I’d like to suggest that the theme of Atom Egoyan’s Chloe –- a woman’s midlife crisis –- hasn’t been identified by any of the film’s reviewers that I’ve read so far. Many of them have been calling the movie a hoot (Jim Hoberman, meet Anthony Lane) and perhaps just as many have been reaching for Fatal Attraction as their principal point of comparison and abuse. Since that crude shocker isn’t a film about a woman’s midlife crisis, I assume they’re misreading Chloe, which is easy enough to do if you’re mainly restricting the story — that is, viewing most of it through — its bombastic penultimate scenes.
Disregarding the Anne Fontaine movie that served as this movie’s basis, which I haven’t seen, I think what’s sneaky and deliberately misleading about the story is that it starts off pretending to be a movie about a husband’s midlife crisis and then winds up as a movie about his wife’s midlife crisis. (If this constitutes a spoiler, tough luck; all I can say as a rejoinder is that comparing the movie to Fatal Attraction is a spoiler as well.) So some viewers must feel cheated. But women’s midlife crises are so uncommon in movies that perhaps some people are trained not to notice them when they actually turn up as a theme. This one is impressive to me more for the uplift of its final scene — which transpires without dialogue, and is conveyed almost entirely through the way a teenage boy looks at his mother -– than for its penultimate one, which is plainly over the top but nevertheless makes the final scene possible.
Many reviewers who have complained about the film’s second half — including some who appear to have accepted and enjoyed the fact that Inglourious Basterds proposes an Occupied France without a Resistance — have stressed that they find it unbelievable. Since I think it goes without saying that most commercial movies are fantasies, and it’s moreover worth saying that whether or not we accept these fantasies depends a lot on whether or not we want to, I think these complainers are missing something. Certainly the hyperbolically upscale furnishings of the characters are quite a stretch, but this is the sort of stretch that most reviewers don’t mind in many other circumstances. If this were a movie about a male midlife crisis, I wonder whether they would have kvetched quite as much.
By the way, Julianne Moore, playing the main person in this story, is sensational, and Amanda Seyfried, playing the main fantasy object, is very sexy. [9/31/10]
Although it’s belatedly become available on Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Vol. 1 (along with two other particular favorites, The Big Heat and 5 Against the House), Murder by Contract (1958) doesn’t quite qualify as an undiscovered gem. But it’s certainly neglected in terms of some of its singular virtues, including a sharp Zen-like wit and a minimalist style. And what tends to be most neglected is its satirical treatment of business as murder. This is a theme it shares with Monsieur Verdoux — which makes it all the more fitting that a climactic sequence of the film was shot in Chaplin’s old studio lot, on what remains of an exterior set used for The Great Dictator.
At least two of the main creative talents working on this black comedy about capitalism, director Irving Lerner and uncredited screenwriter Ben Maddow, were blacklisted leftists, and the terse portrayal of a hitman (Vince Edwards, the star) as an independent contractor working hard to buy a house on the Ohio River to share with his unseen girlfriend — a sort of Haliburton or Blackwater operative avant la lettre, hired by an equally unseen Cheney, and calmly regarding his work like a self-improving Zen master — is at times downright hilarious. So are the performances of Herschel Bernardi and Phillip Pine as two kvetching Los Angeles goons hired to chaperone the hitman and supervise the action. No less presciently and pertinently, neither they nor the hitman prove to be entirely equal to their task. [3/21/10]
The Australian film critic Adrian Martin has alerted me to this horror story. Read it and weep. Or, better yet, somebody teach Glenn Beck something about Orson Welles’s politics. — J.R.
Greg Beato from Reason.com: “When [Glenn] Beck was 8 years old, his mother gave him a record of old radio programs that included Orson Welles’ famous performance of War of the Worlds. Apparently the fictionalized news report of an alien invasion became a foundational text for him, an archetypal example of how you could create crazy, vivid, apocalyptic drama out of mere words. To pay tribute to Welles’ work, Beck starred in a live version of War of the Worlds that aired on his syndicated radio show on Halloween night in 2002. Shortly thereafter, an heir of the radio play’s author sued Beck and his producers for copyright infringement and won an injunction that prevents Beck from ever performing the play again.”
Glenn Beck (on his very own web site, verbatim): “WOR is just a — I mean, it really is truly an honor to be on the 710 frequency which Orson Welles, my company is named Mercury and it’s named after Orson Welles’ company and this is the frequency that Orson Welles did the shadow [sic] and everything else and it is really truly an honor for me to be anywhere on this station and here we come out of the legendary John Gambling in the morning and our first month on the air, and I don’t know if this has been done. ABC, WABC has been, you know, the big talk station in forever.”
