Looking Back on “Looking Back”

For six months back in 2013, I wrote a column with the blunt title “Looking Back” for the now-defunct website Movie Mezzanine. The idea was that I’d write about a different old movie each week—and wow, I picked some good ones. I was not long out of college at the time. I parted ways with the site and its editor once I moved to Michigan. Since the outlet itself has folded, and the originals were bylined with my deadname, I’ve decided to collect all eleven entries (unchanged) in one place.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Published January 6, 2013

Throughout the 1940s, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger collaborated (as “The Archers”) on a handful of the greatest, most British films ever made. Films like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, so raucous in its epic sweep through history, or The Red Shoes with its Technicolor ballet—these enormous, impassioned films that have emblazoned themselves on my memory. A Canterbury Tale (1944) is narrower in scope and looser in structure than those two; tucked away among such giants, it’s easy to miss. But, as I was reminded while watching it this past New Year’s Day, Powell and Pressburger are always ready with surprises. This is a hell of a movie, bucolic and beautiful, as well as a key text when it comes to understanding their filmography.
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Vera from Detour

“She was young,” narrates the driver. “Not more than 24. Man, she looked like she’d just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world.” That’s a line from the pulp classic Detour, released by the Poverty Row outfit PRC in 1945. Sad sack Al Roberts is describing the hitchhiker he just picked up, a woman with drastic brows and windblown hair. During her half-hour of screen time, she’s going to pose as his wife and die by his hand. Her name is Vera.

I loved Detour when I was 17. I mused about it as a fledgling critic: “Roberts certainly isn’t a hero—the closest he comes to performing a virtuous action is seeking a normal married life with [his girlfriend] Sue—but he isn’t much of an anti-hero either. He’s almost a neutral force in the film and in his own life.” By that time I’d read Roger Ebert’s essay on it, from his first Great Movies collection. He dubs the film’s stars, Tom Neal and Ann Savage, “a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer.” Vera, he writes, is “a venomous castrator,” and Al and Vera between them embody “two pure types: the submissive man and the female hellion.” At 17, I saw myself in Al’s cosmic impotence. I lived in a body clenched with dysphoria.

Back then, the fact that Vera (like Savage) was 24 meant nothing to me. She was an older woman. Now I find it startling that this iconic femme fatale is only a few years out of her teens. As an ostensibly male viewer, I only saw her beauty and her spite; now I see that she’s bruised, worn out, and despondent. Riding cross-country with strange men, why wouldn’t she be prickly? She never lays out a back story, but drops hints here and there. “The cops are no friends of mine,” remarks this hard-bitten nihilist whose fantasies evoke years of hunger and hustle. “No more worrying about the rent!” she cries. “No sweating, scheming, wondering where your next meal’s coming from!” She’s an alcoholic with a terminal cough. Hardly a pure type.

Edgar G. Ulmer, a Jewish émigré from Austria, directed Detour during the last days of World War II. As with many genre films set on the home front, the war itself goes unmentioned, its horrors transmuted into a pall of Death. (Vera herself is like the fatal women in the films Val Lewton was producing at RKO.) In the decades since, the film’s become a cult object. Its spartan aesthetic invites the viewer to linger, like I did as a teen, like I’m doing now, and Savage’s Vera—with her glower and her bitter quips—has always been the key. She is the detour. Her counterfeit marriage to Al diverts him away from Sue. But he’s her detour, too. Without him, she wouldn’t be dead at 24. A femme is only fatale relative to the men around her. Alone, she’s a tragedy.

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Major Studio Dossier for the 2010s

I love to study film history. I’ll read industry stories from the ’30s and ’40s, about the Paramount of Adolph Zukor and Ernst Lubitsch; the Warner Bros. of Michael Curtiz and Hal B. Wallis; the Fox of Darryl F. Zanuck and Tyrone Power. When I learn about the present, I usually focus on individual films and filmmakers, because that old studio system dissolved decades ago. So I decided to do some research. What do the major studios look like now? This entailed following the money, away from the best movies (which typically have minuscule budgets) and toward a lot of mediocrity. Big caveat here that I am not an insider, I do not have a head for figures, and I would not be surprised if what follows is a bit backwards.

