THE LAST FRONTIER, directed by Anthony Mann, with Victor Mature (1955, 97 min.)
Spurred by the enthusiasm of Jean-Pierre Coursodon, posting in the chat group “a film by,” I follow his lead and also see Anthony Mann’s THE LAST FRONTIER for the first time, and I wind up basically agreeing with him: the film is a lot better than its reputation warrants (for one thing, some of the CinemaScope landscapes are breathtaking), and Victor Mature is especially good in it. In fact, it seems pretty clear that the fact that this movie has such an unfashionable cast–not just Mature, but also Guy Madison, Robert Preston, and James Whitmore, which the relatively fashionable Anne Bancroft can’t quite offset–has something to do with its apparently low place in the Anthony Mann canon. (The fact that the film has an imposed and unsatisfying ending doesn’t help either, but this is so perfunctory that I find it easy to overlook; Mann almost seems to glide right past it.)
Mature plays a Noble Savage here (a trapper who joins the U.S. Cavalry as a scout), and many people either forget or don’t know that he virtually began his career as a D.W. Griffith discovery playing precisely that sort of part. (In Hal Roach’s 1940 ONE MILLION B.C., where Griffith served as an uncredited coproducer, Griffith expert Seymour Stern once told me that discovering Mature for the lead role was in fact one of Griffith’s major contributions to the film.)
Even though Mature’s presence in a lot of bad movies (including, I should note, ONE MILLION B.C.), made him a laughing stock for much of his career, it’s worth noting that he was hip enough to be in on the joke himself; when he was once asked while passing through customs at some airport somewhere whether he was really an actor, he reportedly replied, “Many would dispute that.” But I always thought he could be good when the right opportunity presented itself. Another fine, underrated performance of his that showed off his wit was as Doctor Omar in Josef von Sternberg’s THE SHANGHAI GESTURE, made only a year after ONE MILLION B.C. There, of course, he’s the very opposite of a Noble Savage, a rather urbane degenerate, but in THE LAST FRONTIER he manages to take over this part with a fair amount of grace, imagination, and passion. And Mann being Mann, no one in the plot, not even him, is simple or entirely predictable. [6/26/08]
It was just a matter of time before the eccentric independent Guy Maddin made a personal documentary about his Canadian hometown, and though he labels this a docu-fantasia, one still suspects he’s captured the real character of Winnipeg, especially its freezing weather. The movie is dominated by Maddin’s usual black-and-white photography, silent-movie syntax, and deadpan melodrama; he even casts Ann Savage, who starred in Edgar G. Ulmer’s classic B movie Detour, as his own mother (her dialogue is credited to Maddin’s usual cowriter, George Toles). In the narration Maddin claims that Winnipeg has ten times as many sleepwalkers as any other city in the world, and though he’s surely making this up, it conveys his own sense of entrapment amid the town’s dreaminess. 80 min. (JR)
I’m really sorry that in the Gene Siskel Film Center’s forthcoming and very welcome Manoel de Oliveira retrospective, three of my five favorite films of his are missing. I can be pretty specific about this because I recently ranked all the Oliveira films I’ve seen in order of preference for a lengthy article I wrote about him for FILM COMMENT, which is about to come out. The first five of my favorites, in descending order, are DOOMED LOVE (1978), BENILDE OR THE VIRGIN-MOTHER (1975), INQUIETUDE (1998), PORTO OF MY CHILDHOOD (2001), and MON CAS (1986). The last of these (see first photo below) has never been shown in Chicago and I’ve never even been able to see it in an English subtitled version (assuming that one exists). BENILDE (see second two photos, below–both screengrabs from a mediocre video transfer, so I’m sorry they don’t look better) is a film I was able to bring to Chicago several years ago, when I selected it as a Critic’s Choice at the Chicago International Film Festival (which, if memory serves, has also shown INQUIETUDE and PORTO OF MY CHILDHOOD); it still remains, to my mind, the most underrated and underseen of all of Oliveira’s major works. And PORTO OF MY CHILDHOOD, the other film on my list that’s not coming here, is the film of his I’d cite as the most accessible and entertaining.
This leaves DOOMED LOVE and INQUIETUDE, both of which are showing in late July , and you haven’t ever seen these great films, you can’t really afford to miss them. Each one is being shown twice. In the case of DOOMED LOVE, I very strongly recommend that you see the two parts in the same evening. For its second screening, the Siskel Center is showing Part 1 on a Tuesday night and Part 2 the following night, and I can’t imagine it could work nearly as well that way.
Intermissions with long films are a serious business. (Sometimes they’re key structural devices even when they’re minimal. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Jacques Rivette’s four-hour L’AMOUR FOU for the first time at a midnight screening in Paris, when the intermission halfway through lasted exactly 90 seconds.) I have a friend who recently tried to see the seven-hour SATANTANGO in Los Angeles, and found that a long dinner break between parts two and three was so disruptive that she couldn’t bring herself to come back for the end. The last time I saw DOOMED LOVE–at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, also recently–there was no intermission at all, which is pretty difficult for a 265-minute film, though it’s a tribute of the film’s greatness that it survived this difficulty. But even that discomfort was surely preferable to trying to see the film over two separate nights. So, now that SATANTANGO is about to come out in a beautiful three-disc version (to be released by Facets Video), you shouldn’t try to space out your home viewing to more than a single day and evening; if you do, a good part of the spell is bound to be broken. [6/25/08]
It’s the cruelest of ironies: newscaster Tim Russert, who died unexpectedly on Friday–taken to be the essence of all that’s honorable and serious about the TV news—has been used ever since as a substitute for the TV news, a means for excluding as much of it as possible.
In the mid-1990s, the trial of O.J. Simpson became such a media obsession that one could virtually say that most other news was suspended so that the TV news could be devoted around the clock to a single subject. The result was that TV news reporting got so far behind in keeping up with the other events of the world, especially foreign news, that it became clear after a certain point that it could never hope to catch up again. And of course it never has.
It would appear that ever since this alarming, infantile regression, TV news has been nakedly hungering for more O.J.-like events, as many as possible, that can crowd out all others. Whether this happens to be the deaths of Frank Sinatra or Ronald Reagan or events as consequential as Hurricane Katrina, the effect is always the same: to eliminate the world outside the single, all-encompassing event, which is then chewed over endlessly, not for hours but for days.
It’s within this context that the House of Representatives voting 251 to 166 to send Dennis Kucinich’s 35 articles of impeachment against Bush and Cheney two days ago can get marginalized or overlooked in the news–delegated to the back pages or else ignored entirely–so that still more eulogies on behalf of a relatively serious newscaster can command all our attention. Assuming that Russert really was as serious about the news as the media are claiming, one wonders whether he would have approved of keeping us as blinkered as possible about everything else for the sake of his memory. [6/15/08] Postscript: My friend Andrea Gronvall has provided me with a link to this excellent piece in the L.A. Weekly, by Marc Cooper. It’s chilling to discover that it’s still relevant, a full week after I wrote the above. [6/22/08]