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Made in Hollywood

December 19, 2014 | by

Budd Schulberg’s centennial.

Budd Schulberg (center) at the Watts Writers’ Workshop, ca. 1965.

Budd Schulberg (center) at the Watts Writers’ Workshop, ca. 1965.

“My problem,” novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg told Kurt Vonnegut at the close of a 2001 interview published in these pages, “is that I’m not going to live long enough to do all the different things I want to do. My time is beginning to run out a bit.” Then eighty-seven years old, Schulberg—whose credits include the Oscar-winning script for On the Waterfront (1954), a handful of widely acclaimed novels, a Hollywood memoir, a collection of short stories, a biography of Muhammad Ali, and volumes of essays and magazine articles on boxing—was working with Spike Lee on a screenplay about the epic 1930s battles between heavyweight world champions Joe Louis and Max Schmeling and collaborating with Ben Stiller on a film adaptation of his best-known novel What Makes Sammy Run? (1941). Eight years later, he bid his final farewell before either of these projects could be realized. He would have turned one hundred this year.

Early last month, I attended a two-day celebration of his centennial in Hanover, New Hampshire, at Dartmouth College, from which Schulberg graduated in 1936 and whose Rauner Special Collections Library holds his papers. The event began with the unveiling of a library exhibition—“Budd Schulberg and the Scripting of Social Change,” which runs through the end of next month—charting the writer’s numerous engagements with political events that spanned much of the twentieth century. As editor of The Dartmouth, the college’s daily paper, in 1935, he covered a quarry workers’ strike in Proctor, Vermont, anticipating the preproduction research he would undertake on the mafia infiltration of the dockworkers’ union for On the Waterfront. Read More »

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Lost in Translation

November 21, 2014 | by

Why has Italian cinema lost its appeal abroad?

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A still from La grande bellezza, 2013.

It must be the Ponentino—the wind from the sea—blowing through the baroque gardens, or the scent of the Roman pines rising from ruins, but each time I return to Italy, I realize how much I miss its decadence. Yes, it’s this breeze, fresh yet melancholic, that makes me think of the persistent sense of fallacy in the eternal city. And while I can’t escape being mesmerized by Rome’s beauty, I question why contemporary Italian culture doesn’t travel or translate. It is as if Italy is appreciated only for what it was and not for what it has become.

While I appreciate the current popularity of Scandinavian literature, or the enthusiasm, periodically revived, for Latin American writers, I have to wonder why, or, indeed, if, Italian authors are less interesting to the Anglo-Saxon public than those spare, gritty Northerners and quixotic Latinos. Italy has produced a few celebrated authors, but there has never been a real fascination for our literature.

Cinema is a different story, perhaps because of its more immediate seductive power of images. La Dolce Vita was unique in making Romans feel that we lived, at least vicariously, in the caput mundi—the capital of the world. The film is the portrait of an Inferno costumed as a Paradise. Its glamorous description of Roman decadence generated a fashion, and people all over the world dreamed of enjoying those orgies, dressing in those stylish suits, driving those convertibles, listening to that music, and bathing in the Fountain of Trevi. As one character says, “to live within the harmony of perfect beauty.” Who wouldn’t subscribe to that fantasy? I would be the first, if I could ignore the fact that the intellectual who delivers the line commits suicide after killing his own children.

Federico Fellini has captured the city’s paradoxes—its wisdom and disenchantment, provinciality and universalism, morbid religiosity and virulent secularism—better than any artist before or since. And he did it again with Roma, Toby Dammit, and Satyricon, a science-fiction film set in a desperate, godless past. Since the heyday of neorealism, some of our best films have dealt with the same phenomena of glorious corruption and placid surrender to dissolution. It happened last year with La grande bellezza, directed by Paolo Sorrentino, a homage to Fellini, and la grande eccezione—the great exception in an otherwise fairly desolate artistic landscape. Read More »

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Sartre and Borges on Welles

August 12, 2014 | by

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Theatrical release poster, 1941

In a sense, that poster doesn’t lie: everyone was talking about Citizen Kane. In another, more accurate sense, that poster does lie: not everyone was joining in that “It’s terrific!” chorus.

I hadn’t known, until Open Culture told me earlier today, that Sartre and Borges numbered among Kane’s more outspoken critics. Sartre reviewed the film in 1945, meaning he took four years even to bother seeing it. His is a damning appraisal not just of the movie but—kind of toothlessly—the whole United States cinema culture:

Kane might have been interesting for the Americans, [but] it is completely passé for us, because the whole film is based on a misconception of what cinema is all about. The film is in the past tense, whereas we all know that cinema has got to be in the present tense. ‘I am the man who is kissing, I am the girl who is being kissed, I am the Indian who is being pursued, I am the man pursuing the Indian.’ And film in the past tense is the antithesis of cinema. Therefore Citizen Kane is not cinema.

Not exactly an open-and-shut syllogism, but that’s in keeping with the Continental tradition, I guess.

Borges reviewed Citizen Kane in 1941—in fact, he reviewed many a film in his day, among them King Kong, The Petrified Forest, and Sabotage (the 1936 classic, not the 2014 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle). Many of these can be found in his Collected Nonfictions. As the translation below attests, his review of Kane is typically well observed, though he’s kind of hard on Rosebud, and we can now say, from the vantage of more than fifty years, that he was dead wrong about the whole endurance thing: Read More »

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Still Slacking After All These Years

July 30, 2014 | by

Everyone’s talking about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood at the moment—as well they should; it’s a remarkable film—but in honor of the director’s birthday, you should revisit his first feature, Slacker, which is freely available on YouTube.

