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09/25/13 4:00am

Metallica: Through the Never
Directed by Nimród Antal

In its 33rd year, Metallica is a small business whose full-time staff—including a road team of about 100 people—and other overhead expenses require continuous touring. This arena-rock concert movie advertising their main income stream offers fans a combination of arena-level volume with recording-studio clarity: the mix is clean, the mastering all at the same deadening roar. “Loudness wars” scholars will note the dynamic monotony—the very opposite of live performance.

The band’s technical proficiency remains impeccable, their show as professional and visibly expensive as any KISS performance. Substituting fireballs for fireworks, the quartet strides over a custom amoeba-shaped in-the-round stage. Frontman James Hetfield looks like Ron Perlman at this point, white goatee and all, as he goes through the time-honored motions of giving fans what they want: mock-maniacal laughter and routine drop-outs for the crowd to sing the most famous lines. Drummer Lars Ulrich pounds away, guitarist Kirk Hammett plays arpeggios without breaking a sweat, and bassist Robert Trujillo makes appropriately scrunched-up metal faces.

It’s a long way from 2004’s fascinating Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster, which delved into the stresses and interpersonal frictions of keeping this kind of corporate-rock going. The impersonal performance is shot with a very basic level of proficiency by Hungarian-American hack Nimród Antal, who sometimes clearly runs out of good coverage options and resorts to awkward close-ups of Ulrich’s spare drumsticks. In 3D, the crowd’s an amorphous mass, the stray foregrounded middle finger or sight of someone checking their smart phone providing rare moments of non-stage-managed spontaneity.

The performance is intercut with an incredibly silly (“surreal”) narrative in which roadie Dane DeHaan has to go pick up a MacGuffin from a stalled van, only to run into an inexplicably rioting crowd (labeled “protesters” in the credits, although against what’s unclear) and an ominous horseman who’s hanging people from street lamps. The band famously refused to make a video until 1989’s “One,” and this feels like an outlet for every stupid idea they didn’t get to indulge in their first decade of existence; even Axl Rose might balk at the conceptual vaporousness. 

Opens September 27

04/03/13 4:00am

The Last Detail (1973)
Directed by Hal Ashby

This kind of parody Western follows two Navy sailors tasked with transporting a third to an 8-year stint in military jail. Meadows (Randy Quaid) tried to steal $40 from a box meant to receive funds for polio research—a pet cause of the base’s commander’s wife, hence the disproportionate sentence. “Badass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) have five days to get him from Norfolk, Virginia, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Greyhound and Amtrak ferry them from one uninspiring city to the next across the too-civilized East.

Badass and Mule take pity on Meadows and show him a boozy, whoring good time, including a stint in Manhattan. Here, two career sailors (self-dubbed “lifers”) and their young charge make contact with the no-longer-new counterculture. They don’t get laid, but their encounter with coffee house mantra chanter Donna (Luana Anders) leads them back to a boho pad with friendly idiots who grill them about Nixon and authoritarianism. File The Last Detail somewhere between 1970’s Joe and 1971’s Taking Off, in which hard-hat conformists and suburban parents (respectively) come to Manhattan and get a quick crash course on how they can rap with the kids but never really connect with them.

Featuring jocular male bonding with a bitter sting that’s too conspicuously undersold, The Last Detail is no anti-authoritarian landmark, but it’s a good time with superbly atmospheric location footage. “I hate this motherfucking chickenshit detail,” Mule grouses—chickenshit being a term originated in the army for rules that demean rather than instill morale, with military culture a close duplicate of the equally uninspiring civilian world. At Film Forum.

Opens April 5

02/06/13 4:00am

A Close-Up of Abbas Kiarostami,” the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s retrospective of the Iranian master’s works, runs from February 8-17, in advance of the February 15 release of his latest, Like Someone in Love.

“[I]t is in the utmost degree probable that all thought takes place in a spatial world,” Hermann Broch wrote in his 1931 novel The Sleepwalkers, “that the process of thought represents a combination of indescribably complicated many-dimensional logically extended spaces.” So too in Abbas Kiarostami’s films, whose protagonists conduct extensive physical journeys latently doubling as quests for tenuous knowledge. His 1987 international breakthrough Where Is The Friend’s House? follows a young boy trying to retrieve his school notebook from a classroom buddy. The trek’s constantly derailed by uninformative or downright wrong directions from those asked the titular question; the exchanges are as much about discovering how to treat conversation as an information acquisition process, modeling epistemology through pre-teens.

