Wednesday, September 26, 2018


This past weekend Michael Moore’s new movie Fahrenheit 11/9, about how the world as we know it in the Trump age came to be, didn’t set the box office on fire in the manner of his previous incendiary screed against the Bush administration, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). And speaking as someone who doesn’t watch box-office predictions like a hungry hawk, I didn’t really expect it to. A report I heard on NPR Monday morning said that it ranked #8 with US ticket-buyers with $3.3 million, which was, as they spun it, “one of the highest debuts for a political documentary ever,” though far short of the $23.9 raked in by Fahrenheit 11/9 on its opening weekend, and projecting far less than the $58 million take registered by Moore’s Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine (2002). In assessing the underwhelming weekend for Moore’s newest film, the Hollywood Reporter pointed out that “While it's true Fahrenheit 11/9 posted one of the biggest bows ever for a political doc, it is only the fourth political doc to launch nationwide, making comparisons tough.” (One of those “doc”s, Dinesh D’Souza’s logically impaired, dishwater-dull position paper Death of a Nation, met a similar financial fate.)

Obviously, the performance of Fahrenheit 11/9 is a disappointment in terms of expectations for the weekend box office, and particularly in comparison to the way Moore was able to capture much more of the public’s attention with some off his previous films. But should the paying public’s apparent indifference to Fahrenheit 11/9 be interpreted as a surprise or, worse, as a shrug directed toward the ongoing shitstorm of governmental corruption, greed, and institutional failure, all of which predated and laid the groundwork for the Trump administration? 

I think the answer to both questions is “no.” It may just be that the perception of Moore as a jokey op-ed muckraker means that he now, in a way that he didn’t in 2004, must coexist with a legion of late-night TV hosts and cable news operatives who are more than willing to take up the middle finger toward Trump and other atrocities of democracy, and who may all have contributed to Moore’s MO becoming overly familiar. Many folks in my liberal circle have made no bones about having had it up to here with Moore’s brand of self-aggrandizing propaganda, no matter how neatly his conclusions mesh with their own. So it may just be that, apart from any distaste for Moore himself, even those most likely to be aligned with Moore’s perspective, intuitively sensing that the new movie was not positioned as an astonishing tell-all dutifully bullet-pointing the outrages that anyone who has been half-awake for the past four years is already keenly aware, may have decided that gorging on more depressing news, however artfully packaged, was not the way to spend a Saturday night. It was however, the way I spent my Saturday night, and I found the movie to be terrifying, of course, but also far more compelling, moving, stirring, and dare I say hopeful, than my reservations about Moore’s previous films, particularly Bowling for Columbine, ever allowed me to suspect it would be as I went in.

More important than the movie’s status as a hit or a bomb, in my humble opinion, is the fact that the movie is out there in the mix at all. Of course, Moore is a blowhard, but as critic David Edelstein put it, he’s blowing hard in the right direction. And Sam Adams, in his perceptive review of the movie for Slate, suggests that the movie is a rousing piece of propaganda built precisely for these fearful times:

“(Moore’s) movies aren’t pretty, and they don’t play by the rules; they’re full of exaggerations and half-truths, slippery logic and jury-rigged timelines. But there are moments when half a truth feels like a generous helping, and Moore’s overarching points hit home with such force that sweating the details would be like picking fleas off a charging grizzly. We’re in such a moment now, and Moore knows it.”

As Adams suggests, there’s an urgency to Moore’s purpose here, and to his work as a filmmaker, which may mean the audience who will be most affected by the arguments and the exegeses he’s managed to coalesce in this new polemic will find their way to it, even if they don’t charge right out to lay down $17 for the privilege. Fahrenheit 11/9 isn’t designed to change anyone’s mind. And Moore understands that the $3.3 million shelled out this weekend to see his movie (it’s not, in any traditional sense, a documentary) came largely from the wallets of the choir to whom he’s preaching. Which is fine because the movie isn’t even primarily an anti-Trump screed. It’s not simply a movie about how Trump got elected, about Trump soundbites and tweets and rallies, about complacent Democrats and an arrogant media who couldn’t conceive of Trump getting elected, about porn actresses and pee tapes and the candidate’s hard-on for despots around the world whom he seeks to emulate. Some of that, plus the devastating reminder of what it was like to experience Election Night 2016 if you didn’t own a MAGA hat, is all in the first ten minutes. 

