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Sunday, 5 July 2020

On Woody Allen - Tom Ryan reviews the director's memoir APROPOS OF NOTHING (Arcade Publishing, 2020)

It’s not a good time for Woody Allen to be trying to get a fair hearing for his 392-page memoir, Apropos of Nothing. The 1992 allegations of molestation made against him by his former partner, Mia Farrow, their adopted daughter, Dylan, and son, Ronan seem to follow him wherever he goes and whatever he does. But, rest assured, I don’t intend to spend the rest of this book review grappling with them. As Alvy Singer’s mother (Joan Neuman) in 1977’s Annie Hall might have put it, what is that my business anyway? *

Suffice then to say that, despite no charges ever having been laid against Allen, despite his repeated denials, and despite a mountain-load of evidence to the contrary – see, for example, cartoonist Rick Worley’s By the Way, Woody Allen is Innocent (2020, click here to watch it on YouTube) – an entire generation now routinely regards him as a pervert who sexually assaulted his then seven-year old adopted daughter. 

As far we the public are concerned, what seems undeniable is that, over almost three decades now, Allen and, to a lesser extent, Farrow have become increasingly stereotyped according to the disposition of whoever’s opinion piece is the order of the day. He, as an older man with a prurient interest in younger women; she, as a spurned woman seeking vengeance on him for having transferred his affections from her to her 22-year-old adopted daughter (with Andre Previn), Soon-Yi Previn. 

The first hurdle facing Allen’s memoir was, notoriously, when Hachette, who’d originally contracted to publish it, then changed its mind, deciding that it didn’t want its name attached to such a product. Pressured by Ronan Farrow – whose expose, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and A Conspiracy to Protect Predators (2019), had been published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of the Hachette Book Group – and by a group of disapproving employees, Hachette changed its mind. Soon afterwards, Arcade Publishing came to the rescue. It cost me $60 for an imported hardback at my local bookseller; the nearby library has yet to include it in its collection.

The second hurdle the book has to overcome is getting a fair hearing/reading. Alas, as has been the case with most of Allen’s films in recent years, as Scott Murray has observed recently on this site, reviewers generally now tend to be preoccupied with the writer-director rather than his work. Such is the power of celebrity. It can serve you well one day (week, month or year), and swing against you the next. So, as I said, if you’re Woody Allen, right now is not a good time to be hawking a memoir.

Is the book worth making a fuss about? My tentative answer to that question is yes: for the most part, it’s a very enjoyable, if not especially enlightening, read. Anybody who’s encountered any of Allen’s previous literary efforts (from Getting Even in 1971 through Without Feathers in 1975 to Side Effects in 1980 and Mere Anarchy in 2007) will be familiar with the way he writes. As he outlines in Apropos of Nothing, he began as an adolescent by penning jokes for others to tell, before moving into stand-up in his own right. And you can hear his voice throughout the memoir, setting the scene, adopting that familiar self-deprecatory demeanour, and spreading the ironic patter far and wide as he moves towards the inevitable punch-line. 

For years, he’s been giving that voice to the characters he’s played on screen, sometimes lending it out to actors in a way that mixes their personas with his. In Celebrity (1998), hilariously, for example, even Kenneth Branagh takes it on: the nervous stutter, the social awkwardness, the terminal uncertainty about his place in the scheme of things. 

Sometimes the gags in the memoir fall a bit flat, and the book could certainly do with a good edit. But there are also plenty of zingers on offer as Allen bounces back and forth across the years. It’s often been said that, if you can make an audience laugh, you can have them eating out of the palm of your hand. And if Apropos of Nothing is apropos of anything, it’s that. 

Allen is generous, virtually without exception, to all of his collaborators on both sides of the camera, and the book is full of lots of behind-the-scenes chat about what it was like working with Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, John Turturro, Scarlett Johansson, Sean Penn, cinematographer Gordon Willis, “name-dropping” designer Richard Sylbert, and many others. None of it is especially illuminating, but it’s never dull. Of Judy Davis (with whom he’s now made four films), he notes regarding her involvement in Celebrity, “(She) was of course great, and since we had now done several films together, I was determined to say hello, but I lost my nerve when she couldn’t remember who I was.” (Boom! Boom!)

Even Mia Farrow is unequivocally endorsed for her contributions to his work. Allen seems to have the ability to compartmentalise his relationships, between what transpires professionally and what goes on privately. He spends about a third of the book making his case about what really didn’t happen between him and daughter Dylan and how much evidence there is to indicate that Farrow fabricated the whole affair. You can hear the tone of his voice shift as he gets passionate about his total innocence and quite vicious about Farrow. It’s the book’s weakest link, although (especially if he isinnocent) it’s understandable.

