I’m behind schedule. Ideally this post drops the first week of the new month. The TCM Film Festival happened, and I had to write some features to put food on the table. And if I’m being honest I still have some of that writing to do but I’m avoiding it so I’m on here writing posts for free. You know how it goes.
Speaking of TCMFF, this month’s First Watch Club will not include ANY films I viewed for the first time at the festival. (I already covered them here.) Instead, these five picks are going to come straight from the garden variety home viewings from April of 2018. The benefit here is that you’ll get another edition of First Watch Club in only a couple of weeks. Huzzah!
First-Watch Cinema Club: April 2018
#5. Remote Control (Jeff Lieberman, 1988)
If you’re a child of the video store-era, Remote Control will carry extra resonance. This is Lieberman’s indie-film commentary on 1950’s sci-fi by way of 1980’s kitsch. Intriguing Videodrome/TerrorVision ideas tossed about without a lot of cohesion.
Kevin Dillon’s an interesting actor but I’ve always found him best as part of an ensemble. Deborah Goodrich might be the best thing going for for the film — which is generally true for just about any film in which Deborah Goodrich appears. Jennifer Tilly gets offed in the first 15, which is a mistake. Obviously. Because if you cast a Tilly — any Tilly — you need to keep that Tilly around for the duration.
Nostalgia for 1988 rental shops will ferry this into the hearts of a specific generation, but others might be nonplussed. Of course, I belong to this particular generation so Remote Control scratched a whole bunch of those 80’s itches.
There are certain films, based on the time they were made and the nature of the narrative, in which our anti-heroes cannot and will not survive. We know this from the beginning based on extratextual information. Yet, still we cling to the hope that just this once our good-natured bad guy (Sterling Hayden in this instance) gets away, undermining the system, shaking the oppressive “bad guys must be punished” production code stipulation to the core.
Soderbergh feels Asphalt Jungle in his loins when he directs a heist movie. It feels as if the film has infiltrated and transformed his DNA. He recognizes how much the audience wants that catharsis, despite the good-people-doing-bad-things conflict of interest, and because of the era in which he directs, he’s allowed to make that movie. Huston must punish his evildoers in the name of righteousness. So it goes.
I can love Asphalt Jungle and I can still wish for hope.
The most impressive part about The Black Pirate is that these pirates are true, merciless big screen monsters. The brutality is always just off-screen, but the aftermath leaves no doubt as to what just occurred. This sets the film apart from most of these early swashbucklers, hell, really any swashbuckler.
Take the following scene for example: a captured privateer swallows a ring to keep it from the pirate captain — the captain has his musclebound heavy “fetch” it by slicing the man open. The heavy returns covered in 2-strip Technicolor red and cleaning his knife.
I’m coming around to this notion that this Fairbanks fellow was a true entertainer. I’m just a century behind the curve. After also recently viewing The Mark of Zorro (1920) for the first time, the big Fairbanks picture is finally falling into place.
Haunting melodrama, supernatural romance — Wuthering Heights turned out to be much more accessible and entertaining than the novel that I can’t seem to finish.
Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon make you feel their pain in your bones. The house becomes an omniscient third party to their labored relationship. The set design and cinematography set the mood, everything else falls into place around it. Olivier’s furrowed brow and Oberon’s eyes.
Passion-filled documentary about the contemporary place of the typewriter and the struggle to keep the dream alive. This film resonated all over this typewriter believer.
I don’t often love a documentary. I’m fairly entertained and solidly informed. California Typewriter, however, moved me as a document to disappearing technology that has been deemed outmoded. I firmly believe that our lives would be richer if we still used typewriters on a daily basis.
I use a typewriter to compose first drafts of articles and stories for the same reasons that Tom Hanks, Sam Shepherd, and David McCullough discuss in this film. Shortly before viewing this film, I learned that all three of my known typewriter repairmen in Pittsburgh had retired within the past two years.
You don’t have to be a typewriter nut to appreciate the message in this film. You just need to be a human that’s lived long enough to see how Digital Age technology has shaped our lives, for better and for worse.
