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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

 

 

 

 

 

In 1982 Tangelos' synthesized music, narrator and ill-fitting ending attempt to tell the audience to feel happy as a seminal film classic comes to its original ending. Blade Runner Ridley Scott, 1982 Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

In 1982 Tangelos’ synthesized music, narrator and ill-fitting ending attempt to tell the audience to feel happy as a seminal film classic comes to its original ending.
Blade Runner
Ridley Scott, 1982
Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

A person has just lost their life partner and sits in a crowded room. A concerned friend approaches and sits next to the grieving individual. The friend awkward touches the friend on the arm.

I’m so sorry. I know just how you feel.

The friend should have stopped at “sorry.”

The absolute worst comment that can be made to a person who has just suffered a life-changing loss is “I know how you feel.” We might think we know, but the truth is we only have an empathetic idea of what another feels at such a time. It may sound trite, but human beings are like snowflakes. We are each slightly different in comparison to each other. A person has clue regarding the feelings of another human being who has just suffered a tragic loss.

The Narrator is unreliable, but Bob offers comfort. Edward Norton & Meat Loaf Fight Club David Fincher, 1999 Cinematography | Jeff Cronenweth

The Narrator is unreliable, but Bob offers comfort.
Edward Norton & Meat Loaf
Fight Club
David Fincher, 1999
Cinematography | Jeff Cronenweth

A driver sits in her/his car at a red light. The light turns green. The driver is in a hurry, he/she applies a bit more pressure to the gas peddle than normal. Her/his car slams into the back bumper of another car traveling the intersection. The driver of the car crossing the interaction is furious. Both of these drivers will normally have opposing views of this fender-bender. In fact it is quite probable that the other drivers and pedestrians who witness the accident will have differing views regarding who is at fault.

An aging parent espouses

Perception is a tricky thing when evaluated between two or more other people. Hardly any one wants to be told how to feel. Very few like to be told what to do. But absolutely no one wants to be made to feel like an idiot.

"I feel the words building inside me, I can't stop them, or tell you why I say them, but as I reach the top of the bridge these words come to me in a whisper. I say these words as a prayer, as regret, as praise, I say: 'Lowenstein, Lowenstein.'" Despite the dewy-glow of a silly subplot, the movie actually works save for a painful narration. Nick Nolte, Barbra Streisand and nails The Prince of Tides Barbra Streisand, 1991 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

“I feel the words building inside me, I can’t stop them, or tell you why I say them, but as I reach the top of the bridge these words come to me in a whisper. I say these words as a prayer, as regret, as praise, I say: ‘Lowenstein, Lowenstein.'”
Despite the dewy-glow of a silly subplot, the movie actually works save for a painful narration.
Nick Nolte, Barbra Streisand and nails
The Prince of Tides
Barbra Streisand, 1991
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

I began with reality examples to point out that the use of voice-over narration is most often a major mistake. Not all the time, but most of the time when I see a film utilizing voice-over narration my eyes want to roll up into my head. This is a knee-jerk response that I hold at bay to give any such film in question a chance to prove the use a wise one. Most of the time when a film features a narration it comes across as lazy filmmaking. The other problem is that this style of cinematic story telling has been over used for decades. It often feels less “old-school” and more simply “old” and completely outmoded.

But there are filmmakers who can use voice-over narration to benefit their films. A solid example of a good narration use — maybe even one of the best — is Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan. In Annie Hall Allen not only provides narration — he breaks the fourth wall. And it works! He is far from being the only film artist to successfully break that wall between the film and the audience. When Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner adapted Bret Easton Ellis notorious novel, American Psycho, for the big screen they took a major gamble for a lower budgeted independent film: They had Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman constantly breaking the fourth wall and act as not only a narrative device but an unreliable and darkly funny one.

"I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing." Christian Bale not only serves as a narrative device which breaks the fourth wall, he brings unreliable narration to a whole new level. Christian Bale American Psycho Mary Harron, 2000 Cinematography | Andrzej Sekula

“I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.”
Christian Bale not only serves as a narrative device which breaks the fourth wall, he brings unreliable narration to a whole new level.
Christian Bale
American Psycho
Mary Harron, 2000
Cinematography | Andrzej Sekula

Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums smartly employees Alex Baldwin to provide a voice-over narration that not only serves the film — it totally enhances the film itself. But perhaps the three best examples of voice-over narration that not only works but makes their films even better are Sunset Blvd., Taxi Driver and A Clockwork Orange. Billy Wilder was way ahead of his time when he had a dead character narrate the sad, twisted, tragic and darkly comical tale of Norma Desmond in a sure-footed feat of detailed flashback. Wilder does not rob his film of suspense by revealing that William Holden’s Joe Gillis has been killed. The use of this device adds multiple perspectives to a surprisingly blunt slap at the film industry and the notion of aging celebrity.

"The poor dope. He always wanted a pool." Unique twist of narration assists a movie that a cinematic game-changer. William Holden is your dead narrator. Sunset Blvd. Billy Wilder, 1950 Cinematography | John F. Seitz

“The poor dope. He always wanted a pool.”
Unique twist of narration assists a movie that a cinematic game-changer.
William Holden is your dead narrator.
Sunset Blvd.
Billy Wilder, 1950
Cinematography | John F. Seitz

Martin Scorsese is a filmmaker who has always understood how to employee voice-over narration to work in his film’s favor. Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle‘s narration not only truly drives Taxi Driver forward, it offers the viewer insights into the horrifying motivations of the title character. The film rattled cages 40 years ago and continues to do so today because we are allowed to see inside the mind of a psychopath who is humanized in our minds. His anguish and anger accelerates to a crescendo of violence that luckily resolves a horrific problem. Scorsese does not let the audience off so easily. We certainly are unable to trust Travis anymore than we can buy into his insights. The film ends with a scene that may or may not have happened, but one thing is for certain — Travis has not changed. The jarring final editing and perspectives of the closing scene leaves the audience startled.

"Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up." A chilling voice-over narration that lingers forever... Robert De Niro Taxi Driver Martin Scorsese, 1976 Cinematography | Michael Chapman

“Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.”
A chilling voice-over narration that lingers forever…
Robert De Niro
Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese, 1976
Cinematography | Michael Chapman

My personal favorite voice-over can be found in Stanley Kubrick’s amazing adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel, A Clockwork Orange. Meticulously designed and filmed, this iconic and controversial movie opens with an unforgettable shot. We appear to be entering an unknown world but are greeted by Malcolm Mcdowell’s unmistakable voice. It is his Alex who introduces us to Kubrick’s setting in which we find ourselves:

“There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie and Dim and we sat in the Korova milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening. The Korova Milk Bar sold milkplus, milk plus vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence. Our pockets were full of money so there was no need on that score, but, as they say, money isn’t everything.”

