Just Peachy

Wanna hear me talk for a bit about James and the Giant Peach? Well, I was invited to discuss that very movie with Josh Spiegel and Gabe Bucsko on the podcast Mousterpiece Cinema. You can listen here. I’m quite fond of the movie, so it was a thrill to go over its ups and downs, from the gorgeous stop-motion animation to the mediocre Randy Newman soundtrack.

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Very Atomic

My friend Peter Labuza invited onto his podcast The Cinephiliacs, which is an audio exploration of “the past and future of cinephilia.” You can listen here. Our conversation was pretty wide-ranging, covering my own experiences as a film lover and critic, my passion for horror movies, and the wonderful 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. I had a lot of fun recording it, so I hope you enjoy listening!

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Looking Away

I’ve wrapped up my tenure writing “Looking Back” for Movie Mezzanine with pieces on three very different movies—a silent Swedish romance, a ’60s drama, and a ’30s comedy—that nonetheless have one big thing in common: all three are about patriarchs who try to escape from the real world into artificial worlds of their own creation.

  • In The Outlaw and His Wife, for example, reformed thief Ejvind is hunted to the ends of the earth by the Icelandic authorities. As a result, he retreats the mountains and starts a new life with his wife and daughter. When the law catches up with him, he retreats even farther, carving whatever measure of privacy he can out of the wilderness.
  • The Swimmer’s Ned Merrill builds up an elaborate fantasy of middle-class stasis in his head, imagining himself loved by his wife, daughters, and neighbors. Ejvind may die, but he’s lucky compared to Ned—at least he still has his wife’s very real love to sustain him! Ned, meanwhile, stumbles deeper and deeper into a morass of personal tragedy, eternally alone.
  • Finally, there’s W.C. Fields in It’s a Gift, who girds himself through all manner of domestic torment with dreams of owning an orange grove. Unlike the other two men in question, Fields’ Harold Bissonette actually gets his happy ending, albeit through a hilariously unlikely turn of events.

Though made across half a century, all three of these movies deal with men in positions of responsibility who are besieged by social, financial, and emotional pressures. And for all three men, the only real solution is to break away, whether mentally or physically (or both). Sometimes, these movies admit, our problems can’t be worked out; sometimes, we just have to look away.

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Link Dump: #93

Aww, it’s Bette Davis with a kitty! And now some long-overdue links!

Some very vaginal search terms lately! For example, “charging vagina images” and “god+told+me+to+show+my+pussy” and of course, “young pussy very weary.”

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Summer Update

Happy 4th of July! In honor of this hallowed day, I’m finally breaking a month of radio silence, mostly to explain that radio silence. As the postcard above suggests, I recently moved two states away from my native Minnesota to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Between the move and some related life upheavals, I’ve been writing almost nothing lately. (You know how it is.) But I’ll be posting some more updates over the weekend and, I hope, settling into a new film criticism groove before the summer ends.

Enjoy today’s holiday if you choose to celebrate it, and if you’re ever in southeastern Michigan, please say hello!

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What is Vulgar Auteurism?

Predator (John McTiernan, 1987)”

“Not so much a movement as a loose form of advocacy, it celebrates undervalued craft in critically overlooked genres, as well as the termitic properties of the best works.” Jake Cole

“[T]he term generally refers to unfairly maligned or under-discussed filmmakers working exclusively in a popular mode—filmmakers like [Justin] Lin, who, despite an obvious formal command and distinctive directorial voice, are rarely discussed in a serious way.” Calum Marsh

“Vulgar auteurism simply seems to be a way for people to intellectualise their guilty pleasures.” Craig Williams

Vulgar Auteurism, often abbreviated “VA,” is a critical outlook that’s been gaining traction (and fomenting controversy) over the past couple of years. The above quotes define it from a few different angles. I’ve been also been repeatedly pointed to Jack Lehtonen’s “Vulgar Auteurism: A Guide,” which didn’t coin the term, but—with its collection of screenshots, director names, and movie titles—seems to have helped codify its meaning. (It’s the second Google result for the term, right beneath the “Vulgar Auteurism” Tumblr that Lehtonen co-curates, which was my source for the image above.)

VA has been gradually embraced, “particularly among young critics” as Marsh notes. But it has also been roundly derided as contrarian, cliquish, and redundant, the latter because plain old auteur theory already covers the filmmakers in question. I think the truth of these charges varies, especially since VA’s practitioners are themselves anything but unified, falling all over the map in terms of the approach and quality of their writing. Some speak ardently for movies that, according to received wisdom (my bête noire), merit kneejerk dismissal; others lean so hard on the value of image-making that it’s as if coherent plotting and dialogue had suddenly become vices—symbols of a tradition de qualité that vulgar cinema has displaced. (See the eloquent Sean Gilman for more on this.)

