Domestic disturbance

Pictured: Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame in In A Lonely Place (1950, dir. Nicholas Ray).  While it would be a bit of a stretch to say that In A Lonely Place is “about” abuse, it seems to me one of the only classical Hollywood films to deal in any real way with the experience of living in fear of a violent intimate partner.  The first half of the movie sets up an engrossing but somewhat conventional noir plot in which Bogart’s character Dix Steele—a Hollywood screenwriter sick of churning out hack work for the studios—becomes the prime suspect in the investigation of the murder of a coat check girl; the second half, in which Dix becomes romantically involved with his neighbor Laurel (Grahame), and she becomes increasingly terrified about running afoul of his temper, is nothing short of stress-inducing.  By the end of the film Dix has been cleared of the charge of murder, but (as Laurel says) it’s too late; he’s already revealed himself to be guilty of a pervasively violent nature (we repeatedly see him picking fights with strangers, and we learn that he has a history of assaulting women).  As Dana Polan has written, "In A Lonely Place shows a violence installed within the heart of dominant culture, ready to break out at any moment." 

One of the most quietly upsetting moments in the film occurs when Dix lashes out at his longtime agent, Mel (Art Lippman), slapping him across the face in the middle of a celebratory engagement party gone awry.  Usually when Bogart hits someone in a movie it’s heroic: here it’s awkward and embarrassing and sad, almost too unbearable to watch.  Mel (pictured above) is a character who enables Dix’s abusive behavior throughout the film, makes excuses for him, and tries to encourage Laurel to excuse it, too, in a cringe-inducing speech late in the film.  (“He has to explode sometimes…always violent!  It’s as much a part of him as the color of his eyes, the shape of his head.  He’s Dix Steele, and if you want him, you’ve got to take it all—the bad with the good.  I’ve taken it for twenty years.”)  Mel represents one of the most heartbreaking things about the film: its depiction of how and why people justify and tolerate the behavior of abusive friends and lovers.  He also goes so far as to suggest that Dix’s violent edge is the thing that attracted Laurel to him in the first place: “you knew he was dynamite!”  Just one scene later Mel is the victim of one of Dix’s “explosions.”  In A Lonely Place is a reminder that the enduring appeal of film noir doesn’t really have to do with solving crimes; it has to do with the confrontation—agonized, troubling, stressful—with a violence that is nearly always domestic.  



The Films of 2017: The Big Sick

Those familiar with the work of Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, This Is 40, Funny People) will recognize his influence on The Big Sick: even though Apatow is only a producer on the film, which is directed by alt-comedy maven Michael Showalter and co-written by Khumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, his influence looms large.  Like Apatow’s better films, The Big Sick is a big-hearted, snappy, occasionally digressive comedy about juggling family, work, and love in modern America.  It’s made unique by the culturally specific comedic voice of Nanjiani, playing himself as a fledgling stand-up comic hustling in Chicago and trying to keep his matchmaking mother at bay (his parents, both Pakistani immigrants, insist that he marry a good Muslim girl).  Khumail’s situation gets complicated when he falls for an adorably wonky psychology student named Emily, played by Zoe Kazan (a latter-day Annie Hall to his Alvy Singer); things get more complicated still when she undergoes hospitalization for a severe infection and he is forced to bond awkwardly with her distressed parents, played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter.  The film’s deployment of familiar rom-com conventions—break-ups and make-ups and montage sequences of the rituals of coupledom—is rounded out by its willingness to look beyond the vantage point of its central couple in order to consider other relationships and other conflicts, with both sets of parents acting as foils for Khumail and Emily. 


The long and winding road

Hunter (Hunter Carson) and Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) on opposite sides of the street in Paris, Texas (1984).

