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.

vincent1

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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On Viewing Habits

’50s sci-fi movie This Island Earth

Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll list off every decade from the 1910s to the 2010s. 100+ years. I’ll go backwards through the movies I’ve been watching and cross off each decade represented, until only one remains. Then I’ll think, “Oh, I guess it’s been a while since I watched something from the ’40s; what’s still out there?”

I keep lists, dozens of ’em. Not just by year or decade but by director, genre, topic, critical champion, or nebulous mood. None of this is necessary, but it does bring me pleasure. I love to build taxonomies of the unseen.

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sick day, sick life

[cw: mental illness, suicidal ideation, trauma]

it’s been a really long time and i’m a very different person than the last time i posted anything on here. pussy goes grrr will be ten years old this april. i will be thirty this may. i’ve looked forward to being thirty with an unreasonable intensity since my early twenties. my thirties have to be different than my twenties, i’ve told myself for years, they just have to be. i can’t go on like this if they’re not. 

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2018: Resilience and Despair

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Unfriended: Dark Web, A Star Is Born, Lean on Pete

Writing these countdowns always comes with a sense of relief. I made it through another year. (And spent a big chunk of it watching movies.) Excitement, too: now I can set aside that year, break it down, hold its little pieces in my memory. The year that was can hold no further surprises; now, as I pause in late December waiting for the new one to start, I have an opportunity to assess it. So here, as far as cinema’s concerned, are the little pieces of 2018.

First, a couple outliers. Blue is a lovely Apichatpong Weerasethakul short that premiered at TIFF this year. Within its 12-minute run time, he finds sublime uses for some antiquated visual trickery. The Other Side of the Wind is a film Orson Welles starting shooting decades ago, now given a posthumous release. It’s breathtaking: a poison pen roman à clef full of formal experimentation. (Ranking it alongside films from living auteurs feels a bit like apples and oranges, but it’s a strong addition to the Welles corpus.)

Here are 15 other movies I enjoyed in alphabetical order: The Day After, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, First Reformed, Happy as Lazzaro, Lean on Pete, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Minding the Gap, Private Life, Shirkers, Sorry to Bother YouA Star Is Born, Unfriended: Dark Web, Unsane, Werewolf, and Widows.

And here are 10 other performances: Bryan Cranston, his voice a forlorn growl in Isle of DogsWidows’ Viola Davis, giving blunt directives in the midst of mourning; Jennifer Ehle (supporting actress extraordinaire) as The Miseducation of Cameron Post’s homophobic villain; Daniel Giménez Cacho, who bears weariness in his sharp features as Zama’s title character; Upgrade’s Simon Maiden, drily funny as a HAL-style AI; Amanda Seyfried as bereaved mothers-to-be in both First Reformed and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again; Adriano Tardiolo, his eyes wide as the namesake naif in Happy as Lazzaro; Tessa Thompson embodying praxis as the earring-adorned artist in Sorry to Bother YouReady Player One’s Lena Waithe, transformed via mocap into a lumbering avatar; and Anton Yelchin, now a couple years deceased, playing the scumbag of all scumbags in Thoroughbreds.

And now, the list:

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