This is an earnest, reasonably well-directed film with a clumsily structured script. It jumps around between different periods of J. Edgar Hoover’s life so often that it never manages to create any momentum in the story it’s trying to tell, the portrait it’s trying to paint.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as J. Edgar Hoover has its moments, but he seems to be hamstrung by the thick accent he adopts, which for some reason is thicker than the real Hoover’s accent.


Hoover’s very bizarre personal life is presented with compassion, without glossing over anything. It’s hard to understand why anyone wanted to make this film, except to garner Academy Award attention, but it basically lacks the juice to compel any kind of attention at all.

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[Warning — SPOILERS below . . .]

I saw this film when it came out in 1971.  I was 21 then and didn’t like it much.  I was a film purist and was annoyed by all the zooms and telephoto shots, which were the clichés of “with-it” filmmaking at the time.  I also was annoyed, or unconvinced, by the optical snow effects in the concluding scenes.  All these things took me out of the movie.

I just watched the film again for the first time since 1971.  I’m still a film purist and was still annoyed by the zooms and telephoto shots and optical snow effects, which have dated the film terribly.  But I found many other things to love about the movie which I hadn’t fully appreciated in my youth.


The film is set in a frontier town that is growing.  Altman shot it in sequence, as the sets for the town’s expansion were being constructed, so you see the town growing, literally, as the narrative progresses.


The film was also shot in all kinds of weather, which gives a lovely sense of atmosphere.  (There was real snow falling as the final scenes were shot, though not continuously, which is why the optical snow had to be added.)


Warren Beatty gives a genial performance and Julie Christie a great one.  In the first hour of the film, which is basically a lyrical romantic comedy, their interactions are a delight to watch.  As in many romantic comedies, the female protagonist is smarter and stronger than the male protagonist, and we admire him just for keeping up with her — hoping he’ll prove his worth to her in time.


But then things start to go wrong.  Dark forces, representing the evils of corporate America, move into the town and threaten the idyll of McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  McCabe seems to get weaker and weaker and is repeatedly humiliated by the thugs.  A showdown is inevitable.


McCabe kills the thugs at the cost of his own life — Mrs. Miller, high on opium, doesn’t seem to care or even notice.  The film ends on a nihilistic note.  Very trendy for 1971, as the Vietnam War raged and people began to think that all American ideals, especially as portrayed in Westerns, were and always had been meaningless posturing.


Ho hum — all very puerile and cheap.  Still there is that town, that weather, those two appealing stars and much good humor.  The film, shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, is magically lit throughout, with filters and a slight flashing of the negative to give the effect of a turn-of-the-century Autochrome.  In between the zooms and telephoto shots there are many extremely beautiful images.  Altman had very much wanted to make a Western, and he almost made a very good one, but by the end, like Mrs. Miller, he seems to have retreated into a drug-induced indifference to the form.  Pauline Kael called the film “a beautiful pipe dream of a movie”, and there’s some truth in that.  The whole thing sort of drifts away like smoke, and leaves a kind of emptiness in the heart.



[SPOILER ALERT — don’t read further if you haven’t yet watched True Detective but plan to.]

So it ended up being lurid pulp fiction after all, not a supernatural thriller.  The title should have tipped us off about this.  Yet the whole thing was a kind of wild fever dream, always teetering on the brink of the plausible — it made you feel unsteady, filled you with dread.  Doing this without supernatural elements was a fine achievement and a very satisfying one.

It kept you guessing to the end.  When Rust pointed his finger in the direction of the kidnapped sheriff next to the boat and gunshots exploded out of nowhere at the places Rust was pointing, I thought for a second that Rust had been revealed to possess magical powers.  But, no — there was a hidden sniper firing those shots, a device perfectly suitable to lurid pulp fiction.


When Rust and then Marty entered the grotesquely decorated maze of Carcosa, the suspense became nearly unbearable — because they should not have been doing this by any rational calculation.  They should have gone in together, or waited for back-up.  But they had to navigate that maze, whatever the cost — it was a symbol of the maze of the case itself, which they had become obsessed with, willing to risk everything to solve.

Not the least of the risks they ran was madness.  Trying to enter the mind of a severely deranged psychotic killer left them on the margin of sanity themselves.  But they needed to enter the madman’s story to chart the maze he’d created and destroy it.


The references to The King In Yellow became clear at last.  The King In Yellow was a series of stories about a play that induced madness or despair in people who watched or read it. In other words, a series of stories about a story. That’s its significance to True Detective — not the supernatural element in the original book. Errol William Childress was telling stories about himself through his grisly deeds, which induced Rust and Marty to search for the story that inspired Childress’s story, and its significance. Only by unraveling that story could they change it. In the process, both risked losing their minds.

Nature Photography

In the coda after the chase in the maze, a coda that is the true climax to the series, Marty reminds Rust about his youth in Alaska when he’d stare up at the night sky and make up stories.  There’s a suggestion that telling stories is the only reasonable response to the forbidding mystery of the cosmos, and that the foundation of all stories is seen in the night sky — darkness versus light.

