Viewing Diary June 2017

Entries run chronologically from bottom to top.

Housekeeping (1987), directed by Bill Forsyth

I recently read Marilynne Robinson’s sad and lovely novel of the same name, and now I’m astonished by how neatly Forsyth’s screen adaptation complements its source. Robinson’s detailed prose and biblical allusions find their analogues in the film’s subdued colors, its period costuming, and the real-life mountains that cradle it like a mother’s arms. Christine Lahti, by turns endearing and mystifying, leads her adolescent co-stars through an ornate cosmos of inverted domesticity. Theirs is a world of jars and newspapers, couches and overcoats, railroads and floodwaters: a house and all that lies beyond it. In this aunt’s unlikely tutelage, Forsyth captures the novel’s sheen of unreality, its sense of deepest tragedy inside volatile joy. He adapts its notions of family, word by word and shot by shot, into a sad and lovely film.

Mandalay (1934), directed by Michael Curtiz

When a bottle’s label indicates “poison for external use only,” you just know someone will use it internally before the end credits roll. Because this is a Pre-Code drama, where California’s San Joaquin River stands in for the Irriwaddy, and Warner Oland stands in for an actual Asian person. Everything moves quickly (whip pans, crane shots) except for Kay Francis, who sashays into a colonel’s humid office in a white Orry-Kelly gown. (“You certainly can wear clothes!” notes a fellow steamboat passenger later in the film.) Her new love is a drunken doctor dealing with a guilty past; her ex is a smuggler, the kind who gets coded telegrams and reads them by crossing out every other word. One of these men steps ashore with her at Mandalay, while the other does not. And this is Pre-Code, so Curtiz tells the whole sordid story in just over an hour.

Model Shop (1969), directed by Jacques Demy

Gary Lockwood, his nose sunburned and his T-shirt tight, drives hither and yon around Los Angeles. He plays an aspiring architect fresh out of Berkeley who’s on the outs with his girlfriend and about to be drafted. Demy follows him through 24 hours as he runs some pensive errands: borrowing money, developing photos, staving off his car’s repossession. (Shades of Sunset Blvd.) He squints against the sunlight reflected in his rear view mirror. The film devotes a lot of time to him braking at stoplights, taking left or right turns, as music—either snippets of classical or the modish rock of the band Spirit—swells on the soundtrack. It luxuriates in the tedium of city traffic. The tawdry plot has its young man fixate on a slightly older woman, played by Anouk Aimée; they spend the night together, and though he’s kind of an asshole she draws some solace from his touch. Then morning comes, and it’s still the same year in the same city.

Being John Malkovich (1999), directed by Spike Jonze

When I watched this back in 2008, I felt bad for Craig, the solipsistic schlub played by John Cusack. Years later, I lack even a sliver of sympathy for him, but I’m touched by the tender relationship between his wife Lotte and his would-be paramour Maxine. The two women start out at opposing ends of a love triangle, but—with Malkovich as their fetishistic intermediary—soon become ardent lovers. They end the film poolside, now a pair of cute, gay soulmates, and it feels exactly right. The film could scarcely have ended any other way. Craig may be the author stand-in, the same sort of frustrated artist who crops up throughout Charlie Kaufman’s work, but he still gets shoved aside. The writer’s instincts supersede his self-pity. (Kaufman reminds me a lot of my estranged father, who was born a few years after him. Both spent the late 1980s writing unproduced screenplays and working jobs they hated in Minneapolis. In the early ’90s, Kaufman moved to Los Angeles to write for sitcoms around the same time that my brother and I were born.)

So kudos for the lesbians, though the straight men telling their story seem only able to imagine trans or homoerotic yearnings via surreal sci-fi. Absurdly low ceilings, chimp therapy, celebrity puppeteers: all these weird jokes exist on the same plane as two women who have sex through an actor’s body. Cameron Diaz, her hair frizzy, her cardigans unbecoming, lends her high and desperate voice to the conceit. It flutters over shots from Malkovich’s first-person POV: “Ohh, I feel sexy!” Catherine Keener, meanwhile, smirks archly. I found her sexually intimidating back in 2008, but now I see a lot of myself in her. We’re both tall, slim, and sultry in a button-up. She models a level of confidence I wish I had. If I watch this again in another decade, I wonder if I’ll be even closer to Maxine.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), directed by Tim Burton

It’s enormously validating to watch Pee-wee, with his petulance, his nasal laughter, and his joie de vivre. He’s a connoisseur of camp and kitsch, ostensibly male but unbound by masculinity; ostensibly straight yet sublimely gay. His road trip maps out a cartoon universe of tourist traps and monologuing strangers. Its palette extends outward from the platinum and fire engine red of Pee-wee’s outfit. Comic discipline burnishes each of the precisely calibrated punchlines that dots his westward route. It’s a model comedy, not only in terms of technique but in its ethos as well: why do anything if not for passion and for fun?

