Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Viewed May 12th

 

An idealistic teenager struggles to make sense of a world where gender is unstable and the local hoods keep calling him "chicken."

Rebel Without a Cause is a great title, but it's a misnomer. The protagonist Jim is a rebel, but he's not without a cause; on the contrary, Jim focuses on a single, obsessive cause: what his love interest Judy will go on to call "the main thing," which is sincerity. Jim finds the world false and endlessly compromised and because of his idealism, he can't settle. He gets into trouble wherever he goes and finds himself suffering from a major crisis of gender and sexuality brought on primarily by Jim Backus as the apron-wearing father. Jim craves a masculine role model and seems to almost find one in the police juvenile division counselor, but at the same time he's drawn toward queerness, perhaps best symbolized by--in a moment of desperation--his chugging of a translucent, phallic-shaped bottle of white milk, followed by his caressing of the bottle against his face.

The way this is all framed is not as gritty realism, but dreamlike classicism. With a few small changes Rebel Without a Cause would have been quite at home as an allegorical drama in ancient Greece. Walking from one classically-styled building to another--most notably the planetarium and the courtyard of the abandoned mansion--Jim and his cohorts engage in weighty dialogues about what it's all supposed to mean as if they were Socrates and his interlocutors passing through Athens. Indeed, one of Jim's only friends in the film is named Plato.

Part Los Angeles and part small town U.S.A., the film isn't about a particular situation in a particular place; it's about the situation occurring among people at the time in which it was made. And indeed, director Nicholas Ray's vision defined the ethos of a generation and continues to reverberate to this day. Along with, say, The Searchers and Vertigo, Rebel Without a Cause represents a high-point of technicolor Hollywood classicism. It stands as a landmark of American art.  

And, of course, no discussion of the film can leave out the main attraction--the incredible performance of James Dean. In order to create a classical allegory for the modern age, there are all sorts of things that would have to go into the filmmaking to make it work and not feel silly or pretentious. But most important would be a central anchoring performance. We have to enter the world of a narrative film through the eyes of an actor. And James Dean delivers entry point that so thoroughly that we get lost inside the world of the movie and it at times feels utterly unreal to watch it. With its lush technicolor, minimalist production design, its evocation of nothing less than the history of the universe, and its timeline extending essentially through a single day, the viewer becomes caught in a dream. And Dean keeps us there. How could James Dean be real? Because of his associations with the method school of acting, he has a reputation for realism--the type of realism that led Cary Grant to retire from acting. But, in fact, the beauty of Dean is not his realism (who acts like this? who could act like this?), but his highly affected unreality. The only other film reference is the photo of Cary Grant in Plato's locker.  And indeed, not since Grant had Hollywood seen such an alien masculine beauty.  

Rear Window (1954)

Viewed May 9th

 

Confined to a wheelchair in his Manhattan apartment, photographer L.B. Jeffries passes the time by spying on his neighbors across the courtyard...until he sees something he wasn't supposed to see.

One thing that makes little sense in Hitchcock's Rear Window is why Grace Kelly is so in love with Jimmy Stewart. She's a beautiful young model at the center of New York society, but more than that she's Grace Kelly. She's stunning and funny and smart to an otherworldly degree. We're supposed to believe that she's hounding Jimmy Stewart to marry her because, as a freelance photographer who travels to the exotic, dangerous world outside New York, he represents an escape from cosmopolitan society. But he doesn't seem that worldly or dangerous. He's a frail, over-the-hill guy. Now that he's housebound,  his cast that seems to wrap around his groin like a hard shell of adult diapers and he's kind of an asshole to everyone. Grace Kelly, so beautiful she literally became a princess in real life, is pushing herself on him, trying to kiss him and all he can do is push her away because he wants to keep peeping on his neighbors. Not only that, the entire film is of course premised on the fact that his injury represents his impotence and his sexuality is defined by scopophilia. His older friend Stella (expertly played by Thelma Ritter) bemoans the fact that "we've become a race of peeping toms." Stella gives him completely un-erotic massages and goes on to tell him he must have a "hormonal imbalance" because he doesn't get excited by the sight of a woman in her underwear. Finally, when threatened by physical danger, all he can muster is this ridiculous attack of flashing his camera bulbs at the killer. He has to wait for Grace Kelly to come and save the day. So, again, why is Kelly interested in this loser? Well, it's pretty simple, the whole film is a peeping tom's fantasy. We know this because it's all pushed so far into the unreal that it has to be. Not only does the peeper get to play voyeur all day, he's got this beautiful woman offering up her body to him (which he has the power to deny), and he's ultimately able to get her to join him in his true passion of peeping on others. Thus, he retains his power over her but doesn't have to actually touch her (or expose his impotence). On top of all that, the kicker of the fantasy is that it's because he's a peeper that he's able to solve a crime and fulfill the role of the "hero." If Stella is right and we have indeed "become a race of peeping toms" (which seems more true every year as online pornographic expands its reach), Rear Window is our Odyssey.  

