Thursday, October 30, 2014

Canon fire: the passions of Pauline Kael

The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael
Edited by Sanford Schwartz
828 pgs., Library of America

Pauline Kael makes me so mad. Yes, in the present tense. The brilliant, renegade film critic still pisses me off, 20 years after she stopped writing and 10 years after death. I grew up reading her, frequently flinging my copy of The New Yorker across the room . . . then retrieving it and pressing on, teeth grinding. The Library of America’s refreshing compendium of her work, “The Age of Movies,” brings all that back to me, but it also makes me realize what a great writer she was and how strongly she influenced my own film criticism.

She’s just so damn sure of herself. She hates “West Side Story,” “A Clockwork Orange,” Dirty Harry films, “Network.” She loves Brian DePalma? Hates Cassavetes? You see what I mean. She was mean – a compulsive iconoclast, snob, loner, egomaniac, infighter. For the first two decades of her writing career, she dined on dissatisfaction. She was compulsive – adding up the bulk of her 13 books -- most with blithely suggestive titles such as "I Lost It at the Movies" -- reveals a total of 6,791 pages. That “Age of Movies” editor Sanford Schwartz was able to make his way through this torrent of words and pare them down to an essential and readable 10 percent of the total puts him in my mind in line for sainthood.

The first piece in the collection, “Movies, the Desperate Art,” sets the tone for everything that follows. She is whip-smart, fully articulate, like an angry newborn looking to punch out the obstetrician. “The film critic in the United States is in a curious position: the greater his interest in the film medium, the more enraged and negative he is likely to sound.” She also seems to blithely excoriate her own approach, later in the same paragraph: “A few writers . . . have taken a rather fancy way out: they turn films into Rorschach tests . . . The deficiency of this technique is that the writers reveal a great deal about themselves but very little about films.”

She contradicts herself constantly throughout her career. She calls Brando’s career dead, then hails his resurrection in “Last Tango in Paris.” She loves Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver,” then stomps him to death in her review of “Raging Bull.” When she loves a film or filmmaker, she waxes embarrassingly rhapsodic. She was perhaps the greatest put-down artist in history of criticism, and seemed to enjoy every second of it. She was Joan of Arc with a typewriter.

But these mad capers were always intelligent, entertaining, compelling, and in the service of the higher good, as she defined it. “In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising,” she wrote. She was right.

She let genius in. Many of the movies we now consider to be the highlights of the American New Wave (from “Bonnie and Clyde” until “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” basically) – works by Altman, Coppola, Scorsese and the like – were not as well-recognized at the time as we seem to remember now. Kael was there to praise them and lead us through them, and her articulate analysis (minus the hosannas) really made their virtues concrete for us. Here and there, she made us see with her eyes, and she had glorious visions of what movies could be when they were honest, efficient and rich in content.

In the end, she was right about much more than she wasn’t. She yearned to be ahead of the game, able to foresee the future, to be the smartest person in the room. She frequently was all three at once. It’s surprising, too, how sustained the quality of her writing is, despite its volume (volume both in terms of length and tone). She tosses off aphorisms and bon mots by the thousands, like sparks from a steel mill.

And no one is safe. To understand her real achievement, you must look back at what film criticism was before she came along. With the exception of thoughtful, stylish analysts such as James Agee and Manny Farber, most film critics were for decades really just publicists in disguise, a state of things we have reverted back to in our times. Those who weren’t were vilified as moralistic curmudgeons.

Bosley Crowther and Dwight Macdonald were anathemized as such by Kael, Andrew Sarris and Richard Schickel when they grew to prominence in the 1960s, although each of these men had championed significant and innovative films in their time. The angry young critics themselves split apart, particularly over Sarris’ adoption and promotion of Francois Truffaut theory of auteurism, the claim that directors exercise a creative control over any sequence of films they helm.

Kael would not subscribe to any critical theory or method of classification. She responded with her gut, claiming never to see a film more than once and then rendering its salient points in stupefying detail. (This could be so; I have the uncanny ability to remember almost every movie, play or work of art I’ve seen, and every bit of music I’ve ever heard – meanwhile, my children must still wear nametags at home.) She was constantly, obsessively watching film and adding each to her stockpile of knowledge and experience, weaving ever-more intricate meditations out of each screening.