Instead, the movie is a well-argued, devastating polemic, not without its asides, distractions and arguable truths, all of which are manipulated brilliantly by Moore’s admirable, artful skill as an editor and filmmaker, which suggests the roots of what brought Trump to power can be laid at least partially at the feet of an ineffectual Democratic Party establishment who misrepresented primary election results themselves and refused to respond to the arrogant, out-in-the-open malfeasance in which the Trump campaign indulged. (Moore doesn’t hide his support for Bernie Sanders, but neither does he wield it like a self-righteous club.) Blame even belongs as Moore tells it, at the feet of Barack Obama himself, whose curiously glib response to the escalating water crisis in Flint, Michigan, alienated African-American voters in the state and inspired millions of other voters to throw up their hands in the defeated belief that their vote no longer mattered. All of which, of course, laid the groundwork for Trump’s narrow margin of victory in Michigan and many of the other states he ended up carrying. (Moore reserves an eloquently-expressed well of outrage for the notion that a candidate could win the popular vote and yet, due to an antiquated and irrelevant chestnut like the Electoral College, could not win the election itself, and we in the audience on Saturday night responded audibly in kind.)

In other words, Fahrenheit 11/9 isn’t simply an exercise in holding the feet of familiar demons to the fire. Among the roasted are Democrats and the Democratic Party, Republicans, rabid MAGA deplorables, mealy-mouthed, excuse-making senators, citizens who have abdicated their right to participate in the electoral process, newly empowered racists-- even Moore himself, who doesn’t exactly come off looking great during footage of himself and Trump on a long-forgotten Roseanne Barr talk show in which the filmmaker acquiesces to The Donald’s demands that the radical socialist loudmouth not go after the unrepentant capitalist con man on TV. (Moore makes nice and lives to regret it.) Nor does the movie reflect well on Moore within this context when it’s revealed that Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon once both invested money to produce and distribute previous Michael Moore films. In Moore’s view, we all need to wake up, and Fahrenheit 11/9 is the alarm bell. 

But it’s that examination of the Flint water crisis, and the tactics employed by Michigan governor Rick Snyder to reroute the city’s water supply via a newly constructed and entirely superfluous pipeline from Lake Huron, its previous resource, to the foul and brackish Flint River, that turns out to be the filmmaker’s ace in the hole. What seems at first like just another typically Moore-ish swerve away from the main issue, a self-aggrandizing attempt to solidify the director’s status as Our Main Man Flint—at one point he loads up a tanker full of Flint drinking water and douses the lawn of the governor’s mansion with it-- turns out instead to be a meticulously argued, painfully trenchant piece of reportage, in which the horrendously callous actions of Snyder and his administration are exposed to be a literally poisonous act of aggression toward an entire populace. It’s this angry, painstaking examination which illuminates the degree to which Snyder, a miniature Trump-in-waiting, emulates the deceptive and manipulative methodology of the current president, a microcosm of greed and corruption made routine and, judging by the indifference of governmental politics, acceptable. 

Later, Moore connects Trump with another despot, with less immediately satisfying results, opting to put Trump’s words literally into the mouth of Hitler in a poorly conceived “Bad Lipreading”-style segment which, against the expectation set by the audio stunt, leads into one of the film’s strongest sections. The joke smacks of unwarranted desperation, because the argument Moore builds, through the editorial testimony of newspapers, the eyewitness account of a 99-year-old lawyer who was at Nuremberg, and Hitler’s own recounted words and deeds, clarifies (almost) without hyperbole the importance of recognizing the terrifying parallels between Germany and the rise of Nazism and Trump’s ascendance to American power and is strong enough that the Trump-voiced Hitler bit registers only as a pointless distraction. (I say “almost” because the inference Moore draws between the Reichstag fire, set and used by Hitler to set up an emergency state that eventually consolidated Nazi power, and the attacks of September 11, 2001, is a familiar stretch that even the filmmaker is wise enough not to press too hard here.) 

Of course, Moore's work primarily addresses those who already accept his premise that the country is in a very, very bad place right now, and not just due to the slimy activities of the man who lost the popular vote yet was still elected president. His purpose it is not so much to confirm their (our) beliefs as to shake them (us) into action, because what’s at stake in Fahrenheit 11/9 is an understanding that Trump is not the end game, he's merely a symptom. Yet what’s perhaps most understandable about the way Fahrenheit 11/9 was perceived by the public, the choir as well as the unbelievers, before they ever saw the film can be found in the apocalyptic tone of its advertising, especially the TV ads showing the image of a newly-elected Trump projected onto the side of the Empire State Building, with Moore’s voiceover intoning ominously, “Ladies and gentlemen, the last president of the United States.” Moore has publicly, and certainly within the framework of this film, largely rejected hope as a fallback position in favor of insistence on activism, but I think that ad line crosses over into pessimism, and the director apparently recognized as much, because it’s nowhere to be heard in the film itself, pessimism and refusal to rest easy in hope being two quite different stances. 

