The Films of 2013: American Hustle

American Hustle opens magisterially, with a blast of jazz—Duke Ellington’s “Jeep’s Blues,” from his Live at Newport album—ostensibly because, as we later learn, it’s the album over which the film’s central couple, played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams, realize that they share a deep connection.  But the use of Ellington is important in other ways, too, not least of which being that it signals to us the nature of the film we’re about to watch.  Its infectious soundtrack of ’70s pop hits notwithstanding, American Hustle is governed by the spirit of jazz; it’s a jazz performance, a jam session for five talented actors who might be called “The David O. Russell Quintet,” after the writer-director who here serves as their band-leader and showman.  The sheer pleasure of this film, which is otherwise pretty slight, lies in watching these five, four of whom are Russell veterans, riff together so ecstatically. 

The Films of 2013: Her

Her, the new film written and directed by Spike Jonze, is a post-modern love story founded on an intriguing “what if” conceit.  Where 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—written by Jonze’s sometime collaborator Charlie Kaufman—wondered about the implications of erasing one’s memories in order to cope with the pain of loss, Her imagines the possibility of romance between humans and operating systems sentient enough to experience feelings of love and sexual desire.  Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson play the film’s unlikely couple, both adrift in a subtly futuristic vision of Los Angeles.  Phoenix’s Theodore is a mopey, socially awkward writer who works for a service that drafts and sends personalized “hand-written” letters to customers’ loved ones.  Johansson’s Samantha is his “OS,” a highly sophisticated artificial intelligence program tasked primarily with organizing his hard drive and alerting him to important e-mail—a kind of virtual secretary.  But as Theodore begins to rely on Samantha for more personal tasks (she counsels him about dating, friends, and a pending divorce), and as she finds herself grappling with the limitations of her consciousness (she’s capable of human thought and emotion, but, lacking a body, is unable to experience physical sensation), their bond becomes curiously intimate.   


The Films of 2013: At Berkeley

You may not be familiar with the work of Frederick Wiseman, but the Boston-based documentarian has been making films since the 1960s (he’s now eighty-three) and recently won a Special Award from the New York Film Critics’ Circle.  Wiseman’s documentaries, though shot verité-style, without voice-over narration, interviews, or non-diagetic music, should not be thought of as objective; on the contrary, they’re cannily edited and frequently excoriating.  But many of them are also refreshingly, tantalizingly open-ended.  That’s true of his latest, At Berkeley, a four-hour-long panorama of the California public college famous for its radical politics and outspoken student body.  Wiseman shows us footage of faculty lectures and committee meetings, student performances and social events, administrators and janitors, undergraduates and groundskeepers.  Wiseman’s scope is vast, and, as with his most ambitious films (Near Death; Belfast, Maine), At Berkeley is not driven by argument so much as by a voracious appetite for observational detail.  These details are worked into a sprawling tapestry to be laid at our feet, leaving us to draw our own conclusions by tracing its many threads and patterns.  A demanding and uncompromising artist, Wiseman continually asks us: what do you see?


The Films of 2013: Nebraska

With Nebraska, Alexander Payne comes home: after recent jaunts to sunnier climes—California wine country in Sideways and Hawaii in The Descendants—the Omaha native is back in the American heartland that he knows best, and his return couldn’t be more welcome.  The new film, a road story in which cantankerous retiree Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) convinces his son Peter (Will Forte) to drive him from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska (he’s hoping to cash in a million-dollar sweepstakes letter he received in the mail), is firmly rooted in the Midwestern landscapes, rituals, mannerisms, and social spaces that Payne understands so instinctively and that haunt his superb early works Citizen Ruth, Election, and About Schmidt.  I think that Nebraska deserves to be placed among those films, in part because it taps more deeply into that lonely, aching, funny-sad hauntedness than anything Payne has done before.  Somewhat audaciously, it’s a family comedy built, much like Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, on a the bleak understanding that vast expanses of our country are made up of dead or dying towns populated by dead or dying people.  That Payne and his screenwriter, Bob Nelson, are able to find humor in these bleakest of places doesn’t allow us to shake the film’s eerie sense of the rural Midwest as a space out of time, a graveyard, a ghost world.  Phedon Papamichael’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography only emphasizes that ghostliness; the film’s characters, the average age of which is about seventy, seem to be going about their lives in a world lost to history, and the film even presents itself as something from a bygone era, right down to its vintage poster and reincarnation of forgotten ’70s-era stars like Dern and Stacy Keach.


The Films of 2013: Three short takes

Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is The Warmest Color, a nearly three-hour-long French drama sporting several explicit scenes of lesbian sex, belongs to the tradition of erotic European art films like The Silence and The Lovers; like those earlier films, its frisson of naughtiness is off-set (and potentially legitimized) by its intellectual seriousness.  As a depiction of the dizzy sexual passion that characterizes the first stages of a romantic affair, it’s admittedly hot stuff.  But Kechiche is hardly in the same league as Ingmar Bergman and Louis Malle.  Where the first half of this film glides blissfully, the second half plods; youthful energy and erotic possibility give way to boredom and cliché.  Yes, its characters have a lot of sobering lessons to learn, but must the film also teach them to us so humorlessly?  By the end of the film, not only did I no longer care about its lead characters, both of whom had grown vapid and irritating, I was actively looking forward to getting away from them.  


