The Films of 2017: The Big Sick

Those familiar with the work of Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, This Is 40, Funny People) will recognize his influence on The Big Sick: even though Apatow is only a producer on the film, which is directed by alt-comedy maven Michael Showalter and co-written by Khumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, his influence looms large.  Like Apatow’s better films, The Big Sick is a big-hearted, snappy, occasionally digressive comedy about juggling family, work, and love in modern America.  It’s made unique by the culturally specific comedic voice of Nanjiani, playing himself as a fledgling stand-up comic hustling in Chicago and trying to keep his matchmaking mother at bay (his parents, both Pakistani immigrants, insist that he marry a good Muslim girl).  Khumail’s situation gets complicated when he falls for an adorably wonky psychology student named Emily, played by Zoe Kazan (a latter-day Annie Hall to his Alvy Singer); things get more complicated still when she undergoes hospitalization for a severe infection and he is forced to bond awkwardly with her distressed parents, played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter.  The film’s deployment of familiar rom-com conventions—break-ups and make-ups and montage sequences of the rituals of coupledom—is rounded out by its willingness to look beyond the vantage point of its central couple in order to consider other relationships and other conflicts, with both sets of parents acting as foils for Khumail and Emily. 


The long and winding road

Hunter (Hunter Carson) and Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) on opposite sides of the street in Paris, Texas (1984).

I celebrated Father’s Day this weekend by re-watching Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984), a movie that arguably sports one of the loveliest and gentlest father-son relationships in cinema.  Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis, who has been absent for half the length of his seven-year-old son Hunter’s life, spends the second act of the movie slowly regaining Hunter’s trust, like someone trying to coax a spooked cat out from under a bed (abandoned by both his mother and father, Hunter has been raised by his uncle and aunt, played by Dean Stockwell and Aurore Clement, whom he has come to regard as his parents).  In one of the many scenes in the film that brings tears to my eyes, Travis sets out to win Hunter’s admiration by dressing up like a dude and walking him home from school, and Hunter, impressed but shy, walks home on the opposite side of the street until finally Travis crosses over to Hunter’s side and the two continue to walk home together, framed in a shot that is all the more powerful for being wordless and static.  The seeds of their reconciliation have been sown in a previous scene in which they watch home movies shot before Travis’ absence—the nuclear family unit still intact.  By the time the home movie ends, Hunter has slowly crept from his position in the corner of the living room to the edge of the couch where Travis sits, father and son brought together by their shared gaze at the screen.  

Family viewing: father and son share a gaze.

Travis is both good father and bad father, deadbeat and hero and, ultimately, enigma: a figure for parenthood riven with mistakes and redeemed by love.  Stanton has never given another performance this staggeringly good, nor has he ever been given the opportunity to do so; a venerable character actor, Paris, Texas marks one of the only times he’s been asked to carry an entire 145-minute film, and he does so effortlessly.  (It’s impossible to imagine another actor playing this role.)  His laconic acting style is perfectly suited to the poetry of Sam Shepard’s screenplay.  Stanton’s face is weathered and drawn—he was nearly sixty when he made the film—but there is immense kindness there, and Travis comes to life, however briefly, at the memory of his lost happiness, captured in flickers in the home movies he watches with Hunter.  Stanton has never been so affecting as he is in the final scenes of Paris, Texas, in which Travis confronts his estranged wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) through the two-way mirror of a Houston peep-show booth.  In the pair of monologues that structure these scenes, Stanton and Kinski—and Shepard and Wenders—take the movie to emotional territory that’s so unfamiliar and unpredictable it feels mind-bending.  Stanton’s Travis is in many ways as unknowable at the end as he is at the beginning, when he’s first seen silently wandering through the Mojave Desert. But in the interim we’ve been shown the vast reserves of hauntedness that he carries around with him like invisible weight, just behind those heavy, sad eyes.  Paris, Texas is a road movie in which the journey isn’t so much about traveling the distance between Texas and California as it is about slowly filling in (some of) the gaps in Travis’ long and winding backstory.

Jane (Nastassja Kinski) and Travis reunited.


M is for...

Metropolis, modernism, montage.  I recently got around to watching the 2010 restoration of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) on Blu-ray, a cut of the film that restored some twenty-five minutes of footage, long thought to be lost forever, which was discovered in Buenos Aires in 2008.  Even in its earlier form the film was already a modernist masterpiece, a science-fiction parable set in a dystopian city-as-world: above ground millionaire businessmen and their sons lead lives of indolent luxury while faceless masses toil in subterranean factories.  The film both glamorizes the modern city and reflects anxieties about how it runs.  It opens with an arresting montage sequence of chugging pistons and spinning wheels, and it ends with images of urban pandemonium—exploding machines and flooded streets.  The gleam and power of modern urban space are rendered sublime in Metropolis—awesome and terrifying.  The film could be called a sublime piece of modernist architecture in itself, a towering achievement built out of massive sets and cutting-edge special effects.

