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#328 May 15, 2018

Matt writes: The 2018 Cannes Film Festival is in full swing, and publisher Chaz Ebert is there to cover all the highlights. Check our site's official Cannes page where you will find all the coverage penned by Barbara Scharres, Ben Kenigsberg and Lisa Nesselson, as well as video dispatches from Chaz. Embedded below is her first from this year, which provides a breakdown of the jury as well as various enticing selections from filmmakers such as Asghar Farhadi, Spike Lee and Jean-Luc Godard.


The great movies (almost) nobody voted for

OK, this is where it really gets interesting. Forget the consensus Top 50 Greatest Movies of All Time; let's get personal. Sight & Sound has now published the top 250 titles in its 2012 international critics poll, the full list of more than 2,000 movies mentioned, and all the individual lists of the 845 participating critics, academics, archivists and programmers, along with any accompanying remarks they submitted. I find this to be the most captivating aspect of the survey, because it reminds us of so many terrific movies we may have forgotten about, or never even heard of. If you want to seek out surprising, rewarding movies, this is a terrific place to start looking. For the past few days I've been taking various slices at the "data" trying to find statistical patterns, and to glean from the wealth of titles some treasures I'd like to heartily recommend -- and either re-watch or catch up with myself.

I know we're supposed to consider the S&S poll a feature film "canon" -- a historically influential decennial event since 1952, but just one of many. I don't disagree with Greg Ferrara at TCM's Movie Morlocks ("Ranking the Greats: Please Make it Stop") when he says that limiting ballots to ten all-time "best" (or "favorite," "significant," "influential" titles is incredibly limiting. That's why I think perusing at the critics' personal lists, the Top 250 (cited by seven critics or more) and the full list of 2,045 films mentioned is more enjoyable pastime.

It's wise to remember that, although the top of the poll may at first glance look relatively conservative or traditional, there's a tremendous diversity in the individual lists. Even the top vote-getter, "Vertigo," was chosen by less than one quarter of the participants.


Opening Shots: The Player

From Jason Haggstrom (haggie), Reel 3:

The opening shot of Robert Altman's "The Player" establishes the film as a self-reflexive deconstruction of the Hollywood system and those who run it. With its prolonged shot length, the take is also designed as a means to introduce the bevy of players who work on the lot and to setup the film's general plot--or at least its tone--as a thriller/murder mystery.

The first image in this extended opening shot is of a film set--a painting of one, to be precise. We hear the sounds of a film crew before a clapper pops into the frame. The (off-screen) director shouts "And... action" informing the audience that the film should be viewed as a construct, a film. The camera tracks back to reveal its location on a Hollywood studio lot where movies are described not in accolades of quality, but of quantity with an oversized sign that reads, "Movies, now more than ever."

The lot is filled with commotion. Writers come and go (some invited, some not) as do executives, pages, and assistants. The political hierarchy is highlighted through dialog and interactions that expose the value system of Hollywood. The most powerful arrive by car; high-end models pervade the mise-en-scène in all of the take's exterior moments. An assistant is made to run (literally, and in high heels) for the mail, and then -- before she even has a chance to catch her breath -- to park an executive's car.


My scene with Kristofferson

We have in the past examined my stunning and unforgettable cameo appearance in David Mamet's 1987 directorial debut feature "House of Games." What you may not know is that I also co-starred with Kris Kristofferson, Keith Carradine, Genevieve Bujold, Lori Singer, Joe Morton and Divine in Alan Rudolph's 1986 "Trouble in Mind," which was also shot in Seattle. Well, OK, I appeared in the background of a few shots. But I did share screen space with Singer ("Footloose," "Short Cuts") -- and Kristofferson, for at least a few 24 fps frames. As you can see above.

Here's the behind-the-scenes set-up: I was having the time of my life booking first-run "art films" at my friend Ann Browder's 250-seat Market Theater, formerly the Pike Place Cinema in the cobblestone Lower Post Alley in Seattle's historic Pike Place Farmer's Market. I can't remember how I had met Alan Rudolph, but I had interviewed him a few times and he had the world premiere his first film, "Welcome to L.A." (1977) in Seattle at the Harvard Exit Theater. (Robert Altman made one of his many trips to Seattle for that premiere, and hosted the world premiere of "3 Women" at the same theater.) "Choose Me" had also been a smash at the Seattle International Film Festival, of which I was a co-director/programmer. Anyway, this all comes together, trust me...


Faces in the crowd: Here's looking at you, Nashville

For some reason I have the notion that the guy with the camera, getting the low-angle shots of Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) against that American flag that stretches across the Parthenon from sea to shining sea, is the cinematographer Paul Lohmann. Is that right?

I didn't know it at the time, but 35 years ago the course of my life was set into motion. It began, no doubt, the previous summer with Roman Polanski's "Chinatown," followed the next June by Robert Altman's "Nashville." If those two movies -- seen at the impressionable ages of 16 and 17 -- don't thoroughly transform your world, then I don't know what would. I'd always loved the arts, but from that moment on I knew for certain that movies were the art form of the century -- my century -- because never before could such vibrant, kinetic masterpieces have been born. They made me feel fortunate to have come into the world just at the moment in human history when, at long last, such miracles became possible.


Reviewing Altman

Richard Schickel wrote a book review of Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff. Except that, rather than review the book, he chose to review Robert Altman's capacity for drinking and dope-smoking:

It appears that from the beginning of his career until almost its end (when illness slowed him), Robert Altman never passed an entirely sober day in his life. When he was not drinking heavily, he was smoking dope -- often doing both simultaneously. When he screened dailies on location, he insisted the cast and crew gather to view them in a party atmosphere, with the merriment rolling on into the night.

Shocking, isn't it?


