Archive for Robert Redford

Fair and Lovely on the Campaign Trail

Posted in FILM, Painting, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2015 by dcairns


In THE CANDIDATE (1972), Michael Ritchie does such a good job of surrounding golden boy Robert Redford with grotesques, ugly Americans, non-WASP imperfect specimens of ordinary humanity, that the overall effect is similar to Heironymous Bosch’s painting of Christ Carrying the Cross, thronged and taunted by gurning Semitic caricatures. The once-dapper Melvyn Douglas is used to particularly unsightly effect, seemingly serving his aging kisser up happily to curdle our blood with a lot of sinister, wet grinning. Also Allen Garfield’s ebullient bulbousness, Peter Boyle sporting a Mr. Upside-Down-Head full beard, even a young Michael Lerner, every part of whom seems to be wider than it is long.


This is one I had to watch pan-and-scan in an off-air recording, which seems a terrible gap in the historic record. You’d think Redford was well enough known for there to be a DVD somewhere. I’d suggest an Eclipse box set to compliment Criterion’s excellent DOWNHILL RACER — “Winning and Losing with Michael Ritchie” — it could have SMILE, THE CANDIDATE, DOWNHILL RACER, THE BAD NEW BEARS and maybe The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. And does anyone rate SEMI-TOUGH? Still, this would have to come after René Clemént’s “Occupation and Resistance,” which is top of my wish list.

What shall it profit a Malibu blond? It’s the age-old tale of the idealist who loses his way — Ritchie and editors Richard A. Harris (regular collaborator) and Robert Estrin shape Jeremy DRIVE HE SAID Larner’s script so that the path to hell has plenty of missing paving stones, forcing us to fill in the blanks, mentally. There are great transitions and elisions, and for once the principles Redford starts with actually sound like principles — pro-choice, pro-bussing, anti-pollution. Most political dramas, from MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON to House of Cards, contain sub-homeopathic doses of politics. Watching Redford get whittled down to nothing by his campaign managers is both depressing and grimly satisfying. Also, it’s a very good portrayal of how awful campaigning must be: an utterly moronic process designed to trap intelligent adults into humiliating situations.


The movie anticipates Robert Altman’s excellent TV series Tanner ’88, which Altman considered his best work, in many ways, not least the use of real politicians and journalists playing themselves. And once again, Redford’s manner of heroism looks oddly off-kilter, a kind of behaviour we wouldn’t find noble anymore — he’s petulant and passive-aggressive. We aren’t convinced he’s really struggling to hang onto his integrity, and maybe that’s the point. But the whole thing also works as a depiction of the cult of celebrity, and how frightening and degrading it must be to experience from the inside. Redford once said that when he first saw his portrait on the cover of Time with the caption Robert Redford: Actor, he was convinced for a second it said Robert Redford: Asshole. That’s showbiz.



Ski Bums

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 21, 2015 by dcairns

After enjoying SMILE so much, I resolved to watch more Michael Ritchie movies — he seemed kind of like a benign Altman. It took me a while, but I finally ran DOWNHILL RACER (1969), a movie I remember being on TV when I was a kid. I could never get into it then, and it’s obvious why when I look at it now. It’s mostly non-verbal; it doesn’t reinforce its visual moments with talk; the characters emerge very slowly; hardly anything is stated overtly; none of the characters is ingratiating. These aren’t narrative tactics calculated to appeal to a kid. Plus it was about sport, and I hate sport. But I now take the view that what a film is about, its surface subject, is irrelevant to its quality, so I watch war films and sports films if they seem interesting, despite my distaste for those particular forms of competitive activity.


I also remember an interview where Bill Forsyth said that all stars have their self-imposed limitations, and the example he used was Robert Redford, who had never played an unsympathetic part. Well, I frequently find Redford unsympathetic but I realize I’m not meant to. But I would hold DOWNHILL RACER up as an example of RR playing a character mostly defined by negative qualities: he’s arrogant, anti-social, a dangerous driver, not a team player. He’s not a villain or even an anti-hero, he’s just a protagonist with few attractive qualities. The movie succeeds in fairly minimalist ways — we are minimally bothered about whether Redford’s pompous skier will take home the gold, but we’re sort of intrigued about what sort of a journey he’ll go on as a person, since there’s no shortage of pressure on him to reform his ways.

The lack of talk is really striking — much of what’s said is just chatter, especially that engaged in by sports commentators and journalists. The skiers exchange meaningless pleasantries. Redford fails to bond. It’s over an hour before anyone makes an actual speech. The honour falls to coach Gene Hackman. Via the DVD extras we learn that editor Richard A. Harris deliberately included some of Hackman’s slight line flubs, to emphasise the character’s emotion and to maintain the documentary realism achieved elsewhere by Ritchie in the ski footage.

