Tuesday, November 29, 2011

More Thoughts On Nightmare Alley

So I didn't have to make a pilgrimage to Noir City to see Nightmare Alley on the big screen after all (which I thought was going to be the case when I wrote about the movie in January). A mere eleven months after my last viewing, my local art house programmed it as part of their fall film noir series. I couldn't be happier. Nightmare Alley was an "A" picture that demands to be seen big. There's usually a discussion before and after these film series showings which greatly enrich the experience and get me thinking about the movies in new ways. Here are a few of my thoughts from this showing:

  1. For some reason, the religiosity of the movie never registered for me before. I think this is a because religion is shown to be just another con early in the film in the aftermath of the circus being rousted by the cops. The religious element that gets taken seriously late in the film is no good for anyone, least of all our hero, Stanton Carlisle. When he starts acting like he's a preacher rather than a con artist, that's when the fall comes. Also, I never really thought of the name "Lilith Ritter" in a religious context before, but she precipitates The Fall. It's probably a stretch to call Carlisle another Adam, a la the Frankenstein monster, though.

  2. I did not know that William Lindsay Gresham, author of the novel, had a wife who left him for C. S. Lewis. It makes me wonder a bit about whether Stanton Carlisle is meant as a kind of stand in for Lewis. Given Lewis's dubious conversion to Christianity after professing atheism early in his life, I can't help but see Carlisle as the same brand of hypocrite--at least in Gresham's mind. (edit: this speculation turns out to be groundless, per my friend Lee Price. See the comments).

  3. Nightmare Alley is a conflation of a bunch of different film noir idioms. It's specifically at the intersection of the psychiatric noir, the epistemological noir, and the alcoholic noir. This intersection makes it a perfect film for film series where slots are limited, because it can sub for, say, The Lost Weekend or Spellbound.

  4. Stanton Carlisle doesn't appear to like women very much. Oh, he uses them just as he uses everyone else in the movie, but there doesn't seem to be any sexual attraction to them. Both Edmund Goulding, the director, and Tyrone Power were bisexual, and I spent part of this viewing trying to spot whether or not Nightmare Alley is coded queer. I can't decide if it is or not, apart from Carlisle's curious indifference to women. He's a bit touchy feely with men, but not in any kind of sexual way. It's a curiously asexual movie, actually, a rare film noir not motivated by lust.

  5. The discussion after the film touched briefly on film restoration, so I thought I'd throw out a plug for the Film Noir Foundation, which restores film noir. They were the beneficiaries of this year's Film Preservation Blogathon, and you can still donate to the cause. Here's the link:

Anyway, this remains a corker: Dark, perverse, sordid, and nasty. Just the way I like it.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Brain Drain

"Moderation is a fatal thing" -- Oscar Wilde

So the news came down today that Ken Russell had passed away. I don't think I've ever written about any of Ken Russell's films, though those films had a formative effect on the younger me. I remember staying up way too late to catch Altered States on HBO when I was 14 and I saw Tommy at a midnight movie a year later and I remember wondering what the hell I was watching on both occasions. Ditto with Crimes of Passion and Gothic and The Lair of the White Worm, all films that appealed to my sensibilities when you look at what they're about on paper, but which doggedly refused to conform to my expectations. And no reason why they should. They're Russell's films, not mine, and they're a challenge. In any event, in honor of Russell's passing, I decided to sit down with one of his movies. I picked Billion Dollar Brain (1967) because its streaming on Netflix right now and because I haven't seen it before and because it has Françoise Dorléac's final screen appearance. It turns out not to be typical of Ken Russell, though, at least not at first glance.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Cuckoo Clocks

“It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.”
― Albert Camus

Orson Welles famously didn't much like The Stranger (1946). No reason why he should, really, given that it was a test to see if he could be a tractable commercial filmmaker. Welles had a reputation as a profligate genius whose movies didn't make money. "Showmanship in place of genius," RKO vowed after showing Welles to the door a few years earlier. The Stranger, made for the independent International Pictures and released by RKO was delivered on time and on budget and in spite of this, the producers still saw fit to meddle with it, removing 20-30 minutes of now-lost footage. It was Welles's only box office hit, too, which must have stuck in his craw. This is why it's always dangerous to take an artist's word for the worth of his work. The Stranger is one of Welles's most entertaining films. It's also one of his darkest.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Turkey Day

