WE ARE NOT ALONE

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CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND shames modern Hollywood’s love affair with hip, snarky heroes and relentless fast cuts. Steven Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi opus isn’t just from a different era, it has a different agenda – this isn’t a movie staying busy to hold our attention, but a film that is first and last an experience, a movie fundamentally about sights and sounds difficult to verbalize. STAR WARS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS’ fraternal sci-fi twin from 1977, changed the intensity of the action film with its brilliant kineticism (as PSYCHO’s shower scene had done for the thriller genre), but Spielberg’s opus is more interested in putting us in the state of mind we find ourselves in while gazing at a dwarfing sight like the Grand Canyon.

In the medium’s infancy, movies could not speak, so filmmakers had to engross their audiences purely through visual storytelling; once sound arrived in 1927, this fell a bit by the wayside as directors (and audiences, to a degree) felt increasingly comfortable using talking heads to progress a story rather than montage. While CLOSE ENCOUNTERS is far from a silent film, its emphasis on the visual is a prime example of Hitchcock’s pet phrase “pure cinema;” Spielberg’s film is, like 2001 before it, a film simply interested in creating awe in a way no other medium can offer.

The alchemy of Spielberg’s gem can best be summed up by focusing in on, appropriately, three elements:

1. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY

Hand-held camerawork has become so fashionable since Spielberg’s 1998 SAVING PRIVATE RYAN that, in revisiting CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, it’s amazing to see a film so rooted in relentlessly precise compositions and camerawork.

Spielberg’s primary cinematographer on this film was Vilmos Zsigmond, who had brilliantly photographed Spielberg’s first theatrical feature, 1974’s THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, where the youthful director, as Douglas Brode outlined in his marvelous study THE FILMS OF STEVEN SPIELBERG, took home many lesson from Zsigmond’s rigorous approach to storytelling, emphasizing compositional storytelling and motivated camera moves over shots that simply look flashy, and utilized those techniques which resulted in a more aesthetically mature film than JAWS. Indeed, it is a telling sign of their good relationship that Zsigmond’s name is the name that rolled up first in SUGARLAND’S end credits, and their partnership reached its apex here.

Shooting in the anamorphic widescreen format can be a pain (when the format debuted in the early 1950s, Howard Hawks famously said widescreen was only good for filming crowd scenes or funerals), and what separates the men from the boys with this aspect ratio lies in creating compositions that look casual at first, but upon closer examination reveal they’ve been scrupulously composed. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS’ anamorphic camerawork joins the same compositional ranks as Robert Surtees’ work on THE GRADUATE, Freddie Young’s photography on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and indeed Zsigmond’s gritty and haunting images in THE DEER HUNTER;  any single image from these films are a textbook on anamorphic photography.

An early example in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS lies in the scene where all the electronics are sparking to life in the Guiler household. The toddler Barry has run outside as the alien visitors have been making the commotion, unknown to his mother Jillian. When she awakes and begins shutting off all the stuff in her bedroom that have inexplicably turned on in the middle of the night, Spielberg & Zsigmond keep her bedroom window perfectly framed on the right hand side of the screen, which creates such suspense; we know her son is outside but not knowing what is happening nor what may soon be coming in through that window, and just one of many ways the filmmakers subtly torque up the suspense.

Later in the film, the way human figures and faces are kept in the foreground as the lights and shapes of the alien spacecraft fly around us help create a series of intimate vistas that keep this film from being much more than eye candy.

In his landmark biography of Spielberg, Joseph McBride laid bare the various production difficulties that led to many different cameramen being required to shoot additional later material, including Laszlo Kovacs and John Alonzo, all of which wound up with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS becoming (though for different reasons) a carnival of great cinematographers like Scorsese’s THE LAST WALTZ, but with Zsigmond’s lead, the film retained its unbelievably rich texture and landed Vilmos Zsigmond an Oscar.

2. THE PRODUCTION DESIGN

Joe Alves’ design work on the film is equally specific, using a primarily muted color palette (the term “earth tones” has probably never been used with such specificity than in this movie) for the film’s sets and locations allowing us to both believe the real world domestic settings while prepping us to be appropriately overwhelmed by the neon light show in the third act; had CLOSE ENCOUNTERS been awash with a kind of Technicolor look from the first scene, we would have been numbed by the time the mothership arrived with all of its dazzling splendor.

