Film-Worlds: Films Viewed in 2017

Introduction

"What happens when I view a film?"

This was a question I had been thinking about for some time. I'm an admitted cinephile, I watch more movies than anyone I know. And just to be clear, this is not something I’m proud of; it's an urge from the shadows, a craving. There’s something unwholesome about it. But I started to wonder—what happens to me when I satisfy this craving? In particular, what happens when I satisfy a craving for a violent film?

One way I tried to understand the film experience was to survey some of the well-known theories out there. Of those, a few not only resonated, but significantly broadened my understanding of the medium. The ones by Stanley Cavell and Gilles Deleuze come quickest to mind. But there was still something else, something more personal, that I had intuitions about and had never seen expressed in quite the right words.

My second approach was to observe my own responses to films. If I couldn't match my intuitions with others' words, perhaps I could do so with my own. So I started one of those by-now-antiquated writing platforms: a blog.

The point of the blog, originally titled "Films Viewed in 2017," was to record the thoughts I had to, as the title suggests, the films I viewed in 2017.  Good or bad, new or old, artsy or popular, if I watched it during the 2017 calendar year, I would record my observations, no matter how minute, into at least mildly coherent form. Ultimately, I wanted to see if I could spot any themes or patterns that could be shaped into...if not an answer, than at least a working theory about what happens when I view a film.

This was all derailed though because I was only able to keep up the writing for half the year. One day I simply didn't have the drive to write another post, so I stopped and didn't pick it up again. At the time, I assumed that was because I had lost interest in the original question, but the issue may actually have been that I had begun to arrive at my “working theory.” 

The idea is, in essence, this: When I view a film, I enter a world. That's it. It sounds simple and maybe it is, but in the months since stopping the blog, I've continued thinking about the idea of a film-world. What follows is an attempt to make the rough shapes of this idea a bit sharper. 

This text focuses primarily, but not entirely, on films released in 2017. By way of a disclaimer, it is not academically thoroughgoing. Also, the notion that films can be thought of as worlds is not exactly original, but hopefully the spin I put on it is. For a more scholarly study of similar concepts, I would recommend Film Worlds: A Philosophical Aesthetics of Cinema by Daniel Yacavone and The Reality of Film: Theories of Filmic Reality by Richard Rushton. Here, however, are my ideas:

Film-Worlds

First, a few words about worlds...

What are these things? What are worlds?

This question could of course be answered in many ways, but I'll phrase my response like this: Worlds are the forms of energy I encounter in time. Worlds are the way the energy of people, nature, and culture, to give a few broad examples, are bracketed by my mind to fit into time. To give a few specific examples, currently I am in typing-on-computer-world, but typing-on-computer-world can be quickly morphed by another world with its own uniquely shaped energy: talking-on-phone-world, eating-a-salad-world, watching-breaking-news-world, entering-a-condo-world, or suddenly-facing-down-a-tidal-wave-world. All of these worlds become worlds because our minds server and reassemble space into formed chunks, worlds. As we exist in time, the mind has to be selective; we don’t have enough processing power in our brains to grasp the entirety of everything. And so the brain severs and reassembles, severs and reassembles, endlessly shaping the energy around us into the smaller worlds through which we continually exist at any given moment. These worlds are conjured from external sources, like, say, a big red ball in front of my face, or internal sources, like a moment when I imagine the big red ball in front of my face. Or when I imagine the big red ball in front of my face in the 19th century, or Ancient Greece, or in the year 6709. My mind is agnostic as to which of these big red balls is more real because it all ends up as worlds—the location where my experience happens to be at any given moment. And I exist as a world too. As I move through time, other worlds are forced to bear the brunt of my world energy. Worlds pass through me and I pass through them, layering worlds one on top of another, every day, countless times a day. Some of these worlds are impactful only for the duration of the encounter, while others aren't noticed at all. And others still are powerful enough to linger in my mind long after the encounter, perhaps even traumatizing me.

The focus of this text is on film-worlds. 

Like all worlds, film-worlds occur in here, in my mind. Film-worlds, in fact, provide a decent metaphor for the way the mind builds worlds. In both film and conscious experience, a complex apparatus brackets and selects out what details of the broader world are most important for my own world to interpret and respond to. 

Borrowing from the field of cognitive science, the film theorist and historian David Bordwell describes the film viewing process like this: images/sounds flow in and schemata shaped in my mind through both evolutionary processes and cultural influence then frame these images/sounds to make hypotheses about what sorts of things I might encounter next. Just as it would happen in the real world (or, as I'll refer to it in this text, the "world of the flesh"), if I see a shot in a film of someone looking sallow and holding their stomach, I have schemata built into my mind that infer this person is hungry. If I then see shots of the person passing a bakery, looking in the window, down to their empty wallet, and, finally, over to the door as the baker rushes outside, chasing his dog, leaving the store unattended, I have schemata that anticipate a conflict: will the person steal bread from the bakery?

Conflict. Conflicts like the one in the above example are key for successfully conjuring film worlds. When I imagine a conflict—will the person steal the bread or not—my mind is invited to envision multiple versions of a world: one where the person steals the bread, one where the person resists the temptation, one where they're caught by the police, and a potentially endless number of other versions. Without conflict, the world would be flatter, thinner, and less able to hold my attention. The more possible worlds I'm invited to imagine through conflict, the larger the world can become.

This understanding of film viewing as an act of imagining different possibilities was also stressed by the filmmaker and theorist Alexander Kluge. In texts such as "On Film and the Public Sphere" (1981), Kluge, following the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, focuses on the importance of the space between shots. In order for a film's grammar to make sense, my mind, according to Kluge, has to create a connection, an imagined world in that space, filling it all in, and adding to it. The resulting world I imagine is the world I actually experience and absorb into my world and my world view. Because of this, those interested in discerning the social and political effects of film should be concerned with the "film in the head of the spectator" rather than the light shining on the screen. It's "in the head" that I become an active participant in the making of a film-world. And importantly for Kluge, that participation can lead me to imagine the sociopolitical status quo or encourage me to imagine more productive alternatives. This in-the-head process is not unique to film. Like all worlds, Kluge writes: "Film takes recourse to the spontaneous workings of the imaginative faculty which has existed for tens of thousands of years." 

Now, before getting too carried away about film, I should admit...It's no secret that feature films are being replaced in culture by memes, VR, podcasts, video games, television, social media, short form video, and so on. In short, the movies are going the way of the opera or the novel. Once this process of mass-cultural decline gets going, there's really no turning back; as viewers less-steeped in film culture bring less-complicated schemata to the viewing of a film, the resulting film-worlds (at least in feature-length form) that can be imagined, much less distributed, will also be less-complicated. However, we're not quite there yet. There's still a level of power in a film-world that, for me anyway, remains unrivaled on a mass level. Not to sound overly nostalgic, but this is especially true if the film is viewed in a darkened theater with an audience. For example, I saw two 70mm screenings of Christopher Nolan's 2017 film Dunkirk last year, not for the post-Brexit British patriotism, but for the immersive experience of being cast into World War II. The hours I spent in the Battle of Dunkirk (along with a handful of other film experiences I had in 2017), were more powerfully engrossing than any other cultural form I can remembering experiencing last year.

To realize a film-world so thoroughly requires a powerful filmmaking ability and Christopher Nolan is able to deliver...But here is something else I've come to believe about films...That power is where the danger lies also. Sometimes the world I imagine can have a less-than-desirable impact on my world. I'll return to this idea at the conclusion, but to expand a bit more here, films are generally harmless, but sometimes they can leave an impact. A complicated example is the 2017 film Detroit. That's a violent film-world with ostensibly good, even brave intentions that nonetheless conjures a world of conflicts so dark and misanthropic that they can adversely effect my own world. Director Kathryn Bigelow and her writing collaborator Mark Boal cast me in the midst of a race riot in 1967 Detroit. Even more than in Dunkirk, they create a bodily "you-are-there" experience. With incredible verisimilitude, I watch the people of Detroit rioting and the corresponding, far more brutal police response. The fact that these groups are divided on racial lines becomes the film's obsessive point. In the bus ads for Detroit, it was claimed that "It's time we knew" and "This is America." And, indeed, by passing through this horrifyingly violent film-world, I did learn about a political and historical moment that was new to me, and distressingly relevant; however, in a film-world experience, especially a bloody, upsetting one, there's always collateral damage that accompanies the transmission of any intellectual concepts. Those violent moments in which I recognize the evil in my own society make a forceful point but, in the case of Detroit, that point doesn't meaningfully evolve or build the world of the film beyond its first appearance. What does continue building, and what I'm left to process for two-and-a-half hours is rather, for the most part, the affect of black bodies being brutalized as an aesthetic spectacle. Kathryn Bigelow is perhaps the great active filmmaker in the United States right now, but watching her latest film left me with some questions. By imagining a world like the one in Detroit, what am I actually absorbing into my world? What would someone that's not thinking critically about films absorb? What would someone who's experienced police brutality first-hand absorb? And, perhaps most importantly, of what we did absorb, what, on balance, are we then sharing with other peoples' worlds? I'll return to these questions below, but wanted to bring them up now. In an ecology of worlds, I have the power to choose what worlds I'll imagine and absorb. This isn't a call for censorship or abstention from complicated films, but rather a certain type of "ecological world-awareness." Just because the energy of a film-world interfaces with my imagination doesn’t mean it can’t impact my body's actions; it can. And further, just because I view a film-world in private doesn't mean my private absorption of the world can't later become public, spreading its energy from my world to others'; it can. Committing violent acts as the result of watching a film would clearly be the extreme example of how this works, but, I believe, our worlds absorb film-worlds in all sorts of ways.  

