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Author: thefilmsaurus Page 1 of 11
On Friday, I’ll choose one winner from my Patreon supporters to get a free Blu-ray copy of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. If you haven’t already subscribed to support my work in film criticism, do so now!
[Author’s Note: I don’t make a habit of writing “open letters” and I don’t have a long history of participating in Blogathons. I certainly don’t have a truly substantive bone to pick with the sports journalist Craig Calcaterra, who, as near as I can figure, is a gentleman. But the half-thought of rebutting what I saw as an untidy corner in a recent column of his, combined with the three-quarters thought of finally contributing to my friend David Cairns’s annual Late Films Blogathon, produced the result of, uh let’s see now, carry the three… one and one quarters of a thought. What happened next unravels below. Please enjoy.]
Dear Mr. Calcaterra,
Hey. Hope this finds you well.
Quick context: I write to you from the realm of cinephilia – the love of cinema. People outside this realm might call me a film buff, or enthusiast. My parents call me, worried that I’m wasting my life. That one’s a joke. (Sort of.)
I was recently forwarded your NBC Sports article on Will Clark, “Hall of Fame Case for Will Clark”. Given that I don’t inhabit the world of baseball, I don’t know who Will Clark is. (Not that there’s a shortage of film buffs who love sports, it’s just not me. On nights when there’s a big game on TV, Film Twitter becomes a ghost town.) I inferred that he was a famous ball player.
When your article was shared, it was in the frame of “incoming hot take, everybody duck!” Not about your subject – once again, I don’t know Will Clark from Calvin Coolidge – but about your invocation of Orson Welles to bolster your argument.
The summary of said invocation:
- Orson Welles made his masterpiece right out of the gate: his 1941 directorial debut, Citizen Kane.
- Thereafter he was cursed to wander the wilderness, only occasionally – as if by accident or happenstance – making something great like Touch of Evil.
We film enthusiasts took exception to this take! As is the custom on social media, my reaction to your article – that is, the Orson Welles-explaining parts of it – was to become angry, instantly and uncontrollably. I must have done something churlish like screenshot it with a hearty “WTF??!!” You’re an old hand at Twitter, you get the idea.
Later the same day, I thought, “Why get mad at a civilian?” No offense in calling you a civilian but – well, let’s keep moving. If you overhear someone in the public square saying something non-factual about, I dunno, what color innings are (orange), or what year Ace “Cricket” McGee played Center Field for the Terra Haute Jackalopes (either 1917 or 1971), do you feel tempted to step in and right the wrong? Of course. Is there the temptation to get sore? Yeah, a little, why not? Unnecessary errors, especially concerning facts or, if not facts, firm beliefs, get us riled up. But logically, there’s got to be a measured approach. So I got to thinking, wouldn’t it benefit the greatest number of readers if I wrote an open letter to convey to you, without prejudice or bad faith, that I think you’ve got Orson Welles all wrong but…. on the other hand… I know where you’re coming from? Well sir, here goes.
To me, Welles remains one of the greatest American filmmakers, not just because of Citizen Kane, which, even today, when the film is more than 75 years old, still impresses with both its bold experimentation and emotional clarity.
In some circles, it’s perceived to have a homework patina, like the Declaration of Independence or Moby Dick. It’s taken on such a flood of “mandatory viewing” that, sadly, it’s damaged in the eyes of many viewers who might have been better off encountering the thing in the wild, bereft of history.
Too bad, so sad, etc. I’m not going to drain my energy trying to convince a handful of people that “the movie that you’ve heard is so great is, in fact, so great.” That’s one too many layers of bullshit.
I’d rather spread the good word about Orson Welles’s filmmaking brilliance as it covers the years 1942 to 2018. Yes, the end year is right, despite the fact that he passed away, literally while working, in 1985. I’ll return to that.
Being an open letter, I’ll try to shape my mode of address so that it’s legible not only to you but to the other folks who’ll read this: cinephiles, fellow Welles exponents, the occasional skeptic. If you’ll forgive me if I get too “inside baseball”, and my fellow travelers forgive me for being too rudimentary, I’ll quickly jog through my slides:
- Welles’s second film, at the same studio – was The Magnificent Ambersons, based on the Booth Tarkington novel, which had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1918. He’d turned in a rough cut of the movie that ran 135 minutes. I’ll skip the ensuing drama but after some dicey preview screenings, RKO insisted on putting it under the knife. The result was an 88-minute movie that weakens considerably in its final minutes, thanks to scenes and shots that were redone by directors of considerably diminished visual sense, compared to Welles. One can litigate whether or not Welles had legally forfeited his final cut to RKO, but when you look at what he made, and when you feel what’s missing like a phantom limb, right and wrong don’t really amount to much. Charitably you might say Welles – whose editorial agency was all but nonexistent at the time, because he was in South America shooting the documentary It’s All True for Franklin Roosevelt and Nelson Rockefeller – was victimized by equal parts neglect and outsized ambition. But did you know that there exists no possible way to see a “director’s cut” of The Magnificent Ambersons? What was lost is lost. Yet it remains one of the most beautiful and haunting of all films. Even in its butchered form. There’s not 10 other movies I wouldn’t hurl into a ravine to preserve it.
- Welles was already well-established as a bankable actor, as he was well-known from his many years on the radio. But while he had little trouble picking up acting gigs, it would be a few years before he got handed a directing job. What I’m referring to now is The Stranger, a postwar spy thriller about a Nazi hiding out in a small town in Connecticut. Following the bold, ambitious Kane and Ambersons, this 1946 film is pretty scaled-down: you can tell Welles is behaving himself. But, while you wouldn’t say The Stranger is one of the great masterpieces of the form, it’s quite good, and imaginatively filmed – and filled with images and sounds that resonate in one’s memory. And even as a scaled-down, not-so-ambitious thing, it’s a crackling entry into the genre.
I want to zoom out briefly here and mark what’s happening in Hollywood at this time. Very very short version: SCOTUS rules that studios can’t own theaters because that’s a monopoly. [Huge amount of nuance and legal-socio-economic detail excised] and then the studio system starts to die. It takes about 20 years for it to happen, during which time Hollywood faced an existential crisis brought on by the wide proliferation of television, which (as it continues to do today) siphoned off a huge percentage of the movie industry’s hold on the American entertainment dollar. Studios began spending more and more money and investing in large formats like CinemaScope, better-looking color photography, and stereophonic sound, all to give audiences a more immersive, you-are-in-it sensation they couldn’t very well reproduce in their living room. But the short version is, the expensive pictures got more expensive, and for every The Sound of Music, raking in unimaginable revenues, there were dozens of turkeys – strikeouts, you might say.