"Giddy well, little brother. viddy well." A Clockwork Orange Stanley Kubrick, 1971 Cinematography | John Alcott

“Giddy well, little brother. viddy well.”
A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick, 1971
Cinematography | John Alcott

And with that we are introduced into some future state of what must be England. And judging from Alex‘s Northern Lad Accent, our narrator is somewhere in the limited world of what we have come to know as council estate life. The use of this rebellious teenaged troublemaker as our narrator not only fits the film — it serves to offer us a voice to the illogical and shocking actions of our criminally insane protagonist. This mixed with Kubrick and John Alcotts’ camera perspectives delivers a disturbing evaluation of an attempt to control human cruelty by a brutality that might be even more horrid than our narrator’s psyche. Kubrick asks more questions than he answers and all he really needs is the voice-over of the film’s protagonist to deliver the gut-punches.

Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Herr had an exhausted Martin Sheen read a voice-over for Apocalypse Now as an attempt to provide structure to an epic film that wanted to spiral out of control.  Some will argue that it was valid, I am not among them. This oddly effective mess of a movie is not nearly as interesting as the complexities involved in the making of it.

 "Never get out of the boat." A rather bored and sleepy narration attempts to assign meaning to the meaningless... Martin Sheen Apocalypse Now Francis Ford Coppola, 1979 Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro

“Never get out of the boat.” A rather bored and sleepy narration attempts to assign meaning to the meaningless…
Martin Sheen
Apocalypse Now
Francis Ford Coppola, 1979
Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro

It has always seemed to me that Apocalypse Now would have been better served in under two hours. Marlon Brando’s rambling mixing with the horrifying ritual of animal slaughter would have helped to deliver a more satisfying film than the one (or ones) we have received. Despite itself, this is a film that cannot be dismissed.

Much like the use of sentimental orchestrated strings cue the audience that it is time to allow tears to well up or gather goosebumps as we watch the boy get the girl or the girl lose the boy — voice-over narration is usually an exercise in manipulation that most films really do not need. One of the most shameless uses of voice-over narration would have to be Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump. When this movie first came out I remember thinking that there was something wrong with me. So many people seemed to love a seemingly retarded Tom Hanks intermingling with iconic events with the offer of vomit inducing non-witicisms as narration just left me annoyed. As it soon turned out — I was not alone.

"Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." Tom Hanks Forrest Gump Robert Zemeckis, 1994 Cinematography | Don Burgess

“Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Tom Hanks
Forrest Gump
Robert Zemeckis, 1994
Cinematography | Don Burgess

Even when an argument can be made in favor of the poorest voice-over narrations, a counter-argument nearly always defeats it. To roll back to the beginning of this post, when Barbra Streisand decided to star and film The Prince of Tides a viewer pretty much knew what to expect. However what she delivered was a bit more and also a bit less than anticipated. Streisand was able to secure Conroy to adapt his own novel with the assistance of Becky Johnston, but a film belongs to its director. The most problematic aspect of Conroy’s novel is the romantic situation that develops between the protagonist and his sister’s shrink. This challenge found in Conroy’s novel could have easily been pushed aside for what is really at the core of the novel’s beauty. Instead Streisand pushes adultery and reckless ethics to center stage without ever noting either issue of the soft-focused love affair. What is interesting is that this is not the film’s main issue.

"I don't know when my parents began their war against each other - but I do know the only prisoners they took were their children." Despite the cheesy narration Kate Nelligan delivers an amazing turn. The Prince of Tides Barbra Streisand, 1991 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

“I don’t know when my parents began their war against each other – but I do know the only prisoners they took were their children.”
Despite the cheesy narration Kate Nelligan delivers an amazing turn.
The Prince of Tides
Barbra Streisand, 1991
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

It is Streisand’s use of Nick Nolte’s voice-over narration that most harms The Prince of Tides. This is important to note. While we all might roll our eyes at the director’s need to center herself as both the protagonist’s object of Savior and Sexual Goddess, it is harder to blame her for wanting to lose the beauty of Pat Conroy’s writing. However it is crucial for a filmmaker to remember that The Book and The Movie it inspires are two very different animals. Pat Conroy’s writing often approached poetry, but to have even the most gifted actor read it as a narrative device will usually reduce it to mush. As we see three young children holding their breath under the water and race to the top to reveal the film’s title card is cinematic. But to have that scene accompanied by Nick Nolte narrating:

“We found a silent soothing world where there was no pain. A world without mothers or fathers. We would make a circle bound by flesh and blood and water and only when we felt our lungs betray us would we rise towards the light.”  It should work and for some it might, but for most of us these poetic remarks are borderline cringe-inducing. Cinema is already a language in and of itself. Narration like this is heavy-handed at best.

"It seems every day ends with a miracle here." Kevin Costner chose to provide the narrative voice-over for his 1990 epic. Dances With Wolves Kevin Costner, 1990 Cinematography | Dean Semler

“It seems every day ends with a miracle here.”
Kevin Costner chose to provide the narrative voice-over for his 1990 epic.
Dances With Wolves
Kevin Costner, 1990
Cinematography | Dean Semler

If you notice a stronger opinion against Streisand’s The Prince of Tides than Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, the only reason is sexism. Like Streisand’s film that would come a year later, Kevin Costner’s directorial effort was equally invested with genuine importance. Michael Blake’s book inspired Costner to make a film that offers insight into the atrocities against Native Americans. The core message does survive within the once acclaimed film, but mostly this is a vanity project in which the director casts himself in the role of object.

Consistently back lit and in soft-focus, we even get to see Mr. Costner run about nude. And even with Mr. Blake writing the screenplay, Costner leans heavy into his character’s love for an oddly 1980’s coiffed Mary McDonnell. Even the dirt on her face seems to have been placed there by Max Factor. The two white characters become pretty much take center stage bathed in light and breezy soft-focus. However barely anyone noted this at the time. Unlike Streisand, he is a man and has the auto-right to showcase himself exactly the way he chooses. But it is when Costner recites the narration that the film really rides off the rails. While the film wants to shed light on the indignities suffered by Native Americans and demonstrate the beauty that the white men destroyed, it is up to the whitest man on the planet to save the day and take center screen.

“Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeymen they are made out to be. On the contrary, they are polite guests and I enjoy their humor.”

Part of the problem with the narration of Dances With Wolves is its earnest self-importance, but the underlying issue is the fact that Costner sounds like a weed-lovin’ surfer about to take a nap every time he speaks. Of course it does match his flawless hair and ill-suited swagger for the era in which the story takes place.

Luckily Bob Fosse didn’t lose his focus while shooting Cabaret or we might have a film musical featuring Michael York reading from Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories! And, yes, that would have been awful.

"A paranoid schizophrenic walks into a bar..." A brilliant actor goes for broke but a voice-over narration just about wrecks the whole thing. Tom Hardy & Tom Hardy Legend Brian Helgeland, 2015 Cinematography | Dick Pope

“A paranoid schizophrenic walks into a bar…”
A brilliant actor goes for broke but a voice-over narration just about wrecks the whole thing.
Tom Hardy & Tom Hardy
Legend
Brian Helgeland, 2015
Cinematography | Dick Pope

Last year it was rumored that Brian Helgeland had finally directed a film that would match if not exceed his artistry as the writer of 1997’s LA Confidential. Having penned the script himself from John Pearson’s book about the strange and horrific story of England’s infamous Kray Brothers with Tom Hardy cast to play both brothers — the rumor seemed like it might just be a safe bet. However my gamble of seeing Legend failed to fully reward the promise of the bet.