Engineering a Film-World

Before thinking through the ethics of film-viewing in any more depth, though, let's first take a step back to acquire a better picture of how film-worlds function on a more granular level. By doing so, we'll have more vocabulary to pinpoint what happens when a film-world impacts my world, be that impact helpful or harmful.

So...How are film-worlds built?

Well, there are two rules-of-thumb from which all else stems.

The first of these rules is this: To build a film-world, never stop building the film-world. During the runtime of the film there should never be a point at which I know the point at which the world's boundaries end and I know what this world has to offer, in full. This world-building is most obviously associated with story and character, but it could manifest in many ways, such as the film's visual style. No matter how the film builds its world, though, it has to keep building, evolving, if for nothing else than to cue me to the idea that its energy could go on forever, that it too is an actual world. If the film-world doesn't do that and its conflicts circle around themselves, settling on a point, the world will cease to become, to evolve, and it will instead collapse.

One of the most tried-and-true ways to build a film-world is to carefully manage the exposition, or the background information that provides context for the characters' conflicts. If the world can start small and gradually open, like a flower blooming, telling me more and more information on the situation in this world, that will help sustain the building of the world. An example of how this can be done is 2017's Split, directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Initially, Split develops a world vis-à-vis the exploration of protagonist Kevin's multiple personalities. As I move through the scenes, each of Kevin's splinter personalities becomes more of a character with his or her own conflicts and narrative through-lines. However, as the mechanics of the plot unspool and I get the gist of how the multiple personalities connect and relate to the young women Kevin's most insidious personalities keeps captive, this sense of a building world slows down and conflicts start circling around themselves. I begin to feel like scenes are repeating the same points and there's no more exposition to understand. That's when seams in the world begin to appear, its energy dissipates, and I start to feel the urge to exit. What, in the end, sustains Split as a film-world, though, is that, in actuality, there's another conflict coming, another avenue to imagine different forms of the world, and this final twist acts as a twist on the whole idea of the "Shyamalan twist". In an instant, Split dramatically expands its world to encompass an even larger one. I won't spoil the (admittedly nerdy) twist, but do want to underline the fact that Split sustained itself because, just when I thought it was going to stop building, it opened an entirely new level of viewing it as a world, in the process becoming part of a larger universe. In a sense, that paradigm-shifting leap is the power of a twist ending in any film, the way it suddenly takes a more macroscopic view of things, like having gone through life only experiencing Earth on the ground and then one day seeing it from outer space, as a world in a larger solar system, a galaxy, and so on. A whole new array of conflicts present themselves. This last-minute scaling-up in the world can penetrate a blast of energy into my world because it catches my defenses off-guard.

Needless to say, a leap like that or even the flow of a more everyday film-world experience has to be built with some logic. If the roof of a house is haphazardly jerry-rigged up four feet higher on one side than it is on the other, and there's not enough roofing material to hold it all together, the roof will collapse. Likewise, if a film-world's characters are having a screaming fight in one scene and happily eating spaghetti bolognese in the next, and there's no explanation as to why that sudden emotional shift occurred, the film-world will collapse because there won't be enough logical consistency to prop it up. A film-world has to be structured carefully, lovingly.

For example, all the steamy sex of 2017's Fifty Shades Darker ends up feeling muted because of the bizarrely executed emotional logic of the protagonists, Anastasia and Christian, breaking up, and then Christian creepily buying all of the photos of Anastasia at an art show, and then her almost instantaneously agreeing to get back with him. Not that all of this couldn't happen, but the way the film's conflicts are portrayed felt illogical, unimaginable. In turn, its energy dissipates and the film-world falls apart. Perhaps it's a cheap shot to critique Fifty Shades Darker at all, but the previous film in the franchise, directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, was just as ridiculous in its plotting, but presented its conflicts with an overall emotional and logical consistency that allowed the energy of the kinky sex to feel like enjoyable camp.  

But anyway...question: If a film-world does collapse, what is it exactly that it collapses under?

The quick answer is boredom. If I don't feel like conflicts in the film-world are evolving, the tinge of anxiety associated with boredom enters my world and collapses the world's grip into it. I begin to look around, down to my phone, anywhere to find another world to interact with and quell this feeling of boredom. But behind boredom, there's a more general concept. And this leads us to rule-of-thumb two: Time is the filmmaker's enemy. When a film-world collapses, it collapses under the weight of time.

You can think about it this way: I sit in a room, not talking, looking straight ahead, watching a screen for multiple hours. It seems implausible that my mind would allow me to project a whole world around these images. And yet it happens. It's not an in-the-flesh world like a mountain, but it's there, confronting me, enveloping me in its presence. If the film-world's energy is powerful, I slip into it. The feeling of time in the room disappears and the energy commingles with my world. However, if the film-world stops building or is built poorly, time fills back into the room and destroys the film-world, shooting me out of its boundaries. Time, for a film-world, is therefore something like entropy, a force that adds noise to the clarity of the world's signal, breaking things down, demanding more and more novelty from the world.

Now this is not to say that a film-world need be jam-packed with endless plot twists or a huge cast of characters in order to sustain itself. It just has to, as I've been saying, continue logically building its series of conflicts in a rhythm, evolving things, drawing me in deeper through the entire runtime. In 2017's The Florida Project director Sean Baker tells a minimally-structured story about a young mother and her daughter living in The Magic Castle, a budget hotel outside of Orlando, Florida. Not a whole lot happens in terms of plot twists or dramatic character development and, yet, the world sustains. This is in part because Baker keeps building out secondary aspects of the world and intersecting them, coming back to them, drawing me in deeper through the world around the characters. He takes me through guests rooms, the manager's office, the cleaning staff closet, the neighboring hotel, upscale hotels, local restaurants, dollar stores, foreclosed condos, the local natural world, the private lives of myriad characters, and so on, right up until the final series of erratic shots that expand the film-world even further, both geographically and emotionally. By the point of that finale, I felt like I had not only been transported into a world, but gotten to know the lay of the land. By doing this, by creating this broader context around his minimal story and character conflicts, Baker allows the story and characters to feel more maximal. If he hadn't done that, I might have felt the weight of time too much, gotten bored, and snapped out of my immersion.

That snapping-out-of-the-world sensation is not unlike Dorothy peeking behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz; in an instant, she feels the magic timeless world transform into a fake constructed object and it all comes crashing down. But in The Florida Project that doesn't happen. The world defeats time.

Before moving on, one digression: Film-worlds can identify themselves as fake, constructed, postmodern objects. I didn't mean to suggest in the previous lines that being identified as fake or constructed automatically makes a film-world collapse. It's just that the film-world has to manage that information about itself so it doesn't destroy itself. The Wizard of Oz is an example of a film where that happens. As much as the themes of the story nudge me to view the humdrum, constructed reality behind all the cinematic wizardry, it, nonetheless, crafts a secondary world with its own conflicts that I've also been entering, albeit on a more under-the-radar level. More recent examples would be postmodern comic book films like 2017's Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, or, even more explicitly, the previous year's Deadpool. The super hero action genre in which these films operate is by now well-tread, so they set the characters in conflict with the genre, breaking the fourth wall, commenting on cliches in order to open up new types of energy: mirrored corridors that acknowledge the fact that they are fictional. I may think I'm escaping a film-world when I view it as constructed, but, in cases where it works properly, I'm actually only being drawn into a different type of world, a different set of conflicts, ones that happen to be meta-aware.

But to return to the basics of film-world engineering...We're going to need some tools.

In order to build out a world through its full runtime, the filmmaker requires more than just imagination, they're going to have to master some of the tools of the trade. Examples of tools are flashbacks, fades to black, telephoto lens shots, and CGI animations. There are obviously many more. For the sake of this text, let's narrow things down to a handful of overarching tool categories, or "toolkits." We can focus on three. The first is story, which I've already brought up. But beyond story, I'd also like to think about a film-world's texture and performance. Story, texture, and performance.

Here's an image that may be helpful in thinking about these three world-building toolkits: First, try to imagine a film-world as a literal world, a 3D object floating in space. We can then break down the overall presence or gestalt of this world into three primary components. The story can be thought of as the world's overall form—how large or small, complex or elegant it is; the texture is the world's ambient landscape—how damp or dry, fuzzy or jagged it is; and, finally, the performance is the world's gravitational field—the force that draws in my attention and holds me there.

Let's dig a little deeper. We can start by taking a look at the last of these toolkits, performance, first:

Performance

Acting for film is a bizarre task. The primary goal of screen-acting isn't necessarily to be realistic or develop chemistry with other performers, but to draw me into the world of the film. Performers capture my glance and keep me grounded within the world's orbit. If the performer is a bonafide movie star, this gravitational field effect becomes even more powerful, ultimately acting like a black hole. Just as the gravity of black holes ruthlessly attracts matter in the physical world, movie stars suck attention into film-worlds. In fact, maybe they shouldn't be called movie stars, but "movie black holes" because they don't project out, but suck me into the world of the film.

To think a bit more about this...As I scan a landscape, any landscape, what catches my eye more than anything are other people. Perhaps this is due to instincts formed through evolutionary processes, like how at the most basic level of human psychology, my genetic material cues my mind to be perpetually on the lookout for potential dangers or potential mates. It requires a person with a particularly strong aura to ground my attention like this. And just as a screen story expands the world through conflicts, so too does a screen performance. As I said before, a conflict allows a world to expand in my mind because it demands that I imagine multiple outcomes, multiple versions of the world. When the two poles of a conflict strike and strike again and then do it again in a rhythm, my mind keeps enlarging the world, staying in its rhythm, shuttling between the poles deeper and deeper. Examples of conflicts in a performance are the way the star’s eyes project both domesticity and wildness, honesty and deceitfulness, or beauty and smarts. If one side of the conflict overwhelms the other and the star’s eyes settle on one thing: "good" or "bad," then the world stops building, I'm cast out of the performer's gravitational grip, and, in turn, out of the world.

