Archive for Stars in my Crown

Film Club: Sullivan’s Travels

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2010 by dcairns

Whew, this is a big one. There’s a lot to talk about in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, from the different actors, all at somewhere near their best, to the kinds of joke Preston Sturges feels he can get away with (i.e. all kinds), to the fact that it’s  a message movie whose message is that message movies are bad, and an attack on the social conscience film with a social conscience. “What’s wrong with Capra?” asks John L Sullivan. And Sturges gives us the answer.

We begin, famously, with an ending. The device may be borrowed from CITIZEN KANE’s newsreel, but there’s nothing to match the startling 90° angle change that yanks us out of the News on the March newsreel and into the smoky screening room, but one doesn’t go to Sturges for visual pyrotechnics. One sometimes gets them, though — the long crane shot down into Rex Harrison’s pupil that recurs in UNFAITHFULLY YOURS, and the final shot of THE PALM BEACH STORY, which is technically impossible in at least two different ways, are examples.

Apart from the idea of the opening, there’s the execution — that exciting noir-style action climax, with big men gargling blood as they murder each other on the spine of a hurtling locomotive — it’s brilliant parody that doesn’t tip its hand AT ALL, suggesting Sturges could have made a good living as a sort of William Wellman back-up, had he not also been a genius at screwball satire.

Now the celebrated three-hander between Joel McCrea’s John Sullivan and his two producers, LeBrand (Robert Warwick) and Hadrian (Porter Hall). I think it was Regular Shadowplayer Mark Medin who pointed out the existence of producer William LeBaron, a real-life Paramount exec, upon whom LeBrand might be modeled. (LeBaron had actually just lost his job at the studio and been replaced by the pernicious Buddy DeSylva). It’s striking how sympathetic the producers are — they seem a lot more clear-headed than Sully at this point, although of course all they’re interested in is the commercial angle. (It’s the Sullivan household butler who encapsulates Sturges’s thinking on the subject of the proposed social realist epic, O Brother Where Art Thou?)

Robert Warwick is a surprising player for Sturges, since he’s so dignified and patrician, and Sturges doesn’t deflate his dignity, while still getting good laughs out of him. Porter Hall makes an excellent foil by virtue of his height contrast and his cigar, which marks him as fine movie exec material before he even opens his mouth, which he does as little as possible lest his cigar drop out. Yapping around his stogie like an angry terrier, Hall is so effective a comedian that it’s a shock to see his amazing range demonstrated in something like INTRUDER IN THE DUST.

Accounts suggest that Sturges made the office scene in a single, long, elaborate take on a bet with either producer Paul Jones or cinematographer John Seitz (DOUBLE INDEMNITY), although we see similarly enormous shots in THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK and others. I wonder how many takes? Sturges’ shooting ratio seems to have risen enormously when he no longer had Jones to supervise him, and it’s likely that the “delightful, pixie-like” (does this mean gay?) Jones served as a useful shield between Sturges and Paramount. No creative change is visible, at least to me, after Jones departs and Sturges starts producing himself, but a sympathetic manager might have sustained Sturges’s career longer. Jones later produced Jerry Lewis movies, including ROCK-A-BYE BABY, a (very, very, extremely) loose reworking of MIRACLE.

With his whole mission statement laid out in one bravura scene, Sturges now turns to lampooning his hero mercilessly, starting with the way butler Robert Greig (Hollywood’s perennial portly manservant: the butler’s union should erect a silver statue to him) performs a ruthless ideological demolition of the very idea of documenting the lives of the poor. The speech is powerful and dazzlingly articulate, and Sturges is careful to take the curse of its pomposity via the skilled deployment of Eric Blore, a wondrous silly-ass comedian here playing Sully’s valet. His association with Preston Sturges goes all the way back to THE GOOD FAIRY, where he even manages to out-over-act Reginald Owen and Frank Morgan. A tireless ham, Blore will stop at nothing to get a laugh, cycling through comedy reactions at high speed, shamelessly mugging and grimacing — I fondly recall a nice moment in THE GAY DIVORCEE when he does his OUTRAGED!!! expression for absolutely no reason, just because he was feeling left out, perhaps, and gets one of the biggest laughs of the (delightful) film.

