Almost by definition, any festival dedicated exclusively to the treasures, glories, and the occasional folly of the past is likely to be visited by ghosts, and the spirits of the dead are practically a staple at the TCM Classic Film Festival, which held its eighth gathering in the heart of Hollywood this past weekend. The memory of the late Debbie Reynolds, who had made several in-person appearances at TCMFF over the past eight years, was invoked through yet another screening (the festival’s third) of the indisputable classic Singin’ in the Rain, in which Reynolds made her first big Hollywood splash back in 1952, and at a screening of Postcards from the Edge (classic status somewhat more disputable), before which Reynolds and her daughter, Carrie Fisher, were remembered fondly by Todd Fisher, Reynolds’s son.
Even though he wasn’t represented at the festival on screen, Don Rickles, who passed away on April 6, the festival’s opening day, couldn’t be ignored. Rickles’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located on Hollywood Boulevard across the street from the Chinese Theater complex, and as I made my way through the usual crush of tourists, desperadoes, and TCMFF pass holders toward my first screening on Thursday afternoon I wasn’t surprised to see the little square of sidewalk devoted to Rickles surrounded by flowers, curious bystanders, and entertainment reporters trolling for soundbites, and even adorned by one fan’s thoughtful memorial: a brand-new hockey puck.
The ghost that made its presence felt at almost every turn of this year’s festival belonged, of course, to TCM’s beloved host Robert Osborne, who died one month to the day before the launch of this year’s festival. Osborne began his Hollywood career in the early 1950s as an actor; his highest-profile moments were uncredited, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances in Psycho and Spartacus. But his heart was never in it, and at the encouragement of Lucille Ball he abandoned acting and combined his love of movies and journalism to concentrate on writing and documenting Hollywood history, eventually becoming the genial, knowledgeable, silver-haired host who won the allegiance of TCM fans worldwide.
Osborne had missed the previous two years at TCMFF due to illness and his presence on the channel had greatly diminished, so the announcement of his death came as no great surprise, and just as it should be, TCMFF 2017 was dedicated to his memory and achievements long before the festival’s first frames ever found their way from projector to screen. The very first event of TCMFF 2017 was “Remembering Robert,” a presentation in one of the festival’s biggest multiplex theaters attended by TCM VIPs and celebrity guests and open to all pass holders. Each feature shown on Thursday was also preceded by a short film highlighting Osborne’s talent as an interviewer, but probably more importantly his easygoing relationship with not only superstar guests like Mel Brooks, Eva Marie Saint, Peter O’Toole and, of course, Debbie Reynolds, but also with the considerably lower-wattage TCM fans who always seemed as eager to see him in person as they were any of the other stars usually found on parade at the festival.
Inevitably, some of the spotlight shone on Osborne and his profound influence as the face and spirit of TCM ended up illuminating questions, not so much about the channel, but the direction in which the film festival seems to be headed. In many ways, Osborne—the well-read, informed, semi-erudite and very enthusiastic proponent of all things classic movies—was the perfect distillation of the channel’s audience; he was the ultimate TCM fan, conversant in every aspect of Hollywood lore and rumor and achievement, and yet also in a somehow youthful awe of it all.
It would be imprudent and probably ill-informed to suggest that Osborne had a direct, ongoing influence in programming either the channel or the festival, despite his public image as overlord of a classic movie empire. But certainly Osborne’s diminished presence at TCMFF over the past few years has coincided with the festival’s increased proclivity, undoubtedly inspired at least in part by the understandable need to generate revenue—to feature films that, shall we say, push the outer limits of the definition of the essential term “classic,” or to overly rely on familiar, oft-seen selections that emphasize a classic film aesthetic which Osborne undoubtedly would have approved but which tend to crowd out the rarities and obscure items from the vault that have always been catnip to the more serious cinephiles in attendance.
In comparison to past themes such as “History in the Movies,” “Moving Pictures,” and “Hollywood Style,” the nexus of this year’s festival, “Comedy in the Movies,” seemed unusually broad, and according to festival managing director Genevieve McGillicuddy, that’s apparently at least in part by design. Speaking to the Hollywood Reporter, she suggested that festival themes must be considered “broad enough to encompass a lot of films, but specific enough to inform who we bring in, in terms of guests.” What’s disturbing about that comment is the acknowledgment of the degree to which festival programmers, particularly this year, seemed to have been guided not as much by whether or not the films were worthy of a showcase in such a setting, but instead by who could be lured out to present and talk about their films.
