Jules Rules! — THE CANTERVILLE GHOST

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The Canterville Ghost | MGM | Jules Dassin | 1944

The irresistible prospect of Charles Laughton doing Oscar Wilde, bulldozed and pasteurized into…WWII propaganda? MGM, at its worst, was pestilential, a plague of sugar-stuffed locusts on the most promising material. Peter Lawford’s screech-voice opens the picture before passing the baton to Laughton’s blubbery sub-Ray Bolger antics. Robert Young’s trademarked personality-lessness wants to foil against but instead just droopily overlays the rest of his army cornballs to castrate and fabulize the very idea of military combat/heroism/existence so that it becomes the stuff of cozy fireside yuk-yuks.  Margaret O’Brien is the majestically infantilized proxy for the solipsistic audience who wants to believe in this no man’s fantasy land.  Who was the genius who came up with “Oscar Wilde–but for kids!….and with Nazis?”  Thanks be to God I quickly washed the taste out with Night and Fog in Japan!

THE NEON DEMON

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The Neon Demon | Nicolas Winding Refn | 2016

It’s like The Neon Demon grabbed a bouquet of lava lamp balloons, floated to peak neo-giallo stylization, but then (sadly) continued to float on into deep space and asphyxiation by atmospheric pressure. Strained Seriousness? More like Strobe-lit Strenuousness (a far cry from the PanthNEON (heh)). Nicolas Winding Refn is an egomaniacal dope, fellas, too much of a vacuous graph-paper conceptual artist to have anything to say about the showbiz vacuity that is the metaphorically bludgeoned subject of his film. It feels like he chipped off a shard or two of David Cronenberg’s vision for Maps to the Stars (a true masterpiece!) and just endlessly lacquered it in the fetishistic mediaphilic self-devouring aestheticism that is this dweeb’s specialty. It’s cinematic Pop Rocks, a gnarly sensory experience until the last crackle goes off and all that’s left is the taste of artificial sugary goop. No wonder wigwam loved this…

SAMSON AND SUPERMAN — JUST A COUPLE-A HUNKS

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Samson and Delilah | Paramount | Cecile B. DeMille | 1949

Cecil B. DeMille, running out of gas. The glories of Technicolor: pallid Anglo-Saxon flesh coated in cinnamon, trudging across garlic powder sand. Somehow the Bible isn’t as exciting as it used to be. Victor Mature, hunk with an ugly mug, goes Incredible Hulk on the Philistines, led by a cunning but sadly somnambulant George Sanders.  Where’s Chuck Laughton’s maniacal Epicureanism when you need it? Only in the nighttime scenes does the décor flash with color — blues and reds and molten orange. Hedy Lamarr’s close-ups rescue the picture almost single-handedly. That and a lotta jawbone clobberin’!

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Superman: The Movie | Warner Brothers | Richard Donner | 1978

The fine art of fanservice begins here! It’s got all the beats, the in-jokes, the elevated camp that Hollywood is currently force-feeding to audiences the world over. Not even Superman could perform a Heimlich maneuver effective enough to expel all this Marvelverse garbage, and not even Marlon Brando at peak obesity would have tolerated it! As for this ’78 first-course? Meh. There’s some wide-screen facility, some cool production design…but it doesn’t quite thread together. And God Almighty I hate that spin-the-globe ending. Glenn Ford what has become of ye? Good thing the Lester sequels are up next!

A Mid-East Feast! – THE THIEF OF BAGDAD

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The Thief of Bagdad | United Artists | Raoul Walsh | 1924

I’m currently in the thickets of Kevin Brownlow’s ‘Parade’s Gone By,’ the book that might have become sixties cinephilia’s hardbound cause célèbre had Handy Andy Sarris’s checklist for chumps not marked its territory around the same time. Instead of loosely stapled-together cocktail napkin scribbles àla Sarris, Brownlow actually goes and talks to the people who made silent movies, fleshes out director appraisals with technical know-how and edifying anecdotes and an unparalleled sense of how a movie breaks down into its many pieces and parts. One of the perks of this book is that it treats sound cinema as a footnote better left out of the historical record. Even though Wellman and DeMille and Henry King and all those guys made movies well into the fifties, Brownlow only cares about the way their careers arced from the teens to the twenties. It’s refreshing in a big way and, not surprisingly, makes me wanna watch a boatload of silent cinema!!!!

Yesterday I picked a real winner, folks. It’s The Thief of Bagdad from 1924. Auteurists scrabble after this flick cuz Raoul Walsh’s name is on it, but what we really have here is a wonderful three-way convergence of top-tier talent, with the great Doug Fairbanks as the head honcho. Here, the onetime King of Hollywood moves like a pinwheel in the summer breeze, leaping and bounding in mirthful cavort around a big ol’ palatial set, the most glorified playground I’ve yet seen on the silver screen! And who is responsible for this jihadi jungle gym??? The great William Cameron Menzies!!!!!!! Anyone who has seen this film knows that Menzies deserved to retire on his Bagdad work alone. Stylized exoticism with a bit of oblong shaping and just the right balance of negative space, it’s a flickering feast for eyes starved for silents!

