Yearly Archives: 2008

On the Web: Cinema Treasures

Thanks to a post by , I’ve just discovered the existence of a remarkable site cataloging almost 23,000 movie theaters around the world, including all nine of those in northwestern Alabama that were owned and/or operated by my grandfather between roughly 1919 and 1960, only a couple of which are still standing today (neither of which still shows movies). There’s also quite a lot of factual information about these theaters available on this site.

Cinema Treasures also features almost 1600 photographs of theaters, though, alas, not any of the nine run by my grandfather. It seems that the people in charge of this site got inundated with more photos of theaters than they could cope with, so they’re not currently adding any more, at least for the time being. But since a good many photos of my family’s former theaters are available in my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), I’ve decided to reproduce a few here, restricting myself to exterior views of four of them. Directly overhead are the two that are still standing—the Shoals in Florence (which opened in 1948, and is seen here just after it opened) and the Ritz in Sheffield (which opened in 1928).… Read more »

Recommended Reading: Sadeq Hedayat’s THREE DROPS OF BLOOD

I find it curious that the great Iranian prose writer Sadeq Hedayat (1903-1951) should remind me so much of Edgar Allan Poe, because their backgrounds couldn’t be more dissimilar. Poe (1809-1849) was poor his entire life and Hedayat came from a very wealthy and privileged background; Poe lived in several American cities but never left the U.S. whereas Hedayat lived for extended periods in Belgium, France, and India as well as Iran.

Before the recent publication of Three Drops of Blood, a collection of Hedayat stories, I’d read only his novella The Blind Owl (1936), one of the most terrifying and unsettling horror stories I know, as well as a few of his other stories in French. It seems that most of his work is (or at least has been) available in French, but until the appearance of this slim anthology, The Blind Owl–freely if brilliantly adapted by Raul Ruiz in one of his craziest features, La Chouette Aveugle (1987)–has been virtually the only thing of his available in English. (12/25 postscript: Adrian Martin has just informed me that one can access many Hedayat stories in English translation, including The Blind Owl, for free here.Read more »

Elizabeth Drew on FROST/NIXON

Given my overall admiration for Elizabeth Drew as a sensible and straightforward political commentator, I’m happy to have her account in The Huffington Post of what’s dishonorable about the historical distortions of the recent Frost/Nixon movie. Even though I enjoyed the latter as middlebrow entertainment in the Stanley Kramer mode, which goaded me into ordering and watching some of the original David Frost/Richard Nixon dialogues—generally finding Ron Howard as a director to be one of the abler purveyors of this kind of  dubious material, which I sometimes have a weakness for—it’s always useful to have someone like Drew pointing out the various misrepresentations.

Why, then, can’t I count on Drew to sidestep the grotesque Hollywood distortions about Nixon that automatically come with seeing him as “a tragic Shakespearean figure”—an absurd inflation that appears to have been invented by either Oliver Stone or his publicist (assuming that there’s a meaningful distinction to be made between the two) as part of the promotional campaign for his 1995 White Elephant Nixon starring Anthony Hopkins?

For me, there’s something unnerving about the way Nixon (the person) has been absurdly elevated and even validated in this cheesy fashion in order to sell a ridiculously overheated piece of merchandise, which Drew is all ready to buy into without blinking.… Read more »

DVD Beaver’s New Toolbar

The energetic and resourceful Gary Tooze at DVD Beaver has recently created a DVD Beaver Toolbar that, among many other useful features (such as listing the current temperature anywhere in the world–e.g., in Chicago right now, “25̊̊ F, few clouds, feels like 17̊̊”), includes a link to this web site, under Cinephilia (which so far includes only four other entries). You can also get notified about new emails, access some radio stations, and be routed to various film-related forums with this gizmo. [12/11/08]… Read more »

Campaign and Post-Campaign Mode (THE ORDER OF MYTHS and MILK)

