Viewing Diary 2016 #2

High Tide (1987), directed by Gillian Armstrong

Riveting maternal melodrama in the tradition of Mamoulian’s Applause or Sirk’s All I Desire. Judy Davis, stifling laughter, stifling sobs, plays a mess of a woman hanging from showbiz’s bottom rung. When she falls off, her car broken down, she’s stranded in a podunk coastal town. The slinking, bobbing camera surveys her inner and outer lives as she builds a relationship with a teenage girl, neither one initially aware that they’re mother and daughter. Establishing shots, mindful of lines and angles, gorgeously frame a shabby landscape of eateries, auto shops, and trailer parks. The grit of the town gets under High Tide’s fingernails. Emotions rise, as do ecstatic crane shots; the climax delivers a wallop. The plot wends around the vagaries of love.

The Lion King (1994), directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff

Haven’t seen this since early childhood! It’s structured like a savanna Bambi, with the trauma of a parent’s death bisecting its coming-of-age story. But the emphatic vastness of The Lion King’s canvas makes its forebear look like a modest romp through the forest. Propulsive set pieces through gorges and caverns alternate with gaudy musical extravaganzas. In the rough Hamlet xerox of a plot, the “circle of life” finds its nexus in Simba’s royal birthright. Absent is any of the moral uncertainty that afflicted the Prince of Denmark; instead, Claudius is rewritten as a feline Hitler whose overthrow literally restores leaves to dying trees. Simba’s lingering guilt over his dead father? Exorcized by his submission to destiny. This onus on Simba to reclaim the throne frustrates me, and the story feels as if any ruffles have been smoothed out to yield an epic that’s beautiful but dull. (Even five jokey sidekicks can’t fix that.) I love the depiction of animal movement, though, especially during “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”

Joy Street (1995), directed by Suzan Pitt

Wordless cartoon sloshing around a woman’s psyche while she’s in the throes of depression. Contrasts motion with stasis; sets muted grays and browns against deliriously heightened yellows. The loose story’s a nocturnal fantasy of a figurine coming to life, then taking its owner on an odyssey through nested metaphors. Instead of dialogue, eloquent sound effects and a jazz score modulate the mood. Given the subject matter and Pitt’s refusal to indulge in cliché, its 24 minutes make for a rough watch, but they culminate in a flood of catharsis.

Aladdin (1992), directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

Screwball romance divided along class lines; rapid-fire shtick as corny as anything on vaudeville; show tunes à la Cole Porter; and scimitar-wielding Arab caricatures so broad the Fleischer Brothers would balk: this is Depression-era entertainment reconfigured for the 1990s. A dash of postmodernism, maybe, and a sprinkle of riot grrrl, but the foundation is sturdy, old-fashioned, aggressively ingratiating itself to the audience. The showmanship is especially evident when the film bends toward magical fantasy, whether under the earth or into the sky. Every act of sorcery is animated with bountiful imagination, lit up in the blues and golds of a desert night. (I’m curious whether Jafar’s climactic exertions of power were meant to be tinged with eroticism, or if that’s just me. His transformation into a phallic cobra, all that bondage… and hardly anybody wears a shirt in this movie. Sex and spectacle in the exotic east: very Cecil B. DeMille!)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), directed by J.J. Abrams

What can you say about a movie that was discussed to death months in advance of its release date? How about this: it’s an unwieldy new piece designed to fit into a preexisting whole. For roughly the first third of its run time, it’s a nifty space chase carried by fresh faces. As soon as they run into Han Solo, though, the plot starts acting as if it has obligations to meet. Like it’s your mom and she’s dragging you along to IKEA and the fabric store but letting you play with your action figures in the car. We zip from this planet to that planet, checking in with the villains every half-hour or so; sometimes there’s a pause to crack jokes or gape at funky alien designs. The Force Awakens is a very acceptable solution to a set of very tight storytelling constraints. Whether that makes it a good movie depends on whether you regard those restraints as intrinsically positive.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

Viewing Diary 2016 #1

Gone to Earth (1950), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

In the hands of most artists, this would play as stale melodrama. Its romantic triangle would succumb to moral binaries. But P&P were not most artists, and in their long joint career, they rarely left a binary intact. Nature vs. civilization, paganism vs. Christian orthodoxy, woman vs. man: the rapturous visual storytelling in Gone to Earth complicates every single one of these seeming dichotomies. The developments in Hazel’s magical life are not weighted strictly toward “good” or “bad.” Instead, they’re built up out of hills, trees, tightening two shots, passion-twisted faces, and a palette of Technicolor excess.

