Viewing Diary February 2017

Entries run chronologically from bottom to top.

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.

Compulsion (1959), directed by Richard Fleischer

Like Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler, this is a true-crime chronicle sculpted with bold, baroque contours. The story unfolds through careful blocking inside a widescreen frame. Off-kilter close-ups punctuate the action. Dean Stockwell stars as a sensitive gay teen trying and failing to make his face an affectless mask. He strives to be smart and evil enough for his boyfriend, who’s played by Bradford Dillman as the cocky Loeb to his quivering Leopold. The screenplay abides by the letter of the Production Code, pinning the boys’ crimes to their moneyed malaise. (No boy-on-boy smooches like in the later Leopold-and-Loeb movie Swoon.) But homoeroticism blasts through in their exchanged glares and flirtatious body language. Stockwell and Dillman share the same chemistry as vinegar and baking soda. It’s gravely disappointing when they have to cede the film’s last quarter to a monologuing Orson Welles, who’s impressive but nowhere near as sexy.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991), directed by Jonathan Demme

Wrote about this for the Muriels.

Deadly Virtues: Love.Honour.Obey (2014), directed by Ate de Jong

Wrote about this for Film Freak Central.

Giants and Toys (1958), directed by Yasuzo Masumura

The camera slides through a queasy mise-en-scène jam-packed with sickly reds and greens. An ulcerous ad man flicks a defective lighter again and again, each flick setting a metronomic beat for a superimposed montage. Everyone in this acrid satire lunges around in a frenzy; everyone’s full of unconcealed desire. The anti-heroine is a teen cab driver, played by Hitomi Nozoe, rocketed by a candy concern into artificial celebrity. She has a near-prehensile tongue, and the film’s not shy about its erotic implications. The jokes deal in hypocrisy, in self-debasement, as a string of publicity stunts grows increasingly desperate. Ruination, they propose, is intrinsic to success. The film’s excesses and its black comedy are strident, almost moralizing. They may leave a residual discomfort, like the upset stomach that follows a banquet of caramels.

The Exiles (1961), directed by Kent Mackenzie

Watching this, it’s hard to tell where true reality ends and filmmaker intervention begins. True reality would certainly never present Los Angeles in such gorgeous black and white. The dialogue, recorded after the fact, doesn’t always sync up with the actors’ mouths, and the effect leads toward a curious, nonnaturalistic naturalism. Sometimes the audio drifts into reminiscent voiceover, and these dispossessed Native Americans speak of their backgrounds, their worries, their dreams. The film never tries to construct their lives as a plight. It has little interest in received notions of savagery or exoticism. Instead, its focus is on human behavior: What kind of fun do people without much money pursue on a Friday night? Maybe they drink and play cards; dance and carouse; watch TV or catch a movie. (Nothing momentous transpires during this thoroughly average weekend.) It’s tough to discern which activities were spontaneous or which may have been staged in this semi-fictionalized documentary. It all holds together as an episodic narrative, immersed in the circumstances of a few scattered lives.

A Most Violent Year (2014), directed by J.C. Chandor

Midway through this phony Faust story, Oscar Isaac’s beleaguered entrepreneur is about to brain a wounded deer with a tire iron when his wife interrupts: “BANG BANG BANG.” She delivers the coup de grâce herself with a handgun. As symbolic foreshadowing, the scene is explicit, even condescending. It informs the audience that the wife, played by Jessica Chastain as a putative femme fatale, might take extreme action while her ethically prissy husband hems and haws. It’s clumsy, obvious writing symptomatic of a lousy screenplay. Chandor, whose previous film was the thrilling and wordless All Is Lost, populates this Diet Godfather with hard-boiled archetypes exchanging coy threats in immaculately backlit rooms. The film is drab and heavy with shadow; it looks exactly the way a cynical crime saga is supposed to look. The editing’s slack, with cross-cutting that telegraphs plot twists and fails to generate suspense. It takes real craftsmanship to turn the selling of a soul into this much of a slog.

The Pagemaster (1994), directed by Joe Johnston and Pixote Hunt

This is the kind of journey you might want to go on when you’re a little kid, and the world seems to you a vast, intimidating, wonderful place. It’s risk-free, despite intimations of physical danger—a simple trip from A to distant B. Allies and antagonists drawn from Victorian literature line its paths. Their voices (Patrick Stewart, for example, and Whoopi Goldberg) are comforting and familiar. Emotions like fear, awe, and loneliness lie right out in the open, as does the plainly pro-library moral; it’s written like a lavish PSA for PBS. The animation applies a generic beauty to seas and skies, cliffs and churning maelstroms. As anodyne viewing wrapped in a flimsy narrative, The Pagemaster mounts a much stronger case for cartoons than for the written word.

Brief Encounters (1967), directed by Kira Muratova

A woman and her housekeeper both harbor feelings for the same unreliable man, and their shared story slides among flashbacks, from well-appointed apartment to roadside café. I found the slippery chronology a challenge to follow, but love Muratova’s adventurous eye. Meandering tilts and zooms keeps tabs on the characters while also scoping out the interior design that surrounds them. Windows and doorways structure the action. Given that a major subplot involves repeated housing inspections, the film is appropriately attentive to residential architecture. Best shot in the film, by the way, is a peek up at two of the characters from the bottom of a pot as shrimp plop into its bubbling water.

Lives of Performers (1972), directed by Yvonne Rainer

In a shabby dance studio, in high-contrast blacks and whites, Rainer and her collaborators pose in simulated intimacy. In voiceover that slips between recitation and improv, they set up a loose narrative framework. Its ambiguously fictional love triangle encompasses this anthology of physical ideas. Babette Mangolte’s creeping camera tends to keep its distance, using the studio’s walls to suggest an enclosed and narrow world. Sometimes she sneaks closer to the actors, emphasizing legs, a face, even a neck. The bodies’ relative positions play around with proximity, with dynamism and stasis. Abrupt cuts delimit each tableau within time, just as the frame’s edges define them in space. Camerawork and editing are tools native to filmmaking, and they worm their way through every onscreen dance.

Encino Man (1992), directed by Les Mayfield

This Bill & Ted-aping goofball comedy creaks under its surfeit of plot. Bullies, police raids, disputed prom dates—lots of sub-John Hughes nonsense that gets in the way of the jokes. In a stroke of luck, though, the film’s casting department drew two aces: stars Pauly Shore and Brendan Fraser. Shore is grating, as always, but eye-catching nonetheless with his bandanas, his curly mane, his nonstop surfer lingo; Fraser, meanwhile, plays caveman to a degree that makes Shore’s shtick seem understated. He bounds around Encino’s streets and strip malls, jaw slack with wonder. His every line of dialogue perplexes him. He looks more at ease with action: dancing, painting, or scarfing down what Shore calls “grindage.” If Encino Man has even a shred of plausibility, it’s because Fraser looks genuinely startled by his brave new world and all the people in it.

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