Thursday, September 14, 2006

Coming Very Soon to An Excellent Blog Near You: THE ROBERT ALDRICH BLOG-A-THON


Robert Aldrich, alongside Samuel Fuller, personified the film director as two-fisted spinner of dark tales perched just this side of pitch-black misanthropy, a clear-eyed, yet just as often hysterical observer of violence who was often brilliant at the task of conjuring the virile, hostile charge of men in chaotic conflict, and later the various gradations of psychological tension in women, into a series of brutal, bilious and superb films noir, films which themselves sometimes crept into the arena of art.

After several years as a studio production clerk, script clerk and assistant to the likes of Edward Dmytyrk, William Wellman, Abraham Polonsky, Joseph Losey and Charles Chaplin, he made his inauspicious debut with The Big Leaguer in 1953, a mediocre drama starring Edward G. Robinson as a baseball manager shepherding would-be ballplayers through a baseball tryout camp. (The movie remains of interest today less to Aldrich admirers than to Dodger fans who are afforded rare glimpses of Brooklyn bums Carl Hubbell and Al Campanis in a setting other than mid-game on the baseball diamond.)
Then came the first string of movies that would later typify the words “A Robert Aldrich Film”—the westerns Apache (with Burt Lancaster) and Vera Cruz (Lancaster and Gary Cooper), both released in 1954; the film noir classics Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Knife, both from 1955; and the vividly realistic WWII actioner Attack!, from 1956, starring Jack Palance and Eddie Albert. (The atypical romance Autumn Leaves, with Vera Miles and Cliff Robertson, for which Aldrich won Best Director at the West Berlin Film Festival, was also released in 1956.)

Aldrich began the ‘60s helming the big budget Italian production of Sodom and Gomorrah (1961; codirected by Sergio Leone), my favorite entry in the biblical epic genre. But he cemented his commercial success with the gothic psychodrama of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), which pitted Bette Davis in full-on hag mode as a demented former child star playing twisted cat-and-rat games with her sweet-tempered paraplegic sister, played against type by Joan Crawford. (Aldrich would revisit the ghastly template of Baby Jane in 1965 with Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, this time pitting Davis against a deceptively sinister Olivia De Havilland.) James Stewart and The Flight of the Phoenix would follow in 1966, paving the way, both in box-office receipts and directorial sensibility, for Aldrich’s biggest hit, the WWII action classic The Dirty Dozen in 1967. The director closed out the decade with two insider looks at the Hollywood machine-- The Legend of Lylah Clare and The Killing of Sister George (1968). Both were hit-and-miss in terms of quality, and neither managed to come close to the phenomenal success of The Dirty Dozen.

The first half of the ‘70s proved to be a fertile period for Aldrich as well. He turned out another WWII thriller with an all-star cast, Too Late the Hero starring Michael Caine, Cliff Robertson, Henry Fonda, Ian Bannen and Denholm Elliot, and the crude, wacky and nihilistic gangster epic The Grissom Gang, with Kim Darby, Scott Wilson, Tony Musante and Connie Stevens, in 1970 and 1971, respectively. Then it was time for Aldrich to revisit two of the tough action icons with whom he had had previous successes. Burt Lancaster reteamed with the director for the brutal, thrilling western Ulzana’s Raid (1972), and the following year Aldrich reunited with Dirty Dozen squad leader Lee Marvin, joined also by Ernest Borgnine and Keith Carradine, for what may be Aldrich’s masterpiece, Emperor of the North Pole (1973). Two outings with Burt Reynolds would follow—the popular hit The Longest Yard (1974) and the cult drama Hustle (1975), which saw Reynolds costar with upscale beauty Catherine Deneuve in what might be, along with Kiss Me Deadly, Aldrich’s bleakest noir. In 1977 the director helmed his last critical hit, the electrifying adaptation of Walter Wager’s novel Viper Three, retitled Twilight Last Gleaming. Lancaster returns again, heading another typical Aldrich all-star cast which included Melvyn Douglas, Paul Winfield, Richard Widmark, Joseph Cotton and Charles Durning. That same year he had a hit with his critically reviled adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys, though his final two films-- The Frisco Kid starring Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford in a misguided comedy-western, and …All the Marbles featuring Peter Falk navigating the world of female wrestling-- have to be considered disappointments when placed up against the vitality of what might be thought of as a representative Robert Aldrich film.

But why the attention paid to Robert Aldrich? There is no centennial birthday to be celebrated in 2006—the director, who died in 1983, would have been 88 this year—and there is no corresponding retrospective of his work underway in any major city that I know of. Most of his films are now available on DVD, however, and that’s reason enough for me to announce this first official call for a Robert Aldrich Blog-a-Thon to convene just over a month from now, on Monday, October 16.

