Michael Gaughn Tag

Review: Nashville

Nashville (1975)

Shot in a city meant to be a not-too-flattering microcosm of the whole of American society on the cusp of the country’s Bicentennial and released during what should have been a celebratory but turned out to be a very flat and bitter, still hung over from the ‘60s, year, everything about Robert Altman’s Nashville screams that this is supposed to be an important film—which is deeply ironic since Altman was rightly known as an iconoclast who openly mocked the idea of important films. And yet he succeeded mightily in creating a movie that was, and remains, important without succumbing to any of the lazy pretentiousness of Oscar fodder.

 

Given all that, Nashville needs to be approached on its own terms; and within the context of the country at the time; and, maybe more importantly, from the vantage of the state of the country today. And that all needs to be done without turning this

review into a scholarly essay.

 

The widescreen (2.35:1) aspect ratio says this is supposed to be an epic, but any action that approaches the epic is treated ironically, and the framing is mainly deployed—similarly to The Long Goodbye but on a much more ambitious level—to capture intimacy; the chaotic intimacy of people alone in groups, but also of people just alone.

 

Altman saw the country rapidly devolving into individuals encouraged to fetishize their own importance, leading to what the French philosopher Paul Virilio called, awkwardly, totalitarian individualism—an overinflated, ultimately fascist, sense of self that at the end of the day only reinforces how unimportant each individual is. This is probably the strongest through-line in Adam Curtis’s documentaries, that Americans keep confusing narcissistic indulgence with freedom—something corporations are happy to exploit because vanity makes people easy to sell to, and that 

NASHVILLE AT A GLANCE

Robert Altman’s intimately epic look at the state of society c. 1976, filtered through the lens of the country-music scene. 

 

PICTURE
The 4K HDR transfer restores much of the subtle vibrancy missing from earlier home-video incarnations but is occasionally a tad saturated.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1 mix doesn’t do much to add separation to Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue but does give a nice sense of presence to the frequent performance scenes.

political groups ride just as hard because it creates the illusion of free expression while stifling meaningful dissent in resentment and rage.

 

All of this was just beginning to coalesce at the time Altman made Nashville, with corporations groping toward figuring out how to channel the earnest childishness of the ’60s, guiding it through things like EST, Scientology, Ayn Rand, and Tony Robbins so that when people looked around, all they saw were themselves. Altman got a lot of this right but missed one crucial thing—like a lot of others, he assumed the Carterian malaise would lead to the emergence of a viable third party. What it got us instead was Reagan.

 

Every character in the film reinforces this theme of crippling isolation—and it’s a massive cast—but there’s no redundancy. Instead, each portrait contributes to a mosaic that, when you step back and consider the whole, is devastating. On an emotional level—in a film about the death of emotion—the two key characters are Gwen Welles’ endlessly pathetic Sueleen Gaye and Keith Carradine’s promiscuous troubadour, Tom. Sueleen, hopelessly naive—and dumb—is imperviously optimistic, while the sociopathic Tom exploits the Romantic notion of the wandering minstrel to bed down every woman he encounters. They represented the two poles of American existence at the time, positions that have only become more entrenched, grotesque, and infinitely more dangerous since.

 

Stepping to one side of all the sociopolitical stuff for a second, you have to marvel at the consistency of the performances Altman was able to draw from such a sprawling group of players. It’s almost impossible to single anybody out because everyone gets their standout moments, but it’s worth focusing in particular on Ronee Blakely, Ned Beatty, Keenan Wynn, and the always underrated but strangely compelling Henry Gibson. The weakest link is David Hayward—and it’s not really his fault because he did the best he could with what he had to work with, but Altman’s conception of the lone gunmen was stuck in ‘50s psycho-dramas so he failed to grasp how non-human these emptied-out souls tend to be—ironic since he accurately sensed the same thing in Carradine’s Tom.

 

Nothing in this film is supposed to be beautiful—not in the gauzy Geoffrey Unsworth style admired at the time or the kind of relentlessly smart-ass and ultimately trite compositions we’ve come to idolize since. Like in The Long Goodbye, Altman is going for a deceptive flatness, a grittiness, relying on telephoto lenses so he’s more spying on the characters, having them reveal themselves, than framing them. The “pretty” shots are deliberately vicious, and always tied to Geraldine Chaplin’s clueless documentary for the BBC—the masses of parked school buses turned into a kind of refugee camp and the truly gorgeous in its grunge shot of the crushed and mangled junked cars.

 

That last shot is a good way of judging the quality of the 4K HDR transfer, which for the most part seems faithful to Altman’s visual plan but occasionally wanders off the reservation—especially early in the film, where some of the shots look a little

oversaturated, so traditionally pretty that they border on cartoonish. Not that Altman ever made this easy for anybody, constantly looking for ways to approach the idea of Hollywood movies from the obliquest possible angles, so anyone not completely on his wavelength is inevitably going to make mistakes transferring his work. But the material is compelling enough that you don’t notice the visual stumbles unless you seek them out.

 

Altman was notorious for his overlapping dialogue, which could occasionally lapse into mannerism but works for the most part here. That approach has been so widely adopted since that it really shouldn’t throw anybody coming to the film at this late date. But the 5.1 mix doesn’t seem to do much to improve the separation between the voices. The music is well, but not spectacularly, presented—but that was part of Altman’s point, that feeble, desperate tunes like these are just crap meant to be born off by the wind.

 

I’m probably making Nashville sound heavy and brooding. It’s not. But it’s not exactly light and fluffy either. Altman does a great job of keeping things moving and of creating a pleasant enough surface for people who want their movies to be nothing but bright and shiny distractions. But everything just beneath that surface is troubling, and piercing, and disturbingly prescient. This isn’t the whiny kiddie

Nashville (1975)

darkness of contemporary film. Altman saw how truly dark things were about to become and recorded it all as faithfully as he could. Nashville is a document of a past lost and a future more than earned.

 

I can’t wrap this review up without talking about the ending—not that anything I, or anyone, could say could do it justice. All I can do is point toward it and say that no one has ever presented something this clear-sighted and brutal before or since. Altman managed to perfectly sum up the entire film there—not really narratively, but thematically, aesthetically, and emotionally. It’s all very wry and detached but it had to be because, without that distance, it would be impossible to bear.

 

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

Only a handful of people have the creativity, taste, knowledge, and experience to create a luxury home entertainment space. This new series of podcasts and features offers a unique look at the artisans who represent the pinnacle of each profession that goes into crafting these ultimate systems and rooms.

 

We focus on the collaboration with the homeowner, and what it’s like to retain and work with the best in the field. There’s no shop talk here, no inside baseball, no speeds and feeds. This is the closest you can come to engaging with one of these experts without sitting down with them in your home.

 

It would have been wrong to begin the series with anyone other than Theo Kalomirakis, who not only created the whole idea of home theater but showed its promise through his best-selling coffeetable books and continues to create the most innovative, opulent, and stunning private theaters in the world.

—M.G.

(The text below is a slightly abridged version of the podcast, which you can listen to using the player at the top of the page. Podcast listeners will find photos and graphics illustrating some of Theo’s examples by scrolling down the page.)

How do you typically approach designing a theater?

I usually get a project either directly from a client that read about us in a magazine or whatever or from an audio/video integrator. Getting it from the client is usually the most satisfying because either they’ve done their homework or they realize we are the ones that do it professionally. And they’re usually more amenable to do it the way I suggest we do it.

