The Films of 2011: Summer memories

The last films of the year will be trickling into Boston theaters in the next two months or so, after which point I’ll be compiling my top ten list (I’m still anxiously waiting to see The Artist, A Dangerous Method, and We Need to Talk About Kevin, among a few others).  But I thought I should take a minute to remember—however briefly—three great summer releases that I caught theatrically but didn’t get around to posting about, on the chance that one or two end up making my end-of-the-year cut.


The Films of 2011: War Horse

War Horse is pro forma Spielberg: grand-scale, tug-at-the-heartstrings storytelling, fitted out with vigorous action set pieces, majestic landscape shots, and swelling music (courtesy of John Williams, as usual).  A WWI saga set in England and France, it’s a more lavish and romantic war film than Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan; Spielberg gives us some grim battle scenes near the end of the film, both in the trenches and in the hell of No Man’s Land, but overall the tone here is serenely heroic rather than brutal, and it’s more Rupert Brooke than Wilfred Owen, if you know what I mean.  (Gone With The Wind and John Ford also appear to be influences here.)


The Most Famous Films I've Never Seen...Until Now (Part 7 of 10): Roughing it

Like everyone else, I’ve been pre-occupied these past few weeks with holiday-related business, so posting has been less regular.  But I wanted to say just a quick word about Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan (1946), which I finally got around to seeing early last week.  The middle film in his war trilogy, it only first came to DVD a year or so ago in a box set from (who else) Criterion, who spent countless hours restoring the print to a workable condition.  The picture quality and audio still look rough—and maybe that’s appropriate to the film itself, which is a kind of collection of rough-hewn episodes picked out of the rubble, as it were, of war-torn Italy (an American G.I. bonds with an orphaned scamp; a British nurse searches for her lover in Florence, etc.).  Paisan is itself a crazy quilt made out of foraged scraps.  Its encounters between Americans, Germans, Italians, and Britons are fleeting, driven by chance, made complicated by language barriers and losses in translation.  And—true to the neo-realist spirit—it is a film that sees largely through the eyes of children (some of the film’s most expert scavengers and thieves).  We need only think about the schoolboys of Rossellini’s Open City (1945), the regazzi of de Sica’s Shoeshine (1945), or wide-eyed Bruno in Bicycle Thieves (1948) to know how central children are to the neo-realist aesthetic.  So the somewhat battered look of Criterion’s Paisan is lamentable but appropriate—torn from the rubble, it will never have the polished elegance of, say, The Rules of the Game.  More in a week or so, as I finish up this project with three more new-to-me classics.     


The Films of 2011: Young Adult

Jason Reitman and Alexander Payne seem to have switched careers.  With Sideways (2004) and this year’s The Descendants, Payne has traded in the bitterness and the snark of his early features for more middlebrow fare; meanwhile, Reitman—whose earlier films Juno (2007) and Up in the Air (2009) offered up sentimental portraits of middle America as quaint and quirky—has decided to show a nastier side of himself with his new film Young Adult, written by Diablo Cody.  Set largely in suburban Minnesota and scored by former Payne collaborator Rolfe Kent, it invites comparison to Payne’s dark satire of high school politics Election.  Young Adult, too, is about the pettiness and trauma of high school and the persistence with which its memories haunt our adult lives.  Its governing conceit is that all of the characters are essentially still playing out their high school roles into their late thirties.  Developmentally arrested Mavis (Charlize Theron) relives the popularity of her teen years by writing young adult novels about prep school girls, while self-described “fat nerd” Jeff (Patton Oswalt) still bears the physical scars of a vicious attack by cruel jocks.  The film plays like a twisted after-school special about dysfunctional adults instead of awkward teenagers—and unlike the heartaches and squabbles of teens, which we can usually chuckle over warmly or gaze on wistfully, the problems these grown-ups get themselves into make us feel squirmy and sad. 

The Most Famous Films I've Never Seen...Until Now (Part 6 of 10): Hawks as auteur

In my attempt to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of cinema history, it’s occurred to me that the work of Howard Hawks constitutes one of my biggest blind spots.  I’ve seen three of his screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and I Was a Male War Bride), the first two of which I admit are masterpieces of the genre; one of his noir films (The Big Sleep); and two of his Westerns (Red River and Rio Bravo), both of which are justifiable classics.  But it’s not until now that I’ve gotten around to two of his most famous films, the cheerfully lightweight musical-comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and one of the foundational gangster thrillers, Scarface (1932). 


The Most Famous Films I've Never Seen...Until Now (Part 5 of 10): When East meets West

Die Hard (dir. John McTiernan, 1988) presents itself as a cheeky updating of the Hollywood Western, with its knowing references to John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Gary Cooper, its male characters going around calling one another “cowboy,” its cocky R-rated whoops (“yippee-ki-ay, motherfuckers!”).  In its basic plot and structure, Die Hard follows the generic Western formula: an outsider (in this case NYPD officer John Maclaine) arrives in an unfamiliar town, finds the town under attack, and lays down the law (by paradoxically acting outside of official law-enforcement structures like the FBI and LAPD, which are revealed to be ineffectual—a classic Western trope). 


