We’re not spying, but it feels like we are. Each moment is tracked on surveillance monitors, recorded, studied. On one screen, a man, dressed moments ago in cowboy gear, is now postcoital with a robot prostitute. She soon makes herself scarce, heading back to recharge her circuits in the break room. The cowboy stares up at the ceiling, his six-shooter cooling in a holster draped over a chair. He’s luxuriating inside a simulacrum of an 1880s Western whorehouse, one situated within a network of amusement parks in an unnamed desert expanse. It’s the end of the first act of the 1973 film Westworld, written and directed by Michael Crichton, a master of the techno-thriller novel whose occasional forays into filmmaking—he directed a half dozen features over two decades—yielded more modest, earthbound results than the fantastical predictions he packed into his paperbacks. But Westworld, his feature debut, continues to haunt. Its vision of a pleasure dome with exploited, humanlike robots as moving targets has been reprogrammed into a highly anticipated HBO series, premiering Sunday. Read More
In Canada today, Home Depot announced that it was pulling a Halloween decoration called “Scary Peeper Creeper” from its shelves. Shoppers were deeply perturbed by the Peeper’s pockmarked, rubbery visage, and for good reason—he’s designed to scare the living shit out of people. “Realistic face looks just like a real man is peering through the window at you,” boasted the description on Home Depot’s website; all that’s missing is the labored mouth-breathing. The manufacturer advises sticking him “on the passenger side of a car window, in a bedroom window, basement window, kitchen window, bathroom window, or garage window … We’d love to hear where you’ve gotten good results with your Scary Peeper!”
The debacle brought to mind Herschell Gordon Lewis, cinema’s very own Scary Peeper, who got very good results with his pictures. He died yesterday at ninety. (It’s been a bad week for voyeurs.) In his forty-one turns as a director, he did more to popularize gore, splatter, and willful puerility than a Peeper in every window could do. His films range from the out-and-out depraved (Blood Feast, Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, Miss Nymphet’s Zap-In) to the merely lascivious (Boin-n-g!, Living Venus, The Adventures of Lucky Pierre), but—per the Peeper Code of Conduct—they were always, always in poor taste. Read More
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
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
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
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