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
1999 was a year of new beginnings for a great many directors of the cinema, filmmakers who used their 1999 offerings to launch their careers to greater artistic, as well as commercial, heights. Although we often forget, it was also the year of Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, a film that ought to have launched her to new heights but somehow left her scrambling for an audience. In a year of openly defiant, exploratory films from many talented artists, Ravenous remains one of the most defiant and exploratory. Yet it never found an audience for itself or its director, likely because its defiance, experimentation, and exploration are all hidden. Even more-so, they are secret, and the film goes to great lengths to pretend it is nothing more than an everyday comedy-horror exploitation-film of the distinctly late ’90s post-Scream variety. It is a film where the experimentation is wholly submersed into subfuscous genre mechanics, a great devious trick of a film, and I can think of no more perfect nature for such a deliciously sinister exercise in cutthroat filmmaking. Continue reading
It is said that the best horror films traffic in the slithering, slimy replacement of the mundane by the uncanny. True, to some extent, but the best of the best posit something more. Take 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by Tobe Hooper, a work that posits the mundane as the uncanny, locating a world where the mundane regions of American society were the most uncanny. A world where mundane and innocent society never really existed except in the romantic dreams of the American imagination. A world where everyday life is actually an uncanny abyss of demonic activity just waiting to swallow goodness and human life up whole. Continue reading
Say what you will about Alexandre Aja’s Horns, but it is a looker. Photographed by Frederick Elmes, who spent his strongest days lensing slices of dirty, surrealist Americana for David Lynch like Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Wild at Heart, the film’s version of the Pacific Northwest – filtered through the piece’s relentless weirdness – often recalls a diluted Lynch at his best. Logs cut through the screen with a lush, romantic hue that ironically captures the forested expanse as a jungle ready to swallow the everyday suburbia of the film. Elsewhere, sequences surrounding a quintessential American icon – the diner – pervert the locale to a darkened, neon-hued collage of red and blue that Lynch himself would have appreciated. The look isn’t a surprise – Aja isn’t the most capable of filmmakers, but he has passion, and he knows his forebearers. With an opportunity to play in Lynch’s Twin Peaks territory, he clearly knew who to fan-boyishly turn to, and he arguably found the perfect cinematographer for his vision. Continue reading
Our Man Flint is not the best film to wield as a cipher for the amorphous concept of “camp”, but it is sufficiently campy to justify bending an analysis in the direction of camp. Arguably, a better film would be the following year’s Batman: The Movie, but although Batman is probably the better film as far as outright absurdism goes, Our Man Flint feels more honestly campy. This may seem patently ridiculous, but a further dissection of what exactly camp is (and exploring pop in the ’60s absolutely insists on a discussion of camp) helps us understand why Flint is a work of camp while Batman moves back and forth between camp and something more openly satiric. The privilege of Batman is the privilege of satire, namely that it has the confidence of its own superiority to the world of the “serious”, and that is not something Our Man Flint even considers.
What a strange, messy phenomenon the Pink Panther franchise is. When it began in 1963 as a slight, indifferently pleasant movie about a jewel thief (played by the ever-smarmy David Niven, who was given the lion’s share of the run-time) and an inept side-character vaguely pretending to hunt him down , expectations for a sequel, let alone a cottage pop culture phenomenon, were little. Now, the first film, The Pink Panther, did not exactly set the world on fire, nor does it truly qualify as a phenomenon. But relative to what it might have been – a throwaway ’60s fluffy star piece with some entirely game actors in the distinctly ’60s laconic-swinging mode so ubiquitous in 1963 – something caught fire.