If that’s true, it goes a long way toward explaining why TCMFF 2017 featured such vintage “classics” as The Jerk, The Princess Bride, High Anxiety, Broadcast News, Top Secret!, Best in Show, The Kentucky Fried Movie, Saturday Night Fever, and The China Syndrome, and with all of their very high-profile creators in attendance. (Bonnie and Clyde also played this year, but Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were both absent; no doubt the fiasco that capped this year’s Oscars soured them on public appearances for a while.) If this sort of celebrity trolling is indeed the direction that TCMFF is headed, then it seems reasonable to fear that future festivals might likely be even more dependent, given the ever-decreasing availability of stars and filmmakers from a more genuine era of classic movies, on showcasing more current fare to the exclusion of exploring the rich nooks and crannies of Hollywood history.
Even when addressing that history, however, this year’s edition of TCMFF seemed to come up short of imagination. It seems fairly clear that movies like Arsenic and Old Lace, Born Yesterday, Casablanca, The Graduate, The Great Dictator, Harold and Maude, Jezebel, The Last Picture Show, Rear Window, Red River, Some Like It Hot, and Unfaithfully Yours have a rightful place at any festival which claims classic movie history as its statement purpose. But at the risk of sounding like a spoiled churl, when those none-too-difficult-to-see films are combined on a slate with a roster of popular, in-age-only classics like The Jerk and The China Syndrome, that adds up to a lot of screens which could have been dedicated to less-familiar or less-available films which might also be better qualified as classics. Every one of the movies cited immediately above were directed by filmmakers who all have less well-traveled selections in their respective oeuvres which could have been showcased, and in fact Alfred Hitchcock and Hal Ashby were both more satisfyingly represented in the festival by harder-to-see titles: a luminous nitrate print of 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, superior to the 1956 remake, and 1970’s The Landlord, probably Ashby’s best film and a genuine classic if there ever was one.
Probably the most illuminating thread in TCMFF 2017’s “Comedy in the Movies” theme was not the more predictable selection of films chosen to fulfill it, but the peripheral consideration of what exactly makes a person laugh. I certainly didn’t consciously schedule my own festival experience along TCMFF’s thematic lines, yet the issue of laughter, emanating from the belly as well as the brain, kept bubbling to the surface, and sometimes from unexpected places. Much to my happy surprise, my opening-night selection, the 1941 romantic farce Love Crazy, was an actual laff riot. The film’s setup is typical screwball: An escalating series of improbable misunderstandings leads a couple to break up on their fourth wedding anniversary, all of which inspires Steve Ireland (William Powell) to have himself declared legally insane and eventually pass himself off as his own sister in order to maneuver Susan Ireland (Myrna Loy) back into his graces.
Director Jack Conway and writers William Ludwig, David Hertz, and Charles Lederer display an endearing affinity for sophisticated people falling on their asses in Love Crazy, which suited me just fine. And speaking of being suited just fine, who could have guessed that Powell would make such a grand and dowdy old maid? I’ll go on record with the belief that Powell did drag better and more convincingly than anyone I’ve ever seen, and that includes Dustin Hoffman. (Powell gets bonus points for not having learned hard lessons about becoming a better man by putting on a dress too.) The film also goes a long way toward demonstrating the chemistry between Powell and Loy, both sexual and platonic, which kept them together on screen over the course of 14 movies. Perhaps unexpectedly, Love Crazy is one of their best.
Naturally, TCMFF provides an excellent opportunity to catch classic comedies with appreciative audiences. So this year I lined up for W.C. Fields and the beloved duo of Laurel and Hardy. At only 29 minutes, 1932’s The Music Box is Laurel and Hardy’s masterpiece, a beautiful display of slapstick tension built around the boys’ inept, Sisyphean attempts to push a piano up a ridiculously steep flight of stairs. To the delight of the audience, Stan and Ollie’s difficulties don’t stop once they manage to reach the top, and the film’s reception here in front of a big crowd made me wish I could have been there in 1932 when people were discovering it for the first time. The Music Box, no surprise, turned out to be a hard act to follow. The Laurel and Hardy feature which came next, 1937’s Way Out West, runs twice as long, and I’d estimate it overstays its welcome by about a half hour. By about midway through, despite the occasional chortle, I felt deflated by Way Out West, and the audience around me seemed ready for the revivifying effects of a Starbucks run too.
