Though he says otherwise, it’s hard to think of an American songwriter as admired by fans and critics as David Berman. Though his band, Silver Jews, often lingered in the shadow of the more popular Pavement (since the band featured Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, Silver Jews were frequently written off as just a Pavement side project), Berman established himself as a lyricist of the highest order. Instead of touring, Berman channeled his gift of gab into a creative writing degree at the University of Massachusetts and later into a bestselling collection of poetry entitled Actual Air, which received accolades from literary bigwigs like Billy Collins and James Tate.
After the release of 2001’s Bright Flight, Berman suffered from severe chemical dependency and depression—documented extensively in a now infamous Fader article—that led to a suicide attempt and then a conversion to Judaism. Upon reforming the Joos in 2005 for the intense Tanglewood Numbers, Berman set out on the band’s first tour. I recently spoke on the phone with Berman about his excellent new record, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, its epic press kit, his outsider status as an artist and a Jew, cover songs, and his friendship with the late video artist Jeremy Blake. Our hour-long conversation contained much rambling (on David’s part) and much gushing (on mine); the following is an abridgement, with David’s suggestion that I “make it read well.”
There’s an unwritten rule to not write about the press kits that come with record promos, but I’ve never seen one like Lookout Mountain’s. Can you talk a little about the approach, such as the reading list you included?
So many things go on when I’m making these albums, so many different books I’m reading and references get thrown in. A lot of the other albums, I guess I could have treated the same way, but this time I wanted to give the gatekeepers who hear the record first as much information as possible. I thought there was such a multiplicity of facts that would break the tendency of the way critics use press release kits as review bullet points. Nobody likes to see the same things used over and over again.
That’s interesting that you say “gatekeepers.” Normally press kits have a couple of old record reviews, but I’m really interested in these six new literary pieces about the new album by novelists and short story writers such as Benjamin Weissman, Ben Greenman and Joe Wenderoth.
I thought of that because I can’t ask critics when I send out press releases to try harder. You can’t insult a critic; it’s really not a good idea. But it’s what I really wanted [to do] because I feel that so much music today is very light when it comes to the lyrics and words. People aren’t used to looking for more. So if my record is appreciated for being “more” in those areas, then I totally rely on different standards. I think one of the interesting things about the music is that it could generate a lot of interesting writing. I wanted to give permission, or even encourage [writers] to try a different tact. And I couldn’t control what the guys wrote, and I wasn’t necessarily blown away by what they wrote, but I asked these 12 guys and like six of them actually got around to writing something. I didn’t know any of them. I asked a guy who’s an editor at McSweeney’s for the names of 12 different guys, so it sort of worked out that way.
I thought I detected a McSweeney’s connection between them all. Didn’t you contribute some pieces to a Dave Eggers-curated exhibition in New York recently?
At the Apex Gallery.
Is that a recent relationship or collaboration? With Eggers and McSweeney’s?
You know, I used to give stuff to The Believer. For, I dunno, maybe two years I would give a poem every other month. I always sort of keep a distance from that kind of collegiality.
The press kit also includes footnotes for the songs from sources like Emily Dickinson, the Book of Isaiah and Teddy Roosevelt. Were they inspirations for these songs or did you think of them later as secondary or explanatory material?
No, those were all things that were inspirational. I was purposefully reading Emily Dickinson when I started writing because I was really into the short lines and the quick rhymes and her general fascination with…Well, the website you’re writing for is called Slant.
I got the inspiration to come up with the title [of Pavement’s] Slanted and Enchanted from Emily Dickinson.
“Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” And so many things she said have influenced me. “Nature is a haunted house—but Art—is a house that tries to be haunted.” I think there’s a certain hermit, solitary aspect to the way I live and she certainly didn’t get out much. In a lot of ways I feel the unlikeliness of this old maid in her bedroom in Amherst couldn’t be farther away from the Norton Anthology or whatever. No one could be farther away. So I get a feeling from reading her poems chronologically that she keeps writing these poems thinking the world won’t know them. It’s really unbelievable.
