Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Klansman (Terence Young, 1974)

If nothing else, Terence Young’s The Klansman has you feeling persistently outraged and repulsed, which seems like the broadly right reaction to a drama about modern-day Southern racism. It’s generally a bit unclear to what extent this reflects conscious sociological engagement and illumination, versus tasteless pot-boiling, but the ambiguity isn’t uninteresting in itself. It’s tempting to credit co-writer Samuel Fuller for what’s most interesting in the film – usually when it looks beyond the rather ploddingly ugly foreground drama to explore the wretchedly symbiotic coexistence between white fear of blackness and its economic dependence on it. There’s an acknowledgement for instance of how the black population in the county actually outnumbers the white, thus providing constant fuel for voter intimidation mechanisms, and the film is pretty good on how the Klan bastardizes language and religious precepts (in these regards as in numerous others, the film’s substance feels less dated than its surface). The plot turns around sheriff Bascomb’s attempts to maintain equilibrium in the community when various events, including a white woman’s rape and a voting rights demonstration, stir up the perpetually stir-ready Klansmen (that is, basically, the entire local male population) – his concessions are monstrously favourable to the racists who occupy the driver’s seat, but of course it’s never enough. The film surely spends too much time wallowing in swaggering interactions, and it’s hard to look kindly at its relative treatment of white and black female sexuality and its violation – it lacks anything as cinematically or thematically powerful as the central concept of Fuller’s later White Dog. Unless that is you react a certain way to the presence of O. J. Simpson as a one-man avenger, essentially occupying his own space within the movie, just as he does in the movie of our lives. Young's film fails particularly in its ending, delivering us merely to inevitable mass violence and destruction, and to a predictably bitter closure lacking in any broader meaning or implication.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Eating Shakespeare

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2000)

Sometimes the shape of the room depends on where you came in. I started making a serious habit of sneaking into 18-rated movies (or X-rated, as they were at the time) in the early 80s. This was before video really came in, and you’d seldom see a mature film on British television that wasn’t cut in one way or another (I remember that Chinatown, for instance, was broadcast without the scene in which Jack Nicholson gets his nose knifed, entailing that he suddenly just turned up wearing an unexplained bandage), so this was major new territory for me. I remember every one of them as a distinct exotic exploration. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate was the first (even then, obviously, I didn’t follow the crowd), and it only added fuel to my enthusiasm despite its disastrous reputation. Ken Russell’s Altered States was the second. I’ve watched that movie four or five times again since then, and it seems sillier every time, but to me nowadays it’s like visiting a declining mentor in his hospital bed; you sit and smile and remember the better days.

Paul Bartel

Another of my earliest expeditions into the X-rated movie was Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul, a 1982 black comedy who take up murder and cannibalism. The film was well received at the time, and seemed likely to be Bartel’s stepping-stone out of B-movies into broader acceptance. But he never really followed through. His last movie of any note (and then not much) was Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, made in 1989. More lately, he was seen here and there in tiny acting parts. He died the other week, and I doubt the obituary meant much to most readers. But reading it, I experienced the same heavy-hearted thud that accompanies the loss of a thriving career – no more Paul Bartel films, I thought to myself, as though we’d lost Robert Altman or Mike Leigh. Because his brief moment of relative glory coincided with my own awakening, I guess Bartel was always a prominent filmmaker to me. And this despite the fact that I haven’t bothered to see Eating Raoul again in the intervening eighteen years. It’s disconcerting, when the inner child suddenly kicks like that.

The death I should have mentioned, I suppose, was that of Sir John Gielgud – obviously a much more estimable figure than Paul Bartel overall (although, in a reversal of the way obituaries usually work, I don’t think I ever read as much criticism of Gielgud as I did after his death – all ringing tones and no passion, was the common rap). A few commentators noted (to no particular end) that Shakespearean stalwart Gielgud died in the same week that Michael Almereyda’s contemporary version of Hamlet opened here. But the odder echo for me came from Bartel’s appearance in the climactic scene. Looking embalmed and distant, he had but one line – “A hit – a palpable hit.” Taken out of context, that might not seem like such a bad exit line for a film director.

Michael Almereyda

If I’d thought about it, Almereyda might have seemed until this year to carry every likelihood of dwindling away in Bartel-style. Some of his films, like the vampire movie Nadja, had points of interest, but not enough to sustain even the flimsiest of legends. In fact, Almereyda was best known for his odd enthusiasm for Pixelvision – a plastic video camera produced by Fisher-Price – a technology he’s deployed in several movies.

