998 (133). Tale of Tales (1979, Yuriy Norshteyn)

Screened February 8, 2010 on veoh (see embedded video after the break) TSPDT #992  IMDb Wiki


First off, I want to encourage everyone in New York City to take advantage of an opportunity that I will sorely miss: an in-person appearance (alternative link to event) by  Yuriy Norshteyn. This legendary 68-year old Russian animator rarely comes to the US; he may very well be traveling to raise funds for his first feature film The Overcoat, which he has been working on for nearly 30 years. In any case, please go in my place, as I will be on a flight to Berlin as he makes his appearance at the SVA Theater:

Monday, February 15: School of Visual Arts Theater (333 W. 23rd Street, between 8th/9th Ave.) This event is billed only as a Q&A so be aware that there may not be a screening. No price is indicated so I’m also assuming it’s free.

To be honest, I am a recent convert to Norstein, like, as of this week. He has been touted on this site before, as one of the 100 Most Important Directors of Animated Shorts, as voted on by my colleagues at IMDb. Still, when Tale of Tales appeared for the first time on the TSPDT 1000 upon its most recent update, I had never heard of the film, despite it being voted the greatest animated film of all time at polls conducted by two animation film festivals.

So I won't pretend to be an expert on this film when I've been acquainted with its filmmaker for all of a week, and when there is already a book length study by animation scholar Claire Kitson available, which I will seek out. I will only say that I've seen this half-hour masterpiece four times in four days, and it feels like it's stayed with me for four years. It's as if Norshteyn sat with these images all his life, drawing them with such lucidity and palpable depth of feeling, that they make even the untold hours of ingenuity and laborious craft behind Pixar films feel relatively disposable. It summons a concept of the fermented image: a vision that has stayed with a person for as long as they've been breathing, and perhaps beyond that, like the wolf that lurks throughout the film, a folkloric figure as old as Russian blood.


It's a vision that nurtures, like the suckling breast that satiates the infant who sees the wolf just as its eyes pull into sleep.


The whole film seems to be a drunken/lucid suckling of images, images that have nourished a lifetime of sublime melancholy and wonder, reflected in so much of what's on screen. And the way each image is rendered with a delicacy verging on dissolution conveys a yearning for that same image, as fragile as the decaying memorabilia of one's childhood:


or one's memory rendered through a ghostly gauze - such as these tangoing couples about to be severed by the War raging around them...


Another recurring motif feels slightly more contemporary (with sharper lines, brighter hues and more fashionable clothing), involving an apple-loving boy who fancies himself feeding crows in the tree boughs as his parents loiter on a bench below:



The film cycles through these visuals in such a way that the repetition invokes instant affection and nostalgia, as with films by Duras or Wong Kar-wai. The wolf figures as the protagonist, the only one who seems to traverse from one zone of memory to another, often by crossing through forests that at times give the only acknowledgment of late 20th century modernity:


But his experiences of the hopscotching bull, the dancing phantoms, even the snowbound family, are all mediated by some sort of illuminated threshold: an entrancing fire on the hearth, or light raptruously emanating from a doorway or from a manuscript, as if these visions are liminal states into which he is lulled repeatedly. But it still doesn't account for other images that seem to inhabit an interzone apart from the more sharply defined worlds, an eden blanketed in Tarkovskian dampness and mist:



And all these visuals still don't account for images that I didn't capture because they only make sense in motion: soldiers marching into a swallowing blackness; windows boarded up without hands or hammers; a pile of wood suddenly combusting; a tablecloth that seems to billow under the breezes of history. Or the sounds: a record skipping as men disappear from their lovers' embrace; the wolf blowing on his hands as he tries to handle a hot potato. And the lullaby that begins the film and tips the film's hand as a lullaby to all of us, whisking us to a world of beauty whose liquid lucidity can only exist in sleep, except when an artist is somehow able to extract these moments from a lifetime of dreaming. Again, it would be a privilege to meet such a person.


Watch Tale of Tales on Veoh

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Tale of Tales among the top 1000 films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Doug Cummings, One-Line Review (2009) John Davies, One-Line Review (2009) Keith Griffiths, Time Out (1995) Annecy Festival, 100 Films for a Century of Animation (2006) Cinematheque Quebecoise, FIAF: Film History (1995) Film: The Critic's Choice, 150 Masterpieces of World Cinema-The Art of the Impossible (2001) Olympiad, The Champions of Animation (1984)


Despite its simple beauty, "Tale" was not made with children in mind. In the sequence imagining the huge losses Russia experienced in World War II, couples dance to the famous tango "Weary Sun." Every time the old record skips, one man disappears from the frame and then the women dance alone.

Norstein says "Tale of Tales" is a film about the way memory is conjured up. He says the role of the artist is to allow people to "experience life yet unlived. This is the most significant thing we can get from art."

Fans like to watch the film again and again. "I have seen it many times," says Yulia Zotova, 42, who attended the exhibit of Norstein's work in Moscow. " 'Tale of Tales' evokes these emotions in me. I've always been fascinated with the character Little Wolf because he's a symbol of wisdom and love. My impression is that spiritually we are searching for this wisdom and this love and we find it in his films."

In the last quarter of a century, the film has inspired filmmakers, animators and writers. In June 2002, the Zagreb International Animation Festival published the results of a poll of animators to establish the best animated film of all time. It was "Tale of Tales." A 1984 poll of animators came up with same result.

- Peter Finn, The Washington Post


Norstein’s initial script treatment for Tale of Tales was approved by the Soviets but he summarily dismissed it, producing a much more ambiguous and emotionally complex piece than was originally planned. Tale of Tales juxtaposes images of innocence and gaiety with images of war and vanishing soldiers, nostalgic visions of childhood with an alcoholic parent chugging a bottle of vodka. The Soviet film authorities, baffled by the film’s poetry, deemed it subversive for its lack of social realism, and demanded that Norstein make extensive changes. He refused, and luckily, had just been awarded a State honor that made it virtually impossible for the authorities to enforce their demands or suppress the work.

- Doug Cummings, Film Journey


Tale of Tales is laminated with enchantment. Layer by layer. A suckling baby is sung a lullaby, wooing it to sleep lest the little grey fox abduct him to take him into the scary woods where a green apple glows wet with rain.

The little grey fox is maligned. He is sweet, clever and curious. He flirts with himself in shiny hubcaps. The exhaust fumes of cars make him sneeze and his sneeze startles birds into flight. A hot potato burns his paws. A young girl jumps rope with a steer that, every now and then, likes to take its turn. A poet anguishes over what to envision, what to say. Women and men dance underneath a streetlight and each time the record skips another husband / father / son is lost to the ravages of war. A one-legged veteran plays a sad concertina. A fish floats in the sky catching the attention of an idle cat who, by caterwauling, teaches the poet how to orate. A boy imagines himself befriending winter birds on a tree limb above him. Is the baby dreaming all of this? Is this where the lullaby has taken him? Is this where it has taken us? Whimsical and poignant, Tale of Tales masterfully purveys a deep realm where images are deftly woven into feelings.

- Michael Guillen, The Evening Class


Like Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, figuring out a specific meaning for each scene is difficult if not impossible and useless. Norstein, like Tarkovsky a few years before him, is delving into his own memories and displaying the results (...) Thus, it could be said that the only one who truly understands Tale of Tales is Norstein. What keeps me from embracing this criticism is that, impermeability notwithstanding, I was constantly occupied with emotions and ideas throughout the film’s duration. Does it matter that I don’t understand every scene? Am I supposed to? I don’t think so. This film is going more for rhythms and moods, different drawing styles alternating between each other, each suggesting a different reality: there’s the parent storyline of the little wolf; there’s the poignant visual poem about the effects of wartime on civilians; there’s the aside to the apple-loving boy and his alcoholic father; and finally there’s that bit with minotaurs, jumping ropes, and harps. These sections weave together and combine. Memory and dreams emerge from the fantasy of the little wolf. We navigate each reality, notice melancholy patterns: departures, time lapses, destruction, burning, death, and other natural cycles. Free association takes us to random places, but there seems to be a structure, an emotional core. I have only seen Tale of Tales once. These kinds of films have a way of being new with every return. You find currents and threads that had been invisible during the introductory voyage.

- Elevator to Alphaville


Voted as the best animated film of all time by animators and critics at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, Yuri Norstein's Tale of Tales, is a personal, and often profound, statement of atavistic recollection. Norstein uses the animated form to recall primal and ancestral sources of human feeling and experience. Fusing folk-tale, memory and personal symbolism, Norstein achieves associative relations which move beyond the realms of standard representations of time and space, privileging the psychological and emotional as the focusing agents in relating images, rather than using orthodox modes of story-telling. As Norstein himself suggests, 'The sanctity of the image, or rather its construction, seems to move in gradually from all sides; the elements that coagulate create the image'.

Whilst the workings of an artist like Norstein may, in the first instance, seem impenetrable to the viewer, it is important to recognize that such methodologies foreground the idea of image-making as a tension between conscious and unconscious experience. This may be understood as a process which accepts and includes images which emerge from a number of sources and which seem at first to have no particular relationship. Further, such images, whether they are perceived constructions of real physical space, fragmentary recollections of dreams, half-remembered visions, hallucinations and fantasies, or pictures without past or purpose conjured in the mind, are not forced into a coherent story, though they do possess their own narrative which informs the relational conception of the film. The images possess an ontological equivalence, and in being valued as equally valid and important whatever their source, occupy a narrative space which refuses to categorise any one character or event as its presiding or dominant element. Tale of Tales refuses all obvious signposts of plot, preferring instead a system of leitmotifs, recurring images that play out their own subtle differences and developments as part of a wider scheme of recollection. It may be useful to stress that Norstein's work is recollection; a gathering of images which define the psyche and the act of memory as an act of creativity. As Mikhail Yampolsky has noted, 'What confronts us is not simply a film about memory, but a film built like memory itself, which imitates in its spatial composition the structural texture of our consciousness.'

Animation is especially suited to the process of associative linking, both as a methodology by which to create image systems, and as a mechanism by which to understand them. Understanding these images only comes from an active participation in the images as the repository of meaning in their own right, and not necessarily, in direct connection to other images. Norstein and Tarkovsky create works which ultimately require the viewer to empathise as well as analyse, and this dimension of feeling - what Norstein calls the 'spinal cord' of emotional recognition - is the quality which lyricises the image. The 'deductions' that are made possible by this kind of involvement are those which relate the personal to the universal. Norstein essentially engages with his childhood during the war, and through the accumulation of the everyday details and events (real and imagined) of his past life, given special emphasis by the selectivity of memory, he creates a text which elevates the expression of the psyche's own sense of history to the level of poetic insight and spiritual epiphany.

- Paul Wells, Understanding Animation. Routledge, 1998. Pages 93, 94

Widely acclaimed as the best animated film of all time, Tale of Tales is a poetic amalgam of Yuri Norstein's memories of his past and hopes and fears for the future: his post-war childhood, remnants of the personal tragedies of war, the little wolf character in the lullaby his mother used to sing, the neighbors in his crowded communal flat, the tango played in the park on summer evenings, and the small working-class boy's longing to emerge from the dark central corridor of the kommunalka into a luminous world of art and poetry. In Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales: An Animator's Journey, Clare Kitson examines the passage of these motifs into the film and delves into later influences that also affected its genesis. More than merely a study of one animated film or a biography of its creator, Kitson's investigation encompasses the Soviet culture from which this landmark film emerged and sheds light on creative influences that shaped the work of this acclaimed filmmaker.

- From jacket description of Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales: an Animator's Journey, by Claire Kitson. University of Indiana Press, 2005



IMDb Wiki

Yuri Norstein, who has been working for years under the veteran Russian animator Ivan Ivanov-Vano, has emerged as one of the world's leading animators. His film, The Tale of Tales , was considered the most artistic production to come out of Eastern Europe in years. The success of this film, as well as others such as Hedgehog in the Mist The Vixen and the Hare , and The Heron and the Crane , is due to his unique style of multidimensional figures and backgrounds that have depth, roundness, and shading, giving a visual quality to his scenes seldom seen in other films. His humor is full of human observation, contrasting emotion over a broad scale from gaiety and laughter to sadness and disappointment. The fact that these moods are happening to animals and birds with their own particular environment provides an element of magic, and once again proves that the art of animation can bridge the biological barrier between human and animal worlds.

Norstein considers animation to be a new field of art, but underestimated, its artistic plasticity and social significance not having been explored so far. According to him its principles are taken from life, avoiding a documentary approach in describing a social situation. Aristotle said, "art, above all teachers, allows people to enjoy life." This principle still holds. Norstein takes his own material from an ordinary situation and develops it in his own particular way. His material consists of human emotions: joy, tears, love, and all levels of emotion within the experiences of life. Norstein, apart from being a filmmaker, is also a good painter and brilliant illustrator, which explains the high visual quality of his backgrounds and the expressions of his characters. He has a close relationship with his young children and closely considers their reactions before making a film. He thinks that only those who understand children's psychology should make a film for them. If one has sympathy with them and can play with them, one is able to look at the world through their minds and eyes.

On the question of visual quality, he thinks that animated film directors should be interested in fine arts, especially painting, since films have a dual objective: the creation of a new and original setting and a defined dramatic action within the setting. The spectator should be able to adapt to such a background and participate in the film on the terms present in the subject. Norstein recognizes that a film is composed of various elements. It contains myth, fantasy, cosmographic ideas, sound, absolute realism, and naturalism. The combined quality of these elements could be of great value, lifting animation above all other media, but so far he has not seen any film, short or long, able to make full use of such total potentialities. He holds that a feature-length film should not only tell a story but present the richness of human life, make full use of the specific properties of animation, and look for its own way of development.

John Halas, Film Reference.com

Norstein was born during World War II and spent his childhood in the northern suburbs of Moscow. Though Stalin’s reign of terror softened a bit in the postwar era, anti-Semitism and intense cultural control remained, constraining the young Norstein on many occasions. Luckily, his entry to adulthood coincided with the Soviet Thaw during the more liberal Khrushchev era of the late-’50s, which saw an influx of foreign art and an openness to experimentation. Films such as The Cranes Are Flying (1957), Ballad of a Soldier (1959), and Destiny of a Man (1959) were being produced which invigorated the cinematic milieu. (Unfortunately, history would reverse this opportunity when Russian resources dried up duringglasnost at the height of Norstein’s acclaim; he’s still trying to finish The Overcoat, a film he began in 1981 with his wife and longtime collaborator, Francesca Yarbusova.)

Norstein studied at the Soyuzmultfilm animation studio, which began producing a small but sophisticated body of work that appealed to adults as well as children in the ’60s. For years, he worked as an unassuming animator until he began directing his own films during the less-hospitable Brezhnev era of the ’70s, known for banning art and artists that weren’t deemed properly Social Realist. “In one word,” Norstein says, “[the era] was stuffy. We didn’t have enough air. But the strange thing is that when a lot of things outside you are closed off, you go inside yourself and find the freedom you need.” Norstein developed a highly complex and nuanced style of multiplane animation using paper cutouts on layers of glass; it produced the internationally venerated works The Fox and the Hare(1973), The Heron and the Crane (1974), and Hedgehog in the Fog (1975). (All of these films are available on DVD in the Masters of Russian Animation series.)

Glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union kept Norstein out-of-work for many years, but he was finally able to travel, and has spent the last couple decades lecturing and attending tributes to his career. He also continues producing The Overcoat (his first full-length feature) and occasionally provides short pieces for commercials and title sequences for Russian and Japanese television. Fervently in love with his homeland, Norstein has rejected several international offers to finish The Overcoat abroad, choosing instead to develop the film little by little, year after year, in the country of his birth. Let us hope the film materializes fully formed one day soon.

- Doug Cummings, Film Journey

See also Cummings' report of Norstein's visit and talk at the University of Southern Calfornia, Los Angeles

The nerve center of Norstein's life -- both as a filmmaker and as the husband of artist and collaborator Francesca Yarbusova -- is their studio. Drawings of little gray men scratching backs, scratching noses and picking up spoons cover the walls. Yarbusova draws the figures and imbues them with a haunting beauty and sense of loss.

"We are tied together and we are interdependent," Norstein says, sitting in his merrily cluttered kitchen, the walls covered with photos, sketches, an icon, bric-a-brac and shelving spilling over with videos. "I draw all the compositions, but this is the dry soil which must then be filled with feeling. We have scandals and rows. But now her work is on display and she says to me, 'It is all you -- you were guiding me.' "

"Francesca participates in the movies as much as Norstein," Bossart says. "The two of them are one artist. He couldn't exist without her."

- Peter Finn, The Washington Post

986 (118). California Split (1974, Robert Altman)

Screened November 15, 2009 on Columbia Tri-Star DVD TSPDT rank #968 IMDb Wiki

This tight, modest picture may not have the presumptions to Monumental Importance as Nashville, but in many ways it's a more quintessential Robert Altman movie, if not a better film. Whereas Nashville maintains an Olympian perspective on its swarming ensemble, California Split inhabits a more complicated space with its two leads, alternating between celebration and skepticism (but never scorn) of their high-rolling gamblers' lifestyle.  It's a world that Altman knows well and it's what allows him to employ his prodigious gifts with a precision and an authenticity that exceeds even his most famous films. (It certainly surpasses the lesser works, where his attempts at naturalist satire are belied by lazy-eyed lensing and snark characterization.)

Take his groundbreaking use of audio in California Split, his first employment of the multi-track technology he developed.  What he does with 8 audio tracks here makes the 24 tracks he used in Nashville seem excessive. It's a soundtrack that's as consuming as a gambler's weekend casino binge - and that's exactly the point. It plants us squarely in a subjective state, what it's like to be terminally hopped up on the high of tumbling dice on green felt, clicking roulette balls and the polite trash talking of pretty much everyone around you. The soundtrack shifts from one of these nodes to another, restlessly searching for some way in to a special insight leading to a big score. It's a real shame that The Conversation hogged all the attention for audio innovations in 1974, because this film does just as much to integrate its audio into the human experience it brings to life.

There are so many good moments, executed with such a natural flow that it transcends the script's imperative to touch on of all the different types of gambling going on in Sin City: from dingy poker halls to race tracks to grand casinos to putting $20 against a dude at a bar to name the Seven Dwarves. Gould and Segal are excellent, with such lively in-the-moment riffing between them that you wonder if Cassavetes stepped in to direct their scenes. They're matched in rapport by Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles as Gould's hooker roommates; Altman's camera, in full groupie mode, really gets cozy with them as they lounge around in their apartment. It's small moments and movements like in those scenes that are Altman at his best. They yield the full potential of his excitement and interest in the world and in people, without having to package the former into a big statement or belittle the latter in spite.


The following citations were counted towards the placement of California Split among the 1000 greatest films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

David Ansen, Steadycam (2007) Doris Kuhn, Steadycam (2007) Frank Arnold, Steadycam (2007) Richard T. Jameson, Steadycam (2007) Alain Resnais, Most Important American Films (1977) Peter von Bagh, Most Important American Films (1977) They Shoot Pictures Highly Recommended Films


The movie will be compared with "M*A*S*H," the first big hit by Altman (who is possibly our best and certainly our most diverting American director). It deserves that comparison, because it resembles "M*A*S*H" in several big ways: It's funny, it's hard-boiled, it gives us a bond between two frazzled heroes trying to win by the rules in a game where the rules re-quire defeat. But it's a better movie than "M*A*S*H" because here Altman gets it all together. Ever since "M*A*S*H," he's been trying to make a kind of movie that would function like a comedy but allow its laughs to dig us deeper and deeper into the despair underneath...

At the end of "California Split" we realize that Altman has made a lot more than a comedy about gambling; he's taken us into an American nightmare, and all the people we met along the way felt genuine and looked real. This movie has a taste in its mouth like stale air-conditioning, and no matter what time it seems to be, it's always five in the morning in a second-rate casino...

What Altman comes up with is sometimes almost a documentary feel; at the end of "California Split" we know something about organized gambling in this country we didn't know before. His movies always seem perfectly at home wherever they are, but this time there's an almost palpable sense of place. And Altman has never been more firmly in control of his style. He has one of the few really individual visual styles among contemporary American directors; we can always see it's an Altman film. He bases his visual strategies on an incredibly attentive sound track, using background noises with particular care so that our ears tell us we're moving through these people -- instead of that they're lined up talking to us. "California Split" is a great movie and it's a great experience, too; we've been there with Bill and Charlie.

- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, January 1 1974

Robert Altman's "California Split," which opened yesterday at the Cinema I, is a fascinating, vivid movie, not quite comparable to any other movie that I can immediately think of. Nor is it easily categorized.

Mr. Altman has been quoted as saying that "California Split" is "a celebration of gambling," which is, I think, to underrate it, at least so it seems to someone who is not a gambling nut. The director, his screenwriter Joseph Walsh and the actors have created a movie of so many associations that it's impossible not to see "California Split" as something much more complex and disturbing.

- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, August 8 1974

One of Altman's surest talents is the creation of a whole world, slightly antic and off-center, so that his movies (like McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Thieves Like Us) have a look of surprise, of the familiar transposed in some evasive but still palpable way. Once again he enjoys the collaboration of his excellent art director, Leon Ericksen, who has constructed an entire casino, brightly seedy and lit like a yellow-fever ward, which Altman populates with 24-hour night people. Their faces are ridden with worry, briefly flush with success. Their babble, their half-heard hopes framed in gambler's jargon, are like the running response of some lost congregation. They are Altman's chorus.

Like all his work, California Split (slang for high-low-split poker) has its own bent rhythm. It gives the feeling of having been made with a stoned offhandedness. In fact, there is a relaxed precision governing everything, even Elliott Gould's mumbled throwaways.

California Split is a rejoinder to the terse, glamorously tense world of The Cincinnati Kid, where the green felt is turned into a field of honor. It may be the first movie about gamblers that does not require any knowledge of the rules of a game. California Split is about compulsion, not betting, so the conventions are disregarded. There are no looming closeups of nervously shifting eyes, sweaty foreheads and shaky hands. Altman's premise is that getting hooked on gambling is the kind of emotional brinkmanship that is suicide by inches. This knowledge runs through California Split like a cold current and is the source of the movie's stubborn power. "J.C.

- J.C., Time Magazine, September 2, 1974


Fed up with the unrealistic dialogue he and other actors were forced to say on a regular basis, struggling actor Joseph Walsh wrote a screenplay about his own gambling addiction in 1971. Steven Spielberg, fresh from directing the made-for-TV film Duel (1971), was originally supposed to direct. He and Walsh worked on the script every day for nine months. The director was fascinated by the characters and would react to Walsh’s script, offering suggestions. At the time, the screenplay was called Slide and the two men had a deal to make it at MGM with Walsh as producer and Steve McQueen in the starring role. The whole story was going to be set at Circus Circus in Las Vegas because the studio owned the casino.

A month before filming started, the studio experienced a shake-up at the executive level and with it came a new set of changes. MGM wanted the story to be a Mafia-related “sting” concept with Dean Martinas one of the two main characters. Walsh would no longer be the producer. He and Spielberg left MGM because he realized that they did not understand the point of the film: “I wanted the picture to be almost a celebration of the gambling, the joy of it, going along with it, and then, at the end, you could see where the trap comes in.” Spielberg and Walsh took the script to Universal Pictures where they had an agreement with executives Richard Zanuck and David Brown. However, Spielberg decided to work on another project called Lucky Lady (1975) leaving Walsh and his film stranded.

The writer’s agent, Guy McElwaine, contacted Altman’s agent George Lito, and the director was given the script, read it and loved it. For years, he had wanted to do a gambling film with “the ambience of gambling, and then point out it had nothing to do with money.” He was drawn to Walsh’s script because he liked to gamble himself, his father was a gambler, and the director knew a lot of gamblers. David Begelman, the new studio chief of Columbia Pictures, was a former agent who knew Altman’s agent and greenlighted the screenplay to be made into a film. Walsh was a novice and unaware of Altman’s reputation for taking liberties with the scripts of for his films. However, Walsh was very protective of his script and argued with Altman numerous times over certain details. The only serious revisions to the script that the director made before filming were to background scenes. The writer had seen other Altman films and wasn’t always satisfied with how these scenes played out. He told the director that they could be changed but that he would rewrite them. Walsh wrote a full script for the background scenes, three to four page scenes for good actors to play.

George Segal was cast early on and Altman mentioned Gould but Walsh, even though he was childhood friends with the actor, held back. Altman and Walsh saw other actors, like Peter Falk and Robert De Niro, but kept coming back to Gould. Finally, the actor called Walsh and convinced him that he was right for the role. According to Walsh, on the set, Gould was full of confidence while Segal was insecure. The writer remembers that on the first day of shooting Gould “was there as that character . . . After seven days, George Segal came to me and said, ‘This guy’s [Gould] unbelievable. He’s an octopus. He is absolutely strangling me to death. I don’t even know what to do.’” Walsh told Segal Gould had lived the life of his character and said, “don’t try to act with him, don’t try to outdeal him . . . be off-base – just what you’re feeling – and it’s all working.”

Altman employed members of Synanon, the rehab organization of former convicts and addicts, as extras. The organization received a flat sum and delivered as many as needed each day. California Splitmarked the first time Altman experimented with the use of the eight-track sound system that allowed eight separate audio channels to be recorded and helped develop Altman’s trademark of overlapping dialogue. To this end, he gave the supporting actors and extras significant emphasis on the soundtrack. On the first day of shooting, the effort to keep eight separate channels clean and distinct made everyone very anxious. Haskell Wexler had originally been approached to shoot the film but Altman opted to go with relative newcomer Paul Lohmann who would go on to shoot Nashville (1975) and Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976).

- J.D., Radiator Heaven

Screenwriter JOSEPH WALSH discusses his original ending of the script - and how it was altered - in Stop Smiling Magazine

"I would say if you are a writer and you could produce a picture with Bob, it would be a very good [situation if] you could be right there," says Walsh, "because Altman would come in and say, 'Oh, I would like for this scene, twenty-two clowns, three hookers, nine dwarfs, and whatever.' And this [scene] is supposed to be about a lonely man and one person in the bar. So I would say, 'Well, why would you do that, Bob? Because I don't see it? Why would you come up with that? That feels like off the top of your head. Let's go into it a little more because, let me tell you, it took me about two and a half months to construct this scene, it all ties together into the thing, and...'

"I don't know, maybe it was a plainness, a bluntness of honesty of how I would ask questions, but Bob would - pout would be a good word. I guess that he would pout a little bit on me. You know he actually stormed out of the room many times on me during the picture, during these conversations, but he would always come back and listen as I got to know him more...

"Bob is really a guy who can't take restrictions. Restrictions of any kind. Just feels hemmed in by them. He's wonderful when he gets enthusiastic. So if he's enthusiastic, if you question that, right away it's a damper to him. Some part of him doesn't want to listen to questions. Eventually, if you say somethign clearly and you're not fighting him - at any level - because I really wasn't fighting him - he listens..."

"Remember, this was going to be Spielberg's picture, THE picture. This was a time when he wasn't making much in pictures. This is the one that really got to him. Steven said to me, 'It is good, but I would have made twenty-five, fifty million dollars with the picture.' Later on, after he had seen it three or four times, Steven said to me, 'The picture is much better than I thought it was. I had to see it again and again and again.'

"Steven would have built that last scene, that gambling scene, into one gigantic orgasm, climaxing the last forty pages of the script until you were on the edge of your seat. He would never have filmed it as loose [as Altman].

"He's a master at building it up, Steven is, whereas Altman comes from a whole different world. More of a European style. Steven could have manipulated that film into fifty million dollars at the box office, and that would have been exciting. But Steven knows it is a really special film. Yes, he might have made more money, but he didn't know if he could have made a better film."

- Walsh, quoted in Patrick McGilligan, Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff.  Macmillan, 1989. Pages 375-376, 381.


Robert Altman's masterful 1974 study of the psychology of the compulsive gambler. Elliott Gould, loose, jocular, and playful, and George Segal, neurotic, driven, and desperate, are really two halves of the same personality as they move from bet to bet, game to game, until they arrive for the big showdown in Reno. As in all Altman films, winning is losing; and the more Altman reveals, in his oblique, seemingly casual yet brilliantly controlled way, the more we realize that to love characters the way Altman loves his, you have to see them turned completely inside out.

- Don Druker, The Chicago Reader

Gould and Segal on some wild casino sprees in Los Angeles and Reno, speeding through a compulsive night world of frenzied overlapping chatter. Like Hawks, Altman feels rather than thinks his way into a subject, with a special interest in how people relate to one another in moments of crisis. In the process he shows more of what's happening in America than most newsreels, coaxes jazzy and inventive performances out of his actors (Prentiss and Welles are particular treats), and asks for a comparable amount of creative improvisation from his audience while busily hopping from one distraction to the next.

- Time Out

California Split begins with Altmanesque babble, which is always in the background. We’re used to gambling movies made in a style as feverish as their protagonists. But Altman sits back and watches the ebb and flow—the traffic of lost souls.

David EdelsteinNew York Magazine

Bob (Altman) le Flambeur. The contrast is between the "daylight gambler and the player at night" (Balzac), the numb drifting of George Segal versus the nonstop vaudevillianisms that Elliott Gould breezes through to cloud his desperation. The two meet among the rummies, bond over bar counter improv: "Twenty bucks says you can’t name the seven dwarfs." "Dumbo... Dumbo flew." In their shadow world, everything is makeshift: Shaving cream is applied to welts, cereal and beer constitute a meal in a stranger’s home. Everything is performance: Segal and Gould pretend to be cops to scare off a jumpy john in matronly drag (Bert Remsen), Gould seduces Segal back into the game with his "one-armed piccolo player" bit. And everything is a bet, from playing basketball with a bunch of teens to slapping half of a night’s winnings on the hood of a car in an attempt to get a mugger’s gun away from your face. Play or get killed, play and get killed. "Don’t think about it, take the money and go!" Nothing enhances Altman’s visual-aural density like the bustle of poker circles, race tracks, boxing rings. The hooker-roommates (Ann Prentiss, Gwen Welles) consoling each other in bed, the barfly yammering about her pooch, the casino janitor surreptitiously slipping a coin into a slot machine -- every character seems to carry an entire comedy of desolation inside.

Fernando CroceCinePassion

This is a film about gambling, a metaphor-for-life which seems to have a particularly compelling pull for Altman. Altman, a self-confessed recovering gambler, returned to the theme with Quintet – a sci-fi picture which stands as one of his strangest and most gripping films – and increased the stakes: play the game or face death. Quintet was set during a future Ice Age in a world with dwindling resources; who lived and who died depended on participation in the game of the title. There's nothing so novel going on inCalifornia Split – a wholly naturalistic picture set in the 1970s – and yet its characters feel just as lonely and pathetic (and lovable) and the outcome of the games they play just as live-or-die important.

The director who pursued California Split most aggressively before Altman became attached was Steven Spielberg. While I don't want to make a snap judgment about what kind of film Spielberg would have made – indeed, his early work (eg Duel [1971], The Sugarland Express [1974]) showed just as much willingness to portray desperation and unhappiness as his most recent work does; it's only mid-period Spielberg which seems to me sappy or unambiguously sentimental – I think it's safe to say that it would have been a considerably different film from what Altman made. The very fact that an atmosphere existed in Hollywood where Altman could have access to properties being pursued by Spielberg – a player and company man even before Jaws (1975) validated him as a money-making player in the eyes of the studios – is astonishing.

But it's some measure of the greatness of this film that this fact is perhaps the least of the astonishing things going on in California Split: Altman's astonishing mise en scène – contemplative of every level of interaction within a room, a bar, a place – has rarely been put to more revelatory or personal ends. It's a masterpiece.

Peter TonguetteSenses of Cinema


California Split (1974) can be taken on one level as another entry into the buddy film cycle, though it manages to escape some of the more uncomfortable sexual evasions and misogynistic attitudes of these films by keeping its emotional level low, by allowing, as few American films do, emotions and emotional relationships to be chancy, fleeting, nondestructive, unscarring. Unlike other buddy films, it gives its women characters equal status and equal strength. Though the Gwen Welles and Ann Prentiss characters are whores, they do not suffer and are not condescended to, nor are they any more oppressed by their situation than their male counterparts are by gambling. George Segal's Bill is sad a good deal of the time, but mostly because he does not experience eitehr the thrills or the agonies in gambling that so many other films on the subject have insisted one must feel.

In California Split, Altman substitutes melodrama a sort of emotional laissez-faire and does so mainly by organizing not only the subject but also the narrative form of the film around gambling. The film's structure is that of a game of chance, a playful, random, offhanded series of events full of accident, coincidence, and peripheral action brought to the center in a more extreme way than in the previous films. But the adjective is misleading, for the film is not "extreme" in any way. If anything, it is extremely gentle and undemanding, requiring only a pleasure in its playfulness and its improvisational effect. The film is carefully crafted to be open not to various interpretations but to various reactions to its juxtapositions and anomalies; it is made to be analogous to the wheel of fortune that closes the film, spinning and stopping where it will.

This is, of course, not improvisation in the usual sense. Though much of the dialogue may have been made up in rehearsal and in preparation for shooting, the structure of chance and coincidence, the joking interplay of events in the film and the expectations of the viewer would have to have been carefully planned. California Split holds an important place in Altman's work: experiement, joke, a game about gaming, it also moves him a bit beyond the generic revisionism of McCabe and The Long Goodbye into a greater revision of narrative structure in general, of the ways movies tell their stories and can be made to tell them differently.

- Robert Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman. Oxford University Press US, 2000. Pages 384-385.

In California Split... the supplementary sound material has an inventive, dynamic function in relation to the action, serving more as a lively contrapuntal counterline than as a static one-to-one gloss. In the second scene at the local poker parlor, one of Shotlwell's songs begins loudly over a long shot of the card players, becomes faint and is overtaken by these players' dialogue in medium shot, and then resumes loudness over a close-up of Bill - delineating a dodgy kind of fan-dance in relation to a spectator's diverse routes into the scene. And when Charlie and Bill arrive in Reno, Shotwell's jazzy recitative-with-piano and Charlie's independent free-form rap suddenly (and gratuitously) converge on the phrase "nobody there" - a striking demonstration of the blind vicissitudes of chance (such as the curious proliferation of elephants and Barbaras), which operate throughout the film on multiple levels.

In all Altman's best films, the emotional center gravitates around a pronounced feeling of absence - a sense of opportunities lost, connections missed, kindred spirits divided and scattered - and in many respects the independent sound material serves to embody some form of this failed utopia: a "commentary" of lyrical idealism abstractly bridging discontinuous characters.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema. JHU Press, 2004. Page 84-85

What’s an 8-track mixer? According to the maestro of overlapping dialogue himself, speaking in David Thompson’s Altman on Altman (Faber and Faber, 2006), this is a system developed by Jim Webb known as Lion’s Gate 8-Tracks, and it grew directly out of Altman’s ongoing efforts to make on-screen dialogue sound more real. Sound mixers would frequently complain that some actors wouldn’t speak loudly enough and Altman would counter that this was a recording problem, not a performance problem involving the actors’ deliveries. Plant enough microphones around the set or on the location — in this case, eight — and one could always adjust the volume later, when the separate channels were being mixed together and one could decide which channels should predominate, and in which proportion. In other words, assuming that you had a certain amount of scripted dialogue and a certain amount of “background” improvs being delivered at the same time — the modus operandi of many Altman movies, especially this one — trusting to luck was a matter of recording all this dialogue on eight separate tracks. And listening to voices was what you did afterward — shoot first and ask questions later, working out a hierarchy of what should have the most clarity after the fact. If an improv was funnier or more relevant than a scripted line delivered at the same moment, allow the former to overtake the latter.

Even before the title sequence starts, over the familiar Columbia Pictures logo, California Split has already started to chatter. A steady rush of talk — telegraphed, overheard, sometimes barely audible — spills into the opening scenes like a scatter of loose change from a slot machine, meeting or eluding our grasp in imitation of a strictly chance operation. Admittedly, the overall odds of the game are somewhat fixed because the movie has a script (by Joseph Walsh, a gambler himself), two box-office favorites and hard Hollywood money behind it. But the improvisatory spirit is unmistakable, if only because an alert audience is obliged to ad-lib in order to keep up, compelled to shift its attention as often as the characters.

So using Lion’s Gate 8-Tracks was putting into practice a certain dialectic of chance and control, one of the cornerstones of Altman’s filmmaking style. And this would become even more systematic in the movie Altman made next, Nashville, where instead of having just two main characters, Altman opted, at least in theory, to feature two dozen. (Some of them proved to be much more prominent than others.) And when he made A Wedding in 1978, he arbitrarily decided to double that number to 48.

A compulsive casino gambler, Altman once boasted, “At one time I could stand at a craps table for two days.” And he inherited “by chance” a film project scripted by another compulsive gambler, Joseph Walsh, who had been developing his script with Steven Spielberg, of all people, during his pre-Jawsphase. (Walsh was a child actor in the Fifties and Sixties, prominently featured as Joey Walsh in such films as Hans Christian Andersen and The Juggler and countless TV shows; in California Split he plays Sparkie, a bookie owed a fortune by Bill.)

Of course Walsh was taking a gamble himself by trusting his script to a master doodler like Altman who favored improvs. Nevertheless, figuring out what’s prearranged or not in this movie isn’t always a simple matter, and it’s often the spirit and climate of improvisation that counts more here than anything else. The opening sequence, where Charlie and Bill first encounter one another at a poker table in a gambling hall, certainly looks and sounds authentic, but it was shot on a set designed by Altman regular Leon Ericksen, who redressed a dance hall. Most of the extras were hired from the drug rehabilitation center Synanon, although a few real gamblers were included as well, and some of the background dialogue was loosely plotted if not precisely scripted by Walsh (whose own brother Edward plays a pivotal role as another poker player — a sore loser who accuses Charlie of cheating, and later beats him up). So the mix between real and semi-real, simulated and actual, is pretty intricate, and it’s only because of the DVD commentary by Altman, Walsh, Gould and Segal that we know that Charlie and Bill’s drunken efforts to reel off the names of all the seven dwarfs were invented by the two actors.

Jonathan RosenbaumStop Smiling

Robert Altman's disgruntled comedy California Split, aside from its typically busy soundtrack (it was the first movie Altman used eight-channel audio to capture all the dialogue), seems a relatively straightforward buddy film... But it's also an anti-buddy parable in which George Segal and Elliott Gould's homosocial behavior is equated unflatteringly against their obsessive gambling addictions... Adding emphasis on the homo-ness of their lucrative bond are the repeated instances where the interference of women breaks both their concentration and their hot streaks. (At the climax of the film, a naïve PYT cuts $82,000 worth of momentum by placing a single chip on a game of craps, giggling, "It's my birthday.") At the film's open, Segal's character is separated from his wife and, thus, finds himself wandering amid the dozens of unattractive, pasty women who populate the low-stakes, rec center poker tables. It's almost as though he's predetermined to make another go at his marriage by surrounding himself by two types he's not attracted to: on one hand, chain-smoking, fat-jiggling, muumuu-wearing, cranky old housewives, and on the other, men. But Gould's rapacious mockery of the first category seems, at times, to give Segal pause over testing the viability of the second. Not necessarily because Gould rubs shaving cream into the bar-fight wounds all over their torsos, or because he's at least a more reasonable fuck buddy than Bert Remsen in drag. There's something in Gould, among the few scattered catcalls of "fag" from various bottomless dancers in various seedy floating casinos, that Segal gets. What exactly it is he gets is as mysterious to me as many of the half-caught conversations in Altman's films, but, then again, I am an actual fag with a predictable lack of interest in that definingly macho sport of throwing away my earnings on rounds of wallet-wrestling. People like me, I guess, are too busy spending their copious disposable income on end tables and as many subscriptions to GenreVice, and maybe Adbusters as it takes to cover them. Oh, and reading gay subtext into movies likeCalifornia Split.

- Eric Henderson, Slant Magazine

From Rhett Miller


Altman excels at the sound design of his films. It is commonplace to rely on sound to amp up action and horror films, but as far as drama and comedy go, there are few soundtracks as layered and complex as those found in Altman films. Splitis one of his finest examples of sound gradation, as each location surrounds itself from sounds from all directions. In the masterful opening poker sequence, you get the clanging of poker chips, conversation by the leads, the flutter of cards, people in the background talking about how much they are going to bet, and then finally narration from a television explaining the intricacies of the game. In one sequence Altman is able to convey so much audible information, and he does it with such a complexity that would make multiple viewings even richer, allowing you to focus your ears on different planes of conversation. Altman’s tracks mimic life, in that he gives you the ability to choose a conversation like you would at a party, but those lines of dialogue are there if ever you choose to go back and listen in. Like cinema verité aimed to capture visuals with an unbroken wholeness, Altman’s audio tracks capture locations above your standard boom mic. Sounds come from all depths and amplitudes, and don’t seem confined by the motivations of a script or story. Everything rings with messy authenticity, of an ambience taken right out of the streets and not the back lots of Hollywood. The sound design is paramount in establishing that Altman’s real characters inhabit a real world. Imagining an Altman film without sound would be like imagining a Lucas film without CGI, it couldn’t be.

From Shawn McLoughlin:

dvd_video-9These two prostitutes that play the “heroes” lovers are an absolute joy if only because they also seem real. They aren’t typical downtrodden and drugged up whores. Nor are they of the highest-class call girl stock. But they relate well to each other, and throughout their scenes we get a sense of who they are and what they could be, even though it is never really mentioned. The last time we see them one is holding the other in bed, consoling her after the gambler she had a crush on leaves her. For a good minute this consolation goes on, and there is an importance to the consoler discussing the future even though the characters do not return. It further defines them as people and by this point in the movie it is easy to admire them as such. Without this scene, the film would be at a loss, because the audience would be without knowing their story. They parallel the gamblers and are just as important. It is almost too perfect a match play.

dvd_video-5From Adam Lippe:

Luckily, California Split was made before Altman developed this hatred for his casts, when his focus was more on developing his style. Here his methods are the long, slow zoom-ins, his cross cutting of sound – forcing the viewer to pay close attention if they’d want to catch everything (packing in as much information audibly as De Palma does visually, check out the side conversation in an early scene at a bar, where a mother begs her half-naked stripper daughter to spot her $30 so she can gamble) – and an ear for casual dialogue, which appears rambling at first, but is clearly carefully chosen. It falls in line with the way that he seems to be learning about his settings and locations as we do. Like Gould’s house in The Long Goodbye and the whorehouses in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, he hasn’t made up his mind about how he feels in advance. Altman’s lighter touch, allowing the movie to build around the actors, means that Elliot Gould and George Segal have no fear about making fools of themselves, yammering nonsense and even singing and dancing – badly – to old minstrel songs. Just one year later, Altman would use poor singing against his characters, in Nashville, by having a female disrobe and embarrass herself on stage, (probably the first instance in which his cruelty was so exposed.) This style of mocking is never evident in California Split. Altman easily could have made the part time hookers the butt of the joke and the cross dresser would have been just as easy bait, but he avoids the nastiness to his own credit.

- Adam Lippe, Shawn McLoughlin and Rhett Miller, posted on A Regrettable Moment of Sincerity


Film Misery ranks California Split as the 10th best Altman movie of all time.

As one of the most deliriously entertaining movies ever made about the sport of gambling (and it is a sport, given the mental and physical punishment these men endure), California Split is Robert Altman at his best, complete with all of the standard features — overlapping dialogue, casual asides, random noises, and effortless, seemingly unscripted banter. Elliott Gould and George Segal star as, yes, “loveable losers,” but they never resort to manipulation in order to secure our empathy. If truth is to be told, they couldn’t care less what we or anyone else might think, as they’re fevered engines of compulsion — always pushing forward in search of that next fix. From poker parlors to the gaming tables of Reno, these two men always seem to be chasing the big score, yet even when they realize their dream, it never seems to be enough. After Segal’s big poker win against the likes of Amarillo Slim (who makes a brief appearance), Gould says, “It doesn’t mean a fucking thing, does it?” Of course it doesn’t. And why would it? Gambling, at least in terms of an obsession, has little to do with money and everything to do with feeling alive for yet another day. Why else engage in deliberate recklessness?

The wide-screen compositions are typically lush and buzzing with activity, and despite the lack of plot, we accept Altman’s vision because we’re having too much fun to care. And let it be said: Elliott Gould, now an all-but-forgotten entity, was, for a brief time, a genuine screen presence. In back-to-back Altman features (this film and 1973’s The Long Goodbye), Gould was so engaging as to be the perfect representation of the Everyman, although an Everyman who was smarter, sharper, and more appealing than anyone else. He could size up the competition (in a great sequence at the backroom poker game), beg for credit from the cashier, attempt to use a Milky Way as an ante, and play nickel slots with all the gusto and seriousness of a master gambler, all without seeming forced or obvious. Segal is more desperate, while Gould is the sort of man who would (and does) laugh in the face of an ass-kicking, and argues — persuasively, I might add — with a gunman in a casino parking lot. Now this is a man I’d like to have at my craps table.

- Matt Cale, Ruthless Reviews

Bill and Charlie are the heroes of California Split, if such a term can be applied. The performances by Elliot Gould and George Segal are perfect; there is a naturalism here that makes the whole thing feel so off the cuff, improvised. The interplay between the two of them is endlessly fun to watch. Both actors are very engaging, and they do well with the hilarious script by Joseph Walsh. This film came on the heels of MASHMcCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, and was made a year before Nashville, but California Split seems not to be mentioned as often. The film could most closely be compared to MASH, as both films are funny, cynical, gritty, and feature two frazzled main characters. Despite the similarities, California Split is the better film. Altman was obviously trying the same thing, but here he nails it, perfects every theme he hits on.

The acting in the film is terrific, but the direction is masterful. There are more audio and visual layers in this film than there are in any ten films. The way Altman weaves in and out of comedy and tragedy is assured, and we follow along willingly. We do not have to know anything about gambling to enjoy this film, and in the end we know something that we did not know before.

California Split has an almost documentary feel to it, both in the improvisational way the actors perform, and in the style in which the film is shot. We are there with Bill and Charlie, from top to bottom, in every bar and track, at every mugging. We feel for these guys, and Altman creates a palpable world for them to exist within. The script is solid, and the supporting roles are fully realized.

- Dylan Grant, Movie Freak.com

As always in Altman’s films, the roster of supporting performances add indelibly to the movie’s richness and charm. In this case, Ann Prentiss (Paula Prentiss’s sister — their resemblance is uncanny) and Gwen Welles shine as a pair of “happy hookers” who take on decidedly unusual jobs — including, in one of the film’s funniest sequences, spending “quality time” with an “elegant” transvestite (Bert Remsen). Welles’ romantic interest in Segal — and the ultimate outcome of their potential tryst — is handled especially well. Equally impressive is Altman’s ability to evoke the various milieus of the gambling world — poker halls, race tracks, boxing rings, casinos — with characteristic attention to detail; throughout the film, we genuinely believe we’re “there”, wherever we are.

Towards the end, California Split becomes somewhat challenging to sit through, simply because we feel such anxiety about Segal’s situation (he owes a loan shark, played by screenwriter Walsh, $2200 — but instead of paying him off once he secures the funds by selling his car, he goes to Reno to gamble instead). Ultimately, however, this simply demonstrates how well Altman has done his job: we really get itthat gambling is an addiction like any other, one that has the potential to ruin lives within just a few short hours. It’s a good thing Altman made this one a comedy rather than a tragedy, or we’d really be clenching our teeth.

- Film Fanatic.org

There are a few things in the film that stand out for me as being especially well done. At the beginning, we see Gould watching an instructional film in the casino and a voiceover explains not only the rules of poker, but also much of what the audience is seeing on the screen. This brilliant stroke is reminiscent of the final intercom narration at the end of Altman’s M*A*S*H. The two men’s continued insistence on turning everything into a wager is also a nice touch, most notably when Bill bets Charlie he cannot come up with the names of the Seven Dwarfs. The humor in Charlie’s struggle to name them is matched by the seriousness in which he approaches the task.

- Clydefro Jones

The film does have a truly terrible strained scene, that seems dropped into the film from some other universe. It involves the sudden introduction of a pair of transvestite `dates' of the girls Charlie lives with(for one 5 minute too long scene). Actor Bert Remsen humiliates himself with full commitment playing an old nervous transvestite (he does a great job). It's a mis-fired comedic bit that calls too much attention to itself. It feels completely artificial in a movie that had seemed utterly real previously. Thankfully the scene is not very long and the movie goes right back to being as honest and authentic as it had been before.

Interesting Trivia

It turns out this is one of Altman's most personal films.  He had a gambling addiction, he identified completely with these characters which is why he wrestled the project away from up and coming Steven Speilberg (who had t.v.'s Duel and the feature Sugarland Express under his belt at this point). That left Speilberg free to do JAWS!!!

- Chris Jarmick, Viewpoints.com

The screenplay's masterstroke—seemingly improvised through Gould and Segal's rapid and relaxed deliveries and Altman's trademark overlapping style, but which is credited to Joseph Walsh (his only writing credit)—is that it never places judgments on its characters or subject matter. This is not a film designed to condemn gambling or gamblers. It's like a film about alcoholism that admits that sometimes, drinking can be fun—when you're gambling, it's possible to win as much as lose. That this idea comes across more here than in other films about gambling addiction (James Toback's The GamblerOwning Mahowny) may be because it often has the look and feel of a comedy, albeit a hard and cynical one. The film manages to find humor in its own desperation, with scenes that are often as funny as they are sad—both the sequence in which Charlie and Bill bet on who can name all Seven Dwarfs, and the one in which Charlie risks his life at gunpoint to talk down a mugger's asking price, come to mind.

- Patrick Bromley, DVD Verdict

“California Split” is an unbelievably entertaining movie. Altman’s choices are so surehanded. I was stunned anew at his unself-conscious genius when I saw the tracking shots that follow Bill and Charlie through the streets of Reno, on the way to the casino: Bill walks as fast as he can, and Charlie buzzes along by his side, making small talk and idle suggestions. I get the feeling little of this was scripted, that Altman just told Segal to walk with singleminded determination and advised Gould to riff on that. In these few breezy shots, which cover less than a minute, Altman establishes the physical and emotional milieu for the thrilling climax. Moviemaking — the alchemy between actors and director, between form and content — doesn’t get any better.

- Ben, Ill-Informed Gadfly

It's a film wherein Altman is in his most excessive. The overlapping dialogues make an entry right from the start with an introductory lesson on poker-playing overlapping with Charlie's monologues turning into a very heightened and exciting game of poker (which Altman denies us from actually taking part in). We only see what Altman wants us to see. He envelopes us immediately with an atmosphere of constant chaos; the same chaos that addicted gamblers breath and take in as fuel for their supposed streaks of good fortune. It takes time for the audience to get used to Altman's unsparing techniques, yet its quite rewarding. There's so much to observe from Altman's filmed surroundings (the other gamblers' quirks and characteristics, the whore in the casino-bound bar and her gambling mother, the like-minded excitedness of those betting on their favorite horses or boxers). California Split is much a film that delights in the gambling subculture as it is a film about the two buddies' road to huge dollar wins.

