Updated mid-2017 after another rewatch – such an amazing, amazing film, not particularly violent in a diegetic sense, but one which feels as though violence has been done to it.
This post being in honor of the film’s fortieth anniversary this upcoming Wednesday, October 1. Here’s to forty more years of soul-deadening terror.
The story of five nobodies wandering through rural Texas and running afoul of America’s hidden secrets, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is infamously violent, which is curious because it’s hardly violent at all. The body-count is shockingly low and deaths happen mostly off-screen, relegated to the abyssal margins of an already poetically empty screen space, one which seemingly voids participation in a wider social milieu. But if the movie feels violent more than it is violent, that’s because it feels positively disgusting. This is grimy, disturbing filmmaking in every possible way, almost toxically fugitive in its disobedience to propriety. It may be one of the grossest-looking famous movies ever released, somehow both punishingly direct and monstrously, mystifyingly oblique, like it’s showing us everything head-on while veiling more submerged truths about American discontent. The film grain, even for the time, is knowingly poor – it feels like a documentary more than a film, lending it an unsettling and grimy immediacy, but also an evasive sense of ambiguity. The film-grain scratches which are testament to the authenticity of its expression of reality also suggest the film’s curiosity about a reality that is ultimately inexpressible, a sense of horror which is both extremely forthright – sometimes breaking through the film screen itself to confront us head-on – and obliquely suggestive of terrors we aren’t, and perhaps can’t be, privy to. Continue reading →
Terrence Malick didn’t crash into the film-world – he stumbled into it, but the impression he left wouldn’t convey the truth of it. A philosophy student at Harvard who studied Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, he went on to teach at MIT after a petty disagreement with his advisor while studying as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (although in the world of philosophy, everything and nothing is petty). At some point along the way, he decided he felt like making a movie, and the world was never the same. That film, 1973’s Badlands, is so stunningly like every other kids-on-the-run crime film from the American New Wave from a distance, it’s almost comical. But from up-close (or even medium distance), it’s so glaringly apparent that Badlands is the antithesis of the films it’s often compared to (ahem, Bonnie and Clyde) that the initial comparison seems so superficial as to not even be worth noting. Badlands is unlike any film from the period, and American cinema more genuinely. It is a singular experience, and a towering, titanic one. Continue reading →
Were you expecting maybe Bugs Bunny? So we arrive at 1972, not nearly the best year in the American New Wave, but the year with the release of the most famed film to call the time and place home. Yes, The Godfather is a classic piece of American cinema and a great film in its own right. I’ll maintain a certain confusion as to its status as the most loved of all American films (only rivaled by Citizen Kane and Casablanca). It’s undeniably stellar, but there is a mighty space on the couch between very great and quintessential, and I’ll leave the discussion with that. Mostly, it’s just a film that so much has been written about, I do not feel I can add anything meaningful (not that such a pesky thing has ever stopped me before, but I’m not above bad excuses). Continue reading →
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 →
Update mid-2018: This remains one of those very early college-era reviews I’m not especially content with. In an ideal world, I would write up a new piece, but having recently rewatched the film, I’ll simply note how much I still admire its bracingly self-effacing tone, its stylistic shagginess, and its will to break any illusion of a dramatic arc. Before, of course, Altman finally side-winds us with a self-critically arbitrary conclusion: a parodic football game that sketches the link between competitive sport and war-mongering, doubles as a satire of dramatic pay-off, and triples as a mockery of masculinity – that ego-stroking liminal realm where the interstices of anarchy and authoritarianism, id and dogma, collapse into one another – played in Altman’s quintessentially sardonic key.
Original – Edited – Review:
Long considered one of America’s favorite comedies, MASH was, ironically for its famed humor, director Robert Altman’s coming-out as a serious filmmaking force to be reckoned with. Released in 1970, it was one of the first films to deal with the Vietnam War (albeit under a historical guise) seriously and, released in January of 1970, it was the first masterpiece of the literal “1970s American New Wave” (which technically began a few years earlier in 1967). It’s a comedy, yes, but it’s also a daring, caustic exploration of male culture, American smugness and malaise (categorically Altman’s favorite topic as a bitterly comic dissector of his nation’s culture), and war bureaucracy (the connection to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is unmistakable, perhaps fitting considering the underwhelming formal adaptation of that book released the same year – one can’t complain though, for Altman gave us all we’ll ever need on the book). This is a film with many big laughs and many more subtle chuckles. But that I have used the word “serious” multiple times in only the first paragraph is anything but coincidence. 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.
Note: this review is something of a repurposed college-age article, so be kind to the writing…
Edited May 2015
Armed with a 114,000 dollar budget, a few low-quality cameras, a non-professional cast, and its hopes and dreams (not to mention its fair share of nightmares), George A. Romero’s 1968 game-changer Night of the Living Dead wouldn’t seem an “ambitious” project on the surface. Or even one destined for competence. And that’s exactly why it’s so thrillingly disconcerting. It has, and needs, only one ambition: to scare. It eschews any hope of middlebrow competence. And due to its lean, mean, guerrilla filmmaking and single-minded obsessiveness, it doesn’t just scare – it instills a creeping, gnawing fear and doesn’t let up. Night of the Living Dead is, famously, about as economical as a film can be, with no shots wasted and nothing left up to chance – it’s a study in efficiency, but it’s more than that. It’s a study in terror.