At the Toronto film festival two years ago, they showed a movie of his which was then called Trance (subsequently released on video as The Eternal). It starts off promisingly, depicting a New York woman’s slow alcoholic suicide in fairly raw and striking terms. But after ten minutes or so, the action shifts to Ireland, where she visits her ancestral home, occupied by a wacky (naturally) Christopher Walken and an ailing aunt or granny – I forget which. I recall watching through escalating layers of dense exposition and strained mythology and being utterly baffled as to the nature of the artistic merit that got the film through the festival selection process. It’s too idiosyncratic to be dismissed as a run-of-the-mill potboiler, but that’s not synonymous with having much merit. Anyway, the film was barely heard of after that, which seems about right.

But Almereyda really turns things around with Hamlet I think. The film reinvents the Denmark of Shakespeare’s play as a “Denmark Corporation” based in New York, and translates its brooding characters into an environment of modern-day corporate skullduggery; it locates “to be or not to be” in a milieu of brand names and modern architecture. Almereyda’s almost ideal cast includes Ethan Hawke, San Shepard, Julia Stiles and Bill Murray. He brings the film in at under two hours. This all sounds pretty smart, if you assess it as you would at a pitch meeting.


I enjoyed some scenes of Hamlet as much as any Shakespeare I’ve ever seen on film. I’m not a Shakespeare scholar, so I can’t comment with much authority on where Almereyda’s transcription stands in the pantheon. It never seemed to me that his approach yielded any specific insight into its contemporary setting. And one doesn’t need to be a purist, I suppose, to take the view that “To be or not to be” would be better presented “straight” than (as it is here) on a video screen, by a Hamlet holding a gun to his own head. And yet, for the uninitiated (or to put it another way, for those who were brought up on Paul Bartel rather than on Gielgud), the presentation, even if it’s a little overwrought, does illuminate the subtext.

But that approach runs the risk of Hamlet for dummies. The real miracle of the movie for me is how enthralling it is even when it’s played relatively straight. Bill Murray, for example, doesn’t have much support during his scenes, but he’s quite terrific, rendering his speeches entirely clear and enthralling and naturalistic. True, there were also major stretches which rather went past me (I’ve never had the courage, incidentally, to tackle Kenneth Branagh’s four hour version from a few years ago). But if nothing else, Almereyda’s film is surely a serviceable introduction to the play. I actually thought about seeking out the original text. Especially perhaps during those few seconds when Bartel was on screen, as somber as though foreseeing his own demise; as though numbed by the knowledge that his few aficionados would shortly move on to something more substantial.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Manon 70 (Jean Aurel, 1968)

Across such an intervening distance, it’s hard to know how much Jean Aurel’s Manon 70 is channeling the specific morality of its era, versus merely engaging in pretty, titillating fantasies. Journalist Des Grieux (Sami Frey) sees Manon (Catherine Deneuve) in a Japanese airport, and his first transgression follows almost immediately – blowing expense account money on upgrading to first class to boost his chances with her. The gamble works, but the die is already cast – not too much later (whether in narrative or in screen time) he’s out of a job, and tolerating behaviour from Manon of the kind for which he earlier said he’d kill her. But then, everybody’s doing it – Manon’s brother (Jean-Claude Brialy) appears to live primarily on the earnings of pimping her out, even getting a nightclub out of it when an American millionaire Ravaggi (Robert Webber) enters the scene (Ravaggi is the one character who seems turned on primarily by tuning into his own rapaciousness, which may be intended as a shot at the under-sensualized US) . The film crams a lot into its 100 minutes, too much to impress as a serious sociological and psychological investigation, especially when everyone and everywhere looks so ravishing (except for Stockholm which is made to look like the back end of Siberia). Aurel takes Deneuve mostly at face value, which indeed is worth a lot, until one compares to her greatest  works of this era. It’s hard not to think of the film in relation to her recent cautionary comments on the “Me too” movement – it exemplifies a notion of messy, self-gratifying act-now-work-out-the-details-later hedonism. Perhaps that’s not really much of a view of human interaction, but as the film is at least notionally based on an 18th century work of literature, you might conclude it’s drawing on some weary notion of the long view.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Movie notebook #3

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2000)

I’ve been thinking for a while that I’d like to do an article on my ten favourite films, but it always comes up against a practical problem – I can’t decide what they are. And even if I could, I should really check out the contenders again before committing myself in print. I think Bonnie and Clyde and That Obscure Object of Desire are on the list, but I haven’t watched either of them for a few years, and I never seem to get round to it. A sign perhaps, that they don’t belong on the list.