Critics who’ve slotted Kiarostami’s work alongside traditional slow-cinema arthouse masters have been attacked by writers such as Godfrey Cheshire for Eurocentric readings, but those who dilate on a solely cultural context to his work risk being accused of their own myopia. If you’re not well-informed about Iranian culture, touristic interpretations are an additional risk. To muddle matters further, Jonathan Rosenbaum reports in one essay that Pedro Costa told him that Jean-Marie Straub told him that one of Kiarostami’s films (made in his own country!) had the perspective of a tourist. This confusion about correct viewpoints—who’s looking at what, from what angle, and with what information—is fitting considering the epistemological angle. There’s no right way to approach Kiarostami, it’d seem, only wrongly dismissive ones.

Kiarostami’s short, medium and feature films prior to 1987’s Where Is The Friend’s Home? are—a few YouTube-able exceptions aside—hard to access and rarely shown; though a retro occurred at MoMA a little less than six years ago, this relatively quick return definitely isn’t too soon. While Lincoln Center’s close-to-complete retro doesn’t have oddities such as 1977’s instructional short How To Make Use of Leisure Time: Painting (in which we’re taught how to strip a door and apply fresh coats of paint), it’s a commendably thorough opportunity to catch up with his fully-developed early work.

11/21/12 4:00am

Killing Them Softly
Directed by Andrew Dominik

In 2007, the recession’s rapid emergence—the Dow peaked on October 9—coincided with the commercially stillborn September release of director Dominik’s brilliant, unmarketable, nearly three-hour Western The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford. Dominik has just recovered from the film’s failure, and he’s taken on the economy’s for his third feature. In the September 2008 that Aussie-transplant Dominik envisions, airports play C-SPAN2 and bars show C-SPAN, implausible subtextual-screaming ambience for otherwise uninflected one-on-one conversations masquerading as slow-boiling crime drama. (The counterfactual landscape is grating: layering audio of W., McCain and Obama directly over transitional scenes without bothering about diagetic plausibility would have been bolder—and less distracting.)

Minor crime lord Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) conceives of a card game heist. His chosen executor is Frankie (Scott McNairy); the wild card is Frankie’s partner Russell (Ben Mendelssohn), an Australian junkie. That nationality isn’t in the George V. Higgins source novel: Russell is Dominik’s jokey alter-ego, a scuzzy commodity dismissed by a contemptuous boss (“I can get Australians for 80 cents a dozen”), a mocking reference to his unemployability after Jesse James.

The heist is one of the year’s most suspenseful, with the aural threat of sudden sawed-off gunfire looming over unstably silent, nervously prolonged master shots. Dominik asserts himself stylistically throughout, alternately enjoyably—a drive-by assassination in NFL Films super-slow motion, spending 30 seconds alone on a bullet’s exit from a chamber—and tiresomely, as when Frankie and Russell shoot up and the former tries to get some answers: the widescreen frame irises or fades out seemingly a dozen times to simulate the latter’s stupor (to the strains of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” not even the most heavy-handed of the soundtrack cues). Frankie’s on the verge of smacking Russell out of his nodding off, and I wish he would.

Enforcer Brad Pitt (as “Jackie Cogan” but also as himself, the charismatic center of attention) is brought in to sort out the mess after Frankie and Russell rob a card game. There’s little carnage, just a lot of conversation: as in Higgins’s book (from which
the overwhelming dialogue’s been judiciously condensed), violence forms tiny ellipses between vernacular two-and three-man conversations. Most are hammily enjoyable (especially those with James Gandolfini as an aging, hooker-fixated, booze-addled hitman).

Higgins’s own narrative is supplanted by heavy-handed invocations of the ever-popular, would-be sardonic analogies between putatively legitimate capitalism and its organized-crime counterparts. Setting the price of an imported hitman’s wage, Cogan argues, “in this economy I think a quick 15 for two days’ work is pretty good.” The heist is mirrored by reports on credit overextension, two candidates’ fever-pitch hyperbole failing to propose real regulatory reform, and announcements of bail-out packages from President Bush. At the climax, Cogan delivers the thesis loud and clear, in the event it somehow hasn’t been conveyed strongly enough. “America is not a country, it’s a business,” he fumes as Obama invokes “community” on the TV. The message is hard to argue with, but the 60th iteration of this theme is as rote as the first.

