Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Shooting/Ride In The Whirlwind

The Shooting

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date November 11, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

[Director Monte Hellman died April 20 at the age of 91. Often labeled a "maverick" filmmaker, Hellman first honed his craft under producer/guru Roger Corman before striking out on his own to craft entirely personal and often startling (not to mention trippy and existential) entries in familiar genres. His "Two-Lane Blacktop" (1971) is celebrated by many cinephiles, including yours truly, as the greatest road movie ever made. This Criterion release showcases two of Hellman's idiosyncratic Westerns, perhaps the genre he was most identified with. "The Shooting" is also a reminder of one of Hellman's greatest contributions to cinema: serving up some of the very best roles in the career of one of Hollywood's best actors, Warren Oates.]

“The Shooting” (1966) and “Ride In the Whirlwind” (1966) have always been joined at the existential hip for obvious reasons. Funded by Roger Corman and directed by Monte Hellman, the low budget Westerns were shot so close together they even share some of the same horses and were both filmed near Kanab, Utah, a hardscrabble moonscape of sterile rock and foot-high, sickly-green sagebrush. It seems only appropriate that a portion of the area now forms the bottom of Lake Powell as the people of both films could only fully belong to locations that aren't quite there.

Though they'll always be connected, each of Hellman's Westerns offers its distinct pleasures. “The Shooting” is, at its core, a documentary about Warren Oates being awesome. The best inventions seem so obvious you can't imagine nobody had thought of them before, and this movie will leave you flabbergasted that Hellman was the first person who had thought to make Oates a leading man. Has the camera ever loved a face so much? Oates imbues the role of cowhand Willett Gashade with a presence so palpably dense you can almost imagine he's the only person in the film who really exists and has simply dreamed everyone else (maybe the audience too) into existence just to keep himself occupied.

Warren Oates, being awesome

“Everyone else” in this case includes only a handful of other people, one of whom (B.J. Merholz as Leland Drum) is dead before the story begins. Among the living (maybe?) are Gashade's twitchy sidekick Coley (Will Hutchins) and an unnamed woman (Millie Perkins) who simply materializes on a distant ridge before hiring Gashade and Coley to... well, we don't really know. Mostly to pick a perilous path through an unpopulated desert in pursuit of whatever the woman is pursuing and to meet up with a toothy wolf of a hired gun named Billy Spear. Spear is introduced with a close-up of his eyes which must have seemed evocative and anonymous at the time, but which are now instantly recognizable as Jack Nicholson who also co-produced both films with Hellman.

The script by Carole Eastman (writing as Adrien Joyce and soon to be Oscar-nominated for “Five Easy Pieces”) is peppered with terse dialogue like Gashade's “My mind's all unsatisfied with it.” The essence of the project is revealed in a typically efficient exchange: Gashade says, “I don't see no point in it” to which the woman replies, “There isn't any.” Beckett rides again!

If the shooting of “The Shooting” was rushed there's no visual evidence aside from the occasional and irrelevant lapse in continuity editing; this film, like its twin, features consistently gorgeous cinematography by Gregory Sandor. The camera retreats to a high, distant vantage point for long panoramic shots that situate the lonely riders as shimmering dots who almost disappear into the landscape, then pulls in for meticulously composed close-ups that seize the opportunity to explore that pensive sculpture that is Oates' face which critic Kim Morgan so aptly describes as “handsome and sometimes ugly... a face with history and innocence.” In one of the most memorable shots, Oates squats down in the foreground and scans the horizon for the trouble he knows is brewing while Hutchins fiddles around with a bag of flour in the background; a gunshot sends Hutchins into a panicked run for cover with a trail of flour billowing behind him. Oates hardly budges because, well, he's Warren Oates.

“Ride in the Whirlwind” is, alas, an Oates-less oater, but compensates as best as possible by dropping us right into the middle of the no-nonsense action. I may not be qualified to declare anything the “best” of all-time but I can say the film begins with the most convincing stagecoach robbery I've ever seen. A group of men, not yet individuated, mill about nervously as they prepare to swoop in for the score. Shootings occur at a clinical distance that renders them as confusing as they must feel in the dusty swirl of action. It's all over quickly though nowhere close to cleanly.