I think John Cassavetes’ Love Streams must be a major contender, for I watched it only last week, and would happily start all over again. Note that I was only talking above about my ten favourite films – a wantonly subjective criterion. Cassavetes’ two-and-a-half hour film is obsessive, obscure, self-indulgent; it often seems to be talking only to itself. But I adore it.

Love Streams

The film revolves around two characters. The first is a writer, played by Cassavetes, who lives in a vaguely explained harem-like situation, through which he wanders in a tuxedo and a cloud of cigarette smoke. He represents a highly narcissistic, defensive, formalized view of love and relationships, never yielding the truth about himself, regardless that he insists that a beautiful woman must give up her secrets.

This contrasts with his sister, played by Gena Rowlands, whose marriage has crashed under the strain of her highly fluid notion of love as a stream that never stops flowing, whatever the ups and downs of relationships; she almost cracks in her attempt to implement this vague philosophy. Even if I didn’t find the film artistically scintillating, I think I’d still love it just for the ambition. Love Streams has a story, with a resolution, but it feels more like a feverishly molded sculpture than a narrative. Cassavetes, as an actor, had a uniquely aggressive stylized quality about him, yet as a director he was devoted to a notion of discovery and exposure. I think the balance shifted over the years toward the actor in him, for whereas his early work (Shadows) was naturalistic, Love Streams is essentially a spacy, distended fantasy, swooping across moods and tones. A passage where Rowlands buys him a mini menagerie and brings it home in a cab is one of the most delightful deadpan scenes of the last twenty years; at other times the film is so raw that it bleeds.

Well, Cassavetes has been dead for some fifteen years now, and I still miss him. Of course, one occasionally sees films that evoke elements of his style – the Dogme 95 group for example – but they don’t have his showmanship or his blazing vision. I remember Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66 a few years ago as being unusually satisfying in that kind of vein – but I’d need to watch it again to know for sure (I must get around to that).

Miss Julie

I was thinking about this again recently as I watched Mike Figgis’ latest film Miss Julie. Figgis is the director of Leaving Las Vegas and Internal Affairs – a likely candidate for the Hollywood A-list if he were interested. But he’s taken to blasting big-budget money as being inconsistent with good work, and says he’s tired of conventional filmmaking. His last, The Loss of Sexual Innocence, was a freeform scrap book of images, widely regarded as ludicrous (I liked it more than not). His next is apparently a thriller shot in a single ninety-minute take, or something like that.

Miss Julie is an adaptation of a Strindberg play, confined almost entirely to a single set, dealing with the fleeting but disastrous relationship between an aristocratic young woman (Saffron Burrows) and her father’s footman (Peter Mullan). It’s powerful, savage material – fiercely laying bare the hypocritical, self-deluding niceties of relationships across class and sexual lines. Figgis’ film is appropriately corrosive and disquieting; he gets a fine performance from Burrows (his girlfriend and apparent muse).

For the most part Figgis plays things fairly straight, but a couple of times near the start of the film, he engages in shot selections that seem ludicrously artificial and jarring (the footman viewed from the point-of-view of the wine glass he holds in his hand; a disorienting one-take shift of focus from one character to another, then again to another), and at one point he uses a split screen. I took these devices as deliberate attempts to force us beyond mere identification with the characters, to make us think about the events depicted within the broader context in which we watch the film (text book kind of stuff), but whatever the intention, they’re very strained, not particularly interesting.

Being unconventional

I was more intrigued by a sequence when the rest of the servants briefly take over the kitchen; drunk and giddy from a Midsummer celebration, they dance and chant and spew vulgarities about their masters, while Burrows listens from a corner. There’s an odd disembodied feeling to this sequence; the servants don’t register as characters, merely as a shambling yet vaguely menacing mass, ritualistically venting its scorn – the sequence seems like a momentarily much more imaginative evocation of the intractability of the class system, and its placement forms a significant meridian in the central relationship.

But since that’s only one sequence, I’m really only saying that Figgis isn’t actually offering up an awful lot, relative to all the fuss he’s making about steering clear of the mainstream for the sake of a higher calling. Miss Julie is certainly very different from The Loss of Sexual Innocence, but you almost wonder if that isn’t the whole point. With both films, you might be up on one piece of it and down on another, but it’s a pretty fragmented kind of response either way. And of course, the films aren’t massively different from the mainstream – they still have actors, recognizable plot strands; they don’t run upside down or backward. Looking at Figgis’ attempts so far at “unconventional” filmmaking, you just feel like you’re missing the frame of reference. Mike, what did you say was broken? And just tell me again, how exactly are you fixing it?

