Tuesday, December 10, 2019
Friday, November 22, 2019
I fear that we will never look upon the likes of STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME again. Remember that this fourth entry in the venerable franchise was a radical departure from what came before it. Where STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE was a bloated attempt to turn Trek into a Kubrickian LSD trip, and WRATH OF KHAN was a submarine picture, and SEARCH FOR SPOCK was a heist movie crossed with a religious epic, THE VOYAGE HOME is, of all things, a gentle comedy.
Curiously, of all the Start Trek feature films, it is the one that most closely resembles the original series. People remember it as "the one with the whales" because the plot centers around a return to the past (ie. the then present, 1986) to retrieve a couple of humpback whales in the hopes that the extinct leviathans can communicate with a probe that is destroying the earth. The time travel plot (and its twin sibling, the "let's go to a planet that resembles an era in Earth's past" plot) was a mainstay of the original series. But so was the comedy episode. Something like "A Piece of the Action," in which Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to a planet that has patterned itself after the gangsterism of 1920s Chicago, combines both the time travel plot and the comedy approach. STAR TREK IV, in some ways, owes more to those kinds of episodes than it does to TREKs 1, 2, and 3.
(This is where I should point out that THE VOYAGE HOME does complete the Genesis Trilogy, that trilogy within the series that begins with the introduction of the Genesis device and the death of Spock in WRATH, follows Spock's resurrection on the Genesis planet in SEARCH, and culminates with the return to Earth in VOYAGE.)
Because THE VOYAGE HOME was the most successful film in the franchise until the 2009 reboot, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the initial decision to make the film a comedy was a potentially disastrous decision. Parts 2 and 3 had blacked-hatted villains, disgusting desert slugs oozing out of people's ears, battles in space, exploding planets. Part 4 features word play and fish-out-of-water (no pun intended) slapstick. It all could have gone so wrong.
(Another aside: it almost all did go wrong. An early idea for the movie featured Eddie Murphy as a whale expert who gets involved with the crew. This version of the story was given very real consideration, and Murphy was briefly attached to the project, before the idea was abandoned and the character was changed to a love interest for Kirk. One can respect Eddie Murphy was as a comedy legend while still suspecting that stunt casting him in a Star Trek movie in 1986 would have been bad for everyone involved.)
Instead, what the filmmakers gave us was a perfect kind of Star Trek episode, one that relies on sharply drawn personalities and witty dialogue for its effects. Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley were always a great comedy team, but here the rest of the cast get to flex their comedy muscles as well.
It's all kind of perfect. Yes, THE WRATH OF KHAN is a pop sci-fi masterpiece and the best of the Trek films. It's the one that will have the longest life. Just recently a theater here in Chicago played KHAN as part of their "Nerdy November" late night movie series. When I saw that (which is what prompted this little blog post), I thought. "That's wrong. If you want to be nerdy, show THE VOYAGE HOME." In a way, it's the most Trek of the Trek movies.
Which brings me back around to my original point. We'll probably never see another Trek movie like this again. It's too big of a risk today. VOYAGE cost 21 million dollars to make. The last reboot film, STAR TREK BEYOND, cost a whopping 186 million. The new films use humor, but the idea of giving an entire installment in the series over to characters, conversation, and laughter (with the requite sci-fi bookends, of course) would never fly today. Today Trek has to, in theory at least, compete with Star Wars installments and Marvel movies. It has to be big. VOYAGE, by contrast, had scope when it needed it, but was mostly content to be intimate.
Even more radical, VOYAGE doesn't have an enemy. Think about that for a moment. There's no violence, just suspense and comedy. One of my bones of contention with the direction that Star Trek has taken since the original cast retired is its slavish devotion to the revenge plot. This is an unfortunate legacy of KHAN. The main driver of the last four (!) Trek films--starting with the series nadir NEMESIS in 2002 and extending through all three of the reboot films--has been the revenge plot. Someone returns from the past to get revenge. One wants to tell the filmmakers, for god's sake stop trying to remake KHAN. Is is beyond tiresome at this point. It's malpractice. One can only hope that Noah Hawley will watch STAR TREK IV again. I don't expect the next Trek film to be a comedy about whales, nor would I want it to be. I'm not asking for another rehash. What I am suggesting is that Star Trek has durable characters and a tradition of being open to risky ideas. Trying boldly going in that direction?
