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Sam Peckinpah (#110 of 10)

Locarno Film Festival 2015 Schneider vs. Bax, Dark in the White Light, & Junior Bonner

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Locarno Film Festival 2015: Schneider vs. Bax, Dark in the White Light, & Junior Bonner

Fortissimo Films

Locarno Film Festival 2015: Schneider vs. Bax, Dark in the White Light, & Junior Bonner

Warning: Proceed with caution. It’s fitting that such counsel conjures an image of black text on yellow, because it’s also something to keep in mind when returning to the Locarno Film Festival, whose ubiquitous mascot is, of course, the spotted leopard. If you’re not careful, this can indeed be an unpleasant place. The stifling heat, the airless venues, the local prices, those unseemly beige military uniforms worn by security staff, and the walks from one location to another, which always seem, in such unceasing humidity, just one block too far. All of these can be troublesome in and of themselves, but when concentrated together in a single locale at the windless foot of the Alps, things can get oppressive. Why bother?

Killer Smiles and Satanic Wiles Mr. Sardonicus & The Brotherhood of Satan

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Killer Smiles and Satanic Wiles: Mr. Sardonicus and The Brotherhood of Satan
Killer Smiles and Satanic Wiles: Mr. Sardonicus and The Brotherhood of Satan

As delightful as William Castle’s movies are in any venue, you lose out on one of their most appealing aspects—call it their rowdy carnivalesque dimension—when you watch them in the atomized privacy of your home theater. This point was brought home to me recently when I had the chance to watch Mr. Sardonicus in 35mm at a local repertory house, and then received Mill Creek’s admittedly excellent Blu-ray transfer for review. Differences in the film’s comparative impact had less to do with the size of the respective screens than with the viewing environment. Castle’s movies were meant to be seen in your local picture palace, crammed cheek by jowl alongside other moviegoers, shoveling popcorn out of a paper bag, and feeling the tug of tacky puddles of pop at your feet.

The ultimate promotional showman, Castle created an inventive series of publicity stunts in order to put his bargain basement productions over with viewing audiences. Whether it was sliding a skeleton along a string over their heads during House on Haunted Hill or rigging electric buzzers beneath select seats to deliver sudden shocks to their posteriors during fraught moments in The Tingler, Castle never met an attention grabber he couldn’t use. By all accounts, though, Castle was never content merely to reign as king of the gimmick flick. He also wanted to imprint his indelible persona on his films (it’s clear he relished playing the glib, shamelessly schlocky impresario), taking his cue to some degree from Alfred Hitchcock’s sardonic appearances on the master of suspence’s eponymous TV show.

Berlinale 2013 The Grandmaster, Gold, & A Single Shot

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Berlinale 2013: The Grandmaster, Gold, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, & A Single Shot
Berlinale 2013: The Grandmaster, Gold, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, & A Single Shot

Since coming home from the sumptuous, if lopsided, American road trip of My Blueberry Nights, Wong Kar-wai has been hard at work on his martial-arts epic The Grandmaster. Perhaps the most explicitly in dialogue with film history of all his works thus far, the film will read as a much-needed strike of lightning to wu xia for connoisseurs of the genre and a feature-length TV spot for others. Which is to say that its visual design is (surprise, surprise) magnificently original, but it lacks Wong’s characteristic elliptical approach to storytelling that has won him so many admirers. Pierre Rissient allegedly dismissed Wong as “postcard cinema”—and it hurts to say it, but The Grandmaster might be more impactful as a series of stills than a motion picture.

Set mainly over the course of the 1930s in Foshan, a city in southern China, the film narrates the Ip Man’s (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) rise to prominence as a Wing Chun grandmaster, focusing especially on his brushes with Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of one of the grandmasters from the north. Although they cross paths across many years, Wong forgoes the melancholic romanticization of time we’ve come to expect from him and opts to tell their story in a disappointingly linear fashion, Hollywoodian flashback included. Essentially a biopic wrapped in a kung-fu art film, The Grandmaster’s ambition but feeling of incompletion brings to mind Sam Peckinpah’s analogous probing of national history, mythology, and masculinity.

Clear and Implausible Danger Gordon Williams’s The Siege of Trencher’s Farm

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Clear and Implausible Danger: Gordon Williams’s The Siege of Trencher’s Farm
Clear and Implausible Danger: Gordon Williams’s The Siege of Trencher’s Farm

If you enjoy Sam Peckinpah’s violent, hard-edged films, then it may be worthwhile for you to read The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, a 1969 novel by the British writer Gordon Williams and the inspiration for the 1971 Peckinpah film Straw Dogs. If you don’t care about Peckinpah and his blood-soaked films, and if, in general, you don’t care for pornographically violent works of fiction, then don’t bother with this novel.

In The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, an effete American professor named George Magruder has rented a farm in the English countryside, moving there with his wife and daughter in order to write a book while on sabbatical. George’s wife, Louise, is bitchy, British, and very unhappy with her excessively passive and tolerant husband. Early on in the novel, George goes to town and offends the surly, plainspoken locals; they don’t like this arrogant, rich American and they’re going to do something about it.

An infamous child molester miraculously escapes from the local institution, wanders through a snowstorm, and, by equally miraculous circumstances, is brought into George and Louise’s farmhouse. The men of the town want to lynch the man, but George, who fancies himself a defender of human rights, insists that he and his wife protect the criminal. The locals get drunk, try to invade the house, and the second half of the book consists of George overcoming his passivity and discovering that he can: be a violent badass, scream at his wife, and defend his home like a supposed real man.

