Retro Review: When the Old School Met the New Wave: HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT Makes a Big Splash at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema!

Posted on: Dec 9th, 2015 By:

hitchtrufmainHITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT (2015); Dir. Kent Jones; Starring Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Wes Anderson and Peter Bogdanovich. Starts Friday, December 11; Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; Tickets and showtimes here; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Landmark Midtown Art Cinema continues to spur discussion of great movies by presenting a great movie about a great book which discusses great movies. That’s a lot of “great,” but it’s hard not to go overboard in the superlatives when you’re talking about Kent JonesHITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT.

In 1962, one of the founders of the French New Wave of cinema turned to his favorite director, one of the old guard, for a week-long series of conversations undertaken to establish the older filmmaker’s legacy as an artist. The resulting book (published in 1966) was one of the most influential documents ever published about filmmaking: HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT. The book worked as intended, as François Truffaut’s examination of Alfred Hitchcock’s ouvre to that point was possibly the first attempt to present the director’s work as a cohesive body of personal expression instead of a simple series of mindless thrillers.

It’s hard to imagine a time in which Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t taken seriously as a filmmaker. But even such a celebrated figure as Hitch was hardly unassailable during his time. Contemporary critics cited unbelievable plots or seeming lapses in logic in Hitchcock’s movies as detriments. He had, during the 1950s, become something of a comic figure. His gag-filled appearances as the host of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, as well as the plethora of products (magazines, books, record albums and board games) bearing his name, led to him becoming a beloved pop culture icon, rather than known as a true artist worthy of serious examination.

François Truffaut was no stranger to the serious examination of classic movies, having been one of the leading critics at CAHIERS DU CINÉMA, the celebrated French film magazine. It was there that he coined the “auteur theory”—the idea that some directors utilize the industrial trappings of filmmaking and the collaborative nature of the process the way a writer uses a pen or a typewriter, or the way a painter uses a brush. And, like a writer or painter, that these directors used the medium to explore their own idiosyncratic visions and psyches, and that much of these filmmakers’ projects contain similar themes, images and other elements that form an interconnected body of work. These directors were the true authors (or, in French, auteurs) of their work, rather than the screenwriters or producers behind the films, overriding the raw materials given to them and transforming their movies into personal testaments. It was this theory that fueled many of the magazine’s own critics (Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Éric Rohmer among them) to film their own movies, thus launching the French New Wave.

Hitch_Truffaut_book_aWhen the book was published, Hitchcock’s reputation was in need of rehabilitation, and Truffaut was riding a wave of acclaim. Truffaut was in a perfect position to draw attention to the solid artistic merit of Hitch’s films, and thankfully had both the writing talent to describe that merit and the intelligence to ask Hitch the right questions. HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT arrived at just the right time, and landed in the hands of a generation of aspiring directors who had grown up loving Hitchcock’s cinema and, like Truffaut, believed it to be worthy of serious consideration. This is where Kent Jones’ loving tribute comes in.

Jones not only offers a look inside the creation of this landmark work of film criticism, utilizing audio recordings of the interviews and never-before-seen photographs from the sessions, but also goes to the directors who have been inspired by this work. Wes Anderson probably best sums up its importance in the lives of the filmmakers involved, describing his copy as having been so frequently used that it has been reduced to a stack of loose papers held together with a rubber band. Also on hand are Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Olivier Assayas, Richard Linklater, Arnaud Desplechin and many others to express just how this book inspired them to look deeper into Hitchcock’s work and his technique. In discussing VERTIGO, for example, the documentary provides a capsule description of how Truffaut’s book led to Hitchcock’s work being reassessed. At the time of the book’s release, VERTIGO was almost impossible to see, having been a critical and commercial failure. Yet the discussion of the movie between the two directors made it one of the most in-demand titles among aspiring filmmakers, who searched out for rare film prints in order to learn from it. As a result, the film’s reputation grew steadily over the years as it began to be more seriously discussed and analyzed.

