Articles by

<Nick Pinkerton>

04/08/15 6:45am
Photos courtesy of (left to right): Central Motion Picture Corp., Fortissimo Films, Central Motion Picture Corp., Central Motion Picture Corp., Strand Releasing, Strand Releasing, Fortissimo Films

Tsai Ming-liang
April 10–26
at the Museum of the Moving Image

Tsai Ming-Liang is one of the few uncontestable giants of what was once quaintly called “art house” cinema still working at peak power. In this pantheon we might include Claire Denis, who emerged roughly contemporaneously, but where Denis’s cinema is tactile, cutaneous, and given to the exploration of bodies, Tsai’s is very much concerned with the absence of touch, the space between bodies—perhaps most poignantly expressed in his What Time is it There? (2002), a film of longing across national boundaries and time zones, as well as clockwork-precision sight gags.

The subject of a fourteen-program retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image, Tsai seems to suspect that he’s outlived the art house, perhaps even cinema itself. Prior to the release of his most recent film, 2013’s ravishingly bleak Stray Dogs, Tsai suggested that he may be leaving behind traditional cinematic exhibition entirely, finding museums and galleries more hospitable to starkly non-commercial work of the sort in which he deals. (His 2009 Face was partially financed by the Louvre, and entirely shot on the museum’s grounds.) Well before The Death of Cinema became a 21st century buzzword, Tsai was uniquely attuned to the changes facing the medium at the beginning of the new millennium, an interest expressed in his Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), which takes place in a waterlogged Taipei cinema at the eve of its permanent closure, during a screening of King Hu’s kung-fu classic Dragon Inn (1967).

Hu’s Dragon Inn is the sort of wuxia fare that Tsai consumed as a boy when his grandparents took him daily to the movies in Kuching, Malaysia. Aged twenty, Tsai left to study at Chinese Culture University in Taipei, the rain-lashed city of sadness which would be so central to his cinema. MoMI’s shop bar will be selling Tsai’s own brand of coffee, grown in Malaysia but roasted in Taiwan, like himself, while their retro includes Kuala Lumpur-shot “homecoming” film I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006), Malaysian director Saw Tiong Guan’s documentary portrait of Tsai, Past Present (2013), and Walking on Water (2013), one of a series of shorts which follow a monk played by Tsai’s muse Lee Kang-Sheng as he makes his way at a glacial pace through various environments—here the setting is the Kuching housing block in which Tsai grew up.

Lee was working as a security guard at a video arcade when Tsai, who had been writing and directing for television, discovered him and cast him in his 1991 TV movie The Kids. He would go on to appear in every one of Tsai’s subsequent films (the earliest work in the MoMI series, Tsai’s 1992 feature debut Rebels of the Neon God, will concurrently receive a belated NYC theatrical premiere run at the Quad and Lincoln Center beginning April 10), and Tsai credits Lee’s taciturn performance style with causing him to develop a more pensive, philosophical approach to filmmaking. Tsai’s development as a director has, generally speaking, led him to an ever-greater austerity, minimizing or eliminating camera movement and non-diegetic music while working with long unbroken takes, though his “journey” is hardly as straightforward as all of that, and he has a florid, maximalist impulse which finds expression in such works as the abovementioned Face and The Wayward Cloud (2005), a musical set in the milieu of porn filmmaking. Through the evolution of his style, Tsai’s preoccupations have remained remarkably consistent: Urban anomie, fumbling desire, and faulty plumbing. His films abound with pervasive drips building towards dambursts, literally and metaphorically, as in the crying jag finale of his Vive L’Amour (1994). In a quarter century, Tsai has produced an epochal body of work that leaves little room for imitation or rejoinder, an oeuvre that seems to say: “After me, the flood.”

06/05/13 4:00am

Berberian Sound Studio
Directed by Peter Strickland

The Englishman has long regarded the incense-perfumed mysteries of the Roman Catholic Continent, and its irreducible system of sin and indulgence, with mingled fear and desire. It has been so since the days of illicit pleasures on the Grand Tour, the days when Northern industrialists snapped up genre paintings of Venetian flower girls flashing available smiles, and Count Dracula ran amok in Albion’s imagination. A version of this relationship, pushed into hallucinogenic extremes, lies beneath Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, a 1976-set culture-clash that operates on a far more subtle and insidious level than standard fish-out-of-water fare. The transplanted fish is Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a middle-aged English nebbish who writes letters home to the mother he lives with in Dorking, where he makes a living recording postproduction sound for innocuous documentaries about South Downs scenery in a cozy hobbit-hole garden shed.

