Friday, January 29, 2010

THE LIGHTS GO DOWN ON MIRAMAX



What else needs to be said? To my mind, the simple and sincere condolences of David Edelstein on the death of Miramax Films are far and away eloquent enough. But if you have more, please feel free to share.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

THE HAUNTING CALL OF DRIVE-INS PAST



(Photograph by Carl Weese)

Southern California has just endured a relative deluge of thunderstorms and rain which began early last week and subsided, for the immediate future at least, only yesterday. There’s always overreaction on the part of the media when things get wet down here, and all hysteria aside it is natural to be concerned for those who might be in harm’s way when the hillsides get too wet and start yielding to gravity, as well as for those without homes who bank on the typically comfortable weather to cooperate with their need to stay warm and dry at night. But taken simply as weather, that is, one manifestation of the myriad possibilities for climate change possible in our atmosphere in general, I love the rain and it seems, now that I’m in a place where it rarely happens, that I can never get enough of it. It stimulates my mood, my sense of well-being, my creative urges, and my desire to wrap up in a blanket with loved ones. And I’m just a little bit down on a day like today when it looks like the current storm system has finally been swept away, giving the Los Angeles Basin back over to the relentlessly cheerful sunshine.

Ironically, it was during the storm that I got word of a beautiful collection of photographs that have sparked in me a sense of muted nostalgia and a desire to resume a favorite fair weather activity. On January 15, on their Lens blog devoted to photography, The New York Times posted an article entitled “Dark Screens, Bright Memories” which reveals the work of one Carl Weese. Weese’s simple (but not at all simplistic) and lovely photos of dilapidated drive-ins in far-away corners of Virginia, Indiana, Wyoming and other states have a simultaneous sadness and sense of celebration about them—for the drive-ins that still exist and for the unique architectural marvels of the individual drive-ins themselves, many of which still cut a geometrically expressive figure within their quiet, rural landscapes. “Drive-ins are this stealthily strong feature of American history,” Weese says in the Lens piece. “Each of these theaters, if not totally unique, sure is idiosyncratic… You have these marvelous repeating forms… Setting these shapes and forms that are now becoming familiar for me in different landscapes is something I find quite fascinating.”

The Lens piece examines Weese’s philosophy of photography and, beyond the beautiful slide show on the blog itself, also leads to Weese’s own extensive gallery of drive-in photographs, which will access the sense of longing inside anyone who ever spent time in a drive-in movie theater as a child or teen-ager, and inside anyone else who continues to patronize and hold dear those drive-in movie theaters that are still with us.

This newfound awareness of Weese’s photography also coincided with some pictures of my own that I took on a recent Thanksgiving trip back to my hometown in Oregon. I decided to take a brief pilgrimage to the site of the drive-in theater I frequented from about the age of three up until its final season during the summer of 1981, when I was 21. The theater was a kind of playground of wonders for me in my early years and an oasis during the long summer months when I finally got old enough to attend drive-in movies without parental chaperones, either with my older friends who had their licenses already or when I finally could legally drive myself. I also worked at the drive-in—manning the popcorn machine and changing out the C02 and syrup containers beneath the soda tap at the Circle JM Drive-in snack bar was my very first real job. (The Circle JM was named after a cattle brand owned by a rancher in the theater owner’s extended family, and the far wall of the snack bar was adorned by various local brands burned in wood and hung on display in the manner of a cowboy art gallery.) Unfortunately, the drive-in and its older brother, the indoor Alger Theater located in downtown Lakeview, were both owned by a man with shoulders made to droop by his sense of obligation at continuing the family business and very little corresponding showmanship or passion for either the business or the films themselves. He routinely looked down on his customers and sighed with disdain and indifference upon the changes of seasons during which one theater would be closed and the other reopened. Despite all this, I loved both places, not only because I eventually gained all kinds of access to them through my car and my job, but because both places helped to nurture the passion I’ve had for the movies ever since I was a very small child.

The Circle JM Drive-in closed for the winter in September 1981 amid rumors (which had become frequent over the previous 5-10 years) that both theaters were up for sale or that they had already been sold. In either case the message was clear—the owner was officially tired of his charge to bring movie entertainment to the citizens of this economically weakened and shrinking lumber town. And during the winter of 1982, as if in answer to a secret prayer, a powerful snowstorm landed on the Southeastern Oregon desert, dumping several feet of snow on the ground and making the air like cold knives with winds that blew through my hometown valley at speeds approaching that of the highway speed limit. The heavy snowfall had already added weight to the drive-in’s screen tower, which had been in dire need of bolstering and repair to the screen itself for over 10 years. When the winds began buffeting that creaky wooden construct sitting just off of Highway 395 on the north end of town, the screen simply gave up. It didn’t take long for the news to circulate, and so I made my way out to the drive-in armed with a camera. The sight before me when I got there was genuinely heart-wrenching. The screen was literally shorn in half, one side (I don’t remember which) still standing, and a horrific rip down the middle of the screen, as if it had been grasped on both ends by one of those giant Ray Harryhausen creatures, some of which had become so beloved to me on this very screen, and torn in two as if it were the world’s biggest phone book. There was no doubt in my mind when I saw the destruction that the Circle JM Drive-in had shown its last movie and that Lily Tomlin’s The Incredible Shrinking Woman, which I saw there earlier that past summer, was now my own official Circle JM swan song.


It’s been nearly 29 years since that screen reflected the last image cast by those ancient old carbon arc projectors housed in the tiny projection booth at the front of the snack bar. In the years since, the property was converted to an RV park which accommodates year-round travelers, including the many visitors attracted to the town by the annual county fair and Lakeview’s newfound status as a locale par excellence for hang gliding. (The mountain which looms over the town and the extending valley has an accessible shelf that is perfect for winged leaping.) And to my surprise, the people who took the property over, rather than raze the existing buildings, merely adapted them for use in the RV camp. So what was once the drive-in snack bar and projection booth has been converted to a convenience store and office from which the RV camp is operated. Gas pumps have been installed in back of the building, where the owners and snack bar employees parked their cars before every show. And best of all, rather incredibly and inexplicably, the old box office, situated mere feet away from the asphalt on Hwy. 395, has been left standing, if not exactly intact—the red letter marquee that used to be attached on top of it was dismantled when the drive-in closed. At some point, the RV park owner thought it would be a good idea to put a wooden Indian, complete with headdress, inside the box office, a phantom ticket-taker waiting for cars that would never come again, but when I visited this past November it was with some relief that I noted the absence of the chief. Also gone, unfortunately, is the beautiful neon deco sign that once announced the entrance off the highway to the driveway leading up to the box office window. I have photos of that sign, all lit up and beckoning at twilight, and shots of the shredded screen too, all buried somewhere amongst the junk in my house (under my bed, hopefully). I could not locate them for posting here, but if I find them at some later date I promise I will share. (And certainly, if there are any unofficial Lake County, Oregon historians reading this who may have pictures of the old drive-in during its active life and would like to share them here, I would love to hear from you.)

For now, here are the photos I took during my Thanksgiving 2009 Oregon trip of the grounds on which the Circle JM Drive-in used to stand. Not being well versed in digital image manipulation, I’ll just try to describe for you how each picture illustrates how the drive-in was laid out. These pictures are in no way intended to compare with Carl Weese’s achievements—they were taken by a very cheap digital camera with almost no consideration for composition or emotional effect. But they are, in their own way, tributes to the kind of emotions that his photographs stirred up in me when I saw them, even though mine were taken a couple of months before I was exposed to Weese’s talented eye. (Click on the individual images for a much clearer, closer view.)


In this shot, taken from across Highway 395, the old snack bar is visible in the background, behind a row of trees. At the leftmost point in the photograph is where the old Circle JM neon sign stood, at the driveway entrance which proceeded across right, parallel to the highway, and led to the box office window.


