Monthly Archives: September 2012

Link Dump: #80

The kitties for this week’s 80th Link Dump are from notoriously kitty-friendly auteur Chris Marker and his short film La Jetée, which I wrote about yesterday. They’re lying on a blanket! So cute and comfy. And now, an abundance of links…

Recent search terms that amuse me include “self photo fail, dildo,” “last minut pusst,” and of course “سكس,” is Arabic for “sex.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema, Literature, Sexuality

Killing Time

This week’s Criticwire Survey asked, “What is the best time travel movie ever made?” I answered with La Jetée (1962), explaining that

I’m impressed by how deftly Chris Marker constructed a short film out of photos, voiceover, and a few seconds of moving image… [and by] how he uses time travel: not as a narrative device plucked out of the sci-fi toolbox, but as a poignant reaction to war, love, and memory.

After decades of overexposure, sci-fi audiences are mostly inured to time travel. We take the technology and its (often mind-bending) repercussions for granted. Unless it’s invoked in a wholly original way—as with Primer, a popular Survey answer—it tends to feel cliché. But revisiting La Jetée makes time travel fresh again. Because Marker isn’t following blindly in the footsteps of genre pioneers like Heinlein, Bradbury, Dick, etc. He’s telling his own wistful story, one begat by his hero’s relationship with (and physical access to) the past.

More than anything, this viewing of La Jetée brought to mind the “white parasol” speech delivered by Everett Sloane in Citizen Kane. Both are bittersweet recollections of a single image seared into a man’s consciousness, prompting lifelong obsessions. (Men fantasizing about women: is any other subject as ubiquitous in film?) The subject of Marker’s experiment, however, is allowed to reenter that past, speak with the woman, and transform his fantasy into reality. It’s sci-fi wish fulfillment, but of the most metaphysically heartbreaking kind.

The romance blossoms through a series of crisp black-and-white photographs. Although La Jetée is science fiction, Marker’s montage gives it a near-documentary flavor. Each snapshot functions as evidence of a new past, a record of this couple’s shared time. No wonder they visit parks and museums, these spaces of preservation, or gaze at a cross-section of an ancient redwood. (The latter also references Vertigo, a past-fixated Marker favorite.)

These photos, one by one, pull cinema back to zero—back to the Lumières and Barthes’ Camera Lucida and Bazin’s “Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Like his Nouvelle Vague compatriots Resnais and Godard, Marker embeds his theory in his sci-fi. La Jetée is a meta-movie, an act of time travel itself, an attempt to overcome the pain of memory. But as its guinea pig quickly learns, that attempt only brings the tragedy full circle.

Early on, La Jetée’s narrator explains that “nothing distinguishes memories from ordinary moments. Only later do they become memorable by the scars they leave.” In which case every new scene in a movie is another psychic wound.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

Power Trip

[This is my fourth entry in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan of The Matinee.]

Nothing I love more than a truly terrifying villain. Heroes are OK, and anti-heroes can make for morally ambiguous fun. But a villain! Someone who cooks up and executes diabolical plans! Someone who’s ambitious and charismatic, even at the cost of ethical bankruptcy. It’s gratifying to identify with a villain. I’m just a human being, you see. I’m cosmically insignificant, a speck in an indifferent universe. I like to fancy myself “good,” at least in the sense that I exhibit empathy and avoid hurting others. But when I see a villain like Dr. Mabuse, the titular mastermind of Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), I can’t deny his power. He’s fearless, in control, always one step ahead! I may be a “good” person in real life, but in the dream life of moviegoing I can identify unequivocally with Mabuse and suffer nothing but a mild sense of shame.

As he skulks through the Berlin underworld, Mabuse’s authority is total. Foreshadowing director Fritz Lang’s future use of surveillance motifs (M, The Big Heat), he’s a one-man panopticon, using his victims as informants against one another. Mabuse himself, meanwhile, remains functionally invisible. Either he’s wrapped up in one of his many alter egos, or he’s slipping through cracks in the film’s expressionist architecture. He is the master of modernity, ringleader of the Weimar circus. Everyone is in Mabuse’s thrall, and life in his thrall is a waking nightmare. Of course, it takes one hell of an actor to pull off a towering figure like Mabuse, and thankfully Rudolf Klein-Rogge (later the mad doctor in Lang’s Metropolis) is equal to the task. His broad forehead, beak nose, and piercing eyes are accentuated here, making him look like a physical incarnation of a George Grosz grotesque. His swagger, too, is that of an übermensch, a man swollen with megalomania.

