Sunday, April 23, 2017

The 2017 Summer Season of the Chicago Film Society


Chicago is a great town for cinephiles, and one of the most rewarding resources available to the local movie geek is the Chicago Film Society. Programmed and projected by Julian Antos, Becca Hall, Rebecca Lyon, Kyle Westphal, and Cameron Worden, the CFS is dedicated to showing movies on film, often in rare or vintage prints. When I first moved to town they were still showing movies at the old Patio Theater, but they made the switch a year or so ago to the auditorium of Northeastern Illinois University. While I miss the musty charms of the Patio, the great hall at NEIU gives the proceedings a college film society aura that adds to the sense of fun. Of course, the venue wouldn't matter if the films weren't interesting, and the CFS schedule is always an excitingly eclectic blend of genre films (westerns, musicals, noirs), rarities and obscurities (silents, overlooked classics, exploitation flicks), foreign films, and the occasional notorious flop presented for reconsideration.

The Chicago Film Society has, for my money (and more specifically for my $5 per screening), the most distinctive personality of any movie appreciation collective in town. Staff members are current or former projectionists at Doc Films, Block Cinema, the Gene Siskel Film Center, and Music Box, which means that the CFS is what you get when a bunch of hardcore film junkies get together and decide that the city needs another weekly jolt of movie love. Hall and Westphal are the public faces of the CFS and their pre-show presentations of the films are good-humored, charmingly geeky, and deeply informed. 

The CFS's new season schedule has just been released, and it's got me excited to spend some warm summer nights at the movies. Highlights include Robert Mitchum's 1958 hillbilly chase picture THUNDER ROAD, Masahiro Shinoda's 1964 man-out-of-prison yakuza flick PALE FLOWER, Andre de Toth's 1953 men-under-seige western LAST OF THE COMANCHES, and Claudia Weill's 1978 feminist comedy GIRLFRIENDS.  

There's a lot more. Here's the complete schedule of events.    

Saturday, April 8, 2017

AFTER DARK, MY SWEET: A Personal Reflection



I didn’t grow up in the forties or fifties, so I didn’t discover B-movies in their original form, as the second features stuck behind classier A-movies. Nor did I discover the world of film noir the way people did in the sixties and seventies, through the  midnight movies on TV that transfixed the generation of noir geeks before me.

No, I was born in 1975, which means I came up in the eighties and nineties. Appropriately, then, I discovered noir in the distinct fashion of a Gen Xer: I found it at the video store. There’s more to this story, though, a personal twist.

I was brought up in a devout Southern Baptist house where certain movies were forbidden. It’s tempting to go for simplicity here and say that R-rated movies were forbidden, but that’s not exactly true. Only certain kinds of R-rated movies were forbidden. Anything with sex. Sex in movies was bad. Totally bad. Every time. No sex. (Even PG-rated sex scenes could change the climate in our family den. Once a bra slipped off, the air would get thin, and I would feel the sense of bodily danger you get when you know God’s wrath is about to fall.) Anything with a lot of cussing was also forbidden. You were allowed one F-word in a movie. Maybe two. After that, things got a little tense.

Violence was okay as long as it wasn’t overly gory. Dirty Harry laying waste to a bunch of punks? Cool. Slasher flicks (which, of course, might also run the risk of featuring nudity)? Not cool.

Dutiful son that I was, when I was sent to the video store to pick out a movie I tried to avoid all of the aforementioned pitfalls.

When I was home alone, however, I was a deceitful little sleaze. I would, on occasion, sneak out to the video store to pluck some forbidden fruit (fruit that I returned as soon as possible to avoid any late fees).

Enter AFTER DARK, MY SWEET. 1991. The poster for this film — and thus the cover for the video box — was a picture of Jason Patric and Rachel Ward engaged in sweaty physical congress. The title sounded like direct-to-video sleaze. I vaguely remembered Siskel and Ebert saying the movie was great, but greatness was not on my mind. The possibility of seeing Rachel Ward naked was on my mind.

I secreted the video into the house and watched it when no one was home.

I learned two things about AFTER DARK, MY SWEET that day.

1. You don’t really get to see Rachel Ward naked. I would love to act like that didn’t matter to me, but it did. I was disappointed. Simply as a consumer engaged in a capitalist enterprise, I felt I had not been well served. I had, after all, paid money for the expressed purpose of seeing Rachel Ward naked.

2. AFTER DARK, MY SWEET is a masterpiece. It’s the best film noir of the 1990s, and one of the best films, period, of that entire decade. As a human being experiencing a work of art, I was transfixed.

