Celebrating the Discernment of the Late Andrew Sarris

At this year’s annual awards dinner of the New York Film Critic’s Circle, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman delivered a eulogy for his Voice colleague of a decade, Andrew Sarris, who died in the summer of 2012. Hoberman recalled how, among his cinephile friends, Sarris’s The American Cinema was of such prime importance that Hoberman and company referred to it simply as ‘The Book.’ Still an acolyte at heart, he then kissed his dog-eared copy and held it skyward.

“Andrew showed us that art was all around us,” Martin Scorsese said of Sarris, proselytizer for our indigenous movies, “and that our tradition, too, had much to offer.” More than any single figure, Andrew Sarris was the American intellectual who illuminated the poetics of popular American cinema for his countrymen, thereby ennobling the best of Hollywood. This is not to suggest that Sarris was some kind of aesthetic America Firster; he was always attentive to voices from abroad, and his conviction that the director could (and should) be a film’s presiding genius and author was affirmed by contemporary French criticism.

Sarris was a first-generation American, born into a family of Greek immigrants on Halloween, 1928, and raised in Ozone Park, Queens, not far from the Kerouacs. After a hitch in the Army Signal Corps, while “meandering through graduate English and malingering through Teachers College” at Columbia, the amateur cinephile began to write for Anthology Film Archives founder Jonas Mekas’s Film Culture magazine, where he would eventually publish the outline for The Book. Sarris also contributed to The Voice, a stint which began by filing a heretical rave for 1960’s Psycho in this paper’s then staunchly Underground film section.

“Andrew Sarris: Expressive Esoterica,” a thirteen-film program at Anthology guided by Sarris’s connoisseurship, overlaps with the Anthology’s salute to another influential, recently departed critic, Amos Vogel, and his own signature work. And while Sarris’s The American Cinema doesn’t have as sexy and gauntlet-throwing a title as Vogel’s generally left-wing, anti-Hollywood Film as a Subversive Art, it is every bit as provocative in its way. Valuing form over content, Sarris seriously considered, and so elevated, a vast range of condescended-to movies that didn’t have the pedestal of Important Subject Matter to stand on.

The American Cinema corrals the history of the talking-picture period up to ’68 into 11 categories of filmmakers, with titles like “Pantheon Directors,” “Strained Seriousness,” and “Lightly Likable.” Each category files directors’ alphabetized names and filmographies with analysis of the distinctive personality—or lack thereof—of each director’s body of work. Anthology’s program is culled from the chapter “Expressive Esoterica,” a home for “unsung directors with difficult styles or unfashionable genres or both.”

One “Expressive Esoterica” resident is Robert Mulligan, auteur of 1965’s Baby the Rain Must Fall, a Texas-set drama tracking a honky-tonker fresh out of prison (Steve McQueen) as he reunites with his toddler and young wife (Lee Remick, giving a delicate performance in which you can see hope rise and fall in her eyes.) The film displays much of what To Kill a Mockingbird director Mulligan does best: smothering small-town stillness, unaffected child performances, emotional states illustrated through nuances of light and shadow.

Rain had pristine B&W photography and, being based on a play by Horton Foote, some literary pedigree. But Sarris could appreciate the same level of craft, the same attentiveness to gradual shifting of sympathies and revelation of character, when it showed up in a tacky DeLuxe Color package like 1957’s The River’s Edge, a no-frills outdoor thriller, in which old-pro Allan Dwan used the CinemaScope frame to cleanly diagram the relationship between Ray Milland, Anthony Quinn, and Debra Paget.

Many of his contemporaries were prone to sweeping dismissals based on entrenched “cosmopolitan genre prejudices.” Sarris had the patience and discrimination to pan the gold from the muck—and his estimations hold up. There are everyday westerns, and then there’s 1955’s Joel McCrea vehicle Wichita, in which Jacques Tourneur practices his gift for crepuscular atmosphere while cataloging the entire social ecosystem of a barbaric trail town. There are gangster pictures, and then there’s 1957’s character study The Brothers Rico by Phil Karlson, with Richard Conte sweating through a chain of dialogue negotiations with a life-or-death outcome, all boiling down to a brutal climax.

Where others saw “cheap,” Sarris could recognize the resourcefulness of something like Joseph H. Lewis’s My Name is Julia Ross, 1945’s “sleeper of the year.” Chuckling at the quick-and-easy “Let’s get married!” resolution does nothing to dispel the film that’s preceded it, in which a young woman is drugged and hijacked by a family who attempt to convince her that she’s married, mad, and has a name that’s not her own—not far from the disorienting morning-after that many impulsive newlywed wives might have had but hesitated to speak of.