Opens November 30

10/10/12 4:00am

Brief Enouncter (1945)
Directed by David Lean
Opens October 12 for a weeklong run at Film Forum

The first act of Brief Encounter is a grueling anticlimax. Laura Jesson (Celia Howard) is meeting her almost-lover Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) for the last time, in the refreshment lounge of the train station that shuttles both back to their suburban married lives. First-time viewers don’t know they’re the main characters, let alone desperately in love, having been misdirected by an opening low-comedy segment in which station attendant Albert Godby (Stanley Holloway) flirts with faux-aristocratic barmaid Myrtle Bagot (Joyce Carey). Alec and Laura’s conversation seems comparatively unremarkable and benumbed and in any case is soon interrupted by the latter’s meddlesome neighbor Dolly Messitor (Everley Gregg). Laura faces her neighbor, pretending to hear her chattering recap of a day of mundane details, but exhaustedly thinks (in voiceover) “I wish you would stop talking.”

Laura comes into town once weekly for shopping, a change of her library book and a movie; she first meets Alec when she gets a piece of grit on her eye, which he handily extracts with a handkerchief. “What exciting lives we lead,” Alec cracks when they run into each other on the street a week later. The week after that, a chance encounter at a lunch spot (against the backdrop of an earnest, beaming and dreadful string quartet) leads to an afternoon at the pictures, where they burst into hysterical giggling together when the movie palace organist turns out to be the middle-aged cellist with cat-eye glasses.

Laura and Alec are the only two people in their circle who recognize the provincial awfulness around them. Their longing is an antisocial one: to be away from their peers, and away from England. Envisioning a life together, Laura lapses into a reverie of visions projected onto the unremarkable passing landscape outside her train home. “Then we were in Venice,” she says over visions of gondolas, “far away.” Possibilities of escape are closed off for Laura; the film, though not explicitly, is meant to be pre-WWII. Her postwar equivalent is Ann Todd in Lean’s underknown 1949 The Passionate Friends, who reunites with a former lover in Switzerland and whose despair over an almost-affair leads her—like Laura—to nearly throw herself into an oncoming train’s path at the climax. In Passionate Friends, Todd’s rescued at the last second by her finally sympathetic husband Claude Rains. Here, Laura grimly, dutifully saves herself, looking like she’s about to vomit.

Johnson’s performance is a marvel of misery. Laura falls in love with Alec in a single shot as he talks about his medical goals. “All good doctors must primarily be enthusiasts,” he says, and as he outline his ideas, his earnest, unpretentious idealism stirs Laura. The camera moves closer to her face as the contours of her skin pull slowly into a happier shape, one of the most remarkable pieces of purely reactive acting on record. Alec isn’t just a mirror for her own disgust, but someone who helps Laura realize she has an interior life unshareable with those around her. The discovery of an inner world—like Katharine Hepburn in Lean’s Summertime, who actually made it to Venice—is all well and good but thoroughly unhelpful for her daily life.

Brief Encounter contains a lot of conflicting ideas and possible interpretations. The six-times married Lean (then only on his second spouse) understands Laura’s urges, but the film has a gay cult following attuned to its shadow narrative (attributed to Noel Coward, whose play was greatly expanded for filming), in which the couple must hide their urges from the world around them much like criminalized gay men. Howard didn’t understand why his second ever film role didn’t end in consummation. (Lean told biographer Kevin Brownlow that Howard asked “They know jolly well this chap’s borrowed a flat, they know exactly why she’s coming back to him, why doesn’t he fuck her?”) That frustration is intensely felt (if slightly enervating in its second act, which can only repeat itself), but Brief Encounter is most compactly understood as a monument to romance as antisocial pact, an appeal both specific to its time and place and one with universal lure.

08/08/12 4:00am

Total Recall
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
August 10-16 at Film Forum

Uniquely clumsy among 80s action colleagues whose fist-to-face combat skills were a major selling point—Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone—Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lack of control over his body is often painfully evident. All those muscles don’t do what he wants them to do: think of the many ineffectual punches thrown in Commando—hence the common decision to bulk Schwarzenegger up to total invincibility with ridiculously outsized rocket launchers and automatic weapons. His most successful performances were enabled by directors sympathetic to his obvious weaknesses. Left unprotected, the results can be painful: in Arnold’s other 1990 blockbuster, Kindergarten Cop, honest panic is visible when arch-hack Ivan Reitman forces him to provide long-take exposition and empathy.

