I meant to get this out a month ago for Halloween, but here’s a (delayed) review of one of the great, deranged, unsung horror classics of 1968, and one which by virtue of totally refusing to put its finger on the pulse of that year, seems to encapsulate it all the more so.
So many horror films from the late 1960s feel prepackaged to unpack the fluctuations and transformations of the era for us, as though hyper-conscious of and possibly imprisoned by their self-regarding ability to divulge the hidden truths of time’s passing for us. They read and tease out the machinations and contortions of the era with a self-conscious precision. Their symbolic maneuvers and eloquent gestures of barbed analysis are so clearly and elegantly primed to scrutinize and inspect, statically, what was in reality lurching around them in media res. Some of the hungriest films of the genre produced at that time, namely Night of the Living Dead, still quiver with unassuming dementedness, but many of the otherwise-sharp films from those years exert so much energy monumentalizing the time-period – arriving at the thesis that sums up the time period – that they reject the lower registers of the time period’s insanity for clear-eyed, and thus, somewhat surface-bound, inspection. They order and explain away the tumultuousness so much so that they risk missing the period-specific chaos around them, and where that chaos might take them if they were to listen to it.
That’s certainly understandable. Explanatory potency and acumen are essential features of the cinema, not to be neglected. But they don’t arrive at their conclusions without casualty, and Spider Baby is one of those casualties. Compared to, say, Rosemary’s Baby, released in the same year and a little too aware of the-already canonized importance of that year in some ways, Spider Baby feels positively anti-canonical, unadorned and unalloyed to any critical sensibility consciously informing the material. It’s not as precise as those other films, by virtue of that fact, and it so overtly dismisses the offer to comment on the era that it often seems to be doing absolutely nothing with the heritage that it’s been bequeathed with. It doesn’t feel as predetermined to mythologize any era of horror, in fact, almost as though it exists blissfully unaware of the passage of time around it. Instead, Spider Baby simply convulses, entombed in and liberated by its mania. The young directors of the New Hollywood were cineastes, as inclined to think cinema as to feel it; Spider Baby simply exudes it. It’s Old Horror passing before our eyes like a ghost rather than New Horror studiously dissecting the corpse. Continue reading
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A classic of Cuban Marxist-inflected cinema, director Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s La Ultima Cena offers an intimate portrait of the paradoxes that arise when attempting to reconcile “Western” Christianity and slave life on the plantation. Focused on a slave master’s self-fashioned “benevolence”, La Ultima Cena examines how slave masters’ self-regarding visions of personal sacrifice – their collective belief that they were moral patriarchs sacrificing for their slaves in hopes of “teaching” them “civilization” – couldn’t but require them to engage their slaves in ways which sometimes invited the latter to announce their humanity through means the master wasn’t likely to want to hear. Alea’s film depicts slaves themselves debating real freedom on the sham stage of a master’s faux-freedom, pushing liberation’s meaning well beyond the pale of what their master could possibly imagine.
La Ultima Cena’s centerpiece is its title: a slave master, the Count, picking a dozen slaves and staging a pantomime of the Christian Last Supper, with the master occupying the ostensibly servile role of Jesus Christ. Shielded by his belief that slaves are relatively unthinking “beasts”, the Count negligently assumes that he can use this show of servility and equality to easily colonize the contours of the slaves’ minds, incapacitating their resistant hearts with his own deluded belief in his own humility and morality. He assumes that they will not resist his show of compassion, and that they will abide by his terms.
Throughout this feast, the Count tries to bond with his slaves, his physical position at the table – akin to Jesus’ in traditional images of the Last Supper – all the while asserting his own view of himself as the most religious and pious, as well as the most sacrificing of all. In contrast to the slave driver Don Manuel, who the master argues has no place in Heaven because of his hungry and violent desire for power, the Count fashions himself as a charitable owner, underwriting his position as divine will. The film foregrounds this self-vision in an early shot in which the Count, with a figure of Jesus on the cross in front of him, extends his arms outward to mirror the image of Jesus only so that a servant can finish dressing him. Insofar as the Count here (and throughout the film) offers himself up to the film, to us, to bask in his benevolent charity, Alea undermines and ironizes his piousness by virtue of the fact that he is being served rather than serving anyone but himself. Continue reading
No special occasion here, just a re-watch for a course, and because I haven’t updated the site in a few weeks.
