For blurbs on films like Rear Window, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Some Like it Hot, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (among others), see this here shameless advertisement by yours truly for today’s event at the Grand Cinema in Tacoma. Feels weird to promote something when its proceeds go toward a transition from film to digital, but the times are changin’. May as well embrace that.
The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1980) – Even just the abstracts of the “interpretations” that have been performed on this film are exhausting. (And note well: these are performances.) Some of them embody everything that’s wrong with academia, what with those deconstructive and reconstructive critical analyses that turn out to bear very little, if any, resemblance to the source material. Identifying a subtext is one thing, but seeking one out in the most obscure places, then milking what are clearly peripheral elements for all they’re worth at the expense of the important foreground and background features: this is an injustice at best and masturbatory, self-congratulatory contempt for author and text at worst. Sure, something in The Shining likely reflects the crisis in masculinity, particularly of the white variety, and perhaps there’s even something in there, something not insignificant, about the history of whites kicking Native Americans off the land. But it would at least help if the work done on The Shining started with the sounds and images presented by and in the film itself. This is a much more challenging endeavor, however, than locating or constructing a motif and then skipping through 99% of the film and pinpointing those obscure moments when thematic and cinematic elements synch with that reading.
What makes a true close reading more difficult is that The Shining presents 24 richly-filled frames per second (in a 146-minute film), each of which presents a world of possibilities for interpretation. Each of these frames is a sea of meaning in itself, and skirting along the surface rather than plumbing the depths of those waters means missing something. Of course, none of us can be expected to perform this kind of close analysis completely, but that fact alone demands a critico-ethical response of humility. Analytical humility means acknowledging that the task of ascertaining meaning is a very difficult one, that the text is probably (certainly, in this case) greater than the work of analysis that will be performed upon it, and that the task of an individual reader is necessarily incomplete.
In a recent seminar on film and architecture, we examined a couple sequences from The Shining, notably the early maze scene and Danny’s Big Wheel ride around the hotel hallways by means of Steadicam. These scenes and the shots in them exude something through the viewing experience that is fundamentally uncomfortable, in part precisely on account of the Steadicam effect. We are identified with an unnatural, silent point of view that closely follows Danny’s circular traversing of the maze-like spaces of the hotel. “Following too closely” is a descriptive phrase that may partially translate the anxiety we feel, being visually positioned just behind the boy. The silence of the camera movement is somehow amplified next to the high and varied volume of those Big Wheels against the different floor surfaces. A similar Steadicam shot of Danny takes place later in the film, when Jack chases after him in the snowy outdoor maze. There, the point of view might seem to be that of Jack, except that Danny evades his crazed father, and the uncanny point of view remains. So much of The Shining produces this kind of effect and the disturbing disjuncture that it implies. What disjuncture? The one embodied in the gap between events in the film and their elusive explanations. Jack is crazy, or rather he is in contact with with otherworldly forces. Danny has an imaginary friend, or Danny’s friend is all too real. The point of view is simply that of the camera, or the camera’s point of view hints at another one. Jack himself is real, or Jack is an echo of an other [sic] captured in the photograph in the film’s final image.
The Hunger Games (dir. Gary Ross, 2012) – Should probably keep these thoughts to myself, but this movie disturbed me terribly. Say what you will about reality television being the new voice of the masses – maybe it is, and maybe that isn’t all bad – but the potential ramifications or logical conclusions of this newish genre is troublesome. It’s particularly troublesome when those conclusions are played out in a story that refuses to interrogate it, refuses to expose it in an ironic or intentionally unsettling way. The Hunger Games puts us in the not-that-distant future, in a totalitarian world in which nothing matters save the annual entertainment spectacle of the titular, savage Olympics. Sure, the story preys on our melodramatic fetishization of children, and yet it seems to do so in such a way as to hollow out that fetishization for nothing other than the production of glamour. That is to say, children are placed in the positions of killers and those to-be-killed, wrested from the traditional place of melodrama and resituated as players in a game of killing. In order to negotiate this abjection, the killed children are positioned either as evil or as martyrs. Those who are evil are shrugged off as cheap, not the unfortunate byproducts of a totalitarian regime of empty spectacle, but rather ugly side characters worth killing in order for the victors to get showered in glitter and mass praise. Those who are martyrs die for this same cause, and the winners don’t make any attempt to overturn the system, to become revolutionaries in any significant way. Sure, they “force” the powers-that-be to change the rules at the end ever so slightly, but this is a negligible move. The film itself wallows in the glamour and spectacle that the crowds lavish upon these rags-to-riches characters, neither subverting the massive problem at the heart of this dystopic world nor implying that it should be subverted. This is a world in which reality television has run amok, no one in it cares, and we are not encouraged to care. Instead, we’re encouraged to join our voices to those diegetic masses and cheer on the once lowly children who can rise above their circumstances, kill their artificial adversaries, and gain the spotlight and attention of everyone else. These days we live in a new kind of Red Scare, but this is neither communism nor socialism; this is fascism, that ugly stepchild of an already unbecoming family that, one had thought, was long past its expiration date. In a word: “wow.”
Beau Travail (dir. Clair Denis, 1999) – A nearly sublime experience, one that should be repeated (if that’s fully possible). After revisiting Chocolat, this was joy coupled with wonder, both aesthetic and intellectual. It’s been too long to attempt to access those initial, immediate impressions. Maybe that’s for the best.
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (dir. Dmitry Vasyukov & Werner Herzog, 2010) – See a fuller review here.
Lawless (dir. John Hillcoat, 2012) – I recently read someone (maybe Dudley Andrew?) remark how many of these “true story” films don’t attempt to embellish or expound upon, in any thoughtful or interesting way, the plain narratives on which they’re based. They ride the wave of the story itself, despite the story itself being relatively blah. If you can basically report “what happens” in a movie and not significantly lose anything in that reductive process, then…whoops.
To Catch a Thief (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1955) – Was struck this time around by the relatively subtle way that the film equivocates the diamonds/jewels/etc. with the female figure, namely, Grace Kelly. Specifics would take awhile to recount, but watch it and see – particularly the fireworks scene. At one point, her whole head disappears in the shadows and the rest of her body, adorned in (faux!) jewels, glimmers, eliciting the desire of Cary Grant and, presumably, the rest of us.
