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When the infamous Vincent Canby reviewed Fellini’s Casanova he spent some time praising what he saw. It almost feels as though he wanted to like flawed movie, but as he reached his closing summation he issued a frustrated dismissal:

The production is gigantic, but the ideas and feelings are small. One longs to go home and listen to Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”Vincent Canby, New York Times, 1977

"And Now...after four years of preparation and production..." Fellin's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976

“And Now…after four years of preparation and production…”
Fellin’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976

Mr. Canby was not alone. Even Woody Allen seemed to take a stab at the film. As Alvy and Annie Hall wait in a cinema ticket holders line, they are forced to listen to a pretentious fellow film-goer rant about the Federico Fellini’s latest self-Indulgence. The latest work was Fellini’s Casanova. I suppose one could argue that Mr. Allen disagreed as he magically pulls Marshall McLuhan into frame. Alvy has the enjoyment of seeing the esteemed media philosopher bring the pompous jerk down to size.  Alvy‘s contempt for this cinephile has more to do with forcing his opinions on everyone around him. No defense is made for Fellini’s Casanova. It is doubtful that the narrator and that film’s title character would find much in Fellini’s adaptation of Giacomo Casanova’s Storia della mia vita or The Story of My Life. The doomed movie simply serves as a jumping point for a great comic bit.

"What I wouldn't give for a large sock with horse manure in it!" Annie Hall Woody Allen, 1977 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

“What I wouldn’t give for a large sock with horse manure in it!”
Annie Hall
Woody Allen, 1977
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Vincent Canby’s review of the then long delayed Italian production was a fair and astute critique. If you are familiar with Canby’s style of criticism — he gives the movie a thumbs down, but also manages to praise more than a little of what he saw unspool on the screen. This is not something he was prone to do.

I’m not an expert on Federico Fellini, but I have had reason to watch this film quite a bit in the last two years. In that time I have also researched a good deal regarding the troubled production of Le Casanova de Fellini. As the genius mind often does, the great filmmaker had become obsessed with translating Casanova’s memoirs. His obsession had nothing to do with Casanova. He was fascinated by a man whom he considered to be an evil character.

As Fellini’s film well charts, Casanova did not love. The existence of his being relied upon sexual encounters with no connection to the objects of his interests. Interests would be the best way to term it. Fellini’s Casanova does not even really lust. It was only after shooting began that Fellini began to feel a level of empathy towards his title character. It would be this change of heart regarding his Casanova that would end up framing the entire film.

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

The production began with a fundamental problem. His key financier, Alberto Grimaldi, had some very strong opinions about who would play Casanova. These two iconic figures of European Cinema entered into a battle of the wills. Grimaldi insisted that Fellini cast one of several major movie stars of the era: Brando, Redford, Newman or Pacino. Eventually Grimaldi gave in a bit and suggested Michael Caine. It is interesting that the producer even attempted to reign-in the auteur.

Fellini could never be reigned in. He got his way. He cast Donald Sutherland in the role. It was a bit of an odd choice, but it makes sense. Mr. Sutherland was a solid movie star, but not at the titan level of Grimaldi’s suggestion. He knew that Sutherland was a true actor and he also knew that he would not need to wrestle with the typical American Movie Star Ego. Fellini also saw a sadness in the deeply skilled actor. Sutherland’s casual approach also seemed to offer a sort of open canvas upon which he could paint. Or to be more precise — Sutherland was a tall thin form he intended to sculpt.

Donald Sutherland Re-Imagined... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Donald Sutherland Re-Imagined…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini put his star through the paces, but Sutherland was stellar and did all and more than was needed. Fellini had hired him to play an unlikable and hopelessly alienated man. Before and when the shooting began Federico Fellini held the character in contempt. He had Sutherland’s head half shaven, applied a prosthetic nose, chin and other odd distortions served totally re-shape Sutherland. The actor looks the same from every angle. His face and being have been largely restricted. Often the only English speaker in front of the camera, he was not always able to communicate effectively. His eyes are really all he had to utilize on his own. At times it feels as if Sutherland is little more than a puppet with Fellini orchestrating his every move. Surprisingly this restrictive appearance serves Fellini’s purpose effectively, but not well enough to distinguish Sutherland as an essential player within the film.

