Juliette dreams of L'Atalante

Dita Parlo as Juliette in L'Atalante (dir. Jean Vigo, 1934).

In sleep she dreamed her way back on the barge, where the sounds of the city were as distant as an echo and where one drifted off to the lapping of the water on the hull of the boat and the yowling of the cats mating in the night.  In these dreams she found herself pressed tight against Jean’s wiry chest, his arms holding her close to him as they lay dozing fitfully in their cabin, drenched in the sweat of late July, Père Jules’ snores quaking through the wall.  She dreamed that she was sleeping—or rather forgot where she was sleeping and imagined herself in that other bed with the smell of unwashed men and mangy cats and bilge water pressing upon her like a fever.  She dreamed of her own memories: of the press of Jean’s lean frame against her back, his hands lightly clasped around her waist.  They would lay like that until the light of the dawn made its way into the cabin and woke her and she would peel herself out of Jean’s embrace (he was a sound sleeper; he never woke up) and slip out of bed, through the cabin door and into the lair of Père Jules, who lay sleeping like a beast or an ogre in a book of fairy tales.  She would crouch down beside him as he lay snoring and farting, his fleshy lips parted to reveal a mouth of rotten teeth like black gumdrops, just watching him (like Jean, he was a sound sleeper); and then, with one eye always peering back at him over her shoulder, she would wander to his vast pile of treasures (the grotesque marionette with the face like a wizened apple, the Chinese fan, the elephant tusk, the music boxes and the mechanical toys, the cloudy glass jar in which the severed hands of his late friend had been pickled), running her hands over them lightly and with the wonder of an enchanted child while the men slept and the water lapped the sides of the boat and the cats sunned themselves in the sharp light of the morning.



The Films of 2017: It

Last night I went to see It and then I had a nightmare in which I was trying to kill a spider the size of a half dollar and the nightmare was approximately fifty times scarier than the movie and almost that many times more interesting.  At the risk of hyperbolizing, It represents everything that’s wrong with Hollywood cinema today.  Director Andy Muschetti and his screenwriters have taken a valuable piece of intellectual property, Stephen King’s magnificent and sprawling 1985 novel about a group of seven misfit children who band together to defeat an evil force haunting their town, and stripped it of its charm and imaginativeness to the point of unrecognizability.  They have shifted the setting from 1958 to 1988 for no conceivable reason other than to pander to the nostalgia of its target demographic—thirty-somethings who, ironically enough, are likely to have grown up on the 1990 TV miniseries adaptation starring Tim Curry.  They have then gone on to jettison any of the subtlety of King’s characters, “update” most of the horror sequences by substituting a host of standard issue ghouls and ghosts, and crank up the action to a headache-inducing fever pitch.  It may have been made for three times the budget, but for pacing, intelligence, and overall craftsmanship it makes the miniseries look like The Godfather.    


The Films of 2017: Beach Rats

The opening scene of Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats finds adolescent Frankie (Harris Dickinson) cruising a gay webcam site in the basement of the home he shares with his blue-collar family on the outer reaches of Brooklyn.  It’s summer vacation, and when he’s not partying with his posse of casually homophobic dude-bros he’s trolling online for gay hookups, usually with older men.  (He claims that he’s drawn to them because he’s less likely to run into them socially, though it’s implied that, like so many other aspects of his sexuality, his real reasons for doing so are not fully known, even to himself.)  Meanwhile, he struggles to keep up appearances by dating Simone, a local flirt he meets on the boardwalk one night while out with his boys.  Addiction further complicates his efforts to manage his sex life: he turns to drugs to help cope with his sexual repression, and he uses gay sex as a means of scoring drugs.   


The Films of 2017: mother!

