Viewing Diary January 2019

Entries run chronologically from bottom to top.

Shinbone Alley (1970), directed by John David Wilson

Don Marquis wrote a newspaper serial throughout the ’20s that became a Broadway musical in the ’50s, and the latter turned into this cheap cartoon a decade later. Its saga of cockroach Archy and kitty Mehitabel is strictly episodic. The bug dwells on his feline friend’s sex life as they loiter in trash cans. Sometimes they’ll sing tuneless ditties barely adapted from Marquis’s free verse. The voice work is strident, especially Carol Channing as Mehitabel. Interludes based on Archy’s poems venture into psychedelia with loops of pink and yellow. One highlight of the animation is an homage to Krazy Kat artist George Herriman. But the bulk of the film is a hash of garbled misogyny. The stop-start pacing makes its hour and a half stretch into an eternity.

The Woman Inside (1981), directed by Joseph Van Winkle

Cis actress Gloria Manon stars as a trans veteran who drives a taxi and dates an Irishman in the anxious lead-up to SRS. Joan Blondell, in a posthumous role, is the hateful aunt who calls her “Hollis—I mean Holly.” Much of it is fantasy: after four months on hormones, for example, she has breasts (glimpsed through a shower’s frosted glass) that shock her aunt and please her surgeon. She wakes up from surgery near a chirping songbird and a panel of stained glass. In order to test her neovagina, she seduces an old coworker, then crows about her deceit while still in his bedroom. Not a common trans experience. One detail that does ring true is the surgeon telling her, “You’re getting prettier every day.” (My endocrinologist routinely offers such unsought flattery.) Or the round table of trans women who share advice over tea. This may be cheap kitsch, but it’s sort of radical in its compassion.

The Trip (1967), directed by Roger Corman

A few years earlier, Corman had directed X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, in which Ray Milland gazes too deep and goes out of his mind. A POV shot of him riding down the Las Vegas Strip becomes a garish light show. Corman repeats this tactic with glassy-eyed Peter Fonda in The Trip. His character’s no mad scientist, though; just a guy on LSD in a V-neck sweater. The film takes place across a single day, mostly at a house in Laurel Canyon. The hallucinations involve a romantic dilemma that’s not especially weighty, but who cares? The imagery’s the point in this kind of modish exploitation. A nightclub, laundromat, and stranger’s home act as backdrops for bursts of paranoid comedy. A 360° pan following a joint’s progress around a room presages Richard Linklater.

Behind the Door (1919), directed by Irvin Willat

Tit for tat in World War I. After a U-boat captain abducts a man’s wife, leaving him to die in the Atlantic, the man takes the helm of his own ship and sinks the sub while saving its captain. An insert shot with a wooden box of taxidermy tools hints at his grisly revenge. This tale of turnabout derives from some short fiction that Gouverneur Morris, himself a war correspondent, published in McClure’s. (Wallace Worsley would subsequently adapt a couple of Morris’s pulp novels with Lon Chaney as their villains.) It’s horror movie propaganda for a riled nation. All gloom with zero moral uplift.

Vice (2018), directed by Adam McKay

Fucking terrible movie. Its smug docu-satire’s like an imitation of Adam Curtis or Peter Watkins with none of their finesse. The didactic jokes (about unitary executive theory and the War on Terror) talk down to the audience via Jesse Plemons’ narrator. The screenplay’s like a strenuously hip civics textbook. Both the fake-out ending and faux-Macbeth bit rely on blunt irony: here’s a scenario, they posit—but it actually never happened! Lazy metaphors include fly fishing, falling teacups, and Dick Cheney’s heart. How dare such a vapid movie be so condescending?

