Tag Archives: avant-garde

Writing Samples 2014-15

This is a collection of links to writing I’ve published outside of this blog over the past year or two. It includes some of the recent work I’m proudest of, and I wanted to have it all assembled in one place for easier browsing.

A static medium shot of a man in a park paging through a book might not necessarily scream ‘scene of the year.’ Nor might a pan from left to right and then back again, even if it involved a woman’s husband waving a gun in her face. If, however, that latter shot broke off from the former, taking place on a separate, concurrent visual plane until they merged back together, with each half intended for just one of the viewer’s eyes, well, now we’re getting somewhere…

Attending the Ann Arbor Film Festival is a bit like stepping into a parallel universe. Here, dialogue and narrative lie on the margins, while abstract animation and ethnographic documentary take center stage. Absent are movie stars, paparazzi, and bidding wars; here, a “big name” is someone like Peggy Ahwesh or Lewis Klahr. It’s as if this one week in March at the historic Michigan Theater, just a couple blocks away from the University of Michigan campus, had been carved out of normal space-time and given over to the love of film as an art…

An hour into Robert Altman’s Nashville, a shot opens with a cluttered wardrobe where statues of saints rest next to a candle, a hair dryer, a lava lamp, and a mirror. A zoom out reveals a bathrobe-clad woman in that mirror, singing and shimmying as she listens to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. She’s Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), and she’s already been established as a waitress at an airport café with dreams of country-music stardom. She’s on the bottom of the film’s food chain, and her nasally drone of a singing voice means she’s unlikely to rise any higher…

“Transmisogyny does not deserve an award!” an audience member shouted, interrupting Jared Leto. Again and again she shouted, until she was heard: “Transmisogyny does not deserve an award!” This was, per The Hollywood Reporter, at a ceremony in Santa Barbara, California. It was February 2014, and Leto was sweeping through the awards circuit, receiving statuettes and ample acclaim for playing the HIV-positive Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club

The day after that piece went up, Filmmaker Magazine published my first professional interview, with Tangerine director Sean Baker. And here are a couple other tidbits: in June, a tweet of mine was embedded in an online article for The Guardian; in January, another was named Indiewire’s “tweet of the day”; and reaching back to January 2014, my writing appeared (in embedded tweet form) on Sight & Sound’s website. None of these one-sentence snippets are especially insightful or representative of my writing, but I’m amused by how far and quickly they can travel.

I’ll wrap this up by mentioning that throughout 2014, I reviewed every single movie I watched on the social media site Letterboxd. Below are links to 15 of those reviews. They’re a mix of the ones that garnered the strongest reactions and the ones I’m happiest to have written.

The Big Parade · Bride of Frankenstein · Brief Encounter · Bringing Up Baby · Commando · Home Alone · Invasion of the Body Snatchers · Jodorowsky’s Dune · Mr. Peabody & Sherman · Night Moves · Nostalghia · One from the Heart · The Phantom of the Paradise · Point Break · The Silence of the Lambs

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White Shadows

By Andreas

Directed by Victor Halperin and produced by his brother Edward, White Zombie (1932) is such an oddity. An early independent production, it lacked the prestige or budget of a Universal monster movie, yet has lingered in the public imagination thanks to public domain video sets and a renewed interest in all things “zombie.” With the exception of Bela Lugosi in his prime, the main cast consists of once-prominent silent film thespians who had a hard time adjusting to talkies—Madge Bellamy, for example, acts like a zombie even before Bela hypnotizes her, while John Harron (playing her fiancé) is agonizingly hammy and almost incapable of a convincing line delivery.

To be honest, the film would probably work better silent, only then we’d be deprived of Bela’s rich, heavily accented voice. The dialogue is certainly nothing to write home about; apart from a few passages imbued with Bela’s dark poetry, it’s mostly perfunctory and dull. White Zombie’s saving grace, however, is its visuals: the film’s a maze of interlocking motifs, occult imagery, and resourceful camera tricks that grab hold of the viewer. The actors don’t so much “act” as contribute different patterns to White Zombie’s monochrome textures. Vultures, shadows, staircases, the fleurs-de-lis on Madge Bellamy’s dress—each piece adds to the film’s dreamy, tragic power.

Presiding over this nightmare is Bela’s voodoo master Murder Legendre. (With a name like “Murder,” did he really the option of not being evil?) At first he’s just an ominous background figure, a magician-for-hire contracted by a jealous suitor to enchant away the affections of the bride-to-be. But over the course of the film, he comes to dominate the lives and free will of every major character. If he’s Dr. Caligari, then everyone else is Cesare. Especially chilling is the scene wherein he explains the origins of his zombie slaves: each one, it turns out, was one of Legendre’s enemies in life. Each one used to be an active, opinionated individual… and now they serve the man they hated.