Wednesday, October 23, 2019
Reading about the recent dust up between Martin Scorsese and Marvel fans, I couldn't help but think of Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. It's a film that Scorsese admires and that he showcased in his documentary A PERSONAL JOURNEY THROUGH AMERICAN FILM (1995). It's a finely crafted big budget spectacular. It's also a pretty bad film. What I mean is, no one watches THE TEN COMMANDMENTS today and thinks of it in anything other than genre terms. It's not a serious statement of religious conviction, it's not psychologically rich, and it's not a great work of cinema. Instead, it's the biggest of the biblical epics, the popular movie genre that dominated big screens in the 1950s. And biblical epics were, basically, proto-superhero movies. They have most of the qualities that we associate with superhero movies: square-jawed heroes with fantastic abilities, impressive special effects, romantic subplots, broad action and drama, and characters that fall pretty easily into the categories of good and bad. (About the only thing from the standard superhero tool kit that THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is missing is comedy, because DeMille didn't have a sense of humor.) I suspect Scorsese is probably making allowances for Moses that he won't make for Iron Man because he formed an attachment to the biblical epics as a kid. As a child, he looked past their goofiness and their shallowness because all he saw was their size and spectacle. The symbolism of the Bible writ large on the big screen fired his imagination, and that initial awe and wonder has stayed with him. The same is undoubtedly true of people who love comic book movies. Where they would watch THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and might only see stodgy cheese, they look past many of those same qualities in their beloved comic book movies because they bonded with those stories and characters as children.
Something else that has inspired these reflections is that I rewatched Scorsese's THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST the other day. It's a fascinating film, and part of its fascination is that despite all of its controversy, in its heart it's kind of another cheesy biblical epic. It's dealing with deadly serious theological issues, but, I don't know, every time Harvey Keitel opens his mouth to debate Jewish law, I laugh. When the snake tempts Jesus in the desert with "Look at my breasts. Ooh Jesuuus," I laugh. And pretty much every time Peter Gabriel's very '80s score kicks in, I laugh.
Something that THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and a movie like AVENGERS: ENDGAME have in common is that they both essentially exist to do fan service. (THE TEN COMMANDMENTS was the only movie my fundamentalist grandfather liked, probably because it was designed to give him exactly the version of Moses he expected to see. Most comic book fans love ENDGAME for the same reason.) In this crucial respect, though, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST is different. Scorsese made a film that appealed to a very narrow sliver of the moviegoing public. He made a biblical epic that would antagonize the kind of people who usually like biblical epics, without necessarily attracting many people who don't like biblical epics. Along with Kevin Smith's DOGMA, it belongs in a tiny subgenre we might call Subversive-Catholic fanfic cinema. These are works of supremely idiosyncratic theological obsession.
I don't know if the superhero movie could really lend itself to this kind of treatment. Something like UNBREAKABLE is certainly a rethinking of the superhero movie, but it's not working from well known pre-existing characters. And, no, JOKER doesn't count, either. JOKER is a massive testament to fan service. It gives fans of the character exactly what they want to see (to the tune of about 745 million dollars and counting). Perhaps one day when Iron Man and Joker and all the rest of their superhero/villain brethren slip into the public domain alongside Jesus and Moses, we'll see if something truly challenging could be done with them. That should be interesting.
For now, we're stuck with the world as it is, a world dominated by superhero movies. In a way, I'm okay with that. I like many of these movies, and I suppose that whether they wear capes or togas, superheroes have pretty much always dominated movie screens. Having said that, it's also true that most great cinema addresses itself to the rest of us mere mortals, living our little lives down here below without the benefit of either infinity stones or parting seas.
Tuesday, October 15, 2019
Above: Some handsome son of a bitch.
I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Scott Alderberg over at Criminal Element. We discuss DRY COUNTY, which leads us into questions of religion, politics, and the origins of evil. In other words, fun stuff. Check it out here.
I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Scott Alderberg over at Criminal Element. We discuss DRY COUNTY, which leads us into questions of religion, politics, and the origins of evil. In other words, fun stuff. Check it out here.
Thursday, October 3, 2019
The 1950s were the great heyday of movies about preachers gone bad. Today, I'm over at Criminal Element trying to answer why that is. Check out my piece "Criminal Clergy: Depictions of Religion in 1950s Film Noir" here.
Wednesday, September 11, 2019
My novel DRY COUNTY will hit bookstores on October 1st. That night there will be a book launch at City Lit Books from 6:30-8:30. If you're in Chicago or surrounding environs, I hope you'll come by.
Monday, August 26, 2019
One of the highlights of my moviegoing year--hell, one of the highlights of my year, period--is Noir City Chicago. This is the festival where the Film Noir Foundation rolls into town and sets up shop at the Music Box Theater, showing a selection of classic film noir curated and and presented by Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode. These events are always a blast, and this year looks to be no different. The festival this year focuses on the noirs of the 1950s, and the showings are all double bills. Must-see double bills for me include: IN A LONELY PLACE & THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN, PUSHOVER & PRIVATE HELL 36, and ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW & CRY TOUGH. Check out the rest of the line up at the Music Box's festival webpage.
