The Films of 2016: Krisha

The title character of Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha is the type of person who seems to live in a constant state of apology.  A recovering alcoholic and “abandoneer,” in the words of her brother-in-law, she shows up on her sister’s doorstep for Thanksgiving after a long period of estrangement.  In spite of what look like sincere attempts to repair her relationships with various members of the family—including her college-age son Trey, a budding filmmaker, played by Shults—Krisha’s presence causes tensions to ripple throughout the house.  After simmering all day like pots on the stove, they explode with quietly devastating force. 


On bears and cubs: Reassessing "The Jungle Book" (1967)

With a remake currently in the works, this week seemed like a good time to revisit Disney’s The Jungle Book (dir. Wolfgang Reitherman, 1967), a film I don’t think I’d seen in full in since I was laid up with the chickenpox and a childhood friend loaned us his family's VHS copy (which I proceeded to watch twice in the span of a week).  As it turns out, The Jungle Book—which was the first Disney animated feature to be released after Uncle Walt’s death in 1966—is pretty second-rate.  The episodic plot involves feral-child Mowgli continually falling into the clutches of the jungle’s motley crew of villains (Kaa the snake, Louie the orangutan, Shere Khan the tiger) and being rescued by his odd-couple caretakers, Bagheera the panther and Baloo the bear.  Pleasant as The Jungle Book is in spots, there’s not very much driving it. 
The film becomes marginally more interesting when considered as a cultural product of the late 1960s.  Baloo, voiced by the affable Phil Harris, is a quasi-beatnik figure whose attempts to convert Mowgli to his philosophy of hedonism-lite (as articulated in his song “The Bare Necessities”) rankle the unflaggingly square Bagheera.  It’s little wonder that latter-day hipster Bill Murray will be voicing Baloo in the upcoming remake.  

If Mowgli wants to be like Baloo, King Louie the orangutan wants to be like Mowgli; he says as much in what is easily the grooviest of the film’s songs. King Louie (jazzily voiced by Louis Prima) and his court of mugging, cackling monkeys long to attain the legitimacy of those higher on the evolutionary ladder. But Louie and his song are so cheerfully raucous (as raucous as Disney music goes, at least) that his reasons for wanting to be like Mowgli end up getting obscured, if not completely invalidated.  Even as “I Wanna Be Like You” seems to articulate the shame of not being human, everything about it testifies to the pleasures of being an animal. (Apes, it seems, have more fun.) The subtext of this song unwittingly speaks to the ways in which racial otherness is both glamorized and demeaned within the culture industry: as in so many other white-authored cultural texts about racial difference, Louie's primitivism is something to groove to as well as something to fear.  

If the racial politics of The Jungle Book feel over-determined, its gender politics are almost laughably transparent by contrast.  The jungle is a homosocial environment where bonds between men and boys (or "bears" and "cubs") have a pederastic charge.  Baloo and Mowgli’s relationship is so loaded it doesn’t even need explication—the devastation that Baloo exhibits when Mowgli tosses him aside in pursuit of the first girl who crosses his path says it all.

But is it art?  As a longtime fan of the Disney canon, I can’t say that The Jungle Book holds a candle to such masterpieces as Pinocchio, Snow White, Fantasia, or Sleeping Beauty, or even such "second-rate" fare as The Three Caballeros.  Charming though it may be, it lacks magic.  It’s a film perhaps best appreciated by a seven-year-old with the chickenpox.       


Magick rituals: Kenneth Anger (III)

Lucifer Rising: communication across time and space

Rituals could be said to be the great theme of Anger’s cinema.  (In his sincere commitment to their representation, he might be the last of the truly devout religious filmmakers.)  His first film, Fireworks, may not have initially been designed as the enactment of a ritual, but Anger would later frame it in those terms in his added prologue, describing it as a kind of spiritual vision, the dream as an act of conjuration.  Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969)—both odes to Anger’s mentor Aleister Crowley—explicitly stage occult rituals for the camera, with Anger using the magical properties of cinema (rhythms of editing, mise en scene, color, composition) to heighten their intensity.  Puce Moment and Scorpio Rising, too, depict rituals of dressing up and going out in which clothes and accessories are accorded an almost talismanic power to transform subjects.  The figure of the biker and the Hollywood actress are no less invested in this power than are the priests and priestesses in the occult films.


