Usually when movie lovers talk about legendary lost works in which auteur directors had their films taken from them and butchered by the American studios that produced them, they’re referring to “holy grails” of cinema such as Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) or Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). But I recently stumbled across an account of another supposed lost classic, Swing Shift—Jonathan Demme’s tribute to America’s “Greatest Generation” of World War II and the women on the home front who found a new sense of self and independence by working for the war effort in the factories.
I actually really love the movie Swing Shift as it is but I hadn’t seen it in years. I remember my mom taking her mother to see it and letting me tag along. My grandma was part of that generation of women who did what they could for the war effort, whether it meant volunteering at the local USO or planting a Victory Garden in their backyards. By 1984, when the movie was released, that generation was elderly while I was only six. Seeing the movie as a kid, I think I just really loved the sentimental look at the U.S. during the 1940s. Taking place in Southern California, in Santa Monica, between the attack on Pearl Harbor and VJ Day, the film has a melancholic feel, with the sky looking perpetually overcast and the music usually something slow and beautiful, such as one of Jo Stafford’s torch songs. And though I don't remember if Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" is on the soundtrack it really should be.Continue Reading
The Arrangement (1969)
Thanks to my co-worker Jackie for throwing this one my way after telling her how much I enjoy Richard Lester’s Petulia.
Here’s another success from jack-of-all-trades Elia Kazan. This time around he’s mining the tumult of the white-collar male psyche amidst 1960s america. This was a time when veteran and rookie American filmmakers were absorbing the groundbreaking editing and storytelling techniques of European behemoths like Bertolucci, Bunuel & Bergman, and regurgitating them into something wholly new. Something prime Americana. This particular example is a great meeting place for leaders of the old guard (Kazan, Douglas & Kerr) rubbing elbows with a dash of the then-newer crop (Dunaway). This vehicle ends up working as a social mixer for the classic styles of Kazan’s past and the fresh ideas coming in from across the Atlantic. The resulting product nests roughly between the realms of a classic melodrama and a surrealist psychological satire.Continue Reading
I’m a sucker for lavish recreations of Hollywood’s Golden Age and they don’t come much more spectacular than Martin Scorsese’s epic retelling of the life of Howard Hughes, The Aviator. The story and various legends of Howard Hughes could fill a couple of films. He was rich, by all accounts insane, and had an enormous influence on everything from aviation history to the dismantling of the Hollywood studio system. His life was by turns both enviably glamorous and enormously tragic. The Aviator doesn’t try to completely deconstruct Hughes because I think Scorsese realizes that there is something fundamentally mysterious about the man that no one key event from his life or particular psychological tic will ever fully explain. Instead, Scorsese focuses on Hughes as a man of his moment, documenting his rise and just hinting at the fall to come.
The Aviator begins as Hughes (played by current Scorsese muse Leonardo DiCaprio) is commanding both a film production unit and a group of stunt pilots for his one film as Director, Hell’s Angels. His obsessive style exasperates both his crew and the money men in charge of bankrolling his endeavor (though they work for Hughes). His painstaking attention to detail regardless of cost is virtually unheard of in Hollywood because as an independently wealthy director he is beholden to no one. He stretches the shoot for months waiting for clouds to appear. Finally, he scraps the at-long-last finished film because it wasn’t shot for sound and was finished just as silent films were on the wane. He reshoots the film because he can.Continue Reading
In the strange mega-career of Clint Eastwood, no matter what your overall opinion of the guy is, it can’t be argued that his choices have been fascinating. Before becoming the acclaimed and active old-man director of middle-of-the-road bores he is today, he was a huge super-duper action actor and in his heyday made some interesting zigs and zags (all from 1969-1973 when he made ten films).
Fresh off of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, giving him international box office clout, he made the bizarre musical Paint Your Wagon (1969) with Lee Marvin. The same year Dirty Harry cemented him as America’s premier tough guy, he directed the female stalker thriller Play Misty For Me (1971). He followed that up directing the completely awkward Breezy (1973) about a romance between senior citizen William Holden and a teenage flower child. Also in 1973 High Plains Drifter, which may be his greatest directing accomplishment, was released. Eastwood plays a drifter in the old west and the film opens with him raping a woman (of course, she ended up falling for him). Right in the middle of those crazy four years he made the oddest and maybe most psycosexual film of his career, The Beguiled, a sorta Gothic Civil War almost-ghosty story (in the sense that people are haunted by memories), about female lust. It’s as if Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women went on a Picnic at Hanging Rock.Continue Reading
The Big Chill
Don’t get me wrong, I hate yuppies as much as the next guy. And the thought of two hours of white bread yuppies reconnecting while bemoaning their lost youth and wondering where the dreams went, I would agree, sounds painful. The idea had been filmed once before by indie maverick John Sayles with his very boring Return Of The Secaucus Seven in ’79. But for the much better The Big Chill, director/ screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was able to ensemble a dream cast of bright up and comers who brought magic to his incredibly complicated and witty script (written with Barbara Benedek).
