“I always feel it behind me. It’s myself. And I follow me. In silence. But I can hear it. Yes, sometimes it’s like I’m chasing myself. I want to escape from myself. But I can’t!” —Peter Lorre as child-murderer, M (1931)
There was a period in the ‘60s and ‘70s when you could barely call yourself a male movie star if you didn’t do a scene where you stared at yourself in the mirror, doing various “private” things. The device shows up before then, too, but the floodgates opened in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Meryl Streep has observed, “Often the scenes that are the most exciting, and most illuminating in film, are the ones with no dialogue…where a character is doing something alone, where the deepest most private self is revealed or explored. Exposed.”
I didn’t expect to spend Thanksgiving Weekend 2018 watching ten 3D movies: marathon viewing is not my favorite experience in general, and I haven’t spent years longing to see, say, Friday the 13th Part III, in 35mm. But a friend was visiting, from Toronto, to take advantage of this opportunity, an impressive level of dedication that seemed like something to emulate, and it’s not like I had anything better to do, so I tagged along. Said friend, Blake Williams, is an experimental filmmaker and 3D expert, a subject to which he’s devoted years of graduate research and the bulk of his movies (see Prototype if it comes to a city near you!); if I was going to choose the arbitrary age of 32 to finally take 3D seriously, I couldn’t have a better Virgil to explain what I was seeing on a technical level. My thanks to him (for getting me out there) and to the Quad Cinema for being my holiday weekend host; it was probably the best possible use of my time.
[Last year, Musings paid homage to Produced and Abandoned: The Best Films Youve Never Seen, a review anthology from the National Society of Film Critics that championed studio orphans from the 70s and 80s. In the days before the Internet, young cinephiles like myself relied on reference books and anthologies to lead us to films we might not have discovered otherwise. Released in 1990, Produced and Abandoned was a foundational piece of work, introducing me to such wonders as Cutters Way, Lost in America, High Tide, Choose Me, Housekeeping, and Fat City. (You can find the full list of entries here.) Our first round of Produced and Abandoned essays included Angelica Jade Bastin on By the Sea, Mike DAngelo on The Counselor, Judy Berman on Velvet Goldmine, and Keith Phipps on O.C. and Stiggs. Over the next four weeks, Musings will continue with another round of essays about tarnished gems, in the hope theyll get a second look. Or, more likely, a first. Scott Tobias, editor.]
When actor Charles Laughtons now-classic directorial debut The Night of the Hunter premiered in 1955, itd been a long road to the theater. The film had been in the can for a while, but the studio balked at its premise and execution: Was it a romantic drama or a horror film? A childrens fairy tale or adult entertainment? Marketing materials from the time suggest they never quite figured it out. The studio tried to bury it, but Laughton desperately wanted to go in a different route, traveling the country with his movie to build word of mouth the same way he worked in theater. Anyway, the film was largely forgotten or ignored until its rediscovery in the 1970s, when it was hailed a work of great genius. But that didnt help Laughton, who passed in 1962 and never directed another film.
This brings me to the late Bill Paxton. Hed always considered himself a filmmaker, never an actor, though hed appeared in some of the most successful films in American history, including Aliens, Apollo 13, The Terminator, True Lies, Tombstone, and so many others. He moved from Texas to Los Angeles at the age of 18, applied to two film schools, and got rejected from both. Acting, to Paxton, wasnt a career path but a last resort to working in the movie business. Finally, eventually, he was able to direct his first film, Frailty, a dramatic thriller starring Paxton himself and Matthew McConaughey, about a man who believes he was told by God to kill demons disguised as humans, and the two sons who wonder if their father is going insane.
The films release was scheduled for September 2001. Then, of course, it wasnt such a fun time to see misguided men murdering for their beliefs. The film was pushed to April of 2002 but was buried just as deeply as Laughtons was, with relatively positive but not stellar reviews. This film, too, could not find a home. Not violent enough to be a full-on horror film, too suggestive for families, and both critical and embracing of religion, Frailty seemed to be a movie of too many paradoxes. Even now, its difficult to describe this film, which could either be about a serial killer or a savior, depending on how you look at it. Of course, Paxton, who played the touched-by-God father Meiks, felt it was clear that his character was an Old Testament hero, though even that qualifier does not answer the question of whether or not Meiks was good.
