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Go West

It’s always an event when the National Film Preservation Foundation issues a new anthology, but the fifth volume in their series of DVD box sets, “Treasures 5: The West, 1989-1938,” is perhaps the richest and most revelatory of their collections yet.

As in past volumes, feature-length narrative films take a back seat to other, often overlooked forms of moving image production, which in this case include travelogues,newsreels, home movies, industrial films and government propaganda shorts (among the latter is a wonderfully deadpan production from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, outlining the natural process by which water just flows into the greater Los Angeles area — it’s like the missing first reel of “Chinatown”). Out of this material — aided and abetted, of course, by fiction films — comes a vivid, step-by-step history of how the West assumed its place in the American imagination, with some gentle assistance from Theodore Roosevelt, the Santa Fe Railroad and Del Monte Foods.

Because the authentic West overlapped to a significant extent with its romanticized counterpart, some of the most compelling material in this collection straddles the line between documentary and invention — the reformed outlaw Al Jennings playing himself in a freely adapted episode from his brief career (“Lady of the Dugout,” directed in 1918 by W.S. Van Dyke); the Oklahoma sheriff Bill Tilghman re-enacting his capture of the Wild Bunch in a surviving fragment of the 1913 feature “Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaw”; the astounding “Ammunition Smuggling Along the Mexican Border,” a 40-minute re-enactment film from 1914 produced by a Texas sheriff to tell his side of a controversial incident that had happened only weeks before.

Auteur interest is provided by D.W. Griffith’s 1910 “Over Silent Paths,” a revenge drama with a fiercely effective performance by Marion Leonard; an incomplete but perfectly comprehensible version of Gregory La Cava’s 1925 modern west comedy “Womanhandled,” Victor Fleming’s 1926 Clara Bow vehicle “Mantrap”; and the hitherto unknown “Salomy Jane,” a 1914 feature co-directed by Lucius Henderson and William Nigh that is the only surviving production of the California Motion Picture Corporation (that’s a frame enlargement from it above, showing its charismatic stars Beatriz Michelena and House Peters).

Particularly tantalizing is the 1910 Selig one-reeler “The Sergeant,” one of the group of films discovered last year in the collection of the New Zealand Film Archive; shot on location in Yosemite with great visual assurance, it suggests that its director, Francis Boggs, might have become a major figure in American film if he hadn’t been murdered, one year after making this film, by a deranged property master.

I’ve got more details here, in my New York Times review.

150 comments to Go West

  • Barry Putterman

    And what about Woody Allen and his, shall we say, somewhat peculiar romantic entanglements? Or Chaplin’s? But Grrgg did say that his particular choices for boycott were entirely subjective on his part. Or, as Allen might echo, the heart has its own reasons.

  • Robert Regan

    If we are to concern ourselves with art, we must be prepared to accept the fact that, by and large, artists are among those who put the best of themselves into their work. The only artists I can think of off-hand of whom I have never heard anything personally negative are Frank Borzage and Willa Cather. Any others?

  • Sam O. Brown

    Barry wrote: “And what about Woody Allen and his, shall we say, somewhat peculiar romantic entanglements? Or Chaplin’s? But Grrgg did say that his particular choices for boycott were entirely subjective on his part. Or, as Allen might echo, the heart has its own reasons.”

    Then Gregg can explain why Allen gets a pass and Polanski does not. Regardless, if Gregg is attempting to cloak what I find to be faulty reasoning under the claim of being entirely subjective, I sense a double standard at work here. How does Gregg decide who gets published in the anthologies he edits? Does he do a background check on the authors? I only ask this to demonstrate how ridiculous I find Gregg’s position.

    Also, if Gregg also wants to demonstrate to us how he acts in a socially and politically responsible manner in his personal life, he can explain to me how he defends/rationalizes writing for the SF Weekly, which is hardly a progressive newspaper.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Woody Allen’s courting of Soon-Yi isn’t admirable, but it is often misreported.

    She was not his step-daughter – Allen and Farrow weren’t married, nor did they even ever live together (he refused to move to her West Side apartment, but remained on the East Side). They started dating when she was of age, not a minor.

    And that their relationship has lasted 20 years + should put this to rest (not that I assume it ever reached the level of issues surrounding Polanski; and including Landis is for me totally absurd – unfortunately many stuntmen have died in films over the years, and that they weren’t actors like Vic Morrow is no reason that their directors shouldn’t be held to the same standard).

  • Oliver_C

    When might it be acceptable to boycott a director, then — convicted paedophile Victor Salva? What if Claude Autant-Lara had been still making films when he delivered his infamous political speeches?

