Monthly Archives: July 2014

Film Favorites: Sweet Smell of Success

sweet-smell-stillReleased in 1957, Sweet Smell of Success, mocking, bitter title and all, was one of the last American film noirs. You’d be forgiven for thinking the genre would be sucked-dry by that point (after all, dozens of these movies were released every year in an era that saw rapidly-produced films like no other). Maybe it is the knowledge of this fact that allowed director Alexander Mackendrick, writer Clifford Odets, and cinematographer James Wong Howe (in a rare great film where the cinematographer is more famous than the writer or director, but then that’s film noir for you) the freedom to produce something which feels so rapturously alive. This isn’t a static film – it kicks and prods and runs at you every which way and threatens to overcome you with itself. It’s angry and enraged, teeth drawn, filled with passion, and purrs like a noirish nightmare hopped up on a drug that hadn’t yet made its way stateside ten years earlier at the height of noir popularity. but was now infecting the waters. Infecting, and poisoning at that, but Sweet Smell of Success has venom to match. Continue reading

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Film Favorites: Vampyr and Viridiana

Update 2018: Uhhh these early reviews from my youth burn my eyes so. Vampyr is too sublime a film for the quality of review below to do it any kind of justice, yet there is never enough time to revisit even such a foundational film in writing. (I mean, it is only the banner image of my website!) Of course, part of the reason that I don’t have time to fully explain the film is that a work like Vampyr so capably resists any definition or sedimentation. All these years later, my favorite thing about it remains that, despite its heavily imagistic texture, Dreyer’s conjuration seems to resist imaging, to thrive primarily below the perceptual barrier, like a shadowy outline or impression discarded on an abandoned wall.

Dreyer’s work is quite pragmatic in this sense; its images burn into our brain not with the tendentious force of a grand theory but with a worrisome in-definition, a sense in which the images aren’t solidified enough to “represent” anything. They dislocate us with their refusal to additively mount-up as most films do. Instead, they seem to unfurl outwards without emanating from any perceived essence or center, not even a portal to hell. Thoroughly estranging in its refusal to declare, the only thing Vampyr mounts are moments of severe uncertainty, curiosity, active deconfiguration, ultimately effusing a bewildering refusal to illustrate certainty to us, a prophetic inclination to decline revelation.  Instead of subterranean tunneling toward essence, Dreyer’s films hover over unstable, constantly fluctuating foundations, in this particular case witnessing space as a diaphanous flutter while remaining thoroughly removed from it.

In this sense, the film’s modality is truly singular, resistant to any definitive statements. Despite frequent comparisons to German Expressionism, the film’s contours actually incline quite a ways away from that estimable Weimar tradition. Absent in Dreyer’s phantasm are any of expressionism’s aspirations to manifest the latent, to tear apart the exterior surfaces of the world and extract the psychological interior beneath. Vampyr holds no psychological pretensions, no suggestion of access to the furthest reaches of the human mind. Perhaps because psychology can so easily tilt from modernistic advance guard of the mind to rote regurgitation of heavily prescribed, obviously underlined meaning emboldened in cinematic boldface, carefully keyed to “tell us” what the characters are thinking and feeling, Vampyr’s resistance to the sublime actualization of crystalline imagery is all the more intoxicating today. Its meaning seems not locked in a time and a place, to have been actualized on the screen in the film’s present, but to come from some far gone past, or some alternate plane, and whisper into our future.

To the extent that this is frightening, it is quite a different psychic turmoil than Weimar Expressionism usually offers. If Expressionism tortures us with the realization that our psychological selves will never be as complacent and composed, as whole, as they seem on the surface, Vampyr terrorizes us with a more spectral appreciation of a more fundamental indefinite(ness), one which cannot be reconciled by “telling” us what psychologically dwells beneath that surface. Dreyer’s later films advance this question further, but already in Vampyr, his films seem not sculpted for accessible meaning, but rather divined, even necromanced, from another system of meaning entirely. A system, in this case, where characters are not so much inlaid with psychological architecture – the work of the film being to unpack this architecture as the “core” of the person – but iconographic. They are figures in the wider montage of an artist.

