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Tag Archives: Robert Altman

Filmmaker Interview: Alex Ross Perry

Alex Ross Perry is a prodigiously talented writer/director who, having completely four feature films, already has an estimable body of work under his belt at just 31-years-old. Coming out of the microbudget independent American filmmaking scene, each of Perry’s movies has been more ambitious and complex than the last. Following 2013’s excellent Jason Schwartzman-starring Listen Up Philip, a lot of critics thought they had the young filmmaker pegged as a creator of highly literate, acerbic comedies but Perry surprised many when his latest, Queen of Earth, debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival in January. It’s old-school psychological art-horror that echoes Polanski’s Repulsion and Bergman’s Persona in its story of childhood friends (Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston) who find their relationship tested when they vacation together at a lakeside retreat. I recently spoke to Perry about the film by phone.

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MGS: Queen of Earth is being described as a “left turn” for you. Was it born from a desire to do something different from what people might expect or are you not that self-conscious about it while you’re doing it?

ARP: I’m sure I would be if I felt the need to be for a minute but, basically, what we’re doing is just about how to keep the collaborators that I enjoy working with stimulated. And giving them something to do that, for me, as a fan of their work . . . I want to see these people whose work I think is the best do things that I haven’t seen them do before. So a lot of it kind of starts from there.

MGS: Robert Altman was a director I thought of while watching Queen of Earth. Not that it reminds me of anything he did specifically but there’s a sense that, when he was making all those great films in the 1970s, each film was his own highly personal and perversely revisionist take on a different genre. When I saw Queen of Earth I thought “This is an amazing psychological thriller. I could see this guy making a musical or a film noir or a western.” Would you ever be interested in making your version of, say, a western?

ARP: Ideally, I would eventually come up with an exciting and relevant and unique-to-me idea for every genre that I like. I’ve never even had a glimpse of an idea for something like that that was remotely personal to me or unique. Of course, at some point I would love to have that idea. We were talking about Robert Altman’s Images when we were making this movie as this great example of a bizarre left turn for a director that’s sort of derided at the time and that over the years grows in reputation to the point that it’s elevated alongside that other work. And, you know, of course the similarities really reveal themselves as the years pass and the filmography gets more and more rich. And then, you know, there was a Robert Altman series here in New York in December and January right when I was in the middle of editing this. That really is a director who you can’t talk about detached from the large group of repeating collaborators and the fact that each movie — including the myriad unsuccessful movies that he made that are clearly just from a point of exploring something different and getting all of his favorite actors together — he clearly had a lot of his favorite actors always ready to come and just do something for a few weeks and then seeing what they’ll go for. And most of the time it’s not very interesting and some of the time it’s very good and then once in a while it’s one of the greatest films ever made. It’s a pretty good thing to aspire to and he’s kind of the king of that — for Americans at least.

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MGS: Elisabeth Moss is phenomenal in this. How much do you think the effectiveness of her performance is the result of the fact that you two had collaborated before?

ARP: If you asked her she would say a lot or almost entirely. She’s been making movies and acting in television since she was five or six-years-old but this was the first time that she’s made a second movie with the same director. Obviously she worked with a lot of repeat directors for various other projects. But this was the first ever theatrical film that was made with someone who she’s done that with before. And it was something she’d never done in terms of the performance and the character and the tone of the movie. And I think there’s just a lot of protection against embarrassment and failure on both of our parts. Which is what I feel having made four films with the same cinematographer (Sean Price Williams) and many other key crew members: she’s now welcomed into that kind of fraternity of, you know, just the whole thing about wanting to impress these people. Nobody wants to say “We made this one movie. It was great and we all were really happy and then we made another one and it just wasn’t there that time. So it was clearly a fluke and not a lifelong collaboration.” No one ever wants to feel that way. And she doesn’t want to be saying “We made a movie and then immediately we made another one and I didn’t deliver and then we never made a third one because you were wrong about how far outside of my own comfort zone I could go. I’m sorry that this one didn’t work out.” So it becomes this fun challenge of just wanting to impress and please and entertain these collaborators who you respect. And, you know, I would’ve felt very ridiculous asking a performer who I had less familiarity with to bear with me and explore some of the ideas that were in this movie. And I don’t know if that performer would’ve felt comfortable delivering that. She was very adamant that a lot of the things in this movie she just would’ve felt very embarrassed if she were doing them not only for a director who she hadn’t already had a successful collaboration with but in front of a cameraman and a crew that she didn’t already know by their first names and enjoy laughing with and going out to dinner with. We all sort of had that dynamic, which was really helpful.

MGS: In terms of having her go to places that are maybe more emotionally raw?

ARP: Yeah, and just freer. Emotionally raw is of course the nature of this film but mostly it’s just this sort of uninhibited sense of discovery and exploration that we were all able to bring together. That was definitely my idea in making the movie. I learned on Listen Up Philip what value these wonderful professional actors can bring and how many ideas they have about what they’re doing and it became very important to make sure that this film was structured in a way that there was breathing room for all of those moments to be brought in by the performers at all times.

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MGS: Katherine Waterston is also really excellent. This is her first film since Inherent Vice so I feel like I have to ask: were you nervous at all about being the first person to direct her after Paul Thomas Anderson?