In his entry on Lewis, Sarris riposted an unnamed critic who had mocked as madness the raised estimation of the Gun Crazy director: “Madness is always preferable to smugness.” In re-reading Sarris, what shines through is his good faith—that art and commerce are not by nature antithetical, that talent and vision will always find a way. Rather than accepting the received wisdom that American directors were hapless pawns of the system, Sarris insisted that no artist worthy of the name could be bound by something so petty as a mere system—or, as The Book puts it: “No artist is ever completely free, and art does not necessarily thrive as it becomes less constrained.”

The slightly contemptuous spirit of “fun trash” fatuity infests our contemporary relationship with pop culture—not without reason—but Sarris could be dead funny without trivializing. (Obits dwelled on Sarris’s “feud” with Pauline Kael, but he was at his best when arguing with himself.) Altogether the most likable of our great critics, Sarris took intelligence, rather than rampant idiocy, as the rule. He credited the audiences that flocked to Hollywood movies as something more than a great unthinking mass, saw art in filmmaking that had largely been dismissed as hackery and opportunism, and believed above all in his readership. This beautiful optimism is his legacy, and long may it stand.


In No, It’s the Ad Men vs. the Dictator

In 1988 the fate of Chile and its dictator came down to a ballot as simple as a middle-schooler’s do-you-like-me? note. A referendum offered citizens a simple choice: a “yes” for allowing President Augusto Pinochet to return to office for another eight years, having clung to power since his 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende, or a “no” for something—anything—else. Tyrants control their media, of course, but the opposition wasn’t entirely shut out. The national “debate” platform was two 15-minute television slots in which opposing viewpoints could be voiced, after which regularly scheduled programming—that is, flagrantly pro-Pinochet propaganda—would resume for the remaining 23.5 hours of the day.

Pablo Larrain’s ad-world political thriller No takes place during that referendum. Like Zero Dark Thirty, which opened with an audio collage of actual 911 calls from 9/11, No uses the actual commercial material the opposition created for its anti-Pinochet campaign and—re-creating the behind-the-scenes filming—deftly appropriates mediated history for fiction.

Ad exec René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) is introduced pitching a campaign for a cola called Free. Though Saavedra’s father was a political exile, he’s established a comfortable middle-class home for his own son. All of this is put at risk when Saavedra, approached for his expertise by a representative for the 17 motley opposition parties, agrees to act as a consultant on their “No” TV spots, streamlining their dissent into a single cogent message to crack the dictatorship’s calcified consensus and sell, yes, freedom.

Saavedra jettisons the mostly leftist opposition’s po-faced, old-school agitprop—montages of police crackdowns, figures on disappeared dissidents, checklists of the Pinochet regime’s abuses. “Happiness is our concept,” he says, then proceeds to manufacture the most inanely positive campaign for “No” imaginable: a rainbow logo! Insipid stock images of future bliss! Choice of a New Generation fizz! A clap-your-hands, sing-along jingle! Celebrity endorsements!

By comparison, the stodgy pro-Pinochet campaign is out-of-date, all red-baiting and fearmongering. A child endangered by an oncoming steamroller evokes memories of Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 golden oldie “Peace Little Girl (Daisy)” ad, while the general has all the on-screen magnetism of a mattress-warehouse owner in a local-market commercial. Though Pinochet was a despot of the right, the phenomenon that No dramatizes is the same that eroded the dictatorships of the Communist left in Eastern Europe at the same time: the triumph of youth-catering MTV showmanship over the old line of father-knows-best propaganda.

While Saavedra uses the grammar of commercial advertising to sell Chileans democracy, Larrain’s film works within an aesthetic template of its own: the language of contemporary hand-held cinematic realism. By shooting on three-quarter-inch Sony U-matic magnetic tape, the standard format of pre-1990 television news, Larrain can seamlessly mesh staged material with vintage 1988 footage of actual police crackdowns and pro-democracy assemblies.

What stays with you from No—certainly more than the scenes of Saavedra’s home life, which don’t register as more than the obligatory establishment of “something to fight for” motivation—is the film’s sense of living in history that’s mediated even as it’s made. For some of the old guard in the opposition, including Saavedra’s estranged wife, the seductive vapidity of the “No” campaign is an unconscionable betrayal of the bloody legacy of resistance. The ambivalence stirred up by these voices hangs over No until the triumphant conclusion, curiously muted, in which Chileans, like the former residents of the Soviet Union and its satellites, step out of dictatorship . . . only to find themselves citizens of a whole new simulacra.


