In her introduction to A Year in the Dark: Journal of a Film Critic, 1968–69, a collection of her reviews from her fourteen-month stint as the lead movie critic at the New York Times, the great Renata Adler describes the unmooring effect of the prodigious viewing regimen she followed — of all kinds of movies, in all kinds of theaters — in the months before her Times job started. “It began to produce a sensation of interior weightlessness, of my own time and experience drifting off like an astronaut’s,” she writes of this period of cine-satiety. While watching, over the course of seventy-two hours, five of the ten features in the UCLA Festival of Preservation that starts on Friday at Metrograph, I felt a similar sense of porousness, of atemporality. (All ten full-length films, plus the five shorts that round out the series, will be shown in new 35mm prints.) But this instability was always restorative, never depleting, the result of seeing, all for the first time, works that share nothing but the fact that they have been saved: from disrepair, from being overlooked.
Of this quintet, the title that was most familiar to me was Howard Alk’s The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971), a scalding documentary that begins as a chronicle of the dimpled, charismatic chair of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. But, midway through, this portrait shifts to an inquest, amassing the incontrovertible evidence that the twenty-one-year-old Hampton was assassinated, on December 4, 1969, by Chicago law enforcement while he slept in his apartment. Hampton’s rhetoric — “If you’re afraid of socialism, you’re afraid of yourself” — soars and rouses. The words of Bobby Rush, Hampton’s BPP comrade (and, since 1993, a member of the House of Representatives), uttered after his friend’s slaying, and after his own apartment had been raided, could have been spoken an hour ago: “It looks like they” — the police — “will murder anybody that’s black.”
Alk’s film is the only nonfiction title in the lineup. Several of the nine narratives in the UCLA preservation series explore cracked fantasies and rococo derangements, none more gloriously than Fernando Ayala’s Los Tallos Amargos (The Bitter Stems). This 1956 noir from Argentina tracks the unraveling of Alfredo Gaspar (Carlos Cores), a self-pitying journalist who suspects he’s being duped by the Hungarian immigrant he’s started a shady correspondence school with. Lensed by Ricardo Younis, Los Tallos Amargos is drenched in REM-sleep dread (Alfredo’s night terrors include visions of bloodied battlefields) and clammy paranoia, crippling doubt that takes root at a lustrously lit Buenos Aires cabaret.
A body is buried in a backyard in Ayala’s film; the garden of a Venice palazzo serves as a corpse dumping ground in The Lost Moment (1947), the only film directed by actor Martin Gabel (perhaps best known as the first boss Tippi Hedren swindles in Marnie). A fruity adaptation of Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, Gabel’s film features Susan Hayward in a dual role (sort of), as both the stern, butch niece of her centenarian aunt — played, under mounds of makeup, by Agnes Moorehead — and, in a nightly display of schizoid tendencies, as that relative’s youthful, piano-playing, lovesick incarnation. In this low-Gothic oddity, “femininity” becomes the spookiest specter in the haunted house.
Thanks to the film preservationists at UCLA, the two features written and directed in the mid-Sixties by Juleen Compton, whose name was new to me, will now be a little less obscure. In the first, the semi-autobiographical Stranded (1965), Compton plays Raina, a sexually adventurous young American woman traveling through Greece with a more conventional boyfriend and her French gay male pal. Despite the appeal of Raina’s carnal confidence, Stranded runs aground with its surfeit of whimsy; the vacationing trio breaks out into pantomime (and grating laughter) once too often. Much better — and stranger — is The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean (1966), whose title character is a clairvoyant Ozark teen played by Sharon Henesy. Like another Norma Jean — the one who would later call herself Marilyn Monroe — Henesy’s is a frail, flaxen-haired prophet ultimately undone by those who worshipped her.
Adler, in that same essay quoted above, writes what I consider the best précis of the pleasures and perils of being a film critic, calling her year-plus at the Times “a particular kind of adventure — with time, with tones of voice, with movies, with editing, with the peculiar experience it always is to write in one’s own name something that is never exactly what one would have wanted to say.” This is my last piece, my final instance of trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to say, for the Village Voice, a paper I first contributed to in 2000. (I’ll keep trying to figure it out at 4Columns, my next stop.)
I have been unbelievably lucky to have worked, whether as a freelancer or staffer, with the geniuses who have edited the Voice film section during that nearly two-decade span: Dennis Lim, Jessica Winter, Allison Benedikt, and Alan Scherstuhl, the eminent editor-critic of the film pages since 2012. But I owe the profoundest thanks to another Voice sage, Jesus Diaz, the associate art director who arrived at the paper in 1976 and who, as our union shop steward, has shown me and scores of others what leadership, resolve, kindness, and integrity look like. He has made us better people and ensured that working at the Voice was always “a particular kind of adventure,” and I dedicate this column to him.
UCLA Festival of Preservation, Metrograph, September 15–20