The Films of 2011: Shame

What, exactly, is the matter with Brandon (Michael Fassbender), the object of Steve McQueen’s bleak, hauntingly beautiful character study Shame?  “Sex addiction” seems to be the term onto which most critics of the film have seized, but that term—at least in its typical parlance—doesn’t convey the grim depths to which Brandon’s painful and violent relationship with sex drives him.  For Brandon, who has been blessed (or cursed) with jaw-dropping good looks, a high-paying corporate job, and a sleekly outfitted Manhattan apartment, sex is not a pleasure or even an empty diversion: it’s a compulsion and a torment.  It should be noted, along these lines, that the film doesn’t shake its finger at sex itself, even casual sex or promiscuity.  Rather, it shows us a kind of nightmare world known only to a damned few, where sex has become a source of suffering and where everything else is relegated to the blurry sidelines of one’s field of vision.  Brandon tells a woman at a bar that he enjoys performing oral sex because “it’s just me and it,” and that phrase tells us much about the topography of Brandon’s mental landscape.  A close-up during a rather hellish fuck session with two prostitutes reveals his classically handsome face transformed into an agonized rictus.  (In a devastating set of scenes with a co-worker and potential girlfriend [Nicole Beharie], we see that Brandon is tentatively desirous of more meaningful relationships with women but incapable of managing them, for reasons the film only hints at.)  


The Most Famous Films I've Never Seen...Until Now (Part 4 of 10): In Antonioni-land

A typically striking and off-putting Antonioni composition from La Notte (1961), the second film in his so-called Italian trilogy.  I’d already seen the other two films—the masterpieces L’Avventura (1960) and L’Eclisse (1962)—mainly because Criterion has blessed us with fine editions of both.  Despite long-held rumors about Criterion giving La Notte the same treatment, that film has only been released in North America by the dreaded Fox Lorber, and it’s quite a hack job (non-anamorphic, burned-in subtitles, etc.)  So even though I’d heard a lot about La Notte I’d never actually bothered to track down the DVD until now. 

The Films of 2011: Hugo

I went into Martin Scorsese’s new film Hugo feeling skeptical, in spite of the glowing notices it’s been receiving—having seen the trailer, I worried that it would be two hours of Sacha Baron Cohen chasing our hero through the Paris Metro station.  I was also fearful of what might be a kind of visual-effects assault in the Pirates of the Caribbean/Chronicles of Narnia vein, an adventure story that constantly throws things at the audience in hopes of keeping its attention.  I should have had more faith in Scorsese; he’s made his share of disappointing films, but in Hugo his hand is steady and his touch is light.  Even with its elaborate visual effects and roving camerawork, it doesn’t feel heavy or spastic in the way that many recent special-effects-packed family films do.  Scorsese gives us moments to breathe, to think, to pay attention to characters, objects, and images; he’s not always waving something in our faces.  Even while the pace is energetic and upbeat, Scorsese’s tone is serene, relaxed, and confident.  It’s the work of a master filmmaker—even if it’s not of the stature of Raging Bull or Taxi Driver


The Most Famous Films I’ve Never Seen…Until Now (Part 3 of 10): The vulgar charm of Rodney Dangerfield

After seeing Ghostbusters (dir. Ivan Reitman, 1984) for the first time this summer and now Caddyshack (dir. Harold Ramis, 1980), I’m starting to think that the great Bill Murray spent most of the 1980s stuck in movies that he was too smart for.  Caddyshack is less a well-made movie in the proper sense of the word than a string of gags involving very funny people: Murray, Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield.  For proof of this, one needs only to think about the parts of the film that don’t involve any of those three actors, which is to say its “teenage” plot (in which a vacuous college hopeful takes a summer job as a golf caddy, attempts to win a scholarship, is involved in a pregnancy scare that turns out to be a false alarm, etc.)  The movie grinds to a halt in these scenes, only to chug back to life whenever Murray, Chase, or Dangerfield come on, delivering lines that are funny because the actors seem to have improvised or written them themselves.


The Most Famous Films I’ve Never Seen…Until Now (Part 2 of 10): Britishness

“You and that Colonel Nicholson are two of a kind—crazy with courage!  For what?  How to die ‘like a gentleman.’  How to die ‘by the rules.’  The only important thing is how to live like a human being!  I don’t care about your bridge and I don’t care about your rules.”

That’s a quote from Shears, the American naval commander played by William Holden in David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), which I just watched for the first time this week.  It’s a hugely entertaining film as well as a fascinating cultural product: a Hollywood film made for Columbia Pictures by one of Britain’s most renowned auteurs, co-starring Holden and Alec Guinness.  I was struck by the film’s intricate thematization of the very issue of Americanness versus Britishness; the conflict here is not so much that between the English Colonel Nicholson (Guinness) and the Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) as it is between the opposed sensibilities of Nicholson and the American Shears, who has been reluctantly drafted into a plot to blow up the bridge that represents the very code by which the obsessive, perfectionist Nicholson lives.  (The bridge is Nicholson, and they both eventually go down together, as it were.)  Nicholson—the very embodiment of British decorum—understands himself and the world through a system of codified rules; one of his first acts of rebellion after arriving as a POW in Colonel Saito’s camp is to refuse to condone the subjection of his officers to manual labor.  He reads from a copy of the Geneva Convention, only to have Saito throw it aside (see images below)—an act tantamount to a slap in the face, which, not coincidentally, Nicholson also receives. 


The Most Famous Films I’ve Never Seen…Until Now (Part 1 of 10): Champagne and potato chips

A couple of years or so ago it became common for critics to swap lists of the most famous films they'd never seen—a kind of movie buffs’ parlor game.  My own list is a bit embarrassing: for various reasons, I’ve never gotten around to seeing The Seven-Year Itch, The Bridge on the River Kwai, the original Scarface, or (gasp!) Caddyshack.  Until now, that is.  

The Seven-Year Itch (dir. Billy Wilder, 1955) was first on my list, because I had always heard it referred to as one of the iconic Marilyn Monroe performances—another being her turn in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which I’ll be getting to later.  Never much interested in her or her films when I was younger, my interest in Monroe has grown steadily since I first read Joyce Carol Oates’ utterly devastating Blonde (part biography, part novel) back in 2005.  After learning more about her life and reading Oates’ depiction of her as tragic, doomed genius, it’s impossible for me to not feel sad whenever I see Monroe on-screen, as if a dark shadow is hanging over her aura of bright, glowing sensuality.  As funny and charming as she is in films like The Seven-Year Itch, watching her fills me with a sorrowful ache instead of a thrill of titillation. 

The Seven-Year Itch—which strikes me as almost a quintessential 1950s Hollywood movie on just about every level: stylistically, formally, ideologically—is also interesting in its own acknowledgement of Monroe’s iconic star quality.  As in the new film My Week with Marilyn, The Seven-Year Itch collapses actress and character until we don’t even know if we’re watching Tom Ewell interact with “The Girl Upstairs” (as her character is often credited) or with “Marilyn Monroe” herself.  What is the difference, anyway?, the film forces us to ask.  Every man in the film responds to “the Girl Upstairs” as if he really is seeing the most famous movie star on the planet.  In the film’s broadest moment of reflexivity, Ewell’s character refers jokingly to the Girl—whose name he never learns—as Marilyn Monroe.  And then there’s the business of the Girl’s modeling career: we learn that she’s been the subject of a photographic “study” which turns out to have been a cheesecake photo shoot.  Monroe herself had done nude modeling before becoming an actress, and the scandal that resulted from the discovery of those photos in the 1950s nearly ruined her career. 

The Girl’s appetite for champagne and potato chips also seems to be a kind of synecdoche for Monroe herself—for her singular ability to mix the classy and the kitschy, the elegant and the tawdry.  She isn’t even aware of the difference between elegance and tawdriness; she dunks her potato chip into her champagne glass without giving it a second thought.  Monroe/The Girl’s appeal lies in her naturalness, her blitheness, her lack of self-consciousness.  Her innocently sexy allure, so blinding to everyone else, is invisible to her.  It makes perfect sense that Oates calls this one of the quintessential Monroe performances; watching “The Girl,” we feel that we’re getting the essence of Monroe’s star persona. 

Return of the psychotronic diaries: "Bend over and spread your cheeks."

I’m about to begin rolling out a new series of posts in which I sit down with ten of the most famous films I’ve never seen before—but first I had to say a few words about a fantastic new release from the folks over at Code Red.  They’re responsible for having put out three of the films I screened earlier this fall as part of my education in psychotronia; now they’ve unearthed a gem of a prison exploitation film called Caged Men, a.k.a. Caged Men Plus One Woman, a.k.a. I’m Gonna Get You, Elliott Boy… (dir. Paul J. Forsyth, 1971).  It’s part of their new “Maria’s B-Movie Mayhem” line, in which WWE babe Maria Kanellis provides an intro and outro to the feature film.  She’s kind of like a modern-day Rhonda Shear, but (with all due respect to Ms. Kanellis) she doesn’t have that slightly crazed charm that made Shear’s gig at USA Up All Night so funny, nor do her sequences have the same zany, sleazy, late-night TV appeal.  But such, alas, is the experience of watching films like this on DVD instead of catching them on cable at 2 a.m.  (A movie like Caged Men would likely never have aired on USA, anyway—at least not with its nude scenes intact.  So there’s that.) 


The Films of 2011: My Week with Marilyn

Michelle Williams has proven herself to be one of the most talented actresses working in movies today; she can play tough or vulnerable, or a mixture of both, so in some ways she’s the perfect choice to play Marilyn Monroe in Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn.  But the movie is so badly done that Williams’ talent barely emerges unscathed.  It’s a film that wants to get to the “real” Marilyn underneath the star persona but only reinscribes that persona, trapping Williams inside. 



I just saw Barton Fink (dir. Joel Coen, 1991) for the first time in roughly fourteen years, and while it isn’t the masterpiece that I remember it being—it struck me this time as too gimmicky, too arch—it’s in some ways a more interesting film about Hollywood, race, and paranoia than I remember.  I was really too young to pick up on these aspects of the film when I first saw it as a young teenager late at night on the FXM movie channel; I simply remember being dazzled and perplexed by the violence and absurdism of the film’s final half hour.  David Bax of Battleship Pretension has spoken of the similar effect that Barton Fink had on him as a budding film enthusiast.  For many of our generation, the Coen Brothers opened up a whole world of cinematic possibility; discovering them as young people, we suddenly realized that movies—even those that starred actors we recognized, like John Goodman—could be off-beat and imaginative and compelling in weird ways that other movies and TV shows just weren’t.  


Reassessing "The Seventh Seal"

I first saw The Seventh Seal (1957) at the ideal moment in my life as a film watcher.  I was about fourteen and was just discovering some of the great figures in world cinema: Fellini, Kurosawa, Truffaut, Bergman.  I had already seen Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1973) and was hypnotized by its eerie, dreamlike imagery.  But The Seventh Seal, of course, is a very different Bergman from that of the chamber dramas; it hearkens back to earlier dramatic forms and styles such as the allegory or the medieval cycle play, just as Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) evokes Mozart and French farce.  As masterful as these earlier films are (one would be a fool to try and claim that The Seventh Seal is a bad film) I understand John Simon when he writes that he can admire them but can’t love them.  The Seventh Seal may very well be a perfect film, one that moves gracefully from low comedy to tender lyricism to blackness to angst and even sublimity, that doesn’t waste a single moment; it is also a crucial film in the history of Bergman’s career and in the history of international art cinema.  But it is a film to admire rather than love.


The Films of 2011: The Descendants

Looking at the films of writer-director Alexander Payne, we can see them grow increasingly kinder and gentler, from the savage, nastily funny Election (1999) to the somewhat more humane character study About Schmidt (2002) to the warmer tones of Sideways (2004), with its sunny shots of people sitting under trees drinking wine.  But even the life-affirming humanism of Sideways had its depressive, absurdist shadows.  The Descendants is a similar mixture of the sentimental and the darkly comic; while I still prefer the sharp edges of Payne’s early work and wish he’d revisit them (will he ever again make a film as good as Election?) I’m happy to see the persistence of that darkly comic sensibility, the cloud in Payne’s otherwise sunny sky.  It’s that cloud—which takes a number of different shapes in The Descendants, such as the screenplay’s blithe use of what might be called “vulgar” language—that keeps the film from becoming another version of Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air (2009), which attempted to glide on George Clooney's charisma and treated its heavy themes simplistically.  That film was too easy, too slick; every beat felt calculated, whereas The Descendants moves at a relaxed, unhurried pace—Payne allows his characters space to breathe instead of always shoving them on to the next scene.  That’s something you don’t see much in Hollywood films these days, most of which seem hysterically afraid of losing their audience’s attention.  Clooney, too, is given deeper and richer notes than usual to sound here, and his performance is lovely in a kind of sad, warm way.  (The young actors who play his daughters, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, are also impressive; their characters feel recognizable and nicely rounded.)  


Joe Dante's anti-Christmas-movie Christmas movie

I re-watched Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) this week for the first time in almost twenty years; it was a movie that made a big impression on me at a very young age (I was probably five or so when it aired on NBC).  I can remember humming the theme music, listening to the children’s “book and tape” tie-in (it was narrated by Hoyt Axton!), and attempting to read the novelization.  I was already very familiar with the film by the time Gremlins 2: The New Batch came out in 1990, at which point my dad took me to the theater to see it—how cool is that?  As a somewhat morbid child drawn to all things scary and gory, I enjoyed Gremlins as a solid horror movie, and I remember being a bit confused at how much it made my dad laugh.  It’s both, really—an exemplary blend of scary, gross, and funny, in the tradition of some of the best horror films.  This blend of horror and comedy is one of Dante’s specialties: in the Gremlins films, his classic werewolf flick The Howling (1981), and his segment for the Twilight Zone movie (1983), he has a way of intensifying the giddy fun of being scared, of feeling so keyed up on the very texture of horror—its lurid colors and canted angles, its musical zaps and stings—that you feel like your head is going to start spinning with pleasure.  Dante understands the crucial element of fun that’s almost always necessary in horror cinema; it’s something that he has learned from his two main influences, drive-in monster movies and the Looney Tunes cartoons. 


"Ms.45": A psychotronic reassessment

Abel Ferrara’s Ms.45 (1981) is a superlative psychotronic film—a tangle of contradictions.  It’s an exploitation movie, a feminist revenge fantasy, a sleazy thriller, a stylishly gritty independent film, a thoughtful exploration of female victimization the likes of which would never pass in a mainstream Hollywood feature.  I was much too young to appreciate it when I saw it for the first time sixteen years ago; I hadn’t yet become attuned to the way that such films could mix intelligence, shock value, and a kind of low-budget aesthetic flair.


In the slammer: Orientalism, Sadomasochism, and the Prison in "Midnight Express"

When I last saw Midnight Express (1978, dir. Alan Parker) roughly twelve years ago, it was heavily edited on cable.  So it was only just this week that I really saw it for the first time.  Pauline Kael noted that the film, with its scenes of sexual torture and its sadistic Turkish prison guards, was like something out of Sade, and it’s true: though ostensibly a prison-break movie aimed at men (one can imagine it running on AMC), it has less in common with The Great Escape than with, say, Caged.  That’s to say that Midnight Express is a homoerotic version of a women-in-prison movie.  As Susie Bright points out in The Celluloid Closet, women-in-prison movies operate under the assumption that the worst thing that can happen to a woman is that she will lose her femininity: that, behind bars, she’ll become a butch.  Midnight Express operates under the same premise, adapted for men: it follows a clean-cut, boyishly handsome American college kid, Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) as he suffers baroquely exotic abuses at a Turkish prison after being arrested for smuggling.  Billy’s seemingly inviolable masculinity pales beside the grotesquely beefy Turkish guards who beat and rape him.  Compared with their massive bald heads, bulging eyes, and monstrous sneers, he looks petite and femme, the opposite of butch—which is to say, a “bitch.” 


The Films of 2011: J. Edgar

With Mystic River (2003), Clint Eastwood entered a particularly fertile late period in his directorial career, made up of rich, complex films that often toed the line of mawkishness.  Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Gran Torino all risked being undone by their own disregard for subtlety—by their sheer gravitation toward big emotion—but there were still so many good things in them that they somehow worked.  Eastwood's latest, J. Edgar, isn't so successful at skirting absurdity.  The biopic follows Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) from his youth in the 1920s, through his rise as the director of the FBI and his dogged investigation of the Lindbergh kidnapping, to his death during the Nixon administration.  As interpreted by Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, Hoover's paranoia and vindictiveness were rooted in his closeted homosexuality.  The film foregrounds Hoover's mommy issues (Judi Dench, very good but underused, plays Mrs. Hoover), his awkwardness with women, and his intimate lifelong relationship with right-hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, terrible), which is mounted as a touching love story over which we're invited to shed a sorrowful tear.  It’s like Brokeback Mountain, except the closeted hero takes out his sexual frustration on the whole country instead of his wife.  See what a culture of homophobia and repression do to people!?, we can practically hear Black yelling at us. 


"Nasty big pointy teeth"

Does the comedy of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1975; last seen: 12 years ago) resist theorization?  It feels too spontaneous, too tossed off and evanescent to think about critically.  It’s one of those endlessly watchable comedies in which every joke feels simply, effortlessly perfect.  It’s a film that I watched repeatedly as a teenager, almost to the point of memorization, but hadn’t seen since; it feels even funnier and more perfect now than it did then, somehow.  It’s not that I didn’t “get” the jokes before—they just seem weirder, more absurd, more right.  They operate in a filmic universe not governed by logic, not even the logic of the medieval adventure genre, a universe whose laws are always being (hilariously) broken.


Hitchcock and repetition: A reassessment of "Obsession"

Last seen: 12 years ago

Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is not only a film about obsession and repetition—it has also become an object of obsession in itself, particularly to the “new Hollywood” filmmakers of the 1970s.  Martin Scorsese has spoken about his “obsession” with Vertigo, and we can see glimpses of it turn up in, for example, Shutter Island (2010).  Vertigo is a film that has been countlessly referenced, re-imagined, cited—in the background of Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), in the romantic dreams that become nightmares in Alejandro Amenabar’s Abre Los Ojos (1997), in Sheryl Lee’s dual role as Laura/Madeline in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.  For Brian de Palma, who has veritably made a career out of re-imagining the Hitchcock canon (with mixed results), Vertigo appears most obviously in the appropriately titled Obsession (1975)—scripted, it should be noted, by Paul Schrader, another figure from the 70s “new American” school on whom Hitchcock clearly made a deep impression.  


The Films of 2011: Melancholia

I’d been anxiously awaiting Lars von Trier’s Melancholia ever since first getting a gander at the trailer back in April, mainly hoping that it would be an improvement on the incoherent flop that was Antichrist (2009).  That film only contained one moment that really left me stunned: a shot of Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in mid-coitus against the trunk of a fallen tree, a tangle of ghostly arms and legs sticking out through the branches.  It was like something out of Hieronymous Bosch.  But the rest of the film felt sloppily put together and at times borderline ludicrous.  Melancholia revisits many of that film’s themes—the violence of nature, the failure of science, apocalyptic doom—but handles them with masterful control rather than chaotically.  It’s not only the best film I’ve seen so far this year, it also ranks among von Trier’s finest work. 


Reassessing "Midnight Cowboy"

Last seen: 12 years ago

I wrote earlier this week about how upon seeing On the Waterfront as a budding film enthusiast in my early teens I was left unmoved; Midnight Cowboy (dir. John Schlesinger, 1969) was a film that had quite the opposite effect on me.  I was virtually obsessed with it for a period of about two years, I think particularly because of its expressive style—its clever montage sequences, hypnotic use of dreams and flashbacks, dense layering of sounds and images—and its grittiness; I discovered the movie at an age when I was constantly in search of the “weird” and the “disturbing.”  (Some of Midnight Cowboy’s creepier moments—like a drugged-out mother tickling her young son’s face with a rubber rat, or Jon Voigt’s assault of Barnard Hughes—particularly affected me, and they’re still a bit queasy-making.) 


Reassessing "On the Waterfront"

Last seen: 13 years ago

This week I revisited Elia Kazan’s classic tale of rats and pigeons, a film the position of which within the canon has long been fraught with controversy due to its being bound up in Kazan’s politics and his much-publicized decision to name names before HUAC in 1952.  When I last saw it as a teenager dutifully consuming the films that I was led to believe were important, it left me cold; a moody morality play about organized crime and Irish Catholic longshoremen did not appeal to me at that age, when my tastes leaned toward the lyrical, the visually bold, the anti-realistic.  Bergman, Fellini, Nicolas Roeg—these were the filmmakers who were making a profound impression on me at that time, not Elia Kazan, whose work I found stagy and even boring.  I’ve since grown to like several of Kazan’s films very much, particularly A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Baby Doll (1956), and A Face in the Crowd (1957), so I figured it was time to give On the Waterfront another chance.  


The Films of 2011: The Skin I Live In

One of the most strikingly beautiful images from Pedro Almodovar’s latest, The Skin I Live In, and one that recalls his previous Broken Embraces.  Like that film, which examined the attempt of a film director to reclaim the visual image of his lost beloved, The Skin I Live In is a characteristically rich and unsettling statement about the obsession of a meticulous male artist to re-construct the dead, to un-make the mistakes of the past, and to create and control women.  While one might say that Almodovar is simply covering familiar ground here, I prefer to think of him as returning to the same ideas and images (as most great filmmakers do), rearranging and re-combining them each time, much like his main characters are compulsively, often fatally, drawn again and again to the same sites of passion and desire.  


Reassessing "The Three Caballeros"

Last seen: 8 or so years ago

For the next several weeks, I’ll be revisiting films I haven’t seen in a while—some not for ten years or more—and trying to look at them with fresh eyes, as it were.  I was particularly happy to revisit one of the most psychedelic (and even psychotronic) films from the Disney canon, The Three Caballeros (dir. Norman Ferguson, 1945), a response by the studio to the Good Neighbor Policy (Saludos Amigos was another) insofar as it put its animated characters into South and Central American settings.  Here, Donald Duck receives a box of south-of-the-border-themed birthday presents, some of which (like a magical flying serape) transport him to Baia, Acapulco Beach, and Mexico City.  I last saw it as a college student, when I came across the VHS copy that I had received as a Christmas present approximately ten years before that, after seeing the film for the first time as a child in grade school, when it made some sort of mysterious impression on me.  So I’ve had a longtime appreciation for The Three Caballeros as a kind of weird Disney novelty.  It’s still a strangely fascinating film—often beautiful, more often manic in that kind of lushly trippy Disney way (cf. much of Fantasia, parts of Alice in Wonderland, the “Pink Elephants” sequence in Dumbo, etc.).  I got thinking about it recently after Glenn Kenny mentioned it in passing on his blog. 

As a cultural object, The Three Caballeros is noteworthy in different ways than Disney’s fully-animated fairy tales; while all of Disney’s films from this period were made for all ages (not only children), The Three Caballeros feels even more like a child-friendly film for adults than an adult-friendly film for children than just about any of their other films with the exception of Fantasia.  Whole sequences seem aimed at grown-ups looking to gaze at paintings of exotic landscapes to the strains of romantic Latin songs (such as the great “Baia,” later covered by Bing Crosby and the Xavier Cugat orchestra).  (Kids, meanwhile, are likely to yawn their way through these scenes.)  The Donald Duck sequences are more comic…and more sexually charged.  Watching the film as a child I certainly never noticed the significance of Donald’s telescope sproinging open when he looks at some pretty sunbathers in Acapulco.

The film culminates in an utterly frenzied drug trip/wet dream/fever dream/fantasy sequence in which, love-struck, Donald swims through a kind of nebulous space filled with unfurling flowers, exploding stars, and bikini-clad women while a voice intones “purty girls…purty girls…purty girls!”  Subtle it’s not, but the film's sexually frenzied atmosphere sailed past my head as a child, and was only slightly more obvious to me when I last saw it as a college student.  As a whole, it might not be the equal of Pinocchio or Snow White, but it’s a curiously irresistible and endlessly baffling film, and the music is quite good.  Original rating: ***½  New rating: ***½        

Psychotronic Disneyana.


Ten horror favorites

It’s officially horror movie season, which means that the Internet is overrun with lists of Scariest Movie Moments, Best Horror Villains, and Worst Slasher Sequels.  As a lifelong horror movie devotee, I figured I’d throw myself into the fray with my own modest list of ten favorites.


Reassessing "The Haunting"

Having dragged out some old horror-movie favorites for Halloween, I was inspired to revisit a classic of the genre that I’ll confess to having seen only once before: Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), based on the well-known Shirley Jackson novel.  The Haunting is generally seen as one of the great, if not the greatest, haunted house films—a horror movie that works by suggestion, subtlety and indirection.  But I remembered being somewhat underwhelmed by the film when I first saw it roughly fourteen years ago.  I figured now was a good time to take another look at it.


The Films of 2011: Win Win

I caught the recent film Win Win (dir. Tom McCarthy) on video this week—mainly because I had free access to it and figured anything starring Paul Giamatti would be worth a look.  But while Giamatti does the best that he can with the material, he’s more or less wasted in a part that feels like a cliché of the roles he played so wonderfully in films like American Splendor (2003) and Sideways (2004).  How many times must we watch him play a shlubby, good-hearted but somewhat ethically compromised middle-aged loser type?  Win Win seems to prove that Giamatti has played out this phase of his career and that he would be better suited taking on more diverse roles, or at least better-written ones (like his smaller but more impressive supporting turn in The Ides of March).


The psychotronic diaries: “Whoever finds the secret of the South Sea Queen will live in great danger of assault!”

I end my education in psychotronic film with Lady Terminator (dir. Jalil Jackson, 1988), an Indonesian rip-off of James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) that’s truly mind-boggling.  (The Brattle Theater advertised this movie on its calendar by writing: “Get ready for your face to melt completely off your skull.”)  This film has it all: Indonesian pop music, women with snakes inside their vaginas, epic mullets, a police detective who dresses like a frat boy, and priceless dialogue (“Stop calling me ‘lady’—I’m not a lady, I’m an anthropologist!”).


The psychotronic diaries: "An overly possessive kind of love"

Daddy issues have been a recurring theme in my psychotronic viewing project: first Toys Are Not for Children, then The Mafu Cage, and now Julie Darling (dir. Paul Nicholas, 1982), which I had the good fortune to see here at the Brattle Theater in 2010.  It’s an insidious, wonderfully grimy-looking psycho thriller in the “evil children” vein, in which adolescent Julie (Isabelle Mejias) takes out her incestuous desire for her father (Anthony Franciosa) on every woman who threatens to come between them, first by standing by while her mother is raped and murdered by a sleazy grocery delivery man (Paul Hubbard), then by trying to off her more resilient stepmother (played by exploitation queen Sybil Danning). 


The psychotronic diaries: "This hotel is one of the seven gateways of hell!"

I recently read someone over at the Criterion Forum message board describing Lucio Fulci’s films as undeniably nonsensical, but so visually striking that it’s possible to slip into a particular mindset while watching them—one in which the viewer simply becomes lost in the images and forgets about the incongruity of the plot.  It’s an interesting theory, especially because, as I’ve been suggesting throughout my recent posts, psychotronic films almost always require us to adopt unusual viewing methods.  We don’t watch a psychotronic film in the same way that we watch an Oscar-winning historical epic or a Judd Apatow comedy.  We’re in some weird other viewing space, where we’re alternately horrified, amused, disturbed, bored, perhaps confounded.  Which is where Fulci’s The Beyond (1981) comes in. 


The psychotronic diaries: "Who's the new fish?"

Chained Heat (dir. Paul Nicholas, 1983) is as sleazy an exploitation film as they come, a women-in-prison drama loaded with gratuitous female nudity, quease-inducing rape scenes, and ugly, clumsily staged acts of violence.  So why watch it?  What pleasures, if any, do such films afford? 


The Films of 2011: The Ides of March

What is there to say about George Clooney’s The Ides of March, which opened last week to largely positive—if not glowing—reviews, and which is certain to be a key player—but perhaps not a lock—during Oscar season?  Why is it so hard to know what there is to say?  The Ides of March is smart, modest, solidly made, and doesn’t get bogged down in gimmicks, extraneous characters or plot contrivances.  It is, somehow, both stylish and workmanlike, a throwback to the classy political thrillers of the 70s, like All the President’s Men.  (It feels equally indebted to the psychologically charged noir films like Sweet Smell of Success, which center on an older man/younger man dynamic.)  And it’s got a dynamite cast: Clooney himself as a charismatic Obama-like presidential candidate; Ryan Gosling (who can do no wrong this year, apparently) as his idealistic campaign manager; Philip Seymour Hoffman, doing a great job in one of the film’s several pissed-off blowhard roles; Paul Giamatti as the rival pissed-off blowhard; Marisa Tomei as a duplicitous New York Times reporter; and Evan Rachel Wood as a flirtatious campaign intern who knows more than she appears.  All are excellent.  


The psychotronic diaries: "My daddy doesn't know about you--that makes you a very rare breed."

There’s a subgenre of the psychotronic film for which, I’ve discovered, I have a particular weakness: the “career suicide” movie, in which A- or B-list Hollywood actors attach themselves to material that’s so out-there they may as well be asking never to work in “reputable” films again.  A good example of this would be Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (dir. Robert Aldrich, 1962), which didn’t exactly flop (it earned Bette Davis an Oscar nomination, after all), but which effectively ended both Davis’ and Joan Crawford’s careers as Great Actresses and established them as camp icons, consigning them both to horror parts for the next twenty-five or so years.  Interestingly, Faye Dunaway’s decision to play Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981, dir. Frank Perry) was another act of career suicide—one that came, tragically, at the height of Dunaway’s success.  Career-suicide movies seem more common among female actors than male ones; men seem somehow better able to bounce back from a flop, and the missteps seem less fatal, and even less interesting—it doesn’t feel as embarassing to watch, say, Jackie Gleason trapped in the disastrous Skidoo as to watch Carol Kane and Lee Grant in The Mafu Cage (dir. Karen Arthur, 1978). 


The psychotronic diaries: "Satan! Master! Lucifer!"

“Learn to go see the ‘worst’ films; they are sometimes sublime.”

So writes Ado Kyrou in Le Surrealisme au Cinema, quoted in J. Hoberman’s indispensable “Bad Movies.”  The best kind of bad movie, Hoberman argues, is one that is first of all “objectively bad” (i.e., so badly made that its shoddiness is beyond dispute—hence Plan 9 From Outer Space is objectively bad, while something like, say, Titanic is open to debate).  If it’s objectively bad in the right ways, a film (like Plan 9) indeed becomes sublime.  But I’m not sure into what category Satan’s Children (dir. Joe Wiezycki, 1975) falls.  It’s a staggeringly incompetent film on just about every level, though not in interesting enough ways to be an object of stupefied fascination. 


The psychotronic diaries: “If anybody asks you what happened, tell ’em you been hit by a truck—Mack Truck Turner.”

A fantastic shot from Truck Turner (dir. Jonathan Kaplan, 1974), the latest in my series of psychotronic film screenings.  I’ll admit that my knowledge of blaxploitation is somewhat limited, with the exceptions of Blacula (dir. William Crain, 1972), which I screened this past summer, and the great Emma Mae (a.k.a Black Sister’s Revenge, dir. Jamaa Fanaka, 1976), which I had the good fortune to catch here in Boston at the Brattle Theater back in June of 2010.  So while I may not be in a position to back up such a claim, I’d venture to say that Truck Turner is a superlative example of blaxploitation, a dynamite action flick that sports ingeniously filthy dialogue, a funkadelic score (written by Isaac Hayes), and a badass hero, played by Hayes himself, at whom other men stare in awe and women lick their lips (“Check out that piece of chocolate cake!” one whistles).  Known as “Mack Truck” Turner, he’s a former football star working as a bounty hunter for bail-skippers; after a brush with a pimp named Gator (Paul Harris), he suddenly finds himself the enemy of Gator’s right-hand woman Dorinda (Nichelle Nichols, terrifying) and her new associate Harvard Blue (Yaphet Kotto). 


The Films of 2011: Drive

In Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive—which seems already to have become the movie of the year among the ain’t-it-cool fanboy crowd—driving isn’t just a means to an end: it’s a way of life, a philosophy.  The film’s stoic, quietly brutal hero (played by Ryan Gosling, excellent as usual) is an archetypal man with no name, known only as “Driver,” for whom his car is like an extension of his body.  By day he’s a movie stunt driver; at night, he moonlights as a getaway driver for petty criminals.  Over the course of the film, he becomes embroiled in a heist which goes fantastically wrong, attempting to act in the best interests of his lonely neighbor (Carey Mulligan), her shady husband, and their young son.  Like the title character from Shane and countless other Westerns, Driver puts others’ emotional needs and safety before his own, eschews personal attachments and avoids romantic ties.  His place is not in the home, but on the road.  It only takes a meaningful exchange of gazes between Gosling and Mulligan—she’s just borne witness to a particularly grisly act of violence—for us to understand that he’s not suited for the domestic sphere, so to speak.  And so it’s appropriate that the end of the film finds him behind the wheel yet again, heading out into the darkness in the tradition of so many loner heroes before him.  


The psychotronic diaries: "Oh, Daddy..."

I learned about Toys Are Not For Children (dir. Stanley H. Brassloff, 1972)—likely to be the most harrowing film I review for the psychotronic project—when I read a description of it by Lars Nilsen, guest programmer for the Brattle Theater’s grindhouse series, in which context the film played several years ago at a midnight screening.  “It’s just impossible to believe that anyone would be sick and depraved enough to make this movie, let alone release it, let alone watch it,” he writes.  Immediately after reading this, I dashed to my computer in search of a DVD copy (the screening having been long past) and was thrilled to find one from (of course) Something Weird.   


The psychotronic diaries: "We're a happy family!"

There’s almost something too classy about Girly (dir. Freddie Francis, 1970) for it to qualify as a truly psychotronic film—perhaps, being English-made, it somehow feels too literate, too intelligent, to be as sleazy as American drive-in fare from the same period.  (The same could be said about the wonderful, and roughly contemporary, Vincent Price film Theatre of Blood, 1973, which is probably the only gore film that assumes that the audience has a good working knowledge of Shakespeare.)  Girly is apparently based on an English play called Happy Family by Maisie Mosco, and it bears the influence of Pinter, especially his twisted family romances The Birthday Party (1959) and The Homecoming (1966).  Girly is itself a twisted family romance: in a dilapidated Gothic country house, the nubile Girly (Vanessa Howard) and her post-adolescent brother Sonny play murderous, childlike games and sleep in cribs; pert Nanny clucks her tongue affectionately; and blithely imperious Mumsy presides over all with a warm, but stern, eye. 


The Films of 2011: Contagion

Contagion is a horror movie that succeeds because its horrors are so easily imaginable and so believably rendered.  In Steven Soderbergh's quietly terrifying new film, a deadly virus slowly begins to decimate the world’s population, easily spread by human contact and surfaces.  Victims come down with a hacking cough and a splitting headache, and within 24 hours they’re dead, a smear of white foam crusted over their mouths.  (The virus originates in Asia; Contagion is part of a long tradition of films and novels [ex. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man; Bram Stoker’s Dracula] in which plague and pestilence come from the east.)  While the CDC sets to work finding a cure, opportunists (like Jude Law’s renegade journalist) look to capitalize on the public’s fears, and ordinary folks (like Matt Damon’s suddenly widowed father) barricade themselves and their children inside their homes.  Before long, shops and pharmacies are being looted, and the streets are littered with garbage and bodies.


The psychotronic diaries: “How much did you and your wife tell your daughter about the facts of life?”

Perhaps more so than with mainstream films, it’s the anachronisms—the mistakes, the discontinuities, the contradictions—that become most interesting and most telling about psychotronia.  Take schlock-master Jerry Gross’ Teenage Mother (1967), which apparently spent years on the drive-in and grindhouse circuit.  It obviously was geared toward the newly, um, fertile teen market kicked off by Sam Arkoff’s AIP beach movies in the early ’60s.  But the obviousness ends there, because just about everything else in Teenage Mother seems counterintuitive.   


The psychotronic diaries: "I said ten bucks or I'll break your hand!"

Ten bucks is the price that J.C. (David Calder), the sullen male hustler in The Meat Rack (dir. Richard Stockton, 1969), charges for himself.  Ironically, it’s the same price for which I picked up the DVD, released by Something Weird, and it’s the best ten bucks I’ve spent in recent memory.  


The psychotronic diaries: "You are going on a trip..."

Carol Channing (singing the title song) and Jackie Gleason in Otto Preminger’s drug comedy Skidoo (1968), a film that would pair nicely with Myra Breckinridge (dir. Michael Sarne, 1970) for a double feature of ill-fated attempts by Hollywood studio filmmaking to tap into the counter-cultural zeitgeist of the late 1960s.  Skidoo isn’t as mean-spirited and ugly a film as Myra Breckinridge, but it’s a travesty in its own right.  Apparently inspired by Preminger’s own LSD trip, it’s a laboriously plotted mixture of crime farce (with retired hit man Gleason going back to prison to try and rub out an old associate, played by Mickey Rooney) and hippie satire (Gleason’s flower-child daughter and all of her friends come to stay at their house).  Somehow it manages to make Jackie Gleason and Groucho Marx un-funny and Carol Channing boring.