David Bordwell and “The Rhapsodes”: Old-School Film Critics

blogopenerThe sheer volume of movie reviews suggests that everyone and their mothers have become film critics. And, I mean that literally. I once worked as the managing editor of a video magazine. One day a young woman phoned to tell me that she and her mother would like to review movies for the magazine, particularly “old” movies. By that she meant movies from the 1970s. She assured me they were qualified because, “We watch a lot of movies from the 1970s.”

Before the Internet “democratized” film reviewing, critics like Ebert, Denby, Turan, and Rosenbaum wrote for newspapers, journals, or magazines. Movie-lovers of my generation read their reviews and essays because they were well written, and each review taught us something about film or culture. The critic I followed religiously was Dave Kehr, who wrote for the Chicago Reader, then the Chicago Tribune, before moving to one of the New York papers. He is currently a film curator at MoMA.

The proliferation of reviewing in recent years has watered down the art or craft of film criticism. Few reviewers are distinct writers, let alone talented ones. Cheap sarcasm has replaced style, particularly for young reviewers who look for reasons to dislike a film so they can jab at it. What they don’t realize is that this snarky discourse makes their reviews sound so similar they are virtually interchangeable. Film scholar David Bordwell’s latest book, The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture, reminded me of the dismal state of contemporary reviewing because it chronicles the work of four film critics who not only knew how to write but who had distinctive voices and points of view. [...MORE]

Vertigo: Hitchcock was wrong

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“VERTIGO: ver´ti-go –
a feeling of dizziness . . .
a swimming in the head . . .
figuratively a state in which all things seem to be engulfed
in a whirlpool of terror.” – from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)

The title of my post is somewhat deceiving but that’s the idea. Today I’m going to talk a little bit about deception in the movies, particularly when it comes to the medical condition known as vertigo.

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Are the Legends of Tomorrow Already Here?

Today on TCM, the 1982 comedy My Favorite Year airs and it marked Peter O’Toole’s twentieth year as a star.  His stardom began with his breakout role in Lawrence of Arabia in 1962 and continued, with some ups and downs, for the next 50 plus years.  He even has a movie out in 2016, three years after his death.  It’s The Whole World at Our Feet and obviously whatever part he has in it was filmed some time ago.   His career, on the whole, probably has many more duds than hits and his selection wasn’t always the best.  There were long dry spells in his career, enough that his starring role in The Stunt Man, released in 1980, was considered a comeback for him, even though he’d been nominated for Best Actor just eight years prior for The Ruling Class.  The problem was, after The Ruling Class, he appeared in one flop after another.  Still, there’s no doubt that O’Toole left this life a legend and also little doubt that his eventual status as a legend was probably cemented right out of the starting gate with that breakout role as Lawrence.  For many others, the path has not been so clear.

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The Sequels That Never Were

Coming on TCM tomorrow is one of those sequels that was never necessary but also turned out to be not bad.  The sequel is 2010: The Year We Make Contact, the original is 2001: A Space Odyssey, and, of course, both movies now take place in the past, a past somehow completely missing smart phones and Facebook.  It’s a tough business predicting the future but it’s just another workday in Hollywood taking popular story lines and characters and rehashing them for one more go around.  In 2010, the characters are actually different except for the spirit/presence of Dave Bowman, but it’s an extension of the story.  And while I didn’t much care for that particular story extension, there are three classic Hollywood films that never got a sequel (or the sequel I wanted) that, frankly, I wouldn’t have minded seeing.  And I should clarify that up front, that I’m not necessarily talking about movies that didn’t have sequels.  One of the movies I’m thinking of did indeed have a sequel, just not the one I wanted to see.  Speaking of which…

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We Are Not Alone: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Forbidden Planet

Today on TCM, two of my favorite sci-fI movies air, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Forbidden Planet.  They approach their aliens from distinctly different angles but share characteristics that have always kept them at or near the top of my favorite sci-fi movies list.  The fact that I saw both of them for the first time in 1977 might be one of the reasons I have always thought of them in the same breath but there are other reasons, too, and I believe that both exemplify the best that science fiction cinema has to offer.

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All My Favorites in One Place: The Best Casts Ever Assembled

A few months ago, I wrote a piece here on some of my favorite ensembles of supporting players where the leads were far from my favorite thing.  I focused on how with certain movies, the main story didn’t grab me but the great supporting cast did.  Well, as I wrote that I already had in mind a piece on my favorite casts, period, the ones in which I love pretty much every lead and supporting player in the enterprise.  Still, I didn’t think about it far beyond that original post until coming upon a movie on the schedule today and everything came flooding back in.  The movie is The Wild Bunch and it’s one of my favorite movies, the kind that becomes a favorite from the moment you see it and remains so through multiple viewings down the road.  And one of the reasons it’s such a favorite is that cast.  One of the best casts ever assembled.

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The History Behind Watching Movies

How often have we decided to watch or not watch a movie based on nothing more than a feeling?  This movie or that movie may have gotten excellent reviews or recommendations from trusted companions that it’s incredibly fun and entertaining but we decide we’d rather watch this tried and true personal favorite instead.  This has happened to me dozens of times.  I forsake the viewing of an unknown quantity with the viewing of a known quantity, and a personal favorite at that.   Now, how many times has actual history, as in the history you study in school and read about in large volumes written by scholars and historians, influenced the decision?  If you’re me, the answer is still “dozens of times.”  Some movies I will watch in an instant if it involves some kind of historical recreation that fascinates me.  Others, I won’t even bother.

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Your Mother Should Know

As we look forward to a day of programming from TCM in which Mildred Pierce and I Remember Mama both play as a nod to Mother’s Day (what, no Stella Dallas?!), I look back to the programming that made its way into my head every day throughout my youth, programming of the old school kind.   The kind that came from my mom.  You see, while my dad was a great guy who enjoyed movies to the extent that anyone on earth enjoys movies, my mom really loved the cinema and it was her early influence on me that guided me towards my own love of cinema and where I am today.

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There’s a Lesson to be Learned Here

When we think of message movies, we tend to think of the Stanley Kramer variety where a serious social issue is dealt with heavy-handedly by an all-star cast letting us know it’s time for a lesson in civics that sorely needs to be learned.   They aren’t all like that, of course.  Sometimes the message is interwoven into a movie that deals with its characters and story first and puts the message in service of the plot and not the other way around.  Crossfire, for instance, which airs today on TCM, is a thriller first, a message movie second.  But what about all those movies that so subtly hide their message they’re not considered message movies at all?  They still have lessons for us, if you know where to look.

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Wait, that’s what it’s about?!

We all make mistakes.  I’ve made far too many to count at this point in my life but we learn from our mistakes as well.  Sometimes, at least.  One mistake I have repeatedly made in the world of cinema is not fully investigating what a movie is about before deciding whether or not to see it.  I don’t mean reading up on the plot, I mean just a basic idea of the story.   In many of these cases, when I finally discovered, by finally watching the movie, what it was really about, I was annoyed at myself that I hadn’t seen it sooner.  Today, Peter Weir’s 1977 masterpiece, The Last Wave, airs today on TCM.  It’s the poster movie for this kind of thing with me and when I finally watched it, it became an instant favorite.  The same has happened for many others.

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