EVERY GENERATION SHOULD HAVE A ROAD HOUSE OF ITS OWN—a gamy little refuge on the outskirts of good taste, reeking of smoke, liquor, cheap music, oiled pecs, pin-up legs, clenched fists, paperback sex, bad blood, and bad hair. The 1948 and 1989 films claiming that title have just been separately but almost simultaneously reissued on disc: Sharing naught but a commitment to period-specific cheese/beefcake and endearing/enduring tawdriness, these lean-to Road Houses represent an all-American continuum. Jim Morrison encapsulated their lowdown philosophies in the Doors’s “Road House Blues” (1970): “I woke up this morning and got myself a beer / The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.” Weltschmerz rendered as a tramp stamp—Road House as perennially inebriated, eternally recurring state of mind.
The 1948 variant finds cagey Ida Lupino in full-blown tough-dame form, essaying a down-on-her-luck saloon singer who is hired to play at an upscale dive called Jefty’s. Its eponymous owner (a disconcertingly boyish, ungainly, high-pitched Richard Widmark) has given it a hunting-lodge décor, with an upright piano stationed near the bar like a lookout post. Her Lily Stevens’s hard-bitten big number, “One for My Baby,” leapfrogs later treatments by Sinatra and Billie Holiday to foreshadow the retro-barfly world of early Tom “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy” Waits. Lupino’s thin, toneless rasp is spiky as a raw oyster dropped in a Bloody Mary, but the key to the mise-en-scenery is that the bar adjoins a bowling alley—how do you say “gutter ball” in culture-speak? Using bowling instruction as sexual sublimation, its leagues ahead of the Big Lebowski in appreciating the hands-on erotic potential of the working stiff’s sport.
A film noir as much by association as affect, the picture is dominated by Lupino as a shapeshifter who can quick-change from neorealist survivor to siren in tight shorts and exclamation-points bra, making for quite a self-possessed contrast with hunky, flustered love interest Cornell Wilde. He is constantly sweating testosterone bullets even while fussing over the cigarette burns she carelessly leaves on the furniture. As Pete, Jefty’s lifelong underclass buddy and brotherly protector, he runs the joint even as his spoiled-rotten pal sometimes treats him like a glorified pin monkey. Wilde’s pent-up virtuousness and sleek physique are tinged with jumpy neuroticism, a North Country Tarzan raised by Presbyterians instead of apes.
Directed in uniformly efficient fashion by Jean Negulesco (a Jack-of-all-genres Romanian émigré), the plot sets up the standard romantic-triangle offense. Jefty figures he’s entitled to Lily (finders keepers), leaving Pete to “look after” her while he goes on a hunting trip to work up the nerve to propose. Pete and Lily immediately rub each other the wrong way, meaning sparks fly, plans to elope are quickly made, and the third-wheel pal/suitor will not take it well. (But are Jefty and Pete fighting over Lily, or is Pete the real crux of the tug of affections between J. and Lily?) Throwing a jealous snit fit, Jefty frames Pete for embezzlement; the twist is that he then gets Pete’s sentence suspended and has the poor Schmoe paroled into his sadistic custody.
The last act, where Pete and Lily decide to make a desperation run for it, has a headlong, rushed quality—melodrama erupts in a cackling burst, like Widmark’s daffy psycho laugh. His last gasp, after Lily finally shoots him, alone earns the film’s place in noir history: “I told you she was different,” he grins, as if toasting the bride at the wedding reception. From there, Widmark went on to greater roles, Wilde carved out a solid second-string niche for himself (eventually directing a few fascinating B pictures), but Lupino somehow got stuck as a permanently underappreciated figure who flirted with greatness—a woman with the backbone of Barbara Stanwyck, who went against the grain of 1940s and ’50s conventions, and showed terrific promise as a director herself without ever breaking through Hollywood’s misogynist type-caste system. By the ’60s, she was doing guest shots on Batman and directing episodes of Gilligan’s Island. That’s Hollywood’s reward for being “different.” Or growing older while being a woman.
A pity there wasn’t an early-’70s House party to go with the Doors’s readymade title song. By the late ’80s, it fell to producer Joel Silver (who had just hit his ultra-commercial stride, having launched the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard franchises) to pluck a former gaffer with the unlikely moniker Rowdy Harrington from obscurity and task him with the direction of a Road House to fit the steroid-injected times. It would be pitched over the top of Top Gun, a slamdance of every reluctant-hero macho cliché taken to the far edge of an R-rating. Dirty Dancing heartthrob Patrick Swayze would incarnate Dalton, the stoic samurai-like “cooler” who is charged with cleaning up a dirtiest bar this side of Sodom. This means disrupting the criminal idyll of Ben Gazzara’s millionaire madman, a Midwestern baron who brags that he brought J.C. Penney to his Gomorra’s shopping mall. (Very civic minded for a bloodthirsty, tyrannical maniac.)
