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throwback thursday: the wild bunch (sam peckinpah, 1969)

I'm reading a new book by W.K. Stratton, The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, and thought to watch the movie again. Some years ago, I ranked it #8 on my 50 Fave Movies list. Here is what I wrote at the time. The only thing I might add this time is to emphasize just how much this is a Guy Movie. The only women in it are whores, and the bygone myths that the movie explodes are all Guy Myths.

After The Wild Bunch, it was impossible to look at westerns the same way. It dealt with the end of an era, but there was nothing new in that; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, from the same period, trod similar ground. But the freeze-frame that concludes Butch Cassidy allows our nostalgia to survive. (“A freeze-frame!”, David Thomson wrote. “You can hear Peckinpah’s sneer. He might slow down the fatal frames, but that is only so we can see every bullet bursting in flesh and blood.”) The excessive violence at the end of The Wild Bunch rubs our noses in the era’s end; nothing seems to survive. After that, what else is possible? From that point on, if you made a western, you had to deal with the line The Wild Bunch drew between then and now.

Ironically, for a film that blasted away the past, The Wild Bunch is extremely nostalgic itself. The characters, and the film, pine for a time when a code mattered, and the characters, like the film, know that their time has passed. It is as if Peckinpah couldn’t bear the anguish of nostalgia; even as he felt it and expressed it on the screen, he was making sure the objects of our nostalgia would be destroyed.

Ultimately, The Wild Bunch is a confusing film. Kael claims that Peckinpah tried for so much, it overwhelmed him in the end, that what began as a realistic treatment became “an almost abstract fantasy about violence.” The bloody conclusion is orgasmic; these men love what they are doing, which may not have been Peckinpah’s intention, but then, he loved what he was doing, as well.

Peckinpah’s career was a mess. There were mediocre films, there were films where the studio interfered, there was the vile Straw Dogs. His attitude towards the women in his movies is bad enough that you wish there weren’t any female characters … absence would be better than misogyny. But at his best, and often at something less than his best, he was a great film maker, the antithesis of the efficient competence of Clint Eastwood.

Near the end, one of the Bunch has been captured by the “bad guys.” The gang has left him behind, because they are outnumbered 50-1, because to do anything else will result in certain death. But then, in a few minutes almost completely without dialogue, William Holden’s Pike Bishop knows what has to be done. Earlier in the film, he had famously said, “When you side with a man, you stay with him! And if you can't do that, you're like some animal, you're finished!” It was time to stay with their man. The exchange between Holden and Warren Oates is so simple, yet it tears at me every time I see it: “Let’s go.” “Why not?” The long walk was improvised on the set. As they walk, knowing what is to come … I’m not sure it has anything to do with “being a man,” but it has everything to do with the social construct that is “being a man.” Peckinpah romanticizes it, but nonetheless, it leads to their death.

 

 


early summer (yasujirô ozu, 1951)

Every time I see an Ozu film, I tell myself I need to see more. They are always very good, and sometimes much better than that, but I've only seen Late SpringAn Autumn Afternoon, and the masterpiece Tokyo Story. Now I add Early Summer to that list, and once again, Ozu has won me over. About Late Spring and its transcendent star, Setsuko Hara, I once wrote:

Nothing Ozu does is obvious. His camera style is usually static, and you notice, because it is unusual, but you quickly adjust to the calm nature of what you see. The characters exhibit a resignation about life, at times even happiness at their lives, but there is nothing ostentatious. The legendary Setsuko Hara conveys so much with the expressions on her face. Her smiles are captivating, but subtle movement suggest something behind the happiness. It is disconcerting, in fact, when what she says seems at odds with her smile ... at those times, she no longer seems happy but rather seems polite, as if the smiles are expected of her.

I feel like I have little to add to this. Hara is so wonderful ... I find her irresistible. Ozu's quiet presentation is filled with the small things in life that are instantly recognizable, and he allows his actors to show what is beneath their seemingly placid demeanor in a way that is quite trusting of their work (reflected in the frequent close-ups Ozu relies on). In Early Summer, Hariko (Hara) is 28 and unmarried; her family thinks it's time to get a husband, and they work at it without really consulting Hariko. But she wants to choose for herself, and with that, I've told you the basic plot. You don't really go to Ozu for plot, though. Instead, you find serious depth beneath the surface of his characters, and for me, at least through four movies, it never gets old. Tokyo Story is the place to start, but really any film will do. #448 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


creature feature: the creeping terror (a.j. nelson, 1964)

Last week, in what wasn't intended as an Oscar post, I commented on two films, The Blob from 1958, and The Favourite, which at the time was known for getting 10 Oscar nominations. Well, the Oscars are over, and The Favourite went 1-for-10. Only Olivia Colman went home a winner (which was fine with me ... as I said last week, "I'm always glad to see Olivia Colman get attention, and I think it would be great if she won an Oscar", plus she had a wonderful acceptance speech). People may think I was slumming, but I preferred The Blob to The Favourite. Among other things, The Blob was an example of how to do a good job with lesser material ... if you could get past the part where it was a movie about a murderous blob of gunk, you would enjoy it. The Favourite wanted in part to be All About Eve, and it didn't reach those heights.

