Sunday, January 31, 2010

NOIR CITY 5—Richard Erdman Onstage Interview With Eddie Muller

Richard Erdman buffed up his bald pate before his cheering Castro audience, confirming that he—more than anyone—had a sense of humor about the passage of time. After relishing in his "second banana" performance as blowzy alcoholic Delong in Cry Danger (1951), Muller expressed to Erdman that he felt they should have a drink—and promised that would come later—but settled into his on-stage conversation first.

Muller commented that he had seen Erdman "pop up" in "tiny little bit parts" in a lot of the noir films from the 1940s, including a bellhop in
Nobody Lives Forever (1946). So, despite Erdman's presence throughout these films in the '40s, he was really really young in those roles. "Then, all of a sudden, here's Cry Danger—the kid grows up!" Muller found Erdman's casting as Delong interesting because—as most people know—noir is all about this odd post-WWII malaise and the shift in American manhood, which is often played out quite depressingly in these movies; but, Erdman's character Delong is great in Cry Danger for conveying all that but being funny as hell at the same time. Muller asked how Erdman came to be cast in the film?

Erdman responded that it was a great break for him because he had started out as a kid under contract with Warner Brothers, playing "that goofy kid next door in a whole bunch of movies." It wasn't until he reached 20-21 that he began to get away from that typecasting. The role of Delong in Cry Danger largely came about because of Stanley Kramer, who had been a publicist before he became a producer. Erdman was up for a part in Kramer's first film So This Is New York (1948), which he didn't get—the role went to Leo Gorcey, the "Dead End Kid"—but, he and Kramer had kicked it off and so Kramer cast him in his next film The Men (1950), Marlon Brando's first picture. There was a character Leo in that film—for which Leo Gorcey was again being considered—but his audition wasn't Kramer's cup of tea. The role wasn't quite so funny and there was a little more dimension to it. Kramer gave Erdman the part. "Thank heavens!" exclaimd Erdman, "It was the best part in the movie. Everybody in town saw it because they wanted to see who this new fellow [Brando] was. So I got a lot of exposure." Then he was called in for Cry Danger, which was thoroughly exciting for him; he idolized Dick Powell, who had made one of the really good movies of that time: Murder My Sweet (1944).

Erdman's agent was Ingo Preminger, Otto's brother. He was a Russian-Austrian actor who Erdman described as "a big, tall, rather lonely man, and he had a great smile and a veddy funny accent. If I was up for a part, and I got the part, Ingo called me up and said, 'Hello, Dick. Ingo. Ve are rich.' If I didn't get the part, he would call up and say, 'Hello, Dick. Ingo. They are mules.' " One day Ingo called him up and said he'd been chatting with Dick Powell and a young writer named Robert Parrish who had been hired to direct his first movie. Ingo said, "Let's go and meet somebody." They arrived at a tiny messy little office—a chair, typewriters, paper—made striking by the presence of Dick Powell and Jean Porter.

William Bowers was an enormous fan of Cry Danger. Erdman described him as, "A very funny man. Great style, classic act. He had been in that room for 3½ days with bourbon and nothing else—it's true—and he had rewritten that entire script. He put in all the jokes." Bowers looked at Erdman and said, "Erdman, you can't make all those faces people make when they're drinkers. Drinkers are people whose bodies sort of go a little crazy; but, their minds are like steel traps. Do you understand that?" Erdman responded, "I think drinkers probably think that's the way they feel." Bowers retorted, "What a smartass!", turned to Powell and added, "He's perfect."

Working with Bowers was a great experience for Erdman. There's a scene in the trailer between Powell and Erdman where Delong is making himself a sandwich with a glass of milk. The genius of that scene came about in the middle of the night when Bowers phoned him excitedly to suggest, "How about you do this? Make yourself a sandwich. Pour yourself a glass of milk. Put down the sandwich and the milk and pour yourself a drink?" Delong knew he was a drunk and was trying to stop. Bowers was going through the same thing. He even put himself through shock treatments to try to stop drinking.

During WWII, Bowers was stationed at March Field and had to drive back and forth between Los Angeles and Riverside. Driving each way he had to pass a big billboard sign advertising the Forest Lawn Mortuary. Forest Lawn, in those days, was very proud of their sealed caskets and their slogan was: "Don't let seepage spoil your loved ones." This irritated Bowers to no end so one day he phoned Forest Lawn. He said, "I'm Bill Bowers and I'd like to register for a plot." The Forest Lawn representative asked, "How old are you Mr. Bowers?" "I'm 31 years old," he answered. "You're showing a great amount of foresight," the man complimented him and asked what he had in mind? Bowers said, "Well, there's a great big beautiful tree out there in the main part of the cemetery and I'd like to be buried underneath that tree." "That's very expensive there," the man advised. Bowers said, "That's not important. What's important is that I want lots of seepage." There was quite a long pause and the representative of Forest Lawn answered politely, "We pride ourselves on not having any seepage. We can't do that." Bowers said, "Don't worry about it. If that can't be arranged, I'll have myself cremated and arrange to have a plane strew my ashes over that tree." The man said, "You realize that planes cannot fly over Forest Lawn? They disturb the dead." Bowers said, "Don't worry about that. I have a friend who's a glider pilot." The man stated forcefully, "You do that and I'll sue you for every penny you've got." Bowers said, "Don't you think it'd be a little late then?"

Interestingly, William Bowers' son Tony Bowers was in the Castro audience and advised Erdman: "You'll be happy to know that my brother Andy and I put some of my father's ashes at Forest Lawn where they could get plenty of seepage by the tree. It's a famous family story. He took special care to make sure that some of his ashes were saved just to shove them up Forest Lawn's nose."

The only thing that could follow that story, Muller encouraged, would be Erdman's dog story. Erdman obliged that Matt Weinstock, a very successful Los Angeles newspaper columnist, had a dog that he loved very much. He wanted the dog to know that he loved him so every afternoon at four o'clock he would call and let the phone ring 10 times so that the dog would know Weinstock cared. Everyone thought that was very nice, except Bowers, who arranged to be at Weinstock's apartment one afternoon. Sure enough, at 4:00 the phone started ringing. Bowers let it ring a few times and then picked it up and panted.

Muller asked for Erdman's Harry Cohn story. Erdman relayed that Harry Cohn had a brother named Jack and, apparently, Harry and Jack hated each other. Harry purposely got his brother Jack a job in publicity in Colombia's New York office just to keep him away from Hollywood so he wouldn't have to see him. Nonetheless, every year Jack would fly out to Hollywood, finagle his way into Harry's office to foist his opinions about what he thought Colombia had done right or wrong that year, until Harry would have him thrown off the lot. One particular year, Jack made his way into Harry's office and said, "You've done well this year; but, you've got to make a Biblical picture." Harry said, "I hate Biblical pictures." Jack said, "Well, it doesn't matter if you hate Biblical pictures or not, everybody's making Biblical pictures. The King of Kings. The Robe. The Greatest Story Ever Told. Everybody's cleaning up. You've got to make a Biblical picture." Harry said, "Jack, why are you doing this? You're not a religious man. You don't know anything about the Bible. Why are you doing this?" Jack said, "I know a few things." Harry said, "Jack, I'll bet you $200 that you can't even say the first line of the Lord's Prayer." Jack put $200 down on the desk. Harry challenged, "Okay, say it!" Jack recited, "Now I lay me down to sleep…." Harry Cohn threw down $200 and said, "Okay, you win."

