The Films of 2018: Mandy

Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy is a neon-red synth-drenched nightmare of a movie, a revenge thriller that manages to be supremely terrifying even when it has its tongue planted firmly in cheek.  Its mode might best be described as heavy metal gothic: set in 1983, it opens with a sequence set to King Crimson’s “Starless” and ends with a shot of Nicolas Cage driving through a landscape that looks like the illustrated cover of a vintage horror paperback, the kind with raised lettering.  (The title character, played by Andrea Riseborough, is a voracious reader of pulp sci-fi and fantasy novels.)  Normally I would be inclined to dismiss this type of thing as yet another lazy exercise in nostalgia for 1980s kitsch (e.g. Drive, It Follows, Stranger Things, It, etc.).  But Mandy is so thoroughly hypnotic, and so gorgeously mounted, that I immediately fell under its sway.  In its lush, expressionistic, almost overbearing stylization it invites comparison to the films of Dario Argento and Alejandro Jodorowsky; it’s also frequently absurd, though (as in the films of Argento and Jodorowsky) the absurdity doesn’t much detract from its power.


The cracked mirror: Rediscovering Lois Weber

Mary MacLaren in Shoes (dir. Lois Weber, 1916).

Kino Lorber has just announced a lavish six-disc box set showcasing early silent films directed by women, with special focus being given to Lois Weber (1879-1939).  A contemporary of D. W. Griffith, Weber tackled some of the most pressing social issues of the Progressive Era, including class inequality (The Blot, 1921), censorship (Hypocrites, 1915), and birth control (Where Are My Children?, 1916—my personal favorite of the seven I’ve seen.  She also dabbled in comedies and relationship dramas in films like 1921’s Too-Wise Wives.)  This Blu-ray release, along with a recently published book on Weber by Shelley Stamp, will hopefully allow these vital and provocative films to gain the recognition they deserve.  Kino will release Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers in November.

In the meantime I caught up with another of Weber’s films that has recently been restored and released on Blu-ray by Milestone: Shoes, from 1916.  It’s a fifty-minute tear-jerker about the plight of Eva (Mary MacLaren), a young shop-girl who works tirelessly behind the counter of a five-and-dime to support the three sisters and two parents with whom she shares a single Los Angeles apartment.  (Mother spends her days toiling over housework and tending to the younger children while Father lies around reading pulp novels.)  The central drama of the film, which takes place over the course of a week, concerns Eva’s increasingly desperate need to replace her only pair of shoes—they’re in such a state of disrepair that at one point she attempts to patch the soles with pieces of cardboard.  Eva eventually resigns herself to paying a visit to a local dance-hall singer known for making expensive gifts to girls in exchange for sexual favors.  The film ends with Eva returning home to show her mother her new shoes…and promptly bursting into tears.           

Shoes in some ways bears the conventions of early silent melodrama: it utilizes a heavy-handed seduction plot, with Eva falling prey to the machinations of a sporty womanizer who waggles his eyebrows at her from the other side of the dime-store counter.  But it seems significant—and reflective of Weber’s feminism—that Eva succumbs to her seducer deliberately, and for a very specific purpose, as opposed to being his dupe.  Eva shows gumption and resilience throughout the film, even at times daring to challenge her father’s laziness (“other men find work,” she snaps at him).  Weber also emphasizes the solidarity between mother and daughter, united both in their frustration with their husband/father and in their shared understanding of the value of real labor.  Women take care of each other in this film even as men exploit or neglect them.  Finally, Shoes dares to suggest that the loss of Eva’s virginity, while traumatic, need not ruin her entire life.  As Eva and her mother dry their tears and sit down to dinner a final intertitle reads “whatever happened, life must go on…the river does not stop flowing to the sea.”  It’s a world away from so many fallen-woman narratives in which the woman in question, once “tainted,” has nowhere to go but down.


The Films of 2018: Sorry To Bother You

Dana Harris of Indiewire has called Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You Get Out on acid,” but the movie owes less to the tradition of dark satire represented by Jordan Peele’s film than it does to anarchic gonzo comedies like Putney Swope.  (The plots of both Get Out and Sorry To Bother You come to hinge on paranoid-plot twists, but beyond that they have almost nothing to do with one another aside from their blackness, and the onscreen presence of Lakeith Stanfield.)  There was real anger underneath the uncomfortable humor of Get Out—anger at police violence, at white privilege, at the color-blindness of entire culture industry unwilling to confront/uninterested in confronting issues of race, whereas Sorry To Bother You is looser, goofier, more raucous, a series of increasingly absurd “what if?” scenarios that feel like they were thought up while high at two o’clock in the morning.  And like a drug-induced haze it vaporizes into a shower of stoned giggles almost immediately after it’s over.