I pored over box office statistics and interviews with executives from five studios: Paramount, Sony, 20th Century Fox, Universal, and Warner Bros. I left Disney out of this, because their identity is much less diffuse. They make the biggest, most visible movies in the world right now; I already know exactly who they are. But what defines the others? In each case, who they are seems to be mostly a matter of what they own. A few themes recurred throughout the interviews I read, franchises foremost among them. Executives boast about plans for their properties—boasts that’ll probably prove baseless with a few years’ hindsight—while paying lip service to the need for non-tentpoles. Every CEO fantasizes about Disney-level affluence; claims to have a Netflix counterstrategy; and is clearly drenched in flop sweat over the prospect of flops.

Their typical platitudes suggest a deep cynicism about the art and politics of filmmaking. Both are only relevant insofar as they impact profit. The studios need linear movies, tone legible from the trailer, genre (and target audience) explicit. With rare and often disastrous exceptions, they leave art films to smaller distributors and stick to what works: action, sci-fi, horror, comedy, and sometimes romance. So their output tends to seem as interchangeable as their executives’ sentiments. In the 2010s, can be there such thing as a studio specialty, or is it all about name brands? Let’s take a look and see.

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fly toward the sun

Some people are meant to be with people. And others, like me, are just different.

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Though it begins with an urban legend about a menacing, bird-obsessed weirdo from Gerald, told in his lyrical, multi-theory style, the bittersweet ending of Hey Arnold!‘s “Pigeon Man” hits with an unexpected and enduring emotional weight. It settled heavy around my heart when I was a child and still squeezes tight occasionally in adulthood. I remember my younger self, watching, aching with pain for Vincent.

Poor Vincent. This gentle, tired man, unable to fit himself into what the world expects of him. The quiet joy he finds among his birds was something so foreign to my churning child-anxiety brain; how soothing to think that he could find a little peace even living in his strange way. And how tragic that his brief and ultimately doomed return to society is so delicious. Now, he just knows what he’s missing. What he’s been missing.

Hey Arnold!‘s grounded, cool jazz atmosphere and poignant moments helped it stand out among its more irreverent contemporaries. That sophisticated touch extends to the voice casting. In addition to the stellar cast of literal (!) children who voiced the kids of Hilldale, the show often utilized guest stars with great fucking voices. The real emotional meat of this episode, the very marrow of it, is the intimacy cultivated between Lane Toran’s empathetic but naive Arnold and Vincent Schiavelli’s tender, weary Pigeon Man.

I was too young to understand the flurry of emotions that unfolded in my chest when Arnold turned to Pigeon Man and said, “Vincent?” No longer the legend. Just a man standing among broken cages and a lifetime of pain. Sometimes the only thing to do is to pack that pain up and carry it with you, to a new place. My heart understood in a way my brain couldn’t yet what it sounds like to ask a question you already know the answer to.

 

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Viewing Diary January 2019

Entries run chronologically from bottom to top.

Shinbone Alley (1970), directed by John David Wilson

Don Marquis wrote a newspaper serial throughout the ’20s that became a Broadway musical in the ’50s, and the latter turned into this cheap cartoon a decade later. Its saga of cockroach Archy and kitty Mehitabel is strictly episodic. The bug dwells on his feline friend’s sex life as they loiter in trash cans. Sometimes they’ll sing tuneless ditties barely adapted from Marquis’s free verse. The voice work is strident, especially Carol Channing as Mehitabel. Interludes based on Archy’s poems venture into psychedelia with loops of pink and yellow. One highlight of the animation is an homage to Krazy Kat artist George Herriman. But the bulk of the film is a hash of garbled misogyny. The stop-start pacing makes its hour and a half stretch into an eternity.

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