Marxism, machines, mass revolution.  The politics of Metropolis are fascinating and notoriously convoluted.  It indiscriminately mixes socialist and religious ideology (the saintlike Maria preaches the gospel of Marxism and Christianity from a makeshift sanctuary in an underground catacomb), never minding Marx’s quip about religion being the opiate of the masses.  And even as the figures of bourgeois capitalism are villainized, there’s more than a little of Nietzsche in the film’s idea that society can only be saved by an enlightened member of the upper classes (namely, the liberal humanist Freder Frederson); left to their own devices, the proletariat is nothing but a mass of rowdy, self-destructive children.  Lang himself would later blame the film’s reductive and sentimental catchphrase—“the heart must act as a mediator between the head and the hands”—on his wife and screenwriter, Thea von Harbou. 

Mad scientist.  The “Machine Man” Rotwang has crazy hair and bug eyes, lives in a witch’s hut, toils to create a female cyborg in the image of his lost love.  In his laboratory, with its foaming beakers and glowing electric coils, are the seeds of a million sci-fi derivations, from Bride of Frankenstein and Re-Animator to Weird Science and Ex Machina.    

Maria, misogyny.  The figure of Maria demonstrates the film’s overlaying of Christian ideology, Marxist philosophy, and the conventions of a romantic adventure plot.  She is a religious figure, a revolutionary, and a love interest for Freder.  She is also a figure for the dual nature of woman as seen through the distorting lens of patriarchy: good girl/bad girl, virgin/whore, damsel and distress/witch.  The film ends with a clinch between the “true” Maria and Freder while the “false” Maria burns at a stake.  And there are fewer sequences in film more clear-eyed about the patriarchal unconscious than the one in which the false Maria—performing in Metropolis’ Orientalized red-light district, Yoshiwara—gyrates before an audience of men as they pant and seethe with lust and rage.



Ma vie en Cherbourg

Christmas in Cherbourg: Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) reunited.

Première partie: December 1998.  I receive a VHS copy of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), a Christmas present.  I’ve never seen the film before but I’m aware that it’s something of a classic, and that every word of its dialogue is sung.  I watch it on the 13” TV in my bedroom and, moony teenager that I am, I find myself moved to tears by the final scene—Genevieve and Guy meeting at the gas station at Christmas, snow falling through the black night around them.  I want to live in the world of this movie.  Every object, every space in it seems to my adolescent imagination perfect: the coziness of the magasin, the vases of flowers in the Emery apartment, the affects on Genevieve’s dressing table.  The colors of the film don’t feel oppressive or strange—they feel charming and lovely.  At first I am jarred by the sung dialogue, especially the blare of jazz with which it begins in the mechanic’s shop.  But I am soon enraptured by it, and I cry for the lovers, cruelly ripped apart by circumstance.  For me at fourteen, barely out of puberty, love is something that only exists in the movies.                

The magasin as a space of color and fantasy.

Douxième partie: January 2005.  College friends invite me to a French film party.  Everyone is supposed to bring a French film to share.  I bring a DVD copy of Umbrellas along with a boy I have just begun dating—my first.  He has a pierced nipple and wears a hemp necklace braided with rainbow-colored beads.  We watch at my friend’s apartment and drink cheap wine out of tumblers. My friends giggle at the movie—the singing, the colors, the broadness of the emotion.  They also giggle at my date; they can see he’s all wrong for me.  He and I break up a few weeks later.  After many years I look him up on Facebook and see that he’s married now, living somewhere I can’t remember.        

Lover's vows: "I will wait for you"

Troisième partie: November 2014.  I buy Criterion’s new box set of Jacques Demy films on Blu-ray and I’m eager to watch Umbrellas with my live-in boyfriend, a musician.  “This director is gay, right?”, he asks me.  “There’s no way a straight man made this movie.  The entire thing is pink!”  I explain that it’s complicated; Demy came out as bisexual late in life but remained happily married to Agnes Varda until his death of AIDS.  A week or so later he surprises me by bringing home the sheet music to Roland Cassard’s aria (my favorite piece of the film’s score) and begins playing it on our piano as I’m in the kitchen washing dishes.  A year later we’re broken up.  By that time I’ve learned how to play Cassard’s aria on my own.     

Roland Cassard: "Autre fois jai aime une femme..."

Quatrième partie: June 2017.  At a birthday party for a friend, four of us watch Umbrellas after dinner, projected onto a screen via the online streaming service FilmStruck.  There is some laughter at the colors (“that wallpaper!”) and at the film’s more audacious touches, like the shot of Guy and Genevieve gliding down the street as if on a moving walkway.  But I’m just as enraptured by the film as I was as a teenager, and I find myself crying for the lovers in all their beautiful innocence.  I’m single now; watching the final scene I wonder, is Guy happy with Madeleine?  Would he have been happier with Genevieve?  Genevieve’s mother seems to me wiser than she once did—pragmatic and cynical, perhaps, but hardly villainous.  And that final scene doesn’t seem so sad as it once did.  In the world of Jacques Demy, old lovers are lost to time and chance and new lovers are found; the music keeps playing; life goes on; the broken promises of youth (“I will wait for you”) are not so much tragic as they are innocent and beautiful in their fragility; and possibility is always waiting on the other side of heartbreak.

Young love.


"Something magnetic": Time on the rock

I love the moments in Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) when time seems to get blurred: they’re catalyzed by the characters’ proximity to the outcropping of the film’s title, where three adolescent girls and their teacher go missing while on a Valentine’s Day picnic.  The closer the characters get to the heart of the rock, which figures as a kind of labyrinth (one character explores it by leaving a pieces of note-paper behind him like a trail of breadcrumbs to mark his path), the more disoriented they, and the film, become.  It is as if their encounters with the rock trigger a tear in the fabric of space and time, a crevasse into which they fall.

Set in Victoria, Australia, at the turn of the century, the film stages the picnic as a symbolic clash of nature and culture, the mystery and danger of the rock standing opposed to the repressive nineteenth-century codes of nearby Appleyard College (a contrast already suggested by William Ford’s painting At The Hanging Rock [1875, below], an inspiration for the 1967 Joan Lindsay novel on which the film is based).  As one of the teachers, Miss McGraw, notes, “The rocks all around, Mount Macedon itself, must be all of 350 million years old.”  Hanging Rock represents the specter of Australia’s pre-colonial past as well as the expanse of geologic time, in the grand scheme of which the lives of the Appleyard girls, and maybe all of human history, are no more than a blip.  The rock also exercises a sexual pull on the girls, who take off their shoes and stockings (and perhaps their corsets) as they venture into its recesses and are swallowed up.  But they go to their deaths serenely, as if in a trance, like the willing participants of some ritual sacrifice.

Weir uses superimpositions and slow motion to convey the sense that time is out of joint on Hanging Rock (the pocket watches of Miss McGraw and others literally stop while they are in its presence—“something magnetic,” Miss McGraw supposes).  The final shots of the film, which are step-printed to almost dizzying effect, culminate in a shot of the angelic, lissome Miranda as if frozen for eternity.  In these moments Picnic at Hanging Rock verges on the psychedelic, and we’re made to realize that the film is as much an experimental film as it is a costume drama. 


In New Mexico with Billy Wilder

"The Mountain of the Seven Vultures"
This weekend I was moved to revisit Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), in which Kirk Douglas plays unscrupulous newspaper writer out to capitalize on the misfortune of a local man trapped in a cave in the middle of the New Mexico desert.  It’s an ingenious film, one of the wickedest that Wilder ever made—sharper and crueler than Double Indemnity, I think, and more scathing than Sunset Boulevard, great as both of those films are.  The sense of place in Ace in the Hole is particularly strong.  Most of the action occurs in the desert outside Albuquerque, where the vastness of the geography almost seems to mock the pettiness and hubris of the men and women moving around on the ground like ants.  The cave in which the local man is trapped is known by the locals as The Mountain of the Seven Vultures; the name both makes reference to scavengers like Douglas’ Charles Tatum and lends a supernatural dimension to the series of unfortunate events that transpire over the course of the film. 

"How!": Kirk Douglas with Iron Eyes Cody.

Tatum himself adopts a supernatural angle when writing his story (“the curse of the Mountain of the Seven Vultures…”), and as hackneyed as this sounds coming from him the film leaves itself open to a similar line of interpretation.  It’s possible to locate Ace in the Hole within a long tradition of films (The Shining, The Manitou, Poltergeist II) about white Americans being haunted by Native American spirits.  Racially, Ace in the Hole is one of Wilder’s most complex films.  Tatum sneers derisively at the Native member of the Albuquerque newspaper staff (played by veteran character actor Iron Eyes Cody), calling him “Geronimo” and reacting with disgust when he offers him a lunch of chicken tacos.  The Mexican mother (Frances Dominguez) of the trapped Leo Minosa moves through the film like a ghost; first seen crying and praying in Spanish, she is—along with Leo’s father—the only person in the film to show legitimate concern for her son’s survival.  In Wilder’s New Mexico, whites and Mexicans and Indians always seem to be orbiting each other nervously.  

Robert Arthur with Frances Dominguez as Mama Minosa.

Wilder’s satire is also attuned to the co-optation of Indian culture and its appeal to white tourists.  For the Federbers—a white family of four on vacation from Gallup—the Minosa saga is as consumable as the Indian headdresses worn by the two boys.  Leo gets trapped in the mountain while in search of Indian artifacts to be sold alongside the “curios” and Navajo blankets advertised at the motor inn.  (It reminds me of a passage from Nabokov, about Humbert and Lolita road-tripping across the American West: “If a roadside sign said VISIT OUR GIFT SHOP—we had to visit it, had to buy its Indian curios, dolls, copper jewelry, cactus candy.  The words ‘novelties and souvenirs’ simply entranced her by their trochaic lilt.”)  Wilder’s vision of the West, like Nabokov’s, is satirical and vaguely eerie, the gas stations and souvenir shops haunted by a people who cannot be owned and dwarfed by a landscape that cannot be known.

The Federber family--with Indian headdresses.


Erich von Stroheim, kinkster

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to see Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) projected in 35mm with live accompaniment at the Somerville Theatre, which is fast becoming one of the best repertory houses the greater Boston area.  (It is, I believe, one of the only theaters in the United States to sport a permanently installed 70mm projection system.)  I don’t think I had seen Greed since the four-hour reconstructed version aired to much fanfare on Turner Classic Movies in 1999.  The film is so obviously a masterpiece that even in its manifold, always-already-imperfect forms (the version screened at the Somerville was the two-hour MGM cut) it is never less than riveting to watch: there were moments during Sunday’s screening when I was so gripped by the sublime weirdness of this movie that I found myself grinning like an idiot.  It invokes the same giddy/crazed feeling that truly great horror movies like The Shining do, along with Paul Thomas Anderson’s better efforts, which I suppose is unsurprising when one considers that Greed is something of a horror movie in its own right, and that Anderson’s There Will Be Blood owes much to it.  

Greed combines the cute regionalism and local color of D. W. Griffith with the perverse fatalism of Lars von Trier (like von Stroheim, another filmmaker who reinvented his own name as an act of self-mythologizing) and the blithe kinkiness of Luis Buñuel.  This film is a vision of America as chock-a-block with grotesque, vicious, scheming, ugly people--outwardly “nice” folks who are all one moment of weakness away from violence and mendacity.  McTeague and Trina (Gibson Gowland and Zasu Pitts) slowly degenerate from gormless young lovers to haggard lowlifes, doubled against the minor characters Maria and Zerkow, who live in what might best be described as Gothic abjection.  (This subplot, which bears some resemblance to the Wegg/Venus/dust-heaps storyline in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, was regrettably cut from the two-hour version of the film.)  McTeague’s friend and Trina’s cousin Marcus (Jean Hersholt) is a small-minded nose-picker who wears tacky clothes.  At table, Trina's family members gorge themselves like animals (see below).  It’s significant that one of the film’s sweeter moments occurs when McTeague courts Trina by playing his concertina for her while they sit on a sewer tank.  (Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives ends with the body of the villain being dumped in a cesspool.)  

Having not read Frank Norris’ McTeague (the novel on which Greed is based), it’s hard to say how much of that cynicism is his and how much is von Stroheim’s.  But it’s worth noting that von Stroheim’s other films are similarly despairing—not to mention similarly keyed in to routines of sadism, masochism, and all manner of kink.  The foot fetishism in The Merry Widow caused censorship problems; Greed itself contains an erotically charged scene in which Trina leans up to kiss McTeague by standing on his boots.  A cut scene from Foolish Wives depicts von Stroheim cross-dressed in stockings and a garter belt, biting Mae Busch’s fingers—a motif that recurs throughout Greed.  His films betray the fetishist’s obsession with uniforms, leather boots, gloves.  And let us not forget that Greed originally contained a scene in which a Trina rubs her hoard of gold coins all over her naked body.  Was the original cut of this film—in addition to being too long—simply too fucked up for MGM to give it its seal of approval?  Even in its butchered form, Greed remains one of the most delightfully nasty films ever to come out of the studio system.