Speed Racer (2008), directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski

Much like The Matrix, this gearhead melodrama hurls its messianic hero beyond the limits of a cozy illusion. Auto racing, the villain reveals, “has nothing to do with cars or drivers. All that matters is power,” he snarls, “and the unassailable might of money!” This knowledge haunts Speed as he burns digital rubber through a world of baroque pulp shimmering in candied hues. (He’s kind of like the Wachowskis, who’ve also sunk lifetimes of passion into a mercenary business.) Aggressive horizontal motion jostles one shot into the next. Homages—to James Bond movies or Akira or Death Race 2000—stuff themselves into already crowded frames. Emile Hirsch plays Speed with an earnest, sometimes Keanu-ish blankness, which befits the film’s blunt emotions. For all its sound and fury, this is a story about family: parents, sons, pride, and shame. It’s about the underlying love that gives a win or a loss its meaning.

Free Fire (2017), directed by Ben Wheatley

About a third of the way in, this nihilistic lark begins its long, tiresome climax. An arms deal runs awry. Much banter follows, with a couple lulls and some slight reversals. Mostly, it’s about gunfire. Its emphasis lies squarely on discharged bullets’ bangs, hisses, whizzes, and zips. Bullets ricochet off steel beams, graze polyester sleeves, and sometimes perforate human flesh. The violence isn’t especially fetishized, nor is it meditated upon. It’s just a nasty, cacophonous wallow. Though its ’70s setting and compact battleground may recall Wheatley’s High-Rise, this follow-up is untainted by literary prestige and runs a merciful half-hour shorter. Its characters, crouched behind improvised barricades, are negligible. They exist primarily as sets of quippy mouths, ornately mustachioed faces, and trigger-happy fingers. The camera sticks close to each of them in turn as they worm their respective ways through the ochre rubble. They get shot, bleed, resign themselves to dying. Not much joy here, not a lot of beauty, but decibels to spare.

Mulholland Dr. (2001), directed by David Lynch

When I’ve loved a movie for a long time, I like to pose myself a question: “What is this about?” It grows a bit thorny, perhaps, when applied to so dense a movie, one often framed as a puzzle in need of solution, but here goes nonetheless. Lynch’s turn-of-the-millennium opus is about (1) the city of Los Angeles, recombining its geography and architecture into a neo-noir phantasmagoria. It basks in the premonitory radiance of the city’s natural and artificial lighting. (2) The act of storytelling. Its meta-narrative corkscrews between genres (horror, musical, slapstick comedy) and through nested, pointedly artificial performances. It dips into frenzied production offices and a red-curtained nightmare theater. At every turn, this pilot-turned-feature spoofs the details of its own construction. (3) Women and their bodies. The arc of Mulholland Dr. tells what it’s like to love someone, then miss her once she’s gone. It manifests itself in the onscreen actions of the film’s lead actresses, Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring. This blue-eyed blonde and brown-eyed brunette share their mutual arousal, their tears, and their terror. They’re the heart of a romance that doesn’t demand to be solved so much as felt.

Reign of Terror (1949), directed by Anthony Mann

Paris at the end of the 18th century is thick with shadows. Bayonets line the walls of passageways. Spies and soldiers are everywhere. Like its subjects, the camera aims to obfuscate. Mann, working with John Alton and William Cameron Menzies, careens through an expressionistic nightmare. They peer into mirrors, barred windows, extreme close-ups, and silhouettes. Each shot is a blast of style. The past becomes a gory, gloomy labyrinth with a strangling at one end and a guillotine at the other. (Much like Val Lewton’s period-set horror movies from a few years earlier, this tale of the French Revolution also resonates with the present.) “Does anyone know where we’re heading?” asks a weary grandmother. History sweeps over her like a tidal wave.

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