In this film’s cosmology, heaven and hell are not abstract destinations but immediately within reach, and Jennifer Jones plays Hazel as a girl-turned-woman who’s too aware of their proximity for her own good. The knowledge is in her voice, iffy accent or no. It’s in the squiggly cursive handwriting on the farewell note she leaves her husband: “I am a bad girl.” And it’s in the shot that gazes up at her in her yellow dress from deep within the Chekhov’s abyss before rotating to watch a stick plummet deeper still into the darkness. Powell and Pressburger knead a wealth of unspoken implications into an image of a simple Shropshire well.

Carol (2015), directed by Todd Haynes

Here’s what I missed most from Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt while watching this adaptation: (1) the lengthy opening portion of the novel detailing Therese’s drudgery at Frankenberg’s before she runs into her dream woman and (2) the hotel-hopping game of cat and mouse the couple later play against the private detective employed by Carol’s vindictive husband. Compressed versions of both remain in the film, but only as narrative ligaments, helping push the story into its next act. Much as I adored these bits on the page, though, I still appreciate the necessity of screenwriter Phyllis Nagy’s cuts, not only for the sake of time but also because they sharpen the film’s focus. For Carol really isn’t about working retail while pursuing your vocation in your off hours, nor is it even slightly a paranoid thriller. From stem to stern, on every level of craft, it’s an evocation of the soul-deep yearning these two women have for one another.

What is it like to be one whole cleft by circumstance into two aching halves? As it turns out, it’s like gazing out of windows at the snow globe of wintry Manhattan or receiving a call you have to drop while anxiously clenching a cigarette. It’s trying to carve out a sliver of space for you and your beloved within doorways and hallways and hotel restaurants; it’s encoding your love into a glance or gesture only she will be able to decipher. As with Haynes’ other period melodramas, the costuming and set design in Carol act not as value-neutral recreations of ’50s style, but as essential aesthetic components of Carol and Therese’s relationship. Every item in Cate Blanchett’s wardrobe—gloves, earrings, nail polish, fur coat—has been selected and shot with the knowledge that a woman’s self-presentation can function both as a tool and as a trap.

(In this respect, and in the consistently off-center framing, Carol reminded me of Cindy Sherman’s seminal Untitled Film Stills series. It’s an impression bolstered by Therese’s passion for photography; by Haynes’ actual collaboration with Sherman on her feature Office Killer; and by the haze of self-conscious old movie glamour that hangs over this movie.)

A Bronx Morning (1931), directed by Jay Leyda

“The city” is an overwhelming subject, especially for a ten-minute silent short. Leyda wastes no time. His dizzying montage zips from mass transit to shop windows to kids playing in the street. Across this whirlwind tour of the borough, the filmmaker slyly draws visual patterns out of public phenomena. The weaving diagonals of fire escapes and elevated train tracks; the aerial trajectories of pigeons and stray newspapers—they make the Bronx morning seem like a series of abstract compositions just waiting to be caught on camera.

How Men Propose (1913), directed by Lois Weber

A single joke that’s all build-up, build-up, build-up, then wham! Absurd proto-feminist punchline! Running half a reel, this splits its time between three gullible suitors and the female trickster who promises each one in turn her hand in marriage. As she hurries to hide the rings she’s been given and prepare for the next beau in line, the story plays like a preemptive spoof of the still-nascent romcom. The men’s pantomimed proposals are just as broad as the looks of shock they plaster on their faces when their phony fiancée reveals her charade. The woman breaks the fourth wall in every other shot with a cocky grin. She’s sharing a conspiratorial laugh with us, her audience, at matrimony’s expense.

News from Home (1977), directed by Chantal Akerman

Lucky coincidence that I should watch this so soon after both Carol and A Bronx Morning. Together, the three films measure out myriad angles of approach toward a pair of shared subjects: Love and The City. News from Home is roughly as far from the former film’s classical melodrama as it is from the latter’s montage. Akerman’s tack is minimalism, as she juxtaposes voiceover readings of her mother’s letters from Belgium with footage of New York streets and subways. So simple, conceptually. Yet every word she speaks in her mother’s voice and every avenue her camera traverses deepens the trans-Atlantic story she’s telling. She’s never explicit about anything, never tells the viewer how to feel, but even so News from Home broke my heart; is still breaking it a couple days later. I think it’s because of Akerman’s conspicuous absence—because I can glean the outline of the artist as the “you” in her mother’s letters, as the eye taking up space in the middle of these subway cars, the camera-eye with which bold commuters will sometimes exchange a glance. Between the audio and the images of News from Home lies this woman who’s invisible, dislocated, lonely; who’s a daughter, a foreigner, and a human being.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

2015: Color and Form

The Forbidden Room, Approaching the Elephant, Hard to Be a God, L for Leisure

Year-end lists are arbitrary, reductive, and tedious. This one’s mine! I’ll start by rattling off my loose, alphabetical #25-11: Approaching the Elephant, Brooklyn, Buzzard, Crimson Peak, The Forbidden Room, Hard to Be a God, L for Leisure, The Look of Silence, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Mend, Mistress America, Queen of Earth, Shaun the Sheep, Tangerine, and Timbuktu.

