LIGHTERS OF THE LAMP

Al Pacino & Frank Serpico

Pope Francis may have edged out Eric Snowden as “Person of the Year” at TIME magazine, but the contributions by the latter have had a deep and ongoing impact on our national psyche. A lot of whistleblowers wind up dead, behind bars, labeled traitors, or – like Snowden – on the run. Small wonder they’ve also found their lives dramatized on film. Their actions inevitably wrestle with big moral questions and all kinds of risks. They flirt with danger and sometimes succumb to tragedy. The high drama lends itself to the screen. Surely some 100 movies out there deal with the topic, many well regarded and yet to be seen by me. For example, I must have been asleep all of 2005, because I missed both The Constant Gardener and North County that year, films I still need to watch when time allows. My own short list must therefore be taken with a grain-of-salt. It’s not comprehensive so much as a casual cluster of what comes to mind. The consolation prize is that two of these will screen on TCM next month. [...MORE]

It’s Not Too Late to Start Again (Virus 1980)

The late 1970s and early 1980s were lousy with disaster flicks, a sub-genre to which Virus unquestionably belongs.  Apocalypse thrillers have always been in vogue, but they do tend to shift in tone with the cultural zeitgeist. But there was something about the Cold War era that gave rise to some wonderful end-of-the-world movies the likes of which we don’t really encounter anymore.  The bizarre illogic of the Cold War was somehow more conducive to nightmare poetry: two superpowers armed with enough firepower to destroy life on Earth countless times over, where in order to preserve the peace they each must threaten total war.  The only thing keeping those nukes in their holsters was the promise of Mutually Assured Destruction (quite appropriately, MAD).  Edward Albee couldn’t have thunk up any better.

And Virus, mind you, is the gift that keeps on giving.  It’s a rip-snorting good movie that packs in not just one apocalypse, but two.

virus

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Bring Out the Permed Hair: Remembering the 1980s

I have been an ardent film-goer my entire life, but I think I reached a peak during the 1980s. At the time, I was finishing my doctorate at Northwestern while working as a book editor, and I looked forward to weekends when my friend Maryann and I went to the movies both Friday and Saturday nights. To say we were avid movie-goers doesn’t adequately describe it: We saw anything and everything.

Now that I teach film history, I have noticed that the decade of the 1980s does not always get a fair assessment in text books. Coming after the legendary Film School Generation, in which directors like Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, Malick, Lumet, Ashby, Friedkin, DePalma, and others explored and experimented with film form and content, the 1980s saw a return to more conventional filmmaking. The decade’s focus on genre movies, return to larger-than-life movie stars, flirtation with franchises, and dependence on blockbusters are generally painted as a precursor to the aesthetically bankrupt Hollywood of the millennium. Though the current industry systems and practices that have robbed Hollywood of its imagination and craftsmanship did begin in the 1980s, I find the decade to be richer and more diverse than generally acknowledged.

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN PLAYS A SINGING, DANCING PIMP IN ‘PENNIES FROM HEAVEN.’

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