Well, some of the writers and musicians you list in the reading list at the end of press kit are canonical authors and then there’s the Dead Kennedys.
I think that these are touchstones for me. There’s a kind of art you appreciate and there’s a kind of art you incorporate. There are certain things about all those works that really affected me and whether or not they’re actually incorporated, someone else may hear them in these songs. Quite frequently artists are wrong about what influenced them. Again, [I was] trying to saturate [critics] with information about the environment that this record is coming from.
I really like that observation about art you appreciate compared with art you incorporate, because you also mention—and this is the last question about the press kit, I swear—Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence. Bloom seems really apt for this record, because you have a cover of a Maher Shalal Hash Baz song [“Open Field”] on there, but you also included guitar chords for your songs in the album’s liner notes, presumably to inspire covers of these songs.
Yeah, the guitar chords thing. Really, the question is: Why doesn’t anyone else do it? One of the values that’s stressed about indie music is its simplicity. And it’s the same with country music: It’s stressed that the music is just two or three chords. But nobody ever says what those two or three chords are. It seems to me that there’s something really being hidden there. It’s such a blank spot that the culture doesn’t seem to think about it. Why are the lyrics put down and the only other part that we need, that we have a shorthand for, that takes up one single font space, and it’s never there! I think it’s to keep the wall between [the listener and the musician]. For all the punk rock and post-punk and independent music’s attempt to arrange the ideology around the mundane and the non-extravagant and the non-indulgent and with the real, the down-to-earth, is kind of belied by that. Why not have a completely different paradigm? Like the folk paradigm, where you write songs and you also hope that people will play them. And from a financial standpoint! Like Lucinda Williams, I wouldn’t really care for it on the last couple of albums, but if she put in the music for Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, I bet people would be playing it all over the place.
And repeat the “Passionate Kisses” effect, I guess.
There really is a level of guitar player that can pick songs out of the radio, and that is the minority. Then there is the whole group of guitar players that can do something if they have some chords. The other thing is that those 16 chords I have purposefully milked out of the easiest chords at the end of the neck in the area known as “Farmer’s Corner” in Nashville are all done with two or three fingers with no barring. For somebody who’s never played guitar before, it would not be unrealistic to pick up a guitar, think about it for an hour or two and be able to play [these songs].
I only know of the Dean and Britta cover of “Random Rules.” Are there other Silver Jews covers that you’re particularly pleased with or displeased with?
There aren’t that many. I really don’t know of any. Other than very rare cases, we’re not the band that other bands would namedrop. We’re not like Smog, whose songs have been covered a lot. We’ve never been that popular. People are more familiar [with what we do] now. If you looked at all the people who said something about Will Oldham versus the Silver Jews in the 1990s, it would be a thousand to one. And that’s interesting. I’ve always been friends with Will and Steve Malkmus and Harmony Korine, and had these friends who are sort of legends in their own categories. And that’s also from not playing live and not having collegiality with other bands. It keeps me as an odd-ball-out. And that’s a good thing in the end, for me, because it’s about credibility. You can establish autonomy.
There was a Village Voice article that claimed Silver Jews don’t have fans, they have disciples.
That’s a funny thing, ‘cause we’re not really critically beloved in a way that would explain why we hang on. I think there is a level of euphoria among the people in the front at shows. I’ve asked people if it’s really different from other shows and they say, “Yeah, that was really unusual.” On a wider, larger scale the records all pretty much sell the same.
Well, the people who bought the Arizona record would be in their 40s now.
