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Peter O'toole (#110 of 9)

Nicholas Ray Blogathon: Poet of Violence

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Nicholas Ray Blogathon: Poet of Violence
Nicholas Ray Blogathon: Poet of Violence

“Violence is never an end, but the most effective means of access…[having] no other purpose than to blast away the accumulated debris of habit, to create a breach—in brief, to open up the shortest roads.” —Jacques Rivette, “Notes on a Revolution” (1955)

I. Introductory

The films of Nicholas Ray, more than any other contemporary American director’s, were singled out by the up-and-coming Cahiers du Cinéma crowd (on the cusp of their own splashy Nouvelle Vague) as justification for their politique des auteurs—more a personal stance on critical practice than dogmatic superstructure, and long since codified and ossified by academic film criticism into hierarchy-happy “auteur theory.” What attracted critical minds like Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and others to Nicholas Ray and his oeuvre—bored stiff as they were by the risk-averse, respectable, and ultimately neutered “cinema of quality”—was the stamp of the personal and the element of danger they discerned in his films, whether that meant the improvisatory handling of actors with a touch deft enough to coax remarkable performances out of even non-professionals; the “superior clumsiness,” cited by Rivette in “Notes on a Revolution,” resulting in “a discontinuous, abrupt technique that refuses the conventions of classical editing and continuity”; or the purely visual flourishes Ray relished—ranging from the sweeping, vertiginous helicopter-mounted shots in They Live By Night to disorienting, subjective POV compositions like the “rolling camera” during a car crash halfway through On Dangerous Ground, its very title indicating the source of Ray’s critical appeal.

The Conversations: Lawrence of Arabia

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The Conversations: Lawrence of Arabia
The Conversations: Lawrence of Arabia

Jason Bellamy: “It’s the pictures that got small.” Those words make up the second half of one of the most famous quotes in movie history. They are spoken, as any good film fan knows, by Norma Desmond in 1950’s Sunset Blvd., and yet I think of them each time I watch Lawrence of Arabia. Released in 1962, David Lean’s poetic biopic is epic by every definition of the word. It’s long—216 minutes, plus intermission. It’s grand in subject—using its title character to draw us into a historical war movie in disguise. It’s emotionally hefty—focusing on an aimless man who finds himself through great struggle, only to lose his sanity within his new identity. As if that weren’t enough, it’s held together by a sprawling Maurice Jarre score. But what best qualifies Lawrence of Arabia as “epic” in my mind is its visual enormity, pairing some of the most awe-inspiring panoramas cinema has ever provided with some equally striking closeups.

Thus far in The Conversations we’ve covered some truly modern epics (Michael Mann’s Heat comes to mind) and some modern films that evoke the spirit of epics past (The Last of the Mohicans, perhaps), but this is the first time we’ve discussed what could be called a “classic” or “traditional” epic—a film that doesn’t just represent the term but helps to define it (which isn’t to suggest that 1939’s Gone with the Wind or 1915’s Birth of a Nation didn’t get there first). For reasons I’ll describe later, Lawrence of Arabia is a film that took me a few viewings to fully appreciate, and yet I’ve been a passionate fan of it now for at least 10 years. In contrast, you hadn’t seen Lawrence of Arabia until you watched it for The Conversations.

There are numerous topics that we must cover before this discussion is over, a few of which have everything to do with when this film was made (before CGI technology was available and before adorning white actors in brownface was taboo), and picking a starting point is a bit daunting. So let’s begin here: Lawrence of Arabia is considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time. For what it’s worth: it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning seven, including Best Picture; it was No. 5 on the American Film Institute’s initial top-100 list, released in 1998; and it’s No. 3 on the British Film Institute’s latest top-100 list. With that as a snapshot of the movie’s acclaim, I’m curious: When you watched Lawrence of Arabia for the first time only recently, did it strike you as a great film, a classic and an epic? Did it live up to its reputation? Or did it leave you underwhelmed despite its enormity?