Diary of a Country Priest (dir. Robert Bresson, 1951) – As a follow-up to Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, it stands as a rather significant shift in style and maybe even overall approach. Whereas that previous film was teleologically sutured to its own narrative, this film has no “plot” to speak of. Les Dames, of course, had a “plot” in the other sense, i.e., Hélène’s plot to get back at Jean. Diary‘s narrative, however, simply follows the dynamic between the inner life and outer life of, yes, a country priest in France. The words that are read as voiceover as we see many of them inscribed onto paper are given consistent attention, and the slow dissolves that transition between the journal and its reference point in reality seem fundamentally designed to blur the distinction between what is written and what we see. In classic terms, we are identified with the priest. The dissolves figure so prominently throughout the film, along with fade-ins and fade-outs, that they seem to function beyond just blurring the boundary between narration and narrative. They also lend a hazy, ethereal, almost otherworldly quality to the film’s aesthetic. Already revolving around some of the great questions of existence, although never verbalized in the trite way that so-called “existential” films often do, the formal fogginess creates a dreaminess that subjectifies, if we can say, all that we encounter in the film. All that we see and hear is processed through the filter of the priest, and so we are given a heavenly view of the most mundane, terrestrial objects and scenes.
But this somewhat heavenly view is not idealized. The haziness that seems to lurk within each scene as well as in the transitions between them also may correspond to the priest’s struggle to locate clearly defined answers to many of his own questions. The final image, on the other hand, frames perhaps the starkest contrast of the film. The image of the priest is now replaced with a silhouette of a cross held in a static view against a wall, as a(n) (previously?) apostate priest recalls the final words of the main character: “What does it matter? All is grace.” Such a sweeping conclusion, in consonance with the clearest, most defined image of the film, combine to give a final clarity in an otherwise muddled film. That is to say, the film itself is not muddled, quite the contrary; but the film presents the struggle of its protagonist as a struggle for definition. Perhaps the stylistic representation of this aura suggests that the way to heaven precisely is this struggle, this crisis of faith and inability to locate one’s true self or identity. For examples of how these dissolves look and vague suggestions of how they may intend toward meaning, see this.
Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (dir. Robert Bresson, 1945) – So much to say about this, too little space/time. This is early Bresson, his second feature film. In many ways, it resembles the poetic realism of Jean Renoir more than the Bresson we’ve come to know through his mid-career masterpieces. Rather than all those closeups of hands and an absence of dialogue that somehow combine to reach toward the great mysteries, we have a straightforward, almost Shakespearean narrative shot with professional actors and more of the deep-focus camera work that defined Bresson’s early French counterpart. (Note: we’re doing some shameless auteur criticism here, but so be it. Bresson simply is an auteur, whether you’re a fan of the general auteur approach or not. He’s been constructed this way and so his films, to be understood from a culturally-specific perspective, need to take this fact into account at some point.)
It seemed like nearly every image was shot from just inside a doorframe or window frame. Under the lens of close reading, this is a difficult motif to interpret within the context of the film’s narrative. Why all the frames within the frame? Are we to recognize the diegesis as theatrical, a deception that Hélène stages to avenge her honor and desirability after Jean falls into her trap? This almost implies that Hélène controls the narrative trajectory. She does, in a sense, but it seems too much to align her gaze and narrative agency with that of the camera itself. She is the least personified character in the film, and the most akin to an archetype, a Lady Macbeth or feminine Richard III. The (over)acting in her face constantly dehumanizes her, and her myopic goals drain her of any sympathy.
On the other hand, even Jean’s pathetic swooning, itself archetypical of the oversexed European male, is redeemed at the end when he proclaims his love for Agnès, despite discovering “who” she really is. Agnès herself is a complex figure, one who attempts to erase her past, but whose recognizability renders a fresh start impossible. Hélène’s supposed interest in helping Agnès is designed to do just the opposite, temporarily hiding her shameful history in order to reveal it dramatically and publicly later. Agnès’s mother, too, complicates a one-dimensional reading. She contradicts her own desires repeatedly, allowing Jean access to Agnès’s intimate space and then expelling him from it. In this bedroom scene, her mother nearly seems to expose risqué images of Agnès to Jean. After hesitating, she tries to hide them, only for Agnès’s cabaret outfit to fall into Jean’s view.
In a word, Bresson presents a complex world mostly bereft of “easy” characters. And although the film’s form only hints at the Bresson to develop later, we see here a highly deliberate style, a style whose repetition itself testifies to its purpose and intentionality. But here is a film far more theatrical, far more story-driven and focused on faces than on other bodily members than subsequent Bresson films.
A last point: coincidence, or happenstance, plays a key role in this film. When Agnès pushes a rude customer into a lounge table, breakables crash onto the floor. The camera pans down toward the shattered glass. We don’t get any reaction shots from Agnès or the tuxedoed man. Instead, the camera holds on the glass shards until a woman leans down to pick them up. As she does so, she notices Hélène staring through the doorframe, at which point the camera takes us back to Hélène. In so doing, the camera allows the effects of an action to become a new cause for more action. The camera is distracted in this instance, allowing its (and therefore our) attention to divert from the first cause and move toward a secondary one. It’s hard not to think of Kieslowski at moments like this. See anything from Blind Chance to The Decalogue to the Trois Couleurs trilogy to The Double Life of Veronique.