One interesting exception is the bright red shirt Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) wears in his first scene which already makes him stand out from the crowd long before his character becomes the first human to board the mothership.

3. THE SCORE

John Williams’ score is just phenomenal, appropriately melodic then rightfully (and frightfully) scary and atonal. Rather than giving individual motifs to characters then developing them throughout the story (as he did with such brilliant scores for STAR WARS and SUPERMAN), Williams plays a different game here; follow the way he develops the signature five note melody as the mystery of what it means is unfolded in the film. Once it is understood to be a benevolent greeting from the visitors using the universal language of music, Williams weaves it beautifully throughout the picture before building it to grand crescendo with the grand symphony of communion at the end between the two species.

The use of the choir is also used interestingly (and sparingly) throughout, brought out only as a kind of celestial calling throughout the picture to perhaps reference that the otherworldly is intruding upon the everyday, and yet again, Williams brilliantly returns and swells the choir just before Roy finally enters the mothership.

In addition to this compositional brilliance, Williams & Spielberg implemented, as John Williams told The Criterion Collection for their superb laserdisc release of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS in 1990,  the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin’s concept to associate specific colors to various notes on the musical scale; this method illustrates the communication between the people of earth and their extra-terrestrial visitors in a way that makes for not only sound logic, but also a beautiful spectacle.

McBride also quotes Spielberg as describing CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as “my vision, my hope, and philosophy,” and that is what resonates most; this is a science fiction film, of course, but its central optimistic premise about radically different beings coming to a mutual acceptance beyond words remains simply inspiring. “We Are Not Alone” said the ads for this film back in 1977, and it is this universally human hope that brings Spielberg’s sci-fi parable down to earth.

 

Copyright (c) 2017 by Eric Peeper

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CUT-GLASS CRUELTY

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“I’m always surprised by the reactions to my films. There is usually enough truth in the film to be sure of offending somebody.”

– Stanley Kubrick talking with Michel Ciment

 

The films of Stanley Kubrick are so damn divisive: they’re as praised fengrossing, challenging, and visually ravishing as they are damned for being overlong, self-indulgent and cold-blooded.

Virtually every Kubrick film had controversy of one type or another; LOLITA was condemned by the Church for its salacious story of an older man infatuated with a teenage girl; DR. STRANGELOVE was attacked for its audacity to find humor in nuclear annihilation; A CLOCKWORK ORANGE was assaulted for its disquietingly humorous look at urban violence and how to curtail it; 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY had people simply scratching their heads wondering what the hell the film meant (if anything). His 1975 period epic BARRY LYNDON divided viewers not necessarily for what was on the screen, but whether or not it was worth seeing at all.

Kubrick’s grandest gamble (as Richard Schickel’s TIME magazine cover story described it in December of 1975) is the tale of a petty man in the 18th century who, via any lying and cheating he can get away with, climbs his way to high society only to, after a number of karmic paybacks, return to his meager roots. Like many of Kubrick’s pictures, the story is pretty straightforward on the surface, but has enormously subtle undercurrents with whatever may be going on behind the character’s eyes.

Redmond Barry, our ambivalent hero who changes his name to Barry Lyndon after marrying the wealthy Countess of Lyndon, is a classically Kubrick protagonist; Kubrick had compared the character of Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE to Shakespeare’s Richard III but the comparison might be better suited to Barry: we follow him from being a lovesick Irish lad to becoming a hardened soldier during the Seven Years’ War, to eventually elbowing his way into the aristocracy by seducing and marrying Lady Lyndon. And it’s all done with the kind of calculating glee that King Richard would’ve been proud of, though we’re not privy to the type of introspective monologues Shakespeare gave us into the Duke of Gloucester’s mind. Here, we’re along for the ride and allowed to read into it what we may (like virtually every Kubrick film).

Kubrick wasn’t the type of director who Xeroxed other films, he had his own unique style and didn’t need to crib from the greats, but I wonder if part of his motive in doing LYNDON was to do a film story that had some thematic comparisons to THE GODFATHER, which Kubrick said in later years was his choice as the greatest of all films, and it would’ve been a movie fresh in his mind as he began work on this picture in the mid seventies. Redmond Barry, like Michael Corleone, is born again through the circumstances that get thrown his way into a man with a heart colder than dry ice.