Jason Patric (whose sweaty ass you do get to see, natch) and Rachel Ward are both beyond great. Patric’s character Kevin “Collie” Collins, disgraced former boxer and psyche ward escapee, was sort of my first anti-hero, or, at least, he was the first anti-hero I ever saw where I was pretty sure that what I was seeing was a man scraping up some last vestige of his willpower to do something that no one would understand. He tries to save Ward’s boozy widow from a goofy kidnapping scheme cooked up by a degenerate ex-cop named Uncle Bud (played with exquisite seediness by Bruce Dern). By the end, Collie dies face down in the dirt, gut shot by the woman he loves, but it’s all okay because he did it all for her.

And Rachel Ward taught me things about women that, at 17 years old, I didn’t know I needed to learn. She was lovely and leggy, but what made her fascinating was a sadness, a deep-seated knowledge that most dreams don’t come true. The moment she starts talking in the film, mocking Patric’s fumbling attempts at polite conversation — mocking, really, the whole idea of polite conversation — you can’t take your eyes off her. You get why Patric wants to save her, and also why he thinks she can save him. She’s the only person he’s ever met who understands his loneliness. In a way — in a beautifully noir way — they do save each other.

The film wasn’t arty, but I was aware of the director, James Foley. I was aware that I was watching a movie with a vision. Was it his?

Maybe, though it’s probably more correct to say that Foley brilliantly realized Jim Thompson’s vision. Ah, yes, I also discovered Jim Thompson that day in my family den. Who was the guy who wrote this story that was the saddest, most romantic, most thrilling thing I’d ever seen? Revisiting the film many times over the years as my love of Thompson’s novels grew, I realized that the scenes with Patric and the creepy psychologist played by George Dickerson are the most spot-on interpretations of Jim Thompson’s work that have ever been put onscreen. People think that Thompson’s novels are about psychos, or about violence. No, they’re about the last slender thread of decorum stretching and stretching until it turns translucent and you can see right though it to the terrible truth that will be unleashed the moment it snaps. AFTER DARK, MY SWEET gets that. It gets that beautifully.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

HARDCORE (1979)


Few films have influenced my own writing as much as Paul Schrader's 1979 thriller HARDCORE. It stars George C. Scott as Jake Van Dorn, a Grand Rapids businessman and faithful Calvinist, who, as the story begins, sends his only daughter, Kristen (Ilah Davis) off on a church youth trip to California. Van Dorn is a single father and he loves Kristen, but the film doesn't go out of its way to convince of this fact. There are no big scenes between father and daughter in the first fifteen minutes of the film. This omission is important because of what happens next. Van Dorn gets a call from the the youth group in California telling him that Kristen has gone missing.

The rest of the film follows Jake in his attempt to find his daughter. He hires a sleazy detective named Mast (played by the 1970s' most important character actor, Peter Boyle), and within a few months the detective comes back with horrific news. He has found Kristen, on film in a cheap 16mm underground porn film. In perhaps the film's most famous scene, he leads Van Dorn to a porn theater and shows him the movie to make sure that the girl in the film is indeed his daughter. Van Dorn watches the film like he's being tortured, which, indeed, he is. In tears, he demands that detective shut off the projector. 

When Mast fails to find Kristen after this initial revelation, Van Dorn plunges into the squalid underworld of sex and vice himself.  
He haunts porn stores and brothels and massage parlors. He's berated by hookers and beat up by bouncers. The cops are of no use to him. Finally, he decides to pass himself off as a fledgling film producer. He meets a millionaire porn king (Leonard Gaines) and hangs out on the set of a porno. Eventually he finds a prostitute named Nikki (Season Hubley) who says she can lead him to his daughter.

The heart of the film is the relationship that develops between the middle-aged Calvinist from the Midwest and the LA sex worker. What's interesting about these scenes is that the film doesn't swerve into the kind of cliches that we might expect. The two don't fall in love or into a sexual relationship, nor does Van Dorn set out to save Nikki. She's along for this ride for the money, and he's using her to find his daughter. There's a kind of weary respect that grows between them as they accidentally fall into debates about religion, sex, and morality.

At one point, Nikki asks him, "How important do you think sex is?"

"Not very," he says. 

"Well," she says, "then we're just alike. You think it's so unimportant that you don't even do it. And I think it's so unimportant that I don't care who I do it with."