What else happened after the end of the Second World War was the birth and the rise of the independent film movement – in other words, the era of the independent producer. During this transition, even a former whiz kid who’d slipped on a banana peel in the eyes of the once-monolithic studio system could regain footing, either by raising funds (which is what most filmmakers did, and do – even the ones who’ve “made it”), or by having enough money that you don’t have to ask for squat (which is what you do when your name is James Cameron or George Lucas). This had a lot to do with technological advances making communication simpler, international travel faster and more affordable, and movie-making equipment lighter and more mobile.
This doesn’t mean the cessation of creative power struggles – far from it. In fact, in a lot of cases, it gets a lot more complicated, and a lot dirtier. This is a topic for a different letter, but suffice it to say, Welles found himself In It as often as not.
His next two pictures were The Lady from Shanghai, a twisty thriller starring Rita Hayworth, and Macbeth, of course from Shakespeare.
- The genesis and destiny of The Lady from Shanghai, which is now considered one of the preeminent film noirs, and one of the most visually evocative movies of any era, is not very unlike The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles, now no longer in his 20s, clashed with Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn. Long story short, the film lost an hour from what Welles had turned in. It’s easier to forget the meddling this time around, when one sees the film today: it’s singular and intoxicating, and it’s not as easy, as it is with some scenes in Ambersons, to spot the work of interlopers. If you didn’t know anything about the battle between Welles and Cohn behind the scenes, you could easily figure The Lady from Shanghai as one of his greatest films. You still can. Not a jury in the world would convict you.
- His next film was an inexpensive but deliriously spirited movie of Macbeth that he filmed on fog-filled Republic Pictures sets that were usually used for cut-rate westerns. Meddling from powerful individuals like Harry Cohn doesn’t figure into the story – Macbeth experienced a round of second-guessing and recutting and dubbing, but Welles himself was largely the impetus, after it premiered in Venice, in rather close proximity to Olivier’s Hamlet – the latter went on to win the Oscar. In that setting, everything about Welles’s movie that wasn’t Olivier’s movie felt wrong. This is like when there were two asteroid apocalypse movies in 1998.
Where are we, 1950? Okay. Nothing so far that says “Welles is cast out of paradise, shaking his cup for change outside the bus depot.” He continues to get cast in pictures. He does magic shows. He goes on I Love Lucy, as himself. He’s one of the only directors in the US who’s also a celebrity, next to Alfred Hitchcock.
As a public persona he’s like Brian Blessed: big figure, big voice, big personality. He’s nobody’s idea of macho, not like Clark Gable or John Wayne or Gary Cooper. He’s more like…. if a king walked among us, his charisma 10x his scientifically measurable mass. (We aren’t going to acknowledge the fat jokes that came later.)
Three pictures in this decade: Othello, Mr. Arkadin aka Confidential Report, Touch of Evil. Welles won two prizes at Cannes, arguably the most prestigious of festivals: the top prize for Othello, and the leading actor prize in 1959 for Compulsion (directed by Richard Fleischer), playing a lawyer (loosely modeled on Clarence Darrow) for two youth killers (loosely Leopold and Loeb; in those roles, Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman shared the award with Welles).
- Othello, which is a masterpiece, kickstarted an era in Welles’s creative endeavors that saw him making movies every which way but loose. The movie was filmed in catch-as-catch-can style over a number of years and across continents. A character would throw a punch in 1949, in Spain, and it would connect with his opponent’s face in 1951, in Morocco. When Welles ran out of money, he’d take some acting work, and start shooting again. There has been some interference on Othello but that came much later – after Welles died, in fact, and it’s a topic for another day. Suffice to say this was no case of studio butchery – the film can be enjoyed in a form reasonably close to what Welles intended.
- Producer meddling did affect the shape of Welles’s baroque 1955 thriller, Mr. Arkadin, alternately called Confidential Report. But while the producer (Louis Dolivet) rendered the film into a bowdlerized state that often ran contrary to Welles’s intentions, the clash produced many versions, not just one compromised one. The Criterion Collection released three cuts of the film in a large, multi-disc set, one of which is called “the comprehensive version”, assembled in 2005 by the Munich Film Museum. This cut ought to be viewed in the good-faith manner of “best guess”, since, of course, Welles could not possibly have overseen it. Having said all that, it is a masterpiece, one that both reflected and propagated the increasingly paranoia-juiced, fragmentary style of jet-travel-era suspense thrillers.
- Touch of Evil – yes, the not-Kane masterpiece that enough people agree on, its presumed greatness was a minor digression in the 1995 John Travolta caper comedy, Get Shorty. Was there meddling? Oh my yes. Is it as great as they say? Greater. Legacy of adhering to Welles’s original intent: without getting too in the weeds, roughly equivalent to Arkadin. In a word, complicated. But you can dig it.
Now we reach the 1960s. This open letter’s getting a little long in the tooth, so I’ll try to be brief: Welles is still landing acting gigs left and right, but getting acting jobs and making entire films, those are two different…. well, how about a sports metaphor?
- Acting in movies is like playing on a team, and trying to win the game, along with your teammates.
- Getting movies made is like inventing an entirely new sport, teaching brand new players the rules, and trying to persuade NBC to air it during primetime
I’m not saying acting is easy. But getting a film made is almost impossible.
Welles’s feature films during this era:
- The Trial, a masterpiece of nightmare paranoia, based on the Kafka novel
- Chimes at Midnight, another Shakespeare adaptation, fusing together large segments of several different plays, mostly concerning the tragic figure of raucous, profane Falstaff…
- Really I’ve been piling on the praise for these movies but Chimes is uncommonly beautiful and exciting; its Battle of Shrewsbury sequence is one of the most influential battle scenes in pictures, its influence is felt as recently as the “Battle of the Bastards” episode of Game of Thrones.
- Other projects include The Immortal Story, a short feature for European television, adapted from Isak Denisen; Welles also appeared in the Best Picture-winning A Man for All Seasons.
During these years, Welles did accrue some unfinished projects, or projects that were held short of completion by one misfortune or another: The Deep (based on a novel that would eventually be adapted into the 1989 Nicole Kidman thriller, Dead Calm); The Heroine (another Denisen: not much was shot, Welles walked away after one day of shooting after it became clear that he was being swindled); The Merchant of Venice; a variety of TV projects.
During the 1970s, he made two landmark films, the seminal nonfiction essay F for Fake, and the fictional (but highly metatextual) The Other Side of the Wind. F for Fake lives on – this incredible masterpiece was release by the Criterion Collection on DVD and Blu-ray.