- Oggz Cruise, Ogg's Movie Thoughts

That there's no palpable despair or discernable anger in Altman's realization of this is why California Split remains one of the filmmaker's finest accomplishments. As rambling and anarchic a comedy as M*A*S*H, but devoid of that film's gag-writer broadness, this sober but kind-hearted paean to the dignity of losing winds up feeling awfully precise in its seeming looseness.

Clarence Beaks, DVD Journal

Working from a script by Joseph Walsh but appearing to be almost totally improvised, this was director Robert Altman's tribute to gamblers and gambling, turning out what was really a film for insiders rather than casually interested parties who had never so much as dabbled in the pasttime. The whole film has the ring of authenticity when it comes down to the performances and Segal and Gould were rarely better as the shady friends whose easygoing nature - Gould in particular - masks a desperation to win, a need to succeed as far as the next race or poker game.

- Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image


NOTE: Gregory tells us (August 2009): I just been informed re: my California Split review that currently streaming version of this film on Netflix is in complete form without music edits that are on DVD. The DVD rented from them most likely will have the same edited version currently available, so it's strictly on-line version. ***

NOTE (as sent to us in email): Unfortunately, music rights problems have obliged Columbia to remove almost three minutes of footage and make several soundtrack alterations. Their end product is perhaps the most extreme home viewing travesty since those notorious early video transfers of The President's Analyst. The cut/rescored scenes are as follows:

1- 11m 42s. A 32-second shot has been cut during Bill and Charlie's initial conversation. This showed Bill scat singing while Charlie informed him that "I love to play poker with those redneck fish. Y'now, who think they're Nick the Greek. Love to get 'em steamed. Easy to beat. Suckers".

2- 31m 50s. A scene showing Bill and Charlie at the racetrack ends as Charlie says "Let's go see a man about a horse". This scene originally continued for an additional 8 seconds as the men walked off singing together.

3- 35m 30s. After Barbara (Ann Prentis) opens the door of her house, Bill and Charlie enter. Charlie then turns to a man standing in the doorway, gives him a coin, and says "Here you are, Mr Tenor". This will make no sense to anyone who has not seen the original version, which contained an additional 24 seconds of footage showing Barbara opening the door and finding 'Mr Tenor' singing 'Happy Birthday To You'. Bill and Charlie then appeared and joined him in the song (while Barbara insisted "It's not my birthday").

4- 52m 32s. As Bill enters the strip club where a poker game is taking place, we see a basketball-themed cartoon playing on a television. In the original version, we also heard the song ('Basketball Joe') that accompanied this cartoon. (Incidentally, this animated clip can also be seen - and heard - in Hal Ashby's Being There.)

5- 77m 20s to 79m 16s. The two Phyllis Shotwell songs - 'Goin' to Kansas City' and 'Me and My Shadow' - heard during Bill and Charlie's journey to Reno have been replaced with an instrumental piece. 'Me and My Shadow' provided one of the film's most striking moments. As Shotwell arrived at the line "We never knock, 'cause there's nobody there", Charlie gestured at a passing car and shouted "there ain't nobody there". Although this scene is visually unchanged on the DVD, Charlie's line has been removed from the soundtrack (at 79m 2s). Incredibly, Joseph Walsh can be heard describing this moment (which he refers to as "a miracle") on the commentary track!

6- 86m 46s to 88m 4s. As Charlie walks away from the poker table, the sound of Phyllis Shotwell singing 'You're Nobody 'til Somebody Loves You' has been replaced with Shotwell's rendition of 'The Lonesome Road' - a reprise of the song we'd already heard her singing a mere 85 seconds ago!

7- 90m 12s to 90m 53s. A shot of Bill playing poker no longer includes that Shotwell song heard dimly in the original.

8- 92m 9s. After Charlie leaves Bill at the blackjack table, a 1m 40s scene has been cut. This showed Phyllis Shotwell behind a piano singing 'Georgia On My Mind'. While Charlie struck up a conversation with a fellow gambler sitting near Shotwell's piano, Bill continued playing blackjack, and we saw that the woman dealing him cards was wearing a badge revealing her name to be Barbara (making her the last of this film's many Barbaras). Columbia's editing has Charlie return to the blackjack table only a few seconds after he left. **** Here's what Altman said about the cuts (from an interview in StopSmiling magazine):

"And a lot of them weren't [released] because of music clearances, or certain copyright problems. We had to make adjustments. The cost of the music track on California Split was so high that Columbia just couldn't put it into video or DVD. That kept it out of circulation for years. Finally, Elliot Gould went in to find out why they weren't releasing it. When they told him it was because of music, he said "Isn't there something we can do about that?" So I made some cuts and took a couple of songs out. We got it into what they considered a reasonable budget. The picture wasn't hurt by it. And that's out now. It doesn't make any difference, the quality of these things. It's as good as anyone sees them..."

- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver

In the commentary, Altman says that California Split is his least plot-driven film, and while that may be debatable, this is a great example of how concentration on two protagonists can result in a fascinating character study. Screenwriter Joseph Walsh is responsible for many of the highlights of the film, including a scene where Charlie refuses to give a robber all of his winnings and offers him half instead, but filming in sequence allowed Altman to take advantage of the many improvisational scenes, and it's through these scenes that we gain most of our insights into the personality of both of the leads. Segal and Gould's quick wit are responsible for the amusing conversation where they both try to remember the names of the Seven Dwarves (surely an influence on Quentin Tarantino's extensive pop-culture name-dropping in Pulp Fiction and beyond), but it's the continuity filming that allowed Altman to take advantage of this spontaneous creativity.

Image Transfer

The slightly inaccurate colors are typical of films of the '70s, but skin tones are good. There's a fair bit of grain, but black levels are good, and there are no distracting compression artifacts.

Image Transfer Grade: B

Audio Transfer

Altman's multi-tracked audio comes through clearly despite the limited fidelity. There are a few scenes where it's difficult to make out the dialogue, but this is clearly intentional and not a limitation of the transfer.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

Disc Extras

Altman is joined by scriptwriter Joseph "Joey" Walsh and stars Elliott Gould and George Segal for a commentary track that is continuous, except for brief interludes where they pause to appreciate a few select scenes. From their occasional attempts to recall details, it's obvious that they haven't seen the film for a while, but this is a relaxed and amiable chat. Altman gives us details of location shooting versus constructed sets, and claims that this is his first film to use the Lions Gate 8-Track Sound System (which seems at odds with the multi-tracked soundtrack from M*A*S*H). Walsh explains how many of the scenes in the film were based on his own experiences, as well as those of his relatives, and explains some of the character motivation. There are some amusing anecdotes, such as how they forced newbie George Segal to spend a night gambling his own money, which to their dismay unravelled when he won. While not the most enlightening of commentaries, it's enjoyable and reasonably informative.

Trailers for Easy Rider and Big Night are presented full frame, and Altman's latest movie, The Company, is shown in an anamorphic 2.35 transfer.

Extras Grade: C

- Robert Edwards, Digitally Obsessed


IMDb Wiki

The Elliott Gould Zone - with bio, filmography, articles, interviews, trivia, etc.

Elvis Presley never made it. Bob Dylan did but he was more than three decades into his career at the time and the Al Hirschfeld illustration pictured him serenading Lucille Ball. Clint Eastwood, perhaps the most durable film star of the past 30 years, made it but had to share the honor with fellow superstar Burt Reynolds.

The "it" to which I refer is the cover of Time magazine, once considered the ultimate sign that one had arrived at the pinnacle of fame and cultural significance. After all, Time is not Photoplay or People but a newsmagazine whose pages chronicle world leaders and world events that impact the lives of people around the globe. It’s one thing for FDR or Adolf Hitler to be designated the week’s top story, but for a performer it is heady stuff indeed.

Presley, perhaps the most popular entertainer of the 20th century, and certainly one of the most influential, was never favored by this prestigious publication, the editors having found his swiveling hips distasteful and his singing "awful" (their description of his performance on a 1960 Frank Sinatra TV special). Dylan was condescending to the media, aggressively challenging a Time reporter’s values in a memorable scene in Don’t Look Back. Before his double Oscar victory for Unforgiven, Eastwood made genre movies mercifully free of pretention and, therefore, he made the grade only in tandem with the even less pretentious good ole boy Reynolds.

Ah, but Elliott Gould, with only six movies in release, made the cut, hogging one of Time’s 52 covers for the year 1970. "He embodies an inner need to be hip at the risk of seeming silly, the struggle not to give in to the indignity and/or insanity of contemporary life," Time wrote, calling the shaggy haired actor a "star for an uptight age."

- Brian Fairbanks

To grow up Jewish in the 1970s was to be in the thrall of Elliott Gould.

Sure, the suburban teenage Semite had his Woody Allen for comic relief and his Paul Newman for confirmation that he was, indeed, a member of a Chosen People, but the sight of the mangy, Jew-fro-covered head of Gould on the big screen during that long-forgotten decade got more than a few movie geeks through adolescence.

“I was such a scared kid,” he said.

So, naturally, Gould went into acting.

“No, I went into song and dance, because I was shy, repressed, inhibited — but I found that if I learned routines and memorized them, I could communicate.”

The result, of course, was an actor who did more than communicate. He created an entirely new Jewish cinematic archetype.

“He was a superstar,” said Jake Perlin, programming associate for BAMcinematek.

Perlin said that most filmgoers would focus on the three Robert Altman films in the series — “M*A*S*H,” “The Long Goodbye” and “California Split” — but the real gems are Peter Hyams’s “Busting” and Ingmar Bergman’s “The Touch.”

“In both movies, he’s incredibly brave,” Perlin said. “He puts it all on the line. Actors today are so unwilling to play a conflicted or negative character. And when they do, it’s still so neutered. Elliott Gould in ‘The Touch’ is anything but neutered.”

Gould offered his take on working with Bergman, plus his thoughts about the other films in the fortnight-and-a-half of fun:


“It was so fabulous for me to be so free [in creating the role of Trapper John]. That performance was more spontaneous and freer than anything I could do in real life. Altman originally offered me Tom Skerritt’s role. I never question an auteur, but I told him I’d drive myself crazy playing a southerner, so he gave me Trapper John. Good thing, too, because Trapper John gave me the juice and the spirit.”

The Long Goodbye

“That movie was my favorite, because it came out when I could not get myself arrested. I was out of work for a year and a half. I thought the script was a little old-fashioned, but I was looking for a job. Peter Bogdanovich [the original director] didn’t want to use me, because he thought I was too young. But then Altman directed, and he called me.”

California Split

“That was semi-autobiographical — though I am the character that George Segal played. I only got the role because Steve McQueen dropped out. On this film, I finally learned how to work with Altman. On ‘M*A*S*H,’ he thought I was my enemy. I said, ‘Don’t look at me — I’m always in character.’ But on this movie, he finally got me.”

The Touch

“Working with Bergman, I learned that I couldn’t fully accept all the privileges I was given, because I was given them too soon. Bergman said to me, ‘You’ve gone beyond your limits, and you’ll have to live more to understand what you’ve done.’ The great privilege is to be conceived, born and know yourself and everything else follows.”

- Gersh Kuntzman, The Brooklyn Rail, July 24 2008

976 (108). Tout va bien (Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin)

Screened July 5 2009 on Criterion DVD in New York, NY TSPDT rank #948  IMDb Wiki


I watched this film days after working on a lengthy essay on Jia Zhang-ke's 24 City, which keyed me to notice multiple parallels between the two films. Both films are politically conscious works made at a time when their directors were/are trying to make their work appeal to a wider audience. Both deal with depicting the plight of factory labor, with an intent to spark political or social consciousness in the viewer.  Both attempt to utilize elements of mainstream filmmaking, most notably the casting of stars recognizable to their target audience (Jane Fonda, meet Joan Chen).  At the same time, both films utilize arthouse cinema techniques, as well as documentary techniques like on-screen interviews, to challenge the viewer's engagement with mainstream cinema itself. And, perhaps most important of all, both films emphatically view politics and history in terms of performance: recollections and speech acts delivered for the camera, with a directorial emphasis on the act of representation.  It was interesting to read contemporary reviews of both films that found them to be ultimately unsuccessful acts of compromise between commercial, political and art cinema.

I find the matter of evaluating the success of either these films inconclusive, simply because the criteria for evaluating commercial, political and art cinema respectively are largely incongruous. What would it mean for a movie that denounces capitalism to be a box office hit? Or for a film whose aesthetic beauty distracts us from being stirred to take political action?  It's a credit to Tout va bien that it's highly sensitive to these kinds of contradictions and weaves them into its design.  It takes two of the biggest stars of its day and for half the film relegates them to minor characters, while a collective labor revolt in a factory takes center stage.  It's a subjugation of audience prejudice, as opposed to more conventional subterfuge (i.e. how white characters would star in stories about black civil rights, a la Mississippi Burning or Cry Freedom).  It's also not afraid to depict this ostensibly noble uprising as a cruel, chaotic and tedious affair of disunity and brinksmanship negotiation. These scenes lack pleasure while actively commenting on its lack of entertainment value, using compositions to compare with the Keystone Cops or Jerry Lewis. If screwball comedies channel social dysfunction into entertainment, Tout va bien breaks that sublimation, linking them only through a disharmony of critical juxtaposition.

There's a lot of great stuff like this going on throughout the film; of its many virtues there's also one of Godard's strongest female characters.  Though Jane Fonda is relegated to the sidelines for half the film, she delivers a knockout monologue involving a photo of a penis. For all the radicalness of Godard and Gorin's collaborations, this feels to me like one of Godard's most accessible and lucid political works, moreso than his late period works. It culminates in the famous 9 minute supermarket checkout uprising, which in its own way marks Godard checking out from political radicalism.  Less a call to arms than an allegorical enactment of May 68 and its aftermath, it visualizes the hopelessly institutionalized and commercialized times we live in, and the inevitable reprise against it, with a sober, aestheticized objectivity. In one long, majestic take, the camera depicts this cycle by tracking back and forth, a pendulum that still swings today.


The following citations were counted towards the placement of Tout va bien among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Jeon Yang-June, Sight & Sound (1992) Shinji Aoyama, Kinema Junpo (1999) Travis Mackenzie Hoover, The Cinematheque Top 10 Project (2005) Sight & Sound 360 Film Classics (1998) Take One, Best European Films of the 'Decade' 1966- 77 (1978)

Movie-Tout va Bien de Jean-Luc Godardtotutvabien-poster3

Godard's return to mainstream film-making after his self-imposed four-year Marxist-nihilist exile is a sort of auto-critique, craftily type-casting Fonda and Montand as media intellectuals (she an American journalist, he a former New Wave film-maker now working in commercials) who eagerly committed themselves to the revolutionary struggle in 1968, but are now led to revise that commitment (and their personal relationship) through their involvement in a factory strike in 1972. A little simplistic at times but acidly funny, with Godard's genius for the arresting image once more well to the fore.

- Time Out Film Guide

"Tout Va Bien" was, as Mr. Godard says in "Letter to Jane," intended as an answer to the then-burning question, "What part do intellectuals play in the revolution?" - a question not asked much since the 1970's. Galvanized by the events of May 1968 in France - a nationwide ideological upheaval that briefly succeeded in chasing President Charles de Gaulle out of the country - Mr. Godard and Mr. Gorin had spent the next four years making raggedly improvised agitprop films with titles like "Pravda" and "See You at Mao" (both 1970). But with "Tout Va Bien," they hoped to take their ideas to the wider public attracted by movie stars, which explains the presence of Ms. Fonda and her co-star, the beloved French actor and music hall performer Yves Montand.

In the film's fictional framework, Ms. Fonda is an American radio reporter working in Paris, who takes her tired boyfriend, a former New Wave filmmaker now working in the more honest medium of television commercials, to visit a sausage factory under siege by its disgruntled employees. The visitors are taken hostage along with the Nixonesque boss of the establishment (Vittorio Caprioli), and after a day and a night of indoctrination by the angry workers (who despise the labor unions as much as the bosses), they return to their ordinary lives. They have not been radicalized by the experience - Mr. Godard and Mr. Gorin are too tough-minded for that - but they have learned the importance of understanding their place in history, a theme that, born here, defines Mr. Godard's work to the present day.

- Dave Kehr, The New York Times, February 16, 2005


Opening in Paris on April 28, 1972, Tout va bien was, per Colin MacCabe, “a critical and commercial disaster.” Scarcely more than two months later, Fonda gave the most controversial performance of her career: July 8, she deplaned an Aeroflot jet in Hanoi, where she made ten broadcasts on behalf of the North Vietnamese government. Once the story broke, Fonda became an issue in the presidential campaign—the antiwar activist Nixon supporters most loved to hate.

Tout va bien had its U.S. premiere, a few weeks before the election, at the New York Film Festival. Misleadingly promoted as Godard’s commercial comeback, the movie was tepidly received. I vividly recall my own youthful disappointment that Tout va bien was notWeekend. (Of course, as Tout va bien makes clear, 1972 was not 1968.) Nor did many appreciate Fonda’s game and stellar turn. She’s “most appealing (and very funny) as a solemn American political correspondent who becomes radicalized after being trapped overnight in a strike in a Paris sausage factory,” New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote in one of the movie’s few favorable notices. Her hair still in the stylish shag cut that she popularized with Klute, Fonda gives a forceful, tense performance. Speaking in French throughout much of the movie, she enjoys her finest moment in a lengthy domestic argument with Montand, during which she is brandishing a photo of male genitalia.

J. HobermanCriterion Current


The assumption behind the Dziga Vertov films is clearly that the revolutionary impetus of May 1968 would be sustained, and it has not been easy for Godard to adjust to its collapse. That difficulty is the subject of one of his finest works, Tout va bien (again in collaboration with Gorin), an attempt to return to commercial filmmaking without abandoning the principles (both aesthetic and political) of the preceding years. Beginning by foregrounding Godard's own problem (how does a radical make a film within the capitalist production system?), the film is strongest in its complex use of Yves Montand and Jane Fonda (simultaneously fictional characters/personalities/star images) and its exploration of the issues to which they are central. These issues include the relationship of intellectuals to the class struggle; the relationship between professional work, personal commitment, and political position; and the problem of sustaining a radical impulse in a non-revolutionary age. Tout va bien is Godard's most authentically Brechtian film, achieving radical force and analytical clarity without sacrificing pleasure and a degree of emotional involvement.

Godard's relationship to Brecht has not always been so clear-cut. While the justification for Brecht's distanciation principles was always the communication of clarity, Godard's films often leave the spectator in a state of confusion and frustration. He continues to seem by temperament more anarchist than Marxist. One is troubled by the continuity between the criminal drop-outs of the earlier films and the political activists of the later. The insistent intellectualism of the films is often offset by a wilful abeyance of systematic thinking, the abeyance, precisely, of that self-awareness and self-criticism the political works advocate. Even in Tout va bien, what emerges from the political analysis as the film's own position is an irresponsible and ultimately desperate belief in spontaneity. Desperation, indeed, is never far from the Godardian surface, and seems closely related to the treatment of heterosexual relations: even through the apparent feminist awareness of the recent work runs a strain of unwitting misogyny (most evident, perhaps, in Sauve qui peut). The central task of Godard criticism, in fact, is to sort out the remarkable and salutary nature of the positive achievement from the temperamental limitations that flaw it.

Robin WoodFilm Reference.com

Tout va bien is, for obvious reasons, the most "professional" of the Vertov films. Gorin and Godard wanted to work again on a larger and more "popular" scale. To this end, they secured two stars from the Left, Yves Montand and Jane Fonda; devised a narrative; and built a set—a sausage factory headquarters during a strike. Having accepted these concessions, Gorin and Godard play with them cunningly: for much of the film the stars function as extras, while other "nonstars" assume center stage; the stars' "love story," once it emerges, fixes their romance solidly in the context of their jobs (as film director and journalist respectively), and thus within the hypocrisies of commercial culture; and the set, in tribute to Jerry Lewis' The Ladies' Man (1961), is a cutaway functioning as another Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. Such strategies make a film whose formal complexity matches a new variety of discourse: Gorin and Godard here allow boss, unionist, and radical striker all to speak for themselves, giving us more freedom to weigh their respective positions. This freedom is welcome, though it also indicates a loss of fervor. As Gorin has said, Tout va bien is a film of 1972, not of 1968; and the bleakness of its concluding travelling shot underlines the inadequacy of the revolutionary actions that it depicts, the passing of the revolutionary moment

- Erik Ulman, Senses of Cinema

Frame comparisons by Craig Keller of Tout va Bien and Jerry Lewis' The Ladies Man (last image in sequence)


Tout Va Bien begins with a closeup of a man signing checks. The camera frames the amount of the check -- we see that they're drawn on the account of a film production company. The man, the director, signs the check, quickly followed by another check and another and another. After a minute or so, a female voice: "If you get stars, people will give you money." The checks keep coming, faster. Then, superimposed on the frame: JANE FONDA. Then, YVES MONTAND. In the next scene, Fonda and Montand are a couple in love, walking along the beach, yada yada; in the next sequence they're quarreling bitterly; next, the female voice interrupts again. This is no good, she says, that is too conventional, you have to show how society makes them as they are. You have to show the context.

And most of the rest of Tout Va Bien is context. The story of the man and the woman is interrupted, punctured, by a wildcat strike in a sausage factory. Fonda plays an American journalist who's trying to report on French politics and culture; Montand plays a washed-up film director; but they're caught in the strike before we know much about them. And they're literally caught, trapped in the factory office with the manager, who's besieged by angry young workers. The union said it was supposed to be a brief work stoppage, but it "got out of hand," with workers trashing the offices and terrorizing the managers.

Some writers have called Tout Va Bien worker agitprop; I don't know what movie they've seen. Godard steps well back from the barricades. He shows the multilevel, glass-walled factory in cross-section; one critic wrote that it looks like an ant farm. The workers talk directly to the camera about their jobs, their bad wages, their lives; they attack the union and the leftist parties and the boss. But the boss gets to speak to the camera too, his own perfectly respectable defense of his job and the market. He's presented as a buffoon, but so are many of the leftist leaders in the film, and they're all equally trapped in the system. When the boss needs to use the bathroom, the strikers tease him by letting him out and then camping in the lavatories, turning office rules back on him: "Sorry! Your five minutes are up! Back to work!" Ultimately he has to break his window -- Godard's glass fourth wall -- so that he can pee.

Throughout the 1960s, Godard disdained cinematic form, yetTout Va Bien is elegant and shapely despite itself. The scattershot jokes and subversion of his earlier films, and the anger and chaos of films like Weekend, begin to coalesce here. Godard's tone and meaning are usually indefinite, "between" settled attitudes; Tout Va Bien hovers between comic play (the jokes are marvelous) and despair. The critical consensus is that Tout Va Bien is one of Godard's lesser films. I think it's one of his best.

Les PhillipsCinescene

#18: One of the most famous long takes you'll ever see is in Jean-Luc Godard's Le Weekend, but for me the more entertaining and, magically, more pretentious long take can be seen in his 1972 opus to the ultra left wing Tout Va Bien. Godard's inimitable blend of rambling, dense and boring Marxist politics and the slapstick of the Keystone Kops comes to a head in a nine-minute plus tableau set at a gigantic supermarket. The camera trucks left to right then back again from behind the check out row. We watch as Jane Fonda is wowed by the selection, which includes a raving Communist surrounded by sandbags. Various voiceovers begin to take over as we spy a coterie of shoplifters, counterrevolutionaries and anarchists begin to lay waste to the nice, clean store. Odd, Euro-lookin' products (like milk in boxes - what's up with that?) abound.

- UGO's 21 Greatest Long Takes in Movie History

Ingenue. Sex kitten. Oscar winner – twice. Exercise video queen. Scion of Hollywood acting dynasty. Feminist. French director's wife (and ménage à trois companion). Leftie California politico's wife. Atlanta media billionaire's wife. Barbarella and Hanoi Jane. Many are the ways in which we know Jane Fonda, and lately we can add a couple more: autobiographer and comeback kid, whose first movie in 15 years, Monster-in-Law, recently opened at No. 1. Lately, Fonda has been in full flower on the publicity trail, paving the way for her return to movies with tempting teasers from her book and mea culpas for her extreme fraternization with the North Vietnamese 30 years ago. Jane Fonda is a fixture in the American imagination – and as it turns out, the French imagination, too.

In 1972, following her Oscar win for Klute, Fonda co-starred with French film icon Yves Montand in Tout Va Bien by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin. Godard, who was part of the leading edge of the French New Wave a decade before, was now in a new phase of his career as a result of the French strikes and protests of May 1968. He had begun making films collectively with Gorin as the Dziga Vertov Group, with the idea of making films politically instead of making political films. Nevertheless, the movies they produced over the next few years were stridently Maoist and didactic. But with Tout Va Bien, they snagged two of the cinema's most outwardly leftist actors to star as the film's husband and wife, and – as reflected in the film's self-reflexive opening text – they were off and running on a more commercially viable film project. The film, nevertheless, fared poorly when it opened in France. Then, shortly before its American release, Fonda made her infamous trip to North Vietnam. One of the photos of Fonda in Hanoi inspired Godard and Gorin to make what turned out to be their final film together, "Letter to Jane," a scathing 52-minute analysis of one image of their erstwhile star. It is included here with Tout Va Bien, along with some useful documentary footage of Godard and Gorin, then and now, explicating their work on these two films.

- Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle



Q: The couple in TOUT VA BIEN doesn't seem to be a break with the couples in Godard’s earlier films right from BREATHLESS, but to be the politically conscious development of the earlier couples.

A: Yes, exactly. Our slogan when doing TOUT VA BIEN was that we are going to do the same old thing, but differently. The original title of TOUT VA BIEN was “Love Story.” We wanted to do an ironic and joyful film playing with the codes of the normal cinema, and that is why the development of the relationship between Jane Fonda and Yves Montand is so similar to other films. But when it is so much alike there is also the possibility of producing new elements. Maybe the trouble with TOUT VA BIEN is that we didn't succeed in doing the same old thing differently, because for the French audience the film is completely different. That’s why, maybe, that it is of no use any more to try to deal with the traditional codes at all. We really need to produce films that are breaking points—we need to produce new elements, new visuals, new sounds, and to re-think completely the notion of editing. That’s why Jean-Luc is getting into video. Video is a complete change in the conception of editing, because you edit while you are shooting. He is going to be ten years in advance, because it is a completely non-mastered technique promoted as aesthetics.

Q: Was it difficult to work with big stars?

A: Yes, because they were put in a process completely different from the films they had been making before. Jane had been doing KLUTE and was going to shoot with Joseph Losey, and in between she was working with us. But it helped a lot that Jane was very interested in the film and also that she came from a school of acting that was completely different from Yves’. There is much more attitude in the American school of acting, while French actors are basically natures, and like Brecht we prefer attitude to nature. We honestly had big problems with the actors, and sometimes the whole thing seemed to get completely out of our hands. That’s why Jean-Luc doesn't like actors. He never did, but still the actors he used in his earlier films are the big stars of French cinema today: Belmondo, Piccoli, Anna Karma.

The interesting thing about TOUT VA BIEN is that the class struggle is also marked in the differences between the type of acting of the extras and the big stars. The workers in the film are played by people who don't have much experience, and the funny thing is that they discovered a certain tradition of acting that goes very far back in French cinema. They were not at all in the same line. You have a guy who plays like in a Jean Vigo film, and another who plays like in the old Gabin films, and one who plays like Arletty, and they were really enjoying themselves. It was a strange process, getting back to the roots, back to Renoir and the whole tradition of the 30’s, which is a political tradition of acting, because it came out of the Popular Front. Maybe the good thing about TOUT VA BIEN is the strong feeling you have of both individuality among the workers and at the same time some common will and spirit—individuality and mass consciousness at the same time. The two stars were really frightened in the factory sequence, because the whole thing seemed to get out of their hands. It is very difficult to deal with the problems of the actors when you are trying to produce non-psychological films or films where the psychology is completely different.

- Interviewed by Christian Braad Thomsen, Jump Cut, 1974.



In Tout va bien, Susan shows Jacques a photograph of a penis being fondled by a woman's hand. The image fills the screen for what seems an unnaturally long time, while Susan says: "Admit that this image satisfies you less than it did three years ago." On one level, she is referring to the declining satisfactions of their marriage; on another level, she is asserting the law of diminishing returns in the exploitation of sexual images in cinema.

Tout va bien unmasks the alienated nature of cultural work in class society. Jacques defines his work as "making films, finding new forms for new content," but in fact his new forms serve only to sell soap and razor blades. Susan tells journalistic anecdotes into the microphones of the American Broadcasting Corporation, but she ultimately finds it impossible to continue in bourgeois media. Jacques and Susan represent a bifurcation of the filmmaking function into images and sounds; taken together they figure forth the cineaste himself. Susan's dismissal of her former work as "crap" recalls Godard's severe judgments on his earlier films, while Jacques' self-characterization as a new wave director radicalized by May '68 corresponds to Godard's own political evolution at the time.

After the at times masturbatory militancy of the Dziga Vertov period films, Tout va bien displays a kind of serenity. Godard feels confident enough to let the various political groups - even the advocates of consumer civilization - speak for themselves. The serenity comes as well from a new honesty about the filmmaker's relation to class struggle. Godard, after all, is not a Maoist peasant or a Latin American guerrilla - he is an artist-intellectual in the capitalist West. The intellectual, Godard seems to realize in Tout va bien, can only offer what Walter Benjamin called a "mediated solidarity" to the working-class oppressed of his own country. Tout va bien critically examines the role of intellectuals - especially those intellectuals who have access to the cultural and ideological apparati - withing social relations as a whole. The cinetracts of the Dziga Vertov period, however essential in their search for a method, were at times irresponsible in their oracular Leftism. They indulged in a kind of tourism of revolutionary struggles - a few months in Italy, next to Prague, then over to the Chicago 8. Tout va bien retains the political bite of the earlier films, but is more accessible in its search for a peculiarly politicized kind of beauty.

- Robert Stam, Reflexivity in Film and Literature: From Don Quixote to Jean-Luc Godard. Columbia University Press, 1992, 56, 216, 222


Rethinking becomes not just the film's subject matter, but also a necessary process in watching Tout va bien. The spectator rethinks the situations of the workers and the lovers. But beyond this, the spectator must rethink the process of watching a film; he or she may come to see how filmic conventions have been used in the past, and how they may be used in new ways which seek to avoid and expose the naturalization of conventionalized cinematic devices.

This is not to say, however, that the process of separation I have been examining guarantees this response - or any other - in the spectator. The most a filmmaker can do is to create a set of cues of perception. But the spectator may be incapable of taking up those cues, for the ideology of viewing lies to a large extent in learned skills for understanding art works. The vast majority of film-goers have learned no way of viewing other than that needed to approach the classical narrative film.

Tout va bien was not made within the commercial Hollywood tradition, though it cites that tradition extensively and uses stars from it. Rather, the film draws upon the institution of the art cinema. Having left that tradition for the Dziga-Vertov films, beginning in 1968, Godard attempted to create a new kind of cinema for political purposes. Sometimes shooting in 16mm, often substituting rhetorical formal strategies for narrative, he and Gorin found themselves increasingly losing the wide audience Godard's earlier films had enjoyed. However successful one might consider films like British Sounds aesthetically and ideologically, they presented too great a challenge to the conventional viewing habits of most audiences. In Tout va bien, we can see an eminently Brechtian compromise. It returned to the institution of the art cinema; the film ran in regular theaters and allowed Godard and Gorin to make the traditional artists' tour to promote their film. But although Tout va bien utilizes many of the art film's conventions, and indeed is an art film in many ways, it also seeks to undermine that mode of filmmaking.

- Kristin Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis. Princeton University Press, 1988. Pages 126, 128, 130

One way to interpret Tout va bien is that personal politics are inseparable from a larger sphere, thus the final track opens up the story's realm, while it also becomes a visual pun on taking theory into the streets. The end, therefore, goes beyond the simple description of details or places in the environment, and instead becomes a political essay-like maneuver. Nonetheless, the final shot and its accompanying soundtrack do force the narrative disclosure to reopen after the cafe scene, breaking the final bracket that had been set up to mirror the film's opening.

In order for an Open Discourse film to work it does not need a final section that is completely isolated from the preceding text. The Open Discourse ending does, however, need to supply the viewer with a conclusion that continues narrative systems but not story events. In Tout va bien, the spectator may relate the "France - 1972" song, and the chants that accompany it, to the overall themes of class struggle. Jean-Pierre Gorin, the film's co-director, interprets the final tracking shot and soundtrack as conclusive of several formal and thematic threads that unify the film: "Of course the last tracking shot sums up the whole film- the slum landscape with that incredible song. You pass along the wall, and on the soundtrack you have the three principal sounds of the film - the leftist sound, the Communist Party sound, the boss sound. They're like sound vignettes stamped on that bare wall... That's the summary of the film." While it may not be as easy as Gorin suggests to perceive the three different sounds, much less relate them to specific political voices, the narrative discourse nevertheless continues the film's ideas without any longer using the story elements as supports.

- Richard John Neupert, The End: Narration and Closure in the Cinema. Wayne State University Press, 1995. Page 127


Tout va bien, with its almost obsessive exploration of screen surfaces and inquiry into its modes of representation, stresses that artworks are constructions, objects produced by people, and as such obey ideologically determined codes. Hence Godard's main problem in constructing Tout va bien became a formal one; i.e., "how to make political films politically." Vertov's and Brecht's notions of new form for revolutionary content helped him to confront this problem, and Tout va bien (through its acknowledged contradictions" epitomizes Godard's solution.

The complexity of Jane Fonda's fictional character is linked to the process of her de-prostitution, both as a real person/actress and as a fictional character. Fonda's off-screen image, which at that time depended on her reputation for political activity, is exploited in a Brechtian manner. Brecht suggested that actors in the epic theatre should have active roles in the class struggle in their real lives. Thus her personal traits as the fictional Susan presumably correspond to her real traits, or, rather to her media-defined style. At the same time, in her quarrel with Jacques, she is implicitly criticizing her former relationships with [Roger] Vadim and her exploitation by him as a woman/star. As I suggested before, her performance also alludes to another American actress, Jean Seberg in Breathless.However, in Tout va bien Fonda is the politically correct American actress. The fictional Susan also alludes to Susan Sontag, another radical intellectual woman who was for a while, like Fonda herself, an American expatriate in Paris. On another level, Susan, like Jacques, is a surrogate for Godard. As a leftist intellectual involved with the media, she shares the Godardian sensibilities and frustrations concerning the role of intellectuals in the revolution, and like him she concludes that "it all comes down to a question of style." The fictional Susan here also echoes an dduplicates Fonda of the 1970s. Susan/Fonda in Tout va bien is a radical activist, involved with the media and trying to define herself politically and professionally, not unlike Godard himself. In Tout va bien Fonda is shown in the process of creating a new image. Her sloppy, unstylish clothes deliberately demystitfy her former sexy image and her Marxist/feminist lecture to Jacques only reasserts her new image. In Tout va bien she not only abandons her old self but also criticizes it.

- Yosefa Loshitzky, The Radical Faces of Godard and Bertolucci. Wayne State University Press, 1995. Pages 48, 164-165

If Tout va bien does propose any final truth, it is in the male and female voice-overs which conclude the film, stating of the protagonists that 'ils ont commence a se enser hi-stor-ique-ment' [they have begun to think of themselves hi-stor-ic-ally], and proposing that 'chacun sera son propre historien, [...] moi ... toi ... lui ... elle ... nous ... vous!' [everyone will be their own historian, [...] me ... you ... him ... her ... us ... you!]. This proposed fragmenting of history into personalized narratives perhaps predicts Godard's retreat into non-commercial video projects in the mid-seventies. It also subverts the dominant historical discourse of the period, the Gaullist myth that France had been united (in resistance) during the Second World War and ever since. This view of history was to be readdressed in the representations of the Occupation and the Holocaust which began to proliferate in the aftermath of 1968.

- Guy Austin, Contemporary French Cinema: An Introduction. Manchester University Press, 1996. Page 20.



Fascinating…flawed…fervent…and ultimately failing to live up to its intentions, Tout Va Bienmust be viewed as the slightest of successes. Godard and Gorin do catch us off guard and make us pay for being stuck in a certain motion picture mindset. They also play too many games with the plotting, and try to trick us over and over again with the constantly complicated camerawork. Formless and constricted, experimental and exasperating, it is recommended for anyone willing to take the time to try to get beneath its celluloid exterior. Like the individual who will take up pickets and protest a cause they believe in, even to their own detriment, Godard and Gorin only want open-minded, perceptive audiences to view and appreciate their work. They are just like the frightened masses that they harangue, claiming to be revolutionaries, but really only wanting to preach to the converted within their own weird world of anti-filmmaking. Perhaps Godard and Gorin are just like everyone else—committed on the inside, unable to stridently support everything they believe in on the outside. Maybe that is why they, and their film, hide behind so many convolutions and conundrums. Tout Va Bien is not a bad movie, just a wildly uneven and unnerving one. It will take a commitment on your part just to wade through all of its volatile variants.

- Bill GibronDVD Verdict

By the halfway mark it requires a lot of effort to keep watching. For a film made by geniuses supposedly burning with things to say, almost all ofTout va bien rolls by like filler, empty noodling. Since all we're getting is an incoherent lecture, the overall effect is no longer cute or in any way liberating. The freedom of the screen is being used to express anarchy and confusion, but there's nothing interesting in this anarchy and confusion.

Godard and Gorin are obviously committed intellectuals and not dilettantes and what they say in interviews invariably adds up to fascinating insights on cinema and its relation to the world. Artists trying to make their art relevant to the world is nothing new. Their articulate idealism stands apart from both advanced cinema studies talk - which can be really dry - and advanced political thought, which frequently goes far afield of reality. Godard and Gorin in print are not to be sniffed at.

Glenn EricksonDVD Savant


This anti-bourgeois film addressed to the masses never brought them into the theaters, maybe because even if it was pretty to look at and had two major movie stars, the viewers still found it dull, unperceptive, didactic, unfunny and stridently polemical. It's the kind of in-your-face political film about the class struggle where the indiscriminate viewer might feel guilty munching on popcorn.

Dennis SchwartzOzu's World Movie Reviews

Maoism is not the answer to any problem (and one of the activists admits that he is not sure what Maoism is). So the strike is probably futile, though Godard/Gorin get bored with the strike before it's over and turn the camera elsewhere -- which is the real problem with this film and European art films in general: their attention span is too short to actually develop any ideas. French cinema suffers especially when contrasted with the best American films of the mid-century, which were usually much more effective at sustaining an idea, good or bad. (Of course, film critics at the time pretended the opposite, and regarded even the slightest French films as superior to the best American pictures.)

- David Bezanson, Contact Music



Letter to Jane resumes the issues of political cinema and the role of intellectuals raised by May 1968 and explicitly by Tout va bien. In Tout va bien, the two actors are sequestered in the office of the manager of a meat factory (Salumi) by the workers who have occupied the factory. The question that is raised by the occupation and their being sequestered is how to engage with these events and in particular how to represent them to themselves, to the workers, to the public and in turn how are the workers to represent their strike to these bourgeois intellectuals. The situation creates a crisis that forces Montand and Fonda to reflect on their role as intellectuals in the light both of the strike and the May events and is also a crisis of reflection and representation for the workers. The question of representation is of course not only an issue for the characters (or a social class), but for Montand and Fonda as persons and most especially for Godard and Gorin, that is the issue is personal and for the fictional couple in the film, political choices and artistic ones impinge on their relationship. The film then brings two dimensions into play and does so by a complicated system of mirroring between fact (reality) and fiction (the story), reality (political conflict) and its representation (a film), the film that is made and the making of the film. Making a film or giving a broadcast becomes a question of how to make a film, that is, a question of forms so that political matters become aesthetic ones. If you want to change politics, you need to change the way of representing things. Tout va bien and Letter to Jane are not political films simply because they speak of politics, but primarily because they speak of film-making.

Letter to Jane concentrates on a single image, a photograph of Jane Fonda (the political militant, the American movie star) listening to (talking with?) a representative of the Vietnam resistance struggle against the American invasion, the American massacre of Vietnamese and the bombing and destruction of their country. The photograph, in an article that contained other photographs, was published in the French popular weekly news magazine L’Express, a kind of equivalent to Newsweek or Time, but more intelligent and better informed. Godard and Gorin discuss in voice-over the photograph and other images that their discussion and the photograph evokes (images of the war in Vietnam, of Nixon, of Marx, of Lenin, of Fonda in other roles, of her father Henry Fonda in other films - Young Mr LincolnThe Grapes of Wrath, the latter a novel written as Gorin notes by the fascist John Steinbeck - of images from Tout va bien, of posters, of writing). The images are accompanied by natural sounds, by revolutionary songs (the Internationale), and by Vietnamese martial music.

What Godard and Gorin manage to do is bring images together that are distant from each other in time, in space, in their nature such that each illuminates the other simply by this fact of juxtaposition. For example, in the photograph there are already two Fondas, the militant and the Hollywood star and there is, by the fact of the latter identity (the star), an association with other stars and similar looks and gestures: Lillian Gish, Rudolf Valentino, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda in Klute) and from these associations another involving the entire Hollywood industry, America, Vietnam, and history, and Bertolt Brecht, Dziga Vertov, the cinema, political struggle, intellectuals, portraiture, framing and, above all perhaps, the mechanism of montage as a form that thinks, that challenges, that interrogates. This complex not only opens up political and ideological questions (the star/the militant), but formal ones (how to photograph, what to photograph, why photograph) and issues such as distance/closeness, clarity/obscurity, light/shadow, repetition, the frame, as if from a single still image not only can an entire history be evoked (and examined and related) but also the history of the cinema including the falsity of fact and document and the facticity of fictions and therefore the relation of the cinema (and its means) to history.

- Sam Rohdie, Screening the Past

A critique of Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin's treatment of Jane Fonda across Tout va Bien and Letter to Jane, by Julia Lesage, published in Jump Cut



This is a very strong release from Criterion. One would expect a package of this quality and scope to be part of Criterion's upper tier, but thankfully it arrives at the lower of the two price points. The transfer exhibits a lot of really nice film grain while supporting solid detail throughout, save for a few soft long shots. The film appears to be free of any significant damage. Colours are very strong as are contrast levels. The image looks much better while in motion than the screen caps indicate. Unfortunately, there are moments where some fairly intrusive edge enhancement is visible (see screen cap #6, left black vertical post). This may cause some frustration for viewers with large displays. In general however it is not an issue for the majority of the film. Audio is clean and without any significant damage or background noise. As always Criterion provides very easy to read and minimally distracting subtitles. Considering the wealth of extras here I still found the 40-page book to be the most informative.

As usual, Criterion has created a beautiful package all the way around.

- Mark Balson, DVD Beaver

Nothing is more important to Godard than how his movies look, and how they are presented to an audience. One imagines that the director would be delighted with how Criterion recreates Tout Va Bien for the digital domain. The DVD presentation is pristine, with a beautiful 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen image at the center. The colors are sharp and suggestive, the details crisp and clean. Even through all of the directors' mixed media ideas, shifting shot selections, and soundstage/location logistics, the print is flawless. The one thing Criterion can be counted on for is to give us the best-looking transfer they can create, and the magnificent look to Tout Va Bien is no exception.

Sound is another equally important aspect to Godard's modus operandi, and once again, Criterion does not fail him. While it's hard to get a made-in-the-'70s mono track to sound anything other than flat and lifeless, the Dolby Digital treatment here seems to actually open up the aural elements a bit. Especially in the final act, where Godard and Gorin play with the voice-overs and the recorded dialogue, the sonic situation is excellent. While the musical scoring is more or less minimal and the other ambient elements are firmly in check, the pioneers of preservation still manage a bit of mood with their digital updating of this title.

Proving once again that they have an uncanny ability to flesh out even the most obscure motion picture, Criterion provides three very different and very telling bonus features for this release. Each one complements and supplements the context of Tout Va Bien, while also providing insight into the individuals responsible for the film. The biggest bonus is the 52-minute short from Godard and Gorin entitled Letter to Jane. More or less a cinematic reflection on a now-famous photograph of Fonda speaking to some members of the Vietcong during a trip to Hanoi, Godard and Gorin offer a lengthy, wordy discourse about how viewing the photo without understanding its motives both hinders and helps the cause of revolution. Using interesting analogies to silent film, a overwhelming dose of diffused rhetoric, and enough cyclical logic to get one's head good and spinning, the filmmakers propose that by learning how to "see" this photo, we can gain a greater appreciation of Tout Va Bien and the role of the intellectual in political change, in general. It may be a message—and a movie—that provides more confusion than clarity for the vast majority of those who watch it. And it is actually more of a lecture than a "letter."

More enlightening, and easier to digest, are the interviews conducted with Godard (from a mid-'70s documentary) and with Gorin (from a recent Q&A). Both men have a definite way with words, but while Godard focuses on the esoteric, Gorin gives us the pragmatic. He discusses how he came to collaborate with the great French innovator, what the real purpose of Tout Va Bien was, and how successful he feels they made the message. Amiable and just a little boastful, he gives a much more personal face to the production than his partner in crime. Godard, unshaven and dressed in a bathrobe, is all pontifications and pronouncements, making his points in salient, simple ways, only to go back and reconfigure them with the next sentence. Almost as if he is working out the logistics of his lamentations as he speaks them, Godard is at once very approachable and far more distant than he ever was. His statements about Tout Va Bien clarify the film's basic intent. But once he gets into the meat of his meaning, the conversation clouds a little. Indeed, all three extras here have an equal power to persuade and confuse—just like the movie they are supporting.

Our final added feature is a hefty 40-page booklet that offers a striking assortment of critical and informational material. Inside, there is analysis of the film from a post-millennial standpoint, a discussion of May '68 and how it affected France, a revisionist look at Letter to Jane, and an interview with Godard and Gorin from 1973. Together, they paint a marvelously dense and detailed portrait of Tout Va Bien, the timeframe in which it was made, the men who made it, and its lasting impact.

Bill GibronDVD Verdict



IMDb Wiki

The following quotes are found on the TSPDT Director profile for Jean-Luc Godard:

"Godard is the first filmmaker to bristle with the effort of digesting all previous cinema and to make cinema itself his subject. He emerged from the darkness of the Cinémathèque rather than from any plausible biographical background...Filmmaking for Godard is neither occupation nor vocation, it is existence itself. His inescapable dialectic is in terms of cinema and his politics have arisen - disastrously, I think - from cinema theory." - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)

"Whether he delights or irritates you, Godard sits securely in the front rank of screen originals, and it is good that he succeeded in rejoining the mainstream of French cinema in 1980 after more than ten years' self-exile to its fringes...Nonetheless the quality of his films has been much more variable in recent times compared to his heyday of the 1960s, including a disastrous modernised sideshoot of King Lear." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Film Directors, 1999)

"If influence on the development of world cinema is the criterion, then Jean-Luc Godard is certainly the most important filmmaker of the past thirty years; he is also one of the most problematic...As ex-Cahiers du Cinema critic and New Wave filmmaker, Godard was initially linked with Truffaut and Chabrol in a kind of revolutionary triumvirate; it is easy, in retrospect, to see that Godard was from the start the truly radical figure, the "revolution" of his colleagues operating purely on the aesthetic level and easily assimilable to the mainstream." -  Robin Wood and Rob Edelman (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)

"Godard is one of the most important filmmakers in cinema history. He has made audiences think about how films are made in a series of dramatic essays on subjects ranging from the Hollywood gangster film to the musical, the Marxist struggle, and films, filming, and filmmakers themselves." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"For me, discovering cinema was directly connected to his films. I was living in Paris at the time. When Made in USA opened, I went to the first show - it was around noon - and I sat there until midnight. I saw it six times in a row." - Wim Wenders

"The cinema is not an art which films life: the cinema is something between art and life. Unlike painting and literature, the cinema both gives to life and takes from it, and I try to render this concept in my films. Literature and painting both exist as art from the very start; the cinema doesn't." - Jean-Luc Godard

"To me style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body. Both go together, they can't be separated." - Jean-Luc Godard

In discussing the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, one inevitably arrives at the question of where exactly to mark this artist's own “leaps forward” on the timeline of a long and prolific career; and in addressing that question, one first must decide how to make the distinction between “before” and “after,” and then how many times to make the distinction. Could one, for instance, find numerous points of departure through Godard's body of work, and cite as examples the liberated debut feature À Bout de souffle (Breathless, 1959), the serial video works of the 1970s, and, from the 1980s onward, the advent of the transcendental film-essays? On the contrary, could one plead the case for a single break that occurred when, in 1968, Godard dedicated himself to an expressly Marxist agenda, whereby the next several films stood as aggressively didactic, anti-bourgeois “blackboards”? The first instance grants a priori that Godard's body of work can be read as a movement that passes through many aesthetic phases but never fails to constitute an oeuvre that, examined from any point, yields a poetic and cinematic value consistent with or building upon those films that have come before. It is the second standpoint, however, that has been so consistently adopted by a number of prominent (that is, visible) film critics and historians. This flank, whose American roster includes but is not limited to Roger Ebert, Anthony Lane, Andrew Sarris, and David Thomson, have long confused the evolution of the artist Godard with some kind of fundamental betrayal. For this group, Godard is a filmmaker who will forever be associated with pop-art palettes, love-and-guns on the run, and the intellectual exuberance of a breezy pre-Vietnam '60s youth; but who will never be forgiven for discarding the earlier use of Hollywood reference points (which the filmmaker's latter-day antagonists had perceived in any case not as aesthetic critique but as blank cool cultural homage), exhibiting overtly political (even left-wing) tendencies, exploring in his two television series the possibilities of a different medium of transmission, and then settling on a mode of filmmaking that incorporates narrative cadenzas, historical scrutiny, visual poetry, literary citation, and a dominant mood of elegiac contemplativeness. In short, Godard has evolved from making films of great complexity and beauty to making films of even greater complexity that frequently approach the sublime. If Godard's crime isn't merely that for which he's been put to task in many of the mainstream U.S. publications that reviewed his recent Éloge de l'amour(Elegy for Love / In Praise of Love, 2001)—an expression of the belief that Steven Spielberg doesn't make very good films—then it is that which the impatient soul and the Philistine alike deem the greatest felony of all: that Godard is an artist of tremendous agency and authority within his medium, and through the uncompromised expression of his aesthetic and, therefore, moral convictions, demonstrates as little concern for the satiety of the “audience that might have been” as Beethoven, Joyce, or Renoir before him.

