In response to Mary Mattson.
When you say that every song, movie, work of fiction, etc. made during the Vietnam War was about the war itself, you’re obviously exaggerating. But not always by all that much. Arthur Penn’s “revisionist” western, Little Big Man is a case in point. The story of a white man who was kidnapped by Indians as a child, lived happily with them, then found himself crossing between the conflicting civilizations’ borders for nearly the rest of his life, the movie was, to audiences’ of its day, clearly about Vietnam. The U.S. Cavalry is depicted as an invading force, capable of massacre, and indifferent to the culture it is destroying. Indian life (the Cheyenne in particular), isn’t glorified exactly, but it is depicted as an unmistakably superior form of existence.
At the center of it is the boy-turned-man-turned-really, really old man, Jack Crabb (famously played by Dustin Hoffman under makeup that ages him 104 years) who, despite years of often tragedy and travesty, remains a Candide of his age.
What keeps Little Big Man from dating are its underlying questions about belonging, whether talking about family, lovers, or nation. Jack may have been able to straddle two worlds, but in many ways he ends up bereft of both.
Those questions also drive Run of the Arrow, a much more direct, unforgiving, and even brutal movie made by Samuel Fuller in 1957. Fuller specialized in a unique form of brutal directness. It’s not so much that his movies are violent, though they frequently are . But they thrust their meanings forward in a manner that Jean-Luc Godard (who was profoundly influenced by Fuller) christened “cinema-fist.”
Run of the Arrow is about an Irish immigrant and Confederate soldier, O’Meara (Rod Steiger) who literally fires the last bullet of the Civil War. Unwilling to surrender, or even accomodate himself, to the Union, O’Meara heads west where he eventually becomes a member of a Sioux tribe. This is the historical period when the U.S. and the Sioux began a war that lasted 15 years, and very quickly O’Meara commits to fighting white men in battle.
What O’Meara isn’t ready for are the adaptations his feelings undergo when he becomes part of a treaty agreement. He ends up liking a cavalry captain of engineers (Brian Keith), who not only shows O’Meara some sympathy, but gently questions how a man can assume the moral high ground, as O’Meara does, when he fought to preserve slavery.
Fuller was a great stylist; that’s where much of the “cinema-fist” appellation arises. The movie opens with a tracking shot that shows in both concrete and abstract terms what a petered-out war leaves behind. He could not only produce such rich images, but do it on a budget as well. He has two scenes he had to shoot as low-angle three-shots, that is just three people talking shot from the ground up. But he has the actors stand and move in such as way as to measure the three-way tension thrumming under their conversations. There are probably no American directors left today who can pull that off; certainly no young ones.
Fuller marshalls his resources well enough to have a big action scene when he wants it, though, and a devastating Indian charge on an army camp is about as good as you could expect to see.
You should pay attention to a couple of actors, Chuck Roberson and Chuck Hayward, who play a cavalry sergeant and corporal respectively. Roberson was perhaps the greatest Hollywood stunt rider ever. From the mid-1940s on he did all of John Wayne’s riding stunts, but he appeared in many more movies than the Duke. You’ll first note him in character trying to rescue a kid from quicksand. In the Indian attack, I’m sure he plays a Sioux who takes a spectacular fall in the middle of a charge (Roberson always used the same horse, which he had trained to fall when he gave him a simple pat on the neck). Hayward was another famous stunt man and stunt coordinator. He plays the soldier asked by Keith to fix his saddle. What stunts in particular Hayward performed here, I do not know.
In response to Bruce Bridges.
Wild in the Streets (1968) was a good-naturedly distopian fantasy from AIP about the police state that arises when teenagers ruled the U.S. Although it was rather poorly directed by Barry Shear, a prolific television director who helmed three or four features, it had a pretty nice screenplay by the talented Robert Thom (1970′s Bloody Mama and 1975′s Death Race 2000 among others). The anti-hero, played by Christopher Jones, willfully joins the political process in order to subvert it, locking away over-30s in prison camps where they are force-fed LSD. For some of us, the movie’s pleasures are summed up by the sight of blissed-ouy Shelley Winters and Ed Begley wandering around behind a wire fence and getting in touch with the universe.
