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Posts tagged Film Evaluation

Please Note: The validity of the information I’ve translated in the following post must be viewed as conjecture. Time and emotional perspectives seem to distort, amplify and confuse “fact” into varying degrees of truth, unfairly skewed opinion, and incorrect analysis. Sadly, old grudges, resentments and jealousies can lead  “logic” to “mythologic.” The fact is that a number of people who were directly involved in a specific situation often remember it differently. What they have adapted to “truth” is sometimes little more than gossip. It is a challenge to determine how to look back in cinematic history. I’ve done my best to “filter” through the questionable to include what is most likely true. Please be aware that my “filtering abilities” are very limited in scope. It is not my intention to play into or further tighten untruth. 

“Gossip is the opiate of the oppressed.”  — Erica Jong

In the Robert Altman’s 3 Women, Shelley Duvall gleefully informs Sissy Spacek, “This is my parking space. It’s the best one!” Later Duvall explains, “That’s Dirty Girtie! Pull her bow and she’ll say hello!” …her delivery of those lines creates an odd and varied response for viewers. Some giggle, some laugh, some are not sure how to react, but many viewers feel the need to squirm.

"1 woman became 2/2 women became 3/3 women became 1" 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

“1 woman became 2/2 women became 3/3 women became 1”
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

When 3 Women debuted, nearly all of the major critics swooned. But the most powerful Film Critic of the day, Pauline Kael, truly disliked the movie. Her negative viewpoint of this film is of particular interest because up until this movie, Kael had been a consistently staunch Altman ally. When 20th Century Fox released it into cinemas, audiences were either entranced, confused or indifferent. In 1977 there was no Internet. There were no cell phones. While many people took the time to read serious film criticism, access to “Art Films” was largely limited to major cities like Manhattan, Boston or Los Angele. Before any sort of “word of mouth” regarding Robert Altman’s surreal experimental film had the chance to spread, it was pulled out of circulation within 8 days. Over the following two decades 3 Women became not only a “Cult Classic” but was largely considered one of the most important American films of the 1970’s.  Yet only a very few had ever actually seen an uncut or clear presentation of the film.

Shelley Duvall improvises Millie Lammoreaux with an mid-mix of comedy and looming horror. Welcome to Robert Altman's dream turned to film. 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Shelley Duvall improvises Millie Lammoreaux with an mid-mix of comedy and looming horror. Welcome to Robert Altman’s dream turned to film.
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Robert Altman’s study of identity, isolation, loneliness and sexuality is pure cinematic magic. Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek are pitch-perfect. The cinematic experimentation employed is fully realized. Altman had a strange dream. He then brought it to life allowing his two key actors the freedom to improvise and create their individual visions which could blend with his. Sissy Spacek is outstanding in the film, but it is Shelley Duvall who remains the film’s vital core.

"You're the most perfect person I've met." Sissy Spacek prepares to take aim. 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

“You’re the most perfect person I’ve met.”
Sissy Spacek prepares to take aim.
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

If you’ve not seen it, prepare yourself for a film completely different and oddly disturbing. Were it not for the help of Altman and the dedication of some folks at Criterion, 3 Women might have been forever lost in an abbreviated and muddy form of a memory. In 2004, just two years prior to Altman’s passing, it was finally properly restored and placed within the correct ratio. There are more than a few people who hated it when it was released for brief week in 1977 who now find it hard to believe that they didn’t like it. Most interestingly, a lot of viewer’s who parodied Shelley Duvall’s carefully articulated “Millie” discovered there was a great deal more to her artistry than realized via YouTube and scruffy VHS tapes revealed.

Shelley Duvall has been the victim of gossip and collective mythology. Duvall is not insane. Rest assured she is not wandering around the heat of Texas trying to runaway from UFO’s. People actually believe these ridiculous rumors. The truth is that Shelley Duvall just tired of the pressures of the business.  After a great deal of success creating a television series that artfully retold fairy tales, she decided to focus her attentions

"I had the most wonderful dream..." Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall Robert Atlman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

“I had the most wonderful dream…”
Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall
Robert Atlman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

to the care and promotion of animal rights. As the 1990’s came to a close, she relocated permanently back in Texas. She likes her privacy, but she is not a recluse. She remains an endearingly eccentric but highly intelligent woman. It would have been interesting to gain her perspective regarding the production and  her experience of  3 Women and subsequent reception. It was out of respect for her wishes to go under the radar of “celebrity” that she did not take part in Criterion’s restoration or release. But Shelley Duvall will always hold a fascination of the collective consciousness. 3 Women and The Shining remain her most studied work. You would be hard pressed to think of two more oddly-effective performances in two films that hold a great deal of power in film lore.

What is it that pulled you up into that cinema screen?

What is it that pulled you up into that cinema screen?

It is challenging to even attempt to articulate how difficult it often is to secure these “lost” or “forgotten” films. My reaction to the stubborn dedication to find these films: “Man, it is really cool she loves this movie so much she is willing to devote several years trying to secure the rights to restore and distribute it.” At the same time, I do get it.

The logic is found in answers to questions like: What draws us to movies? What is about a particular movie that makes it important? Why do some important works of Film Art fail to gain notice when first released? How do important films get lost? What makes you want to watch a movie more than once? What is in this movie that resonates for you? What lost cinematic treasure would you be willing to pay $30 to own on blu-ray?

And then, come the questions from the organization that needs to fund the pursuit: What makes you think that a re-master/re-transfer of this movie will yield profit? Are we sure that the people who made this movie are willing to encage or revisit the failure of this movie? What makes you think that this person wants to remind people of this movie flop? Don’t you know that the person who needs to be involved in this re-issue is incredibly difficult? Are you not aware that this person is insane? Why do you think anyone in this century would be interested in those filmmakers? If this movie is important, why haven’t I heard of it?