Despite Greig’s forceful denunciation of Sullivan’s quest, some objections could be made to his argument, and some of them seem to be expressed in the movie itself, albeit silently. Because even though we’ve just been told that filmmakers can do nothing for the poor (except entertain them, the film will add), SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS does include the long, music-only journey through the Inferno of homelessness and poverty. Sturges doesn’t include that lightly. And of course, we do expect films to deal with reality, and with ideas, however entertaining we also wish them to be. Having demolished Sullivan’s idea of awareness-raising, the movie offers its own, alternative model, but it doesn’t preach about it.

(The IMDB suggests that the film was inspired by John Garfield’s dragging himself up as a tramp and riding the rails in order to get into character for depression-set dramas; Sturges lays the blame of Frank Capra’s heavy-handed proselytizing for — what, exactly? — compassionate capitalism?)

Enter the land yacht, and a good portion of the Sturges stock company. William Demarest is underused in this movie — he’s so forceful a player that he acquires unintended import whenever he manages to grab a second of screen time — but you can’t have a plum role for every player in every movie. Frank Moran is memorably himself, mashed-up face and all, and Franklin Pangborn compliments these tromboning thesps with his own dramaturgical instrument, the flute. Charles R Moore is maybe the only bum note, since this is one of Sturges’s occasional ethnic embarrassments, a black cook characterized as dopey, sleepy, and suitable for degrading slapstick (he gets whited up by a bowl of cream during the chase scene. Ugh. A similar joke in Spielberg’s 1941, where Frank McRae is pelted with flour, is actually more sensitive and even progressive by comparison. There, I’ve found one area where 1941 beats SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS. Excluding model shots, I challenge anyone to find another.) Here are Moore’s credits. They make disheartening reading. In THE PALM BEACH STORY, he is at least an uneducated savant character, speaking words of wisdom (“She’s alone but she don’t know it.”) Not so here.

Nevertheless, that chase is pretty good, with the William Tell Overture really lifting it — one of the best bits of Keystone-inspired slapstick in any PS movie. It’s nothing to do with the quality of joke, just the pace and brutality of it. Plus secretary Margaret Hayes making the most of her legs and ass. Sturges takes the “with a little bit of sex” thing quite seriously, (“A leg is better than an ankle,” was one of his rules of movie-making) and Hayes spends the ensuing dialogue scene rubbing her sore butt in quite a distracting way.

With the “six acts of vaudeville” sent off to Vegas, Sullivan can now go looking for trouble as originally planned. He immediately finds it, in the unexpected form of randy widow Esther Howard. Esther is a sensational comedian and I’m always stunned to see her in uncredited small roles: WHAT A WAY TO GO! ought to lead with her name in its credits, even though she only appears for twenty seconds, because she is the living guarantee of pleasure. Almira Sessions plays her grumpy sister, the kind of part that might equally well have gone to Margaret Hamilton (who belatedly joined the Sturges troupe in BASHFUL BEND THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK). Sessions is another underrated joy who appeared for PS many times.

One of Sturges’s most outrageous jokes is the late Mr Joseph Kornheiser, who appears as a photograph on the wall, reacting to his widow’s frisky behaviour with increasing dismay. We never see his facial expression change, but it’s different each time we see him: the effect is partially a subjective one, maybe occurring in Sullivan’s mind. But not entirely. This cartoon humour perhaps prepares us for the importance of a Walt Disney toon later… (I’m unable to discover who played Mr K.)

Another swipe at “deep-dish movies” as Sully suffers through a triple feature (the unseen movie has a soundtrack of pained groaning) in the presence of the lusty Esther and her disapproving sister, as well as a cross-section of the Great American Public he wants to educate.

Escape! With a bit of sub-Laurel & Hardy barrel-falling. “What you fall into?” “Everything there was.”

After hitching a ride back to square one, McRea at last meets Veronica Lake, 22 minutes in. (“There’s always a girl in the picture.”) Waiting for her would be agony if the film weren’t so terrific. Great chemistry between the two: the hot McCrea and the cool Lake. As is pointed out on the Criterion DVD commentary, McCrea is odd casting, on the face of it, for an Ivy league college boy hotshot would-be intellectual film director. He was grateful to Sturges “for proving I could act without a horse under me.” (Further evidence: Jacques Tourneur’s STARS IN MY CROWN.) When Sturges told McCrea he wanted him, McCrea, whose real-life modesty informs his acting, said, “Nobody wants me. They want Gary Gooper and get me.”

