Category Archives: Films for Class

Films for Class: High and Low

10-high-and-low-600x364Sometimes bemoaned for relegating himself to that most Japanese of genres – the samurai flick – and retreating into flavors of Americanization, director Akira Kurosawa performs something of an inside-out operation with High and Low. A fiendish film noir with fangs drawn at a vein spurting society’s maladies, High and Low casts the suspense picture out of its Americana corral by inducing a specifically Japanese flavor. Right from the get-go, Kurosawa’s film is hot on the trail of a molten morality play, teasing suggestions of violence that greasily spread like venom through the bones of Japanese society. Rather than mining his nation’s mythopoetic samurai memory and massaging it into an international sizzler primed for American audiences, this hyper-modern company-man thriller cuts a filmic diamond out of the suffocating coal of Japanese classism, squalor, and privilege. With its humid pangs of ethical disarray and pungent propositions of emotional upheaval, High and Low channels an ever-mutable dialogue between social codes and personal feelings, exploring an uncharted territory where each is informed by and negotiates the other. Continue reading

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Films for Class: Battleship Potemkin

odessa_stairs_ukraine-battleship_potemkine_Ninety-two years on, it goes without saying that Battleship Potemkin is a sketch more than an aria, but Eisenstein stencils better than just about anyone. Disposing with the character-first politics of American cinema then expediently working overtime with enough charisma to turn film into the de facto bourgeois art form, Potemkin is politically flimsy. But that’s acceptable: it’s a polemic, a red-hot screed, the charred apex of a garbled wail of revolutionary fervor, and if it isn’t quite the feeding frenzy for inventive technique that Strike or some of Eisenstein’s future films were, it’s exciting enough to fulfill Pauline Kael’s declaration (on another film) of the proverbial “movie in heat”. Agitprop it is, which isn’t a problem. The issue, and it is exclusively relative (that of a lesser masterpiece vs. Strike, a greater masterpiece) is that this particular agitator isn’t as agitated as Eisenstein’s greatest films. Continue reading

Films for Class: Nanook of the North

nanook-of-the-northAt once a howling abyss and a succulent morsel of semi-absurdist humanistic comedy, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North is a film of wonderfully unresolved, immanent contradictions and multivalent constellations of primordial beauty. The most obvious dormant tension that requires surfacing is that it isn’t a documentary, at least insofar as the conventional scripture would bequeath it. No, this slice-of-life tale of “Nanook” (actually Allakariallak), an Inuit in the arctic regions of Canada, as filmed by filmmaker-explorer Robert Flaherty, was largely an ahistorical concoction fabricated to feign allegiance to the Western ideology of the Inuit as a backward Other whose life was governed by genial amusement and befuddlement at any and all Western artifacts. Many of these technologies objects were well-known to Allakariallak, a genuine Inuit who was “in” on the production of the film, as Inuit culture by 1922 had advanced well beyond the spear-wielding icon curated by Flaherty for white America’s racial memory. Continue reading

Films for Class: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

the-killing-of-a-chinese-bookieSo as to avoid the tension: this post is enormously indebted to Ray Carney and based on the original 1976 cut of the film. 

John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is, as with seemingly every film of its decade, ripe for analysis as an exploration of the cultural miscommunications of the 1970s, but only after a fashion. Unlike nearly every other film mired in then-contemporary issues, it is not blindsided by the minutiae of references or tangible representations of reality. Cassavetes’ work, like all his masterly films, is instead submerged in the milieu of the time period at an emotional and cognitive level. It excavates the unsettled consciousness of the period in a man dissociated from himself, a man who retreats into a mental or imaginative space where he is a lothario, a noirish type who erects a vision of himself through appearance, routine, and a surfeit of arbitrary significances draped over empty signifiers. Cosmo (Ben Gazzara), the strip-joint don suddenly thrust into a murder plot, shelters himself in the realm of ideas and romantic visions of selfhood. Unlike most films that deal in any time period, the plot, and indeed any gangster trappings in the film, are purely prisms to refract an understanding of imaginative experience through. Cosmo, and the film, is a battleground of the lived and imaginative selves, the self as it exists in reality and the self as it exists in the mind. Continue reading

Films for Class: Kustom Kar Kommandos

kukako2Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos asks us to feel with our ears, to hear with our eyes, to taste with our bodies. Charged with a tickling eroticism and hyperbolically fetishistic aura, this lascivious work of high camp and low culture is infused with an alternately infatuated and critical attitude toward the throbbing iconography of American lore. Automobile autoeroticism at its most perverted, Anger plays around with blood(womb)red imagery to suggest the American garage as the birthing canal of masculine Americana’s dreams. More specifically, Anger locates the womb of American industry in the male heart, dressing a boy working on a car in vivid, lurid hues and equating the desire for procreation with symbiotic and parasitic ownership of metal material that bears somewhat striking implications for the notion of offspring as parental property. All of this, of course, is without even glancing at the implications of the title (or the title’s initials, more accurately, peerlessly stitching together homoerotic American masculine machinery as a sort of color-blind populist front or a vanguard for the white power movement, but that thread is hidden deeper in this film than in most of Anger’s more famous works, so we’ll leave it for someone else to find). Continue reading

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

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: 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

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