Armchair Theatre 2017

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By Scott Ross

The movies and other video items I watched (or, in rare cases, went out to see) during the year just passed.
BOLD: Denotes very good… or at least, better-than-average.
BOLD+Underscore: A personal favorite.



Old Favorites re-viewed on a big theatre screen
I don’t quite know why there’s been so little love for the 24th Bond. True, it’s no Skyfall — what is? Some people I know disliked the central premise. Others think the Daniel Craig titles have turned 007 from a dashing, erudite figure into a thug: M’s “blunt instrument.” And while I have a particular fondness for Roger Moore as Bond (his was the first Bond I saw in a theatre) I admire the Craigs more than any others in the series apart from the early Connerys and the Timothy Daltons. Craig also comes closest to resembling the Hoagy Carmichael Fleming prototype. On its own terms, the picture seemed to me exciting, thematically dark in a way that appeals to me, and stylishly (and occasionally, beautifully) made.


Close Encounters of the Third Kind. One of my five favorite pictures, and which I haven’t seen on a big screen since 1978. (I don’t count the 1980 Special Edition.)
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/09/04/watching-the-skies-close-encounters-of-the-third-kind-at-40/

Close-Encounters-of-the-Third-Kind-LB2-1

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. A favorite comedy, given a rare screening by the Carolina Theatre in Durham.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/and-they-used-bon-ami-the-ghost-and-mr-chicken-1966/

Some Like it Hot. Also at the Carolina. My favorite movie. I always see something new in it. This time I focused on Billy Wilder’s astonishing technical achievement in matching Tony Curtis’ lips to Paul Frees’ looping of “Josephine”‘s dialogue.

Some-like-it-hot-screen



New (non-documentary) movies viewed on a big theatre screen:

None. From which you may draw your own conclusions.



Revisited with pleasure

F for Fake. Orson Welles’ non pariel personal essay. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.”

Absence_of_malice_xlg
Absence of Malice
When this Sidney Pollack-directed newspaper drama opened in 1981, it received middling reviews and seemed somehow inconsequential. What a difference 35 years of media consolidation and deepening personal taste can make! Those of us who cared about such things knew too many papers, magazines and broadcast stations were in the hands of too few (usually conservative) people. But we had no idea then that, 15 years later, a Democrat would, with his 1996 Telecommunications Act, usher out the flawed but vitally important American free press and replace it, eventually, with a completely corporate, wholly right-wing, one.  For this reason alone, the picture has interest. Seeing it again, however, I was struck by the intelligence of Kurt Luedtke’s dialogue, how skillfully he lays out his narrative, and how deeply satisfying his denouement, which seemed at the time merely clever, really is. That Newman, Field, Bob Balaban, Josef Sommer and Wilford Brimley all give splendid performances is practically a given, and Melinda Dillon is shattering as Newman’s doomed sister; the sequence in which she runs desperately from house to house trying to gather up every copy of a paper carrying a story that will devastate her own life and her brother’s illustrates all too clearly not merely what a staggeringly humane and expressive actor she is, but how badly she has been served by Hollywood in the years since. Which is to say, barely at all.

Black Sunday. An immensely entertaining adaptation of Thomas Harris’ topical thriller about a Black September plot, directed in high style by John Frankenheimer. A vivid relic from the decades before The PATRIOT Act was a gleam in the Deep State’s eye.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/01/15/black-sunday-1977-what-exactly-is-this-super-bowl/

Munich. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s devastating look at the violent reaction of the Israeli Mossad to the killings at the 1972 Olympiad.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/everyone-is-overtaken-eventually-munich-2005-and-one-day-in-september-1999/

Wag the Dog. It’s almost impossible to reconcile this genuinely funny political satire with the sour conservatism of its screenwriter, the most overrated American playwright of the past 40 years… although the fact it was made during the Clinton era may be a clue.

The List of Adrian Messenger. An effective murder mystery from John Huston and Anthony Veillier out of Phillip MacDonald, burdened by an unnecessary gimmick (guest-stars in heavy makeup) and lumbered as well by its director’s tacit approval of upper-class snobbery and his love of that barbarous tradition, the fox-hunt.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/06/18/the-nature-of-man-the-list-of-adrian-messenger-1963/

The Third Man. Graham Greene wrote it. Carol Reed directed it. Anton Karras performed the soon-to-be ubiquitous music. And Orson Welles had what was arguably his best role in a movie not also written by him. The only drawback in one’s thorough enjoyment of this deservedly beloved post-war thriller is knowing the producers wanted James Stewart for the lead. Good as Joseph Cotton is, once you hear that bit of casting-that-might-have-been, it’s almost impossible to refrain from imagining Stewart’s unique delivery every time “Holly Martins” speaks a line.

Hot Millions.
A 1968 sleeper hit, impossibly dated now in its then-striking use of computer technology, this Peter Ustinov-written comedy starring him and Maggie Smith is a movie that, for me, is a test of potential friendship. If I show it to someone and he or she doesn’t love it too, all bets are off.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/hot-millions-1968/

Cinderella (Disney, 1950) Remarkably fresh after nearly 70 years, this beguiling rendition of the Perrault fairy tale was a make-or-break project for Disney animation, still struggling to regain its pre-war foothold. And unlike recent Mouse House product, schizophrenically made with one eye on each new heroine’s spunky feminist bona fides and the other on crafting an ageless new “Princess” to add to the lineage, there was no art-by-committee finagling here; generations of girls and boys loved Cinderella for her natural ebullience, her love of animals, and her complete lack of self-pity. (Parenthetical: Several years ago, the “Classical” music critic Lloyd Schwartz quoted a friend who cited “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” as the most frightening song title he’d ever heard. I always think about that when I see the picture.)

Cotton Comes to Harlem. Not as rich as the Chester Himes novel, but an awful lot of fun, with a perfectly cast Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones in Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge and a marvelous score by Galt McDermott.

Mary Poppins. This may have been the first movie I ever almost saw, during the summer following its record-breaking 1964 release, which would have put me at around four and a half. I know this because the movie was released in late August, and my sister and I were taken to it at a drive-in. Hence the “ever almost”: I remember only the beginning, and waking up in the back seat when Jane and Michael Banks were being menaced by a snarling dog in an alley. I finally got to see it again when it was reissued in 1973. I liked it then, but love it now in a way few 12 year-olds, even movie-mad pubescents as I was becoming then, ever could.

The Great Race - Lemmon as Fate
The Great Race.
Another favorite of long-standing. Seeing this on television, even on a black-and-white set, in pan-and-scan format, interrupted by commercials and spread out over two consecutive Sunday evenings, delighted me and made me an instant Jack Lemmon freak. The new BluRay edition is stunningly executed.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2013/12/27/the-great-race-1965/

 

French Connection II. The rare sequel that succeeds on its own terms; although it was made during the period of John Frankenheimer’s acutest alcoholism it bears his trademark intelligence, verisimilitude and equal care with both action and actors.