I can’t tell the story behind The Other Side of the Wind much more succinctly than the Netflix documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which – not coincidentally – faces the “he drifted around doing projects, never living up to his early promise” myth head-on, within the first few minutes. Suffice to say, there’s bad luck, and there’s the Shah of Iran being deposed, fleeing the country, and the fate of your nearly-completed feature getting tied up in the ensuing chaos.
In 2017, after some funding efforts, including an Indiegogo campaign, several interested parties pushed The Other Side of the Wind to what we call “picture lock” – the state in which one can make a valid declaration that there’s nothing more to be done, tie a bow on it. In journalism, think of “picture lock” like, you had your back-and-forth with your editor, s/he sent it to the copy desk, the fact-checker, etc, they do their thing, and “picture lock” is when your article is finally ready to go up on the site.
The Other Side of the Wind was close to picture lock when Welles died – by some accounts, it was 98% finished. A concerted effort to best-guess his editing of the remaining 2%, plus a round of post-production, color correction, looping, scoring, so forth and so on, was done, and, finally, what was once considered a Holy Grail of cinema was a cup that everyone could drink from.
In 2018, The Other Side of the Wind was shown at the Venice Film Festival and premiered on Netflix, for everyone with a smartphone, tablet, or internet-capable home computer to enjoy. One ought to think of the film, in the form that we now have, as “finished” with the heaviest air quotes available. Welles, who is definitely dead, was very definitely not in a position to approve the work that was done on it. Having said that, it’s a thrilling picture, weirder and bolder in many ways than anything else he directed, and the “finished” film bears no evidence, that I can point to, that any of the parties that pushed it to “picture lock” are having one over on us, putting us on, or falling asleep at the switch. They even hired a living legend, Michel Legrand, who composed haunting scores for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Welles’s own F for Fake, to do the music. It’s the best we can reasonably expect the film is going to look in our lifetimes and… it’s terrific.
Film people – many film people, but fewer, I think, than before – still hold to the cliché that “Welles was a genius who kept fumbling the ball, and that was his whole life after Citizen Kane.” I think that’s chiefly the reason why I got so irritated that a sportswriter would use this as an assumed truth – and as the cornerstone of an argument to observe a player he thought warranted better treatment in the eyes of history. To me, using this thumbnail sketch to (in my view) misrepresent Welles’s life and work told me that, once you exited the orbit of cinephilia, only the hoariest of clichés have any currency. And it isn’t just cinephilia – many sets of teeth have been ground as a specialist overhears non-specialists talking, without full, factual correctness, about their specialty.
Plus it’s like, we already marched, metaphorically, in the streets to restore the widely held, unbalanced view of “Welles’s genius”. Must we march again? Our feet are tired.
What would it take to overturn the bad line about Welles, the fumbling, former whiz kid? In most places in America, the assumption is you succeed your way upward, and that you build on early successes. We love our young, upstart billionaires, disrupting and assuming the mantle of heroes. We love those that work hard, get promoted, move up the ladder to higher and higher rungs of success. In sports, there’s some of that, no?
I think some people look at Welles’s career, if they look at all, and decide there’s a half-life to upstart creativity, and that his wish to remain a free agent (I’m not bad with the sports metaphors, huh?) all his life, without ever packing it in and kissing the right rings and taking on the yes-sir, how-high-sir studio assignments that his contemporaries pursued, was just the right fit for a 26-year-old, but a few mile markers past demented for a 66-year-old.
But… isn’t that kind of a blinkered view? What is that our business?
I know that isn’t your thinking. I assume you know your baseball, your pitchers and RBIs, and your Hall of Fame, or you wouldn’t be where you are today. What occurred with Welles’s appearance in your Will Clark piece was that a thumbnail piece of cultural mythology was used where it would, in all likelihood, never get challenged. Who’s a big fan of Chimes at Midnight and reading about a retired ball player on NBC Sports?
And while I’ve outlined a frustrating state of affairs, to be honest, how can I get mad when the same myth is perpetuated by colleagues of mine who should really and truly know better. Do you know of sportswriters who just seem to be coasting on some SparksNotes version of the subject they’re supposed to be experts on? I’ll bet you do. They’re just everywhere, aren’t they?
The Other Side of the Wind, I should make clear…. I couldn’t really call it a “beginners” Orson Welles movie. It moves slightly faster than the viewer can keep up – much of the dialogue is delivered in such rapid-fire fashion that subtitles are highly recommended (luckily, Netflix provides) – and the story is, to put it bluntly, an unconventional one, an all-through-the-night-and-into-the-following-day story that’s intercut with a film-within-a-film that also doesn’t follow a straightforward, familiar story structure.
In brief: famous film director Jake Hannaford (played by John Huston) is celebrating his 70th birthday party, and has invited his cast, crew, and a throng of journalists and photographers to his palatial home to booze the night away. He’s struggling to finish his movie, which is called The Other Side of the Wind. He needs money. We learn later that his lead actor has walked off the picture after clashing with Jake. In the morning – this detail is revealed in the opening moments – Jake has died in a car crash on his way back from a screening of The Other Side of the Wind at a drive-in theater. It’s uncertain whether this was suicide or he was just plain drunk.
For a man who was boisterous, jovial, but never particularly macho, The Other Side of the Wind shows us a Welles who grasps all kinds of personality types, first and foremost the much-mythologized, two-fisted, hard-drinking Man’s Man, the kind who hunts and shoots and chases women. But his heart was so large that he could sympathize with these ogres, and find plenty of walking-around room for their tragically loyal disciples, razor-tongued critics, hangers-on, passers-by, and other oddballs. It’s incredibly funny and incredibly bleak, and, as a survey of its era – when the young upstarts were taking over Hollywood, it is withering in its glare.
No director in the American cinema edited with more musical precision than Welles. (Even the greatest directors are content to have the cutting done by a professional cutter – in fact, this was compulsory in the studio system. Of course, this is, you guessed it, a topic for another day.) The editing of later films, from Othello onward to F for Fake and unquestionably The Other Side of the Wind, makes the viewer feel as if they’ve been tossed into a blender. Despite how that may sometimes feel, he is not screwing around. These films are, in a visual sense, the most exciting music, mad symphonies by a man who – sitting at the Moviola (that’s the old-timey editing table) – knew exactly what he was doing at all times.
How can you call such a man a failure? A bright candle that melted away in a sea of unfinished projects and unfulfilled early promise? I cannot. The only way to do so is through the lens of the district manager, the Human Resources officer, or the traffic court judge. Ah, I see here, uhhhh, Mr. Welles…. that you started 30 pictures and only finished 15. What happened? It seems like you’re a man who can’t get things done, Mr. Welles, isn’t that right? Hm?