Thanksgiving in my house is kind of a big event. Don't get me wrong: I understand the sore spot Thanksgiving represents to Native Americans and I'm under no illusions about to whom most Americans give thanks. I'm uneasy with both of those elements of the holiday. Still, Thanksgiving is my second favorite holiday on the calendar after Halloween because it's an opportunity to gather with friends and cook and eat a whole bunch of food. We usually watch a movie afterward in my house. This year, I went a little bit overboard with the food. I did the turkey, which for me is a week-long production involving brine, wine, and a food injector. This year, I took advantage of the rosemary bush growing in my sun room and stuck a couple of rosemary branches into the cavity with the stuffing. The end result was terrific. The pumpkin I got at the farmer's market a couple of weeks ago made two pies and a loaf of pumpkin bread. I've never made pumpkin pie before, so the resulting pies were a huge crapshoot. Fortunately, they came up sevens. They were awesome. There were roasted root veggies, garlic mashers, cranberry stuffing, plus the various dishes brought to the table by my guests. A splendid time was had by all.

This year's movie was Anne of the Thousand Days (1969, directed by Charles Jarrott), a film I remember watching with my mother when I was a teenager. We used to watch a lot of these kinds of historical friezes, and I'm not sure if my fond memories of these kinds of films are due to the quality of the films or the experience of watching them with mom. On the evidence, I suspect the latter, because it's not nearly as good a film as I remembered. Anyone who read my review of Becket a few years ago may recall that I have a problem with these kinds of church and state showdowns, because you're choosing between the absolute authority of the Catholic Church and the absolute power of a secular despot, both equally illegitimate if we start from the proposition that authority to govern derives from the consent of the governed. This film compounds the issue by suggesting that Henry VIII of England put aside his wife, Catherine of Aragon, solely because he wanted to fuck Anne Boleyn and damn the consequences. Those crazy Tudors, eh?

Anne Boleyn has the title role of the movie, and I suppose the film is as much hers as it is Henry's. This makes the movie a bit more interesting than Becket or A Man For All Seasons, because it sidesteps the whole Church/State conflict and focuses, instead, on the role of women in Tudor England, and their means of ascending to power (and falling from it). Anne, for her part, has no desire to be a King's mistress and mother bastards for him. She's seen how that plays out with her sister, who was herself one of Henry's discarded mistresses. She'd much rather marry Harry Percy, who she actually loves. Blocked from doing so, she games the system with Henry and won't give it up until she's a queen. And then the movie does an about face, much to its detriment, by making Anne actually fall in love with King Henry and suffer the pain of losing him to indifference once he tires of her. This might have worked on the stage--this film is based on a play by Maxwell Anderson--but it's bad cinema.

Hell, most of the movie is bad cinema. Oh, the actors are good, though Richard Burton's Henry is entirely outshined by Genevieve Bujold's Anne and Irene Pappas's Catherine, and the supporting cast is mostly nondescript. For that matter, the palace intrigue is fun for a while and the costumes are gorgeous. But as cinema, this is dead on the screen. Embalmed, no less. It might as well be a filmed play. What should be glittering and ornate seems drab and utilitarian. And for a film that's chiefly concerned with sex, it's surprisingly sexless.