Moore bolsters his own brand of hope by diminishing his own on-screen presence in the film and giving strong voice to progressive grassroots politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashia Tlaib and Michael Hepburn, as well as citizens like Flint mother LeeAnn Walters, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who heads up the medical effort to address dangerous levels of lead in Flint children as a result of the water crisis, and whistle-blower April Cook-Hawkins, who refused to fudge reports of hazardous lead levels to make them appear to be within an “acceptable” range. 

If these people embody the incensed willingness to resist the nation’s tilting-toward-Fascism which Moore so effectively argues, then his giving over the film’s final section to the ignited activism of the survivors of the Parkland high school massacre, and their collective eloquence to power, marks the foundation of Moore’s true hope. Again, there is nothing included here regarding this awful chapter in modern American horror that will surprise anyone who has been engaged and attentive over the last few years. But it’s the spirit of these young people, who took up their own cause and beliefs, organized marches and rallies, and confronted the political weasels who refuse to put the safety of American kids over their own rapacious desire for NRA money, which Moore leaves us with. 

The image of Emma Gonzalez, purposefully pausing during her famously impassioned and outraged speech immediately after the Parkland shootings, silent, waiting, looking directly into the camera, and the manner in which Moore cuts away, leaving the afterimage of her gaze, insistent, demanding answers, might just be the most powerful moment in a movie that itself is probably the best, most impassioned work this director has ever delivered. Fahrenheit 11/9 wants to rattle you, to move you, to bring you to tears, and it does. See it now, while it’s still in theaters, and get ready for the November midterm elections, or wait and see it at home-- given it’s diminished box-office take, who knows if a home video release might not be coming before November as well. However you end up seeing it, the film’s urgency demands an audience. 

For further reading, here are some reviews of Fahrenheit 11/9 from some critics who are far more eloquent on the subject than I am:

Sam Adams 
David Edelstein
Sophia A. McClennen
Stephen Whitty
And an interview with Michael Moore at Vulture.


Saturday, September 15, 2018


In its inaugural year, 2005, I began writing for the Muriel Awards, a year-end voting collective dedicated to summing up the year’s achievements which features accompanying essays by its members, and I’ve written for them every year since. Six years ago, Muriels creator Paul Clark (the award is named after his beloved guinea pig, and why the hell not?!) initiated the Muriels Hall of Fame, a separate division which is, as Clark puts it, “an attempt to honor the finest achievements in classic cinema.” In order to be considered qualified for Muriel HOF induction, a film must be a minimum of 50 years old, based on the date of release recorded by IMDb, as of the end of the previous calendar year.

Well, the distinguished members of the Muriels Hall of Fame Class of 2018 have been announced. In fact, Clark and the Muriels started announcing them a little over a month ago, on August 11. So, I am only 33 days delinquent in passing along the news, which, given that the oldest among this year’s inductees was first seen 116 years ago, may not be the greatest crime against urgency I could have committed. But still, a month is a month, and I don’t wanna linger no longer.

The cutoff year for the 2018 inductees was 1967, and it so happens that three of this year’s collection of 17 came out in that year, enough for Clark to suggest, in introducing the Muriel HOF picks on Facebook, that 1967 might arguably be the greatest year in movie history, a suggestion which would be, of course, a matter for another debate at another time. But suffice it to say that the 2018 Muriels HOF choices range far beyond a mere 50 years ago; movies from 1963, 1957, 1956, 1948, 1946 (again, three of ‘em), 1942, 1939, 1937, 1933, 1932, 1922 and 1902, all worthy selections, well represent this year’s class.

And, as in years past, each selection is accompanied by a short essay by one of the Muriels voters extoling the virtues of each film, and as in years past it is these pieces that really help make the Muriel Awards stand out, whether it’s the Hall of Fame or the regular year-end features you happen to be reading. Once again, I am honored to have been asked to contribute some words on behalf of one of my choices; a link to that piece, and to all the essays in this year’s Hall of Fame collection can be found below, alongside a little taste of what you’ll get by clicking the link on the title to read the whole megillah. (My favorite this year: Christianne Benedict on King Kong.)

A multitude of thanks to Paul Clark for allowing me to be a part of what is a very enjoyable annual tradition, and to all the contributors who have this year, like in all years since the Muriels began, made the Muriels Hall of Fame a worthy institution in the ongoing commemoration of great classic films.

And now, the Muriels Hall of Fame Class of 2018.