If we can reorient our attitude concerning success so that it has less to do with “made the sale” and “got the job” and “won the war” and whatnot, and more to do with a lived life, not of wandering the wilderness stupidly but blasting a trail that he alone can see, of a man who left behind so many incomplete projects (and honestly, them who are without sin, etc) not because he was a loopy fuck-up but because he just had to keep making things.
And if you conduct a thorough inventory of what Welles directed, whether it was finished or not, it’ll become clear that, from Citizen Kane through The Other Side of the Wind, this was not a life crippled by poor follow-through, or carelessness. His candle burned all the way down to the wick, alright, but it burned, and burned, and burned.
In closing, I would petition to change the official myth of Orson Welles, from
- His first film was Citizen Kane and, thereafter, he never lived up to his early promise.
- His first film was Citizen Kane, which many have called the greatest film ever made; after that, he improved.
Now, if we can just get him into the Baseball Hall of Fame, I can finally rest.
I didn’t like Winter’s Bone, the director’s most acclaimed film, and so spent a considerable stretch of Leave No Trace in the throes of some imagined portent that eventually dissolved, soon to give way to something like a more surly This is Martin Bonner, where the greatest drama is that a troubled veteran (Ben Foster) cannot rest his unquiet mind, even as his instincts for caring for his teenage daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) are sharp and indisputably well-intentioned. The result is an almost-dark film that’s acted upon by a considerably more optimistic (not to mention lovingly detailed) one about the comforts of even the fringest of communities, as opposed to what I’d feared, a film heading towards okay-ness that would be derailed by the long knives of Things Going Horribly Wrong.
Anyway that’s a bunch of stuff that’s my hang-up, not the film’s, so I’d like to turn this qualified praise into real praise: I enjoyed Granik’s skillful direction and the movie’s itinerant, propulsive editing, knowing (appropriately to its theme) when to dwell and when to ramble on. Normally I have an inexplicable, deep-seated aversion to Ben Foster, but he’s very good; McKenzie comes across sometimes as a miraculous amateur, and was surprised to learn she’s been acting in films for a number of years. That her performance, which oscillates between that of an unsteady alien trying to learn human, and an increasingly confident young person learning to call bullshit on her dad, led me to guess that Granik had merely plucked McKenzie out of a crowd of non-actors, is itself a miracle. All in all, a good film that’s structurally sound and doesn’t overspend its credit, and movingly empathetic towards the anxious and ill-fitting of 2018.
This amusing horror/fantasy (/comedy?), written by and starring the co-directors, bears a striking resemblance to this year’s considerably more ponderous Annihilation. What distinguishes The Endless is its sense of humor, dryly prodding both the expectations of its genre framework and the familial combativeness unique to obstinate, nitwit brothers. (Moorhead and Benson are pretty smart about creeping dread but very smart about feeling frustrated with your family.) The film sometimes loses track of all its threads, but it’s made with care and intelligence and an edge of impatience with the kinds of pitfalls that often compromise similar ventures into stories of cult survivors, cult infatuation, mysterious big bads, and even the Primer-esque twist that clarifies at around the hour mark. Not an altogether success – digressions often resemble fragments of a long, layered novel – but if it wobbles some, it ends well and the Moorhead-Benson duo exhibit a knack for provoking unease with vivid, oddball images.
I’m not going to recap Twin Peaks: The Return or go down the rabbit’s hole of problematic-or-not classifying the role of violence against female characters in Lynch’s overall body of work (up to and very much including The Return). I just want to focus on 21 amazing women who made this incredible, towering work of art what it is, and who contributed materially – some to an unquantifiable degree – to the galaxy-swallowing mystery that is Twin Peaks: The Return.
Laura Kenny as “Woman in Car”
Just as the show’s eleventh episode had emerged from the other side of strange (diner drama, shots fired, dull-eyed tykes), Kenny’s one-off character, an extremely irate motorist, soon beset by a young boy with (a) digestive issues, (b) a horrible sense of humor, or (c) something weirder altogether, grabbed the episode by its shoulders and gave it a good, loud tirade worthy of the late Anne Ramsey – or Lost Highway‘s Robert Loggia. Kenny’s nameless character, whose origins are unclear and whose (probably un-serious) fate is unknown, made for one of Lynch’s strangest pit stops.
Charlotte Stewart as Betty Briggs
Stewart had a substantial acting resume – including a long stint on Little House on the Prairie – before Eraserhead made her immortal as the put-upon mother Mary. So when she reprised her role as Betty Briggs, wife of the mysteriously deceased Major Briggs, mother to now-reformed Bobby, she drew on multiple kinds of histories, giving her short scene great weight. Without saying so explicitly, Betty – rarely foregrounded in the original series – made the mysterious quest somehow about family, doing what’s right, and being a part of something eternally good. She was a kind of golden light in the earthly dimension, not unlike a counterpart to the fireman’s wife, in the beyond.
Monica Bellucci as Monica Bellucci
Lynch’s hard-of-hearing G-Man Gordon Cole practically turns to the camera in the fourteenth part of Twin Peaks: The Return to say “And now for something that looks like an arty American Express commercial, featuring your dream actress and mine.” Heaven knows what the Italian goddess was doing – hang on, we know what she was doing in Cole’s dreams – but in terms of the Peaks mythos – if only from a structural point of view – given Lynch’s past work with high-end advertising – Cole is a depraved horndog – there’s a slender chance she’s Judy – and then the – because – well – oh to hell with it. Monica Bellucci, everybody.
Sarah Jean Long as Miriam
Miriam so resembles the unfortunate, collateral victim of Mark Pellegrino’s luckless hitman in Mulholland Dr. both in shape and voice, that, for a time, you were right to fear the worst for the only eyeball witness to Richard Horne’s unconscionable hit-and-run. Her survival, not without cost, was revealed in one of the most magically plain – yet Stephen King-esque – sequences Lynch has made since The Straight Story, with some neighborhood kids playing ball near the trailer park.
Nafessa Williams as Jade
Lynch took a minor shellacking on social media by introducing Jade early on, as Dougie’s first human connection to the real world: a prostitute. But Jade is beautiful, credible, dignified, and in control. And she give two rides. Thanks Jade.
Kimmy Robertson as Lucy
There isn’t much new to say about the wonderful Kimmy Robertson, whose Lucy has always been and always will be one of the moral anchors of Twin Peaks. She was and is an object of humor but never derision, permitting the welcome intervention of slapstick into a fictional realm that’s got plenty of darkness and pain. Lynch also deployed Lucy on The Return to reinforce connectivity with the old series, and she served as a prism through which we felt many crucial moments that touched the Sheriff’s Station. With her, we mourned the passing of Margaret Lanterman (the erstwhile Log Lady) and gathered evidence against the corrupt deputy Chad. And, in a possible homage to the climactic scene in Jackie Brown, she may have actually saved the universe.