"Well, here we are on the road." "Yup, that's where we are all right." Two-Lane Blacktop Monte Hellman, 1971 Cinematography |  Jack Deerson

“Well, here we are on the road.”
“Yup, that’s where we are all right.”
Two-Lane Blacktop
Monte Hellman, 1971
Cinematography |
Jack Deerson

Long out of circulation and “non-distributable” because of disputes over music rights, all it really took were several people who loved Two-Lane Blacktop to swerve around obstacles and navigate challenges with the kind of dedication the two lead characters apply to drag racing.  But this amazing film was eventually transferred to HD/Blu-ray via The Criterion Collection. Monte Hellman’s film is so effortlessly brilliant, it is hard not to wonder if he had any idea that what he was filming would result in a cinematic masterpiece.

What at first appears to be a vague character study of two dudes drag racing their way across the country slowly develops into a surprisingly insightful art film. In truth, the movie offers only 2 characters: The primer-coated / souped-up ’55 chevy and the lonely landscape of late 1960’s America. And of the two, only one of these is fully formed. The only reliable thing “The Driver” and “The Mechanic” have in life is their powerful American car and a shared need to speed.

"You can never go fast enough..." Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird and Jame Taylor Two-Lane Blacktop Monte Hellman, 1971 Cinematography | Jack Deerson

“You can never go fast enough…”
Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird and Jame Taylor
Two-Lane Blacktop
Monte Hellman, 1971
Cinematography | Jack Deerson

Monte Hellman captures a country sad, detached, lonely and half asleep. With the gift of hindsight, it seems as if Hellman’s US is falling asleep as culture slips into a stew of sexual experimentation, identify assertion, self-absorption and paranoia. As we ride alongside these two half-formed men and the free-willed woman they have picked up — we see a world of loneliness, suspicion and isolation. It is all very minimalist in approach, but unbelievable in power.

The challenges involved in securing music rights often appears impossible to resolve. But that worry seems easy when encountering other concerns that greet the initial decision to pursue acquiring the rights to remaster, adjust and transfer a film to the 21st Century HD formats. If the initial line of questioning is met and a firm decision is made to fund the pursuit — a whole slew of new obstacles come up that will lead to a dead end.

While a major studio may have owned distribution rights in the film’s era, it usually has no has valid ownership today.  But the majors have the power and the influence. Even though former and infamous studio leadership is long gone, there can be resentments and very real grudges that are still seething just beneath the surface. Sometimes, power never forgets. But most often the biggest challenges arrive in securing the trust of some or one talented key artist(s) who have not only secured the rights to some of their own films — they often have one of the very few near-pristine mint copies safely sealed away.

"The earth is my body; my head is in the stars." Harold and Maude Hal Ashby, 1971.  It would not be until 2012 that Criterion was able to get this film re-issued in the quality it deserved.

“The earth is my body; my head is in the stars.”
Harold and Maude
Hal Ashby, 1971.
It would not be until 2012 that Criterion was able to get this film re-issued in the quality it deserved.

A more challenging situation is when the key artist(s) are no longer living and control has been handed over to an individual, an estate or some other entity. A wide spectrum of potential problems arise. The family of the deceased artist(s) have unrealistic expectations of monetary value. Or for one reason or another is unwilling to discuss the topic. This situation is almost hopeless unless another “key” player in either the film’s history or is somehow “connected” to the individuals not interested is willing to step-in and put in a good word.

When looking back at the restoration and re-distribution of many films, the use of then popular songs playing in the background of a scene is particularly difficult. To provide a fictional example: If Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach plays for over 20 seconds, an agreement much be reached with the artist or company who owns the rights to the original recording. While it might seem a minor detail that a filmmaker chose to play 65 seconds of Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach in a movie. For the filmmaker and to the fans of the film, those 65 seconds of Madonna’s pop song are vital. Unless the artist or the publishing company is willing to cut a break this can grind the whole process to a stop. In truth, the reality is usually that if one of the individual’s pursuing the film is able to connect with either the artist or someone close to that artist. The problem can often be resolved.

While some artists are truly difficult and unreasonable, most are not. And it is usually the artists who have been most often labeled “difficult” or “unreasonable” are often the easiest and logical people you will encounter. The mythology of gossip is more important to perception than reality. Chances are Madonna has no idea that a few seconds of an old song are blocking the release of a movie. And why would she? The real challenge? …finding a way to contact Madonna without causing her alarm.

Yet something within these films requires the lover(s) of film to push in pursuit of creative ways to secure the opportunity to restore/reissue the movies. Even when everyone and everything tells them “No Way!” There are always individuals who refuse to give up the pursuit. But sometimes the pursuit almost seems like an exorcise in self-torture. Some “challenges” can’t be predicted or expected.

Your hairdresser does it better... Shampoo, Hal Ashby Cinematography | László Kovács

Your hairdresser does it better…
Shampoo, Hal Ashby
Cinematography | László Kovács

A highly respected and sought-after film released over 40 years ago remains a “soft spot” for some of the artists involved. This important 1975 movie still stirs powerful feelings among several powerful senior members of The Hollywood Machine. The importance of Hal Ashby’s contribution to Film Art is not to be underestimated. He was a master of capturing his era with no concerns regarding the problematic aspects he might discover. This is one of the many reasons his films have retained power. Ashby had the ability to turn the camera on his era, the characters roaming within it and the odd logic applied to choices and actions. His films never manipulate or hold the audience hand. They simply roll out in vivid simple complexity.

And now I enter the void of “filtering” information. I hope what I have come to understand is accurate, but it is very important to note that several artists of note have wildly different perspectives of a film to which they are tied. That being said, I doubt that much of this will be news to many people who have wondered why this film has never been treated appropriately.