The Best Years of Our Lives (1946; William Wyler)

In somewhat of a departure from most war movies of its time, this one spends its time examining not the conflict itself, what comes after, once the blood has cooled and the body politic returns to a state of equanimity and peace. In its masterstroke of genius, it gives us a clear-eyed and often prophetic look at the symptoms and side-effects of what later become known as post-traumatic stress disorder.” (Donald G. Carder)

Bicycle Thieves (1948; Vittorio De Sica)

“The simplicity of the film's fable-like story may seem like a concession to mainstream sentimentality (which is true), but it's also the key to the film's power and universality. A man, in a recognizable, grounded world, tries to succeed for his family, fails, but survives. Out of this emerges social critique on one level, childhood nightmare on another, and ultimately lasting art.”  (Jeff McMahon)

The Big Sleep (1946; Howard Hawks)

“The central mystery is messy, for sure (just ask Schrodinger’s chauffeur), with a lot of the original text’s more lurid and exciting details excised. But it’s okay, the film itself says to the viewer, what Will Hays doesn’t know won’t hurt him, and so we make a deal with the film, and it creates its own way of speaking the unspeakable. In a way, The Big Sleep is a great way to teach straight people about queer subtext, as Martha Vickers’ exquisite performance as troubled sister Carmen is steeped in letting us know that there is much more happening with her than the film is allowed to show or tell. And truthfully, is there anything not made better by the presence of Elisha Cook, Jr.?” (Jason Shawhan)

Cat People (1942; Jacques Tourneur)

The film’s scenes of Irena stalking her romantic rival after changing into a big cat are justly iconic; cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca sculpts a world of fear out of the delicate shadows. It’s a landmark of expressionistic lighting shot cheap on recycled sets. Its darkest magic, however, is Simon’s performance. The French actress plays Irena as both victim and monster, a tangle of tenderness, vulnerability, guilt, and dysphoria. Disquiet lies across her feline countenance and in the folds of her accent.” (Alice Stoehr)

Freaks (1932; Tod Browning)

“The exploitative fascination with the ‘freaks’ and the chance to gawk at them obviously was a driving factor in the film being made at all (and the ensuing controversy), but alongside the exploitation resides a compassion to imagine a fiction of normalcy and community for them, and a regard for the disabled to be seen. This regard and compassion has seldom been seen since except generally through the prism of big celebrities (able-bodied celebrities) who have feigned disabilities in films designed specifically to inspire general audiences and win awards. This is key to why the only film Jonathan Rosenbaum can compare the poetic Iranian leper colony documentary The House Is Black is Freaks. The mere fact of even allowing certain people to be seen can be considered a radical statement in itself.” (Patrick J. Miller)

Grand Illusion (1937; Jean Renoir)

Through a combination of authenticity of vision, a perfect script, suitably war-torn settings and a host of fine performances, the director conjures up an image of what might be called the last hurrah of the lost generation. Opposing career officers Von Rauffenstein and Boeldieu, aristocratic enough to speak three languages fluently, meet to discuss the dimming of their society by the war. The German carries on, spinal injuries and metal skull plates and all, to ‘give the illusion of serving my country.’ Is this illusion of patriotism the ‘grand illusion’ of the title, or is it rather the illusion of class divide? Men may be from different classes and nationalities, but they remain men, whether they sing ‘Watch on the Rhine’, ‘La Marseillaise’ or ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.’”  (Sam Juliano)

King Kong (1933; Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper)

“Unlike many of its inheritors, King Kong is surprisingly complex. Many films intended for the largest of mass audiences offer every viewer the same experience, like an amusement park ride. But not Kong. By contrast, it is a Rorschach test. The audience gets what it brings to it. Is Carl Denham a hero or a villain? Is the film an admiring allegory for colonialism or is it a critique? Is Kong a lover or a rapist or an allegory for an insecure adolescent suitor? It may be all of these things, or even none of them, depending on where one is in life when watching the film. I once compared Kong’s rampage in New York City to Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, and I was only halfway joking.” (Christianne Benedict)

Night and Fog (1956; Alain Resnais)

“To name all of the unbearably moving subtleties of Night and Fog would be too long for the scope of this piece, but the short’s profound power comes from its perfect union of sound and image. Cayrol’s words, as read with impassive urgency by Michel Bouquet, hold within their matter-of-fact veneer such horror and anguish at this degradation and extermination, one that was driven by a systematic, utterly cold complex of systems. Resnais leaves the viewer with many questions, but he unflinchingly conveys the fundamental contradiction in the normalized conceptions of the Holocaust that persist to this day: it was (and is) at once unimaginable and inevitable.”  (Ryan Swen)

Nosferatu (1922; F.W. Murnau)

The makeup is iconic, but it's in the body language, in the stiff unfamiliar poses and lurching movements. It is no mistake that whenever anyone takes it into their head to make vampires scary again they so often come back to this design, the bald pate, sunken eyes, hands like jagged claws. Vampirism not as an ascent up the evolutionary chain but a long slide down it, nto the feral waiting arms of our worst hungers and impulses.” (Bryce Wilson)

