Robert Totten (1937-1995)
Bob Totten is someone I wished I had gotten to know better than I did. We met in 1994 under somewhat curious circumstances that went something like this…I was teaching film studies here in Arizona at ASU (Arizona State University) when I got involved with a couple of guys who were trying to get a low budget movie project off the ground. This was a film entitled Cry Vengeance based on a screenplay that I had written which was in turn based on an idea by one of the producers. The idea was to make this a local production with that same producer playing the lead and utilizing all local talent behind and in front the camera. After the script was written the two producers became extremely enthused about its possibility and put all their energies into seeing it come to fruition. Somewhere in the course of a lot of conversation the question as to who would direct this epic came up. It was suggested that I should consider it. I was at least qualified as some of the other names mentioned. I had been to film school and had directed several shorts. So I told them I would think about it and after about a week I said yes. The reason for my reluctance is that I was teaching and would have to miss a semester in preparation for something that might never actually get off the ground. But I took the chance and said yes. After all it was my screenplay so why shouldn’t I direct?
After that decision was made the producers started to move forward aggressively with their preproduction activities. Meetings were held, conference calls were made and all kinds of production initiatives were being implemented. But I noticed that with each plateau they arrived at the budget for this mini budgeted film increased to the point where in a year and a half it accelerated to more than ten times the original figures. When this happened suddenly it was no longer a “local production” anymore. Now the guys were making trips to LA and talking to industry figures. Through some connection they had now they were talking to the execs of some big studio about financing our film, which was now budgeted at seven million dollars. That is small by Hollywood standards but enormous in terms of where we began.
The first thing they were told was that they had to get some name actors attached. This meant that the producer couldn’t play the lead as planned. He said fine. He was more interested in producing anyway. So they contacted some TV level names that said they would commit as soon as the financing was in place. The next thing was the director. If the suits were going to take this project seriously it had to have a director with some established credentials. The guys sheepishly came and told me about it and I agreed right away. I knew it was coming so I wasn’t surprised. In fact I was even grateful because the scale of the production had outgrown anything I thought I could handle so I was more than happy to pass the burden on to someone else. Of course I didn’t say anything about that. I just said I understood and left it at that. The next couple of days they spoke to a few guys and then in came Bob Totten. I had never heard of him but when he started listing some of the things he had done I became very interested. Especially when he mentioned that he had been the first director on a film that ultimately became Death of a Gunfighter (1969). That’s when I jumped up and said: “Oh my God, you’re the original Alan Smithee.” He looked at me and said: “Oh so you know that story, huh?” … “Some of it.” Then I pushed him to tell me more. When the interview was over I invited him for a drink and started asking him all kinds of questions about directing and working with Glenn Ford, Ben Johnson, LQ Jones, Jack Elam, Mercedes McCambridge and Ruth Roman and all the others who were in the cast of The Sacketts (1979). Those were legendary actors to me and I wanted to hear all about them. I remember him looking at me at one point and saying: “You were the one scheduled to direct this film weren’t you?” I told him yes. “So I’m effectively taking away your job.” …I told him I didn’t care. He laughed and said: “There I was thinking that I would have to be dealing with a potential enemy. But you are in fact a fan, aren’t you”…”Yes!” I told him with the joyous glee of a teenager. We sat there for maybe two hours more drinking and talking. Actually him talking and me listening. He was a wonderful raconteur and I heard all the stories about the various actors, their quirks, their idiosyncrasies and their special gifts that made them so effective on screen. Right then and there I decided that I wanted to write a book about him. But I didn’t want to propose the idea at the time. After all I had only just gotten to know the man. What I would do is befriend him and after we had gotten to know each other better then I would broach the subject. By this time the producers had decided that this was the man for the job and I had lobbied for the job as his assistant. So we would have a lot of time to get to know each other on the shoot. Well, to cut to the chase, the film never got made. The funding never came through and the project was abandoned. But I kept in touch with Bob. We talked on the phone and he was always pleased to hear from me. I told him about the book that I wanted to do and he was flattered. I said that I would visit with him in Sherman Oaks where he lived when the school semester ended . We would talk, I would take notes and start the process from there. He mentioned that he had been ill. But he was full of plans for a TV project he wanted to write, produce and direct. It was a remake of the John Ford film 3 Godfathers (1948)…The last conversation we had was one morning when he called and told me that he was getting a western heritage award at a conference of some kind and invited me to attend. I looked at my schedule and realized I couldn’t make it because of my school obligations. About a month later I read that he had died of a heart attack.
