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Sunday, March 12, 2023

Tonight's Oscar's broadcast included an "In Memoriam" segment in which Lenny Kravitz, at the piano, performed his song "Calling All Angels", accompanied by guitarist Craig Ross. The tribute included Edward R. Pressman. A few weeks ago, I promised a followup post about Pressman, and so here it is - a sort of timeline of Pressman's first few years in the film industry.

Paul Williams, from the 1973 book Directors In Action, edited by Bob Thomas:

In college I did still photography and made three short films, and wrote dozens of earnest film reviews for the school newspaper. The next year I went to England and met Edward Pressman, a young producer and philosopher. We made a short together which eventually won a Golden Eagle, which gave us the unjustified confidence to embark on our first feature film. I wrote it, Ed titled it: The Man Who Killed Men. Budgeted at five million dollars, TMWKM (as it became known) interested United Artists, but since we insisted on my directing and would not consider selling the property, United Artists explained that they couldn't have a twenty-one-year-old direct a picture of that size. I think it was Chris Mankiewicz who suggested, "Try something smaller, first."

Since we didn't want to waste potential production money on a script, we decided that I should write an original. I think I wrote a simple but honest semiautobiographi- cal script about a sensitive kid in high school who never got laid. We called the movie Out of It and it took us seven months to find out that no major or minor or schlock company would finance a first feature film (a) based on a "plotless" original script about kids; (b) which called for and would use no stars; (c) to be directed by a young virgin, so to speak. "Strike three!" said Sid Kiwitt, then of Seven Arts.

Ed Pressman, a prince, to put it mildly, then privately raised 100,000 dollars which is more easily written about than done (this was before the American Film Institute, a wonderful thing, existed). In fact, it took Ed long enough to raise the bread for me to almost finish studying advanced acting and directing with Herbert Berghof and elementary techniques with Elizabeth Dillon (it was Ed's idea, based on casual observation of my short films, that I study acting).

During the summer of 1967, when I was twenty-three and Ed was twenty-four, we made Out of It, starring, as the ads read now, Barry Gordon and Jon Voight. (I was knocked out when I first met Jon, told him so and have stayed that way since.) Out of It ended up costing 350,000 dollars with deferrals (everybody) and took seven weeks to shoot and ten months to edit. When David Picker of United Artists saw it. he said to Ed, "I like it. What do you want to do next?"

Making decisions daily, based so tangibly on time, heightened my awareness of categories hadn't thought adequately about before shooting. I think AFI apprentices should be required to stay in the editing room, too, as long as they don't tell anybody about what happens in there.

I had complete freedom, except for the basic economic limitations. Ed Pressman and I have had an unusual and happy professional relationship on both Out Of It and The Revolutionary. I am responsible for artistic decisions once certain perimeters are set.

On both films had final cut and final responsibility for casting, but Ed and were constantly consulting and didn't have any arguments about control or responsibility. It's hard to think of him as my producer-"partner" sounds better to me, anyway. Of course, people ask about the distributor. United Artists didn't touch a frame after they bought Out of It. They also gave me complete freedom on The Revolutionary. They are a marvelous company in that department.

IndieWire, Jul 31, 2003 - Ed Pressman Talks About 30+ Years of Producing

by Matthew Ross

indieWIRE: How did you get started in filmmaking?

Ed Pressman: I really started during graduate school, when I studied philosophy at the London School of Economics. Before then, I had always loved film, but it had seemed totally remote as a career. In England, I met a young American filmmaker named Paul Williams. He was a very confident, outgoing director who had made a short film at Harvard. After a few days of talking incessantly about movies, we decided to form a partnership. We made a short together, and after that experience, everything else, compared to filmmaking, seemed so limited. At the time we started, film seemed to be a way of changing the world.