This for me is where she really becomes heroic. She does not write as a woman, or disguise or mute her keen cross-disciplinary knowledge. Unlike the gentlemanly reviewers of the past, or the scholarly or programmatic critics of her time (Molly Haskell is a feminist film critic; Kael is a critic plain and simple and if you don’t like then to hell with you), Kael commits completely to her impressions – she follows her chains of thought to their remorseless ends – she is all in, all the time, fully present, unafraid of being wrong, unable to admit to ever being wrong, because she isn’t ever wrong – her thinking and prose evolves just as she does. She has the integrity of the lone cinematic cowpoke who follows his own cryptic code of honor.
 She hates artistic pretense and loves enthusiastic crap. She is ready to throw aside any statement of faith she has ever made in honor of a new, vital film experience. This is a liberation unlike any other. Most criticism seeks to contain, define; her writing is always exploding, blowing outward. At her most narrow-minded, she inspired me to respond, first mentally and then with my own writing.

Was she a bitch? Was she trailed everywhere by a band of acolytes? Did she trade favors for influence? Who cares, really. I have read a few of the other reviews of this work that have come along; some seem to want to nail her down and others want to nail her to the wall. In that way, not much changes in the back-biting world of journalism and criticism . . . at least, in the tattered remnants of those two professions. What she has to say endures, and that’s the only thing that matters now.

After Kael, critics could not write in a rote manner and expect to be taken seriously. She gave us permission to ramble, a bit, examine things from a multitude of perspectives, to have the balls to be enthusiastically wrong, to bring all of ourselves to whatever we wrote. What a wonderful gift. (Plus, she loved movies like “The Killer Elite,” “Used Cars” and “Melvin and Howard,” which makes me feel pretty pleased with myself, I must say.)

Now that I’ve made my way through “The Age of Movies,” I feel invigorated. And traumatized. I’ll have to read it again, in 20 years or so. Thanks, Pauline.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Tchaikovsky's girlfriend: movies, music and myth

An excerpt from a larger piece from originally published in 2009.

Was Tchaikovsky gay? Or did his heart break when his fiancée married another man? Did he kill himself by drinking a cholera-tainted glass of water?

Whatever sells the greatest number of tickets. Which is not as insipidly utilitarian as it sounds.

The first part of this survey looked at how movies have mocked the conventions of high culture in music, rejecting its stuffy, elitist ethos. But how do Hollywood and its ilk try to explain the power of music? When looking at the lives of composers and performers, most filmmakers take the easy route. Suffering, particularly of the romantic or Romantic kind, is essential.

At the beginning, a sweeping Romantic full-bodied orchestral style swept through and became the norm for studio releases. When sound came in, the search for topics for musical/historical epics naturally turned to the more tragic figures in the composers’ ranks, and cleaned-up, heroic versions of their lives became the Disneyfied norm. Who had the best story?

I stumbled on the definitive study of this subgenre, and can recommend only it to those who want to delve more deeply. The book, “Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography,” was written by John C. Tibbetts, and is a perfectly brilliant survey and analysis – comprehensive, insightful and very readable, even though he uses big words such as contrapuntal, simulacrum and polysemic. (As far as I can tell, he is using those words correctly!)

Tibbetts sees with utter clarity the pressures that the narrative form imposes on the central mystery of artistic creation, acts which seek to foil time and transcend mundane boundaries. The dramatic arc demands that the protagonist struggle and suffer and overcome, or don’t, the vagaries of an indifferent world.

(In case you were wondering, Tchaikovsky appears to have been gay – however, he also had his heart broken by his fiancée, a soprano named Desiree Artot. Now, if you watch Benjamin Glazer’s oxymoronic Monogram epic “Song of My Heart” from 1947 or the Disney version, “The Peter Tchaikovsky Story” in 1959 – starring Grant Williams of “The Incredible Shrinking Man” fame! – you get the composer as a sensitive and creative, yet red-bloodedly heterosexual, person. With Ken Russell’s disturbing yet powerful “The Music Lovers” from 1971, you get the fully psychosexual Monty, as it were. Complete with Richard Chamberlain in the title role!)

Considering that over Tibbetts found OVER 300 film biographies of composers, it’s safe to say I can’t begin to touch that trove or tragedy, travesty, and tunefulness. Charitably, he rejects the validity of criticizing any of the films on the basis of historical accuracy.

“It was no use trying to reconcile story with history. It was a lot more rewarding to enjoy their doubled pleasures as a synergy, a cooperation, a polyphony of separate but related elements,” he writes. That lets a lot of stinkers in, and all manner of revisions. But it also opens the door for the unorthodox but richly rewarding musical biographies directed by Ken Russell and Tony Palmer.