Out of the Past (1946; Jacques Tourneur)

“Although I couldn't name a favorite film noir, Out of the Past is nevertheless one of those movies that I would never, ever part with if consigned to the proverbial desert island. When I think of what we mean by the phrase “film noir,” chances are THIS is the film I'm thinking about. It’s got everything encompassed by “noir”: deep and telling shadows, an inescapable past leading to a bitter doom, and the most fatal of femmes fatale. Robert Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey is the very model of a morally compromised noir hero, one who is tangled in the web of a criminal past, one whose easy morals lead him into a downward spiral. The film builds him out of shadows and into shadows he is consigned.” (Christianne Benedict)

Playtime (1967; Jacques Tati)

“In the category of ‘super-expensive personal visions that basically ruined a director's career,’ Playtime is hard to beat, leading Tati into debt for the rest of his life. And yet, what a glorious folly, a quiet, delicate symphony about the absurdity of everyday urban life that rewards patient observance and attention to tiny details, from the smirk of a waiter to the buzz of a neon light.” (Jeff McMahon)

Point Blank (1967; John Boorman)

“Start watching Point Blank at any point in the movie and you'll immediately be able to tell that it was made in the latter half of the sixties. It's the hair, the clothes. It's the interior decor, full of bright ochres and gaudy mirrors. It's in what qualifies, apparently, as courtship. At the same time, a good fifty years on, the film feels startlingly modern. The past bleeds into the present, just as sound from one scene will bleed into another. Words are repeated, or sometimes omitted altogether; images are refracted. An escape from Alcatraz is told through elision, using stills that aren't ever quite entirely still.” (Hedwig van Driel)

Scorpio Rising (1963; Kenneth Anger)

“Anger seems to be suggesting that, on their own, these men can be human, but once they get together, mob mentality overtakes humanity. An hypothesis later evidenced by Anger’s befriending of Bobby Beausoleil, who then joined up with the Manson Family and murdered Gary Hinman. Any zen found in motorcycle maintenance has been traded in for ephemeral pleasures of group terror. The heightened danger is clear in the second half’s song titles as well: “Torture,” “Point of No Return,” and finally “Wipeout.” The final race was filmed the day after the Halloween party. Anger didn’t have a solid ending in mind while making the film, but when one of the bikers crashed, snapped his neck and died right in front of the camera, he found it. (Kevin Cecil)

A Trip to the Moon (1902; Georges Méliès)

“Perhaps the most potent magic of A Trip to the Moon, certainly its greatest legacy for modern viewers, may be how effortlessly it transports the receptive audience back to a state where everything about the medium of motion pictures was new, marvelous, frightening, too much to process rationally. It leaves us in a mode of receptivity to the gorgeous, lunatic whims of its creator, to the true imaginative magic of seeing and believing, that should be the envy of anyone who, after having seen it, decides to try and tell a story on film. To be transported so wholly into the mind and spirit of a filmmaker is a true rarity, and Méliès set the bar very high very early. It’s no wonder that the trajectory of movie history, and its relentless pursuit of ever-greater levels of spectacle, of ‘realism,’ has had most filmmakers hightailing it in the opposite direction from Méliès’ stylistic marvel ever since.”  (Dennis Cozzalio)

Wavelength (1967; Michael Snow)

Wavelength is useful not merely as perhaps the purest example of avant-garde cinema as an instrument of measuring time, but also as the negative image of narrative. It is everything 'popular' cinema is not. The story is diffuse and handed out in small doses over the 45 agonizing and beautiful minutes of the movie. It has no beginning or end, it's simply occurring, like any given passage of our lives. It stares past, in fact, the action that its director has organized. It too means something, but the film is not defined by the action. It is defined by its own action, a reflexive creation measured in the minutes it ticks by and the slow inches and feet it travels (the length of a loft).” (Scout Tayofa)

What's Opera, Doc?  (1957; Charles M. Jones)

“What’s Opera, Doc? is Jones plopping a standard issue Bugs and Elmer cartoon into a more ominous structure, making it the greatest cartoon Warner Bros. ever produced. As his Road Runner cartoons prove, Jones loves to exercise creative discipline, and he’s a stickler for the obstructions he gives himself. So, spoofing Wagner means incorporating the tragedy and magic integral to his plots. This makes Elmer an actual threat rather than simply a comic foil; his ‘sample’ of spear and magic helmet power is far more accurate in its destruction than his usual shotgun marksmanship. ‘Bye!’ Bugs says to us just after the tree he’s standing under gets obliterated by Elmer’s ‘Flying Dutchman’-scored lightning bolts.” (Odie Henderson)

