Archive for July, 2021

The Haul

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2021 by dcairns

What I do is, I mostly go from charity shop to charity shop, these days. They’re all very stocked-up, can’t shift the stuff fast enough, and I’m finding lots of interest.

Mary Pat Kelly’s Martin Scorsese: A Journey is one of the finest books on this filmmaker. Part biography, part critical study, part oral history. Full of fascinating stuff. Readers of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls may be amused by how the drug stuff is elided. But just as a for instance, in the section on RAGING BULL, we learn that DeNiro thinks that Vickie LaMotta cheated on Jake with his brother Joey. Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty are dumbfounded by this. “Absolutely not.” And yet DeNiro had a hand in the script. They deduce that he sees the story entirely through Jake’s eyes.

The Genius of the System by Thomas Schatz doesn’t seem to argue its case but is full of research and stuff. I need to give it a chance, I guess. I don’t agree with the concept and a lot of the stories told in it tend, to my way of thinking, to confirm that the genius lay in certain individual practitioners of the system, though of course the system facilitated them and they all required brilliant collaborators…

Making a Film: The Story of Secret People by Lindsay Anderson, most of whose faded lettering has been washed out by my camera, was a real find, and I got it only five minutes from the Shadowplayhouse. Anderson follows the development, preproduction, shooting, and most of the post of Thorold Dickinson’s 1952 Ealing drama. It’s an odd little film — Ealing had just made THE LAVENDER HILL MOB and THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT so one could argue that poor Lindsay has picked the wrong movie to follow. But it doesn’t matter what film it is, since Dickinson is a smart director and Anderson has total access to his process, apart from the bits going on in the man’s mind. Audrey Hepburn, a bit player in LAVENDER HILL, is elevated to a major supporting role here, and Dickinson directed the screen test that got her the lead in ROMAN HOLIDAY, so the story of SECRET PEOPLE is hooked into history. I’m reading this now, properly, and loving it.

North Berwick is an idyllic seaside town with good ice cream, fish and chips, and charity shops. The weather’s been hot so we went, and I picked up Chaos as Usual: conversations about Rainer Werner Fassbinder by Juliane Lorenz. It isn’t as scandalous as I’d expected but it’s very enjoyable — feeling the need to dip into some more Fassbinder. I’ve seen very little of his massive output, really. Appetite whetted.

The Essential Wrapped in Plastic: Pathways to Twin Peaks by John Thorne. Lots of interviews in this one, which is what sold me. Only covers the first two series. It has many typos, like the Fassbinder book, but these ones are more amusing, as in the phrase, “ad-fib.” An improvised lie? Sounds like a useful term.

Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film by Adam Lowenstein seems like an ambitious critical work. I’m not at all sure Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE is inspired by the Holocaust but I’m interested to see Lowenstein argue it.

That’s just a fraction of the reading matter I’ve been acquiring. More soon!

Gunny

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2021 by dcairns

I was blown away by THE GUNFIGHTER. I missed it in Bologna a few years back, but enjoyed Henry King’s STATE FAIR and OVER THE HILL, also shown. Of the other Gregory Peck vehicles, I found TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH fairly impressive and THE BRAVADOS was going OK until Peck decided to ruin it by smiling at the end. Can’t think of another film so categorically betrayed by a single facial expression. I think Peck’s niceness worked against him, his eggy moments onscreen tend to be motivated by unwonted injections of pleasantry. There’s that disgraceful moment in GUNS OF NAVARONE where Peck and Quinn share a joke about a woman, despite hating each other over a woman…

Well, THE GUNFIGHTER is amazingly uncompromising. There’s two bits of Hollywood bullshit — the first is Peck shooting a gun out of a man’s hand (nobody can do that — something I learned as a kid from some TV movie with Stuart Whitman or somebody — he was a cop and he said “We can’t shoot the gun out of his hand, you know,” and I was like, wow. Obviously Tarantino never saw that one since he did an interview about Black Lives Matter where he seriously pondered why cops didn’t do that). The second is a dead character riding off into the sunset, one of those faux happy endings like the superimposed Flynn at the end of THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON. It’s just decoration, not really a cop-out.

Otherwise the film is pure noir. Nobody is all good but many are all bad. (I use “good” the way old Hollywood thought of it — so the women aren’t pure, but they’re morally positive.) It has a HIGH NOON hook two years before that film was made — the clock is ticking and the action is almost real time after the first couple of scenes. Peck, the fastest gun west of the Gregory Pecos, is in town to see his estranged wife. He waits in the saloon. But his fame as gunfighter makes him a target for every young punk with a pistol, there’s a vengeful father aiming at him with a rifle from across the street and three vengeful brothers riding after him. He really needs to get out of Dodge but circs keep delaying him. I hope fingernails are good for you because we’re chewing them to the quick.

Speaking of quick — Peck demonstrates his skill early on, and seals his fate, executing a young Richard Jaeckel who provokes a duel. King’s presentation of this is stunning — we see Peck at the bar, glass in hand. Jaeckel draws on him, and is shot — we never see Peck draw or fire, we just cut back to him after, gun in his free hand. He’s so fast the camera can’t see it, is the implication.

