You can still see the terrific episode, the "TruInside" story of The Jerk, showing online. The show covers the history, absurdist innovations and legacy of the Carl Reiner-directed, Steve Martin-starring comedy classic. I'm in this, discussing the film, along with Carl Reiner, Jackie Mason, Renn Woods, Carl Gottlieb, Michael Elias, Matt Zoller Seitz, Mark Harris, Judd Apatow, Peter Farrelly, Maya Rudolph, M. Emmet Walsh and more. Produced by the great Jack Lechner.
If you missed it on the tube, you can check it out here. Here's a little clip in which I discuss one of my favorite scenes. The can scene in the gas station. M. Emmet Walsh going after Navin Johnson after Navin excitedly feels like a somebody for being in the phone book, and then becoming one, a target, but a target for being a nothing, which makes him somebody, but in the end, a nobody, pretty much exemplifies the existential absurdity of life. That's how great The Jerk is.
Who cares about Easter tomorrow? It's all about today. Today, Sterling Hayden, one of the greatest actors and screen presences in the history of cinema, would have turned 100-years old. Not surprisingly, I've compared Hayden to Jesus Christ.
"Hayden is so Hayden you feel like you’re watching, not just an icon, but some kind of loser Jesus Christ. As if Kubrick’s idol Weegee were God and Hayden were his son -- J.C. as a deep-voiced, lumbering ex-con with too-short a tie and a pouty lower lip."
That's from my 2015 piece for Sight & Sound about one of his greatest roles with one of the most powerful endings in cinema and one of the great last lines, uttered by Hayden, as Johnny Clay in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. More on Jesus:
"Hayden and Grey are still on the go, lamely attempting a taxi outside the airport while the police inch through the double glass doors. So what’s Hayden’s famed response to this spectacular ruin? It’s the resigned, quiet and tough, “Eh, what’s the difference?” That last line is so many things at once – deeply sad, it’s an embracing of nihilism and, yet, weirdly Zen. You’ll never escape Kubrick’s fateful frames, no matter how much Hayden’s big-boned body shoves through doors. Hayden’s trapped but his acceptance is so cool, so calm, so perfect, he almost busts through Kubrick’s maddening maze via pure acknowledgement. If doom could be motivating, Hayden is downright inspirational. Maybe he is Jesus Christ."
Read my entire piece here.
But also, take in Elliott Gould's take on Hayden. From my extensive 3-part interview with Gould, George Segal and Joseph Walsh about Robert Altman’s California Split (and a lot more). They loved Sterling Hayden:
Kim Morgan: So you, George, and Elliott were both in movies with Sterling Hayden [Loving and The Long Goodbye].
Joseph Walsh: I loved Sterling in the movies, but I never met him personally. [To Segal and Gould] Did you love Sterling?
Elliott Gould: I loved him. Dan Blocker was supposed to play the part. He was a very good friend of Altman’s. Dan Blocker died and the picture almost went south. And so then we were talking about John Huston, who I loved. Bob cast Sterling Hayden. So Sterling had been in Ireland doing something with R. D. Laing, the poet and philosopher who wrote a book called Knots. And so I asked to spend a little time, a moment alone with Sterling in the house where we shot, where Kathryn and Bob lived, down in Malibu. So we spent that moment alone. And so I knew that Sterling knew that I knew that Sterling knew that I knew that Sterling knew that I understood him. So I just loved him.
KM: Did you ever read his book Wanderer?
EG: Yes. When he kidnapped his kids, right?
JW: I liked the way he wanted to live his life, Sterling Hayden.
EG: I visited him on his péniche, which is like a barge. He had it in France on the Seine and I saw him there. And then he had it sent to Northern California and I visited him there too. He was a great guy. I think he worked in the Yugoslavian Underground during World War II.
JW: Did he really? Wow. Okay
Read the entire discussion here.
Briefly, on Cul-de-sac. 50 years ago.
Roman Polanski emerged from the womb understanding the art of filmmaking. Or, perhaps, understanding the art of wombs -- diseased, depraved, disordered and of course, provocative wombs. Cruelty, violence, twisted sexuality, madness, absurdity -- many of Polanski's hallmark obsessions -- are almost always confined to one space. The director loves nothing more than trapping his characters in devil-worshiping apartment buildings, phallic, knife-wielding boat trips, sadomasochistic cruises and unhappy, unsound houses. And water frequently surrounds them.
Cul-de-sac (1966) is a batshit crazy precursor to themes he would continually study: tortured relationships, bizarre, often charming alarming blonde women, infidelity, cross-dressing, even a bit of film noir, aided by the stalwart, gravel-voiced Lionel Stander, Cul-de-sac is stunningly, at times, brilliantly unhinged with a Pinteresque touch while remaining pure Polanski.
Donald Pleasence is the odd fellow living with a gorgeous, beguiling wife (the ever poignant Francoise Dorléac; sister to Catherine Deneuve, and an actress who left the world too soon), whom he keeps in an enormous, isolated house on a tiny island off the northeast coast of Britain. Playing like an especially kinky Desperate Hours, the couple will be forced to host two escaped criminals (Stander and Jack MacGowran) after the thugs land at their nutty abode. And then things get...really interesting. But it's not just crime and entrapment that make the story compelling, it's all of the Polanski touches, particularly when he observes the idle activities of Dorléac.
I love her character. Her feral nature mixed with mischief and intelligence and some other quality that might be deemed a bit crazy but, no, she's not crazy. She fascinating. A wonderfully weird, mysterious woman. Some may dismiss her as merely childish, but this is a woman -- a woman who can revert to a girl (and what man hasn't reverted to bratty boy?) and a woman who is cheating on her cross-dressing husband. (Somehow, the cross-dressing isn't such a big deal, just curious and kinky, and not in the doubling, terrifying way Roman's tortured Tenant Trelkowski is). There's power dynamics going on in this relationship, but they are so muddy, that they seem more heightened versions of just how human we all are (but many of us keep hidden). We're all a blend of man, woman, cheater, sadist, masochist... makeup.
We're also often bored, no matter how crazy our relationship is. And Dorléac is expert at showing how perpetually bored she is, stuck in the house like a more spirited, extra primal Virgin Suicide sister, she engages in childlike activities to amuse herself. It's unhealthy for women to be stuck in the house all the time in Polanski pictures (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby) and Dorléac knows it. She tears around the house barefoot, applies exaggerated eyeliner (or helps her husband with his), messes with rifles and, the best, and most hilarious, lights a sleeping Stander's feet on fire with burning pieces of newspaper between his toes ("It's called a bicycle" she taunts). Oh...you just don't do that to Lionel Stander. Or perhaps, you do. Between these two mismatched misfits, it's disarmingly sexy. Stander with a belt. She bolts. Polanski so expertly builds up to it, taking his time for us to observe, listen, laugh and flinch. And laugh again. And then feel a little sexually unnerved (in a good or bad way -- or both) while laughing. Polanski's good at that.
These characters don't establish things like "safe" words nor do they understand the concept of such a thing, so the perversity, stark beauty, the isolation, the bleakness, the menacing sexuality and the insanity make the whole experience oppressive and ominous, yes, but also a black-humored good/bad time. And, yes, you can have a good/bad time, especially with Francoise Dorléac.
If you haven't already, go get yourself a beautiful copy of Cul-de-sac from Criterion.
Bring on Sacheen Littlefeather.
I like Oscars that go a little crazy. Disruptive. Weird. And not in those golly-gee speeches where someone reacts with such feigned shock that he or she giddily exhibits an actorly, cute-as-a-button manic depressive episode, stuttering out names that reveal how kooky, sweet, humbled and... we got it. Though speeches like that can be charming, if you're going to go there, just pull a full-on Greer Garson and ramble on in a five and a half minute gusher. That would be entertaining. We're got the great Chris Rock this year hosting in a politically charged year-- excellent -- I'm excited to see him take on the telecast.
For now, I'm thinking of the past: Bring me Joan Crawford. Bring me Joan Crawford in bed, accepting her golden boy (for Mildred Pierce). So with the Academy Awards telecast approaching, here are three (among many) of my favorite Oscar moments. There are others of legendary lore: Rod Steiger thanking the Maharishi, George C. Scott not showing up, Brando's Littlefeather showing up, and again, Joan in bed, but I'm sticking to these three stars who, a la Lina Lamont, proved themselves shimmering, glowing stars in the Oscar firmament.
1. The Unflappable David Niven (1974)
This one is so famous that if you don't know it, I don't know you. Now, I adore David Niven. How can one not adore David Niven? It seems a part of one's biological makeup to adore David Niven. But David Niven plus Oscars plus streaker? In that case, I worship David Niven. Shaking up the normally demure affair in 1974 was one naked Robert Opel, a guy who'd managed to sneak onstage and streak past Niven while flashing the peace sign. Debonair Niven craftily upstaged the nude marauder, however, by handling the potentially embarrassing situation with amused aplomb. Not missing a comedic beat, the quick-witted Brit quipped, "The only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping and showing off his shortcomings." Wonderful.
Should we be surprised Niven handled this so beautifully? No. He was once close pal Errol Flynn's roommate in a house nicknamed "Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea." I'm thinking a naked hippie meant nothing to a seen-it-all-and-everything David Niven. One of the greatest Oscar moments and a sterling example of how to manage a sticky situation -- something many presenters should learn from. In case of emergency, break glass and resurrect David Niven.
2. Jack Palance Don't Need No Stinkin' Geritol (1992)
An old school, star-studded brand of my-grandpa-can-kick-your-grandpa's-ass moment happened when City Slickers star Jack Palance picked up his Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Not content with the requisite "thank you's" delivered by scroll (and Palance had been around -- he'd have a lot of shout-outs, instead he brought up a producer 42 years ago who thought he'd win an Oscar), the actor dropped to the floor and performed an impressive set of one-handed push-ups. Not bad for a 72-year-old. His City Slickers co-star and Oscar host Billy Crystal was so amused, Jack bettered his material for the rest of the evening with quips like: "Jack Palance has just bungee-jumped off the Hollywood sign." Or after a musical number performed by a host of kids, Crystal announced that all of the children had, in fact, been seeded by the virile tough guy.
No matter how much Palance deserved his award for earlier, superior films like Shane or Sudden Fear (in which he's brilliant), there's no doubt that he made a special kind of history that night. Also, he made co-nominee Tommy Lee Jones smile. That's something.
3. Dear Joan, Damned Bette (1963)
I respect the talents of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford so much, that I sometimes tire of their images looked upon (especially Joan), with only camped up, "Mommie Dearest" delight. But there's no denying it -- that's one part of their appeal. And so yes, I do love a good Bette vs. Joan throw-down and this is a great one. Furious when her What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? co-star Davis was nominated for Best Actress and she wasn't, Crawford got supremely crafty in the ongoing grudge match with Ms. Davis (their feud went as far back as an affair with Franchot Tone -- here's my Tumblr category devoted to Tone's love life). Joan exhibited some serious Harriet Craig-level manipulation when she wrote each of the other nominees (oh, how I would love to see those letters) and offered her services to accept on their behalf should one of them be unable to attend the ceremony. And wouldn't you know it? Anne Bancroft, who could not be present, won for The Miracle Worker.
Sweeping on stage and pawing that golden boy like a jungle cat, Joan basked in the limelight, starting with "Miss Bancroft said, 'Here's my little speech, Dear Joan.'" Dear Joan continued while Ms. Davis steamed in her seat, feeling more like Crawford's Blanche, never being able to leave that chair. Bette, I love you, my below essay is all about how you ARE Oscar, and I'm not taking sides here, but in this case... Bravo and bitchily well played Joan. A diva to the death. And she looks fantastic, of course.
Bette Davis defines Oscar. After all, wasn't it the divine Ms. Davis who coined the Academy's golden boy as "Oscar?" The story goes that the little man's rear-end reminded the actress of her then husband, Oscar, and clever Bette anointed it so. Whether or not this story is true (and it's more than likely, not) it doesn't matter to me. Bette named the Oscar. Fact. No need to check. Print the legend. As Werner Herzog would say, it's ecstatically true. She was also, the Academy's first female president (and resigned in frustration). Bette, in performance and in real life, she's all Oscar -- the role, the telecast, the speech and the ensuing behaviour after winning (or not winning) swirled into one nice circular motion of her ever-present cigarette.
Because, as I've stated before, Bette Davis is every woman (and some men) wrapped into one: ugly and beautiful, sweet and biting, honest and deceitful, classy and vulgar. There isn't a side of Bette that every woman (and perhaps men) doesn't see in herself. Her face -- those buggy eyes flickering with near-homeliness and yet an odd, sometimes exquisite beauty (never forget how uniquely gorgeous Bette was as a young starlet), sadness, insanity, malevolence, rage and finally, strength. And her little body -- coiled up and ready to strike (as in Another Man's Poison) or sloppy and cruelly casual (like in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: "Here's your lunch" she announces to Joan before promptly serving her a rat) or lovely and wary (as in All This, and Heaven Too) or brassy and swishy (as in Jezebel) or an elegant liar (as in The Letter) or mousy turned gorgeous (as in Now, Voyager) or just plain gloriously melodramatic, then vulnerable (as in All About Eve) or bitchy, vain and heart-breaking, so desperate (as in The Star).
The Star. Where Bette possesses her coveted golden boy but no one cares. Well, no one cares except the audience, Natalie Wood and Sterling Hayden (pretty damn good company). I always wished Bette (who was nominated, for a moment I forgot this, the movie is not discussed enough that I even have to remind myself), but I wish she had won another one for The Star (directed by Stuart Heisler). Bette's transformation in the picture is, to use that overused word, brave. But it is. Specifically because she didn't go emaciated, fat, ugly or crazy, she simply did ... dumpy and, bitter, and down and out. She hit close to the bone and had to be thinking of her own life as an actress. Like Bette on a bad day with bad hair and bad frocks and a bad hangover and that kind of brutally honest insecurity actresses dare not discuss while looking blousy. They are older. They are vain. They are sensitive. The industry's harsh. They can't handle it.
In real life Bette could handle it, which is exactly why she could take on the tough material of The Star. How many actresses, in a wonderfully meta-moment, would look at their actual Academy Award and say: "Come on, Oscar, let's you and me get drunk!" before embarking on a dipsomaniacal star tour of jealousy and pity that results in an arrest -- all with their statuette in tow? Perhaps in a comedy, but aside from real life -- and I'm sure plenty of washed-up winners have driven through Beverly Hills, their Oscar propped on the dash like a gilded GPS system, cursing the career of Jennifer Lawrence -- not many would take it that far.
But, again, in the under-appreciated The Star, Bette takes it that far with her Margaret Elliot, a forty-something (looking more fifty-something, and still fantastic to me because she's Bette fucking Davis) ex-goddess -- a part played with a believable amount of sympathetic sadness and unlikable self-absorption. And she holds up beautifully, feeling as relevant today as she did then. We know this woman has never lost her star power, even if studio's don't want her anymore (it's Bette Davis for chrissakes) and so the movie, while showcasing her unwillingness to let go (rather unfairly) does through virtue of Davis's powerful performance, blame both the cruelty of Hollywood and those living in a land of delusion.
You'll wince when you see her prospective boyfriend (a strapping Hayden) suggest she get a job at Saks Fifth Avenue, not because it's a bad job (she's broke after all), but because she'll later lose her mind working there, and... she's a talented actress. She should be acting. But you'll positively squirm when you watch her potentially triumphant screen test, something that turns disastrous when she can't accept that her washerwoman role isn't ... sexy. Her realization of blowing it based on her own vanity doesn't punish her, however, you just feel for her. She sees what she did wrong. She cries. She accepts it. And, by film end, there's a freedom in returning to Hayden and embarking on a potentially easier life with him, aging out of the spotlight, but there's also a loss and sadness there. This woman should still be working. She's not Bette Davis in The Star, she's Margaret Elliot, but, really, she's Bette Davis. Thank goodness Bette never retired.
Because two-time Oscar winner Bette Davis was always the star and actress -- her finest roles, her later spirited talk show appearances, bad TV, good TV, Burnt Offerings and all. The auteur who prompted Norma Desmond to instinctively ready herself for her closeup, Mr. DeMille, has an award named after him (a Golden Globe). I think it's about time Ms. Davis did too. As she said of herself, "In this business, until you're known as a monster you're not a star." She also said, "I'm the nicest goddamn dame that ever lived." Indeed. Enjoy (or don't enjoy) the Oscars. And, really, do take Fountain.
The newest issue of the beautiful art and fashion magazine, MONROWE Magazine has published a lovely six-page spread of 18 of my photographs from Paris, shot at the Centre Pompidou, during the filming of what would become the feature film, The Forbidden Room, directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson. Some of these moments are found swirling in the picture, others will appear online, all of them still roll around my mind, often like dreams.