It’s brilliant casting: the cowboy actor’s innate straightforwardness assures us that his pretensions and foolishness can be cast off as the story progresses.

Lake wasn’t a regular Sturges collaborator, although he was heavily involved as writer and producer in her other funniest and sexiest film, I MARRIED A WITCH. He’d spotted her back in I WANTED WINGS, where director Mitchell Leisen and her co-stars hadn’t exactly taken to her. That may have been a plus with Sturges, who didn’t generally appreciate Leisen’s handling of his scripts. For Sturges she was tough but cooperative, insisting on doing her own stunts (including falling from a moving train) despite her pregnancy, which she concealed from him until shooting had begun. It then became Sturges and Edith Head’s job to conceal the pregnancy from the audience.

Sturges has a surprisingly grisly side: the tale of the washed-up director who shot himself, and “They had to repaper the room.” Since Sullivan has just referred to a fictitious deep-dish picture called HOLD BACK TOMORROW (like O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? this was eventually made) I wonder if Sturges has been thinking of HOLD BACK THE DAWN, directed by Leisen and featuring a hotel suicide early on?

Pausing only to fall in the pool with McCrea, Lake joins his quest in tramp drag. The freight train action looks forward to the Coen brothers’ mash-up of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, Homer’s Odyssey and thirties folk  legend, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?, which also features chain gangs and convicts in a movie show. The cross-dressing heroine is a stable element of hobo movies going back at least as far as William Wellman’s BEGGARS OF LIFE, where Louise Brooks looks fetching as a boy) and more recently his WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (Wellman later married his dragged up leading lady).

By the kind of reckless coincidence Sturges never gave a damn about avoiding, our moth-eaten duo find themselves in Vegas, reunited with the studio land yacht and are happy to accept its hospitality. I love the triple-pronged emotion of (1) the guy in the diner giving them free breakfast (2) Sturges getting the studio people to send him a $100 tip (3) Margaret Hayes speculating that this will probably ruin the guy — “He’ll give turkey dinners to every slug that comes in and never hit the jackpot again.”

Shower scene #1 of 2.

Diagnosed with swine fever, Sully is forced to travel by land yacht. McCrea, playing a man a little groggy and a little dim, is excellent here: the way he drones on with his choked-up voice, falling in love with Veronica without realizing it. Fiona’s favourite line may be his sickly protest at Lake’s desire to accompany him on his lone quest: “How can I be alone if you’re with me?”

Finally, the mission is embarked on properly, via a long musical montage. This could be a cop-out, but I certainly find it quite affecting, as do several fellow-viewers I now of. It’s a sequence that Sullivan’s butler would not have included. The clue may be provided by a quotation Sturges offered (although he wasn’t sure who said it originally, possibly Bramwell Fletcher Brander Matthews, whose book on dramatics inspired him to write): “A playwright should show conditions but let the audience draw conclusions.” If the music here is sentimental, and the comedy asides lessen the impact, the upcoming violent attack on Sullivan will show that the solemn butler had a point.

Before the sequence ends, though, there’s a mystery — the legs in the tree. Barely visible in frame grabs, they are inescapable in the film, at least once you’ve  had them pointed out. Male trousered legs, hanging from a tree.  They don’t seem in keeping with the mood of the scene, so one can’t accept that they represent a character who’s hanged himself and has been included to undercut the romanticism. How to explain them?

1) A man sitting on a branch. We’re meant to know that’s what he is, but the framing renders the limbs ambiguous. Perhaps a wider shot was taken and not used.

2) Crewmember. Nobody noticed a lighting guy in shot, or it was assumed he was concealed by foliage.

3) Depressed munchkin. Fired for being too tall, this failed dwarf wandered around Hollywood for three years before finding his way to Paramount and making away with himself on the set.

Anyhow, abruptly the plot thickens and the tone shifts — rather than allow Sully to pull off his quest without mishaps (the film could actually be heading for a happy ending here, apart from the romantic entanglement and the problem that Sullivan is married), Sturges sets about punishing his hero for intruding on the privacy of the poor. Claiming he had no idea how he was going to end the movie, he sets about robbing the protag of everything: wealth, health, privilege and even identity. The blow on the head gives Sully MOVIE AMNESIA, a kind which doesn’t actually exist in reality: if you’re so brain-damaged that you don’t know your own name, it appears to be impossible for you to be walking and talking. To render a man nameless you’d have to either strip him of language altogether or destroy all his memories since he learned his name, which amounts to the same thing, only worse. Needless to say, Movie Amnesia is so dramatically useful that its medical nonexistence is unlikely to stop it being used.

