Category: Essays

Nov 22 2014

That’s not Art, that’s Smut!

Sex sells, as the saying goes, and movie producers, distributors and exhibitors have known this since pictures began to move.

In That’s Sexploitation, filmmaker Frank Henenlotter and exploitation legend David Friedman celebrate the freewheeling culture of sexploitation, the sensationalistic underground of independent filmmakers and studios who cashed in on promises of carnal thrills and forbidden spectacle, specifically naked flesh (mostly female). These are the films that sprung up between the cracks of the production code and studio restrictions and, as the moniker suggests, they aimed straight for the lurid and the tawdry.

But not all films that sold themselves with the promise of erotic thrills and taboo-busting presentations of sexuality were a matter of pure exploitation. American movies started taking on adults themes once again in the fifties while films from the more permissive Europe blurred the lines between art and erotica as they explored sexuality with both a maturity and a more graphic explicitness. In other words, people got naked and shared bed right on the screen. “That’s not smut, that’s art,” was the implicit argument, even if it was the sex that the exhibitors marketed.

Here are ten films from the heady days of the sexual revolution to the present that smudge the line between art and exploitation. Sex may be the subject, the subtext, or the motivation, but promise of steamy spectacle and erotic delights was used attract patrons that normally might not otherwise attend such fare and give them the cinematic equivalent to the time-honored justification for purchasing Playboy magazine: “I get it for the articles.”

‘Contempt’

Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
Here are two examples of marketing skin to attract audiences to challenging films from European intellectual filmmakers. Contempt (1963) is an unlikely meeting between nouvelle vague legend Jean-Luc Godard’s anti-Hollywood sensibility and the showman aesthetic of (uncredited) producer Joseph E. Levine in an international co-production about the clash between art and commerce, the politics of artistic integrity and compromise and the dissolution of love. To meet his producer’s demands, Godard added an opening bedroom scene and inserted pin-up style nude shots of star Brigitte Bardot. Wouldn’t you know he actually makes them work as a comment on the very process of filmmaking compromise? Blow-Up (1966), the English-language debut of Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, is an existential murder mystery starring David Hemmings as a jaded fashion photographer who may have taken a picture of murder and Vanessa Redgrave as the mystery woman of his photograph. Set in swinging London, full of mod fashions, free love, a score by Herbie Hancock and an appearance by the Yardbirds, it’s a timepiece by way of Antonioni’s brand of contemporary alienation and it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It was also the first mainstream movie to show female pubic hair (however fleetingly) and that was a bigger selling point for a lot of the patrons.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Nov 19 2014

‘Scarecrow’ on TCM

“A mixture of Midnight Cowboy and Of Mice and Men” is how Gene Hackman described Scarecrow (1973), a meandering road movie about two misfit drifters who meet up on a stretch of country highway winding through northern California. Hackman is Max, a quick-tempered fellow just out of prison after serving six years of assault, and Al Pacino is the gentle jester Francis, a sailor back home from the sea and ready to face the girlfriend that he abandoned with their child five years before. Max renames his new pal Lion (“I have a problem with Francis”) and makes him a partner in his deluxe car wash, a business he is determined to open once he gets to Pittsburg, where his saving await him. They hitchhike, ride the rails, and walk the open roads when they have to, taking detours to visit a friend in Denver and Francis’ child (he doesn’t know if it’s a boy or a girl) in Detroit. They make an odd couple, Max pushing every slight or argument with a stranger into a fight while Francis attempts to defuse tensions with jokes and clownish antics.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on TCM on Friday, November 21

Nov 10 2014

The Dialectics of Humor: Russian Silent Comedy

Let’s face it, Soviet silent cinema isn’t renowned for its sense of humor. And that’s a shame.

