Movie critic’s marginalia, 1981.
1. The Sixth Annual Willa Cather Citation for the classiest title of the movie year goes to The Watcher in the Woods, which meets the originality requirement for this award by slightly altering (and slightly improving) the title of the novel: A Watcher in the Woods. Honorable mention: Modern Romance, for its strong ironic relationship to the magazine whose name it apes, in contrast to True Confessions, which (even if it were not disqualified by having been a book title first) has no relationship, ironic or otherwise, to the magazine of that name. The relationship of Southern Comfort to the like-named beverage is ironic enough, but otherwise not very close.
2. The Sixth Annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Citation for the year’s trashiest title goes to Cheaper to Keep Her. Also-rans: Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (translation from the Russian may have been a problem here), Chu Chu and the Philip Flash, and Comin ’ at Ya! Special dishonorable mentions: Take This Job and Shove It and The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, for continuing the bad habit of germinating movies from country-western songs, a habit dating back as far as I Walk the Line (perhaps farther), and taking in such things as Ode to Billy Joe, Convoy, Middle-Age Crazy, and the TV movies Torn Between Two Lovers, The Gambler, and Coward of the County. And finally, a pronunciation note: the proper emphasis in For Your Eyes Only, notwithstanding the example set by Gene Siskel and others, falls on the second word, not the third, as if to prohibit brains (however much such a prohibition might seem appropriate for this movie).
3. The Pauline Kael Prize for hyperbole of the year in movie criticism reverts to the critic after whom the prize was named: “Compared with Blow Out, even the good pictures that have opened this year look dowdy. I think De Palma has sprung to the place that Altman achieved with films such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville and that Coppola reached with the two Godfather movies — that is, to the place where genre is transcended and what we’re moved by is an artist’s vision. And Travolta, who appeared to have lost his way after Saturday Night Fever, makes his own leap — right back to the top, where he belongs. Playing an adult (his first), and an intelligent one, he has a vibrating physical sensitivity like that of the very young Brando.”
4. Coppola runneth over. In the midst of his various endeavors — reviving Abel Gance’s 1926 Napoleon with sixty-piece orchestral accompaniment composed and conducted by his father, Carmine; commissioning Gene Kelly to head up a musical task-force at Zoetrope Studios; establishing a sort of filmmakers-in-residence program for the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and Michael Powell; lending support of several kinds to the latest efforts of Godard and Kurosawa; producing Wim Wenders’ first American film (deemed unreleasable after five years in the works, and put on indefinite hold); and of course polishing and perfecting his own next landmark, One from the Heart — Francis Ford Coppola found time, on the occasion of requesting his employees to take voluntary pay cuts, to issue the following words of optimism: “We’re on the eve of something that’s going to make the Industrial Revolution look like a small out-of-town tryout. I can see a communications revolution that’s about movies and art and music and digital electronics and satellites, but above all, human talent.”
5. The ad slogan of the century: “The remake of the century!” — in reference to the forthcoming Gunga Din.
6. How many movies equal a trend?
a. The Medieval sword-and-sorcery vogue that so much ink was spilled over amounted, by my count, to three, maybe two and a half, movies — Excalibur, Dragonslayer, Knightriders — which puts it in a dead-heat with the less remarked-on werewolf revival — The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, Wolfen.
b. Meanwhile, serial-murder movies, the trend of a year ago, or two years ago, about which commentators have run out of comments, continued unabated: Blood Beach, The Funhouse, Jack the Ripper, Maniac, The Prowler, The Fan, New Year’s Evil, My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to Me, Graduation Day, Friday the 13th — Part 2, Halloween II, Hell Night, Looker, Eyes of a Stranger, Strange Behavior, Dead and Buried, Deadly Blessing, and a couple of spoofs, Student Bodies and Saturday the 14th.
c. Trend within a trend: hypodermic needles stuck into eyeballs were featured in three of the abovementioned movies — Halloween II, Strange Behavior, Dead and Buried.
7. Chivalry might be dead after all. Bruce Dern went into the public print with the claim that he had “gone all the way” with co-star Maud Adams while filming the love scene for Tattoo. Adams was thus compelled to issue a denial and to call into question Dern’s knowledge of the birds and the bees. The finished film contained no hard evidence to support Dern’s contention.
8. Puzzler of the year was the question of what Ronald Reagan was supposed to have done to insult Jodie Foster — a bountifully talented, charming, and attractive actress about whom I personally have never had, and never shall have, an uncomplimentary word to say.
9. The anyone-can-be-a-movie-critic principle was best demonstrated this year by those Herman Joseph’s TV commercials, done in question-and-answer format, and invariably capped off with the response to “Best beer?” being that of the sponsor. One of these, typically cast with two chiselled Apollos, begins with the question “Best movie ever?” The immediately forthcoming answer — in complete seriousness, and to the complete satisfaction of the dumbstruck questioner, who does not (as you might expect) shoot back with “Aha! What about Battleship Potemkin? — is High Noon.
10. And while we’re in the area of TV ads: The Best Performance by an Actor for which no official award presently exists was delivered in the service of Avis Rent-a-Car by Glenn Ford, whose slurred, ragged speech and tortured, unpredictable, neurotically imaginative hand-ballets give you two hours’ worth of acting in just thirty seconds.
11. The year’s most blatant typographical error (it regrettably never made it into print, because the eagle-eyed Reader proofreader homed right in on it) occurred when the computer word-processor suffered a psychotic break and spewed out the entire Reader movie-capsule section one week in the style of the following sample:
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