Via a nightmarish vaseline-smeared trial scene (like the jury of the damned in THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER), our hero finds himself on a chain gang supervised by “Mister”, a cameo by Al Bridge, a much-loved member of the Sturges company. Bridge, a seedy bulldog-faced wreck of a figure, with a delightfully dry, nasal delivery, has never played a brute before in a PS film, but he seems to relish the chance. I like his lawyer in MORGAN’S CREEK and his Buffalo Bill in THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK. I wonder how many Sturges players could have pulled off a villainous role like this? Porter Hall certainly could.

I’m also interested in the humanizing touches Sturges supplies Mister with — his cheerful chat with the sheriff delivering prisoners, and his taking the prisoners to a movie show. The first scene actually accentuates the horror, since this family man is capable of unspeakable brutality in the working part of his neatly compartmentalized life. The movie show is perhaps a plot device first and a piece of characterisation second. But Mister is more than a one-dimensional ogre: he contains the banality of evil and a few of those graces which are too small to be called “saving”.

Also present is Jimmy Conlin as a prison trusty, and here I cannot better Manny Farber’s description of “a one-thousand-year-old locust wearing an enormous brass hat.” The hat being the Conlin cranium, a hydrocephalic mountain of bone, hovering above his face like that Max Ernst Rene Magritte painting of a floating rock. Little Jimmy is a precious jewel to have in any film, on visual terms alone — he adds production values that cannot be priced — but he’s also a terrific actor.

The movie show brings to light part of the film’s tonal structure: this story repeats itself, first as farce, then as tragedy. If Charles R Moore’s cook is a rather undignified, racist caricature, the black churchgoers here are noble and sympathetic. I like the minister (Jess Lee Brooks, in maybe his only substantial role) — any embarrassment caused by his role is due to the difficulty of making comedy about a priest, when American cinema demanded that such figures be treated with respect. A little levity is permissible, but only if it’s not actually funny.

SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS has unusual problems to face because in a sense it is a comedy about comedy.  Chaplin didn’t really manage to say anything about his art in THE CIRCUS, where he works as a clown. The assumption tends to be that explaining jokes is bad for business, and not funny. Showing comedy is popular; showing what comedy IS, is often a turn-off. Some people will find the church scene a moving testimony to the power of laughter, some will find it a little gestural. It obviously illustrates the power of laughter, but does it move us to feel it? Maybe the film has done its work so well up to now that it doesn’t matter — we know what the scene means, and we’re confident the story will resume in earnest once this point has been put across. And maybe, if we assume the childlike naivety Cocteau recommends, we will be moved in spite of ourselves.

Would this sequence have been better with a Charlie Chaplin short, as Sturges had planned? I expect so, as something really funny seems to be called for, if we’re going to be moved at the same time. A Warner Bros cartoon might have suited better than Disney, too, although I see the need for the film to be silent. Pluto does lose a certain amount if you take away the soundtrack and replace it with a wheezing organ. A good Chaplin could have added another layer of nuance to the film’s message, since Chaplin didn’t leave the suffering of the world out of his films — Sullivan would have realized that dealing with reality was necessary for art, but that reality needs to be transfigured by aesthetics into something illuminating. Something that gives some kind of pleasure to the people who give their time and money to see the show.

Having robbed his hero of everything, Sturges discovered that he still had laughter, and this resolves the emotional arc of the film. His emotional block removed, Sullivan can now solve his more physical problems, thinking his way out of trouble and attracting media attention by confessing to his own murder. He’s immediately released, despite having been convicted of an unrelated assault on a railway employee — “They don’t lock people like me up for things like this” — as in MORGAN’S CREEK and numerous others, Sturges is quite happy to exploit the world’s corruption to bring about a happy ending. His miracles only do half the work, human folly and venality do the rest, and everything works out sort of OK, except society.

