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Some movies, like certain farts, are so rank that you’re left with only two options: pretending that they never happened or assaulting the perpetrators. Professional obligations prevent me from taking the high ground, so brace yourself: This isn’t going to be pretty.
While hiding out in graduate school from the Vietnam War, I took a course in W.B. Yeats’ poetry taught by a notoriously sadistic professor who marked a classmate’s term paper with the letter M. When she inquired what that grade meant, he replied, “Your writing is that much worse than F.” (The hapless woman revised the essay and was rewarded with a K.) I would have to adopt a similar grading scale to gauge the rankness of Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry.
From my present vantage point halfway down the road to geezerdom, the Biograph Theater’s 1973 midnight premiere of writer-director John Waters’ Pink Flamingos remains one of my most indelible moviegoing experiences. Ticket buyers, aware of the film’s notorious underground reputation, arrived chemically enhanced for the occasion. A cloud of cannabis smoke fogged the screen, on which nearly every imaginable sexual and scatological taboo was gleefully shattered. Divine’s now-legendary climactic enormity appalled even the stoned audience. Like survivors of a military atrocity, we staggered from the theater and fanned out to our cars, the night air shattered by feigned howls of projectile vomiting.
As with love and death, there’s no effective cure for baldness. Transplants, viewed from above, resemble freshly planted cornfields. Weaves look like organic scouring pads. Sprays briefly color the scalp and, subsequently, the bathtub. Rogaine merely postpones the inevitable. Hairpieces, no matter how expensive, can be detected from a half-block away. If you don’t believe me, summon up an image of Burt Reynolds.
Although Bridget Jones’s Diary was created and directed by females, its sole evidence of distaff empowerment is the sobering demonstration that women no longer require men to demean their gender.
Bresson’s belief in a world corrupted beyond redemption imbues his depiction of that world with a physicality that is emotionally devastating. You have never truly felt the heaviness of footfalls, the claustrophobia of enclosed spaces, or the cruelty of uncomprehending glances until you have experienced a Bresson film.
In that unlamented era of the early ’50s, Paul Whiteman, the ’20s bandleader once inexplicably billed as “the King of Jazz,” hosted a weekly NBC variety show sponsored by Goodyear. One evening, he introduced a guest who had toured with his band in the early ’30s. The camera revealed a frail, obese woman seated in a rocking chair, the antithesis of the perky, ponytailed songbirds then populating the airwaves. Bewildered, I looked to my father to explain this apparition. “She’s one of the greatest singers ever,” he observed, but I wasn’t convinced. To me, she just seemed creepy.
As with most of the things my dad has attempted to teach me, it turns out that he was right. The vocalist was Mildred Bailey, known for her theme song, Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair.” Her appearance on the Whiteman program must have been one of her last public performances. She died, at 48, on Dec. 12, 1951. I didn’t hear her voice again until 1962, when Columbia issued a three-LP anthology, Mildred Bailey: Her Greatest Performances 1929–1946. After four decades of listening to these recordings, as well as to some recent European reissues of her work, she’s become my favorite singer.
Contemporary stage and film directors tend to treat classic plays the way families deal with black sheep: They do everything in their power to distract us from what they regard as burdens or embarrassments.
To say that De Niro phones in his comatose performance [in Wag the Dog] underestimates the effort required to place a call.
I had watched hundreds of movies before but never one so striking or bewildering. Contempt was, incomparably, the most beautiful color film I had ever seen. Every frame of Raoul Coutard’s cinematography—rigorous widescreen compositions filled with bold splashes of primary hues—was as arresting as the slides I had studied in college art-history courses. What impressed me even more was that Contempt dealt with ideas rather than conventional storytelling. Its content puzzled me, posing a challenge I could not shuck. Each day for the next week, I returned to that theater to figure out what Godard was saying and, in the process, took the first unwitting steps toward becoming a movie reviewer.
Watching ordinary people making love, with occasional fumbles and aches, rather than idealized screen gods and goddesses in the throes of heaving, orchestra-backed passion, compels us to reflect on our personal knowledge of the connection between desire and affection.
I never expected in this lifetime to have a favorable word to say about Michael Douglas, whose pudding face and whining voice have made him the unlikeliest of leading men. But he nails [Wonder Boys’] Grady from the very first frame. With a shock of gray hair tumbling onto his lined, sweaty forehead, glasses myopically perched on the tip of his nose, and a perpetual five o’ clock shadow, he’s a study in desperate dissipation—Phil Donahue on a long bender. With this performance, Douglas rightfully lays claim to the Best Actor Oscar that he didn’t deserve for Wall Street.
Experiencing The Horse Whisperer is like being zapped with a stun gun and forced to watch a 168-minute Sierra Club slide show.
As much as I admire it, I know in
my bones that The Legend of 1900 is doomed, destined to be roasted by reviewers who, oblivious to cinematic beauty, regard film as an extension of novels, plays, and other verbal media….I also suspect that, like Cinema Paradiso, it will ultimately be restored to its original running time in video format. But television screens, even the largest ones, cannot project the lavish detail of this extravagant production. Like other obsessive movies, this one can be fully experienced only in the medium for which it was created.
One of time’s cruelest jests is its tendency to transform us into what we once despised.
I am delighted to report that Pleasantville, Gary Ross’ directorial debut, achieves everything that The Truman Show’s claque promised, and more. Intelligent, funny, innovative, and touching, it’s that rarest of all things, a substantial work of art that anybody can enjoy.
In the early ’90s, an American Film Institute publicist invited me to a Willard Hotel press luncheon launching the European Union Film Festival. When I learned that the host was Charlton Heston, I muttered some lame excuse about a conflicting dental appointment—but quickly changed my mind when I discovered that the event also included poached salmon and Catherine Deneuve.
I experienced [Carmen] McRae’s evil side at Shirley Horn’s home soon after the Sarah recording sessions. Following her performance at Anton’s on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, McRae, her manager, and her traveling companion arrived at Horn’s house for a late supper. McRae, who by this time was not in good health and had grown quite stout and careless about her appearance, entered the living room without saying hello, cocked her ear at the tape that was playing on the stereo, and inquired about the identity of the guitarist. I volunteered that it was Toots Thielemans. “Who the fuck asked you, Joel?” she snapped. Reacting impulsively, I replied in kind: “Why don’t you go fuck yourself, Carmen?” A brief silence ensued, after which we both pretended that the exchange had never occurred. She relished the meal—beef and mushrooms stewed in wine, and greens cooked with country ham—and then made a memorable exit. Before the table was cleared, she belched twice, broke wind once, and called for her limo.
I don’t necessarily believe that young people patronize gross-out movies because they are the mindless spawn of a stupid, vulgar culture….My hunch is that Rabelaisian humor offers them a tonic to the stifling pieties imposed by parents, teachers, clergy, politicians, and other authority figures. In a society where nearly every other human response has become predictable, disgust remains a spontaneous, transgressive impulse.
Unless [Dianne] Wiest decides to grow a tail, she has completed her metamorphosis into a mole.
Sometimes film criticism takes on a Christlike dimension. A reviewer endures intense humiliations and agonies to spare readers a similar fate. First-time director Keith Samples’ unspeakable A Smile Like Yours is my latest crown of thorns. Having suffered through this fiasco in order to warn you away, I honestly feel that my birthday and date of demise should be recognized as national holidays. CP