Elsewhere, he encounters an abundance of famous people and he’s not averse to dropping a name or two himself. He dines with his hero, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, spends time with Pauline Kael (who provides him with one of the book’s funniest lines), brunches with President Sarkozy and his wife, singer-actress Carla Bruni, and runs into Arthur Miller, who confirms for him that life is meaningless. Cary Grant comes to watch him play with his jazz group at Michael’s Pub in New York and asks him to autograph copies of his books (probably “so he could sell them on eBay”, he surmises).

However, we really learn nothing about what drives him, what angels or demons rise up whenever he sits down to write a screenplay or goes on set to direct a sequence. We learn zilch about the creative choices that govern the shape of the films he’s made, why he did this rather than that. All he’s willing, or able, to share is that he arrives on the set, lets the actors do what they think is appropriate (his decision was the casting, they have the script, now it’s up to them), and then cuts it all together.

Allen keeps saying that he really doesn’t care about the finished product; what matters to him is the shooting process. He says he doesn’t think he’s made any especially good films and isn’t the slightest bit interested in what reviewers have to say about them. Or what people think about him. “Rather than live on in the hearts and mind of the public, I prefer to live on in my apartment,” he offers as his departing punch-line. 

Should we believe him? Should we trust him? Is his disinterest a pose? To what extent is he the same unreliable narrator of his own life as all the hopeless narcissists he’s played over the years are of theirs (like Alvy in Annie Hall or Isaac in Manhattan)? Did his mother, Nettie Konigsberg, really resemble Groucho Marx? Alas, there’s no photo to support his claim (the only picture the book offers is a portrait of Allen on the back cover taken by Diane Keaton). My advice, then: you shouldn’t read Apropos of Nothing for the answers to any of these questions. But it can be awfully engrossing to ponder them. 

*I said what I had to say on that subject a couple of years ago in The New Daily.
And nothing has happened in the intervening years to persuade me to change a word of it.

On French TV on the 4th of July - John Baxter again sits through the Five Star Foul-up HONKY TONK FREEWAY (John Schlesinger, UK/USA, 1981)

John Schlesinger
In October 1981, The New Yorker published a cartoon of two elderly ladies exchanging reminiscences of their summer holidays. One says “While up here in Westchester – on a whim, mind you – Harold and I turned into a drive-in cinema and saw Honky Tonk Freeway. It ruined our August!”
         This once-notorious turkey is largely forgotten, which makes one wonder why French TV chose to mark the 4thJuly weekend with a screening. Perhaps some scholar, high on an overdose of Jean Baudrillard, was struck by how much its gaudy parody of American commercialism, so exaggerated at the time, has come, over the years, to appear almost commonplace. An elephant on water skis? So what else is new? 
William Devane and the elephant on water skis
While a $25 million movie pulled from cinemas after only one week is worthy of recognition in its own right, it also deserves attention as the work of John Schlesinger, even if there’s little in it that recalls Sunday Bloody Sunday, Midnight Cowboy, Darling or Marathon Man, let alone An Englishman Abroad, his evocation for British TV of spy Guy Burgess, alone and unloved in Moscow exile, persuading a visiting actress to send him, on her return to London, some hand-made shoes and a pair of silk pyjamas. 

Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy
By those standards, Honky Tonk Freeway is not so much a bull in a china shop as a rhinoceros in a motorway pile-up: just one of the delights to which this film treats us – not forgetting Oscar-winner Jessica Tandy as a cocktail slurping octogenarian alcoholic, and Beau Bridges as the author of a children’s book about a carnivorous pony which devours the fingers of children who try to pet it.
The screenplay by the unknown Edward Clinton, his sole screen credit except for four episodes of the daytime soap opera Another World, invites us to imagine the Florida town of Ticlaw, bypassed by a new freeway, becoming so militant, at the behest of a mayor who is also its holy-roller pastor, as to dynamite the highway and improvise their own off-ramp. 
That Schlesinger realises this phantasmagoria while eliciting barely a titter is an achievement of a sort, particularly since the cast includes some reliable performers; not first chair, except perhaps for Tandy and husband Hume Cronyn, but people on the order of William Devane, Beverly D’Angelo, Beau Bridges and Daniel Stern, who have amused or charmed us in the past, eg The Fabulous Baker Boys, Home Alone, High Fidelity..  
The film’s ruling influence is Robert Altman’s portmanteau epic Nashville. (It was even promoted as “Nashville on wheels.”) To play Altman at his own game was a fatal error. His inventiveness can be exploited by watering it down - cf M.A.S.H. into the TV series, Gosford Park into Downton Abbey, The Player into Swimming With Sharks – but one tries to outdo him at one’s peril. 
Historically, the film was a casualty of the loophole under which European companies could invest in American film production as a tax shelter. It had its successes, eg Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but the lure of easy money encouraged producers to inflate projects to the limit of the finance on offer  Honky Tonk Freeway began as a modest $2 million comedy, planned as the directorial debut of innovative British producer Don Boyd. Once $25 million had been spent and it was evident the film would flop, its $11 million debt was sold off to European companies in need of a tax loss. Distributors ran the film for a week or two to save face, then shelved it. (Anyone familiar with Australian film finance at that time may experience a frisson of recognition.)
When in New York, Schlesinger was an habitué of The Baths in the basement of the Astoria Hotel - later to become Plato’s Retreat but at the time exclusively a gay pick-up venue. Patrons looking to hook up reclined in their cubicles but left the door invitingly open. The portly Schlesinger was thus disported when a potential partner looked in, took in his girth and said “Oh, man! No way. You must be kidding!” Without opening his eyes, Schlesinger said “A simple ‘No, thanks’ would suffice.” Faced with the proposal to make Honky Tonk Freeway, he should have followed his own advice. 
Lobby Card, Beverly D'Angelo, Beau Bridges

Friday, 3 July 2020

Streaming on Kanopy, DocPlay and Prime Video - SAVING BRINTON (Tommy Haines, Andrew Sherburne, USA, 2017)

               SAVING BRINTON is a highly enjoyable documentary about a collector, or probably more correctly an accumulator called Michael Zahs (pictured left). 
In the early 1980s he discovered the ‘Brinton Collection’. Frank and his wife Indiana Brinton were show people in rural parts of Iowa from the 1890s and to about 1909. Their collection had practically everything they’d accumulated from that period. Old movies, the projectors they’d used to show them, slides for ‘sing-alongs’ or for advertising, account books, catalogues of films available to them in that period and more. 
               Zahs is a retired history teacher in Ainsworth, a small (c. 600 people) town in Iowa. He wasn’t a cinema scholar or archaeologist, just someone who had a sense that objects from the past had stories to tell, and he guessed there were lots of story to be told from all this Brinton ‘junk’. He must have had a very understanding wife – he brought all this disorganised collection home the week he was married, and most of it crowded the house for about 35 years until in the early 2010s he managed to get some people interested enough to check it out.
             And there were real treasures therein, including the discovery of an unknown Meliés film,  Bouquet des Illusions or Triple Headed Lady.  Click here to watch it on YouTube  One of the highlights of SAVING BRINTON is the moment when Zahs is showing his little (45 sec.) film to Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films, a Meliés expert. Bromberg’s joy, his ecstasy when he realises that he is seeing a piece of Meliés that he thought was lost is emotional to watch in itself.  And so is the pleasure Zahs has in seeing that this has meaning to someone.  

                For Cinema Ritrovato tragics, we then have the thrill of seeing this being premiered in a Piazza screening in 2016. (Though we do have to have a bit of one of Gianluca Farinelli’s introductions.)  Zahs is a person who has such delight in sharing things historical with people and that delight makes this documentary a real pleasure.  

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Once long ago on HBO - John Baxter recalls ROME (created by John Milius, William J. MacDonald, and Bruno Heller, 2005-07)

Polly Walker as Attia of the Julii
In the spring of 2003, a man with an Italian accent rang me in Paris.
         “John Baxter,” he said without preamble, “your ass is mine.”
The caller – call him Guido Truffatore - was a Rome-based producer, and what claim, if any, he had on my ass was to concern me for the next two years.
He had a proposition, he said. Could I fly to Rome to discuss it?
         Two days later, a taxi dropped me at the Parco dei Principi hotel next to the Borghese Gardens. As the bellboy opened the door to my room, a man further down the corridor regarded us narrowly. 
The bellboy nodded towards him and the rooms beyond.
“Yasser Arafat.” 
I realized then that the object dangling from the man’s wrist was not a purse but an Uzi.
         That encounter and many that followed came back to me recently when I re-viewed the BBC’s Rome. In 2003, a series Guido wished to produce had been its main competitor for funding by HBO.
         To hear Guido tell it, the whole thing began with The Sopranos. Someone suggested to  HBO that America’s Italian community was displeased with constantly being depicted as criminals. They took the hint and invited proposals for a series that reflected well on Italy. Two found favour. One was Rome,the other, backed by a consortium that included Guido and actor Roy Scheider, was The Renaissance. Rome followed the career of Julius Caesar,The Renaissance the Medicis. For the latter, I created a narrative structure, episode breakdown, character summaries and anything else needed to get it to the screen. 
         Obviously Rome got the gig, but the series, planned for five seasons, was axed before the end of two because of dwindling audiences. Not long after, many of its sets at Cinecittà, the largest ever built, burned down. The tradition of TV series lavishly reconstructing an historical era burned with them.
Having tried to create a series on the same general lines makes me even more admiring of Bruno Heller’s writing on Rome. I never discovered whether he or John Milius, who shares credit for developing the series, conceived its key idea, of using two lowly figures in Caesar’s army to tell the story of his rise and fall, but Milius is known to admire Kurosawa’s Kakushi-torie no san-akuninaka The Hidden Fortress, which also included a couple of spear-carriers who become hapless spectators to a war. 