When Warren Beatty hired Hal Ashby to take on the role of director for Beatty and Robert Townes’ incredibly smart script in 1974, he knew what he was doing. The film that would become Shampoo was a serious examination of ambition, sexual opportunism, misogyny, politics, fear, rage, loneliness and ultimate self-loathing disguised as a sex comedy. At this point one can only theorize why Beatty/Townes decided to set the movie in the Hollywood of 1968. It would seem obvious. When it comes to modern history, 1968 is one of if not the most important years that Post-WWII United States has ever experienced. Shampoo could most certainly be viewed as a realistically scathing study of that moment in time. However, it might be more likely that the decision for setting it in 1968 was a bit more personally complicated.

Julie Christy as Jackie. Her career seems to have stalled. So her hairdresser reminds her of erotic pleasure and gives her new "do" to hopes of propelling an image change. While true to late 60's glam, does it not remind you of a certain movie star's early 60's "do"?  Shampoo Hal Ashby, 1975 Cinematography | László Kovács

Julie Christy as Jackie. Her career seems to have stalled. So her hairdresser reminds her of erotic pleasure and gives her new “do” to hopes of propelling an image change. While true to late 60’s glam, does it not remind you of a certain movie star’s early 60’s “do”?
Shampoo
Hal Ashby, 1975
Cinematography | László Kovács

The origins of Shampoo‘s plot have always been a bit sketchy. Dependent upon which “sources” you feel are more accurate, Shampoo takes an oddly superficial motivation. The filmmakers, or a few of them, have stated that the story was “loosely inspired” by two notable hairdresser of that time. Discussion regarding this matter has always been approached cautiously. It is more than likely that one particular hairdresser is being parodied. And, more than a few people of influence in the early 1970’s were referenced within the characters. While several individuals who suspect that they were hidden inside “characters” no longer care if this was true or not. Some very much do still care. As for the hairdresser who may or may not served as the inspiration for Warren Beatty’s character — it’s a problem. But it is best to not go there.

Shampoo achieved a great deal of success. Both a critical and box office hit, the movie also secured an Oscar for Lee Grant. And Grant really rocks the screen in Shampoo. Interestingly, Grant’s further career pursuits seem to have instantly become limited after she received the trophy. Like many supporting actors honored with the Oscar, she sort of fell off the map. The success of Shampoo was more than earned, but it did cause some panic within the rank and file of 1975 Hollywood. More than a few “important” people felt that they were seeing themselves portrayed unfairly. Whether they were correct in that feeling is not clear. But for a movie of such success and esteem, it seemed to take a very long time to find its way to VHS and even longer to make it to DVD. When it was released to DVD, it was given the barest of transfer improvements. Actually, the only improvement was to present it in “letter box format” It didn’t look much better on DVD than it had in an already lazy transfer to VHS. Columbia Pictures/Sony no longer own the distribution rights. However, Sony still retains a vested interest in Shampoo that is difficult to clearly define. It has never been restored and transferred to HD/blu-ray quality. Note: It is not for lack of trying. It is unclear if Shampoo will ever be pulled out of the complex mire that keeps it restrained. Yet the pursuit pushes onward.

Another film from the 1970’s which has slowly began to be “revisited” from a Film Theory / Cinematic History perspective is far more obscure than Shampoo. This other film was released in 1972. It was independently financed by a very powerful actor/singer who wanted the opportunity to make a film which more personally expressed the ways in which the cultural/societal ideals of rigid Feminism were causing a confusion of female identity. This artist was and remains one of the most misunderstood public figures in entertainment history.

Barbra Streisand at 27. Photograph | Steve Schapiro, 1969

Barbra Streisand at 27.
Photograph | Steve Schapiro, 1969

Barbra Streisand was not yet 30 but was already labeled “iconic” and “superstar” and she was the actor/singer.  The movie she wanted to make was Up The Sandbox. It was based on Anne Roiphe’s 1970 novel. Up The Sandbox is a particularly interesting example of the way unexpected obstacles block the ability to secure distribution rights and release in HD quality to blu-ray. Once again, it is here that it is often hard to sort out “truth” from “distorted opinions” and tacky old gossip.

In the late 1960’s many bankable film stars began to feel the major studios were consistently limiting their artistic abilities and interests. It was then super-agent, Freddie Fields, who came up with an idea for for Barbra Streisand, Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman. He suggested that the 3 iconic artists join together to form a new kind of film production company which would give all 3 creative power in the films they chose to make.  As all 3 knew each other fairly well, Freddie Fields felt that each of the four actors trusted each other’s individual visions. They agreed.

Film Icons McQueen, Streisand, Newman and Poitier join together to form First Artists. Hollywood, 1969.  Photographer | Unknown to me

Film Icons McQueen, Streisand, Newman and Poitier join together to form First Artists. Hollywood, 1969.
Photographer | Unknown to me

Streisand/Poitier/Newman all had the shared goal of controlling their film carriers. In less than a year, Steve McQueen joint the 3. A bit later Dustin Hoffman joined them as the 5th. McQueen/Hoffman also shared the same opinion that the major studios “did not get” who they were or what they could do as actors, producers and directors. Each of them would take on the sole responsibility for each of his/her respective film(s) that they would co-jointly fund. They also committed to produce three films each. There appear to have been other details involved how the partners would reach a consensus to “green light” each project. But I’m uncomfortable in assessing the validity of the information related to this aspect of the artists’ agreement. But it does seems to have been more of a “safety net” that these 4 movie stars secured a co-deal which made First Artists a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Interestingly, Warner Brothers seemed hesitant to serve as the distributer for films made by First Artists. National General Pictures was a new distribution company that initially distributed the first several films. Within barely 2 years, NCP was cited for Anti-Trust infringement and was shut-down. At that point WB started distributing First Artists Productions films.