Yet it was that inept side character, and not the smarmy jewel thief, who proved the immediate success story, so much so that he was written hastily into another screenplay to facilitate another vehicle for the character to generally mess up the place and lack a clue. That character, Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) proved a most unlikely attraction to strike a chord with an audience; buffoonish, insistent, and doughy in both his messy confusion and his inability to admit to his inability to do anything else except be confused, he was a ’30s screwball side-character who had inexplicably skipped a few decades and stumbled into his own feature film series in the ’60s. Continue reading
America did pop proud in the 1960s, but pop didn’t always imply a bulging budget or grandiose popular success. The lingering vestiges of that most ’50s of all genres, the atomic underground horror, still clung to the beginning of the decade like a wandering specter. Admittedly, the low-brow, even-lower-budget works suffered a little about how to re-invent themselves; Hammer Horror in the UK certainly hit a few home runs, but flooding the markets ran them red with bloody boredom sooner than not. In the US, where “underground fare” similarly served as a safe, parental euphemism for horror, things were likewise stuck in a liminal space between the pre-Bay of Pigs interest in fooling around with atomic supermen and nuclear fall-out monsters, and the genuine “exploitation” of exploitation cinema came to fruition in the very late 1960s. In between, in the early 1960s, what was underground horror to do?
Because I reviewed Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End and couldn’t stand the gap in the middle…
As it turns out, not only do Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, and Nick Frost love horror movies, but they love action movies too. And, although I suspect this is no surprise to anyone, they can bust out a pretty dynamite one of their own when they need to. For it is the great secret of all of their films that they parody what they parody not by existing above it but by emulating it, recreating it with an eye for detail and a studied approach, and in some cases reading it past itself to expose some of its silliness and lunacy. Thus is Hot Fuzz, not quite the genuine surprise that Shaun of the Dead proved to be (what, the guys who made one of the best comedies of the modern era made another comedy and it’s stupendous… consider me staggered). But it’s a genuine barn-burner nonetheless, firing on multiple overlapping comic cylinders and staking its claim as one of the few modern comedies for which the filmic arts – that is to say directing, editing, and the like – are as fundamental to the nature of the laughs as the writing and the acting.
In order to properly understand Starship Troopers, one needs to understand its casting. At some level, casting is the de facto entry point for any of Verhoeven’s American films over the decade from Robocop to Starship Troopers. Total Recall, although somewhat muted by its need to be an Arnie vehicle, definitely gestured toward using the big lovable lug as a critique of the idea of an Arnie film. More successful was Basic Instinct, where Verhoeven cast a seemingly unaware and genuine Michael Douglas more for his weathered, aged wrinkles and flagellating variant of all-American thuggery. And one doesn’t need to explain Showgirls these days, a work where Verhoeven cast (cruelly so, at that) the young whippersnapper Elizabeth Berkeley and forced her through all manner of gross, grotesque abuses on screen in a meta-commentary on the way in which her character, and young Hollywood starlets altogether, are forced to go through the wringer to find success, leaving others in their wake and losing their dignity and respect for themselves as they forced to do the unthinkable.
The 1980s were, with all due respect, the worst time in history for cinematic drama. Cinema as a whole trucked along on a surfeit of fantasy and science fiction films that primarily operated on cruise control but could stumble upon a certain breezy ingenuity when need be. But cinematic art – cinema that sought to say something about cinema and/or explore the art form in a way that doubled as a commentary on the society that would use cinema as a tool of creation and destruction – was at an all-time low. It is telling that what many consider the great American drama of the 1980s (Raging Bull is the only film as consistently revered and awarded, and that was really more of a ’70s film that forget to come out in its proper decade anyway) is most famous for the fact that it was almost never released.
Throughout the 1980s, Terry Gilliam was one of the few who stood in defiance of complicity and convention, and Brazil almost killed him for it. A brutal, lengthy production battle saw the film destroyed and cut-down to size to save whatever commercial potential it had, and, watching the finished product, it’s easy to see why: this is a relentlessly weird motion picture, recalling cinematic styles and tones with its own jazz-like sense of improvisation and cavorting between surrealist asides an hoarse reflections on the grim fandangos of the decade in which it was produced. Whatever the waiting game that was cinema in the 1980s signified, the fact that Brazil was a genuine upset for the producers that funded it says all you need to know about its undeniable artistic merit.