HARDCORE is a spiritual brother to TAXI DRIVER, which Schrader also wrote, and both films owe something to the screenwriter's obsession with John Ford's THE SEARCHERS. All three films are about repressed men seeking to rescue young women locked in sexual slavery. Of the three films, HARDCORE is the one that is most interested in what the young woman has to say. Unlike the other two films, when HARDCORE reaches the end of its journey, the young woman in question gets to speak for herself. When Van Dorn finally smashes his way through the underworld and finds his daughter, she unleashes a torrent of abuse on him. In a way that the other two films never considered, HARDCORE at least ponders the possibility that the girl might not want to return to world of decent people and mainstream society.

This is probably a good place to say that HARDCORE is a flawed film. Schrader is an idiosyncratic filmmaker, which is his greatest attribute, and this film could not have come from anyone else, but it's often clunky in its execution. Stalwarts like Boyle and Gaines are terrific, but a lot of the supporting performances are stiff and little awkward. Some scenes go on too long, making and remaking a point that we've already gotten -- even the famous scene in the porn theater, for instance, goes on to such an extent that you're wondering why the hell Van Dorn doesn't just get up and leave. Likewise, the violent ending is overdone, with Scott rolling over the denizens of the underworld like a bulldozer. Is there really no professional criminal in California who can stand up to this potbellied businessman from Michigan?

Yet for fans of the flawed-but-kind-of-brilliant, HARDCORE is a great film. As I said at the start, I think this movie influenced me more than most of the films I've seen. It is both overtly religious and wildly seedy. You can practically feel the filmmaker torn between these two worlds. The thing that people remember about HARDCORE, of course, is the descent into the world of sex-for-hire, but the scenes of a close knit religious community at the start of the film have a special kind of power for me. Schrader knows this world, comes from it himself, and his feel for it is deep. The scenes of Christmas dinner--with an elderly relative bemoaning the secularism of the television's holiday programming while a couple of guys debating at the kitchen table cite Bible verses at each other--and the brief scenes of the church youth group striking off for a Christian youth conference, all of this feels exactly right to me. It's different from what I grew up with among the baptists in Arkansas, but it is familiar in the truest sense of the word, the sense that there's a family resemblance between strict Protestant churches.

Although Schrader wrote TAXI DRIVER, that film is filtered through Scorsese's tortured Catholicism and his obsession with sacrament and penance. HARDCORE, on the other hand, is Schrader through and through. It is about frosty Protestant repression surviving a deep dive into the steamy muck of a world without rules. In TAXI DRIVER, De Niro's Travis Bickle is a man tormented by his desire for sex, which he finds filthy and corrupt. Scott's Jake Van Dorn, on the other hand, is not tormented in this same way because he's not tempted in the same way. He's horrified by the flesh markets, and although he is weary and battered, he remains as resolute as a knight on a quest. Thus, in its weird mix of seriousness and salaciousness, HARDCORE is something truly special, a dirty movie about the triumph of repression.

Monday, March 13, 2017

THE CROOKED WEB (1955) and the Death of Film Noir


THE CROOKED WEB is a good example of how classic noir was smothered to death by the oppressive conventionality of the 1950s. With a sharper script — with one major change in focus — it might have been something interesting.

The film stars Frank Lovejoy as Stan Fabian, the owner and operator of a Los Angles hamburger stand. He’s dating one of his pretty carhops, a chirpy blonde named Joanie (Mari Blanchard). As the film opens, Joanie introduces Stan to her ne’er-do-well brother Frank (Richard Denning). He’s a loudmouth who brags to his sister and Stan about a scheme he’s concocted to recover some gold in Germany. He offers to let Stan in on the deal, and Stan accepts. Later, after Stan drops off Joanie, she meets up with her “brother.” They embrace in a passionate kiss.

This great set-up is followed hard upon by the first big reveal of the plot. It turns out that Joanie and Frank are actually cops who are trying to nab Stan for a murder he committed during the war. They want to get him to Germany where he can be arrested by the German police.

This big switcheroo came as a real disappointment, I must admit. For the first fifteen minutes of the film, we don’t know anything about the subterfuge of Joanie and Frank. When they lock lips for that kiss, the movie seems to be off and running toward being something really interesting.

Instead, what we get is a thoroughly unadventurous crime story, with Joanie and Frank as our brave protagonists and Stan as our squinty-eyed bad guy. The plot meanders around once it gets them to Germany, with Stan eager to recover the loot and Joanie and Frank trying to edge him into the daylight so he can be caught by the cops. Our stalwart heroes, however, are a pretty lackluster crime-fighting duo. Just to crank up the suspense factor, the script has Stan discover them not once but twice in compromising positions. It does nothing to help the already languorous plot to have them keep getting caught doing the one thing that can blow their cover. What kind of idiot undercover agents make out on the job when they’re supposed to be posing as siblings?