- Craig Keller, Senses of Cinema

Jon-Luc Godard

There's always something a little dangerous about saying that an artist has never recaptured the excitement of his initial work. Too often that attitude is just a way for audiences to rationalize their own refusal to let an artist grow and change past the qualities that first attracted them. The growth Godard shows in the 15 movies he made between 1959's "Breathless" ("A bout de souffle") and 1967's apocalyptic and deeply frightening "Weekend" covers a distance in style and sensibility that most filmmakers don't approach in a lifetime.

And I have to be honest here and say that, while I long to believe the praise about the return of Godard that has greeted films like "Tout va bien" (1972), "Numero deux" (1975), "Every Man For Himself" (1979), "First Name: Carmen" and "Nouvelle vague" (1990), none of the films he's made since "Weekend" have captured me in the same way. Though fragments of them have: those headlight shots in "Carmen," the sight of an aged Eddie Constantine (reprising his "Alphaville" role of detective Lemmy Caution) wandering through a run-down Germany in "Germany Year 90 Nine Zero" (1991), the beautifully lit rooms of a mansion at twilight seen from the outside by a camera tracking along them in "Nouvelle vague" and the scenes of the French band Les Rita Mitsouko recording an album in "Keep Up Your Right" (1987).

Exhaustion is not something you'd expect from watching Godard's '60s films -- immolation maybe. The 15 films from "Breathless" to "Weekend" fly through possibilities of style perhaps even faster than they fly through ideas. If there is one misconception about Godard that deserves changing it's that he is a cold, cerebral filmmaker. Yes, his films are filled with quotations (often spoken directly to the audience) from books and films, slogans, interpolated titles, philosophical concepts, musings on the very nature of movies and, especially as they go on, political agitprop. But no one who worked as fast as Godard (15 features and several shorts in eight years) could be expected to develop ideas fully. Instead what we often get are fragments, as beautifully structured as an epigram or as sloppily inserted as a note scribbled on a scrap of paper, and often abandoned as suddenly as they are introduced. This isn't to say that Godard's ideas aren't worth considering. No filmmaker has ever been more profoundly obsessed with the question of how movies, even ones made at the speed Godard worked, could keep pace with a culture that was both fragmenting and accelerating.

- Charles Taylor, Salon

Critical discussions of Godard’s late films have treated them as poetic meditations, and that seems partly right to me. Yet few critics ask how they manage to create their lyrical, associative quality. I think... this has to do with his treatment of narrative (naturally) and his layout of scenes. But even before we get there, I think that we find in the very texture of his images (let alone his sounds) a daring decentering of faces and bodies—the usual nodes of our attention. If he often blocks the flow of our glance, it’s in order to rechannel it to unexpected areas and textures, crannies and gaps, within the image. And so we want all those areas and textures, along with the crannies and gaps, available to our eyes and minds.

- David Bordwell

A pivotal text on Godard, is that by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, "Three Questions about "Six Fois Deux""2 dealing with a series of TV programs made by Godard in 1976 with Anne-Marie Mieville. Deleuze adjusted Godard's own formula, "not a correct image, just an image", by transposing it into his, "not a correct idea, just an idea."3 The sense being the opening out and experimentation of ideas in a way that does not normalise ideas according to dominant orders. To create a cinematic/philosophical surface where images/ideas are freely able to be experimented on in a non-judgemental, non-hierarchical and non-exclusionary framework. Godard's filmwork is also characteristic of the concept of the "Rhizome" developed by Deleuze and Guattari. Godard's use of short-term ideas, offshoots, disconnected spatial and temporal coordinates, sudden shifts between layers, degrees of speed and slowness, dérive, and the heterogenous use of structural elements is intensely rhizomatic in form and structure. Deleuze's text on Godard, points out how Godard's filmwork is essentially inbetween; between text and image, cinema and television, sound and vision, passion and politics. If we consider it, the very concept of montage is itself the meaning inbetween, the rupture between the two images, the fissure of intensity created by the juxtaposition. Deleuze goes on to describe this disaggregation as stammering. Which for Godard becomes a visual stammering, to stammer not in one's language, but in how one sees. Where the language of cinema is disassembled, taken down to its elements, to produce a molecular cinema, the twenty-four frames a second. As Godard himself says, it is, "admitting that you're stammering, that you're half blind, that you can read, but not write..." The question is always what is there to see? What is imperceptible? These are Godard's reasons for dissolving linear narrative and normative cinema conventions. The sequences of slow motion, fast forward, repetition, distortions, out of focus and scrambling attempt to deconstruct the viewers senses, to destabilise the perceptual plane. To slow the movement down to see what remains, to speed it up again to see what is revealed, what is lost and what is captured in each frame. It becomes a machinic cinema, brought about by the continual extrapolation and complexification that Godard submits his films to, as part of the editing process. Repeatedly throughout Histoire(s) du Cinema (1989) we see Godard labouring over his film editing machine, as if he were a worker in a factory. Throughout his career, Godard has been increasingly moving more and more towards smaller film crews, verging ever so slowly towards that unobtainable solitude. By reducing the size of film crews, Godard gives himself increased freedom to manipulate, focus and control the output, without the interference of stars, budgets and producers. The use of minimal film crews, is also an attempt to resolve the hierarchy implicit to the filmmaking process, plus it affords him a greater automaticism in the filmmaking process. This increasing verging towards solitude, is something that Deleuze described as "an extraordinarily populous solitude," meaning that this kind of solitude allows him to intensify the interconnectedness of his work, between a plethora of different filmmakers, writers, thinkers and musicians. The music in his films alone has stretched from Beethoven and Mozart to Stockhausen, to Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. What has emerged is an inbetween, between life and filmmaking, where the two begin to converge indiscernibly. What is created is an inbetween, which is a strange cluttered reality, discontinuous, fragmentary and decentred. In a short film by Armando Ceste, Two or Three Things, there is the inclusion of footage of Godard and his voice narrating over the images. Godard says, "Even today, its easier for me to make a film as it should be made... than live the life I would like to live... If I could live the life that I believe I have the right to live, I don't think I would make films or art," and elsewhere, "The cinema is life, and I would really love to live life as I do cinema." It is the sense that making a film, is simultaneously making reality and simultaneously making himself. The separation between the onscreen and the offscreen becomes blurred. As such, it is with irony that Godard, in Prenom Carmen, (1983) stars, somewhat mockingly as himself, as a washed up filmmaker in an institution. Throughout the film we see him in his own idiosyncratic style, wearing dark glasses, his hair tangled and scrunchy, his face stubbled, buried in cigar smoke, speaking in a muffled-wet voice and hugging a portable cassette player. Godard was in fact institutionalised in a psychiatric hospital by his father, in the 1950's after a spate of habitual petty theft. In Godard's self portrait film, JLG/JLG (1994) we glimpse more of his dulcet sombreness and melancholy, which strikes us by its richness and clarity, with it's uncommon intimacy and sensitivity.

- Robert Lort, "Jean-Luc Godard, inbetween Deleuze"



IMDb Wiki

Jean-Pierre Gorin first achieved international attention through his collaborations with Jean-Luc Godard as the Dziga Vertov Group. This association has brought him both celebrity and neglect: those who admire the films of the "Vertov period" often attribute their virtues to Godard with scant or no reference to Gorin; and many that dislike them often view Gorin as a punk who led the master astray while riding his coattails. This controversy tends to overshadow and ignore the small but impressive body of work that Gorin has produced since parting with Godard in 1973. To be sure, circumstances have made these films all too easy to overlook: there are only three features and a pair of related video works, along with a number of aborted or never-begun projects, made at intervals of years, distributed spottily, and of deliberate modesty.

These solo films, however, may well prove as important as the collaborations with Godard. What they lose in provocation and extremity they gain back in charm and in complexity of form and nuance: they stand among the most ingenious and potentially fertile contributions to the genre of "film essay." They are characterized by a resolute fidelity to the local, revealed with tenderness and humor, and are personal and engaging in ways unimaginable in the Vertov-period works. These three films: Poto and Cabengo (1978), Routine Pleasures (1986) and My Crasy Life (1991) deserve to be much more widely seen and discussed; and the videos Letter to Peter and a record of Olivier Messiaen's opera St. François d'Assise (both 1992) open up new areas which one hopes Gorin will have the opportunity to explore further.

If Godard has fashioned himself into "the ultimate image of the end of Europe" (as Charles Olson once wrote of Ezra Pound), Gorin has done something more modest. Each of his films chews on recurrent themes—of childhood or nostalgia for childhood, of language and exile—with intensely local concentration. If Marker's Sans Soleil (1982) or The Last Bolshevik (1993) expand grandly from their immediate subjects to the illumination of History, Gorin's burrow instead into their locality. Since the generalizing rhetoric of the Vertov period, Gorin has allergically avoided "large statements": instead, his work is allied with, and tender and inquisitive toward, the small, the individualizing detail. It is, in Manny Farber's words, "termite art," "eating its own boundaries," leaving "nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity."  In this very modesty, Gorin's work is perhaps of special importance in a time dominated by the soulless and grandiose spectacles of Hollywood, and by the cynicism and affectlessness of so much "independent" film. Instead, the eccentricity of Gorin's movies reminds me of those from certain other great contemporaries, like Abbas Kiarostami or João Cesar Monteiro, whose quirky particularity allows them extraordinary range and engenders deep and abundant pleasures.

- Erik Ulman, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

If you don't start from reality, if you don't start from the fact that a film is a film, then you are not going to produce any positive effects by the diffusion of your film in the social structure. You need to know that you are specific, and you need to deal with the aesthetic problems, because they are specific for the filmmaker. What the social effect of your film will be depends on your situation in the social structure, on your position in production, and on the way you try to fight a system that strangles you. If you do not have profound personal reasons to rebel against the system, you will achieve nothing.

The process of making a film is a process where you say:

“Well, I am surrounded by thousands of images and sounds. In the streets of Paris there is a normal code of sounds, and I know what that normality means and what effect it has on me. It is an effect of madness.”

So try to work on that as a filmmaker. Try to disconnect the elements of that reality and to reconnect them in another way.

You need to reach the point where you are not speaking as an ego, but where something is speaking through you. This is a process of complete dissolution of the ego. Something is speaking through me which is history, not only my own history, but centuries of history. It is some kind of really schizophrenic experience, and that’s what I am going to work at in my next film. Sometimes the heavy Marxist talk, the stiff political thinking, is only a way to preserve one’s individuality and attempt to master reality. Let’s instead try to break the individuality and have reality speaking through you. That’s exactly the point where you break the whole mystique of the auteur.

- Jean-Pierre Gorin, interviewed by Christian Braad Thomsen, Jump Cut, 1974.


IMDb Wiki

Jane Fonda's career has reflected her personal values and the political turmoil of her times. On the issue of Vietnam she acted in defiance of government constraints, risking surveillance and blacklisting, and at the expense of alienating her public. Years later, in 1984, conservative protesters picketed Marshall Field's department store in Chicago when she appeared there to promote a new line of exercise clothing. In September 1984, on the other hand, she was honored by earning an Emmy for her role in The Dollmaker, an ABC television presentation which she had attempted for 12 years to get on the air. Because of her celebrity and her outspokenness, her life became a public affair, fully documented in the popular press.

Fonda was born to a life of wealth and privilege. Her father, Henry Fonda, was a successful movie star, her mother an heiress of substantial means. After studying art, she had pursued a successful modeling career (twice featured on the cover of Vogue), before taking up studies with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. Her first movie contract was with her father's friend, the director Josh Logan, for Tall Story in 1960, followed by Walk on the Wild Side and The Chapman Report. On the basis of these early films, the critic Stanley Kauffmann was among the first to acknowledge her talent in "performances that are not only fundamentally different from one another but are conceived without acting cliché and executed with skill." Ahead, however, were the consequences of her developing a political consciousness that would cause her to be variously described by others as a "lateblooming flower child" and an "all-American antiheroine." (Notably, her father once commented with disdain on her tendency to champion every social issue imaginable, calling her "Jane of Arc.")

In the next phase of her acting career the French director Roger Vadim transformed Fonda, after marrying her, into the sex goddess of his cartoonish Barbarella. About the same time, during the late 1960s, she became a social and political activist, dedicated to antiestablishment causes. A new seriousness was also reflected in her films, particularly They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Klute. Her political instincts drew her to the radical French director Jean-Luc Godard, who featured her in Tout va bien in 1973. Protesting the Vietnam War she founded in 1971 an antiwar troupe (Entertainment Industry for Truth and Justice) which toured Southeast Asia and went on to produce a film entitled F.T.A. (Foxtrot Tango Alpha, Free the Army, Fuck the Army).

James M. Welsh, Film Reference.com

965 (107). Rocker (1972, Klaus Lemke)

Screened April 15 2009 in Astoria, NY on .avi (special thanks to rgen Fauth for live translation assistance) TSPDT rank #866


An odd, uneasy blend of social-realist verite and low-budget romanticism, this made-for-television melodrama by one of Germany's self-proclaimed bad boys of filmmaking seems like an attempt to express both the rock and roll lifestyle mythos and its utter out of place-ness in the real world. Following two anti-establishment types - one a biker gang ex-con, the other a car thief - the film wears its crudeness on its sleeve, with endearingly campy results. Propelled by a soundtrack leveling dollops of Stones, Santana and Led Zeppelin, the film enjoys solid cult status in Germany, seemingly for the same reason that The Big Lebowski does in the US - as a compendium of memorable one-liners and for creating an alternative reality out of the ramshackle milieu of life on the fringes.

Winding through an urban wasteland of deadpan faces and a plot that is geared less towards sustaining narrative plausibility than in emphasizing the grand gesture, Lemke establishes a brazen internal logic propelled by braggadocio moments: a man can borrow a crowbar from parking garage workers to break into a car with them raising nary an eyebrow, or can ask a strange girl on a subway if she likes to screw and make out with her moments later in a bar bathroom while his brother waits among their beers. Not everything is rosy for these rockers: one of them is tied up by an unidentified gang, his lodgings burned to the ground for some reason left unexplained by the film, but makes for a dramatic moment all the same. Later he comes into mucho Deutschmarks through a drug deal so half-baked it feels almost poetic, and his resulting radical spike in swagger leads him to pick a fight with the biggest truck driver in a diner; the accosted silently gets up and proceeds to run his 18-wheeler over the rocker's bike, leading to a funeral pyre sacrifice of the motorcycle a la Jimi Hendrix's Monterey Pop guitar.

Gradually the film focuses its attention on the fate of the car thief's teen brother, a troubled kid not quite ready for rockerdom but still badass enough to send a shelf of bread loaves crashing down a supermarket aisle. In the final act he instigates a free-for-all brawl where the rockers come looking to kick climactic ass but end up looking like sloppy brawlers, while in the distance ominous police sirens grow louder. Pathetic futility wins the day, but in doing so these rockers gain a modest measure of pathos. They ask for no pity, no quarter, nothing but a space to play out the emptiness of their lives with maximum ostentation.


The following citations were counted towards the placement of Rocker among They Shoot Pictures' 1000 Greatest Films:

Christian Petzold, BPB Filmkanon (2003) Dominik Graf, Steadycam (2007) Hans Schifferle, Steadycam (2007) Oliver Baumgarten, Steadycam (2007) Rainer Knepperges, Steadycam (2007) Ralph Umard, Steadycam (2007)

Rocker Website (in German)

Production details on Filmportal.de

German Wikipedia entry (translated by Google):

The movie from rocker Klaus Lemke is a Millieufilm of 1971 arose. He is one of the Second German Television-produced TV movie, the fans like a B-movie is classified.The actors are amateurs and join in their roles under her civil name. The authentic appearance of the actors for the film is essential. The setting is essentially the Hamburger Kiez. Musically, the film is accompanied with songs by Santana ( "Black Magic Woman"), Van Morrison and Them ( "It's all over now baby blue" by Bob Dylan),Rolling Stones ( "Sister Morphine," "Moonlight Mile," "I got the blues "), Led Zeppelin(" Rock'n'Roll ") and others...The film enjoys in some circles, especially in Hamburg cult status. The Hamburg-3001-movie, which it has regularly in the program.Cause is at least from today's perspective may be partly involuntary humor of the sayings of the characters. Moreover, many of the neighborhood known so that a degree of authenticity is perceived. The fact that the plot is really sad, highlights of the film's heavy-entertainment starting. Screenings of the film are still in the character of party rule. Sayings like "Two or three years", "You do not flattest, cake!", "One is a Daimler Daimler, and this is my Daimler." "Those who smoke, it can also drink." "You are going now Hamburg, which I swear to you! "," Do you grade, "and" Can I say how late it is? "are among laughter from the audience likes mitgesprochen.

Klaus Lemke used the same act again as the basis for his later film The Rat (1993).

In the scene when the truck driver of the motorcycle driving Rockers Gerd scrap heap, Lemke picks a topic on which the legendary story of today in the book The Spider in the Yucca-Palme by Rolf Wilhelm Brednich as "Revenge of the truck driver" is described. The same theme held in 1977 in Film A ausgekochtes Schlitzohr"Smokey and the Bandit") with Burt Reynolds use.


Klaus Lemke biography in German Wikipedia

Klaus Lemke, born October 13th, 1940 in Landsberg/Warthe, is considered to be one of the most opinionated and – by his own definition – anti-intellectual film makers in Germany. He grew up in Düsseldorf and, following his Abitur, made a living with odd-jobs, including as an asphalt-worker. He abandoned his studies of art history and philosophy after six semesters.

After a number of assistant-director positions in Munich in 1963/4 (under Fritz Kortner, among others), he became a contributor to the magazine "Film" (1964/5), which went in stride with the more academic "Filmkritik" but also concerned itself with the ostracized American Genre-Cinema. In the context of the "Neue Münchner Gruppe" (New Munich Group), namely Rudolf Thome, Max Zihlman, Werner Enke and May Spils, he directed a total of six short films in 1965/6, including "Kleine Front" (Small Front) and "Das Haus am Meer" (The House on the Sea). In "König von Schwabing" (King of Schwabing), in which "coolness" was a key motif, he epitomized the lifestyle of the Munich bohemians. Concerning his political "Dilemma", he commented in retrospect: "I thought America was so very cool that I would have happily marched into Vietnam and protested against it at the exact same time."

His first feature-length film "48 Stunden bis Acapulco" (48 Hours to Acapulco, 1967) follows a dropout from Schliersee to Rome and Mexico – a man striving to hold his ground as an adventurer and gangster in the Jetset Society. In the same year "Negresco**** -- Eine tödliche Affäre" (Negresco**** -- A Deadly Affair) was released, in which an unsuccessful photographer aspires to rise above his relationship with an urbane woman in high society. Following the failure of these two cinema-released films taking place all over the world, Lemke remained, according to Ponkie, "stuck on Leopoldstraße"; shortly thereafter he began to work for television. His first film for WDR ("Brandstifter", 1968) caused a bit of a scandal: it reacted directly to the Berlin department store assault by Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader, whom Lemke personally knew.

Lemke defined himself with his energetic style, distinctive from the first Renovation-Generation of the Oberhausen-Manifest, the works of which he had already found to be "Väter-Filme" (Father-Films). The tendencies akin to those of Schlöndorff's literature-to-film adaptations disappointed him – as did exertive social obligations. In spite of his cinephillic affinities for pose and genre, which the Munich group had already differentiated from other representatives of New German Cinema, he was wholly interested in unwrought "reality". Alongside his abandonment of finely-tuned screenplays and perfect production, his work with amateur actors became his trademark. Lemke clarified this in a statement, saying that he was not interested in actors, but rather "real people" and their stories, which he happened upon in his periphery and "on the street".

Beginning in 1975, Lemke directed a number of films with Cleo Kretschmer and Wolfgang Fierek, including the Grimme-awarded "Amore" (1977/8), in which an unremarkable vegetable seller campaigns against a suburban Casanova. Lemke was also involved in a long-term intimate relationship with Cleo Kretschmer. What is more, he has come to be known as the discoverer of Iris Berben and Christine Zierl, alias "Dolly Dollar". In addition to his propensity for his adopted home (Munich) and the Bavarian province, Hamburg is an important locale for Lemke. He secured for himself a loyal cult following with his 1972 "Rocker", in which an aging, just-released petty criminal roughs up the Kiez with his motorcycle gang.

Following a carrier-hiccup as a result of a cocaine suit in the 1980's, Lemke succeeded once again in 1992 with "Die Ratte" (The Rat), which also takes place in Hamburg's red-light district. Two more of his youngest films are set in the Hanseatic City: "Träum weiter, Julia!" (Keep on Dreaming, Julia!) and "3 Minute Heroes", which is about the everyday fates of amateur actors in a 360° view of St. Pauli. He kept his small-budget "Guerilla Tactics" of filming, without sponsoring or professional actors, continually over several years of  television work. "Last Minute Jamaika" (2002), about two Munich interns who vacation in the Caribbean, brought him once more as near to Acapulco as he's been since his work in the cinema began. In an entertaining interview on the occasion of his 65th birthday in 2005, he acknowledged that he could win "cool" aspects even from "uncool" Germany.

- Filmportal.de

964 (106). Female Trouble (1974, John Waters)

Screened Sunday April 12 2009 on New Line DVD in Watertown, MA TSPDT rank #925  IMDb Wiki

Pink Flamingos may remain the purest, rawest manifestation of John Waters' inimitable worldview, but Female Trouble is his masterpiece, taking that film's libidinal anarchy and slipping it like a series of time bombs inside something resembling a classical narrative.  Having a story provides a steady target against which Waters' tastelessness  (never as extreme as it was in these two films) tirelessly hurls itself; it's the same approach taken by Mel Brooks, whose more mainstream brand of subversion feels rather artless compared to what Waters and his game cast and crew accomplish here.

Superwigged juggernaut Divine rumbles like a rhinoceros through a bad-girl-gone-abominable melodrama that takes her from teen rape to robbery to married life (involving sex with carrots and pliers) to unspeakable disfiguration to mass murder.  Divine devours each debased woman scenario with full-throated gusto, defecating a performance that surpasses camp reduction, reaching deep into a kind of pathological, gleefully sado-masochistic apotheosis of female suffering and ambition.  It's a dervish dance of garishness whose strident bellows betray unexpected small revelations: giving birth in a hotel hallway, she pulls the rape-seed infant from her womb, tears into the umbilical cord with her teeth and spits it against the green upholstery.  That piece of afterbirth stuck on the couch is one of the most mind-blowingly defiant gestures I've seen in a long time.

While Waters can't resist the gimmicky shock value of having Divine clobber her parents with a Christmas tree or get raped by a male hick played by himself, or close ups of grime-covered penises, it's the little unexpected gestures that elevate this film to sublime trash: robbery masks that fit over beehive hairdos; a 300 pound transvestite attempting somersaults on a trampoline in reckless abandon; a bowlful of spaghetti slithering down a wall. At one point Divine, ascending a staircase, casts his eyes downward and delivers a broken marriage, woe-is-me monologue with a black beehive and limpid eyes worthy of Liz Taylor, he looks downright beautiful, and more convincing as a downtrodden woman than his Hollywood counterpart's Oscar performance in Butterfield 8. It's a moment that becomes especially poignant given what's to follow, his character's dream of stardom succumbing to physical and psychic mutilation. The film's second half pushes hard into the monster-freak aspect of Divine's persona, reducing her character to a single-minded aspiring tabloid icon.  It's a risky move that threatens to bury the film in nihilism, its heroine terminally blinded by ambition. But Divine's hearty embrace of whatever the script demands of her preserves the film's humanity, and even offers the last word to the film's cynical view towards celebrity culture: in the end, she is a star.


The following citations were counted towards the placement of Female Trouble among They Shoot Pictures' 1000 Greatest Films:

Jeff Krulik, Facets (2003) Jennie Livingston, PopcornQ (1997) Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987) Pop Matters, The 50 DVD's Every Film Fan Should Own: The Stellar 70's (2007) San Francisco Chronicle, Vintage Video - A Hot 100 From Out of the Past (1997)

Screenplays for Female Trouble, Hairspray and Multiple Maniacs viewable online at Google Books

Lyrics to the title song and other songs from John Waters movies at Two Jealous Perverts

This 1975 feature is the best of John Waters's movies prior to Hairspray and his ultimate concerto for the 300-pound transvestite Divine, whose character will do literally anything--including commit mass murder--to become famous. As in all of Waters's early outrages, the technique is cheerfully ramshackle, but Divine's rage and energy make it vibrate like a sustained aria, with a few metaphors about the beauty of crime borrowed from Jean Genet. With Edith Massey and Mink Stole, as well as some doubling on the part of Divine that allows the star to have sexual congress with himself, giving birth to . . . guess who?

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

I HAD just moved to Florida against my will. It was summer. I was 15. Lonely, alienated, and above all, well, above all, horny.

After much degradation and humiliation and rejection, I met a girl. Let's call her Stacey, because, after all, that was her name. She was sweet and beautiful. I immediately had a mad crush.

In an unusual burst of ambition, I invited her to a movie. The movie I chose would change my life in many ways. It was ''Female Trouble'' by John Waters, starring Divine as Dawn Davenport.

- Larry Charles, director of Borat and Religulous. New York Times, May 4 2008. Read the rest of the story

If asked, most people would probably be able to identify a moment in their own personal history when a film has changed their lives. Film can affect change in so many ways, and perhaps some of the most dynamic and powerful ways this can occur is in the way the projected image can manage to bypass the screen and become imprinted on our psyches, attached to the skin. This is the viral nature of film, its ability to spread a kind of 'dis-ease' within our body and mind. The one film that changes our lives becomes a breathing part of the self that alters the way we relate to the apparatus of film and our forever unstable conception of self.

The film that did this for me was John Waters' Female Trouble (1974). Made a year before I was born, I didn't actually see Female Trouble until 1988. I was 13-years-old. Browsing the shelves of the local video store, I was drawn to the video because its cover art announced “Warning: This movie is gross”. Accompanying this “warning” on the video box was a caricatured drawing of Female Trouble's two stars, Divine and Edith Massey. While watching the film later that day, I discovered that both Divine and Edith Massey were every bit the grotesque caricature suggested by the video's cover design.

How I managed to sneak the R-rated film out of the video store, I'll never comprehend. More importantly, the impact the film had on me during this very pubescent time in my life is even harder to comprehend, because it changed the way I consumed film from that moment on. I remember watching the film with a mixture of horror and morbid fascination: never before had I encountered such a freakishly queer ensemble of characters and situations on screen. Upon viewing Female Trouble at such a young age, I could sense some weird awakening where all of a sudden it felt as if someone had flicked the queer switch in my head. Thus began my life-long journey of hunting out films that warned of potential grossness. This cinematic road trip led me to suss out other offerings from the 'great director' John Waters.

- Daniel Mudie Cunningham, Senses of Cinema

John Waters expands the definition of female trouble in this mutant tribute to good-girl-gone-bad drive-in melodramas. The girl is, of course, cross-dressing cult icon Divine, Waters's plus-sized muse. Divine is at her most gleefully outrageous as teenage brat Dawn Davenport, who runs away from home and into a life of wanton hedonism all because she didn't get cha-cha heels for Christmas. Almost immediately she's molested by a sleazy motorcycle thug (also played by Divine--is this Waters's idea of "love thyself"?), but she doesn't let motherhood interfere with her plans of stardom and turns herself into an unlikely fashion statement in an apocalyptic fashion show. Waters's fourth feature, a follow-up to the midnight movie hit Pink Flamingos, is just as cinematically primitive and even more gleefully vulgar, right down to the electric climax of Dawn's road to everlasting fame.

-Sean Axmaker, Amazon

Topping Pink Flamingos is a tall order, but puke poet laureate John Waters and scarlet diva Divine are more than game for the challenge in their riotous follow-up...Though the perversions are more seamlessly integrated into the narrative than in the earlier movies, Waters still grubbily zooms in on a particularly screechy line ("I wouldn't suck your lousy dick if I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls!") or someone's skid mark-happy underwear, not to mention the money shots -- acid-corroded Divine feverishly modeling while bleeding from a "liquid eyeliner" shot, Bad Seed brat Mink Stole gorily reenacting car accidents in the living room, Edith Massey's indescribably lumpy figure squeezed into a vinyl dominatrix getup. Yet Waters' subversion runs deeper, with his fame-obsessed heroine's transgression mirroring Warhol's credo about celebrity and, in the end, melting into ecstasy -- unlike the perfidious Dashers, whose dedication to filth is desexualized, antiseptic and ultimately false, Dawn dives into it face first, pushes it to its extremes and emerges exalted, a sort of perv Joan of Arc.

- Fernando Croce, Cinepassion

Female Trouble was the last of the movies Waters made with this circle of intimates before burnout, drug overdoses, and the sad fact of growing up began to take their tolls, and it makes for a fitting end to this era. And as a small indicator of the kind of antisocial lunacy we’re dealing with here, consider that Female Trouble is prominently dedicated to Manson family murderer Charles “Tex” Watson. Tell me truthfully— do you think the John Waters of today would dedicate a movie to Jeffrey Dahmer? No, I don’t think so either.

Female Trouble makes for an excellent introduction to the young John Waters, in that it isn’t so stunningly and unrelentingly grotesque as, say, Pink Flamingos, but is still confrontationally disgusting in a way that nothing the director has made in the past 20 years even approaches. It also comes as close as the irony-obsessed Waters ever will to offering an explicit manifesto for his twisted artistic vision. The Dashers’ “Crime is Beauty” formula could easily be made to stand in for the “Squalor is Beauty” esthetic that informs all of Waters’s work to a greater or lesser degree. The exaltation of the ugly and the wretched can still be seen in his movies today, even if it isn’t treated with the same kind of obsessive stridency as it is in Female Trouble and its predecessors. This movie also features a much higher quota of the sort of random craziness for which Waters is justly renowned, but which only occasionally surfaces in his more recent films. Not only are such major plot developments as Dawn’s marriage to Gator exploited for their potential shock value (get a load of Dawn’s wedding dress), there are any number of digressions from the main story that are included solely because of the opportunities they introduce for further wallowing in squalor and bad taste. There’s no real reason why Taffy should become a Hare Krishna in the final act, nor is any narrative purpose served by the subplot in which Taffy tracks down her father and finds him to be just as much of a pig as Dawn always said he was. But the Krishna twist lets Waters echo and one-up a scene from early in the film in which Taffy’s jump-rope chants drive Dawn to tie the girl to her bed, and Earl Peterson’s reappearance provides an excuse for a Herschel Gordon Lewis-style gore scene. And for what it’s worth, Female Trouble is also almost certainly the all-time cinematic champion when it comes to putting the morbidly obese into preposterously revealing outfits— Aunt Ida’s leather catsuit in particular is going to give a lot of people nightmares.

- Scott Ashlin, 1000 Misspent Hours

Every "don't" from years of school indoctrination is thwarted with hysterical abandon in Female Trouble, from the importance of safety in shop class (Dawn's husband Gator (Michael Potter) uses his favorite tools during sex) to the perils of drug addiction (Dawn is lured into her life of crime when she starts mainlining liquid eyeliner).

The result is a hilarious send-up of codes of behavior in America, a critique of our cultural obsession with beauty and fame that rivals Citizen Kane for its timeliness and perceptiveness.

No, I'm not kidding.

Both Female Trouble and Citizen Kane chronicle the rise and fall of a quintessentially American figure. Dawn Davenport is a typical lower middle-class Baltimore kid, frustrated by school, misunderstood by her parents, but with the desire to becomes something greater. Granted, her only outlet for greatness is through crime and exhibitionism, as she spends the 1960s stripping, hooking, and rolling drunks, she and her comrades wearing nets over their hairdos instead of stockings over their faces. The great breakthrough comes when Dawn is taken in by the pretentious Dashers (David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce), who want to channel her aggression into "an experiment in beauty and crime."

This fusion of beauty and crime smacks of Jean Genet, although I doubt Waters meant such an "artsy" interpretation (although he admits on the commentary track to reading Genet). But just like Genet, Waters relishes the rebelliousness of trash, the underground of cultural counterfeits—the Dashers as would-be Warhols, Dawn herself as a drag-queen Liz Taylor—that feel more real than the commercialized and glossy surface of "proper" society. Dawn's entire world seems fake in so many ways, from her delusions of grandeur to the low-budget acid burn makeup Divine has to sport through the film's second half. When Dawn chops off the villainous Aunt Ida's hand with an axe, the cheap effect makes Herschell Gordon Lewis look like a PBS surgery documentary. But underneath the shoddy production values and stiff acting lies a deeper truth: this is America from the inside.

Both Waters' film and Kane are joyously experimental, created by artists who seem complete unaware of what they cannot do on film, and so they try everything. For Orson Welles, this means appropriating all the tools of stagecraft and European film technique and challenging the rules of traditional filmmaking. Of course, Kane is such an over-the-top display of technique that is smacks of an artistic immaturity Welles would later overcome. Oddly, Waters comes to Female Trouble already having pushed the limits of his trademark style at the expense of storytelling. Female Trouble then becomes his first completely successful film: it constantly surprises with lurid invention while actually having a story that comments on American society itself.

And like Citizen Kane, Waters' film was reviled by the mainstream in its own time, but can now be understood against the backdrop of the social forces that produced it: the pressures of middle class life, the cult of beauty, and the allure of the fashionable outlaw—all hallmarks of the media-saturated, war-traumatized, post-conformist 1960s.

But Orson Welles never would have had the balls to put Divine in a see-through wedding dress with fake female genitalia. Or a corpulent Edith Massey in a leather S&M outfit, pleading with her hairdresser nephew to turn gay. Or Divine molesting fish.

And Orson Welles, as brilliant as he was, never seemed to enjoy filmmaking as much as John Waters. The commentary track for Female Trouble is filled with funny stories and reminiscences. This film is understandably Waters' favorite, and he relishes telling tales of his Baltimore childhood and remembering the contributions of friends who participated in the film. Influenced by Buñuel and the Warhol Factory, he admits that his artistic techniques in those days consisted of capturing "ultimate reality." And like his idols, Waters portrays reality through a funhouse mirror: a reflection of the soul of America, if not its surface appearance. What makes a film like Female Trouble work so well, and certainly what makes me laugh, is the sense that everyone involved in the film is having so much fun making it. There is an infectious sense of joy to Waters' subversive agenda—he works hard to create a trashy, shocking effect, but it is never mean-spirited. The lurid underbelly of society (listen for his stories on the commentary track of attending the Manson trial) seems to amuse Waters. He still laughs at his own movies. Watching a John Waters film is like attending a party with your wackiest friends, the ones who always defy convention and yet are always eager to buy you a beer and joke about it later.

- Mike Pinsky, DVD Verdict

Female Trouble was John Waters’ follow-up film to Pink Flamingos, and he employs largely the same cast in similar roles. What differentiates the two films are their focus: Pink Flamingos is clearly about the lows of society and the limitations of cinema and decency, whereas Female Trouble is a feminist film, crassly defending the struggle of women through over-the-top scenarios. It’s comical, but the notion is out there that views of women are somewhat tainted by societal norms rather than the content of women’s character.

Divine & Divine


Waters holds the female condition near to his heart in this film. At the start, audiences will identify with Dawn as she sasses back to her teacher, smokes in the bathroom, and throws a tantrum when she doesn’t get cha-cha heels for Christmas. As she struggles to make ends meet doing a variety of odd (and odder) jobs, the audience may feel sympathy for her. Only when the typical vulgarity of Divine’s persona starts to shine through do audiences realize that this has all been a ruse to conjure up some feelings for Dawn Davenport before exploiting her before wealthy opportunists and the media circus. Were it not for Divine’s extra-cinematic fame, the audience might have fully invested in the well-being of this girl, but because it is also a cynical romp, we are one step removed.

Divine shakes her stuff. If only I had a dollar bill!

As this removed audience, even though we feel for Dawn, we still want to know what kind of hijinks she gets into, and we hope to be wowed, grossed out, and offended. Dawn will always remain more an object than a true female heroine, a vehicle for humiliation more than a figure living the American dream. But while audiences of the 1970s could detach from this film as fiction, it was a time when women were still seen as objects for men’s amusement, and didn’t garner the same respect as men in social issues and the workplace. Feminism had taken huge strides since the early 1960s, but there was still domestic inequity and, to this day, women get paid less than men for comparable jobs.

Perhaps Waters’ message was intentional, perhaps not. I have heard him speak, however, and he is quite an intelligent person, so I would not deny him that insight. He is cited as having his finger on the pulse of contemporary society, and of understanding the basest aspects of human nature better than most. Female Trouble might seem like an ironic title at first, but it is very particularly selected. The troubles don’t necessarily belong to the main female in the film, rather, it is about the trouble people have with reconciling females as equal citizens, and the disconnect between realizing that the objectification of a film character may not be so different from someone’s home situation.

The Dashers stop by for dinner at the Davenports.

As this removed audience, even though we feel for Dawn, we still want to know what kind of hijinks she gets into, and we hope to be wowed, grossed out, and offended. Dawn will always remain more an object than a true female heroine, a vehicle for humiliation more than a figure living the American dream. But while audiences of the 1970s could detach from this film as fiction, it was a time when women were still seen as objects for men’s amusement, and didn’t garner the same respect as men in social issues and the workplace. Feminism had taken huge strides since the early 1960s, but there was still domestic inequity and, to this day, women get paid less than men for comparable jobs.

- Mea Patafria, Kalamazoo Gazette

John Waters's Female Trouble is an outrageously trashy, wonderfully campy, and grotesquely funny film. There is no point in the movie that is not alive with inept overacting, exaggerated misdeeds, and general strangeness. It is a genuinely fun work to watch.

For one thing, the story the director tells is both overwrought and complicated. It begins with a depiction of Dawn's days as an obnoxious and rebellious teenaged delinquent, goes on to show her life as a runaway, her wildly unsuccessful marriage, and her rise to fame, and it ends by revealing her incarceration, trial, and execution. The whole thing is a lurid melodrama that races along so fast the moviegoer is always caught up in the whirlwind that is is composed of the protagonist's nasty existence, vile behaviors, weird acquaintances, and tumultuous rise to fame as a mass murderer.

Like many of Waters' movies, Female Trouble explores popular perceptions of celebrity. Happily, the director is adept at revealing the connection of fame with criminality. He is especially so here. At various points, Waters reminds the viewer of Dawn's desire to be famous and then shows how she gains notoriety as a result of the murders she commits. During her trail, Dawn even notes that she is the most famous person the jurors will know and that she is in all the papers. By making just this point, Waters reminds the viewer that many actual mass murderers could make exactly the same claim. Such elements are not, however, presented in a heavy-handed or didactic way, but, instead, give the film a real humorousness. Waters revels in human failings and provides the moviegoer with the chance to laugh and cringe at our less admirable traits.

Lastly, I should mention that while Divine may not be an accomplished performer in any conventional sense, she does acquit herself well in the film. Not only is she a joy to watch as the selfish, vile, foul, and murderous Dawn, but she is also equally repulsively entertaining as Earl Peterson, the filthy, lecherous father of Dawn's daughter Taffy. In fact, a large part of Female Trouble's appeal comes from the lead's weirdly charismatic presence. Divine is a pleasure to watch.

- Keith Allen, Movie Rapture

The radical politics in Female Trouble (as well as Pink Flamingos and Waters' other early films) speaks very much to the times in which they were made. Between Vietnam, the Manson killings (which Waters was obsessed with), and the constant political assassinations and riots, the turbulent times spawned an anger that set the stage for films like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What set Waters' films apart from those is that there is a joy in the violence and mayhem that makes them nearly impossible to categorize. A cannibal with a chainsaw is obviously a bad guy, but how do you deal with Divine in a leopard print one piece chopping off Edith Massey's hand while the older woman sits locked in a bird cage wearing a ruffley white gown? There is no way to contextualize these images and so they end up creating their own genre.

- Gil Jawetz, DVD Talk

This humor also comes from a pure, raw filmmaking energy that we simply don't see these days. Normal people should probably stay away, but twisted people and young filmmakers will find laughter, inspiration and joy here.

- Jeffrey A. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid

So what is Female Trouble? For those not yet Waters aficionados it can most fittingly be described as the result of shock over story, offensive images over coherent actions, obsession over technique, littered with profanity laden diatribes shouted as loudly as possible, and male nudity and raunch that resembles almost nothing else you will ever see, save another John Waters movie. Yes, there is a story here, something about a girl (played by Divine) who doesn’t get what she wants for Christmas, gets in with the “wrong crowd” (and “wrong” is about the biggest understatement in eternity), and flaunts herself to anyone and everyone under the mantra, “crime is beauty!” But really, this is all stark window dressing compared to the wacky characters, their outlandish images, and Waters’ absurdist worldview that leaves no holy cow untipped. And as a Waters aficionado, myself, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

The first half of the film is exceptional. The sight gags are hilarious (Divine in two roles, one male and one female, is brilliant), the sets inspired and fascinating (the apartment where most of the action takes place was Waters’ own real pad in the ‘70s), the dialogue highly quotable (“I'm getting a hard-on! Beauty always gives me a hard-on!”), and the ideas about the sensationalism of criminals way ahead of its time. The supporting cast of Waters regulars are all here and in ripe form, from Edith Massey as the promoter of the homosexual lifestyle to the hairdressing impresarios David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce, from Divine’s retarded “child” played by Mink Stole to is he or isn’t he stoned (I think we all know the answer to that one) Danny Mills as Divine’s short lived, gap-toothed lover, and a gaggle of other misfits and cretins that are as vibrant and outlandish as the hairdos and wallpaper that battle it out with each other for center stage.

The second half of the movie, however, slips drastically in quality. Where the first half was fresh and fast paced, the second is tedious and degenerates from degradation to repetition. The screaming characters eventually grate rather than amuse and an awkward court scene drags much more than any other part of the film. The finale couldn’t come soon enough but once it does, it provides a few more yucks before Waters wraps things up with a closing shot you’re not soon to forget.

It is in this final image that we see Waters transforming before our eyes from mere shockmeister to purveyor of filth philosophy. Unlike Flamingos, where Waters tacks on one additional gross out just to be sure his audience walks out repulsed, in Female Trouble shock gives way to message as Waters’ final statement about criminal celebrity trumps any bodily fluid joke that might stand in its way. Therein lies the first inkling that Waters would indeed one day abandon his all out assault on supposed good taste and “go PG”, a move that was both inevitable and well done eventually culminating in Hairspray, the most mainstream effort of his career. Sure, he would eventually return to the obscenely perverse with, A Dirty Shame, but never again would he be as unconventionally shocking as Female Trouble.

I believe John Waters is a special kind of genius. He is a man of innovation and far sighted ideas that push through a world that has little desire for such a thing. He creates works that have meaning and challenge our ideas of morality and normalcy. The cult of John Waters continues to thrive because he has stayed loyal to his vision for well over thirty years while somehow managing to get his ideas out of his head and to the masses when such a thing seems impossible for anyone who isn’t willing to sell his soul to do so. Most important to Waters’ legacy is the gentle hand he uses with his entourage of nonconformists, never once putting them down but rather, showing a sweet sentimentality for their earnest plight to be recognized and accepted as something other than merely misunderstood and expendable. Sure, the kooks and crackpots he employs in his films are acting, so to speak, but they are also people cut of a similar cloth to the characters they portray. Not nearly as vicious, profane, or demented as their characters, there remains much truth between actor and character that only a man such as John Waters could make work as perfectly as he does.

To sum up, Female Trouble may not be a “good movie” by normal standards, but it is undeniably bizarre and engrossing and an essential part of the John Waters’ canon and modus operandi. If you only see one early period John Waters movie in your lifetime, see Pink Flamingos. It best represents Waters’ twisted mind yet somehow also shows his sentimentality for geeks and miscreants the world over. But if Pink Flamingos touches your disturbed side, then definitely see Female Trouble. It is the height of Waters’ perversity and yet another jaw dropping exhibition that will pave your way to John Waters aficionado status.

- Scott Muoio, Underpendent Media

Report of what sounds like a typical John Waters theatrical screening with director appearance, this time a screening of the restored Female Trouble at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, reported by Daniel Hirshleifer for Digitally Obsessed

Review of the 2005 John Waters Collection DVD Boxset by Bill Gibron at DVD Verdict


IMDb Wiki

John Waters began making films in 1964, the same year that Susan Sontag penned her landmark essay “Notes on 'Camp'”. This is a notable cultural moment because, while Sontag's ideas have been refuted or extended by many cultural critics, there was a general consensus that a camp sensibility was alive and well in the arts. Of course, this camp sensibility could be interpreted in any number of ways, but Sontag claimed that “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration…” (3). I have isolated this one sentence because it is a definition that can be applied to John Waters' films.

Perhaps a better fitting definition of Waters' brand of camp is one that is defined by the filmmaker himself in a 1997 episode of The Simpsons. Titled “Homer's Phobia”, Waters makes a guest appearance as a collectable junk store owner called John. Upon visiting his store, Homer asks John why a “grown man” would collect such junk, and John replies:

JOHN:         It's camp!

Homer looks back at John with a blank expression, not comprehending what he means.

JOHN:        The tragically ludicrous, the ludicrously tragic. HOMER:     Oh yeah, like when a clown dies. JOHN:        Well sort of, but I mean more like inflatable furniture or Last Supper TV trays or even this bowling shirt… HOMER:     And that kind of stuff is worth money? … You should come over to our place, it's full of valuable worthless junk.

Waters in The Simpsons
Waters in The Simpsons

This dialogue from The Simpsons plays into the way Waters' camp aesthetic playfully celebrates “valuable worthless junk”. In many respects, this view of camp echoes cultural critic Andrew Ross' argument that camp is primarily concerned with reconstituting history's trash as treasure. Ross perceives camp as a delight in that which is considered culturally outmoded. He writes: “The knowledge about history is the precise moment when camp takes over, because camp involves a rediscovery of history's waste”.

Waste is one of the recurring themes of Waters' films, and is depicted on screen as something that is often corporeal. Waters delights in demonstrating how shit, vomit, puss, mucus, saliva and other such bodily fluids can be a rich source of material from which to develop a cinematic language for the white trash body. Part of the appeal of Waters' films is that they belong to the category of low camp. As Waters states, “I've always tried to please and satisfy an audience who think they've seen everything. I try to force them to laugh at their own ability to be shocked by something. This reaction has always been the reason I make movies”. In a contemporary context, however, the appeal of Waters' films has extended far beyond the select few. In a review of one of his more recent films Pecker, Mark Kermode writes:

The greatest irony of John Waters' career is that he has ended up loving and being loved by Baltimore, the town he initially tried to infuriate. From being the most disgusting filmmaker in the world, Waters has become something of a local hero, venerated for bringing an element of glitter into an area not known for its star-spangled potential.This “local hero” status was certified on February 7, 1985, when it was proclaimed “John Waters Day” in his home town of Baltimore by the presiding mayor. Despite such accolades, Waters has also become more generally an icon in American cinema. As Sarah Hampson notes, “He is the iconoclast who has become an icon; the anti-establishment voice who has become an institution”. Certainly, Waters has become something of an anti-establishment institution in US culture, evidenced by the way his work has been celebrated within a mainstream context. For example, Waters' film Hairspray (1988) was transformed into a hit Broadway musical in 2002.

- Daniel Mudie Cunningham, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

Waters has pursued a vision as singular as any American filmmaker. He has revitalized some of our big-time Hollywood stars (Kathleen Turner, Melanie Griffith), reintroduced us to the kitsch glory of others (Tab Hunter, Joe Delassandro, Joey Heatherton) and shown us a thing or two about some of the others we snidely thought we knew all about (Pia Zadora, Sonny Bono, former teen porn queen Traci Lords), at the same time faithfully maintaining, into a third decade, his "repertory" of actors, a regular Royal Shakespeare Company of Raunch called the Dreamlanders. Though untimely death has caught up with many of the greats in his magnificent motley stable of thespians, we would be much poorer without Divine emblazoned in our collective pop-culture memory, alongside Edith ("Edie the Egg Lady") Massey, David Lochary, Cookie Mueller and those still going strong -- Mink Stole and Mary Vivian Pearce.

- Daniel Reitz, Salon.com critical biography

Interview by Michael Dare for Movieline Magazine, February 19, 1988

Interview from 1978

Review of Waters' early films screening at the New Museum of Contemporary Art by Nick Stillman for the Brooklyn Rail


IMDb Wiki

Matthew Kennedy reviews My Son Divine written by Frances Milstead

Tribute site at Dreamland News

Drag-queen and cult-movie star Divine, born Harris Glenn Milstead, was a high-school acquaintance of John Waters in the early '60s. Waters indulged his chubby friend's penchant for crossdressing, and Divine's acting career was launched with Water's first films in the mid '60s, Roman Candles and Eat Your Makeup both filmed while Divine still worked as a hairdresser. As Waters' work became more funny and outrageous with Mondo Trasho(1969) and Multiple Maniacs(1970), Divine's performances became richer and wilder; the two achieved immortality with the outrageously raunchy cult classic Pink Flamingos(1972) in which Divine competes to become the "World's Filthiest Person." They continued working together during the late '70s and into the '80s making two of their best films, Female Trouble(1974) and Polyester(1981). Divine also began appearing for other filmmakers, playing a woman in Paul Bartel's Lust in the Dust(1985) and shedding his feminine garb to play a man in Alan Rudolph's Trouble in Mind(1986). In his/her last appearance for Waters's, Hairspray(1988), Divine played a dual role, one male, one female, and was quite effective in both parts.Those who could get past the unremitting weirdness of Divine's performance discovered that the actor/actress had genuine talent, including a natural sense of comic timing and an uncanny gift for slapstick. In 1989 Divine died suddenly of an enlarged heart at the age of 42 while preparing for a guest appearance on Fox TV's Married...With Children.

- All Movie Guide

961 (103). The Getaway (1972, Sam Peckinpah)

screened Friday March 27 2009 on Warner DVD TSPDT rank #865  IMDb Wiki

Even the likes of Pauline Kael turn their noses at Sam Peckinpah's most commercially successful feature as a formulaic genre exercise done mostly for the paycheck. But Peckinpah's creative investment is apparent from the opening sequence, a dense montage that weaves multiple layers of time to establish a cold, mechanistic world in which ex-con Steve McQueen and wife Ali McGraw (who, with his consent, sleeps with a prison warden to ensure his release) rediscover each other with tension and tenderness. The overt mechanical elements of this opening, such as the numbing, clacking sounds of prison doors and work equipment, might be Peckinpah's way of acknowledging the trappings of heist film formula with which he must contend.  The film is far from resembling the satire on the genre he had planned, but it expresses his candid, problematically misogynist views on sexual relationships and loyalty perhaps more complexly than any of his features, though as usual the depth lies more on the male side of the ledger.