But the initial spirit of United Artists became muddled fairly early in. It seems clear that McQueen liked all of his fellow partners, but he did not agree with their strongly shared political left-wing opinions. McQueen  great deal of trouble securing “buy-in” or “agreement” for to pursue the scripts he wanted because they did not reflect what the other 3 artists felt their shared films should reflect. Later on, Dustin Hoffman ran into challenges with not only McQueen but Paul Newman over several projects he wanted to pursue. It is almost impossible to know what actually happened, but one of the aspects of First Artists that continues to surface, Streisand often calm situations. While strident in her political and civil rights concerns — she didn’t seem to feel the need to make that an essential aspect of the production company. It has been noted that of the 5, Streisand had the most logical business approach: The individual artist should be granted more control, but the bottomline had to be met. In other words, she might not have been particularly interested in seeing McQueen’s The Getaway, but she understood that McQueen knew what he was doing and that his film was likely to be a hit. A clear pattern seems to emerge that Streisand had a clear understanding of the reality that First Artists had to turn profits. Freedom of control would not amount to much in the big picture if monetary success was not achieved. It seems that both Newman and Poitier understood this, but were less concerned.

One of several logos employed by First Artists in the 1970's.

One of several logos employed by First Artists in the 1970’s.

Unlike many of the film production companies that would spring up throughout the late 1980’s/1990’s, this was not a “tax write-off” or a way for actors to make more money on any film in which he/she stars. This was a legit attempt at taking control of their “individual” and “shared” artistic “visions.” First Artists managed to create minor box office hits, but only three significant money-makers:  Steve McQueen’s The Getaway was the first major hit earning an initial $37,000,000 and later approaching $50,000,000 with worldwide distribution with a budget of only $4,000,000. Both the budget and the box-office earnings were challenged, but it seems those numbers are most accurate. McQueen’s film directed by Sam Peckinpah is now a cinematic classic, but it is not clear that it did big business during its initial release.

"Punch it, Baby!" The Getaway Steve McQueen Sam Peckinpah | 1972 Lucien Ballard | Cinematography

“Punch it, Baby!”
The Getaway
Steve McQueen
Sam Peckinpah | 1972
Lucien Ballard | Cinematography

As it would turn out, Streisand was the only of the 5 artists who was able to deliver major commercial hits. Despite an epic pan by critics, her 1976 A Star Is Born earned $80,000,000 and continued to higher profits via world wide distribution. Though it is difficult to fully know what a film earned back in the 1970’s, it is thought that A Star Is Born earned well over $100,000,000 by the end of 1977. With a budget of 6,000,000 this would be the only “blockbuster” First Artist would ever produce. Her 1979 movie, The Main Event, once again escaped film critic’s disdain when it earned $43,000,000 with a budget of only $8,000,000. Once again it would earn closer to $50,000,000 via world wide release and had secured “blockbuster” status by early 1980. With only three major hits in eleven years, First Artists folded by the end of 1980.

The first two films released were from Paul Newman: Pocket Money and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Both of these films were released in 1972. Pocket Money failed to make money and was greeted negatively by the critics. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, directed by the great John Huston, initially failed to make money, but critics quite liked it. It also earned an Oscar nomination for “Best Song” and several Golden Globe nominations. This would help it to eventually earn $7,000,000 in 1973. However, the actual budget for Judge Roy Bean remains a mystery. For reasons related to concerns over who would direct, First Artists ended up paying what was then termed “a record price” to secure the rights to John Milius’ script. It must have been a true record price because First Artists and Warner Bros. viewed it as a box office loss.

Up the Sandbox would be Barbra Streisand’s first venture into the world on the other side of the camera. It would also be the third film First Artists made and released. Up the Sandbox would actually earn some of the best reviews Streisand had yet to receive from serious film critics — most importantly, Pauline Kael. Similar to Paul Newman’s Judge Roy Bean, Streisand’s first venture started out with a modest budget. Once again, sorting truth from fact is difficult.

"If this is what being a mother is like, I turn in my ovaries!" Barbra Streisand  Up The Sandbox Irvin Kershner,1972 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

“If this is what being a mother is like, I turn in my ovaries!”
Barbra Streisand
Up The Sandbox
Irvin Kershner,1972
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Streisand wisely asked Irvin Kershner to helm as director. He was her first choice and he accepted immediately. Streisand had a deep respect for Kershner and he for her. As the two began to plan and work with Paul Zindel and his adaptation of the novel to screenplay, Streisand was pressed to increase the budget. The actual truth is not clear, but it appears that Kershner’s vision was more ambitious than Streisand’s. He felt it was important to treat her character’s reality and fantasies in the same way. In other words, he was interested in applying a higher level of Surrealism than Zindel captured in his original draft. Among Kershner’s ideas was to film several scenes of the movie in Africa. During post-production, the expensive African shoot was hardly used in the final cut. He also agreed with Streisand that Gordon Willis was the best cinematographer working. Willis’ dance card was full at this time and he wasn’t just any cinematographer. But he accepted the offer and was hired. Eventually Streisand increased her film’s budget to $5,500,0000.  Streisand fully supported her director and their cinematographers’ instincts. And it bears noting that she still agrees today. She appears to have no regrets regarding Up the Sandbox. But it would be her first cinematic flop. Sandbox earned only $3,500,000. The fact that her film flopped had a more potent impact on her “cred” than the even more substantial losses suffered by her business partners. This is most certainly fact. It can’t be disputed. Hollywood’s infamous “Boy’s Club” was less forgiving toward Streisand than her male business partners. Thus ended Streisand’s attempt with experimental cinema.

