Gary Morris takes us by the hand and leads us into the new issue of Bright Lights Film Journal: "This issue, #70, with a mere 26 articles may seem shorter than usual, but we've tried to compensate for that by featuring several exceptionally long pieces, including the longest we've ever published — your editor's practically book-length discussion of the Corman Poe films. Also pushing the boundaries this time is Jack Stevenson's ambitious look at 'Haunted Cinema,' those glorious grindhouses that purveyed porn to the lonely, love-starved masses in the years before Disneyfication, corporatization, and the looming return of workhouses and debtors' prisons."
He next mentions Alan Vanneman's piece on Monsieur Verdoux (1947), but let's stop and back up for a moment, because this is a big week for Charlie Chaplin. Flicker Alley's four-disc collection Chaplin at Keystone gathers nearly three dozen shorts and one feature, Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914), that Chaplin made for Mack Sennett's studio in one amazingly productive year. "It's a sign of how immensely popular these films were that all but one survive," writes Dave Kehr. "Although Chaplin found his familiar costume quite early..., this isn't the lovable Little Tramp of the later films, but the obnoxious, anarchic, sexually intemperate and frequently inebriated character — a real threat to social order, as the Dadaists, among the first of Chaplin's highbrow fans, were quick to recognize." In his review of the set for the New York Times, he also notes that this is the week that Criterion "begins reissuing most of the major Chaplin features — those still controlled by his estate — in new, high-definition transfers for Blu-ray and DVD. First out is Modern Times (1936) with Chaplin in his final, nonspeaking role as the Tramp. As its title suggests, Modern Times is in many ways almost daringly engaged with contemporary reality. Charlie is a laid-off factory worker in the midst of the Great Depression, a world of hunger, strikes and police violence. (Surely, it is one of the few comedies of the 30s in which cocaine and communism make guest appearances.)"
More from Josef Braun: "Industrial alienation, police brutality, citizens reduced to crime by hunger, hostility toward labour unions and petty micromanagement were all worked deep into the film's fabric through a chain of brilliant comic sequences that endure all the more for their indifference to ideology. One of the most memorable ones features Chaplin's Tramp, leading a parade of protesting workers demanding unionization, touting a red flag no less, and doing so completely unknowingly — he was just trying to flag down a truck."
"Modern Times is actually, secretly, an origin story for the Tramp, just in time for his farewell," argues Saul Austerlitz in Criterion's Current. "The unique triumph of Modern Times is that it maintains the playful aura of the early Tramp and the comedic sophistication of The Gold Rush and City Lights, all while carefully balancing the humor with sentiment, charm with political awareness. It is Chaplin before life, and the world of which he was an ever more careful observer, began to weigh him down. With it, he bid a fond farewell to the silent film, and to the character who had made him the most famous man in the world."
Now, to Vanneman: "If there is truly a graceful route into old age, Chaplin failed to find it. He raged against the dying of the light, for sure, but in doing so wrecked not a few lives, said not a few stupid things, created an immense maelstrom of publicity that crackled and rumbled around him for decades, and made three cheap, clumsy films that held very little of the genius that had made him the most celebrated film star in the world." What follows is one hell of a backstory, but let's dip in here: "Thanks both to the endless turmoil in his personal life and his natural tendency to procrastinate, Chaplin didn't really get production of Monsieur Verdoux underway until early 1946. What is striking about the film as we have it is the smallness of it all. Chaplin's elegant black comedy is, for half of its running time, a tedious B-movie — third-rate actors sitting in third-rate sets, reciting third-rate expository dialogue, along with plenty of stock footage, poor continuity, and poorly focused back projection." Vanneman then discusses the story, the cast and so forth at length and then argues: "As a satire of capitalism Monsieur Verdoux is unimpressive."
Updates, 11/17: Glenn Kenny on The Rink (1916), included in Criterion's Modern Times package; and Craig Keller's posted thoughts on Making a Living and Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal., two of the earliest shorts featuring Chaplin, both directed by Henry Lehrman in 1914.
For that, then, we turn to a recommendation of sorts from Andrew Schenker: "It would probably be an exaggeration to call Harry Alan Potamkin America's first great movie critic. The country would have to wait for the advent of the mature Manny Farber in 1949 for sustained, idiosyncratic greatness. (I intentionally bypass Otis Ferguson and, for all the pleasure his prose affords, James Agee). Read nearly any of Potamkin's reviews or articles and his distinguishing faults become immediately apparent: the abstract terminology ('visual motor-graph,' 'social idea'), his now-naïve faith in the Soviet Union as the most promising hope for civilization, the occasional clumsiness of his prose, his ultra-stringent criteria for a film's accomplishments that left a personal canon of only about half a dozen films that were deemed worthy of inclusion. But for all that, Potamkin remains America's first critic who produced a body of work of lasting value, the first to understand film's role as a social medium that wasn't either passive entertainment or isolated work of art, but one that played an active role in shaping the society that produced it."