 

But even if the job comes from a custom installer, I like to have direct feedback from the client. You need to have that kind of access, otherwise you design in absentia. You don’t know what they want. You have to be able to interview them.

 

The first meeting with the client

The first meeting starts with sitting down with them and communicating my enthusiasm for the space, and with helping them to feel that I’m not selling them something. I’m just bringing them into my world, because I’m immersed in home theater architecture and I want them to be part of my excitement about it. I want to be able to communicate my ideas to them and make them relax so they can listen to me. I usually start the design process after I feel like I’ve connected with the client, after he and I are on the same page.

 

Integrating the theater design into the rest of the house

Once our visions align, I start the work. Early in my career, the client would say, “Hey, I want an Art Deco theater because I’ve seen your theaters, and I like that style—it’s cinematic.” And I would usually say, “Yes, I love that style too. Let’s do an Art Deco theater.” But after I saw Deco theaters happening in very traditional environments, I started to feel embarrassed. It’s like when you go to Epcot Center and you go into the French pavilion or the Spanish pavilion—it had that kind of phoniness.

 

So I started putting my foot down, in a gentle way. I directed the client’s attention to the fact that the theater should echo the identity of the rest of the house—but without imitating it. You don’t want the theater to look like a living room or a dining room 

or whatever. You want it to look like a theater—but within the same language.

 

Earning the client’s trust

One of the key elements of bonding with the client is getting them to trust me so that if I have to steer them someplace other than what they think they want, they realize it’s not because I’m trying to play the prima donna but because I have their best interest in mind. I’ll tell them, “I don’t want to give you a theater where some of your guests will go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ but the more sophisticated guests will say, ‘What the hell is this theater doing in this house?’” I always seek approval—not only from the client but from the guests who might be more sophisticated than the client. I protect my ass from being accused of being a gimmicky guy.

 

Learning & assimilating the client’s taste

You have to know who the clients are as people. The first step is to learn what their tastes are. The next step is to make sure you guide them to things they may not have thought of. They may know what they like, and what they like may be perfectly legitimate, and you go with it. But 

if I sense that I can guide them to something they might like just as much, I protect my integrity by also protecting the client from something that would be a liability.

 

The woman who wanted “gaudy”

I was doing a theater for a well-known baseball player, and I met with his wife somewhere in Georgia. The lady came in made up in a way that made Tammy Faye Bakker’s makeup look demure—huge eyelashes, painted lips, big bouffant hairdo. She was a caricature of a nouveau riche wife.

 

So I interviewed her to find out what exactly she liked, and it turned out she wanted something very, very ornate—all the kind of stuff ladies of the South associate with an expression that they’ve made it, they’ve arrived. “I want the theater with a lot of gold,” she said. “A lot of gold.” I took a step back because I was surprised and said, “You mean you want an opulent theater.” She said, “No, honey. I want it gaudy!”

 

Good for her. She knew what she was looking for. You can’t fight that kind of person. You can’t persuade someone with a gaudy house to do something more understated. You listen to them, and 90% of the time they make sense.

 

The client who wanted the Acropolis

There were two or three times when I really hit a wall and didn’t know what to do, like at another house in Jupiter Island. It was fairly traditional—not particularly gaudy—with a typical Floridian richness.

 

When I saw the space for the theater, I asked the wife, “Do you have a particular style you want?” “Yes!” she said. “We want the Acropolis!” I almost swallowed my tongue. I said, “What do you mean?”  She said, “You know—like the Versillis.” She didn’t even know how to say “Versailles.” Now, what the Acropolis had to do with Versailles, your guess is as good as mine. I decided there was no way I could do anything there, that I would be responsible by association.

 

How do you translate the client’s idea into a theater?

I usually crank up the volume. They come with some kind of concept that’s in the right direction but it’s not full-fledged. My role is to start from their concept and improve it, enhance it, and make it more exciting.

 

The importance of a proper theater environment

If I react negatively to a client, it’s usually because they say they want a comfortable seating layout. “We don’t want anything structured—we want a sofa here and an armchair there, an ottoman there.” I try to be very restrained in my response because it’s their choice—that’s how they watch movies. I make an effort to educate them that if they do that, they’re getting a living room in the guise of a theater. You have all the accoutrements of a theater but it’s literally a living room.

Theo originally designed the space above to accommodate traditional theater seating but
modified the design to honor the client’s preference for living-room-like seating arrangements

The classic example of that was the house in Vegas [shown above], where I couldn’t persuade them to do something that was more theatrical. That was a very well-defined theater that focused on the screen, the stage, and everything, but the wife put sofas in it like in a living room.

 

This is a typical contradiction I have with the client. They want a theater but they also want comfortable seating. I’ll tell them, “By doing that, you have one foot in your living room and the other foot in my theater language.” I can’t reconcile the two.

 

My clients usually have a living room and a media room, so I try to tell them, “We can do that in the media room, where it makes sense. But let the theater be a theater, with comfy seats spread apart with big arm rests, and you can kick up your legs because of the recliner. You still have the comfort of a living room.” 

 

When I go down to my theater and I recline, it’s ideal. You see the movie. You have good sight lines. You don’t lose that luxury of a theater, where you’re meant to be able to watch a movie with people in front of you and behind you. You shouldn’t be facing each other in a position that’s meant for chit-chatting, not for watching a movie. 

 

Casual seating is meant to accommodate unruly owners who want to talk to each other while the movie’s playing. When someone comes into my theater and starts talking, I stop them, as polite as I can. “Don’t talk. Let’s watch a movie.” So when my clients want something casual, I try to persuade them to do theater seating. Do I always win? 90% of the time.

 

Have you seen a big shift from movie palaces to more contemporary designs?

There are people who want to have the movie experience without reference to the grandeur of the old movie palaces. Figuring out how to create that same kind of excitement in a room that is expressed using contemporary architecture has 

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

been my Holy Grail. It’s very difficult because our minds are filled with images of ornate palaces with chandeliers and everything, which creates the ambience of wanting to see a movie. Creating that ambience using a more contemporary language is very difficult because it’s, by its nature, more stripped down.

 

But I’ve found out that you can achieve that mostly through lighting, which creates that excitement. 

Just add lighting to a room—not sconces on the wall but strip lighting or columns with backlighting—and it brings the architecture to the level of a theater.

 

Who assembles & supervises the team to create one of your theaters?

For the big projects, I usually bring the people, like acoustic designers and lighting designers—not interior designers because I usually do that myself. It’s like making a movie—you get specialists to do the various tasks. You get a crew that works together synergistically to divide the elements of the theater into their various expertises.

 

For lighting, I usually work with Howard Werner, who is a lighting designer on Broadway. He did Spider-man with Julie Taymor. For acoustics, I’ve worked very extensively with Steve Haas because he knows my ways. And he’s compromising in the same way that I’m compromising, to accommodate the acoustics. When you work with experts like that, you have to respect each other’s trades.

 

How do you accommodate the client’s or integrator’s equipment requirements?

If the job comes from an audio/video integrator, I ask immediately to get the list of equipment and the placement of the speakers. I design around what they want and where they’re going to  position the speakers on the wall. I totally respect the science of someone who has to put the speaker in exactly the right location to the left or the right of the subwoofer. So I’m very accommodating.

 

What happens when the equipment gets in the way of the design?