Juggernaut. A taut, entertaining thriller directed by Richard Lester concerning a bomb set to destroy a pleasure-liner at sea.

The Front Page.
1931: A new Criterion edition, beautifully rendered, of the Lewis Milestone adaptation that shows how cinematic even the earliest talkies could be when handled by a master craftsman.

Robin Hood. (Disney, 1973.) I loved this when it opened. But then at 12 I was much less critical.

Death on the Nile. Nowhere near as stylish or accomplished as the Sidney Lumet-directed Murder on the Orient Express which preceded it by four years, yet it holds many pleasures, not least its stellar cast. For a 17-year old nascent gay-boy, seeing both Maggie Smith and Angela Lansbury on the big screen was close to Nirvana.

The Seven-Ups.
A sort of unofficial sequel to The French Connection, directed by that picture’s producer, this tense New York police procedural boasts a splendid central performance by Roy Scheider, a very fine supporting turn by Tony Lo Bianco, and a car chase sequence that, in its grittiness and excitement rivals those in Connection and Bullitt.

Two Mules for Sister Sarah.
A solid comic Western directed by Don Siegel and with a sharp, leftist screenplay by Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood 10. Shirley MacLaine and Clinton Eastwood would seem to be as mis-matched in life as their characters are here, but they make an awfully good team. Features superb photography by the redoubtable Gabriel Figueroa and a pleasing Morricone score.

The Jungle Book
(Disney, 1967) I was the perfect age when this one was released to embrace a new Disney animated feature — I had previously seen both Snow White and Cinderella in re-issue — and I went duly gaga over it. I had the Jungle Book comic (I wore the over off that one through obsessive re-reading), Jungle Book Disneykins figurines from Royal Pudding, Jungle Book tattoos, Jungle Book books, and, of course, the Jungle Book soundtrack album, which I wore to a hockey-puck. My poor parents. Seeing it again in 1990 I was considerably less enthusiastic, but it’s remarkable what a quarter of a century can do for a picture. I still think it’s too self-consciously hip (especially in Phil Harris’ anachronistic vocal performance) for its own good, but the character animation seems to me wonderfully expressive, especially that by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, who did half the picture by themselves.

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The Jungle Book: George Sanders lends both his voice and his physiognomy to Sher Kahn, seen obliquely threatening Sterling Holloway’s Kaa.

The Aristocats. Another I was less critical about when it was new, which seemed a bit bland on video but which now looks awfully good, and that in spite of its borrowings from the infinitely superior 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp, transposed to felinity. Not to be confused with The Aristocrats

The Cheyenne Social Club. The pleasures inherent in seeing a relic from the time when even a trifling Western comedy was imbued with deliciously quirky characterizations and witty, fondly observed dialogue (in this case by James Lee Barrett.) It isn’t much, but for the much it isn’t, it’s rather charming.

Rosemary’s Baby
. I somehow managed to miss this one until about 15 years ago, when I caught it at an art-house screening. Roman Polanksi’s screenplay (almost reverently faithful to the Ira Levin novel) and direction, the gorgeous cinematography by William A. Fraker and the effective score by Krzysztof Komeda (dead, sadly, within months of its release, this depriving us of a distinctive new compositional voice in movies), combined with the performances by its largely elderly cast and a notably plangent one by the often-insufferable Mia Farrow, make this exercise in stylish, low-key horror among the finest in the genre. What I was unprepared for then was how funny it could be, especially in Ruth Gordon’s knowing performance. “Chalky undertaste” become a running joke between me and my then-boyfriend for months afterward.

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Rosemary’s Baby: Polanski’s witty framing of Ruth Gordon,



Theatrical Documentary

I Am Not Your Negro. What was effective about this meandering and ultimately unsuccessful study of James Baldwin was the many clips of him speaking. But its makers set up a premise — why was Baldwin unable to finish his tripartite memoir of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers? — and then almost immediately abandoned it. A wasted opportunity.

Kedi. Lovely, affecting movie about the street cats of Istanbul.

Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed
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A timely reminder of a true progressive groundbreaker… who was ultimately screwed by the Democratic Party. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Point of Order! Emil de Antonio and Daniel Talbot’s superb compilation of kinescopes from the Army-McCarthy hearings. Especially relevant in these through-the-looking-glass times, in which liberal Democrats are, inexplicably, behaving in a way that would make Tail-Gunner Joe proud.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/12/17/reckless-point-of-order-1964-and-citizen-cohn-1992/



Selected Short Subject

Return to Glennascaul (aka, Orson Welles’ Ghost Story) Despite that second title, it’s not really his; Welles appended cinematic bookends to an atmospheric short picture made by Hilton Edwards.



Made for television

The Epic That Never Was. On the aborted I, Claudius starring Charles Laughton. A British television documentary I first read about around 1974 and which contains all the extant footage shot for the ill-fated 1934 adaptation of the Graves novel. Josef von Sternberg appears, imperiously (and predictably) blaming everyone but himself for the debacle.

W.C. Fields: Straight Up.
Robert B. Weide and Ronald J. Fields’ marvelous celebration of the unlikeliest movie star of the 1930s.

The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell. Robert B. Weide again. When this delicious toast to the brothers first appeared in 1982, PBS committed the unpardonable sin of mentioning Woody Allen’s name in its promotional material, causing Allen to pitch a predictable fit and demand that Weide remove his footage. It was put back in for the DVD release, and reveals definitely that nothing was lost by its excision three decades ago. Allen says nothing of any importance, makes no great pronouncements and adds precisely zero to the critical canon on the team the documentary’s writer Joe Adamson once described as Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo.

Citizen Cohn. History as cartoon, supplemented by blatant rip-offs of Tony Kushner.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/12/17/reckless-point-of-order-1964-and-citizen-cohn-1992/



Television series

I, Claudius. Still powerful, if hampered by being shot on video rather than film, and with a beautifully modulated central performance by Derek Jacobi, who transformed stuttering into an art-form.

Kukla, Fran and Ollie: The Lost Episodes (Volumes I, II and III)
One of the loveliest video events of the last few years has been the release of these utterly charming kinescopes by the Burr Tillstrom Trust, which is currently working to restore 700 additional episodes. I don’t know whether today’s children, weaned on CGI and iPhones before they’re out of preschool, have the capacity to respond to the show’s gentle humors, but I would be willing to bet that if you sat a relatively unspoiled five-year-old down in front of these 30-minute charmers, he or she might be hooked for life. It would be pretty to think so.

