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Hereafter

Putting aside The Outlaw Josie Wales, High Plains Drifter, and Unforgiven, terrific westerns bearing Clint Eastwood’s unmistakable air of somber, refined cool – qualities we observe in his best performances – I’m completely at ease asserting he’s the clumsiest A-list filmmaker in Hollywood. One of the greatest movie stars of all time, overqualified for iconic, forever and ever status alongside Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in the pantheon, but a wet blanket behind the camera.

Hereafter, which I wish L. Ron Hubbard was still around for, is sure to inveigle critics with its “contemplative pace” and “mood.” But don’t mistake aberrant filmmaking for vision. Don’t confuse Clint’s hand with his haunch. For all the waiting we’re made to do in Hereafter, we might as well be in a Dreyer movie (watching Gertrud at least gets you bragging rights). As in “The Golden Girls,” every new scene begins with an establishing shot; as in a student film, no scene begins until the actors have walked into the frame, and none ends until they have left it; each line is followed by a ham-handed meaningful pause wherein we are, I suspect, supposed to be absorbing a certain latent emotional complexity which, sadly, is never latent. (For more on this, see Million Dollar Baby, Invictus, Gran Torino, and Mystic River, an equally miserable film, which contains one of the most insincere cinematic clichés in all of filmdom – the crane up from a dead body/grieving person to signify the ascension of their spirit/cry to God up from the concrete and into [you guessed it] heaven. Is that really, after his eighty years in life and film, Clint Eastwood’s best evocation of that experience? It seems to be. He does it again in Hereafter.)

They say Clint Eastwood is the last classicist. He isn’t. Peter Bogdanovich is the last classicist. Clint Eastwood is merely out of touch. He makes movies as if people haven’t been making and thinking about movies for a hundred years. Add to that Hereafter’s amateur metaphysics, and you have a film only M. Night Shyamalan could love.

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The Silent Treatment

“The American silent cinema of the 1920s gave us three great comedians,” wrote Dave Kehr in last week’s Times, “Harold Lloyd, whose hyperkinetic optimism seemed the perfect embodiment of his epoch; Charles Chaplin, whose Victorian sentimentality was just a touching bit behind it; and Buster Keaton, who was so far ahead of his time that we’re still running to catch up with him.”

What is it about this period in film history that invites such useless debate? You never hear anyone debating Cary Grant vs. Humphrey Bogart, or Howard Hawks vs. Alfred Hitchcock. But when it comes to Chaplin and Keaton, it always gets hot. Why?

Don’t get me wrong. I love heat. Crave it. But where there’s smoke there’s not always fire. Exhibit A: Dave Kehr. Is Lloyd’s hyperkinetic optimism relevant only to his epoch? Is Chaplin’s Victorian sentimentality really his defining characteristic?

To those who have seen Speedy and Safety Last, the ridiculousness of the Lloyd remark is self-evident. The famous scene of Lloyd slipping from the hands of a giant clock ticking a hundred stories above the pavement is simply ageless. Comedy – silent or otherwise – has hardly produced a more eloquent expression of our most basic fear. Lloyd’s films were time and technology obsessed, slapstick comedies à la Dziga Vertov. Nothing could be more modern.

Now for Chaplin.

When oh when oh when can we retire the Chaplin/Sentimental polemic? What good has it done us? (I find it curious, by the way, that Chaplin’s team has not devised a counterattack. You never hear them nail Buster Keaton for, say, his simplicity. Like the Los Angelenos in the L.A./N.Y. debate, they are rarely on offense.) Taking this angle with Chaplin is as fruitless as condemning Billy Wilder for being cynical. It is merely a fact of his sensibility and speaks neither for or against his genius.

It is fashionable for “serious” film scholars – often highly analytic types who eschew sentiment – to raise themselves above the Chaplinesque masses by way of extolling Keaton’s craft. There is a utilitarian function to this; not only is “craft” the domain of the educated elite, it’s a hell of a lot easier to write about. Let me be clear: I mean no disrespect to Keaton – only to those who champion him at The Tramp’s expense. They have obviously never stopped to marvel at the mind that made dancing feet out of two bread rolls. Sentimental? I call that surrealism.

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Federico y Ginger

Amid news of a Pac-Man movie, the latest casting developments in Captain America, reviews of Iron Man 2, new TV spots for The A-Team, and Fox’s announcement of a Planet of the Apes prequel, I excavated a small piece of encouragement: Pedro Almodovar will be working with Antonio Banderas once again. The film, The Skin I Live In, will begin shooting this summer.