So if Vampyr’s images rhyme with the rest of the world, they are nonetheless all their own, allowed to freely resonate and reverberate on their own terms and at their own frequencies as a portrait of a specific location. Without any fashionable post-modern opacity, Vampyr lurches about alarmingly at a sinister, slothlike tempo, struggling to represent the seemingly unrepresentable, to visualize a seemingly occult knowledge that seems to be obscuring itself as it comes into being. Not because the film is trying to confuse us, but because it seems to have tapped into a genuinely uncomfortable, unsupportable base, to encrypt a truly ephemeral sense of ontological decomposition, to truly and unabashedly ponder cinema’s fundamental aspirations toward knowledge and truth.  Continue reading

Film Favorites: In a Lonely Place

in-a-lonely-placeIt is the unfortunate burden of Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place that it is almost never treated separately from two other films released in the same year with similar subject matters: Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve. Both films, of course, are Hollywood royalty. This is perhaps ironic considering they both deal with Hollywood royalty, although one is nominally about Broadway to create, perhaps, thinly-guised distance from the hand that feeds. Like those films, In a Lonely Place deals almost entirely in brittle cynicisms and barely contained self-deprecating snark, aimed squarely at mommy dearest: Hollywood. It’s astounding that three of Hollywood’s most disturbing and grandly disparaging self-mutilations came out within 12 months of each other. Perhaps something was in the water (more on this later). Strangely, while those two films  now bump shoulders with the likes of Citizen Kane of Casablanca, In a Lonely Place has been somewhat demoted to “lesser classic” status. That’s a shame, as it’s a true dark horse masterpiece of self-hating, jaundiced malaise that expends its dying breath clinging to any tatters of hope it can find illuminated amidst the dense chiaroscuro of Ray’s irrepressible visuals  .
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Film Favorites: Hannah and Her Sisters

Update mid-2018:

Four years later, I remain enamored of Hannah and Her Sisters, an apogee of Allen’s career, and something of an inflection point, or a balancing act. While his earlier films sometimes labor under pretenses to classical status – for instance casting themselves as Allen’s “Bergman” film”, his “Russian literature” film, etc – Hannah and Her Sisters casually commands the concerns and quandaries many of those earlier texts and artists engaged in, without Allen ever having to ennoble his meditations with unearned and overly-belabored comparisons to bygone figures that sometimes blot him from encouraging his own dramas when he chooses merely to recreate the dramas of others. At the same time, Hannah proves the mettle of Allen’s own intellectual and emotional gambits and thematic vexations without dipping, as so many of his later films did, into self-mocking-but-actually-self-exonerating parables of gender and class that quietly validate Allen’s own persona while pretending to loudly vilify him. While so many of the women in his later films exist to drive Allen forward in bas-relief, the titular figures of this film rhyme with, reflect, and inflect aspects of Allen’s consciousness but are not beholden to it. Nor do they take the position of symbolically representing Allen while having their eccentricities, personal quagmires, longings, and questions sanded-away to fulfill the tidy summation of a gendered archetype or a manifestation of a larger thematic issue. Of all the women in Allen’s cinema, they seem to, if not float free, vacillate in non-schematic ways and vibrate with their own energies. What a wonderful film. 

Original Review:

Woody Allen has made many great films, and, as has become too obvious of late, many less than great ones. Generally, he’s at his best when things are at their most unsentimental and nervy – he’s on less sure footing when it comes to exploring purely positive, uncomplicated depictions of his characters. But for all his cynicism, Allen loves people. Or more appropriately, he uses his hate for people to deal out tough love for them, and this was never more-so true than in Hannah and Her Sisters, his only true masterpiece of mostly unaffected romantic sentimentalism and unapologetic sweetness (to go with his not insignificant number of masterpieces of far more troubled, anxious cynicism). Continue reading

Film Favorites: The King of Comedy

Update mid-2018: I never fully concur with the writing in these early reviews, but I still agree with my score on this one, perhaps Scorsese’s best – yes, you read that right – and certainly De Niro’s most incisive work, revealing basically everything about a man whose most frightening feature is how simultaneously transparent and opaque he is, how incapable of reflection he is and how this makes him somehow perversely both a blank slate and a black hole. Their gruesomely innocent vision is of a cracked-mirror protagonist, a figure who gives us nothing and everything and who steadfastly refuses to grow precisely because he’s already reached a social apex in his mind. Yes, Raging Bull visualizes masculinity and Americana as unfettered, unmediated attack dogs. But King of Comedy masks its murderous masculinity in the disarmingly gentile visage of male self-victimization, making it a uniquely singular dissection of its moment, our moment, and “nice-guy” masculinity, superficially domesticated but all the more sinister for it, in America. It’s far easier, but no less valid, to decode Travis Bickle’s messianic aspirations as an interrogation of American masculinity in Koch-era New York, but Pupkin is equally deluded, and more presciently frightening for his ostensible innocence.

