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.