Kukla_Fran_and_Ollie

The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends. 12 full episodes from the late ’60s and early ’70s of that wittiest and most intelligent of American chat-shows. Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Carol Burnett , Mel Brooks, George Burns, Bill Cosby and Jerry Lewis fascinate and delight; Groucho Marx banters deliciously with his young goyishe friend; Dick fawns all too fannishly over a smug, queer-baiting Bob Hope; the Smothers Brothers behave strangely (it seems to be a put-on, but of what?) and Woody Allen flaunts his repulsive persona. Ruth Gordon and Joe Frazier also show up, as does Rex Reed, bitching rather perceptively about the Academy Awards. Also included is the single most painful interview I’ve ever seen — and surely one of the most awkward Cavett ever conducted — with Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, the beautiful but weirdly inarticulate stars of Zabriskie Point.



Seen a second time… and will never see again

The Anderson Tapes. Still interesting and entertaining but… what was it with Sidney Lumet and stereotyped “fag” characters?

One Day in September. A 1999 Oscar winner in the documentary category, this impassioned examination of the murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics muffs too many facts and, ultimately, sickens the viewer; not in the way the filmmakers hoped, but by exhibiting horrid color photos of the bloodied victims, which, whatever the intention, feels like an act of heartless exploitation.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/everyone-is-overtaken-eventually-munich-2005-and-one-day-in-september-1999/



New to me: Worth the trip
Dominion. This first version of the “prequel” (odious neologism) to The Exorcist, directed by Paul Schrader, was completely re-filmed, by Rennie Harlin, whose name is, as it should be, a hiss and a byword.

Moulin Rouge.
Visually glorious but dramatically inert. And you can really see what in it inspired Bob Fosse when he made Cabaret. But… was there a less appealing leading actor of the Hollywood Era than Jose Ferrer?
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/07/09/here-is-my-heart-on-my-sleeve-where-you-cant-miss-it-moulin-rouge-1952/



New to Me: More than worth the trip

Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
 
I avoided the theatrical release of this one in a manner not unlike my aversion to the first Star Wars picture when I was 16, largely due to my loathing of the Disney Company. But after stumbling across a second-act Blu-ray copy for an absurdly low price I thought I’d at least give it a spin. To my astonishment, this over-hyped space opera turned out more than well; it nearly obliterated the bad taste left by The Phantom Menace. J.J. Abrams’ direction, focused less on CGI effects than on human beings in conflict with each other and themselves (the latter the only thing Faulkner believed was worth writing about) was both riveting and surprisingly beautiful, and the Abrams/Lawrence Kasdan/Michael Arndt screenplay had pleasing weight and even levity. The only cavil about it is the niggling sense that the new series may be unable to shake replicating the same sort of father/son (or, in this case, grandfather/grandson) adulations and conflicts that powered the Lucas originals. Isn’t there any other plot available in that galaxy?

Across 110th Street. A tough slice of New York life, circa 1972. Adapted by Luther Davis from the equally visceral novel by Wally Ferris, with Anthony Quinn and the great Yaphet Kotto.

Take a Hard Ride.
A cheerful, entertaining mix of Western and Blaxploitation from 1975, with very likable performances by Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, a fine villainous turn by Lee Van Cleef, an effectively silent Jim Kelly, a reasonably clever script (by Eric Bercovici and Jerrold L. Ludwig), good action set-pieces by the director Antonio Margheriti, and a one-of-kind score by Jerry Goldsmith.

Firecreek. A downbeat 1968 Western starring James Stewart and Henry Fonda that is, in Calvin Clements’ incisive screenplay, about as despairing of human nature as it’s possible to get without the viewer wanting to slash his or her wrists. A double-feature of this and Welcome to Hard Times could put you in a funk for weeks.

Wrong is Right. While we’re on the topic of press irresponsibility, this Richard Brooks satire of the year following Absence of Malice gleefully exposes, Chayefsky style, the appalling consequences of the electronic media’s love of ratings — a state of affairs being disastrously played out now, from Les Moonves’ giggling admission that the All-Trump-All-the-Time campaign coverage of 2016 was raking in the bucks for CBS to the current, slathering mania of so-called liberals for Russia-Russia-Russia McCarthyism.

The Kremlin Letter. A flop in its day, and roundly panned by Pauline Kael, this John Huston thriller from 1970, imaginatively adapted from the Noel Behn novel by the director and his longtime collaborator Gladys Hill and featuring an absolutely marvelous score by Robert Drasnin is infinitely finer than its detractors would have you believe. The only complaint — and it’s a failure shared by Sidney Lumet in his 1971 version of the rather ingenious Laurence Sanders novel The Anderson Tapes, in his use of Martin Balsam — lies in Huston’s miscasting of the 63-year old George Sanders as a gay spy. The character, as Behn wrote him, is an attractive young man, which makes his position within a group of spectacularly selfish mercenaries eminently explicable. As with Balsam in Anderson, the change is mind-boggling, although the notoriously homophobic Huston is far less offensive in his handling of Sanders than Lumet was with his star. But it is, finally, Richard Boone’s movie, and he makes a meal of it.

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The Kremlin Letter: Richard Boone and Patrick O’Neal

The Night of the Following Day. One of many late-1960s Brando pictures that helped make him box-office poison, this adaptation of a Lionel White thriller boasts an impeccably arranged kidnapping, a very fine performance by Brando, a good one by Pamela Franklin as the victim, and an unequivocally great one by Richard Boone as the most terrifying of the felons. The only sour note is the ending the director (Hubert Cornfield) imposed on it, over his star’s quite reasonable objections.

Rio Conchos. Thanks to these last three pictures I was finally able to comprehend why aficionados love Richard Boone, an actor I had somehow managed to go 56 years without having seen.

Act of Violence. A nicely-observed 1949 thriller starring Van Heflin, the young Janet Leigh and a typically stellar Robert Ryan that gets at some dark aspects of World War II mythology and contains one sequence, in which a stalking, menacing Ryan is heard but never seen, that is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before.

Westward the Women. An interesting Western variation, about a trail-boss transporting 138 “good women” to California. Expertly directed by William Wellman from a fine Charles Schnee original. Typically strong photography by William C. Mellor, a good central performance from Robert Taylor and an exceptionally vivid one by Hope Emerson make this, if not wholly successful, diverting and markedly original.

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William Hopper and Robert Mitchum on the Track of the Cat.