But Klein-Rogge, as mighty an actor as he is, doesn’t create Mabuse alone. Every second he’s off-screen, his performance is supplemented by the dark mythology that rises around him. “One of the most dangerous criminals ever,” for example, is how his police inspector nemesis describes him. “He lives above the city—big as a tower!” cries Cara Carozza, a showgirl at the dancing end of Mabuse’s puppet strings. “He is the greatest man alive!” The terror of those in Mabuse’s orbit inflates his evil stature. The film’s duration (4 1/2 hours) works similarly in his favor, since it provides ample time for him to engineer a network of alliances and betrayals. Mabuse ruins the life of one aristocrat after another; he supervises one convoluted heist after another; he bends the masses to his whims. If anything, Mabuse is too thorough of an evil genius, staging increasingly flamboyant ends for his enemies as the police close in around him.

The film’s second half (entitled “Inferno”) begins with Mabuse cocky and drunk, declaring his intent to become a titan—“churning up laws and gods like withered leaves!!” Yet for all this grandiose rhetoric, his empire is a mere hour or two away from crumbling. After a few more subterfuges and one scene of all-out urban warfare, he’ll be cornered and institutionalized, subjected to a system of disciplines and punishments identical to the one he so recently ruled. (This muddying of the cops/robbers dichotomy is another career-long Lang motif.) And in a final irony, he’ll be back in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, leading criminal enterprises from beyond the grave. That’s symptomatic of how Lang envisions his countrymen: decadent and weak-willed, prime targets for a villain of Mabuse’s caliber. Pessimistic? Absolutely. But vindicated by history with chilling precision, and as true now as it’s ever been.

1 Comment

Filed under Cinema

Cause and Effect

I don’t know if I’m gnawing at The Master (2012) or if The Master is gnawing at me. This movie, Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth, is aggressively entrancing. Bewitching, even. A movie to turn sideways and shake, in case anything falls out. It zigzags through the years following World War II, as a new faith (“The Cause”) blossoms out of American scar tissue. Its leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is a patriarchal walrus with a low, rumbling voice. An expert con man, he peddles a mix of mind games and pseudoscience as a spiritual cure-all, camouflaging it under a veneer of academic authority. But even as Dodd’s congregation swells, he’s perturbed by a single lingering problem: a drunken veteran named Freddie Quell.

Freddie’s played by Joaquin Phoenix, and he’s perhaps the most startling creation I’ve seen onscreen this year. Shattered by the war and thirsting for rotgut, he roams from town to town, biding time as a photographer and migrant worker before he stumbles onto the Cause’s yacht. There, he’s quickly hooked by their methods—especially “informal processing,” a type of interview/hypnosis—and by Dodd himself, who calls him “naughty boy” when he misbehaves. But unlike the Cause’s other men, all pliable and genteel, Freddie is too wild. He’s lewd and self-destructive, traits that drive him out of the Cause. But he craves a surrogate family, which drives him back in. And so on.

Snarling, sneering, slurring his speech, Phoenix drills Freddie’s feral behavior into your brain through close-up after close-up. I’m half-surprised he never slashes his face across the camera like a knife. He’s a little bit Brando, a little bit rabid dog, supplementing Jonny Greenwood’s percussive soundtrack with his own rattling, raging, and drinking. (Always drinking.) He makes for a striking contrast with Hoffman’s authoritative Dodd, the two of them similar only in intensity. Between them lies Amy Adams as Dodd’s pregnant wife, the kind of role that typically means she’s colorless and supportive, but here signifies a woman who (for all her seeming sweetness) outdoes even her husband’s loyalty to the Cause.

The Master’s love story, however, is clearly between Freddie and Dodd. Theirs is a romance of violence, of shifting control and obedience, engendered by mutual fascination and nourished by their attempts to pull apart. Freddie is Dodd’s project (son? follower? lover?), toxic and impossible to reconstruct, a post-traumatic beast caged in by Jack Fisk’s meticulous 1950s interiors. The arc of their relationship plays out on an epic stage, against sun-streaked oceans and deserts, through dares and torments, with an increasingly fuzzy chronology. “When we’re in love,” preaches Dodd, “we experience pleasure and extreme pain.” Beguiling, often agitating, The Master charts these ins and outs across its vast audiovisual panorama, seizing me tighter and tighter with each new shot.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

Mad Science

The second I heard about the “Camp & Cult Blogathon” being hosted by Stacia at She Blogged By Night, I knew what I wanted to write about. Because Maniac (1934), aka Sex Maniac, is perhaps the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen. Watching it is like entering a trance. Directed by Dwain Esper, the exploitation filmmaker behind titles like Marihuana and Sex Madness, Maniac is no mere movie; it’s a cri de coeur against structure and restraint. Not one of its 50 frenzied minutes is anything less than outrageously loony.