It’s funny. Drag City’s putting out a movie called Silver Jew that’s about my trip to Israel in 2006. For the booklet of the DVD I want them to put this story in there from a book by Rabbi Nachman Breslov. For his followers, he’s the rabbi that was never replaced. The person that brought me this book was the sister of somebody who became a Hassidic under the teachings of Rabbi Nachman. And she gave me the book before the show, and wrote a note inside the book about an old Silver Jews fan: “To David, this book is from my brother, who was for sure the Silver Jews’s number one fan in Israel. Anyway, for him, your coming to Israel is unreal and a dream come true. Therefore, he made me give you this great book. This is nothing tragic. He found God a few critical years ago after we made our homemade album. And now he is happy and married and studies Torah. He believes in your Jewish soul and says thanks for naming your band the Silver Jews. He also knows that you are a reader and that’s why you will enjoy these 13 tales written 200 years ago. In them are secrets about the times before even Adam and Eve were Jews.” So, there’s a fan from long ago who’s now well into a strict religious lifestyle that doesn’t permit him to go to shows or listen to secular music, and he has children and a beard, I’m sure [laughs]. I like that.
Well, I used to teach some of the poems from Actual Air to a class of ninth graders, and when I would say you were in a band called Silver Jews, they would kind of balk at the name.
They’d ask whether that’s making fun and I would say, no, he is Jewish. But I wanted to ask about your faith and how that plays into your art.
Well, there’s this really good article [“The Reciprocal Antagonist” by David Kaufmann] that came out today at the Jewish Forward. That guy, in all the years I’ve had to talk about the subject, that guy really got my thing down. My viewpoint is sort of feeling inside and outside of Judaism. When I do interviews and people hear that I’m associated with Judaism, and that I had a conversion experience, it sort of [amounts] to where religion [lifted me out of depression]. And it’s really much more complex than that. I really am much closer to not believing than I want to be and I battle with a lot of the issues about Judaism that I read from the Torah every day. In the back of my mind I’ve always believed in God. But in the times we live in there aren’t any rituals, there aren’t any places to really explore that, except in the shallowest A.A. ways possible. But I am really fascinated by Judaism, by the deep study, by the amount of text, and the amount of interpretation. Really there’s nothing like it. How enlightening the whole thing is, how different it is from its daughter religions. It’s really not settled for me. It’s something I can keep reading and keep reading. And that’s what I try to tell people: A Silver Jew is like a secondary Jew, like a minor Jew. That’s what I am.
We keep discussing communities, like the indie community and the Jewish community, so I wanted to ask about the South. Your poetry and songs are not focused on the South the way, say, a Drive-By Truckers song is, but the South is a part of that.
Well, I think I put opposites into play. I am not only neither Christian nor Jewish, but said to be in between, and I feel the same way about being from the South and being from the North. I write with my left hand but I throw a ball with my right hand.
So you’re, like, socially and religiously ambidextrous?
Yeah, or I’m outside of both camps, or I’m in the middle. Instead of being split, I’m in the middle. I think that’s why the Silver Jew is like a “Southern Yankee.” It doesn’t make any sense. Or like a “Bluegrass Drummer.” Silver Jew doesn’t make sense because a Jew, by definition, is one thing. Judaism hasn’t split down into sects. Orthodox and Reformed rabbis recognize each other as Jewish, unlike other faiths where people only recognize one sect. So, I’m just always trying to synthesize things like that. That’s, I guess, the kind of work I do instead of laying bricks. I take these strands of thought and make these bodies that have lots of strands in them.
Is that how you’d describe your lyrical approach? Your songs do have a collage feel sometimes.
I think it’s more like humor and sadness. I try to keep to the elements. People who only listen to rock normally just hear that there are a lot of country elements. Really, it becomes much more of a middling point and there’s both, rock and country.
I read an interview with you recently where you said Lookout Mountain has a very different feel from the other Silver Jews albums. And I want to know more about what you mean by that, but to me, I sense a lot less of a country influence on this new record. Though maybe that’s…not right [laughs].
I don’t know about that. I feel it’s more balanced on this record. The different feel, I guess, would be a lot of different things. I think it’s more post-applause music. It’s the first music I wrote after first accepting affirmation from a live audience.
Well, it seems like there are more narrative songs on this album, for one. You said once that what you liked about fiction was that it teaches people how to empathize. Do you think of these songs as fiction, and is empathy a goal when you’re putting them together?
