Tell us what you really think, Gene…
Gene Youngblood, legendary reviewer and cultural theorist who died in April 2021, began a series of film reviews in the LA Free Press in 1967. Many of these reviews formed the basis of parts of his book ‘Expanded Cinema‘ which is now seen widely as a foundational document of post-psychedelic cinema. Blackmass Movies is proud to begin the process of collecting Youngblood’s reviews in one place for the first time. Youngblood’s TV interview with a young George Lucas is here.
Almost exactly one year ago today I wrote in The Herald-Examiner: “Discussion of John Huston’s ‘The Bible’ must necessarily include thoughts on artistic integrity and cinematic standards, because it represents all that is wrong with films and film criticism today.”
It took a year, but Superstar Huston and his Very Important Actors have managed to utter yet another cinematic obscenity, “Reflections in a Golden Eye.” Now I’m even more convinced of my opinion, and I feel increasingly alienated from the entire concept of “commercial” film-making.
Although photographed in chic monochromes, this movie is far from grey: you don’t simply shrug your shoulders at it; you either hate it, as I do, or you heap it with Huston-worship as did our fine reviewers in The Times and Herald-Examiner.
And that’s what I meant a year ago when I said of The Gospel According To Huston that it represents not only the widespread ills of filmmaking, but the shallowness and impotence of popular criticism as well. Only a fool would fail to recognize the pertinent questions this kind of movie raises — a fool or a man more in love with his critical opinion than he is with cinema.
“Reflections in a Golden Eye” instantly questions the validity of ‘movie stars” and their function in the realm of cinema; it brings up the old but vital argument that cinema is neither a receptacle nor vehicle for the medium of literature, but instead a valid medium all its own. In short, this movie is a perfect demonstration of how the Hollywood syndrome has corrupted, distorted and misrepresented the art of film throughout its brief history.
It is merciful indeed that poor tormented Carson McCullers died before this abortion of her novel was complete. A second novel, written in 1941 after the success of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” it was strongly influenced by the traditional Southern Gothic of Tennessee Williams. Thus it is not as pure an expression of Mrs. McCullers’ singular sensibilities as is “The Member of the Wedding,” for example.
“Reflections in a Golden Eye” is to Carson McCullers as “Across the River and Into the Trees” is to Hemingway — morbid self-indulgence with isolated passages of brilliance. That is more than one can say of Huston’s film.
Ray Loynd wrote in The Herald-Examiner “… seldom, if ever, has a Hollywood film displayed such fidelity to a literary work of art …” Let’s get one thing clear: Mrs. McCullers’ novel is a tale of mental aberration, homosexuality and murder. It is a tragedy; read it, you won’t find yourself laughing. Yet this vulgar buffoon Huston, no doubt out of pure reverence for the author, has made a double-entendre laugh farce of the book. I’ll admit, it IS funny; seldom have I laughed so hard at something so serious. Yet at the same time I could not forgive myself for laughing, and I could not escape the feeling that Huston is virtually without artistic integrity, a man so wrapped up in his own overblown ego that his art, and the art of others, has no more meaning than a carnival sideshow.
It is said that Mrs. McCullers contributed suggestions to the script (by Chapman Mortimer and Gladys Hill) which she allegedly termed “a marvelous adaptation” before lapsing into a fatal coma. Either her brain was fevered during that reading or Huston transformed it later. I cannot believe that an artist of her caliber would approve of this movie.
In my opinion, about the worst thing you can say of a film is that it is “faithful” to a novel or play from which it was derived. A film — if it is to be at all pure – must be conceived as a film and not “adapted” from literature. I believe the purest film is one written with the camera and with the spontaneous words and actions of the players. But if there must be a script it should at least be written by the filmmaker himself. Artists like Godard or Antonioni write skeleton scripts — bare suggestive outlines — and then complete their authorship behind the camera. That is pure filmmaking. Huston’s so-called “art” is not even pure adaptation.
So much for literature; now let’s talk about cinema. Charles Champlin wrote in The Times that Marlon Brando’s ride through the forest on a runaway horse is “bravura” filmmaking. He also praised Huston’s use of monochrome color: the entire film is in dull, neutral shades of mauve or beige, faded like an old tintype.