Here’s a short list of significant films that, while they are speculative if not downright fraudulent, capture a truth and vividness that “straight” documentaries can’t match. As Tony Palmer says in Tibbetts’ book:

“Fiction can be closer to the truth because at least you know this is a fiction . . . the mere accumulation of facts can delude us into thinking we know the truth, which we don’t, necessarily.”

Mahler (1974) Dir: Ken Russell.

Whether Russell (“Tommy,” “Altered States”) will ever be seen as a cinematic genius or simply dismissed as a garish provocateur remains to be seen. For those who can handle his over-the-top approach, films such as this in his gallery of composer portraits are mind-bending concoctions – hallucinatory extrapolations of his subjects’ inner lives. Even in this permissive era, some of these films are still locked away, forbidden to be seen by the public. When will we get a chance to evaluate them?

Meanwhile, disturbing gems such as this still provoke disgust and wonder. Robert Powell, who is otherwise best known as Zeffirielli’s miniseries Jesus, is perfect as Mahler.

A Good Dissonance is Like a Man (1977) Dir: Theodor Timreck. This beautiful little hour-long TV documentary is an illumination of the life of American composer Charles Ives. It’s impossible to find save through a public library, but it is well worth the search. Ives’ difficult and original sound was almost universally ignored during his lifetime – this piece shows us why, and why that was a fate undeserved.

Amadeus (1984) Dir: Milos Forman.

Peter Shaffer’s brilliant 1979 play is not really a bio of Mozart – rather, it revives the myth that musical contemporary Antonio Salieri despised the genius and drove him to his early death. It does so as part of a larger meditation on genius and God – and British acting legend Paul Scofield gave an amazing performance as Salieri in the original production.

F. Murray Abraham’s performance is distinctly different for film, but it won him the Academy Award for Best Actor that year nonetheless. The movie won seven more Oscars, including for Best Picture. It earned them.

Testimony (1987) Dir: Tony Palmer.

Palmer, although an associate of Ken Russell’s, has a distinct and compelling vision of how to illustrate musical lives. (His nine-hour “Wagner,” Richard Burton’s last great film role, has never really been examined in America.) Here his subject is Dmitri Shostakovich, the Soviet composer who fond himself alternately praised and condemned by Stalin and his minions during his career.

The film is based on a highly controversial, strongly disputed memoir edited by Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov. The epic, with a great performance by Ben Kingsley at its heart, combines naturalism, surreal sequences, and paste-up techniques to provide a portrait of a man in constant fear for his life as he tried to mediate between his creativity and political correctness.

Topsy-Turvy (1999) Dir: Mike Leigh.

Gilbert and Sullivan these days, if they are remembered at all, are thought of as a safe and comfortable (and boring) pair of entertainers. Still, Sullivan’s music is solid and artful, and Gilbert’s thinly disguised satires of English life were quite barbed.

Leigh, who normally tackles everyday, contemporary dramas and comedies (“Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Secrets and Lies,” “Naked”), turned to the Victorian era in this marvelously observed work. It follows the travails of Gilbert and Sullivan and company as they craft “The Mikado” in 1884.

Leigh uses a stable of relative unknowns (Jim Broadbent, Alan Corduner, Timothy Spall, Shirley Henderson, to name a few) to create an ensemble effect that captures both the ups and downs of theatrical life and the peculiar hypocrisies of English society during the period. There’s a darkness in this film that just won’t go away.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

"Knock on Any Door": Bogart, Nicholas Ray, and the teen-rebellion film prototype

Jon Derek and Humphrey Bogart in Nicholas Ray's "Knock on Any Door" (1949).
This piece originally appeared in Senses of Cinema in June of 2011.
“Knock on Any Door looks like a throwback to the socially conscious gangster movie of the 1930s… the resurrection of a dying genre.”
- Bernard Eisenschitz (1)
In some respects, Knock on Any Door conforms to a standard social-conscience drama format: Romano is the poor, misunderstood and impressionable teenager from the wrong side of the tracks. With his journey from wronged innocence to the electric chair, we are led to a simplistic conclusion: we, society, are guilty.”