The Wizard of Oz (1939; Victor Fleming)

“Even taking into account the ways that the studio system has changed since the 1930s, The Wizard of Oz is remarkably idiosyncratic for a movie with near-universal appeal. Dark Side of the Rainbow isn’t an entirely ironic juxtaposition – the movie’s Technicolor renderings of Baum’s world and its characters are genuinely trippy, its more hallucinatory moments amplified by the way they nestled into our consciousness when most of us were kids. And, for many of us, the fear it inspired was as indelible as its sense of wonder; the first time I attempted to watch the film, the first time Margaret Hamilton appeared, I promptly ejected the tape and would have no more of it that day.” (Andrew Bemis)

And some Muriels Hall of Fame 2018 Class parting thoughts from curator Paul Clark.

See you in January, Muriel.


Saturday, September 08, 2018

BURT REYNOLDS (1936-2018)

This past week Burt Reynolds, perhaps the most self-deprecating movie star to ever cruise to box-office domination, died during a hospital stay in Jupiter, Florida, at the age of 82.  “I’m pretty passionate about my work,” he once said, “even though I sometimes have this realization on the second day of shooting that I’m doing a piece of shit. So, I can do one of two things: I can just take the money, or I can try to be passionate. But the name of the boat is still the Titanic.” Yes, on top of being effortlessly likable and undeniably sexy, Reynolds was naturally funny too. And yes, there are a lot of confirmed pieces of shit floating around out there in which he received top billing. But even if the bad ones in his oeuvre outnumber the good ones (and I would argue that this is indeed the case), and even if Reynolds never developed the sense of daring or artistic depth that characterized the late innings of his closest ‘70s box-office competition, Clint Eastwood, the actor and his grinning, mustachioed mug can still be found gracing some of the most enduringly popular pictures of the period.

Of Reynolds’ early movies, I suppose the softest spot I have is reserved for the comedy western Sam Whisky (1969), in which Reynolds matches wits (and looks) with Angie Dickinson. And his comic cameos in movies like Silent Movie (1976) and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*but were afraid to ask) (1972) made clear that Reynolds’ action roles weren’t always fully tapping his talents. It really wouldn’t be until his self-directed suicide farce The End (1978) that he’d find himself front-and-center going for laughs.

But much of the ostensibly more serious stuff was pretty funny too. The raw punches of The Longest Yard (1974), the prison football classic which marked Reynolds’ first of two collaborations with director Robert Aldrich, had a lot of mean and dirty laughs packed into it, and there are plenty of smiles in store for anyone sidling up to a visit with W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings (1975) or to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). But Colin Higgins’ adaptation of that randy stage hit wasn’t even Reynolds’ first foray into musicals—that honor would go to Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love (1975), a flop upon release and much derided, though as ripe a candidate for reassessment as anything in Reynolds’ filmography. Of course, the quintessential Burt Reynolds movie is Smokey and the Bandit (1977), has the power to break down even the most resistant viewer’s resolve. Jackie Gleason gets the biggest, most raucous laffs as the apoplectic sheriff Buford T. Justice, but the movie’s ease-on-down-the-back highway vibe is all Reynolds and the Bandit. Even as a CB-loving kid I never much got onto Smokey and the Bandit’s wavelength, but I was delighted to discover just a few years ago that the movie was a lot more fun than I was ever willing to give it credit for, and Jerry Reed’s “Eastbound and Down” theme song is without a doubt one of the great, irresistible earworms in all of cinema.

Reynolds’ association with Smokey’s director, ex -stuntman Hal Needham, would yield five more pictures, each, in my view, lazier and more dispiriting than the last—movies like Hooper, Smokey and the Bandit II, The Cannonball Run, Cannonball Run II and Stroker Ace played as though Reynolds was only in it for the money and the beer. But the breezy charm of the original Bandit (my friend Larry Aydlette calls it the redneck comedy Preston Sturges would have made) can make you forget all those desultory pictures with ease. It still outshines even the career resurgence marked by 1997’s Boogie Nights, which snagged Reynolds an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, though it was not the sort of career resurgence he (and we) were clearly hoping for. It wasn't long before Reynolds and his freshly renewed high-profile backslid into production of another string of forgettable pictures that he seemed to care very little about.


