Tag Archives: viewing diary 2016

Viewing Diary 2016 #2

High Tide (1987), directed by Gillian Armstrong

Riveting maternal melodrama in the tradition of Mamoulian’s Applause or Sirk’s All I Desire. Judy Davis, stifling laughter, stifling sobs, plays a mess of a woman hanging from showbiz’s bottom rung. When she falls off, her car broken down, she’s stranded in a podunk coastal town. The slinking, bobbing camera surveys her inner and outer lives as she builds a relationship with a teenage girl, neither one initially aware that they’re mother and daughter. Establishing shots, mindful of lines and angles, gorgeously frame a shabby landscape of eateries, auto shops, and trailer parks. The grit of the town gets under High Tide’s fingernails. Emotions rise, as do ecstatic crane shots; the climax delivers a wallop. The plot wends around the vagaries of love.

The Lion King (1994), directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff

Haven’t seen this since early childhood! It’s structured like a savanna Bambi, with the trauma of a parent’s death bisecting its coming-of-age story. But the emphatic vastness of The Lion King’s canvas makes its forebear look like a modest romp through the forest. Propulsive set pieces through gorges and caverns alternate with gaudy musical extravaganzas. In the rough Hamlet xerox of a plot, the “circle of life” finds its nexus in Simba’s royal birthright. Absent is any of the moral uncertainty that afflicted the Prince of Denmark; instead, Claudius is rewritten as a feline Hitler whose overthrow literally restores leaves to dying trees. Simba’s lingering guilt over his dead father? Exorcized by his submission to destiny. This onus on Simba to reclaim the throne frustrates me, and the story feels as if any ruffles have been smoothed out to yield an epic that’s beautiful but dull. (Even five jokey sidekicks can’t fix that.) I love the depiction of animal movement, though, especially during “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”

Joy Street (1995), directed by Suzan Pitt

Wordless cartoon sloshing around a woman’s psyche while she’s in the throes of depression. Contrasts motion with stasis; sets muted grays and browns against deliriously heightened yellows. The loose story’s a nocturnal fantasy of a figurine coming to life, then taking its owner on an odyssey through nested metaphors. Instead of dialogue, eloquent sound effects and a jazz score modulate the mood. Given the subject matter and Pitt’s refusal to indulge in cliché, its 24 minutes make for a rough watch, but they culminate in a flood of catharsis.

Aladdin (1992), directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

Screwball romance divided along class lines; rapid-fire shtick as corny as anything on vaudeville; show tunes à la Cole Porter; and scimitar-wielding Arab caricatures so broad the Fleischer Brothers would balk: this is Depression-era entertainment reconfigured for the 1990s. A dash of postmodernism, maybe, and a sprinkle of riot grrrl, but the foundation is sturdy, old-fashioned, aggressively ingratiating itself to the audience. The showmanship is especially evident when the film bends toward magical fantasy, whether under the earth or into the sky. Every act of sorcery is animated with bountiful imagination, lit up in the blues and golds of a desert night. (I’m curious whether Jafar’s climactic exertions of power were meant to be tinged with eroticism, or if that’s just me. His transformation into a phallic cobra, all that bondage… and hardly anybody wears a shirt in this movie. Sex and spectacle in the exotic east: very Cecil B. DeMille!)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), directed by J.J. Abrams

What can you say about a movie that was discussed to death months in advance of its release date? How about this: it’s an unwieldy new piece designed to fit into a preexisting whole. For roughly the first third of its run time, it’s a nifty space chase carried by fresh faces. As soon as they run into Han Solo, though, the plot starts acting as if it has obligations to meet. Like it’s your mom and she’s dragging you along to IKEA and the fabric store but letting you play with your action figures in the car. We zip from this planet to that planet, checking in with the villains every half-hour or so; sometimes there’s a pause to crack jokes or gape at funky alien designs. The Force Awakens is a very acceptable solution to a set of very tight storytelling constraints. Whether that makes it a good movie depends on whether you regard those restraints as intrinsically positive.

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Viewing Diary 2016 #1

Gone to Earth (1950), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

In the hands of most artists, this would play as stale melodrama. Its romantic triangle would succumb to moral binaries. But P&P were not most artists, and in their long joint career, they rarely left a binary intact. Nature vs. civilization, paganism vs. Christian orthodoxy, woman vs. man: the rapturous visual storytelling in Gone to Earth complicates every single one of these seeming dichotomies. The developments in Hazel’s magical life are not weighted strictly toward “good” or “bad.” Instead, they’re built up out of hills, trees, tightening two shots, passion-twisted faces, and a palette of Technicolor excess.