Thursday, July 25, 2019
Orson Welles's adaptation of Shakespeare's OTHELLO is a film of unusual beauty. Even among the work of a visual master like Welles, it stands out. I don't want to linger on the incredible story of the film's production, which took place on two continents over three years and is a legend in its own right (Welles himself covered this territory in FILMING OTHELLO). Though it's worth noting the frantic, often desperate circumstances that Welles, his cast, and his crew, found themselves in, what matters is what was produced by those trials: this strange and beautiful film.
Before I go further, I need to say that I'm going to be writing here about the 1952 European version of the film rather than the 1955 US/UK version. Both versions were edited by Welles, so both stand as a "director's cut." It's fascinating to compare them, to see two different ideas Welles had for the film. In 1955, Welles redubbed the entire performance of Suzanne Cloutier (as Desdemona) with the voice of actress Gudrun Ure, as well redubbing about half of his own lines. He cut the spoken credits that had begun the film, clipped some dialog, and added some brief bits narration to set up the plot.
For my money, the 1952 version is superior, and not just marginally so. The changes Welles made in 1955 produced a less compelling picture overall. His spoken credits in the '52 version allow for a much smoother transition between the tour de force opening funeral march and the beginning of the story proper. I've always considered the first dialog scene in the '55 version--where Iago and Rodrigo spy on Othello's wedding to Desemona--to be choppy and awkward. And Welles's narration in these opening scenes has always seemed to be an obvious patch, explaining things in the narration to cover over the confusing editing. In the 52 version, by contrast, the opening scenes get to breathe a little, and they play better without the expository, and largely unnecessary, narration. Welles also includes a line from the play that helps set up Iago's hatred of Othello ("It is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets he has done my office") that was cut in the 1955 version.
The larger change, of course, is the redubbing of Othello and Desdemona's dialog. There is, I will admit, a case to be made here for the '55 version. What Welles did in redubbing the dialog was to replace the elegant and meek Cloutier with the more forceful Ure. To match this Desdemona's new strength, he made his readings of Othello's dialog angrier and more macho. Some viewers will prefer this more "passionate" performance of the material.
But I think it worked better in 52. Cloutier's vocal performance of the material better matched her physical portrayal of Desdemona as a sweetly innocent girl. And Welles, in turn, responded to that portrayal by giving us an Othello that was a softer, sadder man driven crazy by jealousy. In '55, she's louder and he growls his lines more, but, in this case, less really was more.
One of the great joys of a Wellesian Shakespeare adaptation is Welles-the-screenwriter's lack of intimidation in the face of such a classic. He takes his scissors to the play and makes it work as a screenplay, clipping lines or rearranging them, sometimes just shaving off a word here and there, other times jettisoning whole speeches. If one wants to savor the Bard's original language, this is not the film to see.
Because what Welles does instead is to interpret the work as a piece of cinema, not just as a recorded performance of a play. Shot by shot, scene by scene, his visual compositions are a delight. Over the course of the production the director worked with five (!) cinematographers, but there can be no doubt that Welles himself was the eye behind the camera. From the opening funeral march, to the attempted assassination of Cassio in the Turkish bath, to the final scenes of Desdemona's murder and Othello's suicide, Welles creates rich, vivid images. Working in certain motifs throughout the film--prison bars and distorted mirrors--he varies angles on shots about as often as he cuts, giving the film a dynamic energy. And speaking of editing, scholars who have done the counting have calculated that OTHELLO has almost 2000 individual cuts, compared to 500 or so for CITIZEN KANE. While the cutting is a direct result of the circumstances Welles was working under, the film is unified by a vision. OTHELLO, after all, is a movie about the center not holding, about love and trust and friendship falling apart in a frenzy. And the movie itself reflects that idea visually.
Coultier is sweetly touching as Desdemona, but Welles is not a great Othello. Although his performance in the '52 version is superior to the '55, either way OTHELLO is a director's picture rather than an actor's picture.( This was true, also, of Welles's MACBETH a few years earlier. His Shakespearean triumph was, of course, FALSTAFF, a film that manages to be both an actor's picture AND a director's picture.) As both Macbeth and Othello, Welles is more declamatory than deeply felt, and his characterizations rarely go beyond a surface level reading of the roles. (Again, compare this to his more lived-in portrayal of Falstaff, the most moving performance he ever gave.)
The one great performance in the film is given by Micheal Mac Liammoir, the legend of the Irish stage who had been a mentor to Welles when the actor was just starting out as a teenager. Mac Liammoir's performance is the one that lingers after the film is over. As Iago, he creates a delicious vision of wily evil, of internalized malice and outward cunning. He seduces everyone else in the film, and even when he's finally caught and imprisoned in a swinging cage to watch Othello's body carried off for burial, his secrets are still his own.