Old Republic Skullduggery Meets Modern Streets in Caesar Must Die

Spend some time among a gallery of noble busts depicting Roman senators, and familiar faces begin to emerge among the ancient marble: the mechanic, an uncle, a politician from TV . . . and the racketeer from the newspaper. It’s this last correlation that concerns Caesar Must Die. Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, the octogenarian brothers responsible for such lauded works as 1982’s The Night of the Shooting Stars, found late-career inspiration filming rehearsals (in black-and-white) and a performance (color) of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, one of several theatrical events hosted by and starring the high-security wing of Rome’s Rebibbia prison. Mark Antony’s funeral address to the polis is directed to the cell windows, from the exercise yard. This production’s Caesar, with the offhand manner of one accustomed to power, is a burly drug trafficker serving 17 years, while Cassius is doing life for murder. The Tavianis suggested the text and worked with actual Rebibbia theater director Fabio Cavalli. Almost as much as the play itself, the rehearsals are staged; the inmates learning to act, then, are acting like inmates who are learning to act. This leads to some on-the-nose scenes in which they observe the parallels between the text and their own lives, for skullduggery in the old Republic is not so far from that on the modern streets—a point that is already clear from the film’s very conception. But so solid is that conception, and so resonant the text in which questions of freedom and slavery are paramount, that the impact can hardly be diminished.


Charlie Sheen Is In A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III

As he’s questioned by a therapist in the opening scene of the film bearing his name, we see Charles Swan III’s subconscious literally spurt out of his head. It’s visualized as an animated collage largely made up of ladies’ long, disembodied legs—like those in the ’40s pinups that decorate the Don Juan graphic designer’s playpen home. It also indicates writer-director Roman Coppola’s approach with A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, which might generously be described as cut-and-paste—or more accurately as “throw stuff to the wall and see what sticks.” Charlie Sheen starring in an ambitious indie might be the Access Hollywood selling point, but the Coppola brand brings its own cachet. Sheen wears a coke-hangover look, including ubiquitous La Dolce Vita aviator shades that only come off for one scene, in which he displays a heartbreak that is surprisingly affecting. I say “surprisingly” because performance can do only so much to alleviate Charles Swan III‘s inconsequentiality, which has much to do with Coppola’s ginger depiction of hetero male fantasy life. Coppola manages one playful and sexy aside in which Charles imagines that his X-Ray Specs, the kind you order from a comic book, actually make denim disappear, but other than that he offers only fantasies in which dreaded, desired ladies are dressed up as squaws on the warpath, or as agents of the “SSBB” (Secret Society of Ball-Busters). With neither the moral bite of satire nor a voluptuary surrender that really basks in shallowness, this is a vague, unsatisfying work.


A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III: What Makes Charlie Douche?

As he’s questioned by a therapist in the opening scene of the film bearing his name, we see Charles Swan III’s subconscious literally spurt out of his head. It’s visualized as an animated collage largely made up of ladies’ long, disembodied legs—like those in the ’40s pinups that decorate the Don Juan graphic designer’s playpen home, or on the come-hither album sleeves that he designs. It also indicates writer-director Roman Coppola’s approach with A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, which might generously be described as cut-and-paste—or more accurately as “throw stuff to the wall and see what sticks.”

Charlie Sheen starring in an ambitious indie might be the Access Hollywood selling point, but the Coppola brand brings its own cachet. In its story of a well-fed Hollywood man suffering post-breakup midlife malaise, Charles Swan—Coppola’s second film as writer and director—is a companion piece to sister Sophia’s 2010 Somewhere, starring Stephen Dorff, who cameos here. It has been over a decade since 2001’s CQ, Coppola’s first feature, a backstage divertissement set in ’68 Paris which made sparks colliding space-age bachelor pad and cinema verité aesthetics. More recently, he co-wrote, with Wes Anderson, the screenplay of Moonrise Kingdom, a film dedicated to the cultural fetish objects of a few years earlier in the ’60s.

Charles Swan III is also a film made up of period bric-a-brac—though the year is never precisely identified, the LP jackets, clothes, décor, and altogether exhaustive art department work indicate the late ’70s. And as Charles’s coarsened mind is a “Sex Sells” collage, Coppola’s film-fantasy is a decoupage of his own cinematic influences. As Charles imagines his own funeral attended by crestfallen former lovers, Coppola cites the opening of Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women. The erotic self-examination is all Fellini’s 8 1/2 by way of Bob Fosse’s 1979 All That Jazz, while Charles’ best friend, a stand-up comic named Kirby Star, is photographed to recall Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce in Fosse’s biopic Lenny. (Playing Star, Jason Schwartzman has assumed Elliott Gould’s Jewfro and beard, if none of his easy charm.) Bill Murray plays Swan’s woebegone business manager and appears in another of Charles’s daydreams wearing John Wayne’s red tunic and suspenders from The Searchers—raised on Westerns and pulps, Charles is susceptible to imagining himself the hero of saves-the-day rescues.

