This week, my chronological project brings me to 1960 and to Michael Powell’s fascinating Peeping Tom, which is often considered as a sort of British cousin to Psycho, that year’s other thriller about a psychotic, sexually repressed loner-voyeur who murders beautiful women. I don’t know that Peeping Tom can really be said to top Psycho, but it does introduce a meta-cinematic element that is less exhaustively and intricately worked over by Hitchcock’s film. Simply put, Peeping Tom is a film theorist’s dream film, one that touches on so many dimensions of filmmaking and film viewing (voyeurism, spectacle, desire, violence, feminist theories of the gaze and the female image, psychoanalytic theories of the phallus and the Oedipal complex) that it seems to have been conceived by Laura Mulvey. (And Mulvey fittingly recorded an illuminating commentary track for the film, which can be heard on the Criterion DVD.) Frankly, my head is still spinning from this film. But lest my description of the film’s academic appeal scare anyone away, I should add that this is also a remarkably entertaining and well-crafted film—beautifully directed, photographed, and designed, and laced with some choice black humor. One would expect no less from the brilliant Powell, despite the absence here of his frequent collaborator Emeric Pressburger (together, the two made arguably the best British films of the 1940s, including The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death, and my personal favorite Black Narcissus).
As can be seen in these images from his first feature, Shadows, John Cassavetes literally pushed classic Hollywood--the cinema of Cecil B. DeMille, Bob Hope, and Erroll Flynn--into the background, as if to say that The Ten Commandments is a pale, well, shadow of the "real life" that his own film succeeds in capturing. Shadows was released in 1959; the very next year, three very different films (Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura, and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho) would collectively inaugurate modern cinema, each in its own particular way saying "fuck you" to the conventions of classical Hollywood. The system that made The Ten Commandments possible would never really exist again.
I have to confess that until now I had never before seen the entirety of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), often said to be the Worst Movie Ever Made (though more recent fare such as Manos, the Hands of Fate  and Troll 2  have also laid claim to that title). I owned a VHS copy (by Goodtime Video) in the late ’90s but I was never able to get through all 78 of the film’s minutes, so I figured the time had come to see the whole thing. And I have to say: Plan 9 is so dang charming in its badness, so banal in its amateurishness, that it feels almost disappointing. (Latter-day cult classics like Troll 2 or Tommy Wiseau's The Room , meanwhile, seem baroque and surrealistic, even somehow aggressively bad, by comparison.) Perhaps we have gotten more used to badness in films—we need worse and worse ones to impress (or depress) us.
Lars von Trier's new film, Melancholia, is set to premiere at Cannes next month, and I feel compelled to post about the recently released trailer here, simply because I can't stop watching or thinking about it. Some thoughts:
- My interest is definitely piqued by the sketch of a plot we're given here, which seems to involve some sort of wedding weekend turned apocalyptic. Something about the opulence of the setting, the sheer excess of this (almost royal-seeming) wedding, suddenly troubled by catastrophe, seems somehow particularly von Trier-ian. The sense of ominousness here is beautifully evoked (and as my boyfriend helpfully pointed out, the music is Wagner's Tristan and Isolde--another sign that things don't look good for these folks).
- The appearance of Charlotte Gainsbourg and the smeary, finger-painted title card both recall von Trier's last film, Antichrist (2009), which I thought was a dud but perhaps requires re-assessment within the context of this next one. Von Trier often groups his films in threes; perhaps this is the second of his latest trilogy--perhaps one designed to pay tribute to the great Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky, whose films are both visually ravishing and defiantly anti-realist. Antichrist was explicitly dedicated to Tarkovsky, a move that many people found laughable. Here, the idea of a perfectly enclosed bourgeois world shattered by cosmic disaster immediately brings to mind Tarkovsky's last film, The Sacrifice (1986), and the mysterious shot of Kirsten Dunst with electricity or something radiating out from her fingertips seems like something out of Stalker (1979).
- Speaking of the beauty of Tarkovsky's images, damn, this looks like a gorgeous film. The DP on this film is apparently Manuel Alberto Claro, whose work I'm not familiar with, but the cinematography here appears to be really stunning. This has just shot to the top of my list of most highly anticipated films of 2011. I'll be curious to hear about how it's received next month...
An image from the, um, climactic scene of Louis Malle's Les Amants (The Lovers, 1958), the latest film in my chronological year-by-year pass through film history. The controversy surrounding this film's release is perhaps better known than the film itself--in the U.S., for example, it inspired Justice Potter Stewart's famous statement on defining obscenity: "I know it when I see it." Ginette Vincendeau points out in the essay that accompanies the Criterion DVD that "what shocked critics so much at the time was not Jeanne's adultery (a staple of French film and theater) but the fact that the film refused to demonize her for it." It's a lovely, delicate film, as this shot indicates, and one that would be an important hinge in the transition from the 1950s French "tradition of quality" to the New Wave.
Two crowd shots from Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), in which Andy Griffith memorably plays Lonesome Rhodes, a folksy good-ol’-boy turned political monster—something of a combination of Joe the Plumber, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin avant la lettre. “The crowd” in this film assumes a number of related shapes and forms: the swarm of screaming fans, the mass audience of the TV age, the political mob. (Notice in the second of these shots that Patricia Neal, suddenly disillusioned by what Rhodes has become, tries literally to push against the crowd of his supporters. Both her character and Griffith’s come to see the mass audience as a bunch of dupes, the difference between them being, I suppose, that he’s willing to capitalize on their impressionability while she wants to wake them up from the same kinds of illusions to which she fell prey.)
Images of J.J. Hunsecker's (Burt Lancaster) Manhattan apartment in the classic Sweet Smell of Success (dir. Alexander Mackendrick, 1957), which is the latest film in my "chronological project" (but one that I've seen several times before). I'm always struck--and strangely put-off--by the decor in J.J.'s office, shown here: the dark wood and antiques don't seem right for this thoroughly modern film, or the ultra-slick J.J. There's something too cluttered and heavy about these interiors--they seem somehow unflattering in a film that's otherwise so stylishly dead-on (although I suppose their oppressiveness helps keep up the off-putting, sick-to-your-stomach feeling that this film is so good at invoking).
A particularly tense close-up from the nearly hour-long seduction scene in the middle of Baby Doll (1956), directed by the great Elia Kazan and written by Tennessee Williams. Is it just me, or did close-ups get more extreme in the ’50s? I suppose one could make a case for George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951) as having modernized the close-up—they just don’t feel this, well, close in films of the ’40s. Baby Doll is perhaps best known for having acquired a cult following after receiving a “Condemned” rating by the Catholic Legion of Decency upon release. Today it feels relatively tame…although, as this shot indicates, the dynamic between fragile, childlike Carroll Baker and oily Eli Wallach still generates heat.
The spy/action thriller is low on my list of favorite film genres, so I was surprised to find myself enjoying Joe Wright's new film Hanna, in which Saoirse Ronan plays a teenage assassin looking to avenge her mother's death and reunite with her rogue CIA agent father (Eric Bana). Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett, looking especially icy and severe (was Tilda Swinton unavailable for this part?), dispatches a band of cheeky German henchmen to nab her. As soon as we see Hanna poring over a copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales in an early scene, it's clear that this is meant to be a hip update of "Snow White," with Blanchett playing the role of the bitch-queen/bad mother and Ronan the hunted daughter. The film is slight and often unnecessarily flashy (Bana's character is basically a cipher who serves to look good in and out of his clothes and periodically take part in hand-to-hand combat), but there's still more charm and personality here than is typical for this genre. A comic passage involving a family of British vacationers (headed by Olivia Williams, a pleasure as always) allows the film to breathe for a bit before it hurtles on to its climax. And Ronan makes for a strange, disconcerting action heroine: she has an ethereal, pinched quality that's a welcome change from the usual sculpted-centerfold action movie babe. But PS: can we put a ban on using "In the Hall of the Mountain King" in movies from this point forward?
Two successive shots from the climactic scene of Richard Brooks' classic Blackboard Jungle (1955), in which an American flag becomes a symbolically loaded means of taking down greaser punk Belazi (Dan Terranova). It's one of several surprisingly, bluntly patriotic moments in this gritty, often cynical film, which perhaps inaugurated the inner-city-school sub-genre. It's a notoriously difficult film to classify. There's an affinity with film noir here, whether you choose to define noir as a period (it came out the same year as The Desperate Hours and Killer's Kiss) or a style (it's got a seedy urban setting, a knife fight in an alley, a femme fatale-ish teacher, and scenes that deal explicitly with such then-taboo topics as rape and miscarriage). There's also a strong social-drama bent to the film, dealing as it also does with juvenile delinquency, integration, racism, and the underpayment of teachers (an issue that also inspired Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life). It's curious, though, for a social drama to be so dark, or for film noir to put such faith in any kind of American institution or social system, or even in the very notion of "reform." Perhaps this was the "lateness" of film noir starting to show. But if Blackboard Jungle is an example of "late noir," it also marked some beginnings: it's often credited as the first Hollywood film to feature rock music (it's still somehow shocking to hear "Rock Around the Clock" playing over credits where one would typically hear an orchestra with strings), and it offered a breakthrough performance for Sidney Poitier (almost thirty years old at the time, but passing for a teenager; pictured). And whereas noir tends to leave one feeling queasy and generally beaten down, we end here with a sly but exultant reprise of Bill Haley and the Comets as Poitier and Glenn Ford shake hands and part ways, smiling across a divide.
I'm currently in the middle of a very fun project--working my way chronologically through film history, trying to screen as many of the films I know I should have seen by now, but haven't, as possible (I'm watching at least one new one for every year, 1928-present). At the moment, I'm up to the mid-1950s, a very good place to be if (like me) you go in for what could be called the "'50s Hollywood Aesthetic": widescreen cinematography, rich Technicolor (or any of its knock-offs), big emotion. It was also the apex of the social drama, into which category one of this week's films might be said to fall. Actually, Vincente Minnelli's Tea and Sympathy (1956) might better be classified as a "gay weepie." I'm going to go ahead and call this film a masterpiece: impeccably shot, precisely acted (more on this below), and a study of sexual repression and homophobia so ahead of its time as to be, sadly, still prescient. I'd long known about this film, mainly via The Celluloid Closet (1996, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman), but hadn't ever seen it before (it's only just now getting a DVD release, as part of the Warner Archive project). Now I can safely say that this is a crucial film for understanding modern representations of homosexuality, cinematic or otherwise. It also struck me that not only in its content but also in its style, its sheer glossiness, this had to have been just as much an influence as Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) on Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven (2002). Just look at that screen grab: was there any other period of film that so aestheticized the very surface of movies as '50s Hollywood did?
Anyway, a word about Deborah Kerr, seen here, who plays Laura Reynolds, the sensitive, sexually frustrated faculty wife who harbors a kind of love, or maternal protectiveness, or even a kind of queer affinity for the sensitive, artistic, closeted undergraduate Tom Lee (John Kerr), called "Sister Boy" by his alpha-male roommates (their conventional masculinity is telegraphed by their always noisily bounding everywhere). Deborah Kerr gives here what detractors might call a parody of a Deborah Kerr performance: broiling with inner rage and desire, yet utterly mannered on the surface. And yes, this was a performance that she had been giving (and continued to give) for much of her career. But perhaps it reaches its apotheosis here, where she finds a perfect balance between a stagy, classically English style of acting (measured pauses, impeccable diction) and a truly beautiful naturalness, especially in little moments--sinking into a chair with a little sigh, for example. The beauty of her performance is central to the beauty of this endlessly fascinating film.
After watching Rebel Without a Cause (1955; dir. Nicholas Ray) this week for probably the first time in ten or so years, it occurs to me that this is a near-obsessive study of men and masculinity at the crisis point of the mid-1950s—from the put-upon, ineffectual Frank Stark (Jim Backus) to the childlike, homosexual Plato (Sal Mineo, heartbreaking--and note the pin-up of Alan Ladd in his locker) to the moody, tender/tough Jim (James Dean), the only one of the three to effectively master the balance of “male” strength and “female” sensitivity. “What kind of person do you think a girl wants?” Judy (Natalie Wood) asks. “A man who can be gentle and sweet, and someone who doesn’t run away when you want them. Like being Plato’s friend when nobody else liked him—that’s being strong.” It’s clear (as film scholars like Steven Cohan, writing in Masked Men, have noted) that Rebel, largely through the figure of Dean himself, ushered in a new kind of male (anti-)hero--not to mention a new kind of screen acting, to be taken up by Brando and Clift, and carried on in present figures like James Franco, about whom I couldn’t help but think as I watched Dean here. Still an undeniably great film, and Ray’s direction here is, as always, superbly controlled. And the rawness of Dean’s performance really comes through after watching mostly films from the 1940s and early 1950s (as I’ve been doing for the last month or so).
17-year-old Susan Landis (Debbie Reynolds) comes face-to-face with her future self as married woman in this typically garish shot from Susan Slept Here (1954), one of the lesser known but by no means unremarkable films directed by Hollywood auteur Frank Tashlin. Tashlin began his career making particularly weird Merrie Melodies cartoons for Warner Bros. in the ’30s and ’40s before making live-action comedies for Universal in the 1950s and ’60s, many starring Jerry Lewis; Tashlin’s live-action films are not so different from his cartoons, packed as they are with cheap-funny gags and colors so bright they hurt your eyes. And, as J. Hoberman has pointed out, Tashlin’s films are so dizzyingly self-referential in their sending-up of Hollywood, advertising, and 1950s pop culture that they can be considered examples of what Hoberman calls “vulgar modernism”—a kind of avant-garde experimentalism going on in even the most mass-produced 20th-century cultural forms. The film in question centers around a cranky screenwriter (Dick Powell); it’s narrated by “Oscar,” the Academy Awards statuette on his mantel; and sports a wonderful parody of the “dream ballet” sequences from such musicals as On the Town (1949), Oklahoma! (1953), and Singin’ in the Rain (1952)—the latter of which, of course starred Reynolds herself. Susan Slept Here takes the governing principle of the dream ballet (simply stated, that this expressionistic dance number reproduces the themes and conflicts of the film itself in miniature) and renders it even more absurdly transparent a gimmick, as seen in the above screen-shot, as Susan grapples with her mixed feelings about becoming the child bride of her de facto guardian.
Which brings us to the film’s weirdest element, weirder even than the narration by an inanimate object or the high camp of the ballet sequence or the bubblegum-pop palette of the art direction and the costumes—that is, the context for this pink-nightmare dream image. 17-year-old Susan, a teenage delinquent and an orphan, has been dumped in the, erm, lap of old-enough-to-be-her-father Mark Christopher (Powell), who, in spite of her driving him crazy, has decided to marry her in order to keep her from going back to juvenile hall. The two refrain from consummating the marriage during their whirlwind Las Vegas honeymoon, but (inevitably) Susan comes to desire Mark in a more-than-juvenile way. The film comes to hinge on Susan’s “becoming a woman” in more ways than one: that is, legally (in the sense that she is six months shy of her 18th birthday) and sexually (much of the second half of the film concerns her plot to lose her virginity to Mark--who is, after all, now her legal husband), and so there’s a whole queasy Lolita-ish cast to the thing that doesn’t quite sit well with what we might term the Modern Viewer. But in my book that’s simply one more reason to check out this utterly inimitable, compulsively watchable piece of 1950s fluff. (The film is newly available on DVD through the Warner Archive Collection.)