The film was shot under extremely tight supervision and behind the closed gates of Rome’s Cinecittà Studios. Nothing about this film looks real. Quite the opposite, the entire movie feels like a gorgeous formation of a nightmare. Cold, barren and yet full of things to look at — Fellini’s Casanova is even more obscure than the far superior Fellini Satyricon. This is Surrealism to the infinite. As one expects, every actor on the screen is interesting to study. As is often the case with later Fellini, the grotesque is magnified. The movie is as much perversely disturbing as it is often stunningly beautiful. Anyone who doubts that Fellini was not calling and insisting on every single choice can be satisfied to discover that he had an articulated explanation for every aspect of the movie.

 

Only the actors are real... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Only the actors are real…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

If one wonders why the production design suddenly replaces actual water with black garbage bags, Fellini had demanded this odd choice to his esteemed Production Designer/Art Director/Costume Designer, Danilo Donati. The director chose to replace water with plastic garbage bags to serve as a metaphor for Casanova’s fraudulent identity and fruitless self-journey. Fellini knew exactly what he wanted and refused any level of compromise. As he was walking his actors through a key scene involving nuns, Fellini discovered a feeling of empathy for Casanova.

He quickly came up with two incredibly complex studio set ideas which changed the point of the film and would serve as cinematic bookends within which to hold the film. And these were not simple last minute decisions. They were complex and expensive. Donate and the artists at Cinecittà Studios had to continually succeed against tight deadlines. It speaks volumes for Federico Fellini that his cast, crew and the studio artisans did next to no complaining. The filmmaker was beloved and respected. Only the best work was put forward for their director. And it shows in the finished film.

 

Fighting the choppy sea of plastic garbage bags... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fighting the choppy sea of plastic garbage bags…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

The opening scene of Fellini’s Casanova is remarkable. An ornate and rowdy crowd assembles on the city’s banks waiting for something to emerge from the water. Impossibly complex rigs and tethers begin to pull and strain — a huge statue of Venus begins to emerge. The swelling crowed slips into jubilation as the Goddess of Love begins to peer out over the very real water. It is as if she is rising from the water as a blessing of desire, lust and love. Sadly the ropes and levers quickly buckle. The rigs and ropes snap under the strain. The giant statue promising erotic love and happiness slips forever lost to the bottom of the ocean. It is as if all hope for satisfaction and happiness has sunk. Nino Rota’s brilliant musical score adds to the potency of the visual. This is how Fellini’s Casanova begins.

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

It is far more than grim metaphor. The failed attempt to raise Venus out of the water is never corrected. The film ends with a striking return to the film’s early warning sign. As Casanova attempts to find some form of connection and solace, he will realize that he is standing alone on a vast area of frozen water. The peering eyes of Venus are looking up at both him. Venus’ cold eyes are forever frozen beneath the lonely womanizer’s feet. It all sounds amazing, but one needs to be aware that this is a two hour and thirty-five minute epic of calculated iciness.

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

A pal recently suggested that Fellini’s Casanova must be a bit like Ken Russell’s Lisztomania. But this is not a good comparison. True, Ken Russell’s highly experimental and comic-book take on everything from Franz Liszt to Richard Wagner to anti-semitism to WWII may be overtly eager, but there is sense to Russell’s unhinged film. If a person knows their history, Lisztomania is filled with an intentional goofy sort of logic that ties to the truth of the people and situations it satirizes.  Ken Russell was also smart enough to keep his film under the two hour mark by twenty minutes. He keeps the pace up with the surreal actions taking place on the screen.

 

It is quite manic and strange, but there is logic to the madness... Roger Daltrey, Rick Wakeman and Paul Nicholas ponder the horror of a Master Race... Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

It is quite manic and strange, but there is logic to the madness…
Roger Daltrey, Rick Wakeman and Paul Nicholas ponder the horror of a Master Race…
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Beyond the fact that both films were greeted negatively by critics and audiences, there is really very little that actually connects the two films. Lisztomania is a Surrealist’s absurd study of music composers connected to the rise of Facism presented through a Looney Tunes like lens. This interpretation is really not that far off base.  

