Mel Brooks turned a gloriously-still-kicking 90 years old this week, and as a happy birthday I’m sure he’ll never read, a review of his debut feature length film.
With Mel Brooks’ directorial debut The Producers (naturally, the writer-by-day writes as well), his most hostile, and therefore best, gesture is to perforate and embrace the Borscht Belt fascination with the essential and unerring failure of life itself. Its mantra being the incompatibility of the self with any semblance of success, the film’s bent is that even in attempting to fail, the only possible outcome for the universe to right itself is for you to inadvertently succeed. And, naturally, fail at your goal of failing. It’s high-concept-y, but more or less to The Producers’ benefit, Brooks plays it all low-brow, helping the film’s philosophical scripture feel more carnal and low-to-the-ground than presumptuous and high-minded. Continue reading
A pair of reviews from a series last year I never got around to publishing…
The Dirty Dozen, a war film perched on the cusp of the New Hollywood and preluding the obstreperous cynicism of the 1970s, feels like a new breed of war film more akin to the nasty, capricious revisionist Westerns waiting in the wings of the late ’60s. The film, directed by low-flying Hollywood stalwart Robert Aldrich, insulates itself from the stodgy, antiquated chamber-bound quality of most anti-war films by inducing a feral fit that, in the final third, explodes into an outright anxiety attack. Although military cruelty is on the mind, The Dirty Dozen is hardly a courtroom drama; befitting its brusque title, it’s a grubby grotto of unmanaged anger that sands itself down sometimes not to detach itself but to express the dehumanized, dispassionate nature of war altogether. Casting Lee Marvin in the role of a military commander tasked with training a motley crew of reprobates and military prisoners to dismantle and destroy a Nazi high command party on the eve of the D-Day invasion, Robert Aldrich’s film casts a ghostly pallor over the so-called last moral war by threatening it with its own essential amorality. Continue reading
A pair of reviews from a series last year I never got around to publishing…
Conventional wisdom places On Her Majesty’s Secret Service on a precipice of dueling expectations, both opinions belying the central duality of the film in question. On one hand, the supposed “first non-Connery” Bond picture is usually seen, not mendaciously I might add, as wanting for a little of Connery’s ice-cold charisma, like a film in search of a proper leading man. Not an inadequate statement on some fronts – the film’s copious one-liners really buckle without Connery’s silently menacing implications that they were naught but the last vestiges of brutal humor in a man devoid of humanity. As a counterbalance, we have the much-touted saving grace of the film: its thoroughgoing evolution of the Bond formula into the unsuspecting realm of character drama in the form of a new, brooding Bond and his burgeoning romantic relationship with Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg). Continue reading
It does not take a historian to note how malnourished and jagged the late 1960s were in American society, or to point out the cataclysm that was the destruction of a nation whose identity had for centuries been predicated on turning the other cheek and smoothing over tension with a facade of nationalist fervor and small-town boot-strap pulling. Things erupted in the late ’60s, the nation fell apart, and film went with it, using that dislocation and terror to create a new breed of films that felt bruised and alienated and hurting from that social apprehension down to their very bones.
Right from the beginning, Planet of the Apes settles itself on a nexus between tactile action and implacable inaction. The prologue, set on a spaceship as astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) throws his throaty baritone into a mission log, establishes the very 2001: A Space Odyssey sub-Kubrickian cosmic chill of the material. Taylor, along with Landon (Robert Gunner) and Dodge (Jeff Burton), are on an amorphous vision of an intentionally nebulous, even pointless nature; what matters is not where they are going or why, but the existential frostiness of the pallid white of the ship’s interior and the very present deadened quality in Heston’s worrisome but unconcerned voice.