- Geoff Andrew (2)
Knock on Any Door belongs to a portmanteau of genres and forms – the message movie, the flashback biography, the courtroom drama. In each case, Ray conveys something completely different beneath the didactic surface layer the script provides. In doing so, he exposes the bankruptcies of the formulae – the message is meaningless, the bio doesn’t add up, and the drama is not redemptive.
In this misfire Ray midwifes the “wayward youth” genre and its more exploitative offshoots, and prophesies, 20 years before their peak, the Generation Gap and the youth-culture shift that would take over and dominate America in subsequent decades.
Every important Ray film has a martyr at its centre. From They Live by Night through King of Kings (1961), Ray’s most personal and successful films feature a protagonist who is tormented by society, hunted down and killed (or neutralised). Sometimes this figure is divided into two, as are Plato (Sal Mineo) and Jim Stark (James Dean) inRebel Without a Cause (1955) (3), and Danny Malden (Sumner Williams) and Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) in On Dangerous Ground (1952) – one dies and the other is redeemed. But there is no redemption in Knock on Any Door, and all the tragedy is drained out of it by virtue of the presence of the unrepentant, angry youth at its centre.
The film is adapted from the best-selling 1947 novel by Willard Motley, a sprawling, episodic work that catapulted its author to fame after a 25-year freelance writing career. It’s the story of Nick Romano (played by John Derek in Ray’s film) – a petty-criminal and full-time loser from the slums of Chicago, on trial for killing a cop. Like other writers of his time, such as John Steinbeck and James T. Farrell, Motley adapted his early journalistic training into a relaxed form of naturalism, mixing didactic and observational passages into a readable, if heavy-handed style – in this sense, it is advocacy fiction.
Throughout the novel, Motley builds his case against society just as surely as Nick’s attorney does. The latter part of the book is marred by several pages-long passages in which the author’s philosophy is piped through Morton (the defence attorney). But peer in – close beneath the surface of Knock on Any Door is pure, imported nihilism. Motley’s viewpoint indicts everyone and everything, and doesn’t admit any hope.
The popular book seemed tailor-made for Hollywood adaptation. The postwar boom in message movies was in full swing. The World War II period in America had codified the movies as a pleasant and inspiring vehicle for transmitting information, propaganda and affirmation of “American” values to the masses. Now, “problem” films such as The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945), The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946), Crossfire(Edward Dmytryk, 1947), Gentleman’s Agreement (Elia Kazan, 1947), and Home of the Brave (Mark Robson, 1949) all sought to right wrong (and wrong-thinking) on celluloid.
Directors such as Robson, Joseph Losey, Abraham Polonsky, Stanley Kramer and Kazan specialised in this kind of hectoring, finger-pointing fare. Not surprisingly, they and Ray were all strongly influenced by the left-leaning idealism and government-sanctioned artistic revolts of the 1930s. Some of them would suffer for it later during the anti-communist witch-hunt of the early 1950s. The theory of art as social corrective was being pulled down by an undertow of existential pessimism, a return to adolescent angst.
Kazan took Ray under his wing and let him serve as an uncredited assistant on his first full-length film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in 1945. Like Kazan, Ray’s theatrical training made him actor-centric and open to unconventional approaches to getting emotional truth on film.
As the already completed but still unreleased They Live by Night made its way around Hollywood in private industry screenings, its quality induced Humphrey Bogart to name Ray as the director of the first feature to be produced by his independent production company, Santana. Bogart was increasingly attracted to issues-oriented material as he aged; Knock on Any Door makes for a trilogy of late-period socially-conscious films along with The Enforcer (Bretaigne Windust [and Raoul Walsh], 1951) and Deadline – U.S.A. (Richard Brooks, 1952).
Ultimately, Knock on Any Door might have been a far more riveting and memorable film had its original casting stood:
There were plans for Bogart to star in… an adaptation of the new best-seller Knock on Any Door, the tale of a juvenile delinquent as victim of his childhood. Supposedly Marlon Brando was to play the young man, whose credo was “live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse”. (4)
Bogie! Brando! A tantalising, never realised onscreen pairing. But Brando dropped out early on, shortly after the film’s original producer, Mark Hellinger, died.
John Derek is a poor substitute. Although Derek fits his character’s nickname – “Pretty Boy” Romano – he can’t measure up to the demands of his first leading role. Almost impossibly handsome, Derek had a career of sorts in feature film roles of varying sizes. (Eventually, he was best remembered for marrying three of the most beautiful women in Christendom: Ursula Andress, Linda Evans and Bo Derek.) Here he rages, and even cries, to little effect (is his tear-stained face part of the inspiration for the 1958 Roger Corman-produced The Cry Baby Killer, Jack Nicholson’s first starring role?) “Nobody knows how anybody feels!” Derek shouts out bitterly early in the film. He storms off, and Bogart in character as his defence attorney Andrew Morton quietly observes, “When did he find that out?” For all the emoting Derek does, Bogart draws the eye whenever he is on screen, effortlessly – the essential gravitas of the iconic Bogie presence is palpable.
Even the veteran studio character actors that pepper the film’s background – Chester Conklin, Jimmy Conlin, Sid Melton and Vince Barnett – manage to upstage the putative protagonist. Derek’s lack of screen presence makes Romano a passive figure, a plaything of fate and not a very bright or charming or empathy-inspiring or redemption-deserving one at that.
The film opens vividly, as a montage of crime and punishment flashes past. The killer, face shrouded, shoots down a policeman, then stands over his body and empties his gun into him. It happens so briskly that it haunts the rest of the film as a gruesome after-image. As a police dragnet spreads across the city, the camera’s elevated perspective in the sequence turns the action into something like that seen from the box at the theatre – a bustle below.
It’s only when we get to Bogart as Morton, who fought his way out of the slums from which Romano himself has come, that the camera starts paying attention to the human face. Bogie is in his comfort-zone in this role, superior and assured. As film logic dictates, he grouses but agrees to take Nick’s case.
In the following passage, visually quite unlike anything in the rest of the film, Bogart’s character makes his way down a trash-strewn, boarded-over moonscape of a neighbourhood that seems caked in dust to boot. He searches among the derelict inhabitants for witnesses that will bolster Nick’s case. For a moment, we are in Roberto Rossellini’s Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero, 1948).
This and the rest of the film, much of which is shot in harsh, flat light with lumpy, theatrical staging, is the work of two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Burnett Guffey. He did not seem overly thrilled by this assignment: “I was kind of a captive. Whoever they assigned me to, if it was agreeable with the director, I went and I did the picture.” (5) But there are moments that stand out: Nick and his wife Emmy with heads briefly, blissfully together; Nick smashing a bottle against a door at a ritzy fishing cabin Morton takes him to in order to “improve” him; Morton overcoming Nick in a dark alley.
The bulk of the film takes place in flashback, as Morton presents Romano’s case to the jury (in voiceover, Morton cynically evaluates the capacity of its members to succumb to his rhetoric). The wonderfully villainous George Macready (Mundson in Gilda [Charles Vidor, 1944] and Gen. Mireau in Paths of Glory [Stanley Kubrick, 1957]) plays the District Attorney, Kerman. At one point Macready rubs at the prominent scar he sported on his right cheek and, with a pathological gleam in his eyes, asks “Pretty Boy” on the stand about his success with the ladies. The State is up to no good, and it’s staffed by maniacs.