This time Peckinpah's Man, that molotov cocktail of helplessness and violence grubbing for salvation, is imbued with a cold professionalism unparalleled in his filmography thanks to McQueen's tightly coiled appearance of masculine assurance: unflinching eyes incessantly assessing everything around him; a body that betrays nary a twitch of unnecessary movement. He's among the least sentimental of Peckinpah's heroes, but this should not be confused with a lack of pathos; McQueen's character finds redemption in a job well executed, and the upholding of a moral code throughout - involving repeated beatings of McGraw whenever she messes up. Peckinpah validates McQueen's behaviors by contrasting him with Al Lettieri, a heist accomplice who betrays McQueen, then kidnaps a doctor who saves his life and seduces the doctor's voluptuous, dim-witted wife (Sally Struthers), enacting a comic and nightmarish opposite of McQueen and McGraw's Ideal Man and Woman. While I don't have that much use for Peckinpah's worldview, and consider his prominence largely a sign of pervasive misogyny in Hollywood culture (I'll reconsider my position the day that Hollywood regularly produces eloquently man-hating movies by female directors), I have to admit that few directors are as good at dramatizing their pathologies as Peckinpah.



The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Getaway among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures Don't They?

Angela Glaser, Steadycam (2007) Katja Nicodemus, Steadycam (2007) Klaus Lemke, Steadycam (2007) Larry Clark, indieWIRE (2006) Kinema Junpo, The Greatest Foreign Films (1999) Maxim, The 100 Greatest Guy Movies Ever Made (1998) Premiere, 100 Best Action Movies on DVD (2003) Taschen Books, Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007) TV Today, The Best Movies on DVD (2004) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

If The Getaway had just rolled off the studio assembly line, the work of a competent craftsman, it could pretty easily have been passed over and forgotten. It is, however, the work of a major American film artist. Sam Peckinpah's 1969 western, The Wild Bunch, looks even at this distance like a great film, and his other movies, from 1961's Ride the High Country to last year's Straw Dogs, form a body of work as substantial as any other contemporary film maker's. Such a director is owed more than a measure of indulgence and loyalty. But in The Getaway, Peckinpah is pushing his privileges too far.

The Getaway is basically a streamlined heist-and-chase movie, but Peckinpah keeps stumbling over his subplots. Moreover, his two stars, Steve McQueen and All MacGraw, are unregenerately narcissistic. They appear as a husband and wife, professional thieves, who knock over a small-town Texas bank and spend the rest of the time speeding across the state to Mexico, pursued by the cops and crews of greedy confederates.

It has lately become Peckinpah's ironic pleasure to refer to himself in interviews as a "whore," and, appropriately, The Getaway works on that same kind of disinterested, mechanical level. There are a great many scenes of action and bloodletting, professionally handled and exciting. But the viewer is always aware that he is being manipulated very coolly and cynically.

McQueen is primarily a deep-frozen presence, although he handles a variety of guns with impressive familiarity. As a screen personality, MacGraw is abrasive. As a talent, she is embarrassing. Supposedly a scruffy Texas tart. MacGraw appears with a complete designer wardrobe and a set of Seven Sister mannerisms.

Peckinpah seems perfectly aware of all this, but instead of trying to do some thing about it, he puts her down — lit erally. She and McQueen stow away in a garbage truck and come spilling out in a gush of trash onto the town dump. Peckinpah's chuckling is almost audible.

- Time, January 8, 1973

Another bank heist, and the wholesome, clean-cut robber pair take forever to make it across the Mexican border with their loot. The audience hoots her line readings and applauds when he smacks her around; maybe this audience participation helps to explain the film's success. Sam Peckinpah directed in imitation of Sam Peckinpah; it's a mechanical job, embellished with a vicious, erotic subplot involving Al Lettieri and Sally Struthers.

- Pauline Kael

An evident precursor to The Driver (Walter Hill scripted both, this one from Jim Thompson's novel). The major strength of The Getaway rests solidly on McQueen's central role, a cold tense core of pragmatic violence. Hounded by furies (two mobs, police, a hostile landscape), he responds with a lethal control, blasting his way through shootouts that teeter on madness to the loot, the girl, and Peckinpah's mythic land of Mexico. Survival, purification, and the attainment of grace are achieved only by an extreme commitment to the Peckinpah existential ideal of action - a man is what he does. Peckinpah's own control of the escalating frenzy is masterly; this is one of his coldest films, but a great thriller.

- Time Out

It's too bad they didn't really film Jim Thompson's novel, which remains one of the most astonishing pieces of pulp fiction ever written, yet Sam Peckinpah does a professional job with this much-watered-down version (1972). It becomes a conventional chase picture with Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw as an outlaw couple fleeing for the Mexican border after a bank job; Al Lettieri is the sadistic, double-crossed partner on their trail.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

It is the fate of films from under-recognised areas, such as the action film, to suffer the arbitrary stock market fluctuations which broker reputations, as well as a progressively hazy blurring of distinctions and accomplishments generally. The Getaway is a typical and instructive case (the unique novelty of the film is that it was duplicated with a different cast in 1994 with very few changes or additions to Walter Hill's 1972 script or to the directing, casting, and structuring strategies of the original). When The Getaway was released, Sam Peckinpah was a high-profile auteur on the basis of Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1971); he was at the centre of a violence-in-films controversy pushed along by his considerable self-promotion efforts as a “Hollywood maverick”; and he was a currently-practising action specialist taken seriously by the film intelligentsia. He was probably overvalued as a director, undervalued as a writer. His films popularised the use of slow-motion in action sequences and he has come now to stand as the sign for that large area of post-war Hollywood cinema marked not only by his own accomplishments, but also the rather larger ones of Anthony Mann, Don Siegel, Robert Aldrich, Budd Boetticher and Sam Fuller.

Seen now, The Getaway is more interesting as one of the early prototypes of the modern US action film, following from the headwaters (Dirty Harry, 1971): clean-lined, built for speed, self-effacing but an intricately worked object nonetheless. It was a product of Hollywood's then-booming independent sector, in this case a production company controlled by the film's star. This hints at one of the problems the project holds for Peckinpah: Steve McQueen is too obdurate and self-contained an actor to fit easily into Peckinpah's preferred ensemble method – although even in this Scandinavian-furniture, streamlined concept film, the director manages to stuff members of his baroque stock company into the cracks (providing Peckinpah's cherished redneck comedy are Slim Pickens, Bo Hopkins, Dub Taylor and Roy Jensen). Although too early for a Walter Murch-style “Sound Design” credit, the soundtrack work is complex and sophisticated: beyond jazz veteran Quincy Jones' score lies elaborate use of sound-as-music as well as sharp punctuation – observe the interplay and progression of images and sounds in the opening sequence, one of the most impressive passages in the film. Whenever possible, events are presented kinetically, that is, for maximum visceral effect (The Getaway is not a reflective film; it doesn't have time to be).

Another site of interest is the script. Adapted from one of Jim Thompson's novels, screenwriter Hill discards most of the novel's interesting but difficult aspects – the psychological portrait of the hero, Doc; the quirky, complicated deployment of characterising details; the imperceptible slide into a surreal world of symbols; and a ghastly black humour ending. With what remains, he fashions a concept-film script exactly as spare as that of Reservoir Dogs (1992) – situation: a bank job gone wrong; imperative: the central couple need to escape the pursuing assassins; complicating problem: Doc's reactions to Carol's necessary infidelity. An extremely mean antagonist is provided (Al Lettieri here, reprised in Mr Majestyk [1974]; Michael Madsen in the 1994 reconstruction). With a minimum of characters, Hill works out a geometry of parallel actions and scenes as the central section of the film, particularly effective when Lettieri and his hostage/lover Sally Struthers cartoon the jealousy/adultery theme complicating Doc and Carol's life.

Hill's script is dedicated to Raoul Walsh for appropriate reasons, not least of which is Doc's request, upon being released from prison, to be taken to a park (see Humphrey Bogart's Roy Earle in Walsh's High Sierra, 1941). What it surprisingly does not do is provide the usually plentiful epigrammatic lines of dialogue which make most Peckinpah movies endlessly quotable and which are, perhaps, the most basic element of his style (it does manage to include the usual misogyny, particularly abetted here by Sally Struthers' performance). The script looks forward as well as backward: the opening sequence with its themes of imprisonment versus freedom and its use of animals is a striking forerunner to the opening sequence of Hill's 48HRS (1982). The elaborate and elegant final shoot-out in the El Paso hotel has nothing to do with the way action sequences are sculpted in other Peckinpah films, and everything to do with the speciality item Hill developed them into in his own directing.

An interesting point of intersection then, a crepuscular Peckinpah with a nascent Hill, a traditional story and genre with the beginnings of the contemporary “concept” approach. Except for some romantic imagery required by star egos, a trip through a cold, hard-hearted world which makes its characters do extraordinary things with their suspect virtuosities in order to buy a chance at a happy ending.

- Rick Thompson, Senses of Cinema

We usually think of excess when we think of Peckinpah, most readily from the trademark slow-motion violence of 1969'sThe Wild Bunch. We don't often think of his nuts-and-bolts filmmaking. Yet despite the gunplay and occasional slow-mo in The Getaway, the movie is ample evidence that he could really tell a story in more traditional ways, too. The crisp opening detailing the grinding monotony of Doc McCoy's prison stint, the cross-cutting among all the elements of the heist and a tense sequence in which McQueen scours a train for a con man who bamboozled Carol out of their bag of ill-gotten money are all textbook examples of visual storytelling. Peckinpah and McQueen had just come off of the flop Junior Bonner together (another fine collaboration), while McQueen laid a more high-profile egg before that with Le Mans, so the emphasis here was to make a crowd-pleaser, and they definitely succeeded.

Balancing the crime story is the romance between Doc and Carol. Their relationship has to survive the fact that she slept with a member of the parole board (Johnson) in order to get Doc out of jail, as well as overcome the stress of being outlaws on the run. This part of the story doesn't date as well as the brisk action. McGraw's performance has always been flat, but her star power gave it a big boost when the movie was new (this was her first film after the pop culture phenomenon that was Love Story). She's beautiful, and we don't doubt Doc's affection for Carol for a moment (indeed, McQueen and McGraw each divorced their spouses to be married after falling in love during the shoot). But, 30+ years later, McGraw comes off as awfully dainty for the rough-and-tumble role. Typically for a Peckinpah movie, the stars bump into all sorts of colorful supporting players during the story, many, like Johnson, familiar faces in the director's movies. These include Dub Taylor, Slim Pickens, Bo Hopkins and Richard Bright.

- Paul Sherman, Turner Classic Movies

The violence in The Getaway is largely mechanical and dehumanized; it operates without the emotional pain and trauma that are its familiar accompaniments elsewhere. Furthermore, as Robin Wood notes, in that film Peckinpah cannot seem to detach himself from the brutish Rudy Butler (Al Lettieri), a professional killer pursing Doc McCoy, and the elaborate tortures he inflicts upon a veterinarian whom he has kidnapped. (Wood finds the humorous approach to the latter character's suicide, and Butler's response to it, to be "in all Peckinpah's work to date the moment that is hardest to forgive.")

- Stephen Prince, Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies. Published by University of Texas Press, 1998. Page 121

Peckinpah uses a number motifs to bring out subsidiary themes. Heavy machinery is often a focus, especially in a threatening manner: the opening credits in prison include numerous closeups of heavy, pounding machinery, and one of the most threatening segments of the picture involves a harrowing encounter with a garbage truck. This emphasis on machines as an enemy to happiness and freedom is intertwined with extended references to the question of whether life is a game. While McQueen insists that this is nothing but a game, Carol is more grounded and takes the position that life is something more. It's surprisingly philosophical in its approach to an action drama, but then Peckinpah always manages to surprise.

- Mark Zimmer, Digitally Obsessed


The following passages are taken from Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage by Garner Simmons. Published by Hal Leonard Corporation, 1998:

"The Getaway was my first attempt at satire, badly done... To many people took it too seriously. Five times in that picture I have people saying, 'It's just a game.' I was dealing with a little bit of High Sierra there and a couple of other things. It was a good story, and I thought I had a good ending. It made my comment."

- Sam Peckinpah, quoted p. 157

"Sam and Steve got into a big argument over that first love scene in The Getaway. Steve wanted to rape Ali. That's the way he saw it. This guy's been in prison for five years, and he just comes home and really takes what he feels is rightfully his. He couldn't understand what Same wanted him to do. He thought it was phony. But Sam insisted and again it played perfectly. Really one of the most sensitive love scenes on film, I think.

Then for the scene which follows - I think it's supposed to be the next morning - Steve had written seven pages of dialogue, you know, explaining the whole thing. Well, Sam got him into that cooking thing where he's got eggs and catsup and all this stuff in a frying pan on the stove. And Steve was just really in his element. He loved it. He's very good with props. Then when Ali comes down they embrace, and I think they maybe have a couple of dozen words between them total, and that was it.

"So after they saw the dailies, Sam said to Steve, 'And that was what you wrote seven pages of dialogue to explain?' And Steve laughed and said, 'Well, you know better than to listen to me, Sam.'"

- Cinematographer Lucien Ballard, p. 158

"Sam and Ali got along great. Sam was wonderful with her. He loves to holler and scream. It's his way of letting go of the things that have been building up inside of him. But Sam also has this tremendously gentle side, and that's the side he showed to Ali. And she really performed magnificently."

- Producer David Foster, quoted p. 162

"After we had completed The Getaway and I looked at what I'd done in it, I hated my own performance. I like the picture, but I despised my own work. I really couldn't look at it... I adore Sam as a director. He is really a marvelous man, a sexy man. He really knows how to get through to a woman when he wants [her] to do something in front of the cameras. It is very difficult to be objective about my own work in the picture, but I would love to work again for Sam Peckinpah."

- Ali McGraw, quoted p. 162

It was during the filming of The Getaway that Sam Peckinpah married for the fifth time, this time to Joie Gould, the English secretary he had been living with off and on since making Straw Dogs. It was done, Peckinpah recalled, as an act of contrition. "We had gotten into an argument, and I slapped her with my open hand. I really felt bad about it. So in a moment of remorse I agreed to marry her - in Mexico where I knew that I could get a one-day divorce. That's what I thought. Well I was wrong. When things fell apart it took me a year to get the divorce and it cost me my shirt, my pants, and my embroidered jock strap! But some you win and some you louse. So she took all the money I got on Getaway and took a trip around the world at my expense. We were not exactly what you might call star-crossed lovers."

Following their disastrous entanglement, Peckinpah would swear off the state of matrimony as being both costly and dangerous. To prevent his romantic nature from taking advantage of his better judgment, the director decidd to place a clause in each of his film contracts that would stipulate that should he marry during the course of making a given picture, he would forfeit all of the money due him from the project. (p. 163)


I never thought of myself as any kind of hardcore Sam Peckinpah fan before. That’s probably partly due to the piecemeal way I’ve been catching up with his filmography—randomly watching this movie or that one, one every couple of years, as likely to choose The Osterman Weekend as I am Straw Dogs. So it’s taken me a long time to figure out that Peckinpah has never once disappointed me. I even thoughtThe Osterman Weekend was pretty terrific. Now, granted, I haven’t seen anything from that streak of movies he made during the years of his mid-’70s decline—Cross of Iron, The Killer Elite, Convoy—but if they've got even a fraction of the spark that animates The Getaway, Peckinpah's place in my personal pantheon of great American directors is assured. (Yeah, yeah, I know: stop the presses! Sam Peckinpah is awesome! Cut me some slack—I was slow to catch onto him, okay?)

Has there ever been a director of “guys’ movies” with a more poetic eye than Peckinpah? The Getaway has one of the most fascinatingly edited opening 10 minutes I’ve ever seen in an action movie—images of the numbing routine of prison life, of Steve McQueen being turned down yet again for early parole, fantasies of lying in his bunk and feeling the caress of his wife’s hand on his shoulder, all shown out of sequential order, tumbling around in such a way that the fantasy mingles with the reality, all set to the numbing, repetitive sound of the mechanical loom McQueen operates in the prison workroom.

And then, when McQueen does get paroled, there’s another great sequence when he and Ali MacGraw drive to a picnic area set up beside a lake—Peckinpah shows you McQueen and MacGraw diving into the water, so happy to be together again that they don’t even bother taking their clothes off. It’s filmed so dreamily that you think it’s just another one of McQueen’s fantasies—until you see McQueen pull MacGraw to the side of the water, whereupon Peckinpah jump-cuts to the two of them arriving home, their clothes still soaking wet. It’s such a sexy, adult sequence—it’s like a bit from Don’t Look Nowgot dropped accidentally into the middle of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. What are the chances that a modern action picture would ever try for a mood this oblique? Unless Steven Soderbergh were directing it, almost nil.

I loved every nasty, violent moment of The Getaway, and it may be the most misogynist movie I’ve ever gotten this much enjoyment out of. There’s an amazing subplot, for instance, involving Al Lettieri, who plays a fellow bank robber that McQueen shot and left for dead, and who spends the rest of the film on his trail, determined to snatch the cash for himself. He forces a veterinarian to tend to his wounds at gunpoint, and then takes the guy and his wife hostage. Amazingly, the wife (Sally Struthers!) has apparently been dreaming her entire life for a brutal thug to whisk her away from her boring existence, and she volunteers to become Lettieri’s accomplice and lover the very first chance she gets. (The Quincy Jones music that plays under this scene is wonderfully sleazy.) Her behaviour is so appallingly slutty that it’s hilarious—even the scenes where Lettieri ties up her husband and forces him to watch them have sex are played for comedy.

The flipside of this scene is a moment that takes place between McQueen and MacGraw by the side of their car on the side of a highway. She’s just shot the criminal who’s set up the bank robbery (who’s also the guy on the parole board that she slept with earlier), and McQueen still can’t believe she’d do something that stupid. So he slaps her. And he slaps her again. And then he slaps her a couple more times. It’s a really ugly, vicious scene—one that feels absolutely right for the character, but which makes you recoil from him in a way that again I doubt any modern Hollywood studio (or male star) would have the stomach for.

But the movie’s misogyny is inextricable from its themes—the screenplay is all about these parallel stories of a “good” unfaithful wife and a “bad” unfaithful wife. Which may be why the only bum note is the happy ending, with Slim Pickens giving McQueen and MacGraw his benediction for a blissful life in Mexico. It’s quite a departure from the insane, cannibalistic final chapter in Jim Thompson’s original novel, but the problem isn’t that Peckinpah is unfaithful to his source (which probably would have been unfilmable anyway); it’s that after two hours of emotional violence every bit as bloody as the shootouts, the idea of any married couple living happily ever after seems highly dubious.

- Paul Marwychak, The Moviegoer

It’s not very popular to assert the opinion that The Getaway is your favorite Sam Peckinpah film. As just a casual Peckinpah admirer, I might be able to get away with it, but I know I’m skating on thin ice among the faithful. I can only imagine the dismissive reaction I’d have if someone called Sabrina their favorite Billy Wilder movie. It could be generational. Peckinpah’s films now feel very much like the product of a bygone era. They’ve influenced countless filmmakers, but show almost zero modernity in comparison to what’s come along this decade. His patience is not particularly in style nowadays. Yet, that laconic quality is part of why I appreciate The Getaway so much. The film takes its time from start to finish. It’s an action movie with very little action.

As far as movie stars who understood subtlety in the ’60s and ’70s, the discussion begins and ends with Steve McQueen. The idea of him overacting is inconceivable. Detractors might view this as an emptiness, but I’d beg to differ. While the method style of acting gained notoriety for overdoing emotions to the point of fake realism, McQueen didn’t choose this particular path. His style was far more contemplative. A look from McQueen could eliminate half a page of dialogue. I’d love to have seen what Jean-Pierre Melville would have done with him. Instead, we know what Peckinpah was able to achieve while working with the actor both here and on Junior Bonner, two of McQueen’s four or five best films. In The Getaway, he’s Doc McCoy, who suffers the remedial prison life until his wife (Ali MacGraw) pays a porn-like visit to a man with bureaucratic pull named Benyon (Ben Johnson).

His sequence on the train in this film is probably my favorite, where a small-time con man thinks he’s lucked into the fat case of money only to have Doc track him down and administer a beating to the point of unconsciousness. McQueen says maybe a line or two (”when you work on a lock, don’t leave any scratches”) and demonstrates what it means to be a screen icon. The black suit with thin black tie helps, but none of his peers (even Paul Newman, who was McQueen’s unofficial rival and a better actor) could have so convincingly pulled it off with so few lines. This is the beauty of The Getaway for me. Peckinpah trusts McQueen (who also had final cut) enough to allow him to hardly say anything throughout the entire picture. It’s a movie with a minimum of dialogue, and little action, but played out with surprising coherence, never leaving the viewer uninterested.

His sequence on the train in this film is probably my favorite, where a small-time con man thinks he’s lucked into the fat case of money only to have Doc track him down and administer a beating to the point of unconsciousness. McQueen says maybe a line or two (”when you work on a lock, don’t leave any scratches”) and demonstrates what it means to be a screen icon. The black suit with thin black tie helps, but none of his peers (even Paul Newman, who was McQueen’s unofficial rival and a better actor) could have so convincingly pulled it off with so few lines. This is the beauty of The Getaway for me. Peckinpah trusts McQueen (who also had final cut) enough to allow him to hardly say anything throughout the entire picture. It’s a movie with a minimum of dialogue, and little action, but played out with surprising coherence, never leaving the viewer uninterested.

- clydefro

THE GETAWAY looks surprisingly good for a film that was disowned by its director. During the production Peckinpah and McQueen had more than serious creative differences with the actor having the upper hand, receiving the backing of studio heads and making sure that the final cut would be his and not Peckinpah's. Because of that, many of those who think of Peckinpah as a great director often have a low opinion of THE GETAWAY. This opinion is unjustified because Peckinpah's talent nevertheless managed to survive McQueen's intervention. Perhaps this film is bellow the highest standards of Peckinpah, but it looks like a masterpiece compared with the most of action films made today. The reason for that could be found in the realism that is present throughout the film - in authentic Texan locations, characters and motivations that resonate with people we might meet on the street, and in the action that is spectacular yet not beyond the realms of real life. From the first haunting shots that show the depressive monotony of incarceration, the audience is thrown to the world that doesn't look like a Hollywood fantasy. In this world heroes are often damaged or morally questionable, marriages aren't the fairytales in which people live happily ever after, and the crime is often in the form of petty thefts or small-time cons. Peckinpah nevertheless manages to turn this simple and prosaic reality into something truly exciting. One of the finest examples is the scene in a train, which uses rather simple yet unexpected plot development to create suspense of Hitchockian proportions.

- Dragan Antulov, All-Reviews.com

Like any old-time Western--a genre Peckinpah enjoyed updating and reinventing--"The Getaway" ends in a big shoot-out, so there's no questioning that this is an action movie. Still, you'll find a good deal of character interaction along the way, some of it fun, some of it illuminating, some of it tedious. Make no mistake, though: This is a Peckinpah picture, so expect the violence to be more realistic than in most previous Hollywood movies. Today, we take blood and guts for granted in action and adventure movies, but it was directors like Peckinpah who began the trend toward greater realism. He practically started the sights of blood-soaked bodies, slow-motion deaths, and the like. Nevertheless, the violence is not excessive, especially by recent standards; indeed, one might say it is almost quaint by comparison to some of our more contemporary films.

- John J. Puccio, DVD Town.com

Yes, The Getaway has a healthy dollop of McQueen coolness. And yes, it has the traditional drawn-bow tension and pacing of a Peckinpah film. But in the end, it's just a '70s outlaws-on-the-run potboiler; a poor man's Bonnie and Clyde. That doesn't make it a bad film; it's actually a good potboiler. But it does stand out in both the McQueen and Peckinpah canons as a primarily commercial, and not artistic, venture. It's neither artist's finest moment, but there's certainly no reason for them to be embarrassed by the film.

Unsurprisingly, the weak link in the film is Ali MacGraw. MacGraw is certainly a lovely woman, and she appears (at least in the rare interviews she gives) to be both intelligent and personable. But she was thrust into the limelight mainly because she was pretty and Robert Evans's girlfriend, not because she was an elite actor suited to be matched with talents like McQueen. McQueen ate her alive in The Getaway, completely overwhelming her (probably deliberately, knowing his personality) on the screen. And off it, too—by the end of the shoot, she and McQueen had abandoned their respective spouses for each other; their tempestuous marriage lasted five years. Frankly, that developing attraction is the best thing about her performance here. She clearly cares about Doc because she really cares about Doc. But her best and most real moment came when she wasn't acting—the infamous "slap" scene.

When Doc pulls over to the side of the road, gets out, and confronts Carol about her role in Benyon's double cross, Doc slaps her hard. A few times. The story behind the story here—something that, ironically, isn't discussed in this film's commentary track, but is discussed in the definitive The Essence of Cool documentary included as an extra with Bullitt—is that there was no movie trickery at work in the scene; McQueen really did hit MacGraw, and pretty hard to boot. Not only that, he told Peckinpah he was going to do it, and the two of them agreed that she shouldn't be told in advance. So Carol's response to Doc's actions are totally realistic—because MacGraw was reallybeing smacked around by Steve McQueen, and didn't know it was coming, and just responded as anyone would do in that situation.

Because of the magnitude of the tabloid fodder that the McQueen-MacGraw romance generated, it's easy to forget that this was not only a Sam Peckinpah film, but the second film he had done with McQueen. The first wasJunior Bonner, a sad, elegiac film about the death of the traditional American West, as seen through the character of a broken, over-the-hill rodeo rider. It was nothing like Peckinpah's "normal" films—nobody died, there weren't gallons of bright-red blood spraying around, and nobody had a slow-motion gun battle. Although Junior Bonner was a fine film, it flopped miserably at the box office—primarily because it was marketed as a McQueen action film. The two apparently enjoyed working together, though, and when McQueen (through his production company, Solar) approached Peckinpah about directing an adaptation of Jim Thompson's (The GriftersAfter Dark, My Sweet) novel, Peckinpah jumped. The Getaway had more action than Junior Bonner—but it still was no Wild Bunch or Straw Dogs. Was this a blatantly commercial venture? Did McQueen and Peckinpah view this film as a way to recoup some of the cost of the more personal and intimate Bonner? We'll never really know—but it was the most commercially successful film in Peckinpah's career, and arguably the most "mainstream" film he made. I guess sometimes you make a film for the love of the craft, and sometimes you make a film to pay your mortgage.

- David Ryan, DVD Verdict

As for [Peckinpah's] reliance upon blood, and the blood appearing real (although in today's sense, it looks very soupy and ketchupy, but I can only imagine back then), only helps reinforce his destructive qualities and render you helpless in regards to what's occurring on screen. Peckinpah's characters don't necessarily thrive off of what they have to do, they're just people making use of situations that were never meant to have rosy outcomes. These are people who use violence as not a means to an end, but rather, as a means of escape, as a means of restoring harmony to their narrative developments. Peckinpah does appear to relish these moments, shooting them in a very balletic style, allowing for the associated horror on screen to be juxtaposed with the very beautiful qualities told through his filmmaking. It works spectacularly, and while not at his particular best here (The Wild Bunch), he's still breaking boundaries not quite explored before with such panache.

- Newell Todd, Chud

Peckinpah’s skill is immediately in evidence with the opening, a lengthy montage which flicks backwards and forwards in time to give us a vivid impression of the monotony and aching frustration of prison life. Combined with brief flashbacks of Doc and Carol’s lovemaking, this vibrantly establishes the relationship between the central characters which Carol’s deal with Benyon – which involved sex as well as the robbery – puts in jeopardy. Throughout the film, Peckinpah’s style is crisp and straight to the point, driving the story forward with a raging momentum. His slight self-indulgence in the use of slow-motion is easy to forgive when placed in such a focused context. Sam also uses ellipsis to great effect, often giving the bare minimum of explanation and relying on us to fill in the gaps. It’s never directly stated, for example, that Carol slept with Benyon in order to get Doc out of prison. But it’s obvious in the unspoken looks between Doc and Carol, in Benyon’s self-satisfied manner, in Doc’s confused anger at his wife and his own post-prison impotence. Incidentally, it’s in this sideline of the story that we see Peckinpah’s own puzzlement and fury at women being reflected and it’s surely no accident that Doc’s slapping of his wife is so sudden and brutal. Yet the irony is that Carol is often as much of an active force in the film as her husband – it’s she who makes the deal and she who shoots Benyon for his assumption that she would happily kill her husband for her own safety. Although Ali McGraw’s blank-faced performance tends to mask this a little, Carol is a tough and intelligent woman and it’s not hard to see that this is one of the key factors keeping her and Doc together.

The relationship between Carol and Doc is pure Peckinpah, both in its vicious twists and turns and its ultimate fairy-tale ending. Sam was just as much of a romantic as he was a misanthrope and his feelings towards women were finely pitched between adoration and disgust. This also comes out in the subplot where the injured Butler forces a timid veterinarian to tend to his wounds and then decides to seduce his wife. The wife, played by the TV actress Sally Struthers, is deliberately and crudely sketched as the living embodiment of a sexist joke and I see her as the summation of Peckinpah’s negative feelings about women as unfaithful whores who want it rough because that’s the only thing they understand. If this were the whole of Peckinpah’s view of women then the labelling of him as a misogynist might have something to it but there’s also the tender, admiring side which comes out in complicated characters like Ida Lupino’s Ma Bonner in Junior Bonner and Isela Vega’s tough-as-nails heroine in Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. Indeed, Sam is often at his best when the two attitudes collide as in the character of Carol in this movie, in Straw Dogs and, most interestingly, in The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Having accepted that the Struthers character is an unashamedly sexist creation then it’s easier to appreciate some of Sam’s black humour such as the brilliant food fight in the car and the fact that what Butler actually wants is to humiliate the husband far more than he wants to screw the wife.

Indeed, one of the things which defines much of Peckinpah’s work in this period is his use of a stock company of technicians and actors whom he happened to find agreeable. He wasn’t able to use many of them on Straw Dogs - hence the appearance in his filmography of John Coquillion who later took over regular DP duties – but they’re all here bar one. Lucien Ballard is the cinematographer, doing a superb job with the extensive location shooting in Texas. Robert L. Wolfe is the editor, working alongside Roger Spottiswoode, and they produce some stunning stuff, particularly in that opening montage, the famous garbage truck scene and the climactic hotel shoot-out. Indeed, the action in The Getaway is superbly achieved throughout – although there’s less of it than you might expect and it’s never allowed to overtake the careful plotting and character development which Walter Hill’s screenplay takes such pains to achieve. In many respects, it’s very close to the original novel but it’s less cynical and the ending is completely different. Thompson’s ending is darkly brilliant as Doc and Carol find themselves in a living hell but I tend to agree with most other writers that this wouldn’t have worked in this kind of film. Thompson’s central couple are mean-spirited and opportunistic while Peckinpah’s are likeable and have their own sense of honour. I suspect the new happy ending was a commercial decision but I think it’s the right one. Peckinpah certainly wasn’t averse to downbeat endings per se, however, as a look at Pat Garrett and Alfredo Garcia will confirm.

- Mike Sutton, DVD Times

Other reviews:

- Rusty White, EInsiders.com

- Mark A. Rivera, Genre Online


The Getaway appears slightly more detailed than the simultaneously released Bullitt on Blu-ray from Warner and both are probably exact duplicates of their HD-DVD editions.  The image quality shows some grit and minor grain. It probably looked quite similar to this theatrically over 35 years ago.  This is only single-layered and one of the earlier classic brought to hi-def disc. Colors seem brighter and truer than SD could relate although it can tend to look blocky at times. Skin tones seem quite warm - contrast exhibits healthy, rich black levels. Daylight scenes are more impressive but nothing is overly dark. This Blu-ray has a nice realistic feel with the only black-mark being the stock footage used in the film which comes across quite poorly.  By modern standards this is fairly tame visually but as a representation of the original - I doubt much more could be done. This Blu-ray probably looks like the film The Getaway and it advances beyond the last DVD editions in several key areas - notably detail and colors.

Audio :

No boost going on here - its a mono track pushing mostly through the center channel. I like the authenticity but fans who indulge for their Surround systems will be left empty handed with The Getaway. Quincy Jones does a great score switching moods and encapsulating strong emotions with his deft arrangements. The closing harmonica theme music seems absolutely perfect and sounds crisp enough without range or depth.

Extras :

The supplements appear to duplicate the SE DVD with the fine Redman led commentary. The 'Virtual' Reel One Commentary by Steve McQueen, Ali McGraw and Sam Peckinpah is s nice nostalgic SD touch for about 10 minutes. There is an SD featurette on Jerry Fielding and The Getaway Reel 4 Bank Robbery Sequence with alternate Jerry Fielding Score in HD. As an audio-only bonus - we get the Alternate Jerry Fielding Score and a trailer gallery of Sam Peckinpah Films. Overall the commentary is the king and very much worth indulging in.


I loved revisiting this film in 1080P and got a lot more out of it noticing plenty of Peckinpah 'socially soured' touches. As an action/thriller this holds up just as well today and the chemistry of McQueen/McGraw is perfectly implemented into the story. This is infinitely superior to its Basinger/Baldwin remake and a great film to have on Blu-ray in my opinion. I doubt we're going to see it looking any better and I recommend!

- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver

Video: Warner made a similar misprint of The Getaway's packaging as it did with Bullitt, swapping the two films' aspect ratios. Despite what the flipside of the case claims, The Getawayis presented at its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and it looks fantastic in high-definition. Admittedly, its early moments in particular seem excessively dark, and the palette is dingy and heavy on browns, something that may be intended to reflect its dusty western setting. The image is crisp and smooth, richly detailed and light on the film grain I would've expected from a movie of this vintage. It's a marked improvement over the simultaneously-released HD DVD of Bullitt in that respect, and aside from potentially being a touch too dark, there really aren't any flaws of note -- the authoring seems adept, there are no nicks or specks in the source, and it's devoid of the telltale signs of excessive noise reduction. Very nicely done.

Audio: The Dolby Digital Plus audio sounds strikingly like a 35 year old mono track -- and that's exactly what it is -- but even if The Getaway isn't the most aurally impressive release, it's still reasonably robust. There's no thundering bass, of course, and the audio is obviously routed through a single speaker rather than dishing out a multichannel assault, but the film's dialogue is rendered cleanly and clearly, and Quincy Jones' score has an understated but decent presence. Nothing remarkable but no real complaints.

Monaural tracks are also offered in Spanish and French alongside subtitles in all three languages.

Extras: Although McQueen and Peckinpah are no longer with us and MacGraw doesn't seem keen on participating in DVD extras, Warner has compiled a virtual commentary with the three of them for the first ten minutes of the film, culling soundbites from vintage interviews. They each get a fair amount of time to themselves, discussing what drew them to the story and commenting on the lead characters, such as how universal and easily relatable Doc and Carol are even if they are bank robbers. They also each have their own angle to discuss: McQueen revealing that his Doc McCoy is a Bogart tribute and how he immersed himself in a maximum security prison alongside hardened criminals, MacGraw on her inexperience as an actress and her preference for working with strong directors, and Peckinpah on his response to the material and his thoughts on the movie some years later. It's too short to offer much insight but is fairly interesting nonetheless. Unlike a traditional commentary, the audio doesn't play over the movie itself, instead placing a timecoded version of the first reel of the film on the left of the screen while stills of MacGraw, McQueen, and Peckinpah appear on the right.

There is a proper audio commentary for the entirety of the film, moderated by Nick Redman and featuring three authors on Peckinpah and his films: Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle. They naturally devote little time to the behind the scenes comments that typically litter commentaries, instead relating The Getaway to the rest of Peckinpah's body of work, pointing out familiar themes and how the deliberate pace of the movie would never make it past studio marketeers today. This sort of emphasis on critical analysis isn't really my usual bag, but it's a welcomed change of pace from a traditional audio commentary.

Though not directly addressed as such, one topic briefly touched upon in the commentary is what Steve McQueen hoped to get out of the score by bringing in Quincy Jones. The score for The Getaway had originally been composed by frequent Peckinpah collaborator Jerry Fielding, and the remaining extras revolve largely around his involvement with the film.

In fact, Warner has gone to the impressive lengths of reinserting Fielding's music back into the film with an isolated score. Fielding's compositions are bouncy and somewhat country-flavored, placing particular emphasis on the snare drum, while Jones' has a more traditional funk flavor, heavy on bass and accompanied by strings and a guitarist mashing a wah pedal. It's surprisingly difficult to find all that many scenes to compare and contrast the two scores -- it's often the case that one track has music and the other is silent.

The late Jerry Fielding is also the focus of a half-hour featurette. Although it's named "Main Title 1M1: Jerry Fielding, Sam Peckinpah and The Getaway", that's somewhat misleading asThe Getaway is only touched upon for a few short minutes. This wonderful featurette pairs Camille Fielding, the composer's widow, with Peckinpah assistant Katy Haber as the two of them reminisce about these deeply creative men. Fielding introduces her husband's work by speaking about his early life and how he broke through the blacklist, and the remainder of featurette focuses almost entirely on the composer's tumultuous relationship with Peckinpah, even showing the text of a memo Peckinpah sent Fielding about his "overscored, pretentious" music for The Wild Bunch while screening dailies in a Mexican laundromat. The discussion about The Getaway includes notes about how unusually pleasant the experience was putting this film and its score together and how shattered Fielding was that McQueen replaced his score with one by Quincy Jones, so much so that it had lasting repercussions on the family cat. This featurette offers a sweet, charming look at these two men and is very much worth setting aside the time to watch.

- Adam Tyner, DVD Talk

Other reviews:

- Peter M. Bracke, Hi-Def Digest



Quotes found on the TSPDT profile page for Peckinpah:

"His preoccupation with the omnipresence of violence and the ambivalence of morality made for complex characters, never sure of their identity or their moral standing. But there was nothing ambiguous about Peckinpah's own view of man as an ignoble beast, though many questioned his insistence that the gratuitous gore in his films was in truth an expression of the director's quest for a better world." - (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)

"American director who has made some of the most exciting gun duels and action scenes ever put on screen. Nor was it all blood and thunder: the human spirit was never better celebrated than in some of Peckinpah's early work. Unfortunately, after The Wild Bunch, things did not develop quite as one would have hoped." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Illustrated Guide to Film Directors, 1999)

"The more that emerges on Peckinpah the man, the clearer it is that he was in brazen pursuit of his own fantasies - and expecting others to pay for it. A very dangerous man, because he could be so damn good. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid makes Clint Eastwood look like a carpetbagger." - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)

"The dying of the American West has been the subject of his best efforts (Ride the High Country, 62; The Wild Bunch, 69; The Ballad of Cable Hogue, 70). Lately, however, he's taken to projects containing mindless violence, limp plots, and surface characters (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, 75; The Killer Elite, 75)." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"I want to be able to make westerns like Akira Kurosawa makes westerns." - Sam Peckinpah

On the 29th December 1984, the day after Sam Peckinpah died at the age of 59, a small obituary appeared in The New York Times. It claimed that Peckinpah, "best known for his westerns and graphic use of violence. attained notoriety for such films as The Wild Bunch, a brutal picture that was by several thousand red gallons the most graphically violent Western ever made and one of the most violent movies of all time." (2) With the release of The Wild Bunch (1969), Peckinpah became known as "Bloody Sam". In 1971, Straw Dogs hit the screen and the cult of notoriety was cemented: Peckinpah became a marketable, yet controversial director. Much sought after, he gave contentious interviews to a variety of newspapers and magazines including GamePlayboyFilms and Filmmaking and Take One, while also writing letters to newspaper editors justifying his work and slamming his detractors. (3) Under the microscope of feminist film theory his sometimes aberrant treatment of the representation of women and his "excessive" use of violence was noted and condemned. The critical uptake of the notion of Peckinpah as the "master of violence" and the momentum of the debates that ensued affected not only the discussion of his so-called "violent films" but also the reception of his more "gentle" ones. Peckinpah made numerous television serials and three films before The Wild Bunch, none of which was heralded as brutal, or violent. After The Wild Bunch, he made The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and after Straw Dogs he made Junior Bonner (1972). Both The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner are about individuals who are running out of time and space-but they are also full of the affirmation of life.

The Wild Bunch
The Wild Bunch

In working through the criticism that has evolved around Peckinpah's 14 films, what becomes evident is the concentration on specific moments in this working history. The personal mythology surrounding Peckinpah is inscribed in much of the writing generated by these films. A drunk, a coke addict, a sentimental romantic, possibly schizophrenic, a little man with a big chip on his shoulders-Peckinpah is said to be many things. Yet it is obvious from the large body of critical literature, which includes reviews, articles and numerous books, both critical and biographical, that Peckinpah is not a "neglected" filmmaker; rather, there is an unwillingness to deal with the paradoxical nature of his films. In an allusion to Pauline Kael, the 1995 Peckinpah retrospective held by the Film Society of the Lincoln Centre was entitled: "Blood of a Poet". (4) In this short phrase Kael captures something elemental about Peckinpah's films, something that is often ignored-that the intensity, resonance and vitality of these films' aesthetic expressiveness, be it violent or utopian, takes us into the realm of the poetic.

Charting the path of Peckinpah's critical and personal reputation is something like taking a roller coaster ride. From the late '60s through to the '70s, Peckinpah was both celebrated and condemned as the cinematic poet of violence. After this brief period, although occasionally producing films that express the strength of his artistic vision, he went into an erratic artistic and physical decline. By the end of the '70s, he disappeared into obscurity; yet after his death, he slowly began to re-emerge as an influential presence who left us with a disparate but rich cinematic oeuvre. In 1993, the BBC produced Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron (Paul Joyce, 1992), a feature-length documentary dealing with his personal life and films. Retrospectives have also been staged at the Cinémathèque Français in Paris, at the University of Missouri in Columbia, and at London's National Film Theatre, while Film Comment and Sight and Sound have published reappraisals of his work. Major publications in the last ten years include David Weddle's 1994 insightful biography, Paul Seydor's 1997 "Reconsideration" of his 1980 text Peckinpah: The Western Films (1980) and two collections of essays on The Wild Bunch(5) Michael Bliss' Justified Lives: Morality & Narrative in the Films of Sam Peckinpah, which was published in 1993, is one of the few texts that deals with all of Peckinpah's films; while Stephen Prince's Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies explores Peckinpah's work in the context of changes within the industry and the social milieu in which this filmmaker was working. Some of the most insightful and thoughtful work on Peckinpah's films has been produced by theorists and critics such as Bliss, Terence Butler, Jim Kitses, Mark Crispin Miller and Paul Seydor who address Peckinpah's films within the context of an American literary tradition and the western genre. Bliss and Seydor have picked up where Jim Kitses started, claiming Peckinpah as the son of an American cultural tradition that includes Cooper, Emerson, Hemingway, Faulkner and Mailer. Both these writers address his films in the context of the western, discussing his tarnished approach to the original ideal. These major reappraisals, the re-release of The Wild Bunch and the retrospectives have all helped to re-ignite interest in Peckinpah's legacy as both a mercurial personality and an important director whose influence is acknowledged by many contemporary filmmakers, including Kathryn Bigelow, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and John Woo.

- Gabrielle Murray, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

The first point that must be made, here in the 21st century, is that Peckinpah's films are not terribly violent. That's how he made his reputation: as "Bloody Sam", the man who never met a bucket of theatrical blood he wasn't willing to splash around, and who always made certain you knew when the blood was about to flow, by means of slow motion. Still, by today's standards, the better part of the Peckinpah canon is not terribly violent - not when judged against today's rivers of gore. There are, in Peckinpah, no fountaining bodies, no bits of brain tissue splattered about. Anything released in the last 20 years is quite a bit more repellent. Seen any of those Saw movies?

And the very last thing Peckinpah shot? Right before his death? Julian Lennon's music videos for Vallotte and Too Late for Goodbyes. Did he need the money? Did he like playing the underdog? Was there something moving about musical advertisements for the son of a famous victim of violence? However you answer these questions, there's something starkly beautiful about Valotte. Julian Lennon, his features and his voice so unsettlingly reminiscent of his late father's, sits alone at the piano in a recording studio, as the camera seems to hover, as if from hereafter itself, at the uppermost corner of the ceiling above the performance.

There's nothing flashy or cheap about the video (in an era when cheap was the order of the day), and everything about it feels understated, even graceful. But whose heavenly ken is depicted therein? From the top of that ghostly staircase? John Lennon's point of view, lamenting a son he insufficiently came to know? Peckinpah's, who knew his time was short and that his vision, as realised, was incomplete? Maybe Valotte was a sort of funeral oratory, too - one, as in David Warner's speech from Cable Hogue, in which the orator was unable to lie.

- Rick Moody, The Guardian

Sam Peckinpah on Facebook


Stories of Steve McQueen's troubled childhood and roustabout adolescence never squared with the fastidiousness of his screen persona, the aristocracy of his best roles. McQueen did not need to act snobbery and elitism; his whole being vibrated with a sense of natural superiority. Only once, in The Thomas Crown Affair, did he play the wealthy and powerful man he was in real life, and then the role fitted him as perfectly as his tailoring.

Repressed loners in search of standards were McQueen's speciality. His wintry blue eyes, neat movements, and clipped unemotional voice told you everything you needed to know about life on the road, in the trenches, in prison, or on the trail. He did not mind being unsympathetic; audiences knew he was a cut above those around him, and identified with his locked-tongue loneliness, his private obsession—something Peckinpah explored (and exploited) to great effect in The Getaway.

The best McQueens are in the 1960s. His ambitious young professional gambler in The Cincinnati Kid, psychopathic World War II G.I. in Hell Is for Heroes, World War II pilot in The War Lover, itinerant jazz musician in Love with the Proper Stranger, and rootless wanderer in Baby the Rain Must Fall all flirt with villainy, particularly in their callous attitude toward the women who love these driven men. His Frank Bullitt in Bullitt is no better, but when, in the final enigmatic scene, he returns to his apartment after the bloody airport shootout, sees his mistress sleeping, and impassively washes his hands before joining her, the line between hero and clod is decisively drawn.

John Baxter, updated by John McCarty, Film Reference.com

Video Essay for 955 (97) Hitler: A Film from Germany featuring commentary by Susan Sontag

Visit the original entry for the film It's been 30 years since Susan Sontag published her essay that instantly became the definitive analysis of one of her all-time favorite films. I've taken choice excerpts from her essay, as found in A Susan Sontag Reader (published by Farrar/Strauss/Giroux) to produce the following video.

Thanks to Margaret Donabedian for giving voice to Sontag's words, and Cindi Rowell for her invaluable assistance in editing the video.

959 (101). The Hart of London (1970, Jack Chambers)

screened Thursday March 11 2009 on DVD via fileshare in Weehawken NJ TSPDT rank #511  IMDb Wiki

While the link between experimental and horror filmmaking remains largely under-examined, there's no question that some of the great works of experimental cinema could double as outstanding horror films: Peter Tscherkassky's Outer Space (which commits unspeakable acts on footage from the 80s horror flick The Entity), numerous titles by Stan Brakhage (i.e. The Art of Vision; The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes), even Michael Snow's Wavelength exudes an existential nausea in stillness that anticipates Kiyoshi Kurosawa by a few decades. While horror films typically depict violence in cinema, these avant-garde works, especially Jack Chamber's deeply disturbing 1970 film, commit violence on cinema, doing things to the celluloid medium that can leave both the viewer and the art form traumatically transformed. In The Hart of London, the horror erupts from the clash of human civilization and the great unknown that envelops it: an endless, brutal battle waged on multiple fronts: past vs. present, man vs. animal, wilderness vs. domesticity, surfaces vs. essences.

The film kicks off with a beautiful slow-mo shot of a hart deer leaping out of a forest into the town of London, Ontario, where most of the film's footage was shot. It's capture and killing at the hands of the locals sets off a snowstorm of archival photos and film footage, a cinematic blizzard superimposed double exposures, horizontal flips and negative inversions. Chambers' achievement here is in making the most innocuous footage of small town Canada seem foreign and menacing, a frontier past whose contentious relationship with its environs belie the civic aspirations of its archival imagery. This maelstrom is set to a relentless soundtrack of crashing waves whose initial aural violence gradually settles the viewer into its steady rhythm.

The surf sounds eventually give way to the gentler but no less incessant gurgle of tidepools, introducing the film's singularly most disturbing passage, where images of  children alternate with footage of sheep being slaughtered, a stunning juxtaposition of humankind's aspiring mastery over life and death. Chambers orchestrates these dual modes into a flow made possible by the tidepool soundtrack and liquid superimpositions of body parts, vegetation and bodily fluids. A recurring theme of cutting recurs through footage of an infant circumcision, shrubbery being trimmed by giant scissors and a slaughterhouse worker sticking his blade through the necks of sheep, which segues to more brutal, bloody footage of an infant child yanked from a womb. Children frolicking in a too-blue swimming pool interspersed with blood red footage of aborted sheep fetuses (some indiscernible from human counterparts) and a heap of freshly-disemboweled sheep intestines still writhing in digestive activity.

The film's last movement seems satirically vicious with its leering portrayals of domestic life: Canadians engaged in idiotic lawn games like barrel boxing; posing with their gardens or with a trespassing wolf they've killed; pointing at family photos and showing off caged canaries. Despite all the brutality that Chambers has envisioned up to this point, he seems to find these images of safe human home life just as horrifying in their own, somewhat lobotomized way, and in no way reassuring from what lurks beyond their papered walls. The final images of Chambers' own children approaching wild deer at the edge of a park, as their mother repeatedly hisses "You have to be very careful," leaves the viewer hanging in a tense, perpetual stalemate between mankind and the world around him.

THE HART OF LONDON is viewable in its entirety on YouTube

THE HART OF LONDON PART ONE (scroll down for other parts)



This rarely screened 1970 film by Jack Chambers is one of the cinema’s strangest masterpieces, mixing poetic and documentary footage to ponder the clash between nature and civilization. With its raw nervous energy, its juxtaposition of color with black and white, and its peculiar array of imagery (the birth of a baby, the slaughter of sheep, the filmmaker mowing his lawn, a field being plowed, dense superimpositions of images that sometimes bleach to near white), The Hart of London recalls an earlier oddball masterpiece, Christopher Maclaine’s The End (1953). Chambers’s film begins with news footage that shows a hart prancing through backyards in London, Ontario, in 1954; its pursuers capture and kill it, and that disturbing scene echoes throughout. In the first half, poetic superimpositions of London create an odd mix of seduction and rebuff, and in the second, Chambers mixes his own footage with news cinematography, suggesting that we’ve reduced both ourselves and nature to images not unlike store-window displays. Chambers, who was diagnosed with leukemia the same year he began the project, once said that the film was about “generation,” and the cycles of life and death are ever present.

