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Archive for the ‘Films’ Category

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (UK, Sophie Fiennes) I loved The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, a guided tour by Slavoj Zizek of the psychoanalytic dimensions of cinema. Zizek is an entertaining lecturer, and the concept of having him appear within what seem to be the sets of the film clips upon which he is commenting works brilliantly to cause us to reimagine our experience of the films and of cinema in general. I felt myself literally psychoanalyzed by the film. This followup is pretty much a continuation, using the same methodology to talk about how ideology functions. I stayed only for the first hour. The film was becoming a bit repetitive, and I was feeling less patience for the fact that, although Zizek’s insightful readings open up new perceptions, his relentlessly materialist view also closes down others that I find extremely important. Nevertheless I will definitely be seeking the film out to watch the whole thing (and now I also want to watch the first one again).

 

Zizek in Pervert’s Guide

Stories we Tell (Canada, Sarah Polley) A personal documentary which investigates a well-buried secret about the director’s relationship with her parents. Polley’s off-the-charts emotional intelligence is on full display here, as she gets her four siblings and her father and family friends talking and weaves together their occasionally contradictory stories. She makes extensive use of both real and re-enacted home movie footage, and if I have one quibble it’s that these visuals much too consistently provide literal illustration of what is being said. But this is a thoughtful, moving and courageous look at both a particular family and the stories that all families tell about themselves.

 

Stories We Tell

The End of Time (Canada, Peter Mettler) Peter Mettler’s perennial quest is the use of cinema to investigate the nature of perception. As with his Gambling, Gods and LSD, which dealt with “transcendence,” he is here nominally tackling a vast theme, in this case “time.” But I find Mettler’s films less interesting on a conceptual level than on an experiential one. He’s a brilliant image-maker, and The End of Time  showcases his most ravishing images yet — indeed you won’t find a more beautiful documentary anywhere – and the editing is so rigorous that every shot shines like a jewel. While the filmmaker’s spare narration is effective, I could have done without the many voice-over comments from others musing on the subject of time, generally with banalities that seemed crushingly obvious next to the poetry and delicacy of the images. Perhaps that was the point. Mettler is less interested in getting us to think than to see.

Blackbird(Canada, Jason Buxton) I contributed to this film peripherally, as a story editor – one of five, according to the credits. So I won’t review it.

Berberian Sound Studio (UK, Peter Strickland ) This starts off promisingly, with atmosphere and style, something I was definitely craving after a day of highly earnest stuff. It takes about twenty minutes to realize that the director has absolutely nothing up his sleeve but style, which would be okay but he runs out of even that pretty quickly and begins to repeat himself to diminishing effect. The wonderful Toby Jones plays a meek, British sound designer working on his first horror film, in 1970’s Italy. The film’s rather clever conceit is that, though it all takes place in the foley studio/mixing theatre, we never actually see the actual film being worked on, we only hear it. The subject of Berberian Sound Studio is apparently intended to be Jones’ gradual mental breakdown. The problem, though, is that you can’t show someone losing their grip on reality if you never establish reality. Worse, the film is virtually plotless – it seems like maybe they only shot half the film, out of sequence, and then had to patch something together with what they had. Perhaps most unforgivably, for a film buff film, it gets many of the details wrong. The actual technical and creative processes depicted make no sense in terms of the way audio post-production took place in the 70’s (or now). (A more trivial point: the film in question seems to be a mixture of Argento’s Suspiria and the very different German Mark of the Devil, a combination that makes little sense.) This was one of those screenings where you could hear the whole audience heave a collective sigh of dashed expectations when the end credits started.

 

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Every once in a while they let me away from the University long enough that I can immerse myself in the Toronto International Film Festival, which takes place at a time of year that is otherwise academically disruptive. Because I help out the TIFF organization during the year with this and that, I am usually given a pass, but most years it just sits there and laughs at me (plus, it’s not transferable!).

