Wednesday, April 08, 2009

My New Annual Project: The Films of Robert Aldrich

I've been scouting around for a movie-related project ever since I finished up my last movie-related project (last year's march through a field of broken glass to watch 366 movies). I think I may have found my muse.

A few years ago, I had an interesting discussion with one of my online friends about the films of Robert Aldrich. Aldrich is one of my favorite directors, but he's not a filmmaker who often comes up when film nuts talk about the great filmmakers of the American cinema. And why should he? He never catered to critics, really. He just made great movies. Lots of them. Many of them in disreputable, or downright seedy genre idioms. I mean, look at just a short list of his best films:

Kiss Me, Deadly
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
The Flight of the Phoenix
The Dirty Dozen
The Longest Yard
The Emperor of the North Pole
Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte

There's many a critic's darling that doesn't hold a candle to that resume. Plus, I propose to show that Aldrich was a true auteur in the original meaning of the word. There's an overriding thematic similarity in his films that show his hand as the guiding force behind them. There's clearly a personal statement being made over the course of his career. The conversation that sparked this project hashed out some of my own thoughts on the matter. I think Aldrich's films are generally Gothics, even when they're disguised as something else. This comes fully to the fore when there's a "hysteric" quality to the films, but it's there, too, in Aldrich's films about men. Sometimes, it manifests itself in genre (some genres--like film noir--being derived from the Gothic), other times it's an unusual combination of elements over-layered on top of other generic forms.

My friend kind of scoffed at the idea that a film like The Dirty Dozen is a Gothic, but look at the elements: confinement and microcosm, insanity, the Byronic anti-hero, the manor house as object and setting. In my view, this is Gothic to the core. You can apply the same paradigm to The Flight of the Phoenix and The Longest Yard, too, to say nothing of lesser-known films like Twilight's Last Gleaming.

Aldrich on the set of The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Of course, I'm saying all of this without actually having seen all of Aldrich's films. I've seen most of them, I think, but I'm going to rewatch them all in the coming months--probably not in chronological order, though I may try for that--and I'm going to make an effort to track down the ones I haven't seen. Some may take me longer as I try to lay my hands on films that are not conventionally available, though surprisingly few of Aldrich's movies are unavailable. I sincerely hope that I don't have to rely on 20 year old memories of ...All the Marbles or The Choirboys to do them any kind of justice. We shall see. In any event, these posts will alternate with my normal weekly postings about the movies I'm watching, and I sincerely hope that others will chime in with their own ideas about Aldrich's films, because, believe me, this is going to be a learning experience for me. Meanwhile, all interested parties are encouraged to go read Alain Silver's excellent overview of Aldrich's life and career over at Senses of Cinema. And check back here next week when I'll kick things off with Burt Lancaster in either Apache or Vera Cruz.

Also in the mean time, check out this catalog of women in film over at House of Mirth. It's a welcome respite from movies designed to appeal to teen-age boys.

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