Fellini’s Casanova has no interest in history. This epic film is steadfast in its indifference to logic, time or space. The lover, his reality, his Italy and even the horrific Inquisition are not based in any realm of reality. When those support beams and ropes break and Venus sinks to the bottom of the water — so do the film’s strings to logic. Additionally, the movie is not particularly well paced. Fellini’s Casanova takes its time. However the sets, the costumes, the odd assortment of actors, Rotunno’s cinematography and Rota’s haunting score aid in the propelling motion of the gloomy plot.

A huge phallus carefully placed into frame... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

A huge phallus carefully placed into frame…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

As laborious as it sometimes is, Fellini’s Casanova is visually unforgettable. I cringe as I write the following words, but as Woody Allen’s pompous ticket holder annoyingly laments,  Fellini’s Casanova is painfully self-indulgent. This fact does not mean that there isn’t a great deal of value to be found in this excessive film. A couple of DVD and BluRay distributors have managed to secure limited releasing rights to this film. One even claimed to have fully restored the film to its initial flawed beauty. Those claims have yet to demonstrate any truth. However a restoration should be coming in the not too far future. When it does eventually arrive, I do think  this 40+ year old film warrants owning for home viewing.

I know I’ve just criticized it fairly harshly but… Well… Um, yeah. I really do suggest purchasing a copy when it does become available. Fellini’s Casanova is a brilliant mistake!

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

This experimental epic failed in the 1970’s and it fails now, but not without a great deal of interest. Fellini’s Casanova is a visually stunning mess. Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography is even better than usual. Danilo Donati and the work of Cinecitta Studios is truly other-worldly. Incidentally, Fellini’s film flopped — but Donati won an Academy Award for the innovative costume design. Nino Rota’s score is beautiful, effective and iconic. Chances are you have heard the melody even if you’ve never seen the movie. Odd, grotesque, surreal and lovely —  it is virtually impossible to look away from the screen. Even with a running time over two hours, Fellini’s Casanova is not a dull experience. It just isn’t much fun. This is a true flaw.

Fellini approaches his subject with a strong degree of hubris and judgement. Despite the perversities on display, this film is highly moralistic. The dialogue is often smartly witty, but never comical. This is another critical error. Fellini has checked his sense of humor outside the studio. There is no fun to be found within the gorgeous frames of his Casanova. As if in opposition to the dire tone is the clunky manner in which the film has been dubbed. It’s not that the voices fail to match the mouths as much as it is the intelligence runs against the film’s grain. The actors often appear to be lost within their director’s Mise-en-scène.

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

Donald Sutherland lumbers his way through the film. He is essentially nothing more than a sad puppet at the mercy of his filmmaker’s whim. In a strange way, Sutherland’s performance works. Though watching the film now it is hard to wonder if it wasn’t just dumb luck. Vacant, sleepy and possibly bored — his confusion plays directly into the director’s ill-advised endeavor.

It is truly vexing how Fellini has opted out of offering any rays of humor or sexiness in his translation of the infamous Seducer and supposed Lover of women. This film is not the erotic adventure you might anticipate. It is actually un-erotic. Casanova‘s libido and desire have long been lost. Fellini’s film is not just a study of an aging womanizer — it is focused on the tragic existential journey of man who has failed to connect any meaning to sexuality. In fact Fellini’s Casanova does not appear to have ever connected to anyone or anything. This is a lover who’s identity and meaning have gone limp. …both figuratively and literally.

 

Seducing a robotic woman... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Seducing a robotic woman…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Clearly Fellini is pointing a finger at the growing sexual revolution. It is a point not off-mark, but it is consistently made in a haze of staggering showmanship that is often so bad it works its way ’round to being somehow valid.

A man who never speaks ill of women does not love them. For to understand them and to love them one must suffer at their hands. Then and only then can you find happiness at the lips of your beloved.” — Fellini’s Casanova

This character does not dislike women. He is simply indifferent to them. It doesn’t take long to realize his two-way street dilemma. The women do not care about Casanova either. They are only interested in his ability to sex. And sex he can. At least this is true in his youth. But the sex is presented in a dry and often disgusting manner.

Win! He has fucked! Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Win! He has fucked!
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

I think some first time viewers make the mistake of associating this movie with the nunsploitation of the 1970’s. Do not expect that. Sure, the nuns get on the action, but Fellini has no interest in providing even a glimmer of titillation. Yes, it is visually interesting — but there is nothing remotely “naughty” here. It is intended to trouble, worry and depress. Like the bubbling sexual revolution going on just outside the film studio’s gate, Fellini’s Casanova is fucking to prove something.

