FIVE FROM THE FIRE #2
john cribbs & christopher funderburg
Chris, let's say you're across town as I'm risking my neck for the sake of cinema. Let's say you're walking down the street enjoying a fish taco, or maybe an ice cream cone [I choose the ice cream. - chris], when WHOOSH! a ball of flame errupts in the night sky. Say, isn't that the...oh no! You rush to the burning warehouse and can clearly see that you have mere minutes to save maybe five films, tops, from the vaults of the following directors...
Anthony Mann Douglas Sirk Albert Brooks
Abel Ferrara Jean Renoir
Oh, Jesus, this is terrible! Even in my panicked state, I quickly glean that the warehouse contains only the directorial efforts of these filmmakers, so I don't have to waste any precious seconds scrounging around for Finding Nemo. That also means that I'm willing to forget about Albert Brooks altogether – his memorably awesome comedic persona and brand of anxiety-riddled boomer confusion was perfectly utilized on many projects he didn't direct. So, as long as we have Hank Scorpio, Broadcast News and the aforementioned Pixar fish epic, I’m comfortable letting interesting but flawed films like Lost in America, Modern Romance and Defending Your Life go up in smoke.
Did I just say "interesting, but flawed?" Sorry Ferrara, your films have an almost pathological commitment to the "flawed" part of that equation and as I scan brain for a list of my favorite Ferrara films (R 'Xmas, Ms. 45, Mary, Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy), I decide to head full tilt away from your section of the warehouse at least until I get Sirk, Mann and Renoir in order.
Sirk has never been a favorite of mine, but he's essential part of the life and career of two of my favorite directors, RWF and Todd Haynes. Plus, half of the film theory and criticism written in the past twenty years would be unintelligible without some kind of Sirk Rosetta Stone to explain just what the hell everybody was talking about in the endless essays on Sirk's signature camp and melodrama. As I weave between burning crates and smoldering support beams, I blank for a moment: what the hell is the title of that goddamn movie that’s the inspiration for both Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Far from Heaven? Leave Her to Heaven? Heaven Belongs to Us? My brain unfreezes and I snap up All That Heaven Allows, leaving it safely outside on the sidewalk before heading back into ever-growing conflagration.
With Renoir, I have much less hesitation: this fellow is getting two films saved – and stat! I'll go with a big, important canonized classic and a smaller (but no less excellent) film for which I have more personal affection. In a matter of seconds, I've pulled out both The Grand Illusion and The Crime of Monsieur Lange. For a moment, I feel intensely guilty about letting a warehouse explosion destroy Rules of the Game for a second time, but the legend was always better than the film with that one, anyway. The legend will live on, even as I see the prints of a consensus classic become consumed with flames.
Despite the heat and smoke (and melted ice cream – shit, I should really put this thing down), I duck back in for my third attempt at the most literal and urgent print preservation project ever undertaken. I think of Stephen J. Gould's statement that while museum curators are generally thought to be a stuffy, book-bound lot, caught up in history and uninterested in real life, he doesn't know a single Natural History devotee who wouldn't through themselves in front of a bullet to save a pregnant dodo bird. The same goes for pretentious assholes such as myself: even if I can only get out five for certain, I'm going back into the blaze in a futile effort for a sixth.
I curse myself for hemming and hawing for over Anthony Mann. What should I grab of his Westerns, the genre at which he most excelled? Should I save his most inventive (Winchester '73), his best collaboration with James Stewart (Bend of the River) or the critical and cult favorite (The Naked Spur)? And what do I about his excellent work in other genres like big budget Hollywood costume epics (El Cid), war films (Men in War – another personal favorite that it would pain me greatly to leave behind), film noir (Raw Deal) and genuinely idiosyncratic psychodrama (The Furies)? I decide that Winchester '73 covers a lot of bases (Western, critical favorite, gimmicky-yet-effective narrative structure, James Stewart, personal favorite, excellent Polish poster) and impulsively grab T-Men in the same moment. It's got a good reputation (it's about U.S. Treasury department agents – just like To Live and Die in L.A.!) and can serve as the Mann noir representative – plus, I've never seen it. And honestly, I don't want to live in a world in which there's no chance of discovery with some of my favorite filmmakers. If I hadn't so thoroughly explored the work of Douglas Sirk, Jean Renoir, Albert Brooks and Abel Ferrara, I might have been inclined to reserve this impetuous gesture for one their films – just as I realize I'm making an appallingly selfish argument, I decide to brave the fire one more time.
But the blaze is over-whelming. The fumes and heat smothers me from every direction – it's as though I'm drowning in an ocean of thick black smoke - as I blindly charge through the horrific conditions. I know what I'm looking for, but I remember seeing it towards the back of the warehouse. Moments later, the first response fire-fighters arrive. They're shocked to find my lifeless body on the floor, expired from smoke inhalation and badly burned by the encroaching flames. In my arms are the charred remains of the only print of Fear City. I did what I could, Abel...
After the blaze is contained, the emergency response personnel survey the damage and discover the cannisters containing:
All That Heaven Allows T-Men The Crime of Monsieur Lange
Winchester '73 The Grand Illusion
Beautiful...I hope that's exactly how one of us dies.
I totally forgot about Broadcast News, the film I always have to remind myself isn't written and directed by Albert Brooks. For my own selections I would have rescued Modern Romance, but you're absolutely right in pointing out that Brooks is well-represented in various other incarnations. So I won't call you a retardo for letting his oeuvre go up in smoke/down in flames.
T-Men and Fear City over Rules of the Game! That's the choice I was really curious to have you make! It's a good thing you didn't survive the incident, as Rafferty and his colleagues would probably torture and murder you (or slap you on the back - don't all critics secretly wish they never had to write about that movie ever again?)
Monsieur Lange is an interesting choice. I probably would have gone for La Bęte Humaine or Toni or Boudou, but I think Grand Illusion covers that romantic period pretty well. Illusion itself would be on my list (along with M and Discreet Charm) of films that should be perserved above all others.
That's noble of you to secure a Sirk for the sake of cinema - I don't know if I could do the same knowing Bend of the River and Man of the West were burning nearby...
Stay tuned: next week will bring another Five from the Fire - find out what noted Gentleman of Leisure Paul Cooney would save from the filmographies of five inimitable actors!
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