- Fred Camper, The Chicago Reader


The Hart of London combines archival newsreels with original footage while adding an undercurrent of simmering violence to the mix. Superimposing found images of a deer being trapped and killed in downtown London with antiquated images of the city in industrial transition (trolleys and automobiles share the street with horse-drawn carriages), Chambers re-creates an urban history that is original, expansive, and severe. As a parallel to the thematic motif of the persecuted deer, Chambers introduces chilling colour footage of lambs being slaughtered (photographed on a return visit to Spain) at the film's midway point. Chambers writes, "In the second part of the film [these slaughterhouse] images become symbolic of the pursuit and death of the deer. This theme is repeated again and again in the real images of everyday life."  These "real images" include several staged, mechanical spectacles (a teenager diving into an icy river, crowds gathering to observe a brush fire), as well as repetitive, banal daily activities (a man trimming his hedges, Chambers cutting his lawn). The consistent tension generated and sustained over the course of its demanding length, without the aid of musical cues or voice-over exposition, demonstrates why The Hart of London is considered Chambers' greatest cinematic achievement. Fred Camper, for instance, identifies The Hart of London as "one of those rare films that succeeds precisely because of its sprawl."  Stan Brakhage, meanwhile, has described The Hart of London as one of "the few GREAT films of all cinema - 'great' in the meaning of the word which suggests the breadth and depth it contains within the length it supports."

Brett KashmereSenses of Cinema Great Directors biography
The Hart of London combines archival newsreels with original footage while adding an undercurrent of simmering violence to the mix. Superimposing found images of a deer being trapped and killed in downtown London with antiquated images of the city in industrial transition (trolleys and automobiles share the street with horse-drawn carriages), Chambers re-creates an urban history that is original, expansive, and severe.
Through the course of the film, man encroaches on nature from every angle. People emerge from underground transport, parachutes fall from the sky and bridges cross water. Even children make sand castles on the beach preparing for the next image of concrete buildings. In the final analysis, nature seems to confront London’s inhabitants as an enigma or threat. At the film’s very end, children (Jack Chamber’s own) approach a hart with food, and their mother whispers warnings; the animal as object, filmed from afar, suffers from a perceptual uncertainty. In the case of a dead wolf, its hunters turn it into their image and have it wave and greet their woman at home, like a man returned from the woods.
While man thrusts himself on the environment, containing it and turning it into his image, Chambers treatment of the filmed image creates a fracture between the filmed and the ‘film’. His jarring superimposition of positive and negative creates particularly interesting deployments of light. In the case of newsreel footage of a horse and cart ploughing the field, he overlays a positive and negative of the same image, and only a small time displacement between the images makes the superimposition readable.Whilst light in cinema creates image and thus life, here Chambers acknowledges this but pushes further asking what it is interpret and recognize, unlike the objective view as propagated by the newsreels he uses and subverts to this end.
Speaking to writer Avis Lang (whose article is reprinted in a 1984 issue of the Capilano Review), Chambers said that The Hart of London is about “generation.” The filmmaker was diagnosed with leukemia in 1969, the year he began work on the film, which might explain its numerous disasters and frequent juxtapositions of life and death. But there are other major threads as well. Like many avant-garde films it explores objective versus subjective perception, and Chambers also suggests that all things are mystically unified by light. His theme that we’re alienated from nature is hardly novel, but it’s intertwined with a brilliant analysis of how news cinematography caters to the viewer’s voyeurism.
Every other major sequence in the film recapitulates the opening’s tension between nature and humanity. About midway through, Chambers juxtaposes two aerial shots: the first shows a few swimmers dispersed across a body of water, the image crisp and high contrast; the second, clearly news footage shot from a passing airplane, records a catastrophic flood, homes surrounded by water in lower-contrast gray. Later in the film, possibly staging a publicity stunt for news cameras, a young man swims across an icy river in winter, until he’s forced out and hustled into a van by police, captured just like the hart. Next Chambers shows victims of some sort of bombing or mine collapse being led from a hole in the ground, the newsman’s lens treating them not as humans but as just another parade for the viewer’s entertainment. In yet another sequence an extremely lush close-up fills the frame with leaves before a focus change reveals a pair of metal clippers trimming the plants; they emerge so gently that one has to wonder if our very conception of nature is shaped by our desire to alter it for display. Near the end of the film Chambers appears trimming his lawn with a power mower, and the rectangular lawns stretching out behind him remind us that we all play a role in carving up nature.
As part of his attempt to deal with the unruly sprawl of life, Chambers embraces contradiction. Perhaps the most dramatic example occurs when he cuts from black-and-white footage of a baby being born to color footage of lambs being slaughtered, the latter shot during a return visit to Spain. The Christian symbolism may seem blatant, yet by juxtaposing color with black and white Chambers startles the viewer, short-circuiting the most obvious interpretation. Writing in Artscanada in October 1969 and December 1972, Chambers described his work as “perceptual realism” and later “perceptualism”; his writings are dense and theoretical, but apparently he wanted to prolong the moment of perception before a person interprets what he sees, placing him in “a state of receptive passivity that somehow releases a higher...sense.” By opening himself up to such “wonder,” a viewer might be able to “perceive the Invisible Body ‘behind’ the world.”
An early script for The Hart of London included images of Christ descending from heaven, yet Chambers’s work also seems related to gnosticism, a connection one might infer from his statement that reality is “an invisible pattern of energy which in its attenuated, material form becomes trees, river, people, sky.” The Hart of London seems to set up a similar dialogue between objects and light: dense superimpositions occasionally bleach almost to white, which contrasts image as the container of a recognizable object with image as pure light. Many of the images are of London, including a man with a rifle (echoing the capture of the hart) and an imposing grid of windows from a downtown building. Trees may “attenuate” reality, but human constructions are even more severe.
Chambers aggressively managed his own medical care and lived until 1978, yet The Hart of London reveals a heightened awareness of human vulnerability in the face of nature—the sequence of Chambers cutting his lawn is followed by an aerial shot of stone ruins. And in the film’s penultimate scene, home-movie-style footage that Chambers shot himself, two deer stand by a fence in the London zoo; they aren’t wild, but Chambers’s two young sons approach cautiously while on the sound track their mother repeatedly whispers, “You have to be very careful.” They succeed in feeding the deer, and afterward Chambers pans from a river up to the sky, ending with a view of pure natural light. While Avis Lang takes these last two scenes as optimistic assertions that “the world is a miracle,” the whisper hints that the deer may be dangerous, and more than once the film’s editing has transformed benign activities into disasters. The world may be “full of wonder,” in Chambers’s phrase, but it also has the potential to kill us.
- Fred Camper, from his feature review for The Chicago Reader.  An even longer review exists on Camper's website.



Jack Chambers is one of Canada’s most famous and greatest living painters. Why then have his films been as neglected as they have been? I feel that it is because his films do not arise as an adjunct to his painting (as is true in the case of most other painter film-makers) but that, rather, Jack Chambers has realized the almost opposed aesthetics of paint and film and has created a body of moving pictures so crucially unique as to fright paint buffery: thus his films have inherited a social position kin to that of the films of Joseph Cornell in this country. The fact is that four films of Jack Chambers have changed the whole history of film, despite their neglect, in a way that isn’t possible within the field of painting. There are no ‘masters’ of film in any significant sense whatsoever. There are only ‘makers’ of film in the original, or at least medieval, sense of the word. Jack Chambers is a true ‘maker’ of films. He needs no stance, or standing, for he dances attendance upon the coming-into-being of something recognizably new: (and as all is new, always, one must question the veracity of all works, whatever medium, which beseem everything but that truth).”

- Stan Brakhage

Jack Chambers is a renowned realist artist, whose notion of perception as a synthetic experience was formally expressed in a distinctive collage style of filmmaking. Through this style, he influenced the development of the diary and landscape film. In 1969, his aesthetic manifesto, Perceptual Realism, affirmed his belief in art as an intuitive but mediated response to the unity underlying all things. It also confirmed his preference for the photograph as a memory-aid as it preserved the original image without distortion.

Chambers, as a painter, was formally trained in traditional art making. From 1954 to 1959 he attended Madrid’s Escuela Central de Bellas Artes de San Fernando where he excelled as a student, winning the state prize for painting and the Paular Scholarship for landscape painting. He chose to study in Europe because he felt constrained by London’s conservative environment and the inadequacies of his local technical school, H.B. Beal. In his 1978 autobiography, he wrote, “I could only go so far with what I was doing... coming to the same deadend again and again.”

Spanish culture exerted a major influence on Chambers, and many aspects of his work reflect this influence: the preoccupation with death and recollection, the surrealist challenge to the normality of surface reality, an appreciation for light’s revelatory power and references to Catholic iconography. Other influences include mysticism, especially the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila; the occult and parapsychology, where notions of an underlying life force or energy binds all things together. All of these ideas contributed to Chambers’ belief in the visionary nature of the artistic experience. For him, the moment of individual self-awareness when “our souls and the souls of things become present to one another” encompassed myriad associations, past and present, which took the form of temporal and spatial disruptions in his artwork.

Chambers might have settled permanently in Spain, but he returned home in 1961 because of a family illness. His encounter with the landscapes of his youth and the memories it engendered had a powerful effect on him: “The memory of such places multiplied the longer I remained so near them, and the images wedded to their presence surfaced in me like the faces of long lost friends.” He realized his representations of Spanish culture would never possess the same resonance, and so he returned to London.

Collage artist Greg Curnoe, Chambers’ closest friend, recalled that Chambers started using a 16mm camera in 1964 to explore the London landscape. In an interview with arts reporter Lenore Crawford in 1969, Chambers remarked on how film was a liberating influence: “After I shot hundreds of feet of film and then edited it to eliminate the non-essentials, I realized what I needed and what I could leave out of a painting.... A painting doesn’t need to tell a story of any kind. It can be appreciated for what’s in it. There doesn’t even have to be relation of objects.” This statement describes his films equally well.

Chambers’ reputation as a film artist is based on the five works he completed between 1966 and 1970: Mosaic (1964–1966), Hybrid (1967), R34 (1967), Circle (1968–1969) and The Hart of London (1968–1970). A mixture of newsreel footage, home movies and photographs, these films reject the notion of linear time, characteristic of popular cinema, because Chambers thought the narrative illusions that resulted misrepresented the true character of human perception.

Using various montage strategies — semantic and formal — his films invest the viewing experience with a sense of “presentness,” so that individuals undergo the same process of self-awareness as Chambers (confrontation of the fragility of domestic happiness, the brutality of human nature, the challenges of artistic ambition, the inevitability of death).

- Kathryn Elder, The Film Reference Library

Elder is the author of The Films of Jack Chambers. Published by Indiana University Press, 2003

The paltry critical recognition afforded Jack Chambers' films in the '60s and '70s by Canada's film intelligentsia is typical of the avant-garde's marginalised status during its formative period. It should not be surprising, therefore, that most of the criticism of Chambers' film work of that time was published in visual art periodicals such as Canadian Art, artscanada and Artmagazine, and usually integrated with commentary on painting. Barry Lord, writing in artscanada, suggests that Chambers' films have "begun to recapitulate the development of his paintings." Gene Youngblood, also in artscanada, states that "Chambers, in my estimation one of the most important painters at work today, manages to invest his films with that special quality of 'cosmic fantasy' that characterizes his paintings." Mario Amaya, in a review of Chambers' paintings published in Art in America, observes that Circle "approximates the analysis of changing light on a particular subject that so obsessed Monet." ) The expansion of Chambers' formal and thematic concerns from painting into filmmaking is also the theoretical underpinning of Bruce Elder's detailed analysis of Circle. His essay "From Painting into Cinema" is the most thorough and convincing example of this approach so far. By expounding on Chambers's period of silver paintings (1966/67) as a key transitional passage in the development of his cinematic interests, Elder cogently traces the artist's preoccupation with light and time as manifested in Circle, and investigates the Romantic character of Chambers' ideas about art, nature and perception, as set out in his artistic manifesto "Perceptual Realism," showing how these ideas, too, find a precise articulation in Circle.

Jack Chambers' position in the Canadian avant-garde cinema of the 1960s can be assessed by reference to the changing contours of Canadian cultural policy around the time of Expo 67 (held in Montreal). Other factors, such as the Canada Council's financial commitment to experimental film beginning in 1967, the emergence of the campus underground as a viable alternative exhibition network, the establishment of Canadian Artists' Representation (CAR), also in 1967, and the development of independent film distribution cooperatives in Toronto, London, Montreal and Vancouver late in the '60s, all helped to determine the practical conditions necessary for a sustainable Canadian avant-garde cinema.

Since the avant-garde cinema was proposing a new kind of film, a new kind of viewing environment was also necessary. The 16mm projection equipment that had been integrated into schools and universities during the 1950s helped to provide an exhibition and distribution network for the Canadian avant-garde in the 1960s: college campuses essentially began to function as a ready-made parallel theatre chain. Chambers' primary motivation for forming the London Film Co-op in 1968 was to get his films distributed. In the 1960s, thanks in part to the New American Cinema's breakthrough success (not to mention Andy Warhol's international celebrity), screenings of avant-garde films on Canadian university campuses became quite common. Through these screenings, Canadian film experimentalists such as Chambers had an opportunity to network with and gain knowledge from their American opposite numbers. Chambers was especially influenced by Stan Brakhage's work; Brakhage's Window Water Baby Moving (1959) has been cited as a primary inspiration for Chambers' first film, Mosaic. Brakhage was also instrumental in getting Chambers' films some distribution in the United States, initiating Chambers' first American screening, held on November 15, 1977 at Pacific Film Archive. However, because Chambers was unable to travel due to his deteriorating health and myriad artistic commitments, his films were, even then, seldom noticed beyond the occasional passing references in film festival or visual art overviews. The contrast between Brakhage's ubiquitous presence and Chambers' near absence (except close to home) on the late '60s university circuit helps explain why Chambers' films were not more widely seen and, therefore, written about.

The emergence of the campus underground, coupled with the establishment of film co-operatives like Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, London Film Co-op, the Intermedia Film Co-op (Vancouver), and the Independent Film Makers Co-op (Montreal), allowed an effective system of distribution to develop; this network of parallel co-ops also helped to establish lines of communication between filmmakers in different parts of the country who would otherwise not have had means of contact. Jack Chambers' pioneering involvement with CAR, a national arts service organisation founded on Chambers belief in "fair exchange: payment for services," assured that filmmakers would eventually be compensated for the exhibition and reproduction of their work. It was within this cultural-historical milieu that Chambers worked to unite the various aspects of what remains Canada's experimental film apparatus.

His most decisive contribution to the development of a sustained, alternative Canadian cinema, however, was in the films he made, expanding on his own artistic strategies and concerns. As an early predecessor of subjective autobiography, Chambers' work anticipates the first-person, diary strain that surfaced in Canadian avant-garde film during the 1960s and '70s, emerging simultaneously in films such as Chambers' Mosaic and Circle, Watersark (Joyce Wieland, 1965), and personal documentaries made by the NFB experimentalist Derek May. (21) The traces of this impressionistic diary mode can be located in a wide range of later films including House Movie (Rick Hancox, 1972), The Art of Worldly Wisdom (Bruce Elder, 1979), The Road Ended at the Beach (Phillip Hoffman, 1983), Was (Mike Hoolboom, 1989), and You Take Care Now (Ann Marie Fleming, 1989). And the integration of quotidian subject matter and amateur tactics into film texts and formal repertoire, by, respectively, Chambers and Wieland, effaced the boundary between avant-garde film and "home movie." Films such as Nursing History (Marian McMahon, 1989), Girl from Mouch (Gariné Torossian, 1993), Zyklon Portrait (Elida Schogt, 1999), and What these ashes wanted (Phillip Hoffman, 2001) testify to the enduring influence of Chambers and Wieland on the fusion of art and life in Canadian first-person cinema.

- Brett Kashmere, Senses of Cinema Great Directors biography

957 (99). La Luna / Luna (1979, Bernardo Bertolucci)

screened March 3 2009 on Fox VHS TSPDT rank #920 IMDb Wiki

Opera singer Jill Clayburgh is sucked into a sexually charged pas de deux with her rebellious drug addict teenage son after she whisks him off to Italy following her husband's untimely death. It may be that Italian arthouse incest movies just aren't up my alley, but between this and my viewing of Viscconti's Vaghe Stella dell'Orsa [TSPDT #718] I see a lot of cinematic talent stumbling to elevate the salaciousness of its subject, resulting in much incoherent hysteria. Vittorio Storaro's swirling tracking shots characteristically generate an energetic atmosphere, though their fluidness clashes with the Cassavetean awkwardness of the dysfunctional mother-son dialogues. For Bertolucci, the story falls within a career-long template of characters wallowing in bourgeois decadence leading to a search for a remedy, whether through Marxism (Before the Revolution, The Last Emperor, The Dreamers), non-Western cultural immersion (The Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha) or family revelation (Stealing Beauty, Luna). Here he seems less concerned with weaving a coherent narrative than in savoring isolated moments, whether sensory (a beautifully choreographed opera sequence; the arrival of mother and son in Italy in black limo heralded by an armada of skateborders) or sensational (boy stabs his arm with a fork in lieu of a needle to inject his fix; mom jerks off son to help ease his withdrawal). A mess, but it has its moments.


The following citations were counted towards the placement of Luna in the TSPDT Top 1000 films:

Dennis Harvey, PopcornQ (1997) Don Ranvaud, Sight & Sound (1982) Rainer Gansera, Steadycam (2007) Stanley Kwan, Sight & Sound (1992)

Six minute family dysfunction highlight reel:

Bernardo Bertolucci's Jungian remake of High School Confidential!, with Matthew Barry as a strung-out teenager and Jill Clayburgh as his mother, who believes in unbounded maternal affection as a cure for his affliction. Clayburgh is an American opera singer living in Italy, a character ploy that allows Bertolucci to explore a clash of cultures as well as an operatic clash of emotions. Loud, vulgar, and frequently obnoxious, the film nevertheless has a perfect integrity in its excesses. This is filmmaking from the groin, unabashed and unrestrained.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

No matter how civilized we Americans think we are, we find it nearly impossible to walk with both feet off the ground at the same time. We are incurably literal minded. We keep thinking of gravity.

This, I suppose, explains my skeptical reactions to Bernardo Bertolucci's new film, "Luna," about a beautiful, successful, willful, American star of grand opera and her brief, unsatisfactory love affair with her 15-year-old son, who is a junkie — which may well be the most obscure movie metaphor of all time. The film, which opens the 17th annual New York Film Festival tonight at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center, is one of the most sublimely foolish movies ever made by a director of Mr. Bertolucci's acknowledged talents.

The difficulty in dealing with Mr. Bertolucci is that he doesn't seem to be an artist totally devoid of humor. Because of that, I kept feeling that "Luna" really intended to be funny — laughably funny — when it was being most outrageous. I don't think it is, however. I suspect he wants us to be both moved and shocked by the awful plight of Caterina (Jill Clayburgh), the opera star, and her deeply troubled son Joe, played by Matthew Barry in the snippy manner of the child actor who played Sidney-the-sissy in the Our Gang comedies of my youth.

Caterina, in the person of Miss Clayburgh, comes close to being a great character. She's a mass of contradictions. She's selfish but generous, loving but forgetful, self-absorbed but truly responsive to her art. When Miss Clayburgh says to her son, whose passivity infuriates her, "I come from a world where singing and creating and dreaming mean something," we believe her, for neither the first nor the last time. It's a fine, complex performance in a movie that isn't.

One of the movie's grand set-pieces is a scene in which Joe, beginning to feel the terrible need for a fix, is comforted by his ingenuously sexy mother. As she cradles him, he starts sucking at her breast. Her response is to masturbate him to a climax and then, we are led to assume, to a peaceful, drugless snooze. As bizarre scenes go, it is far less shocking than schematic. I also wonder about its medical accuracy, because I've always understood that such giddy sexual activity was impossible for an addict. Has Mr. Bertolucci discovered a substitute for Methadone? But there I go — being literal again.

- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, September 28, 1979

Bernardo Bertolucci’s press conference at the 1979 San Francisco International Film Festival got off to a rocky start. The Italian director’s most recent offering, Luna, had been receiving unfavorable reviews, including one by Chronicle critic Judy Stone, published just the day before.

Newspapers, the Italian director noted, “should help an audience that has had its sensibilities destroyed by TV to understand that films are different. Critics should offer analysis and see the films within a cultural perspective. But in America, there isn’t much sensitivity or a political vision of culture.”

“Here, critics say, ‘I like. I don’t like.’ That’s not the point. It’s quite irresponsible, sitting in this ivory tower.”

Stone (who sat directly in front of the director in the press room) had described Bertolucci in print as “the man who introduced Marlon Brando to the erotic potentialities of butter,” a reference to the infamous sex scene in Last Tango in Paris. She’d also noted that Bertolucci’s native Parma is a region famous for its hams.

Luna may be outrageous, Bertolucci admitted, but it’s “not ashamed of emotion.” Cinema, he added, “is the language of reality, reflecting the way people live.” He was trying to make films that are “dialogues with the audience. Before, we were making monologues.”

But he did concede that casting an American was motivated by fear. “I couldn’t stand the idea of an Italian mother and an Italian son, with the Pope and the Church and all the Italian implications…. It would have been too much for me. I had to keep some distance.” In response to criticism that Clayburgh had been miscast, Bertolucci called the actress “a natural woman” who has “great allure.” A lot of people, he added, think an opera star must have big breasts and be fat.

In defense of the film’s apparent disjointedness, its shifts from the son’s perspective to the mother’s and back again without ever saying who was looking, he explained, “I’m trying to deal with the inconsistencies of life, the incoherence of life, the confusion that’s around us and within us. In the ’60s, I was more attracted to revolution; in the ’70s, I started to follow my own language. Luna, in its increased experimentation, is a return to my past.”

- Barbara Alexandra Szerlip, Great Moments at the San Francisco Film Festival

In the wake of the debilitating struggle over 1900 (he has often described the experience as akin to having all his bones crushed) Bertolucci's next two films could be seen as a calculated retreat: Luna (1979) is the small-scale, though no less gorgeous, story of an American opera singer (Jill Clayburgh) struggling with her disaffected teen son (Matthew Barry) and his drug addiction during a trip to Italy. One senses in the film a deliberate attempt by Bertolucci to reinvigorate his career by re-examining his work, especially in the charming manner in which the film becomes a travelogue through the director's earlier career – from the farm in 1900 to an appearance by Pasolini regular Franco Citti, to a small but inspired moment when the boy's father, right before his sudden death, discovers a piece of gum stuck under a balcony railing – right where Brando's character in Last Tango left it, immediately before his own demise.

- Bilge Ebiri, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

This mix of melodramatic spectacle, schocking behavior, Verdian grand opera and Hollywood-style flamboyance results in a highly uneven, unfocused, manic, and bizarre film of muddled intentions. In La Luna, Bertolucci includes characters that break into spontaneous and bizare behaviors similar to the characters on Last Tango in Paris, but he also adds other elements of Hollywood films like Rebel Without a Cause and even Saturday Night Fever. But all of these elements not only not blend well but they literally clash, collide and collapse especially in the last section of the film when Bertolucci attempts to justify his out of control storyline with the most preposterous Oedipal explanation.

The truth is that Bertolucci seems to be pushing the limits with no other purpose than to see how far he can go. There is no attempt to explain why Joe has become addicted to drugs, except when he whines during his heroin withdrawal “I just don’t care about anything!” But the truth is that he cares about a lot of things. We see his genuine interest towards his mother’s singing, exploring sex with his new Italian girlfriend, and caring enough to say no to marijuana when offered to him. If anything, Bertolucci is using the drama of drug addiction as a catalyst for the story of incest. Once again there is no hint on why such a relationship develops. Bertolucci introduces some ridiculous scenarios, as in Caterina scouting heroin from her son's drug dealer, a hysterical scene in which Caterina releases her anxiety in a Jane Fonda-like workout routine with her apparent lesbian friend, and that infamous but also ridiculous mother-son masturbation scene. And then, there is that Oedipal conclusion concerning Joe’s real father written and developed so poorly that it ultimately sinks any credibility left in the film. In short, Bertolucci’s story lacks logic and and credibility due a script weak on character development that ultimately serves as feeble excuse for the gratuitous , laughable and not so erotic set pieces.

- Pablo Vargas, The Spinning Image

Coming in around the middle of Bertolucci’s career, La Luna feels almost like a caricature of his greatest films. Once again he tries to push the boundaries of taboo and erotica, but unlike Last Tango in Paris, this attempt was not nearly as successful or well received. It just isn’t as whole of a film and it almost always feels like something is missing. There is so much build-up, but so little payoff, and the drama and conflict feels contained and exploited. Perhaps in trying to push audiences even further, Bertolucci was forcing too much out of his film, and ended up turning it over on itself, with bland oddness and overlong moments of emptiness. It’s frustrating to think that he may have approached this film with less than the best in purely artistic intentions. However, that does not mean La Luna isn’t delicately polished with lush mise-en-scène, which Bertolucci will always be proficient at. Unfortunately, it just isn’t nearly enough to overcome the tired shock value of the story, or the uninspiring flatness of the main characters, despite their excellent performances.

Sweetly, the film does have an almost epic quality which I was able to, at times, get lost in. This is brought about by the sinuous camera, sexual undercurrents and prominent use of opera, which heighten the experience considerably above simple depravity and exploitation. There are multiple themes laden across La Luna, the most prominent of which being the incestuous relationship between mother and son. As if this wasn’t enough to work with on its own, there is also a bout with heroin addiction and the search for a father figure. It’s heavy, no doubt about it, but it doesn’t go far enough into the characters, or even far enough outside them, to justify so much transgression. Perhaps there was just too much involvement needed that I wasn’t able to find, so I ended up feeling distanced when I should have felt embraced and affected.

- Polar Bear's Film Journal

Some old fashioned motherly love:


A characteristically stunning transfer from Arthaus, which has apparently emerged as Germany's equivalent to America's Criterion. The image is crisp, clean, and sharp, with vivid colors and natural contrast and grain, with only occasional noise visible over black in darkly lit scenes. The disc is dual-layered with a progressive transfer, and the monaural sound presents no problems. The original soundtrack, included on this disc, is 99% in English, yet there's the odd instance of Italian dialogue here and there. Although the disc contains only removable German subtitles, I didn't sense that the Italian dialogue contributed anything vital to the film.

This disc comes with a catalogue insert of Arthaus's other releases. Special features include filmographies, a photo gallery (whose images look culled from the pressbook), advertising materials, and additional text supplements -- such as an interview with Bertolucci -- all written in German. While the supplements are not a significant selling point, the film has probably not looked this good since its release. Despite its critical reception at the time, "La Luna" has its followers, and it's long been an elusive film to obtain, existing only as bootlegs (recorded from cable airings) and a Japanese laserdisc (with frontal nudity censored). Those awaiting a proper DVD release of this won't be disappointed.

- Paul Haynes, DVD Beaver


IMDb Wiki

Biography at Film Reference.com

Quotes found on the TSPDT profile page for Bertolucci:

“At the age of twenty-one, Bernardo Bertolucci established himself as a major artist in two distinct art forms, winning a prestigious award in poetry and receiving high critical acclaim for his initial film, La commare secca. This combination of talents is evident in all of his films, which have a lyric but exceptionally concrete style.” -   Robert Burgoyne (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)

“One of the cinema’s greatest masters of visual beauty, especially when assisted by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci’s films are also dramatically naive and pretentious far too often, even addled at times, resulting in risible scenes even when respected actors are used. But at least the nine Oscars won by The Last Emperor, one of his three near-masterpieces, have assured that Bertolucci will not simply go down in history as the man who made Last Tango in Paris.” - David Quinlan (Quinlan’s Film Directors, 1999)

“One of the most accomplished directors of the contemporary Italian cinema…Bertolucci, who believes that “cinema is the true poetic language”, had applied his celluloid poesy mostly to political-human themes, but with Last Tango in Paris (1972) he moved into the realm of the purely human. It established Bertolucci as a commercially viable director as well as a highly gifted one.” - (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)

“The psychological and intellectual man in society has been brilliantly explored by Bertolucci.” - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)

“I’m no longer interested in making political films. There’s something old-fashioned about them. Young people now don’t care for politics. It isn’t present in life as it used to be. And increasingly I like films which reflect present-day reality.” - Bernardo Bertolucci (1999)

Biographical Entry from Ephraim KatzThe Film Encyclopedia

Interview with Bertolucci by Nathan Rabin, The Onion A/V Club, 2004

An even better interview by David Thompson at the BFI National Film Theater, 2003

Very few international directors in the past four decades have managed to remain at the “critically successful” as consistently as Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, whose career has straddled three generations of filmmaking, four continents, and several movie industries. Alongside his provocative explorations of sexuality and ideology, his highly kinetic visual style – often characterised by elaborate camera moves, meticulous lighting, symbolic use of colour, and inventive editing – has influenced several generations of filmmakers, from the American “movie brats” of the 1970s to the music video auteurs of the ’80s and ’90s. Perhaps the most important reason for Bertolucci’s continuing relevance has been the intensely personal nature of his movies: although he makes narrative features, very often based (albeit loosely) on outside literary sources, Bertolucci’s films over the decades reveal distinct connections to their creator’s private dilemmas and the vagaries of his creative and intellectual life. In other words, he has been able to fulfill his dream of being able “to live films” and “to think cinematographically” – to lay bare his inner life through his work.

- Bilge Ebiri, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

956 (98). Lucifer Rising (1972, Kenneth Anger)

screened Sunday February 22 on Google Video and fileshare .avi en route to New York City TSPDT rank #900 IMDb

Despite having its copious array of montage and staging techniques pilfered by hundreds of music videos and commercials over the years, Kenneth Anger's incantatory envisioning of a sacred rite spanning the world retains a hypnotic spell untouched by its imitators.  Unabashedly sexy and hypnotic as hell, the film joyously embraces its libidinal energies and demonic inspirations, channeling an arcane series of references to Egyptology and the occult practices of Aleister Crowley and expressing their power in purely cinematic terms. Summoning Lucifer as the bringer of light, the film celebrates that same light and its infusion into a rich, sumptuous cinema of opulent color schemes and geometries of clairvoyant precision.  Superimpositions, associative flash cuts, venetian wipes, seesaw tracking shots, a complex, oddly moving rock score by Bobby Beausoleil, and the special effect known as Marianne Faithfull (aka the saddest eyes in the world) are all woven into an effortlessly lucid stream of violence, sex, death and cosmic consummation.  As far as mythic worldmaking goes, Anger's work conveys a richer imagination and mystic wonder - never mind cinematic resourcefulness - in 30 minutes than the entire Star Wars and Lord of the Rings series combined.



"A film about the love generation - the birthday party of the Aquarian Age showing actual ceremonies to make Lucifer rise. Lucifer is the Light  god, not the devil - the Rebel Angel behind what's happening in the world today. His message is that the key of joy is disobedience. Isis (Nature) wakes. Osiris (Death) answers. Lilith (Destroyer) climbs to the place of Sacrifice. The Magus activates the circle and Lucifer - Bringer of Light - breaks through."

- Kenneth Anger on Lucifer Rising

Perhaps Anger's most elaborate film, Lucifer Rising takes place at various historically magick spots in Egypt, England and Germany. The odd rock-tinged soundtrack (composed and recorded by [Bobby] Beausoleil in prison, after a reconciliation with Anger) pulls viewers through a series of obsessively staged and hauntingly realized ceremonies, movements and rituals.  Experimental editing techniques, mixed with more traditional cinematic structures, add to the eerie and compelling visual quality of this avant-garde masterpiece.   Marianne Faithfull,  the Rolling Stones (Anger had wanted Jagger to play Lucifer), Satanism, lightning, pyramids and extravagant costumes are only a few of the contributing elements that bring this film to a fever pitch of strangeness and cultural abstraction.  Like other Anger films, it reads like a music video from outer space or Ancient Egypt ... or wherever the two may meet ...


Lucifer Rising is a departure from his previous major works. If Pleasure DomeScorpio Rising and Demon Brother remained fixated on death, Lucifer Rising is about rebirth, a celebration of the power of nature and of the ancient gods. It is a film of breathtaking beauty and power that supplants the closed worlds of Pleasure Dome and Scorpio Rising as well as Demon Brother's zone of all-pervading disorientation with an awesome sense of timelessness and spatial immensity, engendered at least in part by having been shot at often sacred sites all over the world. The 'ritual structure' of the previous films is present, but opened up. It now operates on two levels, encompassing the world of the gods as well as the efforts of the adept at summoning them. Linking Egyptian mythology, embodied by Isis (Miriam Gibril) and Osiris (Donald Cammell), with Crowleyan practices, it celebrates Lucifer not as the devil but as lord of light. 'Lucifer' Anger observes 'is the patron saint of the visual arts. Colour, form, all thee are the works of Lucifer.'

- Maximillian Le Cain, Senses of Cinema

It’s tempting to assume Lucifer Rising was a reaction to the times and his critics. He had certainly never made anything as epic before (or since), filming in exotic lands — Karnak, Luxor, Avebury, and Stonehenge — using tones and textures to blend primitive and contemporary images, building his way to a futuristic crescendo in which a coral-colored UFO hovers above ancient Egypt. Sedate and painterly if compared to the pace and character of most of his 60’s films, Lucifer Rising appears as a heartfelt, reverent celebration of creation and the act of worship. The less erudite (re: this viewer) may have to fall back on crib notes to distinguish the film’s characters and functions. We’re told that the scenario traces “the ascension of Lucifer (Horus), Bringer of Light, invoked by Isis, Osiris, Lucifer’s Adept, Lilith and the Magus.” (For further explanation, click here.) Color me mundane. To these eyes, Anger’s flat-out showmanship has never been more striking.
- Ray Young, Flickhead

Lucifer Rising exists as an intersection between two filmic ideas, and it is within this intersection that the film gains it's power: more than any other film, Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising is about spectacle and hypnosis.

From a level of spectacle the film is pure ritual, literally and figuratively. Juxtaposing mythological images of ancient Egyptian Gods with contemporary Thelemites, Anger delineates the progressive nature of time in order to present to the spectator the necessary elements of the ritualistic form his film is taking. But what makes the ritual appealing to the audience is divorced from this esotericism--it's the nature of the films' aesthetics. Anger's level of artifice is exemplary; hyper-pervasive primary colors permeate every frame, shockingly electrified negative images pop up for brief moments, highlighting both the phenomenon of nature (lightning, volcanic eruptions, the birth of an alligator/lizard) and the exclamation points of banal events (as we tour through the hallway a man absently shuffling a deck of cards suddenly throws them into the air).

Anger's camera--generally static at a fixed angle in all of his films leading up to this one--finally begins to move in the aforementioned hallway scene, which is one of the most enigmatic tracking scenes that I've encountered through all of cinema. As we move through Anger's many tableau with a steady tempo, echoed by the calm score, there is an abject atmosphere of anxiety that arises: the film is telling us that something is going to happen soon, and we don't know what that is, but it's going to be something important.

Bobby Beausoleil's score is another necessary element of the film: composed from his prison cell, Beausoleil's score provides the soundtrack for Anger's film in the only instance where specific music has been produced for the specific film (excluding Jagger's grating drone "composed" forInvocation of My Demon Brother, the rest of Anger's films, as popularly recognized, are simply coupled with 50s and 60s pop music, often to an ironic extent-- there is no irony present in Beausoleil's score for this film). The soundtrack itself is an excellent piece of work, with or without Anger's images married to it. It is a bit psychedelic and ambient, echoing both the naturalistic evocations brought about by Anger's pensive landscape shots, and the internal psychedelia that plays a pivotal role in the film...

The only problem with the film is that from what people expect of Anger (from a locus of popular culture), Lucifer Rising is more of less at odds with what has generated Anger's reputation: it, to a large extent, lacks the hyper structural editing that initially put Anger on the map, as well as being totally devoid of the pop music that Anger pioneered the music video with. It is also not necessarily indicative of the homosexual avant-garde that Anger often gets lumped in with. The often ridiculed "campy" costumes are merely ritualistic signifiers. They are just conduits to a larger idea that is inherent within a much larger system, and reading the images as nothing beyond camp is discredited Anger as an artist, as a magician. But these are all surface level details-- further exploration into Anger's oeuvre reveals that Lucifer Rising is more accurately a culmination of everything Anger learned in making films. The obsessive fetishism of objects and sensory details is present, as is the already mentioned religious strain that permeates all of Anger's films, and all of this makes it easy to see that this is Anger's best film.

- Magick Mike, Esotika Erotica Psychotica


An extended account of the production history of Lucifer Rising by Tony Rayns

From an interview with Roy Frumkes for Films in Review

FIR: This is the 30th anniversary of the theft of LUCIFER RISING which strikes me as an important moment in the history of experimental film in this country, and I would love to hear the truth about the event.

KA: I began LUCIFER in San Francisco, where I met Bobby Beausoleil. He was a teenager at the time and a guitarist in a psychedelic acid rock band called Love. He was of the astrological sign of Scorpio and I’m Scorpio rising. He had shoulder-length hair and a very charismatic character and a harem of girls, which is what gave him the nickname Cupid.

We seemed to hit it off well. One day he asked if he could take my van and go down to LA from San Francisco because he had a deal-something to do with his own band. I advanced him some cash and he disappeared with the van, and when he came back, he put these wrapped-up packages in my studio. Eventually I became suspicious and cut open a corner of a package with a razor blade, and there was a compressed kilo of grass, which he had scored somewhere down in southern California, or possibly Mexico, which placed me in jeopardy, not only because he was a minor, but if there was going to be any kind of bust or anything…

I was furious over this, and when he came back I said, “Look. You’ve betrayed me.” He was a very tricky character in my view, very much like the Indian Trickster in American Indian folklore. Anyway, I literally put him outside the door, but he had the keys to the van, and he took it. I said, “Well, we’ll worry about the car later.”

I went out to dinner a night or two later and he came back and took the film. It was enough for about an hour and a half feature; it was practically finished.

The van he stole from me finally expired on the edge of the San Fernando Valley, and the place where it stopped was right across the street from the Span Ranch. The Span and Iverson ranches are both movie locations, with a lot of recognizable boulders. They’ve been in dozens of westerns and serials. An interesting location, and a bit eerie. And, as a matter of fact, the Manson family, including Charlie, were holed up in the Span Ranch.

FIR: And Bobby just happened to break down there?

KA: Yes. It’s one of those coincidences that, if it were in a novel or screenplay, you’d be pushing it in the coincidence department. But that is how it happened and that is how he got mixed up with the Manson family, because he did move in.

At the time, they were dealing dope and so forth. That’s how they were living, as well as from petty theft. A musician had sold some marijuana, a rather large quantity of it, to Manson. And Manson, acting as a middleman, had resold it to a chapter of the Hell’s Angels. And the Hell’s Angels, when they smoked this stuff out in the desert somewhere, had nearly died.

It turned out at that time that the DEA - the Drug Enforcement Agency - were doing dirty tricks on hippies. They were treating drugs with cyanide, etc. So that if you smoked it you’d get sick almost to the point of expiring. The idea was that it would create a paranoid situation where you couldn’t trust the pot, so you wouldn’t smoke it anymore. In any case the Hell’s Angels got very sick and their girlfriends got very sick. They all turned green, started to have convulsions, and when they got over this enough so that they could make some coherence of their thoughts, a group of them went to see Manson, who said “Well, I got the dope from somebody else.” And they said, “Okay. You kill whoever you got it from.” So Manson, being the little chicken-shit coward that he is, chose Bobby and said, “As the newest member of the family…” to test him, I guess, “you go and kill Gary Hinman,” who was the musician, living in Topanga Canyon, who was also a Buddhist, ironically, considering that this tainted dope came from him. And so, Bobby, with one of the girls, (Susan, who later became notorious for being involved in the Sharon Tate massacre) killed him, after doing some very nasty things like cutting off an ear, while Gary recited some sort of Buddhist mantra the whole time.

FIR: Good lord.

KA: Bobby was an intelligent kid, but these guys were taking acid, smoking hashish and pot, and dropping pills all at once. They were out of it. Imagine killing someone, throwing the bloody knife in the back of the guy’s car and stealing the car - which may have been better than the old jalopy that Bobby had, but… He was caught the next day driving around in Gary’s car, with the knife that he killed Gary with still in the back seat, with the blood still on it. He was sent to jail in 1969. He was in prison a month before the Sharon Tate massacre, which was done by a group of the Manson family on the instructions of crazy Charlie. Charlie never did these things himself, but sent his zombies out to do them.

About a month after the reels were stolen, I received a call from a woman and was told I could have them back for 10 thousand dollars. I said, “Well, I don’t pay ransom. And I don’t have the ten grand, anyway. So get lost.” She said. “Charlie told me to tell you.” I didn’t know who Charlie was. I never met Manson. To me, they were just crazy hippies. I was getting pissed off at the whole scene. I thought, all these kids, representing so-called flower power, they’re all in a moral swamp. They don’t know good from bad or up from down. And they’re stoned all the time. I was older than they were by quite a bit. I was in my 30s and they were in their teens. That was about the time that the Gray Line tourist bus started to come around, the looky-loos, full of tourists gawking at the hippies, and that was really the end of it. It made them all self-conscious. And then the heroin moved into the scene.

I was crushed when my film was gone. Friends told me to leave California, and in a sense I’d always felt that anyway. If something bad happens somewhere and I can possibly get away from the actual place, I will. So I went to New York, and that’s when I took out the ad. I felt I either had to do that or I had to do something very strong to stabilize my inner psyche, because I was in a terrible state. I was actually quite suicidal. And I said, I will kill the artist in me. I won’t make any more films, it’s over. And I’ll do an obituary with a black border, with dates from FIREWORKS to the murdered LUCIFER RISING. It worked in the sense that I didn’t kill myself.

I then went to England and pieced together the scraps of LUCIFER RISING that had been left in the dutting bin and, just as a joke, showed them to Mick Jagger. And he said, “It’s great. I’ll do a score for it.” And he improvised on the Moog synthesizer for 11 minutes and created my score for INVOCATION OF MY DEMON BROTHER. And that’s how that film came about, culled from the scraps of LUCIFER RISING.

When I was in England - now we’re talking about the early ’70s - I was going to give up movie making completely after making one last film. I put everything I had into this new one. I sold my stocks and bonds. I wanted to make a feature. It was conceived like a dance film. The movements and the music would all be conceived at the same time. I basically remade the original using the same title, LUCIFER RISING, but with a cast including Mick Jagger’s brother, Chris, Marianne Faithfull, and my friend Donald Cammell, the director of PERFORMANCE, who played Cyrus. It evolved into something much more interesting. With my connections in London, I got, amazingly enough (I’m the only American who ever did), assistance from the National Film Finance Corporation, which was a (now-extinct) government bank for film projects. They had permission, as a branch of the government in England, to finance artistic projects that weren’t necessarily going to bring back their money. They had put up the money for UNDER MILKWOOD when that was made into a film. I submitted an outline to them, and I got the equivalent of $50,000, which was a considerable amount of money at the time, particularly for a 16mm experimental project.


Commissioning an original score for Lucifer Rising was a smart decision. His colorful introduction to Bobby BeauSoleil, running up to the musician after a show proclaiming “You are Lucifer!” is detailed in an account written by Michael Moynihan for an attractive, informative booklet included with the new, 2-CD Lucifer Rising soundtrack. Other than capturing the mood(swings) and sense of abandon prevailing in and around the Haight/Ashbury during the late-60’s, when the young musician was in the Bay Area bands The Orkustra and The Magick Powerhouse of Oz, Moynihan has a clear appreciation of his music. (You can read portions of their extensive interview sessions online.) Composed and recorded in prison between 1977 and 1979, BeauSoleil worked in a makeshift studio on bare bones equipment with an ensemble of fellow inmates. Collectors have circulated bootlegs of the sessions for years, copied from the limited vinyl pressing BeauSoleil once made for family and friends. But this new edition — authorized by BeauSoleil and Anger — has been cleaned up and digitally mastered. Tight budgets and antiquated technology notwithstanding, the music now has the breadth of a major studio recording. All things considered, this could be the most important soundtrack release of the year.

lr002AA Donald Cammell in Lucifer Rising
The complete soundtrack runs nearly forty minutes on one disc, and the second CD serves up stages of its evolution. Tapes thought to be lost (or nonexistent) were tracked down, including two unexpectedly clear instrumentals by The Orkustra. There’s also a 1967 session of the Magick Powerhouse of Oz doing an embryonic Lucifer Rising that shows the influence of jazz fusion, and rehearsal tapes of the Freedom Orchestra recorded ten years later, that occasionally drift into vibrant solo improvisations. Performed on mostly electric instruments by non-professionals, the music has a palpable organic texture and is rooted in the blues. The film could ask for no better accompaniment, and it’s nearly impossible to imagine Anger’s vision working as well as it does without this sound. “It not only perfectly suits the mood of Anger’s film,” wrote Michael Moynihan, “but even seems to have been scored precisely to coincide with certain visual images that occur onscreen.” This is either good fortune or symmetry with the gods, because there wasn’t a finished print of the film to work off of. BeauSoleil had to rely on description and a partial slash print. He supplies a few buoyant passages that invite movie Mickey Mousing (such as the playful “Part IV”), but the rejection here of Hollywood cliché is a given. (In the film, this piece accompanies Marianne Faithfull’s ascension of Star Mountain.) Offsetting the electronic foundation, a lone trumpet is used in moderation adding an underlying sense of melancholy — and brought to mind Ennio Morricone’s work of the 60’s. Most of the score revolves around a predominant riff, an infectious cascading chord progression that has the cyclical flow of an acid trip churning toward its peak. It may be nostalgia for some (it all bears a superficial resemblance to the late 60’s Pink Floyd of A Saucerful of Secrets), but these ears found the twenty-five-year-old music vital and alive . . . and prompted the question, whatever became of BeauSoleil? An interesting man with an interesting story, he continues to compose and record, and has managed to build something of a small recording career from prison. The samples of his work that can be heard for free online sound like mini-scores for films yet to be made, and are on a par with, if not superior to, most of the material now written for the movies.
- Ray Young, Flickhead

Led Zeppelin guitarist and leader Jimmy Page has been fired as composer for the soundtrack of the film "Lucifer Rising" by it's director, Kenneth Anger. Speaking in London on Friday, Anger decried Page for time-wasting and a lack of dedication to the project, and claimed that Page's personal problems had made him impossible to work with. Page has been working on the film for the past three years and has so far delivered some 28 minutes of completed tape. The story of the collaboration -and the ensuing rift- goes back to 1973 when Page first agreed to compose and perform the movie soundtrack. He and Anger first met at Sotheby's, at an auction of boots by the English Occultist/Magician Aleister Crowley. Both Page and Anger are students of Crowley's teachings. Anger is a practicing Magus (a priest/magician) and his films'of which "Scorpio Rising" is perhaps the best known --- are replete with occult symbolism. Anger himself describes them as "Spells and Invocations".

Page has often expressed interest in the teachings of Crowley. He owns the second largest collection of Crowley's books in the world, and one of his three houses is Crowley's former residence at Boleskine on the shores of Loch Ness. "Lucifer Rising", Anger's most ambitious project to date, deals with the "fallen angel" of orthodox Christian Mythology, who in Anger's film is restored to his Gnostic status as "the Bringer of Light"; an implicit part of Crowley's own teachings.

The collaboration has continued intermittently since their first meeting. Anger commuting between London and New York to oversee the publication of his book on film-star scandals, "Hollywood Babalon", and Page involved with Led Zeppelin performances and recording. For the past three months Anger has been using the film-editing facilities in the basement of Page's Victorian manse in London, to trim the 17 hours of film he has in the can down to 1 ½ hours. Page had the equipment installed to work on another project, "Zeppelin Live at Madison Square Garden" film, provisionally titled, "The Song Remains the Same". Anger's work at Page's house was terminated by an extraordinary sequence of events beginning Tuesday night when Anger apparently the unwitting victim of domestic fraces was ordered to leave the house by Page's girlfriend, who was staying there at the time. No reason was given for his eviction. He returned to the house Wednesday morning to collect his film material and belongings to find the door locked and bolted. The same afternoon, Anger, unable to reach Page himself, informed his management/record company Swansong that the film collaboration was off and that Page had been fired from the project. Thursday morning Anger was eventually able to recover some of his belongings and the film from Page's now empty London home. Jimmy Page, in town for a friend's funeral, was unavailable for comment, but a spokesperson from Swansong claimed to be totally mystified by the news that the guitarist had been fired from the Lucifer project; he even expressed surprised at the information that Anger was even in London.

Friday, morning, a piqued but by no means disconsolate Anger was to be found at Page's home removing the last of his belongings and film artifacts-including the crown of Lucifer, paste studded with rhinestones from a dress once worn by Mae West. "I haven't laid eyes on Jimmy Page since early June" he said. I've been trying to get in contact with him since then; I've fixed meetings through his office and been stood up half a dozen times. I've left messages on his Kafka-esque answering machine. All I've had is promises that the soundtrack is on it's way, but nothings materialized. I've got a fucking film to finish."

Page claims "Now whether he felt that he had to get me off his back I don't know. I mean I didn't start hassling, I just wanted to see the bloke finish the bloody film. I mean it's whole history is so absurd that it was unfinished because he was such a perfectionist and that he always ended up going over his budgets. All I can say is that Anger's time was all that was needed to finish that film. Nothing else'. Anger had also made allegations that his belongings had been held-impounded by Page and his cohorts. "What a snide bastard. His stuff was just all over the place and I just got some roadies to get it all together for him. Christ, he even turned that one against me." "I mean, I had a lot of respect for him. As an occultist he was defiantly in the vanguard. I just don't know what he's playing at. I'm totally bemused and really disgusted. It's truly pathetic. I mean, he is totally powerless-the only damage he can do is with his tongue."

- from uncredited article found here

CR: [Bobby Beausoleil] ended up scoring Lucifer Rising.

KA: After he was in prison--he’d been sentenced to death--he was reprieved because temporarily the death sentence was lifted in California and then it was put back. So he was, like, on death row and then taken off death row. Apparently there’s something like double jeopardy: once you’re on death row you can’t be put back on it again. I don’t know, the laws are in such a fuzzy mess, anyway. When I knew that he was finally in prison I--

One way or the other we began exchanging letters and so forth. And finally I went to visit him in prison [Tracy State Prison, California], and then I met the psychologist of the prison, who was a woman named Dr. Minerva Bertholf. She was a wonderful woman. And she said, "Well, Bobby has all this talent, and he has time on his hands." She was being ironic to say the least. "And he’d like to record the music for your movie now that’s he’s here." So she arranged for it to be possible a few days a week for the various musicians in prison to get together with Bobby and record the music. And that’s how it happened. It’s the only time it’s ever been done, and I never could have done it without the help of the head psychiatrist of the prison system. And she said it’s better that they’re recording music than rioting or whatever.

CR: Are you still in contact with him?

KA: No, because he’s married, he has several kids now. I can’t keep track of how many kids. He’s married a couple of times to prison groupies. They’re older women--well, not so old, but I mean they’re women who’ve probably been married once before, and that turned out to be the case. They probably have children by a former marriage. And there’s a certain type of woman who becomes--for psychological reasons that are probably suspect--they become enamored of killers in prison. Or notorious people in prison, in other words.

- Anger, interviewed by Carl Russo


As promised, here is our review of the 2nd Volume of Fantoma's The Films of Kenneth Anger, which immediately proves itself to be as essential a release as the first compilation.