Hanging out in Ride in the Whirlwind
“Whirlwind” is slightly greener than “The Shooting” and teeming with more human life. And death. The film switches from the robbers to three riders who happen upon a man hanging from a tree. These cowhands may be rugged but they don't dismiss the grisly sight, savvy enough to know that there but for the grace of a disinterested God go they. Vern (Cameron Mitchell) is the veteran leader of this strictly working class bunch, Wes (Nicholson again) the younger man who looks up to him, with the quiet Otis (writer Tom Filer in his only film role) rounding out the pack.

Seeking shelter for the night, they unwittingly stumble upon the thieves' hideout, a point at which “Whirlwind” further distinguishes itself from more formulaic genre entries. The film (with a script also by Nicholson) stages the “duel” between the two groups as a volley of anxious glances, awkward postures and forced politeness (everyone is "much obliged”). They manage to co-exist but quickly huddle up separately to share their fears, and the “bad” guys (led by Harry Dean Stanton without the Harry in his credit) are just as worried as the “good” guys. These are predators who know how easy it is to become prey.

The lesson is reinforced the next morning when a posse, like the mysterious woman in “The Shooting”, suddenly materializes in the morning. They threaten to smoke out the robbers and think, quite reasonably, that Wes, Vern, and Otis are with the outlaws as well, setting up the chase that structures the rest of the movie. Young Wes sulks at the unfairness of it all, “We wasn't doing nothin', damn it!”, an exclamation that now seems connected by genre-veins to “Unforgiven” and its “Deserve's got nothin' to do with it.”

This is the kind of world (maybe not unlike ours) where the innocent can be forced by circumstance to become the guilty and where the plainly guilty can still be victims of summary justice. It's certainly not the kind of world with muscular heroes or righteous lawmen, just survivors and the dead.

I always remembered “The Shooting” as the better of the two, perhaps because of its more abstract, hallucinatory qualities (I've avoided describing the doozy of an ending just for your sake, dear reader), but revisiting the pair for the first time in a half-dozen years I might give the nod to “Whirlwind” now. There's really no way to lose with either. Nicholson is marvelous, surprisingly vulnerable and looking even younger than 28 in one of his earlier major roles. The landscape is once again a character of its own, especially the box canyon that hems in our unlucky fugitives and reminds them that neither the terrain nor its designer will be providing them any refuge.

Both films failed to make any kind of box office impact on their initial release in 1966 but would eventually find a second life, in part because of Nicholson's growing reputation but also with fans drawn to Hellman's work through masterpieces like “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971), one of several Hellman-Oates collaborations which also included the marvelous “Cockfighter” (1974) and “China 9, Liberty 37” (1978).

Hellman's entry in “The Film Snob's Dictionary” pokes fun at the considerable art-house reputation his low-budget genre films have earned, but the appeal should be obvious (the relatively pedestrian IMDB user ratings for both films fall under the category of “This is why we can't have nice things.”) Flawlessly shot and edited, built around focused, concrete scripts, these are the kinds of movies that should be held up as examples for aspiring filmmakers. Of course, not every film student has access to a Warren Oates or a Jack Nicholson or the talent of a Monte Hellman, but let's not quibble over details.

Both films, included on the same single Blu-ray disc, are presented in their original 1.85:1 aspect ratios. These new 4K digital transfers (supervised by Monte Hellman) do a fine job of capturing detail in the fairly uniform color schemes. “The Shooting” is a whole mess of dirt and dirt-colored rocks, the same hue filling the entire frame sometimes. The all-earth tone scheme makes flesh tones really stand out and the image detail is particularly strong in close-ups. Did I mention that the camera loves Warren Oates' face? So does high-def.

Both films have linear PCM mono audio tracks. The lossless audio is as crisp as usual from Criterion; those old recycled ricochets never sounded so distinct. Optional English subtitles support the English audio and might be needed for time to with the idiomatic dialogue.

Though Criterion has fit two features onto a single disc, they've still found room to include a good deal of extras without skimping on audiovisual quality.

Both films are accompanied by new commentary track by Monte Hellman and film historians Bill Krohn and Blake Lucas and Monte Hellman's dog Kona. Krohn and Lucas offer some genre analysis but Hellman's stories of the film's production and his thought process really power the commentaries.