We move through the Rake’s Progress of Nick Romano, from the early loss of his father to his first beating to his life of crime, which seems to be one of the more unsuccessful ones on the books. “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse”, he sneers periodically. Coming from Derek, it sounds merely dumb, not like a credo of desperation.
His one chance at redemption, his too-good-to-be-true wife Emma (Allene Roberts), is cloyingly cheerful, convinced of her man’s abilities – until she kills herself, of course, a move that comes without foreshadowing. Emmy just hits the limit of what she can take and turns on the gas. The chilling image of Nick’s pregnant wife, shot from the waist down, turning on the stopcocks of the gas stove that will asphyxiate her in despair, is particularly memorable. A rooftop shot of Nick peering down at the funeral, in hiding and in tears, is the stuff of pure melodrama.
Morton takes the case despite being warned by his partners that it will affect his professional future. The distinction between the helpless Nick and the self-made Morton couldn’t be clearer. Morton is wised-up. Morton is part of the system; he knows about its hypocrisies and dirty deals, but is mature (or compromised) enough to choose to dwell within its limitations. Nick can only lash out at it without comprehension.
The only real moment for Derek as Romano occurs near the end, when his character decides to take the stand in his own defence. “I want to live”, he says quietly and evenly, staring off into the middle-distance during his conference with Morton.
After a witness-box badgering from Kerman that we are given to believe has taken hours, a series of flash cuts from Kerman’s hydrophobic mien to Nick’s angry, tear-filled eyes presages the breakdown moment when Nick cracks and yells what then must not have been a clichéd phrase: “Yeah, I did it! And I’m GLAD I did it!”
Sheepishly changing his client’s plea to “Guilty”, Morton must make a grand speech to the judge for clemency. Morton indicts Society for the crime Nick has committed with a “J’Accuse” moment that echoes the book directly:
Morton stopped a full minute, looking round the courtroom, then at the jury, with angry eyes. When he spoke again, his voice was colder, more deliberate. ‘Society is you and I and all of us. We – Society – are hard and weak and stupid and selfish. We are full of brutality and hate. We reproach environment and call it crime. We reproach crime – or what we choose to label crime – without taking personal responsibility. We reproach the victims of our own making and whether they are innocent or not once we bring them before the court, the law, Society – once we try them, we try them without intelligence, without sympathy, without understanding! (6)
Society is a malevolent and powerful force that perpetuates itself and kills individuals.
The film space becomes flatter and flatter as Bogart orates, until finally he is oriented looking straight up at the camera, which has resumed the elevated perch it held at the film’s beginning, and is now the perspective of the judge at his bench. “If Nick Romano dies, we killed him”, Morton says. We are the judge and jury. Derek sits passive and dejected. The judge then congratulates Morton for the quality of his summation – then sentences Romano to the electric chair.
The film’s rushed coda, buried under the credits, is key. On Nick’s execution day, Morton visits him in his cell and swears to continue helping other boys like Nick (presumably, however, only if they are innocent). Nick doesn’t seem to care. He “goes to the electric chair in a strangely tranquil mood, there, perhaps, to rejoin her [his wife] in death” (7). This almost seems a direct steal from the end of The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946), when John Garfield’s Frank Chambers expresses content at the prospect of execution reuniting him with his beloved partner in crime, Cora (Lana Turner).
Morton walks Nick into the foreground of the last shot. Nick walks away from the camera toward the harsh white light emanating from the Death House door, framed by guards. As he goes, he fingers a little bare patch at the top of his head – the one that is shorn to induce better contact between the electrodes that will kill him and his flesh. Nick pauses at the door, stops, turns to a guard. There is the momentary possibility that he will turn back to us one last time, say something that will make sense of his life. He beckons to a guard, who hands him a comb. One last time Nick grooms his tousled hairdo, then turns and exits.
In the book, this gesture is clearly a cover for his fear:
Turning his head slowly to the guard standing next to him in the cell, he said, “Lend me your comb”. Without answering the guard handed Nick a comb. Nick pulled it through his curly hair. He felt it scrape, with the little excited thrill of life, against his scalp. He combed his hair slowly and neatly, following up the comb with the palm of his other hand until every hair was perfectly in place and brilliant with highlights above the handsome, tortured face. Then his touched his fingers gently to where the hair covered the bald spot where death would strike him. He handed the comb back to the guard. His fingers shook; he was ashamed of their shaking. (8)
In the shot, though, Nick is too far away for his features to register – we can only see the shape of his actions. It looks a lot more like a final, vain act of defiance. The ending works only if the viewer really feels that Nick is an innocent wronged by society, a helpless victim from the word go. The abandonment of a sense of personal responsibility doesn’t make sense to adults, but it’s a vibe that would spread rapidly throughout the younger portion of the culture.
And that gestural germ would resonate for a long, long time. America’s wild youth of the ’50s were resolutely in the here and now, contemptuous of the establishment and the square lifestyle. “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse”, would become a statement of bravado. The can-do spirit of the ’30s crumbled into a more sophisticated, numbing buzz of existential despair.
In Ray’s cosmos, the adults are the inmates in the institution, and primarily attuned to working the system to their own advantage, not in subverting it. The young and the maladjusted (or as-yet unadjusted) in Ray’s films can’t make sense of this prosaic, corrupt world and perish, physically or spiritually, by their ends. Young people can’t imagine growing up, and Knock on Any Door tells them they shouldn’t, really. Nick himself gives up on the film, the audience’s scrutiny, as he walks away from the camera to the electric chair. Nick doesn’t care – why should we?
From now on, despair and defiance would be linked in a wave of films that would simultaneously delight in and condemn the ways of wayward youth. Just as gangster films in the ’30s lavishly illustrated the events they were supposed to be disdaining, these shameful but sexy, dangerous explorations, perfected in Rebel Without a Causesix years later, would take hold and breed a new film stereotype – the juvenile delinquent.
More mature, thoughtful and well-funded efforts such as Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks, 1955) were trailed and offset by low-budget fly-by-night flicks such as Teen-Age Crime Wave (Fred F. Sears, 1955), The Delinquents(Robert Altman, 1957), High School Hellcats (Edward Bernds, 1958) and Naked Youth (John F. Schreyer, 1961); all of which revelled in the debauchery of zip guns, cigarettes, black leather-jackets, heavy petting and switchblades, and then tacked on a grim moral at the end just to keep on the censors’ good side.
“The typical Ray hero is a loner, at once contemptuous of the complacent normal society world and tormented with a longing to be reaccepted into it.” (9) What Kemp observes about Ray’s protagonists is true of Ray himself and his relationship to filmmaking. Driven to present his unique vision, he took every opportunity to turn genre inside out and question it, while yearning for mainstream success at the same time. It’s this that made him “the first home-grown film-poet of American disillusionment” (10). By January 1958, Jean-Luc Godard had pronounced his name synonymous with cinema (11).