Most of us were introduced to the silent era of Russian film through the dialectic exercises of Sergei Eisenstein, who combined the intellectual and the visceral in such films as Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) or the dazzling montage symphony that is Dziga Vertov‘s Man With a Movie Camera (1929). They are thrilling works with serious themes and a rigorous aesthetic and intellectual approach. But for all their celebration of the proletariat as the collective hero of the great Soviet experiment, the working men and women of the Soviet Union really just wanted to have fun at the movies and the most popular Russian films were indeed light entertainment and energetic comedies. They’ve merely been harder to find than the rousing celebrations of Soviet values and nationalistic displays of great communist victories, films elevated as standard bearers of the era of Soviet Formalism and the editing revolution, at least until recently. In fact, for a long time, the only widely seen example of Soviet comedy was Chess Fever (1925), a comic short spoofing the real-life chess obsession that swept Russia during the 1925 chess tournament in Moscow.

‘Chess Fever’

Co-director Vsevolod Pudovkin was one of Soviet cinema’s intellectual heavyweights, a theorist who apprenticed under filmmaking pioneer Lev Kuleshov and helped develop the theories of montage that guided formalist filmmaking in the twenties. He actually applies some of those ideas to this funny and clever short comedy about a chess addict who risks losing his fiancée in his chess obsession. Pudovkin went on to make such serious features as Mother (1926) and The End of St. Petersburg (1927) but Chess Fever is all lighthearted fun, a lark rather than a lesson. And it showed that Pudovkin’s brand of montage was also effective when it came to humor: the perfect cut was just as effective in delivering a punchline as pounding home a political point.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Nov 03 2014

VHS Obsessed: ‘Adjust Your Tracking’

Adjust Your Tracking

Perhaps you need to be of a certain generation to get nostalgic over the low-fidelity, awkward, more-fragile-than-it-looks technology of movies on VHS tape. Those little plastic movie bricks storing reels of magnetic tape aren’t just outmoded twentieth-century technology, they’re downright archaic, not to mention fatally impermanent. That’s not to say that DVD is forever, but apart from the fragility of those half-inch ribbons, which get brittle over time and can get creased or crinkled or snapped as they are wound across the spinning drums of the VCR with pincers that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Cronenberg film, the magnetic seal holding the information recorded on the oxide strip of the tape decays over time. The images will eventually break up, dissolve, evaporate into the ether. In the case of many tapes from the beginning of the video era, they already have.

But as former video store mogul Sam Sherman remarks in the documentary Adjust Your Tracking, “People will collection anything,” and there is tremendous nostalgia associated with VHS tape and video culture it defined from the first “Select-a-Vision” commercial tape releases in 1977 to A History of Violence, the last movie released on VHS by the studios. It’s no exaggeration to say that the videocassette changed our relationship with movies.

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Oct 07 2014

‘Destroy All Monsters': Rumble in the Jungle with Godzilla and Friends

The original Godzilla (1954), especially the original Japanese release, is more than a mutant monster movie of the atomic-scare fifties. It is a stark disaster thriller that evokes the terrors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the lingering poison of the nuclear radiation. The two destructive forces come together in a screaming atomic lizard, a dinosaur roused from dormancy by the lingering radiation and set loose for a new nuclear holocaust, and the black and white photography lends an atmosphere of dark and doom.

'Destroy All Monsters'

The sequels are a different story. The films went color. The special effects of cities stomped to rubble by a radioactive dinosaur became a kind of giddy entertainment instead of a nightmarish metaphor. And as far as the movies were concerned, Godzilla was no longer a post-nuclear plague unleashed upon Japan let alone a villain. He was a character in its own right and the stories that followed his 1954 debut mutated (so to speak) into monster smackdowns that allowed audiences to root for his victory against a new menace to civilization without any sense of irony. While not exactly a friend of mankind, he turned into a protector of Earth when it is threatened by other monsters and, later, alien invaders. This was Godzilla’s turf and no one was muscling in.

Destroy All Monsters (1968), the ninth Godzilla film and the twentieth kaiju (giant monster) movie from Toho, returned Godzilla godfather Ishiro Honda to the helm.