Yeah, I think of them as fiction. I think of them as little stories. I think of them as characters that are sort of exposed to the inhumanity of the world. [Long pause] I guess I’m speaking about the narrators, like Aloysius in “Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer,” compared to the B characters, who are cartoonish, but they’re very…[pauses]
Well, yeah. They’re parts of me.
The album feels like it’s more optimistic, certainly more than Tanglewood Numbers. At the same time, there is this mixture of sadness and humor that you were mentioning. For instance, every four out of five times I hear “We Could Be Looking for the Same Thing,” it’s very sweet and romantic. But the fifth time I hear it, it’s really sad. Do you have this kind of flexibility with your songs in mind when you’re writing them?
I kind of want a song like that, for instance, to reflect the fact that the two characters in that song could be a toothless man and woman at an A.A. meeting drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and wearing sweatsuits. But it also works for [David’s wife and Silver Jews bassist/vocalist] Cassie and me, to a degree. I think a song like that one is a pragmatic romance. Pragmatism and romance are sort of opposites. There are enough really good love songs and I don’t even know if I could write one if I tried.
But that’s a really nice one!
Well, I can write these kinds of songs that are kind of a twist on what a love song is. That’s why I’m interested in writing in different forms. I like to play with different conventions.
What kind of a role did Cassie play on this record? She sounds much more prominent vocally, but she didn’t write any of the music.
I knew she was going to be a part of it when I was writing it. She didn’t write any of it, and in fact, she didn’t really hear it until the other people did. I mostly work in the day, and she has a full-time job. But when I was writing it, I was thinking about how to dramatize it. That goes back to the question of narrative, I was interested in dramatizing and bringing it to those levels. Widening my range and bringing in a feminine point of view or a feminine voice to complete or increase the size of the world it encompasses. I guess on all Silver Jews records, it’s extremely male-centric.
My favorite line on the album is “Romance is the douche of the bourgeois” [from “San Francisco, B.C.”].
[laughs] I like that one. Somebody actually, in a negative review, said I was a poor economist. He quoted a character’s line as if it was an opinion of my own, which is one of the basic things you don’t really do when you review a book, criticize an author for what the main character says.
In the liner notes there are even quotes around it!
It’s amusing, ‘cause when I was singing in Paris I was really conscious of the fact that I was singing “douche” and “bourgeois” and “rendezvous” and “affairs d’amour” like, oh my God, what does this have to do with San Francisco, all these French terms? There are these weird things I just wanted to do that don’t make any sense, like how on the thank you’s everybody’s last name goes up to L. I don’t think I thank anyone whose last name begins with a letter from the second half of the alphabet. I don’t think anybody has noticed that, all these interesting things that are going on.
Could you say a little about your collaboration or your friendship with artist Jeremy Blake and why you dedicated the album to him.
Well, it reminded me of when we were putting out Bright Flight, I had two other friends die. Jeremy was sort of a John Brown figure of whatever is to come, as far as I can see, whatever I’m critiquing about society. He was somebody who was, in a way, what you want a classic type of rock star to be. The closest thing you could see of the independent, cowboy-type whatever in this world, and people like to say in the articles they write about him and [girlfriend] Theresa [Duncan], like, “Aww, he had everything and he ruined it.” We are all trying to get everything. Everybody is trying to get everything. Especially in the music business, in the entertainment world, everybody is sort of gorging. And Jeremy was obsessed with the idea of a persecution going on. I don’t believe that there were necessarily individual human agencies that were tracking Jeremy, but I feel like he and Theresa, for all I know, were sensitive to things that we’re not sensitive to. And they were very smart, such smart people. Who knows what two smart people can do to each other? After Theresa died, he was in shock and I was able to talk to him and I was telling him about this song I was writing [“My Pillow Is the Threshold”] and I was sort of thinking about Jeremy as the narrator, missing his dead love so much that he just wants to somehow be together [again]. So I was sort of writing it, trying to put myself in Jeremy’s shoes and that’s what came out, and of course, then a week later he was dead. It’s hard to say why you dedicate an album to somebody, I only do it every once in a while, but he really was the right one. [Pause] He cared about the band so much! That’s really what I’m not mentioning, that it would matter to him a lot. And he was one of these people that I think was misguided in their fanship. He believed too much in what I did. He thought I was much better than I am! That was always the story with him, he was always so enthusiastic about the Silver Jews. So when he had his solo show at the Corcoran, that’s what I was saying, people have that on their calendar: Solo show at the Corcoran! In the city you grew up in! But I think, as you see all the time, these things are fleeting, celebrity and fame. Even Corcoran brochures disintegrate and incinerate.