I invite you to post pieces on any Aldrich-related subject you so choose, be it a single film, a series of films, a performance, thoughts on the director’s styles, anything at all. If you can let me know as far ahead of time as possible that you will be posting an Aldrich-themed article for the Blog-a-Thon on that day, it would be extremely helpful to me in gathering all the appropriate links and turning SLIFR into an blog-a-thon hub for the day, Aldrich Central Station for the dissemination and sharing of all the great pieces that will undoubtedly become available on October 16. And if you’re a reader without a blog to call your own and would like to contribute a piece anyway, please feel free to contact me and I will post your work on Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.

I look forward to hearing from all the potential contributors, but most of all I look forward to reading what you have to say about this punchy, antiestablishment director and his ragged, pulsating films.

19 comments:

The mizTerIous A-d=ri;an B-et"a|max said...

Blog-a-thons are for losers. (I say this without reading your actual entry yet. More snide comments to follow, after I actually read it.)

-The mizTerIous A-d=ri;an B-et"a|max (now a member of the Curmudgeon Collective Incorporated International Entities, CCIIE)

The mizTerIous A-d=ri;an B-et"a|max said...

I thought it said "Robert Altman" at the top. I misread it. Regarding your comment as to why do Robert Aldrich: Yes, really, why? (I don't mean that to sound combative.) What is the justification for writing about any director or particular film, other than we've just seen it or the idea grew out of some discussion on some other blog?

I don't like the idea of revisiting the entire careers of certain directors each time they release a new movie (Hello? De Palma? Anyone?), and using anniversaries as a justification is more akin to Oscar back-patting than to an organizing principle for critical discussion.

In any case, it is really hard, now that we're about 111 years into the history of cinema to come up with an organizing principle for reviewing and writing about film. And any time you come up with one, that structure might exclude films or directors that shouldn't be overlooked.

But this free-for-all also bothers me. The only thing I can think of is the subjects (directors or films) chosen should have some relation to modern-day cinema or contemporary problems that are interesting and make them more vital today and in need of a re-visit. Or another good reason would be if a new critical interpretation, not previously forwarded, was being offered, such as praising the work of one director previously not considered worthy of distinction. (Unless, of course, your particular idea is crackpot and only a small handful of fellow crackpots agree with you.) But anyway, I feel some approach is needed to avoid rehashing already established directors who have an already established general critical opinion about them.

But then again, going back and seeing great films by great directors is fun and you are watching good films, so there'd really be no reason to discourage viewers from doing that.

In any case, I like Aldrich. I like his old films. I'm less enthused by the Dirty Dozen and I especially disliked The Longest Yard. However, you brought Hustle to my attention, and the pairing with Deneuve intrigues me somewhat. While the material seems less silly to me than The Longest Yard, I probably won't enjoy it because of its close proximity to The Longest Yard (being only a year apart, they obviously occupy the same phase in his growth (or lack of growth?) as a director). The Big Knife is excellent, so encouraging people to watch that is really good. Steiger! But somehow everything I'm saying about Aldrich seems pointless. Ergo my original comment: Blog-a-thons are for losers!! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!

As far as an attempt at an organizing principle for blog film discussion, I suggest that you just start at the beginning with Lumiere(s), Edison and Melies and keep going chronologically until some other meaningful organizing principle occurs to you.

- The mizTerIous A-d=ri;an B-et"a|max, CIIEE

Brian said...

Somebody's already doing that, MAB.

You raise a lot of good points about being careful about rehashing established opinion, but I think Blog-A-Thons are a worthwhile activity because they contain a lot of potential for challenging orthodoxies. I'm not sure precisely how much of that has actually happened over the past nine months of film blog-a-thons, but I think that some definitely has, at least.

I'm pretty clueless about Aldrich myself (I've seen two of his films), so for me this Blog-a-Thon will mainly be a fire under my feet to expose myself to some more.

The main thing that's great about them though is that they help encourage people from all over the country (the world!) to watch the same films at around the same time and discuss them in depth while still fresh in mind. Usually the only films large numbers of scattered movie buffs can talk about like that are the very newest releases, which means the agenda is continually being set by film and DVD distribution companies. It's nice to have an alternative to that.

Thom said...

Brian, Your support of Blog-A-Thons makes a lot of sense to me, especially when you write that they encourage disparate people to watch films and discuss them.