Uh, oh. Double trouble! Better give 'em some voice-over narration! Tom Hardy + Tom Hardy Brian Helgeland, 2015 Cinematography | Dick Pope

Uh, oh. Double trouble! Better give ’em some voice-over narration!
Tom Hardy + Tom Hardy
Brian Helgeland, 2015
Cinematography | Dick Pope

It is my opinion that Tom Hardy is one of if not the most important movie actor of his generation. The guy has it all. Blessed with talent, skill, on-screen presence, charisma and rugged incredible good looks — Tom Hardy is poised to become a screen legend himself.

As both Reggie and Ronald Kray he is clearly having fun. Equally invested in both characters, Hardy plunges into the two very different but complicated psyches. Walking a sort of tightrope, Hardy manages to be touching, scary and always without fail funny as hell. Shot crisply but relying a bit too much on the limited budget to create the actor on both sides of the screen, the special effects are not always on spot.

Even though the budget has severely restricted the digital effects -- These 3 are poised to creep you out and make you laugh... Tom Hardy, Christopher Eccleston & Tom Hardy Legend Brian Helgeland, 2015 Cinematography | Dick Pope

Even though the budget has severely restricted the digital effects — These 3 are poised to creep you out and make you laugh…
Tom Hardy, Christopher Eccleston & Tom Hardy
Legend
Brian Helgeland, 2015
Cinematography | Dick Pope

Christopher Eccleston approaches his role as the copper out to stop the two brothers as if he was speeding on cocaine. Mr. Eccleston is in over-drive and manages to make a predictable cliche of a character memorable. But this is Tom Hardy’s show and it would seem to be aiming for intentional darkly twisted comedy.

Or were my laughs intended by Mr. Helgeland? Sadly if they were, he must have had a change-of-heart in post-production.

Emily Browning is not the greatest actor working, but she is certainly a capable performer. It is poor Ms. Browning who has been assigned the task of providing Legend ‘s voice-over narration.

And, this narration is bad. Painfully bad. And to make it all the worse she has been cast as the fiancée who committed suicide prior to marrying Reggie Kray. Yes, this is a voice-over narration from the grave minus any snarky sense of humor. Helgeland appears to have pushed Browning for a deadly serious reading.

And it just about strangles his film of any life. To make it all the worse, Frances Shea ‘s commentary from the dead fails to actually connect with her living character. Frances certainly displays issues regarding her intended’s way of making a living but she seems game enough to look the other way. If anything, Frances seems a bit dim-witted or simplistic in her thinking and displays none of her dead self’s anger and intelligence.

"I'm a giver. Not a receiver. I am not a faggot!" Legend Brian Helgeland, 2015 Cinematography | Dick Pope

“I’m a giver. Not a receiver. I am not a faggot!”
Tom Hardy as The Kray Brothers Legend
Brian Helgeland, 2015
Cinematography | Dick Pope

But what is truly baffling about Helgeland’s use of voice-over narration is that the film needs none at all.

If a sound editor were to wipe away Browning’s narration — the film would still flow. In fact, it would flow better.

If only a few of Ms. Browning’s scenes were cut, the film would have succeeded as a demented comic take at something that really happened under the noses of England’s leadership and celebrity brass.

Legend most likely could never be a perfect film, but it could have been perfectly entertaining. As it is now, Legend nearly crumbles under the weight of a dead girl’s lofty narration.

Intentional or not, this film is often criminally comic. Tom Hardy x 2 Brian Helgeland, 2015 Cinematography | Dick Pope

Intentional or not, this film is often criminally comic.
Tom Hardy x 2
Brian Helgeland, 2015
Cinematography | Dick Pope

Sometimes the less said, the better.

Matty Stanfield, 3.8.16

 

 

 

 

 

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Cinema is many things, but it is a visual medium. The Cinematographer weaves magic of light, composition, perspective and frames which capture the vision of the film’s director. Here are a few of my favorite cinematography moments. There are other cinematic moments that are better and equally loved, but this are a few that came into my mind…

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8½ Federico Fellini, 1963 Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

“Fate is written in the face.”Federico Fellini

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8½ Federico Fellini, 1963 Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

“Our job isn’t to recreate reality, our job is to represent reality.”Gordon Willis

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Klute Alan J. Pakula, 1971 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

 

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Manhattan Woody Allen, 1979 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

 

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September 30, 1955 James Bridges, 1977 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

 

“The idea is to find the space and then to light it in such a way that the actors can go wherever they like, and then to respond to what the actors have done. Only at that point are the final frames decided upon. So it can be very spontaneous.” Sean Bobbitt

 

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Shame Steve McQueen, 2011 Cinematography | Sean Bobbitt

 

 

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12 Years A Slave Steve McQueen, 2013 Cinematography | Sean Bobbitt

 

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Hunger Steve McQueen, 2008 Cinematography | Sean Bobbitt

” When we came to film Persona, we virtually discarded the medium shot. We went from wide shots to close-ups and vice versa. Ingmar had seen a certain resemblance between Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson, and the idea had dawned of making a film about identification between two people who come close together and start to think the same thoughts. The film gave me the opportunity to explore my fascination with the face…” — Sven Nykvist

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Persona Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

 

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Persona Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

 

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Persona Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

 

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Persona Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

“For me, movies should be visual. If you want dialogue, you should read a book.”

Vilmos Zsigmond

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The Rose Mark Rydell, 1979 Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

 

Mark Rydell told Zsigmond that The Rose should “look like an abdominal operation.” — Noel Murray of The Dissolve

 

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The Rose Mark Rydell, 1979 Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

 

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The Rose Mark Rydell, 1979 Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

 

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The Rose Mark Rydell, 1979 Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

 

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Vivre Sa Vie Jean-Luc Godard, 1962 Cinematography | Raoul Coutard

“Photography is truth. The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.”

Jean-Luc Godard

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Vivre Sa Vie Jean-Luc Godard, 1962 Cinematography | Raoul Coutard

“A film on prostitution about a pretty Paris shopgirl who sells her body but keeps her soul while going through a series of adventures that allow her to experience all possible deep human emotions, and that were filmed by Jean-Luc Godard and portrayed by Anna Karina. Vivre sa vie.”Jean-Luc Godard

 

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Vivre Sa Vie Jean-Luc Godard, 1962 Cinematography | Raoul Coutard

“The more one talks, the less the words mean.”Vivre Sa Vie

 

Invisible Waves Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2006 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Invisible Waves
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2006
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

 

“I think the point of cinematography, of what we do, is intimacy. Is intent, is the balance between the familiar and the dream, it is being subjective and objective, it is being engaged and yet standing back and noticing something that perhaps other people didn’t notice before, or celebrating something that you feel is beautiful or valid, or true or engaging in some way.” Christopher Doyle

 

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Happy Together Kar-wai Wong, 1997 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

 

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Dumplings Fruit Chan, 2004 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

 

“There’s always a shot or a moment you missed; it informs your work rather than takes from it.” Christopher Doyle

 

Away With Words Christopher Doyle, 1999

Away With Words
Christopher Doyle, 1999

 

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A Woman Under the Influence John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

