Sunday, April 28, 2013


After feeling the slight pull of my eyelids as Marmaduke Ruggles (Bill, or the Colonel, to his best friend) finally opened the Anglo-American Grill to the hungry citizenry of Red Gap, Washington, I felt like a little fortification was in order. My friend, future hall of fame film archivist Ariel Schudson, had thoughtfully saved me a seat as the crowd filed in for Ruggles of Red Gap, so after we settled into our seats for the next feature, I made my way downstairs and brought back a couple of mid-sized schooners of coffee to help us along on our journey which, after the great comedy we’d just seen, was still less than halfway accomplished. The caffeine was a nice insurance policy, but I imagine that what lay ahead of us would have buzzed us sufficiently all on its own.

I knew next to nothing about I Am Suzanne! (1933; Rowland V. Lee) as I headed into the tiny auditorium, but the fascination level spiked almost immediately when Katie Trainor, archivist for the Museum of Modern Art, introduced the movie and informed the crowd that what we would be seeing was a fresh “wet” print. It was so fresh that it had never even been run through a projector for an audience before-- even Trainor hadn’t seen it. In fact, we would be the first audience to see the movie projected in 35mm in over 80 years—the only prints in circulation have been dupes generated from raggedy 16mm copies. How’s that for a set-up? And the movie lived up to all the precious attendance to its preservation.

A follow-up to their previous collaboration, the atmospheric fairy-tale Zoo in Budapest, the movie reunited Lee with his cinematographer, Lee Garmes, and lead actor Gene Raymond for another fanciful story, this one anchored by Raymond and Fox-contracted ingĂ©nue Lilian Harvey. Harvey plays Suzanne, a dancing star who catches the eye of puppeteer/starving artist Tony Malatini (Raymond), who wants to design a puppet of Suzanne and build a show around it to bolster the meager attendance of his own company’s productions. But when Suzanne is injured during a dangerous entrance to an elaborate production number, he helps Suzanne recover by teaching her how to conduct the Suzanne marionette herself, and their romance blossoms as Suzanne forges a union with Tony’s company and has to face the dilemma of whether to continue on with this new pursuit or return to the perhaps greater popularity awaiting her if she returns to dance under the guidance of her matronly mentor (Georgia Caine) and a singularly sleazy and untrustworthy manager (Leslie Banks). Lee and Garmes give the movie a nimble grace, and the ineffable chemistry between Raymond and Harvey is considerable, but it’s the movie’s utterly unaffected joy at performance, its complete belief in and lack of cynicism about the impulse to entertain, that prove to be the aces up its sleeve.  The use of marionette performance works on several levels too, not least of which for the sheer handmade magic of the puppeteering itself—the movie conveys a strong sense of the physical demands, not only of choreography and coordination but also of pure endurance made upon the performers, and how their joy seems at times literally transmitted through the strings, into the wooden actors and out into the audience. But it also resonates metaphorically in very satisfying ways.

The title I Am Suzanne! (that exclamation point is important) speaks to the heroine’s struggle to define herself through her art, a difficult task while under the influence of Banks’ money-grubbing, manipulative, socially pretentious management, or even the relatively benign encouragement of Tony, who respects her as a performer but may actually relate more completely to her representation as a marionette—his creation—than he does to her in a flesh-and-blood format. (They both, on separate occasions, lay claim to responsibility for her popularity and talent with the titular phrase.) “You’ll make a beautiful puppet!” Tony gushes to Suzanne after he first sketches her for his designs, and before she’s ever rendered in wood we see his prediction coming true—when Suzanne is hospitalized and in traction after the accident, her limbs attached to a bed frame by a series of pulleys and cables, Tony helps her in her recovery with a series of muscle movement exercises, effectively turning her into a medically arranged marionette and signaling his own sublimated desire to turn her into a object of his own fulfillment. That the movie recovers from its darker impulses and becomes a thrilling testimony to performance, and of course love, is only one of the reasons that I found I Am Suzanne! to be one of the most enthralling  movies of the weekend so far.

Just as exciting, but in a completely different way, was It Always Rains on Sunday (1948; Robert Hamer). In tandem with I Am Suzanne!, it made for the sort of thoroughly invigorating revelatory experience that one can only hope for in a film festival environment of any kind. As introduced by “czar of noir” Eddie Muller, we were prepared for what has been considered in some circles the quintessential British noir, and Muller spared no enthusiasm for the movie. But he also drew a distinction between American noir, with its chiaroscuro roots in German expressionism and stories of crime and the absence of redemption, and its British variant, of which It Always Rains is considered a prime example. Muller observed that British noir tends to display much more interest in the realities of the country’s underclass, where crime is an undeniable element in the fabric of the tales told, but not always the primary focus. This is certainly the case with It Always Rains on Sunday which, as might be guessed from its title, favors a rich milieu of street-level life, overlapping with noise and anger, passion and oppression, fear and desire and, yes, the vitality of a close-knit (or perhaps more accurately, close-pressed) community of postwar citizens, survivors and hangers-on. 