Could I be blue?: Kenneth Anger (II)

Pictured: an iconic image of Bruce Byron in Scorpio Rising (1964), Kenneth Anger’s ode to “Thanatos in chrome and black leather and bursting jeans” (his phrase).  I’ve always loved this image, partly because Anger’s blue tinting makes Byron’s swaggering pose even more lurid and dramatic.  Blue tinting appears frequently in Anger’s work.  In Eaux d’Artifice, which was shot in broad daylight, it transforms the Tivoli gardens into a moonlit night-scape.  (The use of blue tinting to convey night comes from the silent cinema that Anger so adores.)  The artificial blue of Rabbit’s Moon is diffused with white and makes Pierrot’s costume appear to glow.  Blueness in Anger means the space of night and the light of the moon, the landscape of dreaming and desire, sex and melancholy.  It renders the ordinary otherworldly, and gives an electric charge to everything on which it falls.


A filmmaker's diary

Could Jonas Mekas have been aware when he was filming Notes, Diaries, and Sketches (a.k.a. Walden, 1969) that he was effectively creating a time capsule of the American avant-garde as it existed in the late 1960s?  The three-hour film, which consists of footage shot more or less at random on Mekas’ Bolex in the years between 1966 and 1969, offers fleeting glimpses of everyone from Andy Warhol and Stan Brakhage to John Lennon and Yoko Ono.  They appear not as key figures within a movement but rather as people in the background of Mekas’ own life, glittering threads in a moving tapestry. 


A 90-year-old Arabian Night

Several years ago I discovered the films of German animator Lotte Reiniger, who used intricately cut paper silhouettes to retell such stories as Papageno, Sleeping Beauty, and The Frog Prince.  But her magnum opus, which I just saw for the first time today, is a loose adaptation of several tales from the Arabian Nights.  At ninety years old, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) still looks stunningly beautiful.  Reiniger’s finely wrought puppets move with a lifelike fluidity, sailing through vibrant tinted backdrops of blue and yellow.  

The story is pure Orientalist fantasy, a picaresque in which Our Hero, Prince Achmed, falls in love with the fairy princess Peri Banou.  With the help of a grotesque but good-hearted witch, as well as Aladdin (yes, that Aladdin), Achmed must rescue Peri Banou first from the clutches of a Chinese emperor, then from a meddlesome African magician.  In a thrillingly devised sequence late in the film the witch and the magician face off against each other and proceed to shape-shift into a series of animals.  (It looks ahead to a similar scene in Disney’s The Sword and the Stone some forty years later.)

Speaking of Disney, it’s sometimes noted that Prince Achmed, which runs 65 minutes, would seem to beat Snow White (1937) as the first feature-length animated film ever made.  Whether or not one wants to quibble about the definition of “feature-length,” it’s clear that Reiniger’s animation work in Prince Achmed not only precedes the Disney masterpieces by a good fifteen years, it also rivals them for sheer imaginativeness and visual flair.


In praise of Jennifer Beals

When considering great living actors, I don’t often think of Jennifer Beals.  Does anyone?  I’m not even sure that what I’m responding to when I see her on screen is great acting; it’s more of a presence, a quality, that pulls me toward her.  The delicate nature of her movements and the quiet, warm timbre of her voice risk being drowned out by the outsized affects of just about everyone else working in Hollywood.  But that quietness, that delicacy, is magnetic.  When she appeared in Nanni Moretti’s Dear Diary (Caro Diario, 1994, pictured above), playing herself, I couldn’t help but smile.  For Moretti—and for many others—Beals is best remembered for Flashdance (1983).  For me, she will always be Cinderella.  And in Roger Dodger (dir. Dylan Kidd, 2002) she has a scene with Elizabeth Berkley, Jesse Eisenberg, and Campbell Scott that is so beautifully written and acted that it floored me.


"That spangled moment": Kenneth Anger (I)

Even in fancy dress films the people are still as I see them and how they see themselves.  In Rio you have people who live in shanty towns and save up all year for the fab costume they will wear for the Carnival, and that's what they live for the whole year.  For that spangled moment, during the Carnival when they're all dressed up, that's really them. Kenneth Anger, Visionary Film

Of all the great avant-garde filmmakers—Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, Bill Morrison—Kenneth Anger may be the most invested in the artificial and sensuous properties of cinema.  His films derive from the tradition of Georges Melies, for whom cinema was a magic trick, a form of conjuring, as well as from the fake backdrops and glossy surfaces of Hollywood cinema.  Where other filmmakers use the camera to hold a mirror up to nature, Anger uses his to create dazzling fantasy worlds.  Rewatching five of his early films this weekend I was reminded of their, and his, brilliance.    


