Murder by Contract is a solid, compact (81 minutes, shot in 7-8 days depending on who you ask) B-movie that offers many pleasures. Vince Edwards, known to American boomers as Ben Casey, is well-cast as a smoldering hunk. His killer could have come out of French existentialism ... in fact, the whole picture feels a bit like something from the French New Wave. Perry Botkin's score is catchy in a good way, and the veteran Lucien Ballard, who later worked frequently with Peckinpah (including The Wild Bunch), does wonders with black & white. Martin Scorsese speaks very highly of this one. It's the film debut of Kathie Browne, who my wife recognized for her role in an episode of the original Star Trek series. Also Herschel Bernardi, who is fine but if you are of a certain age and someone tells you that Bernardi did the voice for Charlie the Tuna ("Sorry, Charlie") in StarKist ads, you won't be able to get that out of your mind:
Finally, there's the mysterious Caprice Toriel as one of the killer's targets. This was the only movie she appeared in, and endless Google searches turn up nothing about her except that she was in Murder by Contract.
Marcello Mastroianni: La Dolce Vita (1960), La Notte (1961), 8 1/2 (1963)
In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Kael wrote of La Notte:
In Antonioni’s earlier L’Avventura, which was also about the moral and spiritual poverty of the rich, his architectural sense was integral to the theme and characters; here, the abstract elements take over, and the drama becomes glacial. And his conception is distasteful: his characters seem to find glamour in their own desolation and emptiness. They are cardboard intellectuals—a sort of international café society—and their lassitude seems an empty pose. Marcello Mastroianni plays a blank-faced famous novelist; as his wife, Jeanne Moreau walks endlessly, with the camera fixated on her rear; and Monica Vitti is a brunette with money up to her ears and nothing to do.
Whenever I write about Antonioni's trilogy from 1960-1962, I note that Kael seems to have influenced me in some secret way, for like her, I think L'Avventura is a masterpiece, and also like her, I don't think the other two pictures match the first. At this point, I'm just throwing my arms in the air ... Kael influence or not, I have watched L'Avventura several times, and look forward to watching it again, while the most I can say for La Notte and L'Eclisse is that I'm glad I saw them. There is much to appreciate in La Notte ... the look (Gianni Di Venanzo is the cinematographer, but Antonioni surely deserves a lot of credit for how it turns out), and while the acting is variable, I liked Monica Vitti quite a bit. Mastroianni accomplishes what the director wanted, but the actor is on record that he thought the part should have had more depth, although he accepts that Antonioni wanted something else ("a blank-faced famous novelist", in Kael's words). Thus, his character is dull, although with Marcello Mastroianni, even a blank face is nice to look at. As for Moreau, I fear this was indeed an example of Kael influencing me ... once I read her comment about the camera's fixation on her rear, I couldn't get it out of my head, and sure enough, there are a LOT of shots of Moreau walking away from the camera.
Trying to figure out why I prefer L'Avventura to the others, I once wrote, "Perhaps my problem is that L’Avventura’s greatness lies in part in the way the emptiness is ultimate rather than complete. Claudia’s journey takes us from a place of hope to one of pitiful acceptance, and that journey is key to L’Avventura. In the other films in the trilogy, the emptiness is there from the start; it is complete, and there is no journey." I felt this quite strongly while watching La Notte. There is no Claudia. No one is markedly different at the end of La Notte than they are at the beginning. I don't agree with Kael that they find their lives glamorous. But there isn't a lot of there, there.
A couple of trivia notes from IMDB that don't surprise me. La Notte is one of Stanley Kubrick's favorite films. And La Notte is one of Lars von Trier's favorite films. #237 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the woman who is quoted at the top of every page on this blog. Here is something I wrote for an anthology about Kael:
It was her insistence on the individual, sometimes even the willful viewer, that makes any concept of the “Paulettes” problematic. For the critic who truly wanted to follow in Kael’s footsteps, subjectivity would necessarily be crucial, and that subjectivity would ensure that the critic wasn’t merely parroting Kael. To a question in an excellent 1994 interview from Conversations with Kael by Hal Espen about what she called “saphead objectivity”, she said:
"Our responses to a movie grow out of our experience, knowledge, temperament – maybe even our biochemistry…. I tried to put my background and predilections right out on top, so that the reader could know what my responses came from."
