It was a little over 100 years ago that the writing team of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre first began cranking out Fantômas mystery novels for a voracious European public. To keep apace with the relentless publication schedule, Souvestre and Allain traded writing duties. They would playfully build impossible cliffhangers before handing off to one another, daring the other to concoct a solution. It was perhaps the first commercial application of the Surrealists’ famous “exquisite corpse” game.
Over the years, the Fantômas character has appeared in a frenzied array of movie adaptations of differing degrees of quality. Arguably the most faithful adaptation to date is the 1979 TV miniseries–not necessarily the best, mind you, but the truest to the books. And as it happened, the authenticity extended behind the scenes: the producers decided to hire two visionary filmmakers to direct alternating episodes, in the spirit of Allain and Souvestre’s gonzo writing habits.
So here we are, in the middle of November, sandwiched between the release of the latest James Bond flick and the upcoming release of the new Star Wars. The War on Terror rages on, with no end in sight. The Coen Brothers have migrated to TV where Fargo is ripping it up. Wouldn’t it be awesome if somehow, all these different experiences could be smoothed together into one event? Wouldn’t that just save so much time?
So, I present to you, The Men Who Stare At Goats. A spy-comedy derived as a fictionalized adaptation of a controversial non-fiction book about “psychic soldiers” fighting in Iraq, with overt Star Wars in-jokes…I can’t say it’s a good movie, but it has so much else going for it, quality might be beside the point.
There are times when the received wisdom on a movie separates from the movie itself and starts to run down a track of its own. Consider “Play it again, Sam,” the Thing Everybody Knows about Casablanca even though that line is never spoken in the film. Thinking that’s a line in Casablanca is a trivial error with no real consequences—the sentiment is recognizable from the film, such that it can be true-ish if not strictly accurate.
But then there’s the strange case of Dr. Caligari. Somewhere along the line, the Thing Everybody Knows about this landmark classic of horror cinema took root in our culture like intellectual kudzu—quickly overtaking all available territory and choking to death all the alternative points of view. Thankfully, this remarkable film is making a mini-comeback thanks to some intrepid restorationists, affording an opportunity to rethink its legacy. (Plus it’s on TCM this Sunday, so now’s the time to read up and do our homework on it, right?)
So what do we find here? Two different fortune tellers, neither one genuine. A dead man who isn’t dead—or, put another way, a man who is killed twice. Two different characters who kill a loved one, a set of secret microfilm that is stolen twice, a fake blind man, fake cops, a fake delivery of some fake books to a fake address. Is Mr. Travers the same man as Dr. Forester, or is Mr. Travers the same man as Mr. Costa? Which Mrs. Bellane is the real one—or is neither one of them a real person?
OK, slow down. Take this one step at a time.
Mike Nichols was a veteran comedy director of stage and screen, not to mention a comedy performer of no small renown. He would go on to become of the few people to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and a Tony (the fabled EGOT)—all but the Emmy being won for his comedy work.
Buck Henry was a prolific comedy writer whose career had taken him from the writing staff of The Steve Allen Show to co-creating Get Smart with Mel Brooks to updating Howard Hawks’ screwball classic Bringing Up Baby for a new generation under the title What’s Up Doc? In the years to come he would become a recurring host of Saturday Night Live, a contributor to The Daily Show and a guest star on 30 Rock.
Together they had collaborated on The Graduate, and Catch 22. They had a contractual obligation to producer Joseph E. Levine for a third film—and so in 1973 Mike Nichols and Buck Henry made a paranoid conspiracy thriller about a plot to use talking dolphins to assassinate the President. This is a not a joke.
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on December 29, 2013
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]
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on August 26, 2012
In my last post I provided a look behind the curtain for the first five weeks of film programming for my fall film calendar. This week we look at the remaining 24 titles that round out the schedule. It features everything from classics such as Vertigo to the state premiere of the latest uncompromising and visually arresting film by Bruno Dumont, Outside Satan (a scene of which is pictured above). [...MORE]
Posted by David Kalat on June 23, 2012
Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter? Seriously?
I took my kids to The Avengers a few weeks ago and we were assaulted by a preview for Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. Both kids, almost simultaneously, leaned in to me to ask in incredulous bafflement, “This is a movie? For realsies?” (That’s how 14 year-olds talk these days. For realsies). Now, just consider how far off the mean you have to have wandered to have the audience for The Avengers think your premise is too preposterous.
Well, the fact is, the definitive Abraham Lincoln action movie already exists—and has done for over 60 years. If it was a person, it could retire. Now, this fantastic action thriller may not have Lincoln in very many scenes (one, if you’re counting), but it’s about Lincoln, it’s an action thriller, and it hits it out of the friggin’ park, so…
We’re here to enjoy The Tall Target. And hoo boy is there a lot to enjoy.
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on May 6, 2012
Quatermass creator and screenwriter Nigel Kneale (1922 – 2006) has his roots in the Isle of Man, a small patch of over 200 square miles in size that is located between Great Britain and Ireland. Megalithic monuments that heralded a new development in human technology began to appear on the Isle of Man during the Neolithic Age. At present, the island is the center for various competing private space travel companies that are vying for a thirty million dollar Google Lunar X Prize, organized by the X Prize Foundation. “X” marks the spot, and in this case it’s where reality and space travel intersect, bringing us back to Nigel Kneale and The Quatermass Xperiment (U.S. title: The Creeping Unknown), which was the first feature film to introduce his beloved alien-battling character of Professor Bernard Quatermass of the British Experimental Rocket Group. [...MORE]
Posted by David Kalat on September 10, 2011
The late 1970s was a period in film comparable to the present day: Hollywood developed a fixation on geek culture, turning out comic book movies and remakes of older sci-fi productions, while Lucas and Spielberg created new versions of well-worn pulp forms. Part of the leading edge of this trend was Dino DeLaurentiis’ 1976 King Kong.
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