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Articles by

<Michael Atkinson>

10/05/10 8:58am

America, man. You know, its so beautiful—I wanna eat it!

  • “America, man. You know, it’s so beautiful—I wanna eat it!”

Tonight at Film Forum’s Heist Movie series, Sidney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes plays as part of a double feature with Billy Friedkin’s The Brinks Job.

Drifting around in the backroad dustclouds of the American New Wave were a slew of genre roadsters entirely benefitting from the era’s textural ideas and ultrarealism, and Sidney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes (1971) is a prime example. Imagine: this is what big-budget, star-packed “blockbuster” Hollywood films once looked and smelled like. Buttressed by a prophetic Nixon-era surveillance motif carried over from Lawrence Sanders’s novel and almost entirely incidental to the plot, the movie tracks career crook Sean Connery (sans toupee) as he gets paroled from the big house and instantly decides to rob an entire posh apartment building on the Upper East Side.

The realism carries over to the compromises he must make in getting funding from the mob (Alan King), and in the melange of ex-cons (pink poof Martin Balsam, why-not techie-kid Christopher Walken, ghetto wiseacre Dick Williams) he recruits and sometimes regrets recruiting. There’s no banter, just the job, which of course goes horribly wrong (in the pre-Reagan century, heist movies were demonstrations of greed’s tragedy, not the triumph of amoral rogues). But Lumet was fine-tuning what would soon become one of the best New York eyes in the business, and the rhythms of the crime as it unfolds (and refolds, in flashbacks) is breathlessly, hushedly seductive. Once the cops close in (again, quietly), and Connery & Co. begin padding around the carpeted hallways in a swelling panic, tensions rise as they never do in the Ocean’s films. Plus, the casting (Ralph Meeker as police chief, Garret Morris as a beat cop reluctantly roped into SWAT-like acrobatics, Max Showalter as an Ed Koch mayor before Ed Koch) is prime.

09/08/10 1:00am

The most experimental and radical of the New German Cinema bad boys, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg makes movies about German history and its decay into genocidal mania and nothing else, if you consider that he makes “movies” at all, as we normally define them. The behemoths that make up his most famous “trilogy”—Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King (1972), Karl May (1974), and Our Hitler (1977; also called Hitler: A Film from Germany)—are more like evidentiary stockpiles, antiqued PowerPoint presentations on the alpha-wave undulations of Prussian consciousness. Forever roping in the poisoned spirit of Wagner, the films vie for gesamtkunstwerk but without drama, dreamily and endlessly questioning history and never daring to answer.

Our Hitler (1977), a seven-plus-hour mega-essay, is his skyscraper and warship, a discourse-voyage through the meanings and ramifications of der Führer via stage tropes, puppet theater, re-enacted history, philosophical speculation, interviews, masquerade, vaudeville lampoon, Nazi film and audio clips, symbolist tableaux, German Expressionism, ad friggin’ infinitum, all of it shot in a wreath of mist and in front of a giant projection screen in a cavernous Munich warehouse. Dull or hypnotic or sometimes both at once, it’s a movie that creates its own way of watching, inoculated and unconcerned about progression, and it might be best looked upon like a Warhol marathon, a contemplative day-trip accommodating naps and dope and phone calls and digressions of your own. (Rumination is inevitable, as when Syberberg makes the point that Hitler never went to the front but in fact “saw the war only in newsreels, as a movie he was making.) Susan Sontag famously compared it to, well, nothing else on Earth, and as with so many things it seems impossible to argue with her.

The two earlier films are not nearly as humongous or sustained—Ludwig is in fact a solid hour-and-a-half shorter than Visconti’s Ludwig, and far less annoying. Syberberg comes at his historical inquisitions from an angle, and Ludwig dallies as much with the infamous monarch’s narcissistic biography as it does with Jarmanesque camp, Wagnerian kitsch, nude girls, 19th-century graphics (projected as background sets), cabaret schtick, children with mustaches, stuffed swans, etc., all of it assembled and explored on a proscenium stage that recalls Méliès in more ways than one. Wry and snarky, Ludwig scans like an epic carny sideshow orchestrated by a soul-sick Teutonic aesthete, happening as an enigmatic theater piece that happened privately, obsessively, without an audience or camera.

