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Posts tagged Pauline Kael

It is always uncomfortable when you have a “connection” to a film artist and that person either creates or has applied skills into a film  you do not like.

How does one navigate this? Carefully.

Some enjoy this game. I do not. If I have a connection, no matter how fragmented or casual, I usually opt to say / write nothing. This is most especially true of this blog.  As I make no money for anything I write/do I am not under the sort of pressures to conform or restrain my opinions. I am just not comfortable writing negative feedback when I know someone connected to a project will read it here. I’ve even become cautious on my Letterboxd account. But some of the ratings and comments I’ve made on IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes has come back to haunt me. When RT first came around, I didn’t really apply much thought into how the site was calculating film reviews and user ratings. I’ve been surprised at how harshly I’ve rated some films and how grandly I’ve rated others. …in comparison.

Yes. I’ve contributed to the dreaded Film Criticism by Consensus. This idea has been spreading throughout the Film Theory community for quite a while. It can most likely be traced back to that moment that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert sat down together. More or less, this is when the simplistic and problematic Film Judgement by Consensus started. In theory it seems like a valid approach. Sadly, in practice it is flawed, harmful and unfair. Even more so now that we can all be Film Critics and our ratings are tallied by a computer program. But the end-user ratings are not near as worrying when you really look into RT logic applied to paid Film Critics.

"It's Terrific!" ...and it remains so. It is without question a cinematic masterpiece that endures. But is it a perfect movie? Citizen Kane Orson Welles, 1941

“It’s Terrific!” …and it remains so. It is without question a cinematic masterpiece that endures. But is it a perfect movie?
Citizen Kane
Orson Welles, 1941

When Movie Holics posted this clip, they summed up the issue with Film Ranking by Consensus with humor, intelligence and logic. Their topic is Josh Trank’s much maligned, Fantastic Four. Take a look:

I’m a fan of Movie Holics. Founded by Kyler Wilson and Monica Kocurek, this YouTube Channel provides encaging, entertaining and most importantly — insightful and valid Film Theory application. Kyler Wilson is a skilled and professional filmmaker. A working Film Actor, professional Crew Member and aspiring filmmaker, Kyler Wilson offers opinions that are solidly grounded in both arenas of Film Buff and Film Artist. Monica Kocurek also brings grounded logic and humor that fit in perfectly within his framework.

Movie Holics YouTube Brought to you by Kyler Wilson & Monica Kocurek

Movie Holics
YouTube
Brought to you by
Kyler Wilson & Monica Kocurek

Often a counter-perspective and love of movies that matches Wilson’s, she holds her own. Together and separately, these two self-admitted Movie Holics are knowledgeable and entertaining.  These two individuals are clearly serious film buffs with a sense of humor. Always fun and filled with ideas, their postings are always of interest. It is also important to note that they are often focused on offering view-points into current and big-studio projects. If ever the major studios were confused, it is now.

Kyler Wilson and Monica Kocurek of Movie Holics Reviewing, discussing and challenging the status quo of Mainstream Film Art Movie Holics You Tube Channel

Kyler Wilson and Monica Kocurek of Movie Holics
Reviewing, discussing and challenging the status quo of Mainstream Film Art
Movie Holics
You Tube Channel

 

And Kyler and Monica put forward logic which is desperately needed within the film industry.

If you are unaware of them, take a few minutes to check out the short episode linked below.

To those of you in the industry, please check Movie Holics out.

Yes, you. You know who you are. 

https://youtu.be/tyo38IJQyEU

Another important side note regarding Movie Holics: Kyler Wilson often discusses the current mode of major studio film promotion. His critique of film trailers is of particular interest. Aside from being entertaining, he points out some on-going blunders that studio marketing continues to make. There are some very logical insights here that Major Film Studios are completely lacking.

Adding my own perspective regarding the current state of the Movie Preview: A trend which I first noted in the mid-1980’s is this seeming need to show us the entire film in one preview. This is a mistake. Let’s bring back a bit of mystery. An example of this problem is cited with the trailer / preview for Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. I had been quite curious to see this new film which boasts a very impressive cast including Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska. It also sounded like a sort of old-school bit of  Gothica Horror. Sadly, the new trailer shows what appears to be the entire movie. Once again Chastain appears trapped in the role of “The Scary Bitch.” Mia Wasikowska is once again cast as some lame and fragile sort of costumed romantic ideal of 19th Century little girl lost.

Crimson Peak Guillermo del Toro, 2015

Crimson Peak
Guillermo del Toro, 2015

Tom Hiddleston looks as if he has either been covered in a white sort of powder or digitally “enhanced” to serve as a living cartoon. Actually, Crimson Peak appears to be a movie filled with the sort of CGI effects to which I’ve grown increasing indifferent. I no longer plan on paying to see this film. I will wait till it shows up on Amazon Prime, Hulu or Netflix streaming. $20 to $30 is too much to spend on the movie that Legendary Pictures appears to be promoting. I feel as if I’ve already seen it and I was annoyed by what I saw. Could this just be poor marketing or is what we see what we will get? 

The cost of a movie ticket, popcorn and parking is too high to risk.

But I digress — back on mark full-stop: Film Criticism.

Film Criticism took an uplift with a critic like Pauline Kael. Much to her annoyance, she ended up playing a role in turning the world of movies to Film Art. It took an even greater uplift when Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert starting giving “Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down.” This uplift brought Film Art to a more mainstream audience. But, it came with a price. Many began to adapt to the idea that a film can or even should be dismissed with a casual Thumbs Down or embraced by a Thumbs Up.

I remember a friend opting not to see Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven because Siskel gave the movie a Thumbs Down. I was unable to convince him otherwise. Earlier at the beginning of middle school, several friends avoided Sam Rami’s 1981’s classic Evil Dead because both celebrity critics gave it Two Thumbs Down.  One will be surprised to discover many of the films that were given Thumbs Up. Roger Ebert saw fit to give Barbra Streisand’s schizophrenically-flawed 1996 film, The Mirror Has Two Faces, a Thumps Up.