Robert Altman (1925-2006): Moments

View image The Dangerous Woman pays a final visit -- with a smile. From the ending of "A Prairie Home Companion" (2006).

I'm off this week, but I needed to personally acknowledge the death of Robert Altman, the first great director I ever met, and the filmmaker whose work (particularly "Nashville," "3 Women," "The Long Goodbye" "California Split" and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" -- all of which were originally released, and encountered by me, when I was in my ultra-impressionable teens), most inspired my love of movies and my determination to devote my life to them. I first met Altman in person when I was 18 or 19, in the living-room-like lobby of the Harvard Exit Theatre in Seattle at the world premiere of "3 Women" (or, possibly, Alan Rudolph's "Welcome to L.A."). He was standing by the grand piano, by himself, and I, shaking and sweating, forced myself to go over and talk to him. He spoke back. I couldn't believe it: To me, it a "Sherlock, Jr." moment, as if I'd somehow passed through the screen and was interacting with someone on the other side. Over the next 20 years or so, I would interview him a number of times in a professional capacity, and I relished these sharp, thoughtful, intelligent, funny conversations. I don't remember much of anything about that first chat, though, except that my end of the exchange would not be described by any of the adjectives in the previous sentence. But it had a huge impact on me.

View image

Two anecdotes: 1) Shortly before the release of "The Player," when I was working in Los Angeles, I went to interview Altman -- I think it was at the Beverly Hills Hotel, or maybe the Chateau Marmont, I'm not sure. When I arrived, Altman was on the phone with Fine Line, cussing them out about the advertising budget. I was talking to the publicist about my trip to Europe, from which I'd just returned, and saying how I found it exhilarating and liberating to be in a strange city, and to be out in public, and not understand the conversations that are taking place all around you.

View image

The instant Altman got off the phone he practically leapt to the other side of the room: "I heard what you were saying about being in Europe and that's exactly the way I've felt! I lived in Paris for years and never learned French. You realize there's just so much extraneous bullshit you don't have to listen to if you don't know the language!"

This from the man who pioneered the multi-track Lions Gate Sound System, and whose movies are known for their almost contrapuntal background dialog (wrangled, in some of the '70s films, by assistant director Rudolph), finely tuned babble that picks up on little bits of character from the edges of the frame (or even beyond it) and makes a scene come to life as an immersive experience.

2) Years later, at a then-rare screening of "Nashville" I attended at the Walter Reade Theater in New York (yes, by the mid-to-late-1990s it was virtually impossible to find a showable 35mm print of "Nashville," one of the greatest films of all time), actor Scott Glenn (who played Pfc. Glenn Kelly) told a story about how the actors were individually miked and, in crowd scenes, often didn't even know if they were within the scope of Paul Lohman's wide-screen Panavision frame.

"How will I know if I'm on camera?" Glenn recalled someone asking.

"You won't," Altman said. "Just do something interesting and you might end up in the picture."

* * * *

Roger Ebert's Altman Home Companion: Reviews and Interviews with Robert Altman, 1969-2006

Richard T. Jameson's appreciation of Altman at MSN Movies

Dennis Cozzalio: Goodbye, Mr. Altman

Matt Zoller Seitz's 2006 Altman Blog-a-Thon, with many links here and here and here.

Keith Uhlich: Robert Altman (February 20th, 1925-November 20th, 2006)

David Hudson at GreenCine compiles Altman tributes

UPDATE: 11/22/06: A.O. Scott has the finest Altman obit I've seen in the MSM, using the ending of "California Split" as a way of discussing Altman's career: Mr. Altman thrived on the shapelessness and confusion of experience, and he came closer than any other American filmmaker to replicating it without allowing his films to succumb to chaos. His movies buzz with the dangerous thrill of collaboration — the circling cameras, the improvising actors, the jumping, swirling sound design — even as they seem to arise from a great loneliness, a natural state that reasserts itself once the picture is over. A makeshift tribe gathers to produce a film, or to watch one, and then disperses when the shared experience has run its course. Everyone is gone, and the only antidote to this letdown is another film....

But if ["A Prairie Home Companion"] was a last gathering of the troupe, after which the lights dim forever, and the audience disperses, it was also just another movie in a career like no other, and when it was over — in the ending I like to imagine — American cinema’s greatest gambler shrugged his shoulders and walked away.

Festivals & Awards

Sundance 2006 winners

PARK CITY, Utah (AP) Ñ Two films examining immigrant life in America, the Hispanic teen drama "Quinceanera" and the Sudanese refugee documentary "God Grew Tired of Us," won top honors Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival.

Festivals & Awards

Toronto fest signals the opening of Good Movie Season

After Cannes, the Toronto Film Festival is the most important in the world. Last year's festival was ripped in two on Sept. 11. I walked out of a screening, heard the news, and the world had changed. Now comes the 27th annual festival, opening today. Are movies important in the new world we occupy? Yes, I think they are, because they are the most powerful artistic device for creating empathy--for helping us understand the lives of others.

Festivals & Awards

Class of '94 gets their due at Cannes

CANNES, France -- Every year they come here to the Riviera, the new class of young American filmmakers, hoping for lightning to strike. Ever since Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider" arrived at Cannes in 1967 as a motorcycle film and returned to the United States as an art film, Cannes has provided a sort of festival within a festival, of first and early films by young Yankee hopefuls.


Harvey Keitel on the edge

The first time I saw Harvey Keitel in a movie marks, in a way, the beginning of my career as a film critic. It was November of 1967. I had been a reviewer for seven months, and was looking at "Who's That Knocking on My Door?," one of the entries in the Chicago Film Festival. It was a low-budget black and white film out of New York, directed by someone named Martin Scorsese and starring Keitel as a guilt-ridden kid from New York's Little Italy.