Monthly Archives: January 2017

Films for Class: Meshes of the Afternoon and Bridges Go Round

meshesMeshes of the Afternoon

Meshes of the Afternoon, Maya Deren’s wildly deconstructive avant-garde experiment in motion, time, space, and memory, is a riotous and mangled oil slick of alchemic imagery and disruptive, positively unsettled anxiety. The images, roughly approximating the story of a woman rising stairs and encountering a deathly specter with a mirror for a face, haunt the liminal space between atomized abjection trapped in one’s own alienated soul and a more interpersonal desire to explore the precarious relationship of the self and society. Rearranging images and semiotic objects, the film is affectively charged with a spirit of dissent and a disaffection and frustration with the cause-effect linkages that structure Hollywood narratives. Continue reading

Films for Class: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

women-on-verge-almodovar-19763Who could think of a better near-opening for a Pedro Almodovar film than a delirious scene of a Spanish dubbing of that holiest of holy cinephiliac films Johnny Guitar? (Nicholas Ray being, with the possible exception of the more obvious Douglas Sirk, the largest costume in Almodovar’s wide-open carnival-closet of cross-national cinema). Even better, the sequence actually adds to Ray’s film rather than merely name-checking. It extends Ray’s emphatically neurotic melodrama to new cultures and across eons while teasing out its fiendish gender complications and tragicomic compulsions even more overtly than Ray, a rebel trapped in the Hollywood closet, was able to do.  Almodovar’s mission statement is already clear: in the arena of melodrama, a purgative for your cynical ways. Continue reading

Midnight Screaming: Tales from the Darkside: The Movie

220px-talesfromthedarksideWith anthology horror prowling all through the house throughout the ‘80s and into the early ‘90s (a byproduct of the decade’s conservative turn and ensuing ‘50s/early ‘60s fetish), 1990 was the watershed moment for when the monster mash got nasty. The A-list-courting Amazing Stories show from nostalgia-babies Steven Spielberg and friends meant to tingle your spine while it was patting your head to sleep. But when HBO latched its greasy, sleazy claws around the trend, it soured into the venomous, loud-and-proud midnight haunting hour likes of Tales from the Crypt by the decade’s end. (Robert Zemeckis, one of Spielberg’s cronies, was involved in the transition and directed three of the best, although not always the bloodiest, Tales when he decided to let his hair down and unscrew his A-list credentials for something grubbier and more robustly exploitative). Continue reading

Films for Class: The Graduate

graduate4Perched at the intersection of swinging ‘60s tilt-a-whirl and ‘70s out-of-control social carousel tilted on edge, Mike Nichols’ epochal The Graduate is largely able to plumb the depths of the liminal space where liberation over-ignited into askew, free-associative pandemonium before curdling into apocalyptic anxiety and eventually lethargy. Right from the beginning, when recent college graduate Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is traipsed around a welcoming party his parents throw him and the camera absolutely manhandles him, the film torments itself with an unshakeable apprehension about humans who interact more like daydreaming passer-bys than involved participants in life.  The sequence, filmed in one-take, centers a wide-screen vista that compresses Ben’s head by lobbing off the burnt ends of his neck and hair while extending the frame laterally across the eons of bourgeois space occupied by the interlopers in his parents’ house. These visitors form a menagerie of false, inebriated camaraderie who Ben is faintly antagonistic to, all of them ensnared in the vise of upper-class moorings. Suggesting his parents as invasive, unknowable spaces by avoiding their faces in the frame when they first push Ben out into the party, the film visualizes the trenches of adulthood as quotidian spaces inscribed with recesses of existential anxiety. Continue reading

Midnight Screening: House by the River

house-by-the-riverWith House by the River, Fritz Lang’s forked acid-tongue was curled up into his iron-bolted mouth by Hollywood execs none too interested in some of his more provocative stylistic or thematic ideas (of really doubling-down on baroque imagery-of-the-mind or exposing oppressive gendered, racialized, and classed power dynamics in America). But, even though he was forced to neuter his mission and his mind with films like House by the River, Lang’s eyes were as sharp as ever, possibly even hungrier due to his sometimes-livid attitude toward Hollywood and the poverty-row quality of this production in particular. The once gilded director of four hour German epics, monolithic slabs of pure cinema in their day, was now a mercenary for hire. But, hey, Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur produced the two best horror films of the 1940s with next to no budget, so why couldn’t Lang knock out a corker of a film noir? Continue reading

Midnight Screening: Dead Ringers

dead_ringersFor a director long infested with and invested in deep-seated anxieties about the relationship between perturbed men and the women they feel entitled to and mortified about, Dead Ringers reflects David Cronenberg simultaneously at his most hesitant and exploratory, both empowered over his subject and emasculated by it. On “empowered”, Dead Ringers is the product of significant confidence, the director emboldened by the success of his prior film The Fly, which was the inflection point between his gutter-limned, filthy body horror films and his more intellectually-charged Hollywood productions drawing on blood veins of Shakespearean tragedy and classical literature.

