Shadows

Rosemarys Baby John Cassavetes

The 1980s proved a difficult time for many notable American directors of the 1960s and 70s. Sure, filmmakers like Altman and Coppola came out on the other side of the decade with renewed vigor, and at least one – Scorsese – even managed to arguably realize some of the most interesting work of his career. But for others, the 1980s were a lost and endless horizon of work that was hard to come by compounded by life circumstances that were even harder to endure. Difficult men who lived hard and felt deeply now found themselves confronted with their most profound personal and professional limitations. After trying to reform himself in the wake of drug addiction and a damaged reputation, Hal Ashby died of pancreatic cancer in December 1988. Just over a month later, renowned independent filmmaker, theater director, writer, and actor John Cassavetes passed away of cirrhosis of the liver. Cassavetes was supposed to die five years earlier, when he received a prognosis that he had only six months to live. Faced with almost certain death, Cassavetes composed a wrenching, beautiful and deeply personal swan song titled Love Streams about an aging alcoholic socialite reconnecting with his estranged sister, played by his wife Gena Rowlands. The dramatist would produce another film (Big Trouble, which he disowned) and stage a play after outlasting his doctor’s prediction, but Love Streams remains Cassavetes’ decisive magnum opus, both a thematic summation of his career in film and an indication of how his lifelong approach to filmmaking […]

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Austin Cinematic Limits

Flashback to the spring of 1998 — yours truly is living in Philadelphia and desperately looking for another city to call my home. I am not ashamed to admit that I plan on basing a significant part of this decision on the quality of programming at movie theaters in each city. Austin is the clear favorite in this category. I fondly remember falling in love with the Alamo Drafthouse during SXSW 1998 (beer! food! movies!), but it is my virginal foray into the Paramount Theatre that remains emblazoned upon my mind. Despite earning a masters degree in cinema studies, I never had access to a repertory cinema before. Sure, I studied the history of cinema but I watched all of the films on television. Now, I am finally experiencing those films in the way that they were intended to be seen! It might be hard to believe, but up until that fateful summer, I had never seen a film released prior to 1975 on the big screen. Flashforward 14 years — I find myself at the Hideout Cafe sitting across the table from the Paramount’s film programmer, Jesse Trussell, on the eve of the official release of the 2012 Summer Classic Film series schedule.  Trussell hands a photocopy of the schedule to me. I scan it quickly. My jaw drops.

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Culture Warrior

The Oscar montage reel is a genre on its own. It’s transparently demonstrative of the overall function of the Academy Awards. These montage reels summarize and make explicit what the annual ceremony attempts to accomplish writ large: to create and solidify a canon of important American films, along with a delimited understanding of their importance. Yes, the Oscars have occasionally given a voice to the indie underdog and rush through their obligatory movies-with-subtitles category, but besides the occasional screenplay nomination for a truly innovative film and the rare foreign language film that broaches through the marginal categories, the Oscars are by and large a celebration of American cinema, specifically Hollywood cinema. During the 2006 ceremony, a moment occurred that has been seared into my memory. I haven’t been able to find a clip of it online since it aired six years ago, so I hope this isn’t wishful or inaccurate. The 2006 ceremony consisted of a spate of overtly political films, as Crash, Brokeback Mountain, Munich, Good Night and Good Luck competed for top honors, and Syriana was in the running for other awards. In likely hopes of gaining cultural capital from celebrating mainstream cinema’s rarely explored but ever-present political function, the Academy aired a self-congratulatory reel of past Oscar-nominated films that have addressed other topical social problems, from In the Heat of the Night to Philadelphia. When the lights came back and the audience applauded with anticipated decorum, host Jon Stewart then graced the stage and stated, in a […]