I also wrote an essay about my experience in Paris in addition to providing the pictures, here's a portion:
Back in Paris, 2012... I look at actors. All of them fascinate me and I take pictures. Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Slimane Dazi, Adèle Haenel, Ariane Labed, Jacques Nolot, Geraldine Chaplin, Christophe Paou, Maria de Medeiros, Victoire Du Bois, Mathieu Amalric and more and more… they arrive and walk into these frames and it’s all this dreamy haze now. A beautiful dream but a sometimes a stressful dream. We go to movies on our time off, those moving pictures now co-mingling with my memories, the most vivid being “The Fugitive Kind” – Marlon Brando sexily moving around that store and set, igniting Anna Magnani and the south, as the husband upstairs sweats and frets in what could be conceived as a paranoid fever dream, but it's real. Joanne Woodward wears runny black eye makeup and looks so sexy it’s almost surreal. She also looks near dead. In the apartment, and on the set, it’s make believe and real life colliding into each other. Emotionally, this is not easy. I take photographs because these people are too interesting to not take photographs of. Guy works incredibly hard. He shoots what is then 17 lost, aborted and unrealized films. Seventeen films, one a day, for seventeen days straight.
It's the 40th anniversary of Taxi Driver. Here's a repost of my piece, from 2011, when I saw its new restoration in Berlin.
"All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people."
Last night in Berlin was the world premiere of the 4K restoration of Martin Scorsese's 1976 classic, Taxi Driver. Not surprisingly, and after many viewings throughout my life, the movie, all red light and red blood and red anger, is still lingering in my mind. And Bickle's above proclamation, "morbid self-attention" is more relevant today. So much of the picture feels frighteningly prescient. Like The King of Comedy, it seems to speak of an entire oncoming generation -- Travis Bickle's and Rupert Pupkin's, primping (inadvertently or on purpose) for their 15 minutes of fame and glory. 15 minutes and more. From Bernard Goetz to Reality TV to TMZ to YouTube to Twitter, we love to celebrate or watch or laugh at our misfits, our train-wrecks, our crackheads and ... ourselves, ready for their (our) close-ups on ... anything. We're not the Me Decade/Generation, we're the Look at Me Generation.
Screenwriter Paul Schrader and supervisor of restoration, Grover Crisp, were there to present -- Crisp going over the technical details; Schrader to briefly tell us what inspired his screenplay, a screenplay he wrote at a mere 24 years old while he was living in his car. Schrader admitted to feeling like Travis Bickle, and even owning a gun. That he, at one point, realized he hadn't talked to a single person in a month, and was so alienated by the city, that he felt he was dying a young death in his auto-coffin. He may as well have been a night shift taxi driver. Schrader said that "he had to do something about it." Much like Bickle attempting to gain advice from the Wizard (and the Wizard's advice is awful), because he felt like he was going to do something ... he just didn't know what, and that he was worried about it (a moment in which we feel terrible for Bickle, reaching out, receiving nothing), Schrader was worried too. He was going to do something.
He took that anxiety and anger and did do something -- he wrote Taxi Driver.
Here's the back-story of the restoration via the Berlinale:
"In order to restore the film in spring 2010, the original 35mm negative was first read by a high resolution 4K scanner. The film was also re-graded and digitally restored in 4K: the media files were restored by Sony Pictures in California under the supervision of Grover Crisp; Scorsese’s cinematographer Michael Chapman supervised Scott Ostrowsky as he created a colour matched version that was approved by Scorsese. The 4K files were subsequently given a digital clean up by MTI film in Los Angeles. This involved removing scratches, stains and tread marks from the archived negative. Some scratches proved especially difficult to remove without altering the underlying imagery, particularly the faces of characters. The restoration of the sound was equally extensive and involved the production of a new multi-track stereo soundtrack from the film’s original recordings. The final version of the restored film was approved by Martin Scorsese in January 2011."
To see the film on the big screen (which I hadn't viewed, writ large, since college), was a revelation. There's been much debate about the restoration of the picture -- that it might take away the grit of Travis Bickle's New York City -- a city that he discusses in terms of filth and scum (which made me wonder, while Bickle was telling his surprise cab fare Senator Palantine the needed changes to the city, if this had been Mayor Giuliani's favorite movie). But watching the movie, I believe the right balance was achieved. Never once did you feel like you weren't in NYC 1975, never once did you think the vibrant reds took away from the dirty streets, the garbage, in fact, they only seemed to highlight them more. I always though that even Betsy's dresses, often red striped or pure white, were an interesting counterpoint to the junkies and lowlifes (who were also, incredibly vibrant, even before restoration) -- she is, of course, an "angel," as Travis proclaims her. But soon, to him, like all the rest of them.
And the film, as gritty as it is, was always beautiful. Just the shot of the cab in the mist ... like something from a dream. Or Matthew ("Sports") slow-dancing with Iris, a sick moment of pimp manipulation set to the romantic Bernard Herrmann score (on their phonograph), that manages to be creepy/gross and lovely all at once. And there with that bright red -- Matthew's red polished fingernail clutching Iris's hair.
So many moments of the movie you notice even more on the big screen, and in such crisp detail. Bickle's clear racism is more apparent and disturbing (and, I will add, his fear). And even the humor, which does exist in Taxi Driver, is funnier. And not just in the Albert Brooks moments. There's something about Travis not understanding "The Pilgrim" by Kris Kristofferson ("I'm no pusher ...") that's amusing (this beautiful woman is giving him a supreme compliment and he can't see it). And yet, he buys the record, a lonely, heartbreaking moment. He doesn't even bother to listen to it. (Also interesting that Schrader was raised in the tradition of the Pilgrims -- Calvinist -- this can't be a coincidence).
And yes, the final messy shoot-out is gloriously, horrifyingly gory, and hasn't been scrubbed to death to save our stomachs (or worsen them). It still combines a kind of grindhouse blood (so red ... but in some cases, a repulsive brownish red), among the cheap plaid suits and Iris's hot pants, and remains so recklessly real and beautifully composed all at once.
And finally, putting aside the restoration -- there's the story. The fall and rise of Travis Bickle. "God's lonely man." Critics and viewers often discuss the golden age of 70s filmmaking -- and Taxi Driver is certainly one of the era's highest achievements. But it goes so far beyond that. It's so incendiary, that I don't think it could be made today. And not only because of the advent of the blockbuster or the uber popularity of 3D or the idea that "real" characters have been wiped out of popular cinema, but because the movie, like some of the greatest art, feels so potently combustible. Oddly, not once did I think of John Hinckley during the movie -- I thought of the world and I thought of myself.
Taxi Driver makes you ponder the world we live in, beyond New York City and now, and then, as a perfect character study, it makes you ponder yourself. Your soul searching, fucked-up, boot clad Cowboy and your soul searching, fucked-up, mohawked Indian. Because, truth be told, it's tough to not relate to Travis Bickle -- shy and disturbed, angry and self-hating, valiant and violent, and, in brief moments, with that weirdly winning grin, charming -- just trying to get organezized.
"Taxi Driver" (1976). Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Paul Schrader. Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks and Peter Boyle.
The new Sight & Sound features my ten-page interview with its February cover star, Quentin Tarantino, and they have graciously allowed me to excerpt a portion of the extensive Q&A here. This is a nice chunk of it, but there's so much more in the magazine, from getting to know his characters, to the Roadshow appeal of The Hateful Eight and themes in the movie, to movie violence, to Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Django, to shooting on Ultra Panavision, to his own theater in Los Angeles, The New Beverly (shout out to Clu Gulager in the issue), to his love of old film prints, to interesting thoughts and facts about his past movies, and much, much more. Dig in and read it all via the magazine (buy a copy here). For now, check out these choice moments from the interview.
“There was a whole lot of speculation from some people about this whole 70mm thing, as in, that’s really great, but it’s just this set-bound parlor piece, so isn’t it just a big old fucking waste of time and money? And, I think that’s a shallow view of how 70mm can be employed. It’s not just to shoot the Seven Wonders of the World, the Sahara desert and mountain ranges. You can do more than just shoot weather…. I’ve shot a lot of movies with Sam Jackson but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten the close-ups of him that I’ve got in this. You drink in the chocolate of his skin, you swim in those eyes... And also, it becomes about the dialogue.” -- Quentin Tarantino
KM: The Hateful Eight: This is another western and, in many ways, like Django  a political one. You’ve said that you originally didn’t think of it politically in terms of current times and, yet, the movie has become that. The western genre is often an effective way to explore psychological, political and cultural themes, and through the history of cinema… would you agree?
QT: I’ve always felt that actually. I’ve always felt, and, especially if you read any of the really interesting subtextual criticism on westerns, especially leading into the late 60s and into the 70s, westerns have always done a pretty good job reflecting the decade in which they were made without seemingly trying to. When westerns were probably at their most popular, during the 50s, they definitely put forth an Eisenhower-esque America. And it was also an America and an American west that was flush with American exceptionalism -- having just won World War II and the advent of the suburbs. That was very important to westerns back them. And even, in an interesting way, while they weren’t bold enough in the 50s to deal with the race problem in America, i.e., between blacks and whites, since the race problem between Indians and whites was long since over with, they actually tried to somewhat deal with black and white issues via Indian and white issues. Like [Delmer Daves’s] Broken Arrow  … In the case of Broken Arrow, Jeff Chandler, in particular, became a big box office draw for Black people in America because of his performance of Cochise in that film.
And, that followed suit with the first half of the 60s, which was basically the 50s part II. But in 1966 on, things started changing and spaghetti westerns went a long way toward doing that: the stylization, the use of music, but also the counterculture. So by '68, '69, '70 and '71, you had the hippie westerns, the counterculture westerns, whether they be Kid Blue  or The Hired Hand  or Zachariah , things like that. The 70s, particularly in America, was one of the best times for the western. And the changes went further into the 70s; it increased as the decade went on, [in terms of] the true “anti-western.” Because so many of the different westerns at that time dealt with the Vietnam War, in one way or another.
KM: Like Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana's Raid ...
QT: Yes. Ulzana's Raid is the perfect example. Most of the Vietnam metaphor movies don’t work quite as well any more because you’re thinking, “Well, why didn’t you just make a movie about Vietnam?” Ulzana's Raid actually still completely works as a Vietnam metaphor, because that was underneath it, and what was on top of it was a war movie about the American Indian wars, about the calvary fighting a nomad army, about how warfare like that is done. So it was legitimately a war movie about those times and taken seriously as a war movie in a way that most movies dealing with that subject didn’t do. But you had a situation during that era, of, 'We can’t trust our government for getting us into this war, they said it was this; it wasn’t, we don’t trust them ...' all the different hypocrisies that kept rearing their ugly heads leading to Watergate.
And so one of the things that was so interesting about that new Hollywood time period, and particularly reflected from 69-74, not only did the happy ending go away, it was the vogue to have the cynical ending -- the cynical, hypocritical, tragic ending. We were cynical about America and these movies just confirmed our cynicism about the subjects. And because we were cynical about America, you see movies that rip down the statues that we had built. So you see Frank Perry’s Doc , which skewers the Wyatt Earp legend. And then, after everyone from Roy Rogers to almost everybody else playing Jesse James, you have Robert Duvall playing Jesse James in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972) where he’s a homicidal maniac; it’s completely horrifying. And then Michael J. Pollard in Dirty Little Billy …
KM: Billy "was a punk”
QT: [Laughs] Exactly, right. And Michael J. Pollard looking like that one famous photos of William H. Bonney, more than Robert Taylor ever did. [Laughs]. The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (is miles away from the Tyrone Power Jesse James movie. And leading to the most overt Watergate Western, Posse , directed by Kirk Douglas, starring Douglas and Bruce Dern; written by William Roberts, who wrote the screenplay for The Magnificent Seven .
KM: And in terms of The Hateful Eight, recently, in your real life politically, it’s interesting because you’ve had all of this…
QT: Brouhaha [Laughs]
KM: Yes. Brouhaha with the police, which became ridiculous. No one with any sense can be on board with their statements and methods towards protesting you -- the intimidation.
QT: Oh, yeah I know. It’s been an interesting four weeks as far as that was concerned [Laughs]. The first week, everyone was piling on me. And then, the second week, I react to it and that was kind of interesting because all of a sudden, everyone on TV ended up having some sort of say about it, so I thought, “Wow, this is good that this much about police brutality is being dealt with and is in the news so much.” And then the cops do themselves no favors by issuing genuine threats. The funny part about it is, people ask, “Well, are you worried?” And of course I’m not worried. At the end of the day I don’t feel that the police are some sort of sinister Black Hand organization that singles out private citizens to fuck over. Nevertheless, a civil service entity shouldn’t even be putting out threats, even in a rhetorical nature, towards private citizens and the fact that they’re using language that makes them sounds like bad guys in an 80s action movie doesn’t help their cause any. In fact, it almost makes my cause. Almost sounds as if they’re out of touch. [Laughs]
KM: About [Jennifer Jason Leigh's Daisy Domergue] character: It might be a bit controversial for some because she gets smacked around a lot; she’s taking it as tough as anyone else and that she’s endured this before is part of who she is…
QT: There’s an interesting aspect to that. No one’s yet to nail me personally or in person about that aspect: that she takes so much abuse in the course of the movie and I’m almost looking forward to it because I’m curious exactly where they’re coming from. You feel it ripple through the audience the first few times she gets the shit beat out of her. And you feel it in old movies too, you know, when the girl is hysterical and the guy just smacks the shit out of her: “I’m sorry honey I hated to do that but you’re off your nut.” [Laughs] But that’s different. When Daisy is really hit the first time, she’s saying rude shit: “You’re not going to let that nigger in here?” And he cracks her skull.
KM: And the first time he hits her it follows with such a powerful close-up. Her slightly vulnerable and then, angry face. You have a lot of mixed feelings when you see that shot. You do feel for her. You’ve just met her. How despicable is she?
QT: Oh, I think it’s one of the best shots. And, yes, yes, all of those questions are left to be answered. She’s definitely a rude, hateful bitch, that’s for damn sure, but his response is so brutal. He didn’t just punch her; he takes the butt of his gun and cracks her in the skull really hard. And that close-up, yes, she’s fantastic in the close-up. And you realize just how bad he hit her when the blood starts dripping down her face. But you have this feeling of, “Ohhh… this is going to be that kind of movie” and it’s just starting off. And nobody’s not going to be on Daisy’s side after that, in some way or another, because you’ll think, John Ruth is a brutal, brutal man. And you’re right: John Ruth is a brutal, brutal man. If the movie were on John Ruth’s side at that point well, then, maybe somebody might have a more righteous pen, writing a subtextual article about it. But the movie is obviously not on John Ruth’s side at that point. And especially in the stagecoach… But then things change as they go on. It’s part of the way the story works; anything can happen to any one of these eight characters. The idea that I would give a female character some blanket coat of invincibility in that regard is just a ridiculous concept; it would be detrimental to her and to the sex of her character if I played any favorites.
KM: One thing I find interesting about the old western shows and that time in television in general, was that it was this period in television during which some seasoned, interesting directors like Joseph H. Lewis, were directing episodes of The Rifleman while newer guys coming in, like Robert Altman, was directing Bonanza.
QT: Yep. Bonanza, Combat!…
KM: And then you had John Cassavetes starring in Johnny Staccato [1959-60] and Ben Gazzara in Run For Your Life [1965-68] and then an old movie star like Barbara Stanwyck leading The Big Valley [1965-69]. And, on top of that, you’d see all these unique, particular talents with guest stars like Warren Oates, Warren Oates doing all kinds of things…
QT: Him and Bruce Dern were sidekicks in Stoney Burke [1962-63] the Jack Lord rodeo show.
KM: Yes. A show with great cold openings! And then The Virginian [1962-71]…
QT: [Laughs] Yeah. I’m a huge fan of, in particular the William Whitney episodes of The Virginian. His episodes are really terrific because he actually had the budget that he didn’t quite have while at Republic. They were like 90-minute movies and were actually released as movies overseas. But. Sam Fuller did a magnificent episode of The Virginian ["It Tolls For Thee," 1962], which he wrote and directed. It’s a Sam Fuller episode in every way. It stars Lee Marvin as the bad guy who kidnaps Lee J. Cobb and the episode is all about that kidnapping. Marvin and Fuller wouldn’t work together again until The Big Red One. It’s Sam Fuller dialogue from beginning to end. And, I have to say; I took one line from it for The Hateful Eight. I won’t say the line in my movie but I’ll say the line from The Virginian: Lee Marvin runs an outlaw gang and then another guy in the gang, a guy named Sharkey, starts talking to the gang to try to get them to forget about Lee Marvin and Lee Marvin just shoots him in the back. Lee Marvin says, “One measly bullet and there goes the problem of Sharkey.” [Laughs]
KM: The Hateful Eight, it’s not timeless, but because there’s a sometimes-modern subtext to the characters, and timeless issues we’re contending with today, it doesn’t feel simply rooted in the past. Looking at people from the past, they often are more radical looking than we think, in terms of appearance, especially people in the west…
QT: There definitely is that. There is a spaghetti western-ish patina to the characters, for lack of a better adjective. Most of the really interesting characters in the Spaghetti Western have a comic-book feel, as if they were drawn. And the costumes themselves have this comic-book artist kind of fetishistic quality to them. Then you think of all of Leone’s films and most of Sergio Corbucci westerns were done by Carol Sini, who was the costumer designer and the production designer, and he did the props. Can you imagine the guy who came up with the Django costume and Angel Eyes’ costume and the Man with No Name costume he, also, like, found the circular graveyard in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly  or that fucking rope bridge over the quicksand or the fucking muddy town in Django? I mean, what a genius! That level of work is almost unfathomable. I did show Courtney Hoffman, my costume designer, a bunch of Carlo Sini movies and she got it. The character’s costumes have to pop before the characters. With Sam Jackson that’s easy because he comes with a big personality on his own. He fills out that batwing, yellow underlining just perfect [Laughs].
