Notes on the Auteur Theorizing in 2016 (or, The Return of the Quizzical Sergio Leone)

It can't be the end of summer already, can it? Even as the temperature's been spiking into the mid-90s here in sultry Ohio, the threat opportunity of the classroom beckons in just a few short weeks, bringing with it students, syllabi, papers, and (of course) movies. So what better time to peak into that cathedral of cinephilic higher learning, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, whose kindly proprietor, Dennis Cozzalio, has turned over the student union to a fearless vampire killer? That's right-- it's time for some last-minute summer reading, with  PROFESSOR ABRONSIUS'S ROBUSTLY RANDOM, ECCENTRICALLY INQUISITIVE, GARLIC-INFUSED MID-SUMMER BACK-TO-SCHOOL QUIZ. As always with a SLIFR quiz, the questions look like challenging fun (even if it's clear I should have done a bit more studying beforehand), and I extend Dennis's invitation to play along at home, via my comments section.  So, raise your stakes, grab your garlic, and let's hit the hills, kids!

1) Name the last 10 movies you've seen, either theatrically or at home

  • VARIETY GIRL (1947)
  • DEADPOOL (2016)
  • HIGH-RISE (2016)
Speaking of the illustrious Mr. Cozzalio, I stole (with his permission) a long-running feature of his fine blog back in February-- the ongoing "Recently Viewed" list (which you can see to the right of this post). For years, I'd kept a paper journal of the films I'd been watching, along with starred responses; it was a way of keeping track of what I'd seen, and a memory spur for the inevitable question, "Seen anything good lately?" Then, life got busier, and I lost track of the journal, and years of film-going slipped out of my memory like a mindless comment escaping Donald Trump's lips. When Dennis was kind enough to invite me to participate in his end-of-year "SLIFR Treehouse" blogathon, I took it as an opportunity to restart the journal list, but in electronic form on my own blog. It's been a good way to remind myself of the last 6 months of movie watching, and also a sometimes anxious form of transparency: "Do I really want them to know I watched Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Dude-Bro?" At the same time, I am a firm believer that there's no such thing as a guilty pleasure, and that one's tastes can be an interesting starting point for writing, discussion, and exploration (and anyway, admitting to the Malick film is far more embarrassing). I like the hopscotch quality of the films, which combine catching up with 2016 releases and my recent fascinations with the movies of Mitchell Leisen, key-to-Classic-Hollywood Fred MacMurray, and the eternally underrated Paulette Goddard. Some of these are tagged to writing projects, some are "keeping up" obligations, and some are just curiosities, stops on a trail inspired by other films, a vast network of movie love. In the end, the list's patron saint is Everybody Wants Some!!'s pitcher-with-a-secret Finnegan, who speaks cinephilia's mantra while sucking on a bong: "It's about finding the tangents within the framework. Therein lies the artistry, man."

2) Favorite movie feast

3) Dial M for Murder (1954) or Rear Window (1954)?
MGM owned the Classic Hollywood box office, and Warners gets the posthumous hipster cred, but was there any studio between, say, 1935 and 1955 with the sheer, diverse, glamorous fun of Paramount? From broken-fourth-wall comedies to aching melodramas to the noiriest of noir, their range, consistency, and ability to balance satire with sheen feels more and more unmatched to me. All of which is a way of saying that it makes perfect sense that Alfred Hitchcock-- whose aesthetic blends all of the above qualities into something singular--would have such a great extended run there in the 1950s. And while I adore Ray Milland's scheming husband and John Williams' sly police inspector, Rear Window has it all over the excellent Dial M for Murder: the latter is a very fine drawing room marriage comedy disguised as a thriller, while Window feels like Hitch's authorial signature (and has an introduction that is rivaled only by Jane Greer's in Out of the Past). Besides, once I tell you which one has Thelma Ritter, it's really no contest, is it?

4) Favorite song or individual performance from a concert film
 The greatest there ever was, the greatest there ever will be.