The Films of 2013: All Is Lost

All Is Lost opens, following a brief prologue, with an unnamed man in late middle age, asleep below the deck of his sailboat somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean, awakening to find that a wayward shipping container has torn a hole in the boat’s side.  That’s only the first of a string of misfortunes to befall him over the course of the next eight days.  Watching the film, one casts about for an interpretation that will make meaning out of its series of unfortunate events: is this a twenty-first-century take on the trials of Job?  A survivalist procedural?  (Like a Hemingway story, it’s told with almost no dialogue.)  I found it to be most compelling as a star vehicle for Robert Redford, whose face has grown craggy and weathered with age but whose crystalline eyes are as piercing as ever.  Standing at the bow of the yacht, gazing worriedly but somehow peacefully over the vastness of the ocean, his thick blonde hair ruffling in the wind, we’re reminded of his ability to command the screen with his very presence, and we’re struck by the poignant realization that this perfect star, this Hollywood dream, has become an old man before our very eyes.  The power of All Is Lost lies in its ability to play on our almost instinctual desire for Redford, our nostalgia for him as the golden boy of 1970s Hollywood, and our reluctance to lose him. 


The Films of 2013: Enough Said

Enough Said, the latest film by writer-director Nicole Holofcener, is comfortably situated within the world of white, slightly insulated southern Californians—a world that Holofcener presents with an ambiguity that can sometimes feel maddening.  While it could be argued that she is frequently satirizing her characters’ often staggering sense of privilege (one of them appears to expend most of her mental energy fussing over the arrangement of her living room furniture and complaining about her housekeeper), Holofcener's satirical edge is often so soft that can’t tell whether it's there at all.  That edge is also dulled significantly by Holofcener’s reliance on the kind of cheerfully banal incidental music that sometimes makes you feel like you’re watching a Sears commercial.


The Films of 2013: 12 Years a Slave

As I watched the opening scenes of 12 Years a Slave, in which we’re given tastefully composed shots of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup set to lugubrious violin music, I feared that this was going to be an insufferably glossy piece of Oscar bait.  So I was astounded to find that it stays true to the letter as well as the spirit of its source.  (It’s based on Northup’s own narrative, published in 1853.)  Somehow, miraculously, it doesn’t sell out.  The events of the narrative are extraordinary: in 1841, Northup, living in freedom with his wife and children in upstate New York, was kidnapped by slave traders and passed off as a Georgia runaway named Platt, whereupon he spent the next twelve years plunged into a kind of living hell, suffering unspeakable physical and psychological trauma at the hands of sadistic plantation owners and abusive overseers.  Since Northup survived to write his tale, it’s not giving anything away to say that he eventually escapes the most insidiously cruel of his masters, Epps (Michael Fassbender) by secretly writing to friends in the north and entreating them to come to his rescue.   


Dueling werewolves

The 1980s were a good time to be a werewolf, or at least a lover of werewolf movies.  1981 saw the release of John Landis’ horror comedy An American Werewolf in London, which features what is generally considered to be the werewolf-transformation scene to end all werewolf-transformation scenes (and which won makeup artist Rick Baker an Oscar for his efforts).  Joe Dante’s The Howling was released the same year, also with makeup effects by Baker, and 1984’s The Company of Wolves (dir. Neil Jordan) featured similarly protracted—and artfully designed—transformation sequences.  I’m partial to The Company of Wolves, myself, mainly because it strikes the perfect balance of fantasy, horror, and eroticism, but I also keep a soft spot in my heart for The Howling, the film which perhaps best exemplifies Joe Dante’s ability to make tongue-in-cheek genre films that aren’t contemptuous of the genres to which they belong.  Where similarly meta-generic films like The Cabin in the Woods affect a cynical superiority to horror conventions, The Howling remains good-natured, affectionate, even slightly lunatic in its enthusiasm for werewolf movies (this in addition to its proffering a neat little send-up of new-age psychotherapy).  We might call that tempering of parody with affection camp, which Susan Sontag famously insisted was not motivated by haughtiness or disdain but was a fundamentally “tender feeling.”  It’s that genuine tenderness for the cheap thrills of the horror genre that makes Dante’s films so easy to love, and so much fun to watch.   


Steven Spielberg's ghost

Domestic disturbance: the Freeling family at home in Poltergeist (1982).

Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), which has been one of my favorite horror films since childhood, could be considered a knockoff of Stuart Rosenberg’s The Amityville Horror (1979) in that it concerns an American family’s realization that their seemingly ordinary suburban home is a hotbed of paranormal activity.  But Poltergeist is the vastly superior film, in part because it has a command of tone that The Amityville Horror lacks.  Poltergeist seems to me one of the most convincing portrayals of suburban American life I’ve ever seen in a movie.  Steve and Diane Freeling (played with a kind of quiet brilliance by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) are like two grown-up hippies who have suddenly found themselves looking after three kids, a dog, and a split-level; there’s a loose, messy, sunny-California vibe to the house, which is casually strewn with toys and food wrappers and where Mom and Dad are prone to smoking a joint together in bed in front of the TV before they turn in.  The kids (played by Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robbins, and Dominique Dunne) are seventy-percent cute, thirty-percent annoying.  And throughout the entire film—not only, it should be noted, at moments when it’s narratively required that the film to convey this—we’re never unconvinced that these people are tied to one another by bonds of love and commitment.  Where The Amityville Horror is the story of a haunted house and the rather dour, miserable people who have the misfortune to live there, Poltergeist is the story of a family weathering a trauma together, in which the haunted house also bears memories of suburban bliss.