Admiring Cry Danger's great cast, Muller wondered if Erdman had any recollections of shooting this film with Dick Powell, Rhonda Fleming and Jean Porter? Erdman definitely remembered Rhonda and her sweaters. "She was a very lovely young lady." Though Jean Porter was also a "nicelooking girl", he didn't have such a great story about her. During the shoot, Porter admitted to him that she was having an affair with Eddie Dmytryk, the director. Eddie was having problems because he was trying to get a divorce from his wife and he was also on his way to jail because he was one of the Hollywood 10. He had a convertible Chevrolet, as did Erdman. Jean called and said that Eddie's wife was trying to take the car before he went to jail and that she needed it. She asked if they could trade cars and Erdman said sure. Nine months later, his agent called and said, "Dick, I think you're enlisted." Erdman said, "What do you mean I'm enlisted?" His agent enquired if Erdman was in any way associated with the Hollywood 10? Erdman admitted he had written a $10 check to the Hollywood 10; but, that was about it. "But somebody said they saw you driving Eddie Dmytryk's car," his agent said. Because of that, Erdman wound up getting enlisted. "Those were stupid times," he muttered in disgust.

Muller then asked for Erdman's Pia Zadora story, which Erdman admitted was funny but cruel. Pia Zadora was a pretty little girl who married a wealthy older man who put up several million dollars to make a movie in which she could star. After it was all over, the movie bombed and Zadora was tagged as a triple threat: "she couldn't sing, she couldn't dance, and she couldn't act." At any rate, Erdman thought she made one other movie and then she went out on the road with a production of The Diary of Anne Frank. She was so bad that—in the third act when the Nazis came looking for Anne Frank—someone in the audience shouted out, "She's in the attic!"

Muller noted that Erdman had worked with some of Hollywood's finest directors, including Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. He asked what it was like working with Fritz Lang on The Blue Gardenia (1953)? Erdman replied that Lang's reputation preceded him: "A lot of people were afraid of Fritz. I had a wonderful time with him. He had a girlfriend, maybe a wife, who would bring him soup to the set and I would have soup with her every day."

Billy Wilder, on the other hand, was another kind of legend. Being European, his agent Ingo got Erdman a lot of attention with the European directors. He arranged a meeting with Billy Wilder for Stalag 17 (1953), which was enormously successful. Wilder told him in that meeting, "Erdman, you've been very funny in your movies but I don't want any laughs with this part Hoffy; I want no laughs at all in this picture. Everybody else is playing this straight." Erdman said, "Great." He recalled that during the shooting of one of his scenes—about four fifths of the way in—Wilder shouted, "Stop! Shoot it again. Erdman got a titter!" Muller mentioned that, of course, Erdman's agent's brother was in Stalag 17 and that he could only imagine Wilder directing Otto Preminger. Erdman replied that the cast only heard about it since no one incidental was allowed to set foot on the set during Preminger's scenes because no one knew what was going to happen. Preminger and Wilder were friends but Otto had an enormous ego.

Muller asked Erdman which role he was proudest of in his career? Which movie he felt was his best movie? Erdman responded, "Maybe this one" and added that—as an actor—the job market dried up for him as he got along into the '70s and '80s. All he had left were his residuals after 107 feature films and just over 600 television shows. "I have to say," he added, "that your acceptance of me here this evening is the nicest residual of all."

Of those 600 television shows and 100 and some odd features, Muller commented, "you were in a movie called Viagra Falls? I take it this wasn't a method acting experience?"

"If it was," Erdman quipped, "it wouldn't be on the screen."

Muller added he would be remiss not to mention a performance for which he was sure many people in this audience remembered Erdman best, that being an episode of The Twilight Zone called "A Kind of A Stopwatch" (1963). He asked Erdman if he remembered making that?

"Oh yeah, of course, it's
Rod Serling," Erdman answered. Erdman had worked with Serling previously on Saddle the Wind (1958), whose screenplay Serling had written. They got to know each other pretty well on that set and Serling wrote that Twilight Zone script specifically with Erdman in mind. John Rich directed the episode, which he said "was hard because they didn't know what was going on when they shot it. Nobody reacted to me. That was a maniac of a watch; it froze everybody. That episode has gotten a lot of attention and I've received a lot of mail on it."

William Bowers' son Tony then joined Muller and Erdman on stage to add to the tribute to his father William Bowers. "My father used to tell me, 'I grew up on the wrong side of the Bel Air golf course.' " Tony would join his father on his frequent visits to Dick Powell's house. Powell constantly had assignments for his dad; they made six films together. Tony recalled the time when June Allyson—"who was kind of a meticulous neat freak (now she's famous for the Depends diapers commercials)"—had put something in the swimming pool to detect if anyone had urinated in the pool. One of the daughter's friends had decided to urinate in the pool and this cloud—like a shark dying—disseminated in the pool and she was screaming because she thought she had started her period. "Okay, you've opened the door," Eddie interjected, "we can talk about anything now!" Tony Bowers didn't miss a beat and added, "I have wonderful memories of those times."

Admitting his father was an alcoholic, Tony said Bowers had to drink a fifth of scotch in order to shave and had cases of alcohol delivered from the liquor store. But, irregardless, he was a funny guy. He recalled how once his father had cut out eight arrows and taped them to his face, then stumbled to the dinner table complaining about all of his sinus cavities. He remembered his dad driving in his Thunderbird, lighting his cigarette, and throwing the cigarette lighter out the window.

Of related interest:
Noir City Index.

Cross-published on

NOIR CITY 8—Eddie Muller's Introductory Remarks to Cry Danger (1951)

Some film noir lands like a brick.
Only quick and sure does the trick.
If you want to see guys who know how to crack wise,
Watch Powell and Erdman, the two Dicks.
—William Varney, "The Voice of Film Noir"

In 2007, Eddie Muller programmed
Cry Danger (1951) for Noir City 5 on the proviso that a reputable archive—"which shall remain nameless even though it is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts at a very esteemed university"—had a 35mm print. When the print was pulled to ship to San Francisco, it was determined that it had deteriorated beyond the point that it could be projected. If ever the mission statement of the Film Noir Foundation could stand asserted, that incident underscored the necessity of rescuing and restoring America's noir heritage. "This is not an ad, ladies and gentlemen," Muller advised, "this is the real world."

Fortunately for Noir City, the UCLA Film and Television Archive bailed them out with Dick Powell's personal 16mm print of Cry Danger, which Muller offered his audience for the evening, reminding them: "As of today there really is no 35mm print of Cry Danger that you can see, that can be projected in a theater anywhere, which is a crime; it's a terrific film. This is what the Film Noir Foundation is all about. Those elements are somewhere, somebody owns them, we will come to them, and we will get a 35mm print made of Cry Danger. It's the only way we'll save it. People say all the time, 'When's that coming on DVD?' Well, I can now tell you that the answer is, 'Never.' Unless something is done to find the film and restore it to a condition where a master can be made and it can be put on DVD."

Three years later, Muller beamed on stage, "Are you as amped as I am tonight? Tonight is the reason Noir City exists. For those of you who are maybe making your first excursion here for this festival, the purpose of all of this is that all of the money that we raise here goes to film restoration. Tonight we are thrilled to be able to present the fruits of all our efforts: a restoration that we were able to complete last year thanks, really, to you people; but, also because the Film Noir Foundation has been able to enter into a fruitful partnership with the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

"I want to give special credit to two people that I've worked with closely on a regular basis: UCLA's motion picture archivist Todd Wiener and UCLA's motion picture preservationist—who was the project manager on the restoration of the movie you're about to see—the fabulous Nancy Mysel."

Alicia Tumlin then joined Muller on stage to read a telegram sent by Rhonda Fleming: "Dear Eddie—I am so disappointed that I cannot be with all the noir citizens of San Francisco on this very special night. The work that your foundation has done along with the UCLA Film and Television Archive to rescue and restore one of my favorite films has given the film a new life so it can be enjoyed for years to come by noir connoisseurs everywhere. I am most appreciative of your worthy efforts in making this dream come to fruition. You have surely earned your nickname 'The Czar of Noir' and I send my warmest best wishes for what I know will be an incredible evening for all. Just pray the rain ceases. With heartfelt thanks, Rhonda Fleming-Carlson."