Looking from the area that marked the furthest point from the screen on the field, the back side of the old snack bar, now a convenience store, is clearly visible. Directly in front of it stood the old screen, with probably only five or six rows of speaker poles between them. Customers entered the snack bar on the door furthest on the left of the building (this door serves as the one entrance to the store now) and would exit via another door on the same side of the building, but at the front. That picture window directly to the right of the entrance door was, at the time the Circle JM was in operation, a brick wall-- there was no window. Inside, on the reverse side of that wall, was where the wood-burned brands that made up the cowboy art gallery were hung.


The original box office for the Circle JM drive-in still stands, completely nonfunctional, to this day. A red letter-board marquee was mounted on the roof of the box office and provided an irresistible lure for wise-acre teen-aged boys (not unlike Your Humble Narrator) who occasionally could not pass up the opportunity, late on a dark and moonless night, to hop on top of the low-lying platform roof and rearrange the letters into some form of hilarity or another that the projectionist/site handyman would have to dutifully restore to normalcy the next day. You can see how the driveway split off to pass both sides of the box office. On nights when the cars backed up to and a half-mile or so down the highway, there would be a second cashier working the window closest to the snack bar in addition to the other side, which was the only side available to approach on most summer evenings.


A little closer to the box office. From this angle, you can see how the person running the ticket window (usually the owner or his wife, or sometimes their son) had a pretty good overview of the entire field. Looking out toward the west along the Z-axis, if it still stood the screen would have been directly visible over the roof of the snack bar in this shot.


Closer in and off to the south side of the snack bar building, you can more easily see the customer entrance door (right) and the customer exit door (left, now boarded up) which kept popcorn munchers and slurpers of carefully concocted swamp water (a mixture of Coke, root beer, orange and Sprite) moving efficiently back to their cars... unless, of course, they wanted to hang out around the periphery of the snack bar and talk to friends before the show started, which, by the way, never ever happened...


From the southwest corner facing the main building you get the best view of the closed snack bar exit door (now right). You can also see, just to the left, two large picture windows, also now boarded up, which provided those in the snack bar line a clear view of the screen in order that they might keep up with the action while they waited for me to reload the popcorn machine or mix their swamp water. There was also an audio speaker placed directly over the windows with the movie sound conveniently piped in as well. To the left, the window on the other side of the swamp cooler, also shuttered, once looked out onto the field and screen from the manager's office, a comfortable area where we employees often munched hot dogs and watched the rest of the movie once our shift was over. That area led directly into the projection booth, which occupied the area directly to picture left of the swamp cooler. As you can see, the booth was at ground level, but even so the throw of the projector lamps weren't pitched at much of an upward angle because the field in front of the booth was a naturally occurring hill, allowing the foundation of the screen tower to originate on ground that was considerably lower than where the projectors were housed. Speaking of temptations, however, I don't believe there was ever a night at the Circle JM Drive-in that wasn't punctuated by at least one person, on his or her way to the snack bar from the north side of the field, who could not resist the urge to throw hand puppet shadows or otherwise momentarily block the path of the light from the projectors to the screen. Just as funny the 3,000th time as the first, I can testify!

(You can whet your whistle for the coming drive-in season by reading my Drive-in Movie Primer at Green Cine Daily. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, it’s already time to check out what’s happening at the Vineland Drive-in in the City of Industry, the Mission Tiki Drive-in in Montclair, the Van Buren and Rubidoux Drive-ins in Riverside, the South Bay Drive-in in San Diego, the Sunset Drive-in in San Luis Obispo, the Skyline Drive-in in Barstow and the Smiths Ranch Drive-in in 29 Palms. And if you’re anywhere else in the country, find the drive-in nearest you at Drive-ins.com.

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NAME THAT DIRECTOR at SCANNERS



Okay, I hope you don't have a lot of work to do at the office today, because I've got one that'll eat up your whole day if you let it. Get on over to Scanners and take the Name That Director! challenge, a hell of a puzzler that Jim procured from a terrific blog he recently discovered called The Seventh Art. The idea is to name every director pictured in the photo collage above. (Jim has an enlarged view of the collage for better, um, scanning.) You won't be able to get 'em all, I'm guessing, but mighty things can be achieved when we all work together. Right? Have fun, and be sure to drop your answers in Jim's comments column.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

ACADEMY WASTE



I have tried with as much might as I can muster to avoid the proliferating web sites that offer their breathless evaluation of Jason Reitman’s Oscar chances, or anyone else’s for that matter. The prognosticating over not even the actual winners, but now simply who will be among the nominees, has been a hot topic for those who give a damn for months, with sites like the Los Angeles TimesGold Derby leading the way. (Of course, peripheral Hollywood industry blogs like the ones run by David Poland, Jeffrey Wells and Nikki Finke have been obsessing over the same topic too, and they’re not the only three.) I have to admit, I am curious as to what will result from the institution of 10 nominees for Best Picture this year in replacement of the traditional five. But Los Angeles Times writer Patrick Goldstein may have killed whatever interest I have in that development too, with his Big Picture column appearing in the paper today titled "The Oscar Race: Are Those 10 Nominations Going to Waste?” (You can almost hear the writer fretting as you read the title in your mind.)

It’s Goldstein’s contention, after the announcement of the winners of the Producer’s Guild awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the all important Golden Globes a week ago, that it’s essentially a four-picture race between Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds and Up in the Air, and that this reflects badly on the Academy’s revolutionizing of the Best Picture category because those four nominees would have been sure things for nominations even under the old five-picture categorization. Deeming the inclusion of the other six nominees “a Pyrrhic victory at best,” Goldstein admits that it’ll be nice to see whatever other pictures are named get their moment, “but it will all be for show -- none of the films outside of the Fab Four is going anywhere.”


Down for the 10-count?

Why this should be a matter of concern to anyone except the Oscar show producers, whose job it is to ensure that the show’s ratings go up, isn’t entirely clear, but Goldstein reassures us that this year even the ratings aren’t much of a concern if Avatar continues to muscle through the box-office records on a pace to pistol-whip Titanic into second-best status. He talks briefly to Academy president Tom Sherak, who offers some verbiage along the lines of “no publicity is bad publicity” and reiterates the adoption of the 10-nominee category as a way of opening up Oscar to more mainstream hits that Middle America might actually have heard of. Then Goldstein sends Sherak on his way, leaving the writer to proceed in perpetuating all the same hoary observations about how snoozy and “ve-r-r-r-ry long” the Oscar telecast seems to be on his way to his main point (boldface mine):

“But if you're looking for an intriguing tip-off as to whether the strategy could have worked this year, take a close peek at how many Hollywood blockbusters end up making the Academy's top 10 best picture list next week. I can pretty much guarantee that Up will be there, but I'm not sure it counts as an additional blockbuster contender, since the film would still have enjoyed substantial face time on the broadcast as the odds-on favorite in the animated feature race. But what about The Hangover? What about The Blind Side? What about Star Trek? Will any of those $100-million-plus hits be among the best picture finalists?


If more than one of them makes the list, then I'd say the expansion scheme is off to a promising start, as long as we acknowledge that its main reason for existing is to bring more mainstream pictures into the Oscar mix. If only one of those pictures -- or God forbid, none of 'em -- makes the final cut, then we'll have to throw up our hands and admit that the academy is as elitist as ever: Even when given 10 chances, the voters still insisted on picking tiny gems over well-crafted behemoths.
It could institute a new round of hand-wringing. Or it could force everyone to acknowledge the obvious: When it comes to the Oscars, what counts most with voters is artistic aspiration, not the loud applause of moviegoers in multiplexes across America.”