Though only the female side of Charles’ family appear in the film, the “III” on his name carries the weight of legacy. Coppola and Sheen are both 47, both born to movie families, and go back together as far as Apocalypse Now. While elements of Swan’s character come from designer Charles Swan III, who worked on Coppola père‘s City Magazine, the film knowingly piggybacks on publicity surrounding Sheen’s libertinage. He’s wearing a coke-hangover look here, including ubiquitous La Dolce Vita aviator shades that only come off for one scene, where he displays a heartbreak that is surprisingly affecting.

I say “surprisingly” because performance can do only so much to alleviate Charles Swan III‘s inconsequentiality. This has much to do with the way Coppola, feigning full disclosure, gingerly handles the depiction of hetero male fantasy life. Addressing the mingled worshipful-sordid tone of men’s perceptions of women, Louis C.K. has said “We think you’re angels . . . and we want to drown you in our cum.” While this certainly has its cinematic possibilities, more often we wind up with frou-frou absurdities like Kevin Spacey dreaming of Mena Suvari naked in a bathtub of rose petals in American Beauty. If there is a third way, Charles Swan III hasn’t found it. Coppola manages one playful and sexy aside in which Charles imagines that his X-Ray Specs, the kind you order with a coupon from a comic book, actually make denim disappear, but other than that he offers only fantasy scenes, neither amusing nor titillating, drawn from those same comic books, in which dreaded, desired ladies are dressed up as squaws on the warpath, or as agents of the “SSBB” (Secret Society of Ball-Busters).

The film’s “real-life” women don’t come across much more lucidly than the action figures in Charles’ fantasies. As the ex- who’s caused Charles’ heartburn, Katheryn Winnick scarcely registers, her characterization limited to the trivializing tidbit that she used to hold funerals for her old toothbrushes as a little girl. Perhaps Charles Swan III‘s superficiality is meant to reflect that of a world where we mourn commercial goods, or the perspective of a subject whose mind airbrushes everything into a “layout”—but with neither the moral bite of satire nor a voluptuary surrender that really basks in shallowness, it’s a vague, unsatisfying work.

If audiences have sympathized with Fellini, Fosse, and Truffaut’s chronically horny on-screen avatars, it’s because, whatever trouble they caused women, these cads and their creators seemed at least fascinated or awed by the opposite sex, responsive to all the feminine varietals. In Charles Swan III, the girls with the honeyed curls have little to do but match the scene-to-scene motifs, like rented furniture. And where Moonrise Kingdom invested nostalgia objects with the weight of its character’s longing, they’re only props here.

Coppola has made an assemblage, an erotic autobiography in images not unlike the geysers from Charles’ head which begin his film, but he’s failed to set up provocative tensions or suggest new meanings. That this eruption ends with a photo shoot playing on the phrase “Everything but the kitchen sink” is evidently meant as a self-aware joke but, like the movie it caps, it’s a clunker.


The Canon of Subversion: Amos Vogel and the Films That Assailed the Art

What was Amos Vogel rebelling against? Like Brando in The Wild One, the answer might have been “Whaddya got?”

“Maybe it’s obnoxious to some,” Vogel, the programmer, critic, proselytizer, gauntlet-thrower, and all-purpose avant-garde mover-and-shaker told interviewer Scott MacDonald in 1983, “but there’s a fighting element in me which rebels against authority and constraint.”

Vogel put down his pugnacious creed for posterity in his 1973 book Film as a Subversive Art. It’s a manifesto that wages war on cinema’s orthodoxies—even on the rules Vogel sets down himself. His jeremiad celebrated films whose only commonality was their shared aesthetic disobedience. For many filmmakers who are today being exhumed and rediscovered—Philippe Garrel, Carmelo Bene, Dušan Makavajev—Vogel’s book remains the go-to in-print text for contemporary reportage; the daily critics couldn’t be bothered.

Makavajev’s 1971 geyser of montage, W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, appropriately kicks off Anthology Film Archives’ “Tribute to Amos Vogel”—appropriately, because a still from the film graces the cover of Film as a Subversive Art, which is illustrated by mysterious and often confrontational black-and-white images from the films Vogel considers. Anthology’s program will carry on for little over a month while, last Thursday, Williamsburg’s Spectacle microcinema inaugurated its own monthly program, “Film as a Subversive Art,” in conjunction with online publication The New Inquiry. The shape of both programs follows the filing system established in Vogel’s book, whose chapters arranged films according to the “Weapons of Subversion” they employed: “Subversion of Form,” “Subversion of Content,” “Forbidden Subjects.”

Vogel, born Amos Vogelbaum, had reason to be at odds with power. Born in 1921 in Vienna, he and his family fled to New York City months ahead of the Nazi Anschluss. A Socialist-Zionist, Vogel had planned this to be only a stopover on the way to a kibbutz, but, objecting to the development of Israel as a unilateral Jewish state, he instead stayed put. Vogel channeled his disobedient political tendencies into Cinema 16, a society where lovers of film esoterica could find strength in numbers, acquiring and screening otherwise unavailable, marginalized movies.