Linda Porter as The Lady Who Calls Dougie “Mr. Jackpots”
The incredible character actor Linda Porter is made up to look only a little better than “the thing behind the dumpster at Winkie’s” when she first appears, shooing away catatonic Dougie from her favorite slot machine. Hair, makeup, and costume combine to make her look like an oversized piece of lint that’s been rejected by a choosy vacuum cleaner. The creep factor dials back by about 8% when she begins winning, thanks to Dougie’s super-sense for picking winners. Then, later in the series, her reemergence as a back-on-track human lady caps off the long, miraculous arc that describes the incredible change of heart on the part of the Mitchum brothers. Her transformation turns this part of the story into something like the end of Murnau’s The Last Laugh, a demonstration of blind(ing) optimism, the belief that the right amount of cash will make everything okay, for everyone, forever. It’s fairytale bullshit but we’ll take it, with thanks.
Amanda Seyfried as Becky
I haven’t yet been able to make room in my heart for Caleb Landry Jones – he seems to get cast exclusively in roles requiring him to play a kind of leech-boy, or outsized bacteria, harmful to the touch. I don’t know, maybe he’s one day going to surprise everybody with the definitive Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams and all that. In the Peaks-verse, Jones’s no-account Steven is first spotted cluelessly trashing a job interview in a rumpled shirt and tie, looking like something that had been trapped beneath the refrigerator for the past eighteen months. He’s next seen snorting coke with his girlfriend, Becky, who – in a hoary cliche that subsequently gains traction through repetition – is about 10000x too good for this loser. Thus we arrive at what many would name their first favorite digression in The Return, Becky’s druggy, musical flight in the open-top convertible, an interlude that was as unbridled in its elation as it was troubled by its inception. Go Becky, go.
Ashley Judd as Beverly
One of the crucial charms of The Return is that Lynch often simply let actors do their thing. Without much of a foothold on the plot (such as it is), Ashley Judd only appeared in a handful of scenes. My favorite is the deceptively pointless one Beverly shares with Ben Horne, late at night, at the Great Northern. Under dim lights, on a sparse set, the first scene of Beverly and Ben amusing themselves by trying to figure out the source and nature of some mystery music in the walls resembles nothing more than, well, two actors shooting the shit on a dusty, unused stage. You can say there’s sexual tension, you can say there isn’t any at all, that’s part of what makes this pause in the series – which isn’t exactly a race, anyway – so enjoyable.
Amy Shiels as Candie
Never let it be said that Lynch doesn’t have an odd sense of humor – you can practically hear him and Mark Frost cackling as they devise this minor character of an airhead wallflower who, on the hunt for a pesky housefly, clubs her favorite guy with the remote control, giving him a grapefruit-sized welt on the side of his face. At first incapacitated with guilt, we subsequently see Candie physically on the job but mentally (spiritually?) sailing away on unknown clouds. Glacially slow to respond to simple prompts, is Candie high? Or has her guilt unlocked some higher rhythm that she alone is permitted to groove with? Whatever her deal is, The Return is a story of some souls that can never get clean, and some hearts that will never get stained, and Candie’s heart is as pure and golden as her city has ever seen.
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Chantal
In a surprise, albeit limited, Hateful Eight reunion, Leigh and Tim Roth emerge from stage left and stage right to lend Bad Cooper a hand in getting him back on his destructive path. Leigh’s Chantal is a bit of a stock character bad hombre, a callous assassin who talks up the pleasures of torture. And Leigh is nothing if not overqualified. Be that as it may, Leigh makes Chantal the more credible of this gruesome twosome, and her “Go fuck yourself!” is potent enough to end lives, and if those lives happen to be hers and her beau’s, so falls Wichita Falls.
Chrysta Bell as FBI Agent Tammy Preston
At first blush, Agent Preston seems to have accompanied the boys (Gordon and Albert) as nothing more than eye candy for the oft-remarked-on skirt-chaser Gordon. Bell is, in life, an accomplished musician who’s collaborated with Lynch in music and video. As Preston she’s the target of one of Diane’s earliest and most poisonous “fuck you”‘s. Bell doesn’t seem to be the strongest thespian in the Lynch stable, and her lithe, fairy-like poise dwells just on the far side of plausibility for a federal agent but I enjoyed her presence precisely, and paradoxically, for those qualities.
Grace Zabriskie as Sarah Palmer
One of serial television’s greatest questions (“Who killed Laura Palmer?”) was and was not answered when her father, Leland Palmer, confessed. For Twin Peaks is a universe burdened by the Black Lodge, and with “extreme negative forces” beyond imagining. Leland killed Laura not alone but at the behest of the otherworldly BOB, and not even that solution is cut and dried. For the Palmer residence is not un-haunted 25 years on, the house still occupied by the surviving matriarch of none, Sarah Palmer. One of the unforgettable faces and voices of Lynchiana, Grace Zabriskie made her true arrival relatively late in The Return with a subplot of strangeness that suggested that she was possessed still by an insane malevolence not of this world. Attempting to drink in peace in a trucker bar, she was gifted one of the show’s top “Oh shit” moments, and given how many there are of those, it was a major-league “Oh shit”.
Jane Adams as Medical Examiner Constance Talbot
Point blank, Jane Adams is and has long been one of the most wonderful actors in the world, so even if Lynch saw fit to give her co-credit and equivalent screen time with Kyle MacLachlan, it somehow still wouldn’t be enough. But Adams’s chipper m.e. Talbot, sloshing gloved hands through fetid corpse innards, is a plum part, our ambassador both to Lynch’s affinity for gallows- and dad-humor. Of course she and Albert are kindred spirits – and Cole, once again not a long way from serving as Lynch’s onscreen surrogate – delights in finding sparks fly between two porcupines.
Sherilyn Fenn as Audrey Horne
Another latecomer in the chronology, Audrey’s reprisal sparked some of the most heated debate among Peaksians. Her dialogue across several episodes was with one other actor (Clark Middleton), and they talked almost exclusively about characters we’ve never (to our knowledge) met and never (in our best estimate) will. Fenn’s acting here feels overly demonstrative and blocky, as if she’s trapped in some daytime soap opera. Through revelations inchoate, cryptic, and tinged with violence, it dawns on us that there’s some nightmare upholstery giving form to an arc that would have been, on its own steam, strange styrofoam. Audrey, seen in the second season finale having chained herself up in a Tati-esque bank vault, was the victim of a bomb attack, fate unknown. Tragically she seems to advanced down the field not a single yard, and an unforgettable smash cut reorients all that we’ve seen as the cloth of a great sadness.
