Archive for the ‘directors’ Category

High School
(USA/1968/75 min)
Directed by Frederick Wiseman

Pep rallies. Gym class. Formals. The principal’s office. Home Ec. Home Ec? What do you miss most about high school?

America’s greatest living filmmaker, documentarian Fredrick Wiseman, is being treated to a year-long retrospective of his work at MoMA. High School, his second film, is a fascinating look not just at the rite-of-passage institution that every American teenager goes through, but also at the mores and gonzo-gender politics of the 60s.

Preceded by:
Powers of Ten
(USA/1977/9 min)
Directed by Charles and Ray Eames

What better way to celebrate the tenth Choice Cuts, than with Charles and Ray Eames’ sci-non-fi short. Starting on a couple of picnickers the camera pulls back (and back and back…) by powers of ten each second, before zooming back in the reverse direction. Truly a wonder, and better than any video you were made to watch in science class, unless, of course, you had a really hip science teacher who showed it to you.

Two Solutions for One Problem
(Iran/1975/4 min)
Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

This charmer about two schoolboys from Iranian auteur, Kiarostami, wryly presents a problem and offers two solutions. Which is better? You decide.


Menu: St. Patrick’s Day, or Not School Lunch
Brotchán foltchep (The King’s Soup)
Brown bread and soda bread
Corned beef and cabbage
Guinness cake and Guinness ice cream

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Out of the Past (1947)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
With Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas


The story goes that Robert Mitchum once told Roger Ebert he didn’t think he’d ever actually seen Out of the Past. Too bad for him. (Although, he did have an image to uphold, and publically opining on his own work certainly wouldn’t have jived with that tough-guy persona.) If this claim is true, he never got to see how one of the most convoluted plots since the Bible and before Babel, got turned into one of the definitive film noirs. According to critic Jeff Schwager, who read every known version of Out of the Past‘s screenplay for a 1990 Film Comment article, uncredited scribe Frank Fenton is responsible for the the alchemy that turned Daniel Mainwaring’s novel into the endlessly quotable mile-a-minute dialogue that makes you forget about the expository curlicues and narrative cul-de-sacs into which the plot veers.

Jacques Tourneur takes Fenton’s crackerjack words, puts them in Mitchum’s mouth, never without dangling cigarette, and directs the hell outta him. He guides the stoic star to deliver voice-overs – very rarely modulating his register, yet ever so subtly shifting his intentions mid-sentence – and some of the most biting zingers to darken the door of a movie theater. For instance, after Mitchum and Kirk Douglas had one of their famous vitriol-filled dimpled-chin-offs, the traffic-and-men-that-should-know-better-stopping Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) confesses to a skeptical Mitchum that she was sorry that her then-ex-lover Douglas didn’t die. Mitchum responds cooly, “Give him time.”

To the film’s benefit, Tourneur does more than focus on the dialogue. He fills the frame with lush black-and-white artistry (and, unfortunately, sometimes with oppressively wall-to-wall musical cues). The camera elegantly moves away from two characters exchanging a kiss, e.g., to a sweeping tropical storm outside, signifying the sensuousness of their affair as much as implying the threat of their pursuers.

It’s unfortunate that film noir has become a relic of Hollywood filmmaking, as it is one of the richest genres, providing audiences not only with bile-filled dialogue and bullet-riddled bodies, but with some of the more nuanced characters and relationships and expressive cinematography in any genre. It is fortunate, however, that Out of the Past remains in high regard as one of its beacons. Much like Mitchum’s hard-edged private eye, Jeff Bailey, it stubbornly refuses to fade into the past.

Kathie Moffat: Oh, Jeff, I don’t want to die!
Jeff Bailey: Neither do I, baby, but if I have to, I’m gonna die last.

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[04] cin cin

Withnail & I (1987)
Directed by Bruce Robinson
With Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths


The following platitude gets made often. Too often, in fact. But I believe it accurately applies in this case. There is nothing quite like Withnail & I.

The film plays out in such a meandering manner that you are never really sure where it is headed (the characters rarely are, either). But by the end you see that it is perfectly bookended and follows a fairly linear path. In a way, it is the quintessential British buddy flick, replete with a weekend in the countryside, rain, pints of lager, ambiguously gay thespians who will never get to play the Dane, beef, more rain and Londoners concealing that they are from London. Plenty of films have attempted to recapture the sense of camaraderie that Withnail and Marwood have. The film’s presenter, Jeff Brown, noted the similarity to My Own Private Idaho, which is possibly the best likeness ever achieved. But the omnipresent rambling dialogue between Paul McGann and the inimitable Richard E. Grant is impossible to recreate.