KM: In terms of actors, I know that two of your favorite actors are Aldo Ray and Ralph Meeker. Is there anything about an actor, or those two guys in particular, that informs a cinematic aesthetic? Just an actor and a style, the world around them…
QT: Well, actually, literally in the case of Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction  it did. What I liked about Bruce Willis is that he reminded me a 50s leading man. He still has that quality now. He reminded me of a Ralph Meeker, Aldo Ray, and Brian Keith kind of man. I went to his house and we did actually watch one print of an Aldo Ray movie, we watched Nightfall .
KM: A great movie. And with an evil Brian Keith too. They have great banter in that movie.
QT: They have fantastic banter. And Brian Keith is excellent. I’m a big fan of Brian Keith in all of his Phil Karlson movies too. With the rise of the great 70s leading man, with the rise of Elliott Gould, Jack Nicholson, Donald Sutherland, Dustin Hoffman and George Segal, the one thing that took a hit were people like that Brian Keith leading man.
KM: Who are the actors you’ve most have wanted to work with?
QT: Obviously, Ralph Meeker and Aldo Ray are two of them. Michael Parks, in his day. I worked with him but in his day would have been nice. Robert Blake in his day. I would work with Robert Blake tomorrow, now would be nice too. I would have loved to work with Bette Davis in her day or out of her day. In the early 60s, in the 40s, 30s to Burnt Offerings  time. All good. TV movie time. All good. I’d love to work with Al Pacino now, I just saw him in the new Mamet play and he was terrific. I might even want to work with him now more, even more than his Serpico  days. I would love to have Al Pacino rip snorting through my dialogue.
KM: We’ve talked about 70s movies; where you feel like movies like that aren’t made anymore. That it really feels like it takes place in 1970. One movie from the 70s that I always find amazing that it did so well, given one famous, disturbing sequence, is Deliverance  … Could anyone make that film today? Like that?
QT: Oh, I know. I saw Deliverance in 1972 in a double feature with The Wild Bunch  at the Tarzana Movies, the Tarzana Six, back when it was a big deal that six theaters were in one place. And recently I’ve been writing a piece of film writing, just for my own edification, and I’ve been going through some of the films and imagery that I saw in 1970 and 71. So, in 1970, I saw, at the counterculture Tiffany Theater, at age 8, a double feature of Joe and Where’s Poppa? That same year I saw a double feature of The Owl and the Pussycat and The Diary of a Mad Housewife. In 1970 I saw Richard Harris be hoisted by his nipples in A Man Called Horse. In 1970, I didn’t see Women in Love but I saw the trailer for Women in Love that had the naked wresting match between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates. And in 1972, forget about all the things I saw in The French Connection, I saw the slow motion bullet kills in The Wild Bunch only to see Ned Beatty fucked in the ass in Deliverance.
QT: That movie, rocked my world as a kid. When I saw the butt-fucking scene in Deliverance, I didn’t know what sodomy was, as a kid. What I did know was that he was being humiliated. And I did know those guys were fucking scary. That’s what I knew. Well, I was right. He was being humiliated, he was being subjugated by really scary people who were imposing their will over him. That is what it was about. It wasn’t about the sex. The one part that would freak adults out went over my head but I actually got it [what it meant]. And that made me not want to go camping. [Laughs] But then the other part of the movie that blew my mind was that, in every way shape or form, Burt Reynolds is set up to be the hero in the first 45 minutes, and he does fit that function during that encounter. But then shortly thereafter he’s fucked up and that’s it [claps hands together]. He’s completely useless.
KM: And then it’s all up to Jon Voight…
QT: It’s all up to Jon Voight. That’s still one of the best movies ever made about, for lack of a better word, masculinity.
KM: … I can’t really compare you to any director…
QT: But if you could, who would you compare to me to? In the last twenty years?
KM: I can’t think of anyone contemporary. The one director I see a brotherhood with, though, is Robert Aldrich because he could do tight smaller picture like Kiss Me Deadly  and then he’d do an epic, irreverent movie like The Dirty Dozen . Like Reservoir Dogs  to your Basterds ...
QT: Well, I’m a student of Aldrich.
KM: You need to do a woman’s picture then! Like his Autumn Leaves .
QT: The Killing of Sister George  for me! [Laughs]
KM: What about the The Legend of Lylah Clare ?
QT: Oh, I don’t like that one! That’s awful. Even I can’t get through that one and I love Aldrich. I’ve tried! I keep trying! Every time it’s on TCM I record it and I give it another attempt. [Laughs] But The Killing of Sister George I do love.
KM: When I saw the live read [my piece here], I thought about old confinement movies, like Felix Feist’s The Threat  -- the live read and the movie have also been compared to Ten Little Indians  or The Petrified Forest  which was originally a play, did those influence any of this?
QT: I didn’t watch The Petrified Forest again and I didn’t rewatch Key Largo . But, frankly, to tell you the truth, I did watch some B movies that could be considered plays. I watched Shack Out on 101 , which plays like twisted Eugene O’ Neil.
KM: These would make great stage plays. Why not remake some of these pictures at plays? Like Detour  on stage?
QT: Absolutely they would make great stage plays. I watched a lot of the movies that would be terrific plays. For instance, one spaghetti western could be done on stage. It takes place at a weird middle ground between a place like Minnie’s Haberdashery and the place where they all hang out at the beginning of Once Upon a Time in the West . It’s called Shoot the Living and Pray for the Dead  with Klaus Kinksi... Or something like The Outcast of Poker Flats... But then also, as we discussed, it was very much influenced by 60s TV westerns. I also watched a lot of the TV westerns that had a home invasion kind of vibe. There’s a Virginian episode where Darren McGavin and David Carradine take over the Shiloh Ranch and hold everybody hostage... There was one line in that Virginian episode that was so fucking good. And there was no way I could have made [that line] work, but I wanted to. Darren McGavin shows up at the Shiloh Ranch, he ends up shooting a couple of people just to make his point, but one of them is the cook. And then he makes Betsy, Roberta Shore, make him some dinner. So he’s at Lee J. Cobb's table and he’s eating his food and he’s talking shit, and then he finishes and he goes, “Wow. That meal was really unmemorable. Always remember: Don’t shoot the cook.” [Laughs] That’s a great line!
Pick up the February edition of Sight & Sound and read my ten page interview with its cover star, Quentin Tarantino. We get into it: The Hateful Eight, old TV westerns ("The Virginian" especially), movie violence, police brutality, Snoop Dogg's resemblance to Lee Van Cleef and a whole helluva lot more. Quentin gives good interview. From Sight & Sound:
"As The Hateful Eight hits UK cinemas and a retrospective season of Tarantino’s other movies starts at BFI Southbank, Kim Morgan visited the director at his Los Angeles home, where they sat down for a long, lively conversation that ranged over Tarantino’s career from Reservoir Dogs to today, delved deep into his love of westerns, the joys of seeing films in original format prints, the impact of seeing Deliverance as a boy, race and policing in America today and a whole lot more besides."
Here's my most memorable ten movies of 2015. Please indulge me as I ramble a bit, quote Werner Herzog extensively and bring up a movie that I saw last year, but was released in some cities this year, and one that I can't seem to stop watching. If you know me, you know which one.
These are not in order. Except for the first film...
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Inherent Vice is perfect and a perfect obsession and was my obsession late last year and throughout 2015 and I refuse to not count it as a movie released this year. Again, the movie ruled a good portion of my year. O.K. my entire year (I even put it on the ten best American Films of all time for the BBC). Why? Well, I'm not sure and that makes it even more seductive. But I kept watching it, almost as a comfort, even as I kept thinking that the world is crazy, that the world is heartbreaking, but ... oh what can you do? Listen to Can and look at the beach. And just hope there's a Doc Sportello out there, somewhere. Paul Thomas Anderson's moody funny funky melancholic mystery seeps into your soul, like the Neil Young songs and that faraway boat or just that almost inexplicably beautiful opening shot of Gordito Beach. It's so simple and it says so much. The movie doesn't so much require multiple viewings, it pulls you in just far enough, while remaining just enough out of reach, that it makes you feel as if you need it. There are those who yearn to untangle the plot (I think it's quite easy once you see it a second time, or in my case, nine times, in spite of how dense and confusing it is to so many viewers and critics), but for me, the experience of watching Inherent Vice is trying to find something; something elusive, something you attempt to hold on to. But you know you're not going to, like your own freedom. Personal freedom seems key to the movie, and not just as related to 1970 (a perfect time period), it seems key now, perhaps even more, and that resonated with me in such a powerful way I would find myself tearing up over moments I originally found funny. Like Josh Brolin eating a plate of pot.
The plot sits there almost as a mind trick -- one part is working out the narrative, another part is working out the emotion in your mind -- and then it all intertwines together in a sneaky way that feels less confusing and less strange the more you watch. Who is controlling things? Who are these weird entities in charge? Like the Golden Fang? It seems absurd, and then you see freaky Nixon on TV, and scary Trump on TV and nothing seems absurd any more. It's all very real. And it's personal. It’s universal. And then it's also Los Angeles. That feeling of living in this city of dreams, but also feeling trapped here in some kind of continuous time loop (like how the seasons don't really change) and how, like the movie, you'll never get to the bottom of this sprawling insane place. You wonder why you stay on those days the city's dark undercurrent suffuses you with sadness, and then you know why you stay, when you’re just looking at something, a building, a gap between buildings, the water and that melancholic romance overcomes you. Like Los Angeles, Inherent Vice is a lover we can never leave, even if they don't want us anymore.
The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
One of the most powerful, viscerally exciting, terrifying and beautiful films I've seen in a long time, it feels, at times, like watching Hemingway or Faulkner or Conrad. I've heard critics complain there's not much going on here, it's too long, it's thin, or that it's too on-the-nose, etc. and so on. It's too violent. Too... too, too. Well, it's about a man (Hugh Glass) mauled by a bear, left for dead and crawling through the freezing cold snowy wilderness to survive and seek revenge while enduring and repairing a torn-up back and a crushed leg. I'm not sure why that needs to be subtle, or how it could be subtle or not "on the nose." And yet, there's so much mystery and wonder here too. As gloriously shot by that genius Emmanuel Lubezki, nature is its own character full of glory and full of hell -- and you can't solve nature. Werner Herzog, discussing the jungle in Burden of Dreams, completes this thought, and in spite of all the beauty nature brings us, Hugh Glass would probably agree: "It's an unfinished country. It's still pre-historical. The only thing that is lacking is - is the dinosaurs here. It's like a curse weighing on an entire landscape. And whoever... goes too deep into this has his share of this curse. So we are cursed with what we are doing here. It's a land that God, if he exists has - has created in anger. It's the only land where - where creation is unfinished yet. Taking a close look at - at what's around us, there is some sort of a harmony. It is the harmony of... overwhelming and collective murder. And we in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle - Uh, we in comparison to that enormous articulation - we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban... novel... a cheap novel. We have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication... overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order. Even the - the stars up here in the - in the sky look like a mess. There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it, I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment."
Carol (Todd Haynes)
Cate Blanchett slinking, skulking, in the department store in that mink coat, as I have written before like some 50s David Bowie. Or maybe a big cat. She's so striking it's almost shocking when she unravels how human and vulnerable she is. A powerful adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's "The Price of Salt," it’s a road movie, something of a thriller, a period picture that faces a taboo theme in 1950s America -- lesbianism, and a love story that's full of beautiful and painful yearning. Sublime. (Read my interview with Todd Haynes at Filmmaker Magazine and my piece on the much-needed oddity of Patricia Highsmith at The Daily Beast)
The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)
It's 70 mm. It's bloody. It's a lot of talk. Jennifer Jason Leigh goes all crazy on us (crazy smart), and we needed her to go there again. Part snowbound western, a la William Wellman's Track of the Cat or Andre De Toth's The Day of the Outlaw, part Petrified Forest, and even Ten Little Indians, The Hateful Eight works its confined, pressure cooker, political plot with some virtuoso performances that are both down and dirty and incredibly stylized. It's gorgeously shot out there in the snow, but it loves its characters and their faces and their enormous fur coats crammed together in that haberdashery, you can practically smell animal pelts from the screen. It's old fashioned and radical and though Tarantino is the master of cinema references, he always makes his own rules. Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh tear it up. Walton Goggins is brilliant. It's one of Tarantino's oddest movies and one of his best. (Look for my massive interview with Quentin Tarantino coming very soon in the February issue of Sight & Sound – we dig into a lot.)
Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
A picture that is almost certifiably insane can confuse viewers -- is the nut factor glossing over what might be wrong with it? No. Because, would I want it any other way? Of course not. Hollywood satires or explications seem only to work when the director removes the safety harness and dares to be impressionistic, ghoulish, batshit crazy (Sunset Blvd. and Barton Fink are prime examples) and Cronenberg (adapted by Bruce Wagner from his brilliant novel) goes there. Incest, burn victims, dead dogs at parties, terribly shot self-immolation by the swimming pool and all.
Love (Gaspar Noé)
Gorgeously shot hardcore sex and 3-D never felt so intimate. And sad. So very sad. You'll think about a turtleneck sweater and a door as much as an erect penis. And that lingers.
Amy (Asif Kapadia)
Amy is surprisingly shattering -- you know what happens -- but as a tale told by edited existing footage when that is now entirely possible – you feel almost part of her story. Could we have seen Janis or Hendrix or even Cobain's downfall chronicled in this way? No. That we can watch a person rise and fall because everything is recorded, whether by their own hands or, as a celebrity, by the paparazzi, not only redresses her tragic tale, but comments on our lives being so relentlessly chronicled; our voyeurism, which is just norm and rarely questioned. Amy Winehouse has had a camera in her face since 16, so watching a decade of her life ascend and then smash to pieces puts us in the story that builds almost into a horror movie. You want to reach in and grab her out of there.
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
I wasn't even sure how I felt (as in, deeply) about this movie other than I was overwhelmed and I couldn't forget it. And I saw it again. It was so inventive, so unrelenting, so beautiful to behold, and shot with such an assured grip on its controlled chaos, that it felt beyond mere action -- poetic and at times, potently emotional. I disliked that guitar player (sorry) and I was worried, aesthetically, that it was some kind of Burning Man spectacle, but it turned into its own creation. I've heard some naysayers (there are a few) complain that the characters basically take a U-Turn and that's it -- just one big stupid U-Turn. But I like how simple that is, especially with Furiosa in charge. Driving is powerful (see Two-Lane Blacktop and no, it's not as good as Two-Lane Blacktop, and it's very different). A U-Turn can mean something. I'll get back to you on that.
By the Sea (Angelina Jolie)
As I wrote, and read my entire piece here: How Jolie does this through all of this insane glamour and out-of-reach beauty is testament to her power as a filmmaker. She knows how to shoot herself and her husband, she knows what we want to look at (them, the beautiful furnishings, the clothes, the cars, the ocean, the French touches, her breasts) and she knows how a languid moment and patiently held shot can make a viewer imbue a scene with their own feelings and thoughts. The more you look at Vanessa, and her unhappy marriage with Roland, the more your mind wanders toward wondering many things, even things about your own life. In pacing, style and much of the look, Jolie appears to have studied Antonioni, Godard (Contempt, especially) and Wertmüller with By the Sea. There’s even a touch of Polanski’s Bitter Moon in here. With cinematography by Christian Berger, DP for numerous Michael Haneke pictures, and a lush score by Gabriel Yared that, at times, spikes the movie with menace (perfect for Jolie) and the music by the likes of Jacques Dutronc and Serge Gainsbourg, the picture places these American movie stars in a decidedly European art-house milieu. But to Jolie’s credit, it’s not mimicking; this is a movie all her own.
A Poem is a Naked Person (Les Blank)
Filmed in 1972-1974 and finally released to the public in 2015, Les Blank was the perfect director for Leon Russell. Half concert film, half chronicle of a small town (Russell's recording studio is in Grand Lake, Oklahoma), you soak in the music, atmosphere and soul, but you really never get to know Russell, which is just as it should be. He remains ever elusive and like Blank, unclassifiable. I saw the film on the big screen this year with T-Bone Burnett conducting the Q&A with Leon Russell. Russell was asked why he wasn't happy with the picture at first and he answered: "I thought I'd look like James Dean and I ended up looking like Jimmy Dean." Well, not really. He looks like Leon Russell. Watch the trailer. See the film. Have a better next year.
Shane Black makes a good cup of coffee. It’s December 21st, 2015, the holiday season, a perfect time to meet Shane Black. I’m watching Black work his coffee maker in his kitchen. He finds me cream. I find it disarmingly sweet, charming that we’re in his enormous, beautiful 1920's-era mansion, and he’s making me coffee. He’s wearing socks, no shoes. His two handsome dogs are running all over the kitchen. They jump on me, and he nicely tells them to stop. He loves his dogs and we watch one dive into the pool. Later we’ll walk around his house, check out a secret room with a delicious past and look at his libraries which includes lots of great vintage pulps with fantastic covers and countless original issues of “Doc Savage” and “The Shadow” as well as modern and classic mysteries and thrillers (some he calls “shitty” but likes reading them anyway, which is refreshing) and more and more. We talk for a long time about numerous topics and he's candid and unexpected. Endlessly fascinating, the boyish, but wise Black is honest, opinionated, pensive, incredibly intelligent, funny and self-effacing in a unique way. He’s unlike anyone I’ve ever met.