The potential for a movie about Abraham Lincoln to choke on the congestion of history is undeniable, doubly so with Steven Spielberg at the helm. A master craftsman when he lets himself be, he is also perhaps the paradigmatic cinematic gawker, a director most susceptible to basking in the hallowed glory of his chosen object of study. Daniel Day-Lewis is amazing in Lincoln, and he was always going to be. But the powerhouse performance that scrapes the impacted dust of history and breathes hypothetical life onto the screen is as old a cinematic genre as any other. More often than not, the presence of such an actor in such a role is little more than an excuse for the film to go on autopilot, gravely coasting through a figure’s events without perspective, viewpoint, or even a constellation of serious concerns. With Day-Lewis in the titular role, it’s really no surprise that the greatest pleasure of Spielberg’s film is watching one of the world’s best actors do his stuff with one of the most glorified (and consequently least humanized) figures in US history. But that a Spielberg version of Abraham Lincoln’s life would have anything else to offer beyond aggrandizing bromides was always in doubt.
Lo and behold, then: Lincoln is a shrewd, sharp motion picture, pungent and prodding, a quietly exasperated vision of the political process as somewhere between moral meat-grinder and moral compass, a vision galvanized by Day-Lewis’ phenomenal performance but not colonized by his work. Quite like the event it depicts, the film is an amalgam of individual volition and social structuration, of personal courage and destabilizing political wrangling, and quite like its titular figure, the charisma of its storytelling is quietly spellbinding but also pointedly wry and even occasionally destabilizing. Continue reading
I originally wanted to write this up in reference to the release of Craig Brewer’s My Name is Dolemite next week, without even realizing the highly appropriate irony that the last (only?) great Blaxploitation film was released almost one decade ago to the day.
It’s extremely tempting to refer to Black Dynamite as the sharpest cinema-parody of the ‘00s, at least among those parodies that take a cinematic form, except for the curious and altogether unexpected fact that the best moments in the film only register as “parody” by circumstantial virtue of being contained in a film we’ve been told is a parody in the first place. Case in point: the film’s most famous scene, a free-associative riff-off that begins with M&Ms, sidesteps into Ancient Greek mythology and cosmology, and wanders into phallus-related hijinks, before solving the film’s McGuffin with what amounts to a supreme imaginative leap on the screenwriters’ part. But it’s hard to call this riddle scene a “parody” in any meaningful sense.
Earlier, there’s a more overt reference to the planets: a fairly amazing verbal pimp-off where the elaborate abstractions of pimp culture verbal cosmology suddenly mutate into a quite literal cosmology metaphor that lies well-beyond-reason, the head pimp explaining his plan in terms of the earth’s axis. That joke is “about” Blaxploitation cinema, or at least about the impenetrable ridiculousness of the depiction of pimps in Blaxploitation cinema. And it’s a pretty great joke too. But Black Dynamite discovering the villain’s plot via references to Ares and Athena, for no reason? Is that a satire of cinematic deus ex machinas? Of characters conveniently gifted with screenwriter’s verbosity? Cinema parody, I suppose we could say, if we’re being generous, but certainly not Blaxploitation parody in any meaningful sense. The minds of the filmmakers are clearly well beyond the pale of a mere genre parody. Continue reading
Jordan Peele’s Us bears many obvious linkages to Get Out, Peele’s 2017 box-office slayer, but Us feels less like a retread or even an update or extension of Get Out than a perversion, a disruption, a chaotic disfigurement of the earlier film’s elegant simplicity. Us is both more existential and more surreal, more playful and more brutal, and, above all, more experimentally distended, exhibiting a newly ravaged and warped texture that is very much to my taste, but not necessarily to those looking for a clean like of argumentation in the film, or even a clear subject. Get Out’s comparatively streamlined metaphor for sight, sightlessness, and embodiment was tight, vicious, and tenacious – perfect for itself, and perhaps for a first film – but not nearly so troublesome as Us, which actively and conspicuously refuses the snug moral logic and trimmed-down narrative of Get Out. Us isn’t avant-garde in any overt sense, but where Get Out’s story fell into place, this new film buckles, utilizing horror for its demonic textural and thematic elasticity and indescribability rather than merely as a generic skeleton for a moral parable. It’s storytelling by way of allusion, digression, and disturbance, a film that benefits or suffers greatly (depending on your proclivity) from writer-director Jordan Peele’s obvious enthusiasm overtaking his discretion, his ensuing disdain for hedging his bets and, probably, his frustration with heeding the rules and regulations of Hollywood storytelling. It’s as if, having mastered the art of skillful middlebrow horror cinema, Peele decided to dismember it. Continue reading