The following movies didn’t receive theatrical distribution this year, but (1) Adam Curtis’s documentary Bitter Lake was released online by the BBC in January; (2) the neo-noir music video Bitch Better Have My Money, co-directed by Rihanna and the filmmaking team Megaforce, premiered on YouTube in July; and (3) Alexandre Larose’s Brouillard-Passage #14 may have played at festivals in 2013 and ’14, but I caught it at the Ann Arbor Film Festival this past March. All three stretch the definition of “2015 cinema,” but all three also struck me as abrasive, essential experiences.

Ten runner-up performances: Jason Bateman, inverting his “nice guy” persona in The Gift; Mamie Gummer in Ricki and the Flash, playing another of the unkempt women who define Diablo Cody’s patchy oeuvre; Blackhat’s Chris Hemsworth, using the whole of his Norse god bulk for brooding and grief; Rinko Kikuchi, holding Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter together with sheer conviction; Sidse Babett Knudsen, playing submissive in The Duke of Burgundy with both emotional delicacy and sexual vim; Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, bouncing off one another through the thick and thin of a friendship in Tangerine; Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, so inviting even as he gives away so little; Michael Stuhlbarg, showing once again what character acting is all about as an Apple second banana in Steve Jobs; and lastly Taika Waititi: goofy and benign even as he leads a ring of bloodthirsty vampires in What We Do in the Shadows.

Every year I name a Best Performance in a Documentary. The past winners have been Thierry Guetta (Exit Through the Gift Shop), Joyce McKinney (Tabloid), Frédéric Bourdin (The Imposter), Anwar Congo (The Act of Killing), and Actress star Brandy Burre. This year, the award goes the pseudonymous Adi Rukun in another Joshua Oppenheimer movie, The Look of Silence. Just behind him, though, is 11-year-old hellraiser Jiovanni in Approaching the Elephant.

If, for some reason, you want to read more of my opinions on the year in film, I voted in the Village Voice and #12FilmsaFlickering polls. I also provided a couple of suggestions for MUBI Notebook’s annual collection of “fantasy double features.” And now, with all that preamble out of the way, onto my list proper:

10) The Assassin, directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien

As so often tends to be the case, the best movies this year have roots deep within the past. About half the entries here are period pieces, with Hou’s wuxia epic reaching back the farthest. The Assassin is a window (a 1.37 : 1 window, nearly as square as the movie that tops this list) into Chinese high society over a millennium ago. It’s steeped in their candlelight and draperies, their reds and greens, the sounds of their birdsong and whistling wind. The camera—often patiently static, sometimes subtly panning—tells the story of political negotiations robed in protocol. It tells of Shu Qi’s title character and the choices she confronts: to engage in or refrain from violence? When she does act, Hou invests her swordplay with just as much visual and moral weight as her placidity.

The mediocre Uncertain Terms benefits from a murderer’s row of young actresses, the finest of whom is Tallie Medel, her eyes wide with searching intelligence and a desire to be loved.

In Inside Out, Richard Kind voices a near-forgotten imaginary friend with all the pathos of an obsolete vaudevillian.

9) The Duke of Burgundy, directed by Peter Strickland

The surfaces in which this film is tightly bound are often patterned after the cycles of English folk horror stories and Italian gialli released throughout the 1970s. From the dusty oranges and browns to the ethereal score, the slow zooms, and the motif of fluttering moth wings, The Duke of Burgundy evokes a rustling unease. Yet its point is not strictly to induce shudders, nor to pay homage, but to relate a romance of utmost tenderness. Its Möbius strip structure doesn’t point toward nihilistic gloom; counterintuitively, it demonstrates how relationships (kinky lesbian relationships especially) can break and mend. Strickland musters all the opulently sinister excesses at his disposal for the sake of vulnerability and sexual candor.

Eva Green gives a wordless performance in The Salvation that goes miles beyond the film’s assemblage of western clichés. She speaks volumes with her imperiously furrowed eyebrows alone.

Maximizing his limited screen time in Brooklyn, Emory Cohen uses his voluble body to suggest a boy who’s slightly embarrassed over how in love he is and fundamentally decent enough to make this young woman a good husband.