So what we get is not so much the quintessential ’80s formula movie but a stainless steel shaker into which a shot of every formula floating around Hollywood has been deposited: Shane and the Man with No Name, redneck drive-in villainy and Dukes of Hazzard comic relief, romantic posturing and music video boogaloo (stiff extras dancing in lockstep abandon: Disney’s High School Musical if it included shirtless cokeheads), mock existentialism (Dalton has a philosophy degree from NYU) and pseudo-spirituality (he practices shirtless Tai Chi, embodying the Tao of a Playgirl centerfold). Bouffant mullets meet monster trucks and Elvis karate moves, with Dalton picking up Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall for some cozy bedtime reading after a hard night’s head bashing.
Through sheer muscular density of clichés, every shoehorned element achieves an almost seamless equilibrium. Here the male gaze registers as a continuous series of double takes: ogling Dalton’s gaping knife wound while he hands the hot emergency room doctor the copy of his medical records he always carries with him (along with a trunk full of spare tires, because he knows they’ll be slashed at work); surveying the “room” Dalton rents above a bearded geezer’s barn, laid out like a rusticated Manhattan loft in an Architecture Digest spread; savoring the Three Stooges interlude where Gazzara chews out and punches a hapless henchman; gawking at the sizzling man-on-man riverbank action between a blood-frothing killer (“I used to fuck guys like you in prison”) and our whitebread Narcissus (“Go fuck yourself”). The former’s throat is ripped out, by way of a money shot.
As director, Harrington’s contribution is much like Dalton’s: the cooler who tries to tamp down Silver’s most boorish, pandering impulses. (He is the rare director who declares the edited-for-commercial-TV version of his movie, shorn of gratuitous crudeness, is closer to his personal vision of the film.) But he wasn’t shy about heaping on the brutality and titillation, merely injecting a dimension of raised-eyebrow cartoonishness to soften the overkill. This pastiche is all about embracing the contradictory. Dead serious yet patently harebrained, Road House can be read as an outlandishly populist version of the Coen Brothers aesthetic. But as the Coens were then still in the process of forming that aesthetic, and weighing the role Sam Elliott plays in Road House against his more arch manifestation in The Big Lebowski, would it be terribly remiss to call Lebowski a Road House for the arthouses?
Studded with Dalton pearls like “Pain don’t hurt,” Road House deserves more probing audio commentaries than the tepid ones Harrington or aged fanboys Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier provide. Fortunately, by the grace of the Mystery Science Theater spinoff known as Rifftrax, the film’s mysteries are delved and parsed with a thoroughness both anthropological and theological. Originally “riffed” by Mike Nelson ten years ago, a new three-man gloss underlines and footnotes the movie’s sublime nonsensicality: “Well, the place might be a Thunderdome-like hell den, but there is plenty of parking.” “God, Ben Gazzara and my mother have the same taste in bathrobes.” “Shoutout to the band for having the presence of mind to switch to fun fight music.” “He’s wearin’ his fuchsia fightin’ blouse!”
Supposedly a reboot of the 1989 version is, or was, in the works, starring Rhonda Rousey and written/directed by Nick Cassavetes. The idea of mixed-martial arts fighter Rousey is almost too perfect, but I’d rather see a David Mamet or Neil LaBute—either of whom could use a comeback vehicle about now—grab the purple creative reins and ride that mechanized bull into the Twilight of the Whup-Ass Gods.
Oliver Stone, Snowden, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 134 minutes. Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
FEW DIRECTORS ARE AS POLARIZING as Oliver Stone. The three-time Oscar winner has been characterized as everything from the bravest living American filmmaker to a muddled rent-a-rad, always first in line to stump for the latest lefty cause du jour, who is willing to parody his own predictable attitudes on The Simpsons. Those who defend Stone usually reach for his highlights from the 1980s—Salvador (1986), Platoon (1986), and Wall Street (1987)—or his early screenplays for Midnight Express (1978) and Scarface (1983). While acknowledging the extraordinary cultural penetration of Scarface (as foundational for gangsta rap as Ice-T and N.W.A.) and Wall Street (Gordon Gekko and “greed is good” remain first-stop references for finance run amok), I am not one of those people. I do think, however, that the director’s cuts of J.F.K. (1991) and Nixon (1995), despite some dodgy history, are masterpieces of political intrigue and, in their cinematography and editing, as experimental as mainstream American films are allowed to be without going straight to video.
In the intervening years, during which I praised these films to whomever would listen (often at risk to my critical reputation), I slowly realized that what I loved about them had as much to do with the collagist sensibility of cinematographer Robert Richardson as Stone himself. Analogous Stone efforts from more recent years—World Trade Center (2006) and W. (2008)—made this painfully clear, their generic, workmanlike competence as far from the exploded-view insanity of the two earlier films as David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011) was from his Videodrome (1983). Though they share some clever casting and amusing performances, it’s hard to believe that Nixon and W. were made by the same man.
