I recently had the chance to revisit LA JETÉE, after watching Terry Gilliam’s adaptation 12 MONKEYS for the first time. And Chris Marker’s influential science fiction short film is even better than I remembered. (12 MONKEYS was pretty good, too.) The loose narrative tells the story of a man enslaved in an apocalyptic present, who is sent back to a woman in the past, in preparation for seeking help from the future. The sci-fi elements work all the better for remaining ambiguous, relying more on evocative visuals than clear explanations. And of course, the film is famous for relying (almost) entirely on still photographs, which lends it a disjointed, picture book quality. The photographs themselves are beautiful and stark, and do an amazing job of world building, even while showing very little. The sound design is similarly atmospheric. And it all comes together toward a moving conclusion, proving that constraints and creativity go hand in hand.
Happy New Year, everyone. Here’s to the future.
Charlie Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR is a film I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. The Tramp’s first talking role, it’s an audaciously silly and scathing takedown of Hitler back when the US was loathe to get involved, and a reminder of what art can do in uncertain times.
Instead of a full review, I’m now going to be super indulgent and simply copy and paste Chaplin’s speech from the end of the film. (more…)
Happy Halloween! This year I’m celebrating with a horror classic: Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s famously low-budgeted CAT PEOPLE. It stars the riveting Simone Simon as Irena, a young Serbian woman who believes that if she is intimate with her new husband, she’ll be consumed by an ancient family curse and turned into a murderous panther. The film has been lauded for creating a cheap but effective monster out of shadows, sound, and imagination, and rightfully so. The art direction elevates the film well beyond that of a bargain monster movie, with perfectly utilized sets, clever editing, and gorgeous dramatic lighting that lends just the right spooky atmosphere. And it’s a great setting for Simone Simon’s performance, which strikes a precarious balance between victim and villain. Even without knowing the context of CAT PEOPLE, and how it influenced the horror genre during an era of cheesy creature features, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable film that delivers all the requisite Halloween thrills.
Sorry I’ve been slow to update lately! It’s mostly because I’ve been working on my other never-ending side project. Take a look at QueerPortraits.com if you’re interested.
The American West has rarely been as beautifully captured as it is in Wim Wenders’ PARIS, TEXAS. The German director somehow knows exactly how to use the vast, empty landscape of an American desert, along with the vast, empty landscape of an American city, to tell the story of crossing those expanses and filling in that emptiness. The film opens on Harry Dean Stanton wandering the desert, sunburnt, dehydrated, and mute. Slowly it’s revealed that he has a brother, and a son, and somewhere, a wife, and slowly he begins to put those pieces of his life back together. Everything about the film’s pacing is gradual, without feeling stagnant. If there are long silent stretches, they’re generally filled in with excellent acting (no surprise, because Harry Dean Stanton is wonderful always) and striking cinematography. And the themes of family and human connection at the heart of the film are carefully explored. I really enjoyed that the entire thing is pure eye candy to look at, but I think my favorite aspect is the humanity and respect given to each character by Wenders and screenwriter Sam Shepard. I’m a sucker for any story that has a conflict without villains.
This illustration originally appeared in Issue D of the excellent film zine Shelf Heroes.
Well, what can I say about this film? It’s one of my absolute all-time favorites, and I’ve watched it more times than I can count. In case there’s anyone who hasn’t seen it, DR. STRANGELOVE is Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War black comedy about nuclear annihilation, starring Peter Sellers in three separate roles. As satire, it’s basically perfect, squeezing every bit of humor out of the fact that our world’s safety rests with a handful of men who are either petty, incompetent, or unbalanced. And as terrifyingly realistic as the chain of events seems to be, it’s also funny as hell, start to finish, even fifty viewings later. I could easily rattle off a list of favorite jokes, or expound on how Kubrick matched his deliberate style to comedy, or explore the broad influence of the film’s iconic imagery. But lately I’ve been giving more thought to the film’s singular plot. Peter Sellers may play a range of parts, yet this is a film with only two characters: the earth, and humanity. And I’d be hard-pressed to name another film that makes me want to root less for humanity. Especially one this goddamn delightful.