Siskel said "Thumbs Down" Unforgiven Clint Eastwood, 1992 Cinematography | Jack N. Green

Siskel said “Thumbs Down”
Unforgiven
Clint Eastwood, 1992
Cinematography | Jack N. Green

The problem with these short, witty and often troubling criticism notched down to a simple turn of a thumb is that it is tragically misleading.

Example: Eastwood’s Unforgiven is as much a crowd-pleasing bit of Old School Hollywood Epic Western, as it is also a dark and often subversive take on human cruelty and vengeance. While the lines between the Good and Bad Guys are clear, the identity of race, plight of women and the tragedy of violence is explored in a new sort of way. This was a true turning point for Clint Eastwood as a filmmaker. In my opinion this film works quite well and has actually aged even better. It has some flaws that often come when movie actors turn into film directors, but this is a solid work. To dismiss it with a Thumps Down is not even logical. Yet, Gene Siskel felt it deserved him to turn that thumb down. If you actually watch Siskel discuss this film, he does acknowledge what the film is attempting to do. He appears to even be impressed with many of the films’ scenes, performances and ideas.

The idea of the Western genre is a bit subverted and re-imagined... And RT gives it a solid 95% rating. Unforgiven Clint Eastwood, 1992 Cinematography | Jack N. Green

The idea of the Western genre is a bit subverted and re-imagined…
Unforgiven
Clint Eastwood, 1992
Cinematography | Jack N. Green

In the end, Siskel’s issue is that the film simply didn’t fully register for him as something as new and bold as what he anticipated. He questioned the need for one of the film’s characters. While Siskel’s review is far from a cheer for Eastwood’s success, it is also not a total slap-down. When Siskel opted to put his Thumb Down it doesn’t seem to be intended as strong as it implied. Years later, the late critic’s review still stands. It is one of the few bad reviews, yet it really isn’t “bad.”

Roger Ebert did not adore Barbra Streisand’s ill-fitting The Mirror Has Two Faces, but he did see some interesting ideas explored and an even more interesting bit of introspection from a powerful movie star about aging and cultural perceptions of beauty. He also saw a good deal of charisma and comic timing. He gave this film a Thumps Up. Ebert has some valid points, Streisand’s odd film does bring up some interesting ideas about beauty, aging, women and relationships between sisters, mother and men. She had also assembled a great cast of players.

"Thumbs Up!" Comic Feminist ideology, aging, family, love and beauty quickly de-evolve into Female Movie Star Mid-Life Panic. The Mirror Has Two Faces Barbra Streisand, 1996

“Thumbs Up!”
Comic Feminist ideology, aging, family, love and beauty quickly de-evolve into Female Movie Star Mid-Life Panic.
The Mirror Has Two Faces
Barbra Streisand, 1996

Paradoxically, this movie quickly takes an extreme turn away from the gentle comedy and idea it seemed to be forming. It was as if Streisand had a total Movie Superstar Mid-Life Break during filming. Just as the movie seems to be falling into an entertaining and interesting concept, it sputters and teeters. Streisand and her character lose all sense of humor. Suddenly she makes a non-sensical oppositional turn from the core idea of her movie.  Without warning, the main character suddenly decides she needs to kick off every attractive aspect of herself to fit into some grim idea of womanhood. The character stops eating, joking, loses weight and transforms from an attractive hairstyle and clothing into some perverse idea of what Streisand must think is hot. Essentially, she morphs into a Mafia Housewife Gone to Seed. Worse yet, Jeff Bridges and every male character in the movie are suddenly falling all over themselves to sex her up. The film is not good. If one actually watches or reads Ebert’s review, it is surprising that it assigned a Thumps Up as the review is more one of puzzlement ends up forming a sort of cinematic peripheral interest.

Another film that Siskel & Ebert both gave two Thumps Down is 1986’s Short Circuit. This silly and innocent little film is not offensively bad. It is more than a bet “twee” but it does offer a harmless bit of entertainment. No great work of art, but hardly what one could call a “bad movie.” Like both of these legendary Film Critics, I’d be inclined to warn that John Badham’s film is approached in an entirely different manner than we would normally expect. This is no WarGames, but Short Circuit was never intended to be another WarGames. Instead, with Short Circuit John Badham was simply seeking to entertain. Most importantly, his target audience was children. Siskel & Ebert react almost like children themselves. They are upset that the director has stepped off an expected track and into family entertainment. Tragically, the movie’s promotion misleads one to think this could be an extension of WarGames.

A bit of light children's entertainment. "Thumbs Down!" Short Circuit John Badham, 1986

A bit of light children’s entertainment. “Thumbs Down!”
Short Circuit
John Badham, 1986

In truth, the use of their thumbs do not fully jive with their full respective reviews. Gene Siskel has some legitimate issues with the final act of WarGames. For him, WarGames attempts to be more than it should. Yet, he gave the Thumbs Up for WarGames. When it comes to actually reading/listening to their opinions regarding Short Circuit, their Thumbs Down ratings don’t exactly match up. Roger Ebert was clearly entertained by a lot of the ideas of the robot as “character” and Siskel’s perspective is more limited to wanting the silly movie about a robot to be more than it is.

This idea of summing the artistic value of a film with such a simplistically limited value allowed movie studios to hype praise that really was not there. It also served to cause films to completely flop because so many followed those thumbs so closely.

Which brings us to Rotten Tomatoes.

I’ve always thought of Rotten Tomatoes as the more mannered and mature sister to The Internet Movie Database. IMDB is an excellent source of information related to just about every film ever made. But IMDB is a cyber hussy.

