Monthly Archives: March 2012

Link Dump: #63

Following up last week’s Jean Vigo kitty, we have one from Vigo’s short À propos de Nice. It’s just sitting by a sewer grate in Nice, when all of a sudden, there’s Jean Vigo and Boris Kaufman! And now it’s immortalized in film history. Yay kitty! Now here are some links:

We had a smattering of fantastic, strange search terms this past week. Like “docters do the opration of chute pussy.” Or the very valid inquiry “why is it called porn and not something else”? Imagine a world where it’s not called porn. Just imagine it! And lastly, “google to sex women to women love firends both lesbian gether weddnig pussy pussy in is the moives.” Jesus, that’s an epic search term!

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Burning Bright

Rewatching Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) served as an aggressive reminder that it’s a really fucking great movie. Like, on every level. Dede Allen’s editing, for example: evocative, disorienting, whipping up chaos and tension, setting the tempo for the film’s action scenes and attuning us to the character’s libidos in intimate scenes like the one pictured above. Or Francis Stahl’s sound work: emphasizing the tentative breaths and rustles that precede the din of gunfire. Or David Newman and Robert Benton’s screenplay: an intoxicating string of comic set-pieces underlain by tragedy, crumbling into tragic set-pieces laced with gallows humor.

But I’m here to discuss the film’s visuals, as part of The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series. Narrowing down the film’s best images is especially agonizing, since Penn and cinematographer Burnett Guffey constructed such a rich, allusive world—one whose fidelity to the Depression-era Midwest is complicated by its very 1960s sexual and political resonances. Although the film’s renowned for its violence, so much of its story is expressed through precise tableaux like the one above, the aftermath of an abortive lovemaking session. Between the pulled-down shade, the turned-away faces, and the way their arched bodies form a line across the frame, the shot smolders with shame and dead-end arousal.

That same arousal is built up in another of my favorite shots, this one arriving a mere six minutes into the film. It features a totally commonplace action—a man and a woman drinking coke outside a corner gas station—that Penn and Guffey shoot as near-pornographic, drawing us to Bonnie’s sultry eyes and bottle-fellating lips. (The innuendo here and moments later, when she strokes Clyde’s gun, is train-through-the-tunnel obvious.) Dunaway packs so much into that gaze: desire, sure, but also curiosity and longing for the things Clyde represents. This is lust blossoming out of small-town tedium.

I love this shot’s geometry. We’re seeing her through the curved frame of Beatty’s arm, bottle, and mouth, which intersect with the rusted gas pump she’s leaning on. Like so much of Bonnie and Clyde, it’s playing with anatomy and architecture, letting performance and composition ricochet off one another. Her desperation and his ambition are always contextualized by the desolation that created them. They’re the children of a dusty, bankrupt nation, and that lineage is underscored in my favorite shot.

“We rob banks,” says Clyde to a dispossessed farmer. The sentiment might be meant as a gesture of solidarity, but it nonetheless oozes with braggadocio. This is Warren Beatty in his element, swaggering as he sports a broad, toothy grin. This is Beatty as Clyde Barrow, nascent folk hero: dripping with sex appeal and a yen for revolution, but also short-sighted and a little narcissistic. The Depression has crushed everyone else, but for Clyde it’s an opportunity to realize the American dream. To rob banks.

He’s oblivious to Bonnie, silent and forlorn, hair blowing into her eyes. She’s aroused by his transgression, certainly, and she returns his smile as the scene ends. But she has more on her mind. Her partnership with Clyde is edged with vulnerability and fear of loss, the same fear that eventually leads to her heartbreaking family reunion. This fear creeps visibly around Dunaway’s mouth throughout the film, always coupled with an understanding that this is the course their love must run, that someday “it’ll be death for Bonnie and Clyde.” It’s all wrapped up in this shot. Comedy, tragedy, past, and bloody future.

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The Sorrows of Young Oskar

[This is my first, much-belated entry in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan of The Matinee.]

There once was a drummer. His name was Oskar. He lost his poor mama, who had eaten too much fish. There once was a gullible people who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really the gas man!

Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (1979) plays like a lost fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. It has the same Teutonic roughness, the same cavalcade of sneering villains and magic tokens. In the spirit of “Hansel and Gretel” or “Little Red Riding Hood,” it’s about a beleaguered child in a merciless world. But instead of stumbling along, sprinkling bread crumbs in the forest, Oskar Matzerath bends the world to his will. Uncannily aware of adult hypocrisy, he throws himself down a flight of stairs on his third birthday, vowing never to grow again. From then on, he brandishes his childhood as a weapon.

This is Schlöndorff’s poison pen letter to the previous generation, a “fuck you” to the parents who carried out the Holocaust and destroyed Germany. As the Nazis rise and consume Danzig, Oskar stridently beats his drum. As his mother runs secretly between the two men who may be his biological father, Oskar gazes on in silent judgment. To him, adulthood is a grotesque farce where Nazi rallies degenerate into rain-soaked waltzing, where marital strife leads his mother to gorge on eels. Yeah, Oskar’s a “bad seed”—calculating from the second he leaves the womb, indirectly killing both of his potential fathers—but the film never blames him. He’s been born into a bad nation.

