Books 3: Cult Culture


A few people on Twitter mentioned Danny Peary’s Cult Movies books as being an influence on their film scholarship, and I’d be remiss in not giving credit to it also. Peary has great taste, and gathered up a really disparate bunch of movies. For those of us outside London or New York, it seemed impossible that we would ever get to see many of these films —











Today, almost nothing in Peary’s first volume is particularly hard to see, but when I was a teenager you couldn’t even buy a VHS of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, let alone PANDORA’S BOX. Peary’s book is like a collection of titles that needed to be released. It was also exhilarating to see high-art and trash jumbled together like that, so you had Peckinpah and Joseph H Lewis next to Ophuls and Pontecorvo, Herzog and Cocteau rubbing shoulders with Russ Meyer and John Waters (before it became respectable to do so). And Peary still had standards, or rather, he knew when he was dealing with a film of visceral impact or nostalgic appeal rather than real artistic excellence. But his enthusiasm was unfaked, regardless. He didn’t always like the films he was dealing with, but he’d make the effort to understand them and find interesting things to say about them.

“There were three films I saw repeatedly as a child in the mid-fifties: John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Howard Hawks’s Land of the Pharaohs. They impressed me equally. One had John Wayne, another had James Dean, and the third had a bunch of bald, tongueless priests who allowed themselves to be buried alive, some cowards who get thrown into an alligator pit, and a statuesque beauty with a bare midriff.”


“I admit nostalgic affection for Ishiro Honda’s flying reptile film Rodan (released in America in 1957) because it scared me into screaming ‘Japanese! Japanese!’ in my sleep when I was a kid.”

Peary’s cinephilia is rooted in both childhood and dreams, and he relishes the dreamlike narrative of VERTIGO (not yet placed at the zenith of Hitchcock’s corpus).

There are lots of things I disagree with in Peary: he thinks Bava went downhill after he started shooting in colour (!), for instance, but it was relatively rare for anybody to write about Bava at all, much less between the same covers as considerations of DUCK SOUP and THE SCARLET EMPRESS.

Confession: I never owned any of Peary’s books. I used to go and read them in different bookshops, though. Somehow I never saved my money to buy them, but devoured them, a chapter at a time, in bookshops long since closed: Bauermeister Books, George IVth Bookshop, The Cinema Bookshop, James Thin’s Bookstore. And then, years later, I met Fiona, who had the whole set.


85 Responses to “Books 3: Cult Culture”

  1. Does anyone know why Peary more or less dropped film history and criticism after the early Nineties? It’s been a real loss. His brother Gerald Peary still writes criticism (and has a nice website,

  2. Peary’s not bad but Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman’s “Midnight Movies” is better. It goes into the fetish aspect of movie cultdom examining what both links and separates such items as El Topo, Pink Flamingos, Eraserhead and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

  3. I wasn’t sure if they were brothers — met Gerald and interviewed him at the Fest this year. Still to transcribe the thing. I wish DP would write more on film too, although the bottom seems to be dropping out of the newspaper market.

    Yeah, I think Midnight Movies does it better, too. Peary was there first, but Rosenbaum and Hoberman do more with it. If I’d had that book as a teen my brain might have exploded.

  4. DP never had a regular reviewing gig — I would have liked to see him try that format. He is very good at concentrating on the film in front of him, rather than extraneous matters.

    I agree that Midnight Movies is an excellent book. Whatever contribution Rosenbaum made to it was his high-water mark as a critic. In general, I find that Rosenbaum is very poor at concentrating on the film in front of him — he’s always using the films to make extraneous points. And, although perhaps I should not say this, JR’s critical sensibility, which I have had more than ample exposure to (read into that what you will), is quite unappealing to me.

    One reason I do not like to meet writers is that once you have met them, you cannot un-meet them, and your impressions of them as a person will always, and probably justly, color your reading of their work thereafter. Say that I liked David Foster Wallace’s work, but on meeting him I thought he was a doofus or a schmuck. There’s no way of recovering from that, and I couldn’t go back to reading him innocently.

    The Wallace example is just a hypothetical, but I’m sure that you can connect the dots.

  5. I have all sorts of disagreements with Jonathan critically, but we’re very old friends, and he has been ever so kind to duly footnote me in his books.

    True he frequently seems to be looking past the movie in front of him, but that can be a prefectly valid response.

  6. Fair enough. The same process I described can also work in reverse, of course — we can put a different positive value on the work once we know its creator. And that is an interesting thing about JR — if he is personally friendly with a director, say Jacques Rivette or Jim Jarmusch, I think that colors his readings of their work enormously. Pauline Kael used to throw over decades-long friendships (Altman, Allen, Peckinpah, Schrader) for the sake of nailing a negative review. In fact, I think she was pathological and score-settling about it, but no one could accuse her of being a softie when it came to friends. For most critics, I think it is hard to judge the work of friends, or enemies, or even acquaintances, in an impersonal spirit.

  7. True. I’ve become friendly with all the big New Queer Cinema directors: Gus Van Sat , Todd Haynes, and Greg Araki. But they all seem to know that judging their films is a separate issue — even when I’m sympathetic to what they’re trying to do. In the end of course talent is elusive. For all the years I’ve known him I don’t understand Todd at all. He’s quite a complex man.

