Viewing Diary March 2017

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Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), directed by Amy Heckerling

In high school, everything is dead serious, and everything’s a joke. Your mind groans under the weight of classes and crushes. You exchange notes. You wonder who to sit beside in first period. As this bountiful comedy whirls around its loose ensemble, it absorbs every one of those ridiculous details. It soaks in graffiti, band logos, and pin-up posters. Some of its tacky minutiae blossom into visual gags: Judge Reinhold serving seafood while wearing a huge pirate hat; Sean Penn as a blithe stoner stumbling out of a hotboxed VW bus; or a student cheating on a test with notes scrawled on her upper thigh. These images are slightly cartoonish, yet still emotionally credible. They’re preposterous enough to feel true.

When the film works blue, with bits about blow jobs and masturbation, it does so with clear affection for its naïve characters. After a boy’s lightning-fast orgasm makes Jennifer Jason Leigh droop in disappointment, the camera stays right on her face. She sits halfway up, still nude, mouth agape, and watches him put on his pants. (You can see Leigh’s venomous career taking shape.) The scene throbs with sympathy. It’s a mercy when the next cut reveals Leigh slicing sausage in a pizzeria as she gossips with her best friend. Their banter’s written with a sexual frankness that prefigures and outdoes Kevin Smith’s whole filmography. Their solidarity takes the sting out of adolescence’s self-inflicted humiliations.

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Viewing Diary February 2017

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The Man I Love (1947), directed by Raoul Walsh

Ida Lupino’s eyes have heavy, steady lids. Her lips curl into a pout—is that insolence, or is it sorrow? Her face anchors the frame. She leads the cast of this noir melodrama as a torch singer lovesick over a jazz pianist. They wander the waterfront together. She calls up the club where he’s been working: “Is he there?” The bartender goes to check, and as she waits in the phone booth, the strains of her sweetheart’s furious playing pour through the receiver. “No,” lies the bartender. “He ain’t here.” She’ll end the movie by walking toward the camera, her eyes full of tears. She deserves happiness, especially after patching up her sisters’ love lives and extricating them from the grip of a sleazy impresario. But this is a downbeat Warner Brothers potboiler, so she’ll have to keep chasing her happiness after the credits have rolled.

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Viewing Diary January 2017

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You and Me (1938), directed by Fritz Lang

As a parolee love story, this is frustrating. As soon as the premise is established, it’s clear that the wife will eventually fess up about her past, and the husband will backslide toward burglary. Each plot point till then feels like it’s marking time. So I’m grateful for Lang’s love of strong diagonal lines, and the emotional eyes of the two romantic leads. (George Raft’s: narrow and weary. Sylvia Sidney’s: wide and mournful; incapable of keeping a secret.) On the few occasions when You and Me becomes a Kurt Weill musical, however, it’s astonishing. An opening anthem mocks department store consumerism; a sprechgesang torch song echoes “Pirate Jenny.” These numbers slip into the movie, and suddenly you’re watching something strange and didactic and sublime.

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“I Dreamt of You Touching Me”

Here’s a PDF of my minicomic “I Dreamt of You Touching Me.”

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50 Best New-to-Me Viewings of 2016

Portrait of Jason

I’ve put together one of these lists for each of the past four years, and now it’s late December so I’m at it again. Below lies an alphabetical overview of the older movies that jolted me out of my jaded cinephile stupor in 2016. It includes some film noir, a few silents, and several exquisite oddities from around the world. These films contained performances that moved me to tears and laughter, courtesy of actors like Jean Seberg and Charles Lane; Reese Witherspoon and Ray Milland; Laura Dern and Anton Walbrook. (Along with Judy Davis, Tony Curtis, Jennifer Jones, Richard Farnsworth, Arta Dobroshi, and Jason Holliday.) I’m eager to revisit each of them in the years to come.

The Boat (1921) · Bonjour Tristesse (1958) · The Boston Strangler (1968) · Breakdown (1997) · A Bronx Morning (1931) · Deadline at Dawn (1946) · Death Is a Caress (1949) · From Beyond the Grave (1974) · From Morn to Midnight (1920) · Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) · Germany Year Zero (1948) · Gerry (2002) · Gone to Earth (1950) · Good Morning (1959) · Happy End (1966) · Harlan County, USA (1976) · Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (1939) · High Tide (1987) · How Do You Know (2010) · Inherent Vice (2014) · Innocence (2004) · Jewel Robbery (1932) · Ladies They Talk About (1933) · Letter Never Sent (1959) · The Lickerish Quartet (1970) · The Line, the Cross and the Curve (1993) · Lorna’s Silence (2008) · Messiah of Evil (1973) · Mildred Pierce (2011) · Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) · News from Home (1977) · Over the Garden Wall (2014) · Parting Glances (1986) · Penda’s Fen (1974) · Polyester (1981) · Portrait of Jason (1967) · Præsidenten (1919) · The Queen of Spades (1949) · Safety Last! (1923) · Sidewalk Stories (1989) · Smooth Talk (1985) · The Straight Story (1999) · Street Scene (1931) · El Sur (1983) · A Taste of Honey (1961) · The Thief (1952) · The Trust (1911) · The War of the Roses (1989) · What Happened Was… (1994) · Wings (1927)

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Happy 7th Birthday, Pussy Goes Grrr

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Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box

Wow, weird to think we’ve kept this blog going for seven whole years now—ever since that fateful Earth Day during my sophomore year of college when we threw caution to the wind and registered its name on WordPress. Every year when I put up this anniversary post, it startles me to realize how much the blog has changed. The writing here is much less frequent, but much higher quality. I’d love to have it be more frequent, and I have a lot of ideas for what I’d like to write. In the meantime, here’s my most recent work elsewhere: a dispatch from the 2016 Ann Arbor Film Festival for MUBI Notebook and more capsule reviews on Letterboxd, one for every movie I’ve watched since March 1 this year. (Shortly after I unceremoniously dropped my tough-to-sustain “Viewing Diary” idea.)

As always, thank you to anyone who’s ever supported our work by reading it. Even if writing only pops up here once every few months, we still hope to keep this website going into 2017.

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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.

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