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Re-Reviewings in Light of the Zeitgeist

By Greg Gerke.


At thirteen I saw it on clunky VHS (two tapes). I inserted Part II, as it had been mislabeled I. I found nothing strange about no credit sequence—it had been done before—but after about forty minutes, I was pretty sure I made a mistake. Still, I pressed on. This is perhaps fitting because going back to it ever so often, I can’t think of another acclaimed film in which the actual editing is so troublesome. Sequencing, shot duration—it’s very imprecise. What it has is acting, particularly De Niro, Cazale, and Streep, who shine in the better first half. The autumn color, dreary or orangey, of what is supposed to be a Pittsburgh suburb (though mainly shot in Ohio and West Virginia), and the mountain scenes, some filmed in Washington State, are pretty good, too. Cimino didn’t choose Vilmos Zsigmond, Mr. Post-Flashing in The Long Goodbye (bleeding the primary colors out of the images), for nothing. The wedding is a joy and the male to male relating is now a document of how older bros got on and passed the time fucking around before cable TV and phone-aholism. What would it have been like if Cimino didn’t show Vietnam at all? There were no documented Russian Roulette games contrived by the Vietcong. Cimino being subversive? We’ll never know and like most political moves America carries out post WWII, it doesn’t matter anyway, the superpower has spoken—but maybe fifty years from now this movie will be on the curriculum with Triumph of the Will in a “Film as Propaganda” class. It may have helped Reagan get elected. I can’t buy the escape from the captors, it’s a cliched action film moment, like bad Don Segal took the shooting reins for a few weeks. Roger Ebert called it “one of the most emotionally shattering films ever made.” Andrew Sarris wrote it was “massively vague, tediously elliptical, and mysteriously hysterical.” Quentin Tarantino really loves The Deer Hunter.


Nearly every major film critic called it crap except the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. Given his lifelong Dostoevsky crush, Woody’d been trying to make a facsimile of Crime and Punishment work again for years since Crimes and Misdemeanors. Match Point tries, but ultimately fails. He needed an innocuous, almost trite milieu (Rhode Island) and shooting out of New York’s college scene would be a must because Columbia University and Barnard are too pregnant, too done. Woody has a way of employing the perfect actor for the part: Michael Caine, Martin Landau, Alan Alda, Sean Penn, and Cate Blanchett get joined by Joaquin Phoenix, who is in late Brando mode and not because of the pudge. He steps about so lightly, playing affectless and showing conceit with excessive conceit (as in Inherent Vice) so convincingly it’s inevitably hammered into the viewer that yes, the bastard judge he does kill should die. When finally something sparks him, isn’t it heroic how someone who cares nothing for his life will do some good with it? Well, that’s why the film had no audience. Cinematographer Darius Khondji, shot it on film and used a lot of bounced light when capturing Newport’s mid-to-late summer hues, giving many a frame a lazy honeyed texture. Parker Posey fulminates a greatest hits of her gists and blurts in many underseen independent films and Emma Stone is rightly indignant. One song scores most of the film—“The ‘In’ Crowd” by the Ramsey Lewis Trio. The ending, a whiplash of the furies, which occurs in a mad rush, stands with the suddenness of Hitchcock’s shocks. Think also of the endings in Rossillini’s war trilogy, minus the crisp unsentimental epilogue, perfectly appliqued. Irrational Man‘s ending couldn’t work in 2015 or today, people are too sensitive, too consumed with the bugbear, and they tend to interpret swift justice as their religious right—it offends them to see what their witch hunts can procure. Woody’s audience is currently dwindling. Eventually the money will run out or enough actresses will just say no. Brody recently declared in a review of Woody’s Wonder Wheel, “I believe Dylan Farrow.” Even finger-wagging, politically correct fusspots can recognize great art.


