Articles by

<Matt Zoller Seitz>

03/22/10 4:00am

This is a transcript of Matt Zoller Seitz’s video essay on The Prowler, viewable here.

“Quite a hacienda.”

That’s the opening line of The Prowler, a 1951 film noir about an affair between a married woman and a Los Angeles beat cop who responds to a call at her home. It’s not just a classy thriller. It’s a thriller about class.

Directed by the soon-to-be blacklisted filmmaker Joseph Losey (The Servant, The Go-Between), and written by two more, then-current blacklist victims, Hugo Butler and Dalton Trumbo, under pseudonyms, The Prowler has all the standard (by now cliched) building-blocks of noir: Doomed love; furtive criminal plotting; desperation; greed; murder. But the film’s power comes from its recognition that all these elements are fed by a deeper, darker force: class resentment. The movie opens a window into the heart of film noir, and clarifies that every sin committed by noir characters comes from the same source: envy.

All noir is about brute appetite—about wanting what you don’t have and taking moral shortcuts to get it. The French critics who named this sort of movie—and praised its artistry and courage at a time when most American critics treated it as sleazy pop trash—weren’t just responding to the genre’s photographic daring, smoky atmosphere and existential weariness. They were also applauding the genre’s potential for social criticism—for tearing away society’s grinning false face and revealing the monster beneath. The basic appeal of noir was always prurient—the chance to watch sexy, impulsive people break some or all of the Ten Commandments. But running just beneath this spectacle of bad behavior was a river of discontent—a sense that the so-called “Good Life” taking shape in postwar America wasn’t really that good—that it was, in fact, quite toxic, because it was based on envy—on greed and materialism, on the desire to get ahead no matter what.

One of the most distinctive things about The Prowler is the somewhat confounding tone of its lead characterizations. Webb and Susan aren’t your typical noir couple: a ruthless femme fatale and her hardboiled sap of a lover. Aside from his blue uniform and badge, the male half of central couple, Webb (Van Heflin), is a prototypical noir hero—a failed high school basketball star quietly seething over what he doesn’t have. But he presents as a thoroughly decent guy, a knight in shining armor, and Losey shoots Heflin the way Clint Eastwood shoots himself, making the most of his study physique, granite features and imposing height.

Webb’s forbidden love, Susan Gilvray—a local radio host’s much younger wife, subtly played by Evelyn Keyes—is likewise dissatisfied. And although she maintains sympathy right up to the end, her appearance of normality seems almost as hinky as Webb’s. Her well-heeled demeanor suggests a pacified postwar suburban housewife, but some secret part of her is drawn to Webb. They have more in common than the fact that they grew up in the same small town. They share a suppressed but gnawing conviction that what they’ve got isn’t enough. And at times the burly cop’s increasingly vicious actions seem to fulfill Susan’s secret wishes.

Losey and his screenwriters were all left-leaning social critics—men who either were vilified or were about to be vilified by guardians of the status quo. The Prowler‘s happy-face suburban approach to film noir takes the genre’s potential for social criticism out of the shadows and places it center-frame, where you can get a good look at it. These characters aren’t thrillingly dark fantasy figures upon whom the audience can project its dirty daydreams. They’re uncomfortably close to quote-unquote normal. Their moral relativism hits close to the bone because it’s easy to see them as people we might know—perhaps, in the worst of all possible worlds, people we might recognize by looking in a mirror.

01/07/10 3:00pm

“The old formula of committed madness feels apropos here,” says Nicolas Rapold in the current issue of the L, reviewing Flooding with Love for the Kid, Zachary Oberzan’s solo restaging of David Morrell’s novel First Blood, the basis for the Rambo films; Flooding with Love plays for a week at Anthology Film Archives beginning tomorrow, Friday January 8th. In this video essay, Matt Zoller Seitz dissects this D.I.Y. psychodrama. (A transcript of the narration can be found here.)

01/06/10 4:00am

A transcript of Matt Zoller Seitz’s video essay, How How to Remake Rambo for $95.51, viewable here.

My friend Zachary Oberzan played a small part in my first feature, Home, a romantic comedy shot in my apartment. Two years later, Zack told me he’d also made a movie shot in an apartment. Since I was still paying off my film, I worried about his finances. And when he told me that his movie, Flooding With Love for the Kid, was an unauthorized adaptation of First Blood, the original novel by David Morrell that introduced John Rambo, I worried about his sanity.

To my relief, the film didn’t just confirm Zack’s mental health. It revealed him as one of the most inventive and driven do-it-yourself filmmakers I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. Produced for $95.51, Flooding with Love for the Kid is more than a great no-budget indie. It’s a reminder that you don’t need money to make compelling personal art. You just need skill, guts and heart—and an understanding landlord.

The Sylvester Stallone version of First Blood (1982) has one combat boot in the grubby 70s and the other in the triumphalist 80s. Stallone plays Rambo as a strong, silent loner who doesn’t go looking for trouble but finds it anyway. He’s a Vietnam vet turned jobless drifter, wandering into a small Pacific Northwest town to visit an old Army buddy. Mistaken for a hippie by redneck cops, Rambo is more sinned against than sinning—a decent man pushed until he snaps.

While both Rambo and his antagonist, Sherriff Will Teasle, have a bit more psychological depth than most action film opponents, First Blood is ultimately just a superior action film about a sleeping warrior whose lethal skills are roused by injustice. In the sequels, Rambo evolved into a ludicrous and highly politicized character—a right-wing Golem singlehandedly re-fighting and winning the Vietnam War (Rambo: First Blood, Part II), then carrying the fight to Afghanistan (Rambo III, 1988), then saddling up one last time to clean up Burma (Rambo, 2008) Throughout the series, Rambo is a homicidal teenager—a sullen wallflower who sulks around the edges of life until somebody betrays him, at which point he explodes in rage, unleashing the most spectacular pyrotechnics that Hollywood money can buy.

