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CIFF 2014: 12 Most Wanted

Here are a dozen of the titles I’d most like to see turn up at the 50th(!) Chicago International Film Festival in October. Even if you don’t know or care anything about the Chicago International Film Festival, consider this a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-looking-and-sounding movies that should hopefully be turning up soon at a theater near you. All but the Alain Resnais and the Pedro Costa films played this past May at Cannes, which struck me as having an unusually strong lineup, or at least an unusually strong lineup of movies by directors I admire.

Bird People (Pascale Ferran, France)

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One of my favorite French films of the 21st century is the adaptation of the second (and more obscure) version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley made by Pascale Ferran, a female director about whom I know virtually nothing. Her latest, Bird People, got high marks from critics when it screened in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes. It’s an intriguing-sounding comedy about an American businessman (The Good Wife’s Josh Charles) on a 24-hour layover in Paris. The entire film apparently takes place in Charles de Gaulle airport and a nearby Hilton Hotel. This is not a prequel to Takashi Miike’s excellent Bird People in China.

Charlie’s Country (Rolf De Heer, Australia)

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This is the third part of a trilogy of films by Dutch-born Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer. The first two parts include a folkloric meditation on Aboriginal characters in Australia’s pre-colonial past (Twelve Canoes) and a powerful study of the conflict between European settlers and Aboriginal characters in the outback during the early 20th century (The Tracker). Charlie’s Country, like its predecessors, also stars David Gulpilil (who co-wrote the script and won the best actor award in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes), but tackles issues of racism and the legacy of colonialism from the vantage point of the present.

Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France/USA)

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An aging actress (Juliette Binoche) performs in a play that made her a star 20 years previously — only in a part supporting that of the main character who is now incarnated by an up-and-coming actress (Chloe Grace Moretz) reminiscent of her younger self. This sounds an awful lot like All About Eve to me but early critical notices have compared this to meta films like Persona. Writer/director Olivier Assayas has always been good with actors and in addition to the exciting prospect of seeing him reteam with Binoche (after the sublime Summer Hours), this also promises to be something of a breakthrough for Kristen Stewart, who plays a personal assistant to Binoche’s character.

Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland/France)

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The single movie I most want to see play at CIFF is Jean-Luc Godard’s latest (and, some have whispered, last) feature — a 3-D essay that has something to do with a talking dog and the conflict between a married couple. Goodbye to Language was given a rock-star’s welcome at Cannes — in spite of the fact that the 83-year-old director didn’t attend — and generated more positive reviews than usual (many of which marveled at Godard’s use of 3-D technology) for one of the world’s most divisive filmmakers. Still, in spite of the praise, in spite of the Cannes Jury Prize, in spite of the fact that 20th Century friggin’ Fox picked up distribution rights, the question arises: will Chicagoans ever have the chance to see this in 3-D, the way it was intended to be seen? None of the Chicago venues that have screened Godard’s latest works in the past 20 years (Facets, the Music Box, the Siskel Center, etc.) are equipped to show movies in 3-D. If CIFF doesn’t scoop this up, it will be a tragedy for local cinephiles.

Horse Money (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

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The great Portuguese director Pedro Costa returns to narrative filmmaking (or at least docu-fiction) for the first time in nearly a decade with this continuation of his celebrated Fontainhas trilogy (are you ready to upgrade that box-set, Criterion — preferably to Blu-ray?). This film, which recently snagged Costa the Best Director prize at the Locarno Film Festival, has something to do with Ventura, the elderly Cape Verdean-immigrant protagonist of Costa’s Colossal Youth from 2006, wandering around a hospital and the ruins of the former slum where he used to live (the destruction of which was documented in 2000’s superb In Vanda’s Room). In Colossal Youth, Ventura was a non-actor essentially playing himself but part of what made that film so fascinating was Costa’s insistence on lighting and framing his physiognomy so that he resembled Woody Strode in John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge. I can’t wait to see what Costa does with actor and character here. Intriguingly, Variety said this was “less overtly difficult” and even more “striking” than Costa’s other Fontainhas missives.

Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina)

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Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso burst onto the international scene with his formidable 2004 experimental/narrative hybrid film Los Muertos. His penchant for long takes, minimal dialogue and narrative ambiguity made his work destined for the condescending “slow cinema” tag. Yet the fact that his latest stars Viggo Mortensen (a fine actor and a bona fide movie star) also caused some speculation that the result might be some sort of sell-out. Fortunately, advance word from Cannes has pegged this movie — about a father and daughter journeying to an “unknown desert that exists in a realm beyond the confines of civilization” as nothing other than a typically spellbinding Lisandro Alonso film.