My short list of Reynolds favorites would have to include The Longest Yard, White Lightning (1973), Smokey and the Bandit and Sam Whisky, and I am lining up to revisit and reassess pictures like The End, Semi-Tough (1978), Sharky’s Machine (1981) and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. (I don’t need to see 1979’s Starting Over again—after several visits I remain unconvinced.) And when it comes to underrated Reynold’s pictures, the number-one candidate is, to my mind, Hustle (1975), the second of the Reynolds-Aldrich collaborations, a mesmerizing, melancholy, French-inflected policier costarring Catherine Denueve, Paul Winfield and Ben Johnson that is as far from the standard action fare it was sold as, as White Lightning and Gator are from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (And speaking of underrated, I’d put White Lightning in that category too— it shares the bootlegging concerns of Reynolds’ biggest hit, of course, but it has a hard-cut spirit which resides much closer to the dark undercurrent coursing through The Longest Yard than to Smokey’s “What, me worry?” sensibility, and 45 years later it packs an unexpected punch.)

But without a doubt, my favorite Burt Reynolds movie, the best Burt Reynolds movie, is clearly Deliverance (1972), the movie in which he was unexpectedly cast (by his own admission) and which consolidated his increasingly popular personality with that of a real actor with undeniable talent, a bona fide movie star. It’s hard for me to understate how important this movie was for me growing up, in terms of its impact on my kid mind in learning to expand my idea of what the language of movies could encompass, as well as what I was ready for just on a personal level. And today, as we all mourn the passing of its biggest and most imposing presence, I am more grateful than ever that I was able to see Burt Reynolds, John Boorman, Ned Beatty and Jon Voight (no Ronny Cox) gathered together at the TCM Film Festival in 2013 to hear them all talk about it. The following is the story, written for my blog soon after the event, of being at that screening five years ago. The man is now dead, but we all know the answer to the question he himself posed in Boorman’s great film. Who has the ability to survive? Burt Reynolds, especially in Deliverance, that’s who.   


Once I arrived in Hollywoodfor day two of the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, I settled into my spot toward the front of the theater in anticipation of seeing Deliverance on the big screen for the first time since 1973, when I was a 13-year-old high school freshman. I was already fairly movie savvy at that age, and I’d heard talk about the movie circulating since its release—by the time it made it to our hometown theater the Academy Awards for 1972 had already passed, so word of the grueling nightmares that awaited its four weekend adventurers (and those who bought tickets to see it) had trickled down even to the most isolated corners of Southern Oregon. But even if I knew (more or less) what to expect, my dad, who barely paid attention to the movies, wouldn’t have known Deliverance from Up the Creek. So when I cleverly appealed to his taste for the outdoors and casually suggested that maybe we could go see that new canoeing movie (I needed that accompanying adult to circumvent the “R” rating), he glanced at the tiny ad on the local movie calendar, which conveniently showed only the name of the movie, pictures of the actors looming over a silhouette of three men paddling their boat, and an ominous tag line (“Where does the camping trip end… and the nightmare begin?”), and agreed to take me to see it. Success!

But I did not count on my mom’s interest. Unexpectedly, she decided to tag along, and I ended up sitting between the two of them for the entire movie. As the attack on Ned Beatty and Jon Voight began, I realized I may have miscalculated the situation, and my own comfort level, somewhat. The scene was much more frightening than I anticipated, so much so that upon viewing the movie later as an adult I realized that even at 13 I didn’t fully comprehend what was really going on, even to the point of blocking out some of the more graphic details and suggestions that were right there on screen. And I distinctly remember being aware of my mom staring daggers at me during that scene and at several points afterward, telegraphing just how much trouble I was in for when the lights finally did come up. (Curiously, I have very little memory of my dad’s reaction to the scene.)

Deliverance has, in the years since that fateful night, loomed large in my own personal movie mythology, for that experience with my parents but also because the movie has remained such a powerful and difficult experience all on its own. And I certainly never would have guessed that 40 years after my first somewhat traumatic experience with the movie I would be seeing it again in the presence of four of the men who helped make it. But here I was, in a packed house, the lights dimmed to darkness, watching the silhouetted figures of Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, Burt Reynolds and director John Boorman being guided to the stage where, once the lights came up again, they would be interviewed by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz as an introduction to the morning’s beautiful DCP presentation of the movie. When the TCM Classic Film Festival schedule was first announced, only Jon Voight had been lined up to participate in the screening. But as Reynolds, Boorman and Beatty were eventually announced buzz surrounding the appearance began to build, and by the time the panel began the big auditorium was packed. (If only Ronny Cox, Vilmos Zsigmond and perhaps even Billy Redden could have been there!)