The messy-funny portrait of suburban domesticity that we get in Poltergeist, with its good-hearted, flawed, working-class parents and precocious kids, invites comparison to those that we find in films like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Is it any surprise, then, that Poltergeist was co-written and produced by none other than Steven Spielberg?  Rumors abound that Spielberg also helped Hooper direct portions of the film.  The real ghost hanging over Poltergeist, then, is Spielberg himself, who keeps making his presence felt in the form of those details of suburban life that infuse the film.  As in E.T. and Close Encounters, the supernatural intrudes upon that world in ways that feel unsettling and driven by a nervous, absurd comedy.  That comedy is one of the ghostly Spielbergian touches in Poltergeist (along with a scene that repeats almost verbatim Karen Allen’s attack by skeletons in Raiders of the Lost Ark, released just one year before; see above).  Of all the ghostly spirits hanging over the Freeling household, Spielberg’s is certainly the most benign—and the most powerful.


Profondo rosso

An image from Dario Argento’s horror classic Suspiria (1977), which I had the pleasure of re-watching recently in preparation for an undergraduate lecture on cult horror cinema.  Upon revisiting the film, I was reminded yet again just how visually striking it is, and how expressionistic its use of color, from the jewel tones of the stained glass in the opening sequence to the lurid red and green lighting that floods the inner chambers of the ballet academy.  I proposed to my students that Suspiria lends itself to cult appreciation because it basically privileges style over substance, eschewing the principles of continuity, logic, and narrative that govern most “well-made” films.  (Cf. L. Andrew Cooper’s recent claim that Argento’s films resist narrative altogether.)  I, for one, have never watched Suspiria for its plot, nor because it lends itself particularly well to interpretation; I’ve watched it, and continue to watch it, for its excessive, almost maniacal attention to the surface pleasures of style, atmosphere, tone, and mise-en-scene.  Its spellbinding visual pleasure—and its blatant disregard for realism—seem to exemplify the words of Professor Milius, the film’s Doctor van Helsing figure, who tells our heroine that “magic is everywhere.” 

The Films of 2013: Gravity

I’ve long been a fan of Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron: he’s made two of this century’s best films, the searing erotic drama Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002) and the beautifully choreographed dystopian thriller Children of Men (2006).  In both of these, Cuaron has shown off his ability to craft long takes of remarkable intricacy; watching Children of Men, I often found myself holding my breath, not only because its chase sequences were so suspenseful but also because they were so meticulously composed.  So, needless to say, I’ve been looking forward to Gravity, Cuaron’s latest, since I first heard about it several years ago.  The word was that this was Cuaron’s most ambitious project yet, a space drama that reportedly contained fewer than one hundred single shots, the first of which was said to run some twenty minutes.  It turns out that while those rumors weren’t exactly true (the opening shot is a good deal shorter than twenty minutes, though it’s still a stunner), and while Gravity may not number among Cuaron’s masterpieces (for all its technical wizardry, it feels somewhat slight by comparison with his earlier work), it’s certain to be one of this year’s most sensational and best made films. 


Happy Halloween

Halloween is fast approaching, which means that it’s time to revisit some of my favorite horror movies.  My plan is to share my thoughts about them in a series of short-ish posts—and yes, I realize that I just finished a set of horror-themed pieces not very long ago, but really, can you ever run out of things to say about horror cinema?  It’s a boundless, rich, endlessly fascinating genre, and of all the film genres it’s the one I’ve had the longest relationship with.  My love of horror movies dates back to the very first film I ever saw in a movie theater, Disney’s Snow White (1937), which I saw at the age of three, during one of its theatrical revivals in the 1980s.

Anyone who would argue that Snow White is not a horror film hasn’t seen it recently enough.  It’s true that a good portion of the film’s running time (maybe a bit too much of it) is taken up with cute songs and comic gag sequences (the Seven Dwarfs get a lesson in washing, etc.), but its most dramatically powerful moments are arguably those which concern the Wicked Queen, one of the great villains in the movies.  Her transformation scene, in which she makes herself over into the leering hag who will succeed in tempting Snow White with the poisoned apple, appears to have been inspired by sequences from silent horror cinema such as Lon Chaney’s histrionic metamorphosis in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  It’s also one of Snow White’s most virtuosic pieces of animation, with Snow White’s terrifying race through the forest coming in a close second.  I would argue, in fact, that Disney was at his best when he dealt with frightening or nightmarish material: witness Lampwick’s violent transformation into a donkey in Pinocchio, or the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia, or the Maleficent sequences in Sleeping Beauty.  Always scary and fun in equal measures, Disney’s horror scenes exemplify the exuberant pleasures of the horror genre—an ideal place for the budding horror fan to start.


James Joyce, The Movie, Part VI: "Passages from Finnegans Wake" (1966)

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the better cinematic adaptations of Joyce, and the only one to effectively capture the density of his late style, was directed by the avant-garde filmmaker Mary Ellen Bute.  Her ninety-minute interpretation of Finnegans Wake makes no attempt to flatten or straighten out the jaggedness of that notoriously difficult work; instead, it gives us a film that’s just as assaultive, raucous, and schizophrenic as its source.  Bute is perhaps best known for her formalist experimentations with shapes and colors, so even though her rendering of the Wake features live actors she seems to know instinctively how to handle Joyce’s abstract patterns and repetitive structures.  And she’s attuned to his humor, too, especially when it lends itself to translation into her own medium, as in the very clever TV commercial sequences.  Passages from Finnegans Wake doesn’t literalize Joyce’s text (how could any film do so?); it keeps it full, messy, and loud. 


James Joyce, The Movie, Part V: "Bloom" (2003)

Angeline Ball as Molly in Sean Walsh's Bloom.