One reason movie stars generate so much power is that their conflicts travel from film to film, echoing with deeper and deeper energies each time they appear in a new film. A younger movie star that some viewers can't stand, but, for me, conveys a strong conflict is Ryan Reynolds. He's angel and devil, innocent and guilty in equal balance and when these poles conflict with one another, energy is created. He keeps the viewer’s attention. In the early scenes of the 2017 sci-fi film Life, Reynolds' conflict gives the film its eponymous force, but after his character dies early on, the film's life seems to die too, relying too much on a computer animated killer bug to generate energy. 

Of all the movie star's tools to express their conflict, the most important hands-down are their eyes. The movie star's eyes are the event horizon, the point of maximum conflict within the image. They're viscous and slippery and communicate deepness: I'm sucked inWhen the movie star cries, the event horizon is open to its widest point. As Elio cries before a burning fire in the long final shot of 2017's Call Me By Your Name, director Luca Gudagnino uses budding movie star Timothée Chalamet's eyes to open a final chasm into what was already a well-developed world. The force of the star's conflict sucks at my world with maximal force. The filmmaker has to be careful, though. If they have a scene where a character cries, they need to be sure the performer's conflict is generating enough energy to earn that moment. If I see the performer cry and it feels backed up by a merely lackluster energy, it will be a calamity for the film-world, worse than if they never cried at all. I'll be repulsed by how fake, how unimaginable their conflict is and the world will collapse. 

I should note that, as in the case of Timothée Chalamet, a movie star doesn't need to be a celebrity or have a pre-existing screen persona. In some cases, the pull comes from watching a new star born. Gal Gadot in 2017's Wonder Woman was a relative unknown who succeeded in doing this. She fills the screen and pulls me in. So too does Daniela Vega in 2017's A Fantastic Woman and Tiffany Haddish in 2017's Girls Trip. That said, when a star does bring a pre-existing screen persona into the film-world, that pulling thrust can be greatly accelerated. Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep actually double this effect in 2017's The Post. The trick of that film is to turn eat-your-vegetables dramatic material into a seductive, engaging film-world. This happens by the stars sucking me in and, despite my instincts, keeping me grounded there through the power and depth of their conflicts. Streep's conflict is that she's a conservative woman who secretly yearns for adventure; Hanks's conflict, meanwhile, is that he's a normal man with secretly abnormal depth who never wants that secret revealed. Another established movie star who delivered a powerful performance in 2017 is Daniel Day-Lewis in The Phantom Thread. Day-Lewis's conflict is animalistic masculinity versus civilized femininity. In The Phantom Thread, that conflict becomes, in some ways, the subject of the film. The amazing thing about all three performances I just mentioned—Hanks, Streep, and Day-Lewis—is how they all bring so much of their past work onto the screen, yet are still able to fully immerse themselves in the specific character and world of the given film. As much as I see and feel the gravitational weight of Daniel Day-Lewis on the screen, what I end up feeling more is his character, Reynolds Woodcock. One of the worst things that can happen to a film-world is when the star's energy doesn't match or help build the film-world, as a whole. If I'm watching a film and feeling a person "acting" in front of a camera as opposed to building-out the overall film-world, that mismatch in energy will cause the world to collapse. The actor Jon Hamm sometimes finds himself in this situation. Despite the fact that his performance in the television series Mad Men was mythically deep and set the series' entire tone, other times he's appeared on-screen, such as in 2017's Baby Driver, the strength of his persona seems to clash with the world that the filmmakers are trying to build. In fact, times that he has worked as a performer outside of Mad Men are when the clash of his persona and the world is so obvious that it's played for laughs, as in television collaborations with Tina Fey in 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. 

Now, as mentioned, after the movie star has sucked me in, they must never relent in their commitment to the idea that, like any other actual world, the world of their character persists through the battering of time. They must never stop building, moving forward, staying present to me just like a real person would. In 2017's Good Time, Robert Pattinson achieves this. What's remarkable is that he's able to do so without significantly evolving his conflict. Typically there has to be an evolution in the star's conflict, an “arc,” even if that arc is subject to stubborn resistance. Day-Lewis in The Phantom Thread captures my attention because, although he desperately clings to his need for independence, he ultimately succumbs to his deep need for mothering. Robert Pattinson in Good Time, by contrast, remains at one continuous register: a singularly powerful yet fiercely private ball of energy. His rhythm is a drone. In every scene of Good Time, Pattinson's eyes communicate a surface-level focus on survival to the next moment, the next escape. At the same time, they suggest a deeper level intelligence, an endless plotting out of a larger strategy, an escape plan. Through it all, he's tight, anxious, ungiving. If the "good time" of the title ultimately refers to open communication and acceptance of others, Pattinson's eyes shut all of that out, never letting anyone in, always staying a step ahead of everyone else, always on the knife edge, always in the solipsistic "bad time" of Hell. You'll never see his character cry, he'll never open his eyes that wide, but he and his directorial collaborators The Safdie Brothers keep sucking me in until the end anyway.      

Texture

The movie star is the bluntest object in the world-building toolkit. Many successful films of course lack movie stars, or any human performers at all (such as 2017's Kedi), but if you want the easiest way to suck an audience into your film world, find a movie star. That said, once a movie star has me pulled into the world, I need somewhere to land and stretch my legs. If I can't do that, I'll flounder and the world will collapse. This ambient landscape around the star is what I'm calling here the film-world's texture: its harshness, softness, dampness, dryness, or any other textural descriptor you want to throw in there. In my description of The Florida Project above, it was the texture that sustained the world. And as with every other aspect of a film-world, the engine that sustains the building of a texture is conflict. In texture, conflict is less clear-cut than in performance or story. If I think of The Florida Project as a 3D world, it's the textural conflict between the lushly poetic cinematography and the down-and-out vulgarity of prosaic Florida coastal life that ultimately generates as much, if not more, energy than the story's minimal shape or the stars' gravitational pull. 

A film whose textural conflict functions in a similar way is 2017's Félicité, set in Kinshasa, the capital city of Democratic Republic of the Congo. That film-world is immediately defined through a powerful movie star performance by newcomer Vero Tshanda Beya. She's at once both earthy and ethereal and that performance conflict grounds me in the film. What holds me there is the complimentary conflict in the texture: bustling yet dreamlike; from street life, to night life, to domestic life, the vibrant jerry-rigged sprawl of Kinshasa conflicts with the gliding, poetic camera work and sound design to open a powerful word I inhabited for a couple hours.

Now, granted, in most films, the texture doesn't have this much responsibility, and there's not a clear conflict per se. The energy comes more from the performer or the story, and as such, the use of the camera or production design is more or less charged merely with corresponding to the human eye's interpretation of the external world. These "invisible" shots are then spliced together in the classical film grammar to communicate a coherent, psychologically consistent narrative. There's nothing inherently wrong with this as a textural approach. In a performer/story-driven film like 2017's The Big Sick, director Michael Showalter makes himself all-but invisible, letting these other elements create an effective emotional energy. But in a film like 2017's John Wick 2 or Mother!, the directors, respectively Chad Staheleski and Darren Aronofsky, free their cameras from a rationally-human perspective and use it to explore the conflicts in textures of their worlds in ways that expand the world. When this more expressive texture harmonizes with the story and performance, it helps build out the overall film-world rather than the world-killing sin of merely aggrandizing the filmmaker's sense of him or herself as a stylist.

Now it should also be said that effectively exploring a textural conflict like the one Alain Gomis creates in Félicité from scratch is very difficult, and many viewers, continually bombarded by media content all day on their phones, can't risk entering a fully alien texture for fear its energy will be too boring or too irrelevant for the needs of their own worlds. For filmmakers (or film financiers) with this in mind, it often becomes far more convenient and practical to build a film-world within the texture of a pre-existing film-universe. An example from 2017 is the way Star Wars: The Last Jedi built off of the forty years already spent building the Star Wars universe's story and texture conflicts. This latest film in the franchise, directed by Rian Johnson, uses the audience's pre-existing, almost ritualistic knowledge of the series' textural conflict—futuristic technology set against pastoral mysticism—to build what would otherwise be a much too complicated world. The key with these pre-packaged textures, though, is that they still have to evolve. A filmmaker should never allow the audience to know the world's texture in full. I should never have that power over the world, the ability to point at it and say "I know you"; on the contrary, the texture should have power over me. Of course, more often than not, producing sequels and re-boots is a cynical business, resulting in uninspired stories and performances that coast on familiar textures. But there are films like 2017's Logan, in which director James Mangold builds onto the textural conflicts of the X-Men universe by pushing the gritty realism of the texture far further than it had ever gone before. Another exception is 2017's Blade Runner 2049. In that film, director Denis Villeneuve takes the original Blade Runner's utopian/dystopian textural conflict and expands it temporally, geographically, and conceptually in surprising yet totally consistent ways. From the minimal elegance of Wallace's lair, to the riot of detail in the waste facility orphanage, to the rain-streaked holograms of Tokyo-fied L.A., Blade Runner 2049 uncovers the methods to expand one vast world even further. By doing so, it allows the reality-and-identity themes embedded in the original film's story to expand just as wide.

So far in my discussion of texture—be it an alien texture or one built on top of a pre-existing film-universe—I've mostly described large-scale landscapes. To be clear, though, the filmmaker doesn't have to develop a massive texture like the one in Blade Runner 2049 or Félicité. In fact, the texture could be confined to a single room, as occurs (for the most part) in 2017's The Death of Louis XIV, directed by Albert Serra. Led by Jean-Pierre Leaud's movie star performance as the aging Sun King, The Death of Louis XIV explores the angles and moods of this one room, never settling on a single way of reading its opulence, or its claustrophobia. The film is always turning and turning to the end, worming its way past the most obvious layers of interpretation, into deeper levels. As it does so, the texture indulges in Louis XIV's own material indulgences, bathing me in warm woods, velvety reds, and the soft lavender frizz of aristocratic wigs . However, because Serra knows that this visual decadence is not enough to sustain a film-world, he also builds out the textural landscape in the opposite direction, flashing imagery of a gangrenous leg or other sign of a decaying body. This textural conflict between decadent luxury and viscous death is what gives the film-world energy. 