In this film’s cosmology, heaven and hell are not abstract destinations but immediately within reach, and Jennifer Jones plays Hazel as a girl-turned-woman who’s too aware of their proximity for her own good. The knowledge is in her voice, iffy accent or no. It’s in the squiggly cursive handwriting on the farewell note she leaves her husband: “I am a bad girl.” And it’s in the shot that gazes up at her in her yellow dress from deep within the Chekhov’s abyss before rotating to watch a stick plummet deeper still into the darkness. Powell and Pressburger knead a wealth of unspoken implications into an image of a simple Shropshire well.

Carol (2015), directed by Todd Haynes

Here’s what I missed most from Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt while watching this adaptation: (1) the lengthy opening portion of the novel detailing Therese’s drudgery at Frankenberg’s before she runs into her dream woman and (2) the hotel-hopping game of cat and mouse the couple later play against the private detective employed by Carol’s vindictive husband. Compressed versions of both remain in the film, but only as narrative ligaments, helping push the story into its next act. Much as I adored these bits on the page, though, I still appreciate the necessity of screenwriter Phyllis Nagy’s cuts, not only for the sake of time but also because they sharpen the film’s focus. For Carol really isn’t about working retail while pursuing your vocation in your off hours, nor is it even slightly a paranoid thriller. From stem to stern, on every level of craft, it’s an evocation of the soul-deep yearning these two women have for one another.

What is it like to be one whole cleft by circumstance into two aching halves? As it turns out, it’s like gazing out of windows at the snow globe of wintry Manhattan or receiving a call you have to drop while anxiously clenching a cigarette. It’s trying to carve out a sliver of space for you and your beloved within doorways and hallways and hotel restaurants; it’s encoding your love into a glance or gesture only she will be able to decipher. As with Haynes’ other period melodramas, the costuming and set design in Carol act not as value-neutral recreations of ’50s style, but as essential aesthetic components of Carol and Therese’s relationship. Every item in Cate Blanchett’s wardrobe—gloves, earrings, nail polish, fur coat—has been selected and shot with the knowledge that a woman’s self-presentation can function both as a tool and as a trap.

(In this respect, and in the consistently off-center framing, Carol reminded me of Cindy Sherman’s seminal Untitled Film Stills series. It’s an impression bolstered by Therese’s passion for photography; by Haynes’ actual collaboration with Sherman on her feature Office Killer; and by the haze of self-conscious old movie glamour that hangs over this movie.)

A Bronx Morning (1931), directed by Jay Leyda

“The city” is an overwhelming subject, especially for a ten-minute silent short. Leyda wastes no time. His dizzying montage zips from mass transit to shop windows to kids playing in the street. Across this whirlwind tour of the borough, the filmmaker slyly draws visual patterns out of public phenomena. The weaving diagonals of fire escapes and elevated train tracks; the aerial trajectories of pigeons and stray newspapers—they make the Bronx morning seem like a series of abstract compositions just waiting to be caught on camera.

How Men Propose (1913), directed by Lois Weber

A single joke that’s all build-up, build-up, build-up, then wham! Absurd proto-feminist punchline! Running half a reel, this splits its time between three gullible suitors and the female trickster who promises each one in turn her hand in marriage. As she hurries to hide the rings she’s been given and prepare for the next beau in line, the story plays like a preemptive spoof of the still-nascent romcom. The men’s pantomimed proposals are just as broad as the looks of shock they plaster on their faces when their phony fiancée reveals her charade. The woman breaks the fourth wall in every other shot with a cocky grin. She’s sharing a conspiratorial laugh with us, her audience, at matrimony’s expense.

News from Home (1977), directed by Chantal Akerman

Lucky coincidence that I should watch this so soon after both Carol and A Bronx Morning. Together, the three films measure out myriad angles of approach toward a pair of shared subjects: Love and The City. News from Home is roughly as far from the former film’s classical melodrama as it is from the latter’s montage. Akerman’s tack is minimalism, as she juxtaposes voiceover readings of her mother’s letters from Belgium with footage of New York streets and subways. So simple, conceptually. Yet every word she speaks in her mother’s voice and every avenue her camera traverses deepens the trans-Atlantic story she’s telling. She’s never explicit about anything, never tells the viewer how to feel, but even so News from Home broke my heart; is still breaking it a couple days later. I think it’s because of Akerman’s conspicuous absence—because I can glean the outline of the artist as the “you” in her mother’s letters, as the eye taking up space in the middle of these subway cars, the camera-eye with which bold commuters will sometimes exchange a glance. Between the audio and the images of News from Home lies this woman who’s invisible, dislocated, lonely; who’s a daughter, a foreigner, and a human being.

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