Excluding another film from the same director, if you were programming a double feature what would you pair with:

5) Alex Cox's Straight to Hell (1986)?
Dammit-- I knew I should have boned up on some of these films, instead of spending the night before the exam binging on Prince videos on YouTube. I haven't seen this one, but the cast listing-- Elvis Costello! Grace Jones! The Pogues!--as well as its description ("The film has been called a parody of Spaghetti Westerns, and focuses on a gang of criminals who become stranded in the desert, where they stumble upon a surreal Western town full of coffee-addicted killers") suggests a playful, pop-driven genre satire, so how about Brian De Palma's fabulous Phantom of the Paradise?.

6) Benjamin Christensen's Haxan: Witchcraft Throughout the Ages (1922)?

Lotte Reiniger's fabulous 1926 animated feature, The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

7) Federico Fellini's I vitteloni (1953)?

8) Vincente Minnelli's The Long, Long Trailer (1953)?

9) Sam Peckinpah's The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)?

10) George Englund's Zachariah (1971)?

11) Favorite movie fairy tale

 My Mitchell Leisen binge exposed me to this classic, and I think I'll stick with it for awhile (although My Man Godfrey, Rules of the Game, and Faerie Tale Theatre are all good runners-up).

12) What is the sport that you think has most eluded filmmakers in terms of capturing either its essence or excitement?

Why is it so hard to make a good football movie? Baseball, boxing, basketball, even cycling have all had cinematic high points. But football seems destined to be, at best, a funny element within a larger and different genre, or the jumping off point for a very different kind of story. At worst, it becomes a heavy-handed allegory for The Man and his Machinations. Is it because filmmakers want to believe they more closely resemble the poetry of a ballpark diamond, even if their aesthetic is more like the violence of a dirty tackle

13) The Seventh Seal (1957) or Wild Strawberries (1957)?
Let's just say I don't remember Bill and Ted dreaming of a family picnic by a lake.

14) Your favorite Criterion Collection release
Which child is your favorite? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Why do fools fall in love? This is an impossible question, pre-wrapped in the kind of movie nerd anxiety that will strike at 4 a.m., when you realize you named Blow Out when you should've named Head. And what are we judging here? The film itself? Gear-head questions about transfer and sound quality? The number and quality of its extras? The depth (or joyous silliness) of its audio commentaries? Hell, I could list ten favorite Criterions on the beauty of their packaging alone (in this, I think the Sternberg box has everyone beat). Why, Professor, whyyy????

But as David Thomson, the no-longer-at-the-cool film-kids-table critic, once wrote--a Crusoe must be honest with himself. And so I have to name my favorite film, whose everything quality as movie and Criterion disc just makes it the best:

15) In the tradition of the Batley Townswomen's Guild's staging of the Battle of Pearl Harbor and Camp on Blood Island, who would be the featured players (individual or tag-team) in your Classic Film Star Free-for-all Fight?

I like to imagine the casts of various Judd Apatow projects splitting off, Sharks/Jets style, to see who could best re-create the climactic showdown in Meatballs (1980).

16)  Throne of Blood (1957) or The Lower Depths (1957)?

I still haven't seen either (ducks and dodges thrown knives), but I do love No Regrets for Our Youth (1946).

17) Your favorite movie snack

I think this was a question in a previous Professor's quiz, but that's cool-- it's always good when you can make connections between courses. I am sticking with my earlier answer of popcorn accompanied by a lovely box of Raisinets.

18) Robert Altman's Quintet-- yes or no?

This film has somehow been in my Netflix queue for more than a decade, and I still haven't gotten to it. This, despite my love of both Altman and star Paul Newman, as well as my fascination with the perverse curios of directors I admire (I mean, I've seen--and even enjoyed at least parts of!--both Jack and Wise Guys). I guess the fact it keeps getting pushed down by newer or older releases indicates I'd probably lean towards no? But I do very much want to catch up with it someday.