Karl May is different—its baroque warehouse-stage shenanigans are kept to a minimum, and instead Syberberg ruminates on the legacy of the titular writer, a kind of hyperpopular, turn-of-the-century German hybrid of Robert E. Howard and Jack London, who specialized in American Indian stories. Inspired and emboldened by May his whole life, Hitler may’ve been the author’s biggest fan, and so May’s fate appears permanently entangled with the fate of Germany as a whole. Probably the most conventional of Syberberg’s films (unless you consider his masterful interview doc The Confessions of Winifred Wagner and his opera-on-film version of Parsifal, both of which require rediscovery, conventional), Karl May is almost an ordinary period film, shot in genuine locations. But there are knockout drops in the cocktail: the cast are all German industry vets who made films for and under the Third Reich, including director Helmut Kautner (as May), Caligari’s Lil Dagover, Kristina Soderbaum (star of, among other Nazi films, Jud Süss), Kathe Gold, and so on. Beneath the longueurs and historical contemplations, real cultural guilt creeps like a killer mold.

September 9-14 at Anthology Film Archives

06/24/10 11:01am

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Tonight, if you’re not at Northside, Anthology Film Archives screens the very rare Austrian-Expressionist silent film The City Without Jews.

A cultural fossil that suggests a breed of sardonic sauropod where we had only supposed there were bacterium, H.K. Breslauer’s The City Without Jews (1924) is, simply put, a satirical dystopia railing against anti-Semitism that just happens to prophesize the rise of European national socialism a few years later. Austrian-made, so therefore even odder (Vienna barely had a film industry in the silent era, and adept Austrians, like Lang and Pabst, would emigrate to Germany), this ideological whatzit posits a Mitteleuropan Republic of Utopia where rising economic woes encourages the populace and politicians to expel the Jewish population. Thereafter, the society (particularly its banking and theaters) begins to collapse, thereby allowing the movie to cut itself with the double-bladed action of skewering bigotry and unintentionally agreeing with its tenets. The Rorschach effect is dizzying—images of marching refugees are mated with anti-goyische farce, and you can’t help but suspect that however well-intentioned the scenario represents a secret cultural wish. Then, we get to sunny, peaceful Zion. A relatively artless film that repeats its own footage liberally, Breslauer’s movie has the ironic air of an I.B. Singer parable. But dread was in the air—the film outraged the National Socialists, and Hugo Bettauer, the prolific Jewish author of the bestselling novel and screenplay, was murdered by a young Nazi a year after the film’s premiere. His co-scenarist, Ida Jenbach, died in a concentration camp. Quite probably an absolutely unique blip in film history, it’s a righteous but unassuming movie that scans now like a Nostradamus-ian prevision made to seem almost harmless by the magnitude of history.

06/09/10 10:50am


Nightfall (1956)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur

Will we ever tire of noir? Unlikely—it’s their time-and-place particularity, rising like mushrooms from the decaying roots of postwar culture, that makes them sing even today. Though you’d think by now that has-been is definitely the new never-was, the noirs live on in iconic resonance, because, ironically, they’re a nostalgist’s hot-coffee-in-the-face reality check, reminding us in no uncertain terms that the past we often idealize and dismiss was just as beset by misery and ruin as today. Maybe more so. Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall is a near-forgotten, fast-cheap-&-out-of-control sweat session, in which the hulking yet quivering Aldo Ray hits the Big City on the run from something very very bad, and crosses paths in a bar with Anne Bancroft, a used-abused waif with the defensive posture of squirrel among dogs. Soon enough Brian Keith, as a bloodspilling bank robbing anti-Aldo (they were both thick-necked Pacific-theater vets and look it), emerges and pushes the action back to the great wide open of Wyoming, where an oil rig becomes an impromptu torture appliance. Little of the David Goodis-based film is actually very dark; it’s the lawless, wintery mountain wilderness that generates more anxiety, and the forecast the film delivers of the Coen bros’ Fargo has been duly noted. Sans the Orphic torque of Tourneur’s Out of the Past, the movie still radiates a fight-or-flight inquietude that itself could serve as a mid-century axiom, a kind of feel-bad story America couldn’t stop telling itself.


June 11-17 at Film Forum

05/14/10 12:04pm

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This weekend, BAM brings you Romero!, a weekend of lesser-known films by George A. Romero, with the man himself on hand for a preview screening of his Survival of the Dead. His 1993 film The Dark Half plays tomorrow afternoon.

Never mentioned amid Stephen King adaptation stand-outs, Romero’s dirty farce has a bust-out creepy intro: a kid in 1968 gets brain surgery to stop tumors, and the doctors find nestled in the boy’s brain the living fragments of an ingrown twin—including a rolling eyeball and a few teeth, one with a cavity. Holy guacamole, where’s Frank Henenlotter when you need him? Truth be told, the visceral willies never quite return in such spades, but King’s double-trouble scenario is never less than a cheapjack blast, especially if you consider it as the idiot cousin of Bertolucci’s Partner and Kurosawa’s Doppelganger.