To digress...a word I just used in my discussion of bodily decay in The Death of Louis XIV was "viscous." I have some thoughts about this word. Earlier, when I described the eyes of the movie star, I also used the word "viscous." That wasn't an accident. "Viscous" is, for me, an important concept in film. It refers to a certain wet, organic under-the-skin realness in the texture that lends the two-dimensional images of the film-world a sense of depth equal parts compelling and repelling. Whenever a filmmaker shoots a movie star, it helps to get light in their eyes to show off the shimmering fragility, the viscosity. The viscous is, for me, an abundance of vision, an overwhelming blast of vision that in its intensity creates a slick hole in the screen for me to slip into at a fast, out-of-control pace. Viscousness is conflict. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: "The viscous is a state half-way between solid and liquid. It is like a cross-section in a process of change..." And elsewhere: "I want to get rid of the viscous and it sticks to me, it draw me, it sucks at me." The powerful attraction viewers seem to have toward sex and violence on-screen may not have as much to do with sexual or violent acts in and of themselves as it does with the desired/dreaded sight of the viscous. It's not blood or sweat, but the glistening sliminess of the viscous that, like a car accident, I can't seem to peel my eyes away from. The excessive visual quality of the viscous grabs me on a level below the surface, below intellectual reasoning. There's perhaps something coded very deeply in human experience, evolved from time immemorial for defensive or reproductive advantage, that the sight of the viscous speaks with. In contemporary pornography, the filmmakers often rely on the sight of extreme viscosity: lubricated, dripping all-over wetness and the damp insides of the body. Its not sex but the viscous that these filmmakers are showcasing. But often in these cases, the conflict of the viscous becomes too one-sided and the energy of the world dissipates, becoming merely functional. In mainstream films, when violence does come, the overwhelming combination of shock, repulsion, and delight is much greater when viscosity is released—a head being chopped off and blood spraying everywhere—than when it's not, when it's "dry". The same can be said in the difference between a dry-looking kiss and one that displays sticky saliva. A parent's instinct to shield their child from the sight of physical intimacy is stronger when there's viscosity. It's not the kiss, but wetted lips and the underside of the tongue that seem so intense. To some extent, the themes of the 2017 film My Friend Dahmer revolve around these very issues. We follow serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in the year or so before he kills and eats his first victim. In addition to being a portrayal of irony-soaked "confident nerd" culture in high school, My Friend Dahmer explores how seeing the wet insides of organic things is the locus of Dahmer's later acts, not murder, gay sex, or cannibalism, per se.

Now long-lasting blast of the viscous, as occurs in Julia Ducournau's 2017 film Raw, will probably be too energetic for most viewers. As the latest update of the "New French Extremity" genre, Raw pushes the boundaries of on-screen viscous violence to, among other things, confront the viewer with the reality of eating animal flesh. In order to receive those ideas, though, I have to bring a lot of complicated schemata, to the table; otherwise it will, as I said, be too much, too energetic and I'll be repulsed. Because of this, filmmakers often employ storytelling techniques such as suspense to control the flow of the viscous and create greater conflict. 2017's It Comes at Night creates a small, claustrophobic suspense machine in which director Trey Edward Shults infuses every scene with as much threat of impending viscous energy as possible. One way he does this is through scenes shot in near total darkness. If the viscous is an overflowing abundance of visuality, the dark is its absence. When I'm in the dark, the threat and corresponding anxiety around the visuality of the viscous becomes greater.

Similarly, when the threat/desire is sexual viscosity, the corresponding control mechanism is titillation. In 2017's The Beguiled, director Sophia Coppola pairs a sticky, overgrowing Southern texture with a story about a handsome, sexually-potent enemy soldier recovering from a wound in a house occupied solely by women representing different stages of sexual desire. While the soldier is wounded, his threat is negligible but as he heals, the threat of his phallus becomes palpable among the women and the film's story is structured through increasing the titillation, the threat of sexual fluids being released increases in every scene until he either has to have sex with the women or they have to castrate him. 

Another example of a filmmaker creating a conflict with the viscous can be found in the extreme bloody violence of 2017‘s Blade of the Immortal, directed by Takashi Miike. Through the world-weary affect of its star Takuya Kimura, the film connects its high body count with the melancholy of immortality; it makes the viscous banal so that the substance of the film-world becomes about that endless banality. Or there's the scene in 2017's Personal Shopper when Kristen Stewart’s character changes into her celebrity employer's sexy, revealing clothes and gets turned on enough to start masturbating. It’s titillating but when viewed in relation to the intentionally disjointed, disconnected scenes that all seem to explore themes of non-communication or communication with non-entities, the aloneness of this sex act becomes the qualitative affect that's communicated. 

Story 

I discussed story earlier, in terms of how the management of exposition is one of the central strategies for building a world, but let's now return to this toolkit and look at it through some other lenses.

Story gives the energy of a film-world its shape. After the performer grounds me in the world and the texture gives me a place to stretch my legs, the story then shapes the landscape that my legs will traverse from there on out. The story's shape can be minimal or baroque in its complexity; it doesn't matter, all that matters is that its rhythm is shaped in such a way that as I follow its path, that path keeps building into a fully-realized world form. If the story is minimal, if there are just a few twists, turns, and conflicts in the landscape, I can grow bored and the film will collapse. Despite the incredible texture that director Terrence Malick generates in 2017's Song to Song, its story is very minimal, almost formless. If you're going to do this, each conflict has to have a lot of deep energy. In Malick's earlier Tree of Life, there is a primordial conflict between female and male, yin and yang, and that deep conflict creates enough energy to sustain that film's similarly loose narrative structure. In Song to Song, though, the deep-seated conflict is not as inspired so the film can't sustain its minimal shape and the world, for me, collapsed. However, in other instances a minimal story form can be elegant, such as the one used in Brawl in Cell Block 99, directed by S. Craig Zahler. The protagonist in that film, played by Vince Vaughn, has to brutally harm or even kill people in prison so that the authorities send him deeper and deeper into the bowels of the prison system until he at last reaches the final ring, the sort of "hell" of the system, in cell block 99. It's there that he can meet his most fearsome enemy and, in the process of defeating this enemy, save his wife. It's a very simple story, but every scene is driven by a central story conflict: the man has to destroy his own soul to save his wife. The two sides of this conflict are like two flint stones continually striking together to make a chain of sparks, energy, a world shape I can follow to completion.  

Genres are handy in building film-worlds because they provide familiar story templates. Different genre templates tap into different energy conflicts. Of course each genre has different sub-genres, but here are some shorthand ways of correlating a few other genres to their basic conflicts: in horror life conflicts with death; in romance love conflicts with cynicism; in thrillers escape conflicts with confinement; in science fiction future conflicts with past; in comedy absurdity conflicts with seriousness; and in mysteries, logic conflicts with chaos. The way the story sets these sides of the conflict in opposition allows me to powerfully imagine different ways this world could build and, as such, sustains the building process. To take one other example of a genre...in the coming-of-age film, there is a conflict between the desire for childhood freedom, with its lack of responsibility, versus the desire for adult freedom, with its sea of open possibility. An example of a coming-of-age films that explores this conflict about as well as any other in recent memory is 2017's Ladybird, directed by Greta Gerwig. In each scene of Gerwig's film, based on her own coming-of-age in safe but boring Sacramento, the conflict twists around its nuances in logical yet surprising ways. It’s pleasurable but aching because the conflict is never quite resolved, or released in simple ways, and I'm sucked deeper into the vibrations of the world. That mood is infused in every page of Gerwig's script and in every facial reaction of her star, Saoirse Ronan. 

Oftentimes films combine genres to draw energy from multiple conflicts. In the 2017 mystery/horror/coming-of-age film Happy Death Day, a college student relives the day of her murder over and over Groundhog Day-style. After getting over the initial shock of her situation, the student becomes an amateur sleuth, trying to cover as much ground before each day resets (that is, before she's killed again) in the hope of identifying her killer. In the process of investigating her own murder and evading her killer, she has to come-of-age and shed some of her childish viewpoints. While I followed her story, its energy came from the interplay of these three genre conflicts working in harmony. 

A final, quick point I'd like to make about story is that there are different levels of my mind that stories can converse with. Sometimes stories converse with cerebral everyday waking life (2017's The Meyerowitz Stories), and sometimes they converse with archetypal dream life (2017's A Cure for Wellness). Some of the most powerful films are able to combine both, addressing evolution's most recent, high-level cognitive adaptations and its oldest, most primordial unconscious triggers. A film that triumph's in this regard is 2017's Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele. Peele addresses contemporary political and intellectual concerns, but often does so in terms of the unconscious by positing the protagonist's entrapment in "The Sunken Place", where he remains blinded to the realities of racial injustice around him. In contrast to Detroit, Get Out stands as the far more engrossing and more widely-absorbed film-world.

Absorbing and Sharing Film-Worlds

There are clearly long books that could be written to encompass every story, texture, or performance technique used in the building of film-worlds. What I provided is merely a snapshot to give a sense of how films can be thought of as worlds. The aspect of this theory that remains perhaps the most provocative to me is that when I, as a world, absorb a film-world, my world's energy changes. And not only that, but when my world interacts with other worlds, I, in turn, share that changed energy. And then that world, in turn, will share the energy in some form or another, and so on. If I was the only one to absorb a film-world, no one else would need to be concerned because the power with which I could share it would be relatively negligible. But what about a film like Get Out, where millions of people absorb and share that energy through the culture? What if the film-world is more dark and troubling than Get Out? What happens then? Beyond film-worlds, what happens when, in the United States, the population is forced to continually absorb the twisted cartoon energy of Donald Trump all day, every day for years? What does that do to American society?