My interview with Black is for a much larger piece I will publish later. But, for now, I’m only sharing an excerpt, one that befits the holiday. Because there’s a consistent, the singular and often brilliant screenwriter and director (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man Three, the Amazon pilot Edge, and the upcoming and The Nice Guys, as well as the recently announced Doc Savage and Predator), is famous for: setting his movies during Christmas. I've written about Black's Christmas before and asked, within the piece, for him to further illuminate his Christmas fixation. When I finally met him during this holiday season, he did. And he did so beautifully.
Kim Morgan: I am going to ask you a question that everyone asks you because all of your movies take place during Christmas. What happened? Are you obsessed with Christmas?
Shane Black: I’m not obsessed with Christmas, I’m only obsessed with Christmas in movies. It grounds me, it makes me comfortable and happy to escape wherever I am into a movie that’s set at Christmas because you recognize that the hush that comes and the sort of rarified arena that it provides at that time of year [is good] for drama to take place. And also I think, the isolation people feel at Christmas is important (and also being in a blizzard is wonderful). The homecoming feel of people striving to come back to something at Christmas is important and also, just in Los Angeles, the way you have to dig for it. How, just tiny bits of Christmas exist here but they are things you have to unearth. Like, I remember walking at Christmas and seeing a little Mexican lunch truck with a broken Madonna and a candle in it. And I thought, that is as much, that is as powerful, as talismanic a bit of Christmas as the 40-foot tree at the White House. It’s like little guiding beacons to something we all recognize as a time to put things aside and focus momentarily on the retrospective of our lives; a spiritual kind of reckoning where we’ve been and where we’re all going to. All these things, I just love it in movies.
KM: And again, it can also be so incredibly lonely…
SB: Don’t make me cry [Laughs] Look around. I’ve got two dogs and a big house.
KM: Christmas in Los Angeles is very strange. When it’s absurdly hot, the decorations on Hollywood Blvd. are just sagging there, all depressed and dejected looking. It seems cliché, but it’s like all those with sagging hope and dreams, trudging around the city, trying to keep it cheery. It can be so depressing and touching. And so dark, in the light.
SB: If you like noir -- the idea of little glowy bits, striving for some kind of attention in the middle of a non-snowy downtown L.A. landscape, the iconic nature of Christmas, that’s sort of blotted-out or hidden, but that still informs everything around it. Noir is about awakening from paranoia, hatred and depression to latch onto the one true thing that you have and inkling of. And that inkling sustains your faith throughout. And by the end, hopefully by the end: “I believe that one thing; everything else is falling apart, I’m shot and I’m dying but it’s for a reason because I believe one thing.” And so, to embody that as Christmas in L.A. I don’t know that it means any specific thing to believe in but it just means something.
KM: And that trying to believe, and during Christmas in Los Angeles… I mean, there’s that Scientology Santa siting there, adding to the surrealism and even darkness. That feels noir and almost Lynchian. You can feel so lost…
KM: But, then, in my neighborhood Koreatown, I’ll hear Mexican families singing and holding candles. It’s so haunting and lovely and far more beautiful than pristine decorations in Beverly Hills.
SB: Well, to me, when I was a kid it’s something that had a heavy impact, I was walking downtown Pittsburgh on a street, and it was late at night, the wind was blowing, and it was very dark, and all of a sudden down the street, for some reason the streetlight went out and there was just a woman, a fat woman, who was just sort of standing in the window looking out and there was just this one little thing of light, it was chiaroscuro, everything else was dark, and the idea of beacons, and the candles in the woods. I talk about the Robert Frost poem, being lost in a dark wood, and the idea of the secret light in the window, also seeing a light in a window and knowing that there’s a destination that’s vaguely seen or even sensed but not quite seen, and just so far off the path you can go to, and the lights that could steer you back onto the path; it’s vague and if you put those images in a movie one in a thousand people will say “Yeah, it was about being taken off the path and finding your beacon.” But, there is that element of me that’s just… the magic underneath Christmas we are briefly, almost fleetingly, aware of a magic that could be there. If we just stopped long enough to pay attention. And the perfect expression of this, more than anything else I could ever tell you is, "The Cricket in Time’s Square." Christmas in Time’s Square with that little cricket, that’s what we’re talking about. That’s noir.
Merry Christmas. Now go watch some Shane Black. Or read The Cricket in Time's Square. And stay tuned for my longer interview with Black.
An excerpt from my longer piece at the Daily Beast, on the oddity, allure and brilliance of Patricia Highsmith: The critically acclaimed film "Carol," based on one of her books, has helped introduce a new generation to this most puzzling, contradictory, but indispensable novelist.
Patricia Highsmith disliked food. Or, rather, she had a deeply problematic relationship with food that produced fascinating, unsettling musings, vividly intertwined with digestion and eating. Her short story, “The Terrapin,” in which a disturbed boy murders his mother with a kitchen knife after she boils a tortoise alive, Highsmith merged food issues with her own mother issues to a magnificently bent level of hysteria and horror: The dark side of domesticity. An anorexic in adolescence, and a slight woman her whole life, one who stocked liquor in her kitchen and nothing else, she found food tedious, frequently disgusting and even disturbing, blaming some of societal ills and politics on the results of food. She wrote once: “the USA [is] suffering a prolonged attack of acid stomach, an irrepressible urge to throw up.”
She pondered further, at another time, about how food affects us: “We live on the thin ice of unexplained phenomena. Suppose our food suddenly did not digest in our stomachs. Suppose it lay like a lump of dough inside us and poisoned us.”
That’s not a crazy supposition, really.
And yet, she loved a comforting warm glass of milk, something that would show up in The Price of Salt (now the movie Carol) with a dreamy strangeness and a corporal sensuality. As she writes it, milk is a bit gross, but, romantic and powerful:
“Therese was propped on one elbow. The milk was so hot, she could barely let her lip touch it at first. The tiny sips spread inside her mouth and released a melange of organic flavors. The milk seemed to taste of bone and blood, of warm flesh, or hair, saltless as chalk yet alive as a growing embryo. It was hot through and through to the bottom of the cup, and Therese drank it down, as people in fairy tales drink the potion that will transform, or the unsuspecting warrior the cup that will kill. Then Carol came and took the cup, and Therese was drowsily aware that Carol asked her three questions, one that had to do with happiness, one about the store, and one about the future. Therese heard herself answering. She heard her voice rise suddenly in a babble, like a spring that she had no control over, and she realized she was in tears.”
This is just one aspect to the woman who was the oddity and sometimes genius named Patricia Highsmith, a cookie full of arsenic (if she heard it, she had to have appreciated the Odets/Lehman line of poisoned confection) who is full of so many contradictions that she is endlessly fascinating and frequently baffling. The preoccupation with the disgust for food shows a need for control, the drinking shows a need to let go—the push and pull of a hard heart and a woman full of passion—someone who ran from and ran towards the voluptuous and often icky aspects of life.
Read the entire piece at The Daily Beast.
By the Sea Angelina Jolie doesn’t care if you like her. But it’s not out of snobbery, some kind of looking down on the little people; she’s too focused, too mysterious, too fascinatingly complicated for that. It’s from a yearning to express herself, to say something about her experience, about being a movie star, about marriage, about women, about the oddity that is she (or, us, by extension), and she does so by curious means: long silences, monosyllabic responses, beautifully held frames of a life so glamorous it hurts. And it does hurt -- her body beautifully in repose, a beguiling mixture of painfully thin hunger and vulnerability and yet a powerful body, a center of strength that carries itself along the ocean, skinny legs pushing forward this exquisite head and face, eyes and lips so full and wide it almost seems impossible. Bardot was this beautiful, Vitti was this beautiful, Hayworth, Dietrich, Lamar, but none were as aggressively odd as Angelina. Her beauty is so extreme it becomes peculiar, and she acknowledges her oddity with gorgeous, pained, perplexing expressions. Unafraid of being weird, at times even creepy, she’s the bizarre, beautiful woman next door (or next door at the French seaside villa), an exquisite, possibly crazy creature who could transform into Catherine Deneuve’s mad Carol Repulsion at any moment. She doesn’t, not that far, but at times the movie flirts with the idea that Angelina is dangerous. To whom, we’re not sure. Herself? Innocent bystanders? Well, yes. Of course she is. And by being so strangely powerful, so in touch with her own mixture of destruction and fragility, we begin to admire her. Some of us (myself, anyway) even like her, we like her very much. And I loved By the Sea. I loved it totally, tenderly, tragically
I should say that Angelina plays Vanessa, a former dancer ("I got old," she says) who is by the sea with her novelist husband, Roland Bertrand, played by her real-life husband Brad Pitt. But her playing Vanessa and Pitt playing Roland is a concoction of pointed real life, swoony fantasy and clear nostalgia. It takes place in the 70s, back when people used words like “barren” and tapped on red typewriters. Vanessa revels in her sadness and glamour, lounging all day in gorgeous satin nightwear in their stunningly golden French Mediterranean hotel room, donning a pair of YSL sunglasses that are always adjusted at the right angle when removed (routine? An obsessive adjustment by Roland when he can't adjust his wife? Should he?), pills endlessly popped and easier to obtain. And here’s an intriguing detail: Jolie’s mother’s father's name was Roland Bertrand.
In real life Angelina Jolie misses her mother just as the sweet French innkeeper, Michel (Niels Arestrup) who pours Roland’s drinks, misses his wife. Jolie-Pitt (who wrote and directed the hauntingly melancholic, almost painfully beautiful By The Sea, lest anyone has forgotten) wants people to know that one never gets over that loss. The loss of a wife, of a mother, of a good woman. And, yet, interestingly, Angelina doesn’t play her Vanessa as a “good woman” even if Roland, at the start, tells her she’s a good woman. By the end Vanessa even asks if she’s a bad person. Roland answers, "sometimes." What a refreshing response to hear in a movie -- no one is that simple, no one is that likable, and in the process of showing a woman in distress, a woman who manipulates and hurts, but one who is hurting herself most -- she turns the “crazy wife” narrative into something forgivable and human.
How Jolie does this through all of this insane glamour and out-of-reach beauty is testament to her power as a filmmaker. She knows how to shoot herself and her husband, she knows what we want to look at (them, the beautiful furnishings, the clothes, the cars, the ocean, the French touches, her breasts) and she knows how a languid moment and patiently-held shot can make a viewer imbue a scene with their own feelings and thoughts. The more you look at Vanessa, and her unhappy marriage with Roland, the more your mind wanders toward wondering many things, even things about your own life. In pacing, style and much of the look, Jolie appears to have studied Antonioni, Godard (Contempt, especially) and Wertmüller with By the Sea. There’s even a touch of Polanski’s Bitter Moon in here. With cinematography by Christian Berger, DP for numerous Michael Haneke pictures, and a lush score by Gabriel Yared that, at times, spikes the movie with menace (perfect for Jolie) and the music by the likes of Jacques Dutronc and Serge Gainsbourg, the picture places these American movie stars in a decidedly European art-house milieu. But to Jolie’s credit, it’s not mimicking; this is a movie all her own. Truly, you’ve never seen anything like this.
And looking is key to By the Sea. The movie rolls along: Vanessa and Roland barely speaking to one another, Vanessa staying in all day in a haze of Benzos and narcotics, Roland off to the bar to write, and never writing, Vanessa sitting on the bed crying, alone, Roland bemoaning the life of a now failed writer, with a drink, Vanessa laboring to talk to the newlyweds next door who fuck all day, Roland bonding with Michel and never fucking his wife, Vanessa walking by the water in her white skirt and enormous hat, Roland trying to touch his wife, Vanessa rejecting him… what is going on with these two? What is their sad secret? We’ll find out through more looking, but, chiefly, when they are looking.
Vanessa discovers a peephole in their hotel room and begins spying on the young couple (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) next door, freshly married, freshly in love, sweet, but, if anyone has been married or in a union for long enough, exhausting. Even annoying. Vanessa and Roland don’t seem to like them very much. Once Roland takes up looking with her, a kinky pursuit that turns them on, it’s easy to load their voyeurism with meaning: Jolie and Pitt are turning the tables on the public constantly staring at them. And then, to take it further, Jolie and Pitt want you to know that they might be beautiful but they aren’t perfect; they don’t get it on like the newlyweds next door, not anymore, not like they used to. Or maybe they just want you to wonder about it. Or not. Jolie writes and directs from both an intensely personal standpoint, and mystery – which is a large part of her own public persona. She is outspoken about causes and real issues personal to her, to her body, she doesn’t shield her children from the world, and yet, she maintains an enigma that we’ll never truly know her. That balancing act is her own brilliance and it’s fascinating to see her utilize it through her own direction making By the Sea her best film as a director.
But back to looking... Jolie directs by their looking and how they look. Vanessa and Roland look as, presumably, Angelina and Brad, mixing their real life, their movie star personas and their characters into this prying little kick. A life seen through a hole, a portal into another relationship, one at its most idyllic state, and one vulnerable to ruin from those who continue gawking. And, as they look, they do so with the knowledge of how we perceive them looking, their charisma ever-present while we look at them, looking. It’s a clever twist and an unexpected detail that takes the picture to another level.
And this is where Angelina is sly and even funny, for as dead serious as some think this movie is, Jolie also knows when the picture turns humorous. She jumps on the moment, almost anticipating the audiences breaking into a chuckle after a languorous sequence of near silence. Once Vanessa and Roland invite the couple out for drinks, with the intent of inebriation and more peeping, the picture treats us with shots of the two beauties preparing: Pitt brushing his hair, Angelina applying her lipstick, lit ciggie dangling out of her mouth, sweeping her hair into a perfect updo.
It’s swiftly edited to amuse us, and it does. They are dressed for battle, to pursue their perverse pleasure, and marching together hand-in-hand, we finally feel how together they are. And it’s funny. It’s funny in a few other moments too: Pitt stumbling on Jolie on the floor, looking guilty, pretending not to peep. It’s funny watching the two sitting side by side, eating dinner, laughing to themselves, the peephole between them. But then, that peephole is also opening up their own lives for examination, and the more they invade the couple’s privacy, the more we are privy to their personal pain, the sadness that lies underneath their marriage.
What’s fascinating is how Jolie addresses Vanessa handling her sadness. She doesn’t do it by simply breaking down with a speech (though that does happen, in some way, through a dramatic declaration Roland nearly slaps out of her; you wonder about how nice, long-suffering Roland is during that moment) it happens by committing an act that, in many movies, would be deemed unforgivable, the work of a femme fatale, a terrible woman. But when Vanessa moves to the side of destroyer, you feel yourself pained for her. I won’t reveal what she does, but it’s akin to Kirsten Dunst in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, fornicating with a guest on her wedding day (not to say Vanessa does the same). But the “betrayal” feels less simplistic, it feels of desperation, even a bit spaced-out, a-sexual, clinical, something to invite a release (in this case, it’s the release of Roland’s anger and making her face her anguish). Because Jolie loads up the moment with sorrow and dysfunction, there’s too much more going on here to simply demonize the woman. On screen, that feels almost radical; the act of being understanding a complicated woman.
A bit like Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (and there’s been no shortage of comparing this movie to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and their on-screen pairings, as I did immediately upon seeing the picture’s trailer, from Woolf, to The V.I.P.s to Boom!) Vanessa is the quieter, less braying and more beautiful Martha, the childless wife who considers herself a lousy partner. But who wants to just be a wife? The verbal dexterity of Martha reveals a highly intelligent mind and wit; simply watching Jolie lounge and pose on the terrace reveals a dancer who was surely brilliant, her bitterness also belies a sharp intellect, even how disgusted she is by bad literature. She wants more out of life, she at one time, had more out of life, and now in exasperation, she lies around, beautiful and stoned. Her sweeter counterpoint (Mélanie Laurent, like Sandy Dennis in Woolf) should be careful lest she be chewed up and spit out. But, to be fair, Vanessa chews away at herself, worse than anyone.
Its exciting watching Jolie tear into it here, albeit with an abstruse, effectively strung-out touch. It harkened back to vintage Jolie, the unafraid-of-being-unlikable, crazy, brilliant and frequently funny Lisa of Girl Interrupted, though a Lisa subdued by the Seconal Vanessa pulls out of her Louis Vuitton toiletry bag. Vanessa even wears the lighter-haired wig like Lisa and smokes with the style of both a goddamn movie star and a patient demanding her smokes – the female Randle P. McMurphy skulking around the all-girl cuckoo's nest.
That dangerous charm of a Lisa ("take one fucking step closer and I'll jam this in my aorta") is still there, and all of that feral intensity and wit, just tamped down and mature. This is Jolie’s Cuckoo’s Nest Nicholson drifting into The Passenger and it’s exciting to watch, even at a valium-addled pace. What actress ever does that? What actress is ever allowed to do that? Angelina Jolie allows it, and she had to write and direct herself to do so. And if that’s considered a vanity project (as some critics have decried, some with a sexist tone to their dismissals) well, I want more of these so-called “vanity projects.” Given how little women are allowed to be complicated and interesting, fragile and strong, smart and fucked up and not always good people on film, this is a strange type of “vanity” Jolie is basking in. She’s a filmmaker, she’s a writer, she’s an actress, she’s going to make a film that is personal and a piece of herself. That’s not mere vanity, that’s expression and creation. And yet, of course there’s vanity. Most everyone possesses vanity; certainly almost all artists possess vanity. And, as By the Sea further proves, Angelina Jolie is an artist.