Wendy Robie as Nadine Hurley
Peggy Lipton as Norma Jennings
Don’t be fooled that this co-ranking diminishes either party. Distinct now from the original series, Peggy and Nadine are two badass and beautiful older women, and while an epic course-correction made by one clears the path for the happiness of the other, and while one might reasonably ask, “What in blazes took so long?”, may we ask you, dear reader, to look upon love not as a vector adhering to a temporal graph, but as a point, everywhere and always? We cheer for Big Ed, not forgetting that his salvation is the result of the agency of the two strongest women he knows.
Catherine Coulson as Margaret Lanterman
The Log Lady often served the original series as a trademark of Lynchian eccentricity, a woman who carried the outside inside, and spoke in riddles. Lots and lots of characters died on Twin Peaks: The Return (like, lots and lots), but Margaret was one of the only ones for whom we took off our hats and shared a moment of silent reflection. Her conversations with Deputy Hawk are, perhaps, the heart and soul of Twin Peaks, pointing to something larger even than the dimension-hopping, and the long looks into the past. The Return once showed Dale Cooper plummeting through the cosmic infinity, but Margaret – and Coulson – really saw it.
Naomi Watts as Janey-E Jones
However you cut it, the women in Lynch’s world deserve better, and Lynch knows it. In a world of doubling, Naomi Watts’s Janey-E Jones shared a reflection with Sheriff Frank Truman’s wife Doris (the legend Candy Clark), a woman who is introduced in a state of seemingly perpetual rage, only later to have the story justify and deepen her every ounce of intense feeling. Janey-E directed against much of the world a lightning strike of impatience, disgust, and incredulity. The world deserves it. What we didn’t expect was to begin, if slowly, to side completely with Janey-E’s struggle, and to want her victory (to stabilize her home, to get help from a good husband, to protect her son) more than anything else in the world. In Dale Cooper’s long, strange trip, the Jones home was but a way station, not “significant” in the Peaks mythology. But when Cooper regained clarity, he correctly snapped to a sense of duty to the Jones house that few could fully understand.
Laura Dern as Diane (?) / (Linda?)
As many writers have observed, Laura Dern means a lot in the great, grand Lynch-verse – as much as anybody. At the risk of diving into recap mode, her character on The Return represents one of the great whatzits of the entirety of Twin Peaks – never appearing on the original, only spoken of, and whose very existence we can now freely question as we comb through The Return for the tiniest clues. Without getting into all that, Dern’s Diane represented an incredible display of female strength and empowerment, sleeping with whomever she chose, smoking wherever she liked, and telling everyone – even transdimensional beings – “fuck you”. Her sex scene with (?) in the series finale, scored to The Platters, enters a realm we were not entirely prepared to face, even if we think we’ve earned our degree in Lynch Studies: something approaching Kundera. Lynch captures (Diane?) in prayer, all right, pushing in but away from a form that may be Dale Cooper and may be no one, who mustn’t/can’t/shouldn’t see her. She’s gone from that shabby motel before morning.
Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer / Carrie Page
Sheryl Lee received credit for all eighteen episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return but only acted in a few of them – a resident (or phantom?) of the Red Room, in a substantial amount of footage from the original series (a good deal of it manipulated by postproduction and special effects), and, in a stretch of Lynchian fiction that will inspire discussion for years to come, in The Return’s slowly disintegrating finale. In Peaks terms, the murder of Laura Palmer was nothing less than a tear in the fabric of the universe on par with the detonation of the first hydrogen bomb. Kicking off the original series un-witnessed, it was the collision of absolute good and absolute evil, a cataclysm so unspeakable that Lynch could not depict it or refer to it except through multiple layers of symbolism. In the final stretch of The Return, Lynch confronts us with the facts: that the rupture can never be healed – in fact, we can hardly even clean around the wound. It’s also a radical inversion of the famous final scene in The Searchers – another story of a righteous man who rescues a woman from a wilderness that signified for her only death – in which sanctity, once lost, can never truly be restored. It’s the old “you can’t go home again”, this time because it isn’t home and you are not you. In both the seventeenth and eighteenth episodes, Lynch uses repetition and an elongated sense of time (slow motion that isn’t slow motion, more like stopped time and deceptive momentum) to imprint upon our brains the overarching significance of who Laura Palmer once was, and who she is (not?) today. Cooper is reduced almost pre-verbally beyond rudimentary law enforcement interview questions, transmitting “What’s your name?” and “What year is it?” almost as afterthoughts. Laura Palmer is at long last reduced, rudderless, to the status of stowaway in the conveyance of her own saga. We can accept that she rests with angels, as we saw in Fire Walk With Me, or we can ponder mournfully the nullifying purgatory that emanates from what ought to have been the Palmer house. Laura…
This is an ongoing, slowly expanding post concerning my admiration for the director Robert N. Bradbury, who is not a major artist, and perhaps not even a minor one. I’ll add some more thoughts on the man and his work, as I continue, and I wish to continue.
Wild horses wouldn’t be enough to pull the name of Robert N. Bradbury out of near-total obscurity and into anyone’s idea of a director’s pantheon. Career-wise, his moment of glory begins and ends with the 13 westerns he made with then-rising-star John Wayne, between 1933 and 1935. When you watch one of these films – when you watch the first minute or two of any of them – you are seized by the almost total deficiency of resources. Like most western directors on poverty row, Bradbury shot outside when he could, and didn’t make a big fuss over interior decoration when he went inside. (Across three or four pictures, you will notice that they keep using the same big tree.) These are movies that people slept through. In the B-movie class, they don’t get much B-er.
Having cleared all that up, I have now watched six of the 13, and I will stake that Bradbury was skilled at what he did, with what he had. All six thus far have been enjoyable in almost exactly the same way, with few distinctions. One of the ones from 1934, ill-named The Star Packer, begins with many evocative grace notes, culminating in a “secret knock” and “man in the shadows beyond the wall” sequence that’s straight out of Fritz Lang; there’s also a shoot-out by night that’s creepy at first but ends comically. Always nice to see a smart girl handling a gun.
At this point in my (more or less accidental) journey through the Bradbury/Wayne 13, I watched The Lawless Frontier (1934), and I couldn’t recall if I’d seen it already. The first 10 minutes set me at ease. This one uses the plot of the powerful Mexican bandit, roaming and stealing and killing with impunity, which was time-honored by 1934 and would endure through Peckinpah and The Rifleman. (In a 1958 episode of the latter, the great character actor Akim Tamiroff, born in Georgia – the USSR republic, not the US state – played just such a kingpin.) Somehow the obligations of the plot’s early disclosures (Wayne’s parents are killed in the opening, an indeterminate amount of time passes, we meet the bandits, we meet their next quarry, etc) stunts the pace of The Lawless Frontier‘s momentum. At moments it acquires the stark qualities of an Andre de Toth western. Wayne’s character, immediately beset by tragedy, is denied a life in town and even a sidekick. In short, the film’s front half feels heavy but harsh and dry.