Anyone can join and scrawl their opinions on her walls. User Reviews on IMDB run the gamut from Would-Be-Cinephilles like myself to the lowest of the low. User Ratings on IMDB can offer great insight into the validity of a film as much as they are prone to offer profane rants about an actor’s physical anatomy to wishing death upon anyone who likes or hates the movie.

IMDB I think of it as a great repository of media information. However, in some ways, it is the sleazy older sister to Rotten Tomatoes.

IMDB
I think of it as a great repository of media information. However, in some ways, it is the sleazy older sister to Rotten Tomatoes.

When one looks and sorts through information posted by her users, IMDB is turns into a deeply disturbing view of human stupidity. And pity the soul who attempts to write something of value, that person is likely to get flamed hard. However, if you want to know the date a movie came out or where it was filmed or who was in it — this cheap little tart is your girl!  She is more than happy to give you all the information that her servers can hold.

Rotten Tomatoes is a great deal more refined. She sorts out “official” Film Critics, from independent/online Film Critics with some cred and then allows all of her users to rate and post their reviews. Rotten Tomatoes seems to attract less human profanity and cruelty. But here is the odd thing about RT, she employs an overall rounded-estimate based on a 5 Star System ranking. She has been doing this for quite a while. If a paid Film Critic is smart, they know to give a rating based on her 5 Star System or they have no choice but to accept her assessment of their words and her often questionable rating. Several critics still fail to offer a clear rating for poor RT to be able to tabulate. She has no choice but to assign it herself. And while Rotten Tomatoes may be more refined than IMDB, she is pretty limited.

Rotten Tomatoes Welcome to the off-kilter world of Film Evaluation by Consensus. It is a dodgy tool at best...

Rotten Tomatoes
Welcome to the off-kilter world of Film Evaluation by Consensus. It is a dodgy tool at best…

A Film Critic who fails to add a 5 Star rating or at least an A-F grade will often see a generally “fair” review reduced to a 1.5 rating. Users have to enter a rating, but we users are a fickle bunch. Often worse than the film critics. And that is only fair. We have paid money to see these movies. But I can’t be alone in the struggle of deciding if a movie deserves 2 or 3 stars. Or maybe a 2.5. While only a year or so ago I might have rated a movie .5 or 1 star. But as I saw RT’s overall rating of user reviews form into one solid numerical assignment, my .5 rating was adding to confusing and unfair over-all assessments.

In the Rotten Tomatoes Universe, 1983’s WarGames sits pretty with a 93% rating. In a rare situation, the general user rating is actually more on mark with a 75% rating. If you look / listen to Siskel, I suspect his rating for WarGames is closer to a 70%.

Not really.

Short Circuit now sits with a rating of 57% compared to a user rating of 67%. I have to say that the result of the general user rating makes far more sense than 57%. Even more so, if users understood that Short Circuit was really aiming at the 10 to 14 year old audience, the rating would be higher.

Eastwood’s Unforgiven has managed to fair better under the rules and restrictive application of RT’s Film Consensus. However, I feel that Eastwood’s solid film is actually sitting with ratings that I feel are higher than deserved: Film Critic Rating: 95% User Rating: 94%. I would say that this film’s actual rating should be closer to 85%.

Oddly, Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces seems to have been Film Critically panned over the years. This is the film that Ebert gave a Thumbs Up. Currently this film sits with a 53% rating compared to the users rating of 72%. I love Streisand. And I own it. I tend to be aware of her work, and I’m fairly certain that this film once carried a  65% rating. So somehow, over time, RT’s Film Critic rating has gone down for this film. Personally, I feel this cinematic mis-step merits the 53% rating. That being stated, this movie does offer a mis-guided level of entertainment value. There is a cultural and psychologically convulsive aspect to Streisand’s movie that almost requires a bit of a bump up. The Mirror Has Two Faces’ entertainment value (both intended and accidental) make this film more worthy of a 60% rating. In this case the user ratings are obviously fueled by the legion of Streisand fans who refuse to own up to their icon’s mistakes. I’m not sure when I logged my rating, but I gave this movie 2 stars.

If one looks even closer to Rotten Tomatoes Logic, there is a really discordant level of confusion that occurs. I don’t know, maybe this makes sense for an art form that is so subjective. Film Art also has a strange way of aging. All the same, some of these ratings are simply disturbingly strange.

Is Unforgiven The Godfather of the Western?

Or is Unforgiven the Citizen Kane of the Western genre?

Is Clint Eastwood’s Western better than John Ford’s masterful, The Searchers?

Because within RT logic, The Godfather carries a 99%/98% shared rating between Film Critics and Users. Citizen Kane sits with a combo of 100%/90%. So in theory, both The Godfather and Citizen Kane are true cinematic masterworks. One would be hard-pressed to argue that either film is not deserving of very high ratings. I can’t help but wonder, if we are serious about ranking films, is Unforgiven so good that it is only 4 % points below The Godfather?

Films really do not get much better than this. But in Rotten Tomatoes Logic, this film is only 4 % points higher than Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. The Godfather Francis Ford Coppola, 1972

Films really do not get much better than this. But in Rotten Tomatoes Logic, this film is only 4 % points higher than Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.
The Godfather
Francis Ford Coppola, 1972

Further, as brilliant as this Orson Welles film is, can we say it is a “perfect film?” Maybe we can, though in all honesty, I feel that The Godfather Part II is a surprising one up on the original film. I’d also be very quick to point out that as great as Citizen Kane is, does it resonate both personally and artistically as deep as either of the first two Godfather films? I don’t think so.

I’d go so far to say that Hitchock’s Rear Window, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Goddard’s Breathless and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are all slightly better films than Citizen Kane. From my perspective, the magic of Citizen Kane ties to the innovations that Welles so masterfully put into play so ahead of the cinematic curve. A crucial film, but 100%? John Ford’s The Searches is also essential and very influential, but is it worthy of RT’s 100% rating?