Conceived with wife Marcia as an American answer to Europe’s membership-financed film societies and cine-clubs, Cinema 16 had its first screenings in the West Village’s Provincetown Playhouse in late 1947. Its last came in 1963, as Vogel, with Richard Roud, became cofounder of the New York Film Festival. (Anthology will screen an episode of the CBS’s arts program Camera Three, where Vogel can be seen discussing the first fest.) In between, Cinema 16, which had seven thousand members at its height, had grown to fill the 1,600-seat Central Needle Trades Auditorium, drawn the Beats, Sontag, and Brando to screenings, and held American premieres of too many major filmmakers to mention. “It became my Sunday church, my university,” Anthology founder Jonas Mekas has said—although it was his own exclusively-experimental New American Cinema Group that effectively put Cinema 16, with a program that mixed art, documentary, and avant-garde film, out of business.

As well as contributing to this paper’s pages and Film Comment magazine, Vogel kept copious notes on his purposefully antagonistic, dialectic programming, all of which eventually fed into his opus. “Ambiguous,” “senseless,” “uncertain,” and especially “anxious” are words which recur as Vogel describes the films he rallied for, those which he believed described this ” most insane of all worlds” and “our real universe of unrest, uncertainty, anguish.”

Vogel never forgot the essential truth of “insane” modern life that he learned in Austria, 1938, and its aftermath. This should not be taken to mean that Vogel was necessarily a forbidding character; he wrote a children’s book with Maurice Sendak, and always tried to play the friendly outreach ambassador for the art he admired. Between 1973 and 1991, Vogel taught at the University of Philadelphia, and in 1980, even hosted a program of independent films from the Delaware Valley for the local PBS affiliate. Anthology’s program includes one episode of Reel Philadelphia in which Vogel, casual in a denim jacket, patiently guides the lay viewer through the lineup, humorously introducing the CBGB’s-shot mini-doc Punking Out, featuring Richard Hell, Lydia Lunch, and The Dead Boys. (“In the opinion of this station, this film may be unsuitable for children . . . . I make this announcement under protest and with some merriment. First, I do not believe that many children would be watching films about Rumanian Jews at 10:30 at night . . . .”)

No idiom, punk included, was too extreme to ward off Vogel. Under the heading of “Homosexuality and Other Variants,” Anthology has a double-bill of Japanese psych-outs, Shûji Terayama’s 1971 children’s rebellion fantasy Emperor Tomato Ketchup and 1967’s Violated Angels by Kôji Wakamatsu, who died last fall. While admiring Wakamatsu’s ceremoniously-shot reenaction of the Richard Speck killings, Vogel called it “more symptomatic than significant” (symptomatic of uncertainty and anguish, one imagines), and “anti-humanist”—for some antis even Vogel drew the line at.

Yesterday’s subversions, however, make up tomorrow’s canon. Mysteries of the Organism is on Criterion DVD, and succès de scandale is a very viable career path on the festival circuit. But in the mollycoddling, fenced-off, self-congratulatory scenes that make up contemporary film culture, Vogel’s official stance of ceaseless agitation shouldn’t be forgotten: “They’re in safe little oases, and they’re showing the films to their friends, and everybody likes each other’s films.” Better than anyone, the rebellious Vogel understood that “irritant” was another word for vitality.


The Great Director Walter Hill Brings a Bullet (And Ideas) to Your Head

“It’s hard to get these things started,” says Walter Hill, the dean of the American action movie, speaking to me from Los Angeles. “Action films are by their very nature more expensive than what are sometimes called, in the independent world, ‘relationship films.’ But I despise these categories. I’ve never made a movie I didn’t think was about a relationship.”

Bullet to the Head, Hill’s first theatrically released feature in 11 years, is no exception. An action exercise that’s pure panache from the neon-lit opening credits, it uses rib-cracking set pieces not only to sock it to the popcorn buyers, but also to test the codes that its characters live by.

Hill began his feature-filmmaking career with 1975’s Depression-era bare-knuckle boxing saga Hard Times and seemed to have ended it with another boxing pic, 2002’s fighting-fit Undisputed. In between there was The Warriors, Eddie Murphy’s coming out in 48 Hrs., the “rock-‘n’-roll fable”–cum–cult object Streets of Fire, and neo-noir treatments Johnny Handsome and Trespass. And though Hill’s ’90s westerns (Geronimo, Wild Bill) led him to success on the small screen in the aughts—directing the pilot of HBO’s Deadwood and the Robert Duvall miniseries Broken Trail for AMC—until now, no new movies were forthcoming.

“The desirability of hiring directors over 60 is fairly diminished in this marketplace,” Hill says. “At the same time, I hadn’t had a good-sized hit in quite a while. And, frankly, I went through a couple of experiences that left me pretty disgusted with it all, and I was thinking the time had passed. I was just sitting at home reading magazines and looking out the window—a couple of projects I had had just fallen apart—when I got a call from Sly, who had sent me a script.”