Muller acknowledged Fleming's sizeable contribution to the restoration of Cry Danger, and then gestured to Richard Erdman in the audience for having made "a huge contribution to the legacy of the film". He concluded by thanking the audience: "If you came last year, you are part of this restoration. If you are a donor to the Film Noir Foundation, you are a part of this restoration. I wish that every individual who has contributed could actually be listed on this film; but—believe it—forever more you are part of this in spirit. Thank you very much. Robert Parrish thanks you. Dick Powell thanks you."

Muller returned to the Castro stage after the screening to boast, "On January 9th, 2010, in San Francisco, an independently-produced film from 1950—the only film, mind you, ever produced by Olympic Pictures—out-earned Avatar." His capacity audience went raucous with applause.

Muller then recited a limerick that came to him while watching the film:

Sling lingo is really a scream
When delivered smooth as ice cream
When Erdman spouts Bowers
Noir poetry flowers
From the Second Banana Supreme.

Richard Erdman—who made an appearance on the Castro stage back in 2007 when Cry Danger screened in its 16mm manifestation—joined Muller onstage to reminisce on the making of Cry Danger, some 60 years hence.

Muller mentioned to Erdman that—one bit of information that's not very well-known—is that Cry Danger, unfortunately, holds sad memories for Rhonda Fleming. Cry Danger actually premiered and opened in San Francisco and Fleming was scheduled to attend that premiere except her father died. It wasn't until years later that she actually saw the film and loved it.

Erdman then proceeded to recount many of the humorous anecdotes he first offered back in his 2005 onstage interview with Muller and—since I never transcribed that conversation—I offer it now, better late than never.

Of related interest:
Noir City Index.

02/22/10 UPDATE: Of related interest, Muller writes up the restoration for The Love of Film Blogathon, posted at Ferdy on Films, etc.

Cross-published on

Friday, January 29, 2010


"If you make the screen dark enough, the mind's eye will read anything into it you want! We're great ones for dark patches."—Val Lewton

The shadows have indeed been complicated—if not competitive—this past week in the Bay Area with the dark streets of Noir City intersecting with Pacific Film Archive's Val Lewton retrospective
"Complicated Shadows", curated by Steve Seid. I missed the first program of Cat People (1942) and The Seventh Victim (1943); but, hope to catch all the remaining double-bills.

"Rarely do we praise the producer," Steve Seid has written in his introduction to the series. "But in Val Lewton's case the praise should be profuse for a cluster of creepy cheapies he produced in the early forties, notable for heavily shadowed psychic landscapes, arousing unease through an excess of archaic suggestion. Originally a scriptwriter, Lewton went from anonymous labors at MGM to the head of the horror unit at RKO in 1942. Once the esteemed studio that had produced classics like King Kong and Citizen Kane, by the time of Lewton's involvement RKO had opted for "entertainment not genius." Little did they know that their enfant terror would transform formulaic ideas and impoverished means into a well-crafted surplus of psychological enthrallment. Beginning with Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, Lewton overwhelmed a poverty-stricken mandate—to make seventy-five-minute features for $150,000, using titles supplied by the studio—by assembling a remarkable coven of collaborators who could conjure his eerie vision: directors Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise; writers Ardel Wray and DeWitt Bodeen; and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Where most low-budget Bs felt obliged to actually illustrate the lurking horror, RKO K.O.s such as The Leopard Man, Isle of the Dead, and The Body Snatcher left instead inky insinuations that beckoned primeval folklore, reptilian instinct, and emotional monstrosities. This series sheds some much-deserved light on producer Val Lewton—he's been in the shadows too long."

Some around these parts might recall that in the not-too-distant-past The Evening Class hosted a "blogathon" on Val Lewton in conjunction with the TCM premiere of the Kent Jones/Martin Scorsese documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows. What's amazed me since then is how many of the links have been broken in the past two years, necessitating a thorough workover of that material to bring it up to speed. That having been done, I offer the contributions that were made at that time in trust that they'll still lend insight into PFA's retrospective.

Blogathon Contributors

For starters, I conducted three interviews for the Val Lewton blogathon; the first, with Anne Carter-Newton, the child actress (now grandmother) of The Curse of the Cat People; the second with Val Lewton's son Val E. Lewton, Jr.; and the third with Andrew Bailey (regarding I Walked With A Zombie).

Though disappointed in Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows when he caught it at the Walter Reade Theatre, Alok Zembla nonetheless concedes at his site
Dispatches From Zembla: "The documentary successfully makes a convincing case of the producer as an auteur—specially finding evidence of his melancholic temperament (it even speculates that it was something 'Russian' in origin) as it found expression in the movies he produced."

At Film Journey, Doug Cummings caught Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows when it screened at the AFI Fest in November 2007. Though debating that it's not much of an improvement over Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy already included within the Lewton DVD box set released a few years back, Doug confirms that "Jones' film trumps its predecessor in its improved pacing and writing." He questions and (fairly) critiques the "bountiful spoilers" in the Scorsese/Jones documentary, wondering "who the intended audience is: Lewton cinephiles (who will probably learn little they don't already know) or Lewton newbies (who likely won't want to know the endings of films they haven't seen)?"

The Shelf, J.C. Loophole is much more enthused about Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows and supplements his overview of Lewton's career with some key quotes from his own interview with Val Lewton, Jr.

At Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind, Bob Turnbull surveys "the glitter of putrescence" in Lewton's nine-film box set and shapes his rambling thoughts into a comprehensive survey strengthened by screenshots and Werner Herzog ranting on the horrors of nature. Bob earns the Val Lewton Gumshoe Award for noticing that "Arnold Bocklin's painting 'Island Of The Dead' shows up not only in the opening credits of Isle Of The Dead … but also in I Walked With A Zombie which was made a few years earlier." I've not read that anywhere! Good catch, Bob!

I incorporate Merge Divide's
Serendipty entry on Cat People and Curse of the Cat People, though not specifically drafted for this blogathon. With a pseudonym like "Merge Divide", I hardly feel he will object.

At Film Forno Joe D'Augustine observes a transitional device used in Cat People that's almost—but not quite—a fade to black and back. He describes it as: "[A]n optical that mimics a shadow passing in front of the camera, like a black panther wiping the lens."

Films Noir you'll find an effective slideshow on Cat People, "A visual feast and a multi-layered literate tale of darkness." As for Simone Simon? "[H]er engaging performance gives the erstwhile demon a fragile humanity."

Aaron W. Graham at
More Than Meets the Mogwai justifies the sensationalist titling (and to some, mistitling) of The Curse of the Cat People by noting that by "today's context, RKO's insistence on retitling takes on a different, elegiac meaning for what these B-movie programmers came to represent: the smuggling in of far more intellectual conceits or ideas than their guise would otherwise suggest. It's a blessing and a curse, but I've come to believe that the unfavorable title is a test for prospective viewers to leave their preconceptions about 'these types of films' at the door."

Mrs. Emma Peel appreciates The Body Snatcher at The House of Mirth and Movies: "Few films get under my skin like this chilling and macabre tale of corpses and souls. The delicious irony is that the characters become tradesmen in death, when it seems that's what they fear most."

Peter Nellhaus at Coffee, Coffee, and more Coffee takes one of his now trademark coffee breaks with Boyd Davis and Richard Dix from
The Ghost Ship, and then interestingly considers that Lewton's The Leopard Man may have influenced William Friedkin's recent venture Bug. Peter observes: "The parody of the 'Lewton style' comes literally from the hands of the first victim's little brother, with his inappropriate penchant for creating a shadow that resembles a fierce creature" and concludes that The Leopard Man truly lives in the shadows where darkness "is a form of sanctuary."