It’s a fine mess indeed, Stan, when public hand-wringing about whether or not The Hangover will get a Best Picture Oscar nomination (with the implication clearly being that it should) takes up precious column inches and pixels as a serious matter of concern for a major newspaper. Goldstein seems to want to reassure us that at least one of the movies he listed will be included, for reasons having more to do with how much money they’ve made—I’m sorry, how popular they are—being the primary reason. But what if, God forbid, none of ‘em squeaks in there? Wouldn’t that be evidence that the Academy body— a group that one such as Goldstein shouldn’t have to be reminded is made up of not-entirely-predictable, intractable individuals and does not vote in an group-think bloc as if guided by an omnipotent sentient force, like Oz or Barbara Streisand— is more interested in recognizing art and achievement over technical glitz and filthy lucre?


Why, yes, it just might, and that’s Goldstein’s problem. This writer is very worried than the Academy is going to pick a bunch of movies that nobody outside of major urban areas has seen or is interested in seeing, therefore crippling the chances for big ratings and… whatever else it is we should care about that comes along with such a windfall. Man of the People Goldstein is ready to have to “throw up (his) hands and admit that the Academy is elitist as ever” and acknowledge that “what counts most with voters is artistic aspiration, not the loud applause of moviegoers in multiplexes across America.” Is there some snarky, double-edged sarcasm buried in here that I’m missing? Where are the other reasons Goldstein delineates besides lining the pockets of ABC and the Academy as to why moviegoers and those who take film seriously as an art form should be the least bit concerned over what 10 movies are nominated or even which one of them actually wins? It would matter, I guess, if you see four movies a year and are heavily swayed by a picture’s newly minted status as an Oscar winner. Otherwise, why is it a bad thing that the Academy should value artistic aspiration over the loud applause of multiplex ticket-buyers? Is it not the Academy’s own claim that the institution’s primary aim is one that “encourages excellence in filmmaking”? Nowhere on the Academy’s official site is there any mention of bowing down before Mammon, ogling box office receipts or anything else. So why doesn’t Goldstein just dump all this Oscar prognostication and coverage of Hollywood Eating Itself and focus on the kind of ceremony that truly seems to have its laser pointed right where he thinks it should be: the People’s Choice Awards?


I’m not sure what Goldstein’s all twisted up about anyway—of the four pictures he cites, three are bona fide hits (Avatar, Basterds and Up in the Air) and one broke the commercial curse hovering over films depicting the Iraq war and is on its way to a more than solid showing in the Blu-ray and DVD market. What other titles are likely to fill that slot that aren’t also high-profile smashes or well-performing low-budget indies that have been validated at the box office as well? Up? Precious? The Blind Side? The Hangover? Star Trek? Twilight: New Moon? For heaven’s sake, don’t go looking for nominations for Fantastic Mr. Fox or A Serious Man or Drag Me to Hell-- even Oscar isn’t so esoteric and elitist as to recognize these movies by Academy and industry-friendly filmmakers like the Coen Brothers, Sam Raimi and Wes Anderson—they were flops! Nobody cares about them! If the Best Picture nominees shake out anything like that tidy 10 speculated upon above, and they just might, it’ll be me (and I’m sure I won’t be alone) throwing up my hands and admitting that, all pretensions to the contrary, it’s business as usual with the Academy, expanded 10-movie roster or not.

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THERE'S NO SIGNAL OUT HERE



Last week I packed some sandwiches and some cut apples into a lunchbox for my daughter and myself to eat while we caught a movie together. As we sat down and the movie started, I emptied my pockets—keys, wallet, cell phone—and put the contents into the lunchbox for safe(r) keeping. But when I returned home that night I opened the lunchbox and discovered that my phone, which I was sure had at least half a charge left on it when I last noticed early in the day, now looked quite inactive. I reached in and pulled up my lovely Verizon appliance out of a shallow pool of what turned out to be apple juice, runoff from the apparently none-too-airtight Tupperware container into which I placed the cut apples. A quick plug-in to the charger confirmed, via an unmistakably gut-wrenching crackling sound akin to bacon frying electronically, that my cell phone, including my phone directory and the hundred or so pictures I had stored on it, was now in hell, the device itself now a useless shell representing the limits of man’s technological dominance in the face of seemingly harmless high fructose 100% fruit juice. So I immediately sent out an e-mail informing my friends and relatives of my digitally crippled status, only in doing so exposing myself as a relatively hopeless Luddite who didn’t realize that even though my phone is dead, my voice mail account lives on and was fully capable of receiving messages. All I really had to do was change the outgoing message on it (which I eventually did) to reveal my dire straits to those who needed to know. All my smart tech-savvy friends laughed at me (just as Mother Margaret said they would—“They’re all gonna laugh at you!”), but one of them—let’s just call her “PSaga,” was right there to pull my chin off the floor with another dose of Internet comedy, this one via The Observer’s ”Very Short List.”

This one’s a zippy clip-fest built around the alarming frequency with which Hollywood falls back on what has rapidly become an easy go-to story cliché, the cell phone that suddenly has no service just when the desperate/stranded/frightened/annoyed/disgusted character needs it most. It’s one thing to observe how almost every TV show and movie character is predisposed to instant communication via cell phone to the degree that some of the plots swirling around these characters would stop dead in their tracks without the technological convenience of digital wireless service (thank you, Mulder and Scully). It’s quite another to see how willingly lazy screenwriters tap into their lack of faith in Mssrs. Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile when the going gets tough, or potentially disembowel-y. It is the mission of No Signal (and Other Cellular Drama), a hilarious montage of badly-timed digital phone failure in movies and TV, to make you painfully aware of just how vulnerable we all were before we had those little pocket-sized hand-held life-savers to carry around with us wherever we went, not to mention how hung out to dry each and every one of us would be if we were being pursued through the woods or the desert by a pack of in-bred cannibal killers and were only pulling in one bar or less on that goddamn useless iPhone. “Ninety-seven percent nationwide coverage,” bemoans a soon-to-be rack of ribs in The Hills Have Eyes, “and we’ve found ourselves in that three percent.” Don’t worry, bub. Even if your phone was pulling in a lusty four bars, the writers would make sure you’re brainless enough to do something really lunkheaded in order to keep you right where the atomically mutated creepers want you to be. Like, oh, I don’t know, pulling your phone out of your backpack only to discover a leaky bottle of apple juice has drained all over your gear. Yeah! Now, that’s a neat wrinkle! Let’s go with that!



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REVIVAL PICK OF THE WEEK Jan. 25-Feb. 1



The following “Revival Pick of the Week” is the first installment of what I intend to be a weekly feature here at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. As much as I would love to be able to post a giant monthly guide to what’s happening around the city on the Los Angeles revival and museum screening circuit, it’s just not a practical plan with my resources and my available time being what they are. So for the foreseeable future, look for weekly installments of this post which will point the way toward several worthy screenings for the week and pick one for special highlighting.


This week look for the series on ”The Apocalyptic Cinema of Andrei Tarovsky” to continue at LACMA with screenings of The Mirror (1974; 7:30 p.m.) and Nostalghia (1984; 9:30 p.m.) on Friday, January 29, and Andrei Rublev (1966-69; 7:30 p.m.), to be preceded at 5:30 p.m. by Dmitri Trakovsky’s documentary The Apocalyptic Cinema of Andrei Tartovsky (2008). Dmitri Trakovsky will be in attendance to discuss the film and Tartovsky’s work before the Andrei Rublev screening.


The UCLA Film and Television Archive concludes its series on “Two Western Myths: Billy the Kid and Jesse James” with the exhibition of two westerns that should look spectacular on the Billy Wilder Theater screen. Friday, January 29, you can see Philip Kaufman’s rarely screened The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), a revisionist look at the James-Younger gang’s final robbery, starring Cliff Robertson as Cole Younger and Robert Duvall as a religious psychopathic Jesse James. The film is paired with Sam Peckinpah’s elegiac Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), the director’s painfully beautiful and fevered vision of a West that exists exclusively within, yet resonates beyond the boundaries of the Peckinpah myth. The film stars James Coburn and Kris Kiristofferson in title roles, with memorable support from Bob Dylan, Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado. And Sunday the Billy Wilder is given over to Andrew Dominick’s gorgeous and elliptical The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck.