Paul was very precocious. He really gave me the confidence to get into the profession. Together he and I made films that Paul directed. The first one was a feature called “Out of It.” It was Jon Voight‘s first film, and John Avildsen was the cameraman. We shot it for about $200,000 at my folks’ summer house in Atlantic Beach, using credit cards and small investments. At the time, that method of making a film without distribution already in place was very, very rare. Cassavetes was doing it and that was about it; the studios really made the movies. But we made the film and sold it to David Picker, who was running United Artists. He then gave us a three-picture deal. We were 21 at the time, and it all seemed so simple. It was a great experience right off the bat. Unfortunately, that film was held back from release because right after United Artists bought it Jon was signed up to star in “Midnight Cowboy,” and they wanted to wait until after that movie was done to get our film some visibility. The next film Paul and I made was “The Revolutionary,” which starred Jon Voigt and Robert Duvall.

iW: How did your partnership with Paul work out?

Pressman: We worked together for about eight years. Paul directed three films, the last of which was “Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues,” based on a book by a young writer named Michael Crichton. Then we started to produce films with other directors. We made “Badlands” with Terrence Malick and “Sisters” and “Phantom of the Paradise” with Brian de Palma. A lot of young filmmakers used to hang out at our office, including Brian and Martin Scorsese, because Paul was really one of the first directors of our generation to make it. Then he went on a spiritual trip. He gave up all his possessions, split up with his wife, and left filmmaking. He’s since come back, and he’s made some interesting low-budget films over the past few years; but it’s hard to get back into the groove after you’ve been gone for so long.

When he went away, he sold his interest in the partnership to me, and I went out on my own. The next time I had a partnership was when I started ContentFilm with John Schmidt two years ago.

In conversation with Samuel Blumenfeld and Laurent Vachaud, De Palma said that Pressman "notably produced Phantom of the Paradise and Terrence Malick's first film, Badlands. I met Ed when I was in Los Angeles. Martin Ransohoff had refused to do Sisters, and I had just bought the screenplay from him! When he read it Ed immediately wanted to do it. He managed to find enough money, two hundred thousand dollars, to get the movie started. Then he continued fundraising while filming, and the budget eventually came to six hundred thousand dollars." As De Palma explained to Blumenfeld and Vachaud, Pressman-Williams was the production company Pressman had created with Paul Williams, who was not the songwriter who plays Swan in Phantom, but the "director of two films with Jon Voight. The Revolutionary and Out of it."

Pressman was an integral part of making those films with Williams, and continued that sort of passion with the films he went on to make with De Palma. "Ed's parents had a toy company," De Palma continued, "Pressman Toys, one of whose offices was located at 23rd Street and Broadway. Pressman-Williams had set up its headquarters there. I was working in their offices after the disaster of Get To Know Your Rabbit, and Paul Williams was still a director working at Warner whose film Dealing ended in disaster. Dealing was adapted from the first novel by Michael Crichton. He had written it with his brother Douglas when they were students at Harvard."

Ed Pressman on Mystic & Severe Radio, July 27, 2020

Brian was a friend from New York, and he’d done a film called Greetings, and Hi, Mom!, which were low-budget, very independent movies. And I was a fan and a friend. And Brian then went on to do a studio movie called Get To Know Your Rabbit at Warner Bros. And he had a very unhappy experience. He called me and said, “I’ve got these two projects under option to Warners that I’d do anything to get out.” And, you know, asked if I could find a way to get the properties free. And we were able to do that, and then we had Sisters and Phantom Of The Paradise, and decided, not because of …. [too much occurred? Absurd?] … but because it was simpler to start with Sisters. And we worked with a team of actors and friends who all knew each other from Margot Kidder to Jennifer Salt, Brian and Chuck Durning. So there was an immediate ability to bring it together and do the film for a low budget. And the film opened fairly weakly, but then at that time, there were drive-in theaters. And the drive-in theaters did very substantial business all of a sudden, so it just took on a life that, you know, wouldn’t have existed without the drive-in audience, which was more exploitational.

So we did that, and then started to do Phantom Of The Paradise with the same company that distributed Sisters. I remember two weeks before we started to shoot Phantom, they asked to cut the budget by five million dollars, and we couldn’t see a way to do that. So we were fortunate enough to meet an independent financier and Gus Berne and partner Gabe Katzka, who, by a great piece of luck, agreed to come in and take over the financing of the film. So we did it independently, and sold it to Fox after it was made, which at that time was not a common thing.