Personally, I thought Figgis’ most distinctive film was his 1997 commercial flop One Night Stand, but that’s a minority view. It’s certainly ironic that almost as soon as he embarked on his mission, a number of fine unconventional movies emerged from within the wretched Hollywood system. But whether Figgis chooses to work within or outside the system, I hope he manages to forge a persuasive case for our continued interest in his work. He seems to have the ambition of a Cassavetes. But Cassavetes was a visionary whereas Figgis, at present, merely reacts.

(2018 footnote – here’s an article I wrote subsequently on my top ten films)

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Revolution (Hugh Hudson, 1985)

At its sporadic relative best, Hugh Hudson’s Revolution seems to aspire to becoming a work of pure texture and movement and evocation of time and place, prioritizing collective over individual experience; at such times it sometimes puts one in mind of the great and overlooked Peter Watkins. That’s not necessarily helpful to the film as it stands though – Watkins would surely have rejected the big-star casting and the narrative contrivances, and would have found his way to a far more probing kind of authenticity (among so much else, the film doesn’t have much sense of real labour, or of real pain), even while acknowledging its artifice. Obviously the film was largely shaped by more commercial considerations than that, but it’s still disappointing that the makers couldn’t have avoided the lame love story between the fur trapper who gets swept up by events (Al Pacino’s Tom Dobb) and the child of privilege who abandons her family for the sake of becoming a figurehead of the revolution (Nastassja Kinski); or the over-reliance on Dobb’s fierce love for his son as an all-consuming motivation and engine of personal transformation. The film presents the English as being grotesque either in their effeteness or else in their brutality, and invests heavily in the inherent moral superiority of the rebels, to the point of expunging any notion of exploitation of the indigenous people, or (I think) any reference to slavery: perhaps these simplifications can be interpreted partly as a function of one man’s subjective experience (and the film certainly emphasizes that Dobb is illiterate and under-informed) but they mainly seem hollow and calculating. Revolution does acknowledge in its closing scenes that the new regime may primarily come to represent new means of exploitation and misrepresentation, but that’s mainly for the purpose of stroking us with Dobb’s new awakening and articulacy (which then in rapid order meets its primary reward, that of getting the girl). The nature of the film’s failures is almost always interesting, but it seldom feels like a meaningful conversation with American history, nor with its present.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Slums of the film festival

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1998)

I'd never use this space to advance a personal grievance of course, so it’s as a matter of objective commentary that I report on the Toronto film festival’s refusal to issue me a press pass for this year’s festival. Well, they didn’t actually refuse – they just ignored my request. I thought a circulation of 12,000 might have counted for something, but maybe, gentle readers, you just don’t seem arty enough. But I shouldn’t blame you. My cultural credentials were shot as soon as I gave Lethal Weapon 4 twice the rating of Smoke Signals. They were probably worried I’d be a conspicuous lowbrow – a dissenter chanting “Jackie Chan rules” during Bernardo Bertolucci’s press conference.

The movie vigil

Anyway, I didn’t want to go to the festival any less because of this painful snub, so I got up at 4 am on September 3rd and hauled myself over to College Park to stand in the ticket order line. If you’ve never been part of it, the film festival involves a highly complex ordering process that entails visiting the box office on at least three separate occasions. The key date is that on which – two days after announcing the film schedule – they collect advance ticket orders. These are processed on a first come, first serve basis, starting at 9 am, but given the festival’s popularity, all the best movies would already be sold out if you actually turned up at that hour. Some people arrive the previous evening and spend the night. Arriving at 4.30 am, there were well over a hundred people in front of me. The line ultimately circled the south side of College Park, then trailed up Yonge, west on College, down Bay at least to Gerrard, and even further south for all I know.

My early start paid off – I got ninety-five per cent of the movies I wanted. But many of those who struck out will undoubtedly make an earlier start next time. I go an hour earlier every year and never make up any ground. I dread the day when I feel obliged to spend the night there (now you start to see how my interest in getting the press pass might not have been wholly altruistic), but how far off can that be?  Still, although I’m not any sort of morning person, and the street got pretty hard on my rear end (wiser people bring folding chairs), the time passed surprisingly quickly, eavesdropping on others in line and diligently reviewing an extremely long and dull but somewhat important work-related document (I was really pleased with that aspect of it – I got to charge virtually the whole stint!)

