Film for Art's Sake

The first film review ever printed in Sweet Potato proved uncharacteristic of the paper's critical rigor. Defending The Blues Brothers in July 1980 (in a column directly preceding a two-page color ad for the movie), then-associate editor Randy Anderson wrote: "It's sad that certain critics have labeled The Blues Brothers a 'race movie,' maintaining that the black stars are being exploited by those two impostors, [John] Belushi and [Dan] Aykroyd. Horse feathers. The movie is just silly summer fun."

This false start notwithstanding, movies were never innocuous or insignificant in City Pages. Just three months later, cineaste Tom Baglien reeled around the "European art film" vis-à-vis American auteurs Paul Mazursky (Willie & Phil) and Woody Allen (Stardust Memories)--the latter in his view having "moved away from satire to preening, self-serving misogyny and misanthropy"--and the City Pages style of film criticism was born.

City Pages has almost always taken pop cinema more seriously than the competition--and more so than some of its own readers as well, judging from the number of "lighten up, it's only a movie" letters that have come in over the years. Naturally, negative feedback of this sort has been a source of pride for the paper. Erring mostly on the side of ambition, the film section of the Eighties abided by the alt-weekly ethos in general by providing a weekly alternative: covering those foreign, independent, and revival films to which the dailies wouldn't give the time of day, and writing in greater depth about Oscar winners, blockbusters, and big-budget flops. Plot summaries, star ratings, and formulaic analyses of acting and authorial intent were verboten at the paper under the assumption that they could easily be found in other publications.

When Baglien split town for New York in 1981, City Pages had the good sense to steal the Twin Cities-born, Madison film-schooled Phil Anderson away from the Twin Cities Reader. "I wish that postman would stop all the ringing and just deliver the goods for a change," Anderson opined in his inaugural column about the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. "I wish all the now-generation directors so enamored of American Forties film noir (like Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Walter Hill) would stop trying to re-create the gone past and work on the present and future." This is polemical film reviewing at its best, although it was often in the apportioning of space that Anderson exerted his politics. "I could rhapsodize for pages," he gushed apropos of a Satyajit Ray retrospective--whereas Mommie Dearest was deemed "not worth wasting any more dead trees on." Likewise, Anderson was happy to avoid both Top Gun and Fatal Attraction during the Hollywood megaboom of the mid- to late-Eighties, instead effusing at length about the likes of Robert Bresson and Chen Kaige, or issuing a gutsy dis of Emir Kusturica's much-acclaimed Time of the Gypsies. ("If there were an American movie called Time of the Chippewaor Time of the Wetbacks, would we find it exotic and colorful?")

Aside from an arts editing stint at Skyway News from 1983 to 1985 (during which time Michael Phillips, Pat Aufderheide, Edward Staiger, and P.D. Larson capably held down the fort), Anderson pretty much was the City Pages film section throughout the Eighties and early Nineties. This is to say that he not only took Spielberg and Lucas to task but took account of the rise and fall of local rep cinema and Film in the Cities; the wave of made-in-Minnesota movies (everything from Wildroseto Drop Dead Fred); the emergence of the Coen Brothers as artists of international stature; the many worthy auteur retrospectives at the Walker Art Center; and whatever foreign treasures the U Film Society's Al Milgrom had made known to him by deadline. "He shows masterpieces practically without warning," Anderson wrote in a mostly flattering profile of Milgrom in 1982, "and then lambastes those (often local critics) who don't see the film or recognize its worth." Some things never change, to be sure, including Anderson's talent for demonstrating knowledge and opinion without making a performance of it.

The silver lining on the cloud of Anderson's seven-month sabbatical to Sweden on a Fulbright scholarship in 1992 was that space in the film section was made available to Terri Sutton, a music critic who not only made the switch to movies while keeping her wit(s) but also, along with Judith Lewis in the early Nineties, managed to upset the local film critics' boys' club in the best way. The fact that both Sutton and Anderson remain regularly present in these pages is a mark of the dedication that the paper has managed to attract over the years, as well as a gift to readers who have looked to their reviews not to find out whether particular movies were "good" or "bad" but whether they were worth thinking about. Again and again, they were.


 

A free Sweet Potato T-shirt to the person who can answer the following question: What three actors in what three movies released this summer said, "I'm getting too old for this shit"?

Randy Anderson, September 1980

 

Rather than manipulating audiences, coercing them with ideas made attractive by stories, [Jean-Luc] Godard wants people to question what they're seeing.

Tom Baglien, December 10, 1980

 

Don't always expect a movie critic to be rational. For instance, I am partial to Ellen Burstyn just because she reminds me of my Aunt Dorothy. And I've liked Tom Skerritt mainly because he was the only non-squishy thing in squishy old Ice Castles. And just because an ancestor once left Canada for Duluth, I've had a long curiosity about our neighbor to the North. Silence of the North has all three of these elements--Burstyn, Skerritt, and Canada.

Phil Anderson, October 22, 1981

 

Stan Brakhage is, in his own way, a present-day Abel Gance, full of audacious theories and prodigious energy....His films can strain the eyes but also open the senses. I'll be there with my Visine.

Phil Anderson, November 19, 1981

 

So, I talked to Al [Milgrom, director of the U Film Society], at length and at leisure. Before his comments roll by, let me just suggest his speech patterns as a way of understanding his character. Working up to a sentence that begins, "Where am I gonna go?" he will spout: "Whudda-wadda-woodya-how'm I-where'm I." Sliding into a comment about programming, he says: "So we have, basically--probably--in one year's time, I think, say, a certain percentage of that student body comes...but lookit: I've survived five or six university presidents, earthquakes, blizzards, tornadoes, four different heads of Student Activities, five Gestapo regimes, and maybe three KGB dossier scrutinies. And guys have come, and guys have gone, and I figure nothing can happen, 'cause I'll still be here!"

Phil Anderson, May 6, 1982

 

Okay, it's time to get tough. Every week I show up in this space, politely droning on about this movie or that, being so damn genteel. No more Mr. Nice Guy. I demand that all of you take in the following events....

Phil Anderson, November 25, 1981

Montenegro pits the lives of upper-class, almost ethereal-looking Swedes against the ways of dark Yugoslavian "guest workers" who keep the Swedish state going....The whole point of [Dusan] Makavajev's movie is pretty clear early on (especially if you've seen his other movies), and he doesn't say anything new within his own body of work. Yugos have more fun, okay?

Phil Anderson, May 13, 1982

 

[John] Hanson is making [Wildrose] the way he likes to, in emulation of the great Italian neorealist films of the 1940s, like Open City or Bicycle Thieves. His story grows out of the location [the Iron Range of Minnesota], linking people and land; his cast is a mixture of outside professionals, Twin Cities professionals, and untrained locals playing themselves. This is a singularly lovely way to work, but it's not easy.

Phil Anderson, September 16, 1982

 

This was the year the Minneapolis Star and Tribune's Bob Lundegaard caused a big stink in his review of Star 80 with a mercy-killing crack about former starlet Carroll Baker. Bill Diehl continued to cause quieter weekly stinks of his own at the St. Paul Dispatch, bemoaning (among other things) the "travesty" of Terms of Endearment getting a mere PG even though the "specific sex expletive" was used twice. Diehl also gave the thumbs-up to Sudden Impact. Hmmm.

Michael Phillips, December 28, 1983

 

Any working film reviewer recognizes both [Pauline] Kael's analysis and her implied sense of loss. Most of us took up this job as a lark, feeding off the immediacy and energy of the form and treasuring our instant access to an audience. Most of us stayed in it because it was a vocation, not an occupation--God knows it doesn't pay.

Pat Aufderheide, July 4, 1984

 

Purple Rain's premise is how a selfish artist finally develops a heart, but the premise is transparently self-serving. So when the [Prince character] finally agrees to perform a song composed by two snubbed members of his band (one he previously and adamantly refused to sing), Prince is having his cake and eating it, too, since he actually wrote the song.

Edward Staiger, August 1, 1984

 

Blood Simple was a long time brewing in the Coens' heads, though other things came up before its conception. Joel worked as assistant editor for Sam Raimi, director of The Evil Dead. Ethan juggled his own writing projects. He and Joel eventually hooked up in New York to write a first draft of Blood Simple, one that took six months. Ethan describes the work progress as "pretty much like you imagine collaborations: one of us at the typewriter, the other pacing around the room, tearing our hair out, yelling...."

Michael Phillips, March 6, 1985

 

MTV contest giveaways aside, it's easy to see why Prince's Under the Cherry Moon premiered in Sheridan, Wyoming. If you were the director and you'd made a film this bad, you'd premiere it in an obscure place, too.

G.S. Brennan, July 23, 1986

 

An ongoing stumbling block exists within the notion of how to raise funds for filmmaking. "In terms of investment," says [the Office of Film, Video and Recording's coordinator Randy] Adamsick, "there's all kinds of financial structures in town if you've got, say, a new artificial kidney. Computer, medical technology--that kind of investment is very well understood. Entertainment investment is very different. It's very risky, and there's that conservative, Scandinavian attitude about it."

Michael Phillips, September 16, 1987

 

Nineteen eighty-nine will not be remembered as the year in which [Do the Right Thing] started race riots, but as the year in which the real action took place at Walls (Berlin), Curtains (Iron), and Squares (Tiananmen). Undoubtedly there are several movies there, and even more undoubtedly rights have already been sold. To Americans. But if they cast Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger as Lech Walesa, I will just plain quit.

Phil Anderson, December 20, 1989

 

[David] Lynch ranks as the most gifted manipulator of images working in cinema today, and his sense of irony and passion for his work mark him as a singular technician of emotional effects....The fact is, though, the demons in Lynch's imagination jibe well with neoconservative paranoia, from the War on Drugs to the fear of black folks (unless they work in your dad's hardware store, as they do in Blue Velvet) and the danger of seductive women.

Judith Lewis, August 15, 1990

 

Loads of ink was spilt debating the gals-and-guns equation [in Thelma & Louise], but what it came down to was that most men like women with firearms when the chicks are going along for the ride (Terminator 2) but balk when the barrel turns their direction. I found it sadly telling that Thelma and Louise end up driving off a cliff. In real life, they probably would've trusted in the legal system--and ended up in jail for 50 years.

