June 3, 2016 | by Dante A. Ciampaglia
The anticriticism of Jonas Mekas.
Discussion of American film criticism in the sixties and seventies tends to hew to the Andrew Sarris–Pauline Kael binary. Their legendary, exasperating debate over auteurism and the One True Criticism shaped a generation of writers and the trajectory of film culture, so much so that both writers and their acolytes still haunt the field. But while Sarris/the cultists and Kael/the Paulettes slap-fought at center stage, a third party lobbed firecrackers from the back of the theater—at them, at anyone, at everyone—to disrupt of the status quo and redefine “cinema art.”
Jonas Mekas, now ninety-three, occupies an outsize yet virtually ignored place in the pantheon of film criticism. In 1955, he cofounded the influential magazine Film Culture, which in a 1962–1963 issue included both Sarris’s landmark “Notes on the Auteur Theory, 1962” and Manny Farber’s seminal “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.” Three years later, on November 12, 1958, he introduced film criticism to the Village Voice. But rather than adjudicate the week’s releases, his “Movie Journal” column was a pulpit for spreading the gospel of underground cinema and the launchpad for broadsides against the establishment and its critics, censorship and its enforcers. Mekas claims a lot of titles—pioneering filmmaker, poet, activist, organizer, rabble-rouser, patron saint of the underground—but, he stated bluntly in 1968, “I am not a critic. I don’t criticize. I am a cold, objective, ‘piercing’ eye that watches things and sees where they are and where they are going and I’m bringing all these facts to your attention.” Read More »
February 12, 2016 | by Henry Giardina
Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou’s strangest collaboration.
Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou weren’t collaborators so much as co-conspirators: they had one of the strangest, most fruitful partnerships in the history of film, an erotic and artistic alliance that helped the new medium establish an emotional and political grammar. In the course of their eleven-year marriage, the pair, who met in 1920, made roughly a dozen films, often with Von Harbou writing the screenplays—adapted largely from her own work—and Lang in the director’s chair. They shared an expressive aesthetic vision, an exacting work ethic, and an almost tyrannical unwillingness to compromise with others. They changed people’s minds about their movies and, in radical ways, they changed each other. Their dedication manifested in odd ways—even though, a year into their affair, the bloom had already gone off the rose, they continued to live together, work together, and keep up the pretense of monogamy for another decade. She looked past his philandering; he looked past her increasingly fascist politics; they kept a full calendar. “We were married for eleven years,” von Harbou said later, “because for ten years we didn’t have time to divorce.”
When they did separate, in 1933, the break was clean: not even a year later, Lang, having only recently claimed German citizenship, had fled the country. He said he’d met with Joseph Goebbels, who asked him to head the Nazified film unit of UFA—an experience that so spooked him he left that very evening. If his story is factually dubious, it makes emotional sense: Lang saw himself as having chosen art over nationalism. Von Harbou, who stayed behind, thought she had chosen art, too. And this is in many ways the problem at the heart of their romance: Who, if anyone, had betrayed whom? When love is so tied up in art, and art so tied up in politics, what does betrayal end up looking like? Read More »
November 18, 2015 | by Dante A. Ciampaglia
Fat City and the dark night of boxing’s soul.
Boxing and cinema are so perfectly mated that if the sport didn’t exist Hollywood may well have invented it. Its tropes—man’s internal struggle with his demons, his past, and his station, all externalized in a desperate fight against an opponent who could be a drinking buddy but who stands, right now, in the way of dreams, success, and validation—dates back to Homer, and they’re ready-made for the movies.