The Lost City of Z (2017)

Viewed May 9th

 

The true story of Percy Fawcett, a 20th century English explorer who became obsessed with finding a lost city in the Amazon.

Just when Fawcett thinks he's getting somewhere in the Amazon, he has to return to civilization, but he always has an eye on getting back to the jungle, to the unknown. In order to tell this story, writer/director James Gray is able to work with juicy themes but the back and forth structure proves surprisingly troublesome. He has to imbue all of the scenes away from the Amazon (the domestic scenes, the scenes at the Royal Geographic Society, the scenes in World War I) with enough tension to keep us engaged. Like Fawcett himself, we miss the danger and the color of the jungle, we want the film to return there. In order for the conceit of the movie to work, those scenes away from the Amazon should feel pregnant with desire. We should feel the world expanding into two clear hemispheres--the unknown world and the civilized world (as Terrence Malick does in The New World), each fully rendered and continually spinning us into its worldview. But that's not quite what we get here. Things stop spinning. In the first half, there's a philosophical investigation pushing through the scenes, but, in order to have the story more or less match the actual events, that Conradian philosophical tone gets muddled and we are instead presented with a lot of historical information. This happened. And then this happened. And that's why this happened. But by then we're not enough absorbed into the overall world of the film to appreciate the beauty and depth of the stunning final image.

Giant (1956)

Viewed May 8th

 

Multi-generational saga about Texas, tradition, and the rush for oil that sweeps up one of the state's largest cattle ranches in the wake of World War II.

Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean are three big movie stars and three big movie stars require a Texas-sized movie in order to support all that wattage. 

In the first half of George Stevens' Giant, they get that. Stevens' builds the world of the Reata Ranch so we sink in. With its sparse landscape punctured by the big old Victorian homestead, Giant projects a mythical, classical allegory for recent history. In the three-and-a-half hour technicolor saga's second half, though, that mythic world shrinks down to size so that we feel as though we're too often listening to people talking in rooms about relatively pedestrian things we've heard before. This shrinking clashes with the what these three big movie stars need in order to keep the film in the air. They stayed big, but the film got small.

On the other hand, though, that shrinking is intentional: it parallels the themes of change to Texas itself in the second half of the twentieth century. The rugged grandeur of the open cattle ranches gave way to the mechanistic and more purely capitalistic oil industry. This move to shrink the scope and grandeur of the film also serves as a meta-commentary on the western genre, in which the old Texas is modernizing with concrete swimming pools and all the loneliness that can come with endless oil money. One of the most disarmingly contemporary points the film has to make is that the story of Texas in the 20th century is driven by oil but is ultimately about race. None of this matters, though, if the world around all these ideas struggles to cohere. When that happens, we can't be absorbed into the movie enough to have its ideas absorbed into us. 

 

The Trial (1963)

Viewed May 4th

 

In this Orson Welles adaptation of a Frank Kafka novel, the protagonist Josef K wanders through a bleak bureaucratic dreamscape, trying to understand why he's been put under arrest. 