The “plot” concerns the prison escape of a petty criminal, who hides out in the home of his former lover, Rose Sandigate (Googie Withers), a woman now married to a decent man who nonetheless feels trapped and angered by her familial circumstances, which include bumping heads with her husband’s grown daughters and her own sense of the tight walls of their modest flat closing in on her. The various vices and distractions of the movie’s single rainy day swarm and jangle around her, providing the sense of vitality as well as impending fate, rendered in stunning imagery courtesy of Douglas Slocombe and Hamer’s expansive directorial sensitivity—Hamer also directed Kind Hearts and Coronets, the blackest of British comedies, which doesn’t really hint at the sort of richness of mood and setting and narrative deftness he achieves here. The movie feverishly anticipates the movement of British kitchen-sink dramas while maintaining the constant surge of dark energy derived from film noir, and it anticipates as well the skillful, naturalistic weave of Robert Altman in its approach to telling the stories of its working-class neighborhood, which spark off each other and contribute mightily to the movie’s dark, stylized representation of its specific and grim reality.

And then there’s Googie Withers, a force of nature all her own and completely riveting in her disappointment and fury and undeniable attraction to the convict (John McCallum) who will lead her to a downfall as he flees toward his own. The attraction between the two is palpable on screen in part because it wasn’t faked—Withers and McCallum met on this film and married soon after, remaining together for the rest of their lives. But it’s Withers, a critical element in the film’s overall impact, who cannot be ignored. After Night and the City last year, The Lady Vanishes and now this one, she must be considered the great anti-heroine of the TCM Classic Film Festival. As for It Always Rains on Sunday, its subject may not be exactly uplifting, but the invigorating charge that radiates from its intense and intricate portrait of an underclass informed and vitalized by dark currents of petty crime and desire could never be depressing. After seeing this movie, I couldn’t have been happier.

Next, Ariel and I stuck together and headed off to see Hondo (1953), a western starring John Wayne that I had never seen. And I probably didn’t put too much urgency behind pursuing it because of the absence of either John Ford or Howard Hawks in the credits. Silly me. As it turns out, Hondo is John Wayne at his most electrifying and, frankly, beautiful—even Leonard Maltin, who introduced the film, had to admit that Wayne probably never looked as good, as a purely physical specimen, than he did here. But it’s Wayne’s performance, as a part-Apache gunman who protects Geraldine Page (in her first film) and her son from an encroaching Apache onslaught, which was the real revelation for me. He does the simple things, like a lovely, naturalistic conversation with Page while shoeing a horse, which few could duplicate with such apparent ease. But his reactions in the small moments- the look of disbelief that flits across his face when Page describes him as a gentleman—that are priceless and, as it turns out, key to the level to which Wayne seems present and alive to his circumstances in this movie. The persistent myth that John Wayne was a bad actor or, at the very most an invariant and uninteresting one, is probably one of the most annoying bits of mythology that still swirls around Hollywood, even among fans of classic films. This screening certainly helped put to rest any remaining vestiges of that myth that may have been floating around in my mind. And oh, yeah, the  3D was fantastic!

But we still had movie #7 for the day to get to. Fortunately the coffee I gulped eight hours earlier was still working its magic, so we met up with Richard Harland Smith and made our way into the TCM Underground-sponsored midnight show, a very rare 35mm presentation, in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio, of Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s Plan Nine from Outer Space (1958). Richard, in his own piece for TCM, rightly pointed out, with no small amount of “take that!” satisfaction, that though this movie gained much of its notoriety from the Golden Turkey phenomenon spearheaded by Harry and Michael Medved, who dubbed it the worst movie ever made, it’s the Medved books that now languish in indifference while Ed Wood’s movie is screening at the TCM Film Festival! That “Worst Movie Ever” moniker has stuck like a piece of used gum to Wood’s movie, but, as comedian-writer Dana Gould (The Simpsons) pointed out in his hilarious introduction to the film, it’s one that the movie doesn’t really deserve. No movie that’s as entertaining as this one, inept as it most assuredly is, could possibly be the worst ever made. (I offer the somnambulant Lily Tomlin-John Travolta romance Moment by Moment as one possible replacement for this dishonor.) 