To return to more modest ground to close this text, and to step away from the present, one of the final films I viewed in 2017 was The Maltese Falcon (1941)written and directed by John Huston from a novel by Dashiell Hammett. At the end of the film, a hardened San Francisco detective picks up the actual statue of the Maltese Falcon, the object everyone’s desired through the entire film. "Heavy," says the detective, feeling its weight. "What is it?" To which the private eye Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart, replies in the film's final line, "The stuff dreams are made of." Indeed. The Maltese Falcon may at times be described as a harbinger of gritty noir realism, but, in fact, its success lies in its unapologetic drama of the unconscious--of the stuff that dreams are made--in which aspects of gritty reality are embedded in an almost non-sensical San Francisco dream landscape. Through this landscape, tension is created through a search for the unattainable object of desire. This object, in the form of the Maltese Falcon statue, is fought over by various symbolic archetypes, each of which maps out a place in the masculine-feminine gender spectrum. The master of this object is Humphrey Bogart, who's not acting, but producing a filmic archetype through his eyes. As one of the most potent of all movie stars, Bogart sucks the viewer into a world of incident, misdirection, and nightmarish shadow. In this world, Bogart, as the cool, knowing, and violent masculine archetype, reigns over all the feminized, cosmopolitan men and hysterical, double-crossing women. He is symbolized by the streamlined death of the Falcon, the hunter of the skies.

While I was viewing The Maltese Falcon it struck me as a perfect representation of the ideas I've formed by watching films in 2017. It has Bogart, one of the all-time great movie stars, to suck the viewer into a highly-conflicted black and white texture of stark lines, light, and shadow. And its story addresses me on a primordial, foundational level, on the level of dreams, of the unconscious, of what it is I should desire from the male sex. However, is the world proffered by Bogart's Sam Spade, with his thoughtless misogyny and knee-jerk violence, the type of world I want to aborb and share with others, now, in 2018? Are these my desires? 

Humphrey Bogart The Maltese Falcon.png

Starship Troopers (1997)

Viewed June 16th

 

In a future world imperiled by a race of huge insect aliens, a group of young people enlist in the military.

Starship Troopers reunites RoboCop director Paul Verhoeven with Edward Neumeier, one half of the RoboCop script-writing team. Neumeier was the driving force behind the earlier film's razor-sharp satirical elements and, while those satirical elements survive intact in Starship Troopers, there's nothing like RoboCop's deeper-level drama of the unconscious, in which a man digs into buried memories to recall/uncover the truth about himself. The characters in Starship Troopers are never given the chance to be anything more than tools in a satire; Rico is never able to give his film the sort of depth that Murphy gives RoboCop. Because of this, the world of the film stops expanding at a certain point and the viewer is, in turn, nudged out of a fully immersive, dreamlike film experience. RoboCop emerges as a bizarre sort of classic, Starship Troopers remains a cult film.        

 

Robocop (1987)

Viewed June 16th

 

When a cop on the verge of death is transformed into a deadly law enforcement cyborg, all goes according to plan until he begins remembering his identity.  

From the first moments of Robocop, director Paul Verhoeven links imagery equal parts gritty & corporate, familiar & nightmarish, into a visual world--one the viewer is cued to read, not on the level of reason/consciousness, but on the level of the unconscious. Clarity, humor, originality, and cinematic craftsmanship are all put toward communicating secret desires and archetypal image systems found in the unconscious mind. However, for the film to go beyond this initial communication with the unconscious, it has to draw the viewer deeper. For the first scenes in Robocop that deepening happens through the interconnections built out between three sub-worlds: the world of law enforcement, the world of corporate tech, and the world of crime. As we learn about the science-fiction scenario in one world, the other worlds are also built out because each has tentacles in the others. And all three are also linked by surrealist parodies of television or advertising, themselves integrated into the plot and the visual aesthetic so they never feel arbitrary. But what makes this film such a stand out is how, like the novels of Philip K. Dick, it goes beyond building out a world inspired by the viewer's unconscious, to tell a drama of the unconscious, as well. The film doesn't end when the Robocop has killed all the bad guys, it's when he's asked his name and, for the first time, is able to say his true name, the one previously buried in the depths of his mind.  

The Notebook (2004)

Viewed June 12

 

When it comes to matters of the heart, a young woman growing up in the South must choose between practicality and unrelenting passion. 

Known for their live-wire, borderline-unhinged collaborations, John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands were one of the most famous director/star pairs in 20th century American film. They produced a type of freewheeling, independent cinema that always promised to be, if nothing else, unrelentingly honest. Here we have Rowlands working with a different Cassavetes in the director's chair--her son with the great maverick, Nick Cassavetes. And the results are, on the surface, very different. However, when you look at things through a slightly different lens, some of it starts looking surprisingly familiar. Now, first, Gena Rowlands is not the female lead of The Notebook. That would be Rachel MacAdams, who does a tremendous job opposite Ryan Gosling. But as the film goes on, it's Rowlands who becomes the heart of things and the presence that elevates it all above the type of sap so often associated with the source novel's author, melodrama-meister Nicholas Sparks. What makes Rowland's performance especially potent is that Nick Cassavetes diminishes his own voice in the storytelling so that the actress is not competing with a male director's supposedly-stripped-down-but-actually-highly-stylized aesthetic predilections. The Notebook is a sensitive, classically-told Hollywood tale lacking in newfangled razzmatazz. But, as mentioned, it still deals intimately with many of themes threaded through the classic Cassavetes/Rowlands films, such as passion, love, and mental illness. Given the space to perform the type of beautiful, intelligent, yet fraught character she's specialized in without the on-screen competition from the director's style, Rowlands delivers one of her most great performances. When she recognizes her love, it's real. When she forgets her love and lashes out, it's tragedy.

Death of Louis XIV (2017)

Viewed June 10th and June 13th

 

The body of the French monarch Louis XIV, perhaps the most decadent human being to have walked the Earth, slowly breaks down.

Through the cut-out typography of the film's vaguely psychedelic title sequence, we see fragments of a shot tracking across a natural landscape. A rumbling on the soundtrack slows; we cut out of the titles to a shot of a dome in a forest--the mist moving horizontally across the screen. And then to our protagonist, Louis XIV, at twilight. Taking in the dimming landscape, the aging Louis smacks his lips; the wind blows his hat. He signals for his footmen to push him along again and they do so. And then, from that moment on, all motion stops...For the next nearly two hours, we're in the King' chambers. We're there, by the King's bed. We're watching the King's body break down. A clock ticks, his doctors work to sustain life. And that's it. At the end, he dies and everything we saw before is literally dissected. In the earliest of these chamber scenes, Louis is laughing and cheerful as he plays with his dogs, but, after that, we're basically watching the man descend into pain. The gambit of this film is that, despite all this inertness (almost a parody of art house endurance test pretentiousness) the director Albert Serra and his collaborators (most notably Jean-Pierre Leaud as The Sun King and cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg), keep us fixed in place without any gimmicks. It's not entertaining (although there is a peculiar sense of humor), but the contrast of glowing material opulence and viscous corporeal decay creates a cinematic tone, a world, that sustains itself and, like the work of a serious painter or composer, plays with itself, further opening itself up to demonstrate how much depth its structure can hold. At the core of all this depth is a slipperiness. There are themes and trails of thought about the absurdity of absolute power or of the historical crossroads of faith & reason; however, each of these is like one of the glass eyeballs that are displayed in a case before Louis in an early scene. Each is false, only in service of a larger structure.

 

 

 

 

It Comes at Night (2017)

Viewed June 9

 

When a father struggling to keep his family safe from post-apocalyptic danger invites another man's family into his home, everyone tries to get along but, ultimately, the only ones you can trust are blood.

Krisha, the previous film by writer/director Trey Edward Shults, displayed an intuitive knack for cinematic storytelling with an artistic sensibility. Combining an intimate, wide-awake domestic naturalism with high-key, dreamlike psychodrama, he produced a tone viewers could sink into and explore as a world. For some, his follow-up, It Comes at Night was highly anticipated, but there was anxiety. Could he match the power of Krisha? After all, he worked on the micro-budget Krisha with his actual family and seemed to have been building up to telling that story for years. Unfortunately, some (but not all) of those anxieties were warranted. Once again, Shults works at the intersection of emotionally intimate domestic drama with nightmare horror surrealism. But the tone in It Comes at Night never fully harmonizes. There's a twee minimalism to the production design and use of the camera that is, I believe, intended to contrast with the film's emotionally over-wrought melodrama and hypnotic suspense scenes. OK, fair enough, but that contrast never seems to naturally emerge from the story/themes he's exploring. It doesn't feel like a world, it feels like a style. And because of that it never becomes either an involving family narrative or the sort of tense horror/suspense machine in the vein of It Follows or Don't Breathe that was promised by the trailer. Also, once you were absorbed in the tone of Krisha, that world kept unfurling because it was deep. You were living in this suburban Texas house for a while, hoping Krisha wouldn't have a meltdown. Here, the characters are flatter and the promise of the scenario runs out of steam half-way through. Because he never fully figures out what he's doing with the story/characters, it seems like the style is forced on, rather than emerging naturally. All that said, it was a fascinating watch, certainly more was on the line artistically than almost any other film I've seen this year and I can't wait to see what he does next. 

 

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

Viewed June 8th

 

When emotionally-frustrated Peggy Sue faints at her twenty-fifth high school reunion and miraculously wakes up back in high school in the early 1960s, she realizes that her decision to get married actually was the right one. 

