Category Archives: Fifty Years On

Specters of ’68: Spider Baby

imdb_virginia_knife_spider_babyI 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

Summer of ’69 Midnight Screening: Horrors of Malformed Men

horrors-of-malformed-men-1108x0-c-defaultMany 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

Summer of ’69: Andrei Rublev

300id_113_w1600While Andrei Rublev was officially released in 1966, it was not unleased upon the world until one fateful night (at 4 AM, courtesy of Soviet censors) in May of 1969 at the Cannes film festival, and as that screening was one of the most important cinematic events of 1969, it seems entirely legitimate for the film to have a place in this short retrospective. 

One of the truly epochal films, Andrei Rublev is oneiric and elliptical but also deeply physical, at once abstractly cosmic and bodily comic, heavenly and grounded, ethereally resplendent but possessed of a tough, pragmatic bodily consciousness that, for all its sublimity, means that driector Andrei Tarkovsky’s film never floats above the characters for long. For an art film of this vintage, Andrei Rublev is second only to The Seventh Seal in its orientation toward the unruly nature of bodies, toward an aesthetics not of tableaux studiously arranged but quasi-absurd fracas. Its prologue depicts a man furiously struggling with a hot air balloon, attempting to rise above the masses and the proto-Russian swamps out of which St. Petersburg famously rose up, and the entire texture of the film formally embodies his doomed, noble quest: desiring to rise above all, to see the totality of existence, only to be drawn back down by the seismic pull of a world that can only be properly appreciated, for Tarkovsky at least, from below.

Andrei Rublev is a breathtakingly broad canvas, less stringently Protestant than Bergman, less cynical than Antonioni, and perhaps more genuinely humanistic than any film ever released, attempting to encompass multitudes and defy perfection. It might be described as a series of transmutations of a question – what is the relationship between the individual, society, and God – and the film absolutely takes seriously both the grandeur of that question and its polyphonous diffuseness, not treating it as a linear projection to be “answered” so much as a broad canvas on which to meditate and consider various aspects of human identity in tandem. Continue reading

Specters of 1968: Black Panthers

black-panthers-agnes-vardaIn honor of the half-century anniversary of the epochal years of 1968 and 1969, I meant to propose a little series of reviews commemorating the films of those years last summer, particularly with all the academic conferences and articles trying to rekindle the lost spirit of ’68 or otherwise to dissect it. I didn’t get around to it at the time, but with the era lulled to sleep last month by Quentin Tarantino’s phenomenal Once Upon a time in Hollywood, now seems as good a time as any to start! I apologize that I’m a year late to officially celebrate the 50th of some of these films, but a great film doesn’t need a deadline to be remembered. 

This particular review is also in commemoration of Agnes Varda, who passed away earlier this year. RIP. 

Most non-American filmmakers drawn to visualize their escapades in the US, or their fantasy projections of US life, are perhaps naturally attracted to, and unable to escape the pull of, America’s paradigmatic genre, the Western. Although heavily freighted with mythological weight, the genre doesn’t prescribe any intrinsic disposition. Initially structured around absences – of marginalized people, of violence perpetrated in the name of Manifest Destiny, etc – which various filmmakers have undertaken efforts to correct, the Western has become one of cinema’s most mutable forms for theorizing American existential uncertainty and the growth pains of a nation growing physically but not necessarily morally.

Thus, for the Italian Sergio Corbucci, the West became a burial ground. For the German Wim Wenders, contrarily, the West became a Romanticized, Emersonian portrait of exploratory selfhood, not to mention a gulf between desire and reality that threatens to dissolve the self in a deeply existential morass of uncertainty. For some, the open expanse signals space to cultivate, and for others, it signifies the untouched primacy of truth prior to civilization, and still for others it asks knottier questions about how to experiment with identity without becoming circumscribed by it, to remake the self and the land in tandem and often, to conquer and to be conquered by that desire to conquer. Continue reading

Specters of 1968: The Great Silence

the-great-silenceIn honor of the half-century anniversary of the epochal years of 1968 and 1969, I meant to propose a little series of reviews commemorating the films of those years last summer, particularly with all the academic conferences and articles trying to rekindle the lost spirit of ’68 or otherwise to dissect it. I didn’t get around to it at the time, but with the era lulled to sleep last month by Quentin Tarantino’s phenomenal Once Upon a time in Hollywood, now seems as good a time as any to start! I apologize that I’m a year late to officially celebrate the 50th of some of these films, but a great film doesn’t need a deadline to be remembered. 

For American audiences, perhaps the paradigmatic revisionist Western is Robert Altman’s McCabe and Ms. Miller, a mournful and melancholy elegy with which Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence shares its cruel disposition toward and critique of the state-sanctioned monopoly capitalism at the heart of American myths of bootstrap individualism. Both implode the notion of the wandering soul thriving on and conquering the landscape in service of personal achievement. McCabe is arguably the great American Western, a murky moral tapestry of uncertain desires and unfixed figures barely convincing themselves that their tenuous relationships constitute a frontier “town”. Compared to McCabe, most so-called “revisionist” Westerns seem like trivial twists on conservative formulas passing themselves off as revolutionary signposts of a new cinematic future.

But if McCabe is a weary lament, The Great Silence, one of the great forgotten Westerns, is a sorrowful and brutal dirge. To my mind, it is the only Western from the era which can truly huddle up under McCabe’s fire, particularly because it’s the only one which knows how frail, fragile, and dubious any fire of hope in the old West truly is. The Great Silence is a morose, poetically wayward counterpoint to that other Sergio’s more famous, more flamboyant Italiannette abstraction of the American experience. Like McCabe, it both takes seriously the wayward lives of the nomadically unsettled – and the kinds of new conscious born on the frontier – while questioning – and in Corbucci’s polemical case, absolutely desecrating –the American outlaw mythology where lone heroes brandish a form of individually-legitimated personal justice that stands apart from and above the state. The Great Silence’s protagonist opposes state-sanctioned violence, but there is no sense that is above or beyond it morally so much as circumstantially on the other side of it. Continue reading