Ed Pressman, 2012 interview about Badlands:
There were a lot of naysayers, doing the film. I remember the initial line producer, who I had worked with on another film, was let go because he didn’t get along with Terry. And he went back to New York and told my mother, who was really helping me finance the movie, that this film was a mess, and don’t waste your money on this. My gut told me to believe in Terry. And I think that was a good lesson.

March 2023 article abouyt Lynn Pressman at Queens History
Lynn Pressman Raymond was born Lynn Rambach in Woodhaven in 1912. As she grew older, her family moved to Brooklyn where she was a standout at Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush. As a young woman, she began her career in sales and marketing by rising through the ranks of various stores (including Abraham & Straus) as a publicist.

Eventually, her talents caught the attention of James McCreery & Co., a fashionable department store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, where she soon found herself in charge of publicity.

But her true calling was the acquisition of toys and games and she found herself drawn to positive and educational products. She also found herself drawn to Jack Pressman, who owned a toy and game company and earned the nickname “The Marble King” because of how many marbles he purchased to supply all the Chinese Checker games that he sold.

In 1942, they married and as vice president of Pressman Toys, Lynn Pressman developed a toy that made a fortune and still sells in stores to this day. She developed the children’s toy doctor bag as a way to ease the fear that children felt when visiting the doctor.

It came with toy versions of doctor’s tools (stethoscope, thermometer and a syringe) and a small bottle of candy pills. The doctor’s bag was a runaway success, leading to variations such as a nurse bag and even versions for Ken and Barbie.

Her husband’s health made it necessary for Lynn Pressman to take an even more active role running Pressman Toys and upon his passing in 1959, she assumed control. She was, at the time, one of the very few women executives running a large company.

This led to issues getting credit, even from the bank her husband had done business with for years, but she eventually secured credit and overcame all obstacles to become one of the more powerful women executives in the United States.

She was a pioneer in licensing the rights to popular television and movie characters for use in creating toys, creating games based on Disney characters along with Superman and the Lone Ranger. She was also known for licensing athletes and creating games using their likenesses on the packaging.

When she took over Pressman Toys, she made one major change to the company policy that undoubtedly impacted the bottom line. Lynn Pressman stated that her company would no longer manufacture, market or sell any toy guns or rifles to children.

Keep in mind that this was the early 1960s and toy guns and rifles were big sellers, but from that moment on, her company followed this principle.

Ms. Pressman, an outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam, worked together with peace organizations in the late ’60s to encourage other companies to refrain from making “toys that symbolize destruction.”

Through her relationship with UNICEF, she developed a line of Pen Pal Dolls, based on Walt Disney’s Small World attraction at the World’s Fair. Each doll came with a pen and paper and information about the doll’s country.

Later in life, she enjoyed a second career and a bit of enjoyable notoriety through her son, Edward. In fact, Lynn Pressman is listed in the credits as a co-producer of Phantom of the Paradise, directed by Brian De Palma. Lynn Pressman also served as an extra in several of her son’s films.

[From the Scream Factory interview with Edward R Pressman (2002)]

Phantom was pretty inclusive. We were financing the film, we were using our family’s toy factory to shoot the film, and we were present throughout the shooting in Dallas and New York. You know, a time I try to enjoy the most, when I’m most involved. It’s easy to be removed and be more of an executive, but at that time I was very integral in the process.

A person who is never recognized for her help in making the film was my mother, Lynn Pressman. Because Lynn Pressman ran Pressman Toy Company, my family toy company. And she allowed and encouraged us to use the factory for the prison scene, and the scene in the record pressing plant. There was a moment of terror when the machine seemed to be actually almost crushing Bill’s head… fortunately, it didn’t. But Lynn’s help in letting us use the factory in the prison scene and the record scene, and generally helping us finance the movie, with the help of Gus Berne and Gabe Katzka… If there’s one person who I’ve never really recognized for helping this movie, it was Lynn.

From Ed Pressman 2012 interview about Badlands
Ironically, after the Warner Brothers release of Badlands, which was a failure, we did re-release the film, maybe six years or eight years later. And we arranged our own distribution in Little Rock, Arkansas, which was the least expensive television market. So we could make ads and promote the film on television with modest means. And then we went to Memphis and did the same thing, and then to Dallas. And once the film was proven in Dallas, then Warner Brothers re-released the film. We had proven that the film could do business. We did the same three-city model with Phantom Of The Paradise, with Brian De Palma’s film, a few years later. And at that time, you could kind of distribute the films yourself.