ARP: Well, no, I hadn’t seen the movie yet so I had no sense of what it would be like. I was excited and clearly it made me feel like there was a certain sense of unification of, you know, the kind of performer that you understand why it’s accessible to be so excited about them and to be so excited about what they’re doing. But, yeah, we wrapped about five days before the premiere of Inherent Vice at the New York Film Festival. So I went and saw it there after we had made this movie. I felt very excited then. It was kind of a joke that I was making so that everyone else felt a little bit comfortable. We were shooting the movie right before the New York Film Festival. Patrick Fugit was in Opening Night with Gone Girl and she was in the Centerpiece with Inherent Vice. The fact that we had these two actors on set who were going right from our movie to promoting Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson films that they were very well represented in and ultimately received very good reviews for — it was very funny that these two actors worked with these kind of titans. And then me and Lizzie made our own little movie. She has no movie with a titan. She has Listen Up Philip and then these other performers had their Fincher and PTA movies . . . I made a lot of jokes at my own expense about that. And, you know, it’s just all part of the process. The fun thing about that is that actors like that can go the distance and when Katherine goes and does the Sorkin Steve Jobs movie, there’s just a different amount of leeway with what you can do with the script on a movie like that than what we were able to offer. And that’s why I think a lot of actors enjoy coming to do movies like this. It’s not the only thing anybody wants to do but it’s a fun way to satisfy a different set of creative urges than would be satisfied on something like a Fincher or a Sorkin movie.

MGS: Because they have more freedom or they’re allowed to stretch a little bit more if they’re in a film like yours?

ARP: I think so. I mean, I’m sure if you’re a great actor you stretch in everything you feel passionate about. But it’s just less intense. It feels less like going to work, I would imagine, because we don’t have any sense of professional decorum. There’s really nowhere for anyone to go so everyone’s just kind of hanging out. The crew is only about a dozen people and we’re all just going to the same diner every night together and having a meal after we wrap. So that kind of low-stakes camaraderie does tend to inspire actors to get a little bit more liberated with some of their ideas — because this is a film where both actresses could say to me “Hey, I’ve got a really out-of-left-field idea of something to do in this scene. Do you want me to tell you it or do you just want to see it while we’re filming?” And that’s not a question you can ask on most movie sets. And my answer to that is always “Yeah, I’ll just see it, don’t tell me it.” And I think just being able to even be in a working environment where that question is not only welcome but encouraged is really a liberating place for actors to be in.

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MGS: That’s really interesting. Can you think of an example on Queen of Earth where you were surprised in a good way during a take that ended up in the finished film?

ARP: Um, at this point it would be hard for me to remember exactly what we planned and what I was surprised by but . . . one moment in the script, it just says “Catherine is in bed zoning out and we sit with her for a minute.” And that’s probably all that was written. And we did it a few times with like a 50-second zoom, moving the whole time, getting tighter and tighter. And then it wasn’t even until the fourth or fifth time I watched the footage that I was like “She doesn’t blink in any of these takes.” We did this three times and that’s three times where she doesn’t blink for a minute. That was a pretty astonishing surprise. There’s a lot of stuff like that. The surprises are less in the footage because I was right there while we were filming but, working with Elisabeth before, I know there’s a lot of tiny modulations in her performance, that even if you’re in the room they don’t necessarily register because she’s acting for the camera. She’s giving little tidbits of performance to the camera that don’t even really register if you’re not as close to her as the lens is. And then discovering that in the footage and then making sure it’s well represented in the film is really the fun of working with her.

MGS: I’d like to ask you about the production design, which was my favorite aspect of the film. It’s hard to tell when the film is taking place because everything about the sets and the props and the clothing makes it seem like it could be taking place at any point between the 1970s and the present day. For example, the cordless phone has an obvious narrative function but it has an aesthetic function as well. What was your intention in creating this feeling of timelessness?

ARP: Well, a version of that is what we’ve done on every movie now. The cordless phone on this was kind of an improvement on the technology in Listen Up Philip where the phones are not even cordless. Having a giant, blocky cordless phone was our step into the modern age. But you’d be surprised about the mileage you can get from stripping all the modern stuff out of a room and replacing it with the sort of stuff that recalls whatever era you grew up in. Because it’s really not that complicated. It’s certainly easier than creating an accurate, up-to-date modern aesthetic. Unless you’re shooting in the Apple store. And then it sort of easily and efficiently conveys a sense of timelessness that, combined with a shooting style of shooting on film, really just gives people a lot to hold onto. This just comes from having made a handful of small movies where you’re very limited by what resources you actually have access to. So it’s easier to come into a house and get rid of the television and get rid of the internet router and get rid of the computer than it is to go in the other direction. And if you leave a television there, then it looks like nothing. It looks like a house. And if you get rid of it, then everyone who pays attention says what you just said. And now you’ve created a displaced sense of time that leaves people wondering during the movie a lot of the right questions, such as “Does it matter when this is taking place?” or, more accurately, “What am I supposed to be feeling about the fact that I don’t really know that?”

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Queen of Earth opens in theaters and On Demand on August 26. Chicagoans can catch a preview at Elevated Films’ rooftop screening this Wednesday, August 12, after which Perry will participate in a Skype Q&A.

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The 40 Best Films of 1975 (on the Occasion of My 40th Birthday)

100_2797Sipping “Monty Python’s Holy Ale” while watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail

A couple of years ago, my wife and I bought a DVD box set of the first season of Saturday Night Live on a whim when we found it used for a ridiculously low price at Chicago’s Reckless Records. Aside from the greatness of its contents (the classic comedy sketches, the genius of two-time musical guest Leon Redbone, etc.) I became fascinated with the set simply because I knew the whole thing was filmed and broadcast live in 1975, the year of my birth. A wave of something like nostalgia for a time I can’t quite remember came over me: this is what the world had looked and sounded like when I entered it. I was immediately filled with the desire to watch as many films as I could from that year in order to better understand the culture into which I was born. The result of that years-long quest is this blog post, two days in advance of my 40th birthday, in which I have compiled a list of my 40 favorite movies of 1975 (each accompanied by a still and a two-sentence review). As you can see, it was a staggeringly great year for movies, one of the best ever. In fact, it’s almost comical how many excellent directors, spanning all six filmmaking continents, made landmark films in 1975.

