Monday, September 27, 2010

Lou Boxer Talks NoirCon 2010

NoirCon hits Philadelphia again this year, Novemeber 4-7. A celebration of all things dark and dreary (i.e. awesome), the conference gathers writers and noir geeks together in the hometown of noir great (and NoirCon patron saint) David Goodis.

Recently, NoirCon kingpin Lou Boxer talked to everyone's favorite pulp fiction blog, Pulp Serenade. It's a great exchange, the highlight of which is Boxer's perfect summation of the Goodis appeal:

It is the purest, most unadulterated writing. It cuts right to the bone like a jagged knife. Goodis wrote for the sake of writing. He had a story to tell and he told it...His stories were extensions of his personal life. Goodis tells the day-to-day struggle of the guy down on his luck, trying to make it through one more day of hell, knowing the next day will be no better than the one before."

That's what I'm talking about.

For more of this conversation go check out Pulp Serenade.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Bogdanovich Speaks

The final entry in my salute to director Peter Bogdanovich is to link to a fascinating interview that he did with Alex Simon around the time of The Cat's Meow. It's a wide ranging talk--touching on many aspects in the life and career of a man who has experienced, as Simon puts it, "high highs and low lows."

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Brief Introduction to the Cinema of Peter Bogdanovich

Last week I talked a bit about Peter Bogdanovich's new blog and some of his wonderful writings on film.

I don't want that to obscure his work as a director, though. Bogdanovich was one of the brightest talents of the 1970s, a period of extremely bright talents. For a brief window of a few years, it looked as if there might be no end to his success. One wonders what would have happened if he had been the dominant voice in American film instead of George Lucas; we'd be living in a different world--one with far better movies, I suspect. Bogdanovich was one of the few major directors of that era who wasn't obsessed with violence. While Scorsese, De Palma, Lucas, Coppola, and Spielberg either made violent cartoons or bloody masterpieces, Bogdanovich made comedies and stark dramas. Among American directors of that era (most of them men) he was the one who seemed to like female characters the most, while also being the one most comfortable with the subject of sex. I wish his influence was more keenly felt today.

Here is a brief introduction to the films of Peter Bogdanovich:

Targets (1968)-His first film, made for producer Roger Corman, was a tense thriller starring Boris Karloff as an aging film star who comes face to face with a deranged young killer based on the Texas clocktower shooter Charles Whitman. An amazingly assured debut, smart and suspenseful. A film about violence rather than a violent film.

The Last Picture Show-This quiet drama about the sexual goings-on in a sleepy Texas town was shocking in its day. Hell, it's still shocking. Few American films are so plainspoken about matters of the bedroom. A great cast, anchored by the touching affair between Timothy Bottoms
as a high football player and Cloris Leachman as the lonely wife of a latently gay football coach.

What's Up, Doc?-His biggest moneymaker was this blockbuster comedy starring Barbara Streisand and Ryan O'Neal. It's screwball in the tradition of Bringing Up Baby--a G-rated goofball jamboree. Want to understand why some people love Barbara Streisand? Here's the answer. One of my favorite comedies.

Paper Moon-One of my favorite films of all time. In the middle of the Depression, a con man named Moses Pray (Ryan O'Neal) discovers that one of his ex-girlfriends has died and left behind a ten year old girl named Addie (Tatum O'Neal). He agrees to take the girl to her family in Missouri, but as they travel across the country it turns out the girl has a gift for grift not unlike Moses himself. I am in love with this film. It's charming and funny without being sentimental or cute. Ryan and Tatum O'Neal had, by all accounts, a horrible relationship in real life. In the film, though, the gloom is always lifting, the sun always peaking through dusty skies. The more I see it, the more I love it.