I was honored to present and discuss Something Wild (1961) on TCM in 2010 and both Something Wild and The Strange One (1957) with director Jack Garfein at the Telluride Film Festival in 2012 (read my piece here). If you haven’t seen these two powerful pictures, don’t miss them tonight on TCM at 5 & 7 PST with, and this is exciting, Jack there to present.
Again, don’t miss the films and don’t miss Jack discussing his incredible work – he is a fascinating artist and man.
I wrote a defense of femme fatales in the the Fall 2015 issue of the Film Noir Foundation's magazine, Noir City and it's now available, with contributors Meagan Abbott, Ben Terrall, Krista Faust, Renee Patrick, Rose McGowan and more inside. Make a donation and read it all here. Here's an excerpt from my much longer piece.
Taking on the topic of the femme fatale, and what she means, is as hard to untangle as the seductive inscrutability of The Big Sleep. It’s a question that can be answered simply, sure, but the answer is almost always the same and a bit boring, or open to extensive interpretation, one that goes beyond girls and guns and gams and double-crossing dames. The femme fatale is a woman, an experience, a hypothesis, a history, a story someone like Thomas Pynchon could wind into a narrative that coils into splintered theories—theories that could be interpreted ten different ways, fraught with arguments and frustration and even anger. Because nothing angers a person like a double-crossing dame. And nothing angers a woman like being called a double-crossing dame, particularly with such simplistic intent.
But, to be simplistic about it, maybe—as Martha explained to husband George while trying to decipher the name of that goddamn Bette Davis picture in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf—maybe that double-crossing dame is just … “Discontent.”
They never do figure out the title of the picture; it’s King Vidor’s noir-stained melodrama Beyond the Forest (1949) and Martha surely understands Bette’s dilemma as a vulgar, loudmouthed, but strangely sympathetic seductress with her “what a dump” attitude. Martha discusses the movie and Bette’s marriage to a modest small town doctor (Joseph Cotten) in a scene that unravels with delicious simplicity, yet deeply embedded complexity.
It explains the idea, and answers the question of what is a femme fatale with both hilarity and a resigned crystalline clarity. Is it really that simple, Martha? No. But let’s indulge her for a moment as Martha deconstructs Bette Davis’s two-timing housewife, the porcupine-handyman-killing Rosa Moline, for her husband George, who’s clever and hyper intelligent but nevertheless the “bog” of the history department. To me, this exchange is one of most perfect distillations of the femme fatale (delivered by a woman who tells her husband, “You can’t afford to waste good liquor, not on your salary!”).
So, again, pardon my indulgence - I'm going to print the entire brilliant exchange here:
Martha: ‘What a dump.’ Hey, what’s that from? ‘What a dump!’
George: How would I know?
Martha: Oh, come on, what’s it from? You know! What’s it from, for Christ’s sake? What’s what from? I just told you. I just did it. ‘What a dump!’ Huh? What’s that from?
George: I haven’t the faintest idea.
Martha: Dumbbell! It’s from some Bette Davis picture... some goddamn Warner Brothers epic.
George: Martha, I can’t remember all the films that came out of Warner Brothers.
Martha: Nobody's asking you to remember every Warner Brothers epic. Just one single little epic. That’s all. Bette Davis gets peritonitis at the end. And she wears a fright wig throughout the picture. She’s married to Joseph Cotten or something. Somebody. She wants to go to Chicago because she loves that actor with the scar. She gets sick... and sits down at her dressing table...
George: What actor? What scar?
Martha: I can’t remember his name! What’s the picture? I want to know the name of the picture. She gets peritonitis and decides to go to Chicago anyway.
George: ‘Chicago!’ It’s called 'Chicago.’
Martha: What is?
George: I mean the picture. It's ‘Chicago.’
Martha: Oh, good grief! Don’t you know anything? ‘Chicago' was a ‘30s musical starring little Miss Alice Faye. Don’t you know anything? This picture. Bette Davis comes home from a hard day at the grocery store...
George: She works in a grocery store?
Martha: She's a housewife. She buys things. She comes in with the groceries and she walks into the modest living room of the modest cottage modest Joseph Cotten set her up in.
George: Are they married?
Martha: Yes, they’re married. To each other. Cluck. And she comes in and she looks around this room and she sets down her groceries. And she says… ‘What a dump! (Pause) She’s discontent. 
She’s “discontent.” Not evil. Not a dastardly double-crosser. Not greedy. Not a bitch. Not a conniver. Discontent.
In her own simple fashion, Martha describes what many femme fatales are struggling with in film noir—this idea that the world is not theirs for the taking, but why shouldn’t it be? Why must they be trapped in the expectations of the bonds of matrimony, why can’t they live their life as a man can? Why must they be one of the … normals? One idea consistent with the femme fatale is that these are not normal women. To me, that’s a beautiful, empowering thing. But, alas, they are punished for it. Or they punish others for knowing they’ll be punished. Or they punish themselves. More than likely they do, or try to, take everyone down with them.
A glorious example of the frustrated woman living among the normal is Gene Tierney in Leave Her To Heaven (1945). I’ve referenced this movie countless times, and I'll repeat a few thoughts here, always with a sympathetic bent towards Tierney’s diabolical but in many ways sad character, Ellen Berent. Yes, I feel a little sorry for Ellen. Was she misunderstood and, so, murderously frustrated? She was certainly discontent.
She’s a woman trapped in an obsession, of course, an obsession with her father, but she’s also trapped within the un-permissiveness of the times. Permission for Ellen to do…what would Ellen do? Perhaps that’s the problem. This was a time when one was not allowed the strength of being… Ellen. I’m not sure when anyone is allowed to be Ellen, exactly, but she is certainly trapped by some force beyond mere psychopathology. Maybe being born so impeccable, so unfaltering, she even frightens herself? She’s not normal. And Ellen doesn’t want to be normal. Indeed, it’s impossible for her to be so.
She tries. She yearns for marriage (to Cornel Wilde, though we’re never sure why. Perhaps because he’s normal) and a private honeymoon, but after that, it all goes wrong. She cannot stand Wild’s younger, disabled brother, who knocks on the wall after their sexy morning wake-up, and she takes the kid out on that famous swim in which she watches him drown. Well, as Walter Neff said, “that tears it.” No more normal family life after that. She does get pregnant, but changes her mind, and far too late in the game and with a solution that’s as dastardly as it disgustingly glamorous. Clad in beautiful light blue dressing gown, she throws herself down the stairs, removing one petite, perfectly matching light- blue satin slipper.
Here’s a question: Perhaps she should have remained single? I’ll defend Ellen a little because she, was, after all attempting normalcy (and I know she’s hard to defend), to fulfill a role society deems appropriate, but it’s her superiority, her looming genius that creates such problems. One could call her a narcissist, but that’s not what’s entirely what is going on. Consider that she never boasts so much as arrives—all she needs to do is walk into a room with those startlingly beautiful green eyes, flop on a couch and eat a sandwich with that perfect overbite. It’s not that she’s a mere mortal trapped in some super-human, celestial cage—she’s both sensitive and smart, maybe even a tortured genius. She may even suspect that her husband isn’t such a great writer after all (I bet you she’s got five better novels in her than he does). She knows men desire her, she’s yearned for as the ultimate trophy wife (gorgeous, smart, strong,), but in the end, what she learns is, what men really want is, yes: “The girl with the hoe.” As in, her sweeter, younger, more normal sister, played by Jeanne Crain. Ellen could never be that, swampy...
Read the entire piece in which I further discuss Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, Claire Trevor in Born to Kill, Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy, Beverly Michaels in Wicked Woman and more. Go to the Film Noir Foundation's site and make a donation to access their magazine.
 This excerpt is from the 1966 film version of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, adapted for the screen by Ernest Lehman, directed by Mike Nichols, and performed, famously, by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
The Fall 2015 issue of Filmmaker Magazine is out and the cover features my interview with director Todd Haynes. We discuss his newest picture, Carol, Patricia Highsmith, Karen Carpenter and more. Here's an excerpt from the interview. To read the rest, buy the newest issue of Filmmaker or subscribe to their premium content.
“Persistently, I have the vision of a house in the country with the blond wife whom I love, with the children whom I adore, on the land and with the trees I adore. I know this will never be, yet will be partially that tantalizing measure (of a man) leads me on. My God and my beloved, it can never be! And yet I love, in flesh and bone and clothes in love, as all mankind.” – Patricia Highsmith
A key movie to first understanding Todd Haynes is his Karen Carpenter “biopic” cast entirely with Barbie dolls, Superstar. This 1987 short that, due to Karen’s brother, Richard, and music rights problems will never be released, seems to define not only Haynes’s subsequent cinema, but also how much he understands the ways in which popular culture, music and memories interweave with the struggles of being a woman, the struggles of sexuality and the struggles of controlling ourselves in a world that won’t really allow it. Superstar goes beyond Karen Carpenter, digging into our own memories and insecurities. For those who first heard of it and were curious (Barbie dolls?), the defining moment is when you realize how the movie isn’t a joke, a gimmick, or a load of Gen X irony; it’s thoughtful and disarmingly moving. Watching this Barbie doll — her face being shaved down onscreen, her plastic limbs growing smaller and smaller, her sad little voice fading off as her angry brother yells at her (“People gasp when you walk on stage!”) — you’re completely rapt. Haynes casts such a spell that you’re not even thinking about these characters as Barbie dolls; you think of them as human beings shoved into Barbie dolls as a sort of mask of supposed perfection. It’s such a brilliant way to tell the story you can’t imagine it being told in any other manner.
Haynes is a filmmaker who always reveals his intelligence. His study at Brown University, where he received a degree in art and semiotics, and his ever-curious brain, evolutions, experimentation and empathy are all apparent in movies like Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven, I’m Not There and his TV mini-series, Mildred Pierce. And yet, there is nothing showy about this intelligence; it’s not overly academic, it doesn’t present itself blatantly or in inaccessible ways. There’s joy there, too, and exuberance — watching Cate Blanchett’s skinny Dylan running around a Fellini-esque Pennebaker landscape in I’m Not There is mysterious, telling and exhilarating.
In his newest picture, Carol, Blanchett slinks into a department store wearing a creamy mink coat, all cool elegance like an early ’50s David Bowie, intimidatingly beautiful and furtive all at once. She’s a vision of near perfection but, like Karen Carpenter’s shaved face, she’s going to be unmasking the pain and fear she’s enduring through that thing that nearly always breaks us — falling in love. And falling in love with a woman.
Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price of Salt, the film tells the story of wealthy housewife, Carol, who falls for a younger shop girl and budding photographer, Therese (Rooney Mara), as Carol’s marriage is falling apart and she’s trying, trying to live her life, keep her own child and find happiness as a lesbian in such a restrictive society. She can’t be open about it, but Carol wants to experience young Therese, and by all rights she should be allowed to, since she’s getting a divorce. The two embark on a road trip, on which her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) has her tailed and recorded, evidence to be used against her in a nasty divorce and custody dispute. It’s a road movie, a look at lesbianism in the ’50s and, in some ways, a thriller, but it’s also just a beautifully rendered love story, a subdued slow burn that’s universal to anyone falling in love, and one marked by exquisite period detail, gorgeous, shadowy cinematography by Edward Lachman and a stirring score by Carter Burwell. And the excellent actresses share a chemistry that is so deeply felt that, when they finally consummate their gradual, somewhat timid courtship, the passion is not just typical overwhelming movie passion, it’s layered with a sadness that perhaps… this won’t work out. But perhaps it will?
I talked to Todd Haynes to discuss not just Carol but the themes in all of his movies, how Patricia Highsmith works so well within his study of human behavior and how things aren’t worth doing unless you’re “afraid.”
Let’s start with a rather simple question: This is your second adaptation from a novel, and your first for a feature after your miniseries, Mildred Pierce, from James M. Cain. What drew you to the Patricia Highsmith novel, The Price of Salt? How did this start?
This is probably the first film I’ve directed that I didn’t really initiate myself. It had a long history of trying to get financed and written before I came on board. A window opened up in my schedule, and I knew a lot of the key people who’d been involved with it for the last several years, namely Liz Karlsen, the producer. The costume designer Sandy Powell was attached, my dear friend who I’ve worked with twice before Carol. Cate [Blanchett] was attached. So I’d heard about it. And then, all of a sudden, I had a moment of availability, and Liz, who goes way back with [producer] Christine [Vachon], as do I with Liz, asked her, “Do you think Todd would be interested in this project?” They sent me Phyllis [Nagy’s] adaptation. At that point, I didn’t know the novel. I read it all — the script and the novel — in May of 2013. I have to say, that book floored me. I really found it to be one of the great accounts of first love. I think it took Highsmith’s acerbic, hard-bitten, unsentimental sensibility to bring all of the power of a criminal story to the panic and the uncertainty and the frailty of early love. But then, it [also was] entirely a story about the amorous experience. The whole thing was just too interesting. I couldn’t say no.
The history of the book is interesting, too. It was written under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan, and became a popular book. Also interesting is that, like your movie, you can read it as maybe having a happy ending, unlike a lot of the more salacious lesbian novels of the time.
Absolutely. All true from everything I know about it. In the various Patricia Highsmith biographies, I read a little more about the [book’s] evolution. She didn’t always have this ending in mind, and there was a publisher or editor who encouraged her in this [happier] direction. And she didn’t write it under a pseudonym; she wrote it assuming that it might be her second novel published with Harper’s. But all of the mainstream publishing houses at the time were too scared by it, and her own professional advisors told her she should do it under a pseudonym. She was off to a very strong start as a novelist of the crime genre, and this might derail it. It did get published in her lifetime in the ’80s under her name, and, I think, the title Carol.
Did you find any parallels, when you researched Highsmith, with your own work? She writes a lot about identity, gender and sexuality, about psychological masks, hiding one’s own true self and how we create ourselves, via a character like Ripley. And I see that in I’m Not There or Velvet Goldmine or adapting your own body in Superstar. She also writes about the social constraints of trying to be yourself in a restrictive society, which you deal with in Far From Heaven.
I don’t know if I necessarily saw direct, personal affiliations with it, but when you say that, yeah, I think there are interesting lines of thinking to be developed there. I think no one could have brought [Highsmith’s work] to the cinema in a more compelling way than Hitchcock — and this is not just true with Strangers on a Train, this is true for many of her novels — but I do love that strange sort of linking of the homoerotic and the criminal in her work. Almost always male homosexuals are the subjects of that kind of alliance, and I do find that to be really fascinating. It doesn’t paint this positivist portrait of homosexuality, at least among men. There’s an unmistakable sort of fixation on it, and a way in which covert desire has to be transformed into something else. The two themes are always running in parallel with each other and unspoken about — or almost nearly unspoken, because it’s so prevalent in the work. It bristles through the Ripley stories and, obviously, Strangers on a Train and many [others] I’ve read. That desire, that instinct to tell a story about desire always having to be disguised, a desire that at some level is antisocial — I think, in that way, even The Price of Salt has to be included in that taste or tradition of hers.
To read the rest of this interview, buy Filmmaker on newsstand or subscribe for premium content here.
Here's a nice write-up from Gary Tooze for the Kino Lorber release of Busting with a much appreciated shout-out regarding my commentary with Elliott Gould:
"There are some good extras including a feature-length audio commentary by director Peter Hyams - which has some revealing moments - but I really enjoyed the 3/4 of an hour select scene audio commentary with Elliott Gould and film critic Kim Morgan. It's hard not to like Gould - great personality and I only wish it was longer."
I wish too! Busting on Blu hits the streets tomorrow. Pick it up. It's a gritty '70s cop picture near-masterpiece. And, as Baretta Blake would say, "You can take that to the bank!"
New Sight & Sound! I was honored to contribute to this group and grouping of 100 films directed by women with so many esteemed writers, filmmakers, actors and artists. My short pieces include Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) by Dorothy Arzner, my favorite and I think, the best Arzner picture. And Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky (1976) that though adored by some is still, to use the overused "u" words, underrated and underseen.
I also wrote a small online piece about the lost film, Human Wreckage (1923 -- which will post online sometime next week) made by the intriguing, pioneering and early filmmaker, Dorothy Davenport (a.k.a. Mrs. Wallace Reid). Her real life, how it found its way wrapped up into her early pictures, and how she peddles education and exploitation -- she's a fascinating woman -- handling the inception of Hollywood as an actress, marriage to a huge movie star, contending with the first kind of rapacious tabloid gossip and then, drug addiction, via her husband.
Human Wreckage is a dope scare picture, released the same year her addicted-matinee idol husband Wallace Reid died, and in such tragic circumstances... and I really wish I could see it! Perhaps one day it will be found. A curious woman in film and in real life. Incidentally, you can read my piece on Wallace Reid here.
Pick up a copy of the October edition now.
A repost of Marnie Edgar's sex magic satchels. Please excuse the on-purpose excessive alliteration. "Marnie" will show next Sunday, Sept. 13, at the Arclight Hollywood.
