Viewing Diary May 2017

Entries run chronologically from bottom to top.

Contact (1997), directed by Robert Zemeckis

Who talked to aliens in 1997? Will Smith in a suit and tie; Bruce Willis in an orange tank top; Sigourney Weaver as the resurrected Ripley; and Jodie Foster, her eyes full of tears, her hair braided into a ponytail. She’s the audience surrogate in this hypothetical scenario. She crunches numbers, runs gauntlets, and speaks earnestly of Occam’s razor. Sustained stargazing makes her shiver with nerdy jubilation. Zemeckis’s camera prowls the frame for info, juxtaposing astrophysical data on computer screens with surveillance footage and TV news. The whole universe unfolds as a mix of analog and digital. It’s about as cool as a field trip to the planetarium. Shameless, too, as it induces pathos with the mere idea of a girl loving her good dad. Not far from reality, nor is it far from a dream I might have had 20 years ago, when I’d go to bed thinking of aliens.

A Fool There Was (1915), directed by Frank Powell

Theda Bara is The Vamp: gleeful homewrecker, serial seductress, a spider prowling for flies. She seizes men in a sexual stranglehold, then drains and discards them. She’s not a real person, but an allegorical figure, a manifestation of feminine evil. And A Fool There Was is a cautionary tale for every husband in the audience: don’t let your dick lead you astray. She meets her latest victim on a transatlantic cruise. He’s a family man who instantly forsakes his family. They cavort together, though he seethes with self-loathing—he grips her neck as if to wring it; she maneuvers this into an embrace—while back home, wife and daughter bemoan their loss. The film jumps between these two lines of action, neither yielding any surprises. Much of the story’s told by telegram or through a long, lousy poem. The staging, at least, has some depth to it. Figures extend far back into the frame, especially during a drunken party late in the film. Bara, too, is fun to watch as she plays this misogynistic fable’s object of scorn.

Mr. Thank You (1936), directed by Hiroshi Shimizu

A bus, a driver, the winding mountain roads. This idyllic film curls along the bends in its route, watching through windows as the countryside rolls past. It’s a little like a travelogue of the sunlight and rustling trees along Japan’s Izu Peninsula. Some gentle drama develops among the passengers, but most of the film’s attention goes toward minuscule questions of etiquette. How do people act while in forced proximity? Well, they gossip. They gripe. They share liquor and cigarettes. The film’s tightly geographical structure only accommodates the slightest melodrama. The rear-view mirror acts as a frame within the frame; a tunnel as an iris. The circle of its entrance shrinks as it recedes. A trip like this is always leaving someone behind, always meeting someone new.

Married to the Mob (1988), directed by Jonathan Demme

Michelle Pfeiffer, festooned with a tangle of curly brown hair, stars in this whirligig of screwball realism. Nominally a gangland comedy, it shrugs off expectations at every turn. Its jokes aren’t discrete lines or actions, but expansive patchworks. They encompass costumes and behaviors; cuts and blocking; a surplus of movie material. The plot zigzags around its crowd of characters, granting each a share of emotional validity. Even a minor mafioso still gets to vocalize a pathetic “Don’t—” before he’s shot in the face. Demme seems less eager to be straight-out funny than to allow these people their zany tenderness. The camera conceals then reveals, via focus pulls and wry compositions, as if playing a game with the actors. It’s tantalizing, unpredictable, a farce full of love.

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