behind while all our Christian friends float away to safety, has brought so many more souls to salvation via Family Radio’s pervasive persuasion. (Will Camping be held accountable for all the souls convinced by his rhetoric who then fall away because, well, it didn’t go down the way he said it would? I’d like to think so.)

So am I worried about suddenly coming up a few friends short for the bowling league on Saturday night? Not exactly. Hal Lindsey is right about another thing. He says on his Web site that he’s worried about Camping and his ilk precisely because when that thief in the night fails to steal all the believers away according to Camping’s well-publicized timetable, “It will be used by our enemies to discredit the expectation that the rapture could take place at any moment.” And, yes, there has been a cash-crop of ridicule being harvested thanks to Farmer Camping and his clockwork band of zealots. I’ve dealt some of it myself, mainly in incredulity that anyone could be so arrogant and misguided as to publicly flail about and invite such scorn and derision, even from those who share his fundamentals beliefs. (It turns out Camping is no stranger to failed apocalyptic theory. He laid down another precise prediction about the end of the world back in September 1994 that did not materialize.) And there are plenty of places you can go on the Internet to cast your lot with the doomed naysayers—there’s even a Facebook page where you can sign up to gleefully participate in post-rapture looting. But in these, our last days, hours, minutes, I’ve come to look upon the whole enterprise as not so much funny as pathetic, and I take no joy in seeing the passion of genuine religious belief that is shared by several people I know who are good and sincere people being clowned and made such an easy target by egomaniacal figureheads of false humility like Harold Camping or, for that matter, Hal Lindsey. It’s not a belief I can say I share anymore (though I once did), but that doesn’t mean I feel comfortable getting cheap giggles out of it courtesy of a glorified tent preacher who has figured out how to run a radio transmitter and a video camera.

No, I prefer my religious giggles to go down with a genuine chill and a rigorous stirring of the mind, which is why I’ll always favor the sensibilities of Jonathan Swift, or Mark Twain, or H.L. Mencken, or Monty Python’s Flying Circus in times like these over, say, a Mystery Science Theater 3000-type marathon sitting in front of the tube and cracking wise over an increasingly depressing series of televangelists and their God and pony shows. But where can you go in pop cinema if that Saturday night bowling league does get cancelled, if the skies are full of happy Camping campers, or if even it doesn’t go down according to plan and you’re left mulling over thoughts of a human race, sacred and secular, who seem to be obsessed with all aspects, spectacular and spiritual and satirical, of the final chapters in the story of the human race? Well, I’ve got a few suggestions that, for me, provide interesting food for thought (or at the very least a few good laughs in the face of Armageddon) on the subject of the end of the world and how exactly we might get there. Some are pop nuggets of varying social credibility, some are pure riotous spectacle, some are sincere missives, some are cackling satirical jabs, some are shot through with fear and dread and confusion, and one might even make you think that some human beings are so fundamentally stupid that wiping man off the face of the earth might not be such a bad idea, with no guarantee that starting all over again is necessarily its opposite in the great shrine of genius moves. Any combination of these might make a good double or triple feature for this coming possibly rapturous Saturday night, by which time each of these will be either funnier or scarier, depending on who’s left behind to watch them with us.

12) THIEF IN THE NIGHT (1972; Donald W. Thompson) This movie was the first of producer Russell Doughten’s four-part “Rapture” series and probably accounts for more nightmares among the ‘70s Christian youth group set (of which I was a reluctant member) than any other filmed work. Thief opens with a young woman discovering that her husband has been whisked away, along with millions of Christians, as if carried off by a thief in the night, and with the kind of horror only unpaid regional actors in the ‘70s could muster she registers the dawning horror that the tribulations of the nonbelievers leading to the Second Coming are indeed under way. All the standard fearsome tropes of the Book of Revelations are examined here, including the systematic phasing-out of cash (I knew my debit card was evil!) and the mandatory mark of the beast—rather than the more subtle chip implantation favored by many tribulation theorists of late, Doughten’s movie has unwary survivors getting stamped with three rows of “0110” on their foreheads—and the movie has the wide-eyed, guileless power of sincerity. Thief in the Night is too inept for exploitation, yet that’s where its roots lie, and to underestimate its raw presentation is to misunderstand the effect it still has on many Christian viewers. The movie makes for fascinating viewing for a distance of 40 or so years if you were one of the many who fell under its 16mm spell in your church’s parish annex back in the day. (W.B. Kelso sends along his own appreciative assessment of Thief, if your interest has been sufficiently piqued.)