Finally, the New Beverly Cinema has a great line-up all week. A double bill of Robert Bresson classics make for an excellent film school opportunity for those unfamiliar with the director’s work. Pickpocket (1959) and Diary of a Country Priest (1951) screen tonight and Wednesday. And on Friday and Saturday, an inspired double feature—Federico Fellini’s warm and masterful remembrance Amarcord (1974), winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, paired with Fellini admirer Woody Allen’s own nostalgic look back at the Rockaway Beach of his youth, Radio Days (1987). The doubling is a great opportunity to consider these masterpieces through how each director utilizes memory embroidered by artful elaboration as a theme, and also the nature of how nostalgia works to inform, bolster, and sometimes even weaken narrative storytelling.

But the SLIFR Revival Pick of the Week goes to the series of events surrounding legendary film composer David Shire, who will be making three exciting and unique appearances around town to highlight and talk about his work. First, and perhaps foremost, Film Music magazine’s CD review editor Daniel Schweiger will moderate a discussion and an audience Q& A Thursday night at the New Beverly Cinema when David Shire visits the theater in person to screen two films which feature two of his most memorable, beautiful and most-imitated scores. First up is the breathless original version of The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (1974), highlighted by a percussive Shire score that one-ups even the drive of Lalo Schifrin’s best as it pulsates and reflects the chaos and vitality of a mid-‘70s New York City in moral and practical upheaval. Shire’s music for Robert Wise’s docudrama disaster picture The Hindenburg (1975) is borne aloft by soaring melodic lines and orchestration that belie the unwieldiness of the Hindenburg zeppelin while locating its unusual and unlikely grace. The two scores provide contrapuntal musical evidence of Shire’s versatility, and the composer will discuss both films and how he managed to find exactly the right musical accompaniment for them. The event, con-sponsored by Film Music magazine, has a special early start time to accommodate the length of the films and to ensure that Shire, Schweiger and the audience have plenty of time to spend together. Get to the New Beverly early for a 7:00 p.m. start time for the evening’s programming.

Friday and Saturday nights at REDCAT, Steve Horowitz and the Code Ensemble present The Re-taking of Pelham 1-2-3, a multimedia presentation in which Horowitz and the CE provide an imaginative contemporary rethink of Shire’s original jazz-inflected score performed simultaneously beside a projection of artist Jane Brill’s provocative meditation on the underground reverberations of 9/11. Shire is apparently enthusiastic about the results—“If I were hired to score the picture today, I would hope that my score would come out sounding the way that Steve’s does,” says the veteran musician—and will discuss the revamped score with Horowitz, Brill and graphic artist Zig Gron, whose own Invasion of the Chicken Planet, a science-fiction movie mash-up, will provide extra musical inspiration for the Ensemble on both nights. Visit the REDCAT web site for ticket information, times and prices.

Finally, Saturday, January 30, David Shire will appear in person at the Dark Delicacies book and collectibles shop in Burbank for his first ever Los Angeles signing appearance. The store will have Shire scores like Pelham, The Hindenburg, The Conversation and Zodiac in stock and available for purchase. See the Dark Delicacies web site for more details.

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GONE IN 540 SECONDS: CLAUDE LELOUCH'S C'ETAIT UN RENDEZVOUS GETS A MAKEOVER



This piece on Claude Lelouch’s infamous nine-minute film C’était un Rendezvous (1976) was first published on the virtual pages of SLIFR nearly five years ago, on April 12, 2005. It is republished here for two reasons. When I first wrote this piece YouTube did not exist and I had to rely on a DVD obtained by my friend Andrew Blackwood from the now-defunct Nicheflix in order to even see it. Now the film is easily available and, through the magic of embedding, available to watch right on the same page on which the article appears. (The original piece was accompanied only by a still frame which, while accurately conveying the velocity of the film, was no substitute for actually seeing it.) Second, today comes word via David Hudson of an Internet remake of the film utilizing footage obtained entirely from Google Street View imagery. Alex Hammond’s video remake is embedded after the original article, alongside a few newly minted comments, for purposes of comparison.

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French director Claude Lelouch, perhaps best known to American audiences as the man behind the sentimental romantic hit (and Cannes award-winner) A Man and a Woman (1966), starring Anouk Aimee and Jean-Louis Trintignant, and the Oscar-nominated And Now, My Love (1975) is a filmmaker one might easily be forgiven for excluding from a short list of those who have committed memorable car chases to film. John Frankenheimer (Grand Prix, 1966, Ronin, 1998), William Friedkin (The French Connection, 1971, To Live and Die in L.A., 1985), Peter Yates (Bullitt, 1968), Walter Hill (The Driver, 1979), Peter Collinson (The Italian Job, 1969) are all names you might expect to be mentioned for such a roster. Hell, even the name of the late stunt coordinator/director H.B. Halicki, the man behind the 60-minute car chase in the original Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), would come up before that of Lelouch, a filmmaker who Leonard Maltin’s Film Encyclopedia describes as having “a fashion magazine approach to directing.” Trintignant’s character in A Man and a Woman was a race-car driver, but the film was not exactly Grand Prix, or even Winning (1969), for that matter, and that character’s career associations would seem as close to high-octane action as the director has ever come on screen.

In a feature, anyway.

In 1976, sometime after production wrapped on his film Si c’était a refaire (If I Had to Do It All Over Again), Lelouch, as the story goes, had a reel of film stock left over from his shoot-- approximately ten minutes worth—and an itch to scratch. He had recently purchased a Ferrari and had the idea to mount a gyroscopically stabilized camera low on the front end of the car and navigate a predetermined route through the streets of Paris, during the early morning hours when traffic and pedestrians would be relatively sparse, at a ludicrously high rate of speed. It’s at this point in the history of Lelouch’s nine-minute film C’était un Rendezvous (1976) where what is actually known about its production ceases and the rumors and mythology built up over the years since its release overwhelmingly take over. Lelouch screened the short film several times before one of his other movies (which leads one to wonder just how those primed to see one of the director’s gauzy coffee-table romances reacted to Lelouch’s reckless, testosterone-fueled side), but after objections began mounting, and after his arrest following one of the screenings, the film went underground. Lelouch, undoubtedly happy to perpetuate the mystery surrounding the circumstances of its filming, and the mystery surrounding its subsequent unavailability, was entirely silent on the subject, a stance he holds to this day. Car enthusiasts, though, kept the rumor mills buzzing throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, and poor-quality pirated VHS tapes eventually started popping up on the Internet, adding to the resonance of the film’s outlaw mythology.

Was it actually Lelouch driving the car, as he claimed after the film’s release, or did he hire a Formula One driver to get behind the wheel? Was it done with the cooperation of the Parisian police, allowing Lelouch to choreograph the various obstacles and near-misses that the Ferrari encounters along the way? Or was it done, as Lelouch claims, using only strategically placed radio contacts at various stations along the route, come what traffic may? Did one of those radio contacts actually fail, putting the driver and other cars at far more risk than was even anticipated? And was the car really going as fast as some enthusiasts have claimed, up to 140 mph?



The movie starts on a blank, dark screen, all silence but for the faint beating of a heart, and after a disclaimer stating that no special effects or film speed manipulations were used to make the car appear to be going faster than it actually was. The car emerges from the silence of a dark tunnel into the muted daylight of an early Paris morning, and as soon as it does Lelouch jumps us into what will make up the entirety of the rest of the film’s mesmerizing soundtrack—the high-gear revving of the Ferrari’s engine, alternating with the engine’s growls and shrieks as the driver rapidly gears down, and then back up again, and the sound of the tires squealing on the asphalt and cobblestone of those otherwise relatively quiet Parisian streets.

