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Flash Festival Review, 3-21: Redemption Songs
'Expressive Esoterica' from Sarris and Anthology

Promotional posters for (left) Robert Mulligan's "Baby the Rain Must Fall" and (right) Jacques Tourneur's "Witchita." Images courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2013 Paul Ben-Itzak

If the concept of 'cinema d'auteur' was first championed by Cahiers du Cinema (whose leading scribes Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut were themselves budding auteurs), it was given nuance by the long-time Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris, broken down in his classic 1968 opus "American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968" into categories like "Less Than Meets the Eye," "Pantheon Directors," "The Far Side of Paradise," and "Expressive Esoterica." This last trove -- into which Anthology Film Archives has dipped for its festival honoring Sarris (who died in June) which continues through March 31 -- the critic defined as "the unsung directors with difficult styles or unfashionable genres or both," whose "deeper virtues are often obscured by irritating idiosyncrasies on the surface, but they are generally redeemed by their seriousness and grace." But a great critic's choices don't just reflect taste and curatorial flare. The brilliance of Anthology's series, curated in collaboration with C. Mason Wells, is that the films selected also reveal the critic as philosopher, advancing the very American idea that no one is beyond redemption. (And its inverse: That even heroes can fail ignobly.)

Perhaps none of the films selected better reveals Sarris's knack for spotting a director's redemption song in even a B movie than Allan Dwan's "River's Edge" (already shown). (First of many spoiler alerts.) With its wan, fading color, Ray Milland (as a con man and thief forcing guide Anthony Quinn to get him across the New Mexico - Mexico border, which involves traversing the rocky, precipitous landscape of the Gorge of the Gods), and even a generic red-head (Debra Paget, as Milland's ex-partner paroled with the help of Quinn, who married her), the film, made in 1957, smells like one of those generic, even tritely scripted '50s films relegated to Sunday afternoon television in the '70s, stretched out to three tedious hours by commercials. But at the end, Milland, after leaving his companions for dead, makes a choice to save them that costs him his life, and the cardboard characters are expanded into three dimensions. Earlier in the film, we see a minor character prospecting this dusty terrain for gold; Sarris found it -- in unearthing this tragic dimension -- by dusting off a film that on its surface might seem undistinguished.

A scene from Jacques Tourneur's 1955 "Witchita." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

In "Witchita," screening March 24 at 9 p.m., 26 at 7 p.m., 28 at 9 p.m., and 30 at 5:15 p.m., director Jacques Tourneur also plays with the roles of good guy and bad guy. The French have always savored the myth of the cowboy (or as they call it, the "Far Ouest") with delectation, and no French director relished and found his element in the genre like Tourneur (best-known as the director of "Cat People"), particularly through the lens of his muse Joel McCrea (here playing Wyatt Earp), with whom he made a string of Westerns in the late '40s and 1950s. (By thus elevating McCrea to the mythic level of Wayne, Stewart, and Fonda, one might even say that Tourneur prepped him for Peckinpah and the tragic ride into the sunset of 1962's "Ride the High Country.") Tourneur applies directorial slight of hand in a scene in which Peter Graves might be either a nemesis or an ally. And he really exploits the potential of Cinemascope; the typical Old West main street is shot wide-angle from ground level, a saloon set-to is viewed from the stairs, horses seen being hitched from above, and humans are dwarfed like action figures by the vast Kansas landscape.

Diane Foster and Richard Conte in Phil Karlson's "The Brothers Rico."

Contrary to Martin Scorcese's commentary on the DVD Anthology lent me, Georges Simenon was actually Belgian, not French (poor Belgium; its brightest lights are constantly being appropriated by francophiles), but like Tourneur he was fascinated with American milieux, and like the writer, composer, trumpeter, singer, and pataphysicist Boris Vian, he reveled in the B-movie gangster genre of the 1950s. In contrast to his tales of the Commissar Maigret, Simenon's romans dur were told from the vantage point of the criminal, usually more hapless than inveterate as he spirals into his sealed fate, so that there's almost always a point at the beginning of the story in which a poor choice is made, after which he can't arrest the momentum as he plunges towards his inevitable bleak end. But something's lost in Phil Karlson's translation of "Les Freres Rico," the book, into "The Brothers Rico," the 1957 movie. One can't believe that Richard Conte's Eddie, the oldest Rico and a former mob accountant, would be so stupid as to believe that the mob boss (Larry Gates) really wants him to find his younger brother just so he can help him get out of the country after he commits a contract murder. But Scorcese calls it when he points out that 'flatness' of the medium -- which echoes that of 1950s black and white television -- accentuates the violence all the more (as does the contrasting light of that most mythic of '50s settings, Miami Beach), and in saying that Karlson accurately conjures Simenon's 'sense of imminent dread.' In the Simenon originals, though, that dread is usually partnered with doom, and the Hollywood ending thus feels unauthentic. "The Brothers Rico" shows March 22 at 7 p.m., 25 at 9 p.m., and 31 at 4:45 p.m. .