I have a higher tolerance than most for crappy sci-fi and horror from the 50s and 60s. I can only go so far ... whenever I get on a run, I can only watch a few of them before I'm satiated. But I was in the mood, so while everyone else was watching the Oscars, I watched the 1964 "classic", The Creeping Terror. It was as bad as I remembered.

The Creeping Terror turns up on a lot of lists ... "The Worst Movies Ever Made", "Leonard Maltin's BOMBs", "The Official Razzie Movie Guide", "Horrorpedia's Worst Horror Films of All-Time", you get the idea. Naturally, it was featured in an episode of Mystery Science Theater. But even those lists don't really express just how terrible this movie is. There have been near-amateur movies forever, movies made with no money, even with no talent. But there is usually something to catch the eye, something that suggests an artistic mind hiding behind the crappiness. George A. Romero made an entire career out of such movies ... of course, he did have talent, which places him above most of the filmmakers we're talking about here. Or take the patron saint of crap movies, Ed Wood ... his movies stunk, but, as the Tim Burton film argued, there was a sensibility behind Wood's work. They weren't anonymous, they were just bad. (He was the Michael Bay of his day.) The Creeping Terror has none of the positives we hope for in junk films. All it needed was Arch Hall Jr.

And so it became a classic, for all the wrong reasons. My memory is it was a standard on the Creature Feature shows of the time, although there is some evidence that it didn't hit television until the mid-70s. Whatever ... we all knew it for its infamous "monster". Ask anyone of a certain age who indulged in these movies in their youth, and the title might not ring a bell, but if you saw "the carpet with the tennis shoes", the light goes on instantly. For yes, the monster in The Creeping Terror was clearly created out of carpets, with people under the carpet as the propulsion for its walking around. There were plenty of other low points ... the acting sucks, almost the entire movie is told via narration rather than dialogue, and the monster is less frightening than my beloved Ro-Man from Robot Monster, moving so slowly that it takes real effort from its victims to get snared by its evil intentions.

One reason I keep returning to these bad movies is that I respect anyone who can produce an actual feature film, no matter how bad. I made a few cheap short film in my film major days, with no money and not much equipment, and one thing I can say is that it takes a real talent to make the best out of a bad situation. If you couldn't afford sync sound, then just pile narration atop your silent footage. No professional actors? Use your friends and work around their limitations. You might say the results speak for themselves, that these movies are still junk, but to that I would ask, how many feature films have you made? I'm not arguing for artistic merit, but at least tip your cap to those who managed to create features against all odds.

And so I thought I would use that approach to looking at The Creeping Terror, which is abysmal by any reasonable standards. Until I looked into the story of the movie's making, which is so noteworthy someone later made a documentary, The Creep Behind the Camera. It turns out "A.J. Nelson", who is credited as the director, producer, and editor of the film, was actually Vic Savage, who played the lead role (Savage wasn't his real name, either). The Creeping Terror is very much a Vic Savage movie ... he is the auteur. But apparently, Savage was barely a filmmaker at all. He was a violent conman who disappeared near the end of production ... he died in 1975, and that seems to be all we know of him. His wife later wrote a book detailing his abusive behavior (I'm going by what the Internet tells me, who knows what's true). Yes, I should tip my cap to Savage for getting the movie done, but it would never have been finished without the work of others.

Among the things that went wrong: the famous carpet-with-sneakers monster was created after the man who originally created the monster stole the thing after he wasn't paid, leaving Savage to concoct a last-minute monster for the film. The almost dialogue-free angle came either because Savage shot it silent to save money, or the soundtrack was lost, or it was of such poor quality that it couldn't be used. Savage apparently financed the film in part by giving local amateurs bit parts in exchange for money.

Hell, I've said more than enough. I don't think I need to tell you that you are better off watching The Favourite than checking out The Creeping Terror. But I still have to own the fact that I watched The Creeping Terror while the Oscars were taking place.

 


film fatales #52: leave no trace (debra granik, 2018)

Leave No Trace was Debra Granik's first fiction film since Winter's Bone in 2010, when I first noticed Jennifer Lawrence. Perhaps it's unfair, but Thomasin McKenzie, the young woman who co-stars with Ben Foster in this movie, is being compared to Lawrence, even though their performances in their respective movies with Granik are different. McKenzie is more subdued than I remember Lawrence being, which is appropriate for her character, a young teen who lives off the grid with her father, who suffers from PTSD. The movie is low-key yet intense, a combination that doesn't seem likely but which is organic and believable here.