All of the films look as fine as they ever will. "Scorpio Rising" starts the set and features a nice, film-like amount of grain, vivid colors and excellent contrast. The image of this film, as well as of all the others, is free of any digital noise or damage. Still, "Scorpio Rising" is an intentionally rough-looking film due to being the closest that Anger has ever come to making a documentary (as he says himself on the commentary). "Kustom Kar Kommandos" is a less improvisational film (visually, that is) than "Scorpio Rising". This carefully composed three-minute film about the fetishism of cars is presented in a very detailed transfer with strong colors. "Invocation of My Demon Brother" may very well have been the hardest transfer to get right. The film features many superimpositions and other distortions of the image, so we can be thankful that there is no ghosting or combing to be found. Instead we get a crystal-clear transfer with very vibrant colors. On this release we also get a different version of "Rabbit's Moon". This shortened cut of the film is set to a different piece of music and was made by Anger as a present to one of Stan Brakhage's children. The transfer though is the same as on the first DVD release, which means that it's pretty much flawless (it's the only film of Anger's Magick Lantern Cycle that was shot in 35mm). Next up is what many consider to be Anger's magnum opus, "Lucifer Rising". Here again, we get a sharp, detailed transfer with fine contrast and no artifacts whatsoever. Remarkable work all the way through.

The 2.0 soundtrack for all the films is excellent. There is no dialogue in these films, just the musical score, which sounds very strong in each movie. As I mentioned before, this disc's version of "Rabbit's Moon" features a different musical score. This time it's the catchy and quite rare pop tune "It Came in the Night" by A Raincoat. We also get an alternative audio track for "Invocation of My Demon Brother" that I have never heard before. Performed by the Magick Powerhouse of Oz (which can be glimpsed in the film) this is a piece of soundtrack recording that was done in 1967 at the Straight Theater in San Francisco for Anger's first version of "Lucifer Rising" (which wasn't completed and resulted in "Invocation of My Demon Brother", a re-edit of the left-over material, set to a Moog synthesizer score by Mick Jagger). While this is not intended as an alternate soundtrack choice for "Invocation of My Demon Brother", it is (according to the menu) "presented here to provide a glimpse into the times and atmosphere in which many of these images were created". It's an astonishing piece of music in its own right, very psychedelic and timely.

As on Volume 1 we get a full-length audio commentary by Kenneth Anger himself. The great man talks extensively about the production of his films, how they came about, what happened during the shooting and much more. He gives us background information on some of the bikers in "Scorpio Rising" and mentions his relationships to Jimmy Page and Bobby Beausoleil on the tracks for "Lucifer Rising" and "Invocation of My Demon Brother". There are still some expectable dead spots on the commentary, but Anger manages wonderfully to tell us as much about these films as he can. This is mandatory listening for any fan.

I recently voted for Fantoma's two Kenneth Anger Volumes as the best DVDs of the year and can only continue with my praise in this review. Fantoma has done a lot of fine work over the years, but this remains their greatest triumph. They were able to finally sort out the music rights issues of "Scorpio Rising", created phenomenal transfers of all the films, invited Anger himself to record audio commentaries and packaged it all in two beautiful digipacks with lovingly assembled booklets. To come to the point, this is one of the finest presentations of avant-garde film on DVD ever made, right up there with Criterion's By Brakhage: An Anthology. Essential viewing.

- Stan Czarnecki, DVD Beaver

Along with the restoration demonstrations, each film is accompanied by a commentary from Anger himself. Those expecting the man behind Hollywood Babylon to offer up juicy insights into his films are going to be largely disappointed, though he does have a few gossipy tidbits to offer about Marianne Faithful and her drug habits on Lucifer Rising. But more often than not Anger is matter-of-fact in his presentation, focused on interpreting his dense symbolism and obscure narrative threads (which is admittedly helpful), and occasionally commenting on these productions and people involved. The other bonus features include an alternate score for Invocation of My Demon Brother, which is made of fragments of Beausoleil's supposedly "lost" original score for the first version of Lucifer Rising; and the short film The Man We Want to Hang (2002), one of Anger's most recent forays into filmmaking, which is a documentary-like look at the colorful, rather grotestque artwork of Anger hero and famed occultist Aleister Crowley. The most valuable bonus feature is certainly the 40-page booklet accompanying this set. Containing an introduction by Martin Scorsese and essays by Gus Van Sant and Guy Maddin, the generally fawning comments and tributes offered up by these significant directors serve as further proof of Anger's profound and continuing influence on contemporary cinema. Also quite interesting and enlightening is an extensive interview with Beausoleil on his involvement in the first, fated production of Lucifer Rising(though he doesn't elaborate on some of the more fascinating rumors), as well as the production of his score for the second version. Overall, it's an extremely well presented booklet full of stills and loaded with great information.

- Jesse Ataide for DVD Verdict


Rich Rosell for Digitally Obsessed

Michael Den Boer for 10,000 Bullets

Cinema Strikes Back

Photograph by Mark Berry



When most contemporary film-critics think of underground cinema, Kenneth Anger's unique vision quickly springs to mind. Anger is mentioned in the same breath as Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage, and his canon are perennial film school student case-studies. Anger has had a major impact on avant-garde film artists and major-league film directors like Derek Jarman, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Francis Ford Coppola ('Apocalypse Now'), David Lynch ('Blue Velvet') and Martin Scorcese ('Mean Streets'). 'Fireworks' (1947) established Anger's reputation as a 'living myth' (Mike O'Pray), when the seventeen year-old film-maker shot moody homo-erotic footage during a weekend whilst his parents were away. The intense poetic images within 'Fireworks' attracted the attention of Maya Deren and Jean Cocteau. 'Rabbit's Moon' (1950) and 'Eaux D'Artifice' (1953) cemented Anger's critical reputation.

Alex Burns, Disinformation (with a long list of Anger-related links)

Kenneth Anger's fame with the general public is based almost exclusively on his best-selling 1960 book, "Hollywood Babylon," whose scandalous revelations transcended gossip. But a more limited audience knows Anger as a brilliant and stridently independent filmmaker. This reputation rests on nine short films totalling about three hours' length. Plagued by calamities that have included financial problems, threats, despair, lost films, stolen ones and seizure of footage by labs on the ground of obscenity, his output has not been prolific. But his impact on American film and television has been substantial.

- Mystic Fire

Anger is a high level practitioner of occult magic who regards the projection of his films as ceremonies capable of invoking spiritual forces. Cinema, he claims, is an evil force. Its point is to exert control over people and events and his filmmaking is carried out with precisely that intention.

Whatever one's view of this belief may be, what is undeniable is that in creating the nine films that he either managed to complete (Fireworks [1947], Eaux d'artifice [1953], Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome [1954-66], Scorpio Rising [1963], Invocation of My Demon Brother [1969], Lucifer Rising [1970-81]) or else released as self contained fragments (Puce Moment [1949], Rabbit's Moon [1950-79], Kustom Kar Kommandos [1965]), Anger forged a body of work as dazzlingly poetic in its unique visual intensity as it is narratively innovative. In many ways, these wordless films represent the resurgence and development of the uniquely cinematic qualities widely considered retarded or destroyed by the passing of the silent era, especially in the area of editing. According to Tony Rayns, “Anger has an amazing instinctive grasp of all the elements of filmmaking; his films actively work out much of Eisenstein's theoretical writing about the cinema…. [Anger] comes nearer [to Eisenstein's theories] than anything in commercial cinema and produces film-making as rich in resonance as anything of Eisenstein's own.” (1)

Anger's films are cinematic manifestations of his occult practices. As such, they are highly symbolical, either featuring characters directly portraying gods, forces and demons (Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, Lucifer Rising) or else finding an appropriate embodiment for them in the iconography of contemporary pop culture (Puce Moment, Scorpio Rising, Kustom Kar Kommandos, also Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome). This view of pop culture as vehicle for ancient archetypes is also the basis of Hollywood Babylon, his famous book about the seedier aspects of Hollywood history. In attempting to induce an altered state of consciousness in his viewers, Anger dispenses with traditional narrative devices, although his films definitely tell stories. Using powerful esoteric images and, especially in his later works, extremely complex editing strategies that frequently feature superimposition and the inclusion of subliminal images running just a few frames, Anger bypasses our rationality and appeals directly to our subconscious mind. The structure common to his major works is that of a ritual invoking or evoking spiritual forces, normally moving from a slow build up, resplendent with fetishistic detail, to a frenzied finale with the forces called forth running wild.

Maximillian Le CainSenses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

The complete Magick Lantern Cycle can be viewed as embeddable videos at Subterranean Cinema

In the art of film, the divine spark of intuition very quickly arouses the desire for total control. The studied composition of the epic leads us to the “frozen realms” of Eisenstein and late-period Dreyer, Sternberg and Bresson. We admire the formal beauty of these works but their coldness fails to move us. The spectator must “appreciate” the quality of these works before “feeling” them, competently analyse the ingenuity of the camera movements and the merits of the lighting before being involved in the action. The veil of judgment is drawn between the spectator and the drama.

Since it is now an imperative of the film industry that a film must be carefully prepared, designed and rehearsed in advance to avoid financial disaster, it is not surprising that the “greats” of cinema have tried to overcome these complication through a rigid intellectual control. But these proceedings increasingly take the form of rites, and in sacrificing freedom and spontaneity in this way the “icy masters” have at the same time stifled audience “response.” Their works are increasingly becoming “ends in themselves” exercises in highly refined style, but they lack the irreplaceable qualities of improvisation.

This widespread neutralising of the essential point of cinema - its power to simulate real experience - enshrines its more off-putting tendency. So we are now in the cul-de-sac of stylisation. From the mouths of the half-dead people who pronounce the oracles of the contemporary screen should come a freedom charter: the restoration of the persuasive poetics of the lyrical image. A freedom that is only possible through the artist’s intimate view through the lens of his camera, in a word through “personal cinema.”

It was precisely this “cinematic” potential for expressing spontaneity that attracted me as a form of personal art. I saw its disruptive strength: a way of bringing about a change. This means of expression can transcend the aesthetic to become experience. My ideal was a “living” cinema that explored the dynamism of the visual communication of beauty, fear and joy. I wanted my personal cinema to transmute the dance of my interior being into a poetry of moving images that would create a new climate of spiritual revelation where the spectator, forgetting that he or she was looking at a work of art, could only become one with the drama.

- Kenneth Anger, "Modesty and the Art of Film." First published in Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 5, September 1951, reprinted courtesy of Cahiers and Kenneth Anger. Translated by David Wilson

"Well, of course, people steal from me and it doesn't mean that I'm particularly happy about it, but there's nothing I can do about it and I can't copyright my images. I will say I'm "bemused," particularly by borrowings by MTV. And there are several groups that have done practically carbon copies of certain scenes from my films. And of course they've never given me a call saying, "Why don't you make a music video for us?" I could use the money. Unless I didn't absolutely despise the music, I might even think of doing it. But it's never happened. It's much easier for them just to steal. And the younger generation, people that are making MTV, some of them have moved into Hollywood films, but they are a generation of magpies, outrageous thieves, stealing ideas right and left. And they have amazingly little imagination of their own. If they didn't have people to steal from, I mean they'd really be hard up. And that's my opinion of them. I hope that doesn't sound bitter! I'm mostly just bemused."

- Anger interviewed by Claiborne K. H. Smith for Weekly Wire

Kenneth Anger on MySpace

955 (97). Hitler - ein Film aus Deutschland / Our Hitler / Hitler: a Film from Germany (1977, Hans Jurgen Syberberg)

screened February 4-14 on Facets DVD en route to, during, and back from the Berlin Film Festival IMDb Wiki

Lauded by the likes of Susan Sontag as one of the greatest works of 20th century art, while reviled by many both in Germany and abroad as a work of depraved reactionary nostalgia, Hans Jurgen Syberberg's epic rumination of Germany's Nazi past remains as troubling and troublesome today as it was thirty years ago. (Two top German critics I met in Berlin admitted to not having been able to sit through the film.)  Syberberg takes the old adage of confronting the mistakes of the past lest they be repeated and puts it to an extreme test, immersing its audience in seven-plus hours of Naziana drawn out to such length and breadth that it suggests a morbidly intractable fixation with its subject.

A historical zombie movie for intellectuals, the film fixes an unwavering gaze on reanimated Nazi figures like Holocaust architect Heinrich Himmler (whose obsession with a mythic Germany Syberberg seems to share), Hitler's personal valet, and Hitler himself, toga-clad and rising from Richard Wagner's tomb, as they deliver endless monologues amidst a landscape of kitschy Third Reich paraphernalia and atmospheric dry ice fog.  The film itself creeps like a mist, heavily influenced by a Wagnerian aesthetic of total immersion and seductive stasis whose registers of portentous yearning shift gradually from one motif to the next.  Other monologues delivered by contemporary performers often teeter into tedious, sermonizing self-absorption and effete irony (as if to counterpoint the passionate conviction of Nazi orators), bringing out an anti-cinematic element that denies pleasure and resists rapture.  The film comments on cinema itself through a series of rear projections of paintings, newsreel footage and other iconic imagery.  Sets cluttered with stuffed animals and uniformed mannequins suggest the basement of a Neo-Nazi taxidermist, the detritus of the past splayed out haphazardly yet betraying a precision of design, and an overall funkiness that becomes perversely appealing.

Also telling is the film's dual attributions of Nazism as both a precursor and an antidote to the 20th century American capitalism that, according to Syberberg, threatens the freedoms of the world. It's an argument often waged on the battleground of cinema, with Hitler posited as the greatest filmmaker of all time, and Syberberg actively deconstructing the "movie" that was the Third Reich, that massive production that was able, however temporarily, to break capitalist Hollywood's industrial and cultural stranglehold on world cinema. This thorough disenchantment with contemporary film culture is what has Syberberg reaching for his Nazi revolver, loading it with the ammunition of mythic enthrallment and redemptive cultural pride - and yet not quite willing to pull the trigger. It's a deeply ambivalent work, both longing to return to the lost Eden of a Germanic ideal while cautious of the consequences that such an impulse has already wrought on the world.

You can watch the entirety of Hitler: a Film from Germany (in German orEnglish, with or without subtitles) at Hans Jurgen Syberberg's website


Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's 429-minute historical pageant, conceiving Hitler as the logical end point of German romanticism. The film's American distributor, Francis Ford Coppola, retitled it Our Hitler: A Film From Germany, which proves that commercial genius can lie in the stroke of a pronoun: self-flagellating audiences made the film a sellout in most of its initial 1980 engagements.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

The third and longest part of Syberberg's extraordinary trilogy on German culture, history and nationalism (the two earlier films were Ludwig - Requiem for a Virgin King and Karl May), best described as a high camp, heavy-duty analysis of both history and historical analysis itself. The chosen method is to single out, act out, alter, and finally comment on the lives of a handful of 'awkward' German historical figures, from Ludwig of Bavaria through fantasy author Karl May to Hitler, the 'madman'. Behind aesthetic complexity lies a simple purpose: to show up the sort of historical contradictions solved by Marxists with bare economic models, and by others with suspect reference to the 'greatness' or 'madness' of the figures involved. Visually lyrical, the style is eclectic to the point of hysteria; and the tone oscillates between the operatic (Wagner figures large) and the colloquial (Hitler in conversation with his projectionist) without ever quite coming unstuck. Humour mixes with mythology and analysis in the attempt to reunite art, history and ideology. It's a quite remarkable film, with a sense of metaphor equal to its intellectual courage.

- Time Out

Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's Hitler: A Film from Germany is the most controversial film produced in post-war Germany. The central thesis of the film propounds the notion that Hitler is within all of us. Syberberg attempts to illuminate the German soul and German myth—and as such recalls romanticism's themes and preoccupations. Moreover, in his seven hour film, Nazi Germany is depicted as a gargantuan spectacle in which Hitler becomes the ultimate showman-filmmaker; thus Syberberg does not only challenge what a film about Hitler should be like, but also raises important questions about cinematic representation in general.

Hitler and the previously published book about the film had so annoyed the German critical establishment that when a section was previewed at Cannes in 1977, the film was virtually boycotted by all the major German reviewers. In protest, Syberberg, who felt himself deliberately misunderstood, withdrew the film from the Berlin Film Festival and blocked its screening in his native land for a couple of years. The world premier was held at the London Film Festival in 1977 and Hitler was awarded the B.F.I.'s annual prize for "the most original and imaginative film of the year." Subsequently the film was on general release for several months in Paris and Cahiers du Cinema enthusiastically devoted a whole issue to Syberberg and his film. Susan Sontag acclaimed Hitler "one of the great works of art of the twentieth century."

Syberberg wants to draw parallels to cinema on different levels. He makes reference to Melies's A Trip to the Moon, Welles's Citizen Kane, and Lang's M (the final scene, where Peter Lorre defends his evil deeds because he can't help himself, is here reenacted by Peter Kern dressed as an SS officer). Cardboard figures from Caligari to Nosferatu punctuate the film, therefore linking them to the idea of Hitler being a subject for projection of the most evil desires in us. Moreover, Syberberg perceives the trend towards ever-increasing conformity in the developments of cinematic codes as a further basis for his comparison with facism. Thus Greed and its botching by MGM becomes an example, but he also examines Sergei Eisenstein's persecution under Stalin. The figures of Hitler and Himmler are shown to be merelyrepresentations and not embodiments, when delegating their roles to various actors, historical personalities, and marionettes. The condemnation of commercial cinema culminates in the polemical comparison between Auschwitz and McCarthy's Hollywood. In Syberberg's view it was not the actual physical presence of Hitler which historically mobilized the masses, but Hitler as representation and Nazism as spectacle. He is convinced of the vitality of the myth, which is why he wants to break its fascination through mechanisms of estrangement and montage.

And this is the crux of the controversial German reception of Hitler. It is not so much Syberberg's aesthetics per se, but the fear that his aestheticisation of politics might seduce the spectator since it is bordering on aestheticising Nazism. His "creative irrationality," many critics argue, leads to further mystification and connects too problematically to Nazi-mythology.

Ulrike Sieglohr, Film Reference.com

About four hours into its nearly eight-hour running time (442 minutes), Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s Our Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977) finally achieves liftoff. It comes, after hours of gassy cosmic gropings, in a welcome focus on the concrete: an excerpt from the memoir of Hitler’s valet and man-servant, Krause. The former sailor was assigned to attend to Hitler’s clothes, see that Der Fuhrer’s breakfast was delivered on time, arrange the day’s array of newspapers and dispatches, and otherwise make himself useful. So we get the devil in the details of Hitler’s routines, which not surprisingly make him emerge more vividly than the kind of epic breadth Syberberg is after here.

We’re told that Hitler could be surprisingly oblivious to clothes, and that the man who killed millions of human beings couldn’t bear to see a cat kill a bird. If no man is a hero to his valet, Hitler was human-sized to his, living simply, capable of a sentimentality that made him weep at the sight of a Christmas tree. Left to himself, he’d revert to looking baggier and more rumpled than you’d expect from the supreme being of the Third Reich, otherwise a genius at marketing himself. Hitler sensed what a shamed post-WW I Germany wanted and served it up on a massive scale, with an unerring instinct for theatrics. Although taking great pains to link himself to mytho-heroic antecedents, he was shrewd enough to stress that he was anti-elitist, a man of the masses in an age where mass culture was launching itself, especially through movies, of which Hitler was a great devotee. Social evenings at the Reichschancellory, we re told, ended with movie showings in Hitler’s private screening room. (Among his favorites:Broadway Melody, Disney animations, Die Nibelungen of Fritz Lang, who had the good sense to flee Germany.)

In making you shudder at the industrial scale of Hitler’s hate-fueled killing and lunatic ravings, the film also makes you shudder at Hitler’s perversion of language, the barbaric actions to which he affixed the labels bravery, heroism, nobility and so on. Syberberg knows his Orwell. The more horrible Hitler’s horrors, the loftier and more abstract the language became. It doesn’t help that Syberberg has his own language problems. Possibly he was doing an ironic riff on kitsch when he begins the film by telling us “The mysterious path goes inward, into night” or ends it by calling what we have just seen “a projection of the bloodbath of the future.” Although some of his pronouncements and connections are pretty contorted and others are simply bloated and shaky, he has a brain, but he doesn’t have much of an ear. One might almost say, with apologies to Cole Porter, down, down, down he goes, into the ground he goes, in a spin, loving the spin he’s in, loving that old black magic of death. Or at least transfixed by it.

- Jay Carr, Turner Classic Movies

A seven-hour-long film about Hitler caused quite a stir when it was shown in New York in January, 1980. Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s “Our Hitler” (a two-disk set from Facets) is anything but a bio-pic. Its original German title, which translates as “Hitler, A Film from Germany,” makes clear the scope of the director’s ambition: to investigate Hitler as a psychic and aesthetic phenomenon, or, as is said in the film, as “fantasies of the mind and their blood realization.”

Syberberg’s technique is as phantasmagorical as the approach demands. The film is a collage of skits and masques, featuring actors doing antic impersonations of Hitler borrowed from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” cardboard cutouts and marionettes, monologues and pantomimes, accompanied by historical sound clips of speeches by Hitler, his associates, and his enemies. Shot in a studio, these theatrical sketches rely on a device that became an instant classic: the projection of slides and films onto screens behind the actors and the sets, providing backdrops that could change instantly.

One bravura sequence features a half-hour monologue by a character identified as Hitler’s valet (much time is spent on the foibles of the Führer’s color coördination); another shows an actor doing Hitler as the Peter Lorre character in Fritz Lang’s “M,” a child murderer who bewails his compulsion to a threatening mob. The film’s iconic image shows Hitler wearing a toga and rising from the grave of Richard Wagner. In Syberberg’s view, Hitler was not only the fulfillment of German culture but of “the whole Western culture and the Christian God,” and the defeat of Germany in the war did not mark Hitler’s defeat but, rather, inaugurated the triumph of his ideas throughout Europe and the world. The spread of Communism in the East and of materialism in the West, the resurgence of anti-Semitism and of the death penalty—and, over all, what he calls “freedom without a human face”—all strike him as the elements of Hitler’s victory.

Susan Sontag’s enthusiasm for the film (she called it “one of the great works of art of the twentieth century”) played a role in its American release. Francis Ford Coppola (who borrowed the rear-screen projection method for “One from the Heart”) picked it up for distribution, and it played to sold-out houses at Lincoln Center and at Hunter College. Yet the film’s influence was limited, perhaps due to its surprising impersonality. For all of his prodigious intellectual substance and theatrical ingenuity, Syberberg himself stays outside and above the fray, speculating invisibly on history from the hermetic enclosure of a studio. He may have got deep into the German psyche but he stayed resolutely outside his own.

- Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Syberberg’s metatext is not a self-flattering mirror but an injunction to self-judgment. “We’ll make it a commercial film, for after all, film has always been a commercial business,” Heinz Schubert’s sardonic circus barker remarks. Syberberg’s critique is an immanent one, knowingly mired in the Dantean muck of commercialism that has made Nazism a sellable brand name even as it scorns it. His boundless rage is directed as much against the contemporary consumer society of the West as against the historical atrocity of Hitlerism.

While Syberberg’s rhetoric indulges in the same rather simplistic linking of fascism to consumerism then common on both sides of the Iron Curtain—as witness Mikhail Romm’s Ordinary Fascism (1966), another moral treatise in documentary guise—this relates to his major theme: that Hitler simply activated currents already circulating through the realms of society, thought, and belief that with the assent of the world he made himself a compendium of the endless clichés of hate. For Syberberg, the pornographic consumer society of the “good old democracy” that emerged in the wake of Nazism, that now peddles the wares of that which it “defeated,” is consigned to the same Hell as Hitler—the Hell of ceaseless repetition envisioned by Walter Benjamin, where “precisely what is newest doesn’t change, where the ‘newest’ in all its pieces keeps remaining the same.”

Sontag, in her marvelous essay on Our Hitler, one of those rare pieces of criticism that has established itself as the authoritative (even if eternally disputed) starting point for its subject’s interpretation—think Sartre on Genet, Kael on Last Tango in Paris (1973), Lester Bangs on the Stooges’Fun House—quite sensibly points out that the Führer cannot be held accountable for the plastic consumer society that followed him, for it was well on its way to realization even as he railed against it. Syberberg, however, does not posit a direct causal relationship, but an even more damnable one of choice. In the wake of fascism’s dreadful legacy, to continue disseminating its myths in the name of profit is a moral renunciation, the same willing surrender to power—this time to that of the dollar—which allowed Hitler to rise to power in the first place. For Syberberg, the commodity society is the inverted mirror of fascism: where the latter sought to compress diversity into uniformity, the former markets uniformity in the guise of diversity.

This is not simply a polemical point, but an aesthetic quandary. How can an artwork be pure, how can art itself be possible when everything can be tagged for its niche market, when even the critical methods of modernism, as Sontag notes, can be assimilated into consumer society’s “huge variety of satisfactions—the unlimited proliferation, and devaluation, of satisfaction itself?” How to make a Great Work when the Great Work itself has become a saleable and readily available commodity; when, 30 years later, every new, shallow provocation is branded a masterpiece by someone, somewhere? With the temperament of a Romantic and the sardonic irony of a Brechtian, Syberberg tries to break through the conundrum by having it both ways. Like Godard’s own television-spawned monument Histoire(s)du Cinéma (1988-98), Our Hitler is a messianic work unmoored from any faith in the sacred, a purifying work littered with cultural detritus, a noble work steeped in vulgarity. It valourizes and romanticizes the unifying and totalizing power of cinema, that “new child of the century,” even as it derides that very power as the enabler of banalization, repetition, and commercialization. It is a work forever conscious of the hopeless contradiction, the impossibility of its chosen task, even as that very impossibility heightens the urgency of what it is compelled to say, over and over again.

- Andrew Tracy, Cinema-scope, Issue 33

Our Hitler speaks eloquently of societal tragedy on a grand scale. Syberberg wields hefty ironies provided by many disturbing and sometimes blackly humorous juxtapositions. Much of part two is taken by an actor's recitation of memories from Hitler's personal valet, who details the Furher's daily routine down to its most screamingly banal minutiae, climaxing in his preferences in underwear. Apparently Hitler demanded the shorter underpants not the longer — or was it the other way around? Earlier in the film, a rather chubby actor in full Nazi uniform enacts Peter Lorre's hysterical "I couldn't help it!" scene from Lang's M to brilliant effect — it's Germany itself as a pathetic child murderer with voices in his head.

Himmler expounds on The Final Solution while getting a full body massage — I get it, fine — but towards Syberberg's summing up in part four, the filmmaker veers toward some questionable intellectualizing. He accuses Hitler of killing the Wandering Jew, who previously, "pushed by disquiet" had "creat[ed] culture . . . Israel has no Kafka." Interesting point: that a displaced people would operate culturally in response to their outsider status. Would there be a Mahler without the shtetl? Still, Syberberg seems on thin ice here, especially when one puts these views in context with various statements he made in the '90s. Viewing Europe as currently living in the "Jewish Epoch," sanctioned and protected by an US/Israel axis, it seems he has his own "Jewish Question": Western art, Syberberg proposes, is stifled by "Jews and leftists." Sounds, as the magazine Der Spiegel pointed out, like a certain frustrated Austrian art student . .

- Gordon Thomas, Bright Lights Film Journal

Hans-Jürgen Syberberg made the seven-hour 1978 experimental epic Our Hitler, A Film From Germany for television, but he also anticipated the home-video revolution, and hoped patrons of the arts would one day run the film on the tiny boxes in their living rooms, like art installations. Brechtian to the extreme, Our Hitleris staged in a cavernous theater, where actors (and occasionally puppets) portray aspects of Adolf Hitler and other Third Reich leaders, delivering beat-poet monologues that Syberberg swaddles in snippets of Wagner and intersperses with original Nazi radio broadcasts. Sometimes Syberberg moves the camera around the big, boxy space, exploring its crannies; sometimes he holds still, using optical effects to create frames within frames. Throughout, he foregrounds the artifice, demanding that viewers divorce themselves of whatever emotions the name "Hitler" evokes, to see instead the way the dictator emerged naturally out of the German national character—a character that Syberberg still honors.

Whatever the filmmaker's intentions, Our Hitler seems diminished on even the biggest TV screen. It's a very chatty film, advancing a complex argument through historical anecdotes and vaudevillian spectacle, and it's the kind of piece that demands the trappings of an actual theater, and the mesmerizing flicker of light. Flattened out on video—and especially given the new double-disc DVD's crummy transfer—Our Hitler seems more self-indulgent in its length, and the associations between pop-culture phenomena and Nazi strategy appear more tenuous. Syberberg attempts to show how Hitler was both the apotheosis of multiple 20th-century movements and a petty little man, but by the time his monologists get to the end of their speeches, it's sometimes hard to remember their point.

That said, there's plenty here to support Susan Sontag's famous claim that Our Hitler is "on another scale from anything one has seen on film." The film's layers of theatricality and critical thought can be peeled back endlessly, but not without disturbing each other. Our Hitlercontains the seeds of cinema's future, blossoming in Lars von Trier's Dogville, Todd Haynes' dense pop essays, and even the epilogue to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz, just a few years later. The film contains worlds, even if not all of them are worth visiting.

- Noel Murray, The Onion A/V Club

One remarkable segment: Does it correspond to actuality by dint of metaphor or historical accuracy? What revelation either way! Dressed as Caligari (1919), an actor lectures us, describing the schools for boys that the Nazis instituted. Hitler loved birds, he tells us, and, because cats eat birds, as part of their “education” schoolboys gouged out the eyes of cats. Darwin’s Nature is thus translated into politics “red in tooth and claw,” and self-pity and cruelty, both monstrously enlarged, become indistinguishable. Syberberg’s Caligari proceeds to draw the Nazi identification of Jews with rats.

Another segment draws upon past German cinema: Syberberg redoes the scene in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) in which Peter Lorre’s child-rapist/killer breaks down, explaining to the court that he cannot help doing what he does, that he is in the grip of a compulsion beyond his means to resist. In the new version, the man is a Nazi protesting his inability to resist his own politics! On second thought, though, we may wonder whether this constitutes a reimagined M or a critical analysis of M. What revelation either way!

- Dennis Grunes

"Syberberg’s Hitler is no discrete entity of Biblical evil. He is one of us and needs explication. Even his paintings are relevant. Recurrent images of the Black Maria, Thomas Edison’s first motion picture studio, suggest the role that mass media has contributed to the creation of Hitler. In fact Syberberg correlates the rise of mass media with the rise of fascism. And through it all he probes the question of the extent to which Hitler was a projection of his society’s madness, and the extent to which Hitler projected his own madness upon society. Syberberg clearly sees Hitler as an eternal and omnipresent force, with his policies living on in all nations and cultures, especially the United States. Pogo put the proposition more succinctly: ‘We met the enemy and he is us.’ Syberberg’s Our Hitlerfocuses on Germany but is a warning to all against potential complicity.”

- Shirley Goldberg, “Our Hitler: the Self-reflexive Image of Evil,Humanist Perspectives

Hitler: A Film from Germany is an attempt to divorce Hitler and the Third Reich from a simple narrative and historical summation through a marriage of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk and the Brechtian alienation effect, an unlikely alliance but a profitable one: Film as the art form of the 20th century, the epic theater providing its principal dramaturgical devices. "I made the aesthetically scandalous attempt," Syberberg explained, "of combining Brecht's doctrine of the epic theater with Richard Wagner's musical aesthetics, of linking the epic system as anti-aristotelian cinema with the laws of the new myth."

Hence a circus metaphor; hence depth through duration; hence the episodic quality of the film. Hitler: A Film from Germany is a long series of monologues, film clips, puppet shows and tableaux, motifs emerging and re-emerging from episode to episode. Syberberg's most fascinating technique is to strip even these devices of their ability to enchant by laying them bare as cheap circus tricks. The "puppets" (no more than dolls, really, of Hitler, Goebbels and other historical and symbolic figures) are clumsily manipulated and their lines spoken on-screen by live actors. Even the device of quotation is exposed. In "Part I: The Grail," Austrian actor Peter Kern, costumed and made-up as Hitler (though Kern's considerable girth undermines the illusion of impersonation), delivers the final monologue of the child sex murderer in Fritz Lang's 1933 film M. Kern's delivery is overdramatic, like Peter Lorre's; Syberberg's parallel explicit; but in this shameless theatricality he makes the ease of narrative suspension-of-disbelief ambivalent. We must ask ourselves: What are we watching here? Any film student sees the cultural significance ofM to inter-war Germany; what does it mean to make this significance over-explicit in post-war Germany? Does it make our interpretation of M (and, for that matter, Hitler the film and Hitler the figure) easier, or are we made to face our mythologizing tendency to distance our most unpleasant natures from ourselves as observers?

- George Hunka, Superfluities

I have heard that Syberberg did not want to create a film that people could slip into as if into a dream, as with most films, but a film where you would have to remain conscious all the while about what was being addressed. He creates a stage magic that makes a point of letting you know it is stage magic. Single, excellent actors help create a certain reality, however, while they speak to mannequins, puppets, cardboard figures, with a bit of stage fog at times. By the end of the film this made sense too: The Jews were real human beings; their persecutors, having destroyed all love inside themselves, were really stick figures. The tragedy of millions of real humans being killed by stick figures who should have figured only in a comedy epitomizes the perversion that was Nazi Germany.

I never quite grasped before the Syberberg film that Hitler’s campaign to kill Jews was a clever political calculation, itself indifferent to the Jews, but the essential unifying element in his power. If all else was failing, he could count on the anti-Semitism in all European countries remaining the one unifying constant. The purpose of destroying Jews justified crossing national lines: As Jews are everywhere, his conquest must be universal. Syberberg also reveals that whether it was rumor or fact that Adolph Hitler was part Jewish that would alter nothing; in fact, would reinforce how he and the other anti-Semites identified Jewishness as a part of themselves, whatever parts of themselves that they fear or hated. That demon Jew was the mythical Jew created over a millennium in Europe that the mass of people believed to be real (that group in every country onto which people project their shadow sides) – supposed to be violence-proned, sex-obsessed, or too sensual; angry, resentful, and heartless like Shylock; apt to kill Christian children to mix their blood into the dough they will bake into bread. Whatever a German might hate himself projected onto the Jews. As Syberberg points out, Jews, while in Germany, were the greatest Germans.

I have always wondered how that odd figure, Adolph Hitler – himself a good choice to play a nibelung – could have such charisma. Hearing a person, as portrayed by an actor in the film, describe how, in his first experience hearing a still unknown Hitler speak, he went from despair to hope, it occurred to me that Hitler physically was a perfect representation of how Germans felt at the time: scrawny, belittled, failing at everything attempted, in the hole, crazed from World War I defeat and rigid surrender terms, enduring decades of severe economic depression. To hear scrawny, limp wristed HItler work himself into an ecstasy was to watch a failure swell himself up. They might defend the fastidious, moralistic, downright prissy runt and give him their loyalty as he looked the way they felt and maybe they could swell up in that same way – and they probably heard too the desire for revenge.

- James Eilers, The Blue Elephant


Some critics are such passionate pitchmen for certain films that the works become theirs. Lola Montez was Andrew Sarris' darling, and Last Tango in ParisPauline Kael's —she compared its U.S. premiere at the 1972 New York Film Festival to the first performance of Stavinsky's The Rite of Spring. Well, Francis Coppola may have attached the Our to the original title, Hitler: A Film from Germany, but this 6hr.50min. pageant is really Susan Sontag's. Once the distinguished essayist-novelist-filmmaker declared that Syberberg had made "the most extraordinary film I have ever seen," she owned it. And she wasn't the only critic moved to rapture when Coppola presented the movie in 1980 at New York's the Ziegfeld Theatre. Now, in a DVD edition supervised by the director, a new generation can see what all the kvelling was about.

Anyone, not just Sontag, could love Hitler for the scope of its intentions, the density of its images. "The film tries to be everything," she wrote. "Syberberg's unprecedented ambition in Hitler, a Film from Germany is on another scale from anything one has seen on film. It is work that demands a special kind of attention and partisanship; and invites being reflected upon, reseen. ... Syberberg's film belongs in the category of noble masterpieces which ask for fealty and can compel it. After seeing Hitler, a Film from Germany, there is Syberberg's film - and then there are the other films one admires. (Not too many these days, alas.)"

And even fewer these days. But it's unlikely that Hitler could win the devotion today that it received on its release. You had to be there —in the theater, submitting to an all-day immersion in Syberbergonomics. That way, Hitler could command you to follow its pace, its labyrinthine arguments and artistic strategies. Watching it on a TV screen, able to hit the Fast Forward or Stop button as your attention wanes, you are the director, the Fuehrer. Still, the cumulative experience —less than half the length of its TV-movie contemporary, Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz —is enthralling enough to invest in.

- Richard Corliss, Time

It was one of the most fabulous, rumored-about, challenging, psychotic film events of the modern age: Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's "Hitler, a Film from Germany" (1977), arriving in New York in 1980 as"Our Hitler," to be shown at the Ziegfeld theater in an unheard-of nearly seven-and-a-half-hour form (it was made as a four-part German TV program, but the networks rejected it), bearing hype as a brazenly non-narrative epic addressing the legacy of Hitler as a kind of cultural consciousness, carrying the crest of Francis Ford Coppola as "presenter," and trailing after it, in February 1980 in The New York Review of Books, Susan Sontag's immediately famous appreciation proclaiming the film to be "unprecedented" and "on another scale from anything one has seen on film." I was but a wee film-hungry shaver at the time, and never got to the Ziegfeld. But "Our Hitler," a film that promised a truly unique experience (every description I'd read about it left me still questioning what on earth the movie could be like), maintained the aura of an Atlantis among sought-after movies, elusive, humongous, too unwieldy and rich and profound for the average filmgoer, but a prize new world for the rest of us.

What Sontag neglected to mention, or, more accurately, didn't care about, was the slowness of the film, its longueurs and repetitions, its reliance on monologuing. For every five salient, revelatory postulates about "Hitler" the man, the ghost, the enigma, the dialectic inevitable, there's at least one that's fuzzy, inconclusive or silly. And of course the visual dynamic grows familiar, regardless of how much Syberberg tries to recreate the space with Hitler memorabilia clutter and new projected images on the back screen. But such criticisms, Sontag would surely argue, are irrelevant in the face of a film that strives for such massiveness, that dares so boldly, that creates its own way of watching. And she'd be right, as I could well be in suggesting that editing out a just few hours would make the film communicate better and test patience less. Whatever: it's an astounding, intellectually adventurous monument, and obviously a cinephile's required viewing, if in fact the cinephile in question wants to remain worthy of the label.

- Michael Atkinson, IFC.com

Sontag begins her analysis of Syberberg's film with the claim that the Romantic desire for the "great work" of art, thought by many to be impossible, returns in Syberberg's film in a powerful rereading that takes into account its own anachronism. Modernism, according to Sontag, has been stripped of its heroic nature as an adversary sensibility.(138) The untimely nature of Syberberg's undertaking is brought to the fore: it purports to be, once again, a "great work of art," one that has incorporated a self-reflection concerning what it means to construct such a "great work" in the late 20th century, and the complicity of this art-form with the grandiose staging of Nazi Germany.

Syberberg's two themes are film and Hitler, the art medium of the twentieth century and the subject of the twentieth century. One might include here all of the permutations of these two terms: Hitler as film, Hitler in film, film as Hitler's privileged medium, and our own, contemporary construction of Hitler as one that is, ultimately, cinematic in the sense that Hitler functions as a "screen" for many of the internal projection machanisms of modern mass culture, Germany in particular. These two themes in their entwinement are articulated and interrogated on a grand, even "mythic" scale, enacted theatrically on a stage, combining and mixing different modes, genres, media: the puppet show, the fairy tale, circus, morality play, philosophical dialogue, and, of course, film itself.

Syberberg dispenses with all realistic representation. According to Sontag, to simulate atrocity requires the passification of the audience, something that Syberberg struggles against. It also reinforces stereotypes and simplistic generalizations, and confirms our distance from the event and the practice of Nazism. For Syberberg, there is a morally appropriate or apt way to confront Nazi Germany and the Holocaust: one must dispense with realism and realistic conventionality. Simulation of the Genocide as fiction transforms realistic representation into a form of pornography.

Robert S. Leventhal Department of German University of Virginia

Susan Sontag's essay on the film is really one of her finest, worth reading even if you haven't seen the film. An extract here:

Although Syberberg draws on innumerable versions and impressions of Hitler, the film in fact offers very few ideas about Hitler. For the most part they are the theses formulated in the ruins of post-World War II Germany: the thesis that "Hitler's work" was "the eruption of the satanic principle in world history" (Meinecke's The German Catastrophe, written two years before Doctor Faustus); the thesis, expressed by Max Horkheimer in an essay written just after the war, that Hitler was the logical culmination of Western progress. Starting in the 1950s, when the ruins were rebuilt, more complex theses—political, sociological, economic—prevailed about Nazism. (Horkheimer, for example, repudiated his essay.) In reviving those unmodulated views of thirty years ago, their indignation, their pessimism, Syberberg's film makes a strong case for their moral appropriateness.

Syberberg asks that we really listen to what Hitler said—to the kind of cultural revolution Nazism was, or claimed to be; to the spiritual catastrophe it was, and still is. By Hitler Syberberg does not mean only the real historical monster, responsible for the deaths of tens of millions. He evokes a kind of Hitler-substance that outlives Hitler, a phantom presence in modern culture, a protean principle of evil that saturates the present and remakes the past. Syberberg's film alludes to familiar genealogies, real and symbolic: from Romanticism to Hitler, from Wagner to Hitler, from Caligari to Hitler, from kitsch to Hitler. And, in the hyperbole of woe, he insists on some new ones: from Hitler to pornography, from Hitler to the soulless consumer society of the Federal Republic, from Hitler to the rude coercions of the DDR.

In using Hitler thus, there is some truth and some unconvincing attributions. It is true that Hitler has contaminated romanticism and Wagner, that much of nineteenth-century German culture is, retroactively, haunted by Hitler. (As, say, nineteenth-century Russian culture is not haunted by Stalin.) But it is not true that Hitler engendered the modern, post-Hitlerian plastic consumer society. That was already well on the way when the Nazis took power. Indeed it could be argued—contra Syberberg—that Hitler was in the long run an irrelevance, an attempt to halt the historical clock; and that communism is what ultimately mattered in Europe, not fascism. Syberberg is more plausible when he asserts that the DDR resembles the Nazi state, a view for which he has been denounced by the left in West Germany. Like most intellectuals who grew up under a communist regime and moved to a bourgeois-democratic one, he is singularly free of left-wing pieties.

Syberberg's notion of history as catastrophe recalls the long German tradition of regarding history moralistically, as the history of the spirit. Comparable views today are more likely to be entertained in Eastern Europe than in Germany. Syberberg has the moral intransigence, the lack of respect for literal history, the heartbreaking seriousness of the great illiberal artists from the Russian empire—with their fierce convictions about the primacy of spiritual over material (economic, political) causation, the irrelevance of the categories "left" and "right," the existence of absolute evil. Appalled by the extensiveness of the German support for Hitler, Syberberg calls the Germans "a Satanic people."

And her final recommendation:

Syberberg is a genuine elegiast who knows how to use the allegorical props, the symbols and talismans of melancholy. But his film is tonic. The poetic, husky-voiced, diffident logorrhea of Godard's late films discloses a morose conviction that speaking will never exorcise anything, and an inhibition of feeling, both of sympathy and repulsion, that results from this sense of the impotence of speaking. Syberberg, with a temperament that seems the opposite of Godard's, has a supreme confidence in language, in discourse, in eloquence itself. The result is a film altogether exceptional in its emotional expressiveness, its novel aesthetic, its visual beauty, its moral passion, its concern with contemplative values.

The film tries to say everything. Syberberg belongs to the race of creators like Wagner, Artaud, Céline, the late Joyce, whose work annihilates other work. All are artists of endless speaking, endless melody—a voice that goes on and on. (Beckett would belong to this race too were it not for some inhibitory force—sanity? elegance? good manners? less energy? deeper despair?) Syberberg's unprecedented ambition in Hitler, A Film from Germany is on another scale than anything one has seen on film. It is work that demands a special kind of attention and partisanship; and invites being reflected upon, reseen. The more one recognizes of its stylistic references and lore, the more the film vibrates. Syberberg's film belongs in the category of noble master-pieces which ask for fealty and can compel it. After seeing Hitler, A Film from Germany, there is Syberberg's film—and then there are the other films one admires. (Not too many these days, alas.) As was said ruefully of Wagner, he spoils our tolerance for the others.

- Alok, Dispatches from Zembla

Replies to Susan Sontag's Essay on Hitler in New York Review of Books

What Syberberg has understood (if that is the right word to describe the psychic work that has gone into his film) is that, beyond desire for conquest and enrichment, and beyond the will to power, the main force that informed Hitler, his henchmen and his followers as well as parts of their ideology, was the fascination exerted over them by destruction and the love of death.

This love of death, not mentioned by Miss Sontag, is the theme and provides the recurrent motifs of Syberberg's film. He achieves the disquietingly intimate presentation of important aspects of national-socialist Germany—for instance in the very long SS monologues—precisely because his film reproduces and reenacts Hitler's appeal to his public and his followers; and this appeal I take to have been, increasingly as the war went on, an appeal to their hideous preoccupation with death.

The film is "dedicated, as it were, to grief," Miss Sontag writes. Grief—for whom? It seems to me that in any medium that permits that question—and this film is certainly such a medium—there must, for legitimate effect, be a discriminating answer. Perhaps in music things are different. But in any medium which relies for its effects on individuation through personal identities and personal acts, an indiscriminate answer is bound to perpetuate something of the original monstrosity.

J.P. Stern Department of German University College, London, England

The film, in fact, is relentlessly self-important; and the grandiose theme to which such unyielding importance is attributed represents one of the most disturbing aspects of the film (it's too hard to pick the most disturbing aspect): the predicament of the artist whose materials have been defiled. Poor Syberberg. One cannot listen to Wagner now without thinking of Hitler, or read Nietzsche, or even harmless Novalis. To seeHitler, one would think that the worst devastation of World War II was in the realm of art; it left debris, not material. Syberberg constructs with the debris but does not transform it; it remains garbage. Where Doktor Faustus was a sensitive, self-critical meditation on Germany gone mad, and where most of the pervasive irony is directed against Zeitblom, the ineffectual humanist who is Mann just as much as Leverkühn is, Hitler is an indictment of everyone but the artist. At best, it attempts to implicate everybody in the Nazi debacle; at worst (and I honestly believe this to be the case) it associates Nazism with popular rule in Germany, with massification or any other pejorative Jungian term that one may choose. Since Syberberg hardly mentions the strong internal resistance to fascism in the form of left-wing parties (if he did would simply equate fascism with communism in his neat way of reducing historical material), he can dismiss the value of all political activity and remain an aloof, bereaved genius. In fact, he treats the loss of his artistic heritage just as he might have treated the loss of his material legacy after it was expropriated by the East German State. His innocence is touching.

Susan Sontag says of Hitler that it is "like an unwanted baby in the era of zero population growth." It's more like a miscalculated abortion when everyone has been waiting for a birth.

Doris Sommer Departments of Literatures, Languages and Linguistics Livingston College Rutgers University New Brunswick, New Jersey

Susan Sontag replies:

These two letters, one civil and thoughtful, one not, make the same exemplary error. The form-content dichotomy is being used at its most simple-minded, with the predictable distortions. Not only have Mr. Stern and Ms. Sommer reduced the film to its putative content, but this reduction grossly misrepresents the actual complexity of Syberberg's views, and their formal and imaginative profundity. It is Mr. Stern, with his insistence on designating what Syberberg's film is "really about," in naming (as if it were obvious) "the main force that informed Hitler," who seems one-sided.

Eager to promote his own thesis about Nazism—"this love of death, not mentioned by Miss Sontag"—Mr. Stern first finds it in the film ("For what Syberberg has understood…"), and then reproaches Syberberg for not pressing that thesis only (his "indiscriminate answer"). I findHitler, a Film from Germany much more complex and, yes, dialectical. Love of death? Love of cinema, too. After the assertion that Syberberg's film is "really about" what Nazism is "really about" (the preoccupation with death), then comes the sleight-of-hand—and behold Syberberg's film charged with reproducing and reenacting Hitler's appeal to his public. It is a grave charge to say that Syberberg's "indiscriminate answer is bound to perpetuate something of the original monstrosity"—and a naïve one. Naïve, first of all, in its understanding of the possibilities open to art in general and cinema in particular (Mr. Stern's insipid certainty that film is a "medium which relies for its effects on individuation"). Moralizing about art in this way is pure demagogy. The polity is not seriously threatened by a film director who has thought somewhat more deeply about cinema; who makes films whose structure derives from that old debaucher of individuation, music.

The subject of Hitler makes moralists of us all—moralists with a facility that is perhaps the last of the corruptions which is Hitler's legacy. But Mr. Stern has let his license to moralize mislead him; he is not talking about what is, for seven hours, on the screen: a film designed as a critique of and antidote to the fascinations of fascism. There is no complicity, objective or subjective, between Hitler and Hitler; nothing in common between the appeal of this contemplative, ironic, learned, compassionate film and the Führer's appeal. Mr. Stern is projecting his own view of the secret theme of Nazism onto Syberberg, and then faulting Syberberg for making a case for this theme. But what makes Mr. Stern outside the preoccupation with death and Syberberg perniciously inside (the author of a potentially "dangerous" work)? That Syberberg is an artist? An expert in empathy? But that is precisely the point. Syberberg is not a professor of German Studies but a great artist. He is an artist, as well as a propagandist for the good. I sincerely doubt that we need to be protected from him by the "stability and sanity" of the Federal Republic.

To explain just how much she dislikes Syberberg's film, Ms. Sommer drags in Mann—asserting that there are echoes of Doctor Faustus in Hitler, a Film from Germany (which I'd said); thatDoctor Faustus is a great work; that Mann was no hero. Sorry, but Thomas Mann and Walter Benjamin were both enemies of fascism. Needless to say, Syberberg does not in his film "tell his audience" that; aristocrat that he is, he assumes they know. But Ms. Sommer has to turn Syberberg's argument into baby talk in order to launch her complaint that Walter Benjamin has been made "available" to the likes of Syberberg. I was under the impression that the greatest critic of the twentieth century is not the exclusive property of Marxists, particularly vulgar Marxists, and is available to us all.

Ms. Sommer did indeed miss the modernist ironies in Hitler, a Film from Germany—nothing to brag about, I should have thought. But it is not "the heavy aura of Mann's work" that makes me "imagine 'modernist ironies' in Hitler"; Mann is not, in my books, a modernist artist. No wonder Ms. Sommer missed the modernism of Syberberg's film, since she plainly doesn't know what modernism is. Nor does she appear to know anything about film.