The year before, a well-known English director just at the beginning of his career, Peter Watkins, made a similar movie from a completely different angle. Privilege starred Paul Jones (a former member of Manfred Mann) as the most popular performer ever, whose rise to fame was due to a masochistic rock act which always climaxed with him being beaten by actors playing policemen. Jones’s character is completely manipulated by a corporation who franchises his popularity (one of the movie’s prescient gambits), but before long, business, government, and the churches band together to turn him into an instrument for the social and political control of youth.
Watkins had begun his feature-making career a couple of years earlier at the BBC where he made pseudo-documentaries about historical events or possibilities, a form he would stick with — largely successfully — throughout his career. He did occasionally make “real” documentaries, too.
Privilege has two serious problems. One is that Watkins hasn’t completely mastered his pseudo-doc style and so has to drop it once in a while just to keep the story moving. Just as problematically, Watkins is just too didactic. He repeats his ideas over and over and frankly he doesn’t have all that many of them.
The supporting cast includes gorgeous Jean Shrimpton as a painter who has some sort of fling with the singer. Mark London, who plays an oily press agent, wrote the very good musical score; his main claim to fame, though, is as co-writer of the song “To Sir, With Love.” Privilege was shot by Peter Suschitzky, who would go on to shoot David Cronenberg’s movies from Dead Ringers on.
For Marilee Sitwell
Alejandro Amenábar’s haunted house story, starring Nicole Kidman, is one of the best pure ghost stories of the last 20 years — so good, in fact, that you have to go back nerly 50 years the find a movie that is just as satisfying.
But the creepily effective adapttion of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting (1963) should do the trick. The basic set-up only hints at the movie’s effectiveness. Four people gather to spend as many days as possible in Hill House, a New England manse long believed to be haunted. First off is scientific (the very good English actor Richard Johnson), a clairvoyant (Claire Bloom, at her best, which is extraordinarily good), some young guy (Russ Tamblyn), and a shy neurotic (Julie Harris, a stage star making an extremely rare film appearance). The focus is on Nell, whose mother has just died, has never really had a home of her own as an adult, and is acutely lonely.
Director Robert Wise ensures that the house’s creepy interiors and exteriors are depicted in extraordinary creepy detail, while at the same time deploying beautifully nuanced shadows and fog. Within moments of the movie’s entry into Hill House, the atmosphere insinuates itself into the action and, hopefully, into the viewer’s own perceptions.
The movie asks the question, if a person is alone, and has nothing but loneliness to look forward to, is that enough to lead her into evil’s embrace. Crucially, in The Haunting evil isn’t some monster or even a crime; it’s a form of psychic slavery or the self’s obliteration. It’s never sure exactly which it is, but it’s overwhelming and terrifying.
The character in question is Nell, repressed and frightened of her isolated future. Oddly, it slowly becomes clear to her what is happening. She rejects an offer of sexual companionship from the lesbian clairvoyant, not so much out of dislike of same-sex relationship (Nell might even be a repressed lesbian herself), but because that’s not the kind of relationship she’s “supposed” to desire.
There was a 1999 remake of The Haunting, but even to mention it in contempt is to give it more notice than it deserves.
But if you want shivers and a sense of of unease that might stick with you after the movie is over, this movie is worthy of your time.
In response to Steve Stoliar, author of Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House.
The Mortal Storm was the last of four movies in which Margaret Sullavan starred for director Frank Borzage who has long held the unfortunate title of Greatest Director Most People Have Never Heard Of. Borzage (long “a,” hard “g,” accent on the penultimate syllable) directed his first movie in 1913 and his last in either 1959 0r 1961, depending on how you count such things. Both his parents were immigrants and his father worked as a Pennsylvania coal miner before the entire family moved to Utah. He was born in 1893 and had nine brothers and sisters, two of whom ended up in the movie business.