Original Review:

The King of Comedy is famously Martin Scorsese’s misunderstood picture, the one that had the great misfortune of being a follow-up to a film that did nothing more significant than simply be the best work of the 1980s while capturing like no other film the spirit of the 1970s all in one fell swoop. In other words: a follow-up to Raging Bull. No big deal. And if that wasn’t enough, if for no other reason than to fulfill his masochistic desire to invite negative comparisons to his other films, Scorsese went and made The King of Comedy with that previous genre defining film’s star too. Audiences didn’t take to the film, although it has recently been re-evaluated by critics, if not the movie-going public. Perhaps audiences were right to shun it – it’s creepy, unnerving, and it directly mocks the entire entertainment-audience relationship. In its own way, it’s as nihilist as any film the director ever made. Only, unlike his crime films (although this, truly, is a crime film if ever there was one), The King of Comedy was marketed as, and masquerades as, a loopy, giddy comedy. It’s a profoundly uncomfortable, unfathomable film. At least superficially, it’s perhaps the director’s lightest production (excepting maybe the recent Hugo), the kind we’re supposed to get into and fall in love with for its quirky amusements and revelatory lunacy. Turns out Scorsese had something else in mind. Continue reading

Midnight Screaming: The Thing

This week on Midnight Screenings, I’m looking at the two finest films from one of my favorite modern horror directors, and one of the men who brought midnight cinema to the mainstream: John Carpenter. 

John Carpenter’s recently re-appraised The Thing works on many levels. But most fascinating is that it works in a way completely, and seemingly intentionally, divorced from Carpenter’s other horror-masterpiece, Halloween. As I am not the first to observe, his 1978 game-changer centers an almost eternally faceless horror that can infiltrate mundane suburbia at a moment’s notice, like an ever-present shadow we’d prefer not admit is there. In The Thing, the horror belongs all too well. It’s not faceless. It’s quite the opposite: it has “the” face, in that its face is humanity, or rather, as I’m not the first to notice, it has any face. And not in a metaphorical “we’re the monster after all” sense, although that atavistic stone can be overturned for those looking. It’s primarily interested in something more earthy and visceral that is nonetheless profoundly human and lonely. The monster’s face is quite literally the human face – it enters into the human body and takes it over while occupying the human form. In doing so, perhaps as a none-too-happy accident, it causes us to question our very identity.
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Midnight Screaming: Halloween

This week on Midnight Screenings, I’m looking at the two finest films from one of my favorite modern horror directors, and one of the men who brought midnight cinema to the mainstream: John Carpenter. 

Halloween was writer-director-composer-producer-fanboy John Carpenter’s introduction to the world of the cinematic masters (befitting his name, he probably is a carpenter too for god’s sake). It is, above all else, a master-class in pure style as well as a reminder that in horror, filmmaking skill and raw dread drive the narrative rather than the other way around. It’s economical, ruthlessly efficient, and spare. There’s a sense that every shot holds a purpose, and that Carpenter knows how to stage his camera for maximum impact. The film feels planned, rigorously so, and ruthlessly composed to a point bordering on obsession. It’s a masterpiece of slowly unnerving tension that builds at just the right amount throughout – every image adds to the film, and edits don’t so much transition as ransack the previous shot and take control. It’s fitting that its creator bears the last name of a craftsman – this film is all ruthless, clinically potent, monstrously well-constructed craft. If, in fact, he did hold the profession of his surname, this would be an oak chair assembled guerilla style and with little funding or time (the film was shot on an extremely meager budget), but which would bear the love and care of someone who truly loved woodwork and put every ounce of his skill and passion into making that one chair. That it would be most appropriate as the devil’s throne is just the other half of the fun.
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