When we first encounter Gilderoy, he’s entering the Berberian studio. Through the length of the film he will only leave its subterranean, bunker-like confines in his mind. Gilderoy has been imported to Rome to work on a film called The Equestrian Vortex. When he first asks to be refunded for his plane ticket as promised, he’s deflected to a secretary, who deflects him in turn. This turns into an ongoing shell game. With such techniques do the film’s producer, Santini (Antonio Mancino), and director, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco)—strapping, back-slapping, unctuous men of the world—keep the puny, inexperienced, and punctiliously polite Gilderoy constantly on his back foot, making him feel that he’s forever committing grievous social blunders.

Timid Gilderoy is made a hapless prisoner in a corrupt system that he’s wholly unprepared to understand or negotiate, sucked into The Equestrian Vortex. We’re introduced to the film through the title sequence. It’s all silhouetted freeze-frame images before solid color backgrounds. These recall Michael Reeves’s seminal Anglo horror Witchfinder General, as does the film’s Inquisition subject matter—though what we’ll hear of The Equestrian Vortex seems closer to an Argento-esque
horror-fantasy. I say hear, because the credits are the last images shown; we’re left to imagine the rest while Gilderoy goes about assembling the sound element with the aid of two foley artists named Massimo (sound artists Jozef Cseres and Pál Tóth) and, memorably, a voiceover actor who performs the part of a “dangerously aroused goblin” in the booth.

For the Italians, sex and death are familiar acquaintances, impossible to extricate from life. “Here,” Santini says, feeding Gilderoy a fruit with mocking sexual aggression, “we swallow the seeds.” While the Massimos go about the business of slaughtering produce with desensitized detachment, repressed Gilderoy is affected on a deeper level by the by-proxy brutality and begins to unspool like a reel of magnetic tape.

Strickland, himself an experimental musician, evokes the particular moment when outré electronic experimentalists became strange bedfellows with producers of transgressive exploitation and horror fare. Appreciative close-ups of vintage gear and recording charts show a filmmaker clearly obsessed with the appurtenances of the bygone analog age, the era that produced Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Scream. Like those films, Berberian Sound Studio is a narrative wrapped around the process of building soundscapes. But this is no mere piece of retro-hound crate-digging; as De Palma did, Strickland uses his backstage premise to reveal the real reptilian appetites and psychic wounds that lie beneath the surface of easily dismissed trash-horror.

Opens June 14

02/13/13 4:00am

My Autobiography

By Charlie Chaplin

(Melville House)

“When Chaplin began to talk on-screen,” Pauline Kael once wrote, “he used a cultivated voice and high-flown words, and became a deeply unfunny man.” The cultivated voice and high-flown words are evident throughout Chaplin’s recently reissued autobiography, unmistakably not the work of the lowly Tramp but of his cosmopolitan creator. My Autobiography is, it should be said, quite without mirth; that’s not to say it isn’t a great work in its own way, a retelling of an unprecedented life, placed immediately before you by Chaplin’s vivid recall. He was born in 1889 on the wrong side of the Thames. The early chapters, describing his hardscrabble upbringing—the dipso actor father, the mother prone to madness, the periodic trips to the workhouse—make for compelling reading, for there are few figures who have come from so little to go so far. This strife is followed by an account of the young Chaplin’s life as a touring child actor on the music-hall and vaudeville circuit in England and then America, as vital a picture as we are likely to get of that vanished world.

Chaplin helped assure its obsolescence when, one morning in 1914, on set at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studios, he improvised the costume of The Tramp, his onscreen alter-ego for the next 20-plus years. This creation coincided with the emergence of modern mass media, through which Chaplin would achieve a level of celebrity that had been heretofore unimaginable. When he visited London and Paris after the triumph of The Kid in 1921, he received a welcome comparable only to that which Woodrow Wilson had enjoyed two years earlier—though perhaps the better comparison would be to Zelig, Woody Allen’s chameleonic character who somehow meets every noteworthy figure of the Jazz Age.

Chaplin’s epochal success brokered him an introduction to everyone, and once he achieved fame, a parade of the great and good came to pay court. There’s a litany of Dukes, Dutchesses, and Princesses, sketches of Doug Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, of Albert Einstein, H.G. Wells, William Randolph Hearst, Winston Churchill, Ghandi, even a chance encounter with Jean Cocteau in the South China Sea. Amid such rarified company, the confessional vulnerability of the early chapters disappears, and the proud self-possession which enabled Chaplin’s survival and eventual triumph takes over the narrative. A cultured autodidact, the author misses no occasion to put his learning before the reader, giving himself over to social-register name-dropping and swallowed-a-The-saurus prose. (It’s a curious coincidence that Chaplin finished his book in Vevey, Switzerland, on Lake Geneva, where Vladimir Nabokov was practically a neighbor.)

