Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Film Criticism of Tim Hunter

(Thank you to sleuthing super-cinephile Adrian Martin!)

Tim Hunter is probably best known to film-lovers as the director of the classic teen drama River's Edge (1986). In addition to two other good youth-centered films (Tex, 1982; Sylvester, 1985) he notably co-wrote Jonathan Kaplan's Over the Edge (1979), a film that looks stronger with each passing year.

Hunter's father, the British screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter, fronted for Dalton Trumbo on the original story for Roman Holiday, and was later himself blacklisted. The family went into exile in Mexico, and then to New York. Hunter grew up mostly around blacklistee kids. He then attended Harvard from 1964 to 1968. He ran a film society there, quickly developing into a precocious cinephile and budding filmmaker. American auteurism, spearheaded by Andrew Sarris, was in the air, and it was an exciting time to be a movie enthusiast. On the strength of several student films, Hunter was admitted to the AFI Center for Advanced Film Studies in the early '70s, where he studied alongside Terrence Malick, Paul Schrader and David Lynch.

At Harvard, Hunter was film critic and arts editor for the student publication, the Crimson. It turns out that 42 pieces he wrote for the publication (mostly in the mid-to-late '60s when he was an undergraduate student) are now available on the Internet. What a surprise: especially given his tender age, it's a collection of sharp, thoughtful and knowledgeable film criticism that also gives us a good sense of the film culture of the period. The most remarkable quality of these pieces, in my view, is their keen awareness of cinematic craftsmanship and style--the choices that filmmakers make (or the opportunities they miss), and how those formal choices work to make meaning in a film. Let me share a few excerpts.

Here Hunter expresses dissatisfaction with The Graduate:

Cinematically, the chief influence on Nichols remains the photographer of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Haskell Wexler, also cameraman on In The Heat of The Night. When the sun shines, Nichols points his camera at it; if a car approaches the camera, Nichols bounces the headlights off the lens; should a character jump into the water, Nichols makes the camera jump into the water; and as mood becomes essential, well, Nichols can always shoot it with a shaky hand-held camera.

The problem goes deeper than Nichols' consistent substitution of trickiness for style. A great director, Rosselini or Hitchcock, plans his film as a totality, understanding instinctively how each shot relates to the film as a whole; a competent director of narrative films like Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) plans shots with relation to the entire scene. Nichols, however, cannot plan past a given shot, and although a frame may contain an effective gimmick, camera angle, or background detail, the scenes themselves are purposeless and disconnected, largely due to awkward and self-conscious editing.

On why the first half of Torn Curtain is much better than the second:

The importance of the first half, however, cannot be overestimated, as it shows Hitchcock at a point of maximum control of his medium. Breaking new ground in color photography, he has filmed Torn Curtain without direct lighting. Instead, he has used reflected light, bounced off a white screen on the set. This reduces the color contrasts, putting much of the film into lush soft-focus, and almost eliminating unnecessary shadows.

He continues in Torn Curtain to experiment with visual romanticism: Julie Andrews is chastized by Newman on an airplane and as she lowers her head sadly, the camera while dissolving to the next scene begins to blur, as if tears were clouding the lens. Suddenly Hitchcock cuts sharply to the airplane door loudly opening, revealing the East Berlin airport. It is an unnerving return to reality, a visual refusal to give his heroine any means of escape.

He's bowled over by Chabrol's The Champagne Murders:

The implications of the finale are fathomable on a script level, then obscured by the zoom pull-backs that serve as the final shots. Chabrol makes no judgments at the ending and leaves the three in limbo, either to destroy one another or to form a new menage substituting Audran for Christine. The optics of a fast zoom shot are wondrous in that the audience is left with a feeling of simultaneous movement toward action and away from it. At the same time that we move to a higher vantage point with a wider angle of vision, we are jerked away from the luxury of watching action in sharp focus detail. The effect is one of ultimate suspension, in every sense of the word, and the greatness of the ending is a consequence of the perfect optical realization of attitude and theme.

On why Huston's The African Queen doesn't work:

The odyssey of cockney mechanic Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) and missionary Rose (Katharine Hepburn) down uncharted African waters suggests tense comedy-melodrama: they must, after all, evade rifle fire, skirt rapids, fix boilers, swat flies, brave swamps, remove leeches, blow up German cruisers, and fall in love. Regardless, Huston injects the action with mechanical uncaring: Allnut and Rose talk genially in medium close shot, one of them looks off-screen, says "Look!", and Huston cuts to what they see; he resorts to this lethargic montage in introducing enemy troops, the fort, all rapids, and the boat Louisa. The repetition of dramatic technique promotes an episodic quality that defeats a build-up of suspense or tension; there is no attempt to vary action and the middle third of The African Queen concentrates solely on rapids: a small rapid, a big rapid, and--out of the blue--a great big surprise rapid, spaced neatly at five minute intervals.