At the time Peggy Sue Got Married was released, it was, to a great degree, viewed as either a subpar Back to the Future rip-off, or as a willfully oddball entry into mainstream fluff for director Francis Ford Coppola. It had its supporters, including Roger Ebert, but was ultimately weighed down by the context of its own moment in history. However, just as Peggy Sue is able to revisit herself twenty-five years in the past with nostalgia and yearning, so too can we revisit Peggy Sue Got Married thirty-one years after its initial release. Things are different now. There's the filmmaking itself. It feels so easy-going and lightly funny. The way it touches the heartstrings without making a big deal about anything. It's adult but care-free. And it was a wide-release. I can't imagine something like this being shown in the cineplexes today. And then there's the cast. They're so young. Jim Carrey, Kathleen Turner, Joan Allen, even Sophia Coppola. And, of course, Nicholas Cage. This was a year before Cage's career took off with Moonlight and it seems like he's got the whole world in front of him. He delivers a wild, touching, perfectly-Nicholas Cage performance that never feels outside of the overall goals of the filmmaking. The film is a love story about how missed opportunities haunt us like ghosts, but maybe they were missed for a reason. It's about how Peggy Sue actually should have stayed with Cage's character Charlie, despite the problems they encounter in the future. In order for this to work, when we see Peggy Sue and Charlie, we have to want them to be together bad enough for her to still choose him, despite everything. And in order for that to work, you need great performances that convey it all in a flash. Kathleen Turner, who played Peggy Sue, and Nicholas Cage delivered then and, looking back, deliver even stronger today. 

The Stepfather (1987)

Viewed June 6th

 

A stepfather obsessed with the ideal of the American nuclear family is ready to kill when those ideals aren't met.

The opening scenes of The Stepfather depict a man methodically changing his appearance. We don't know for sure what's going on, but we can guess he's done something bad. The shots are constructed in the fluid, orderly manner of classic Hollywood film narrative. It's not like, say, Natural Born Killers, where the filmmaking cues us to read the characters in equally wild terms. In fact, using point-of-view and exploring the idea of someone disguising themselves puts us on this guy's side, we're intuitively rooting for him, whatever he's doing. However, when this man walks down the stairs in a conservative dark suit, about to leave his suburban home with his briefcase--BANG--the director, Joseph Ruben, shows us a shockingly gory, violent scene in the living room--there's nothing like this in classic Hollywood narratives. Bodies of a mother and daughter have been hacked up, there's blood everywhere, sprayed everywhere, pooled in the carpets, furniture is smashed to pieces. We see the mother's dead eyes with blood all around her. The kid's hacked up in the background. It's beyond your run-of-the-mill murder, this is brutal and evil. The fact that we're exposed to this type of imagery this early in the film is shocking. It feels like the type of thing you'd see in the gross-out slasher films that were produced around this time. Neither the man's behavior, nor the filmmaking, though, has changed...it's still orderly and fluid. And then a few moments later, we're back to normality, traveling on a ferry with this man on his way to a new family in a new town. Through the next scenes, the man tries to shape this new family into the perfect Leave it to Beaver image of his ideals. However, those few seconds of outlandish gore stay with us. To apply terms from Lacanian film theory, they stain the rest of the film with the gaze of the real. They are like a childhood trauma that we may try to forget, but remain as another layer. As things go on, the man tries to maintain patriarchal order. He rants in the basement that he wants "ORDER!". And the style of the filmmaking and general structure follow suit--things are orderly, classical. In an age of 1980s postmodernism and anything-goes slasher violence, the film's style and tone hearkens back to an earlier mode. But problems persist, things slip through and the contradictions and trauma inevitably reemerge. In the end, it all breaks down, but this time, of course, the man, the Stepfather, is killed. And, in a fitting bit of symbolism, the large, phallic birdhouse that he'd posted in the backyard is knocked down by his wife and stepdaughter--two women breaking down the classic, patriarchal order.  

Scream for Help (1984)

Viewed June 6th

 

When a teenage girl tries to convince others that her stepfather is out to kill her mother, the stepfather gets very angry.  

I wouldn't argue with anyone who views Scream for Help as bottom-of-the-barrel 1980s horror schlock, but, for those open to it, the film could also be seen as a paradigmatic work of cinematic postmodernism. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Death Wish director Michael Winner approaches each scene as an opportunity to push the content beyond the preposterous to a sort of parodic surrealism, or pastiche. More than it functions as a plausible narrative or set of character interactions, the film is a meta-analysis, acting as a catalog of cinematic effects & tropes of the slasher-suspense genre. Even the title Scream for Help feels like a poeticized reduction meant to suggest the genre in a nutshell. In this sense, the film could be considered alongside something like Airplane! which breaks down the disaster-action genre to a set of tropes and pushes them to the point that it creates a new form of comedy. Scream for Help (and Airplane!, for that matter) were produced at a moment in cultural history when almost every art form was experimenting with similar processes, forgoing sincerity for an ironic critical evaluation of its given tradition. Now, that's not to say Scream for Help is good postmodernism. The Film Stills series of Cindy Sherman was postmodern because it reframed tropes of classic film, creating a catalog of female "types" found in classic Hollywood and European film & publicity stills. But that's not all there was to Sherman's project; on some other level, her photography still conveys a certain emotional and moral depth. That depth just manifests in a different way than it would have in a previous era. Scream for Help, meanwhile, only remains on the surface. It would require a film like David Lynch's Blue Velvet, produced two years later, to operate on the level of postmodern pastiche of the suspense genre and emotionally/morally resonant art. 

Wonder Woman (2017)

Viewed June 5th

 

A goddess on Earth helps an American spy working for the British during World War I.

One of the most interesting moments of Wonder Woman comes right in the beginning. There are several shots of the "Amazons," a society of woman warriors, riding horses across a landscape. Led by Robin Wright, they appear formidable and muscular, but not necessarily masculine. They're definitely women. It creates a certain uncanniness. We feel as though we've seen these sort of epic tracking shots of horseback riding heroes before. Indeed, as modes of using the camera, these shots aren't novel--they extend back to the earliest days of the western genre in the silent period. But the fact that these warriors are all women, does feel different. I could have lingered in this zone of gender uncanniness for an entire movie the way, say, the women-in-prison exploitation genre sustains interest by the mere fact of its gender flip-flopping imagery. Without delivering an explicit feminist message through dialogue, the cinematic images are feminist. And director Patty Jenkins gets that these early prelude/origin-story scenes are some of the strongest material she has to work with as an artist because she happily extends them longer than they might otherwise be. But, alas, the mechanics of the story demand that one of the young Amazons, Diana, must leave to impart Wonder Woman-style justice to the outside world. The rest of the film is a cut above most recent superhero movies. I appreciated the basic Christ-like wisdom of Wonder Woman. When it comes to being a hero, you can't choose whom you save. "It's not about what they deserve, but what you believe in," she says in a key scene.  But the images and use of the camera maintain an almost by-now banal bang-bang-explosion familiarity without engendering that gender twisting. So you lose the interesting thing you had in the beginning. 

The Fly (1986)

Viewed June 2nd

 

When a fly accidentally accompanies scientist Seth Brundle in his most recent teleportation experiment, he gradually transforms into the monstrous "Brundlefly." 

In many of David Cronenberg's films, the sense of horror famously revolves around a meeting between the human body's viscous fragility with modern technology. Think of the gun-hand in Videodrome, the bioports in Existenz, the fetishization of automobile wrecks in Crash, or the gynecological instruments for operating on mutant women in Dead Ringers. In the concluding moments of The Fly, we see a similar flesh-technology merger. However, most of that film's "body horror" revolves around something else: a merger between human and insect. This strikes the viewer differently, perhaps more utterly horrifically. Although revolting, imagery of cyborg mergers between flesh and technology explore a perverse, yet widespread desire in human beings to transcend the body through the artificial creations of man. Insects, though, are another story. They are truly other, a rival for dominance on Earth with an intelligence that manifests through markedly different means. We didn't create insects and can't relate to their psychology. As is remarked in The Fly, insects have no politics. They have no empathy, their drives stem from something else. Therefore, when--through some of the great gross-out special effects makeup in film history--we watch a man become a fly, it's arguably more utterly horrific than, say, the imagery of James Woods merging with the television in Videodrome. In Videodrome, Cronenberg plays with the eroticism of the cyborg, the fascination of becoming part-machine or "The New Flesh." The emergence of Brundefly, though, is something else, it's more strictly repulsive. And this relationship--the deep horror at man becoming insect--allows for a different type of story. The utter horror one feels for the loss of humanity to an insect subjectivity becomes tragic in a way that few other Cronenberg films feel. Now in order to truly achieve that sense of tragedy in The Fly, the viewer would need to really mourn the loss of the on-screen humanity. Otherwise, the idea of tragedy would be academic or, worse, preposterous. But, luckily for us, Jeff Goldblum as Brundle delivers. Backed by Howard Shore's doomed, Bernard Hermann-esque score, Goldblum presents a living, breathing, oddball human character, one of the most indelibly memorable in the Cronenberg filmography. When we see his lover played by Geena Davis mourn for him, trying to bring back the old Seth, it's the stuff of tragedy. Now, obviously, it may sound overblown to describe a movie that most know as little more than garbage exploitation in those terms, but, if you're in the right mindset, it's all there. 

A New Leaf (1971)

Viewed May 29th

 

When a selfish bachelor accustomed to the finer things in life learns he's run out of money, he hatches a plan to marry a klutzy botanist heiress.