Life of Riley (Alain Resnais, France)

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Alain Resnais’s final film, another in a series of Alan Ayckbourn adaptations, racked up accolades and a couple of prizes when it premiered in Berlin in February. Less than a month later, its creator — one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers — had passed away at the age of 91. Since this theater-set tale is centered on a protagonist who only has a few months left to live, it will be hard not to view it as something like a last testament, although one should remember that this would have been true of many of Resnais’s films (including such death-haunted masterworks as Love Unto Death and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet). This stars the inevitable Sabine Azema, Resnais’s frizzy-haired wife and muse, who has been his regular leading lady for decades.

Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, Canada/USA)

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Like all “late Cronenberg,” Maps to the Stars has typically divided critics, but it has its share of ardent supporters, and the premise (a dark satire of a stereotypical Hollywood family that also marks the first time the director ever set down a tripod on U.S. soil) is irresistible. The impressive cast includes Robert Pattinson, Carrie Fisher, John Cusack, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams and Julianne Moore, the last of whom nabbed the Best Actress trophy at Cannes for playing an unhinged actress. If this turns up at CIFF, it will likely only be as a “special gala presentation.”

Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, UK)

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Mike Leigh is England’s greatest living filmmaker and Mr. Turner, his first film since 2010’s superb Another Year, sounds like another winner. A dream project of Leigh’s for many years, this biopic of 19th English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) supposedly investigates the artistic process against a richly detailed historical backdrop in a manner similar to Topsy-Turvy, one of the director’s masterpieces. Spall won Best Actor at Cannes for what has been described as a towering performance. He’s always been a superb character actor and I look forward to seeing what he can do in a leading role.

Mommy (Xavier Dolan, Canada)

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A lot of commentators thought this Canadian melodrama had the Palm d’Or sewn up after it premiered at Cannes but, come awards night, writer/director Xavier Dolan found himself “only” sharing third place with Jean-Luc Godard. That’s probably for the best because, at 25-years-old, Dolan’s best work surely lies ahead of him. Dolan makes stylistically and emotionally brash films that have earned him comparisons to everyone from Godard to Pedro Almodovar to Wong Kar-Wai. Many feel that this character study, which focuses on a single mother, her delinquent teenage son and a mousy neighbor, is Dolan’s most assured work to date. As an admirer of the director’s first three films, that makes me eager to check this out.

Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali)

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Bamako, Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s previous film, was a complex, heady, experimental, and all-around disturbing indictment of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. This belated follow-up, about jihadists taking over a rural town in norther Mali, didn’t win any awards when it debuted at Cannes but was considered by some to be the very best film in the Official Competition. The Variety review called it “a stunningly shot condemnation of intolerance and its annihilation of diversity, told in a way that clearly denounces without resorting to cardboard perpetrators.” Given the singular brand of political filmmaking on display in Bamako, this sounds, at the very least, like a provocative ride.

Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)

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As someone who admired each of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s four previous features but felt that he really made a quantum leap with the last one (2011’s masterful Once Upon a Time in Anatolia), I couldn’t be more excited about this three-hour-plus, Palm d’Or-snatching follow-up. The plot concerns an actor-turned-hotel owner and his tempestuous relationships with his young wife and recently divorced sister. Expect a slow pace, impeccable cinematography (a former photographer, Ceylan has arguably the best compositional eye in contemporary cinema) and lots and lots of psychodrama.

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Boyhood (Linklater)
2. Champagne (Hitchcock)
3. Out of the Past (Tourneur)
4. Four Lovers (Cordier)
5. Deep in the Woods (Jacquot)
6. Venus in Fur (Polanski)
7. Manakamana (Spray/Velez)
8. It Felt Like Love (Hittman)
9. Jealousy (Garrell)
10. Melo (Resnais)