At Tractor Facts Mark Osborn synopsizes that "[w]ith low-rent sets, soft scripts, fresh actors, and green directors (Tournier, Wise, and Robson) Lewton turned the cutting room floor into an artistic device." He then insightfully explores the "murder by audio" in The Leopard Man and underscores the prurience of Lewton's 1943 audiences in the film's implied sexual deviancy.

Over at TCM's
Movie Morlocks, Richard Harland Smith amplifies appreciation of The Leopard Man with ample screenshots while conjecturing that the film's biggest selling point is its "honest story of misperception, both on a personal level as a denial of driving emotions, and also on a broader level in the way that people see (or fail to see) one another." Richard extols The Leopard Man's "cinematographic legerdemain" through its "bait-and-switch" strategies and meandering narratives.

Josh Bell at Signal Bleed fulfilled one of my hopes: that someone compare Lewton's Cat People with Paul Schrader's 1982 remake. Doing so with wry sensual humor—"As Irena, Nastassia Kinski never passes up an opportunity to take off her clothes, which is much appreciated but makes the movie seem like something that would have gotten a lot of late-night airplay in the early days of Cinemax (and very well may have, for all I know)"—Josh effectively confirms that the remake's excess, explicitness, and overexplanations fail to improve the original formula. It gives one cause for concern with remakes greenlit for The Body Snatcher, I Walked With A Zombie and Bedlam by (shudder) the creators of the Saw franchise, as reported in Variety (06/14/07).

Anticipating TCM's broadcast, Eric Kohn wrote an overview for the
New York Press and generously offered it to the Lewton blogathon. In his overview, Eric articulates that "in the era of torture porn and feeble J-horror remakes, Lewton's meticulous creations are a retroactive revelation." He notes: "Lewton tapped into the base ingredients of chilling storytelling by focusing on the precise lack of action—an original formula that imbued any sudden development with powerfully visceral impact."

At Bright Lights After Dark C. Jerry Kutner utilizes Tourneur's directorial absence from The Seventh Victim to characterize the creative collaboration between Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. "Just as John Lennon's acid cynicism was tempered by the melodic sweetness of Paul McCartney, so the melancholic morbidity of producer/writer Val Lewton was tempered by the subtle spirituality of director Jacques Tourneur. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Seventh Victim (1943), the first film in the RKO horror cycle that was written and produced by Lewton without Tourneur as director." Kutner distinguishes, "Where The Seventh Victim differs significantly from the Lewton/Tourneur collaborations is in its utter absence of the supernatural or anything suggestive of a spiritual reality behind physical appearances." Intriguingly, he likewise suggests that "the sudden appearance of a cult member behind a shower curtain as [Kim] Hunter is taking a shower prefigures Hitchcock's Psycho."

Marilyn Ferdinand—"Ferdy" at Ferdy on Films, etc.—has published Roderick Heath's erudite essay on Isle of the Dead. Heath—also the author of a Bright Lights Film Journal essay exploring Tourneur and Clouzot—measures the three-film collaboration between Lewton and Boris Karloff: "Karloff's presence threatened to bend Lewton toward the Universal approach, which had degenerated into monster mash hilarity. However, Karloff, a gifted actor, gave Lewton a strong frame around which to build his films, an improvement over Lewton's earlier films, which wobbled with unreliable lead actors." Skillfully synopsizing the events of Isle of the Dead, Heath concludes: "Punctuated by Leigh Hurline's atmospheric score, the best in a Lewton work, Isle of the Dead isn't as symphonic an achievement as The Body Snatcher or as poetic as The Leopard Man and I Walked with a Zombie, but it is the most fully developed metaphoric drama of Lewton's films."

Earlier at Ferdy on Films, etc., Marilyn had tackled another of the Lewton/Karloff pairings—Bedlam—and established that "Bedlam was inspired by the engravings of William Hogarth of London's notorious Royal Hospital of St. Mary's of Bethlehem, an asylum for the insane better known as Bedlam. Indeed, Lewton gave Hogarth (1697-1764) a writing credit, so much does the atmosphere of the picture derive from Hogarth's tortured rendering of Bedlam's inmates in The Rake's Progress." Describing Lewton as "the acknowledged master of the eerie", "Ferdy" characterizes Bedlam's atmosphere as "a first-rate example of the eerie genre that seeks to unsettle and, possibly, to teach" and praises Nicholas Musuraca's cinematography in recreating the look of Hogarth's engravings so vividly on camera.

"What other black actor got to scold a white woman in 1943?" Michael McMorrow stresses in his response to Sir Lancelot's menacing performance in I Walked With A Zombie. Likewise at
Cult Film Confidential, Michael cues us in on the subtle joke in I Walked With A Zombie's opening credits.

Before his site Welcome to L.A. bid farewell, Larry Aydlette profiled Skelton Knaggs—yet another of Lewton's remarkable ensemble actors—while strolling the deck of Ghost Ship and listening to its "power of stillness". "[O]ften captured in a luminous, disturbing image that floats in the mind and stays with you long after the film is over," Larry wrote, the power of stillness is "usually a close-up. There is no hurry, as in today's films, to cut away. Lewton is not afraid to linger, to let the disquiet seep in."

Self-Styled Siren, Campaspe filters her appreciation of Mademoiselle Fifi through a feminist lens and with an admitted affection for Guy de Maupassant whose short stories "Mademoiselle Fifi" and "Boule de Suif" Lewton's screenwriters—Josef Mischel and Peter Ruric—combined to create the screenplay. Retaining "the anti-bourgeois bite of [Maupassant's] short stories, in part by adding lines to make sure no one could possibly miss the point", the Siren praises Lewton's "complex, dynamic treatment of women", specifically in the film's fleshed-out heroine Elizabeth de Rousset (Simone Simon), the "little laundress" (as she is billed in the credits). "She is by far the most principled character in the movie," Campaspe writes, "and she comes into peril only when she allows weaker people to gain influence. In movies, as unfortunately across cultures and centuries, a woman's chastity is drafted into maintaining the purity of all sorts of things that really should take care of themselves—country, race, family. In Mademoiselle Fifi, yes, the heroine stands in for France. She's her own woman for all that, resisting the movie's onrushing allegory even as she resists the leering von Eyrick. She's dealt one blow after another, but picks herself up each time, principles intact. 'I don't eat with Prussians,' she says proudly, and instead of seeming ridiculous or petty that seems like a declaration of human rights."

With the bases loaded, film historian John McElwee scores a triple at Greenbriar Picture Shows and brings all the players on home. I don't know where he digs them up but his graphics alone are worth the price of admission. He scores first with the controversial supposition that the praise Lewton received from champions like Manny Farber, James Agee and David Selznick might have actually done Lewton more harm than good, enflaming jealousies among his compatriots and rankling studio execs whose hands Lewton preferred not to shake. He likewise has a fascinating and detailed account of marquee and theatre lobby dressings promoting Cat People, many which "looked like Grand Guignol." His reception study of I Walked With A Zombie underscores the obstacles Lewton faced in creating his films.

McElwee continues his study of Lewton's reception with The Seventh Victim. "We must have been the eighth victim; patrons walked out. Business poor. Some of the kids would not sit through it," complained one theatre owner. He then tracks Lewton's budgetary genius in recycling sets and props with a focus on The Ghost Ship, "a wraith largely unseen." And I'm heartened to read that John and I agree that The Curse of the Cat People might be considered Lewton's finest work. He provocatively suggests that The Curse of the Cat People might have had a timely influence upon Vincente Minnelli's Meet Me In St. Louis whose Halloween segment McElwee identifies as "a glossier recap of Ann Carter's frightful walk through the night. Atmospheric, set-bound parallels between the two features are striking." McElwee ends his second piece with commentary on Youth Runs Wild and Mademoiselle Fifi.