Jones weaves HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT together beautifully, using clips from Hitchcock’s movies to illustrate the comments from the documentary’s participants, and winds up being as much a celebration of the director as it is of the book about him. It will make you want to read (or re-read) the book. It will make you want to revisit Hitch’s filmography. And then it will make you want to revisit Hitch’s filmography with a copy of the book at your side. My only argument with the film is that at 80 minutes, it’s far too short for my liking. But, then, as an avowed cinema nerd, I’d gladly spend hours upon hours listening to the world’s top directors discussing this book and the two men responsible for it. For all you normal human beings out there, it’s the perfect length to get you hungry for more. In short, HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT is a delight for anyone even remotely interested in the behind-the-scenes world of movie making.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com.

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Retro Review: A Meanness in This World: Traveling Through Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS at Landmark’s Midtown Art Cinema

Posted on: Feb 20th, 2015 By:

badlandsBADLANDS (1973); Dir. Terrence Malick; Starring Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek and Warren Oates; Tuesday, Feb. 24 @ 7:00 p.m.; Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; Tickets $11; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

If you’re looking for a reason—any reason—to go see a movie, look no further. The Landmark Midtown Art Cinema kicks off its “Midtown Cinema Classics” series with one of the greatest modern American films, Terrence Malick’s debut feature BADLANDS.

Some filmmakers take decades to find their voice. Yet there are others who seem to arrive on this earth fully formed. Orson Welles stormed out of the gate in 1941 having assembled his influences into an entirely identifiable personal style with CITIZEN KANE. David Lynch emerged from the shadows in 1977 with the most David Lynch-iest film ever made, ERASERHEAD. Martin Scorsese captured everyone’s attention with the first example of what can only be called a Martin Scorsese Movie with 1973’s MEAN STREETS (while not his debut, his two previous features were the atypical BOXCAR BERTHA, a project-for-hire under the auspices of Roger Corman, and WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR?, a short film he expanded over the course of several years into a very different feature). And that same year, Terrence Malick debuted his own idiosyncratic means of storytelling with the brooding, brilliant BADLANDS.

Told from the viewpoint of Holly (Sissy Spacek), a 15-year-old girl growing up in The Middle of Nowhere, South Dakota, BADLANDS examines Holly’s infatuation with 25-year-old greaser Kit (Martin Sheen) as they slowly fall in love. While she obsesses over him romantically as they explore each other’s philosophies on life, his own psychotic and amoral side reveals itself and together they violently remove any obstacle that threatens to stand between them and the life with each other they desire. Based loosely on the real-life murderous exploits of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, BADLANDS also stands as a poetic examination of life, love and death set against the dusty, sun-baked plains of the Midwest.

Contemplative in tone and deliberate in pace, BADLANDS set the tone for Malick’s further career as he examined such subjects as war (THE THIN RED LINE), the founding of Jamestown (THE NEW WORLD) and the meaning of life itself (THE TREE OF LIFE). Even at this early stage of his career, though, he proves himself a master of imagery and composition and creates an experience that is pure cinema. Painterly tableaux fill the screen and slowly reveal their emotional heart as Spacek’s narration combines with the haunting strains of experimental classical composers such as Erik Satie or Carl Orff. Moments of incredible beauty are carved out of nothing but light, color and shadow. Divorced from attempts to emulate the rhythms and cadences of literature or stagework, Malick’s world can only exist in those rays of light captured by a camera, painstakingly edited into a cohesive statement and then projected onto a screen.

Badlands-104But lest this sound like a movie full of art-film clichés that holds you at arm’s length with its own sense of pretentious self-importance, BADLANDS is instead Malick’s most accessible film and a perfect entry point for those unfamiliar or intimidated by the visionary director’s work. It may perhaps be his masterpiece (with DAYS OF HEAVEN running close behind). Malick’s singular approach is wed to an incredibly compelling story, so that the dynamic of the narrative propels the audience through even the film’s most low-key moments. When you combine this with the career-making performances of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, you have a film that it is nearly impossible to look away from.