 

“Mabel is not crazy, she’s unusual. She’s not crazy, so don’t say she’s crazy.”A Woman Under The Influence

 

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Bronson Nicolas Winding Rein, 2008 Cinematography | Larry Smith

 

“I’m colorblind, I can’t see mid-colors. That’s why all my films are very contrasted, if it were anything else I couldn’t see it.”Nicolas Winding Refn

 

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Only God Forgives Nicolas Winding Rein, 2013 Cinematography | Larry Smith

 

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Calvary John Michael McDonagh, 2014 Cinematography | Larry Smith

 

“I shot much of the film with a handheld Arriflex with a very wide lens and a tiny tobacco tin on the front fitted with a wee bulb to add a bit of fill, just enough to see Catherine Deneuve’s skin in the shadows until I moved in close.”Gilbert Taylor

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Repulsion Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

 

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Repulsion Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

 

“I believe the look of the picture is inherent in the material. The material will tell you what the picture should look like. Roman [Polanski] took the audience and led them by the nose to a point, then he left it up to you, and let the audience run with their imagination.” — William A. Fraker

 

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Rosemary’s Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

 

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Rosemary’s Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

 

“Cinema should make you forget you are sitting in a theater.”
Roman Polanski

 

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Rosemary’s Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

 

“I love my work. It’s a passion because otherwise you can’t do it.” — Benoît Debie

 

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Irreversible Gaspar Noé, 2002 Cinematography | Benoît Debie

 

“When you see a movie, it’s like you’re attending a show of magic in which the magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat.”
Gaspar Noe

 

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Enter The Void Gaspar Noé, 2009 Cinematography | Benoît Debie

 

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Spring Breakers Harmony Korine, 2012 Cinematography | Benoît Debie

 

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Love Gaspar Noé, 2015 Cinematography | Benoît Debie

 

“You make the movie through the cinematography – it sounds quite a simple idea, but it was like a huge revelation to me.”
Nicolas Roeg

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Don’t Look Now Nicolas Roeg, 1973 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond

 

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Don’t Look Now Nicolas Roeg, 1973 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond

 

“I think a cinematographer’s job is to put a director’s vision on the screen. Nic is very clear in his vision and how he wants a movie to look, to feel, to smell.”Anthony B. Richmond

 

 

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Don’t Look Now Nicolas Roeg, 1973 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond

 

“During the minutes or seconds that this fleeting image is on the screen, you have to enable the viewer to see and especially to experience that there is a very rapid emotional shock. So the lighting has to be designed in such a way that its form can pierce through the screen and travel like an arrow into the viewer’s mind.” — Henri Alekan

 

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Wings of Desire Wim Wenders, 1987 Cinematography | Henri Alekan

 

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Wings of Desire Wim Wenders, 1987 Cinematography | Henri Alekan

 

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Wings of Desire Wim Wenders, 1987 Cinematography | Henri Alekan

 

“The beautiful thing about Robby is that he starts the process by talking to you about what the film means, what the story is about, what the characters are about. He starts from the inside out, which is really, really such a great way.”Jim Jarmusch

 

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Down By Law Jim Jarmusch, 1986 Cinematography | Robby Müller

 

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Paris Texas Wim Wenders, 1984 Cinematography | Robby Müller

 

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Breaking the Waves Lars von Trier, 1996 Cinematography | Robby Müller

 

” I’ve had glasses since I was six. Back then, I’d wake up in the morning and do things without my glasses on, and I’d be pretty blind. I’m very comfortable getting up close to things. There’s a sense of discovery that comes with that and it’s something I’m really interested in in my work.”  — Ashley Connor

 

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Butter on the Latch Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

 

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Butter on the Latch Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

 

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Thou Wast Mild and Lovely Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

 

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Barry Lyndon Stanley Kubrick, 1975 Cinematography | John Alcott

 

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Barry Lyndon Stanley Kubrick, 1975 Cinematography | John Alcott

 

“Our working relationship is close because we think exactly alike photographically. We really do see eye-to-eye photographically.” John Alcott

 

 

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A Clockwork Orange Stanley Kubrick, 1971 Cinematography | John Alcott

 

 

“Style is something that’s extremely important, but it must grow naturally out of who and what you are and what the material calls for. It cannot be superimposed.”
William Friedkin

 

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The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

 

“The camera lies all the time — lies 24 times/second.”
Brian De Palma

 

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Dressed to Kill Brian De Palma, 1980 Cinematography | Ralf D. Bode

 

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Dressed to Kill Brian De Palma, 1980 Cinematography | Ralf D. Bode

 

Dressed to Kill Brian De Palma, 1980 Cinematography | Ralf D. Bode

Dressed to Kill
Brian De Palma, 1980
Cinematography | Ralf D. Bode

 

 

” It’s very pleasant to hear that because my conception of this job is to be a companion or a collaborator. It’s to complete something. It is also making the image as separate from the directing but to be part of the storytelling process. If you have some distance with the film you are watching, you’ll be just attracted. You’ll be swimming in it. Or enveloped, like music” Agnes Godard

 

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Beau Travail Claire Denis, 1999 Cinematography | Agnès Godard

 

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Trouble Every Day Claire Denis, 2001 Cinematography | Agnès Godard

 

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The Intruder Claire Denis, 2004 Cinematography | Agnès Godard

 

“Photographing Citizen Kane was indeed the most exciting professional adventure of my career.” Gregg Toland

 

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Citizen Kane Orson Welles, 1941 Cinematography | Gregg Toland

 

“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”
Orson Welles

 

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Citizen Kane Orson Welles, 1941 Cinematography | Gregg Toland

 

“Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.”
Ingmar Bergman

 

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Persona Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Cinematic images are the things of magic.

Matty Stanfield, 1.6.2016

 

 

 

Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983

Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983

Marshall McLuhan was a fascinating intellectual. He was also a scholar and philosopher who focused nearly all of his attention to the ways in which media does a great deal more than inform, sell or entertain. Almost 30 years before it was created, McLuhan predicted the concept of a “global village” or and electronic means of communication. In other words, the Canadian Media Theory Philosopher predicted what we now call The Internet.

If you are unfamiliar with the ideas put forward by McLuhan, here are a few quotes that highlight his ideas about the impact of media:

“In this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness.” 

“Ideally, advertising aims at the goal of a programmed harmony among all human impulses and aspirations and endeavors. Using handicraft methods, it stretches out toward the ultimate electronic goal of a collective consciousness.”

Marshall McLuhan circa 1970 Photographer | Unknown to me

Marshall McLuhan
circa 1970
Photographer | Unknown to me

“One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There’s always more than you can cope with.”

“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”

“The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”

McLuhan emerged as much a critic of media as he was in awe of a power that most could not see or simply seemed to to fully grasp. While “the medium is the message,” that message is continually elevating to newer and more invasive ways.

The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects  Marshall McLuhan, 1967 Graphic Design |Quentin Fiore

The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects
Marshall McLuhan, 1967 Graphic Design |Quentin Fiore

The continual evolution of medium’s technology is quickly escalating in it’s strength. Humankind is being manipulated in ways beyond the imagination. Individuality was / is losing ground. Is giving way to a formation of something more than “human” in the way we define ourselves.