    As an aside, given that Allen rightly objected to the televisual pan-and-scanning of Gordon Willis’ Panavision shooting on Manhattan, it’s unfortunate that so many of his films suffer from mediocre home video releases.

  • Peter Henne

    Jean-Pierre, Thanks for your reply. I hope I made clear that I traced out general trends in integration. I wrote a number of qualifications about what I could know specifically. I agree with you that rich and poor are pulling further apart economically. But I believe it is also true that minorities reside in the upper and middle classes at a higher percentage than they did 40 years ago.

    It’s an ad hominem argument to read in whether I’m envious, accomodating etc. You don’t speak for me where you write that I would criticize Allen whether he used young actors or older ones. I didn’t pan Allen’s whole career; I already said I haven’t seen his films since MATCH POINT. Any dramatically interesting ideal will have fractures rippling against perfection, and that is why Allen’s people are neurotic, etc. while living the good life. On the whole, I spoke cautiously about what I find lacking in Allen’s ideal. It is a matter of him sticking with the same one in the long haul, practically making it perform as a carbon copy, more than about particular films of his. (I agree with Tom about “seeing little questioning, little evolution” in his worldview.) I happen to love some of his films, STARDUST MEMORIES, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS and EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU.

    If Allen were not striving to make his ideal look as current as ever, I wrote that I would not bother with the criticism. But he surely is making a signature out of using actors in the glory of their newfound stardom, often ones who appear at first glance unlikely to star in an Allen film with a literate script, lending those films a “knowing” quality about what is current. More importantly for my point, his films that are set in the present work hard to demonstrate they belong in the world of clothing fashions, fashionable behavior and language, etc. that we know and easily recognize as specific to the year of the movie. These films are not at a remove, which might have made me more comfortable with their cultural uniformity, but are presented to take place in the world we can vouchsafe for ourselves. (I’d say EVERYONE SAYS is a thoughtful exception, slyly playing with whether it has a realistic underpinning or not.) Since he is constructing an ideal, submitting his films to “reality checks” is something he didn’t even need to do, and these two strands seem to be at cross purposes.

  • Sam O. Brown

    Oliver_C: When may it might be acceptable to evaluate art based upon prejudices?

  • Brian Dauth

    The issue of the world that Woody Allen depicts in his movies raises some interesting questions:

    a) Does Allen believe that the world he depicts is the world as it actually is? Or should be? Is the world of his films an ideal world he is endorsing or a one that he is critiquing? Maybe both; maybe neither (which is why writing about an artist’s intentions is such a tricky business — they are impossible to determine with accuracy). On our continent, a variation of this issue occurs when we discuss filmmakers who hate their characters (you know which ones I am typing about LOL). We are left with the films that are produced. Of course, this is not to say that we cannot critique the moral landscape of a work just as we would critique its formal properties. But every viewer is going to distribute emphasis/value between form and content according to their own experience. Which leads me to:

    b) What happens when viewers from different backgrounds approach the same work? As Barry pointed out, growing up in different eras results in people having a variety of aesthetic consciousnesses. I often wonder if there is a greater desire/expectation among spectators today for films that are accurate/authentic (admittedly slippery terms) in terms of their depiction of reality: what would be the response if HATARI! were made in 2011 and had no African characters?

    From another angle: my husband has commented on how the aesthetic/cultural depictions of blacks (which are often limited to two categories: criminal/ignorant/lazy or Cosby-wholesome) have played out in his own life in terms of how white people interact with him and their subsequent expectations. Now, taking as a premise in this instance that an artist has no obligation to portray any character in any particular light moral or otherwise, there is also the reality that cultural/aesthetic depictions do influence people in their treatment of other people. So the question emerges: when my husband encounters these depictions in a movie we are watching, should I understand their (potential negative) impact on his overall appreciation of the work, or should I say that he needs to transcend this response and focus on the work’s formal beauties (knowing that this task is easier for me to do since racism is much more of an abstract phenomenon in my life than it is in his). Which leads me to:

    c) When engaging a work’s form and content, does one component have ascendency over another? Kant and the tradition that emerged from his thinking accept the intersection of aesthetic and ethical discourses. Even analytical philosophy (never big on aesthetics in general) has been slowly accepting this approach. So how do we calibrate a critical method? If the formal attributes of a work are stellar does it mean that offensive/inauthentic content can be downplayed? Or does content that is perceived as being in line with moral standards and authentic in terms of its depiction of reality trump formal considerations? In some ways, Allen’s work is a poor test case here because of the number of films he has made that are visually mediocre (at best).