Whatever our feelings about Barry may be, it is fascinating that Kubrick shifts the emotional core of the second half of the film to Lady Lyndon herself, the opaque mistress who becomes a shrinking violet if ever there was one onscreen; in an oppressive society such as hers, any airing of emotions would’ve been unthinkable and as the handsome rogue she’s married reveals himself to be simply an opportunist and flagrantly cheats on her, Lady Lyndon’s silent screams only become more emotional with subsequent viewings, something that clearly belongs in the terrain of great films.

BARRY LYNDON itself was a project born on the rebound. Kubrick’s dream movie, a film on Napoleon, had been aborted by MGM in the late 1960s and, after making CLOCKWORK in 1971, Kubrick eyed Thackeray’s novel VANITY FAIR as a good project. It would be set in a similar Napoleonic period and would’ve allowed him to utilize the special photographic techniques he’d devised for his Napoleon project: employing special lenses made by Zeiss that had been designed for use in satellite photography that would allow Kubrick and his team to shoot using primarily only the natural light of the period, which were the Sun or the candle, something no period film had adequately done before. After feeling that VANITY FAIR couldn’t be properly condensed into a feature film, he turned to Thackeray’s THE LUCK OF BARRY LYNDON, and everything clicked into place.

Thackeray famously dubbed VANITY FAIR “a novel without a hero,” and LYNDON equally fits that crown; indeed, our ambivalence about Redmond Barry falls squarely into the author’s claim, as Sebastian Faulk noted in analysing Thackeray, that, “the highest virtue a fictional character can posess is interest,” and that can easily also be said of numerous characters in Kubrick’s oeuvre, from Humbert Humbert to HAL-9000.

The candlelit scenes were a complete success, justly winning cinematographer John Alcott an Oscar for the painterly images which, along with Malick’s THE THIN RED LINE, rank as one of the most ravishingly photographed films (in color) the medium has ever seen; all that candlelit splendor is a perfect counterpoint to what Brian Aldiss described as this film’s “cut-glass frigidity.”

The film’s visual mastery doesn’t limit itself to low-light beauty; Kubrick’s use of the zoom lens is a masterclass in itself. At a time when these were new and all filmmakers were using them, Kubrick and Alcott use zooms not simply for effect, but as a compositional tool. You can see hints of this in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, but it comes full flower in LYNDON; look closely at the early scenes alone, and you can see how many of them are done in just a handful of set-ups, using the zoom for emphasis wherever and however appropriate, but most especially in the moment when Lady Lyndon sees (with Swiss watch precision and calculation) that her husband is unfaithful.

Kubrick’s legendary perfectionism stretched even to the ways his films were to be shown. When the film was released in 1975, Kubrick sent this letter with specific instructions to protectionists on how the candlelit beauty and cruelty in his opus should be shown:

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BARRY LYNDON was largely ignored in the US when it arrived in theatres; audiences that year were more ready to embrace JAWS and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, and most who did see it found it slightly more exciting than listening to the grass grow. And here again we return to a complaint common to Kubrick, but as with many of the master’s works, this film benefits from letting it soak in, then revisiting it over and over.

For in the end, BARRY LYNDON is about regret as much as anything, about the look in the eyes as the name of someone whom you’ve wasted too much of your life futilely loving swims back into view, leaving you all the time in the world to wonder how to heal the wounds inflicted so coldly by someone you should never have let into your heart.

As with many things in life, such matters can take years, even a lifetime, to fully grasp.

 

Copyright (c) 2017 by Eric Peeper

THE LAST VIBRATION

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Sorrow is one of the vibrations that prove the fact of living.
– Antoine de Saint Exupery, Wind, Sand and Stars

There is no space more sacred than the privacy inside our heads and hearts, and whom we decide to allow into that space can become one of the decisive factors in how happy (or unhappy) a life we lead. David Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS (1988) gives us a heart-wrenching portrait of that safe personal landscape irreparably torn apart as the eerily close bond between twin gynecologists (both played to shattering perfection by Jeremy Irons) crumbles.