I don’t really like either of these movies. But I would assign a 75% for WarGames and a 70% for Short Circuit. I do not need to “like” a movie to see the talent, skill, intellect, and clear appeal for others. I do not enjoy Terrance Malick’s Tree of Life, but I am unable to dismiss it’s skill and use of style.

"You talkin' to me?" This near-perfect film carries 98% / 93% RT Rating. So just 3 % points higher than Unforgiven. Really? Taxi Driver Martin Scorsese, 1976

“You talkin’ to me?”
This near-perfect film carries 98% / 93% RT Rating. So just 3 % points higher than Unforgiven. Really?
Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese, 1976

Now welcome to the perplexing ideology of taking an individual’s rating and averaging it in with others.

If one were to look at my ratings you would most likely find that taken within context of the way I approach rating films, you would discover that a 70% means that I think there is enough of value in a film for some others to enjoy. If I enjoy a film it is going to go more into the range of 85% to 95%. Essentially, if I like a movie enough to see it more once, purchase a copy of it or assist in restoration effort — that film will gain a high rating from me. A movie has to be really bad to get a total Thumbs Down from me.

Something that one would think is obvious, is actually not actually so. I never review / rate a film I’ve not seen. Not even professionals always follow this essential rule. Sad but true. As blogging has already become somewhat of a tired concept, other on-line means of information is taking on the more potent place to seek out new ideas and film comment. While Movie Holics tends to adhere to current film releases and normally more mainstream films, there are many other outlets and vloggers out there.

Another on-line critique that ventures into more esoteric terrain, is Brian Kish. Lo-Fi with both humor and intelligence. Always fun and laid-back style that offers insight and comedic delivery. A sort of Post-Modern Film Critic, Mr. Kish is having fun but the viewer is fully aware that he knows of what he speaks.

Post-Modern Film Criticism that manages to be comical, informative and intellectual all at one time. Brian Kish Barrel Bottom Reviews YouTube Channel

Post-Modern Film Criticism that manages to be comical, informative and intellectual all at one time.
Brian Kish
Barrel Bottom Reviews
YouTube Channel

His taste in film is more aligned with my own. He is re-visiting Classic Cinema with the eyes of Intellectualism as well as those with a current 21st Century Perspective. It is within the world of podcasts and vlogs that one is likely to find some of the most engaging Film Art discussion. Brian Kish’s Barrel Bottom Reviews are always fun to watch.

I was unable to secure his permission to post this link, but I doubt he will mind. Here he discusses Louis Malle’s brilliant collaborative effort, My Dinner with Andre:

https://youtu.be/YRe0ymvs0sU

Check out his perspective. This view-point is especially important to those of us who care about Film Restoration and Re-distribution. His delivery is also very entertaining. 

By the way, within the RT galaxy, My Dinner with Andre sits with a 91% Film Critic ranking and a general viewer rank of 86%.

Just for the hell of it, take a look at how these movies are currently rated on Rotten Tomatoes:

My demented and twisted father decided that he and I should see the “new” Bo Derek movie. I was 14. John Derek’s Tarzan: The Ape Man was one of the worst movies I had ever seen in a cinema. My father fell asleep. I kept wishing I could, but the movie was loud and Bo Derek was constantly winning, cooing and asking stupid questions to a jungle man who might have actually been dumber than her character appeared to be. This film currently holds a Film Critic Rating of 11% vs. User Rating of 21%.

Perhaps one of the all-time worst movies I have EVER seen in a cinema. My inappropriate father took me to see this mess. He fell asleep. Sadly, the cinematic torture would not allow me to sleep. Per Rotten Tomatoes, this mind-numbing badness rates 11%. That is still 2 % points higher than 2015's Fantastic Four. Seriously? Tarzan: The Ape Man John Derek, 1981

Perhaps one of the all-time worst movies I have EVER seen in a cinema. My inappropriate father took me to see this mess. He fell asleep. Sadly, the cinematic torture would not allow me to sleep. Per Rotten Tomatoes, this mind-numbing badness rates 11%. That is still 2 % points higher than 2015’s Fantastic Four. Seriously?
Tarzan: The Ape Man
John Derek, 1981

I do not have to see The Fantastic Four to know that it is a better film than this horrifying film error that remains Tarzan: The Ape Man. Bo Derek frolicking in the jungle with Tarzan is pure cinematic torture. No, it is not erotic. Just to be sure I actually watched this film again. It is actually worse than I remembered it.

Oh, and let’s not forget the ill-advised American Idol-inspired film, From Justin to Kelly.

OK, come on. Do movies get any worse than this? And, no. It is not camp. It is just bad.

American Idol goes to the movies. RT currently ranks it at 10%. This might be a little bit harsh. It was better than Tarzan: The Ape Man.

OK, come on. Do movies get any worse than this? And, no. It is not camp. It is just bad.  American Idol goes to the movies. RT currently ranks it at 10%. This might be a little bit harsh. It was better than Tarzan: The Ape Man... From Justin to Kelly Robert Iscove, 2003

From Justin to Kelly
Robert Iscove, 2003

So as Movie Holics pointed out, can any of us really agree that Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four really worse that the two movies listed above? Really? Is it that bad? 9%???? Mr. Trank’s film has clearly become some sort of odd Cinematic Whipping Boy.

This may be the lowest rated film to be green-lit for a sequel. Major Movie Studios are not always on target, but they clearly do not see this rating as “true” or “accurate.” If they did, Josh Trank would not be on the docket to direct the sequel. Fantastic Four is a classic example of what is wrong with Rotten Tomatoes.

 

 

Obviously, not a great or maybe not even a good movie. But is it deserving of RT's 9% rating?!?!!? Fantastic Four Josh Trank, 2015

Obviously, not a great or maybe not even a good movie. But is it deserving of RT’s 9% rating?!?!!?
Fantastic Four
Josh Trank, 2015

How in the world can this level of skewed ranking make any sense or inform viewers just how bad or how good a film is?

