THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING - NOW STREAMING ON NETFLIX
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a la Mod:
The Fury was my first starring role. This was a real big deal for me. And I had a certain way of working, getting myself there emotionally to play the character. I wasn’t very experienced in front of the camera at all. So, while Brian De Palma was setting up shots, I was sitting in my little director’s chair, in my own world, concentrating on where I’m at in the scene — I was taking it really seriously and getting myself into an emotional state. And as tears were rolling down my face, Kirk came over to me.
"Are you all right?" he asked. I told him I was just preparing. He said, "Amy, first of all, you’re what, 23 or 24 years old? You’re never going to make it to 30 if you put that much into everything while they’re lighting the set. My advice to you is, A, save it and use it when the camera is rolling. And, B, did you not hear what lens he was using on this shot? With that lens, you’re going to be the size of a pea on the screen. It really doesn’t matter how emotional you are."
It was a really good lesson. And he was right. I probably would not have made it to 30 if I had not had that sage advice from Kirk Douglas.
When I was teaching a filmmaking course at Sarah Lawrence College in the late 1970s, Kirk joined me in producing a super-low-budget feature titled Home Movies. My concept for the course was to show the students how to make a low-budget feature by making a low-budget feature. Once the class had written the script, we sought out financing and started casting. Since Kirk and I had enjoyed working together on The Fury, I asked him to join our project.
He agreed immediately and even invested in it with me (along with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg). My students were shocked and surprised: "My God," they exclaimed, "we have Kirk Douglas in our student movie!" They created and wrote a character — a film school teacher called the Maestro — for him to play. I have fond memories of Kirk sitting on a tree branch with his co-star Keith Gordon in the middle of the night instructing him on the virtues of Star Therapy ("You must be the star of your own life," his character lectured, "not an extra!").
A star: No one embodied it better.
The period from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960 through to the Reagan '80s constitutes a "golden age" of horror cinema, an era that saw the breakthrough work of directors whose notion of horror constituted a radical challenge to bourgeois society and a rejection of middle-class notions of normality. Films like George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, Brian De Palma's Sisters, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Larry Cohen's It's Alive were made and released during the turmoil of the Vietnam conflict and the Watergate scandal, and it is no coincidence that these and other horror films of the period contain some form of social and political critique.
Responding to this phenomenon, in 1979 Wayne Clarkson — who had recently been appointed executive director of the Festival of Festivals (later TIFF) — invited film critics Robin Wood and Richard Lippe to program a series of 60 horror films for the Festival's fourth edition. Opening with F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu and concluding with John Carpenter’s recently released Halloween, the programme featured onstage interviews with a number of the featured directors (including Carpenter, De Palma, Hooper, Romero, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, and Stephanie Rothman) and an accompanying book of essays. Although it had a small initial printing of only a few hundred copies, The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film was a pioneering work that set the terms for critical study of the horror genre for decades to follow.
Ironically, following the publication of this landmark study the horror genre began to experience a period of exhaustion. Making once-fresh innovations stale by repeating them ad nauseam, the largely unimaginative and conservative movies that emerged in the 1980s effectively removed the radical frisson from horror, draining it of social criticism and turning their characters into mere targets for whatever weapon the respective killer happened to be wielding. That drought persisted for a long time: even as many of the foundational films of the genre's great period were remade (sometimes repeatedly), it is hard to think of many horror films from the last few decades that approach the allegorical resonance of Romero's remarkable zombie movies, the greatest film series in the history of American cinema.
In the last few years, however, horror has entered another period of revival and experimentation, as a new generation of filmmakers — including Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, and Robert Eggers — has mobilized the genre's basic conflict between normality and the monstrous Other in distinctive and provocative ways. It thus seemed to us appropriate to revisit one of TIFF's pioneering programmes now, as the horror genre is once again becoming a vehicle for progressive awareness in a mainstream cinema that, for the most part, continues to pretend that ideology and entertainment are two distinct entities.
The first of Brian De Palma's Hitchcock homages conceals a more serious, and ultimately more truly horrific, layer beneath its jocular salute to the Master. From the opening of the film, De Palma invokes familiar Hitchcock themes from foundational works like Rear Window and Psycho (voyeurism, normality vs. the monstrous, etc.) in tongue-in-cheek ways, as a one-night stand between French-Canadian model Danielle (Margot Kidder) and a fellow contestant on a voyeurism-based game show called Peeping Toms ends in morning-after murder — an early-act killing that invokes Psycho's shower murder, but is considerably more brutal and explicit. Our identification then shifts to Grace (Jennifer Salt), an intrepid but occasionally overzealous reporter who witnesses the killing and tries to get to the bottom of the subsequent cover-up. Her quest leads her to a delirious, narcotically stimulated hallucination in a sinister medical clinic, where she relives a traumatic incident from Danielle's past at the hands of a creepy surgeon (William Finley). Abandoning Hitchcock and radically shifting tone in its final movements, Sisters finds its horror not in the masterful manipulation of audience expectations, but in patriarchy's pervasive control over women.
Print courtesy of the Academy Film Archive.
The event description includes an excerpt from The New Yorker's Richard Brody: "An exuberant grab bag of mischievous whimsy that blends radical politics, sexual freedom, racial tension, and emotional hangups with the director’s own catalogue of artistic references, from Hitchcock and the French New Wave to cinéma vérité and avant-garde theatre—and adds a freewheeling inventiveness and an obstreperous satire all his own."
Below that is a description from Cameron Worden:
Before achieving notoriety as a director of formally audacious commercial thrillers, Brian De Palma found his footing in the New York independent film scene of the late ‘60s, producing a series of oddball underground features that culminated with this scabrous comedy. Prefiguring his turn in TAXI DRIVER, De Niro stars as a Vietnam vet navigating the seedier corners of New York City, first as a pornographer surreptitiously filming his neighbors’ sex lives, then as a member of a politically radical avant-garde theater company, before eventually dipping his toes into domestic terrorism. Moving freely between sitcom-ready mugging, Godardian direct address, and gritty faux cinéma vérité, HI, MOM! would demonstrate the breadth of De Palma’s gifts as a cinematic stylist and preternatural ability to stage memorable set pieces. 35mm.
Here's an excerpt (sans images) from Curry's column:
The climactic scene of the film (mild spoiler alerts follow) in which clown-masked rioters tear the city up, takes place in front of a fake marquee which Friedberg created on Market Street in Newark, promoting the equally fake (at least as far as my extensive research into early ’80s porn can tell me) Ace in the Hole (“in 3 acts”) which is clearly not a revival of the Billy Wilder film.
The least convincing movie-within-the-movie in the film is the black tie screening of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 Modern Times at Wayne Hall (actually the Hudson County Courthouse in Jersey City) which just gives Phillips an excuse for Arthur Fleck to enjoy Chaplin’s insouciantly daredevil rollerskating scene (a scene which employed matte paintings as deftly as that long shot of the city at the top of the page).
But the scene which firmly sets Joker in the last week of July 1981 is the sequence towards the end showing Thomas and Martha Wayne and their son Bruce leaving a movie theater (in reality the Loew’s Jersey Theatre in Jersey City—one of the five Wonder Theatres opened by Loew’s in the late 1920s) in the middle of the riot. The marquee clearly touts Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and Peter Medak’s Zorro, The Gay Blade, both of which opened in New York on July 24, 1981.
As the camera dollies past the front of the theater, beneath its gorgeous marquee lights, we get blink-and-you’ll miss them glimpses of four movie posters (click on the images to see them large). First Blow Out:
Then Bob Peak’s poster for John Boorman’s Excalibur, which is somewhat the odd man out because Excalibur opened three months earlier on April 10, 1981.
And then, if we’re not too distracted by the Waynes leaving the theater (which film had they just been watching?), we can glimpse a poster for the Dudley Moore comedy blockbuster Arthur, which had opened a week earlier on July 17, 1981.
The tagline for Arthur could have served as an ironic tagline for Joker.
And finally, around the corner, down a dark alley, we see the poster for Michael Wadleigh’s werewolf movie Wolfen, which also opened the same day as Blow Out and Zorro.
Blow Out, Wolfen, and Zorro were all reviewed in the Friday July 24 edition of the New York Times, and ads for all three, as well as for Arthur, appeared in the same paper.
What’s remarkable is how little screen time these posters get and yet how carefully Phillips and Friedberg planned their inclusion. Not only do the posters fix Joker’s climax in a very specific time, they also speak to the film itself. I can’t see the connection with Blow Out, but Excalibur and Arthur are both about a man named Arthur, as is Joker of course, and Wolfen is a transformation-centered, New York-set horror movie, much as is Joker. The comedy Zorro, The Gay Blade might seem an odd choice until you read the synopsis which tallies with Joker’s themes of wealth and class: “When the new Spanish Governor begins to grind the peasants under his heel, wealthy landowner Don Diego Vega follows in his late father's footsteps and becomes Zorro, the masked man in black with a sword who rights wrongs and becomes a folk hero to the people of Mexico.”
There are no posters within the film for Scorsese films, even though the film otherwise wears its Scorsese references proudly, but on July 24, 1981, there was one Scorsese film playing in New York: a revival of New York, New York, which, just coincidentally, is being revived in New York again, starting today.
In an obituary at The Hollywood Reporter, Mike Barnes and Duane Byrge describe Douglas as "the son of a ragman who channeled a deep, personal anger through a chiseled jaw and steely blue eyes to forge one of the most indelible and indefatigable careers in Hollywood history."
After working on The Fury in 1977, Douglas had heard De Palma was making an independent film with film students at Sarah Lawrence College. According to De Palma (in an interview with Gerald Peary for Take One magazine), Douglas had called him and said, "Maybe I can help you out." After reading the script, Douglas wanted to play a part. He became an investor, putting in some of his own money, and also became the star of the film, which would be titled Home Movies (from a script De Palma had written years prior). With a big star like Douglas on board, playing a character called "The Maestro," no less, De Palma feared some of the students might feel a bit intimidated, which might then affect the quality of the film they were making. De Palma made the decision to take on the official role as director of the film, even though he let his students direct the scenes wherever possible. In addition, he hired professionals to head each department.
"All of Kirk's stuff is shot cinema verite," De Palma told Peary, "and his own Star Therapy is to have cameras running on him all the time. He's constantly directing the camera crew that's shooting him, telling them to come around for closeups, over here for a medium shot. When the lab saw the stuff, they thought Kirk was directinig the movie."
Here's an excerpt from the Hollywood Reporter obit:
Douglas walked away from a helicopter crash in 1991 and suffered a severe stroke in 1996 but, ever the battler, he refused to give in. With a passionate will to survive, he was the last man standing of all the great stars of another time.
Nominated three times for best actor by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — for Champion (1949), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Lust for Life (1956) — Douglas was the recipient of an honorary Oscar in 1996. Arguably the top male star of the post-World War II era, he acted in more than 80 movies before retiring from films in 2004.
"Kirk retained his movie star charisma right to the end of his wonderful life, and I'm honored to have been a small part of his last 45 years," Steven Spielberg said in a statement. "I will miss his handwritten notes, letters and fatherly advice, and his wisdom and courage — even beyond such a breathtaking body of work — are enough to inspire me for the rest of mine."
The father of two-time Oscar-winning actor-director-producer Michael Douglas, the Amsterdam, New York native first achieved stardom as a ruthless and cynical boxer in Champion. In The Bad and the Beautiful, he played a hated, ambitious movie producer for director Vincente Minnelli, then was particularly memorable, again for Minnelli, as the tormented genius Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life, for which he won the New York Film Critics Award for best actor.
Perhaps most importantly, Douglas rebelled against the McCarthy Era establishment by producing and starring as a slave in Spartacus (1960), written by Dalton Trumbo, making the actor a hero to those blacklisted in Hollywood. The film became Universal’s biggest moneymaker, an achievement that stood for a decade.
Douglas’ many honors include the highest award that can be given to a U.S. civilian, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The broad-chested Douglas often bucked the establishment with his opinions, and he had the courage to back them up. “I’ve always been a maverick," he once said. "When I was new in pictures, I defied my agents to make Champion rather than appear in an important MGM movie they had planned for me [The Great Sinner, which wound up starring Gregory Peck]. Nobody had ever heard of the people connected to Champion, but I liked the Ring Lardner story, and that’s the movie I wanted to do. Everyone thought I was crazy, of course, but I think I made the right decision.”
Never one to toe the line with synthetic, movie star-type parts, Douglas played classic heels in a number of films. In 1951, he showed a keen flair for portraying strong-minded characters like the sleazy newspaper reporter in Billy Wilder’s The Big Carnival (aka Ace in the Hole) and the sadistic cop in William Wyler’s Detective Story. He played more sympathetic types in Out of the Past (1947), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) as Doc Holliday, Paths of Glory (1957) and The List of Adrian Messenger (1963).
Douglas was very particular in his role selection. “If I like a picture, I do it. I don’t stop to wonder if it’ll be successful or not,” he said in a 1982 interview. “I loved Lonely Are the Brave and Paths of Glory, but neither of them made a lot of money. No matter; I’m proud of them.”
His independent nature led him in 1955 to form his own independent film company, Bryna Productions. In the post-World War II era, Douglas was the first actor to take control of his career in this manner. Captaining his own ship, he soon launched a number of heady projects. Most auspiciously, he took a risk on a young Stanley Kubrick with Paths of Glory and Spartacus, films that feature two of Douglas’ finest performances. (He hired Kubrick for the latter after firing Anthony Mann a week into production.)
Indeed, Douglas backed his artistic and political opinions with action: His public announcement that blacklisted writer Trumbo would script Spartacus was a key moment in Hollywood’s re-acceptance of suspected communist figures.
During a Tonight Show appearance in August 1988 to promote his first book, The Ragman’s Son, Douglas told Johnny Carson that he often drew from personal experience for his work on film.
“What I found out when I wrote this book is I have a lot of anger in me,” he said. “I’m angry about things that happened many, many years ago. I think that anger has been a lot of the fuel that has helped me in whatever I’ve done.”
I didn’t see all of the films I’d like to have seen, but I did a fair job of catching the ones I most wanted to, and of those, here are the ones I liked best:
Domino (Brian De Palma) took a lot of flak for being cut down from 150+ minutes to 88, but for me it was a crisp, clean 88 and the best film De Palma’s done since Femme Fatale. Combining the strongest elements of Femme Fatale and Redacted with some actual thought about what it means to make images and the all-too-human motivations that underlie our most high-minded moral choices, this has to be my top film of 2019.