The key here is David Bennent, the Swiss 12-year-old who plays Oskar across two decades of German/Polish history. Not for a second does he hold back to garner audience sympathies. Instead, he’s always pushing forward, growing louder and more abrasive, shrieking and drumming to express his contempt. The same goes for Bennent’s voiceover narration: shrill, conspiratorial, suffused with a childish solipsism but not a shred of innocence. He gives one of the most haunting child performances I’ve ever seen, and it sets the tone for the film’s vision of Nazi-era Danzig as a demented storybook.

Here, corruption and ethical compromise are visually mapped across staid furnishings, like a piano adorned with a radio and a picture of Hitler. The grays and browns of bourgeois life dominate the film’s palette, but reds puncture through that veneer in the form of dresses, fish blood, playing cards, swastika bands, and of course the pattern on that drum. Like Oskar’s glass-shattering screams, these reds are pain and rebellion made physical, breaching the Matzerath family’s complacent surface—a surface that’s reduced to nothing but screams, blood, and rubble by the end of the film.

So this is Schlöndorff’s revenge on those who preceded him: an angry movie, weird to the bone and pulsing with dark magic, so sexually frank that it was briefly banned in Oklahoma. And furthermore, a lush, imposing period epic that navigates political upheaval and warfare with the eyes of a mad child. But what better way to document such an impossibly horrible part of history? Theodor Adorno said that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” The Tin Drum is a barbaric movie.

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Disney Revisited: Bambi

Some thoughts after rewatching Bambi (1942)…

  •  It opens with a nativity scene. Like Pinocchio and Dumbo, Bambi begins with its title character’s birth and introduction to the world. Here, however, it’s an epoch-defining event, signified by much fanfare and an elaborate woodland tableau around the messianic “young prince.” Bambi is the center of the film’s universe, and the film revolves around his subjectivity and growth.
  • The depiction of nature is a continuation of Fantasia. Like the earlier film, Bambi not only relies heavily on Mickey Mousing, but also envisions its ecosystem as a dance—whether lyrical (as in the “Little April Shower” sequence) or primal, as when Bambi locks antlers with a rival to win Faline. In both films, animals’ interactions with the landscape and each other play out in sync with the music. The motion itself is just as important as who’s doing the moving.
  • Thumper provides unobtrusive comic relief. At least to the extent that he’s more demonstrative than Bambi and engages in mildly funny verbal tics, visual gags, etc. However, these jokes and the “sidekick” role do not define Thumper; instead, they’re subsumed into his identity as the newborn Bambi’s guide and, later, a rabbit patriarch-to-be.
  • The film is bisected by the death of Bambi’s mother. This wintry tragedy demarcates the end of Bambi’s childhood as well as his entrée into adolescence and adulthood. Furthermore, it ushers the film from loose, episodic fun to the life-or-death priorities that accompany Bambi’s maturation. It’s a sharp divide that structures Bambi’s bildungsroman narrative.
  • The Great Prince presides over the film. He’s the father figure as deity, always appearing majestically and only speaking a handful of authoritative lines. He passes his crown to Bambi, but has no real personality beyond being a signifier of masculinity and fatherhood. “He’s very brave and very wise,” as Bambi’s mother says, but his importance is less intrinsic and more as a gendered role model for the young prince.
  • “Twitterpated” is a euphemism for burgeoning, hormonal sexuality. As Flower, Thumper, and Bambi succumb to twitterpation, they seem to be merely following their biological clocks, their free will replaced by hyperactive sex drives. Especially with Thumper, the film is surprisingly overt in its visual representation of horny teenagers.
  • The climax is fixated on death and rebirth. Toward the end, Bambi turns grisly as the forest is consumed by gunshots and wildfire. But instead of ending the movie, the conflagration segues into yet another springtime nativity scene, with Bambi gazing down on Faline and her fawns just as the Great Prince had gazed down on his mother. The parallelism asserts that forest life is cyclical—it will always recover. But this cycle has dark implications: Bambi will live apart from Faline, Man will always Return, and Faline will die.
  • Man only exists through destruction. Writing about Pinocchio, I claimed that “Monstro is Cthulhu”; similarly, Man is the forest’s eldritch terror, unseen but experienced indirectly or instantiated through the hunting dogs. Ironically, everything in Bambi is anthropomorphized except for Man.

(This is part of “Disney Revisited,” my chronological film-by-film exploration of the Disney animated canon.)