A pall (and a whole lotta soggy cloud cover) hangs over all the drunken proceedings of Withnail & I. Much more so than I remember from previous viewings, which may only speak to my being sadder and wiser than before. (But then again, maybe not.) The consensus of this screening’s audience seemed to be that Robinson does indeed romanticize the filth that Withnail, Marwood, and those of their generation lived in. That being said, it seems to be one of the most salient arguments against the sustainability of such a lifestyle.

The film plays out like an elegy for a lost time. It is set in 1969. No longer the 60s. Not yet the 70s. Late in the film, Danny, ‘the headhunter’, one of the most 60s-centric characters ever created, raises a glass to ‘the greatest decade that ever was.’ Withnail & I offers a solemn goodbye to an era of debauchery, revelry, and irresponsibility. It is now also possible to watch the movie as an elegy for the 80s, the decade of the film’s creation, an era that was stuck somewhere in between disco and grunge. An era now just as bygone as the 60s.

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Forty Guns (1957)
Director: Samuel Fuller
With: Barbara Stanwyck

Samuel Fuller made the most of what little he had, not unlike those scrappy pioneers that tamed the West. He made an art out of taking what might have been slight B-pictures and terraforming them into substantial genre/gender/generation-challenging films.

40 Guns opens with a majestic Scope panorama of three men, the Bonnell brothers, riding through a valley. Soon they are not only dwarfed by the shadows of clouds passing overhead, but by the stampede of Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) and her titular posse of hired hands charging in the opposite direction. The men, coughing and wiping their eyes, are left in the dust to wonder what just passed. This brief prelude neatly sets up the dynamic at play in the film.

Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) reluctantly accepts being deputized by the town that he and his brothers have wandered into to respond to the whip that Drummond wields over them. Bonnell accepts his call to duty by way of a thoroughly exhilariting showdown between him and Stanwyck’s drunken brother, Brockie, who has been tormenting locals. Some of these townsfolk are portrayed by thoroughly unconvincing line-readers, evidence of the meager portions the studios were offering B-picture directors like Fuller. He made up for that handicap by editing the hell out of the showdown – cutting between close-ups of Bonnell’s steely, focused eyes and a pathetic Brockie scrambling for his gun, which leaves no question who’s in charge of the scene.

The next wow scene comes in the form of a windstorm, minus Auntie Em. Stanwyck, ever the poised bad-ass, and Sullivan are forced to help each other survive a grueling windstorm. There is no music to enhance the action and emotion of the scene. None is needed. The sound of the wind whipping the two of them around is visceral enough. The expert craftsmanship of pulling off an action scene like this, without the aid of CG, is enough to leave one’s mouth agape. And a convincing set-piece to bring the previously rivaling pair together, while also portending the destructiveness of their bond.

Fuller punctuates his film with well-placed songs. Jessica Drummond is introduced by a strolling troubadour, who touts the woman’s ability to command authority with her whip, but confines her to being ‘a woman, after all,’ a sentiment that haunts and eventually gets the best of her. A particularly poignant scene late in the second act features a dirge, which efficiently encapsulates the sense of loss felt by almost all of the characters.

Barbara Stanwyck (Brooklyn!) portrays her weathered landowner with a well-worn toughness. She has earned her forty goons, just has she has fought for every inch of land, every scar upon her brow. Some might find the fact that she ultimately rejects her independence and land for a simpler, quieter life with a man as regressive or at least dated. But I believe Fuller is up to something. It is important to remember that 40 Guns, Fuller’s last western, takes place in the twilight of the Wild West era. Not only is Stanwyck’s woman putting down her whip, but Griff Bonnell is also laying down arms, accepting his fate. Bonnell had been a gunslinger, feared for miles. While the townsfolk were happy to call on him for his skills, he always knew that there was really no place for a ‘freak’ like him amongst them. As the West became less ferocious, less wild, less West, the less room there was for men like Griff Bonnell and women like Jessica Drummond. Far from trumpeting the taming of this wild woman, Fuller was, I believe, lamenting the end of an era, the passing of the torch from the pioneers and the ‘freaks’ to the common, law-abiding, God-fearing, domesticated citizens. If anything, given their bloodied history together, Drummond and Bonnell’s future is as uncertain and potentially doomed as Ben Braddock and Elaine Robinson’s is.

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