Luca Guadagnino’s deliberately polarizing 2018 Suspiria shows its utmost respect for the original 1977 Suspiria by Dario Argento by making an absolute travesty of it: rethinking it, stripping it for parts, inverting its essence while honoring its spirit. And then defiling even that. The original Suspiria was a thoroughly abstract mindscape, with horror as an associative framework for arranging sound, sight, and sense to tap into otherwise untouchable enigmas about “humanity” conceived broadly. Nominally, this new Suspiria is totally at odd angles to Argento’s film, as thoroughly opposed as, say, Stephen King’s psychological vision of The Shining was from Kubrick’s baroque weave of sensory experiences that only superficially correspond to questions about the main character’s sanity.
This new Suspiria is both narrower and more expansive than the original. On one hand, it is thoroughly and inextricably a story about a time and a place (while the original could have taken place at any point in the past few hundred years). Yet it also breathes outward, distending itself well beyond a simple narrative and a set of events, letting the bruises of trying to wrangle all of its disparate threads show as it reaches well beyond the story it has set up for itself. On one hand, it is far more grounded in the particularities of time and space than the original film, yet unlike most historical films, it uses its period setting as an incantatory grounding for its own cinematic demiurgical art: the film uses the external surfaces of our world – plot details, images, events – to conjure hidden undercurrents of truth and dark presentiments about a tainted experience we call “modernity”. Continue reading
When the central couple galvanizing Cold War’s spatial and temporal slippages first meet, their bodies are already both shrouded by and formed out of the desecrated husks of history; the weight of the world sacrifices their individuality, but the film also suggests that there is no such thing as pure individuality outside of the weave of the social, of history and of History. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is part of a mid-century Soviet government-sponsored research team looking to “preserve” the iconic cultural traditions of various ethnicities and nations now roped into the Soviet Empire, part of the Soviet Union’s project of multi-national socialism. Lula (Joanna Kulig) auditions for a role in a performance of Polish “traditional” music, already privy to the fact that her identity has been casted and essentialized as a “folk” person, construing her as bearing testament to the “essence” of the Polish “people,” not a sovereign person but an icon of a preserved past. Initially, the Communist government both draws from these identities and thoroughly flattens them, evaporating any sense of political acumen in the folk lyrics, locking them into the vise grip of a depoliticized time and casting the singers not as poets of modernity (capable of resisting as agents) so much as immobile totems to the past.
As the film fades in and out of various ephemeral meetings between Lula and Wiktor over the course of roughly a dozen years between the late 1940s and the early 1960s (quoting, elliptically, Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy in the process), Pawlikowski’s film offers a fragmentary vision of hesitant modernity, the birth pains of the late 20th century. It’s also an image of mid-century world relations not as an iron bipolarity (as it’s usually thought) but as a fluctuating seepage of restless people between and beyond artificial borders, a vision of personal and political exile that blurs physical and political expatriation with a kind of nomadism of the soul. The characters’ paucity of home gives way to a cosmopolitan home that is beyond the limited contours of the nation and nationalism. Continue reading
When Lucrecia Martel’s Zama begins, its protagonist, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), is performing his own sovereignty on a beach. Decked out in colonial garb and jutting one leg outward toward the sea, he seems to be posturing to no one in particular, as if beckoning to some unseen God to witness his sculpting himself into a predefined role as an icon of mid-level colonial bureaucracy. Radiating a vision of masculine competence to himself and only himself, de Zama’s supreme selfhood ultimately discloses his supreme loneliness and pitifulness. He then enacts a self-authored fiction of ownership of and mastery over the island by spying on a group of native women bathing naked, assuming that he has the right (and ability) to look. With the mischievous, wicked temperament of a colonial slapstick, writer-director Martel’s film then immediately punctures his vision of self: they spot him and shoo him, nearly beating him up in the process.
Here, de Zama begins the film as an almost literal monument to the colonial enterprise, an erect beacon of the civilizational impulse. Throughout the next two hours, though, his “plight” will pervert again and again, from a devilishly quotidian workaday farce to a travesty of selfhood to a sublime portrait of cosmic absurdity, all before concluding with a final surrealistic, ostensible-escape to another world that in reality only manages to lay bare the circular inescapability of de Zama’s life all the more cruelly. Martel’s preferred cinematic subjects are the gendered and racialized politics of modern South American (particularly Argentinian) life. Adapted from Antonio de Benedetto’s 1956 book, Zama is a maddened dispatch from the birth pains of modernity that in many ways exposes the origins of these concerns, the genealogy of colonial life. An extremely noble impulse, but Zama’s genius is how ignoble it is. Martel ultimately tackles the “tortured geography” of colonialism not in the often monotone voice of historical cinema but as a dissociative fugue, the camera impishly roaming around in forgotten time with a figure trying to author his own story even though he seems to have totally missed the script. Continue reading
Impish and pious in equal measure, James Wan’s Aquaman is almost violently at a crossroads with itself. It both worships at the altar of the comic book and recklessly exposes the form’s essentially frivolous nature, giddily treating the comic book as holy writ while implicitly dismissing any desires to lard the form up with self-conscious airs. Somewhat astoundingly, it resurrects the mid-century pulp spirit of B-cinema and the comic book form, almost more Heavy Metal than DC, a spirit that both cherished and, at least sometimes, derived genuine pleasure out of that paradoxical overlap of silly and serious. The best of these comic books are somehow both eternally reverent to the value of unquestioned, thoroughly and inhumanly “good” mythological super-persons and essentially amused by this worshipful fascination. They seem almost curious about how loopily self-indulgent it is to get lost in such nonsense. Aquaman is quite conspicuously nonsense, and its melding of the ridiculous and the sublime never treats that nonsense as anything less than completely sincere. Continue reading
Loosely in honor of the MCU’s recent announcement of a new Blade picture, and in honor of a film that I think is better than any of the 22 films in the MCU.