Let’s start with Europe: in Germany, Fassbinder alone made four movies, and there were also important works from the filmmaking teams of Jean-Marie Straub/Danielle Huillet and Margharethe Von Trotta/Volker Schlondorff; in France, Jean-Luc Godard directed his best film of the decade, and he was joined by his New Wave compatriots Claude Chabrol, who made two superior genre movies, and Francois Truffaut (whose neo-“Tradition of Quality” epic The Story of Adele H. is not listed below); also from France, Marguerite Duras helmed her most acclaimed feature, an avant-garde feminist masterpiece that was mirrored by Chantal Akerman working in Belgium (is it a coincidence that both movies feature the same lead actress?); Russia is represented on the list by Andrei Tarkovsky and Eldar Ryazanov, whose efforts can be seen as representing the twin poles of Russian cinema (i.e., austere arthouse and commercial entertainment), respectively, and they’re joined by interloper Akira Kurosawa whose sojourn to the USSR earned him a Best Foreign Film Oscar. In Italy, Roberto Rossellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini directed their final films (both amazing) while Antonioni made his last masterpiece as an international co-production; and England is, happily, represented by Monty Python’s supreme comedy creation. Meanwhile, over in Africa, the great Ousmane Sembene directed one of his most lauded works. In Australia, Peter Weir made what many consider to be the best Australian movie of all time. South America is represented by the underrated Argentinian director Leopodo Torre Nilsson, as well as Raul Ruiz, who directed his first post-Chilean effort in France with a group of fellow exiles. Asia is represented by King Hu, Li Han-Hsiang and Kaneto Shindo, all working in different countries (in addition to the aforementioned Kurosawa), as well as a certain “curry western” from India that many would call the pinnacle of Bollywood. And in the U.S., the Maysles brothers made a controversial landmark documentary while the “New Hollywood” saw instant-classics from the likes of Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet and Milos Forman. And this is to say nothing of important films from Angelopoulos, Bergman, Cukor, Kubrick, Wajda, etc.

I hope you enjoy my tour through the cinematic landscape of 1975, and I highly recommend conducting a similar cinematic excursion through the year of your own birth.

40. Like a Bird on the Wire (Fassbinder, Germany)

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This T.V. movie is essentially a filmed stage play of Fassinbder-favorite Brigitte Mira performing an autobiographical one-woman show. Fassbinder devotees really need to track this down just to see “Emmy” from Ali: Fear Eats the Soul singing a spirited rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”

39. Farewell, My Lovely (Richards, USA)

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Raymond Chandler’s classic detective novel adapted with greater faithfulness than Edward Dmytryk had done in 1944. While Dick Richards may not be a great director this movie had to happen even if it was decades late: Robert Mitchum and Philip Marlowe were an actor/character match made in tough-guy movie heaven.

38. The Magic Flute (Bergman, Sweden)

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Ingmar Bergman does Mozart for Swedish T.V. My favorite scene is the opening: a montage where close-ups of audience members’ faces, including those of Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann, are brilliantly intercut to the rhythm of the overture.

37. The Travelling Players (Angelopoulos, Greece)

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An itinerant theatrical troupe travels through Greece, literally, and through 20th-century history, symbolically, in Theo Angelopoulos’ four-hour magnum opus. While Angelopoulos’ epic long takes are extremely impressive as cinema, this is also, I must confess, a bit “white elephant arty” for my taste.

36. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, USA)

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Milos Forman was one of the guiding lights of the Czech New Wave before finding even greater fame in the New Hollywood of the ’70s with this celebrated adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel about the inhabitants of a mental hospital. I don’t think this deserved the bonanza of Oscars it received (the one-dimensional Nurse Ratched has always been problematic) but it’s hard to deny that Jack Nicholson was born to play the charismatic and rebellious R.P. McMurphy.

35. The Promised Land (Wajda, Poland)

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The most important Polish director to never leave Poland, Andrzej Wajda, created one of his most famous works with this anti-capitalist parable about three friends opening a textile mill in late-19th century Lodz. Although the insights into the corrupting power of money afforded by plot and characterization are familiar, this is brimming with fascinating social and historical detail from beginning to end.

34. Innocents with Dirty Hands (Chabrol, France)

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Yet another Claude Chabrol film about a murderous love triangle — this time with Romy Schneider as a beautiful housewife who enlists her young lover to help murder her abusive, drunken lout of a husband (Rod Steiger). Not Chabrol at his sharpest but still a delicious thriller that’s loaded with even more plot twists than usual.

33. Dialogues of the Exiled (Ruiz, Chile/France)

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Modeled on Brecht’s Conversations in Exile, this wry piece of political cinema was the first film made in exile by the great Chilean director Raul Ruiz following the CIA-backed military coup of Augusto Pinochet. It’s a modest, no-budget comedy consisting almost entirely of interior dialogue scenes of Chilean expatriates attempting to assimilate to their new existence as political refugees but it’s also a crucial document of the Chilean diaspora and essential viewing for Ruiz fans.

32. Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet, USA)

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A crime drama based on a true story about a first-time robber (Al Pacino) attempting to hold up a bank in order to pay for his lover’s sex-change operation, Dog Day Afternoon contains so much of what is great about the American cinema of the 1970s: there’s location shooting in New York City, great performances by Method actors and, thanks to director Sidney Lumet, an emphasis on real human behavior above genre considerations.

31. Diary of the War of Pigs (Nilsson, Argentina)

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Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s penultimate film is a fascinating quasi-sci-fi parable about growing old. The unsettling premise is that Argentina’s youth have formed marauding gangs who exterminate the country’s elderly after having become fed up with senior citizens who seem to be of no use and are merely living off of social security.

30. Fear of Fear (Fassbinder, Germany)

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Fassbinder heads into John Cassavetes territory with this study of a woman (Margit Carstenson) who, while suffering the pressures of being a housewife and mother, starts to come apart at the seams. This made-for-T.V. melodrama is beautifully written, directed and acted and features a handful of Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack to boot.

29. Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pasolini, Italy)

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The great Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film is this controversial adaptation of a Marquis de Sade novel about hedonistic aristocrats taking a group of children to a castle and sexually abusing, torturing and killing them over a span of several months. Totally disgusting but necessarily so — as Salo arguably shows how fascism works better than any other single movie.

28. Pleasure Party (Chabrol, France)

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A man (screenwriter Paul Gegauff) in a long-term marriage insists to his wife that they be allowed to see other people but is then hypocritically consumed by jealousy when she follows his suggestion. The most disturbing film that Claude Chabrol ever made is also one of the most brutally honest critiques of the male ego ever committed to celluloid.

27. Cooley High (Schultz, USA)

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This terrific high school comedy — made in Chicago in 1975 but taking place in 1964 — is often referred to as the “black American Graffiti.” It’s so good that I wish American Graffiti were referred to as the “white Cooley High.”

26. Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director (Shindo, Japan)

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Kenji Mizoguchi was, in my opinion, the greatest of all Japanese directors and here he gets a fitting tribute from another master, his compatriot Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba). One of the best documentaries about a film director, this is two-and-a-half hours long and chock-full of insightful interviews with many of Mizo’s closest collaborators.

25. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Von Trotta/Schlondorff, Germany)

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Margarethe Von Trotta and Volker Schlondorff (who were married at the time) co-wrote and co-directed this adaptation of Heinrich Boll’s novel, which ambitiously captures the turbulent political climate in Germany in the early-1970s. The titular character is a young woman (the excellent Angela Winkler) whose life becomes a living hell after she unknowingly has a one-night stand with a terrorist.

24. The Romantic Englishwoman (Losey, UK/France)

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Michael Caine is a blocked writer who practically throws his wife (Glenda Jackson) into the arms of another man in order to have something to write about. Director Joseph Losey, who gets my vote for the most underrated major filmmaker, keeps the notion of what is real and what is fiction tantalizingly in flux throughout.

23. Barry Lyndon (Kubrick, USA/UK)

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Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th-century novel about an Irish social climber in 18th-century England is full of wonderful cinematic conceits and almost surely looks more interesting today than when it first came out. On the other hand, it’s hard to overlook the miscasting of Ryan O’Neal in the lead role.

22. Dersu Uzala (Kurosawa, Russia/Japan)

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The Russian government sends a surveyor on a mission into the wilds of Siberia where his survival ends up depending on his relationship with the title character, a local hunter of Asian descent. I’m not a strong “Kurosawa man” but it’s hard to deny that this film about humanity, friendship and changing times doesn’t touch on things deep and true.

21. Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (Fassbinder, Germany)

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Incisive social critique from Fassbinder about a working-class woman (the great Brigitte Mira) being exploited by both the Communist party and the media in the wake of her husband’s tragic suicide. Part drama, part satire, 100% offbeat Fassbinderian awesomeness.

20. The Man Who Would Be King (Huston, USA/UK)

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John Huston made one of his very best films with this adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling story about two British Army officers who establish themselves as deities in the Middle Eastern country of “Kafiristan” (where caucasians had previously been unknown). Michael Caine and Sean Connery are perfectly cast as the leads in an action-adventure buddy comedy with an unforgettable final scene that mines unexpectedly deep emotions.

19. The Empress Dowager (Li, Hong Kong)

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The Shaw Brothers are most famous in the West for the hundreds of martial arts films they cranked out between the late 1960s and the early 1980s but they made excellent films across all genres as this drama about intrigue in the imperial court at the end of the Qing Dynasty proves. Li Han-Hsiang directs an all-star cast that includes the brilliant Lisa Lu as the scheming title character, Ti Lung as her nephew to whom she has promised the throne, Ivy Ling Po as his wife and David Chiang as a eunuch.

18. Love Among the Ruins (Cukor, USA)

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Laurence Olivier said that working with Katharine Hepburn in this made-for-T.V. movie, the only time they acted together, was his “happiest professional experience.” Small wonder as both actors excel in a touching story about ex-lovers reunited after 40 years, which is beautifully staged by veteran director George Cukor as if nobody told him it was no longer 1940.

17. Sholay (Sippy, India)

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As a Bollywood agnostic, I was overawed by this legendary “curry western” about an ex-cop who hires two notorious but good-hearted thieves to hunt down the vicious bandit who massacred his family. Director Ramesh Shippy liberally borrows from Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Seven Samurai (or is it The Magnificent Seven?) in crafting an outrageous action/revenge epic with a uniquely Indian flavor.

16. Moses and Aaron (Straub/Huillet, Germany)

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Arnold Schoenberg’s notoriously difficult twelve-tone opera finds its ideal cinematic interpreters in Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet. The use of real, sparse desert locations lend a documentary-quality to the proceedings, and the simple but exquisitely calibrated camera pans provide the perfect minimalist visual correlative to Schoenberg’s austere score.

15. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam/Jones, UK)

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The celebrated British comedy troupe Monty Python hit a career high with this ridiculous low-budget comedy about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and their pursuit of the Holy Grail. Among the many silly but uproariously funny gags, I am inordinately fond of the killer rabbit.

14. Xala (Sembene, Senegal)

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The father of African cinema, Ousmane Sembene, adapts his own novel about a Senegalese businessman who is stricken with impotence on the eve of his marriage to his third wife. Sembene is one of the all-time greats and this satirical portrait of chauvinism in corrupt, post-independent Senegal is one of his finest hours.

13. Grey Gardens (Maysles/Maysles, USA)

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David and Albert Maysles directed this landmark documentary portrait of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale, an upper-class but eccentric mother/daughter duo (who also happen to be relatives of Jackie Kennedy) living in squalor in a rundown mansion in East Hampton, New York. Some critics accused the Maysles of “exploitation” due to the “grotesque” nature of their subjects but time has been very kind to this beautiful film, which, in the best verite fashion, allows two incredible characters to tell their story in their own words.