At one point during my screening of The Trial, someone in the audience began to snore and then suddenly woke up. Others began chuckling. It was funny not just because snoring is funny but because the man woke up to this exceedingly dreamlike film. From the outset, the opening narration (voiced by Welles himself) explicitly tell us that "the logic of this story is the logic of dream...of a nightmare." And he's right. It's not a film about dream logic, it  is dream logic. Hitchcock's Psycho, released just a few years earlier in similarly stark black and white, is in dialogue with the unconscious and dream states, but it's always so firmly controlled that it circumnavigates the unreason of a real dream. It's about dreams and nightmares. The Trial, though, is a dream. Which makes it a challenging but potentially fascinating viewing--depending on your taste for this type of thing. 

There are plenty of wilder, looser, and more surreal films that are described as dream-like, but they aren't dream-like in the uncanny way that The Trial is. Through Anthony Perkins' commitment to his role, Welles' powerful yet economic use of the camera, Kafka's weaving narrative, and the commitment of all involved to a particular micro logic within each scene...we aren't bounced out of this world for being too crazy or cued to read it as signifying dreaminess. Again, it is dreaminess and through a lot of cinematic skill we are absorbed into this dream. One of most haunting aspects of the film, is the casting of Perkins, still relatively fresh off of his iconic performance as Norman Bates in Psycho. Welles directs him to act as a version of Bates, with the same sexual ambiguity, the same neurotic niceties, the same darkness in his intelligent eyes. There's an uncanny doubling that happens; it registers on an unconscious level alongside other patterns and recurrences in order to create a nightmarishly repetitive spiral into the void. It's one of the most misunderstood, under-appreciated films of the 20th century and one of the high points of Welles' fractured career. 

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Slack Bay (2017)

Viewed April 30th

A series of absurd disappearances tie the social classes inhabiting a quaint French seaside town together.

In Bruno Dumont's latest film, he continues his drift away from the harsh realism of Life of Jesus and Twenty-Nine Palms. Slack Bay is a violent, cartoon-like satire featuring a wide variety of flavors--everything from Jean Renoir, to Wes Anderson, to Francois Ozon, to Guy Maddin, to Tintin, to Jacques Tati, to Laurel and Hardy, to the Swedish film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Existence, to Jeunet & Caro, to Julia Ducournau's recent cannibalism film Raw. Unfortunately, these different flavors never congeal into one satisfying world. There are a million good ideas and a genius (almost sadistically painful) approach to presenting the human body, but it never feels like it should all go together. Which is a shame, because if you can't be absorbed into a film's world you can't absorb its world view. And there is something interesting here about the body and class.

Life of Jesus (1997)

Viewed April 27th

 

Provincial French teenagers struggle to find meaning in anything beyond sex and violence.

A film utterly tied to reality and yet so original in perspective that it feels alien, as well. These small-town teens with their ugly but compelling faces and their motorbikes would be unremarkable if they weren't prone to racially-motivated violence; their lives are hardly the lives of Jesus. And yet director Bruno Dumont frames and structures their actions so elegantly and so seemingly "objectively" that by the ending, with its mesmerizing sequence of images, a spiritual spell has been cast. And, with that spell comes a lingering mystery about what it all means and why the film has this intriguing title despite having almost nothing to do with Jesus, and whether or not these sinners are, in the end, redeemable. I'm not sure if there's an answer, or perhaps the answer lies in that very sense of mystery and unknowability.

It seems as if Life of Jesus unfolds organically, but there is, in fact, a sophisticated game being played. In the genre of austere, realistic European cinema, the filmmaker has to actually juggle quite a bit, despite the seeming simplicity. Every scene has to advance the narrative and to feel authentic--not only authentic, but illuminating about the world. If their voice or artistic affectations become louder than the world and the characters, the world of the film falters and we're cast outside of it. Intriguingly, one area where Dumont strays from the genre rules is in the odd humor that runs through everything and feels provocative in relation to some of the touchier aspects. Occasionally we enter a broader point of view about life in this town and we laugh at the characters. When that happens, the balance unsteadies, but, to Dumont's credit, the mystery remains.