Timothy Hutton is the popular author (natch) who tries to suppress a nom de plume only to have it, or him (Hutton again), appear in reality and in high dudgeon, killing everybody in sight and leaving the writer’s fingerprints in the blood. The cheese gets cheesier once the logline gets running and Hutton unleashes his inner badass—a black-booted, bourbon-swillin’ rockabilly psycho with face-broadening make-up that makes him the spitting image of Don Murray. Wielding a straight razor, Mississippi accent and a mean duck’s ass, Hutton has a fab time, but the whole cast seems on the verge of uncontrollable giggles throughout, what with the recurring chorus of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and the hilarious explanations provided for the fictional maniac’s manifestation and the accompanying swarm of paranormal sparrows. So aware of its own hackneyed nature that it dares to characterize its undead id-monster as the angry ghost of Elvis, Romero’s movie is as American as a shitkicking, and just about as tasty.

04/22/10 8:51am

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This afternoon and this evening, Film Forum screens Local Hero (double-featured with Gregory’s Girl) as part of a mini-tribute to the Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth).

When is a movie more than a movie, but closer to being a lifestyle drug, a dream of utopia? Bill Forsyth’s 1983 masterpiece seemed at the time to herald some kind of New Scottish Cinema, or at least a new new singular voice, but both ideas faded (Forsyth’s career bumped and ground but did not fly), and all we’re left with is this impossibly beguiling, absolutely peculiar film, a comedy without jokes but full of mysteries, hidden motivations, non sequiturs, mutations, portents and broken hearts. Burt Lancaster’s starlost oil magnate is only the MacGuffin; it’s Peter Riegert’s yuppie Yankee broker we follow, through a Scotch shore village so defiantly odd and distinctive yet completely real that it seems to exist outside of the film, when we’re not looking, and for sure the east coast town Forsyth used had to put up their own Local Hero phone booth to appease the many tourists that came, trying like Riegert’s MacIntyre to fathom their own inexplicable love. The thick vein of quixotic humor that oozes here can take any shape, any unexplainable running gag, any unpredictable quirk of personality (the doomed bunny, the ubiquitous motorcyclist, the African priest, the Russian submariner, the mermaid oceanologist), but it all gently coheres and has the breezy juice of an off-the-grid vacation day in paradise. It kinda died in its initial release—who’s surprised?—but since it’s become a cult movie in the best sense of the word: it’s a film people live in rather than simply see.

04/07/10 4:00am

The Newspaper Picture
April 9-May 6 at Film Forum

It may seem as though the new Film Forum series of 1930s-50s newspaper movies is only repackaging/re-genre-izing Golden Era films the die-hard retro house has already shown in scads of other contexts. Let’s face it, programmer Bruce Goldstein and his team simply do not balk at any new opportunity to showcase noirs and pre-noirs and Lee Tracy movies. But the essential invention of this subgenre—which are really comedies or mysteries, nitromethane-fueled by hot-brained, motormouth reporters in the classic urban-American style—might just be a masterstroke. Is there a class of film, besides the history-specific emergence of noir, that says as much about American life? Westerns, musicals and romantic comedies were their own brands of fantasy, but the newspaper movie, with its boundless cynicism and keep-it-moving pace and narrative need to know what happened, captures a sense of our national character that’s unique and that hasn’t faded a pixel since. In fact, if anything, today’s ascendency of neverending cable news and instant local website reporting and yowling up-to-the-minute punditry has manifested the soul of the amoral, blabbering Tracy newshound into a cultural status quo, coming at us from every direction every microsecond of the day.

The series dawdles with the prime noir period, the ’50s, with grim-visage muscularities like Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956) and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), but in that context the newspaperman is merely another embittered pawn crisscrossing the genre’s endlessly expressive alleys and hallways and night streets alongside the luckless war vets, petty crooks and slapped-around femmes. The American reporter isn’t an axiom of noir, just one of its many victims, and his fact-finding compulsion will soon enough end up in at a dead end or in a shallow grave. These can be great films, but they’re noirs, and in the country of noir we’re all equal and equally privileged by darkness.