The plot? It is labyrinthine, and thinking too hard about it leaves me woozy. Roughly: vaudevillian Don Maxwell, moonlighting as a lab assistant, kills a hubris-addled scientist and assumes his identity. Police investigate; corpses walk; the actor grows increasingly paranoid. Peripheral characters deliver halting monologues. One jaw-dropping, Poe-pilfering set piece follows another. And finally, with only a few minutes left, Esper and screenwriter Hildegarde Stadie (his wife) introduce an out-of-nowhere subplot featuring Don’s estranged showgirl wife, an inheritance left by his rich uncle, etc., etc. THE END.

About a dozen horror movies’ worth of plot is squeezed into Maniac, all of it told at breakneck speed and maximum volume. Dialogue isn’t spoken so much as hyperventilated. No one seems to have an inside voice—like Horace Carpenter, who plays the mad Dr. Meirschultz by howling every single one of his lines, and who literally beats his chest when Don disappoints him. “Coward!” he sobs. “Oh you fool!” Histrionic is the default here, with each performance more mannered and exaggerated than the last.

Well, except for the INLAND EMPIRE-esque chorus girls who turn up at the end, lounging around a hotel room and cracking wise. They behave just like actresses in a conventional 1930s B-movie. Although their conversations are a little strange: one girl describes homelessness as “sinking your weary bones into the soft recesses of some park bench”; another jokes about the Greek philosopher Diogenes; and a third girl mocks a sucker in a newspaper article by laughing, “His head must be a jelly bean instead of what they thought it was!” Evocative, puzzling, both? Maniac positively bulges with writing like this.

Or like this:

Stealing through my body… creeping through my veins… pouring in my blood! Ohhh, darts of fire in my brain! Stabbing me. Agony! I can’t stand it, this torture, this torment! I can’t stand it! I won’t! I wo— [incoherent ape noises]

These lines are screamed by Buckley, a patient of Meirschultz who thinks he’s a killer orangutan, after he’s injected with “super adrenaline.” And this hysterical, stream-of-consciousness rant is only one of Maniac’s many grotesque spectacles. To wit:

  • Immediately after Buckley’s rant, a once-dead woman appears from behind a screen. Buckley abducts her, runs off into the wilderness, and exposes her breasts.
  • Don decides that a black cat named Satan has “the gleam” in his eye. He catches it, then gouges out and eats one of its eyes onscreen. (This, after Satan knocks Meirschultz’s artificial heart onto the floor and nibbles on it.)
  • A jocular neighbor explains the workings of the cat-and-rat farm in his backyard: “The rats eat the cats, the cats eat the rats, and I get the skins!”
  • More breasts are exposed.
  • Don manipulates his and Buckley’s respective wives into fighting each other with syringes. Meanwhile, a frog hops around the basement.
  • Jailed, Don moans that he “only wanted to amuse, to entertain,” but has now “spent [his] whole life perfecting an act that no one wanted.”

The causal connective tissue between these incidents is minimal. At times, their chronology feels totally arbitrary, as if the whole movie was a loose, nightmarish clip reel. This impression is magnified by the “educational” title cards that occasionally break up the flow of the film, dry lectures on mental illness with headings like “DEMENTIA PRAECOX” or “MANIC-DEPRESSIVE PSYCHOSES.” In keeping with exploitation film formula, these are meant to excuse Maniac’s excesses. See? they say. This [prurient, horrifying] movie’s performing a public service!

However, since the information in the title cards is now 100% outdated and had only the most tenuous link to the rest of the movie in the first place, they instead come across as a proto-Godardian distancing device, existing only to further disrupt an already fragmented narrative. You read that right: Maniac is surprisingly avant-garde, though it’s unclear how much of the film’s demented style is a function of low budgets, tight schedules, and bad actors vs. Esper and Stadie intentionally crafting a Dada-horror fever dream. One image in particular, of Don and Meirschultz massaging a dead woman’s limbs in a cavernous morgue, even struck me as something right out of Jean Cocteau. (Or, by the same token, Ed Wood.)

This isn’t to say that Maniac is sophisticated or poetic. On the contrary, it’s crude trash. But trash can be experimental too. In all its gory, convoluted melodrama, Maniac is exactly as powerful as it is risible. Every unanswered question—Why do they talk like that? Why did he do that? Where did she come from?—and every one-of-a-kind act of violence sticks like a burr in your brain. Every non sequitur, bizarre inflection, and over-the-top cackle helps explain why Maniac makes such a deserving cult object, even if doesn’t have much in the way of an actual cult. This is exploitation cinema at its most transgressive.


Filed under Cinema