Arnold’s best performances make him all body and no intellect, inelegantly lurching from one shot to the next: the Terminator movies make a joke out of his lack of intuitive English-language inexpressiveness, while Predator humbled him to a scrappy feral warrior. In Total Recall, it’s not Arnold’s body but his mind that’s needed: troubled dreams of Mars drive him to Rekall, a company which implants simulated memories of vacations. Douglas Quaid’s (Schwarzenegger) knowledge of corporate malfeasance makes him a hero; the explosions are the gasoline-soaked cherry on the action sundae. Total Recall risks embarrassment by foregrounding Arnold as actor: enraged, he’s totally plausible, his substantive bulk emphasizing his isolation from the crass surroundings. “Subversive” is too subtle an adjective for Paul Verhoeven’s depiction of a corporate-controlled future populated by incredibly unpleasant people, whose every other word is a variant on “shit” or “fuck.”

Recall screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett expanded on the logic of their earlier Alien, in which a corporation casually endangers its workers for the profit of the bottom-line. Main baddie Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) controls sales of “tribinium,” and acts very much like a up-with-strip-mining/down-with-people CEO, sneering “I can do whatever I want” and instructing minion Richter (Michael Ironside) to quit questioning his judgment: “I don’t give you enough information to think!” This isn’t subtle, but it’s a relevant reminder amid daily revelations of corporate unaccountability run amok.

The irony of using corporate cash to make an anti-corporate film for the ultimate goal of corporate profit isn’t lost on Verhoeven, who turns the omnipresent product placement to his thematic favor: in a world run by such horrible, remorseless, people, the mise-en-scene prominence accorded Pepsi seems more ominous than cutely crass. Arnold’s heroic delusions are vindicated, though others try to make him think he’s insane: is it likely, he’s asked, that he’s “the victim of an international conspiracy to make him think he’s a lowly construction worker”? That’s a decent working definition of Marxism, and the answer is “yes, actually.” Total Recall is, effectively, an incitement to mild class warfare which insists minimum-wage workers deserve more respect, rather than expecting constantly patronizing rhetoric to make their labor more unpleasant than necessary.

Credit where due: the new Rialto Pictures DCP presentation is pretty great, preserving grain without turning the images into embalmed plastic (even if I wish the 70mm prints struck on the film’s initial release could be dug up instead). A subversive action film must proceed with a straight face, and Verhoeven’s orderly presentation of violent chaos remains impressive. The violent grotesquerie has aged well, with only a few hairdo hangovers dating the film to the tail end of the 80s. Enormously expensive (and appropriately remunerative), Total Recall has aged remarkably well, a spikily disagreeable blockbuster despite years of cultural ubiquity.

05/23/12 4:00am

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Directed by Lewis Milestone

In his delightfully cranky 1991 volume BAD or The Dumbing of America, World War II soldier Paul Fussell wrote of veterans’ disdain for war movies, noting fellow servicemen “were especially contemptuous of those in which artillery and mortar shells went whooosssh when they went off with big showy gouts of oil-produced flame instead of the authentic (but nonvisual) deafening ” A silent version of 1930’s All Quiet On The Western Front was shot simultaneously, but audio is essential for the still-deafening sound of mortar shells whistling through the air. The film easily passes the Fussell Verisimilitude Test.

Raleigh Trevelyan noted of the fighting at Anzio in 1944 that “it was a complete All Quiet on the Western Front film set once more.” Lewis Milestone’s World War I combat scenes are still similarly convincing. Images stand out from the totally immersive carnage: amazingly fast left-to-right tracking shots zoom through the trenches, recording machine guns mowing down soldiers by the dozen; bodies falling into a crater that’s immediately blasted into oblivion; a pair of hands cling to a fence without any attaching arms, glimpsed for a terrified, too-much-to-take-in fraction of a second. That last shot would’ve been impossible in a Hollywood film made even a few years later, and another moment’s equally, shockingly candid, when a soldier soils himself in fright his first night at the front. “When we come back, I’ll buy you all some nice, clean underwear,” cracks gruff Sgt. Stanislas “Kat” Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim).