I agree that monochrome is just as valid a technique as black-and-white or full color. It’s not what you do but how you do it. And monochrome does invest the film with a certain atmospheric quality, a kind of mellowness. Yet there have been much better examples — Jules Dassin’s “10:30 p.m. Summer,” for instance, or even Claude Lelouch’s “A Man and a Woman,” though I hate to admit it. And it is true that Huston had the courage to stay with monochrome and not switch suddenly to full color for dramatic effect.
The trouble is that Huston didn’t take advantage of the mood possibilities inherent in monochrome. The story itself is one of introspection and glancing, elliptical action. It cries out for delicate touches of atmosphere, such as we found in Joseph Losey’s “Accident,” for example. Yet much of the movie is blatant burlesque, clashing with the soft monochrome and ominous music, which set an altogether different mood.
Monochrome also calls more attention to the visual aspect of a film, almost forcing the director to manifest an evident visual “style.” Yet there are but one or two visually striking or creative scenes in the entire film. In general, it’s about as distinctive visually as a television soap opera. The prettiest and most evocative scene — a train pulling away from a desolate station with a low sun shimmering through steamclouds — is plagiary: it looks too much like an identical scene in Fellini’s “I Vitelloni” to be coincidental.
As for that “bravura” horse-back ride through the woods, it’s about as spectacular as Huston’s treatment of the flood in “The Bible.” In that epic, as you may (unfortunately) recall, a sound-stage torrent crashes down on an obviously miniature ark, but the camera, close in on Noah and his family inside, doesn’t budge. The ark is but nudged by a gargantuan wave that seconds before has dissolved a mountain. That’s the kind of bravura cinematics we see in the runaway horse sequence. The camera, mounted low on a car, follows the frenzied animal from behind, so we don’t see the stand-in rider’s face. Then we cut to Brando’s Method-mugging face in close-up, as immobile and steady as though he were sitting on a rock. He tugs some fake reins for realism.
For some truly bravura “action” cinema involving horseman-ship, I refer the viewer to “Falstaff,” by Orson Welles, who was disgraced and kicked out of Hollywood, unlike Huston, who got rich and left. (To anticipate second-guessing: ” Falstaff” can only in the loosest terms be considered an “adaptation” of Shakespeare. It is all Welles.) John Huston is a superstar, largely because of the prestige value of the “auteur” theory of the “Cahiers du Cinema” crowd in Paris. I have always believed that the auteur theory has done more harm than good for the art of cinema. An art form is in poor shape indeed if one need search that desperately for some hint of personal expression in a product.
To seriously discuss the work of John Huston in context with Godard, Fellini and Antonioni is absurd. It obscures the very vital differences that these men represent over the works of men like Huston. It is a tragedy and an irony that to many persons John Huston and Jerry Lewis are “artists” of stature. We have the auteur theory to thank for that, and Mr. Andrew Sarris. The stamp of Huston’s personality may very well be on this film and all the others, but I’m nauseated when I recognize it.
Finally, I suppose, we must discuss actors, though I fail to see what “acting” has to do with cinema. In fact, I don’t even know what “acting” means, if it is not merely an extension of one’s personality.
The only convincing character in this movie is Robert Forster, who portrays the ominously silent Pvt. Williams. He is convincing because he’s an unknown: we haven’t seen him before. But my God how many times we’ve seen Brando and Liz and Brian Keith and Julie Harris! It is impossible to separate them from the characters they portray, because they essentially portray themselves. There’s Brando from “Sayonara” and “The Fugitive Kind,” and there’s Liz from “Raintree County” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” And there’s Brian Keith and Julie Harris, who looks just like the girl in “East of Eden” would have looked if she grew up and snipped off her nipples with a pair of garden shears.
The “star” system has kept cinema from advancing. People pay $2.50 each at the Egyptian Theater to see Liz, who is now so fat that she needs a stand-in for the nude scene, and a gallon of Orgy Butter even to suggest erotica. Bob Dylan is good in “Don’t Look Back” because he plays Bob Dylan. And Marlon Brando is good in the Maysles brothers’ “Meet Marlon Brando” because he isn’t pretending he’s Fletcher Christian.
Cinema will come of age when the public realizes, through cinema, that reality, or its closest approximation, is much more interesting than fiction. And in cinema, fiction can be reality.