Ideally, criticism is a matter of your intelligence and all your intuitions coming into play…. but you can’t make an objective judgment in any of the arts. Kael’s influence hardly relies on our agreeing with her opinions. Her lasting resonance comes from her perspective to writing criticism, what I would call an “expansive subjectivity”. It is easy enough to reduce Pauline Kael to her pronouncements, and indeed, those of us who remember her with passion will often find ourselves slipping into the Paulette mode of wondering “what would Pauline think?” However, I am writing this essay in an attempt at some explanation for the ineffability, the magic, the lasting power of her voice.
Pauline Kael ... was an early and regular champion of De Palma's work ... in my mind, the best example of this is perhaps her review of The Fury, where she favorably compares De Palma to Peckinpah, Hitchcock, Spielberg, Welles, and Scorsese. ["One can imagine Welles, Peckinpah, Scorsese, and Spielberg still stunned, bowing to the ground, choking with laughter."] David Thomson, on the other hand, compares De Palma to Leni Riefenstahl. It may be De Palma's great achievement that both Kael and Thomson's comparisons make some sense.
As it happens, I did sit next to Pauline once in that dark. It was in a Manhattan screening room, and the occasion was Brian De Palma's "The Fury," a picture starring Kirk Douglas, Amy Irving and John Cassavetes. It exists, trust me.
The seat beside me was occupied only at the last moment, after the lights had gone down, by a diminutive woman who made some fuss getting settled and finding her notebook. Well, 15 or so minutes later, I was nudged out of De Palma's film (this was not too difficult) by a sound coming from somewhere next to me. It was scratchy and raspy, but there were little sighs and moans accompanying it. You may find this allusion fanciful, but it was rather like sitting next to Beatrix Potter's Mrs. Tiggywinkle as she beat the little garments of her laundry.
Pauline (for it was she) was writing up a storm in the dark, with a sharp pencil on the notebook pages. That was the rasping. I watched in wonder as her head bobbed up from the page to the screen, and back again, too intent to miss anything, and apparently writing down not just the dialogue but a kind of running shooting script. And the noises she was making -- the tiny hedgehog squeaks and raptures -- were part of a nearly writhing rapport with the film up there on the screen. She was in love with it. She was, nearly, making love to it....
I thought "The Fury" was spectacular nonsense. History may be on my side, but that doesn't really matter. Pauline was putting out for De Palma because she believed in him.
Still, as the lights came up, I couldn't resist saying, "I can't wait to read your review."
"Didn't you like it?" she asked, less in dismay than incredulity.
I admitted not (I felt like a father telling his daughter the guy's a jerk), and our friendship died there. But I kept her example in my head, and I've never forgotten the sound of that sharp pencil slashing at paper. For me, that was The Fury.
In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Kael wrote of The Fury:
Brian De Palma’s visionary, science-fiction thriller is the reverse side of the coin of Spielberg’s Close Encounters. With Spielberg, what happens is so much better than you dared hope that you have to laugh; with De Palma, it’s so much worse than you feared that you have to laugh. The ... film is so visually compelling that a viewer seems to have entered a mythic night world; no Hitchcock thriller was ever so intense, went so far, or had so many “classic” sequences.
I like The Fury, which has a loony quality that adds to its enjoyment. De Palma is busy enough in the movie that it's pretty easy to ignore the stupid plot holes. The acting is generally good ... John Cassavetes is in Rosemary's Baby Bad Guy mode, Kirk Douglas does his usual overacting, Amy Irving does what she can. Fiona Lewis from the legendary Drum is also featured. Daryl Hannah makes her debut in one scene, as does Jim Belushi in a blink-and-you'll-miss it cameo (I blinked). Dennis Franz turns up in one of his very first movies.
