Viewing Diary May 2017

Entries run chronologically from bottom to top.

Shooting Stars (1928), directed by Anthony Asquith and A.V. Bramble

As revealed by the BFI’s recent restoration, this sly meta-satire is a gem of late silent cinema. Its love triangle plot—a starlet strays from her leading man husband to a slick comedian—is pretzeled by irony and layered with visual subtext. Dizzying crane shots survey the breadth of a studio’s operations. Onscreen text limits the need for title cards. (The actress stands by a window at her lover’s flat, for example, and a marquee outside flashes the title My Man.) Films-within-the-film apply alternative tones to their love stories: slapstick, melodrama, the hokey romance of a cheap western. But Shooting Stars, wielding that triple entendre of a title, is a tragicomedy right down its bitter end. It’s like an inversion of Murnau’s Sunrise where the moral burden’s on the wandering wife, and not even movie magic can release her.

The White Reindeer (1952), directed by Erik Blomberg

The sun hangs over harsh tundra. A bride transforms into an ungainly reindeer. She trots over snow-crusted ridges, luring hunters after her, leaving their bodies throughout the wilderness. This brisk folktale plays out like any werewolf story—in its last minutes, her husband slays her with an iron spear—but Blomberg dwells less on the mechanics of the curse than on the starkness of the landscape. Each dog or deer is a smudge of gray stumbling through a field of white. The doomed heroine gazes out at her world, and the camera pans for a good 45 seconds across the seemingly infinite, shrub-dotted expanse. This is Lapland, the north of the north, where townsfolk travel by sled and gather around the bonfire. Their dialogue’s sparse, and the film’s music is bombastic. Sometimes it feels a bit like a silent movie. (Like, say, the pastoral poetry of Alexander Dovzhenko.) Near the climax, a mob sets out after the reindeer, and their quarry crouches in human form behind a dune of snow. The camera keeps her in the foreground as they file past in the distance. It’s a typical composition for this atypical horror movie, brimming with both tension and desolate beauty.

Gates of Heaven (1978), directed by Errol Morris

A failed pet cemetery lies along a highway in Los Altos, California. Another such cemetery (this one thriving) stretches over Napa’s grassy hills, 90 miles to the north. Editing and geography bifurcate this film between the two, between their respective staff and clientele. Tanned faces speak to the camera openly, head-on, some subjects behind desks, others out in the sun. They wear suspenders or thick glasses or straw hats. Everyone talks about cats and dogs, about an animal’s pure love and their grief over its demise. But they also talk about real estate, insurance, and rendering plants, because graves and bodies are physical things. Sweet and sad though the film may be, you can’t truly discuss a cemetery without mentioning the cost of the land. Morris likes to expand on his subjects’ digressions with footage of evidence: clippings, diagrams, epitaphs carved into headstones. The film poses them like questions, suffused with emotion yet unsentimental. What do you make of all this affection?

Cry-Baby (1990), directed by John Waters

“I’m so tired of being good,” moans a high school princess. And who wouldn’t be? Especially when badness, in this paean to juvenile delinquency, equals doo-wop and rockabilly, cigarettes and switchblades, hot girls and pretty boys. It’s a simulacrum of the 1950s skewed by selective nostalgia. The costumes by Van Smith and sets by Vincent Peranio (two key Dreamlanders) yield an otherworldly period aesthetic. Johnny Depp sneers and swaggers, brandishing his lithe beauty for the sake of Waters’ fervid melodrama. Following on the heels of Hairspray—but with Divine now tangibly absent—this is another utopian musical, its pop kitsch easing the enmity between these Baltimorean Capulets and Montagues.

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 UFOs.

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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