12. India Song (Duras, France)

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Novelist Marguerite Duras proved her directing chops with this avant-garde masterpiece about the wife of a French diplomat in India (Delphine Seyrig) drifting through a series of affairs. Featuring a provocative mixture of dialogue in voice-over with tableaux-like compositions, this has been accurately described as “so boring it’s sublime” (I’m also fond of pointing out that the climax is strangely reminiscent of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — minus the singing and dancing).

11. Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir, Australia)

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Picnic at Hanging Rock is a haunting, enigmatic film — often erroneously referred to as being based on actual events — about the disappearance of three female college students and a middle-aged teacher during a Valentine’s Day picnic in the year 1900. Like Antonioni in L’avventura, director Peter Weir refuses to provide a concrete explanation for the disappearance while simultaneously hinting at several possible interpretations (including a supernatural one).

10. Nashville (Altman, USA)

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I’m not one of the many who consider Nashville Robert Altman’s best film (it’s not for me at the level of McCabe and Mrs. Miller or The Long Goodbye) but there’s no denying its incredible filmmaking virtuosity as the great director freely crosscuts between dozens of characters and storylines over a few days in the title city. It’s a grand statement about America and Keith Carradine performs his killer self-penned tune “I’m Easy.”

9. Fox and His Friends (Fassbinder, Germany)

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The fourth(!) and final Fassbinder film on this list is a cynical, darkly comical tale of a gay working-class man who finds himself victimized by his new “friends” after winning the lottery. Fassbinder plays the lead role himself in this highly personal film, which deftly demonstrates the director’s profound understanding of human nature.

8. The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! (Ryazanov, Russia)

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This feel-good, sentimental rom-com is paradoxically both Russian-to-the-bone and universal in its broad appeal: the screwball premise is that a shy doctor, soon to be engaged, goes binge-drinking with friends on New Year’s Eve and ends up passing out in an apartment in Leningrad that he mistakenly believes is his own Moscow apartment (it looks the same and even has the same street name and number). What starts off quite farcical (who knew that the uniformity of Brezhnev-era architecture could yield such comic gold?) slowly, almost imperceptibly, turns into a moving romantic drama.

7. The Messiah (Rossellini, Italy)

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The greatest of all Italian directors, Roberto Rossellini, fittingly ended his late didactic/”historical” phase (and indeed his entire career) with this Jesus biopic, the best such film after only Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew. This is as de-dramatized as anything in Bresson but Rossellini does go buck wild with the zoom lens (as was his wont at the time) in his final masterpiece.

6. Numero Deux (Godard, France)

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This cinematic essay about a contemporary French family, shot on both video and film, is Jean-Luc Godard’s finest work from his least-accessible period. The title can be seen as referring to shit, the status of women as second-class citizens in France, and the fact that Godard received financing for the film by sneakily telling his producer he was making a sequel to Breathless.

5. Night Moves (Penn, USA)

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Arthur Penn’s neo-noir, one of the best American films of the 1970s, stars Gene Hackman as Harry Moseby, an L.A. detective hired to find a runaway teenage girl (Melanie Griffith) in Florida. Nothing is what it seems in this pessimistic, European art-film influenced tale that positively reeks of its era in the best possible sense and which also gets better with every viewing.

4. The Valiant Ones (Hu, Taiwan/Hong Kong)

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During the Ming Dynasty, the emperor of China appoints a group of soldiers (and even a couple bandits) to defend the coast against invading Japanese pirates. King Hu is, for my money, the best Chinese director who ever lived and The Valiant Ones is the wuxia genre at its finest — as impressive for its brilliant cinematography and editing as for its fight choreography.

3. The Mirror (Tarkovsky, Russia)

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This daringly non-linear film shows Andrei Tarkovsky at his most abstract and autobiographical. Scenes based on his childhood memories are freely intercut with fantasy sequences and newsreels then overlaid with narration written by the director’s father to create a visual tone poem of the highest order.

2. The Passenger (Antonioni, Italy/Spain/France)

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Jack Nicholson is a journalist on assignment in war-torn Africa who decides to exchange identities with a dead man. Everything about Michelangelo Antonioni’s globe-hopping movie, the last truly great one he would make, is ambiguous, mysterious and haunting — qualities that reach an apex in the transcendental final tracking shot.

1. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Akerman, Belgium)

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Chantal Akerman created the ultimate feminist film with this intimate epic, a formally exact and deliberately repetitive masterwork, about three days in the life of a single Belgian mother and part-time prostitute. I could watch Delphine Seyrig chop potatoes all day long.


Once Upon a Savage Night at Time Out Chicago

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Did you know that Robert Altman directed a serial-killer thriller in Chicago in 1964? He was still a neophyte director when he made Once Upon a Savage Night for an NBC television program titled “Kraft Suspense Theater.” Available to view on YouTube today (complete with all-Kraft commercial breaks!), it’s a genuine blast from the past. Read all about it in my latest post for Time Out Chicago: http://www.timeout.com/chicago/blog/the-secret-history-of-chicago-movies-once-upon-a-savage-night


The Best of Leonard Cohen in the Movies

Yesterday marked the 80th birthday of Leonard Cohen (AKA the second greatest living songwriter in the English language). Since I have been in the habit of composing an annual Bob Dylan birthday post for the past four years, I thought I’d commemorate this occasion by listing my favorite instances of Cohen’s music in the movies. Enjoy.

