Hide in Plain Sight, Stardust Memories, Caligula
- The Fifth Annual Willa Cather Citation for the classiest title of the movie year goes to Hide in Plain Sight, not a very Catherian title, certainly, but perfectly suitable for something on the level of a Margaret Millar thriller. The movie itself, it is beside the point to say, fell well below that level.
- The Fifth Annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Citation for the trashiest title this year is bestowed on Stardust Memories, mainly for the sense of letdown that resulted from keeping the title a secret, or from simply not settling on it, until the week before. the movie was released. This gives it a slight advantage, or rather disadvantage, over Cheech and Chong's Next Movie, which seems to have had the superior wisdom not to have settled on any title at all. Other titles that ought to be put into 4he same Glad Bag: (a) Heart Beat for its attempt to create a double meaning by splitting one word into two, and its achievement instead of destroying any meaning whatsoever; (b) Gates of Heaven for its easy confusion with Heaven’s Gate, Days of Heaven, and, if anyone remembers, Gate of Hell; and (c) The Big Red One for the impossibility of knowing on which word the stress is supposed to fall (it's supposed to be the last, as it turns out, but throughout all the many years this movie was in the planning and production stages I for one had always assumed it to be the third).
- The Gore Vida! Award for blowing one's own bugle goes to Bob Guccione, publisher of Penthouse and producer of Caligula (originally Gore Vidal's Caligula, which, if Vidal had not withdrawn his name, would have put him in the running for this same award), for the entire issue of his magazine which he devoted to his movie, and especially for the interview of himself contained therein: "I promised to produce a blockbuster, a landmark film. I promised that Caligula would fundamentally change the theatergoing public's perception of motion pictures. I said that it would foment changes within the industry itself. I really shot my mouth off, but I meant every word of it, and I still do."
- Inflation strikes. The steepest ticket price of the year was not the $6 for Caligula, but the $25 for Our Hitler, with panel discussion thrown in (or $45 for the movie, the panel discussion.
and course credits from the UC Extension school).
- The Pauline Kael Prize for
the hyperbole of the year in movie criticism goes to Susan Sontag for her contribution to the Our Hitler ad campaign: "One of the great works of art of the 20th Century." Exactly where she made that remark, from what lectern or over what cocktail, is not specified. Nowhere is it to be found amid the 7,000 words of her essay in The New York Review of Books, which would also put her in line for the Pauline Kael Logorrhea Prize, if there were one, and which never stoops to the sort of simplicities usable as ad blurbs: e.g., "Syberberg's synoptic drama is radically subjective, without ever being solipsistic." Or again: "Syberberg's confidence that his art is adequate to his great subject derives from his idea of cinema as a way of knowing that incites speculation to take a self-reflexive turn." Hmmm.
- Pauline Kael herself, having had done with her Hollywood fling, was back at The New Yorker and out with a new book: When the Lights Go Down. This — the book — was greeted with a couple of attacks of such inten-
t-tide in Plain Sight
sity as to seem bent on driving her back out of town. Andrew Sarris in The Village Voice approached the target on the persona! front, letting it be known that Kael is considerably older than her voice or her "school-girlish" prose sounds, or than Sarris himself is, and that she is an inveterate queer-baiter, "a walking nervous wreck," and "an unlikely combination of a Berkeley intellectual and a Hollywood agent," meanwhile chastising her, on matters of taste, for showing blind loyalty to her past favorite filmmakers and at the same time (or rather, at different times) for showing disloyalty to her past favorites, also for catering to anti-Hollywood snobbism and at the same time (or again, at different times) for wallowing in mindless Hollywood trash. Renata Adler
in The New York Review of Books, on the other hand, zeroed in on ^ the Kael prose style with a closeness of inspection that would cause any writer to squirm: "She has, over the years, lost any notion of the legitimate borders of polemic.
