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Blood Money

Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across some film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2012 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea – Motifs in Cinema assesses how various themes emanating from a single idea change when utilised by varying artists.

My subject is “Economics and Money,” which has me thinking about how Mitt Romney—that scion of wealth, that symbol of the 1%—worked his way into the movies of 2012. You could see him, for example, in The Dark Knight Rises and its garbled vision of class warfare; in the resilience of its “job creator” hero Bruce Wayne. You could feel the GOP’s “We built that!” ethos writ large in Wayne Enterprises and in the way Wayne’s money entitles him to our trust, because he and only he can build “all those wonderful toys.” (I also spent election season thinking of Romney in terms of another iconic Christian Bale plutocrat: American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, who exhibits precisely the same supreme confidence and nonexistent empathy as Romney’s public persona.)

Ah, but The Dark Knight Rises was a wish fulfillment fantasy where the rich got richer and retired to Italy. Whereas Romney lost. So maybe a more accurate avatar for him would be David Siegel, the real estate mogul whose downgrade from “mega-rich” to merely “rich” provides the narrative for Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles. It’s hard not to laugh at Siegel, who’s really the victim of his own mammoth hubris, but it’s hard not to pity him either; post-2008, liquid exhaustion seems to have replaced blood in his veins. So while Christopher Nolan depicts the rich as our saviors, Greenfield turns them into a queasy cosmic joke. The film does humanize the Siegels, but I still occasionally felt like cackling at the screen: “That’s what you get, motherfuckers!”

Yes, Mitt Romney oozed his way into superhero movies and documentaries. But you may be wondering, “What about middlebrow dramas?” He was there too! In Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage, that is—2012’s “Wall Street thriller” follow-up to Margin Call. Robert Miller, the stock market savant played by Richard Gere, is not unlike Bruce Wayne or David Siegel: like them, he depends on an elaborate façade. As with them, it’s all that keeps him from personal and financial ruin. Although Gere squeezes some pathos out of the film’s half-dozen dilemmas, it’s obvious that Miller’s morally compromised down to his bones, willing to endanger family, friends, anyone to save his own ass. Yet he’s still allowed to impress the audience with his quick maneuvering, which is symptomatic of the thoroughly disposable Arbitrage’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too inclinations.

Light-years from the pedestrian likes of Arbitrage lies my favorite 2012 manifestation of Recession-era anxiety: it’s David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, with heartthrob Robert Pattinson starring as Romney-ish lizard-god Eric Packer. Cronenberg takes a tack opposite that of most filmmakers, choosing to anti-humanize Eric, to embalm him in theory and harsh lighting until he becomes this throbbing, phosphorescent thing. It’s alienating to watch, since you can’t give Eric your pity or sympathy or love. But for a year so full of unfeeling, digitized violence (whether physical or economic) and with more of both on the way… I suspect Cronenberg got it just about right.

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Mad Science

The second I heard about the “Camp & Cult Blogathon” being hosted by Stacia at She Blogged By Night, I knew what I wanted to write about. Because Maniac (1934), aka Sex Maniac, is perhaps the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen. Watching it is like entering a trance. Directed by Dwain Esper, the exploitation filmmaker behind titles like Marihuana and Sex Madness, Maniac is no mere movie; it’s a cri de coeur against structure and restraint. Not one of its 50 frenzied minutes is anything less than outrageously loony.

The plot? It is labyrinthine, and thinking too hard about it leaves me woozy. Roughly: vaudevillian Don Maxwell, moonlighting as a lab assistant, kills a hubris-addled scientist and assumes his identity. Police investigate; corpses walk; the actor grows increasingly paranoid. Peripheral characters deliver halting monologues. One jaw-dropping, Poe-pilfering set piece follows another. And finally, with only a few minutes left, Esper and screenwriter Hildegarde Stadie (his wife) introduce an out-of-nowhere subplot featuring Don’s estranged showgirl wife, an inheritance left by his rich uncle, etc., etc. THE END.

About a dozen horror movies’ worth of plot is squeezed into Maniac, all of it told at breakneck speed and maximum volume. Dialogue isn’t spoken so much as hyperventilated. No one seems to have an inside voice—like Horace Carpenter, who plays the mad Dr. Meirschultz by howling every single one of his lines, and who literally beats his chest when Don disappoints him. “Coward!” he sobs. “Oh you fool!” Histrionic is the default here, with each performance more mannered and exaggerated than the last.