John Williams deserves a special shout out. He had been around for a bit ... Jaws came out in 1975, Star Wars and Close Encounters in '76 ... in retrospect, you can already hear the classic Williams sound in those movies, which was solidified later with Indiana Jones, E.T., and the Jurassic Park movies. But the music in The Fury is unlike his usual. He calls on the Hitchcock of the Bernard Herrmann era. This is not a surprise ... De Palma was known to copy Hitchcock slavishly at times, and you have to figure he told Williams what he wanted. But it's so different from what we have since come to expect from John Williams. It's an excellent score.
Meanwhile, there was Kael, as effusive as ever. Referring to the death of Cassavates' character, she wrote, "This finale ... is the greatest finish for any villain ever." Pauline did have a way with exaggerated loves.
Here are some Brian De Palma films I have seen, with my ratings on a scale of 10:
The second in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.
In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Kael wrote of Re-Animator:
[T]his horror film about a medical student with a fluorescent greenish-yellow serum that restores the dead to hideous, unpredictable activity is close to being a silly ghoulie classic—the bloodier it gets, the funnier it is. It’s like pop Buñuel; the jokes hit you in a subterranean comic zone that the surrealists’ pranks sometimes reached, but without the surrealists’ self-consciousness (and art-consciousness). This is indigenous American junkiness, like the Mel Brooks–Gene Wilder Young Frankenstein, but looser and more low-down.
The part I agree with most is that "the bloodier it gets, the funnier it is". For one thing, this should warn off anyone who isn't a fan of excessive buckets of gore. I also realized that it's probably best to spread out your viewings of Re-Animator, so that you forget the funny parts. Then you can laugh all over again.
Barbara Crampton is at the center of what is the most outrageous scene. There's a DVD commentary featuring Crampton and several others involved with the film, and Crampton is hilarious. I'll just quote some of the commentary ... if you've seen the movie, you'll know what she's talking about (and keep in mind, she and everyone else is laughing and having a great time during the commentary):
Crampton: This is my mom's favorite scene. Oh, she loves this part.
Other actor: Look at those lights.
BC: Look at those lights? Look at those breasts! They're right there!
[A bit later]
Actor: You know this scene coming up, where he takes his head right into your crotch?
BC: Well, it doesn't quite go into my crotch, okay?
Actor: David felt spiritually bereft, those were the words he used, he said I feel awful doing this.
BC: Well, he should have!
Actor: It starts with the tongue in the ear, that's when it sent his wife over.
Other actor: It did, after that first screening, she split on him. And this is where it ...
BC: Oh, it's only a movie!
You can listen here:
There's also what I assume is a future in-joke. Three years before Die Hard, frequent mention is made of a scientist named Hans Gruber.
Back when I did that 50 Fave Movies thing, Re-Animator was one of my final cuts. And, for those who found the story of my daughter and Thelma & Louise fun, I'll mention her again. In her younger days, she was an aficionado of slasher movies. (One of the people on my dissertation committee was Carol J. Clover. I told her about my daughter, and how I let her watch pretty much anything, but I drew the line on I Spit on Your Grave. Carol said I should let her watch it. Eventually, I did.) She liked to check out the names of the directors on the video boxes ... she got us to watch From Beyond, which was Stuart Gordon's next movie after Re-Animator.
Kael wasn't the only critic who liked Re-Animator. Roger Ebert called it:
[A] frankly gory horror movie that finds a rhythm and a style that make it work in a cockeyed, offbeat sort of way. It's charged up by the tension between the director's desire to make a good movie, and his realization that few movies about mad scientists and dead body parts are ever likely to be very good. The temptation is to take a camp approach to the material, to mock it, as Paul Morrissey did in "Andy Warhol's Frankenstein." Gordon resists that temptation, and creates a livid, bloody, deadpan exercise in the theater of the undead.
According to Wikipedia, the Quad Cinema is "New York City's first small four-screen multiplex theater". Opened in 1972, the Quad specializes in foreign and independent films. I live on the opposite coast from the Quad, so I can't make it there, which is too bad, because they are in the middle of a two-week festival, Losing It at the Movies: Pauline Kael at 100. Quoting from the Quad website, "The Quad celebrates Kael’s centennial—it would have been her 100th birthday this June 19—with 25 movies that she championed as well as a few that she dismissed, reviving debates that she stoked… and still can."