By the time an opportunity rolls around to do a proper immersion, I’m never sure if I’ll get into it. Many years as a festival programmer, and attending a great many festivals as a filmmaker, in some ways eroded the magic. But when I actually have the opportunity to do nothing but attend films, the magic comes back!

Day Zero was a work-in-progress screening of Wiebke von Carolsfeld’s film Stay. I worked on this as a story editor. It was nice to kick off the festival with a film from next year. Not surprisingly to anyone who saw Wiebke’s debut Marion Bridge, her new film is delicate and true, beautifully directed with terrific performances from Aidan Quinn and Taylor Schilling. I will say no more.

After the Battle (Baad el Mawkeea; Egypt, Yousi Nasrallah) This film promised sociological fascination, and delivered more than that. Set in present-day Egypt, it explores the social contradictions exposed but not resolved by the Tahrir Square revolution. The subject is the unlikely friendship between an affluent young female advertising executive who has been radicalized by the revolution, and a horse/camel jockey/tour guide whose business has been destroyed with the collapse of tourism, and who was humiliated on Youtube when he was beat up by the Tahrir Square crowd after riding into them on his horse. The filmmaking is polished, and if the tone is a touch earnestly soapy, this is more than redeemed by winning performances from professionals and non-actors alike. There’s a convincing sense of life filling both characters’ worlds, as the film’s ponders how the chasms of class and values that characterize its society can be bridged.

After the Battle

Kinshasa Kids (Belgium, Marc-Henri Wajnberg) Make this into a TV series – now! The plot is almost non-existent, but the setting – the slums of Kinshasa, which have the post-apocalyptic grit that will probably be missing from Dredd 3D – is stunning. The frame overflows with life, and the eponymous kids, street urchins abandoned by their families as witches, who form a band called “The Devil Does not Exist,” are charming and utterly real. At one level the film hits all the predictable clichés about overcoming adversity, except that the conviction and skill of the performers (including  a range neighbourhood characters in addition to the kids), and the filmmakers’ natural style and genuine and heartfelt engagement with everything in front of the camera, make it convincing, pleasurable, even revelatory.

Kinshasa Kids

The Hunt  (Jagten; Denmark) Thomas Vinterberg is back! He kind of lost his way with a some big international flops, but now The Hunt provides a brilliant matched pair with his debut film The Celebration. Where that emotionally brutal masterwork ripped the lid off a family deformed by hidden sexual abuse, The Hunt goes in the opposite direction, looking at the moral panic of a (similarly enclosed) society ready to believe false accusations of abuse. What’s amazing is how the opposite situations come round to the same ugly shadow projections (in one case on the victims, in the other on the supposed perpetrator – rather like the first and second half of Night of the Hunter: in the first half the community refuses to see what the Preacher is; in the second they form a lynching party). Both films take startling looks at male power and male vulnerability. The Hunt explores these themes with, if anything more nuance and depth, and just as much savagery; though the filmmaking is more conventional, and the film doesn’t convey the same sense of revelation.

Mads Mikkelson gives a quietly explosive performance as a dedicated kindergarten teacher falsely accused of abusing one of his charges. For a while the film skirts with misanthropy, a sense that the plotting is being guided by having all characters make the worst possible decision at any given moment, but ultimately its look into the heart of darkness gains complexity and is utterly convincing.  The combination of themes (primal masculine issues of bonding and initiation, the emotional vulnerability of men as nurturers and the particular nature of male emotional pain, as well as the broader collective issues of scapegoating) with the film’s nominal subject (an accusation of abuse) is startling. And the final note is brilliantly disturbing and true.

The Hunt (Jagten)

Pieta Middling Kim Ki-Duk with his characteristic mix of tenderness and cruelty; the purity of a fable; the poetry of the extreme. A pitiless enforcer for loan sharks is gradually humanized by the intrusion in his life of a woman who claims to be his mother.  The intriguing situation and story are hampered by a weak central performance, and a lack of rigour in details and cinematography, which undersell the richly textured location. (Digital artifacts on the output projected didn’t help.) The story takes on a compelling gravity, and the film has interesting things to say about the nature of revenge, but falls well short of the impact it might have had (in spite of the “tsk”ing of the industry audience at Kim’s more extreme moments).