This is a screen capture taken near the end of The Lawless Frontier. I found the shot oddly moving, and it reminded me of the opening line of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
The Lawless Frontier – it’s worth noting, and should come as no surprise even if your only exposure to these movies is through the words I’m putting down here, that these titles are often totally unrelated to a given film’s plot or theme (or, alternatively, each title is vague enough that it could apply to any other film without a serious challenge) – is a little more diffuse than the other Bradbury westerns I’ve seen. It comes to pass that the malevolent bandit villain is only one of two antagonists, as the Wayne character comes to be falsely accused of murdering his friend, and must escape and… well you can probably paint the rest of the picture on your own.
I watch or (more commonly) sample many B-pictures – there are countless titles available online, chiefly on Amazon Prime and Youtube. (Netflix doesn’t really give a shit about movies made before their incorporation, and Hulu mainly serves the next-day TV crowd. FilmStruck is the Criterion surrogate, with some added dressing.) Any cinephile afflicted with the “if I start the movie, I must finish it” discipline will find B-movie spelunking arduous – and just as likely, impossible. If you have a 61-minute western or whodunnit from 1942 or 1932, you can wager with confidence that the quality on display during the first three or four minutes after the opening titles will accurately predict the quality of the rest of the movie. I turned 40 earlier this year. I think often of death. I have no compunction quitting on a movie that isn’t giving me the goods.
In fairness, I will often power through a bad B-movie if the spirit moves me. Which is why, when these movies are good, or aren’t precisely good but are shot and edited with a modicum of urgency and contain unexpected moments of beauty or strangeness, I take notice. Within me there’s a tripwire that lets me distinguish when I’m having a good time watching a film, and when I’m not. The Bradbury westerns trip the wire frequently.
The Trail Beyond – again with the titles, there’s no reliable meaning behind them – has an extraordinary first act that I think of often.
It begins with non-incident, as Wayne’s character rides up to his friend’s ranch, and his friend says something along the lines of “I want you to find my estranged niece who’s somewhere up in Canada” and you just know she’s the one Wayne’s going to marry at the end.
Following that, we see Wayne relaxing in a train compartment, dressed not in dude clothes but in city finery. A younger friend of Wayne’s happens by, they exchange kind words, and the friend is next seen trying his luck at a rigged poker game a few drawing room compartments down the way. One of the sharps is killed, it looks bad for the friend, but Wayne intervenes.
By jumping from the train.
Into the river.
So far, nothing to write home about. The action is enjoyably brisk: the friend adjourning to the card game, the card game going south, the cheat getting a bullet in his belly, his two accomplices holding the kid, Wayne busting in and taking out the two sharps, the escape. I timed it – I’m not fooling, from the kid sitting down to play poker to the river jump, 60 seconds flat.
But forget that. A jump in the river, no big deal. What amazed me was that, hardly two minutes later, the following sequence plays out:
- After catching their breath on the riverbank, the two walk to the nearest town;
- They rent a pair of horses;
- The sheriff of the town where they rent the horses gets a telegram describing the previous scene – the murder and all;
- Putting two and two together, the sheriff rounds up his posse and they give chase;
- Knowing they’re once again being pursued, Wayne and his friend ride into the woods;
- They come to a river. The posse is fast on their heels. They’re boxed in. There’s only one way out. You guessed it:
That’s about three and a half minutes for opening business, and another four minutes to justify and depict two death-defying leaps into the river. I cannot conceive of a mind unwilling or unable to enjoy such lunacy.
Not to be confused with:
- City Beneath the Sea (Irwin Allen, 1971)
- City in the Sea (aka War Gods of the Deep) (Jacques Tourneur, 1965)
- Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (Irwin Allen, 1961)
- Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (TV series created by Irwin Allen, 1964-1968)
- City That Never Sleeps (John H. Auer, 1953) – also starring Mala Powers!
- The Cruel Sea (Charles Frend, 1953)
- The Unchanging Sea (D.W. Griffith, 1910)
Unlike many similarly-named adventure movies, this 1953 Budd Boetticher-directed adventure movie is largely free of any mystical overtones – at least, until the end. (Even then, it’s not explicit.) No, this is nine tenths a macho diving and treasure-hunting story in which Robert Ryan and Anthony Quinn, pals in a freelance salvage outfit, are hired by wealthy Karel Stepanek to locate a sunken ship containing a million dollars in gold bullion. Both are given to drinking, chasing women, and getting into bar brawls, but Quinn plays the one more likely to have his hand caught in the till, and that’s part of the reason the drama gets whipped into a froth.
The pro forma story could easily have been refitted as a western or a space opera, with only cosmetic alterations. The script is credited to two writers, neither of whom seemed to have been in their prime in 1953. I make the suggestion that the script was rescued from a long unopened file drawer.
The high point of this likable film is not the diving sequences, which take too long and seem to have been filmed entirely using the same lighting setup, in the studio pool, but a terrific bar fight at about the halfway mark. Drinks and fists and tiki torches fly in every direction. Lots of cutaways to different spectators, like the owner, cowering behind a chair, and the pianist, not looking particularly interested in the outcome.
As I see many films by the same director, I’m reluctant to look for consistent themes, because I don’t think the activity is conducive to promoting auteurism as I practice it. City Beneath the Sea lacks some of the moral and spatial geometry that Boetticher would come to practice in his more universally-celebrated westerns. But it has more in common with his lifelong obsession with bullfighting than an early joke on the subject. Many of Boetticher’s movies, from Behind Locked Doors to The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, portray their heroes not simply getting into predicaments at the climactic moments, but living their day-to-day lives getting into scrapes and behaving dismissively at the suggestion that their lives may be at risk. Ungainly as the metaphor may be, it’s not hard to apply the image of the bullfighter, eternally dancing around the charging bull, to the heroes of many of his non-bullfighting-themed films, including this one.
You’re free to write off What’s Up, Tiger Lily? as a botched stunt (not without a few yuks) and declare that Take the Money and Run is Woody Allen’s directorial debut. It’s front-loaded with the best gags; it’s not a long film but after the amazing bank robbery sequence (the one where the entire bank, staff and customers alike, takes Virgil to task over his typos), the romance plot cuts the film’s momentum by about 60 percent, and callbacks dilute the joke-per-minute density even further. Jokes like an irate Fritz Lang impersonator and a contemptuous psychiatrist don’t really land. That having been said, the first twenty minutes are full of energy and inventive camerawork. And the above image, pure genius.
