The killer

Viggo Mortensen in A History of Violence (2005).

Has there been a more consummate director of genre films in the last thirty years than David Cronenberg?  A History of Violence (2005) is the kind of film that recent thrillers like Hell or High Water dream of being, a wicked little neo-noir founded on the simplest of premises: a small-town family man is revealed to have a secret past as a contract killer.  And yet, by virtue of Cronenberg’s talent as a storyteller and his willfulness as a connoisseur of the perverse, it opens onto something more sinuously dark and troubling than anything a fair-to-middling filmmaker like David Mackenzie could ever have dreamt up.  Cronenberg ranks with John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock as a world-class filmmaker whose utterly unique vision is perhaps best expressed when he’s working within the pre-fab codes of genre cinema.  A History of Violence is as profound and ironic in its understanding of the paradoxes of American morality as The Man who Shot Liberty Valance or Shadow of a Doubt or Out of the Past, all of which it invokes to varying degrees. 

Family portrait.  Tellingly, Sarah has just woken up from a nightmare about "monsters."

These films aren’t just about the sickness under the surface of American life.  They’re about the centrality of violence to America’s history, its inescapability as well as its incompatibility with the vision of a nation that it has tried to build, crystallized in the figure of the killer/hero.  A History of Violence asks, quite literally, whether a place at the family dinner table can be made for the man whose talent for killing has both saved the family and threatened to break it apart.  At the end of films like Shane and The Searchers, the killer/hero remains shut out from the social structures he has worked to protect, a taboo figure doomed to wander the far side of the frontier; at the end of A History of Violence, the question is posed, can he be domesticated, and, even if he can, do we want him to be?  The film concludes with an intensely charged, wordless sequence—as good an example of the economy and elegance of Cronenberg’s style as any in his filmography—in which a series of gazes is made to symbolize the conflict that has always attended our relationship to the killer/hero.  Maria Bello’s Edie becomes a stand-in for the audience, simultaneously frightened of, turned on by, and fascinated with the violent edge of a character we thought we loved because he was so good. 

Edie and Tom: the final shots.

Like Hitchcock, Cronenberg understands that violence begins at home: it doesn’t lurk “out there” but is already “in here.”  It’s in this respect that A History of Violence most resembles Hitchcock’s masterpiece Shadow of a Doubt.  Both films are domestic dramas that turn on a traumatic fall into knowledge and evil, catalyzed by the realization that a beloved family member is not who he seems to be.  In A History of Violence that realization is made all the more emphatic by Viggo Mortensen’s performance as Tom Stall/Joey Cusack.  Mortensen has arguably never looked blander than he does as Tom, with his bad haircut and sleepy eyes.  Then in the action scenes (as “Joey”) he snaps to life, his body seeming to move on pure instinct.  There’s an absolutely chilling moment (see above) when, immediately following a bloody showdown in his front yard, Mortensen moves to embrace his teenage son, his face spattered with blood, his eyes glittering, looking like a man possessed.  Mortensen and Cronenberg don’t just show us Joey and Tom, the killer and the hero, as two sides of the same man—they show them to us at the same time.  In A History of Violence the sickness isn’t under the surface; the sickness is the surface.


The Films of 2017: Get Out

The credits sequence for Get Out, the recent horror comedy written and directed by Jordan Peele, is set to a groovy, unsettling piece of music called “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga,” the lyrics of which are not so much sung as hissed, over ominous shots of a forest as seen from the window of a passing car.  The music conjures up images of witches or Satanists invoking the powers of hell, but the words are Swahili for “listen to your ancestors,” a warning sign aimed at Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young black photographer heading to his white girlfriend Rose’s parents’ country home for the weekend.  It’s one of the many ways in which, throughout the film, familiar horror (and comedy) conventions are seen as through a glass darkly, refracted through the lens of race.  In the eyes of the film’s black characters, a tree-lined suburban street is as nervous-making as a dark alley would be to white characters in a different movie, and a McMansion that looks like something straight out of HGTV feels as creepy as a haunted house.  (One convention holds constant: going to the cops for help proves to be an exercise in futility.) 


"Sunrise": Between two worlds

Several years ago I wrote about how the pleasures of American silent cinema so often resemble the pleasures of the 19th-century realist novel—something that Sergei Eisenstein (among others) began theorizing even before silent movies went the way of the horse and carriage.  For me, those pleasures have to do with well-made plots, melodramatic turns, crashing sentimentality, brushes of Gothic gloom.  One of the things that make such films exciting is the way they yoke together these old-fashioned conventions with the speed and kineticism of cinema as a modern technology. 