Breathless (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1960) – Other than obligatory and ubiquitous clips, have probably only sat through Breathless twice. What can you say about it that hasn’t already been said ad nauseum? Watch it and you’ll be struck by how deliberately iconic it wants to be. It’s iconic in the secondary sense, for the most part, ceaselessly referencing icons like Bogie and Paris and cinema in general. The opening phrase is something like, “Yes, I’m an asshole.” It may as well be Godard saying it, though it’s his proxy of Jean-Paul Belmondo whose voice utters it. They swoon over Tarantino, but isn’t he just a repetition of Godard, and a less critical one at that? Say what you will about the tenets of national Socialism, Dude, (which is very close to what Godard represents) at least it’s an ethos. What Tarantino does is pastiche everything he likes into a collage of cinematic images obsessed with violent revenge with the ultimate goal of bolstering his own filmography. Not to glorify the past or anything, but these were not Godard’s goals, and they still aren’t. Breathless is effortless, weightless, but not thoughtless. It pretends to be careless, but every shot and cut are fused together with meaning. Those jump-cuts when Patricia is riding shotgun in the convertible, they rhythmically correspond to Michel’s list of her bodily members that he worships. He fractures her body into parts as Godard fractures the scene into shots and images. He does something quite similar in the opening sequence of Une Femme Mariée. He’s still an asshole, to be sure, or maybe more of a sonuvabitch, paying homage to years of cinema by disregarding it, or at least by breaking its conventions. He writes himself into the film in a way that Hitchcock never did, not so much a cameo as a loose autobiography. Michel is Godard, in the sense that his vibe and persona correspond perfectly to the one that Godard, at this phase in his career, wants us to believe about himself. In a few years (1968), Godard will come to realize that the politics of the French film industry are too much, and he’ll need to go underground to do what he wants. Until then, he coyly pretends to splice the shrapnell of the cutting room floor into a series of remarkably cohesive artworks that care as much about their quaint narratives as they do about their radical form.
L’Avventura (dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960) – Obviously, Antonioni is the European art-film counterpart to Godard in 1960…although Bergman may be, too. No, it’s Antonioni. And here’s why: supposedly Antonioni cried after L’Avventura got booed at Cannes. Godard has a word for guys like that. So whereas Breathless pretends to hide its deliberateness, L’Avventura foregrounds it. At the same time, the latter film breaks rules, but it does so in a way that makes you wonder whether it was intentional. The grammar here is more abstract, aligning persons with architectural structures and natural landscapes in an almost phenomenological manner. When the wealthy yacht party is wandering the island searching for Anna, the mise-en-scene is littered with jagged rocks, dead wildlife, relics from an ancient civilization, tumultuous waters crashing into rocky cliffs, volcanic islands, and storm clouds. The sound oscillates between those crashing waves and the unforgiving wind, only interrupted by the pitiful cries for Anna from individuals who, themselves, are islands scattered about on the island. All that is captured in the experience of that natural imagery and those natural sounds is embodied in the bored and all-but-dead characters who wander the island like blind, lost souls.
Touch of Evil (dir. Orson Welles, 1957) – Height, height, height. Found it hard to focus on anything else, with the camera constantly swooping up, lingering, then sometimes descending. Why would that be? Why that choice? A nagging question without an immediately clear answer, at least to the daft. We know that, even in these earliest days of the notion of the auteur, Welles had already thought himself one for a good fifteen years. He’d been stamping unique styles into his camera work, sound, narrative, and lighting since Kane, to such an extent that he was the ultimate cinematic diva of the golden age of Hollywood. Touch of Evil is emblematic of all of this, having all the marks of a distinctive authorial voice and then getting chopped to death with new scenes added, outside of Welles’ control. It’s only fair to acknowledge that the version of the film to which this blurb refers is the fairly recent restoration of the film according to Welles’ infamous 53-page diatribe, dictating exactly how it should look and sound and why. In a word, Welles, at least in the first half of his career, shot films for the pleasure of the cineaste. Watching Touch of Evil is like watching Kane, or parts of The Magnificent Ambersons (what’s left of it). It’s awesome in the truest sense, filled with those “how’d-he-do-that?” moments. Lots of other things to discuss, like the way the film uses star images to inflect characters. Not only is Welles himself the big, fat, bad guy, but Marlene Dietrich plays an important role as his old confidant. She’s passed her sell-by date, making her humanity shine all the more through her aging shell. And although Welles is the titular “evil” of the film, it’s never that cut-and-dry, as with all the great noirs. His cleverness exceeds that of any virtuous character, and the audience seems to have access to his inner psyche (by means of amplified mutterings) in a way that they don’t get with anyone else, perhaps other than Janet Leigh’s character. Leave it to Welles to cast himself as the rotten but ingenious necessary end of a corrupt system. This is the character he plays in the film, and this is the image that the man himself carried into the making of the film, and certainly away from it.
The Conformist (dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970) – Godard, Antonioni, Welles, now Bertolucci. These blurbs are like bullet points of film canon. The films certainly stand out for their unique formal techniques and thematic richness, but just as much, they set themselves apart as the creations of a different genius at each one of their centers. That’s certainly up for debate, and undoubtedly as time passes, recognition will increase that cinema was making a concerted effort in its earlier days to legitimate itself as an art form. You can’t have art proper without an artist, and so even in the critical scholarship of these films, as much attention is paid to the film texts themselves as to the biographies of the directors. Bertolucci is one of the greatest examples of this, particularly since his aesthetics appears to clash with his politics. As a Leftist who has created films like The Conformist that foreground Marxist and Freudian themes, it’s funny how fascist he is when it comes to interpreting his work. A given film from Bertolucci is followed up with exponentially more hours of interviews in which the filmmaker tells us what the films mean and do not mean. Not that this isn’t interesting and even important, but it isn’t how post-Barthesian Leftists tend to approach meaning and texts. As for The Conformist, it’s also funny and ironic how, once you actually delve into the film’s own history, you discover that some of the most important choices made about it were not Bertolucci’s. The unusual narrative, focusing on a confessional/psychoanalytic voiceover session in the car with multiple and layered flashbacks before delivering us to the moment of truth and then tracing its fallout, came from the film’s editor, not from Bertolucci. Bertolucci is the first to admit this, even as he calls it “his” film and tells us what the editing means. Other observations. Lighting in The Conformist is about erotics. It’s either blue and sterile or orange and warm. Since the story itself has to do with the problem of erotics—is there something wrong with me for having confused desires?—the harsh either-or lighting in the film places the liminal protagonist in extreme spaces. He’s ever out-of-place, never in his own realm. The wonderful and famous scene that formalizes Plato’s allegory of the cave puts this dyad into stark visual terms. The film’s final image puts him into a scene very much like that platonic cave, except his turn of the head into the light reveals his awareness that he exists in an imaginary realm. Unlike the allegorical cave-dwellers, he knows about the light at the mouth of the tunnel and refuses to pull a U-turn.