- The New York Review of Books, Volume 27, Number 9 · May 29, 1980


What is interesting in Kracauer's book From Caligari to Hitler is that it shows how expressionist cinema reflected the rise of the Hitlerian automaton in the German soul. But it still took an external viewpoint, whilst Walter Benjamin's article set itself inside cinema in order to show how the art of automatic movement (or, as he ambiguously said, the art of reproduction) was itself to coincide with the automization of the masses, state direction, politics become 'art': Hitler as film-maker... And it is true that up to the end Nazism thinks of itself in competition with Hollywood. The revolutionary courtship of the movement-image and an art of the masses become subject was broken off, giving way to the masses subjected as psychological automaton, and to their leader as great spiritual automaton. This is what compels Syberberg to say that the end-product of the movement-image is Leni Riefenstahl, and if Hitler is to be put on trial by cinema, it must be inside cinema, against Hitler the film-maker, in order to 'defeat him cinematographically, turning his weapons against him'. It is as if Syberberg felt the need to add a second volume to Kracauer's book, but this second volume would be a film: not now from Caligari (or from a film from Germany) to Hitler, but from Hitler to A Film from Germany, the change taking place inside cinema, against Hitler, but also against Hollywood, against represented violence, against pornography, against business... But at what price? A true psychomechanics will not be found unless it is based on new associations, by reconstituting the great mental automata whose place was taken by Hitler, by reviving the psychological automata that he enslaved. The movement-image, that is, the bond that cinema had introduced between movement and image from the outset, would have to be abandoned, in order to set free other powers that it kept subordinate, and which had not had the time to develop their effects: projection and back-projection. There is also a more general problem: for projection and back-projection are only technical means which directly carry the time-image, which substitute the time-image for the movement-image. The film set is transformed, but in that 'space here is born from time' (Parsifal). Is there a new regime of images like that of automatism?

The modern world is that in which information replaces nature. It is what Jean-Pierre Oudart calls the 'media-effect' in Syberberg. And it is an essential aspect of syberberg's work, because the disjunction, the division of the visual and the sound, will be specifically entrusted with experiencing this complexity of informational space. This goes beyond the psychological individual just as it makes a whole impossible: a non-totalizable complexity, 'non-representable by a single individual', and which finds its representation only in the automaton. Syberberg takes the image of Hitler as enemy, not Hitler the individual, who does not exist, but neither a totality which could produce him according to relations of causality. 'Hitler in us' not only indicates that we made Hitler as much as he made us, or that we all have potential fascist elements, but that Hitler exists only through pieces of information which constitute his image in ourselves. It could be said that the Nazi regime, the war, the concentration camps, were not images, and that Syberbergs position is not without ambiguity. But Syberberg's powerful idea is that no information, whatever it might be, is sufficient to defeat Hitler. All the documents could be shown, all the testimonies could be heard, but in vain: what makes information all-powerful (the newspapers, and then the radio, and then the television) is its very nullity, its radical ineffectiveness. Information plays on its ineffectiveness in order to establish its power, its very power is to be ineffective, and thereby all the more dangerous. This is why it is necessary to go beyond information in order to defeat Hitler or turn the image over. Now, going beyond information is achieved on two sides at once, towards two questions: what is the source and what is the addressee? These are also the two questions of the Godardian pedagogy. Informatics replies to neither question, because the source of information is not a piece of information any more than is the person informed. If there is no debasement of information, it is because information itself is a debasement. It is thus necessary to go beyond all the pieces of spoken information; to extract from them a pure speech-act, creative story-telling which is at it were the obverse side of dominant myths, of current words and their supporters; an act capable of creating the myth instead of drawing profit or business from it. It is also necessary to go beyond all the visual layers; to set up a pure informed person capable of receiving into his visible body the pure act of speech.

- Gilles Deleuze. Cinema. Published by Continuum International Publishing Group. Pages 253, 257

"[Hitler] represents one of the few attempts to come to terms with the Nazi phenomenon in a way that challenges Hollywood storytelling and, above all, utilizes the specific potential of film as a representation of the past."

1.“According to Syberberg, Hitler served the Germans as a screen onto which they could project all their wishes, anxieties, and hopes. That is the point of the film’s central monologue, given to Hitler:

“After all, there was no one else who would, who could take over my desired role. And so they called upon me. First, the bourgeoisie, then the military, rubbing their hands in bliss and dirt, and also to defend their honor, do you imagine I did not take notice? Then, industry, to drive out Bolshevism, from whose Lenin I learned so much and whose Stalin could be venerated secretly. Then the petty bourgeois, the workers, for whom I could bring forth so much, and youth, to whom I gave a goal, and the students, who needed me, and the intellectuals, who were now liberated from the Jewish Mafia of their friends and foes, yes, and other countries, which were glad to have a pacified Europe again, strength and solemnity. And one should consider to how many people I gave something worth being against. And just compare the lives of so many people—listless, empty. I gave them what they put into me, what they wanted to hear, wanted to do, things they were afraid to do. I made and commanded for them, for it was all for them, not for me…I was and am the end of your most secret wishes, the legend and reality of your dreams, so we have to get through. Finally. The final time? Nightmares? Not by a long shot.””

2.”Syberberg obliquely asks the taboo question of why fascism attracted such a broad following, even among the elite. After decades of traditional research that explained fascism in moral or economic terms, it was only in recent years that the obvious fascination and the aesthetics of fascism have been openly acknowledged: fascism seemed to have elicited and fulfilled hidden wishes and desires of a people who, after the Versailles Treaty and the self-effacing politics of the Weimar Republic, felt deprived of their national pride and collective identity.”

3.”The mythic dimension of German history seemed forever devalued through Hitler’s misuse of it. The memory of the power of the medieval German empire and the dream of the return of the mythic Barbarossa, the often-evoked honor and loyalty of the Nibelungs, and the charisma of such leaders as Arminius and Frederick the Great—all had been appropriated by Hitler and integrated into the national myth of the Third Reich (itself a mythic idea). According to Syberberg, Hitler killed German identity at its roots by stealing and soiling all national myths. In Syberberg’s film, however, the loss of German identity gives way to a vision of apocalypse.”

4.”The more Weimar politics appeared as meek and “unsensuous,” the more the support for the National Socialists grew. More than any other political party, they knew how to appeal to the collective imagination and satisfy the need for the irrational with their nocturnal torchlight parades, uniforms, and archaic rituals. Already in the late 1920s, Ernst Bloch, a Marxist, correctly pointed out the mass appeal of irrational elements in National Socialism and warned about the consequences of ignoring these potentiality explosive forces. Irrationalism had always been present in German culture as the “dark side” of Reason; in 1933 it became, logically enough, the basis for a secular state religion.”

5.”In a similar way, Syberberg’s filmic work of mourning challenges the present. Hitler, according to the film, lives on in terrorism, in modern totalitarianism, in the pollution of the environment, in the ravaging of life through the entertainment industry, in the quantitative art-hating mass democracy. “Hitler himself is the theme and center of this past, which we must penetrate, this past so wounded and painful, yet so identifiable.””

- Anton Kaes, FROM HITLER TO HEIMAT: THE RETURN OF HISTORY AS FILM (1989). Found on Limitless Cinema

Syberberg's film is epic in length but of chamber-opera dimensions in its dramaturgy (in this, too, not unlike postwar reappraisal of more bombastic elements supposedly inherent in Wagner). The dominating composer on a prominent soundtrack is Wagner. This tallies with expectations aroused by the film's title alone, a cliched parallel both foregrounded and challenged by Syberberg. His project quickly dispels this triggered association and signals its intention to seek the roots of Wagner's music beneath the patina of Nazi reception. Through the saturation of its soundtrack and its own length, his film acquires a dramatic kinship with the composer. Yet the film's own balance diverges from that of opera, not just Wagnerian opera.

With Syberberg, music as cultural market becomes marked, even scarred, music. Like references to Romantic painting and cinema history, it is part of the cultural bric-a-brac of this film, but it is also tainted through its identification with artistically brilliant but politically compromised conductors like Knappertsbusch, Furtwangler, or von Karajan. With Syberberg, however, the thrust is frequently reversed, and the reduction of Wagner's Romantic aura by the tawdry attributes of Nazism becomes the real object of lament. Wagner is simply the most focused object of the director's sense of affront at the destruction of German art in the twentieth century.

While certainly not an apologist for Hitler, Syberberg thereby aligns himself with a politicaly blighted nineteenth-century tradition. In the wake of German history of the twentieth century, this stance seems willful. At one level, in his introduction to the script, he even links Wagner with Mozart as a common site of resistance to Hitler: "Hitler is to be fought, not with the statistics of Auschwitz or with sociological analyses of the Nazi economy, but with Richard Wagner and Mozart." Music per se is viewed here as legitimate irrationalism, the converse to Hitler's. But elsewhere his Hitler figure, having emerged from the grave of Wagner, acknowledges the alien mold of the cosmic laughter of Mozart. This is a more realistic acknowledgment of the ideological component of musical reception.

- Roger Hillman. Unsettling Scores: German Film, Music, and Ideology. Published by Indiana University Press, 2005. Pages 67, 68-69


Perhaps not seasonally appropriate but a gift all the same, Facets' 30th- anniversary release of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's phantasmagoric, seven-and-a-half-hour Hitler, a Film From Germany makes one of the great, audacious, all-but-impossible-to-see movies of the 1970s generally available for the first time.

Syberberg's Hitler—which was misleadingly retitled Our Hitler by its American presenter, Francis Ford Coppola, and is now packaged in an infelicitous compromise as Our Hitler, a Film From Germany—was the culmination of Syberberg's ongoing meditation on the myths, fantasies, and desires that resulted in the Third Reich and continue to fuel fascination with the Nazi period. Following movies on Ludwig of Bavaria and Karl May and an extended interview with Winifred Wagner, Syberberg brought his mock-epic style—puppets, props, rear-screen projection—to bear on 20th-century Europe's most alarmingly seductive personality.

Syberberg is not without artistic antecedents, but nothing else in movies quite resembles this underground extravaganza—populated by stand-ins and shot entirely on a soundstage cluttered with the symbolic detritus of German culture. Syberberg was the only filmmaker of the German neue kino to successfully synthesize the spirit of Wagnerian romantic megalomania and that of Brecht's sardonic cabaret theatricality, infusing both with a sense of cosmic melancholy. Hitler often seems to be a circus staged by and for a single impoverished aristocrat pondering the mystery of Germany in the night.

The Facets transfer has an unexpectedly ethereal quality wholly appropriate to both the artist's anti-monumental aesthetic and his belief in cinema as an artifact. The two discs are accompanied by a booklet that includes Susan Sontag's early influential essay on the film; the major extra is a German video doc on Hitler's much-ballyhooed American premiere at Lincoln Center in 1979.

- J. Hoberman, The Village Voice

DVD Extras

The only extra feature is some historical video footage of the New York City premier ofHitler, A Film From Germany in 1978. The quality of the tape is poor, but I suppose it’s all we’ve got.

Picture and Sound

Picture and sound quality are uneven. Parts of the film are razor-sharp and beautiful, others look like badly dubbed video. Also the English subtitles are shot full of typos, misspellings, and in some cases, German words instead of the English equivalent. This film deserves better.

How to Use this DVD

Give yourself a couple of nights to watch this one. On the last night, go back and watch the first disk again to pick up on all the stuff you missed while you were learning how to watch the film.

- John Adams, Movie Habit


IMDb Wiki

The films of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg are at times annoying, confusing, and overlong—but they are also ambitious and compelling. In no way is he ever conventional or commercial: critics and audiences have alternately labeled his work brilliant and boring, absorbing and pretentious, and his films today are still rarely screened. Stylistically, it is difficult to link him with any other filmmaker or cinema tradition. In this regard he is an original, the most controversial of all the New German filmmakers and a figure who is at the vanguard of the resurgence of experimental filmmaking in his homeland.

Not unlike his contemporary, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Syberberg's most characteristic films examine recent German history: a documentary about Richard Wagner's daughter-in-law, a close friend of Hitler (The Confessions of Winifred Wagner); his trilogy covering 100 years of Germany's past (Ludwig II: Requiem for a Virgin King, Karl May, and, most famously, Hitler, A Film from Germany, also known asOur Hitler). These last are linked in their depictions of Germans as hypocrites, liars, and egocentrics, and in the final part he presents the rise of the Third Reich as an outgrowth of German romanticism.

"Aesthetics are connected with morals," Syberberg says. "Something like Holocaust is immoral because it's a bad film. Bad art can't do good things." He commented that "my three sins are that I believe Hitler came out of us, that he is one of us; that I am not interested in money, except to work with; and that I love Germany." Our Hitler, and his other films, clearly reflect these preferences.

In recent years, Syberberg has remained relatively inactive as a filmmaker. None of his latter work has earned him the visibility, let alone the acclaim, of his earlier films. Since Parsifal, his version of the Wagnerian opera which was his most widely seen film, he has collaborated only with one of that film's stars, Edith Clever. Their artistic ventures have included a number of theatrical monologues, a few of which have been videotaped or filmed. The series commenced with Die Nacht, a six-hour-long examination of how an individual may act or what an individual may ponder deep into the night.

Syberberg, however, has spoken out on issues relating to his homeland. He especially is troubled by the Americanization of world culture, and has hypothesized that the resurgence of neo-Nazism in Germany, especially among the nation's youth, is a natural response to the hollowness of the capitalist culture which enveloped Germany in the post-World War II years. Thus, even in the wake of German unification, the memory of Hitler—despite the fact that he ultimately brought catastrophe and anguish to Germany—continues to influence and mold the national psyche.

Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com

I went to see Mr Syberberg's Hitler films at the I.C.A in London. And then saw him speak. I took down everything he said, in order to use it in evidence against him...

- Esther Leslie, Militant Esthetix

Syberberg has been criticised for turning to such politically controversial subject matter, and has even been accused of harbouring Nazi sympathies. However, Syberberg is not a protofascist, but a critic of the way that attempts to understand romanticism have been marginalised within West German establishment and intellectual culture. For Syberberg, the modern German disavowal of the utopian longings which lie at the heart of romanticism has resulted in the 'emotional deadness of Contemporary German society.' Furthermore, he believes that failure to recover the tradition so corrupted by Nazism could lead to new outbreaks of violence, as the forces of the right seek to appropriate the romantic heritage for themselves. For Syberberg, therefore, it is crucial that the romantic legacy is addressed, and, in his films, he seeks to find a way back to the 'spiritual home of the Germans': one which has been lost to a combination of fascism, materialism and rationalism.

- Ian Aitken. European Film Theory and Cinema: A Critical Introduction. Published by Indiana University Press, 2001. Page 147

No contemporary German artist has been associated more consistently with the tasks of mourning than the filmmaker Hans Jurgen Syberberg. There is no major essay on Syberberg that does not at some point invoke the term Trauerabeit as the key to the metapsychological underpinnings of Syberberg's film aesthetics, as metaphor for the aesthetic and intellectual labor to which Syberberg invites his audience with each new film. This by now nearly automatic association of Syberbergs oeuvre with the tasks and procedures of collective mourning has been to a large extent the achievement of Syberberg himself. In his copious essayistic work, which includes long commentaries on and defenses of his own films, Syberberg has quite often used the word Trauerarbeit (along with other related terms) to describe the moral and psychological dimensions of his work. Indeed, at least one of the sources of Syberberg's isolation from his colleagues in the New German Cinema, as well as from the cultural scene generall, has been his insistence that he alone among German artists has been willing to take on the postwar burdens of mourning and repairing the damage to their nation's bereft cultural identity.

What makes Syberberg's work in general, and Hitler, a Film from Germany, in particular, so important in the present context is that Syberberg's meditations on and cinematic performances of Trauerabeit always situate the particulars of the postwar German tasks of (and impediments to) mourning in relation to other, more properly postmodern phenomena and considerations. Syberberg's attempt to operate at multiple levels of moral engagement and conceptualization in his films and writings warrants particular attention. Shifts from one level of discourse or analysis to another, for example, from discussion of the uniqueness of the Holocaust and the particular tasks of mourning it has left in its wake to meditations on the university of what made it possible, are always strategic and significant. As Edgar Reitz' Heimat demonstrates, such shifts, which may take the form of double plots, may reproduce patterns of thinking which are content simply to displace burdens of guilt and mourning, and allow one to rewrite one's position as that of the true victim without such a move necessarily signifying an act of solidarity or empathy with other more recognizable victims. One's own despair and losses become the central catastrophe, flooding out empathy for all others.

An example of such a problematic leap from one level of analysis to another is Syberberg's rhetorically charged remark concerning the screening of Holocaust on German television: "America now has its own reparations to pay [hat einiges wiedergutzumachen] after this Holocaust from Hollywood on German media." Such a claim suggests that for the maker of Hitler, a Film from Germany, the real violence of recent history has occurred not so much in the Holocaust as in the Holocausts, and thus that souls sensitive to Hollywood's cheap games with history and experience are the real victims of the twentieth century. The point behind such outrageous and deeply offensive rhetoric is, however, somewhat less outrageous, and one with which Syberberg, in often brilliant and compelling ways, forces viewers and readers to contend, namely that the psychological mechanisms that lead to the construction of places like Auschwitz are akin to those that continue to be deployed by what has come, since Adorno and Horkheimer, to be referred to as the culture industry. A corollary to this thesis is the claim that the psychological mechanisms of identity formation which helped to guarantee Hitler's success in Germany in the thirties and forties and, as Adorno and the Mitscherlichs have suggested, continue to inhibit the work of mourning in post-Hitler Germany, are of the same order as those that, to an even greater extent today, organize postmodern psyches. These mechanisms, so the argument goes, not only block one's capacities to carry out the work of mourning but, what is more, so numbe one's sensibilities that one is incapable of knowing any longer what human loss feels like. Syberberg aims to inscribe the so-called inability to mourn endemic to postwar Germany within a larger history of Western culture, understood as a series of shifts and transformations of the sites of identity formation. According to Syberberg, this history enters its modern stage in the European nineteenth century and continues into the present of postmodernity, though now centered, like a shifting meteorological turbulence, not in Europe but in America, whose capital city turns out to be, in this particular narrative, Hollywood.

- Eric L. Santner. Stranded Objects: Mourning, Memory, and Film in Postwar Germany. Published by Cornell University Press, 1993. Pages 103-105

Interview with Soumitra Chatterjee, Satyajit Ray's main actor, on Days and Nights in the Forest

An interview with the legendary SOUMITRA CHATTERJEE about working with SATYAJIT RAY, his career and their masterpiece Days and Nights in the Forest. The phone interview was conducted by me and filmmaker Preston Miller in August of 2008. Here's a link to the main entry on the film, and two previous video essays that Preston and I produced.

Thanks to Preston for editing the interview to clips from the film!

948 (90). Assault on Precinct 13 (1976, John Carpenter)

Screened December 31 2008 on Image DVD in New York NY

TSPDT #727 IMDb Wiki

John Carpenter's second feature is often cited as an object lesson in tight, tense low-budget action filmmaking where not a single frame is wasted in conveying suspense and drama. The irony is that the majority of the scenes run longer than is necessary, lingering on deliberate silences or stage movements; the first half of the film is padded with wordless interludes taking in locations or gazing at people driving to those locations. In interviews Carpenter has admitted to extending shots and scenes in order to fill up a feature running length with a limited budget and fairly simple story, but whether by design or necessity, the laid-back exposition generates an seductive air of fateful, impending doom.

Viewers may not notice the slow editing pace due to Carpenter's irresistibly cheesy but astoundingly effective synth score that pumps tension through a simple five note melody or a hanging chord. The slowness allows for characterizations both cinematic (police lieutenant Austin Stoker's eyes taking in his surroundings, conveying an attentiveness that will serve his character well later) and dramatic (death row convict Darwin Joston's Hawksian, jocular manner of sizing one person up after another with repeated requests for a smoke). Carpenter's use of expansive 'Scope frames would seem antithetical to shoestring filming, but they match the horizontal flatness of the Southern California setting, an urban wasteland conveying frontier desolation in which a ragtag police outfit finds itself utterly isolated.  While the near-senseless seige of the police station by a seemingly suicidal army of gangsters is the film's extended climactic setpiece, the film's most disturbing moment is an earlier inciting incident, the notorious ice cream truck massacre, a uniquely random act of horrific violence in broad suburban daylight that charges the subsequent nighttime siege with paranoid dread over unlimited possibilites of mayhem.

Unfortunately, the second half feels more conventional, relying on flash editing and walls of noise to provide easy scares in the dark, offset by the pornographic video game pleasure of turkey shooting zombie-like mauraders. Carpenter's innovation here is an ultraviolent intensification of the George Romero heroes-in-a-tincan setup that itself has been co-opted by any number of claustrophobic action thrillers since. Nonetheless, Carpenter remembers the power of anticipatory quiet in between rounds of bloodbaths, as the dwindling number of defenders regard each other with surprisingly touching gazes, a humanist admiration earned through cold, hard survivalist professionalism.

Wanna go deeper?


Hopelessly violent but exceedingly well made police thriller (1976), short on motivation but long on paranoia. The second film by John Carpenter, it has wit, flair, and movement, even though the hommages to Howard Hawks get a little heavy at times.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

"Assault on Precinct 13" is a much more complex film than Mr. Carpenter's "Halloween," though it's not really about anything more complicated than a scare down the spine. A lot of its eerie power comes from the kind of unexplained, almost supernatural events one expects to find in a horror movie but not in a melodrama of this sort.

The title tells the story, which is about a small group of people — a police officer, a couple of prisoners and several civilians — who find themselves besieged in a precinct station on the edge of a desolate Los Angeles slum. What makes the film so effective is that the attackers seem to be as motiveless, and relentless, as the zombies who stalk through "Dawn of the Dead."

If the movie is really about anything at all, it's about methods of urban warfare and defense. Mr. Carpenter is an extremely resourceful director whose ability to construct films entirely out of action and movement suggests that he may one day be a director to rank with Don Siegel.

- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, August 18, 1979

Before making the original Halloween into one of the most profitable independent films of all time, John Carpenter directed this riveting low-budget thriller from 1976, in which a nearly abandoned police station is held under siege by a heavily armed gang called Street Thunder. Inside the station, cut off from contact and isolated, cops and convicts who were headed for death row must now join forces or die. That's the basic plot, but it's what Carpenter does with it that's remarkable. Drawing specific inspiration from the classic Howard Hawks Western Rio Bravo (which included a similar siege on disadvantaged heroes), Carpenter used his simple setting for a tense, tightly constructed series of action sequences, emphasizing low-key character development and escalating tension. Few who've seen the film can forget the "ice cream cone" scene in which a young girl is caught up in the action by patronizing a seemingly harmless ice cream truck. It's here, and in other equally memorable scenes, that Carpenter demonstrates his singular knack for injecting terror into the mundane details of daily life, propelling this potent thriller to cult favorite status and long-standing critical acclaim.

-Jeff Shannon, Amazon.com

He went from being one of the masters of horror (''Halloween,'' ''The Thing'') to putting out loads of horrifyingly bad movies (''John Carpenter's Vampires'' and ''Ghosts of Mars''). But before director John Carpenter turned his attention almost completely to scary fare, he directed Assault On Precinct 13, a tight, tense thriller in which cops and cons join forces in an abandoned police station to fight off a mob of revenge-minded gang members. Sure, the acting (from never-really-heard-from-agains like Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston) is suspect, and certain plot points -- such as the fact that the so-called assault actually takes place at Precinct 9, not 13 -- range from confusing to nonsensical. Still, Carpenter's eerie score and Douglas Knapp's stylish cinematography give this low-budget shoot-out all the weight of an urban ''Rio Bravo'' (although it should be noted no one here is named Stumpy or Feathers). And trust me, you'll never look at an ice cream truck the same way again.

- Dalton Ross, Entertainment Weekly

Kent Jones of Film Comment has referred to horror maven John Carpenter as the last genre filmmaker working in America (indeed, while everyone else seems to move with the digital tide, Carpenter remains a resilient "analog man"). Joseph Kaufman, executive producer of Carpenter's thoroughly-modern western Assault on Precinct 13, wrote in a 1994 essay: "People have noticed that both Rio Bravo and Assault on Precinct 13 take place in besieged and isolated police stations, and that moral codes of behavior are important in the two films." Kaufman is careful to point out that Assault on Precinct 13 isn't a literal imitation of Howard Hawks's film, but there's no mistaking the modern racial and sexual politics encoded in the distinctly western elements of Carpenter's lean, mean, genre-defying masterpiece.

Less subtle though arguably more successful than Romero's Night of the Living Dead, the film evokes an ever-shifting political pecking order when a cultural cross-section of society trapped inside a Los Angeles police station wages war against a violent street gang named Street Thunder... Carpenter acknowledges that his protagonists are equally responsible for the choices they make. As a troubled black youth, Bishop walked out of the ghetto on his own, but thanks in part to the guidance of his father. Conversely, white prisoner Napoleon Wilson (the late Darwin Joston) turned to violence on his own, but no thanks to negative encouragement (a priest once told him: "You have something to do with death"). But what is the audience to make of Bishop fearfully observing a white officer as he loads his rifle, or the black prisoner, Wells (Tony Burton), who shoots his silencer at Street Thunder only to realize after one of the film's many mini-battles that his gun wasn't loaded? Carpenter's doesn't allow his characters to play any sort of blame games, and despite any lingering hang-ups they may have with each other's color, the director acknowledges that our problems with race are obscuring larger issues dealing with misguided authority and rampant political deception.

Because Assault on Precinct 13 is among one of the most remarkably composed films of all time, it's easy to look at Carpenter's rigorous framing techniques as their own acts of political resistance. The film's tight medium-shots position the characters in constant defiance of each other: blacks against whites, women against men, prisoners against officers. When Wells announces that he will attempt to escape Precinct 13 (he humorously calls his plan "Save Ass"), Bishop suggests a fairer approach. After a speedy lesson in trust and human decency, Wells and Wilson engage in a quickie game of Potatoes that positions Wells as the group's potential gateway out of the police station. Despite the tragic but inevitable human losses, no one group comes out on top because only their capacity for kindness reigns supreme in Carpenter's democratic kingdom.

- Ed Gonzalez, Slant

Carpenter had little time or money to meander off the point, so it possesses an expositional leanness that would not stand the loss of a single scene. Still, and as Carpenter observes more than once on this DVD’s commentary track, the film’s pace is slow; he takes almost a third of its 90 minute running time to set up his main characters and their relationships. Then, though he lets all hell break loose for the remainder of the picture, the action sequences maintain a deliberate, provocative spareness. For instance, the gang members use silencers on their weapons, and the repetitious thuds of their gunfire is more unnerving than the customary loud cracks of rapid fire weapons.

The cocky, expert shooter Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Justin), may be a convicted killer, but he does not lack for humanity or the desire to help others in peril. His repeated request for a cigarette appears to be his own way of assessing how fairly another person will treat him. And Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), the secretary, reminds one of the kind of unconscious insouciance that Hawks’ women possessed, for she takes care of her own needs even as she looks out for others, combining a sense of independence without losing of the needs of the group.

While Carpenter did recognize that the audience for low-budget cinema values aggressive action above all else, he made an effort not to allow violence to occur without a clear cause. While the plot contains a disturbing execution that sets out how amoral the protagonists’ assailants are, Carpenter rarely otherwise chooses to overplay savagery. Even if the three central characters take up arms out of necessity, not ideology or sadism, Carpenter refuses to reduce their violence to a sideshow of blood squibs or special effects pyrotechnics.

- David Sanjek, Pop Matters

Assault On Precinct 13 is one of the best low-budget action movies ever made and a model of good B-Movie filmmaking. It’s short, lean and agonisingly suspenseful, paying homage to its influences without ripping them off wholesale. Although it was only the second film directed by John Carpenter, it remains one of his most effective and it stands out as the movie where he began collecting together a reliable team of collaborators who stayed with him for the next few years, the period during which he made most of his classic films.

Carpenter’s use of real locations is masterful – the use of Venice Police Station as a location and the surrounding district of California, some kind of urban wasteland. The sense of sun-drenched day turning into seemingly endless night is beautifully evoked – the skies are often gorgeous – and this is something which links a number of Carpenter films, ranging from Halloween to Prince of Darkness. Indeed, the latter film is almost a remake of Assault on Precinct 13 with added supernatural bunkum. Also well in evidence is Carpenter’s ability to use the possibilities of the Panavision frame. This was his first film in 2.35:1 and his exploration of the far sides of the frame is one of the things which makes him a contemporary director as opposed to the directors who influenced him, most of whom hated having to use anything wider than 1.85:1 – and Ford and Hawks weren’t overly keen on anything wider than Academy ratio.

This attention to character is something which denotes all of Carpenter’s best work and even his least interesting films are often good in this respect – the oddball group of vampire hunters led by James Woods in Vampires for example. Again, this is a lesson learned from Howard Hawks and the three leading characters in the film are very much in the Hawksian tradition. Wilson, witty and reflective, is far from the usual stereotype of a killer bound for death row and becomes something of an anti-hero. Leigh, the secretary – presumably named in tribute to the screenwriter of The Big Sleep, El Dorado and Rio Lobo, Leigh Brackett – is a classic Hawksian woman, resourceful and fiercely independent. Lt. Bishop is humourous, wry, honourable and tough – not at all unlike a Wayne hero in one of Hawks’ westerns (among whom John T. Chance stands out, and Carpenter’s little tribute to this character is the editor credit).

Of course, Bishop is also black, and the fact that this is rarely an issue, with the exception of a joke he makes when Leigh offers him coffee, reminds the viewer of Night Of The Living Dead. Nor is this the only reminder, since the sequences in which the scarily numerous and anonymous thugs attempt to storm the police station through the doors and windows are highly endebted to the similar sequences in Romero’s film. There’s a certain amount of Hitchcock’s The Birds in these scenes too. You’ll also spot more than a touch of Straw Dogs, particularly in the plot line of a collection of brutal thugs wanting to get at a man who they perceive to owe them his life. I also have to point out the presence of Henry Brandon as the desk sergeant - Brandon played Scar in another of Carpenter's favourite films, The Searchers.

- Mike Sutton, DVD Times

Carpenter strips the notion of what a Hawksian film entails down to its very essence for Assault On Precinct 13. His men are resourceful and no matter the danger that surrounds them, not only look like heroes but sound like them too. They may not be quite the match of the soldiers of The Thing From Another World for an ability to laugh in the face of certain death, although few could, but Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) is always ready with a, "Gotta smoke?" as the gunfire dies down. It becomes not only his refrain but also his way of assuring those around him that, for the moment at least, the danger has passed.

It's that sense of danger that becomes what is best and most memorable about Assault On Precinct 13. For all the dozens of gang members who are shot and killed by Stoker and his makeshift cops, not one of them says so much as a word. Instead, they are the urban nightmare that Walter Hill promised but never delivered. Heavily armed and as relentless as the creature in Carpenter's later The Thing or Michael Myers in Halloween, they just keep on coming, attacking several times, being forced back but always coming forward. For all those that Stoker shoots, a dozen more take their place with each glimpse outside of the station showing yet more gathering in the shadows. Even with a career that includes Halloween, The Thing and The Fog, Assault On Precinct 13 is one of the most unsettling of Carpenter's films, be it in the gang members sitting silently cradling their weapons before their killing spree begins, in their cold-blooded murder of a young girl or their circling of the police station. Carpenter makes their assaults simply terrifying.

It's not, though, as good a film as Rio Bravo but then few are. There's a warmth to Hawks' film that Carpenter's lacks. Similarly, Hawks finds the time for a great number of asides in his story, whereas Carpenter, having stripped his film to the bone, deviates not an inch from the Street Thunder gang preparing for the siege and the assault itself. So, a different film, then, but it remains a great one. And with time having been so kind to it, it remains as entertaining and thrilling a film now as it has ever been.

- Eamon McCusker, DVD Times

Carpenter's social commentary juices flow most strongly when he's deconstructing the genre's racial and gender roles, the Street Thunder gang being the great evil that forces our protagonists to join as one: black cop, white cop, black convict, white convict. Fate interplays, such as when death row convict Wells (Tony Burton) complains that he's always had bad luck, not moments before a bitter death. American society remains flawed in Carpenter's eye but the strive for justice is a victory all its own, the protagonists surviving only because of their ability to set aside their purported identities (male, female, etc.), remaining individuals as they unite as equals. Carpenter's almost mathematically structured framework itself defies any sense of bias, his characters on equal footing whether they remain in defiance of one another, or, in a climactic and revealing shot, stand side by side as a single force.

Because Carpenter's observations render Assault on Precinct 13 as one of the most transcendent of all action films, it's almost easy to glance over the razor sharp narrative precision and the efficiency of its lean, mean setpieces; absorbing the space of their locations, the camera itself feels like an occupant of the police station fortress, bullets ricocheting while gangsters attack not unlike the zombies from Night of the Living Dead. Carpenter is more subtle than Romero in his evocation of social conflict but his insight is as profound as that film's Vietnam-infused anger, the hopefully optimistic ying to Romero's learnedly pessimistic yang. Points for humor, however, go to Carpenter, who achieves—through the great performance that is Tony Burton's—what may be the most hilariously titled escape plan in movie history. Although there may be no greater isolated element than Carpenter's own soulful synth score, Assault on Precint 13's powerful exercise in democracy—which appropriately ends with our two male protagonists marching together up a flight of steps—is nothing short of one for the ages.

- Rob Humanick, The Projection Booth

The crime gang excepted (which is anonymous and expendable), no primary character in the film embodies his stereotype. The criminals exhibit trust and selflessness, the new policeman (the survivors’ hierarchal authority) is black, and the women are composed, always clothed, and never scream. It is responsible, dynamic characterization. Most every character is designed to contest traditional sexual and racial stereotyping. This ideology (or lack of stereotyping) dictates to some extent the film’s outcome: the survivors are reduced to an essential representation of the sexes, races, and opposing sides of law. (This racial and sexual acknowledgement also employed in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.) Success in their desire to live, in result, necessitates trust and collaboration between the party members, each of whom embodies traditionally segregated characterizations in ’70s film. As the body count escalates, notice the policeman’s face as it fills simultaneously with fear, desperation, and concern as he hands a loaded rifle to one of the convicts.

The suspense of this film relents only at the final minutes, once the smoke of gunfire clears to reveal the survivors without a bullet of ammunition between them. Survival is meaningless without a viewer’s sympathy — in Carpenter’s hands the latter trait is a transcendent element. Carpenter’s survivors are durable, and, as with those in this film, are not characterized by strength and determination inasmuch as they are by vulnerability and fear.

- Rumsey Taylor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You

Wringing tension from his water-tight premise, Carpenter goes on to deliver a template example of how to make the most out of your resources. Not a high-budget film by any stretch, Assault On Precinct 13 nonetheless uses its primary location in a wonderfully sinister way, with superb use of sound and light to ratchet up the tension at the right moments. Combined with shots of shadowy figures running around, and built on characters you end up giving a damn about (no matter how morally ambiguous they are), it’s a lean, exciting action thriller, and absolutely not the kind of film that anyone can make.

If you want proof of that, you can’t help but turn to the Ethan Hawke-headlined remake, which was released in 2005, and directed by Jean-Francois Richet. Remakes of Carpenter films are notoriously not very good, but Assault On Precinct 13 didn’t turn out too badly. That said, it lacked anywhere near the levels of tension and unease of its far cheaper predecessor, and it failed too to match the sheer feeling of claustrophobia of Carpenter’s original.

- Simon Brew, Den of Geek

Unfortunately, "Assault" is marked by one of the weaker scripts you're going to find this side of George Lucas, and the acting isn't much better. (What does it say when the most convincing line readings are given by Larry Burton as the convict Wells, an actor who is most famous as Apollo Creed's trainer from the "Rocky" movies? Nothing good, I assure you.) Napoleon Wells is played by Darwin Joston, and while everyone acts like Wells is the ultimate hard case, Joston completely fails to inject any of the rakish charm into Wells that the script labors so mightily to achieve. Austin Stoker plays the straight "white hat" lead as the top cop in the Precinct fairly well, but again he's handicapped by some incredibly wooden dialogue. Laurie Zimmer tries to inject some sultry sexuality into her role as Laurie, a secretary at the Precinct, but on a couple of moments you can actually see her looking at the floor to find her marks so she knows where to stand.

The gang members of "Street Thunder" are a mixed bag, as well. If you rate them against the gang members of "The Warriors," to choose another period piece about the gangs, or against any recent flick about gangs, they come across as almost comically impersonal and robotic (with the powerful exception of the ice cream cone scene, of course). But for 1976, "Street Thunder" was probably a pretty scary bunch. And if you view "Street Thunder" as a representation of the mindless evil prevalent in the disintegrating American society of the 1970's, they are pretty spooky as they just keep on coming in wave after wave. (But still, modern audiences may not be spooked by a gang where a couple of the members are clearly wearing pressed khakis.)

- Biohazard, The Deuce

Other reviews:

"The film is a great way to jump into the John Carpenter filmography -- it's sort of a Carpenter-land travel guide. " - Todd Doogan, The Digital Bits

"An inventive premise, lots of guns, heavy action, effective suspense, genuine laughs, a furious last half, and John Carpenter kicking B-Movie ass behind the camera while cracking skulls with his jiving score" - John Fallon, JoBlo.com

"If there was any indication of just how good a director John Carpenter was, Assault on Precinct 13 was a darn good sign." - Gordon Justesen, DVD Movie Central

"John Carpenter’s cult classic may be low budget, but more than 30 years on it remains brilliantly claustrophobic and eerily entertaining." - Maria Realf, Eye for Film

"Carpenter certainly knows how to play with his audience – he manages to supply the shocks that similar movies just can’t." - Wayne Southworth, The Spinning Image

"The growing tension of never knowing where the enemy is coming from makes for some great cinema, and the heavy gore adds to the proceedings." - Matt Paprocki, BlogCritics.com

"The film was quickly shot on little financing, and although certain scenes feel rushed and haphazardly put together, overall the film is brilliantly constructed and beautifully photographed in Carpenter’s patented 2.35:1 widescreen that always elevates seemingly mundane shots into iconic and grand statements, much like the classic westerns and horror films that continue to resonate today." - Richard X., Cinephile Magazine

"Although ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 is only John Carpenter’s second film and predates HALLOWEEN, it remains an entertaining movie, whose western influences have helped make it a cult classic." - The Cinema Laser


Shot on a shoestring, the movie uses a patchwork of locations around Los Angeles, and the interiors were filmed at the Producers Studio, now Raleigh Studios.

The streets near the station are in Watts, Los Angeles’s often-troubled South Central area; the view across the street from the precinct is North Hollywood, but ‘Anderson Police Station, Division 14’ itself is the old Police and Fire Station of Venice, 685 North Venice Boulevard, on the northeast corner of Pisani Drive, Venice, which was the only art deco police station in Los Angeles, and is now the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), devoted to Los Angeles’s excellent tradition of multi-ethnic public art. Murals, that is.

- Patrick Naugle, DVD Verdict

- Movie-Locations.com

One of the most controversial sequences in the film concerns the shooting of an ice-cream seller and his customer, a little girl. They are shot in cold blood by a gang member (played with chilling detachment by Frank Doubleday), and the staging of the deaths beside an ice-cream van in broad daylight seems to undermine the aspects of society we all presume to be safe & protected, in a similar way to the siege on the police station later that day.This sequence upset the US censors so much that they demanded Carpenter remove the scene of the girl being shot or it would get an X certificate: his answer was to cut the scene in just the print to be sent back to the censors, and to leave it in every print that was to be distributed across America!

- Graham Hill, The John Carpenter Website


Listen to main theme via embedded video:

Like his contemporary, Brian De Palma, John Carpenter is a master at borrowing, reinterpreting, and occasionally stealing things from the best filmmakers of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. It’s apparent in Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 both in his filmmaking (he edits the film under the pseudonym “John T. Chance,” the name of John Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo, a clear Western influence) and in his music (he describes the soundtrack as a fusion of the theme from Dirty Harry and Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”). The Halloween soundtrack draws on The Exorcist’s piano theme in the same way.

The original film’s soundtrack is essentially just two pieces, repeated at different lengths throughout the movie. The first is little more than a reedy ticking noise, like a baseball card in a bicycle spoke. Whether it blends into the film by counting off precious seconds or just mimicking broken machinery varies from scene to scene. The second piece is a thick, hazy synthesizer riff that plugs lazily through the occasional relaxed sequences in the film. It’s as minimalist as anything, but the approach is less a matter of deliberate artistry and more a product of Carpenter’s short composing time (just a few days) and low budget (he was working with old vacuum tubes that produced an unusual tone).

- Erick Bierlitz, The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola

It’s curious how an accomplished composer can sweat blood creating an intricate, detailed and rich score for a huge orchestra without notice while another with less education and range can create a simple five note riff in his home studio and immediately have a popular hit on his hands. John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 proves that size doesn’t matter. It’s landing the musical hook that counts. If you have that, you have the audience. At only twenty-four minutes with synthesizer and two simple themes, and I mean simple, Carpenter creates massive impact with not a lot of material. His score is tense, atmospheric, and classic. The film, of course, depends on the careful mix of relentless pressure and respite, and the score serves it superbly. It’s a score that has gained cult status.

In the album notes, Carpenter quotes Herrmann, that master of repeated short phrases as a basis for suspense, as his inspiration. If there’s one thing that has served Carpenter well, it’s the awareness to look to his idols (Howard Hawkes as a director; Herrmann as a composer) to work out how the job is done. He reads his idols well, works them out correctly, and using the lessons they teach, he executes beautifully.

- Steven Woolston, Music from the Movies

The score isn't actually bad. Once Carpenter sinks you in slowly but surely into the film, the score mixes perfectly with everything else. The once-grating repetitive melody becomes akin to a heart beating profusely. You actually quite follow it --- you dread the score that dictates tension, and you treasure when it levitates to something easing. It's quite an effective score --- nothing fancy, nothing extravagant, just purely supportive of whatever else Carpenter is cooking up onscreen.

- Ogg, Lessons from the School of Inattention

As with most every John Carpenter film, Assault on Precinct 13 is complemented with a simplistic, minimalist score — it is his signature, exampled most famously by his three-note staccato for Halloween. Keep in mind that Carpenter is secondly a filmmaker, pursuing the profession after earning a degree in music. Directors customarily claim secondary credits, and Carpenter’s persists to be one of the more unique in “Director-Composer.”

For Carpenter, this has become a deteriorative element. His tactic in scoring is appropriate to suspense or horror and is attuned to the ’70s, favoring synthesizers and bass guitars. As with these instruments, Carpenter’s scoring has become an artifact of past decades.

- Rumsey Taylor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You

When "Assault" was made, synthesizers were not as common as they are today. In fact, the recording process was such that you had to record one track for each chord, or something along those lines. In other words, while now we would just use a keyboard, back then it was a long and arduous mixing process. With this information it makes the movie's musical score all the more impressive. For while it sounds like the base line for a bad 80's dance song, it is, in fact, pretty good considering what he had to work with.

- Jeremiah Sherman, ThreeGeek.com


Sharpness seemed solid. The movie remained nicely detailed and crisp at all times. Never did I discern any significant issues connected to softness or fuzziness. Jagged edges and moiré effects also created no concerns, though a smidgen of edge enhancement showed up at times. As one might expect, print flaws caused a mix of problems, though they remained fairly minor. I noticed occasional examples of specks and marks, and grain seemed heavier than normal sometimes. I also saw some examples of reel change markers. However, the movie came across as reasonably clean during much of the film.

Colors never excelled, but they rarely became a liability either. The film showed some hues that were a bit dense at times, and they also looked somewhat flat on other occasions. Still, they mostly appeared acceptably concise and natural. Black levels could seem slightly inky sometimes, but they usually were reasonably deep, and shadows followed suit. The low-light shots periodically seemed somewhat too thick, but most of them appeared quite easy to discern. Though no one will mistake Assault for a “reference level” image, it held up well after all these years.

I felt the same way about the monaural soundtrack of Assault on Precinct 13. Despite the lack of stereo or surround audio, the mix sounded quite good much of the time. Speech sounded natural and crisp, as those elements seemed above average for the era. Music also was nicely rich and dynamic. High-end came across as a little shrill, but the score presented good bass response. Effects occasionally demonstrated a little distortion, mostly due to gunshots. Otherwise those elements were fairly accurate and concise. In general, the track sounded a little thin, but when I factored in the movie’s age and budget, I felt that Assault provided a positive auditory experience.

In a negative move, Assault presents no form of text for those with hearing issues. The movie includes neither subtitles in any language nor closed-captioning. In this day and age, that seems absurd.

- Colin Jacobson, DVD Movie Guide


Q&A With John Carpenter (23m07s): The actual content of this Q&A is fine. Unfortunately, it's the presentation that lets it down. In this, Carpenter appears onstage beside Austin Stoker, filmed at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood in 2002. Much of Carpenter's answers do dwell on Assault On Precinct 13 but he does mention other films of his in passing. He also offers a very welcome glimpse at how he went about making his film, not only in his setting up the action (and actors) but in his use of Panavision and the problems that came with it and in the instruments that he used in scoring the movie. The problem, though, is that this was filmed from a position in the audience with a camcorder. It's in focus so long as it is zoomed in on Carpenter but, otherwise, tends to drift out of focus on wide shots. It also tends to drift around its subjects quite a bit and, at one point, gets switched off. Still, look past that and what Carpenter has to say and the questions he's asked are interesting.

Commentary: Carpenter is on his own for this track and while it's good enough, it's not a patch on those where he has someone to work off such as Kurt Russell (on The Thing). But Carpenter is still head and shoulders above many others when it comes to commentaries and while he does leave some gaps in his track, he also talks in detail about his step up to shooting this off this student film Dark Star, about the influence that Hawks had on the film and about the limitations of the production, such as why the cast don't just go upstairs to wait it out and how Carpenter tries to explain this with dialogue. Still an interesting track but it would have been very much better had it been a Carpenter and Stoker recording.

Production History (16m54s): This features pages of text explaining the production in between behind-the-scenes shots of the same, stills taken from the script and storyboards. The most interesting section of this feature is near the end where it shows news clippings from the UK, where it became much more of a success than it was in the US, and in Carpenter's reaction to how European audiences reacted to it so differently.

Finally, there are two Radio Spots (32s and 33s) and a very scratchy Original Theatrical Trailer (2m04s).

- Eamon McCusker, DVD Times


IMDb Wiki

Official Website

Unofficial Website

John Carpenter Discussion Forum

John Carpenter is sometimes referred to as the “master of the horror film.” This is a reasonable title, bearing in mind that he has proved to be not only a director with a visually and thematically consistent body of work, but also a true visionary of the horror genre. Although usually misunderstood and under appreciated by audiences and film critics alike, John Carpenter has created some of the most intense, imaginative, influential and successful horror films in cinema history. Consider for example Halloween (1978), one of the most profitable independent films ever made. This one film spawned seven sequels, countless imitations, and ignited the slasher-film boom that flourished and dominated the horror film industry during the late 1970s and early 1980s. At the same time, it would be unfair to categorize John Carpenter as just a horror film director, as he has also created exceptional science fiction and action films. However, it is worth noticing that even if the majority of Carpenter's films belong to a fantastic genre, they all bear a strong influence from the western. Regardless of their subject matter, the films directed by John Carpenter are characterized by his mastery of the cinematographical craft, and by the showcasing of engaging narratives that convey a profound commentary on the many social, racial, gender and sexual anxieties of our modern world.

- Marco Lanzagorta, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Bio

With themes that range from a distrust of authority and absolutism, complete with the rebellious anti-hero as a lead (They Live, Escape From New York), to paying for the sins of the past… or the future (The Fog, Prince of Darkness), to simply the coming of the end of the world, Carpenter has covered a lot of ground over the course of his career. His “Apocalypse Trilogy” (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness) represent a body of work that all deal with Armageddon resulting from supernatural or alien forces causing humans to turn on each other in some fashion, with grim, dark-hearted results. You’ll also find recurring actors — it’s clear that he’s had some successful working relationships, some of which even would go on to become close friendships, with his actors. Kurt Russell (hell, half the cast of Big Trouble in Little China), Jamie Lee Curtis, Keith David and Donald Pleasence have all had roles in multiple Carpenter films.

- Pajiba Guide to John Carpenter

944 (86). The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970, Billy Wilder)

Screened December 25, 2008 on MGM DVD in Weehawken NJ TSPDT rank #796  IMDb Wiki

A mellow apotheosis from Hollywood's most celebrated cynic. This gently naughty poke at Sherlock Holmes' emotional life and sexual proclivities reveals an inner desolation in its title character (Robert Stephens) that amounts to the most touchingly humanistic portrait of a human being in all of Billy Wilder's work. The trademark acerbic comic banter of Wilder and longtime co-writer I.A.L. Diamond is evident, but toned to a quaint Victorian repartee between Holmes and Watson as leisurely as a picnic game of badminton. Shot in warm, soft-focus with a loving attention to 19th-century detail, individual frames pop vibrantly like panels from a graphic novel, a visual splendor unmatched by anything in Wilder's career. This unprecdented meticulousness to mise-en-scene mirrors Holmes' fastidious attention to his environs, which the film posits as a byproduct to a yearning for love displaced by an abiding love-hate mistrust in fellow humans, whether his bumbing sidekick Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely, excellent) or in the beguiling charms of a woman in distress (Genevieve Page).

This feast for the eyes and ears was intended to be a 165 minute roadshow presentation consisting of four stories with an intermission, but was cut in half by MGM. The missing episodes, partly reconstructed from existing materials on the MGM DVD, touch pointedly on Holmes' relationship with Watson, his cocaine addiction, and his pained romantic past, adding significant layers to the release version. In all likelihood, this director's version was as destined for commercial failure as the original release, hopelessly out of sync with the openly liberal culture of the 1970s.  Today its encapsulation of its own time, space and values speaks vividly for itself.

Wanna go deeper? (and watch The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes online for free?)

Watch The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes online for free, courtesy of Hulu.

The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:

Adrian Turner, Time Out (1995) Bodo Frundt, Steadycam (2007) Frank Arnold, Steadycam (2007) Hans-Dieter Delkus, Steadycam (2007) Richard T. Jameson, Steadycam (2007) Ulrich von Berg, Steadycam (2007) David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008) Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005) Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004) Martin Scorsese, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977) Molly Haskell, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977) Time Out, 100 to Watch (2006) Tony Rayns, Time Out: Regret in 20 Films (2006)

Download the script in .pdf format (courtesy of DailyScript.com)

Billy Wilder's "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" is disappointingly lacking in bite and sophistication, the first two qualities we'd expect from the director of "The Apartment" and "The Fortune Cookie." It begins promisingly enough with Sherlock being offered five pounds to trace six missing midget acrobats and complaining: "That's less than a pound a midget." There are also some sly innuendoes about his relationship with Dr. Watson, introduced solely to be disproved (Sherlock, you'll be glad to learn, is satisfactorily hetero in the Wilder version). But before the movie is 20 minutes old, Wilder has settled for simply telling a Sherlock Holmes adventure...