In the wake of her legendary comedy partner Mike Nichols' smash success with The Graduate, Elaine May had grand ambitions for her own directorial debut. So when the studio took control over A New Leaf, considerably slicing down its original 180 minute runtime, she was so furious she sued to have her name removed from the credits. On the one hand, this seems rash. The surviving film is often often hilarious and oddly touching. And, yet, you can see where she's coming from. In its truncated form, we're given a very strong, very funny first half, mostly centered on Walter Matthau's portrayal of the outrageous bachelor. But the second half--the half in which May's own character is supposed to shine--is skittish and unmoored. I believe the idea was that her character is supposed to feel so beguilingly consistent and true to herself, so unendingly sincere and dogged in her love, that Matthau--who'd never considered that someone could actually love him--is gradually charmed to the point that he "turns over a new leaf" from murderous asshole to fiscally-responsible history teacher. But this doesn't really feel like what you end up watching. She doesn't feel consistent...more flat. The richness of the cinematic world ends up being drained away and the film can't achieve the status of a classic. You have to feel for May. It was a man, Robert Evans, who took this film from her...And yet, there are still so many good, original moments that still feel fresh as comedy. And so many images. May is a unique looking woman, strikingly beautiful in her way. When we first see her in closeup, it will take the breath away from a certain type of man. And in the end, despite everything, you might see in the goofily happy final moments of union between Matthau and May the vision she had for the film.   

 

Stalker (1979)

Viewed May 27th

 

A man known as a Stalker guides two intellectuals through the Zone, a landscape with mysterious qualities. 

There's something that draws the Stalker to the Zone. He risks arrest, divorce, and even death to sneak back into this odd site where aliens landed and have since departed. He does so despite promises to his wife that his days sneaking into the Zone are all now part of the past. Unlike the writer and scientist accompanying him on his latest journey, the Stalker seems obsessed with uncovering the mystery of the zone's final room, which is rumored to deliver those that reach it with their greatest desires. However, when they do get that far, the writer and scientist have had enough; they aren't interested in going any further. Everything thus far has been a riddle or a trap or a maze and they've had enough. The Stalker, though, wants nothing more than to continue descending into that mystery. Director Andrei Tarkovsky presents a metaphor for the dynamic between these three men. We view a long shot of the Stalker's daughter, who was born with mutations caused by her father's exposure to the Zone. She's using her mind to push three glasses across a table. One of the glasses makes it half-way across the table and stops; another makes it to the edge--close enough to peer over--but stops. the third, however, falls off, taking the plunge.

This split between descending into the mystery or standing back in the light of reason is one of several dualities presented in Stalker. Another is the visual quality of the film image itself. It transforms from the washed-out sepia of the "normal" world to the rich saturation of the Zone. Importantly, the Zone's more saturated look carries over to the normal world only in scenes when we see the Stalker's mutant daughter. This visual choice signals that the daughter functions, then, as an alien herself, an emissary from the Zone to the normal world. 

The other major duality in Stalker is the visual contrast in many shots between flowing water and rusted industrial waste, or of the verdant greenery of the Zone contrasted with industrial waste. Some of the most mesmerizing moments of this thoroughly mesmerizing film are long tracking shots above water in which we see the refuse of the material world through a foaming, liquidy shimmer. One of the characters muses philosophically that death is hardness and life is softness & pliancy. And everywhere throughout Stalker, that contrast is explored in visual terms. But Tarkovsky is careful to never give the viewer a firm final message about what all of this might mean. He never shows you what's in the final room, or whether the Stalker is fully justified in his quasi-religious fanaticism. By the end of Stalker, though, the viewer may realize that something interesting has occurred. The world of the film is so fully realized and so deep, yet still so mysterious that it's become, in some way, the Zone. It's an ever-shifting mystery world filled with paradox and beauty. By extension, cinema itself (the art of "sculpting in time," as Tarkovsky puts it) is that soft pliant force that is identified as representing life. Depending on the viewer of Stalker's personality type, they may have had their fill of all this softness and mystery...or they may harbor a secret desire to return, to take the plunge one more time.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Viewed May 26th

 

When a feudal Japanese village is threatened by bandits, the local peasants enlist the protection of seven masterless samurai. 

The first thing we're shown in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai are bandits in full armor riding their horses at full speed across rough lands. They're presented in black shadow or otherwise obscured. When they look down upon a small rural village dotted with huts, the viewer intuitively feels threatened and protective of the village. After the bandits decide not to attack the village and instead wait until the barley has been harvested so they can get more out of their rade, that feeling of protectiveness toward the village is only amplified. And then it's amplified even more when we see that the bandits' plan has been secretly overheard by an emaciated old man with a quivering lip and wide, fearful eyes. With a bundle of twigs strapped to his hunched back, he descends into the village to spread the terrible news. In the following scenes, Kurosawa brings us into the village to meet its alternately fearful and humorous inhabitants, understand the social and economic structure of the village, and learn about the geographic space around the village. When several of the villagers go to the nearest town to find "hungry samurai" who will work for rice balls, our understanding of the village world is further increased because of its contrast with the relatively bustling commercial life of the town. As the seven samurai are located and introduced to us, we understand how they each represent a walk of life, and as these seven walks of life are contrasted, the world of the film continues to be enriched so that, although it all happened organically, we feel like we know this 16th century Japanese world and how this one particular village world functions within it. This is especially effective because of the brilliant performances and direction of the actors, including, of course, the great hero of 20th century Japanese cinema Toshiro Mifune. When Mifune and the other samurai return to the world, the bulk of the film then becomes about surveying maps of the village world, identifying where its defenses are weak and, in turn, working with the villagers to build them up. As this happens, we deepen our knowledge of the work and its geographic features, including the rice patties, barley fields, the old mill on the outskirts where the town elder lives, and the flower field in the forest where love inevitably seems to bloom. (Incidentally, one of the film's larger subplots involves a love affair in the flower fields between a young samurai in training and a village girl and this subplot mirrors on a micro level the macro-level thrust of the film: i.e., the preservation of one world from the threat of penetration by another.) As the defenses of the world are further improved, the leader of the samurai is careful to allow one entry point into the world. He notes that even the best castles always allow one breach because to defeat one's enemies, one cannot always play defense. This world-building and world-protecting goes on until the epic final battle in the rain when the bandits at last arrive. By this point in the film's three-and-a-half-hour runtime, we've begun to inhabit the cinematic world of Seven Samurai so thoroughly that there's something at stake for us in seeing that it isn't destroyed. We are involved in a deep way. When the bandits are, in the end, vanquished and the villagers sing their happy victory song, the remaining samurai note that it was never about them and their heroics, it was always about the world--about the village and, with that, the theme of the film is fully tied together: never fight for individual glory but always for the world. 

 

 

The Commune (2017)

Viewed May 20th

 

When a married couple in 1970s Denmark transforms their home into a commune, conflicts arise and are overcome.  

I doubt that director Thomas Vinterberg would agree with this statement, but I see his latest film as a political statement more than a dramatic or aesthetic one. Obviously a film called The Commune is going to address politics, but the overall vibe seems to direct the viewer to focus more on interpersonal dramas and subtle filmmaking choices rather than potential critiques or celebrations of left wing political experimentation. But it's that very maneuver that makes it so strongly political. 

This is a film that builds a world. The first thing we see is a man who turns out to be a real estate agent crossing a street, giving us a sense of a quiet residential milieu. He then enters the home--it's a large, sturdily built house designed for a traditional bourgeois family. Then the agent guides the home's new owners, our married couple along with their teenage daughter, through all the rooms, expanding the world. It doesn't take long for the couple to then open the house up for communal living and we are subsequently introduced to each of the commune's inhabitants via a series of interviews. As things proceed, every scene involves one character or another, some light events, some dark. But unlike say The Ice Storm or 20th Century Women, two other 1970s-realist ensemble pieces that came to mind as I was watching, nothing feels as though it was imagined for a movie or designed to "say something" about the politics of the time (or of our time). It all seems true to life, even the most tragic or dramatic of the events, in order to build the world. This true-to-life feeling, though, also limits the power of things. Problems come up, but they are resolved. Even the film's central conflict between the original married couple follows a certain uncannily accurate emotional logic. This is all due to performances and direction that strike one as exceedingly mature. I say all of this is ultimately more of a political statement than anything else, though, because by the end of the film, the main thing that's happened--the main thing that the viewer can sink their teeth into--is that it's built a real world. The main thing it's done is to prove that the communal living is not a fantasy, or an abstract idea for a movie, but real--a real world. 

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Alien: Covenant (2017)

Viewed May 18th

A crew transporting colonists to a distant planet runs into a trouble with aliens and a familiar android. 

Following the dense but ultimately uninteresting mythology explored in Prometheus, its follow-up Alien: Covenant returns to the franchise's origins. Like the original Alien, it features a motley working class space crew facing-off against the existential horror of pure otherness in a series of suspenseful action sequences. And all of that circles around a quasi-philosophical theme. In the original film (the original four films really), you might label that theme "motherhood." Here the theme is the biblical struggle experienced by an advanced AI between duty and domination of humans, which it regards as inferior but oddly compelling. In the process, Covenant tries to keep what was interesting in Prometheus--the AI David played by Michael Fassbender--but ditch or at least minimize the whole thing about the creators of human beings beings other aliens (which I still can't wrap my head around). These all seem like the right moves, but the film still never quite comes together. It's oddly un-funny, even when it tries to be. I feel like when Ridley Scott was younger, he could pull off this kind of gritty, dick-swinging humor pretty well in a lot of his films including Alien, but as an older man, he seems to have lost touch with how human beings can be funny with each other. It's almost like an AI approximating humor. The most infuriating result is that they have this comedic talent in Danny McBride, but his performance comes across as awkwardly trapped between his comedic persona and something generically action-film-y. Furthermore, the more general humanness of all the connections are gestured at, but never feel authentic. Even a terrifically empathy-generating actor like Billy Crudup who has been killing every performance he's been in recently can't quite shape his character into a recognizable human personality. If the film just went full-on action craziness that would be one thing, but it doesn't--it is an idea-driven sci-fi film with philosophical pretensions about big topics like what it is to be human--but it never creates a compelling, reasonably realistic human world. Oh well. And as with McBride and Crudup, the talent of Michael Fassbender as the conflicted AI is never given enough strong material to shape the iconic character that he clearly could make.