Ray Stevenson and Kevin McKidd as
Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus
The involvement of Milius gives Rome an improbable family resemblance to the Star Wars sagaLucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, its R2D2 and C3POare the only common soldiers mentioned by name in Julius Caesar’s memoirs.  Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) is the career centurion, a humourless sergeant, good at his job and mindful of his place – in contrast to Pullo (Ray Stevenson), an undisciplined grunt, inclined to get drunk and crack skulls, but a good man in a fight. 

Ciaran Hinds as Julius Caesar.
Around them swirls a cast straight from the history books, led by Caesar (Ciaran Hinds), a larger than life aristocrat, convinced he should be king of Rome but devious enough to have someone else suggest it, and his unscrupulous right hand man Mark Antony (James Purefoy), a charming lout  Among the women, Polly Walker plays Atia, Antony’s voluptuous tart, while Caesar is in thrall to her arch enemy, the icy Servilia (Lindsay Duncan).  
It would take another page to list the subsidiary characters but the real star is Rome. The detail is never less than absorbing, and overturns our vision of the ancient world as comprehensively as did Fellini’sSatyricon. There’s barely a white column to be seen. Facades and statues are painted as gaudily as circus posters. Instead of a portentous commentary or rolling prologue, Ian McNeice’s tubby town crier, chins quivering as he announces the day’s events to an uncaring Forum, keeps us updated while remaining in period.  

Ian McNiece as the Forum news-reader
Sanctified with the stamp of historical accuracy, Rome’s eye-opening sex and violence paved the way for Game of Thrones. As Mark Antony rolls off Attia at the end of a sweaty bout, she casually holds out her hand – and a servant, who’s been standing just out of shot, hands her a towel, while another gives Antony a cup of wine. Slaves were not simply taken for granted. They had as much human existence to their owners as a wardrobe.

James Purefoy as Mark Antony
The women of Rome have a Hello! magazine credibility. Any of them might just have returned from cocktails with the Kardashians. One scene shows Attia preparing a gift for another friend whom she may shortly stab in the back. The “gift” is a short, balding slave with some of Stanley Tucci’s rueful diffidence, but (also like Tucci: who knows?) impressively well hung. When her daughter suggests the gesture might be in poor taste, Attia says “Nonsense. A big penis is always welcome”  -  wisdom surely fit to stand beside Tempus fugit and Carpe diem.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

On the glory of Cinemascope - Marshall Deutelbaum analyses the use of rabatment in BELOVED INFIDEL, DADDY LONG LEGS and WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?

Editor's Note: Marshall Deutelbaum (left) is Professor Emeritus at Purdue University, Lafayette, Indiana and the editor, with Leland Poague, of A Hitchcock Reader  which has been in print continuously since 1985.


Ages ago, artists discovered that every rectangle has two squares within it. Using either or both of those squares to organize the composition of a rectangular picture is called rabatment. Since the CinemaScope frame is also a rectangle, production designers knew they could use rabatment to define the proportions of movie sets for ‘Scope films.  All that was needed, then, was for the cameraman to put the camera in precisely the right spot to capture the composition on film and for the director to position actors to energize the frame. 
In these images, doorways, door frames, and the hard edge of a door clearly demarcate the interior verticals established by rabatment, though even soft curtains bunched together just right can serve the same design purpose. Rabatment encourages off-center compositions. Placing an actor on or close to one of the verticals enhances focus on him or her.

Beloved Infidel(Twentieth Century-Fox, 1959; production designers Lyle Wheeler and Maurice Ransford): compositions based on two rabatment squares. Sheilah Graham in her Malibu kitchen and John Wheeler at his desk in New York City.