The ghastly thoroughness of Legendre’s revenge infects the whole film. Haiti’s geography is reduced to a plantation, a cobwebbed castle, and a craggy countryside inhabited by souls in Legendre’s thrall, whether they’re explicitly zombies or not. It’s a metaphysically bleak film, but also a very romantic one; Harron and Bellamy’s relationship—in all its passion and voodoo-induced tragedy—manifests itself repeatedly onscreen through subjective camera techniques like this:

This is just after Legendre has snatched the young bride from her whiny lover’s arms. Distraught over his loss, Harron wanders through a local saloon and is struck by this apparition on booze-soaked table. This technique is especially impressive because it predates Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), with its famous (and very similar) swimming scene, by a good two years. Surprisingly innovative for a cheap horror movie that’s barely feature length!

I also love the impassioned gesture that follows the tabletop ghost: the heartbroken young man watches the shadows of dancers and drinkers along the saloon wall and, envisioning his would-be wife in them, embraces the shadows. It’s a pretty powerful metaphor for the pain of lost love and just one of White Zombie’s strange, touching visual details. Recycled sets and uneven cast notwithstanding, the Halperin brothers created something hazily special in White Zombie, more in the tradition of Jean Cocteau than that of Tod Browning. Hidden in bargain bins for decades, it’s an oneiric gem waiting to be rediscovered.

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The Wizard of Winnipeg

By Andreas

[This post is my contribution to the Maddin-est Blogathon in the World! Contest, being hosted by Fandor’s Keyframe blog.]

Q: Why is Guy Maddin one of the world’s greatest living directors?

A: Because he finds cinema’s future in its past.

Boiled down into a sentence fragment, that’s essentially why I love the movies of Guy Maddin. That’s why I’m on tenterhooks to see his new movie, Keyhole, which debuted to middling reviews at TIFF. (Hah, as if any reviews could keep me away from the latest Maddin!) He’s an alchemist, cultivating fake mythologies and secret histories from a lifetime of pop-cultural consumption. If any 21st century filmmaker deserves the epithet “mad genius,” it’s this long-lost love child of von Stroheim and von Sternberg.

And he’s not just a Dr. Frankenstein, breathing life into dead forms. Yes, he smears his lens with vaseline and invokes the techniques of silent cinema, but these willful anachronisms are colored by Maddin’s sensibilities: a sharp sense of verbal and visual humor; a love of manically over-the-top melodrama; and a sardonic, nostalgic, magically realist vision of his native Winnipeg. These hallmarks brand each of Maddin’s films as unmistakably and unforgettably his.

Conveniently, Maddin’s filmography has a clear halfway point to chart the evolution this loopy, quasi-surrealist style; just look before and after his landmark short film Heart of the World (2000), a frenzied origin story for cinema. Pre-Heart, we see four feature films, each with their respective virtues and signs of a true original at work, but also fairly detached and silly. Archangel (1990), for example—a hazy tale of raging amnesia in WWI-era Russia—has its share of unique pleasures, but it’s by no means essential.

But post-Heart of the World, Maddin really took off. He made a silent ballet adaptation of Dracula (2002); the musical tragicomedy The Saddest Music in the World (2003), also his greatest crossover success to date; and three weird, wonderful semi-autobiographical films, culminating in his masterpiece My Winnipeg (2007). (Though Cowards Bend the Knee’s traumatic peepshow and the gimmicky adventure of Brand Upon the Brain! are not to missed.)

In these increasingly personal films, Maddin mixes irony with genuine emotion like a kid conducting a risky science experiment. The border between real life and his strangely plausible fantasies grows thin. Even in the outrageously expressionistic Saddest Music, Maddin plays devilishly with cultural memories of the Depression and personal definitions of “sadness.” By the time of My Winnipeg, which meshes archival footage and childhood recollections with grainy shots of present-day Winnipeg streets, any and all “truth” has been swallowed whole by Maddin’s feverish imagination.

His wistful voice, the voice of a poet-documentarian, guides the viewer down My Winnipeg’s stream of consciousness, through bursts of absurdist comedy and pockets of deep, unexplained trauma. Maddin is an odd, endearing man; when I saw him provide live commentary on Saddest Music in the summer of 2009, he sprinkled his talk with extremely personal details, shocking in their candor. But, judging by his films, that seems to be how Maddin operates: life fuels film, and vice versa, and it’s unclear where one ends and the other begins.

P.S. — For more Maddin love, go read Christianne’s post about him at Krell Laboratories, “Heart of Cinema.”

