Viewing Diary March 2017

Entries run chronologically from bottom to top.

The Marquise of O (1976), directed by Éric Rohmer

In static medium shots, actors share the screen with candlelit curtains, household statuary, and bowls of fruit. The camera keeps their delicate faces at arm’s length. Rohmer meticulously blocks their movements for the Academy ratio frame. Sometimes he composes whole shots within a doorway or ends them with a fade to black, swaddling the action in layers of decorum. The arcane rules of aristocracy circumscribe the widowed title character. Her destiny depends on her perceived sexual purity. When she grows visibly pregnant, her straits worsen, and her parents entangle her in a string of emotional gambits. Both her father (who forsakes her) and a persistent suitor (her likely rapist) lay claim to her. A marquise’s body can be anyone’s but her own.

Girl with Green Eyes (1964), directed by Desmond Davis

“A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea,” recites Peter Finch. He plays a writer, nearly divorced, who’s handsome and urbane, if at times a bit pompous. Rita Tushingham, 26 years his junior, is the country girl who moons after him, who sees in him a break from grocery work and dull nights out with boys. She instantly recognizes his quotation as Joyce, a line from Portrait of the Artist. She’s not unlike Stephen Dedalus herself: an Irish Catholic girl coming of age and awed by the world. (Her life parallels that of Edna O’Brien, who adapted her own novel into this droll romance.) The girl’s envious roommate interferes with the nascent relationship, as does a furious dad, though ultimately, bittersweetly, the two lovers are their own undoing. This Dublin-set outgrowth of the British New Wave is playful and literate with as much emotional honesty as its predecessor A Taste of Honey. It dallies in that necessary part of young adulthood when you make a mistake, lose out, and move on.

Pleasantville (1998), directed by Gary Ross

“What’s sex?” asks a suburban mom of her teenage daughter. What’s sex? asks Joan Allen without a trace of irony in her voice. She’s a model housewife in a sitcom pastiche wearing lipstick and pearls as she washes the dishes. She speaks with the earnest curiosity of a woman who can’t yet feel or comprehend shame. Soon she’ll recoil with trepidation. Tears will streak her grayscale makeup. Her self-induced orgasm will set a tree aflame. (She’s a postmodern Sirk heroine, predating Julianne Moore in Far from Heaven.) Like her monochrome castmates, Allen commits unflinchingly to Pleasantville’s satirical conceit. Her glassy smile slackens with surprise at these deviations in her town’s utopian clockwork. William H. Macy, as her husband, acts from a similar headspace of total innocence; when he finds his house empty and unlit, he shuffles out into a rainstorm repeating “Where’s my dinner?” with rising bewilderment. The film’s full of surreal punchlines played straight, rippling outward from an original sin. Gary Ross could scarcely have penned a dopier premise or a less subtle allegory or a weirder sci-fi melodrama.

Beauty and the Beast (1991), directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise

Autumn gives way to winter, denuding trees of their foliage, rendering the French countryside barren and white. It must be freezing in the recesses of this castle. In the dungeon or the banquet hall or the ballroom, it must help to have a layer of shaggy brown fur insulating your enormous frame. How Gothic (and how Byronic), to sulk in the shadows wearing only cape and tattered pants. The Beast is like Laurence Olivier in Rebecca if all his secrets were sewn into his flesh. He’s the perfect brooding boy with whom to share a hot-blooded, soft-hearted romance. “Are they gonna live happily ever after, mama?” asks Chip in the film’s final moments. Well, are they? Belle seems delighted to dance with this ponytailed prince, but I wonder if later she’ll look at her husband and pause. Maybe she’ll long for those nights back home reading by the fireplace while her dad puttered away downstairs. Or maybe she’ll remember how it felt to stroke his mane and think the words allegedly cried by Greta Garbo when she saw Cocteau’s version of the story: “Give me back my beast!”