Track of the Cat. One of the strongest, strangest Westerns of the 1950s, beautifully adapted from the psychologically harrowing Walter Van Tillberg Clark novel and spectacularly filmed by William A. Clothier. I think this one ranks as the most pleasing surprise of my cinema year.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/08/13/rotting-bridges-track-of-the-cat-1954/

Cuba. A fast flop from Richard Lester in 1979, it’s actually a finely observed look at the events leading up to Castro’s coup, and is infinitely finer than Havana, the terrible 1990 romance from Sidney Pollack. Sean Connery adds his rough charm, Brooke Adams is almost impossibly beautiful, there is also delicious support from Jack Weston, Hector Elizondo, Denholm Elliott, Martin Balsam, Chris Sarandon, Alejandro Rey and Lonette McKee, splendid photography by David Watkin, and a memorable score by Patrick Williams.

Rio Lobo. An old-pro’s swan-song. Howard Hawks directed it, John Wayne is the star, Leigh Brackett wrote it (with Burton Wahl), Jack Elam gives juicy support, William A. Clothier shot it, and Jerry Goldsmith scored it. The only complaints I have concern some remarkably bad pulled punches by Wayne. But with a set-up this entertaining, and the stunningly pulchritudinous Jorge Rivero along for the ride, that’s a minor matter indeed.

Cutter’s Way.
Critically lauded, half-heartedly marketed and ignored by audiences, this fatalistic 1981 drama is one of the last hurrahs of ‘70s era personal filmmaking.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/assassination-cutters-way-1981/

Butch and Sundance: The Early Years. Entirely unnecessary, and hampered by anachronism and a lack of internal logic — people, names and incidents Paul Newman either doesn’t know or is vaguely aware of in the previous picture are revealed or dwelt on at length here — this Richard Lester-directed diversion goes down surprisingly well, abetted by László Kovács’ glorious cinematography, the charming central performances of Tom Berenger and William Katt, and yet another marvelous score by Patrick Williams, one that may stick in your head and which you could find yourself humming passages from for days or even weeks afterward.

The Social Network. Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s take on the birth of Facebook. It’s exceptionally articulate and well-made, with gorgeously muted lighting by Jeff Cronenweth and impeccable performances by Jesse Eisenberg (as Mark Zuckerberg), Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake and Armie Hammer. But you will be forgiven for wondering, at the end, what it all meant.

Up Tight. Jules Dassin’s 1968 return to American moviemaking is a spirited “fuck you” to everything the studios, and the audience, held dear.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/festering-like-a-sore-up-tight-1968/

Paranormal Activity. I generally avoid hand-held camera exercises, but the best and most terrifying sequences in this cleverly conceived and executed horror 2007 hit, ingeniously executed by its writer-director Oren Peli for $15,000, are nicely nailed-down. The absolute reality Peli sets up for the picture, and which is perfectly anchored by the performances of Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (for whom the movie should have opened doors but, oddly, did not) makes the periodic scares that much more effective, leading to a genuinely shocking finale.

Super 8.
J. J. Abrams’ paean to his adolescence, and to certain entertainments in the ‘80s quiver of his co-producer Steven Spielberg is a kind of E.T. for the post-Nixonian Aliens generation. The world Abrams’ middle-school protagonists inhabit is similar to that of my own high-school years, and that specificity (explicable only when you discover that in 1979 the writer-director was 13) grounds the blissfully scary goings-on, and one is struck from the first frames by how keen an eye its filmmaker has for the wide-screen image. There’s a nice Twilight Zone in-joke in the Air Force operation code-named “Operation Walking Distance,” and the kids are just about perfect, especially the endearingly sweet Joel Courtney and the almost preternaturally poised Elle Fanning. Michael Giacchino’s score is a rousing example of the John Williams School of action movie composition, Kyle Chandler gives a fine account of Courtney’s newly-widowed father (the tensions between the two will be especially resonant to those whose relationships with their own fathers were less than ideal), Larry Fong’s cinematography could scarcely be improved upon, and the special effects are apt and canny, the CGI work for once rarely noticeable as CGI work. Funny, frightening and with a finale that is pleasingly emotional — plangent but in no way bathetic. The movie has a genuine sense of wonder.

Super 8 Joel Courtney - 04

Super 8: Joel Courtney as the Abrams stand-in.



New to Me: Meh…
Not With My Wife You Don’t! Even the great Larry Gelbart couldn’t make a silk purse out of this somewhat frenetic sex-farce, although it’s by no means a total loss.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/01/07/not-with-my-wife-you-dont-1966/

Journey into Fear. What’s good of Orson Welles’ direction is overwhelmed by what’s bad of Norman Foster’s.

Carlton-Brown of the F.O. Middling political satire from Ealing.

The Crimson Kimono. Surprisingly unsubstantial to have come from Samuel Fuller.

Where Were You Went the Lights Were Out?
Fitfully amusing blackout comedy starring Doris Day and Robert Morse that betrayed its French farce stage origins in the less ingenious second half.

Shalako.
The short Louis L’Amour novel was better, and more successful.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/12/10/a-wine-not-properly-chilled-shalako/



The Summing-Up
So. Some mediocrities, but no real dogs this year, which was nice. As Pauline Kael once observed: Life’s too short to waste time on some stinky movie.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

Grateful thanks to my good friend Eliot M. Camarena for enlightening my movie year, and special thanks to him for Act of Violence, The List of Adrian Messenger, Moulin Rouge, Point of Order, Up Tight, Westward the Women, and especially The Kremlin Letter and Track of the Cat. Eliot is one of the sanest, most politically astute people I know, and his recommendations are not to be taken lightly.
https://emcphd.wordpress.com/

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A flurry of sounds, a flurry of drawings: Isadore “Friz” Freleng (Part One)

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By Scott Ross

In his memoir Chuck Amuck, Chuck Jones wrote: “Friz is a musician as well as an excellent draftsman, and it is not surprising that many of his films are a disarming and intricate web of music (a flurry of sounds) and animation (a flurry of drawings). No student of animation can safely ignore the wizardry of these cartoons — if he can stop laughing long enough to seriously study their beauty.”

Freleng in the 1980s.

Friz Freleng’s best work is distinguished less by originality than by the strong, often elegant graphic style of the characters, an impulse to send up show biz tropes, and gag and timing senses second to no one in animation. Many of Freleng’s masterpieces play without a word of dialogue, and many of the rest could have.

Freleng worked, briefly, at the Disney studios; an old Kansas City hand, he joined Disney in 1927. He and his old colleagues Hugh Harmon and Rudolph Ising, left to form their own studio, which produced the early Bosko cartoons distributed by Warner Bros.

Here, the Disney staff poses with Margie Gay, the star of its Alice in Wonderland shorts after the studio relocated to California. The next tallest person in the photo is Friz.

