Viewing Diary January 2017

Entries run chronologically from bottom to top.

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.

Working Girl (1988), directed by Mike Nichols

“Dress shabbily, they notice the dress,” says Sigourney Weaver, quoting Coco Chanel. “Dress impeccably, they notice the woman.” Weaver plays the evil stepsister in this Cinderella story, and yes, she dresses impeccably. In white and gray with a pearl necklace, she comes across as not plain but confident. At the film’s climax, in a square-shouldered red blazer to match her burgundy lips, she’s attractive and powerful—a dragon of a woman. Her body’s sharp, managerial angles set an example for heroine Melanie Griffith to follow. She has to toss aside her bangles and big hair, these working-class accoutrements, in favor of a quieter, more controlled look. She labors to achieve her boss’s ease in a business suit. The costume design by Ann Roth puts Working Girl’s farcical conflict on the screen in material terms. It suggests that appearances are just as important as reality whether you’re on Wall Street or in Hollywood or a woman anywhere.

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), directed by Mike Flanagan

This prequel applies a morally inquisitive eye to staples of horror cinema like the fake medium, the creepy child, and the bitter ghost. It frames them in the context of a single-parent household, with mom fretting over bills while her daughters focus on boys and homework. The story unfolds in the late ’60s, but never overemphasizes the period with pop music or historical irony. Instead, that setting simply informs the characters’ outfits—flowy blouses, turtlenecks—and the warm palette of their haunted house’s decor. The scares are resourceful, relying on tools like the lens in a ouija board’s planchette, or the voice of 11-year-old actress Lulu Wilson, though the how and why of the film’s ghoulish phenomena turn out to be let-downs. Most horror movies mysteries, I suspect, would be better off unsolved.

Muriel’s Wedding (1994), directed by P.J. Hogan

A lot of the experiences depicted in this movie may sound familiar to trans women. Like holing up in your bedroom. Or fleeing your home state to reinvent yourself. Or changing your name, then correcting family members when they mess it up. Or pursuing a normative idea of womanhood you’ve seen in magazines and on TV. This outlandish tragicomedy nails each and every one with cringy jokes that turn into wellsprings of emotion. Brazenly sentimental, no concern for good taste—or to use Muriel’s words, “as good as an ABBA song.”

Cube (1997), directed by Vincenzo Natali

I saw this maybe five years ago, but had since forgotten how broadly the characters are written. The five of them, wandering these booby-trapped rooms, bicker nonstop over strategies and leadership styles. Their autistic compatriot, who’s played as a grotesque caricature, stands nearby slapping himself as he calls out prime numbers. The single, repeated set is impeccable—functional, dingy, like the sets in Alien—and the tantalizing premise gets this film off to a good start. But good starts are hard to live up to, and harder still when the conflict is a facile Lord of the Flies-style allegory. Could’ve used more traps.

The Hairdresser’s Husband (1990), directed by Patrice Leconte

Desire sits here at the center, swollen and imposing, an object for life to wind its way around. The barbershop becomes a sunny space of indulged fantasy and whimsical reminiscence for the mustachioed narrator and his bride. The plot avoids cliché, taking instead a serpentine path from eroticism to haircut to tragedy. It’s a compact romance guided only by emotional logic; magical to a degree that grows smug and stifling. It was written by the director, but it feels like an adaptation of a nonexistent novella that I would never want to read.

Paris Is Burning (1990), directed by Jennie Livingston

No illusion of objectivity here. Just a chorus of no-bullshit, oft-contradictory voices. Livingston films their talking head segments in bedrooms or on street corners, tweaking the angle as her subjects speak. The audio carries across cuts to sweat-glazed dance-offs and strolls along the waterfront. Title cards provide loose chapter headings with all-caps, sans serif text (like a Jenny Holzer installation) but that’s the only overt indication of an overarching structure. The material doesn’t follow a rigid chronology, nor does it build in an artificial narrative toward a big, climactic ball. Instead it flows with the subjects’ lives and recollections. They tell the story.

Gabriel Over the White House (1933), directed by Gregory La Cava

Desperation underlies this bizarro political fantasy: someone, anyone, it pleads, do something. It’s consistent with other films of the 1930s like Heroes for SaleOur Daily Bread, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which depict unorthodox solutions to mass poverty. But those movies are entertaining. They’re effective as melodrama, agitprop, or screwball comedy. Gabriel Over the White House is a bone-dry tract. It’s a sci-fi blueprint for the New Deal as it might’ve been achieved, through unilateral executive action. Walter Huston’s stentorian voice guides the film from one radical reform to another, never waning in sanctimony. Subplots intrude, involving the president’s two lovelorn secretaries and a Capone-esque gangster, but they’re too tepid to humanize this hypothetical scenario. The only point of fascination here is the eerie confidence in these terrible ideas.

The Thief (1952), directed by Russell Rouse

The total absence of dialogue structures this formidable film noir from tip to toe. If no one speaks, then physical action and a few scraps of writing must tell the story. Ray Milland plays a self-loathing atomic scientist whose chain-smoking and late-night walks suggest he’s been blackmailed into serial treason. But how? And by whom? That’s left for you to extrapolate from close-ups on his sweaty, stubbly face. (My pet theory is that he’s gay. The meet-ups with his Soviet handler even seem staged to resemble cruising.) The experimental filmmaking elides most spy movie clichés: no jingoistic speeches; no on-the-lam romance. It elides the fun of wish fulfillment, too, in favor of all-consuming panic. It’s like Cold War espionage by way of Robert Bresson.