Pieta

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What a joy to see Harold and Maude (1971) on Criterion’s new blu-ray. I saw this film at least a dozen times theatrically, probably many more, and every few years on DVD. I can say with certainty that the Blu-ray, projected on my home screen, looked better than those 35mm prints. Details I had never noticed were visible.

The film’s vibrancy in this new format seemed like a metaphor for its everfresh status as a classic, and it drew me into a deeper consideration of what makes it so special. If you asked me for a list of the greatest films ever made, I would think in terms of historical significance, films that had advanced and shaped and defined the medium’s formal and narrative possibilities. On that score, I am not sure I’d even think to include Harold and Maude. It’s a very small film. Yet there is no denying that it fulfills certain capacities of narrative art with a purity and intensity that have been achieved by few other films.

I first saw Harold and Maude in early 1973 at Toronto’s “Original 99 cent Roxy.” This was a large (800 seats) old neighbourhood movie house in a working class east-Toronto area, conveniently located near the subway. Every night they showed a different double bill, for 99 cent admission (very cheap even in the day, when a first-run movie cost about $3.00, there was no such thing as VHS or pay TV, and the only other rep house in Toronto was the Revue, which showed single-bill second run art films for $2.25.). The first feature started at 7:00, the second started at a specified time a few minutes after the first one ended, and then the first one got a repeat screening around 10:30 or so, again depending on the running times. Their programming ranged across cinema history, but of course consisted mostly of films from the past 15 years, for which prints were readily available. Films that proved popular with their audience were brought back regularly. It was the kind of cinema that would make cult films, because so many people would go there without even knowing what they were showing, drawn by the low price, the accepting attitude towards the consumption of illegal substances in the audience (on the weekends you would get a contact high from the smoke hanging in the air), the limited alternatives, and the quality of the programming: adventurous in its scope but reliable in its quality. Audiences themselves were also more adventurous in those days, I think – because, paradoxically, more sheltered. Nowadays a 14 year-old (that’s how old I was when I went to see Harold and Maude this first time) who never leaves his parents’ basement can be expert in even the most obscure types of cinema. But in those days you had to go to the Roxy.

That first time, I had not gone to the Roxy to see Harold and Maude. This was its first rep screening in Toronto, locally the very beginning of its triumphant march to cult status. I had read a dismissive review of it a little more than a year previously during its first run by Clyde Gilmour, the movie reviewer in the Toronto Star. That, and Paramount’s ad campaign had left me with the impression that it was some sort of clunky romance, a big-studio attempt at being offbeat and countercultural – the screens had been awash with such turkeys in recent years. No, I was at the Roxy to see a film for which I had read an interesting review in Cinefantastique, at the time the one slick, intelligent, professional magazine about horror/science-fiction/fantasy films: Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End, also a recent Paramount release, but an independently made British/German co-production by the Polish writer/director. I was a huge Polanski fan (I knew of Skolimowski as the co-writer of Polanski’s first feature, Knife in the Water) and had developed a strong taste for realistic portraits of abnormal psychology with horror-film overtones. The fact that Deep End’s focus was on a boy my age only made it more intriguing.

As it happened I arrived early, and caught the last third of Harold and Maude, arriving just in time to see Harold chop off his hand during his second blind date. Wow! This movie was up my alley! I was immediately captivated by its tone, its combination of wide-eyed enthusiasm and sardonic humour, very close to the way I experienced at the world.

Harold’s Second Date

Deep End did not disappoint (and it also became a film I watched repeatedly at the Roxy — and I recently saw it again on a terrific Blu-Ray from the BFI!). Afterwards, though the next day was a school day, I stayed to watch in its entirety the second screening of Harold, before taking the long subway ride home, suffused with the joy of discovery.