Sturges wrote that the biggest problem he faced was deciding in which order to solve the various narrative problems he’d given himself, and he particularly struggled with placing the solution to the issue of Sullivan’s wife. He recommends study of the film as an interesting case of intractable narrative difficulties, and doesn’t think he came up with a satisfactory answer. But in the mad sprint to the finish line of this wonderful film, speed comes to his rescue and the solution seems wholly satisfactory. SOMETHING about the ending still bothers a lot of people — “Boy!” — perhaps an over-explicitness about theme, which is laboured over by dialogue, and a Vorkapich-montage of laughing faces, with accompanying glorious music. All I can say is, it never bothered me when I saw the film as a kid.

(Sturges cameos, between Veronica Lake and the stepladder.)

Preston Sturges [DVD]

Critical Condition

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 28, 2009 by dcairns

gerry_lookingup

The last of my Edinburgh International Film Festival interviews from this year. I met Gerald Peary, critic and director of the documentary FOR THE LOVE OF MOVIES: THE STORY OF AMERICAN FILM CRITICISM, which is a combined history lesson and elegy for the days in which critics could really stir up some popular debate about movies. The tracing of film criticism’s development in the States was very interesting to me, since I knew virtually nothing about the early days, and as Gerald hoped, it was also interesting to see and hear from the people behind the bylines — the movie features a large cast of contemporary writers, from Jonathan Rosenbaum to Elvis Mitchell, Molly Haskell to Kenneth Turan.

The week of the screening, Andrew Sarris, as close as the film has to a hero, had just lost his job at the New York Observer, lending credence and urgency to the film’s argument that serious movie discussion is under threat.

My main issue with the film is that it located the internet as a primary source of that threat, rather than perhaps offering a place of refuge for serious cinephilia. Harry Knowles makes an easy target (hard to miss), and is cast as more-or-less as the film’s villain (with Pauline Kael representing a different sort of malignity). I saw my mission as being to talk Gerald round to the joys of cyberspatial film discourse, at least a little.

DAVID CAIRNS: I wanted to ask how you became a film critic.

GERALD PEARY: Well, I did not intend to be a film critic. I guess the preconditions are (1) that I was a total movie lover all my life from the time I was like three and four years old. I remember my mother and I would walk down the street and I would run into a theater and my mother would be , “Where’s my boy?” and I would be sitting there, having somehow sneaked past everybody, watching images. So I always watched movies avidly. And then, really pretty early, aged about fifteen, I started reading film critics. And I learned incredible amounts from critics long before I was one. Critics sent me to movies I wouldn’t have gone to, and they also increased my consciousness about cinema and did all kinds of good things.

But I was an English major, I think I was going to be an English professor, and then I was a drama person and I directed plays and acted in plays. [...] And at some point I got tired of drama, I got tired of actors — I hated actors, hated working with them — and I was in graduate school and I started writing film reviews for the school newspaper and found it really interesting. And I guess I’ve continued to do that forever and ever since. And here I am.

DC: So it makes sense that you’d make a movie one day, since you’ve been involved in the practice of drama…

GP: This is the first movie I’ve ever made and certain parts of it seemed easier, maybe because years ago I worked with actors, I know how to put actors at ease. [...] I guess it was easier for me to talk to people, I think the critics in the movie are pretty comfortable on camera. That’s what most people say, they really enjoy the critics, they say what they want, they’re not inhibited.

DC: So, why did you decide to make this film? And why make it as a film?

GP: There is no film history, to this point, of American film criticism. There is no book. Whether this is the right way to make it or not, I don’t know. I’d be too lazy, and overwhelmed, and have too many things in my life to write the history, because even now, people say, “Well, you’ve done the movie, why don’t you do the book?” Nooo! That just sounds SO overwhelming to do. So this was, it wasn’t easier, because this took eight years to make, but it wasn’t sitting at a table all day long reading and writing, it was a different phenomenon, and there’s something a bit social about making movies. Which is kind of fun, being with editors and doing interviews and things.

DC: Yeah. I’ve made some short films, and that’s what I would be doing if people were queuing up to give me money to make films…

GP: Well they’re not queuing up to give me money either, believe me…

DC: How did you manage it?