The Little Mermaid (1989), directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

Pure longing pervades this sweet and simple fairy tale. It bubbles on the gleaming surface of the blue-green waters and lights up Ariel’s eyes as she swims to and fro, forest of red hair floating behind her. She’s sixteen and naïve and wants what she can’t have: what desire could be purer than that? Jodi Benson plays her with an angelic voice that she surrenders halfway through. She turns up onshore, newly mute, grinning at the very existence of her feet. It’s an unsettling grin, enabled by an evil bargain, yet still wonderful to see stretch across her face. Desire carries with it a world of moral complexity, especially when fulfilled. The authority figures around Ariel initially oppose her.  “I am going to get through to you,” says her father before obliterating her room of human keepsakes, “and if this is the only way, so be it.” Why can’t he try to understand? No wonder Ariel resorts to the sea witch’s solution. She and her father are lucky they live in a lush fiction where it’s never too late to undo an injury. The fact that they can reconcile is a comfort, since—for all Ariel’s pining—we’re not so lucky up here on land.

Hercules (1997), directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

The first half-hour of Hercules contains three mediocre songs, two reprises, and a prophecy. A lot of preamble for a 90-minute cartoon. Then, with the groundwork amassed, the hero grows into a hulking adult, and the tedious “chosen one” story truly begins. Its bumpy arc refashions the son of Zeus into a mix of Rocky and Superman. It equips him with a mentor, a sidekick, and a love interest, the latter of whom is sidelined and underwritten. (She does get to sing a ballad, at least—“I Won’t Say (I’m in Love)”—which is far and away the best part of the movie.) The swole demigod punches his way toward Mount Olympus, brawling with a succession of future Happy Meal toys. Distracting slapstick crowds the movie’s margins. Per formula, an overcast climax approaches, and characters crawl through its convolutions en route to a happy ending. This is a botch job, both as smartass romcom and mythic fantasy. Why have the cumbersome plot rely so heavily on exposition and arbitrary magic? It’s not hard to imagine a version of Hercules that’s simpler, sweeter, with much less fanfare. The existing movie’s tongue-in-cheek surfeit of everything is wearying to watch.

A Page of Madness (1926), directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa

I saw a screening of this with both live score and benshi narration. Working in tandem, they complemented the film’s visual extravagance. The percussion of xylophone and thunder sheet dominated the score. The benshi spoke sparingly and in untranslated Japanese, sometimes mimicking characters, sometimes raising his voice to match onscreen action. This soundtrack emphasized the film’s macabre spectacle. Its geometrical compositions and rhythmic camera movement yield a wild and tragic beauty. Nothing else, silent or with sound, is quite like it.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), directed by Amy Heckerling

In high school, everything is dead serious, and everything’s a joke. Your mind groans under the weight of classes and crushes. You exchange notes. You wonder who to sit beside in first period. As this bountiful comedy whirls around its loose ensemble, it absorbs every one of those ridiculous details. It soaks in graffiti, band logos, and pin-up posters. Some of its tacky minutiae blossom into visual gags: Judge Reinhold serving seafood while wearing a huge pirate hat; Sean Penn as a blithe stoner stumbling out of a hotboxed VW bus; or a student cheating on a test with notes scrawled on her upper thigh. These images are slightly cartoonish, yet still emotionally credible. They’re preposterous enough to feel true.

When the film works blue, with bits about blow jobs and masturbation, it does so with clear affection for its naïve characters. After a boy’s lightning-fast orgasm makes Jennifer Jason Leigh droop in disappointment, the camera stays right on her face. She sits halfway up, still nude, mouth agape, and watches him put on his pants. (You can see Leigh’s venomous career taking shape.) The scene throbs with sympathy. It’s a mercy when the next cut reveals Leigh slicing sausage in a pizzeria as she gossips with her best friend. Their banter’s written with a sexual frankness that prefigures and outdoes Kevin Smith’s whole filmography. Their solidarity takes the sting out of adolescence’s self-inflicted humiliations.