When I first heard of this movie, sometime last year, I couldn’t believe it. A sci-fi psychological thriller? Starring Rock Hudson? Why did no one tell me this existed? Finally I got my hands on it, and I’m happy to say it met my high expectations and then some. John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS tells the story of a middle-aged banker who is given the opportunity—or rather, gently coerced into the opportunity—of starting all over again. A mysterious company puts him under the knife, and he emerges as Rock Hudson, a painter living in Malibu, free from friends and family and obligation. But what should be a fairytale of course unfolds like a nightmare. The film’s style is consistently sinister and claustrophobic, from Saul Bass’s unnerving opening credits to striking cinematography that makes liberal use of distortion, odd angles, and close-ups. The tale’s biting critique of reinvention in the 60s feels extremely relevant, and not just because MAD MEN has revisited those themes decades later. As for Rock Hudson, he gives a phenomenal performance as a man who can’t quite reconcile who he is with the life he finds himself leading, a roll I can’t help thinking he understood. If only he had been in more films like this one. Hell, if only there were more films like this one.
In 1968, the Monkees set out to make an art film, forgetting that they were not, strictly speaking, artists. The notorious commercial flop that followed was the final nail in the coffin of their careers, flummoxing their fans and ignored by everyone else. But it’s hard to reconcile all that tragedy with the pure joy that is HEAD. The film’s structure is a cyclical series of loosely connected vignettes, ranging from music videos to psychedelic dreams to anti-war satire to stoner sketch comedy. It’s hit-or-miss to be sure, but the overall effect is bizarre and fun. Even while the Monkees try to break away from their television personas, they just can’t help hamming it up for the camera. Those goofy performances may dampen the film’s artistic merit, but they are also what make it watchable 50 years later. And beneath the slapstick, there are some genuinely interesting cinematic experiments, and a still relevant commentary on pop culture and artifice. Basically, this is as entertaining as 60s counterculture filmmaking gets, and I’m so glad it exists despite what a bad idea it was at the time. Keep an eye out for cameos from Frank Zappa, Dennis Hopper, and the film’s coscreenwriter Jack Nicholson.
Right from the get-go in Luis Buñuel’s BELLE DE JOUR, the viewer is dropped into the nebulous space between reality, fantasy, love, and desire, and then kept there for the remainder of the film. The story stars Catherine Deneuve as Séverine, a well-off housewife with an active imagination, who can’t manage to reconcile her kinky fantasies with her happy but sexless marriage. At least, not until she decides to become an upscale sex worker while her husband is away. I’ll admit that I enjoyed this film far more than I was expecting. For something that came out in the 60s, Séverine is given a surprising amount of agency over her own sexual development. The narrative is interspersed with erotic dreams in surrealist fashion, until it’s unclear what is and isn’t real. And in this way, her unusual sexual interests are presented without judgment, as though the film were a considered meditation on BDSM only pretending to be an exploitation film with a moral. Deneuve’s subtle performance seals the deal with a glimpse into some, but not quite all, of her character’s psyche. She takes the film’s complexity, and turns it into a puzzle to be solved. Not only is this now my favorite Buñuel film—it’s also one of my new favorite portrayals of female sexuality. Who would’ve thought?
Here’s my contribution for the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings. Make sure to take a look at everything else being blogged this week in the Criterion-verse.
Although it’s considered one of the greatest French films ever made, I was still a little wary going into a 3+ hour epic featuring a mime. I shouldn’t have worried. Marcel Carné’s CHILDREN OF PARADISE is engaging and perfectly paced throughout its two parts, and the pantomime is delightful. Set in the early 1800s Parisian theater scene, the story revolves around the beautiful Garance and the men who fall for her, all based on historical figures: an actor, a crook, an aristocrat, and yes, a mime. The story woven between these characters is constantly shifting, highlighting new aspects of love, humanity, and the stage at every turn. It’s a dense, complex film that feels light and effortless. And while the performances are all outstanding, it’s Jean-Louis Barrault’s portrayal of the lovesick mime that’s the most difficult to look away from. I’m sorry I ever doubted it.
In DON’T LOOK NOW, Nicholas Roeg’s spooky supernatural thriller, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie find themselves in Venice after the death of their daughter. Amidst the narrow maze of canals and bridges—a perfect setting for getting lost and some what’s-around-the-corner anxiety—they encounter blind psychics, strange visions, and ominous warnings. I’ve seen enough Nicholas Roeg at this point to recognize his hallmarks: story told through unexpected editing and the juxtaposition of imagery. Here, that collage style of filmmaking is at its most refined, and ramps up the sense of unease that permeates the film even when nothing bad is happening. It all leads to a jarring conclusion which, very unfortunately, I had already seen a clip of years ago. Sometimes that doesn’t matter. But in this case, I think I missed out on the full impact of the film’s slowly building sense of mystery. So my advice this Halloween is if you haven’t seen this film yet, and you don’t know what happens, consider yourself lucky and see it now! Quick! Before the spoilers get to you, too! Consider yourself warned.