I'm on this. I've written here about eleven of those films:
Now it's time to take on the other 14. So I've started a new, semi-regular feature, "Losing It at the Movies". One of these days, there will finally be a general release of What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, a documentary on Kael I've been looking forward to. In the meantime, I begin with Jonathan Demme's Something Wild. In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Kael wrote:
Jonathan Demme’s romantic screwball comedy isn’t just about a carefree kook (Melanie Griffith) and a pompous man from Wall Street (Jeff Daniels). The script—a first by E. Max Frye—is like the working out of a young man’s fantasy of the pleasures and punishments of shucking off middle-class behavior patterns. The movie is about getting high on anarchic, larcenous behavior and then being confronted with ruthless, sadistic criminality. This rough-edged comedy turns into a scary slapstick thriller. Demme weaves the stylization of rock videos into the fabric of the movie. Starting with David Byrne and Celia Cruz singing Byrne’s “Loco De Amor” during the opening credits, and ending with a reprise of Chip Taylor’s “Wild Thing” by the reggae singer Sister Carol East, who appears on half of the screen while the final credits roll on the other half, there are almost 50 songs (or parts of songs), several of them performed onscreen by The Feelies. The score—it was put together by John Cale and Laurie Anderson—has a life of its own that gives the movie a buzzing vitality. This is a party movie with both a dark and a light side. With Ray Liotta as the dangerous, menacing Ray; Dana Preu as the kook’s gloriously bland mother; and Margaret Colin as bitchy Irene. Also with Jack Gilpin, Su Tissue, and Demme’s co-producer Kenneth Utt, and, tucked among the many performers, John Waters and John Sayles. Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto.
Jonathan Demme had risen from the Roger Corman factory, directing the Talking Heads concert movie, Stop Making Sense, in 1984. Melanie Griffith, 29 when the film was released, had been in movies for more than a decade, most notably in the 1984 Brian De Palma film Body Double. She was also known as the on again/off again wife of Don Johnson (they are the parents of Dakota Johnson), and as the daughter of Tippi Hedren. Jeff Daniels, 31 when the film was released, had broken out the year before as the male lead in The Purple Rose of Cairo.
Meanwhile, Ray Liotta, a bit older than Daniels, had made his movie debut in 1983 in the notoriously awful The Lonely Lady. He doesn't show up in Something Wild until around 50 minutes have passed, but when he does, the film takes a turn from which it never returns. Liotta is magnetic as an ex-con who easily slips between a creepy smile and a frightening demeanor. Something Wild is fine before Liotta arrives ... Griffith and Daniels are good ... but Liotta takes over the movie. I remember seeing this when it came out, and my brother-in-law said he felt it was like watching two movies. He was referring to pre-and-post Ray Liotta.
Daniels' Wall Street man is the one who experiences something wild, and that wildness comes in two forms: the breezy, devil-may-care of Griffith's daredevil, and the sadistic menace of Liotta's con. Liotta changes the movie, but it isn't as jarring as my brother-in-law thought. Liotta isn't from a different movie, he is a different wild.
In this scene, the tables are turned:
I can't go without mentioning the appearance of the great band The Feelies, who turn up as The Willies, a band playing a high-school reunion. The following scene is also when Liotta makes his first appearance:
Finally, just because ... a video of The Feelies, directed by Jonathan Demme:
In many ways, Rocketman is a typical biopic. It's constructed as a flashback, with Elton John putting himself into rehab and telling everyone his story from childhood to stardom. Of course, everything goes to shit ... there's the booze, and the drugs, and the moneyed excesses. It's nothing you haven't seen before, with the obvious difference that this time it's Elton John rather than Billie Holiday or that guy in A Star Is Born. You get a shitload of Elton John songs, which is why you came. Taron Egerton does well enough singing those songs ... he's not the problem. It's the arrangements of many of the songs that brings Rocketman down, with "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" being the best/worst example. Here is how it sounds in the movie:
It starts out OK, if a little tame for what is arguably the hardest-rocking song Elton ever recorded. But just past the one-minute mark, the guitar disappears, replaced by a big band sound with some psychedelia tossed in. The real thing, though, was recorded with the guitar up front, leading the charge. You might want to remember the name Davey Johnstone ... he's nowhere in the movie, and even a simulacrum of his sound disappears into the movie version of this song, but he is crucial to how the original sounded.