I’m thinking about this now in the wake of having re-watched F. W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise (1927), an extraordinary film by any standard.  A cynical viewer would see its plot as driven by the hoariest of clichés; a more generous one would see it as a film working within the realm of archetype, in which familiar structures and oppositions (night/day, country/city) are drawn upon in order to evoke a kind of universal dramatic power.  This is a film, after all, that establishes its characters as figures out of time and space; nameless, they are meant to stand for men and women everywhere, and the logic of the plot is that of fairy tales, with true love acting as a kind of magic antidote to death.

Then the archetypes of Sunrise proceed to dissolve—quite literally—into something striking and modernist, through Murnau’s innovative use of split screens, projections, and other optical effects.  From the very first shots of the film proper, a whirring montage of urban life which is then juxtaposed against the slow rhythms of the village, Sunrise creates a palimpsest of images representative not only of different spaces but also of different levels of reality and fantasy, the boundaries of which are constantly blurring into each other, perhaps most memorably when the central couple wanders out into traffic in a blissed-out daze, and the busy street dissolves into an enchanted forest.  (A friend of my roommate who happened to wander into the living room in the middle of the film remarked that it was “trippy.”)  The dazzling power of a film like Sunrise has much to do with the instability of its modes and styles, and its fluidity in moving back and forth between the familiar and the new.



"Raging Bull": A love story

Raging Bull: Jake (Robert de Niro) and Joey (Joe Pesci).

Upon watching Raging Bull last weekend for the first time in about nine years I was astonished—not just by Martin Scorsese’s direction and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing work, which remain as stunning as ever, but by Joe Pesci as Joey La Motta, which seems to me as just about as note-perfect a screen performance as any I’ve ever seen, and by the realization that the film is, more than anything else, about the tragic unraveling of the relationship of the brothers Joey and Jake.  Like so many films in the straight-guy film canon, Raging Bull is a buddy picture, a homosocial love story in which we are vastly more invested in the bond between the two men at the heart of the film than we are in any of its ancillary male-female relationships.  The last time I saw the film (in 2008) it struck me as “revealing the extent to which patriarchal systems destroy men as well as women,” and it still seems to me relentless in its exposure of what Internet critics today would probably call toxic masculinity—a heady brew of homophobia, misogyny, and fear of inadequacy, in which men’s tightly coiled fears about gender and sexuality repeatedly explode in scenes of violence.  It’s all there from the very first dialogue scene between Jake and Joey, where Jake confesses that he’s self-conscious about his “girl hands,” and then commands Joey to punch him in the face, over and over again, in order to prove (to Joey? To himself?) his toughness.   

Jake and Joey at table: "girl hands."

The relatively grounded Joey frequently serves as a voice of reason to Jake’s paranoia and emotional volatility.  In the “girl hands” scene, Joey tells Jake “I got ’em too” and when Jake complains that he’ll never get to fight Joe Louis, he says “He’s a heavyweight, you’re a middleweight.  It’s impossible.  It’ll never happen.  So why go crazy thinking about it?”  Throughout the film he tries to call Jake on his irrationality, his abusiveness, and his jealousy.  Other scenes find Joey doing something more complicated; like Jake, he is quick to assert his masculinity whenever it gets called into question, often by imitating Jake’s behavior.  Immediately after Jake reprimands his wife Vickie for talking back to him and orders her to take their child and leave the room, Joey does the same thing to his own wife—though there’s less raw anger coming off of him, because he’s only posturing. 

Jake reprimands Vickie (Cathy Moriarty); Joey reprimands Lenore (Teresa Saldana).

Much to his credit, Joey is never overcome by the same violent rage that’s always seething inside of Jake.  But he has to pretend it’s there.  Joey is always, often comically, falling short of a masculine “ideal” that Jake establishes.  (The one exception to this occurs when Joey, again acting as a kind of proxy for Jake, upbraids Vickie for coming to the Copacabana with Jake’s nemesis Salvy…and proceeds to beat Salvy to a pulp.)  What’s ironic is that Joey’s “failure” to be governed by that same violent rage—his level-headedness, his sense of humor, his willingness to shrug things off—is what saves him from spiraling into obsession and self-destruction the way that Jake does.

