Monthly Archives: May 2008

Pastor Carroll Pickett/Steve James/Peter Gilbert,

AT THE DEATH HOUSE DOOR (Steve James and Peter Gilbert, 2008, 94 min .)

This remarkable Katemquin documentary is showing at 8 PM tonight on the IFC channel (I saw it last night, at a free public screening), but if you miss it there, you’ll have plenty of other chances to see it–you can even screen it online. It wouldn’t quite do the film justice to say that it’s about capital punishment and miscarriages of justice in Huntsville, Texas, although these topics are certainly part of its fabric. It’s really a character study of Carroll Pickett, a quiet, undemonstrative man who served as the death house chaplain for over 95 executions, including the world’s first lethal injection, and gradually went from believing to disbelieving in capital punishment in the process. You might say that he’s someone who discovered the truth about his activity the hard way, which may also be the best way.

By the same token, as I believe Peter Gilbert pointed out at the screening I attended, this isn’t a “political” film in the usual sense, and it doesn’t preach, even though it’s about a preacher. Steve James and Gilbert put it across with so much power because they know how to tell stories, as their previous films–including James’s HOOP DREAMS, STEVIE, and REEL PARADISE, and Gilbert’s VIETNAM: LONG TIME COMING–amply demonstrate.… Read more »

Forugh Farrokhzad

SIN: SELECTED POEMS BY FORUGH FARROKHZAD, translated by Sholeh Wolpé, Forward by Alicia Ostriker, Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2007, 134 pp.

I came upon this book quite by chance yesterday, while browsing through a bookstore. Although    I have three earlier collections of Forugh Farrokhzad’s poetry in English (BRIDE OF ACACIAS, translated by Jascha Kessler with Amin Banani, Delmar, NY: Caravan Books, 1982; A REBIRTH, translated by David Martin, Costa Mesa, CA: Mesa Publishers, 1997; and REMEMBERING THE FLIGHT: TWENTY POEMS BY FORUGH FARROKHZAD, translated by Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, Port Coquitlam, B.C., Canada: Nik Publishers, 1997), and one book in English about her poetry (A LONELY WOMAN: FORUGH FARROKHZAD AND HER POETRY by Michael C. Hillmann, Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press and Mage Publishers, 1997), all these books have been and remain extremely difficult to come by, and apart from the Hillman (jn an earlier edition), none of these is even mentioned in the “Recommended Reading” at the end of this new volume.

It’s a sad fact that while apparently you can go into any good-sized bookstore in Iran and expect  to find translations of the major works of William Faulkner (or so I’ve been told by Iranian friends), finding any translated book by the most important Iranian woman poet of the 20th century (1935-1967) in even a large American bookstore has been virtually impossible up until now.… Read more »

David Bordwell

Recommendation: On David Bordwell’s web site, one of my models in setting up this one, there’s a very useful and eye-opening (as well as brain-enhancing) post about frame counts, and how these differ on DVDs (both PAL and NTSC), laserdiscs, VHS copies (considered more cursorily), and 35mm and 16mm prints. I discovered this January 28, 2007 entry belatedly, in a footnote, while checking out David’s latest blog entry, which provides a useful link. [5/26/08]… Read more »

Alain Resnais/Harry Dickson

LES AVENTURES DE HARRY DICKSON: SCÉNARIO DE FRÉDÉRIC DE TOWARNICKI POUR UN FILM (NON RÉALISÉ) PAR ALAIN RESNAIS, edited by Jean-Louis Leutrat (series edited by Emmanuel Burdeau), Nantes: Capricci, 2007, 376 pp.

 

Only in France, I suspect, could a dream book of this kind ever have been conceived, much less realized – or done with so much exquisite beauty and care. The centerpiece here is the final draft of the screenplay for what likely qualifies as the most cherished of Alain Resnais’ unmade films — based on the fantasy dime-novels that first appeared in Germany in 1907, were translated into French the same year, then translated into Dutch in 1927, and finally continued by Belgian writer by Jean Ray in the 30s, who started out by translating the Dutch series into French. All these books recount the eerie exploits of Harry Dickson, “the American Sherlock Holmes” — born in the U.S. but educated and based in London. Resnais’ adaptation, developed over most of the 1960s and prefigured to run about three hours, was to star Laurence Olivier in the title role and Delphine Seyrig as super-villainess Georgette Cuvelier, alias The Spider, with whom Dickson sustains a long-standing love-hate relationship.… Read more »

Richard Brooks

THE LAST HUNT (Richard Brooks, 1956, 108 min.)

