Film Favorites: The Passion of Joan of Arc

Exploring the inexpressible, ineffable qualities of desire pressed tenuously and incompletely but immediately onto the surface of screens that cannot quite accommodate those desires but nonetheless must try to relate to them, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film remains one of cinema’s great meditations on human communication in all its valences: both achieved and failed, asked and given, demanded and foiled. For the same reasons, it remains one of the great films about the possibilities of the medium, exploring cinema at both its barest essentials and its furthest reaches. What, the film ponders, does it mean for its titular character, nominally the historical figure Joan of Arc, French hero of the Hundred Years’ War during the 15th century, to doubt and feel and desire, to commit against the flow of the world, to sense other flows unacknowledged by the powers that deny her? What does it mean for actress Renée Falconetti to essay a soul-rending performance of a woman she never knew outside of her work to recreate (and thus create) her? And what does it mean for us as viewers to confront the senses essayed in this film, largely unknown but somehow known to us, to wrestle with the very capacity of imagery to explore the possibilities and limits of representation, to represent connection across space and time? What, simply, does it mean to visualize Joan’s desire, which, the film makes clear, is unmaterial, is beyond visual comprehension? What does it mean to know a human from their face? What even is it to be interested in the material on screen?

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Film Favorites: The Parallax View

From the nearly decontextualized prologue to the astonishing opening credits, an Altman-esque zoom in to a court finding (echoing the Warren Commission) that freezes in a tableau of American deceitfulness, Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View imbues quotidian happenings with malicious intent. At first it seems merely peerlessly menacing, in the same way concurrent works like All the President’s Men or Chinatown diagnose paranoic ‘70s personalities, but Pakula’s most sinister coup is to render even menace banal, to turn anxiety about specific occurrences into a thoroughly incomplete response to an unfathomable and all-consuming social fabric that seems completely beyond sense-perception and comprehension. Drawing audiences in with the promise of final revelation, the film emerges with something much more discombobulating than a simple bait-and-switch: slowly (and then quickly) fragmenting and shivering apart into abject chaos, rendering the grammar of celluloid both one of society’s greatest witnesses and hopelessly incapable of truly grasping the depths it plunges into.

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Midnight Screenings: Christine

I’m promising to publish at least one Midnight Film review every Friday or Saturday this year, starting with two underrated John Carpenter classics, one of which recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary, while the other is nearing forty. Both, though, summon dark energies against idealist vistas, reanimating American folklore to render it monstrous, implying that the nation’s cultural norms and iconography will be its own undoing.

By 1983, tackling a Stephen King adaptation had already become a fertile testing ground for horror auteurs to flex their cinematic muscles and interrogate their idiosyncrasies within ostensible crowd-pleasers and corporate products, to infest cinematic hallowed ground with exploratory personal devils and fixations. A King adaptation was sort of like the old Cahier du Cinema proof about auteur theory, which suggested that a director’s personality, their difference, could be gleamed best when they were most mediated by various corporate interests rather than left to their own devices to construct a film from the ground up.

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Midnight Screenings: Ghosts of Mars

I’m promising to publish at least one Midnight Film review every Friday or Saturday this year, starting with two underrated John Carpenter classics, one of which recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary, while the other is nearing forty. Both, though, summon dark energies against idealist vistas, reanimating American folklore to render it monstrous, implying that the nation’s cultural norms and iconography will be its own undoing.

Although it didn’t officially put John Carpenter in director jail, one suspects that everyone involved would just as soon forget 2001’s Ghosts of Mars. It doesn’t even get the respect that similar-era catastrophes like Battlefield Earth and The Room receive, resigning itself to the historical dustbin of “just another bad film.” Perhaps the blame truly lays at Carpenter’s feet: just as his major achievements work in fascinatingly minor keys, so too do his ostensible failures refuse to grant us easy access to their odds and ends, their opaque mysteries and strange digressions. They refuse to go bad in a big, obvious way, preferring workmanlike craftsmanship and subtle twists of the knife. On the surface, Ghosts of Mars is a by-the-numbers failure, an indifferently bad film, rather than an exceptionally bad one.  A self-consciously minorized work, an exploratory termite in an elephant’s world, it is absolutely Carpenter-esque: spare, spartan, economical, but also subtly exploratory and strange, eating away at itself by exploring its nooks and crannies, taking the form of a carpenter building a chair and the termites that are simultaneously devouring it.