At times Chaplin’s orotund voice does manage a sort of wit as when, violating a rule of reticence on sexual matters, he describes the bosom of Joan Barry, her “upper regional domes immensely expansive.” Barry dragged Chaplin into a paternity suit in 1943, only one of the legal troubles that, combined with political harassment, caused him to flee America in 1952, all recorded herein. Chaplin’s great filmmaking years were thereafter behind him—while My Autobiography is as near as he would come to a fitting last testament.

06/06/12 4:00am

David Goodis:
Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s

(Library of America)

You will not once need to turn to a dictionary while reading the prose of David Goodis, an exemplary practitioner of the fiction which, at mid-century, was commonly grouped under the rubric “hard-boiled.”

Goodis wrote in a poetic Neanderthal version of the terse, “masculine” style which has its roots in Hemingway and Hammett. Library of America’s new Goodis collection puts five of the author’s novels between hardcover; looking at the photo on the dust jacket—presumably a studio publicity shot taken during his stint as a Warner Bros. scriptwriter—one can imagine Goodis sweating through his shirtsleeves while operating his typewriter in hunt-and-peck style, punching the keys very hard.

Starting any given paragraph, Goodis tends to locate the key word representing what’s currently preoccupying his invariably driven, harried and obsessed protagonist, and then hammers on that key word over and over again, with nary a pronoun of relief. This goes on sentence after sentence, until the next key word leaps into view, and thus the next paragraph. In this manner, latching onto one key word after another, Goodis’s novels attain their lunging narrative momentum, something like the desperate hand-over-hand progress of an untethered rock climber.

Goodis was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Philadelphia, the city to which he would return after Hollywood and New York, whose dives and seamy South-side slums he repeatedly turned to for inspiration—although, in another sense, Goodis’s stories take place in no particular city, but in The City. After years of grinding out material for pulp magazines under various pseudonyms, Goodis had his break when his 1946 Dark Passage was purchased by Warner Bros. and made as a Humphrey Bogart vehicle. (In fact, each of the novels in LoA’s collection has been adapted into a film, three of them during Goodis’s lifetime, while he is perhaps best known today for providing the plot to François Truffaut’s <>Shoot the Piano Player with his Down There.)

Dark Passage follows a fugitive from San Quentin who, at large in San Francisco, begins to unravel the secret of his wife’s murder, of which he was wrongly accused, while taking up with a mysterious woman. Goodis’s novels invariably deal with men forced into the fringe by circumstance, with their faces pressed up against the glass of the normal, middle-class family life that’s unavailable to them. “There was a great deal of difference between a home and a hiding place,” sighs the protagonist of 1947’s Nightfall, also alienated by the stigma of a crime he didn’t commit.

In these early novels, Goodis holds out hope that his hunted protagonists and their hard luck dames might still buy into the all-American family franchise, but in the later works this gives way to a voluptuous fatalism: 1953’s The Burglar ends on a primordial image of surrender to the undertow. The Moon in the Gutter (also 1953) features a stevedore, tough native of the downtown tenements, whose fantasy courtship with an uptown broad ends in his reversion to class fate (Goodis would essentially re-work this theme in 1954’s The Blonde on the Street Corner). 1954’s Street of No Return’s highlight is a curtly written evocation of the slide leading to Skid Row (“From November to November. And on and on through all the gray Novembers”).

Dead at age 49 in 1967, Goodis’ story ended where it began, in Philadelphia. The record of his dark passage is these novels, one of the most lucid, solitary bodies of work in American crime fiction.

05/09/12 4:00am

Dead Man Upright
By Derek Raymond
(Melville House)

Five hard-boiled police procedurals which are widely considered to rank among the most important works of British crime fiction ever published, Derek Raymond’s Factory novels concern the investigations of an unnamed fortyish sergeant stubbornly lodged in A14, the London Metropolitan Police’s Department of Unexplained Deaths.