Return to the Movies, Return to the World: Ratatouille & Paprika

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Return to the Movies, Return to the World: <em>Ratatouille</em> & <em>Paprika</em>
Return to the Movies, Return to the World: <em>Ratatouille</em> & <em>Paprika</em>

If Brad Bird has a signature auteur trait it would be that each of his films are struggles with and reactions to modernity. Across his thus far brief, yet rich, three-feature career, Bird has built three distinct modern worlds and populated them with characters seeking to reckon their modern experience through outlandish, cinematic means. In his latest, Ratatouille, the main character is Remy (Patton Oswalt—charms, not whines), a rat in Paris with the sensory palate of an aesthete food lover and the overactive imagination requisite to become the best chef in France. But he’s a rat. Life is tough for a rat. This modern world of Ratatouille wants nothing to do with rats. All they do is muck up the joint.

Oscar 2007 Winner Predictions: Actor

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Oscar 2007 Winner Predictions: Actor
Oscar 2007 Winner Predictions: Actor

For whatever reason, it’s not Peter O’Toole’s perfect 0-for-7 record leading up to this year’s Best Actor contest that’s standing in award-magnet Forest Whitaker’s way to a win. If it were only about acting, then it’s safe to say there would be no more question to Whitaker’s status as frontrunner as there is in Best Actress. (Well, actually, if it were only about acting, than the slightly overpraised but still exciting Ryan Gosling would be just weeks away from forever kissing off his Mickey Mouse Club cachet.) But if this race has tightened up a bit since December’s parade of critics’ awards, than Whitaker has nothing to blame more than his rambling, incoherent, ill-prepared acceptance speeches at the Globes and SAG awards. While no one likes a gloater, and even fewer want to see someone hold up a folded piece of paper at the podium, we’re at a decidedly advanced enough state in the annual Oscar playoffs that it’s impossible to ask anyone to believe breathless, “I never expected to actually be standing here” faux humility either…especially when you’ve already won a near-gross citations in recognition of your work. Sure, it’s understandable that Whitaker might want to make it perfectly clear to Oscar voters that there isn’t a trace of the gross character he’s playing within his real persona (a given even if, just like Idi Amin, we all rip ass while drunk every now and again), but it’s impossible not to resent someone who, in awards terms, has everything acting as though he has nothing. Still, it probably won’t be quite enough to tip the scales toward the contender who has truly had nothing for many years and seemed quite graceful about it, since the only thing worse than faking it is lasciviously licking one’s lips over it.

Will Win: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Should Win: Peter O’Toole, Venus

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

The Dying of the Light: Peter O’Toole in Venus

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The Dying of the Light: Peter O’Toole in <em>Venus</em>
The Dying of the Light: Peter O’Toole in <em>Venus</em>

Looking at the poster for Venus, one could be forgiven for thinking that the end was near. Here is nothing but a full-on shot of Peter O’Toole’s head, carefully doctored to make him seem frail and desiccated: not only is there a yellowish tinge to the skin that I’ve never seen on a human being, but O’Toole himself looks stunned, confused, and ready to pack it all in. This is strange not merely from a publicity standpoint (who attracts customers with something like this?), but because it doesn’t do the film (or O’Toole) justice. Venus and its star are as lively as they come, raging against the dying of the light even as they have to acknowledge its approach. The star does his best to fulfill his preordained role as randy raconteur, raising hell in theatre’s name and never betraying the idea, hanging at the margins of the movie, that we all have to ring down the curtain sometime.

You couldn’t call Venus a great film. It’s one of those movies about an older “life-force” bonding with a younger person and having all sorts of lively frolic (see Harold and Maude—or for that matter, 1982’s My Favorite Year, which starred O’Toole). This time, the life-force is Maurice (O’Toole), a once-prominent, now-aged actor who counts the days—loudly—with his ever-excitable theater buddies Ian (Leslie Phillips) and Donald (a marginalized Richard Griffiths). His younger charge arrives with a big noise: she’s Ian’s grand-niece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), a sullen, anti-intellectual teenager arrived in London to pursue a modeling career and who instead alarms the deeply genteel relation to whom she’s elected to bunk. Not so Maurice: partly attracted to a mind to mold, partly aroused by her unformed beauty, he gravitates to the graceless girl and forges a friendship that she, knowing no-one else in the city, guardedly reciprocates.