    But clearly, thoughtful posters here are responding in highly different ways to the world of Allen’s work and (more generally) to issues regarding the obligations of an artist. Does an artist have an obligation when she sets a film in a particular time period to be faithful to the known facts/realities of that time? Does an artist have an obligation to have his characters behave in ways that are consistent with accepted understandings of human behavior? Does a spectator have the right to expect artists to accept these obligations?

    Just questions here. I look forward to people’s responses.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Brian, your questions have some relevance, but again I think it is not all that germane to many of the objections that I and others have to the notion that he is sort of a major cinematic artist. My objections go more to his entry-level technique and lack of visual style and that he regurgitates the same themes over and over, few that were that interesting in the first place, and few of which have changed or show signs of being influenced by ongoing life for the last several decades.

    What you write about is for me a minor issue and to some extent a distraction. Saying it doesn’t matter that he creates an unrealistic artificial world doesn’t say anything to prove his artistic worth.

  • Peter Henne

    Brian, Thanks for offering a thoughtful framework. Regarding c), I recently came up with a raw formulation that I’ll try out here:

    From a disciplinary point of view, it would be odd if there were no correllation at all between ethics and aesthetics. People recognize universal human rights, and to some degree aesthetic values cross cultures too: Western classical music, for example, is appreciated almost everywhere. Some non-trivial aesthetic principles are universal in practice.

    On the other hand, unlike ethics, I’m convinced it would be boring and counterproductive if everyone agreed on all aesthetic accounts. This state would not be a sign of harmony but mechanization. Aesthetics would become coldly impersonal and not recognizable as experienced. How could one person have exactly the same aesthetic appreciation as another every single time? I’m not sure why yet, but that sounds like they would actually have to be the same person. Moreover, if no art is intrinsically divisive, then art itself loses some of its fire and something important about its drive. Where is the mad passion left? If all art were universal, strangely enough it would be destructive to art’s depth and power, and out of sync with our individuality.

    So perhaps to resolve the universalizing conundrum, it’s good to start with two limits like these. You get an unacceptable result if you say it’s possible for there to be complete universalizing, or impossible for there to be any.

  • Gregg Rickman

    The discussion of Allen’s cultural footprint here is very interesting and more to my taste than the can of cultural worms I’ve opened, but nonetheless I should respond to the queries of Sam O. Brown and others.

    1) Hannu, I believe Arbuckle was innocent, as he was found by his jurors. I’ve extensively researched the era and the boycotts organized against him, so I try and be extra careful in making these sorts of judgments. I’m open to reexamining the Landis case, for instance; I didn’t stop going to his films until I read a book about his trial some time after the actual events. As I recall Landis behaved irresponsibly the night of the tragedy; obviously he was not deliberately to blame.

    2) Also re Hannu’s comments, I would add that if I had some compelling reason to see a particular film (if I was writing about film versions of Dickens novels, for instance) I would certainly see Polanski’s OLIVER TWIST.

    3) Woody Allen was cleared of the charges of child abuse directed against him in the early 1990s, as even his unsympathetic biographer Marion Meade had to report. What he and Polanski did are of a completely different order. Tom is right on point about this at 2:37 pm above. Good for he and Soon-Yi. More generally, if I boycotted everyone who ever did anything questionable I’d be seeing very few films/ reading few books/ seeing little art – and not living in the real world as I try to do.

    4) Therefore, Tom, Robert and others, bad behavior by Picasso, Huston, Mankiewicz (and I could add Preminger, Ford and many others) is not enough to get anyone on my personal index. I was clear about this.

    5) Sam asks “I sense a double standard at work here. How does Gregg decide who gets published in the anthologies he edits? Does he do a background check on the authors? I only ask this to demonstrate how ridiculous I find Gregg’s position.” I’ve been pretty clear about not trying to set myself up as a moral arbiter for others, so I think that answers that.

    6) Sam further asks “Also, if Gregg also wants to demonstrate to us how he acts in a socially and politically responsible manner in his personal life, he can explain to me how he defends/rationalizes writing for the SF Weekly, which is hardly a progressive newspaper.” This is actually a good question. There are things I find objectionable about the editorial policies of every paper in the Bay Area – the Chronicle, the East Bay Express, the late lamented Berkeley Daily Planet, the Citizen (which produces two pages in my local New York Times twice a week), the Weekly and the Bay Guardian (the progressive journal of choice). While the Weekly’s snarky libertarianism does not parallel my own politics, its arch rival the (very much non-union) Guardian mercilessly exploits its own writers, and has for years. I get paid $50 a pop for my capsule film reviews for the Weekly, while I have had various students “intern” for them and get paid nothing. The Guardian’s publisher, meanwhile, has amassed a fortune on the backs of his writers (and from the ridiculous suit he won against the Weekly); it’s kind of a cult over there. I recognize, Sam, that we live in an imperfect world.