I celebrated Father’s Day this weekend by re-watching Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984), a movie that arguably sports one of the loveliest and gentlest father-son relationships in cinema.  Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis, who has been absent for half the length of his seven-year-old son Hunter’s life, spends the second act of the movie slowly regaining Hunter’s trust, like someone trying to coax a spooked cat out from under a bed (abandoned by both his mother and father, Hunter has been raised by his uncle and aunt, played by Dean Stockwell and Aurore Clement, whom he has come to regard as his parents).  In one of the many scenes in the film that brings tears to my eyes, Travis sets out to win Hunter’s admiration by dressing up like a dude and walking him home from school, and Hunter, impressed but shy, walks home on the opposite side of the street until finally Travis crosses over to Hunter’s side and the two continue to walk home together, framed in a shot that is all the more powerful for being wordless and static.  The seeds of their reconciliation have been sown in a previous scene in which they watch home movies shot before Travis’ absence—the nuclear family unit still intact.  By the time the home movie ends, Hunter has slowly crept from his position in the corner of the living room to the edge of the couch where Travis sits, father and son brought together by their shared gaze at the screen.  

Family viewing: father and son share a gaze.

Travis is both good father and bad father, deadbeat and hero and, ultimately, enigma: a figure for parenthood riven with mistakes and redeemed by love.  Stanton has never given another performance this staggeringly good, nor has he ever been given the opportunity to do so; a venerable character actor, Paris, Texas marks one of the only times he’s been asked to carry an entire 145-minute film, and he does so effortlessly.  (It’s impossible to imagine another actor playing this role.)  His laconic acting style is perfectly suited to the poetry of Sam Shepard’s screenplay.  Stanton’s face is weathered and drawn—he was nearly sixty when he made the film—but there is immense kindness there, and Travis comes to life, however briefly, at the memory of his lost happiness, captured in flickers in the home movies he watches with Hunter.  Stanton has never been so affecting as he is in the final scenes of Paris, Texas, in which Travis confronts his estranged wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) through the two-way mirror of a Houston peep-show booth.  In the pair of monologues that structure these scenes, Stanton and Kinski—and Shepard and Wenders—take the movie to emotional territory that’s so unfamiliar and unpredictable it feels mind-bending.  Stanton’s Travis is in many ways as unknowable at the end as he is at the beginning, when he’s first seen silently wandering through the Mojave Desert. But in the interim we’ve been shown the vast reserves of hauntedness that he carries around with him like invisible weight, just behind those heavy, sad eyes.  Paris, Texas is a road movie in which the journey isn’t so much about traveling the distance between Texas and California as it is about slowly filling in (some of) the gaps in Travis’ long and winding backstory.

Jane (Nastassja Kinski) and Travis reunited.


M is for...

Metropolis, modernism, montage.  I recently got around to watching the 2010 restoration of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) on Blu-ray, a cut of the film that restored some twenty-five minutes of footage, long thought to be lost forever, which was discovered in Buenos Aires in 2008.  Even in its earlier form the film was already a modernist masterpiece, a science-fiction parable set in a dystopian city-as-world: above ground millionaire businessmen and their sons lead lives of indolent luxury while faceless masses toil in subterranean factories.  The film both glamorizes the modern city and reflects anxieties about how it runs.  It opens with an arresting montage sequence of chugging pistons and spinning wheels, and it ends with images of urban pandemonium—exploding machines and flooded streets.  The gleam and power of modern urban space are rendered sublime in Metropolis—awesome and terrifying.  The film could be called a sublime piece of modernist architecture in itself, a towering achievement built out of massive sets and cutting-edge special effects.

Marxism, machines, mass revolution.  The politics of Metropolis are fascinating and notoriously convoluted.  It indiscriminately mixes socialist and religious ideology (the saintlike Maria preaches the gospel of Marxism and Christianity from a makeshift sanctuary in an underground catacomb), never minding Marx’s quip about religion being the opiate of the masses.  And even as the figures of bourgeois capitalism are villainized, there’s more than a little of Nietzsche in the film’s idea that society can only be saved by an enlightened member of the upper classes (namely, the liberal humanist Freder Frederson); left to their own devices, the proletariat is nothing but a mass of rowdy, self-destructive children.  Lang himself would later blame the film’s reductive and sentimental catchphrase—“the heart must act as a mediator between the head and the hands”—on his wife and screenwriter, Thea von Harbou. 

Mad scientist.  The “Machine Man” Rotwang has crazy hair and bug eyes, lives in a witch’s hut, toils to create a female cyborg in the image of his lost love.  In his laboratory, with its foaming beakers and glowing electric coils, are the seeds of a million sci-fi derivations, from Bride of Frankenstein and Re-Animator to Weird Science and Ex Machina.    

