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John Boorman (#110 of 6)

The 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival

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The 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival

Edward M. Pio Roda

The 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival

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.

Summer of ’90: The Exorcist III

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Summer of ’90: The Exorcist III

20th Century Fox

Summer of ’90: The Exorcist III

“Georgetown 1990”: A college rowing team trains on the Potomac. Suited-up runners pass by. A tired movie way of introducing life at a big-city university. It’s been done a hundred times to code Harvard. But stay with it. Just a few minutes in, our skepticism about the racing shell turns sour in our mouths as we hear the details of a brutal serial killing, its victim a young boy, crucified on a pair of rowing oars. And that’s not the worst of it.

It’s 20 years after the events of The Exorcist, and, as it turns out, after the grim reign of a monster dubbed the Gemini Killer. Following the college athletics and campus atmospherics of the opening shots, we’re introduced—at first visually only—to Jesuit teacher Joe Dyer (Ed Flanders) and Detective Lieutenant Bill Kinderman (George C. Scott), linked for us to 1970 and to each other in a photograph we see on Kinderman’s desk.

A church is invaded by a howling wind. Statuary eyes open wide. Something very ancient and evil has returned.

Understanding Screenwriting #108: Side Effects, Like Someone in Love, Point Blank, Downton Abbey, Parade’s End, & Smash

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Understanding Screenwriting #108: <em>Side Effects</em>, <em>Like Someone in Love</em>, <em>Point Blank</em>, <em>Downton Abbey</em>, <em>Parade’s End</em>, & <em>Smash</em>
Understanding Screenwriting #108: <em>Side Effects</em>, <em>Like Someone in Love</em>, <em>Point Blank</em>, <em>Downton Abbey</em>, <em>Parade’s End</em>, & <em>Smash</em>

Coming Up In This Column: Side Effects, Like Someone in Love, Point Blank, Downton Abbey, Parade’s End, Smash, but first…

Fan mail: David Ehrenstein, reacting to my comments on Cat Ballou, thought that all the things I liked about the writing and acting came together “thanks to efforts of that controversial new-fangled invention known as the Director.” I didn’t get around to mentioning the director, Elliot Silverstein, because this is one of those films, like M*A*S*H (1970), Chariots of Fire (1981), and Thelma & Louise (1991), that succeeds in spite of its director rather than because of him. Silverstein is very sloppy about where he puts the camera and the acting is all over the place. This was his only truly successful film, and he soon went back to television, where he started.

Side Effects (2013. Written by Scott Z. Burns. 106 minutes.)

Better than Hitchcock. Both Alfred Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick were interested in psychiatry. In the mid-’40s, Hitchcock persuaded Selznick to buy a novel that was, according to Hitchcock’s biographer, Donald Spoto, “a bizarre tale of witchcraft, satanic cults, psychopathology, murder, and mistaken identities.” (The background material here is from Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock.) Hitchcock presented some ideas on how a movie could be made out of the material to Ben Hecht, who wrote the screenplay for Spellbound (1945). Hecht’s version deals with an amnesiac who replaces a man scheduled to become the head of a mental hospital. The amnesiac is accused of murder and with a helpful female psychiatrist works out his problems. Since she’s played in the film by Ingrid Bergman, he falls in love with her as well. The film was a commercial success, but it’s rather clunky, like many ’40s films about psychiatry. And like many Hitchcock films, it’s less about character than about giving the director a chance to show off. As befits Selznick, the film is a slick production with stars (Gregory Peck as the amnesiac) in a romantic mode.

The Merchant of Menace Dwayne Epstein’s Lee Marvin: Point Blank

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The Merchant of Menace: Dwayne Epstein’s Lee Marvin: Point Blank
The Merchant of Menace: Dwayne Epstein’s Lee Marvin: Point Blank

Shortly after seeing The Big Heat (1953), in which noir baddie Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) famously throws a hot pot of coffee in the face of Debby (Gloria Grahame), New York Times film critic Vincent Canby deemed Marvin “The Merchant of Menace,” given the actor’s stone-faced charm and propensity for playing characters that revel in more sadistic pleasures. As argued by biographer Dwayne Epstein, the description fits Marvin more than accurately, since his career, taken as a whole, helped to establish a new kind of post-WWII masculinity, particularly as it relates to a grittier depiction of violence and physicality. At least, such is Epstein’s claim. While his new biography goes into intricate details of Marvin’s childhood, career, and last days, his overall thesis—while likely true—is given short shrift by too workmanlike of an approach. Rather than produce a provocative work on a provocative man, Epstein manages to write a clearly admirable biography, though without the blood-pumping tenacity that gives Marvin’s filmic legacy such enduring cultural purchase.

The previous critique could be modified to give praise for Epstein’s dedication to intimately examining the familial factors that shaped Marvin’s values and personality. Growing up in a blue-collar family during the Great Depression, with Marvin and his family “wondering where their next meal would come from,” Marvin eventually decided to join the Marines. Speaking later about both his military service and relationship with directors, Marvin admits that he has “never been able to accept any kind of discipline.” With that in mind, Epstein states an inextricable link in Marvin’s filmography and persona between violence and the cultures that create it. Nevertheless, the book’s duration is more outwardly concerned with heavily biographical information and cult-of-personality emphases, such as an entire chapter devoted to the letters Marvin wrote to his parents while at war. Although the letters help to explain the developing psychology that would lead to Marvin’s film career, Epstein provides only a cursory understanding of Marvin as cultural icon throughout. What’s lacking in the predominately biographical segments is a strong narrative sense; Epstein’s prose reads more like a string of Wikipedia entries than a fully functional take on Marvin’s relevance. Such banality is an ironic sin for a work that wants to engage a divisive personality.

Summer of ‘85 The Emerald Forest

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Summer of ’85: What We Have Forgotten: The Emerald Forest

Embassy Pictures

Summer of ’85: What We Have Forgotten: The Emerald Forest

John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest may seem to today’s green-conscious audience to be a comparatively obvious message movie about how industrial and economic progress are at odds with the interests of the environment. But we live in an age in which environmentalism has become a P.R. bandwagon, with everyone from the smallest individual to the biggest corporation allying in efforts to “save the planet.” In truth, the planet is not what’s in need of saving. It was around long before us, and will be around long after we have either obliterated ourselves or transformed our species into something unrecognizable. Sometimes more habitable, sometimes less, sometimes not at all, the planet has nevertheless endured, pursuing its relentless course of entropy in time and space. We can’t stop, reverse, or even slow that entropy; and we cannot presume to “save” nature, for in everything we do, we are inexorably a part of it. It is in our nature to discover, invent, build, and destroy, and it is not a question of whether we can save the planet but whether we can save ourselves.

For Boorman, the motif of environmental spoliation was never the message but the metaphoric medium for his continuing vision of the human being—a curious sort of animal that has forgotten it is an animal, linked inescapably to its own nature as well as to the natures of the other creatures that surround it. The same tension between contemporary civilized men and the elemental nature they have forgotten is evident in Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), where the same metaphor was used: a dam is being created that will divert the flow of a once mighty river, simultaneously submerging a vast forest. That wilderness is what we have forgotten we are part of.