The movie version sounds more like a Broadway musical than it sounds like rock and roll.
There's also a standard trope of bios about musicians that goes seriously astray here. Most of the songs are presented as context for something that's happening in Elton's life. It's the curse of the singer/songwriter genre. But at least James Taylor was singing about himself in "Fire and Rain". Elton John songs are written by Bernie Taupin. Taupin isn't exactly an autobiographical writer in the first place, but it's a serious misstep to take words Taupin has written and have them come out of Elton's mouth as if they reflected Elton's situation. The whole idea of making songs explain situations (his heart was broken so he wrote this song) is trite misguided, but even if you do buy into that, it makes no sense that Bernie writes lyrics, completely separate from Elton, yet the movie acts as if those lyrics speak to Elton's innermost being. (As if to prove my point, the one time the songs make sense is when Bernie sings "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" ... at least the right character is doing the singing.)
And it's not just the original music that Rocketman is up against. It even goes where no other movie needs to any longer, for Almost Famous has already given us the "Tiny Dancer" segment for the ages. Here is Rocketman ... excuse the quality, the movie is too new for good clips, this looks like it was recorded with a phone off a movie screen, but you get the idea:
And here, the iconic scene from Almost Famous:
Rocketman's version is about Elton's sadness (voiced, again, using someone else's words). Almost Famous shows how music brings people together into a community. In one, the only thing we learn from the song is about Elton John's emotions ... in the other, we learn how people use music in their daily lives.
You will like Rocketman, if you just want the nostalgia of being reminded of songs from your past, if you want to see a reasonably good impression of Elton John, if you aren't bothered by the stock biopic tropes, if you don't mind that the score is better suited for a stage play than for a rock and roll show. I suspect that includes a lot of people. Not me.
My memories of Thelma & Louise are inextricably connected to my daughter. She was 13 when the movie came out, and quite taken with it. I assigned the movie to a class I was teaching at the time, along with Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening. I was struck by possible similarities in their endings, which led me to try and work through any other similarities by using it in the classroom. I fear I can't remember much more ... I know I'm supposed to keep track of these things, but it was more than 25 years ago and my brain ain't what it used to be.
One day, when we were going to discuss Thelma & Louise, I brought my daughter to class with me. She was and is sharp and opinionated, and she wasn't one to refrain from a discussion just because she was "only a kid". Now, one of the worst things that can happen to a teacher in a discussion class comes when the students don't interact with each other. The teacher says something, calls on a student if no one has anything to say, listens to the student, waits for a classmate to respond, and then breaks the silence by making another statement and calling on a different student. The pattern goes Teacher-Student A-Teacher-Student B-Teacher-Student C ... you get the idea. It would be closer to the ideal if it went Teacher-Student A-Student B-Student C.
Well, I said something to start the discussion and called on a student, who said something I don't remember. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a hand go up, and I think, great, someone else wants to chime in! I look over towards the hand to see my daughter, all fired up. What the heck, I figured, so I called on her. She looked at the first student and contested what she had said. Another hand went up. That student responded to my daughter, whose hand went up (I think eventually no one bothered with hands, although the discussion never got chaotic). My daughter responded, another student had something to say. I couldn't decide if this was a teacher's nightmare or something more ideal: Teacher-Student A-Daughter-Student B-Daughter-Student C-Daughter etc.
I was a proud dad, and the next class, my students all said how refreshing she was.
Well, a few months ago, my daughter, who is now 41 and lives in Sacramento (75-80 miles from Berkeley), tells me that Thelma & Louise is coming to Sac and she thinks we should go. I hemmed and hawed ... some time later she let me know she had bought tickets ... later still she asked her mom along. Long story short, last night, my wife and I drove up to Sacramento to watch an old movie with our daughter on a Monday night.