In the coda, we find that Rust, the bitter nihilist, has found faith — in something beyond death.  The supernatural intrudes at last, in the last place we’d ever expect it — Rust’s petrified heart.  But it doesn’t appear out of nowhere — Rust’s obsession with solving the case was always based in faith, an idea that stopping a few of the world’s horrors does mean something, does bring a spark of light to the darkness of existence.


Marty points out that the dark holds more territory in the night sky than the light, but Rust won’t let that be the final word.  “Once there was only dark,” he says.  “If you ask me, the light’s winning.”

That’s his story now, but every step he and Marty took in the course of the series was a part of telling that story, necessary to the creation of that story.



I thought this was an exceptionally dumb movie.

Christopher Nolan is really the grand duke of mediocrity.

Nolan knows how to make hit movies but he doesn’t know how to direct a movie.  This is only possible in an age when people think of factory-fabricated Twinkies as “cake”.



The great cinematographer Gordon Willis (above) didn’t like zooms in general and especially not in period films. He and Coppola agreed early on they they wouldn’t use zooms for The Godfather.


There is, however, one obvious zoom in the movie, in an establishing shot of the Woltz mansion just before the bedroom scene with the horse’s head.  It turns out that Willis didn’t shoot it.  Coppola and another cinematographer went out and stole several establishing shots of the mansion at dawn because Coppola felt he needed them and there was no money left in the budget to get them done officially.

The zoom in question pushes in on Woltz’s bedroom window, and you can see why Coppola used it, given that he didn’t have a crane or tracking equipment to get the same effect.

I hate zooms myself, in any kind of film, agreeing with Jean-Luc Godard that zooms should only be used to annoy and alienate the audience, and that zoom in The Godfather has always stuck in my craw, even knowing how and why it was created.


Ironically, it turns out that there is another zoom in the movie, one I never processed as a zoom until I read about it.  It’s the famous three-minute opening shot of Bonasera telling his troubles to Don Corleone.  It starts close on Bonasera’s face and opens up slowly to show Bonasera in a wider shot over the Don’s shoulder.

This was done with a mechanized computer-controlled zoom lens set to proceed so slowly that you never really resister the optical distortion inherent in a zoom.  It works fine and doesn’t take you out of the period visual style crafted so meticulously by Willis, but part of me wishes I didn’t know it was a zoom.



Dramatic geniuses can get a bit eccentric towards the end of their careers. In his late romances, Shakespeare pretty much abandoned plausibility and consistency of tone — he just threw together incidents and scenes and characters and language that interested him and cobbled them together this way or that. He basically said “fuck you” to the “well-made play” and pleased himself.


The results were both magical and unsettling. The same can be said of many of John Ford’s late-career movies. They’re not tightly constructed, they veer around drunkenly between themes and dramatic arcs, with the director concentrating on the stuff that interested him, whether it had a clear structural function or not, and fecklessly tossing off the other stuff.


This is true of Donavan’s Reef (above) and Cheyenne Autumn — both of which are uneven as dramatic works but have passages of great beauty, as powerful and moving as any in Ford’s work.

Two Rode Together Stewart Widmark Opening

It’s true also of Two Rode Together, above, a Ford film from 1961.  The film starts off at a stately pace, apparently setting up a buddy adventure between the characters played by its two stars, Jimmy Stewart and Richard Widmark.  But Ford quickly loses interest in the adventure.  He pauses to let the two great actors banter with each other, in leisurely and absolutely riveting exchanges.  He makes breathtakingly beautiful shots of horses and wagons moving across the landscape and neglects the visual possibilities in scenes that have dramatic weight in the story.


The adventure sort of fizzles out by the end, but by then Ford has switched his interest to the sexual and racial dynamics in the romantic subplots his leads get entangled in.


It’s like listening to a great storyteller drinking and talking by the fire, getting sloshed and losing the thread of the tale he started out to tell, but still captivating you with his voice and with the brilliance of his digressions.


The result is a perplexing film that is also great and immensely pleasurable — like Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.  You know that wherever the tale is going, the journey is going to be worth it — maybe not in the ways you expected but  . . . somehow.

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For me, the high point of the Academy Award ceremonies tonight was this selfie, organized in an apparently improvisatory, or mostly improvisatory moment while the telecast was in progress by host Ellen DeGeneres.

The Academy Award ceremonies are basically just a big selfie that the film industry takes of itself.  They’re usually pretty dumb but always successful, because people enjoy celebrity selfies.  It’s the self-importance and the fake jollity of the ceremonies that make them nauseating.  But in the picture above, the various stars reveal themselves as the narcissistic kids they are at bottom — “Look at me!” they’re all saying, with a cheerfulness that’s actually endearing.

The picture even got bombed by the brother of best supporting actress winner Lupita Nyongo’o — he’s the guy on the right-hand side of the picture, obscuring our view of Cate Blanchett — authenticating the spontaneity of the moment.

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