Fields, on the other hand, stayed customarily strong and weird over the course of another opening short, the relatively primitive yet hilarious The Barber Shop, from 1933, and the comedian’s great late-period, near-indescribable marvel Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, from 1941. (Fields himself worried that the title would be reduced on a marquee to “W.C. Fields: Sucker!”) When people talk about the oddest films ever released by a major studio (and people fluttering around the lobby of the TCMFF do tend to talk about such things, believe me), if they fail to mention Sucker, then you can safely assume that they really don’t know what they’re talking about. This is a very strange, fitfully hilarious production, one which seems made to satisfy Fields himself and no one else, and fortunately in that regard it fails miserably; the TCMFF audience was in its proverbial stitches. (Sucker also features the greatest Zasu Pitts crack ever committed to celluloid, and if you haven’t seen the film, don’t expect me to give it away.)
One way that the thematically inclined TCMFF programmers were admirably sly was in scheduling John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, dubbed an “Essential” under the rubric of the official festival calendar, to be followed immediately, if one so chose, by the director’s fabulous high-wire act from 1953, Beat the Devil, listed by TCMFF as a “movie spoof.” I’ve seen The Maltese Falcon countless times, and had it not been for the relative paucity of juicy choices in the other Friday-morning time slots I might have decided on seeing something else. But as it turned out, experiencing the 1941 film with a packed house who knew every line, every story beat, every raised eyebrow among its stellar cast far better than I did, only magnified just how delightful, how straight-faced funny it really is.
One might think there’d at least be a measure of nudge-nudge-wink-wink humor to be mined from recognizing the familiar iconography of the hard-boiled detective film noir for which The Maltese Falcon laid much of the foundation. But thankfully, the audience responded with appreciative laughter, not with the sort of annoying knowingness that signals “Yeah, I’m aware of all these signature detective drama tropes.” To be in an audience beside itself with happiness when Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade tosses off the line about having stolen back Wilmer Cook’s (Elisha Cook Jr.) guns from the crippled newsie who first grabbed them off Wilmer is to experience an audience delighting in a lightning-only-strikes-once sort of moment in film history, when everyone from director to stars to the bittest of bit players was firing on all cylinders. (It was a particular delight of mine to hear someone on the way out invoking the names Nick Danger and Rocky Rococo, centerpieces of the Firesign Theatre’s brilliant Maltese Falcon-derived parody “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger,” which made TCMFF’s inclusion of the Huston classic in such close proximity to the comedy umbrella even more satisfying.)
I was perhaps even less prepared for Beat the Devil. Like most of its initial audience, when I’d first seen it I wasn’t entirely sure I understood what Huston and company were up to. The director tossed out the film’s original script, which was based on a relatively serious book about a group of con artists trying to secure a North African uranium mine, and brought Truman Capote on to rewrite it, which resulted in a scramble to feed actors new lines every day as the film’s plot became more ramshackle unpredictable. The screening was prefaced by an interview conducted by historian Cari Beauchamp with Beat the Devil’s script supervisor, Angela Allen, who one might think had one of the more thankless jobs in film history on that particular set. But the way Allen told it, working on the production was a considerable amount of fun, at least enough to counterbalance what must have been a very high exasperation level inspired by Capote and Huston’s constant tinkering and revising of the film’s structure and dialogue.
Seen again with a more sophisticated eye, Beat the Devil’s level of perfection turns out to be sublimely amusing, another singular bolt of Huston lightning; everything from Humphrey Bogart’s frazzled charm to Jennifer Jones’s straight-faced tall tales, to Gina Lollobrigida’s delivery of tea for two, to the relentlessly sharp wit of Capote’s dialogue and Huston’s supremely confident direction, which may have been borne from precisely the opposite emotional impulse, gives this improbable lark true wings.
Those Huston films, especially seen back-to-back as I saw them this past weekend, go a long way toward indicating just how elusive the comic impulse can be, and just how unexpected it can be when it explodes. But whether or not they were traditional comedies, The Maltese Falcon and Beat the Devil both had comic awareness. When a “sophisticated” audience bumps up against something from another era whose intentions or execution bristles too roughly against their sensibilities, or seems on the surface too silly or misguidedly earnest to invite anything but laughter, the screening can turn into an unwelcome hootfest. Such as it was, at least for a while, at the TCMFF 2017 midnight screening of John Boorman’s 1974 film Zardoz.