Fantasies and Mundane Reality merge   Barbra Streisand (without a wig or a net) Up The Sandbox Irvin Kershner, 1972 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Fantasies and Mundane Reality merge
Barbra Streisand (without a wig or a net)
Up The Sandbox
Irvin Kershner, 1972
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Up the Sandbox is dated, but it is an exceptionally interesting surreal experimental film. This not a typical Streisand film. Zindel and Kershner approached the line between realism and fantasy in ways that create a disarming sense of disorientation. What at first appears to be a fairly clear way of fusing reality into fantasy gradually becomes unclear. It is becomes difficult to know when what we have seen is real or fantasy. As the mid-point of the movie arrives, the viewer begins to suspect or wonder if what was “perceived” as a fantasy at the beginning of the film might have actually been “real”

Streisand and her lover head out to express political anarchy through terrorism. Up the Sandbox Irvin Kershner, 1972 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Streisand and her lover head out to express political anarchy through terrorism.
Up the Sandbox
Irvin Kershner, 1972
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

This is achieved by slightly changing the “style” when it comes to some outlandish fantasies and applying an almost passive focus to other fantasies. The character’s reality veers into several shifts of style as well. By the time the credits begin to roll, the audience is no longer sure what has been “real” and what has been “fantasy” This intended confusion actually becomes stronger when the viewer has a bit of distance from the film itself. Irvin Kershner crafts the film in a manner that compels repeated viewings.

There was a strong and often confused political stance regarding Feminism of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Many of the Feminist Goals seemed to have applied pressure on many women for whom these goals were not always the optimal choice within the context of daily everyday life. Up the Sandbox‘s main character is bored and constantly trying to determine where she stands in a world filled with political and sexual revolution. She is feeling uneasy and confused by a growing level of cultural pressure and expectations regarding her own female identity. Her decision to put her “career” on the back-burner to stay at home and raise her children turns a quite valid decision at odds with the culture she navigates. With the gift of hindsight, the main character’s conflict with The 1970’s Feminist Movement blended with the cinematic experimental style makes Up the Sandbox seem like a very odd career choice for Barbra Streisand both as a producer and a highly politicized public person. It also adds a distinctive underlined power to the movie.

Film critics met the movie with mixed responses. Some loved it. Some were confused. But only a handful of critics disliked it. Perhaps most significant of this era, Pauline Kael gave Streisand praise for taking on and succeeding at playing a character so far from public perceptions of Streisand. First Artist Productions and National General Pictures were equally conflicted about how to market the movie. The decision was to promote the movie as a “comedy” utilizing a Richard Amsel illustration of a pregnant Streisand tied to a baby bottle on the cover of Time Magazine declaring Streisand to be “The dust mop of the year!” It was an odd and misleading choice. By the time it reached cinemas Streisand fans were expecting an R-rated version of What’s Up Doc? — instead they found themselves watching an experimental film featuring a version of Streisand they had not seen. There were few wise-cracks. There was no glam. Streisand had not worn a wig for What’s Up Doc? but Peter Bogdanovich ensured that her hair was well appointed for each scene — as well as make-up. Up the Sandbox presents Streisand without a wig and the benefit of constant grooming and Gordon Willis applied a natural lighting when he shot her. This was Streisand “acting” and she is believable as an upper-middle class housewife of a middling academic with two children. There were very few typical funny scenes. The humor most often takes the tone of Absurdism. The marketing error is that this was film for Art House Cinemas and it should have been marketed to express that. However, even Pauline Kael’s positive assessment wasn’t enough to make Film Art supporters believe they should bother seeing the movie.

The film also fueled anger from the left. Vito Russo, a crucial Gay Rights Advocate, was very quick to criticize a liberal with strong ties to the gay community for allowing her character to say a line during what turns out to be a potential lesbian experience. Streisand’s repressed character’s response is still disturbing. Feminist were angered by this scene and were also frustrated that an ally of The Feminist Movement would even hint at playing a character who is conflicted by anything related to Feminist philosophy. But the mainstream had already ignored the movie before any of these controversies were discussed.

Are we sure she is actually seeing that? Barbra Streisand Up the Sandbox Irvin Kershner, 1972 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Are we sure she is actually seeing that?
Barbra Streisand
Up the Sandbox
Irvin Kershner, 1972
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Streisand over-saw the remaster of Up The Sandbox to DVD and Warner Bros released it as a part of DVD box set in 2004. It features a commentary from Streisand as well as Irvin Kershner. Streisand’s commentary is not particularly insightful. The main “take away” is that this film was very important to her, she remains proud of the movie but seems genuinely “bruised” by its failure. As she provides her commentary it almost seems like we are hearing a tired mathematician trying to determine the answer to a difficult equation. Irvin Kershner’s commentary is more relevant. He touches on the fact that at the time they were filming, friends warned him to not to share some concerns he began to have in mid-production. He took that advice. Long after the film was completed and released, he shared this with Streisand. Both commentaries make it clear that the two were and had remained friends. Kershner discovered that Streisand was hurt that he hadn’t trusted her enough as the producer to bring his concerns to her attention. The experience of this film’s commercial failure would forever change the way Streisand approached projects. It also resulted in over 2 years of unemployment for Kershner.  As he once stated, “It’s not so easy to be the only filmmaker to direct a Barbra Streisand movie that flops.”

The other 3 DVDs initially only sold as a set with Up the Sandbox were soon offered for purchase individually. Up the Sandbox was the lone non-seller of the set.