Odds and Ends: A Summer’s Tale and Life Itself

A Summer’s Tale (Rohmer, France, 1996) – Theatrical Viewing / Rating: 7.9

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In much the same way that the Humphrey Bogart-vehicle Dead Reckoning can be seen as the quintessential film noir — by being a virtual checklist of the genre’s conventions — in spite of the fact that it’s not very good, so too can A Summer’s Tale be deemed the “ultimate Eric Rohmer movie” in spite of falling far short of the master’s best work. All of the key Rohmer ingredients are here (which might be part of the problem): familiar from La Collectionneuse, Pauline at the Beach and The Green Ray are the beach locale during summertime, from all of the Moral Tales is the dilemma of a young man (Melvil Poupaud) torn between multiple — and vastly different — women, and from countless other Rohmer films is an academic protagonist (this time a mathematician and musician studying “sea shanties”) sidetracked by l’amour fou. Poupaud, half-way between being the child actor discovered by Raul Ruiz and the mature adult performer in movies by Arnaud Desplechin, Xavier Dolan and others, is appealing, but Amanda Langlet steals the show as his ambiguous love interest/friend Margot. The theme of thwarted desire is as keen and amusing as ever but those familiar with Rohmer’s oeuvre will know he’s done this kind of thing much better before. Even within the “Tales of the Four Seasons,” the late film cycle to which it belongs, this isn’t within hailing distance of such masterworks as A Tale of Winter or An Autumn Tale (though it’s infinitely preferably to the dull A Tale of Springtime). Still, diehard Rohmer fans will want to seek out A Summer’s Tale: it never got a proper theatrical release in the U.S. until now and this new HD restoration renders Rohmer’s photography of the Dinard locations as sunny and as appealing as one could hope for.

Life Itself (Steve James, USA, 2014) – On Demand / Rating: 7.0

Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel

I recently and belatedly caught up, via “video on demand,” to Life Itself, Steve James’s much-lauded bio-doc/adaptation of Roger Ebert’s much-lauded memoir of the same title. While I found much to admire within it (I have too much respect for both Ebert and James not to), I also was not as impressed as I hoped I would be. Life Itself feels almost like two separate documentaries (one about Ebert’s life, the other about his death) that have been mashed together but that never quite cohere into a completely satisfying whole. The film about Ebert’s death is the better of the two: scenes of his final months, with his loving wife Chaz beside him in the hospital, in rehab and at home, while occasionally painful to watch, are the heart of the movie and really reveal director James’s humane and guiding hand. The poignancy of these scenes, which underscore the theme of “dying with dignity,” are where one feels the deepest connection between filmmaker and subject. The rest of Life Itself — consisting of talking-head interviews, archival clips from old episodes of Siskel and Ebert, an Ebert sound-alike narrating from the great critic’s memoir, etc. — is more anonymous and feels like standard made-for-PBS fodder; as enjoyable as much of that stuff is, it never feels like more than an unnecessary reduction of an already fine book. Life Itself begins with Ebert’s now-famous quote about cinema being an empathy-generating machine. While the two hours that follow generate more than their fair share of empathy, and are therefore well worth seeing, prospective viewers also shouldn’t be expecting another Hoop Dreams.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. “I’m Almost Not Crazy…” (Ventura)
2. Love Streams (Cassavetes)
3. Oculus (Flanagan)
4. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Lynch)
5. The World of Jacques Demy (Varda)
6. A Room in Town (Demy)
7. Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (Rappaport)
8. Nailbiter (Rea)
9. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (Nelson)
10. Maniac (Khalfoun)


Celluloid Flashback: Dance, Girl, Dance

The following is a transcript of a lecture I gave about Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance as part of Facets Multimedia’s Night School series “Heroine Addicts” in 2011.

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Hello, my name is Michael Smith and I am a “heroine addict.” It is my great pleasure to present to you tonight Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance. When Facets asked me if I was interested in selecting a movie to show for this particular series — with the only stipulation being that it had to be centered on a female protagonist — Dance, Girl, Dance was the first film that came to mind. I think this is an extremely interesting movie for a number of reasons. First of all, it came out in 1940 when the Hollywood studio system was at its peak. Yet, unlike a lot of other classic films from the “golden age of Hollywood,” no critical consensus has solidified around it attesting to its ultimate worth. This is a movie that a lot of critics and historians love while, at the same time, a lot of others do not. For instance, when Dance, Girl, Dance received its belated DVD premiere in 2007, the New York Times DVD critic Dave Kehr (a very knowledgeable historian who usually knows what he’s talking about) stated very bluntly in his review: “It isn’t very good.” However, the very same year that Kehr wrote this, Dance, Girl, Dance was also one of the 25 films chosen for preservation by the Library of Congress for its “historical, cultural or aesthetic significance.”

I think that one of the primary reasons why Dance, Girl, Dance remains divisive today is that instead of appealing to a broad general audience the way that classic movies by, say, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford or Howard Hawks do, Arzner’s film is more likely to appeal instead to different subcultures, each of which appreciates it for vastly different reasons. For instance, in the 1970s, Dance, Girl, Dance was rediscovered by the first wave of feminist film critics in America. They singled out this particular movie as as her masterpiece because it was the one that seemed to function most explicitly as a feminist text. I’ll talk more about what that means in a moment. However, these same feminist critics either ignored or downplayed the fact that Dorothy Arzner was a lesbian. So, in the 1990s when “queer theory” became popular in academic circles, Arzner’s films were reinterpreted as being critical of heterosexual relationships as opposed to just being critical of gender inequality as they had been in the 1970s. In 2007, when the movie came out on DVD for the first time, it was released as part of a five-disc DVD box set of films starring Lucille Ball. So the company that put out the DVD was essentially marketing it squarely towards fans of the T.V. show I Love Lucy and saying, “Here’s your chance to see Lucy in a rare starring role in a motion picture.”