On A Moonlit Night (aka As Long as It's Love) (1989)

Viewed April 25th

 

When a journalist who writes about public reactions to HIV/AIDS finds that he has contracted the disease, he goes to drastic lengths to protect his family from contagion and social stigma.

Director Lina Wertmuller effectively conjures a world of 80s Euro bourgeoisie cosmopolitanism in the grips of the AIDS crisis--both in terms of the spread of the disease and the paranoia around it. Indeed from the first scene to the last, the film explores the misinformation that drives fear, not just around HIV/AIDS, but generally. The film calls for an open, adult conversation in order to make the rational decisions necessary to move forward with HIV/AIDS in contemporary society. The way it goes about making this point is to, first, lure the audience into the world I described above and, second, to draw them in deeper through a compelling melodrama plot; it's only then that the film's larger ideas could be transmitted (or spread, like a virus). The stars--Rutger Hauer and Nastassja Kinski--work in conjunction with Wertmuller's savvy portrayal of pan-European culture to achieve the first step. But the plot ends up wildly diverting from reality at a certain point and this ends up alienating the viewer from fully engaging with anything. The whole world of the film seems to fall apart at a certain point, leaving the viewer with nothing to sink into. The result is that the film's message remains that--just a message--rather than a deeper moral position.  

Graduation (AKA Bacalaureat) (2017)

Viewed April 23rd

 

A Romanian doctor finds himself taking drastic lengths to make sure his daughter has the opportunity to leave their provincial town and study abroad in the UK.  

Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, Graduation plays the game of the naturalism genre very well. The game is to draw in the viewer to the film's world through a balance of unveiling realism and compelling story. It has to feel as though its naturalistic qualities are not only real but the unveiling of some new aspect to reality. At the same time, the film's characters and narrative need to feel logical and emotional enough for us to travel deeper into the world and encounter all these unveilings. If the game is played well, the viewer experiences them not just as an aspect of the world, but of themselves in the world.

Graduation does all this. Its greatest asset is its lead performance by Adrian Titieni. His eyes are obscured to us, but we can tell there's something worth knowing more about. So the film compels us to try and get inside its world. And once we're in, Titieni plays the loving father driven to morally-questionable behavior so fully that we can't help but follow along with his struggles to the point that, although the film is about a very local/regional issue, it strikes a universal chord. 

Something Wild (1986)

Viewed April 20th

 

Seemingly mild-mannered office worker is picked up by a free-spirited woman for a wild weekend.

Something Wild, directed by Jonathan Demme from a script by E. Max Frye, is dreamlike and wild. And it banks on that wildness to propel the viewer through its runtime. However, the lack of something non-wild in the character and narrative development ends up ultimately casting a somewhat tedious effect on the overall film. It's not tethered enough to reality for viewers to actually care that much. And the more we look at it, the more conservative it all seems. Melanie Griffith's character, in particular, is supposed to be free and complicated, but is never given the chance to be anything other than a white male fantasy in various guises. In fact, the film is actually at its heart representative of that most banal concept: by taking a chance, the conservative white male tames the girl, get the respect of non-whites (without having to interact with them directly) and triumphs over the rebellious alpha male. However, if you take the film as a dream, or as taking an interest in how dreams work, or how a banal white man's dreams work, then there might be something more to work with here. 

Perhaps the greatest asset of the film is as a snapshot into a particular worldview of funky 1980s New York culture. Cameos abound and the score is by John Cale and Laurie Anderson. 

  

 

City on Fire (1987)

Viewed April 11th

An undercover cop develops a friendship with the criminal whose ring he's infiltrated. 

City on Fire is a kinetic cop action movie directed by Ringo Lam. Today it is perhaps best remembered for having some of its premise and Mexican-standoff finale stolen by Quentin Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs. And, indeed, Tarantino did blatantly rip-off City on Fire. But, at the same time, Tarantino also ripped off a lot of other films and, to some extent, that ripping-off is part of Tarantino's concept. Tarantino spins City on Fire and his other references and keeps spinning them and spinning them until they blur and it's only when you step back that a new pattern emerges from all these spinning cinematic objects. City on Fire is good at what it is, but it's not Tarantino. Nor, for that matter, is it the poetic apotheosis of Hong Kong gun ballet action genre that some may hope for.  The film's stars, Chow Yun Fat and Danny Lee, will achieve that lofty goal when they reunite for John Woo's The Killer.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Viewed April 11th

 

A group of hardened thieves has to figure out which of them tipped off the cops.