Neoliberal American aimlessness is recoded as anticipatory national fantasy in Rambo: First Blood Part II, a film that both thoroughly disgraces the legacy of its progenitor and perversely fulfills the dormant desires which may have animated many viewers’ affection for the original character. That original film envisioned Stallone as a bruised dog. He was as inarticulate as any of his other characters, but his motor-mouthed struggles were construed less as a function of a screenplay disconnected from humanity (as in, say, Cobra) and more as a theme: the result of a nation and a man unable to vocalize their severe trauma and societal disaffection. The original First Blood, then, was a fairly doleful thriller about unmet expectations, a thoughtful meditation on American lapses that framed the US’ involvement in Vietnam as a national aporia that not only chewed out and spit up the soldiers but cast the whole nation adrift, leaving it to wander a moral wilderness.
Out of the many early ‘80s action films that dissected the corpse of the Vietnam war in one way or another, one would be hard-pressed to pick that Stallone vehicle as the likeliest candidate for a sequel of any caliber, let alone the sequels we received. There’s no obvious commercial reason why First Blood became the basis for its sequels, excepting perhaps Stallone’s success in another role in another franchise that had undertaken a similar rightward trajectory: the disaffected populist working-stiff boxer who had, with America’s rightward drift, metamorphed into America’s new Great White Hope capably defeating both black and Soviet enemies. Within the span of a few years, Stallone was no longer a cipher for a wayward everyman but an icon for American ego-boosting, the latent whiteness of his characters’ populism suddenly on full display as he became an American avenger. Continue reading
Many self-consciously “weird” motion pictures expend energy and time establishing a stable sense of cinematic self that they will only then destabilize later on, tweaking the style several notches south of sanity as the film progresses. Horrors of Malformed Men lathers the surrealistic absurdity on thick from the first shot. It introduces us immediately to a thoroughly dismembered reality, a cinematic hall of mirrors that finds us wandering into a B-movie and discovering a metaphor for Japan’s mid-century dreams of paternal control, familial destiny, and authoritarian anxiety, all (appropriately) malformed into a kaleidoscopic nightmare. The subject of the cinematic allegory? Deluded men working at any cost to recreate their lineage and preserve the fragile illusion of a linear, biologically-sanctioned family hierarchy.
In reality, though, Horrors of Malformed Men has already deceived me. “Discovering a metaphor,” I wrote, but Horrors of Malformed Men is too slippery to cleanly metaphorize, and too playfully deceitful to simply allegorize; either of those terms would enervate the film’s demented energy. The film works because it’s less an encapsulation of a theme than a poetic evocation of a mindscape. It also thoroughly dismisses the obvious compulsion to domesticate its difference by applying some trivializing “dream” narrative filter to everything; it certainly feels like a dream, but primarily and possibly only because it does not explain itself as one. It’s a crazed dispatch from a director that plays like a country experiencing the mid-century as a fugue state. The film discharges the psychic tremors of a ruptured nation that disorient the very formal fabric of the film. Continue reading
In honor of the release of Colour out of Space, the new Richard Stanley-Nicolas Cage-HP Lovecraft film (what a wonderfully demonic cinematic Cerberus that is!), I decided to look back at Stanley’s last film, a full 23 years ago. Let us hope that his new attempt at channeling the deranged spirit of century-old pulp literature and tearing open and excavating the most demented corners of the cinematic void don’t render him victim of that void, unable to find his way back, for nearly a quarter-century, like they did last time.
A travesty of Welles as well as Coppola, The Island of Dr. Moreau is as sure an example as any of that old maxim that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. It’s also one of the most beguilingly meta-textual would-be blockbusters ever released, one whose off-screen production ended up not only mimicking its textual themes but folding in several layers of mediating texts and prior films just to stir together enough post-modern cinematic madness to satiate audiences. It feels less like a unique product than a ghoulish aftershock, a horrible, mangled echo, of its seventeen-years forebear, Apocalypse Now.