Harold and Maude came back to the Roxy every few months, its audience building, and then it got picked up by the other rep houses that, as a result of the Roxy’s huge success, were then sprouting up around the city. Finally it came back for a lengthy second run at the Cinecity, a lovely and technically superb cinema with a huge screen that had been built into an old postal station at Yonge and Charles. (It’s now a Starbuck’s.) I was regularly dragging friends to see it.

It was my wife Elyse, whom I married about midway between my discovery of Harold and Maude in the cinemas and my first time watching it on DVD, who pointed out that she and I had more than a bit in common with the title characters (minus the sixty year age gap): she the ebullient and extroverted lover of life, artist in ever-changing media, who had been described as a little old lady even as a child; I the introverted, moody, perennial adolescent with a taste for the macabre.

In spite of these (and many other) differences in our character, when Elyse and I met we discovered that our smaller number of shared passions were so important to us, they far outweighed the differences. One of those shared passions was Harold and Maude. Elyse had not been quite such an early adaptor as I – she is a few years younger, and not quite as cinematically obsessed – but she was certainly the first among her friends and like me was returning to the film repeatedly, dragging different friends to see it, having decided that it was an ideal litmus test of character.

On screening Harold and Maude last night, it struck that there are three things that make it so special.

One is the film’s thematic purity. There are few types of titles more inherently trite than the names of two characters. Yet this film redeems the whole genre. It demonstrates how much can be achieved through the encounter of two contrasting characters, with something to bring them together, something to pull them apart, and a capacity for transformation. Most of all, though, it is the clarity with which the thematic forces of life and death meet in the encounter between these two souls.

Second, is the film’s marvelous craftsmanship in the way it tells its story. Scene after scene has been boiled down to its comic essence and builds to a brilliantly off-kilter punchline.

Third, and perhaps most movingly for those involved in filmmaking, it is brilliant proof of what can be achieved in a collaborative art form, an achievement that is usually diminished, obstructed and/or corrupted by forces of ego and commerce. That it somehow so fully bypasses these is what makes the film truly miraculous. Colin Higgins wrote Harold and Maude when he was a third year film student at UCLA, and it was sold to Paramount by Edward and Mildred Lewis (he was working for them as a groundskeeper at the time, and Edward happened to be a well-established producer who knew Robert Evans, Paramount’s head of production). Higgins went on to a successful career as a writer-director, but his other films are shallow and trivial confections. 21-year-old Bud Cort, who had made several promising appearances in films preceding this, basically never gave another performance of any significance. Hal Ashby of course remains one of the best American directors of the 70’s, but his work and his spirit were increasingly chewed up by the system (I recently read the somewhat dispiriting biography by Nick Dawson). One is left with the impression that the film was a miraculous gift to them, as much as to us.

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My son Caleb received a copy of the book “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” from a friend for his 18th birthday the other day. The whole family had a great time adding up how many films we’d each seen. I found that I have seen 789 of the 1001 movies I need to see before I die (many of them quite a few times). Apparently I will need to slow down, as at this rate I will run out of them before I am 60. Realizing that Caleb has already seen over 200 of them – this is a kid who was spellbound by the 5-hour version of Fanny & Alexander when he was 10 years old – was a nice affirmation of parental duty fulfilled.

While by and large I think the choices made by the editors are excellent, I do of course have a few quibbles. One filmmaker who is not represented in the book is Ariane Mnouchkine. She is of course known primarily as a theatre director, for over 40 years now the artistic director of Theatre du Soleil, one of France’s leading artistic companies.

I will post separately a note I wrote for Mnouchkine’s masterpiece, Moliere. It was through this 1978 film that I became familiar with her art and her troupe. It played for one week in Toronto in 1983, and I was there three of those nights. Since then I have seen the company perform two of its shows live; one, Tambours sur la digue in a hockey arena in a Montreal suburb in 2000 or 2001, the other, Le Dernier Caravanserail outside the Lincoln Centre in Manhattan in 2005. I simply have not experienced artists working in any medium who are as committed, refined, and masterful. I find it difficult to speak about their work in brief without gushing incoherently.