Its worth noting that Paxton and Laughton lived parallel lives of sorts. Both were character actors, oscillating between the evil or fatherly and somehow exceeding equally at both, which may speak to the actors religious backgrounds and subsequent rebellions against thema performer who can sense the struggle between good and evil in their characters is a successful performer.
Both men had mothers who were devout Roman Catholics and fathers who were ambivalent to the Bible. Laughton, as evidenced in his film, felt a certain amount of antipathy for the churchhe was in the closet for most of his lifeyet was still soaking in its parables and finding some value there. Paxton as an adult adopted an attitude somewhere between his Catholic mothers and Pagan fathers, a dash of the genuine and the cynic. And just like Laughtons film, Frailty is steeped in Christian lore. (Laughton also almost played the lead role of the Preacher in his own film, before his producer talked him out of it.) Both actors, it seemed, had something they desperately wanted to say about faith and could only do it as directors. But aside from these parallel lives and desires, theres a more direct correlation between the two films.
[Last year, Musings paid homage to Produced and Abandoned: The Best Films You’ve Never Seen, a review anthology from the National Society of Film Critics that championed studio orphans from the ‘70s and ‘80s. In the days before the Internet, young cinephiles like myself relied on reference books and anthologies to lead us to films we might not have discovered otherwise. Released in 1990, Produced and Abandoned was a foundational piece of work, introducing me to such wonders as Cutter’s Way, Lost in America, High Tide, Choose Me, Housekeeping, and Fat City. (You can find the full list of entries here.) Our first round of Produced and Abandoned essays included Angelica Jade Bastién on By the Sea, Mike D’Angelo on The Counselor, Judy Berman on Velvet Goldmine, and Keith Phipps on O.C. and Stiggs. Over the next four weeks, Musings will continue with another round of essays about tarnished gems, in the hope they’ll get a second look. Or, more likely, a first. —Scott Tobias, editor.]
(The following essay is excerpt from Jasons new book, Its Okay With Me: Hollywood, the 1970s, and the Return of the Private Eye.)
The first thing John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) does in Gordon Parks Shaft, after emerging from a Times Square subway station below the grindhouse movie theaters that would eventually and enthusiastically screen his adventures, is walk into New York City traffic (Shaft cant be stopped, even by Eighth Avenue) and flip off the driver who gets too close to him. Meet your new action hero, Middle America; here is his message to you.
Shaft came early in the so-called blaxpoitation movementa period, running roughly from 1970 to 1975, that saw an explosion of films made for, about, and often by African-Americans. This was an underserved audience; with the exception of independent race picture makers like Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams, their stories simply werent told onscreen, and they certainly werent told by mainstream studio films, which consigned black performers to subservient roles (or worse). The winds started to shift in the 1960s, when Sidney Poitier became a bankable name and Oscar-winning star, but he was the exception to the rule. It wasnt until football star-turned-actor Jim Brown leveraged his supporting turn in the 1967 smash The Dirty Dozen into bona fide action hero status that this untapped swath of moviegoers, hungry for entertainment and representation, began to make itself known.
1970 saw the release of two very big (and very different) hits: Ossie Davis high-spirited crime comedy Cotton Comes to Harlem, and Melvin Van Peebles provocative, X-rated (by an all-white jury! boasted the ads) Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song. Peebles film was, essentially, the black Easy Rider, a rough-edged road movie with a decidedly European sensibility that grossed something like $15 million on a $150K budget, a return on investment so huge, the (flailing) studios couldnt help but take notice.
Shaft was next down the chute. Adapted by Ernest Tidymanwho also wrote that years Best Picture winner The French Connectionfrom his 1970 novel, the film was helmed by Gordon Parks, the influential photographer whod made his directorial debut in 1969 with the autobiographical The Learning Tree. MGM gave him a modest $1 million budget; model-turned-actor Roundtree was paid a mere $13,500 to play the title role. (Isaac Hayes was among the actors who auditioned, and though Parks passed on his acting, he hired Hayes to compose and perform the pictures iconic funk score.)