“The Stranger Song,” “Sisters of Mercy” and “Winter Lady” in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

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Robert Altman’s anti-capitalist/anti-western masterpiece stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie — both de-glammed to the point of being almost unrecognizable — as an odd couple who attempt an ill-fated get rich quick scheme of establishing a brothel in the middle of nowhere. The film is essentially a mood piece about the central location, a fledgling mining town named “Presbyterian Church,” rendered by Altman and D.P. Vilmos Zsigmond as a brown, hazy, membranous world of earthy/murky sights and sounds. The glue holding everything together is a suite of Leonard Cohen’s finest songs, all taken from his first album, each of which is associated with a particular character or group of characters: “The Stranger Song” is the theme of Beatty’s McCabe, “Winter Lady” is the theme of Christie’s Mrs. Miller, and “Sisters of Mercy” is associated with the prostitutes. The lyrics of the songs are so fitting, in fact, that it’s almost difficult to believe that they weren’t written expressly for this film, which feels in more ways than one like a precursor to Altman’s cult-classic musical Popeye. For setting tone, there is nothing quite like the opening credits here — with Beatty entering town on horseback while the titles slowly drift across the screen from right to left and Cohen’s monotone baritone intones, “It’s true that all the men you knew were dealers who said they were through with dealing every time you gave them shelter . . .”

“Chelsea Hotel #2” in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

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Rainer Werner Fassbinder was obsessed with Leonard Cohen. The invaluable Leonard Cohen Files website shows that the great German director featured the Canadian songwriter’s work in no less than six of his movies. I’ll pick the use of “Chelsea Hotel #2” in the final episode of Berlin Alexanderplatz as my favorite simply because that epic miniseries is my favorite of all Fassbinder’s achievements. The song’s presence is, of course, anachronistic because Fassbinder’s adaptation of Alfred Doblin’s novel takes place entirely in the pre-Nazi Weimar era. Nonetheless, Fassbinder’s bugfuck “epilogue,” the final hour of what is essentially a 15-and-a-half-hour movie, is basically the director’s daring, fever-dream meditation on Doblin’s plot, characters and themes (where the story’s psychosexual subtext is more explicitly spelled out — amidst the symbolic images of a boxing match, frolicking angels and nuclear explosions). As a bonus, this episode features Kraftwerk too!

“Avalanche” in Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water (1994)

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Maverick French director Olivier Assayas’s filmography can be broken fairly neatly into two categories: daring but not-always-successful genre mash-ups (e.g., Irma Vep, Boarding Gate, Demonlover, etc.) and more conventional, autobiographical character studies (e.g., Cold Water, Summer Hours, Something in the Air, etc.). One of the things that binds all of these disparate films together is Assayas’s always-deft use of pop music (especially from his own formative years of the 60s and early 70s). My favorite Assayas film is 1994’s Cold Water, an unsentimental re-imagining of the director’s own troubled teenaged years centering on his alter-ego “Gilles” (who would return in 2012’s Something in the Air) and his relationship with his girlfriend Christine. The highlight of Cold Water is a climactic party scene in which the protagonists smoke hash and dance around a bonfire to a stellar playlist of tunes including Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Around the Bend,” Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Avalanche,” the haunting track that kicks off Leonard Cohen’s great Songs of Love and Hate album.

“I’m Your Man” in Steve James’s Life Itself (2014)

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Although I wasn’t as enamored of Steve James’s adaptation of Roger Ebert’s memoir as a lot of critics, I can find no fault with his almost unbearably poignant use of “I’m Your Man,” the title track of Cohen’s remarkable 1988 comeback album. Ebert explains that the song literally saved his life when he and his wife Chaz lingered for a while in his hospital room to listen to it instead of leaving the hospital following jaw surgery. A blood vessel burst under Ebert’s chin mid-song and, because the Eberts were still in close proximity to doctors (and not, say, in a cab on the way home), the doctors were able to save his life. The fact that the song plays during a scene where Roger and Chaz tell the story allows the lyrics to have a parallel function as a testament to their love for each other: “If you want a boxer,” Cohen sings, “I’ll step into the ring for you / And if you want a doctor, I’ll examine every inch of you / If you want a driver, climb inside / Or if you want to take me for a ride / You know you can / I’m your man.”

“Take This Waltz” in Jean-Luc Godard’s Letter in Motion to Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremaux (2014)

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Like Fassbinder, Jean-Luc Godard has used the music of Leonard Cohen in multiple projects: the short Puissance de la parole, the mammoth video series Histoire(s) du Cinema and his most recent project Letter in Motion to Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremaux, the “video letter” he sent to the Cannes Film Festival to explain why he could not be present in person to present his new movie Goodbye to Language. In the manner of much recent Godard, this cryptic short film features clips from the director’s own previous work (notably King Lear, which had scandalized the festival in 1987) intercut with punning title cards and clips of Godard speaking in the present day. The nearly nine-minute film ends with Godard saying: “So, I’m going where the wind blows me, just like autumn leaves as they blow away. Last year for example, I took the tramway, which is a metaphor, the metaphor and . . . to return, to return to pay my dues from 1968 at the Havana Bar . . . and now, I believe that the possibility of explaining things is the only excuse to fight with language . . . as always, I believe it’s not possible . . . this May 21st . . . this is no longer a film but a simple waltz, my president, to find the true balance with one’s near destiny.” Immediately upon saying “a simple waltz, my president,” Cohen’s sublime “Take This Waltz” (also from the I’m Your Man album) can be heard. This is then followed by a clip of Bob Dylan singing, “How long must I listen to the lies of prejudice?” from “When He Returns.” Poetry on top of poetry on top of poetry, folks.

Leonard Cohen’s new album, Popular Problems, drops on September 23rd. You can check out the video for his superb new song “Almost Like the Blues” via YouTube below:


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.


Inherent Vice: Ruminating on the Book, Speculating About the Movie

“Sportello. Try to drag your consciousness out of that old-time hard-boiled dick era, this is the Glass House wave of the future we’re in now.”

— Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, Inherent Vice

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I just finished reading Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon’s most recent book and the only one of his seven novels that I hadn’t already read. Although I was something of a hardcore fan of the reclusive author when I was in my 20s (who was it that said Pynchon and Jean-Luc Godard find every new generation of college students?), my extreme distaste for his 2006 novel Against the Day turned me off of reading Inherent Vice when it was first published as an uncharacteristically quick follow-up in 2009. The recent news that Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation has started shooting (the first of Pynchon’s works to be adapted for the screen) made me curious enough to finally read the book. And I’m happy to report I found it delightfully daffy from beginning to end: Inherent Vice is a surprisingly accessible, shaggy dog-stoner-detective story that seems to be deliberately minor in scale — but I much prefer good minor Pynchon to failed major Pynchon. Having said that, it’s still somewhat surprising to see the author working in the detective-fiction genre. Although Pynchon has acknowledged literary genres before, even “lowly” ones, it’s usually in the context of an incongruous mash-up — as in Against the Day, in which the boys’ adventure, western and spy novel elements not only provocatively clashed but were put to the service of a pretentious thesis about World War I representing the global triumph of Evil Capitalist Interests. Inherent Vice, by contrast, not only sticks closely to its main genre but seems to have nothing more on its mind than spinning an entertaining mystery-yarn about a bunch of eccentric characters. Which is precisely why it just might make a great movie. Remember that when Francois Truffaut asked Alfred Hitchcock if he would be interested in adapting a Dostoevsky novel, the master of suspense sagely replied that he wouldn’t — because it wasn’t possible to improve on someone else’s masterpiece.

It ain’t a detective being put through the paces of this labyrinthine Chandler-esque plot. But a stoner who likes to bowl!
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Interestingly, Inherent Vice actually feels as if it may have been written with the intention of being adapted into a movie in much the same way that D’entre les morts, the source novel of Vertigo, was written by Boileau-Narcejac specifically for Hitchcock. This is not just because it is a remarkably concise and linear narrative coming from a master of the loose and baggy like Pynchon but also because the novel’s specific themes and story elements already feel familiar from other movies. The stoner-take-on-Raymond Chandler was of course perfected by the Coen brothers in The Big Lebowski, with which Inherent Vice also shares the additional tropes of a kidnapping plot involving a billionaire, the clash between counter-culture characters and the “square world,” a southern California milieu, some not-so-scary white-supremacist types and, hell, even lingonberry pancakes. No wonder Warner Brothers (as opposed to Annapurna Pictures) is financing this one. They could probably smell its potential cult status — and the Lebowski-like residuals that might bring for years to come — from a mile away. What seems even more likely, however, especially given Paul Thomas Anderson’s deep affection for and friendship with the late Robert Altman, is that the whole thing will turn into an extended homage to The Long Goodbye, which was the original (and the best and the funniest) attempt to bring Philip Marlowe out of that “old-time hard-boiled dick era” and confront him with the modern world. Although it was personally much easier for me to imagine Robert Downey Jr., PTA’s first choice, as stoner-P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello, I’ll be interested to see what the great Joaquin Phoenix does with the role. Phoenix has been doing “brooding and intense” so well and for so long that Inherent Vice should provide him with the welcome opportunity to show off some of the other, goofier colors on his impressive acting palette. If nothing else, we’ll get to see him wear some ridiculous disguises.

Philip Marlowe buying cat food? In a supermarket? That’s not right!
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Paul Thomas Anderson fans, who are accustomed to waiting five years between the director’s projects, are already rejoicing at the prospect of seeing Inherent Vice debut only one year after The Master. (As with that last movie, a Venice Film Festival premiere for Vice in the fall seems likely.) In addition to my own excitement about the film, I’m also grateful to Anderson for getting me to finally pick up the book. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll even take another crack at Against the Day; hearing my students talk endlessly about big budget comic book and video game adaptations, and the endless sequels, remakes and “reboots” they engender, has already convinced me that its anti-capitalist message will go down a lot easier the second time around.


Remembering Altman

This Sunday would have been the 85th birthday of Robert Altman.

Did any filmmaker embody the concept of the Hollywood auteur in the post-studio system era as well as Robert Altman? By the time he finally hit his stride as a maverick, independently minded director of irreverent comedies in the early 1970s, Altman was old enough to be the father of most of the members of the “film school generation” (Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, et al.) with whom he enjoyed a friendly competition; but if any American director could be said to own the ’70s, I think it was the older, non-film school educated, Colonel Sanders look-alike whose movies, more so than those of his younger contemporaries, were the product of an idiosyncratic but fully formed artistic personality.

Altman cut his teeth working on genre television shows in the 1960s – he directed episodes of the western Bonanza and the war show Combat! among others, which is important to keep in mind when considering the perversely revisionist genre films Altman ultimately became best known for. (In the 1970s in particular it almost seemed as if he was checking genres off a list: “You think you know what a western is? Well, here’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller!”) Working in television had also been a good way for Altman to try out different techniques involving the employment of sound and image; for instance, it’s where he first began to experiment with the dense, multilayered soundtracks that would become one of his most important hallmarks as a movie director.

In the late 1960s Altman made the leap from television to motion pictures. After a couple of films that were not particularly noteworthy, he made a movie in 1970 that became a phenomenon and changed his life forever. M*A*S*H was a dark, ostensibly period comedy about the Korean war that functioned as a thinly veiled commentary on the then-raging war in Vietnam. It was an unexpected critical and commercial success, winning the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival before becoming enormously popular with American audiences, especially young people and members of the counterculture. And like a lot of works of art that seemingly come out of nowhere to capture the zeitgeist, the success of M*A*S*H bought Altman an unusual degree of creative freedom for the next several years. It was also the first film to feature all of the signature themes and stylistic traits for which he would become famous. These included:

– an irreverent, anti-authoritarian point of view
– a perverse, humorously revisionist take on genre
– a dense soundtrack with multilayered, overlapping dialogue
– a close collaboration with actors in which he encouraged them to deviate from the script and improvise their dialogue.

