Film Reviews Of The Last Mogul: The Life And Times Of Lew Wasserman; Light Keeps Me Company; Cameraman: The Life And Work Of Jack Cardiff; and John Waters: This Filthy World
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/27/14
I recently got a chance to stream and watch four films dealing with well known people involved in the motion picture industry. They were The Last Mogul: The Life And Times Of Lew Wasserman; Light Keeps Me Company; Cameraman: The Life And Work Of Jack Cardiff; and John Waters: This Filthy World.
Barry Avrich wrote and directed the 2005 film The Last Mogul: The Life
And Times Of Lew Wasserman, a 102 minute film detailing the career of a man
who started out as a Vaudeville manager, and rose through the Music Corporation
of America (MCA) to eventually become the power behind the studio that
eventually became MCA-Universal. While the film is a fairly straight forward
accounting of Wassermanís long life, replete with famed talking heads as Peter
Bart, Dominick Dunne, William Link, Alan Ladd, Jr., Sydney Pollack, David Carr,
Jack Valenti, Suzanne Pleshette, Richard Zanuck, and Larry King, it lacks the
pizzazz, boldness, and polish of the film on another Hollywood mogul featured
within- Robert Evans, whose own biographical documentary, The
Kid Stays In The Picture, pushed boundaries within the genre of
documentary and the subgenre of biographical documentary.
The film lays out Wassermanís early connections to Mobsters and how they helped take control of major aspects of Hollywood, including the rise to power within the Screen Actorís Guild of B actor Ronald Reagan, who proved to basically be Wassermanís Ďboyí in the union to secure labor peace for his clients at MCA, which, in the 1950s, seemingly controlled 90% or more of Hollywood actors, singers, musicians, and other technical crafts and labor unions, in one way or another, until its monopoly was broken up by Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s. By the late 1980s, however, Wasserman found that he had been muscled out of power from MCA by, first, Japanese businessmen who took over his company, and then by the scion of the Seagramís beverage fortune. When the man died in 2002, Hollywood came out en masse. In an ironic way, the film also tells the viewer that they can blame the arrival of Steven Spielberg and the dumbing down of Hollywood films on Wasserman, due to both good and bad decision he made financially.
While the film is not an out and out hagiography, a bit more pursuit of some of the connections Wasserman maintained throughout his life, with organized crime elements, would have been fruitful. After all, we get mention of Wasserman killing a 60 Minutes expose on a crony of his, for five years, then the dissolution of his friendship with CBSís Don Hewitt when it aired, but we only get hints at what the report contained. Yes, one can likely easily find such information online now, but, still, thatís what a documentary- or journalistic film, is SUPPOSED to do. Technically, the film is solid, and fast paced enough to entertain.
Fast paced and entertaining are not words one would expect to find in a
documentary about Ingmar Bergmanís most well known cinematographer, Sven
Nykvist, but in a 76 minute long documentary, Light Keeps Me Company
(Ljuset HŚller Mig Sšllskap), a 2000 film by Nykvistís son, Carl
Gustaf Nykvist, we not only do not get the aforementioned terms, we do not get
any real insight into the manís craft. The film is all pure hagiography
supplied for a father by his son, and since there is nothing said of any depth,
by the man nor his admirers, we are left with a splendidly shot but dull film.
Repeatedly, the film returns to an image of sunlight sparkling on water, as it refers to Nykvistís boyhood love of Herman Hesseís novel, Siddhartha, and a scene where the protagonist confronts The River. But, as lovely as the scene is, and as interesting a returned digression as it provides, there is little else. Yes, we hear Nykvist talk of his love of his Swedish compatriots, and his discomfort at working with Woody Allen and Mia Farrow during their messy legal split in the early 1990s, but, so what? There is not much of any insight for a budding cinematographer nor film director to take from this film.
The fact of the matter is that Nykvistís son does not seem to have any real understanding of his father as a man nor an artist. Yes, we learn of his fatherís boyhood in a missionary home, wherein Swedish children were basically abandoned while their missionary parents went off on four year pilgrimages to the Congo, to serve and save their Ďblack children,í but how did this shape Nykvist? Did it push him into film? Did his relationship with his equally abandoned brother prosper because of parental lack? How did these things carry over into the raising of the manís children (one son committed suicide)? Not that we need to know these things. Iíd prefer to stick with the art, but since those forays of inquiry are absent, at least the film could have done a better biographical job.