Sometimes you have to go back to the integrator and say, “That wasn’t what I proposed”—like a recent project in Texas. The manufacturer put the subwoofers all the way to the floor but I specified a 6-inch baseboard there. I said, “Come on, guys. Lift the woofer off the floor 6 inches. Will that create havoc? Is it going to ruin the room acoustics? I gave you a room that’s 90% transparent to put the speakers wherever you want.” The whole room is stretched fabric, so they could put the speakers pretty much anywhere, but I wanted a baseboard so people wouldn’t kick the fabric, or especially the subwoofer, when they went down down the steps.

 

Does the screen choice sometimes compromise your design?

It’s usually easy to get a client to go with the right screen. If it’s a low-ceiling room, I tell them to avoid using a 16:9 screen because it will need to go all the way to floor, so you won’t be able to see the bottom of the image from some of the seats. I tell them to use a wide screen because it will fill the room width-wise but it doesn’t need to go all the way down.

 

If they get a wide screen, they can watch epic movies like Lawrence of Arabia without bars at the top and bottom, and they’ll be able to move the image inside the screen if they want to watch 16:9 content. If they say, “We don’t watch movies—we watch sports,” then they’re meant for a 16:9 screen. But if I have my way, I push for the wide screen because you get a bigger screen in a smaller space.

 

Have you seen video walls being used more frequently in home theaters?

Not yet because they’re very expensive, around $300,000 to $400,000. But a nicely calibrated set will give you the same performance as a projector—and probably an advantage, because you’re going to produce a brighter picture. When I watch 

3D movies in my theater, they suffer. Even though I have a bright projector, the level goes down. You don’t have that problem with a display.

 

You like to create a sense of anticipation before people enter one of your theaters. Have clients ever objected to that?

Nobody has rejected that because I usually remind them of what it’s like to go to a movie theater. When you go there, you don’t expect to open the door from the sidewalk and find yourself in the middle of the theater. Why? Because going to a movie is like riding a submarine. As you go up in the water, you have to go through various compartments of decompression before you get to the very top.

 

So you need to go from a small space to a larger space to an even larger space—and I usually bring up the example of the Roxy Theater in New York. The Roxy had an incredible corridor with movie posters right on 50th St. and 7th Ave. that was like 10 

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

Theo’s design for the Ritz Theater in Texas takes visitors down a long hallway and through a series of lobbies before they arrive at the theater proper, which is placed right next to where they first entered

feet high. From that you would get to the ticket lobby, which was grander—like 15 feet high. Once you were past that, you went down into a tunnel that was 8 feet or 9 feet high that led to the grand rotunda, which zoomed up to 70 feet.

 

It’s like an orchestral piece. You orchestrate the crescendos and the pianissimos to create variation and a sense of anticipation and a sense of excitement for when something big happens. You can’t have a symphony that starts with a big crescendo and just stays there.

 

I explain to the client that, even if they have the smallest space in the world, they should let me subdivide it. I’m not taking away from the space—I’m giving them a more nuanced approach to the theater. I haven’t met anybody who’s said “No,” unless they just don’t have the space.

 

I did a theater called The Ritz in Texas [shown above]. It’s in my book Great Escapes [page 136]. The client gave me the attic, which was a big space—2,000 square feet—and he said, “How many seats can we fit in here? I have a big space and a big 

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomiraks

Max Fleischer’s 1934 cartoon tour of the ultimate movie palace

family.”  I said, “Wrong question. It’s not how many seats. It’s how do you create a home theater environment?”

 

So I created a layout that was like a maze that was opening up. The theater ended up right next to the left of the entry, but you had to go all the way to the back and snake around and go through inner lobbies—a big lobby and a grand foyer—and then a smoking room, and then two corridors. And finally, breathlessly, you arrived at the theater.

It’s just like what Disney does with the theme rides where they have you waiting in line for two hours and you watch different things on TV or you go from one room to another before you get onto the ride. They prepare you. That is not done to showcase the architecture of the various rooms; it’s to create a sense of anticipation, which is what I do by capturing the grandeur of arriving at the Roxy in a simple theater—which is what that Max Fleischer cartoon accomplishes so well.

 

Working with the client’s interior designer

I usually don’t talk to the client while I’m working with the architect and contractor. But when the construction is underway, I meet with them to select things. That’s a very important part of the job because usually there’s a designer in attendance, and they don’t want the theater to be too far away from what they’re doing in the rest of the house. I tell them not to use bright colors in the theater, and that they can’t use a carpet design that jumps out of the floor because it makes the seats prominent.

 

Scaling the seating to the rest of the theater

The seats are probably the most damaging element in a theater because they’re large. Everything else I do is kind of miniaturized to create a sense of scale, so the wrong seats can throw my work out of proportion. The most typical example 

of that is the theater I did that was a recreation of Ocean Drive in Miami Beach. But when you see the seats, which are as big as the buildings, you say right away, “That’s fake.” Your sense of disbelief is eliminated and you suddenly see the artifact, that it’s all miniatures to create an effect.

 

I was watching the Netflix documentary Martin Scorsese did with Fran Leibowitz, and there’s a scene where she sits in

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

the miniature of Manhattan that’s in Queens. And then she steps into the set, and her shoes are as high as some of the shorter buildings. She becomes like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.

 

How does your approach differ from other theater designers?

I don’t really know because I haven’t really worked with them. All I know—and this is a very generic observation—is theater designers with a technical background tend to start from the technology. And that is Sam Cavitt, and that’s Keith Yates. They’re very protective of technology, and they should be. Traditional designers are the opposite. They start with the interior design, and they tend to be technology adverse. I see myself as sitting in the middle, between acoustical or technical designers and those who decorate. If I were to put a label on my principal contribution to home theater design, it’s that I became a bridge between technology and design by respecting both.

 

How did you learn to balance technology & design?

When technical or acoustic designers like Steve Haas began to get involved, I had to start listening to them. I didn’t want to because I wanted to decorate, but slowly I realized it’s not just decoration. They would pressure me—“We can’t put that speaker too far behind the seats. We want it here.” So you have to work with the integrator, or with clients who are sound-savvy.

 

And I learned to pay attention to materials. You can’t make a theater using all wood. It looks fantastic, but wood is very reflective. So I learned to use materials that aren’t reflective—not only in terms of material but of color. If you have a white surface, it reflects too much color off the screen and makes you aware you’re in the room. You want the room to disappear.

 

The extreme case of wanting the room to disappear is [video-calibration expert] Joe Kane. He doesn’t want to have anything other than a black room, which is going to the one extreme. Having a room that’s very bright and colorful would be the other. There’s got to be a middle ground, where the room can look attractive when the lights are on but disappears when you watch a movie, like in my theater downstairs.

 

I can change the color of the walls to give the room a different personality because I have LEDs, but when the movie begins, the room disappears. So, everything can be done if you know the tricks of the trade, and I developed them by making mistakes and figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

PODCAST EP. 17
QUICK GUIDE

 

0:32   How do you typically approach designing a

          theater?

1:55   The first meeting with the client

3:00   Integrating the theater design into the rest of

          the house

4:42   Earning the client’s trust

6:00   Learning & assimilating the client’s taste

6:57   The woman who wanted “gaudy”

8:39   The client who wanted the Acropolis

10:20  How do you translate the client’s idea into

           a theater?

10:58  The importance of a proper theater

           environment

15:12  Have you seen a shift from movie palaces to

           more contemporary designs?

16:53  Who assembles & supervises the team to

           create one of your theaters?

19:33  How do you accommodate the client’s or

           integrator’s equipment requirements?

20:51  What happens when the equipment gets

           in the way of the design?

21:20  Does the screen choice sometimes

           compromise your design?

23:23  Have you seen video walls being used more

           frequently in home theaters?

