Monday Editor’s Pick: The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)

by on April 11, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri April 13 at 4:30* and Mon April 16 at 8:00 at Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]
*Intro by Philip Kaufman
MoMA tips their hats to Philip Kaufman in a “Filmmaker in Focus” retrospective, April 11-16. Kaufman will be on hand Wed-Fri to introduce a selection of his films.

The Daily Show’s Elliott Kalan recently programmed the film for his monthly series at 92YTribeca and wrote a feature on his love for it, for Alt Screen:

Northfield infuses the pastoral stateliness of the post-classical Western with the anarchic energy and abrupt left turns of a Looney Tunes short, rushing forward at such a headlong gallop that it occasionally runs right off a cliff. The peculiarly patchwork style of low-budget film — a quickly shot succession of setup-action-reaction shots slapped together with post-dubbed dialogue — extends to the very story of Northfield, which cuts loose from all the stodgy conventions of Hollywood storytelling to swing exhilaratingly from jokes to bloodshed, voodoo to baseball. Kaufman writes and shoots as if he doesn’t know what’s going to happen next — a rare quality in a genre experiencing its last throes of vibrancy before ossifying into a sepia-toned museum piece.
Northfield is a film that’s both more and less than the sum of its parts. A blogger wrote something about the film that was both dead on yet mistaken: “the whole thing has a slightly cheap look, which is odd since he almost perversely manages to evoke an authentic sense of time and place.” The film does have a cheap and tawdry feel to it, the boxed air of a TV movie, but I wonder why it didn’t occur to the blogger that this very cheapness is exactly why the film feels authentic. That a story about towns built on the cheap made towns where people lived cheaply: an ersatz existence on the edge of society, where people’s clothes don’t look nice because they aren’t nice. In a way, Northfield’s greatest strength is its cheapness, because that’s where its authenticity lies. Not the authenticity of “real history”, but the authenticity of lived environments and world-weathered people. For all the beauty of director Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James (2007), the film’s sumptuous romanticism and precious Americana are tainted with an almost spiritual ugliness, guilty of rendering the death of a violent thug like a matyrdom out of the gospels. Despite its endearing, come-one-come-all narration, Northfield refuses to dress up cheap and tawdry pulp as if it were glorious history.
It may not tell the events like they happened in exacting historical detail, but it tells it like it is. Northfield refuses to make the error of striving too hard for respectability, doing too much to prove this stuff is important. The body armor so many filmmakers think protects them from criticism and condescension only stiffens them into an unnatural posture of false “dignity”. Better a loose, goofy, bloody, patchy, imperfect, uneven piece of work than bland prestige. Sure, the critics may repeat the accusation Frank James levels at Charlie Pitts’s superstition: “That don’t mean anything.” But messes like Northfield can shoot back Charlie Pitts’s rejoinder: “It’s a truth. It don’t have to mean anything.”

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“The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid” (1972) at 92YTri (Mar 01)

by on March 1, 2012Posted in: Essay

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Thursday Editor’s Pick: The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)

by on February 24, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thurs March 1 at 7:30 at 92YTribeca [Program & Tix]

We sure do love The Daily Show‘s Elliott Kalan’s monthly expression of exquisite taste and good-humored cinephilia, “Closely Watched Films.” This month he selects Philip Kaufman’s overlooked western, and along with special guest Jason Jones “will discuss ’70s Hollywood, what a terrible person Jesse James really was and the glory of 19th century baseball.”

Stephen Farber for Film Comment (Jan/Feb 1979):

I had never heard of Philip Kaufman when I went to see The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid at a studio screening early in 1972. I debated about driving out to Universal when I got the invitation. It sounded like an utterly routine western, but movie freaks are insatiable gluttons for punishment, and I had nothing else to do that evening. Northfield turned out to be one of the happiest surprises that I have encountered in all my years of moviegoing. By the end of the film – a rich mother lode of Americana, with a vivid gallery of characters worthy of Dickens or Twain – I was exhilarated by the audacity and range of Kaufman’s talent. I was so enthusiastic that I called Kaufman the next day to find out why Universal was burying the movie.
His spirit born in independent filmmaking still survived in Northfield – in the iconoclastic re-evaluation of American movie heroes like Jesse James, and in the film’s sly, poignant vision of the perennial battle between outlaws and upright, respectable citizens. The studio wanted another Butch Cassidy, and the executives were bewildered by the film’s mixture of humor, violence, and lyricism; they dumped the movie without giving it a chance to find an audience. More important is his feeling for character; he has a geniune gift for creating oddballs and eccentrics. Although there’s nothing sentimental or soft-headed about Kaufman’s films, he’s a humanist who believes in fragile communities of misfits and mavericks.

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