The skiing is great — it is actually one of the sports I find less offensive. It happens amid pleasant scenery and it doesn’t make a lot of horrible noise, though the commentators do. Almost every other sport occurs in a horrible environment or is very loud, often both. Here, they’ve dispensed with the shonky rear projection which plagued such sequences in older movies (and some later ones, shamefully) and they have the kind of spectacular crashes which you often see on TV sports coverage but which rarely figure in movies, because movies can’t afford to break too many legs. Here, Ritchie filmed the actual races, and whenever there was a particularly painful and flamboyant tumble, they would make sure they costumed one of their actors in matching duds so they could work the sprawling athlete into their narrative.


Ritchie understands that each skiing sequence needs to be different (as each fight is subtly different in RAGING BULL) to avoid ennui. He holds back on the amazing POV shots (wide-angle lens footage taken by their lead skier, tips of his skis in shot, snow rushing past at such velocity that by the time an ordinary mortal like you or I have taken in an onrushing bump, or a snowman, or a tree, or a small child, we would have skied right through it.

Harris cuts together really snazzy montages of preparation, too, giant closeups of tiny fastenings being adjusted, and the sound design has all these tinny tink, pting, klick sounds, which, spread apart with very soft wind underneath, create a kind of abstract, low-key suspense that’s somehow more deeply worrying than the bombastic kind (Harris also cut for James Cameron up to TITANIC).

Really nice work — pure cinema, seventies style, before the seventies had actually started. I guess in that decade, things might have ended more darkly, but the WAY in which Redford achieves his inevitable victory is really neat, and pretty dark too.

Sacred Spaces

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2014 by dcairns

Cathedrals Of Culture still 1 _Glawogger_Library_01_

Bologna — have relocated to the city centre, and am averaging five screenings a day. Met Kristin Thompson, David Bordwell, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Kevin Brownlow. Life is good!

Report from Edinburgh:

CATHEDRALS OF CULTURE is subtitled A 3D FILM PROJECT ABOUT ARCHITECTURE or something, a weirdly prissy title (is a “film project” different from/better than a “film”) and what it is, is a series of half hour portraits of important buildings by an international group of filmmakers. Since there are six half hour pieces, it’s quite long, and like all compendium films it’s a mixed bag, but none of the films are boring and there is one real stand-out.

Rather unfortunately, several of the filmmakers have had the same idea, writing a voice-over for the buildings so they can narrate their own stories. It’s a cute idea, done once. Michael Glawogger breaks the pattern by assembling a collage of Russian literary extracts; Redford uses a series of audio interviews, new and archival. Dispensing with talk altogether might have been a welcome innovation for somebody.

Despite this being Wim Wenders’ second work in 3D, after PINA, he continually tracks forward through the Berlin Philharmonic (a genuinely grand, innovative and consistently surprising structure), which weirdly cancels out the effect of being in a 3D movie. Forward tracking shots look like 3D already. Lateral ones, diagonal ones, and indeed stationary ones are more suited to exploiting the stereoscopic effect. Still, the space is stunning and about half of Wenders shots do it justice.

Cathedrals Of Culture still 3 _Redford_Institute_01_

Robert Redford struggles to find enough angles on the Salk Institute, which offers only one real vista, a challenge to legendary cinematographer Ed Lachman’s inventiveness. Margreth Olin has the benefit of dance performances to shoot at the Oslo Opera House, but her constant freeze frames and shifts into black and white mar rather than enhance the experience.

Michael Glawogger’s camera drifts through a vast library, recalling Resnais, and finding a few striking effects with the curving aisles of books and flickering fluorescent lights. But visits to the Pompidou Centre and other noble institutions risk being purely celebratory, a difficult attitude to sustain with interest for three hours.

The filmmaker who understands 3D best here is Michael Madsen (not the actor), perhaps because he’s also a cinematographer. His portrait of a Finnish prison manages to surprise with every fresh angle, the bleak but beautiful whiteness of the structure perfectly captured in crisp, calm frames which nevertheless brim with unspoken tension. By choosing the least overtly “cultural” building, Madsen also avoids preciousness, a slight concern elsewhere. The voice-over, recorded by the prison’s psychologist, adopts the viewpoint of various sections of the institution: the perimeter wall, the chapel, the cottage for conjugal visits, and most disturbingly, the isolation wing.


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