To say it was a delight to see these actors and this director gathered together on the same stage to celebrate this movie would be a hugely deficient description. Boorman, 80 at the time, seemed to these eyes as vital and engaged as he did when I saw him introduce Hope and Glory at a UCLA screening 30 years ago, and even though his production has tailed off since 2006 he seemed ready to go, quite enjoying revisiting what must have been a grueling physical experience in attempting to exact visual poetry to match or at least stand beside the language of James Dickey’s novel while on such a logistically challenging shoot. With all respect given to Boorman, Voight assumed the role of éminence grise on the panel, offering a few anecdotes to lead off the discussion (moderated by Ben Mankiewicz) before more-or-less ceding the spotlight to his costars.

Reynolds was delightful in what for him amounted to a somewhat stately repose, his casual wit and charm slowed somewhat by age but not dimmed in terms of pure zing—he still has the power to evoke all those star-making, wattage-sustaining appearances on the couch next to Johnny Carson. He still, near the end of a long career balanced by box-office stardom and eventual audience indifference, seemed in awe of the fact that he was cast at all in Deliverance, a vote of confidence from Boorman which still resonates for him today. “I may have been in 90 movies,” the actor intoned as the panel came to a close, “but I feel like I’ve really only been in one film.” If the line seemed a little honed and polished from use since the 40thanniversary celebrations of this movie began a year or so ago, it was also marked by sincerity, something not always in ample supply among the many arched eyebrows that have marked Reynolds’ long career.

But by far the most amusing was Beatty. At first he seemed to regard the comments of his fellow actors with a kind of gruff mask of stone-faced patience, the kind a beleaguered grandparent might put on in the face of misbehaving children before the inevitable furious eruption.  But when Mankiewicz finally swung the spotlight in his direction, Beatty seized the stage with a theatrical flurry of grumpiness that was a marvel to behold, mock dressing-down the “Hollywood Boulevard crowd” packing the auditorium and simultaneously winking at the two-ton elephant in the room. (“I know why you’re all here!”) The TCM host finally worked up the gumption to ask Beatty about the experience of this being his first movie, the scene being its nightmare centerpiece, and Beatty recalled Boorman worrying over how he felt about playing a scene of such heinous victimization. “Well, it’s acting, isn’t it?” Beatty recalled responding, thus dispelling the trauma viewers of Deliverance have for four decades imagined the actor must have suffered as a result of such on-screen degradation.

The movie itself remains uniquely powerful, one of the most brilliant exercises in foreboding and sustained, indefinable dread I think I’ve ever seen, as well as a savvy and damning dissection of the codes of macho authority so often celebrated without examination in American action thrillers. As I alluded earlier, Boorman finds a way into Dickey’s book by not allowing its specifically literary pleasures to haunt the film in absentia, by infusing even its most placid imagery of water, nature, and nature defiled with the suggestion of the fury and fear present when all hell rises to the surface and sets its own inexplicable course.

And speaking of surfaces, I’d always thought Pauline Kael was probably right when, in her review of Carrie, she suggested that by staging the interrupted nightmare that ends the 1976 film Brian De Palma had managed to pull off the sort of cinematic boo-job that Boorman muffed at the end of Deliverance. But after seeing the movie here, it struck me that while the juxtaposition of the hand rising to the glassy surface of the river with Voight’s Drew lurching up out of bed, away from (but never far enough away from) the horrible memories of his experience, doesn’t have the adrenalized shock of De Palma’s sequence, what Boorman does hardly qualifies as a mistake. Rather than use the hard cut from dream to reality, in Deliverance Boorman employs an appropriately more fluid, fairly rapid lap dissolve to shift between images. The final effect then is not the gasping leap out of the nightmare, but rather something more reflective of the ineffable disorientation one feels, even when awakened with a start, in the transition from a horror-filled dream back into a reality where the horror insists on lingering. It’s a transition that seems well-tailored to the wide-screen nightmare Ed and Bobby and Lewis, and the audience, have just survived.


                                 (photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Spike TV)

Jon Voight’s Bobby leaves Deliverance haunted. But I have a feeling that Burt Reynolds will rest in peace, his last days filled with praise for his past work from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, who was preparing Reynolds for an appearance in his upcoming Manson-era epic Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Reynolds had been cast as George Spahn, the owner of the ranch which served as the de facto headquarters for Charles Manson and his “family” during the time of the Tate-La Bianca murders. The actor would not live to shoot what might have been a great coda to a long career of making audiences happy, and later in the game making a long list of movies which audiences weren’t even aware existed. But no matter. Though Reynolds is himself now eastbound and down, the legacy of the Bandit, Gator McCluskey, W.W Bright, Paul Crewe, Sheriff Earl Dodd, Hooper and Sam Whisky drive on, with perhaps some long overdue reassessment of Reynolds’ talent as an actor in the wings as well. However, there is no need to reassess the man’s essential appeal. He was and always shall be the very definition of a modern major movie star.