It’s on the first straightaway, leading to the Arc de Triomphe, when the driver first opens up the racer and builds up some terrific speed, that that disclaimer at the beginning seems, while certainly not untrue, then just a little bit disingenuous. Certainly no special effects, as filmmakers in 1976 understood and employed them, could have been utilized in a single-take situation such as this without being as apparent as a proverbial sore thumb. The same goes for undercranking the film-- exposing fewer frames per second than normal filming speed (24 frames per second) so that when projected at the normal rate the action of the film appears speeded up. This is a technique that anyone who has dabbled in Super 8 and 16mm filmmaking, as I did in my long-lost youth, is undoubtedly familiar with—my friends and I shot several car chases and employed this technique to make similar sequences of us barreling down the highway look as though we were going 80-90 mph, when in fact we were probably only going half that, or less. And undercranking is not just the province of amateur enthusiasts—it has been routinely employed in big-budget features for years. George Miller even used the technique (to much better effect than ours, to be sure) in the elaborate chase sequences featured in Mad Max and The Road Warrior. There’s only one problem with undercranking—it’s extremely detectable, even in The Road Warrior, and therefore distracting as hell. And it’s definitely nowhere in evidence in C’était un Rendezvous. But despite his otherwise sedate oeuvre, Lelouch definitely understands what Frankheimer, Miller and others also understood about the dynamics of filming road action. By mounting the camera relatively low on the front end of the vehicle, Lelouch is able to take advantage of the graphic weight given to the street as it zooms by underneath, and his stunt is helped along to an immeasurable degree by the sense of speed that the camera positioning is able to convey. My suspicion about C’ Etait un Rendezvous is that that camera may be making up, in visual terms, for the speeds of the car that may not always be living up to the mythology. On that first straightaway (and this may be as much a matter of psychologically settling into the spectacle before one’s eyes as the ability to suspend even the slightest sliver of disbelief), if attention is paid not only to the street, to which we are extremely close, but to the cars, both parked and those passed that are in motion, it may appear that Lelouch (or his driver) is not hurtling along as fast as all that (yet).


However true or untrue that suspicion, it hardly makes Lelouch’s film a con job, and given that the route of the film is easily tracked and that we know how much time it takes to run it, it wouldn’t be too difficult for a mathematically inclined viewer (sorry, but that’s not me) to calculate the average rate of speed that would be necessary to negotiate the course we see on the film.

The other mysteries surrounding the film are less easily and tangibly confirmed or denied. A writer at Neon Rebel.com who reviewed the film upon its DVD release believes that Lelouch must have been the driver: “Lelouch…was most likely doing the driving himself, as no Formula One driver would commit so many driving errors.” Unfortunately, the writer chooses not to elaborate upon those errors, for the benefit of the less Formula One-inclined of us. But we don’t just have to take him on his word—it’s apparent that several times along the way the driver hesitates, for reasons having to do with what little street activity there is going on, when choosing which narrow, cobblestone street to go barreling down, and often his preferred route is cut off by the unexpected presence of a delivery truck angled sideways in the road or a parked taxicab partially blocking the street. This feeling of “improvisation,” that the planned route might have undergone some last-second mid-shoot revamping, adds to the edge and the suspense of what may or may not be coming when the car shoots off a street and into a crowded traffic circle or around a darkened corner, and it may be evidence in favor of the less-experienced-Lelouch-as-driver theory. But there are also several rumors that the director had indeed hired a driver to take his car through its paces. And even if one buys the professional driver story, then it’s a matter of deciding which driver was responsible—one legend has the car being driven by Formula One professional Jean-Pierre Beltoise (and in a Matra Le Mans prototype, not the Ferrari), another places driver Jacques Lafitte behind the wheel (of the Ferrari), and still another suggests that a driver of Finnish descent was the perpetrator of the stunt. Whoever actually did the driving, Lelouch, either by an impulse of publicity, protection of the driver, or a sense of personal responsibility for an idea that he generated, always claimed it was he behind the wheel, and it certainly was he who was found responsible by authorities, who had him arrested for reckless driving, briefly held in custody and stopped all further public screenings of the film.

As for the matter of whether Lelouch had the approval of the Parisian police, well, it seems clear by their rather disapproving stance when the film was screened, and their disposition to hold him legally responsible for several counts of reckless endangerment, that they probably did not cooperate by blocking traffic and ensuring the safety of the pedestrians and other drivers who the Ferrari happened upon during its fierce journey. According to a review of the film from the November 2003 issue of Automobile magazine:

“City officials rejected Lelouch’s application to close the necessary streets. Undaunted, he decided to do it without permission and take his chances, reducing the risks by shooting at 5:30 on a morning in August, the month when almost all of Paris shuts down for vacation. The most dangerous part of the route would be the ticket-window area at the Louvre, where there was zero visibility at the courtyard’s exit onto the Rue de Rivoli. An assistant, Elie Chouraqui, stood watch over the exit with a walkie-talkie. The shoot went off as planned. However, with no signal from Chouraqui as he approached the exit of the Louvre’s courtyard, Lelouch floored it and roared through the gates. After the rendezvous, Lelouch headed back to collect Chouraqui and found him fiddling with the walkie-talkie. “What’s up?” Lelouch asked. “It’s this piece of crap!” replied the assistant, pointing to the walkie-talkie. “It broke down at the start of the take!”


The reviewer in Automobile magazine fails to cite his source for this story, although a good guess would be Lelouch himself, perhaps in one of those conversations held in the wake of the movie’s uproarious and outraged reception. But it’s almost immaterial as to what the source is, because perpetuating the mysteries surrounding the film, a source of immense amusement, apparently, for Lelouch himself, and certainly for the enthusiasts who did so throughout the early days of video, before the DVD age, are as much a part of its appeal as the white-knuckle experience of the film itself.

And the visceral power of that experience, whatever one believes to be true or untrue about the film and its genesis, remains undiluted. I’ve screened it for myself and others several times over the past week and each time I feel my own suspicions perhaps not melting away, but at least becoming secondary to the sickening gut rush of hurtling out of two-way traffic and into the less densely populated, but still populated, courtyard surrounding the Arc de Triomphe; the almost involuntary impulse to hit imaginary brakes when the car comes barreling up onto much slower cars, unlucky pigeons, and the occasional genuinely startled pedestrian; or the claustrophobia mingled with fear and excitement generated by hurtling down tight cobblestone streets where every corner is blind, dark and very dangerous. But is that giving way to sensation necessarily a good thing? There are those for whom the morality of a movie that puts real people in real danger is a daunting question, overwhelming all others, and that’s as it should be. This movie’s mythology would be far different if the failure of that walkie-talkie had precipitated a violent crash or the running-down of an old lady carrying home the morning’s groceries—a jolt of pure adrenaline becomes snuff death for the characters in a J.G. Ballard book or a David Cronenberg film. And there are those for whom the movie is adrenaline and nothing more—the fact that laws and lives were possibly flaunted in order to get that action on the screen just adds another layer of goose bumps as they uncontrollably crop up amidst the comfort and safety of the thrill-seeker’s home theater. Perhaps Werner Herzog, in the fevered days of Fitzcarraldo, could have mounted a defense of Lelouch’s methodology, if there was an accompanying argument to be made about the resulting artistic achievement borne of the risk. For me, as undeniably gut-wrenching and exciting as C’était un Rendezvous is, it is, ultimately, not worth the verisimilitude, the knowledge that it is, for all intents and purposes, real. I’m content with the artistic achievements of the stunt coordinators, technicians and directors who have, through hard work and untold hours of preparation, created awe-inspiring stunt sequences in films like Ronin, The Italian Job, The Road Warrior, Bullitt and countless others, without either the loss of life or the indefensible impulse to flirt with the possibility of such a loss. Those films fold stunt sequences into larger works of art, displaying comic and dramatic trajectory to enhance and inform the whole. Lelouch’s C’était un Rendezvous, so unlike anything else he ever made, and on some levels perhaps better, or at least more alive, than anything else he ever made, is an amazing stunt. Unfortunately, given what was at stake, that’s all it is.