    As an additional comment, nothing I’ve said should be taken to criticize the value of collective political action (as with the teachers union I belong to). Such actions are best directed against governments and corporations, not artists, and I am not advocating any sort of group boycott against any artist anywhere. I merely speak of my own idiosyncratic choices, whose works I decide to spend my energies contemplating.

  • Tom Brueggemann


    As a cinephile, for me the existence of a Polanski film should be enough reason for watching it. For the average filmgoer, no, of course not. But someone in your position, your choice, though it’s fine for you to make, also makes it fine for me to regard you more as a casual moviegoer.

    Oliver Twist is one of Polanski’s best films (actually the last 4 prior to Carnage are among his most interesting, with for me The Pianist being the least). It for me is the best version ever done on screen, one of the greatest Dickens’ adaptations ever, and is clearly a very personal film in which he seems to be exorcising some of the demons of his childhood experiences.

    He’s a major film artist, and has been for a half century. That is reason enough to see his films, as distatesful as his personal behavior almost 40 years ago was.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Peter, I realized that you were not a fanatical anti-Woody, and some of my criticisms were directed to those and not you.

    One thing in this thread bothers me considerably. A number of people here, including you, are talking about Allen’s “ideal” — an ideal you say he is “constructing.” I rather strongly feel that we would be careless to take this so-called ideal for granted. I for one have never been aware that he was doing such a thing. Actually the opening scene of MANHATTAN would tend to suggest that if Allen was constructing an ideal he was also simultaneously deconstructing it. I would be very surprised if Allen ever had an “ideal’ in mind as he makes his movies.Unless by “ideal” we mean that he does things he feels comfortable with as an artist, and ignores the rest. Which is the sensible, if safe, thing to do (and mind you, he’s not always on the safe side; he has taken chances more than once).

    As for Allen as the observer of contemporary fashions (in clothing, attitudes, language etc…)it’s hard to understand why, filming a story set today, he should avoid to show how people dress and behave and talk now. This really has little if anything to do with his neglecting the “minorities.” Moreover let’s not forget that fiction (and even non-fiction), be it a novel or a movie, creates only a superficial reflection of reality. Allen’s movies are not any more scientific studies of modern life than any other movies, no matter how accurate the clothes and the hip turns of phrases. And it wouldn’t make much of a difference if he decided to introduce some minorities (something like moslems in New York perhaps?)in his screenplays. I just don’t see how the “two strends” you perceive are at cross purposes.

  • jbryant

    Darn, I had composed thoughtful answers to all of Brian’s questions, then the dog ate my hard drive. Can I get an extension? 🙂

    Also, Frank Borzage killed my Paw, and Willa Cather owed me money.

  • Tom Brueggemann


    Since you likely were addressing me, I need to say you calling me a fanatical anti-Woody Allen poster is blatantly untrue and makes you look very unreasonable. This saddens me as a long time fan of your writing.

  • Robert Regan

    Okay, jb, I guess they are all SOBs!

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Brian’s questions in a)at 4:26 pretty much cover what I was trying to say at 5:27.

    Tom, would you be satisfied if we agreed to downgrade Allen from “major cinematic artist” to what art critics used to call “les petits maitres” in the field of painting? or to something like Sarris’s “Lightly likable” category? So that in forty years or so from now he can be “rediscovered” by searchers digging up quaint old movies of late 20th-early 21st century.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Tom, I was not thinking of you as “fanatical” (even though I find you a little unfairly harsh on Woody), it was meant for those who see absolutely nothing of valor in his work. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Thanks for the clarification.

    For me it is sufficient for us to have a friendly disagreement in the here and now. It is healthy as long is it doesn’t get personal or one side or the other’s positions don’t get mistated.

  • Peter Henne

    Jean-Pierre, I don’t think an artist has to be conscious of an ideal to make one. If they really take one to heart, probably it becomes second nature.

    I am saying that Allen works with what can be identified as one ideal for American lifestyle: a life with little or no money worries, family living, comfortable and well-appointed homes, moving in well-spoken, literate and accomplished circles and with access to established cultural outlets such as art museums, galleries and universities. The ideal depicted in his films, as Tom pointed out, is practically minority-free.

    My point was also to show that Allen has done more than the minimum to bring his films into our world. I said that they “work hard to demonstrate” their contemporaneity and that he was “striving to make his ideal look as current as ever.” You can set a film down in the present as a default, without these efforts. One thing I liked about CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, one of the present-day films, was that it tended to classicize more and contemporize less, which seems to me more in keeping with his working in an ideal anyway.