And if you’re into the auteurist thing, then there’s lots to talk about regarding Walsh in the infancy of his swashbucklin’ proficiency, learning from Fairbanks the ropes that he would soon wield with a furious vigor in his Warner’s work with Errol Flynn, the only true heir to the Fairbanks fortune reserved only for mustachioed acrobats with star pizzazz!

ALSO: anyone who’s into the fanciful orientalist Arabian Nights shit and can accept Arabs as heroes if brown-face and whacked out mysticism is involved, but who can’t wait to for us to bomb real-life Arabs with buckets of drones, then you can fuck off! This appreciation of Old Hollywood craft is NOT FOR YOU!!!!!!

Cross Country: ITBS LIVE EDITION 6/8/16 8PM EST

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Illusion Travels by Streetcar, after over 100 episodes, has proven itself as THE film podcast par excellence, to trounce all its half-baked buttoned-down blather-fest contemporaries. What makes it so great, and its peers so godawful? Well, it’s the absence of NPR-style ‘respectability’ hosting. No belabored introductions for ‘esteemed guests.’ No “wow, that’s fascinating” or “thank you for joining us” or “the last shot is truly a transcendental moment, in the Bressonian vein.” ITBS is a very focused show, a very direct show, a very erudite show, but it is never so humorlessly any of these things as to discourage a little irreverent sidetracking. Directors under discussion are not there to be fawned over, but to be discussed in concrete historical terms that auteurists generally shy away from. All credit is due to Tom Sutpen who, contrary to the average cinephile, does not find history to be irrelevant. Studio politics, matrices of collaboration and conflict, competing currents in the larger national culture — in short, what movies are actually made of, more so than the lyricism-in-a-vacuum that other cinephiles harp on at length. Perhaps my love of ITBS has a little something to do with the fact that I am a co-host, but there is a reason I was a fan of the show before I became so affiliated.

All of this is the preface to a very exciting announcement, an unprecedented event in ITBS history: our first ever LIVE show, two days from now at 8PM EST. Like any quality show, Illusion Travels by Streetcar has, over the span of two years, forged its own internal behind-the-scenes history: spoofs and spats and all sorts of embarrassments as enacted by a supporting cast of bad and beautiful weirdos. And on this LIVE show, the hosts with the most will be indulging in this scandalous dimension of the podcast, with unedited chitchat informed by listener comments! How do YOU get involved? Simple! Just visit the Illusion Travels by Streetcar facebook group, where the esteemed Tom Sutpen will be providing a link to the livestream. And from there, things get cookin’!

We hope to see you all there!

Re-Watch Ranchero: PETULIA

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Petulia | Warner Brothers | Richard Lester | 1968

Richard Lester, somewhere along the way, accidentally became a modest champion for auteurists. Garbed in quirk (so they say), he wriggled around in big studio productions with a little caustic visual wit and goofball savvy, and shazam!  He’s an artist! And it’s perceptible in everything he made from The Knack to Superman III! Now, this isn’t particularly off-base, I guess. I love Lester! There’s just something about this narrative that sticks in my craw. I guess it’s the fact that auteurism feeds on the myth of artistic consistency and is generally reticent to admit to jagged oeuvres, scattered blips of hackwork and breakthrough unfit for linear graph.

I mean, look, Lester directed this movie called Petulia. You may have heard of it. It’s the natural auteurist reflex to insist that it seamlessly bridges How I Won the War to The Bed Sitting Room, or else is but a mere fragment of the ‘Lester mosaic,’ or whatever bullshit. Doctor, this reflex needs to be corrected, pronto! Petulia is a watershed, an anomaly, a masterpiece where no one could have expected it. I’m hardly interested in Lester as the director of this movie, even, because it’s so ineffable, immersive, flashbulb-imprinted in the ol’ noggin, that to talk in terms of its creation seems perverse, as if the wonders of nature required the existence of an intelligent designer to justify their adoration.

Petulia is the sixties in self-devouring paradox. Its strengths do not gather in one thematic or tonal direction, but drift to opposite polarities. What we have here is a lucid nightmare, misery draped in bright colors, the zeitgeist looking back on its own lagging present. Peripheral comedy commiserates with gut-sunken tragedy, and thanks to a bit of achronological editing – as emotionally intuitive as that method has ever been deployed – the film exists in a state of endless climax, from which there is, naturally, no release.

You walk into this movie, you walk out of it, black box-style. You’re not allowed to scrutinize it from a dispassionate distance, and god help me, you should be thrown in jail for appraising it in terms of its own dismal marketing campaign. On the (forthcoming!) ITBS commentary track, we assess it from inside the experience, and for more on the systemic violence of American culture, on the irreplicable hybridization of color-coded formalism with rack-focused, handheld, improvised volatility, on George C. Scott and Julie Christie and the infinite dimensions of their performances – I highly recommend giving it a listen, in sync with the film. But from my perch here at Rio Bravado, where I can merely refer you to the work in question, I find it utterly disrespectful to ‘analyze’ and thus objectify one of the least tangible films to come out of a Hollywood studio.  So here this entry ends. Watch Petulia, mooks!!!!!