24:42  You like to create a sense of anticipation

           before people enter one of your theaters.

           Have clients ever objected to that?

30:14  Working with the client’s interior designer

30:51  Scaling the seating to the rest of the theater

33:04  How does your approach differ from other

           theater designers?

34:51  How did you learn to balance technology &

           design?

REVIEWS

Nashville (1975)
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Nomadland (2020)
Gattaca (1997)
The Ten Commandments (1956)
The Long Goodbye (1973)

ALSO ON CINELUXE

Oscar-Nominated Films 2021
John Sciacca's 4K HDR Wish List
Michael Gaughn's 4K HDR Wish List
The Cineluxe Hour

Review: Hannah and Her Sisters

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Many consider Hannah and Her Sisters one of Woody Allen’s best films. Some call it his best. I find it an incredibly uneven affair. It does have undeniably strong sequences, scenes, and moments that represent tremendous growth in Allen’s skill as a filmmaker, but it also has some off-key and sometimes embarrassingly lame elements that keep it from achieving a satisfying balance. And it’s about 20 minutes too long.

 

Allen really hit his stride as an actor’s director here. He’s able to draw effective performances out of a large and diverse cast, ranging from the Studio Era stylings of Maureen O’Sullivan and Lloyd Nolan to the Bergmanesque gravity of Max von Sydow 

to the looser, more indie vibe of Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey—both of whom are exceptional, especially Hershey. Even Carrie Fisher is something other than grating for a change. The one person who can’t seem to find the right groove is Michael Caine, who has his good moments but who seems determined—like Kenneth Branagh (Celebrity) and Jesse Eisenberg (Cafe Society)—to do some kind of Woody impression. It doesn’t work.

 

And then there are Allen’s cringe-worthy efforts to begin dismantling his own persona. I understand that he didn’t want the nuanced version of the Woody character to detract from the more dramatic plot lines and hoped to use his character’s misadventures—mainly his scramble to find a religion he can buy into—as comic relief. But while occasional lines land, his scenes just aren’t funny. Allen always had a pitch-perfect ear for comedy, so he had to have known the bits set at the ersatz SNL were hopelessly

HANNAH AT A GLANCE

One of Woody Allen’s most ambitious but uneven films, it does perfectly capture New York in the mid ’80s and features a still impressive performance by Barbara Hershey.

 

PICTURE
Carlo Di Palma’s subtle cinematography needs that slight pop that Blu-ray-quality HD just can’t provide, but is pleasing here nonetheless.

 

SOUND     

Nothing very adventurous happens sonically, which is as it should be.

flat. I remain baffled by what he was going for here, and how he could have so readily abandoned a painstakingly molded character that had not only served him well but had become an unparalleled vehicle for expressing, mocking, and dissecting the age.

 

To return to Barbara Hershey for a moment, films like Boxcar Bertha and The Stunt Man had given her a reputation as something of an indie-film bimbo, so it was heartening to see her get the chance to play a fully fledged, non-objectified character and run with it. Ultimately, this film doesn’t revolve around Farrow’s Hannah or Caine or Allen or Wiest but Hershey, who stands firmly at its emotional core and brings it a substance and energy it might have been lacking if the role had gone to someone else. It’s a great loss for the movies that she never again got to play a part this good.

 

People were pleased but not necessarily surprised when Allen was able to create characters who evoked the world around him in films like Annie Hall and Manhattan, but they were shocked to find he could craft well-rounded and not-so-predictable roles like Hershey’s—or 27 years later, Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine.

 

Like a lot of people, I had assumed the ugliest decade in American culture was the ‘70s, so it was a jolt to be reminded that the ‘80s were actually worse. Most of the characters here look like they got their clothes at the Salvation Army, and there’s an elevated sloppiness to the whole culture that’s, in retrospect, kind of repugnant. Of course, some of this was unique to New York, which was just emerging from its nadir in the mid ‘70s and making the grunginess of midst-of-being-flipped neighborhoods like SoHo chic in an effort to inflate real-estate values. But the scene near the end where Allen comes across Wiest in a Tower Records, with its salmon and teal cutouts, glandular lettering, and Barry Gibb posters, reminded me 

we all would have been better off if the ‘80s had never happened.

 

Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma deserves great praise for taking the streets, storefronts, walls, and doorways of the older, decaying New York, the affluent shabbiness of downtown lofts and sprawling Upper West Side apartments, and the carefully cultivated disregard for personal appearance and making it all look beautiful. I doubt any other film has ever better evoked November in New York. This Blu-ray-quality HD download is an acceptable viewing experience, but Di Palma’s shooting style is so subtle that there are moments here that look flat when they should have an understated but distinctive pop.

 

Di Palma is also important because he helped dispel the myth that a lot of Allen’s greatness as a director came from using Gordon Willis as a crutch. By this point, Allen had developed a basal aesthetic and technique he was able to successfully translate from film to film regardless of who was doing the shooting, giving lensers like Di Palma, Sven Nykvist, and Javier Aguirresarobe the latitude to enhance his material without having to prop it up.

 

This is the film where Allen began to be accused of what was called at the time yuppie porn. There’s some justification for that because Hannah did help lay the 

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

groundwork for more unfortunate later works like Match Point. But the greater sin on display here could be called “assimilation porn,” which he paid a disproportionately high price for in the anti-Semitic backlash to his custody trial, when the seemingly hip but inherently conservative New York and Hollywood elites he showcased so well turned on him so viciously.

 

While it’s not possible to put Hannah and Her Sisters in the highest tier of Allen’s work, that’s not to say it can’t be a gratifying experience. Most of the characters are well crafted, most of the performances click, most of the presentation was satisfying, and he almost perfectly captured New York at that moment in time. Only Allen’s uncertainty about what to do with his own persona keeps it from coming together into a more fulfilling whole.

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is one of the best films of the 1970s—maybe the best—and one of the most influential. That last part is ironic, in a way Altman would have appreciated, because there’s no way it can be in any legitimate sense true. Altman and Kubrick created films that came from such an intricate and hermetic personal aesthetic that it’s impossible to build upon them without having the effort result in tone-deaf travesty. That doesn’t mean legions haven’t tried, but all have failed.

 

I asked Altman once what he thought of the fact that The Long Goodbye closed almost as soon as it opened but has become possibly his best-known work. He deflected, with a purpose, saying that his Philip Marlowe fell asleep in the early ‘50s—the 

era of Chandler’s source novel—only to wake up in the early ‘70s, finding that his sense of chivalry was no longer in fashion and could only lead to disaster. Altman’s Marlowe would quickly become suicidal if he found himself transported to our sociopathic present.

 

The Long Goodbye both is and isn’t a detective movie; is an unforgiving evisceration of Chandler’s work and a very heartfelt tribute. It’s so cynical it verges on nihilism while it openly tries to figure out which values, if any, still have meaning. And because it lives both in and outside genre, it gets to feed from both worlds, very much like early Godard. There are very few films that feel this much like a movie.

 

Altman, of course, makes none of it easy, constantly toying with the audience like a sly, somewhat sadistic, cat. He and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond did everything they could to make the film gritty, flashing the footage, flattening 

GOODBYE AT A GLANCE

Robert Altman uses Philip Marlowe to take aim at post-Counterculture LA in what might be the best film of the ’70s.

 

PICTURE
The wall-to-wall grittiness of the film’s subversive beauty 
is retained in this Blu-ray-quality HD download.