11) 2012 (2009; Roland Emmerich) In no way should this orgasm of upheaval and global destruction be taken seriously. But as the ultimate expression of the ‘70s disaster movie template, writ large by Sony’s deep pockets, director Emmerich’s increasing blood lust and the dearth of original ideas in the age of computer-generated imagery, it’s a surprising amount of fun. It’s fun, however, that’s gilded with an edge of dread that, though it won’t happen this dramatically, and certainly again not according to this particular calendar, we might yet figure out a way to choke off our planet’s life systems and see it revolt against its oppressors. And we’ll likely not have John Cusack around to help us get out of disaster’s way over and over again by the skin of our teeth.

10) THE OMEGA MAN (1972; Boris Sagal) My generation’s favorite adaptation of Richard Matheson’s seminal story I Am Legend (Is it the best? Maybe…) starring Charlton Heston who, whether by design or divine providence, came to be the muscular emblem of man’s railing against the end of the world (and other less far-reaching airborne disasters) in a series of films from 1968-1975. Director Boris Sagal flubs the tone here and there in this story of a man hiding out after a nuclear holocaust from its other blood-drinking nocturnal survivors, but one thing the movie gets right is the eerie quiet of a world without men or women, confirming our worst fears that survival, and its attendant isolation, might be worse than obliteration.

9) BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972; Ted Post) The film as a whole is far less satisfying than the original Planet of the Apes, its immediate predecessor, or Escape from the Planet of the Apes, which was the next in the series. But the trump card Beneath holds behind its rubber monkey makeup is the profoundly creepy society of atomically mutated subterranean bomb worshippers, led by Victor Buono (“Glory be to the Bomb, and to the Holy Fallout!”), who are empowered and fulfilled, absent God, by the possibility of total annihilation. That Beneath was not the end, but only the second volley in a series that continued through three movies, two TV series, a Tim Burton remake and yet another chapter coming this summer, surprisingly doesn’t dampen the grim aftershock left by the narration that ends this film: "In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead." Damn you all to hell!

8) MIRACLE MILE (1988; Steve De Jarnatt) Incurable romantic Anthony Edwards wrangles a date with waitress Mare Winningham, but while he waits for her shift to end he intercepts a phone booth call telling him that missiles have been launched and the world will end in a little over an hour. De Jarnatt (who also wrote the movie) makes the most of his Twilight Zone premise, with Anderson desperately scrambling first to figure out whether or not the call can be believed, and then to try and escape Los Angeles with Winningham before the black rain starts to fall. The romance is compelling and moving, all the more so for being played out in a state of adrenalized horror fueled by the ticking clock of the last moments of existence, the final hammer blow of which is spared neither for the characters or the audience.

7) CHILDREN OF MEN (2006; Alfonso Cuaron) The devastated society that is the subject of this technically exemplary movie is hard to shrug off. It has been imagined with the kind of relentless fury and desperate energy which still leaves room for some surprising grace notes, all of which are the hallmarks of a genuine dystopian vision. Clive Owen must protect the one mysteriously pregnant woman in a now-barren society, and whether or not he succeeds is a question that is left as clear as the fog the two sail into at the film’s conclusion. But if it’s reassurance you’re seeking in a film like this, it’s probably best to look elsewhere. My own feeling is that Cuaron ends the movie not on a false note of hope (a la the original version of Blade Runner), but instead in the moments just before we can know for sure whether or not mankind is likely to survive.

6) THEY CAME FROM WITHIN (aka SHIVERS) (1975; David Cronenberg) Here’s a film not necessarily about the end of the world but instead about the beginning of the end of the world. A parasite is unleashed in a high-rise apartment building that turns this microcosmic society into raving, homicidal sex fiends, and it is full of the kind of body-horror imagery that would soon become an artistic signature for Cronenberg. What’s also interesting is how Cronenberg expands the imagery George A. Romero introduced in his seminal horror film (see #4) in a more fertile way than Romero himself was able to accomplish, bringing social criticism, moral judgment and prejudice together with screaming fear of the Other into a horrific collision at the crossroads of science and sociology.