That believable feeling is bolstered by the work done by the leads, but also by Granik's treatment of the material, director of photography Michael McDonough's subtle handling of the film's environments, and the editing by Jean Rizzo. All of them walk a fine line, distinguishing themselves without getting too showy. Like I say, low-key yet intense.

My favorite thing about Leave No Trace is the abundance of good people in the film. I'm not sure I ever got over the feeling that someone was going to act badly, because that's what we've come to expect from movies and television, but it never happened. Once again without overdoing it, the various characters try to help one another, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but always with good intentions. This is most notable in the father/daughter relationship, and we feel protective towards them, but as the film lets more people into its world, we meet more good people. The father sees this, but he ultimately can't accept it. His daughter, though, is growing, leading to the crucial statement in the movie, when she tells her father, "The same thing that's wrong with you isn't wrong with me." It's heartbreaking, and Foster's underplaying is particularly impressive ... he knows she is right.

This was one of my latest personal recommendations from Bright Wall/Dark Room. #385 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


music friday: winterland, 1975

I might have the date wrong ... could have been the 23rd rather than the 22nd ... but I'll go with the latter so I can say that 44 years today I saw the J Geils Band for the first of four times. In support were John Entwistle's Ox and Joe Vitale's Madmen.

Joe Vitale is a long-time drummer who has appeared with everyone from Ted Nugent and Joe Walsh to Crosby, Stills and Nash and Peter Frampton. Here he is in a lo-fi clip from 1983, appearing with Walsh, Waddy Wachtel, and  George "Chocolate" Perry doing "I Can Play That Rock and Roll" on SCTV's "The Fishin' Musician" starring John Candy.

Entwistle, of course, was the bass player for The Who. The Who was recording The Who by Numbers, and Entwistle toured behind his fourth solo album, the first from "John Entwistle's Ox". The band appeared on the King Biscuit Flower Hour a few weeks after we saw them ... here is that show, with the great Robert Johnson on lead guitar:

J Geils was touring behind Nightmares ... and Other Tales from the Vinyl Jungle, which included the single "Must Have Got Lost". Here is that song, from the third time I saw them, also at Winterland, in 1977:

And remember, Peter Wolf was married to Faye Dunaway at the time.


what i watched

The Blob (Irvin S. Yeaworth, 1958). Better than you might remember, if you remember it at all ... it may have turned up on Creature Features when I was a kid, but I'm an old man now. The actors are sincere ... no one plays it for laughs, and that works, with Steve McQueen being only the best example. It's a bit like Rebel Without a Cause, only with a monster from outer space. Anita Corsaut, who later gained fame as Helen Crump on The Andy Griffith Show, is Steve's girl. The title song (yes, there is one) is co-written by Burt Bacharach. Excellent use is made of color, which was lost on my black-and-white TV when I was growing up. The color makes The Blob look better than the usual 50s monster movie. There is a dark void at the center of the movie ... The Blob is like the shark in Jaws, it has no ulterior motive, it just gobbles people up, growing larger with each victim (yep, it's another Red Scare movie!). And there's an irony in the ending that can only be appreciated, if that's the word, nowadays.

The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018). Rachel Weisz said this is "Like a funnier and sex-driven All About Eve". She's right about the sex, but The Favourite does not come close to All About Eve on the wit scale. Nominated for ten Oscars, including nods for all three stars (Olivia Colman for Best Actress, Weisz and Emma Stone for Supporting), along with Best Picture, Best Director, and more. That's overkill. It's not as weird as The Lobster, also directed by Lanthimos, and maybe it could have used some weird. It earns its R rating ... the IMDB informs us, for instance, that "The film has 9 uses of 'fuck' and multiple uses of 'cunt'". So it's not as bland as it could be, and there is some good work here. I'm always glad to see Olivia Colman get attention, and I think it would be great if she won an Oscar. But, to quote the movie, I just didn't give a fuck. Already #296 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. I'll add that when the following scene appeared, most of the audience thought it was hilarious. My wife and I, at 65, were also among the younger people in the crowd.


my fave movies of the 21st century

An interesting question came up in the comments for the post on the latest They Shoot Pictures, Don't They update: What are the one or two 21st century films that have ranked highest in my informal all-time list? Interesting enough to answer the question in a separate post.

The easiest place to start is with the Fave Fifty project a few of us did on Facebook back in 2011. Here are the 21st century films that made my all-time top 50 list:

City of God (#20 on my list, #10 on TSPDT)

In the Mood for Love (#38, #1)

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (#44, #33)

The Lives of Others (#45, #31)

Since then, I have also given my highest rating to these movies, which came out in 2011 or later:

A Separation (#17 on TSPDT)

Mad Max: Fury Road (#49)

Before Midnight (#207)

The Square (N/A)

If any of these movies would make my current Top 50 list, it's probably A Separation. Fury Road, much as I love it, isn't different enough from The Road Warrior for me to bump it that last little bit, and Before Midnight gets at least some of its value from being the third in a trilogy. The Square is the only documentary on this list, so it will get an honorable mention.