Say what you will about Zardoz, and you will (and you should, as long as it’s something more substantial than “Awesome!” or “Whaafuck?!”), but this singular film is one sprung from the mind of a true visionary director, no matter our conclusions about that specific vision. Whenever I hear of a corporate drone who’s coughed up another dour superhero fantasy acclaimed as “visionary,” I imagine that vision being programmed in a boardroom at the behest of the keepers of the lowest-common denominators and in fear of legions of fanboys who don’t cotton to coloring outside of the lines. But Boorman, who conceived, wrote, produced, and directed Zardoz flush from the success of Deliverance, when he could have done any number of other projects to secure his commercial and artistic future, sustained the production of one of the more original, deeply felt, and genuinely hallucinatory science-fiction allegories ever to make it to the screen bearing the imprimatur of a major studio. In the annals of odd studio releases, it deserves a place right alongside Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.
Sean Connery is Zed, an Exterminator, one of a cadre of assassins murdering the population of Brutals in the name of a strange sub-deity called Zardoz, whose rock-carved visage floats over the hills and moors, vomiting weapons and ammunition to be used in the slaughter. Zed is somehow smuggled inside Zardoz, where he murders a man who claims to be Zardoz, found perched precariously at the mouth of the giant figure, and is subsequently transported into a realm, a vortex, populated by immortals, an elitist group of scientists and sensualists who have separated themselves from the society of Zardoz’s victims into what can only be described as a pastel-flavored religious commune. That commune is governed by the Tabernacle, an omnipotent, disembodied voice dedicated to sustaining the maintenance of life for these chosen, whose rare transgressions from the imposed idyll are punished by a measure of aging which, if enough infractions pile up, will result in debilitation and dementia, but never death.
Against the resistance of Consuela (Charlotte Rampling) and to the encouragement of May (Sara Kestleman), the immortal commune’s two arresting poles of rapacious, visionary (there’s that word again) pleasure, Zed slowly accrues awareness of his origins and of the past world, supplied by May and her minions. Zed slowly begins to approach a sort of godhead himself, one that might even replace the Tabernacle as the Immortals, grown weary of endless, unchallenged existence, mount an attempt to regain mortality, to kill God, to be able to once again experience life under the one thing that seems to give it meaning, the surety of termination.
That’s a lot to expect guffaw-ready, possibly chemically enhanced hipster audiences to digest, especially after a day filled with as many as six other films seen previous to it. Of course, when a director gives himself fully to the images and ideas cluttering his head, the result is usually not one that’s going to speak to great swaths of moviegoers who’d prefer the film to have more Gordon flash than existential philosophizing. And when Boorman drapes his hero in what looks essentially like a red diaper for the duration (and at one point, a wedding gown) and spins out phantasmagorical sequences draped in as much vintage early-’70s futurism as Zardoz sports, he runs the risk of looking like a fool. But for the patient viewer, Zardoz is also a film of ravishing beauty—and some of those images, particularly of the great Zardoz head floating across the Irish landscapes where the production was filmed, shoot straight beyond silliness and into the rarified realm of the sublime.
Zardoz doesn’t play by many recognizable rules, of narrative, of visual discipline, but even for the younger, presumably smart audience that it drew at TCMFF there’s apparently only a couple of ways to respond to something like it—derision, confusion, boredom, or some numb cocktail consisting of all of the above. The surprisingly large crowd, prepped by TCM’s invaluable programmer/host Millie Di Chirico and her peppy introduction/warning, giggled and hooted right out of the gate. But as I was secretly hoping, they didn’t end up having the stamina to turn the film into TCMFF’s very own episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and eventually, about a half hour in, the superiority-tinged laughs and gasps subsided as the audience gave in either to the effects of that numbing cocktail or, like I did, the strange buzzing in the brain caused by exposure to a genuine original.
The usual proclamations of “What the fuck was that?!” and “Worst movie I ever saw!” could be heard on the way out of the auditorium, but I left elated, as if my mental receptors had been seduced into opening at just the right frequency and taking in Boorman’s spectacular folly, letting it seed my brain and grow into what it would. And seeing it in such a beautiful DCP presentation on a big, big screen was a treat that unsuspecting audiences, or perhaps even suspecting ones looking for the next 2001-style head trip, shouldn’t take for granted. Zardoz is a head trip all right, and the mental terrain it traverses and transforms certainly isn’t without the frustrations and jarring transitions to accompany the beauteous revelation of a true journey. But when the whole thing is over there’s no mistaking the fact that you’ve come back from an allegorical somewhere which surely has inquisitive intellectual precedent, yet at the same time feels like uncharted, idiosyncratic territory as far as the movies are concerned.