Now, normally, production turmoil can distract from an analysis of what actually makes it on screen as much as it can enhance that analysis. But The Island of Dr. Moreau is a special enigma, the dream of a cinematic wunderkind so feverishly and immediately collapsing on-screen that it begs comparison not only to its most obvious cinematic predecessor (Apocalypse Now) but to another cinematic directorial hanging by another Welles, one more deranged than HG: Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons. (And not only because Marlon Brando is on hand for Moreau, reminding us that only one actor can go toe to toe with Orson Welles for sheer insular late-period delirium). Continue reading
The first cinematic adaptation of the writing of James Baldwin, perhaps unexpectedly and perhaps perplexingly but undeniably fittingly in light of the writers’ artistic omnivorousness, takes its most obvious cues not from Baldwin’s profession but from the profession of its main male character. If Beale Street Could Talk follows a young African-American couple Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne), nineteen, and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James), twenty-two and working as a sculptor’s apprentice who conjures visions of tragically stilled beauty that the film, if not modeling itself after, at least siphons energy from.
If Beale Street Could Talk by no means avoids the troubling contours of being an African-American in mid-century New York, but it does defray them, or at least deflect them. Its aesthetic orientation is not that of a neo-realist’s aspiration to open a window onto a harsh, unforgiving world, and it exhibits little affinity for the (expected) Hollywood New Wave tricks of filming this city in this time-period in tones and textures that emphasize its grubby, calloused veneer, excoriating the surface-sheen and exposing the rot underneath. Like Fonny’s abstract sculptures – which provide a clue-in to the film’s magisterial tone and introspective magnificence – Jenkins’ vision of Beale Street is (excessively?) mannered, scrubbing away some of the rough edges and burnt ends of lived experience rather than providing an unvarnished portrait.
Rather than a brutal empirical truth – film as objective revelation of racism’s scabrous realities – Jenkins’ poetic truth captures a kind of pantomime of characters performing a more innocent world, African-Americans on the verge of a neoliberal world just trying to live out a pageant of unobstructed time, holding on to the dream of an open, unafflicted world they know to be fragile and fraudulent. It doesn’t feel like a film from either the nihilistic ‘70s or the increasingly cynical ‘10s. Consider the magic moment at the end of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, where Mrs. Miller’s enraptured gaze is revealed to be the deluded dream of an opiated woman unable to cope with capitalism’s oppression. Without denying the very real terrors of the outside world, Jenkins prefers to hold us in the diamond’s eye, fully aware that sometimes these dreams are all we have. His tender film could and has been accused of sanctimoniousness, but it offers a thoroughly oneiric reverie, not for a forgotten world but for a kind of placid, untouched existence that its protagonists never had. Continue reading
Gotti asks me to put my money where my mouth is. A favorite complaint of mine when reviewing movies is to critique actors turned directors for neglecting the film of their films. That they render mere theater pieces that happened to have been filmed in lieu of genuine works of cinema. Watching actor-turned-director Kevin Connolly’s bastardization of the life of John Gotti, I realize that I’ve sinned. Most actors turned directors at least display a basic competence with the camera. They merely fail to embellish their narratives in any particularly cinematic way, dismissing the possibility that the camera might be to used to achieve anything beyond or besides perfunctory realism. They treat their camera as a window or a simple observer rather than a canvas and, in doing so, their cameras’ perspective often fails to expose its perspectival nature, feigning naturalism.
Gotti puts me to shame for complaining about actors who understand the mere basics of continuity, because this film is a whole other beast entirely. Rather than lambasting other actor-turned-directors for only understanding basic continuity and nothing more, I should be worshipping them for at least getting that part right. The film’s ineptitude with cinema is immediately apparent. Unsurprisingly so, I wanted to say, but Gotti is a thoroughly surprising motion picture, confounding even the simplest expectation. It’s breathtakingly idiotic, from the faultlessly asinine politics to the thorough-goingly irreparable narrative structure that, I for one, am convinced was writers Lem Dobbs and Leo Rossi or director Kevin Connolly’s mangled attempt at an avant-garde film. Continue reading