Glenn Beck (ditto): “What is a man looking at when he’s working? What is what are the things that he surrounds himself with? Yes, you can. You can tell a lot. And then I started thinking, what do I have in my office? What do I have in my office? And I realized that what I have in my office, I have two, I have two pictures in my office I have three. I have a painting of what’s over Rockefeller Plaza that says wisdom and stability will be the wisdom and knowledge will be the stability of thy times. It’s from Isaiah. I have a photograph of Orson Welles and a photograph of Walt Disney. On the other wall I have a couple of photographs of some people that inspire me. And I realized, wow, and I have them there for a reason. On my desk I have my children and my family. It’s what I look at.”
Welles scholar Richard France (courtesy of wellesnet.com last September): “Orson Welles would be turning over in his grave -– his ashes are in a well in Ronda, Spain -– to learn that a demagogue like Glenn Beck has co-opted the name of his cherished Mercury Theatre on the Air from which to spew his daily dose of rabble-rousing bigotry and venom (“Mad Man: Is Glenn Beck Bad for America?”, Time cover story, Sept. 17). Beck represents EVERYTHING that Welles despised -– the same sort of sanctimonious intolerance that forced him, in November 1947, to board the plane that sent him into a nearly decade-long exile in Europe.” [3/19/10]
The following is the 16th column I’ve written for Cahiers du Cinéma España, a bimonthly feature that I write for this magazine called “En movimiento,” translated into Spanish by Carlos Reviriego, the editor-in-chief; it appears in their March issue (no. 32). – J.R.
The bound galleys of a new book by Jerry Roberts (a name unfamiliar to me), 480 pages long, has just arrived in the mail, and its title already made me uneasy before I even looked inside: The Complete History of American Film Criticism. Santa Monica Press announces a publication date of April 1, 2010. Even though this appears to be a serious and careful work within its own limits, there are reasons at the outset for both defining and challenging these limits.
At least three separate problems are raised by three of the seven words in the title — “the,” “complete,” and “American”:
(1) Why “the” and not “a”? To suggest something definitive at the outset is already to fib — in the same way that I believe that Nick James, the editor of Sight and Sound, fibbed, presumably without realizing it, in the Spring 2009 issue of Film Quarterly when he wrote, “The wonderful golden run of great international cinema in the 1990s that brought us the best of Edward Yang, Wong Kar-wai, Takeshi Kitano, and Abbas Kiarostami, among many others, petered out several years ago.” Anyone who makes such a claim — even though, I’m sorry to say, this is a completely commonplace statement for a film critic to make — assumes in advance either that he or she has already seen every film ever made in the 1990s and is qualified at the present moment to evaluate them all, or that one can depend totally on the judgments (both current and lasting) made by programmers, distributors, and other writers.
(2) Why “complete”? (See above.) Obviously Jerry Roberts hasn’t read every scrap of American film criticism ever written, much less ever published, so he’s obviously depending to a large degree on the testimony of others. Far more crucially, he has decided in advance not even to consider any academic film criticism. Although this book has a very reliable 26-page index, one searches it in vain for the names Dudley Andrew, Janet Bergstrom, David Bordwell, Tom Gunning, James Naremore, or Gilberto Perez, and criticism of experimental cinema is also excluded. (David James and Ken Kelman go unmentioned, and Jonas Mekas and P. Adams Sitney get only fleeting acknowledgments.)
(3) And finally, why even “American”? To consider “American film criticism” in almost complete isolation from other English-language criticism, journalistic, academic, and otherwise — Noël Burch (born in the U.S.), Raymond Durgnat, Tom Milne, Peter Wollen, the great Robin Wood (who died in Toronto at the age of 78 the same week that this book arrived), and Adrian Martin all can’t be found in the index, either — as well as criticism in all other languages is essentially to ratify American isolationism at its most solipsistic and self-deluded. (I have lodged the same complaint against Gerald Peary’s otherwise defensible if rather breezy recent documentary, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism.) The longer of the book’s two fleeting references to André Bazin brings him up only because Andrew Sarris made the (highly dubious) assertion that Otis Ferguson was the American critic of the past who resembled Bazin the most — but without explaining why this might have been so in any detail. (Serge Daney gets no mention, but this, at least, is more understandable: despite an American web site devoted to Daney’s writing in English and a 2007 translation of Persévérance [as Postcards from the Cinema], he’s had scant influence in U.S. criticism, unlike Bazin.)
Because American isolationism already involves such systematic exclusions, it seems that perpetuating them is to some extent inevitable, and one clearly can’t expect a simple historian of American film criticism to reverse such a tide. But this is nevertheless a sad and troubling state of affairs, even for for what appears to be a creditable work.