GP: Well it was practically impossible. People never realise, because obviously America’s so rich in so many ways, that there’s no government money at all, for anything. We have this idiotically self-reliant idea that the arts should not be paid for at all by government. “That’s your job.” So I think in other countries this movie could have been financed, because it’s a cultural history of my country. This was completely private money. And there’s no reason for anybody to invest in this movie. Actually, we don’t have any investors. My wife was the producer of this movie, I’m the director, and it was just trying to beg money thousands of ways, over many, many, many years. We actually did — which really worked quite well — we did a campaign, sending out letters to friends and acquaintances, asking for $100 per person, and we collected $18,000 that way, which at a certain moment was unbelievably important in keeping the movie barely going. I’m amazed it’s finally finished.

You do have a phenomenon, I’m sure it’s all over, of all kinds of fake producers, bullshit producers, who keep coming in and claiming, “Oh, we’re gonna make your movie,” and after all their baloney, the one thing they don’t do is put any money into the movie. They want to change it, they want to influence it, they have big ideas… Over the years we had lots of fake producers who came in and out, and in the end the movie kept coming back to me and to Amy Geller, the producer, my wife. And so, in the end, we actually made exactly the movie we wanted to make. Which is really good. So I’m glad all those people went away, because at certain points I would have been tempted — anything, just to finish the movie.

But eight years really is a long time.

DC: I guess one of the things that happened during that period was the so-called decline of print journalism, these firings and redundancies of senior film critics –

GP: One of the many ways that the film changed form over the years is that eight years ago, film criticism still seemed a viable profession. Even then, obviously I want more people to read criticism and take it seriously, so that’s always been an objective, but I had no idea then that everybody in America was going to lose their job; by now, there are over fifty critics who are “made redundant” as you say over here — we say “fired” in the States. So the movie has an urgency that it didn’t have when it was conceived. I guess dramatically that helps the film. Or melodramatically. But it’s not a happy melodrama, because I’d rather critics were employed and doing well.

harryThe world’s biggest blogger, Harry Knowles.

DC: And parallel with that is the rise of the blog, and people getting their criticism on the IMDb, or from blogs or from Harry Knowles — who’s almost the villain of your film, but not quite, because he’s so affable.

GP: Much more than trying to vilify anybody in the film, I sort of lay it out, and I do want people to decide for themselves; Harry Knowles or not Harry Knowles; the internet or print journalism; or Pauline Kael versus Andrew Sarris. So people read Harry Knowles in different ways. In general, I can say, the older the person is, the more they want to strangle him –

[But how would they get their hands around that redwood of a throat? -- DC]

GP: — and the younger they are the more they identify with him. Certain kinds of web critics resent Harry Knowles because he comes their representative, and that’s not the way they write or the way they think.

DC: He is sort of the representative in your film. If I was going to pitch in with a defense of the blogosphere, I guess I would say that I wouldn’t want him — I don’t hate the man — but I wouldn’t want him necessarily to stand for all of what’s going on on the internet.

GP: Right. We have Karina Longworth also in the film, who is [...]definitely an up-and-coming critic in America. Critics in print who read her work tend to respect her work. She knows her stuff.

DC: And she’s a writer, not a typer. So… it still feels to me sometimes that I’m doing what I do for free, and while I feel fine about doing that, on the other hand I could be taking food from your children’s mouths by providing free film criticism… All this free material is definitely a contributing factor to the crisis in print. I don’t imagine that newspapers are going to disappear [as Jonathan Romney put it, So people are going to carry their laptops everywhere?] and I think those that remain will still carry some criticism. But what’s your take on that?

GP: I think it probably depends on the country. I think you’re right, I mean, most of the papers in America that have lost their critics still have reviews but they tend to be consolidated, they tend to be wire service and they don’t pay particularly. So Roger Ebert is in more places than ever, whether that’s good or bad… Maybe it’s different here, maybe America was very good this way, that it has a long tradition of local critics who are in each city and can write about things from the perspective of somebody in that city. When a filmmaker from that region shows a movie, good or bad, that filmmaker will get some space in the paper, and I think that’s nice, and certainly that’s going away with the homogenization. [...] The Village Voice is an egregious case of a great newspaper just being dismantled. That’s what I grew up on, forty years ago, was reading the Village Voice, which had the best critics in the world, and that’s where my consciousness came from, and so the idea that it’s just part of a conglomerate today, just one cog, is really very disheartening.

for-the-love-of-moviesAndrew Sarris in FOR THE LOVE OF MOVIES.

DC: It seems your film is a bit of a lament for the days “when film criticism mattered,” as it says in the film. What I wondered is, do you feel that film critics should have power — in the way that Pauline Kael had power and people said she could make or break a film — ? Do you think that is a wholly positive thing?