You've heard much praise sung in these virtual pages for the box set 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg, and Gordon Thomas won't break ranks here: "After watching the final film, The Docks of New York (1928), you've witnessed the blossoming of one of the greatest talents ever to haunt a Hollywood sound stage." But here's an opinion you don't hear too often: "As much as watching Criterion's release becomes a revelation and deepening of one's appreciation of this director's entire body of work, a return to his lion-in-winter autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry (1965), appears to bring not much of either, unless you hang in there. Despite the title, taken from that of an early Edison film, the book is neither fun nor likely to inspire the formation of many von Sternberg fan clubs."
Back to Gary Morris: "Andrew Grossman plumbs the disturbing mysteries of 'cute' and 'Tea Party porn' and the myth of the post-racial Obama era in two dazzling pieces that include a riff on the infamous porn series Oh No! There's a Negro in My Daughter. Queerness gets the once-over twice from Rob Faunce, in a scintillating survey of Bond as merry prankster of gender mayhem, and from new contributor Lorrie Palmer, in a penetrating piece on the Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedies and other queer-coded works in the 'career girl' genre of the late 50s and early 60s.... BL stalwart Dave Saunders took a break from playing the toy piano to apply his sharp sensibility to the cinematic 'mothers and daughters' motif, focusing on Visconti's Bellissima and Zamarion/Tornatore's The Unknown Woman. Also returning to our pages this time are Steve Johnson, strolling through the subconscious of De Palma's underrated The Fury; and Lee Weston Sabo, in an incisive commentary on the Banksy doc Exit Through the Gift Shop."
Also in BL 70: Lyz Reblin on Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), Kelli Marshall on Andrew Fleming's "bizarre little film" Hamlet 2 (2008), Thomas Horne on Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist, Matthew Sewell on James Dean, John Desmond on a "Somewhat Forgotten Figure to Some Extent Remembered: Notes on Television Director, Script Writer, and Occasional Actor Montgomery Pittman," interviews — Peter Tonguette asks Juan Luis Buñuel about Orson Welles and Don Quixote and Matthew Sorrento talks with Ariel and Nev Schulman about Catfish — and festival reports: Robert Keser on Abu Dhabi, Megan Ratner on DOC NYC and this year's New York Film Festival, Lesley Chow on Melbourne and Joan McGettigan on the first TCM Classic Film Festival.
Dennis Lim in the Los Angeles Times on Criterion's other release this week (besides Modern Times, if you've forgotten by this point): "In 1955, when The Night of the Hunter opened to mixed reviews and poor box office, the film was already a throwback: steeped in the luxuriant gloom of German Expressionism and the heightened poetics of DW Griffith (and set to boot in rural Depression-era America). But in reaching back to the primordial enchantment and promise of silent-era cinema, director Charles Laughton created something timeless — 'a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale,' as he put it, but also an American Gothic variation on an Old Testament parable."
"It's as if Laughton had resolved to recover something the movies had lost, some secret, long-forgotten cache of letters from ancestors — the scripture of the art's early magic." Terrence Rafferty for Criterion's Current: "Perhaps as an aid to invoking the mighty spirits of the elders of cinema, he cast the 61-year-old [Lillian] Gish, the most piercing of Griffith's actors, in the role of the Harper children's ultimate protector, Miz Rachel Cooper.... The other female star of The Night of the Hunter, Shelley Winters, is cast ideally to type, as a gullible sexual optimist doomed to perish early... But [Robert] Mitchum as the alarming preacher is a really daring bit of counterintuitive casting.... It isn't just that Mitchum is playing a villain, or even that he's using his indolent manner to convey a profoundly sinister kind of unctuousness. What's truly startling about his performance is how buffoonish he allows himself to be, in between bouts of menace. His Harry Powell is a man whose composure masks the most unruly impulses — imperfectly capped wells of lust and greed and violence that tend to leak in moments of crisis, and not in attractive ways. When Miz Cooper threatens him with a shotgun, he hops away, whooping like a big skittish animal. Small things have to run; the larger beasts are expected to stand their ground. Maybe the most radical aspect of The Night of the Hunter, and its least appreciated virtue, is its sense of humor. More conventional horror movies overdo the solemnity of evil. The monster in The Night of the Hunter is so bad he's funny. Laughton and Mitchum treat evil with the indignity it deserves."