DEAD RINGERS became the fulcrum of Cronenberg’s career, a turning point away from the body horror films he’d been celebrated for earlier in his filmography, such as VIDEODROME, SCANNERS and THE FLY, and turned the horror instead to a far deeper, more disturbing place. To be fair, this project was never planned as a kind of career pivot point; Cronenberg had been trying to finance the movie for quite a few years before it was able to get made, as many directors often do (John Landis spent 10 years trying to get AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON made, and James Cameron first expressed interest in a new film about the Titanic in 1987).

Still, when DEAD RINGERS arrived, it showcased many of the things that acute viewers had picked up on in Cronenberg’s earlier works – his skillful, carefully observed psychological study of people in a, perhaps not self-consciously downward spiral. Cronenberg’s FLY remake still works perfectly well as a monster flick, but it’s unusually potent emotional crescendo should be enough to convince anyone that this is a horror auteur who finds the real horror in the things people do to one another and to themselves than simply showcasing severed limbs, and DEAD RINGERS brings this home with a vengeance.

A writer/director wanting to explore such extreme terrain means nothing if the director in question cannot get good performances from their actors, and this is an underappreciated aspect of Cronenberg; the entire emotional undercurrent of THE FLY hinged on the trio of performances from Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis and John Getz; A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE would’ve been unthinkable without Viggo Mortensen’s blend of vulnerability and danger; DEAD RINGERS would simply have been DOA without Jeremy Irons. There are no obvious physical differences between the twin brothers he plays. The only way we realize which twin we are watching, the gregarious Eliot or the painfully introverted Beverly, rests totally on his body language, and that’s a hell of a feat.

The result is a film that simply defies all labels; DEAD RINGERS is certainly not a straightforward horror film, though it often gets thrown into that category; even branding it a psychological thriller doesn’t totally feel fulfilling. For me personally, DEAD RINGERS is, along with LEAVING LAS VEGAS, the saddest film I’ve seen, all the more surprising because the characters in either film are not ones asking for our sympathies; the womanizing twin gynecologists played by Irons both do horrendous things to the women they share, as well as to each other and, eventually, themselves.

Ditto the suicidal alcoholic and call girl in VEGAS. It is to the enormous credit of the respective actors and filmmakers involved that all these characters become three dimensional people in order for their tragic flaws to register. To put it another way, they become as human as any of us, and it is a test of our humanity how we react to the vibrations we pick up from sensing another person’s private agonies, which, too, can determine how happy or unhappy a life we lead, for who knows if that pain will be the last thing they ever feel.

A prime example is the scene where Eliot and his girlfriend slow-dance to IN THE STILL OF THE NIGHT as Beverly lies on the nearby sofa, crippled by the mistaken belief that the woman he’s fallen for has cheated on him. Eliot and his lady friend futilely try to get Beverly to join in, perhaps partly a way for Eliot to seduce his brother back to their previous womanizing ways more than simply cheer him up, but it is to no avail. It is this scene, coupled with the preceding one where a shattered Beverly reveals the imagined affair to his brother, that wrenches home the tragedy of the twins: without his girlfriend, Beverly fears he doesn’t know who he is, nor does he feel he has any identity in the bizarre fraternity with Eliot. And once Eliot becomes swept into the same whirlpool, there is no saving them.

Even for those of without an identical twin, this film registers for all of us: how do we live our lives with or without a given person, or how do we live with who we become with a certain person in our lives? By changing or refusing change, does this make us better or worse?

Such questions become even more important if the old adage that we all create God in our own image is true, because that would make us all twins.

 

 

Copyright (c) 2017 by Eric Peeper

MONA LISA TEARS

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Pauline Kael went on record claiming it to be one of the single greatest performances recorded on film. I don’t have that kind of chutzpah; all I vouch for is the fact that once you see Renee Falconnetti’s performance in THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, your heart will never forget it. At a time when screen actors were simply unable to speak to the audience, Falconnetti’s Joan is a powerful reminder that the best actors don’t need words.

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film gives us not the Maid of Orleans’ entire life story, nor does he depict Joan of Arc as either a granite saint or a delusional martyr, but he gives us simply the final hours of a remarkably brave young woman who, after a long and tortuous physical and internal process, dies for her beliefs.