“In this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness.” Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan’s ideas, theories, opinions and assertions are almost frightening in the ways one can chart the truth of what he stated in his lifetime. This great thinker died in 1980, yet his ideas remain alive and valid. To say he was ahead of the cultural curve would be an understatement.

As a Media Theorist, he had a great interest in television and motion pictures. Or, rather, an interest into what was actually being conveyed to audiences as they took in the information being “fed” into what was no longer simply the mind of the individual but the shared mind of those who watched and listened. By the mid-1970’s his ideas had well slipped into the intellectual mainstream as evidenced by his appearance as himself in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall in 1977.

In the surreal scene Allen’s character is able to invoke the presence of McLuhan to defend his personal opinion to an annoyingly loud fellow cinephile while they wait to see The Sorrow & The Pity:

Wait a minute, why can’t I give my opinion? It’s a free country!
He can give it… do you have to give it so loud? I mean, aren’t you ashamed to pontificate like that? And the funny part of it is, Marshall McLuhan, you don’t know anything about Marshall McLuhan!
Oh, really? Well, it just so happens I teach a class at Columbia called ‘TV, Media and Culture.’ So I think my insights into Mr. McLuhan, well, have a great deal of validity!
Oh, do ya? Well, that’s funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here, so, so, yeah, just let me —” [Allen pulls McLuhan into Gordon Willis’ frame] “Come over here for a second. tell him!

"I heard what you were saying! You know nothing of my work! You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!"  Marshall McLuhan stands up for Alvey Annie Hall Woody Allen, 1977 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

“I heard what you were saying! You know nothing of my work! You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!”
Marshall McLuhan stands up for Alvey
Annie Hall
Woody Allen, 1977
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

While more than a few artists latched onto the ideas of Marshall McLuhan so did Film Theory, Philosophy and Journalism majors at universities across the world. But perhaps no intellectual and no artist latched onto McLuhan’s theories than fellow Canadian filmmaker, David Cronenberg.

Art is anything you can get away with.— Marshall McLuhan

From the very beginning, David Cronenberg pushed the ideas of Grindhouse Horror further than any other. Certainly, George A. Romero was interested in the ideas around how marketing and consumerism were rendering humans to a zombie like need that could never be fully satisfied.

"What are they doing? Why do they come here?" "Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives." Zombies roam the mall for live flesh as the new commodity. Day of the Dead George A. Romero, 1978 Cinematography | Michael Gornick

“What are they doing? Why do they come here?”
“Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”
Zombies roam the mall for live flesh as the new commodity.
Day of the Dead
George A. Romero, 1978
Cinematography | Michael Gornick

But it was Cronenberg who began to translate McLuhan’s ideas into a literal horror involving not only the way in which we think, but the way in which medium-saturated psychology could possibly morph into our biology.

Cronenberg was also way ahead of the cultural curve, when his low-budget gore-fests like 1975’s Shivers and 1977’s Rabid use the idea of sexual appetite and parasites or viruses merging to spread world-wide pandemics. Shivers is focused on a swinging singles apartment complex, but Rabid branches out into the world. A strange sort of gaping slip of a hole appears in the armpit, and the diseased seeks out sex partners to satisfy a painful urge. …and spread a disease.

A perplexing gape of wound appears on the body beautiful. Iconic Porn Star of the day goes legit as the sexy victim of disease which causes her to aggressively spread her sickness... RABID David Cronenberg, 1977 Cinematography | René Verzier

A perplexing gape of wound appears on the body beautiful. Iconic Porn Star of the day goes legit as the sexy victim of disease which causes her to aggressively spread her sickness…
RABID
David Cronenberg, 1977
Cinematography | René Verzier

As silly as the gore might be in this movies, both carry a cerebral and visceral horror for viewers that remain today. We might giggle at some of the effects, but once these movies end the realization that we have seen two movies that seem to have predicted AIDS is impossible to dismiss. It is of particular interest that Cronenberg sought out the former Ivory Soap Girl turned Porn Superstar, Marilyn Chambers, to play the main carrier of the disease. A once symbol of Purity, Cleanliness & Innocence turned to Hardcore Media Porn Star Sinsation. The medium is the message…

In what can probably be considered Cronenberg’s first truly artistic horror film, 1979’s The Brood offers horror on several levels. In some ways this movie is a horror film about child-like killers. The site of these murderous little demons is delivered in a low-fi but intensely horrifying way.

Brooding literally births avenging demonic child-like killers intent on carrying the medium and message The Brood David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Mark Irwin

Brooding literally births avenging demonic child-like killers intent on carrying the medium and message
The Brood
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Mark Irwin

On another level, this surprisingly cerebral film offers a horror film related to the clinging fears left over from the 1960’s/1970’s revolutionary changes regarding individual freedoms and a culture in which patriarchal “control” over sexuality, marriage, children and our own individual minds was giving way to something that many felt sinister.

Oliver Reed’s Dr. Hal Raglan is a brilliant and charismatic sort of Psychiatry Guru (or Psychoplasmics Master) who has established a center for emotionally challenged individuals. A wife and mother with serious emotional issues has sought help, but has become a sort of Cult Slave to Dr. Raglan’s mad science experiments involving psychological anger.

Samantha Eggar broods her rage into full-fledged living beings designed to carry out her darkest violent urges. The Brood David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Max Irwin

Samantha Eggar broods her rage into full-fledged living beings designed to carry out her darkest violent urges.
The Brood
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Played by Samantha Eggar, this woman has learned to channel her rage into her core biology. Dr. Raglan is the medium. The message is an endless rage which morphs into stunted results of psycho-physcial pregnancies. She is not merely brooding anger, resentment and anger at her husband and a daughter who has perhaps prevented her evolution as an individual. No, she is literally brooding a number of angry beings birthed to carry out her inner insane rages. Under the work of the Mad Scientist, she is birthing the medium that seeks to destroy.

"Thirty seconds after you're born you have a past and sixty seconds after that you begin to lie to yourself about it." Grooming a birth of insane rage... Body Horror taken to a whole new level. The Brood David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“Thirty seconds after you’re born you have a past and sixty seconds after that you begin to lie to yourself about it.”
Grooming a birth of insane rage… Body Horror taken to a whole new level.
The Brood
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Max Irwin

The Brood suffers from limited budget, hammy acting and an idea that feels at once brilliant and a bit too silly. But we cannot forget that this is a David Cronenberg. The Brood is more than a partially scary and partially satirical cult movie — it sneaks in under our skin and into our shared thinking. This film lingers long after the comedic elements fade. Esteemed writer, Carrie Rickey, has pointed out that The Brood is also a startling counter-point to Kramer Vs. Kramer.

In 1981’s Scanners, David Cronenberg officially crossed over to mainstream success. No longer limited to Drive-In’s, Midnight Screenings or lower-rate cinemasScanners received a wide release.