Magic Mike (dir. Steven Soderberg, 2011) – Despite a lot of time trying to find reasons to validate this film from a critical perspective, it seems mainly noteworthy for being a film by a director with art-house street-cred that tries to switch conventional gender roles. From beginning to end, it’s the women who end dates with men by leaving and saying, “I’ll call you” disingenuously. Obviously, there’s the male stripping thing. And really, all the film’s a stage here, as the camera gives us next to no close-ups, especially of the dudes. Their bodies are on display in one way or another whether they’re on the catwalk or not, but that’s not the important thing. The important, and unfortunate, thing is that Magic Mike is a straight-up celebration of all things bro. This is what makes it odd and disappointing: it falls for so many of the narrative clichés, simplifying rather than complicating what could be an introspective story with its own critical eye toward various structures, whether gender-related, economic, political, or cultural, all of which are ripe and desperate to be worked on in this film. Despite its pretense to be about male bodies, the film keeps on reverting back to objectification of women. Sure, male bodies are on display, but you only really see female nudity. Plus, by identifying us with the men who strip, we are positioned in their shoes. This means that when they bump & grind with women frequenting their club, it’s still a male fantasy at work. In the end, the narrative finality is cheap and obligatory. Just do a Google image search for this film, and you don’t get anything like Mike’s abandonment of the profession. You get almost entirely images of the guys on the stage looking glorified in what they do. Importantly, it would be difficult to do this in a film about women strippers. For them, you either have to acknowledge the ugliness there (think of Aronofsky’s The Wrestler) or you have to jack up the erotic nature of it all to distract the audience from what they rather intuitively know is a less than ideal career.
The Artist (dir. Michel Hazanavicius, 2011) – As with all the Oscar stuff, this got overhyped, which is ultimately unfair to the film, most of all. The silent thing is great, and more than a gimmick. BUT, when you obsess over the silent thing within the film’s own diegesis, it seems to subtract from it a little. Or a lot. Singin’ in the Rain pulled this off well, because it wasn’t primarily a silent film. Silent cinema creates so many possibilities left unrealized by talkies that you hope for something inherently more visual, more Melies-esque or Keaton-esque than this. It had its moments, but its extreme self-consciousness made it hard to take it with a grain of salt. Also, melodrama all over the place. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it had the tone of Sunset Boulevard, the story of a 50s musical, and the self-reflexivity of a contemporary Oscar-winner.
Double Indemnity (dir. Billy Wilder, 1944) – This has been read in a variety of ways, and it deserves every one of them. We could go genre-historical and talk abou the film noir components of it, with attention paid to its status as a relatively early noir that was directed by a guy who, at the time, didn’t know what the genre was. V. Penelope Pelizzon and Nancy M. West have done something like this, attending to the cut ending and the role the censors played in it (Narrative 13, issue 3, 2005). There’s the homoerotic reading (Brian Gallagher, Literature Film Quarterly 15, issue 4, 1987), focusing on Neff’s and Keyes’ relationship, which is certainly important and provocative (particularly in terms of its bookending confessions of “I love you”), but limiting. A psychoanalytic analysis has been done by Hugh Manon (Cinema Journal 44, issue 4, 2005), which examines fetishism in the film. From Neff’s first words, the film is about process rather than product, wanting something and then backing off once it’s available. It’s about the game and the psychosis rather than the happily ever after. I, however, like the close reading method, one that would note things like the name of Edward G. Robinson’s character: “Keyes.” Consider, too, the way that wig sits on Phyllis’ head and the rest of her cheapness. Note the way that up and down movements coincide with characters states of guilt, how large and small spaces come into play, and the disaffecting effect of those Venetian blind shadows cast on the bodies of the morally compromised protagonists. It’s all there for another day…
Blazing Saddles (dir. Mel Brooks, 1974) – Like so many comedy cult classics, it gets better and better upon multiple viewings. Why is this? Why are some comedies better with repetition, when jokes should lose their luster when they get old? Perhaps it has to do with the absurd worlds of Young Frankenstein, Zoolander, and Blazing Saddles. It’s easier to suspend our disbelief the more attached we become to the characters and the more we see the larger goals of a film like this one, which are relatively profound. It makes asses of white folks, and rightly so. The biggest hams are the Jewish characters (ba-dum-ching), notably those played by Brooks. If the world is a stage, then cinema is the tale told by an idiot, so Brooks’ move to ridicule not so much the world itself but the world of cinema fundamentally works. He deconstructs genres (westerns, horror, sci-fi, thrillers, historical epics), subverting expectations by drawing them out to absurdity. Watching these films is tantamount to attending film school. If you don’t get the tropes of these genres, you should after watching Mel Brooks films.
A Fish Called Wanda, Bob's Burgers, Christmas in July, cinema, Coen brothers, film, James Bond, Kevin Kline, King of the Hill, Mike Judge, movies, O Brother Where Art Thou, Oceans Twelve, Peter Bogdanovich, Preston Sturges, Sam Mendes, Skyfall, Steven Soderbergh, What's Up Doc
Skyfall (dir. Sam Mendes, 2012) – Really want/need to see it again, but here’s the first of the Craig-era Bond films that tries to get away from the Bourne legacy (as it were). Major shift in narrative gears here, with Bond’s role as protector of the maternal figure he had previously been defying. He’s no rogue anymore; instead, MI6 is entirely rogue. This serves to justify and even vindicate the Bond of the past two films and (finally) transfer his Oedipal syndrome from various younger proxies to the mother herself. Work should be done focusing on the final climax taking place in an abandoned church, with a nuclear family replete with a previously abandoned son along with the mother both getting the axe. Bond’s identity is, we are to believe, no longer divided. His sinister other half is now dead. Their identification together is never clearer than in the flirtatious scene charged with homoeroticism. Get past that, please, since that’s not what it’s about. Bond’s extreme vanity dictates the scene. He’s in love with himself and split in relatively simple terms: good and evil. When his evil half makes a pass at him, sure, maybe something is going on there that queer theorists can snag, but more than that we have Narcissus looking at his own reflection in the pond.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (dir. Coen brothers, 2000) – Had previously, mistakenly, charged this to be the most optimistic of the Coens’ films. Nah. Just as cynical as the others, under the guise of “You Are My Sunshine.” The Depression-era Deep South is the punching bag for the Coens’ distaste for warmth and religion, a fair conflation considering the culture within the film.