Bleh. In retrospect, I wish we had gone with the Kurosawa film, instead.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why This is Hell, Nor Am I Out of It

"Those repressed Okies, they go for that twisted, perverted stuff"
--Ed Wood (1994)

According to Wikipedia, Leave Her to Heaven (1945, directed by John M. Stahl) was 20th Century Fox's biggest hit of the 1940s. Bigger than Zorro, bigger than Santa Claus and Natalie Wood, bigger than everything. This, frankly, amazes me. All through last night's showing of the movie, all I could hear in my head was the line from Ed Wood that I've quoted at the head of this post. This is twisted, perverted stuff.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Snakes and Ladders

I couldn't tell you when the rest of the world fell in love with Maggie Cheung, but I suspect it happened when she started making movies for Wong Kar-Wai. There's something to be said for that, because Wong and Maggie Cheung are one of the great cinematic collaborations of the last quarter century. I'm not kidding about the "love" part when it comes to the world at large, either. French director Olivier Assayas fell so hard that he designed a movie specifically to court the actress, who he subsequently married. The marriage didn't work, and I probably could have told you that it wouldn't given that Assayas's image of Maggie Cheung involved a latex cat suit, but who knows what actually went on with that. Love can be funny sometimes.

As I say, I couldn't say when the rest of the world fell for Maggie Cheung, but I know exactly when I fell for her. It was a few minutes into Tsui Hark's Green Snake in 1993 (which I actually saw about two years after its release, but details). It was the snake dance scene at the beginning of the movie:

Monday, November 21, 2011

Netflix Roulette: The Hazing

It's been a while since I spun the Netflix roulette wheel. I'd forgotten what a crapshoot it is. The first spin gave me a Masters of Horror episode that I've already written about. "No repeats" is in the rules, so another spin gave me The Hazing, a Tiffany Shepsis vehicle from 2004, directed by one Rolfe Kanefsky. The version on Netflix looks like crap. It looks like it was sourced from VHS and Netflix's transfer has more artifacts than I usually find acceptable. Great whacks of the movie look like they're projected on a tile wall, if you know what I mean. This isn't the movie's fault, but it doesn't speak well of either its distributor or Netflix that this movie looks this bad, because 2004 isn't that long ago. This ISN'T a movie that was ever on VHS, it's just one that was mastered by a careless film company.

The movie itself? It's kind of a fun throwback.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Poor Superman

The folks over at People magazine have completely lost their minds. Not that I follow People, mind you, but I can't help but absorb certain things from being in the culture. Their annual "Sexiest Man Alive," for instance, is one of those inescapable cultural events that you have to actively hide yourself away from. This year's award goes to Bradley Cooper. I've liked Cooper in the past, mainly in movies where he's suffering some horrible horror movie death or torture, a la The Midnight Meat Train, but I generally enjoy those movies because he has one of those leading man faces I like seeing get punched. But "The Sexiest Man Alive?" Um, haven't you guys seen this guy?

Hubba hubba, right? C'mon. I know you've seen him. He was on the cover of the magazine back in May. Well, to each her own, I guess.

Shameless Self-Promotion: Womathology Update

As I mentioned back in July, I'm contributing to a huge comics anthology by women creators. The project brings together comics creators of all experience levels, including industry veterans like Gail Simone, Devin Grayson, Amanda Conner, Ann Nocenti, Ming Doyle, Stephanie Hans, and Colleen Doran, side by side with relative nobodies like me. There are something like three hundred creators all told. I wanted to bring this up because the book can be pre-ordered from Amazon (link below) and should be out in a month or two. I've also linked to the Womathology sketchbook, which is available now. This is a project for charity, so buy a couple and give them as gifts. You'll be doing good work in the bargain. Also, even though I've included a link to Amazon, please, please only use Amazon as a last resort. Try to get it from your local comics shop if at all possible, because if you buy it from your local comics shop, it will send them a message that there's a demand for comics by women. This is something that's not always apparent in the comics trenches, and one of the primary missions of the Womanthology is to expand the playing field.