McElwee's third piece spotlights the Lewton/Karloff triptych. "We can sit home with our DVDs and think we've seen The Body Snatcher," McElwee writes, "but that's like steak without garnishment compared with banquets 1945 audiences reveled in." McElwee proves his point with some mindblowing photographs recording the take-no-prisoners marquee adornments for Lewton's The Body Snatcher. McElwee then counts up box office receipts for Isle of the Dead and Bedlam. I'm in awe of McElwee's erudition which proves downright entertaining!

Whereas John McElwee discerns a connection between Vincente Minnelli and Val Lewton via Meet Me In St. Louis, Flickhead acknowledges the better-known and well-documented connection between Lewton and Minnelli: "Granted modest budgets at RKO, [Lewton] used low key lighting as a gimmick ostensibly to enhance the mystery of horror stories, but actually to camouflage cheap sets and fabricated backdrops. This part of Lewton inspired the producer 'Jonathan Shields' in Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), who is observed concocting a picture similar to Lewton's Cat People (1942)." Flickhead, however, qualifies his lack of enthusiasm for Lewton by admitting: "It would be foolish of me to take [Lewton's] defenders to task, as my argument—that Lewton's films are often plodding, dull and consciously morose—stems from a deep rooted childhood dissatisfaction. I loved horror movies as a kid and, conditioned by the crude and boisterous monsters of Universal Pictures, the stuff of Lewton always possessed for me the stodgy lifelessness of a codeine fix." Though conceding that repeated exposure to some of Lewton's films has heightened his appreciation, Flickhead remains attractively contrarian.

Val Lewton was Russian, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was Italian, and Jacques Tourneur and Simone Simon were French, so it only seems appropriate that the Val Lewton Blogathon should strive to be international. With Vincent Innisfree's French entry at
Innisfree, we achieve just that!

Cross-published at


"The fact that about forty technicians have to wait patiently while a dog condescends to relieve himself on a lamp-post gives me great financial responsibilities."—Jacques Tati.

In his Cineaste review of David Bellos' biography on Jacques Tati (available at the Highbeam Research Library),
Jonathan Rosenbaum made mention of his favorite anecdote from James Harding's earlier 1984 biography wherein—as "research" for the opening sequence of Mon oncle—Harding reported that Tati followed dogs around for days, just to see what they did.

"Tati always trusted children more than adults," Rosenbaum wrote elsewhere in his Spring 1983 Sight & Sound essay "The Death of Hulot", republished in Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press. 1995:166). "Animals," he added, "could elicit a lot of attention and respect, too: I recall him performing for somebody's dog in a restaurant for a good ten minutes, evidently more concerned with the dog's responses to his antics than with those of any human onlookers."

In his June 2003 essay "The Quiet Man, Jacques Tati" for The Chicago Sun-Times (also available at Highbeam Research Library),
Roger Ebert likewise noted the "supporting cast of dogs" in Mon Oncle "who are seen in the first shot and the last, and hurry on their doggy business in between. They don't have an important role in the plot; they're just there, checking things out, marking their territory."

At the "elegant" website
Tativille (which is, indeed, an architectural delight), Ebert discovered Tati's following anecdote:

"I needed seven or eight street dogs for Mon Oncle. I went looking for them in the pound. They weren't trained dogs, they weren't circus dogs who stand to attention all the time awaiting orders from their master.

"I took care of them during the shooting, they were very natural. At the end of the filming we had to get rid of them.

"So the producer said: 'We just have to send them back to the pound.' I answered: 'Look to be honest, it's impossible. I've become attached to these dogs and they've become attached to all of us.' Each morning they would arrive, salute the sound-engineer, the chief cameraman. Everyone knew them. They were very happy with us.

"So I had the idea to put an ad in the evening paper [Le Monde] saying that the dogs, the stars—I used the word 'stars' since they had become cinema artists—who had played in Mon Oncle were available to those who wanted.

"The response was extraordinary: we received so many requests. Some women would have done anything to have one of these dogs, they were distributed all over Paris. One settled down in the very chic Avenue du Bois. He was a very elegant dog. Another ended up with a little retired man in a suburban house in Asnière."

As Ebert summarized: "There is a lot of Tati in that serendipitous story."

Tati's love for and usage of dogs in his films seemed a perfect line of enquiry to ask Michael House during the Q&A following the recent YBCA premiere of his documentary The Magnificent Tati. House responded that Tati's longtime assistant Marie-France Sielger confirmed that, indeed, Tati preferred dogs over people. Once, when Tati was visiting Antwerp, a dog followed him back to his hotel. When Tati returned to Paris and told Marie-France Sielger this story, he added wryly that, clearly, the dog had seen Mon Oncle! As Tati had worked in a circus, he knew how to train and work with animals. In the opening sequence of Mon Oncle, he took a piece of meat and rubbed it all around the set so that the stray dogs would draw near. [My thanks to Michael House for the photo of Tati, nephew and begging dog.]

Cross-published on

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Cinephiles who have not yet allowed themselves the luxury of meandering through Jonathan Rosenbaum's online archive are missing out on Rosenbaum's generous mentality; one might even say mentorship (in its classic sense). While the fathers of civilization flounder afar at sea, on the home front Rosenbaum offers counsel, guidance, speculation and articulation through the fulcrum of film. I turn again and again to his site, sometimes for historical research, sometimes to measure how his ideas have developed over time (as revealed through redrafted entries)—which, in itself, is a marvelous meditation: to track the written record of one man's passionate and informed cinephilia and the method by which he burnishes the evolving ore of insight—sometimes to train my visual acuity or to practice auteurial legibility, and sometimes simply to remind myself of the responsibility—implied if unspoken—of what it means to write about film and to contextualize it within an ever-changing culture (if such a concern can ever be simple).

In anticipation of the "Tati-wagon" circling the Bay Area, I turned to Rosenbaum to enhance my appreciation. The ubiquity of his commentary makes it near to impossible to be comprehensive, however, so please feel free to add whatever I might have overlooked. For example, I found little on Mon Oncle. It must be out there in the ether.

Jour de Fête

Commencing with three choice quotes from Serge Daney, Dave Hickey and Jean-Luc Godard, Jonathan Rosenbaum's essay "The Color of Paradise"—published in the January 15, 1998 issue of The Chicago Reader—thoroughly provides the biographical back story leading up to Tati's first directorial feature Jour de fête, situated within the historical context of the Second World War.

The guiding focus of Rosenbaum's essay, however, is a discussion of the experimental Thomson-Color technique by which Tati (and producer Fred Orain) had hoped to achieve "France's answer to Technicolor"; a project which proved unsuccessful at the time. Though 15 years later Tati released a recut version of Jour de fête in which a few details were colored by means of stencils, it wasn't until Tati's daughter Sophie Tatischeff, a professional film editor, and film technician François Ede decided to restore the original color in 1994, five years after Tati's death, that Jour de fête was finally seen as Tati intended it to be seen. What emerged, Rosenbaum explained, was not so much a "new" Tati film as "an old one seen properly for the first time, in the full flavor of its own period."

As Rosenbaum further distinguishes: "[I]ts restored color version is doubly precious: this is color that truly looks like 1947—not films of that period so much as 1947 itself—and its bucolic postwar euphoria, not to mention its affection for interactive village life, has all the fragrant perfume of a time capsule. …Thomson-Color looks distinctly different from every other color process, and the fact that we have virtually no other color record of French life during the 40s gives Jour de fête the force of a revelation."