No, what we mean by “newspaper movie” happened during the Depression, and with the advent of talkies. Reporters had driven stories before, but in the sound era they drove them with their mouths, adopting a kind of comic, slang-clotted tough-guy delivery originated on the stage but borrowed equally from the city streets, which teemed with the first generation of Americans born of millions of European immigrants. Whatever kind of discourse we had before, now we had throngs of Irish, Italian and Eastern European urchins and workers, relentlessly reinventing the universal lingo and defining the dog-eat-dog American city as a distinct chunk of space-time, where wealth and success awaited the quick and merciless, and speed was the name of the game.

What better milieu in which to make talkies? You watch Tracy, who has pride of place in the subgenre and at the Film Forum, execute a patch of scripted dialogue, and it’s like watching a spider web-spin in fast-motion. How did audiences keep up? They did, that’s all, and therein lurks the real wonderment to be had before the spectacle of Hollywood product like The Front Page (1931), Blessed Event (1932) or The Power of the Press (1943)—these were mass-produced narrative entertainments comprised almost entirely of dialogue, cataracts of human discourse, stories told densely with tongues and lungs. Today, an exchange of dialogue that surpasses one lone minute and features more than four swapped lines is an aberration—a taxing irritant amid the swooshing tides of digital noise and body-fluid pratfall and silent brooding. Back in the day, dialogue would stretch our for four, eight, even 12 minutes at a stretch, the movie’s actors yammering away like pet-shop macaws and fleshing out their characters by way of what is said, what isn’t said, how fast they talk, how comfortable they feel speaking in their particular situation, how they react at length with their co-characters, all of it arising from the texture of the scene organically, without “emphasis” and visual cues. (Long, mute closeups were unheard of—unless you were Garbo or Dietrich.) Movies then did not strive to keep half of your brain dozy and numb, and so audiences of all ages brought an attention and acumen to moviewatching that verged on the capacities that we all bring—or should bring—to bear on conversations with real, live people.

There was the electric sense in the ’30s films of talking itself being an outrageous novelty, to be indulged in like whiskey by teenagers—and Tracy, always on the balls of his feet, was the form’s Christiano Ronaldo, feted in the retro with no less than ten starring vehicles. (His one Oscar nomination was an autumnal supporting perf as an ex-president in 1964’s The Best Man, included but only marginally a “newspaper picture.”) Tracy was a slight, rubber-faced squirt of a man, but his mouth was the size of the great outdoors, and his inimitable way with streaming banter favored such raw velocity over nuance that there’s almost something Ramones-ish about him, an amused, deliberately plebeian dedication to youthful chaos. Except Tracy wasn’t young—just a few years older than the century, he had the manic drive of a self-destructive alcoholic. In fact, his brief stardom in the ’30s stalled irrevocably once, during the making of Viva Villa! in 1934, he drunkenly peed off his Mexican hotel balcony onto the heads of military cadets. Few Hollywood scandal stories match their subject’s persona so beautifully, and while director Howard Hawks saw nothing particularly amiss with this episode, apparently, mogul Louis Mayer had Tracy kicked off the film anyway, and downward the chatterbox dynamo’s career stock slumped.

The newspaper picture in general requires throats like Tracy’s because it is uniquely contingent on language and information, even as far along as Alan J. All the President’s Men (1976), which is really no more than a series of (riveting) Q & As. With all this gab flowing (and it flows perhaps most colorfully in 1956’s Sweet Smell of Success, a blackened septic tank of oral intercourse), the Film Forum camp meter will be on high alert. But I can’t help suspecting that ticket-buyers under, say, 30 will be chuckling out of breathless shock, unprepared as they may be for the deluge.

01/22/10 1:19pm

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Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda plays this afternoon and Sunday evening at MoMA, as part of a film series running parallel to their Tim Burton exhibition.