Friday, July 5, 2019
It's an odd thing, writing a book. You work on it in solitude--in private, almost in secret--and then it's published and it belongs to the world. And by "the world" I mean "the people who read it." And then it has a life of its own. And sometimes that life comes to an end.
Back in January 2012, I published my first novel, HELL ON CHURCH STREET. It was a dark-as-sin novel about a corrupt Arkansas youth minster named Geoffrey Webb, a predator and a killer. The publication of the book was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. It was released by a small publisher, but the people who found it and got where it was coming from really loved it. One of my heroes, Jason Starr, called it "An instant classic." The Los Angeles Review of Books gave me a nice write up and compared me to Jim Thompson. I got a lot of nice emails from hardcore noir geeks. It was dope as hell.
Then something beautiful happened that I never could have expected. A French publisher found the book and loved it. He published it, and the book suddenly had a whole other life. It sold exponentially better in French than it ever had in English, and I got to go to France and tour. The book got great reviews there, and I won a big award. The success of HELL ON CHURCH STREET there set me up for even more great things to come: three more books released in French, another big award for my novel NO TOMORROW, and a translation of CHURCH STREET into Italian. I've been to France on five different book tours. This year the biggest French newspaper referred to me as "le grand Jake Hinkson." I just got back from my most recent tour two days ago. I was there for a month. It was an exhaustingly awesome experience. And I trace all of it back to the initial 2012 publication of HELL ON CHURCH STREET. Geoffrey Webb, that evil prick, has been damn good to me.
But Webb's days may have run out on him in America. HELL ON CHURCH STREET has been out of print for a couple of years in English. It's long story, but at present it looks like the book is too stiff of a drink for the American market. Unsympathetic characters and all that.
But listen, this post isn't about why HELL ON CHURCH STREET isn't going to be coming back into print here anytime soon. That's just the way it goes. It's even kind of funny, and almost kind of fitting, in a way. It's as if Geoffrey Webb escaped from his crimes in Arkansas and made his way to Europe, where he's living the good life.
I'm writing this post, in part, because I get regular emails from people who want to know when they'll be able to buy a copy of the book in English. (I got one of those emails yesterday, in fact, which is what prompted me to write this post.) The answer is: I don't know. Maybe never? Or maybe Webb will be back at some point. I really don't know. All I know is, I'm at work on new shit.
And that brings me back to my initial thought at the start of this post. Writing a book is an odd thing. I just released a new book, DRY COUNTY, in France, and it will be out here in the US in October. (Check it out here!) It's the best thing I've ever written, and I'm excited to see it released by a great publisher here.
And now, of course, I'm working on something new. Spent the morning writing on it. And I'm in love with it. I can't wait for it to come out one day.
So I guess I've moved on from HELL ON CHURCH STREET. What began as a story I was telling myself in solitude became a novel that took me further than I could have imagined. I can only be happy and grateful for that.
Thanks so much, Geoffrey. Or, as I guess y'all say over there, Merci beaucoup.
Wednesday, June 19, 2019
For the past two weeks, I've been on the road in France for the Gallmeister release of my novel AU NOM DU BIEN (DRY COUNTY). We were at the Goeland Masque festival in Penmarc'h, the paperback festival Saint-Maur en Poche, and we've done bookstore events in Vaucresson, Orleans, Bayeux, Rambouillet. I'm exhausted but happy. Now I've got a few days off, and we'll wrap up the tour in Festival International du Roman Noir in Frontignan June 28-30.
It's been a blast so far. Great crowds and a lot of enthusiasm for the new book. Mercu beaucoup to everyone who's come out to see me.
It's been a blast so far. Great crowds and a lot of enthusiasm for the new book. Mercu beaucoup to everyone who's come out to see me.
Tuesday, May 7, 2019
I think FILMING OTHELLO might be the greatest Orson Welles movie. Now, by that, I don't mean that it's the greatest movie made by Orson Welles. I mean that although the film purports to be about the making of Welles's 1952 adaptation of Shakespeare's OTHELLO, its true subject is Welles himself. It is a fascinating document of the man.
The film is one of the director's "essays," the most well known of which is the late masterpiece F IS FOR FAKE (1973), a meditation on art and authenticity. That film pursues a complex theme and arrives at a thesis (what one might call an anti-auteur theory of art). FILMING OTHELLO by contrast not only doesn't arrive at any conclusions, it doesn't really pursue a theme. (Welles himself acknowledges this late in the film, essentially saying that he didn't know where to focus.) We get some making-of stories told in the great raconteur style by Welles, some re-edited footage of OTHELLO itself (without the sound!), excerpts of a dinner conversation with two of his costars in the film (as well as his old mentors) Hilton Edwards and Micheal Mac Liammoir, footage from a Q&A with college students, and a couple of scenes of Welles sitting at his editing machine quoting speeches from the play.