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If you don’t care anything about feminist or queer film theory, however, and if you don’t care about I Love Lucy, I bet you guys are still going to love this movie for being an outrageously entertaining melodrama that features great dance numbers, juicy performances and a climactic cat fight between the female leads that is absolutely irresistible. In this film, you are going to see two ballet dancers who start off as friends but eventually become bitter rivals — 70 years before Black Swan, mind you! The main character is potrayed by Maureen O’Hara (in one of her earliest movie roles), and she plays the innocent ingenue type. Lucille Ball is her rival —  a ballet dancer who ends up becoming a burlesque dancer because, of course, that’s where the money is. Ball’s character is also older and more of a vamp and a mantrap than O’Hara’s character is. In fact, all you really need to know about these two women can be ascertained from their names: Maureen O’Hara’s character is named Judy O’Brien, Lucille Ball’s character is named “Bubbles.”

Dance, Girl, Dance also has a very interesting pedigree. Like a lot of great Hollywood films from this era, there was a bizarre confluence of talented people who came together to make it happen: the screenplay was based on a story by Vicki Baum who wrote Grand Hotel. It was produced at RKO Pictures by none other than Erich Pommer — the great German producer who got his start in the silent era producing such classic Expressionist movies as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis. (Like a lot of people who worked in the German film industry at that time, Pommer ended up immigrating to the U.S. in the 1930s to escape the rise of Nazism.) The cast of the movie is also great. Ball and O’Hara would, of course, go on to greater success: Ball would have her legendary career in television, and O’Hara would become John Ford’s favorite leading lady. In 1941, the year after Dance, Girl, Dance was released, Ford cast her in How Green Was My Valley and he would use her repeatedly over the next 16 years as his ideal representation of Irish femininity in films like Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Long Gray Line and The Wings of Eagles. The men who play the romantic interests here are very good too. They are Louis Hayward, the suave British actor best known for playing “The Saint” in a series of spy movies from the 1930s, and Ralph Bellamy, who is probably best remembered for playing losers in screwball comedies like The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday. Fortunately, Bellamy didn’t always lose the girl (as you will see tonight).

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Finally, I’d like to say a few words about Dorothy Arzner, who I think was a great director. She was the first woman to direct a talkie and she was the first woman to join the Director’s Guild of America. She was not, however, merely a pioneering female director, she was a pioneer period: Arzner invented, for instance, the “boom microphone” when she was directing an early Clara Bow talkie entitled The Wild Party in 1929. Arzner wanted Bow to be able to move freely about the set while delivering her lines instead of having to stand in one place. So Arzner had her sound crew attach a microphone to a fishing pole so that they could follow Bow around with the mic dangling over her head. I think the most remarkable thing about Arzner’s work though is just how she was able to stamp her distinctive personality onto her films — because there is a pronounced stylistic and thematic continuity between them. Her movies very explicitly examine the role of women in society, a quality that is apparent even in their titles: The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, Working Girls, Craig’s Wife, The Bride Wore Red and, of course, Dance, Girl, Dance. These films focus on the struggles of independent women and it is interesting to note that Arzner had a knack for casting great actresses and proto-feminists in their first starring roles (e.g., Katharine Hepburn in Christopher Strong and Rosalind Russell in Craig’s Wife).

The most strong-willed female character Arzner ever created, however, and the one who is probably best defined as a feminist, is Judy O’Brien in Dance, Girl, Dance. There is a scene at the end of this movie that feminist critics love because O’Brien verbally criticizes the male spectators of the dance performances within the film using language that seems quite forward and shocking for 1940. This climactic speech has been interpreted by many as Arzner’s implicit critique of the male spectators of Dance, Girl, Dance as well. The most important concept in feminist film criticism is Laura Mulvey’s formulation of “the male gaze” (i.e., because the vast majority of movies are directed by men, they presuppose a male viewer). What Dance, Girl, Dance does, in a way that I think is not only aggressive and radical but delightful, is to subvert the traditional male gaze of the director and viewer in various ways. This is most obvious in Judy’s astonishing speech, which I’d like to quote for you in its entirety:

Go on, laugh, get your money’s worth. No one’s going to hurt you. I know you want me to tear my clothes off so you can get your 50 cents’ worth. 50 cents for the privilege of staring at a girl the way your wives won’t let you. What do you suppose we think of you up here with your silly smirks your mothers would be ashamed of? We know it’d be the thing of the moment for the dress suits to come and laugh at us too. We’d laugh right back at the lot of you, only we’re paid to let you sit there and roll your eyes and make your screamingly clever remarks. What’s it for? So you can go home when the show’s over, strut before your wives and sweethearts and play at being the stronger sex for a minute? I’m sure they see through you. I’m sure they see through you just like we do!