The Criterion Collection’s site has a few insightful essays on Slacker, too. There’s “Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Do,” by Chris Walters, which was written in and about 1990, but feels right at home in 2014:

The all-but-total decay of public life has atomized others into subcultures of which they are the only member, free radicals randomly seeking an absent center as the clock beats out its senseless song.

The movie buries its treasure here, in the crevasses of its drollery and craziness. Nothing in the current climate is more permissible than mocking or reducing such people; Slacker celebrates their futility as a sign of endurance and mourns the passing of time by marking it with emblems of affection and empathy, the only prizes worth having.

Or Ron Rosenbaum’s “Slacker’s Oblique Strategy,” originally published in the New York Observer, which makes a seemingly outlandish but ultimately shrewd claim:

Slacker is at heart a very Russian film. Not just in its obvious kinship to Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov’s great nineteenth-century Russian novel, the classic celebration of the luxuriant pleasures of lethargy and the sensual delights of the contemplative life. There’s another Russian link, to Turgenev and his novels of the “superfluous man.” (And, to make a cross-cultural comparison, there’s a link as well to the seventeenth-century British pastoral “poetry of retirement” tradition, whose varieties are best limned in a volume with the lovely title The Garlands of Repose by the scholar Michael O’Loughlin.)

But on a deeper level, the true Russian kinship is less with Goncharov or Turgenev than with Dostoyevsky, to a novel like The Brothers Karamazov: the kind of novel that is unashamed in its preoccupation, its obsession, with ultimate philosophical and metaphysical questions.

And remember, in closing, the wise slogan proffered by one of Slacker’s many hitchhikers: “Every single commodity you produce is a piece of your own death!”

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Snapping, Humming, Buzzing, Banging: Remembering Alan Splet

May 13, 2014 | by

Lynch Crucifixion

Millions of Americans heard the name Alan Splet (1940–1994) for the first time as a punch line on television. The occasion was the 1980 Academy Awards, where his sound design the previous year, on Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion, had earned him a special Oscar. Citing prior commitments, Splet did not attend the ceremony. When the presenter held up the statuette and the honoree failed to appear to accept it, the evening’s host, Johnny Carson, turned this perceived snub of Hollywood taste back on the truant. “It always happens,” he deadpanned to the audience, “first George C. Scott doesn’t show, then Marlon Brando, and now Alan Splet.”

Splet deserves better. He was no joke. In fact, to an exclusive circle of independent filmmakers who know how much his collages of sound and musical refinement added to their movies from the late seventies to the early nineties, his name is still invoked with an affection verging on awe. Tributes can be found on YouTube from Ballard, Peter Weir, Caleb Deschanel, and Philip Kaufman, with whom Splet collaborated on three films. Splet’s sound design and editing on The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) ranks among the most haunting and sophisticated of its day—or any day. Leoš Janáček’s string and piano music is as ravishing as Sven Nykvist’s cinematography, underlining not only the distinctly tart Czech melancholia of the novel, but also serving, notes Kaufman, to “supplant Kundera’s voice as the narrator and give the film its drive.”

No filmmaker in those years bonded more intensely or productively with Splet than David Lynch. The two met in 1970 when the writer-director needed a sound track for his short film The Grandmother. (Splet was then employed at a Philadelphia industrial film company, having bailed on a career in accounting.)

With no money to foster the visions Lynch had in his uncompromising young head, the pair spent twelve-hour days inventing effects on the cheap, recording human mewls and gurgles and hissing machine-made sounds. Not until their concoctions matched the images on the editing table and the pairing created an elusive “mood” (a key term for Lynch) were they satisfied. Thereafter, until Splet’s death in 1994, he partnered with Lynch on every major film project, those that were completed (Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart) and those that weren’t (Ronnie Rocket).

In the opinion of some, however, their masterpiece of “audio surrealism” remains Eraserhead. Begun in Philadelphia and finished in Los Angeles, its atmosphere is as marked by the sooty poverty of the filmmakers as The Grandmother had been. It was during this time (around 1973) that Lynch, who could not afford paints, did two meticulous drawings in ballpoint pen: a crucifixion, in a style that combines Mattias Grünewald and Francis Bacon, and a resurrection, now lost. Hoping to raise money to finish the film, they had prints made, an enterprise that was rewarded with total failure.

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The Dadliest Decade

April 15, 2014 | by

Why were the nineties so preoccupied with fatherhood?

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Robin Williams as Peter Banning in Hook, 1991

Some decades are summed up easily, the accretion of cliché and cultural narrative having reached such a point that we hardly need say anything at all. The sixties: hippies, drugs, revolution, rock-and-roll. The eighties: Young Republicans, greed is good, massive perms, Ronald Reagan. This is reductive, obviously, but it’s also helpful cultural shorthand. The nineties, like the seventies, have a less unified narrative: there’s gangster rap, Monica Lewinsky, Columbine, Kurt Cobain, O.J., MTV, white slackers on skateboards, and the LA riots, but they’re all disparate, disconnected. There was no counterculture powerful enough to write the narrative from below, no one mass-cultural or political trend hegemonic enough to make itself the truth. Some enjoy calling this diffusion postmodernism, though most everyone else agrees those people are assholes.

But there was, I contend, a current that ran through the culture of the nineties, a theme that has not to my knowledge been recognized as such. That theme is the heroic dad. Read More »

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