I acquired a DVD of the television version of Le Dernier Caravanserail over a year ago when it showed up on amazon.fr, but I found that I could not watch it until more time had passed from the experience of the live show. This week, I finally screened the film, 2 parts totaling 4½ hours.

Where to start? First of all, the material has an urgent relevance that makes even (especially?) most “politically committed” art look like vain posturing. It originated in the testimony of refugees from a range of European and Middle Eastern countries – primarily Russia, Chechnya, Iran, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Iraq – regarding their experiences at home and in their journeys to find refuge in the EU and Australia. The stories are often unbearably sad, sometimes grotesquely violent and cruel, yet lit up by heartbreaking flashes of compassion and spirit. They are recounted as a series of vignettes. As for each of their productions, the company explores the material to devise its own, always hauntingly beautiful yet powerfully direct theatrical language. Against this aesthetic distance, it sets performances of incredibly psychological depth and detail.

Since Mnouchkine proved long ago with Moliere that she can direct a film better than 99% of those who have tried it, she clearly understands the useless of a filmed play that fails to reimagine itself for the very different medium. I found her solutions here brilliantly successful, and the film of Le Dernier Caravanserail even more devastating than the play. It succeeds in retaining the dazzling theatrical devices, while using cinematic elements (a controlled frame, naturalistic sound) for greater impact. The episodes, while remaining theatrical tableaux, play hypnotically onscreen.

This is a work with enormous power to awaken the viewer to one of the definitive human experiences of our times, that of the refugee. It is of course an experience we would desperately prefer to avoid confronting; an experience that it would be unbearable to confront without the grace of such generous artistry.

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It took me a while to catch up with Atom Egoyan’s Adoration. I frequently feel with Egoyan that I am seeing a different film than everyone else; typically his films are celebrated and deprecated for what seem to me the wrong reasons. The fact that he is so good at articulating his intentions doesn’t help, because much of what he has to say is in some sense benign misdirection, geared to flattering the critics who represent his constituency.

I admire greatly Egoyan’s sheer mastery as a director, his ability to compose image and sound into richly textured aesthetic experiences. And while I deeply respect his intention to challenge his audience to question and reflect on narrative, I am also frequently vexed by the artificiality of his constructs. In his more recent work, he has seemed limited by his own artistic persona. Ararat was brilliant in finding a way to approach an historical atrocity without trivializing it, but came crashing to earth when the filmmaker seemed to be imitating his own earlier work; Where the Truth Lies was cinematically ravishing, but somehow quite naïve in its awareness of the particular narrative demands of its genre.

Others have observed that Adoration represents a return to his earlier films, which I did not find encouraging at all. But once again that strikes me as entirely wrong. I was delighted to discover that it is in fact a real step forward. Yes, all the obsessive Egoyan concerns are here. But, delicately, somewhat tentatively, they are infused with a new depth of feeling. The film strikes me as his most deeply personal.

Adoration has a remarkable theme that is profound and vital. It’s about how people project their own personal traumas onto collective ones. How hatred is passed on through false ideas and how false ideas are made real through belief. Like all of Egoyan’s films, it’s also about the fact that the truth is hidden and requires a personal struggle to discover.

Egoyan is the filmmaker as skeptic. Since storytelling relies on belief more than anything, Egoyan pushes his stories right to the edge between the credible and the absurd, and fragments his plot so that we will be engaged by a desire to understand, and in the process reflect on our own activity in making meaning. He wants us to question, not believe.

His persistent foregrounding, in almost all his work, of image-making technology is both metaphor (for the recessive nature of truth) and reflection (of the fact that we are watching a movie and that watching a movie is a process that invokes illusions).

Egoyan his distilled these concerns almost obsessively with each film, and yes, in some ways Adoration brings us back to his first film Next of Kin, which was also an adolescent quest for identity defined by a struggle towards and away from family.

