Saturday, November 19, 2005

Critics I Like: James Cheney

James Cheney is a member of the Mobius Home Video Forum, which maybe my favorite online discussion site of which I am not a member. (The moderators never responded when I applied, and I'm pretty sure I applied the correct way.) There are a lot of good, intelligent people in this forum, with bloodshot eyes, no doubt, from seeing so many Chor Yuen and Antonio Margheriti films and videos. But Mr. Cheney, whose writing and name I've never seen attached to anything else on the web, is probably the individual amidst this fine company whose posts I've personally found most enjoyable, informative, and insightful. He posts mainly in the 'Arthouse, World & Hollywood Cinema' forum, I believe.

I'll provide a few excerpts from posts he's made, since MHVF doesn't seem to allow direct links to threads or posts, and I hope I'm not doing anything wrong here, since MHVF's archives are open for public viewing. Unfortunately, in the little .doc where I occasionally post some of Cheney's "keepers," I haven't kept track of what threads any of them have been in. Nevertheless:

On White Nights (Visconti, '57): "Kubrick and Fellini must have been enviously fascinated by what Visconti did here. He created a whole city, or parts of one, for a stage set, a night time noir-town of canals and bridges, neon signs flashing in the fog and snow, streets, buildings, entire neighborhoods ... or the illusion of such with the fog, snow and darkness functioning as "smoke and mirrors" to foster the illusion while reinforcing the unreality of a vivid dream. That's just the mood the Dostoevskij story called for in the first place. His drama was one of midnight sun perambulations, the adventures of a sleepwalker. You can't really translate night that looks like daylight to film, and Visconti substitutes this very successful equivalent concept instead.

On The Wings of Eagles (Ford, '57): "Like much of late Ford, there runs alongside the uncosmeticized, realistic approach a vein of weirdly vivid and disturbing sentimen, Ford's old sentimental repertoire gone slightly awry ont he subjects of patriotism and duty and family love and the superior family love of comrades in arms, [sic] It's almost as if Scotty of VERTIGO were shooting this film. I was often in awe of the cinematic mastery and deep honesty when watching this, but I sensed a tortured psyche coming through less mediated than before, deep disappointments and terrors displaced directly onto the screen and then overcompensated for by maudlin lurches into 'Wonderful Life' wish fulfillment, so dreamlike as to seem a troubled sleeper's fugue into happier fantasy, which only makes the underlying nightmarish grimness throb all the more painfully. (Don't want to exaggerate the unintentional Expressionism, but I swear it's palpable)

On Roger Corman: "For more cutting loose AND good direction, look no further than ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE, which typifies much that's best about the director. He has smart material to work with, a great cast (Jason Robards as Al Capone, young George Segal, Ralph Meeker, Bruce Dern), a burlesquing attitude that sits somewhere between gangster movie-parody-nostalgia and anarchic sixties-style satire; there's a lot of flair, a surprisingly sophisticated Brechtian or 'postmodernist' brand of dramatic distancing (for one thing, there's that great 'Walter Winchell' or 'Jack Webb' voice-over (by Paul Frees) telling us the eventual fates of all the characters before we've even properly met them), an exuberant and faintly dangerous "New Hollywood" attitude, plus it moves very fast and smoothly between raunchy screwball farce and blood drenched massacre without batting and eyelash. Corman's seemingly picked up some tricks from Italian Spaghetti Artists like Leone, but he's got a jump on the then-planned ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA project by well over a decade, and his quick take on the topic made up for in timeless and freshness what it may have lost out in the deepdish ruminating department, or the finesse (though, I repeat, it's remarkably sophisticated as 'art house genre cinema.' Corman knows this territory as well, and in much the same ways, as a theorist of same like critic (and Antonioni scenarist) Peter Wollen.) Corman's "Last Thirties Gangster Movie" was the first out of the gate of many, and remains among the very best."

The above tends to crystallize Cheney's writing at its most run-on sentence happy (though who am I to criticize when it comes to this?), but when winding sentences are this saturated with well-informed passion and allusion, maybe they're not bad after all. It's one of the reasons why I visit MHVF.

[By the way, MHVF member Brian Camp may be the person behind this list of Amazon.com reviews. There's a lot of manga and anime, so it's a little ways of my own beaten path, but quite interesting nonetheless.]

2 comments:

Brian said...

Yeah, I like reading James Cheney's posts. He's definitely one of the great resources on that board. And his writing is often more than just packed with perspective and experience, but beautiful.

I wonder if the fact that there is already a longtime Mobius member named "Zac Campbell" (whose posts I usually run across on the Asian Cinema board) has complicated your try at membership.

Zach Campbell said...

Well that's just weird! I've never noticed a Zac Campbell on Mobius.