Zack’s Rambo is as complex as Stallone’s is simplistic, and his movie is more intimate in every sense. Self-mockingly billed as “220 square feet of action,” it takes place entirely in Zack’s efficiency apartment, with Zack adapting, directing and editing the movie and playing every part himself. On first glance, Flooding with Love seems part of a minor wave of films (including Rushmore and Be Kind Rewind) in which high-spirited amateurs re-enact pop culture touchstones. Rather than mock the characters for indulging in cinematic karaoke, these films cheer their unironic enthusiasm. And they show how artistic expression—whether original or derivative, polished or crude—illuminates the artist’s relationships, neuroses and desires.

Garth Jennings’ 2007 feature Son of Rambow is that kind of film, only aimed at kids—wa comedy about grade school misfits developing a deep friendship while shooting a homemade sequel to First Blood. When Zack learned of the latter film’s existence, shortly after he finished editing Flooding with Love, he was understandably freaked out—but he needn’t have worried. While both films are Rambo-centric, their aims are different. Son of Rambow is a lighthearted buddy movie, and the Rambo stuff is just the catalyst for childhood friendship. Zack’s movie is an outgrowth of Rambo Solo, a one-man off-off Broadway production by the Manhattan-based Nature Theater of Oklahoma; Zack had been developing the piece for years, and finally premiered it in spring, 2009. But where the play was an autobiographical, confessional, experimental work that examined Zack’s lifelong fascination with the Rambo character, Flooding with Love for the Kid is a straightforward adaptation of David Morrell’s novel, a psychological thriller that owes more to Deliverance than to G.I. Joe.

Zack sticks to Morrell’s portrait of Rambo. He’s a hyper-alert, sarcastic fellow who looks more like an underfed college protester than an iron-muscled bruiser. And although he’s scarred by war, he’s still a stupidly prideful man-child with an antiauthoritarian streak that overrules common sense. The film is likewise true to Morrell’s depiction of Rambo’s foe, Sherriff Teasle—a Korean War vet who feels emasculated by the breakup of his marriage. Rambo and Teasle have more in common than they think, including self-destructive macho pride and a secret wish to return to the battlefield—a place where the prospect of sudden death made them feel alive, and where they at least knew what was expected of them.

Like its literary source, Zack’s version of First Blood is less gung-ho adventure tale than a sorrowful drama. Flooding with Love for the Kid may be a glorified home movie, but it achieves goals that the Stallone franchise couldn’t or wouldn’t pursue. It shows complex and infuriating people fighting themselves more than each other—and losing. It’s a tragedy of ridiculous men.

12/30/09 12:00pm

by Benjamin Strong

For most of the year 2000 it looked as though Al Gore was going to be our next president. Moby’s Play, an album that was already a year old but which many people were hearing for the first time in car commercials, was the national soundtrack. A new hit television show, Survivor, had people all excited about a future full of reality TV. In 2000, it was still the 1990s.

And yet, in retrospect, there were hints of the decade to come in some of the year’s most notable films. The worldwide box office success, for example, of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, ignited a trend for prestige kung fu movies (e.g. 2009’s Red Cliff) and basically gave Zhang Yimou a raison d’etre for the aughts. Before Night Falls introduced American audiences to Javier Bardem. Almost Famous somehow convinced a new generation of hipsters that Elton John was an acceptable guilty pleasure. Dancer in the Dark kicked off a streak of divisive anti-American screeds from Danish provocateur Lars von Trier. And Steven Soderbergh began his habit of releasing two movies a year, one of which always gets overrated, while the other is underrated—in this case, Traffic and Erin Brokovich, respectively. (In 2009, it was The Girlfriend Experience> and The Informant!.)

The Oscar-winning Best Picture may have been Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, with its turgid, fake-looking battles inside a computer generated Coliseum. But in terms of special effects and pure movie spectacle, late-breaking science fiction pictures like Transformers or Avatar still can’t hold a candle to Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars, 2000’s most woefully overlooked picture, and one of the most beautiful-looking outer space movies ever made.

Finally, it’s worth noting the genesis of a pro-marijuana trend that culminated last year in the anti-marijuana Pineapple Express. There would be many more movies about the chronic to come in the aughts, but only Anna Faris, in 2007’s Smiley Face, was able to approach the baker performances in 2000 of Michael Douglas in Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys and Mark Ruffalo in Kenneth Lonnergan’s You Can Count on Me.

12/30/09 12:00pm

For this exhaustively subjective reflection on ten years of moviegoing, we solicited suggestions from a number of L critics and friends; the roughly chronological arrangement of clips generally reflects the year of the films’ public premiere, though some films have been grouped with the year of their initial US theatrical run.

For our writers’ reflections on the years that were, see here. And if you see anything we’ve missed, tell us all about it in the comments. Watch Part Two, covering 2005-2009, here.

10/30/09 4:00am

There’s something inherently spooky about the establishing shot: we’re approaching someplace we’ve never been before—whether through killer-cam, point-of-view or objective perspective, and whether glimpsed from a distance or walked through for the first time, it’s that sense of uncertainty that unites these views of some of the most iconic locations of cinematic trauma, whether that location is an old dark house, a motel, a mansion on a hill, a church, a split-level, a torture chamber or a spaceship. See how many you recognize in our video essay, then tell us what we missed in the comments. Happy Halloween, everyone.