Michel Ciment unlocks the secrets of The Honeymoon Killers (1970) and Wanda (1970)

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Michel Ciment, photo by Godlis

Before the screening of  The Honeymoon Killers (1970) on Friday night, Michel Ciment, editor of Positif and curator with the Film Society for the Mavericks and Outsiders series, shared several compelling details about the film I hadn’t heard before.

Leonard Kastle is a career composer and librettist for opera, but he has also written a number of screenplays. He was so taken with a news clipping about the real life: “The Lonely Hearts Killers” that he wrote the screenplay for The Honeymoon Killers with particular attention to accuracy and details of the real life models of his characters (and used their real names). Veteran television producer Warren Steibel worked to put the project together, and hired a young promising director … the pre-Mean Streets (1973) Martin Scorsese! … to direct. But by the sixth day of production, after Steibel had argued with Scorsese over every decision, Scorsese turned on him, saying that if Steibel didn’t want his vision as a director, he ought to make the writer direct it. And so starting day seven, Kastle, with no previous experience as a director, took the helm. Scorsese’s material was scrapped, and Kastle extended his passionate exploration of the material into this  accomplished, idiosyncratic film.

As one explanation of the film’s stronger reputation in Europe, Ciment told the story of its premiere at the Pesaro film festival. After the screening, the audience was struck completely silent by the effect of the film. Journalists, not sure how to cover such a film given anti-American sentiment associated with the Vietnam War started drifting out of the theater. Writer and key cultural bellwether Marguerite Duras stood up and shouted into the silence that this was an incredible film, the strongest indictment of American culture ever created. Immediately, journalists began drifting back into the theater, many of them wanting interviews with Kastle….

Talking also about Wanda (1970) from the same night, Ciment pointed out experiences you can create with a “criminals-on-the-run” genre film that you can’t transmit as easily to audiences without those conventions to keep them attentive to the film, experiences such as having a character looking out into the street for a minute or two, and moments of waiting. These glimpses offer the audience an opportunity to uncouple itself from narrative rails to be positioned in the world of the film in a more ambiguous, observational position. A number of films programmed in Mavericks and Outsiders series offer this experience: Keane (2002) deputizing the viewer to investigate New York’s Port Authority neighborhood along side Keane, Schatzberg’s invocation of disjointed past and present history through place in Reunion, and even Duvall’s Detective Spellacy walking us wordlessly through the Black Dahlia murder site in True Confessions (1981). That the editor of Positif should be picking up on this is no surprise, the magazine’s willingness to approach genre films with the critical attention peer magazines restrict to “serious cinema” helps encourage audiences to catch these hidden glimpses.

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