Notwithstanding, the restored Jour de fête met with tepid indifference by the American mainstream press; "a lack of interest dictated," Rosenbaum suggested, "by the film's U.S. distributor, Miramax, which has brought the film to America only reluctantly, without ads, and for no longer than a week at only a handful of locations." Rosenbaum lambasted Miramax's failure to promote the restored version: "It's an axiom of our Reaganite culture that businesses can do whatever they want with movies and that the press should rubber-stamp these decisions on the basis of ad budgets. Miramax is of course perfectly entitled to deem this crowd pleaser unmarketable and unworthy of anybody's attention—though luckily this also means that they haven't bothered to recut it, which they generally do only with films that they 'believe in.' What I object to, rather, is the mass media's implied insult to the audience at large by kowtowing to Miramax and refusing to acknowledge any alternatives that could possibly merit anyone's attention, even when they're as irreplaceable as the restored Jour de fête. In a society where price tags have become the only cultural credentials, Tati's film couldn't even pass muster at a garage sale."

Along with his essay on the restored color version of Jour de fête for The Chicago Reader, a week later Rosenbaum wrote a
capsule review.

As for those who argued that Jour de fête was the least of Tati's six features, Rosenbaum countered that such an argument was "like saying Ozu's Equinox Flower doesn't quite equal Mizoguchi's The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums. …Apart from offering an ideal introduction to his work, Jour de fête paints a definitive, loving, and beautiful portrait of a remote village in postwar France that's already feeling challenged and threatened by American technology."

Rosenbaum also relays a charming anecdote in his essay "The Death of Hulot", originally published in the Spring 1983 issue of Sight & Sound and republished in Placing Movies: The Practice Of Film Criticism, University of California Press, Berkeley (1995:163-170). Unexpectedly hired for a few weeks as Tati's script consultant for Confusion—an unrealized project about television—Rosenbaum took the task to heart, despite many of his suggestions falling on deaf ears. "When I suggested at one point that he see Buñuel's Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie, he could only muse about who this Buñuel fellow was. Wasn't he the chap who made a film—he forgot the title—strongly influenced by Jour de fête?" ("The Death of Hulot", supra, p. 165.)

Mr. Hulot's Holiday

Rosenbaum had already written here and again that part of Tati's legacy was his radical rethinking of how sound relates to image: "Because he shot all his films silently and constructed his sound tracks afterward, Tati was able to create an interplay between image and sound that was never a matter of one simply reinforcing the other, and he used color more to accent the image than to enhance it." As he had appreciated in Jour de fête: "There's the clean detachment of the images from the sound track—the latter a beautiful and highly selective blend of sound effects, ambient noises, and dialogue, comprising a kind of musique concrète (though there's more dialogue than Tati would ever use again). This separation of sound from image allows for a certain counterpoint between the two…."

In a January 1995 book review for Cineaste (available at Highbeam Research Library), Rosenbaum offered an alternate perspective on this point: "As a way of demonstrating how the ear leads the eye and vice versa, [Michel] Chion usefully begins with two modest proposals [in his book Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen]: that we analyze the opening avant-garde sequence of Bergman's Persona with and without the sound, and a characteristic naturalistic sequence on the beach in Tati's Mr. Hulot's Holiday with and without the image. In the first case, he observes that, without sound, not only does the first sequence of Persona lose its rhythms, its unity, and its meaning; it also looks different—a 'shot' of a nail driven into a hand becomes three separate shots, and a narrative exposition of bodies in a morgue, without the sound of dripping water, becomes a disconnected series of stills without reference to either space or time. In the second case, the apparent boredom, discomfort, and inertia of vacationers witnessed on a beach becomes the sound of lively children enjoying themselves without the image to 'mislead' us."


As with Jour de fête, Rosenbaum crafted not only a capsule review for The Chicago Reader, but an expanded essay "The Dance of Playtime" which he reworked for Criterion's dvd release. Of note is his comparison of Playtime with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey "in its wide-screen project to reeducate us by disrupting some of our basic habits in organizing visual and spatial data." As Rosenbaum came to understand, "Playtime proposed a particularly euphoric form of reengagement with public space, suggesting ways of looking and finding connections, comic and otherwise, between supposedly disconnected street details—not to mention connections between those details and myself."

A few years later when Rosenbaum landed an interview with Tati in his suburban office, in La Garenne-Colombes, and began their conversation by telling Tati how Playtime had changed his relation to cities, Tati hired him as his "script consultant" for a few weeks for the aforementioned project Confusion. "He had recently been bankrupted by the heavy losses of Playtime," Rosenbaum explained, "so it was generous of him to be paying me any salary at all."

For those who missed the PFA screening of Playtime earlier this month and as an argument against those who might rationalize away the opportunity to view the film at YBCA come mid-February, Rosenbaum asserts that Playtime "assumes a precise contiguity and continuity with the public space of a theater, where we share its experience with others…. Even if we sometimes wind up laughing at different gags, we're all laughing to some degree at ourselves, and the sense of mutual recognition is crucial."

Interestingly, Rosenbaum furthers this observation with a cogent critique of cell phones: "Mobile phones have sadly made the sense of public urban space as it exists in Playtime almost archaic, a kind of lost paradise. The utopian vision of shared space that informs the latter scenes—beginning in the new Royal Garden restaurant at night and continuing the next morning in a drugstore and on the streets of Paris—is made unthinkable by mobile phones, whose use can be said to constitute both a depletion and a form of denial of public space, especially because the people using them tend to ignore the other people in immediate physical proximity to them. Nevertheless, given his capacity to keep abreast of social changes, I have little doubt that Tati, if he were alive today, could and probably would construct wonderful gags involving the use of these phones. And if he were making Playtime now, I suspect he'd most likely be inventing gags for the first part that involved mobile phones, and then would have to find ways of destroying or disempowering them to make way for the second part."

Rosenbaum credits the Royal Garden sequence in Playtime—a sequence that makes up roughly half of the film—as possibly "the most formidable example of mise-en-scène in the history of cinema." He closes his Criterion essay with an appreciation of Tati's choreographic aesthetics in the Royal Garden sequence: "The crucial catalyst for our appreciation of this sequence is the music, played by two successive bands and then sung by an old-fashioned chanteuse, who's eventually joined by the customers—an element that helps us to cope creatively with Tati's overload of invention by furnishing a rhythmic base to work from. Thanks to this music, each set of visual options has a rhythmic pattern for one's gaze to follow while scanning the screen's busy surface of swarming detail, through which we can join Tati in charting our own choreographies, improvising our own organizations of emphasis and direction in relation to the director's massive 'head arrangement.' What other movie converts work into play so pleasurably by turning the very acts of seeing and hearing into a form of dancing?"

That closing paragraph of Rosenbaum's Criterion essay likewise appeared in his "London & New York Journal" for the July-August 1976 issue of Film Comment, wherein he reacted to re-seeing Playtime in a NYU film class: "I know of nothing in cinema which physically exhausts me as much. Fifteen minutes after it's over, I find myself inadvertently crashing into a wall like one of Tativille's inhabitants, still overwhelmed by the notion that any slab of sound and image—reality included—can be so richly orchestrated." (Quoted in Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism, 1995:28.)

In his later essay on Parade, Rosenbaum elucidated that Playtime's vision "threatened the politics of spectacle as we know it. The democratic, nonelitist idea that three dozen characters can all be on-screen at once and can all be equally worthy of interest––which is central to the hour-long climactic sequence in Playtime devoted to the opening of a restaurant, conceivably the most richly orchestrated piece of mise-en-scène in the history of cinema—sabotages not only the star system, but principles of story telling, dramaturgy, composition, foreground and background, and moral and social hierarchies central to other movies."

As Rosenbaum extrapolates: "It is the ideology of spectacle and its attendant hierarchies that he is out to dismantle––not the pleasures of spectacle itself, which he is in fact inclined to spread around liberally and democratically, emphasizing its continuities with everyday life."