    I differ from some contributors here and feel Allen has a solid and enjoyable visual style: not even close to a Ford or Borzage, but there are merits to his trade-offs between warmth and clarity, and sobriety which is not a few times disrupted by apparitions. I don’t think all of it is learned Bergman.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Getting back to westerns, Internet Archives has an adequate copy of Henry Hathaway’s 5th (and I believe 5th Zane Gray) Paramount film, Man of the Forest (1933).
    What a cast – Randolph Scott, Harry Carey, Buster Crabbe, Noah Beery, Guinn Big Boy Williams, Barton Maclane, Tom Kennedy (with one Verna Hillie as the female lead).
    Very rich in characterization for such a modest film (this includes roles played by other actors), and capturing early in his career the sense of rural settings that was part of Hathaway’s later work, it also has several nicely staged action scenes beyond seen in the average B western of the day.

  • Sam O. Brown

    Tom wrote: ” Gregg, As a cinephile, for me the existence of a Polanski film should be enough reason for watching it. For the average filmgoer, no, of course not. But someone in your position, your choice, though it’s fine for you to make, also makes it fine for me to regard you more as a casual moviegoer.”

    Indeed. There are some questions I would like to ask Gregg in regard to his last response, but I find Gregg’s evaluations of filmmakers and genres, such as slasher films, to be subject to so many prejudices as to be intenable –is this how he teaches film history and theory to his students?– and thus have no remaining interest in what he has to say about film nor discussing it with him.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Like all of us, Sam is entitled to his opinion; but as a casual movie goer I’m entitled to my own, intenable, notions. Tom suggests at 5:26 pm that Polanski is a “major film artist” and has been for a half century. I can’t argue with that; giving him up was a loss for me in a way that avoiding Fox News is not. I would add however that on the basis of the two decades that established him – the two that I’m familiar with – he is rather back in the pack of his Central European cohorts. In comparison with his contemporaries in Poland I would place him well behind Skolimowski or Has; of other major Eastern Europeans of the 1960s I also value his work less than that of Jansco (Hungary), Menzel, Passer or Chytlova (Czechoslovakia), Tarkovsky or Paradjanov (Russia). Maybe I like his work better than that of Makavejev (Yugoslavia) although that’s the triumph of sly mise-en-scene over factitious montage. I have to admit his brand tops that of some other worthies – Milos Forman, say, and I like Forman – but I think his chief triumph was in the realm of self-promotion. KNIFE IN THE WATER was cover-storied in Time back when that meant something, for example. Of all the Communist-trained directors he is by far the most capitalist; to paraphrase his early supporter Wajda, with him everything is indeed for sale. KNIFE, his one Polish feature, prefigures the entire collapse of the socialist enterprise in favor of the dog-eat-dog world of postmodern capitalism; the older man in the piece even looks like Vladimir Putin.

    Thinking back on his early production, I recall on the one hand a Hollywoodian slickness, slathered like high gloss paint on catchpenny fare like ROSEMARY’S BABY and Robert Towne’s very fine screenplay for CHINATOWN alike. His taste for grand guignol, as with REPULSION, left me cold. On a more positive note he had (and I presume still enjoys) a real flair for black comedy, perhaps best realized in CUL-DE-SAC, which I recall as particularly brilliant, but also apparent in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, which is a particularly interesting work to me given my interest in actor/comedians who star in their own work. He can there be seen as Woody Allen’s dark double, with THE TENANT a companion piece that could be retitled “Deconstructing Roman.”

    Perhaps the best way to think of his early work is to consider him as a more successful Brian DePalma: slick, amoral, clever, darkly funny, and a skilled deployer of images and sound. Perhaps the way I would approach reviewing his total output (should I ever do so) would conversely to think of him as a demonstrable example of the effect of early childhood trauma on creativity. I am an admirer of the late Alice Miller, who wrote on that theme quite interestingly, once even on Buster Keaton; Robin Wood wrote a late admiring essay on her. But this project may take a few years, and I can guess a couple of us won’t be reading it.

  • “Of all the Communist-trained directors he is by far the most capitalist; to paraphrase his early supporter Wajda, with him everything is indeed for sale.”

    I would add that there is also Polanski’s paycheck-for-hire cameo in Brett Ratner’s RUSH HOUR 3.

  • Barry Putterman

    Sam’s message brought me to mind of an exchange I once heard on a New York street:

    She – I’m not talking to you!

    He – Shut up!

    She – I’m NOT talking to you!!

    He – SHUT UP!!

    I thought at the time; “what we have here is a failure to not communicate.”