Seeing as how the April prompt concerned movies screened at this year’s Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in Hollywood April 26th-29th, I had a distinct advantage of attending the festival. So any movie I hadn’t already seen fulfilled the requirement. This year I first-watched 10 movies at TCMFF, but it seems only logical that I grapple (finally) with Once Upon a Time in the West — a movie I’ve owned on both DVD and Blu-ray for at least 10 years, but never watched.
There’s nothing easy about committing to a 175-minute movie. I even considered missing out on the chance to see Once Upon a Time in the West at the TCL Chinese Theatre. Which is pure insanity. I blame “festival brain” which clouds rational thought. I should love everything about this movie. I just needed to place my posterior in the seat. So I did, at 9:15 am on Sunday with a big bag of popcorn and my Ray-Bans obscuring the sleep deprivation in my eyes.
From the opening minutes on the IMAX screen at the TCL Chinese Theatre, the sweeping vistas and vintage Leone closeups made me feel like I was experiencing the most cinematic thing ever committed to film.
The film’s opening is a nearly wordless 15-minute sequence in which three gunmen (Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Al Mulock) do nothing more than wait for the arrival of another character on a train platform in a remote frontier station. Before you express your disinterest, would you believe me if I told you it was my favorite 15 minutes of movie I’ve seen in recent memory?
It is of course, for you Western fans, a reference to the opening of High Noon — where three malcontents similarly await a train’s arrival. John Sayles, in his introduction to our screening of Once Upon a Time in the West, described how Sergio Leone, Dario Argento an Bernardo Bertolucci cobbled the narrative out of bits and pieces of their favorite classic Westerns. In doing so, these three Italian auteurs may have made the final stand in the classic Western era. What more needed to be said after Once Upon a Time in the West?
The most remarkable aspect? In creating this tapestry, they’ve so masterfully woven the story and influences together that the viewer stops looking for the connective tissue and just basks in atmosphere and spectacle.
Leone reportedly wanted Once Upon a Time in the West to be a metatextual conclusion to the Dollars Trilogy. He’d wanted to cast Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach as the gunmen in this opening sequence. When Eastwood declined, Leone scrapped the notion and cast the veteran Western actors Elam, Strode and Mulock instead. Losing perhaps his connection to Dollars, but extending his reach further into the history of the genre, recalling films beyond his own.
Leone increases the tension through the use of sound (and the absence of) and anticipation. A squeaky door. A windmill in need of some oil. Ambient cooing of a bird in cage. Footsteps. Spurs on a wooden floor. The gunmen idle, awaiting that train that will carry their unknown target. Elam tracks a fly buzzing over his face. Strode stands beneath a drip and collects water in his hat. Mulock cracks his knuckles. Each action contributes to Leone’s isolated soundscape, meticulously crafted through post-production foley recording.
The audience brings their own expectations into the scene. The audience assumes that the men anticipate the arrival of Charles Bronson’s character, and the longer we wait the greater the anticipated payoff.
The train arrives just under 10 minutes into the film. The door to a freight car opens, causing Elam to flinch. An attendant tosses out a single box and then the train begins to depart.
The gunmen gather on the craggy platform, facing away from the train. Finally we hear a new sound — the first hints of a Morricone score — a harmonica. The ne’er-do-wells pause. Elam’s expressive eyes rise in acknowledgment of the music.
A distant figure appears on the far side of the tracks as the train vacates the station. Perspective dwarfs the shadowy figure in the background, but the specter of Bronson — the on-screen persona and the legend built by 12 minutes of anticipation — looms large.
I won’t spoil it for you when I say that the hero survives the first scene of a 3-hour film. Bronson dispatches the gunmen — in a classic Leone showdown — and then the movie begins.
If it sounds like I’m gushing, it’s because I’m absolutely gushing. I could go on like this describing two or three more sequences from this film that similarly stir my cockles.
Once Upon a Time in the West depicts three conflicts that take place in and around the fictional town of Flagstone. There’s a financial tycoon Morton hires a cold-blooded blue-eyed assassin Frank (Henry Fonda) to eliminate the McBain family standing in the way of a potentially valuable piece of property — a narrative that’s become complicated by the arrival of a New Orleans prostitute (Claudia Cardinale) who claims to be McBain’s wife. Frank frames local bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) for the McBain family massacre.
Meanwhile, a mysterious outsider, the Bronson character (later dubbed Harmonica by Cheyenne) tracks Frank — with eyes on an uncertain vendetta to be paid. Harmonica and Cheyenne become unusual allies against Morton and perhaps reluctant defenders of McBain’s widow.
John Ford ectoplasm oozes all over this film — but we’re seeing John Ford through a disillusioned gaze. A look back at the old West filled with decay and lacking the proper delineation between hero and villain. There’s plenty of villain, but Leone dispatches the notion of a pure hero. Even the heroes in Once Upon a Time in the West are part scoundrel. They’ve taken on the role of hero because their interests align with the moral right as perceived by the audience.
Despite the 176-minute runtime, Once Upon a Time in the West never feels aimless. Leone allows the audience to dwell on the hardened faces of his characters just as he embraces the beauty and desolation of the natural landscape. Every frame feels pointed towards their inevitable fate — a fate that echoes that of the American old west and the Western genre. Assimilation or elimination by the progress brought about by industrialization and the spread of civilization.
In cinematic terms, the audience’s interest in the genre declined with the rise of the blockbuster. Galaxies far, far away opened up with the help of increasingly elaborate special effects.
The Western genre met a kind of end as the 1960’s came to a close. Once Upon a Time in the West represented a master’s final volley, the last word on the matter. In many ways the genre represented a uniquely American romanticism about the wide open spaces, a limitless potential — but also the dark underbelly that went along with it. A blank canvas for starkly moral fables about good and evil. After Once Upon a Time in the West, westerns began to more fully embrace the “anti-Western” trend that had been growing since the early 1950’s.
After the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), the 1970’s saw a wave of Western Revisionism and uninhibited creative freedoms in films like Little Big Man, El Topo, McCabe & Mrs. Miller before the genre rode off into the sunset almost entirely at the start of the 80’s.
If this is the end of the Western genre proper, I can’t imagine a more fitting conclusion. After Once Upon a Time in the West there really wasn’t much more to say. Or at the very least it feels that way.
2018 Shame Statement Update:
(Bold/linked denotes watched)
Five Easy Pieces Lifeboat Stop Making Sense The Black Pirate
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Paris, Texas Wuthering Heights
Victor/Victoria Once Upon a Time in the West
I tend to catalog my TCM Film Festival experiences by the music that sang me to sleep each evening as flickering images of movies danced in my head. This festival definitely had a piano jazz vibe going for it, so naturally I featured Bill Evans and Bud Powell in heavy rotation. I encourage you to play the following record while reading this recap so you can put yourself in the proper mood.
I landed in Los Angeles about noon and made it over to my hotel a little after 2pm. I checked my suitcase, tossed my computer and microphone into my backpack and rushed over for the recording.
Podcast recording managed (and mostly intelligible) but you can be the judge (hint: subscribe to Cinema Shame on iTunes or Stitcher), I headed back to the Loews, finally checked into my room and showered off the 5-hour flight. Without further adieu I joined the chaos on Hollywood Boulevard (once again forgetting to navigate the sections that had been roped off for the big red carpet event) to retrieve my festival badge from the Roosevelt Hotel.
Seeing as how I had press credentials this year, I was able to snag a free cup of lukewarm carafe coffee and a bottle of Evian (oooh la la) from the press room along with my welcome back containing a big book and a bottle of TCM Chardonnay. With that extra tonnage added to my satchel, I wandered back downstairs to lazily mingle in the lobby.
Alas. ’twas not to be.
While in the lobby, I noticed the big social media board. Tweets and Instagrams tagged with #TCMFF find their way onto the board. I noticed three or four featured tweets mentioning people already lining up for Finishing School (1934) at 7:00pm. I checked the time. Only 4:15pm. Pre-code. Multiplex Theatre 4 Thunderdome in full effect. No rest for weary same-day travelers/podcasters.