The best thing that can be said about Sean Walsh’s Bloom (2003) is that it preserves the extraordinary perversity of Joyce’s Ulysses, which is to say its rootedness in the near-constant demands of its characters’ genitals and excretory organs.  Ulysses is a novel that suggests that, however lost we may temporarily become in the recesses of our minds, we will inevitably be pulled back down to earth by our lower bodies.  Walsh’s film, though governed by an egregious sentimentality, should be commended for making sure that Joyce’s excrementalism didn’t end up on the floor of the cutting room (as it did, for example, in Strick’s version).  It gives us not only Bloom’s famous outhouse scene and Stephen’s piss on the beach but also Bloom surreptitiously farting on the street and masturbating into his pants while gazing at Gerty McDowell’s legs and Molly hovering over the chamber pot in the middle of the night and imagining herself sitting on Bloom’s face and Stephen pissing against a wall in Nighttown, and on and on.  One is almost inclined to excuse the film its shortcomings—the strained quality in the acting, the badly synthesized music, the questionable casting choices—on behalf of its ability to recognize the scatological fervor at the heart of Joyce’s novel.


James Joyce, The Movie, Part IV: "Ulysses" (1967)

Might it be possible to make a good film of Ulysses—one that actually goes to the trouble of not only “converting” the novel into cinematic terms but also channels its fullness, its exuberance, its virtuosity, and its density?  Perhaps, but Joseph Strick’s Ulysses (1967) isn’t that film.  (The most significant thing about it may be that it is supposedly the first major film in which the word “fuck” was spoken.)  Strick’s film feels somehow ambitious and lazy at the same time.  He appears to have thought, however cursorily, about how to use various cinematic effects, such as voice-over narration, editing, and mise-en-scene (sets, props, etc.), to reproduce the effects of Joyce’s novel.  Strick films the “Ithaca” section, for instance, by putting Joyce’s question-and-answer dialogue on the soundtrack in voice-over while we see Bloom and Stephen sitting at the kitchen table together (pictured above).  But if “Ithaca” is one of the more successful episodes in the film, others are far clumsier, such as “Aeolus,” in which Joyce’s screaming newspaper headlines have been literally shoved into the background of shots, where they’re so hard to see that they lose all sense of purpose (see below).


James Joyce, The Movie, Part III: "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (1977)

Bosco Hogan (left) as Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

In his attempt to translate A Portrait of the Artist to the screen, Joseph Strick—who had earlier done a film of Ulysses, to be discussed later—renders Joyce’s great autobiographical novel as a series of talky episodes that appear to have little to do with one another.  There’s a dull flicker of potential in the short opening sequence of the film, in which we’re given a series of impressionistic glimpses of young Stephen Dedalus’s child’s-eye perspective on the world, but it’s over before it has even begun.  Strick’s decision to dispatch with the novel’s astonishing first chapter in a matter of minutes is his first misstep.  (It occurs to me that Terrence Malick, with his rapturous editing rhythms and sensitivity to the sensuous textures of childhood experience, would be the right person for this job.) 


James Joyce, The Movie, Part II: “The Dead” (1987)

Anjelica Huston as Greta and Donal McCann as Gabriel in The Dead (1987).

The great John Huston chose to make this adaptation of Joyce’s perfectly wrought tale—sometimes said to be the finest short story ever written in English—as his swan song; Huston knew that he was dying when he began it, and did not live to see it released in December of 1987.  When, for instance, Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) imagines his frail, elderly aunt Julia (Cathleen Delany) laid out on her deathbed, it’s impossible not to see this as Huston imagining his own death.  And yet Huston’s The Dead is just as unsentimental, or perhaps as appropriately sentimental, as Joyce’s story.  It’s a story that makes me cry every time I read it, and, at the end of the film, when McCann as Gabriel reads Joyce’s final lines in voice-over, I found that tears had come to my eyes.  It’s an intensely affecting story about things so familiar and conventional that they should be cliché: nostalgia, tradition, the process of reflecting on oneself and one’s family, and on mortality and failure.  But Joyce carries it off somehow, perhaps by refusing to let it get soggy, and by buoying it up with keen observational detail and a cutting irony.  “The Dead” is, magically, ironic and sincere at once.  Huston’s film preserves this to masterful effect.


James Joyce: The Movie

Pictured: a photograph of the Volta Picture Theatre (est. 1909), Ireland’s first movie theater, briefly managed by none other than the great James Joyce.  Although Joyce soon gave up the project, his interest in cinema is apparent in nearly all of his major prose works.  The visual language of cinema, then a relatively newborn medium, informs his fiction as it did that of many of his fellow modernist writers.  In the opening pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Joyce renders the childhood memories of young Stephen Dedalus as an impressionistic montage of images.  Joyce was also keenly aware of cinema’s cheapness, its lowbrow pleasures, and its sentimentality, which lent themselves easily to parody and pastiche.  One of the funnier and more comprehensible passages of Finnegans Wake (1939) is his cheeky send-up of Hollywood romantic comedy (“he vows her to be his own honeylamb, swears they will be papa pals, by Sam, and share good times way down west in a guaranteed happy lovenest when May moon she shines and they twit twinkle all the night,” 65).  And while it’s common practice to read the “Aeolus” episode from Ulysses (1922) as a parody of screaming newspaper headlines, its subheadings (“IN THE HEART OF THE HIBERNIAN METROPOLIS”; “WE SEE THE CANVASSER AT WORK”; etc.), which continually interrupt the narrative action, also seem to me to function as silent-movie intertitles. 