Matty Stanfield, 10.6.2015

There will ever only be one Sandy Dennis.

When Broadway still mattered. Sandy Dennis, the star in the $7 dress.  TIME Magazine, 1967 Illustration | Boris Chaliapin

When Broadway still mattered. Sandy Dennis, the star in the $7 dress.
TIME Magazine, 1967
Illustration | Boris Chaliapin

A truly unique visionary of an actor graced with an undeniable charisma and presence that was solely her own, once you’ve seen her in action — you will not be able to forget her. At times her instinctively odd take on realism and her characters could be grating. A good example of this for me would be her odd turn in Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons or Mark Rydell’s The Fox. Other times her work was truly transformative as in Mike Nichol’s cinematic masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Robert Altman’s slow-burn human psyche horror show, That Cold Day in the Park or his off-beat film of Ed Graczyk’s Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

"Yes, but I chose to rise above the attitudes of this small town, while you chose to lay spread over a gravestone and take them inside you." Sandy Dennis Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean  Robert Altman, 1982 Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

“Yes, but I chose to rise above the attitudes of this small town, while you chose to lay spread over a gravestone and take them inside you.”
Sandy Dennis
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982
Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

Owen Sound has a great MUBI list site regarding the late American Actress.

https://mubi.com/lists/let-me-tell-you-about-sandy-dennis-there-should-be-one-in-every-home

It is from his list I pull the following quotes:

“Sandy was a marvelous actress. She was so gifted she made every part look easy…and she didn’t choose easy parts. It was a great pleasure to work with her.” – Gena Rowlands

“Sandy Dennis is so special, so unique – an incredible woman and artist.” – Elliott Gould

“Sandy was the most amazing actress: spellbinding. The audience would hang on her every pause. And as we all acknowledge, her characterizations were miraculous; no one can say then nor now from where her profound inspirations came. But there they were, for herself and for all of the world, forever.” – Karen Black

Sandy Dennis Head Shot NYC, 1964 Photographer unknown to me.

Sandy Dennis
Head Shot
NYC, 1964
Photographer unknown to me.

While her actual first big screen role was in the iconic Elia Kazan’s 1961 Splendor in the Grass, it would be several years later before she would be given a real role. Opposite the truly iconic Taylor & Burton as the mousy housewife for which she would win the coveted Academy Award.

Introducing to the Big Screen: Miss Sandy Dennis "I peel labels!" George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Introducing to the Big Screen: Miss Sandy Dennis
“I peel labels!”
George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Film and Stage critics adored her as much as they often scorned her. Often their darling, Roger Ebert famously summed up his respect for Sandy Dennis when he reviewed her performance in  1967’s Up The Down Staircase:

“We need more films that might be concerned, even remotely, with real experiences that might once have happened to real people. And we need more actresses like Sandy Dennis.” 

The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther would write:

“Sandy Dennis is engagingly natural, sensitive, literate, and thoroughly moving vivid performance…” 

It is rare to run across many negative reviews of her stage craft. Having studied under Uta Hagen and a strict Method Actor, Sandy Dennis’ stage work is a thing of legend. She received two Tony Awards. While she had many on Broadway and off-Broadway roles, the one for which she is most known is the lead in Any Wednesday. It is of note that actors still speak of this apparently amazing performance.

Sandy Dennis received the second of two Tony Awards for her infamous Broadway performance.   Any Wednesday , 1964

Sandy Dennis received the second of two Tony Awards for her infamous Broadway performance.
Any Wednesday , 1964

However, in the world of film acting her often odd take on character and line readings could illicit the most cruel of critical commentary. The New York Times‘ controversial Vincent Canby was seldom kind to female actors who failed to fit into his limited idea of female beauty. He once said the following:

“Miss Dennis, mugging outrageously and badly, gives the kind of performance that, 40 years ago, would have sent her to bed without her supper. It’s rude, show-offy and, worse, it’s incompetent. Watching her do a double-take is like watching a small tug trying to work the QE2 into her Hudson River berth in a gale. It’s long and boring.”

Interestingly, this particularly nasty review was alone as other film critics rallied her performance in the film to which his acid comic critique was offered. Actually her comic delivery in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s surprisingly subversive and funny satire of the Nixon Administration within the walls of Catholicism and a convent remains second only to Glenda Jackson’s leading role.

Sadly forgotten satire of Nixon and the Watergate Scandal. They won't have Sister Agnes to kick around anymore! Nasty Habits Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

Sadly forgotten satire of Nixon and the Watergate Scandal. They won’t have Sister Agnes to kick around anymore!
Nasty Habits
Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

Perhaps the most respected American Film Critic of her day, Pauline Kael, was seldom a fan of Dennis. She famously wrote, that Dennis had “made an acting style of postnasal drip.”

This criticism was labeled as “valid” when Sandy Dennis herself stated that she agreed and that she needed to find a way to move in a different direction. As her career continued many of her biggest Film Theory supporters would complain of her consistently nervous interpretation of character.

Sandy Dennis was never able to completely abandon her ticks, mannerisms and phrasing. For her this was an element of humanity that seemed to draw her like a moth to flame. A self-admitted loner, she would say and write that she really didn’t enjoy people. She preferred her cats. However the psychology of the human condition fascinated her deeply. In most women she saw a culturally-infused sort of insecurity. The fragileness of the human condition was something key in her interpretation of character. She was often thought of as a seemingly fragile person, but this seems to be more a reaction to her work than herself.

Not too many people seemed to get into her private life. She preferred a bit of distance. Her love was found in animals. There almost seems to have been a thought forming in her head that we should be in the cages at the zoo. Humans were the ones to be studied and watched. Non-human animals were more open to love. This is just my read on what I’ve read and heard about this great artist. I also must point out that this does not hold entirely true. To those whom she did let in, she was much loved. And that love was returned.

