Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is little more than a New Hollywood pastiche, a loving and careful waxworks recreation of a style and type of cinema that was at one time, a great many years and Hollywood eras ago, the most lively and startling thing to ever happen to American cinema. As a film, David Lowery’s recreation of that style has not one new idea to bring to the table the New Hollywood built out of rustic, unpolished wood and then abandoned long ago. All Lowery is doing is digging through scrap heap, separating out the noble rust from the ignoble variety, and refashioning it into a garage sculpture where the very nature of the metal – falling apart, worn to the point of triteness – is a badge of honor, a reminder of how old this sort of tale really is, and how lively it can still feel when it is carted out after it hasn’t seen the light of day in too long. It doesn’t offer a new idea, but it offers a more humble reminder: in the New Hollywood of the 1970s, we now see not only a scorching fresh breath into the room of Hollywood’s musty old classicism, but a peculiar, well-worn form of old-timey comfort. Those New Hollywood films are now part of the classic American cinematic tradition, and Lowery is merely playing a requiem for them. Continue reading
If 1999 is an important year in cinema history – which most believe it to be – The Iron Giant is arguably the most important single film in the entire year’s canon, beginning as it does a great trend of films both wonderful and abysmal we have not yet escaped from: films based off of Pete Townshend concept albums.
I kid. But The Iron Giant is important for what it reveals about the year 1999: the trend of important directorial debuts, either formal “first film” debuts or debuts into the mainstream by independent directors who had directed a film or two before-hand. One does not need to have seen any films from 1999 to understand the importance of the directors that emerged from the thick of the eye of the millennial storm to shape the contours of cinema for the ensuing fifteen years. If some of these films seem wobbly today, they at least signaled the arrival of important cinematic voices for the ensuing decades. Continue reading
Is there any way to announce a consideration of Johnny Guitar other than the now famous Jean-Luc Godard quote about Nicholas Ray being “cinema”? Famously, the director expressed that Ray was among the first, if not the first, American auteurs to do with cinema as only cinema could, taking up the poetry of dialogue and the untarnished, painterly quality of art and the distant timelessness of theater and encircling them with the vulture of film, engorging itself on the carcasses of other mediums and ensuring they lived on, in altered, transmuted form, inside cinema.
Godard’s quote is a touch too heated (I’ll take to my grave the thought that Nicholas Ray is among the most underrated auteurs Hollywood ever produced, but that he was the first true advocate of “cinema” is a much more difficult proposition). Certainly, however, Ray’s films always felt more alive with pulsation, even in their embalmed detachment, than those of many other auteurs. And Godard naturally felt the love due to Ray’s unparalleled work in genre as a means of classifying social incoherence and expressing differing views of humanity’s own artifice. If he wasn’t the first true cinematic visionary, he was up there with the greats of his or any other time. Continue reading
Martin Scorsese’s lived-in film adaptation of The Band’s legendary, star-studded farewell concert, cheekily titled “The Last Waltz”, is wholly at odds with the fundamental logic of the conventional concert film, and it is all the more fascinating for it. At the eve of their dissolution, Scorsese chose to film the Band warts and all. He captures, more than anything, their own distance from the music they no longer necessarily want to call home. You can feel his love for the energy of raw music, yet he uses this energy to capture a fundamental malaise. His camera becomes their most knowing fan, giving the film a live, human physicality even as it deals in the deadened decay of men too tired to care anymore. The Rolling Stones’ documentary Gimme Shelter, itself fairly stunning, is haunting for the way a single tragedy intervened and permeated the celluloid of the whole film. Here, however, we come to understand something more deadening: the perpetual tension of joy and melancholy of life on the road, something a tragedy wouldn’t so much break-up as become one small portion of. On this tension between the lively and the embalmed, the film presents a fascinating vision of humanity and performance equaled by few films. Continue reading
With the summer release of Jeff Mickle’s new film, Cold in July, set to prove him as a director of considerable skill who’s in it for the long haul, it seems appropriate to look back on his two previous, relatively unknown and under-appreciated films, truly strong efforts both and films any discerning horror fan can appreciate. 2010’s Stake Land and 2013’s We Are What We Are are scary films, but their horror comes not from shocks but slowly building dread (don’t worry, though, Mickle knows how to underline his composed filmmaking in blood-red strokes when necessary) . He doesn’t give us choppy quick cuts. He lingers, letting his characters define his horror and giving us a blood-curdling melancholy.
