Screening Room: ‘The Exorcist’ and True Evil

Turns out that besides being a young preacher, scourge of the empowered classes, and essayist whose words could scorch the hair right off your head, James Baldwin was also a crack film critic, when he wanted to be.

devilfindswork1In The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky pulls out a choice quote of Baldwin’s from his mostly ignored 1976 book The Devil Finds Work. Here, he writes about one of the decade’s two most influential horror films (the other being Halloween, just as trashy but not given as much critical deference at the time):

The mindless and hysterical banality of evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks—many, many others, including white children— can call them on this lie, he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.

It’s one of the reasons people hate critics, and why at least some critics (of a level with Baldwin) can actually be construed as necessary to the culture. Few people want to think about the evil that surrounds them every day; they’d rather go to the cinema and be treated the indulgent thrills of imaginary threats (demons, and the like).

The critic who reminds us of our short-sightedness is rarely rewarded for doing so.

Readers’ Corner: Peter O’Toole (1932-2013)

lawrencearabia

Although he will go down in cultural history as the incarnation of Lawrence of Arabia (not so much the real-life one, but the fascinatingly cinematic variation thereof), Peter O’Toole had his literary side as well. When he passed away last week, most obituaries mentioned one of the hellraising actor’s more memorable lines of poetry:

I will not be a common man.

I will stir the smooth sands of monotony.

For more O’Toole greatness, check out Gay Talese’s rattlingly good profile on the man from Esquire in 1963. Among other snappy lines, it includes this bit:

All he knew was that within him, simmering in the smithy of his soul, were confusion and conflict, and they were probably all linked somehow with Ireland and the Church … a former altar boy, a drinker who now wanders streets at night buying the same book (“My life is littered with copies of Moby Dick”) and reading the same sermon on that book (“…and if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves…”)…

In Movies: National Film Registry

'Decasia'; now, and for eternity

‘Decasia'; now, and for eternity

Every year, the Library of Congress selects another 25 films “deemed to be culturally, aesthetically or historically important” for adding to the National Film Registry, in order to preserve them for future generations. The 2013 list is nice and eclectic, ranging from Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) to musicals (Mary Poppins), short documentaries, and experimental one-offs (Decasia, a found-footage compilation showing the decay of film stock over time).

Here’s the new list:

  • “Bless Their Little Hearts” (1984) – Billy Woodberry’s UCLA thesis film about a working-class African American family.
  • “Brandy in the Wilderness” (1969) – Stanton Kaye’s experimental semi-autobiography.
  • “Cicero March” (1966) – Short film recording a civil right march in an all-white Chicago suburb.
  • “Daughter of Dawn” (1920) – Recently rediscovered drama with hundreds of Native American cast members, the first shot in Oklahoma.
  • “Decasia” (2002) – Found-footage compendium using decomposing images from old nitrate film stock.
  • “Ella Cinders” (1926) – Silent comedy about a girl trying to become a star.
  • “Forbidden Planet” (1956) – Classic sci-fi adventure semi-based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
  • “Gilda” (1946) – Brilliant film noir with Rita Hayworth
  • “The Hole” (1962) – John and Faith Hubley’s Oscar-winning animated short about the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • Judgment-at-Nuremberg-Poster“Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) – Star-studded Stanley Kramer drama about the Nazi war crime trials.
  • “King of Jazz” (1930) – Early Technicolor music revue with Bing Crosby.
  • “The Lunch Date” (1989) – Award-winning student film about a chance meeting between a woman and a homeless man in a train station.
  • “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) – John Sturges’ western remake of “The Seven Samurai” will never grow old.
  • Martha Graham Early Dance film (1931-44) – Four films documenting the choreography of these influential dancers.
  • “Mary Poppins” (1964) – That movie which Saving Mr. Banks is about.
  • “Men & Dust” (1940) – Documentary about Midwestern miners.
  •  “Midnight” (1939) – Comedy with Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche and John Barrymore.
  • Notes on the Port of St. Francis” (1951) – Vincent Price-narrated short about San Francisco.
  • “Pulp Fiction” (1994) – Quentin Tarantino’s epic blend of crime and comedy that supposedly changed everything in Hollywood.
  • “The Quiet Man” (1952) – A big wet kiss to Ireland from John Ford, starring John Wayne.
  • “The Right Stuff” (1983) – Philip Kaufman’s rousing adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s account of the early space program.
  • “Roger & Me” (1989) – Michael Moore tries to get answers from the head of GM.
  • “A Virtuous Vamp” (1919) – Silent romantic comedy.
  • “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1966) – Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton go to war in Mike Nichols’ film of the Edward Albee play about marital discord, and other things.
  • “Wild Boys of the Road” (1933) – Social drama about teens on the road during the Great Depression.

Screening Room: ‘Seconds’

Rock Hudson discovers his new life isn't so much better than the old one in 'Seconds'

Rock Hudson discovers his new life isn’t so much better than the old one in ‘Seconds’

seconds-dvdIn the 1960s, as the old Hollywood studio system started to fall apart, an increasingly paranoid style started creeping into the era’s thrillers. John Frankenheimer’s films like The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May made a point of undercutting trust in just about every American institution in sight.

The most terrifying of Frankenheimer’s ’60s paranoia-noirs, though, was 1966’s Seconds, which I wrote about for PopMatters:

A bleak and noirish Frankenstein thriller whose DNA is threaded with zeitgeist-heavy satire, Seconds attacks a cherished American myth: the belief that everybody can start over. It takes a science-fiction concept—advanced surgery transforms somebody’s appearance so they can live life as an entirely new person—and turns it into both terrifying existential drama and black comedy. While those earlier Frankenheimer films channeled the anti-establishment distrust gnawing at the postwar American consensus, Seconds tweaked the pretensions of the post-Beat, proto-hippie self-awareness movement that promised to wipe away all the problems of modern life in a blaze of enlightenment and spiritual rebirth…

Seconds was just released in beautiful new DVD and Blu-ray editions from Criterion.