  1. Bernard Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, Faber and Faber, London, 1990, p. 116. 
  2. Geoff Andrew, The Films of Nicholas Ray: The Poet of Nightfall, BFI, London, 2004, p. 36. 
  3. John Francis Kreidl has argued that “[t]the film, in many ways, is a dry run for Rebel Without a Cause”. See Kreidl, Nicholas Ray, Twayne, Boston, 1977, p. 31. 
  4. A. M. Sperber and Eric Lax, Bogart, William Morrow and Co., New York, 1997, p. 396. 
  5. Eisenschitz, p. 113. 
  6. Willard Motley, Knock on Any Door, Northern Illinois University Press, 1989, p. 442. 
  7. Kreidl, p. 38. 
  8. Motley, p. 495. 
  9. Philip Kemp, “Nicholas Ray”, International Dictionary of Film and Filmmakers, Vol. 2, 4th ed., ed. Tom and Sara Pendergast, St. James Press, Detroit, 2000, p. 542. 
  10. Andrew, p. 9. 
  11. See Jean Luc Godard, “Bitter Victory”, Godard on Godard, trans. and ed. Tom Milne, Da Capo Press, New York and London, 1972, p. 64. 
Knock on Any Door (1949 USA 100 mins)
Prod Co: Santana Pictures Corporation Prod: Robert Lord Dir: Nicholas Ray Scr: John Monks Jr., Daniel Taradash, based on the novel by Willard Motley Phot: Burnett Guffey Ed: Viola Lawrence Art Dir: Robert Peterson Mus: George Antheil
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, John Derek, George Macready, Allene Roberts, Candy Toxton, Mickey Knox, Barry Kelley, Dewey Martin