Wow. Well, let’s talk about something a little more cheerful. You mentioned it’s weird to revisit these older songs, do you have any particular songs that you really like to hear when you play them live?
Yeah. I find, like, maybe four songs on every record playable. Maybe the Silver Jews will have enough records someday that we could have an Echo and the Bunnymen Songs to Learn and Sing-style singles collection. But as the era of the album ends, the era of the greatest hits album ends first. That’s like the first thing that the era of the digital downloading takes care of, the greatest hits.
When kids make their own mix CDs, they’re kind of making their own greatest hits albums.
That’s right. The album has to hold on to its secondary function as a group of songs in some cases, but everything else will be ground down to single songs. Though albums will always be available for that and there will always be a conscientious listener who wants to hear things the way they’re supposed to be heard. I don’t worry too much about that kind of thing.
Sure. The disciples.
Noir City: International 2020
The first international edition of the Noir City film festival in six years showcases the diversity and malleability of noir.
Noir City 18, presented by the Film Noir Foundation in San Francisco this January, shined a spotlight on 24 noir films from around the world. It was the first international edition of the festival in six years, and it showcased the diversity and malleability of the genre—the incredible range of formal, thematic, and narrative strategies that can fall under its umbrella. Now through November 29, a virtual edition of this year’s festival, co-presented by AFI Silver and the Film Noir Foundation, featuring many of the same films is open to noir afficionados across the United States.
A handful of established classics are presented here, including Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos, as well as the only two American films in the lineup, each celebrating their 75th anniversaries, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour and John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven. But the remaining films on this year’s slate consist primarily of lesser established films like Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night and Helmut Kautner’s Black Gravel, as well as a few more widely known films not discussed in terms of their noir credentials, among them Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid and Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds.
This edition of Noir City: International further broadens the scope of what cinephiles traditionally think of as noir. But in stretching the boundaries of what constitutes a noir production, perhaps too far at times for some noir purists, the festival offers an exciting blend of undiscovered gems and more canonical films that, when reevaluated through the lens of noir, are ripe for both new interpretations and renewed appreciation.
One of more obscure titles this year is Zbyněk Brynych’s 1965 thriller The Fifth Horseman Is Fear, which, while set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, makes no attempt to recreate the era. This approach allows Brynych’s Kafkaesque parable to achieve an immediacy and universality in its critique of authoritarianism that extends not only to the communist party running Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, but to virtually any brutal autocratic regime. Here, the Nazi soldiers and officers remain entirely off screen, overheard only occasionally as they speechify on the radio or in the distance outside, and the film instead summons most of the danger through the crippling, maddening aftereffects of widespread oppression that manifest in the fear and panic gripping seemingly every civilian character in the film.
Employing claustrophobic compositions, opaque plotting, jarring, sometimes disjointed editing, and a hauntingly atonal jazz score by Jirí Sternwald, Brynych crafts an environment of utter despair and confusion, where suspicions are cast in every direction and friends and neighbors turn on one another in order to survive. Chillingly, The Fifth Horseman Is Fear even blurs the psychological divide between the patients of an insane asylum and the unhinged behavior of the residents of Prague. And while that particular sequence recalls Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor from two years prior, Brynych’s nightmarishly surreal flourishes are innovative in their own right for the uneasy sense of paranoia that they rouse throughout, foreshadowing the more grim, disturbing films to come out of Czechoslovakia in the coming years, notably Juraj Herz’s The Cremator and Karel Kachyna’s The Ear.