Disturbing but creative art therapy isn't enough for corporate interests... Scanners David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Max Irwin

Disturbing but creative art therapy isn’t enough for corporate interests…
Scanners
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Max Irwin

And it not only changed the way we think of Science Fiction Horror, it elevated Cronenberg to a whole new level of artistic acceptance. It can also be closely linked to the ideology of Marshall McLuhan. Although the message is presented to humanity more in the form of 20th Century biochemicals than media. In Cronenberg’s Scanners, Diethylstilbestrol (DES) is not merely a carcinogenic, it has infected fetuses with a new sort of power. Thalidomide not only harms, it too causes a strange psycho-power mutation within infected fetal tissue of mothers treated with these chemicals.

"How do you feel?" "I feel crystal clear." Heads do not roll. They explode. Scanners David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“How do you feel?”
“I feel crystal clear.”
Heads do not roll. They explode.
Scanners
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Suddenly, Cronenberg’s much discussed Body Horror has elevated from human emotion to true biological horror. These infected mothers have given birth to children who have a new horrific telekinesis power. A power that can ultimately be controlled and used as a new kind of weapon. The film is best known for the effect of exploding heads, is actually going much deeper into human fear and horror ideology.

But it would be with Cronenberg’s 1983’s Videodrome that his interests in McLuhan’s teachings and the director’s own personal interest in the horror of the body turning against it’s owner would blend to form the almost perfect mix of Art Horror, Science Fiction, Surrealism and Cultural/Societal commentary.

"First it controls your mind...then it destroys your body" France's marketing campaign focused heavily on Debbie Harry Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“First it controls your mind…then it destroys your body”
France’s marketing campaign focused heavily on Debbie Harry
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Max Renn is the burned-out, bored but still ambitious CEO of a small Adults-Only cable company that seems posed to break big in the growing world of cable TV. Renn markets his cable channel as “The one you take to bed with you.” In 1983, audiences would have linked this fictional channel to the likes of Playboy TV or a wide range of latenight-only cable channels that offered soft porn and other provocative topics to it’s viewers.

Just slightly ahead of the game, the VHS industry was really only just starting to take-off across the mainstream. Players were only just starting to come down in price and the middle class had only dipped a few toes into the video-stream. The battle between VHS and BetaMax had not even fully started.

Cyber-Punk Surrealism or Infected Brain Hallucination? James Wood's is about to receive a whole new kind of "head"  Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

Cyber-Punk Surrealism or Infected Brain Hallucination? James Wood’s is about to receive a whole new kind of “head”
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

In the real world, these types of channels were facing a number of obstacles in presenting hardcore sex. It was limited to silly soft-porn movies or carefully edited hardcore sex movies to amped-up R-rated erotica. In Cronenberg’s film Max Renn is eager to push pass the rules. Seemingly latching onto McLuhan’s idea of art being what one can get away with, Renn no longer cares about the rules that restrict him from gaining a competitive edge in the erotic marketplace. His “ethical” stance is flawed. If compared to McLuhan’s concept, Renn has perverted the idea regarding art. For Renn, this is simply business.

Enter the oddly moralistic world of David Cronenberg. Sexuality is a lure that Cronenberg utilizes to pull the audience into his latest exploration in psychological horror. The use of sex is both titillating and perverse. In many ways, Videodrome is  Cyber-Punk Horror that dares to call our erotic desires into both cinematic provocation as well as an almost moral judgement.

Cinematic Provocation. A strange group of people can only find sexual pleasure/release at the time of self-inflicted car collisions take place. The scars become more erotic than the body upon which they inflict.  Rosanna Arquette CRASH David Cronenberg, 1996 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Cinematic Provocation. A strange group of people can only find sexual pleasure/release at the time of self-inflicted car collisions take place. The scars become more erotic than the body upon which they inflict.
Rosanna Arquette
CRASH
David Cronenberg, 1996
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

I stress almost because Cronenberg is expertly exploiting/selling sex as much as he thrusts our prurient interests to a questionable level. This was not the first time nor was it the last that this skilled filmmaker would use sexuality in a perplexing duality of human nature. There is always a strangely moralistic tie in all of Cronenberg’s films. Even in his adaptation of JG Ballard’s CRASH, he would tease the audience with subversive and perverse sexuality to arouse not only very dark eroticism, but to illicit a perverse joy in turning it back on the audience.

One of our first opportunities to understand this character is when we see him as a guest on a local channel chat show. The chat show host is clearly uncomfortable discussing the ever-expanding level of sexual explicitness on television, but she grins and bares it. Max is one of three guests. The second guest is Nicki Brand, played with a gleeful level of subversion by Cultural Icon, Debbie Harry. Nicki, like Max, sells sex. She is selling herself as a sort of Post-Feminist erotic answer to the “outmoded” concepts of Feminist Theory formed by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Her mode of medium is talk radio in which she dishes out pseudo-pop-psychology sexualized advice.

"What about it, Nicki? Is it socially positive?" "Well, I think we live in overstimulated times. We crave stimulation for its own sake. We gorge ourselves on it. We always want more, whether it's tactile, emotional or sexual."  Feminist Theory gets a kink-reboot with Debbie Harry as Nicki Brand. Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“What about it, Nicki? Is it socially positive?”
“Well, I think we live in overstimulated times. We crave stimulation for its own sake. We gorge ourselves on it. We always want more, whether it’s tactile, emotional or sexual.”
Feminist Theory gets a kink-reboot with Debbie Harry as Nicki Brand.
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Debbie Harry, at her own erotic prime and fame is the perfect actor for this role. At once intellectual and also a rather edgy erotic tease, she is like cat-nip for Max Renn. As the chat show host pulls them into a debate about the dark side of eroticism to the masses, it becomes clear that Nicki Brand isn’t really looking to counter-point Max Renn as much as to simply admit that she is fully aware of the “dangers” but not that concerned with falling prey. As she informs the host, “We live in over-stimulated times.” As Max begins to openly flirt with Nicki, the host is left in an even more comical unease.

She then turns away from her two sex-fueled guest to her scientific expert who refuses to appear on any other media than the television. Taken to a truly literal perspective, Professor Brian O’Blivion appears on a TV sitting on a coffee table by the host. As the increasingly nervous host attempts to interview O’Blivion it quickly becomes apparent that he is not going to fully connect with her.

Marshall McLuhan deconstructed: Dr. Brian O'Blivion only seems to respond... Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

Marshall McLuhan deconstructed: Dr. Brian O’Blivion only seems to respond…
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

He seems to be watching her other two guests, but moves into a sort of intellectual rant about the powers of television media: He begins to offer an almost religious sort of speech that television will soon replace “our” reality. Completely ignoring his host, he begins to almost preach through the screen of his own TV image:

The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye.

David Cronenberg was very clear that his created character of Dr. Brian O’Blivion is based soley on Marshall McLuhan and the esteemed Media Sociologist’s ideas. McLuhan’s teachings, ideas and concepts are all brought to the forefront of this highly entertaining and often disturbing film. While Cronenberg lays it all out in literal and visceral visual terms, nothing actually strays too far from the recently departed McLuhan.

