The Movie Club

The Theory of Flight

Dear David, Tony, Armond, and Stephanie,

This is going to be quick as I’m wiped. I didn’t love Flight of the Phoenix in the way Armond did. For me, the script was weak and, in the midsection, dramatically slack. Where I’m in complete agreement with Armond is in his impassioned appreciation of John Moore’s eye. The picture has a great, witty opening: a cargo plane zooming over the desert past a man leading a camel, a little girl looking up in the sky, while on the soundtrack we hear Johnny Cash’s chugga-chugga hit-the-road classic “I’ve Been Everywhere.” And the desert vistas are spectacular in a manner that never calls attention to itself. I particularly liked a shot of a plane’s shadow going over the smooth desert dunes and appearing to bend and stretch (it takes a second to realize that it’s the shadow and not the plane contorting itself). I had a different reaction to the nighttime standoff Armond describes. It’s very tense, but for me the starry sky and blue filter were almost nostalgic. You used to see this nighttime blue all the time in night scenes of Hollywood westerns. Seeing it again made me feel I was being served some favorite meal I hadn’t had since I was a kid.

Armond’s enthusiasm for Moore alludes to a sad reality: the dearth of good genre filmmakers. Stephanie wrote about this in her review of On the Ropes (a picture both she and Armond liked). What she said was that with every movie now expected to be an event, directors rarely have the freedom that allowed them to bring craft and smarts and all sorts of unexpected resonance to genre films. In the past year, we New Yorkers have had the luck of getting Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann retrospectives (I know the Mann series made it to Chicago, too). The westerns from those two directors (and Mann’s stunning and unknown Men in War) were all economical, terse, and beautifully crafted. Even better, I didn’t leave one of them without feeling that I had been talked to as an adult. A movie like Boetticher’s The Tall T or Mann’s almost unbelievably grim Man of the West are smart and unsparingly tough-minded about violence. They don’t revel in violence, they let you feel how horrible it is when the characters have to resort to force. How many American genre films have we all seen in recent years that we can say that about? For me, Walter Hill’s Trespass—and then I start drawing a blank.

I’ll send out some of my favorite moments tomorrow.

Sleep tight,