Maria, misogyny.  The figure of Maria demonstrates the film’s overlaying of Christian ideology, Marxist philosophy, and the conventions of a romantic adventure plot.  She is a religious figure, a revolutionary, and a love interest for Freder.  She is also a figure for the dual nature of woman as seen through the distorting lens of patriarchy: good girl/bad girl, virgin/whore, damsel and distress/witch.  The film ends with a clinch between the “true” Maria and Freder while the “false” Maria burns at a stake.  And there are fewer sequences in film more clear-eyed about the patriarchal unconscious than the one in which the false Maria—performing in Metropolis’ Orientalized red-light district, Yoshiwara—gyrates before an audience of men as they pant and seethe with lust and rage.



Ma vie en Cherbourg

Christmas in Cherbourg: Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) reunited.

Première partie: December 1998.  I receive a VHS copy of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), a Christmas present.  I’ve never seen the film before but I’m aware that it’s something of a classic, and that every word of its dialogue is sung.  I watch it on the 13” TV in my bedroom and, moony teenager that I am, I find myself moved to tears by the final scene—Genevieve and Guy meeting at the gas station at Christmas, snow falling through the black night around them.  I want to live in the world of this movie.  Every object, every space in it seems to my adolescent imagination perfect: the coziness of the magasin, the vases of flowers in the Emery apartment, the affects on Genevieve’s dressing table.  The colors of the film don’t feel oppressive or strange—they feel charming and lovely.  At first I am jarred by the sung dialogue, especially the blare of jazz with which it begins in the mechanic’s shop.  But I am soon enraptured by it, and I cry for the lovers, cruelly ripped apart by circumstance.  For me at fourteen, barely out of puberty, love is something that only exists in the movies.                

The magasin as a space of color and fantasy.

Douxième partie: January 2005.  College friends invite me to a French film party.  Everyone is supposed to bring a French film to share.  I bring a DVD copy of Umbrellas along with a boy I have just begun dating—my first.  He has a pierced nipple and wears a hemp necklace braided with rainbow-colored beads.  We watch at my friend’s apartment and drink cheap wine out of tumblers. My friends giggle at the movie—the singing, the colors, the broadness of the emotion.  They also giggle at my date; they can see he’s all wrong for me.  He and I break up a few weeks later.  After many years I look him up on Facebook and see that he’s married now, living somewhere I can’t remember.        

Lover's vows: "I will wait for you"

Troisième partie: November 2014.  I buy Criterion’s new box set of Jacques Demy films on Blu-ray and I’m eager to watch Umbrellas with my live-in boyfriend, a musician.  “This director is gay, right?”, he asks me.  “There’s no way a straight man made this movie.  The entire thing is pink!”  I explain that it’s complicated; Demy came out as bisexual late in life but remained happily married to Agnes Varda until his death of AIDS.  A week or so later he surprises me by bringing home the sheet music to Roland Cassard’s aria (my favorite piece of the film’s score) and begins playing it on our piano as I’m in the kitchen washing dishes.  A year later we’re broken up.  By that time I’ve learned how to play Cassard’s aria on my own.     

Roland Cassard: "Autre fois jai aime une femme..."

Quatrième partie: June 2017.  At a birthday party for a friend, four of us watch Umbrellas after dinner, projected onto a screen via the online streaming service FilmStruck.  There is some laughter at the colors (“that wallpaper!”) and at the film’s more audacious touches, like the shot of Guy and Genevieve gliding down the street as if on a moving walkway.  But I’m just as enraptured by the film as I was as a teenager, and I find myself crying for the lovers in all their beautiful innocence.  I’m single now; watching the final scene I wonder, is Guy happy with Madeleine?  Would he have been happier with Genevieve?  Genevieve’s mother seems to me wiser than she once did—pragmatic and cynical, perhaps, but hardly villainous.  And that final scene doesn’t seem so sad as it once did.  In the world of Jacques Demy, old lovers are lost to time and chance and new lovers are found; the music keeps playing; life goes on; the broken promises of youth (“I will wait for you”) are not so much tragic as they are innocent and beautiful in their fragility; and possibility is always waiting on the other side of heartbreak.

Young love.