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Rendez-vous Claude Le Street View from Alex Hammond on Vimeo.


Well, as Benjamin Sutton so aptly put it in a post on the L Magazine blog re Rendezvous Claude Le Street View, sans the visceral thrills of the roaring motor, screeching tires and sense of impending disaster, however real or imagined it might have been, this techie remake is simply just not as much fun to watch as the original. If CGI and other everyday tricks of the cinema trade have made the impossible possible (and simultaneously made us trust less and less in the images we see flying past out eyes), then Hammond’s project might just be the reductio ad absurdum version of the analog-digital debate in a 30-second nutshell. Of course no one, especially Hammond, is likely to have thought that such a “reboot” would in any way seriously compare with the impact of Lelouch’s original film—it’s a lark and nothing more, though amusing in a geeky/touristy kind of way.

I do remember seeing something in theaters about 30 years ago, though, that was a version of Hammond’s idea writ somewhat larger. The concept was a literal travelogue, a “high-speed” highway blast from the East Coast of the United States to the West Coast in the span of 15 minutes. Whoever shot the footage, from the passenger seat of a car making that trip, utilized good old single-frame photography obtained, presumably, by a standard cable release or similar device. However many days it actually took to ride the ride, seeing it projected on a theater screen (it showed up a few times as a short subject before the main feature at a couple of movie theaters I attended frequently back in the mid ‘70s during my college days in Eugene, Oregon) was a bit of a rush, one that eventually took on a hallucinatory quality-- the camera hurtles from sunshine through gathering thunderclouds and storms that probably lasted a hour of more but are experienced in a flash of only a few seconds before the skies clear again and some other natural phenomenon of travel gears up to be compressed into an almost comical spasm of imagery. I have searched for this movie, which I remember having the title Across the United States in 15 Minutes, but I have never been successful at finding it. If someone else reading this remembers it and knows from which user-friendly Internet outlet it can obtained, I would surely appreciate the opportunity to attach it here and give that road trip another go.

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Monday, January 25, 2010

MONDAY FUNK DECIMATOR: SLIM PICKENS as HOLLIS P. "HOLLY" WOOD in 1941



“You ain’t gettin’ shit outta me! I been constipated all week, and there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it!”

As I whittle my way through a week’s worth of writing for the coming week, it is a pleasure to present, in lieu of actual content in very much in the grand tradition of the original Funk Decimator, something to surely decimate all permutations of the Funk and chase the Monday banshees back into their holes—close to the entirety of Slim Pickens’ terrific performance as Hollis P. “Holly” Wood in Steven Spielberg’s (and Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s) 1941. When the blues start gettin’ to you, just start goin’ over the contents of Hollis’ pack sack—one genuine American jackrabbit foot, one authentic early American “Harry Carey” knife—pass that around, boys, maybe somebody’s got a use for it… I always loved the original tag line on the advance one-sheet for the movie (seen at left), which was a whole lot more honest than audiences in 1979 (or at least most critics) were prepared for: “Soon the screen will be bombarded by the most explosive barrage of @#&% ever filmed!” I love this movie!



(Also, Greg Ferrara throws some love in the direction of L.B. Abbott, Gregory Jein and A.D. Flowers for their spectacular miniature effects in 1941 in the latest edition of his series ”The Land Before CGI.”)

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

FEDERICO WHO WOULD BE 90 IN THE YEAR 2010



Buon compleanno, Maestro! I'll be seeing one of my favorite films, Amarcord, on the big screen next weekend, and when I do I'll lift a glass (or a cup of Diet Coke, as it may be) to your memory and your films, whose shadows and light and sounds continue to thrill and confound us and give us joy, even in your absence.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

PRECONCEPTIONS, RESPONSIBILITIES and THE IRREVERSIBLE DECISION




UPDATE 1/25/10 1:18 p.m. The conversation about the Irreversible decision continues over at Jim Emerson’s Scanners, where Jim posted some thoughts about my piece and invited his readers to come here and check out what I had written. The resulting discussion has been a pretty fascinating one, veering from the post and direct reactions to it into the realm of philosophical ramifications of “choice,” “decision” and even the input of science writer Jonah Lehrer, who Jim quotes extensively on the rational and emotional components of human decision-making. After lurking along in the comments section since Jim posted last Thursday, I felt the time had come to enter the fray myself and attempt to address some of the more vociferous critics of my “self-congratulatory” piece. Though my response was rather long, I believe I have avoided excessive haughtiness or an overly defensive attitude in trying to assemble my thoughts. Jim has kindly posted my response in full and commented on it himself, so I suspect—I hope-- the back and forth will not end with my windbaggery. You can check out the continuing (?) saga right here. My sincere thanks to Jim for adding contemplative fuel to what I believe has so far been a very constructive, if sometimes fiery conversation.

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It’s finally far enough into 2010 that I’ve had a chance to catch up with several of the movies of the previous year that I managed somehow to miss up till now, and as a result my year-end list, which usually appears about midway through January, is right on schedule, skirting the twin boundaries of indifference and irrelevance as each day passes. Obviously I can’t see everything, so around this time every year I just sort of throw up my hands in a kind of “I did what I can do” gesture of resignation, vow to stop worrying about it and get to the writing. But no critic, no cinephile, no average Joe can see everything there is to see, and if they’re telling the truth no critic even wants to see everything. I can guarantee there are titles of films written in journalist notepads the world over that have been actively avoided over the course of the year. This is a wrinkle in the list-making process that I’ve always tried, ever since inaugurating my year-end pieces on this blog, to own up to—before the big list I always start with an accounting of the movies I haven’t yet seen, and one of the movies I have no desire to see. Sometimes this attitude of being up front about my sins of omission and preconception has gotten me into hot water. Well, maybe not hot, but certainly warm water, like the year I confessed that I had absolutely no desire to see Babel. How could I not want to see what was surely going to be a big Oscar contender, several people asked? It’s a big, important movie—you should go see it. And finally I ended up agreeing. I went to see Babel, and whether I had made up my mind previously or not, I did not like it much at all. But I did see it, and my objections to it were based on thematic, stylistic and writing choices that I could not have judged the movie on without experiencing it for myself. It was a dreadful movie in my many ways, but I’m not sorry I saw it because it gave me a chance to exercise my head and write about a movie that for many people was an enthralling experience, and it was a challenge, not to mention a considerable bit of fun, to discover for myself why it was the opposite kind of film for me. (Jim Emerson has gotten a lot of fascinating mileage out of dealing with his own preconceptions about movies, most recently Precious.)

As I’ve continued on in this practice of writing about films and my reactions to them, I’ve come more and more to take seriously the idea of seeing as much as I can. Yet the simple fact remains that, with very few exceptions, I crack open my own wallet to see the movies I talk about here. I’m not a paid critic, I don’t receive screeners, I don’t have a press pass which will admit me to screenings around town, and the three or four times I’ve applied for credentials for local festivals I’ve been turned down. So it is, then, that everything I talk about on SLIFR necessarily comes prepackaged with the same kinds of preconceived notions that every ticket-buyer has when she or he lays down their hard-earned—I want the movie to be good, if not great. Of course there are times when I have my suspicions, for any number of reasons, about whether or not this is even possible. But preconceived notions are not set in stone, thank God, and sometimes they get up-ended. Rachel Getting Married, Speed Racer and Land of the Lost are just three examples off the top of my head of movies that completely surprised me, the latter two hobbled by terrible advance reviews, the former being a movie about a group of people from an alien tax bracket with whom I suspected it might be impossible to identify, and that whole hand-held camera aesthetic didn’t make me bank on my chances of enjoying it either. Yet all three are movies I enjoyed and (in the case of Rachel and Speed Racer) cherished far more than I ever thought I would.