After thirty-seven years I’ll take Ordinary People over Kramer Vs. Kramer. The emotions the former brings out are less coerced and it’s less sentimental. Maybe this has to do with Judith Guest’s novel, the first one Viking published unsolicited in twenty-six years. Artists, who have nothing to lose, excepting those who don’t laurel-rest and continually evolve, are closer to the marrow of life; they don’t need to project danger because they live it everyday. Every Scorsese film from Casino on is subcutaneously about his comfortable life, his suits, and his celebrity more than the medium of film, “story-telling,” recreating history, or even some didactic urge to show how money corrupts. In light of this, and though Raging Bull might have been the best American film of the 1980’s, I am assured that Donald Sutherland did not gain or lose seventy pounds to play a much more haunting figure of greater shadings—that of upper middle class cautiousness, delineating a man capable of empathy and love. Watch the scene when he goes to the psychologist (Judd Hirsch)—zero in on his arms and hands, as they swing marionette-style, fingered by his inhibitions. The cinematography is null, but that is to be expected. American award films are built on the white heat of (usually) family carnage portrayed in filmed theater mode, not the X and Y axis of the screen, color saturation or black and white mist, and perspective, which is why they can never rise to Raging Bull heights.

Seen today, amongst the viscous cultural critics intent on their witch trials of judging everyone with no sense of existence’s intricacies, it is stunning to witness the mother being vilified—she is the one who can’t cope, who can’t move forward, living in the delusional world of vacuous vacations and things—think Cat on a Hot Tin Roof stippled into malcontent Gordon Lish/Raymond Carver language. The father and son, white men, are left hugging in the end. How many today are repelled by such a vision, and for vastly different reasons? If re-released, such a finale is enough to get Redford a visit to the iron maiden.


Maybe A&E or HBO should remake it with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks? Use a similar core, but light an in vogue American fuse, like Hanks works on Wall Street and uses Viagra like breath mints, while Streep is a vegan, but wears furs. That will make it easy to throw out most of the wisdom in the script, especially the agony that is too scary for viewers looking for succor—most of the audience. Watching Liv Ullmann over five hours, while she creates a woman with an intimacy greater than some spouses get from each other over a life, I began to doubt the wailing wall of Meryl’s acting and her often photoed kittenish face and mind grown crony. Over the years something changed in her art, and though I changed, too, growing from brat to cad to raging, I blame her life choices. She went from taking on very interesting material to doing too many things beneath her, giving too many interviews, being too political, and buying into and then top-selling the delusion of Hollywood’s “progressive” or “liberal” agenda, which amounts to them patting themselves on the back about their “causes” without stepping back to see how they adumbrate the hypocrisy, with their own myopia, whether it be around the income gap, gun control, or shielding sexual predators for years. They niggle about scripts and reconstructing the details of mostly American history past all in a pursuit to make “meaningful, socially-conscious” films—that is, crap to comfort and make one feel the air of Kennedy. Spielberg/Hanks/Streep are the biggest purveyors in this obscene charade, as they always position themselves to be on the green side of the high moral ground.

Michelle Williams is much more fearless, if not less vain than Meryl. The hunger is still there to pry at the dark night of the soul to uncover the white light. When Meryl works in Bridges of Madison Country, Angels in America, and Doubt, one never forgets it’s Meryl Streep. Williams is more chimerical, her persona still on sphinx-mode. Few are as effortless in demonstrating pain and revealing a monument to trauma, as in Blue Valentine, the Reichardt films, Manchester by the Sea, and most prominently, Take This Waltz, where the anguish is joined by a nerdy, goofy awkwardness. Because of her choice, to be battle ready to love or to fall out of love, she’s our true answer to Liv Ullmann.

I’ve never tried to sit quietly and wonder how exactly Liv Ullmann could portray women the way she did because I’ve been too in love with the finished product—she also directed a hell of a film, Faithless, from Ingmar Bergman’s script. It’s easy to see how Max Von Sydow and Erland Josephson, often playing much more selfish and humane alter-egoish (male) characters, were not as well-regarded. Ullmann wasn’t just beauty incarnate but there is that—kind and kindly blue eyes, long wavy strawberry red tresses, the full pulsating lips, the cheekbones designed by Le Corbusier. Living with and making love to Ingmar Bergman, a man who could only remember his nine children’s birthdays by thinking of what he filmed then (his and Liv’s one child, Linn Ullmann, is quite a successful Norwegian novelist and critic), goes a long way toward teaching one about the intricacies of romance, longing, survival…endings. She was the muse and Bergman often made her her male counterpart’s conscience, placing her as the life force itself, with that benevolent Mona Lisa/Madonna face taking over the screen. In those glorious close-ups and medium shots she shifts moods as quickly and colorfully as a kaleidoscope.

