In the popular consciousness, The Sugarland Express doesn’t really exist as anything more than a wisp of a pre-Jaws memory, a forgotten distant rumor of an appetizer before the shark movie that kickstarted the blockbuster craze rips into your stomach and takes the memories of Sugarland on with it. And, honestly, the film doesn’t exhibit any particular sort of argument for why you shouldn’t un-forget it, solid and effective though it may be. While the director’s debut film – the television release Duel – makes an argument on its own terms, irrelevant to the future of its director – Sugarland is on more tentative footing, functioning most compellingly as a prelude and a curious platonic ideal for anyone who wants to mount the “Spielberg was both a New Hollywood filmmaker and a post-New Hollywood blockbuster populist” argument. Since, you know, it is literally a more palatable version of the de rigueur New Hollywood narrative. Continue reading
With Steve Spielberg speaking to children, and inner-children, everywhere in theaters this weekend, let us look back at his earliest days, doing something just a wee bit different.
Cinematically speaking, the halcyon days of the 1970s are in many ways unrecognizable from the current decade. But disposition of the films and quality aside, one of the more tactile, tactical ways that the nuts and bolts of filmmaking was different – something almost never mentioned in the popular sphere – is that the discreet world of television cinema was, if not quite up with the big boy leagues of silver screen darlings, a rather respected, and in some cases stylistically radical, little cottage industry for aspiring craftspersons and savants alike. The progeny of the omnivorous TV-movie-of-the-week stylings of ‘60s cultural icons like Playhouse 90, this television movie industry was, well, more or less a playhouse for workaday journeymen talents to direct sharp if straightforward, crafty but not really cunning films for hire. I mean, hell, Robert Altman did it, and if he didn’t use it as a stepping stone to emerge as the greatest American director of the whole 1970s, then I don’t know what else could make the early days of TV cinema more respectable. Continue reading
Roland Emmerich is going back to the chop-shop of his past this week with an Independence Day sequel. Let us chop up his part as well with his two worst films.
Emboldened to turn to drama after the relative commercial misfire of Godzilla and ready to show the world he was more than the hack who inspired a sea of clones like Armageddon, The Patriot is director Roland Emmerich’s stone-age storytelling misfire that just keeps going and going, without even the decency to be a pointlessly trivial disaster picture as a saving grace. No, no, Emmerich thinks he is an auteur here, and he is going to learn us a lesson before we’re through with The Patriot, a stunningly inept, sepsis-inducing trampling-upon of US history that, rather comically, both pisses all over the past and could only possibly, feasibly, be deemed smart in the first place by people who simply write get-out-of-jail cards, rather than tickets, to films just because they are about history to begin with. To quote Roger Ebert, speaking on another film, The Patriot is “the kind of movie beloved by people … (who) think historical accuracy is a virtue instead of an attribute”, and even then The Patriot just stirs the history into an unrecognizable ketchup for summer-time hot dogs at its 4th of July party. Each and every successive minute bears the walking threat of having to expend more energy in the film’s company. Continue reading
If we were being prickly, we could say that David Lynch’s debut feature Eraserhead has set the director down a 40 year path of trying, and failing, to recapture the cinematic mayhem and malfeasance of his coming out party. That’s not entirely true – Dune, The Elephant Man, and The Straight Story don’t bother as much with explicit disruption, but they are failures of ambition all the more so for that very reason, effective films though some of them may be anyway. But Lynch’s greatest works – Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive– have all been formalist fever dreams that, if expressively advancing the terror of Eraserhead’s self-censuring dreamscape, also rein the Lynchian-id beast in ever so slightly so that they are perhaps less fully capable of exploring the broken-edges of experience. Their relative – and I emphasize relative, for this is Lynch we are speaking of – formal sanity in envisioning a world bent out of shape makes them feel less honestly afflicted with the terror of the world they depict. To some extent, all of these films are commentaries (fantastic commentaries), but only Eraserhead achieves genuine embodiment. While other films strive to “mean” something about discombobulated terror, the formally spasmodic Eraserhead is discombobulated terror. Continue reading
The whole “early sound masterpiece” line, de rigueur for some when discussing The Informer, is misleading and beside the point. Bluntly, it is Ford’s visual craft that is the linchpin of The Informer, and its mise-en-scene and editing rhythms are obviously the work of a director who had been toiling away in the silent cinema nexus for years. Furthermore, they are specifically the progeny of a director who had mayhaps seen the Universal horror pictures popping up and taking the world by storm in the early ‘30s and taken to investigating their connection to the silent German masterworks of chiaroscuro and terror that American horror cinema was grafted from in the first place. The voluminous expressiveness of the human face, the foggy mist of human underbelly, the no-exits-allowed editing that sabotages the characters and encases them in the frame? All are the stomping ground of many a silent masterwork to come before, but that doesn’t make Ford’s first weltering sidewind into the big leagues any less effective as a duel between the devilish and the divine. Continue reading
Primeval as a statement of boundless agelessness rather than failure to modernize, 1933’s King Kong is not only a pugnacious B-picture but a semi-tragic story of showmanship begetting exploitation, ostracization, and essentialization, a film carnival-barked with the panache of a showman. 85 years of technological advancement have streamlined and committee-scripted and audience-tested film form to within an inch of its life. But none of it replaces the personalized terror and fabricated glee of discovery in this original motion picture, which unfolds almost in an imaginative stupor, liberated from the inhibition of pleasing the maximum number of people. Even its broken patches, it mistakes, its tentative hunger for more than it can achieve all make it feel like a wistful construct of the collective imagination and desire for adventure, a work trying to discover something new even if it can’t achieve it. That ambition, in a modern era where all films must be tested so that they don’t feel fake, reminds us of a dream or a nightmare rather than a pragmatist’s admittance of defeat by having to conform to its audiences’ conception of reality. Continue reading
Effervescent without being schizophrenic, smutty without being smug, deliciously nasty and provocative while also intimating a deceptive, lithe maturity about sex as a simple fact of existence rather than a puritanical capital-O Occurrence, Ernst Lubitsch’s Hollywood acme may be the most suave film in existence. Perilously intimating both the value of external pleasures of the world – which for Lubitsch includes the vices we imbibe in and the identities we wear – and the peril of self-satisfying excess, Trouble in Paradise is a smorgasbord of misconception and perspiration. Continue reading