You can throw a rock in the air and hit someone arguing about what’s art and what’s not—what’s high and low, or good trash and bad trash—but anyone that follows the discussion to the end of its rope will reach Edward D. Wood Jr.’s notorious Glen or Glenda (1953), one of the most uproariously *wrong* films ever made and yet a close if disreputable cousin, with its irrational resort to found footage and its deranged quasi-doc-ness and its canned celebration of otherness, to the best works of Joseph Cornell, Bruce Conner, and Jack Smith.Throw in John Waters, Todd Haynes and Craig Baldwin—Wood predated all but Cornell, and there’s an argument to be made that a good deal of modern pop culture, from melodramatic retro-cool to psychotronica to post-punk camp mania, wouldn’t have happened the same without him. Glenda is many things to every viewer: the “personal” exploitation ditty passionately assembled by the most illiterate cineaste the medium’s ever known, one of the greatest unintentionial sidesplitters (rivaled only by Wood’s other films), and a lately recognized pioneering paean to transvestism and fetishism—all this in just over an hour of auteurial fuggups, slippages and self-exposures. Tim Burton’s biopic Ed Wood would’ve been impossible without Glenda’s autobiographical frisson, of course, but Wood’s diaristic impulses, groundbreaking though they were, are only the now-fashionable angora part of this derelict’s underground ensemble. No, it’s the film’s junkyard-sculpture form and conflicting layers that make your eyelids twitch today; in addition to the myriad of things he’s already been labeled since he drank himself to death on a friend’s couch and got himself rediscovered a few decades later, Wood might just have been a great American primitive, the world’s most famous accidental avant-gardist.

01/22/10 11:12am

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Anthology Film Archives revives Who Killed Teddy Bear this weekend, with screenings tonight through Sunday.

A slight but stylish and oddly watchable stew of urban deviance from the grindhouse alleys of yesteryear, Joseph Cates’s Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965) may never acquire the cult it still seems to beg for—and maybe the perception of begging is the problem. Juliet Prowse is a self-reliant ingenue lost in New York, waitressing at a discotheque, auditioning, and being obscene-phone-called and stalked by developmentally arrested man-boy Sal Mineo, who is often shot through a 70s-Penthouse-style soft-focus halo. The disco scenes are overdressed go-go malarkey—however surprisingly Dion-esque the songs are, the dancing is just a gas, man—but that seems appropriate, too, for the gutter oeuvre of cheapo auteur and Phoebe’s dad Cates, who also helmed the Phyllis Diller comedy The Fat Spy.

But what makes Teddy Bear interesting is its spot on the continuum between A Streetcar Named Desire and Taxi Driver, dramas of degenerated masculine frustration, building from ordinary misogony to slaughter. The muscly, t-shirted Mineo often comes off like a high schooler doing Brando doing Stanley Kowalski, while Prowse, with her soft blondness, flustered South African accent and sexual vulnerability, reeks of Blanche-ness. (She’d taste real jungle hate decades later, getting mauled twice by a leopard for a 1987 Circus of the Stars episode.) The Bickle interfaces crop up throughout: the lonely obsession with porn, the moral rage, the hatred of sex, the mad exercising, the awkward pursuit of a Cybill Shepherdesque blonde. For good measure, Teddy Bear throws in a brain-damaged sister, incest, a twisted cop who reads Teenage Nudist magazine (game-show host Jan Murray) and Elaine Stritch as a snapdragon dyke who gives no quarter to psychos or cops. As in Scorsese, the city’s the culprit, although downtown stores that sell Naked Lunch and zipped underwear pass in 1965 as proof of Gomorrah.

01/21/10 8:59am

Of the old-school doc gods, Frederick Wiseman is our resident all-American archivist, with a 30-year trail behind him of common life stuff cast in amber: work, aging, illness, commerce, the righteous lunacy of public institutions, zoos, ballets, high schools, military camps and cops. There’s no dusty corner of the country’s unexceptional daily life that he hasn‘t swept out, but it all began somewhere a little more than ordinary: the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater, which in the 1960s was still a careless basin of human abuse, and which Wisemen entered, with a camera, God knows how, while in his 30s, and filmed. The man’s filmmaking strategies haven’t changed since—he films his subjects head-on, without narrative, narration, talking heads, music or interaction of any kind—and Titicut Follies (1967) is, famously, an infernal ordeal, in which psychotic patients are stripped, force-fed, hosed down and humiliated in cement rooms as the guards giggle and ask them mocking questions for the camera’s sake. But it’s a thornier patch still: is Wiseman exploiting them, too? He’s said in interviews that the patients signed permission forms—but can they, really, when they’re marching and drooling and chanting psychomanic nonsense? However doggedly Wiseman’s technique insists on fly-on-the-wall objectivity, is that what it is, in the room with a camera and boom mic, or later in the editing room? They’re not easy questions, especially when you consider how Titicut Follies terrified the Massachusetts state government into multiple lawsuits and a 20-year ban, and helped to precipitate just by its presence a nationwide reform of state hospitals like Bridgewater. It’s not a just mere movie, finally, but a dogfight between ethical contingencies.

Titicut Follies plays this afternoon and next Friday evening at MoMA, as part of the first leg of a major yearlong exhibition of newly struck and acquired prints of Wiseman’s films.