It was the great Alfred Hitchcock himself who coined the term MacGuffin. Simply put, a MacGuffin is a plot trigger used to propel a movie’s storyline along. It is why a movie’s characters do what they do, go where they go, but apart from this, it holds little or no importance. It exists to create an engine for sending characters on their movie mission. In North by Northwest, for example, the MacGuffin is Cary Grant’s James Mason. In Notorious, characters keep making reference to “secret papers” and to some sort of “sand” hidden in a wine bottle. Is it plutonium? We are never told and Hitchcock assures us that a MacGuffin is “the thing that the characters on the screen worry about, but the audience don’t care.”
Author: Leo Racicot
Hal Ashby was one of the leading filmmakers of the 1970s. The march of time relegated him to near-anonymity until lately. His work is being re-examined, thanks in large part to Amy Scott’s new documentary, Hal which explores Ashby’s success with a decade-long chain of splendid films beginning with the little-known gem, The Landlord, which addresses inner-city conflicts in 1970s Brooklyn. It was followed by Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Coming Home (1978) which won Ashby a Best Director Oscar, and Being There (1979). Harold and Maude, like many of Ashby’s other films, features a rebel who refuses to mindlessly go along with the system at its heart.
Nineteen thirty-nine was a golden year for movies. A record number of films were made, more than 20 of them considered now to be classics of cinema, including Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and many others.
Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings (1939) did not fit the mold of movies being made at that time. Angels did not possess the maddeningly indefinable allure of Garbo in Ninotchka, the unwavering idealism of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the melodramatics of Dark Victory, or the unbearable tragedies of Wuthering Heights. Nor did it have the over-the-top fantasy world-whirl of the beloved Wizard of Oz, or the searing romanticism of Gone with the Wind, both made by Victor Fleming that same year.
When seeing a movie again after many years, you might be watching a film different from the one you first experienced. The lingo of the film may be out-of-sync with the current culture, the themes might feel dated, commonplace, the players’ mode of performance old hat, hard to relate to. You, yourself, have probably changed and your reaction to the story might be different from that of your younger self. Some of these concerns were with me as I popped Phillippe de Broca’s King of Hearts (Roi de Coeur) (1966) into my player 50 years after I saw it at The Brattle.
It boggles the mind to think that nearly one hundred years have passed since the expatriate community in Paris set the literary, cultural and social world on fire in the early years of the twentieth century. Artists from every country on the planet stormed the city and made landmark changes and inventions in every area of culture and study: writing, painting, sculpting, fashion, and other media. In the years leading up to, during, and following World War I, a city changed the world.
I never lose interest in the work of my favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock. His films hold up under repeated scrutiny. They feel as fresh on the fifteenth viewing as they do on the first. As I have written elsewhere, Hitchcock’s smaller efforts are superior to the greatest efforts of other directors. The might be said of Woody Allen’s work. Both directors became such masters of their craft that they could elevate even an apparently minor story to the realm of the sublime.
Sally Potter’s 1992 gender-bending fantasia, Orlando, was way ahead of its time. Based on the novel of the same name by Virginia Woolf, it broke ground, as did Woolf’s story, that had remained pretty much untilled. As viewed now, in our modern age of pansexual, polymorphous relationships, a strong case can be made for how influential a film it was on world society and socio-cultural mores.
Tilda Swinton, the star of Potter’s proceedings, has spent a career skirting conventional mainstream projects, going instead for passion projects she felt were edgy, free of boundaries and caution, movies she was compelled to make for their importance rather than their box office draw. An ethereal type (like her contemporary, Cate Blanchett, she has a chalky white translucence, albino eyes, and firm, hard cheekbones), Swinton is capable of slipping as easily into a male character as she is a female one; she has an otherworldly, space alien androgyny that makes her convincing when playing the “Other,” whatever that “Other” a script calls for her to be. She is perfect as Orlando, an Elizabethan-era boy who, in the course of the story, transforms into a girl. And we accept her as a boy not because she sports any definite male characteristic or swagger, but rather because her looks transcend all genders. She embodies the belief put forth here that all love is genderless. The impish grin that widens her face at times seems free of category, an animal almost. She looks like many different animals all at once. A singular person encompassing all. From the very first scene, Potter’s camera is making love to Swinton, to you, seducing you to love Swinton. Her courtly male duds hide her female breasts, her comely lines. Her wavy hair, fixed in the style of Elizabethan boys, is both masculine and feminine. We are instantly made curious by the instant openness of what we see.
From the very first jungle beats and howls, you are shaking, gyrating, moving to the instant explosions of sounds and rhythms. Director D.A. Pennebaker isn’t fooling around; he dunks your ears–and eyes–deep into the Monterey “happening” of 1967’s Summer of Love and happy you are to be there, whether again or for the first time.
Only a select few concert documentaries can lay claim to greatness: The Last Waltz, Gimme Shelter, Stop Making Sense, Don’t Look Back. Monterey Pop stands proudly alongside them.
In the summer of 1968, our mother, recently widowed, treated my sister and me to a week at the beach. After a few days, needing some time to herself, she asked a woman she had struck up a friendship with at the hotel if she would watch us so she could see the new hit horror movie playing at the little cinema on the boardwalk. When she got back, she could hardly contain her excitement and delight; it was “one of the best movies,” she said. She went to bed and tossed and turned all night long. “What kind of a movie,” I thought, “does THAT to you?!”
The answer, of course, is Roman Polanski’s twisted masterpiece, “Rosemary’s Baby,” a movie that, for almost 50 years, has been scaring the daylights out of people. Based on the Ira Levin bestseller of the same name, “Rosemary’s Baby” hit theaters like a tidal wave. A surefire “blockbuster” back before that term ever existed, it had moviegoers lined up for blocks, dying to see what they had heard was the most terrifying movie since “Psycho.” And they did not come out disappointed. Like all well-crafted movies, “Rosemary’s Baby” survives the test of time and is as scary now as it was in 1968. Scarier, even, maybe because its spiritually shattering story stands in such sharp contrast to our present day pragmatism and shock-resistant, “who gives a damn? ” nonchalant society. The movie shakes people on every level and still sends shivers up the spine.
Director Todd Haynes, so good at recreating the feel of certain eras in American culture, here in Carol, fully and beautifully realizes the 1950s, particularly the 1950s of the upper classes. The costumes, the nightclubs, the Manhattan house parties and restaurants, a fancy store’s toy department — all are stamped with Haynes’ magic eye for period flavor and detail. This becomes our setting for one of the most honest, deliberate love stories in recent memory. This is, in fact, the first movie I can recall that treats lesbians as flesh-and-blood human beings with human passions – absent from Carol are the shame and fear of the two schoolteachers in 1951’s The Children’s Hour, directed by William Wyler from the hit Lillian Hellman play, or the over-the-top histrionics (which, don’t get me wrong, I liked) of The Killing of Sister George (1968, directed by Robert Aldrich). Every character in Carol is an original, genuine, open. Everybody cares and cares deeply about the other, which makes the hurt, when hurt does come, all the more palpable, deep.