I was sorry about this not just because of the book project. I had looked forward to spending all kinds of time listening to the interesting and amusing stories he had to tell. Bob was an interesting man but a fun guy too. I’m sure he is missed by those he was close to. But I miss him as well.
After hearing of Andrew Sarris’ recent death and reading J. Hoberman’s remembrance of the important critic, I decided to get a copy of Sarris’ book The American Cinema. It is a comprehensive (as of 1968) list and dissection of American film and its directors, judged by the auteur theory to which Sarris was devoted. It’s a fun read for any movie goer as it provides plenty of opportunity to agree, disagree, and discover more about cinema. Here are some of my favorite excerpts from the book:
“Ford had more in common with Welles than anyone realized at the time. Ford was forty-six when he made How Green was my Valley and Welles was only twenty-five when he made Citizen Kane, but both films are the works of old men, the beginnings of a cinema of memory.”
“Howard Hawks is good, clean, functional cinema, perhaps the most distinctively American cinema of all.”
“Hawks has stamped his distinctively bitter view of life on adventure, gangster and private-eye melodramas, Westerns, musicals, and screwball comedies, the kind of thing Americans do best and appreciate least.”
“The Fordian hero knows why he is doing something even if he doesn’t know how. The Hawksian hero knows how to do what he is doing even if he doesn’t know why. The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the way. He is always plunging into the unknown, and he is never too sure what he will find there.”
“Welles is concerned with the ordinary feelings of extraordinary people and Hitchcock with the extraordinary feelings of ordinary people.”
“George Stevens was a minor director with major virtues before A Place in the Sun and a major director with minor virtues after.”
“Cecil B. De Mille may have been the last American director who enjoyed telling a story for its own sake.”
“Richard Brooks has a bad habit of saying what he means without showing what he feels.”
“Perhaps more than any other director, Michael Curtiz reflected the strengths and weaknesses of the studio system in Hollywood.”
“It is too early to establish any coherent pattern to Allan Dwan’s career, but it may very well be that Dwan will turn out to be the last of the old masters.”
Peter Bogdanovich’s tribute the contested greatest American filmmaker, John Ford, is itself one the best films ever made about filmmaking. Watching it again, I found some of these quotations about the “man who made Westerns” to be worth repeat.
Martin Scorsese: John Ford is the essence of classical American cinema and any serious person working in film today is effected by him, whether they know it or not.
Clint Eastwood: He was not influenced by a politically correct generation that we live in today. He could go flat out. And I think that was an imprint of Ford’s, where Ford was afraid of nothing.
Harry Carey Jr.: He kept saying, you’re going to hate me when the movie’s over, but you’re going to give a good performance. Well, I hated him after the first day.
Walter Hill: He always said I had a thousand fights with the Studio and I lost them all. But then there’s Grapes of Wrath and My Darling Clementine. I’d like to lose some fights like that.
Maureen O’Hara: He was an instinctive con-man. It was impossible to know when to believe him and when to disbelieve him.
Alan Jay Lerner: A man of the movies too.
Alan Jay Lerner (1918-1986) whom I got to know a little bit when I lived in New York was primarily known as a highly successful songwriter (lyricist) and playwright of musicals. And that is as it should be. After all he wrote such landmark works as My Fair Lady, Camelot, Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon among several others. But what is hardly known, mentioned or fully appreciated is that he was a man of the movies as well. He wrote the screen adaptations to all of the movies filmed from his plays. But he wrote original screenplays as well. His script for An American in Paris (1951) won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. In 1956 he won two Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Song for the movie Gigi, a film that he not only helped to produce but to edit as well. That’s three Academy Awards in five years. Not a bad score for a man of the theatre.