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Link Dump: #62

This week’s kitty is one of many that rides aboard the title boat in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, reviewed here earlier this week. (Seriously, that movie has so many kitties. It’s awesome.) And now, a panoply of links, with hat tips to Feminist Frequency and DeusExCinema:

A handful of amusing search terms: first, “сейлормун обои,” which is Russian for “Sailormoon wallpapers.” And then, possibly related: “man shirtless in apron” and “man dreams of being a housewife and dress like one and dreams about it.” The latter especially is kind of poetic. Is he a man who dreamt he was a housewife… or a housewife who dreamt he was a man?

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Bird or Beast

Pity the poor Ladyhawke (1985). Saddled with the most ’80s of scores, a wisecracking Matthew Broderick, and even a slow-motion “NOOOO!” at its climax, it initially comes off as chintzy and dated. But at heart, it’s an old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure coupled with a tragic romance, parceling out its plot’s mystical secrets between swordfights and thrilling escapes. Its pleasures may not be especially subtle or sophisticated, but they are elemental and manifold. (And, truth be told, the talkative Broderick is actually quite believable as a 13th century pickpocket.)

This impassioned throwback kicks off Season 3 of The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series, a blogging tradition in which I’ve often proudly participated. Its challenge is to pick your “best shot” and, for me, the image above comes close. It showcases three of Ladyhawke’s strongest attributes: 1) the photography by Vittorio Storaro, as mythic as anything drawn by Frank Frazetta; 2) the mountainous Italian countryside that cradles the film; and 3) the film’s supernatural conceit—that Navarre (Rutger Hauer) and Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer) are cursed to be “always together, eternally apart,” he a wolf by night and she a hawk by day.

Thanks to this curse, Pfeiffer has relatively little corporeal screen time; more often than not, Isabeau is streaking across the sky or perching on Navarre’s arm. But it hardly matters because this is the breathless, sylphlike Michelle Pfeiffer. In the shot above, she’s sprawled out on a monastery floor, an arrow in her breast. Broderick’s Philippe has just asked her, “Are you flesh, or are you spirit?” She murmurs back, “I am sorrow.” She seems so detached from the physical realm, so consumed by her spiritual pain, that it’s easy to believe her. She is sorrow.

Hauer, meanwhile, is equally anguished but is instead tied to the earth, to revenge against the bishop who hexed them, and to what Hamlet would call his “too too solid flesh.” When Philippe spirits the wounded Isabeau to the monastery, he’s left alone at the site of his latest battle. Thunder rumbles in the distance as he kneels next to his treasured sword, leading to my favorite shot.

The shot only lasts for a few seconds, and he only utters a single word, “Please…”; this brevity gives it unexpected power. It gets right at the film’s raison d’etre, which is that “so close, and yet so far” relationship. The way Navarre loves and protects Isabeau, yet can never truly be with her. As he subordinates himself to the film’s medieval God, Hauer looks tiny against a hazy backdrop of field, mountain, and sky. It’s a stunning image of supplication in the name of love.

As any Blade Runner fan knows, Hauer enhanced potentially generic roles a mix of good looks, bravado, and intellect. Those are all in play during Ladyhawke, and Navarre is by turns intimidating, stubborn, and totally vulnerable. Whatever 1980s tics and poor judgments may mar the film, it’s still plenty fun and melodramatic, and it still has Hauer and Pfeiffer illuminated against Storaro’s centuries-old Italy.

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Jean Vigo: Prankster and Poet

French director Jean Vigo didn’t give a shit about refinement. His meager filmography bubbles over with excess, messiness, and experimentation. They’re films that speak to a life in the shadow of his murdered anarchist father, a life spent getting his hands dirty with cinema before dying at age 29. Compromise and weakness are altogether absent from Vigo’s work; in their place are brutality, tenderness, and “too much.” Now, thanks to Criterion’s The Complete Jean Vigo, it’s possible to watch the saga of his whole career in a scant three hours.

Here’s what you’ll find: youthful energy, a prelapsarian affection for the human body, resentment of authority figures, and an explosive, bawdy, political sense of humor. Vigo was pissed off, but never sullen. His first short film, 1930’s À propos de Nice, initially looks like a travelogue surveying the titular French resort town, showcasing its hotels, beaches, and bathing beauties. But through rhythmic editing, trick photography, and ironic counterpoint, Vigo and his photographer comrade Boris Kaufman get at the grotesque reality of Nice—what he identified as “the last gasps of a society in its death throes.”

In one of the film’s typically crass jokes, the camera settles on a young woman sitting along the boulevard. Through a series of dissolves, we see her wearing furs, stylish dresses, a string of pearls, and then nothing (well, except a pair of heels). It’s a parody of fashion, of “glamour” as a concept, with frontal nudity as its punchline. As if to top himself, Vigo ends the short with a detour into slow-motion upskirt photography. Juxtaposing this vulgarity with coastal recreation, À propos de Nice lampoons the then-prevalent “city symphony.” (As such, it also anticipates Georges Franju’s disturbing, Paris-set short Blood of the Beasts a good two decades later.)

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