The sergeant describes his workplace as composed of “loners employed on clearing up unimportant deaths to close some little file… We aren’t allowed near anything that looks like page one, we’ve all been passed over for promotion, and we’ve all been punctured by buckshot, knives, or both.” In the grotty, dysfunctional, invariably inclement Thatcher-era England, our hero leads a solitary quest for justice underpinned by a pining for national regeneration: “a time when people felt that the past mattered and that something good might happen in the future.” His cases, involving the indigent, the forgotten, or the unidentifiable, are solved through immersion, a solitary process of complete identification with the killer (better to catch him) and the deceased (better to stoke the fires of his righteous indignation).

The process is not unlike the writer’s art, and in a genre largely given to potboilers, Derek Raymond approached his work as art, with bonesaw penetration. Raymond was born 1931 as Robert Cook, heir to a textiles fortune and a family castle in Kent, but lit out from Eton for a footloose tour of the lowlife instead. The victim in the first Factory novel, 1984’s He Died with His Eyes Open, is a downwardly mobile 51-year-old scribbler, in many respects a profile of Raymond, from his odd-job employments to his declared statement of artistic purpose on a confessional cassette tape: “Anyone who conceives of writing as an agreeable stroll towards a middle-class lifestyle will never write anything but crap.”

Dead Man Upright, published the year before Raymond’s death of cancer in 1994, is the fifth and last of the Factory novels, which have been regularly reprinted by Melville House’s International Crime series since fall of last year. It is also the weakest, for it has the unenviable task of scripting a sequel to an apocalypse—the preceding books have detailed the gradual mental unraveling of the sergeant, concluding in 1990’s I Was Dora Suarez, a work of flaying, hell-bound prose which does not beg an encore.

Dead Man Upright finds the sergeant working to prevent rather than solve a murder, drawn to the case of a prim, quiet old man who has a curious pattern of serial dating quiet middle-aged women, which might easily lend itself to serial killing. With the rather promising premise of a murderer who exploits his victims’ last-chance-at-love hopes, Raymond shows little of his characteristic tractor-beam engagement to the inner lives of his prey and predators. Raymond’s other specialty is his tough-guy palaver, as generously flavored with the argot of the London underworld as in pre-Victorian slummer Pierce Egan, best displayed in the sergeant’s circling, prowling interrogations of “villains,” as the he calls his suspects when not sarcastically caressing them with feminine endearments. This is almost entirely absent in Dead Man Upright, replaced instead by a lugubrious coda involving the analysis of the killer, which seems like so much page-count stuffing. An awful anticlimax, then—but one must read the essential first four Factory novels first, to discover just how much it is so.

11/09/11 4:00am

The Adventures of Sindbad

By Gyula Krúdy,
Trans. George Szirtes

“I have been dead for years, and the door only opens before me if someone urgently desires me to call.” These are the words of Sindbad, “the voyager,” hero of a cycle of stories by the Hungarian prose lyricist and journalist Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933), who moved to surging fin-de-siècle Budapest from the country when he was 17 and there began compiling a bibliography and list of lovers, both of impressive length.

New York Review Books, who began to address the dearth of readily available English-language Krúdy with a run of his masterpiece novel Sunflower, has now reprinted the translation and introduction of The Adventures of Sindbad by George Szirtes previously published in a 1998 Central European University Press edition.

In 24 tales, few exceeding ten pages, the roué Krúdy’s literary alter-ego is seen haunting obscure corners of the prewar capital and provinces, revisiting past lovers and trailing femmes perdues. Sindbad is represented, alternately, as the ghost of a lovelorn suicide, undead, silver-haired, a reincarnated shapeshifter, three hundred years old. He might be taken as a similarly supernatural relation to that Transylvanian Dracula—indeed, Sindbad spends much time in the highlands beneath the Carpathians, and, as noted above, he can only enter a home when invited. Krúdy/Sindbad’s idea of the exchange of desire is, however, rather subtler than Stoker’s Victorian incubi/victim relationship: Hunter Sindbad is also prey. The deceiver is also deceived, not least by himself. Fated to cater perpetually to the fantasies of his women, he has barely any existence of his own.

The Adventures follows a dream-weaving seducer, and Krúdy’s prose is appropriately seductive, a litany of long, languid, sighing sentences that introduce an element of enchantment to Sindbad’s universe of provincial inns and restaurants in Pest where one might rendezvous with an actress or a goldsmith’s wife. Two of the finest tales introduce Sindbad to his female analog, Pauline von Boldogfalve, a flower girl risen to the rank of grand dame who has discovered the same secret that Sindbad has: “Is it not the case that everyone would soonest hear the story he believes in his heart of hearts, the one where he dreams his own life?”