The key to Wood’s “failure” is, of course, the many well-documented ways in which the movie falls short of even the basest standards of production value and acting discipline, but lording it over such an obviously impaired picture on those grounds is really only part of the fun. As suggested by Tim Burton’s great Ed Wood, what’s fascinating about looking at Plan Nine from Outer Space, especially in a print that probably looks better than the movie has ever been seen by even its most snarkily ardent followers, is its sincerity. He may have been a terrible writer and an insufficient storyteller, but Wood was most definitely a believer. Even as it builds to its gloriously incoherent climax, I was hard-pressed to detect so much as a single frame of cynicism in his demented mise-en-scene. And seeing it at midnight, the capper to a day which saw six films before it, was the perfect, delirious way to end what I’d wager was the single greatest day of movie-watching I’ve ever experienced over my four-year history with the TCM Classic Film Festival, and maybe even of my entire movie-watching life.

Coming up next, reports on yesterday’s Deliverance experience, plus They Live by Night, Max von Sydow and The Seventh Seal, how I joined the ranks of the cads who walked out on Mildred Pierce, and the story of how I won my TCM fleece picnic blanket.

But right now, it’s back to Hollywood, where I’ll hit the road with Gene Hackman, Clark Gable, Al Pacino and Claudette Colbert, and tie a ribbon on this year’s festival with Grace Kelly, Ray Milland and Alfred Hitchcock while wearing yet another pair of those stylish 3D glasses. I’ll be in touch.


Saturday, April 27, 2013


When you can honestly say that Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), which I thoroughly enjoyed as a kick-start to this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, is, after nine movies the low point, well, I guess that means that we’re having a pretty damn good time so far, kids.

Yesterday, the first full day of movie-going at this fourth annual smorgasbord of filmed delights and enthusiastic appreciation, was a true marathon of blissful proportions. Not unlike Burt Lancaster swimming his way home through the pools of his moneyed Connecticut neighbors, I made my way through one cool blast of invigorating cinema after another, each different than the one before or after, sharing only the wonderful transporting qualities only an authentically great movie (or an authentically great movie experience) can convey. And very much unlike Burt Lancaster, I was left not shattered by the inexorable intrusions of a repressed reality, but instead heightened by the light those movies shone on the reality I was already familiar with and, of course, the special reality I never knew until they showed me.

Once again, here I am, trying to bang out a few thoughts before hopping the train back to Hollywood, after having packed my lunch and dinner for the day—boy, those chicken salad sandwiches and bananas tasted good, especially when I knew I wasn’t spending $13 for a popcorn and soda as a distraction from nutrition just to fill up gut space.  And there are more of them on the menu today. Fewer movies today, but that’s okay—the schedule as I see it looks unbeatable, and that’s coming after what I was treated to on Friday. I feel rested, on four hours sleep, and ready for more.

Of course, I’ll offer up plenty more once the festival has hit my rear view mirror, once again for the good folks at Slant magazine and The House Next Door, but until I get to that let me just give you a taste of what I tasted yesterday as I flew from auditorium to auditorium powered by caffeine and a blast of pure movie love.

The day started at 9:00 a.m. with The Swimmer, the very curious and daring and agonizing movie Lancaster, screenwriter Eleanor Perry and director Frank Perry (who eventually left the project) fashioned from the template of a John Cheever story about a man whose tortured past is gradually revealed as he makes his way home across a Connecticut forest by way of his neighbor’s swimming pools. The movie casts a very skeptical satiric eye toward the consumerist obsessions of the upper middle class of the 1960’s—director Allison Anders, who introduced the screening and interviewed Marge Champion, who appears briefly in the film, imagined it as an imagined alternative version of what might eventually happen to Mad Men’s Don Draper. But it’s also implicitly critical of what one might presume to be the younger generation’s pie-eyed perspectives about the blissful harmony of nature and man, points of view expressed by Lancaster’s Ned Merrill who, as it becomes increasingly clear, is far more unhinged than we might expect one as fit and established as Lancaster could ever be. It’s a spectacular, unsettling movie whose troubled production history never smears the considerable achievement of what made it to the screen.

I followed my swim with a trip of a different kind, this one courtesy of Roberto Rossellini and his Voyage to Italy (1954), the English-language version of which has been lovingly restored and made its debut at TCM Fest yesterday. Rossellini’s drama of marital discord is a strange bird-- tied to the director’s own neorealist tendencies, it’s a cross-breeding of melodrama and travelogue, as a married couple (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders) acknowledges the boredom at the center of their relationship while on vacation in Northern and Southern Italy and go about finding ways to spend time apart while confronting the realities of the country and its culture on their own individual terms. The movie was largely improvised by Rossellini and his actors—Bergman reveled in the process while Sanders, perhaps predictably, bristled—and the friction derived from that working method adds immeasurably to the movie’s sense of beauty spoiled, or at the very least squandered and misunderstood. Voyage to Italy has one of the bleakest “upbeat” conclusions to any romantic drama I’ve ever seen—swept up in the religious fervor of a local parade populated by villagers appealing the healing powers of a silent saint, Bergman and Sanders, indifferent throughout the film and eventually at each other’s throats, forge an understanding and recommit to their love. But in the context of the surrounding pleas for divine intercession gone unheard, I sensed Rossellini didn’t believe in his couple’s chances any more than he did that an old man begging for healing at the feet of a statue while believers swarm around him would suddenly be able to throw down his crutches and walk.