5) THE BIRDS (1962; Alfred Hitchcock) The original vision of unexplained apocalypse that found great fulfillment in some of the films of Cronenberg and Romero, Hitchcock is arrogantly masterful in positing a society that has been taken over, brought to its knees by the very symbols of natural beauty and peaceful coexistence, our avian friends. As with most of the great movies about the end times, Hitchcock’s style has the confidence of a righteously disaffected god. But even that style’s less successful elements work. Some of the blue-screen projection and clumsy superimposition during the bird attacks, which some would chalk up as simple technical deficiencies, work toward disorienting the viewer, making the familiar world seem askew, malevolent, somehow wrong. And Bernard Herrmann’s relentless sound design, no notes, just the demonic music made of chirping and squawking, feels ahead of even our time.

4) NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968; George A. Romero) The blueprint for 40 years of zombie horror filmmaking, one of this film’s great distinctions is in having never been surpassed in terms of text (gruesome hordes of undead on the move for no appreciable reason), political subtext-- the outrage over the destruction and racism of the Vietnam era was the fertile ground in which Romero sowed this metaphor of a society run amok—or technical achievement. (All the money in the world can’t buy a homegrown vision this potent.) Romero’s most upsetting existential revelation is not that we could be under attack from forces beyond reasoning, but that our desperate attempts to protect ourselves from rampant death may have helped create a world that is no longer worth living in.

3) FALL FROM GRACE (2007; K. Ryan Jones) Not a movie about the end of the world, this is a documentary about the horrendous intolerance at the heart of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas that, more than Romero’s movie even, will make you feel like maybe the world should end. Jones has made a document of the Reverend Fred Phelps and his familial campaign of righteous hatred (“God hates fags!” “Thank God for 9/11!”) that made me angrier than any movie I can recall. Thank God, or K. Ryan Jones, that the movie balances the insane ignorance of Phelps and his clan of tunnel-vision hate-mongers with the testimony of those who were part of this cult of moral arrogance, managed to regain their sanity and got out. The only good thing that might come of Harold Camping’s prediction coming true tomorrow is that we might finally be rid of Fred Phelps et al. But really, I’d rather go to hell than think for a minute that any compassionate God might consider anything other than eternal damnation for this twit.

2) DR. STRANGELOVE (1962; Stanley Kubrick) The ne plus ultra of strychnine-laced nuclear satire, Kubrick’s movie deserves every pixel of its honorably earned reputation as no-holds-barred belly laugh in the face of unknowable annihilation. Without a hair mussed, it nimbly demonstrates both the inevitability of technology to move us toward disaster and humanity’s penchant for vainly fumbling around in the dark and facilitating our own destruction. Vera Lynn sings over a montage of mushroom clouds as the movie climaxes, but by then even flashes of atomic energy can’t cause a ripple in the pall that has settled over this fatal farce like a shroud. “We'll meet again/Don’t know where/Don’t know when/But I know we’ll meet again/Some sunny day.” Lynn’s voice takes on an echo like a barely remembered past. Cancel all future meetings.

1) THE RAPTURE (1988; Michael Tolkin) This movie is remarkable in so many ways, not least of all that it takes seriously the strictly Biblical view of the end times in a humanistic fashion. The word “humanistic” can itself be a negative buzzword for some believers who won’t cotton to the portrayal of a seeker (Mimi Rogers) who trades her empty sex-filled lifestyle for salvation through Jesus Christ, only to find her faith in God and the coming rapture tested in the most Old Testament of ways. But Rogers’ conversion is probably the most believable such character arc I’ve ever seen in a movie, and Tolkin displays rare sensitivity and empathy in assuring that the audience—who, let's be honest, probably isn’t likely to accept Rogers’ most beatific rationale once that conversion has been undergone—stays with her character and is capable of understanding at least one of the awful choices she has to make. When this rapture occurs it’s not the end, but instead the impetus to cap one of the most chilling and overlooked character studies I’ve ever seen. Save this one for tomorrow night at midnight, and then celebrate that such a movie ever made it through the American movie system.



In case anyone has wondered where I’ve been over the last two weeks, I have been held captive by a certain C-level super villain, and his outrageous demands (one million Tootsie Rolls) have finally been met by my curiously reluctant family. (I knew they were chocolate lovers, but come on!) Anyway, rumors of my death or other permanent departures are, well, nice in a weird sort of way (Someone noticed I wasn’t posting!) but entirely exaggerated. In truth, I have been snowed under by life, a situation not unlike many others, I’m sure, and I have been neither as prolific as I’d like nor possessing the energy to be prolific if I felt like it. But all that’s about to change. My breathless reportage of the TCM Classic Film Festival is near ready, and I’ll have a couple of other items coming starting today. (Gotta get one of ‘em in before Saturday evening, if you know what I mean!) And there’s another SLIFR quiz on the horizon, most likely ready for the Memorial Day weekend, for all those of you who prefer to take tests on your holiday weekends. So thanks for your patience. It will soon be rewarded!


