To call it overwrought would be an understatement. Andrzej Żuławski's 1981 masterpiece, butchered upon its original American release and relegated to spurious video-nasty circulation, is now returning in all its hysterical glory, as a part of Brooklyn's BAMcinématek complete Żuławski retro, which will then move to Cinefamily in Los Angeles. Featuring what is arguably the bravest female performance ever put on film - namely, Isabelle Adjani's Cannes-winning turn of shamanistic intensity - the film dares its viewer to enter a trance-like state, in which genres blur and mate to yield a new level of cinematic expression.
I've been enjoying reading Dave Kehr's book, When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade, a selection of pieces he wrote between 1974 and 1986. One of them, his choice for best film of 1976, is a review of Alfred Hitchcock's 53rd and final feature, "Family Plot," which I hadn't seen since the 1970s. Boy, did I enjoy the re-visit. The structure (screenplay by Ernest Lehman ["North by Northwest"], based on a 1972 novel, The Rainbird Pattern, by Victor Canning) concerns two couples: a "spiritualist" and her taxi-driver boyfriend (Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern), amateur sleuths trying to track down the lost heir of a rich client; and a pair of slick jewel thieves (Karen Black and William Devane, who sounds -- and sometimes looks -- so much like Jack Nicholson it's scary!). Their plots intersect at a point involving a case of... not mistaken identity, but concealed identity.
Kehr wrote: "There are things in 'Family Plot' that we haven't seen in an American film in a long time; things like care, precision, and detail. 'Family Plot' is probably the most beautifully crafted, thematically dense film that we're going to see this year."
Also, there are some fun Hitchcockian puns/jokes (DK has a lovely account of the spilled white "blood" that becomes a clue). Here are a few of them, just for the enjoyment of it:
Click above to REALLY enlarge...
UPDATED 01/28/10: 2:25 p.m. PST -- COMPLETED!: Thanks for all the detective work -- and special thanks to Christopher Stangl and Srikanth Srinivasan himself for their comprehensive efforts at filling the last few holes! Now I have to go read about who some of these experimental filmmakers are. I did find some Craig Baldwin movies on Netflix, actually...
Srikanth Srinivasan of Bangalore writes one of the most impressive movie blogs on the web: The Seventh Art. I don't remember how I happened upon it last week, but wow am I glad I did. Dig into his exploration of connections between Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and Jean-Luc Godard's "History of Cinema." Or check out his piece on James Benning's 1986 "Landscape Suicide." There's a lot to look through, divided into sections for Hollywood and World Cinema.
In the section called "The Cinemaniac... I found the above collage (mosaic?) of mostly-famous faces belonging to film directors, which Srikanth says he assembled from thumbnails at Senses of Cinema. Many of them looked quite familiar to me, and if I'm not mistaken they were among the biographical portraits we used in the multimedia CD-ROM movie encyclopedia Microsoft Cinemania, which I edited from 1994 to 1998, first on disc, then also on the web. (Anybody with a copy of Cinemania able to confirm that? My Mac copy of Cinemania97 won't run on Snow Leopard.)
I have before me a schedule of the 2007 Toronto Film Festival, which opens Thursday and runs 10 days. I have been looking at it for some time. I am paralyzed. There are so many films by important directors (not to mention important films by unknown directors), that it cannot be reduced to its highlights. The highlights alone, if run in alphabetical order, would take up all my space.
View image Whose films matter today?
Andrew Sarris, quoting himself, reminds us of what a big deal the late Michelangelo Antonioni -- and Euro-movie staples Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, et al. -- were in the late 1950s and '60s, at least in metropolitan centers like New York: My own 1961 review in The Village Voice continued in the same vein. “As long as the great foreign films continue to trickle into New York at the present snail’s pace, the enthusiasm of discerning moviegoers will have to be concentrated on one phenomenon at a time. 1959 was the year of 'Wild Strawberries' and 'The Four Hundred Blows,' 1960 belongs to 'Hiroshima, Mon Amour' and 'Picnic on the Grass' [Jean Renoir]. So far this year it has been 'Breathless,' but now it is time for another blast of trumpets. Beginning April 4 at the Beekman Theater, 'L’Avventura 'will become the one first-run film to see in New York. The sixth feature film of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, 'L’Avventura' will probably be even more controversial than its French and Swedish predecessors, which have been conveniently misunderstood as problem tracts of old age, childhood, juvenile delinquency, miscegenation, nuclear warfare, or what have you.
“With 'L’Avventura' the issue cannot be muddled, Antonioni’s film is an intellectual adventure, or it is nothing. The plot, such as it is, will infuriate audiences who still demand plotted cinema and potted climaxes. A group of bored Italian socialites disembark from their yacht on a deserted island. After wandering about a while they discover that one of their number, a perverse girl named Anna, is missing. Up to that time, Anna (Lea Massari) has been the protagonist. Not only does she never reappear, the mystery of her disappearance is never solved. Anna’s fiancé (Gabriele Ferzetti) and her best friend (Monica Vitti) continue the search from one town to another, ultimately betraying the object of their search by becoming lovers. The film ends on a note of further betrayal and weary acceptance, with the two lovers facing a blank wall and a distant island, both literally and symbolically.”
So when exactly did I tire of Antonioni to the point of Antonioniennui? I am not sure. It may have been about the time of "The Red Desert" (1964), which I disliked, and well before "Blow-Up" (1966), which I liked enormously, unlike the late Pauline Kael, who dismissed it with a yawn.
It must be noted that at the time I waxed rhapsodic about "L’Avventura," I had not yet seen any of his five previous films.... "L’Avventura" was received here like a smashing debut film, and from then on it seemed just like more of the same, only less so, with "La Notte" (1961), "L’Eclisse" (1962) and most exasperatingly of all, "The Red Desert."... Whose films today spark similar sensations, and love-or-hate debate? Living directors about whom your opinion really seems to matter, whose films are considered "must-sees" by serious moviegoers? The Coens? Quentin Tarantino? Brian DePalma? Steven Soderbergh? I'm asking. I don't think film festival mega-stars like Lars von Trier or Abbas Kiarostami or Wong Kar-Wai are nearly well-known or influential enough to have this kind of impact, on movie fans in general or on other filmmakers. Are any of the candidates European?
ADDENDUM: Another way of looking at it: Is there a filmmaker whose style is so recognizable that it could be parodied -- and mainstream moviegoers, from their 20s to their 40s, would know what was being parodied, as was the case with Bergman, who was lampooned by the likes of "SCTV," Woody Allen, and "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey"? (Then again, could a television comedy show as smart and aware of the diversity of culture and pop culture as "SCTV" exist today? Actually, such a thing did exist not all that many years ago on HBO: "Mr. Show with Bob and David.")
View image "Zabriskie Point" -- an Antonioni movie on the cover of LOOK magazine in 1969: "Had he violated the Mann Act when he staged a nude love-in in a national park? Does the film show an "anti-American" bias? As a member of the movie Establishment, is he distorting the aims of the young people's 'revolution'?"
Watching Ingmar Bergman's "Shame" (1968) over the weekend (which I was pleased to find that I had not seen before -- after 20 or 30 years, I sometimes forget), I recalled something that happened around 1982. Through the University of Washington Cinema Studies program, we brought the now-famous (then not-so-) story structure guru Robert McKee to campus to conduct a weekend screenwriting seminar. McKee, played by Brian Cox in Spike Jonze's and Charlie Kaufman's "Adapation." as the ultimate authority on how to write a salable screenplay, has probably been the single-most dominant influence in American screenwriting -- "Hollywood" and "independent" -- over the last two decades. Many would say "pernicious influence." (Syd Field is another.)
It's not necessarily McKee's fault that so many aspiring screenwriters and studio development executives have chosen to emphasize a cogent, three-act structure over all other aspects of the script, including things like character, ideas, and even coherent narrative. Structure, after all, is supposed to be merely the backbone of storytelling, not the be-all, end-all of screenwriting. But people focus on the things that are easiest to fix, that make something feel like a movie, moving from beat to beat, even if the finished product is just a waste of time.
The film McKee chose to illustrate the principles of a well-structured story that time was Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring."
"Shame" is another reminder that Bergman's movies weren't solely aimed at "art" -- they were made to appeal to an audience. Right up to its bleak ending, "Shame" is a rip-roaring story, with plenty of action, plot-twists, big emotional scenes for actors to play, gorgeously meticulous cinematography, explosive special effects and flat-out absurdist comedy. I don't know how "arty" it seemed in 1968, but it plays almost like classical mainstream moviemaking today. (And remember: Downbeat, nihilistic or inconclusive finales were very fashionable and popular in mainstream cinema in the late 1960's: "Bonnie and Clyde," "Blow-Up," "Easy Rider," "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry"...),
It's important to remember that Bergman and his fellow Euro-titan Michelangelo Antonioni, who both died on the same day last week, were big-name commercial directors -- who also helped moviegoers worldwide see the relatively young, originally low-brow, populist medium in a new light: as a (potential) art form. (The Beatles, who in 1964-'65 were the most popular youth phenomenon on the planet, even wanted Antonioni to direct their second feature, after "A Hard Day's Night"!) And if they hadn't been so popular and famous, they would not have been so influential. These guys won plenty of high-falutin' awards at film festivals, but they were also nominated for Oscars in glitzy Hollywood.
View image Captains of America.
Imagine a country where, even at the highest levels of power, ignorance is flaunted and incompetence rewarded. OK, maybe that's too easy. Imagine a studio dumping a movie because it just doesn't know how to sell it. Well, that doesn't take any imagination at all, does it? "Idiocracy," the new film by Mike Judge ("Office Space," "King of the Hill," "Beavis and Butthead"), opened in a handful of theaters in the United States while I was in Canada for the Toronto Film Festival. When I got back I learned that none of those theaters was in Seattle, so -- guess what? -- I haven't been able to see it.
But Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule reports that it's superficially dumb, deceptively smart -- and funny: The groundwork for "Idiocracy" is laid in a hilarious parody of authoritarian educational films that exposes the roots of humanity’s slippery slide toward pea-brain-osity in the frigidity of intellectuals (or at least their yuppie subset) and the unchecked rutting of the uneducated poor. Smart folks are too selfish to procreate, while Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae can’t keep their genitalia to themselves.
Sounds simple enough, right? But by the time the movie really gets going Judge has laid culpability for the crumbling mental capacity of society at the feet of lawmakers, corporations and opportunistic politicians too. And let’s not forget the military—insofar as they represent by definition the aggressive arm of any government, Judge certainly hasn’t. A low-level army base slacker (Luke Wilson) and a randomly selected hooker (Maya Rudolph) are selected to participate in a military experiment, headed by an officer with more than just a little taste for the pimpin’ lifestyle—that’s how the hooker gets roped in. The experiment is designed to monitor physical changes in cryogenically frozen subjects over a period of a year. But when the officer’s illegal activities end up getting him imprisoned and the base bulldozed, Wilson and Rudolph are left on ice not for a year but for 500. The pair, barely three digits in the IQ department between them to start with, awaken to a world so battered and worn down by an abased pop culture, relentless corporate corruption and political ineffectuality that they are, by acidly ironic default, the smartest people on the planet. I recommend checking out Dennis's essay about the film -- and what happened to it -- here. (BTW, as I write this, "Idiocracy" has a 71% rating on RottenTomatoes.com, compared to 43% for last week's box-office topper, "Gridiron Gang"; 31% for Brian De Palma's "The Black Dahlia"; and 17% for "All the King's Men," opening Friday.)
Neil Marshall's acclaimed British horror-thriller "The Descent" draws on plenty of other genre classics for visual inspiration, from otherworldly mysteries ("Picnic at Hanging Rock") to oudoor adventure ("Deliverance," "Jaws") to science-fiction ("Alien") and straight-out horror ("The Blair Witch Project"). All these movies are essential to any horror fan's movie education. Here's a sample of Roger Ebert's appraisals of these originals, from 1972 to 1999:
EXCERPT FROM INTRO: This isn't like Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" series. It's not my idea of The Best Movies Ever Made (that would be a different list, though there's some overlap here), or limited to my personal favorites or my estimation of the most important or influential films. These are the movies I just kind of figure everybody ought to have seen in order to have any sort of informed discussion about movies. They're the common cultural currency of our time, the basic cinematic texts that everyone should know, at minimum, to be somewhat "movie-literate." I hope these movies are experiences we can all assume we share.