E.T. (1982) will probably end up going down as the purest expression of Steven Spielberg’s singular talent for fusing comedy, fantasy, and pathos. It’s a feel-good movie in which the sentimentality is cut with humor (Chaplinesque physical gags as well as the observational domestic comedy of Capra and Sturges), and with the sense of childlike wonder that has become Spielberg’s trademark. Until this week I hadn’t seen E.T. since its twentieth-anniversary re-release in 2002, and what struck me most upon revisited it was the beautiful texture of the domestic spaces in which its children play, argue, conspire, and dream just out of the sight lines of adults (in this case a harried but loving single mom played by Dee Wallace). As in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the family home in E.T. is strewn with toys and buzzes with steady chatter while TV sets murmur in the background. This is perhaps my favorite element of Spielberg’s work—his understanding that such places can be sites of magic.
Edgar Allan Poe’s tale “The Black Cat” builds to a horrific climax—kind of a combination of plot devices used elsewhere in his “Cask of Amontillado” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”—in which the cries of a murdered woman’s pet cat, accidentally walled up along with her dead body, give away the murderer. Both Lucio Fulci’s 1981 Black Cat (Gatto Nero) and Dario Argento’s contribution to the 1990 anthology film Two Evil Eyes (co-directed by George Romero) retain this plot point even as they play fast and loose with the other elements of the original story. Fulci’s version adds telepathy, a mad professor (played by Patrick Magee), a rash of bizarre killings, and a romance between a Scotland Yard detective and a pretty journalist; in Argento’s version, which tries to engage with the themes of alcoholism and domestic violence present in Poe’s text, Harvey Keitel at his most “eh, fuck it” plays an unhinged crime scene photographer.
|Harvey Keitel with uncredited animal actor in Two Evil Eyes (dirs. Dario Argento and George Romero, 1990).|
Jeff Nichols’ Loving tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), the interracial couple whose criminalization led to the overturning of Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws in 1967. The film does its best to avoid the trappings of a courtroom drama, and it mostly succeeds (it helps that the Lovings opted not to attend the Supreme Court hearing that ended up ruling in their favor—though even that isn’t enough to spare us a montage sequence in which highlights from the court proceedings are intercut with shots of the couple going about their business at home). Nichols is an Indiewood director whose films toe the line between convention and originality, and Loving toes that line to maddening effect; the film’s flickers of greatness often get smothered by too much good taste.
|Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni in Ready to Wear (dir. Robert Altman, 1994).|
It says something that Robert Altman’s films are compulsively watchable even when they’re not that great. Case in point: Ready to Wear (a.k.a. Pret a Porter) from 1994, a farcical ensemble comedy set in Paris during Fashion Week. It’s pretty apparent that Altman, in his unpretentious American way, doesn’t care much about haute couture other than as fodder for satire (the film culminates in a cute riff on “The Emperor’s New Clothes”). The setting also provides him with an opportunity to do his version of an international co-production, with such European stars as Anouk Aimee, Marcello Mastroianni, and Sophia Loren acting alongside Julia Roberts, Lauren Bacall, and Lyle Lovett. Ready to Wear is frothy and silly enough to make you almost forget that many of its jokes are lesser versions of things he did in other movies—like Kim Basinger as a perky TV reporter who covers Paris fashion with a Southern drawl, an American cousin to Geraldine Chaplin’s BBC journalist adrift in Nashville.
|Being terrifying: Edward G. Robinson in The Red House (1947).|
I first heard about Delmer Daves’ The Red House (1947) in Martin Scorsese’s documentary A Personal Journey Through American Movies, where he hails it as a forgotten Hollywood gem. When I managed to track it down several months later I was blown away: part film noir, part Gothic horror movie, it’s as wonderfully perverse and creepy as anything to come out of classical Hollywood cinema, with a central performance by Edward G. Robinson that’s one of his best. (It’s certainly his scariest.) Robinson plays a recluse who lives on an isolated farm with his spinster sister (Judith Anderson!) and their adopted daughter (!?) Meg (Allene Roberts), cut off from the nearest town by a forest that hides the mysterious red house of the film’s title.
|Domestic scene: Allene Roberts, Edward G. Robinson, and Judith Anderson, with Lon McCallister (far left).|
The plot of the film is driven by teenage Meg’s desire to solve the mystery of the house, which is linked to the mystery of her own shadowy parentage. The moment at which she comes upon the house for the first time, overgrown and rotting, is sublime: without even understanding why, she stares at it in wonder and fear, and a single tear runs down her cheek. It’s as if she is experiencing an epiphany that she’s not even conscious of. Such moments are perhaps more often found in cheap B movies like The Red House than in A-list prestige pictures from this period, in which the emotional beats are more deliberately placed and clearly definable.