I arrived at the Finishing School queue at around 4:45pm, after a quick stop in Baja Fresh for some sustenance. (My first and only burrito of the festival — a miracle in an of itself.) My festival had officially begun. By the time I found my seat, I regretted the lack of a power nap, but I at least had my burrito.
Each year I’ve written a “letter” about my TCMFF experience. It began as an email to friends and family while waiting for my delayed red eye in Los Angeles and it continued as a means to briefly describing my experience to anyone who cared to read it.
The Yearly TCMFF Letter
Dear So and Sos:
This year I attended my fourth Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. They’ve grown no less rewarding. Some festivals are better than others, but all of them have their own flavor and their own individual vibe. As much as the movies, it’s a time to congregate with friends. I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to know so many like-minded movie fanatics during these last four years. In many ways, it feels like prime time for movie fans. Back home in our respective hamlets, we’re all “the movie people.” At TCMFF, I’m humbled by the knowledge of my fellow attendees. In certain respects it feels very much like a return to film school — just on a self-study program.
I’m still pushing for a built-in cocktail hour so we can all hang out (and not at the expense of any particular movie). We all go for the movies, but we keep coming back for the camaraderie and conversation.
As I’m ever grateful to my wife for purchasing that first pass for me as a Christmas present in 2015, I hope she shares some of my enthusiasm (and not just tolerance) as the reason I’m able to return to Hollywood every spring. Maybe one day I’ll convince her to come out with me. Maybe. For anyone looking to attend their first festival — be careful — that first taste is addicting.
And to my father-in-law, Andy, who could not attend this year’s festival — your company was very much missed. And I’m quite sure you would have really enjoyed TCM’s 2018 offerings. Hopefully you’ll make it back out in 2019. I’ll save you a seat.
Until next year….
The “Bond_age_ Guy” will return in 2019.
2018 TCM Film Festival Recap and Vital Statistics
I stuck largely to my original TCMFF 2018 plan. I deviated on a couple of occasions due to unforeseen circumstances and timing issues. I also chose a more leisurely festival experience compared to prior years. I didn’t stalk any celebrities this year (see 2016 and Gould, Elliott). I partook of some bloody undead cookies, got a Mark Hamill “like” on my Tweet about tracking down his brand new star on the Walk of Fame, and received a tour of the projection room at The Egyptian. (Thanks for the introductions, Deborah!)
2018 TCM Film Festival Final Tally: 14.2
*denotes never before seen
Finishing School (1934)* – 35mm
Throne of Blood (1957) – 35mm
Grand Prix (1966)* – Cinerama
The Set-Up (1949)* – 35mm
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)* – 35mm
The Exorcist (1973)
The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962)*
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)*
Girls About Town (1931)* – 35mm
Show People (1928)* – 35mm
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)*
(part of) The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) – 35mm
Had I not chosen the earlier non-stop flight home, I would have theoretically also seen:
This Thing Called Love (1940)* or Hamlet (1948)
A Star is Born (1937)* or The Phantom of the Opera (1925)*
1,438 minutes of movie
10 first time watches
9 B&W, 5.2 color
By decade – 1920’s: 1 / 1930’s: 3 / 1940’s: 2 / 1950’s: 1 / 1960’s: 5 / 1970’s: 2.2
6.2 movies on film, 8 movies on DCP or digital
3 bags of popcorn
Most Memorable Festival Experience:
Grand Prix (1966) at the Cinerama Dome
Like 2016, the Cinerama Dome again boasts my favorite TCMFF event. There’s something about the venue. Maybe it’s the spectacle. Maybe it’s the Intermissions. Maybe it’s just the fact that you’re watching a movie with hundreds of people who blocked off an entire morning for a certain kind of experience, forsaking multiple movies for a little jaunt over to the Cinerama Dome.
That said, I’ve become so fond of the Cinerama Dome, I made it my iPhone lock screen.
