Cinema Valedictions :: Nat Segaloff on 50 Great Filmmakers and Their ’Final Cuts’
Nat Segaloff's Facebook page describes him as a "Writer, teacher, documentary producer, pain in the ass." Whatever else he might be, Segaloff is something of a cultural gadfly; his books include several "Everything" volumes: "The Everything Etiquette Book," "The Everything Trivia Book," and "The Everything Tall Tales, Legends and Outrageous Lies Book."
He has also ventured into the audio format, and is one of the founders of Alien Voices, a production company specializing in audio books (the company has published a number of audio productions of classic novels), as well as original audio dramatizations.
One area of focus for Segaloff has been the movies. He's a film critic and scholar, and has written articles for Film Comment and American Movie Classics Magazine, along with biographies of Arthur Penn and "Exorcist" director William Friedkin.
Segaloff's newest book, "Final Cuts: The Last Films of 50 Great Directors," (out now from BearManor Media) offers intriguing essays about the life and work of film artists such as D. W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Robert Altman, Alfred Hitchcock, and literally dozens more. Each short chapter includes a thumbnail bio and touches on the highlights of the subject's filmography before closing in on the main topic of discussion: his (or, in a single instance, her) final film. In some cases, the movies examined here amount to the death rattles of declining careers; in happier instances, they serve as capstones to illustrious bodies of work. In every case, these concise -- but complete -- essays offer context, thoughtful analysis, engaging style, and fresh perspectives.
"Many [film writers] dismiss the ultimate work of their directorial subjects as not worth discussing," Segaloff told me during a recent interview. He had been mulling the idea of writing on the topic when a conversation with a friend led him to a trove of material at the library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
"I was astonished to find, through research and screenings, that half of the last films of great directors are really pretty good, and, when they’re bad, there are good reasons," Segaloff recounted. "So I hope to clear the record" about the valedictory releases he has chosen for the book.
"The other reason is completely selfish," Segaloff continued. "I wanted to publish appreciations of some of the directors I knew personally and admired very much: James Bridges, Martin Ritt, Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, John Schlesinger, Michael Ritchie, Peter Yates, and others long gone."
Despite the herculean task of boiling down fifty separate accounts of influential directors and their final films, Segaloff felt that there was a genuine need to devote some space to the larger story of each director’s life. "I wanted readers who didn’t have a broad background in cinema to learn something about these old masters lest they reject their entire bodies of work because of the last example of it," the author explained.
Even with so much packed into the book, there’s still room for Segaloff’s personal style and voice. Indeed, it’s his style, and his casual commentary (replete with puns, jokes, and asides), that give the book much of its juice and make for a captivating read; as one nugget ends, the reader wants only to devour the next. The book is grounded in solid scholarship, but it feels like a chat with a knowledgeable friend rather than a textbook.
An accessible book
"I wanted an accessible book, not a scholarly tome," Segaloff stated. "If I liked a director, such as Martin Ritt, I wanted the reader to know it. And if I didn’t, such as with Otto Preminger, ditto." The author comes by his opinions honestly: "I knew Marty for 20 years and I worked for Otto twice; ’nuff said."
If Segaloff’s deep knowledge of the movies and those who make them comes through in the book, it also suffuses his outlook on the process of writing about film.
"Film is one of the few art forms created in the 20th century," the author noted, (adding that "jazz and comic books are two others.")
"But anybody who has ever made a motion picture or spent intimate time with those who do -- and this apparently excludes most film critics -- knows that it’s useless, if not silly, to analyze the results symbolically in all but the rarest cases. Orson Welles joked that a director is a man who presides over accidents, and that’s not far from the truth.
"When I sat down with Arthur Penn to write my biography of him, the first thing we agreed on was not to engage in navel-gazing about his work," Segaloff continued. "There is much in the construction of his films that can be analyzed, and he recognized it when it happened, but he didn’t plan on most of it. I applaud directors who can indulge themselves (no, I haven’t seen "Room 237" yet), but most of it is sophistry."
Is film criticism relevant?
And how does that all tie in with his own background as a film critic? For that matter, is film criticism still a vital and meaningful vocation, in an age when anybody with access to the Internet can be not only a film consumer but also a film commentator?
"Film criticism is of tremendous value," Segaloff attested, quickly going on to clarify, "I don’t mean reviewers, I mean critics: those who have the talent, the experience, and the editorial space to render true analysis and not be just consumer reporters."
To be sure, Segaloff’s background as a film scholar, publicist, and critic gave him another resource for the memorable material he incorporates in the book; his own interviews and conversations with some of the men he profiles.
"When I interviewed the directors, they spoke on the record and knew it," Segaloff recalled. "When we just chatted, that was a conversation, so I had to be discrete in writing about it -- except for getting high with Robert Altman."
"First, it was years ago, and, second, who didn’t?"
Segaloff went on to say, "As for something more personal, I’ve written a semi-memoir of my adventures as a movie publicist and a movie critic (but not at the same time) called "Screen Saver" that I may want to publish some day if there’s interest."
There’s a meme out there that as artists approach the end of their lives and careers, they struggle to keep on creating. (Say what you will about Pedro Almodovar’s film "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down," but that movie does include a piercing note of truth when one character, a film director laboring to complete a project before he dies, insists that he needs "another scene" to do the job properly.) Indeed, the directors discussed in "Final Cuts" probably didn’t really know that their last films were going to be swan songs. But health declines, careers fizzle, financing dries up, and the world moves on; there are numerous reasons why these, and not some other titles, served as valedictory offerings.