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Christmas Classics: The Muppet Christmas Carol

It’s been a long time, pretty much since the beginning of Covid, that I’ve posted on this blog, but I’m making it my New Year’s Resolution to return to it in 2022 with regularity. There’s more to come soon, but I wanted to share this review of one of my most beloved holiday films before the year ends.

Nominally, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a fairly faithful retelling of Charles Dickens’s 1843 A Christmas Carol, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s story of self-recognition and potential self-betterment when confronted one night by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Come. A bleak paean to the necessity of self-transformation and dedication to humanistic collectivism, the Muppet version follows closely to the moral imperative of Dickens’s original. Which may not work for some. Like the 1843 novella, the Muppets’ 150-year-later version is frankly manipulative and sentimental. While other authors of his era, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels most obviously, reacted to the soul-devouring inequalities of capitalism and the dark factory towns of nineteenth-century Europe with a call to overturn capitalism systematically, Dickens was essentially appealing to sentiments of shame and guilt. That doesn’t mean his portrait wasn’t grim, sentimentality aside (or, rather, the grimness is part of the sentimentality), and it certainly doesn’t mean that his pen’s charismatic pull is any less forceful.

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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

Films for Class: La Ultima Cena

cena1A classic of Cuban Marxist-inflected cinema, director Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s La Ultima Cena offers an intimate portrait of the paradoxes that arise when attempting to reconcile “Western” Christianity and slave life on the plantation. Focused on a slave master’s self-fashioned “benevolence”, La Ultima Cena examines how slave masters’ self-regarding visions of personal sacrifice – their collective belief that they were moral patriarchs sacrificing for their slaves in hopes of “teaching” them “civilization” – couldn’t but require them to engage their slaves in ways which sometimes invited the latter to announce their humanity through means the master wasn’t likely to want to hear. Alea’s film depicts slaves themselves debating real freedom on the sham stage of a master’s faux-freedom, pushing liberation’s meaning well beyond the pale of what their master could possibly imagine.

La Ultima Cena’s centerpiece is its title: a slave master, the Count, picking a dozen slaves and staging a pantomime of the Christian Last Supper, with the master occupying the ostensibly servile role of Jesus Christ. Shielded by his belief that slaves are relatively unthinking “beasts”, the Count negligently assumes that he can use this show of servility and equality to easily colonize the contours of the slaves’ minds, incapacitating their resistant hearts with his own deluded belief in his own humility and morality. He assumes that they will not resist his show of compassion, and that they will abide by his terms.

Throughout this feast, the Count tries to bond with his slaves, his physical position at the table – akin to Jesus’ in traditional images of the Last Supper – all the while asserting his own view of himself as the most religious and pious, as well as the most sacrificing of all. In contrast to the slave driver Don Manuel, who the master argues has no place in Heaven because of his hungry and violent desire for power, the Count fashions himself as a charitable owner, underwriting his position as divine will. The film foregrounds this self-vision in an early shot in which the Count, with a figure of Jesus on the cross in front of him, extends his arms outward to mirror the image of Jesus only so that a servant can finish dressing him. Insofar as the Count here (and throughout the film) offers himself up to the film, to us, to bask in his benevolent charity, Alea undermines and ironizes his piousness by virtue of the fact that he is being served rather than serving anyone but himself. Continue reading

Review: Lincoln

lincolnNo special occasion here, just a re-watch for a course, and because I haven’t updated the site in a few weeks. 

The potential for a movie about Abraham Lincoln to choke on the congestion of history is undeniable, doubly so with Steven Spielberg at the helm. A master craftsman when he lets himself be, he is also perhaps the paradigmatic cinematic gawker, a director most susceptible to basking in the hallowed glory of his chosen object of study. Daniel Day-Lewis is amazing in Lincoln, and he was always going to be. But the powerhouse performance that scrapes the impacted dust of history and breathes hypothetical life onto the screen is as old a cinematic genre as any other. More often than not, the presence of such an actor in such a role is little more than an excuse for the film to go on autopilot, gravely coasting through a figure’s events without perspective, viewpoint, or even a constellation of serious concerns. With Day-Lewis in the titular role, it’s really no surprise that the greatest pleasure of Spielberg’s film is watching one of the world’s best actors do his stuff with one of the most glorified (and consequently least humanized) figures in US history. But that a Spielberg version of Abraham Lincoln’s life would have anything else to offer beyond aggrandizing bromides was always in doubt.