Whether or not it was ever the conscious design of Scorsese and his co-screenwriters, Raging Bull is as maniacal and punishing a film about the codes of male behavior as it is about boxing.  It’s a film populated entirely by men who are prisoners of an ideology that causes them to police their every action—and those of everyone around them.  Hence the homophobic insults that punctuate nearly every scene of the film (“you punch like you take it up the ass”; “what are ya, some sort of fag?”; “I’ll give you both a fuckin’ beating and you both can fuck each other”).  The homophobic discourse in the film is predicated on the ultimate fear of being fucked by another man—to “take it up the ass.”  And yet at its core the film is a homosocial romance about bonds between men being sundered, the penultimate scene of which finds Jake begging Joey to “give [him] a kiss,” clinging to him in desperation, looking for all the world like a heartsick lover.

The final embrace: "Give me a kiss"


In memoriam: Radley Metzger, 1929-2017

Pictured: a self-referential shot from the beginning of Camille 2000 (1969), directed by Radley Metzger, one of the wittiest and most stylish of sexploitation filmmakers.  Metzger died this weekend at the age of eighty-eight, leaving behind a body of work that represents porno at its most chic.  No other director working in 1970s exploitation cinema was so successful at making erotic films that worked as films in addition to working as erotica.  (He was probably the inspiration for Jack Horner, the Burt Reynolds character in Boogie Nights, who aspires to make pornography into high art—though the results of Horner's efforts are vastly, and hilariously, inferior to Metzger’s.)

Metzger’s early films Camille 2000 (panned by Roger Ebert) and The Lickerish Quartet (1970) are ironic and clever erotic dramas laced with dark comedy; both films also frequently make reference to themselves as films, with the characters of The Lickerish Quartet—a family of erotic connoisseurs, to borrow a phrase from Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience—repeatedly waxing philosophical about sex, screens, and spectatorship.  But such touches feel like third-rate Resnais (or fourth-rate Godard), a desperate bid on Metzger’s part to intellectually legitimize a genre that was, and still is, dismissed as trash.  In the later films—Score (1974), The Image (1975), and his magnum opus The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976)—he jettisoned the avant-garde flourishes and instead put his energy into his scripts and production design.  The mid-70s films sport literate screenplays, eye-popping art direction, and lubricious cinematography.  While other X-rated films were being made on makeshift sets and in Skid Row motel rooms, Metzger was shooting on location in Paris and Rome; Score took him and his cast to the coast of Croatia.  And his sex scenes are nearly always compelling, because they arise out of the tensions and conflicts of his characters.  Score, for example, is a slow-burner in which the erotic tension between two couples slowly mounts over the course of the film, culminating in a sexual set piece that’s as dramatically satisfying as it is arousing.        

Charting the progression of Metzger’s talent over the course of the 1970s, we see him discovering that the way to class up porn was not to experiment with film-theory gimmicks and distancing devices; it was to stage sex within beautiful make-believe worlds.  (The most cutting-edge thing about them may be their heteroflexibility: men and women in Metzger’s films often swing both ways.)  His films give us fantasy sex at its most glamorous, cosmopolitan, whimsical, delicious.  To quote Woody Allen: "if only life were like this!"

(From top to bottom: Daniele Gaubert and Nino Castelnuovo in Camille 2000; Gerald Grant and Casey Donovan in Score; Mary Mendum and Valerie Marron in The Image; and Constance Money and Jamie Gillis in The Opening of Misty Beethoven.


The Films of 2017: A Quiet Passion

Writing about the films of Terence Davies, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I prefer his autobiographical tone poems (Distant Voices, Still Lives; The Long Day Closes; Of Time and the City) to his literary dramas (The House of Mirth; The Deep Blue Sea; Sunset Song), the latter of which often send up sinking under their own weight.  Davies’ latest, a portrait of Emily Dickinson titled A Quiet Passion, is in the tradition of the latter category, and like those other period dramas it’s anchored by a female performance of formidable strength.  Though hardly anyone else would have likely thought of her, Cynthia Nixon turns out to be exactly the right choice to play the Belle of Amherst: she has the quiet steeliness of will, the sly humor, and the hauntedness familiar to anyone who knows her poems.  The vibrancy of the cast, which also includes Jennifer Ehle and Keith Carradine, is one of the things that keeps A Quiet Passion from going the way of so many other biopics…and some other Davies films.