Courtroom dramas can often be as cliched as entertainment can get but not here. Dreyer’s even-handed portrait, coupled with Falconnetti’s intense portrayal, give us a very human young woman who cannot accurately count her age, but whose convictions run marrow-deep. For a film about Joan of Arc, Dreyer bravely and simply stuck to the trial for her life, forgoing any potentially grand battle scenes; consequently, this is a film that would live or die based on the lead performance, and it is impossible to imagine anyone giving a more heart-wrenching portrayal than Renee Falconnetti. Dreyer is neither trying to convert us nor mock the faithful; Joan of Arc is presented as enigmatically as the Mona Lisa; indeed, by focusing solely on the final hours of her life, it presents us with far more of a psychological puzzle than we’d otherwise have.

Falconnetti’s profound gaze may have perhaps partly inspired Leonard Cohen’s song on Joan of Arc, which sums up her funeral pyre with:

I saw her wince, I saw her cry,
I saw the glory in her eye.
Myself I long for love and light,
but must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?

In the home stretch of Bergman’s most overtly religious work, 1962’s WINTER LIGHT, we have the crippled man’s speech to his doubting pastor about physical pain vs emotional pain, with the hunchback eventually favoring, through some of Bergman’s most eloquent dialogue, that the internal pain far outweighs the other, because the physical pain eventually ends. The man is particularly emphasizing Christ’s suffering on the cross compared to His agonizing loneliness at being abandoned by His friends and even, eventually, God Himself and how that hurt far more than the nails and thorns.

All this can equally be applied to Joan’s funeral pyre – we may never go through the profound physical agony and public shame, thankfully, but the utter lonely introspection that becomes her Via Dolorosa is one we all walk down, and Dreyer masterfully dramatizes, regardless of what redemption may or may not come next after death.
On separate occasions, both John Ford and Ingmar Bergman said the most interesting subject for a movie camera is a human face, and indeed, presaging the later masterful work of those auteurs, Dreyer shoots PASSION primarily in intense close-ups, both of Joan as well as those condemning her.

Unlike so many religious films, we aren’t shown a world inherently prone to the miraculous, no guarantees of redemption; there is no Divine admonition that Paradise awaits Joan on the other side of the pyre. Instead, we are given a laser-like emotional look at a woman confronting her imminent death, and, as a result, we witness her profoundly internal examination of what exactly she believes, something that inadvertently happens to all viewing this masterpiece; Joan’s internal search becomes ours, and, again unlike most religious movies, makes us examine what may await us when we enter Hamlet’s undiscovered country. We can easily identify with the Maid’s tears when she is questioned about the Lord’s Prayer; she weeps not over the sublime words, but because her mother was the one who taught them to her.

Film is seductive because it’s dangerous; it can reveal things we’d otherwise ignore, regardless of which side of the camera we’re on. Until the 1950s, it was also dangerous for a far more literal reason – the nitrate film stocks generally used were highly flammable. Fires in labs, editing rooms and projection rooms were not uncommon; an industry-wide switch to celluloid acetate (aka “safety film”) corrected this in the 50s, but the damage had already been done to many cinematic treasures already lost either to the poor shelf life of the nitrate stocks or to fire. THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC is a notorious example: the original negative was lost to a fire the year of its release .

Dreyer cut a secondary version of the movie from alternative takes, which also was lost to fire, in 1929. Dreyer’s original cut was presumed lost, until a print of the original version was found intact in, of all places, a Norwegian mental institution in the 1980s.

Miraculous.

 

 

Copyright (c) 2017 by Eric Peeper

SUMMER INTERLUDE

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Few things are as ephemeral and ever-changing as whatever may currently be hip within pop culture, but the zeitgeist of the summer of 1977 has had a hangover that will doubtlessly vanish anytime soon. Summer’s bittersweet yet magical transience (perhaps it is so magical because it is so fleeting) is something kids know inherently, and something that adults try to relive as often as work can allow: a time to unwind and have unbridled fun, most especially by losing yourself in a summer spectacle at the movies while devouring whole fields of popcorn. However, the film industry didn’t always see summertime as open season at the box office.

Blockbusters themselves were nothing unique to the 1970s; in the silent era, films like THE GOLD RUSH (1925), BEN-HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST (1925), and THE KING OF KINGS (1927) all packed theatres, the latter of which was the film that christened Grauman’s Chinese theatre in Hollywood. Over the next several decades, films as diverse as GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956), THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) and EASY RIDER (1969) played in some theatres for months on end, something unheard of now in the age of Netflix.