So it goes with Snowden, the director’s noble but bland attempt to dramatize the story of the biggest leak of national security secrets in American history. It is better than Stone’s political films from the past decade, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is outstanding, but too often it feels like a TV after-school special version of a tremendously significant slice of history, one that, as a film, could have benefited from a touch of the visual and narrative hysteria Stone and Richardson employed in the ’90s.
Part of this is down to the casting of Shailene Woodley as Lindsay Mills, Snowden’s longtime girlfriend, and her character’s prominence in the screenplay. While the real-life Mills appears to be a walking, pole-dancing whimsy machine for whom the phrase “off with the pixies” would be charitable, and there aren’t any problems with Woodley’s acting per se, she looks about fifteen years old in the film, and the quirks of the person she’s portraying make her seem like a spunky Disney starlet who somehow woke up in a somber espionage procedural. It’s as if Demi Lovato were a major character in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).
Oliver Stone, Snowden, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 134 minutes. Edward Snowden and Lindsay Mills (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley).
One can see why the screenwriters (Kieran Fitzgerald and Stone) foregrounded the Mills character; the shy, Aspergers-y Snowden, no matter who played him, could not carry the emotional weight required to hold audiences’ hearts and minds for 134 minutes, and she is a necessary foil to illustrate his personality, private life, and internal transformations. But even within the bounds of the film, Snowden’s relationships with his coldly cynical CIA mentor (Rhys Ifans), and a young, brogrammerish NSA hacker (Ben Schnetzer) who initiates Snowden in the dark arts of the unconstitutional surveillance programs he would later expose, calling Snowden “Snow White” and bragging that “Facebook is my bitch,” are just as pivotal, if not moreso.
The film’s other primary shortcoming is not entirely Stone’s fault. Outside of The Matrix (1999), no director has succeeded in making scenes involving computer hacking and internet architecture sexy or even compelling. One gets the sense that Stone is aware of this, trying to avoid lingering on computer screens any longer than necessary, but given the nature and details of the real story, it is nearly impossible to do without these sequences, and they simply do not make for good cinema. There are moments of genuine IT tension, as when Snowden smuggles the thumb drives containing the NSA archive out of his station in Hawaii in a Rubik’s Cube, handing it to the guard to solve as he passes through the backscatter X-ray, but these are more Hitchcock than William Gibson.
Comparisons to Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour, which gave us a fly-on-the-wall view of that room in Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel where Poitras, along with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, met Snowden and received the archive, are inevitable, but here Snowden performs a valuable service. The documentary enumerated Snowden’s political reasons for passing the archive to the press; Stone’s film gives us the credible character arc Citizenfour lacks, showing how a Pauline right-libertarian who thought he knew everything had a personal crisis of conscience, ultimately becoming a whistleblower and, whether he intended to or not, a veritable saint for radicals, anarchists, and cypherpunks.
What is truly radical about the real-life Snowden, and why he rubs so many people the wrong way, is that nowadays we so rarely see the type of Dudley Do-Right decency he exhibited and continues to exhibit under duress while in exile. In an increasingly cynical century, where trust in institutions public and private is at an all-time low, a person of courage and integrity doing the right thing at great risk to himself is regarded as completely unbelievable and smeared as “self-righteous” or “megalomaniacal.” Such accusations, of course, are deflective barbs, meant to protect the utterly compromised moral core of the accusers. It is telling that nearly everything Snowden has said since he revealed himself has been true, while nearly everything the government, telecoms, and internet companies have said in his wake has been false. Director of Intelligence James Clapper, he of the “not wittingly” under-oath lie in congressional session, committed felony perjury while testifying before the House, which calls for a prison sentence, but nothing was done. As Snowden rots in Russia, Clapper is kicking back in his barcalounger, sipping hot toddies as his jowls dangle and droop ever farther from his face, moral rot oozing from his pores.
Oliver Stone, Snowden, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 134 minutes. Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto).
The latest iteration of official untruths was issued on September 15, a three-page executive summary of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on Snowden, conveniently timed to dovetail with the theatrical release of Stone’s film. The summary attempted to establish a pattern of Snowden’s dishonesty by telling a bunch of demonstrably false lies. It was soon swiftly demolished, point by point, by Barton Gellman, the Washington Post reporter who was the only journalist other than the Hong Kong Three to receive the archive directly from Snowden.
Finally, the nuanced view of Snowden’s humanity and motivations that Stone’s film offers (along with applied common sense) should help dispel the notion that the whistleblower is a Russian spy. Yes, the optics of his exile in Moscow are terrible, but he is only there because the US State Department revoked his passport as he was en route to Latin America, and Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB officer, recognized a Cold War–style opportunity to embarrass his American rivals. Real traitors do what they do in hiding, and they do it long-term, most often for money. Aldrich Ames (CIA) and Robert Hanssen (FBI) both sold secrets to the Soviets for years, entirely for personal gain. They never went to the press. Even ideological traitors like Kim Philby and the rest of the Cambridge Five only became known to the public after they were caught. The idea that a libertarian hacker who wanted to abolish Social Security and loved his country so much he tried to join US Army Special Forces to fight in the Iraq war, which he fervently believed in at the time, would somehow cozy up to Putin’s authoritarian, post-Soviet Russia is absurd on its face. He does not fit the ideological profile, and he did not need the money; for a kid in his twenties, he was being very well remunerated by the US taxpayer.