The cinema d'auteur, as articulated by Godard, also means that the director is using his camera as a pen; film is its own medium, and to be fully realized, it can't just feel like a camera's been set in front of a stage. In Rowland West's 1929 "Alibi," it's not the plot that's the thing -- it's pretty much by numbers, with Chester Morris, in a warm-up for his run as the first of radio's Boston Blackies, as an ex-con who may or may not still be one -- but the *film* itself. Where some of the first-generation talkies gushed forth with streams of words and were little more than filmed living room dramas, West here retains the silent's excitement for the medium itself, with factors like the images and the diffusion of lighting still being paramount. Contrasting choreographies show, first, a prisoners' march that mirrors the underground denizens of Lang's "Metropolis," and, later, a pre-Busby Berkeley chorus line. Shadows reflect the German Expressionism of Lang's "M." Reminding us that the actors were sometimes the last to become comfortable with the medium, legendary designer William Cameron Menzies's art deco sets are much more sophisticated than most of the interpreters, in whom the sudden ability to talk seems to have imposed a predilection for posing over moving. As far as the story, here the redemption theme is reversed; the evidently redeemed con isn't. You can catch his act at Anthology March 25 at 7 p.m. and March 29 at 9 p.m.

Steve McQueen and Lee Remick in Robert Mulligan's 1965 "Baby the Rain Must Fall." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

In Robert Mulligan's 1965 "Baby the Rain Must Fall," the overly heavy hand of the writer -- Horton Foote, adapting his own stage play -- seems determined to design a morality tale from which his protagonists can't escape. Steve McQueen plays a paroled man determined to make it as a singer-songwriter, even if the repressive guardian who raised him threatens to have the sheriff take him back to jail if he doesn't stay out of honky-tonks and go to night school. Never mind that she lashed him with a belt and rewarded him for a deathbed visit by declaring he was no good and was not worth killing; we're supposed to believe that his feeble attempts to return the beating in her grave (i.e., when she's already dead) warrant revoking his parole and devastating not just his dreams but his wife (Lee Remick)'s and child (Kimberly Block)'s. The only character I wanted to send to prison was Foote, whose cold-blooded lack of sympathy for his heroes clashes with the empathy McQueen and Remick inspire. My suggestion for you if you see this film is to wear ear plugs and shut out the author in favor of the auteur, whose camera adores Remick's face as much as the barren Texas landscape under the Lone Star state's big sky, shot in black and white. (Though from where I sit here in Fort Worth, Remick's accent seems more generic southern than genuinely Texan.) Mulligan's stark use of forward and arriere plans telegraphs the relationships between the characters, as when McQueen's Henry introduces Remick's Georgette and their daughter to his employers, as does his use of shadow and light, as when Henry cleans his wounds from a honky-tonk fight in darkness at the kitchen sink in the foreground as Georgette watches from the living room lit by a table lamp. ("Baby the Rain Must Fall" -- in which McQueen seems to be, ably, doing his own singing -- plays March 23 at 5 p.m., March 26 at 9, and March 31 at 6:45 p.m.)

Steve McQueen, Lee Remick, and Kimberly Block in Robert Mulligan's 1965 "Baby the Rain Must Fall." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

The antidote to all this '60s sturm and drang might well be Lowell Sherman's 1933 "Morning Glory," which could be seen as a sort of leaner warm-up by Katherine Hepburn (and Adolphe Menjou) for the 1937 "Stage Door." Here though Hepburn reveals a more fragile (yet confident), naive, and vulnerable side (albeit mingled with cheekiness) that she doled out only sparingly in her later career, as a stage-struck kid from Franklin, Vermont newly arrived in the big city. Even Menjou, essentially playing the same producer role he would in "Stage Door," this time around seems genuinely remorseful after he sleeps with the aspiring Bernhardt. Seeing Hepburn's Eva Lovelace juxtaposed with Mary Duncan, as the glamorous and extravagantly drawling star she's understudying, reminds us of the very different type of movie star Hepburn introduced when she entered the scene -- little glitter, just an actor. What's also amazing -- and no doubt a credit to director Sherman -- is the naturalism of the performances by the supporting cast in an era normally prone to melodrama: Menjou, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and even the august C. Aubrey Smith comport themselves like Method actors. "Morning Glory" plays March 23 at 9 p.m. and March 28 at 7:15 p.m. .

So let's re-cap: Just in the films previewed here, what we have is a motley multi-genre assortment, movies that in just about any other cinematheque in the world would never find themselves bundled together. This is the creative curatorial genius -- and generosity -- of Anthology Film Archives and its co-founder Jonas Mekas, who, typically, do not just trot out canonical film series and festivals but often program through the prism of different perspectives. And of Sarris, who cut his chops on Mekas's magazine Film Culture before moving on to the Village Voice, where he was one of the last remnants of a cadre of critics who did not just comment on, but framed (in the artistic, not B-movie, sense) the burgeoning forms whose geneses they were chronicling. (As did another early Voice writer, Jill Johnston, for dance.)

Admiring Gerry Oswald's 1957 Western "Fury at Showdown," starring John Derek and shot in one week by Wilder and Preminger cinematographer Joseph LaShelle (and showing March 23 at 7:15 p.m. and 27 and 31 at 9 p.m.), Sarris wrote: "Oswald has shown an admirable consistency, both stylistically and thematically, for a director in his obscure position. A fluency of camera movement is controlled by sliding turns and harsh stops befitting a cinema of bitter ambiguity.... Oswald has been making distinguished American films that are never reviewed in the fashionable weeklies and monthlies that feed off the fashionable and well-publicized projection room circuit."

It's a moving eloge to a by-gone era of cinema, and a performance in writing about the cinema that rivals Hepburn's recitation of Shakespeare at a fashionable cast party in "Morning Glory" in its earnestness, enough to move an inferior critic to tears as Hepburn's impromptu performance moves her toney audience. 'Scuse me while I grab my hanky.

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