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.
|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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|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.|
|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).|