Currently, there is a movement afoot to compel President Obama to pardon Snowden before he leaves office. I support this, as should anyone who believes in the foundational principles of this country. The oath Snowden took when he was first employed by the CIA said, “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” That is exactly what he did. Join the call to bring him home, regardless of what you think of Oliver Stone.
Snowden is now playing in theaters everywhere.
Laida Lertxundi, 025 Sunset Red, 2016, color, sound, 14 minutes.
WHILE MOST FILM FESTIVALS can’t be accurately encapsulated in anything close to comprehensive fashion, summing up the Toronto International Film Festival would be next to impossible. Founded a year before the Blue Jays, in 1976, as the Festival of Festivals, TIFF—and the city around it—has metastasized in the years since. Today it’s the largest North American festival, lashing together almost every significant title that’s been making the rounds in European and American fests… along with The Magnificent Seven? I don’t think anyone—TIFF employees included—knows just how many movies, exactly, played this year in the fest’s many subsections, and for a movie to merely have “played TIFF” means nothing. Certain of those subsections, however, still mean quite a lot, and if you are interested in that vast swath of hard-to-classify cinematic experience that for the sake of brevity we’ll call “experimental film,” Wavelengths, curated by Andrea Picard, is a very big deal indeed.
Thematically arranged shorts program are one Wavelengths mainstay. This time through I mostly liked what I already suspected I would like of these—Laida Lertxundi, for example, is as close to a sure bet as there is going, and her 025 Sunset Red is a perfect object, sweet and lyric, integrating mementos of her family’s radical past with the filmmaker’s established affinity for desert landscape. There is also a transfixing power to the increasingly dense sculptural superimpositions of As Without So Within by Manuela De Laborde—like Lertxundi, a CalArts graduate—though elsewhere in these programs a wearisome familiarity set in, which I suspect is attributable to the monopoly of a few grad programs on the avant-garde, operating like Renaissance ateliers and perpetuating readily identifiable templates.
The work of James N. Kienitz Wilkins, represented at Wavelengths by his Indefinite Pitch, doesn’t follow any such predictable course. I’ve been keeping up with Wilkins’s output since a few years back, when I first encountered his Public Hearing—a reenacted transcript of a, yes, public hearing in Alleghany, New York over the expansion of a Walmart to a Super Walmart—and he’s rewarded the attention, never doing the same thing twice. His latest is a wordplay-heavy monologue delivered over black-and-white still images of a New England mill town in the depths of winter by the director himself (the frequency of the voiceover is toggled throughout the twenty-three-minute runtime), beginning as a film “pitch” and proceeding through personal anecdote and the digging up of lore around the town of Berlin, New Hampshire. Since Indefinite Pitch played TIFF, Kienitz Wilkins has been awarded the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s final Kazuko Trust Award, previously given to Lertxundi. I’m excited to see how he blows the dough.
Sergei Loznitsa, Austerlitz, 2016, black-and-white, sound, 94 minutes.
The two instances of film-work by the late Ana Mendieta that showed in one Wavelengths program didn’t really impress as part of a shorts block, though it was rewarding to tarry with them when reencountered in a gallery setting, one of a handful of off-site installations attached to Wavelengths. Probably the most talked-about of these was Albert Serra’s Singularity, which first appeared at the Catalan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2015. The installation consists of projected images visible on the obverse and, inverted, rear sides of five hung screens in a darkened gallery space. Presented on them are a variety of vignettes taken in boudoirs and brothels, which dialogue identifies as linked in relation to the mining industry, the setting located somewhere between Don Quixote, Ireland in the 1930s, and our current Age of the Drone. I was unable to discern any meaningful interplay among the counterpoised screens, though this is very possibly the whole idea, as the title of the work refers to the prophesied moment when man is surpassed by machine, and Singularity is deliberately incomplete, inexhaustible. If nothing else, I walked away secure in the knowledge that Serra had been looking at late R.W. Fassbinder, just as his deathtrip theatrical feature The Death of Louis XIV suggests that he’s taken notes on Roberto Rossellini’s great historical films—it’s a mashup of The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966) and the sickbed passages of Blaise Pascal (1972), in which we watch the slow decline of the senescent monarch (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) as his breath slows and his gangrenous leg turns obsidian.