Well, except for the INLAND EMPIRE-esque chorus girls who turn up at the end, lounging around a hotel room and cracking wise. They behave just like actresses in a conventional 1930s B-movie. Although their conversations are a little strange: one girl describes homelessness as “sinking your weary bones into the soft recesses of some park bench”; another jokes about the Greek philosopher Diogenes; and a third girl mocks a sucker in a newspaper article by laughing, “His head must be a jelly bean instead of what they thought it was!” Evocative, puzzling, both? Maniac positively bulges with writing like this.

Or like this:

Stealing through my body… creeping through my veins… pouring in my blood! Ohhh, darts of fire in my brain! Stabbing me. Agony! I can’t stand it, this torture, this torment! I can’t stand it! I won’t! I wo— [incoherent ape noises]

These lines are screamed by Buckley, a patient of Meirschultz who thinks he’s a killer orangutan, after he’s injected with “super adrenaline.” And this hysterical, stream-of-consciousness rant is only one of Maniac’s many grotesque spectacles. To wit:

  • Immediately after Buckley’s rant, a once-dead woman appears from behind a screen. Buckley abducts her, runs off into the wilderness, and exposes her breasts.
  • Don decides that a black cat named Satan has “the gleam” in his eye. He catches it, then gouges out and eats one of its eyes onscreen. (This, after Satan knocks Meirschultz’s artificial heart onto the floor and nibbles on it.)
  • A jocular neighbor explains the workings of the cat-and-rat farm in his backyard: “The rats eat the cats, the cats eat the rats, and I get the skins!”
  • More breasts are exposed.
  • Don manipulates his and Buckley’s respective wives into fighting each other with syringes. Meanwhile, a frog hops around the basement.
  • Jailed, Don moans that he “only wanted to amuse, to entertain,” but has now “spent [his] whole life perfecting an act that no one wanted.”

The causal connective tissue between these incidents is minimal. At times, their chronology feels totally arbitrary, as if the whole movie was a loose, nightmarish clip reel. This impression is magnified by the “educational” title cards that occasionally break up the flow of the film, dry lectures on mental illness with headings like “DEMENTIA PRAECOX” or “MANIC-DEPRESSIVE PSYCHOSES.” In keeping with exploitation film formula, these are meant to excuse Maniac’s excesses. See? they say. This [prurient, horrifying] movie’s performing a public service!

However, since the information in the title cards is now 100% outdated and had only the most tenuous link to the rest of the movie in the first place, they instead come across as a proto-Godardian distancing device, existing only to further disrupt an already fragmented narrative. You read that right: Maniac is surprisingly avant-garde, though it’s unclear how much of the film’s demented style is a function of low budgets, tight schedules, and bad actors vs. Esper and Stadie intentionally crafting a Dada-horror fever dream. One image in particular, of Don and Meirschultz massaging a dead woman’s limbs in a cavernous morgue, even struck me as something right out of Jean Cocteau. (Or, by the same token, Ed Wood.)

This isn’t to say that Maniac is sophisticated or poetic. On the contrary, it’s crude trash. But trash can be experimental too. In all its gory, convoluted melodrama, Maniac is exactly as powerful as it is risible. Every unanswered question—Why do they talk like that? Why did he do that? Where did she come from?—and every one-of-a-kind act of violence sticks like a burr in your brain. Every non sequitur, bizarre inflection, and over-the-top cackle helps explain why Maniac makes such a deserving cult object, even if doesn’t have much in the way of an actual cult. This is exploitation cinema at its most transgressive.

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Announcing: The Queer Film Blogathon 2012

I know we just wrapped up the Short Animation Blogathon, but time and tide wait for no blogger. So it’s time for another special announcement: we’ll be co-hosting the second Queer Film Blogathon from June 18-22, 2012 alongside the wonderful Caroline of Garbo Laughs!