The Favourite (2018), directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Over the past decade, Lanthimos has depicted a number of baroque social codes with a nasty sense of humor. This grim comedy, set late in the reign of England’s Queen Anne, is the first of his films to draw on real-world history. The characters speak with bitchy Stuart-era diction, and their sapphic triangle—a maid and a lady vying for the queen’s attention—loosely parallels the intrigues of Anne’s court. Like the kids with their bad dad in Dogtooth, the subjects of Olivia Colman’s insecure queen heed her whims, no matter how whimsical; her authority is absolute. (As in Dogtooth, cunnilingus acts as a bargaining chip.) Whip pans and candlelit compositions chart her decadent universe. Lanthimos finds fodder galore for his puerile jokes in this dim and bawdy past.

This Island Earth (1955), directed by Joseph Newman

The Metaluna Mutant is iconic, with its pincers, bulging brain, and goggle eyes. But it only appears for a couple minutes, right at the end of this Universal space opera. The species has been bred in bondage by humanoid overlords. The specimen onscreen, ostensibly a monster, is a dying stowaway from a dead planet. It bleeds and staggers near a shrieking woman, then collapses with a thud before the square-jawed scientist can intervene. Amid its Technicolor effects, matte paintings, and miniatures, This Island Earth also holds a sobering pacifism. Technology means nothing, it warns its Cold War viewers, once you’ve used it to self-destruct.

Virtue (1932), directed by Edward Buzzell

Talkies and the Depression both began around the same time, hence pre-Code filmmaking. If talking’s an option, why not do it quickly, slangily, about money and sex? Half the characters here are current or former sex workers, and the screenplay makes no bones about it. One of them—Carole Lombard in her early twenties—marries a taxi driver, their relationship fraught with jealousy and shame. (The title might alert you to the patriarchal values at play.) The camera’s mobile, the plot contrived. It’s an hour of seamy entertainment from studio workhorse Buzzell during his tenure at Columbia.

Visions of Light (1992), directed by Arnold Glassman,
Todd McCarthy, and Stuart Samuels

The story here is a bit Film History 101: silents to talkies, film noir to color, New Wave to New Hollywood. But its talking head interviews with cinematographers add reams of professional detail. The film’s oriented as much toward the how as the what. Clips from dozens of movies illustrate the subjects’ ideas about lighting and composition, and the selections aren’t all canon classics. Mystery of the Wax Museum rates a mention for its two-strip Technicolor; Camille for William Daniels’ lighting of Garbo; and Picnic for its early helicopter shot. Mercifully, these aren’t film scholars spouting received wisdom. They’re technicians explaining how “necessity is the mother of invention” is the history of their craft.

Take This Waltz (2011), directed by Sarah Polley

Michelle Williams has seldom been lovelier than in this mixed bag romance. She wears loose summer dresses and strolls around in the honey light of evening. With one relationship waning and another in bloom, the actress weeps, squirms, or smiles vulnerably as the role requires. But the flirty repartee Polley’s penned for her is embarrassing. “I love you so much I’m gonna mash your head in with a potato masher,” she teases her husband. Her lover she dubs a “gaylord” in a fit of schoolyard homophobia. And when they share a flight, she earnestly tells him, “I’m scared of airports… I don’t like to be in between things.” The dialogue’s much too cutesy for this confectionary film. It’s frosting on top of frosting. Sometimes the characters don’t talk, and then Take This Waltz yields a rotating, time-condensing shot set to the Leonard Cohen song that gives the film its name. Polley’s words stunt her lyrical filmmaking.

Paris Is Burning (1990), directed by Jennie Livingston

About an hour in, there’s a scene that cuts back and forth between Octavia St. Laurent and Venus Xtravaganza, both lying in their respective beds. (The editor was Jonathan Oppenheim, son of actress Judy Holliday. He’s worked for decades in documentary filmmaking, more recently collaborating with Laura Poitras.) Octavia’s curled up on a pillow, smoking a cigarette. She’s in the bottom third of the frame with photos of models pasted to the wall above her. Venus lies diagonally across a blanket with a sunflower pattern. Back and forth, the two of them list their desires: fame, wealth, marriage, surgery. “I want this,” says Venus. “This is what I want. And I’m gonna go for it.” A fade to black leads into the film’s coda, shot two years later; in a few minutes, Venus’s house mother will talk about her murder. But for the duration of that scene, they’re just two young women dreaming.