The bulk of the extras are new interviews conducted by Hellman, the first being a reunion of sorts with Roger Corman (6 min.) Seeing these two together, and both looking fantastic, is a real treat. Hellman also speaks with actress Millie Perkins (16 min.), actor Harry Dean Stanton (3 min.), actors B.J. Merholz and John Hackett together (17 min.) and Gary Kurtz (19 min.) who served as assistant camera on “The Shooting” and assistant director on “Whirlwind.” A feature called “The Last Cowboy” mixes footage of Hellman interviewing chief wrangler Calvin Johnson (no relation to the Detroit Lions' Megatron) with footage of Hellman revisiting (what remains of the) locations from the films (17 min.) Film programmer Jake Perlin also interviews actor Will Hutchins (15 min.)

One of the best pieces on the disc is “An American Original” (14 min.), an appreciation of Warren Oates written and narrated by critic Kim Morgan. It's a great piece, the text of which I briefly quoted above and which you can also find at her blog Sunset Gun. I think she might be a fan of Mr. Oates.

The fold-out insert booklet includes an excellent essay by critic Michael Atkinson.

Film Value:
“The Shooting” and “Ride In the Whirlwind” were mostly seen on shoddy TV broadcasts for years and a few undistinguished DVD releases years ago only improved the situation marginally. These high-def restored transfers present the films in a state at least approaching their original luster and it's unlikely many people have ever seen them looking so good, maybe not even Mr. Hellman at least in quite some time. The films work alone and even better as a pair. Each deserves consideration in the pantheon of great Westerns and this disc should provide ample evidence to back up that claim.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Irma Vep


IRMA VEP (Assayas, 1996)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Apr 27, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

I remember first watching “Irma Vep” (1996) in film school. Like many viewers, I was baffled by the film's enigmatic ending and couldn't get those final scratchy, assaulting images out of my mind for weeks. While struggling, like any earnest film studies scholar, to interpret their meaning, I failed, like any earnest film studies scholar, to notice the film's most obvious quality: It's a total hoot!

In his vertiginous portrait of the joys, terrors, chaos, jealousy, and inspiration that form the short-lived desert-bloom culture of a film set, writer-director Olivier Assayas has plenty to say about the perilous yet exciting state of French cinema as it celebrates its centennial and warily eyeballs a new millennium. But whether “Irma Vep” turns out to be a requiem for or a celebration of the seventh art, Assayas and his cast and crew seem determined to have fun along the way.

Actress Maggie Cheung, playing a fictionalized version of herself, arrives on the set of a low-budget French art film in which she will star. She's three days late thanks to her previous project, a big budget Hong Kong action flick that ran over schedule, a reminder that Cheung (both the real one and the film's fictional version) is one of the most famous movie stars in the world, even if some of the members of the tiny, insular French crew are barely aware of her work.

Cheung meets with director Rene Vidal (Nouvelle Vague icon Jean-Pierre Leaud) who has made the bold decision to cast the Hong Kong star in his remake of the Louis Feuillade silent film serial “Les vampires” (1915-16). Cheung will play Irma Vep, the daring criminal thief first portrayed by Musidora, an actress hailed at the time by surrealist poets as the very definition of the modern, liberated French woman and who was crowned Paris's Queen of Cinema in 1926. Why cast Maggie Cheung as this most definitively French of French icons? Vidal attributes his choice to Cheung's “grace” and her “mysterious” persona. In other words, he's turned on by her.

Libido is one of the primary engines of creativity, and Cheung's presence on set fuels a great deal of creativity. Costumer designer Zoe (Nathalie Richard), tasked with repairing the slinky but flimsy latex catsuit into which Cheung is poured, both befriends and lusts after the actress. Some crew members gossip about Cheung's alleged sexual exploits while others pigeonhole her in xenophobic fashion as “the Chinese girl.” Cheung, for her part, integrates herself into the film set's culture while retaining a bemused detachment, something necessary to carve out her own identity while being fetishized by her co-workers in this strange, new land.

Assayas served time as a critic before directing his own films, and he's keenly aware that everyone holds their own loopy view of what makes a movie great. A hyperbolic interviewer (Antoine Basler) browbeats Cheung with his unbridled enthusiasm for John Woo (ah, the “ballet” of violence!) and his devotion to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme, true artists who make movies for real people, not the pallid arthouse fare served up by intellectuals for intellectuals. Conversely, two former militant leftist filmmakers screen their old agitprop movie at a late-night cast party, but to minimal enthusiasm. For an on-set accountant (Alex Descas), what matters most is that the film can be projected to amortize at seven percent – now that's a great movie!

