Cross Country: THE HEIRESS

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The Heiress | Paramount | William Wyler | 1949

In 1949, several wayward forces were marshaled in service of one of those rare instances of Exquisite Cinema. Many great movies, even some masterpieces, are not quite exquisite, exquisite denoting the kind of film that exudes mastery, every shot a crystal shard flecked by genius and fused into a diamond-like design.

And so the ghost of Henry James bestowed his paranormal blessing on a project green-lit by Paramount, which beckoned William Wyler fresh out of the Goldwyn gates and Olivia De Havilland hot off a landmark lawsuit against the sinister studios! De Havilland, triumph channeled into ambition, alighted upon a play based on one ‘Washington Square.’ What better way to cut ties with the fanciful frolicsome Warner Bros work she was, and is still known for? Meanwhile, Monty Clift’s burgeoning screen career was busy astrologically aligning itself with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play an atypical (atypical in 1949, atypical in any time) character like Morris Townsend, a role that required a yet relatively unfamiliar screen persona capable of teetering on an ambiguous Jamesian precipice without losing its footing (to think that goddamned Errol Flynn was under consideration for this, oooooy). Ralph Richardson fit Dr. Sloper like a surgical glove. And Miriam Hopkins, well past her prime and all the better for it, rounded out the formidable cast.

Wyler, shedding the Oscar-baiting grandiloquence that could be said to be the only significant shortcoming of his work for Goldwyn (I’m not sure if I would be numbered among that particular chorus…Best Years pile-drives my heart every time 😥 ), kept his engineer’s precision intact while proving that subtlety, nuance, and the capability for zen-like engagement with a literary work — from which to extract not merely the shape nor the form nor the story but the very essence of what, in this case, ‘Washington Square’ is all about — were all in his estimable directorial wheelhouse.

All of which is to say that The Heiress is a masterpiece. As yet unaddressed is the fact that NO ONE EVER TALKS ABOUT THIS MOVIE. Which is why I, and my pal Tom, and my pal Brian, and my pal Zach, did just that. Enjoy!

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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!

Cross Country: WIGWAMWATCHES

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I was reading some of Proust’s The Captive today, and there’s this lovely bit about the haze of impressionism glinting the everyday with the same painterly beauty as the grandest cathedrals. In a way this sentiment wafts into the world of film crit, which has yet to produce a Notre Dame and should probably give up trying. Nonetheless, certain dipshit writers fashion themselves after classicist architects, trying in vain to erect definitive statements and comprehensive assessments, and gussy up their every fetid thought with ‘professional,’ ‘journalistic’ bowties and acne-oil excesses of authoritativeness. In truth, they wind up slip ‘n sliding all over their wet-cement prose, which can only calcify into rubble.

The greatest film writers, and this has been true since the beginning of film crit history, recast their filmic subjects, already staidly illumined by the silver screen, in new lights – perhaps strobe-lit polychrome (in which the prose ecstatically dances to the film’s elusive but pulsating rhythm), candlelight flicker (the jittery scrawl of the captive observer who experiences the work in radiant flashes), or slanted sunlight (whereby all that is opaque and easily explicable – plot, theme, style – projects an elongated shadow into the critic’s subconscious that he or she then seeks to tortuously reproduce in writing). Where the average film critic simply describes what the viewer has already seen, and performs a trick akin to turning a light switch off and then on again, the masters of the form – the Farbers, the Fergusons, the Kaels, and the Sutpens – treat criticism as a chemical reaction, whereby the subatomic particles that comprise the film in question are subjectively scattered and reassembled into spell-binding streaks of linguistic lightning! Instead of ‘such and such happened’ or ‘Hawks does so and so,’ or even a matter of the how such and such happened or why Hawks does so and so…it’s really and truly a matter of such and such and so and so alchemized with the unique neural wiring of my brain into an experience never to be recaptured, only reflected in the imperfect poeticism of this ensuing scribble.

Which brings me to wigwam. Of all the film writers I have ever encountered, wigwam is by far the most honest, a creature of soul and psychosis who threads every film he watches through his clattering, fatiguing, environmentally unsound textile mill of a brain and brazenly exhibits the finished product for all the world to see. For those who know this madman, it is abundantly clear that no other human mind has been so garishly Frankenstein-style stitched together like wigwam’s: a patchwork quilt of mental disorder cradling a Gorgon’s head whose hellfire rage is interrupted only by the dopiest cornball giggles of self-lacerating humor. This otherworldly being watches lots of movies and writes a little something on just about every one of them.