Jackie (2016), directed by Pablo Larraín

Jackie Kennedy, her visage filling the frame, wiping the blood off her forehead, still clad in her (stained) pink suit: that’s the kind of tasteless history-as-horror-movie image I can get behind. Natalie Portman sobs her heart out to the accompaniment of Mica Levi’s string-heavy score, which crests and dips like the sound of a slide whistle. Jackie Kennedy entranced by cellist Pablo Casals in the White House’s East Room, the camera’s approach isolating her from the rest of the audience—that reminded me of Nicole Kidman in Birth, another movie where a widow reckons with her husband’s ghost. But these glimpses are brief. Soon it’s back to her dull tête-à-têtes with journalists, confidantes, or an impish Irish priest, each strewn with platitudes and drenched in magic hour lighting. The dialogue flails toward the concept of national memory; it induces nothing like the morbid twinge of seeing a former First Lady sink into campy despair.

A Fish Called Wanda (1988), directed by Charles Crichton

After years of hideous, haphazard comedies like, say, 2015’s Trainwreck or Spy, it’s a relief to watch a gently lit farce directed with wry understatement. It’s not visually flamboyant, and the camera’s still oriented primarily toward capturing performance, but it’s also full of subtle framing and repositioning that strengthen its gags. (During the 8-minute centerpiece, for example, tiny pans and dollies help maneuver five people around the same cramped parlor.) Every bit of cartoonish humor—the squashed dogs, the gobbled goldfish—is hinged to a character arc. The plot is a set of overlapping trajectories, not a coat rack for punchlines, and it orchestrates the disciplined crumbling of order into chaos.

Princess Mononoke (1997), directed by Hayao Miyazaki

I was lucky enough to revisit this one on the big screen. My first thought upon stepping out of the theater: “Jesus Christ, that is a sad movie.” Not just because of all the death and dismemberment, but because it disputes the very notion of uncomplicated happiness. In this elegiac fairy tale, every decision is a sacrifice. Every bit of beauty—whether the vast greenery, rippling waters, or open skies—has a moral implication. Not one goddamn thing is easy. There is, however, compassion in the film’s intricacy, from its animation of beasts bristling and staggering right down to the forest soundscape’s interplay of melody and silence. This isn’t a skirmish between good and evil, but rather a question of tenderness vs. brutality. Power vs. vulnerability. Were you kind, or were you cruel?

About Elly (2009), directed by Asghar Farhadi

35 minutes into this movie lies its lone turning point. Everything else is either build-up or aftermath; foreboding or regret. Prior to the tragedy, these old friends vacationing together tend to worry over meal prep or bathroom use. They sweep up shards of glass in the ramshackle cottage they’ve rented by the sea. They play charades, they chit-chat, and their actions hint at jokey hostility and micro-resentment some may have borne for years. After the tragedy, the hints grow more overt. Some of the friends lash out while others crumple up; stress warps their haggard faces. About Elly lacks any non-diegetic music, so Farsi banter and crashing waves predominate on the soundtrack, and editing instills the film with anxious rhythms. A white lie daisy chain unravels amid gendered debates over etiquette, all of it incisive, all of it banal.

The Lady Vanishes (1938), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The opening drags on, as does the bullet-riddled climax. But between them lies a riveting epistemological puzzle. The passengers’ curt denials of the old woman’s existence expunge her from the train’s reality. Yet she persists in scraps of physical evidence: a name scrawled on a dewy window, a packet of tea, a pair of broken spectacles. These visual tokens puncture the gaslighting; they make the film a spy thriller, not a tragedy. They’re onscreen manifestations of Dame May Whitty, who plays the vanished lady. Though her screen time’s limited, Whitty is an absolute sunbeam. She radiates kindness in her giddy smiles as well as when her face knits with concern. She’s the kind of person you remember long after she’s out of sight.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), directed by Lewis Milestone

Rain-spattered windows filter light into the hotel lobbies and plush offices of a rotten industrial town. A drifter, back after decades away, flits from bus station to dive bar. He takes up with a young woman who’s world-weary after a stint in prison, then meets up with his one-time sweetheart, who’s become the Lady Macbeth of municipal politics. (Barbara Stanwyck in iron-hearted bitch mode.) The characters in this noir saga tend to harbor secrets and seethe with pent-up lust, which they articulate via Code-mandated code. It’s pointedly sordid, though the story’s moral tidiness impedes any sleazy thrills. One couple is damned in a Double Indemnity-echoing climax; the other finds redemption on the road out of town. It’s an antiseptic movie yearning to be dirty.

Limite (1931), directed by Mário Peixoto

The narrative, bracketed by a rowboat-set framing story, is thick and opaque as frosted glass. Exposition is scarce, and even the photography (with its ludicrously canted angles) obscures much more than it clarifies. Absent are any traditional story beats, replaced by a set of visual motifs that cycle across the screen. Footsteps along country roads alternate with reed-lined beaches and frothing waves. The handheld camera zigzags around rooftops. It stares up at the actors’ downcast faces or down at their hair. Every visual tactic available gets put toward fostering a mood of exuberant gloom. This is late silent cinema with a dash of Virginia Woolf and prophetic hints of Maya Deren.

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