During his first wave of popularity in the early 1970s, Altman made the two films that I consider his very best: McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1971 and The Long Goodbye in 1973. Both attempt to explicitly and self-consciously revise the rules of their given genres. McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye are so extreme in terms of how Altman subverts the conventions of the western and the private eye film respectively (and puts his own unique spin on them in the process), that the movies, in spite of earning cult followings, remain divisive whenever they are screened to this day; in classes where I’ve shown both movies, I’ve observed it’s not uncommon for students to love one film but not be able to stand the other. (Another respect in which Altman is unique: even among his diehard fans there is little consensus over which films constitute his best and worst work.)

To understand how Altman subverts genre convention, look first to the cinematography. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is an amazingly photographed color film, courtesy of the great Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. McCabe intentionally frustrates expectations of what the visual style of a western movie should be. In contrast to the high-key lighting and bright primary colors of the horse operas from Hollywood’s golden age, everything in McCabe looks drab, muddy and brown. This color scheme, combined with the film’s snowy locations and excellent Leonard Cohen soundtrack, gives it the feel of a melancholy tone poem. And the sound design can likewise be described as “muddy”; one of the film’s most contentious aspects is a notorious sound mix that, to the chagrin of many viewers, features an abundance of scenes where people mumble indistinctly to each other in taverns and whorehouses. But as any of the film’s supporters will tell you, the sheer audacity of this muddiness is part of its perverse charm.

McCabe can also be classified as a genre-subverting “anti-western” in that it presents two big movie stars, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, in as unglamorous a light as possible. Beatty in particular was one of the biggest stars in the world at the time and Altman intentionally obscured his handsome features behind a bushy beard, gold tooth and omnipresent derby. The unromanticized look of frontier life extends to the supporting cast as well; Beatty’s title character is an entrepreneur who, at the film’s beginning, arrives in the small town of Presbyterian Church and tries to make his fortune by opening a low-rent brothel. Altman clearly takes great delight in presenting McCabe’s small town whores as earthy and plain, the polar opposite of the glamorous western prostitute typified by Claire Trevor in John Ford’s Stagecoach. While Altman’s portrayal is probably closer to the reality of prostitutes in 19th century America, it is also important to recognize that he never condescends to these characters. On the contrary, he seems to have great affection for all of them and takes pains to present them as real people, as evidenced by scenes where we witness them during downtime – singing, goofing off in a communal bath, baking a birthday cake, etc.

The aspect in which Altman most obviously turns western conventions on their head is in his presentation of the western hero. It is obvious to the viewer early on that John McCabe is a coward and a bullshit artist who hides behind a lot of big talk. There is a delicious irony in that the other characters in the film, the townspeople of Presbyterian Church, mistake him for a famous gunfighter who happens to have the same last name. Throughout the movie Altman milks this irony for all it is worth and uses it to set up an action climax that delivers a spectacular payoff – a snowbound shootout that sees McCabe attempting to become the man he has so far only pretended to be. The end result is something rich, complex and that rewards repeat viewings.

If charges of sacrilege have been leveled at The Long Goodbye more often than McCabe & Mrs. Miller, it’s probably less because of the way Altman undermines movie conventions in the later film than because of the way he dared to tweak aspects of its beloved source novel. Raymond Chandler published The Long Goodbye, his sixth novel featuring legendary gumshoe Philip Marlowe as protagonist, in 1953 when the film noir movement was still in full swing. Marlowe had been portrayed on screen no less than three times in the previous decade by high-profile actors like Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery and, Chandler’s favorite, Dick Powell. It is somewhat surprising then that The Long Goodbye wasn’t brought to the screen until Altman’s unconventional adaptation twenty years later, long after the original noir cycle had ended. But that’s precisely Altman’s point: taking the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, hardboiled private eye of the late forties/early fifties and transporting him to the health conscious Los Angeles of the early ’70s. Finding humor in this outrageous juxtaposition is essential to appreciating Altman’s film.

Like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye was shot by Vilmos Zsigmond. While it features a more conventional color palette than McCabe (fitting given the film’s contemporary southern California locations), it is no less visually striking. A technique first used in McCabe that Altman and Zsigmond perfect in The Long Goodbye is “post-flashing” – exposing the camera negative to a small amount of light before processing it. This gives the finished film a hazy, dreamy, slightly overexposed quality, which Altman likened to the look of faded postcards. It is as far from the stark, black and white cinematography of film noir as Elliot Gould’s nebbishy portrayal of Marlowe is from that of his tough guy predecessors.

And yet both of these aspects are of a piece with Altman’s overall vision. The Los Angeles he 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 Philip 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. This absurd but crucial scene establishes the theme of betrayal vs. loyalty that will predominate for the rest of the film. It is only when Marlowe informs his friend Terry Lennox “I even lost my cat” during the film’s unexpectedly shocking climax (and thus brings the story full circle) that we are likely to realize how deadly serious Altman has taken his morality tale all along.

After The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman would go on to make many other movies. There would be triumphs as well as fallow periods but, like the song says, he always did it his way. When he fell out of favor in Hollywood, which happened more than once, he would simply scale back his ambitions. The most dramatic example of this would be the entire decade of the 1980s, which were devoted to small projects like filmed plays and T.V. movies following the box office disappointment of the underrated Popeye. But Altman was a dreamer and a schemer, always waiting for the opportunity to realize his next mad folly. Thankfully, his story ends on a note of redemption as the success of The Player in 1992, much like that of M*A*S*H in 1970, allowed him to realize many more personal projects until his death in 2006 – including such late career highlights as Short Cuts, Kansas City, Gosford Park and A Prairie Home Companion. The American cinema won’t see his like again.


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