After Phantom came out – Sisters, Badlands, Phantom – those films were all, in one way or another successful, either artistically or business-wise, Fox came to us and offered us a deal to pay our overhead and give us a development fund. And so we thought, that’s great, and we took the deal. And that was the most unproductive period of my life, because we worked at a studio and management changed after we made the deal. So the new management was, I think Daryl Zanuck came, and he didn’t want to do any things we wanted to do. So we spent two or three years not making movies. You know, had offices, and had money to develop things, but we weren’t making movies. So after that I decided I’d rather take my chances and stay independent and get the films made, even if it was not as comfortable.

The Maverick Producer - 1987 New York Times article by Thomas Carney
ON AN EARLY SUMMER EVENING IN 1973, Ed Pressman found himself in an apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side, celebrating the engagement of his thrice-widowed mother, Lynn, to a stockbroker. There he met Gustave Berne, an energetic real estate tycoon in his 70's who had also dabbled in the movie business.

Pressman was soon telling Berne about a problem he was having with his sixth movie, ''Phantom of the Paradise,'' a Faustian legend set in the world of rock music. American International Pictures had agreed to finance the project, which Brian De Palma would direct. But A.I.P. had suddenly cut the budget in half. ''I don't know whether they're just squeezing us,'' Pressman said, ''or if Sam Arkoff has changed his mind.''

Berne studied Pressman for a moment. ''I think we can do something, Eddie,'' he said. ''Let's meet tomorrow for lunch.''

Berne checked out the 30-year-old producer and the next day, when Pressman showed up at the Italian Pavilion, Berne boomed out: ''You're O.K., kid. Let's make a deal.''

Pressman's new partner came up with $900,000, the bulk of the ''Phantom'' budget. They estimated the overage - the amount necessary to insure that a movie will be completed even if the budget runs over - at $200,000. That became Pressman's responsibility.

Ed Pressman was an unlikely recruit for the movie business. The son of Jack Pressman, a toy executive known in the 1930's as the Marble King, he appears to have passed smoothly from one play world into another, bringing with him a universe of contacts not often available to those in the film industry.

Pressman's father had died when Ed was 16, and his mother took over the family concern, the third-largest maker of board games in the United States. But Pressman did not want to spend his life dreaming up games for Pressman Toys. As a boy in New York, he worked the refreshment stand at the Lane movie theater, owned by his uncle, Morris Lane. After graduating from Stanford University, he had spent a year at the London School of Economics - but for days hung around the London offices of Columbia Pictures. ''I went into film for the same reason I majored in philosophy,'' he says. ''They are both world-encompassing subjects.''

With $5,000, Pressman bankrolled Paul Williams, another young American abroad, to make a 12-minute short called ''Girl,'' which won a 1966 Golden Eagle Award for nontheatrical films. Back in New York, Pressman confessed to his mother with characteristic understatement why he had overdrawn his bank account: ''Mother, I did this film, and it won an award. And I'd like to go into the movie business.'' In 1969, the novice producer tested his mother's generosity once again when he failed to get studio backing for his first feature-length film, ''Out of It,'' also written by Paul Williams. Lynn Pressman gave her son not only most of the $225,000 he needed but also the run of her summer house on Long Island as a location to shoot the movie. ''I learned to be a producer just by jumping in and doing it,'' says Pressman. ''I was very skeptical about film school. With 'Out of It' I did everything, from the catering on.'' Pressman sold the completed film to United Artists for $250,000. He and Williams then took the check and laid it on Pressman's mother's desk at Pressman Toys.

Over the next five years, the two men made ''The Revolutionary,'' ''Dealing,'' ''Sisters'' and ''Badlands.'' This was the era of ''Easy Rider,'' when studio production heads were willing to take a chance on emerging talent. Williams was the wild-haired young genius while Pressman, prematurely bald, with his calm, deliberate air, seemed older, the stable businessman. Williams eventually stopped making movies, but the early alliances he and Pressman forged with such film writers and directors as Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone were to have lasting importance for Pressman's career. For altogether different reasons, the partnership with Gus Berne also proved a memorable experience. When ''Phantom of the Paradise'' was finished in 1974, 20th Century-Fox bought the film for $2 million. That seemed to assure Pressman and Berne a tidy $800,000 profit. Then Universal enjoined the movie, claiming that ''Phantom of the Paradise'' was a remake of their film ''The Phantom of the Opera.''