 

SOUND     

The stereo mix does just fine with Altman’s layered dialogue and John Williams’ laughably good score—this movie doesn’t need surround.

the palette, pumping up the grain. The result eschews superficial prettiness, which tends to be fleeting, to tap into something much more sublime.

 

This is John Williams’ best score (no, I’m not being facetious) exactly because it’s so awful. Williams isn’t known for having a sense of humor so I have to wonder if he didn’t just write a bunch of straight cues, not fully aware of how Altman was planning to deploy them.

 

And then there’s Elliot Gould’s almost non-existent range as an actor, which Altman turns to the film’s advantage by making his Marlowe continually spout lame, often improvised, wisecracks. Altman has everything around Gould do the acting for him, which results in Marlowe coming across as a smug but ultimately lost figure.

 

To add irony to all the other irony, The Long Goodbye probably holds up as well as it does both because it’s Altman’s most genre-driven movie, and because enough of what’s best of Chandler’s work manages to survive the merciless beating it receives here to permeate the film and give it a resonance unique to Altman’s canon.

 

And if all of that is just a little too high-brow for you, watch this movie just to revel in the secondary casting. Sterling Hayden is still astonishing as the washed-up writer on a fatal binge. Just as nobody seeing him as Dix Handley in The Asphalt Jungle could have anticipated his performance as General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, nobody seeing those two earlier films could have ever seen his Roger Wade coming. And yet there’s something at Hayden’s core that creates a through-line that joins those characters in a way that goes well beyond their having been played by the same performer. 

And nobody seeing Henry Gibson on The Dick Van Dyke Show or Laugh-In could have anticipated his Dr. Veringer in a million years. Gibson and Altman conspired to pull off a tremendous practical joke that’s simultaneously, when seen from just the right angle, chilling. It’s that he’s the least likely villain ever that makes him so apt.

 

As for the presentation: How do you judge the image quality of a film that went out of its way to not look very good? To reference my earlier thought, there’s that beauty that comes from aping the styles of the present, which rarely ages well, and then there’s the beauty that comes from staying true to the demands of the material, even if it takes you to deeply unpleasant places. The Long Goodbye is gorgeous exactly because it’s lurid, and because it’s as lurid in the heart of the Malibu Colony as it is in a decrepit city jail. While there’s plenty of Southern California sunshine in evidence, it’s always accurately shown as monotonous or piercing, never pleasant.

 

This Blu-ray-quality HD download does a pretty good job of honoring what Altman and Zsigmond wrought, and you can’t help but recoil in horror at the thought of some culturally myopic tech team scrubbing it free of grain and trying to expand 

The Long Goodbye (1973)

its dynamic range. Still, matching the movie’s original resolution would likely yield huge improvements, and a deft touch with an appreciation for grunge could conjure up something amazing.

 

In a similar vein, should an upgrade someday come, someone should post a sign reading “Hands Off the Soundtrack” on the mixing-room door. This film would not benefit from a surround mix—stereo suits it just fine.

 

The Long Goodbye is the kind of art that appears when you just don’t care at all but can’t help but care a lot. It feeds from a wellspring of paradox and, while it wraps things up, it never really resolves a thing. There are no reliable guideposts. Nothing triumphs; nothing is vanquished. That constant troubling creates an energy that keeps Altman’s film vital and relevant, and impossible to dismiss as simply smart-ass. The result is nothing but a mess, but a strangely elegant one that somehow still rings very true. 

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Ep. 16: Kaleidescape Turns 20

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In the early 2000s, everyone assumed it would be the large electronics companies like Samsung, Pioneer, and Sony that would figure out how to best organize DVD collections so they could be enjoyed in a home theater or throughout the home. So we were all surprised when the answer came not from the big boys but from a small Silicon Valley startup called Kaleidescape.

 

Founded by Michael Malcolm, Cheena Srinivasan, and Dan Collens, Kaleidescape used its expertise in networking and data storage to create an elegant way to store, access, and enjoy movies, a solution that eluded—and continues to elude—the major electronics companies. With its iconic user interface, ability to jump past trailers and warnings straight to the film, in-house curated metadata for each movie, and compatibility with virtually every control and automation system, Kaleidescape showed the world exactly what movie management should look like. 

 

In the ensuing two decades, Kaleidescape has rolled with the emergence of Blu-ray Discs and then online digital downloads, staying one step ahead of the new delivery technologies to create solutions that always put the customer experience first. Its movie store now offers the largest and most comprehensive collection of films in highest-quality 4K HDR and lossless audio from all the major Hollywood studios.

 

To celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary, we recently talked with co-founder Cheena Srinivasan, Kaleidescape customer-turned-new-CEO Tayloe Stansbury, and recently appointed marketing VP Norma Garcia-Muro about the company’s history, its current status, and its future opportunities. (Click here to read bios for Cheena, Tayloe, and Norma.)

 

Here are the highlights:

 

  0:50  John Sciacca talks about his experience reviewing the first Kaleidescape product.

  2:10   An early conversation John had with Cheena about online content delivery.

  3:21  Cheena describes the reaction to Kaleidescape’s introduction.

  3:52  Cheena on the founding of the company.

  5:24  Cheena on the development of the first product.

  8:30  The revolutionary impact of the onscreen display.

12:05  How Kaleidescape is more a software company than an AV company.

14:59  Tayloe’s early experiences as a Kaleidescape customer.

18:31  The development & introduction of the movie store.

22:23  The importance of backward compatibility.

24:14  The evolution of Tayloe’s Kaleidescape system.

26:22  How the Kaleidescape experience has remained the same as the hardware has evolved.

29:16  Norma on the movie studios’ perception of Kaleidescape.

31:55  Norma on her marketing initiatives for the company.

33:25  The unique passion Kaleidescape customers feel for the product.

35:43  The introduction of rental & PVOD titles to the service.

42:38  Kaleidescape’s status as a unique product & service.

44:39  Tayloe on the company’s near-term future.

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Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Review: Mank

Mank (2020)

For proof that it was a really bad idea to have the Oscars during the same year as a pandemic, you don’t need to look any further than David Fincher’s Mank. It’s had a ton of nominations heaped upon it and it’s the kind of film that stands a good chance of walking away with most of the major awards. But it’s also an astonishingly bad movie, and in a legitimate year—like say 2019—it wouldn’t have been allowed to even stick its head in the Academy’s door.

 

I’m going to offer up my rationale for the above conclusions not because I want to let this thing reside in my brain for a single second longer than necessary, but since it’s being puffed up as a really big deal, an important film, it would be irresponsible 

to shirk making the case against it.

 

First off, the story it tries to tell is incredibly old news. The myth that Herman Mankiewicz, not Orson Welles, is responsible for the greatness of Citizen Kane has been Hollywood folklore from the time of Kane’s creation. The tiresome Pauline Kael later latched onto it and made it the subject of her notorious Raising Kane. HBO’s unforgivable RKO 281 (1999) tread the same ground. It’s an argument that’s so easily picked apart I won’t even bother going there, but comes down to being yet one more instance of the American terror of the outsider. Mank breaks no new ground here.

 

The film’s deepest flaw is one common to all of Fincher’s work—he’s just an overgrown kid who approaches everything he does like a giggly teenager who’s adopted a completely unearned cynicism to mask his fundamental immaturity. That leads him to take an incredibly complex and potentially rich tale and reduce it to the overstylized 

MANK AT A GLANCE

That this bankrupt telling of a potentially interesting tale has racked up so many nominations proves they should have skipped handing out Oscars during a pandemic.

