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Thumbnails 8/6/15

How to behave with disabled people; Hollywood's terrorist typecasting; Laying bare the anatomy of Oscar-bait; Randal Kleiser on "Summer Lovers"; Clues to origins of "mostly lost" films.


Apocalypse Now: An audio-visual aid

The communal Parallax View film criticism blog, coordinated by Sean Axmaker, has resurrected Richard T. Jameson's provocative, penetrating "Apocalypse Now" review, originally published in the Seattle Weekly (then known only as The Weekly) October 17, 1979. I think it's the most lucid thing anyone's ever written about the movie, and should be required reading after every screening as a way of ensuring substantive discussion.

Jameson's piece illuminates essential truths about "Apocalypse" (and, I think, about Coppola's body of work), with a precision few critics have been willing or able to explore. You may want to argue with it (and by all means go ahead!), but if you read it closely I think it will show you things you may already have felt, even if you never quite noticed them before. That's true for me, anyway. I've just re-read it for the first time in almost 30 years, and I feel it's been there, under my skin, the whole time:

"Apocalypse Now" is a dumb movie that could have been made only by an intelligent and talented man. It pushes its egregiousness with such conviction and technical sophistication that, upon first viewing, I immediately resolved to withhold firm judgment until I'd seen the film again: perhaps I'd missed some crucial irony, some ingenious framework that, properly understood, would convert apparent asininity to audacity. I didn't find it. It isn't there. What is there is the evidence of a reasonably talented filmmaker having spectacularly overextended himself -- Francis Ford Coppola who, having had a toney pop epic widely accepted as great cinema, felt he was ready to make "Citizen Kurtz."


Do the Contrarian (Part II)

The great Rufus Thomas, the World's Oldest Finest Teenager, does "The Breakdown" (follow-up to "The Contrarian").

"I enjoy the occasional flaying of a sacred cow." -- anonymous movie critic

Can your monkey do the dog Can your monkey do the dog Well, my dog can monkey just like you But can your monkey do the do the do the dog like I do? -- Rufus Thomas

The first thing you'll notice about an auto-contrarian (or reactionary) piece, whether it's an op-ed column or a movie review, is that it doesn't so much try to build a point-by-point rebuttal or counter-argument. Instead, it prefers to disparage something or someone by association, by making ad hominem attacks on (real or imagined) supporters of whatever it scorns.

So, for instance, when Stephen Metcalf writes a "What's All This, Then?" piece tearing down "The Searchers," he first attributes the film's reputation not to any merits it may or may not possess as a film, but simply to his generalizations about people who like it. Then he derides them as "film geeks," "nerd cultists," "critics whose careers emerged out of the rise of film studies as a discrete and self-respecting academic discipline," and filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius and George Lucas, whom he labels "well-credentialed nerds." So, you get the idea. Rather than make observations about the movie itself, you insult those who admire the movie and use that to smear the movie. It's a schoolyard tactic: If you like "The Searchers," you're a nerd! Notice how the discussion is no longer about the movie, but about who Metcalf thinks is a nerd. (And never mind that "The Searchers" is a "termite" movie : Critically overlooked/dismissed as just another western when it was released, it's a movie that grew in stature over time, as more critics and moviegoers got to see and evaluate it.)

If Metcalf had written a piece that dissected "The Searchers" from a new angle, that demonstrated what the film does (or fails to do) and why he felt that was or was not a worthy achievement, then I might have enjoyed his flailing of a sacred cow, too -- even if it didn't persuade me to change my own view of the cow. Moo. I find this sort of thing happens rather often, where I'll read a critic's take on a movie and think: "Wow, I'd probably feel the same way if I saw that movie, but that's just not the movie I experienced."


Eyeless in Monument Valley, Part II

Above: That gritty Hollywood literalism and/or naturalism: "Off-putting to the contemporary sensibility."

I was wrong. Last night, just before going to bed, I read Stephen Metcalf's "Dilettante" column, "The Worst Best Movie: Why on earth did 'The Searchers' get canonized?". This did not make it easy for me to get to sleep, so I dashed off a preliminary response in which I harshly characterized Metcalf's piece as an "inexcusably stupid essay... about a classic John Ford Western." But now, re-reading the column in the light of day, I realize that Metcalf was hardly writing about "The Searchers" at all. And nearly every observation he does make about the film itself is cribbed from something Pauline Kael wrote (see more below). He'll just fling out an irresponsible, non sequitur comment like, "Even its adherents regard 'The Searchers' as something of an excruciating necessity," and let it lie there, flat on the screen, unexplained and unsupported. So, while I stand by my claim that what Metcalf has written is stupid and inexcusable (for the reasons I will delineate below), I don't think it has much to do with "The Searchers."

Instead, Metcalf is reacting to his own perception of the film's reputation (and in part to A.O. Scott's recent New York Times piece admiring "The Searchers"), using the movie to snidely deride people Mecalf labels "film geeks," "nerd cultists" and: ... critics whose careers emerged out of the rise of "film studies" as a discrete and self-respecting academic discipline, and the first generation of filmmakers -- Scorsese and Schrader, but also Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius, and George Lucas -- whose careers began in film school. (The latter are later characterized as "well-credentialed nerds.") The fault, then, in Metcalf's mind, is not so much in the film as in those who brazenly take film seriously as an art form. Using "The Searchers" as an anecdotal, ideological bludgeon, Metcalf attempts to attack the impudent and insidious notion that movies are worthy of serious study and artistic interpretation. Holy flashback to Clive James!