GP: No. Well, I’m not sure Pauline Kael could make or break a film. Of the two, I suppose “making a film” is much more positive than sending it scurrying away. I guess several Pauline Kael reviews, like her NASHVILLE review and her BONNIE AND CLYDE review were two, her LAST TANGO IN PARIS review, seemed to have a great effect on the films. It’s in-between. I like the idea that critics can help a good film. I wouldn’t be doing this otherwise. There’s nothing more pleasurable than sending people to a movie that you like and find worthy, and people see it and thank you because they saw it, and they now have joined the crowd and also like that film. That power is completely diminished, and perhaps completely gone, and that’s far from the idea of power-brokers. The New York Times used to be the paper for the foreign language film, if the New York Times critic didn’t like a foreign language film it was absolutely gone. If he liked it, it might do OK. And that really is far too much power for any one person to have.

[It occurs to me that powerful critics, even if they're not a universal good, might still be a useful balance against the publicity power of the studios, which is almost all we have left. Well, that and the capricious will of the audience, which does still seem to reject a few of the blockbusters shoveled in its direction, although it's not clear to me on what basis LAND OF THE LOST is rejected while JURASSIC PARK is accepted, or why TRANSFORMERS is somehow less hideous than PEARL HARBOR. -- DC]

DC: In that case, is there something to be said for the “cacophony of voices” on the internet, because people will find their favourite writers — one hopes people will seek out writers whose tastes correspond roughly to their own. There might still be powerful critics but each one is powerful to a much smaller constituency.

GP: I think you just said it. That constituency is so small that in terms of theatrical releases it doesn’t matter, practically, at all. Do you know of a case where an internet reviewer has influenced — “box office” sounds too vulgar — but brought lots of people to see a movie?

DC: Probably not. I know cases where I’ve gone to see a film because of something I’ve read on the internet that intrigued me…

[Here is where Harry Knowles is a significant figure, because he has probably had a positive effect on some smaller films, provided they're the kind of entertainments he likes. Because he has, it seems, literally gazillions of readers. -- DC]

GP: Well that’s good, the fact that you do that is good. I come from print, obviously, but you should seek good critics, somebody who has your sensibility, wherever you find them. Perhaps in the future there might be some sort of falling off, and people on the web who are just more dilettantes will go away, the more serious critics will stay, and that there will be less of them. Because less probably will be more influential than more. And there might be a time when certain web critics are good and valuable and might send readers to good movies. That would be nice.

DC: [...] I’m just happy if a couple of people read a piece and that might lead them to a film. There’s that warm feeling you get…

GP: You got it: the warm feeling. I like that phrase: “the warm feeling.” Because why are you doing this unless you’re sending people to movies.

DC: And sometimes you might want to warn them off something that was a horrible experience, or at least report that you had a horrible experience and say “You decide for yourselves.” [A strange "cold feeling" actually comes when somebody tells me they won't be seeing a film as a result of reading one of my pieces, however much I hated the film. I'd still rather people saw and decided for themselves...]

GP: Well that’s it, “You decide.” Pauline Kael, there wasn’t any “you decide” for her. She used the term “You the reader,” she used this rhetorical device where she told you what YOU thought about the movie, and it was very bullying and intimidating. I don’t tell what someone will think, I never could tell. That’s part of her critical arrogance.

DC: I guess it comes down to also what you consider the purpose of criticism to be. Whether it’s a consumer guide to help people find the films they might like, or whether it can be more than that and illuminate a film — even a film that somebody doesn’t like, they might find something in it…

GP: You’ve said it very well. People make that critic/reviewer distinction. I guess I believe in all the good things about criticism, but I guess that little part of me, the consumer part — because it’s such a bad moment right now, because everybody’s just going to all the bad movies — I do wish critics had a little more influence putting pants in seats. But obviously the most important part — opinion is the least interesting part of the reviews, contextualizing is what’s really good…

DC: One thing that’s probably hurt the business of reviewing is studios producing films that are so pre-packaged — you don’t need to read a review of TRANSFORMERS II to have an idea of what it’s going to be. Who needs an analysis of that?

GP: The thing is, people do need analysis of that, but they don’t care about it. It would be really nice if people read some good — instead of fanboy garbage — analysis of a Hollywood product is interesting stuff if it’s written well. But nobody wants to know that kind of stuff who goes to see TRANSFORMERS.

DC:  Yes. But the consumer guide aspect of reviewing goes away when the audience can just look at the poster and have a very clear idea of what the experience will be.

GP: I don’t know if they always have a clear idea. With certain STAR WARS movies, everybody heard they were terrible but they still went anyway. It just doesn’t matter.

DC: That’s a scary phenomenon. The movie that’s so powerful: society’s saying you have to see this. The logline for THE DA VINCI CODE was “Be a part of the phenomenon.”

GP: Oh that’s great, yeah. I read one page of the book, which I laughed at, so horrible, and then I never saw the movie.

boywithgreenhair-1

DC: One of the things that’s really sweet in your film is your asking people for their primal movie experience, and since you don’t include your own, I thought I really ought to ask you what -

GP: My primal one. Well I think I remember the most ones that scared the shit out of me, so the movie — it took me years to figure out… one I don’t know: one was a film about typhoid fever, in which Typhoid Mary — and if anyone can identify this — Typhoid Mary at one point went to a water fountain and drank water from it, and then she walked away and then a little kid came along and got typhoid… And then, in the movie there’s this movie THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR, which I saw as a child and didn’t sleep for a month, because I was worried that my hair would turn green.

But then there are more things like John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS, which I can say is my favourite movie, and I saw it when I was eleven years old. It was in a movie theatre and I saw it four days in a row. And then I wandered away and did other stuff in life, I saw foreign movies and Bergman movies, and then I came back to THE SEARCHERS and THE SEARCHERS is my favourite movie again.

DC: The Typhoid Mary thing rings a bell… [I was thinking of STARS IN MY CROWN, which has an infected well/outbreak subplot, I think. Suggestions welcome. - DC]

GP: And then there was another one about the Chicago fire which absolutely killed me.

DC: Could it be IN OLD CHICAGO?

GP: It might be, yes. I think I saw it years later and it was very benign, it wasn’t anything. My biggest disappointment as a child was, I lived in this town way up in the mountains in the States, and it was a snowy city, and at the university where my father taught I thought they were showing THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. I remember going through the snow two miles to get to this theatre walking in to see THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO but no, it was THE COUNTESS OF MONTE CRISTO, which was a Sonja Henie ice skating film. Complete disillusion, life was bad. I think that was the moment I discovered that…

DC: …that the movies can lie.

GP: But I have lots of childhood memories. I think Martin Scorsese is about the same age as me, and when I hear about his childhood movies they’re often the same as mine. LAND OF THE PHARAOHS is another –

DC: Oh, my partner was deeply alarmed by Joan Collins and the sand pouring in –

GP: Oh yes, the sealing up, that was alarming and fantastic too, because she was a real bitch and deserved it. Joan Collins, I remember. But that was another big childhood favourite. The movies that I liked as a little child almost always turned out to be by auteur directors. Somehow I had this eye, without knowing it. I was a child genius for picking great director movies.

DC: I haven’t calculated whether I had any particular knack for that. I know a lot of them did turn out to be interesting movies, but certainly a lot of them didn’t.

GP: Well there were some, I watched cowboy movies with Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers movies, and those are pretty terrible; FLASH GORDON, which seemed very real and is just hilarious now. But when I was seven years old I went to this movie about these kids who were lost — there was a plane crash, they were lost in the snows of Alaska, and their parents were divorced and their parents come looking for the children and got together, so it had everything. And it turned out to be by Joseph H Lewis.

DC: Wow, I’ve never seen that one!

Or heard of it. It turns out to be DESPERATE SEARCH. If anybody has a copy, I’d love to see it. I then recommend THE INVISIBLE GHOST, which GP hasn’t seen. By now, we’re getting one rather well, and Gerald tells me “You really know your stuff,” which is very pleasing. I agree to email him when this goes up, which I’m doing, and he asks me to recommend a few of my favourite blogs, which I’m doing. But I’m not sure I should tell you which.

Several of you will probably be outraged that Mr. Peary doubts the value of the blog — but let’s keep things polite: I want to win the guy over! GP’s own website, linked to at the top of this post, is an invaluable web resource bursting with reviews and fascinating interviews (great Sam Fuller profile!) and it’d be lovely if the man could be encouraged to update it and join the blogosphere.

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