 

PICTURE
Super-contrasty black & white images with pumped-up highlights add up to video that’s actually painful to watch. 

 

SOUND     

The dialogue is consistently hard to make out, which is probably a blessing, while the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross soundtrack is so predictable you don’t even notice it’s there.

and remedial presentation of a comic book. The film is full of superficial busyness. All of the actors speak in exposition. All plausibility is optional, and only grudgingly deployed. There is no nuance.

 

A key example: Fincher is so obsessed with pulling off clever shots and editing patterns, and is so fundamentally limited as an actor’s director, that he lacks the interest, ability, or trust to just let his players sit in the same space and organically interact. To resonate at all, this needed to be a tale of very real, very vulnerable people striving in some very heightened worlds. It instead feels like a bunch of puerile stick figures meant to serve some storyboard hopelessly stuck in Fincher’s head.

Also, for the movie to have any power, it needed to stay true to who these people were and what these institutions were within the world of 1930s California and Hollywood. But Fincher, for all his faux cynicism, is really just a big lapdog of a director, so he can’t resist the temptation to draw contemporary parallels throughout and give his characters contemporary attitudes. Remolding Welles as a hipster is faintly amusing but also a little too pat, like everything else here.

 

I was more impressed by Gary Oldman than I expected to 

be. I’ve always felt he was an “actor,” not an actor, and have been suspicious of his work ever since he was overpraised for his Sid Vicious impression in Sid and Nancy (1986). He’s almost engaging here, I suspect, because everything else in the film is so barely and poorly formed that even a yeoman-like turn seems intriguing.

 

It’s so easy to pick apart the movie’s Potemkin-village visual plan that I’ll leave that to others. The one thing I will point out is that the black & white cinematography is so contrasty, with the whites pumped up wretchedly high, that most of the images are painful to look at. Add to that a lot of fundamentally ill-conceived CGI work and you’ve got the visual equivalent of sandpaper.

 

There’s really nothing to be said about the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score except that it’s so predictable it’s like it’s not even there. But I was surprised by how badly this film is mixed. Since the dialogue was frequently unintelligible, I watched Mank a second time listening on headphones just to make out most of the lines. I can’t say it was worth it.

 

If you like movies that are full of a sense of their own cleverness and that tell you exactly what to think and feel—and I realize there’s a substantial audience for that—then by all means wallow in Mank. But it’s hard not to watch something like this and continually sense how much more the movies can do, how much more they have done, and not see it as a deeply troubling sign that this kind of simplistic twaddle is somehow seen as important. Citizen Kane brought an unprecedented depth to film; Mank is a celebration of the kind of bright, shiny surfaces Welles’ thrust was meant to pierce.

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Ep. 15: Theo at Home

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Legendary home theater designer (and Cineluxe contributor) Theo Kalomirakis went back to Greece last year to supervise work on his summer home only to find himself locked down in the country, thanks to the pandemic. He quickly realized his confinement was a blessing in disguise since it allowed him to enjoy the cuisine, walking on the nearby beach, his work-in-progress home—and the attention of the Athenians, who have embraced him as a long-lost son.

 

Theo decided to have his personal home theater transported from the U.S. and reconstructed in the basement of his new home, where he implemented a number of upgrades (which we discuss in the episode).

He was also able to realize a childhood dream. Greece is famous for its outdoor theaters, and, wanting to emulate those, Theo as a teenager built his first home theater out on the terrace of his parents’ apartment in Athens. Never able to find a way to do something similar at his Brooklyn home, he seized on the chance to take advantage of the 10,000 square feet of property surrounding his summer home to create the ultimate outdoor movie space.

Our conversation covers the circumstances that brought Theo to Greece and the creation of his new personal theaters along with a slew of other subjects, including his latest work and his love for movies. Here’s a road map:

 

0:00    How the pandemic brought him back to Greece.

5:06    How he planned his new home theater.

5:49    How his new yard became an outdoor theater.

7:14    The status of his archives, which document the history of home theater.

8:18    How he’s been embraced by the Greek film community.

8:26    Donating his collection of 5,000 laserdiscs.

10:13  Donating his collection of 6,000 Blu-ray Discs.

11:40  The Greek passion for movies.

13:30  The effort to finish his home theater.

13:53  The improvements over his Brooklyn theater.

16:06  Theo’s preference for a clean, modern design style vs. the “movie palace” approach.

19:16  How his outdoor theater was inspired by Greek theaters & his first home theater.

22:45  A description of the outdoor theater.

25:17  His efforts to archive his collection of Blu-ray Discs and 9,000 DVDs.

27:35  The impressive recent re-issues of Technicolor movies.

30:49  What 4K brings to re-issues.

31:42  Technicolor vs. contemporary films (The Harvey Girls vs. Tenet).

33:10  Wrap-up / tweaking his home theater.

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Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: The Party (1968)

The Party (1968)

Blake Edwards’ The Party actually opened on the same day as 2001: A Space Odyssey in that very strange year of 1968. It took a while for 2001 to gain some traction but it eventually became a big deal (thanks largely to a faithful following of stoners) and went on to become a classic. The Party closed almost immediately, and the twin blows of that and the godawful Darling Lili almost obliterated Edwards’ career. But the movie has shown surprising tenacity, and while it doesn’t have anything like 2001’s reputation, it is, in its broad, neurotic, and fundamentally conservative way, a deeply radical film.

 

Oddly, The Party and 2001 have things in common beyond springing from a radical impulse, mainly that, while they both have sound, they’re basically widescreen silent films—an itch Jacques Tati scratched at around the same time with Playtime. (It

wouldn’t be inapt to see that retreat into virtual silence as a kind of traumatic reaction to the times.)

 

But The Party’s biggest—and highly dubious—honor is that it single-handedly created the frat-boy/gross-out comedy genre that eventually proved stupidly lucrative for the studios and still plagues us today. And that, of course, has since morphed, as the culture has grown more callous, into the even more smug and sadistic genre of horror comedy. But Edwards can’t really be held responsible for that last crime against humanity.

 

And then there’s the fact that The Party would fall somewhere near the top of that daily longer list of films that could never be made today. The announcement that anyone like Peter Sellers was going to play an Indian in a comedy would cause vast hordes of rabid Millennials to well up trailing endless miles of hangman’s rope, Edwards’ and

THE PARTY AT A GLANCE

Blake Edwards’ radically conservative all-but-silent widescreen comedy features Peter Sellers’ last great comic performance.

 

PICTURE
Lucien Ballard’s cinematography perfectly captures all of the status-driven ugliness of mid-’60s Hollywood.

 

SOUND     

A tepid and out-of-touch Mancini score adrift in a surround mix drowned out by Edwards’ visual slapstick genius.

Sellers’ intentions and the actual execution of the film be damned. The sad truth is that any form of expression outside of some very rigid and oppressive guardrails has become verboten. There was far more latitude in the mid ‘60s, obviously, but nobody was quite sure what to do with the freedom that had suddenly tumbled into their laps.

 

That anyone who could enjoy this movie might be dissuaded from watching it just because some zealots have labeled it “racist” is tragic. 

 

While Edwards tried to make important films—including some basically unwatchable dramas—and dabbled in social commentary, he was primarily an extremely gifted metteur en scène with a deeply intuitive sense of the physics of comedy who probably would have been happiest doing slapstick shorts in the 1920s but was born too late. The first Pink Panther film is a work of genius, an almost flawless classical farce in the style of Molière, Beaumarchais, and Feydeau. Its followup, A Shot in the Dark, is OK but begins to feel forced. All of the subsequent Panther films aren’t worth the time it takes to watch them. 

