Monthly Archives: November 2016

Films for Class: White Heat

009-white-heat-theredlistRaoul Walsh’s cold-blooded reptile of a late-period gangster picture finally stills itself only when the genre reaches its apocalyptic acme in the death-scented denouement, the fumes permeating outward off the screen. Even when the credits crawl, the film refuses to be dismissed.  The title doesn’t lie – shards and splinters of visual and sonic phosphorous sparkle right into your eyes with infectious charisma – but the punch and gusto are also counterpointed by chills of loneliness and murmurs of exhaustion. Released in 1949, White Heat evokes a genre’s last gasp, a style ready for a nervous breakdown, bracketing staccato bursts of violence to harried melancholia to disheveled, droll comedy. Gone is the wiry little slugger of star James Cagney’s youth found in the likes of The Public Enemy, replaced instead with a self-worrying work that examines its own rat-in-a-cage tempestuousness and ultimately embodies a missing link between Hawks’ Scarface and the downright pernicious onslaught to come in Bonnie and Clyde.

Released in the US amidst a nocturnal procession of cloying, dead-in-the-water “social issue” films like Gentleman’s Agreement, Raoul Walsh’s film comes locked and loaded with enough cinematic ammunition and, crucially, enough self-doubt to slap that “moral dilemma” A-picture soapbox stuff right off its high horse by showing them a true masterwork of self-immolating, existential terror. It is perhaps the last film to truly explore that nervous electron known as James Cagney, here stoked into an atomically charged fault line. He charges like a bull in heat right for the screen only to discover the increasingly smaller box his way of undomesticated, rebel-charged life is subject to in the post-war age of rising suburbia. Continue reading


Films for Class: Gaslight

gaslight1944_166_678x380_01252016042207George Cukor’s slightly creaky but undeniably spirited psychological thriller is quite a bit more “potboiler” than it is willing to admit until the Guignol denouement where the old fuss-and-stuff middle-of-the-road “please Knight me now” respectability of the diction and mise-en-scene pounces right into the ditch where it belongs. A B-picture in A-picture threads, it’s only when it unstitches its chest-caving corset that Gaslight finally has room to breathe. Which is to say: Gaslight is a little over-determined and too dignified in its prestige-pic wax to embrace the deliriously illicit trashiness at its core. (De Palma has essentially remade the film three dozen times, and while that statement may be hyperbole, how does one tackle De Palma without exaggeration?). Old Hollywood smut can be oh-so-gallant in its strewn-from-the-gutter and out-on-the-edge charisma when it just smacks some of that musty old regal upbringing right out of its properly-dictioned self. Yet Gaslight, while often killer, spent a little too much time in finishing school, dotting its I’s and crossing its T’s, and not enough time out on the streets learning how to play in the dirt where its heart truly lies. Continue reading

Films for Class: The Battle of San Pietro and Der Fuhrer’s Face

220px-der_fuehrers_face_posterA little old-timey cartoon before a feature for you all.

Der Fuehrer’s Face

Among Disney’s most infamous cartoons, reapportioning Donald Duck as a reluctant Nazi, Der Fuehrer’s Face is gloriously disreputable and unexpectedly (or expectedly, if you’ve studied Disney’s early shorts) experimental in its exploration of desire, imagination, and fear. Casting our fine feathered friend as a Nazi conscript of sorts, Der Fuehrer’s Face coagulates around a broader question of the mechanization of the human consciousness not unlike Chaplin’s Modern Times. Donald is pushed and pulled around physical space, the old squash-and-stretch style manipulated to explore the liminal space between the existential terror of lacking consciousness and the comedic potential in upending similar notions of individual agency (after all, both comedy and horror are reactions to the uncanny, and what is more uncanny in our individual-fetishizing America than losing one’s willpower). Continue reading

Films for Class: Bataan and Chicken Little

A little old-timey cartoon before a feature for you all.

chicken_little_1944_8_graveyardChicken Little

This irascible little Disney wartime devil is almost absurdly superior to that most fell semi-remake by the same company in 2005 (their first, and by far worst, CG feature film). Recasting the ignorance of youthful Chicken Little as the conscious social disruption of a fox who utilizes propaganda to convince everyone that the sky is falling, Chicken Little is a scabrous wartime cartoon about the dangers of Nazi (and Communist) propaganda that, implicitly, critiques its own vessel. The fox eventually sending all the none-the-wiser chickens to a cave (a bomb shelter, basically), all the better to eat them with, the film explores its own construction. With an inter-title at one point informing us that everything ends up okay in the end, the film concludes by pausing itself for a second to critique its own ending, with the narrator wondering aloud how the prior inter-title could lie to us; the Fox – mordantly laying chicken bones in graves like tombstones – informs the narrator and us not to believe everything we read.   Continue reading

Halloween Treats: The Big Shave and Dark Passage

bigshave3I know the post is a little late, but at least I managed to watch these films on Halloween. 

The Big Shave

Straddling the line between intentionally milquetoast ephemera and a bad-trip that brandishes shards of visual destruction, Martin Scorsese’s NYU student film is a bare-bones presentiment of his future career, as well as an elegy for American innocence (or for America’s ability to lie to itself that it ever had innocence) A 6 minute short of a young man walking into a bathroom and shaving ad infinitum until the blood of youth runs freely down his neck and exsanguinates him, the obvious and belabored parable many have read into the film is a Vietnam era America’s act of self-mutilating the American youth by forcing them to join the military. Continue reading

Halloween Treats: Knock Knock

0e7210d8-cfa9-4cb9-9ca0-46135f2839a0I know the post is a little late, but at least I managed to watch these films on Halloween. 

Although Knock Knock hardly shakes up provocateur Eli Roth’s outré sensibilities beyond comparison, it actually manages to reinvigorate, even regenerate, a shtick that felt degenerative even before his first film ended and it had a chance to degenerate properly. A perverse pornographic mishap from the mind of a man whose films have always tried to slash and burn with rhythmic recklessness and only ever achieved a state of sickly, jaundiced quasi-nihilism before, Knock Knock is a twisted-screw, spiked-vodka put-down of milquetoast masculinity and the crusty veneer of suburban civilization we erect around ourselves. It’s an off-off-off-Broadway morality play that doubles as a knife to the gut of the morality play high horse. Knock Knock is as low as it gets, gleefully thrashing around in the filth whilst more or less mocking our presumption that we, and director Roth for that matter, are better than it all. Even if we criticize his film, Roth knows we’re watching with fetish-like interest, and for him, that’s 80% of the battle. Continue reading