Update, 11/17: "Few moments in movie history are as shockingly bold, and simultaneously ethereal, as the moment the newly orphaned John and Pearl narrowly escape Powell's slashing knife and float down the river on a skiff," writes Slant's Eric Henderson. "In the space of 15 seconds, the movie transitions between a moment of pure horror — capped by Mitchum's hellish bellow of frustration — into a slow, starry-skied journey into an American pastoral twilight, capped by a seemingly diegetic musical number about a 'pretty fly' sung spontaneously by Pearl. It makes sense because Laughton and [screenwriter James] Agee believe it makes sense, and everything in The Night of the Hunter emerges similarly with the plain logic of a fairy tale — a fairy tale whose grace notes... seem as intimate as your own half-remembered nightmares. By the time Laughton turns his movie over, in its final act, to the life force that is Lillian Gish's plain-spoken, Bible-quoting mother goose Rachel Cooper, it's clear that there are few movies as confidently and as contradictorily American as this. In every possible sense, halfway between Halloween and Christmas is The Night of the Hunter."
In the NYT, Manohla Dargis gives us a preview of Criterion's America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, collecting seven films made under the aegis of BBS Productions, the company formed in the late 60s by Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner. "Over this past decade New Hollywood — usually bracketed by the bloody sensational wow of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and the two-blockbuster punch of Jaws and Star Wars in the mid-1970s — has been the subject of so much popular adulation and academic scrutiny as to become a veritable fetish. This was the era, or so its enthusiasts insist, when American movies grew up (or at least started undressing actresses); when directors did what they wanted (or at least were transformed into brands); when creativity ruled (or at least ran gloriously amok, albeit often on the studio's dime). Needless to say, there's more to this rise-and-fall saga," and it's here that the demythologizing begins. The box set is out on December 14.
On a couple of related notes, John Bredin is "Revisiting Lumet, Pacino, and the 70s in 2010" for BL 70 with another viewing of Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Glenn Kenny reviews a disk from the Warner Archives, Brewster McCloud (1970): "Altman went with more than a few of his M*A*S*H company to Houston, Texas, to make a picture from a script by the same writer whose name is credited for Otto Preminger's legendary disaster of several years prior, Skidoo, about a reclusive young man who tries to realize the isn't-that-just-like-us-crazy-humans dream of becoming a bird. And after this Altman would make the masterful McCabe & Mrs Miller. As different as these three films seem if you judge them strictly by their précises, and as differently as they each play on screen, there's a real through-line to these pictures. If you want to see genuinely improvisational American filmmaking as backed (after a fashion) by major studios, you probably couldn't ask for more instructive representations than these."
"Taking potshots at The Sound of Music (as even its own star Christopher Plummer did back in the day, calling it The Sound of Mucus) is taking advantage of the aesthetically vulnerable," writes Eric Henderson in Slant. "Can I play devil's advocate? For as empty an experience as The Sound of Music on film is, is it okay to admit that it's Carmen compared to the stage incarnation? Every plot modification made by screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest), every note of the enriched musical arrangements by Irwin Kostal, every coolly delivered, if still unimpeachably wholesome, line delivery by then Queen of the World Julie Andrews, all combine to turn what was even then a creaky piece of manipulative flibbertigibbet into a reasonably agreeable way to pass the time with your older relatives, and even subtly reveals some of the play's more unseemly undercurrents. This is, after all, the story of a man with seven children getting a very young, idealistic nun so hot and bothered she leaves the convent to be his female dear, who will respond to his every beck and call of 'Do-Mi.'"
DVD roundups. Sean Axmaker, Mark Kermode (Observer), Paul Matwychuk and Heather Noel, Noel Murray (LAT), Bryce J Renninger (indieWIRE), Stephen Saito (IFC), Slant, Gordon Thomas (Bright Lights) and Michael Tully (Hammer to Nail).
"David Thomson, always ready with a compact and superficial characterization, famously finds his work to be cold and glossy, even commercially opportunistic," writes Leo Goldsmith, introducing a new feature, "Malle Entendu: The Ecstatic, Eclectic Cinema of Louis Malle," at Not Coming to a Theater Near You. "But this reading almost certainly derives from Malle's awkward relationship to the politique des auteurs, especially his own avowed disinterest in foregrounding auteurist hallmarks as well as his unapologetic status as a well-trained and technically accomplished director.... In anticipation of our screening of his anarchic urban fantasia Zazie dans le métro at 92YTribeca on November 20th, we'll be sampling from Malle's impressively catholic output, tracking the stylistic through-lines and major themes of an oeuvre whose seemingly sole consistent elements are its continual inventiveness and unflagging craftsmanship."
Another NYC programming note from the L's Mark Asch: "Tonight, the local filmmaker Laura Hanna will be on hand at Williamsburg's 22-seat, curved-screen DIY-cinema-in-a-former-bodega The Spectacle Theater, introducing a rare screening of The Fall, by the British filmmaker Peter Whitehead, known for his immersive documentaries of various Beat happenings."