...The Holmes character, creeping around with his magnifying glass and (Watson tells us at the film's beginning) identifying a murderer by measuring the extent to which the parsley had sunk into the butter on a warm summer day, is a promising subject for the kind of satirical examination we expect from Wilder and his frequent co-author, I. A. L. Diamond. But they pass up the chance and bore us while Holmes laboriously unravels a case involving the midget acrobats, a missing husband, Trappist monks, the Loch Ness monster, dead canaries and a copper ring that has turned green. It takes Holmes about half an hour longer to solve the case than it takes us, and poor Watson never catches on...

The fun of a good detective story isn't in the solution, anyway, but in the complications. My favorite Raymond Chandler novel is "The Big Sleep," which is so complicated that Chandler never does pull the case together. Same thing happens in Howard Hawks' movie version, with Humphrey Bogart. Watch carefully, and you'll discover that the loose ends are never tied up, and the case ends without being solved (and with no one, apparently, noticing). So what?

- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times, February 23, 1971

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Billy Wilder’s excellent extension of Arthur Conan Doyle’s series of popular detective novels, is a risky attempt to transform one of pop culture’s key figures into something a bit more human. On its surface a forgotten entry into the series of the detective’s great cases, the film in many respects plays much like any other adventure that the world’s most filmed character has partaken. It revisits a familiar setting and characters that fans have grown to love, and inserts particularly Holmes-ian touches into its mystery such as the inclusion of the Loch Ness Monster, midgets, and an amnesiac. Still, Wilder is after something more profound than a simple mystery tale here, and to a large extent he succeeds in his quest to cast Sherlock Holmes, the man, in relief when held up against Sherlock Holmes, The Legend. As played by the brilliant Robert Stephens, this film’s Holmes is a mess of contradictions and compromises so convincing that it is likely to make one question the unfettering stoicism that other Holmes films feature.

This Sherlock’s ingrained distrust of the opposite sex and his unwillingness to indulge in anything as reckless as emotional passion make him a great detective (and make the excitable Watson a perfect comic foil), but they also make him eerily similar to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock in the way that he puts his logic before his heart. What’s interesting about this attitude toward the detective are the ways that the mystery that he investigates during the course of the film comment directly on that questionable mindset. Through a series of plot twists, we see how Wilder’s attitude toward Holmes grows increasingly complex. In the very first scenes of the film, Wilder begins what would almost feel like an attack on the character’s character, were it not for later compassion the film shows him. Holmes is not only presented as an inferior version of the figure we know from the familiar stories (he can’t play the violin nearly as well as one might think, for example), but also as a dope fiend who makes excuses for his addiction and, for a moment or two, as Watson’s gay lover. As the story proceeds, he’s blessed with his usual, uncanny deductive skills, but he’s also revealed as man who’s pragmatic to a fault, and his unwavering faith in his logic becomes problematic when he, inevitably, begins to become emotionally involved in an assignment. By the film’s end, his great intellect has become a huge liability, his reputation has turned into an outright burden, his greatest liability becomes a refuge, and his figure can only be looked at with much uncertainty. Yet for all of that doubt, the film doesn’t feel like a nasty look at the beloved character. If anything, its poignancy begs why Arthur Conan Doyle himself hadn’t seen the same dangerous compulsions in his creation and examined them.

...Much like the film that surrounds him, this Holmes is too self-aware to be content with easy answers or simple opinions of people, and that makes him rather fascinating. That the solution to the mystery confirms the director’s cynical worldview, despite any affection toward the central characters or comic bits that were scattered throughout, suggests that the self-reflection should be viewed more as awareness of Wilder’s own predilections and less as an attempt to reform them. Whatever the case, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes offers a compelling what-if that seems much at home in Wilder’s cinema of the ambivalent.

- Jeremy Heilman, Movie Martyr

This 1970 Billy Wilder comedy-drama about a major defeat in the career of Sherlock Holmes may have little to do with the legacy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but in its uncut form it happens to be one of the finest films of the decade. Robert Stephens makes a perfectly splendid Holmes, brilliant, sophisticated, and deeply flawed, while Colin Blakely plays Dr. Watson as a drinker and ladies' man with more personality and intelligence than is often granted him by filmmakers. The case (which has some echoes of Doyle's story "The Bruce-Partington Plans") begins with Holmes aiding the distressed Madame Valladon (Geneviève Page), who is searching for her missing husband. The inquiry shifts to Scotland, and despite a stern warning from the hero's brother, Mycroft Holmes (Christopher Lee), Sherlock pursues events that reveal a top-secret government plan. Lush, energetic, funny, gorgeous to look at, and ultimately tragic, the film is layered with Wilder's familiar collision of cynicism and yearning, hope and betrayal, grace and isolation.

-Tom Keogh, Amazon.com

Billy Wilder, in an exceedingly mellow mood, portrays Holmes as a tortured man, trapped by his own legend and paying the price for his reputation of invincibility (1970). Robert Stephens is superb as a very real Holmes, and Colin Blakely is equally good as Watson. The cutting of more than 40 minutes from the original film hurts its initial continuity, but once the action begins, this takes on a magical quality that makes it one of Wilder's best efforts. Affectionately conceived, chock-full of marvelous subtleties, this meticulously constructed adventure-romance shouldn't be missed.

- Don Druker, The Chicago Reader

Billy Wilder's distinctive, irreverent slant on the world's greatest "consulting detective" holds up reasonably well 32 years on; you wouldn't expect anything directed by Wilder and scripted by his long-time associate IAL Diamond to be anything less than funny and watchable, and this is both.

Yet it doesn't feel like the work of a dyed-in-the-wool Sherlock buff. The heavy-handed opening gag about Holmes and Watson looking like a couple of gays seems grounded in a simple belief in the essential comic effeminacy of all limeys and Wilder's initial inspiration is clearly not so much Conan Doyle as My Fair Lady with Holmes and Watson as Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering splutteringly enduring a mysterious, amnesiac woman in their bachelor establishment. There's a disapproving housekeeper, played by the inimitable Irene Handl, saying "yays" for yes, and Stanley Holloway appears as a gravedigger. There's plenty of fun though, and hints of Buchan and Childers, as the trio pursue their quarry to Inverness, shadowed by some dodgy German-speaking monks. Christopher Lee is a crisply disapproving Mycroft and Robert Stephens, as Holmes, is splendidly debonair.

- Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

This is possibly the most gossamer tragedy ever pulled off in a film, one highlighted by Miklos Rozsa’s sublime score. But it’s hardly depressing, as the film’s richly funny texture endures in the heart. It’s worth stating that Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely are possibly the best Holmes and Watson ever. Properly, they’re both relatively young, especially Blakely’s Watson, a boyish-at-heart ladykiller and slightly ridiculous, and Holmes, stuck somewhere between Oxford and Bohemia, portrayed with enormous wit and feeling by Stephens. There’s so much to praise in the film it’s almost absurd to say that it’s unsatisfying. You can’t help but wish that three-hour epic with more discursions, more humour, more detail, was extant. As Holmes experiences with Ilse, this film is the beautiful mystery woman you have all too briefly, but it’s somehow enough.

- Roderick Heath, Ferdy on Films, etc.

Billy Wilder. Sherlock Holmes. A mismatch of flavours the thought of which doesn't so much turn your stomach as lead to speculation, and the taste of which is soured only by a foreknowledge of missed opportunities. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was to be Wilder's roadshow movie, his intermission film--a "symphony in four parts," as he called it, that would run longer than three hours excluding the break in the middle. The script, written by Wilder and mainstay collaborator I.A.L. Diamond over a period of twelve years as a blend of homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and adaptation of the same, was shot in its entirety, but at some point during post-production, Wilder took off to prep another project, and two of the four "movements" plus a present-day prologue and subheadings (each story passage had its own introductory title card) were lifted out of the film in answer to the common test-screening complaint that it was "too episodic" (well, duh), with only one of the movements preserved (somewhat perfunctorily, because it had nice imagery of an ocean liner) for possible inclusion in a TV version that never materialized. It's important to note that editor Ernest Walter and producer Walter Mirisch liquidated parts of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes with Wilder's blessing, though Wilder seems to have regretted the decision in his late-life conversations with Cameron Crowe.

What remains is a perfectly-cast film that doesn't quite hold up its end of the bargain made by an opening voiceover that states we're about to see a potentially unflattering portrait of Holmes (Robert Stephens) courtesy anecdotes Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely) hadn't the wherewithal to publish in Strand Magazine when his super-sleuth partner was alive. Though the picture is ultimately too prosaic to be confidential, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes might have been the first Holmes interpretation for the screen since 1939's The Hound of the Baskervilles to acknowledge the detective's taste for a seven-percent solution of cocaine. The film feels like a work in progress, even if its bittersweet bookends give off a convincing illusion of completeness and Watson challenges Holmes' claims to heterosexuality often enough to add a sardonic humour typical of Wilder that consolidates the title character's dalliance--which wasn't built to support the picture, as became expected of it--with Madame Valladon (Genevieve Page), the aristocratic femme fatale whose husband has vanished, with the rest of the proceedings. That alliance of comedy and drama which proved so pivotal to the success of Wilder's The Apartment keeps The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes afloat through the sinking realization that we are watching the I'll Do Anything of its generation (and I would argue that I'll Do Anything's director James L. Brooks, much more than Brooks' protégé Crowe, is the modern Wilder), a feature-length retraction of romantic ambition too poignant in its own right to discount.

- Bill Chambers, Film Freak Central

Production History

Map showing locations used in the production, on Famous Locations.com

Deception painstakingly unmasked, and casual decadence as a way of life: these have been Billy Wilder's twin obsessions as a filmmaker from his days as screenwriter among the lavender excesses and delights of Weimar Berlin. In THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, his last great film, Wilder found a way to combine these two themes in a film that seems sweet and perverse at the same moment, a valentine with a syringe in its hand.

Wilder had been fascinated with Conan Doyle's urbane, obsessive sleuth since childhood. Several of his first films as a screenwriter, such as THE MAN WHO MURDERED HIMSELF (1931) and EMIL AND THE DETECTIVES (1931), were films of crime and detection. But Wilder's affections for Holmes went much deeper than a respect for the famously relentless Holmesian logic. Wilder saw Holmes as at least as complex a personality as himself, a singular creature of many more moods than Basil Rathbone had dreamed of.

As with almost all of Wilder's films, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES underwent a complete makeover. He began tinkering with a Holmes project as far back as 1957. The first intriguing idea was to mount a Holmes musical on Broadway, starring Rex Harrison. Moss Hart and Lerner and Loewe were briefly enlisted as collaborators, but Wilder's great run of film successes -- SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE APARTMENT, IRMA LA DOUCE -- intervened. Next, in 1963, there was the idea of a film musical, now with the remarkable cast of Peter O'Toole as Holmes and Peter Sellers as Watson. But what really stymied Wilder was the matter of plot. For virtually the only time in his career, Wilder had a shelf full of engaging characters -- the brooding genius Holmes, the genial, loyal Watson, and the marvelously arch stock Holmes villains -- and no plot that he felt could adequately service them. Wilder went through several collaborators, including his long-time alter ego I.A.L. Diamond, Hollywood veteran Harry Kurnitz, and British playwright John Mortimer, before he resettled on Diamond, and work on the screenplay began in earnest. Still lacking a plot, they went ahead anyway. Wilder and Diamond didn't feel the whodunit nature of most of the Doyle stories did justice to the subtleties of Holmes' character. (Wilder was most fascinated by those rare cases Holmes was not able to solve, such as "A Scandal in Bohemia.") He determined to write new capers for the Baker Street shamus which would show off the dark pools at the core of his personality, rather than rehash the parlor tricks of Holmes' ratiocination that previous Holmes movies had doted on. The conceit they chose was the discovery of several "unpublished" Holmes tales: "The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room," "The Singular Affair of the Russian Ballerina," "The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners," and "The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective," all stitched together in omnibus format. Wilder purposely chose as the film's stars the sterling theatrical actors Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely because he did not wish to associate his Holmes and Watson with the characters of well-known Hollywood leading men.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University, from the New York State Writers Institute

Wilder & Diamond conceived The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as a 165-minute epic that would include an intermission and tour the country as a roadshow. This meant that the film would be screened at only one of the best movie palaces in each city it played in, charging a higher admission price, but offering moviegoers souvenir programs and reserved seating. Lawrence of Arabia and My Fair Lady were among the many films presented in this format during the 1950s and ‘60s to great success.

Wilder described the 220-page screenplay he and Diamond spent over a year writing as “a symphony in four movements.” A modern day prologue featured Dr. Watson’s grandson (also played by Blakely) arriving in London to open a lockbox containing four Holmes cases unpublished by the doctor due to their personal nature. “The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room” concerned Watson concocting an odd crime scene to distract Holmes from his cocaine habit.

In “The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners,” Watson investigates a murder abroad a cruise liner, while Holmes observes the disastrous results. “The Singular Affair of the Russian Ballerina” toyed with possibility of Holmes’ homosexuality. All three episodes were intended to be humorous, followed by an intermission and “The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective,” a mystery that leads to Loch Ness and Holmes’ feelings for Gabrielle Valladon, concluding the film on a more serious note.

With a budget of $10 million, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was Wilder’s most ambitious film to date. Shooting commenced in May 1969 in Pinewood Studios outside London and lasted through November. Wilder then screened his symphony to United Artists. It clocked in at three hours and twenty minutes. In the time since Wilder had conceived of his roadshow, one Hollywood extravaganza after another had flopped; Star!, Paint Your Wagon, Doctor Doolittle. Believing the roadshow was out of fashion with audiences, UA urged Wilder cut the film down to two hours.

The director was so discouraged by the reception that rather than insist on his contractual right of final cut, he departed for Paris to work on another project, entrusting editor Ernest Walter and producers at The Mirisch Company to make the necessary subtractions. The prologue, two of the first three episodes and a flashback to Holmes’ college days at Oxford - which illustrated his distrust of women - were all left on the cutting room floor. Wilder was left despondent. “When I saw the way they had cut it, I had tears in my eyes. It seemed longer when they had made it shorter.”

Released November 1970 in the wake of Easy Rider and M*A*S*H, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was dismissed by critics at the time, many who felt neither the plot, nor the postmodern take measured up to Doyle’s literary mysteries. Wilder’s confidence that youth audiences would embrace a great story - regardless of the changing times - never panned out. The film was a box office failure. In ensuing years, some critics and scholars have rediscovered it and hailed the film as an overlooked masterpiece.

- Joe Valdez, The Distracted Globe

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes cost more than $10 million to make. A film for which Wilder had such great hopes, it's failure was a blow to his career and to his pride. Usually he avoided indulging in regrets or self-recrimination, but he felt that only he was responsible for Sherlock's failure, though even with hindsight, he wasn't certain exactly what he had done wrong. He did regret being timid about going father into the exploration of Holmes' homosexuality and he wished that he had been able to stay and cut the film himself, but as he told me, "Even hindsight isn't 20/20."

- Charlotte Chandler,  Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder : a Personal Biography.  Published by Hal Leonard Corporation, 2004.  Page 273

The lack of success of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes certainly meant something far more serious for Wilder than "the occasional failure" which according to Holmes we all experience now and then. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is the only commercial failure Wilder was never able to leave behind, the only film about which he regretted having been forced into making changes. Yet in the long run, the film has recovered in cultural capital what it failed to secure at the box office at the time of its release. For many of Wilder's critics, the film counts today among his most accomplished achievements, combining an elegiac and romantic tone never seen before. Andrew Sarris has called it a "mellow masterpiece," while Stephen Farber similarly praised its "mellow, autumnal mood, unusual for Wilder." Kevin Lally has claimed that the film may visually be "the most handsome film of Wilder's career," and Leland Poague has written that it "has grace and style beyond all power of description." Sinyard and Turner, who can still claim to be the most astute critics of this particular film, conclude their insightful analysis by calling it, "the very essence of a mature masterpiece. Breathing a serenity without sloppiness, a melanchoy without rancor, a mellowness without sentimentality, its very defiance of modishness makes it one of the most beautiful of modern films."

Several of Wilder's films are famous for scenes that were shot but not included (most notably Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard), but in these cases the cuts were the director's choice, who felt the film would be stronger in the shorter version. Indeed no other Wilder film has been as seriously mutilated by the studio as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (clearly also a sign of his diminishing authority), and there is no film about which Wilder has felt greater disappointment for not having been able to show it the way he had planned. In his conversation with Cameron Crowe, Wilder who is usually not one to dwell on commercial failures, was uncharacteristically candid about the film's lack of success, reminiscing that it was "a very, very well-done picture. It was the most elegant picture I've ever shot" - only immediately to fall back into character by adding, "I don't shoot elegant pictures, Mr. Vincente Minnelli, he shot elegant pictures." What a pity indeed, then, that the one film Wilder considered worth of that praise did not survive in the form the director had planed.

- Gerd Gemunden. A Foreign Affair: Billy Wilder's American Films. Published by Berghahn Books, 2008. P. 163-164

About the Score by Miklos Rosza

Hungarian born composer Miklós Rózsa was a giant talent in Hollywood for decades and penned some of the biggest scores to burst out of the silver screen. His robust orchestrations and refined melodic ability, coupled with a tenacious romantic sensibility, brought to life a string of biblical ‘epics’, thrilling noirs and much more besides, earning himself many admirers and three academy awards along the way. With April 18th 2007 marking the centenary of his birth, much focus will be on his biggest and most celebrated achievements, particularly the likes of Double Indemnity, El Cid, Ben-Hur, Spellbound and Soddom and Gomorrah, many of which will be re-issued or re-recorded for a new generation of fans to embrace. One score from the latter period in the composer’s career deserves as much attention and Tadlow Music have made that happen with their world premiere recording of Rózsa’s complete score for Billy Wilder’s 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

It’s not a title that would immediately spring to mind when thinking of Rózsa, the aforementioned works so famous in comparison; however, this score is an important entry in the Rózsa canon and a must-have for fans as it represents an interesting convergence of the composer’s musical identities, that of his film and concert music. Billy Wilder had always wanted to use Rózsa’s 1956 ‘Concerto for Violin and Orchestra’ on film as the work was one of his favourites. With the appearance of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes the director could think of no better opportunity to use it, what with the fictional detective’s own love of the violin. Rather than simply use a recording of the concert work, Wilder approached Rózsa, with whom he had already worked numerously, with the idea of writing a score with the violin concerto at its heart… and so he did.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has too long been an unreleased jewel; it has all the dramatic fire and flair of Miklós Rózsa’s Golden Age works but with a distinctive and legitimately classical heart at its centre, and what a beautiful heart it is.

- Michael Beek, Music from the Movies

The music itself is simply wonderful.  While Rozsa's scores are admittedly all cut from a very similar cloth, he still managed to apply them very well to a wide range of films, and there is a slightly lighthearted sense of adventure here which is pitched perfectly.  Several themes are introduced in the wonderful main title piece, including a stately theme for Holmes himself and an exquisite love theme.  That love theme is one of the composer's most expressive and rewarding, working beautifully when played by solo violin ("Gabrielle" could bring a tear to the eye), but equally when taken up by the full orchestra.  It is truly one of Rozsa's greatest creations.

With a world class film score such as this, accompanied by informative, interesting liner notes (a short note from the composer's daughter Juliet, a biography of Rozsa by Steve Vertlieb and lengthy analysis and information from Fitzpatrick himself), given such a fine performance - it's already hard to imagine that too many film music releases in 2007 could be in the same league.  The disc is dedicated to David Wishart, the pioneering film music album producer who tragically died earlier this year.  The album is available from the usual online retailers, and also from Tadlow direct.

- James Southall, Movie-Wave.net

The album kicks of with the "Main Titles" which very much has a traditional overture structure introducing some of the main themes. After a brief fanfare opening, it launches into the Main Theme which seems to capture perfectly the outward character of this great detective and the times in which he lived. A secondary adventure theme takes over for a while and then leads into the Love Theme with its sumptuous solo violin, before returning to the main detective theme in the "221B Baker Street" section. The "Smoke Machine / Concerto / Cocaine" track is darker and more mysterious though flowing into a middle section of unaccompanied violin solo for "Concerto". The next track is a good workout for the whole orchestra written for scenes removed in the final cut of the film, and "Moving Out" continues the violin concerto in a sequence also cut from the movie. "Watson's Rage" is moody and more reflective in nature and then "Von Tirpitz" introduces another important theme which we've here labelled the Monastic Theme. The "Gabrielle" track is the heart of the whole soundtrack, a slow movement based on the violin concerto's love theme but clearly slightly troubled. This describes Holmes infatuation for a mysterious lady and must surely represent an important aspect of his "Private Life".

The adventure continues over a series of tracks which takes us to a number of London-based locations including "The Diogenes Club" with its Elgarian Pomp & Circumstance Theme before heading off to Scotland. In "To Glenahurich" Rozsa treats us to an arrangement of the well-known melody for the Scottish song "Loch Lomond". Other tracks make reference to other Scottish folk material and carry the adventure to other other Scottish locations, through a number of action oriented scenes like the rhythmic train ride of "Castles of Scotland", and even an encounter with the Loch Ness Monster, before thematically tying up a number of lose ends and final mysteries in the story. In the final "Auf Wiedersehen / The End" track the violin leads us one last time through the key themes in a grand symphonic coda, but the album doesn't end there. A total of four bonus tracks illustrate the evolution of the finished music with alternative versions which were recorded but ultimately not used in the final film.

The comprehensive sleeves notes tell us how this re-recording came about as a filler recording session because the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra had originally been booked for another project which had fallen through. However in one of those rare fortuitous sequence of events, they managed to secure not just the music from the film itself but also a number of cues written for the film but not used in the final cut, and all this in the centenary year of the composer's birth. The CD has a total running time of 78 minutes including 20 minutes not used in the film. This album, a Limited Collector's Edition, is only available online or through mail order - see www.tadlowmusic.com for more details.

- mfiles

Deeper Readings

As in Some Like It Hot, Wilder is certainly more interested in suggesting the possibility of a homosexual relationship rather than presenting irrevocable facts; ambiguity is clearly more titillating than certainty. It is furthermore safe to assume that the heirs of Conan Doyle, from whom the right to use his characters were purchased, kept a close watch over the kind of image Wilder and Diamond portrayed of the famous detective and his companion. As it stands, the ambiguity surrounding Holmes' possible homosexuality provides a most fitting subtext for a film about two males involved in an obsessive yet futile search for clues and certainties, in the course of which they repeatedly misread evidence, both conclusions, and face sudden, unexpected revelations. Thus, the desire for detecting evidence becomes an allegory for indecipherability itself, which is part of a larger critique of instrumental reason and rationality that has tragic consequences for all characters in involved. Even though The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is Wilder's only film that uses as protagonists famous characters created by another author, it can be seen to be one of his most personal films, providing a captivating and emotional reflection on his own career at a moment in his life when he is ready to draw the sum of his existence.

- Gerd Gemunden, A Foreign Affair: The American Films of Billy Wilder. P. 150

"I wanted to show Holmes as vulnerable, as human. He falls into an emotional dither over a woman and so his mind does not function as well; and actually, you see, in my picture, he does not solve the mystery. No, he is deceived. Sherlock Holmes has failed to be Sherlock Holmes precisely because he has fallen in love, and yet he is a better human being than he was ever before."

- Billy Wilder, quoted in Maurice Zolotow, Billy Wilder in Hollywood. Published by Hal Leonard Corporation, 1987. p. 328

When Billy Wilder saw Sherlock Holmes in his mind's eye he saw a character who was almost a mirror reflection.. Wilder himself. His intention was to probe the detective's psychology and motivations. He intended to delineate a Holmes who was at once cerebral and passionate; a man with a compulsion to work; a man with a cynical view of the world and human nature, aware of the depravity of the soul and the dark side of life, of murder and deception; a man increasingly prone to boredom and mental fatigue, seeking escape in music and drugs; a man with an ambivalent attitude toward women - attracted to them yet careful to detach himself from them - his most powerful desire having been for that clever and egotistic career lady, Irene Adler, "the most wicked woman in Europe." If we were to substitute an addiction to athletic sports for cocaine, and a predilection for compulsive shopping for violin playing, we would have almost a portrait of Billy Wilder in Sherlock Holmes. In the original planning, Wilder wanted, as he once told me, to show a lonely and troubled side in Holmes. There certainly was one in Wilder. But the fictional hero and the real one disguised their loneliness.

- Maurice Zolotow, Billy Wilder in Hollywood.  Page 324.

The Holmes here is ultimately a failure at the hands of technology, bested by his brother Mycroft, who, in turn, suffers a major miscalculation of his own. So is it the dissolving of myths that Wilder is interested in? Is this his Liberty Valance? Yeah, I sort of think so. Though he was only 64 at the film’s release, and would churn out four more pictures afterwards, Wilder created his definitive “old man” movie here. The call-backs to a more classic style even than in his previous few efforts and the patience of experience he displays are both important elements to bridging the old with the new. Even when Wilder was younger, he didn’t normally employ the classical and calculated sense of purpose seen here. The structure is considered and nearly perfect. This is part of why it’s so incredible to think that the film was initially envisioned as much longer. The existing version feels appropriate as it is, only marred, in my opinion, a little by the first part of the Loch Ness Monster bit.

When Sherlock Holmes fails to really do much of anything right, despite his predictably shortsighted detective work, it’s at the expense of volumes of lionizing literature. The film thus works as a warning against the perils of smug overconfidence. For Holmes, the sticky truth isn’t that he’s a failure (something he seems to be fighting against throughout), but that a promising opportunity for romance has been squandered. It’s a slow realization, but by the end it’s obvious that he’s in movie love with the not-really Belgian Gabrielle/Ilse. The sexuality aspect here is interesting because Wilder and Diamond put it at the forefront for the viewer. Holmes’ reluctance to declare his heterosexuality to Watson early on seems to be due to one of three reasons: 1.) He’s being coy; 2.) He’s unsure himself as to his current feelings; or 3.) He’s so desexualized as to make it seemingly irrelevant. I think any of these three explanations work perfectly fine. With any of them, Holmes makes it obvious that he’s not actively searching for female companionship, making the presence of Gabrielle/Ilse a difficult situation.

The forced push at the end, when Holmes seems to realize his feelings for her just when she’s no longer attainable, serves as another reminder of how empty his life is. Watson and his silly stories are just about all the character has going for him. Then when it looks like the audience will be treated to the usual ending wrapped in sentimentality, Wilder continues the film and, in so doing, removes any trace of happiness. Watson is little more than a hyper-intelligent canine with a medical bag and Holmes the junkie can only shoot up and pass out (off-screen, of course). In essence, this is Wilder’s most daring film since Ace in the Hole, and it appeals to generally no one outside the director’s most devoted followers. He was able to completely demystify a legendary character with a huge following, using a fully sincere approach, while also putting together a deceptive genre story that proves quite entertaining. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is destined to remain largely unappreciated because it has few of the attributes Wilder is most known for, but it’s nevertheless an atypical slice of brilliance from the director.

- Clydefro, FilmJournal.net About the MGM DVD

MGM offers The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes on DVD individually or as part of the 8-disc (not 9, as announced--Witness for the Prosecution was mysteriously dropped) "Billy Wilder Collection", and granted the studio's stabs at reconstruction and their decision to at long last present the film for home viewing in its original aspect ratio therein, this is an essential platter. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer bears a seventies mien in its low-contrast mistiness, and the source print, though fresh-looking, is not pristine, but the restored compositions contribute a sense of scale and improve the film's humour, particularly a sight gag involving Watson dancing in a chorus line that was overreliant on our imagination in pan-and-scan. While the 2.0 mono soundtrack is inoffensive, nothing more or less, the extra features provoke unbridled enthusiasm. For starters, there is "Christopher Lee: Mr. Holmes, Mr. Wilder", a 15-minute featurette that doesn't get around to the Wilder portion of the conversation until the 9-minute mark, but nonetheless imparts an impressive amount of Holmes arcana in a short period. (Lee has thrice played Holmes on-screen and appears as Sherlock's "smarter" brother Mycroft in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.) His posture occasionally defensive, Lee barks, "People who say that I'm typecast shouldn't be in the business," referring to having logged so much time outside the gothic horror genre.

Meanwhile, the "Interview with Ernest Walter" (29 mins.) is bound to be a difficult watch for some film fans, as Walter effortlessly--with the Diamond/Wilder screenplay on his lap--itemizes his alterations to the The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes' intended structure, and the nature of the piece (Walter addressing an ancient video camera impersonally mounted on a tripod) lends it a strangely confessional quality not unlike the recent Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary. Nevertheless, this is an invaluable historical document (especially given Wilder's notorious stinginess with the details of the film's bowdlerization) that pre-emptively answers questions raised by the section of "deleted scenes" regarding their context and how they may have impacted the material in the final film. MGM's search for the lost footage turned up only the aforementioned sequence set aside for television ("The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners" (12 mins.)), albeit without a dialogue track (necessitating subtitles) and with nudity blurred out. The other omissions--the prologue (9 mins.), "The Curious Case of the Upside-Down Room" (25 mins.), and "The Adventures of the Dumbfounded Detective" (4 mins.)--are patchworks of script pages and production photos that push Holmes closer still towards the archetypally paper-tigerish Wilder hero. A backstage gallery 47 slides strong (a few of which are inexplicably cartoons) and the film's theatrical trailer round out The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes DVD.*** (out of four) | Image: B+, Sound: B, Extras: A | English Mono | CC | English, French, Spanish Subtitles | DVD-9 | 125 minutes

-Bill Chambers, Film Freak Central

MGM's hotly-awaited DVD of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes isn't as dazzling as it should be. It's perfectly acceptable in general terms - the jokes certainly aren't any less funny - but it can't touch the memory of the beautiful theatrical prints. The transfer is from an element with colors that are always slightly 'off'. The opening reels tend to be reddish. The biggest casualty is the ballet scene, which was stylized with beautiful hazy pastels, that now seem ordinary. Finally, many darker scenes have film-sourced halation effects in the blacks, a problem more often found in bad prints of much older films. It's very distracting.

The extras on this disc center on the famous unreleased roadshow version. In the early 90s, Image and MGM released a laserdisc that had the two major missing scenes, but only parts of them: The Curious Case of the Upside-Down Room, a comic attempt by Watson to cheer up his bored friend, was audio-only; and The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners, where Watson takes a turn at playing detective, was picture-only. The laser played an interview over the audio track of one, while subtitling the other.

There were other alterations for which no film survived. The lost opening had Watson's grandson claiming the box of precious artifacts left in charge of bank manager John Williams. A key flashback on the train to Inverness told the story of the collegiate Sherlock's encounter with a dream-girl sweetheart - who turned out to be a prostitute and warped his perception of women forever. These were barely covered on the laser, but the DVD uses script excerpts and some newly-found stills from the AMPAS ... although photos for the prostitute scene are still very thin. Robert Stephens at age 19 has the same problem his wife Maggie Smith had two years later in the flashbacks in Travels With My Aunt - he can't possibly look young enough.

Some of the text accompanying and explaining the lost version seem to be 'borrowed' from the Sergio Leeman liner notes from the old laser. There's an interview with the editor of the film, Ernest Walter, taken from the laserdisc. Holders of the laser might want to hang onto it, because there's some incidental nudity in one of the recovered scenes that MGM has this time chosen to digitally blur. The DVD department has a rule not to show any nudity in added value material unless a waiver is obtained from the actor involved.

Christopher Lee is interviewed for this disc, and he covers his brief participation in the film very quickly, giving thanks again to Wilder. Then he drones on forever about the Doyle character and his personal appearances in Sherlock Holmes films. Lee can be a charming interview subject (see Anchor Bay's The Three Musketeers), but fan-oriented interviewers repeatedly allow him to wear out his welcome.

The old laser also has a discrete music track for Miklos Rosza's score. I received a letter claiming that the new DVD should have had the laser disc's stereo track. My copy of the laser has the mono mix on the left linear and digital channels, and the stand-alone mono music on the right linear and digital channels. I'm also informed that there is at present no stereo music master for the film, which explains the non-appearance of a soundtrack album. It certainly is one beautiful score.

The package illustration is not only tacky (Stephens' head is pasted onto a weirdly-angled silhouetted figure) but totally misleading. Colin Blakely glares soberly from an inset photo. Anyone buying this disc based on the cover art, won't be expecting a comedy.

- Glenn Erickson, DVD Talk

About Billy Wilder

IMDb Wiki

From the late 1930s to the early 1960s, Billy Wilder dominated Hollywood’s Golden Age. With over fifty films and six Academy Awards to his credit, he is one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest directors, producers and screenwriters. His films range from stark melodrama, like DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), THE LOST WEEKEND (1945) and SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), to antic farce, such as THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955) and SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), to satiric comedy, like A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948) and THE APARTMENT (1960). Billy Wilder has had a powerful creative influence on both the experimental and traditional film industries in America.

-  Biography at PBS American Masters

Bridging the transition between the studio system and the rise of independent producer-directors, and still active in the 'New Hollywood' era, Billy Wilder was a key player in the American cinema throughout the postwar period. A '30s screenwriter who became a contract director in the '40s, by 1950 Wilder had come to be regarded as a consummate studio auteur. Producing from the mid-1950s, he and his co-screenwriters were renowned in front office and fan magazine for making money, teasing audience sensibilities, and pleasing the critics. If the early-1960s saw a critical downturn, by the mid-1970s Wilder's reputation led to accolades and awards.

- Richard Armstrong, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

[Director of Photography] Christopher Challis felt that Wilder was more interested in what he was shooting rather than in how he was shooting it: "He had a different approach. I don't think he was a great visual director. By that, I mean he knew exactly what he wanted, and he knew how he wanted it to look, but he wasn't sure whether he'd got what he wanted until he saw the dailies.

"He had certain things that he liked. I mean, he liked rather long takes, and I was amazed. He once said to me quite early on, 'You know, I hate this modern method of filmmaking. I don't like all these hundreds of huge close-ups," and of course now, it's got very much worse. He said, 'The close-up is a jewel. It should just be set in the right place in the overall picture, and it shouldn't be used indiscriminately, or it loses all its impact.' Well, now, that's typical of Billy, and I think he was absolutely right. "Another thing that I found very interesting with him was that he was primarily a writer. I think the written or the spoken word was all-important to him, and the actors had to do it his way. I mean, he didn't let them have a lot of freedom. He insisted on them playing lines the way he wanted them played. He would play quite important dialogue on people's backs, with them walking away from you, because he knew exactly what the impact would be, whereas most directors would go around the other side and cover it the other way in case it wasn't right. Well, Billy didn't do that. He didn't cover things. It had to be right, the way he did it, and that was it. He was quite unique like that."

- Charlotte Chandler.  Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder : a Personal Biography.  Page 267

As one considers the entire body of Wilder's work, as a whole, as an expression of his ruling obsessions, one sees him carefully threading his way through the labyrinthine maze of the Eternal Woman. His films are studies in the varieties of women. A man's yearning for a woman after whom he lusts or whom he loves is counterpointed against his equal and powerful compulsion to do his work, the masculine hunter in the primitive jungles bringing food for the mate. Freud had said, towards the end of his life, that he still did not know what women wanted. And this is one of the riddles of every man's existence, being confounded by a woman's soul and body and mystery from the hour of his birth and his first taste of mother's milk. The Wilder complication was the dilemma of the whore. The presence of woman in one or another variety of independent, self-sufficient role was a dilemma. In a Foreign Affair, the "good woman was posed against the "bad." In Lost Weekend the "good" woman was posed against a compulsion. In Double Indemnity, the woman is venal, she is evil, she is the corrupted, playing her classical role as the devil's assistant, the temptress, as she does in Ace in the Hole - though in both these films the hero is either the willing partner or the leader in the evil. Sunset Boulevard was the turning point in Wilder's evolution: the force of the woman, a real woman, is defeated by the "bad" woman, but she is not really "bad"; she symbolizes, as I believe, Wilder's own idea of the movies and how they almost kill him. Audrey Hepburn twice played innocent girls who studied to be sophisticated independent women so they could manifest their true beings to the men they loved. And Shirley MacLaine on two occasions, and Marilyn Monroe on two occasions, also impersonated women who were beyond any simple labels marked "good" and "bad." They were individual persons. Sometimes they were forced to play a charade which a man compelled them to play and sometimes they won their freedom to be who they were. The answer Wilder learned to the riddle of women was that it did not consist in attempting to decipher her inscrutable mysteries, since these varied from one woman to another, but in looking into oneself.

In asking himself, "What do I want from a woman? What do I want from this woman? How can I be of service to this woman? What can I give to this particular woman whom I love?" When a man once looked into himself and dedicated himself to pleasing a woman he loved, as Billy had come to do with his Audrey, suddenly the old mystery of Woman with the capital W, woman as unscrewable and inscrutable, vanished, and you were face to face with your own mystery as a man, which was even more frustrating because you discovered how little you knew about yourself, and that was the resolution of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. You were given the choice of being a worse detective - and a better person - or a splendid detective and a crippled human being. In the end, Holmes gets Ilse von Hoffmanstal her freedom. He gets his brother to release her and he receives a final and beautiful letter from her as she is about to be executed as a spy in Japan.

- Maurice Zolotow, Billy Wilder in Hollywood. Pages 330-331

Video Essays for 926 (67). Aranyer Din Ratri / Days and Nights in the Forest (1970, Satyajit Ray) - featuring Preston Miller

Special thanks to Preston Miller, director of Jones, for his fastidious commentary and contributions to these video essays.  Expect one more in the coming days, edited by Preston and featuring an exclusive interview with Soumitra Chatterjee, star of the film. Introduction to the film:

Scene analysis - "The Memory Game:"

926 (67). Aranyer Din Ratri / Days and Nights in the Forest (1970, Satyajit Ray)

screened August 4, 2008 on DVD in Weehawken NJ TSPDT rank #988 IMDb  Wiki

This mid-career effort from India's most celebrated filmmaker shows his craft firing on all cylinders, from the deft dialogue and orchestration of a talented ensemble through several subplots to his lithe camera and shifting, multifaceted perspectives on class and sex. Four young urban businessmen take a jaunt to the countryside to act like frat boys one last time before adulthood inevitably sucks the life out of them; with grace and subtlety Ray is able to celebrate their rebellious drive to individual expression against stifling social norms, while simultaneously pointing out their selfishness and abusiveness towards less privileged countrymen. Events unfold with a symphonic complexity, each character an instrument: Ray mainstay Soumitra Chatterjee's jazzy restraint as a self-absorbed playboy, Rabi Ghosh's ebullient comic relief, and Sharmila Tagore's fragile yet hypnotic sensuality as Chatterjee's romantic counterpart are only half of the ineffable performances on display. But the greatest performance of all is Ray's camera, relentless in its perpetual explorations of space and reconfigurations of people within any given scene, dissecting and re-animating a society that is essentially frozen in its stratified customs. By the end, the only profound change experienced by any of the characters is the kindling of a private love between two people and connection beyond one self. Their fragile naissance is juxtaposed by an act of lust followed by violence between one couple, and an embarrassingly failed seduction between another. Such variety in expressing the vertiginous distance between people seeking love exemplifies Ray's mastery as both dramatist and cineaste.

Want to go deeper?

The following ballots were counted towards the film's placement on They Shoot Pictures' Top 1000 Films:

Mari Kuttna - Sight & Sound (1982) Penelope Houston - Sight & Sound (1982) Richard Barkley  -John Kobal Book (1988) Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005) Jonathan Rosenbaum Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004)

The following quotes were found on the film's tribute page on Satyajit Ray.org:

"On the surface, this Satyajit Ray film is a lyrical romantic comedy about four educated young men from Calcutta, driving together for a few days in the country, and the women they meet. The subtext is perhaps the subtlest, most plangent study of the cultural tragedy of imperialism; the young men are self-parodies--clowns who ape the worst snobberies of the British. A major film by one of the great film artists, starring Soumitra Chatterjee and the incomparably graceful Sharmila Tagore. - Pauline Kael in Reeling

"... every word and gesture is recognizable, comprehensible, true ... Ray's work at its best, like this, has an extraordinary rightness in every aspect of its selection and presentation - the timing, performance, cutting, music - which seem to place it beyond discussion." - David Robinson, Financial Times, 15 October 1971

Other pages on the film:

Satyajit Ray's World

Satyajit Ray Center of the University of California Santa Cruz

Ray's most overtly Renoir-ish film, this might almost be a remake of Une Partie de Campagne, transposed to another time and place and through another sensibility. Instead of the French bourgeois family setting off for a picnic, four young men leave Calcutta for a few days in the country, trailing their westernised careerist attitudes, a middle class indifference to the lower orders, a self-satisfaction that leaves them closed to experience. Out of a series of delightfully funny mishaps as the visitors eagerly try to pursue acquaintance with their two promisingly attractive neighbours, Ray gradually distils a magical world of absolute stasis: a shimmering summer's day, a tranquil forest clearing, the two women strolling in a shady avenue, wistful yearnings as love and the need for love echo plangently. Elsewhere jobs have to be won or lost, problems faced and solved, but not here; an illusion of course, revealed as time lifts its suspension but leaves one of the quartet a changed man, the other three assailed by tiny waves of self-doubt. Beautifully shot and acted, it's probably Ray's masterpiece.

- Time Out

From this beginning, aided by the beautiful, luminous black-and-white cinematography of Soumendru Roy, Ray contrives an extraordinary world, at once Arcadian and yet possessed of utter, unforced naturalness and reality. Ray's language of cinema is a kind of miraculous vernacular, all his own. It has mystery, eroticism and delight. Critics have compared this film to Renoir and Chekhov. To those two masters I am inclined to add a third: Shakespeare. The phrase "must see" is bandied about very casually - but this deserves it.

- Peter Bradshaw, The UK Guardian

Satyajit Ray always insisted that his films were made first and foremost for his own fellow-Bengalis, adding that foreign viewers, unless exceptionally well up on Bengali language and culture, would inevitably miss a lot of what was going on. Despite such claims, several of Ray's films found more appreciative (and, it could be argued, more perceptive) audiences outside India. One such was Days and Nights in the Forest, widely hailed by Western critics as one of the director's finest films, but received by his compatriots with puzzlement and indifference.

Indian viewers, by all accounts, were put off by the loose-limbed, seemingly random flow of the narrative. "People in India kept saying: What is it about, where is the story, the theme?" Ray observed regretfully in a Sight & Sound interview. "And the film is about so many things, that's the trouble. People want just one theme, which they can hold in their hands." He likened the structure of the film to a fugue, in which different elements appear and reappear developed, interwoven, transformed, and subtly balanced against each other.

Aranyer din Ratri

But there's also a political dimension to the film. Days and Nights can be seen as a prelude to the three films often grouped together as Ray's "City Trilogy": The Adversary, Company Limited, and The Middleman. In these films Ray engaged, for the first time in his career, the social and political upheavals that were then shaking Bengal, and in Days and Nights he hints at the kind of class- and caste-based attitudes that underlay this unrest. The four young men from the city are not unlikable, but their treatment of the local "tribal" people reveals an unthinking arrogance that at times verges on brutality. Hari, having mislaid his wallet, at once accuses the villager co-opted as their servant of stealing it, and hits him—an injustice which later rebounds on him. Even Ashim, the most intelligent and politically aware of the four, browbeats the caretaker of their bungalow into accepting a bribe, then mockingly comments (in English, significantly), "Thank God for corruption."Days and Nights in the Forest marks a transition in Ray's filmmaking career, turning his talents for social comedy, emotional nuance, and quiet, understated irony towards more contemporary concerns. At the same time it demonstrates the subtlety of his narrative control, concealing a carefully devised dramatic shape beneath the seemingly casual flow of everyday life. Far from being shapeless or lacking a theme, as its first audiences imagined, the film is subtly orchestrated throughout: there isn't a scene or incident, barely even a gesture, that doesn't contribute to the overall purpose.

—Philip Kemp, Film Reference.com

 One of the overriding themes of the film is the clash of polarities as represented by the urban and the rural; the rich and the poor; the sophisticated and the tribal; the corrupt and the innocent. But Ray, being the compassionate master that he is, refers to the theme obliquely, in swift and deft brush strokes and does not address it as an agenda like the so-called art filmmakers of the 70s who made an issue out of it. It stays at the level of subtext. We retain our sympathies with the characters despite their double standards and narrow mindedness; the characters come across as rounded and believable, and a reflection of ourselves maybe in many cases.

No discussion of the film would be complete without the memory game sequence that is played out by the six major characters. Each player has to choose the name of a famous person and also remember, in sequence, all the previous choices. Subtle and elegantly structured, each character reveals himself or herself in the way he or she plays. Ray’s mastery of the misce-en-scene comes out in full steam as he cuts between the different characters and tracks from character to character as they engage in this wonderful game that throbs with sexual undercurrents. It is a brilliant piece of cinema played out in a surefire style and marks him out amongst the masters of world cinema. Mention must also be made of the wonderful cross cutting sequence towards the end of the film when all the four male characters are engaged in their respective pursuits. With a tribal fair as its central setting, the director intercuts between the different sets of characters: Ashim trying to forge a relationship with Mini; the voluptuous Jaya trying to seduce Sanjay; Hari running amongst the wilderness with the svelte and dusky tribal girl before they end up making love under the trees and Sekhar gambling away with borrowed money. The entire sequence is interspersed with shots of tribal women dancing to primitive rhythm as the central characters are engaged in their primitive pursuits. It is another piece of beautiful cinema that raises the film to extraordinary levels of artistic expression as the music rises to a crescendo.

Bansi Chandragupta’s re-construction of the interiors of the forest bungalow and the country liquor shop and recreation of the tribal fair are other highlights of the film that point to a superb craftsmanship in the annals of realistic cinema. His teaming with Ray was a winning companionship that is sorely missed in Ray’s last films after Bansi’s death.

- from Upperstall.com (author unattributed)

 Conjuring an atmosphere both Shakespearean and Chekhovian, and borrowing Antonioni’s signature theme of alienation, Satyajit Ray achieved a complex, poignant result with Aranyer Din Ratri—like Ray’s Kanchenjungha (1962), a “holiday film.” Ray’s apprenticeship to Jean Renoir is richly evident here; Une partie de campagne seems an especial influence. Like Renoir, Ray portrays Nature as a moral force one can either resist or submit to; unlike the men, their pair of picnic partners already seem to have taken Nature into their lives, perhaps along with their joint loss (brother, spouse), but, as likely, steadily, gradually. The sparkling forest in Aranyer Din Ratri exudes the mystery that would elude the Mirabar caves fifteen years hence in David Lean’s A Passage to India... This ravishingly beautiful black-and-white film is quietly momentous about love—few films are so driven by erotic undertows—and about the ways we open up to others and the ways we stay shut.

- Dennis Grunes, ranking Days and Nights in the Forest #43 among his 100 Greatest Asian Films

BBC review by Jaime Russell

About Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray World

Satyajit Ray.org

In-depth reviews of many Satyajit Ray films by Acquarello at Strictly Film School

When I was writing a biography of Satyajit Ray in the 1980s, I received a magnificent letter about him from the great Akira Kurosawa. “The quiet but deep observation, understanding and love of the human race which are characteristic of all his films, have impressed me greatly… They can be described as flowing composedly, like a big river. Mr Ray is a wonderful and respectful man. I feel that he is a ‘giant’ of the movie industry.” Many years earlier, in an interview Kurosawa even went so far as to say: “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.”

For Scorsese, “Satyajit Ray’s ability to turn the particular into the universal was a revelation to me. I had grown up in a very parochial society of Italian-Americans and yet I was deeply moved by what Ray showed of people so far from my own experience. I was moved by how their society and their way of life echoed the same chords in all of us.” For Mike Leigh, “coming back to Ray’s cinema has been like returning to a succulent banquet, or experiencing a series of clairvoyant flashes. I emerge from each of his films with a newly sharpened view of the world.” And for the writer and Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul, a severe critic indeed, Ray’s period film about the ‘clash of civilisations’ during the British Raj, The Chess Players (Shatranj ke Khilari) is “like a Shakespeare scene. Only three hundred words are spoken but goodness!—terrific things happen.” In my view, there is no director in cinema who can express what is going on inside a character’s head—his or her psychology—more acutely than Ray...

As if this were not enough, Ray has a strong claim to be the most versatile of film-makers. He was personally immersed in every aspect of production. He wrote the scripts of all his films, which were often original or near-original screenplays. He designed the effortlessly convincing sets and costumes down to the smallest details. He acted out the roles for the actors and actresses with consummate nuance. He operated the camera throughout the shooting (after 1963). He edited each frame of the film. He even composed and recorded the music after scoring it in a mixture of western and Indian notation, for all but his earliest films. The songs he wrote for The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha in 1969 are as well known on the streets of Calcutta as the best of Lennon & McCartney. The only activity he avoided—despite invitations from Hollywood producers like David Selznick—was acting in front of the camera, because “it would be too tedious”, as he told a mildly offended Marlon Brando...

I think the main reason for Ray’s comparatively low critical profile must be that genius takes time to be fully appreciated, in any culture. Those critics who try to diminish him as a simple third-world humanist lacking in cinematic sophistication demonstrate only their own ignorance of his films. In 1958, the chief film reviewer of the New York Times, Bosley Crowther, dismissed Pather Panchali as a film that would “barely pass for a rough cut in Hollywood”. So many people disagreed that Crowther saw the film again, changed his mind and published a second review; soon he was an aficionado of Ray, writing of The Postmaster that “It says almost all that can be managed about the loneliness of the human heart.” Yet as Ray himself realised: “the cultural gap between East and West is too wide for a handful of films to reduce it. It can happen only when critics back it up with study on other levels as well. But where is the time, with so many other films from other countries to contend with? And where is the compulsion?”

“I never had the feeling of grappling with an alien culture when reading European literature, or looking at European painting, or listening to western music, whether classical or popular,” said Ray in 1982, the first time we talked. The breadth of his knowledge staggered me then; now I find it unique.

- Andrew Robinson, author of Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, for MovieMail

I think he [Ray] chose actors who were slightly cerebral so they'd be able to follow his instructions. Speaking personally, I never found him difficult to follow. The way he spoke was crystal clear--it was never anything like "imagine you're a sunset, a flower blooming in the wind." It was "open that drawer, stand by that curtain." It was much easier.

- Sharmila Tagore, from interview in Metroactive, October 16, 2003

About Sunil Gangopadhyay

Essay by the author of the short story after which Days and Nights in the Forest is adpated

Video Essay for 923 (64). Grey Gardens (1975, Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer) with commentary by Vadim Rizov

Vadim Rizov is a contributor to The Village Voice, The House Next Door and Nerve, and co-host of the Lichman and Rizov "Live" at Grassroots Tavern podcasts.