Backlash (1956), directed by John Sturges

Richard Widmark sneers. Donna Reed glares. Together they ride from Arizona to Texas across a cactus-dotted expanse. They strike up an obligatory courtship, plausible only through their shared bitterness. He slaps her. He kisses her. The soundtrack fills with horses’ hooves and ricocheting bullets. Reed wears a cream button-up with a yellow bow around her neck. Sometimes the button-up’s striped and the bow is forest green. She tops off the look with a wide-brimmed black hat. (Costumes by Rosemary Odell, who spent two decades in wardrobe at Universal.) Though Backlash’s tangled plot may underserve its leading lady, at least she can still cut an angry Technicolor figure against the desert sands.

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989), directed by Joe Johnston

This effects-heavy jungle adventure carries hints of horror. (The men behind Re-Animator were behind this, too.) A cigarette butt crashes like a meteor, sparks and ashes scattered in its wake. A red scorpion lumbers along like a Harryhausen nightmare. The film’s climax is Rick Moranis nearly spooning a child into his mouth, like a PG-rated restaging of Saturn Devouring His Son. Threats of dicing, drowning, and broken bones loom at every turn. To quote The Night of the Hunter, “It’s a hard world for little things.” The streamlined screenplay shrinks the kids about twenty minutes in, then allows for two minutes of falling action once they revert. In between, some mild comedy with the worried parents runs parallel to the kids’ plight. Most of the film’s attention, though, goes to its towering sets. Pebbles and blades of grass stretch up to the sky with an uncanny grandeur. Grooves in a floorboard become rilles in the surface of an alien world. God, I love it when movies play around with scale!

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964) and This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967), both directed by José Mojica Marins

Wrote about these for Film Freak Central.

Ten (2002), directed by Abbas Kiarostami

The visual grammar of this minimalist marvel develops in a rhythmic back and forth. First the driver’s seat, then the passenger seat. Driver’s seat, then passenger seat, over and over across ten short chapters. No two shots, mind you: just one person or the other, speaking or reacting, with rolling glimpses of Tehran visible through either window. As the car loops around the city, the driver—a candid divorcée played by and partly based on actress Mania Akbari—exchanges desultory chitchat with the friends and sometimes strangers who sit beside her. They discuss religious etiquette, vent about their personal lives, and usually circle back to their frustrations as women in a world run by men. Horns honk in the distance. Other cars roar past. Her only male companion is her preteen son (played by Akbari’s son), whom she chauffeurs through a few of the film’s chapters. He whines and cracks wise; he addresses her without a shred of respect. Per King Lear: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / to have a thankless child.” Like the rest of the film, her conversations with him are never didactic, nor especially dramatic. They’re just plain and poignant examples of two people talking side by side in a moving vehicle.

The Blue Bird (1918), directed by Maurice Tourneur

That loaf of bread has a soul. Your dead grandparents miss you. Your family’s house cat is a latent Iago figure, eager to sabotage your adventure. Ah, but these are only a few of the terrors that await within the opulent cosmology of The Blue Bird. Tourneur stages this grotesque fantasy with a lot of illusory cuts and dissolves. Stop-motion propels animated furniture around a living room floor. Tinting differentiates the film’s episodes: pink for the Palace of Happiness, cerulean for the Palace of Night. (Sometimes overlaid with a patina of nitrate decay.) Veiled maidens, in the theatrical style of early cinema, embody moral principles. They shepherd a pair of impressionable siblings from palace to palace for a nightlong lecture. It’s a zero-nuance hazard to the emotional health of children wrapped up in a wealth of spectacle.

Ariel (1988), directed by Aki Kaurismäki

The deliberately rote plot plays like a series of Hogarth engravings, with a dash of Modern Times and A Man Escaped. It follows a laborer’s rotten luck from destitution on Helsinki’s dull streets to a prison cell and on to a formulaic life of crime. Silent-style gags undercut the tragedy. A garage roof caves in as soon as a car pulls out, for example, and a fade from a single beer on a table shows the surface now crowded with empty bottles. The actors speak within a narrow range of volume and inflection. Turo Pajala—who plays Taisto, the laborer—tends to restrict his emotions to his bushy black eyebrows, which he furrows when agitated. The characters share only a little back story, and their dialogue contains few narrative signposts. Instead, they live in the present tense, bracing themselves for the next spin of Fortune’s Wheel.