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The last thing I’ll say about Dorothy Arzner is that, towards the end of her life, she was interviewed a lot and she frequently spoke about the compromises she had to make throughout her career. For example, she once said, “When I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.” So Arzner often spoke of Hollywood as the kind of place where she had fought and lost a lot of battles. But, from my perspective (as an independent filmmaker in the 21st century), I’d like to say that I only wish I could lose the kind of battle that would result in a movie like Dance, Girl, Dance being made. Thank you very much. I hope you enjoy the show.

You can watch Dance, Girl, Dance in its entirety via Warner’s Video on Demand program: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=it0xtwy9LKQ


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Donkey Skin (Demy)
2. Life Itself (James)
3. The Young Girls Turn 25 (Varda)
4. The Immigrant (Gray)
5. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Demy)
6. Bride of Chucky (Yu)
7. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy)
8. Bay of Angels (Demy)
9. Horror Story (Raina)
10. Boyhood (Linklater)


A New Hollywood/ Film School Generation Primer

The period in American cinema from 1967 – 1980 has recently been anointed by some critics and historians as the last true golden age for Hollywood film production. This was a time of incredible risk-taking and creativity — when the first American film school graduates (Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, et al) started to make an impact in Hollywood while a number of Hollywood’s older masters were able to take advantage of the “new freedoms” afforded by the death of the old studio system and its restrictive production code. It was also certainly the last era when the majority of America’s zeitgeist movies were aimed at adults rather than children and teenagers. In essaying the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation, I am deliberately casting my net wide by also including independent films in order to paint as full of a portrait of the era as possible. I’m also leaving off such touchstones as The Graduate, Harold and Maude, anything by Spielberg and Lucas, etc. because those films have never meant much to me personally and, besides, they’ve been written up enough elsewhere.

David Holzman’s Diary (McBride, 1967)

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A true American “kissing cousin” of the French New Wave, Jim McBride’s no-budget feature — made for just $2,500 in 1967 money — is one of the great debut films, one of the great mock-documentaries (before the concept even existed) and one of the great movies about filmmaking. The premise is that the lead character, David Holzman (L.M. Kit Carson), an amateur filmmaker, decides upon losing his job to document his life with a 16mm camera — believing that the filmmaking process will allow him to better understand himself. But things only go from bad to worse as he loses his girlfriend, his filmmaking equipment and eventually his soul. As a portrait of existential despair, I don’t know whether this is a comedy or a horror movie. But it’s definitely a masterpiece. “Bring your life into focus, lad.”

Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, 1971)

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While 1969’s Easy Rider may have captured the zeitgeist at the time, Monte Hellman’s existential road movie from two years later looks a hell of a lot better — and more modern — from a 21st century vantage point: James Taylor and Dennis Wilson (pop musicians who favorably impress in their only acting roles) are a couple of long-haired gearheads who illegally drag-race their beloved 1955 Chevy for money. Warren Oates is the mysterious owner of a yellow GTO who challenges them to a coast-to-coast race. Laurie Bird is “the girl” who vies for all of their attention. Much of this film’s haunting power comes from the shape-shifting nature of Oates’ character, who invents a new identity for every hitch-hiker he picks up (and who thus resembles the narrator of Nog, the cult-classic novel by Blacktop‘s screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer). Austere, beautiful and infused with an irresistible deadpan humor.

Fat City (Huston, 1972)

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John Huston, one of the American cinema’s most overrated filmmakers, was arguably the director from Hollywood’s Golden Age who most successfully took advantage of the death of the old studio system. Many of his best films came in the 1970s and 1980s when it was easier for him to take advantage of location shooting and laxer censorship laws. 1972’s Fat City, in spite of accruing a certain cult following, remains tragically underseen and is arguably Huston’s finest hour. Adapted by Leonard Gardner from his own novel, this incredible portrait of working-class life follows the opposite career trajectories of two boxers: the up-and-comer Ernie (Jeff Bridges) and the down-and-outer Tully (a terrific Stacy Keach). This is no Rocky-style underdog story, however. It’s a beautifully observed character study about losers struggling to survive in an authentically seedy milieu (the sets were designed by Dick Sylbert and the cinematographer was the peerless Conrad Hall).