''It wasn't. It was a parody,'' says Pressman, ''but we settled the suit out of court, at a cost to Berne and myself of about $350,000."

Ed Pressman quote from 1989 interview in Australia
Most of the films are the work of a single writer-director—the expression of a single vision. As I like to say, the work of John Milius in Conan The Barbarian is as valid in its way as Brian De Palma in Sisters. They’re very different, but they’re all, at least to me, original, cinematically, and somehow tied to the currents of the time.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CST
Updated: Monday, March 13, 2023 1:20 AM CDT
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Saturday, March 11, 2023

Posted by Geoff at 1:02 PM CST
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Friday, March 10, 2023

Posted by Geoff at 11:08 PM CST
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Thursday, March 9, 2023

Phantom Of The Paradise is one of the films included on Jeremy Urquhart's list of "Bombastic, Visually Striking Movies About Music," at Collider:
Phantom of the Paradise might well stand as one of the few horror movies that's simply too unique and weird to ever remake. It tells the story of an up-and-coming musician who's betrayed by a dastardly record producer, and after a period of imprisonment, returns to exact revenge on the man for ruining his life.

It was directed by Brian De Palma in the early years of his filmmaking career and still stands as one of his best movies. De Palma has always had a singular style that inevitably leads to visually engaging films, and Phantom of the Paradise is no exception, with its wild and creative visuals effectively complementing the various tones and genres the story covers.

Meanwhile, at GameRant, Eliza Hyde places De Palma's film at the top of her list of 10 Great Heavy Metal Horror Movies:
Phantom of the Paradise is one of the greatest cult musicals, combining elements of Phantom of the Opera and Faust (with a dash of Dorian Gray), merging it into a concoction of various musical styles. Of course, rock plays a large part in the proceedings, with some memorably proggy tunes scattered throughout this bleak masterpiece.

Directed by Brian De Palma, Phantom is a dark tale with lashings of black humor and a truly depressing ending. It warns of the dangers of selling out and pursuing a life of narcissistic excess, backed up by an endlessly catchy soundtrack. A true classic.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CST
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Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Last week, The Independent's Jacob Stolworthy included Brian De Palma's Blow Out on his list of "25 superb movies that somehow didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination." "Brian De Palma doesn’t exactly make films in the hope of winning awards," Stolworthy states about Blow Out, "but his political thriller – based on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up – would have deserved any Oscar it was nominated for." Here's Stolworthy's introduction from the article:
It might be obvious to say, but a film getting nominated for an Oscar doesn’t automatically make it good.

In fact, there have been many deserving movies over the years that were somehow overlooked by the Academy.

It’s easy to assume that certain releases don’t get nominated because they’re not what Oscar voters would usually go for, but there have been some surprises in the past.

For example, pretty much every new superhero film earns a nomination thanks to the technical or makeup categories, while random animated films are acknowledged most likely because of the low number on offer in a certain year.

This means films likem say, DC’s Suicide Squad may get mauled by the critics, but they still gain recognition from the Academy (it went on to win).

This is even more ridiculous when you consider that classics such as Don’t Look Now and Blow Out didn’t even get recognised.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CST
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Tuesday, March 7, 2023

"On this day March 7th, 1976," @Mag1cH0ur tweeted today, "Brian De Palma's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE was back in London at the Screen on Islington Green after its lukewarm run the previous year.. The film was paired with THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK."

The image above and the image below were both included in @Mag1cH0ur's Twitter post. Note the mention in this 1976 article (below) that one of Ed Pressman's future projects at that time included an adaptation of Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man.