FILM BOOK BAILIN’ + REDEMPTION

God knows why i read a combined 500 pages of David Thomson’s ‘The Big Screen’ and Paul Buhle & David Wagner’s ‘Radical Hollywood.’ One (D. Thom) is well written; the other is not. One (Buhle’s Rules) is edifying; the other is not. Both are lopsided, one a sharply written survey of shit I already know about film history and the other a blight of gangrenous prose that accidentally dropped some interesting information in my lap. Neither strength nor shortcoming can mask the fact that each of these volumes is essentially a book-length list. And lists are no-no’s except when lowly bloggers such as myself do them!

So Thomson’s book is a condensation of reams of film history into a round-robin of lightly pleasurable sketches in the life and art of this or that famous filmmaker, all playing hot potato with Thomson’s big ol’ theme of The Importance of Movies. Think of it as Max Ophüls’ La Rhonde but with Anton Walbrook traded in for your local community college film prof as the master of ceremonies. I made it 300 pages in, realized there was to be no forthcoming synthesis of what I was reading, and tossed it in the book return chute. Couldn’t you have written another biography, dude?

But Buhle & Wagner don’t get off any easier. I thought I was gonna read a damn saga of leftism in Hollywood, get charged on a real radical undercurrent through Tinsel Town’s power grid. But no! It’s a glorified playbill slogging through introductions for an endless ensemble of leftist screenwriters before getting on to what the actual show is about. There is no discrimination. If some rando leftist was able to finagle his way into scripting some Z-grade Republic serial about something covertly leftist, well it gets just as much of a spotlight as the work of Lillian Hellman! The mark of Donald Ogden Stewart means that The Philadelphia Story just has to be slyly subversive, never mind that no one notices or cares or is gonna go Red based on the peripheral half-nuances of a Major League Oscar Winner. The best part is when it talks about the history of the Communist Party in Hollywood, but as soon as it gets to jabbering on about the actual work of these Red Carpet Reds, well, forget about it! Also learn to write, fuckheads! Academia is no excuse (though I guess it is the clear explanation) for such cumbersome writing.

BUT there’s good news! I read a novel, a big celebrated novel, Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Remains of the Day.’ And guess what? It was great! Rainwater prose — just enough, just right, fluid and clearsighted and ideal literary mouthwash for my two prior attempted reads. It’s a book about a butler. A butler! Who else but a butler could serve (ha!) as the ideal cross-section of pre-war British anachronisms, whereby comedy (how is one to banter in the American-style?) and despair (polishing the silver appraised by Nazi guests while conflating one’s servant-class ignorance of global affairs with ‘dignity’) and self-doubt-ridden pathos (if one’s master’s reputation crumbles to dust, then what of his most devoted servant’s??) and a smattering of other little modes and moods and motifs align with clarity and force, until lapsing into the bitterest sweet of a melancholy coda. I can see Terence Davies adapting this to perfection. Thanks to my wonderful girlfriend for buying this for me for my birthday. Love ya sweets!!!!!

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Checkin’ in

Ahoy!

I can feel it now folks, videogames are leaving my system and I can just taste the nectar of the finer things in the back of my throat, on the tip of my tongue, and all over my flabby body. Next weekend I’m taking five days off for rest and relaxation, and I am going to go ahead and shoot myself in the foot by promising a brand new entry EVERY SINGLE DAY of that five-day span. Talk about content creation! Buzzfeed eat your heart out!

During this dismal time, I’ve had the pleasure of acquainting myself with one Roy Andersson, antiseptic Swede of misanthrilling dollhouse vignettes, mishmashed mannequin-ized men milling about mellowly monochromatic mise-en-scene, catty-cornered compositions that take tableaux to terrifically tortuous heights of haggardness! Acclamation of spiritual emaciation! Gray and beige and seashell pink, sad and soulless but also faintly comforting, an aesthetic cradle wherein desolation turns comically affectionate…it’s migratory Tati, and it rules!!!!!!!!! We even did a podcast about it!

I’m currently having the slighter pleasure of alternating between two books on film, 1) The Big Screen, David Thomson’s light gloss on canonical film history suffused with pseudo-Sontagian ruminations on Film in all its figurative iterations, and 2) Radical Hollywood, a wealth of more interesting information written from an opposite approach to style and wit. This is sinkhole prose, folks, too prickly and unpleasant to be called ‘dryly academic’ or some such descriptive. Thomson, by contrast, manages to say all the usual stuff with an impeccable flow and instinct for detour and digression that makes his text more ideal for movie neophytes than the usual Bordwell prescriptions. I dunno if I would recommend it to my enlightened readership, but it gives me faith in his more specialized writings, which I have yet to consume.

So here’s to the good life, fellas! And sorry for the inactivity. As Harry Nilsson once implored,