Rene, described at one point as a director who “used to be very good,” experiences a violent breakdown and gets replaced on the project as it rapidly spirals out of control. But just when all seems lost, we see the short bit of film that Rene had a chance to edit before his ouster. The grainy black-and-white footage, with its visual and audio scratches, and crude animation seemingly drawn right onto the film, could be seen as evidence of the director's mental turmoil, or perhaps as the promise of a whole new direction in cinema, a merging of the experimental (those two leftists at the party) and the mainstream (John Woo's “ballet”) that has always defined the medium. Perhaps you can still be a radical after all, even after a hundred years of filmmaking and the need to coordinate budgets with a half-dozen international production companies. No wonder Assayas describes “Irma Vep” as his film that has the happiest ending. Of course “Irma Vep” only pulled in a few hundred thousand at the box office on a $1.4 million budget so, y'know, there won't be a sequel.


The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. According to Criterion: “This new 2K digital restoration was undertaken from the 16 mm and 35 mm camera negatives.” Most of the film was shot on super 16 and this 1080p restoration preserves the grainy look with sharp detail throughout.


The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track provides a sense of depth and handle's the film's eclectic soundtrack quite well. Optional English subtitles support the audio which is in French and English.


Criterion has packed this release so heavily, they've spread the supplements over two Blu-ray discs.

In addition to the film itself, Disc One includes a recent interview (2021, 28 min.) with Assayas. The writer-director discusses the film's genesis, which started as a project with filmmaker Claire Denis. He also discusses how he first met Maggie Cheung (to whom he was married from 1998-2001) at Cannes, then writing and shooting “Irma Vep” rather quickly while he was preparing for a much larger project.

Disc One also includes two older supplements previously included on other discs. First is a conversation (2003, 34 min.) between Assayas and critic Charles Tesson. They discuss their shared passion for Asian film, and a 1984 trip they took to Hong Kong, which turned into a major article in “Cahiers du Cinema.” Second is an interview (2003, 17 min.) with actresses Maggie Cheung and Nathalie Richard regarding their experience on “Irma Vep.”

Disc One also includes thirty minutes of “On the Set” footage from the making of “Irma Vep.”

Disc Two leads off with “Les Vampires: Hypnotic Eyes” (2016, 59 min.), the sixth episode of Louis Feuillade's landmark serial film. I think “Les vampires” is public domain, though I'm not sure how that concept applies in French law, but I know it's not hard to find online. However, this 1080p upgrade of an episode is a pleasure to watch.

The second disc includes perhaps the best supplement in this package, the documentary “Musidora: The Tenth Muse” (2013, 68 min.) Directed by Patrick Cazals, this feature tells the story of the much celebrated French actress who portrayed the sultry Irma Vep, and inflamed the fantasies of a few generations of French film lovers. Musidora (real name Jeanne Roques) was far more than a fetish object. She was one of the first French women to direct films. She also produced and wrote in addition to acting, and hobnobbed with major figures of the time, including her friend Colette. Later, she worked with Henri Langlois and the Cinematheque. This is a fantastic documentary.

In “The State of Cinema 2020” (46 min.), Assayas holds court on what has and hasn't changed in film in the quarter century since he released “Irma Vep.” He has devoted a lot of thought to this and bombards the viewer with his densely-packed arguments, which is fascinating and also might require a few sittings to absorb.

Disc Two wraps up with two short supplements. “Man Yuk: A Portrait of Maggie Cheung” (1997, 5 min.) is a short directed by Assayas, which sort of picks up where those final images of “Irma Vep” left off. We also get 4 minutes of Black-and-White Rushes of Cheung on a rooftop set in her Irma Vep costume.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by writer and film programmer Aliza Ma.

Final Thoughts:

With “Irma Vep,” Olivier Assayas appears to be asking a few major questions about his career and his medium of choice: “What have I been doing?” and “What can I do next?” The answer to the latter appears to be “just about anything.” “Irma Vep” argues, in part, that boundaries between genres and between high and low art are false. Cinema thrives on the confluence of its many historical crosscurrents, and Assayas's portrait of creativity as a gloriously chaotic mess is intoxicating and downright inspiring. Criterion has loaded this two-disc release with a strong array of extras to support this top-notch high-def transfer.