Conversely, I have a personal journal containing information on every movie I’ve seen over the past 32 and a half years, and that journal is bursting with films for which I bore high hopes going in, only to have them dashed mercilessly on the jagged rocks of reality, resulting in disappointment, a sore jaw from the gnashing of teeth, and very often a buttered-popcorn headache as a result of conspicuous consumption meant to distract from the disaster on screen. Did I feel obligated to see Land of the Lost, even when so many rational voices were shouting it down (rather irrationally in some cases, as it turned out)? No. Perhaps I would have if I were writing reviews for a publication or a web site whose mission was to be as comprehensive about the film scene from week to week as possible. No, this one I took a chance on, and I was happily rewarded. (The shine quickly wore off my triumph, however, when I immediately followed the Will Ferrell movie with a screening of what I figured was a sure thing, based on the advance hype and reviews--The Hangover-- and it turned out to be a hateful, obnoxious dud.)


But even though I don’t get paid for seeing or writing about them, there are sometimes still some films that I feel an obligation to get to know, sometimes out of simple curiosity, sometimes because to not know them is to be left out of a conversation that might stretch beyond the boundaries of that one particular film, and sometimes I feel the desire to see a film because people I respect and trust advise me to see it because they hold it in high regard. That sense of obligation reared its head again this past week concerning Irreversible, a movie with a rather proud reputation for being a shocking, unrelenting, formally compelling but ultimately nasty piece of work. The 2003 movie, perhaps less well known in by John Q. Public than by cinephiles, was directed by Gaspar Noé, whose previous feature I Stand Alone (1999) centered on the grim life of a butcher who heaps violent abuse upon everyone around him, including his pregnant lover and the daughter who he abandons and with whom he attempts to reconcile. No cake walk this, by all reports (I have not seen it myself), but perhaps closer to one than Irreversible, which tells the story, in reverse order, of three friends (lovers Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci, and Albert Dupontel who plays Bellucci’s ex) whose day starts with companionship and lovemaking and ends in a hellish inferno of violence. The story’s conclusion has to do with a man thought to have committed a horrible rape who gets his head caved in with a fire extinguisher in a gay S&M disco known as the Rectum. (The irony is that he of the crushed cranium is not the man who perpetrated the crime.) Each scene takes the audience backward toward the rape itself, staged in one long 10-minute take and reportedly so horrifying as to be unwatchable, and back even further to the hopeful start of the day which, knowing what the audience knows about how the day is to proceed, the movie uses to end itself on the bitterly ironic image of domestic bliss.


I have never made secret, either on these pages or in my personal interactions with people, my physical aversion and revulsion whenever faced with a rape scenario in a film. But that doesn’t mean the subject or the depiction of it ought to be off limits, because it’s fairly easy to think of several films that have taken the horror of the situation seriously, sometimes to varying ends. Rape certainly serves the story as something more than a plot point in a film like Straw Dogs-- one can experience terror and revulsion even as Peckinpah eroticizes the act as a fantasy fulfilled, for both Susan George, the victim, and for us, the audience. Ned Beatty, in his very first film role, became a martyr to (some) men’s worst fears of anal violation in Deliverance. I’ll never forget Jessica Lange, brutalized in a ghastly fashion in her own home by the psychotic fop Tim Roth in Rob Roy, enduring the humiliation and then, her attacker long since gone, stepping out of her house and onto the nearby beach with as much dignity as she can muster, lifting her skirt and calmly squatting into the water to wash herself, her reserve wobbling but intact. And Lorraine Bracco imbued the aftermath of the experience of a stairwell rape in The Sopranos with unexpected shades of sympathy, anger and the consideration of revenge. However, rape can also be just another source of titillation to be exploited. Candice Rialson survives an assault in the projection booth of a drive-in during the one wildly miscalculated moment in the otherwise genial and delightful Hollywood Boulevard, and when one thinks about the frequency of rape as a thematic constant in low-rent horror movies like Humanoids from the Deep, Galaxy of Terror, the remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and Last House of the Left and countless others, it can get depressing with alarming rapidity. But ground zero for me, in terms of the line which I have always hoped no movie would go past with regard to rape, must be Lamont Johnson’s Lipstick, which carried the come-on of eroticized sexual assault from its glistening poster art all the way to the movie’s multiple acts of violation visited upon supermodel/star Margaux Hemingway, right on up to a similar violation visited upon her teenaged sister, Mariel. The movie is grim, tacky and innervating—Johnson’s typical directorial sensitivity is absent or suppressed here, and the movie uses the musical taste of the rapist to rattle the audience’s last nerve. (Chris Sarandon’s composer plays his own annoying electronic noodling—written by the film’s composer, Michael Polnareff—as amplified and relentless accompaniment to brutal assault.) By the time the movie degenerates even further into a Death Wish retread that arms the victim instead of an avenging angel stand-in, you’ve been desensitized enough to cheer on the slimy bastard getting his balls blown off just so the movie will mercifully end.



What’s interesting to me about my own reaction to seeing rape on screen is how it makes me feel beyond just painful empathy for the person being victimized. Gaspar Noé, in an interview during which he talks about the audience reaction to the protracted rape that is Irreversible’s notorious centerpiece, claims that most of the people who walk out during this scene are men, and he goes so far as to speculate that what freaks men out about the scene is not empathy for the victim, or even revulsion over the crime itself. Noé believes that the impulse to run away from what he shows the audience unflinchingly (some have said with the glee of a bully provocateur) is born instead from men projecting themselves into the scene as the victim, as the recipient of the worst possible fate, taking it up the ass. (Andrew O’Hehir wrote very persuasively in Salon of “the obsession with anal sex that percolates through every scene” in Irreversible.) Having not seen the movie myself, I can only credit Noé with the possibility that he has constructed a film which, given its reputation not only for daring the audience to endure its provocations but also for its rather insistent homophobia, would support such an interpretation of a man rejecting the scene, and the movie, and walking out. But for me, rape scenes, however implied or extreme, awaken in me the ugly realization that, as a member of the physically stronger and more dominant gender of the species, such violence is entirely within my physical capability to inflict upon someone else. When I see rape scenes in films like the ones in Straw Dogs or Rob Roy that resonate for me within the story and allow me access to the characters as emotional creations rather than simply as projections on a screen, then that identification with the attacker becomes part and parcel of the richness of my reaction to it. But regardless of how well integrated the violence into the story, I still must face the rather black truth that even though I am not psychologically disposed to the kind of rage that results in such a monstrous act, I still am, physically, capable of it, and on that level I could be said to identify not with the assaulted, as Noé would I think more conveniently have it, but instead with the slobbering Neanderthal whose violence can so easily destroy the self-esteem, the confidence, the very inner life of his victim. Would we be so willing to endure these kinds of scenes if the directors had the balls to imply that the guy snarling and humping and beating on the poor, prone, screaming woman was us? I doubt it. So what is going on in a scene as deliberately in-your-face as the one Noé stages? Isn’t it a reasonable responsibility when staging such a scene to at least ask the audience why they’re watching what they’re watching? The rejoinder favored by the folks leaving comments on Irreversible’s IMDb page, that the scene is justified by the fact that, hey, stuff like this happens in real life, folks, covers the argument that showing a violent act should be an ugly experience. But if you argue that anything less than that pain and ugliness is the mark of thoughtless exploitation, then how a director chooses to present the event can reveal much about his intentions, his insensitivity, or his cluelessness, even if his choices seem on the surface unflinching. (See Lipstick. Or, rather, don’t.)