Reservoir Dogs plays with the tools of cinematic craft and narrative so skillfully, that is still feels striking to consider this is Tarantino's debut. It's funny, it's tense, it's shocking, it's moving, it's stylish. Here is someone who loves the pleasures of cinema feeding them back into the system with youthful enthusiasm and a hard-to-place wisdom. He turns each scene into an event. And, in the process, he crafts an intoxicating and terrifying world of L.A. crime hipsterism that defines its age as endless surface-level trivia bubbling over a sea of potential evil. In the midst of this, an almost timeless code of honor is all that separates the men from the beasts. I was shocked to find myself so won over by this film after years of having avoided a re-watch. 

 

 

Red Beard (1965)

Viewed April 8th

 

A young doctor comes into the service of Red Beard, an older, more idiosyncratic mentor.

This Akira Kurosawa film (the last the director would make with Toshiro Mifune) is all about creating a cinematic world. The very first moments involve following an outsider through the doors of Red Beard's hospital. It's immediately a challenging, uncomfortable place full of impoverished sickness and folk medical philosophies. Another young doctor who is a few days away from leaving, tells us that this mass of people would be better off dead, and we may agree with him. But because the character we're following feels the same way, we're willing to go along and see what develops. When our young doctor meets Red Beard and, in a great shot, Mifune turns to the camera, revealing his eyes, Kurosawa calibrates it all so well that our feelings match the young outsider doctor's--we are suddenly more compelled to stick around in this world and see what this man, with these powerful eyes, is up to. In what follows there are no short cuts, we did ever deeper into the world, bearing the site of abjection tempered by bursts of action plucked straight from samurai or horror films until we seem to feel that this cinematic world's unique architecture is carving out space in our brains. When the young doctor is at work, we can imagine that Red Beard actually exists and is busy in some other room of the hospital at the same time. When the young doctor chooses to turn down a more respected, better paying job with the Shogun in favor of staying with Red Beard, the film has convinced us this is clearly the correct course of action. And by the end, Kurosawa has so thoroughly built this unlikely cinematic world that our opinion about the fate of the impoverished masses has totally changed: they would, in fact, be better off alive. 

 

Forrest Gump (1994)

Viewed April 3rd

 

The learning-disabled but good-hearted Forrest Gump accidentally ends up present at nearly every landmark of post-World War II American history.

A baby boomer lullaby and, in a sense, the culmination of New Hollywood filmmaking. Through all the tumultuous times, the consistent message is this: love is what matters. And, thankfully, the filmmakers have created a really wonderful love story between Jenny and Forrest. When Forrest sees the son he produced with Jenny and struggles to ask whether the kid's also disabled, it really jerks the tears. And later, when Forrest is crying over Jenny's grave, it all comes out again. Tom Hanks and Robin Wright are pitch perfect. 

Beyond love is what matters, though, director Robert Zemeckis and his collaborators also end up creating an unintentional nostalgia for nothing less than the simpler world of clearcut white supremacy. Alongside every progressive advance, the film, told from Forrest's point of view, balances its politics with a running sense of befuddlement at change and yearning for simpler times. In his red hat, Forrest Gump somehow anticipates "Make America Great Again". 

 

Life (2017)

Viewed April 1st

 

A hostile alien life form is brought onboard a spaceship and eventually overwhelms the crew.