Presented as part of Landmark Midtown Art Cinema’s “Midtown Cinema Classics” series, you have the rare opportunity to immerse yourself in one of the modern classics of American cinema in its natural habitat—on a theater screen. Please do not let this pass you by.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Take a Savage Journey with Blast-Off Burlesque and the Plaza Theatre as TABOO LA-LA presents FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS!

Posted on: Sep 17th, 2013 By:

Blast-Off Burlesque’s TABOO LA-LApresents FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998); Dir. Terry Gilliam; Starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro; Saturday, September 28 @ 10 p.m. (pre-show cocktails at 9 p.m.); Ages 18+ only; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

It’s time for Blast-Off Burlesque to tempt us with TABOO LA-LA at the Plaza Theatre! This time we venture into Bat Country with Hunter S. Thompson and Terry Gilliam for FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS!

It’s easy to celebrate Dr. Hunter S. Thompson for all the wrong reasons. FAR too many people see him only as a caricature: senses blazingly altered by some high-octane combination of hard drugs and bourbon, firing his guns at anything that dares blink in and out of his peripheral vision and ranting unintelligibly at imaginary phantasms. For these people, he’s become a counterculture hero not because of his accomplishments or the words he’s written, but because of a persona.

Sure, it’s a persona that he called into existence and encouraged to a large extent. Why? Because, goddammit, you need a larger-than-life personality to stand up next to those works of his. You can’t be some milquetoast beat reporter and deliver epic pieces of immersive journalism like “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” “Freak Power in the Rockies” or “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat.” Nor can you be a typical Washington Beltway insider and compose the incredible series of articles that would eventually make up FEAR AND LOATHING: ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL ’72, perhaps the greatest piece of political journalism ever written. No, you’ve got to be a daredevil. You’ve got to be a shaman, using sacramental substances to achieve the frenzied mental state needed to venture into the heart of darkness and divine the inner essence of a situation. You’ve got to be the kind of drug-crazed madman who is unafraid to sacrifice accuracy on the altar of journalism to summon forth the Elder Gods of Truth.

And if you’re not that person, then you need to invent that person and become that person.

Which brings us to Raoul Duke and his journey with his personal attorney, Doctor Gonzo, into the godforsaken land of Las Vegas in 1971—the story of which would become Hunter S. Thompson’s landmark novel FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS: A SAVAGE JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE AMERICAN DREAM.

Benicio del Toro and Johnny Depp find FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998).

Thompson’s tale is actually a portmanteau of two trips into the desert city with his friend Oscar Zeta Acosta, lawyer and Chicano activist. The first was intended to be a retreat for the two of them to discuss an article Thompson was writing about the death of Mexican-American journalist Rubén Salazar. Thompson used an invitation from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED to write a series of photo captions about the Mint 500 motorcycle race as an excuse, and the two of them descended onto the city.

250 words. That’s all they wanted.

Instead, he spent 36 hours straight, “feverishly writing in my notebook,” describing the pair’s wild adventures in Las Vegas and creating the expansive first part of the novel. And then, after the insane experience they undertook, they went back. Thompson took an assignment from ROLLING STONE to report on the National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs held a few weeks later in Vegas, and further explored an idea that manifested during the first trip: that the rebellion of the 1960s had failed, and that the American Dream was now manifest in the crass, loud and materialistic oasis of Las Vegas.

Thompson combined the two trips into one story, which ROLLING STONE published as a two-part serial illustrated by Ralph Steadman, and which was later compiled into a novel. In creating what he admitted was “an essentially fictional framework,” Thompson assigned himself and Acosta pseudonyms: Raoul Duke (a nom de plume frequently used by Thompson and originally used as his byline for the ROLLING STONE serialization) and Doctor Gonzo. As for the book itself, it’s hard to say how much of what is written about is strictly accurate. It’s easy to say that the whole thing is true. What may have appeared at first as a wacky drug-fueled adventure turned into a work mournful of the failure of the ‘60s revolution, furious at the insane excess of artifice and celebration of the futile pursuit of money that is Las Vegas, and aghast that Vegas survived the revolution to stand in representation of the American Dream.

