The Films of 2016: Under the Shadow

Speaking of horror films, Under the Shadow (dir. Babak Anvari) has been generating healthy buzz since it played at Sundance, and is being hailed as a genre movie with a political conscience.  I ended up catching a late screening of the film last night at IFF Boston.  It’s a haunted-house tale set in Tehran in the mid-1980s, as bombings and air raids cause Iranian civilians to live in a constant state of fear.  On top of this, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) faces more local threats: an aspiring doctor, she is expelled from medical school for leftist activism and is later chastised by a patriarch for leaving the house without her hijab.  (At home, she hides her Betamax player—and her much-prized Jane Fonda workout tape—for fear that a neighbor will turn her into the authorities for owning Western contraband.)  Then, in the wake of a bomb blast that leaves an ominous bulging crack in their ceiling, Shideh and her young daughter Dorsa begin to experience strange goings-on in their apartment.  Dorsa is convinced that the house is under the spell of a djinn, a kind of evil genie out of the Arabian Nights; initially skeptical, Shideh begins to worry that her daughter may be right.


The Films of 2016: The Eyes of My Mother

The Boston Independent Film Festival is currently underway, having kicked off this Thursday evening with a screening of John Krasinski’s The Hollars, which I skipped.  I was more interested in seeing Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother, a horror film so shocking—and so artfully composed—that it makes something like The Witch feel downright schlocky by comparison.  As with so many contemporary horror movies (The Babadook being one recent exception) The Eyes of My Mother fades a little on reflection; it can’t really decide how much plot it wants to have, and so it ends up with both too much and not enough.  But during the neat 77 minutes in which it plays out, the film feels mesmerizing, visceral, and completely unpredictable.


Double fantasy: Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures"

"It is indeed a miracle, one must feel / That two such heavenly creatures are real": Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet.

Will Peter Jackson ever make another film as good as Heavenly Creatures (1994)?  It’s an unlikely—and unholy—marriage of his ability to create elaborately detailed fantasy worlds with a nastiness and a psychological complexity that Jackson has dropped ever since he first embarked on the first installment of his Lord of the Rings trilogy.  While those films launched Jackson to super-stardom, I much prefer the intensity, wry humor, and sharpness of Creatures.  (Even on a technical level it’s superior to the LOTR films, which increasingly suffer from prestige-picture bloat; Creatures is, by contrast, briskly and efficiently cut together.)  The lush tone and keyed-up rhythm of the film perfectly matches the emotions of its characters, two teenage girls coming of age in 1950s New Zealand, queer misfits whose thwarted efforts to escape into a private world of their own making eventually culminate in violence. 

From the archives: "Sex and economics"

Sasha Grey and Elon Dershowitz in The Girlfriend Experience (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2009).

On the occasion of Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience having been re-imagined as a cable series for Showtime, I decided to look up my review of the film, written back in February of 2009, when this blog was but a twinkle in my eye.  (I was maintaining a different blog at the time, but that’s another story for another day.)  In tracking down my review of The Girlfriend Experience I discovered a whole host of other pieces, most of which I wrote between 2007 and 2008, but some of which go back even further to 2004-2005, when I was a college student at SUNY Geneseo writing for a short-lived campus news-radio show called The Weekly Review; still others date back to 2001-2002, my senior year of high school (!).  Anyway.  It occurred to me that it might be fun to dig these up and post some highlights, for better or worse.  My original title for this piece was “The Girlfriend Experience: or, Is the Oldest Profession Recession-Proof?”


Camping with Curt McDowell

Brotherly love: Curt McDowell and Mark Ellinger (with Janey Sneed Ellinger) in Siamese Twin Pinheads.

Curt McDowell’s sex films have an emotional rawness and an intimacy to them that feels unique both to hard-core pornographic cinema and underground film.  He spent the other half of his career making camp films—comedies in the key of Kuchar.  McDowell would end up blending the two modes to delirious effect in Thundercrack! (1975), a camp melodrama punctuated with scenes of hard-core sex, and to a lesser extent in Naughty Words (1974), a one-minute goof in which (between giggles) McDowell’s friends read off a list of sexual slang words over footage of pictures taken from dirty magazines.  Camp, which always signifies the co-presence of sincerity and irony, became a way for McDowell to laugh at the sex that he would take seriously in films like Confessions (1972), Loads (1985), and Ronnie (1972). 


Sleeping with Curt McDowell

In bed: McDowell speaking to the camera in Confessions (1972).

…and from the sacred (The Ten Commandments) back to the profane: last weekend I revisited the short films of the late Curt McDowell, the San Francisco-based underground filmmaker perhaps best known for collaborating with his teacher, mentor, and sometime lover George Kuchar on the cult epic Thundercrack! (1975).  Thundercrack! has recently been released on Blu-ray by Synapse Films, which has also thrown in a bonus disc containing five of McDowell’s shorts.  McDowell’s all-too-brief career—he was most active from 1970 to 1975, contracted HIV in the mid 1980s, and died of AIDS in 1987—roughly divides between Kuchar-flavored camp comedies and pornographic diary films in which he attempted to give expression to his deepest sexual fantasies. 