Zardoz certainly is as atypical a film as I’ve ever considered to be a personal TCMFF highlight, and maybe it has no more business being in a festival devoted to “classics” than The Jerk or The China Syndrome do. But it’s the sensibility that would get Zardoz into TCMFF at all which needs to be sustained, alongside a re-emphasis on showcasing not just the tried and true, but also the unique, the unusual, the disreputable, the dismissed, the less-celebrated, so that TCMFF can continue to be a festival which truly believes all these disparate elements of Hollywood antiquity deserve a place alongside, for example, Casablanca and Singin’ in the Rain. We’ll never know if he would, but I’d like to think that Robert Osborne, currently presiding over his own eternal film festival, just might agree.
Reflections in a Quilt: John McPhee’s The Patch
There’s something uncommonly relaxing about many of McPhee’s patient elaborations of things known and unknown.
“But beyond the flaring headlines of the past year, few are aware of who Richard Burton really is, what he has done, and what he is throwing away by gulping down his past and then smashing the glass.” This is one of those quotes, which, through its sheer heft and style, threatens to turn any accompanying review into a redundancy. To find other lines that meet its towering standard, seek its source: The Patch by John McPhee. There’s no shortage of arresting remarks in this nicely heterogeneous collection of writing. One sinks into the book, riveted, but also races across it as its fascinations multiply.
The first section is called “The Sporting Scene.” Those typically uninterested in sports or sports writing, like myself, shouldn’t be deterred by the title. As I discovered through other recent encounters with McPhee’s ballyhooed writing, the author has a knack for inexorably moving readers beyond their biases. Two-part New Yorker articles like “Oranges,” “The Pine Barrens,” and “Basin and Range,” which were later turned into books, are studious and propulsive. Fine-grained matters of geology or citrus aren’t exactly simplified in these articles, but wading through the density becomes an irresistible prospect thanks to the author’s intelligibility, wit, enthusiasm, and atmospheric touches. For an example of the latter, consider McPhee’s focus on the “unnatural and all but unending silence” of the Floridian orange groves that he visited. What’s more, he often conveys a certain sense of respectful understanding, as when he mentions that he has “yet to meet anyone living in the Pine Barrens who has in any way indicated envy of people who live elsewhere.”
Similar virtues spruce up the “The Sporting Scene.” Its pieces include emphases on fishing, football, golf, and lacrosse. McPhee honors the athletic endeavor by carefully illuminating its particulars. He busily supplies facts, anecdotes, ideas, and biographical details. In “The Orange Trapper,” for instance, he discusses his hunt for errant golf balls. It’s an engaging topic. He has learned, among other things, what occurs when you take a saw to a golf ball. You find the world: “Core, mantle, crust—they are models of the very planet they are filling up at a rate worldwide approaching a billion a year.” Other jolts arrive through the often remarkable conclusions to his paragraphs and pieces. The ending of “The Orange Trapper” is an especial wonder—a thrilling mobilization of words that elicits laughter and awe.
There are also bears: “Direct Eye Contact” is a compact assortment of hopes and advisements concerning bears in New Jersey, and it concludes on a sweetly uxorious note. Indeed, one never knows where any of these pieces are going. In “Pioneer,” meanwhile, McPhee ponders Bill Tierney’s choice to begin coaching the University of Denver men’s lacrosse team. “How could he leave Princeton?” McPhee asks. “It can be done. And Tierney knew what he was doing.” Those lines showcase the occasionally pithy, pleasantly chiseled style of his prose. It’s a considered design that favors clarity, structures hairpin turns toward new discursive trails, and pairs well with punchlines. In “Phi Beta Football,” one of McPhee’s colleagues promises to deliver him “a nice piece of change” if he figures out a suitable title for his book. “I went away thinking,” McPhee tells us, and then adds, “mostly about the piece of change.”
The recounting of sporting events is likewise augmented by the author’s playfulness. “Pioneer” throws us this line: “But Syracuse exploded—one, two, three—and the game went into ‘sudden victory’ overtime, the politically uplifting form of sudden death.” So transporting and genial is McPhee’s writing that the specifics of any given match never weigh down the reading, nor do his more elaborate remarks. “It’s a Brueghelian scene against the North Sea,” he declares in “Linksland and Bottle,” his piece on the 2010 British Open, “with golfers everywhere across the canvas—putting here, driving there, chipping and blasting in syncopation.” What’s even better is his sensitivity, in the same paragraph, to the fine distinctions between the manner of Scottish and Californian galleries as they observe rounds of golf. Suddenly, his words become almost numinous, and no grace is lost.