Now that it’s winter, it shouldn’t be surprising that a large part of the American populace seems locked into some sort of hibernation mode–a state of mind that suggests that virtually all of the country’s problems can be blamed on George W. Bush and virtually none of them can be blamed on the people who voted for George W. Bush. But a more immediate problem is one that involves adjusting to the fact that the very long and recently concluded presidential campaign is no longer in operation. Milk addresses a mindset I would associate with campaign agitprop mode, a mindset that forsakes nuanced and complex analysis for the sake of immediate uplift; The Order of Myths addresses us in a more analytical mode. Of course, given the outlawing of same-sex marriage in California in the last election, an election-mode form of agitprop may be more functional at the moment, at least where homophobia is concerned, but this doesn’t necessarily entail more thoughtful filmmaking.

As nearly as I can remember, Mobile is the only city in Alabama of any significant size that I never visited during the first 16 years of my life, when I was growing up in that state—nor have I ever made it to Mobile since.… Read more »

American Self-Scrutiny, Writ Large

“I just don’t think America’s ready for a black president. And I don’t mean that in a racial way whatsoever.” (McCain supporter, quoted by Matt Taibbi in “Requiem for a Maverick” in the November 27 Rolling Stone)… Read more »

My Son John

Okay, this 1952 Leo McCarey melodrama is flawed, even deranged in its second half, when the combined difficulties of Robert Walker’s sudden death during the film’s production and McCarey’s crazed view of the Communist Menace yield a creepy form of paranoid hysteria and delirium. But this is also one of the most moving and complexly felt movies McCarey ever made — also one of the best acted, especially for Walker, Helen Hayes, and Dean Jagger. Writing about Robert Warshow many years ago, Donald Phelps wrongly accused him of overrating Monsieur Verdoux but rightly accused him of underrating this film. Its continuing unavailability on DVD is a disservice both to McCarey’s memory and to his audience. [11/16/08]… Read more »

Euphoria

We’ve finally elected a grownup.

John McCain’s concession speech was his finest moment.

The major triumph, at least potentially, isn’t left over right but unity over disunity. Which means that President Obama is bound to do some things that will distress his more progressive supporters as well as other things that will upset his detractors. His Lincolnesque brief—to end another Civil War, or at least to call a cease-fire—virtually guarantees this. But assuming that it’s still possible to think and act and feel together, it’s a hopeful start. [11/5/08]… Read more »

Changeling

Far be it for me to invent wimpy liberal alibis for police corruption in 1928 Los Angeles, punitive electroshock, a pederast serial killer, and cosmic injustice in general, but the main thing wrong with Clint Eastwood’s view of evil in this movie is how childish it seems. I don’t care if he’s 78 and apparently has some fixation about innocent boys abducted by sex maniacs; even if the plot periodically suggests a remake of Mystic River, the cackling villains belong in a Hopalong Cassidy western, not to mention Dirty Harry. The opening intertitle calls this “a true story,” but whether it’s verifiable that Christine Collins was really saved from electroshock just in the nick of time by Hopalong (John Malkovich, in the film’s only interesting performance) coming to her rescue is a matter worthy of some skepticism. And even if that really happened, would it justify Angelina Jolie’s terrible Oscar-mongering performance and all the attendant grandstanding, gigantic close-ups, and directorial pretensions that this movie’s “dark” view of human existence is some form of maturity? All I could think about was the usual compulsive kid stuff–McCain and Palin fulminating about the “good guys” and “bad guys”. [11/2/08]… Read more »

Two Early Long-Take Climaxes (The Magnificent Ambersons & A Star is Born)

Only about nine minutes into The Magnificent Ambersons, we enter the front door of the Amberson mansion along with a few guests to attend their grand ball, and the film not only moves into high gear; it leaps to a summit so high that in a way all that the remaining 70-add minutes of the film can do after this sequence is refer back to it, recall it, cross-reference it in numerous ways.

