Goodbye, HAL…

Douglas Rain, the unforgettable  voice of HAL 9000, has died.

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Food for Thought

I keep seeing ads for a chicken company where they claim to be showing the viewer “who makes your food”. They both involve what appear to be very sincere and friendly chicken farmers (one’s is also a volunteer fireman, the other a yoga instructor) who are dedicated to their work. But neither one seems capable of making a chicken.  (In fact, no chickens are actually seen in the ads. For a company that claims to be promising an open approach to explaining their methods of production, that’s an awfully big omission).

The documentary film “Eating Animals” was supposed to open a few months ago but got pulled at the last minute. It’s now available on various streaming services. Here’s the review that didn’t run earlier…

 

“Eating Animals” isn’t a recruiting film for vegetarianism. You won’t find footage of elderly hippies showing off the benefits of their lifelong vegan diets with one-armed push-ups or listen to spacey young hipsters sharing their favorite seitan recipes. The film isn’t an effort to convert the carnivore viewer or even to hang a cloud of shame over them (although it makes it clear that our dietary habits are complicit in a wide range of environmental and ethical abuse). It’s a straightforward, no-nonsense film that clearly and simply presents a message that approximately 96% of the country would prefer to ignore.

Based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2009 book, “Eating Animals” takes an unforgiving look at the way meat is produced in this country (and, increasingly, around the world), the system of factory farming in which animals are raised in tightly-controlled “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” (“CAFOs”) designed to maximize growth while minimizing any attempt at a humane environment.

The meat industry doesn’t want the public to think too hard about this system, so many states have passed “ag-gag” laws prohibiting anyone from photographing meat production. The film provides a few surreptitiously-filmed scenes inside CAFOs – they’re not pretty – but just listening to descriptions of them can be just as unpleasant. We are told, for example, that the typical mass-produced turkey in this country no longer resembles the bird that Benjamin Franklin so famously admired. No longer able to stand up or reproduce on their own, today’s meat turkey is hormonally fattened on a scale that, if applied to a human baby, would produce 600-pound two-month-olds.

Co-written by Foer and narrated by Natalie Portman (some will find her narration a bit too urgent), “Eating Animals” presents farming not through the eyes of fiery radicals and PETA members but through an assortment of down-to-earth folks who have worked and lived in animal agriculture. These include a turkey farmer who rejects factory methods and admits to feeling guilty about sending his birds to be slaughtered and a chicken farmer who quits the business when the competitive contracts of large companies like Perdue pushed him into debt. (Perdue places its growers in Machiavellian “tournaments” in which their efficiency and growth rates are compared, with the winners given bonuses paid by the losers).

While the meat industry will undoubtedly accuse the filmmakers of hysteria, seize on minor inaccuracies to discredit the film or somehow try to convince customers that those “pink lagoons” of poisoned water that are shown popping up near pork farms are actually adding aesthetic value to the land, “Eating Animals” makes a simple point:. As one on its interviewees says, “If they saw what containment culture looked like, they would stop eating meat”. The filmmakers leave that decision up to you.

 

 

The Bandit

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At the height of his popularity – about a decade beginning in the early 1970s – Burt Reynolds was a very unusual kind of movie star, an example of a kind of hyper-masculinity tempered with a Cary Grant-like self awareness, a sense of the ridiculousness of his fame. He was macho with a wink; even the famous “Cosmpolitan” foldout was so patently absurd that you couldn’t help but see it as a kind of parody of sexual commodification. Reynolds’ easy-going image eventually became self-defeating; the lazy I’m-just-here-for-a-good-time attitude wore itself thin in a string of lazy we’re-just-doing-this-for-the-money comedies directed by Hal Needham. There were hints, however, that Reynolds was more than just a Hollywood stud going for an easy paycheck. He trseemied to escape his good old boy image in a few romantic comedies, Alan Pakula’s underappreciated “Starting Over” and Blake Edwards’ Truffaut remake “The Man Who Loved Women”. He willingly played against type in Peter Bogdanovich’s brilliant “At Long Last Love” and “Nickelodeon”. He tried his hand at directing, but didn’t seem to have his heart in it (although his comedy “The End” is an underrated triumph). The financial and critical failure of those films seemed to set him back squarely on the path of the “Cannonball Run”, but by the early 80s, the sheer laziness of Reynolds-Needham collaborations like “Stroker Ace” were being rejected by audiences. He fell by the wayside, and his comeback in “Boogie Nights”, while welcome, never quite amounted to much. His laid back self-deprecating persona is sorely missed.