When Madonna's "Sex" was released, actor Udo Kier, who was featured prominently in many of the book's best pictures, was asked about Ms. Ciccone. What she was like? But more specifically, since Kier had ample chance to see, What was her vagina like? Mr. Kier's answer? "Organized."
He could have been talking about one of my favorite lady things to ogle: Tippi Hedren's handbags in Marnie.
The Hitchcock handbag -- they're lovely and fetishistic -- creamy, dreamy vaginal things. Vaginal. I don't find this a stretch. With all those crisp, snapped, soft or hard bodied rectangular satchels and muffs, Hitchcock's women clutched wombs of wonder that, like, many ladies obsessed with their handbags, seem to serve the purpose to only mystify men. Who cares so much about a damn handbag? Women do. And not just for fashion, as Hitchcock so astutely noticed, but for what Kier also so astutely pointed out. Organization. Organization in that chaotic organ that will spill out of your satchel in messy, sticky, dysfunctional, bloody, passionate disarray. And purses, they always lose control.
But back to Marnie, one of my favorite Hitchcock pictures, and, of all purse-filled pictures, I find her handbags, suitcases, ID cases and wallets the most intriguing.
The yellow purse the raven-haired Marnie clutches while walking to the train looks (or feels?) vaginal. It can’t be an accident, at least I don’t want it to be -- she needs that thing. A cool blonde goddess, a compulsive liar and thief so traumatized by her past that her only arena for both escape and personal gain is work, she moves from city to city, nabbing jobs with her expert demeanor and skills (she is an efficient secretary) only to embezzle from employers. And dump that money in her various, vaginal bags.
Perhaps the imprisoning Freudian arms of Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) understands a well functioning handbag. Rutland. Yes. He'll fix her. Icy, frigid, a traumatized woman who can't stand the color red (of course she'll spill scarlet ink, liquid menstruation, on her white silk blouse) and one who has an unusually strong bond with her horse (saddles).
She's clearly never had a normal sexual encounter and though she shows flickers of attraction and flirtation, she appears to hate men. Or maybe just all of humanity. But she does possess one heartaching weakness -- she loves her cold, flinty mother to the point of masochism.
In "The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory," author Tania Modlesk discusses other feminist takes on Hitchcock's use of purses, keys and safes. But she makes a fascinating case for Marnie, her mother and that fur wrap -- the luxurious non-utilitarian opposite of the clenched, accessory-stuffed purse. It's a sensual gift. And one her mother will reject. Modlesk writes: "But there is a fetish that no one to my knowledge has remarked upon, oddly enough since it is one of the most classic fetishes of all time -- the fur piece.
On the first visit to her mother, Bernice, Marnie brings her this fur and wraps it around her mother's neck. A few minutes later, the fur set aside, Marnie watches with longing as Bernice combs [the young blonde girl visiting] Jessie's hair, captured in a signature shot of Hitchcock tracking into the hair at the back of the head, evoking desire and longing on the part of the one who looks [Marnie is the one looking]... Jessie leaves the house, and Marnie immediately places the fur around her mothers neck. Shortly thereafter the two go into the kitchen (to make 'Jessie's pie')..."
Jessie's pie. Well, that leads to a jealous argument. And Bernice admonishes her daughter with the potent demand, "Mind the drippings, Marnie." What a muddled household. Not unkempt, just mentally untidy. Brushing Jessie's hair and minding Jessie's pie are more important than stroking that sweet furry piece. And worse, her mother (an ex-prostitute), remarks that Marnie's hair is, well, whoreish: "Too-blonde hair always looks like a woman's trying to attract a man." Never mind her mother's hair is also quite light. Marnie needs to get out of there. It's time for her to change identities (Marnie Edgar/Margaret Edgar/Peggy Nicholson/Mary Taylor) and stash more jack in her pocketbook.
However, it's only a matter of time when Mark Rutland will figure her out. Here come the man readying to shake that pocketbook and empty the thing out, stick his hands inside, figure out her secrets, lies and perhaps the red-lipstick-sex within. Most women don't like it when you open up their very personal purses without asking (you think Catherine Deneuve wants you to spy the dead rabbit she's carrying in her Repulsion reticule?), and he doesn't.
Gripping and grabbing her soft flesh, he'll take apart her clutches -- those creamy canals just waiting to be cracked. Vaginal satchels more than likely approved by Hitchcock but chosen by costumer Edith Head. Certainly Ms. Head understood the power of the purse. The male Hitchcock and the female Head (these names are just too much) must have enjoyed penetrating their pursey mystery and allure.
Though Mark's the romantic lead, he's a pervert himself, and maybe not the healthiest partner for this wounded woman. And yet, he is trying to understand her. The movie, Mark (and Hitchcock) are sympathetic towards understandably troubled Marnie, making it tough to blame the woman for her antisocial tendencies. In her experience, men (people) are beasts who've only done her harm (flashback to a very young Bruce Dern freaking out a very young Marnie). The world is a cold-hearted place and she finds no solace at home, no father and no maternal warmth.
In return she violates the world (men) by lying, cheating and stealing without ever giving them the full pleasure of her lovely body. There are moments (of which I can do nothing, this is Hitchcock filling the controlled receptacle) when I think Marnie should just flee Mark, everyone, in fact, and ride her horse Forio ("Oh, Forio, if you want to bite somebody, bite me!") and push her remaining pleasure into her sex-repressed satchels.
She may move on to something better, something more loving. Like pretty, organized purses and their vaginal sisters, there is such a thing as productive, controlled chaos. So, sister Marnie? Embrace the pussy riot.
Talking with John Waters: Endlessly funny, erudite, charming and so well-read, just try to keep up (he reads two books a week). So I was thrilled to interview him for Sight & Sound's September issue. I won't publish the entire, long and entertaining interview here, this is just a teaser. You'll need to go out and buy the magazine, beautifully laid -- out to get all of it -- and there's a lot. But, to whet your appetite, here are excerpts. Enjoy. And let's all try Bergman on acid!
Kim Morgan: I know this question is asked of a lot of filmmakers, but it’s interesting, especially when it comes to you, because you have so many interests and influences and innovations of your own. So, what did make you pick up a camera to shoot film?
John Waters: I’ll tell you my influences. I was a puppeteer for children’s birthday parties, and so William Castle was an influence. I’d try to throw all of those gimmicks in there. Somehow I got my hand on the Village Voice and started reading Jonas Mekas’s column and that opened up the world of underground movies that I knew nothing about.
I read about Warhol and Paul Morrissey and Kenneth Anger and, more than anybody, the Kuchar brothers. I used to run away to New York all the time, on the greyhound bus, and make up lies that I was going to a fraternity weekend or something and then go see these movies. I wanted to be an underground filmmaker. But at the same time, during my teenage years, we went to the drive-in almost every night, and in Baltimore they tested every kind of ‘-ploitation’: ‘hicksploitation’, ‘blacksploitation’, ‘goresploitation’, I mean amazing stuff.
I also used to go to the Rex Theatre in Baltimore. They were fighting with the censor board all the time, and they had both nudist camp movies, and Ingmar Bergman! They’d show Monica’s Hot Summer [Summer with Monika] Then they would cut out most of the dialogue and just leave the bare tits scenes in, so, those movies I was seeing too. All of those exploitation movies and Bergman.
I love Bergman. I still love Bergman. I still just think of Brink of Life , my favorite Bergman: three pregnant women in a maternity ward. I used to go to this college nearby, Delta College, and they showed every Bergman movie. I’d steal books and watch Bergman. I used to take Divine on acid and make him go to Bergman movies. And he would get so mad. I always remember, The Hour of the Wolf , where she rips her face off and Divine was like, “That’s it. I’m not lookin’ at these movies ever again! I want to see movies about rich people!”
KM: It seems your audience is a great equalizer; it’s always been all types, and still is.
JW: Yes. And they’re all ages too. I was at this punk rock show, presenting at this show, and there was a punk rock group who were especially sleazy and hilarious and after they went off, I thought, “Boy I wish I had a teenager daughter. She could date one of these guys.” I do bring out in people behaviour that you might not expect, but that’s just humor. I don’t think I’m ever mean, even Pink Flamingos, as shocking as it is. There are parts of it I look at it now and think, “Oh my god… no wonder…” but I’m proud of it. It didn’t mellow. It isn’t old hat. It still works.
KM: And it would still shock [former head of the Maryland State Board of Censors] Mary Avara. I saw an interview with her from the 1990s, it was when Pecker came out and she was still mad at you.
JW: Well, the most she was mad, when we were making Polyester , Multiple Maniacs finally got shown in a real theatre, so she had to see it. When she saw the rosary job in that – it’s when you put a rosary up someone’s ass – she went so insane and banned the whole thing and went to court. The judge, he said his eyes had been insulted for 90 minutes but, still, it was not illegal. And she went insane from it. Because there was no law against rosary jobs. Because there is no such thing. [Laughs]
KM: Yes, I read a quote from her where she said, in her 80s: “I wanted to throw him out of window!”
JW: I know. She would go berserk. But I hated her with equal hatred… because she would make me cut a brand new print I had spent my last penny on. She would stay things like, “Don’t tell me about sex. I was married to an Italian!” Now, I used that line in A Dirty Shame, so I got material from her. I’ve always said, dumb censors are your press agents. You should pay them. She really helped my career. But smart liberal censors, like the MPAA, they are the scary ones. You lose when you fight them.
KM: In Multiple Maniacs, back to that rosary job, which is funny, but shot so beautifully and artfully, cross cut with the crucifixion…And Divine says, “It’s like fucking Jesus himself!”
JW: [Laughs] I forgot that line…
KM: I thought of those crazy saints, like there’s one I love, 14th century Julian of Norwich, an anchoress, who wrote Revelations of Divine Love. The book is beautifully written, but it really sounds like she wants to have sex with Jesus page after page in her exaltations…
JW: All those crazy religious people are having sex with Jesus, aren’t they?
KM: Yes. You wrote about Saint Catherine of Siena in Role Models…
JW: Oh, I looove her. She’s my favorite. She’s the only one I pray to. And Pasolini. I pray to Pasolini…
KM: But did you think about those crazy religious people when you created that rosary scene in Multiple Maniacs? And filmmakers, like maybe Buñuel or Pasolini? There’s a lot going on, and it reminded me so much of these holy women’s relationships with Jesus…
JW: I did read those books. I read [Rudolph M. Bell’s] Holy Anorexia . That is a great, great book. I read that later than Multiple Maniacs, but it’s a book I’ve written and talked about: it’s all the story of those saints and nuns. They were so out of their minds. They were like S&M, anorexic lunatics. And these people were prayed to. I love extreme Catholic behaviour before the Reformation. The Reformation ruined everything.
KM: You’ve discussed before about nuns and their movie censoring, how they were an influence on your cinema watching, movies they were declaring not to watch, like, say, Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll …
JW: I went to private grade school and my mother was Catholic and my father wasn’t, so when you didn’t go to Catholic school, you had to go to Sunday school. But the nuns knew that these were the parents of the kids who didn’t send their kids to Catholic school, so they hated your parents and they were very cruel to the children. My mother said, “When I was young, I loved the nuns.” And I said, “Well something happened because these nuns were sadists.” It made me rebel really early. All they did was tell you everything you’d go to hell for doing, constantly.
We got the Catholic Review at home, and my mother told me it was the first she ever saw me rebel, when I was really young, when we had to stand up in church and take the Legion of Decency Pledge, which they did once a year. And I refused to do it. I would cut out the ads for [the condemned movies] and I would memorize them. Other kids memorize multiplication tables; I would remember And God Created… Woman , Baby Doll. I would remember them in alphabetical order. Of course, I would never have heard of these movies if not for the nuns. Naked in the Night , Looove Is My Profession , that was my favorite, to hear the nuns say that one.
My secret little life was that I pretended I had a dirty movie theatre; that’s how I played as a child. All the movies that you go to hell for seeing. And I would redesign the ad campaigns… this was creative play to me. I always think later in life, all I really wanted as a child was the wrath of the Pope himself. (Laughs).
KM: Your movies tweak genres and conventions and even labels. What do you think of certain labels? Like camp? Or melodrama?
JW: Well, melodrama, I like. Camp, I’ve said a million times: “No one says that word anymore do they?” Even kitsch. That’s like old queens talking about Rita Hayworth. And there’s nothing the matter with old queens talking about Rita Hayworth, I’d probably like to hear that. I haven’t heard that in a while. But I don’t even say trash anymore. The punk movement never died… a lot of the punk world was gay. It was a great look for gay disguise. And it was a great look for really unattractive people. And goth.
So I always loved that style, because if you were not a traditional beauty, or even if, by society’s standards, you were ugly or had a body type that wasn’t thought of as sexy, you could work it in the punk world and come across with a great look and be a star. So, I always felt comfortable in that world.
KM: It makes me think of how you view your characters and shoot them – like Edith Massey, an, unusual, interesting looking woman and, so, photographs wonderfully. Who were the photographers who inspired you?
JW: Oh, Diane Arbus. The hugest influence on me, way before Pecker. If you look at that one shot, the woman who looks like Divine in Female Trouble, she’s holding a child and the other child is drooling, we looked at that picture. That was a direct quote, basically. Diane Arbus was a huge, huge, huge influence.
When I would sneak away and go to New York, I would sit in Washington Square, that’s where the beatniks went, that’s where the oddball gay people went and the drag queens, and that’s where Arbus took all those pictures. As a kid, I thought, “Wow. This is dangerous here. This is beyond Life magazine.” But I was corrupted by Life magazine too, because they brought Jackson Pollock, homosexuality, beatniks, all things into my house that I was so relieved to know about.
KM: Tennessee Williams, who we brought up before, was also an influence…
JW: Oh, he saved me. Because when I first read him, I realized there was bohemia. Nobody had ever told me what that was and that’s what I always wanted, and still want. That was the world I was trying to find.
KM: And Williams didn’t define himself as one thing. One thing that might become problematic is when things are labeled too easily…
JW: I agree. I’m against separatism. That’s what I said in my commencement speech. Separatism is defeat.
KM: The term political correctness is over-used, to the point where it starts to lose meaning, especially among liberals; it’s either a pejorative or not a pejorative. You’ve seen people rebelling on all sides of the spectrum, and when the term didn’t exist…
JW: I am politically correct. I am completely politically correct.
KM: Yes. But there’s got to be something beyond, perhaps? Like in your recent commencement speech you said, “Being gay is not enough anymore.”
JW: It’s not. In rich kid schools? Being straight… they’re the ones who should be marching. As a gay man in the arts, do I ever feel prejudice? No. But, if I was gay maybe in a poor neighborhood in a poor kids’ school? Yes, then it can be a problem. It’s a class issue now. What’s happening now, with rich kids, they pretend they’re gay when they’re not. But then you have to do it. So, I don’t care. I mean, “Eatin' pussy for politics.” You still have to do it.
KM: You’ve always used music brilliantly, and introducing older music, with great taste and some shocking surprises. Like, in A Dirty Shame, you had Slim Harpo’s ‘Baby Scratch My Back’, but then Johnny Burnett’s ‘Eager Beaver Baby’ and Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts’ ‘Baby Let me Bang your Box’ and more… And in Mondo Trasho  you’ve got that whole collage of music. You use music, not just as a soundtrack, but you overlap and songs run into each other to create this unique effect. And this before a lot of filmmakers were doing that. You had The Chordettes, the Del-Vikings, Little Richard, Link Wray…
JW: And that’s why Mondo Trasho will never be released. It just makes the movie more and more likely never to come out hundreds from years from now. I didn’t know then, that you were supposed to buy music rights. But it was a silent movie. You know how silent movies had music to tell the story? That’s what I was going on for. I think the first person to really do it was Kenneth Anger with Scorpio Rising , he was the first one to use pop music in that brilliant way. And, [with Mondo Trasho] it’s all because of the novelty hit ‘Flying Saucer’. That was the first song that took lyrics, sampled them and told a story. A flying saucer has landed. And we cut to John Cameron Swayze… (singing) “Come on baby, let’s go downtown!” Meanwhile, the space ship is over here… It told a story by sampling lyrics from songs. That is where that came from.
KM: I love the scene where Divine is shoplifting to Ike and Tina’s ‘Finger Poppin’’.
JW: Oh, well, Ike and Tina. We were listening to them when we were shoplifting. Divine and I used to go a place and see them in high school.
KM: Oh my god. That must have been fantastic.
JW: Oh my god, yes! The Ike and Tina Turner Revue. I don’t care what anyone says, she was better when she was with him. I mean, I don’t blame her for leaving him, good for her, but… We would see them at Unity Hall, it was a kind of working class, blue-collar Union Hall. And they would come in a broken-down green school bus with ‘Ike and Tina Turner Revue’ painted on the side, like, hand-painted. And she looked like she did on the cover of ‘Dynamite’: she had on a ratty wig, a mink coat, a moustache, springalators, she did have a moustache. She was un-believe-ably great. And when they would sing, they would almost do rap songs, ‘Letter to Ikey’ and that. And the Ikettes behind them were so great. It was a huge influence on both Divine and I, Tina Turner. And I still love her…. God knows, they could sing.