8) Horse Money, directed by Pedro Costa

Every shot held, every line delivered, every gesture made is suffused with pain. It’s pain that perhaps, as Costa’s waking nightmare of an art film suggests, an odyssey through dilapidated corridors and panes of shadow might help to exorcize. The ensemble’s wanderings and their monologues are informed by Portugal’s colonial relationship to the actors’ Cape Verdean homeland, and this dense context renders much of the loose narrative opaque. But even watching it with nil knowledge of Lisbon’s political history, the hoarse voices of the dispossessed are nonetheless haunting as they echo throughout an architectural embodiment of memory.

With her open, expressive face, Lucy Owen holds her own against the swaggering man-child leads of The Mend, her emphasis on how wearying it is to be a kill-joy mom.

Kevin Corrigan is essential to the off-beat romantic comedy of Results with his willful, full-bodied schlubbiness.

experimenter2

7) Experimenter, directed by Michael Almereyda

You have infinite options if you’re trying to tell someone’s life story. Most filmmakers limit their toolboxes to just a few. But as this sardonic spin on the timeline of Stanley Milgram’s career unravels, Almereyda employs increasingly unorthodox methods. Blatant rear projection, nested fictions, and narration out of the subject’s own mouth turn the practice of social psychology into a clever visual game. The fallout from Milgram’s work as his findings became common knowledge ends up as fodder both for wry jokes and hard-nosed intellectual investigation.

Jessica Chastain takes charge as a spaceship captain in The Martian, but she might be even better when she drains herself of empathy to play a gothic villainess in Crimson Peak.

Benicio Del Toro takes to moral ambiguity like a pig to shit in Sicario, lurking laconically over the shoulder of Emily Blunt’s naïf.

6) Unfriended, directed by Leo Gabriadze

This sick joke slasher movie may be full of hysterics and gory revenge, but deep within it lies a simple curiosity about online ephemera. The substance of its Macbook mise-en-scène is forum posts, Facebook messages, and Skype windows. All the detritus that’s supposed to vanish when you hit “delete” or click “X” is the accrued material of Unfriended’s single 80-minute shot. Every dumb high school grievance typed out in iMessage or captured on a webcam turns into a matter of life or death. It’s a metaphor-rich ghost story written with keystrokes and blood.

Casually wielding her sex appeal, Jada Pinkett Smith becomes the focal point of every shot she enters in Magic Mike XXL. Yet she’s never stingy about ceding attention to those around her; she knows she doesn’t need our love, though she’ll accept it if we insist.

Louis Negin slips between half a dozen personas across The Forbidden Room’s many vignettes, his weathered face and hammy line deliveries suited to every chapter of its film-historical phantasmagoria.

5) Amour fou, directed by Jessica Hausner

A real historical event—the double suicide of an ailing housewife and famed poet—marks the end point to this tragicomedy of manners. But Hausner’s deadpan style deflates the act of any romance that might be read into it. Instead, she foregrounds the tedium of the participants’ bourgeois lives; the dreariness of the décor that engulfs them; and the petulance of Heinrich von Kleist, who initiates the pact. Within Amour fou, shaped by its compositional rigor, lies a whole regimented microcosm of 19th century German society, laid out like a lifeless diorama.

Charlize Theron instantly entered the action heroine pantheon for her work in Mad Max: Fury Road, not merely for how she fights, but also for capturing the look of a woman who’s lost it all, come out alive, and kept on driving.

No matter how dubious its politics or plotting may be, The Hateful Eight makes an excellent showcase for Samuel L. Jackson, with his scarf-wrapped bravura and his unrivaled mastery of Tarantino’s linguistic gambits.

4) Magic Mike XXL, directed by Gregory Jacobs

Among the most primal of cinema’s pleasures is the sight of a sweaty, beautiful man dancing. Valentino knew it, MGM’s Arthur Freed unit knew it, and Gregory Jacobs—picking up as director where Steven Soderbergh left off—knows it, too. A veritable model of narrative economy, Magic Mike XXL dispenses with anything that might get between its audience and their ecstasy. Its road movie bacchanal climbs state by state through the Southeast, pausing only for terpsichorean pit stops scored to the likes of Ginuwine, the Backstreet Boys, and an a cappella Bryan Adams cover. Even when the music’s over, pleasure remains the subject of discussion between the troupe of self-described “male entertainers” and the women they entertain. Like Aristotle, Mike and his boys wonder, “What is the good life?” They may not find it, but it’s pretty hot watching them search.

Bel Powley’s voiceover and tentative flirtations in Diary of a Teenage Girl contain so much of adolescence: the belief that you already know everything; the overwhelming desire to know more.