The second section of The Patch is called “An Album Quilt” and it encompasses a dizzying mixture of short pieces. None are available in any of McPhee’s other books. In an introductory statement, the author compares these pieces to the dissimilar blocks of a quilt. He notes that he “didn’t aim to reprint the whole of anything”; he sought out “blocks to add to the quilt, and not without new touches, internal deletions, or changed tenses.” This section is quite distinct from “The Sporting Scene,” but no less extraordinary in its overall effect. A piece about Cary Grant starts things off. Boyhood encounters with Albert Einstein are up ahead.
There are more standouts than can be briefly mentioned here, including an evocative overview of the craftsmanship that McPhee discovered within the original Hershey’s Chocolate Factory. The author’s clipped expressions of wonder enliven that piece: “Gulfs of chocolate. Chocolate deeps. Mares’ tails on the deeps.” A little later, he mentions “granite millstones arranged in cascading tiers, from which flow falls of dark cordovan liquor.” One can imagine Don Draper reading through this with poignant interest. In another entry, a series of succinct blurbs about tennis luminaries, Rod Laver’s childhood is crisply set against his eventual stardom: “Had to wait his turn while his older brothers played. His turn would come.”
And so one just leaps from piece to piece, and, along the way, discovers scenes from different periods in McPhee’s life and career. An encounter with two New York City policemen—this likely occurred in the ‘60s or early ‘70s, given the “familiar green and black” on the cop car—is particularly memorable. It begins with the author’s recollection of locking his keys inside his car, which, he notes, had been parked “in a moted half-light that swiftly lost what little magic it had had, and turned to condensed gloom.” After that characteristically precise fusion of atmosphere and psychology, he describes scrounging around for wire so as to open the door. The sudden arrival of the policemen created a dilemma: Would they view McPhee, who had been wedging a coat hanger into the car, as a thief or the hapless owner? “The policemen got out of the patrol car,” McPhee tells us, “and one of them asked for the wire.” From there, the situation undulates a couple more times before concluding through a sparkling punchline that’s supplied by one of the officers. The story is over before you know it, but its brisk and detail-oriented pleasures are echoed throughout much of the book.
In the title piece, meanwhile, McPhee movingly writes about his father, but also about fishing a pickerel out of a patch of lily pads. Here and elsewhere, granular descriptions become byways into a range of enthusiasms, histories, and hearts. The author, of course, frequently registers himself through the infinitesimal details, and through the humor that he yokes to affection. “‘Fuck you, coach!’ Quote unquote” is a message that McPhee once emailed to Bill Tierney. Great warmth radiates below the mantle of those words.
This, among sundry other qualities, keeps one reading. There’s also something uncommonly relaxing about many of his patient elaborations of things known and unknown. And there is, both within the book’s individual pieces and across its varied totality, a sense of constant renewal and revelation. As McPhee notes down somewhere amid the blocks of his quilt, “I could suddenly see it, almost get into it—into another dimension of experience that I might otherwise have missed entirely.”
John McPhee’s The Patch is now available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018
Our most-read articles of 2018 comprise pretty much everything we do best.