The praise for Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight has been so effusive that to try to articulate new ways of talking about how great it is feels almost impossible. Yet the film is so singularly great that trying not to gush about it is even more difficult to do. So forgive me while I gush. Moonlight feels like the kind of great film that we (cinephiles, Americans, LGBTQ people and their allies, people of color and their allies) have been hungry for without even realizing it. The story of a young black man growing up in Miami in the early 2000s and struggling to come to terms with his emergent homosexuality, its subject matter is pressing and topical. Moonlight is so much more than “relevant,” though: it’s a dream-film, poetic and bold and haunting, drenched in longing and pain, soaked in the neon and fluorescence of nighttime, set to the steady pounding of the surf. And however we may interpret its politics, they’re rooted in the utterly compelling human drama of its main character, who goes by three different names at three different phases of his life. (The film is structured as a triptych: childhood, adolescence, adulthood.) The story that Jenkins and his actors are telling is in some ways as old as time, insofar as it’s about the struggle to understand ourselves and determine the course of our lives. It’s also a story that’s specific to the experience of gay people of color like its main character, and Jenkins’ approach in telling that story feels utterly new, scary, unpredictable, and intoxicating.
Thoreau famously observed that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Kelly Reichardt presents a feminist twist on this idea in her latest film, which depicts the various and subtle forms of quiet desperation—frustration, loneliness, thwarted desire—shared by a handful of women living in and around Livingston, Montana. Divided into three distinct narrative strands (it’s based on a series of short stories by Montana native Maile Meloy), Certain Women only hints at the thematic links between them, leaving us to consider how they intersect and diverge like the railroad tracks and stretches of highway that crisscross the film’s vast Western landscapes. Those familiar with Reichardt’s previous work will not be surprised to find that Certain Women is a film of “empty” moments, narrative ellipses, and pregnant silences. But the silences speak volumes.
It would be difficult to make the case that Herbert Ross’ California Suite (1978) is a good movie—but it has much to recommend it, chiefly in the performances of such brilliant actors as Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Elaine May, and Walter Matthau. They carry the better two of the film’s four intercut segments, all of which take place over the course of twenty-four hours at a pastel-toned Hollywood hotel that looks like a three-dimensional David Hockney painting. In the broadest and weakest of the segments, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor play bickering brothers-in-law whose attempt to enjoy a California vacation with their respective wives becomes a slapstick comedy of errors; meanwhile, Jane Fonda, playing a cartoon version of a brittle East Coast career woman, begrudgingly relinquishes custody of her teenage daughter to her ex-husband (Alan Alda). But things unfold more entertainingly down the hall, as stressed-out actress Smith tries to come to grips with the knowledge that her longtime husband (Caine) has been carrying on affairs with other men and Matthau tries (and fails) to hide the body of a passed-out call girl from his wife (May). Written by Neil Simon, the whole film is a crazy quilt of different ethnic and cultural types, with each piece written and acted in a matching tonal key. While the Alda-Fonda scenes, done in a kind of chilly WASP dialect, nearly bring the film to a halt, the arch, witty banter between Caine and Smith is expertly handled, and the farcical Jewish humor in the segment with Matthau and May (both regular Simon collaborators) is hilarious enough to salvage a comic scenario that is arguably as old as comedy itself.
|Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill in City Lights (1931).|
In the eternal (and falsely dichotomous) “Chaplin vs. Keaton” debate I’ve always been a Chaplin guy, even though lately he seems to have become the less popular choice, and what’s more I tend to like many of the things about his films that other people criticize them for—their sentimentality, and their reliance on plot conventions and devices that feel like vestiges of 19th-century melodrama (orphaned urchins, blind waifs, etc.). Keaton, with his boats and trains, feels twenty years more modern than Chaplin, even in the 1920s films. And by the 1930s Chaplin had become willfully, self-consciously old-fashioned, insisting upon making silent comedies nearly a decade into the sound era. In any case City Lights (1931), for all its hokeyness, seems to me as finely wrought and as technically virtuosic as anything Keaton ever made.