As an anti-war film, Western Front superficially follows the same mold as the WWII propaganda films that would follow: a platoon of lightly individuated youth is whipped into shape by a martinet of a drill sergeant, then bond under cranky-but-caring Kat’s tutelage. The drill sergeant is village postmaster Himmelstoss (John Wray), who takes advantage of his position of authority to force his charges to flop down into the mud repeatedly under the guise of preparing them for battlefield action. Under his care, young men who look like bluff American fraternity brothers turn into German-singing robots, crude but effective shorthand for dehumanization. Himmelstoss is, predictably, a coward in battle, his Prussian mustaches wilting on the field.

It’s not surprising that Front‘s German release was quickly ended by the Nazis. At the first screening open to the public, Joseph Goebbels arrived with some 300 reinforcements. The audience jeered “German soldiers had courage. It’s a disgrace that such an insulting film was made in America!” When such disturbances interrupted the screening, Goebbels stood up and denounced the film as “an attempt to destroy Germany’s image.” (In an amazing display of what can only be deemed chutzpah, the Nazis unleashed stink bombs and brought the screening to an end, then asked for refunds.)

Aside from Nazi denunciations of “the Jewish film of shame,” a student association at the University of Berlin condemned the film’s “mockery of the sense of sacrifice.” Both as Erich Maria Remarque’s original novel and as a film, Front surely deserves a large degree of credit for dealing serious blows to the reflexive valorization of dying for one’s country that had been repeated less and less eloquently since Horace wrote “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country). Such anti-jingoistic sentiments would have to be laid aside during World War II, but Front‘s remarkable technical achievements helped pound home a message that’s considerably weaker in verbal form.

Battle scenes aside, the depictions of the alternating boredom and hysteria of trench life still convince, even if one of the privates’ yelps of fear sound distractingly like The Three Stooges going “yip yip yip.” The opening remains astonishing: as soldiers return home, marching through the streets, Milestone cranes up and backwards, entering a classroom where a professor exhorts his students to enlist. The sheer scale and slow majesty of the shot could credibly belong to Visconti or Bertolucci. Later dramatic infelicities (the caricatured crudity of complacent home life, general speechifying on The Horror Of It All) fade from mind quickly; Front remains a must-see for its harrowing combat scenes and endlessly stunning visuals, on and off the field of battle.

Opens May 25 at Film Forum

04/25/12 4:00am

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)
Directed by Otto Preminger

Bonjour Tristesse was Otto Preminger’s last relatively modest film before a 6-year leap into the world of prestige adaptations, a run that began with the poorly received Porgy And Bess before a series of films taken from monstrous 400-page-plus doorstops now long-out-of-print. This may look like a cynical producer’s latching onto market trends, but the bloated qualities of these books was a boon: by sticking to the plot, more or less, Preminger could junk the dialogue and worldview at will and flesh out the remaining skeleton with superior material. (If you don’t believe me, read Allen Drury’s Advise And Consent.)

Seeing as (in its current Penguin issue) Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse runs a mere 113 pages, its adaptation necessitated a greater degree of fidelity. Arthur Laurents wasn’t terribly impressed with the then-18-year-old’s novella, but his script closely follows its contours. Preminger’s tinkering begins with perverse casting: David Niven as Raymond, father of all-American Jean Seberg (as “Cécile”), who falls for his dead wife’s friend Anne (British Deborah Kerr). Niven’s the smooth roue blithely overseeing the uneasy dual between the two most important women in his life, whose different worldviews have less to do with France than a generation gap.

Sagan ominously hints at a bad conclusion at the end of every chapter: Preminger and screenwriter Arthur Laurents go further, opening in somber black-and-white flash-forward, with Cécile reciting her unsalvageable voice-over confirming her sadness (“I’m surrounded by a wall”). Seberg’s performance is “wrong” in every way, but she doesn’t look like any other Hollywood heroine of 1958. Even when clunky and unresponsive, it’s easy to accept her non-performance as a manifestation of a totally different mindset from her much more experienced co-stars. She sounds like a girl group frontwoman recounting in deadpan how she and her high school love died in a car accident late one night. As she looks straight into the camera while dancing, Josephine Baker takes the stage to sing the title song. With typical cost-cutting expediency, Preminger cuts out all ambient sound and lets Seberg’s musings alternate with Baker’s equally from-nowhere song. The effect’s oddly Lynchian: suddenly there’s no real world, only a troubled interior world unnoticed by those onscreen, song and a woman’s gaze casting a Club Silencio spell on the audience.