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting "reality" That Cold Day in the Park Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting “reality”
That Cold Day in the Park
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

Those who knew and loved her, felt she was a strong and often staunchly independent person. In the very early 1980’s when Robert Altman convinced her to take to the Broadway stage for Ed Graczyk’s unusually quirky Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean she found herself working with an untrained pop superstar, Cher. Cher did not encounter a fragile person. Cher has stated that Dennis was quick to point out her “bad reading” of her role. Cher, no fragile person herself, pushed harder until she earned Dennis’ respect.

Despair, rage, delusion and regret. Sandy Dennis brings it forward with Karen Black and Cher Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean Robert Altman, 1982

Despair, rage, delusion and regret. Sandy Dennis brings it forward with Karen Black and Cher
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982

At that time a supporting player, Kathy Bates, was more than eager to work with both Altman and Dennis. After Sandy Dennis died she commented:

“Sandy was the great peacemaker of the group when we were doing Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. She was the solid one with her feet on the ground, which was interesting to me at the time, because she had such an ethereal quality as an actress. I also remember her wonderful sense of humor and her gorgeous hair. I think she was still seeing Eric Roberts at the time and we were all very jealous.”

Also at the time of Ms. Dennis’ death, Sean Penn’s full commentary offers a great deal:

“Sandy Dennis never met an unpredictable instinct she didn’t like. She was an actress and woman with beautiful idio-syncrasies and gentleness. There’s never been anyone like her. And me and movies miss her a lot. I directed the movie that turned out to be her last, The Indian Runner, which we shot in and around Omaha, Nebraska. I was honored to work with her and I’m pleased to know that she’s being honored by her own.”

Frail, tired and dying Sandy Dennis gave her all in what would be her final performance. The Indian Runner Sean Penn, 1991

Frail, tired and dying Sandy Dennis gave her all in what would be her final performance.
The Indian Runner
Sean Penn, 1991

But looking back when Sandy Dennis fully entered the world’s pop culture chart as Edward Albee’s “Honey” in Mike Nichol’s brilliant film adaptation — Dennis’ portrayal goes far deeper than what “we” were used to seeing in 1966 cinema. This is not a surface performance. It is naturalistic and brutally real. And yet, there is something deeply odd about it. The oddness is what Dennis’ is able to sneak in with awkward pauses, drunken lapses of self-restraint and intoxicated epiphanies.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966

There is a strange new sort of presence on the screen. Both Burton and Taylor are pitch-perfect in their perverse roles. When the door is opened to reveal their after-party guests appear to be exact opposite of who they are. George Segal is also brilliant and bland as the good-looking former jock now tied in what is most likely a loveless marriage. Sandy Dennis’ “Honey” appears to be a reserved, polite and friendly middle class wife. Before long this mouse takes on a level of dark sorrow and fear that is both tragic and scary. In a strange way, thanks to Dennis’ delivery, “Honey” surprisingly game participant in her hosts’ sick game.

"I peel labels!" George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

“I peel labels!”
George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

As she confusingly takes her place in this twisted domestic game, “Honey” reveals something that only seems like a memory in the faces and actions of the other three characters: she is human and she is breaking under the weight of her life and this demented game.

There is something almost inexplicably raw and powerful in Sandy Dennis’ fragmented and almost stuttering method of speaking. Her lines come out like twitches and spastic after thoughts. While the other actors deliver with venom, gusto, pain and grief — Sandy Dennis subverts Albee’s words to the introspection of human psychology.

While the other actors seem to be absorbing the characters into their very pores, Dennis seems to be doing the opposite. She is absorbing into the pores of her fictional character. A sort of distorted version of self into fiction. Or at least this is how it feels. Dennis took a supporting role and amped it into the heretofore unbreakable personas of two of the biggest movie stars of all time. A supporting performance is seldom this transformative. 

Never mix. Never worry. Sandy Dennis Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Never mix. Never worry.
Sandy Dennis
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

No one would ever dare argue that there was any other choice to receive that Oscar but Sandy Dennis. No one had ever seen a woman do this. Marlon Brando had done it, but here Sandy Dennis is free of censorship. It would be a couple of more years before Marlon Brando would turn it all upside down in Last Tango in Paris.

With an Oscar under her arm, Sandy Dennis was primed for movie stardom. Or was she?

Warner Brothers recognized the talent and everyone was aware of the acclaim she had achieved on Broadway in Any Wednesday, but they simply could not imagine “Honey” managing to play the “kept girl” of that play. I mean, aside from Streisand’s turn in Funny Girl, this was the most talked about stage performance of the day. No. Jane Fonda would be cast in the film version. At the time more than a few actors were upset.

Warner Brothers' consolation prize to Sandy Dennis for not casting her in the film of "Any Wednesday."  Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley in Sweet November Robert Ellis Miller, 1968

Warner Brothers’ consolation prize to Sandy Dennis for not casting her in the film of “Any Wednesday.”
Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley in
Sweet November
Robert Ellis Miller, 1968

However Warners had a plan. They loved the play, Sweet November, but didn’t feel that Barbara Harris had “movie star potential” so the same film director, Robert Ellis Miller, who would direct Fonda in Dennis’ original role would also direct Denis in Harris’ role.

Both casting decisions were ill-advised.

Jane Fonda gave it her best, but she wasn't yet able to achieve what the part required.  Any Wednesday Robert Ellis Miller, 1966 Cinematography | Harold Lipstein

Jane Fonda gave it her best, but she wasn’t yet able to achieve what the part required.
Any Wednesday
Robert Ellis Miller, 1966
Cinematography | Harold Lipstein

Jane Fonda had not yet fully gained access to her voice. And the director was in way over his head trying to “tame” Dennis’ style of acting to blend in with Anthony Newley’s “hammy” approach. Any Wednesday is only worth watching for the fashions. But despite all of the flaws, Sweet November, does offer a good deal of uneven entertainment. And while it all gets far too corny to believe, Sand Dennis does manage to retain some of the plays bittersweet charm. In the end the film almost works.