Sex and violence: "Week End" as psychotronic cinema

Earlier this week I wrote about Godard’s Week End (1967) as film that marked a turning point in the history of the French New Wave as well as in Godard’s career.  It can also be seen as a key example of a psychotronic film that blurs the lines between highbrow and lowbrow, avant-garde film and horror film, art-house cinema and paracinema.  Joan Hawkins has argued that these lines were frequently blurred by filmmakers like Mario Bava, Herk Hervey, and Dario Argento, whose films were as likely to get mentioned in the pages of Fangoria as in Film CommentWeek End strikes me as a similar case of a filmmaker working in high- and low-brow registers at the same time, however unintentionally, to create a film that ultimately resists classification or categorization. 

Godard’s 1960s films often flirt playfully at the margins of sexploitation and pornography, usually in order to subvert or frustrate audiences’ desire for sexual titillation.  Vivre Sa Vie (1962), for example, is among the least sexy films ever made about sex—Godard’s point being, of course, that sex is really just a form of economic exchange as calculated and emotionless as any other.  Contempt (1963), too, finds Godard cleverly obstructing the demands put on him by American distributor Joe Levine to exploit the sex appeal of its star, Brigitte Bardot.  In Week End, Godard drops an erotic set piece into the film that’s similarly prankish: he films Mireille Darc, a French sex symbol in her own right (though maybe not on the level of Bardot), delivering a pornographic monologue of some nine minutes.  But her body is almost totally obscured by shadow, her voice is all but drowned out by Antoine Duhamel’s portentous score, and the monologue is only a quotation from Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye.  It’s an oblique variation on Bibi Andersson’s erotic monologue in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, released the year before, which Godard had reportedly been struck by.  Both Persona and Week End are highbrow art films that play with, mix up, and in some ways deliver on U.S. audiences’ assumptions about European art films being both more sophisticated and more sexually free than anything that was coming out of mainstream Hollywood (which, to be fair, was probably true).  

Week End: The erotic (?) monologue.
But what struck me more upon re-watching Week End was the way that it anticipates some of the grislier mondo films of the 1970s and early 1980s, particularly the Italian cannibal films of Ruggero Deodato (Jungle Holocaust, Cannibal Holocaust, Cut and Run).  These notorious films, which have gone on to become cult classics, mix scenes of simulated rape and cannibalism, unsimulated footage of animal slaughter, and graphic nudity, all under the guise of faux-ethnography (Deodato’s films pretend to be documentaries, a device that feels in its own way Godardian).  I couldn’t help but think of Deodato as I reflected on the final section of Week End, in which our heroes are beset by a tribe of Maoist cannibals who have set up camp in the French countryside, and in which we’re treated to shots of livestock being butchered on camera.  While Godard doesn’t stoop to the same pornographic shock tactics that Deodato does, both Week End and the Italian cannibal films are akin in their spirit of épater le bourgeoisie.  In their casual ugliness, and their shared attempt to push at the limits of what mainstream cinema will allow, a piece of Eurotrash like Jungle Holocaust and an avant-garde art film like Week End end up meeting in the middle.  Such are the circuitous paths taken by films that defy the straightforward logic of the multiplex.

Exploitation and marketing: posters for Week End and Last Cannibal World (a.k.a. Jungle Holocaust).


The Films of 2017: Personal Shopper

Near the end of Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria the Kristen Stewart character, Valentine, seems to vanish from the film, having wandered away while on a hiking trip with her employer, an insecure and emotionally needy stage actress played by Juliette Binoche. Assayas’ latest is Personal Shopper, a kind of spiritual sequel to Clouds in which Stewart rematerializes as Maureen, assistant to another high-powered and demanding woman very much in the public eye, this time a fashion model and philanthropist based in Paris.  Maureen is revealed to be grappling with heavier traumas than Valentine was: a fledgling spiritualist, she’s anxiously awaiting a sign from the recently deceased twin brother who had promised to contact her from beyond the grave after his death.  But thinking about the broader continuities between the two films becomes helpful in understanding what Assayas is doing here, since Personal Shopper is otherwise such a curious and enigmatic work.  Though it flirts with the tropes of Gothic horror, the film is ultimately about Maureen’s struggle to define herself, her desires, and her relationships within a densely mediated and globalized twenty-first-century world—mediation and globalization being two of the recurrent themes of Assayas’ career. 


