In my review of Nights of Cabiria, I noted that Federico Fellini grew more fantastical and whimsical with age, and he became forever less entombed in the limits of pure realism. True, and it might be assumed that with whimsy and fantasy come happiness and warmth. To some extent, they did; Nights of Cabiria ends on one of the most singularly uplifting notes in all of cinema. But whimsy does not automatically imply joy, nor a new leaf. Fellini was still an angry, tormented, complicated man; he had simply developed a new filmic vocabulary for exploring his emotions, whatever emotions they may be. New storytelling mechanisms dictated how he would explore emotions, and not what emotions he would explore. His application of Hollywood romance and Italian/ French romanticism was not always an uncomplicated acceptance, but more often a dare. Fellini would follow romanticism and melodrama to their limits and see if he could come out the other side a believer. With La Dolce Vita, melodrama is a slaughterhouse, and you unravel from the other side in shreds. Continue reading
Edited June 2016
After the completion of my American New Wave series, I found myself hungry for more, and with the rather stark delineation of mainstream ’70s American and ’80s American cinema, continuing chronologically seemed a fair idea indeed for it’s ease of access without necessarily pluming the same self-consciously raw, arty cinema I generally stuck with to define American film during the 1970s. This is an opportunity for me to plum an type of film I have almost entirely avoided thus far for the purposes of this blog: classic genre filmmaking, or pop fare as we call it when we’re feeling particularly feisty. The series will continue, albeit with a generally more slap-dash rule set fitting the parameters of the generally lighter, airier cinema of the ’80s like a glove. Essentially, I’ll go by year, but within each year, I can cover one film in depth, or a few in smaller review format, or any mix in between. Whatever suits my boat, for, after-all, the ’80s was all about personal satisfaction, wasn’t it?
As for publication schedule, It’ll be more compact, a sort of Holiday treat to myself where I get to focus on “fun” movies in place of all the doom and gloom I force upon myself cinematically (I’m such a masochist aren’t I?). In other words, I want to keep things coming fast and loose, to give myself a filmic sugar rush, and to have a little fun with it. My estimation will be the series will continue into the very early ’90s (being that the first few years of the ’90s were basically the ’80s culturally and cinematically anyway, before the New American Independent bubble really blew up big time mid decade). And I’d like to have it all done by the New Year, or slightly afterward. So that’s one month of the poppiest pop I can find. Survival, without cavities, is not an option. And do excuse the titles; sometimes I like to have fun with myself, even against myself. The titles are Holiday Present Part B.
So much has been written about Star Wars it’s almost impossible to add anything new to the corpus, and I won’t try to, except to say that everyone who criticizes it and everyone who adores it are really speaking past one another. Their arguments enjoy fundamental similitude. It’s no secret that a great many people loathe the Star Wars prequels – I’m none too heavy a fan myself – and the reasons are obvious and multitudinous: indulgent filmmaking, superficial visuals, self-serious, haphazard dialogue, druggy, ham-bone acting. As a rule, I won’t argue with these flaws, but I will say this: many of them, particularly in the writing and acting department, are true with as full a force in the original three films as in the prequels. Insofar as people wish to pump up the Star Wars films as implacable, fertile, drip-fed drama in the traditional way people discuss drama, they’re out of luck come their proof. Insofar as the Star Wars prequels misunderstand or avoid the human condition, so too do the original films.
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.
Perhaps the most infamous “classic” American film ever released, Bonnie and Clyde was not just an important film but a signifier of something more important occurring in and around its release, a seismic shift in American filmmaking. 1967 is often considered a watershed year for American film with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and The Graduate tackling difficult issues of race, class, gender, and age in ways American cinema hadn’t before. But while those films vary in quality (from kind-of terrible to merely good, unfortunately) and revolutionary status, none stand taller today than Bonnie and Clyde, director Arthur Penn’s explosive examination of Depression era American culture, and implicitly, the culture of the late ’60s in America struggling with social unrest. The film was one of the first to signal a New Wave of American Cinema, films which not only tackled more difficult subject matters but were more subversive in the way they tackled them and borrowed and expanded upon filmmaking tactics prominent during late ’50s and early ’60s European cinema. As such, it remains perhaps the earliest gasp of a fruitful future fifteen years of cinema which would redefine the nature of going to the movies.