Affect and the Hollywood musical: "Your sunny, funny face"

Is Fred Astaire sexy?  He made a career playing opposite such iconic female stars as Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, and Audrey Hepburn, though they always feel a little bit out of his league.  He never smolders in the way that Cary Grant does, nor does he have Bogart’s raffish charm, or even Jimmy Stewart’s boy-next-door handsomeness.  Astaire’s looks are goofy, cartoonish, which makes it all the more dazzling whenever he starts dancing, and his entire body becomes a conduit for a kind of graceful dynamism, a brilliant energy that shoots out of his feet.  Nor was Astaire ever a very good singer.  His high, wavering little voice feels its way quietly through his songs.  The general effect of Astaire’s star persona is endearing: as with Stewart, his appeal lies in his sweetness and his affability, the broadness of his grin—and, of course, in the anachronistic elegance of his dancing.  Astaire makes us feel comfortable, perhaps because we aren’t likely to be threatened or intimidated by his looks.  Hence the slightly comic irony that materializes when, in Funny Face (dir. Stanley Donen, 1957), Astaire must convince Audrey Hepburn that "though [she’s] no Mona Lisa, / for worlds [he’d] not replace / [her] sunny, funny face.  I wouldn’t replace Astaire’s face either, but his is by far the funnier one.     


Affect and the Hollywood musical: "Rainin' all the time"

Stormy Weather (dir. Andrew J. Stone, 1943) stirs up uncomfortable affects.  It inspires wonderment, awe, and other forms of pleasure alongside embarrassment, shame, discomfort, and sadness.  Much of its affective resonance is related to its status as a product of classical Hollywood, marketed by and in part aimed at whites, but made up entirely of black performers.  The result is a double-voiced film in which talented black singers, dancers, and actors are granted a stage on which to “do their things”—things, it should be noted, that they do with consistent virtuosity—but must risk doing so in frequently humiliating ways.  Examples include Bill “Bojangles” Robinson dancing a tap routine while dressed as an African savage (see below), or a chorus of singers and dancers cake-walking to “Georgia Camp Meeting,” the women sporting headdresses adorned with the grinning faces of pickaninny sunflowers (see above).  The film also features performances by such legends as Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, and the Nicholas Brothers, who end the film with an astonishing tap routine.  The brilliance of the performances—the pure exhilaration invoked by the Nicholas Brothers number, for instance—continually rubs up against the discomfort we feel at the racist trappings of the film in a larger sense: its insistence on framing black performance as a “natural” outpouring of black emotion, and the way in which its use of stereotypes caters to the desires of those white audience members eager to see black performers smile, laugh, gambol, shuck, and jive.  Watching Stormy Weather, I felt myself continually pulled in opposite directions, moved by the ingenuity of the performers, repulsed by the ways in which that ingenuity had been mounted, saddened and compelled by the need and ability of black performance to shine through the distorting lens of dominant culture.


Affect and the Hollywood musical: "Doin' what comes naturally"

Acting naturally: Betty Hutton in Annie Get Your Gun.

This weekend I watched George Sidney’s film version of Annie Get Your Gun (1951), a mostly entertaining, if frequently embarrassing (witness the jaw-dropping “I’m an Indian Too” number), mounting of Irving Berlin’s Broadway hit, with the winsome and indefatigable Betty Hutton in the title role.  Hutton was brought on board after Judy Garland backed out, and while it’s hard not to wonder what Garland would have brought to the role (such as stronger vocals: Hutton more or less fumbles her way through the ballads) Hutton more than sells it.  In fact, it’s a part more ideally suited to Hutton’s big, expansive, slightly loony charms than to those of the vulnerable, achingly needy Garland.  Hutton makes a natural Annie, and Annie is a character who demands to be played naturally.  It occurred to me while watching Hutton gleefully stomp and belt her way through the big numbers that naturalness, which would seem to be the very last thing in which the musical is invested, is actually one of the very things in which it trades.  What could be more unnatural than the act of breaking spontaneously into song and dance?  And yet why are we drawn to figures like Hutton in Annie or Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music if not for the naturalistic ease with which their emotions find expression through music? 


Affect and the Hollywood musical: "Another name for Paradise"

Carmen Miranda singing "Paducah" in The Gang's All Here.

Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943) is a great example of how uneasily the queer priorities of the musical—its preference for style over substance, performance over essence, artifice over sincerity—sit with so-called traditional American values.  Much of the movie, filmed at set at the height of WWII, is spent in an attempt to conjure up a certain set of patriotic affects.  Songs like “Nothin’ ’Til My Baby Comes Home” articulate the loneliness of women on the home front as they pine for men overseas.  A montage sequence in which our guy, Sgt. Andy Mason (James Ellison), leads a series of victories over the Japanese, aims to invoke jingoistic pride.  The plot, such as it is, involves the staging of a Broadway spectacle in order to sell war bonds.  Etc.  But these rather traditional, conservative affects are periodically exploded by the presence of a radical, excessive pleasure that we might call queer, and that goes by the name of Carmen Miranda.

Miranda’s numbers in The Gang’s All Here are not simply queer by virtue of her status as a gay icon.  They are queer because they’re governed by a kind of outrageous anti-realism that seeks nothing more than to stun and affectively overwhelm the spectator, and that makes no attempt to disguise its own artifice.  In other words, despite their purported aim to foster good-neighborly relations between the U.S. and South America, Miranda’s numbers have no “point” in the film: they do not speak to such Important Issues as patriotism or keeping your chin up or staying true to your baby ’til he comes home.  They are about sheer spectacle, about wallowing in abstract colors and forms (see also here), which is to say the pointless pleasures of style.  The effect of integrating Miranda’s surreal and campy production numbers into an otherwise rather dull and square WWII-era musical is exhilaratingly strange, especially in numbers like “Paducah,” in which Miranda effectively hi-jacks the song—a paean to the kind of small-town America represented by the titular Kentucky city—from Benny Goodman and his orchestra and proceeds to turn it into something ravishingly absurd.  Even the sound of the word “Kentucky” coming out of Miranda’s mouth sounds wrong.  Miranda’s comic, exotic, wordly persona is about as far away from Paducah as you can get.  The “paradise” envisioned by the Broadway musical is not Paducah, Kentucky, no matter what the lyrics of the song may claim: it can be found in the queer excess of its increasingly surreal production numbers. 

A study in contrasts.  Above, style and excess: Carmen Miranda in "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat."  Below, getting serious: Alice Faye sings "Nothin' 'Til My Baby Comes Home."

This brings us to the film’s downright psychotronic climax, which makes the ending of The Three Caballeros feel understated by comparison.  It’s here that Berkeley lets loose, experimenting freely with his trademark overhead shots and geometric pattern effects.  As we find outselves utterly overwhelmed by the dazzling weirdness of Berkeley’s images, we forget completely that this is ostensibly a film about boosting morale during a war, or even that there is a war to feel a proper way about. This is the musical at its most unapologetically escapist, which is to say at its most pure.


The Films of 2013: The Spectacular Now

There’s a lot that’s safe and familiar about James Ponsoldt’s new coming-of-age drama The Spectacular Now, in which Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley play a pair of high school sweethearts trying to plan (or, in Teller’s case, avoid planning) for life after graduation.  I was particularly let down by the way in which this otherwise thoughtful and intelligent film blasts through most of the plot developments on which its last act hinges; it feels like it runs out of the patience needed to give those emotional beats the requisite weight.  But it’s made worthwhile by the astounding naturalistic performances of Teller and Woodley, who took home a joint acting award at Sundance earlier this year for their work.  Teller’s Sutter Keeley is a good-natured joker whose outward affability masks woundedness and a fear of abandonment; he’s good at bolstering the self-esteem of his friends—he even gives friendly advice to the classmate who has begun dating his ex-girlfriend—but he’s wracked with self-doubt, drinks constantly, and fears he’ll turn out like the alcoholic father who abandoned the family.  Woodley’s Aimee Finickey meets him for the first time while on her morning paper route after he passes out drunk on a stranger’s lawn.  Aimee’s inner conflicts get less screen time than Sutter’s, but they’re no less complicated; her friendliness and optimism often shade troublingly into passivity, and we wince at the ease with which she forgives away her mistreatment at the hands of those around her.  She’s a particularly well-drawn and heartbreaking character, the kind of young person whose strengths—openness, generosity, responsibility—often set her up to be taken advantage of, an irony that the film acknowledges only glancingly. 


Affect and the Hollywood musical: "'Swonderful"

Innocent happiness: Gene Kelly and children in An American In Paris

Is it too reductive to say that happiness is the Hollywood musical’s unofficial affect?  The Hollywood musical wants to make us happy.  Its narratives occasionally dip into moments of pathos and seriousness, to be sure, and the stakes can be quite high: the “Anatevka” number at the end of Fiddler on the Roof (1971), for example, inspires feelings of strength, solidarity, and community, but it could hardly be called “happy.”  The darker and more ambiguous affects of a film like Fiddler is a sign of its lateness, and of the emergence of a new musical for the “new Hollywood” of the 1970s (cf. Cabaret, which appeared the year later).  MGM’s musicals of the 50s (An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon) facilitate purer kinds of happiness, evoking the utopian spirit of the musical as described by Richard Dyer.  But this is not to say that happiness in these films is necessarily simple.

Not all of the happiness in An American in Paris is the same.  The “I Got Rhythm” number (pictured above), in which Gene Kelly performs for, and continually interacts with, an audience of adoring French children, is about the experience of a certain flavor of happiness we might call innocent joy.  The presence of the children is crucial in communicating this particular affect.  Kelly mugs with them, they tease him back, he teaches them a series of words in English, and then he generously allows them to participate—though in a somewhat limited way—in the solo song-and-dance routine that commences.  The children find Kelly charming.  They laugh at his jokes and respond attentively to his instructions.  This is a scene of play: the “point,” if play can have a point, is to lose oneself in a kind of childlike (i.e., innocent) pleasure.  This number precisely seeks to forget about the sexual politics raised by the film’s dialogue scenes, specifically those featuring Nina Foch as a wealthy and sophisticated patroness of the arts who poses a sexual and financial threat to Kelly.  (She’s set up as the foil to the simpler, more “natural” Leslie Caron.)  In short, a number like “I Got Rhythm” wants to escape into an innocent happiness free from the taint of such adult concerns as sex and money.

Looking nervous: Gene Kelly with Nina Foch in a scene that directly follows the "I Got Rhythm" number.

If “I Got Rhythm” strives for lightness, simplicity, playfulness, all associated with the world of children, the climactic ballet sequence presents us with denser and more complex varieties of happiness.  For one thing, the ballet, which is a kind of pantomime of the film as a whole, does not try to escape the sexual or financial conflicts that drive the narrative.  Instead, it uses dance to transform these conflicts into sources of visual pleasure.  While the more frenetic portions of the ballet strive for a more abstract thrill—the thrill of seeing a mass of bodies in synchronous motion—the lyrical passages, such as Caron and Kelly’s dance on the fountain, are more erotically charged and speak to their relationship as a couple, while a section in which Kelly and Caron are spirited away into a Toulouse-Lautrec dance hall is more comic and whimsical.  Here, in this elaborately structured set piece, we’re made aware of the range of happinesses in which the Hollywood musical deals. 

The American in Paris ballet: the thrill of synchronous motion.

Kelly and Leslie Caron: an erotically charged pas de deux.

Looking comical in the "Toulouse-Lautrec" sequence.


The Films of 2013: Blue Jasmine

Looking back through Woody Allen’s filmography, it’s possible to make the claim that some of his most interesting films are about class, or, to be more specific, about the sparks that fly when blue bloods rub elbows with vulgarians.  In films like Mighty Aphrodite or Broadway Danny Rose, in both of which the straight-laced Woody tangles with cheerfully tacky, slightly dumb broads of the Judy Holliday variety, the contrast is played for broad laughs; straight dramas like Match Point, about the ruthlessness of social climbing, are more ironic.  Allen’s latest, Blue Jasmine, falls somewhere in between comedy and tragedy.  It’s a bluesy number performed with quiet desperation by the superb Cate Blanchett, playing a fallen Park Avenue socialite who moves to San Francisco to live with her sister in what she believes to be squalor.  Golden-hued flashbacks reveal glimpses of Jasmine’s former life, in which, flush with money, she wiles away the hours shopping and entertaining in the style of one of Bravo’s Real Housewives.  Then her crooked husband gets arrested and her world comes crashing down around her; she nurses mild addictions to Xanax and top-shelf vodka, and succumbs to fits of depression, often mumbling to herself or lashing out at phantoms.


Affect and the Hollywood musical: "Shadows on the wall"

The "Shadow Waltz" from Gold Diggers of 1933.

I’ll be working my way through a handful of Hollywood musicals these next several weeks, and I want to think about them in light of a claim that Richard Dyer makes in his seminal essay “Entertainment and Utopia.”  He writes that forms of entertainment such as the musical strive to reflect a spirit of utopianism in their very essence, which is to say that musicals don’t go about giving a list of instructions for how a utopia gets made (in the way that utopian novels like William Morris’ News from Nowhere do); instead, they convey the very feeling of utopia.  “The utopianism is contained in the feelings [entertainment] embodies,” Dyer writes.  “[Entertainment] presents, head-on as it were, what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organized.  It thus works at the level of sensibility, by which I mean an affective code that is characteristic of, and largely specific to, a given mode of cultural production.”

I want to use this idea as a jumping-off point for my consideration of five or six Hollywood musicals in order to consider what affective work they do—what feelings they try to give voice to, and what feelings they try to facilitate in audience members.  Dyer, who goes on to argue that the musical is a particularly powerful example of entertainment governed by utopianism, discusses the ways in which they convey such feelings as “energy,” “abundance,” and “intensity.”  I want to shift the focus slightly in order to think about what specific sorts of affective pleasure they convey. 

I began by watching Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), directed by Mervyn LeRoy with choreography by Busby Berkeley.  It’s in the “Shadow Waltz” number that Berkeley’s talent for choreography comes through most clearly, as we see lines of chorus girls in billowing hoop skirts arranged first on tiers, filmed laterally (see top), then in a circular formation, seen from above (see below).  As they play glow-in-the-dark violins, the glowing lights form various patterns and eventually assemble to form the shape of one large violin, all to the strains of Harry Warren’s music:

It seems to me that the appeal of this shamelessly gimmicky number (glow-in-the-dark violins?) reduces to the visual pleasure of seeing abstract visual forms synchronized with music.  Berkeley’s trademark overhead shot here robs the chorus girls of any anthropomorphism; they’re simply circles that spin, contract, and expand.  The bodies are further abstracted once the lights go out and they’re reduced to nothing but a series of glowing lines.  It helps to remember that many early animated films from the 1920s and ’30s, especially those of Oskar Fischinger, but also later efforts like Disney’s Fantasia (1940), appeal to just this sort of pleasure.  The interplay of these abstract patterns invokes a feeling of satisfaction, of seeing things line up, move into perfect formation, that is different from, say, the sexual titillation that we might feel during the “Pettin’ in the Park” number.  Might this same feeling extend to dance musicals as a whole, in which bodies in motion aspire to achieve pure form?      


The FIlms of 2013: The Act of Killing

I first heard about The Act of Killing in April when it played here at IFF Boston; I didn’t attend the screening, but I saw audiences walking out in a state of shock, and I overheard them as they tried to put into words what they had just seen.  It occurred to me that this might be something extraordinary.  To say that Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary is about the Indonesian genocide of 1965, in which right-wing paramilitary forces overthrew the Indonesian government, established a dictatorship, and effectively murdered thousands of civilians branded as “communists,” fails to do justice to its profundity and its originality.  In getting up close and personal with the assassins themselves, letting them tell their stories in their own words, watching as they stage elaborate re-enactments of their crimes for the camera, The Act of Killing manages to go deeper and darker than just about any film of this kind with the possible exception of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. 


The Films of 2013: Fruitvale Station

It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that Ryan Coogler’s new film Fruitvale Station takes place on the last day in the life of its main character, Oscar Grant, who was shot and killed during an altercation with a subway security guard in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009.  In his death, Grant—who was twenty-two, black, and struggling to get back on his feet after a prison term for dealing drugs—has, like Rodney King before him, become a symbol for black victimization at the hands of a police force felt by many to be motivated by racism and blood lust.  The film opens on the morning of December 31, 2008, as Grant drops his daughter off at pre-school and picks up food for his mother’s birthday party that evening.  It ends in a hospital waiting room the following morning, as doctors deliver the news of his death to his mother and girlfriend.