I was introduced to Krúdy’s dream-life by the Hungarian-American historian John Lukacs’s wonderful Budapest 1900, which described Krúdy’s working technique thusly: “Like Balzac, he was always short of money; he wrote twelve, sixteen sheets every morning, with an old fashioned steel pen, in violet ink.” And here is Krúdy, on Sindbad’s style: “He lied continuously, fluently, without any let or hindrance, perpetually grinding out his insincerities like some busy watermill on the great River Danube.” Sindbad’s Adventures, then, are some of the loveliest violet-tinted lies ever put to paper—wreathed around some very nettling truths about what we call love.

08/31/11 4:00am

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu

Directed by Andrei Ujică

Of all the heads of Warsaw Pact nations unemployed by the 1989 revolutions, Nicolae Ceauşescu has the distinction of being the only one put up against the wall and shot by his adoring subjects.

The first images of The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu are handheld camcorder of the toppled dictator at the trial which immediately preceded his execution, his doomed wife, Elena, at his side. Like Charles I, Ceauşescu denies the authority of the assembled court to try him. Accused of commanding massacres and venal overbuilding, Ceauşescu seems genuinely indignant, and it’s difficult for a neutral observer not to feel sympathy, for in their rumpled refugee outfits, Nicolae and Elena resemble frail foreign grandparents.

This is the film’s only interruption of unscripted, rude reality, before a three-hour This Is Your Life flow of official documentation from the Ceauşescu regime, beginning in 1965 and ending in the kangaroo court. Autobiography‘s only “commentary” comes from Ujică’s soundtrack cues (amid Communist warblers, Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law” sounds like the best song you’ve ever heard) and his associative editing of footage collected from Romania’s National Film and Television Archives, much of it ghostly, silent. The film presupposes an audience that understands what the Ceauşescus pointedly do not: The decades of untold suffering that Romanians endured under their gross misrule, none of it visible herein. Explaining this disconnect is the project of the Autobiography.

We see Nicolae at Harvest Day celebrations; Nicolae presiding over Congress after Congress, giving the same speech for a quarter century; Nicolae on one of his famous, rigged bear hunts; Nicolae, penguin-shaped and graceless, playing volleyball; Nicolae greeting foreign leaders, from De Gaulle to Nixon to Brezhnev.

Ceauşescu is a homely man; a poodle-ish pompadour hardly compensates for his shortness. A dark comic episode from the recent Romanian omnibus film, Tales from the Golden Age, concerns a photo retoucher for the state-run press attempting to minimize the difference in height between Ceauşescu and visiting French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing. On a small scale, this gets at the phenomenon at the center of Autobiography: The spectacle of a hermetically sealed society constructed at every level around showing a single man what he wants to see, giving him the applause that he wants to hear.

Some of Autobiography‘s most extraordinary discoveries involve the author of one national simulacrum visiting foreign manufactories of same. In Los Angeles, Ceauşescu tours the Universal Studios lots. In North Korea, seemingly the entire populace shows up to fete Ceauşescu with the halftime show to end all halftime shows. On his own turf, Ceauşescu oversees the plowing of downtown Bucharest into a bog, preparing for the construction of his enormous House of the Republic, which, when complete, is the world’s second-largest building and, inside, looks like a wedding rental hall in Flushing.

More accurately, many images from Autobiography resemble nothing from the corporeal world, as Ujică’s film illustrates a statement recorded in Jon Ronson’s book Them, the speaker a Romanian government lawyer met at an auction of the Ceauşescu estates: “Romania was twenty million people living inside the imagination of a madman.”

Opens September 9 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

08/03/11 4:00am

The Judges of the Secret Court

By David Stacton

(NYRB Classics)

Time-travelling novelist David Stacton has returned to print for the first time in eons. This occasion is, hopefully, only the first spire of the emerging sunken cathedral that is Stacton’s fascinating body of work: three triptychs and change of fact-grounded historical novels, the odd biography and, to make ends meet, pseudonymously signed potboilers.
Stacton was born in San Francisco, travelled Europe widely, published principally in the UK, addressed his manuscripts from places like Tucson, Albuquerque, and Elephant Butte, and died, under confusing circumstances, in Denmark in 1968.

That’s a busy, vagabond-ish 44 years, but Stacton’s range as a novelist was boundless. He wrote of the Spanish conquest of the Yucatan, Medieval Japan, Caravaggio’s Italy, and the Thirty Years’ War. Stacton leapt between eras with such facility by combining a researcher’s rigor for detail with a worldview that assumed throughlines of human behavior across time. From the introduction to 1965’s Kaliyuga: “[M]y novels are based on the assumption that though reincarnation does not exist for us, nevertheless the same types of people are born over and over again.”