Say what you will about Darren Aronofsky—he is an artist who is always himself.  Aside from the occasional detour into kitchen-sink realism (The Wrestler), Aronofsky specializes in high-octane mind-fucks, Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan being the best of these.  His latest, mother!, begins like an absurdist comedy by Albee or Pinter: a barrage of strangers descends upon the isolated farmhouse shared by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, insinuating themselves into the couple’s privacy and appropriating their space.  While Lawrence grows more and more frazzled with each ding-dong of the doorbell, Bardem remains curiously unfazed, even as the houseguests continue to multiply like Ionesco’s chairs.  Their foils in this first half of the film are another couple played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, the former of whom praises Bardem's professional talents while the latter takes passive-aggressive jabs at Lawrence’s childlessness.  The mounting sense of unease is compounded by touches of the Gothic (what’s down in the basement?).  Then, suddenly, the narrative of the film is swept clean and seems to start over again, only to give way to more outrageous horrors.


Animal time

Raccoon in The Domain of the Moment (dir. Stan Brakhage, 1977).
A few years ago when Criterion released its Blu-ray edition of the films of Stan Brakhage I remember popping in one of the discs and watching, almost at random, 1977’s The Domain of the Moment, a fourteen-minute film structured in four movements (as so many of Brakhage’s films are; he even took the liberty of restructuring Dante’s tripartite Divine Comedy as The Dante Quartet, with two times the hell).  Each of Domain’s movements is devoted to the observation of a different animal: a baby chick, a guinea pig, a raccoon, a snake.  Like the subjects of Chris Marker’s Bestiaire, Brakhage’s animals are rendered as sources of mystery and wonder, vectors for the radical curiosity that Brakhage brought to all of his work.  I can remember being instantly gripped by the tactility and intimacy of this film, which opens with Brakhage’s 16mm camera just centimeters away from the chick as it picks its way through what I imagine is the backyard of the Brakhage family’s Colorado homestead.   

The title of the film refers to the sense in which, presumably unconscious of time, animals occupy a continuous present.  Years ago I heard an interview with a veterinary oncologist who noted that animals “have mastered the art of living in the moment.”  Brakhage’s films, which so often attempt to imagine various states of subjective experience (usually related to the act of seeing), here considers what it feels like when nothing exists outside of the field through which one is running, or the grass one is nibbling, or the window at which one is pawing…or the mouse one is devouring.


Sitting tall

Alan Ladd as Shane.

I credit Jane Tompkins’ West of Everything for sparking my interest in the Western genre.  Despite (or perhaps as a result of) having grown up watching my dad watching the complete filmography of John Wayne ad nauseum on VHS, I had little interest in watching, thinking about, or otherwise engaging with Westerns.  They were boring and they took place in ugly, dusty frontier towns and there never seemed to be any women in them—only men, doing boring masculine things.  Then, as a graduate student with a budding interest in gender studies, I came upon Tompkins’ book.  It seemed revelatory, and yet everything that she says about Westerns had been there in front of my eyes all along, even though I couldn’t see it.  Of course Westerns are all about men doing masculine things, and of course the women in them are pushed to the periphery.  They are epic dramas of male anxiety, of men in crisis, of violence and pain and, yes, heroism.  And, as Tompkins observes in the opening chapter of her book, they are obsessed with death—“in these films death is almost the only thing.”  Through the lenses of psychoanalysis and gender, the entire genre now seemed as vast and mesmerizing as a Monument Valley landscape.

A year later I was teaching a college writing course on the Western.  I assigned three films, the first of which was Shane (dir. George Stevens, 1952).  It seemed (still seems?) to me an iconic representation of the Western hero as mythic figure.  No matter that Shane is played by the famously diminutive Alan Ladd (he stood only 5’6”!): as Shane, he towers—metaphorically—over nice-but-ineffectual homesteader Joe Starrett, played by the six-foot-tall Van Heflin.  For better or worse, phallic power in the Western isn’t always about brawn; it’s about a certain grim determination to see things out, even if it means taking a bullet in the process, and about being quicker on the draw than the other guy.  (In this case, the Other Guy is played by a supremely creepy Jack Palance.)  Masculinity depends upon illusion and performance, literally embodied by Ladd as filmed by Stevens; thanks to movie magic, Shane appears larger than life.  It helps, too, that Ladd’s most frequent scene partner in Shane is the then-ten-year-old Brandon de Wilde, and that, shot from low angles while sitting down, he appears taller than he really was.   