Both Harmon and Ising were contemptuous of Disney, but never, as far as I can determine, produced a single short that has any real lasting appeal, and very few that contain enough interest to even make them less than a waste of your time. Their first, Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid, was a sort of test-reel a la the Flesichers, with Ising at the drawing board and the team’s obnoxious new star coming, as it were, out of the inkwell. There seems to be some confusion about whether Bosko was intended as a Mickey Mouse knock-off or a little black boy, but his voice (at least in this short) clearly marks him as a racial caricature — one, furthermore, with a near total lack of charm.

Be that as it may, Harmon-Ising’s eventual distribution contract for Bosko at least got Freleng, who was part of the team, to Warners. I don’t know who animated which sequence in the test, but Bosko’s bit with a piano may, given Friz’s love for music, and his ingenuity with it, provide a clue.

A Freleng Christmas card from the 1930s.

I Haven’t Got a Hat (1935) The first appearance of Porky. Warners badly wanted an animated studio mascot to rival Mickey. The pig character was designed by Freleng, and named for a childhood friend. The studio preferred his sidekick, the tough kitten Beans, but Tex Avery disagreed, and Porky was soon Warners’ first cartoon star.

I Haven’t Got a Hat. Porky’s original voice was provided by Joe Dougherty, a Warners extra who stuttered; his impediment eventually became so pronounced that Freleng sought an actor who could pretend to stutter. Mel Blanc, who started his tenure a year after Porky’s debut, proved the perfect solution. Before Blanc, the character’s stuttering felt uncomfortably real, and could even seem a little cruel; after Blanc, it was fully integrated into the comedy.

The CooCoo Nut Grove: A 1936 Freleng send-up of Hollywood personalities including a porcine W.C Fields and an all-too-accurately equine Katharine Hepburn.

During the silent-era, combining live action and animation was a surprisingly common occurrence: Max Fleischer often cavorted with Koko the Klown, and in his Kansas City days, Walt Disney’s Alice shorts featured a live girl interacting with animated characters. The technique had waned after sound came in. With You Ought to Be in Pictures (1940) Freleng brought it back with style and verve.

Side-note: Leon Schleshinger, the Warners animation honcho, had a plosive lisp (which, among other things, inspired both Daffy Duck and Sylvester.) An actor dubbed Schleshinger’s voice for his scenes; Leon was delighted with the result.

Side-note the second: Freleng, who had briefly decamped for MGM, may have made the short as a thank-you to Schleshinger for taking him back. He is also said to have based its central Porky Pig/Daffy Duck rivalry on the antagonistic relationship between his fellow animation directors, Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett, with Porky as a stand-in for Jones.

Side-note the third: The studio director whose take Porky spoils is Gerry Chiniquy, one of Freleng’s finest animators.

The Tex Avery Influence: The Trial of Mr. Wolf (1941) In which the accused attempts to re-cast himself as the victim.

The Wacky Worm (1941) stars a caricature version of the then-popular radio comedian Jerry Colonna. The title of the worm’s second Freleng short, 1943’s Greetings, Bait was a pun on Colonna’s trademark, “Greetings, Gate!” One can only imagine with what puzzlement children today regard things like this.

Chuck Jones: “Actually, shooting motion pictures, including animation, and performing music are very similar indeed — one, impinging a successive series of varied sounds on the ear; the other, impinging a successive series of varied sights on the eyes. It is no coincidence then, it is just plain good sense, that Friz Freleng set down the timing of his films on musical bar sheets.”

Rhapsody in Rivets (1941) is one of Freleng’s first great shorts inspired by concert music. Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody performed by a crew constructing a high-rise building. Brilliant timing.

The Hardship of Miles Standish (1940) I searched in vain for a cel from this very funny short, in which Elmer Fudd is John Alden, a Hugh Herbert caricature is Standish, and an ersatz Edna May Oliver is Priscilla. (“Love… speaks for itself, dear.”)

Best moment: A cross-eyed Indian whacks his compatriot over the noggin with his tomahawk. To an instantly recognizable waaaah-wah-wahwahwahwah horn solo on the soundtrack, the injured warrior clearly mouths the phrase, “Goddamn son of a bitch!”

In The Hare-Brained Hypnotist (1942), an early Freleng rabbit short, Bugs gets more than he bargains for when he puts Elmer Fudd under.

Jack-Wabbit and the Beanstalk (1943) features a giant who looks exactly like the one in Disney’s The Brave Little Tailor. Many of the gags were later appropriated (and improved upon) by Chuck Jones for his 1955 Bugs and Daffy short Beanstalk Bunny.

Pigs in a Polka. A beguiling 1944 short, one of Freleng’s concert-hall specialties. For some reason, this rather strange recurring dance-gag always makes me laugh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little Red Riding Rabbit: Bugs outwits the wolf…

… then puts the obnoxiously adenoidal Red (“I’m bringin’ a little bunny rabbit for my grandmother… ta have, see?!”) in the wolf’s place. That’s the voice of the great Bea Benedaret as Red.

Yankee Doodle Daffy (1943) With Bugs Bunny in the ascendant, Porky was in decline. Teaming him with Daffy often made for memorable shorts. Here, Daffy corners talent agent Porky; the result is a gag-stuffed masterpiece.

Bugs Bunny meets a formidable foe in Freleng’s 1945 Hare Trigger. Bored with Elmer Fudd’s imbecility, Freleng turned what was essentially a self-caricature into one of his most endearingly dyspeptic creations.

Hare Trigger. Mike Maltese’s dialogue includes such double-take inducing non-sequiturs as this: “I’m Yosemite Sam, the meanest, toughest, rip-roarin’-est, Edward Everett Horton-est hombre what ever packed a six-shooter!”

A self-caricatured Freleng from the ‘50s. The red hair and diminutive size were not the only traits he shared in common with his greatest creation: Friz also had Yosemite Sam’s explosive temperament.

In Stage Door Cartoon (1944), Elmer chases Bugs into a vaudeville house. Caught on-stage as the curtain unexpectedly rises, Bugs manipulates the mortified Fudd into an impromptu strip-tease.

Herr Meets Hare, a war effort from 1945. Freleng’s previous anti-Axis satire, Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, is brilliant, but deeply offensive. (Although it should be remembered that, during the war, even that gentle humanitarian Eleanor Roosevelt publicly referred to “The Japs.”)

Chuck Jones’ later masterpiece What’s Opera, Doc? clearly owes something to Freleng. It was Friz, in this short, who first came up with an oversized Wagnerian horse.

Baseball Bugs, Freleng’s marvelous 1946 cartoon with the rabbit up at bat, solo, against the terrifying Gas-House Gorillas.

Baseball Bugs is, I believe, the first Bugs cartoon in which the rabbit outmaneuvers an opponent in a verbal joust by switching positions in mid-stream: The ersatz Ref begins by calling Bugs “Out,” and ends up warning him that, when he says someone is safe, they’d better not argue.