For years, the thing was regarded as being as unfilmable as NAKED LUNCH. Surreal, hallucinatory and depicting any number of illegal and violent acts by its protagonists, it just seemed to be too much to exist on a movie screen. Sure, they tried. Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone both gave it a shot, but only one movie wound up being made in the wake of those early efforts. WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM (which attempted to shoehorn “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl,” “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat” and LAS VEGAS into one movie) starred Bill Murray, and was widely panned, particularly by Thompson himself. He praised Murray’s performance, but said the movie was saddled with “a bad, dumb, low-level, low-rent script.”

A direct adaptation eluded filmmakers for years, but that ended in 1998. After Rhino Films went through protracted tangling with director Alex Cox (whose screenplay Thompson viscerally hated), Terry Gilliam was brought on board to helm the film adaptation of the novel, and his surreal vision was a perfect match for the material. Though Gilliam had never used drugs, he researched the effects of all the chemicals used by the characters to create a series of visual effects that would mirror how the drugs would have affected their perception. The end result, while not exactly matching the horrifically ugly darkness of Ralph Steadman’s illustrations, stands on its own as a fully-formed take on Thompson’s subject matter.

Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro were cast as Duke and Gonzo, respectively, and both underwent extensive preparation for their roles. Del Toro gained 45 pounds and immersed himself in studying the life of Oscar Zeta Acosta, and Johnny Depp spent four months living with Thompson at his Woody Creek ranch. Depp assembled his wardrobe from Thompson’s clothes of the time, wore a pendant of Thompson’s that was a gift from Acosta, and shaved his head in imitation of Thompson’s own male pattern baldness. The research and work paid off in spades. Depp and del Toro inhabit their roles perfectly. While they may come across as slightly cartoonish exaggerations of both Thompson and Acosta, it must be remembered that the Duke and Gonzo of the novel are slightly cartoonish exaggerations of Thompson and Acosta.

More gonzo antics by Depp and Del Toro in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998).

Terry Gilliam stated that he wanted the film to be polarizing—that he wanted it to be known as both the greatest and worst film of all time. And, thusly, it sharply divided critics: it currently holds a 50% average on the review aggregator ROTTENTOMATOES.com. Meanwhile, the film was a huge commercial failure. Filmgoers wanting to see the handsome Depp and del Toro got presented with a pair that were deliberately ugly. Filmgoers wanting to see a modern drug comedy wound up with something less a comedy and more a tragedy. And filmgoers wanting to see the Thompson perpetuated by DOONESBURY’s Uncle Duke character (and practically every other mass media depiction of the author) wound up with the only-slightly-fictionalized Thompson of the book, which is far closer to Thompson the man than Thompson the caricature.

Thankfully, due to home video releases, the film has built up a large, faithful audience, and it’s that crowd which is invited to the Plaza Theatre as Blast-Off Burlesque’s TABOO LA-LA brings us a screening of Gilliam’s adaptation. The pre-show kicks off at 9 p.m. with complimentary cocktails served up in the lobby, and then things kick into high gear with a live stage show from Blast-Off Burlesque featuring special guests Tom Jones, Elvis (somehow I’m guessing that these might not be the actual Tom Jones and Elvis) and Batastic. There will also be a Gonzo Costume contest and an Ether Walk contest with prizes from Libertine and the Cherry Blossom Salon, as well an art display of Lucy’s Barbara Streisand portraits! So come down and enjoy one of the greatest films of the 1990s while celebrating Hunter S. Thompson for all the right reasons.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Retro Review: RAGING BULL, the Best Film of the 80s, Hits the Big Screen at the Plaza

Posted on: May 25th, 2013 By:

RAGING BULL (1980); Dir. Martin Scorsese; Starring Robert DeNiro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci; Starts Friday, May 24 @Plaza Theatre (visit website for ticket prices and showtimes); Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