As is obvious from his movies, Borzage was unusually attentive to the social and political milieu of both his characters and his own times. But his overriding concern was the transcendent quality of romantic love and everything in his movies, from production design, editing style, lens selection, framing , characterizations, atmosphere, story, anything, flowed from this conviction.
If it sounds like this must have made his movies otherworldly, the opposite is the truth. For Borzage, the nature of a political or social system was judged first by the way in which it treated loving couples. Any system that disrupted or tried to destroy that love was anathema. And so Borzage made the first anti-Nazi movies in Hollywood.
The anti-Naziism in The Mortal Storm is obvious. But it’s equally strong and open in Little Man, What Now?, a movie Borzage made in 1934, a year after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany.
Simply put, Little Man – set around 1930 — is the story of Emma (Sullavan) and Hans (Douglass Montgomery, a good but mostly forgotten actor), married for about a week when the movie opens. If you pay attention, you realize Emma is considerably more than a week pregnant and the two have nowhere near the money they need to raise a child. Thus they pursue employment, sustenance, and housing in Dusseldorf, a small town, and finally Berlin. They depend on the whims of others better off than they, including Emma’s step mother, who turns out to be a madam.
There are myriad ways in which Borzage creates enchanted spaces for his characters, but let one example suffice. The two are lying on their stomachs in a park, having a lovers’ conversation that Borzage shoots in two shot. He cuts to a glowing close-up of Sullavan (he was always infatuated with her), sharing his enjoyment of her. Then, the camera still, Hans/Montgomery leans his head into the frame, the two blissful lovers forehead-to-forehead. It’s a remarkable moment, Hans rightfully taking his place with his lover, displacing the director’s and the audience’s eye from her loveliness. But we still see something: About as physical a manifestation of romance as you could ever conceive of.
As for politics, despite the studios’ edict against criticizing the Nazis, it’s all around them. One recurring character is a rabble-rousing street speaker. Insofar as we hear his spiel, it seems communist, but his physical presence – or the absence of communist paraphernalia — makes him seem more freikorps than leftist. A character complains about street demonstrations, saying, “One night it’s the communists, the next night it’s the socialists, then it’s the…” when another character suddenly interrupts him. One of the “good guys” boasts he is a nudist, which is funny of course, but also an indication that he belonged to a movement which held that moral, physical, and political health amounted to a unity.
The movie has a “happy” ending, until you recall that it was made in 1934 and Borzage knew exactly what was in his lovers’ future.
Additionally, Little Man, What Now? boasts a great supporting performance from Alan Hale as a gigolo with a heart of gold and a very nice turn by Alan Mowbray as a comically, but dangerously, egocentric movie star.
You can ignore the movie’s opening message from Carl Laemmle. It has nothing to do with Borzage.
Jeremy Dille writes in with a thought-provoking question. Why is it that a viewer can find a movie lacking in nearly every measurable aspect of filmmaking yet still find it stimulating and/or attractive? Mr. Dille makes two very good suggestions: one is that one part — maybe the imaginative side — of the mind is overruling the other, more analytical portion. I think that is very often the case. Many times you hear someone say they’ll watch any old western, or you have a friend who goes to every horror movie and can’t explain why. There is something basic to cinema in all this, the pleasure of watching certain actions displayed on screen, preferably with some variation but enacted in any case. Some call these “guilty pleasures,” but I don’t think there is anything guilty about it at all. If a work of art stimulates one’s consciousness, that’s great. You have two eyes, you can have two ways of looking.
Mr. Dille’s second conjecture is that a movie’s very “emptiness,” a he nicely pits it, eliminates what could have been distractions from the ideas behind the movie (I hope my paraphrase is accurate). This is a big, big question in filmmaking, raised at widely varying aesthetic and intellectual levels. At the very top is Robert Bresson, who has written how so much of so-called polished filmmaking involves “screens” or “scrims” which occlude a movie’s vision (or potential vision). That’s why, for example, he insists on almost deadpan performances from his casts; “acting,” he says, obscures humanity.
