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Starting as an odd Midnight Movie, David Lynch's debut feature film is now considered a work of cinematic art. Eraserhead David Lynch, 1977

Starting as an odd Midnight Movie, David Lynch’s debut feature film is now considered a work of cinematic art.
Eraserhead
David Lynch, 1977

It’s been building for almost 15 years now, but many of the cinematic treasures buried under the title of Cult Film are currently being re-examined and re-evaluated. There are still plenty of cinephiles who shudder as classics like Valley of the Dolls, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, One-Eyed Jacks and Carnival of Souls are taking their deserved seats within The Criterion Collection.

As my generation moves toward half century mark, the younger generations of movie lovers are feeling less self-conscious when it comes to fully owning their love of Cult Films that have never quite fit into the restrictively defined Cinematic Masterpiece.

I’ve never worried much about what people think of me. As a teenager I would often snare unsuspecting friends into watching a VHS copy of a movie I deemed as essential. I remember some of my pals squirming through a movie like John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs or Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls. I myself placed in a defensive position. I would attempt to list the cinematic virtues of a numerous cinematic oddities that had been relegated to midnight screenings and discarded as Odd, Smut and ultimately Cult Films. I began to formulate excuses for these movies I loved. These were offered up as self-defenses to shield my ego from the those harbingers of The Cinematic Elite.

  • This movie is so bad it comes around to exceptional
  • A movie we must love to hate
  • There is a certain level of artistry to create a film so entertainingly bad
  • It’s fun to watch
  • It is one of my guilty pleasures

The opinion regarding Cult Films has come a long way since I was in high school. I was the only one who had ever rented All Star Video’s VHS copy of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. In fact, I rented it a lot.

Filmed on a shoe string and with a desire to haunt vs. scare -- This strange B Movie is now a treasured member of The Criterion Collection. Carnival of Souls Herk Harvey, 1962

Filmed on a shoe string and with a desire to haunt vs. scare — This strange B Movie is now a treasured member of The Criterion Collection.
Carnival of Souls
Herk Harvey, 1962

There was a period of time when I would enter All Star and the lady behind the counter would say, “Look y’all! It’s that kid who rents Eraserhead!” Turns out they had acquired the tape by accident. Some of my friends enjoyed some of what they saw in David Lynch’s surreal movie, but more than a few were bored or disgusted. Some of my pals discovered that it was a great movie with which to get stoned. Gradually a few others began to rent All Star’s VHS copy. In less than a decade Eraserhead would finally begin to garnish the respect it deserved. It would take a whole lot longer for Carnival of Souls to gain appropriate recognition, but this year it was remastered and issued as a member of The Criterion Collection.

After I had finally begun to find a place within the ranks of a respected Film Festival my knowledge and love of French and Asian cinema would be put to some good use, but even as we entered the 21st Century there was still passive annoyance at films that dared to color outside the lines of societal ideas of Cinematic Art.

"Love really hurts... Koroshiya 1 / Ichi The Killer Takashi Miike, 2001

“Love really hurts…
Koroshiya 1 / Ichi The Killer
Takashi Miike, 2001

I first saw Takashi Miike’s Ichi The Killer at a limited screening not too long after the tragedies of 9/11. It took me several minutes to ground myself back into the real world as I stumbled out of the theatre. I found it difficult to articulate what it was that so strongly appealed regarding this sick and twisted movie. In many ways it was a cartoonish orgy of gore that never let up. The special effects were not so much realistic as they were insanely creative. The film was far more interested in following a sadistic and comically twisted thug following Ichi‘s bloody trail of violence than in Ichi himself. Each passing scene seemed to propel the audience into higher levels of audacity and shock. This was a needless exercise in the excesses of violence and aberrantly cruel behaviors. But all of it was presented in such silly and innovative ways, it was almost impossible not to watch.

Surveying the carnage Tadanobu Asano Ichi The Killer Takashi Miike, 2001 Cinematography | Hideo Yamamoto

Surveying the carnage
Tadanobu Asano
Ichi The Killer
Takashi Miike, 2001
Cinematography | Hideo Yamamoto

I was not new to the over-the-top genre of Japanese Shock Horror movies, but this was something a great deal different. I had already been caught in Miike’s web the year before. His 1999 Cult Film, Audition, was in many ways a far superior film. It had been a surrealist take on a widowed man’s sexual fears. The gore utilized in Audition was far more realistic in look and the film’s exploration into self-hate, human cruelty and misogyny was a bit more than the average viewer would ever be able to approve. It was a smart and exceptionally well crafted movie that would only ever have a limited audience. Ichi The Killer was not nearly so dire. Ichi took no prisoners, but it also allowed the audience a “pass” regarding its violent nature.

"Everything I'm about to tell you is a joke..." This young Yakuza soldier is having a strange day that quickly morphs into levels of strangeness too odd to be explained. There is genius here. Hideki Sone GOZU Takashi Miike, 2003 Cinematography | Kazunari Tanaka

“Everything I’m about to tell you is a joke…”
This young Yakuza soldier is having a strange day that quickly morphs into levels of strangeness too odd to be explained. There is genius here.
Hideki Sone
GOZU
Takashi Miike, 2003
Cinematography | Kazunari Tanaka

From my perspective, both Audition and Ichi The Killer were destined for consideration as films of note. But if I had to place my bet, I’d venture that it would be Ichi The Killer that would manage to achieve mutually agreed regard. Interestingly it would be Audition that was the first to be recognized as something more than simply Cult. But the time of Ichi The Killer will soon arrive. Let’s hope that Ichi is ready for the validation. He is kind of sensitive.

Two years after I saw Ichi The Killer in a cinema, I pitched the idea of having the film festival host a retrospective of Miike’s work. I had put out “feelers” and his camp was more than willing and the director was open to attending. He did not speak English, but he had someone who could join him as his translator. In addition, his 2003 film, GOZU had only enjoyed one US screening at this point. I had been lucky enough to receive a promotional copy of that film. GOZU is an experiment into Yakuza thriller gone the way of Lynchian fever dream. GOZU is artistic, comical, beyond strange and unforgettable. I was excited as I pitched the idea to the committee. Only one of the ten members shared in my enthusiasm. My idea was nixed. GOZU and Miike went to Chicago.

Wagner drugs and then literally saps Franz Liszt of his blood. Paul Nicholas and Roger Daltrey LISZTOMANIA Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Wagner drugs and then literally saps Franz Liszt of his blood.
Paul Nicholas and Roger Daltrey
LISZTOMANIA
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

My pleas for the committee to consider Ken Russell’s The Devils and Lisztomania fell prey to closed minds and snobbery. Appreciation for Ken Russell’s brilliant The Devils has existed since the film’s debut through to today. The problem is that many have never had the amazing opportunity to see this important film in Russell’s original cut. Warner Bros. continues to hold that film hostage thanks to the powers of The Vatican. It is the only reason that seems to explain Warner Bros. refusal to relinquish the movie. It continues to sit in exile within the confines of the Warner Bros. vault. Although not blessed with the masterful artistry of The Devils, Ken Russell’s surreal comic book take on Franz Liszt is also due for reconsideration. Rumors continue to fly about regarding the resurgence of both films. Back in my teen years I was constantly pimping Ken Russell to the unconverted. It is impossible to understand, but it has only been in the last decade that Ken Russell’s brilliance has begun to receive the recognition that so very many knew it and he was due. And the rally call for both of these films — most especially for The Devils — is growing stronger.

"Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights." Vanessa Redgrave The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin Production Design | Derek Jarman

“Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights.”
Vanessa Redgrave
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin
Production Design | Derek Jarman

A couple of years ago I got into a disagreement with someone of “standing” within the world of Film Restoration. A seminal film was at stake. Was this beloved and profoundly odd but brilliant film damned to be restored by a well-intentioned but tech limited distribution company? As it became clear that my opinion meant nothing to this individual who is actually a bigger Film Snob than me — and that is saying something — I took one more consideration regarding concerns of bombast, overly silly presentation, perverse articulation and Grindhouse residue. I ended the conversation with the following sentence:

I will watch Citizen Kane, The Bicycle Thief, The Godfather or Casablanca as often as I watch this film.

As it turned out, this almost forgotten cinematic gem was restored brilliantly by the great team at Vinegar Syndrome. One of my favorite movies, The Telephone Book, was restored and re-issued to an unsuspecting public. Sadly their efforts did not result in many sales.

Just because it is X-rated and full-on odd does not mean that it isn't a valid artistic experience. The Telephone Book Nelson Lyon, 1971

Just because it is X-rated and full-on odd does not mean that it isn’t a valid artistic experience. The Telephone Book Nelson Lyon, 1971

This type of discussion became a sort of staple of my Movie Lover’s Life. It was also a discussion I was nearly always bound to lose. But something is in the air. I’d like to think it partially thanks to my generation, but it is equally indebted to the generation that arrived just after mine. There are a number of people now in their mid-to-late 30’s who recognize the importance of many films that cause life threatening eye-rolling by most serious cinematic scholars born before 1972.

Before she became An Unmarried Woman and deservedly respected actor, Jill Clayburgh was a valuable featured player in an experimental movie mistakenly considered pornography. Jill Clayburgh The Telephone Book Nelson Lyon, 1971 Cinematography | Leon Perera

Before she became An Unmarried Woman and deservedly respected actor, Jill Clayburgh was a valuable featured player in an experimental movie mistakenly considered pornography.
Jill Clayburgh
The Telephone Book
Nelson Lyon, 1971
Cinematography | Leon Perera

Another highly valuable movie that had been thought long lost is Jean-Jacques Beineix’s The Moon in the Gutter. A neon-drenched world awaits the viewer who allows themselves to slip into this strange film. While it is most certainly flawed, it is equally most certainly fascinating. Cinema Libre Studio restored and reissued the film to DVD/Blu-Ray in 2011.

Largely panned when it debuted in cinemas,  Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1983 flop continues to be re-evaluated.  The Moon in the Gutter / La lune dans le caniveau Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1983

Largely panned when it debuted in cinemas, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1983 flop continues to be re-evaluated.
The Moon in the Gutter / La lune dans le caniveau
Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1983

They also did the same for Jean-Jacques Beineix’s infamous Betty Blue, but opted to issue only the theatrical version of that film. Sales for Betty Blue were strong, but The Moon in the Gutter is no longer in print. Seek it out.  Meanwhile the director’s cut of Betty Blue is out there and will most likely be re-issued soon. Which paves the way for a restoration of that director’s successful but largely forgotten art film, Diva. An unforgettable hybrid film that is experimental to say the least. We are likely to see this film receive an upgrade within the next year or so.

"Her voice was his calling." Diva Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981

“Her voice was his calling.”
Diva
Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981

It had been a fairly tight secret when The Criterion Collection decided to pursue the distribution rights for both The Valley of the Dolls and its dirty little sister, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The announcement created a bit of grumbling, but many are thrilled to finally see these two cultural relics restored.

 

"This is my happening and it freaks me out!" Long maligned but deeply loved by a whole lot more -- Russ Meyer and Roger Eberts' 1970 X-Rated film has also joined the ranks of The Criterion Collection. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls Russ Meyer, 1970

“This is my happening and it freaks me out!”
Long maligned but deeply loved by a whole lot more — Russ Meyer and Roger Eberts’ 1970 X-Rated film has also joined the ranks of The Criterion Collection.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
Russ Meyer, 1970

Kino Lober and Olive Films have also been doing a great job of rescuing lost or forgotten cult films. This month KL released Otto Preminger’s all but forgotten Cult Film, Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon Junie Moon. Olive Films has just released three other treasured Cult Films, Wild In the Streets, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? and Modesty Blaise.

"You said she was going to eat us." Strange and surprisingly effective... Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? Curtis Harrington, 1972

“You said she was going to eat us.”
Strange and surprisingly effective…
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?
Curtis Harrington , 1972

Get ready. Here are but a few other films up for reconsideration beyond the realm of The Cult Film

"Eventually stars burn out..." This 2014 was far too quickly dismissed and ignored. This is a Cult Film that is destined for later appreciation and re-evaluation. Map to the Stars David Cronenberg, 2014

“Eventually stars burn out…”
This 2014 was far too quickly dismissed and ignored. This is a Cult Film that is destined for later appreciation and re-evaluation.
Map to the Stars
David Cronenberg, 2014

 

"Why don't rapists eat at T.G.I. Friday's? Well, it's hard to rape with a stomachache." The jokes induce squirms vs. laughs as the comic's ego deconstructs. Gregg Turkington ENTERTAINMENT Rick Alverson, 2014 Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

“Why don’t rapists eat at T.G.I. Friday’s? Well, it’s hard to rape with a stomachache.”
The jokes induce squirms vs. laughs as the comic’s ego deconstructs.
Gregg Turkington
ENTERTAINMENT
Rick Alverson, 2014
Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

 

"Gilderoy, this is going to be a fantastic film. Brutal and honest. Nobody has seen this horror before." Berberian Sound Studio Peter Strickland, 2012 Cinematography | Nicholas D. Knowland

“Gilderoy, this is going to be a fantastic film. Brutal and honest. Nobody has seen this horror before.”
Berberian Sound Studio
Peter Strickland, 2012
Cinematography | Nicholas D. Knowland

 

" Everything is more complicated than you think..." Coming up close to a decade -- is the audience ready to revisit Charlie Kaufman's ever undulating surreal epic? Philip Seymour Hoffman Synecdoche, New York Charlie Kaufman, 2008 Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

” Everything is more complicated than you think…”
Coming up close to a decade — is the audience ready to revisit Charlie Kaufman’s ever undulating surreal epic?
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Synecdoche, New York
Charlie Kaufman, 2008
Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

The film I am most excited about is John Schlesinger’s strange and surreal forgotten bit of dark magic, The Day of the Locust. The Hollywood Dream is reduced to absolute metaphorical nightmare. It also features some of Conrad L. Hall’s best cinematography work.

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen in radioland. We're speaking to you from the forecourt of Grumman's Chinese Theater here in Hollywood, California..." John Schlesinger, 1975

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen in radioland. We’re speaking to you from the forecourt of Grumman’s Chinese Theater here in Hollywood, California…”
John Schlesinger, 1975

And, of course, Takashi Miike’s odd trip into Surrealism — GOZU.

"There's no need to hide something as fine and dandy as that!" GOZU Takashi Miike, 2003 Cinematography | Kazunari Tanaka

“There’s no need to hide something as fine and dandy as that!”
GOZU
Takashi Miike, 2003
Cinematography | Kazunari Tanaka

Matty Stanfield, 8.16.2016

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

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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