Over the past decade this movie has started to gain the attention of number of Film Theory and Film Historians. It seems potentially posed for critical re-evaluation and an ideal time to properly restore the film. It would seem the current challenges are more tied up in confusion about distribution rights and a general mistrust that anyone would buy the blu-ray or HD stream. So the current situation is making the case for  Up The Sandbox as a valid and important film. It is a great snapshot of a woman caught in the unique Cultural Web that was spun out of the 1960’s.  I recently received an email from one of the people most vested in getting this film restored. She wrote: “The film actually feels more French than American. And yet it is filled with idiosyncratic use of ‘nameless’ iconic pop culture figures…”  She is referring to Up the Sandbox‘s odd assortment of easily recognized but somehow forgotten actors. Most of the minor supporting roles are played by soon to become key players in some very iconic television. Much of TV’s The Jeffersons, Electric Company, Laverne & Shirley, One Day At A Time and other soon-to-be-famous 1970’s TV show actors are present. Most notably, this was Stockard Channing’s film debut. It does sort of add an additional aura of disorientation.

The other “selling points” are that the film speaks to the skill of Irvin Kershner, a great filmmaker who never gained the respect he deserved. He was very much apart of the whole new American filmmaking era that gave us such artists as Altman, Ashby and Arthur Penn. History has largely relegated Kershner to being the director who got into arguments with George Lucas as he directed sequel to Star Wars. Apparently Kershner’s idea of adding “a bit more depth” was a daunting challenge for the director of Return of the Jedi. He was an odd pick for that movie and it seems strange that this is the film for which he is remembered. Additionally, Gordon Willis added his brilliance as cinematographer. Up the Sandbox appears to be a lost, forgotten and under-appreciated cinematic curiosity. But it has several key players in the world of film restoration trying to find ways to secure distribution and they are determined.

The whole world of The Film Art Restoration/Release and that of the Boutique DVD/Blu-ray fascinates me. It has also holds a seductive power. I’m intensely curious why certain movies mean so much to people. This is one of the many magic aspects Film Art. It is subjective, but is seems to stir an incredible level of passion. I find it inspirational to see that initial individual  who starts the initial journey to restore a film and manages to succeed. And usually even if I’m not particularly interested in the movie, their commitment to these films resonates for me.

Matty Stanfield

 

 

 

 

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I love imdb.com and RottenTomatoes as much as anyone. The Internet Movie Database is great source of information relating to cinema.

Want to know the year a movie came out?  The name of a movie's director or cinematographer? imdb.com is a great place to go.

Want to know the year a movie came out? The name of a movie’s director or cinematographer? imdb.com is a great place to go.

I’ve also grown to enjoy Rotten Tomatoes because it offers me an easy and slightly more respected platform to rate and review movies I have seen. Sure I am registered on imdb, but that monster of a database has become littered with cruel rants by individuals more interested in spewing cultural rage and ignorance than about the movies themselves.

RottenTomatoes is a bit more “constructive” in the way it is set up.

Want to find quick and easy links to professional Film Critics as well as showtimes or info, RT is great.

Want to find quick and easy links to professional Film Critics as well as showtimes or info, RT is great.

The gleefully cultural rage is limited to that individual’s space on the site. However, I’ve never been able to really understand the way in which RT comes up with a rating. At first I thought the overall rating was dependent upon the professional Film Critics employed to review movies. Not so sure that is true. Eventually the “audience ratings” have some sort of impact. And, if one actually reads the professional Film Criticism and compares it to the rating RT assigns to that individual’s reviews are not always correctly interpreted. For instance, I recently followed the “selected portion” of A.O. Scott’s review on RT to the unabridged and full review. RT had assigned a high rating for Scott, but reading the entire review Scott seemed to have many reservations about the movie with a few admittedly positive comments. If one had to assign a rating to his opinion related to the film — it would be closer to “5” than the “9” that RT assigned.

I enjoy Film Criticism and have a true interest in Film Theory of all types. During one of the many times I opted to skip class in middle school I ended up skipping alone and without the benefit of weed. I ended up crouched in the library where I stumbled upon a copy of Pauline Kael’s I Lost It At the Movies.

Pauline Kael's book is seminal reading. It is not, however cinematic gospel.

Pauline Kael’s book is seminal reading. It is not, however cinematic gospel.

Even though it had been published in the the 1960’s I discovered what a film critic can do. I found her insight into Film Art as fascinating as well as frustrating. I valued her opinions and ideas relating for the movies. By the time I was approaching university life my feelings about Kael began to shift. Reading her film reviews from the beginning to the end of her professional life reveals a great deal. Pauline Kael was brilliantly talented. She had earned the respected her opinions carried. One of the reasons she helped elevate Film Criticism to the masses was due to her often dark humor. Though one could never accuse of her of making “judgement” or forming opinions based on purely superficial mean bias — that fell to critics like Vincent Canby and Rex Reed. Canby was often more “bitchy” than “insightful” but Reed as always approached his role as Film Critic as jealous and bitter old queen. …Even when he was young.

The great and truly iconic American Film Critic, Pauline Kael. (photographer unknown to me)

The great and truly iconic American Film Critic, Pauline Kael. (photographer unknown to me)

Kael, however retained her dignity. But it is impossible to view her criticism as consistently valid. As her career and reputation advanced, she often used her status in cruel ways. I once got the feeling that if Robert Altman or Hal Ashby were to have the misfortune of stepping on one of her feet as they made their way to their respective seats — Ms. Kael would most likely hate their latest movie. Hate them not because the movies would be bad, but because they stepped on her foot. She also seemed to take an almost demented pleasure in building a filmmaker or actor up and then gradually deconstruct her opinions to push them down. As example, she championed Meryl Streep upon her arrival to mainstream cinema. However, as soon as Streep took off in some truly amazing performances — Kael nearly always dismissed Streep’s talent. Keep in mind that this was before Meryl Streep started to fall into mannerism. One Kael’s most harsh assessments of Streep’s skill and “place” as a movie star was related to Karel Reisz’s interesting adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman in 1981. Given the daunting task Reisz and Harold Pinter faced in transferring John Fowles’ experimental post-modern novel to the screen,  the film remains powerful due to it’s lush style but most importantly to Meryl Streep’s layered performance. While the movie has flaws, Freddie Francis’ cinematography and Streep’s skill raises high above most films released that year. Kael’s verbal attack of Streep’s work and validity as a “movie star” seemed not only inappropriately off-target, Kael was just wrong.  However, one of the reasons Kael’s words remain vital is the interesting mix of true passion and her almost perverse but clever provocation. Her often brilliant insights and her sometimes painfully incorrect evaluations. She loved to provoke her readers into interest as much as to offer her guidance to the film work she valued. That passion, provocation and intellectually fused writing still has bite.