The cinematic zoo

My big gripe is that the incredible enthusiasm for obscure movies that erupts in Toronto for ten days each September seems disproportionate to the general year-round appetite for such films. Last year I tried to get tickets to an afternoon showing of Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth, but it had already sold out. I eventually saw it commercially six months or so later – me and the four other people in the theater. The picture lasted a mere  two weeks. How do you reconcile those two extremes of audience interest? The Cinematheque Ontario regularly shows wonderful, rare movies by cinema’s greatest directors, to half-empty theaters. I appreciate that it’s easier for people to fill their quota of challenging cinema in one dose – take the week off and cover the waterfront. But that’s not much of a place for art cinema in the scheme of things – to be experienced primarily in a concentrated tumble of sleep-deprived viewing excess.

Roger Ebert recently pointed out that the film festival circuit is becoming, in effect, the primary means of exhibition for more and more foreign films. I think the Toronto festival has enough clout in these parts to be a bit of a bully. Instead of giving the best ticket selections to those willing or able to wait in line the longest, why not give priority booking to people who’ve been to the Cinematheque at least ten times during the year? You can debate the pros and cons of that, but at least it would characterize the festival as being rooted in – and the high point of – a thriving film culture, rather than as a short-lived annual explosion. It’s in danger of resembling a cinematic zoo – wildly popular for its many strange and exotic exhibits, but of little or no relevance to the survival of those species in their natural habitat.

And you know I’m sincere about that. What axe could I possibly have to grind?

Among the masses

Anyway, my original idea was to cover the festival highlights in these pages, but I guess they didn’t want me to do that, so let’s head back into the commercial jungle and the current Slums of Beverly Hills. A film far more accomplished than its raucous trailer and Adam Sandler-ish title suggest, it’s about an economically-stretched father of three, played by Alan Arkin, and his family’s ups and downs in the down-at-heel outer regions of B.H. The film’s raunchy energy is much better rooted in a meaningful plot and worldview than were the bad-taste selling points of There’s Something About Mary. For instance, a scene where two women (well-played by Natasha Lyonne and Marisa Tomei) dance around the room while throwing back and forth a vibrator is titillating and laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s also a perfect expression of how Tomei deliberately draws the younger woman toward sexual awareness, despite the fragility of her own state. And the end of that scene, with Arkin entering the room and catching his daughter enjoying the vibrator a little too much, may be predictable, but – along with just about everything else in the picture – has an accomplished light touch.

The ending is sentimental, but very level-headed – the family doesn’t get out of the slums. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I wanted the hand-to-mouth experience to triumph. Shut out from the film festival’s equivalent of the great mansions, naturally my only option is to enjoy the communal experience of the proletariat. And I really do enjoy it. The press pass would have been pretty neat. But the main thing – whatever it takes – is to see the movies.

(2018 postscript – I did receive a press pass the following year, and held on to it for a decade. You can read many of the resulting reviews on this website. But I haven’t seen a single film at the festival since 2009).

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Slap the Monster on Page One (Marco Bellocchio, 1972)

Marco Bellocchio’s Slap the Monster on Page One certainly reflects a particular time and place, seeped in the self-satisfied calculations of the monied Italian establishment, but it resonates bleakly in our time of heightened political cynicism and authoritarianism and of systematic disregard for truth. Gian Maria Volonte’s Bizanti is the editor-in-chief of a prominent newspaper, leading its self-portrayal as a societal bulwark against violent leftist forces. When a young well-connected woman is brutally murdered, the paper seizes on the story in the way media always does, as a flagrant circulation booster and, when a likely suspect emerges, as particularly potent evidence of the degradation of the left. But the reporter on the story becomes aware that the trail is all too well-lit and the conclusion is too convenient a contribution to the narrative of a looming election; his reward for his awakening is to get fired. The film’s subtlety lies in how Bizanti isn’t at all oblivious to his personal corruption and culpability: on the contrary, he exults in it, seeing himself as the operator of an elaborate machine contributing to keep the worker suitably and obediently incentivized, and at the same time implicitly assuming that the worker understands and accepts his subjection to this calculated narcotic. Anyone who can’t perceive (and it seems even appreciate, as one does a work of art) the workings of this system is merely a contemptible moron – including his wife, as he expresses in a memorably cruel outburst. In the end the truth is placed safely in storage, although with an understanding that it may be allowed to emerge in the future depending on the outcome of the election; the film ends on images of the Catholic church (by then degraded by an earlier deranged juxtaposition of the dead girl with the Virgin Mary) and then – amusingly if not subtly – on a river of garbage. Concise, dark and potent, the film might still be capable of inciting outrage, at least for a viewer still in possession of any sense of societal optimism.