Next, I went from the streets of Napoli to those of Paris and the still wild American West of the early 20th century for Leo McCarey’s uproarious comedy Ruggles of Red Gap (1939) which proves, if there are any who still don’t believe, the great comedic talents of Charles Laughton. His Ruggles is a British butler in Paris whose services are gambled away in a poker game by his employer (the delightfully somnambulant Roland Young). Ruggles finds himself following his new employers (Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland) to relatively rugged Washington State where he discovers, through various hilarious embarrassments and uncomfortable predicaments, how to live life more or less on his own terms. I hadn’t seen the movie in close to 40 years, and it turns out to be a much sweeter, more even tempered and less unruly comedy than I remembered—maybe exposure to years of sarcastic Mr. Belvedere-isms colored my memories of it. It’s also, of course, a marvelous showcase for Laughton, whose natural tendency to go big is tempered here. His Ruggles feels that his own body is not entirely his own, so much of what he communicates comes through a slight turn of the lips, or most importantly through his eyes, which are forever animated with horror and, eventually, love. Laughton’s peepers roll magnificently in Ruggles of Red Gap, and in McCarey, the man who brought Laurel and Hardy together on screen, he found a director who was sympathetic to the tradition of silent comedy that the great grand actor accesses with such delight here.

Okay, four movies, all great and grand surprises of their own, still left to talk about from Friday. But I’ve gotta get on the train back to Hollywood. Incredibly, in less than two hours I’ll be watching Deliverance with John Boorman, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Jon Voight, unless I’m late, of course. On more rest tomorrow morning, I’ll try to catch up all the way. Right now, it’s back into the bliss.


Friday, April 26, 2013


Last year’s Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival began for me not unlike an action thriller. I landed in Hollywood the first day (Thursday) of the festival with only a scant half hour to make my way, with my two daughters in tow, across the street from the parking lot beneath the Hollywood and Highland complex to the Roosevelt Hotel, where the press office, which would close at 5:00, was holding my credentials badge.  Unfortunately, the streets were swarming already, sidewalks closed off on the Chinese Theater side of the street to accommodate the festival’s gala premiere, which was only a couple of hours away, and no way on God’s asphalt earth to cross over to the other side without backtracking all the way to Highland, through an impenetrable thicket of humanity and costumed cartoon characters and in the opposite direction from the hotel. But just as desperation began to set in, out reached a hand from the mob—it was my friend Corky, who just happened to be checking out the scene. He literally grabbed onto me and told me to follow him, and after connecting hand-in-hand with my two girls, he led us around the back of the Chinese theaters and toward the crosswalk at Hollywood and Orange. (I swear, if he didn’t actually say, “Come with me if you want to live!” then I will go to my grave insisting that he did.)Twenty minutes later, with only about five minutes to spare, I entered the press office and grabbed my precious badge. Thank you, Corky!

I'm writing this quickly before embarking over the hill into Hollywood for my fourth Friday of great films, new discoveries and encounters with old movie-going friends at the TCM Festival, and my introduction to the first slate of films last night was considerably less dramatic than the start to TCM 2012. In fact, it was a harsh reminder that, yes, I am four years older than I was when I first boarded this great festival on its inaugural voyage. Where last year’s Thursday was adrenalin-packed (so much so that I hightailed it out of Hollywood and skipped the movies that night altogether), last night’s arrival into Hollywood was far more sedate. I’d picked up my credentials badge the day before, so no worries of tardiness or inadvertent exclusion there. And I’d dragged myself out of bed at 4:00 a.m. to do the dishes and get started on a day of office work that needed to be done before I could release myself from my bread0-winning responsibilities for the weekend. I arrived at the Hollywood and Highland train station with virtually no stress, and a full 90 minutes before the first show time, anticipating a long line to kick things off.

The lines for the evening’s screenings were virtually nonexistent at 5:00 p.m., so I took a brief stroll through the lobby to gander at the layout—the most obvious upgrade was a bar (with a full menu of overpriced sandwiches and salads to go along with the overpriced drinks) and seating area adjacent to the traditional popcorn-centered snack bar, it being traditionally overpriced as well. So I stepped over to Johnny Rockets and indulged my one-cheeseburger allowance for the weekend (I packed chicken salad sandwiches and bananas today) before coming back and grabbing my spot in line for Ninotchka (1939).