The Films of 2018: First Reformed

In First Reformed Paul Schrader remakes Winter Light for the twenty-first century, with Ethan Hawke in the Gunnar Bjornstrand role: he’s the troubled pastor of a provincial Dutch Reform church, wracked with worries about the fate of the planet and the purpose of his life’s mission.  Schrader adds a dash of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (shots of Hawke alone in his big old farmhouse, writing late at night with a glass of whiskey by his side).  Otherwise nearly every beat of this painfully awkward film has been cribbed wholesale from Bergman, right down to a scene in which Hawke shouts at his mousy, bespectacled lover.  Part of me wants to applaud Schrader for making the kind of movie that virtually no one else right now would have any desire to make, and there is a moment toward the end when it appears to be building toward a truly go-for-broke climax.  This ends up being only a feint, however, and the film opts instead for the laziest of last-minute dei ex machinae.  It also doesn’t help that Hawke feels like he’s straining to give a great performance, or that the film is sprinkled with cheap CGI effects, or that a supporting character named Mary is pregnant and symbolizes hope, etc.

The Films of 2018: The Rider

A few months ago, for a brief moment, Chloe Zhao’s The Rider was the best-reviewed movie of the year—but why?  I suppose because it’s a piece of neo-realist miserablism told in the lyrical-gritty mode, with lots of poetic shots of careworn people suffering stoically against beautiful Western skylines.  The cinematography in it is beautiful, and it is moving in a kind of reflexive way (what decent person can watch people and animals suffer and not be moved?), and yet the movie ends up feeling both derivative and shallow—as if you need only point a camera at a poor person in South Dakota at sunset and voila, you have readymade art.  The faux-naïve dialogue given to a developmentally disabled character is particularly embarrassing.


"Vivre Sa Vie": A matter of life and death

Upon re-watching the Criterion Blu-ray of Vivre Sa Vie (1962) this week I found myself surprised by the extent to which its special features have been used to frame the film as some sort of muck-raking social-realist drama about prostitution.  (The disc includes images of the journalistic book La prostitution, which inspired the film, as well as a 1961 documentary on the subject produced for French television.)  I was surprised because framing the film in this way seems to me quite wrong-headed, even though the film is ostensibly about a woman, Nana (Anna Karina), who resorts to prostitution to make ends meet after separating from her husband.  It’s tempting to interpret Vivre Sa Vie as a work of Marxism in which Godard criticizes the commodification of sex and the transactional nature of human relationships (hence a close-up of a male client’s crotch as he reaches into his pants pocket to pull out a fistful of cash); or as a work of Neo-realism, committed to capturing street life as it is “really” lived by such women, filmed using real locations and direct sound (Godard was a devoted fan of Roberto Rossellini at this time—though the latter hated Vivre Sa Vie); or as work of Naturalism, in which we are shown the social conditions that impinge upon our heroine and drive her to take increasingly desperate measures in order to survive (Nana’s name is a reference to the 1880 novel by Emile Zola, which had been filmed in 1926 by Jean Renoir).  But all of these are false leads.  Susan Sontag observed that “Vivre Sa Vie is certainly not ‘about’ prostitution any more than Le Petit Soldat is ‘about’ the Algerian War,” claiming instead that the film “is an exhibit, a demonstration.  It shows that something happened, not why it happened.”  And so, as Sontag goes on to argue, the value of this serene, chilly, elegantly composed and deceptively coy film lies in its form, not its content.  Vivre Sa Vie is, like nearly all of Godard’s films from this period, a formal experiment, a testing of how far he could bend the principles of film editing and composition without breaking them, even sometimes breaking them purposefully, with Nana/Karina as the model around whom the experiments have been built.  Or, to quote Adrian Martin (who supplies the disc’s audio commentary), Vivre Sa Vie can be seen as a series of different ways of shooting a conversation.    

Approaching Vivre Sa Vie as a character study is another deceptive false lead—deceptive because the film is framed as being “about” Nana and her life, and because so much emphasis is placed on the central performance of Karina.  As a character study the film is an abject failure: it reveals almost nothing about Nana’s motivations, her relationships, or her emotions.  Sontag again: “[never] does Godard give us any explanation, of an ordinary recognizable sort, as to what led…Nana ever to become a prostitute.”  In spite of the fact that Nana appears in every scene, Vivre Sa Vie is not a “character-driven” movie.  This may account for what makes the film so difficult for viewers used to more conventional European art films.  We don’t connect to Nana because of anything she does or doesn’t do—we connect to her as an image, a filmic element, that is used by Godard (or, to be more generous, working with him) to produce his experiments.  Nothing that is energetic or stylish or graceful or beautiful about this film has to do with its nothing plot or the plight of female sex workers or anything else that is not Godard’s camera + Karina’s face.  And when Nana goes to the movies and watches The Passion of Joan of Arc, and tears stream down Nana’s cheeks in exactly the same way that we’ve just seen them stream down Falconetti’s, what’s being revealed to us isn’t something private about Nana’s inner life: it’s the beautiful opacity of a face ossified by the film camera into something that is the opposite of life at all.



I hear America talking: Voice-over in Alexander Payne

Reese Witherspoon and Chris Klein in Election (1999).

It’s back-to-school week here in Boston, which I decided to celebrate by revisiting Election (1999)—still Alexander Payne’s best movie, and one of the most caustic films ever made about the combative tensions that can sometimes spring up between teachers and students.  In the spirit of such fabulous mean-tempered comedies as Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Election is a film without a hero.  Watching it we’re made to ask ourselves: who’s worse?  The petty, vindictive sad-sack teacher who rigs a high-school election and fucks around on his wife and levels blame at the victim of what amounts to statutory rape?  Or the scheming, entitled, humorless, manipulative junior-varsity fascist who believes that God has chosen her for a special purpose and mouths such Ayn Rand-isms as “the weak are always trying to sabotage the strong”?  The answer, it seems, is “both.”  According to the misanthropic worldview of Payne’s early films, America’s winners are just as horrible, pathetic, and dumb as its losers.

Insult and injury: Mr. M (Matthew Broderick) nurses a bee-sting.

Election is a brilliant comedy, both in its understanding of various American “types” and because of its complex and sophisticated use of voice-over narration and editing as a way of establishing character and creating humor.  “Only the contrapuntal use of sound vis-à-vis the visual fragment of montage will open up new possibilities for the development and perfection of montage.  The first experiments in sound must aim at a sharp discord with the visual images.”  So wrote Sergei Eisenstein in 1928, cautioning against a merely “illustrative” and therefore redundant use of sound dialogue in narrative cinema.  Eisenstein’s argument lives on today in the notion that voice-over narration is by definition lazy, the only exceptions being those films in which the narration is made to clash with what we’re seeing on-screen.  A related strategy has been to use voice-over narration to present multiple and conflicting points of view—see, for example, All About Eve, GoodFellas, and Casino, all of which Payne has claimed as influences on Election

Freeze-frames in Election, All About Eve (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), and GoodFellas (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1990).

All About Eve and GoodFellas each juggle two narrators, Casino three, and Election no fewer than four (Mr. McAllister, Tracy Flick, and siblings Paul and Tammy Metzler), none of whom has a clear-eyed perspective on the events unfolding around them.  So much of the humor and sharpness of this film, which remains as deft as when it first came out nearly twenty years ago, has to do with that disconnect.  Payne’s narrators don’t simply describe what we’re seeing on screen: they misinterpret it, often hilariously.  It’s a technique that Payne had been experimenting with as early as his UCLA thesis film The Passion of Martin (1990).         

Middle-American kitsch: Jim at Grandmother's Restaurant (top); romance a la Walgreen's (middle); Tracy with election-themed cupcake (bottom).

Payne’s films also draw on a literary tradition of unreliable narrators that is uniquely American, dating back to the tales of Edgar Allan Poe (“why do you say that I am mad?...”) and culminating in the 1920s stories of Ring Lardner.  Like Tracy, Mr. M., and the Metzlers, Lardner’s characters are both perpetually self-obsessed and hopelessly un-self-aware, with a great deal of their humorous appeal coming from their use of vernacular dialect.  Payne’s early films, as well as 2013’s Nebraska, are rooted in the specific vocal rhythms of the American Midwest.  Just three years before Election the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996) found quirky humor in the voices of Minnesota and North Dakota, with its “yah”s and “dontcha-know”s; the folksiness of Election’s Nebraskans (“you bet!”) is only slightly less broad.  (Both films feature scenes in which characters balk at the sound of the F-word.)  Payne’s ear is well attuned to his characters’ tics (“travesty” is one of Tracy’s go-to words), mispronunciations (she says “unconscience-able” for “unconscionable”), mixed metaphors ("...handed to us on a silver spoon").  In Lardner’s stories characters ramble on breathlessly, oblivious to/unfazed by their gaffes, their foolishness and their vanity.  Payne finds comedy at the same level of observational detail.  His use of voice-over narration in the early films is the opposite of lazy: it does the work of opening up a space of interpretive tension, a gap between what his characters say and what they do, at which we cannot help but laugh.