Shane gives a shooting lesson to Joey (Brandon de Wilde).

What’s more interesting than the dynamic between good guy and bad guy in Shane is that between good guy and good guy.  Shane and Joe are buddies, their friendship cemented by an early scene in which, unprompted, Shane helps Joe uproot a pesky tree stump; but they both know that only Shane can effectively rid the town of its resident terrorizers, which means that Shane eventually resorts to beating Joe unconscious in order to keep him safe from harm during the film’s climactic shootout.  Sometimes love, it seems, means beating the shit out of your best buddy.  Such is the gendered logic of this most anxious of film genres.

Shane and Joe wrestling the stump...

...and each other.


The Films of 2017: The Ornithologist

Between Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ The Ornithologist and Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical, 2017 is shaping up to be a banner year for movies about the picaresque sexual misadventures of beautiful European men.  Where Guiraudie’s film wrote large the fears and fantasies of a bi-curious French writer, Rodrigues’ film concerns a gay ornithologist (played by French actor Paul Hamy) who experiences a series of bizarre encounters while on a scouting expedition in the forests of Portugal.  After his kayak is destroyed by rapids he is rescued, or more accurately kidnapped, by a pair of giggling Chinese lesbians; he has a violent and erotic rendezvous with a deaf-mute shepherd; he runs afoul of a band of brilliantly costumed marauders; he survives an accidental attack by a trio of bare-breasted female hunters.  He’s repeatedly visited by two birds, an owl and a dove--are they supernatural agents, or is he merely suffering from hallucinations?  Then, in the film’s final scenes, he undergoes a mysterious transfiguration: after purging himself of his ID and other possessions, and having singed off his fingerprints, he is reborn as Saint Anthony of Padua (!).


The Films of 2017: The short takes of summer

We’re more than halfway through the year in film, a good time to take stock of what I’ve missed and what I need to catch up with.  Some thoughts on three recent viewings:

I’ve never been much of a Christopher Nolan fan, but his latest, the WWII historical drama Dunkirk, is splendid: it approaches the material with a restraint and a tactfulness that feels somehow quintessentially British, and at 106 minutes it’s just the right length.  There’s none of the pretentiousness or bloat that has (pardon the pun) capsized Nolan’s previous work, even if his playing with chronology makes things unnecessarily complicated at points.  It also sports a superb performance by Mark Rylance as a middle-class English civilian whose determination to do his part in rescuing his imperiled countrymen drives the most compelling of the film’s various plot strands.  Recommended.   

Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja could be seen as a spiritual sequel to his last film, Snowpiercer—another broadly conceived political fantasy featuring a large international cast.  (Korean newcomer Seo-Hyeon Anh appears alongside Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and Tilda Swinton in, of course, dual roles, wearing, of course, wonky teeth.)  Where Snowpiercer was an action thriller for the Occupy Wall Street era Okja tackles such hot-button issues as genetically modified food and animal rights.  As with Bong’s previous films, it’s cartoonish and fun enough that the crashing obviousness of its “points” ends up not mattering all that much.  Recommended, but don’t expect, say, Brazil.

More subtle is Asgar Farhadi’s The Salesman, a domestic drama that’s as suspenseful as any of this year’s thrillers.  Set amongst a group of stage actors putting on a performance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, its utilization of a personal crisis as a means of exploring larger ethical questions recalls such other great works of drama as Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden.  Ostensibly the story of a high school teacher’s quest to take revenge on his wife’s assailant, it slowly morphs into a pitiless and ironic satire about the fragility of the male ego.  And there’s something of the nervous tension of Roman Polanski’s apartment films in the opening scenes of the film, as the central couple moves into a unit in a housing complex still crowded with the belongings of the previous tenant.  Recommended.       

I’m tempted to make a joke that James Gray’s The Lost City of Z ought to be retitled The Lost City of Zzzzzz.  But I don’t want to beat up on this film too badly, because it’s such a lovingly mounted period piece, photographed in burnished gold tones by Darius Khondji (with whom the director previously collaborated on The Immigrant).  While long and not particularly gripping, it’s also sensitive and thoughtful.  Recommended, but with some reservation.