At the same time, Dead Ringers’ attitudes toward sex lack the primal sensibilities of his earlier films. It feels evolved, civilized, and in some small way, sadly domesticated, like it needs to justify itself by being about something rather than simply being something. As good as Dead Ringers is, it also spends the entire film looking over its shoulder just to make sure it isn’t being followed by the specter of Cronenberg’s more brutal earlier exploitation films, themselves infused with the confidence to tackle issues without so obviously TACKLING ISSUES. Although Cronenberg obviously feels liberated to dissect fanatically adult issues, he also feels too cautious and manicured in his approach to really vivisect sexual competition and power at the root and explore the innards of the male ego in all their writhing, bloody anti-glory. It’s not exactly timid, but the film suffers from ruminations that only ever bore half-way into the skull. Continue reading

Midnight Screaming: Shivers

6a017d4117b2c6970c01b7c6fc8fb8970b-600wiSkulking down from its natural habitat of the backwoods of the frigid North down to our prudish American confines, David Cronenberg’s early Neanderthal of a body horror film delivers a scatterbrained, deviously crude twinge right to the spinal fluid and sends the mammalian brain running wild. A premonition of icky in-your-pants terror to come, this unruly, mutilated motion picture about a sex slug that invades the inhabitants of an apartment complex somewhere in Canada doesn’t hit the deliriously otherworldly heights of Cronenberg’s latter-day triumphs. But the director already displays an almost Machiavellian skill for bodily manipulation even on a shoe-string budget (a budget he marshals for a film that is more than the sum of its parts). And his peculiar aura of marrying undisciplined/unmitigated with judicious/precise flavors ultimately colors in his hypothetically barren production with formal rigor and subtextual meat a mild wide, creating a horror that runs both fiery hot and cold like a reptile.  Continue reading

Midnight Screening: The Devil’s Backbone

devils-backbone-bombIn his canonical masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, the faint pulse of brilliance throbs in Guillermo del Toro’s luxuriant, sumptuous, affectively-charged imagery. But rather than carving out room for the kind of insouciant, mordant humor and interpersonal drama permeating through his Hellboy II, Pan’s Labyrinth is mostly content to calcify itself in a morass of symbolically-charged cues devoid of any precious room for del Toro to feel out the moment rather than smack us over the head. There’s room for such overt emotion in any filmmaker’s canon. Hell, the romantics del Toro loves (Almodovar, Douglas Sirk) practically made a career out of spinning melodramatic straw into gold that punctures the mask of subtlety and rationalism. But the sense of robust emotion as an escape from reason is too often trampelled by del Toro’s emphasis on characters as stand-ins for ideas or metaphors. The relationship between the symbols and the emotions isn’t mutualistic. Rather, the symbols parasitically enervate the characters of defiant streaks or the ability to even consider peering elsewhere beyond what the narrative has preordained for them.  Continue reading

Films for Class: On the Bowery

ontheboweryCustomary criticism of quasi-documentary works like Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery (or any for-real documentary for that matter) is wont to retreat into critical waves of the hand like “realistic” or “authentic” which sound more important and inlaid with meaning than they truly are. That something depicts reality is less meaningful than we’d like to think. What does matter is what kind of reality art depicts, and here is where On the Bowery is stomping on new territory with its in-the-trenches, verite-adjacent camerawork that invokes a world that is unstable, unvarnished, and seemingly invisible. Every film, to put it succinctly, imagines its own reality, and the reality of On the Bowery is weathered, woozy, and altogether bracing in its alien familiarity, a place we’ve all seen and pass by but do not truly know.  Continue reading

Midnight Screaming: Black Christmas (1974)

mv5bmduxm2iyyzgtmju1zs00mzc4lwiwmmutyzczmzm5zwiznguxxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtqxnzmzndi-_v1_uy268_cr20182268_al_Bob Clark’s maniacal 1974 classic is perhaps less remembered today for its own caliber as cinema than for the hell it wrought on the American film industry. Here, I refer not to the necessary, provocative, disobedient, slash-and-burn kind of hell the film wrecks with its wonderfully imprompriotous filmmaking, but the vile, corporate, franchise-baiting kind which turned horror filmmaking in the ’80s into the most cringe-inducing attempt to market the genre to the lowest common denominator. But that’s less a slight to the film’s quality than a marker of the sheer deluge of sequel-itis this proto-slasher unleashed (Tobe Hooper’s masterfully malevolent The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the other obvious culprit on that front). It’s a tough reputation to live up to. No film short of John Carpenter’s ur-slasher Halloween could stand up and stare at the massacre of common decency the slasher represented in the ‘80s and remain un-mortified at the devastation its inferior slasher-children had caused to the intelligence of the horror landscape. Still, nu-metal will never halt me from claiming that Faith No More is the most defiantly demented rock band of the past 25 years And Nickelback only occasionally makes me feel guilty for liking Soundgarden and Nirvana. I’m not about to slander a film for the sins of its descendants. Besides, those antic, anxious perspective shots strangling Black Christmas like garrote wire sure made John Carpenter happy when he weaponized them for Halloween four years later. And if we have Black Christmas to thank for John Carpenter, then who really cares how good this film is? It has already done its due diligence to the cinematic landscape. Continue reading