Rosenbaum captures with searing poignancy the existential crisis at the heart of Tati's vision of Playtime in his essay "The Death of Hulot": " 'The birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the author,' Roland Barthes wrote in the 1960s. 'I think Playtime is revolutionary in spite of Tati,' Jacques Rivette said during the same decade. 'The film completely overshadows the creator.' 'Playtime is nobody,' Tati more instinctively said to me during our interview. Yet, as it became increasingly clear to me, the birth of Tati the director had to be ransomed by the death of Hulot the performer. It was an existential crisis of the first order, and his career never quite recovered from it. People who had never heard of Tati loved Hulot, whereas Tati personally was sick and tired of Hulot, a character originally invented for only one film, and which the public refused to let him abandon, rather as Conan Doyle's reading public refused to let him dispose of Sherlock Holmes. Hulot remained Tati's bread and butter, but it was this same lunar presence who stood between him and his desire to be a director. Not like Chaplin, who merely regarded direction as the placement of his performance, but quite the reverse: a vision that democratized the holy fool so that he/she occupied every corner of the frame, every character and object and sound, no longer the emperor of privileged space. …The absolute equivalence of real and false Hulots is basic to the film's ethics and aesthetics, which deplore the kinds of space created by stars, whether human or architectural." ("The Death of Hulot", supra, pp. 166-167.)

Rosenbaum launches his separate essay "Tati's Democracy"—originally published in the May-June 1973 issue of Film Comment, revised in October 1995, and then republished in Movies As Politics, University of California Press, Berkeley (1997:37-40) within the subsection "The Politics of Form"—with a quote from André Bazin's seminal essay on Tati ("M. Hulot et le temps," 1953): "Like all of the very great comics, before making us laugh, Tati creates a universe. A world arranges itself around his character, crystallizes like a supersaturated solution around a grain of salt. Certainly the character created by Tati is funny, but almost as an accessory, and in any case always relative to the universe. He can be personally absent from the most comical gags, for M. Hulot is only the metaphysical incarnation of a disorder that is perpetuated long after his passing." (Fortunately, Gary Morris has rectified the omission of Bazin's essay from What Is Cinema? by publishing Bert Cardullo's translation at Bright Lights Film Journal.)

"To some degree," Rosenbaum comments, "Playtime can be regarded as an embodiment and extension of Bazin's most celebrated ideas about deep focus, long takes, and the 'democratic' freedoms that these techniques offer to the spectator." ("Tati's Democracy", supra, p. 37.) Rosenbaum then offers a thrillingly accessible assessment of Playtime's formal qualities, commencing first with an overview of the critical response to the film's 1967 premiere. At Cahiers du cinéma, Jean-André Fiéschi reported: "Never, perhaps, has a film placed so much confidence in the intelligence and activity of the spectator: the challenge was too great to find a commensurate response." In his volume Theory of Film Practice, Noël Burch observed that Playtime is "the first in the history of cinema that not only must be seen several times, but also must be viewed from several different distances from the screen. In its form, it is probably the first truly 'open' film."

As if to confirm Hundertwasser's poetic axiom that "the straight line is Godless", Rosenbaum insists: "It is virtually essential that we curve the trajectory of our gaze; if our eyes attempt to traverse the screen in straight lines, we simply miss too much. …Pursuing the action in straight lines, we become victimized, imprisoned by the architecture…." In gist, the lesson to be learned from Playtime "has a lot to do with human, accidental curves breaking the monotony of regimented straight lines" and comprehending that "the rule of poetry becomes absolute." ("Tati's Democracy", supra, pp. 39-40.)


Though in Playtime Tati had hoped to bid farewell to his character Monsieur Hulot by sabotaging his centrality and proving that "the capacity to be funny belonged to everyone", the financial disaster of that film (now acknowledged as his supreme masterpiece) forced Tati to rethink his strategy. In order to finance Traffic, Tati had to bring Hulot back one more time. In his capsule review for The Chicago Reader, Rosenbaum pursued his appreciation of Tati's choreographic aesthetics when he described an elaborate highway accident as "a graceful ballet." Astutely, Rosenbaum observed: "Perhaps the best route into this wonderful movie is a consideration of the 'poster' designed by Tati to accompany its opening on the Champs-Elysees: the movie's title backed by an enormous mirror that reflects the delightful spectacle of the passing parade of pedestrians and traffic."


Whereas most would dismiss Tati's final film Parade—a Swedish made-for-television video shot on a shoestring budget—as a minor and insignificant footnote to his filmography, Rosenbaum expertly mines the film for its tremendous resources. But even he concedes that it took time for him to find them. "It wasn't until a fellow critic, David Ehrenstein, pointed out to me that you can't determine when anything starts or stops in Parade that I began to have an inkling of how its radical populism and its formal innovations mesh," Rosenbaum admitted in his Cineaste review of David Bellos' biography of Tati (see below). As Rosenbaum summarized for The Chicago Reader: "It's a sign of this film's greatness that the enormous sadness that accompanies the final leave-taking of the circus interior is a good deal more than the conclusion of an unpretentious evening's entertainments; it's a sublime and awesome coda to the career of one of this century's greatest artists."

Rosenbaum seems particularly keen to the "enormous sadness" that informs Parade's final scenes. He admitted in his essay "The Death of Hulot" that—when he first saw Parade in 1974 at a Paris Left Bank cinema—he found himself, much to his embarrassment, weeping uncontrollably. "A friend at the time who despised Tati had told me it was pathetic, and I felt that it was almost like what seeing Griffith's The Search must have been like in 1931—beautiful for what it was, yet excrutiating in relation to what one knew its director wanted to do and was capable of doing." With regard to his earlier observations of the existential crisis Tati faced with the character of Hulot, Rosenbaum adds: "One can also appreciate the relief with which Tati finally abandons his nemesis here, returning to the pantomimes that initially launched him in the music halls, about which Colette marveled, 'He has created at the same time the player, the ball, and the racket; the boxer and his opponent; the bicycle and its rider. His powers of suggestion are those of a great artist.' " ("The Death of Hulot", supra, p. 169.)

Rosenbaum's affection for Tati's final project is palpable in his essay
"All The World's A Circus" published on December 1, 1989 for The Chicago Reader wherein he reminded his readers that—as potentially problematic as the film might be—"Parade is devoted to showing us how we could be." Under Rosenbaum's respectful gaze the simple ideas of Parade—"all of them having to do with the nature of spectacle"—reveal themselves as radical and profound: there is no such thing as an interruption; there is no such thing as "backstage"; at no point does life end and "the show" begin––or vice versa; amateurs and nobodies––that is to say, ordinary people––are every bit as important, as interesting, and as entertaining as professionals and stars; and poetry always takes root in mundane yet unlikely places, and it is taking place all around us, at every moment. In fact, for Tati "the role of performer and the role of spectator were inseparably linked." More importantly: "Tati's democratic aesthetics are more than just a matter of everything and everyone in a shot being worthy of close attention. They also function on a temporal plane––every shot and moment is worthy of close attention, and a moment without a fully articulated gag is not necessarily inferior to a moment with one, because the spectator's imagination is unleashed by the mere possibility that one might occur."

In gist, Rosenbaum claimed that Parade—though "an evening's light diversion"—could "if taken seriously, as it was meant to be … profitably crumble the very ground beneath our feet." It was—as he phrased it in his Sight & Sound essay "The Death of Hulot"—a celebration of the "notion of the simple and everyday as a continuous circus" (supra, p. 164).

Elsewhere, in his review of Tony Gatlif's Latcho Drom for The Chicago Reader, Rosenbaum stages an unlikely but fascinating comparison with Parade, even though Parade—a circus film—"isn't really a musical, doesn't feature Gypsies, and is mainly shot on video rather than film. Yet in many crucial respects its formal procedures are the same, pointing in each case to a radical social and political position on the meaning of spectacle that is central to the film. This position is anti-Hollywood and anti-elitist in roughly equal measure, a kind of populism that rejects the usual hierarchies of class, race, and gender (as well as genre) without ever becoming esoteric or less than entertaining. In fact both movies appropriate certain aspects of popular entertainment—the circus for Tati, the musical for Gatlif—in order to redirect their energy.