Sly, of course, is Sylvester Stallone. The basis of the script that would become Hill and Stallone’s Bullet to the Head was a French graphic novel, Du Plomb Dans La Tête—the movie’s title is a literal translation. And though Hill, somewhat atypically, does not carry a screenwriting credit on Bullet, the film feels almost like an anthology of his life’s work: Thrown together by violent circumstance, Sylvester Stallone and Sung Kang are teamed as a hit-man and a cop inflexibly true to their clashing, antithetical professional codes, as in Hill’s Red Heat or 48 Hrs. The loping blues riffs will be as familiar to the filmmaker’s fans as the Louisiana setting of Hard Times and Southern Comfort, from which Hill admits he copped a line for Bullet: “Sometimes you gotta abandon your principles and do what’s right.” Even a brawl in an enclosed bathroom recalls one in The Warriors.

“To me, it was kinda like shaking hands with an old friend who you run into,” Hill says. “We made the movie for, by modern standards, not very much money, and very quickly. I can’t tell you this was the biggest swing at the ball that I ever took or anything, but I’m fond of it.”

The faultlessly genial Hill tends toward such self-deprecation. Discussing Stallone’s surprisingly subtle, low-key performance, I mention Hill’s fondness for “laconic” leading men. He hears “comic,” and responds: “Somebody said to me my movies are always funny as long as they’re not comedies. I’m not sure I don’t agree with that.” Bullet to the Head, he says, is “an homage to action films of the ’70s and ’80s,” “a good night out.”

But being a good night out doesn’t mean vacuity, and when discussing the various warrior creeds at work in Bullet, Hill shows his respect for his characters’ values. “I don’t want to make it sound like it’s Lincoln-Douglas or something,” Hill continues, now starting to analyze the dynamic between Stallone and Kang’s tough guys. “But their debate seems to me to be the core of the movie.” Of Jason Momoa’s hired killer, Keegan, a distorted mirror image of Stallone’s cop, Hill says,”He’s almost a full representative of the argument—I guess it’s in Republic, isn’t it? Thrasymachus, he’s talking to Socrates, and he says: ‘What is justice? Justice is all things to the stronger.'” Hill continues along these lines, dropping a “Nietzschean übermensch,” before catching himself: “I’d be the first to say that we’re probably reading far too much into this.”

For all this high-mindedness, Hill acknowledges that the pleasures of action movies are “not quite adult.” “Most action films are dreadful,” he says. “But good ones are really wonderfully good, because they can exemplify human beings in what probably is their finest quality, which is courage, the ability to live up to your standards or try to get beyond your standards.”

While sci-fi and superheroes dominate the contemporary box office, Hill identifies himself with the “old, traditional, ‘Can we get the dynamite under the dam and cut off the retreat of the advancing army?'” action film. A moralist at heart, Hill uses the action film as few younger filmmakers of the sensory-assault school care to, espousing the virtues of stoicism, thrift, and contingency to survive in a fallen world. I suggest to him that his films, abounding with moments of prideful self-reliance and commiseration between have-nots, show a basically Depression outlook—despite his being born in 1942. “All of the adults that I grew up with were absolutely marked by the Depression—my parents, my family, everybody that I knew. This was something that loomed very large in their consciousness. In fact, I think we’re getting sadly reacquainted with it.”

Lest this make Bullet in the Head sound like a slog, it should be noted that any heavy themes that rear up are lightened with strokes of humor. But even in discussing these fillips, Hill betrays his profound regard for his material. “It’s a very dangerous bit of ice-skating,” he says. “If the filmmaker isn’t taking the story seriously, why the hell should the audience?”


Little Fugitive: An Adventure in Perception

When most people think of 1950s kid actors, they think of Lassie and Ricky Nelson and The Mickey Mouse Club. You might not have heard of Richie Andrusco, whose first and only role was seven-year-old Joey Norton in 1953’s Little Fugitive, but he had an impact equal to any of those better-known moppets. No cloying sweetie, Joey looks like a Little Rascal and talks like a junior Bowery Boy. He’s a tagalong pest to older brother Lennie, who with his friends and horror comics hatches plans to “moiduh” Joey. Instead of that, they hit on a better idea: fooling Joey into thinking he has killed Lennie, which sends Joey scampering, in a panic, to the Coney Island–bound train. The bulk of Little Fugitive follows Joey, alone; the film’s genius is how completely it tunes in to his 
experience, delicately outlining Joey’s private moments of shame, elation, despondency, and pride. (The film was an indelible influence on François Truffaut and his 1959 The 400 Blows.) Seemingly pulled along by Andrusco’s spontaneity, the film is also an adventure in perception, full of anecdotal asides in which Joey’s curiosity reintroduces us to commonplace things: the way cotton candy is made, the distorted views through a portrait photographer’s camera or a funhouse mirror, the way sunlight comes through the slats in the boardwalk. Co-directed by Raymond Abrashkin and the husband-wife photographer team 
of Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, the independent, proto-vérité Little Fugitive is also a photojournalistic document of time and place, rich with moments of grotty beauty, like the images of the funfair under rain. “Reality” is a tricky and quicksilver thing to try to capture, but Little Fugitive comes closer than most movies before it cared to try.