What’s Up, Doc? (dir. Peter Bogdanovich, 1972) – A screwball comedy tribute to screwball comedies, and the best thing I’ve seen from Bogdanovich. (Okay, the Tom Petty doc was pretty great, too.) Why is The Last Picture Show heralded above this? Wife mentioned the similarities to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which is right on the money, making me realize how that one is also a screwball tribute to screwballs. This one’s got more zinges, though, with both the cleverness and insanity emanating from the Katherine Hepburn/Bugs Bunny figure. Really can’t help but think that this has something to do with male anxieties toward powerful women. Not to over-psychoanalyze (is there another way to do it?), but considering the renewed interest in screwball coming right after the burgeoning of feminism in the 60s, this doesn’t seem far-fetched. Barbra Streisand’s character isn’t only the source in the craziness and the wittiness, but she’s hyper-educated, and (wait for it), her father’s a judge (law-of-the-father and all of that). When she’s in the room with a bunch of haute-taute experts, she whips one of of her college degrees and puts them all to shame. Plus, she’s defined by her desire for him. This is just a more amplified version of what was already there in Bringing Up Baby. In His Girl Friday, you had something similar under the guise of a woman’s career ambitions. But here as with there, there remains hope for the man, to whom the woman will eventually bow and allow herself to be broken.
A Fish Called Wanda (dir. Charles Crichton, 1988) – Kevin Kline owns this like Steve Carell owns “that’s what she said.” Can’t remember enough from it right now for anything worth writing. Quite funny. Heist meets screwball, maybe?
Ocean’s Twelve (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2004) – Hilarious that what is easily the most formally and narratively interesting of the Oceans movies is the one that audiences liked the least. The other two are fun, but this one is endlessly fascinating, filled with weird shots and cuts and story spins that absolutely foreground the presence of a camera, the artificiality of the medium, and the fact that you’re watching a bunch of actors, primarily, not a bunch of characters. This one is also a comedy way more than the other two. They’re going to get offed if they don’t find a lot of money, and fast, so naturally the first thing they do is go after an impossibly difficult object that is not worth very much. They’re holed up in some cramped Dutch hotel, waiting in line to use the bathroom, and one of them can only worry about his administrative and leadership skills (that would be the Jason Bourne among them). You have to wish that the Night Fox never showed up in this one, and the guys desperately kept on failing at everything. That’s a rat pack for the Bush era.
Christmas in July (dir. Preston Sturges, 1940) – A very short and very underrated film from the master. Again, struggling to remember details in this moment… Ah yes, vanishing point stuff highly reminiscent of The Apartment (Wilder) and Hudsucker Proxy (Coens). The Coens’ debt to Sturges couldn’t be exaggerated, and Wilder would have confessed the same of himself. The workers are drones who want to be lifted out of their monotonous quotidian existence, and the only way to do that is to get lucky. The critique of capitalism is strong, and Sturges is smart enough to inscribe it into the actual dialogue, just to make sure we get that he gets it, and still thinks it’s a joke.
Bob’s Burgers (created by Loren Bouchard, 2011-) – This has to be one of the smartest shows, or at least comedies, on TV. (Since I don’t really watch TV dramas, it’s fair to qualify the claim.) It’s written by some film geeks, which helps. This week’s episode, for example, was called, “The Unbearable Likeness of Gene.” Gotta love it. Can’t quite figure out how the show is doing anything fundamentally different. It might just be refreshing to see The Simpsons back in fine form after years of phoning it in. Plenty of gender and ethnicity stuff to talk about, but *yawn*.
King of the Hill (created by Mike Judge, ????) – Have now watched the first three episodes, having never seen the show before. Wouldn’t have bothered, but one of the sharpest profs I’ve had says this is the best TV show of all time. And he’s a grandpa. Sure enough, better than expected. Judge’s own ambivalent politics bleed through this. As one who refuses to identify with one polar extreme or the other (in terms of American politics), the show is free to point and laugh at anyone and everything. This is actually very rarely done these days. Almost everything else out there is basically partisan in some sense. So, this show, along with Judge’s recent Extract, are delightful opportunities to recognize the absurdity prevalent across, above, within, and behind U.S. politics.
We’ll see how this goes. It’s going to start as a list, with attempts to fill in the space between titles with whatever jumps to memory.
All About My Mother (Todo Sobre Mi Madre) (dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 1999) – Another one for film & melodrama. Did a scene analysis of the sequence wherein Manuela transitions from Madrid to Barcelona, operating under the hypothesis that Madrid constitutes the city as law and Barcelona the city as queer or abject. Once her son dies in Madrid, Manuela is obliged to return to Barcelona, the city where he was conceived, to track down his father. This involves a kind of rebirth for Manuela, formalized through the train tunnel and swooping out over the city at dusk. She passes La Sagrada Familia, its looming, gaudy, sacred presence embodying all that is excessive and other, directing the cab to the city’s outskirts where the marginalized dwell. What might be shot in an ominous manner Almodóvar shoots in a most beautiful one.
Safe (dir. Todd Haynes, 1995) – Finally. It is everything it purports to be. The critique on all things suburban/domestic/middle-class/etc. couldn’t be more scathing. Her descent makes perfect sense, considering the environment. Still processing the lengthy period to which we’re witness out at the rehab center, though. Curious.
North By Northwest (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1959) – One again. This time, for a term paper. Here’s the title: “Architectural Eves, or, Motherly Shelters: Claustrophilia and Maternal Desire in North By Northwest.”
Rosemary’s Baby (dir. Roman Polanski, 1968) – Not overrated. Also, ridiculous. Wanna watch this again through the lens of satire and see what happens.