"Strictly speaking, Latcho Drom qualifies as neither documentary nor fiction; it freely mixes both modes in a manner reminiscent of Parade. Even more significant, both films break down the usual distinctions between performers and spectators; in every scene, being a member of the audience in the film means being an active participant in the unfolding spectacle, and by the same token, every performer becomes an audience member for other performers. Moreover, the privilege of performing is extended to every age and both genders; young and old, male and female are equally involved in the festivities, and everyone is able to become the 'star' at one point or another. In both movies young children play pivotal roles as guides, witnesses, pupils, and performers. Equally striking in both movies is the use of bricolage—the appropriation of impersonal objects for personal use that enables ordinary people to reshape and reclaim their environments: the fiddling geezer in Latcho Drom who produces uncanny tonalities out of a loose violin string is the blood brother of the Parade performers who juggle paintbrushes.

"The most radical feature of both films is that the points at which a number or sequence begins and ends are usually almost impossible to determine. …To define Gatlif's mastery, one merely has to look at his remarkable and subtle transitions, which bridge countries, sequences, and sometimes the segments within a sequence—transitions that closely correspond to Tati's own segues between onstage and offstage space and to his creative obfuscations of when a specific act or activity starts and stops. These subtle transitions subvert our usual notions of spectacle, tied to the stylization of most musicals, in which passing from 'life' to the heightened reality of a particular musical number is emphasized rather than glossed over. But in this movie, as in Parade, every event has heightened reality, and never ceases to be life. Both films create an impression of unbroken poetic continuity—a continuity between life and performance that sweeps the spectator along."

Tati's Influence on David Lynch

The only time Rosenbaum ever interviewed David Lynch was in 1982 during the writing of Midnight Movies with Jim Hoberman, when he conducted a phone interview with Lynch regarding Eraserhead. Rosenbaum recalled: "I brought up the possible influence of Tati myself to him because it seemed quite evident to me at the time in at least a couple of instances: more generally in the use of industrial noise in the background of several scenes, and more specifically in the comic articulation and timing of a moment when Henry (Jack Nance) is waiting inside the elevator in his dingy apartment house for the doors to close, and finally they do slide shut, with a dull thud.

"For whatever it's worth, Lynch confirmed my hypothesis after I cited this elevator scene to him: 'You know, I feel like in a way he's a kindred soul,' he said to me. 'That guy is so creative, it's unbelievable. I think he's one of the all-time greats.' "

David Lynch, in fact—along with Wes Anderson—was invited to contribute to the catalog of last fall's Paris exhibition of Tati's work. As reported by John Lichfield for The Independent: "Lynch points out that a large part of the humor and oddly melancholy atmosphere of Monsieur Hulot or Mon Oncle are created by soundtracks that audiences scarcely notice." Lynch points out in his contribution that "Tati the satirist of modernity finally fell victim himself to techno-addiction. His darker, later films—especially Playtime—made use of all the gadgetry and the grandiose sets of the modern cinema. The movie cost a fortune and flopped. Lynch says that Tati, at his best, was 'extremely modern ... a blend of innocence and technical invention.' 'He has a unique sense of humor,' Lynch says. 'He can zoom in on the absurdity of life without losing his love for human beings.' "

Comparisons With Ozu

In Ozu's Ohayo (Good Morning, 1959), Rosenbaum detects a trace of Tati in Ozu's "innocuous muzak of xylophone and strings" and a "similar tendency to keep repeating gags with only slight variations." (Rosenbaum, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism, 1995:85).

Rosenbaum is not alone in this impression. In the September/October 2003 issue of Film Comment,
Richard Combs writes: "[Good Morning] may not displace Tokyo Story as Ozu's generally acknowledged masterpiece, but it is one of his most extraordinary films, a pellucid examination of the ties that bind in a suburban community, a strangely yet charmingly defined artificial world over which the comic spirit of not Harold Lloyd but Jacques Tati seems to hover."

In some of [Ozu's] late films, the music [of composer Kojun Saito] borders at times on kitsch, anticipating, as David Bordwell has observed, the use of lounge-like, cheerful music in the films of Jacques Tati.—
Calendar capsule for Ozu Centenniel Retrospective at Lincoln Center, October-November 2003.

Tati & Physical Image

"If movies in general owe much of their appeal to their capacity to function as Narcissus pools, offering glamorous and streamlined identification figures to authenticate our most treasured self-images, film comedy tends to heighten this tendency in physical terms, so that it would hardly be an exaggeration to state that how we respond to such figures as Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Harold Lloyd, Jacques Tati, [Jerry] Lewis, and [Woody] Allen has something to do with how we feel about our own bodies." (Rosenbaum, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism, 1995:238-239).

In his Sight & Sound essay "The Death of Hulot" republished in that same volume, Rosenbaum reiterated that insight: "The physicality of Tati's comedy is intimately involved with the love and hatred it can elicit from spectators, in part according to the ways that they relate to their own physicality and that of their immediate environment." (Supra, p. 167.) He described Tati's physicality as "taller, more legato and loping in demeanor" and relayed his firsthand experience of the instinctual wisdom of Tati's unique physical methodology, not only in an interview he conducted with Tati in November 1972 but in the subsequent weeks when he was unexpectedly hired as Tati's script consultant. "As I had discovered in our interview," Rosenbaum recalled, "he was a completely nonverbal sort; a man whose mime-like habits made his body language and vocal sound effects closer to the sound of his 'voice' than actual speech. He thought with his body…. In a way, E.M. Forster's 'How do I know what I mean until I see what I say?' could be translated into the question repeatedly posed by Tati's body language, which was central to his method—namely, 'How do I know what I think until I see what I do?' And in order to see what he did, he needed a spectator, another set of eyes and ears, someone to respond to his gags and improvisations. It's a method many comics follow; where I suspect it differed most for Tati was in his compulsion to reproduce in his body as much of the image and sound as was humanly possible, playing all the characters and props that figured in the action." (Supra, pp. 164-165.)

On American Issues With "Film Poets"

Referencing François Truffaut's introduction to André Bazin's Orson Welles: A Critical View, Rosembaum notes Truffaut's opinion that "all the difficulties that Orson Welles has encountered with the box office … stem from the fact that he is a film poet. The Hollywood financiers (and, to be fair, the public throughout the world) accept beautiful prose—John Ford, Howard Hawks—or even poetic prose—Hitchcock, Roman Polanski—but have much more difficulty accepting pure poetry, fables, allegories, fairy tales." Not convinced that the public is unwilling to accept fables, allegories and fairy tales (and citing examples of why he thinks so), Rosenbaum concedes that poetry—particularly French poetry—is another problem altogether, and accounts for why other filmmakers, i.e., "film poets"—Jacques Tati, for example—have never belonged "entirely and unproblematically to the U.S. mainstream." (Rosenbaum, Movies As Politics, 1997:183)

On David Bellos' Biography

Rosenbaum's review of the biography Jacques Tati by David Bellos was originally published in Cineaste magazine and is currently available at The Free Library. Similar to his complaint regarding Miramax's indifference to promoting the restored color version of Jour de fête, Rosenbaum finds it "regrettable that no American publisher or distributor to date has shown any interest in making this English book available."

Though he stages some reservations regarding Bellos' methodology, Rosenbaum grants that "Bellos seems better attuned than his predecessors to the elusive character of an intuitive autodidact and late bloomer who didn't even become a filmmaker until he was forty. …Though it never stoops to hagiography, this is a book about an artist more than a show-biz biography, and that is its strength."

Cross-published (in a slightly-different edit) on Twitch.