She would also secure the lead role in Robert Mulligan’s acclaimed 1967 film, Up The Down Staircase. Her performance is solid here as the teacher who wants to effect change for her students but doesn’t know how. This was a bit of ideal casting.

"When I finally get the chance, the first few precious minutes to talk to them about something I want them to understand, and I find that I am some kind of enemy. The butt of some enormous joke." Sandy Dennis Up The Down Staircase Robert Mulligan, 1967 Cinematography | Joseph F. Coffey

“When I finally get the chance, the first few precious minutes to talk to them about something I want them to understand, and I find that I am some kind of enemy. The butt of some enormous joke.”
Sandy Dennis
Up The Down Staircase
Robert Mulligan, 1967
Cinematography | Joseph F. Coffey

This success was met with controversial failure when Mark Rydell cast her opposite both Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea in a modern take on DH Lawrence’s The Fox. A soft focus haze of timid eroticism with Anne Heywood in full-on glam, Keir Dullea aiming for full-on handsome male lead — Sandy Dennis’ realistic spin as Heywood’s long time lesbian lover is far too-grounded to make sense as Heywood and Dullea seem to be dancing on air and Dennis walks about suspecting both.

"Maybe you need a man around the place." D.H. Lawrence comes to the screen... The Fox Sandy Dennis, Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea Mark Rydell, 1967

“Maybe you need a man around the place.”
D.H. Lawrence comes to the screen…
The Fox
Sandy Dennis, Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea
Mark Rydell, 1967

It does not work. Only Dennis is credible here, but mismatched to both of the other more Hollywood-aligned actors.

It was shortly after the mistake of Sweet November that Sandy Dennis would once again receive a great film role. This time it was an Independent Canadian film by Robert Altman. Director and actor were equally interested in each other and Altman seemed to have an interesting short-hand with Dennis. His way of communicating worked perfectly in reigning in Sandy Dennis’ often eccentric take on her characters.

Neurosis morphs into sociopathic horror with Sandy Dennis as Miss. Frances Austen in That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969

Neurosis morphs into sociopathic horror with Sandy Dennis as Miss. Frances Austen in
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969

In the case of Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park, she didn’t need to bring any more eccentricity as the role of Miss. Frances Austen could easily be blown off the charts and into camp. This is not what Altman was after and it was certainly never be the intention of Sandy Dennis. However her’s was an often untethered sort of talent. Altman managed to assist her in containing it.

Sandy Dennis plays her character like only Sandy Dennis can, but with an elite and elegant level of restraint. She is a wealthy but lonely virgin spinster. She lives a seemingly mundane life among older people. It is never clearly articulated, but thanks to Dennis’ performance we receive several clues that something is wrong with “Miss. Frances Austen.” Actually, we are almost certain something is very much wrong.

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting "reality" That Cold Day in the Park Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting “reality”
That Cold Day in the Park
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

When she notices an apparently homeless, mute and handsome man sitting alone on a park bench in the park, Miss. Frances Austen breaks convention and insists the “helpless” boy come to her swank home to warm up and have some food. She sends her cook and butler away. Why does she even have a cook and a butler in such a small but nice condo? It is never clear.

This film was mis-judged by film critics at the time of its release. It is an appropriate bookend to Altman’s interest in the psycho-sexual thriller. A few laters, Altman would pursue this genre again in Images — a film which received more acclaim than I think it deserved. Here, in TCDITP Altman more precisely and effortlessly slips into a woman’s damaged psyche.

Much of the credit is deserved to Sandy Dennis. The film is short and fast-paced. Yet it is filled with fairly uncomfortable and realistic scenes between Dennis and Michael Burns as the handsome young man. As Miss. Frances Austen begins to open-up to the mute mostly nude young man who is unable to speak either with/to her — things start to take an oddly warped vibe. Clearly, Miss. Frances Austen (and her name bears repeating) is a virgin and dealing with a whole lot more than sexual repression.

“I’m not going to get under the covers or anything. I’ll just lay on top. I have to tell you something. If you feel that you want to make love to me, it’s all right. I want you to make love to me. Please.” Sandy Dennis on the verge of something… That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

“I’m not going to get under the covers or anything. I’ll just lay on top. I have to tell you something. If you feel that you want to make love to me, it’s all right. I want you to make love to me. Please.”
Sandy Dennis on the verge of something…
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

The “twist” does not come as a “surprise” or even a device in a very smart move by Robert Altman. We know what is coming. This handsome mute boy is “playing” Miss. Frances Austen. He is using her for his own twisted fun and grift. The actually unexpected “twist” comes shortly after the “expected” one.

Just because it says “Exit” doesn’t mean it is a way out. Sandy Dennis That Cold Day in the Park Robert Atman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Just because it says “Exit” doesn’t mean it is a way out.
Sandy Dennis
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Atman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

After this twist is delivered, the viewer is likely to chuckle and feel reasonably entertained by this strange little movie. The thing is — Robert Altman and Sandy Dennis had just pulled-off a great cinematic trick. The final turn of the movie isn’t going to leave your mind. What seems comical gradually takes on the sinister and disturbing. There are  no jokes, camp or “bad” moments. Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park is near perfect and horrifying.

Sadly, this film was probably a little too “out there” at the time it was released. Appreciation for this film has really only taken hold in the last decade. Much credit should be given to Bruce LaBruce and his very Independent and very Queer-Core re-working of Altman’s film in his 1991 experimental and controversial cult film,  No Skin Off My Ass. This movie helped bring Altman’s forgotten film back into discussion. A discussion and re-evaluation which finally led to Olive Films doing a 2K restoration for blu-ray release. That Cold Day in the Park continues to claim its rightful place in cinematic history.

"Oh My Goooood!" Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon  The Out of Towners Arthur Hiller, 1970

“Oh My Goooood!”
Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon
The Out of Towners
Arthur Hiller, 1970

Oddly enough, Sandy Dennis would soon be cast in her most mainstream success opposite Jack Lemmon in Arthur Hiller’s 1970 adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Out of Towners. Filmed on location in a decaying 1969 NYC, Hiller’s film is as silly as it is insightful as a glimpse into what appears to be a truly dying city. Lemmon and Dennis play off of each other brilliantly. The film is blessed with some genuinely comic moments. Sandy Dennis’ “read” of “Oh my God” is hysterically funny. The film was a box office hit.

When they take you for an out-of-towner, they really take you. Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon The Out of Towners Arthur Hiller, 1970

When they take you for an out-of-towner, they really take you.
Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon
The Out of Towners
Arthur Hiller, 1970

While the money made was probably a great thing, Sandy Dennis never seemed to be particularly comfortable with success. She quickly retreated to the theatre and teaching at The Actor’s Studio. She would continue to take roles in movies but these were more often more “off the grid” type of films. An exception was 1977’s smart satire from Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Nasty Habits. 

This clever film featured an incredible cast with Glenda Jackson (think Richard Nixon as a Mother Superior) in the lead. The supporting players as corrupt nuns (all the equal to someone involved in the Watergate Scandal) included Sandy Dennis (in a truly goofy turn as the nun equal to Nixon’s John Dean), Melina Mercouri, Geraldine Page, Anne Jackson, the great Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller, Eli Wallach and Rip Torn. Sadly the film failed to find an audience. There is hope that someone will resurrect this film soon. It is almost impossible to even find stills from this film.

A seemingly lost classic... The Watergate Scandal for Nuns. Geraldine Page, Sandy Dennis, Glenda Jackson and   Melina Mercouri Nasty Habits Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

A seemingly lost classic…
The Watergate Scandal for Nuns.
Geraldine Page, Sandy Dennis, Glenda Jackson and Melina Mercouri
Nasty Habits
Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

When Robert Altman called again, Sandy Dennis agreed to come aboard for his return to the Broadway Stage. This would eventually be filmed into a strange but potent film, 1982’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. The film failed to register at the time of it’s release, but it appreciation for this film has grown into a solid following.

Karen Black and Cher look through the mirror of time at Sandy Dennis' "Mona"  Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean Robert Altman, 1982 Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

Karen Black and Cher look through the mirror of time at Sandy Dennis’ “Mona”
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982
Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

After this it seems the roles she chose were largely based on requests from fellow-artists she respected (Alan Alda, Woody Allen, Larry Cohen, Bob Balaban and Sean Penn) or ones that provided a quick and easy paycheck (976-EVIL, the 80’s reboot of  Alfred Hitchcock Presents and an odd appearance on The Love Boat)

Her supporting role as Millie Dew in Bob Balaban’s odd and very demented 1989 satire, Parents, is a stand-out. Sicker than sick, often disturbing but always darkly comic — Sandy Dennis is clearly having some fun and adds a great deal to an already impressive cast. Miss. Dew stands out. For more than a few reasons. If you’ve seen it, you will know to what I refer. This is a brilliant little movie that deserves to be revisited. 

"This will be delicious!" Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt have very different plans for their son's guidance counselor, Miss Millie Dew played to the hilt by Sandy Dennis. Parents Bob Balaban, 1989 Cinematography | Ernest Day / Robin Vidgeon

“This will be delicious!”
Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt have very different plans for their son’s guidance counselor, Miss Millie Dew played to the hilt by Sandy Dennis.
Parents
Bob Balaban, 1989
Cinematography | Ernest Day / Robin Vidgeon

Her final performance was for Sean Penn and his directorial debut, The Indian Runner. Even though she was unable to complete the film, she made a memorable impression. It is a sigh of relief to know that she exited the stage with such a great role in a great film.

Sandy Dennis was a fairly private person. Perhaps more so, she simply did not enjoy the company of people. She had been in a decade long term relationship with Gerry Mulligan, an essential American Jazz artist. And she had a four year relationship with actor, Eric Roberts. While this was clearly far more than just a romance, Dennis opted to end it. There was no scandal, they remained friends. She was never bothered with rumors of her bi-sexuality. Eric Roberts had publicly discussed that she had shared her sexual experiences with other women to him and close friends. Even though she wrote her memoirs, there is much about her that is largely unknowable.

Aside from her work and esteemed professional reputation, the strongest testament of who Sandy Dennis was remains in the clearly beloved memories of her close friends, students and colleagues. Perhaps her two closest friends were Brenda Vaccaro and Jessica Walter. Equally respected and well-liked, it speaks volumes that these two women were her dearest friends.

She had been battling cancer for sometime. She passed away in her home surrounded by her life’s true joy: her cats. She was only 54 years old.

I really like something that fellow actor and a friend, Ian McKellen, wrote in 2004:

“Had she lived, by now she would have been a veteran actor of formidable powers or perhaps, eschewing work, she would simply be an animal-lover at home, smiling indulgently at the craziness of the world around her.”

Sandy Dennis with one of her beloved cats. Sandy Dennis 1937 - 1992 RIP Photograph | © Michael Tighe, 1991

Sandy Dennis with one of her beloved cats.
Sandy Dennis
1937 – 1992
RIP
Photograph | © Michael Tighe, 1991

A foundation was started in 2012 in her hometown of Hastings, Nebraska. There is a great deal of information to be found here about the legendary actress. The goal of the foundation has never been clear to me, but contact information can be found there should you want to pursue.

The Sandy Dennis Foundation

Matty Stanfield, 9.18.2015

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