Henry Cavill may not be a bona fide movie star just yet, but in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. he gives a full-on, old-fashioned movie star performance. He makes “making it look easy” look easy.

3) Heaven Knows What, directed by Joshua and Benny Safdie

Whereas Magic Mike XXL is rich with pleasures, the Safdies’ gutter-level addiction chronicle is rich with miseries. Not unlike Horse Money, it’s a movie that mixes and matches its fictions and realities into a patchwork of caustic realism. It lopes from one desultory episode to another as a woman named Harley tries to finagle some change, her next fix, or a bed for the night. No judgment here; just behavior, existence, survival in front of the camera. No “descent” into degradation, no platitudes, no contrived shot at redemption. Just poor decisions made while trying to undo poor decisions from three cycles back. It’s life, and it’s miserable.

Sartre may have written that “hell is other people,” and R. Crumb may have quipped that “hell is also yourself,” but Elisabeth Moss, queen of the close-up in Queen of Earth, says, “Guys, fuck off. Hell is me.”

Ventura, the star of Horse Money, somnambulates through the ruins of the past in dirty pajamas, wearing a hard lifetime on his body and in his eyes.

2) Phoenix, directed by Christian Petzold

This postwar pulp tragedy follows the straight line of an absurd con game in which a woman must pretend to be herself. Every implication arises from that premise, and each new revelation tugs on another as they amass in a lurid daisy chain. Past intersects with present like needle pulling thread; Hitchcock crosses paths with Fassbinder; gaze is met with unseeing gaze. Countries, marriages, human beings: any whole that’s come asunder, says Phoenix, must first endure fire if it’s going to be rebuilt.

Phoenix star Nina Hoss keeps the whole precise construction from toppling with her post-traumatic mask of a face, first shrinking into her own body, then growing into herself anew.

Meanwhile, Joshua Burge plays a different species of bird as Buzzard’s scavenger anti-hero, all bug eyes and shit-eating grin.

1) Jauja, directed by Lisandro Alonso

A military officer drags himself across a blazing landscape where he does not belong. Time and space reveal themselves to be more malleable than was once presumed. Old relationships untangle and new ones form; obscured trails become harder to follow. But water keeps flowing, grass keeps growing, and rocks are worn by rain and wind. An inexact synopsis, perhaps, but that should at least get across the thrust of this sublime, oneiric movie.

Arielle Holmes goes beyond the pale in Heaven Knows What with her irascible, bullshit-free, and stubbornly human performance. The fact that the film is based on her own experiences is incredible, but appreciating her work onscreen doesn’t require that knowledge; the proof is in the bitter pudding.

Peter Sarsgaard plays Stanley Milgram in Experimenter as no hero, but actually sort of an asshole. He’s smug, impatient, yet persistently curious about the workings of the human mind, and this nuance sells the man’s accomplishments far better than any sugarcoating could.

[Movies I have yet to see include Anomalisa, Arabian Nights, Carol, Chi-Raq, Creed, 45 Years, In Jackson Heights, and Son of Saul.]

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

50 Best New-to-Me Viewings of 2015

The Cranes Are Flying

This is my fourth consecutive year assembling such a list. It’s a mere roll call of titles, not necessarily a work of actual film criticism, yet for me the viewer it’s an exceptionally gratifying exercise. It reminds me of countless hours spent lounging around on my couch and wondering, “What will this movie be like?” then giggling in delight when it turns out to be a masterpiece. I discovered three great films of 2007, delved further into international art house cinema, and turned up some new favorites that I’d never really heard much about. And oh, the performances! Kathleen Byron and John Gielgud; Kinuyo Tanaka and Ivan Mosjoukine; Sheryl Lee and John Travolta! (Molly Shannon and Aldo Ray; Ruan Lingyu and Olivier Gourmet…) In a couple weeks I’ll start on 2016, but for now I’d just like to scan this list, remember, and smile.

All I Desire (1953) · Bed and Sofa (1927) · Black Narcissus (1947) · Blood and Black Lace (1964) · Le bonheur (1965) · Borderline (1930) · Le brasier ardent (1923) · The Cranes Are Flying (1957) · David Holzman’s Diary (1967) · Dishonored (1931) · The Dying Swan (1917) · Edvard Munch (1974) · Face/Off (1997) · Favorites of the Moon (1984) · Fear (1954) · Le fils (2002) · Flowers of Shanghai (1998) · The Goddess (1934) · Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) · Heaven and Earth Magic (1962) · Home of the Brave (1986) · The House of Mirth (2000) · Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989) · I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) · In the City of Sylvia (2007) · Je, tu, il, elle (1976) · The Ladies Man (1961) · Leave Her to Heaven (1945) · The Life of Oharu (1952) · The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) · The Man Who Sleeps (1974) · The Marriage Circle (1924) · Memories (1995) · Men in War (1957) · My Brilliant Career (1979) · Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) · A Page of Madness (1926) · Poetry (2010) · The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) · Providence (1977) · Rocks in My Pockets (2014) · Smiley Face (2007) · Tiger Tail in Blue (2012) · Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) · Touki bouki (1973) · Twelve Monkeys (1995) · Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) · Two for the Road (1967) · War of the Worlds (2005) · Year of the Dog (2007)