Frankenheimer’s Formula One racing scenes enveloped the audience with boneshaking rumble and sickness-inducing car-mounted camerawork. This was an experience that just could not be duplicated elsewhere. I’m glad I made the last minute schedule adjustment, bypassing Intruder in the Dust (1949) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957), two films I can watch at home without much lost in translation.
If we’re talking scope and scale, I don’t know of a bigger Western than Sergio Leone’s 1968 masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West. Project that onto the IMAX screen at the TCL Chinese Theatre and you’ve got an experience you won’t see anywhere else. I’ve had Once Upon a Time in the West on my Cinema Shame list for years now. I’ve never been so happy I waited (unintentionally) to see a movie for the first time.
Imagine Bronson close-up coming at you in IMAX, four stories large.
The winner of The Big Lebowski and Jeff Bridges vs. Scarface and John Carpenter battle. But not necessarily by choice. Due to a fire alarm incident in my prior film (Show People at the Egyptian),I exited the theater 15 minutes late — which made it impossible to make it over to the TCL Chinese Theatre in five minutes for the start of The Big Lebowski. Howard Hawks’ gangster classic began 15 minutes later and thus my decision was made. John Carpenter strode into the venue like a rock star, spoke about the film’s “X” motif, made a feisty comment about Ann Dvorak, and then the Master of Horror exited stage right. 3 minutes and 20 seconds of John Carpenter.
And speaking of the movie that made me late for seeing the Dude… Show People proved to be a delight that made the delay worthwhile. I’m not particularly well versed in Marion Davies. I’ve seen more movies featuring characters based on Marion Davies than I’ve seen Marion Davies movies. King Vidor’s Show People showcased Davies’ uncanny comedic abilities — one would have thought that the “ponce-y” face that became an overworked gag through the latter half of this film would have grown stale. It should have grown stale, but Marion Davies does so much with such a little tic that it always landed. More Marion Davies silent comedies, please.
The best part of waking up is a lynching in your cup. And all this time you thought it might have been Folgers. (For the record, Folgers is a reason not to get out of bed in the morning.) Gripping dissection of the mob-mentality justice system and how the rule of law, innocence until proven guilty, provides the foundation for a civilized society. Wellman’s stoic drama hammers its point home with a gut-punch ending. Peter Fonda has rarely been better than he is here. The way he straddles moral conscience with minor scoundrel distills the best of his on-screen persona. A beautifully shot film with an equally astute sense of tone.
Tarantino must have assimilated this film into the DNA of Pulp Fiction’s boxing segment — the difference is that Bruce Willis takes the money and refuses to go down. The look, the chiaroscuro, the narrative. Robert Ryan gives a desperate performance as the boxer who doesn’t know he was supposed to throw a fight. Wise keeps the film clipping along in real time, and Audrey Totter makes something of a character that could have been a throwaway bit of feminine angst. Other than an unintentionally funny line from Totter at the end (not her fault) The Set-Up maintains consistent tension from start to finish, and Wise does a tremendous job of showcasing the men who box rather than just a boxing match.
Not that it was a poor film, just that a year from now this is probably the movie that’ll disappear from my memory. A pretty rote pre-code affair with a nice central performance from Francis Dee. Beulah Bondi’s headmistress villain (as scripted) might be a little over the top. Ginger Rogers slides into the background too early. I definitely liked this more than the midnight show of The World’s Greatest Sinner, but being perfectly “fine” becomes this film’s major bugaboo.
Advice for Future Attendees from a 4thTimer – revised and edited from last year’s recap:
If any of this sounds #amazing to you – make every effort to attend the TCMFF. It requires you to plan ahead and commit to the trip long before you actually get anywhere near L.A. But you won’t regret any of it. You will only regret never giving it a shot. Warning: it’s addicting. You’ll want to go back because FOMO is real and it is painful.
Prioritize events you’ll never see or experience anywhere else. This includes movies shown on film, rarely screened gems, presentations, talks from famous people who knew other famous people.
Participate in social media. Get to know the people who attend so that you’ll already have a cast list of friends to save you a seat when you’re running late for a screening. As I’ve said before, you’ll go for the movies, but you’ll come back for the people. You also never know when that person you’ve been talking to on social media will pop up in the seat next to you or in the pre-film theater queue.