James Woods' Max Renn develops an odd itchy rash as he watches... Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

James Woods’ Max Renn develops an odd itchy rash as he watches…
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Played with simultaneous sexy swagger and icky slimed confidence by James Woods, Max deals with the European Erotica Market as well as underground networks of slightly harder-edged porn from Asia. We catch glimpses of the new work he is considering for his channel. From his European connection, the work seems innocently decadent. From the seemingly illegal importation from Asia, the work seems to be a sexualization of ethnic stereotypes that are pushing toward sadistic erotic pleasures. For Max, these new erotica films might offer a bit more in the way of erotic explicitness and controversy — but they are not enough. He is looking for something more “dangerous” and “risky.”

Enter Max’s pal and tech wiz, who manages to catch a Malaysian signal of what appears to be very realistic torture porn. So realistic in presentation, there is a suspicion that what Max is seeing may be a true filming of snuff human cruelty. It is never fully clear to us if Max is fully “OK” with what he sees on a show that seems to be called Videodrome, but it is clear that the sadomasochistic is most definitely turning him on.

In 1983, it was shocking when Debbie Harry is suggested to supply a little bit of BDSM to get Max's changing body stimulated. In 2015, this medium of BDSM has already become passively engrained within the cultural mind.  Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

In 1983, it was shocking when Debbie Harry is suggested to supply a little bit of BDSM to get Max’s changing body stimulated. In 2015, this medium of BDSM has already become passively engrained within the cultural mind.
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

He pushes his tech engineer to find the true origin of the Videodrome signal which turns out to be coming from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Comforting himself by insisting that what he is seeing is a “pretend” electrically-charged clay wall and orange/red floors upon and against which acts of brutal sexual assaults and murders are carried out in realistic but fake ways. Max essentially threatens his libidinous European contact to find the creators of Videodrome to help him secure a deal to air their show. Soon later, his contact tries to soft talk him out of the idea. She advises that what he has been seeing is more than erotic entertainment.

She leans in as informs him that Videodrome has a philosophy. Videodrome is real. 

At first Max refuses to believe it. His sexual relationship with Nicki is one linked to pain and punishment. It is all-the-more-hightened by a viewing of Videodrome. In a clever bit of Surrealism, Max and Nicki’s sexual blood-letting morphs out of Max’s condo and onto the wet red floor of the Videodrome set. Hallucinations give way to very real altercations in which Max’s body seems to be changing to fit into the psychology of Videodrome.

"Open up, Max. We have a tape we have a tape we need to play..." Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“Open up, Max. We have a tape we have a tape we need to play…”
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

In one of the film’s many mind-bending special effects, Max begins to develop an itch resulting from what appears at first to be a an enflamed vertical line traveling down his “happy trail” that quickly emerges into a yon-like flesh entry point. Wet and wanting to be fed, this vaginal sort of “wound” becomes a portal in which Max and insidious Bad Guys place guns and breathing-infected videotapes. The pain of this “fleshy slit” also seems to deliver a source of uncomfortable pleasure. Eventually this body morphing develops teeth.

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is a repulsive, intense and surreal Art Horror masterpiece that must be experienced to fully understand and enjoy. With each scene, the Videodrome transmissions seem to infect Max’s psychology, perception and ultimately his body.

A new point of entry to Max Renn... Body Horror taken to a whole new level. Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

A new point of entry to Max Renn… Body Horror taken to a whole new level.
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

The ultimate body horror show, Max must either destroy the evil that is Videodrome and accept the new flesh it has created and take it forward to the next logical step. Many viewers interpret the film in different ways — particularly it’s apocalyptic ending. But it seems to me that David Cronenberg is pushing Marshall McLuhan’s ideology in very literal way. Fully infected by media’s disease, Max must refuse to submit to a vile corporate plan. He must take back what the medium has communicated into his very being.

“Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!”

The Medium turns against you... Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

The Medium turns against you…
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

David Cronenberg has not only gotten away with creating a powerful and lasting work of film art, his horror film navigates the audience into a whole different sort of human universe. Video/Analog may have given way to HD/Digital, but the message of the medium is still every bit as worrying to us in 2015 as it was in 1983. The power of media is inescapable now more than ever. Paranoia and the threat of disease is at all time high.

Vidoedrome is far more than a Cult Horror Film Classic, it is a very warped, twisted and disturbing cinematic philosophy not to be be forgotten.

"Death to Videodrome. Long live the New Flesh." Now, come to Nicki... Debbie Harry Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“Death to Videodrome. Long live the New Flesh.” Now, come to Nicki…
Debbie Harry
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Matty Stanfield, 9.28.15

There are so many films out there that have been forgotten and or lost.

Carnal Knowledge Mike Nichols, 1971

Carnal Knowledge
Mike Nichols, 1971

As we enter the 21st Century, the choices applied by major studios and various production companies often appears to have no grounding in logic.

For instance, Mill Creek Entertainment has US/Canada home distribution rights for such major players as Sony, Universal, Warner Brothers and Buena Vista. These studios and major distributors have historic catalogs of cinema. Yet, Mill Creek is more interested in re-mastering such films as Barnet Kellman’s painful 1992 Straight Talking in which Dolly Parton is romanced by James Woods!

Miami Rhapsody  David Frankel, 1995

Miami Rhapsody
David Frankel, 1995

They also were very quick to get such “cinematic classics” as Another Stakeout, The Legend of Billie Jean, Old Gringo, Playing God, Color of Night and Miami Rhapsody.

Cruising William Friedkin, 1980

Cruising
William Friedkin, 1980

This isn’t some little “deal” that Mill Creek Entertainment has established, it is major. This company works with Sony and Warner Brothers who tend to be the cheapest and most difficult of the major studios when it comes to their respective back catalog. However, Mill Creek has never shown any sort of interest in distributing the films that many would like to see remastered and available.

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

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

Were it not for smaller film distribution labels like Olive Films, Twilight Entertainment, Shout Factory and most importantly The Criterion Collection many an iconic film would still be sitting fading away in the shelf of some disorganized storage area.

Girlfriends Claudia Weill, 1978

Girlfriends
Claudia Weill, 1978

As it is, Twilight Entertainment has managed to get a foot in by agreeing to a limited printing. This means that less popular, but far more artistically valid films that Sony and Warners have denied other offers find a way to a limited restoration and release.

But when Twilight is limited to only 3,000 pressings, the cost jumps up to $30 retail.

Andy Warhol's Dracula  AKA Young Dracula or Blood for Dracula Paul Morrissey, 1974

Andy Warhol’s Dracula
AKA Young Dracula or Blood for Dracula
Paul Morrissey, 1974

And films like Woody Allen’s Love and Death, Purple Rose of Cairo and Crimes and Misdemeanors immediately push close to selling out. Same goes for Steel Magnolias or François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black or the iconic Sidney Pollack teaming of Streisand and Redford in The Way We Were. These films are sold for $30 for a few weeks before they start going for as high as $60 or more on Amazon from other sellers. Amazon does not sell Twilight directly.

Pink Floyd The Wall Alan Parker, 1982

Pink Floyd The Wall
Alan Parker, 1982

So, why does Mill Creek Entertainment prefer Mike Binder’s Holy Matrimony to The Bride Wore Black or The Way We Were? The knee-jerk answer is that Mill Creek can crank out 500,000 pressings of mediocre comedies to sell via Walmart, BestBuy or Amazon for as low as $5 to $10 a pop.