Where Serra’s immersive Singularity suggests an early cinema experiment like the 360-degree Cinéorama that bowed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, the unutterably complex simplicity of Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz is at times close to the Lumières—call it Vacationers Entering the Death Factory. The movie consists of a procession of fixed-camera framings provide us with black-and-white views of the crowds milling through guided tours of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienberg, Germany. One’s first impulse may be abhorrence or mockery, for these are tourists in summer wear, a great many wearing T-shirts emblazoned with product logos or inane English-language phrases, a semiological mish-mash, and the visitors to this solemn scene whip out selfie sticks and smile for the camera before the “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” sign. But among the hundreds who seem oblivious, there are a few who seem to engage—is the film about the masses, or these few? What Loznitsa is doing is leading us into a double-bind of incomprehension—for in scrutinizing these visitors trying to understand the incomprehensible, we are doing much the same thing.
The historical upheaval in Wang Bing’s Ta’ang, another documentary standout, is very much present tense. The title refers to a minority ethnic group whose population is distributed along the border between Burma and China’s Yunnan Province, and the film bears witness to the mass displacement that occurred during Burma’s most recent internecine struggle, which brought thousands of Ta’ang streaming over the Chinese border. As in his recent asylum expose, ’Til Madness Do Us Part, Wang puts a premium on scenes of commiseration amid the unendurable, and sandwiched between the movie’s rugged, crudely framed scenes of flight and dogged endurance is a remarkable centerpiece, a collection of conversations by fire- and candlelight between refugees too exhausted to move, too rattled to sleep, caught in Georges de La Tour lighting.
Ruth Beckermann, Die Geträmten (The Dreamed Ones), 2016, color, sound, 89 minutes.
After nodding off through a few lukewarm pools of “painterly” art cinema, Ruth Beckermann’s minimalist The Dreamed Ones was a welcome splash of cold water. Beckermann’s movie documents a staged recording of the almost two-decade correspondence between poets Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan—an Austrian and a displaced Romanian Jew—that began in 1948 and ended a few years before their premature deaths. The approach succeeds largely on the chemistry and charisma of “leads” Anja Plaschg and Laurence Rupp, seen wavering in and out of character between smoke breaks and sessions at the microphone, returned to each time with amplified emotional effect, and in the final measure heartbreaking. It’s an altogether gutsier approach to “translating” a literary text to the screen than Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, a thuddingly literal-minded interpretation of a text full of revolutionary fervor, James Baldwin’s unfinished 1979 Remember This House, which played the TIFF Docs section and was quickly snatched up by distributor Magnolia.
Among other things, The Dreamed Ones recalls the space for yearning, and the concentration of feeling made possible by an epistolary culture that has been all but erased in the age of the “U up?” text. The most urgently contemporary works at Wavelengths, those that seemed to address this, our reality, included Kienitz Wilkins’s film, obviously dependent as it is on internet archaeology; Austerlitz, focused on comprehending history in an era of mediated experience; and, perhaps above all else, Argentine-born Eduardo Williams’s The Human Surge.
I was rarely aware of who I was watching during The Human Surge, or of the narrative significance of their actions, but who cares?—for I also had an acute sense of seeing things that I’d actually never seen before in a movie, including bravura passages like a seamless jump to “inside” a webcam screen on the Chaturbate platform or a headlong dive into an anthill. A roundelay of ambiguously connected sketches involving young people, mostly male, hanging out and making a subsistence living through crap jobs and internet voyeurism, it’s a masterclass in good-bad cinematography, the signature image a traveling frame that lags slightly-too-far-for-clarity behind its subject, and occasionally seeming to forget what exactly it’s supposed to be looking at. (Along with Perfect Pitch, The Human Surge was also one of a few films to exhibit a sense of humor, which was a bit thin on the ground here.) While too much experimental work is content to retreat into lo-fi analog revanchism, multiformat The Human Surge reconciles film texture and digital delirium, pointing to a way ahead—a destination as of yet unknown.
The Toronto International Film Festival ran September 8 through 18.
Lois Weber, Shoes, 1916, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 60 minutes.
ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ—then just plain Alice Guy—was working as a secretary for Léon Gaumont’s photographic equipment company when the boss received an invitation to an event hosted by Auguste and Louis Lumière, two brothers from Lyon, set for March 22, 1895. The focus of the evening was color still-photography processes, but for an encore the brothers introduced their “projection Kinetoscope,” a machine that projected moving images—in this case, the images of workers leaving a factory. While both Gaumont and Guy-Blaché immediately perceived the commercial possibilities of such a novelty, Guy-Blaché was somewhat quicker to imagine its potential for narrative storytelling, and when she proposed to Gaumont that she might make some fictional films for his rapidly established Gaumont Film Company, it seemed a harmless enough idea.