It was probably around this time that Rogers & Ebert popped up “my” cultural map.

Film Criticism arrives to the mainstream via Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. ...At The Movies.

Film Criticism arrives to the mainstream via Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. …At The Movies.

Living in a Southeast Texas town, I didn’t always have access to the movies that seemed to be calling me to view them. I began driving 80 minutes to Houston so I could see the films that were getting praise and “thumbs up” These two all too human Film Critics provided often opposing view points that was not only entertaining to watch but often gave two distinctly different opinions. They both helped to guide people like me to seek out movies I would have missed otherwise. It was actually Roger Ebert’s clear discomfort regarding David Lynch’s neo-noir masterpiece, Blue Velvet, that propelled me to see it. Though I loved every moment (and still do) — I could understand his perspective. Had I not seen Ebert become so disturbed, I doubt I would have managed to see this film projected onto a screen — which oddly enough did play in my hometown. …for 2 days. Angry Baptists and Pentecostals made the cinema end the run.

Isabella Rossellini in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, 1986. Cinematography: Frederick Elmes

Isabella Rossellini in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, 1986. Cinematography: Frederick Elmes

For the record, In the beginning I tended to lean more toward Siskel, but gradually I often found myself somewhere in the middle of the two. And, by the time I was out of college, Texas and fully independent in a more liberal and vital part of the US I began to find the whole “thumbs up / thumps down” approach to Film Criticism not only at odds with my perspective about what made movies so interesting to me. I also became painfully aware of my friends who would decide what they saw based solely on the opinions of the thumbs of these two men.

Two Thumbs Up! Really? Or are the being satirical? I did raise a finger, but it was not my thumb.

Two Thumbs Up! Really? Or are the being satirical? I did raise a finger, but it was not my thumb.

As my world view began to open I started to question the role of Film Criticism. I began to feel more confident in following filmmakers who were not being fully “accepted” by the majority of professional film critics. Although my degree is in English Literature and I ended up selling my soul for over 17 years to the evil world of Corporate America — my true passion always belonged to the cinema and to the artists who were brave enough to struggle through the ever-surmounting challenges facing Independent Filmmakers and forge ahead with their distinct vision of cinema. So many film artists of my generation have either sold-out or settled into obscurity funded by the money they made in from the late ’80’s to the mid ’90’s.

But a few of them are still active and pursuing their evolving ideas. As an example, Todd Solondz is my senior by about 12 years, but I still claim him to my generation. He continues to find funding for his art. And, that art is just as vital, challenging and unique as it was when Welcome to the Dollhouse exploded on to screens. In fact, his most recent film was one of the more under-appreciated movies of 2011.

Todd Solondz's Dark Horse Cinematography: Andrij Parekh

Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse
Cinematography: Andrij Parekh

In Dark Horse, Solondz finally plunges full force into Cinematic Surrealism as a way of reflecting his normal pessimistic cultural and societal commentary rather than to just be weird. (An often mistake of artists in fully understanding “Surrealism” and the power it allows) …In Dark Horse, we follow Jordan Gelber as “Abe” through a series of humiliating, awkward and often defeating situations presented in a “reality” that may or may not always be real. And, for the first time in his career, Solondz made a film that was uniquely touching, funny and almost hopeful. But he did this without sacrificing his core vision of the way we as both a society and a culture marginalize people. It was a feat. It was also a challenging work of cinematic art that caught many off-guard. While it is safe to say that it received a fair amount of praise from critics, the ultimate evaluation by most “critics” was so tied to his previous work which was deemed “more effective” or, oddly enough, “more accessible” — That is not the goal of this artist. While the film may not suit the tastes of many, there is very little “wrong” with this tightly edited experimental film.

Dark Horse currently carries a “70%” with Film Critics and a “40%” Audience Score on RT. This translates to a masterful film being considered “Fresh” by RT but also indicating there are “strong reservations” for being a film worth your time. Despite securing a limited theatrical release, full DVD/Blu-ray release and streaming on Netflix — it continues to connect with its audience. I suspect a large reason for many missing it is because they are actually following what has been correctly coined Consensus Film Evaluation.

I’ve lost count of the number of people I know who have to “jump on to” RT to see how a film is rated before they will either spend the money to see it or even view it as it streams on their Netflix account. In many ways, this type of film evaluation is undermining Film Art and even the more mainstream interests of Hollywood Studio releases.

Another filmmaker who found success in the 1990’s and someone who is only a year older than me is David Mackenzie. In 2012 he made and found a solid distribution deal for Perfect Sense.

Ewan McGregor and Eva Green in David Mackenzie's Perfect Sense. Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens

Ewan McGregor and Eva Green in David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense. Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens

This film is a beautifully crafted emotional love story set in the beginning of an apocalyptic contagion. In Mackenzie’s apocalypse he remains unquestionably true to his bleak vision of reality. Ewan McGregor and Eva Green encounter no zombies, horror movie cliches or satire. What they do discover is true intimacy and love during an overwhelming situation. Certainly dark, this artfully styled and well-acted film makes a very profound statement about the human need and comfort that can only be found through connecting to another. The film takes a firm stance in the way it explores human relationships. Not a perfect film, but a film full of merit.