Check out the trailer here:

Screening Room: Dennis Farina (1944-2013)

Not sure where that knife is destined to go.

Not sure where that knife is destined to go.

All appreciators of the great and usually unsung character actors who make so many good movies great and so many lousy movies watchable took a hit last week when news came out of Dennis Farina’s passing.

crimestory1My piece on Chicago’s own Farina (Get ShortyCrime Story, Saving Private Ryan, and others) ran today at Short Ends & Leader:

Farina, who died on July 22 at the age of 69, was a detective in a Chicago Police Department burglary unit when he was introduced to Chicagoan Michael Mann, who was making his first feature, 1981’s Thief. Farina was hired as an advisor for the film and even got himself on screen for a few seconds; he gets shot rather unceremoniously at the film’s end along with some other anonymous henchmen. He worked some small roles for the next few years, mostly TV, but also polishing his craft on the Chicago stage with the likes of Steppenwolf vets like Terry Kinney. Supposedly, he even left the CPD a couple years before making his pension in order to pursue acting. It was a gutsy move, but one that paid off long before he ended up donning a trenchcoat and storming the streets of Manhattan on Law and Order

And now, Crime Story:

New on DVD: ‘Repo Man’

Emilio Estevez gives his best punk-rock face in 'Repo Man'

Emilio Estevez gives his best punk-rock face in ‘Repo Man’

repoman-dvdAt first it might seem strange that the folks over at Criterion would bother putting out an edition of Repo Man. After all, isn’t it really a film meant to be watched on a bad $2 bargain-bin DVD or a miserably grainy VHS tape from a decades-old cable broadcast? Possibly, but on new viewing, this is one of those cult films that actually deserves getting this treatment, brand-spanking new transfer, deleted scenes and all.

From my review at Film Racket:

The scuzz-punk doom comedy of Alex Cox’s 1984 underground touchstone makes for a creepy visitation from a fracturing society. Released at the midpoint of the Reagan era’s celebration of suburban consumerism, it had a gutter-level view of Los Angeles’ bleached-out sprawl and social entropy. Its characters tend toward the feral: repo men who hunt the cars whose owners can’t pay up, shotgun-toting punks, cold-eyed federal agents, or bugged-out cult followers. Hints of an oppressive police state are everywhere, and the scent of nuclear apocalypse is on the land. In the middle of all the science-fiction-tinged end-times bleakness, though, Cox mines a catchphrase-studded seam of absurdist humor that’s one of the film’s most durable qualities…

Here’s the trailer, in all its grotty gloriousness:

Books That Never Were: Quentin Tarantino Classics

Even though we’re arguably living in a time of unprecedented leaps in graphic design, that boundary-breaking often fails to trickle down to the book world. Like any other creative industry, book covers tend to group together by trends—now minimal, then not; and always the unspoken rule that genre fiction covers show people and more literary fiction does not.

In any case, freelance designer Sharm Murugiah had an awesome idea: Why not take the aesthetic of classic Penguin paperback covers from the 1950s and ’60s, with their standardized type treatments and focus on one or two iconic but abstract images, and see what would happen if he designed book covers for Quentin Tarantino films? This is what:

tarantino-covers

They all pretty much make sense, though it takes a minute to get some of the references (anybody remember the significance of Pop Tarts in a toaster for Pulp Fiction?).

(hat-tip to GalleyCat, once again)

Department of Satire: ‘The Critic’

thecritic-posterBack in 1962, the 36-year-old Mel Brooks was watching an avant-garde film when an old man behind him wouldn’t stop with his grumpy and frustrated running commentary. Brooks turned this experience into his own short film, The Critic, in which he ad-libbed over some abstract animation; borscht belt meets the downtown art scene.

The result was a three-and-a-half-minute piece of genius that  won the 1963 Academy Award.

You can watch the whole thing here:

(hat-tip: Open Culture)

New in Theaters: ’56 Up’

56up_posterEvery 7 years since 1964, director Michael Apted has been checking in on the same group of 14 British subjects he first interviewed for the groundbreaking (though it didn’t seem it at the time) documentary 7 Up. Now, everybody is 56 years old.

My full review is at PopMatters:

Eight films on, director Michael Apted (who worked as a researcher on the first film) has created something for the ages. The Up series is like a living, breathing cinematic experiment. (More than a few of the people appear to feel they are being watched under a microscope, and resent it.) But after each seven-year delay, when Apted and his crew returns to interview those of the original 14 still talking to them, the drama of it increases in small increments almost scientific in tone. We see person turn not just from children into adults, but from characters into people. By the time that 56 Up comes around, most involved have left so much of themselves on the screen that the impending clouds of sickness and mortality begin to carry an almost unbearable weight…

56 Up is playing in limited release right now, and should be available on DVD later in the year. It’s best to catch up on the earlier installments first.

You can see the trailer here:

Department of Holiday Poetry: ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’

nightmarebeforexmas1Back in 1982, when Tim Burton was an animator at Disney and directing a movie with Pee-Wee Herman was still years away, he wrote a little poem called The Nightmare Before Christmas. Years later, long after the stop-motion animated film version became an alt-parental favorite for pre-goth kids everywhere, this video was made of Christopher Lee (i.e., embodiment of stern-voiced evil as Saruman, Count Dooku, and many iterations of Fu Manchu) reading the poem itself.

The holidays are nearly upon us; enjoy: