Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Barwood and Robbins

Mark Hamill in Corvette Summer (1978).

When TCM ran Corvette Summer not long ago, I decided to take another look at it. The last time I’d seen it was in a movie theatre in 1978 and I’d been surprised and delighted by it. It starred Mark Hamill – it was his first movie after the car accident that disfigured him during the shooting of Star Wars – as a graduating high-school senior from the suburbs of L.A. with a gift for auto mechanics (the auto shop teacher, played by Eugene Roche, is his hero) who is obsessed with a ’73 Corvette Stingray that he and his class rescued from a junkpile and reconstructed into a spangly, candy-apple, eye-popping gem. When it’s stolen and he learns that it’s been spotted in Las Vegas, he goes in search of it. The irresistible, uncategorizable Annie Potts – a wild card like Betty Hutton in her Preston Sturges comedies – plays the novice prostitute he meets when he arrives; eventually she overcomes his nervousness and gets him into bed, and then they become a couple. The movie turned out to be as much fun as I’d remembered, as great to look at, and as unusual in tone and texture. It was the first picture Matthew Robbins directed, and he and Barwood inspired the usually lackluster cinematographer, Frank Stanley, to give it a rainbow palette and a neon glow. Corvette Summer is a road movie, a teen comedy and a coming-of-age movie, but it’s highly unconventional as an entry in all three of those genres. Yes, there’s a romance between Hamill’s Kenneth Dantley and Potts’s Vanessa (and a very satisfying one), but the real love story is between Kenneth and the Stingray. The story takes twists you don’t see coming, and not all of them work; neither do all the tonal shifts. But the movie’s charm never wears off, and more than four decades later it still feels fresh.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Memo from the Future: The Trans-Temporal Work of Kirk Tougas

A frame from Kirk Tougas' The Framing of Perception (1973). The monolith-like altar of ultra-consumption ironically reveals that we ourselves are the ones actually being consumed by a seemingly benevolent Moloch.  Image: Tougas.

This article first appeared in the Spanish film magazine Found Footage, March 2020.
“The assertion for an art released from images, not simply from old representation but from the new tension between naked presence and the writing of history on things; released at the same time from the tension between the operations of art and social forms of resemblance and recognition. An art entirely separate from the social commerce of imagery.”  – Jacques Ranciere, The Future of the Image (2003).

“When is appropriation appropriate?” – Kirk Tougas, 2019.
Every film is a tattoo etched on the surface of time, some more so than others. Certain filmmakers, however, eschew entirely the tradition of distracting the audience from awareness of the fact that they are watching and are customarily invited to submit to a wilful disappearance into a real or life-like story. These consummate others instead tend to invite the audience to relish and savour the viewing experience as a sequence of electric paintings, which may or may not contain a program beyond the temporary tattoo incised onto the dream space they occupy while in a theatre. Some of them, such as Kirk Tougas, go even further: they implore the viewer to actively engage in watching their own watching.

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Jesus Rolls: Blier Country

Bobby Cannavale, Audrey Tautou and John Turturro in The Jesus Rolls (2019).

It takes guts these days to remake Bertrand Blier’s freewheeling, anarchic 1974 screwball sex farce Going Places, and that’s what John Turturro has done in The Jesus Rolls (available on Prime). Blier ran afoul of feminist critics back in the seventies when he made Going Places and, four years later, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs. Both films star Gérard Depardieu and the late Patrick Dewaere as stumblebum buddies whose chronic misunderstanding of women is at the heart of both the comedy (in both pictures) and the sadness (in the final scenes of Get Out Your Handkerchiefs). In Going Places, they play Jean-Claude and Pierrot, scruffy, hedonistic auto mechanics in their mid-twenties whose desire for instant gratification is as unmediated as it is in little boys. They pursue sexual pleasure with exactly the same heedlessness and inability to imagine the consequences as they display when they steal a car. The emblem of the movie is a motif of images in which they run for their lives – from the gun-toting owner of a beauty salon whose beloved vehicle they borrowed just for a little drive, from a revenge murder they unwittingly get involved in, and so on. They’re hopeless schlubs whose epic miscalculations trigger one fiasco after another while the universe laughs uproariously at their antics. They’re constantly on the move, but in this context “going places” means “going nowhere”; the movie ends with them (and the woman they share, played by Miou-Miou) relaxing in relative peace and enjoyment of life, but they’re wanted by the law and we know there’s no place they can escape to. The French title of both the movie and Blier’s novel, on which it’s based, is Les Valseuses, which means “balls” and makes it explicit that their relentless bumbling is linked inextricably to their gender. But it’s impossible to envision an audience that would welcome the film now, since Blier takes the prerogative of an artist and makes these morons likable. God preserve the writer or director (Blier co-wrote the screenplay with Philippe Dumarçay) who doesn’t wag a cautionary finger at ill-behaved characters to make sure we know we're supposed to disapprove of them.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Neglected Gem: American Hot Wax (1978)

Tim McIntire (seated) in American Hot Wax (1978).

Aloha Bobby and Rose, about the doomed romance of a pair of Angelenos, a car mechanic and a young single mom – an earthbound beauty who might have stepped right out of a Bruce Springsteen ballad – slipped in and out of theatres in 1975 without attracting much notice.  But the writer-director, Floyd Mutrux, turning out only his second picture, is immensely talented. He shows an unerring instinct for the 1970s working-class milieu; the two lovers, on the run as a result of a convenience-store prank that goes disastrously wrong, are dreamers whose pragmatism, the bitter consequence of living in a world where the odds are always against you, keeps souring their reverie. The two actors – Paul Le Mat, riding a brief period of stardom after he walked away with George Lucas’s American Graffiti, and Dianne Hull, who went on to become a highly respected Hollywood acting coach – give offbeat, subtle, mood-inflected performances that should have become classics. And Mutrux stays on their wavelength, framing scene after scene to showcase the way their faces and bodies convey the quicksilver shift in their emotions. The soundtrack is heavy on early Elton John, and songs like “Bennie and the Jets” and “Tiny Dancer,” with their starstruck visions of rock ‘n’ roll glory, seem mysteriously, unexpectedly appropriate for Rose and Bobby’s road trip, which breaks our hearts because we want so badly for it to take them out of their lives and we know those lives are going to catch up to them by the final reel. And Mutrux and DP William A. Fraker’s soft-focus SoCal images of service stations and bus stops, bars and motels and endless freeways, are strangely magical. There’s a car-crash sequence that doesn’t look like any car crash you’ve ever seen in a movie; watching the picture again recently, I thought of the auto accident that opens Carroll Ballard’s 1996 Fly Away Home, which shares that distinction.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

The Immobile Flâneur: Motionless Travel and the Art of Xavier de Maistre

Engraving of Xavier de Maistre, by Cyprien Jacquemin, 1820.

“Imagination, realm of enchantment—which the most beneficent of beings bestowed upon us to console us for reality—I must quit you now.” – Xavier de Maistre, 1796.
My personal paradox is that though I greatly enjoy reading and writing about travel and the art of travel, especially in works by Bruce Chatwin, Lawrence Durrell or Paul Theroux, I do not myself actually enjoy travelling, other than in its psychological manifestation: the contemplation of the human condition. It’s fair to say that I might exhibit all the traits of long-term agoraphobia, with my daily trip a block away on the sidewalk to pick up my New York Times and morning tea and scones being a major achievement in the realm of geographical traversal. Leaving my front door affords me no particular charm or enchantment at all. And as for social distancing, well, that concept makes me smile, since all I needed to do during our present predicament was to extend my normal everyday six-foot-distance rule to an expanded nine feet of protective rapture. When it comes to going to the great outdoors, I am definitely at two with nature.

Monday, August 24, 2020

New Documentaries: Gordon Lightfoot, The Band, and Flannery O’Connor

Gordon Lightfoot in Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind (2019)

The Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot attained fame in the mid-1960s and in his prime – that is, until 1973 or 1974 – he turned out an album every year. He had a sweet, silver-laced voice and he wrote evocative ballads with understated poetic lyrics (like “The Last Time I Saw Her Face” and “Affair on 8th Avenue”) and big-boned, bardic folk anthems that dramatized small and large historical topics, the most famous – and best – of which was “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.” When I was in high school in Montreal in the early days of his celebrity and the late days of the folk movement, you couldn’t attend a party without someone showing up with a guitar, and you were dead certain to hear the trilogy or “Early Morning Rain,” or both. (The other guaranteed solo was “Suzanne” by that other Canadian musical legend, Leonard Cohen.) Before his writing lost its freshness and his voice wore down to a craggy thinness, I bought everything Lightfoot recorded, and I saw him in concert four times, once at Carnegie Hall.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Jewel in the Crown: This Is How It’s Done

Charles Dance and Geraldine James in The Jewel in the Crown (1984).

Many of us who have longed to see our favorite literary sagas rendered intelligently and comprehensively in dramatic form have hoped they’d wind up in good TV miniseries rather than truncated on the big screen.  (Everyone I know who thrilled to the Dickensian twists of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch felt let down when it was pared down to a two-and-a-half-hour movie last year – and apparently the film satisfied no one.) And for those of us who saw The Jewel in the Crown, Granada TV’s fourteen-part adaptation of Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, when PBS ran it in 1984, it has been a model for three and a half decades of how to bring the pleasures of a complex, riveting historical narrative to the small screen. Written between 1965 and 1975, Scott’s tetralogy – The Jewel in the Crown, The Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence and A Division of the Spoils – is set in India in the final years of the British Raj, beginning in the midst of the Second World War and ending with independence and the splitting apart of India and Pakistan in 1947. It is, I think, a masterwork: though it hasn’t achieved the celebrity of Forster’s A Passage to India (published in 1924), they deserve to sit next to each other on any discerning reader’s bookshelf.