Viewing Diary April 2017

Entries run chronologically from bottom to top.

Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965), directed by Doris Wishman

The camera follows a fugitive housewife through a series of drab apartments. (Here’s a painting of two Siamese cats hanging on a bathroom wall; there’s a clock in the shape of an eight-pointed star.) It roams the streets of late-winter Manhattan, leavening the film’s somber sexploitation with a soupçon of documentary. Actors’ faces receive little attention. It’s camouflage for the shoddy post-synchronized sound. Voices drift, untethered from mouths, in a miasma of lounge music. “Oh, what can I do?” gasps the displaced damsel while Gigi Darlene, the actress playing her, paces in lingerie. She’s the victim in this catalog of abuses, this no-budget Life of Oharu. Trauma and tedium overshadow the film’s slivers of titillation. Its “hell” is no moralizing fantasy, but rather the here and now: a crummy couch, a beat-up fridge, any room cheap enough to shoot in.

A Quiet Passion (2017), directed by Terence Davies

If Sunset Song rendered its heroine’s soul manifest in Scotland’s lochs and pastures, then A Quiet Passion does the same with the Dickinson homestead. Emily exists in its parlor, its doorways, and its stairs. She is where and how she lives, peeved by her era’s sanctimony, candlelight flickering over her as she writes. Her voice is Cynthia Nixon’s, high and brittle, whether reciting poetry in voiceover or lashing houseguests with a razor tongue. Davies’ typically graceful pans and dissolves meld passing years with onscreen space. The house’s contours tighten as Emily grows lonelier. The drama’s like a garland of disappointments. Her life is (like every life) a tragedy, but a tragedy preserved forever in verse. (Set this beside Davies’ three most recent adaptations, and it caps off a tetralogy of women’s pictures spanning two continents and a century.)

Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000), directed by Danny Leiner

Ashton Kutcher plays to type as a gorgeous nitwit; Seann William Scott flashes his puppy dog grin. They’re 13-year-old boys in the bodies of men, terrified and aroused by every woman they see. Leaping between vignettes as if by free association, they blunder into sight gags warped by anxiety. Women’s “hoo-hoos,” a trans woman’s dick, the boys’ own homoerotic desires: comedy sublimates these fears into punchlines. Cops, jocks, and cultists take turns pursuing the duo. The film’s Los Angeles shooting locations—a bland array of storefronts and intersections—act as their surreal playground. Following leads like a pair of blazed gumshoes, they react to revelations with a startled “Dude!” or elated “Shibby!” The dialogue relies on nonsensical repetition. “What does mine say?” asks Scott of Kutcher as they strain to read the tattoos on their own backs. “Sweet!” he replies. “What about mine?” Around and around they go in this furious linguistic circle, this latter-day “Who’s on First?” by way of Samuel Beckett. Questions detach themselves from answers; cause no longer yields effect; nightmare alternates with fantasy.

Heaven’s Gate (1980), directed by Michael Cimino

Quoth Jim Gabriel (a friend and wise critic): “It’s amazing what one can accomplish with a steely will and a shitload of other people’s money.” I read and loved Steven Bach’s production saga Final Cut last year, so it was a thrill to finally see where all that money went. The Rocky Mountains hang like a godly matte painting over these 3½ hours of maximalist pageantry. Crowds of extras brush past future movie stars as they shuffle through a haze of soil and soot. The painstaking period fidelity renders the past as a sprawling alien world; the proverbial “foreign country.” Spending most of the day watching Heaven’s Gate, you might get lost in it, but you’ll never truly understand it. What a weird, oft-frustrating, cornucopian movie. Full of undulating violence, seething with proletarian rage, it’s like the sound era’s answer to Battleship Potemkin.

Canon City (1948), directed by Crane Wilbur

Many thanks to Ignatiy Vishnevetsky for apprising me of this jailbreak docu-noir’s existence. Split roughly in half, it details first the day-to-day operations of a real-life Colorado penitentiary, then the messy aftermath of a dozen inmates’ escape. An omniscient narrator hovers on the soundtrack. His voice identifies the dramatis personae, these lifers so sick of prison routine they’d rather chance death. In grim close-up, they mutter to each other across cells. Once on the outside, they scatter. Small bands of the escapees find refuge in a succession of mountain cabins. An uneasy dynamic emerges between them and the isolated families they take hostage. One climax follows another: a fistfight, a gunfight, a chase over a desolate suspension bridge, all shot with pummeling realism. The film feels like piano wire, hard and sharp, strung tight as can be.

