A Year in the Work
Being a tally of the 2022 work I did that wasn't on Substack
Some people do an annual roundup of their work on Twitter or Facebook, but this format is easier for me. Here are last year’s gigs—most of them, anyway. I haven’t listed the Substack work, for obvious reasons, but I remain extremely grateful to everyone who subscribes or visits from time to time.
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I absolutely love this strange, fatalistic and melancholy movie set in the world of the theater. For years it had been circulating in versions so hideous they beggar description. The Film Noir Foundation restored it, and for them I recorded a brief video supplement about the career of Joan Leslie. I was glad to have the chance to rediscover her work, which was mostly terrific and not at all saccharine, as she was sometimes accused of being.
Dames, Janes, Dolls and Canaries: Women Stars of the Pre-Code Era, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York
In February, I was at last able to present a film series I had been working on since Fall 2019 (Covid, of course, delayed it). It was called Dames, Janes, Dolls, and Canaries: Woman Stars of the Pre-Code Era, and it ran for two weeks in February at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The series came from an idea I’ve had for a long time; that there was a unique set of actresses who flourished before the Code, but a sizable portion of them didn’t remain stars when the industry changed.
There were 14 actresses covered, and 19 films in the series; 16 screened on 35mm. We’re showing two films apiece for Nancy Carroll, Elissa Landi, Mae Clarke, and—my favorite, the one I think of as the series’ mascot—Mary Nolan. The others were Sally Eilers, Helen Twelvetrees, Toshia Mori, Dolores Del Rio, Ann Harding, Leila Hyams, Genevieve Tobin, Marian Marsh, Madge Evans, Clara Bow and Bebe Daniels. Some actresses weren’t included because their films had been screened a lot recently; others worked in films that are now quite difficult to obtain. I’m very happy with what we’ve programmed. There are a few familiar classics. But many selections are off the beaten path, or even true rarities. One print we screened, East Lynne, starring Ann Harding and directed by Frank Lloyd, is the only complete one in existence. The sole silent in the series, The Armoured Vault, was shown as a curio because it was made during Mary Nolan’s sojourn in Germany — she was credited as Imogene Robertson. That movie hadn’t been shown in NY since its debut in 1928, and it was the only one I programmed without seeing in some form, even a crappy-looking one. Nolan had a small part but she was always a vivid presence, and the movie was a remarkably tense heist thriller that involved a number of the primary characters being locked into the vault of the title.
Of the ones screened, and based solely on what people told me, Hobart Henley’s Night World, an ensemble film with Mae Clarke as a warm-hearted chorus girl and Boris Karloff as a silkily evil club owner, was a crowd favorite. The Wild Party (1929), unavailable on streaming or home video for reasons I don’t pretend to understand, played to a nearly full house that clearly loved it.1 I finally got a chance for a big-screen viewing of Sally Eilers’ best role, in Frank Borzage’s touching Bad Girl, and I also adored By Candlelight, directed by James Whale and starring Elissa Landi. I had seen it only in a version that could be charitably described as a mess.
For MoMA’s online magazine, I wrote an essay about the series and the ideas that sparked it.
My dual review of Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life by James Curtis and Camera Man by Dana Stevens. Curtis is a wonderful, dedicated biographer who has no truck with rumors and liars, a rarer quality in a Hollywood-focused writer than you might think or hope. And Dana’s book is sui generis, a blend of criticism, historical meditation, and biographical research. She worked herself to the bone on Camera Man, and it’s been a pleasure to see how well her book has been received.
Young Mr. Ford on the Criterion Channel
My introduction for this John Ford series was, of course, what Wall Street calls "a table-pounding buy.” I told people at the time that my top picks in this incredibly rich group were, in order: Pilgrimage, Kentucky Pride, Four Sons, 3 Bad Men, and Young Mr. Lincoln. Of the Will Rogers trilogy, all of which played on the Channel, my favorite is Steamboat Round the Bend. The series also included the stone masterpiece How Green Was My Valley, which I considered a bit of an outlier in terms of the Channel theme, as it’s never been out of sight or circulation for long.
I don’t work on many releases of (relatively) contemporary films, and Claude Chabrol is my favorite filmmaker of the French New Wave, so I was delighted to contribute a commentary for this blu-ray.
Part of Powerhouse/Indicator’s Columbia Noir #5 box set. I always have fun doing commentaries with Glenn, and this was especially interesting. I’d never done a commentary on a Bogart movie before, and he’s great in this one. The boxing milieu also prompted me to examine my lifelong fascination with the ring, along with my qualms about what the sport can cost the people involved.