Bring a portable charger for your phone. You will need your phone for connecting with other moviegoers who are in lines ahead of you. The TCM Schedule App helps immensely and updates you with announcements and cancellations. You will need all the extra juice you can get. Don’t rely on being near a charging station. Bring the charger. Charge during the movie. Never run out of juice. You’ll also be popular among those who don’t bring portable chargers.
Eat breakfast every day. I don’t care when you went to sleep the night before. Get up. Shower. Eat breakfast.
Experience the festival at your frequency. If you want to maximize your movie return on value, by all means hit up every slot and every available talk. You won’t regret it. You also won’t regret earmarking some movies to watch later on when you get home and having a leisurely morning or getting a real sit-down meal. If you know you can’t survive the midnights, don’t force yourself. TCMFF is both a sprint and a marathon.
Oh, and one more thing… the Theater 4 Thunderome lives! While I didn’t get shut out of Theater 4 this year, I know many people who suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
I love experiencing live music — there’s so much more revealed about the band and the eccentricities of the music than what can be conveyed through a studio recording. A recording mutes personality, often diluting aural idiosyncrasy in favor of glossy palatability.
Concert films, meanwhile, have never been much more than a filmed concert for me. A concert on film is nice, but it’s not like you’re actually experiencing the live show. You’re watching a recording, just as you’re listening to a recording on an album. The music’s not too loud. The beer’s not too warm. The cat on the couch next to you is far less annoying than the drunken malaprop that’s singing all the wrong words to your favorite songs and invading your space.
So what I’m saying is that there’s benefit to a filmed concert — accessibility, convenience — but I’ve never seen a concert film that struck me as pure cinema. Until now.
But push this meditation on “the concert film” aside to consider why it’s absurd that I’ve never before watched Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense.
The damning evidence. My most spun vinyl record:
If we’re gauging my musical tastes and allegiances based on the lists every music fan makes, Talking Heads would also appear in my Top 10 albums (Remain in Light), Top 5 favorite bands/artists, and log at least 3 or 4 tracks in my Top 100 favorite songs.
Hence my shame.
At some point I arbitrarily decided to wait to see Stop Making Sense until I could see it on the big screen. I made this determination because of my aforementioned thoughts on concert films. I wanted to feel present at the original venue. Unfortunately my repertory migrations never allowed such a thing to happen. Finally, I broke down and popped in the Blu-ray disc. The time had come to break the seal.
After the credits (I have always loved this font) David Byrne steps up to the microphone. At best he saunters. All we see are his white sneakers and the cuff of the pants from his now famous grey suit. He sets a boombox down next to the microphone stand, presses play and starts strumming a low-key rendition of “Psycho Killer” along with the music emanating from the tape deck.
The boombox cannot, of course, project sound throughout a concert venue in this fashion. In this instance, it’s a Roland TR-808 drum machine, spilling through the venue’s speakers. The drum machine rat-a-tat echoes like gunshots — Byrne staggers. He envisioned this as an echo of the ending to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless as Jean-Paul Belmondo has been ambushed by gunfire.
This is a visual cue, seemingly a comment on the nature of pre-recorded music in an new age — one marked by a shift towards consumerism and ownership. Even the music at a Talking Heads concert comes pre-recorded these days. My concerns about the cinematic nature of Stop Making Sense disappear.
Here’s the opening of the film:
Within the last few years, I’ve come to prefer to this version of “Psycho Killer” to the studio recording. The down-tempo pace and David Byrne’s foregrounded vocals over acoustic rhythm guitar and the drum machine change our emotional response. I’ve always admired Talking Heads’ ability to craft mid-tempo pop music. Songs that feel faster and more accessible than they really are. This highlights that phenomenon by taking arguably the band’s widely recognized track and rendering it a completely different beast. A minimal and more deliberate “Psycho Killer” feels like a dirge rather than a ditty.
