Survival is no way to live (Part 1)

Rituals

Next to horror movies I’m a big fan of movies about survival, about people lost in some kind of hostile environment, who must rely on their native cunning and whatever tools are handy in order to make it out alive. These two very different types of movies have a lot in common: both are about protagonists who are tested, pushed beyond the limits of their abilities and, often, their understanding, who must adapt to present circumstances or die. Back before the downbeat ending became factory standard for the horror genre, fright films often resolved in problem-solving for the heroes. Just off the top of my head, movies like THE KILLER SHREWS (1959) and ISLAND OF TERROR (1965) become in their last acts siege scenarios, with the protagonists bugging in, barricading, and beating off, as best they can, the assaulting force. Survival movies and horror movies have a shared bloodline that can result in some glorious bastardy, such as RITUALS (1977), which marries the backwoods vibe of DELIVERANCE (1972) with the see-how-they-die enumeration of the nascent slasher subgenre (born the following year, for all intents and purposes, with HALLOWEEN.) Even after John Carpenter transplanted Gothic horror to suburbia, genre practitioners continued to set slashers in the woods – FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), HUMONGOUS (1981), JUST BEFORE DAWN (1981), THE FINAL TERROR (1983), to name only a few examples. But where survival and horror part company, for me, is the intention of the filmmaker. I like movies about characters who have a chance, who have a shot. Most slasher films reserve that privilege for the Final Girl, which means you have to sit through 80-odd minutes devoted to the deaths of people who don’t even know they’re in danger until a machete finds its way into their faces. And that’s no fun for me. I’m a big fan of process, of characters riding the learning curve, or falling off of it, and of the question these films ask us: how far could we go?  [...MORE]

If I Were Offering a Movie-Location Tour

tourbus* Thursday is generally Morlock Kimberly’s territory, but she is taking a brief break. I know her fans will miss her, but I will do my best to fill her blogging shoes.

When I was a college student working the graveyard shift at a truck stop, a movie crew stopped by one morning to have breakfast. The crew was on their way to dress the set for Harvest Home, a TV mini-series starring Bette Davis. Being one of those flirtatious truck-stop girls, I was invited to come onto the set to watch the filming. I am sure the crew member thought it was his idea all along! It was exciting to watch as the town square in tiny Kingsville, Ohio, morphed into a thriving New England farming village. The experience gave me a life-long fascination with visiting movie locations, a pastime that I parlayed into a book a few years ago titled Florida on Film: The Essential Guide to Sunshine State Cinema.

As part of their agenda to entertain and educate the public about classic cinema, Turner Classic Movies has put their own spin on movie tourism by offering the TCM Movie Location Tour in Los Angeles and the TCM Classic Film Tour in New York City. While no one at Turner has asked my opinion on these matters, I whole-heartedly suggest Chicago for their next movie-location tour. From the pioneering efforts of Colonel William Selig to the slapstick antics of Charlie Chaplin to the overblown atrocities of Michael Bay, Chicago has been an active center for movie-making. Few people realize Chicago’s importance, because writers and documentarians too ingrained in the canon of film history regularly leave out the city’s contributions. (Film historians Michael Smith and Adam Selzer hope to compensate for this oversight with their upcoming book Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry, soon to be published by Wallflower Press).

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When You See the Remake First

Paul Mazursky, the actor/writer/director whose movies I grew up with, died yesterday and, as with the death of any famed director/writer/actor, I immediately began to think of his movies.  One of the first to spring to mind was Willie and Phil, from 1980, with Margot Kidder, Michael Ontkean, and Ray Sharkey.  It was a loose remake of Jules and Jim (and even shows the characters exiting a theater playing Jules and Jim).  The thing is, I saw it before I saw Jules and Jim and thus ending up comparing the original to the latter, rather than the other way around, when I saw it (the original won… sorry, Paul, although I remain a fan of Willie and Phil, nonetheless).  The second to spring to mind was another remake, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, a remake of the great Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning.  And again, I saw the remake first (and again, the original won out when I finally saw it for a film club discussion some years ago).  Turns out, I’ve seen quite a few remakes before seeing the original and sometimes I even think it’s a pretty good idea.

Willie and Phil

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Father and Son: The Watchmaker of St. Paul (1974)

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The last outpost of the retail cinephile shrine Kim’s Video is shutting down this year. I made one last pilgrimage to its lower east side redoubt in NYC to experience the disappearing pleasure of browsing. The simpleminded algorithms at Amazon and Netflix want to give you more of the same, regurgitating films from the same genre, actor or director. What they miss is the pleasure of turning down an aisle and entering a different world. I had no title in mind when walking in, only knowing I needed to make one last purchase before Kim’s was replaced by an upscale frogurt shop or whatever. At first I pawed the BFI DVD of E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly (1929), the raucous silent starring Anna May Wong. Netflix’s “More like Piccadilly” section offered random unrelated silents, from Chaplin to Pickford, while Amazon’s slightly more helpful recommendations were a Wong biography and a few of her films on public domain DVD. At Kim’s, in the Region 2 DVD section, I stumbled upon Bertrand Tavernier’s debut feature The Watchmaker of St. Paul (1974, aka The Clockmaker). I have had Tavernier idly on the mind for a few years, as I have much admired his last two features (The Princess of Montpensier and The French Minister) while being mostly unacquainted with his earlier work. Thus I gently placed Piccadilly on the shelf, and brought The Watchmaker of St. Paul to the knowledgeable cashier, who had seen a screening of the film at Anthology Film Archives, though seemed underwhelmed. The clerks at Kim’s had a reputation for being snotty, but I’ve always found them to be remarkably informed and helpful – though perhaps they could spot that I was one of their own grubby tribe.