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema, Uncategorized

What is one to do?

“I did write for a while in spite of them,” says the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “but it does exhaust me a good deal — having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.” Writing as a woman is a dangerous act. Gilman knew it, and I suspect Lucy Beatrice Malleson knew it, too. Malleson’s breakthrough as a writer came in her late twenties, when she began publishing mysteries under the pen name “Anthony Gilbert.” Ostensibly this was done to maintain her privacy and avoid the appearance of capitalizing on her uncle Miles’ recent fame. But it’s hard to imagine that the financial and professional advantages of a man’s name didn’t factor into this decision.

1941 saw the release of the “Anthony Gilbert” novel The Woman in Red. A few years later, under the auspices of Columbia Pictures, screenwriter Muriel Roy Bolton adapted it into what director Joseph H. Lewis would later call “a damn near perfect script.” My Name Is Julia Ross premiered in November of 1945. The film opens in rain-soaked London, Malleson’s lifelong home. Nina Foch plays Julia Ross, an unmarried woman behind on her rent and desperate for a job. Tipped off by a newspaper ad, she nabs a plum secretarial position with a rich widow and her grown son. But overnight, this dream job becomes a nightmare: the family and their servants drug her, kidnap her, and install her in a locked bedroom at the rear of a country mansion overlooking the sea.

There, Julia’s assigned the name Marion Hughes along with a monogram-adorned wardrobe, both of which belonged to the son’s late wife. Her would-be employers crowd around her bedside, speaking to her in infantilizing tones: “You haven’t forgotten us again, have you, Marion?” asks the mother, played by Dame May Whitty, when Julia protests. “Please don’t excite yourself so. You’ll just bring on another attack.” The remainder of the film plays out as a tit-for-tat psychological game. Julia scribbles a plea and tries to smuggle it into the outside world; her tormentors tear it up. (“Correspondence is so often destroyed… that the film starts to appear contemptuous toward text,” wrote Joseph Jon Lanthier in 2013.) Julia smuggles her own body off of the mansion’s grounds, only for a well-meaning vicar to deliver her right back into the arms of her homicidal “husband” because he’s been told that she’s mentally ill.

In a twist that prefigures Vertigo, it turns out that the husband and mother-in-law have been planning to orchestrate Julia’s “suicide” as cover for an uxoricide that left Marion’s corpse drifting in the froth of the sea. In a twist that matches real life, it turns out that you can get virtually anyone to abet your conspiracy if you tell them a woman’s not in her right mind. Lewis repeatedly frames Foch in two shots next to characters—her “husband,” the groundskeeper, a young maid—who calmly, logically explain to her why she isn’t who she is. “You have a beautiful home, nice relations, pretty clothes. Everything a woman would want!” insists the maid. “You’re letting yourself be took up by illusions.” The title of the film becomes not merely a statement of fact, but a radical assertion of self.

mynameisjuliaross7

“If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression, — a slight hysterical tendency, — what is one to do?” asks the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Like Julia Ross, she’s a prisoner who can gaze through a window out onto a vast estate. Like Julia Ross’s story, hers bears glimmers of Gothic horror. Both women are confined to haunted houses, but in place of ghosts, they’re bedeviled by interior design or noises in the night or the men who’ve been entrusted with their care. Of the two, Julia Ross is probably luckier, since she’s the target of an actual murder plot, and plots can be foiled. (A happy ending for “The Yellow Wallpaper” would require the full-on overturning of medical science.)

Latter-day critics tend to identify Julia Ross as film noir, no doubt influenced by the nature of Lewis’s subsequent output (Gun Crazy, The Big Combo); Burnett Guffey’s stark cinematography; and the villains’ involved criminal machinations. They’re not wrong, but that genre designation doesn’t paint the full picture, since Julia Ross lies at a three-way intersection between noir, melodrama, and horror. In his contribution to the new anthology Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade, academic Ian Olney writes that

Horror movies of the immediate postwar era reflect the greater independence and mobility women enjoyed as a result of their role during World War II… The male monsters in postwar horror represent the threat of women losing everything they had achieved during the war years and being forcibly restored to the domestic sphere; indeed, the home and women’s traditional place in it are the primary source of horror in these films.