Modesty

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Released less than two years after Susan Sontag’s much discussed essay – or for another perspective, just four months after the debut of the “Batman” tv series, Joseph Losey’s odd but amusing “Modesty Blaise” may be the first camp movie. Such things are hard to pin down  amid the whirlwind of cultural forces in play simultaneously – pop art, the Bond Films, the New Wave – but Losey’s film wins its camp attitude by (very) loosely taking note of the pop zeitgeist while not really seeming to care about it very much. Based on a popular and , at the time very new, British comic strip, “Modesty” doesn’t exactly embrace its source: for its dark-haired and distinctly British heroine, Losey cast the blond-haired and heavily-accented Italian actress Monica Vitti.

For much of the first hour, “Modesty Blaise” is played as a very broad European spy thriller, pushed to excess by the addition of murderous mimes, jump-cut costume changes, grotesque puppets and comic sheikhs. It’s only when Modesty turns up at the apartment of a fellow agent and former lover that the film begins to reveal its anti-realist hand. Scanning the room, Modesty finds hidden under a cushion a comic book bearing her image on the cover. The the ex-lover returns and a misunderstanding between fellow agents leads to weapons being drawn, Vitti ducks behind a plant and re-emerges is the dark-beehived archeress in skin-fitting tights seen in the comics. Only then does her companion recognize her true identity. (To further reveal the film’s distance from its print source, neither agents can figure out exactly how her form-fitting outfit comes off).

Equally indifferent to the plot – something involving stolen jewels – is the film’s eccentric villain Gabriel (a blonde-wigged Dirk Bogarde) who lives in an op-art decorated island citadel, hatches evil schemes with his accountant and is clearly coded as stylishly gay, even though one major scene hinges on his lust for Modesty.  Vitti, Bogarde and, as Modesty’s sidekick Willie, Terence Stamp, bounce energetically through a series of adventure movie confrontations but remain aloof from the plot itself. They’re posing in their hero(ine) and villain roles but only just enough to keep a distant eye of the spies-and-thieves narrative in case they’re needed. Modesty and Willie even take a breather  to perform a duet before roving on to wherever the story takes them.

It is useful to recall that Losey had worked and studied with Brecht, soit’s probably not much of a stretch to consider “Modesty Blaise” a sort of wry critique of the excesses of the Bond-era spy film, told in bright colors and exaggerated compositions. There’s a sense that Losey is letting his cast simply try on the conventions of the genre, giving the film its camp element . Depending on the viewers tolerance of its cool, dry attitude, it’s an uneven, unkempt but frequently fun disruption of the stuffy Euro-spy model.

Reaching the Other Side

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I first heard of Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind” in 1975 when the director previewed scenes from it during the American Film Institute tribute to his career. For years, I believed the received view that it was an incomplete and probably unsalvageable  pipe dream. One of the biggest surprises from reading Josh Karp’s “Orson Welles’ Last Movie: The Making of ‘The Other Side of the Wind'” in 2016 was learning that the film was substantially complete and that Welles’ had actually screened a rough cut for potential investors and distributors. While some commentators have expressed skepticism about Netflix’s announcement that they had finally arranged for the film to be completed, I’m genuinely excited by the opportunity to see this 40-plus year project finally hit the screen.  Welles left a large body of incomplete or missing work and some of the attempts at reconstructing them have fallen far short of what he originally intended, but I’m hopeful that “The Other Side” will finally be seen in a version close to what Welles originally intended. We’ll find out soon.  Here’s the trailer:

Operation Petticoat

Started the year with Blake Edwards’ 1959 “Operation Petticoat” (which coincidentally has a New Year’s Eve scene), courtesy of the new Olive Signature Blu-Ray. I’d seen the film before (years ago, on television and with the aspect ratio ruined) and dismissed it as a minor start to Edwards’ career, a huge commercial success but only of minor interest as the breakthrough to his more significant films of the early sixties.  (Does anyone today  even know what a petticoat is? )The Olive release reveals that I had underestimated the film. Seen in its original dimensions, it’s a surprisingly attractive film that merges war movie conventions to sex-comedy material, plays on the images of its stars Cary Grant (just beginning the post-romantic idol, avuncular father figure stage of his career) and Tony Curtis, and allows Edwards to make much of the enclosed spaces and broad exteriors of its main setting, a submarine. Edwards takes much of the war-movie material for granted, pushing it in the background of an anecdotal comic script in which Grant’s weakened vehicle is forced to play host to a group of female sailors.   Grant and Curtis are charming, of course, and the supporting cast includes Dina Merrill, Arthur O’Connell, Dick Sargent and Gavin McLeod, all gamely playing along.  Yes, it’s probably still a minor work for Edwards (he didn’t write it), but it has a lot of the open-spirited humor that he would continue to pursue in his next films.

Telling secrets

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(This was written a few weeks ago for “The Riverfront Times” but for a variety of reasons never made it into print.)

Risk

Directed by Laura Poitras

Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press

Directed by Brian Knappenberger

As the second decade of the 21st century reached its end, something had gone askew in the way people received information. Phrases like “freedom of the press”, ‘the people’s right to know” or “Information wants to be free” had been drowned out by “fake news” and “alternate facts” and information had become a commodity, under the control of those who were willing to buy the largest share. In two new films. Documentary filmmakers try to capture an image of the changing courses of technology and information, starting with subjects you’ll recognize from headlines – Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the website Gawker – and following their influence along wider paths including but by no means limited to the 2016 election.

Laura Poitras, whose award-winning film “Citizenfour” is the definitive introduction to Edward Snowden’s work as a whistleblower, began her film on Wikileaks in 2011, receiving unguarded access to Assange as he began his semi-exile in England. (Assange had been asked to return to Sweden for questioning on sexual assault charges. The charges and investigation have since been dropped, but may be re-opened). Poitras details some of the more significant revelations from the website and discusses their influence on international events, but when it comes to showing how the website is actually run, she’s at a disadvantage. You can’t really film the flow of information or distribution of documents like those released by Chelsea Manning to Wikileaks in 2010; You can’t sit Wikileaks in front of a camera, but you can film Assange, the man who has become synonymous with the website. Poitras realizes that by concentrating on Assange rather that the work, she risks sacrificing the subject to the cult of personality – which may have been Assange’s intention all along.

When Poitras first presented “Risk” at the 2016 Cannes film festival, it was seen as a largely respectful account of Assange and Wikileaks, acknowledging their achievements but  mindful of the media circus that surrounds him (the film shows Assange being interviewed by Lady Gaga, who tosses questions at him without listening to his answers).  Assange’s hostile reaction to the film,  additional charges of sexual harassment against other members of the Wikileak projects and the website’s alleged collaboration with Russian hackers to influence the 2016 Presidential election convinced the filmmaker that something had changed, that Assange’s feuds, his egotism, his cavalier methods and the controversies around him had raised a cloud, not only obscuring the importance of what Wikileaks was doing but making it difficult for the service to function.

Poitras’ revised “Risk” includes excerpts from her production diaries in which she questions Assange’s methods, doubts her ability to get the complete story and slowly establishes a distance between the subject she thought she was filming and the one she finally recognized. That’s a damaging admission for a filmmaker, and while“Risk” still provides the clearest look at Assange on film to date, virtues as well as flaws, it adds a touch of ambiguity that leaves things unanswered. The story isn’t over yet.

We understand the risks that Assange, Snowden, Manning, and others took to go public with information. To many, a website like Gawker, which regularly trafficked in the embarrassing behavior of celebrities of Hollywood, the Beltway or Silicon Valley, was less a defender of free speech than a spoiled brat throwing water balloons at the red carpet. When the website was sued by wrestler Hulk Hogan for publishing a sex tape, the details of which are too sordid to include here, much of the mainstream media shrugged their shoulders and assumed that Nick Denton’s foul-mouthed creation was simply getting the punishment it had deserved. Brian Knappenberger’s “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” describes the fall of Gawker but makes it clear that the case had far deeper implications that a mere cage match between a declining wrestler/reality-tv celebrity and an upstart online gossip column.

The Gawker trial, which ended with a $140 million judgments and the dismantling of the website, was more than just a scuffle over paparazzi.  After the verdict, it was revealed that Hogan’s legal bills were paid by Peter Thiel, an eccentric tech billionaire with a grudge against the website. As Knappenberger’s film details, the suit was the first shot in an ongoing battle against the media and the First Amendment, funded by people like Thiel and feeding off of a reservoir of anti-media resentment and campaign rhetoric. From the deliberate targeting of Gawker to the dismantling of the Las Vegas Review-Journal after it was purchased by one of its frequent subjects, Vegas investor  Sheldon Adelson, “Nobody Speak” a picture of the free press being destroyed from within. Like “Risk”, it’s a cautionary tale, a work in progress. While Assange or Gawker are fighting in public, the real threat to your freedom of information is lurking in the back, looking for weaknesses and covering its tracks.

Eric Rohmer, King of Pop

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One of the more surprising (and many) revelations  of Antoine de Baecque and Noel Herpe’s invaluable biography of Eric Rohmer (the English translation was published last year ) was that the director of the Moral Tales experimented on two occasions in the late ’80s  with one of the least Rohmerian of genres, the music video.

Although he directed one musical film , The Tree, The Mayor and the Mediatheque – the only Rohmer feature unreleased in the US and a possible subject for a future post)- and used a singing chorus effectively in Perceval, Rohmer’s films are frequently indifferent to music. The rare uses of popular music in his films -the title sequence of Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle comes to mind – seem arbitrary and added with little consideration. How then did this learned and profound filmmaker, who originally  set sights on an academic career and kept his film successes hidden from his mother lest she learn that he wasn’t a struggling professor of literature, come to turn his sights on that uniquely ’80s offering, the music video?

According to de Baecque and Herpe, Rohmer developed a strong interest in music in the 1980s, writing a book about Mozart and Beethoven and even learning to play the piano.  The actress Rosette, who appeared in several of his films, wanted to begin a singing career, so Drink Your Coffee seems to have been a convenient way for Rohmer to help out a collaborator while experimenting with applying his new interest in music to film.

It’s not entirely clear what Rohmer thought of the finished product.  The biography quotes a letter in which he diminishes his role in the video, acting, at best, only as a producer on behalf of Rosette.  Nonetheless, he allowed it to be released in theaters in front of his 1987 Boyfriends and Girlfriends.

Rohmer’s second journey into the world of music was also on behalf of one of his leading ladies. Arielle Dombasle , the lovely star of  “Pauline at the Beach”  was an established recording artist when she made Amour symphonique, a 1989 song in which she fantasizes becoming an opera diva. Rohmer directed and photographed the video, and even helped work out a portion of the melody, but again withdrew from taking credit for the final product. Unlike Drink Your Coffee,  Amour symphonique is omitted from most Rohmer filmographies.

It is not unusual for major filmmakers to exercise their talents on ephemeral films – music videos, commercials, even political campaign films and theme park attractions –  but the majority of these projects seem to be treated by their creators with indifference. The recent Mercedes commercial directed by Joel and Ethan Coen  – not their first venture into advertising – indicates that we can expect the list of such projects to grow. A subject for future research?