Sunday, May 08, 2011


Seeing motherhood from the close vantage point of a parent rather than the one I'm most used to-- that of a child-- makes me appreciate my mother all the more, to say nothing of the love and discipline seen given forth from my wife to our beautiful daughters, who need no reminding of how much they mean to their own mother. It may be the most difficult job to do, which may be why the mothers seen above become so fanatical, blinded by their desire to do right by their own children even as they destroy them or at the very least make that destruction possible. Motherhood done right is a much more difficult achievement, which is why it's important to take today, and every day, to commemorate a job well and sensitively done. Hye-ja Kim, Piper Laurie, Mae Questel, Angie Dickinson and Shelley Winters personify the extremes of maternal devotion, but Barbara Stanwyck already had Stella Dallas in her pocket when I first came to know her as Victoria Barkley, stern but loving matriarch of TV's The Big Valley. She's part the mother I had and the mother I wish I had, and remembering her presence in this series is just one more way for me to reflect on all the mothers that touch my life with grace, duty, perseverance and love.


Friday, May 06, 2011


Sunday at the 2011 TCM Classic Film festival ended up a completely different day than the one I had planned. I had envisioned a day spent with The Sid Sagas. But an unexpected family event pulled me away from the festival on Friday afternoon, so when it was announced that Bigger Than Life would be positioned in one of Sunday’s coveted To Be Announced slots, that changed the trajectory of my final day with the classics in Hollywood. So, all wrapped up better than well on screen, bawdy pre-code delights bookended by family tragedies of harrowing dimensions. And as we spilled out into the night, news of another real-life event put a spin on the weekend, and one film in particular, that could never have been anticipated. Look for my detailed account of the entirety of the festival coming soon in Slant magazine. (Thank you again, Keith Uhlich and Ed Gonzalez.)

Barbara Rush was in the house, guiding the faithful who couldn’t get in to Friday’s sold-out screening of Bigger Than Life (1956; Nicholas Ray) through her memories of making the film as well as her feelings on the studio system. Rush was always one of my favorites, and she was as delightful as I always hoped she would be. The movie remains a waking nightmare which would not be approached in terms of its effectiveness within its subject matter—the dark currents churning under the placid surface of an idealized American life—until 1986, when David Lynch would unleash Blue Velvet on a unsuspecting public which had by then all but forgotten Nicholas Ray’s film.

Anyone who believes that to evoke old movies is to wax nostalgic over museum product that can only be stodgy in comparison to today’s output 1) is sadly lacking in experience with classic films, and 2) has likely never seen This is the Night (1932; Frank Tuttle). This epitome of saucy, salacious pre-code farce stars upper—crust spokesman supreme Roland Young, sexy Thelma Todd, an innuendo-riddled Charlie Ruggles, the charming and also very sexy Lily Damita and Cary Grant in his very first picture, sporting a bag of javelins and the wherewithal to brandish them in just the right way to make the most of their suggestive symbolism. An unexpected riot.

Oh, for the day when on-screen beauty had room for the likes of the Clara Bow. Hardly a standard-bearer for the kind of emaciated allure that characterized so many female movie stars (and permeated our society to its very roots), Bow looks like a real woman, with the come-hither swagger to break down any resistance to any charms presupposed to balance on her waist measurements. Clara bowed out of Hollywood after Hoop-la, (1933; Frank Lloyd), another nasty-minded but charming pre-code romantic dramedy set amidst the world of the traveling carnival, and it’s our loss. The movie is a grand showcase for her generosity as a screen performer and her embracing of every pinnacle of beauty and empathy with an audience that Hollywood tried to insist that she was beyond; as the movies gained their voice, they lost this great silent-era star to a world outside the movies that would never reject her for what she was.

Nick (George Segal): “Who did the painting?”
George (Richard Burton): “Some Greek with a moustache that Martha attacked one night.”

Martha (Elizabeth Taylor): “I disgust me. You know, there's only been one man in my whole life who's ever made me happy. Do you know that? George, my husband. George, who is out somewhere there in the dark, who is good to me - whom I revile, who can keep learning the games we play as quickly as I can change them. Who can make me happy and I do not wish to be happy. Yes, I do wish to be happy. George and Martha: Sad, sad, sad. Whom I will not forgive for having come to rest; for having seen me and having said: yes, this will do.”