Olney then uses this framework to analyze The Spiral Staircase, a film that shares with Julia Ross its old dark house setting and patrician psychopath. Although I’m wary about applying his schema to a wide swath of movies, it rings true with Julia Ross. The film’s heroine is a working-class woman swept up across class lines into a gilded cage. “My husband? …Mrs. Hughes?” she mutters, examining the wedding ring on her finger. She can’t comprehend the marital status that’s been inflicted on her. (The film’s depiction of marriage as a waking nightmare renders ambiguous its abrupt, single-shot denouement, in which Julia instantly accepts a proposal from the man who saves her. Is it earnestly happy, because this time it’s a choice? Her fiancé’s description of a wife—“combination secretary, nurse, companion, housekeeper”—is so off-putting that it inclines me to interpret the resolution as darkly ironic.)

Not unlike Mildred Pierce, which was released a couple months prior, Julia Ross speaks on “woman’s film” issues of romantic and economic dependence via genre-specific narrative motifs. Around the time it was entering theaters, Columbia ran a pair of ads in The Film Daily (dated November 13 and 23) that indicated, if nothing else, how the studio’s publicity department wanted exhibitors to understand their product. “Here is a ‘SLEEPER’ if ever there was one!” crows one tagline. Illustrations splashed across the ads recreate scenes from the film rich with traditional horror imagery: the shadow of a prowler’s hand stretching across Julia’s blanket; Julia cradling a black cat in her arms. One ad features a number of excerpts from positive reviews, which bandy about genre terms like “thriller,” “melodrama,” “mystery,” and “thrill-o-drama” (as well as adjectives like “tight-throated” and “corking good”). In the words of the Brooklyn Eagle, the film “keep[s] you on the edge of your seat,” and it does so as a means of getting at the truth and terror of women’s lives.

mynameisjuliaross2

“There is a beautiful shaded lane that runs down there from the house,” says “The Yellow Wallpaper”s narrator. “I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try.” As with Julia Ross, her husband fears that she’s “letting herself be took up by illusions.” She’s in danger of constructing her own reality, just as Julia has a personal narrative (“They’re holding me here by force”) that she asserts no matter how insistently her “family” may contradict it. For a woman to write, whether she’s writing a short story or a mystery novel or a note to the police or a diary of her rest cure, is to carve a record of her truth.

That’s what makes these two tales of feminine horror especially scary. If a woman can be disabused of her truth—if Julia consents to being Marion—then that truth is gone. Poof. Their husbands already have the power and the money, so if they come to dominate those rooms of one’s own inside their wives’ heads, then no more Julia. Her very self depends on that mere sliver of resistance. And while My Name Is Julia Ross may be a work of macabre fiction, Julia’s experiences are recapitulated in miniature every day: “it’s not a big deal”; “you’re too emotional”; “your body is public property.” Living as a woman is a dangerous act.

“I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try.”

“I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try.” —“The Yellow Wallpaper”

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

Writing Samples 2014-15

This is a collection of links to writing I’ve published outside of this blog over the past year or two. It includes some of the recent work I’m proudest of, and I wanted to have it all assembled in one place for easier browsing.

A static medium shot of a man in a park paging through a book might not necessarily scream ‘scene of the year.’ Nor might a pan from left to right and then back again, even if it involved a woman’s husband waving a gun in her face. If, however, that latter shot broke off from the former, taking place on a separate, concurrent visual plane until they merged back together, with each half intended for just one of the viewer’s eyes, well, now we’re getting somewhere…

Attending the Ann Arbor Film Festival is a bit like stepping into a parallel universe. Here, dialogue and narrative lie on the margins, while abstract animation and ethnographic documentary take center stage. Absent are movie stars, paparazzi, and bidding wars; here, a “big name” is someone like Peggy Ahwesh or Lewis Klahr. It’s as if this one week in March at the historic Michigan Theater, just a couple blocks away from the University of Michigan campus, had been carved out of normal space-time and given over to the love of film as an art…

An hour into Robert Altman’s Nashville, a shot opens with a cluttered wardrobe where statues of saints rest next to a candle, a hair dryer, a lava lamp, and a mirror. A zoom out reveals a bathrobe-clad woman in that mirror, singing and shimmying as she listens to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. She’s Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), and she’s already been established as a waitress at an airport café with dreams of country-music stardom. She’s on the bottom of the film’s food chain, and her nasally drone of a singing voice means she’s unlikely to rise any higher…