If you'd like to get a feel for what's in the book, a huge preview has been posted over on the Womanthology website. My own story is only a page long, but I had fun drawing it and I'm honored to have it included.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Bitch's Brew

The opening shot of Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (1945) has a streetwalker cross the screen while walking a dog. It's one of those visual puns that Lang specialized in, because this movie is based on a French pulp novel titled La chienne, or, The Bitch. The shot, as it continues, is a kind of summary of the movie itself, as it turns its gaze from the lower-class "bitch" to a trained monkey and then to a high society kept woman. As opening shots go, it's a doozie. And then the story begins...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Small Assassin

The plot of Hanna (2011, directed by Joe Wright) makes me kind of roll my eyes. It's about an ex-secret agent who is raising his daughter off the grid somewhere in a barely sub-arctic wilderness so that she'll be tough enough to deal with the enemies the agency will inevitably send for them. This set-up is basically La Femme Nikita or Leon with a new coat of paint. The older assassin preparing a younger, female assassin is a relatively recent cliche, but it's a cliche none the less. But that's okay, I guess. It was Sam Goldwyn who once vowed that all his studio needed was a bunch of brand new cliches.

Ebb Tide

As I was sitting in the theater watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie eight years ago, I remember wondering if lawyers were going to be having words, because great whacks of that movie reminded me of Tim Powers's novel, On Stranger Tides, a book for which I have pleasant memories. Apparently, someone at Disney had the same idea, because they sewed up the rights to the novel early on, and after two artistically disastrous but financially lucrative sequels, they've dusted it off and gone back to the fountain, as it were. The newest film, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011, directed by Rob Marshall) places Jack Sparrow, Barbossa, and Mr. Gibbs into a story that more closely follows Powers's book, though only in so much as it doesn't impinge on the hallmarks of the series.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

It Can't Be Love, For There Is No True Love

So True Classics is hosting a debate this month concerning Citizen Kane:

Here’s your chance to either defend Kane’s position as King of the Cinematic Mountain, or to knock it off its storied pedestal. At some point during the next month (until November 13th), put up a post on your blog either explaining why Kane deserves to be numero uno, or lay out your reasons why it is overrated. And if you are among those who feel that Kane is not the best movie of all time, tell us which film really IS, in your opinion, and defend your choice!

The entries will be judged by Carrie, Nikki, myself, and a couple of guest judges whom we haven’t determined yet. We’ll be looking at several factors, but first and foremost, we’re looking for enthusiastic, informative, and entertaining entries that will engage us–and your readers–in lively discussion. And we will award prizes to our top three favorites entries!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Out of Time

There's a shot near the beginning of Anthony Mann's Raw Deal (1948) where Claire Trevor is sitting in the foreground and Marsha Hunt comes through a door in the background that has me completely mystified. I don't know how it was done, and it's a shot that most viewers won't even notice. It's a deep-focus shot, but it's a deep focus shot lit with a strong chiaroscuro. As I understand the way these kinds of shots were accomplished back in the days before diopters were available, this required a huge amount of light. But this shot is dark. Very dark. And I don't know how it was done. I especially don't know how it was done on the kind of budget for which this film was made. This was made by Edward Small Productions as "Reliance Pictures" and distributed by Eagle-Lion Films, which means that it was a Poverty Row movie. If it had a budget much higher than $10,000, I would be shocked, and I imagine that most of that probably went to Claire Trevor. So how did they do it? Hell if I know, but that's why John Alton is considered a giant. Giant? Hell, he was a sorcerer, conjuring dark dreams out nothing but shadows and fog! He worked on micro-budget quickies and, to paraphrase the host of the showing of Raw Deal I attended this week, he made them look like Citizen Kane. Even his day for night shots look good, and day for night shots NEVER look good. But these are the ordinary bread and butter shots. He saves the fireworks for the end, when he projects the image of Claire Trevor into a clockface as time runs out for her and her no-account beau. And then he stages a gunbattle in the San Francisco fog that's all abstract shadows. He would recreate this effect in The Big Combo a few years later, but here, it functions as a kind of existential dreamscape. The movie itself follows a kind of dream logic that seems unique to film noir.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