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Link Dump: #18

See? Even the unnamed couple from Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) loved kitties. They probably also loved links to cool things on the Internet, too… or at least they would’ve, if they were alive today. Anyway, here are those links:

  • Letters of Note has some cool documentation of Kubrick’s attempts to make his Napeoleon movie in the late ’60s, including his invitation to the semi-retired Audrey Hepburn to have her play Josephine.
  • If you’re like me (or, you know, not a fundamentalist psycho), you probably hate Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s a documentary about them and their Lady Gaga-hating ways, as well as an article about an Arizona law banning them from protesting funerals after last week’s shootings.
  • What’s better than Criterion-style covers for new releases by a Criterion cover designer? Nothing. They’re just beautiful. Especially Toy Story 3 and Black Swan.
  • Shakesville has a well-written piece on the media’s treatment of work discrimination complaints.
  • The Advocate has an article on the gayest cities in America… and #1? Minneapolis! Yay, Twin Cities pride.
  • Vulture has the worst movies of 2010 – but really, Black Swan‘s on there? Vocal minority or not, that’s a stretch, especially in a year that saw Yogi Bear and Devil.
  • Holy fuck, there’s a plant that eats rats?!

Alas, we’re short on good search terms this week, but here are two vagina-centric ones: “niece wet cunt,” which I hope was a misspelling of “nice wet cunt,” because the other option is just kind of gross and weird, and “stolen pussy comics.” I’m not sure if that refers to comics about stolen pussy, or pussy comics that were stolen. Either way… weird.

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Bitchiness, Oedipus, and Maya Deren in Hitchcock’s Notorious

I’ve been going back to the basics lately by sitting in on Ashley’s intro-level film studies class. And last night, after a lecture about “the shot” sprinkled with examples from GoodFellas, we were treated to a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). It’s a fun, sexy thriller from the top tier of Hitch’s oeuvre, and while it’s ostensibly about American spies battling former Nazis in postwar Brazil, that’s really just the delivery mechanism for a steamy love triangle and some dazzling camera tricks. It’s a fine exemplar of mid-career Hitchcock in peak form; as such, it’s ripe for picking apart. So for your reading delight, here are a few observations I made.

  • Cary Grant is a bitch.

The film is fundamentally about the misunderstandings and repartee that define the relationship between Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), who must go undercover to learn the Nazis’ secrets, and Devlin (Cary Grant), her handler/lover. However, when Alicia must marry Nazi socialite Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) for the sake of the mission, Devlin gets all pissy. He passive-aggressively clams up and refuses to talk things out; he also makes snide comments basically implying that she’s a total drunken whore. He even does it to her face toward the end of the movie, when she’s being slowly poisoned into a stupor.

So our debonair hero, played by the icon of Hollywood classiness, is also a self-centered, pouting bitch. This actually isn’t too surprising, especially when you consider that Grant had recently starred in Hitchcock’s Suspicion – wherein he plays an even less likeable, more selfish cad. Hitchcock just had a knack for twisting around actors’ usual personas (see: all his collaborations with Jimmy Stewart), as well as the viewers’ sympathies. Thus, Devlin is frustratingly single-minded to the point that it turned Ashley and I off of him somewhat, while Sebastian is pathetic enough to garner some audience pity – especially in the film’s final moments, which becomes a very dark joke at his expense. Which brings us to our next point…

  • Sebastian has some mommy issues.

OK, this isn’t really a clever observation on my part; it’s part of the film’s storyline. But it does bear some examination. Like many of Hitchcock’s other villains, Sebastian is cultured, even elitist, and surrounded by a network of equally high-class friends. But despite being wealthy and sophisticated, he’s also strangely immature. He’s very emotionally dependent on his mother, played by the authoritative Madame Konstantin, and rarely makes decisions without her. Except when it comes to marrying Alicia.

Here, we see shades of Hitchcock films yet to come: Strangers on a Train with Bruno Anthony’s domineering mother; Psycho, which copies a scene from Notorious almost verbatim (specifically, Sebastian and his mother arguing over keys behind a closed door); and The Birds, which has a similar oedipal crisis between Mitch and Lydia, and a similar female interloper in Melanie. It’s patterns like these that make auteurist analyses of Hitchcock especially rewarding. Sebastian’s relationship with his mother is certainly a secondary conflict, but it nonetheless plays a crucial role in determining the narrative’s overall emotional dynamics.

I won’t go into psychoanalytic detail about this strand of inquiry, especially since Robin Wood, Tania Modleski, or some such theorist probably has already. I just wanted to note the resemblance to other Hitchcock characters and the curious place that Sebastian’s developmental hang-ups occupy in Notorious. (I could make similar comments about the whole social makeup of the Nazi circle; Hitchcock was at home when representing widespread perversion.)

  • Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht stole the key motif from Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon.

OK, maybe “stole” is a harsh word, since I can’t say for sure whether Hitchcock ever actually saw Meshes. But I think it’s extremely likely that the dream images of symbolic keys in Meshes had an influence on how Hitchcock filmed the MacGuffin-revealing key to Sebastian’s wine cellar in Notorious. Consider the following: Meshes was released in 1943, Notorious in 1946; both films indulge in some extreme subjective camera techniques; and Meshes literalized many of the psychoanalytical themes that Hitchcock dealt with throughout his career. (Of course, these speculations could always be confirmed or disproved through some historical/biographical research.)

So, since I really like this theory, I’ve assembled a little collection of visual evidence. Click to enlarge:

At the very least, these are some fascinating parallels. I hope you’ve enjoyed my little insights into Notorious. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend that you go check it out. Sure, much of the plot and dialogue verge on the absurd, but Grant and Bergman have such strong chemistry that they threaten to blow a hole in the screen, and that more than makes up for the film’s flaws. Their combined hotness really makes Notorious a movie you just can’t miss.

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My Favorite Movies: Glen or Glenda

Favorite movies don’t always overlap with the canon of great movies. Sometimes they’re not even good. I wouldn’t call this selection a “guilty pleasure,” really; instead, it’s a movie made with so little talent and so much enthusiasm that I can spend hours pondering its mysteries. It’s Glen or Glenda (1953), the first feature film directed the infamous Edward D. Wood, Jr. I don’t remember when I first learned of this film. It’s hidden deep within the recesses of my childhood.

Coming from a family of devoted B movie fans, Ed Wood was of course in our pantheon along with Roger Corman, William Castle, and Inoshiro Honda of Godzilla fame. I saw Plan 9 at any early age (and many, many times since), as well as Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. (I think my father was disconcerted by how many times Martin Landau says “fuck.”) And somewhere along the line, I learned that Wood, the reputed “worst director of all time,” had made a movie about crossdressers. Some years ago, I turned up a DVD copy at the public library; my initial response was a mix of amazement, shock, and some third adjective involving surprise at the film’s low quality. Plenty more viewings would follow.

Glen or Glenda is a curious animal. On the one hand, it follows in the long tradition of classical exploitation filmmaking: movies made starting after WWI that pretend to educate while attempting to titillate. Glenda producer George Weiss had already attached his name to such movies as Test Tube Babies and Racket Girls, the latter of which has been in MST3K, and is probably the least sexy movie about female wrestling. Glen or Glenda was intended follow in this long-standing mold by ostensibly telling the public about sex-change operations while actually providing a teasing glimpse of taboo sexuality. All the trappings are visible, but with Wood at the helm, the film took off in several very strange directions at once.

Initially, Glen or Glenda looks like your usual exploitation movie. It has a topic, its selling point, and it’s even got what Eric Schaefer (writing in Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films) calls the “square up”: the title card at the beginning justifying its existence, and warning that “this is a picture of stark realism”—generally code for “There might be some stock footage of a woman giving birth that shows her vagina.” However, for reasons unknown to anyone, the film then jumps to an aged, morphine-addicted Bela Lugosi sitting in a room full of skeletons and holding a book. His incomprehensible, long-winded monologue, all delivered in Lugosi’s inimitable Hungarian drawl, sets up the unpredictable, inexplicable structure of what is to come.

As Lugosi’s monologue demonstrates, it’s largely Wood’s script which keeps this from being just another bad exploitation movie. His dialogue is often redundant, usually stilted, and never good, yet grows increasingly strange, as if Wood had been drifting in and out of touch with reality (and the art of writing) while creating it. Similarly, the narrative as a whole makes stabs at being conventional, but consistently misses its mark, as if Wood’s internal compass were driving him toward the avant-garde.

Sure, a story starts up: a transvestite named Patrick commits suicide, a dim-witted police inspector goes to talk with a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist launches into the usual “Let me tell you a story…” spiel that frames many exploitation films, Reefer Madness being a well-known example. But no sooner does he attempt to narrate the life of Glen/Glenda than Bela interrupts, signaled (as always) by a flash of stock footage lightning, and begins commenting on the psychiatrist in the vaguest terms possible: “There is no mistaking the thoughts in man’s mind… the story is begun…”

Lugosi’s presence is one of the film’s true mysteries. The obvious answer is that Wood was friends with Lugosi, and wanted to give the ailing veteran some work. Furthermore, Lugosi’s (somewhat faded) star power could potentially lend the movie some slight mainstream credibility; hell, he gets top billing. Even so, why locate him so undecipherably within the movie, intruding on the actual narrative, and generally making the entire film inaccessible to ordinary moviegoers? Both his dialogue and milieu feel drawn from another, even weirder movie, perhaps some uneasy mesh of fatalism, mysticism, and mad science.

