A link to a 125-page transcript of a five-day-long conversation between Steven Spielberg, George Lucas (pre-demonic) and Lawrence Kasdan giving birth to Raiders of the Lost Ark. The talks happened between 1.23.78 and 1.27.78. What was I doing back then? Trying to pay the rent on my first New York apartment.
I wanted to see The Robe on Blu-ray because I wanted to really see what the very first CinemaScope film looked like in the finest technical sense. I’d seen it once before and knew, of course, that it’s not much of a drama. So getting the Blu-ray was strictly a visual looksee deal, and that’s what I got. Or all I got, for the most part.
I’ve never read a positive critical re-assessment piece of The Robe. It’s not an awful film, but it’s certainly stiff and treacly and grandiose, and at times is bizarrely over-acted by Richard Burton. There’s never been a mainstream genre more tedious or lumbering than that of 1950s religious big-screen epics. They tend to be watchable only for the occasional supporting performance, the stately widescreen photography and the score (since the finest composers were always hired).
The only rich element in The Robe is Jay Robinson‘s flamboyant performance as Caligula. I’ve always preferred Demetrius and the Gladiators, the sequel to The Robe in which the squealing Robinson gets a spear through his chest at the climax. It also has Mature, several good gladiator fights, the stabbing deaths of four or five tigers, Susan Hayward, Richard Egan, Ernest Borgnine, and a stirring Franz Waxman score.
So how good looking is the Blu-ray Robe? Much of it is pretty damn beautiful. Or as beautiful as it can be given that the visual elements were never top-of-the-line.
The Robe was shot in 35mm with three or four smallish anamorphic lenses provided by Henri Chretien, a Frenchman who sold his “anamorphoscope” process to 20th Century Fox. In the early days CinemaScope seemed quite the marvel, but in hindsight it was the least of the widescreen processes. It wasn’t as rich as the 55mm process used for The King and I and Carousel, or the 65mm and 70mm processes that came along in the mid to late ’50s.
The CinemaScope image in The Robe appears muddy and over-saturated from time to time, and the original process gave a squeezed effect to people and elements on the sides of the screen.
But The Robe looks better on Blu-ray than I’ve seen it look before. It looks better than I ever imagined it might look. Handsome and needle-sharp for the most part, and even painterly at times. So to hell with the movie. Rent or buy this thing just to savor the shots. And to watch the extras, which are all nicely done.
It’s odd, however, that the doc about CinemaScope doesn’t mention the technical basics. One, the CinemaScope image was made to project an image at 2.66 to 1. Two, pasting a four-track magnetic sound track alongside the image took the aspect ratio down to 2.55 to 1. Three, the addition of an optical soundtrack (demanded by exhibitors) reduced it further to 2.39 or 2.35 to 1. None of this info is considered share-worthy. Weird.
I’ve watched two South by Southwest movies on disc today (on top of banging out that piece called “Things Change“). I’ll let the first one go but Joe Swanberg‘s Alexander The Last, which will show simultaneously at SXSW and on IFC Demand on Saturday, 3.14, is the shit. Seriously. I knew something a cut above was underway within two or three minutes.
The two guys they’re sort of paired off with, Justin Rice and Barlow Jacobs, are, for me, almost staggeringly nothing (I kept asking myself “why were these vessels of boredom even cast?” until I just gave up and put them out of my mind) but Josh Hamilton and Jane Adams add distinction with their small but intriguing supporting roles. But the movie itself is the thing. There’s a current going on that’s hard to describe. Something in the way it plays and breathes and almost looks the viewer in the eye. I couldn’t tear myself away.
It’s one of those rare mumblecore pieces in which you’re suddenly struck with a reality vibe that tells you right off the top that something else is happening. I was so into the feel and touch and naturalness of this film that I didn’t really care where Swanberg’s story, such as it is, was headed. I knew that something would manifest sooner or later, but mumblecore never really builds or develops or plants seeds in a North by Northwest-ian or Third Man-ish way so who cares in the first place? Either you find the actors intriguing and possessed of something more than manner, or you don’t.
Alexander the Last is more or less about a young blonde actress (Weixler, who looks a bit like Alicia Silverstone but is six or seven times more talented), and her nice, dorky, funny-looking musician husband (Rice) and a meant-to-be-hunky guy she’s performing with in a play (Jacobs, who has one of the worst haircuts I’ve ever seen on any actor in any movie in my entire life) and the emergence /appearance of infidelity. Seimetz plays Weixler’s sister, and it’s obvious from the first scene of (a pretend wedding ceremony) that they’re Bergman/Persona close. I thought there was a lesbian thing going on before I realized they were related.