Curiously, as a document about the filming of OTHELLO, FILMING OTHELLO is light on details and pointedly subjective in its perspective. It's a bit all over the place, not unlike OTHELLO itself. One can assume that this was intentional while also noting that it doesn't quite work. The scenes of Welles sitting and talking to the camera are entertaining, but they meander. Welles doesn't really articulate a reason for FILMING OTHELLO to exist. Why discuss this film, as opposed to any of his other films? More telling still is the odd fact that Welles--a lifelong student of Shakespeare and one of the bard's greatest 20th Century interpreters--doesn't really articulate a theory of the greatness of OTHELLO itself. Sure he sings the praises of the play, but he offers few insights into how and why it's great.
The dinner with Edwards and Mac Liammoir is more entertaining than insightful (I would gladly watch hours of Micheal Mac Liammoir talking about anything...and for that matter I'd watch hours of him just listening to someone else talk, his eyes expanding like a peacock spreading his feathers every time someone says something he finds absurd). Though it must be said that the dinner scene does inadvertently offer one real insight because it displays just how binary Welles and his companions could be in their thinking about things like race and, especially, gender. Noting this about the film isn't a criticism of the film. This is a documentary, after all, and it documents three aging men (Welles, about 60 at the time, was the youngest) in the mid-1970s casually beginning their sentences with things like "A woman would never..."
The dinner scene is also rather distracting because Welles has inserted new shots of himself asking questions and responding to comments from the other two men. I feel certain that some scholar out there has probably advanced the theory that this disjointed doesn't-quite-fit quality is some kind of meta-commentary by Welles on the disjointed making of OTHELLO itself. While I doubt that, and while it feels exactly like the kind of theory that Welles himself would mock, we should say that if Welles wanted the pieces of the dinner scene to fit together awkwardly then he succeeded to no apparent end.
The sequence with Welles talking to students is likewise entertaining, though it's probably worth noting how quickly the conversation moves on to something else (the making of MACBETH) without connecting back to the subject at hand. When one considers that this film is 84 minutes long and that the project came about when Welles was asked to record an introduction to OTHELLO for German television, FILMING OTHELLO takes on the hue of something that was fleshed out from a sketch and never found its proper form as a film. If you've read many interviews with Welles, this probably isn't surprising. As he made clear many times, he really didn't like talking about his work. As a result, FILMING OTHELLO ultimately doesn't have much to say about it either.
I realize that much of what I've written so far has been critical of the film, which is odd considering that I said it might be the greatest Orson Welles film. But here's what I meant by that: because it lacks a true thesis about OTHELLO, this film keeps falling back on Welles himself as its defacto subject. The opening monologue of the film--with the director introducing the proceedings, singing Shakespeare's praises, claiming modesty in the shadow of that Great Man, and telling a couple of background stories--is vintage Orson Welles. Charming and witty, erudite and playful, it's Welles as showman, inviting us into the tent to see how the magic is made. These scenes (shot by Welles's longtime cinematographer Gary Graver in the mid seventies) capture a late-career Orson Welles in all his diminished glory and undiminished power.
Toward the end, Welles delivers a couple of passages from OTHELLO while sitting at his editing machine. Again, there's no theory here. He doesn't deliver these speeches to illustrate a particular point about the character of Othello or the play or even his film (and since the scenes from the earlier film are shown without sound, these speeches are the only Shakespearean language that we get in the film). He just rather randomly starts reciting some lines. So why are they here? I think they're here because Welles wanted to record himself saying them. He's showing off. And he's great! It's impossible not to see the almost childlike joy the actor takes in sinking his teeth into that language. But the language itself isn't the point. Neither is Shakespeare. No, the point is Welles himself and the joy he takes in being an actor and filmmaker and raconteur. This would be the final film he would release in his lifetime, so it's fitting that it ends with him sitting at his editing machine in the dark, puffing on a cigar.
As an essay about the movie OTHELLO, FILMING OTHELLO is intermittently interesting. As a unintentional portrait of Orson Welles at the end of his career, it's fascinating.
Sunday, April 28, 2019
The Cinema 150 was the biggest movie theater in Arkansas, a massive domed building with a single screen that was curved at a 150 degree angle. It was built in the late sixties and hosted the world premiere of John Wayne's Oscar-winning Western TRUE GRIT. I was born in Little Rock in 1975, and the first film I saw at the 150 was THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in 1980. I screamed when they froze Han Solo, and my mother had to carry me out of the theater to hastily explain the Empire's cryogenic technology. This theater, this domed fantasy land with its gigantic portal into other worlds and other lives, still haunts my dreams. It was the high church of my cinematic obsession.
