A Series of Flashbacks

I began writing about films more than fifty years ago. My first review was of Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician, in an arts magazine at Cambridge University. I never followed an orthodox career path for very long, starting as a critic for the weekly What’s On in London, sending dispatches to The Financial Times and Sight & Sound, and writing and publishing numerous books about national cinemas and directors. Across the years, I have seen countless films being made, in places as far apart as Belgrade, Stockholm, Vallejo, Singapore, London, and Rome. I’ve escaped by helicopter with Max von Sydow from an Arctic ice floe during the shoot of Jan Troell’s Flight of the Eagle; I’ve seen celebrated directors physically fighting over politics during the breakup of the Cannes Festival in 1968; and I’ve witnessed what so many actors and technicians had already seen—Otto Preminger flying into a rage.

My affection for Janus and Criterion stretches back to the late 1960s, when Janus was at the forefront of the art-house movement in the U.S. and I was writing essays for their elegantly designed catalogs. Then, in 1986, I recorded on laserdisc one of the first commentaries for the fledgling Criterion Collection (for The Seventh Seal), and, as fans of Criterion will know, I have contributed many such commentaries through the intervening years, as well as liner notes, interviews, and visual essays.

In 1988, I joined Variety as head of international operations, which brought me into close contact with the industry on both sides of the Atlantic. I learned to endure dinners in Cannes with agents, producers, and studio executives who, by their own admission, had neither the time nor the desire to watch movies other than those they represented. I think it was Lord Lew Grade who, during his annual press lunch at Eden-Roc, declared proudly that he had attended Cannes for twenty-one years and had yet to see a single film there. Preserving the space accorded to “foreign-language” film reviews in Variety was one of the battles I fought with successive “suits” who wanted two pages of ads for every page of text.

Throughout all this traveling to festivals and getting to know directors, I’ve kept notes on every film I see, as well as jottings in the wake of encounters, planned and otherwise, with movie talent. Sifting through them following a house move recently, I thought it would be fun to share some of the more amusing and off-beat stories. So, tomorrow, I will launch a series of short “flashbacks.” They will not focus on analysis of films or filmmakers; instead, I hope they will offer a sequence of entertaining snapshots of personalities past and present, revealing the human beings behind the movies. Contradictions abound. Some of the nicest directors attain neither fame nor box-office success, while some of the most trumpeted filmmakers can be ornery and arrogant “off-screen,” as it were. Some, understandably, held me at arm’s length, while others took me into their home or to a convivial meal. In any event, these adventures can, I hope, make for hilarious reading.

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