The Films of 2013: Berberian Sound Studio

In Berberian Sound Studio, set at an Italian film studio in the 1970s, the Italian horror aesthetic—gory, excessive, outlandish—is made to clash hilariously with the English sensibility as embodied by the mild-mannered, buttoned-up Toby Jones.  Jones plays Gilderoy, a sound mixer hired to work on a film about Italian schoolgirls who stumble upon a coven of witches (think Suspiria), the production of which is presided over by a mysterious and autocratic director known as Santini.  Gilderoy’s previous experience has been working on cozy travel documentaries of the kind that air on public television.  His arrival on the set of the horror film, peopled by screaming actresses and foley artists hacking away at melons, is as traumatic as that of a giallo heroine who discovers her boarding school is run by Satanists. 


The Films of 2013: The Bling Ring

Sofia Coppola has yet to make a film I haven’t liked, and her latest, The Bling Ring—based on a real-life incident in which a group of L.A. teenagers burglarized the homes of local celebrities, making off with over one million dollars in stolen jewelry and clothesis one of her most effortlessly graceful.  Don’t be fooled by the tabloid-flavored subject matter: this is, like Coppola’s previous efforts, an exercise in minimalism in which the pleasures of style and tone trump those of a tightly constructed plot.  And what pleasures!  In her hands (with the help of her cinematographer, the great Harris Savides, who died during the production; he was replaced by Christopher Blauvelt) the gaudiest Hollywood mansions come to look downright spectral.  (See above.)  There’s a quiet loveliness to the scenes in which the intrepid Rebecca (Katie Chang) and her partners-in-crime raid the closets and bedrooms of the likes of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan; even as they resound with the girls’ gasps and giggles, the empty, dimly lit houses feel eerily calm and quiet.  Once again, Coppola has succeeded in perfectly evoking a sense of place.  If The Bling Ring seems like something of a departure for Coppola, her shots of Hilton’s labyrinthine home decked out with images of Hilton’s own face—a Warholian hall of mirrors—should remind us of the Versailles of her Marie Antoinette (2006).  Both films take opulent settings and render them with an otherworldly charge.  It should also be noted that both are primarily concerned with young women caught up almost unconsciously in routines of excessive, scandalous consumption. 


The pornographic canon: "The Bigger The Better" (1984)

Mike Ramsey and Buster as "straight" buddies in The Bigger The Better.

A while back I wrote a post in which I mentioned the hand-wringing that goes on in the gay community over the fetishization of straight men in gay porn.  A huge percentage of gay pornography advertises straight models, often amateurs or non-professionals, being initiated into the world of gay sex.  Of course, since many of these models are only passing for straight, much of this pornography involves considerable suspension of disbelief.  Sometimes the scenarios are explicitly presented as fantasy, as when well-known gay porn stars appear in videos playing straight characters. In Matt Sterling’s The Bigger The Better (1984), for instance, gay porn actors Mike Ramsey and Buster play a pair of horny straight buddies out on the town trying to pick up women.  After they’re rebuffed, they head to Mike’s brother’s apartment to crash for the night, whereupon Buster, aroused by the sight of Mike sprawled out on the bed in his tighty whities, initiates sex with him. 

The Bigger The Better: "Cruising for babes"

The scene belongs to a subcategory of the straight-guy fantasy that we might call the “buddy” scenario (the seduction of one straight guy by a closeted friend, or mutual experimentation by two equally curious friends).  The powerful appeal of these scenarios rests on their acknowledgment and transgression of the taboo against homosexuality.  They imply that to indulge in gay sex, especially with one’s frat brother or football teammate, is to cross a serious boundary.  The fantasy is enhanced by performers whose hypermasculinity acts as a signifier for their seemingly infallible straightness.  Some thoughts, lines of dialogue, and unspoken responses around which such fantasies coalesce: “this is my first time”; “will he reciprocate?”; “this is so wrong”; “no one else can know”; “we can make each other feel better than any woman could”; “he likes it”; “I always suspected…”; “just try it”; “a guy knows what a guy likes”; “boys will be boys.”

Straight-guy fantasies thus play scintillatingly on the tropes of closetedness, homosocial bonding, and sexual repression, and become ways of exploring darker, potentially more latent feelings of homophobia, shame, or misogyny.  The persistent popularity of straight-guy fantasies therefore haunts the desire of the gay pride movement to demystify and de-stigmatize gay sex, to untether it from associations with shame or disgust, and to insist that gay sex is, at bottom, loving, natural, and deserving of social sanctioning.  It comes as little surprise, then, to encounter backlash against porn that makes the seduction of straight men the stuff of sexual fantasy (especially considering that gay rights activists have continually worked to convince homophobic straight people that we are not trying to “recruit” them).  But why should porn participate in this process of demystification, assimilation, and respectability? If I’ve taken anything away from my study of hard-core pornography over the past two months, it’s that porn lends itself particularly well to diving headlong into the unconscious muck of sex.  (This, more so than its explicit images, may be why it makes so many people uncomfortable.)  Its greatest strength lies in its dredging up of ugly feelings, its playing on the knife edge of pleasure and shame, desire and fear—in short, its freedom from the tyranny of “positive representation.”  The making of a sex-positive society must involve not only bringing historically maligned sexualities into the light but also keeping in touch with sex’s thick darkness.