Russian Ark (dir. Alexander Sokurov, 2002) – The single-shot thing is a source of serious anxiety for us formalists. If you can take a deep breath and just accept it, it because of a thing of marvelous beauty, not to mention impressiveness. Something about palace/museum spaces is deeply attractive for analysis. The rooms are so centrifugal, for the most part, these massive voids that plaster people as close to the walls as they can get, while still far enough to take in the paintings hanging there. The placement of sculptures at the eye of the void almost seems like filler, but they then alter the nature of the space, transforming it into a centripetal one. You must walk around the sculpture, as the enigmatic Frenchman does here, to take it in. This is fundamentally unlike how you “take in” the paintings on the walls. Said paintings then become the voyeurs, watching you as you encircle the sculpted figures. The corridors than connect the rooms/galleries are fundamentally aimless, connecting larger spaces for no other reason. To give direction, you need ushers or military, both of which we get here, pushing people out of rooms and into others, usually because it’s closing. So, space is at the mercy of time.
The Color Purple (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1985) – So over-the-top, but that makes it easy to parse out. The predictability of the face-first melodrama is half the point. You know at some point that the mute victim will get a voice for herself, and that will be the moment of rupture, the safety valve doing what it does best. We start with utopia, we descend straight into hell, and we slingshot back into heaven.
The Draughtsman’s Contract (dir. Peter Greenaway, 1981) – The remains a difficult one, although the conceit of the gaze is a helpful way to think about it. Frames abound, but (as Trinh says), the framer becomes the framed. As he, presumably, is the master at work, we discover the mistress is working him over. The excess here is of a different nature. All things exotic and alluring dominate the mise-en-scene.
Good-bye Dragon Inn (dir. Tsai Ming-Liang, 2003) – Not unlike the gallery spaces in Russian Ark, but cinema-style. It’s evocative of The Last Picture Show, a movie theater that’s shutting down after a glorious past. This is a place of rendezvous, sometimes illicit, a place where dreams go for one last shot of adrenaline before they die.
Last Year at Marienbad (dir. Alain Resnais, 1961) – Another tough one. Felt a lot like L’Avventura, but with more of a formal flair. So Left Bank.
The Apartment (dir. Billy Wilder, 1960) – Had seen The Hudsucker Proxy again recently just before this, so the similarities seemed ubiquitous. This film is far too perfect far blurbs such as these, or even most essays. He’s Baxter and also a “baxter,” moving up the ladder at his own expense, a schmuck, a “buddy-boy” with no self-respect, and self-respect equals a girl. Also, man, let’s talk about ethnicity, especially as it relates to the neighbor.
Die Hard (dir. John McTiernan, 1988) – The Christmas movie some of us were never allowed to see, and this time seen in the context of a melodrama seminar. One of the “male weepies.”
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974) – The formalism stood out this time more than before, but these days that’s the case with just about everything. Also, the lack of a musical soundtrack. So quiet.
Out of Sight (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 1998) – This fits well among all the others as a film that would’ve benefitted from some close analysis, if only there were time. Gotta love Soderbergh’s narrative tomfoolery here and elsewhere. This one’s up there with The Informant!, Oceans Twelve, and The Limey.
Dr. No (dir. Terence Young, 1962) – One long establishing shot, in retrospect. Wonderfully, even intentionally corny. Funny that we call them paranoid back then, but they knew how to stick the tongue in the cheek better than we do today, apparently. Now, we’re pretty serious. Skyfall slightly lightened things, but nothing compared to the Connery era.
From Russia with Love (dir. Terence Young, 1963) – Mostly ditto with the above. Homoeroticism enters the picture, in terms of content as well as the formalized gaze of Bond and Shaw’s villain. They’re beautiful, and so is their death tango.
Miracle on 34th Street (dir. George Seaton, 1947) – Wrote an essay about this that may go somewhere. In a word, it embodies a replacement myth, a fundamentally post-sacred one, negotiating traumas associated with World War II in the most melodramatic and secular way possible. Santa fulfills the Christ-cycle: advent (arrives on 34th Street), teaching (reforming flawed attitudes about love and such), crucifixion (condemned to mental asylum), resurrection (vindication in the court of law), and ascension (his disappearance next to a kind of empty tomb [fireplace] at the film’s end). This all relates directly to propaganda for the postwar U.S. ideology: get the women back in the home (Doris has a job but shouldn’t), get them married (Doris starts the film divorced, ends it engaged), and believe that you can have the stuff of your (American) dream(s) (ask Santa for whatever you want and you’ll get it). All the content with Macy’s and other real-world reference points serve to render the myth believable to and applicable for viewing audiences.
The Italian Job (dir. F. Gary Gray, 2003) – It’s throwaway, a subpar imitation of those caper movies that were flying around in the mid-2000s, but it’s still fun. Still haven’t seen the original. Wants to be a great ensemble cast, and it almost is. Revenge is a dish best served fun!
Bernie (dir. Richard Linklater, 2011) – Dark comedies generally have something over the lighter stuff. Or anyway, the lighter stuff needs a dark counterpart. MacLaine is wallowing in her own late-career star image (can’t beat ‘em join ‘em). The mockumentary form seems restricted to the talking heads, further integrating this technique into a tool we’ve come to expect. It’s no longer something that only fits with full-blown mockumentaries, like The Office (U.K.). Parks and Rec does it, and movies like Bernie are now doing it. Bernie does it in a Waiting for Guffman-type mode, in order to warm you up to the townfolk even as it renders them quirky.
Workaholics (2011-) – Is it a stoner show or something more? The jury is still out. If for no other reason, the trio’s complete disdain for cause and effect is strangely insightful as well as humorous.
Gomorrah (dir. Matteo Gorrone, 2008) – Fits easily into the new European cinema, if that’s even an established thing. A cousin to Revanche from a tad north a few years before. Some echoes of Babel, too, especially in terms of its use of children to make a tragic and politically loaded point. It’s possible to read the film otherwise, but the filmmaker uses closing intertitles to make sure you know what he wants you to take away from it.