 

The Party is essentially Edwards’ baffled reaction—common to square-but-desperate-to-seem-hip society in the ’60s—to almost the whole of the social order being tossed into a blender. It takes the sophisticated, ’50s-inflected chaos of the party scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—a milieu he knew well—and wonders what would happen if that anarchy-within-bounds were allowed to roam free. But since Edwards didn’t have a politically rebellious bone in his body, the best he could arrive at was something that often resembles the finale of a Beach Blanket movie. Only the fact the he was a far more talented director than William (Bewitched) Asher begins to redeem this mess.

 

But it’s a both beautiful and nasty mess, and something to be savored—beginning, of course, with Sellers. This was his last great comic performance. After reaching his peak with Strangelove, Clouseau, and, here, Bakshi, he had little left to give and spent the next decade and a half stumbling from one mediocre film and half-hearted performance to another. (Being There is such an oddity it’s hard to say where it falls in all that.)

 

This is also his most fully rounded creation. Bakshi obviously meant something to Sellers (and Edwards) and he took the time to develop him into a complete character with a resonance that goes well beyond his comedic presence. You can laugh at him but at the same time can’t help but feel for him. None of Sellers’ other performances evokes that kind of emotional response.

 

While there are some perfectly tuned supporting turns (with the exception of the unfortunate Claudine Longet), they are all, appropriately, meant to create foils and a frame for Sellers. About the only thing that approaches deserving second billing is the studio head’s cringe-worthy home. Edwards and cinematographer Lucien Ballard captured the sheer awfulness of mid-‘60s West Cost architecture and design, and, again echoing Tati, turned this hideous shrine to status into a character. It’s so ugly it’s, within the context of the film, beautiful.

 

The Party is legendary for Edwards’ and Ballard’s elaborate widescreen compositions, with multiple bits of business playing out at the same time. The dinner scene, with its endlessly cascading sight gags and virtuoso timing, especially rewards repeated viewing. (This was one of the first films to use a Sony video system for playback, which Edwards deployed deftly to 

develop his slapstick mosaics.)

 

You can’t say this movie looks amazing in Blu-ray-quality HD, but you can’t say it looks lousy either. The opening titles are better defined, less blotchy, than they’ve been in the past, and the increased detail helps enhance the impact of complex set pieces like that dinner scene, which have just been visually busy before. The film would obviously benefit from a bump up to 4K, but you can also see where certain elements would likely come across as too contrasty exercises in excess grain.

 

(One quick aside: No other Edwards film looks and moves like this one, which can probably be largely attributed to Ballard, who cut his teeth shooting shorts for The Three Stooges and would move on from The Party to shoot The Wild Bunch. Like I said, it was a very strange year.)

 

Poor Henry Mancini. Just four years earlier, on the heels of Peter Gunn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Pink Panther, he had been the king of the pop music world, but the British Invasion had since all but wiped him from the face of the planet, and you can sense him struggling mightily here to figure out how he fits into a world of Day-Glo, psychedelica, and fuzz-tone guitars. The answer, unfortunately,

The Party (1968)

is that he doesn’t, and the title song, with its sitar played with a Garden Weasel, ragtime syncopations, and Keith Moon-at-a-high-school-dance drumming, is so out of touch it’s unintentionally funny.

 

The Party deserves a surround mix on par with the brilliance of its visual gags but it would be impossible for anyone, at this late date, to get far enough onto Edwards’ wavelength to pull something like that off. So what we get instead is serviceable but not what the film deserves.

 

There’s something deeply medieval about the current moment, where the most potent and revealing creative works are being forced into hiding, held in some form of safekeeping until the day—that may never come—when they can again be appreciated for what they are. The Party, at its heart, is a tale of the outsider—and it’s exactly the iconoclasts, the outsiders, who are being purged. Edwards and Sellers couldn’t have known that by trying to fathom the ’60s, they’d end up shining a more piercing light on the fashionably dark present.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: The Purple Rose of Cairo

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Of all of Woody Allen’s many films, The Purple Rose of Cairo deserves to be in, or near, the Top 5. I doubt anyone has ever treated the subject of mass-produced fantasies and their consequences as incisively. And Allen does it without turning it into the type of cold-blooded, too-clever-by-half intellectual exercise that tends to rule the roost today.

On an initial viewing, Purple Rose can seem lightweight, in a charming and quirky kind of way. It’s Allen’s most successful attempt to translate the style of his S.J. Perelman-type short pieces for The New Yorker to the screen. But while those pieces, hilarious as they often are, tend to be little more than a kind of absurdist riffing, here he manages to interweave a decent amount of earned emotion with the absurdity; and when he veers into sentimentality, it reinforces his critique of pop fantasies and comes with a bite.

 

While Mia Farrow gives what might be her best performance, it’s Jeff Daniels who walks away with the film. It’s hard to imagine the one-note Michael Keaton pulling off playing two similar yet very distinctly different roles, let alone looking like a Hollywood actor from the ‘30s. And yet 

CAIRO AT A GLANCE

One of Woody Allen’s best, it’s probably the strongest critique ever of the consequences of our cultural need to escape into fantasy worlds.

 

PICTURE
Gordon Willis’s cinematography—on par with his work in Manhattanholds up surprisingly well in this Blu-ray-quality HD download

 

SOUND     

Dick Hyman’s slick and soulless score is the weakest thing in the film.

Daniels aces it, also bringing a bland Midwestern quality to his portrayal that makes Gil Shepherd’s eventual betrayal of Farrow that much more affecting.

 

Without that last-mentioned turn, the film would have been little more than a very funny confection. But Allen’s movies, as he emerged from his mid period, began to display a maturity, a grounded and often troubling depth, he’s never gotten enough credit for. If he had opted for anything resembling a traditional happy ending, Purple Rose would have been little different 

from the fluff it both embraces and skewers. Shepherd’s all-too-human duplicity is a bracing jolt that throws the dangers—and irresponsibility—of the easy retreat into fantasy into context. Nobody can stop you from escaping into fantasy worlds—something the culture industry has shifted into hyper drive to encourage since the grim turn of the century—but it always comes at a hefty price.

 

And you have to wonder if the contemporary masses aren’t so thoroughly indoctrinated, so caught up in the endless, indulgent, self-congratulatory, self-referential, and insanely lucrative exercises in overgrown child’s play, for anything like this to even begin to resonate anymore, if Allen’s point isn’t utterly lost on a world that just wants to be left alone with its toys.

 

After landing that blow, though, Allen does cheat a little with an unfortunate shot of Shepherd looking wistfully out a plane window as he flies back to Hollywood from Farrow’s bleak corner of New Jersey. That moment seems to let Daniels’ character off the hook way too easily. It’s not that Allen shouldn’t have gone there but something more ambivalent would have rung truer.

 

I need to pause for a moment to acknowledge Danny Aiello’s performance. An actor all too often typecast, Allen plays off from that here, taking an archetypical abusive goon and making him, if not palatable, at last understandable. Consider the distance from Sylvester Stallone in a black leather jacket beating up old ladies on the subway in Bananas and you have an accurate gauge of just how much Allen grew as a filmmaker. And Aiello takes the opportunity and runs with it, without ever breaking a sweat.

 

Dianne Wiest deserves similar praise. If she hadn’t been able to bring depth to her portrayal of a roaming prostitute, Daniels-as-Tom Baxter’s sojourn in a bordello would have been little more than an extended cheap laugh. But she and Allen give her a basal dignity that keeps her and her fellow co-workers from becoming objects of ridicule.

