“Doubtless this tale of spirit possession in Georgetown packs a punch, but so does wood alcohol,“ wrote Reader critic Don Druker in an earlier review of this. I wouldn’t be quite so dismissive: as a key visual source for Mel Gibson’s depiction of evil in The Passion of the Christ as well as an early indication of how seriously pulp can be taken when religious faith is involved, this 1973 horror thriller is highly instructive as well as unnerving. William Friedkin, directing William Peter Blatty’s adaptation of his own novel, aims for the jugular, privileging sensation over sense and such showbiz standbys as vomit and obscenity over plodding exposition. This 2000 rerelease runs 132 minutes, 11 minutes longer than the original; with Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, and Lee J. Cobb. R. (JR)
Written for the 2019 catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. Tim Lucas has helpfully and subsequently furnished us with the following on Facebook: “According to his autobiography, Roger Corman — then a script reader at Fox — retrieved this script from a slush pile and presented it to a producer acquaintance as having worth, given a proper rewrite. He did it himself, then presented it to the producer, who — without telling him — got the film greenlit as a Peck vehicle and took all the credit. Corman promptly quit his job and set about becoming a producer outside the Hollywood studio structure.” — J.R.
Commonly described as an “adult” Western, The Gunfighter (1950) differs from both the Freudian Pursued (1947) and the classical The Furies (1950). Though it comes close to equating screen time with real time, without any rhetorical emphasis (as High Noon brings with clocks), its method is historical revisionism, postulating a “real” West that tragically undermines the ones we accept in other Westerns. It plays an intricate double game with genre expectations, satisfying some demands and implicitly chiding us for certain others. Significantly, the film’s first and final images are almost identical but register as antithetical in moral significance. Read more
Made for the unthinkable sum of $7,000, Paul E. Garstki’s independent black-and-white Chicago-based feature both profits and suffers from its impoverished budget. On the plus side, a largely postdubbed sound track allows the filmmakers to tell parts of the story through the ingenious economical device of using answering-machine messages and imaginary phone conversations offscreen. A thoughtful use of local talent (stage actors John Ellerton, Warren Davis, and Diana Zimmer as the three leads and lots of local independent filmmakers in secondary parts) and locations also makes the best use of William Holst’s somewhat minimalist script, adapted from a story by Garstki. A reclusive art critic hires a young protege, who moonlights as a surveillance photographer, to go to work on a young woman (an odd plot with faint echoes of The Draughtsman’s Contract and Paul Bartel’s The Secret Cinema, without much of the humor connected to either). The main budgetary drawback is the nearly nonexistent social context; the stilted art-world talk generally fails to convince because there isn’t enough of a world in the film to establish it as either parody or the genuine article, and the characters themselves seem at times excessively limited by the exigencies of the plot. The result, then, is uneven but singular–a quirky, rather disturbing little film about voyeurism and loneliness. Read more
The unholy mix of George Lucas’s colonialist nostalgia and Steven Spielberg’s fluency with action becomes more self-conscious in this fourth Indiana Jones outing. In 1957, two decades after the events of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the hero (Harrison Ford) joins forces with his old flame from Raiders of the Lost Ark (Karen Allen) and a young punk (Shia LaBeouf) to combat a Commie villain (Cate Blanchett, doing a variation on Garbo’s Ninotchka) in a remote corner of Peru. The character and plot contrivances are dumber than ever, but this is basically vaudeville, not narrative, and the thrills keep coming. (Once Indy has survived a nuclear blast early on, going over three waterfalls in a row without wetting his lighter is par for the course.) Spielberg’s extravagant action, much of it staged on what look like old sets from King Kong, includes pointed steals from The Naked Jungle (1954), Land of the Pharaohs (1955), The Ten Commandments (1956), and his own Close Encounters, E.T., and A.I. PG-13, 124 min. (JR) Read more
From Cineaste, Summer 2007. — J.R.
The Triumph of the American Imagination
by Neal Gabler. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. 851 pp.,
illus. Hardcover: $35.00.
This is the first book by Neal Gabler since his magisterial and eye-opening An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (1988) that hasn’t seriously disappointed me, though I didn’t warm to its virtues right away. His 1994 biography of Walter Winchell (Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity) had less of an impact on me than the 1971 journeyman’s effort of Bob Thomas (which I also preferred to Michael Herr’s 1990 musings on the subject), while Life, The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (1998), which I barely remember now, felt at the time like all windup and no delivery. And one clear limitation of this hefty volume from the outset, in spite of its strengths, is that Gabler can’t function very effectively as either a critic of Disney’s films or as a historian of Hollywood animation; his talent lies elsewhere.
Given Gabler’s privileged access to Disney files and papers, this may be the closest thing to an authorized biography that we can expect to get, but it doesn’t exactly add up to an apologia — even though it refutes charges of Disney being anti-Semitic, and, apart from occasionally conceding that he was mainly a passionately anti-union Goldwater Republican, tends to depoliticize him. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (August 25, 1995). — J.R.
Valley of Abraham
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Manoel de Oliveira
With Leonor Silveira, Cecile Sanz de Alba, Luis Miguel Cintra, Rui de Carvalho, Luis Lima Barreto, Diogo Doria, Jose Pinto, and Isabel Ruth.
I think the most important intellectual discovery I’ve made in the past year came from the early pages of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991. In a way, it’s an observation so obvious that I wonder why it never occurred to me before: “Unlike the ‘long 19th century,’ which seemed, and actually was, a period of almost unbroken material, intellectual and moral progress…there has, since 1914, been a marked regression from the standards then regarded as normal in the developed countries and in the milieus of the middle classes and which were confidently believed to be spreading to the more backward regions and the less enlightened strata of the population….Since this century has taught us, and continues to teach us, that human beings can learn to live under the most brutalized and theoretically intolerable conditions, it is not easy to grasp the extent of the, unfortunately accelerating, return to what our 19th century ancestors would have called the standards of barbarism.” Read more