The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)

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Francis Ford Coppola’s epic gangster saga is the rarest of feats, a cultural phenomenon that is also a great work of art. Transcending the pulp novel on which it’s based (and which Coppola was initially ashamed to adapt), every aspect of this movie is the stuff of legend: iconic performances by a heavyweight cast of Method actors (including Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Robert Duvall), hauntingly beautiful Nina Rota score, cinematographer Gordon Willis’s innovative use of “Rembrandt lighting,” and a plot that achieves the proportions of a Shakespearean tragedy. A lot of people prefer the Godfather Part II but not me.

The Long Goodbye (Altman, 1973)

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Robert Altman’s masterful but wildly unfaithful adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s classic crime novel takes the legendary “hard-boiled” detective Philip Marlowe, has him incarnated by nebbishy Elliot Gould and deposits him in an incredibly absurd 1970s Los Angeles. The L.A. Altman portrays is one of pastel colors, where women eat hash brownies while practicing yoga, mobsters travel in curiously multiethnic packs and the local supermarket has too much of everything — except for the one brand of cat food that Marlowe desperately needs: the tone of the film, both elegiac and ridiculous, is set by the opening scene in which Marlowe attempts to trick his cat into eating a new, unfamiliar brand of cat food). Altman’s career was always hit or miss but this, for my money, represents one of the twin peaks of his career alongside of 1971’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Neither the Coen brothers’ Big Lebowski nor Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice would have been possible without it.

Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)

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Robert Towne’s complex original screenplay (one of the finest ever written) combines with Roman Polanski’s taut direction and Jack Nicholson’s charismatic but subdued lead performance as private eye J.J. Gittes to create this definitive neo-noir. As with the classic films noir of the 1940s — and the detective novels on which they were based — this begins with what seems like a “routine case” (of marital infidelity) that soon opens up a hellhole of political corruption involving land and water rights, murder and family secrets too terrible to be true. Released during the height of the Watergate scandal, and shortly before Nixon’s resignation, Chinatown captures the paranoia and mistrust of authority that characterized the era better than any other single American film. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes, 1974)

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John Cassavetes was the godfather of independent American cinema. His 1959 debut, the self-financed Shadows, tackled taboo subjects involving race and sexuality with a “DIY” spirit before the concept in American cinema even existed. While his entire filmography is a limitless treasure chest, this 1974 domestic drama probably deserves to be called his supreme masterpiece. Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes’ wife, muse and perennial leading lady) gives one of the greatest acting performances ever captured on celluloid as Mabel Longhetti, a woman somehow driven inexorably to madness by her status as the housewife and mother of a blue-collar Long Island family. Because of the stark realism, the emotional honesty, the refusal to bow to Hollywood conventions (much less cliches), I’ve never felt more devastated watching a movie than I have this one.

Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)

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The qualities most associated with the New Hollywood/Film School Generation are 1. an innovative visual style 2. an awareness of film history (especially classic Hollywood and 1960s European art cinema) and 3. revisionist genre films centered on anti-heroes. Taxi Driver has all of these qualities in spades: the location photography turns pre-Disneyfied New York City into an Expressionist nightmare corresponding to the disintegrating mental state of protagonist Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro). Director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader deliberately draw upon film noir as well as the Hollywood western (the plot is essentially a rehash of The Searchers — with the crazed Bickle’s obsession with rescuing a teenage prostitute an updating of Ethan Edwards’ obsessive search for his kidnapped niece) while also adding a troubling dose of Robert Bresson-style spiritual redemption. One of the key films of the 1970s.

Killer of Sheep (Burnett, 1977)

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The directorial debut of UCLA film school grad Charles Burnett (it was his Master’s thesis), Killer of Sheep is one of the great American films of the 1970s. This plotless examination of the lives of a handful of residents of South Central Los Angeles served as a conscious rebuttal to the negative stereotypes of African Americans then prevalent in the American cinema. Effortlessly alternating between comedy and tragedy, as well as realistic and poetic modes, Burnett’s episodic narrative focuses primarily on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker who struggles to provide for his wife and children. Though this impresses because of the insider’s view it offers of life in a working class black neighborhood in the mid-1970s, the scenes of children goofing off, throwing rocks at one another and playing in railroad yards never fails to bring tears to my eyes because of how much it reminds me of my own childhood growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina in the 1980s (where we played in abandoned houses and had “dirt clod” wars). The awesome soundtrack provides a virtual audio tour through 20th century black American music, from Paul Robeson to Louis Armstrong to Little Walter to Earth, Wind and Fire.