    I might add that I’ve always tried to remain casual while moviegoing, often affecting a cardigan sweater in the process.

  • ZS

    I have to say as a scholar of East European cinema, this line was perplexing to me, “Maybe I like his work better than that of Makavejev (Yugoslavia) although that’s the triumph of sly mise-en-scene over factitious montage.” So was Eisenstein “factitious?” Is all intellectual montage “factitious?”

    It’s certainly acceptable to not to watch a Polanski film if you don’t desire to, but I do question justifications like this.

  • Sam O. Brown


    Always a pleasure to have you reduce a discussion down to shtick.

  • Barry Putterman

    Por nada Sam. Would you like to announce to one and all that you do have remaining interest in shtick?

  • Brian Dauth

    Another Eatern European of the 1960’s I esteeem highly is Istvan Szabo. His COLONEL REDL and BEING JULIA are two very fine movies in my estimation.

  • Tom – interesting to read that you have such good words to say about Polanski’s OLIVER TWIST. I have to see it again, because I did not find much new in it the first time I saw it, certainly not stylistically as rich or so finely acted as David Lean’s. I thought the boy in the name role was quite weak. I thought it to be quite a professional job, not much else. But now I’m happy to visit it again, because I bought the damn dvd for myself after seeing an amateur theatre musicalization of it.

    Gregg – nice to know you too don’t care much about REPULSION. To me it was repulsive. And I also liked VAMPIRE KILLERS and TENANT.

    But are Alice Miller’s theories trustworthy? I have the book somewhere on my shelf, but as I recall I was much dismayed by her – to my mind – wilful description of Keaton as a victim of child abuse.

    I’ve read a few Keaton biographies, and his father sure handled the boy roughly, but I don’t think there is evidence of Keaton thinking about it in this way. After all, he gave his father a role in the General, didn’t he? Do we really know their relationship better than they themselves did? Does Alice Miller know?

    Has it been proved that Keaton became an alcoholic because of his childhood? Or was it because of his tumultous divorce? Or the fact that he had to part with his old filmmaking buddies and go to MGM, where he was given all those “supervisors” on his new projects?

    It was such a joy to see the documentary shot while he was making RAILRODDER, which shows that he seemed to be very happy – still working and happily re-married – in his later life – not the walking tragedy of a man, which I suppose Alice Millers of this world think he should have been.

  • mark gross

    Dear Barry,

    I think you have mistakenly attributed my story about the verbally dueling couples in the middle of a Woody Allen film at the Cinema Studio, arguing whether or not the movie was funny, one couple formally dressed and the other in sweats, as coming from Sam.

    In fact, I originally posted the tale as support for your observations as to how different audiences perceive Woody Allen’s sense of humor.

    By the way, in my neck of the woods, we consider cardigans as movie-going attire quite formal, although I have been known on occasion to wear tweeds (like Michel Poiccard).

  • Barry Putterman

    Mark, whatever it was I did or said, I’m certain that I am entirely at fault and would not blame you in the least if you no longer took any interest in anything I do or say from this day forward.

    As for the cardigans, they are worn in the vain hopes of channeling Perry Como and Ozzie Nelson as part of my foolhardy efforts to enter my parents’ generation’s mindset while watching old movies.

  • mark gross

    Dear Barry,

    I thought Perry Como exuded the essence of elegance in a cardigan, as I imagine you do as well.

    As for Ozzie Nelson, the less said the better.

    Beyond that, I always look forward to your insightful and knowledgeable comments, especially when I happen to agree with them.

  • Alex

    Skolimowski, Has, Jansco, Menzel, Passer, and Chytlova have provide us with intimations of greatness and even the sublime (like watching a second level early Godard). Polanski, on the otherhand has delivered major masterpieces — Knife in the Water, Chinatown and The Pianist — strong candidates for — Tess, The Tenant, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, Cul-de-sac– and palin fine movies –Ghost Writer, The Ninth Gate, Frantic –for 50 years. Sure he’s “capitalist” –like Ford and Hawks and Renoir are capitalistic, and like Tarkovsky or Paradjanov are arcane.

    And, hey,let’s not forget Jerzy Kawalerowicz!

  • Barry Putterman

    Mark, let me belatedly join Vivian and Junko in encouraging you to post here more often….Even when you don’t agree with my comments.

  • mark gross

    Thanks, Barry, for your kind words!

  • Sam O. Brown


    I guess I should have consulted with you as the best way to state that I was no longer interested in discussing film with a contributor here –is there any way to do it other than posting it?–as I forgot that you for some unknown reason tend to act as the moderator of this blog. ( Via dismissive or snarky comments, which I am sure will follow this post.)