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Oct 05 2014

Essay: ‘The General’

This essay was originally written for the Silent Fall 2014 program presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on September 20, 2014

'The General'

No silent moviemaker ever engaged with the machinery of modern life as resourcefully as Buster Keaton did. From One Week (1920), his debut as a solo director after his apprenticeship with Fatty Arbuckle, to The Cameraman (1928), his final masterpiece, Keaton routinely sparred with the mechanized world. He could be confounded in his early shorts—sometimes modern conveniences got the best of him—but as Keaton moved into feature films and matured as a filmmaker, his characters persevered in the struggle, thanks to a combination of curiosity, commitment, and ingenuity. Whereas Chaplin waged war against the machines with underdog defiance, Keaton mastered the magnificent marvels of modern engineering to triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds. In The Navigator (1924), Keaton tamed an abandoned luxury liner and emerged with one of the biggest hits of his career. After making three features of a more modest scope, The General (1926) marked his return to filmmaking on an ambitious scale. Built around a majestic prop that becomes a character in its own right—a locomotive steam engine—it is still filled with intimate moments. It is a grand achievement.

The story of The General comes from a chapter of Civil War history, a true tale of Union spies who infiltrated the South, stole a passenger train in Georgia, and drove it north pursued by Southern conductors who eventually captured the raiders. According to Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, his reliable collaborator and gag man, handed him William A. Pittenger’s account of the incident as a potential project. Keaton streamlined the story to a deceptively simple structure of two mirrored chases—one north to recapture the stolen engine and another back south—as well as added a love interest and a kidnapping to make the rescue personal. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he took on the perspective of the South.

Continue reading at San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Sep 21 2014

‘Focus’ on TCM

The feature film debut of celebrated photographer and commercial director Neal Slavin, the 2001 drama Focus is based on Arthur Miller’s 1945 novel about a meek, quietly conformist personnel manager at a New York company whose life is transformed after he gets a new pair of glasses. “They make you look Jewish,” his mother complains, and sure enough longtime neighbors and co-workers start looking askance at him. William H. Macy plays Lawrence Newman, a Presbyterian who traces his American ancestry back to the 18th century and a life-long single man who cares for a wheelchair-ridden mother. When he falls under suspicion of Hebrew ancestry, his middle class Brooklyn neighborhood puts him on “the list” and the anti-Semitic harassment begins, as it does with the Jewish news agent on the corner (played by David Paymer). Laura Dern co-stars as Gertrude, a New York girl who is herself mistaken for Jewish when she interviews for a job at Lawrence’s company, which has a strict hiring policy: Christian only.

Focus is based on the sole novel by playwright Arthur Miller, which was written while World War II was still being fought and published in 1945. “It was probably the first novel about anti-Semitism ever published in this country,” said Miller in a 2001 interview, and it made some publishers nervous at the time.

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Shows on TCM on Tuesday, September 23

Sep 18 2014

‘Aaron Loves Angela’ on TCM

Like his father, celebrated “Life” magazine photo-journalist turned novelist and filmmaker Gordon Parks, Gordon Parks, Jr. made the jump from still photography to filmmaking. And also like his father, he had his greatest success in the so-called “Blaxploitation” genre, the low-budget action and crime films with African-American stars and generally urban settings that became successful in the 1970s. Where Parks Sr. had his first box-office hit with Shaft (1971), Parks Jr. made his directorial debut with Super Fly (1972), starring Ron O’Neal as a flamboyant drug dealer trying to make one last big score.

For his fourth and final feature, Parks Jr. took on a more intimate and personal story. Aaron Loves Angela (1975) is a tough and tender coming of age drama set in Harlem.

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Plays on TCM on Thursday, September 19

Sep 17 2014

Why ‘Goldfinger’ at 50 remains the definitive James Bond movie

Goldfinger was the third Bond feature but the first Bond blockbuster, an instant smash hit that turned the series into a phenomenon. Fifty years after its Sept. 17, 1964 London premiere, which was overrun by fans fighting to get into the theater, it remains the definitive big-screen incarnation of the world’s most famous secret agent.

Sean Connery and Shirley Eaton in 1964's 'Goldfinger'

“Of all the Bonds, Goldfinger is the best, and can stand as a surrogate for the others,” wrote Roger Ebert in 1999. “If it is not a great film, it is a great entertainment, and contains all the elements of the Bond formula that would work again and again.”