Days of Heaven (Malick, 1978)

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Reclusive, secretive director Terrence Malick’s second — and best — movie is this bucolic 1978 study of the lives of migrant farm workers. The plot updates the love triangle between Abraham, Sarah and the Pharaoh of Egypt from the Book of Genesis (incarnated here by Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard) to World War I-era America although it’s hard to imagine a Hollywood film being less plot-centered than this. The true value of Days of Heaven is as a sensory experience: images of the farmers at work against the backdrop of the growing, harvesting and reaping cycles — captured with an aching, painterly beauty by the great D.P. Nestor Almendros — reference everything from the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper to the films of F.W. Murnau and Alexander Dovzhenko, while recreating a vanished America with an almost transcendental splendor besides.


Flickering Empire Coming from Wallflower Press in 2015

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As many longtime readers of this blog know, I have spent the past four years quietly but steadily working with my good buddy Adam Selzer on a non-fiction book about the history of early film production in Chicago. I am pleased to announce that today we signed a contract with Wallflower Press, the esteemed London-based film studies imprint of Columbia University Press. Titled Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry, this book tells the fascinating but too little known story of how Chicago served as the unlikely capital of film production in America in the decade prior to the rise of Hollywood.

We strove to write an account that we hope is as entertaining as it is informative, and one that will straddle the worlds of academia and popular non-fiction alike. Colorful, larger than life historical figures like Thomas Edison, Charlie Chaplin, Oscar Micheaux and Orson Welles are major players in this story — in addition to important but forgotten industry giants like “Colonel” William Selig, George Spoor and Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson. Publication is scheduled for March 2015. More info concerning Flickering Empire will appear on this blog in the near future — so stay tuned!

You can visit Wallflower Press on the web and browse their wonderful catalog of titles here.

You can read pertinent posts on “Chicago movies” on this blog here.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The House of the Devil (West)
2. The Wise Kids (Cone)
3. Avalon (Oshii)
4. Once (Carney)
5. Lola (Demy)
6. Curse of Chucky (Mancini)
7. The Wind Will Carry Us (Kiarostami)
8. The Final Member (Math/Bekhor)
9. Dead Man (Jarmusch)
10. Pickpocket (Bresson)


Now Playing: Boyhood

Boyhood
dir: Richard Linklater, USA, 2014
Rating: 10

boyhood

“Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river”
— Jorge Luis Borges

Now playing in Chicago and around the U.S in limited release is Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s much ballyhooed “12-years-in-the-making” intimate epic about one family’s life in 21st century Texas. The film’s formally groundbreaking nature has already been much commented upon by critics since it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January. No one, after all, has ever before attempted to make a fictional narrative feature by shooting the same group of actors over such a long period of time (roughly three days a year for a dozen consecutive years). Linklater’s strategy allows him to show the progression of his protagonist, Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane, a natural actor at every age), from the first grade through his senior year of high school, but he also devotes considerable time to the other members of Mason’s immediate family: his divorced parents, Olivia (Patricia Arquette in an award-worthy performance) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke at his rakish best), as well as his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, also terrific).

Fortunately, there is much more going on here than the mere novelty value of watching a group of actors rapidly age before our eyes. From Slacker (1991) to the Before trilogy (1995/2004/2013), time has always been Linklater’s great subject. Because of the intelligent, daring and sometimes surprising ways that he explores the concept here, Linklater’s latest achieves the status of a magnum opus. Like The Searchers was for John Ford, Boyhood is the purest, most complete expression of Linklater’s considerable artistry to date — the single masterpiece that he has seemingly been working towards for his entire career. Last year, I wrote that Before Midnight established Linklater as the best director of his generation. It is no exaggeration to say that Boyhood establishes him as America’s finest working filmmaker period.

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After only two viewings, I am also tempted to say that Boyhood is the single film that best defines American life in the early 21st century. What is especially impressive about the achievement is that, on a narrative level at least, Linklater does not seem to be striving for virtuosity. There is a surprising lack of drama in the storyline; no one dies, no one gets seriously ill, there are no tragic accidents. It is as if the director knew that his mere concept was dramatic enough and that by focusing on the smaller, more intimate details of growing up (first beer, first heartbreak, etc.), they would cumulatively add up to something momentous. In this sense, Boyhood is similar to — but vastly superior to — Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I thought there was a great movie inside of The Tree of Life that was dying to get out, an autobiographical one involving a boy growing up in 1950s Texas. Certain moments of that film rang so true concerning suburban American childhood that they unexpectedly caused tears of remembrance to well up in my eyes (e.g., children playing kick the can in the street at dusk before being called home for dinner by their mothers).