Instead of faithful model-airplane reconstructions of a film’s intrinsic facts and mechanics – the stock and trade of Indiewire bottom-feeders – wigwam traffics in the extrinsic, the glare of a nearby mobile phone, the number of klonopins recently ingested, or the efficacy of his gun-range earmuffs purchased to block out the wails of nearby parasitic infants. His reviews describe not only the film in question but also the sum total of lunatic life experiences that have led him to view it. When wigwam labels something a FAVORITE or a BEST EVER, you get the sense that these superlatives connote not innate qualities or virtues but the flashpoint convergence of such intrinsic merits with the properties of wigwam’s mental state at the time he saw it – a cosmic coinciding of paroxysmal head-space with carved-in-stone cinema that dropped like manna from heaven when he needed it most.

Such cinephilic reportage is endlessly fascinating in its own right, as some kind of crazed, freakshow phenomenon or psychological case study. But, against all odds, wigwam is also a brilliant writer, a splatter-paint prose artist whose emulsions of psychotic rage or conked-out klonz-induced euphoria yield sparkling, gemstone rarities of dancelike diction, verbal verve, essayistic ecstasy! Many a time have I reached the end of an entry of wigwamwatches and thought, “if only I could write like this. Alas, I am not crazy enough.”

But be forewarned, faithful readers, if you visit wigwamwatches.blogspot.com and find nary a thing to be seen, it is because, like most testaments to the glory of God, the writings of wigwam are truly ephemeral. It is only through the goodness of monsieur wam at his most stable and least psychologically anguished that this blog is ever visible at all. I cannot count the times that I have been itching to read his crazed reviews of Monsters University or A Hard Day’s Night only to find the vault all locked up. wigwam giveth, and wigwam taketh away.

So please, dear reader, make sure to add wigwamwatches to your online bookmarks. You will not, I hope, regret it.

Cross Country: ANATOMY OF A MURDER

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Anatomy of a Murder | Columbia Pictures | Otto Preminger | 1959

Over at Illusion Travels By Streetcar, I have had the pleasure of participating in a ramshackle audio commentary track for what is, to my mind, Otto Preminger’s greatest film. I am joined by Premiere Preminger Professional Tom Sutpen, Jeremiah McNiel — who always gives the ol’ heave-ho to heteronormativity — Brian ‘actually read the damn novel’ Risselada, and Dan Patterson on bass.

After the false starts of The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) and Saint Joan (1957), before the all-star extravaganzas of institutional deconstruction that he routinely churned out during  the 1960s (at least up until Skidoo swallowed him whole), Otto Preminger crested this parabolic career trajectory with his most expertly proportioned film, overfilling as it is with enough humdrum world-building realism to counter-weigh any of his showier instincts (here either muted or gloriously delayed until optimized moments of heart-quickening cine-drenaline).

James Stewart is the perfect star whose lifelong screen persona to flatten, for Stewart, unlike the bulk of his contemporaries, savored any acting challenge no matter how damaging to whatever manufactured ‘image’ the studio marketing outfits were then overselling to the public. He was a Pennsylvanian Presbyterian Princetonian Professional who was in it to Act goddammit!, not to lazily model a pre-digested ‘type’ (well, unless coasting by on his aw-shucksness was the best way to shill for family values or the FBI…but the less said about that the better). Now, of course, Stewart had already been doing a bang-up job in this respect through his work with Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann, but with Anatomy of a Murder he adopts a ruthless calculation that had never before factored into his acting. Whether martyring himself for America’s youth in Mr. Smith or ramming Dan Duryea’s oily face (alternate: snugly smug mug) against the bar counter in Winchester ’73, Stewart always landed somewhere along a spectrum of vulnerability, of raw emotional exposure. But in Anatomy of a Murder, we have Stewart at an unprecedented remove, as a lawyer who sublimates his actual feelings (which the audience is hopeless to successfully extract) to the tactical necessities of his profession; who can turn on ‘small-town charm’ like a faucet, as little more than legal artillery. In other words, layers within layers of Stewart-ness, a performance that etches a z-axis away from the vulnerability graph and into a cerebral meta-performative vortex!

Oh but I should say no more. Listen to this commentary folks! It’s a good one!