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

From the archives: Interview with 'Hangover' writer Scott Moore

This piece originally appeared on 10/18/09. Scott has gone on to write more films with Jon Lucas, including "The Change-Up," "21 and Over," and the TV series "Mixology," and much uncredited rewrite work for other comedies.

Life is good for Scott Moore. Well, life would be good for anyone who helped create the top-grossing R-rated comedy in film history. Yeah.

That's bigger than "Borat." Bigger than "There's Something About Mary." Bigger than "Animal House," for chrissake!

Scott Moore loves it.

"It's so great," he says via phone. He's getting ready to visit Boulder for a screening of his film, the summer's big smash hit "The Hangover," which he wrote with his long-time writing partner Jon Lucas, on Saturday, Sept. 19. He'll stick around for a Q-and-A session afterwards.

"It's both rewarding on a personal and a professional level, after nine years of doing lots of good work without seeing our names on it," he says.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Moore graduated from CU-Boulder in 1989, with a degree in economics. Huh?

"Actually, I started off with an engineering major," he says. "And it was very boring. One day in statics class, I realized that I was studying . . . concrete."

So he switched. Economics sounds fairly frivolous after that.

He took a lot of film classes, too. There was no film studies major at CU at the time, but the small size of the department was a boon for him, as it allowed him much more hands-on experience.

"If you wanted to write, you wrote," he said. "If you wanted to shoot, you shot. It was a lot of fun, very close-knit - it was a great place to learn about filmmaking."

He never really joined a comedy scene, either. "We'd rather write the jokes down and have someone else deliver them," he says. Right out of school, Moore went to work as a intern at Disney.

"I started by trying to be a producer, but that was no fun," he says. "It was a lot more fun to write," and he "scratched and clawed" his way into the business.