“The film will be a terror film, without screams or scares,” Almodovar told the Spanish daily El Pais. “It’s difficult to define and although it comes close to the terror genre – something that appeals to me that I’ve never done – I won’t respect any of its rules. It’s the harshest film I’ve ever written and Banderas’ character is brutal.”

Throughout the eighties, Almodovar and Banderas made five films together – Labyrinth of Passion, Matador, Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and finally Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! – an impressive, versatile streak that, in its day, ranked with the greatest director/actor partnerships around. Back then, before Almodovar had fully cultivated his current, perversely mature sensibility, Antonio Banderas was the living embodiment of his world, Cary Grant to his Howard Hawks. Under Almodovar’s direction, the actor alternated between a screwball-state of flummoxed boyishness (like Grant in Bringing Up Baby, Monkey Business, I Was A Male War Bride) and commanding manliness (like Grant in Only Angels Have Wings) – a duality appropriate to Almodovar’s madcap feeling for passionate behavior.

Together they forged new cinematic ground (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is an NC-17 comedy about a stalker in love with a heroine addicted porn-star), pushing ahead into uncharted emotional territory that they may not have reached on their own. Katharine Hepburn’s famous remark about Fred and Ginger – “He gave her class and she gave him sex” – readily applies; Pedro is Fred, Antonio is Ginger. How else could we have been lured into rooting for Banderas, who played that memorable, lovable rapist in Matador? Teamwork.

Jimmy Stewart made cold Hitchcock warm; Mastroianni gave warm Fellini cool; and Liv Ullmann gave Bergman’s films a chance at hope, like a life preserver thrown into a cold, dark sea. Antonio Banderas – a highly gifted performer who has never really been taken seriously in America – could, as Almodovar said, play “a puerile guy with an overpowering power of seduction.” Has there ever been a better summary of Almodovar’s brand of playful intensity?

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I Confess

Alfred Hitchcock died thirty years ago this week, on April 29th, 1980.

I’ve always had a confusing relationship with Hitch. With several exceptions (which I’ll touch on in a moment), a large majority of his pictures fill me with a strange mixture of awe and apathy, like when the TV tells me about a new sports car that can go very, very fast, or an athlete who scores a lot of points. “Yes,” I want to say to movies like North by Northwest, “That’s a lovely sequence – a touchdown sequence – but…then what?”

Maybe it’s because we like to talk about Hitchcock in pieces. The Shower Scene, the crane shot in Notorious, Vertigo’s dolly zoom, the high-angle shot from Topaz – wonderful garnish, but sometimes I wonder, where’s the beef? (Caveat: Vertigo is 100% prime cut select.) Often, it has helped me to see the garnish as the beef: so many of these pictures tend to be as much about how we watch them as they are about their content. Rope is a famous example: an experiment in watching. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’ve always thought Rear Window was one of Hitch’s best; it was a subject near to Hitch’s heart, and it showed.

Wait, did I just write “Hitch’s heart”? What does that mean, exactly?

Screenwriter David Freeman had the good fortune to work with Alfred Hitchcock late in his career, in the days when Hitch would have prints of the newest movies delivered to his office at Universal, which is how he saw Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. In his book, The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock, Freeman reports that Hitch, at the height of one of those ferocious Liv-Ullmann/Ingrid Bergman scenes, got up from his seat, wobbled to the door, and announced, “I’m going to the movies.” Then he left.

It’s a revealing anecdote, and a reminder that Alfred Hitchcock, deep in his heart-thing, was really not one for the hard stuff. He was jokester. Tilt your head, substitute Cary Grant for Alec Guinness, and you’ll see a good portion of these pictures look like sadistic Ealing Comedies. Shadow of a Doubt, Suspicion, Lifeboat, Strangers on a Train, and a few of the films I mentioned above, all have that mischievous prankster quality, the giggly feeling of pulling the rug out from under the status quo. I like these movies, but with the exception of Vertigo and Rear Window, my personal cluster of favorites comes from the back shelf: The Wrong Man, I, Confess, and The Man Who Knew Too Much (the second) are perhaps his most disturbing films. Not because their composition is any more bravura than Psycho’s, but because they each feature such strong performances (Henry Fonda, Montgomery Clift, and Doris Day, respectively). These characters are the dead-opposite of the Hitchcock Blonde, and their films are all the better for it. But that’s very much a personal thing.

For the record: it’s only because I love Hitchcock that I let myself needle through his best films. As a former-fellow voyeur, I know he wouldn’t want it any other way.

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