Like clockwork: Disney as toy-maker

Jiminy Cricket with mechanical clock figure in Pinocchio.

Leonard Maltin has called Pinocchio (1940) Disney’s “meatiest” animated feature, and I’d say that’s right—at 88 minutes it’s one of the longest films put out by the studio during its classical period (the 125-minute Fantasia being one exception), but it feels less padded than, say, Snow White or Cinderella, and marred by fewer digressive animal gags.  It also marks an extraordinary leap forward from Snow White in terms of its scale and ambition.  Lampwick’s transformation scene, the battle with Monstro the whale, and Pinocchio’s performance of “I’ve Got No Strings”—a musical pastiche that looks ahead to the Nutcracker suite sequence in Fantasia—are among the most impressive sequences that Disney would ever conceive.  The detail work in Pinocchio is also intricate and clever, especially in Geppetto’s toyshop, with its seemingly endless variety of carved clocks and music boxes.    

Geppetto's--and Disney's--craftsmanship.

Pinocchio’s representation of the world of toys, as represented by the workshop scenes, is loving, attentive, and humorous, driven as much by its animators’ desire to capture the movements of mechanical objects as by their affection for their gimmickry.  (The mechanism of one particularly elaborate clock triggers the procession of an entire family of peasants as well as their cow; others depict a hunter taking aim at a cuckoo, a mother spanking her child, baby birds hatching from eggs, and a bee emerging from a sunflower.)  The attention to detail here, coupled with an affection for whimsical objects, lives on in Pixar films like Inside Out and the Toy Story series, with their deep knowledge of how toys work and what they mean.  Disney himself must be seen a toymaker whose creative energies were not limited to film animation but extended to the three-dimensional arts.  Disneyland may be the ultimate magic toyshop, a feat of craftsmanship and design accomplished via the use of puppets, scale models, and trompe l’oeil, realized by Disney’s team of “imagineers.”  Anyone who has experienced Disneyland’s “It’s A Small World” attraction—a boat-ride through a series of dioramas populated by what would appear to be hundreds of mechanical dolls, something akin to wandering through a real-life version of Geppetto’s workshop—will recognize the same animating spirit that drives so much of Pinocchio.

Pinocchio with Russian doll: looking ahead to Fantasia...and "It's A Small World"


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, sleepy eyes and dad jeans.  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.