Like last year, it wasn’t the most highly praised or viciously excoriated film, album, or TV show that garnered the most attention among Slant readers in 2018. It was a so-called “average” star rating of a video game that led to our most-read—or, rather, looked at—article of the year. More predictably, lists proved to be increasingly popular, particularly among cinephiles. Aside from a few pieces that didn’t make the cut—like our career-spanning interview with Jodie Foster and our five-star review of Synapse Films’s Blu-ray restoration of the original Suspiria—this list comprises pretty much everything we do best. Alexa Camp
10. The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.” Budd Wilkins
9. Album Review: Mariah Carey’s Caution
At a mere 10 tracks, Caution is Mariah’s leanest album in 25 years. With the exception of the formulaic “With You,” which sounds like an outtake from E=MC2, the R&B and adult contemporary-style ballads that launched (and re-launched) her career have been largely replaced here by textured, midtempo grooves. Caution feels like the album Mariah has wanted to make all along: one that throws caution to the wind and sees her embracing her inner weirdo. And, ironically, it took her ending up back at Sony Music to do it. Sal Cinquemani
8. Game Review: Far Cry 5
With this entry, the Far Cry series has suddenly decided to crib story ideas from real American nightmares: the Ammon Bundy standoff, Jonestown, the Heaven’s Gate cult, Waco, the Westboro Baptist Church. It indulges a certain level of ejaculatory N.R.A. fantasy about a day when the Second Amendment saves the world, when all those guns hoarded by frightened men, all those survivalist bunkers, all that cynical preparation for the collapse of society proves useful. A regular supply item in this game is called a Prepper Pack. Major secrets are hidden in bunkers filled with canned food and ammo. These little hat tips toward the gun-toting survivalist sect might’ve been worthy of an eye roll had the game come out, say, prior to 2016. But at this particular moment in American life, those tips of the hat feel downright sinister. Justin Clark
7. All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked
It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindler’s List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson
6. Film Review: Aquaman
The best point of comparison for Aquaman is Black Panther, another superhero movie about a king of a forgotten realm reclaiming his throne. But whereas Ryan Coogler’s surprisingly affecting superhero film restored weight to both the choreography and the drama of the genre, Aquaman remains adrift, so much fantasy flotsam and jetsam floating before our eyes. Pat Brown
5. The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time
When compiling this list, my colleagues and I elected to consider more than historical context. Greatness, to the individual, isn’t just about impact on some nebulous past. It’s as much about feeling, about the way a video game can capture the imagination regardless of genre or release date or canonical status. The titles on this list come from every corner of the medium—represented for the precision of their control or the beauty of their visuals or the emotion of their story. We’ve chosen to cast a wide net, so as to best represent the individual passions incited by saving planets, stomping on goombas, or simply conversing with vivid characters. Steven Scaife
4. Film Review: Avengers: Infinity War
What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, err, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. Keith Uhlich
3. TV Review: Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan
If Jack Ryan never gets around to offering its audience a definition of a swift transaction, that’s because all that matters to the series is that it’s a tool used by bad guys, whom only Jack Ryan can stop. Despite paying cursory service to humanizing its principal characters, Jack Ryan is mostly interested in a battle between broad notions of good and evil. It thrives on the tension of Jack’s chess match with bin Suleiman, reducing an entire nation’s efforts to combat terror to a personal beef between two archetypes. Michael Haigis
2. Every Pixar Movie Ranked from Worst to Best
If The Incredibles was essentially a superhero riff on male mid-life crisis, Incredibles 2 primarily concerns male anxiety about women taking over traditionally masculine roles. Brad Bird’s film also touches heavily on the uncertainty and doubt that many women feel about pursuing their dreams at the expense of spending time with their families. These are weighty topics to pursue in an animated action-comedy, and Bird, with a light tone and deft touch, manages to give them their due. This is a fleeter, funnier film than the original, and the director gets considerable comedic mileage out of Jack-Jack’s wild capriciousness, as evidenced by Incredibles 2‘s single most hilarious sequence, in which the baby uses its multifarious abilities—fire, lasers, multiplying, turning into a gremlin—to battle a feral raccoon just for the hell of it. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Keith Watson
1. Game Review: Red Dead Redemption 2
For all of the significant improvements Red Dead Redemption 2 has made to an open-world template, however, it still maintains Rockstar’s bullish commitment to a clunky control scheme. Across what’s now four games and two console generations, the company’s characters have lumbered along in what’s meant to convey the weight of a real person in contrast to the light, effortless controls of so many other games. But the result is artificial rather than convincing. Studios like Naughty Dog have proven capable of giving characters a consequential sense of weight without making it a challenge to navigate around a table or requiring you to hold down buttons to move at acceptable speeds. Coupled with middling gunplay feedback and a few too many stealth segments, the chunky act of playing Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t feel good so much as it feels, eventually at least, tolerable. Scaife
Top 10 Radiohead Music Videos
To celebrate Radiohead’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we take a look back at the group’s best and most innovative music videos.
Twenty-five years ago, the world was introduced to Radiohead by way of their debut single, “Creep.” Thom Yorke and company may have soured to their very first modern rock hit, but as we said in our list of the Best Singles of the 1990s, for which the song ranked at #37, “Creep” is rivaled only by “Every Breath You Take” as the ultimate kind-of-obsessive/kind-of-romantic crush anthem, with guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s perfectly timed blasts of electricity turning it from slightly creepy to threatening. The track peaked on the Billboard pop chart in September of 1993, a full year after its initial release, and Radiohead would go on to become one of the most influential bands in rock history. To celebrate the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we take a look back at their best and most innovative music videos.
Editors’ Note: This article was originally published on July 24, 2013.