When surveying the scope of American cinema history, some film lovers find it easy to overlook the 1980s. Sandwiched between the artistic heights of the New Hollywood 70s and the indie revolution of the 90s, the “decade of greed” suffers from a film reputation as a cocaine-crusted tangent into corporate excess, amounting to little more than a pile of moribund slashers, musclebound war films, and cringe-worthy sex comedies that schemed to push art aside to make way for unchecked corporate commerce. The notion doesn’t stand up to scrutiny—not least because so many of the so-called corporate blockbusters managed to find artistic merit of their own—and film lovers hoping to find the one, definitive killer app of the decade need look no further than its very first year, when Martin Scorsese delivered not only the best film of the 80s, but one of the best American films ever made, the 1980 boxing drama RAGING BULL, which starts a full revival run tonight at the Plaza Theatre.

Don’t care for sports movies? That’s fine, because neither does Martin Scorsese, which is why RAGING BULL is a boxing movie like JAWS is a story about a fish. Based on middleweight Jake LaMotta’s memoirs, the film stars Robert DeNiro as the troubled boxer whose brutal, battering ring style was just an extension of his destructive personality. Even as his career rises in the ring, LaMotta’s terrifying temper and insecurity chip away at his sanity and create rifts between the boxer and the people he cares about, including his wife, Vicky (Cathy Moriarty), and his devoted brother Joey (Joe Pesci, in the role that made him famous). Beautifully shot in black and white, RAGING BULL is as much about madness as it is fighting, and Scorsese’s virtuoso direction finds poetry in the violence and makes a tragic hero out of a man who in a lesser film would be a monster, just another paranoid palooka.

Scorsese wasn’t the obvious choice to guide RAGING BULL to the screen, having suffered two major strikes against his career in the wake of his 1976 success, TAXI DRIVER. The first strike was a near-fatal overdose of cocaine, but the bigger issue (at least as far as the Hollywood suits were concerned) was the devastating box office failure of NEW YORK NEW YORK (1977), Scorsese’s ode to movie musicals. By most accounts, when DeNiro approached Scorsese with LaMotta’s book, the director initially refused the project, but soon went all-in, convinced it would be the last film he’d ever get to make. He and DeNiro brought in TAXI DRIVER collaborator Paul Schrader to breathe life into the script, and Schrader helped transform LaMotta’s bruised prose into a focused, thoughtful, and even elegant exploration of the inner darkness that can destroy a person or sometimes drive them into greatness. Jake LaMotta was a tortured, violent man, but his demons drove him in the ring just as surely as they ground him to a pulp in his personal life. RAGING BULL is not about a man trying to find a balance between his personal and professional life, but rather a man who can’t distinguish the difference. Jake always sees an opponent, whether there is one or not.

(The film’s most famous image is DeNiro as LaMotta in the ring, warming up. The image says it all—LaMotta is always alone, always preparing to fight.)

That same passion drives Scorsese, who once seriously considered a life as a priest before committing full time to his love of cinema, a love so consuming that it drove him into the extreme lifestyle that nearly killed him. Of course, RAGING BULL would not be the final film of Scorsese’s career, but he couldn’t have known that, and the film plays as if guided by a man who is using every ounce of his considerable talent and every trick in his head, learned from a lifetime of cinematic obsession, to bring the story home. As the film chronicles LaMotta’s struggles with his demons, we feel Scorsese wrestling with his, and the final product is as much a work of redemption for the director as it is the film’s protagonist. The boxing scenes are poetry in motion, all harsh lights and dark blood against light ropes and canvas. Ever the film proselytizer, Scorsese shot RAGING BULL in black and white partly to protest the loss of older color films to shoddy, degrading film stock, but it also lends the boxing scenes a dreamy horror that’s lost in a color film with its red, visceral, and more-immediate gore. Scorsese also plays with time in the ring, taking turns speeding up and slowing down the violence to put the audience in the mindset of the boxers, dismissing the strategy of the athlete and emphasizing the struggles of the man. In one of the film’s most famous sequences, Jake staggers against the ropes taking punches from Sugar Ray Robinson that begin slowly before demolishing Jake at high speed, splattering blood and sweat across his body and shattering his bones, but when the moment is over, all Jake can mumble through the ruins of his face is the line “You never got me down.”