At its worst, I believe VA writing gives excess attention to dumb action movies in a media landscape already dominated by the loud and masculine. It overclaims so insistently that I begin to sense a persecution complex on behalf of movies that are, in reality, high-grossing and well-loved. But that’s at its worst. Personally, what I’ve read on VA and its adherents’ still-developing canon leaves me skeptical but curious. Part of that curiosity is probably because of my inexperience with these movies: for the most part, directors like Tony Scott and Paul W.S. Anderson remain unknown quantities for me, so essays like Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s “Smearing the Senses” intrigue me; they make me want to dip my toes in and learn for myself the veracity of these critical claims.

My own tastes may not automatically gravitate toward these frenetic spectacles, but that doesn’t mean I can’t scour them for points of interest. Even if a movie is frivolous, stupid, or awful, it can still provide some out-of-nowhere beauty, and I love being startled in the middle of a movie I’d never call “great” by some image or another that sways me, shakes me, grabs me by the neck. At its best, Vulgar Auteurism seems to be about this phenomenon, and about doing what good critics should do: giving every movie a chance, regardless of subject matter or provenance, and examining them from different angles. Whether or not the label is necessary, that particular inclination strikes me as an absolute good.

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Color and Form

 At last, a film about the ultimate Minnelli concerns: about the spaces, physical and psychological, that humans inhabit; about the individual elements that enhance or impair our sense of self; the problems, in short, of adornment and décor.

That’s Keith Uhlich, in his really beautiful Sight & Sound article “Garlands and cobwebs: Vincente Minnelli’s ecstatic vision,” writing about Minnelli’s mental hospital melodrama The Cobweb (1955). Indeed, it’s a film more of surfaces than story, and it signposts this by being veritably obsessed with a set of drapes. Their fabric and pattern, debated across the whole of the movie, are the MacGuffins behind The Cobweb’s ornate plot, triggering all manner of love affair and power grab. This mere fact has overwhelmed many a viewer over the years, leading them to label the film instantly risible. But as Gloria Grahame says during the opening scene, in a line seized upon by critics like Uhlich and Dave Kehr, “Why do flowers have to be for anything? Isn’t it enough that they have color and form, and that they make you feel good?”

As an art-for-art’s-sake sentiment, this could (and should, I think) apply to cinema at large, but it feels especially apt with Minnelli, and especially here. Drape obsession or no, The Cobweb has color, form, wildness, and bombast, which make me feel good. It never shrinks away from the lurid or tawdry, but rather embraces them as legitimate means of expression. Between its all-star cast and sprawling CinemaScope frame, you’d expect a mid-’50s soap like this to be lurching, elephantine, yet it’s actually pretty fleet. It helps, I suppose, that Richard Widmark and Gloria Grahame play the doctor and wife at its creamy center, an offbeat leading man wed to a shrill sexpot. Their troubled marriage is where, as an opening title explains, “the trouble began…” and from whence it ripples out through a network of psychiatrists, administrators, and patients.

The most disturbed of these is Steven, who’s being treated by Widmark’s Dr. McIver. He’s played by John Kerr, who’d star the following year as another sensitive youth in another Minnelli movie, Tea and Sympathy. But he’s much more agitated here as an oedipal, sometimes suicidal young artist who gets out his resentment and self-loathing through loose, color-streaked paintings of hospital life. (In reality, they’re in the signature style of David Stone Martin, credited on the film as “graphic designer.”) In Steven, Minnelli fuses the film’s ideas about mental illness and the creative act, about the latter as both liberating and dangerous in its intensity. Pacing around the colorful ‘Scope boxes that make up the Castlehouse Clinic, Steven could be the more overtly sick brother to Jim Stark from Rebel Without a Cause, released just a few months later.

Like Rebel, The Cobweb uses melodrama to diagnose the soul sickness of 1950s America; both films also make prominent use of staircases as psychological symbols. (All this said, it should come as no surprise that producer John Houseman even pursued James Dean to play Steven, only for him to balk at the pay.) Stairs, rooms, drapes with floral patterns… it’s as if the characters and their mise-en-scène are, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s last words, fighting a duel to the death, and one or the other has to go. As if the clinic’s furnishings had become as sick as its patients. Minnelli always had such facility for smearing beauty across the screen, for shooting sets and actors just as Steven paints the clinic, and The Cobweb isn’t shy about the duality of these images: surfaces can be beautiful, but they can also devour you and never let you go.

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