Dark Water (dir. Hideo Nakata, 2002) – As horror films go, this is good. It’s about the terror, not about the gore. Pretty clearly by the same director who did Ringu (as well as the American sequel to its adaptation, The Ring 2), we have a host of Freudian-influenced plot elements and mise-en-scene that amplify them. The film strongly evokes the uncanny, particularly through the specter of the doppelgänger, the young girl who disappeared years earlier and whose ghost moves about the somewhat ruinous apartment building. When we see her, she’s supposed to resemble the daughter who’s just moved in with her mother, but the joke’s on us. On an immediate level, the resemblance makes us think of the daughter, but by means of flashback, the film tells us that the specter actually finds its semiotic referent in the mother as a young, abandoned girl. Her own abandonment as a child is relived in her inability to function as a “proper” mother, working late while her daughter waits at school, accidentally neglecting her, and so forth. The coupling that eventually takes place in the elevator (read: grave) between the mother and the girl-ghost marks a reunification of the most narcissistic sort. The mother, through death, once-and-for-all abandons her daughter and joins herself to a kindred spirit, in the most literal sense of the term. Insofar as the tomb finds a correlation with the womb, the elevator is loaded with implications of both.
Stella Dallas (dir. King Vidor, 1937) – The most melodramatic of them all. The film is something of an anomaly for identifying the viewer so consistently (although not exclusively) with Stella, Barbara Stanwyck’s character, during a period of film history when women were not often the protagonists. The character is marked by excess at multiple levels: the discursive, the sartorial, the emotional, the bodily, and probably others. The film initially amplifies her lower-class status and her savvy ability to net an upper-class man. Soon thereafter (in filmic terms; diegetically, years pass), Stella becomes discontent with the status quo to which she is supposed to submit. Her lifestyle flies in the face of the (again) “proper” mother/woman/wife. She remains quintessentially lower-class, despite her apparent social mobility. This has a punishing effect on her family, which she recognizes, proceeding to perform the self-sacrifice of (symbolic) maternal death that has come to define so much melodrama. It seems that even in the moments of strongest viewer engagement with Stella, however, she remains a thing-to-be-watched. We are given views and images of her that highlight her excessive appearance, which is layered on more and more as the narrative progresses. She is an object of silliness and one of sympathy simultaneously.
Lawrence of Arabia (dir. David Lean, 1962) – This was the one-day theatrical exhibition of the digital restoration, and it was truly beautiful. Landscapes abound, of course, and the more involved Lawrence becomes, the more praise he receives from the Arabs, the more he stands out from that landscape. The beautiful light browns become backgrounds to those blue eyes, that blonde hair, and the white garb with a golden crown. Ideally, would love to put this under a phenomenological lens. The experience in a theater of these images washing over you and that music swelling all around you is dang-near sublime. Has anyone done a phenomenology of the epic film? This would be the place to start. Until then, “nothing is written.”
Nashville (dir. Robert Altman, 1975) – Amazing how much you can forget about a film in five days. Nashville came across as so much more scathing this time around than last time (around 4 years ago). The attention Altman pays to the triumphalistic attitude of nationalism that defines his vision of the South in the 1970s is so in-focus, despite the conceit of a wandering, objective camera, is so flagrant as to seem fictional. And maybe it is. However, the title to the film is Nashville, the place of its setting. So much about the film is couched in the apparently real, that it’s hard to deny something is being said about a specific place. Arguably, all the quintessentially American imagery makes Nashville synecdochic, a stand-in for a larger idea. And this position would have some merit. A number of the characters in the film are not from Nashville, although they gather there. For that matter, Geraldine Chaplin’s character isn’t even American, and she’s at least as ridiculous as the most ridiculous American character. Unlike Altman’s final film, A Prairie Home Companion, it doesn’t seem like he enjoys the music in Nashville, since nearly every song has a subtext, either in its lyrics or its performance or both, that renders the character singing it or the song itself deeply problematic. Whether it’s Keith Carradine’s character singing “I’m Easy” with three different women in the audience thinking they’re the object of his affections, or Haven, decked out in a messianic white suit while treating anyone who is weary or heavy-laden with contempt and singing songs glorifying an intangible American ideal, the songs veil so thinly the ugliness behind them that the veil is quite transparent.
Rashomon (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1950) – Screened this for a seminar in film and architecture, making it an excellent choice and offering a certain lens through which to recognize new features. It’s called Rashomon, named after the gate where the main storytelling takes place. The gate is heavily dilapidated, reminiscent of the look of structures in Japan following the atomic bombings. The gate is a liminal structure connecting two different spaces, and so it’s an ideal structure in which to house a few wanderers who are defined by their uncertainty (i.e., in between knowledge) as to what happened in the forest. The figure of the woodcutter is the most interesting, apparently as a figure representing humanity in Kurosawa’s time and place. He gives an account as to what happened but is discovered for having deliberately omitted part of the truth. This makes him guilty not of everything but certainly of something. His felt guilt ends up transforming into resolve to live better, to be the very hope that he had lost for the world. He’s a woodcutter, after all. It’s a fundamentally destructive occupation, tearing down the natural order, or, tearing down nature. His own human nature, too, is fallen. Only once he recognizes this fallenness can he become constructive (another essential part of being a woodcutter – making the wood available for building). He is the optimist in this story and the priest is the pessimist. They’re both equally foolish, too able to be dragged down by the crushing realities of the world. It’s the optimist, though, who finds the determination to defeat his own nature and move forward. The third wandering fellow is simply cynical. There’s more hope for the optimist and the pessimist than there is for the cynic, the one who is so jaded by the world that he doesn’t even care anymore. This is manifest architecturally when the cynic tears down part of the gate structure from the inside in order to make fire. Without a thought that his action is ultimately counter-productive, dismantling the structure that gives him shelter, he’s too focused on his own immediate need to think about greater matters. He does this same thing to the child at the end of the film, scavenging an abandoned baby for a blanket and neglecting the child to die. The woodcutter’s intervention has been identified as a display of Kurosawa’s humanism. Within the text of the film, though, it’s just hope. Kurosawa always insisted he was making films for the Japanese people who were watching them at the time, and he saw Japan as in a transitional period in the postwar era, passing through a gate moving into an uncertain future.