Still, for a man who worked with Bergman, Allen, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Roman Polanski, among others, precious little insight is given. Actor Erland Josephson describes how Nykvist would tell actors how to act, but for every insightful comment like that, there are a dozen like actress Melanie Griffithís, which consists of her cooing how cool he was, and what an artist! The only positives I can state about this film are the brief running time and the occasional beautiful landscape shot.
If Light Keeps Me Company is a failed documentary on a great cinematographer, then 2010ís Cameraman: The Life And Work Of Jack Cardiff is a success. Whereas Nykvist made his name working in black and white film, Cardiff was a legend in British color films before Nykvist even got started. This 86 minute film is not only longer than the one on Nykvist, but it is more informative on the specifics of Cardiffís work and craft, but on the general aspects of cinematography.
Director Craig Mitchell makes much better use of archival footage from Cardiffís career than Nykvistís film does, but in explaining how and why something works, it avoids the hagiography that mars the Swedish masterís biographical documentary. Although best known for his work with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, such as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, he also worked on Hollywood films like The African Queen, and an array of other films, such as War And Peace, The Prince And The Showgirl, and The Vikings.
The talking heads in this film are also a cut above the ones in the Nykvist film- not because they are bigger nor better stars, just that what they state is more essential to understanding film, and Cardiffís place in it. These pundits include Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Martin Scorsese, Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter, Alan Parker, Moira Shearer and others. Cardiff is also a more engaging figure than Nykvist, perhaps because he is not as celebrated today. The very fact that he is also not a snob of his work helps him come across well. As example, he is justly proud of the classic films he helped make, but also proud of the lesser films he was allowed to direct- such as Girl on a Motorcycle, The Mercenaries, and The Mutations, as well as some of the bad films he was cinematographer on, after his directing career failed, such as Sylvester Stalloneís Rambo: First Blood Part II.
The film also shows footage of him being honored at the Cannes Film
Festival in 19989, as well as receiving an honorary Oscar at the 2001
ceremonies. At filmís end we learn that Cardiff lived from 1914 to 2009,
almost a full century, with his life spanning almost as many years, given that,
at 4, he started out as a child actor, before working his way behind the camera.
All in all, Cameraman: The Life And Work Of Jack Cardiff, while
not a great film, is certainly the best of the four films under review.
If Cameraman: The Life And Work Of Jack Cardiff, is the best of the four films currently under review, the worst is easily 2006ís John Waters: This Filthy World. This 86 minute long film, exactly as long as the Cardiff biography, is not really much of a film, just the filmed night club act of the one time shock and schlock film director of the 1970s and 1980s. Directed by Jeff Garlin, there really is nothing more than Waters doing his schtick.
The problem is that, in the 70s and 80s there were still some people who would find his shock appeal, well, appealing. But, a quarter century later, it is all gone. Watersí career is a trajectory of failure, and, while he is affable enough about this failure, there is nothing that elevates it. At one point, Waters compares his career to the gay comedian Paul Lyndeís, which ended up with him merely being the center square on the old game show The Hollywood Squares.
And none of this has a thing to do with waters being gay, nor his work being tacky nor outrageous just to be outrageous. Itís just that itís old and tired, and Waters looks, at sixty years old, when this was filmed, VERY tired, and closer to eighty years old. Probably the best comparable I can conceive of, although Waters is way below him as a film artist, is watching Charlie Chaplin in his last couple of film roles. That was painful, to see the fall of a filmic great. Waters, as never having reached Chaplinís height, is just boring. His life and anecdotes are tired and predictable, and often are just recitations of known facts about his work.
The audience, however, is clearly pro-Waters, for if he was an unknown
stand up comedian, just getting started, he would have been heckled offstage
within ten minutes, for Spalding Gray Waters is not. He lacks intellect and
insight into the vagaries of existence, and just lacks plain old depth. His
interest in teenaged boy level humor is simply not interesting nor funny coming
from a sexagenarian- a fact and word that Waters would doubtlessly cackle over
This performance was filmed in Philadelphia but online sources claim it
was either a lecture given at a college or a part of a touring show Waters was
in. Regardless of the provenance of the material, its execution and content is
bad and worse. Which is which is debatable, but the terms are not. John
Waters: This Filthy World is a documentary to be missed, unless you are a
Waters fan or a masochist- which may be synonyms.
Of the films under review, the only one that is easily recommendable is Cameraman: The Life And Work Of Jack Cardiff, for the reasons given. The Last Mogul: The Life And Times Of Lew Wasserman is a good film, but only for those concerned with the business end of Hollywood. The Nykvist and Waters films are disappointments, one unexpected and one not. Now that Iíve told you this, both should be expected if you dare to prove me wrong.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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