Sadly, tragically, it's gone now. It had a long slow death that went hand-in-hand with the economic decline of that particular corner of Little Rock, the corner of Asher and University. I used to know that corner like I knew my own body. I went to school nearby at the University of Little Rock, and I regularly went to the movies at the 150. When we were kids, my father took my older brother and I to see THE DEAD POOL, the last Dirty Harry film, there. I saw Star Wars movies and Star Trek movies and Mel Gibson action vehicles and even the odd art film there (when I saw THE THIN RED LINE I was virtually alone in the empty theater). When I got old enough, I went on dates there, holding hands and falling in love.
Oddly, my most profound memory of the 150 is when I went to see David Fincher's THE GAME by myself on a warm summer day in 1997. I've largely forgotten the film, though I know I liked it at the time. What I remember so clearly about that day was the theater itself, the air conditioning and the darkness, the dome high overhead, the whispers of the handful of other people sitting around me waiting for the movie to begin. In those days, there were no pre-show commercials, no loud Coke ads or pitches for lame-looking television shows. There were just people sitting quietly in the dark, waiting for the show to begin.
Here's a link to a beautiful piece about the destruction of the 150 by the writer Kat Robertson. Her details (like the Wendy's next door with the newspaper tabletops) are vivid reminders for me and trigger one of my favorite memories of the 150. My best friend once snuck a Wendy's mesquite cheeseburger into a showing of STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT, and when he unwrapped the burger in the dark and its rich aroma filled the theater, the whole crowd laughed.
Sunday, April 14, 2019
Chicago's Music Box Theater kicked off a new series today, I Wouldn't Stop Loving You: The Films of Bogie & Bacall, with a showing of the pair's first film, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. As it happens, a sudden snow storm pounded Chicago this morning, but it didn't stop a large and enthusiastic crowd from showing up to this first screening. It was a joyous experience, with the crowd laughing and applauding the movie, a recognition that few films have held up better than this one, one of cinema's true masterpieces. In coming weeks, the Music Box will show THE BIG SLEEP, DARK PASSAGE, and KEY LARGO. It's a short but impressive list. Of those films, I'd rank two A+ (TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BIG SLEEP), one A- (DARK PASSAGE), and one B+ (KEY LARGO). Some might quibble with here or there with my rankings, but I'm unlikely to encounter much resistance to the idea that these four films comprise one of the greatest of all movie star pairings.
I wrote about each of these four films back in 2014, after the death of Lauren Bacall. I'll link to my piece on TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, a movie I've loved since I was a teenager, and that I treasure more every time I see it.
Wednesday, April 3, 2019
The other day, I bought the Criterion Collection's new Blu-Ray of DETOUR. It's a divine object. Beautiful packaged, it is a glorious restoration (the same 4k restoration I saw last year in theaters) supported by a bounty of enticing extras--a documentary on director Edgar G. Ulmer, an interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg, an insightful essay by the critic and Jim Thompson biographer Robert Polito, and more.
One aspect of this package that I find interesting, however, is the repeated insinuation in some of the extras that DETOUR's doomed protagonist Al Roberts is a liar and a murderer. In his essay, Polito writes that DETOUR is a "progression of increasingly awful and improbable flashbacks" and calls Roberts' tale of fate and misfortune "steadily more suspect." In his interview, Isenberg makes similar comments, offhandedly implying that DETOUR is essentially the bullshit alibi of a killer.
The theory that Roberts is lying to the audience in his voiceover narration has been around for a while. I think Andrew Britton was the first critic I can remember floating this theory, though it may well predate him. In his 1998 review of the film, Roger Ebert cited Britton directly and fully embraced the theory.
I find this theory intriguing. I also find it wrong.
There's nothing in the text of the film to suggest that Roberts is anything other than a doomed man lamenting his fate. We never catch him in a lie. His tale is outlandish, sure, but that puts it on par with roughly one hundred percent of the film noir canon. Hell, most noirs start at outlandish and go from there.
I suppose my bigger problem with the unreliable narrator theory is that it undercuts what the film itself is telling us it means. DETOUR is the greatest statement of predestination in all of film noir. It ends with Roberts intoning the line, "Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all." As it is, this is one of the greatest lines in all of noir, but if Roberts has been lying to us about the deaths of Charles Haskell and/or Vera -- if he is not a victim of fate, but rather a victim of weakness and his own low character -- then this line totally misrepresents the entire story we've just watched.