The Films of 2016: Cemetery of Splendor

Time routinely gets warped in the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai auteur behind such art-house and festival-circuit favorites as Tropical Malady (2004) and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2011).  As in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, for whom cinema represented a form of temporal sculpture, Apichatpong’s films have a pace and rhythm that work to lull the viewer into a meditative state.  There comes a point about halfway through Apichatpong’s latest, the beautiful and enigmatic Cemetery of Splendor, when the main character, a middle-aged woman named Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas) who works as a volunteer at a veterans’ clinic in the south of Thailand falls asleep (maybe) and begins to dream (maybe)…or maybe it’s the film itself that is dreaming, or us. 


The greatest show on earth

Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments (dir. Cecil B. DeMille, 1956).

From the profane (Last Tango in Paris) to the sacred: re-watching Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) this week I was reminded of its many guilty pleasures.  Most of them involve the spectacular bodies of the cast—Charlton Heston (those arms!), Yul Brynner (those abs!), even Judith Anderson (who knew she had such amazing shoulders?).  And Anne Baxter’s purring voice (“Mmmmoses!”) lends a lubricious charge to every scene in which she appears.  As many have noted, The Ten Commandments is a pretty trashy piece of sexploitation in disguise as wholesome family fare.  A big, expensive commodity that imagines itself to be a sacred art object, the film is completely oblivious to its own vulgarity.  DeMille and Heston’s commitment to the material is unflagging and often humorless; they treat every purple line of dialogue, and every tacky special effect, as a profound expression of Biblical truth.  The Ten Commandments is, in other words, the very definition of kitsch.  


The Films of 2016: My Golden Days

Those inclined to be turned off by the frat-boy antics of Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! might prefer to check out Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days, to which it can be seen as an artsier French cousin.  Both films are about the exuberance of youth and self-discovery: where Linklater’s baseball jocks bond with each other over keg stands and ping-pong, Desplechin’s poetic types do so over books and cigarettes.  Desplechin’s protagonist, Paul Dedalus, is more intellectually curious than just about anybody in the Linklater film.  But they do have one interest in common: girls.  The majority of My Golden Days details Paul’s tumultuous relationship with Esther, a beautiful but emotionally volatile friend of his sister, who proceeds to cause him a heartbreak that he will carry with him into adulthood. 


The womb of fear: Revisiting "Last Tango in Paris"

I often like to say that Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1973) is one of my favorite movies, and every time I watch it I’m confronted with its almost overwhelming emotional power as well as its audacity, its crazy-making unevenness, and its willingness to court ridicule.  Last Tango is, without question, a flawed film: there are at least half a dozen clunky, badly written scenes (most of them featuring the insufferable character played by Jean-Pierre Leaud), and Maria Schneider’s perm never fails to bug me.  And yet Bertolucci pulls it off somehow, perhaps because he believes so sincerely in the tragic dimensions of the story of Paul and Jeanne that we come to believe in them, too.


The Films of 2016: Everybody Wants Some!!

In a 1999 interview Pauline Kael called Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) “one of the best movies about the romance of people in their early 20s discovering intellectual soulmates.”  In the time since that early film Linklater has become, along with Noah Baumbach and Sofia Coppola, a great teller of young people’s stories.  His latest, the unfortunately titled Everybody Wants Some!!, is not an intellectual romance in the Before Sunrise vein but an up-tempo hang-out movie in the manner of his high-school comedy Dazed and Confused (1993).  Where that film, set in 1976, chronicled the last day of the school year, Everybody Wants Some!! covers the span of a long weekend in 1980, as members of a college baseball team prepare for the start of the fall semester at their southern Texas university.


Child's play

Bulle and Pascale Ogier turn a map of Paris into a life-size board game in La Pont du Nord (1981).

Growing up in rural New York state, I had a friend with whom I concocted elaborate fantasies of mystery and intrigue.  When we played together, the most innocuous things—a scrap of paper, a snatch of overheard conversation, a discarded object found by the side of the road—could inspire the most fabulous conspiracy theories.  Bored and overly imaginative, desperate for something to happen to us, we wanted to believe that we were living in a world more exciting than it really was. 


Gothic silhouettes

Vivien Leigh with tree and David O. Selznick sunset in Gone with the Wind (1939).
“Images of blinding whiteness seem to function as both antidote for and meditation on the shadow that is companion to this whiteness—a dark and abiding presence that moves the hearts and texts of American literature with fear and longing.” – Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark

Everyone who has ever seen Gone with the Wind remembers the shots of Scarlett O’Hara silhouetted against a blazing red sky.  These shots function as a kind of visual motif throughout the film, occurring at moments of dramatic crescendo and nearly always accompanied by the swelling of Max Steiner’s score.  The first such shot occurs ten minutes or so into the film, when Scarlett and her father survey Tara at sunset.  It’s a moment when the characters and the film itself wax romantic about a supposedly gracious and beautiful antebellum South that, unbeknownst to them, is about to start going with the wind.  The next time such a shot occurs, it’s already gone: Atlanta has been burned, Tara lies in shambles, and Scarlett’s father has succumbed to madness.  The film as a whole has taken a turn for the Gothic.  Scarlett stands under the same tree, now battered and almost broken, and raises her fist to declare that, as God as her witness, she’ll never be hungry again.