The Strange Case of Angelica (2010), directed by Manoel de Oliveira

An aimless photographer fixates on a dead girl. Her spirit visits his dreams and draws him up into the sky. (Is this a stealth remake of Yevgeni Bauer’s After Death?) Oliveira has pressed and flattened a morbid melodrama into new, beguiling form. The sketch of a story moves at a snail’s space; the placid camera takes in rooms, courtyards, meals, slumbers, space, and time. Old-fashioned comic types—concerned landlady, churchyard mendicant—pester the infatuated shutterbug. Breezy bits of Chopin accompany his increasingly single-minded circuits of the town. He loiters near doorways, between indoors and out, onscreen and off, and this Strange Case dwells there with him on the burnished threshold of the afterlife.

Sugar & Spice (2001), directed by Francine McDougall

Marley Shelton is a dynamo. She stars in this uneven satire as a dumb blonde and inverts every cliché along the way. Her character’s a chipper cheer captain, heavily pregnant, plotting a heist to bankroll her growing family. Shelton’s squeaky voice makes it all sound credible, even self-evident. How else could a teen girl get the requisite scratch for diapers and baby food? As the film winds on through a string of semi-comical complications, she layers that squeakiness with notes of petulance and fatigue. She widens her saucer eyes even further to signify pique or a craving for chocolate. The film undermines her with jokes that try too hard to be hip and a damp fizzle of an ending; it also blesses her with chiseled James Marsden as her onscreen boyfriend. It’s when she’s bouncing off of him or rallying her girls together that Sugar & Spice feels least like a homophobia-laced turn-of-the-millennium time capsule. She stands in a public restroom, compares the heroine of “Papa Don’t Preach” to the Virgin Mary, then tearfully recites: “I’ve made up my mind, I’m keeping my baby / Yeah, I’m gonna keep my baby.” She hangs over the brink of irony without falling in.

Bell, Book and Candle (1958), directed by Richard Quine

“That’s what happens to people like us,” sighs Kim Novak’s Gillian in a fit in of witchy dysphoria. “We forfeit everything, and we end up in a little world of separateness from everyone.” Her melancholy underlies this wintry romcom, this jazzy counterpart to Vertigo. She resides in a snowglobe Manhattan that Quine and James Wong Howe map out with deft tilts and pans. They apply a light touch to her lonely story and sprinkle it with visual jokes: a shot that follows a fedora as it floats several stories to the ground; teacups smashed in a fumbling embrace. A coy, triangular tableau comprises Gillian, her aunt, and her brother as they lounge on a sofa. Jimmy Stewart, twice Novak’s age, plays her object of desire. He’s the straight man drawn deep into a beatnik underworld. Thinking of him, she murmurs to her aunt, “It might be pleasant to be humdrum once in a while.” Though it’s fun to cast spells in a movie, dressed in red, lit with Technicolor green, the self-consciousness of it can be wearying. I understand wanting to relinquish that power and that burden, hazardous as the choice may be. Magical or humdrum? Either option leads to heartbreak.

The Big Picture (1989), directed by Christopher Guest

Several times in this toothless satire, Kevin Bacon’s hotshot writer-director pitches potential collaborators on his new project. He describes a love triangle in a snowbound cabin—shot, he envisions, in black and white, with no music. The nitwit producers he’s working with offer some suggestions: what if he made it about two women having an affair? (“Could be a real interesting twist,” says J.T. Walsh’s pervy Mephistopheles.) And what if it took place in the summer? They scoff at his artier notions, insisting that it be in color and full of pop hits. The exchange is meant as a caustic depiction of how the sausage gets made; how good ideas become bad movies. But what’s so good about this idea? The imagined clips that flash onscreen look like wannabe Ingmar Bergman, arty for the sake of artiness. Diluting it into a homoerotic beachhouse romp sounds like an upgrade. If Bacon’s character can neither sell nor defend his passion project effectively, then what the hell are his ideas worth? The fact that a young man wrote a story doesn’t mean it’s any good.

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