The premise is so light, you can transmit it to someone by breathing on their skin: A Japanese action picture is dubbed over by nonsensical comic dialogue written and performed by Allen and his confederates. In the spoof genre, it was a total original. Not long afterward, it was completely subsumed by the surreal irreverence of the Police Squad! series, the 1980 movie Airplane!, and others.
This would be a downright avant-garde pick for someone’s favorite Woody Allen picture, like declaring loudly that you prefer Tonight for Sure to The Godfather, Part II. The most inventive part of the film is the title sequence, a hybrid of the Pink Panther-inspired trend of animating caricatures into Duck Amuck-style contortions, and the still-relevant trend in the James Bond franchise to put pictures of naked ladies through a storm of graphic design effects.
The source movie, Key of Keys (an installment in the International Secret Police series, led by Japanese action star Tatsuya Mihashi), is suitably corny, adventure/suspense serial fodder, most of it taking place on stationary ships.It’s not unreasonable to conclude that What’s Up, Tiger Lily? wouldn’t be as much fun if Key of Keys wasn’t any good; the direction and editing clears an acceptable minimum of crisp competence, and the movie has that sweaty, sun-baked charm of a thousand 007 knock-offs.
The main conceit, of course, is the dubbing. Talking over movies is now largely out of fashion with the advent of smartphones; clowns in the audience are more likely to text or tweet or Snapchat their jokes to absent friends. (The legacy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 also casts a long shadow.) Concerning Allen and company’s proto-RiffTrax job on Key of Keys, picture a job of ad-libbing that would normally fall to idle teens in the balcony rows now carried out by a crack squad of Borscht Belt comedy writers. Provided you’re in the mood, there’s lots of funny stuff – for me, the ideal state was achieved during the safecracking sequence, where we see no faces, and hear only Allen’s cabal rendering an absurdist play-by-play with a perfect punchline.
I often pursue the new work by familiar directors based on a minimum degree of fondness for one of their past efforts. Danny Boyle and Guy Ritchie were not, until recently, high on my list of … anything, really. My youthful self’s surprise and macabre delight at the original Trainspotting has long been squandered by the erstwhile wunderkind Boyle, in misguided enterprises too thick to tell apart. (Pleading that you don’t ask me to explain, I’m quite taken with 2014’s Steve Jobs, which I’ve seen three times.) He seems now to dwell fitfully in the prestige class, having made one Best Picture Oscar winner and another that was nominated.
Ritchie opted for an alternate sustainability route, getting hired for the 2(-3?)-film Sherlock Holmes franchise, as well as large-scale projects like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the forthcoming live-action Aladdin, and this year’s King Arthur epic, starring Charlie Hunnam and Jude Law.
Throughout Ritchie’s promoted status, having earned admission to the multimillion-dollar club with visually inventive crime films like Snatch. and his 1998 debut, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (and stumbling only momentarily in the eyes of the Entertainment Weeklys of the world with the ill-fated Swept Away, starring his then-wife, Madonna), the director has applied a sometimes enervating, sometimes thrilling restlessness to a wide range of source material.
I sided with Ritchie at a late hour: I didn’t think much of his 2009 Sherlock Holmes, but I was won over by the 2011 sequel, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (reviewed here). The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which barely earned its keep at the global box office, is even better: an indulgently lackadaisical cold war thriller that spends as much time arguing about ladies’ belts as shooting it out with the bad guys. Ritchie’s impatience with linear narratives continues unabated, pausing films midstream to rewind and re-examine scenes to change emphases and reveal new information.
Ritchie’s handiwork on King Arthur: Legend of the Sword makes for an interesting auteurist case study. Please note that I am employing “auteurist” not to suggest “because I like the director, the film is automatically good.” Rather, I’m considering how a specific personality made an imprint on a movie that would not have been made, had another director been hired in their place.
Sometimes this guessing game is easy: when William Wyler took over the 1936 film Come and Get It from Howard Hawks, the result was a movie that was 90% vintage Hawks and 10% unmistakably someone else. Or take the scenes Orson Welles didn’t shoot for The Magnificent Ambersons: they stick out like crabgrass. On other films, like 1945’s A Royal Scandal, which Ernst Lubitsch began and Otto Preminger completed, it’s not so easy.
This isn’t to say King Arthur is the patchwork result of a studio hiring a 2nd (or 3rd, or…) director to complete reshoots, as was the case with last year’s viscerally unpleasant Star Wars entry, Rogue One. But the project, which boasts a half dozen writers and twice as many producers (including the current US Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin), very strongly suggests an enterprise in which many of the design and aesthetic decisions were made in advance of hiring anyone to conduct the presumably more pedestrian duties of directing.
A good 40% of King Arthur is Peter Jackson-inspired garbage: perfectly uninteresting visual effects reels with a handful of handsome compositions scattered throughout. This is the producer’s bailiwick – blasting the audience with smoke and lasers in the hopes that they won’t notice that nothing’s there.
The other 60-odd % is clearly given over to Ritchie to do with as he pleases: the soon-to-be King is a street punk, and the script is peppered with language that isn’t quite modern but isn’t exactly Chaucer. Ritchie presumably had a free hand in script and dialogue here, and it suits him to economize and transform large parts of Arthur’s tale into Lock, Stock, and Several Smoking Arrows.
This is a fun film that occasionally drowns in absurdly presumptuous gravity; Ritchie might be wholly defeated by one sequence, then put all his energy into the next. Sometimes there’s no division, and your heart goes all over the place. After a crushingly dull CGI finale, Arthur whispers to his foe, “You make sense of the devil” – a pretty good line. And throughout, there are suggestions of a tale told in postures and gestures, like Jude Law’s complacent slump, a foreign envoy’s shrug, and various street toughs’ “come here and push this chip off my shoulder” poses.
T2 Trainspotting isn’t exactly fun, although it sometimes signals that it’s trying, especially when it makes explicit visual callbacks to the 1996 original. Reuniting almost all of the primary, secondary, even tertiary collaborators from Trainspotting (although author Irvine Welsh’s blessing seems ambiguous and largely hands-off, from skimming the reports), T2 is nothing if not fully aware of how bleak its predecessor was, and how multiply sad it is that the four main characters end up in the roughly the same predicaments, two decades on. Surprisingly, T2 emerges as a model for continuing a long-thought-dormant story and ethos: moreso than its scrappy crime and drugs scenarios, it’s driven by thinking about itself as well as its source. It doesn’t just attempt to relive old glories, but it reflects wistfully on the folly of such attempts. If this is how you’re going to wallow in your own mythology, I have to concede, well done.