Mistaking lack of civility for vitality, she now substitutes for argument a protracted, obsessional invective — what amounts to a staff cinema critics' branch of est. Her favorite, most characteristic device of this kind is the ad personam physical (she might say, visceral) image: images, that is, of sexual conduct, deviance, impotence, masturbation; also of indigestion, elimination, excrement. 1 do not mean to imply that these images are frequent, or that one has to look for them. They are relentless, inexorable. 'Swallowing this movie,' one finds on page 147, 'is an unnatural act.' On page 151, 'his way of pissing on us.' On page 153, 'a little gas from undigested Antonioni.' On page 158, 'these constipated flourishes.' On page 182, 'as v forlornly romantic as Cyrano's
plume dipped in horse manure.' On page 226, 'the same brand of sanctifying horse manure/ On page 467, 'a new brand of pop manure.' On page 120, 'flatulent seriousness.' On page 226, 'flatulent Biblical-folk John Ford film.' On page 353, 'gaseous naivete.' And elsewhere, everywhere, 'flatulent,' 'gaseous,' 'gasbag,' 'makes you feel a little queasy,' 'makes you gag a little,' 'just a belch from the Nixon era,' 'you can't cut through the crap in her,' 'plastic turds.'"
- Citing general disenchantment, bewilderment over the current popularity of "shock-schlock," and the scarcity of reputable candidates for a Best 10 list, Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times officially announced his retirement from full-time movie reviewing in favor of book reviewing. This announcement, coming in mid-November, was not the most foreseeable climax to a two-month stretch during which Champlin found The Stunt Man to be "a vigorous, spellbinding, and provocative new film," The Elephant Man to be "an act of rebellion against the tame, the customary, the safe. . . . No film more artis-
tically daring, commercially foolhardy (you'd have thought), and emotionally overwhelming has come along this year," Ordinary People to be "strongly emotional and beautifully written and performed . . . assured and affecting . . . subtle and emotionally very suspenseful... intimate and demanding . . . brave . . . wise . . . admirable . . . outstanding . . . reassuring in its quest for excellence . . . fine and touching," Stardust Memories to be "extremely funny and extremely affecting ... an important piece of work and a major artifact of late 20th-century America," Bad Timing to be "an engrossing study of a relationship ... a striking, complex, intimate, and stimulating . probing of character," A Distant I Cry from Spring to be "masterful work by a civilized, sensitive.
and thoughtful craftsman [Yoji Yamada] in serene command of his art," Gloria to be "the most startlingly accessible and likable film of his [John Cassavetes'] career ... a robust, personal, and original work," Hopscotch to be "a vivid diversion and a sensational showcase for the debonair Mr. Matthau," Resurrection to be "a fascinating film (as opposed to great, masterful, epic, overwhelming, pulsepounding, or monumental)," and Raging Bull to be "an arduous, unrelenting, rich, densely textured, harshly honest and mesmerizing film ... a disciplined and important achievement. . .one of the thin handful of superior films of recent years" — or of recent minutes. After two months of this sort of thing, indeed after fifteen years of it, it is quite possible to feel that movies are going to the dogs without feeling that Charles Champlin is the one who ought to be saying so.
Odd coincidence. On a Wednesday night in October I went to see Head Over Heels, in which a jilted lover constructs a small-scale replica of the house where his ex-girlfriend now lives with her husband. The next night I went to see The Elephant Man, in which the title character constructs a small facsimile of the church he can see from his hospital window. And the next night I went to see Somewhere in Time, in which the personal effects of a deceased American stage actress are found to include a music-box replica of the hotel where she had long ago met the love of her life. By this time sensing a coming craze and not wanting to be left out, I set to work the very next day on my own miniature model of the downtown Balboa Theater, constructed entirely out of Jujubes.
The big news story of the movie year, and of many movie years, is, as everyone is aware, the peremptory closing of the $40 million Heaven's Gate after the disastrous press screenings in New York — a procedure that calls to mind how things work in Broadway theater rather than in the movie world — and the subsequent withdrawal of it from the theaters in Los Angeles and Toronto where it was also scheduled to open. It is hard to know whom, if anyone, to sympathize with: the precocious young director, Michael Cimino, who kept asking for more, more, more than the $11 million allowance he began with, or the indulgent United Artists executives who kept forking it over. But this story has been told too many times in too many places to bear repeating here, and in any case the most interesting part of the story — the rest of it — will not be told for years to come.