A very dated but absorbing–and, in its own terms, effective–liberal CinemaScope western, all the more interesting for its dated qualities. In anticipation of Jim Jarmusch’s DEAD MAN, an explicit correlation is made between genocide of Native Americans and the decimation of buffalos, personified in this case by a racist and wanton killer played by Robert Taylor –contrasted with the humane, reluctant buffalo killer played by Stewart Granger, who grew up with Native Americans and respects both them and their own respect for white buffalos, unlike Taylor. Lloyd Nolan plays the Walter Brennan part, a drunken old geezer who also comes along on the last hunt and winds up siding more with the good guys (i.e., everyone except Taylor, a dyed-in the-wool villain throughout).

The politically incorrect monkey wrench tossed into this scheme, at least by today’s standards, is the fact that the two major Native American characters are played by Russ Tamblyn (a half-breed) and Debra Paget, who function as Granger’s son figure and romantic interest, respectively. In short, no real Native Americans to be seen anywhere, making this movie a good target for the kind of conservative, anti-liberal scorn that a critic like Manny Farber might have had towards such a film.… Read more »

Viktor Shklovsky

LITERATURE AND CINEMATOGRAPHY by Viktor Shklovsky (Champaign and London: Dalkey Archive Press), 2008, 74 pp. Translated by Irina Masinovsky; Introduction by Richard Sheldon.

What’s unexpected about this early theoretical foray by the father of Russian Formalism (1893-1984), first published in 1923 and now appearing in English for the first time, is that it conveys pretty much the same emotion underlying “Moviegoer,” an essay by William Styron first published (in French, in the newspaper Le Figaro) in 1983 and now recently making its first appearance in English in Styron’s HAVANAS IN CAMELOT (see below): the anxiety of a literary writer feeling threatened by movies. (The same anxiety, incidentally, crops up periodically in other essays by Styron in the same book: in “`I’ll Have To Ask Indianapolis–’”, for instance, Styron records his consternation at receiving a dissertation in the mail entitled “SOPHIE’S CHOICE: a Jungian Perspective” -– a study containing the following explanatory footnote: “Where the movie was vague I referred to the book, SOPHIE’S CHOICE, for clarification.”)

Shklovsky: “If it is impossible to express a novel in words other than those in which it has been written, if it is impossible to change the sounds of a poem without changing its essence, then it is even more impossible to replace words with a grey-and-black shadow flashing on the screen.” Styron: “While a fine movie has changed my perception for days, a great novel has altered my way of thinking for life.” [What about a great movie and a fine novel?]

In the snobbish world of film theory, Shklovsky is commonly regarded as hip while Styron would be regarded as square, but the difference between their perceptions 60 years apart only starts to become important once semantics and semiology enter the picture.Read more »

William Styron

 

DARKNESS VISIBLE: A MEMOIR OF MADNESS by William Styron (New York: Vintage Books), 1990, 84 pp.

 

HAVANAS IN CAMELOT: PERSONAL ESSAYS by William Styron (New York: Random House), 2008, 162 pp.

 

Two late autobiographical books by a writer I’ve always liked—-the first somewhat disappointing, perhaps because I came to it with the wrong expectations, the second a pleasurable surprise.

 

I guess what I was hoping to encounter in DARKNESS VISIBLE, Styron’s brief and somewhat sketchy account of his own excruciating bouts with depression in the 1980s, was some clarification or extension of what I found so powerful about his treatment of bipolar behavior in SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1979)–specifically the depiction of Nathan, which seemed to derive from some deep personal understanding of this condition. But Styron points out early on that his own malady was “unipolar,” not the same thing at all. Still, I admire the scrupulous way he avoids leaping to too many conclusions about a condition that he’s still far from fully understanding.

