After Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Sam Peckinpah would move away from the 1800s, although that doesn’t mean he left the Western behind. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is without a doubt a Western; it is as cracked and craggy as any of Peckinpah’s prior films, and its thematic content is almost identical, although it takes place in the 1970s. This is fitting, and perhaps the only way Peckinpah could have progressed as a director. His prior two Westerns saw the end of the era, with Peckinpah tackling the transition from the individualist, outlaw lifestyle to a more socially sanctioned form of violence bred by corrupt and violent men being buttoned up on the outside without actually curbing their violent tendencies on the inside. The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid were about the end of the West, but also about its continuity, its persistence in the modern era. The deserts and the ten-gallon hats had been replaced with institutions and machinery, with the industrial revolution and government. But the raspy habit of men fighting the only way they’d been taught how, and the curdled fact that these men were being destroyed by these ways, remained. Continue reading
It is easy to view Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Sam Peckinpah’s first Western post-The Wild Bunch, and examine it as a follow-up to that seminally shrieking exercise in wolf-like nihilism. It would be easy to do so, and probably correct, but also incomplete. Pat Garrett, which follows ex-outlaw turned lawman Pat Garrett (James Coburn) as he vengefully hunts down his ex-partner Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson), bears an outline that is almost identical to The Wild Bunch. In both films, an ex-outsider who becomes a man of respectable society is strangled by his dogmatic commitment to hiding the memories of his lawless days by killing the last reminder he has of those days. In both films, the violence of wild society gives way to the violence of so-called “civilized” society, and in both cases, the social outlaws must die so that the corporate, conglomerate violence of civil people can live. Continue reading
This week’s pair of Midnight Screenings will return us to the far-flung past of 2006 and 2007, a more innocent time in film history …
It is quite possible that Richard Linklater is the only currently functioning director who really could have directed A Scanner Darkly in the fidgety, twitching tone it so desperately begged for, and thus it is a little bit of magic that he managed to acquire the film at all. Firstly, this is because Linklater, the homegrown Texan with an eye for slacker culture and the distance imparted by time and memory, strips away the science fiction trappings from Phillip K. Dick’s story and renders it all the more pressingly intimate in doing so, without ever sacrificing the essence of the novel about drug abuse and melancholic social anomie. Which is itself important; so many science fiction films rationalize themselves by claiming they are necessarily informing us about the weight of a current world crisis, but as many other Dick adaptations show us, they frequently devolve into glorified techie action flicks. The science becomes a diaphanous masquerade, a meager attempt by a film to convince its audience of its intelligence when it offers nothing but pyrotechnics and quasi-futurism. Linklater doesn’t need a trip to the future; he creates a piercingly grounded tale about trips of a different variety. Continue reading
1999 was a year of new beginnings for a great many directors of the cinema, filmmakers who used their 1999 offerings to launch their careers to greater artistic, as well as commercial, heights. Although we often forget, it was also the year of Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, a film that ought to have launched her to new heights but somehow left her scrambling for an audience. In a year of openly defiant, exploratory films from many talented artists, Ravenous remains one of the most defiant and exploratory. Yet it never found an audience for itself or its director, likely because its defiance, experimentation, and exploration are all hidden. Even more-so, they are secret, and the film goes to great lengths to pretend it is nothing more than an everyday comedy-horror exploitation-film of the distinctly late ’90s post-Scream variety. It is a film where the experimentation is wholly submersed into subfuscous genre mechanics, a great devious trick of a film, and I can think of no more perfect nature for such a deliciously sinister exercise in cutthroat filmmaking. Continue reading
Update June 2019: After a rewatch, I’m struck by how much Escape from New York’s essentially anti-authoritarian stance also feels like a quintessentially early ’80s response to the failures of the liberal project of the ’60s and the New Hollywood project of radicalizing cinematic form in the ’70s. Carpenter’s film undeniably paints a picture of the powers that be as deluded autocrats and maniacal functionaries, but its post-hippie validation of anarchy defines itself individually and skeptically rather than communally and with a utopian accent. On balance, I don’t know how I feel about this any more than I do Carpenter’s deliberately fearful Assault on Precinct 13, where a black cop and an old-school white criminal learn to get along only while under siege from an interracial army of cinematographically-zombified gang members putting aside their racial differences to assault the status quo. That said, while Assault merely updates and urbanizes Western conventions, Escape ironizes its, offering up cinema’s greatest ode to and takedown of the John Wayne archetype, one who refuses to coopt societally-accepted norms of the “good” (even if it means doing “bad”). Plus, it’s pretty great filmmaking nearly forty years later, a phenomenal exploration of Carpenter’s singularly elastic ability to massage visual absence into a vision of apocalypse, be it at the level of the individual (Halloween, faceless evil), the local (The Thing, evil in our own image), or the world, as in this film.
Scruffy and stubborn as a mule, Escape from New York is probably a failure for director John Carpenter, but it is a treat for anyone else all the same. Carpenter has been vocal about his genre-DJ dreams of hopscotching from horror to action to Westerns to fulfill his inner-desires of throwing pebbles toward all outsider genres under the sun. More pragmatically, he sought new genres to avoid type-casting as a master of horror. Trouble is that Carpenter’s soul, despite his brain telling him otherwise, was a horror director, and his eye followed his soul. Even Carpenter’s best action material – 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China for one – doesn’t work so much as an action movie; it’s more a deconstruction of American action movie tropes that tickles the rib with how foolish American action movies could be. Whether or not that was Carpenter’s intent, the arguably accidental success of Big Trouble reveals a director who didn’t have much of an eye for conventional action directing, for his action directing was too sluggish and stilted to function as a serious work of the form.
So, “comedy sequels” right?