It offered a unique take on the universal phobic fears of contagious disease but also provides a sensually rendered love story. I saw the film before it started screening at festivals and was released. I expected it to find a strong degree of praise. Instead, it currently holds a clearly “Unfresh” RT rating of 52% with an Audience Score of 59%. Despite praise from the likes of Lisa Schwarzbaum and Stephen Holden, it seemed that most professional Film Critics either choose to ignore it. Either way it failed big time to connect to the audience I know it has. I gave up trying to convince several pals to see it because it has such a low rating on RT.

Even the mainstream and unchallenging movies are suffering from Consensus Film Evaluation. For example — and, this one will probably make more than a few people reading this roll their eyes — but stick with me. Anne Fletcher’s big budget movie staring Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand was killed by two aspects of the current state of cinema: Bad Marketing and Consensus Film Evaluation. The Guilt Trip is by no means a work of what I would call “Film Art” but it is most certainly not the movie promised in this poster.

Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand in Anne Fletcher's The Guilt Trip Cinematography: Oliver Stapleton

Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand in Anne Fletcher’s The Guilt Trip
Cinematography: Oliver Stapleton

This would appear to be a very “digitally enhanced” Streisand and a very unsurprisingly stoner-like Seth Rogen in another lame “Focker” like bland “watch this iconic movie star be ‘outrageous’ with a toilet and ‘uber-cool’ Seth Rogen! — in other words, the last movie anyone wants to see. The marketing and the promotion of this movie were so bad that I honestly do not think the majority of critics bothered to actually see it. A reading of several respected critics’ reviews point to minor plot points that were only featured in the awful previews. In reality, this is a surprisingly realistic depiction of a mother entering the last quarter of her life and a son at a crucial turning point of his life trying to connect on a road trip. Streisand looks her age. Rogen never is required to do any stoner routines. In fact, the movie is almost more concerned with the challenging mother-son dynamics. That concern is presented in a fairly naturalistic way by two undeniably charismatic movie stars. Nothing earth shattering, but surprisingly insightful.

The Guilt Trip carries an equal “39%” rating. If only Paramount had marketed the film correctly, this movie would have succeeded and would have had a more fair chance in the worrying wold of Consensus Evaluation.  Instead, it failed to be the sort of movie that Rogen or Streisand fans want. But, the audience that would have enjoyed this small movie just ignored it altogether because none of this audience care for what either of these iconic actors usually do.

And that brings us to the latest excellent opportunity to “re-think” Consensus Film Evaluation: George Miller’s personally return to the character and story he started in the 1970’s with Mel Gibson. Now some 30 years later he has Tom Hardy playing what has been called “a more realized” vision in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Mad Max: Fury Road George Miller Cinematography: John Seale

Mad Max: Fury Road
George Miller
Cinematography: John Seale

George Miller’s new movie has stirred up a great deal of “acclaim” and “discussion”  There can be no denying that Miller has found a stronger actor in Tom Hardy. And there can be no denying that this is a very different Mad Max than we have known. With very few actual opportunities, he does manage to bring a new meaning to “Mad” Max. This Max is not just angry and seeking vengeance. This Max is damaged and clearly dealing with a sort of PTSD that makes him oddly passive until pushed to the brink of death before he burst into a true fury. Most importantly, Miller’s film creates true adrenaline-fueled intensity in an almost unrelenting assault of the senses via clever interlacing of digital enhancements to real ‘analog’ stunts. Depending upon an individual’s point of reference this is either an intensely fun rollercoaster ride of a movie or an impressively imaginative but gory experience of action and noise.

Tom Hardy's skills are once again masked in George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road

Tom Hardy’s skills are once again masked in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road

While I was impressed with the over-the-top stunts and the clever use of real stunts and digital work, ultimately I found the film way too long and short on plot to be interested. As hard as it is to believe, I was truly dazzled visually,  but a mild headache and boredom set in at about the 40 minute mark. Essentially this is a movie about frantic car chase/battle going from point A to point B and then repeating almost the same trek back to Point A — only Miller somehow finds ways to escalate the brutal onslaught of violence and noise.

As I stumbled out of the cineplex I was at once impressed with many aspects of what Miller did, but honestly was more heavily disappointed at the way this creativity was used. Miller’s vision is alive with ideas, but much of them feel like they were lifted from a Death Metal teenage fever dream. And why did he opt to apply a mask over Tom Hardy’s powerfully expressive face for much of the movie? Aside from feeling like something stolen from Christopher Nolan’s interesting but overly-ambitious final chapter in the Batman franchise — it also only serves to mask the only “human” element in the movie.

Mad Max: Fury Road currently rates really “Fresh” with an unreasonably high rating of “98%” from critics and “90%” from the Audience. This makes it one of the highest rated films on RT. Later, I sat down and actually read the full reviews from these critics. In reality, only a couple of critics truly loved this movie. The majority found Miller’s ability to create such a frantic level of tension to be the most important aspect. When I looked back at how RT had assessed the critics reviews, I think they applied a higher rating than the critic seemed to be giving.

And then it hit me. I had gone to see this movie because it was rated so high on RT. Shit. I just fell right into the lameness of Consensus Film Evaluation which could end up crushing the already very restricted word of Film Art for artist who actually have something to say.

Apparently the Apocalypse will be accompanied by a very loud metal band. George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road

Apparently the Apocalypse will be accompanied by a very loud metal band. George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road

Oh, and just to add some perspective to the value of Consensus Film Evaluation, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather currently holds a rating that is exactly “1%” higher than Mad Max: Fury Road. It doesn’t take Film Theory major to see the problem here.

Marlon Brando as The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola, 1972 Cinematography: Gordon Willis ...just barley "fresher" than Mad Max: Fury Road

Marlon Brando as The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola, 1972 Cinematography: Gordon Willis …just barley “fresher” than Mad Max: Fury Road