Kasdan had been a hot go-to guy for scripts, having written The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Lost Ark. His first outing as a director was the steamy modern noir twister, Body Heat, starring the young William Hurt and Kathleen Turner (with an excellent little role for an even younger Mickey Rourke). The Big Chill was his personal take on a group of 1960s college friends reuniting fifteen years later for the funeral for their mutual bud, Alex (played in flashbacks by Kevin Costner, though those scenes were famously cut out of it. Kasdan would reward Costner with a plum role in his next film, the overrated gee-wiz Western, Silverado).Continue Reading
The Bloody Child
The form of a movie is something that most people don't pay much attention to, and yet it is the form that constructs your experience. Since the beginning of cinema, the arrangement of scenes, props, music and even the body language of the cast, sparks some kind of response in the viewer. I thought I had seen all there was to see in terms of form, even on the abstract and experimental level. For me, experimental films are like visual poetry, or projected dream sequences. They are usually short and nonlinear, and the "meat and potatoes" is in the style, not so much as the story. While watching The Bloody Child it became clear that a new form was being introduced to me—a feature length experimental film that is so pure in its development it resembles a morbid essay film.
The general stance on experimental film is that it no longer exists. I'd argue that the filmmaker who directs experimental film no longer exists, or is at least very hard to find. The whole idea behind it is to work on a low budget, typically with whatever materials are available, and come up with something that is free from being classified as any other genre. Low budget films are now considered indie or avant-garde and are not as artistically driven as they once were. Many of them are simple comedies or romances, which is not a bad thing. However, once you decide to get into the game of shooting something linear, you are assigning all the rules of form that go along with it. True experimental films have no rules, and that's what makes them so exciting, and also a threat. In terms of essay films, my claim that this resembles one might not make much sense at first. But if you've seen films like Baraka or Koyannisqatsi, you'll notice that they capture something miraculous about our world. They are visually breathtaking and usually have scores by conductors like Phillip Glass, both of which this film does not have, so don't compare it in that sense. What it does capture is the barbaric nature of violence and insanity. Menkes took a story straight out of a newspaper, let it simmer, and then interpreted what it meant to humanity in a film.Continue Reading
There is no greater cinematic seduction than that of black and white film. Something about the absence of color helps you tune into so many other things and lose yourself in the screen; the images seem so much more complete and the messages come through clearly. While this film is fairly short, I feel even more excited about the filmmaker's ability to eliminate fluff and find that the choice to make your point quickly will never go out of fashion. In fact, the movie reminded me of a sci-fi picture without the excess and flash. The most charming part about The Committee is that it is a confident work that flaunts only that sense of assured storytelling.
The movie is from the '60s and known mainly for its groovy/intellectual soundtrack by Pink Floyd, and for the fact that it attacks conformism and politics within societies. It opens with a quote on free will and Britain's collective position on both revolt and passive submission. It then moves on to a young man (Paul Jones) hitchhiking across woodlands who is picked up by a talkative egoist (Tom Kempinski). When the men stop to check on the car, the young man beheads the driver, then puts his head back on and leaves the scene. He returns to the city and his dull job as an architect and receives a summons to attend a committee. Rumor has spread that committees are complex gatherings in the country. As little as eight and as many as300 people are gathered and separated into groups in order to be surveyed, tested, and probed. The idea behind it is to see how the majority of people approach issues as meaningless as fruit, to a game of chess. One might be isolated in the country for a week up to a month, and in the end, the data gathered will help those in power control and regulate society. You could then compare such a letter to the draft, only the war you wage is entirely in your head. For our protagonist, he is fighting the urge not to go along with the government's game by attending.Continue Reading
The Day of the Locust
Adaptations of quintessentially L.A. novels tend to either work marvelously, as with L.A. Confidential, or don't quite measure up to their source material (a category I’d lump Ask the Dust into). John Schlesinger’s adaptation of The Day of the Locust was a costly misfire for Paramount Studios which spent something like 6 months on the film and a whole lot of dough. It could have been as influential as Chinatown, but it was a flop upon release, though ultimately it had some enduring appeal as a cult film in later years. Nathaniel West’s novel is generally considered to be the very best novel on Hollywood, its more grotesque inhabitants, and its tragic allure as a festering dump where dreams go to die. That makes the novel sound sobering and self-serious but this is a story about fame whores, violently degenerate midgets, sociopathic child actors, cockfights, stag films, and a movie premiere that culminates in the apocalypse. It’s brutally dark and really, really entertaining.
The movie is essentially a literal adaptation of West’s novel and it came under criticism from some quarters for being too literal. Director John Schlesinger was taken to task for supposedly ignoring the arch satire of West's depiction of Hollywood as the epicenter of greed, desperation, and idiocy, and instead ratcheting up the cartoon nihilism to a fever pitch. But when you do a story about America’s pop cultural border town that ends with a murderous orgy of celebrity blood lust I’m not exactly sure "holding back" is the way to go. The Day of the Locust is about a particular kind of American tragedy that West found on Hollywood Boulevard during the 1930s. In the dive bars and diners that lined the boulevard were hundreds of desperate people without a nickel to their name, all drawn to Hollywood in the hopes of making it big. Most, West found, couldn’t even get work as extras. He saw them as a mass of human wreckage under the movie premiere kleig lights. The dark joke beneath the glittering dream that Hollywood came to embody was exquisitely rendered by West as it was happening. The film does justice to the novel with its horror show theatrics under the palm trees and sunny skies of Southern California and ultimately it’s more creepy than campy.Continue Reading
The Dead Girl
Broken down into roughly five stories, The Dead Girl is a film that intersects the lives of complete strangers in relation to the grisly murder of a young prostitute.
Toni Collette plays the unfortunate woman who has the displeasure of discovering a body on a hillside at an anonymous location. Her life is thrown into disarray as the local media and police swarm her once isolated life. As the caretaker of her extremely overbearing mother (creepily played by Piper Laurie), Collette realizes that with her new-found attention, she can move on and develop relationships with others, thus leading her into a strange encounter with a bag boy from the supermarket.Continue Reading
It’s called The Doors but director Oliver Stone’s hyper-bonkers bio of the band should have just been called Jim Morrison. Because the real show here is Val Kilmer’s brilliant performance as the self-destructive lead singer, while the rest of the guys--Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan), Robby Krieger (Frank Whaley) and John Densmore (Kevin Dillon)--spend most of the movie standing around scolding Jim and telling him to grow up. As usual, Stone hits his points with a sledge hammer, and Doorsaphiles may take issue with the actual facts. I mean, was Jim’s LSD-inspired obsession with an Indian shaman a Morrison or a Stone concoction? But that’s neither here nor there; like Stone’s greatest film, JFK (also released in ’91), in the end the actual facts don’t matter. What does matter is the incredible filmmaking skills on show here. From the camera work to the editing to the use of sound, Stone is in his element with his usual all-star crew at their most dizzying and superfluous. If Morrison was one of music’s most self-indulgent windbags--some love The Doors while others call them overrated--Stone is in a similar boat. The guy has won a couple Oscars and penned a couple kinda-classics (Midnight Express, Scarface) but often gets eye rolls when his name is mentioned. And that proves to be part of the beauty here; the excess of Morrison’s short life is perfect for Stone’s excess on film.
Though living members of The Doors at different points of production were consulted, in the end they all publicly disavowed the final movie, claiming Stone ignored their suggestions. So in Stone’s world, the story of The Doors goes something like this. Transplanted from a nice all-American, middle class childhood, Jim was a groovy, shirtless UCLA film student, influenced by Literature 101 (The Beats, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, etc.), making ridiculous overly arty student films. After discussing his coolness with a classmate, Manzarek, they decide to form a band. They add the less hip, but apparently talented Krieger and Densmore to the band and pretty quickly start to gain a rep on the Sunset Strip club scene for their rulebreaking improvised style. Jim, in full swagger, also stalks and then seduces a young flower child, Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan), and she becomes his old lady. The band navigates the swirling waters of the swinging sixties rock scene, having hit records, meeting Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover), dealing with police arrests and a general far-outness. Meanwhile the more successful they get, the more Jim alienates Pam and his band with his excessive egomania and drug and alcohol abuse, until he finally overdoses in Paris at the age of twenty seven, just after the publication of his poetry book.Continue Reading