The success of JAWS, however, in 1975, gave the entire industry whiplash. As Joseph McBride pointed out in his excellent biography of Steven Spielberg, JAWS swam past THE GODFATHER to become the all-time movie bestseller in its first 64 days of release, and ultimately became the first film to make more than $100 million at the U.S. box office. Of course blockbusters had been around for years, but the fact that JAWS made more cash in its first release than GONE WITH THE WIND had made in all of its’ rereleases over the decades (curiously, both movies were adapted from first novels by their respective authors) shocked the film business with how much business they could do.

Nevertheless, most felt that the titanic success of JAWS must’ve been a fluke; in spite of the inevitable efforts to cash in on it with films like ORCA, PIRANHA, THE DEEP, and, of course, all the JAWS sequels, it seemed unlikely that JAWS’ box office watermark could be topped. 1977, however, proved everyone wrong.

Hollywood was expecting (and Columbia Pictures was banking on) Spielberg’s JAWS follow-up, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, to do plenty of business, but the other two films expected to do colossal box office and Oscar clean-up were Friedkin’s WAGES OF FEAR update called SORCERER, and Martin Scorsese’s ambitious musical NEW YORK, NEW YORK.

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Both films were tailor-made for their era – bold, downbeat epics made by directors much feted at the time for their daring and class. Had both pictures been released a year or so earlier, with audiences still reveling in these auteurs’ prior dark masterpieces, as well the grim cultural zeitgeist in general, they may have been received rapturously. However, both films’ chances at the box office in the summer of 1977 were permanently waylaid by the film no one saw coming – an old-fashioned space fairy tale called STAR WARS.

George Lucas’ mythological fable of heroes and villains proved the success of JAWS wasn’t a one-time love affair, and with a straightforward, fast-paced fun story to tell (not to mention a proper avalanche of merchandise to boot), all of the major studios realized this phenomenon could go on every summer year after year, which is pretty much what has happened. This may have been the beginning of Franchise Fever in Hollywood, but it truly became virulent with the endless sequels that followed in the 1980s.

Personally, I grew up worshipping the original STAR WARS films, and am a huge admirer of Christopher Nolan’s films today, so it would certainly be wrong and hypocritical to make it sound like commercial movies have been all downhill since 1977. It is disheartening, however, that some of the deepest conversations possible regarding mainstream movies revolve around analyzing just how closely the current Marvel epic is compared to its comic book roots. This sea change remains quite something; in the late sixties, young people lined up around the block to see films like BONNIE & CLYDE or THE GRADUATE, then hung around outside the theatres to analyze what they’d experienced and how it connected to their lives and outlooks. Now, young people are more concerned with how faithful a movie like BATMAN V. SUPERMAN is to its original graphic novel.

In his 2004 re-review of 1971’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, Roger Ebert pointed out that the young people of the time greeted that film with the kind of reception that any given franchise epic receives today. True enough, many were possibly just waiting for the nude scenes, but would today’s youth have the patience to sit through Sam the Lion’s monologue about his long ago love affair, or Lois Farrow’s equally wistful speech about the tragedy of only meeting one person in your life who knows your real worth? I hope so, otherwise we should just dispense with movies and switch to making nothing but commercials.

Television today actually seems to have picked up much of the slack of sophistication gone from many mainstream Hollywood films; if shows like THE WIRE, BREAKING BAD or MAD MEN had been features instead of tv shows, they would share a kinship with movies like THE FRENCH CONNECTION or CHINATOWN than THE AVENGERS, so there is certainly an appetite for such films. We’ve become so compartmentalized now in the age of Netflix that even the most popular shows have a bit of a disconnect because not everyone is tuned in, so audiences would welcome a communal event that the best popular movies can offer, especially in summertime, when we’re all looking for a memorable affair to mark that most fleeting of seasons rather than a quick fling.

 

Copyright (c) 2017 by Eric Peeper

THE COMMUNAL SENSE OF WONDER

Frame02-Isabel Gene dance02“To me a Moviola – that’s that machine we have in the movie business – is a wonderful thing –maybe the most wonderful. If you use it right, you can make time go backwards and forwards, faster or slower; you can stop time and stay on one second; you can cut out the parts you don’t like, and the parts you do like you have over and over. In some ways, it’s even better than life.”