Almost certainly the first female filmmaker and a woman with as good a claim as anyone to having witnessed the birth of cinema, Guy-Blaché went on to direct hundreds of short and feature-length films over the next quarter century—including early “Phonoscope” talkies—working in France and later the United States, where she and her husband cofounded their own company, Solax, in Flushing, New York, in 1910, at which point she was on her way to being the highest-paid woman in the country. She can be seen telling her life story in archival footage that appears in Marquise Lepage’s 1995 documentary The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blaché, playing with a selection of Guy-Blaché’s surviving work at Anthology Film Archives’s series “Woman with a Movie Camera: Female Film Directors Before 1950,” a bit of programming archaeology that proves we don’t have to speculate what a film grammar that women helped to create and innovate might look like—we’ve been watching it all along.
Guy-Blaché crossed the Atlantic, but her career didn’t survive the end of her marriage and the migration of the American film industry to the West coast. (After returning to France, she spent her final years with a daughter in New Jersey; you can visit her in the Catholic cemetery in Mahwah.) She was an anomaly in the industry, male-dominated from the first, but she wasn’t alone for long. By Guy-Blaché’s own account, she gave a start to Lois Weber, an innovator of some stature—Suspense (1913), co-directed with her husband Wendell Phillips Smalley, is considered to be one of the earliest surviving examples of the split screen, used to build drama as home-alone housewife (Weber herself) is menaced by a rampaging hobo, while her hubby rushes to the rescue. Fellow director-star Gene Gauntier was just as likely to do the menacing and rescuing herself, rising to fame in Nan, the Confederate Spy serials, though her filmmaking efforts were rather more pictorialist—The Colleen Bawn (1911), which plays Anthology, is most noteworthy for its location views of Ireland taken some five years before independence.
Esfir Shub, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, 1927, 16 mm, black-and-white, silent, 101 minutes.
The consolidation of the Hollywood studio system around the permanent arrival of talking pictures made things more difficult for independent operators like Guy-Blaché, Gauntier, and Weber (The latter two operated, respectively, Gene Gauntier Feature Players Company and, as a subsidiary of Universal, the Rex Motion Picture Company.) The business became increasingly standardized, and directing, a position of newfound prestige, was more rigidly reserved as “men’s work,” though women continued to wield power in front of the camera, as well as in screenwriting and editing, both positions in which Dorothy Arzner cut her teeth before she got her start in the director’s chair.
Arzner is represented at Anthology by her excellent Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), titled for the salutation that Fredric March’s bibulous newspaperman-cum-playwright repeatedly offers before taking his first of very many drinks. March stars opposite Sylvia Sidney, a long-suffering mate who finds solace from women, but can’t help but follow her man straight into the abyss, a plummet that ends at a reunion with no promise of peace or permanence—it’s a throttlingly emotional film, one that locates the stark desperation beneath the relentless gaiety that has come to define the “Pre-Code” movie. When Arzner made her final film in 1943, there was only one woman in America left making narrative features—though not in English. San Francisco–born Esther Eng made Cantonese-language pictures in both her hometown and Hong Kong, beginning in 1937. Unfortunately, these survive only in fragments—including one from Golden Gate Girl (1941) which contains the screen debut of Bruce Lee, playing a baby girl—though Anthology will be playing S. Louisa Wei’s documentary Golden Gate Girls (2014), which pieces together the story of Eng’s convention-flouting life. (In more ways than one—like Arzner, Eng was openly gay.)
At roughly the same time that Arzner and Eng were making straightforward narrative dramas, Maya Deren and husband Alexander Hammid were creating some of their best-loved and most influential experimental shorts—not playing Anthology, though one of the theaters is named for her, so we can probably forgive the slight. In the years to come, as today, women would frequently find themselves more easily able to work in non-mainstream idioms—avant-garde film, documentary, and so forth. The same applied overseas, and the European directors represented here—with the noteworthy exception of the Scandinavian contingent, including Norwegian Edith Carlmar’s noir effort Death is a Caress (1949)—are a motley crew of nonconformists, including animation pioneer Lotte Reiniger and Surrealist fellow-traveler Germain Dulac. The Soviet Union officially believed in the equality of women, and in the years of feverish experimentation before the pall of sterile Soviet Realism fell over Russian cinema, Esfir Shub used newsreel clippings and Imperial home movies to produce her sprawling found-footage montage The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), which recreates the world before the Revolution as a powder keg waiting for a match. While we’ve got Bolshies on hand, there are no Nazis allowed, the conspicuous absence in the series being Triumph of the Will (1935) architect Leni Riefenstahl. One understands why this particular guest might be unwelcome at the party, though it does seem a little strange to exclude the woman who, with 1938’s Olympia, essentially created the visual vocabulary that we still use in filming sport.
Casting light on a little-known aspect of film history, Anthology’s survey is a series for discoveries—for me, the heretofore-unheard-of masterpiece was Shoes, a 1916 social realist drama directed by Weber which unstintingly details grinding poverty as experienced by a department store shop girl (Mary MacLaren) supporting her family in a tenement apartment with no help from her worthless layabout father, so that there’s never any money left over on payday for her to replace the tattered leather rags on her feet with which she stumps to work every day. One can still feel the deprivation that haunts the film—Weber was a deeply religious woman who entered cinema with a clear sense of mission. To be truly poor is to have no room for error, and the film raises the event of a rainy morning that threatens our heroine’s scrupulously cutout cardboard insoles to the level of tragedy. I don’t like to be hasty in my judgements, but a century is probably enough time to declare Shoes a masterpiece.