Sex as sport. Sex as a game. Sex as a dare. Sex as a way to avoid. Sex as a weapon. Sex to hide the pain. Our lover fucks till he can fuck no more. The sexuality expressed in the movie feels like a harbinger of doom. With hindsight this is an interesting perspective. When Casanova finds himself in a sexual tryst with a robotic woman it is visually fascinating, but intellectually heavy-handed.

 

A gift of something to love for the title character... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

A gift of something to love for the title character…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

I find it interesting that the inclusion of this robotic doll of a woman was something Fellini dreamed up just after he began shooting. On the one hand this is a brilliant bit of story telling. Casanova is unable to connect to a living woman. Here Fellini offers him a fuck doll to end all fuck dolls, but there is a major problem. Casanova can pour his sexuality on her without any fear of rejection, failure or need to care. It is a poor choice that Fellini refuses to let up on the dreary tone. Casanova‘s tragic plight with the robotic woman could have been more clever if we were allowed to chuckle. But we are offered no relief from the gloom. Casanova‘s ice cold fuck doll feels like it might be the one thing that Casanova can love. The problem is obvious — a robotic fuck doll is unable to reciprocate love.

Doomed and slipping into the shadows... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Doomed and slipping into the shadows…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

And here we see the simultaneously effective but disappointing cinematic bookend ending. Casanova is left spinning with his love object atop a frozen bay. Peering up at him is the drowned concrete Venus. She is simultaneously a representative for his empty life as well as a goddess who judges him.

It is impossible to deny the artistry. And while the film is too long, it really is not boring. Fellini supplies plenty of eye and ear candy. The movie also has more than its share of WTF Moments. These moments are as not off-putting as they are simply interesting. A film like this could never be made today.

And while I really do disagree with the comparison to Ken Russell’s Lisztomania, it is easy to make the connection. Each film allowed both master filmmakers to pursue their respective visions without interference or restraint. But it must be noted that Russell’s vision and purpose is never placed above the viewers watching out there in the dark cinema. Fellini opted to simply dive into his obsession. A more fitting comparison might be to Francis Ford Coppola’s ill-fated and self-financed indulgence into the movie musical, One From the Heart.

Another director's obsession resulting in a cinematic error. One From the Heart Francis Ford Coppola, 1981 Cinematography | Storer / Garcia

Another director’s obsession resulting in a cinematic error.
One From the Heart
Francis Ford Coppola, 1981
Cinematography | Storer / Garcia

But this is not really fair. One From the Heart is neon beautiful and features some amazing musical work from Tom Waits, but it requires true grit to sit through it. In the case of this 1981 Epic Flop, the director’s passion is dull. There is something maddeningly fascinating about Fellini’s Casanova. If you see it once, you will want to see it again. If you make it through One From the Heart you will want to demand a cookie for your effort.

It should be noted that Fellini’s infamous cinematic misstep continued to be challenged with production woes. This was in part due to Fellini’s last minute major changes of fancy but other issues came up. Much of the film was stolen and subsequently lost forever. The notorious theft was actually aimed for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom. A great deal of shot footage was forever lost. This included an entire sequence involving actress Barbara Steele. She was unable to return to Italy for reshoots. Sutherland and the other actors made themselves available. Fellini’s Casanova was delayed almost two years.

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

When it became clear that the film was a fail Federico Fellini was crushed. It is important to note that he had considered this his finest work up to that point in his career. It is not difficult to understand how soul-draining a film’s flop can be for its maker, but there is an added measure when it happens to someone of Fellini’s abilities and stature. Fellini’s Casanova was an epic fail. But an epic fail from a cinematic master like Federico Fellini is still a masterful design. Being dull or uninteresting was simply not possible for this cinematic genius. This is a film that merits watching. And if you happen to love experimental film — you will most likely love this oddly flawed cinematic gem.

 

La Casanova de Fellini Federico Fellini, 1976

La Casanova de Fellini
Federico Fellini, 1976

Fingers crossed that we see it arrive to DVD/BluRay in a truly restored/remastered version soon!

Matty Stanfield, 6.16.2016

 

 

 

 

 

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