The reality of boxing is, of course, not so clean. It’s brutal, unforgiving, and easily corruptible; the runway to the ring littered with broken bodies, shattered lives, and buckets of blood. Redemption? That’s only in the pictures. Which is not to say boxing films avoid hard truths about the sport. Gangsters, hucksters, bums, schemes, and death abound, especially in the titles released in the forties and fifties. But Hollywood approaches the inherent danger and venality of the fight game cautiously, never staring too long into the abyss. To do so would be to stray too far from the formula: audiences should go home cheering, if not for a champion then for a guy who failed stoically and with class. No one wants to spend time—or, more importantly, money—on a downer. Read More »
August 10, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
Before he found success with All in the Family and its spin-offs, Norman Lear wrote and directed Cold Turkey, a cynical 1971 antismoking comedy that is, to date, his only credit as a film director. It’s showing August 13, 15, and 17 at New York’s Anthology Film Archives as part of their One-Film Wonders series, a collection of cinematic one-offs and also-rans.
Cold Turkey has the kind of stupefyingly ridiculous premise we need to see more often in our movies: in a bid for good PR, a big tobacco company promises twenty-five million dollars, tax free, to any town whose residents can stop smoking for a full month. (Their magnanimity earns them comparisons to the Nobel Peace Prize.) The 4,006 residents of Eagle Rock, Iowa, are up to the challenge, at least once their minister—played by Dick van Dyke, typically affable and guileless—goads them into action. Read More »
June 2, 2015 | by Willie Osterweil
Anticommunism at the movies.
You’re trying awful hard with all this patriotic eyewash.
—Skip McCoy, Pickup on South Street
If you’re feeling polemical, you might argue that all Hollywood cinema is anticommunist: as the central commodity of the culture industry, big studio movies are designed for nothing so much as circulating and producing capital. But if we want to talk Communist with a capital C—you know, where the C stands for USSR—then Hollywood’s anticommunist films are a special and specific genre of flops and farces, a cinematic tradition featuring such classics as I Married a Communist, The Red Menace, Assignment: Paris, and My Son John. (Spoiler: John’s a goddamned Bolshie!)
The fifties saw the heyday of anticommie popcorn flicks. True, the silent era had its Bolshevism on Trial and Red Russia Revealed, and the eighties met with Soviet invasion in Red Dawn and some serious anti-Vietcong violence in the later Rambo movies. But when you wanna see a square-jawed U.S. American call a sweaty creep a commie and slug him in the mouth, it’s the postwar period you turn to. Though most of the era’s anticommunist films were too vulgar and outlandish to survive as anything other than hilarious artifacts—or as evidence of the ever-imperialist, state-serving agenda of the Hollywood apparatus, depending on which side of the bed you woke up on—a few, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly and Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street among them, are truly great works of cinema. (Granted, 1982’s Rambo: First Blood—if you excise the last four minutes, when Sly gives a speech crying about how hippies, those “maggots at the airport,” spit on him—is also pretty great.) Both are tense, pulpy noirs, both center around the sale of nuclear secrets, and both take anticommunism more as a genre then a narrative drive. But only one, Pickup on South Street (1953), is being revived this week at Film Forum, in New York. Read More »
May 12, 2015 | by Scott Beauchamp
Sharia law goes to the movies.
In 2009, halfway through my second deployment as an infantryman in Iraq, I was made company armorer. Instead of spending days in the field or going on patrols at odd hours, I had a set schedule repairing our company’s guns and night vision goggles—a normal nine-to-five, in many ways, except that I was stuck on a military compound in the Diyala Province and my office was a shipping container. As a newly ordained soldier of leisure, I decided to reconnect with American culture by watching a couple of new movies.
I chose The Wrestler and District 9 for arbitrary reasons: friends back home had mentioned them and they were for sale in stacks at my base’s knickknack shop, run by locals. The Wrestler, I discovered, is a Darren Aronofsky film starring Mickey Rourke as a washed-up professional wrestler haunted by his past fame, torn between focusing on building a new life outside of wrestling and rekindling some of his former glory. The film crackles with the dark intensity of the knowledge that Rourke’s character will have to make a choice—the violence of the wrestling ring or domestic tranquility. I thought The Wrestler triumphed in the end by leaving the character’s fate up in the air; the film culminates in a poignant hospital scene where the broken wrestler’s love interest pleads that he not agree to a reunion matchup with his old rival, the Ayatollah. Read More »