“Woman with a Movie Camera: Female Film Directors Before 1950” runs through September 28 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
Robert Kenner, Command and Control, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 92 minutes.
AS WHITE-KNUCKLE SUSPENSEFUL as any movie you are likely to see this year, Robert Kenner’s Command and Control is a documentary about a nuclear near-disaster that occurred in 1980 at the Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas. Masterfully constructed, the film is a nuclear-arsenal procedural that takes us step by step through the chaos that ensued when an accidentally dropped socket during a routine inspection punctured the missile’s casing, causing a fuel leak, which led to a massive fire and explosion in the facility. What followed this initial “human error” was a desperate attempt by Air Force personnel at all levels, weapons designers, and first-responders (most of them in conflict with one another and none of them with a clear strategy) to avert the detonation of the Titan II warhead.
Six-hundred times more powerful than the atomic bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima, the warhead could have leveled the state of Arkansas and blanketed the US with radioactive fallout from coast to coast. But Command and Control is not only a terrifying narrative about a disaster that did not come to pass—although one person died and many were left scarred psychologically, some physically—it is a cautionary tale for the present and future. The Titan II has been decommissioned, but seven thousand nuclear weapons are in place throughout the United States, vulnerable to unforeseen accidents that continue to occur and to a new wrinkle: Hackers could break into their systems and take command and control.
Based on Eric Schlosser’s award-winning 2013 book of the same name, Command and Control was scripted by Kenner and Schlosser, who previously teamed on Food Inc., also based on a book by Schlosser, his 2001 Fast Food Nation. The documentary is built around a brilliant and emotionally harrowing set of interviews with people directly involved with the 1980 event. Their stories are illustrated by still photographs, news footage, and recreations of the events of a night they describe in detail as if it were yesterday. Among the interview subjects are members of the “propellant transfer team,” including the two who committed the human error; several more senior Airforce members; two engineers from Sandia, the nuclear weapons building lab; and Harold Brown, Secretary of Defense in the Carter administration. Most of the experts who should have been giving orders just didn’t have a clue, and a few of them are still beating themselves up about how little they knew when the unexpected happened—as it inevitably does.
Key to the making of Command and Control was the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, Arizona. The last remaining Titan II site, it is nearly a replica of the Damascus space. Kenner uses it to visualize and make palpable the collective first-person narration created by the interviewees. Thus when Dave Powell describes how his twenty-one-year-old self watched in horror as the socket he was attempting to tighten slipped from his wrench and fell seventy feet down the silo to pierce the missile, we see the silo and that small piece of metal falling in slow motion, the long narrow space shadowy and oddly angled, as it must have appeared to Powell on that night and as it returns to him in dreams. And the control room, with its dial-up phones, analog switchers, and flashing alarms, could have been a set for a 1960s sci-fi movie, except that it’s the real thing. Which is terrifying. Why would anyone have believed that the most powerful explosive device ever made could be controlled with such garbage technology? Certainly we are better equipped in the digital age to build and maintain nuclear weapons. But as Schlossser explains toward the end of the film, accidents continue to happen, because “nuclear weapons are machines, and eventually machines go wrong.”
Command and Control runs September 14 through September 27 at Film Forum in New York. Kenner and Schlosser will appear for Q&As after the 7 PM shows on September 14, 16, and 17.
Robert Aldrich, Hustle, 1975, 35 mm, color, sound, 120 minutes. Nicole Britton and Lt. Phil Gaines (Catherine Deneuve and Burt Reynolds).
THE FILMS OF ROBERT ALDRICH, like those of his contemporaries Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann, Raoul Walsh, Sam Fuller, and Otto Preminger, not only have stood the test of time but have become more affecting, more authentic, and more precious with each passing decade. Placed at “The Far Side of Paradise,” perhaps the most aptly titled, most beloved category in Andrew Sarris’s taxonomy of the American cinema, Aldrich was among those dark angels who couldn’t quite follow Lucifer to hell but remained ambivalent gatekeepers on the rebellious fringe. If many of his characters teeter on the edge of psychic dysfunction, this often mirrors a greater insanity in the social sphere. The very premise of The Dirty Dozen (1967), voiced by its leading character, is that an army manned by maniacs and sociopaths is the best way to win a war. On the other hand, even the most deranged can shatter our preconceptions with a tenderness that erupts unexpectedly through their cruelty.