Parker: Rough Guide to a Rough Guy

In George A. Romero’s deeply silly 1993 Stephen King adaptation The Dark Half, Timothy Hutton stars as Thad Beaumont, a writer whose highbrow pretensions don’t pay the bills. When Thad needs to make a quick buck, then, he seals himself in his study and grinds out a nihilistic thriller to be released under the pseudonym “George Stark,” an alter ego that soon literally comes to haunt him.

The inspiration for The Dark Half was the “outing” of King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman, but the name “George Stark” also nods to Richard Stark, author of the book series starring a pitiless career criminal named, simply, Parker. Parker is a shrewd, methodical, monomaniacal, a lone-wolf independent operator, working outside the auspices of corporatized crime, variously the Organization or the Outfit. More than anything else, readers respond to Parker’s independence, though it’s made possible only by his being a monster of self-regulation—Parker’s designs to get what he feels is coming to him are never ruffled by tender feeling or conscience. Played by Jason Statham, Stark’s Parker will be coming to screens this Friday for the first time—and also the eighth . . . but more on that later.

Richard Stark, like Richard Bachman, never existed. The name was the best-loved of several sobriquets employed by the prolific New York author Donald Edwin Westlake. Stark gave Westlake his first successes, though Westlake soon became famous writing crime fiction under his own name, notably comic capers illustrating Murphy’s Law in effect. Westlake was also a successful screenwriter, not surprising given his no-sweat ingenuity with plotting. His credits include 1987’s The Stepfather, a thriller starring Terry O’Quinn as a sweet would-be family man who, thanks to a Bluebeard impulse, keeps making a widower of himself—the split personality strikes again!

Parker first appeared in The Hunter, a 1962 Pocket Books paperback, going after a criminal cohort who’d grabbed his cut from a job and left him for dead. This was a couple of years before a film antihero with something like Parker’s mercenary credo appeared, in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. Westlake completed 16 Parker novels before taking a hiatus with 1974’s Butcher’s Moon, then eight more beginning with 1997’s Comeback. Westlake’s prose when writing as Stark is spare, skeletal, and, yes, stark. The books can be read in the time it takes to do a load of laundry, but they stay with you for years.

The Statham film is based on the 19th Parker novel, 2000’s Miami-set Flashfire. It was not screened in advance, which means that distributor FilmDistrict does not believe its qualities will be evident to critics. Given what studios do boast of—FilmDistrict proudly screened Red Dawn—this means nothing. Parker‘s director, Taylor Hackford, is a proficient craftsman, however, and Statham has shown the mean cunning and wolverine ferocity requisite to the part.

Stark’s descriptions of his antihero are sparing, but we know that Parker has big, veiny strangler’s hands, and that he is around 40—young enough to be dangerous; old enough to be wary. Westlake has said that he pictured Parker looking something like Jack Palance. The Canadian comic artist Darwyn Cooke, whose forthcoming illustrated Slayground will be his fifth book in his Richard Stark’s Parker series, draws Parker with outcropping cheekbones close to the “chipped chunk of concrete” Stark describes in the first novel.

Parker has never been an Englishman before, but he has been black—Jim Brown, too gentle in 1968’s wasted opportunity The Split—and (sort of) a 25-year-old Danish girl. Made in U.S.A. (1996), with a trench-coated Anna Karina in the lead, is ostensibly based on Stark’s The Jugger, though it’s really but one element in Jean-Luc Godard’s mulligan stew of American pulp references. (This would not be the last Gallic Parker. Alain Cavalier’s 1967 Mise à sac has its partisans, though it’s practically impossible to see.)

Made in U.S.A. might technically be the first Parker adaptation, but John Boorman’s ’67 Point Blank, an angular Panavision classic with Lee Marvin, is justly the most famous. From the resounding, implacable clack of Marvin’s shoes as he stomps through LAX after what’s owed him, the film moves like a bloodhound on the scent. The Hunter, Point Blank‘s source, was also tapped for Brian Helgeland’s 1999 Payback. Payback‘s tagline read “Get Ready to Root for the Bad Guy,” but Paramount protested on seeing just how badly star Mel Gibson came across; they re-shot the third act then added humanizing voiceover. (Helgeland’s version is available as Payback: Straight Up, the rare director’s cut that’s shorter than the theatrical version.)