The protagonist here is Simon, an orphaned adolescent. The mystery at the core of the story has to do with his parents’ death, and in particular his father’s role in it. Egoyan’s films have frequently focused on adolescents (Next of Kin, Family Viewing, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter) and without exception have dealt with individuals trapped by traumatic experiences, trapped by the past. Usually these are private, familial traumas, although in Ararat it was a mass collective trauma (the Armenian genocide). In Adoration we get both, although the collective trauma never actually happened, and the film suggests that, in a way, all trauma is individual.

This may, still, be Egoyan’s most optimistic film. In spite of being critically celebrated, the word on the street about Egoyan’s work has always been that it is “cold,” indeed he has done as much as anyone to form the perception that Canadian cinema is chilly and perverse. But in fact the emotional distance in Egoyan’s films has always reflected a passionate and ultimately compassionate concern for human suffering, and that has never been more clear than in Adoration. One of the factors in the film’s warmth is the wonderful central performance from Dylan Bostick, radiant with a combination of sensitivity and inner strength. He warms the film up in a way that someone like Sarah Polley, for all her tremendous nuance as a performer, doesn’t do. Egoyan is also the father of a boy around the age of this character, and, as myself the father of a boy that same age (and also one a few years older) I was deeply touched by the film’s awareness of the acute ethical and emotional sensitivity that teenaged boys are capable of.

The other rap on Egoyan is that his films reflect Canadian government/institutional imperatives (i.e. Telefilm’s agenda) rather than what audiences actually want to see. It is true that from the mid 80’s to the mid 90’s, “create a cinema that is culturally significant and successful with festivals and critics, and financial success will follow” was the governing dictum of feature film funding in Canada (as a film festival programmer I was part of this system). Egoyan both crystallized this agenda (government agencies badly needed any kind of perceived success – unlike the private sector for which success ultimately is an objective business matter) and benefited from it with a career. But I must say, in a time when the Telefilm agenda has become a largely laughable attempt to imitate Hollywood success without anything like the system that can make that success happen (nor the ability to recognize, nurture and advance talent), the sincere and mature artistry of Egoyan’s work is lookin’ pretty good.

Indeed, while in many corners Egoyan was perceived to have lost his way after The Sweet Hereafter, there is no question that his expressive mastery has grown from film to film and he is now one of the most artistically mature filmmakers now working.

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Watching The Getaway recently reaffirmed for me what a great artist Sam Peckinpah was. Somehow I had missed this film over the years, discouraged from watching it by its highly uneven reputation, and the fact that I find Ali McGraw to be a black hole who tends to pull a movie into oblivion. The film didn’t change my opinon of La McGraw, and in fact her vacuity pulls her co-star Steve McQueen badly into its orbit. In Peckinpah’s preceding film, Junior Bonner, McQueen was at his best and seems well in the groove of Peckinpah’s male characters, their brutality an expression of their sensitivity. Here he seems like the Steve McQueen of the unwatchably glib The Thomas Crown Affair.

But everything about the film besides its lead actors is beautiful. The fact that it works as a crime thriller in a relatively uncomplicated way is a bonus, because, though it is not among his great works, it is fully haunted by the ghosts that make Peckinpah’s work so revelatory. Peckinpah at his best treats subjects that are at the centre of American storytelling (the frontier, masculinity, violence) with a grace, depth and poetry that exceeds even Hawks and Ford (maybe that’s just a generational thing, though; too bad no one of my generation managed to surpass Peckinpah).

So excited was I by this, that I immediately ordered a copy of The Osterman Weekend, Sam’s last film, which I saw at Toronto’s Imperial 6 Cinemas on its initial release in 1983, and remembered as borderline unwatchable. But if The Getaway was this good, perhaps I had just missed the point on Osterman (at the time I had yet to see The Wild Bunch or Ride the High Country or Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, now three of my favourite American films, only Straw Dogs and at much too young an age [14]).