Apparently, when shoppers see a Blu-Ray featuring any movie star they recognize, they will pay $8 without a second thought. Easy profits. But that is not always the case.

Blowup Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966

Blowup
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966d

Reasons can range from obscure licensing challenges for piece of music that Warners or Sony is not willing to negotiate and that Mill Creek doesn’t want to have to pay. Or, from time to time, there is often a more sinister element going on: Woody Allen, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Barbra Streisand and Jane Fondas’ movies will be even more profitable after each’s respective death.

And sometimes it amounts to insecurities about stirring up old wounds of the filmmakers themselves. These wounds can be gushing blood after decades or can be so minor it can be puzzling.

Shampoo Hal Ashby, 1975

Shampoo
Hal Ashby, 1975

But more often than not, the reason that films are forgotten or lost is because no one in positions of power ever think of them.

In recent years Warner Brothers has started their DVD-R printings of more obscure movies under their Warner Archive. This is cool, but limited. A vast number of Warner Brothers films remain unavailable — and many of the ones that are available by order are poorly re-mastered.

Nasty Habits Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

Nasty Habits
Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

Anyone curious to see the infamously failed film version of Portnoy’s Complaint will discover a muddy pint in which everything within the image has been stretched up/down so that Karen Black and Richard Benjamin are cartoon thin. The entire raunchy movie is there, but presented in a manner reminiscent of pre-cable late night shows when no one knew how to translate big screen films to fit onto TV screens. When Warners does take the time to press a few buttons and get the film to an acceptable aspect ratio, they do not bother to remaster.

Up The Sandbox Irvin Kershner, 1972

Up The Sandbox
Irvin Kershner, 1972

A classic example of Warner Brothers Archive Collection logic is found in the recent release of Tony Scott’s iconic and Cult Film Classic, The Hunger. A movie that features the likes of David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon as well as sleekly applied style and some great music from Bauhaus and Iggy Pop has been transferred to Blu-Ray using an even lesser quality transfer than MGM used for the initial DVD release.

Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975

Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975

Don’t be fooled, Warner Archive did not bother to get the aspect ratio correct. You are not seeing the full picture. And I’m not certain, but I don’t think there has even been a 2K restoration here. The picture quality is not bad, but it is far from great. Worse yet, the audio is lousy. The old MGM DVD sounded better. Of course my DVD died several years back. I was stuck with the Warner released DVD which was actually a bit better than their new Blu-Ray.

They did a similar job with Nicolas Roeg’s co-directing debut, Performance. Yet, for reasons unknown they did actually bother to do a 2K restore for John Schlesinger’s Far From The Madding Crowd to Blu-Ray. It has yet to sell as well as either Performance or The Hunger. 

Women In Love Ken Russell, 1969

Women In Love
Ken Russell, 1969

Despite all sorts of grass-roots pushes and a an uncountable number of Film Historians, Film Production/Distribution companies and the request of an entire nation — Yes, Great Britain and the highly valued and respected British Film Institute reached out — Warner Brothers continues to refuse the release of Ken Russell’s original cut of The Devils.

No reason has ever been given.

Britain and the BFI fared best, however they were presented with an inferior quality and edited version of the film which they were only allowed to release in a UK region restricted limited pressing. While Warners did give BFI the choice to issue to Blu-Ray, BFI declined and limited the release to DVD as the quality of what Warner Brothers gave them was too poor to merit the Blu-Ray treatment.

The Devils Ken Russell, 1971

The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971

As The Devils is an historic part of British Film History and an important work of art, BFI wanted to have a full copy of the film secured in their registry.

However, the print that Warners gave had to be returned.

So BFI now has a restored copy of a copy of an edited version of The Devils.

"Birdshit!" Brewster McCloud Robert Altman, 1970

“Birdshit!”
Brewster McCloud
Robert Altman, 1970

In the upcoming several months a number of films are being re-evaluated for restoration and re-distribution. Who knows if any of this which is largely connected to the Film Festival Circuit will have any impact. However if one of these film matters to you, the best thing to do is review the film on Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB.

Oddly, sales from the Warner Archive do not seem to have much if any bearing on whether or not a movie will be restored. But folks who sign up for Amazon.com wait lists have initiated restorations. This was how Warner Brothers came to issue The Hunger to Blu-Ray and the two factors that have made Twilight Time embark on films like The Way We Were and Yentl.

Petulia  Richard Lester, 1968

Petulia
Richard Lester, 1968

A not so great transfer of Roeg’s odd cult film, Track 29 staring a young Gary Oldman, sold very well. This has caused a current “re-visit” of this infamous cinematic error as a possible film for restoration. Yet, the inferior region-free DVD’s of Ken Russell’s The Devils constantly sell out. Warner Brothers does not budge.

Another mystery with Warner Brothers is the poor quality and refusal to restore and re-distribute KLUTE. A film that has a large following, remains valid and of interest. Something similar was going down with Blowup, but that issue might have finally been resolved. Fingers-crossed. Another very popular film which is in theory no longer in print would be Richard Lester’s Petulia. As well as John Schlesinger’s Darling which shot Julie Christie to fame.

Both remain unrestored.

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon Otto Preminger, 1970

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon
Otto Preminger, 1970

And, then there is the interest in Otto Preminger’s ill-advised 1970’s Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon which features a young Liza Minnelli facing deformity and trying to find a place among those whom society has labeled misfits. The film is flawed, but there are many a film fan who wants to own this odd cult film. Yet, no restoration or distribution is in sight. But Preminger’s far worse movie, Skidoo, was restored and issued to Blu-Ray. So who knows?

Track 29  Nicolas Roeg, 1988

Track 29
Nicolas Roeg, 1988

But it would appear the most valued currency for film consensus may be moving over to Letterboxd. Register. Review and “Like” reviews of the film or films you want to see restored. Register and make comments on The Criterion Forum.

The Criterion Forum Org

Believe it or not, this information is monitored. All of this might seem futile, but it isn’t.

Welcome To L.A. Alan Rudolph, 1976

Welcome To L.A.
Alan Rudolph, 1976

Alan Rudolph’s early work is being “re-visited.”

This is how we got Rosemary’s Baby, Moonrise Kingdom, The American Dreamer, Cat People, The Werner Herzog Collection, Safe, Black Moon, The Night Porter, Pillow Book, Audition, The Telephone Book, Seconds, Dressed To Kill, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Two-Lane Blacktop, Harold & Maud, The Rose and All That Jazz restored and re-distributed to Blu-Ray and HD.

Often Paramount and Fox are easier for boutique labels to secure deals because the licensing with these studios tends to be a bit less restrictive. A great number of their films were actually independent films that were picked up for distribution. As an example, Paramount had the rights for distribution for Rosemary’s Baby, but it was limited. The film technically belongs to Robert Evans and Roman Polanski.

KLUTE Alan J. Pakula, 1971

KLUTE
Alan J. Pakula, 1971

And of course there is the very much available for restoration and re-distribution film of legend, BOOM!, just waiting for Shout Factory or Vinegar Syndrome.

Keep the faith.

Matty Stanfield, 9.22.15

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