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In Pazuzu We Trust

In the last few years I’ve become accustomed to a flood of horror movies surging forth for Halloween, but this year’s selection seems surprisingly skimpy — a sign of the downturn in the DVD marketplace, or have the studios finally run out of exploitable back product? We do have a superb new Blu-ray edition of “The Exorcist,” featuring both William Friedkin’s 1973 original release cut and the 2000 “version you’ve never seen” that restores some expository sequences at the request of the film’s writer and producer, William Peter Blatty.

In one of the many documentaries that fill out the two-disc release, Friedkin says that he now considers the 2000 version the definitive one, but I’ll be more Catholic than the Pope here (to employ a relevant cliché) and go with the original cut. It’s in the shorter version that you feel the real radicalism of Friedkin’s approach in its early 70s context — the way he seems to be pushing beyond classical Hollywood narrative by eliminating much of the exposition and going straight for a series of visceral, high-impact scenes. With the double whammy of this and “The French Connection,” Friedkin had a profound effect on the way American movies were “told,” leaving the audience to supply much of the connective dramatic tissue.

“House,” a 1977 horror spoof from the Japanese avant-garde director Nobohiko Obayashi, goes even further down that line, abandoning any sincere effort to tell a story in favor of bouncing the spectator through a series of isolated set-pieces and studiously grotesque imagery. Takashi Miike is not far away. Criterion has released “House” in a pleasingly garish Blu-ray edition (and in standard def as well); further commentary here in The New York Times.

156 comments to In Pazuzu We Trust

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Dede Allen edited Dog Day Afternoon.

  • Jean-Pierre,
    Just read your article on Lumet in AMERICAN DIRECTORS. Very interesting. Liked the comments on Lumet’s use of camera movement and color. Will be watching for these in future Lumet viewings.

  • Argh, Clayburgh never guested on SEX AND THE CITY; must have confused her with STARTING OVER’s Candice Bergen. She should have, though.

  • mike schlesinger

    Sorry to be late in replying, but clearly I did not say that editing, et al is not important. I said that as far as Lumet goes, it is less important that the acting and script. As the late, great Manny Farber said: Keep your eye on the donut, not on the hole.

  • Bllake Lucas

    The same arguments tend often to recur about whether a filmmakers’s “mise-en-scene, camera movement, editing, and sound’ is more important than “acting and story.” I never understand why these things are set against each other or even how they are really separable. To me, the elements of a film are each part of an integral whole. A good director will care about all of them, and a great director will be master of all of them. Re “stories” they may initially exist independently on their own, but everything within the director’s province inflects how they come into and register in a film–after all, there are not so many highly individual stories, but there are infinite nuances, and that’s where camera movement, editing, and sound, as well as staging, set design, costumes, music, performance and everything else come in. Even when a director is not hands on at every stage, in the screenplay possibly, or in a score that might be composed after the film is made and the director has departed, the director’s ideas as inflected in the mise en scene will give the first the meaning it has as a film and will profoundly influence the second. And as for performances, it doesn’t matter if a director just stands and watches someone play the part or gives them a lot of active direction, they are still making choices and judgements about the performance and its place in the finished film and are ultimately responsible for i. And a deliberated cut at the right moment can be as important in the work of a long take director as for who goes in for heavily edited sequence, and may in fact be more expressive–I will say most memorable editing for me has never been in “montage” films.

    So my interpretation of “mise-en-scene” is wide, maybe more than a lot of people here, but it makes sense to me. One can be also be an auteurist without drawing a line in the sand and saying “auteurs” on one side of it and those who are not on another. So many directors do have a moving imprint of their sensibility if one looks at their body of work, even if there may be many compromises, projects on which they have no sympathy, films that miss for one reason or another. I don’t find it too difficult with anyone to figure out whether one’s sympathy is going in their direction once one has seen a reasonable share of their films (doesn’t mean there won’t be a lesser or better one unseen of course).