I had never seen Ninotchka—being the Lubitsch and Wilder enthusiast that I am, this has always been a ridiculous blind spot in my cinematic experience that I was grateful to finally minister to last night. I really enjoyed the movie (more on that in my full festival report for Slant and The House Next Door coming soon), though it did not immediately vault to the head of the class of either Lubitsch or Wilder for me—Trouble in Paradise and One Two Three, both of which have obvious thematic and stylistic connections to Ninotchka, occupy those lofty positions. But I was distressed to have to remember, 20 minutes in, long before Garbo laughed, or had even yet appeared on screen, I felt the heaviness of the burger upon me (my apologies of Piper Laurie and Margaret White) and began to get a bit dozy. I never drifted off though, and I credit the movie’s fizzy, gossamer-light tone and the perkiness of the actors for that (I especially enjoyed Ina Claire as the ostensibly wronged but obnoxiously entitled Countess Swana).

Fortunately, I was able to squeak into what was, of course, a packed house into the festival’s tiniest auditorium, good old Chinese #4, to see African-American film historian and exuberant fan Donald Bogle, who guided me though my first year at TCM with screenings of Carmen Jones and a spectacular program of racist cartoons from the studio system, introduce William Wellman’s spiky, nimble and endearingly strange pre-code potboiler Safe in Hell (1931), starring a heavy-lidded Dorothy Mackaill as a prostitute who kills a man, sets his room on fire and flees to an unnamed Caribbean island to avoid extradition, where she holes up at a fleabag hotel populated with other criminals hiding out from the law for similar crimes. Before the screening, Bogle interviewed the director’s son, William Wellman,Jr., an actor who I immediately recognized from his villainous turn opposite Fred Williamson in Black Caesar (1973), who had many interesting stories to tell about his father and the production of this movie. But the element of the talk I found most fascinating was Bogle’s focus on two of the African-American performers in the cast—Clarence Muse and Nina Mae McKinney, neither of whom I knew very much about beyond their names.

Bogle pointed out something that would become obvious minutes later when we saw it for ourselves, how Muse, as the hotel’s main servant, used his own cultured and articulate voice (Muse was, among many other things, a law student) rather than adopting a persona closer to the Stepin Fetchit caricature that audiences might have more readily expected at the time. That voice, combined with the man’s imposing physical presence, which again is not used in the way it might have more typically been in another film of the time, made Muse as naturally magnetic a performer as I saw on screen in either film last night. But even Muse had to bow in deference to Nina Mae McKinney, probably the first African-American actress to be featured in a movie for her qualities of sexual allure as much as her obvious acting and singing talent. Her performance was a revelation to me, and Wellman must have been similarly seduced—according to Bogle and Wellman Jr., the famously wild director loved her so much that he wedged in an unscripted musical number for her, one which is appreciated by the scoundrels of the hotel on screen as much as the awestruck members of the audience, the one in 1931 and the one in Hollywood circa 2013 last night. (More on McKinney in my longer piece as well.)

It was a memorable night to begin the festival, even if by the time I stumbled out of Safe in Hell I was beyond exhausted. I managed to see many friends in the lobby and the theaters already, so it was, of course, a wonderful re-entry into the typical riches   of the TCM Film Festival, even if I was barely able to keep my eyes open. I made my way to the train and was home in bed by 12:15 a.m. Five hours later I’m up and writing, prepping to drive to Hollywood in another hour for the first full day of the festival, and it’s going to be a long and spectacular one.  In two hours I’ll see Allison Anders introduce The Swimmer (1968; Frank Perry), followed by a newly restored Voyage to Italy (1954; Roberto Rossellini), Ruggles of Red Gap (1935; Leo McCarey), another fresh restoration, this one of Rowland V. Lee’s 1933 musical I Am Suzanne! With no break whatsoever, I’ll then be on to see Mel Brooks introducing The Twelve Chairs (1970), followed by either Albert Maysles introducing Gimme Shelter (1970) or a rare 3-D screening of Hondo (1953; John Farrow)—I still haven’t decided), and the cherry on top of the whole day, a very rare 35mm screening of Ed Wood’s immortal Plan Nine from Outer Space (1958) at midnight. No cheeseburgers today—I packed chicken salad sandwiches and a bushel of bananas into my back pack. Pray for me and my sustained energy- - it’s going to be a long, wonderful day.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


