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.
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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.
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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).
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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.
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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.
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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 →
From Russia with Love is a curious beast. It does not “work” according to the distinct rhymes and reasons of what would become the “Bond film” archetype. It does not establish its own vision of what cinema ought to be, as so many other Bond films went on to do, starting with the very next film in the series, Goldfinger. It lacks the pop art, it lacks the pizzaz, it lacks the chutzpah of those other glammy, punchy Bond films that established a certain modern cool-chic lifestyle porn take on watching movies simply because they could give you visions of things that life in its mundane reality never could. On most of the basic “rules” by which Bond films are generally judged, it doesn’t even attempt to pass muster. In fact, it is, excepting its predecessor Dr. No, a work that could charitably be described as “mundane”.
But Terrence Young’s film may very well be the best film in the entire series, and it may be the best specifically for how it does not meaningfully have anything to do with “being a Bond film”. What the lack of a formula bestows upon it is the freedom to simply focus on being itself, on being the best individual film freed from the expectations and rules of a specific form and a style. It is freed to the point where it can utilize its editing, its framing, its acting, and its writing, to simply be the best film it can be, freed from any expectations in the world of fitting a well-defined formula. Continue reading →
America did pop proud in the 1960s, but pop didn’t always imply a bulging budget or grandiose popular success. The lingering vestiges of that most ’50s of all genres, the atomic underground horror, still clung to the beginning of the decade like a wandering specter. Admittedly, the low-brow, even-lower-budget works suffered a little about how to re-invent themselves; Hammer Horror in the UK certainly hit a few home runs, but flooding the markets ran them red with bloody boredom sooner than not. In the US, where “underground fare” similarly served as a safe, parental euphemism for horror, things were likewise stuck in a liminal space between the pre-Bay of Pigs interest in fooling around with atomic supermen and nuclear fall-out monsters, and the genuine “exploitation” of exploitation cinema came to fruition in the very late 1960s. In between, in the early 1960s, what was underground horror to do?
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It is a go-to pocket complaint of modern Disney that, at some point, they lost interest in the mythic and left the magical by the wayside. From the dark days of the 1960s until darn near the embryonic stages of the 1990s, their films were marked by increasingly poor animation quality and a loss of exploration and heart to match. One Hundred and One Dalmatians holds the unfortunate distinction of being definitively the locus of this three decade dalliance with ground-level storytelling, the period where Disney turned its back on the skies. All of this circles around one point: One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a crying shame, and one of the most disappointing Disney features every released. Continue reading →
Another relatively short new feature to round out the month, this one about so-called “entertainment” films for the masses in the 1960s. Even when they weren’t doing much of anything else, films from this decade, the golden-age of gee-shucks entertainment, sure knew how to pop!
I like to think title puns are beneath me, but with a name like The Magnificent Seven, what can I say? The fact is, John Sturges’ film is a quintessential Sturges film, which is to say, although it is not a magnificent artistic statement, it is magnificently entertaining, and beneath its rough-hewn, leathery, functional exterior it hides a secretive, slick-as-can-be cool that hurtles the film forward toward and into conflict like a steadily mounting hurricane. Sturges isn’t a filmmaker of tricks and theme, but of steely, note-perfect technique, a man who didn’t have the eye of a great stylist but very much benefited from the hand of a great storyteller. And, although it doesn’t have anything under its sleeve, the tailor on the sleeves is so fine and perfectly measured in The Magnificent Seven that it is almost impossible to mind. Continue reading →