The same phrase applies to the courtship scene between LaMotta and his wife, Vicky, in which Jake treats the interplay and flirtations of young romance like jabs and punches that must be endured to “win.” Jake sets out with a purpose to make Vicky his girl, and no matter what she says, Jake moves the conversation to his apartment, to his bedroom, and beyond, until Vicky is with him and nobody else. Is she unwilling? The scene is ambiguous, but succeeds in establishing Jake’s charm as well as his calm menace. This also applies to the iconic scene with his brother, where DeNiro communicates pure murder and paranoia without any of the usual clichés. It’s a misunderstanding that spirals out of control, a rhyme of Joe Pesci’s similar famous scene from GOODFELLAS (1990) a decade later.

Just look at him!

There are adults alive today who have no idea of the powerhouse Robert DeNiro was at his peak, who may only know him as the grumpy dad in MEET THE PARENTS (2000), or other such dread material. His role in the recent SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012) was overpraised precisely because it contained just enough of the spark he once brought to his characters to remind reviewers of the actor he once was during this, his artistic peak. DeNiro established his talent in MEAN STREETS (1973) and TAXI DRIVER, but RAGING BULL is a culmination of the actor’s method approach and sees DeNiro gaining a massive, unhealthy amount of weight just to play LaMotta in a few bookending scenes in his older age. There’s shocking, and then there’s transformative, and then there’s this holy shit change. Just look at him.

If I haven’t made it clear yet, RAGING BULL is worth your time. Simply put, it’s one of cinema’s great miracles, a movie that redeemed its director, cemented the legend of its star, and made a marginal book into one of the greatest cinematic spectacles of all time. Scorsese shot the film with a big screen in mind, and no television can properly communicate the stark black and white photography and the pure power of Scorsese’s beautiful compositions. Jake LaMotta may have been a brutal man, but the story of his life is a powerful work of beauty.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game writer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He writes at www.thehollywoodprojects.com and hosts a bimonthly screening series of classic films at theaters around Atlanta.

 

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Retro Review: WAKE IN FRIGHT: Witness the Birth of the Australian New Wave Digitally Restored at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema

Posted on: Dec 8th, 2012 By:

WAKE IN FRIGHT (1971); Dir: Ted Kotcheff; Starring Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence and Chips Rafferty; Through Dec. 13 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; Dec. 14-20 at The Plaza Theatre. Trailer here; Tickets here (visit website for prices and showtimes).

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

“Have a drink, mate? Have a fight, mate? Have some dust and sweat, mate? There’s nothing else out here.”
WAKE IN FRIGHT poster tagline

The 1970s and 1980s were ground zero for a renaissance in Australian filmmaking. Beginning December 7, Landmark Midtown Art Cinema offers a rare chance for you to witness one of the groundbreaking films that sparked that boom: Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 film WAKE IN FRIGHT.

In the late 1960s, the film industry in Australia was basically nonexistent. To remedy this, John Gorton (Australia’s Prime Minster from 1968-1971) set into motion several policies and governmental agencies to promote local filmmaking. Sensing a need for native Australian film, local production companies began collaborating with outside studios in the first few years of Gorton’s administration, the most notable results being Michael Powell’s AGE OF CONSENT (1969), Tony Richardson’s NED KELLY (1970), Nicolas Roeg’s WALKABOUT (1971) and Ted Kotcheff’s WAKE IN FRIGHT.

Both Powell’s and Richardson’s films were critical and commercial failures, and as a result, didn’t contribute much to the notion of Australia as a hotbed of cinematic activity. Roeg’s WALKABOUT, on the other hand, was a critical and commercial triumph, yet its authenticity as a truly representative Australian film was in dispute immediately upon release. It was based on a novel by British author James Vance Marshall, featured a screenplay written by British playwright Edward Bond, was directed by British director Nic Roeg, starred his son alongside British actress Jenny Agutter, was produced by American businessmen Max Raab and Si Litvinoff (whose production company was incorporated in Australia), financed with funds raised in America and distributed by US-based company 20th Century Fox.