Fin de semain, fin de conte, fin de cinema: Godard, "Week End," and endings

Godard’s Week End (1967) is a film of endings and a film about endings—the end of a particularly vibrant and transformative period of French cinema, which had begun in 1959; the end of the French left-wing movements, which were to be squelched the following May; the end of the first phase of Godard’s own career, which constituted an extraordinary run of thirteen films made in almost half as many years.  There is a sense of self-destructive abandon about Week End, a nihilism and a brutality that makes it feel like a final film, in spite of the fact that Godard was only thirty-seven and would continue a career that has extended into his eighties.  Even at the time of its release Week End struck critics as the culmination of something.  “When it comes to Godard, you can only follow and be destroyed,” wrote Pauline Kael.  “Other filmmakers […] can’t walk behind him.  They’ve got to find other ways, because he’s burned up the ground.”  Godard as trail-blazer as well as bridge-burner: not only did he burn up the ground for others in Week End, he burned it up for himself, having gone as far as he could with his experiments with conventional narrative cinema.  Going forward, he would need to forge a new path.      

Flames and apocalypse.

And so it’s also a film that theorizes what comes after an ending.  Week End opens on a Saturday morning, as Roland and Corinne—along with masses of other bourgeois couples and families—risk injury to themselves and each other in their mad dash to get to the countryside (where Our Heroes plan to go about the routine business of poisoning her father for his inheritance).  By Sunday things have devolved into the stuff of apocalyptic nightmare: the roadsides are littered with burning cars and dead bodies, and the forests are teeming with robbers, terrorists, and cannibals.  The film does not end when Monday rolls around, however.  After the weekend is over Godard imagines a future that is something like a return to the past, as the survivors of this apocalypse re-enter a state of nature red in tooth and claw, butchering and eating whatever animals (or people) they can find.  Hardly a happy ending—in fact, one of Godard’s titles announces this as just the opposite.  But it’s typical of Godard’s Marxism that the film ends dialectically, with an ending that is also a beginning of some new chapter in human history, strange and terrible though it may seem.

Life after the week end: the guerillas.

The very last shot of Week End is a close-up of the self-satisfied Corinne (Mireille Darc), perhaps the most hideous of the film’s bourgeois monsters, casually eating the remains of her husband.  She’s only one of a series of would-be femmes fatales in Godard’s 1960s films who regard the destruction of men with a chilling neutrality.  Breathless (1960) and Masculin Feminin (1966) similarly end with close-ups of women left cold by the deaths of their paramours.  Is this an anti-feminist streak that runs throughout the early films?  Is it Godard shaking his fist at the amorality of an entire generation ruined by capitalism?  Both of these interpretations seem out of sync with the tone of Week End, which is more misanthropic than misogynistic, more savage than moralistic, and neither can be said to account for its black comedy.  In Week End in particular we’re made to wonder whether in the next twenty-four hours Corinne the eater will soon become Corinne the eaten.  All three films fade out on shots of the women as victors in some sort of game.  But it’s a game whose rules are random and in which everyone loses in the end.  What happens after that is left for us to determine.     

Closing shots: Jean Seberg in Breathless, Chantal Goya in Masculin Feminin, Mireille Darc in Week End.


The Films of 2017: Beauty and the Beast

Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is the latest in a series of live-action remakes of animated Disney classics, following last year’s The Jungle Book (unseen by me) and 2015’s Cinderella.  The source material for these films, especially the fairy tales, is resilient enough to have survived countless adaptations and retellings over the centuries—maybe because there is, after all, no “original” version of “Cinderella,” variations of which exist in just about every world culture, or of “Beauty and the Beast,” the French lineage of which is attributable to as many as three different authors.  So I’m disinclined to get too bent out of shape over this latest film version, which is manic, overstuffed, and exhausting, and which buries most of the charms of the 1991 version under two tons of ugly-looking CGI.  (Even Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s award-winning songs don’t get away unscathed—they’re pimped out and auto-tuned almost beyond recognition.)  I remind myself that it is simply one more version of a story the legs of which are long enough to outpace any Hollywood blockbuster.


The moment(s) of "Brokeback"

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain (2005).

When it was announced in 2004 that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain had gone into production it was already being called the “gay cowboy movie,” and it seemed impossible to believe that it could be anything but a gimmick.  Then the movie opened at the end of 2005, and it became something else entirely—a critics’ darling and an Oscar hopeful, hyped up and buzzed about.  Within certain circles it was being hailed as a watershed film, while for others it was a novelty item with a premise too ripe to resist mocking.  And so it became impossible to see the film for the controversy that attended it.  Brokeback was more than a movie; it was a cultural phenomenon, a sacred cow, a cause célèbre, and a punchline, something on which everyone, myself included, felt the need to weigh in. 