Stacton was an active and incisive narrator to his histories, and his conclusions on “types”were delivered in epigrammatic asides. Stacton often hid these venomous truths amid exotic bouquets of prose, but in The Judges of the Secret Court he adapts to the parched, rusty, domestic tone of postwar Washington City, its odor “a mixture of whisky, dust, and stale garbage in open drains.”Here Stacton bears witness to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the subsequent fates of the Keystone conspirators at the show-trial tribunal staged by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, especial attention paid to the railroading of presumed-innocent Mary Surratt. (The same case recently reviewed in the entirely disposable Robert Redford-directed The Conspirator.)

It’s one of Stacton’s truisms that history’s actors are exactly that; an aside from his family biography The Bonapartes is typical: “they were never off stage for longer than they could help.”For Judges, the record supplies Stacton with an actual dynasty of Shakespearians for stars. The story is framed by the late-in-life recollections of John Wilkes Booth’s surviving brother Edwin, wandering the Players Club that he founded, still standing today on the south side of Gramercy Park. The author himself did not resist the theatrical impulse. John Crowley’s introduction repeats reports of Stacton’s penchant for cowboy boots, while jacket photos show a quiffed author in sighing solitude, suggesting the thirtysomething Morrissey.

As the cast enter and exit their scenes, Stacton looks at them, then looks into them. The author’s interior view of the unhappy and condemned Lincoln lingers, as do his often astringent summaries of bit players. Of the tenant who will betray Mrs. Surratt: “He knew perfectly well what she thought of him. It was what he thought of himself.”The deadliest sin to Stacton, however, is moral cowardice combined with blind, hungry status-seeking, as epitomized by Stanton. After the secretary delivers his much-quoted deathbed eulogy for the fallen Lincoln (“Now he belongs to the ages”), the author dares to one-up it with an ominous prediction of gathering change (“He was the last of the old men”). It’s in such verdicts that Stacton gives his meaning to the historical allegory.

06/24/11 2:25pm


Not Coming to a Theater Near You presents Witchfinder General tomorrow night at 92YTribeca.

It was Woodrow Wilson, I believe, who exclaimed after seeing 1968’s Witchfinder General: “’Tis like history written with lightning.” The doomed director Michael Reeves’s apotheosis is, at any rate, one of the finest examples of British horror in its late-60s/early-70s magic hour, and micro-budget historical fiction with a galloping pulse. An early narration establishes the scene:

“The year is 1645. England is in the grip of bloody Civil War. On one side stand the Royalist party of King Charles. On the other, Cromwell’s Parliamentary party, the Roundheads… Justice and injustice are dispensed in more-or-less equal quantities without opposition…”

Ian Ogilvy plays Cornet Richard Marshall, a cavalryman fighting for the Parliamentary cause. Ogilvy was a former schoolmate of Reeves, a wunderkind who turned twenty-four on the set. (Reeves co-wrote the script with another childhood friend, Tom Baker.) Ogilvy looks, then, like a lanky, sparse-bearded boy—that is, like the sort of person who’s actually called to fight when war comes. On a brief furlough to the village of Brandeston, Marshall is betrothed to Sara (Hilary Dwyer), making a promise to protect Sara to her guardian uncle (Rupert Davies), a village priest who fears for her safety as anti-papist graffiti spring up over his parish. From an ominous opening, we understand that such slanders are the beacons to summon Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), a travelling extralegal witchhunter/inquisitor, and his thug lackey, John Stearne (Robert Russell). What occurs when Hopkins arrives is very grim; the pertinent point is that Cornet Marshall swears himself to find Hopkins, and to have his head.

The usually plummy Price was reigned in by Reeves’s direction; stern face framed by chin-length, iron-streaked locks, Price’s head is a long, solemn bell, tolling doom wherever he rides (his voice, however, remains a petulant kazoo). In contrast to his employer’s straight-backed puritan pretense, Stearne is a conscienceless wild boar of a man, a hunched, swaggering, grimy peasant prone to carriage-inn carousing with floppy-breasted whores. Witchfinder was co-produced by American International Pictures and Tony Tenser’s Tigon Films, the third-man label in British horror behind Hammer and Amicus, who’d financed Reeves’s previous film, The Sorcerers. AIP demanded the casting of Price; Tenser and AIP’s Louis M. Haywood shot the egregious nudie stuff.