  8. I’ve heard that about Haynes from another party as well.

    To pull it back to Danny Peary, what I value in his work is that, unlike Kael, or Andrew Sarris, or John Simon, or many others of that era, he is not a drama queen and an egomaniac (Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau are good examples of those same tendencies in pop music criticism). He is just interested in films, and he can write about them clearly. That sort of self-effacement is rare; Lord knows I wouldn’t be capable of it.

  9. I’m fine with Rosenbaum using the film as a starting point and moving outwards.

    I do find it more difficult to write about filmmakers I know — I generally prefer to stay silent if I can’t be enthusiastic.

    I think I’ve only had one mildly disappointing experience meeting a filmmaker: after I made a point of telling Ben Hopkins how much I admired Simon Magus, I got the impression that no matter how high my opinion of it, I could never compete with his own self-admiration. But egomania is a pretty amusing venial sin. There are plenty of far worse stories about filmmakers I admire, but maybe because I haven’t personally been a victim of those guys, I can still enjoy their work.

  10. david wingrove Says:

    Glad to know I’m not the only person who loves LAND OF THE PHARAOHS.

    I know it has a dismal reputation, but I still think it’s the definitive Ancient Egypt movie. Interestingly. Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s FARAON copies a great deal from it – and that film is considered a minor classic!

    Plus, it’s always fun to see Joan Collins rehearsing to play Alexis Carrington, fully 25 years before DYNASTY was even thought of.

  11. The true point of comparison for Peary’s work isn’t Midnight Movies, which, good as it is, isn’t a list book at all, but the horrible Golden Turkey book by the Medveds. This looked superficially similar to Peary’s work, but the corrosive cynicism of the Medveds and their inability to find the poetry in Robot Monster or Glen or Glenda removed them from any real usefulness. I do remember, though, a time when Michael Medved was trotted out on TV all the time to talk about what he incorrectly referred to as ‘B-movies’. There was even a season of Golden Turkeys on British TV. If you visited somebody’s house and they owned the Medved it was cause for concern. If they owned any of Peary’s books, it was the beginning of a friendship. (Footnote: a friend of mine has even named his ubiquitous internet persona after another Peary, the Guide for the Film Fanatic).

  12. Arthur S. Says:

    LAND OF THE PHARAOHS is a real super-masterpiece and is actually the best of the Hollywood Epics after THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE. Amazingly it clocks in at less than 2hrs but has more plot and action than most of them combined. It’s also a very personal Hawks film.

    My one beef wih Rosenbaum is that he tends to hold to grudges in his criticisms and often they tend to be more about how the film is recieved(relevant enough but often misleading and misguided) than on the film itself like his pieces on TAXI DRIVER, or THE PLAYER. The most problematic piece however is THE AGE OF INNOCENCE…

    which essentially says that Scorsese’s too Italian American to understand the society of that film…

  13. Oh the Medveds are a terrible blight. And yet, through popularizing artists like Ed Wood, they have arguably achieved a positive thing in spite of themselves. Although the boring dismissal of psychotronic outsider art as “turkeys” goes on, the increased visibility of the work itself is a good thing. It’s kind of like in The Master and Margarita, when Satan can’t help but do good in spite of his intentions…

  14. Yeah, I think Rosenbaum gets it wrong on Age of Innocence, and in a fairly basic, obvious way. It does smack of class prejudice, and the expression “drooling paisan” is downright offensive.

  15. I had never read that Age of Innocence review before. Pretty ghastly, and I do find it attitudinally characteristic. It is amusing to read JR on the subject of social nuances, since I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone who was more completely oblivious to the nuances of actual social situations.

  16. Arthur S. Says:

    That apart I think Rosenbaum is a great writer on cinema and his scholarship on Dreyer, Welles, Tati and Nicholas Ray among others is fantastic.

    It’s just that these are quite questionable pieces of writing and in poor taste and they don’t really have anything to do with the movies, except that he has a grudge against the film for being influenced by The Magnificent Ambersons and Il Gattopardo.

  17. You’re right, Arthur, we shouldn’t forget Rosenbaum’s fine work. On the filmmakers he loves, he’s very hard to beat. And I guess he’s right about that apostrophe, I hate bad apostrophe’s.

  18. One of my favourite writers on film is Ray Carney. He has written excellent books on Capra, Cassavetes and Mike Leigh.

  19. I have mixed feelings about Capra, and no feelings for Cassavetes and Leigh at all, alas. Although I quite Cass as an actor, and I mostly enjoyed Leigh’s Topsy Turvy.

  20. Carney is interesting on his favored directors, but he is very exclusivist about their merits as opposed to everyone else’s. He once wrote a blistering, ill-considered attack on the New York Times’s Vincent Canby for having been insufficiently appreciative of Cassavetes’s genius over the years; not surprisingly, Canby came out of it looking a lot better than Carney.

    Noel Burch is another such “my way or the highway” guy; he defines a very few directors as the through-line of cinema history, and everyone else as pretty much a waste of time. Even the directors he anoints, he smotes; thus Fritz Lang is worth considering for his German films, but his American output constitutes a “silence.”

  21. What’s offensive is that he’s Met Marty — who’s as far afrom a “drooling paisan” as it’s possible to be.

    Temperamentally he’s the straight Visconti.

  22. I adore Scorsese for his appreciative commitment to film history. His documentaries on American and Italian cinema are simply wonderful, models of their kind, and could hook anyone on film for life.

