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We just watched the “Criterion Collection” DVD of Straw Dogs (which has long been one of my favorite films, though I haven’t seen it in quite awhile.)

I gotta say, the commentary by film critic Stephen Prince (author of Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies) is really excellent. He announces at the beginning of the commentary that his goal is to explain to doubters why this, despite general condemnation, is a great film. He succeeds, to the extent that my wife (who didn’t think much of it when we watched it the first time through) was persuaded after we watched the film with the comments on directly afterward. I learned quite a few things I hadn’t known, and I feel that this unusually engaging commentary has deepened my appreciation and understanding of this strange, superb, unsettling film. How’s that for a rave review?

In this commentary and in the accompanying booklets, there’s an allusion to a famous review by Pauline Kael, who trashed the movie as “the first American film that is a fascist piece of art.” This formulation seems to have become a kind of unofficial subtitle of the film, always mentioned in the same breath, as it were, as the movie’s title when the subject comes up in print. I’ve tried to search out the review itself on-line without success, though references to it abound.

My question is, what do film critics mean when they label a film “fascist”? It comes up from time to time. The most recent one I remember having been proclaimed as such is Fight Club (of which I’m not too fond), but there have been others. Is it simply the putative “glorification” of violence? (In which case, I suppose the bulk of contemporary American films might be so described.) Or is it the theme of territorial struggle, man as animal, survival of the fittest, that sort of thing? Aesthetically speaking, to my eye, there is nothing in Straw Dogs that resembles the “fascist aesthetic” of the Hitler-Mussolini-Franco cultural milieu. Perhaps it’s a contemporary cultural politics angle, where the word “fascist” describes something that is perceived as undermining or attacking liberal values?

Here’s my other film-related question, and it’s more trivial:

Another of my favorite movies is Rosemary’s Baby. There’s a line in the film, spoken by Guy/John Cassavetes, that has always puzzled me. He has just lit a fire in the fireplace, and has forgotten to open the flue. Rosemary points it out and Guy says (if I recall correctly): “nobody but nobody has a fire tonight!” I believe this line is also in the novel (which the script closely follows). What is he talking about or referring to? I’ve never understood this, and I’ve always wondered. Any ideas?

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  • Pauline Kael evidently never saw Gabriel Over The White House. Predates Straw Dogs by nearly four decades and is overtly fascistic/totalitarian in its political perspective.