[Readings] | Notion Picture Industry, by Patton Oswalt | Harper's Magazine

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[Readings]

Notion Picture Industry

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By Patton Oswalt, from Silver Screen Fiend, to be published next month by Scribner. In memory of Sherman Torgan, an L.A. theater owner, Oswalt imagined “a month’s worth of titles to play in a netherworld movie palace.”

Blood Meridian (1988, dir: Terrence Malick, starring Gene Hackman, Barry Brown, and Marlon Brando)

Malick’s four-and-a-half-hour Blood Meridian, partially financed by star Marlon Brando (he sold off his island), is at once the best western, the best historical movie, and the best horror movie ever made. Brando underwent sumo-wrestler training and had his head, eyebrows, and body completely waxed to play the massive, hairless, indestructible Judge Holden. The Comanche-attack sequence is both beautiful and nearly unwatchable. Watch Barry Brown carefully during the final confrontation scene in Fort Griffin. He had himself hypnotized. Despite the on-screen tension, Hackman and Brando were fast friends on set. The meteor showers that open and close the film were real.

Stalingrad (1988, dir: Sergio Leone)

Opening with a close-up of a cannon’s muzzle and closing with a similar close-up of a crying newborn’s mouth, Leone’s Stalingrad is a blazing loop of war and rebirth. No one’s ever been able to spot Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, or Lee Van Cleef among the half million background actors, but all three stars and the director insist they’re there.

orson welles double feature!
Heart of Darkness (1942)
Batman: Riddle of the Ghoul (1944)

Welles starved himself down to a skeleton for his role as Kurtz. His jittery, no-sleep, diet-pills performance is worth the shadowy slog upriver with Joseph Cotten that takes up the first hour. Welles steals the movie from the movie itself.

And who’d have guessed that Gary Cooper could pull off the roles of the Dark Knight Detective and Bruce Wayne? Somehow he slides perfectly into the tuxedo and the cowl, a tormented, urbane playboy by day who becomes a driven, taciturn bruiser by night. Leave it to Welles to populate his movie with six of Batman’s villains: Lee Marvin as Two-Face, Edward G. Robinson as the Penguin, Ella Raines as Catwoman, Dwight Frye as the Riddler, Everett Sloane as the Scarecrow, and, towering imperiously over the whole mad feast, Welles himself as Ra’s al Ghul. The cameo by Richard Widmark, as a newly scarred Joker, leaping toward the screen from the smoking ruins of a chemical plant, still makes people scream. The costumes that longtime fans wear to midnight showings only add to the chiaroscuro carnival.

Doctor Strange (1976, dir: Francis Ford Coppola)

Coppola’s Doctor Strange. I mean, where do I start? Three hours. Gordon Willis cinematography. A young Christopher Walken, prowling the streets of early-Seventies Greenwich Village, fighting demons and the Establishment. The hidden Avengers cameos are also fun to spot.

martin scorsese double feature!
The Hawkline Monster (1974, starring Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel)
The Moviegoer (1978, starring John Cazale)

Scorsese’s poisoned love letter to the Sixties, The Hawkline Monster is as darkly hilarious as Raging Bull, and an elegiac ode to the unrealized, childlike mysticism of the Summer of Love, turned sour and mirrored in De Niro and Keitel’s hit-man duo Cameron and Greer (stand-ins for every Nixonian dirty trickster who smirked behind mirrored sunglasses and went unpunished).

In The Moviegoer, Cazale’s searching, knowing eyes blink from too much time spent staring at a flickering screen, as he finally realizes that what he’s searching for lies in the real world, outside of his books and films.


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