Look for this fence ad in the outfield: “Mike Maltese, Ace Detective.” The writers and animators who didn’t get official, on-screen credit often inserted themselves into the shorts this way.

Freleng’s Racketeer Rabbit (1946) featuring characters of two Warner Bros.’ mainstays, Peter Lorre and Edward G. Robinson, with Bugs as a ringer for George Raft. It also contains one of my favorite lines from a Looney Tunes short, courtesy of the great Michael Maltese: Robinson’s response to a set of curtains. (“Awww — they’re adorable!”) Guess you had to be there.

Holiday for Shoestrings, a charming fairy tale from 1946, includes a pair of shoemaker’s elves who resemble a certain well-known comedy team.

Rhapsody Rabbit (1946) Arguably Freleng’s most brilliant classical music-inspired short, with Bugs as a concert pianist bravely taking on one of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies. (Even the actual pianist was dismayed by the tempos Friz demanded.) The moment where Bugs turns to the camera and lifts his eyebrow at the audience, perfectly timed to the score, is one of the high-water marks of Looney Tunes animation. It also must have made a marked impression on Chuck Jones.

Rhapsody Rabbit. Ted Pierce and Mike Maltese wrote it, and Virgil Ross and Gerry Chiniquy are responsible for much of the short’s magnificent animation.

In a coincidence too pointed to be anything other than the result of intra-studio espionage, Hanna and Barbera prepared a Tom and Jerry cartoon that year that reflected Freleng’s Rhapsody Rabbit in nearly every way. They also won the Oscar for theirs. Need I add that it’s nowhere near as funny?

Rhapsody Rabbit. No less a figure than James Agee wrote (in The Nation) that this cartoon was “the funniest thing I’ve seen since the decline of sociological dancing.”

Rhapsody Rabbit. Bugs and the mouse inside the piano engage in a delightful, impromptu burst of boogie-woogie.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

My Five Favorite Movies

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By Scott Ross

I hope to write at length about each of these titles, but for the moment this set of capsules will have to suffice.

5. Jaws (1975) On the basis of this item alone, Steven Spielberg must be regarded as one of the most talented people to ever stand behind a movie camera. The source was pure potboiler, the shooting went on and on and on, the crew’s activities were stymied by a mechanical shark that couldn’t work. And out of this chaos, Spielberg delivered a masterpiece — in what was only his second theatrical feature. The time spent waiting for the shark to function added to the movie’s special quality of life observed: the co-scenarist, Carl Gottlieb (Peter Benchley did the first draft) was on hand to add punch to the script, and the actors spent so much time together that their relationships (and improvisations) made for an especially rich character palette. And, since a working shark was largely absent, Spielberg made a virtue from a deficit by not showing the monster fully until well into the picture — the unseen menace is much more terrifying. Side-note: Roy Scheider improvised the famous “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” line on the set. With Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Murray Hamilton, Lorraine Gary and John Williams’ spectacularly effective orchestral score.

4. Pinocchio (1940) Bar none the greatest animated movie ever made in this country, and the finest work of Walt Disney’s long career. Its failure, along with that of Fantasia, caused Disney to retreat from conscious art to conscious kitsch — one of the great tragedies in popular American art. Pinocchio has never been as popular in its various reissues as more comforting fare such as Cinderella, and it’s a dark movie, no question. The Pleasure Isle transformation of Pinocchio’s truant pal Lampwick into a donkey ranks among the most terrifying animated sequences ever created, and there’s a truly disturbing image of an ax hurled at a smiling, immobile marionette that’s the stuff of childhood nightmares. But it’s an enchanting picture overall, from its great Leigh Harline-Paul Smith score to the inspired voice work of Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards as Jiminy Cricket. The movie has a deep, detailed look unparalleled in animated features and, in the whale chase, one of the most excitingly executed cartoon sequences ever put on film. I can’t hear Cliff Edwards’ pure, ethereal falsetto on the high notes at the end of “When You Wish Upon a Star” without chills running up my back.

3. Cabaret (1972) In another post I said Singin’ in the Rain was the best musical ever made, and I meant it: Bob Fosse’s transliteration of the Broadway hit Cabaret is less a musical than a drama with musical numbers. Only one of them occurs outside the context of the creepily seductive Berlin nightclub where Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles performs, and that isn’t a production number (the movie doesn’t really have any) but an impromptu anthem by an angelic-looking Aryan Youth that builds into a terrifyingly musical mob statement of National Socialistic fealty. Based rather loosely by Jay Presson Allen on the show and on its source, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin StoriesCabaret goes much further into the original’s slightly veiled sexuality than any other version of this material prior to the recent Broadway revival of the stage musical. (Isherwood famously described Michael York’s homosexuality in the movie as something undesirable and uncontrollable, “like bed-wetting” and was heard to say, after a screening, “It’s a goddamn lie! I never slept with a woman in my life!”) Is it condescending? I don’t think so. Fosse and Allen (and “consultant” Hugh Wheeler) never condemn York’s bisexual adventures, and you have to take their version of Isherwood as merely a single variation on the original material. (Although Minnelli’s using it as a pretext against marrying York is a bit much; would the real Sally Bowles have cared?) In any case, the look of the movie is overwhelming — it’s how we now think the Berlin of 1929 must have felt — and Fosse’s editing style dazzles no matter how often you’ve seen the movie. York is sumptuous to look at and, with his slightly shy smile and Isherwood-like haircut, perfectly cast. Minnelli was never better, or more controlled, and Joel Grey’s Emcee becomes a truly Mephistophelean figure, commenting on the action and winking lewdly. With Helmut Griem as the sexy bisexual count who woos both Minnelli and York, and, memorably, Fritz Wepper and Marisa Berenson as the ill-met lovers. The faux-Kurt Weill songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb are about as good as you can get.

2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) The most entrancing movie I’ve ever seen. I can vividly remember sitting in a crowded theatre in 1977, with almost no foreknowledge of the story, and feeling this great, empathic fantasy wash over me like annealing waters. Steven Spielberg may have greater audience popularity with Jaws, E.T. and Jurassic Park and won his Oscars for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, but Close Encounters is his true masterwork. It’s the most benign alien-invasion movie ever made, and full of wonders. (The special effects look so natural in large part because Spielberg shot them in standard ratio and then had the images blown up to widescreen.) Richard Dreyfuss makes a perfect Everyman, Francois Truffault’s face shines with gentle passion, and little Cary Guffey is an absolute amazement. The perfectly integrated score is, of course, by John Williams.