WAKE IN FRIGHT, however, sported a much more authentic Aussie pedigree. Whereas WALKABOUT used the Australian outback as primarily a vehicle for Roeg’s surreal vision, WAKE IN FRIGHT engaged the oppressive landscape as almost a character in itself. Based on the 1961 novel by Australian journalist Kenneth Cook and based on his own experiences, the screenplay by British writer Evan Jones—who consulted with Cook on its creation—hewed as closely to the original text as possible. The story finds a young schoolteacher from the city, John Grant (Gary Bond), posted to a tiny school in the outback town of Tiboonda. As the Christmas holiday begins, he plans to take a flight to Sydney to visit his girlfriend, but finds himself waylaid at a train station in the nearby mining town of Bundanyabba (aka “the Yabba”) as he waits to make the flight. After getting sucked into the hard-drinking ways of the townspeople, he loses his money gambling, loses his chance to make his plane…and slowly begins to lose his mind.

Jack Thompson in WAKE IN FRIGHT (1971), Drafthouse Films.

The screenplay was initially to be filmed in 1963 by Joseph Losey, with whom Jones had collaborated on the ’63 Hammer film THE DAMNED. A lack of financial backing doomed the project, and the screenplay was kicked around for nearly a decade. In 1968, Jones collaborated with Canadian director Ted Kotcheff (FIRST BLOOD, UNCOMMON VALOR, NORTH DALLAS FORTY) and felt that the director would be a good match for the screenplay. Kotcheff fell in love with the script, and immediately set about the business of raising funds and casting the film.

Kotcheff arrived with his family in Australia in 1969, determined to soak up Aussie culture in order to more realistically depict the people and locations described in the novel and screenplay. With his assistant director Howard Rubie, Kotcheff explored the worlds of illegal casinos, kangaroo hunters, Returned Services League veterans’ clubs, and the blue-collar pubs of dock workers and the like. As Kotcheff related to Australia’s National Film & Sound Archive, the pair sought out the kind of places “whose clientele clock off work at 6 a.m. and are heavily into the drinking by 9 a.m.—we did a lot of drinking.”

In many cases, it takes an outsider’s eye to catch details or present a perspective that might be glossed over by one more familiar with a place or subject. In this instance, Ted Kotcheff perfectly captures the bleakness of life in the outback before the internet, decent roads and efficient train and plane travel increased connectivity. In this much larger world, everything and everyone bakes in the 100-degree weather, and dust coats every surface. Likewise, an attitude of aggressive friendliness also coats the culture of drinking, gambling and game hunting that pervades the community. And in the Yabba, the mateship and seemingly out-of-place Christmas decorations also mask the sinister and menacing eye cast upon the outsider in its midst.

Donald Pleasance in WAKE IN FRIGHT (1971) Drafthouse Films.

The film opened in Sydney to worldwide acclaim. Ted Kotcheff was nominated for the Palm D’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival, and the film was tremendously commercially successful in France and Great Britain. However, it failed to find an audience in Australia. Said co-star Jack Thompson in the 2008 documentary NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF OZPLOITATION!, “Australians at the time didn’t want to see it (the film) as Australia. People would walk away saying ‘That’s not us. We don’t behave like that.’” Kotcheff counters, “As a foreigner, you see things that Australians take for granted or accept as part of the dailiness of their life. They don’t see what’s eccentric or idiosyncratic about their life.”

However, the critical and (at least overseas) commercial success of WAKE IN FRIGHT and WALKABOUT lent credence to the notion that Australia was indeed a place to be taken seriously as a cinematic force. Jack Thompson confirms this, saying “What they provided was the knowledge for would-be Australian filmmakers that we had the ability to tell tales about ourselves in a way that was dynamic and interesting.”