This week on Midnight Screenings, I’m looking at the two finest films from one of my favorite modern horror directors, and one of the men who brought midnight cinema to the mainstream: John Carpenter.
Halloween was writer-director-composer-producer-fanboy John Carpenter’s introduction to the world of the cinematic masters (befitting his name, he probably is a carpenter too for god’s sake). It is, above all else, a master-class in pure style as well as a reminder that in horror, filmmaking skill and raw dread drive the narrative rather than the other way around. It’s economical, ruthlessly efficient, and spare. There’s a sense that every shot holds a purpose, and that Carpenter knows how to stage his camera for maximum impact. The film feels planned, rigorously so, and ruthlessly composed to a point bordering on obsession. It’s a masterpiece of slowly unnerving tension that builds at just the right amount throughout – every image adds to the film, and edits don’t so much transition as ransack the previous shot and take control. It’s fitting that its creator bears the last name of a craftsman – this film is all ruthless, clinically potent, monstrously well-constructed craft. If, in fact, he did hold the profession of his surname, this would be an oak chair assembled guerilla style and with little funding or time (the film was shot on an extremely meager budget), but which would bear the love and care of someone who truly loved woodwork and put every ounce of his skill and passion into making that one chair. That it would be the devil’s throne is just the other half of the fun.
In Berlin, presumably in either the 1920s or early 1930s, panic has stricken the city. The cause? A child murderer, revealed to be Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), who prays on children by buying them balloons, candy, and other things they might enjoy, has quietly rolled over the city from above to torment it and cause a wave of paranoia. The effects are immediate and perpetual, causing Berlin’s residents to remain cautious of everyone whom they see talking with a child in the street, even if the particulars of their conversation consists only of telling the young child the time. His effect, thus, is prismatic – he causes everyone to turn on each other, so that his physical presence almost becomes a moot point when the idea of him looms large over the city. Continue reading
Update late 2018: Europe in its abyssal, post-WWII ruination became the subject of so many films, and so many prismatic interpretations of film. From Europe demolished and rebuilt through cinema’s moral humanism and deceptive collectivity in Bicycle Thieves to Europe rotted out as an expressionistic image of America’s disingenuous attitude toward Europe as a canvas for its own self-making in The Third Man to a Europe that both can and cannot be remembered at all in Night and Fog, post-war Europe poses many reflections and wears many faces. But WWII in cinema from the years leading up to the war tends to be read teleologically, as a slow shoring up of the known future of WWII. Critics think through, for instance, Fritz Lang’s Weimar cinema as a prophecy of Nazism and Europe’s guaranteed future moral demolition, a revelation of an impending truth many Westerners were unable to notice beforehand, no other possibilities emerging beyond the gradual rise of fascism.
But not so for Renoir. In The Rules of the Game, futurity remains a precious contingency, every single character’s moral fate hanging in a balance they often don’t realize, inclining toward a war they may not see but which Renoir is unwilling to cynically commit to. He reserves his characters’ futures, preferring not to stretch his humans across time as icons of undying, static types but, rather, to see them all as living, breathing humans. They are not crystallized as metaphors but, rather, rhyme with and intimate a larger social canvas through their particularity, not their generality. A deeply humanist film, Renoir’s work is truly empathic, which necessitates the hard work of tracing the imaginative lives of each character and their own internal cross-currents, their ideological conflicts, their crises of consciousness, and the shifting planes of sight and sound in the world which animate possibilities of connection and understanding for characters who suddenly and tragically fail to fulfill these opportunities through no evil of their own. Renoir’s film, with no villains and no heroes, is an indelible portrait of the public images we cast of ourselves, and the shadow worlds – of ourselves, of others, of the possibility of connection, of other potential futures – which those social images sometimes expose, and more often than not occlude.
Although it may seem less biting today, Jean Renoir’s seminal La Regle de Jeu (The Rules of the Game) remains one of the most controversial films ever released. It was at one point ruthlessly censored in just about every way possible in France except an outright ban. On one level, one can imagine the understanding behind its danger. The film is undeniably pointed in its critique of French social aristocracy. But it’s also shocking in how pure and light on its toes it feels today – the narrative, boiled down, is a rather simple affair of aristocrats cheating on one another and struggling to establish love and truth in their identities. This is the narrative of many a film, and on the surface, the film feigns a similar tone to many other films bearing the same subject: cheerful quirk and light mockery. 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