  23. A lot of good writers on film tend to be fairly exclusivist in their tastes. Carl Dreyer seems to be the only director whose work receives unanimous approval. I forgot to mention that Carney has written a very good analysis of Dreyer’s work.

  24. Scorsese has a deep and rich understanding and appreciation of film history.
    One of my favourite Scorsese pieces is his segment “Life Lessons” in the film New York Stories. I’m also fond of New York, New York. He did a great documentary on Bob Dylan.

  25. Some fine critics and historians are indeed exclusivist, but I prefer those, like Scorsese or Roger Ebert, who are expansivist and (little c) catholic in their tastes. I find that while good films and novels improve upon repeated exposure, most criticism simply isn’t durable. I can’t begin to tell you how many shattered critical idols there have been in my life. It’s a tough job — a minor form but an exceedingly difficult one. The British novelist Arnold Bennett, in his book reviews early in the 20th century, mastered the difficulties as well as anyone I know of — but any same reader would still take his novels over his criticism.

  26. I agree with you about Arnold Bennet. He was a very astute critic. I love dipping into his diaries.

  27. One of Bennett’s greatest critical skills is his nose for talent. Although his own noverlistic practice was relatively “conservative,” he was completely open to other approaches; he was one of the first critics, American or British, to spot Faulkner’s genius. He was also a pioneer in the effort to bring “high culture” and “mass culture” under the same evaluative umbrella. To Bennett, a popular book could be good, and a recondite book could be good. He had great antennae for q

  28. …quality wherever it manifested itself.

    Bennett’s reviews are collected in Books and Persons and The Evening Standard Years. Anyone who undertakes to write reviews of anything should keep these volumes close at hand as a model and an inspiration.

  29. Maybe this is a quality inherent in criticism — that once we’ve appreciated a good piece, we start to grow beyond it? Perhaps the most enduring criticism will tend to be the most difficult, poetic or elusive, since you can keep coming back to it and get more out of it. I have lots of problems with Manny Farber’s stuff — some of which are simply down to the fact that he couldn’t study films repeatedly as easily as we can now — but he’s very interesting to re-read. I might make him one of my top ten, partly because he annoys me so much.

  30. Manny’s critical writings are nothing if not idiosyncratic. But he never offered himself as being anything else. There were certain things he liked in the cinema and that’s where he expended most of his energies. In person he was a total delight. Not the least bit the crankypants you might expect from his writing.

  31. I’ll try to lay out what I love and not-love in Farber in a later post. I’ve seen film of him and he looks good company. And he could certainly write a totally distinctive sentence.

  32. Christopher Says:

    I would have picked Santa Sangre over El Topo for my Jodorowski entry..Once or twice of El Topo was enough for me,while SS moves with a cohesive poetry and is emotionally rewarding to boot..

  33. Bennet was a great supporter of James Joyce too. One of my favourite Bennet novels is Riceyman Steps. Apropos the Evening Standard, another critic with a broad and sympathetic understanding of film is Derek Malcolm. His observations on a film are always worth reading.

  34. First the Dennis Gifford Book and now Danny Peary’s. This is getting spooky. Cult Movies 1 was my friend and inspiration as an angsty misunderstood youth in the same way that Dennis Gifford’s was to me as a child. If you choose “Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo” as your next book then I claim you as a brother. Or The Making of Kubrick’s 2001. Or any Mad Magazine with a film parody (especially North by Northwest).

  35. oh and David Robinson’s Chaplin; His Life and Art. Only this and Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor have inspired me to walk the actual streets mentioned in its pages (it’s surprising how much in Chaplin’s childhood still exists in Lambeth and Kennington) .

  36. Fiona W Says:

    Are you trying to suggest that the only reason you’re having a relationship with me is because I have the complete set of ‘Cult Movies’?

  37. Oh, and David W, I love LOTP too. The tongueless priests, Joan’s hysteria and tomb sealing engineering made an indelible impression on me as a kid.

  38. ———-
    Are you trying to suggest that the only reason you’re having a relationship with me is because I have the complete set of ‘Cult Movies’?

    Fiona, in my experience, relationships are often predicated on many weird and wonderful and splendid reasons, and those initial factors in a relationship are forever changing.

    I read Leonard Cohen’s fascinating novel Beautiful Losers. A very interesting book à la manière of Joyce and Beckett.

  39. 1) Peary couldn’t have written about Santa Sangre because that fim hadn’t been made yet. That’s how old we are! In fact, he’s not very sympathetic to Jodorowsky.

    2) Hawks always disliked Land of the Pharaohs, saying the characters weren’t likable. But that’s even more true in Scarface, which he ws happy to accept praise for. Both films kind of break out from the normal Hawksian paradigm, and it’s quite refreshing.

    3) Mike, I did have a collection of Mad movie parodies, and I have the 2001 book. Never read that Marx Bros one though.

    4) Fiona, there are definitely other factors.

  40. Arthur S. Says:

    I personally think Hawks rather liked the film and it meant a great deal to him. He took four years off before returning with RIO BRAVO. If it was just a throwaway he can’t have reacted like that, can he?

    It’s a great film because Hawks was finally gettin rid of the commercial parts out of which he made his films and getting straight at his key theme – the price of individualism going towards it’s logical conclusion and in that film nothing can keep the Pharaoh from his death. He has no family, no one to love him, only power and what’s left for him is death.