 

And now we once again come to Gordon Willis. It would be impossible to decide which film represents his best work for Allen, but I would have to put Purple Rose really near or on par with Manhattan. He doesn’t really do anything bravura here, but it’s all strong. How he and Allen were able to take 

a closed-for-the-season amusement park in the autumn chill and turn it into a subtle metaphor for the film itself and for the torpor of America in the middle of the Depression remains both stunning and sublime.

 

As with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, the cinematography holds up surprisingly well in Blu-ray-quality HD. Most of the subtlety is retained, only occasionally marred by excess noise and grain. Patches of bright light remain a problem, but not

much can be done about that until the increasingly distant day when this film gets lifted up to 4K HDR.

 

The most egregious problem is the shots in the film-within-the-film that were radically enlarged on an optical printer. Allen obviously shot all of these as masters and then decided in editing that the other characters in the frame were too distracting. I don’t remember these images being this grainy and blobby when seen in a theater, but here they look like somebody spliced in some degraded VHS footage.

 

The weakest thing about Purple Rose is Dick Hyman’s score. It’s unfortunate Allen leaned so heavily on Hyman in his films because, while he was a technically proficient musician, his work tended to be slick and soulless. Fortunately Allen’s material is strong enough to not be unduly weighed down by the seemingly arbitrary and often incongruous cues, but it’s a shame he couldn’t have cobbled together the entire soundtrack out of vintage music instead.

 

Many of Allen’s films are about characters who easily—and often, too easily—slip into fantasy worlds, and many of his protagonists are haunted by fantasy projections of the past. Key films like Annie Hall and Stardust Memories show

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Allen himself, thinly disguised behind fictional monikers, having a hard time, by his own admission, separating fiction from reality. His condition, which at one time was seen as an aberration, has since become desirable, is now accepted as the norm. While he frequently played that tenuous hold on reality for laughs, he never fully accepted it, and Purple Rose remains his most trenchant look into what has become the very heart of the culture.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: Stardust Memories

Stardust Memories (1980)

Having considered a handful of Woody Allen’s most significant films, we now approach his most problematic work (that is, the most problematic for anyone who’s not a prisoner of the irredeemable present). Allen had been on a roll with audiences after Annie Hall and Manhattan but ran into a massive wall with Stardust Memories, which effectively alienated the broader 

following he’d created with those two earlier films and left him with the small but blindly devoted fan base that would allow him to keep making movies for the next four decades. As perverse as it sounds, it seems possible—even likely—he deliberately created Memories to offend, in a maybe too successful effort to cull the herd.

 

I wondered in an earlier review why Allen soon abandoned his nimble, well-rounded, creatively fertile persona to portray a thin caricature of himself in later films. The answer might lie here. Being too honest about himself and his perceptions created a backlash that might have been both personally traumatizing and a threat to his career. With his Zelig-like need to be accepted, Allen might have decided that, rather than continue to mine that hugely and uniquely fruitful vein, he should play it safe—or at least safer—from now on.

 

Some have called Stardust Memories his best film. It’s undeniably a great movie—it takes tremendous talent and 

MEMORIES AT A GLANCE

Allen’s most challenging film—the one that alienated his wider audience, permanently reducing him to cult status—and still one of his best.

 

PICTURE
Gordon Willis’s gorgeous black & white cinematography—like Manhattan but with more bite—holds its own in Blu-ray-quality HD but lacks the necessary subtlety only 4K HDR can deliver. 

 

SOUND     

Yes, there’s a gunshot this time, but the movie is mainly dialogue and vintage jazz, all of which would have sounded fine in either mono or stereo.

dash to go this picaresque and be this unvarnished and ambitious and still pull it off—but it just doesn’t hang together as well as the equally audacious Manhattan. And I think the fault might lie in the relationships he chose to portray and his too facile casting of his partners.

 

Allen tends to go for the Flavor of the Month with his actors, and while Charlotte Rampling might have photographed well, she just doesn’t have the chops to be believable as his deeply disturbed love interest. Marie-Christine Barrault fares slightly better as his more grounded alternative but, again, there’s just not enough depth there. Jessica Harper almost makes her part work,

but she’s not a significant enough screen presence to care about. While Allen was likely just staying true to his actual situation, and famous directors undoubtedly do tend to flit from one stimulating but superficial relationship to another, the film needed a deeper emotional resonance there to balance its incisive but ultimately wearying examination of celebrity.

 

I don’t want to give the impression I don’t like this film—I do. I just wanted to pinpoint where it sags. Stardust Memories shows a fierce courage—and Allen paid a huge price for going there. Many felt he was too brutal on his fans, but that misses the point. He’s mainly exploring why we manifest the worlds we do and his intense dissatisfaction with his current state, which he was largely responsible for. The suffocating fans were just an inevitable extension of that.

 

It’s got the loosest structure of any his non-gag-driven films, with a “meet the director” weekend at a seaside resort supplying the armature for him to hang his diverse impressions on, and he makes it work well. The problem (to the degree it is a problem) is that people assumed it would be fun to be inside Allen’s head for 90 minutes and were thrown to find the experience jarring, even disturbing. It’s as if he took another stab at the deeply subjective, free-associational original premise for Annie Hall (called “Anhedonia”) and this time succeeded in landing all the blows.

 

And let’s not forget that Stardust Memories is a comedy, and a funny one—his conversation with a bunch of street-wise aliens (“I have an IQ of sixteen hundred and I can’t even understand what you expected from that relationship with Dorrie”) might be the best bit in any of his films—but there’s not a single comic moment that isn’t deliberately troubled by darker currents—which is what makes the film so brilliant but also what threw audiences so hard.

Allen does somewhat balance, or at least temper, his unflinching take on his realty with a deeply bittersweet romanticism, which he sees as a necessary buffer while realizing that retreats into fantasy always come at a price (something he would explore with far more nuance in The Purple Rose of Cairo). That romanticism permeates the film, in how the Allen character treats his relationships, in the Django Reinhardt-inflected jazz soundtrack, and especially in Gordon Willis’s cinematography, which tightens the more epic style of Manhattan and gives it more bite.

My comments about how Willis’s images fare in this Blu-ray-quality HD download will sound eerily similar to my comments about his work in Manhattan. Everything looks good, but not as good as it should, and Memories really does need the subtlety of all the captured steps of grayscale to help soften the impact of the deliberately harsh material. The movie is perfectly watchable in this form—although intense pools of bright light are so harsh they’re distracting—but it would be not just better but a different experience in 4K HDR.

 

Stardust Memories remains a challenging film—partly because none of Allen’s other movies have pushed the audience so hard. In hindsight, it was the pivotal moment in his career. One of the running gags is his fans’ preference for his “early, funny” films, a sentiment he acknowledges and, through Memories, says he’s OK with because he knows that’s all behind him now. Time has since affirmed that judgment, exposing those early efforts as products of the cultural moment with not much long-term worth while revealing the many strengths of his mid-period work.

 

But this was also his first movie in years without Diane Keaton as his leading 

Stardust Memories (1980)

lady, and although her presence can be felt in the Rampling character, his inability to make the romantic relationships convincing does weigh Memories down. This is pure speculation, but it seems likely Allen would have continued doing far more adventurous work if the public hadn’t turned on him so viciously after this film. Looking to regroup, he likely assumed having a leading lady was key to remaining a viable director—which is when a very eager Mia Farrow appeared.

 

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.