Moreover, the unreliable narrator theory of DETOUR undercuts what, for me, is the film's defining characteristic: its wholehearted embrace of nihilistic doom. The message that Al Roberts gives us is shocking -- maybe too shocking for some viewers to bear. He's telling us that we're fucked. Whichever way we go, he says, fate will stick out its foot to trip us. Embracing the unreliable narrator, however, means assigning a moral judgement to his fate. Like Job's fickle friends, purveyors of this theory seem to be saying, "You must have done SOMETHING to upset God."
Maybe that's easier. Maybe DETOUR, undiluted with academic theory, is just too strong a shot of nihilistic despair. And, hey, I don't begrudge anyone the comfort of their theories. Life's hard. I get it. But I'll take my DETOUR straight up, no chaser.
Monday, March 11, 2019
The French edition of DRY COUNTY, titled AU NOM DU BIEN (or "In the Name of Good") will be released May 2nd. The French get it before the Americans (vive la France!). I'll be heading back to France this summer to do some festivals and signings. More to come...
Saturday, March 2, 2019
I am thrilled to announce that this October, Pegasus Books will release my novel DRY COUNTY. I've been working on this book for years now, and I could not be more excited to finally get to share with you.
To read more about the DRY COUNTY, click here.
Tuesday, February 26, 2019
I guess Max Ophüls was just too big for film noir. He was the premier artist of lushly romantic period pieces (LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, MADAME DE…, LOLA MONTES), and those are the films for which he is remembered today. Many people don’t even realize that in 1949 he made two film noirs back to back, nor do they realize that these two films represent exactly half of his American output. Wedged between LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN in 1948 and LA RONDE in 1950, these two B-movies have been largely overlooked by critics in favor of Ophüls’ more celebrated work.
The irony of this neglect is that THE RECKLESS MOMENT and CAUGHT are both brilliant film noirs. Each feature his celebrated mise-en-scène and camera work, and each feature strong female protagonists. Of the two films, THE RECKLESS MOMENT is tighter and more controlled, but CAUGHT darker and deeper.
It tells the story of a poor young woman named Leonora (Barbara Bel Geddes). Her big dream is to meet Mr. Right, preferably a rich Mr. Right. She takes modeling and charm school lessons, and then one day she lucks out when the slimy personal assistant to a millionaire sees her modeling fur coats at a department store and invites her to a yacht party. Leonora is so turned off by the creepy little assistant’s insinuating manner—he essentially treats her like a self-deluded prostitute—she almost doesn’t go to the party. At her roommate’s prodding she changes her mind, but it’s unclear exactly why she changes her mind. Leonora is funny that way. She doesn’t want to be treated like a prostitute, but she does want to get on that boat and maybe catch herself a millionaire.
She never makes it to the boat, though, because she runs into the millionaire on the docks, and he invites her along for a ride in his convertible. His name is Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), and he is a hulking mass of money and nerves. He doesn’t so much sweep Leonora off her feet as much as he makes a snap decision to buy her. In no time at all, they’re married and completely miserable. Smith seems to detest Leonora for merely existing, convinced that she only married him for his money. Leonora professes her love for him, but the fact is, she did marry him for his money. However, when Smith humiliates her in front of his drinking buddies one night, Leonora leaves him and gets a job as a receptionist for a pediatrician named Larry Quinada (James Mason). She and the good doctor soon fall in love, but Smith starts poking around, threatening to make trouble for both of them. Then Leonora discovers she’s pregnant with Smith’s child.
I have to tread carefully over plot details here because part of the power of the last act of CAUGHT is its surprising attitude toward this pregnancy. The audience isn’t happy that Leonora is pregnant with Smith’s child, and neither is she. Smith is happy because it gives him a way to “break” Lenora. He tells her that if she doesn’t come back to him, he’ll take the child away from her in court. Smith (who was reportedly modeled after Howard Hughes) is one sick bastard of a man. Why does he want Leonora back? Because she doesn’t want to come back. He just wants to break her. CAUGHT finds a way to resolve this showdown, but the last few minutes of the movie are shocking. In today’s Hollywood, a movie studio would never allow a film to have such an ending. I can’t image what people must have thought in 1949.
The film was based on a novel by Libbie Block, with a screenplay by Arthur Laurents. There was much tinkering on the film—especially the ending—by the studio and the censors, but the film that emerged is a fascinating piece of work. Ophüls was known as a “woman’s director,” but a better way to phrase, really, would be that he was one of the first feminist directors. Leonora’s quest to find a husband is a set up for her brutal awakening. What does she want? Why does she want it? She will have to confront her own underlying assumptions about marriage and motherhood before the movie is over.
