Monday, December 11, 2017

critical quackery

Hollywood's season of unquenchable avarice officially kicked off early this morning - at 5:15 (pst) / 8:15 (est) - when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced its nominees in the 2017 Golden Globe race.

It's also a time when working professional critics (mostly in print) become more self-important and petty than usual, exploiting the popularity of the Golden Globes telecast by making derisive, left-handed comments about the Hollywood Foreign Press, questioning the group's "integrity" (or lack thereof) and identifying its members as mere "journalists" (or, worse yet, glorified "fans"), not bona fide critics like the snarky group on the attack.

But wait... A professional movie critic is as much a "mere journalist" as an HFP member from Norway and, the fact is, your average movie critic is no more qualified to comment on film than that HFP writer or, for that matter, some nerdy movie buff pontificating on a blog in his parents' basement.

I use the gender identification "his" because most nerdy movie buffs are usually guys.

In a case of misplaced pride, a print movie critic thinks that he/she is somehow genetically superior to everyone else - the Hollywood Foreign Press, bloggers, the average moviegoer or anyone who dares to have an opinion on films - when the fact is, the only real difference is that someone (a newspaper or magazine editor) was smart (or stupid) enough to hire that person to cover the movie beat specifically and pay them. That's all.

But, of course, there's also a difference between an educated opinion and a casual one - and an educated opinion is invaluable and is what a good critic has to offer. I've met and become friends with dozens of movie critics during my years reviewing films and I can say with confidence that most of the ones whose work I admire (if not all of them) had no formal training in film or critical analysis of any sort. We all came from different scholastic backgrounds, we had different majors in college but we shared a passion for film that's been lifelong. We each started life as movie buffs and were blessed that someone was smart (or stupid) enough to hire us.

Our "educated opinions" on film were the result of obsessive moviegoing, repeat moviegoing (way before it became acceptable), reading reviews and books on movies, and "reading" movies themselves rather than just sitting there, passively, watching them. Nope, no "formal training" here.

It was self-education, pure and simple, and it continued on the job as one refined one's writing style and continually (and with much excitement) discovered elements in movies that one's readers might otherwise miss.

Anyone with a deep interest in film (and with the luck of the draw) could accomplish this. Timing is important (and, again, luck). I've known several writers, committed to film, who have dreamed for years - nay, decades - about becoming professional movie critics, a dream that's been evasive.


On the other hand, I've known more than a few newspaper writers who have landed the gig accidentally - plucked from somewhere else in the newsroom (the rewrite desk or sports section) to fill in occasionally and review a film or two - and who ended up with the title, "movie critic."

The good ones may already have had an interest in film or developed one while on the beat. The bad ones simply string adjectives around a movie synopsis - easy, lazy reviewing - and the reader learns ... nothing.

But they get hooked because, hey, movie criticism is a (seemingly) glamorous beat. Pauline Kael once complained that the danger of a bad critic is that, if he/she reviews movies long enough, the readers become accustomed to the critic's byline and writing style and, when this happens, editors are subsequently apprehensive about making a change.

The idea of who or what is a "movie critic" has morphed over the years, first with the advent of the home computer and then with the social-media blitz. Amateur movie critics who churn out opinions (sometimes educated, but mostly casual) on their sites can attract a following and think they're on par with professionals (sometimes they are, but mostly they aren't).

The movie-rating site, Rotten Tomatoes, provides exposure to what seems like thousands of "critics" (I've never had the patience or the time to count) and a wide majority of them are nobodies sharing the same stage as the somebodies, who are clearly in the minority. But there's a chance that some of these nobodies are better reviewers than the somebodies.

This movie-review madness can be traced directly to Siskel and Ebert and the various shows they hosted. There was a time when reviews of film attracted only a small, select group of newspaper readers - people interested in the arts in general and movies in particular. And critics were seen as stuffy professorial types, miserable and unpleasant and deserving of their misery (think Addison DeWitt or Anton Ego). This impression changed rather dramatically with Siskel and Ebert who were two regular guys sitting around talking about movies the way most men talk about sports. Roger and Gene popularized movie reviewing, bringing the profession out of the closet, so to speak.

Suddenly, everyone was an expert on movies and, with the internet providing a bottomless pit of resources, people who were limited previously to verbal opinions were now documenting them on-line as self-described "movie critics" or "film historians," titles never truly earned.