In the book, Anne worries over Cécile’s emaciated state (“To look presentable you ought to put on six pounds; your cheeks are hollow and one can count every rib. Do go in and fetch yourself some bread and butter”). Both on page and onscreen, Cécile admires Anne’s elegance and her ability to present a mature romantic challenge to the kind of frivolous young things her dad favors, but in the film the contrast between Seberg’s instantly iconic pixie cut and 60s-readiness and Kerr’s is much more clearcut: Cécile is young and instinctively charming, while Anne is middle-aged and clinging to authority thanks to her status as a well-known dressmaker and master of social etiquette.

This iconographic battle is far more convincing than the alleged dramatic focus. Preminger is a cinpehile god, and rightfully so, but I’m unconvinced that—of his many films that could receive week-long revivals—Bonjour Tristesse will evangelize the uninitiated. This is indeed visual storytelling, in the most obvious ways: Cécile is crowded to the edge of the frame once her beloved daddy takes over most of the screen with his fiancée and so on. The effects are purely visual (textbook “cinematic,” in fact) but no more revelatory for that, and the dialogue can be hard to take.

Only one scene stands out as a purely successful, auteur-generated effort. Cécile, Anne and Raymond are out for the night with the latter’s numbered-days mistress Elsa (Mylene Demongeot), who plunges into conga-line-esque dance. Having bugged the party into joining her in mindless dance, Preminger suddenly plunges his characters into a far larger social sea: Anne and Raymond reach a crucial new stage of commitment, but only in passing, one of many dancers passing a camera that alternately rests to observe the passing human flood and cranes up in restrained celebration of unexpectedly majestic spontaneous revelry. Our heroes pass by almost unnoticed, a magical broadening of claustrophobic drama that suddenly acknowledges an outside world.

Opens April 27 at Film Forum

04/11/12 4:00am

The Graduate (1967)
Directed by Mike Nichols

Adjusted for inflation, The Graduate is the 21st-highest grossing film in domestic box office history, nestled awkwardly between Jurassic Park and Fantasia. A former mass culture phenomenon is now best known for a single iconic shot/line (“Are you trying to seduce me, Mrs. Robinson?”) and a Simon & Garfunkel song, but has otherwise been withdrawn from widespread consciousness. Yet The Graduate hasn’t ossified into a youth-of-’67 time capsule, despite charges most succinctly leveled by Roger Ebert, who in 1998 took the occasion of a re-release to celebrate Mrs. Robinson’s survival of “that insufferable creep, Benjamin” and remaining “the only person in the movie you would want to have a conversation with.”

Complaints about Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson being marginalized in favor of a dullard young man originated with the film’s initial release: writing in Film Quarterly in Spring 1968, Stephen Farber and Estelle Changas sighed that “what seems to be a lamentable blindness to Mrs. Robinson’s very real sexiness is to be taken as a moral victory.” But they also noted that Mike Nichols had made a “Youth-grooving movie for old people”; they meant that as a pejorative but it accurately matches producer Laurence Turman’s 1992 recollection: “Kids started it, then the parents went, then everybody went.”

Nichols’s coolly analytical satire denigrates panicky postgrad Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) without invalidating his self-confessed “compulsion to be rude all the time.” An hour in, that statement’s the first indication Benjamin’s been aware of how odd his behavior seems, and how willing he is to make everyone in his parents’ suburban California neighborhood uncomfortable to buy some time to brood. The Graduate bluntly presents Benjamin’s awareness that he’s not even a peripheral player in a youth movement around him. In the very first shot, his right-hand immobility on a moving sidewalk is underlined by an automated message to pedestrians to pass on the left.

No liberalism for Benjamin, who’s shown locked in place even in motion, a very literal motif tirelessly repeated by Nichols and cinematographer Robert Surtees. Other metaphors are similarly on-the-head. In his room, an aquarium display mini-scuba diver blows bubbles involuntarily. Benjamin will subsequently be humiliated for the amusement of his parents’ friends by being pushed, in full scuba gear, down into the pool, where he sits and sulks, another object planted in its place. After the affair with Mrs. Robinson begins, he floats on top of the pool, a callow California sunbather; when the fallout breaks, the heavens come pouring down.