Reviewing the quintessential Euro-cool movie of the 1960s gave me the idea to add on a little bonus review of perhaps the most European of the “cool American” films of the decade, a truly great work of experimental pop from the master of not deciding whether his film would be amazing or awful, John Boorman…
It is easy to reduce John Boorman’s Point Blank to its functional qualities. A man (Lee Marvin) is double-crossed by his partner-in-crime, left for dead, returns, and seeks vengeance on those who did him wrong. But it is the John Boorman secret that, generally, the quality of his films – and as we all know, a John Boorman joint is the definition of fulfilling a quality, be it positive or negative – was determined by his ability to strip his works down to their bare essentials. Generally, the more mired in screenplay complication and their own self-serving jargon-esque philosophical mumbo-jumbo, the more we arrive at trash like Zardoz and The Exorcist II: The Heretic. The more the screenplay was nothing more than a functional idea for Boorman to engage in pure, unmitigated craft, the better the film. And Boorman the startling, sleek, stripped-barren craft-person is one of the great modes of any filmmaker in cinema history. He lost his way time and time again, but he was always there with another genuinely great classic waiting under his belt. He just had to keep John Boorman the writer in line so that John Boorman the director could have a day at the races.
First, a pre-review: An inherent bias precedes the Pop! feature here, a bias toward American film. There are a variety of reasons for this. The first, honestly, is that part and parcel with the feature is the idea that American pop was a curious beast during this particular decade, and that the evolutions in pop filmmaking are perhaps the only meaningful ones found in that decade of American film. Drama was a wasteland, and the Europeans and the Japanese were doing wonders with experimental cinema during the decade. As for the Americans, absurdism and non-narrative surrealism, and the larger experimentation with film form and storytelling that permeated from those world trends, were diluted into popular genre cinema for playful mass entertainment (mass entertainment being what America does best, after all).
There’s an earthen quality to way Sergio Leone understands location that is almost otherworldly. The mood, the atmosphere, the sense of a place; they all seep up from the cracks, and he strangles you with it. Everything about the characters and the conflict is just laid out plainly and honestly on the screen in a sort of pure cinema we really didn’t see in genre works in the mid ’60s (horror excepted, and also, notably, the other great genre of the Italians in the ’60s). The sand doesn’t just exist; it hoarsely croaks, it robustly swallows, it does a stalwart, omnipresent, Herculean take-over of the entire event of the narrative and coats everything in a throaty sort of impact that cinema rarely attempts. We aren’t just watching sand. We’re rasping our voices. We’re searching for water. We’re drying out as we sit, welcoming each bead of sweat like an old friend to be ravenously devoured.
Our Man Flint is not the best film to wield as a cipher for the amorphous concept of “camp”, but it is sufficiently campy to justify bending an analysis in the direction of camp. Arguably, a better film would be the following year’s Batman: The Movie, but although Batman is probably the better film as far as outright absurdism goes, Our Man Flint feels more honestly campy. This may seem patently ridiculous, but a further dissection of what exactly camp is (and exploring pop in the ’60s absolutely insists on a discussion of camp) helps us understand why Flint is a work of camp while Batman moves back and forth between camp and something more openly satiric. The privilege of Batman is the privilege of satire, namely that it has the confidence of its own superiority to the world of the “serious”, and that is not something Our Man Flint even considers.
What a strange, messy phenomenon the Pink Panther franchise is. When it began in 1963 as a slight, indifferently pleasant movie about a jewel thief (played by the ever-smarmy David Niven, who was given the lion’s share of the run-time) and an inept side-character vaguely pretending to hunt him down , expectations for a sequel, let alone a cottage pop culture phenomenon, were little. Now, the first film, The Pink Panther, did not exactly set the world on fire, nor does it truly qualify as a phenomenon. But relative to what it might have been – a throwaway ’60s fluffy star piece with some entirely game actors in the distinctly ’60s laconic-swinging mode so ubiquitous in 1963 – something caught fire.
Yet it was that inept side character, and not the smarmy jewel thief, who proved the immediate success story, so much so that he was written hastily into another screenplay to facilitate another vehicle for the character to generally mess up the place and lack a clue. That character, Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) proved a most unlikely attraction to strike a chord with an audience; buffoonish, insistent, and doughy in both his messy confusion and his inability to admit to his inability to do anything else except be confused, he was a ’30s screwball side-character who had inexplicably skipped a few decades and stumbled into his own feature film series in the ’60s. Continue reading