New Column: The Classical

The ClassicalOver the last week I have been planning to write this first blog post on the subject of repertory moviegoing and new/old DVD releases, a weekly missive whose style will, hopefully, fall somewhere between Westbook Pegler, Dave Barry, and Louis Skorecki. I have simultaneously been reading Simon Reynolds’s new book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, which has caused me to question the necessity or even the health of such a backward-looking, sepia-toned exercise.

Reynolds is writing about pop music after a decade in which, he argues, the all-access no-admission availability of pop’s accumulated past is threatening to encroach on the vitality of its present—one of many who are presently trying to figure out What The Internet Hath Wrought. Additional required reading along these lines includes comedian Patton Oswalt’s much-forwarded jeremiad on the subject of “Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever,” and rock critic Bill Wyman on “Lester Bangs’ Basement.”

Retromania is invaluable particularly because it encourages the reader to think about his relationship with art in terms of Past and Future. One does not necessarily have to share Reynolds’s views to profit from this exercise—and I do not. He is an avowed Futurist, even quoting from Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. I get a shivery thrill running my fingers along the spine of Wyndham Lewis’s The Demon of Progress in the Arts.

I feel compelled to argue, though, that this column’s title is not so fusty as it seems at first glance. “The Classical” refers to the critical writings of Maurice Scherer a/k/a Eric Rohmer on cinema’s “classical” age (“The classical age of cinema is not behind us, but ahead”), which I have long admired and puzzled over, as well as a title from the songbook of Mark E. Smith’s long-running dance outfit The Fall, of whom the late DJ John Peel famously said: “They are always different. They are always the same.” This gets at the particular conversation that Smith’s group, in its prime, upheld between traditionalism (the rhythmic bedrock of American rockabilly and its physical presence; Mancunian provincialism) and progress (the responsiveness to new, outre currents in music, from Krautrock to rave; the continual skin-shedding reincarnations). That balance remains an inspiration.

In looking over film history, then, it is my sincere hope to not do so at the expense of the present, for the fear of becoming the David Cross character with the mini Victrola in that one Mr. Show skit should ever be with us all.

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In common with most of America, I saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes last week. There is a certain irony intrinsic to the movie. The narrative tells of humankind facing an unexpected challenge for dominance from our ancestors. The film itself, contrasting the expressive performance of leading ape Caesar (a motion-captured Andy Serkis, whose career is apparently attributable to the fact that he is very good at hunkering) with window-dressing work by James Franco and Freida Pinto, evinces the continuing displacement of flesh-and-blood actors by computer-generated counterparts.

I leave the clucking about the implications of “C.G.I.” to the capable tongue of David Denby, who discovered the existence of places called “multiplexes” this summer, and was deeply dismayed by what he discovered going on inside them. What interests me is that the section of Apes most free of human presence, in which Caesar goes into monkey house lockdown, is also the most adroitly constructed. In the clean delineation of personalities, brusque violence, and sensitivity to the “outcast,” these scenes are closer to the cold Roman clarity of Don Seigel’s very great Riot in Cell Block 11 than the cinema of bluster and obfuscation.

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The Las RunI have mentioned, however, that this is a column about repertory moviegoing, so it would behoove me to mention the best “old” movie I saw over the last month, Richard Fleischer’s 1971 The Last Run, starring Tony Musante, a fresh-off-Patton George C. Scott, and wives #3 (Coleen Dewhurst) and #4 (Trish Van Devere). The move was shot by the legendary Sven Nykvist (Mixed Nuts), with an excellent score by Jerry Goldsmith, and screenplay by Alan Sharp, whose credits in the near future would include Night Moves and Ulzana’s Raid.

Fleischer’s is a case that rewards further research. After getting his bearings in film noir, he graduated to large-scale filmmaking with 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. With its then-astronomical pricetag, Walt Disney certainly must’ve sold Leagues as spectacle—but what impresses today is the patience of the storytelling, the wait through Peter Lorre and Paul Lukas’s expedition planning and Kirk Douglas’s butt-waggling musical number until finally, almost forty-five minutes into the movie, Lorre and Lukas witness Captain Nemo leading a funeral procession across the bottom of the sea. Audience and characters share the same first view of Nemo’s uncanny twilight world together, and thus the same awe. It is hard to imagine the same movie, made today, waiting so long to flex its muscle. That undergirding of character carries the sense of astonishment through the ages, even as the effects in Fleisher’s big-budget bonanzas today look dated (1966’s The Fantastic Voyage feels practically arts-and-crafts.) It is the fate of the awesome to become quaint with time, and so undoubtedly our children’s children will find Apes (pardon) primitive, assuming they’re not too busy being blown by robots slaves to pay attention to filmed drama.

It is often suspected that special-effects and human values are antithetical, but The Last Run is proof that Fleisher’s attention to character never atrophied during his CinemaScope-sized work. Scott plays Harry Garmes, a former getaway driver in late middle-age, retired in obscurity in Portugal, who takes a gig transporting Musante’s sprung con across the Pyrenees into France. Along the way they collect Van Devere; she comes with his cargo, but Scott starts to fall for her, and Musante eggs his girl on, figuring that teasing along the old man’s affection will guarantee his loyalty. Arriving in France, the trio run head-on into a set-up, and retreat into the peninsula with assassins in pursuit. The action that follows, with Scott swinging his supercharged 1956 Cabriolet around serpentine mountain roads, is all whiplash-sharp, but what’s unforgettable is the pained submission that Scott registers, the fatal clench in his final, suicidal smile at the woman he knew never loved him.

The production was publicly troubled, with original director John Huston walking off the set after squabbling with Scott. This alerted the critical community, with its general prejudice for Huston and the headstrong, iconoclast-artist persona he cultivated (see Lillian Ross’s The Picture), which could only make Fleischer look, in contrast, like a mere hireling—an assumption reflected in reviews which were, as ever, completely wrong. At “The Classical,” I will aspire, gazing out from the unassailable bluffs of hindsight, to be less wrong than most.

Next Week: Robert Ryan and Eugene O’Neill? Or: whatever strikes my fancy.

Nick Pinkerton is a regular contributor to The Village Voice film section, Sight & Sound Magazine, and sundry other publictions. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. 

 

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  1. [...] from the typewriter of one Alan Sharp, whose feature debut, 1971’s The Last Run, was discussed in the first The Classical, and which, I would be remiss not to mention, is now available on Warners On-Demand, whose monthly [...]

    November 3, 2011 | Permalink Reply
  2. [...] was the subject of Simon Reynolds’s Retromania, discussion of which kicked off The Classical lo, these many months ago. Reynolds’s “great cause,” incidentally, was the critical championing of rave culture; [...]

    November 24, 2011 | Permalink Reply
  3. [...] The Classical #1- On Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Richard Fleischer’s The Last Run [...]

    March 7, 2014 | Permalink Reply