“Transmisogyny does not deserve an award!” an audience member shouted, interrupting Jared Leto. Again and again she shouted, until she was heard: “Transmisogyny does not deserve an award!” This was, per The Hollywood Reporter, at a ceremony in Santa Barbara, California. It was February 2014, and Leto was sweeping through the awards circuit, receiving statuettes and ample acclaim for playing the HIV-positive Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club

The day after that piece went up, Filmmaker Magazine published my first professional interview, with Tangerine director Sean Baker. And here are a couple other tidbits: in June, a tweet of mine was embedded in an online article for The Guardian; in January, another was named Indiewire’s “tweet of the day”; and reaching back to January 2014, my writing appeared (in embedded tweet form) on Sight & Sound’s website. None of these one-sentence snippets are especially insightful or representative of my writing, but I’m amused by how far and quickly they can travel.

I’ll wrap this up by mentioning that throughout 2014, I reviewed every single movie I watched on the social media site Letterboxd. Below are links to 15 of those reviews. They’re a mix of the ones that garnered the strongest reactions and the ones I’m happiest to have written.

The Big Parade · Bride of Frankenstein · Brief Encounter · Bringing Up Baby · Commando · Home Alone · Invasion of the Body Snatchers · Jodorowsky’s Dune · Mr. Peabody & Sherman · Night Moves · Nostalghia · One from the Heart · The Phantom of the Paradise · Point Break · The Silence of the Lambs

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

Doubling Up

This piece was originally published on the now-defunct blog of Vérité Film Magazine.

Documentaries about influential artists are a dime a dozen. They constitute their own rigidly codified subgenre, and it’s one beset by numbing sameness, united by certain familiar narrative rhythms. That’s why Gabe Klinger’s Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (2013) feels so refreshingly different. Absent are any talking head testimonials from the artists’ collaborators or admirers. No critics pop up to pontificate about how these men are major figures of 21st century cinema. Nor does Klinger preface his subjects’ conversations with linear rundowns of their biographical details and work to date. Instead, everything comes straight from the horses’ mouths. Aside from occasional film clips or archival interviews, anything the audience learns about Benning and Linklater emerges from their chats, whether at lunch or at the Austin Film Society (which Linklater co-founded), with Klinger’s unintrusive camera tagging along.

That’s the “doubling” conceit which provides both Double Play’s title and structure. It allows these two filmmakers’ decades of experience and honed techniques to bounce off one another as the men and their films engage in dialogue. In fact, it makes Double Play resemble nothing quite so much as one of Linklater’s Before films, with the arid countryside around Austin standing in for Paris or Vienna. Benning and Linklater may not have as contentious a relationship as Céline and Jesse, but they do have similarly voracious intellects and eclectic interests, which makes their banter comparably engaging. They discuss favorite cameras and film vs. digital; they shoot hoops, play catch, and talk baseball. (That latter digression’s supplemented by passages from Linklater’s Bad News Bears remake and Benning’s American Dreams: Lost and Found). Personal minutiae, artistic nitty-gritty, big philosophical picture: it’s all fair game.

The film leans most often toward Linklater, since his filmography is more accessible and easier to excerpt. Around Double Play’s rough “climax,” Klinger even segues into a full-on video essay piecing together dream and pinball-related sequences from Slacker, Dazed and ConfusedWaking Life, and his other films, showcasing several clear thematic preoccupations. However, while Benning’s non-narrative features may lose some of their impact in tiny doses, the clips from movies like One Way Boogie Woogie and 13 Lakes are still tantalizing, especially when juxtaposed with Linklater’s more restrained experiments in space and time. Benning himself adds immeasurably to the film’s conversations as well, whether he’s interrogating Linklater or pulling from his own memories. His recollection of seeing John Cage perform a piece derived from Finnegans Wake when he was in college, for example—the experience he says made him want to be an artist—is deeply moving.

“The one relationship we all have that endures to the end,” says Linklater, “is our own relationship with our past selves, you know, and the stories we create to connect ourselves to who we were.” It’s a meandering profundity of the sort that pervades his films, one that could even serve as a loose thesis statement for Boyhood. (Clips from that film, at the time incomplete, appear near the end of Double Play as Linklater and Benning examine its year-to-year transitions with editor Sandra Adair.) That sentiment is also typical of this documentary which is, sure, a cross-section of two major directors’ oeuvres, but beyond that a sit-down with two middle-aged friends who like to share their perspectives and work through creative problems. It’s not a set of authoritative answers, nor is it a glorified DVD extra like so many movies of its ilk, but rather a long, thoughtful talk about the role of life in art and art in life.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema