THE BLACK HOLE: Disney’s Strangely Entertaining Journey Into The Unknown

The Black Hole

The jaw-dropping critical and commercial success of the original Star Wars (or Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope if you’re a purist, or George Lucas), a film that was being written off as a flop before its release even by the very studio that financed it, sounded a wake-up to the industry that could not be denied. Science-fiction cinema was no longer going to be treated as cheap, disposable schlock Hollywood execs ordered green-lit a few times a year to pad out their coffers.

Despite the existence of the rare genre feature that made a significant cultural impact, be it The Day the Earth Stood Still or MGM’s unbeatable two-fer of Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey, sci-fi was seen as pure kids’ stuff. Execs at the major studios found them to be not exactly worth granting the kind of exorbitant budgets normally set aside for the splashy historical costume epics and grand-scale musicals that were still being made even though they have long been proven to be relics of a much different age. The moment Star Wars opened to record-obliterating box office and became an instant pop culture phenomenon in every corner of the globe, that all changed. It was a harsh lesson that Hollywood had a long time coming, but it would take them even longer to allow for the lesson to fully sink in.

The Black Hole

For fans of silver screen sci-fi, 1979 was quite a year. I was born on March 10 of that year (one day after actor Oscar Isaac), and two months later, Ridley Scott’s Alien premiered and blew the minds of audiences everywhere. I was too young to remember my first Christmas, but at the time it happened two of the splashiest space spectacles ever conceived by the major studios were screening to decidedly mixed receptions. Paramount’s mega-expensive (for its time), oft-delayed Star Trek: The Motion Picture went into theaters on December 7 (the 38th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, oddly enough), having practically completed post-production mere days earlier, and became the season’s reigning blockbuster.

Two weeks later, Walt Disney Pictures unveiled their own elaborate attempt to cash in on the post-Star Wars demand for effects-driven screen excitement, the $20 million extravaganza The Black Hole. At the time it was the studio’s most expensive release, one they backed up with a $6 advertising campaign that included a massive merchandising unheralded for a live-action Disney film. Toys were produced, lunchboxes manufactured, and even a few books made it into stores. The great Alan Dean Foster wrote the official novelization, and the legendary Jack Kirby provided the artwork for a comic adaptation. The studio even went the extra mile of striking some 70mm prints for special exhibitions to showcase the magisterial cinematography of the late Frank V. Phillips (Darker Than Amber) in what is perhaps the most impressive feature film he shot in his entire career.

The Black Hole

Though Disney initially approached the young FX wizards at Industrial Light and Magic about renting out some of the revolutionary technology that helped to realize Lucas’ vision of outer space dogfights and galactic bases the size of moons, the entire production was eventually created in-house. The effects were created through a combination of old school techniques and new methods developed for The Black Hole. Peter Ellenshaw, one of the studio’s finest FX artists (his credits include 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Love Bug among many others), was brought out a decade-long retirement to create the miniature effects, while his son Harrison Ellenshaw (a veteran of the Star Wars crew who had also plied his chosen trade for several notable Disney productions) was tasked with the sumptuous and often unnerving matte paintings that have become one of the film’s visual hallmarks.

The Black Hole

Initially hired to direct was the respectable British filmmaker John Hough, who had achieved significant success at Disney with the Witch Mountain movies, but he bowed out due to a scheduling conflict and was replaced by Gary Nelson. A veteran of television directing with scant theatrical credits to his name, Nelson was well-admired by Disney execs thanks to the six episodes of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color he directed, not to mention the body switch farce Freaky Friday that featured a young Jodie Foster (the year after she broke through in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver) and was a pleasant little hit for the studio. Jeb Rosebrook, best known for his work on Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner, co-wrote the screenplay with longtime television scribe Gerry Day from a story Rosebrook concocted with Bob Barbash (another TV writing vet) and Richard H. Landau (The Quatermass Xperiment).

The first Star Wars managed to strike more than a few nerves on its release with a young audience that could tell when the old guard of cinema was pandering to their desires for a new kind of screen excitement while simultaneously employing tired storytelling tropes that had long been considered antiquated. Lucas’ film was brought to life through the skills of a cast and crew primarily comprised of people in their 20’s and early 30’s – as opposed to people born in the 20’s and early 30’s – and their youthful energy and enthusiasm gave Star Wars a refreshing vitality the likes of which were rarely seen in filmmaking. It was one of the defining celluloid statements of a decade that was birthed by the trailblazing breakthrough success of Easy Rider and the rise of the “New Hollywood” that gave the world some of the most important cinematic visionaries the art form had ever seen.

Features that followed including Two-Lane Blacktop, Mean Streets, The Exorcist, and Apocalypse Now were made by enterprising film school students who had been raised on the classic films of generations past. They had respect for the old way of doing things, but they also realized the film industry was about to experience a sea change not witnessed since the dawn of cinema. There was an untapped younger audience out there being summarily ignored by the current studio system that still insisted on cramming bloated, outdated westerns and musicals down their throats and then blaming those damn kids for their crushing failure at the box office when everyone pretty much knew that those movies were not being made to appeal to them, but to their parents.

The Black Hole

The Black Hole didn’t feel like the work of fringe outlaws wanting nothing more than to break down the rigidly conservative structure of the old Hollywood and usher in a dazzling new age of cinematic adventure. It was the product of that very system from the start, wanting to capture a sizable chunk of that young audience by giving them the colorful visual effects, robots, and spaceships they craved. They also wanted to cast veteran actors whose careers had been forged and kept alive by appearing in studio-funded features and saw the film as just another day at the office, a goofy diversion to put some money in the bank and keep food on their tables until something better came along.

There’s no question that Disney’s $20 million investment was well-spent; beginning with an opening credits sequence that incorporated the longest use of computer graphics seen to date on screen and was underscored by a soundtrack composed by John Barry that conveyed the film’s mystery and awe beautifully, it was clear that every dollar spent to make The Black Hole was going to be right there up on the wide theater screen in vibrant Technicolor supported by the aural majesty of Dolby Stereo. The studio didn’t skimp on the visual wonders. In this day and age where digital effects continue to dominate, the hand-crafted models, miniatures, and mattes created by the Ellenshaws and their beyond capable team remain stunning.

The Black Hole

While the technical craft on display may be expensive and state-of-the-art, the narrative recalls the pulp sci-fi potboilers that used to be pumped out by independent operators and the B-arms of the majors for a few hundred thousand dollars in the 50’s and 60’s. A spaceship crew on a long-term exploration journey commanded by the all-business Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster) and comprised of psychic-powered scientist Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux), her brusque colleague Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins), grouchy journalist Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine), and fresh-faced Lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms) comes across the long-lost advanced craft USS Cygnus hovering at the edge of a black hole. Upon boarding, the only human presence left on the ship is Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell), the brilliant commander of the Cygnus whose reputation is known to Holland and every member of his crew, especially Durant, who appears a bit too enamored of Reinhardt and his work.

The Black Hole

The Cygnus used to have a full crew of human beings (among them, Kate’s father), but according to Reinhardt, they all took off for an unknown destination twenty years ago once their conditions began to grow unstable. The doctor has since replaced them with an army of servile androids, silent and imposing as wraiths with mirrored masks to conceal each visage. Eventually it becomes apparent to Holland and the others that Reinhardt has gone insane and is prepared to take his scientific research to the ultimate level by piloting his vessel into the black hole in a crazed attempt to travel to the farthest reaches of the universe. Only Durant is interested in coming along for the ride to end them all, while Holland, McCrae, and the rest of the crew do their best to get off the Cygnus before it gets sucked down the galaxy’s drain. Unfortunately for our intrepid heroes, they’re all about to share in Reinhardt’s obsession whether they like it or not.

The Black Hole

The Black Hole is the very definition of an effects-driven event film, one where the technical artistry can’t help but overwhelm the story and performances. This isn’t just because the effects and design work are first-rate, but rather because the other creative elements in front of the camera never once threaten to rise above a basic level of competence. The Rosebrook/Day script and acting from a well-chosen cast of old pros serve the visuals when it’s supposed to be the exact opposite. Whereas the original (and I use that term quite loosely) Star Wars was a loving mish-mash of Flash Gordon serials and Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epics, The Black Hole‘s narrative is obviously indebted to the aforementioned Forbidden Planet as well as the novels of Joseph Conrad, in particular Heart of Darkness. Reinhardt is the Kurtz figure without question; he journeyed upriver and lost every trace of the man he was along the way, except he traveled a river that goes on forever and rewards your devotion to unlock its secrets by devouring you completely.

That could have made for a modern classic of cinematic sci-fi, but the rest of the story is dominated by one-dimensional stereotypes jockeying for camera time while dealing with wheezing plot devices that fans of the genre have encountered countless times. Each character is defined by what they do, not who they are, and despite having talented actors at his disposal, director Nelson appears merely content to have them hit their marks, say their hackneyed dialogue, and move on to the next scene. That doesn’t mean The Black Hole is an entertaining movie, because it most certainly is, but with a little more care and imagination it could have stood for all time in the annals of speculative science fiction films.

The Black Hole

The thought-provoking aspects of the script are few and far between, and Nelson virtually drowns them in flashy laser battles and ear-shattering explosions. Though fun to watch, they add almost nothing to the story. The film sets us up for a voyage into uncharted regions of the universe and the human psyche and dispenses with those fascinating possibilities for one scene after another where Reinhardt’s robot army is blasted into scrap parts by our bland heroes.

What little personality exists in each character is provided by the actor playing them. Forster, the great B-movie tough guy who grew into a terrific character actor thanks to his role as the aging bail bondsman Max Cherry in 1997’s Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino’s finest film in my opinion), is on top form in a rare leading role in a big-budget studio feature. His Captain Holland is a stone-faced man who has the unquestioning respect of his crew and can see the horrors aboard the Cygnus coming from a mile away. Borgnine doesn’t understand what’s going on and chooses not to conceal it, and Perkins is perfectly unsettling. Schell is a good villain with a motivation far more complex than sci-fi baddies are typically afforded. Only Mimieux, with her flat line readings, and Bottoms, with his emotionless face and whiny demeanor, drag the rest of the cast down every time they’re onscreen.

It’s ironic then that’s the deepest and most heartfelt human relationship is between two robots. There’s V.I.N.C.E.N.T., the helpful little bot and unofficial mascot of Holland’s crew whose vocals are provided by Roddy McDowall, and an outdated but noble droid of the same model named B.O.B., voiced by Slim Pickens. Both actors went uncredited in the final film, but their voices are so unmistakable that not even some post-production tinkering could make them sound any different. Though McDowall and Pickens possibly recorded their dialogue separately long after the film wrapped, the humanity they bring to these robots who strike up a friendship in the midst of the adventure is oddly endearing. It’s somewhat magical and amusing how they were able to create a warm chemistry between V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and B.O.B., but how they manage to do so is beyond me.

The Black Hole

Lloyd Ahern, future cinematographer for Walter Hill (Trespass, Undisputed, the pilot episode of Deadwood), worked on The Black Hole as a camera operator. His name immediately stuck out in the end credits for me. But the most interesting contributor to the film’s effects is Tom McLoughlin, who made use of his skills as a mime to coordinate the sentry robots of the Cygnus and even appeared in front of the camera as their leader Captain S.T.A.R. McLoughlin would go on to become a director working mostly in television, but horror fans know him best for Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, the sequel that introduced meta humor and fright flick in-jokes to the world of Jason Voorhees.

The Black Hole wants so badly to be a stylish and thrilling amalgamation of Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey that it’s willing to go completely weird in its final minutes. It’s that climatic sequence that has helped the film to build a modest cult following in the thirty-six years since it was released theatrically. This is also where some of the effects crew’s finest creations are presented to us in the form of a disorienting, yet astounding vision of what could very well be the absolute end of all things. For our heroes, it ends with a note of optimism as their adventure into the unknown could just be beginning (imagine where a sequel could have gone), but for Reinhardt, it results in the realization of his greatest desire in ways he never considered – or wanted. Much like the mind-blowing conclusion to 2001, the audience is left to ponder what exactly has happened instead of the filmmakers spelling everything out for them.

The Black Hole is currently streaming in gorgeous 1080p high-definition on Amazon Instant Video. I hope Disney has a Blu-ray in the works for this undeservedly overlooked cult classic.

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In Defense of Robert Altman’s Quintet


This summer saw the return of George Miller’s post apocalyptic anti-hero Max Rockatansky in Mad Max: Fury Road. It was recently released on DVD and Blu-ray. That franchise started out as an Australian exploitation film in 1979. I ask you to go back to the year of the original Mad Max and dust off another post apocalyptic film from American auteur Robert Altman. That’s right, the same man that gave us such classics as M.A.S.H. and Nashville made a science fiction film based in an ice age in our future. The film starred Paul Newman and Bibi Andersson and was released to financial and critical failure. Sadly this film has been largely forgotten by the sands of time.


Newman plays Essex, a man returning in search of his brother with his young wife, now pregnant. Essex has been away hunting in the south for nearly 12 years. In the opening scene of the film, which starts in a snowy whiteout, Essex and his wife spot a goose flying above them. Essex claims he hasn’t seen one in many years, setting the audience up for a harsh frozen landscape that envelopes the film from start to finish. Altman uniquely glazed the outer lens of the cameras that he shot with with petroleum jelly to give the look of frost surrounding the scene. The film was shot largely on location at Montreal’s Man and His World Expo on a refrigerated set. You can see the breath that each actor exhales in every scene. Altman instructed his crew to hose down the set every two hours to give a new glaze of ice and frost. Needless to say it was an uncomfortable shoot.

Several scenes had dead bodies being devoured by feral dogs in the background. It gave the audience the feel of hopelessness, that any given week or month you could fall ill and die in the environment. Essex is eventually reunited with his brother, but not for long. The town Essex and his wife return to is obsessed with a game called Quintet, a parlor game with deadly results. When Essex goes in search of wood for heat, a pipe bomb takes the life of his brother, wife and unborn baby during a game of Quintet. He is devastated and immediately investigates the town obsession with this game. That shapes the plot to the film in general but I argue that you have to look at what lies underneath. You can write this off as just a tale of revenge, but there is more.


Critics dismissed Quintet as bleak and slow-paced. But what I saw was a classic film noir mystery tucked inside this frozen landscape. Essex takes the place of the detective as he combs the town for evidence of who is behind this deadly game. The only thing he is armed with is a list of names he recovers from the man responsible for bombing the parlor that killed his wife and brother. He pretends to be one of the names on the list and infiltrates the inner circle of the game. The film even has it’s femme fatale in Anderssons character, Ambrosia. Altman had already shot his version of a Phillip Marlowe story – 1973’s The Long Goodbye – a few years earlier starring Elliott Gould. Altman said that he had been working on the script for Quintet eight years before he shot the first frame. 20th Century Fox was curious what Altman was doing up there as he went over budget with his extravagant set.


The game of Quintet itself had become a way for escape from the horror of the elements. Every time I watch Quintet I spot another detail. Like sculptures of dogs eating corpses in the town square as though it’s such a common occurrence that it’s recorded like a still life. The music score goes from ambient to bombastic to convey the dreamlike bleakness of the environment but gets interrupted by a act of brutality. Altman was really thinking outside the box on this one. Watching the DVD extras, he sounds proud of his achievement even though people didn’t quite get it. I believe if he had released the film four years earlier (pre-1977) it may have been received better. After ’77 when people thought science fiction they thought blockbuster style sci-fi like Star Wars, not something as bleak and cerebral as this .

Sadly Quintet hasn’t been remastered and released like it should be. I would like to see Criterion tackle that one. Perhaps it will in the future. With a shift in more cerebral science fiction in recent years perhaps people will want to take a second (or third) look at the Altman film.

– Jeff Roll

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CALVARY (2014): A Review by Ethan Dunlap


In a confessional, a sexually abused parishioner threatens to murder Father James, a good and kind-hearted priest. In the ensuing week, he must face the darkness seeping through the cracks of his quaint Irish village before ultimately confronting his very mortality.

John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is best viewed in a near-empty art house theatre, as far off the beaten path as one can get while still remaining in civilized territory. The setting must be intimate, the kind of intimacy viewers will have to leave the safety of blockbusters and multiplexes to find. As the lights blacken and the shadows in the corners of the room spread out, the viewer will find the faintest traces of uncertainty lingering in the back of their mind. Uncertainty about what, exactly, the film actually is. Will it be a darkly comedic romp about a disgruntled old priest? Will it be a dour, serious look at the nature of spirituality and its place in the modern age? One hundred and one minutes later, once the closing credits began to roll, it will become clear that this vagueness is precisely what the film is.

Calvary, at its heart, is about uncertainty.

McDonagh’s cinematic approach to this story is unique, even for European cinema. The film is not divided into acts, rather it flows at a leisurely pace; subplots are not solved and wrapped up with neat little ribbons, rather they fade out into obscurity; the film in general is less so a film, and more so an average day put on a cinematic canvas. And, like most average days, there is little closure. The characters, and by extension the audience, are left with the same vague idea of what the future holds that they had in the opening of the film. As a result, the film takes on a cerebral quality, as if these characters are wandering aimlessly through a dream strange, hilarious, and, at times, terrible.


This meandering, this unknown, is what propels the major arc of Father James (played brilliantly by veteran Irish actor Brendan Gleeson). The good Father faces an existential crisis in seemingly every encounter throughout the course of the film. Why does he strive to be a good priest, when his fellow Bishop Montgomery (David McSavage) is almost comically daft in all aspects of godliness? Why does he strive to preach morality and spirituality in a town where, largely, religion is not taken seriously at best, and outright mocked at worst? Was being a good priest worth it if he is destined to be murdered for being precisely that? Is he even a good priest if he cannot get his parishioners to listen to him? And, most importantly, was joining the priesthood worth the strained relationship with his suicidal daughter? These nagging doubts are well concealed, hiding in the edges of things, and are slowly brought out with each subtle encounter Father James has with the ensemble supporting cast.

This is perhaps best illustrated in a scene towards the middle of the film, wherein the atheist Dr. Harte (Aiden Gillen, of Game of Thrones fame) relays to the good Father an anecdote about a young boy who was rendered deaf, mute, blind, and paralyzed after botched anesthesia; the doctor explains that being unable to hear oneself scream is likely the inner turmoil that victims of sexual abuse are faced with in every waking moment of their lives. Father James grows rowdy, threatening the doctor before getting inebriated and assaulting the bartender. This scene is almost the climax of the Father’s disillusionment towards his own life path; he is not angry at the doctor’s morbid story, but rather frustrated by the fact that he strives to be a beacon of morality among an institution still haunted by the evils of sexual abuse. At that point in the film he had already lost so much, and all for the crime of being a good man surrounded by the unjust and cruel.


This lack of personal direction washes off from Father James and seeps onto the supporting characters, as well. The Father’s daughter, played by a severely underused Kelly Reilly, is introduced to the audience as having attempted suicide some time before the events of the film; while she goes through noticeable character development and seems to grow along with her father, her arc is still not neatly wrapped up by the last scene, leaving many aspects up in the air. There is a subplot concerning domestic abuse and polyamory laced throughout the first half of the film that, rather than acting like a traditional arc or plot, seems to be simply a part of the setting, and as such is not delved into the way a more mainstream film would do so. Arguably the best of the supporting cast, detached drunken millionaire Michael Fitzgerald (played to perfection by Black Books alum Dylan Moran), is given an arc with surprising nuance unexpected of what is essentially a comic relief character, who blind-sides the audience with an emotional revelation towards the end of the film which is largely left unresolved. In most films, this abundance of meandering subplots and character arcs that seem to fade out rather than resolve themselves would come across as poor writing, but what makes them work so well in Calvary is how deliberate they are. McDonagh is not using these elements to propel the plot, but rather to weave them into a sort of cinematic tapestry on which the film is imprinted. Because ambiguity seems to be the uniting theme of the film, each element is given a deliberately ambiguous ending.

Beyond the writing, the film is a marvel from a purely visual perspective. Larry Smith’s cinematography is crisp and atmospheric, lending the film a sense of underlying eeriness beneath the picturesque captures of the Irish countryside. Time setting is used to perfect visual effect, as well; many of the more quiet, serene moments occur at day time and are thus fittingly quaint and intimate; in contrast, much of the uglier, reprehensible moments occur at night, using shadows and high contrast to perfect effect. These night scenes, particularly a brilliant sequence involving destruction at the Father’s church, mesh so perfectly with Patrick Cassidy’s original score that the film’s distinct personality rings through; this is no doubt a very humorous film, but it is much darker tonally and thematically than McDonagh’s previous work. Above all else, the filmmakers grasped how integral atmosphere is in making an effective dark comedy, and subject matter can only carry that atmosphere so far. The visuals must provide the rest, and what Smith and McDonagh have given the audience is essentially a cinematic art gallery.


The major problem with Calvary is, unfortunately, a problem that has plagued McDonagh’s other works; he simply does not write women very well. While Kelly Reilly gives a fine performance, and while her character is given significantly more development than the women in McDonagh’s prior film The Guard, she still feels like a supplementary character, not meshing as well into the overall tapestry of the film the way the rest of the cast does. It does not help that she is the only substantial female character amongst a sea of men; the only other women in the film appear as almost an afterthought, and barely even interacts with Reilly. While the movie does avoid the overt sexism typical of a Hollywood feature and does not sexually objectify or condescend to the female characters, it simply falls into the trap of not giving them much to do.

Despite not faring well on the feminist front, Calvary is a triumph of art house cinema. It is the bizarre lovechild of dry humor and pure bleakness, of morality and immorality. It examines the place of religion and Catholicism in the modern world without condemning nor embracing either, leaving its overall message as uncertain as its characters. Because, in the end, we live in uncertain times, and cannot rely on others to know how our respective stories end. In real life, many stories do not end; they meander, they wander, and sometimes, they fade into the background.

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Modern Cinema: Open For Interpretation


Two new DVD/Blu-ray releases that push the boundaries.

It’s hard to find a film that sticks with you several days after you see it. This is the case with two recent new releases on DVD/ Blu-ray . First up is Enemy from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies). Enemy stars Jake Gyllenhaal as our troubled protagonist Adam. Adam is a college professor who is currently in the middle of teaching his students about totalitarian regimes, an obsession of his. Now let’s just say that Enemy is based on a book by Spanish author Jose Saramago called The Double. On the surface Enemy seems to be another evil twin or doppelgänger plot. Not all true. Adam eventually discovers that there is a man who looks just like him that is a film actor. The actor’s name is Anthony and leads a very different life. This leads Adam to confront the double which leads the film to its mind blowing end.


The fascinating fact about Enemy is that is was shot before another film Gyllenhaal made with Villeneuve called Prisoners. Prisoners saw a wide theatrical release along with critical praise late last year but Enemy saw just a limited release from the distributor early this year. Why? I believe the distributor believed that Enemy is over the heads of most American movie goers. Which it is in many ways. Enemy gets under your skin in a Kafkaesque way.


Throughout the picture Villeneuve uses spiders both real and imaginary to symbolize what Saramago strongly conveyed in his book. A strict political message about the recurrence of totalitarian regimes in the history of civilization. A theme the author revisits in his books. Villeneuve uses imagery to convey that undertone. An experimental path that I applaud. I know this film leaves the average moviegoer confused but I found it to be one of the best releases in the last year.


Next is the latest film by director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) called Under The Skin. Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien disguised as a human who abducts men after she seduces them. The plot sounds pretty simple … right ? No … No … No. First of all this is hands down Johansson’s edgiest performance. She’s been on a stray path for a while doing mostly action films and romantic comedies so I applaud the change in direction. I couldn’t stop thinking about the 1977 film The Man Who Fell To Earth when watching Skin unfold . On the same level as the Nicolas Roeg film starring David Bowie, Under the Skin is an experimental science fiction film with erotic overtones. Just when you feel that you get the plot Glazer pulls you in deeper giving you an uneasy viewing. Glazer spent 10 years developing Under The Skin and it really pays off. In one scene Johansson seduces a lonely deformed man that lives in the shadows of a Scottish town. No prosthetic make up was used here. Glazer actually uses a physically deformed actor to do the scene with Johansson.


The entire film is like a dream disguised as a nightmare. The dialog is minimal. The story is told mostly through imagery. Imagery so unique that it sticks with you for days after viewing.


With both of these films, I believe they are open for interpretation. Only a few films in the last decade have stuck with me this way. Perhaps Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth or Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. Films that reveal more to you on multiple viewings. I hope this type of contemporary film making continues. I’m tired of forgetting about a film after I leave the theater. Good filmmaking is supposed to haunt you. I think Kafka could have been a good filmmaker.

– Jeff Roll

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Charlton Heston + Ben-Hur = Liza Minnelli + Cabaret


There exist a multitude of constraints that prohibit me from witnessing first-run films in theatres. Time and finances are the strongest of those constraints. And when I do have the time and money, more often than not I see films with my children. So Frozen (2013) and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) take precedence over films such as Gravity (2013), Nebraska (2013), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). In an effort to feed my film watching fix, I resort to Turner Classic Movies and my disparate DVD collection.


When choosing DVDs, I like to do so randomly, as though I am surprising myself. My method of random selection led to my viewing of Soylent Green (1973) on Christmas Day. Few things radiate a joyous holiday spirit more than Charlton Heston discovering the horrible truth about Soylent Green’s gruesome origins. (But then again, Soylent Green probably had fewer contaminants and more nutritional value than Wyngz, Gogurt, or Cool Ranch Doritos.) My random selections can also lead to rather surprising conclusions, including how films that would seemingly have nothing in common are quite similar. This is what I discovered when I viewed Ben-Hur (1959) and Cabaret (1972) back to back. These two films appear most incongruous. It is difficult to imagine meshing any parts of either film into the other. The directors, actors, and scripts are all at odds. It is almost impossible to imagine Bob Fosse directing Ben-Hur or Heston attempting to seduce Liza Minnelli and Michael York.


Still, these vastly incongruous films rang more similar than different in a variety of ways. Both of these films are older than my forty year-old self, and while I still feel that they hold up impressively well, I could not help but think that both films would have a terrible time getting produced today. Or if either were made/re-made, current cinematic impulses would ruin each. I do not know of a studio that would willing allow Ben-Hur’s famous and amazing chariot race scene to be filmed with actual horses and chariots. What makes the entire sequence so fantastic are the actual people, animals, and props involved. Yes, Peter Jackson and his ilk can do impressive things with CGI, but imagine how much more impressive those battle scenes from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) would have been had all the horses and animals been real rather than computer images.

Similarly, not only would the sexually and romantically complex relationships in Cabaret be neutered in today’s Hollywood, but the wonderfully decadent and sexy burlesque scenes would no doubt become boring and horribly unsexy with efforts to make them into clichéd Vegas stripper shows: something that the dudes from The Hangover (2009) would think is totally awesome but actually totally sucks because those guys really are not that bright. Both Ben-Hur and Cabaret demonstrate that despite that vast number of films produced, fewer possibilities for innovation and risk-taking exist. And that which poses as innovation and risk-taking is actually formulaic clap-trap.

The final bizarre similarity between Cabaret and Ben-Hur rests in the career arcs of their Oscar-winning stars: Heston and Minnelli. While an eager individual might be able to connect these two via a six degrees of Kevin Bacon game, it would be difficult to find to more divergent Hollywood personas. Yet while as silly as it is to imagine Heston and Minnelli opposite each other, they could probably relate to each other’s careers. Each had tremendous success early in their careers, with the previously mentioned films representing their pinnacles of cinematic achievement. Yet the qualities that made each actor so successful in those roles proved to be, if not their undoing, the chains that limited them.


Heston’s absolute earnestness and ability to avoid any and all irony served him well as Judah Ben-Hur. He is brave, resilient, and valiant. Yet these same qualities, particularly visible in his later sci-fi adventures, turn him into a figure of fun, one to be mocked. Indeed, my first real exposure to Heston was through former Saturday Night Live comedian Phil Hartman’s impersonations of Heston. Hartman’s Heston is drawn not from Ben-Hur, but from Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes (1968). This caricature of Heston became even further reified through his cryptic statements made while a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002) helped substantiate that image of Heston.


Minnelli suffers from a similar fate. While her caricatured figure possesses radically different politics, she has still been reduced from her former glory into a thin representation of what she once was. As Cabaret’s Sally Bowles, Minelli is funny, witty, vulnerable, sexy, and likeable. However, this range has slowly been reduced. Now, she exists solely as a gay-themed songstress, one who has given birth to countless Liza Minnelli impersonators. In fact, Minnelli is now hardly much more than an impersonation of her own impersonators. See Sex and the City 2 (2010). It is hard to now watch Minnelli and not think of her simulacrum in the same way that Heston’s interview with Michael Moore resembles those Phil Hartman SNL skits.

So while each are similar in how their former glory has been distilled into silly comic fodder, I would like to remember that both also share histories and performances that are far greater than their current representations would have us believe.

– Todd Starkweather

Posted in Film, film studies | 2 Comments

Labor On Film: Screenings In Solidarity


By Michael Jones

For May Day, the international holiday commemorating the working class everywhere, or America’s Labor Day, a rough chronological selection of films in the workers’ honor. This list is composed of fiction and nonfiction films, domestic and international and is an initial offering, by no means complete. Labor and the film industry have a long history—mostly off-celluloid–there were violent battles outside Hollywood’s studio gates in the 1940s. Still today, Hollywood and the film industry world-wide remain one of the most unionized of industries.

Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory, Loading the Boiler, Drawing out the Coke, Demolishing a WallLumiere Bros., c. 1895-96, Fr.
The earliest documentaries in existence—actualities, performed by working people—one shot, one reel, no edits. The subject is the everyday—and in these instances workers’ doing what they do everyday. The filmmakers’ father owned the factory in the title, but we’re barred from its interior.

Available on DVD.

A Visit to the Peek Frean and Company’s Biscuit Works – c. 1906, GB
Supposedly the first documentary ever filmed inside a factory, workers turning out tins and tins of cookies!

Available on DVD.

Corner in WheatD.W. Griffith, 1909, US
Roughly based on the bread riots of the turn of the century, a striking expose of corporate manipulation at the expense of the consumer and the producer/farmer. Fortunately, karma intervenes.

Available on DVD.

StrikeSergei Eisenstein, 1925, USSR
Just a year ahead of his groundbreaking Battleship Potemkin, a chronicle of a proletarian strike violently squashed by the factory owners, the police and the Tsar’s own agents. Noted for the metaphoric slaying of an ox, before the massacre of the strikers.

Available on Blu-ray and for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.


MetropolisFritz Lang, 1926, Ger.
More than a sci-fi, this a treatise on the eternal struggle between capital and labor. Once seen, the viewer never forgets the worker drones headed, head down, to work in the fiery underground of Lang’s futuristic nightmare. Happily, love and a growing social awareness intervene.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 colorized re-edit is also available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Liberty is Ours (A Nous la Liberte)Rene Clair, 1931, Fr.
Clair’s charming Cinderella story – an escaped con becomes a factory mogul – bursts when a cellmate, in line for employment, recognizes him. Later, on the lam, the factory is left behind to the workers’ collective, living an idyllic existence on the fringe of nature and technology.

Available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Our Daily BreadKing Vidor, 1934, US
Despite his studio credentials, Vidor (The Crowd) couldn’t get this one made in the depths of the Depression, so he did it out of pocket. A utopian view of a farming collective, composed of diverse specialists, that finds a way to employ themselves. The final ten minutes is an euphoric montage, almost religious in tone, as the struggling farmers triumphantly divert water to their crops.

Available on DVD.


Modern TimesCharles Chaplin, 1936, US
With this release, there were no more ambiguities about Chaplin’s cinema – his political heart was there on the silver screen for all. He’d met Ghandi on tour in England, and he’d resolved to try to say something among the laughs. Countless memorable sequences with The Tramp run amok in the Industrial Age.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.


You Can’t Take It With YouFrank Capra, 1938, US
Capra finds a comfortable vehicle in the Moss HartGeorge S. Kaufman play, with memorable roles by Lionel Barrymore, as the downright practically anti-American patriarch who rejects a 9-5 lifestyle and encourages the same from his resident pack of anarchistic, firework-producing in-laws, and Jean Arthur, hoping to bridge the social strata by marriage to her corporate boss’s son, Jimmy Stewart. Capra was America’s most popular populist director of the 1930’s — Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, etc. — and this reminds us why. A personal favorite as we put the play on in high school—part of my political education!

Available on DVD and for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

John Grierson and the GPO documentaries, c. 1930s, UK
As a government funded agency whose mission it was to produce documentaries on various aspects of British life, (re: working life) Grierson, Basil Wright and associates produced scores of films including Nightmail, a study in efficiency and teamwork of postal employees carrying mail nightly from London to Glasgow, with rhetorical voice-over poetry from W. H. Auden. A fascinating piece of government propaganda.

Nightmail is available on the Region B Blu-ray/DVD combo pack The Soviet Influence: From Turksib to Nightmail.

Henry Fonda the Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of WrathJohn Ford, 1940, US
Well of course the ending of John Steinbeck’s novel is omitted—it could never have worked then, or maybe even now—but it still splits some hairs and lands pretty solidly (albeit sentimentally) on the Left. Henry Fonda as Tom Joad realizes the balance of things and sets out to right them, in fact his speech to Jane Darwell (Ma Joad) near the end even hints at a universal consciousness. Imagine that. Perhaps most memorable is John Carradine as Casey, who dropped his Bible on the way to social enlightenment. Steinbeck in his early works was quite critical of capitalism, and though he may have mellowed in latter years, he was reportedly very happy with Ford’s version.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Salt of the EarthHerbert Biberman, 1954, US
Collectively produced by a blacklisted Hollywood crew, the film was harassed from the beginning by right-wingers in Congress and Hollywood – in fact, processing and editing had to be done secretly, and then only two theaters screened it. Based on a real miners’ strike, this film breaks ground as domestic issues compound and the wives carry the strike through to a new contract. With Will Geer, aka Grandpa Walton, as the Sheriff pawn of the corporation. Yes, Grandpa was a Communist. A feel good movie from the Left!

Available on DVD.

Vidas Secas (Barren Lives)Nelson Periera dos Santos, 1963, Brazil
One of the bed-rock films of Brazilian’s Cinema Novo movement, this is a no-holds barred tale of an illiterate migrant gaucho and family drifting from ranch to ranch, exploited by landowner and law. As stark and as bleak as its landscape, the film holds however the the nurturing hopes and seeds of a better life, ending with a thin note of optimism—like much of the Italian Neo-realist films which influenced the young Brazilians.

Available on DVD.

They Don’t Wear Black TieLeon Hirszman, 1981, Brazil
I’ve only seen this movie twice but the emotional rift between a striking factory-worker father and his scab son resonated. Set in a small village (location shot with a sweaty gritty texture) where the town’s existence revolves around the factory, Hirszman’s rhetoric plays naturally as he builds characters into people. At one time it was distributed by New Yorker Films.

Available as part of a five film all-region DVD box set.


Harlan County, U.S.A.Barbara Kopple, 1977, US
One of the greatest American documentaries period, a record of not only a specific strike in Kentucky in the early ‘70s, but the history and legacy of the United Mine Workers. Like Salt of the Earth the women take the lead with questions regarding indoor plumbing and decent housing overlapping with the strikers on issues regarding safety. Academy Award Winner in 1978 for Best Documentary.

Available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.


Norma RaeMartin Ritt, 1979, US
America’s favorite gal, Sally Field, won an Oscar for her portrayal of Norma Rae, who risks marriage, family and community opinion as she fights for workers’ rights in a North Carolina textile factory. Ron Liebman plays the union organizer with whom she has a platonic relationship – an education on labor issues and a skinny dip in the local swimming hole. Nicely handled by director Ritt, who sells the story on a personal level that makes the union’s fight believable, vital, and winnable. Based on a true story.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray.


MatewanJohn Sayles, 1983, US
One of writer-director Sayles best films (Return of the Secaucus 7, Eight Men Out) and only his third, a dramatic version of a bloody coal-mining strike in Matewan, KY. Like most of Sayles films, there’s an eye for natural dialogue and behavior, and a penchant for stories that invite a social discourse.

Available on DVD.


Working GirlsLizzie Borden, 1987, US
Her followup to Born in Flames, Borden’s unglamorous expose of a middle-upper class brothel in NYC garnered an X rating for Miramax, who released it. The debunking comes through humanization of the players and like Godard’s My Life to Live (’63), prostitution is still the hardest working metaphor for capitalism in cinema.

Available on DVD.

American DreamBarbara Kopple, 1990, US
A prolonged strike against a Hormel meat packing plant is the dramatic stuff of this documentary – family members pitted against one another and a national representation unable to avert disaster for the local. A little technical at times, but a real education in what happens backroom in labor negotiations. Oscar winner for Best Documentary.

Available on DVD and for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

Roger & Me

Roger and Me/The Big OneMichael Moore, 1989/1998
A champion of topics ignored by major media, Moore manages to focus not only on an issue film-to-film, but also connects the dots in the bigger workers’ picture. Beginning with the UAW in Flint in the 1930s in Roger & Me, to his interview with the CEO and founder of Nike who declines to match Moore’s own pledge to the depressed school districts of Flint with a $20,000 donation in the latter film.

Roger & Me is available on DVD.

The Big One is available on DVD and for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

Michael Jones has worked a lot of low-paying jobs—packing apples, digging graves, painting houses–including ushering at the revered, defunct Biograph Theatre, of Richmond, VA where he made $2.25/hr. in 1976. He currently teaches film at Virginia Commonwealth University and Randolph-Macon College, and is a founding member of the James River Film Festival and the James River Film Society.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

THE SWIMMER: Burt Lancaster Journeys Upriver Into The Dark Heart of Suburbia


On a warm and beautiful autumn afternoon Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) emerges from the peaceful woods of an upper class Connecticut suburb wearing nothing but a pair of dark swim trunks and dives into the swimming pool of old friends. We have no idea where he came from, but Ned knows where he is going and how he intends to get there. In conversation with his friends over martinis (there are a lot of drinks served in this film) he learns that one of his neighbors just installed an in-ground pool in their backyard. This means that there is now a path of homes with pools leading all the way to Ned’s palatial house on top of a hill. He gets the idea to swim back to his house via this unofficially connected river of chemically-treated water. Everyone thinks Ned is a little off for even considering this bizarre notion, but this ordinary man sees it as a great adventure.


That’s where the 1968 cult classic drama The Swimmer begins, and it would usually be enough for any lesser film to use as a plot. But as Ned goes from house to house, pool to pool, in a last ditch attempt to seize the day as his fair weather friends drink and tan themselves into a mass coma the story mutates into something uncomfortable and tragic. From the rapturous optimism of the journey’s idealistic beginning to a pitch-black comedic indictment of malcontented bourgeois ennui, Ned’s grand quest through the sun-dappled forests and manicured estates of his dreamlike purgatory becomes a haunting portrayal of a once-beloved, successful man about town who had it all and gambled everything away simply because he could.


With the exception of an awkward encounter with the mother of a friend he seemingly forgot about even as the man was slowly dying in a hospital, Ned is mostly greeted with warm welcomes by the owners of the pools he swims in on his way home. Handshakes are exchanged, hugs and kisses shared, and promises of future lunches and golf games are made. The people treat Ned with respect but often regard him as a distant stranger, as if he had been gone for a long time. As he emerges from each pool the murkier aspects of his apparently happy life become clear and all is not well in Merrill’s paradise of a waiting, dutiful wife and two lovely daughters whose ages he tends to confuse but are definitely at home playing tennis.