It’s almost 22 minutes into the 1954 A Star is Born when, along with Norman Maine, we enter the front door of a sleepy after-hours cabaret where swing musicians and a vocalist, Esther Blodgett, are performing exclusively for themselves. Esther casually slides into a chorus of “The Man Who Got Away”, and slowly she builds from there. Once again, a film suddenly leaps to such a high level of intensity , in this case for about four minutes, that all the remainder of the film—in this case, 150 minutes—can do is fitfully and wistfully remember that pinnacle, refer back to it musically and emotionally in a variety of ways.

Both films, of course, surivive today in the form of ruins, so we can’t speak about them as integral works with any confidence; even the “restored” A Star is Born is an incomplete similacrum.… Read more »

Synecdoche, New York

From the Chicago Reader (October 16, 2008). — J.R.

2008-synecdoche_new_york-2

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) makes his directorial debut with this feature, but it seems more like an illustration of his script than a full-fledged movie, proving how much he needs a Spike Jonze or a Michel Gondry to realize his surrealistic conceits. Tortured and torturous, it centers on a theater director from Schenectady (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who wins a MacArthur Fellowship but whose wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him; in response he tries to create a play that will represent his entire life experience, building a replica of New York City inside a warehouse. The usually resourceful Hoffman can’t sustain interest even after developing a receding hairline to make him resemble Jack Nicholson, and the other able players — Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Tom Noonan, Hope Davis, and Jennifer Jason Leigh — mainly tread water. R, 124 min. (JR)

SynecdocheNYRead more »

Of Time and the City

It seems incredible that Terence Davies, the greatest living English filmmaker, has made only five features in two decades. His first documentary, a multifaceted, mesmerizing, and eloquent essay about his native Liverpool, is as autobiographical and as intensely personal as his Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), so that his evolution as a lapsed Catholic and as a homosexual are as operative here as his working-class background and his taste in music and cinema. Being made up chiefly of found footage, this film lacks the mise en scene of its predecessors, but it has the added benefit of Davies’ voice-over narration, which, thanks to his training and experience as an actor, has an enormous performative power. (Check out the witty way he conveys his disdain for the Beatles through his delivery of one of their best-known refrains.) 72 min. (JR)… Read more »

Two Ambitious Web Sites

1. The preceding four images, and apparently thousands more, come from moviemags.com, “the site of movie magazines,” which Chicagoan Bill Stamets has just alerted me to. The gaps are in some ways more awesome than the inclusions, and the taste may seem closer to zines and the Video Search of Miami than to the usual library indexes and bibliographies, but there’s still a lot of information squirreled away here, and the search engine certainly helps.

2. The other site, Moving Image Source, is already mentioned elsewhere on this site because they’ve been commissioning several articles from me, and because they’ve featured an article that I’ve recommended by Chris Fujiwara. (Actually, two articles if one includes a postscript about his more recent piece on Jacques Tourneur’s Stranger on Horseback—a piece I still like, though I wish I liked the film more.) But I’d like to call attention here to two other features there, Research Guide and Calendar, both of which are invaluable. Below are abbreviated versions of two items included in each:

Pinewood Dialogues
An archive with downloadable audio and transcripts of talks with filmmakers and actors, including Robert Altman, David Cronenberg, Mira Nair, Forest Whitaker, and more.

Millenium Film Journal
Published since 1978 by the Millenium Film Workshop, the Millenium Film Journal focuses on avant-garde cinema and practice, and covers a range of moving image technologies.… Read more »

Derek

If you’re already familiar with the experimental and queer cinema of English artist Derek Jarman (1942-1994), you won’t want to miss this multifaceted tribute by Isaac Julien. Built around a late interview with Jarman, it draws on a personal lecture by his actress and friend Tilda Swinton and many clips, homes movies, and other materials. On the other hand, if you’d like an introduction to his art, your time would be better spent seeing The Last of England, Edward II, or Wittgenstein. This tribute has too many cooks and too many agendas to permit easy comprehension, especially when it comes to distinguishing the brief, unidentified clips from the empathetic curlicues, voiceovers, and
commentaries of others. 76 min. (JR)

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