This trend watered down the importance of professional movie critics, exacerbated by Rotten Tomatoes which has legitimized a host of amateurs. Adding tension to the situation is the historic scarcity of movie-beat jobs at daily newspapers (which are the only full-time reviewing jobs where one can earn a living wage and live well). And it's become more acute as papers have reduced the beat from two or three working critics to one - or simply terminated the beat altogether, opting for wire reviews.

Because of the limited number of movie-reviewing positions, there have always been few opportunities for a newcomer to gain entry, largely because the people who held these positions stayed in them until they literally keeled over. Case in point: Roger Ebert, who was at the Chicago Sun-Times for 40-plus years and was still writing days before he passed.

Now, it's almost impossible. There have been no fresh faces among movie critics for a long time, only the usual suspects who have been at it for decades now and will remain in place (until they start keeling over one by one). So, perhaps, their snarkiness towards the HFP is understandable.

Movie critics - cognizant of the rarity of their jobs and the presence of those more than eager to replace them (often frenemies) - have always been insecure creatures. Only it's worse now, with critics having to:
  • feign enthusiasm about the latest unreviewable franchise drivel,
  • keep negativity in check (or run the risk of being accused of not really "liking" movies),
  • exhibit to editors one's "connection" with the readership,
  • demonstrate that connection with examples of hefty reader feedback/emails. 
  • or pray for a myriad of clicks via the paper's tracking, and
  • prove that no one else could possibly do the job as well as you, certainly no fraud with a blog or that unctuous new copy boy.
And, by all means, maintain an acrid, droll writing style that produces acceptable quotes for the display ads. Which, like critics, have dwindled.

Note in Passing: The title of this essay is a used one. On my first day as a movie critic - back in the late 1960s when I was in my early 20s - my editor handed me a slim volume titled "Critical Quackery (Why  Critics Are Guilty of It and How to See Through It)" by Theodore L. Shaw. Which was, at once, intimidating and demoralizing, given that Shaw accused all critics of "humbug," but also inspiring. It leveled me. High from being hired for my dream job, and at such a young age, it was promptly sobering.

Thanks to that editor, Al, and to Shaw.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.
* * * * *

~George Sanders demonstrating his smirk as Addison DeWitt in "All About Eve"
 ~photography: Twentieth Century Fox 1950©

~The critic Pauline Kael 

~Anton Ego in "Ratatouille"
 ~photography: Pixar/Disney 2007©
~The critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert

Friday, December 08, 2017

cinema obscura: Joseph Sargent's "Colossus: The Forbin Project" (1970)/redux

Influenced by Glenn Erickson who referenced it recently on his CineSavant site, I felt compelled to dig my 2010 review of Joseph Sargent's fabulous "Colossus: The Forbin Project" out of the mothballs and re-run it (replete with original reader comments). Not coincidentally, I've been nagged by a proposed Ron Howard remake of the film, which was originally announced a decade ago, in 2007. Will Smith signed on as star, per 2010 reports, and in 2013, Smith brought his "Men in Black" scenarist, Ed Solomon, on board to do the adaptation. At that point, there was no indication whether Howard was still actively involved. Frankly, it's unclear if the remake is still a go.

Got that?

Sargent (1925-2014), born Giuseppe Danielle Sorgente (albeit in Jersey City), has been a hugely neglected filmmaker. He was something of an adjustable wrench among directors, given that he could handle just about any genre effortlessly and without narcissistically stamping his name on it.

As a filmmaker, he tended to disappear within his subject matter, as evidenced by his output which includes the original (and superior) "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" (1974), Burt Reynolds' pleasing "White Lightning" (1973), the solid war flick "The Hell with Heroes" (1968), Gregory Peck's "MacArthur" (1977), Susan Anton's underrated "Goldengirl" (1979) and the Robert Blake-Dyan Cannon lark "Coast to Coast" (1980).

And there were several impressive TV films - "Hustling" (1975) with Lee Remick and Jill Clayburgh, the incredibly popular "Sunshine" (1973) with Cristina Raines and "The Man" (1972), which was was detoured into theaters before actually playing on network TV. And with good reason.

Adapted by Rod Serling from Irving Wallace's novel, "The Man" stars James Earl Jones as the first black President. A tad ahead of its time.