None of this is subtle, and from the moment of release there were complaints that the anti-suburbia, death-by-a-thousand-cocktail-parties theme was tired. But the visual storytelling is perfect: with editor Sam O’Steen, the potentially insufferable Simon & Garfunkel montages are compact, wordless and perfectly evocative. The on-the-noseness is earned by the film’s dispassionate scorn.

The generation gap tormenting Benjamin—a man with his parents’ natural dullness a generation too soon—leads him to Berkeley in search of Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross). There, though, he sees nothing but her, a convenient answer to his utter lack of an interior life. Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry’s subsequent two collaborations (1970’s Catch-22 and 1973’s The Day of the Dolphin) were angrier and more inchoate; by the latter, Benjamin’s metaphorical underwater prison has become the home of a persecuted dolphin, a completely inchoate metaphor.

Hoffman’s infinite panoply of panicked facial reactions and the truly stunning planning of every sequence complement a film whose skepticism has aged very well. An appropriate double-feature would be 1971’s Taking Off, starring Henry as a respectable New York state parent sucked into early-70s New York grime and counterculture while ostensibly searching for his runaway daughter. Parents and youth get an equally (un)sympathetic treatment; The Graduate errs on the side of equal caricature, and its clear-eyed meanness remains invigorating.

Opens April 11 at Film Forum

02/01/12 4:00am

The Story of Film: An Odyssey
Directed by Mark Cousins
February 1-16 at MoMA

NYU’s film department mandates that freshman take “Language of Film,” designed to get future visionaries like alumnus Brett Ratner thinking about shot composition, editing and cinema’s rich heritage. The catch is that professors get to choose what they show: my particular instructor specialized in minority representation issues and was obviously disinterested in the bigger picture. Our first lecture compressed film’s first 30 years into a grudging frog-march through greatest hits in innovation: a Birth of A Nation clip here, an “Odessa Steps” sequence here. No one would be inspired or informed by this: it made film history seem like a precursor to the really important movies, like Smoke Signals.

I’m not kidding when I suggest that it’d be safer for NYU—and film schools in general—to just sit down the filmmakers of the future with Mark Cousins’ 15-hour, eight-episode TV travelogue The Story of Film. His basic narrative: Hollywood represents the “bauble” of romantic filmmaking (not, he stresses, “classical” values), and while there’s riches to be gained from its history, the Hollywood-centric vision of film history is—Cousins unambiguously announces from the outset—“factually inaccurate and racist by omission.”

There will be omissions: avant-garde boosters will be distressed that the form is represented by nothing more than a few seconds of a Walter Ruttmann short and (I’m sorry to say) Cremaster 3. Call it “The Story of Narrative Film With A Few Documentaries” if you like: this is a great introduction to film history, and if you’ve already got a grip on that it’s inevitably fun to watch your hours of viewing recast by Cousins’s arguments and formal chops. The first four clips—Saving Private Ryan, Three Colors: Blue, Casablanca, Record of a Tenement Gentleman—put holistic film history into action.

The really good news is that Cousins is no slouch as a director himself: he’s a big fan of the “phantom ride,” where a camera pushes forwards or backwards through space on a dolly/car/trolly (that, he says, is a “proletarian” tracking shot) with kinetic speed, and his globe-trotting compositions push through cityscapes. Hollywood is represented by a red Christmas-tree ornament; to demonstrate how deep-focus lenses work, Cousins bounces it off the lens. To save time and give people who know their film history more to work with, the visuals are often densely allusive: speaking of sound film’s temporary corruption in the 1930s towards sitcom-flat lighting, Cousins shows us Times Square, where a billboard for the musical of Women on the Verge over the transformed Palace Theater (Broadway now, a film palace in the time he’s speaking of) demonstrates commercialism’s current appropriation of past innovations. And stuff like this keeps happening for 15 hours.

Cousins’s favorite term of approbation is “innovative”: this is what the great films of his canon are. He’s not here to scold people for watching Jaws: he’s here to celebrate and make enjoyably eccentric choices (there isn’t a frame or mention of The Jazz Singer here). Film history is united through editing and graphic matches, like when Cousins cuts from the soaring skies of Top Gun to Blue Velvet’s sky. Cousins narrates throughout in a lilting Irish brogue that makes every other word sound like a question. And take note NYU: he frequently points out what lens is being used, calls attention to the shot composition, takes note of natural light, et al. This isn’t just the story of film, but an introduction to its language.