This is still, perhaps, the nearest to a pure vision that we have from Reeves. A little over a year after Witchfinder premiered, the director would be found in his Kensington flat, dead from an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol, a sad scene of wasted promise sometimes spoken of as a Chatterton-esque suicide. “No wonder he killed himself” sniggered one awful woman in front of me on the purgatorial post-screening escalator ride out of the MoMA basement, after Reeves’s masterpiece had weathered the typically-unworthy Roy & Nina Titus rabble. (This is the closest I have yet come to picking up a post-screening assault charge.)

Speaking of: Witchfinder General was infamous upon release for its free spilling of tempera-paint blood and especially for its interrogation scenes. Like the hysterical screams bouncing through the castle keep that close the film, Witchfinder’s violence continues to resonate—not for its delirious gratuitousness, but for the opposite qualities, for the matter-of-factness with which the violence is presented, grounded in the hard, corporeal world that surrounds it, with Reeves showing a documentary impulse when shooting drownings, hangings, auto-de-fé, beatings, and dagger-probings. This bluntness extends right through the brutality of the final confrontation between Marshall and Hopkins, a pummeling butchery that is nearly the exact antithesis of “swashbuckling,” one of those stomach-dropping bitter victories that Anthony Mann wrote the textbook on.

Witchfinder begins with a chilly sun glaring through bare branches, the first of several, and establishes the tenor of the times with the sound of a gibbet being hammered together, followed by a wailing procession towards a by-now-routine neck-stretching. The role that torture serves as a sexual parable, understood intuitively if at all by its accusers, practitioners, and witnesses, is not overlooked. Earthy Stearne is perhaps closest to openly comprehending his motives: “I do the pricking you know, not Matthew,” he cheekily confides. On one of Hopkins and Stearne’s assignments, a once-beautiful girl is disfigured and burnt in the village square on the accusation of a squat, nasty little townsman (Godfrey James) whose voice grows husky and aroused when Hopkins recruits him as an assistant. When her body finally starts to crackle, cutaways to a strapping young man wailing in the crowd complete the triangle, telling the whole story of petty sexual intrigues avenged under pretense of piety. “Strange, isn’t it, how much iniquity the Lord invested in the female?” muses Hopkins.


As remarkable as the sexualized violence are the film’s other ideas of sex in the 17th century: The wink-wink way that Sara’s uncle seems to consent to a pre-marital sleepover (“Don’t keep mistress Sara up too late…”); the utter lack of blame towards the victim that Cornet Marshall expresses upon learning that his fiancée has been outraged. (The young performers are limited, but this translates into an innocence that the viewer feels protective of, despoiled.) All of this may be an evidence of Reeves and Baker’s idiosyncratic historical consciousness—their idea that the provincial England of 1645, even while plagued by religious warfare and persecutions, was in some places a more worldly society than generally believed. It may also be an attempt by Tony Tenser to make the mores of 1645 into those of 1968, and an excuse to show some more tits.

Playing loosely with the real-life characters of Hopkins and Stearne, the movie’s history doesn’t pass the A-levels according to most scholars. Reeves does catch the mythic truth of the era, if not the literal one, while thankfully not leaning on an as-relevant-today-as-ever witch hunt-as-flexible-political-metaphor reading—although Witchfinder has sometimes reductively been praised for this.

More than Arthur Miller, Reeves was an acolyte of American action movies generally, and in particular of Don Siegel, with who Reeves began a lifelong fan-mentor correspondence when he was still a public school boy. To his English subject matter, Reeves introduced Siegel’s classicist film grammar, his Roman clarity, axiomatic characterizations, sense of place, and narrative trajectory.

In short, Witchfinder paints John Ford tropes in John Constable colors. Among the identifiable Western elements, there are self-applied field surgeries and thundering horseback chases. England is here become a vast territory, where news travels slowly; per one interrogated fisherman: “I didn’t know there was a war on ‘til you gentlemen told me so.” Oliver Cromwell (Patrick Wymark) appears, sketched as belching, stub-fingered, greasy-lipped strongman, like nothing so much as a South-of-the-border generalissimo, while Wilfrid Brambell’s horse trader is in the Western’s great tradition of the character-actor stocked backwoods. Meeting on the Anglo-American common ground of obsession with due process, Witchfinder is set in a period of suspended rule-of-law, and the plot hinges on an oath of vigilante justice: “There’ll be no Magistrates involved,” swears Marshall, dreaming of settling his score with Hopkins. (Recently and much more lavishly, Bertrand Tavernier beautifully brought Delmer Daves crane shots to France’s own social-breakdown Wars of Religion in 2010’s The Princess of Montpensier.)