They were unbelievable together. I saw them a couple times. And they’d sing ‘Don’t Play Me Cheap’. Oh my god… she was an influence. More than anybody. I had an album A Date With John Waters and I have that song, ‘All I Can Do Is Cry’, that long one where Ike’s getting married to somebody else. I wish I could have done that video with her. They didn’t have videos then but imagine that video with her. “I took a seat in the BACK of the church!” Ohhhh…
KM: When thinking of Female Trouble [in which Divine’s character is disfigured in an acid attack and then taken to a local beauty salon where the owners find her new look inspired], I think of today, when so many people change their faces through extreme measures, and tabloid culture, how we follow celebrity crime…
JW: Nobody’s shot up liquid eyeliner yet!
KM: It’s on its way! But, this idea in Female Trouble that crime and beauty are the same seems so relevant to me, especially now…
JW: That was all Genet. That was what I read in high school, he was a big influence on me. And I always say, “Everybody looks better under arrest.” I still visit people in prison, I taught in prison. In my book Role Models  I wrote a pretty serious thing about parole regarding one of the Manson women [Leslie Van Houten], who looks back in horror about it. So, I’ve always been interested in extreme behaviour. I would follow the Boston Bomber case mostly because I wanted to know what happened to the ex-wife of the one that died? She then remarried, supposedly, and has a child! I always say, “God. She has a boyfriend? Where did she find a new boyfriend? Where did she date?”
KM: In terms of your Dreamlanders actors, was everyone game all of the time? You had some actors do some pretty extreme stuff…
JW: Yes! Everyone was game. Recently I presented the [William Friedkin] film Killer Joe… that scene with the chicken. And Mink [Stole] said afterwards, “They were just like us. They went for it! If you’re gonna do it, go for it!” And she was right. It was never anyone saying, “Should we do this?” It was just like group madness. We all were on the same page; all doing it as a group effort and it was almost like a political act in a weird way. It was exciting. We were young and everyone was bonded together. We were… what’s that psychosocial term when you’re crazy all together?
KM: Amour fou?
JW: Yes. That’s what we were. And proud to be so.
Read the entire interview at Sight & Sound, in which he discusses more about Female Trouble, Divine's dislike of hot wigs, Tab Hunter's bravery, Johnny Depp, Patty Hearst, Hairspray, Serial Mom (and more movies), how he learned filmmaking from teamsters, the movie industry today, his love of Freddie Francis's Trog, Derek Jarman's Blue and Joseph Losey's Boom!, among other British films he programmed along with his own BFI retrospective which is showing all of his films (every damn one), and how his next project will probably be for TV -- even though he never watches TV. Well, except for The Wire, he watched that religiously. Pick up the September issue now. You can order it online here.
For now, here's some Ike & Tina, "Finger Poppin'..."
The September cover of Sight & Sound features my interview with national treasure John Waters. The BFI is doing a series on Waters, showing every single one of his films and Waters programmed ten of his favorite British films for the series as well. Yes, Joseph Losey’s gloriously insane Boom! will be screened, and we talk about it.
We also talk nuns, Pasolini, Diane Arbus, the magnificence of Ike & Tina, watching Bergman on acid and more… Pick up a copy and check out more here.
Carol Reed's The Third Man was re-released this month at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles and all over the country with varied dates. It's left the Nuart so hopefully you saw it as it was meant to be seen, on the big screen, in its first major restoration. But for New Yorkers, you can still take in Reed's masterpiece at the Film Forum running until August 4th. Set your cuckoo clocks and go...
In 1948, British novelist Graham Greene wrote this bit of character description for a movie treatment on which he was working: "Don't picture Harry Lime as a smooth scoundrel. He wasn't that. The picture I have of him ... is an excellent one: he is caught by a street photographer with his stocky legs apart, big shoulders a little hunched, a belly that has known too much good food for too long, on his face a look of cheerful rascality, a geniality, a recognition that his happiness will make the world's day." A year later, that rascal later turned out to be a gorgeously shot Orson Welles, and the movie became The Third Man, a picture that in spirit matches the lilting recklessness of Greene's character.
The Third Man is an exquisite work of discordant power crammed full of shifting moods. An expressionist film noir, it reveals a dark, unsettling pessimism in its ravaged night atmosphere. A jaunty, bittersweet comedy, it conveys a soulful playfulness among its likable characters. A stylistic achievement, it is a baroque composition of the absurd, a tilted wonder of visual anxiety. It is dreamlike and sensible, seamless and jagged, heartbreaking and hilarious and oddly, mockingly wistful, despite its sad ending. Greene's words that Lime's happiness "will make the world's day" are key. It isn't simply that Greene wrote a likable villain; he wrote a lovable story -- even though it revealed the paranoia and unease that would later characterize the Cold War.
As directed by Reed (who also directed Greene's masterful The Fallen Idol), photographed by Robert Krasker and beautifully scored by Anton Karas, The Third Man is a rare work of art that tickles as much as it torments. The story takes place in Allied-occupied Vienna. During the film's opening moments, a narrator (voiced by director Reed) states it's "the classic period of the black market when the city is divided into four zones, each occupied by a power -- the American, the British, the Russian, and the French. But the center of the city--that's international, policed by an International Patrol. What a hope they had, all strangers to the place and none of them could speak the same language. Vienna doesn't really look any worse than a lot of other European cities, bombed about a bit."
Enter an American into this rubble of sadness and crooked opportunity: American hack novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a jobless "poor chap, happy as a lark and without a cent," seeking out his old friend Harry Lime (Welles), who has promised him a job. Unfortunately, Holly learns that his school chum was run over by a truck, a death that seems increasingly unlikely to the American.
A conspiracy emerges -- that of the mysterious "third man," who supposedly helped carry Harry's dead body out of view -- and the naive Holly is impassioned (or stupid) enough to become entrenched in it. In an odd, unconventional teaming, Holly develops a relationship with both Harry's lover, Anna (Alida Valli), to whom he's sexually drawn, and a British investigating officer named Calloway (Trevor Howard), who wishes the hayseed American would mind his own business.
Holly also meets an assortment of exotic characters -- friends of Harry's -- and they aid in developing the film's humorous predicament of Western writer Holly attempting to work with such bizarre Kafkaesque visions. Crooked, gargoyle-like and most certainly unlike Holly, these multilingual characters further exemplify how ridiculous Holly's American optimism is. Externally and internally there is a cynicism presented to Holly, who, like the characters in his pulp novels, attempts to work on basic levels of good and evil. However, the complexities that Holly faces are neither black nor white.
The movie makes sure to display both character and situation with a jaunty and jaundiced flavor. There is no such thing as simplicity in The Third Man, a concept that's continually underscored by the film's style. Visually, it is an off-kilter intersection of vertical and horizontal lines (some scenes feel framed by the tilt of a man's hat) and a textured variety of high-contrast, low-key lighting techniques.
Characters emerge from and duck back into shadows, a visual device Reed uses metaphorically and powerfully to represent true moral complexity -- you can't side with anyone. Karas' score is also wonderfully unpredictable. Bouncy, beautiful, ugly and panicky, the music follows and responds to the action like an id let loose. The score also conveys the irresistible, crooked charm of Harry Lime -- a figure so prominent that you forget he is in just a half-hour of the film.
But then Reed gave Orson Welles one of the most famous entrances in movie history. We know it, but let's repeat for it deserves to not only be seen over and over again, but to be replayed in one's mind: A cat walks down the street, spies a man's shoes in a darkened doorway, curls up at his feet and meows loudly enough for Holly to notice from across a street. A window opens, and light flickers on Lime, and the camera holds a mysterious, mischievous and disarmingly smiling face.
Welles (as Lime) looks back at Holly with eyes that silently return the two men back to childhood. Seductive, playful and enigmatic, this moment is suspended with an overwhelming sense of rapture (I get chills, and sometimes tear up every time I watch it) and makes you understand what Anna later says about Lime: "Harry never grew up. The world grew up around him." You forget about the terrible things he's done. You just want to follow him, anywhere, no matter what the repercussions.
These complicated emotions might cause anxiety and hardship, but they may result in delight, which is what makes The Third Man so unique among movies. The film is about expressing the inexpressible feelings that are gnarled in our psyches as fantasies or nightmares. It gets to the heart of that "obscure object of desire" without ever delineating just what it is we yearn for. A timeless masterpiece, The Third Man both restores your hope and breaks your heart.
This was not easy. The ten greatest American films of all time? I can't pick a mere ten! So when the BBC asked me, among 61 other film writers from around the world, to contribute to their 100 Greatest American Films list, I said yes, knowing I'd be second-guessing every damn decision. I wrote my first list with both thought and gut instinct. I looked it over and over, labored over changes, what was missing, went back and forth and then, decided: these stay. I'm not thinking about this anymore. Since the BBC emphasized choosing movies that weren't simply "the best" but also favorites, movies that stick with you personally and emotionally, that made it easier. Or harder? God, I don't know. I do know that I have seen these favorite pictures multiple times, some too many times to count, some because, to quote one of the chosen, "it feels so goddamn good!" And, all, I believe, are masterpieces.
So, argue with me and I'll probably agree (No Sirk? No Fuller? No Lubitsch? No Lang? No Cukor? No Wellman (Wild Boys of the Road almost made the list)? No Borzage? No Welles? No Ray? No Mann? No Keaton? No Stroheim? No My Darling Clementine? No Sternberg-what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-me? No Hitchcock's Marnie?) I know! I'm hitting myself too!
Here, from the BBC:
"America’s films are among its greatest exports. Since Thomas Edison’s innovations in the medium in the 1890s, the United States has consistently been a powerhouse in the development of cinema – from the massively popular entertainments of Hollywood to independent and avant-garde film. In recognition of the astounding influence of the US on what remains the most popular art-form worldwide, BBC Culture has polled 62 international film critics to determine the 100 greatest American films of all time...
"What defines an American film? For the purposes of this poll, it is any movie that received funding from a US source. The directors of these films did not have to be born in the United States – in fact, 32 films on the list were directed by film-makers born elsewhere – nor did the films even have to be shot in the US. Each critic who participated submitted a list of 10 films, with their pick for the greatest film receiving 10 points and their number 10 pick receiving one point. The points were added up to produce the final list. Critics were encouraged to submit lists of the 10 films they feel, on an emotional level, are the greatest in American cinema – not necessarily the most important, just the best."
Here's my personal list:
Scarface: The Shame of a Nation -- Howard Hawks (1932)
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia -- Sam Peckinpah (1974)
And here's the entire list, the top 100 from the BBC. Number 100 is a good place to start and a picture I almost chose, Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole...
"Baby do you know what you did today? Baby do you know what you took away? You took the blue out of the sky, my whole life changed when you said goodbye. And I keep crying, crying... Oh, baby Oh, baby... I wish I never saw the sunshine. I wish I never saw the sunshine. And if I never saw the sunshine, baby. Then maybe, I wouldn't mind the rain."
New York/ Brooklyn friends. Come join me and other wonderful writers reading from our new book, "Here She Comes Now: Women in Music Who Have Changed Our Lives" Tonight at 7 at the Powerhouse Arena, Brooklyn. My essay is on the brilliant Ronnie Spector and the beautiful horrifying sexy sick trapped dysfunction of love songs. Do not miss!
From the editors: "Whether it was Patti Smith's angry moan, Nina Simone's guttural growl, or Dolly Parton's towering hair and sweet voice, women have been a musical force to be reckoned with, inspired by, and paid attention to. In Here She Comes Now, today's biggest and brightest writers tackle their favorite female musicians and the effect they've had on their own lives."
A heartbreaking and, in passages, beautifully written letter Marilyn Monroe wrote to her psychiatrist, Dr. Greenson, from a psychiatric ward. *Wandering through time and titans, the letter was written in March, 1961 and read to me in February, 2015 by John Ashbery (more about that at the end of this entry). That was quite something, something I'll never forget.
March 1, 1961
Just now when I looked out the hospital window where the snow had covered everything suddenly everything is kind of a muted green. The grass, shabby evergreen bushes -- though the trees give me a little hope -- the desolate bars branches promising maybe there will be spring and maybe they promise hope.
Did you see “The Misfits” yet? In one sequence you can perhaps see how bare and strange a tree can be for me. I don’t know if it comes across that way for sure on the screen -- I don’t like some of the selections in the takes they used. As I started to write this letter about four quiet tears had fallen. I don’t know quite why.
Last night I was awake all night again. Sometimes I wonder what the night time is for. It almost doesn’t exist for me -- it all seems like one long, long horrible day. Anyway, I thought I’d try to be constructive about it and started to read the letters of Sigmund Freud. When I first opened the book I saw the picture of Freud inside opposite title page and I burst into tears -- he looked depressed (which must have been taken near the end of his life) that he died a disappointed man -- but Dr. Kris she had much physical pain which I had known from the Jones book -- but I know this to be so but still I trust my instincts because I see a sad disappointment in his gentle face.
The book reveals (though I am not sure anyone’s love-letters should be published) that he wasn’t a stiff! I mean his gentle, sad humor and even a striving was eternal in him. I haven’t gotten very far yet because at the same time I’m reading Sean O’Casey’s first autobiography -- (did I ever tell you how once he wrote a poem to me?) This book disturbs me very much in a way one should be disturbed for those things -- after all there was no empathy at Payne-Whitney -- it had a very bad effect -- they asked me after putting me in a “cell” (I mean cement blocks and all) for very disturbed depressed patient (except I felt I was in some kind of prison for a crime I haven’t committed. The inhumanity there I found archaic. They asked me why I wasn’t happy there (everything was under lock and key; things like electric lights, dresser draws, bathrooms, closets, bars concealed on the windows – the doors have windows so patients can be visible all the time, also, the violence and marking still remain on the walls from former patients). I answered: “Well, I’d have to be nuts if I like it here” then there screaming women in their cells -- I mean they screamed out when life was unbearable I guess – at times like this I felt an unavailable psychiatrist should have talked to them. Perhaps to alleviate even temporarily their misery and pain. I think they (the doctors) might learn something even -- but all are only interested in something from the books they studied -- I was surprised because they already knew that! Maybe from some live suffering human being maybe they could discover more -- I had the feeling they looked more for discipline and they they let their patients go after the patients have “given up.” They asked me to mingle with the patients, to go out to occupational therapy. I said: “and do what?” They said: “You could sew or play checkers, even cards and maybe knit.” I tried to explain the day I did that they would have a nut on their hands. These things were furthest from my mind. They asked me why I felt I was “different” (from the other patients I guess) so I decided if they were really that stupid I must give them a very simple answer so I said: “I just am.”
The first day I did “mingle” with a patient. She asked me why I looked so sad and suggested I could call a friend and perhaps not be so lonely. I told her what they had told me that there wasn’t a phone on that floor. Speaking of floors, they are all locked -- no one could go in and no one could go out. She looked shocked and shaken and said “I’ll take you to the phone” -- while I waited in line for my turn for the use of the phone I observed a guard (since he had on a grey knit uniform) as I approached the phone he straight-armed the phone and said very sternly: “You can’t use the phone.”
By the way, they pride themselves in having a home-like atmosphere. I asked them (the doctors) how they figured that. They answered: “Well, on the sixth floor we have wall-to-wall carpeting and modern modern furniture” to which I replied: “Well, that any good interior decorator could provide -- providing there are the funds for it” but since they are dealing with human beings why couldn’t they perceive even an interior of a human being.”
The girl that told me about the phone seemed such a pathetic and vague creature. She told me after the straight-arming “I didn’t know they would do that.” Then she said “I’m here because of my mental condition -- I have cut my throat several times and slashed my wrists” -- she said either three or four times.
I just thought of the jingle:
“Mingle – but not if you
were just born single.”
Oh, well, men are climbing to the moon but they don’t seem interested in the beating human heart. Still one can change but won’t -- by the way, that was the original theme of THE MISFITS -- no one even caught that part of it. Partly because, I guess, the changes in the script and some of the distortions in the direction and . . . . .
I know I will never be happy but I know I can be gay! Remember I told you Kazan said I was the gayest girl he ever knew and believe he has known many. But he loved me for one year and once rocked me to sleep one night when I was in the great anguish. He also suggested that I go into analysis and later wanted me to work with his teacher, Lee Strasberg.
Was it Milton who wrote: “The happy ones were never born?” I know at least two psychiatrists who are looking for a more positive approach.
THIS MORNING, MARCH 2
I didn’t sleep again last night. I forgot to tell you something yesterday. When they put me into the first room on the sixth floor I was not told it was a psychiatric floor. Dr. Kris said she was coming the next day. The nurse came in (after the doctor, a psychiatrist) had given me a physical examination including examining the breast for lumps. I took exception to this but not violently only explaining that the medical doctor who had put me there, a stupid man named Dr. Lipkin. But when the nurse came in I noticed there was no way of buzzing or reaching for a light to call the nurse. I asked why this was and some other things and she said this is a psychiatric floor. After she went to the phone, I was waiting at that elevator door which looks like all other doors with a door-knob except it doesn’t have any numbers (you see they left them out). After the girl spoke with me and told me about what she had done to herself I went back into my room knowing they had lied to me about the telephone and I sat on the bed trying to figure if I was given this situation in an acting improvisation what would I do. So I figured, it’s a squeaky wheel that gets the grease. I admit it was a loud squeak but I got the idea from a movie I made once did called “Don’t Bother to Knock.” I picked up a light-weight chair and slammed it, and it was hard to do because I had never broken anything in my life -- against the glass intentionally. It took a lot of banging to get even a small piece of glass – so I went over with the glass concealed in my hand and sat quietly on the bed waiting for them to come in. They did, and I said to them “If you are going to treat me like a nut I’ll act like a nut.” I admit the next thing is corny but I really did it in the movie except it was a razor blade.