As this opening set continues, more members of the band join Byrne on stage. First Tina Weymouth on “Heaven” then Christ Frantz on “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel” and finally Jerry Harrison on “Found a Job.” As the band grows, so too does the additional equipment and musicians that appear on stage.
The band finally reaches maximum capacity when it launches into “Burning Down the House.” (The original 1985 home video release has the band performing “Cities” first, however.) It’s a cathartic moment, a build to a euphoric release both for the listener and the band. After the incomplete band migrates through stripped down versions of the tracklist, everyone on stage lets loose in the complete ensemble. Wait for David Byrne to unleash fury during the extended finale and outtro.
Demme’s influence on the film becomes apparent during this sequence as well. He’s not focused on the music. Each band member’s personality becomes the most important aspect of the film. We all know “Burning Down the House” — and the music becomes something more like a score to a Jonathan Demme movie about a band called Talking Heads rather than our single reason for watching.
Not only is this the best seat in the house; you’re the only viewer. You are omniscient, standing on stage and witnessing musical genius at play through a macro lens. You might not care about Talking Heads’ music, but I find it hard to believe you could watch this film and not respect David Byrne’s and the band’s cerebral ability to command a stage. He’s some unique brand of buttoned-down mania.
Byrne’s wardrobe also provides a glimpse into his mental acuity when it comes to music and performance. His “big suit” grows larger as the concert progresses. The suit become an icon for the film — and even appeared on the movie poster. Eventually he comes back on stage engulfed by the suit. His comically tiny-looking head sticking out through the engorged jacket. He doesn’t call attention to the changes, he’s just shrinking as the concert rolls along.
Byrne later explained his methodology: “I wanted my head to appear smaller and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger, because music is very physical and often the body understands it before the head.” He said he was inspired by Japanese theater — Noh, Kabuki and Banraku — when creating the costume. The manipulation of audience response through artificiality.
I’ve watched dozens of films as a result of this Cinema Shame exercise and I’ve ultimately loved a great many of them. Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, however, just became the first film I can’t comprehend not having in my life. It’s almost like I hadn’t even really heard the soundtrack. The film’s opening and the gradual gathering of bandmates gives extra context to the sparse compositions that begin the album. I’ve heard so much more in the music now that I’ve seen the concert film.
That is something I never thought I’d say.
2018 Shame Statement Update:
(Bold/linked denotes watched)
Five Easy Pieces Lifeboat Stop Making Sense The Black Pirate
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Paris, Texas Wuthering Heights
Once Upon a Time in the West
March wound up being a lackluster month overall for personal moviewatching quantity, but not necessarily quality, as life and work seemed to intervene in normal viewing time. I finished strong, taking advantage of some Spring Break time (aka, the let’s-flee-home-renovations trip to the sister-in-law’s) to catch up. First-Watch Club March of 2018 offers a wide variety of cinema spanning 106 years.
Since the April edition will likely be dominated by TCM Film Festival offerings, this one will be the last whole-grain, non-homogenized, organic First Watch Club, untarnished by the glow and spectacle of Los Angeles and the TCM Film Festival, for some time. Next month I’ll still be sleep deprived and basking in the warm glow from a trip to Los Angeles. The kind of glow one can only achieve, however, by spending 16 hours per day inside a movie theater.
First-Watch Cinema Club: March 2018
#5. Frankenstein (S. Searle Dawley, 1910)
I stumbled onto the first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel as I researched clips on early silent serials for a forthcoming article in Action-a-Go-Go. Instead of a proper two- or three-paragraph blurb, I’ll mix this up and include my solo, impromptu live tweet commentary because it will better capture my surprise and enthusiasm for the film.
So the creation of Frankenstein’s monster was actually a pretty cool effect. This figure was set on fire and then edited into sequence in reverse. The flames give away the trick, but visually interesting nonetheless. #Frankenstein1910
I’m pretty sure Dr. Frankenstein called his monster “Gene Simmons” but I have no support for this theory other than this image. #Frankenstein1910
Okay, #Frankenstein1910, that was a really cool ending. The monster sees himself in the mirror, flies into a fit of rage and then disappears, except for his image in the mirror. Dr. Frankenstein enters and the image of the Dr. syncs with the image of the monster in the mirror.