Nickelodeon-Bogdanovich's comedy about the rough-and-tumble early days of moviemaking plays a little like an adaption of his interview book, Who the Devil Made It. His script was cobbled together from stories he'd heard from directors like Leo McCarey, Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh, and John Ford--all of whom had started out in the primordial pre-Hollywood silent film industry. Cinema during this little-known era was more like gorilla filmmaking than the sleek studio system it would give rise to, and none of his contemporaries could have brought the same passion and knowledge to the subject than Bogdanovich. That said, the film is a minor entry on his resume. There are a lot of laughs here, but the film lacks the precision of some of his other comedies. The shoot was also compromised by the studio's insistence that the film be released in color, but the newest DVD release of the film features the director's preferred black and white version.

Saint Jack-Bogdanovich's fortunes took a sharp turn after the success of Paper Moon. He started getting bad reviews and his films started flopping. Even his personal life got bad press. He scored a critical comeback with this 1979 drama about an American pimp in Singapore starring Ben Gazzara. A pointed criticism of the hypocrisy of American foreign policy in Southeast Asia and another stark look at the emotions, self-justifications, and self-delusions surrounding sex. A great film, criminally overlooked.

They All Laughed-The film that nearly ruined his life. Bogdanovich fell in love with his leading lady, Dorothy Stratten during the making of this comedy co-starring Ben Gazzara, Audrey Hepburn and John Ritter. After she was murdered, the studio wanted to shelve the project, so a distraught Bogdanovich bought the film (!) and tried to release it himself, a move that ruined him financially. While the film holds a special place for the director and has its defenders among people like Wes Anderson and Quinton Tarantino, I've never really warmed it. In short: it's a comedy that doesn't make me laugh. See it yourself to decide. (And click on the title above to watch Wes Anderson interview Bogdanovich about the film)

Mask-I haven't seen this film since about, oh, 1987. Cher, Sam Elliot, and Eric Stoltz as a funny kid with a deformed face. That makes it sound like one of those disease-of-the-week films from the eighties, but my recollection of the film is that it was a genuinely moving, surprisingly funny, piece of work. Bogdanovich was able to release a Director's cut of the film on DVD that reversed some tampering by the studio.

The Cat's Meow-His last feature film to date, this 2001 drama is a fictional meditation on some old Hollywood gossip--the story that William Randolph Hearst supposedly shot and killed a man during a cruise because he thought the fellow was having an affair with Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies. A witty little romp.

Directed By John Ford-In 2006, Bogdanovich updated his 1971 documentary about director John Ford. He included new information and footage (including a private conversation accidentally recorded between Ford and his long lost love Katherine Hepburn). The result is a fascinating look at one of the cinema's pivotal figures.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Peter Blog-danovich

I've long thought that Peter Bogdanovich was one of the great undervalued men of cinema. I discovered him the way I assume most people do, by the reputation of his second film, the critical and commercial success The Last Picture Show. When he made the film in 1971, he was thrust to the forefront of the film geek generation that briefly held sway in Hollywood following the success of Easy Rider. He had a few more big hits after that and then his career took a sharp turn. His films started flopping. His marriage fell apart because of an affair with his leading lady Cybil Shepherd, and then that relationship fell apart. His relationship with model-turned-actress Dorothy Stratton ended in tragedy when her jealous estranged husband brutally murdered her. Bogdanovich's life fell apart. Financial ruin followed, and it seemed as if he might not recover.

Happily, he put his life back together. He did a lot of work in television, directing TV films and issuing a supporting role on The Sopranos. He's even managed in an increasingly convoluted Hollywood to direct some movies.

Now he's on Indiewire with a new blog called, of course, Blogdanovich. As most fans of his work know, Bogdanovich started out as an actor but first made his name as a writer. He did early books on Allan Dwan, John Ford, and Orson Welles. His Welles book led him into a collaboration with The Great One on the bible of all Wellesians, This Is Orson Welles. His book Who The Devil Made It, a collection of interviews with classic directors is an essential film book. Essential. As in, you must read this book before you call yourself a film geek.