 

The late essays collected in HAVANAS IN CAMELOT deal with such topics as a few amicable encounters with John F. Kennedy (the title essay), an apparent contraction of syphilis during his youth (as a fledgling Marine at a naval hospital in South Carolina), his friendships with fellow novelists (Truman Capote, James Baldwin, and Terry Southern), some late prostate trouble, and walks with his dog in his early 80s.Read more »

Douglas Sirk

DOUGLAS SIRK COLLECTION (ALL I DESIRE, THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW & INTERLUDE), German DVD box set.

 

My favorite Sirk film, SCHLUSSAKKORD (FINAL ACCORD, 1936), has yet to come out on DVD anywhere, but this attractively put together German box set of three digitally restored 50s Hollywood features, purchased via German Amazon, does include the similarly titled DER LETZTE AKKORD (INTERLUDE, 1956), which turns out to be the only stinker in the bunch, despite the fact that it’s in color and CinemaScope. (Even a diehard fan like Fassbinder admitted this kitschy item is “a hard film to get into”.) The other two -– both excellent, complexly nuanced, doom-ridden and hard-as-nails melodramas in black and white -– are the pictures Sirk made with Barbara Stanwyck, in 1953 and 1955 respectively, each of which charts her character’s belated and troubled small-town homecoming. In the first, set around the turn of the century, she’s a not-very-successful stage actress returning to visit her family in Wisconsin; in the second she’s a divorced and successful clothes designer looking up her one-time boyfriend (Fred MacMurray), who now has a family of his own (including a somewhat miscast Joan Bennett). Both are about as bleak as movies can get -– notwithstanding ALL I DESIRE’s studio-imposed happy ending, which is impossible to believe in anyway.Read more »

Ernest Borneman

TOMORROW IS NOW by Ernest Borneman (London: Neville Spearman), 1959, 205 pp. There are few careers more fascinating and multifaceted than that of Ernest Borneman (1915-1995), a German-born psychotherapist and non-fiction writer who also wrote several novels (all in English), and whose other professions at various stages in his career included playwright, cameraman, screenwriter, writer for TV and radio, film director, prolific journalist, and jazz musician. I’ve tried to encapsulate a few things about him, including his work with Orson Welles and his discovery of Eartha Kitt, in a long footnote on pp. 3-4 of my book MOVIE WARS, where I quote from a brilliant 1947 essay of his, “The Public Opinion Myth,” in order to counter many of the assumptions underlying the test-marketing of movies. I’ve now read only two of his novels, all of which are out of print: THE FACE ON THE CUTTING-ROOM FLOOR (1937), his first and best known (though published under the pseudonym of Cameron McCabe), a flavorsome murder mystery that I treasure mainly for its dialogue as well as its 24-page Afterword about Borneman–written by the book’s editors, though containing a lot of interview material and a letter from Borneman, dating from 1979 and 1981, respectively.… Read more »

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

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 »

The Greatest Film Ever Made?

This appeared in the May 1, 2008 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Last Year at Marienbad ****

DIRECTED BY ALAIN RESNAIS

WRITTEN BY ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET

WITH GIORGIO ALBERTAZZI, DELPHINE SEYRIG, AND SACHA PITOEFF

It’s too bad Last Year at Marienbad was the most fashionable art-house movie of 1961-’62, because as a result it’s been maligned and misunderstood ever since. The chic allure of Alain Resnais’ second feature — a maddening, scintillating puzzle set in glitzy surroundings — produced a backlash, and one reason its defenders and detractors tend to be equally misguided is that both respond to the controversy rather than to the film itself.

“I am now quite prepared to claim that Marienbad is the greatest film ever made, and to pity those who cannot see this,” proclaimed one French critic, even as others ridiculed what they perceived as the film’s pretentious solemnity — overlooking or missing its playful, if poker-faced, use of parody as well as its outright scariness. Dwight Macdonald, who admitted to seeing the movie three times in a week, confessed in Esquire that it made him feel like a dog in one of Pavlov’s experiments. In the Village Voice, on the other hand, Jonas Mekas claimed that “the film begins and ends in the brain of Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote the script” and added, “Its forced intellectualism is sick.” A few years later Noel Burch noted aptly, if unkindly, “There will always be an to serve as a refuge for those who are frightened by the prospects revealed by a Marienbad.”

Part of what might frighten a Fellini fan was Marienbad’s formalism, as well as its mysterious, obsessional mood.… Read more »