Take Two #5: 3:10 to Yuma (1957) & 3:10 to Yuma (2007)

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Take Two #5: <em>3:10 to Yuma</em> (1957) & <em>3:10 to Yuma</em> (2007)
Take Two #5: <em>3:10 to Yuma</em> (1957) & <em>3:10 to Yuma</em> (2007)

[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]

In the late 1960s, Polish national and California transplant Czeslaw Milosz wrote an insightful little essay called “On the Western,” where he argued that the most quintessentially American cinematic genre had yet to truly express the full terror of its subject and setting:

Besides the skillful shot, the hand barely leaving the hip, there is also the wound which might fester for weeks on end, the fever, the stink of the sweat-drenched body, the bed of filthy rags, the urine, the excrement, but this the Western never shows. One is not supposed to think past the colorful costumes to tormenting lice itch, feet rubbed bloody, all the misery of men’s and women’s bodies thrown together, trying to survive when the rules they had learned no longer counted for much.

“On the Western” was published in book form the same year that Sam Peckinpah released The Wild Bunch, thus irreversibly changing the visual language with which westerns address the very horrors that Milosz enumerated. Seven years earlier, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance had made the entire concept of traditional western heroism seem hopelessly ambiguous, while subtly shifting the genre’s central focus to examinations of people living precisely “when the rules they had learned no longer counted for much.” A decade of revisionist expansions followed Milosz’s essay, and by 1985, when the cinematic genre seemed all but spent, two novels—Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove—came along to close the coffin lid. Both represent a kind of western-to-end-all-westerns, the former projecting Peckinpah violence on a bibilical scale and the latter stretching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’s elegiac tone into a panorama worthy of the 19th-century Russians.

Caveman Valentines: The French Connection, Dirty Harry, & Straw Dogs

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Caveman Valentines: <em>The French Connection</em>, <em>Dirty Harry</em>, & <em>Straw Dogs</em>
Caveman Valentines: <em>The French Connection</em>, <em>Dirty Harry</em>, & <em>Straw Dogs</em>

William Friedkin’s The French Connection, about ruthless cops chasing ruthless drug smugglers, is a sensationally effective and vastly overrated movie, and I doubt I’ll ever want or need to see it again.

Even on first viewing—as a movie-crazed teenager in 1986, courtesy of VHS—its slot in the pantheon of great ’70s movies struck me as unearned. I dug its unglamorous violence, grubby locations, energetic camerawork and superb lead performances (by Gene Hackman as volatile NYPD detective Popeye Doyle, Roy Scheider as his level-headed partner, Frederic de Pasquale as the chief smuggler and Tony Lo Bianco as his Brooklyn contact). But the film—now playing in a new 35mm print August 31-Sept. 6 at Film Forum—struck me as very calculating, not in a Hitchcock/Spielberg way (i.e., perfectionist, hermetic, mechanical) but in the manner of a street hood who stages a distraction so his partner can snatch a purse. The average Adam Sandler comedy has more integrity than Friedkin’s Oscar winner, which lovingly protracted scenes of police brutality for left-wingers, pre-Miranda-ruling nostalgia and tangible law enforcement results for right-wingers, and an ending that makes hash of both positions—not to complicate viewers’ reactions, but to provide rhetorical cover to the filmmakers no matter who gripes. How could such a pandering film be described as uncompromising?

Deadweek: Season 3 Preview

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Deadweek: Season 3 Preview
Deadweek: Season 3 Preview

Originally published in The Star-Ledger, June 4, 2006

The richness of Deadwood puts every other TV drama to shame; almost every scene, line and shot entertains in the moment while paving the way for future plot twists. But it’s not just the craftsmanship that dazzles; it’s the sheer scope and depth of writer-producer David Milch’s vision. As we watch this western drama, we get the sense that we’re not watching the weekly exploits of particular characters, but stepping inside a gigantic living mural that portrays a densely packed, ever-changing community—a microcosmic example of what Milch calls “the larger human organism.”

The organism that is Deadwood has evolved a lot over the last two seasons. The former mining camp has a newspaper, telegraph service, a lucrative gold mining operation, thriving Chinese and Cornish neighborhoods, and a brand new school, overseen by Mrs. Bullock (Anna Gunn), wife of lawman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant). The torch-lit Rembrandt lighting of the first few episodes has, thanks to the profusion of oil lamps, given way to a more even, golden illumination, a visual analog for how social and technological progress removes some of the darkness from life, yet leaves the essential human drama—the collision of individuals stumbling from cradle to grave—untouched.

5 for the Day: Death Scenes

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5 for the Day: Death Scenes
5 for the Day: Death Scenes

No explanation required. Here are five, off the top of my head, that really hit me. Scan the titles before you read the synopses. Wouldn’t want to spoil any plot twists, even in movies that are decades old.

1. King Kong (1976): Okay, so you know how this one ends, but still. I realize we’re all supposed to agree not to say anything nice about the first remake, and I admit that maybe I remember it so fondly because I was a kid when it came out, and it was the first Kong I knew. But dear lord, that ape took a long time to die, hollering and gasping, stumbling all over the roof of the WTC with helicopter gunships ripping him up like a Peckinpah hero, geysers of blood spraying everywhere. And then that long, long fall, and WHUMP. Did Dino de Laurentiis actually say, “Nobody cry when Jaws die, but when King Kong die, everybody cry?” Or was it John Belushi?