The first two Bond films — Dr. No and From Russia With Love — were both unabashedly sexy and brutishly sexist, cartoons of glib machismo with martini wit and international flair. Sean Connery brought his Bondness to life with a mix of charm, arrogance, elegance and rough-and-tumble toughness.

Today you can see them as time capsules of Mad Men fantasies of masculinity with comic-book action. Goldfinger not only ups the ante on every level, it adds a few new elements that made the series.

Continue reading at Today.com

Sep 10 2014

‘Horses of God': The Making of a Martyr

There’s not one reason why a young boy can turn into a suicide bomber. There are many of them.
—Nabil Ayouch, director of Horses of God, in a 2014 interview with Dan Lybarger

In 2003, just a couple of years after the Twin Towers attack, twelve suicide bombers blew up multiple targets in Casablanca. The bombers were all young men recruited from the slums of Sidi Moumen. These attacks did not cause much of a ripple in the western press—Muslims killing Muslims doesn’t inspire the kind of outrage that sells papers or grabs cable news channel eyeballs in the U.S.—but it was shocking event in the Arab world. It’s the inspiration for Horses of God, a fictional story rooted in the real life experiences of hundreds of thousands boys and men in the Arab world.

'Horses of God'

Four boys kick around a soccer ball in the dusty streets and desolate empty lots of Sidi Moumen, an immense, impoverished shantytown on the outskirts of Casablanca. They’re kids like any other, paling around in wild packs of ragamuffin gangs and playing makeshift soccer games that have a tendency to end in scrappy brawls, but their horizons are limited by their circumstances. The bird’s eye view of the camera reveals the startling proximity of this desperate slum with the cosmopolitan cultural capital of Morocco—and of North Africa at large—but from the vantage point of these boys in the garbage-strewn streets it could be on another planet. Their dreams of a better life come not from experience but television, where they have the choice of European football matches and mom’s glamorous soap opera fantasies. The realities of survival are much less romantic.

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Aug 29 2014

‘Don’t Turn ‘Em Loose’ on TCM

The violent and energetic gangster thrillers that thrived in the early sound era were all but forbidden after the production code was imposed in 1934. The studios responded by transforming them into social dramas and promoting the forces of law and order and moral values into the leading roles. That’s more or less the approach of the 1936 drama Don’t Turn ‘em Loose, which takes on corruption and incompetence in the parole system through the story of brutal criminal Bat Williams, played with a cunning charm by Bruce Cabot. He pours on the sincerity while making his case for early parole then pulls a heist the very day he’s released, killing a man in the escape with cold-blooded efficiency. But he has a double life. To his family, he’s Robert Webster, globe-trotting engineer working jobs in Europe and South America, his cover for when he’s on the lam or in prison.

Lewis Stone takes top billing as the father, a schoolteacher whose resemblance to Judge Hardy from the Andy Hardy movies is only enhanced by his penchant for making speeches and moral proclamations, and Nella Walker has a remarkable resemblance to Fay Holden, who played Ma Hardy in the MGM series.

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Plays on Saturday, August 30 on TCM

Aug 22 2014

‘Pay or Die!’ for TCM

Allied Artists had such success with their 1959 picture Al Capone, starring Rod Steiger as the infamous mobster, that the studio teamed up again with director/producer Richard Wilson for another Italian mobster movie, this one set in early 20th Century New York City. Pay or Die! (1960) is based on the true story of New York Police Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino, an Italian American police detective who earned the respect of the immigrants in Little Italy and formed the Italian Squad of the police department in 1905 to battle the Mafia.

Ernest Borgnine plays Joe as a dedicated officer determined to win over the largely Sicilian immigrant population of his neighborhood, a group that brought its mistrust of the police with them from the old country, where police corruption was rampant. Though 17 years in America, he still speaks in stilted, somewhat broken English, a holdover from his self-taught American education, but he overflows with praise for the melting pot of America. Borgnine spoke fluent Italian and had no trouble with the Italian dialogue, which was peppered through the dialogue with the Little Italy locals.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on Saturday, August 23 on TCM

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