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Richard Burton (#110 of 5)

Sinful Cinema The Driver’s Seat

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Sinful Cinema: The Driver’s Seat
Sinful Cinema: The Driver’s Seat

It’s generally agreed that films fall into one of three categories: The Good, The Bad, and the So-Bad-It’s-Good. Still, there remain a few highly select examples of a fourth category: the What-in-Hell-Was-That? Michael Sarne’s star-laden evisceration of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge is certainly one of these, as are such disparate disasters as The Lonely Lady (Pia Zadora’s last-ditch attempt at being taken seriously), the sub-Ed-Wood exercise in low-budget incomprehensibility Mesa of Lost Women (1953), and—when and if it finally gets released—Faye Dunaway’s vanity (and how!) rendition of Terence McNally’s Maria Callas play Master Class. Yet none of these acts of cinematic desperation are quite as outré as The Driver’s Seat.

Directed by Giuseppe Patroni-Griffi, this Italian-made English-language drama, adapted from Muriel Spark’s novella about a mentally unbalanced woman searching for someone to stab her to death, stars Elizabeth Taylor and features (as Neil Patrick Harris would say, “wait for it…”) Andy Warhol. Nothing in the good, bad or so-bad-it’s-good canon compares to it. And if you were among the semi-happy few who managed to see it back in 1974, when it was released (or, some might say, “escaped”) to select grindhouses before vanishing into the maw of home video, then you know what I’m talking about. For while Elizabeth Taylor certainly made her share of stinkers in a long and productive career (Cynthia, The Sandpiper, Young Toscanini), it’s hard to imagine another item so fit to leave moviegoers scratching their heads, wondering precisely why it was made.

Body of Work Ben Whishaw

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Body of Work: Ben Whishaw

Columbia Pictures

Body of Work: Ben Whishaw

Was it fate that John Hurt provided the narration for Ben Whishaw’s 2006 breakout, Perfume? Because in the lineage of impeccably-voiced, male British stars, whose hyper-articulate pipes could make poetry out of Rebecca Black lyrics, there’s Richard Burton, there’s Hurt, and now there’s Whishaw, a delicate character actor who, if reciting your last rites, may well make you believe in a hereafter. Whishaw’s velvety coo doesn’t have that Hurt-Burton gruffness, but it’s still terribly commanding, an aural delight that perks up ears and adds instant pathos to films that need it. Consider the total blandness that might have befallen Brideshead Revisited if Whishaw weren’t the one waxing melancholic as Sebastian Flyte, giving genuine life to Evelyn Waugh’s words. The actor’s innate amenability to the classics was something shrewdly observed by Jane Campion, who cast him as John Keats in her unsung masterstroke Bright Star, a film that finally and literally gave Whishaw poetry to recite.

My Favorite Film Festival of 2011: Alive and Well, In Love and War, at the TCM Classic Film Festival

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My Favorite Film Festival of 2011: Alive and Well, In Love and War, at the TCM Classic Film Festival
My Favorite Film Festival of 2011: Alive and Well, In Love and War, at the TCM Classic Film Festival

I suppose it’s inevitable that some of the bloom would have come off the rose that was last year’s first annual TCM Classic Film Festival. I am, after all, a year older, and the time spent in between the first festival and this year’s model has found life getting more complicated, with less room for the study of cinema, classic or not, than my selfish patterns would prefer. But just because I may be mired in a sophomore slump of sorts doesn’t mean that in 2011 the TCM Festival was equally bogged down. Familiarity hardly bred contempt this time around, or complacency. If anything, there was a certain comfort factor built into the festival for me this year, a feeling that, while not radiating the kind of freshman excitement generated by last year’s fun (and my own initiation into the rites of festival film-going), certainly resonated with the buzz of discovery, of learning, about films unfamiliar, and blessedly, seemingly genetically remembered, and even of the value of an adrenaline rush of straight-up nostalgia. Without a doubt, this 2011 edition was the film festival experience of the year for me.

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.

Equus @ the Gielgud Theatre, London

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<em>Equus</em> @ the Gielgud Theatre, London
<em>Equus</em> @ the Gielgud Theatre, London

Before seeing Equus at the Geilgud Theatre in London two weeks ago, my only connection to Peter Shaffer’s play was Sydney Lumet’s 1977 film production starring Richard Burton and Peter Firth. I have no memory of the film, but I remember liking the story immensely. Watching this new production of the famous play is a revelation, not least of which because its striking gravitas, staging, and performances are reminders of the theatre’s potential for profound effect. If Equus does indeed make it to Broadway (it first premiered here in 1974, starring Anthony Hopkins and Peter Firth), it will shame much of the waste, like David Hare’s The Vertical Hour, that has stunk up our theatre district in recent months.

Sources more reliable than Wikipedia confirm that this new production’s visual elucidation of a young man’s sexual awakening is not at all novel, but I can’t imagine any production of the show, past or present, realizing the freakish tonal magnetism Equus’s new cast and crew are able to rouse. The center of the stage suggests a totemic structure not unlike Stonehenge—a nexus or portal between disparate psychological and spatial realms where the psychologist’s chamber bleeds into young Alan’s (Daniel Radcliffe) memories of his experiences inside a nearby farm where he blinded a stable full of horses. The reason why Alan commits this crime becomes a journey for everyone, from the boy to the psychologist, Martin (Richard Griffiths), who gives him the permission he needs to divulge his memories.