|Jane B. par Agnes V.: Jane Birkin, Agnes Varda, and cat.|
What I liked most about Agnes Varda’s Jane B. par Agnes V. (1987), a cinematic present to Jane Birkin on the occasion of her fortieth birthday, was not the whimsical use of fantasy sequences (in which Varda casts Birkin as a variety of female roles—femme fatale, Spanish dancer, Calamity Jane, Joan of Arc) but rather the candid nature of the footage in which Birkin plays herself, telling Varda’s camera about her children, her dreams and her insomnia, what attracts her to other people, her adolescent self-consciousness about her small breasts. What’s great about the film is that in these scenes Varda doesn’t approach Birkin as a style icon, a celebrity, or even an artist; Varda’s interest in Birkin is as a woman, a person; Varda is able to excavate the Jane Birkin underneath all of the costumes, the gossip and the fame.
|Geraldine Page as "Mother Watts" (right) with Rebecca de Mornay.|
In Peter Masterson's film of The Trip to Bountiful (1985) there is nothing outside of Geraldine Page's performance as Carrie Watts, for which she went on to win a Best Actress Oscar. Without the performance there is no film of which to speak. Luckily the performance is so lovely and so delicately rendered that it's enough to justify the existence of the film that surrounds it like a nest that cushions a precious egg. "Mother Watts" has become one of the great roles in the female repertoire, a showcase for female actors looking to cap off a long career; it was originated by Lillian Gish and was most recently revived for Cicely Tyson.
Page's Carrie is soft and fluttery--she's a large woman, verging on doughy, but her face, and particularly her voice, are as light as a child's. Her hands dance around her mouth and her chin, and at first glance her nervous energy risks being mistaken for signs of senility. But the film insists that underneath Carrie's flightiness is the kind of strong core that allows a tree to bend in the wind without breaking. She draws strength from her faith and her memories of the past, and her connection to her family homestead in Bountiful, Texas, to which she determines to make a last pilgrimage before succumbing to dotage. And what's beautiful and touching about Page's Carrie is that the trip makes her radiantly happy--blissfully happy. For a film about an elderly woman reflecting on her life (and preparing for death) there's nary a dour note in the whole thing. Having made it to Bountiful, Carrie is so exultant and relieved she may as well be on another plane. The petty grievances of her daughter-in-law matter as little to her as a cloud of gnats to be waved away. She has, in a sense, already passed on; she is at rest.
Pictured: cat illuminated by lightning in Robinson Crusoe, directed by Luis Buñuel, 1954. Earlier this year I wrote about the enigmatic matter-of-factness with which Buñuel regards animals and objects in his work. The cat is just one of an entire supporting cast of non-human actors that populate Robinson Crusoe, other members of which include a German shepherd, a parrot, a herd of goats, some turtles, and a few sand fleas. They bear mute witness to Crusoe and his trials throughout the film, regarding him with a detached curiosity that Buñuel’s camera shares. We could even say that Buñuel himself adopts the detached gaze of an animal in this film (and in all of his films). When Crusoe mourns the death of his pet dog, Rex, he becomes maudlin—but Buñuel’s camera never does. It simply looks on, much in the same manner as the cat.
But what even is Luis Buñuel’s film of Robinson Crusoe? Our understanding of Buñuel as one of cinema’s most strikingly original auteurs risks being complicated by what would seem to be a radical departure from his usual style, tone, and production model. The international co-production was shot in Mexico (in English- and Spanish-language versions) with an American actor, Dan O’Herlihy, in the lead role, and Mexican actor Jaime Fernandez as Friday; O’Herlihy went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (!) for his performance. The strangest thing about the film may be the straightforwardness with which Buñuel adapts Daniel Defoe’s novel, though thematically it is continuous with his body of work as a whole. As a narrative—an origin story, really—about conquest, sovereignty, and subjugation, it may be only natural that Robinson Crusoe would appeal to Buñuel’s perverse sensibility. Crusoe and Friday’s relationship is a structured by a master/slave dynamic, variations of which run throughout Buñuel's filmography. And there are touches of surreal, deadpan humor throughout, as when Crusoe cracks open a bird egg, finds a fledgling inside, and consequently tries to put the eggshell back together. Elsewhere, Buñuel the kinkster hints at Crusoe’s sexual frustration when the latter stares with longing at a scarecrow done up in women’s clothing—and later, in a kind of panic, orders Friday to take off a woman’s dress found among his effects. As in Buñuel’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights (an even more Buñuelian text), he seizes on the most twisted aspects of this English-lit classic and brings them to the fore.