In the early 1950s he worked at MGM with the famous Freed Unit and became quite knowledgeable with both the creative and technical aspects of how motion pictures were made. He was quite fond of the medium and wanted to devote more of his time and energies to it. But just as his talents were beginning to mature the movie musical genre went out of style. So he switched his focus to the stage and remained there for the rest of his life except for the occasional foray into the world of movies when one of his plays was being adapted.
On stage he had a series of successful shows with his primary composer Frederick “Fritz” Lowe along with some not-so-successful shows and a few outright flops with other composers. And his last attempt at creating an original musical for the movies The Happy Prince (1973) was also a flop. But that didn’t discourage him. He still thought of film as a where one could be just as creative and in many instances more creative than on stage. He had many ideas he was anxious to try but didn’t live to see them realized.
Alan Jay Lerner was a hard worker on the stage and behind the cameras as well. In the 1956/57 season when he won both the Tony and Academy Awards for his work on both stage and screen a friend on seeing the announcement while visiting with his father said: “My goodness, have you seen this about your son? Isn’t he lucky?” To which his father replied (in writing) “It’s a funny thing with Alan. The harder he works the luckier he gets.”
It is sometime forgotten that he was a fine contributor that indigenous American art form the Hollywood musical. This is just a note to say that some of us do remember and are grateful.
Almodovar: A true auteur.
If I had to pick my favorite living film director of the moment I would have to say that it is Pedro Almodovar, Spain’s wunderkind maker of such films as: Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), Bad Education (2004) And Broken Embraces (2009). I have just seen his latest release The Skin I Live in (2011). And although it is not my favorite of his works, Talk to her (2002 is, the film still possesses many of his wonders. An offbeat and unusual story, ravishing, sumptuous camera work, committed acting and the creation of yet another vest pocket view into what can be only called Almodovar’s world.
But the one aspect of his films that I am always awed by is the wonderful and all encompassing sweep of his narratives. They generally start out by taking you down a broad somewhat familiar looking highway but then as soon as you become sure of the journey you’re taken off onto a side road that is both unfamiliar and strange that could lead you into the mountains or the sea. But once you get to one or the other you’re suddenly whisked in another direction that takes you down a narrow dirt road past some heavy growth of underbrush that doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere. But then just by this time you’re sure that you’re lost the story will take you up a small hill that leads back to the main highway and home. I can’t think of any other living filmmaker/ director whose narratives can involve and confuse in such a satisfying manner. At the moment he is (to me) the only director whose films have the discursive complexity of a good novel. Most seriously made films today are primarily character driven and deal with a single idea or plot that is introduced, intensified and then resolved in one way or another. But with the works of Almodovar we get more than that. We get outrageous characters being true to themselves, a mise en scene that’s frequently quite insane and a narrative full of multiple arteries which more often than not take us to places we’ve never been before. Or takes us to a familiar place via an unusual route.
It is for this reason that I think of Almodovar as a literary director. But literary but in a cinematic way. His films are so visually conceived that they can be viewed without subtitles and the complexity of their stories is still manifest. This proves to me that they are true cinematic creations unto themselves because they are not so married to the written or spoken word that they would be lost or worst incomprehensible without them.
Another aspect of Almodovar’s work that I truly appreciate is the generosity of spirit and whole hearted compassion his films display toward social/sexual outsiders. In this he reminds me of Tennessee Williams’ whose works, despite their central plots, were directly and indirectly pleas for tolerance and acceptance of others whose personal orientations were/are different to ours. But mostly I appreciate Almodovar because he is a filmmaker with a vision that is uniquely his. You can’t look at an Almodovar film and think that you’re looking at the work of some other filmmaker. His DNA is too firmly imbedded in them. Added to that at the moment he is a confident, completely assured filmmaker working at the top of his powers, utilizing the tools of his medium in masterful ways. In other words he is a true auteur in the original sense of that often misused and misunderstood appellation.