It’s easy to see why Westlake’s favorite Parker was Robert Duvall, in John Flynn’s 1973’s The Outfit. Like the books, Flynn’s unglamorous film specializes in procedural detail that sticks the reader under the hood to see the nuts and bolts of getting a job together. Although cast against type, Duvall gets Parker’s trudging, third-shift weariness—he’s the blue-collar mechanic of crime. (All of these films, save Mise à sac, are available on domestic DVD. the University of Chicago Press has reprinted the full line of Parker novels.)

How, then, is Jason Statham is the screen’s first Parker? Prior to Westlake’s death in 2008, it was a precondition of selling Parker to the movies that the name “Parker” wouldn’t be used without commitment to a series—so Jim Brown is McClain, Marvin is Walker, Gibson is Porter, Duvall is Earl Macklin, and, in 1983’s unloved Slayground, Peter Coyote is Stone. To this can be added a slew of pseudo-Parkers unconnected to any source novel: Jim Jarmusch, who can be seen reading a Stark novel on an airplane in 1994’s pseudo-documentary Tigrero, has acknowledged that his The Limits of Control owes a heavy debt to Stark. Michael Mann’s favored theme of criminal professionalism is pure Parker, and in his 2004 Collateral, Tom Cruise wears the charcoal suit and attitude of Point Blank‘s Marvin.

As with Cruise’s Jack Reacher, from Lee Child’s thriller series, there would seem to be a lot riding on Statham’s Parker, titled in the current all-or-nothing franchise-anchoring style. Accustomed to seeing the character softened by films, Parker aficionados collectively cringed at this Parker’s declaration in the trailer: “I don’t steal from people who can’t afford it.” But no bad movie could ruin Parker. There are 24 books to prove he’s not so easily killed.


Whodunit in the Thriller John Dies at the End? The ’90s

Kids born in 1992 can buy beer now, and according to the usual timeline of nostalgia, this means that the fetishization of all things ’90s is already well underway. And while John Dies at the End is assuredly a product of today’s online world, it feels remarkably like the work of a sensibility frozen at about 1996.

To jump back, which this flashback-within-a-flashback movie does its fair share of, the material that makes up John Dies at the End began life as a prose Web serial by David Wong, the pseudonym of Jason Pargin. Wong’s stories, about strange goings-on in a Midwestern Anytown , snowballed in page-view popularity to the point of earning a proper publication by St. Martin’s Press, and now this. Gathering an audience through online word of mouth, Wong has created a genuine cult phenomenon. Coscarelli’s film, however, groans with the strain of attempting to heave a cult object into being. (Much the same can be said of Coscarelli’s 2002 Bubba Ho-Tep, which mistakes a wacky title and the casting of Bruce Campbell for a worked-through movie.)

After a prologue establishing Coscarelli’s tone of aggressive irreverence, we meet the movie’s David Wong, played by Chase Williamson, who, like Pargin, is not Chinese, which suggests the movie and its source’s dedication to a wink-wink quirkiness. Wong meets at a diner with a reporter (Paul Giamatti) to whom he’s attempting to demonstrate psychic abilities and to unburden himself of the story of how he happened to gain them. Wong relates how he and his buddy, John (Rob Mayes), were dosed with an unheard-of designer drug called “Soy Sauce,” which opened both of their minds to the invisible network of sinister and supernatural happenings around them—manifestations of an effort by denizens from a horrible parallel reality to kick down the door to our own, an invasion that David and John alone can repel, all during the one crazy night that the bulk of the movie is devoted to.

Williamson and Mayes, artfully scruffy, have the smirking interplay usually reserved to imminently slapable twentysomething bros going through the drive-through in fast-food commercials. They speak in that sarcastic Kevin Smith/You Don’t Know Jack voice so ubiquitous in the ’90s, which has since moved into the realm of advertising voiceover. There is no attempt to foster inner life in the characters, as attitude trumps interaction, and disconnected throwback signifiers accumulate. The loquacity and temporally shuffled narrative is off-the-rack Tarantino; the bizarro mind-benders, “Lynchian”; the horror-comic asides combining the mundane and the fantastic,”Raimi-esque”; the grab bag borrowing of avant-garde techniques, straight up Natural Born Killers. John, wearing a sock hat, performs in a band called Three-Arm Sally that could have appeared in the background of a My So-Called Life party. The CGI is close to what you would encounter in PC gaming during the Clinton administration. Seventies retro thrift-store decor abounds, and a “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)”–spoofed “wigger” shows up and says “ganked,” which I am fairly certain is no longer in common parlance. I have concluded, then, that John Dies at the End is a product of a parallel universe where slacker flippancy never got old—and, oh, it is terrible.