I surely mean the six-episode 281-minute version broadcast on Swedish TV in 1973, reportedly a great factor in doubling the country’s divorce rate that year. The clothes and eyewear certainly don’t let you forget it’s 1972, but the drama, the emotion? Most theatre and film people would give their second and third eye to be in something so shimmering, so fraught, so unassuming—so vitally human. How did he do it? You see it in the Makings-of about the other chamber piece films Winter Light, Autumn Sonata, and Saraband. Bergman and Sven Nykvist conferring, and then Bergman and the main actors sitting around, talking things through. Excluding most of the first episode Scenes from a Marriage is essentially 240 minutes of one on one. Long takes zooming into and out of close-up. It should be shown silently on a loop in an art museum because to see those faces grow, grouse, enervate, and embargo, gradually and by whip-pan, annihilates most solipsistic pseudo-Warhol embarrassments that patrons walk in and out on, thinking it art because a museum houses it.

The supercharged dialogue is also very droll, very funny. Josephson can only fool himself so much—his character eventually sees into his entelechy. Leaving his wife (and children that he barely cares about) for another woman destroys his life because his family is his life. His unsatisfying job is only an ache and his timid foray into poetry is judged by his colleague lover as “common.” In the sublime fifth episode—a breathless fifty minutes of two fast approaching cyclones of emotion blasting through a small dank office, there is a shot of Ullmann making love to Josephson just before they are to sign their divorce papers. She’s on top of him, moving slowly as he breathes from feeling, but we only see her face in a medium close-up. If it wasn’t so astoundingly alluring it would be pornographic, which it is: Ullmann makes love to the camera/screen/us—the angle is accurately askew as if we were under her, looking into someone who “has” us. If people cared about art like they once did, I could see some stilted middle-American librarian pulling the Criterion version off the shelves, claiming indecency. This is the same country still afraid of an erect penis, but it is much more frightened of pleasure. Though we know a little about sex, we prefer not to know about sensuality. And this doesn’t include the half of the country that doesn’t vote. No telling what their ideas of intimacy could be.


When the dust settles, De Palma will have made one worthy film, Carrie. It has B-movie vertebrae taken to kitsch’s heights à la Lewton/Tourneur’s Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie. Many critics, perhaps egged on by Kael, believe there are deep reservoirs of erudition in his blood-splattered imagery which have no basis in his Catholicism, but his father’s profession as surgeon. Does De Palma have a cinematic world, or a sensibility, or mise-en-scène?—I can’t center on one because some set-ups are so flabby, while others are inspired, and some just fickly outre. He can make intriguing sequences: Dressed to Kill‘s chases, Blow Out‘s account of the blow out, and Carlito’s Way‘s train station chase, but they stand for little because the surrounding celluloid is cheaply patchwork. Nearly all of his characters have no inner life. Carrie works so well because he rightly identifies with her as the victim in an upside down world, where she is justified to avenge herself and kill. Her death is a martyrdom. The lone comedy that worked, Wise Guys is riotously insouciant—I wonder what would have happened if he kept trying to take his satire less seriously? Maybe he could have been the male Elaine May.

The Untouchables, very successful at the time and securing an Oscar for 007, is excessively violent and as celebratory of guns as an NRA convention. There’s a couple of nice carats of David Mamet dialogue, but De Niro dials it in, the music is an embarrassment to Yanni, and even the deep focus framing of Connery and Costner talking in the cathedral (not because of the Catholicism!) stands out because it’s too beautiful with all else decidedly unvivid. Again, a sequence glows. This time the homage to the Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps at Chicago’s Union Station. It’s a breathless stretch, eleven minutes of film, though almost overshadowed by its gore. I saw this at age twelve in the theater and during this sequence, somewhere within the screen, I could make out De Palma wildly semaphoring what translates as “Look at this!” There goes a story that De Palma was at a screening of an Ozu film, but soon walked out, arrivedercing, “Good luck, suckers,” to those remaining.

Greg Gerke’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, Film Quarterly, and others. A book of stories, My Brooklyn Writer Friend, is out from Queens Ferry Press.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 23rd, 2018.