19) Name the documentarian whose work you find most valuable

Michael Apted, whose Up films are as humanist as Renoir, as suspenseful as Hitchcock, and as full of observant humor as a great Chaplin film. I can't think of a document as full, sustained, or as generous as what Apted has achieved over the last five decades.

20) The Conversation (1974) or The Godfather Part II (1974)?

"I loved baseball ever since Arnold Rothstein fixed the World Series in 1919."

21) Favorite movie location you've visited in person

 I don't know if I have a "favorite," per se, but it's nice when our Midwestern metropolis gets to pop up in the movies. So it was a fun coincidence when, just two weeks after my wife and I had spent an anniversary trip there, the Renaissance Hotel suddenly appeared up in The Avengers (2012). Sure, the film claimed it was Heidelberg, Germany. And it was under attack by Loki. But you can't have everything.

22) If you could have directed a scene from any movie in the hope of improving it, what scene would it be, and what direction would you give the actor(s) in it? (question submitted by Patrick Robbins)

 The whole of Mamma Mia! (2008). It's a terrible film, and it's possible nothing could improve its hackneyed plot, its abuse of its gifted cast, and its strained use of ABBA. But there are small moments of grace (Pierce Brosnan's non-singing scenes, Meryl Streep helping her daughter get dressed for the wedding) that suggest a more engaged experience, one not so intent on bulldozing you with its size, sound, relentless pacing and insistence on a circumscribed and bullying definition of "fun."

My advice to the cast would be one simple line: "Breathe."

23) The Doors (1991) or  JFK (1991)?
Oh, my-- can "an enema" be my third option?

24) What is your greatest film blasphemy or strongest evidence of your status as a contrarian? (H/T Larry Aydlette)

Um, well, I did just admit to enjoying parts of Jack (1996) up above, for which I expect to be stoned in the town square by a collection of dedicated cinephilic priests. Beyond that, I don't like Darren Aronofsky movies, I think most post-Badlands Malick is ponderous and abstracted to the occasional point of offensiveness, The Royal Tennenbaums is actually my least-favorite Wes Anderson film (although I still love it), and I actually like a lot of superhero films (including the much-maligned Superman Returns (2006), which is still the best of the recent cycle of comic book movies).

But does anything really make one contrarian anymore, particularly in the film blogosphere? I mean, I suppose one could claim a dislike of "Peak TV" (I sometimes suspect not liking certain TV auteurs is really the only blasphemy left) or an admiration/dismissal of a beloved or reviled critical personality. But those are also the calling cards a lot of folks build their Twitter accounts around. People work so hard to be contrarian, to find their slice of the click-bait. Nothing suggests an insecure narcissist as much as someone who perpetually insists on their rebellious nature (or as an undergraduate mentor of mine was fond of saying, "Nothing's as bourgeois as saying you're not").

What feels most notable to me about this kind of positioning is how the default for establishing one's anti-establismentarian cred is to say what we don't like (look at my list above, which is primarily negative). A strangling, glance-over-your-shoulder hipsterism means that "overrated" is much more marketable, sadly, than "underrated." And yet, underrated is where the real conversations begin, because it's the real space of surprise, and its fuel is joy. But that's precisely why it doesn't feel "contrarian," because it doesn't need the momentum of such a justification to make it sing. What I like is what I like, separate from what others like.

That said, Under the Cherry Moon is a masterpiece, and I will fight you to the death if you claim otherwise, philistine!

25) Favorite pre-1970 one-sheet

26) Favorite post-1970 one-sheet

27) WarGames (1983) or Blue Thunder (1983)?

Saturday Night Fever (1977).

28) Your candidate for best remake ever made

Well, Diner does Fellini pretty well...Pale Rider's a pretty good reworking of Shane...Candlesticks always make a nice gift, and uh, maybe you could find out where she's registered and maybe a place-setting or maybe a silverware pattern...

But my favorite "remake" is actually an adaptation, that so transforms its source material that it makes the original seem like a dry run for its cinematic incarnation.

