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)
1. Boyhood (Linklater)
A Summer’s Tale (Rohmer, France, 1996) – Theatrical Viewing / Rating: 7.9
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
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.
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)
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.
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.”
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).
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!
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
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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.
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)
1. Under the Skin (Glazer)
2. Before Sunset (Linklater)
3. Drugstore Cowboy (Van Sant)
4. Stranger Than Paradise (Jarmusch)
5. Boyhood (Linklater)
6. After Hours (Scorsese)
7. Boyhood (Linklater)
8. Citizen Kane (Welles)
9. Snowpiercer (Bong)
10. Days of Heaven (Malick)