    My apologies to the true owner and moderator of this blog for returning Barry’s serve.

  • Barry Putterman

    Sam, dismissive or snarky comments? You mean like; “Always a pleasure to have you reduce a discussion down to schtick”?

  • Sam O. Brown


    Seems like a reasonable response to what you had posted beforehand. However, as I find you like to swoop in at the last moment to deliver a zinger and then declare end of discussion, I will not deny you that opportunity. Take it away, Barry!!

  • Barry Putterman

    It’s away Sam.

  • Gregg Rickman

    ZS, regarding Makavejev, you should be aware if you hang out at this site on a regular basis that most auteurists (which I count myself as, in my idiosyncratic way) prefer mise-en-scene to montage. It’s an old battle, going back to midcentury Bazin/Eisenstein throw-downs. Speaking objectively, as a filmmaker, Makavejev is extremely important, an artist who made a real advance in montage cinema (on beyond the Soviets) with his late ‘60s collages INNOCENCE UNPROTECTED, LOVE AFFAIR OR THE CASE OF THE MISSING SWITCHBOARD OPERATOR, and WR: MYSTERIES OF THE ORGANISM (films which I’ve seen 2-3 times each and would happily revisit). His later work – I’ve seen SWEET MOVIE, THE COCA COLA KID, and MANIFESTO – is less interesting to me, for various reasons, although COCA COLA was as I understand it eviscerated by the Coke corporation’s successful insistence that the commercials Makavejev had carefully layered in be excised. In my flippant and far from exhaustive survey of other 1960s Central Europeans, I was taxing myself to be fair to Mr. Polanski, admit that I had enjoyed some of his clever japes, and situate him as an extremely talented (but artistically unpersuasive, in his early work) director. Thus, my comment that I enjoyed Polanski more than Makavejev. On more sober reflection I may have wrong about this, although Makavejev’s Reichian/Norman O. Brownian [to be distinguished from Sam O. Brownian] take on sexuality has come to seem pretty dated.

    Alex, I’m perfectly fine with your list of Polanski films you find outstanding, but to my mind he has never done anything as good as any of the following films (I limit myself to one per director, and to one made in their home country): WALKOVER (Skolimowski), THE SANDGLASS (Has), RED PSALM (Jansco), LARKS ON A STRING (Menzel), INTIMATE LIGHTING (Passer), DAISIES (Chytlova). Polanski’s exercises in absurdism and surrealism (his short films, or WHAT?) are pretty palid next to say Has’ work, and his understanding of political pressure (quite acute in KNIFE IN THE WATER) is more than equaled by the richer, more varied Jansco or Menzel. “Second level early Godard?” Skolimowski (in LE DEPART) and Chytlova (in DAISIES) take on MASCULINE FEMININE and LE CHINOISE, respectively, and more than hold their own.

    Films from the ex-Soviet bloc are inexhaustibly rich, in my opinion, and there are films and directors I haven’t mentioned here that I like very much; although I have to admit I’m unfamiliar with Jerzy Kawalerowicz and thank Alex for the recommendation.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Hannu, thank you for your comments on Keaton. I haven’t read Miller’s brief chapter on Keaton in many years, but I liked her earlier books very much when I read them in the 1980s, and do plan to revisit her. (For what it’s worth, Al Gore endorsed her “The Drama of the Gifted Child” based on his own experiences of having been one.) I only brought her up to second Tom Brueggemann’s characteristically astute comment on Polanski’s OLIVER TWIST that it’s “clearly a very personal film in which he seems to be exorcising some of the demons of his childhood experiences.”

    As for Keaton, I have just reread an impressive essay inspired by Miller’s chapter, “Dreaming In Pictures: The Childhood Origins of Buster Keaton’s Creativity” (by Judith Sanders and Daniel Lieberfeld, in Film Quarterly, Summer 1994), which I would disagree with in parts (I think the elderly Keaton was much happier than they give him credit for being) but would overall find of merit. I may be soliciting another round of critical email, as much controversy attended the piece in a subsequent FQ. In my own work-in-progress I’m going back to basics, not deploying a theory first but using research that both confirms and denies various aspects of the Miller/Sanders & Lieberfeld thesis. What impressed me most, reading the scrapbook of newspaper reviews of the Keaton family act, is how much the act expresses what we would now call abuse, and how enthusiastically audiences of the time responded to those aspects.

    To specifically address your questions: “I’ve read a few Keaton biographies, and his father sure handled the boy roughly, but I don’t think there is evidence of Keaton thinking about it in this way.” Well, the evidence is on the screen: in NEIGHBORS Joe Keaton (cast in many of Buster’s films) grinds his son’s face in the mud. This list could be expanded. All part of the slapstick routine? Well, maybe. “Do we really know their relationship better than they themselves did?” Can’t claim that.