At the other, loonier end of the spectrum you have the defenders of the regrettably prolific Jesus Franco. This filmmaker couldn’t direct anyone through an elevator door; his incompetence is, in its perverse way, breathtaking. His more daring defenders argue that his crude style is an asset because it simultaneously refutes an artistically suffocating notion of professionalism and forces us to confront directly his intellectual pursuits (such as they are). Well, OK, if you say so.
The movie that prompted Mr. Dille’s thoughts was last year’s In Time, which was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, who won an Oscar for the screenplay of The Truman Show (1998), which he did not direct. A near-future sci-fi movie set in the U.S., In Time plays with the idea of life expectancy and its relation with the distribution of wealth. At birth everyone is outfitted with a device that will let them live only to the age of 25. You can buy and sell years — either directly or through exchanges — but obviously it is a one-way market. In the meantime, the gap between rich and poor has widened and the middle classes apparently destroyed. Justin Timberlake plays a young man who ultimately shakes up society.
I hold the movie in higher estimation than does Mr. Dille does, but it is not difficult to see what he dislikes about In Time. Niccol makes a good effort — largely successful, I’d say — to explore his ideas through action-film language, using the forms of an dependable old favorite, the lovers-on-the-run tale. But too often the movie breaks down under the temptation to illustrate the background ideas rather than to put them in real movie terms.
Perhaps I enjoyed In Time because it is what is called an “auteur‘s film.” That is, it’s a movie made by a director who has shown acuity, ingeniousness, an appreciation of humanity, stylistic control and other qualities in the past. And while perhaps there has been a lapse or two or three or whatever in the filmmaker’s current movie, it still retains enough of the director’s characteristic virtues to merit critical respect. Going through that is a movie critic’s job, though.
If you do like those virtues which appear to be lurking behind In Time, you might want to take a look at 1997′s Gattaca, Niccol’s directorial debut. Again set in the near future, and again set in a world where the rich have disproportionate control over the warp and woof of life (genetic manipulation in this case). Oddly, Niccol displays more self-assurance in his first outing than he would in his subsequent movies. It’s a good movie.
In response to Nick Pinta
John Wayne gave many great performances and appeared in a lot of great films. But perhaps the most crucial movie in which he starred was Howard Hawks’s Red River in 1948. Wayne was already a star by then and John Ford had just begun to trust him with more difficult roles, albeit in co-starring, not starring parts. But Hawks took the tough Wayne persona and, after Red River‘s opening scenes, aged it. Wayne was about 40 at the time, but here he played 60 (when 60 was a lot older than it is now), and a bitter, stubborn 60 at that. This is the Wayne that would show up in most of his great films to come.
Of course, Red River isn’t merely a great Wayne film; it’s a great film period. And Wayne’s performance — carefully guided by Hawks — might not have seemed so great if, even by today’s standards, the movie were not so harsh. But it’s worth noting what John Ford said to Hawks after Hawks ran the movie for him: “I didn’t know the son of a bitch could act.”
It’s also worth noting that Paul Fix is in Red River‘s cast. Fix is in many Wayne pictures because he was Wayne’s acting teacher; no doubt he influenced Wayne’s performance here.
In answer to Hyacinth Dellarosa
Anyone who likes the “spaghetti westerns” (awful term) of Sergio Leone, but hasn’t seen any others, is in for a treat. A range of filmmakers — from inspired journeymen to geniuses — were making European westerns during the 1960s and early ’70s.
A good place to start is Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966). Franco Nero, who was probably Italy’s biggest action star at the time, plays the mysterious drifter of the title, a gunman who drags a coffin behind his horse. Even by today’s standards the movie is unusually violent, but it is also brilliant, a stark vision of a moralist outraged by greed and official violence.
Corbucci was just as brilliant a stylist as Leone, though he spoke in his own voice. That voice can be heard at its chilling best in The Great Silence (1969), in which the Spanish Pyrenees double for snow-covered American mountains. Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as a gunman who tracks down bounty hunters and kills them after provoking them into drawing first. A tough task made harder by his inability to speak, it reaches its greatest test when he goes to an isolated Mormon community to take on Klaus Kinski. This is a bleak and perhaps overpowering film. Don’t go to it looking for chuckles.