I have this theory: that films from the 70’s have gotten better, and films from the 80’s have gotten worse. It’s remarkable how few exceptions there seem to be. Sadly, The Osterman Weekend is not one of them. Not only was it is as bad as I remembered, knowing Peckinpah’s work makes its badness more tragic. Not primarily because of the vast gap in quality between Osterman and his earlier films — well, except for Convoy and The Killer Elite, though I think it is worse — but because it is a kind of announcement of the annihilation of a great filmmaker. It depicts a world in which all the values that were both celebrated and mourned in his great works – and that ability to both mourn and celebrate at the same time has something to do with their greatness– have ceased to exist. Those values have been destroyed by vast institutions (within the narrative, the CIA and the mass media; while embodied by the film itself, 20th Century Fox and the cheesy producers [Highlander: Search for Vengeance, anyone?] who hired Peckinpah because he would work cheap and could do some signature slow mo). The “action” scenes come off as self-parody, which may have been inevitable given that the techniques of Peckinpah’s brilliant depictions of violence had already been absorbed by the mainstream which had fully inverted their meaning. The performances range from wooden to embarrassing, but what the actors have in common is an apparent cluelessness as to what kind of movie they are in and what they are supposed to be doing. Where Peckinpah’s great films were narratively spare, charting a linear trajectory as they accumulate mysterious depth, Osterman is not only cluttered to the point of absurdity but seems to deliberately void itself of narrative coherence as it proceeds (in spite of a screenplay by the wonderful Alan Sharp.) Where his previous films are preoccupied with the relationship between man and nature, and man and the community, in Osterman nature has ceased to exist (the film mostly takes place in an ugly house cluttered with video equipment, and the exteriors are largely barren) and the community has been rendered an abstraction by the mass media. In short, it may be that by 1983, the artistic construct known as the “Sam Peckinpah film” could no longer exist, not only because of Sam’s alcoholism, but because of history. (Alcoholism may have been only symptom, not cause.)

In any case, it seems like Sam, who had been given the kind of soul-breaking punishment Hollywood reserves for its most committed artists, had decided to offer a parodical reflection back at that world of its idea of what a commercial film is in the early 1980’s, in all its ugly, noisy, incoherent meaninglessness.

The saddest spectacle is watching auteurists try to justify the film’s brilliance, as though the subject matter was an artistic choice as opposed to the only job on offer, and as though it were an artistic testament rather than a self-inscribed grave marker.

It is true that the nihilistic ugliness of the film can be identified as a current in Peckinpah’s work as far back as The Wild Bunch. Part of what made Sam great as an artist was in the demons he confronted. In The Osterman Weekend, he shows us what ugliness is like without the artistry, since the world had no use for the artistry.

I haven’t yet listened to the commentary track by the redoubtable Seydor, Weddle, Simmons and Redmond, whose books I have devoured. Perhaps they will convince me otherwise. Nor have I watched the “directors cut” included, though I would bet dollars to donuts that it is just a more extreme version of everything I have stated above. Peckinpah spent 8 months editing the film before being fired, and I suspect he was just trying to leave them as big of a mess as possible.

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Nothing is more poignant than a huge budget film maudit. I have a special place in my heart for films that, however great or flawed in execution, are at least trying to do something unusual, and are damned not for their failure at that, but for their failure to be a kind of movie they weren’t even trying to be, one much more ordinary, by viewers (typically including critics) who refuse even to acknowledge what is being attempted.

Heaven’s Gate is such a film, and one that proves my hypothesis that in mainstream filmmaking, if you don’t tell a story well, the better the movie is in other respects, the more it will be rejected. In other words, a crappy formulaic blockbuster’s deficiencies in story are accepted, presumably because the pleasures of spectacle redeem it, at least in the eyes of the paying public. And if it isn’t actually entertaining, that’s just business-as-usual. Whereas an artistically ambitious work with a deficient story is perceived as a sort of crime.

I projected Heaven’s Gate last night, first time I’ve seen it. And it’s true that, on a narrative level, it is flat and boring. It never actually develops in depth or complexity, even while it proceeds with exquisite slowness; a half hour’s worth of plot stretched out to 3 hours and 40 minutes.