The filmmakers create an enjoyably tense mood and show off some very cool cinematography and then call it a day. That would be fine, but a movie like this needs something beyond merely accomplishing genre objectives to push it into more classic territory. There's not that sense of dread that overwhelms Alien or the sense of awe that elevates the more recent film Gravity. One way to do that would be to re-examine the alien presence itself. First of all, the special effects are advanced, but you can still definitely tell that this thing is digital, made in a computer, and that the actors are not sharing physical space with anything. At the risk of sounding cranky, there's a disconnect there. Also, the design of the alien begins as a little starfish walking around with anthropomorphic arms and legs and a little head. Eventually it evolves into a monster with a full-on human face. It would have been more dreadful if the monster/alien would have felt more alien and less in reference to a human being. There's something more existentially challenging about a form that feels utterly unfamiliar. Alien's alien of course was anthropomorphic, but it came from the mind of a visual genius, H.R. Giger, and it dug into the foreign or difficult aspects of the human form itself.

Heroes Shed No Tears (1986)

Viewed March 28th

 

A virtually indestructible Chinese army man guns down hundreds of bad guys while protecting his wife and little boy.

You can imagine someone saying, pejoratively, that Heroes Shed No Tears is no more than a video game. After all, it's plot consists of one high-body count combat action sequence after another, with little to no character or narrative interest beyond that. But, in fact, this film, a relatively early John Woo Hong Kong action-fest, is decidedly not a video game (and this is not to say that being compared to video games is necessarily a negative thing). In fact, Heroes Shed No Tears is one of the more purely cinematic films I've seen in some time. A video game immerses its players in its world through a sort of interactive/cybernetic feedback in which to play the game as strongly as possible, one has to become as deeply absorbed in the reality of the game world as possible. A film is totally different. There is no interactivity, the way (or at least a way) a film immerses the viewer in its worlds is through aesthetics--hooking in the viewer through imagery moving across the screen juxtaposed with other moving imagery, all set to a temporal rhythm. It's an art form for submissives. This is not to say that Heroes Shed No Tears is a masterpiece film. One other aspect of cinematic absorption is plotting and character in order to more deeply sustain and deepen the absorption in the world. Woo will reach much more operatic heights with these aspects of film practice in his later films, most notably The Killer.  

Blond Venus (1932)

Viewed March 25th

 

A beautiful woman sacrifices to help her husband and is then betrayed by him.

Blonde Venus has a ridiculous melodrama scenario: Marlene Dietrich marries the British scientist who peeped on her while she was swimming nude with six other actresses. Then, after the scientist is diagnosed with radiation poisoning, he takes Dietrich's money, abandons her and their son, and goes abroad to seek medical treatment. Dietrich is then forced to become a nightclub dancer in order to pay the bills and support the son. When the husband returns from his treatment, he's scandalized by the fact that his wife has become a dancer and forbids her to see the son. In the end, though, everything is resolved. What makes it all even more ridiculous is that never once do we ever see Marlene Dietrich as a viable mother; she only makes sense when she's away from the kid. It's only then that she becomes (in both the story of the film and the experience of watching the film) a star. The racist gorilla dance scene and the cross-dressing dance scene--these are movie moments that will, despite or perhaps because of their incendiary qualities, etch themselves into your mind. When Dietrich and Cary Grant, whom she meets through the nightclub world, are framed together in a close shot, there's so much cinematic surplus it feels like the whole thing will burst. Luckily, the scenes of domestic life, despite their absurdity, are filmed so dreamily by director Josef von Sternberg that it all somehow works as a type of film poem that doesn't exist anymore. 

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Viewed March 25th

 

A woman becomes involved in the world of a small Panamanian airport run by Cary Grant.

Only Angels Have Wings is, on the one hand, not so different from many Hollywood adventure romances from the late 1930s and early 1940s. It features some laughs, some dramatic moments, and a lot of brave men vying to impress the women that love them. But on the other hand, it's elevated above much of these more run-of-the-mill films because its indelible cinematic world absorbs the viewer and carries them through parts of the film that would otherwise feel dated. The main entry point into this world is the gaze of star Cary Grant. Grant is one of cinema's most powerful movie stars. He seems familiar yet alien, comfortable yet alluring. He's American, but from where? Is he gay? Is he straight? Is he an intellectual or a man's man? An aristocrat or a worker? He's all of these things and none of them and through it all he never has to change his persona. One could imagine Humphrey Bogart playing this role of the brave pilot and it working fine, but somehow it wouldn't create as strong of an absorbing effect; Bogart fits the type more so you would lose that mystery of "why is this guy here? How did life lead him here?" 