If you’re seriously interested in cinema and you haven’t experienced a film by Almodovar this is the time to give one a try. I think that you will be happy you did.
Mike Figgis: Attention must be paid.
Mike Figgis is a director whose films I always look forward to seeing. And even when they don’t quite work I’m always fascinated by why they didn’t. He is a director whose failures to me are often more interesting than other filmmakers successes. Why? Because they dare more and he is always trying for something different in the way he presents his stories on screen. And the things he tries, even when they fail, I find both intriguing and artistically unique in all kinds of ways. Before becoming a filmmaker he was a musician and played keyboards with several groups in his native England. And the visual as well as the narrative pattern of his films seem to follow the form of a musical composition rather than a literary one. So that even when his films are adapted from literary sources (Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1999), The Browning Version (1994) or Leaving Las Vegas (1995) the musical underpinning is quite apparent. And I like it because it makes the film interestingly unpredictable and seductive too. Quite often he composes the background music for his films which makes the connection more direct.
The films of his that I think are the most successful include Stormy Monday (1988). This was his first film to get a wide international release. I was mesmerized by it but not for conventional reasons. I actually had to look at it several times to realize why I liked it so much. The main reason for me was the mood that it set and authentic feel milieu. The next is Internal Affairs (1990). That wasn’t hard to figure. It plays like a nifty cop thriller on one level but on a more sub-textural level it is a corrosive study of sexual manipulation and evil with thought provoking questioning of the male ego (machismo). Richard Gere’s performance in the central role of Dennis Peck is to me one of the great overlooked performances in contemporary cinema. He is ably supported and even challenged by Andy Garcia explosive performance as his professional and personal rival. Leaving Las Vegas (1995) is justifiably hailed as his best film with career high performances by Nicholas Cage for which he received the Academy Award as Best Actor, and Elizabeth Shue who forced everyone to reassess all their opinions of her as an actress with her turn as a troubled prostitute who falls in love with a self destructive alcoholic. It was a film that was made on a small budget by Hollywood standards. But Figgis does such terrific things with that limitation that this film could serve as a model to other directors who find themselves in a similar situation. Timecode (2000) is an experiment I wished had turned out better. Still I admire the attempt. Using digital technology he tried to tell four continuous stories all taking place at the same time. And rather than use cuts he divided the screen into four parts and shows them all unfolding simultaneously. But as I said, I don’t think that it quite worked. But I felt that it was the start of an interesting way to reconstruct the standard model of storytelling on screen. What I wished is that he had taken the experiment further in another film perhaps because with Timecode he had gotten so close. But so far he hasn’t. Still, who knows, maybe he will in the future. One Night Stand (1997) is another film I wish worked better than it does. But damn, I still like it. A) Because it gives Wesley Snipes and Natassja Kinski the best and most attractive roles in their careers. And B) because of what he was trying to do with the story, especially the end that doesn’t pay off dramatically the way it should. Still in its details I think that it is beautifully worked out but there’s just too much missing to make the whole dramatically satisfying. Liebestraum (1991) is another film I feel that way about. I like it but it misses in its intent. Still I’m glad I saw it. And that’s the way I feel about all Mike Figgis films. Because successful or not he is a director to whom attention must be paid if you’re at all interested in art of film.
A recent discovery of mine is The Last Lullaby, a modern pulp/noir and debut of director Jeffrey Goodman. The movie struck me as subtle, smart and refreshing. It’s available to stream on Netflix.
I recently conducted an interview with the director. You can read it at the following link
According to John Boorman, Point Blank started when he met Lee Marvin in England. Marvin was there filming The Dirty Dozen; they had both read the script and hated it. But they did agree on one thing: there was a great character in Walker (a version of Richard Stark’s Parker).
Marvin had Boorman up to his hotel room and told him he wanted to make the movie with him under one condition, and Marvin through the script out the window. Boorman says that Mel Gibson’s version of Parker is very similar to that trash Lee sent flying. Perhaps Gibson picked it out of the gutters.