All of these considerations led me to skip Irreversible when it was first released back in 2003. David Edelstein articulated, for me, the most compelling argument for staying away from the film. “The movie,” Edelstein wrote, in a fashion completely unconcerned with whether he’d be lauded or lampooned for his rejection of the movie, “wants to violate you in the most lasting ways imaginable.” He also addressed the level of responsibility toward the portrayal of the film’s brutality: “There is something to be said for violence that isn't stylized and made to seem "fun”… It could be argued that this is the only moral way to present violence, so that it hurts. But there is nothing moral about Irreversible—only sneeringly superior and nihilistic, like Johnny Rotten at his most fatuous.” But it was Edelstein’s penultimate paragraph that really convinced me that the movie was not for me:

“It's difficult to know what to do during those nine minutes in which Bellucci lies prone, moaning and weeping, while Prestia convincingly simulates a violent buggering. You can stare at her cleavage or at her long, extended leg. You can close your eyes and wait for the sounds to end. You can leave—although Noé would probably consider that a victory; he'd call you a bourgeois "pussy." With all the heterosexual rapists of women in the world, Noé has chosen to make this one a homosexual who can't help himself from wanting to sully and finally obliterate such beauty, even if it's female. His portrait of gays and their lifestyle makes Cruising (1980) look like Philadelphia (1993). Irreversible might be the most homophobic movie ever made.”


Fast-forward to 2010. When film director Stuart Gordon (Re-animator, Stuck) announced that he would be showing Irreversible as part of the series he will be programming at the New Beverly Cinema beginning today, enough time had passed and the memory of so many well-articulated objections had faded, and I told myself that yes, if Stuart Gordon and several of my trusted friends (including Kimberly Lindbergs) held the movie in such high regard, perhaps it was time for me to live up to my cinephile duty and finally see it. After all, I saw Antichrist last week, another notorious act of Euro-provocation that filled me with dread going into the auditorium but which turned out to be horrifically beautiful. If I can take Antichrist, well, then… And who is to say that Irreversible wouldn’t turn out to be a similar surprise? I was kind of happy that I had finally found the courage to face up to this film, which seemed to hang over my experience as a filmgoer, as a film critic, with something of a ghostly, insistent quality. I mean, I am a curious person by nature. But is curiosity enough where a film like Irreversible is concerned?

It is times like these when I am most grateful for friends who, like Edelstein in his refusal to bow to what he saw as Noé’s audience-baiting tactics, aren’t afraid to step away from what the movie geeks are up to and ask a simple question or two. A friend of mine got word that I was considering going to see the movie this coming Friday night and when I confirmed the information she said, simply, “Why?” As in, “Why would you want to put yourself through something like that?” I was momentarily taken aback because this person is herself a movie geek who always seems up for whatever comes down the pipe film-wise, a fearless, but not (as it turned out) indiscriminate moviegoer. I remember coming up with answers for her like, “Well, it’s time, I guess,” or “I feel like I should see it,” but as the words came out they didn’t sound very convincing even to me. The skeptical look never left my friend’s face. And I started to think about exactly why I felt I should see it. I already knew what I’d be in for. What about those original reasons for staying away, which always seemed so rooted in clear observation and separate from the rush of excitement surrounding the savvy technique of a filmmaker who may have mastered the art of manipulating and pummeling an audience for the simple reason that he wants to and knows how to get away with it, were suddenly unsatisfactory?

The very next day I got an e-mail from a close friend whose point of view I respect even when we disagree. He had read that I was considering seeing Irreversible and felt compelled to send me a note detailing his reaction. “Structurally and formally, of course, it's fascinating,” my friend wrote. “And the movie is undeniably effective on a visceral, even emotional level. But I found it to be one of the ugliest things (not visually, but in its world-view) I've ever seen -- aggressively homophobic, misogynist, even anti-human.” Shades of Edelstein, whose review suddenly came pouring back into my memory, along with the feelings of dread and revulsion that simply reading about the movie churned up inside me! The e–mail concluded, “I literally can't think of another movie that so aggressively wants to rub our noses in protracted sexual violence and ugliness.” The two responses from these two friends, totally separate from each other yet each inquiring in their own way as to what my motivation might be for enduring what I could reasonably expect would not be an enlightening experience, threw something into powerful relief for me, something that perhaps should have been more obvious than it was at first: I didn’t have to see the film. I was in no way obligated professionally to see it, and certainly neither my credibility nor my card-carrying status as a cinephile would likely suffer as a result of my continuing to abstain from Gaspar Noé’s film. Even if I saw the film, I doubt I’d feel compelled to write about it, so the benefit even as an unpaid blogger seemed lost. I realized that, in my own way, I was ceding to pressure not from my friends who like the film but from Noé himself, who was still daring me six years later to see if I could take it, to see whether or not I was a pussy.

The thing is, I stopped responding to that kind of tactic back in eighth grade, and it suddenly felt strange to me to allow my arm to be twisted some 40-some years later, when I ought to know better. I maintain that I am as inquisitive now about the possibilities of the movies as I was two days ago—the only difference is that I’ve realized that it’s okay to step aside and not participate, in a film, in any work of art, if by knowledgeably weighing the pros and cons I can reasonably come to the conclusion that it’s not going to add anything to my life by experiencing it. Now, before I get accused to being too high and mighty, there are plenty of lowbrow shockers, exploitation films and otherwise cheap thrillers I love that don’t exactly “add” anything to my life either, but their pleasures are right there on their sleeves for the enjoying. (And after all, one man’s cheapness is another man’s value.) They don’t need to be gussied up with dubious philosophy (“Time destroys all,” Irreversible informs us) to make their transgressions, such as they might be, more palatable, justifiable.

But no matter what the air of philosophy, of style as content, that might surround Irreversible, I know that the movie would, for me, inevitably come down to that scene. In his largely positive review of Noé’s movie Roger Ebert wrote that “the reverse chronology makes Irreversible a film that structurally argues against rape and violence.” Beside the fact that I’m not sure I can even imagine a film that would argue for rape and violence, isn’t arguing against it a fairly obvious tack to take? The interesting thing is how some of the negative reviews seem to imply that for Noé this point of view may not necessarily be a given. Why do I need to see Monica Bellucci screaming and sobbing on her stomach while being cruelly buggered in order to understand that these horrors need to be argued against? Will I understand evil more than I already do after those nine minutes? Noé might suggest that I would, but the testimony of writers like Edelstein and Andrew O’Hehir suggests perhaps not, and I don’t believe that I am ceding my right and responsibility to think for myself when I say that in this instance I’m just going to take their word for it and thank them for enduring this grim work on my behalf. (Surely both reviews are more entertaining and edifying to read than the movie’s semi-improvised dialogue would be to hear.) Call me a pussy if you must-- or much worse, a film critic shirking his responsibility-- but as I get older it’s clearer than ever that time is precious. I’ve only got so much of it left in which to cram as much film experience as I can while I’m still lucid, which means I must be pickier and choosier even amongst those films which are likely not to be processed as an assault on my mental well-being. Rape is still a subject I find personally unbearable to witness in films, but its portrayal can certainly be justified. I cannot, however, justify putting myself through Irreversible. If I’m missing a masterpiece, well, it won’t be the first time. All I have to do is think about all the revered films I haven’t yet seen and choose one of them to lose myself in tonight, instead of being at the mercy of Noé’s film when the clock strikes midnight. If ever there were justification for someone who calls himself a film critic skipping a big, important conversation piece like Irreversible, that has to be it. And even if it isn’t, well, it’s good enough for me.

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