As Caroline puts it, the purpose of this blogathon is to celebrate “lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or otherwise non-heterosexual, non-gender-binary depictions or personages in film!” So cut loose, enjoy yourself, and write about whatever you like, so long as it falls under that very broad umbrella. (You don’t need to declare your topic ahead of time; any overlaps between contributions are fine.) Once this party gets underway in a month and a half, all submitted posts will be linked to both here and at Garbo Laughs. Twice the linkage! Twice the queer fun!

And to make this blogathon even better, we’ll be holding a raffle at each site, probably for books about LGBT cinema. (Prizes and rules TBA.) So, wanna join in? Then please RSVP in the comments either here or on Caroline’s announcement, and we’ll add you to the list of participants below. Finally, she also whipped up a series of beautiful banners to publicize the blogathon:

Participating Sites:

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Announcing: The Short Animation Blogathon

Since last September’s Juxtaposition Blogathon was such a smashing success, we’ve decided to give it another go. This time, it’s the Short Animation Blogathon, taking place from April 23-27, 2012, and you’re invited!

To participate, select up to an hour of short animated films, post your list online before April 27, then email a link to p.g.grrr@gmail.com. (And please include a link back here somewhere in the post.) You can write as much or as little about your choices as you want; YouTube clips are welcome but not required; and it’s up to you to decide what constitutes a “short animated film.” They can, for example, be in any medium—hand-drawn, stop-motion, computer-animated, shadow puppets, etc. Above all, use your imagination and have fun! This is a chance to share your animated loves with the world.

If you’re planning to contribute or have any questions, let us know by commenting below or sending us an email. And please spread the word! You’re welcome to use the lovely banners, featuring the Fleischer Bros.’ Grampy and designed by our friend Jacob. (For more of his art, see the Carleton Graphic website.) We’ll start linking to contributions on April 23, right after Pussy Goes Grrr’s third-year anniversary.

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Yes We Kane

[The following was written for the Great Citizen Kane Debate, hosted by True Classics.]

First off, full disclosure: My middle name is Orson, after our favorite cinematic wunderkind. Make of that what you will.

Now on to the meat of the issue: Citizen Kane is a fucking incredible movie. Wanna talk broadly about its influence and artistry? OK, then: it’s a Ulysses-like encapsulation of American history spanning 1895-1941, of political/economic ambition and its downfall, of the Faustian bargain that constitutes the “American dream,” all told with wit and tragedy and chiaroscuro poetry. It’s a mad gambit by a first-time filmmaker that’s since become a byword for great Hollywood cinema.

But less loftily: It’s fun. It’s puckish. It’s one of my “raw pleasure” movies—a joy to quote and rewatch ad nauseum. I never understand it when people complain about Kane as if it’s this hulking, glacial, inaccessible art film. Are they watching the same Kane I am, the one bubbling with jokes and cute banter? Yes, it’s haunted by Charlie’s broken childhood, his spoiled dreams of high office, and his ruinous relationship with poor Susan. But it’s the very opposite of a slog.

One of Kane‘s many miracles is that it’s so dense, so full, and somehow still so light. It has Joseph Cotten at his finest, dropping self-deprecating one-liners left and right; it has Gregg Toland’s impossibly inventive camera, like the bastard child of a kaleidoscope and an angel; it has that adorable scene where Charlie alleviates Susan’s toothache through laughter; and of course it has Welles himself, a boy genius both within and without the film, laughing at the world while haunted by his past and future.

It’s so poignant, but so charming. So cynical, but so alive. It’s a romance, a biopic, an epic, a film noir, a horror movie, a political thriller, a drama set in the world of turn-of-the-century journalism… it’s such a massive, magical feat that I can’t help but react with awe and delight. I love every frame, every line, every performance in Kane. Like I said: a fucking incredible movie.

As for this “greatest movie of all time” thing? It’s a silly diversion from the movie’s true power. I have nothing against Sight & Sound‘s once-a-decade polls, the same ones that canonized Kane; in fact, I think they can be a handy barometer of critical opinion. However, these polls have also given hordes of adolescent cinephiles the false impression that calling Kane “boring” is an act of courage. Come on, everybody. We’re better than that. Cinema isn’t a horse race; it’s a cornucopia, with no single “greatest movie” looking down on the rest. Appreciate movies for their own merits, not because they have (or have not) been voted “the best.”