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Culture Warrior

One of the great misconceptions about Hollywood is that it is a liberal institution. Several false assumptions inform this misconception: thinking of “Hollywood” as a monolithic entity in any way besides its shared corporate infrastructure, confusing public endorsements of celebrity politicians by celebrity movie stars as political activism, thinking that left-leaning consumers of movies see Hollywood as representing their political beliefs in any way, selectively reading a limited number of texts (e.g., Green Zone “proves” Hollywood’s liberalism, but every superhero movie ever isn’t proof of its conservatism), and, most importantly, thinking that the most public figures associated with Hollywood (i.e., stars and filmmakers) are Hollywood. This last point I think is one that has continued to be the least considered when such straw man critiques are drawn, because Hollywood here is equated only with its most visible figures who overshadow its intricate but also not-so-shrouded political economy. It’s no mistake that despite the fluctuating numbers of major and minor Hollywood studios in the past 100 years, the most powerful studios, like the biggest banks in the nation, have been referred to as “The Big Five.” And indeed, to the surprise of no one, both Big Fives have had and are continuing a lucrative relationship with one another. Hollywood’s agenda, of course, has always been profit, and the representatives of this ideology are not George Clooney and Matt Damon, but Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal (Chairman/CEO & Co-Chairman, Sony/Columbia), Stephen Blairson (CEO, 20th Century Fox), Brad Grey (Chairman/CEO, Paramount), Ronald Meyer […]

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Criterion Files

The most difficult thing about watching seminal, groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting movies is that it’s impossible to see them, feel them, or experience them the way they were in the moment, before they became influential enough to seem almost unexceptional by retrospective comparison. It’s difficult to marvel at the audacious camera angles or fragmented narrative of Citizen Kane in an age where Gaspar Noe and Guillermo Arriaga exist, or be shocked by the expertly-crafted profanity of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in a post-David Mamet world. These movies may remain strong and, in other ways, timeless, but even with the very best, the “moment” of greatness is lost by the sheer force of its effect on cinema that came after. Films, after all, aren’t made in a vacuum. They are the constant subject of influence, and rarely anything influences a film more than another great film.

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Culture Warrior

Acts of spontaneity have been an essential component of artistic expression in the twentieth century, based in the notion of a perceived “purity” within the spontaneous act that allows art to be directly articulated without mediation or interference from social pressures and constructs. From the improvisatory paintings of Jackson Pollock to the idea of the rewrite as heresy within Jack Kerouac’s prose, spontaneity in many cases is seen as the only way to make art that has any “real” meaning. According to Daniel Belgrad, mid-century efforts toward artistic spontaneity provided a means of expression free from the constrains enforced by an oppressive, conformist hegemonic culture: “This new avant-garde shared the belief that cultural conditioning functioned ideologically by encouraging the atrophy of certain perceptions and the exaggeration of others…In the recovery of such an alternative “reality”…they saw the only basis for constructively radical social change.” Spontaneity through art then doesn’t alter perception as much as its restores it to its ideal original state, allowing artists and spectators of art to see beyond a regime’s oppressive confines.

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Criterion Files

John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959) is often cited as a watershed moment in American independent film, and Cassavetes himself rather conveniently historicized as our nation’s “first” independent filmmaker. Such historical designations are often used as a way to narrativize precedents to the 1980s and 1990s Sundance-emboldened independent film “movement” and draw historical equivalents to the practices of now and then. This tendency often positions Cassavetes’ undoubtedly important contributions in a way that simplistically juxtaposes his artistic efforts with that of, say, anybody from Jim Jarmusch to Quentin Taranatino, ignoring the essential differences in historical context and means of aesthetic expression between them while also conveniently evading the many other American “independent” filmmakers that came before Cassavates himself. While Cassavetes is undoubtedly a one-of-a-kind filmmaker (excluding the many he has influenced), perhaps the biggest problem with this conventionally reductive veneration of Cassavetes is the notion that he acted alone, that he was an anomaly in an otherwise dominant system. John Cassavetes is undoubtedly one of America’s most important filmmakers, but seeing him as such an incongruity prevents us from understanding exactly why he was so important.

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