Terri Sutton, January 1, 1992

 

Whatever the causes of [Film in the Cities]' demise, it will surely be mourned. FITC was a great leveling field where amateurs and professionals alike worked side by side, sharing insight, excitement, and ideas about filmmaking and photography. Under one roof, young artists could acquire skills, borrow equipment, get funding, and exhibit their final product to the public. It was the ultimate program, but one whose time may have come and gone.

David Southgate, August 25, 1993

 

In the guise of romance, The Piano acts out a soul's reunion with the living world through the agents of sex and language. It transforms the audience in a similar way, mostly because it's so fertile with story and myth, reaching back into the Brontës, the Bible, Robinson Crusoe, and The Tempest--a drama, like this one, about an island, a magician, and a stranger.

Terri Sutton, November 17, 1993

 

Far as I can tell, Spielberg's critically enshrined [Schindler's List] isn't about Jews or even about the Holocaust, rather it's a repentant version of The Player, wherein a big-shouldered capitalist redeems his trivial, amoral life by endlessly remaking A Christmas Carol.

Terri Sutton, January 5, 1994

 

If Philadelphia's sexless portrayal of gays is both insulting and short-sighted, its basic point unfortunately couldn't be more current. Unbiased access to employment and health and love does not constitute a "special" right for anyone, queer or otherwise.

Terri Sutton, January 12, 1994

 

Truth be told, I know that by the standards of "alternative" arts criticism (including this paper, most of the time), no artistic work of any resonance or merit is supposed to be accessible to straight white men these days, much less universal in its themes; I know how dreadfully retro it is to cut slack for any artist who tries for breadth. And this makes me want to cry. I don't mean to say Philadelphia is a great movie; only that I'm so fucking tired of living in a time when the willingness to genuflect to difference is the main measure of a raised consciousness--and any effort to speak to a broad, diverse audience instead of catering to the delicate sensibilities of this tribe or that is summarily dissed and dismissed.

Steve Perry, January 12, 1994

 

That Disney's stereotyped depiction of black characters has surfaced again in the early Nineties seems more than coincidental. Just as white-authored blackface minstrelsy emerged as mainstream entertainment during Reconstruction (1867-77), serving to reinforce a sense of newly liberated blacks as wayward buffoons, Disney's recent reappropriation of black humor comes along at a time of unprecedented control over black comedy by black artists.

Rob Nelson, February 23, 1994

 

At the studio junket for Pulp Fiction a few days later, I ask Tarantino why he thinks normally jaded audiences are so fascinated by him. "You know, I always feel like a complete nimrod pontificating about that," Tarantino says, erupting in a caustic burst of dialogue that could have come from one of his screenplays.

Rob Nelson, October 12, 1994

 

If [Todd] Haynes's Poison was a film made in anger, Safe adopts the same façade of tranquillity that it's critiquing. Paradoxically, Haynes has delivered a complex argument in favor of using pain as a means to fight the power--this in a film culture that too often values tidy resolutions, and at a time when modern healing strategies are defined by the self-blaming conceit that the best defense against disease is a positive attitude. The profound tragedy at the heart of Safe is that everyone is telling [the protagonist] to calm down, when what she really needs to do is act up.

Rob Nelson, August 9, 1995

 

For all its digs at Minnesotan culture, Fargo has its weirdly poignant side.

Julie Caniglia, March 6, 1996

 

Myself, I'm aware that my intense dislike for [Fargo]--for its smug, misanthropic way of equating accent with intellect, and its monotonous litany of grotesque Midwestern caricatures--gives me a feeling of guilty brotherhood with fellow Nice guys like Fargo's own Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a Minnesotan of such pent-up rage that the mere task of ice-scraping his car is enough to send him over the edge.

Rob Nelson, January 1, 1997

 

[Local] movie lovers meet the passive resistance of some powerful players, not least among them daily-newspaper critics like the Star Tribune's Jeff Strickler. About a year ago, Strickler told a Minnesota Daily reporter that coverage of indies other than Landmark [Theatres] fare is limited in his paper by meager space and resources, then added a revealing comment: "My job is to report and review, not to support local filmmaking. It is not my job to sell tickets to their movies." So if I understand this correctly, the Strib's comprehensive and prominently placed coverage of studio films week in and week out does not constitute "selling tickets to their movies." It's simply a matter of "reporting and reviewing" whatever's most worthy of attention. In practice, this has meant that a movie that's wide-released by a major studio, even if it sucks, is automatically deemed more worthy than a foreign and/or independent movie playing at Oak Street or U Film, even if it's great (and could use a leg up). The justification: The studio movie is the one most readers will be interested in. And the reason for that? It's never discussed, only proven again and again.

Rob Nelson, December 17, 1997

 

After untold hours spent scratching his beard in monastic seclusion, George Lucas finally has the power to "paint" the frame digitally in any color he chooses--and yet, what do you know, his favorite shade of character is still white.

Rob Nelson, May 19, 1999

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