Silent von Sternberg

I’ve never been much of a Josef von Sternberg fan; with the exception of The Scarlet Empress, his films have always struck me as stiff, dull, and talky, in spite of his masterful command of mise en scene.  Talkiness isn’t a problem from which The Docks of New York (1928) suffers: the silent film may lack the visual flair of his later films, but there’s also no clunky dialogue to have to cut through.  Running a tight seventy-five minutes and set over a period of roughly 24 hours (during which time Our Hero, a stoker on a steamship, saves the life of a prostitute while on shore leave, marries her, abandons her, and returns to her), it’s economical and lean, and, for better or worse, has none of the baroque weirdness of, say, The Shanghai Gesture.  My favorite moment occurs when George Bancroft insists that Betty Compson check out his muscular, tattooed forearm—which she does, with a certain reluctant curiosity.


Pasolini's "Oedipus"

On the subject of Pasolini: his 1967 film version of Oedipus Rex is remarkably effective given that he all but jettisons Sophocles’ text, sets the beginning and end of the story in present-day Italy (the rest takes place in nondescript antiquity), and employs actors whose range is, shall we say, limited.  It may be a testament to the source material that its tragic power withstands the flat affect of Pasolini’s treatment.  Or, rather—as is the case with Pasolini’s Saint Matthew—the straight-forwardness and the unfussiness of his style somehow lays bare the raw flesh and bone of the story in ways that a glossier interpretation would not have been able to do. 


The life and death of a Cinecitta extra

It’s probably impossible to say whether Pier Paolo Pasolini had seen Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich’s The Life and Death of 9413, A Hollywood Extra (1928) when he made La Ricotta, his contribution to the not-very-promisingly titled 1963 anthology film Let’s Wash Our Brains: RoGoPaG (“RoGoPaG” being an acronym for the names of the four contributors).  Nevertheless, Pasolini’s film rhymes interestingly with Florey and Vorkapich’s.  It takes place on the set of a Jesus movie that appears to shooting somewhere out in Calabria (where Pasolini would soon film The Gospel According to Saint Matthew), presided over by an enigmatic director (played by Orson Welles) who is seen reading a book about Pasolini’s Mamma Roma.  Anyway.  The plot concerns a lowly extra who, after his meager lunch is eaten by the Pomeranian of the shoot’s resident diva, becomes desperately hungry, contrives to sell the Pomeranian to a passerby, uses the money to buy what looks like five pounds’ worth of cheese and bread from a local farmer, and proceeds to gorge himself while his fellow cast members stand around jeering and laughing.  Then, as shooting resumes and he’s attached to a cross (he’s playing one of the thieves crucified along with Jesus) he issues a series of hiccups and dies.  As is typical with Pasolini, La Ricotta has a satirical bent—but it’s told in the mode of a fable or a parable, with a simplicity and grace that look like absurdity.


In my ongoing quest to see all 1,000 films on this list I sat down with Luis Buñuel’s The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), which remains all but unavailable on video in North America but is streamable on YouTube.  It features one of Buñuel’s most blackly comic premises: a would-be serial killer’s victims keep dying before he has a chance to kill them.  One of the film’s more memorable sequences is a kind of failed ménage a trois between “Archie,” a pretty travel guide, and a mannequin that bears her resemblance, which Archie later incinerates in a fit of rage.  Buñuel uses repetition and irony here as well as any other comic artist, the distinction being that the subject of Buñuel’s comedy is sexual pathology.  Archibaldo de la Cruz feels like Peeping Tom reimagined as a farce.  But the most Buñuelian thing about it may be the isolation of objects that may either signify something or nothing, like a close-up of a katydid near the end of the film, which Archie absently pokes at with his cane but does not kill.  It's as enigmatic--and specific--as the close-up of the embroidery hoop at the end of That Obscure Object of Desire.  Are we meant to take this to mean that he’s been cured of his murderous pathology?  Sometimes a katydid is just a katydid.     


Seeing red

Robert Walker pledging allegiance to Mom, God, and country in My Son John: "I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist Party."
Was there a classic Hollywood actor more unnerving than Robert Walker?  Even when playing a supposedly “straight” character—like a U.S. Army colonel in the stultifyingly earnest Cold War docudrama The Beginning or the End (1947)—he manages to make every word and gesture drip with obscene insinuation.  His screen persona would reach its apex in Leo McCarey’s My Son John (1952), surely one of the most quease-inducing films ever to come out of Hollywood.  As the films title character, Walker comes to represent everything that Cold War-era America most hated and feared.