They Might Be Giants

I really wonder what the hell is going on in Norway right now. I mean, in the last couple of years, we've had Dead Snow, Norwegian Ninja, and now Trollhunter (2010, directed by André Øvredal). All three of these movies work perfectly well as genre films, and you can watch them as such and have a grand old time. But, man, these films are all merciless put-ons, and I can totally forgive anyone who sees them as being entirely too goofy to take seriously. Is this what Norwegian cinema is generally like? Because if it is, I think Norwegians might be fun people to party with. Certainly, these films aren't as dour as the movies that come from their neighbors in Sweden (or, perhaps, what the rest of the world gets from Sweden), though the Finns are apparently in on the joke given the nature of Rare Exports last year.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Cat's in the Bag and the Bag's In the River

For the second year in a row, I attended a big Halloween movie party held by a dear friend of mine. She likes to dig deep into the oddball with the aim of showing her guests stuff they'd NEVER find of their own accord, and all of the stuff at the end of my challenge this year came from her collection (I was staying with her for six days; I was a captive audience). Perhaps the most oddball thing on the menu this year was Felidae (1994, directed by Michael Schaack), an animated horror movie from Germany that makes all kinds of bank from its idiom. It looks like a lost Don Bluth movie from the 1980s--All Cats Go to Heaven, perhaps--but that resemblance is a trap. The filmmakers are ruthless when it comes to springing that trap.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Ex Cathedra

My first impresion of Terrence Malick's much lauded The Tree of Life (2011)? Jessica Chastain has a rawboned Northern European face that seems specifically sculpted for photography, though not in the manner of a model so much as in the manner of a landscape. Her face reminds me of those austere, careworn faces one sees in Bergman movies. She's Malick's version of Liv Ullmann or Bibi Anderssen. She's an actress whose face seems to reflect the light and cares of the world when you point a camera at her.

Design for Dying

It's never a good thing when you veer off into a conversation about some aesthetic point about a movie while you're in the middle of watching it. After the film? Fine. That's part and parcel of processing what you've seen. But if you start discussing the niceties of design or cinematography while you're in the middle of it? That means that the movie has probably let some element intrude on the experience and has shocked you out of the flow. This happened to my companion and I as we watched Fear(s) of the Dark (2007, various directors). At some point, we began talking about design and about how portions of the movie featured animation without the cartoon outline around its shapes and whatnot. In other words, the movie had lost us.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Come and Get It

About a half hour into The Pack (2010, directed by Franck Richard), my viewing companion mentioned in passing that she was getting a torture porn vibe from the movie. We were expecting a monster movie of some variety, so this was not a good turn of events. Given our druthers, we prefer monsters to torture. We got monsters eventually, but the torture vibe never quite went away. Maybe it's because of the production design of the movie, which is an Nth generation descendant of the grotty interior of the Sawyer homestead in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, including, as it so happens, sliding metal doors that the main villain makes a point of sliding abruptly closed. You can't miss the reference.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Things Fall Apart

I have to admit that I like the idea of setting the zombie apocalypse in Africa. Africa, after all, is where the worst of the AIDS plague has hit, and it has so few reliable institutions that the spread of the zombie would be rapid and terrifying. So it stands to reason that I should like The Dead (2010, directed by Howard J. and Jonathan Ford), which postulates just such an apocalypse. And for a while, I was digging it. The first forty minutes of the movie are some of the finest examples of the zombie movie I've seen in a while. It starts at a dead run, and takes off like a shot. But as the movie slowed down a bit toward the end, I started to become a little bit uncomfortable with it. Without the frenetic terror of its initial scenes, the movie let me think a bit too much about the meaning of the images on screen. I didn't like my conclusions.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Block Party

As fun horror movies go, you could do worse than Attack the Block (2011, directed by Joe Cornish), in which a gang of teenagers defend their apartment block from invading monsters from outer space. It's a comedy, but one that knows the value of throwing its characters into the meat grinder. It's surprisingly socially aware. And it has good monsters. This last part is what sold it to the group with whom I watched it, because all of us are kind of down on the state of contemporary monsters. The monsters are surprisingly simple, too: black fur outlines with glowing teeth. It's like they suck up the light in a room until they smile at you, and then they're genuinely scary.