Vertigo (1958)

Viewed May 16th

 

A man follows a woman possessed by a ghost and then, when the woman dies, her own ghost possesses the man. 

Vertigo is often cited as the greatest film of all-time and I can't disagree with that. The more one views the film, the more depth one finds. Everything in Vertigo is initially presented one way and then, we find, actually contains a secret double, a shadow, and often the doubles are themselves doubled so that, like the hair style connecting Carlotta/Madeleine/Midge-as-Madeleine/Carlotta, the story spirals through space and time.

The key double is, of course, Madeleine Elster and Carlotta Valdez, which is itself then re-doubled by the entrance into the narrative of Judy as the double of Madeleine.

And then there's Scottie. He tells Madeleine that, to some, he is Scottie and, to others, he is Johnny. But on a deeper level, this character is beset by his own past, which itself creates a doubling of his own persona. When the past is activated, his shadow comes out; we can no longer trust this man to overcome his own demons. 

Scottie/Johnny is also a sort of double of Rear Window's L.B. Jeffries (also played by James Stewart). Just as Marnie takes Marion from Psycho down an alternate narrative path, Vertigo takes Jeff/L.B. Jeffries' (another doubling) down an alternate path. Vertigo is, in some way, the continuation of Jeff's story after the corset (the one's he's forced to wear due to a fall from a building) is removed. In a similar way, the theme of the double echoes through all the other doubles in all the other Hitchcock films so that vertigo spirals even farther.

At times Scottie/Johnny and Madeleine/Judy double each other through the swapping of red and green clothing in key scenes.

And we also see that supporting characters are doubled, too:

Midge is also known as Marjorie. Depending on her mood, she is Scottie/Johnny's ex-lover and his "mother." In a tragic scene, Midge humorously depicts herself as another double of Carlotta Valdes and is castigated by Scottie or "Johnny-O" as she calls him.

Carlotta Valdes was herself described as the "Beautiful Carlotta," "Sad Carlotta" and the "Mad Carlotta".

Gavin Elster is a double, too. Beyond the duplicity of his secret plot to kill his wife, he is first described as a down-and-out Skid Row bum and then when we meet him, he's a wealthy shipping magnate. 

Places are doubled too. All of San Francisco is portrayed as a city with a layer of the historical past suffused over it. In the city's past, men could do things--they had "power" and "freedom"--but in the present, they are neutered--a duality that then is doubled in Scottie/Johnny himself.

In Mission San Juan Batista, this layering of past over present is made concrete. The Mission is "preserved exactly as it was a hundred years ago as a museum," including a replica of a horse and carriage in which key moments take place.

And then the film itself is a double. One narrative line runs through Madeleine's fall from the tower at the Mission, the other (much to the dismay and puzzlement of many viewers) follows Scottie's doubling of Madeleine through Judy. In the first, James Stewart plays a hero; in the second, he's almost villainous. As in many Hitchcock films (but perhaps best articulated in Marnie), both of these Vertigo narratives follow a psychoanalytic logic in which closure is meant to occur when the character relives a past trauma in order to exorcise its grip on their unconscious actions. In the first version, Scottie/Johnny thinks he's curing Madeleine of her neurosis; in the second, he thinks he's curing himself. In both cases, though, the cure is also a death. In the first narrative, the cure leads to Madeleine's death; in the second, it leads to Judy's.

And about Judy's death...in a film loaded with puzzling moments, these final moments are perhaps the most puzzling. As Scottie/Johnny (again) leads Judy up the Tower he finds personal closure in laying out the plot in which he was a pawn and, in the process, overcomes the vertigo he experiences through a fear of heights. Before these penultimate moments, his personality is rapidly switching back and forth between caring/loving and obsessive/manipulative. And then when it all finally comes out and they've triumphantly reached the top of the phallic tower and all the doubling can seem to finally end, a final double emerges: a dark shape, literally shrouded in shadow. Judy sees this form and experiences a horror so intense, she's forced to leap to her death from the top of the tower. A moment later, this darkness is revealed to be a symbol of light, a Catholic nun from the Mission. The nun crosses herself, says "God have mercy," and rings the church bell, leaving Scottie/Johnny all alone at the top of the Tower. 

To Catch a Thief (1955)

Viewed May 15th

 

When a famous cat burglar is the suspect in several recent high-profile jewelry heists, he comes out of retirement to uncover whoever it it is who's mastered his techniques. 

A harmless, playfully indulgent fantasy about movie stars. The real-life personas of two of Hollywood's greatest movie stars, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, are--in true Hitchcockian form--doubled. The smooth, elegant Cary Grant had retired for acting and was enjoying a private life away the bright lights of Hollywood, while Grace Kelly was known for her own privileged upbringing as a real-life American heiress from Philadelphia. In To Catch a Thief, Grant came out of retirement to play a cat burglar who himself is drawn out of retirement, while Kelly plays an American heiress from Philadelphia traveling abroad. In this doubling of real-life persona and character, there's a sort of mega-cinematic-surplus of movie star charisma. What makes it work so well is that these rare individuals, Grant and Kelly, seemingly live up to our fantasies about them. When we see Grant re-emerge, he's tanned, healthy, still handsome, full head of black hair.  We even see him shirtless, looking toned. He, like his character, reemerges as the cosmopolitan bon vivant meets mysterious artist mystic gay/straight alien masculinity that we desire him to be. And Grace Kelly, meanwhile, really is an American princess. So beautiful and elegant and well-mannered. There's something so pure to her beauty--it doesn't look jazzed-up or made-up. Today, you could imagine her receiving a bit of plastic surgery to accent a few things or carve away a few other things, but that lack of synthetic beauty proves how beautiful she actually was. She really is this person, or at least it's all pulled off so well that it works perfectly.

However, all that said, Hitchcock never pushes the film beyond this doubling effect. For a Hitchcock film about a thief made during the prime years of the master's career, where are all the great suspense sequences of jewelry robberies? We get a taste of it at the very opening, in an expressionistic green light (with dreamlike cat surrealism), but then the story itself becomes a bit banal and the identity of the actual thief is bizarrely easy to guess. On a side note, I'm sure some text (or probably many texts) exist like this, but it would be interesting to go deep on color symbolism in Hitchcock. I'm not sure if there's an actual hard logic to it all, but--particularly with green (red too, but mostly green)--it seems to run through and connect things. Dreamlike, expansive, with a tinge of madness, the green wraps around you but keeps you at arm's length in Hitchcock films. 

Marnie (1965)

Viewed May 14th

 

Marnie runs from one bad situation to another, letting her neurosis control her life, until she meets Mr. Rutland.  

The opening image of Marnie is, famously, a close shot of the contoured crevices running up the side of a yellow clutch purse. The woman holding the purse, whom we learn is Marnie, walks ahead of us and we follow. We don't see her see her face yet, just that she's dressed in a stylish black outfit, that she has black hair which looks to be a wig, and that she's walking to the end of an empty train platform. Hitchcock, the master, is instantly creating a lot of mystery and, visually, everything is directed to this yellow purse. In many Hitchcock films, the contents of this purse would be a MacGuffin, but here it's a bit more complicated. On one level the purse is meant to visually suggest a vulva, but, as such, it can also be read as a metaphor for Marnie herself, or, as things develop, for Marnie's psychosexual complexes. And with the way everything is framed here the rest of the film becomes all about opening up that purse to see what's inside. And unlike the MacGuffin, there is something non-trivial inside Marnie that needs to be revealed.

Immediately after these opening moments, Marnie becomes an interesting variant on the opening of Psycho, in which we learn that the icy Hitchcock blonde has stolen from her older male employer and is now on the run. However, instead of being killed in the shower of the Bates Motel, Marnie makes it to the end of the film, ending up meeting her match in Mark Rutland, the anti-Norman Bates, who breaks her down and opens up the purse/Marnie's mind in order to the reveal the trauma that's defined her life.

As embedded in the realm of psychology and metaphor as it is, there is a dreamlike quality to everything. And like a dream, it wanders, but, as with most revisionist takes on the film, it's ultimately one of the key Hitchcock films, particularly for those invested in the broader mythology of the Hitchcock cinematic landscape.

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The Birds (1963)

Viewed May 13th

 

A woman pursues a man to his family home in remote Bodega Bay when the birds start attacking. 

Building off of Robin Wood's influential interpretation of this filmthe birds aren't attacking for a particular reason. The attacks can't be reduced to a series of psychological explanations in the way that Norman Bates' murders can. On the contrary, they represent something perhaps more deeply terrifying: pure chaotic unreason. The most common line of dialogue in The Birds is "Why are they doing this?" And although varied answers are offered, they're categorically presented as absurd. The most common answer and the only one that seems reasonable is "I don't know." This is paralleled in dialogue between Melanie and Annie, in which Annie describes how Mitch's mother turned on her:  

ANNIE

When I got back to San Francisco I spent days trying to figure out just what I'd done to displease her.

MELANIE

And what had you done?

ANNIE

Nothing! I simply existed.

...

The use of the word "existed" hearkens to the then-still-fashionable existentialist philosophies of the post-World War II era, in which (at least in the Nietzschean sense) the individual must will his or her desire into existence in the face of an uncaring, meaningless universe. Tippi Hedren's character Melanie is used to doing just that. And just at the very moment when her plan to capture the attention of the hunky lawyer Mitch is about to be fulfilled and her face reveals the satisfaction of yet another victory over the wills of others, the depth of Hitchcockian terror is unleashed.