Along the way, he bumped into Jon Lucas.

"We were both working for one of the guys who was responsible for ‘Beverly Hills Cop," says Moore. "Each of us was writing on the side, with minimal success. We started working together, and we have such a great dynamic - it really paid off."

Soon the duo was known around town as go-to guys for punching up a script, performing uncredited rewrites on properties such as "Wedding Crashers," "27 Dresses," "Chicken Little" and "Mr. Woodcock."

"A pretty typical Hollywood writer's career is, when you're writing, you're writing on spec," he says. "But there always scripts in development out there - people are needed to rewrite and develop them further. Especially in the comedy world, people say, ‘This needs to be a little funnier.' So we did that, meanwhile always trying to pitch originals."

The genesis of "Hangover" came from the two thinking about the conventions of the "bachelor party" film genre.

"It's been done a lot," he says, "and a lot of them are terrible. The thing is, a party is fun to watch for about five minutes. Talking about it the next day is funnier, a lot funnier. Think about ‘Jaws' or horror movies, too - it's better if you don't see the monster. The audience can paint a picture in their heads of what happened that's more extreme than anything we could film.

"Most people can really relate to the next morning, too - ‘Oh God. I did that. Didn't I?' And we've all been that person looking on, saying, ‘I'm glad I'm not you!' Half-a-dozen people we know think it's based directly on their lives."

"Plus, we've always liked stupid detectives. We love ‘The Big Lebowski.' So we hit on the idea of amnesia as kind of a neat way to tell it."

A sequel is already in the works, although Moore and Lucas aren't in on it.

"(‘Hangover' director) Todd Phillips is great," Moore says. "He's a well-respected writer himself. He did some work on our script as filming progressed. He wants to push the characters forward, so they're going to start filming next fall, I think. Already he's got Scot Armstrong (Phillips' co-writer on ‘Old School') on it, and Jeremy Garelick (‘The Break-Up')."

Meanwhile, More and Lucas are on to the next challenge - what they term a "body-switching" comedy titled "Change Up."

Moore begins to talk about the body-switching subgenre. Even my movie-minutiae mind balks - "There is?" I blurt.

"There is a canon," he asserts. He starts reeling off titles: "Freaky Friday," "Face/Off."

"Actually, ‘Face/Off' is so good that at times you stop thinking about Travolta and Cage and really get into it," he says. (For completists, I will throw a list of titles at the end of this story.)

"A lot of them are cheesy," he says. "But when they're well done, they're entertaining. We're thinking about it in a really fun way - the two who switch are a married guy and a single guy. Jon and I are both married, and I think everyone who is married definitely thinks about being single again. There's that ‘I wish I had your life' thing. And the single guy is a total slacker, he sees the guy with a wife and kids and thinks, ‘What would that be like?'"

David Dobkin ("Wedding Crashers") is attached to direct.

Moore's sitting pretty, and as I type this up, I think - hey, he didn't have to talk to me. He doesn't have a product to pimp, he's got no reason to give me his time. Plus it was 7 a.m. where he was when I called him. That's pretty cool. He's a nice guy.

I stick him with one more question: what was the unexplained chicken doing in the hotel room in "Hangover"?

"There is actually a reason the chicken is there," he admits. "I'm not I'm sure allowed to talk about it."


Flames (1917) Dir: Maurice Elvey
Turnabout (1940) Dir: Hal Roach
Vice Versa (1947) Dir: Peter Ustinov
Skazka O Poter yannom Vremi (1964) Dir: Alexander Ptushko
Freaky Friday (1976) Dir: Gary Nelson
Summer Switch (1984) Dir: Ken Kwapis
Like Father, Like Son (1987) Dir: Rod Daniel
Vice Versa (1988) Dir: Brian Gilbert
18 Again! (1988) Dir: Paul Flaherty
Dream a Little Dream (1989) Dir: Marc Rocco
Prelude to a Kiss (1992) Dir: Norman Rene
Freaky Friday (1995) Dir: Melanie Mayron
Face/Off (1997) Dir: John Woo
A Saintly Switch (1999) Dir: Peter Bogdanovich
The Hot Chick (2002) Dir: Tom Brady
Berzauberte Emma Oder Hilfe, Ich Bin Ein Junge (2002) Dir: Oliver Dommenget
It's a Boy Girl Thing (2006) Dir: Nick Hurran