Electra Glide in Blue (1973) has the trappings of an action movie, but the crime investigation at the center of its plot feels more like a Macguffin, a concession to genre that more effectively plays as a diversion leading toward the movie’s ambient incertitude. Its real subject is the tug of war internalized within John Wintergreen (Robert Blake), a Vietnam veteran who returns to life as a motorcycle cop and is (like we are) seduced by the cold sheen imagery and laconic bravado surrounding his post-war profession. Wintergreen is torn between sympathy for the freedom of outlaw bikers and structure and discipline of police work, and Blake’s well-modulated performance—gritty, funny, sympathetic, but hardly pleading—suits the humor and the toughened mettle of a man who may not be big enough (or paranoid enough) for the job.
The visions coaxed to life by Conrad Hall justify Wintergreen’s shifting self-regard— the celebrated director of photography conjures motorcycles cruising through air, warped by heat and compressed by long lenses-- images which have energy and forward thrust, but which are also powered by the ethereal beauty of strange, misplaced beasts in motion. Hall teases out the iconography of motorcycle-powered justice toward a much more ambiguous, unsettling end, intimating a very uneasy ride just ahead.
But director James William Guercio’s movie (his one and only, shot between gigs as producer of the music group Chicago, and featuring some of the band members in minor roles) finds just as much potency in immobility. It’s there in the looming monuments of the country through which those Arizona highways snake and wind. It’s there in the moments of repose when Wintergreen and his partner Zipper Davis (Billy Green Bush) are parked by the side of the asphalt, thinking and talking about everything and nothing. (Hall finds poetry in close Panavision glimpses of the hard gravel and sagebrush along the edges of the highway —you can almost smell the desert dust and feel the heat radiating off the pavement.) And it’s there in the movie’s horrifying final image, in which a cop is installed on the road like one of those monuments looming behind him, perhaps as yet another reminder of a bloody American past and the many fallen, aggressors and victims who couldn’t reconcile themselves to a country bent on tearing itself apart. Electra Glide in Blue refashions the countercultural martyrdom of Easy Rider into a blunt blow toward an entire nation profoundly divided, the darkest fate reserved for those who see both sides yet end up in the middle of the road.

(Electra Glide in Blue screens Friday and Saturday night, April 12 & 13, at the New Beverly Cinema here in Los Angeles, the front half of a "Something Old, Something New" double bill sponsored by the UCLA student chapter of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. The film's screenwriter, Robert Boris, will discuss the film with AMIA chapter president Ariel Schudson before Saturday evening's screening. Friday night's special guest will be Ron Perlman, who costars with Ryan Gosling, Albert Brooks and Carey Mulligan in the series' second feature, Nicolas Winding Refn's 2011 feature Drive. Advanced tickets can be purchased here.

Friday, April 05, 2013


The following piece was originally written for the 2012 AFI Fest, and I thought it was worth reposting on the occasion of the Los Angeles premiere of Room 237, Rodney Ascher's celebrated consideration of cinephilia and art filtered through some of the more obsessive responses to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. The movie has generated a lot of discussion since its profile began to rise last year thanks in part to a screening at the Cannes Film Festival, and that discussion will likely continue after today's release. In fact, it continues here, not only with my own review but a terrific interview Ascher did with Keith Uhlich for Time Out New York when the film made its East Coast bow last week. Here in Los Angeles the movie plays at the Laemmle Pasadena 7 and also at the Sundance Cinemas West Hollywood, where Ascher, producer Tim Kirk and John Fell Ryan, one of the theorists highlighted in the film, will appear for a Q&A moderated by the Los Angeles Times' Mark Olsen (tonight, 7:30 and 10:00) and Variety's Peter Debruge (tomorrow, 7:30 and 10:00).


When I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s film of The Shining back in the summer of 1980, one of the many questions swirling around in my head as I stumbled out of the theater into the midday sun was, Why would Kubrick change the number of the sinister hotel room from 217 (as it was in Stephen King’s book) to 237? It seemed like such a random choice, but it gnawed at me, right along with the many reservations I had about the movie itself. My own efforts to contemplate Kubrick’s motivation never moved beyond the rudimentarily mathematical, not to mention the absurdly inconsequential—“Is the director saying his movie is better than King’s book by, um, 20?”— before I gave up altogether.

 It’s been 32 years since the movie came out, and over the course of subsequent summers the movie—which got very mixed reaction from critics and audiences at the time—has been embraced by many as yet another Kubrick masterpiece. But it turns out some people never gave up wondering about that room number, and scores of other mysteries apparently buried within the text of the movie’s visual and aural design. Rodney Ascher’s delightful, nimbly directed, perplexing but never condescending Room 237 allows that freeform wonderment a postmodern sort of  forum, charting the conspiratorial theories of five people who have poked at the carcass of The Shining for decades, each unearthing wildly divergent, improbable, thought-provoking and, of course, conflicting conclusions.