In the wake of these early films came what would be known as the Australian New Wave of cinema, producing such soon-to-be-internationally-known talents as directors Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, John Duigan and Fred Schepisi. The exploitative elements of WAKE IN FRIGHT (released stateside as OUTBACK) also proved to be influential in the development of what would later be known as “Ozsploitation.” Filmmakers such as George Miller, Russell Mulcahy and Richard Franklin seized upon the needs of the action and horror marketplace that was opened up by WAKE IN FRIGHT with films like MAD MAX, MAD MAX 2: THE ROAD WARRIOR, RAZORBACK and ROAD GAMES. Echoes of WAKE IN FRIGHT’s depiction of building dread can be found in films as recent as Aussie Greg Mclean’s 2005 film WOLF CREEK.

For years, the film WAKE IN FRIGHT was thought to be essentially lost. While it was released on VHS in the US, prints of the film were nearly impossible to find. 16mm prints of the movie were found, but were in poor condition for screening. The only full 35mm print of the movie, which was found in Dublin, was deemed to be of insufficient quality for commercial release. The film’s editor, Anthony Buckley, began searching for the film’s original elements in 1996. After years and years of false leads, prolonged negotiations with foreign rights holders and digging through cut and mangled prints of the movie, Buckley found the original film negatives in a shipping container marked “For Destruction.” Were it not for his efforts, the film would be nearly impossible to see today. Australia’s National Film & Sound Archive completed a full digital restoration in 2009, and premiered the new print at the Sydney Film Festival that year. It was later selected by Martin Scorsese as a Cannes Classic and was screened at that year’s Cannes Film Festival—with Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA, it is one of only two films to ever be screened twice at Cannes.

Brutal in its honesty, bleak in its vision and startlingly original in its approach, WAKE IN FRIGHT is a long-hidden masterpiece of cinema, ranking with the best of the Australian New Wave and transcending even that pigeonholing. It’s where the Australian filmmaking renaissance started, and set a nearly impossible standard for all that followed.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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TAXI DRIVER: You’re Only As Healthy As You Feel

Posted on: May 3rd, 2011 By:

By Mark Arson, Contributing Writer

2011 Atlanta Film Festival Presents TAXI DRIVER (1976); digitally restored 35mm print; Dir: Martin Scorsese; Starring Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster; Introduction and post-screening Q&A by cinematographer Michael Chapman; Thurs. May 5;  8 PM; Plaza TheatreTrailer here.

Everyone knows that TAXI DRIVER features a guy talking to himself in a mirror holding a gun, but only those who have seen it know just how disturbing that can be in context. Of course, Robert De Niro‘s character, Travis Bickle, is the movie’s main focus. In a big way, TAXI DRIVER is a character study about someone who is completely detached, a loner who just can’t seem to connect with others, adrift in a sea of what he considers more and more repulsive until he can’t stand it any more. The catch is that the film is really a thing of beauty, the New York that once was coming through like an urban kaleidoscope, thanks largely to Martin Scorsese‘s direction and (perhaps even more so) the razor-sharp cinematography of Michael Chapman. Bernard Herrmann‘s score also complements the urban setting perfectly with dissonant, muted jazz. As I said before, though, this movie isn’t about a city, it’s about a person, one who happens to be quite insane. Warning: this review contains SPOILERS (Sorry, I just find the major events too interesting to gloss over)

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER. Photo Credit: Sony Pictures.

Travis Bickle doesn’t sleep. It’s laid out first thing in the film, as he offers to take taxi shifts “anytime, anywhere.” It’s mentioned briefly in the film that Bickle is an ex-Marine, but there are no flashbacks, no evidence. In this sense, it is ambiguous whether he is suffering from madness brought on by the trauma of war, or perhaps even imagined the whole thing. It’s overwhelmingly clear that most people aren’t even interested; in fact, most other characters in the film just react to Bickle like he’s just a bit strange or enthusiastic. Much like Peter Sellers‘ final film, BEING THERE (1979), this movie is about a strange person set loose in a world that is too busy to notice something being a bit off.

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