I indicated if they didn’t let me out I would harm myself -- the furthest thing from my mind at the moment since you know Dr. Greenson I’m an actress and would never intentionally mark or mar myself, I’m just that vain. Remember when I tried to do away with myself I did it very carefully with ten seconal and ten nembutal and swallowed them with relief (that’s how I felt at the time.) I didn’t cooperate with them in any way because I couldn’t believe in what they were doing. They asked me to go quietly and I refused to move staying on the bed so they picked me up by all fours, two hefty men and two hefty women and carried me up to the seventh floor in the elevator. I must say at least they had the decency to carry me face own. You know at least it wasn’t face up. I just wept quietly all the way there and then was put in the cell I told you about and that ox of a woman one of those hefty ones said: “Take a bath.” The man who runs that place, a high-school principal type, although Dr. Kris refers to him as an “administrator” he was actually permitted to talk to me, questioning me somewhat like an analyst. He told me I was a very, very sick girl and had been a very, very sick girl for many years. He looks down on his patients because I’ll tell you why in a moment. He asked me how I could possibly work when I was depressed. He wondering if that interfered with my work. He was being very firm and definite in the way he said it. He actually stated it more than he questioned me so I replied: “Didn’t he think that perhaps Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin perhaps and perhaps Ingrid Bergman they had been depressed when they worked sometimes but I said it’s like saying a ball player like DiMaggio if he could hit a ball when he was depressed. Pretty silly.
By the way, I have some good news, sort of, since I guess I helped, he claims I did. Joe said I saved his life by sending him to a psycho-therapist; Dr. Kris says he is a very brilliant man, the doctor. Joe said he pulled himself up by his own bootstraps after the divorce but he told me also that if he had been me he would have divorced him too. Christmas night he sent a forest full of poinsettias. I asked who they were from since it was such a surprise, (my friend Pat Newcomb was there) -- they had just arrived then. She said: “I don’t know the card just says ‘best, Joe.’” Then I replied: “Well, there’s just one Joe.” Because it was Christmas night I called him up and asked him why he had sent me the flowers. He said first of all because I thought you would call me to thank me and then he said, besides who in the hell else do you have in the world. He said I know I was married to you and was never bothered or saw any in-law. Anyway, he asked me to have a drink sometime with him – to which I replied then it would have to be a very, very dark place. He asked me what I was doing Christmas night. I said nothing, I’m here with a friend. Then he asked me to come over and I was glad he was coming though I must say I was bleary and depressed but somehow still glad he was coming over.
I think I had better stop because you have other things to do but thanks for listening for a while.
PS: Someone when I mentioned his name you used to frown with your moustache and look up at the ceiling. Guess who? He has been (secretly) a very tender friend. I know you won’t believe this but you must trust me with my instincts. It was sort of a fling on the wing. I had never done that before but now I had – but he is very unselfish in bed.
From Yves, I have heard nothing -- but I don't mind since I have such a strong, tender, wonderful memory.
I am almost weeping. . . . .
*While in New York this February, I carried this letter in my bag, wandering around the snowy city, almost afraid I'd lose it if I left it in my hotel room. It's a sad letter, and I was clinging to it, for my own reasons beyond research. A friend gave me a copy of the *real* letter (the front page shown above) -- he found the papers years ago while working on a Monroe documentary about the making (and unmaking) of "Something's Got to Give." I was doing research for a current project and this letter was essential. The third day in the city, it was my honor to visit the poet John Ashbery at his apartment in Chelsea. He noticed me pulling out the six-paged typed papers from a magazine I was giving him -- I said -- "This was written by Marilyn Monroe." He wanted to read it. I handed it to him and, to my delight, he read it aloud, beautifully, commenting on how lovely the first paragraph was. He joked, "Watch out. I might steal some of this!" He scanned through M.M.'s raw, powerful and frequently witty words, reading passages he liked. The moment was tremendously moving, listening and watching John read ("Was it Milton who asked 'The happy ones were never born?'") and I asked if he would sign the letter. I felt the occasion needed to be marked -- John Ashbery reading original writing by Marilyn Monroe. Two titans. He happily laughed and signed the letter. I thought that would make Marilyn happy.
From my piece in the May issue of Sight & Sound, out on stands now, the ending of Stanley Kubrick's the Killing. Nicely edited for space (yes, I went over word count) my editor kindly allowed me to publish my longer essay here.
Should we start with the final shot? Or the very near final shot? The one with the iconic line? No, let’s start with the suitcase. That cheap suitcase Sterling Hayden (fantastically named Johnny Clay) purchases at a pawnshop and stuffs with money; stuffs with his final getaway; stuffs with this new life. That damn cheap suitcase. Why? Why the used suitcase? You’ve got the dough, take yourself to Sears and splurge on some Samsonite. Oh, but you can’t begrudge him that. Because why would Sterling Hayden go to Sears? He’s too big, he’s too hurried – he’d knock over a few mannequins and chuck some cheap lingerie out of his way to get to the luggage. He’d look suspicious. It’d be a pain in the ass. But then what happens? Well, this movie is so classic and so beloved, and surprisingly, never discussed in this column, that most readers know exactly what happens as a result of that second-hand suitcase. But we won’t go there yet.
So much has been written about Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, (1956) and for good reason, it’s a masterpiece. The young director’s third film (he would discount his first, Fear and Desire) after Killer’s Kiss, The Killing is frequently deemed the pioneering triumph of Kubrick’s career (though it didn’t do well at the box office, it’s peerless and inspirational to other filmmakers) – his first great film. The Killing may seem like an anomaly among his work, but it’s not. A film noir, a heist picture, filled with noir veterans, it could be classified simply within those two genres, but Kubrick always tweaked genres (comedy, horror, war, period piece, science fiction, romance) upturning convention with something harder, funnier, more philosophical, beautiful and ugly.
Dark humor simmers underneath this picture directly alongside the dread during which, like many heist movies, we root for the robbers knowing they’re not gonna make it. It’s absurd – like rooting for the frog jumping on the back of the scorpion. We foresee the demise, but never mind, we tense up along with the characters and drag down further as their ends becomes ever painful. And the ends of The Killing are damn painful, and in many ways, darkly funny.
With narration by Art Gilmore that’s so dead serious it’s actually a bit perverse, a voice of god, “Dragnet” style attempt to organize what will become insanity, The Killing showcases the then 27-year-old filmmaker’s absolute precision with story, dialogue (thanks to Jim Thompson), non-linear plotting and confidence with actors, flaunting some of the greatest mugs since André De Toth’s Crime Wave and Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai. Hayden is so Hayden you feel like you’re watching, not just an icon, but some kind of loser Jesus Christ. As if Kubrick’s idol Weegee were God and Hayden were his son -- J.C. as a deep-voiced, lumbering ex-con with too-short a tie and a pouty lower lip.
Along the way there’s corrupt cop Ted DeCorsia; granite faced Jay C. Flippen; Vince Edwards as we always liked him, sleazy, no Ben Casey in sight; sweetie pie Colleen Gray who’s so ridiculously insecure she actually believes she’s not pretty; Marie Windsor who amps up the double crossing femme fatale into a Shakespeare figure of crooked rot. Elijah Cook, Jr. in his wide-eyed humiliation and powerlessness against wife Windsor (and the world she represents) that it’s almost masochistic just to watch his masochism. You feel a sigh of relief viewing the couple’s counterpoint, Joe Sawyer and his darling bedridden wife (Dorothy Adams), but that’s just another awful scenario too. The world is awful, let’s face it.
Timothy Carey, a man no film (no world?) can contain, brilliantly so, faces it, and in fact, revels in the awfulness, smirking and smiling while petting his puppy – he knows everything’s shit. Fine. And we’re with his psycho intensity, we even like him in some sick way and Kubrick knows it. So the director makes us flinch. When Carey casually drops a racist remark to the agreeable African-American parking attendant (James Edwards), it’s one of the most startlingly nasty moments in the picture. How do you like your psychopath now?
Kubrick takes this Los Angeles racetrack heist and gives the picture both immediacy and a formality, something that likely came from his young days as a photojournalist at LOOK magazine. The lighting, from dark to harshly lit, from organic to lifeless to documentary-looking interiors, the lamps and pools of blackness appear like some of his most powerful snaps (one can’t help think of wrestler and chess player Kola Kwariani harkening back to Kubrick’s photographs of wrestler Gorgeous George in action). It’s no wonder that, reportedly, cinematographer Lucien Ballard was annoyed with the young upstart. But this is Kubrick and even young Kubrick will prove to be a perfectionist – obviously – that photographic detail and rigor stayed with Kubrick his entire career. The Killing is so exceptionally gorgeous and gritty, you see him priming for Dr. Strangelove -- pushing faces and moments and outlandishness into the frame that at times, you feel it could burst wide open. The Killing is old school noir and absolutely modern all at once.
Which leads us back to that goddamn suitcase. “Ten minutes later he bought the largest suitcase he could find,” intones Gilmore. Exit Johnny Clay with that rickety suitcase and shoving it into his car, right next to a poster featuring an icon of the old school melding with the modern, an innovator himself – Lenny Bruce on a Burlesque bill. Hightailing it to the airport to meet up with his girl, Hayden’s almost there.
But… flight 808, the watchful cops, that woman and her wittle poodle who hasn’t seen daddy in such a wong, wong time. Checking in the luggage. Oh God, checking in the luggage and trusting it to baggage handlers and the driver and that obnoxious yapping poodle as nightmarish as the parrot squawking next to Elijah Cook, Jr.’s dead, bloodied face. When the cheap suitcase falls off the luggage truck on the tarmac, Hayden watches, money swirling like some sick green smoke. It’s almost beautiful. Like Werner Herzog’s films of the oil fires in Kuwait, Lessons in Darkness.
Hayden and Grey are still on the go, lamely attempting a taxi outside the airport while the police inch through the double glass doors. So what’s Hayden’s famed response to this spectacular ruin? It’s the resigned, quiet and tough, “Eh, what’s the difference?” That last line is so many things at once – deeply sad, it’s an embracing of nihilism and, yet, weirdly Zen. You’ll never escape Kubrick’s fateful frames, no matter how much Hayden’s big-boned body shoves through doors. Hayden’s trapped but his acceptance is so cool, so calm, so perfect, he almost busts through Kubrick’s maddening maze via pure acknowledgement. If doom could be motivating, Hayden is downright inspirational. Maybe he is Jesus Christ.
Pick up the May issue of Sight & Sound, out on stands since last week, today.
March is almost over. And I've lost my claw mojo. I always win this thing. Always. I know they're rigged but I'm lucky I guess. March was was a crazy month. I'll blame March. But some good things are coming up. A piece in Sight & Sound about the end of Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, some musings (finally) on Inherent Vice at LARB for the April DVD release, a piece on Neil Young's "Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life & Cars" and more. April is already going to be better. I think. Now hoping better for me and the claw.
Before I forget... please pick up the February edition of Sight & Sound on stands now where you can read my essay on Russell Rouse's "Wicked Woman." Here, my piece, from their "Lost and Found" column: "Overlooked films currently unavailable on UK DVD or Blu-Ray." The movie is not on DVD in the US either...
There's something especially mesmerizing about watching Beverly Michaels slump her tired, six-foot tall body through a tiny, dingy room. And not just any room, her depressing end-of-the-line boarding house run by a woman who calls the joint a "respectable place" (which means it most certainly is not). This is the walk of a woman who has spent her entire day pounding the pavement, clad entirely in white, making sure that white stays clean, which isn't easy, making sure her tight clothing doesn’t reveal too much (but maybe just enough), making sure she won’t wobble on those heels and trip up her icy cool. Her beauty is her success in life. It will get her somewhere -- anywhere -- doesn't have to be too far. Even a job would be nice. As Ingrid Bergman remarked about being born beautiful "Aren't I lucky?" Well, yes, but when you have little else to go on, your luck can run out.
As Billie, in Russell Rouse's Wicked Woman, Michaels is so perfectly cast it's unimaginable to think of any other actress in the part. Men gape as she slinks along the street. She's an extraordinary creation. But when she walks into that room -- that sexy, hypnotic gait turns into the angry walk of a woman so sick and tired of life's day-to-day indignities, that you feel like you're spying on her. Tossing her handbag on the bed in disgust, chucking off her shoes, tying on her robe, skulking to her fridge to crack open a beer, she's almost as foot-heavy as Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? opening doors with her ass, sliding across the floor in dirty slippers while bitterly delivering Joan Crawford her lunch. She's not quite Bette yet -- she's too young and lovely -- but she can see that woman in her future. And though she can finally relax in her small sanctuary after a day of slinking, she's never settled -- she's mad at the world. She’s mad at men, particularly her neighboring creep (Percy Helton). And great actress that Michaels is -- you can see it all in her body. She doesn't even need to say it: "What kind of goddamn life is this?"
Under the direction of Russell Rouse, notable for writing challenging, some, seminal pictures with Clarence Greene (who co-wrote Wicked Woman with Rouse) including D.O.A and The Well, and directing, among other pictures, the intriguing, experimental, dialogue empty The Thief and the excellent New York Confidential, the rarely seen Wicked Woman plays more like kitchen sink pulp than pure noir (an appellation that's constantly debatable). Rouse, an inventive filmmaker dove right into this world with an almost documentary eye and kept it squarely on his characters, trusting his actors to move around their surroundings with the familiarity of all losers: beds are where you throw your clothes, bar counters are where you lay your drunken head when you can't hold it up any longer and cars are for domestic squabbles. Not surprisingly, Rouse married Michaels after making this picture.
The story is both simple and absurdly complex: when Billie finally does land a job at a bar she naturally falls in love with the handsome bartender (Richard Egan). But there's a problem -- he's married. And, worse, he's married to the woman who owns he bar -- the blowzy, though sympathetic drunk who hired her (Evelyn Scott). As frequent in film noir, love walks in at the worst possible moment. How do they escape? What are they going to do? In a rare case (and a gender switch on The Postman Always Rings Twice, which this movie resembles), it's the wife who needs to be removed. Will they rub her out? Nah. That's too typical noir. How about devising something crooked where it looks like the dipsomaniac wife signed some papers, lost her business and the two lovers run off to Acapulco? There's a plan! It's devious. But it's not as wicked as the title suggests. And neither is desperate Billie. But, alas, fate steps in via the angry emasculated reject: Percy Helton. When Percy Helton louses up your entire life, your world is truly two-bit. And then, like love, a colossal misunderstanding walks in at the worst possible moment and the deal is off. Love is over. Life starts all over again. Drifting.
Billie as drifter is, again, in gender reversal, more like Tom Neal in Detour or John Garfield in Postman – tangling with the wrong jerk or dropping into the wrong town. As a woman, her challenges are greater than men – she gets pawed at, possibly raped, or, to reference another female drifter, Detour’s Vera, in danger of being accidentally killed by a telephone cord in a hotel room. You never know what can happen on the open road.
I dislike using the word “realistic” but there’s no other way to describe what distinguishes Wicked Woman from other tawdry B movies punched up with melodrama. Nothing wrong with melodrama, I love it, but there’s no such thing here. The cast feels so lived-in and real, they’re almost freakish. Michaels isn’t just leggy, she’s six feet tall, Helton is such a worm he’s a bonafide hunchback and Egan is so obnoxiously handsome he’s managed to grow a dimple between his eyes. With that, you find yourself liking and feeling for everyone in this picture -- even pervy Percy. They're just not very smart. It's all just so sad.
Unlike other femme fatales, Billie's not as intelligent as Martha Ivers, she’s not as evil as Kathie Moffat, she's not as murderously duplicitous as Phyllis Dietrichson, she's just stupidly in love and trying, desperately, to survive in a man's world. The aforementioned women were too, but they possessed more conniving brass and crazy. Poor Billie actually allows love to louse up the works. In that way, the ending is more dispiriting than any sexy Gun Crazy blast of amour fou. Egan's stuck with an enraged wife and Billie's back on the bus. Another town, another man, another lonely life. But when will it all run out? Keep those white clothes clean and don’t wobble on those heels, wicked woman.
Read the essay in Sight & Sound. And also, of course, Jonathan Romney's cover story on the best movie of the year, "Inherent Vice."
Here's on-set pictures I took just about three years ago in Paris while working on what would become Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room (co-directed by Evan Johnson) soon to be seen at Sundance and Berlin. These pictures are from the project, then called Spiritismes, shot at the Centre Pompidou, which I wrote about here and here. For me, it all started in July 2010, appearing in what was called Hauntings (during that time I also co-wrote with Guy and starred opposite a white wolf in our short/installation project, Bing & Bela.) It then grew and changed (as outlined in this interview with Guy) and has shaped into a feature film. I was happy to take part as additional story writer and actress. Here's the official wesbite with more information to follow.
This has been a long journey (for this writer and contributor, since 2010) for all involved and quite meaningful, in many, many ways, for me.
Here's more of my photos. Click on the pictures for larger images.
Udo and I in The Forbidden Room. Smaller poster created by Galen Johnson.