Stake Land is a post-apocalyptic vampire road-Western about a family of loners who come together to survive, while We Are What We Are is something of a psychological thriller about a cultish family that maintains religious practices long out of time, including a propensity for cannibalism. But they both share a crucial feeling, a sense of hopeless malaise that seeps out of the screen and permeates the environment. Above all, they’re weary films about the struggle to survive in a situation where survival may not be the best option. Continue reading
Edited and Updated 2016
Released only one year after Robert Altman’s first masterpiece, MASH, this sly, revisionist Western is the rare film whose intentions and affect are captured fully in its opening credits. Fore-grounded, we have an image of a decrepit, hunched over, and phony looking enigma of a man riding slowly into an equally decrepit and hunched-over town. It is nothing short of a stunningly snarky and caustic wry mockery of the Western archetype hero riding into town to save the day. Only he isn’t there to “save the day” here. He, McCabe (Warren Beatty), simply wants to make a name for himself, and he does so by running a brothel, but only once he’s saved by a woman who initially couldn’t care less about him, the down-to-earth Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) who somehow manages to maintain an unreachable magisterial mystery about her. And that’s the film in a nutshell: decrepit, deadened, and down-trodden yet still somehow attaining a sort of energetic sense of positively alert human feeling. In this sense, it is the quintessential New Wave film. Continue reading
Few genres run the gamut of nervy nightmare to clear-conscience mirth like the Western. Some films have used the medium to push deeper and deeper on the world’s great un-bandaged wounds. But, traditionally, the genre has been enjoyed for its ability to set the mind at ease. Filled with grand, black-and-white archetypes which convince us of a world long-gone predicated on righteous morality, the Wild West is less reality than a dream, a moral vision of America’s mid-century hopes for a conservative world in an era where the world’s complications were increasingly boiling to the surface. In the 1940s and 1950s, the genre was the ultimate in cinematic comfort food.
I was planning on curbing my tendency to upload two reviews every week for Midnight Screenings, rather than one, but seeing as how I missed last week’s review, I’ll post two this week one last time. One is below, with another, linked by theme and something a bit more concrete, to come tomorrow.
Update June 2019: After another rewatch, I remain enamored of Lynch’s general aura of cinematic discontent, and even more enamored of his obvious empathy for (most of) his characters: the American dreams that Lynch devours whole-cloth are, of course, his own dreams, and Blue Velvet in particular has the unmistakable mood of possibility thoroughly deflated, of Lynch’s own innocence curdled into demonic cynicism. Lynch’s immanent critique of mid-century Hollywood cinema and the dreams it promised feels less like an outsider director dismembering a naive vision he feels foreign to (and thus one he views as deluded) than the tragically absurd sight of an animal devouring itself from behind. For that reason, the film’s mood is not of barking cynicism but elegiac collapse, a dream realizing that it cannot sustain itself after all.
Still, after having done more of a deep dive into Lynch in the ensuing five years, Blue Velvet does feel slightly … cruder this time out. It’s fantastic cinema, and in 1986 it must have felt like an apocalyptic full-frontal onslaught, but after three (on-and-off) decades of Lynch so thoroughly burrowing into and then disemboweling everyday life and the cinema that upholsters it, one can’t help but think of Blue Velvet as a test-run for Wild at Heart, or a cinematic prelude to Twin Peaks, to say nothing of the sheer depths of cinematic exploration he would achieve with Mulholland Drive. His elastic attitude toward aesthetics – many images evoke demented horror, mournful drama, and tortured comedy at the same time – is as phenomenal as ever. But Blue Velvet feels a bit more schematic in its analysis – many of the visual contrasts are explicitly schematic, for that matter – and less of a maddened dispatch from another world (that is, of course, the underbelly of our world) that exposes the soul-devouring undercurrents of a reality totally riven before our eyes. It’s the only one of Lynch’s mature (which is to say, Blue Velvet onwards) features that feels like he’s already worked everything out in his head before filming, and that robs the film of Lynch’s typical aura of having discovered modernity unraveling itself mid-process.
Blue Velvet is curiously, even paradoxically, both director David Lynch’s most anarchic film and one of his most straightforward. Perhaps the two are linked, for Lynch opens up the film with an image of straightforward reality he spends the film taking to task. We get clean-cut grass and well-manicured houses, spaced evenly between one another, hiding well-manicured people who probably take pains to space themselves evenly as well. Lynch is aware that these images construct our dreams of America, or at least our dreams of an American past, and even in his admitted celebration of them, he also examines them, cutting into them like a knife through pre-sliced, packaged white bread (what could be more American?) hiding maggots under its façade of comfort. Continue reading
This being a review in a month-long exploration of the Western genre.
I’ve seen a lot of Westerns. I actively seek out the genre for two reasons. Firstly, existing within a genre of B-pictures with lesser commercial prospects, the films often have a freedom to poke and prod at the nature of film and storytelling in ways films with more money put into them, and thus with more money expected in return, might not have the unexpected freedom for. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the Western was historically perhaps the genre where America and its desires are most wont to play themselves out for audiences. Westerns explore a mythic version of traditional American life – some uphold it, some read it past itself to create untold postmodern myths, and some take a knife to the genre and skewer it for all to see. Continue reading
Edited June 2016
What exactly does it mean to bear the weight of “America’s most beloved film”, as Casablanca does? This raises flags on all fronts, naturally. Many movies remain loved even as their luster fades, and others were never really very good to begin with, merely totems of false-positive memories. With any film of this monumentally mythic level of attention and historical repute, there are many questions, but the most important is actually rather simple: but is it any good?
Who doesn’t know the narrative? Set in the mystical imagination-space of World War II, after Germany has occupied France, a Czech freedom fighter Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) venture to Rick’s Café in the Moroccan City of Casablanca in hopes of lying low from the Nazis, headed by Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), chasing them. This plays like its own potential narrative, but things rise to loftier heights when Ilsa discovers Rick is Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a past love, her only love, and the two begin to rekindle their past affair. Continue reading