  41. Land of the Pharoahs took quite a lot out of Hawks. It was a big departure for him, and not as successful on a personal level as he would have liked. He obviously ended up with the movie that was rather different than the one he thought he was making — as marvelous as we find that movie to be.

    As for critics, now’s my cue to state that my favorites are Raymond Durgnat and Michel Mourlet.

  42. No argument on Durgnat. He is unfailingly stimulating and intellectually challenging. Robin Wood used to be in that class until he discovered queer Marxism and went all doctrinaire (and I say that as a gay man).

    Interestingly, one of the best inquiries into a film I’ve read in recent years is Camille Paglia’s BFI book on The Birds. Paglia is another writer with a, hmm, healthy ego, but she and that film were made for each other.

  43. Arthur S. Says:

    I haven’t read as many of Durgnat’s as I would like but from what I read he is one of those who you could genuinely read for pleasure. I especially remember a piece on THE SMALL BACK ROOM that someone tells me is available online.

    I rather like Robin Wood, flaws and all. I think he can be quite insightful into reading deep into what a film is trying to communicate and how it does so and is quite good about performances, his chief flaw for me is that he tends to exhaust his analysis lamely rather than be inexhaustive. A good example is one piece on THE RECKLESS MOMENT where he goes into detail about it’s use of genre and it’s style and Joan Bennett’s performance but then falters by saying that the film shows her as “being trapped” in the end, which is quite simplistic and not at all true to Lucia Harper – in that scene where James Mason says that she cares a lot, she laughs and says, “I’m a mother. I’m sure your mother was just like me!”

    My recent favourite critic is Bill Krohn, I’ll have to dig up the link but his piece on Richard Brody’s biography of Godard(aka the biggest hatchet job since Spoto/Hitchcock) is hilarious and more informative on Godard than that book. It also has much to say about the ceejays, a furious nasty breed of writers.

  44. Bill and I did the commentary on the “Masters of Cinema” editions of Murnau’s Faust and Ray’s The Savage Innocents

  45. Arthur S. Says:

    I have heard the one for FAUST, most fun bit of film scholarship I have ever heard.

  46. Krohn is great on Hitchcock too. Love Durgnat, don’t know Mourlet at all so am having a hunt.

    Hawks always expressed dissatisfaction with Pharaohs. Of course, he was an unreliable witness in many ways, but I don’t think he’d lie about whether he liked the results. It’s possible he found Pharaoh too close for comfort: certainly the aspects of the film that pleased him most were the engineering of the pyramid construction.

    I tend to agree with Wood’s take on Reckless Moment. Of course Lucia loves her family, but they are also a prison, and they don’t really appreciate her strength. The framing of the last shot through bannister bars is certainly suggestive, and Ophuls doesn’t do things like that by mistake. My expectation was that the husband would return home at the end or at least announce his return, a sort of reward for Lucia or a return to domestic normality, but the opposite happens: he’s been delayed and she’s going to have to go on coping alone.

  47. Arthur S. Says:

    There’s a difference between it being a trap in the sense that our choices and obligations tend to trap us than a trap in the sense that Wood suggests which is on the simple level that she’s trapped solely because she’s living in a pre-feminist world.

    This is a rare film that shows the work involved in being a good housewife and the mother. That house would literally fall apart without her to rein in her daughter’s stupidity or to take care of the bills and business or to look after her father. Then of course there’s that magnificent sequence of elegant biting irony where she gets rid of the body, mafia style. Of course in return for all that she gets taken for granted by her family and everyone around her, save for her maid,(played by David E’s friend and union organizer Frances Williams) but she knows that and has made her peace with that. What the film is interested in is how that knowledge and choice gets shaken in it’s foundations by Mason’s deep unrequited love for her, love she can only return only when it’s far too late.

  48. Beautifully put. And the film is miraculous because it injects a crime plot into a story concerned with the work of motherhood and a love story without overbalancing any part.

  49. James Harvey has an interesting chapter on The Reckless Moment in his book Movie Love in the Fifties (which I recommend).

  50. Arthur S. Says:

    Yeah, great piece of screenwriting there. And the performances are unbelievable, Mason and Bennett is one of the great tragic adult couples on screen(which is rarer than you think), there is another film like that in the same period, also shot by Burnett Guffy – In A Lonely Place which is also great in using a crime plot to invade personal private places. It’s one of the really special American films of that period and it’s totally Ophulsian with those catervauling tracking shots in those interiors.

    It was also an influence on Sirk’s 50s films especially THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW where Joan Bennett plays a caricature of Lucia Harper, but Fred MacMurray enacts a similar if weaker character, and kids once again mess things up with their Oedipal issues only no elegant Irish blackmailer here. Robin Wood’s mistake with THE RECKLESS MOMENT seems to be to read it as Sirkian and fit it into that model rather than taking it on terms. What he says actually fits to the Sirk where Fred MacMurray in a similar scene, at the foot of a steps again, is trapped only he doesn’t have the same fortitude and intelligence that Lucia does.

  51. Being quoted out of context, especially by bloggers who don’t bother to proofread their own prose, is nothing new. I suspect that a good 95% of the people who are still tearing into the title and pull quote of my Bergman obit, neither of which was written by me, are all too happy to judge my criticism on the basis of my having used the two words “drooling paysan”. For whatever it’s worth, an employee and friend of Scorsese’s informed me that the phrase was upsetting to his boss only because it was dead-on accurate. But for the record, here’s the context– which includes (incidentally) a different reading of Scorsese’s relation to Visconti and an explanatory backup of that reading.
    “Perhaps the tribalism of the New York families is what attracted Scorsese’s interest–-a thematic concern that supposedly makes this film the blood brother (if not the blood sister) of Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and GoodFellas. That, at any rate, is cowriter Jay Cocks’s suggestion as to why he brought this novel to Scorsese’s attention. But even if one accepts the loose connection between Wharton and Scorsese as ethnographers of their different tribes, that doesn’t mean that either one is qualified to comment on the other’s territory. If Wharton were alive and working today as a filmmaker, would Cocks have suggested she make a movie about macho rituals among working-class Italian Americans?

    Scorsese’s street-smart, Little Italy origins are no disgrace; they simply point his perceptions in a certain direction. But trying to focus on Wharton’s world inevitably places him in the role of a drooling paisan with his nose pressed against the window. It’s one thing for Wharton, in the midst of a 362-page novel, to describe a dinner that Newland Archer, the lawyer hero, shares with his employer: “after a velvety oyster soup came shad and cucumbers, then a young broiled turkey with corn fritters, followed by a canvas-back with currant jelly and a celery mayonnaise.” But it’s quite another for Scorsese, in a 133-minute movie, to highlight each of these items in a separate decorously lit and framed shot. The novel is already consumerist, to be sure–-Wharton’s method of mainstreaming Henry James is very much a matter of simplifying the style and amplifying the set decoration–-but what figures as a fleeting aside in her prose becomes a TV ad for Gourmet magazine in the movie.

    Much later in the film, after Archer is married and he and his wife are giving their first big dinner party, there’s an elaborate camera movement to set the scene that seems to come straight out of Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress–-an overhead pan up the laden banquet table to Archer at the head of it, then a backward track past the same opulent array of foodstuffs, then a crane up and away from the end of the table. In Sternberg’s movie, the point of such a show-off maneuver is the spectacle of conspicuous consumption at the court of Catherine the Great. But in Scorsese’s movie the key point is supposed to be Archer’s inability to communicate more than superficially with the woman he secretly loves, whose farewell party this is, before she returns to Europe. (”He was a prisoner in the center of an armed camp,” says the offscreen narrator.) Both conspicuous consumption and private grief are articulated in this scene, but given the studied grandiloquence of the opening, it’s the former that takes the upper hand, overwhelming the dramaturgy. Thanks to this kind of emphasis there’s a lot to `ooo’ and `ahh’ at in this movie, but much less to sink your teeth into, and still less to think about afterward.

    Let’s start with the overhead shots. Scorsese cuts to these distracting angles in two early scenes, at a ball and at another fancy dinner party, and both times the sudden shift in viewpoint doesn’t correspond to a dramatic or analytic point; it’s the nervous tic of an awed director who isn’t entirely sure what to do with his camera in relation to a scene but likes the visual pattern yielded by a bird’s-eye perspective on all this splendor. There’s nothing criminal about these cuts if mannerist doodling is all that’s intended, but I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that Welles or Visconti wouldn’t dream of such a shot unless it corresponded to some narrative or dramatic advancement. ”

    No one, to the best of my knowledge, has ever criticized me for dissing Edith Wharton in this passage. Is this because she’s dead, or is it because she doesn’t have tons of media glitz and validation behind her? Or is it because most people don’t have a clear sense of who she was, and couldn’t care less?

  52. Yeah, Fred really is “the walking talking robot man.” He has some the same problems as Lucia but he’s far more easily defeated. I’ve encountered quite different readings of that film, but the most appealing was my own impression that Sirk wants the guy to get the hell out of that marriage!

    Cult Movies 3 has a very fine consideration of In a Lonely Place, and a good one on Imitation of Life too.

  53. Jonathan — I feel that to “quote” somebody is always to take them “out of context,” it’s inherent in the process of cherry-picking a phrase, sentence or paragraph that you remove it from its original context. Here, I felt justified since Arthur had helpfully provided a link to the original piece so that everybody could read it and form their own judgements.

    I just have to respectfully disagree with you on the idea that Scorsese’s background “inevitably” casts him in a certain relationship to his material. I think filmmakers are often capable of making films in which they view the world in ways we wouldn’t expect of persons from their backgrounds. Chaplin’s portrait of French high society in A Woman of Paris is one example, for me. You’re quote entitled to feel that Scorsese has failed to escape his upbringing here, but I question the assumption that nobody ever could, which seems the logical extrapolation of what you’re saying.

    So, while I accept that you weren’t actually calling Mr Scorsese a drooling paysan, it’s (a) your use of the expression at all, since it’s a rather unpleasant one, as would be “drooling peon,” “drooling wetback,” and (b) your assumption that this is the inevitable result of Scorsese making a film about a class outwith his own, that I object to.

    Possibly nobody has objected to your dissing Wharton because you stop short of likening her to a drooling paysan. Personally, I don’t think it would be impossible for her to tackle contemporary urban life if she were somehow transplanted here, but I do think Scorsese had an advantage over her, since he had a good book as source material.

  54. “But trying to focus on Wharton’s world inevitably places [Scorsese] in the role of a drooling paisan with his nose pressed against the window.”

    I can look and look and look at that statement, and I have no difficulty understanding what it means, with or without its being embedded in four long accompanying paragraphs or, for that matter, the whole essay. It is a clear and well-written sentence that conveys its intention very sharply indeed. I would go so far as to say that it is unambiguous. It is also markedly superior and unpleasant.

    I agree with our host that all quoting is “out of context,” and it would be easy to point to many examples in Mr. Rosenbaum’s work (or anyone else’s, I hasten to add) of using a sentence or phrase damningly and perhaps a bit unfairly to nail the original writer. This is just an occupational hazard of writing critical prose.

    I would love to read Edith Wharton on the subject of macho rituals, honestly. The whole argument about ethnography and perceptions pointed “in a certain direction” simply strikes me as weird. We can play this game all day. What in Jim Jarmusch’s biography particularly suited him to make Dead Man, a Rosenbaum favorite? Would Charles Burnett, a director Mr. Rosenbaum admires, be barred from making a film with an all-white cast? What about the many novelists who have written first-person narrations in the voice of the opposite gender? What about color-blind casting in theater? I thought that a narrow definition of what subjects an artist is “suited” to is what we were trying to get past. It’s one of the weakest arguments I’ve ever seen Mr. Rosenbaum make, and it would be nice if, 16 years later, he might acknowledge that he was having an off-day when he wrote that review, instead of manning the battlements in its defense.

  55. I think that expresses my objection very well, although I can understand that by singling out two words it might appear to Mr Rosenbaum that I was accusing him of simple name-calling. One problem with taking the view that a person of Scorsese’s background can’t make such a film is that it’s a view one can hold without ever seeing the film. It’s a prejudice. And even if one does see the film and doesn’t like it, that doesn’t prove the contention that someone like Scorsese could never pull off a film like AOI.

  56. I’ve recently re-read the Marx Brothers biography. Every bit as good as I remember it. I can’t recommend it enough.
    Also I was ushering at the NFT (as it was then) the night Camille Paglia gave her talk on The Birds. It lasted two hours and was just incredibly horrible.

  57. Arthur S. Says:

    Well I was actually going to bring in his criticism on Edith Wharton at some point but that would make the post too epic even by my standards.

    In any case one of Edith Wharton’s inspirations for doing the novel was Henry James’ advice to “do New York”. That is the New York of her childhood which is not the New York of THE HOUSE OF MIRTH and her other books. In many ways the novel was as remote to that world as the film is to the 19th Century on it’s first release. It was published in 1920 just after the First War had changed society.

    Amy Taubin wrote a great piece on the background of the novel about it being slightly autobiographical(she suggests that Newland is a projection of Edith Wharton’s father) and also about it’s feminist cred which Mr. Rosenbaum casts into doubt.

    As for Edith Wharton being able to write a novel about say, the Five Points area of New York in her time(the biggest slum in the world) well Terence Davies said that her biggest flaw was in portraying lower order characters as she didn’t have a good ear for their dialogue.

  58. Arthur S. Says:

    In any way that paragraph which describes the dinner banquet given at the end is missing the point if it suggests that the point of those camera movements are about “his inability to communicate more than superficially”. The entire scene is about Archer realizing that he’s not as clever as he thought he was and that everyone knew about his romance with Ellen, he only realizes it gradually at the dinner where every attempt at talking with her is cuttingly diverted and digressed by every one around him, even if they are talking about some other subject or topic, like when Lefferts talks about the Beaufort scandal, it’s set up gradually to that sudden moment of his realization. It’s about a real inability to communicate because everyone around the table is controlling the language. It’s quite different from that banquet in Sternberg where the discomfort is openly and obviously put forth with that skeleton on the table, here it’s covertly done.

    In any case, I meant nothing personal. It’s just that Mr. Rosenbaum is a very respected critic an also quite popular on the internet among us cinephiles and this discussion pertained to some of hs criticism in the opening posts of the forum and I added that piece which I have always found highly questionable and I linked the entire article for everyone to read in full and I don’t think I have quoted him out of context at all.

    As for not proof reading my messages before I post, I am, as always, guilty as charged.

  59. I always take the view that the comments section is pretty much like email — less rigid standards may apply to proofreading. It’s up to the individual commenter. My own blunder was spelling “paysan” like the title of the Rossellini film, which is the spelling I’m much more used to.

    I think a lot of readers might find the idea of Scorsese as “an awed director who isn’t entirely sure what to do with his camera in relation to a scene” hard to recognise, and if attacking the overhead shots it might be good to at least acknowledge the persistent role such shots have played in Scorsese’s films, going back at least as far as Taxi Driver. I think Last Temptation is the film that clarifies such shots as an evocation of ritual.

    That’s probably enough bashing of America’s premier critical writer on film — the intention was never to diss him, but merely to discuss some perceived flaws in one piece of writing.

  60. Jonathan, if you’re still in here, I’d ike to point out that Terence Davies is even more at a distance from Wharton’s world than Marty _- who at least is from New York. But I find his rendition of The House of Mirth superior to Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (which isn’t exactly chopped liver) Granted they’re different books — one a romance, the other a tragedy. But the worlds they glide through are much the same.

  61. Arthur S. Says:

    The House of Mirth is set in the early years of the 20th Century, say the period of the epilogue of The Age of Innocence which transpires in the 1870’s. However the former book was Edith Wharton’s first literary success and it actually earned her a lot of bad press among her former High End New Yorkers for showing the so nastily. Years later, she said wryly that The Age of Innocence was a kind of elegy or a corrective to the early book…it’s not an apologia certainly but it looks at that period at the height of it’s pseudo-splendour(and full of anachronisms like the use of the Strauss Waltz before it’s time – Scorsese repeats it in the film). The House of Mirth is set at the period which won’t even allow for an independent like Miriam Margoyles’ Manson Mingott anymore.

    Scorsese’s film is interesting(for me it’s one of his finest and richest achievements up there with CASINO and KUNDUN) because it’s a rare film which adopts the novelistic narrative rather than the old standby of make the book a play and shoot the play but also because it’s a very moving film about an intelligent nice man’s personal tragedy yet someone who tries to live with that loss with nobility and grace. The final scene is actually subtly different from the book, with the day dream to that scene at the lighthouse. In the book it’s more his awareness of the passage of time which makes him leave.

    Terence Davies put THE AGE OF INNOCENCE on his Top Ten in the most recent Sight and Sound list(as did Tian Zhuangzhuang) and it’s an influence on THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, one hommage is the wedding scene shown as an upside down camera reflection(in TAoI the wedding is shown in a photo-op, the cameraman played by that big eyebrowed guy who keeps popping up in Scorsese’s films).

  62. Great point about Davies. Like Scorsese, he is a child of the working class, and, as noted, at a greater remove from Wharton because he is from another country. (Scorsese and Wharton, after all, do share a city, of which they are two of the greatest artistic interpreters — I doubt that anyone will dispute that. And isn’t it likely that the New York setting is part of what drew Scorsese to The Age of Innocence?)

    So let’s take a look at Mr. Rosenbaum’s capsule review of The House of Mirth, which I will give in full:

    “”If she slipped she recovered her footing, and it was only afterward that she was aware of having recovered it each time on a slightly lower level.” Edith Wharton’s encapsulation of the narrative form of her tragic (and sexy) 1905 novel, describing the progressive defeat of socialite Lily Bart by the ugly indifference of Wharton’s own leisure class, is given an extra touch of Catholic doom in Terence Davies’s passionate, scrupulous, and personal adaptation, which to a surprising degree preserves the moral complexity of most of the major characters. It’s regrettable if understandable that the Jewishness of social climber Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) is no longer an issue, and Lawrence Selden, Lily’s confidant, is somewhat softened by a miscast Eric Stoltz, but the cast as a whole is astonishing–especially Gillian Anderson as Lily and Dan Aykroyd in his finest performance to date. Davies feels and understands the story thoroughly, giving it a raw emotional immediacy that would be unthinkable in the shopper-friendly adaptations of Merchant-Ivory and their imitators, and the film’s feeling for decor and costumes, derived from both John Singer Sargent paintings and Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, is exquisite. With Terry Kinney, Laura Linney, Elizabeth McGovern, and Eleanor Bron. 140 min.”

    Well, well. It sounds as if all of the artistic apparatus that mis-suited Scorsese to Wharton in Mr. Rosenbaum’s view — Catholic background, “raw emotional immediacy” — have become advantages for Davies when he confronts Wharton. Davies “feels and understands the story thoroughly,” while Scorsese “inevitably” (telling word!) cannot. Is this not peculiar?

  63. Arthur S. Says:

    Scorsese own words is…

    “Although the film deals with New York aristocracy and a period of New York history that has been neglected, and although it deals with code and ritual, and with love that’s not unrequited but unconsummated – which pretty much covers all the themes I usually deal with – when I read the book, I didn’t say, ‘Oh good, all those themes are here.'”

    He liked the book because of the way Newland Archer gets conned and manipulated in that world and the weight of the final scene which Roger Ebert in a rare moment of insight likened to the final moments of Colonel Blimp also a film about a man who’s become a relic to a bygone world at the end. Though there’s a sense of ironic triumph at the end of that opposed to the sad sense of elegy in the Scorsese.

    In any case Mr. Rosenbaum has more than enough critical pieces to his credit that does not pigeonhole directors to their backgrounds and decent. I cite the review precisely because it’s an exceptional case. So I don’t see any need to play the two Wharton pieces and it’s makers upbringings in a battle royale.

  64. In fairness to Rosenbaum, I don’t think he uses Scorsese’s Catholicism as a negative factor, and I think he’s pointing to a failure to achieve the raw emotional immediacy he finds in the later Davies film. Plus I don’t necessarily expect consistency of anybody, since I’m incapable of it myself.

    The interesting issue of bloggers vs print authors will come up again when I eventually transcribe my interview with Gerald Peary.

  65. True, he doesn’t shout out Scorsese’s Catholicism as a negative, just his ethnicity (although there’s a heavy Catholic freight there). But he does cite Davies’s Catholicism as a positive advantage. It is absolutely true that no working critic can be “consistent” unless they are working off a theory or formula, but I do find Mr. Rosenbaum’s contrary treatment of these two films to be rather fascinating.

    “…the film’s feeling for decor and costumes, derived from both John Singer Sargent paintings and Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, is exquisite.” (The House of MIrth)

    “…as beautifully mounted as this production is, Scorsese has a way of letting the decor take over…” (The Age of Innocence)

    OK, I get it, he just liked the one film better than the other. But that’s all it is — a preference. When he tries to put forward rationales for his preferences, he gets hopelessly tangled up, because he makes essentially the same arguments w/r/t both films (he calls them both “personal”), but draws opposite conclusions as to quality. This underlines a problem that I have with critics trying to draw universal, intellectual conclusions from specific, emotional reactions. You see this generalizing tendency all the time. It ought to be resisted.