Lo and behold, then: Lincoln is a shrewd, sharp motion picture, pungent and prodding, a quietly exasperated vision of the political process as somewhere between moral meat-grinder and moral compass, a vision galvanized by Day-Lewis’ phenomenal performance but not colonized by his work. Quite like the event it depicts, the film is an amalgam of individual volition and social structuration, of personal courage and destabilizing political wrangling, and quite like its titular figure, the charisma of its storytelling is quietly spellbinding but also pointedly wry and even occasionally destabilizing. Continue reading

Midnight Screening: Black Dynamite

black-dynamite-featureI originally wanted to write this up in reference to the release of Craig Brewer’s My Name is Dolemite next week, without even realizing the highly appropriate irony that the last (only?) great Blaxploitation film was released almost one decade ago to the day.  

It’s extremely tempting to refer to Black Dynamite as the sharpest cinema-parody of the ‘00s, at least among those parodies that take a cinematic form, except for the curious and altogether unexpected fact that the best moments in the film only register as “parody” by circumstantial virtue of being contained in a film we’ve been told is a parody in the first place. Case in point: the film’s most famous scene, a free-associative riff-off that begins with M&Ms, sidesteps into Ancient Greek mythology and cosmology, and wanders into phallus-related hijinks, before solving the film’s McGuffin with what amounts to a supreme imaginative leap on the screenwriters’ part. But it’s hard to call this riddle scene a “parody” in any meaningful sense.

Earlier, there’s a more overt reference to the planets: a fairly amazing verbal pimp-off where the elaborate abstractions of pimp culture verbal cosmology suddenly mutate into a quite literal cosmology metaphor that lies well-beyond-reason, the head pimp explaining his plan in terms of the earth’s axis. That joke is “about” Blaxploitation cinema, or at least about the impenetrable ridiculousness of the depiction of pimps in Blaxploitation cinema. And it’s a pretty great joke too. But Black Dynamite discovering the villain’s plot via references to Ares and Athena, for no reason? Is that a satire of cinematic deus ex machinas? Of characters conveniently gifted with screenwriter’s verbosity? Cinema parody, I suppose we could say, if we’re being generous, but certainly not Blaxploitation parody in any meaningful sense. The minds of the filmmakers are clearly well beyond the pale of a mere genre parody. Continue reading

Review: Us

usdomesticposter_thumbJordan Peele’s Us bears many obvious linkages to Get Out, Peele’s 2017 box-office slayer, but Us feels less like a retread or even an update or extension of Get Out than a perversion, a disruption, a chaotic disfigurement of the earlier film’s elegant simplicity. Us is both more existential and more surreal, more playful and more brutal, and, above all, more experimentally distended, exhibiting a newly ravaged and warped texture that is very much to my taste, but not necessarily to those looking for a clean like of argumentation in the film, or even a clear subject. Get Out’s comparatively streamlined metaphor for sight, sightlessness, and embodiment was tight, vicious, and tenacious – perfect for itself, and perhaps for a first film – but not nearly so troublesome as Us, which actively and conspicuously refuses the snug moral logic and trimmed-down narrative of Get Out. Us isn’t avant-garde in any overt sense, but where Get Out’s story fell into place, this new film buckles, utilizing horror for its demonic textural and thematic elasticity and indescribability rather than merely as a generic skeleton for a moral parable. It’s storytelling by way of allusion, digression, and disturbance, a film that benefits or suffers greatly (depending on your proclivity) from writer-director Jordan Peele’s obvious enthusiasm overtaking his discretion, his ensuing disdain for hedging his bets and, probably, his frustration with heeding the rules and regulations of Hollywood storytelling. It’s as if, having mastered the art of skillful middlebrow horror cinema, Peele decided to dismember it. Continue reading