Roberta (1935), directed by William A. Seiter

Astaire and Rogers play second fiddle to Irene Dunne, who stars as a Parisian fashionista. She sings the show’s big numbers, and while she’s a daunting soprano, her voice grows shrill as a songbird on “Yesterdays” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” (She’s no Billie Holiday, certainly, nor can she match The Platters’ Tony Williams.) Dunne spars with tall drink of water Randolph Scott for some haute couture romance. But their quarrel’s flimsy, the chic gowns are absurd, and everything in Roberta feels like a pretext for a pretext. It’s like the fake Polish accent and moniker wielded by Ginger Rogers’ chanteuse: “You’ve got to have a title to croon over here!” Well, you’ve got to have a narrative backdrop if you want to stage some dancing. It all takes place within the decadent Art Deco confines of the fashion house and nightclub. RKO glamour: lovely to look at, if a bit oppressive in the absence of fresh air.

Campfire Tales (1997), directed by Matt Cooper, Martin Kunert, and David Semel

Teens stranded on the side of the road decide to share some scary stories. My favorite premise! After a quick, ’50s-set retelling of “The Hook,” they launch into a trio of longer urban legends. The first pits two newlyweds against an unseen monster besieging their RV, and it’s atmospheric, but it drags a bit. (Does any one chapter in a horror anthology really need two sex scenes?) The second is about the little girl who mistakenly believes it’s her dog licking her hand. This iteration stirs up some vintage digital panic by making her a chatroom habitué. Her stalker is a dead ringer for Bob from Twin Peaks. The last story initially seems like it’s going to be a lukewarm twist on “The Vanishing Hitchhiker,” but gradually grows bolder and weirder than expected. It’s a sentimental ghost story lit by a thunderstorm that goes hopping through time like low-rent Alain Resnais. The wraparound narrative with those stranded teens turns out to be a downer of a dud, but honestly the whole hour and a half is worth it for that third story.

Get Out (2017), directed by Jordan Peele

The horror movie structure is familiar. The weekend trip to a secluded estate, the hosts’ odd behaviors, and the mounting heebie-jeebies have all served as wonderful genre clichés since the heyday of Segundo de Chomón. But this story’s hero has an incentive to swallow to his fear, to grin and bear it, since he’s the black boyfriend among his white girlfriend’s family. Daniel Kaluuya’s face clenches with unease from start to finish. How could he detect a conspiracy within a smokescreen of implicit racism? Peele lines the film with satire and coils it around motifs like teacups, photography, and dead or dying deer. He quotes (and inverts) images from I Walked with a Zombie and The ShiningGet Out gooses the audience with traditional thrills while also inducing a deep and lasting discomfort.

Miss Lulu Bett (1921), directed by William C. de Mille

Lulu is a spinster aunt who acts as maidservant to her brother-in-law’s household. She fixes dinner, washes dishes, and tries to stay invisible. Lois Wilson plays her with a shrinking blankness sometimes punctured by mild dismay. (Had the film been made a couple decades later, Olivia de Havilland might have played the part.) A joke wedding with a serious punchline wrenches Lulu out of this tiresome routine. She suddenly finds herself the subject of Sunday gossip on the church lawn—”a woman who ain’t regular.” Sexual purity, elopement, bigamy: everything’s on the table in this light domestic melodrama. Its conflict swells into a question of small town hypocrisy vs. womanly self-determination; it’s a delight when the latter wins out. The film ends on a gentle visual gag that lays out text via chalkboard rather than intertitle. It’s a wry denouement for a silent movie where words are always at odds with action.

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