Ken Russell's Billion Dollar Brain makes a surprise appearance on his list of ten best films of 1967:

In a period marked increasingly by acceptance of lack of craft (witness the reception of Mike Nichols' mediocre The Graduate), Billion Dollar Brain stands out as a low-level case-book of cinematic efficiency. Russell's camerawork is frequently tantamount to cutting: he will start on a medium shot of Michael Caine, swing up to a sign on a building, down to people leaving the building, and back to Michael Caine--all so quickly we might have seen four separate shots...

And so does Otto Preminger's Hurry Sundown:

Bernard Shaw postulated that great playwrights by definition write great plays, and this is certainly the easiest way to defend Preminger's' Hurry Sundown, a difficult and dramatically unrewarding film. Like most of the great European directors who work in Hollywood, Preminger, takes little of America for granted, and his films are marked by a distinctly individual way of seeing the world. [...] In Preminger's films, there are no point-of-view shots; Preminger never cuts to what a character sees, instead putting both the watcher and the watched in the same shot. Though Preminger tends to ignore the dramatic world of his films, his camera defines the personality and function of a character by the amount of space placed around him, and by the way he is moved with relation to the frame. The more space Preminger has to work with, the more complex his films become, and predictably, Preminger is a master of wide-screen cinematic technique. At best, Preminger creates a network of conflicting spatial relationships from the many people in his best-seller-based sagas, and his films work on a level far transcending the dramatic material. From this specialized, perhaps perverse, point-of-view, Hurry Sundown is close to Preminger's best film.

In the last 20 years, Hunter has worked mostly in television, directing episodes of shows like Twin Peaks, Homicide, Law & Order, Mad Men, Dexter and Nip/Tuck.

* * *

David Hudson at The Auteurs is maintaining an updated post of Eric Rohmer tribute links.


Anonymous Paul said...

Nice find! Having been an admirer of River's Edge way back, I've tried to keep up with Hunter's sporadic moviemaking ventures (he apparently worked closely with the great hardboiled crime writer on a number of unrealised ventures, including - mouthwateringly - an unfilmed Judge Dredd movie. I caught his low-key, rather wonderful crime film The Maker at the Dublin Film Festival a decade ago and was very surprised that it seemed to go completely unnoticed - its simplicity and focus on character rather than plot were, I suspect, swamped by the post-Tarantino crimewave. Still, he's getting work on the high end of TV (Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Mad Men). So all is not lost.

January 13, 2010 7:51 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

(Girish - could you amend my sentence above to "he apparently worked closely with the great hardboiled crime writer James Crumley on a number of unrealised ventures" - losing the proper nouns makes a nonsense of my meaning! Thanks!)

January 13, 2010 7:52 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Paul, that's great to know: I'll be trying to catch THE MAKER!

January 13, 2010 8:03 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

I don't know how easy it is to see Tex, but it's really wonderful, and nearly forgotten.

January 13, 2010 8:31 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Dan, it's on DVD and available at Netflix. I've been meaning to revisit the film; I remember liking it very much but it's been a long time.

I also wanted to mention that there's a good, long interview with Hunter (conducted by Gregg Rickman) in Film Quarterly (Fall issue, 1993).

January 13, 2010 8:38 PM  
Anonymous sami said...

I've always loved RIVER'S EDGE but I had no idea what a cineaste Tim Hunter was.

Given the passing of filmmaker/critic Rohmer, it's so nice to see some filmmakers over here can write about films too.

January 13, 2010 9:16 PM  
Anonymous Conall said...

Excellent! Adrian M also tells a good story about Hunter and David Lynch discovering the films of Sirk together when at film school, in his DVD commentary to TARNISHED ANGELS.

January 14, 2010 1:37 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

Great stuff! Many thanks, Girish (and Adrian) for such an unexpected and welcome discovery!