|Crusoe gazes at the scarecrow wearing a woman's dress...|
|...and at Friday.|
|Denzel Washington as Ben Marco in The Manchurian Candidate (dir. Jonathan Demme, 2004).|
One of the first pieces I wrote and recorded for WGSU’s Weekly Review was a review of Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate, which I had seen over the summer of 2004. My review aired in the fall of that year as we headed into a presidential election that felt more than a little doomed. As I noted at the time, Demme’s remake was a political thriller for the age of late capitalism, with big business replacing the threat of communism in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 original and the Gulf War standing in for Korea. I found the film to be a lot of fun, driven by Demme’s energetic direction and juicy performances—the juiciest being Meryl Streep as Ellie Shaw, the scheming mother of a brainwashed vice presidential hopeful (Liev Schrieber), the latter of whom I described, in my undergraduate attempt to sound punchy and clever, as “a lobotomized Hamlet in a power suit.” Perhaps more than anything else, The Manchurian Candidate was instrumental in waking me up to the genius of Streep, coming fast on the heels of equally strong turns in such films as Adaptation (2002), The Hours (2002), and Angels in America (2003).
|Meryl Streep as Ellie Shaw.|
“After great pain, a formal feeling comes—The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
The stiff Heart questions, was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
[…] This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—”
I thought of Dickinson’s poem upon recently re-watching Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1973), a film about great pain as it is experienced and witnessed by four women, one of whom, Agnes (Harriet Andersson), lies dying of a chronic illness. The women occupy an isolated country house somewhere in Sweden in the early 1900s, and while men (husbands, a doctor, a priest) occasionally appear theirs is private female world in which they move as if along an invisible chessboard, brushing up against each other, approaching and retreating, touching and pulling away. And always watching. Bergman’s camera watches, too, silent and unflinching, as Agnes’ face and body contort with agony. Like Dickinson, Bergman sees beauty and horror in pain, as well as a sort of grace that comes from confronting something sublime and terrible. We might call that sublime and terrible thing death—the moment toward which all of the film’s relentlessly ticking clocks seem to be pushing.
I have a particularly special relationship with Cries and Whispers because it was one of the first foreign films I ever saw: it served as a kind of gateway drug into the world of art-house cinema. I began watching it after school on cable TV around age thirteen. I had heard of the film’s title from a couple of books but I knew almost nothing about what it was about and had never seen anything by Bergman before. Later I would read Roger Ebert’s review, which was instrumental in helping me to understand what I had seen. From the very opening sequence my attention was rapt. The film proceeded to lull me into something like a hypnotic trance for the next ninety minutes (perhaps it was the rhythm of all of those clocks).
The debut of Ava Duvernay’s documentary 13TH on Netflix yesterday coincided with the theatrical release of Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s dramatization of the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. (The title of Parker’s film is meant as a rejoinder to D.W. Griffith’s film of the same name, footage of which also features heavily in 13TH.) Parker and Duvernay’s films are landing in the middle of a political season so heated that it feels like it’s about to boil over; they’re also kicking off an awards season in which Hollywood will attempt to redress the grievances of #OscarsSoWhite with such films as Birth, Loving, Moonlight, and Fences. That is to say that the representation of black lives within the culture industry has come to feel urgent and necessary—two words that could also be used to describe Duvernay’s film, a rigorous tracing of the links between racism and incarceration in America since the abolition of slavery. One of the arguments of the film is that the dehumanization of black Americans under chattel slavery lives on in the form of mass incarceration; the “13th” of the film’s title refers to the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which states that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” Emphasis Duvernay’s. 13TH posits that over the last century politicians on both the right and the left have worked to create a prison industrial complex that criminalizes black bodies and profits from their imprisonment.
