Category Archives: Cinema

Viewing Diary September 2017

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Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), directed by Robert Hamer

This gaslit noir intertwines the stories of a druggist’s family and a barkeep’s wife. They live in a world of shadows and top hats constructed on the Ealing lot. Starring as the wife is actress Googie Withers, whose delicate face is a world of its own. She’s cagey with sharp eyes and pursed lips that nonetheless betray her longing for love. Her beauty aches as she plots her husband’s murder, her womanhood a burden in a society run by men. It’s understated work that tilts the film’s ethical balance in her favor.

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Viewing Diary August 2017

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Night World (1932), directed by Hobart Henley

This sleazy melodrama is tangibly Pre-Code. Its one long night in a speakeasy teems with drunks, showgirls, gangsters, even a gay flirt in the bathroom. Babyfaced Lew Ayres tries to booze away memories of his Orestes-like past. (Dad slain by jealous mom.) Subplots bustle around him. Five people die in the bullet-riddled ending. Though it may break taboos and last a mere hour, this sort of theatrical nihilism can still be wearying to watch.

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Viewing Diary July 2017

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Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919), directed by Mauritz Stiller

She dwells in a cottage on Sweden’s frozen western coast; he, unbeknownst to her, led the Scotsmen who slew her adoptive family. The romantic tragedy they share sops with guilt. He trudges over the blue-tinted ice, breath visible, an apparition of her dead sister superimposed behind him. She wakes from a nightmare haunted by the same translucent specter, then reaches down to confirm the solidity of her pillows and sheets. The camera scans a desolate landscape, past cliffs and shrubs and piles of snow. Other lovers might have fought toward a happy ending, but these two originate in the feel-bad folklore of novelist Selma Lagerlöf. They will not survive the winter.

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Viewing Diary June 2017

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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.

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Viewing Diary May 2017

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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.

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Viewing Diary April 2017

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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.

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Viewing Diary March 2017

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The Marquise of O (1976), directed by Éric Rohmer

In static medium shots, actors share the screen with candlelit curtains, household statuary, and bowls of fruit. The camera keeps their delicate faces at arm’s length. Rohmer meticulously blocks their movements for the Academy ratio frame. Sometimes he composes whole shots within a doorway or ends them with a fade to black, swaddling the action in layers of decorum. The arcane rules of aristocracy circumscribe the widowed title character. Her destiny depends on her perceived sexual purity. When she grows visibly pregnant, her straits worsen, and her parents entangle her in a string of emotional gambits. Both her father (who forsakes her) and a persistent suitor (her likely rapist) lay claim to her. A marquise’s body can be anyone’s but her own.

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