  66. Ah but Terence has utterly rejected the church. Marty failed at becoming a priest but to my knowledge has never turned on the church the way Terence has.

  67. I should have been more explicit: when I mentioned Catholicism I meant a Catholic rearing (which you never escape the effects of!) rather than active Catholicism in adulthood.

  68. There are definitely pitfalls to drawing universal conclusions from a single film’s artistic success or failure. But there’s an attraction too — using a film to explore ideas seems far more worthwhile than just reviewing it and giving it four stars. Of course, there are other way to analyse a movie without using it as an analogue of human frustrations, to quote Charles Boyer.

  69. Arthur S. Says:

    Scorsese’s relations to the Church is as he says most memorably, “I’m a lapsed Catholic – but a Roman Catholic, there’s no way out.”

    I think he made peace with his Catholicism in KUNDUN, which is about Tibetan Buddhism but the final scene of that film is a very moving defence of the values of compassion. Then BRINGING OUT THE DEAD is more explicitly Catholic. The Departed however is a bleak cold dismissal of all earthly religion and it’s view of the Church is the most caustic you’ll find in contemporary American cinema with a child molesting priest being easy blackmail for Jack Nicholson.

  70. Haven’t seen Religulous yet, but I’m wondering if there might be a more caustic view out there. I don’t think The Departed would offend the Catholic Church that much — they’ve pretty much acknowledged that such things have happened. A more caustic view would be to have the priest indifferent to blackmail, since he’s confident the church will protect him!

  71. Arthur S. Says:

    Maybe when Scorsese makes SILENCE, a book that was very very controversial with the Church on release but still a bestseller in secular Japan(it’s author is one of the less than 1% population of Japanese Catholics) will be even more so.

    THE DEPARTED offended lots of conservative types. Many of them felt that it was too anti-Catholic. And unlike Maher’s claptrap, it was seen by a wide audience and so capable of bigger inluence and impact.

  72. The Catholic church is the world’s largest, wealthiest, best organized and thoroughly “lawyered” pedophile cult.

    And I say that as an ex-Catholic who knows who the players are.

  73. I tend to agree — it’s impossible to go too far in offending these guys. I’m glad if The Departed upset them, I’d just like to see somebody go further.

  74. Arthur S. Says:

    Maybe the best thing is not to upset them at all…they’re already on the road to extinction anyway, not one bit of realism amongst any of them. You can only be anti-Catholic when they are a real part of society and culture like when Bunuel was doing his nut.

  75. I still find them horrific for their activities in suppressing birth control in developing countries, so I’m all for anything that will speed their demise as a world power. Same goes for all organised religions, I accept religious belief as a personal relationship with the ineffable, but I think once you start to BAND TOGETHER you have lost the plot and are a destructive force, whatever your intentions.

    Having said that, I’m in favour of religious education in schools as long as they discuss all faiths equally, including atheism. I’m very grateful to the primary school teacher who announced his disbelief in God to the class: I felt an immediate kinship — it could ironically be called a Damascene moment.

  76. It’s ery interesting the way John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt nudged very close to the facts particularly the waht the Church hierarchy instigates cover-ups) only to choke at the last. Pedo priests aren’t nice sensitive sympathetic guys like Philip Seymour Hoffman. They’re monsters.

  77. That’s a problem inherent in the structure he’s chosen: it’s a did-he-do-it drama, so he has to be implausibly sympathetic to balance our natural suspicions. And I guess if he was a monster and Streep was 100% sympathetic it wouldn’t have had the same interest. Except it could work like Serpico, with her discovering increasing levels of corruption the higher she goes…

  78. Ah but Streep’s sister knows she can onky go so high (unlike her “Amanda Priestly” in The Devil Wears Prada0 That’s clear in that great scene where Hoffman sits in her chair in her office. Inside she’s fuming, but she knows he has more authority than she does, being male. And when things get too hot he goes to the higher ups — who send him to another parish the way they always do.
    A number fo years back I took a mini-vacation (3 days) at one of Palm SpSpings’ nicer gay hotels. To my surprise I discovered it was being managed by a pair of priests who were on call as substitutes to the local parish. Many of the rooms were decorated with chilren’s toys. Never saw any kids there but it gave me the cold creeps. A few years later one of the priests was dragged back to Boston where he stood trial (after many years of trying to nail him). He was convicted, sent to prison and was murdered there by a fellow inmate. Don’t know what became of the other priest. The hotel was bought out by a neighboring hotel, that busted through a wall and made it part of their property.

    Boston’s Bishop Law who was in charge of all this was recalled to the Vatican — thus eluding legal athorities who planned to try him for aiding and abetting.

    It would make a great movie, but Shanley’s not up t it.

  79. Yeah, who today could tackle that story?

  80. Could be. I don’t know if he’s interested in religion as a subject, but then I’m not sure if pedophile priests are either.

  81. Wow, this turned in to quite the discussion…

    Not sure if there’s any way of catching up with a comment on a month-old post (especially on a blog that moves this rapidly) but tip of the hat anyway.

  82. You can comment anytime! It doesn’t usually restart the conversation to the same degree, but I’ll always notice, and tip my hat back.

  83. […] letters and, fifteen years later, a fascinating blog thread which Rosenbaum himself eventually joined. But I digress…) On the aforementioned thread, Arthur S. notes that Scorsese’s film […]

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