Martha (Taylor): “You're all flops. I am the Earth Mother, and you are all flops.

One of the great emotional slash-and-burns of all time, Mike Nichols’ invasive adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1967) has lost almost none of its ability to lacerate flesh and find bone in its relentless examination of the ritual humiliation and horrors that are exposed between a warring couple during one drunken night. Elizabeth Taylor’s finest hour on screen, and maybe Richard Burton’s too, was filmed by Oscar-winner Haskell Wexler (who was in attendance) with the kind of immediacy that invites you closer and seduces you with promises of voyeuristic intimacy even as it repels you with emotional violence. I’d never seen it on the big screen before, and I doubt I’ll ever forget, even after seeing it so many times before, the grand showcase it was given at the TCM Classic Film Festival on closing night 2011.


Tuesday, May 03, 2011


Day 3 of the TCM Film Festival started early-- not as early as the 8:15 a.m. screening of Taxi the day before, but at 9:00 a.m. just early enough. In terms of quality of films, Saturday was probably the all-around best day, with Sunday coming in a close second. My detailed commentary on the festival is still to come, courtesy of and published by Slant magazine and The House Next Door. For now, just some brief thoughts and impressions of the five films of Saturday.

Pure nostalgia for a world where cowboys in full regalia lived in the modern world and nobody blinked an eye. My Pal Trigger (1946; Frank MacDonald) is easily one of the best Roy Rogers movies. It's got Dale Evans, Gabby Hayes as her irascible but goodhearted (or as Paddy Chayefsky would have it, crusty but benign) rancher father, oily villain Jack Holt, the Sons of the Pioneers as house band and backup for the hero, and the surprisingly engaging story of how Rogers and his most famous golden steed came together. This is a horse opera of a very high order; it gives the memories (and even sense memories) of juvenile cowboy fun a good name all over again.

"I came here to die with you. Or to live with you."

A beautiful 4K digitally restored version of Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) showcased that beautifully agonized western in a way it perhaps never has been. Every landscape, whether a range of mountains or the crevices of pain and travails etched on the faces of the characters, resonated and sung like never before this Saturday afternoon on the giant screen of the Grauman's Chinese Theater.

"Dyin' ain't much of a living, boy."

"To hell with them fellas. Buzzards gotta eat, same as worms."

"Went the day well? We died and never knew;
But well or ill, England, we died for you."

The world premiere of the new restoration of Alberto Cavalcanti's remarkable British propaganda thriller Went the Day Well? (1942), which dramatized a successful battle against a Nazi invasion of rural England (to say nothing of Hitler's actual toppling) while the outcome of the actual war was still very much in question, was one of the festival's top draws, and for good reason. Rialto Pictures is preparing a summer theatrical release for this brilliant movie, and I can't recommend your catching up with it more enthusiastically. When I write about it I promise to be discreet; it's a movie best left unspoiled by elaborate description for audiences who know little or nothing of its shocks and surprises.

I wasn't sure I had the emotional wherewithal to experience Pennies from Heaven (1982) at this point in my life, but the pull of the movie was irresistible, especially the chance to see it in a prime setting after years of screenings in crackerbox multiplexes and on VHS and cable. The movie remains the crowning achievement of Herbert Ross's career, which may sound like faint praise, Ross not being one of the movie's great stylists. But he knows how to stage the musical numbers for their most devastating swoon and ache-inducing effect, aided immeasurably by Gordon Willis' gorgeously period and picture-authentic cinematography and a cast of constant revelation headed by Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Jessica Harper, Vernel Bagneris, John McMartin and, of course, Christopher Walken.

The cinematic equivalent of Red Bull (or whatever Coca-Cola product that sports the most caffeine), Billy Wilder's brusquely, topically hilarious One Two Three (1961) was the perfect tonic to top off a long day of brilliant movies. This has long been one of my favorite movies, and now after seeing it projected for the very first time it remains even more so. Completely exhilarating.


"Here we go..."

"The only thing I want from you, Scarlett Piffl, is silence, and damn little of that!"

"Schlemmer, how many times have I told you I don't want those people standing at attention every time I come into the office?"

"I know. I've given strict orders."

"Can't they get it through their Prussian heads? They're living in a democracy now."

"That is the trouble. In the old days, if I ordered them to sit, they would sit. Now with a democracy, they do what they want. What they want is to stand."


Next: Day 4, the conclusion of the 2011 TCM Classic Film Festival...