January 14, 2010 1:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed Hunter's review of Tommy Lee Jones and Susan "Stockard" Channing in a student theater production of Everyman:

Hunter's not the only film director who wrote for the Crimson; there was also:
Whit Stillman (
David Frankel (

Arts critics who logged time:
Frank Rich (
David Edelstein (
Michael Sragow (
Andy Klein (

January 14, 2010 7:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've only succeeded in catching 4 Tim Hunter films (the latest made in 2007), but I seem to remember I got curious about him after reading some very good writing of his about Douglas Sirk, and also, if I don't recall it wrong, about Anthony Mann. So far, what I read interests me more than the four films I've seen. So these 'Crimson' papers are a good find.
Miguel Marías

January 15, 2010 6:52 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, everyone!
I didn't know of all those other pieces from the Crimson, so the links are greatly appreciated!

I wonder if his Sirk writings are from Film Comment...or American Film. I need to dig deeper to find out!

And thanks again to Adrian for uncovering this secret archive for us!

January 15, 2010 10:22 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Girish, great sleuthing! Thanks also to anon (a popular figure on this site lately) for further digging in the CRIMSON. Whit Stillman's political reportage on turmoil in Mexico in the early '70s is intriguing ! Tim Hunter's writing on Sirk, by the way, is in the famous Edinburgh Film Festival book of 1972 (hard to get these days), where it shares space with Fred Camper, Paul WIllemen, Laura Mulvey, Thomas Elsaesser, et al. ... Hey, maybe 'al' and 'anon' can get together and have beautiful children !!

January 15, 2010 10:37 AM  
Blogger Adrian Mendizabal said...

Nice! I didn't know he was such a good critic.

January 15, 2010 4:37 PM  
Blogger Lauren Jayne said...

Amazing! I am deeply indebted to this information. If only Crispin Glover was a genius too...

January 15, 2010 11:09 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Lauren, surely Crispin Glover IS a genius !! But maybe you've seen those films he has directed, while I haven't ...

January 15, 2010 11:53 PM  
Blogger Lauren Jayne said...

I have not, but I have seen pictures of his face (it was how I spent most of my afternoon today, actually). I wish he still looks like he did in River's Edge. That was the face of a genius. A sensual genuis

January 16, 2010 5:32 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Adrian, Lauren, I haven't seen the films Glover directed--but missed a chance a couple of years ago to see him present IT'S FINE, EVERYTHING IS FINE nearby here at Eastman House!

January 16, 2010 7:21 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

I have decidedly mixed feelings about the Glover films I've seen, which usually sound better than they play. For those who are curious, here's a link to my capsule review of his first feature:

January 16, 2010 1:46 PM  
Blogger Lauren Jayne said...

I take it back! He is a genius! Now I have seen the trailer for, "It is fine, everything is fine," I must find this film asap.
Sincere apologies re: my earlier statement.

January 16, 2010 7:09 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

I think Glover's most extraordinary talent is as a showman - his insistence on presenting his films personally to an audience and facing a (sometimes quite fraught) Q&A afterwards is as close as we're likely to come in our lifetime to the 19th century tent shows, or even to William Castle's brand of event creation. He is also a businessman, and through refusing to allow his work to be digitised (his two films exist only as 35mm prints which travel to screenings under lock and key, and can only be unlocked by Glover himself) he has pioneered an intriguing (though in practice difficult to maintain) alternative to the general downgrading of value that all other films & music are currently experiencing. I have it on good authority that he's made enough money via his screenings to set up his own studio in Eastern Europe, where he intends to continue making his very odd, often tiresome but undeniably unique films.

January 17, 2010 9:15 AM  
Anonymous sami said...

I agree with Jonathan's take on Cripin Glover's films - they never seem to live up to the promise of their crazy concepts.

Glover's performance art on late night TV though is sheer brilliance.

January 17, 2010 10:51 PM  
Anonymous Andrew Klevan said...

Hunter's criticism is a real find...Thank you Girish and Adrian - for the find and for the intelligent choice of extracts cited here. Three points come to mind: 1) the way his critical criteria interestingly coincides with the MOVIE group especially with regard to form/content relationships 2)the ability to write crisp reviews which incorporate quite precise evidence of stylistic features showing that reviews need not be as empty as they tend to be and 3) the interesting link with so many fine modern television programmes which are characterised by, among other things, very disciplined form/content relationships. Thank you again.

March 01, 2010 3:48 PM  
Blogger Charlie Haas said...

I had the pleasure of being one of Tim's students at UC Santa Cruz in the 1970s. He gave wonderful classes in Hitchcock, Hawks & Ford, noir, westerns, tearjerkers, and more -- beautifully prepared, insightful lectures. He only taught for four years, but inspired a lot of us in the process.

August 22, 2011 7:30 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for sharing that, Charlie! And for your great scripts for RIVER'S EDGE, GREMLINS 2, etc.

August 22, 2011 7:37 AM  

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