1. Some Like it Hot (1959) My favorite movie, and arguably the funniest comedy made after the advent of sound. Billy Wilder and co-scenarist I.A.L. Diamond took an episode from a forgotten German comedy and expanded it into a breakneck farce that took in gangland massacres, sexual duplicity, homosexual implication and transvestitism, turning it into one of the cheeriest comedies in movie history. Marilyn Monroe, famously unreliable, is luminous — when she’s onscreen you can’t take your eyes off her. The only fault I can finds in Tony Curtis’ defining performance as an unrepentant heel is that, in the persona of “Josephine,” his falsetto was provided by Paul Frees. But it is Jack Lemmon, whooping it up as “Geraldine,” who gives the movie’s greatest performance. It’s so inspired it seems to have come (as Lemmon always claimed the character was anyway) from the moon. Lemmon was, and is, my favorite actor, and for all his fine work (in The Apartment, Irma La Douce, Days of Wine and Roses, The Great Race, “Save the Tiger,” The China Syndrome, Missing and Glengarry Glen Ross) I don’t think he was ever better than he is here. This is Billy Wilder’s ultimate masterpiece, the movie that summed up everything he could do without breaking a sweat. The great Joe E. Brown has the classic final line — which Wilder always claimed was written by Diamond, and vice-versa.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Post-Mortem: Diane Miller Disney and Sid Field

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By Scott Ross

Two deaths in the news within a couple of days of each other captured my attention last month. One saddened me. The other…

Look: As an atheist, I respect life too much ever to gloat over anyone’s death. But I would have to verge on sainthood not to feel that the world might have been better off had certain people never entered it. So when they leave it…

Diane Miller Disney died on the 19th of November at 79, from complications that set in after a fall this past September. She seems to have been a remarkable person in many ways. One example: Her championing of Frank Gehry’s design for the Walt Disney Concert Hall ensured its completion as Gehry envisioned it. As Christopher Hawthorne noted in his Los Angeles Times appreciation of the Hall on its 10th anniversary, “Only when Walt Disney’s daughter Diane Disney Miller made a final gift contingent on Gehry’s full control of the design was the impasse broken.” http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/disneyhall/la-et-cm-disney-hall-hawthorne-dto,0,4655702.htmlstory#ixzz2lPuTA9FP

David Colker’s Times obituary of Disney puts it rather more bluntly: “Miller used two powerful weapons — her name and her money — to keep Gehry on the job, and she didn’t let up until she knew his position was safe.”
http://www.latimes.com/obituaries/la-me-diane-disney-miller-20131120,0,778420.story#ixzz2lPthmbDv

There is no shame in this, surely, and much to appreciate, particularly in a woman who shunned the natural limelight (to coin an oxymoron) to which she was uneasy heir as a daughter of Walt. She was able to wield extensive monies in support of the things she cared about, and did so. When one thinks of the plethora of hereditary blowhards in the world who take and take from everyone — but especially from the poor, and from those whose cheap labor supports them and their reactionary ideals (the Walton family springs immediately to mind) one can scarcely help admiring Diane Miller. That she helped found the Disney Family Museum as well as the Disney Concert Hall largely, perhaps, from her sense that her father’s memory was in danger of being lost amid the perennial hoopla, good and bad, that regularly attends coverage of the corporation that bears his name, hardly diminishes her very real passion: Her philanthropic work on behalf of concert music in San Francisco and the Napa Valley, and exposing the young to it, are only tangentially related to her father, if at all.

I was interested to read that Miller was horrified by a book I thought superb, Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. Well, naturally. Walt was her father, a man she adored. And while Gabler’s book was by no means hackwork or a concerted smear on his memory — no Marc Elliot he — I was until recently unaware of how many factual errors it appears to contain. Animation being one of my great passions, I suspect I noted a few as I read it. But they did not sink the book for me, as they appear to have for others. Michael Barrier, author of a competing (and less well-read) Disney biography, has compiled some fairly damning examples.

But Barrier, if his blog is any guide, appears to have a horror of “liberalism,” particularly of the Eastern variety, and so resents Gabler’s take on Disney, rebutting as it does so many of the myths — self-generated, or indulged in after Disney’s death by the company and exacerbated by popular misconception — that have accreted to the man.* If Gabler gets some of the details wrong, I can live with that, however uneasily. Others will correct them, and have done so. But the reach of his book, and its attempt to comprehend a man of so many vast contradictions — and, it would seem, so much dissatisfaction with the world and frustration at his own inability to create any other he could relax in for long — struck this reader as exhilarating, even profound. That Gabler’s approach may have caused the Disney family grief, or anger, I can well understand, and sympathize with. And as Diane Disney Miller seems to have been a lovely woman, of great heart, I am sorry for that. I hope in time to undertake a more critical re-examination of Gabler’s book.

Photo of Diane Miller Disney by David Butow (Walt Disney Family Museum.)


 

One book I will be happy never to assay again, however, is the most popular volume of the now-late Sid Field.

It is a truism that no one man, or text, can be blamed for the sickening state of American movies, of course, but in Field’s case, I am tempted to make an exception. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, Field’s hideously deified “bible” of the craft, made its appearance in 1979. Within five years, the adult movie was dead.

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I am not laying the demise of a form that sustained Hollywood, and its audience, for 60 years (despite the overwhelming impulse of the businessmen to check it that kept us, until the late 1960s and early ’70s, from enjoying the sort of cinematic honesty that is taken for granted in countries other than our own, and which still protects tender American sensibilities from such horrors as having to acknowledge that small children have genitals) solely at Fields’ feet. The massive success of Star Wars, and Hollywood’s slavering desire to replicate it, are as responsible for the shift as anything this self-styled “guru” of mediocrity wrote, or published.

Still… Consider Fields’ two basic theses: All screenplays must have a three-act structure, and all scripts must have regularly spaced “plot points.” And he has examples! Famous examples! Pick any random thousand movies and look for ways to cram your dicta into them; doubtless, you too can create any sort of drivel in the form of a rubric and shoehorn whatever contrivances you wish onto their surfaces. But for all that Field championed items such as Robert Towne’s script for Chinatown, his horribly influential Screenplay relied upon the formulaic in all things. It demanded the clichéd; it deified hackwork. That Chinatown itself violates nearly every one of Field’s precepts for a successful screenplay is merely rancid icing on an especially indigestible cake.