There is no better Rodgers & Hammerstein movie than The Sound of Music, a film so trillingly omnipresent in my childhood that it took decades for me to appreciate just how stylish, sly and humanized the movie is compared to its stiff, underwritten stage version. Ernest Lehman deserves all the credit in the world for reworking its scenes, beefing up Captain Von Trapp's part (a cipher in the original), and giving plenty of room for the dazzling Eleanor Parker to make the Baroness a surprisingly human figure. But of course, the MVPs are its stars. Music was written as a vehicle for the great Mary Martin, and it shows-- Maria is virtually the only character in the play with depth. But as embodied by Julie Andrews in the film, Maria maintains her gentle nature while replacing the dull naivete with some of Mary Poppins' dry wit. Most of all, Christopher Plummer makes Captain Von Trapp a figure of real sadness, rage, humor and nobility-- far more than in the stage version, we both believe and understand the politics of Von Trapp, so crucial to making the narrative go. And the way Plummer quietly controls the "pinecone" scene ("Fraulein, is it to be at every meal, or merely at dinnertime, that you intend on leading us all through this rare and wonderful new world of... indigestion?") is the best example of how his stern charisma shakes the sap out of the story, and makes the movie sing.

29) Give us a good story, or your favorite memory, about attending a drive-in movie

I must have been about nine, since The Empire Strikes Back was re-released a year before Return of the Jedi to goose interest in the upcoming film (which, clearly, needed to build anticipation among youthful acolytes like me, who only spent nearly every waking hour pondering the previous film's riddles and cliffhangers). I think I'd seen Empire, in those pre-video days, three or four times in its initial 1980 release, and again in a "regular" theater two years later. But it was playing at our local drive-in in Kalamazoo, and going to a drive-in was a Family Event. The sound from the speaker-box was tinny, the view was slightly obstructed by both the windshield and surrounding cars-- but darkness fell just as the Millennium Falcon took off from Hoth into outer space, destroying the distinction between the stars on the screen and the stars in the sky. In that moment, the entire space felt like it was transported to a galaxy far, far away, and it's still my favorite moment of you-are-there serendipity.

30) Favorite non-horror Hammer film

I know I'm going to get a cross in the face (or perhaps sled tracks on my back) from the Professor for admitting this, but Hammer remains a big gap in my cinephila, and all the films I can think of would fit into a "horror" mold. That said, I do have the Paulette Goddard Hammer crime thriller The Unholy Four sitting next to me as I type this, and look forward to diving in. 

31) Favorite movie with the word/number "seven" in the title (question submitted by Patrick Robbins)

32) Is there a movie disagreement you can think of which would cause you to reconsider the status of a personal relationship?

"You about Pixels (2015)?"

33) Erin Brockovich (2000) or Traffic (2000)?
Aha! Speaking of contrarianism!

I've never understood the acclaim around Traffic, a film that feels bogged down by its own self-importance, its sprawling narrative and its all-star cast's tendency to Oscarbate to a disturbing extreme. Its dark moments feel contrived, its message feels heavy-handed, and its look predicts the overexposed deserts that dot too many AMC programs. So, of course, it's what Soderbergh won the Oscar for.

Erin Brockovich, on the other hand, feels like the embodiment of the auteur theory-- the ability of a gifted director to take standard studio material and place his stamp on it. I don't think Brockovich is a classic, either, and it's hampered by its plot machinations. But those concerns fall away in the interplay between Julia Roberts and Aaron Eckhart, whose scenes feel so much more relaxed and improvisational than any of the "dun-duh-DUNNNN" moments of 'revelation' in Traffic. The beautifully detailed mise-en-scene of the everyday and the quiet pleasure Soderbergh takes in his performers' work make Erin Brockovich a far more cinephilic experience.

That said, I'd take The Limey (1999) over either one any day.

34) Your thoughts on the recent online petition demanding that Turner Classic Movies cease showing all movies made after 1960.


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