Neither Denning nor Blanchard bring much to their underwritten roles, and the film makes a common mistake (common to films of the era, anyway) by stacking the deck constantly in their favor. They’re the good guys. That’s all there is to know about them. They don’t have any salient characteristics beyond being the good guys. Their tendency to smooch at ill-advised times goes unremarked upon and exists entirely as a plot device. They’re simply the bland stand-ins for law and order.

The only spark in the movie comes from Frank Lovejoy as Stan. An excellent actor better seen in THE SOUND OF FURY and THE HITCH-HIKER, here he’s a surly presence, nervous in his quiet, restrained way. The one interesting scene in the film comes at the end when he is taken into custody and discovers that Joanie has deceived him. In full view of the cops, he slaps her across the face. She cries and says, “I deserve it.” In a better film, this scene would be tied to a nice ambiguity—that while Joanie and Frank are the good guys, Stan is the one being betrayed (think Hitchcock’s Notorious). Here though, it’s just tacked on at the end and has the feel of a sexist cliché.

THE CROOKED WEB illustrates the mindset that had become predominant in crime films by the mid-fifties. Perhaps as a result of the Hollywood blacklist (and by ‘perhaps,’ I mean, ‘almost assuredly’), film noir had started to die a slow death. As a genre, it had always unfolded along the margins of the industry — in the B-units and at the smaller studios — but as the decade wore on it came under more scrutiny. Films that explored “deviant characters” or tied crime to social conditions were forbidden. There was more pressure to make films about heroes rather than anti-heroes. THE CROOKED WEB would be interesting if it was about Stan, but by 1955 it pretty much had to be about boring ass Joanie and Frank. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Why The Oscars Are Worse Than Useless

Above: Joanne Woodward admires her Oscar while husband Paul Newman regards his "Noscar" during his decades-long Oscar losing streak

MOONLIGHT might actually be my favorite movie from last year, which would make it the rare winner of the Oscar for Best Picture that lines up with my own taste. Having said that, and looking past the instantly legendary screw-up last night wherein Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were given the wrong envelope before taking the stage to hand out the award--I can't help but expressing my disgust at the whole Oscar thing.

Here's why the Oscars are worse than useless: Giving out competitive awards for art reduces art to a horse race. "The Oscars" is just the world's biggest reality game show, turning every film except one into a "loser." MOONLIGHT won, so LA LA LAND lost, but why in the name of all that is holy are these two films in a competition with each other in the first place? Was LA LA LAND the better film for the few minutes that its creators were on stage thanking their families and coworkers? Did it suddenly stop being the best picture released in 2016? Did MOONLIGHT suddenly become the best? No, because one director's love letter to the Hollywood musical and the other director's poignant exploration of race and sexuality were not trying to do the same thing. They are separate works of art, and though some people have tried to make them into proxies for larger cultural arguments the truth remains that the films themselves are self-contained works, both years in the making, and neither attempting to capture the current zeitgeist.

If MOONLIGHT won because Academy voters wanted to send some vague message about inclusiveness, then it really only proves the point that the Oscars are bullshit. MOONLIGHT is a great work of art. It didn't need a shiny gold man to be a great work of art. 


At this point, the most notable thing about the Oscars is how wrong they are. We could add up all the great films that didn't win the Oscar for Best Picture and we'd have almost all of the greatest movies ever made. Cary Grant never won a competitive Oscar, and neither did Judy Garland. Since they might be cinema's two greatest performers, does this make sense? After years of not winning, John Wayne and Paul Newman finally did win Oscars, but does anyone really regard TRUE GRIT and THE COLOR OF MONEY as their greatest performances? Do many people consider SCENT OF A WOMAN to even be a passably good movie, much less Pacino's best performance? Is TRAINING DAY really the keeper from all the leading performances that Denzel Washington has given?

The answer to all these questions is no, yet the Oscar myth creates a counter-narrative in which competing marketing campaigns decide which work of art had more merit, all for the benefit of a flashy television event, the real purpose of which, like the Super Bowl, is to sell soap and beer during the commercial breaks. The awards themselves have a longer history, with their roots stretching back to a promotional scheme cooked up by Louis B. Mayer, a scheme that first morphed into a status symbol (industry bragging rights in a one-industry town) before becoming modern television's biggest waste of time.