Daddy Long Legs(Twentieth Century-Fox, 1959; production designers Lyle Wheeler and John De Cuir): composition based on two rabatment squares. The door to Julie Andre’s  college bedroom.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1959; production designers Lyle Wheeler and Leland Fuller):  composition based on two rabatment squares. A view from the La Salle ad agency office.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

On YouTube - Barrie Pattison unearths EMERGENCY CALL (Edward L Cahn, USA, 1933)

Well, through most of a life of compulsive film going I rated Edward L. Cahn (left) among the most jeer worthy of Hollywood directors - just above Edgar Ulmer in fact.

Roger Corman mentioned him as someone who had talent but found himself in a situation where he couldn't bring anything to the films. Corman had made a study of the area. He played cards with Maury Dexter. The only one who remained mysterious to him was Fred F. Sears.

However, I discovered that Cahn's uncredited work on the cutting of All Quiet on the Western Front had projected him into a thirties directing career which had him filming John Huston scripts and turning out work admired among the informed. His  Law and Order of 1932 fields Walter Huston as Wyatt Earp and Harry Carey as Doc Holliday. You’d have to work pretty hard to screw up with that combination and scenes like Huston’s bedside undertakings to Carey do ring. There’s another 1932 one called Afraid to Talk with Sidney Fox which has been suggested as notable but I have yet to find that in Cinémathèque land.

After these Cahn was back to shorts and B movie oblivion. So when Cahn’s 1933 Emergency Call popped onto my YouTube screen in a just about watchable copy, I couldn’t resist.

Fresh from a heavy dose of pre-Code Warners viewing I had to notice the skimpy production values RKO had provided - particularly minimally dressed sets, absence of exteriors and sparse scoring. This said Eddy Cahn gives it a good try with camera tracking in the studio built hospital corridors, flats and warehouse and brisk editing. William Boyd no less manages to suggest a leading man of some authority shortly before he took the easy way out and immortalized himself as Hopalong Cassidy. He and next billed star Wynne Gibson turn out to not be the love interest. Hoppy’s squeeze is one Betty Furness who is barely seen.

The piece is about medical rackets with new doctor Boyd’s supervisor and  father-in-law to be making Bill’s path easy by putting him on ambulance call, to the derision of the drivers. This comes to a halt when he and William Gargan have to down a knife wielding maniac who has run amok on the apartment block top floor - it’s always the top floor.

Turns out that gangster Edwin Maxwell (of course) has sidewalk flopper George E. Stone in his pay and takes a dim view of Bill turning him out of the hospital in his pajamas for faking injury. By this time Gargan and Gibson have become an item so it’s even more concerning when Ed is wheeled in injured after a quite well staged fight in a freight elevator and it looks like he’s going to be treated with the lethal WW1 ether that the army has rejected and Maxwell has sold to the hospital.

You can’t really say they shafted Ed Cahn. Costume designer Walter Punkett and music supervisor Max Steiner went on to do Gone With the Wind and one time explorer producer Merian C. Cooper would partner with John Ford in Argosy Films. Joe Mankiewicz gets a writer credit. We can only hope he’d baled before they got to the feeble ending. 

All up I’ve seen worse and this one casts some light on a significant period in Hollywood film making. I’m still looking for Afraid to Talk.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Streaming on Netflix - Peter Hourigan notes one additional title by Egyptian master Youssef Chahine THE OTHER (Egypt, 1999)

It seems that Netflix is on a winner with its batch of Chahine films. My recent post  on this site with some comments about most of the films now available has had a surprisingly but gratifyingly high number of hits. There have been other posts on other sites responding to this new treasure trove, along with more extensive responses, such as this from JoséArroyo and Richard Layne discussing the first film, The Blazing Sun  (Struggle in the Valley) (click here to go to the page)  They plan to continue these discussions through all the films available in chronological order, and already have done the next two (Dark Waters, Cairo Station.)
The key word there is “available”. Not all films are available in all territories. USA has 12 titles, Australia has eleven.  The other film not available in Australia is …um…The Other. From 1999, this is one of his last films. It was released on DVD in USA. My memories of it need refreshing before I make definitive comments. But the blurb on the DVD case below indicates a film with confidence in its director’s filmmaking, prepared to be extravagant but with still with a strong social conviction.  
      The Other is a delirious love story between Adam, the son of a corrupt, domineering female industrialist, and Hanane, a beautiful but impoverished newspaper reporter.  … Among the passionate embraces, extravagant musical numbers and a stirring vision of a harmonious, multi-cultural Middle East, Chahine unravels the connection s among naked greed, corrupt power, Western ‘globalization’ and religious fanaticism.