I was enchanted with this French film from the tail end of the silent era. It also screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna this year, in the Piazza Maggiore. I’m not at all surprised that Charles Vanel’s unjustly ignored near-masterpiece was an audience favorite in both festivals.
Re-teaming with the Great Glenn for another Powerhouse/Indicator home video release of a movie about a highly controversial sport. We didn’t plan a theme, it just kind of happened that way. This is an exceptional film by Budd Boetticher, with fantastic performances by Gilbert Roland and Katy Jurado.
It’s online and you can see for yourself how well I called the final results (not very).
“The Tarantino Tapes”: Cover story for Sight and Sound
“Look,” Tarantino says, “we’re film experts. We’re not here to be cheerleaders for any films. It’s like everyone thinks that we’re doing a show” (here he roars like a hyped-up sports announcer) “where we talk about our faaaavorite movies!”
“I don’t want to talk about my favorite films,” he continues cheerfully. “That’s fucking boring. I talk about my favorite films enough that I don’t even know if they’re my favorites anymore. I can’t ever see them again. I spent too much of my life watching them the first time around.”
I had a blast interviewing Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary about “The Video Archives Podcast.” Years ago, Tarantino bought out the circulating inventory of the Video Archives store where he and Avary both worked before they became moviemakers themselves. This new podcast is based on watching and rewatching the tapes in that trove, and often discovering films for the first time. I’ve listened to most of the first season now, and the show is funny and knowledgeable as you’d expect. It can also go in unexpected directions, as in the great episode about Star 80.
The interview isn’t online, alas, but the opening page can be read at the above link.
This Q&A, held a day or two after Park’s latest film bowed at the NYFF, was designed to focus on his body of work as a whole, so I didn’t ask much about Park’s brilliant Decision to Leave. But I did get to talk to him about things like how he deploys humor, sympathy (or not) for his villains (which lend to an extensive answer about one of my favorites, Thirst), and why he is more influenced by literature than by other filmmakers. The talk was recorded in hopes of going up on the NYFF Youtube Channel at some point, but that hasn’t happened yet. In any case, for me this was a high point of the year.
At least two-thirds of “Hollywood: The Oral History” is taken up by early filmmaking, silent movies, and the studio era, which Basinger says ended around 1960; the transitional 1960s and the New Hollywood of the 1970s are allotted about three chapters; and post–2000 movies get but a sliver. This is a book for those who still revere Hollywood’s past, and that’s fine by this film historian.
“The Neo-Noir World of Claude Chabrol,” for Noir City
Fulfilling a long-held ambition to write something about Claude Chabrol. The focus is on about a dozen of his late-period films, for reasons I explain in the article. Noir City Magazine isn't online. To subscribe, donate $20 or more to the Film Noir Foundation, to support the work it does to preserve, restore and exhibit these beautiful films (see also Repeat Performance, so long out of sight people started to think it was lost). Here's what you get for your FNF donation levels.
An excerpt follows.
With a few period-set exceptions, Chabrol did not mimic or even much reference the visual vocabulary of film noir. His style wasn’t invisible, but neither was it flashy. He deployed camera movements like a resistance fighter mining a bridge—economically and with absolute precision. Critic Dave Kehr wrote, in his 2010 obituary for the man he’d considered a good friend, “He employed close-ups with discretion, as if he were declining to violate the privacy of his characters out of a concern for bourgeois propriety.” But in the movies we’ll be discussing here, Chabrol can be seen using his own style to ring changes on noir themes; never merely as homage, but to push old masters’ ideas in other intriguing directions.
He loved making movies, almost (some sniffed) to a fault, taking jobs for hire, using scripts that he knew were iffy, reportedly even making a movie or two because the filming would take place in a region whose cuisine he enjoyed. (Chabrol was a gourmet—the word “foodie” doesn’t begin to cover it—and the pleasures and dangers of food are one of his signatures.) The result was more than 50 films over 50 years, an oeuvre with so many periods and sub-periods it’s almost choose-your-own-adventure.
In which, like many others, I offer opinions about some of the depictions in Damien Chazelle’s misbegotten Babylon. My first byline for Vanity Fair, and an extremely pleasant experience, the staff there being incredibly good at what they do. Happily, my remit was also to persuade people to see some silent films and early talkies, and in this case that included some hidden gems.
This is the early talkie, set at a girl’s college, that is referenced—my word would be travestied—in Babylon.