Now, I am a screenwriting Professor, and plot is important to me. But movies can offer other pleasures than plot (after all Tarkovsky has even less plot than this, and I find his films pure pleasure) and there are things going on in Heaven’s Gate that seem to continue to elude the people who write about it, and I found the film occasionally dazzling.

Heaven’s Gate is clearly intended in the mode of Bertolucci or Visconti, concerning itself more with an evocation of its time and place, and even more than that simply with the human condition as a kind of swirling collective movement within which the individual struggles, with great difficulty, towards meaningful action. There is one amazing sequence after another, revealing virtually nothing about the characters as individuals but providing instead a panoramic sense of their community expressed through virtuoso camera choreography.

Like the work of those Italian masters, it is very specific in its historical setting (in this case, the Johnson County War in 1892 Wyoming), necessary given that the films’ subject is as much the idea of history as the specifics.

Unfortunately, Cimino may have studied Bertolucci and Visconti, and he has a team of craftsmen who can match his masters; but he simply lacks their understanding of how to integrate the large scale with the intimate. It’s the scenes with one or two characters in Heaven’s Gate that lie there, lifeless, creating empty space between the big scene setpieces which are concerned with large groups of people. It would have been better if Cimino had hired a screenwriter.

Beyond the script problem already noted, Cimino’s deficiency is apparent in the casting department. He needed actors with sufficient mythic gravity to anchor his archetypes, classic movie stars, so that we wouldn’t feel the lack of individualized character as an emptiness. He needed a Peckinpah cast (say William Holden and Robert Ryan), but of course the whole point of a Peckinpah cast (classic Peckinpah) is that its an elegy for its own immanent disappearance. And by 1980 those types were gone, at least if the characters were going to be under about 55 years old.

Instead he has Kris Kristofferson, who is blank and pretty and not convincingly soulful. (Yes, I know Peckinpah worked with Kristofferson three times, but take a look at how he used him for the sense of hollowness he projects, opposite the soulfulness of a James Coburn or a Warren Oates.) Christopher Walken who, while still far away from exploring the heights of ham that lie ahead, manages to place a neurotic veneer on a character with a neurotic core, resulting in a sort of black hole of neurosis, character who seems completely disconnected from his role in the plot. Only Isabelle Huppert, who is probably incapable of giving a bad performance (and she is at her most beautiful here) manages to strike some convincing notes,  though her character is basically Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller from Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. There is zero chemistry between her and either of the men she is supposedly in love with.

Another obvious point that seems to have escaped reviewers is that, while Cimino’s screenwriting credit betrays the movie’s lack of a real screenwriter, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond is the actual co-auteur. Heaven’s Gate’s look not only evokes what Zsigmond did for Altman on McCabe & Mrs. Miller, both films are about their look as much as anything else. This is something American critics and audiences can’t abide. It equates with pretension, which I find a silly equation, since many movies have trite stories, and images can be rich with meaning and depth (and in these two films certainly are).

The film’s critical treatment is well summed up by Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert’s reviews, which are not only terribly negative, but carefully calibrated to do as much damage as possible. (Indeed the film’s initial reviews caused United Artists to yank it out of cinemas and cut it to half the length – cutting out the wrong half, since the film’s quality is in its pictorialism and not in its dramatics). I suspect this was as a corrective to their inflated reviews of Cimino’s preceding film The Deer Hunter (“the most emotionally shattering movie ever made” – Ebert), which, I hypothesize, was celebrated for the hope that its portrayal of heartland America coming to terms with the trauma of Vietnam portended the end of the 70’s, a decade Americans really wanted to end (ironically, given what followed).

(Note: I haven’t seen The Deer Hunter since December 1978 during its week-long academy-award qualifying run in Westwood. I remember how awed the sold-out audience seemed by the film’s sense of its own sociological importance.)

That Mr. Cimino, from the point of view of the film business itself, became, with Heaven’s Gate, the one to end the 70’s and take his own career down with the decade, is one of the strange ironies which are the currency of history.

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