Terms of Endearment (dir. James L. Brooks, 1984) – Watched for a film & melodrama seminar, and this appears to be the piéce de resistance of the genre. It, along with so many defined by the melodramatic style/mode, is a walking and talking contradiction in ideological terms. In this case, it upholds the values and, more importantly, the identification with women characters, but it also displays the ultimate impossibility of those values within the quote-unquote system of capitalism what-with the nuclear family and so on and so forth. (That sounds positively Zizek-ian!) This film is distinguished from a “romantic comedy” by virtue of the women’s conversational preoccupation with themselves, only including men as a topic of discussion by extension, as opposed to everything centering around men and women acquiring their identity through the desired men. The film hones in on and insists upon the traditional family. The Debra Winger character gets married and has children, to the disappointment of her widowed mother, a character defined by repression and frustration. The daughter, on the other hand, is more of a free spirit who expresses herself through language and sexuality in a way that eludes her mother. When the family inevitably starts to break apart, the male is vilified for his infidelity while the film seems to embrace the woman’s philandering. She’s frustrated at home and expressing herself, after all. When she’s on her (also inevitable) death bed, she and her husband make arrangements for her mother to take the children. Career comes first and foremost for the traditional man; he can’t be bothered by children. They’re relegated to the domestic and maternal sphere. So naturally, they go to their grandmother, who conveniently marries a self-made career man (an astronaut, no less), thus returning the children into the realm of a nuclear, traditional family. The formulaic nature of this narrative, particularly with its highly episodic structure and huge jumps forward in time in order to get to to the meaty parts, reflects basic assumptions that pervade its audience. The film’s amazing box office success seems to confirm this claim. The film’s appeal lies in its melodramatic content. It’s a tear-jerker designed to elicit empathetic pangs of loss and love and so on, and it does so in that blatantly contradictory way that maintains the status of melodrama as a mode of escape that, unfortunately, finds its referent in an all-too real world.
Broken Blossoms (dir. D.W. Griffith, 1919) – Another screening for the melodrama seminar. This one can be subjugated to any number of readings, but we’ll try to avoid tinted lenses (unlike this film itself – ha) as much as possible to look at what’s there and what the film itself wants to highlight. A couple readings brought to light the inherent conflict, contradiction, even, that comes with the territory of melodrama. You have something like the ideals into which everyone would like to escape juxtaposed with the harsh reality of the reigning ideology. In this case of tragic melodrama, we have a narrative utopia at the outset: in China, Cheng’s world is nearly perfect, other than the presence of the Western sailors carousing in the midst of an otherwise peaceful and gentle society. (This foreshadows the impending conflict once Cheng relocates.) Once Cheng moves to Britain, the utopia is very much gone. We see him in an opium den with a variety of figures, most males being foreigners and the women apparently British prostitutes. He’s immediately disenchanted by, well, capitalism. This is emphasized by Cheng’s identification as a shopkeeper, a job that is brutally unforgiving and shatters Cheng’s idealistic vision of moving to the West and spreading the Buddhist gospel. On a less narrative level, however, we can still locate what we might call the melodramatic utopia. It exists at the level of pathos, wringing emotion from viewers through the perverted love triangle among Battling Burrows, Cheng, and Lucy. By milking this drama for all that it’s worth, the film attempts to elicit strong feelings from the viewer that empathize with Cheng (while also revealing him to be a rather impotent hero), sympathize with Lucy (we never really seem to identify with her), and despite everything about Battling Burrows. The infamous rape scene can be read in different ways. Some would say it constitutes the moment when we are, finally, identified with Lucy. Others would say it’s a moment of melodramatic intensity, zooming in on her countenance and the little doll she holds in order to amplify Burrow’s perversion and Lucy’s fundamentally childlike status. Further still, some would say this scene is pornographic, giving the viewer a sinister gaze into the closet to enjoy, illicitly, Lucy’s symbolic rape. The ending has all three main characters dying at one another’s hands, completely removing narrative utopia but cranking up the affective utopia. That is to say, we feel more strongly at this point than ever, or are supposed to. This feeling is the substitute for a failed utopia in reality and an escape from the wiles of a post-sacred age.
Hannah and her Sisters (dir. Woody Allen, 1986) – It’s been awhile, and I’m way behind, so I’ll just mention the scene that popped. Woody’s character has just sort-of attempted suicide, with comic results that still shake him up considerably. He starts wandering around New York (demonstrating something akin to Ed Dimendberg’s “walking cure” from his book Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity), and he eventually walks into a movie theater. He’s telling the story to someone, narrating the action as it happens, so he observes that he had no idea what was playing; he just went in. So far, what stands out as being unusual about this scene is that he doesn’t walk into a church; he walks into a cinema. This is significant on a few levels. First, part of what led the character toward suicide was a quest for meaning that included trying out some religions, like Roman Catholicism and Krishna. Without other options, he can’t be expected to wander into a cathedral or temple, so he enters a movie theater. The narration that overlays the shot-reverse-shots of his character while watching none other than the Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup is too rich to recall in enough detail right now. However, it suffices to say that this perfectly illustrates an important point about the relationships connecting (or as the case may be, separating) cinema and human beings and transcendent truth. Being in what is commonly called a “post-sacred age” now (i.e., an era in which the authority of religion has been largely supplanted, despite more than just lingering traces throughout much of the world), the cinema functions as an alternative to religion and transcendent truth. It provides narratives through which to escape the dreaded effects of life, particularly the abjection of death. This is exactly what happens to Woody’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters. Further still, the role of religion is most often a ritualistic one, offering (ha – pun) moments of narrative pause, as it were, from mundane routines for the purpose of enacting meaning existing beyond a quotidian level. This is, again, exactly the function of cinema, with the exception that cinema often doesn’t concern itself with the more “transcendent” experiences of existence and replaces them with something else that negotiates the life-death gap. For example, comedy functions to laugh off the severity of existence, which, once again, is what Woody’s character does in the scene just described. If it helps, the scene that he watches from Duck Soup is a song-and-dance number that includes comedy. Musicals are chock full, defined, in fact, by their moments of narrative pause that allow these little ritualistic moments of concentrated entertainment that create a certain escapist affect in the viewer. Of course, according to Linda Williams, a few other modes of cinematic escape would be the “body genres” – along with melodrama, these would be pornography and horror. They elicit profoundly bodily effects from viewers who cooperate with their mode of presentation, bodily effects that function as ritual and as escape. They jack us up on affects so we don’t think too deeply about the fundamental crisis of existence. Supposedly, this is supposed to help us create our own narratives rather than falling back on a grand metanarrative. Does it, though?