The prospect of Bogdanovich blogging about classic film (issuing short introductions to films like Ball of Fire) is a happy thought. Here's hoping he keeps it up.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The American (2010)

The first irony of The American is that it is, in so many ways, a European film. It stars George Clooney as a hit man living in Italy who is gearing up for one last job before he quits--but while this set-up is straight out of Hollywood's storage of dependable cliches, the execution of it is something else entirely. Directed by Anton Corbijn, it is a European art film to its bones. It reminds me of Jean-Pierre Melville's French variations on American crime flicks in the fifties and sixties. This is an action movie, disassembled and stripped down to its component parts, the existential bones of a hackneyed genre piece.

The film trades in silence (Clooney speaks fewer lines in this than in any starring role he's ever had). Exposition is infrequent and slight. We're left to piece things together. Clooney does something in the first five minutes of the film that marks him as decidedly unheroic (most hit man movies are cowardly in this way: they give their protagonists a moral code that we can respect and even admire), and the film never compensates for this by making him befriend a child or rescue a puppy from drowning. He is a man who kills people for a living, and the film accepts the amoral hole that must exist in him for this to be true.

We observe him as he goes about the business of custom building a gun for another assassin (Thekla Reuten). If you want to know how to assemble a sniper rifle or make an explosive-tip bullet, this is the film for you. The key here is process. He's a man at work. There is action in the film (by my count Clooney kills six people), yet the action punctuates the movements of the story rather than being the substance of it (there are killings at the outset, middle, and end). Mostly, we are here to watch this man as he goes about his work and tries (and fails) to live with nothing else. He meets a woman (the beautiful and charismatic Violante Placido) and makes tentative steps toward emotional intimacy. He develops a relationship with an elderly priest and makes tentative steps toward ethical clarity. None of this is cute or coy. All of it unfolds under gathering portents of doom.

This brings us to the second irony of the film: it's a drama with the trappings of an action movie. The advertisements are trying to fool you. This is not an ass-kicking thriller. It's a slow builder, the story of a man's moral implosion. In many ways, it reminds me of Allen Baron's terrific hit-man noir Blast of Silence. Like Baron's film, The American is less about killing than trying to live without valuing life.

At the center of the film, is George Clooney. I haven't used his character's name a) because there's some ambiguity about what exactly it is, and b) I realized about halfway through the film that I was merely thinking of him as George Clooney. Since 1998 when he made Out of Sight and began his movie career in earnest, he's become one of our indispensable stars. Fluff like The Perfect Storm and the Ocean's films finance the villa in Italy and dinner with supermodels, but he's pursued a course that is at once the model of the classic Hollywood star and a subversion of it. Out of Sight, Three Kings, Syriana, Solaris, O Brother Where Art Thou, Michael Clayton, Burn After Reading, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up In the Air--that's not simply a list of good films, it's a run of smart, quirky films that use his star quality in interesting ways. He's directed three films (a weird fictional biopic, a political drama about free speech, and a screwball comedy about football) with a fourth on the way. He's taken on odd side projects (experimental films with Soderbergh like The Good German and Fail Safe).

You don't have to like all his stuff--I didn't care for Intolerable Cruelty or The Men Who Stare at Goats--to observe that he's used his position in Hollywood to great effect. A film like The American reminds me of the kind of late career projects that Bogart and Jimmy Stewart took in the fifties. You never forget that you're watching Bogart or Jimmy Stewart, but there again is the mystery of the movie star, and indeed of the movies themselves. They are a combination of the real and the unreal. Watching a favorite star playing a character is both familiar and new, like catching up to an old friend after they've remarried and switched jobs.

Clooney is always the man in the know, the smart guy who can talk his way out of anything. But from the beginning, he's tweaked that character with an undertow of doubt. In The American--a fine contribution to his body of work--he's stripped of words, left to drown in that undertow.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Orson is Back Next Year

A bit early to tell if this will work, but what an odd project.

From The Hollywood Reporter:

The late Orson Welles is back in the movie business. A rare recording only recently discovered of the filmmaker narrating a children's Christmas novel is being used as the basis for a film. It is being produced by Drac Studios, best known as a special effects and makeup shop for movies like "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" but now moving into full-fledged production."