Close (2019), directed by Vicky Jewson

Wrote about this for Film Freak Central.

Girl with Hyacinths (1950), directed by Hasse Ekman

1950 saw the release of Gun Crazy, with its firearm fetish, and the misanthropic kink of Sunset Blvd. This poisonous Scandi noir is somehow even leerier of the human soul than those Hollywood contemporaries. Its sleuth is a writer investigating his neighbor’s suicide. His curiosity leads to a series of flashbacks as both exes and acquaintances recall this mystery woman. She turns out to have been bruised by life and bent on bruising in return. Ekman’s then-wife Eva Henning plays the girl of the title as a femme fatale with no seductive glee, no sinister flamboyance, nothing but despair. She subsists until she doesn’t in these inky, Stockholm-set recollections.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), directed by Barry Jenkins

Star KiKi Layne reads the prose of James Baldwin as tender voiceover. Delicate lighting and the camera’s pirouettes complement this story of a black couple, their families, and a false accusation. Layne’s voice plays over maps, photos, montages, all this documentation of a New York City now decades in the past. The costumes and production design collaborate on an intricate palette, their beauty the beauty of these lives, this love, this place and time.

Escape Room (2019), directed by Adam Robitel

This routine puzzle thriller’s PG-13, hence minimal gore. Six contestants, each with a traumatic back story, die one by one via drowning, defibrillation, etc. The best sequence takes place in an upside down pool hall where Petula Clark’s “Downtown” signals that a chunk of the floor’s about to fall away. The room’s walls, adorned with midcentury kitsch, become a precipice. Not much to this Saw-lite diversion beyond that set piece and some mild class critique.

They Came Together (2014), directed by David Wain

Only fitfully funny,” I wrote upon release. Four years later, I’m still ambivalent but impressed. Its jokes are an indiscriminate mishmash, the best of them lurching from genre cliché to full-on absurdity. Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler bond over “fiction books,” then knock down wicker shelves while making out. He charms her son by summoning a cheeseburger from behind his ear. “Wow!” laughs Poehler, before casually adding, “Go eat that in bed.” The music’s treacly, the camerawork tacky, the editing imprecise. They take on the semblance of a lousy romcom with ludicrous exactitude.

That Uncertain Feeling (1941), directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Halfway through this erotic farce, Burgess Meredith follows Merle Oberon off-screen. (He’s a malcontent musician; she’s a horny housewife.) The camera hangs on his piano for nine silent seconds before he returns to play a few measures con molte pasione. Sex is present in this ostensibly neutral shot, as is the specter of the Code, one obscured by the other. The wry visual storytelling folds censorial demands in with its innuendo. Elsewhere, jokes tackle Kafka, surrealism, and psychoanalysis. “So I amuse you?” asks Meredith, anticipating GoodFellas by half a century. “I’m a clown, eh? Pagliacci?” Lesser Lubitsch, maybe, but stellar screwball.

Police Story (1985), directed by Jackie Chan

The generic plot—gangsters frame a nervy cop hot on their trail—acts as pretext for a barrage of slapstick violence. Chan is the martial artist whirligig who can dangle off a double decker bus, leap through car windows, and kick a man off a motorcycle. As with any great comedian, he’s precise in his buffoonery. The editing accentuates each elbow jab and backflip in his team’s terpsichorean stuntwork. It’s a fun film and lovely as well with its palette of silvers and blues.

The Straight Story (1999), directed by David Lynch

Twin Peaks has a few prolonged jokes where people take forever to deliver a glass of milk, walk across a bank vault, or sweep a barroom floor. Lynch loves molasses pacing. As mower motorist Alvin Straight, Richard Farnsworth (then a dying man) does everything slowly. It’s bound up with his integrity as an old Midwesterner. “I’d like to finish this my own way,” as he puts it. His incremental progress makes him (and the audience) more susceptible to the beauties of his path past miles of cornfield—as does his proximity to death. Mortality as a motif recurs throughout The Straight Story’s vignettes: in a deer turned to roadkill, a burning house, a memory of war. Even the bookending image of a starry sky could act as a cosmic memento mori. The sun will always set and the night, in all its splendor, will always fall.

Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979), directed by Joan Micklin Silver

A tracking shot follows John Heard down the sidewalk, his big overcoat barely shielding him from the icy rain. He gets into his car and talks to a woman who’s been waiting there. “I need you to come live with me,” he says, and in the middle of that sentence a cut to reverse shot over his shoulder reveals that the passenger seat’s empty. She was never there. He cleans his thick glasses, looks bitterly ahead, and mumbles her name: “Laura, Laura, Laura, Laura.” Hell of an opening for an anti-romcom heavy with longing and powdered with snow.

Solaris (2002), directed by Steven Soderbergh

Absent Tarkovsky’s style, this becomes a slimmer, shallower story. It’s a star vehicle with George Clooney at its core: his velvety voice, solid body, and sensitive eyebrows. Soderbergh leans on the Kuleshov effect as both his star and Natascha McElhone, playing a replica of the hero’s dead wife, take their turns in close-up. This space station is a small, nearly colorless world, a theater of grief, and the film’s arc is a matter of shrugging off its languor. Its spectacle is the scowl that effort brings to Clooney’s face.

Eleven P.M. (1928), directed by Richard Maurice

This febrile melodrama, shot around the storefronts and street corners of Prohibition-era Detroit, is Maurice’s lone directorial credit. (In 2015, Kino packaged it with their “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” collection.) Its ornate plot unfolds explicitly within a dream. Mostly linear, it involves crime and punishment across generations. The director stars as a humble violinist who can only get posthumous revenge on the villain, a rogue with a toothbrush mustache. In the film’s sole surreal flourish, he inhabits the body of a dog and mauls his enemy. Then the dreamer wakes.

Guilty Hands (1931), directed by W.S. Van Dyke

Lionel Barrymore’s a lawyer in mustache and bowtie. He squints as if toward the glare of the sun and tucks his hands in his pockets with studied nonchalance. (Barrymore carried those thespian maneuvers from one movie to the next.) The lawyer has a daughter and a scumbag client, the two of whom plan to wed. So like any dad with legal expertise, he counterplans the perfect murder. The film’s latter half has him corralling the other guests of the client’s island estate in order to prove the death was a suicide. A couple black actors, Sam McDaniel and Blue Washington, have flimsy roles as cowering comic relief. They surveil a cut-out silhouette pacing by a window, the lawyer’s phony alibi. Sultry Kay Francis is the victim’s ex, spurned in favor of his young fiancée. She’s tantalizing in both a black satin dress and this mediocre drama’s only decent part.

The Inside Story (1948), directed by Allan Dwan

The setting is a small Vermont town deep in the Depression, its hub a failing hotel. The populace is allegorical: artist, lawyer, grocer, a couple gangsters dropping in for the day. An out-of-towner stashes $1,000 in the hotel safe, and through a series of misunderstandings his cash revitalizes the local economy. Dwan’s unfussy direction renders the town a comic microcosm structured by class and gender. (See also 1993’s unsung indie Twenty Bucks, which shares The Inside Story’s irresistible conceit.)

Pyaasa (1957), directed by Guru Dutt

A marvel of shadows and dolly shots interspersed with musical fantasies, all for the sake of pathos. The director himself plays a poet whose passion for his craft can only lead to heartbreak. He runs into an old flame in an elevator, and the reflection of her face in its wall dissolves into a fog-swept song and dance. When the elevator reaches its destination, he walks away, and its latticed door closes in her face, concealing everything but her eyes. Her husband is the editor who initially demeans the poet, only to exploit his work when he’s reported dead. The twists and turns that follow are deeply cynical about the relationships between art and artist and money and love.

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