Ennis cradles Jack's shirt: Brokeback as tear-jerker.

After seeing the movie in January of 2006 at Rochester, New York’s Little Theatre (I still remember the male couple seated several rows ahead of me, one with his arm around the shoulders of the other, dressed in army fatigues) I wrote a journal entry in which I decried the film for making its characters into tragic victims: “Brokeback Mountain’s ending locates homosexuality within a stranglehold of impossibility, danger, shame, and secrecy.”  I was a senior in college at the time and heavily into Six Feet Under, which seemed to me a more progressive cultural text.  These sorts of questions were important to me then.  All in all, Brokeback had left me somewhat cold, and I was not among those who were left heartbroken by its loss at the Oscars that March.  I later went on to publish an academic journal article on the film in which I made a sort of peace with it.  The complexity of the film’s relationship to the Western genre, and its playing with notions of space and landscape, insides and outsides, seemed to me more interesting and more valuable than its politics, whatever those could be said to be.  That was in 2009. 

A film about landscapes.

Now that Brokeback Mountain is more than eleven years old it has become easier to see it for what it is, without the distraction of the punditry and the noise of the winter of 2006.  Re-watching it this weekend (I’m teaching it this semester in a course on films about love and sexuality) Brokeback struck me as better made and more emotionally powerful than I had remembered, and its love story infinitely more wrenching.  If my 2006 journal entry is to be believed, I “was moved and even teared up a little” when I first saw it.  This time I found myself crying nearly all the way through.  I cried at things that I didn’t understand back then—at things I couldn’t have understood as a 21-year-old college student just out of the closet, knowing nothing about love or loss or sex, or what it meant to be gay in the world.  I cried to see Ennis cradling that blood-stained shirt, of course (one of the great tear-jerking scenes in movies, it now seems), but I also cried at the moment that Ennis decides, with no little effort, that he will attend his daughter’s wedding, and presumably begin the work of making a bond with the children from which his closeted psyche has kept him alienated.  (The movie also now strikes me as an extraordinary representation of the effects of sexual repression and fear on mental and emotional health; Ennis’ entire self is poisoned by his closetedness.)  I was moved to remember the loss of Heath Ledger, and by the brilliance of Jake Gyllenhaal’s crystal-blue eyes, so full of yearning and desire.   

Gazes of longing: Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack.

The moment that affected me most strongly, though, is one of the loveliest and most poignant in the film—the first of its scenes that can truly be called a love scene, in which Jack draws Ennis to him with the tenderest of embraces, and you see Ennis’ defenses, which are so hardened, stream off him like water.  It’s the purest, most radiantly innocent moment in Jack and Ennis’ love affair, before any outside threat has intruded upon them.  And yet already they have fallen into something that will mean great pain for both of them.  So many of the things about Brokeback that seemed so important in 2005/2006 don’t matter much anymore; what’s left is the love story, raw and urgent and as full of yearning as Jake Gyllenhaal’s eyes.

A love scene.


The Films of 2017: Staying Vertical

Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake (2014) was a film in which erotic fantasies kept edging into the stuff of nightmares; his new film Staying Vertical is governed by the same dream logic, and by a similar penchant for the slippage between fantasy and reality, fantasy and terror.  It’s too scattershot to be really great, I think, and it feels like a step backward for Guiraudie.  But its surprises are so unexpected and its plot so unpredictable that it’s never uninteresting.  It’s enough to make you wish that Guiraudie had the discipline to do more careful work—or perhaps the ballsiness to be less careful. 


The Films of 2017: Kedi

In the new documentary Kedi, directed by Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun, cats roam the streets of Istanbul like urchins in a Dickens novel, darting down alleyways and clambering up drainpipes, hunting for food scraps and occasionally brushing against the legs of the local vendors and shopkeepers who have become their adoptive caretakers.  The cats make up part of the lifeblood of the city; far from constituting a public nuisance, they are met with warmth and affection by just about everyone who encounters them.  In this urban version of the peaceable kingdom humans and animals live side by side, sharing resources and looking out for one another selflessly.  A generous reading of Kedi would describe it as a portrait not just of the cats but also the people who tend to them, and the urban space they jointly occupy.