Betty's big break

Naomi Watts with Chad Everett in the audition scene in Mulholland Drive (dir. David Lynch, 2001).

In one of the many astonishing scenes in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), the aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts), fresh off the plane from “Deep River, Ontario,” goes to read for a part in a Hollywood movie.  Judging from the scripted dialogue she and her co-star have been given to rehearse, the movie is a not-very-good crime drama in which a young woman attempts to fend off the sexual advances of her father’s best friend.  (She: “You’re playing a dangerous game here.  If you’re trying to blackmail me, it’s not going to work!”  He: “You know what I want.  It’s not that difficult.”  She: “Get out, before I call my dad!  He trusts you!”  Etc.We’ve just seen Betty run through her lines with Rita (Laura Elena Haring), delivering them in the same mannered, slightly artificial tone that Watts herself uses to play Betty and which passes for normal acting in a Lynch movie.  But the audition finds Betty transformed: she now infuses the lines with a quivering, hushed sexuality.  She reinterprets the power dynamics of the scene so that she becomes the seducer rather than the seduced.  As she delivers the final lines she pulls away from her scene partner in disgust and a single tear runs down her cheek. 


The Films of 2018: The House That Jack Built

A little more than halfway through The House That Jack Built, when our hero, the titular Jack (a notorious serial killer, played by Matt Dillon), is being asked by Virgil (yes, that Virgil, played by Bruno Ganz) why he only ever seems to kill women, and particularly weak-willed, passive women at that, it becomes clear that the movie is not about a serial killer at all: it’s about its director, Lars von Trier.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the film is about the-director-as-serial-killer, where serial killing becomes a metaphor for the particularly sadistic/gratuitous/offensive type of art-making (the notion of murder as an art form being one of the film’s main themes) that LvT has made his métier. 


"sex, lies, and videotape": An appreciation

John (Peter Gallagher) with his mistress--and his wife's sister--Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) in sex, lies, and videotape (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 1989).

(i: sex)

There’s a lot of sex talk in this movie but very little on-screen intercourse, and (in what feels like a winking move on the part of Steven Soderbergh) not so much as a flash of nudity.  That may be because the movie is, in spite of its title, less about sex than intimacy—the thing that’s within/behind sex, or perhaps the combination of sexual knowledge with truth, sex that’s free of lies.  What makes the climactic love scene between Graham (James Spader) and Ann (Andie MacDowell) so powerful is that we’re not just watching an embrace or a kiss—we’re watching them both pass through a door together for the first time.  Until this point Graham has only experienced a vicarious intimacy through his video project.  Ann has never experienced it at all.  The touches and kisses they exchange, which almost seem to play out in slow motion, carry a more electrifying charge than any of the sweat-drenched gyrations of John (Peter Gallagher) and Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo).

A climax: Graham (James Spader) touches Ann (Andie MacDowell).

(ii: lies)

Graham’s manner is so direct, so quietly intense, that it first seems off-putting, then refreshing, and finally alluring, erotic.  He hides nothing and wants to know everything.  In his curiosity as well as in his borderline ascetic sense of discipline, Graham signifies as an artist figure.  He is also, in his determination to mine his subjects’ most private truths, the opposite of a liar—lying being the film’s idea of the worst thing a person can do, both professionally and personally.  Graham uses his penetrating gaze and probing questions to seduce both Cynthia and Ann away from the alpha-male John, whose machismo is revealed to be phony and insincere.  Cynthia’s dalliances with John are diverting, but her encounter with Graham is epiphanic.  I find the shot of Cynthia walking out of Graham’s house after their interview session incredibly powerful.  She moves differently than at any other point in the film, and her parting glance to him silently conveys a poignant wistfulness.  Without so much as touching her he’s gotten her to feel something that she seems never to have felt with John, something that is both sexual and more than sexual.  Call it intimacy.    

Cynthia gazes at Graham.

(iii: videotape)

Graham’s videos facilitate intimacy between himself and his subjects—but it’s a mediated intimacy, a crutch, that must ultimately be renounced if he is to achieve true connection.  In the climactic scene Graham and Ann turn off the Camcorder and touch each other, person to person.  As in a fairy tale, Ann’s kiss seems to break the spell of Graham’s impotence and simultaneously frees her of her own frigidity.  They cure each other.  It’s in this sense that sex, lies, and videotape turns out to be, underneath its reputation as a hip, edgy festival-circuit darling, the most old-fashioned, romantic thing of all: a love story. 

A happy ending...with rain.


In memoriam: Bernardo Bertolucci, 1941-2018

The Conformist (1970); Last Tango In Paris (1973); 1900 (1976); La Luna (1979); The Dreamers (2004).

Saturday I woke up to hear the news that Nicolas Roeg had died, and now this morning I learn that we’ve lost Bernardo Bertolucci, another giant of 1970s art house cinema and, with Roeg, one of the great sensualists.  Bertolucci won an Oscar for The Last Emperor (1987), his sweeping epic of twentieth-century China and one of his least interesting films, in my estimation.  (It is in some ways a Chinese version of 1900 [1976], his sleazy, crazy, utterly absorbing five-hour panorama of modern Italy.)  The Conformist (1970) might be his best, and his most successful attempt at doing what he tried to do in nearly all of his movies, which was to explore issues of history and politics through a psychoanalytic lens—through the sexual desires and obsessions and fears of his characters.  It’s also one of his most beautiful films, shot by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (a frequent collaborator).

But then all of Bertolucci’s movies are beautiful, even when they’re bad.  (1996’s Stealing Beauty, with a nubile Liv Tyler contriving to lose her virginity while on vacation in Italy, is one of his worst.)  And nearly all of them feel pure, as if they’ve come onto the screen directly from Bertolucci’s imagination, romantic and impassioned and a little bit perverted.  Last Tango In Paris (1973), the most controversial and my personal favorite of his films, is so overwrought in spots that it courts ridicule (critics Amy Nicholson and Allison Willmore guffawed over it on a recent episode of The Canon podcast).  The movie works for me, perhaps because Bertolucci’s commitment to the material saves it from devolving into bathos.  There’s always something operatic about Bertolucci’s movies, a grandness—an Italian-ness?—that perhaps strikes Americans vulgar.  The plot of his Oedipal melodrama La Luna (1979) literally revolves around a production of Un ballo in maschera.  You can choose to laugh at Bertolucci or you can embrace him in all his shameless and beautiful glory.            


In memoriam: Nicolas Roeg, 1928-2018

Walkabout (1971); Don't Look Now (1973); Bad Timing (1980).

I’ve been watching the films of director Nicolas Roeg since before I was old enough to know what a director was.  The Witches (1990), his sprightly adaptation of the children’s book by Roald Dahl, was a staple of my childhood viewing.  It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I discovered his extraordinary 1970s films Don’t Look Now (1973) and Walkabout (1971), both of which became instant favorites.  A framed reproduction of the Walkabout poster still hangs on my wall. 

It was even later, as a grad student in my twenties, that I sought out more of Roeg’s films—Bad Timing (1980), a shocking and dark tale of amour fou starring his wife Teresa Russell and Art Garfunkel (!); the trippy sci-fi fantasia The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), starring David Bowie; and his debut feature Performance (1970), an experiment in psychedelia starring Mick Jagger, which Roeg co-directed with Donald Cammell.  Roeg was a first-rate stylist whose films are so visually bold that they almost assault your eyes, and there are individual scenes and moments in all of his films that I’ll never forget, such as the television-watching sequence in The Man Who Fell To Earth, or the opening scene of Bad Timing, in which Roeg has the audacity to set a montage of Klimt paintings to Tom Waits’ “Invitation to the Blues.” 

Trained as a cinematographer, he began his career shooting lush color films for Roger Corman (The Masque of the Red Death, 1964) and Francois Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451, 1966).  These, too, are worth seeing just for Roeg’s camerawork.  But it’s to Don’t Look Now and Walkabout that I have returned countless times over the years.  I love the dark romantic fatalism of those films, in which characters seem caught up by vast cosmic forces outside their control, and where sex and death seem to be opposite sides of the same coin.  And I am brought back to the beautiful mysterious effects produced by Roeg’s endlessly moving camera, his keenly sensitive awareness of how to use music on-screen, the energy of his cutting.  It’s possible to argue that Roeg was one of the most musical of directors, and not only because he so often cast rock stars as actors.  His filmmaking showed a peerless command of tempo and rhythm and a deep capacity for emotion.  Roeg has left behind a wonderful and strange crop of films, all mismatched and placeless and unlike those of any other director, forever sharp and glittering with light.  


The Films of 2018: Widows

Steve McQueen has done something unthinkable: he has made a film that is shamelessly, outrageously fun.  In contrast to McQueen’s earlier, “artier” work (12 Years a Slave, Shame), Widows is a rollicking, full-throated crime thriller co-written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame.  Who ever would have guessed that McQueen and Flynn would make such good collaborators?  Her contributions to the screenplay, based on a novel by Lynda La Plante, seem to have shaken up the aesthetic rigor of his filmmaking, and he brings a legitimacy and a gravitas to what is essentially a piece of pulp fiction.  The movie also feels like a joyride for Viola Davis, who, playing the wronged wife of a fallen criminal (Liam Neeson), proves that she can kick ass as well as anyone in Hollywood named Chris.    


Kid stuff

La Strada: Giulietta Masina with children.

I’ve never posted about Fellini here before, an omission that seems glaring because he remains a key filmmaker for me, and one that I’ve consciously admired longer than just about any other director besides Hitchcock and maybe Polanski and Scorsese.  My love for him dates back to and is bound up in the burgeoning cinephilia of my adolescence, and it’s a love that’s so irrational and pure that I don’t quite know how to begin to articulate it.  So it seems to make sense to begin with La Strada (1954), the first of Fellini’s films that I ever saw (around age fourteen), and one of the first that really launched his career as a world-class auteur, winning him the Golden Lion at Venice and the first of four Best Foreign Film Oscars.  Roughly hewn and a little bit sentimental, it’s reflective of his origins in the Italian neo-realism of the late 1940s and early 1950s (Fellini cut his teeth writing for Rossellini). 

Seen in the rear-view mirror of Fellini’s career as a whole La Strada almost feels too modest to stand in the company of such brazen, ribald, “mature” works as and La Dolce Vita.  Somewhat conventionally melodramatic (a pure-hearted child-woman martyrs herself for the brutish man who doesn’t return her unconditional love of him), it lacks the bittersweet irony and the cock-eyed wistfulness of the later films.  La Strada has a child’s-eye view of the world, a perspective that has not yet been jaundiced by adulthood—later to be represented by the handsomely despoiled mug of Marcello Mastroianni.  During this period Fellini’s chief collaborator was not Mastroianni but his wife Giulietta Masina, the waiflike clown with the sunbeam smile who, even in her roles as a prostitute in Nights of Cabiria and The White Sheik, epitomized an androgynous, pre-sexual innocence.     

Gelsomina with Zampano (Anthony Quinn): innocence and devotion.

It’s this somewhat banal sentimental-melodramatic strain within La Strada—its dramatization of a struggle between purity/love/goodness, represented by poor Gelsomina (Masina), and crudity/brutality/violence, represented by the bestial Zampano (Anthony Quinn)—that feels most out of step with Fellini’s other films, which scramble up such divisions and attempt more complex moral formulas.  And Gelsomina’s abject devotion to the man who treats her like a dog can’t help but seem pathetic and troubling, even if Fellini does question the veneration of this kind of female martyrdom within Italian culture, and even though one of the figures in the film who encourages said martyrdom is known as “The Fool.”  The moral universe of La Strada seems stricter and its approach to plot and character “straighter” than in really any of the later films, and it seems to me one of the only Fellini films that can properly be called a tragedy, building as it does to a beautifully simple and moving final scene.  (It’s also one of the rare Fellini films to depict a scene of murder.)   

The final shot: Zampano on the beach.

And yet it remains a Fellini film through and through even as it exists in a kind of child’s-picture-book relationship to the others.  It’s in many ways a child’s film, driven by the childlike figure of Gelsomina (she’s most at home when she’s surrounded by children). Zampano and the Fool can also be seen as different types of overgrown boys, clumsy and stunted, capable of expressing themselves only in taunts, pranks, rude gestures.  The plot, too, has the pared-down quality of a folk tale, and is uncomplicated enough to appeal to young audiences, which may be why I responded so strongly to it as a young teenager.  My uncle later told me he saw La Strada “as a kid,” in a tone that implied that it was, in essence, kid stuff, something akin to The Wizard of Oz or Snow White.  Such kid stuff has a magic all its own, and if La Strada does not afford the particularly grown-up insights of La Dolce Vita or it is full of a child’s wonder.

Child's play...and violence.