– Garson Kanin, MOVIOLA

Early in Orson Welles’ THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS there is a moment where Joseph Cotten and Dolores Costello, whose characters knew each other in their younger days, realize they can have another chance at love and happiness together as they dance the evening away at a Christmas ball. At first, we see them whirling amongst the large crowd gathered at the Amberson mansion, then Welles gives us a long, lyrical dancing to hours later, and it’s just the two of them, still dancing and savoring both their reunion and the hope rekindled.

For the remainder of his life, Orson Welles swore that the original and uncut AMBERSONS was a better film than CITIZEN KANE and, while we certainly have no way of knowing for certain, the tease of a warm romantic moment like this is enough to whet the appetite for imagining what the full cumulative emotional punch of the movie must have been.

It is part of Hollywood lore how butchered THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS became in Welles’ absence as he was away working on another project, and the film, as it remains, is a ghost of what was intended; since the excised footage was destroyed we’ll never get to see what the film was originally meant to be, and that early taste of Yuletide romance in the picture is one of the few moments of Welles’ authorship to remain intact.

It is doubly poignant that a movie about life’s transience became, because of what had been done to it, so unendurable for Orson Welles; in their interview book THIS IS ORSON WELLES, Peter Bogdanovich recalls a moment where Welles happened upon a repeat television viewing of AMBERSONS and became emotional. Bogdanovich felt it was the recuts that caused Welles such distress and he replied that what upset him simply was, “It’s the past….it’s over….”

Although he later claimed he borrowed the phrase from a remark Jimmy Stewart made, Bogdanovich himself later appropriately named a collection of his own writings on film PIECES OF TIME, perhaps inspired also in part by this incident with Mr. Welles. Movies are indeed mini time capsules cementing the time spent not only by those who make them (so powerfully demonstrated by Linklater’s BOYHOOD and Apted’s UP documentaries), but also by all of us who enjoy them; every time we return to a film we love, we not only revisit our younger selves, but also create new memories with each viewing. Any given film instantly recalls memories, good or bad, of our past loves and lives; even downright awful movies can take on a luster if viewed with the right people because it is still time well spent. It can be the closest we’ll come to experiencing time travel, and, again, not just for us in the audience.

As sad as it is that Welles was never able to return to his past and tweak it to his liking, it is equally easy to understand his distress. In this era of endless “director’s cuts” on home video, many of which are done simply to please the egos of the directors and the greed of the financiers, it is sad that a film like AMBERSONS legitimately in need of reconstruction cannot be put back together, like a handful of movies that were taken away from the directors in question and finished by others; films like PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, and SUPERMAN II were blessed to have such reconstructive surgery, but Welles never got that option.

The flip side to his predicament can be seen in one of cinema’s other preeminent magicians, George Lucas, who, starting in 1997, on the 20th anniversary of his greatest triumph, STAR WARS, took the occasion to not only revisit but do his best to revise his past by retooling his landmark trilogy to what he said had always been his original vision. It was a bold move, and a controversial one amongst fans and critics alike, but Lucas may have lost whatever creative sympathies he may have had when he continued changing the movies with each successive home video release, in 2004 when the films were initially released on DVD, and yet again in 2011 for the Blu-Rays, all while suppressing the original versions of the films that so many loved and grew up with.

This bizarre act of cinematic (self?) deception is not just revisionism at its worse, but also a uniquely and supremely arrogant case of an artist putting his artistic ego ahead of his audience’s enjoyment; Lucas’ bold move tacitly implies that anyone who preferred the original versions were simply mistaken, so mistaken that he’s made it a mission to keep those previous iterations as invisible as possible, which is simply ludicrous. Once a film (or a novel, or any piece of art) has left the hands of the artist, it also becomes the shared property of those who love it, which is why moviegoing is so sacred – whether we are the filmmaker or simply a card-carrying member of the audience, we arrive at any film hoping to mark the time in which we are living with a communal sense of wonder. And, if we’re lucky, sometimes it works better than we ever thought it could, which is the most seductive thing about art: it’s the only place where the past, present and future converge, whether we’re simply relishing it, or simply trying to figure out what’s gone wrong.

 

 

Copyright (c) 2017 by Eric Peeper