The movie, blessedly talking heads-free, uses plenty of fair-use justified clips from Kubrick’s movie as a sort of an illustrative guide, functioning as an exhibit of evidence to support the various claims made by its multiple narrators, alongside scores of found footage and clips from other films, some directed by Kubrick, some not. If Room 237 never allows the viewer the luxury of “getting to know” the folks who have submersed themselves so profoundly into Kubrick’s methods, then the very nature of their obsessions provides clues for further psychological archaeology. One man claims the movie as a treatise on the genocide of the American Indian, another on the Holocaust. There’s a woman who tracks with three-dimensional precision the lay of the Overlook Hotel (Ascher cleverly places us inside her maps) and the meaning taken on as the various characters move through it. And two different observers focus on how Kubrick apparently used the nascent trend of technological manipulation of imagery (originated in the groundbreaking effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey) to his own end-- one weaving an elaborate theory involving that changed room number and Kubrick’s involvement in the faking of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the other postulating that the simplest answer to why the movie is so packed with seemingly random information might be the most reliable—Kubrick was bored.  

Room 237 has been criticized for elevating the nitpicking mania of marginalized viewers to the level of film criticism, and it is true that there’s a certain similarity between what goes on here and the sort of geeky-smart exegesis found in modern video essays, ones produced by reliably intelligent writers as well as the kookier fringes of the fanboy brigade. But what Ascher does here hardly negates 32 years of serious consideration of a movie that by no means holds a consensus of quality either among critics or the public. Some of the defensive railings against the film from reputable critics imply a presumption that Ascher lends credulity to either the notion that the theories in his film belong on the same platform as traditional film criticism, or to the veracity of the ideas themselves. But what makes Ascher’s approach admirable is his refusal to editorialize about his subjects, to use his movie to demonstrate a hipster’s directorial aloofness, a constant invitation to chortle at the plausibility of what’s being offered. The invitation is not to award these theorists the credibility of seasoned film critics but instead to allow the audience the luxury of deciding for themselves how to process the wildly conflicting information, a method strangely similar, if the interviewees are to be believed, to the one which Kubrick employs in his own film.

Ascher’s clever and illuminating movie ends up offering a road map into the consciousness of obsession not only of those have plumbed The Shining for its secrets, but also into that of any cinephile who has ever found a measure of passionate derangement in whatever their cinematic obsession might be, film critics included. To a certain degree it is to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining what Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams is to Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, a demented wrinkle on the traditional “making of” promotional documentary, with a particularly obsessed and gesticulating portion of the audience taking up the mantle of a notoriously reclusive director who is in death only marginally more reluctant to pontificate on his motivations than he would be if he were alive to see Room 237 for himself.


And here's a bonus for those who have read this far: Rodney Ascher's The S From Hell...


Thursday, April 04, 2013


 Red Angel is a decidedly nonhysterical movie about madness, specifically, the madness of war, but also the delirium of love, the levels of humiliation and ecstasy which can often be the final destination of romantic and sexual desire, and how the one can inform and overwhelm the other. In fact, the movie is frequently and paradoxically beautiful, visually, in its measured view of both the ghastly horrors of violated bodies, on the battlefield and spread out on the floor of a mobile army hospital, and in the repose from those horrors taken by Nurse Nishi (Ayako Wakao), the titular scarlet-stained merciful vessel, an inexperienced Japanese army nurse who finds herself confronted with violence from expected and unexpected places while serving on the Chinese front during World War II. 

Ayako is quietly spectacular in the role, a sturdy, graceful performance which, for all its incumbent harsh surroundings, couldn't be less ostentatious. Her introduction to the grim circumstances of the war comes first courtesy of a harshly matter-of-fact head nurse, who details expectations in the military hospital where she is first stationed, and rapidly thereafter at the mercy (or lack thereof) of a group of hospitalized soldiers who first sexually intimidate her and then carry through on their threats by viciously gang-raping her. Nishi, nicknamed Sakura-- Japanese for “cherry blossom,” a bloom noted for its short life-- is as idealized a character as that nickname implies. She bears up under the assault, and the prospect of more to come, with a steely reserve that never betrays the cold heart of anger or even apparent fear. She fully looks as though she’s resigned to taking as much abuse as these maddened soldiers, specified emblems and victims of the war itself, can dish out. It’s a resolve that is matched only by her tireless and unflinching efforts in the operating room, where director Yasuzo Masamura, filming the script by Ryozo Kazahara which was itself adapted from Yoriyoshi Arima’s novel, holds back little in the way of ghastly visions of limbs sawed and separated from bodies in often vain attempts, sans anesthesia, to save already shattered lives.