Unfortunately, Terrence Malick did not trust that The Tree of Life‘s simple domestic scenes would be sufficiently interesting to sustain an entire feature film and so he couched them in pretentious sequences involving digital dinosaurs and voice-over narration cloaked in cosmic-spiritual hokum. Linklater, on the other hand, confidently constructs his entire movie out of such fleeting moments: in one early scene, young Mason looks at a dead bird on the ground. Later, he and a group of friends walk down the street and pass a mentally ill young man who uncontrollably blurts out obscenities. Linklater rarely indicates what Mason is thinking about such things. He merely observes the character observing, and the film, like time itself, marches inexorably on. Later still, when Mason becomes a teenager, he does begin to question things in his own quiet, introspective and thoughtful way. The total effect of watching this gradual, unforced transformation of his character is to bear witness to nothing less than the birth of an individual consciousness.

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A strange feeling came over me as I watched this leisurely paced two-hour-and-46-minute movie (the same length, incidentally, as Transformers: Age of Extinction): at some point I realized that I was actively trying to remember what the characters had looked, sounded and felt like in the earlier portions of the film — when they were literally years younger. This is not something I can recall doing with any other movie, nor any work of art in any medium (aside perhaps from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the ultimate narrative exploration of time and memory). Boyhood‘s astonishing power to incite viewers to meditate on the nature of memory, and no doubt on their own lives as well, while still in the process of watching it is probably a direct result of Linklater’s smart refusal, in any obvious way, to signal shifts in time. There are no title cards reading “One year later” nor are there any blatant cues within the dialogue. I often found myself questioning if a scene was taking place, chronologically speaking, immediately after the one that had preceded it or if the story had jumped ahead a year — and often found the answer only by noticing whether the actors had similar or different haircuts.

By the time Boyhood reaches its sublime conclusion, viewers have traveled through time with the characters on a journey that more than one commentator has likened to a “period piece set in the present”: from the last days of film stock to the dawn of digital (though the film itself was shot entirely on 35mm to achieve a uniform look), from Coldplay to Arcade Fire, from the invasion of Iraq to the rise of Barack Obama (an occasion for two of the film’s funniest moments, presented back-to-back) not to mention the rise of social media (and, eventually, a growing disillusionment with it). Jean Cocteau, another cinematic poet of time, famously said that a movie camera “filmed death at work” (i.e., because a movie literally shows its performers aging, they are closer to their funerals at the end of shooting than they were at the beginning). Yet by speeding this process up, and condensing 12 years into a single feature, Linklater proves that the reverse is also true: to watch Mason and Samantha transition from children into beautiful young adults is like watching flowers bloom in water — Boyhood shows us life at work better than any film I know.

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Boyhood‘s central conceit, which allows Richard Linklater the uncanny ability to capture the ebb and flow of life as it is experienced over an extended period, also dovetails nicely with his chief strengths as a writer and director, namely his sincerity and generosity of spirit. In spite of creating a name for himself by making zeitgeist-capturing comedies about specific subcultures (e.g.,Slacker and 1993’s Dazed and Confused), Linklater has always thankfully avoided adopting an attitude of condescension to his characters, not to mention resisted the kind of David Foster Wallace-esque hipster irony that has frequently passed for humor in America in recent decades. In this respect, I’m particularly grateful for the realistic — and unfashionably warmhearted — way in which he presents Mason Sr.’s conservative and religious in-laws; they bestow their grandson on his 15th birthday with gifts of a bible and a shotgun, respectively, presents that the budding young artist is happy to accept.

While all of the principal characters in Boyhood are flawed, Linklater also wisely refuses to judge them: Olivia may repeat the mistake of engaging in relationships with hard-drinking and abusive men, and Mason Sr. may be a perennial fuck-up (even after he transitions from GTO-driving “cool dad” to responsible family man, he still offers Olivia money while knowing that his wallet is empty and hoping that she’ll turn him down) — yet there is always the sense that these characters are just fumbling through life like we all do, improvising as they go, trying to do the best they can. The closest thing the movie has to a villain is Bill (Marco Perella), Olivia’s second husband, who becomes an increasingly scary control freak, scene by scene, as his alcoholism worsens. But Linklater extends sympathy even to this character by granting him a moment of horrifying self-awareness. “You don’t like me much, do you, Mason?” Bill asks of his new stepson during a particularly tense dinner scene. “That’s okay. I don’t like me either.” Like all of Linklater’s best work, including much of the rest of this film, it is a moment that feels almost impossibly human.

Note: Boyhood is rated R by the MPAA for “sexual references, drug use and profanity” but I do not think parents should hesitate to take teenage children (even young teens) to see it. They are, after all, the ones most likely to identify with the film’s protagonist — as well as the ones most likely to benefit from observing what Linklater shows as the various paths laying ahead of them.

You can check out the trailer for Boyhood via YouTube below:


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