But did at least a few of these filmmakers possibly have some inkling that they were unlikely to make another movie? "I would suspect that John Ford, John Huston, and Robert Altman knew that they were making one last run when they began their final films, and possibly George Cukor," Segaloff mused, before pointing out yet another way in which the mundane exigencies of life intrude upon the artist’s mission: "The unknown issue is whether they or other aging directors could pass the medical exam for the completion bond companies."
To examine these 50 titans of cinema and their final works, Segaloff cast his gaze back to the beginnings of the medium. That meant peering into the mists of a time when gay professionals had to be extremely circumspect about whom they were out to.
Asked if he had any sense about how being gay in a seriously homophobic time might have affected the choices and output of gay directors like George Cukor and James Bridges, Segaloff opined, "I’m sure that James Bridges’ sexuality had nothing to do with the films he was offered or that he chose to make with the sole exception of "Mike’s Murder" (1984) in which a woman (Debra Winger) tries to learn why her boyfriend (Mark Keykloun) was killed. There is a scene in which she tells another character, played by Paul Winfield, that she loved Mike. He responds, ’So did I.’
"Now contrast that with the scene in "Cabaret," directed by the uber-hetero Bob Fosse, in which Brian tells Sally, ’Oh, screw the Baron!’ and she says, ’I do,’ and he says, ’So do I.’ In "Cabaret," the scene is used to show Brian’s betrayal of Sally. In "Mike’s Murder," it is used to show the pan-sexuality of the murdered man. I don’t think a straight director would have thought to treat the moment that way," Segaloff mused, adding, "Oh how I wish [film scholar and "The Celluloid Closet" author] Vito Russo was still here."
So has Hollywood evolved? In a time when openly gay directors like Bryan Singer helm tent pole releases with huge commercial impact, does it matter any longer who’s gay or straight?
"The bottom line is that, today, a director’s sexuality makes no difference, only his or her commerciality," Segaloff noted.
Only one woman?
The book’s chapters are arranged in alphabetical order by the directors’ last names, rather than being sequenced chronologically or in some other fashion. Segaloff explained why.
"We toyed with several configurations before settling on alphabetical essays: decade, genre, box office success, and sophistication," the author disclosed. "In the end, though, each film has its own story, and it was easier to tell them in a straightforward manner than to contrive a compare-and-contrast where none truly exists. Besides, doing it this way eliminated the need for an index since the films aren’t cross-referenced -- authors have to pay for the index nowadays."
But back to the issue of why his book, due its own criteria, could include only one female filmmaker.
"To date women directors have demonstrated their voices more clearly in international and independent films than in Hollywood studio films. There were a number of women directors who opened the doors in the ’70s and ’80s who have all but vanished: Joyce Chopra, Amy Heckerling, Claudia Weill, Susan Seidelman, Ayoka Chenzira, Would they have been given more shots if they were men? Probably."
Added the author, "Competence comes after comradeship, and Hollywood is still Boy’s Town."
But Segaloff doesn’t spend all his time looking at the history of cinema. He also gives consideration to its future. Right now, one major debate is about digital filming and projection versus the old-fashioned way of recording, and playing back, images on film. The old way is a means of physical preservation, involving a means to create and display movies that possesses a material existence; the new way is all about numbers stored via the digital technology of the day, be it a hard drive or the cloud.
What’s at issue isn’t whether the movies will go digital; for better and for worse, they already have. Segaloff was one of the first to report on what was, in 2000, a still-distant (but already impending) sea change, when he wrote about the production of the first feature film to be shot on high definition video.
"The viewing experience in many theatres is so bad that you’re lucky just to get a focused image whether the medium is celluloid, digital, or the projectionist’s necktie caught in the gate," Segaloff noted.
But while critics are still carping about how digitally produced and projected movies can look dim or muddy on the megaplex screen, the medium is already galloping away. Last December’s release of "The Hobbit" featured not only high def digital filming in 3D, but also a doubled frame rate, from the usual 24 frames-per-second (actually, the digital equivalent) to the much sharper 48 FPS. The results were, to some, disconcerting -- but to others, evidence of a rapturous new era in cinema.
Segaloff seems to tend somewhat toward the more optimistic side of the debate. "The most interesting thing to me at the moment is the extraordinary work that Douglas Trumbull is doing combining 120 fps and 30 fps digital imaging," he enthused. "Recording digitally -- on a drive with a 30-minute capacity, not the 12-minute chips in the Canon camera used so widely -- has the potential to allow better performances and quicker production.
"This outweighs any romantic notions I clutch onto about film," Segaloff allowed. "Digital will get better; audience memory will fade; and Adam Sandler looks the same in either medium. The big problem with digital is the archiving which makes today’s ones and zeros as ephemeral as an echo."
I posed one more question to Segaloff, curious to know how someone with his depth and breadth of film experience would fill a list of, say, 12 favorite films.
Here again, Segaloff proved a man of the always-progressing moment.
"Sorry to stiff you on this," he replied, "but it changes every time I see a good one."
"Final Cuts" is published by BearManor Media, where it is available for direct purchase (online at http://www.bearmanormedia.com/index.php?route=product/product&filter_name=final%20cuts&product_id=607). "Final Cuts" is also available at Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/Final-Cuts-Films-Great-Directors/dp/1593932332/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1363356407&sr=1-2&keywords=segaloff+final+cuts) in a softcover or a Kindle edition (http://www.amazon.com/FINAL-CUTS-FILMS-DIRECTORS-ebook/dp/B00B6NQB8U/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1363356375&sr=1-1&keywords=segaloff+final+cuts).
A brief version of this interview originally appeared at the Boston Online Film Critics Association website.