Kung-Fu Master! (1988) appears to have arisen out of filmmaker Agnes Varda and actress/model Jane Birkin’s desire to make a film with their children: in the film, Birkin and her teenage daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg play mother-and-daughter Mary Jane and Lucy, while Varda’s son Mathieu Demy plays Lucy’s friend Julien, with whom Mary Jane entertains a brief and curious love affair. (The film’s deceptive title refers to the arcade game that preoccupies Julien’s attention. He is, after all, only fourteen.) If the premise of Kung-Fu Master!—divorcee has fling with boy young enough to be her son—seems all but guaranteed to raise eyebrows, Varda doesn’t play it for shock effect. The film doesn’t feel entirely “realistic” (even as it’s grounded in a very real Paris of the late 1980s, consumed by a wave of panic about AIDS), which also helps prevent us from thinking about the relationship between Julien and Mary Jane in too-literal terms. Kung-Fu Master! feels a little like a fable or a daydream about the fantasies that structure our romantic lives. It’s governed by Varda’s gentle, imaginative spirit, which is to say that the film provokes more reflection than disgust.
But in any case my favorite part of Kung-Fu Master! wasn’t the relationship between Birkin and Demy but the one between Birkin and Gainsbourg, the latter of whom, at sixteen, looks positively luminous. The film ends with a lovely scene in which they talk and laugh together as a way of repairing the bond that had been threatened by Mary Jane’s attraction to Julien. Varda captures the intimacy between mother and daughter beautifully in this moment. Last night on the subway I was struck to see this in real life—a college girl putting her head on her mother’s shoulder, her mother stroking her cheek. But then again watching Gainsbourg and Birkin act together is something very close to seeing real life, too.
I had a professor in grad school who was of the opinion that Steven Spielberg has never made a better movie than Jaws (1975), with Schindler’s List (1993) representing the point at which his career irrevocably jumped the shark, as it were. The argument implicit in that opinion is that Spielberg’s filmography can be divided into serious films (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Lincoln) and entertainments (Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., The Adventures of Tintin). Except of course that Spielberg’s films also cleave along other lines, such as sentimentality/intellectuality, history/fantasy, and sobriety/wit, with many of his films combining these qualities in various ways. E.T., for example, is a sentimental, witty piece of fantasy entertainment, where Close Encounters takes similarly fantastical subject matter but makes it more intellectual (though no less entertaining). Munich and Schindler’s List are equally sober (and serious) historical films, but Munich is arguably the more intellectual/less sentimental of the two. Others, like Lincoln, blur the lines between sentimentality and intellectuality: that’s a film that’s mostly whip-smart, but also not above indulging in some hagiographic sogginess. Etc.
Who would have ever thought that Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” could be used to underscore a sex scene? The piece was used memorably in The Elephant Man (1980) and Platoon (1988) to evoke tragic pathos, but in the gay relationship drama A Very Natural Thing (dir. Christopher Larkin) it signifies the burgeoning romantic passion between David (Robert McLane, billed as Robert Joel) and Mark (Curt Gareth) as they make love by firelight. The piece takes on added resonance when considered in light of Barber’s own homosexuality. It would be tempting to read this as an act of queer re-appropriation—taking Barber back for gay culture after the “Adagio” had been popularized by mainstream films like Platoon—except that A Very Natural Thing, which came out in 1974, got there first.
|Katharine Hepburn with Spencer Tracy in Woman of the Year (dir. George Stevens, 1942).|
Katharine Hepburn’s brownie recipe has been making the rounds on the Internet lately (it was originally published by the New York Times after Hepburn’s death in 2003), and so, being a fan of Hepburn as well as all things chocolate, it only made sense that I should try it out. I can’t say that I love the recipe. It’s heavy on the eggs and low on the flour, so the consistency of the brownies is a little unstable. Getting them out of the pan and cutting them into squares proved difficult, which is why they look wonky (see photo below). I remain partial to Deb Perelman’s recipe over at Smitten Kitchen, but why not try them and decide for yourself?
½ cup cocoa
1 stick butter
1 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup flour
1 cup walnuts or pecans, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla
pinch of salt