So the question is, where would A Separation fit among those other four movies from my 2011 list? The only one of those movies I've watched in the past few years is In the Mood for Love, which grows in my heart with each viewing. I'd probably put it at the top of those four movies now. So, off the top of my head, here are my Top Five movies of the 21st century:

  1. In the Mood for Love
  2. City of God
  3. A Separation
  4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
  5. The Lives of Others


they shoot pictures, don't they: 2019

The They Shoot Pictures, Don't They website has posted their annual update, with the All-Time list going up last month and the 21st-century list arriving Friday. I cite them often on this blog ... the idea of someone compiling all the best-ofs in the world appeals to me. And the I Check Movies site helps me keep track of how I'm doing in seeing the movies on the TSPDT lists. Site poobah, Australian Bill Georgaris, has done good previews for the new lists, and a lot of what follows is based on his work.

The top ten movies of all time, as usual, is pretty much the same from year to year. The only difference this year is that two movies switched places, The Godfather and 8 1/2:

1. Citizen Kane (1)
2. Vertigo (2)
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (3)
4. The Rules of the Game (4)
5. Tokyo Story (5)
6. (7)
7. The Godfather (6)
8. Sunrise (8)
9. The Searchers (9)
10. The Seven Samurai (10)

The biggest new entrant was Audition at #702. The formerly highest-ranked movie to fall off the list was the 1978 Superman, which was #685 last year.

The stagnant nature of the all-time list led Georgaris to create a list solely for 21st-century movies. The need for this can be seen in the listing for In the Mood for Love, which is #1 on the 21st-century list, but up against the compiled wisdom of more than a hundred years, it is only #44 all-time. Here's the 21st-century top ten:

1. In the Mood for Love
2. Mulholland Dr.
3. Yi Yi
4. There Will Be Blood
5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
6. The Tree of Life
7. Spirited Away
8. Caché
9. Tropical Malady
10. City of God

Even this list is gradually becoming fossilized ... there were only 2 changes to the top 50.

As for what I Check Movies tells me about my own viewing habits ... I have seen 665 of the 1001 movies in the all-time list, including the top 102. (Satantango is #103.) As for the 21st-century list, I've seen 472 of 1001, including the top 15 (Russian Ark is #16).


what i watched

Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959). Only my third film by Resnais, after the all-time classic Night and Fog and the bizarre Last Year at Marienbad. In all three films, Resnais plays with time ... in Hiroshima, as in Marienbad, there is looping, endless conversations about what did or didn't happen. (No one doubts that the camps in Night and Fog really happened.) Emmanuelle Riva comes across best ... Eiji Okada apparently did his dialogue phonetically, and while that might just add to the oddness of the film, you imagine he could do better in his native language. Riva is given more to tell us about her character than is Okada, and she is ultimately the more impressive of the two (this was her first feature). Written by novelist Marguerite Duras ... she got an Oscar nomination, losing to The Apartment. It's a very intense film. It's not very likable, but I suppose it isn't supposed to be. #107 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. My favorite films of 1959:

  1. Rio Bravo
  2. Fires on the Plain
  3. The 400 Blows
  4. North by Northwest
  5. Pickpocket

Tom Jones (Tony Richardson, 1963.) I had already done my homage to Albert Finney, but the upcoming Criterion Channel wanted to join in, making two of his movies their picks of the week as they prepare their streaming service. I chose the one I hadn't seen, Tom Jones. It's a busy film, not at all stately like you might expect from a film based on an 18th-century novel. The camerawork is annoying at times, although it does feel very modern, given that many movies these days are burdened with overactive cameras. Once in awhile, Richardson has his actors break the fourth wall, for no apparent reason. The movie is zesty enough ... all of the women have cleavage, even Edith Evans, who was 75 at the time. It's assumed that fucking is on everyone's minds, and Tom goes through quite a list of women on his way to true love. Albert Finney was very pretty in those days, and pretty is the word ... many of the women say it when they see his face. There is a famous eating-as-foreplay scene, and lots of fine actors turn up. Five of them got Oscar nominations, although none won: Finney for Best Actor, Hugh Griffith for Best Supporting Actor, and three women for Best Supporting Actress (Evans, Diane Cilento, and Joyce Redman). Tom Jones won a bunch of Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and John Osborne for the screenplay. It's not a bad movie, but you wonder why the Oscars loved it so much at the time. On the other hand, among the nominees for Best Picture were the famous flop, Cleopatra, and the clunky Cinerama Western, How the West Was Won. My three favorite films from 1963 are The Leopard, High and Low, and From Russia with Love.