And while you’re at it, watch Citizen Kane. Because it’s a really funny, tender, smart, incredible movie.

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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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GOD WAS WRONG

By Andreas

[This was written for the Nicholas Ray Blogathon over at Cinema Viewfinder. For more, see my entry on Ray from PopMatters’ 100 Essential Directors series.]

Watching Nicholas Ray’s domestic hell-o-drama Bigger Than Life (1956) puts a sour feeling in the pit of my stomach. It makes me queasy. It’s not just because of the white-knuckle tension that mounts as middle-class patriarch Ed Avery tyrannizes his wife and son. And it goes beyond the film’s super-scathing critique of family life and conformity in the 1950s. No, it’s a deep, lingering nausea stirred by the film’s corrosive dialogue, its too-vulnerable performances, and its blistering, visceral immediacy.

To elaborate on that “visceral immediacy”: whenever I think about Ray, I like to remember that “The Blind Run”—the treatment that evolved into his Rebel Without a Cause—began with the image of a man on fire hurtling toward the camera. It’s my skeleton key to Ray’s scattered filmography, a neat encapsulation of his pet themes and distinctive style. Ray’s movies were abrasive, direct, and unrelenting, injected with searing color and imagery, tagged with pulpy, elemental titles. Titles like Bigger Than Life.

Hell, that’s almost more of an onslaught than a title. But it’s a terrifyingly apt description of James Mason’s Ed Avery and his cortisone-induced delusions of grandeur. Cortisone, the film’s “miracle drug,” makes Ed swell up like an ego-crazed balloon. “He even looks bigger,” remarks an avuncular Walter Matthau. The cortisone is where my queasiness begins; it lends a strangely sci-fi edge to the film’s psychodrama. It’s a Jekyll/Hyde potion in the guise of a cutting-edge pharmaceutical—intended to turn sickness into health, it instead transforms a family man into a raving monster.

This transformation is always painfully legible in Mason’s performance. He starts the film off being so affable in his bowtie and white shirt, even if his British accent belies his supposed middle-American roots. As a father and schoolteacher, he champions athleticism, intelligence, and hard work, values that the post-cortisone Ed twists inside out. Between flickers of lucidity, he starts giving off a messianic glow and generating credos cobbled together from bits of Nietzsche and Horatio Alger. But the old Ed is always discernible just underneath the charismatic madness.

This feature-length metamorphosis is what really gets to me: how everything “good” quickly and unmistakably turns evil. Ed’s football practice with his son becomes a dehumanizing torture that’s a dead ringer for the swimming pool races in Mommie Dearest, another movie that made me nauseous. The family’s house, with its kitschy interiors right out of Better Homes and Gardens, becomes contaminated like poisoned candy.

It becomes a house of horrors, and I don’t use that phrase idly. As the Avery family descends into hell, Bigger Than Life borrows liberally from the techniques and iconography of the horror genre, enlarging Mason with low-angle shots and Nosferatu-like shadows. The climax is a conventional hero/monster showdown, punctuated by Ray’s lurid use of red and the cartoonish circus music booming from the TV. The film closes on an ostensibly happy ending, but it doesn’t feel happy at all.

Especially not after we hear Mason snarl a line like, “Our marriage is over! In my mind, I’ve divorced you!” It’s a line that severely disturbs his son, and me as well. That “in my mind” turns it from a conventionally melodramatic bombshell into a statement of intent: Ed is going to impose his psychotic beliefs on the world around him. This same desire leads to Ed’s greatest transgression, and the film’s most traumatizing moment, when he decides to act out the biblical story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. “But Ed,” protests his wife. “You didn’t read it all. God stopped Abraham.” Ed thunders back, “God was wrong.”

That line’s forceful blasphemy lingers long after the ending credits. It’s Ray’s most vicious indictment of bourgeois materialism, American exceptionalism, and every Cold War cult of self-improvement. “God was wrong” is like “You’re tearing me apart!” or “I’m a stranger here myself”—an ideologically dense line of dialogue indistinguishable from Ray’s own anti-conformist ethos. Those three little words sum up the film’s brash style, its sickening power, and its overall message: something is truly rotten in America.

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