10. “Burn the Witch” (Dir: David Mould). “Stand in the shadows/To the gallows/This is a round-up,” Thom Yorke cautions at the start of “Burn the Witch,” with all the paranoia and politically shaded intrigue we’ve come to expect from the Radiohead frontman. Directed by Chris Hopewell, the music video for the track depicts a government official sent to inspect the strange goings-on in a small village, where he’s burned alive in a giant wooden statue in a scene reminiscent of the 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man. The clip features stop-motion animation in the style of the 1960s-era U.K. children’s show Trumpton. Sal Cinquemani
9. “Paranoid Android” (Dir: Magnus Carlsson). Radiohead commissioned Swedish animator Magnus Carlsson for this bizarre and somewhat graphic video, which sees the titular protagonist of Carlsson’s series Robin encountering various unsavory or unearthly characters, including a prostitute in a tree, a deranged businessman, and an angel flying a helicopter. Cinquemani
8. “House of Cards” (Dir: James Frost). When the “House of Cards” video came out, it struck me as a tech geek’s gimmick, but in retrospect, its motion-capture technique is used for deeply human ends. First we see two faces in close-up, their physicality rendered as blue-ish data points. Then, indistinct bodies at a party and a whole suburban landscape being wiped away in Etch-A-Sketch fashion. It’s a kind of digitally envisioned nightmare: Every pixel of everything we know, instantly erased. Paul Rice
7. “No Surprises” (Dir: Grant Lee). Lo-fi simplicity tends to work best for Radiohead’s live-action videos. In “No Surprises,” we get to watch Thom Yorke gasp for breath as a water chamber fills and releases around his head. It’s a sly sadomasochistic dream that could be his, or that of plenty of Radiohead haters everywhere. Rice
6. “Daydreaming” (Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson). In this video for 2016’s “Daydreaming,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s camera follows Thom Yorke through numerous locales, from hotel hallways to laundromats. The images, lucid and confrontational, exude an almost gestural quality as they cut from interior and exterior spaces, with Yorke waltzing in a sleep-like torpor toward a hole—or spacious studio igloo?—somewhere on a snow-capped mountain. The world here appears at once real and imagined, and by the time the fire within the hole lights Yorke’s face and the song grinds to a halt, Anderson dramatically reaffirms most of our beliefs about Radiohead’s music as, above all else, the prettiest soundtrack in the world to one man’s devotion to his own alienation. Ed Gonzalez
5. “Just” (Dir: Jamie Thraves). There’s a Kafkaesque absurdity to the simple concept of “Just” that gets and stays under the skin. A man lies down in the middle of a monochromatic city sidewalk. People trip on him and ask how he is and why he’s there. Finally, he tells the crowd (though we never know, since the subtitles cut out), and they all lie with him, presumably in conjoined doom. Rice
4. “Knives Out” (Dir: Michel Gondry). Thematically evocative of the director’s 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the elaborate, seemingly single-take “Knives Out” juxtaposes emotional and physical hardship via Michel Gondry’s signature surreal imagery, including singer Thom Yorke’s head replaced by a giant heart in which he stores a Polaroid photograph of his fiancée, whose critical condition he may very well have been responsible for. Cinquemani
3. “Pyramid Song” (Dir: Shynola). Thom Yorke and company have long been champions of animation, and “Pyramid Song” is their best, most heartfelt work in the form. A man—or a thing (the figure could be human or beast)—dives into a lost civilization, wading through bones to a home where he watches TV. CG allows for meticulous detail, but the gorgeous design by artist collective Shynola is purposely murky, full of unknown layers, and like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, released the same year, it suggests a ruined past we can never get back. Rice
2. “Fake Plastic Trees” (Dir: Jake Scott). Jake Scott, noted music video director and son of Sir Ridley, has said that his striking clip for Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees,” filmed in an aircraft hangar in Van Nuys, California, is an allegory on death and reincarnation. His claim is borne out by images of colorful characters, old and young, strolling the aisles of a neon-lit supermarket, being watched on surveillance cameras, and eventually carted off to a heavenly looking “exit.” Cinquemani
1. “Karma Police” (Dir: Jonathan Glazer). Director Jonathan Glazer claims that this creepy revenge clip, in which a car slowly follows a man running down a desolate road only to have the tables turned thanks to a chance gasoline leak, was inspired by a bad dream. His remarkable use of point of view implicates the spectator in the video’s action, but it’s the spooky way with which he fashions a Möbius strip from karmic irony that makes “Karma Police” Radiohead’s finest contribution to the music-video medium. Cinquemani