Like I said, though, the awards show is worse than useless, it's reductive. It diminishes, for the sake of money, artists and works of art. The movie business is already volatile enough mix of art and commerce (of "movie" and "business"). How about we just skip the show next year and go to the movies? 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What's the Difference?: Some Thoughts on Books and Audiobooks


I posed a question on Facebook the other day. It went something like this:

"Kind of bored with podcasts lately, so I've been listening to more audiobooks. Here's my question: Do you consider that you've read a book if you've only listened to it? It's such a different experience that I don't know. Thoughts?"

I got quite a few responses, with the majority coming down to say that, yes, of course you've read a book if you've listened to a book. Some people were very adamant on this point, and there was some good-natured debate with dissenters.

These results strike me as interesting for a few reasons.

One, it is clearly not true that reading a book and listening to an audiobook are the same thing. You've read a book when you've read a book. To say that you've read a book if you've listened to an audiobook would be like saying you've read Hamlet because you saw it performed onstage. Reading is an active experience where your own limitations as a reader effect the text in terms of pacing and comprehension. Every reader reads a book in a different way. When you listen to an audiobook, you're listening to someone else's interpretation of a text. It is a mediated experience in which other people shape your reception of the text.

Also, when you read, you're looking at words, closed in the experience of the book. When you listen to an audiobook, you're looking at something else. (I was listening to an audiobook of the Russell Banks novel CLOUDSPLITTER yesterday on the train to work. The woman across from me was putting on her makeup. She's now a part of my memory of the scene of John Brown and his sons easing their wagon down a steep mountain pass.) I listen to audiobooks while doing lots of things: driving, washing dishes, shopping. I cannot do those things when I'm reading because reading requires more of my attention and concentration.

Two, audiobooks are a unique art form, a postmodern hybrid of literature and radio.  Some audiobooks go so far as to use music cues and sound effects, and actors and producers decide where and when and how to put emphasis on words and phrases. A good actor can redeem a weak book as surely as a good actor can redeem a weak movie. Someone like audio all-star Edward Herrmann could make a phone book sound interesting. This is not the same as reading a book, where the writing is pretty much the whole show.  

Three, people want credit for having read a book. This was something I noticed in the responses. We're all a little defensive about audiobooks because we don't want anyone to suggest that we didn't really read THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV.

What is fascinating to me about this is that I didn't mean to imply that audiobooks are a lesser art form than literature, just different. I come to praise the audiobook, not to bury it. Listening to a group of words and reading a group of words are distinct experiences because they utilize different senses. I read CLOUDSPLITTER years ago when it was first published, and now I'm listening to it read by Pete Larkin. It's a different experience, more passive for sure but no less interesting. Larkin's performance shapes characterization in ways that my mind did not. There's no value judgment in noting that reading is harder than listening. Of course it is. Audiobooks interpret the text for you; they do some of the heavy lifting. Perhaps this helps account for our defensiveness about audiobooks. But I think it is more instructive to simply view a book and an audiobook as distinct pieces of art (as different as the text of a play and a production of a play), and we should think more about what audiobooks are and what they're doing. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Brief Words On Simenon


I've been commissioned to write a piece on the film adaptations of one of my favorite authors, Georges Simenon. This is exciting because it gives me a reason to go back to one of noir's deepest wells. The romans durs of Simenon are some of the richest works of the 20th century--tight, muscular stories that move rapidly and yet often tell stories of loneliness and sadness, isolation and despair.

The impetus for this piece on Simenon's film adaptions is the recent re-release of Julian Duvivier's PANIQUE, the 1946 movie version of Simenon's 1933 THE ENGAGEMENT OF MISTER HIRE.

While I've got Simenon on the brain, I thought I would link to a fun photo essay over on Crime Fiction Lover. "Maigret's Paris" is a look at the locations that inspired Simenon's most famous creation, the police commissioner Jules Maigret. Simenon's Paris is one of crime fiction's richest locations, like Chandler's Los Angeles or Doyle's London. Check out the photo essay, and see if it doesn't make you want to curl up with one of the good detective's adventures.

Maigret is a quiet creation, not as flashy as Marlowe or Holmes, perhaps, but no less endearing. For me, though, the real Simenon is found in the "psychological novels" like THE ENGAGEMENT OF MISTER HIRE, a book about a lonely scam artist who becomes the focus of a murder investigation. It's a tragedy, as so many of Simenon's books are, but it's also got humor (even farce) and moves like a locomotive.

That's all for now. I'm off to dive back in.