In the modern era, funny films have become almost non-filmic, layering a thick slab of verbal humor on top of antiseptic, unfeeling visual composition and also-ran technique. The worst of the lot don’t even get us that far, barely even introducing “writing” to the mixture and crutching themselves entirely on the often game talents of an actor or two. Comedy sequels, meanwhile, are bottom-of-the-ladder throwaway gags at best, not so much non-filmic as anti-filmic abominations. That they tend to run through the predecessor’s jokes is the least of their problems. That they tend to be actively painful is probably higher up on the list.
Addams Family Values is a comedy sequel with a difference, and that difference is director Barry Sonnenfeld. Not only Barry Sonnenfeld, of course. Writer Paul Rudnick’s screenplay has a wonderfully droll eye for ’60s sitcoms and a deliciously sideways slant on how to turn middlebrow Americana on its head, and it provides game food for a veritable cornucopia of scenery-tearing actors playing to their ostentatious, blistering best. It’s not quite agitprop, but for a blockbuster comedy with a relatively girthy budget, it plays shockingly recklessly with its audience and comes close to holding its knives right to their face. A great deal of this critique is openly part of the text of the film, with a sub-plot featuring two of Charles Addams’ pugnaciously demented Old Money family members, Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman), going to town on the smarmy corporatized Main Street Americana icon that is the summer camp.
To recap: the Universal Horror individual monster franchises varied wildly and inconstantly, and often in directions and to magnitudes any sane person would never imagine. Sometimes, however, Universal Horror just created something that can not compare to anything on this earth, in their canon or otherwise. Sometimes they made Murders in the Rue Morgue, just about the perfect encapsulation of messy early sound cinema trying to cope with the increased narrative bent of sound and having no idea what to do with narrative at all. The end result is Universal Horror at their most indebted to quilt-work, patching together the expressionist dread and crawling, impulsive weirdness of silent cinema – itself having very little to do with narrative or realism – and trying desperately to mold all of this prismatic and arcane visual strangeness into something that can approximate “narrative”. It fails as a narrative proper, but what hypnotic failure it is. Continue reading
>Rene Clair didn’t have it easy. Soundly trounced by the French New Wave and never really forgiven in the public consciousness, Clair was a hot button go-to guy in the early days of sound cinema, a born-and-bred scientist with tools in sound and space who saw cinema – like all the great early masters – as an expressive, flexible plaything more than a get-the-job-done tool. Play he did, although his somewhat overly-formed style admittedly hit a limit when it traded in the dangerous waters of experimentation for something a touch more gentle and composed. Clair enjoyed a good composition as much as the next director, but there was his compositions always ran the risk of boxing him in to a settled path, rather than letting him loose to ravenously tear down the walls and traverse new, unsettled regions of cinema. He had his limits, in other words, but the 2010s hardly even acknowledge him. Clair was a class act, and whatever his American films did to keep him away from true adventure and challenge, he never gave a film less than his full attention. The no man’s land that is his reputation today seldom takes into account his very real, if somewhat overly-rigid, talents as a filmmaker. Continue reading
Anyone familiar with Jacques Tourneur doesn’t need to read a review for evidence to the claim that Out of the Past is one of the best film noirs ever made. But that doesn’t mean establishing and specifying what is so undeniably great about it isn’t a worthwhile pleasure all the same. Cutting his teeth on Val Lewton’s near poverty-row horror unit for RKO, a team that single-handedly saved American horror in the 1940s by injecting a dose of the European, and a team which counted Tourneur as its most valuable member, Tourneur is one of the unheralded masters of the medium of cinema and one of the most poetic genre directors ever to grace the silver screen. Pairing him to noir like a fine wine to a slab of deliberately indelicate beef is too obvious to be a stroke of genius, but the results are no less marvelous for the “why didn’t they think of this earlier” nature of the film.
Pairing Robert Mitchum – ever the heavy – to a noir, however, was a stroke of genius, precisely because he made indelicate slabs out to be fine wine, making him the perfect bridge for the flavors milling around in Tourneur’s stew. Mitchum was a known face by 1947, but not even close to a star, and seeing his ambiguity flourish in Out of the Past is a tormented, deceptive beauty so perfectly matched to the material it almost approaches non-performance. Mitchum went on to fame as the cinema’s ultimate heel, concocting deliberately vague piles of blunt force that slithered and skulked across the land and directly into the dark hearts of humankind. The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear find him too close and comfortable with pure evil for words. Nothing about him felt like acting, like trying; he conveyed an evil that simply existed, an unexplainable devil that could only be approached by running away. The problem with running away from Mitchum… he constructed figures so impenetrable and unknowable they couldn’t but chill the blood into stagnancy. Continue reading
That Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning exists indicates something is wrong with the world. That it is, against its better judgment, a near masterpiece, at least in terms of filmmaking principles and matching those principles to its narrative concerns, implies something is far worse with the world than anyone could have imagined. But yes, the fourth or eighth or ninety-sixth film in the bro-fest science fiction routine slaughterhouse that is the Universal Soldier series, tangled up in its Roland Emmerich-directed roots and choking on them for decades now, is good. In fact, in its own way, it’s fairly great. And how shocking that this way approximates ’70s art-house horror/crime/thriller/ sci-fi that only passingly gestures toward any idea of “action” and even then does wonders to detach “action” from anything resembling Roland Emmerich. What a strange, strange film. Plus, if it means anything to you, it is probably, by several orders of magnitude, superior to anything Dolph Lundgren or Jean-Claude Van Damme have starred in (although the post-structuralist JCVD, a sly little nightstalker of a film, comes pretty close for the latter star). Pleasures abound in this weird, weird world of ours, folks. Continue reading