Seventeen years on, and with director Guillermo del Toro’s respectable Hollywood bona-fides secured in a Best Picture and Best Director win for a film that, superficial lacquer of oddness aside, is really no less oblique or off-kilter than any other Oscarbait picture, one longs for the freakish B-movie voluptuousness of a film like Blade II. Famously, del Toro only took the film so he could have more control over the film’s follow-up, 2004’s Hellboy, the director may consider it a skeleton in his closet. Frankly though, that sense of hushed disreputability – both a film that isn’t to be spoken about and a film that refuses to easily speak its own mysteries and themes – is what makes Blade II perhaps del Toro’s most pungent English-language film.
While some of his later films bend over backwards to explain their themes to us, Blade II doesn’t feel the itch to sanctify del Toro’s obvious glee at being granted full access to play in the Hollywood toy-box (regardless of what he says about the film). Unlike many of his later films, Blade II does not launder the director’s interests in the fetishistic and the demonic aspects of family lineage and bodily malformation – no less obvious here than elsewhere – in tidily packaged moral schemas. The original Blade played its vampire themes loosely, giving traditional questions of power, marginalization, and the decay and exsanguination of the body a sleek, technological update, but Blade II folds these questions into the action so thickly that they don’t even register as themes. Which may be why it’s something of an ugly duckling in del Toro’s filmography. Continue reading
Koyaanisqatsi offers what can only be described as a radical defamiliarization of humankind, treating civilization as a known-unknown and humanity as an alien artifact. Famously soundtracked by Phillip Glass’ gloriously minimalistic score, Godfrey Reggio’s first of three environmentalist impastos offers a symphonic image of the human experience, contradictions and curiosities existing in tenuous, frictive harmony. Transparently environment and even polemical, Reggio’s film is less a plea for salvaging the environment than a call for a new kind of perspective on existence: the camera turning, warping, acknowledging its mediation of nature’s might and igniting the potential of the natural world that is often taken as backdrop, a mere resource to be plundered rather than imaginative energy to be mined.
Generally, Reggio’s film operates as a kind of Benjaminian phantasmagoria, a portrait of modern life as a wandering world of ghosts and specters selling newness only to, in reality, repackage preexisting forms in more spectral variations. Koyaanisqatsi primarily emphasizes the lost and the adrift: a decayed, destroyed past looming in the distance (if only we look) what it sees as the increasingly phantasmic presence of modernity, ever-present but always so rushed and mutating that it never quite settles into corporeal, stabilized form. Images blur and bleed, weave and warp, becoming ghostly half-presences of themselves, as though appearing and becoming irrelevant so immediately that they cannot even settle or corporealize. The shots cannot even materialize; the material world – and modernity’s fetish for the tangible – paradoxically denatures itself. Every material image seems to fade into its negative mirror-image or partial half-presence, mimicking and mocking the herky-jerky hustle-and-bustle immediacy of modernity by envisioning a world where nothing is stagnant anymore, where the possibility of cohesiveness and completion is fallacious at the very level of the image. Continue reading
Bruce Lee is rather unceremoniously written-off in Quentin Tarantino’s new film, which I finally saw and thought was otherwise terrific, but it seemed a little counter-argument was necessary for Midnight Screenings this week.
The paramount reason to discuss Enter the Dragon is, of course, breakout star Bruce Lee, who tragically and unfathomably died before he could see the film’s release and its astonishing success in the American market. (A success marking it as a traveling partner of the Blaxploitation films, tearing up the screen for a couple years in the early ‘70s before white America, as it is wont to, lost interest in capitalizing on foregrounded black screen presence for quite a while). At least, that’s the usual thing people talk about when bringing up Enter the Dragon. And although I’m wont to squabble with given assumptions about a film’s value (such assumptions tend to favor screenwriting and acting rather than visual style), in this case, the film’s reputation proceeds it: Enter the Dragon heavily hangs on Lee, one of the great screen finds, and one of the most abnormally effective screen presences in film history.
Lee’s own animalistic charisma is a peculiar combination of natural intuitive screen presence and almost monomaniacally cultivated bodily control, a kind of personal authoritarianism mixed with a sense of fluidity that begs fairly metaphysical questions about what embodying a style actually means. Can one’s relationship to one’s body truly approach the kind of sovereign, total mastery Lee clearly aspires to? Or, conversely, does control of one’s place in the world require a sense of personal plasticity, not mastering the world by stopping its rhythms and melding them to your liking so much as sensing energies in the world and flowing with them, redirecting them to your purposes temporarily with the knowledge that you still don’t “control” them? (This perspective is validated by Lee’s famous comments about making one’s body like water, emphasizing the reactive rather than the active). Continue reading