    All that relates to Sidney Lumet of course. I’ve seen most, but not all his films. I’d say it’s unfair to say he doesn’t care about camera movement, editing, sound–mise-en-scene in the broadest sense. He knows what filmmaking is and does try to make all its elements expressive, not just actors, and not just New York City locations. Personally, more often than not, I find him strident with all of these elements, though do like some of his films (not too many). So, for example, I have never understood the universal praise for “Dog Day Afternoon” at all and never had the remotest desire to see it again. But it’s not because he is disinterested in cinema. I wouldn’t measure someone’s passion or interest in the aesthetics of cinema in the same way as how satisfying their works are. There can be a vast difference.

    Of course, this comes up with Kazan and Bergman in the new thread, two filmmakers that I like a lot more than Lumet. Whether either one is a “natural” as compared to say, Ray in the first case or Dreyer in the second is beside the point. In their best films, they are engaged with all of the elements of cinema, as surely as those greater directors whose bodies of work are far more even. “Wild River” or “Winter Light” are beautiful films for which no apologies need be made. I see the directors applying themselves sensitively to everything that makes up a film in those and other filma they have made, even if at other times I may have serious reservations and find their gift for cinema much less evident.

    All of this ties in with the question too of “one or two masterpiece” directors. There are plenty of examples, I believe. They are all different cases and one can’t generalize about them, except that for me they do always make sense if looks at the director’s whole career. In some cases, for me, it’s someone in the broader view I dislike but in other cases it might be someone I admire very much. A good example of the first case for me is “The Asphalt Jungle” (John Huston)–I know it’s boring to give extra points to the same film Sarris does but he was right about this. It makes sense–here, all of Huston’s talents, themes, interests, insights, combine with ideal casting and a style genuinely expressive for the specific film and the result is riveting and I’d feel unduly prejudiced not to say so. But it also makes sense that there aren’t other masterpieces–and precious few good films–in his filmography to back this up. Because he doesn’t have one evolving and deepening style to respond to but seems to cast around for one each time, and often it’s just a superficial response to the material at hand, as with his, to me, unimpressive color experiements. A gifted and intelligent and cultured man, one doesn’t feel he gave much of it to being an artist, enough to make a long, high-profile career maybe, but if anyone is for me the definition of the phrase “Less Than Meets the Eye” it is him.

    How about the much less celebrated Robert Parrish? I give him two masterpieces–“The Wonderful Country” and “The Purple Plain.” That’s only one more than Huston, though in a smaller filmography. But the style and sensibility that lifts those films does also animate his others, at least half a dozen more of which are outstanding, and very few completely negligibile. This is within the context of a director who enjoyed a lot of professional respect when he moved up to being a director–he was a top film editor and had been to some extent mentored along the way by John Ford. But look at his filmography sometime and you’ll see he seems never to have had a contract at a studio, never a supportive producing partnership over the course of several films, a director more or less adrift and unnoticed and taking projects as he could get them, a fair number in Europe later on. And yet he imprints himself deeply in that checkered filmography in a way that means a lot to me. The two masterpieces are incredibly moving–both spiritual journeys expressed through genres and have a deep affinity with each other. They have a similar tone–anti-strident one might say (I don’t why know his opposite Lumet gets talked about so much more). His other interesting films fill out the portrait of him the great ones suggest as someone with an appealing male/female balance (something John Huston can’t claim), especially well shown by “In the French Style”–one of the relative few films after Preminger and Godard that treated Jean Seberg’s persona with the depth warranted–and here again, as, in different ways in a number of very different films, treating the internal journey, gracefully articulated in narrative and aesthetically pleasing cinematic terms.

    The greatest directors do usually command bodies of work studded with masterpieces while their lesser works are outstanding in many ways and not films one would want to be without. But beyond that, there are many different cases. Some are personal, fit an auteurist profile, but are unappealing and relatively graceless–but they are easy to talk about for one reason or another so get a lot of attention. It’s kind of a shame when many others are kind of cast into the margins and never really get their due for the expressiveness of which they were capable.

  • Otie Wheeler

    Having read through this long-dead thread, most of the comments seem to either defend Lumet and some of his films or to dismiss him as not an auteur. What is left out is the third reality, that of the Langlois-ian cinephile, who would preserve all of Lumet just because, and for two or three moments of beauty. The more I watch his films, the more I think that his contribution to the twentieth-century consists entirely of a couple incredibly famous, overseen clips, phrases even–of which i can only say, the more I watch them, the more I cry–and that without them, the history of cinema would be just a little impoverished.