At one pool he meets the comely young woman who used to work as the Merrills’ babysitter (Janet Landgard). Her name is Julie and she willingly joins Ned for the first leg of his journey. In one scene they romp through the horse riding ring of one neighbor and leap hurdles with the immense joy of lovers looking forward to a bright future. Julie admits to having once harbored a crush on Ned as a pre-teen, even confessing to the theft of one of his shirts, but now that she’s a woman and in love with another man she met through a computer dating service the shirt is just that. At that moment you can see the life slowly starting to drain from Ned’s eyes, and the attempt he then makes to woo Julie into a romance straight out of an old Hollywood film are treated as the creepy advances of a tired old man. Julie runs away and we never see her again. Her departure signals The Swimmer‘s descent into the waking nightmare of a man out of time and out of luck. Every pool Ned visits from here on in will rudely awaken mistaken passions, simmering content, and some harsh truths.


With films such as David and Lisa and Ladybug Ladybug to their credit, director Frank Perry and his screenwriter wife Eleanor Perry set about to adapt John Cheever‘s 16-page short story first published in the July 18, 1964 issue of The New Yorker. Initially envisioning a film made of “The Swimmer” to be a low-budget affair with unknown or little-known actors in the cast, the Perrys saw their fortunes improve both for better and worse when they brought the project to powerhouse Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel, a legend in the industry for mounting such classic productions as The African Queen, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia. Their screenplay found its way into the hands of Lancaster, at the time one of the most in-demand stars in cinema and someone who could balance conventional Hollywood films with a eclectic selection of bolder works that usually attained great critical and commercial success. His salary for The Swimmer would be $750,000 – one and a half times larger than the film’s original budget.

Lancaster had been an accomplished athlete and trapeze artist in his youth but he had no idea how to swim, so he took lessons from a swimming coach at UCLA to get in shape for the role of Merrill. He brought his A-game to the part and many consider his performance in The Swimmer to be the finest of his career. After watching the film for myself recently courtesy of its long-awaited Blu-ray/DVD combo pack release from Grindhouse Releasing it would be difficult for me to protest. Lancaster also brought with him to the set a heavy dose of star power and he didn’t get along well with the 36-year-old Frank Perry. During production an edict had been issued that not a single word of Eleanor’s screenplay was to be altered, a privilege rarely afforded to a screenwriter especially during the waning days of the old Hollywood studio system.


In an interview conducted some time after the film’s theatrical release director Perry admitted that the version of The Swimmer that played to enthusiastic reviews and non-existent box office represented only 50 percent of his intended cut. After filming first wrapped an early cut prepared by Perry was greeted with consternation by executives at Columbia Pictures and Lancaster brought on his dear friend Sydney Pollack (director of The Way We Were, Tootsie, and Out of Africa) to reshoot certain scenes that were lacking in dramatic impact. While my sympathies tend to rest with the filmmaker and their vision, The Swimmer bears no marks of a damaged film. It may have been pure hell for the cast and crew to make, but their labors brought to life a motion picture experience like no other. In fact that’s exactly how Columbia tried to sell it to the masses in 1968: “When you talk about ‘The Swimmer’, will you talk about yourself?” Or so the tagline the marketing campaign centered around went. In this case, too many cooks in the kitchen didn’t spoil the meal.

Like getting caught in the current of a raging river, it’s easy to be swept away by the film’s carefully-woven spell. The viewer becomes Ned’s fellow traveler on the adventure across his unforgiving Connecticut county, sharing in the thrill of living life to its fullest for a fleeting day and ultimately being forced to endure the uncertainty and heartbreak as he nears his final destination. I wish not to spoil the emotionally devastating pleasures of the unfolding plot, but once you arrive at the ending you might be compelled to watch The Swimmer again immediately just to see if it had been hinted during the course of the film. Looking back on particular scenes now that I know how it ends allowed the dialogue and performances to gain unforseen levels of complexity.


The performances are all magnificent: Lancaster cleverly subverted his image as a virile, handsome leading man of the silver screen with memorable results. Among the lovely ladies he encounters on his journey the stand-outs are Landgard as his sweet natured, temporary companion and Janice Rule as a bored socialite who still carries the emotional scars of her brief affair with Ned which he tries futilely to rekindle in one of the film’s best scenes. Comedian Joan Rivers has a cameo as a woman Ned meets at a pool party who appears perplexed by his pointless ambition, and Rivers has been extraordinarily forthright with her disappointment at how she was treated on the production and how her character changed against her wishes from sympathetic to shrill prior to filming the scene. The pivotal sequence towards the end finds Ned trying to barter his way into a crowded community pool that stands between him and a homestead that may only exist as happy and loving in his memories is masterfully staged with bouts of bleak humor and soul-shattering revelations. The film is backed up by an adventurous score from Marvin Hamlisch with its moments of soaring exuberance and quiet melancholy.

More than 45 years since it was first released to audience indifference, The Swimmer has not lost its ability to amaze and sadden. My initial viewing will be one of the greatest film experiences of 2014 as far as I’m concerned. It is a haunting and underrated masterpiece that demands your attention and yields bountiful rewards.

You can order Grindhouse Releasing’s Blu-ray of The Swimmer HERE. This disc features a gorgeous 4K high-definition transfer of the film and several outstanding extra features including a feature-length retrospective documentary, a reading of the original story by author Cheever, extensive still galleries, trailers, TV spots, and other surprises. This is one of the best home video releases of the year.

– Robert Morgan

Posted in Essays, Film, Reviews | 1 Comment