Amy Seimetz, Weixler in Alexander The Last
But it’s not what happens in a storytelling sense as much as how it feels when this and that behavior manifests. We’re basically talking about a little movie made with a lot more skill and emotional realism and acting that sinks in much deeper than usual. It’s kind of a mumblecore-meets-dogma deal, which I’m tossing out as an eternal lifelong admirer of dogma movies and who never accepted or listened, even, to those who began trashing this movement starting about six or seven years ago.
I knew something good might happen when I saw that director-writer Noah Baumbach (Greenberg, Margot at the Wedding, The Squid and the Whale) is one of the producers along with Anish Savjani, who produced Wendy and Lucy, Nights and Weekends, Me, Myself, & I and Hannah Takes the Stairs.
Weixler is a well-respected, gainfully employed indie star waiting to happen in the bigtime. She needs to be cast in something alongside Jake Gyllenhaal or Brad Pitt or Sean Penn or somebody in that realm. She’s got it, that’s for sure. Seimetz is every bit her equal (and with fantastic gams, by the way), but I paid more attention to Weixler after that first kick-ass wedding vow scene. No offense.
And Swanberg is as good as it gets at this sort of thing, i.e., movies in which nothing happens except random attractions and couplings that aren’t quite right or holy and need to be kept under wraps. I just thought of something. You know who was also quite expert at making films about interesting, attractive people with wandering libidos in which nothing really happens? Michelangelo Antonioni. Swanberg isn’t close to his level, but the last time I was this absorbed by a film of this general type with almost no “story” was L’Eclisse. Which I’ll bet Swanberg has never seen.
I have no idea why this film is called Alexander The Last. I guess I’ll have to watch it again and listen more closely.
In any real-life scenario, saying “I love you” to someone is a very dicey thing. It’s not a rumor — “show it, don’t say it” does tend to work. I know that an actor blurting this out to another in a movie is risk times infinity. One reason these words don’t appear that much in screenplays is that “I love you” can’t be confessed by just anyone. And I’m not saying that only great actors can say it and make it stick. The key thing is a mixture of open-heartedness and bravery and a kind of steadiness of the soul, and I’m not sure that’s something you can necessarily “act” with technique.
One of the very few times that I bought a simple declarative “I love you” was when suburban dad Robert De Niro said it to suburban infidel Meryl Streep in Falling in Love, that 1984 homage to Brief Encounter, in part because DeNiro said it clumsily. Another convincing sell came from Marlon Brando when he said it softly to Maria Schneider at the end of Last Tango in Paris. And I just watched a couple of women exchange marriage vows in a scene from Joe Swanberg‘s Alexander the Last, and they clearly believed what they were saying. As did I.
I know that if you’re going to blurt these words out in any kind of half-grounded drama, you have to convey at least two or three of these things: (1) the adolescent inside you is feeling enormous emotional vulnerability in voicing this confession, (2) you’re nonetheless transported, levitated, stunned and/or melted down by this realization, and therefore (3) you don’t care if the beloved returns the sentiment or not because you’re at one with the universe and the inner adolescent needs to face up and get down.
The reason I’m bringing this up is because I recently watched a certain actress say these three words in a film. She said them as plainly and honestly as she knew how (I guess), and there was just no buying it. The instant she said the words you could hear a spoonful of mashed potatoes hitting the kitchen floor….whup. Part of the reason is that as she’s gotten older she’s begun to radiate a certain guarded attitude about life and human nature that has felt a little bit like bitter, calloused and frosty (or some combination). What man or woman who’s lived and loved and been around doesn’t have some of this stuff rumbling underneath? The bottom line is that “I love you” and where this actress seems to exist in her head and heart feel like different realms. The old pitterpat thing is a tough bugger to find and reanimate.
I was talking to an acquaintance yesterday who feels somewhat the same way, and we decided that this actress had moved into her Bette Davis-in-All About Eve phase. Davis was either 41 or 42 when she acted in that Joseph L. Mankiewicz film, and the actress I’m speaking of is in that very same region. And just as Davis of All About Eve was no longer the tearful young bird with the broken wing that she was in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, and had come into her element so that no one else in the world could say “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” quite as perfectly, our present-tense actress has arrived at a point in her life in which the old sunny and spirited radiance just doesn’t fly like it used to, and she needs to dig another mine.
Not a bad thing, but a life thing. Not a criticism, but a statement of fact. Not a tragedy, but an opportunity. I’m saying these things as a reminder to myself more than a criticism of anyone in particular. Whatever it is, wherever you are…be that thing and work from it. Grow into it, become it, etc.
- All Hail Tom White, Taciturn Hero of “Killers of the Flower Moon”
Roughly two months ago a very early draft of Eric Roth‘s screenplay for Killers of the Flower Moon (dated 2.20.17,...More »