Reeves didn’t live to profit from Witchfinder’s success—at the time of his death he was preparing The Oblong Box for Price—but it was a breakthrough for DP John Coquillon, who caught the gloaming light over churchyard cemeteries and subtle tones of black bracken and fallow earth. Shooting Constable’s own Suffolk countryside in damp October, Reeves and Coquillon created a landscape of where death lurks behind bucolic stillness. Beginning with 1971’s Straw Dogs, Coquillon went on the shoot several films for another onetime Siegel acolyte, Sam Peckinpah. It should be noted that there is a detail in Witchfinder of children obliviously roasting potatoes in the ashes of a burnt witch, which anticipates the sadistic moppets cluttered around the ring-of-fire scorpion fight in The Wild Bunch. And if Michael Reeves remains, necessarily, a film-history footnote, let that footnote read that at least this once, he evoked a cruel and venal Olde England that rivaled Peckinpah’s West.

06/08/11 4:00am

Hollywood Musicals of the 1970s and 1980s, Part 1: The 1970s
June 17-26 at Anthology Film Archives

The 20th Century Limited that connected Broadway and Hollywood symbolically, New York and Los Angeles literally, stopped service in 1967: the same watershed year when, cultural lore has it, Bonnie and Clyde killed Doctor Doolittle, sacked Camelot, and the Big Movie Musical was forever invalidated.

Yet even as the wide-open 70s came on, with the long death rattle of the “Freed Unit” style expelling horrors like Mame, new approaches to the musical were underway. These are the subjects of Anthology’s program.

Some films here tap decade-specific musical currents: Typical of director Brian De Palma, Phantom of the Paradise sees conspiracy in the orchestration of successive pop trends (50s nostalgia, Beach Boys barbershop, Homo-Macho Glam), with Lilliputian “Rainy Days and Mondays” songwriter Paul Williams as Swan, Death Records’ producer and youth-culture Dr. Mabuse. Less cynical about rock n’ roll radio is the Roger Corman-produced Rock’n’ Roll High School, a jolly running joke casting the alleycat Ramones as a pinup boy band. (I have long been haunted by the film’s image of Joey with his mouth stuffed full of sprouts.)

With the notable exception of Bob Fosse’s output and Grease, musicals were consistent money pits. Among New Hollywood’s movie brats, the genre became the preferred form of career hari-kiri. Before Coppola’s One From the Heart, Martin Scorsese fell on the knife with Big Band 40s-set New York, New York (he recovered), Peter Bogdanovich with his Cole Porter 30s At Long Last Love (he didn’t).

The most piercing return to the musical’s heyday, however, comes with Pennies from Heaven‘s Great Depression. A pained story of pop treacle as spiritual sustenance during the breadlines era, Pennies stars Steve Martin, and was directed by former hoofer Herbert Ross from Dennis Potter’s script, accordioning his own BBC miniseries. Ross keeps Potter’s Brechtian conceit of characters broadcasting their souls through the warbled recordings they lip-synch, but the original homemade production numbers have blown up into show-stoppers, while designer Ken Adams and DP Gordon Willis decorate the “real” Chicago with Walker Evans and Edward Hopper iconography. The resulting fantasia goes beyond Potter’s tidy real-life/pop-heaven dichotomy: characters live and die half-in, half-out of a dream.

The title-tune number by Vernel Bagneris and Chris Walken’s strip-tease in Pennies are both stunners, but in The Little Prince, directed by MGM old-schooler Stanley Donen, the most pervasive choreography style of the era is on display. Bob Fosse dances the part of The Snake, in a number whose influence cannot be overestimated, particularly on Michael Jackson, seen here in The Wiz, and the new MTV “musicals” of the decade to come. Fosse’s jump from Broadway was the exception proving the rule, Stephen Sondheim’s decade-defining streak of conceptual productions having, conspicuously, little film presence. Fosse’s All That Jazz is all about the price of that success, a film a clef with Roy Scheider as the director’s alter-ego, breaking himself on the rack of sex n’ entertainment, credits rolling on his life while Ethel Merman bawls “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” As with Pennies, also released at the outset of the 80s, we find at the heart of these films the essentially 70s deconstructionist urge: The musical must be destroyed in order to save it.