The influence of Fields, and his absurdly dogmatic book, on two generations of screenwriters has been drear. Many defend Screenplay via the spurious notion that while, yes, Fields had a formula, it is those without talent who abuse that formula, and who are to blame for the bad rap some of Field’s readers (such as myself) have given him. But the movie industry took Field, and his specious formulas, to heart all too readily, to the point where nothing that deviates from them has stood much chance of being produced by a Hollywood studio in 30 years. Some very gifted screenwriters have come to grief employing these peremptory notions, right along with the hacks. In the Fields version of the movies, dangerously individualistic ideas are to be scorned, the arresting narrative flourish that eschews the rigidly commonplace is to be avoided, and endings that do not resound with happiness are the worst of all committable sins. Where does his precious Chinatown fall on that scale?†

In the Fieldsian universe, there must never be a Greed, or a Magnificent Ambersons (let alone a Citizen Kane.) Or a Klute, a Nashville, a Cabaret, a Godfather, a GoodFellas. Brigid O’Shaughnassy must get off at the end, and fall into Sam Spade’s arms. McCabe must rise from that snowbank and rescue Mrs. Miller from her opium dream. The Blind Girl simply has to fall in love with the Tramp. Scottie will pull Madeline back from the edge of the tower, Norma Desmond will refrain from shooting Joe Gillis in time to show him the error of his ways and send him back to Betty Schaefer’s arms, the Wild Bunch will ride off together into the sunset with Robert Ryan, and Evelyn Mulwray will escape her father and drive away, laughing, with J.J. Gittes. Endings must be tidy — and, above all, happy. Ambiguities must be expunged. Nihilism and despair must be conquered by the magic wand of positive thinking. Pre-adolescent dreaming must prevail. Dialogue may occasionally be piquant, but shall not be permitted to go over anyone’s head. No shading allowed.

Precisely what, over the past two or three decades, has gradually driven from the theatres of America we who once practically lived to go to the movies.

So long, Sid. Thanks for all the laughs.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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*Barrier also has scant respect for Pinocchio, the movie I consider the finest animated feature ever made, or for Friz Freleng, whom I regard as one of the four of five certified geniuses of short subject animation. I have also, since writing the above, read Barrier’s Disney biography, and find his conclusions about Walt remarkably similar to Gabler’s. So, as Baby June Hovak never said: Caveat emptor, everybody.

†Field no doubt would have preferred Towne’s original ending, in which Evelyn does get away, gunning down her incestuous father into the bargain. The climax we now know and, if not love, at least understand and appreciate, was invented by Roman Polanski, and implemented against Towne’s strong objections. Even Harlan Ellison, no mean story-man himself, later leapt to Towne’s defense, citing Polanki’s interference as a prime example of auteurism gone wild when of course it is exactly the opposite: Evidence of what can happen when a great filmmaker brings his personal experience and outlook to bear on already strong material, deepening it. Without that appallingly appropriate ending, Chinatown would be half the movie we remember, and would almost certainly not have attained the classic status it now enjoys. Ellison could have chosen any one of a thousand other such stories, and been on the mark; for him to miss this obvious point, in his zeal to come to the aid of a fellow scribe, is staggering.

À la recherche du animé perdu: The Proust of American cartoons

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By Scott Ross

Recently, some fourteen years after purchasing it, I finally pulled Michael Barrier’s massive animation history Hollywood Cartoons from the shelf. As a life-long cartoon nut, I’ve amassed (and yes, actually read) a pleasant and — until now, I had thought, pretty thorough — little library of books on the subject. The best of these offer either an encyclopedic overview (Charles Solomon’s Enchanted Drawings, Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice and Magic) or detailed celebrations of a studio, animator, feature or cartoon character (Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson’s Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life; Leslie Carbaga’s The Fleischer Story; Joe Adamson’s Tex Avery: King of Cartoons and Bugs Bunny: Fifty Years and Only One Grey Hair; Steve Schneider’s That’s All, Folks!: The Art of Warner Bros. Animation, Neal Gabler’s magnificent Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination and Pierre Lambert’s stunning Pinocchio, the ne plus ultra of coffee-table books on a single animated feature.) But no individual title I’ve encountered has offered more detailed history, staggeringly annotated, along with a great critic and scholar’s understanding of, and ability to articulate, not merely the history of its subject but the essential mechanics of its most dispiriting failures, its middling baby-steps and its greatest successes.

Barrier, the founder and publisher of Funnyworld, which his Wikipedia entry describes as “the first magazine exclusively devoted to comics and animation,” draws on decades of research and his own interviews with the great exponents of American animation — pick a name at random and, if he was alive in the 1970s, chances are the author interviewed him — to shape the narrative, which, despite one’s own knowledge of cartoon history, attains a kind of breathless anxiety as one reads. (Will Walt and his staff finally pull off Snow White?) Barrier’s attention to technical detail, admirable in itself, is secondary to his innate comprehension not only of what makes for a successful cartoon, but of the tensions between what was aimed for and what was achieved, as well as the irony attendant upon the creators’ intentions and how they go awry — not always to the detriment of the total effect; at times, the “failure” leads to even greater artistic achievement.

I am continually astonished at the breadth of Barrier’s scope, particularly regarding Disney. His finely-detailed, critically astute (if occasionally a bit unforgiving) rendering of the oft-told tale of the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs proves that nearly everything I thought I knew about it was either entirely simplistic, woefully ignorant, or sheer myth-making. Disney himself emerges as not merely one thing or another — the result of years of, on the one hand, hagiography and, on the other, willful disparagement — but, as with most human beings (and as Richard II notes in Shakespeare’s version) “in one person many people.” Uncouth, unlettered and vulgar yet deeply sensitive, intuitive and, contradictorily, not always able to articulate the exact nature of what he wanted, nor of how to get it. Yet I see in Barrier’s portrait of Walt a confirmation of my sense of Disney as the ultimate editor. While in later life, distracted by huge projects (Disneyland, EPCOT, animatronics) he became increasingly aloof from the movies his studio produced — seemingly even a bit bored by them — his animators have often cited his ability to look at a sequence of animation and immediately grasp its problems, even unto knowing instinctively the exact foot of film in which the quirk resided. Barrier finds the historical precedents for Walt’s shifting enthusiasms, particularly when his interest in Pinocchio waned even as it was being designed and written, in favor of his pet project, the ill-advised Fantasia.

Walt Disney with key animator Ward Kimball in 1939. One of Kimball’s early triumphs was his re-design of Jiminy Cricket. Note caricature of Walt.

I have a few quarrels with the author’s opinions: rumblings of political conservatism are echoed at his website, where few things seem to fill him with more horror than liberalism, unless it is the dread “Eastern Liberalism.” Nor can I fathom either his nit-picking attitude to Pinocchio or his refusal to see the obvious genius of Friz Freleng. Yet I can scarcely imagine a finer, more fulsome account of the American cartoon than Barrier’s.

Indeed, he seems to me the veritable Proust of animation.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross



Post-Script
That last line bothered me a little; after writing it, I was sure I had read something similar.

I had.

Larry McMurtry’s comment on Pauline Kael: “She is, indeed, the Edmund Wilson of film reviewers.”

Apologies to the shade of one, and the living hide of the other.