Of course this gag gets exaggerated into a great bit in BLAZING SADDLES, and Gene Wilder’s backstory in that film seems drawn from this one too.

Cinematographer Arthur C. Miller delivers a number of stunning wide shots using single-source light from windows bouncing off wooden floors or ceilings.

Peck is really good in this. Cinema’s paragon of stiffness is credible as an outlaw since the film doesn’t go into great detail about his wild past. Impossible to imagine him being like Jaeckel, ever, or like Skip Homeier, memorably repulsive as the film’s other psycho-squirt. In MAN OF THE WEST there’s some powerfully nasty talk about Gary Gooper’s criminal activities, and the result is cognitive dissonance — you can’t square Coop’s persona with the stuff he’s supposed to have done. Discretion helps GUNFIGHTER get over this hurdle.

Andre De Toth co-wrote the film — I own two books on De Toth but am unable to learn why he didn’t direct also. King steps in and does an excellent job — now I have to see JESSE JAMES. Feels like he did one great film with Peck and Ty Power apiece, then kept using them, with diminishing returns.

Millard Mitchell is outstanding as the town marshall, a former crony of Peck’s. Who’s the kid? He’s good. IMDb has a huge list of cast members, down to the smallest extra, but nothing on him.

THE GUNFIGHTER stars Atticus Finch; R.F. Simpson; Cobweb; Kitty O’Day; Sheriff Dad Longworth; Melakon / Sevrin; Big Ed Williams (uncredited); Fairy Godmother; Grandma Walton; Sheriff Kip McKinney; Eggs; Cojo; Skipper Jonas Grumby; The Dear One; Pee Wee; Kane’s father; Dr. Walter Coley; and Capt. Patrick Hendry.

Southern Discomfort

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2021 by dcairns

END OF THE ROAD (1970) is certainly an extraordinary thing. Terry Southern adapting a John Barth novel (to Barth’s eventual dismay) and Aram Avakian directing it.

Avakian isn’t a well-known name: he only directed four films. I enjoyed his laid-back thrillers, COPS AND ROBBERS and 11 HARROWHOUSE. I haven’t seen LAD: A DOG, made eight years before this. The guy never seemed to get any momentum going.

But as an editor he was a star: he cut JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY, THE MIRACLE WORKER, LILITH, MICKEY ONE, and Coppola’s YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW. All of them dazzling works from a vision-mixing standpoint. He’d periodically break out of cutting into directing and then get shoved back into the editing suite. After this, Coppola got him to cut THE GODFATHER but Robert Evans fired him — Evans’ memoir says Avakian was going behind Coppola’s back, saying the film wouldn’t cut. Evans had some rushes assembled, proving him wrong, and showed him the door. I find this unlikely. Avakian was, after all, Coppola’s ally going into production, so a scenario where Evans fires a Coppola crony is readily explained by Evans wanting more influence on the film. Evans lies quite a lot elsewhere in his book.

Anyway, END OF THE ROAD shows an artistic ambition not on display in the nice thrillers. And I’m guessing not in the dog movie. The montage — a pyrotechnic, hallucinatory phantasmagoria of abstraction and dissonance, unsettles and dazzles. The performances go right to the edge, then over it. Stacey Keach and James Earl Jones who should by rights be our points of entry and identification, swing wildly through a dizzying repertoire of funny voices and bizarre line readings. Keach is the catatonic patient quicky revived by Jones’ unorthodox methods/madness.

As screenwriter/producer, Southern is on particularly indulgent form. I haven’t read Barth — I feel like I should now — but Southern appears to have transformed an early, comparatively naturalistic book into something a little more like later Barth, but a lot more like mid-period Southern (the film makes me wish Avakian had been entrusted with The Magic Christian).

Keach and Jones’ funhouse lunacy — it’s a toss-up which of the two is more disturbingly demented — is joined with a terrific, naturalistic performance from Dorothy Tristan, and a creepy one from the excellent Harris Yulin, who seems to be trying to bridge the chasm of performative styles on display. It’s absolutely never boring. Profoundly alienating, technically stunning, infuriatingly incoherent, yes. Boring, no.

What put me off was the glib, jokey end-note, which follows a horrific botched abortion scene — the swerve into tragedy after surreal farce was effective and I could go with it, but the cheap wink at the end ruined that — it’s of a piece with Southern’s other repulsive violations of taste/the audience apparently elsewhere in his oeuvre, particularly the comic treatment of the heroine’s suicide in the novel Blue Movie and the film THE LOVED ONE — both motivated by out-of-character nastiness from the male lead, both ghastly — both moments that really make you wonder about the guy.

I recall a student making a short film in his first year which rather upset everybody, and he was kind of proud of himself, when a colleague, who’s more combative than me, told him he had to take responsibility for the emotions he was evoking, and they had to achieve something. Just showing that he could make us uncomfortable wasn’t a positive achievement in itself. Possibly a lesson Southern and Avakian needed to learn. Avakian perhaps did.

Gordon Willis shot it (Michael Chapman operating) and it looks AMAZING — his first feature and he’s already doing his toplight thing. Robert Q. Lovett cut it, a future Coppola guy. FFC essentially crewed THE GODFATHER from this movie.