The other thing this film does to keep the viewer absorbed into the world is to commit to the exploration of a single key theme--masculine honor--through each of its scenes. As the film progresses, the viewer watches the plot unfold as they also follow an idea about the world develop until its absolutely perfect culmination in the film's famous final moments. 

Song to Song (2017)

Viewed March 25th

Young people drift in and out of the Austin music scene and each other's lives.  

As much as director Terrence Malick draws the viewer into the worlds of his recent films via one of the most absorbing audiovisual styles in contemporary film, he pushes them away just as hard with a disconcerting clumsiness. And it's a shame because this clumsiness comes through the strongest in the aspect of his films that was once one of his great triumphs: the poetic voiceover narration...I loved Knight of Cups, I saw it four or five times, and became increasingly convinced that it was by far and away the most interesting thing happening in film at the time, but I couldn't ever quite talk myself into justifying some of the straight-up bad/pretentious sentiments being expressed in what should feel like the deepest and most poetic parts of these characters' inner lives. This is a shame. In Days of Heaven, the voiceover remains a revelation; there still may not be a film that surpasses the hauntingly philosophical mood Linda Manz conjures with her reading of it. In the years since, the visual style and blocking of actors developed in Days of Heaven have been perfected into a totally unique creative position, one of the most continually engaging in all of visual art. Meanwhile, though, the hauntingly philosophical depth of Days of Heaven has grown oddly shallow.

I could definitely see how this could be intentional...There's something about letting things be very general that works well in the telling of a myth, in which the audience is reading the characters not as recognizable social types but as symbols of ideas about the world. Malick, the philosophy student and translator of Heidegger, is using cinematic tools instead of written prose to express his philosophy. However, there is still a difference between impactful, uncanny myths and tedious ones.

The other rationale is that, in the case of Song to Song, the film's structure and tone is inspired by its subject: rock music. And so when the characters reflect in pseudo-deep banalities, that's because that's the type of things people sing about in songs; the movie is simply an album's worth of songs. And, indeed, songs can be filled with cliches as long as the music is good. When that happens, the cliches are reinterpreted and made fresh again. "I love you" is powerful for this reason: it's the most obvious phrase, but in the right performance of its utterance, it becomes the most special. In Malick's film, the "music" is good--the visual style that he's worked out with his collaborators is gorgeous (and by now becoming somewhat mannered). But it might not be the right type of gorgeous for this type pop music subject matter. Baz Luhrmann or someone more clearly poppy would probably have made a better film. Malick's style projects more depth--the way his camera catches eyes, turns in expression, the relationship between the character and the environment, the relationship between the character and the supernatural...this is music that requires more from its lyrics.  

The Funhouse (1981)

Viewed March 24th

 

Teenagers spend the night in the carnival funhouse, but end up getting stalked by psychos. 

I really like the way director Tobe Hooper directed this one-dimensional, but somewhat disturbing horror film. Every gesture is thought through in cinematic terms to draw you in deeper. In the first sequence alone (which manages to make obvious nods to Hitchcock and John Carpenter) we have point of view shots, a characters wearing a mask, a mask over the lens, doors obscuring our view, semi-translucent shower curtains, lights strategically directing our eyes and creating mystery, glints of knives, and a creative use of depth in the soundtrack. All of this is designed to absorb the viewer into the world, to ask what's around that corner, what's going on over there, let me in deeper. Also, in outline, the story is sort of mind-numbingly stupid, but at every cliche plot point, things are twisted just enough into the realm of the weird and surreal that the film manages to remain surprising. This method of keeping the viewer on an edge between the familiar and the unfamiliar can, at its best, result in a sense of uncanniness. If judged as a statement about the real world, The Funhouse is, of course, utterly stupid and shallow (if not actively adding to social problems); but if judged as an instrument to tickle the unconscious, it does some interesting things, particularly in the way it mixes imagery of teen sexuality with dusty freak shows.