Ophüls’s direction is superb. Here was a director. His camera glides back and forth throughout the film but never simply for the sake of being flashy. Look at the scene of Leonora and Quinada out on their date, jostled on the dance floor, deciding that maybe they’re in love, and notice how the camera finds them at all the right times. Or look at the scene of Quinada and his partner at the doctor’s office after Leonora has run off, the camera swooping back and forth from each man as they talk, Leonora’s empty desk between them highlighting the power of her absence.
For all its virtues, the film does have flaws. The last two or three minutes feel awfully rushed—as evidenced by a clumsily inserted shot of Bel Geddes that looks like it’s from a completely different film stock. And I can’t help but think that an opportunity was missed in the casting. Robert Ryan played a psycho better than anyone, but it might have interesting to see Mason tackle the role of Smith Ohlrig. I mean, James Mason just looks and sounds like a guy named Smith Ohlrig. He does a serviceable job as Quinada, but Ryan could have brought more warmth to that role.
As Leonora, however, Barbara Bel Geddes is simply wonderful. An accomplished stage actress, Bel Geddes never made the big splash in the movies that she should have. Today she’s mostly remembered for her television role as the mother on DALLAS, but for movie fans she’ll always be Jimmy Stewart’s lovelorn friend Midge in Hitchcock’s VERTIGO. She also appeared in a few noirs (PANIC IN THE STREETS, FOURTEEN HOURS), as well as Robert Wise’s terrific noirish western BLOOD ON THE MOON. With her tomboy spunk and palpable intelligence, Bel Geddes is a welcome addition to any movie, and she positively anchors CAUGHT. Leonora could be played at two different extremes, either as coy or as self-pitying. Instead, Bel Geddes makes her a woman wrestling with her own sense of self. Her choice between Smith and Quinada isn’t simply a choice between two men or even two ways of life. It’s a choice between two Leonoras.
Note: I originally posted this back in 2009, but I'm reposting it here because CAUGHT will be showing at Doc Films this Friday at 7:30 and Sunday at 1:30. The film is part of the Women's Picture Noir programmed by Kathleen Geier. For more details click here.
Sunday, January 27, 2019
The University of Chicago's Doc Films, the oldest student-run film society in America, is doing a series this semester on the "Women's Picture Noir." Programmed by Kathleen Geier, they're showing an impressive run of films. Today, I got to see the new restoration of John Auer's I, JANE DOE, and it's fantastic.
I'm pretty busy these days, so I don't have time to sit down a write a full piece on the film, but I did want to record a few thoughts.
First off, the restoration of the film is beautiful. The format I saw the movie in was DCP, and while I don't know the status of the film's negative, I can report that the restoration gleams and shimmers.
Of course, the restoration wouldn't mean much if the film itself didn't bring the goods, and I, JANE DOE is a noir buff's delight. John Auer isn't a director who has gotten a lot of love from critics, but noir geeks are well advised to seek out his work in the genre. He was a contract man at Republic studios, although he was just about the only director on the lot who didn't make westerns. Instead, the Hungarian-born director focused on musicals, war films, and crime flicks. His work in noir is notable for atmosphere and tension. He wasn't one to expend a lot of energy forcing a silly script to make sense (JANE DOE'S plot is pretty screwy), but his films--from the Hawaii-set HELL's HALF ACRE to the ode-to-Chicago THE CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS--are always beautifully composed and plenty of fun.
I, JANE DOE is certainly good fun. It follows a twisty plot about a French immigrant (Vera Ralston) who is put on trial for gunning down her married American lover. She refuses to give her real name and is tried as "Jane Doe." She's convicted of murder, but then her dead lover's wife (Ruth Hussey)--who is, as luck would have it, a successful defense lawyer--decides that there is more to the murder than she first suspected and takes Jane Doe's case.
For this movie to work for you, you have to know yourself. Either you can ride out the zigs and zags of a truly ludicrous plot or you can't. If you can, though, what you'll find is a film rich with noir style. With cinematographer Reggie Lanning (who also worked with the director on 1947's THE FLAME) Auer gives the picture plenty of visual zing. From the opening shot that puts us at a odd low angle as we follow Jane Doe on her way to the murder, we know we're in good hands.
Beyond the style, you'll find an uncommonly feminist take on the 40s courtroom thriller, a film that privileges the perspective of women and develops that perspective with sensitive performances by everyone involved. Like most of the films that Doc Films is showing in its series, I, JANE DOE is a domestic thriller. In the noir melodramas of the 40s, which largely dealt with the lives of women, the sphere of action tends to be the domestic space. That's true, in part, of JANE DOE, but the film also plays with it a bit by giving us a female protagonist who is a lawyer. (Her firm seems to be exclusively run by women, in fact.) Like many "women's picture noirs" the film also flips the whole femme fatale trope on its head. It might look like Jane Doe is another dangerous woman, but the film, like Ruth Hussey's crusading lawyer, knows the truth is more complicated.