As someone who long ago grew comfortable with watching movies at home, I must say at the start that it was great watching the movie with a crowd. I suspect they had all seen it before ... you could feel the anticipation before a big moment. What was even better was the joy they were taking from the film. Jocular laughter as Thelma left on the trip, leaving her husband a frozen dinner in the microwave. Pin-drop silence as Harlan attacks Thelma. Shouting and cheering when Louise shoots Harlan. That was the moment I knew the audience was essential.
Thelma & Louise is well-known for taking some standard buddy movie tropes and switching the heroes to women. It's also a road movie, another genre largely limited to men in those days. The scenery is crucial ... when we see Monument Valley, we're seeing John Ford, and we're seeing two women where men would have been in Ford's films. The film, and the characters, claim Monument Valley for their own.
The characters are iconic; the performances of Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are as well. Both have done great work in their careers ... both have an Oscar on their shelf ... but one shot of them in Thelma & Louise and for a moment, you forget they were ever in anything else:
One of the pleasures of watching older movies is seeing familiar faces in the cast. Everyone knows that Sarandon and Davis were in the movie ... you might also remember Harvey Keitel ... and there's Michael Madsen and Stephen Tobolowsky and Christopher McDonald and Lucinda Jenney. But there was also one actor whose career took off after Thelma & Louise. He was in his late-20s, had been in a few movies no one saw, and had a few roles on TV. But he made quite an impression when he turned up on the screen in Thelma & Louise:
It's the movie that made Brad Pitt a star. And even though the audience last night knew he was in it, and remembered him quite well, still, there was something about his entrance that enthralled just as it did in 1991.
Finally, here's one more clip that you will remember ... everybody remembers it. We now know who Brad Pitt is, but I bet you don't know the name Marco St. John. This will jog your memory:
I'm on record as believing that the first two Godfather movies are the best films of all time. When The Godfather Part III came out, I didn't think it was necessary, but I was at the theater as soon as it was released, nonetheless. It wasn't as good as the first two, but neither is anything else. Part III is not my favorite movie. But if I'm channel surfing and I see it's on, I usually watch it for awhile, and it's fine, with some memorable scenes. In the end, it didn't need to be as good as its predecessors ... it was, and is, enough that it didn't besmirch the legacy.
In that way, GF III is something of a standard bearer for a work that returns from a greater work after a longish period of time. When something like that comes out, I just hope it doesn't besmirch the legacy.
Deadwood: The Movie has been rumored ever since the series was first cancelled in 2006. HBO supposedly came to an agreement with the show's creator, David Milch, wherein two TV movies would be produced to provide closure (the final episode of the series wasn't meant to be final, although it worked passably for that function). But those movies never got made. Until July of last year, when HBO approved one movie, which was filmed at the end of 2018.
Remarkably, given the long wait between projects, almost the entire original cast returned. A couple of characters had died during the show's run, and a couple of actors died in the interim. But other than Titus Welliver, who was making the latest season of Bosch and couldn't make his schedule work, everyone else was there, even Garret Dillahunt, who played Wild Bill Hickok's murderer in Season One, and then returned in an entirely different role for Season Two (in the movie, he had a cameo as "Drunk Number Two"). The actors have all aged, which was perfect, but the characters had aged, too ... it took place roughly ten years after the end of the previous season.
As the movie began, I was thinking one thing: I hope it doesn't besmirch the legacy.
I needn't have worried. Although Milch is now suffering from Alzheimer's, he got the script written, with the unique Deadwood Dialogue intact. That in itself is enough to make the movie honest to its legacy.
Various characters' stories come to a believable conclusion, while others are properly left up in the air. Nothing feels out of place ... if the movie is more a pretty-good episode than an all-time classic, it is still of a piece with what came before. And it rewards those of us who have waited so long. The last half-hour or so even brings a few tears to our eyes, although Milch has never been one to overdo the sentimentality. When Trixie, with Al on his deathbed, begins the Lord's Prayer with "Our Father, which art in heaven", Al's last words are "Let him fucking stay there".