Even without Lugosi, Glen or Glenda would be an outlier among exploitation films. Not only does it deviate heavily from its intended sex-change subject matter, but at times it feels uncertain what its subject matter is. Transvestites, or modern man’s inability to overcome destiny (albeit phrased much less coherently)? While most exploitation films let their morality tale plots flow unhindered, the psychiatrist frequently stops his own story to meditate on sexuality and tolerance. At one point, Glen visits his friend Johnny for advice, and Johnny tells his story, within a story, within a story.

All of this is exacerbated by the production values, which are even lower than those in Bride of the Monster and Plan 9. During the psychiatrist’s digressions, the film resorts to merely suggesting the existence of a set: a sign reading “BUS STOP” indicates a bus stop, and a water cooler evokes an office. Wood’s extreme dependence on stock footage also has its consequences: many scenes are reduced to voiceovers underscored by the same few seconds of cars on a freeway, or people on a busy sidewalk, and over a minute and a half of the Alan/Anne story consists of WWII battle footage (this, in a film that’s barely an hour long). Other uses are total non sequiturs, most infamously the buffalo herd stampeding while Lugosi chants, “Pull the string!”

Granted, pointing out badness in an Ed Wood movie may be like shooting poorly executed scenes in a barrel, but I think these examples help show why this movie is worth all the attention I give it. Many of these creative choices weren’t just bad, but unnecessary, and not really justifiable. I’d say this willingness to do the wrong thing, even if the only effect is undercutting traditional narrative cinema, sets Wood apart from the bulk of exploitation craftsmen, who were content merely to film their hackneyed story and maybe inject it with a few minutes of burlesque shows.

Glen or Glenda does have the requisite burlesque padding—inserted, may I add, right in the middle of the movie, with no narrative context whatsoever—but it has so much more going on that the drawn-out stripteases and softcore bondage porn feel like an interruption from the normal outside world of ’50s sleaze, in opposition to the ascended gibberish Wood’s been serving up. This padding is also sandwiched inside Glen/Glenda’s nightmare, the point in the movie where the main narrative (the psychiatrist’s story) intersects with the oneiric horror movie atmosphere of the Lugosi interludes.

This is a movie that takes its subconscious’s noctural soliloquies and puts them on the surface for the audience for the audience to puzzle over. During the nightmare sequence, both the visuals and the sinister, cackling dialogue become completely opaque, and you wonder, if this was transcribed and psychoanalyzed, would some new truth about gender identity be revealed? Or is there no meaning, just intimations toward one? Also, is that guy the devil?

It really is a movie brimming with mysteries, possibly wrapped in additional riddles and enigmas. Its incessantly tangential structure doesn’t help, as the movie repeatedly doubles back on itself, leading the viewer down stories and lines of argument that look eerily familiar. A few salient points can be gleaned from these many approaches, however, and the clearest of these is a plea for tolerance. Ultimately, this is a movie rooted in autobiography and personal interest—Wood’s own transvestism. And it’s remarkably progressive, in its own surreal way, asking (sometimes) for an acceptance of all gender and sexual identities.

Admittedly, the film does make more than a few self-contradictory statements and engages in some obviously false reasoning, but what emerges from the majority of the viewpoints presented is an internal consensus: if a man feels more comfortable in woman’s clothes (or a woman’s body) then those options should be available to him. (Unsurprisingly, female transvestites and transsexuals aren’t even considered.) The film’s one mention of homosexuals comes when the psychiatrist specifies that Glen is not one, but it’s not a condemnation by any means, itself a minor triumph for an era when the word “homosexual” was verboten in mainstream cinema.

Of course, Glen or Glenda doesn’t even come close to being a systematic or intelligible defense of transvestism, but that’s hardly its purpose. Instead, I see it as Ed Wood personally expressing, under the only circumstances he could, his feelings about crossdressing and gender identity. And amid a flurry of hysterical expressionism, he manages to say that people should accept ideas even if they seem strange at first. If Ed Wood had had a shred of talent or artistry, he might’ve been Jack Smith or Kenneth Anger. But he didn’t, thank God, and thus he was Ed Wood. With its indecisively multifaceted narrative, its manic mix of genres and messages, and its wildly idiosyncratic take on human sexuality, Glen or Glenda is one of my favorite movies.

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