    Has it been proved that Keaton became an alcoholic because of his childhood? Or was it because of his tumultous divorce? Or the fact that he had to part with his old filmmaking buddies and go to MGM, where he was given all those “supervisors” on his new projects?” Very true on all counts. There were many factors. Sanders & Lieberfeld are fairly subtle on this.

    “It was such a joy to see the documentary shot while he was making RAILRODDER, which shows that he seemed to be very happy – still working and happily re-married – in his later life – not the walking tragedy of a man, which I suppose Alice Millers of this world think he should have been.” You can caricature her as a ditherer (as Janet Malcolm did in one of her books) or condemn her as mistaken, but Miller was very compassionate, and would hardly have wanted Keaton or anyone else to suffer.

    Would be happy to discuss this with you in more detail; p.m. me at greggr1 at mindspring dot com.

  • Alex

    Gregg Rickman,

    Just being a Polanski fan.

  • I had the privilege of meeting Keaton three times when I was 12-13 years old. He was a regular at the coffee shop of the Woodlake Bowling Alley in Woodland Hills, CA. The owner was a friend of the family and introduced me to Keaton. I was surprised at how short he was, and I told him how much I liked “Cops” which I saw excerpted in “When Comedy Was King” . His answer was that “the sonofabitch messed it up.” On the other two occasions he mentioned that he’d be making a TV appearance and that he had a part in a new movie (“It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”.)

    As for Keaton’s alcoholism, perhaps he had the kind described in Alcoholics Anonymous literature as having a biological as well as behavioral origin origin, with biology being the key factor.

  • Gregg Rickman

    X, what a wonderful story.

    Sanders and Lieberfeld’s essay very much gets wrong their presentation of Keaton as a bitter, isolated old man, as can be seen in the film (BUSTER KEATON RIDE AGAIN) documenting his appearance in the Canadian short THE RAILRODDER; he is feisty, though. He lets the director of the short he’s acting in know that he’s wrong in his ideas about staging particular scenes. This ties in with your story, about his unhappiness with the edit Robert Youngson performed on COPS for his compilation film. There’s a wonderful story in one of the Keaton bios about Keaton watching television and giving a running commentary: “Move the camera, move the camera.”

    Once a director, always a director.

  • Peter Henne

    Gregg, Have you seen any of Juraj Jakubisko’s films? My knowledge about him is limited to everything screened of his in the 1992 AFI Festival. Especially recommend BIRDS, ORPHANS AND MADMEN (1969) (aka BIRDS, ORPHANS AND FOOLS), which I believe is available on a European DVD with English subtitles. He’s quite the edgy, mystical, politicized surrealist, less droll than Menzel but less of a loose cannon than Makavejev. Favorite Menzel is LARKS ON A STRING.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Peter, I’ve heard of BIRDS, ORPHANS AND FOOLS (probably in my reading in books on the Czech ’60s, such as the poignantly titled “All the Bright Young Men and Women,” by Josef Skvorecky, who was there; and Antonin J. Liehm’s “Closely Watched Films”) but haven’t seen any of his films. Jakubisko is actually a Slovak, and still a very successful director there, a little ‘net research reveals.

    I HAVE seen films by Jaromil Jires (VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS), Jan Nemec (DIAMONDS OF THE NIGHT, A REPORT ON THE PARTY AND ITS GUESTS), and the decade or so older Jan Kadar and Elmer Klos (THE SHOP ON MAIN STREET — also a Slovak film I am told — and ADRIFT). I have a particular soft spot for this period of Czechoslovak cinema. One overlooked gem is Passer’s short A BORING AFTERNOON; my school has a 16mm print of it and I used to run it on a regular basis to students’ baffled delight. Nothing at all happens, but a whole way of life is conjured up.

  • In Vicky Cristina Barcelona maybe for the first time in a Woody Allen movie there is a significant and positive homosexual moment (Scarlett Johansson and Penélope Cruz in the infrared darkroom). The characters played by Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz can only be happy and balanced when they are together with Cristina (Scarlett Johansson).

  • Johan Andreasson

    Followed up in his next film, WHATEVER WORKS, where the father of Evan Rachel Wood’s character realizes he’s gay and explains that his former membership in the National Rifle Association had been a sublimation of his repressed homosexuality.

  • Thank you, Gregg, for your thoughtful comments to my questions about Keaton and Alice Miller.

    Thanks also for the contact address, so friendly. I’ll send you a note in a minute.

    (Sorry, for answering so late.)