This concludes my #Frankenstein1910 broadcast day. I really do need to get back to research. If you’d like to view FRANKENSTEIN (1910) dir. J. Searle Dawley for the Edison Company, here’s the link:
#4. Somewhere in Time (Jeannot Szwarc, 1980)
The narrative simplicity creates an unusually proximate intimacy with our time-crossed lovers. That something as minimal as a character staring into the eyes of a photograph has the ability to orchestrate a crescendo of emotion speaks volumes about the potential power of the film.
I say “potential” because you must give this film access to the emotions. Skeptics will find it hokey or schmaltzy — and in truth, it is both of those things in some measure, with a little bit of TV-movie atmosphere mixed in.
Time travel undertaken with the least amount of exposition. Convince yourself you’re in a certain place and a certain time. And it works because you’re not forced to question any brand of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook. Suspension of disbelief becomes an emotional leap rather than rational acceptance.
Despite the brief runtime of the film, the viewer and our protagonist — Christopher Reeve in a wonderful performance — experience a swell of emotion in step. So when it all comes crashing down, we’re also invested in this perfect, timeless romance. Who wouldn’t be madly in love with 1980’s Jane Seymour?
Somewhere in Time works because the value of this movie lies in the spaces between the unusual narrative beats. It’s about getting swept up in a believable romance despite the impossibility of time and distance.
Much respect to Scott Weinberg and Drew McWeeny for calling attention to this film on their wonderful 80s All Over podcast.
I love that this movie exists more than I love this movie. But my love of the movie also supersedes my individual caveats with the execution.
The film is overlong and occasionally too blunt. It’s in need of an editor that isn’t the director. My criticisms, however, don’t do justice to the individual accomplishment of director Anna Biller.
The Love Witch is a perfect homage to low-budget films of the late 1960s/early 1970’s. Is she borrowing from exploitation? Horror? It’s really hard to say. (I know much has been made about critics misunderstanding filmmaker intent.) At the same time, however, calling this “homage” would be selling the film short. It exists in that world. It breathes that same air. And don’t you dare call it camp, because camp is ribald and often referential mockery.
This is an important, living, breathing, clearly personal and sincere film about women’s aspirations, fears and desires. About the dual stations of projected perfect womanhood and private sensuality.
The male gaze does not knowingly want to be called out by a woman in control of her sexuality. Once this character takes control, once she asserts a measure of dominance over a man — he becomes either hopelessly infatuated or tries to burn her at the stake. The clear-eyed observations that comprise the emotional core of the film make this an essential work about gender dynamics for the times in which we live.
#2. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (Colin Higgins, 1982)
Hinges on Charles Durning’s beautifully comic “Sidestep” number. For a man of his size, he moved like a jungle cat.
Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton (aka national goddamn treasures) flash their charismatic best in this “how the hell did this get made” Hollywood musical. Seriously. How did a big budget musical about the benefits of prostitution get a green light? When Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds laugh at the same time, you’ll suddenly think everything is right in the world.
I love the 80’s.
Gonzo mainstream cinema is an odd duck, and this should be one of the greats of the genre, but it just doesn’t get the kind of positive attention it deserves.
Part of me wonders if Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” would have been the same massive chart-topper if the general populace had known that it was originally written about a madam singing to the local sheriff who had closed down her brothel.
Long time concert film appreciator, first time lover.
In practice, the concert film should reveal something new about the band that wouldn’t be readily accessible to the average fan. There’s value in having the “best seat in the house” but that’s less a “film” than a concert on film. Important difference.
Demme’s Stop Making Sense became the first of my Shame conquests that I can’t comprehend not having had in my life. The film straddles the line between David Byrne performance art and music video. It’s the perfect distillation of Talking Heads-ness eccentricities and musicality.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve spun my vinyl or the expanded CD version of this soundtrack. This music has been in my blood for as long as I can remember, but now I finally feel as if I’ve heard the record for the first time.