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Happy Birthday, Torchy Blane

glendaopenerToday, June 30, marks the birthday of one of Warner Bros.’s brassiest blondes, Glenda Farrell. Farrell was a working actress from the age of 7 until she died in 1971 at age 66. She began her career in the theater, playing Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and she ended it there, starring as the lead in 40 Carats on Broadway. However, Farrell made her greatest contribution to popular culture during the 1930s, when she was one of several tough-talking blondes under contract to Warner Bros.

The studio that used Depression-era headlines as a source for scripts catered to a traumatized working class, specializing in tales of gangsters, kept women, working stiffs, and tough-talking dames—especially blondes. Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, Una Merkel, and Glenda Farrell all played characters described as wise-cracking dames, with each star putting their own spin on this archetype. Farrell was perhaps the brassiest—a fast-talking, bleached blonde who could never be accused of naiveté.

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THE VERTIGO OF TIME

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Unlike Chris Marker (1921 – 2012), I am not an editor, poet, videographer, novelist, digital multimedia artist, or filmmaker. Even on a strictly personal level we are worlds apart, him having been a Salinger-like enigma who famously avoided interviews and photographs, me being a “nothing close to Salinger-like on any level” kind of guy who just last week photo-bombed his own shot of John Waters in a manner that would make even the paparazzi cringe. And yet, despite our many differences, there is something about Chris Marker that always elicits in me a feeling of deep kinship – and not just because we both love cats. The answer, I think, lies in one word: Vertigo. [...MORE]

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June 28, 2014
David Kalat
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Caligari Glen Ross (Expressionism is for Closers)

Now that the announcement has been made official I can go ahead and ‘fess up: I recently recorded an audio commentary for the newly restored Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for the UK Blu-Ray release by Masters of Cinema.  It was a huge thrill for me—I’d been wanting to do a Caligari commentary for years and no one had asked me yet.  But not only was it a chance to finally yammer my way through Robert Wiene’s masterwork, but this new restoration is simply stunning—it’s from the original 35mm negative.  Looks like it was shot yesterday.

And seeing this film fresh makes all the difference in the world, because there are so many myths and misconceptions about Caligari that need clearing up.  Like, that this film is some kind of avant garde work of art.  Because (ahem) it’s not.

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KEYWORDS: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
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If I may…

Get Out of Blogging Free

 

… I’d like to play the Get Out of Blogging Free card today. There are no hard and fast rules about these things but I intend this to be single use, for my benefit, though I encourage my fellow bloggers to sock this away for a day that may not be rainy so much as packed to the rafters with doings and need-doings. Such is my Friday, which does not permit me the opportunity of gassing on about some arcane cinema fact, nerd gripe, or nutjob theory of mine. I am off the grid by 2pm and unplugged through Sunday. Have a great weekend and see you next Friday!

“I wonder if my brother remembers his brother?” – Remembering Eli Wallach 1915-2014

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“I wonder if my brother remembers his brother?”
- Tuco (Eli Wallach) in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966)

We lost Eli Wallach on June 26th at the ripe old age of 98. The talented actor was beloved by film fans and fellow actors so quickly cobbled together obituaries as well as many heartfelt tributes have begun flooding the World Wide Web. It’s with much trepidation that I tip my own toe into these grief-filled waters but since hearing the news I haven’t been able to get Wallach out of my head. The Brooklyn born son of Jewish parents who immigrated to America from Poland appeared in over 150 films and television productions including BABY DOLL (1956), THE LINEUP (1958), SEVEN THIEVES (1960), THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), THE MISFITS (1961), HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962), THE VICTORS (1963), LORD JIM (1965), THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966), THE TIGER MAKES OUT (1967), ACE HIGH (1968) and THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR (1970), which are just a few early highlights from his lengthy body of work. And while it’s difficult to point to a favorite role in a career as vast and varied as Wallach’s I can’t deny that his unforgettable turn as the grinning bandito in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY has had the biggest and most long-lasting impact on me. It’s a film I first saw nearly 40 years ago with my father when I was just an impressionable kid and much like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (another favorite Wallach film), THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is a movie that I have returned to countless times and each viewing experience becomes richer and more rewarding.

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So How Do You Follow The Blue Angel?

The other day, my Netflix account provided me with a strange couple of recommendations based on something I had recently watched.  This is something to which every user of Netflix has grown accustomed, that is, not only getting the recommendations but sometimes getting strange ones.  The algorithm is usually fairly sound. If, for instance, I watch The Sound of Music, it might recommend Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, and West Side Story.  All perfectly reasonable.  West Side Story may not be much like The Sound of Music, but it’s a big musical based on a stage play and it won Best Picture so the recommendation isn’t outlandish.  It might even throw in non-musicals like Torn Curtain or The Americanization of Emily because those also starred Julie Andrews and maybe it thinks I might want to see more of her work.  The other night, however, Netflix informed me that “based on [my] interest in The Blue Angel…” I might also be interested in Cool Hand Luke and 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Um, okay.  So, it’s not always perfect.  But what I started thinking was, “What would I recommend to someone just venturing into the world of film fandom after they watch a director’s biggest movie?”  Once you see Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, 8 1/2, The Seven Samurai, Vertigo, The Rules of the Game, etc, what do you watch next?  Put more simply, how do you follow The Blue Angel?

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