Director Masamura early on makes a strange but thematically resonant connection between the rape and Nishi’s duties as a nurse which ripples through the film and heighten its emotional effect. Nishi is held down by her attackers, all four limbs rendered helpless against the assault, in much the same way that Nishi, in concert with the rest of the surgical staff, must restrict the movements of soldiers whose limbs they must amputate. Later, fate reunites Nishi with her first attacker, and this time it is he who is immobilized and at her mercy, on the operating table. Rather than neglect him, she does her best to preserve his life, not wanting him to die thinking that she allowed to slip away from life out of a sense of vengeance, even though her efforts are ultimately futile. The operating theaters are dark and cold and forbidding chambers where the meaning of acts of morality tend to get blurred, lost in the shadows and the pools of blood gathering on the filthy floors.

Masamura’s wide-screen, black and white imagery serves the murky atmosphere of these makeshift corpse factories well. His mise-en-scene has a strange serenity about it, simultaneously documentary in quality-- you never mistake the gushers of blood and sounds of screams and breaking flesh for anything but realistic-- yet also subjective and slightly woozy, as if the camera itself had been anesthetized, taking in the gruesome sights and sounds with a calm that is clearly reflective of Nishi’s own, yet still able to clearly convey the pain stitched through the imagery like compromised fields of nerves and veins. The documentary and the surreal often get tangled up in images too, like the one of a basket full of arms and legs looking not as much like the discards of military surgery as surgical implements stacked neatly in a container, awaiting their moment. I had to quickly look, look away, and look back to make sure I was seeing exactly what it was I was seeing.

Masamura further escalates his strange emotional brew when Nishi is assigned duty at a hospital on the front under the command of Dr. Okabe (Shinsuke Ashida). She quickly bonds with, and becomes a sort of merciful lover to an armless soldier; Masamura’s handling of their encounters are beautifully rendered, deftly comingling eroticism with imagery of extreme physical scarring that somehow manages to denude that imagery of its most sensational, prurient aspects.  But it is to Okabe that Nishi seems most instantly attracted, to his forthrightness and sense of duty, of course, but also to his sense of helplessness in the face of such overwhelming human need, and to the doctor’s wavering conviction—he’s no longer sure that saving, or prolonging, some of these lives is even the right thing to do. When Okabe orders Nishi to his quarters after their shift is over, we brace ourselves for yet the next humiliation to be visited upon this strangely composed woman. But we soon discover that he longs only for Nishi’s company, and her medical skill at administering the nightly doses of morphine he needs to dull his psychic pain and allow sleep to overtake him. The naturalistic pace and tone of their scenes together are wonderful. These two drift around each other’s military assignations and professional attachments toward a mutual love—one which, on Nishi’s part, may also be informed by a serious case of father replacement syndrome. Their scenes together waiting for dawn, for sleep, for an unlikely connection, make nuanced, painful yet also delightful dances of delayed gratification.

With just the wrong emphasis or shift in tone, Red Angel might be easily dismissed as lurid romantic trash hiding under the pretensions of an antiwar statement. But it is a measure of Masamura’s achievement that the film avoids becoming a wallow in either political opportunism, the swooning theatrics of longing under extreme duress, or even the uncomfortably realistic surgical nightmares which it occasionally makes us privy to. And it resists the temptation to fall into these traps in the most subdued of means, through a directorial style that might seem at first detached, but whose careful attention to detail and restraint and genuine feeling actually reveals a heartfelt humanist sensibility which blossoms without the need for excessive congratulation—even Nishi’s measured response to her own trials at the beginning of the film come to seem marked more by a recognizable humanity than simply by impossible fortitude, and that’s because of the way Masamura guides us through what she sees and feels, as she makes her way toward the inevitable transcendence of the film’s conclusion.


Before making his own films, Yasuzo Masamura trained with the likes of Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni (Antonioni would one day even name Masamura as one of his favorite directors), and though he has not been universally acclaimed he is considered in some circles to be one of the greats of the new wave of Japanese filmmakers that also included Akira Kurosawa and Yazujiro Ozu. And up until this viewing of Red Angel, I was unfamiliar with the name Yasuzo Masamura. Considering that my previous adventures in the White Elephant Blog-a-thon, for which this piece has been respectfully, if somewhat tardily submitted, have sent me down the respective rabbit holes of Stewart Raffill (Mannequin 2: On the Move) and Alan Parker (The Life of David Gale), it is quite an unexpected treat to get to write about a movie for this annual festivity that is actually good, and to discover Masamura, definitely a subject for my own further very interested review. I don’t know who I have to thank, but I shall thank them nonetheless. Stacia, who had to review the movie I submitted, Robert Mulligan’s stagnant 1979 adaptation of Bernard Slade’s Broadway chestnut Same Time Next Year, is probably not feeling so generous toward me. You can check out links to Stacia’s hilarious, outrage-filled piece, and all the reviews for this year’s White Elephant Blog-a-thon, at Paul Clark’s Silly Hats Only.