But my favorite Sargent film remains 1970's juicy "Colossus: The Forbin Project," a title that has always been available on home entertainment but is honored here because, despite enthusiastic reviews, this terrific movie has never been given its due - by either its studio or the viewing public.

Adapted by filmmaker James Bridges from the D.F. Jones novel, the preternaturally observant movie details - in an immensely entertaining fashion - how a sophisticated computer, named Colossus, designed ostensibly to control the country's nuclear defense network, goes berserk with power, turning on its creator, Dr. Charles Forbin.

Colossus ultimately joins forces with its Soviet counterpart, Guardian, to become a single Super Power bent on taking over the world from humans. Not unexpectedly, Sargent's film is effectively creepy, but also unexpectedly witty.

Eric Braeden is commanding as Dr. Forbin in a performance that should have led to bigger and better things. For one, Braeden would have made a terrific 007. Instead, this fine actor has enjoyed a lengthy, lucrative run as the willfully evil patriach, Victor Newman, on NBC's excellent (and compulsively watchable) daytime drama, "The Young and the Restless."

Braeden's daily performances on the show come with an effortless grace and a wicked sense of humor, so much so that I still continually fantasize about what a wonderful Bond he would have been. Inarguably.

His co-stars in "Colossus" are Susan Clark, as the thinking man's love interest, and Canada's Gordon Pinsent as the Kennedy-like President of the United States. Both provide atypically combative support as each one spars with Braeden over his beloved demon child.

Universal, alas, exhibited limited interest in the film which had the working title "Colossus" in production, was released initially as "The Forbin Project" and then as "Colossus: The Forbin Project" for a half-hearted reissue.

Funny thing, all three titles are fine. The movie itself is better than fine.

Note in Passing: This review was originally published on November 22, 2010. 

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

* * * * *
(from top)

~Eric Braeden in a scene from"Colossus: The Forbin Project"

~The cover page of James Bridges' script for the film when it was simply titled "Colossus." 

~ Braeden in a scene from the film

~Photography: Universal (1970)© 

Monday, December 04, 2017

stephen's folly

My wife and I spent a pleasing afternoon recently in Princeton, New Jersey - specifically at the campus movie house, the Garden Theater, where we saw the National Theater Live screening of the current London revival of Stephen Sondheim's hugely creative one-act musical, "Follies," from 1971.

I had seen the original - in another lifetime - at the Winter Garden Theater in New York and remember it as an unusually singular, once-in-a-lifetime musical experience. James Goldman's book for the show ostensibly deals with the reunion of former showgirls from decades earlier who performed for Dimitri Weissmann at his eponymous theater which, in 1971, is in the throes of being razed. There are dozens of characters but "Follies" is interested largely in only two of the women, the unpretentious Sally and the imperious Phyllis, their respective husbands, Buddy and Ben, and - here's where the show gets tricky - their former selves as young people.
There is no "plot," per se, as Sondheim himself has been quick to point out, just two pseudo-storylines of bits and pieces running parallel to each other. As the older Sally, Phyllis, Buddy and Ben circle each other, making bitter accusations, their younger selves shadow them, like ghosts, and often, the young and the old characters intermingle. It's quite intricate and, as such, camouflages the fact that "Follies" really has no heft as a story or that, at best, it's a cliche about mismatched, unfulfilled partners.

Still, it's transfixing. And those Sondheim songs!  "Broadway Baby", "I'm Still Here", "Too Many Mornings", "Could I Leave You?", "In Buddy's Eyes," "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs," "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues," "Losing My Mind" and "The Right Girl." Sondheim wrote a whopping 20-plus songs for the show and, reportedly, tossed just as many more.

I could go on.

The original production was one of the costliest stage musicals ever mounted. Sondheim has referred to it often ( and with a sense of humor, I gather) as a "pastiche" - yes, but a rather expensive pastiche, I'd say. It  was an artistic/critical success but not a financial one.

Given that, it came as something of a surprise when, in the late 1970s, rumors circulated that Fox wanted to film "Follies" with Doris Day as Phyllis and Debbie Reynolds as Sally, terrific, spot-on casting of those two roles. One can only imagine what the film would have been like, but it was never made and my hunch is that what Sondheim, Goldman and director Hal Prince achieved on the stage was simply resistant to any kind of adaptation - an effective film that would work on its own terms.

Because of its scale, "Follies" has been rarely revived. In 1985, it was staged by Herbert Ross in concert form at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, with Lee Remick as Phyllis and Barbara Cook as Sally, as well as Carol Burnett, Mandy Patinkin, George Hearn, Elaine Stritch, Phyllis Newman and Adolph Green and Betty Comden. There was a full 2001 Broadway revival with Blythe Danner as Phyllis and Judith Ivey as Sally - and Treat Williams, Gregory Harrison, Betty Garrett and Polly Bergen.

But I still have dreams about what might have been with Day and Reynolds in a film version and I believe that a '70s filmmaker with a great imagination (Altman perhaps?) could have conquered the adaptation, especially considering that "Follies" on stage was already quite cinematic. 

But, for all intent and purposes, the taped version of Britian's National Theater revival is the film version of "Follies." Dominic Cooke's staging brings a filmmaker's eye to the material and the work of the director who filmed Cooke's staging, Tim Van Someren, heightens everything with visuals that swoop and sway, moving in tandem with the performers and often zooming upward and looking down at the activity on the proscenium.

It is certainly the definitive "Follies," with Imelda Staunton bringing an exciting new dimension (and a movie intimacy) to the role of Sally.

The National Theater version also preserves the original's free-flowing structure. All of the subsequent revivals inserted an intermission break.

It runs two hours and thirty minutes without pause.

Stephen Sondheim and movies have always been an uneasy mix, despite his enthusiasm (often misplaced and too generous) for the few films made from his work. Only the films of "West Side Story" (1961) and "Gypsy" (1962) - his collaborations as lyricist with Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne, respectively - are faithful renderings of their stage counterparts.

"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1966), his first solo show, was given an art-film, European feel by director Richard Lester and is fun to watch - but, on film, is not much of a musical anymore.

What happened to all the songs?

A decade later, a truncated movie of "A Little Night Music" (1977) - filmed by its stage director Hal Prince, no less - came along and ... ditto. Where are the songs? One can almost see scissors clipping the songs "The Miller's Son" and "Liaisons" out of the film (and, yes, they were indeed filmed).

There have been filmed stage versions of "Pacific Overtures" (1976), "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (1982), "Sunday in the Park with George" (1986), "Into the Woods" (1991), "Passion" (1996), "Putting It Together" (1996), "Company" (2007) and "Merrily, We Roll Along (2013), all faithful and all of which went to TV (usually PBS).

Both "Sweeney Todd" and "Into the Woods" were made into feature films that, for some bizarre reason, Sondheim endorsed. "Sweeney" (2007), filmed by Tim Burton, deleted some precious songs, including the necessary "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," and completely eliminated the show's chorus. This meant that the song, "God, That's Good!," no longer included those words among its lyric. As for "Into the Woods" (2013), directed by Rob Marshall, one watches it and wonders why it was such a sensation on stage.

Currently, Sondheim is represented on screen by Greta Gerwig's marvelous "Lady Bird," in which her teenage characters elect to perform "Merrily, We Roll Along" as their annual school musical. One of its best - and most eclectic - moments in the film comes when Saoirse Ronan auditions for the show by singing Sondheim's "Everybody Says Don't!" from 1962's "Anyone Can Whistle," sung by Harry Guardino in the original. Just fabulous.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

* * * * *
(from top)

~Gloria Swanson, in a photo that inspired "Follies," posing at what once was New York's Roxy Theater in October of 1960.
~Photography: Eliot Elisofon/Life magazine 1960©

~One-sheet poster for the original 1971 Broadway production of "Follies"

 ~Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds at a studio event in the 1950s; they were once considered for a film version of "Follies" 
~Photography: MGM 1958©

~Imelda Staunton in the 2017 London revival of "Follies"
~National Theater 2017©

~Stephen Sondheim, circa 1990

~Saoirse Ronan singing Sondheim's "Everybody Says Don't" in "Lady Bird"
~A24 2017©

Saturday, December 02, 2017

cinema obscura: Allen Funt's "What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?" (1970)

My second position as a movie critic was for a scrappy Philadelphia tabloid affectionately known as the Dirty News. When I arrived there, porno was riding high, thanks to the crossover success of "Deep Throat" and "Behind the Green Door," titles that made it easy for married suburban couples to go to dirty movies, and the makers of those dark blue movies, apparently feeling emboldened, actually screened them for professional critics.

So during my first few weeks in Philly, I found myself sitting across the aisle from my friend Ernest Schier of The Philadelphia Bulletin, watching things with titles like "Meatballs" (starring the ubiquitous Harry Reems) and "Sweden - Between Heaven and Hell." Ernie would snort comically through these movies (that's when he wasn't snoring) as I wondered how the hell I was going to construct a credible review of what I was watching.

I was 21 and feeling panicked. I still can't quite believe that I actually wrote a review of a porno titled "Meatballs" and that it ran in a daily newspaper as if it were perfectly normal. The new normal then.

Concurrently, perhaps inspired by their lowly relatives, Hollywood studio movies also became sexually liberated. Suddenly, the dormant X rating was being utilized for major movies made by estimable filmmakers - Haskell Wexler's "Medium Cool," Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange," Ken Russell's "The Devils," Sidney Lumet's "The Last of the Mobile Hotshots," Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch," Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris," Ralph Bakshi's animation "Fritz the Cat" and, of course, John Schlesinger's "Midnight Cowboy," Oscar's Best Picture of 1969.

Some of these titles were re-edited to qualify for the R rating, while other films, threatened with the X, voluntarily went under the knife before their release. That was the fate a couple decades later for two by Paul Verhoeven -  "Flesh + Blood" and "RoboCop." It was around this time that the movie industry belatedly noticed that porno had appropriated the X rating (and its progeny, the XX rating and the XXX rating) and invented NC-17 in response. "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover" anyone?

Anyway, all this is in preamble to my recollection of the most curious Hollywood X movie of all - Allen Funt's "What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?," which opened in Philadelphia on Wednesday, March 11th, 1970 and at one-half of a twin called The Duke (the other being The Duchess), at 1605-1607 Chestnut Street. (Thanks to reader Jimbo for the heads-up.)

Funt was like a family friend or relative at the time, due to the popularity of "Candid Camera," a novel idea which he expanded with  "What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?," the first of only two movies that he made during his long career.

The idea behind the film is Funt's curiosity about the public's true feelings about X-rated movies. He approached this question by making an X-rated film himself. Funt took advantage of the new permissiveness of the era, employing nudity from every possible angle, including full-frontal. And his shots aren't stingy but lengthy. His film leaves nothing to the imagination as his hidden cameras leer at naked bodies and attitudes towards sex.

The reactions of the average American to these shots and Funt's questions are very funny and, not surprisingly, revealing. He tells one of his unsuspecting subjects, a middle-aged woman, about how many students are "matriculating" and asks how she feels about that word. Not good, she says, obviously thinking that Funt is talking about masturbation. There are other words invoked, all innocent, but they're also deemed filthy.

But most of the film is about Mr. and Mrs. American being confronted by naked strangers in office buildings and on city streets and even highways.

After the film opened, Funt visited Philaldephia to promote it and I joined him for breakfast at a hotel called the Warwick, worried that I would also be caught in the act of being myself. It was one of my most satisfying interviews, with Funt being absolutely candid (no pun intended) as he noted how unhappy he was that his movie was being sold as "a Candid Camera film by Allen Funt." "Trademarks can hurt you," he shrugged.

And he talked enthusiastically about future movies that he never made - one a documentary following children as they age from two to five (shades of Richard Linklater here) because "children lose their innocence during this period." Another was a narrative about "ghetto furniture dealers who keep their poverty-stricken patrons in debt, with one merchant teaching his son the tricks of fraud by filming, Candid Camera-style, actual hoodwinking transactions." Funt's passion was transfixing.

While Allen Funt would go on to make a second film, the 1972 PG-rated hidden-camera documentary, "Money Talks" (about how people, including celebrities, relate to money), I've no idea why he never got to make the two that he described so enthusiastically, but they seemed promising to me and I felt compelled to share these missed opportunities with you today. And re-reading my "Lady" review and interview with him, I also feel this yen to experience Funt's little film again,arguably the most curious X-rated movie ever made. And perhaps even the most relevant.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

* * * * *
(from top)

~One-sheet movie poster for "What Do You say to a Naked Lady?"

~Publicity shot of Allen Funt

~One of the more discreet shots in "What Do You Say to a Naked Woman? (the only kind newspapers and magazines could run)

~photography: United Artists (1970)©