One aspect that I think is sometimes under-appreciated about film blogging and film viewing in general is that they are social disciplines: people watch and then discuss films and filmmakers, become influenced, gather new meanings, argue, agree and are otherwise encouraged and enriched by this discourse. DVDs, home theaters, internet viewing, etc., make it easy to reduce cinema to an individual experience through which we can unfortunately miss out on this interaction with our peers. Blog-A-Thons encourage the social aspect of cinema that makes film-viewing and writing much more worthwhile and fun, imho.

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Count me in, Dennis. Of course, everybody will want to do KISS ME DEADLY ("Va-va-va-VOOM!"), but I'm tempted to go for something like THE FRISCO KID or HUSTLE. God, Aldrich did everything. Until I read your post, I didn't even realize he directed HUSTLE! Good excuse to revisit the master. I watched ATTACK earlier this year and was amazed what he could do with cheap sets and a stagy screenplay. Of course, when you got Lee Marvin...speaking of somebody who needs his own blog-a-thon!

andyhorbal said...

Being as I'm going to be hosting a blog-a-thon in the coming months I feel compelled to speak in their defense as well...

What interests me is their potential to encourage more actual discussion of the subject, whether that be Robert Aldrich or Robert Altman or anything else. Too often comments sections aren't used for substantive debate: they become a forum where readers express simple approval for the post they're commenting on, where they voice in a few words their agreement or disagreement with the blogger's words (your comments here "mizterious a-d=ri;an" are exceptional).

People tend to put more effort into things they're publishing on their own site, and calling for a blog-a-thon is one way to solicit thoughtful opinions about a subject that interests you from people whose opinions you respect. Is it the best way? Not necessarily. But it's all optional, isn't it?

So what's the justification? Well, Dennis wants to know what we all think about Robert Aldrich. That's good enough for me.

David Lowery said...

I think I'll make my long-planned return to blog-a-thonning with this one. And I know exactly which film I'll write about...although I might try to see a few more Aldrich pictures before then, too, to give me some perspective (I've seen an alarmingly small amount of his work).

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Sorry it’s taken me so long to pipe in here—the outside world is being her old harsh-mistress self.

I don’t see blog-a-thons as occasions to come up with an organizing principle for reviewing and writing about film. That's a far more scholarly purpose than any I've ever considered or even, at this point, feel capable of. Instead, what I find valuable and surprising about blogging, especially blogging about film, is its tendency to be a much more interactive and social experience than a dry intellectual exercise. (This is a very good thing to remember at 4:30 in the morning when one is trying to knock out one more post before the sun comes up because that’s the only time one has to get it done.)

Experiencing film is a joyful, stimulating endeavor, one that naturally lends itself to the idea of a seriously intended blog-athon. I like the idea of writers experiencing (maybe for the first time) all the surprising corners of film history, dark and well as brightly lit, and sharing those experiences.

When I started blogging, I never expected anyone other than those closest to me (who would undoubtedly feel some kind of obligation to check in every once in a while) to ever read the thing, which made it very easy for me to ignore initial advice and complaints about how long a certain post was or whether anyone would care about the subject—I was writing for me, to learn how to write again, to see if, indeed, I even had any reason to write. But the things that ultimately make this whole adventure worthwhile for me are the people I’ve come in contact with, including everyone who has posted a comment under this blog-a-thon announcement, through nothing any more contrived than one person seeing something they liked and passing it along to someone else.

When Brian directed my attention to the very first blog-a-thon for Showgirls, it was a scary thing to jump in the pool with so many talented, committed writers who were doing it for the same reasons I was, reasons that didn’t have anything to do with money or outside attention. And the blog-a-thon concept has continued, because it’s a way for writers and readers to interact about a specific film or director all at the same time and trade fresh, honest responses about the person or work being considered. There is no organizing principle beyond wanting to see what everyone else has to say about that subject and getting the chance to write about it myself.

I didn’t expect everyone to agree with my unexpectedly favorable view of Showgirls, nor do I expect everyone to find Robert Aldrich as worthy of discussion as I do. For that matter, I wouldn’t be much interested in a blog-a-thon that served to rehash familiar opinions about anyone’s overexposed films or reinforce my own. One of the reasons I wanted to gather people together on Aldrich is that, at least as far as my limited perspective goes, I’m not aware of much that’s been written about him beyond what has been said about Kiss Me Deadly or What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I think the fact that many here haven’t seen much Aldrich bodes well for this to be a really interesting collection of observations based on something other than the conventional wisdom, just as Brian’s Friz Freleng celebration brought together a lot of people who knew they loved the animator’s cartoons but were either challenged or excited (or both) about the prospect of trying to write about them. And I second That Little Round-headed Boy’s impulse to beat a less-traveled path out of the thorny bushes of Aldrich’s career and visit some of those less-familiar titles. Those pieces that do are the ones I’m really looking forward to.

I think Brian makes an excellent point too about the fact that blog-a-thons can focus a disparate group of writers on something other than this week’s releases—it can encourage people not only to check out the film or films in question but also foster curiosity about and links to other films that might be written about in the future. And Andy hits it right on the head, exposing one of my own selfish impulses. I’m a voracious reader of film writing, yet much of what passes for film coverage these days is just entertainment journalism in disguise that does nothing to satisfy my appetite for smart, unpretentious writing about this art form. I just want to see what others have to say about a subject I’m interested in, and I bet Brian, Girish, Squish, Flickhead and anyone else who has initiated a blog-a-thon would say the same thing.

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Dibs on ULZANA'S RAID. I've already marked the date on my calendar.

Good topic, Dennis. It's always good to travel off the beaten path.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Matt, nice choice, and plenty off into the sagebrush! I'm looking forward to seeing the movie again and especially what you'll have to say about it. It'll probably be no surprise that I'm gravitating toward Emperor of the North Pole myself.

Steve said...

I'll try to whip up something for this one (I'm still stinging from missing Girish's avant-garde-a-thon). Ideally, I'd like to track down The Big Leaguer -- Jesus Christ, for a kid who grew up a fan of old-school Dodgers ball, that sounds dangerously close to masturbatory material -- but I'm sure I'll find some angle.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Steve, I might be able to hook you up. Seems I watched The Big Leaguer on a borrowed VHS copy dubbed off of TCM, and I may be able to get a copy dubbed onto DVD for you. I'll keep in touch.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I just read the collection of interviews with Aldrich. Some of it is repetitive, but there is some interesting stuff including mention of some films Aldrich did not make, including Cross of Iron. I am going to be writing about Hustle. Speaking of TCM, that's where I saw The Big Leaguer and part of The Angry Hills which was on past my usual bedtime.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Peter: Thanks for reminding me about that collection of Aldrich interviews. I think it was Machine Gun McCain that pointed them out to me a few months ago, and I'm going to have to get myhands to that volume very soon! Looking forward to your thoughts on Hustle.

Steve! I have zeroed in on a copy of The Big Leaguer, which I can have dubbed and in the mail to you as soon as you can e-mail me your address!

The Myzteriouz A+dr}ian B{eta[max said...

There is also interview material with Aldrich in Bogdanovich's book, Who the Devil Made It? Although I seem to have a vague memory that it might have been one of the very short interviews in the book.

I forgot to mention that your capsule bio of his career was excellent, well-written and comprehensive.

Here's a Senses of Cinema article with a useful bibliography, including many Cahiers du Cinéma references:
Sense of Cinema Bio

One is an interview with Truffaut. When you said not a lot had been written about him, I was going to mention that he was certainly admired by some Cahiers critics during the '50s and '60s and that it seemed to me that there is indeed a good deal of writing about him that participants may want to peruse.

- The Myzteriouz A+dr}ian B{eta[max

Dennis Cozzalio said...

MAB: I hope I didn't infer that not much has been written about Aldrich. What I meant was that I personally wasn't aware of much and as such was criminally underread on the director. As one of the criminally underread, I very much appreciate all the info and links you left for us all in your previous comment. Since posting that I have ordered the Conversations with Robert Aldrich that Peter referred to, as well as a tome entitled What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, which I seem to remember got some positive notice a few years ago.

Oh, and thanks for the kind words on my capsule bio!

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful news. My name is Luca and I'm working for a film festival in Italy called Torino Film Festival. During our upcoming edition (November 10-18, 2006) we will devote a complete retrospective to Bob Aldrich's films. We will screen all his films and you can check our website (www.torinofilmfest.org) where you will find everything on his films and works. The Aldrich's part of the website will be on line from the beginning of November!

best

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Luca, this is a happy confluence of events. Please feel free to link to the Aldrich Blog-a-Thon after October 16 on the Torino Film Festival site as well.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Peter, I saw Hustle last night, after having only seen bits and pieces of it on TV over the past 31 years. I'm really looking forward to what you'll have to say about this. This has been the biggest happy surprise in my adventures with Aldrich so far. I'm not at all suprised that the movie was badly recieved by critics when it came out, but do you remember if it was a hit with audiences in 1975? According to the interview in that Aldrich book that coincided with the movie's release, it was trotted out in December by Paramount-- which was, even back then, somewhat of a showcase month. But the way it was advertised, as a routine cop thriller, I just can't imagine anything more than indifference or less than repulsion from the audiences that showed up, based on the movie's own indifference to the mechanics of the action movie.