Shaft essentially was a standard white detective tale enlivened by a black sensibility, wrote Donald Bogle, in his essential Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks. As Roundtrees John Shaftmellow but assertive and unintimidated by whitesbopped through those hot mean streets dressed in his cool leather, he looked to black audiences like a brother they had all seen many times but never on screen. Hes right on both scores. Shaft, who is smirkingly called a black Spade detective, is embroiled in a commonplace private eye narrative, engaged by a lying client (uptown gangster Bumpy Jonas, smoothly played by Moses Gunn) to find a missing girlin this case, the clients daughter. Shaft is a snappy dresser and sharp shooter; he uses the neighborhood bar as his second office.
But weve never seen a private eye who looks like this. Shaft leaves the shirts and ties to the cops and gangsters; he wears turtlenecks with his suits, along with that amazing leather coat. In the documentary Baadasssss Cinema, blaxploitation acolyte Quentin Tarantino is critical of the lack of action in Shafts opening credit sequence (Im semi-frustrated that [the theme] wasnt utilized better, he explains. If I had the theme to Shaft to open up my movie, Id open my damn movie), but hes underestimating the visual jolt of merely showing a man like Shaft strutting the streets of New York, and gazing upon him as he stakes his claim.
Theres something undeniably sensual about that gaze. Shaft was among the first major motion pictures to feature a black man of sexual potencywith the phallic overtones embedded right in his surname, and thus in the films title. He gets a full-on sex scene with his steady lady early in the film; later on, he shares a steamy shower with a white pick-up, a mere four years after the carefully sexless interracial romance of Guess Whos Coming to Dinner.
But aside from that sceneand the iconographically loaded image, during the climax, of black militants turning fire hoses on white peopleShafts racial politics are surprisingly middle-of-the-road. Shaft may kid Lt. Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi) with lines like It warms my black heart to see you so concerned for us minority folks, but he humors the white cop, and mostly cooperates with him. The script is careful to disassociate its fictional black-power revolutionary group from real ones like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, but it also shows them to be ineffectual, and Shaft is ultimately interested in their manpower, not their politics.
(The following essay is excerpt from Jason’s new book, It’s Okay With Me: Hollywood, the 1970s, and the Return of the Private Eye.)
The first thing John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) does in Gordon Parks’ Shaft, after emerging from a Times Square subway station below the grindhouse movie theaters that would eventually and enthusiastically screen his adventures, is walk into New York City traffic (Shaft can’t be stopped, even by Eighth Avenue) and flip off the driver who gets too close to him. Meet your new action hero, Middle America; here is his message to you.
In 2004, the same year that she won an Oscar for Monster, Charlize Theron achieved perhaps her greatest fame with the Dior television ad for JAdore. A decade later, George Millers Mad Max: Fury Road was instantly canonized as one of the best action films ever made and Therons anti-glamorous Imperator Furiosa became a feminist icon, but the JAdore woman had already blazed the trail. Stalking down a Parisian corridor in a gorgeous evening gown, she took off her jewelry and her dress with determination, staring defiantly into the camera. The message: Diamonds are no best friend to a girl who wants to feel whats real.“ And its no surprise that throughout her career, Theron has worked to reach and reveal the authentic and independent woman beneath her top-model appearance.
Born in South Africa in 1975, Theron first aspired to become a dancer. After modeling in Europe, she moved to New York to learn ballet, until an injury made her reconsider. Aged 19, she went to Los Angeles to try acting, and in 1996, got her first speaking part in John Herzfelds Pulp Fiction rip-off 2 Days in the Valley. With her already-blond hair bleached out and her lean, tall body fitted into a spandex costume, she played a dangerously sexy woman in the neo-noir tradition. Showing off her naturally husky voice (and a very good American accent), Theron struts through Los Angeles like a true femme fatale. Her climactic catfight with Teri Hatcher is what people remember (and representative of the films tackiness), but this early role showed that Theron could play strong womenand was up for action.
That same year, Theron appeared alongside Tom Hanks in his directorial feature film debut That Thing You Do! as a Marilyn Monroe-esque girl of the 1960s, eye candy in a film about a sweet pop band. Therons looks were being transparently capitalized upon, yet being cast by an actor of Hanks caliber meant that her talent was being recognized too. I thought: If he thinks I am worth hiring, then maybe Im going to be okay, she told IndieLondon in 2007.
As the increasingly tortured wife of a Florida lawyer recruited to New York in Taylor Hackfords The Devils Advocate, Theron got to work with another icon in Al Pacino and demonstrate even more range despite a rather exploitative part. Therons Mary Ann is a committed and happy partner to Kevin (Keanu Reeves) but she isnt superficial; his growing obsession with his job and his new boss, Pacinos John Milton, leaves her feeling lonely and disillusioned. Theron plays Mary Ann realistically in a hellishly stylized thriller, and opposite two notoriously intense male actors who take up a lot of space with shouting and posturing, her sensitivity is welcome. Its also a smartly physical performance, with Theron playing slyly on her looks. As the film goes on, Mary Ann transitions from her initial, ill-fitting stereotype of the curly blonde woman as a symbol of vice and danger (no doubt inspired by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction) to a brunette bob that distances the characterand the actressfrom a banal bombshell image.
Therons appearance as a nameless supermodel in Celebrity in 1998 was therefore a detour in her search for great female roles, but this career choice, like that of so many talented actors until only a few months ago, can be explained by the fact that Celebrity was a Woody Allen film. Today, younger actors are distancing themselves from Allen, but for Theron, it was a step towards industry-wide respect. She inhabited her archetypal part with an authenticity derived from her background in modeling and made a typically exploitative Woody female part seem somewhat lived in.
As the decade came to a close, Theron bounced between thankless genre roles, opposite an animatronic gorilla in Mighty Joe Young (1998) and a body-snatched Johnny Depp in the Rosemarys Baby-in-space thriller The Astronauts Wife (1998), before excelling in the ensemble of Lasse Hallstrms The Cider House Rules (1999), where she revealed her characters interior dilemma more convincingly than co-stars Tobey Maguire or Michael Caine. Reindeer Games (2000) was John Frankenheimers last feature, and Theron has admitted to taking the part solely for the chance to work with the legendary director (rather than Ben Affleck), and parlayed her interest in auteurs into a collaboration the same year with an up-and-coming filmmaker.
The actress has said of James Gray that he was one of the first directors, other than Taylor Hackford, who really fought for me […] it was an amazing experience to have somebody stand in your corner and say shes not too pretty to play the part. Thats bullshit, shes an actress, lets get past this obsession about what she physically looks like. Therons emotional performance in Grays The Yards deepens what could have been a rather superficial and uninteresting character in this Godfather Part II-like story of widespread corruption, family ties, and impossible redemption. Her more down-to-earth style matches with her character, who, like in The Devils Advocate, cares little for the dreams of excessive wealth that the men around her pursue.
Theron was surrounded by male movie stars in the early 2000s in The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Italian Job (neither of which showed what she could do), but, showing tenacity and independence, she moved front and center with Monster, which she produced through her company Denver and Delilah Productions. (The business was named for her two dogs.) Director Patty Jenkins (more recently of Wonder Woman fame) convinced Theron to take the lead role of Aileen Wuornos, spurring a complete physical and behavioral transformation to portray the real-life prostitute-turned-serial-killer, who was executed for her crimes in 2002. With her hairline pulled back, her eyebrows bleached out and her statuesque body altered by a 30-pound weight gain, the former model is unrecognizable. She doesnt try to make Wuornos likable, replicating the characters oddly tortured behavior, full of ticks and aggressive movements.
Crucially, Theron doesnt deny Wuornos her humanity either, and Jenkins script and direction allow for moments of vulnerability and tenderness between the Monster of the title and her friend-slash-partner Selbi (Christina Ricci), herself a fictionalized version of Wournos real-life girlfriend Tyria Moore. Theron recently talked to Bill Simmons on his Ringer podcast about the economic difficulties that the production faced, with the financier panicking two weeks into shooting when he saw Therons transformation. Youre always walking that fine line of, Is it a caricature? Am I going too far with it? Will people relate to this? Will people be able to watch this? Am I making a joke out of it?, she told Simmons. Theron won an Oscar, but by producing and starring in a serious, female-directed drama, she also confirmed her commitment to challenging, woman-centered cinema.
In 2004, the same year that she won an Oscar for Monster, Charlize Theron achieved perhaps her greatest fame with the Dior television ad for J’Adore. A decade later, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road was instantly canonized as one of the best action films ever made and Theron’s anti-glamorous Imperator Furiosa