Aldrich saw past the menacing ghouls embodied by Jack Palance in Sudden Fear (1952), Shane (1953), and The Silver Chalice (1954) and directed him in his most heartbreaking performance as the besieged movie star in The Big Knife (1955). It was Aldrich who, in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), transformed Bette Davis’s childish response to Joan Crawford’s “deathbed” confession—“You mean all this time we could have been friends?”—from simple plot twister into a moment of awful, belated truth, into which the film’s sadistic horrors all but dissolve. And it was Aldrich who gave the flamboyant, teeth-flashing Burt Lancaster his most gracious, understated performance in a Hollywood movie as the expert on Apaches in the sorely underrated Ulzana’s Raid (1972).
Robert Aldrich, Kiss Me Deadly, 1955, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 106 minutes.
Before directing his first feature in 1953, Aldrich was first assistant director for such heavies as Jean Renoir, William Wellman, Lewis Milestone, Abraham Polonsky, Joseph Losey, Robert Rossen—even Chaplin (on Limelight ). Excluding the first and last, his directorial filmography easily matches that of the others, although his often radical views owed more than a little to these mavericks. At ease with crime and action thrillers (The Grissom Gang , The Emperor of the North Pole, ), westerns (Apache and Vera Cruz [both 1954], The Last Sunset , 4 for Texas ), and war films (Attack! , Ten Seconds to Hell , The Dirty Dozen , and Too Late the Hero ), Aldrich also gave us the cockiest of private eyes in Ralph Meeker’s sadistic Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (1955)—a film whose apocalyptic denouement blew the genre out of the water—and two of the juiciest horror vehicles for over-the-hill Hollywood divas in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964).
The Big Knife, perhaps the best screen transfer of a Clifford Odets play, preceded the more gothic Baby Jane and the utterly nutty Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) in the Hollywood-as-Dante’s-hell genre, but along with Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950), Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), and Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), it’s as corrosive an image of the dream factory as one could expect from an insider at the very time the studio system was under siege. Given its contained soundstage look, in fact, it could pass for the kind of teleplay that ran live on the Schlitz Playhouse and the Four Star Playhouse in the early 1950s, some of which Aldrich directed. But the constricted look of The Big Knife also resonates powerfully, turning the spacious Bel Air home of Charlie Castle, its protagonist (Palance), into a prison, in which he paces and squirms and huddles, seeking a corner to hide from his torment.
While there is little effort to conceal the play’s act changes, the film reveals that Aldrich’s aesthetic strength was not limited to impressive command of the outdoors and physical action but also lay in psychic interiors slowly unraveling from increasing assault. The pain is visible on Palance’s face, a ragged terrain of failures and regrets, poignantly offset by his genuine love for his wife—Ida Lupino in one of her most moving performances—and a vulnerability that ultimately triumphs over the forces of darkness, but at great cost. Next to his costars, Palance seems almost ascetic, his suffering all the more credible when contrasted to Rod Steiger’s typically overwrought turn as the scene-chewing, corrupt studio head Stanley Hoff (apparently modeled after Columbia’s notorious Harry Cohn) and Wendell Corey’s cold-blooded, steel-edged performance as his ruthless aide who makes inconvenient people and situations disappear for the good of the studio. If the thrust of the film’s indictment seems passé today, it’s more than redeemed by the moving rapport between Palance and Lupino, who, despite stereotypical situation and predictable dialogue, manage to convince us that they have, as Charlie says, “chosen each other out of millions.” That conviction carries the force and pitiable truth of a closing scene that could easily have collapsed into bathos.
Robert Aldrich, The Legend of Lylah Claire, 1968, 35 mm, color, sound, 130 minutes. Lylah Clare / Elsa Brinkmann / Elsa Campbell (Kim Novak).
One of the most striking things about Ulzana’s Raid, Aldrich’s best western and arguably his last great movie, is its astonishingly understated atmosphere and three-dimensional characterizations. Lancaster, who played a rebel Apache in Aldrich’s film of 1954, is now the sage whose deep knowledge of the tribe’s ways he tries quietly to instill in the Gospel-driven lieutenant (Bruce Davison) assigned the task of tracking down Ulzana and his band of renegades. The results are disastrous—but quite appropriately, it is the Apache scout trusted by Lancaster (Jorge Luke) who has the final confrontation with Ulzana. Each time I’ve seen this film, I am struck by its nearly stoic economy, the absolute necessity of virtually every shot—a quality rare in outdoor action films. And in posing ethical questions about the comparable savagery of the Indian and the white man, it is among the few westerns that reflect convincingly on the very conventions that once sustained the genre.
The Big Knife and Ulzana’s Raid represent the poles of Aldrich’s art, confirming not only his range and adaptability but the strength of personality that comes through all material. In that context, Metrograph’s series will allow us to reevaluate such late films as The Longest Yard (1974) and Hustle (1975), two Burt Reynolds vehicles, as well as The Choirboys (1977), the only best-selling novel Aldrich adapted, and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), an ambitious, controversial political thriller that flopped at the box office.
“The Associates and Aldrich” runs September 15 through October 6 at the Metrograph in New York.