Posted by Geoff at 11:07 PM CST
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Monday, March 6, 2023

This is from October of 2021, but I just found this intriguing article from the Montréal journal Monstrum. It's a dual review by Clayton Dillard of the De Palma/Lehman novel Are Snakes Necessary? and Tarantino's novelization of his film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood:
In 1969, De Palma was completing his third feature film, The Wedding Party, and was on his way to becoming a central figure within the New Hollywood. It wasn’t until 1973, with Sisters, that De Palma turned the majority of his creative focus to Hitchcockian riffs on noirish plotlines, in which men, typically, become obsessed with the identity of a woman. Are Snakes Necessary? is in many respects a riff on a riff—it’s De Palma lightly sending up himself and his thematic preoccupations while still piecing together a fully formed thriller storyline. Take Nick Sculley, a thirtysomething photographer, who will play witness to high-level political corruption and, eventually, tragedy. Not only is his name nearly identical to Jake Scully, the protagonist of De Palma’s Body Double, but his circumstances neatly parallel that of Jack (John Travolta) in Blow Out (1981). Other characters will seem familiar to anyone acquainted with De Palma’s films; there’s Fanny Cours, an 18-year-old intern and “political junkie” who is, as De Palma and Lehman write it, “in the full flush of carnality,” and who recalls Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) in Dressed to Kill for how her seductive charm is irresistible to men. Add in a pair of murderous male political figures and a shadowy woman that’s essentially a redux of Rebecca Romijn’s character in De Palma’s Femme Fatale (2002), and the ingredients for pulpy delight are afoot. The novel’s primary drawback, though, is how the economical prose cannot rival De Palma’s audio-visual acumen; in fact, even as prose, one longs for the wilder, stranger metaphors of Elmore Leonard, who has written nearly a dozen novels in a comparable register and with more aplomb.

Still, saying Are Snakes Necessary? isn’t up to the level of the crime genre’s maestro shouldn’t suggest it’s inferior within its own contexts. Indeed, as the novel winds toward a close, De Palma and Lehman find a dark and amusing means of quite literally cutting into the heart of the reader’s pent-up desire to see the back cover’s promise of “a female revenge story” fulfilled. It delivers the goods. What’s more engaging from a broader perspective is considering why De Palma and Tarantino have written novels at all. In an interview with the website Crime Reads, De Palma explains that, “As a director I like photographing women more than I like photographing men. As a writer, I like focusing on the woman’s point of view.”1 Though De Palma ends his commentary there, the implication is that prose affords the author the chance to consider perspective in a manner that the director, faced with the immediacy of the moving image, cannot. But for anyone who’s seen De Palma’s films, we should recall that, quite often, scenes unfold from the perspective of women, and often in ways that complicate questions of POV. The opening of Dressed to Kill is the most complex case, in which Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) masturbates in the shower while looking at a man, presumably her husband, shaving in the mirror. Her sense of pleasure is mirrored, too, by the camera’s scanning of her naked body, which, if we’re talking gazes, is an explicitly erotic and objectifying one, not least because the character’s body is glimpsed in close-up, absent her face (in fact, this is not Dickinson’s body, but a body double). Therefore, we have an instance, sans dialogue, in which the sequencing of images thematize the matter of looking and, to put it another way, seeing. In many ways, the control of the image is tantamount to the entire premise of New Hollywood’s divergence from classical Hollywood’s “genius of the system,” as André Bazin called it. The individual—the auteur—holds the capacity to create, to manipulate, and to puppeteer from outside the frame.

Rick’s solution to aging into obscurity in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is to work with then-burgeoning auteur Roman Polanski, a prospect that seems imminent by the film’s end. Of course, in hindsight, Polanski’s 1977 sexual-abuse case can’t help but factor into a contemporary conversation about how men, as either directors or writers, are capable of communicating female presence and perspective. Tarantino was criticized during a Cannes press conference for not giving Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) more screen time in the film; his response in the novelization is almost defiant, as the character is minimized further in favor of expanding Cliff’s background, in particular, into a wife-killing, bloodthirsty cinephile. If that sounds ridiculous, leave it to Tarantino to give his stuntman a knack for cinema, with extended sections on Cliff’s response to I Am Curious (Yellow) (Vilgot Sjöman, 1967) and taste for titles that now comprise the fulcrum for the Criterion Collection’s non-English language selections. There’s also an entire chapter devoted to Cliff’s encounter with Aldo Ray in Spain, in which the stuntman gets the veteran actor drunk. It concludes with Rick chastising him, saying, “When they give you your SAG card at the fuckin’ union office, they give you three rules: One, they gotta give you turnaround. Two, don’t do any nonunion shoots. And three, if you ever do a film with Aldo Ray, under no circumstances give him a bottle.” To what extent one finds this amusing likely depends on one’s tolerance for Tarantino’s own self-indulgent cinephilia, particularly the sort that imagines film-history-as-fan-fiction worthy of entire chapters. Nevertheless, it also cuts to the heart of what’s at stake in both of these novels as it pertains to Tarantino and De Palma: as artists aging into their later years (Tarantino claims he’ll make just one more film), they’re paradoxically intrigued by the question of artistic evolution while also stubbornly resolute in their thematic obsessions and artistic perspectives.

In The Card Counter, Paul Schrader’s latest film, the protagonist, a blackjack sharp who spent eight and a half years in military prison for his role as an Abu Gharib torturer, offers this response to his protégé, who questions if there’s any meaning in the monotony of doing the same thing over and over again: “You just go around and around until you work things out.” Schrader, who wrote the screenplay for De Palma’s Obsession (1976), might as well be speaking through his character in this moment, and in many respects he speaks for De Palma and Tarantino, too: their filmographies suggest slight variations on a theme, explored through repetition. Though Schrader hasn’t written a novel, his films are explorations that spring, in large part, from an early critical work of his own called Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (1972). Like De Palma, nearly fifty years later, the themes remain the same. In writing their first novels, De Palma and Tarantino implicitly ask us to grapple with how time affects our perceptions of ourselves and of the past. Forget snakes; the real question for both of these writer/directors becomes: is change necessary?

Posted by Geoff at 11:47 PM CST
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Sunday, March 5, 2023

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CST
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Saturday, March 4, 2023

In an article titled "Mission: Impossible, or the assassination of Jim Phelps by the coward Tom Cruise," Louis Rabinowitz at Nostalgia Detective revisits Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible:
There’s nothing exceptionally strange about a big star setting up a production company - the likes of Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt have them these days. With Cruise, though, it’s always helpful to look a little deeper.

Tom Cruise is a control freak. It’s one of his defining attributes. Just about every role he would pick from here on out would be to cultivate a very particular image of himself. For a period of time in the 2000s, when uncomfortable attention was resting on his public persona, it’d become very obvious that Cruise was using his roles to actively push back on how people saw him (we have a lot to talk about with Mission III). This control is necessary. It’s how he survives. Naturally, just being the star wasn’t enough for him.

Production helped him get into all aspects of the creative process, to shape his star vehicles from top to bottom, to make sure it was all part of the ongoing Cruise Project. Cruise was still collaborating with top auteurs - three years after this, he’d knock two of the biggest working directors out in a year - but these projects would gradually dry up as his producer era solidified, and he was pretty much done with all that by the mid-2000s. Not coincidentally, this pretty much lined up exactly with the end of his appearances in supporting roles. On a Tom Cruise project, he’s the star, or he’s not in it at all.

Naturally, then, you’d have to conclude two things from a Cruise-produced Mission: Impossible. First, that he’d lead it. Second, that because the lead of Mission: Impossible is Jim Phelps, so surely Cruise would be Phelps.

Hmm, though. Phelps was a pre-existing character whose actor had portrayed him for nine seasons of TV and stepping into someone else’s well-established role is hardly Tom’s speed. Moreover, Phelps wasn’t a young character - Peter Graves, when he signed off the role in 1989, was 64. If the movie was going to be a continuation of the show (and in the event, it was), then there’s no way Cruise could be a 64-year-old dude. If there’s one thing Tom Cruise abhors, other than antidepressants, it’s seeming old. In 2017’s The Mummy, he is described as a “young man”.

So, no to Cruise as Phelps. In the event, they cast age-appropriate Jon Voight, now most famous for being a weird right-wing crank on Twitter, and Cruise found an elegant solution to the lead-problem: he simply created a new self-insert hero character and made him the centre of the entire story.

Ethan Hunt was born. His first act, like many sons, was to murder who came before him and take his place.

From here on out, pretty much, Tom Cruise picks the directors.

One might assume from his established control freakery that Tom would want pliable journeymen directors who can serve his will - a Jaume Collet-Serra or Shaun Levy type. The fun thing is, though, his tastes for Mission: Impossible were generally quite the opposite. The pattern of Mission: Impossible’s auteur era, the sequence of four movies all handled by vastly different directors, is that Cruise finds someone interesting and lets them cook - at the very least in the early going. The man has layers.

First at bat is Brian De Palma, a choice that I assume seemed somewhat odd at the time. De Palma had been working in Hollywood for nearly three decades, directing movies that I guess you could call successful. Carrie? Scarface? Blow Out? Seen them?

(I haven’t, by the way. Don’t look at me like that. You shouldn’t have expected any better of me.)

Befitting Cruise’s new big tycoon guy status, he found De Palma in an appropriately glitzy way - through their mutual buddy Steven Spielberg. Heard of him?

Spielberg, at this point, was in one of the hottest phases of his career, having directed Jurassic Park and Oscar-winning Schindler’s List in the same year just a couple of years beforehand. It wouldn’t be until the next decade/century/millennium that the two of them would work together, but when they got to it, they would cook quite nicely.

Anyhow, the Mission script zagged through the typewriters of some of Hollywood’s biggest screenwriters under De Palma’s direction. There were three credited writers on the final script, and the combined prestige of them could have killed a medieval peasant - David Koepp had co-written Jurassic Park (and would later go on to have a truly odd career including Spider-Man, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and the Cruise The Mummy reboot that will haunt this newsletter later), Robert Towne had written Chinatown and Cruise/Tony Scott vehicle Days of Thunder, and Steve Zaillian would later write two Martin Scorsese movies.

We’ll put a pin in Mission screenwriters now, but suffice to say: some weird guys have gotten their hands on these scripts.

It should be noted that, ten years on from Top Gun, Cruise was going into the main action role of his career, one which would span three decades, in his mid-thirties. That’s not unprecedented, and nor would it be seen as an aberration - Robert Downey Jr., for instance, debuted as Iron Man aged 43. It’s also true that Ethan Hunt is a bit of a move forward from the “young hotshot” archetype that Cruise brought to Top Gun - there is a conscious acknowledgement that this is not the same guy.

Still, it’s as good an indicator as any of how intrinsic eternal youthfulness will become to Cruise’s public (and, you suspect, self) image in later years. If Ethan Hunt is the kind of role that would be a breakout for most actors in their twenties, then, well, that’s just how Tom Cruise sees himself: whatever age he really is, he believes that he’s younger.

The funny thing is, I wrote all of that before rewatching Mission: Impossible, and the thing I had forgotten was that the movie really does begin with Jim Phelps as the leading guy. The first 15 minutes - a suspenseful heist sequence that’s stylish as hell - are a condensed version of what I imagine a classic M:I episode to have been. You have the video briefing, a little team banter, and then the mission. Jim Phelps is the leader. He gets the mission. He’s the main guy.

Tom Cruise, on the other hand, is introduced as just a member of the ensemble - obviously the wisecracking cool one, who stands out among the archetypes of “snarky tech guy”, “posh British lady”, “Jim Phelps’ trophy wife” and “Hannah”, but still one amongst many. He’s what TV Tropes would call a Canon Foreigner, an original creation for the film, but he slots neatly and without fuss into the existing Mission framework headlined by Phelps. He knows his place.

Then everybody on the team fucking dies except Tom Cruise. He runs around the streets of Prague in a tuxedo, sweating, as he watches the entire cast of Mission: Impossible, including Jim Phelps, die brutally. By 25 minutes, only he remains. The lone survivor. I mean, it’s a great opening. Establishing a status quo and knocking it out from under our feet before the first act is even done? That’s De Palma magic. It is, also, a subtextual minefield, knowing what we know about Tom Cruise.

Really, it’s difficult not to read a movie in which he graduates from side character to lead and then takes over the front man role and builds his own team of supporting characters as a kind of commentary on the way Cruise insists on doing things.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CST
Updated: Sunday, March 5, 2023 12:07 PM CST
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Friday, March 3, 2023

Posted by Geoff at 10:29 PM CST
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