Román Viñoly Barreto’s The Black Vampire, a 1953 Argentinian reimagining of Fritz Lang’s M, may not be as inventive as either Brynych or Lang’s films, but in approaching the material from the perspectives of women whose lives are adversely affected by the actions of the central child killer, it’s nonetheless quite fascinating and bold in its diversions from the original. Its feminist bent morphs the story into something entirely different than the Lang film, and in sympathizing primarily with mothers of the killers’ victims, along with a cabaret singer, Rita (Olga Zubarry), who witnessed one of the murders and fears for the safety of her child, Barreto’s film turns the oft-perceived misogyny of noir on its head.
Barreto villainizes not only the killer, but also the lead detective, Bernard (Roberto Escalada), whose hypocrisy—both in his domineering behavior on the job, as when he keeps a suspect he knows is innocent in detention, and his betrayal of his disabled wife (Gloria Castilla)—undermines his positioning of himself as the moral voice of reason. Cinematographer Aníbal González Paz, who also shot another gorgeous, under-the-radar Argentinian noir, 1958’s Rosaura at 10 O’Clock, uses an impressionistic visual palette, rife with chiaroscuro lighting and canted camera angles to create a heightened sense of disorientation that mirrors the volatility of a society in which injustices regularly occur on both sides of the law.
While The Fifth Horseman Is Fear and The Black Vampire fall on the more disturbing, thematically weighty end of the noir spectrum, Henri Verneuil’s Any Number Can Win is a much lighter offering, though it’s quite an assured and stylish piece of mainstream entertainment. Verneuil, first and foremost, understands the simple surface pleasures noir can provide, be it gazing at a stone-faced Jean Gabin patiently skulking in the back of a Rolls Royce as he watches his master plan beginning to unfold or Alain Delon comically hamming it up as he uses his charm and sex appeal to fool everyone in the casino resort he plans to rob.
As delightful as it is to behold all the sharply written tête-à-têtes between Gabin and Delon—the former as the aging, implacable professional, and the latter as the virile, headstrong apprentice—it’s during the quieter, more deliberately paced third act that Veurneuil’s control of tempo and mood really shines. Generating a white-knuckle tension worthy of Jules Dassin’s Rififi, and capped off with a brilliant reworking of the ending of another ‘50s classic—to say which one would spoil the surprise—Any Number Can Win is a prime example of a film, and filmmaker, that was unfairly maligned by the cinephiles and critics of the French New Wave, and which has only just recently begun to recover its reputation.
Noir City: International runs through November 29.
Interview: Joyce Chopra on Creating a Believable Teen Movie with Smooth Talk
Chopra discusses the joys of reappraisal, and why she doubts John Hughes could believe in the universes he created on screen.
“The teenagers in Smooth Talk would love the romantic notions of Pretty in Pink, but would die before admitting it,” wrote New York Times film critic Vincent Canby in 1986. His piece bridged the gap between two teen films that opened in theaters within close proximity but otherwise shared little else. Smooth Talk director Joyce Chopra cites the review as a favorite interpretation of her work, namely for the way that Canby properly contextualizes the measured realism of the film as swimming upstream against the sugary pop fantasies of so much Reagan-era youth cinema.
Though Smooth Talk debuted to favorable reviews and won the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize in 1986, the film has fallen off the radar somewhat in recent years. An academic textbook that’s among the most authoritative compendiums of the American youth cinema after 1980 made but one passing mention of Smooth Talk—a fact that Chopra found amusing when I informed her of my own unfamiliarity with her debut narrative feature. Thanks to Janus Films, however, Chopra’s voice will be a much more prominent part of any future conversations about the decade in youth film. A new restoration of Smooth Talk debuted at this year’s New York Film Festival on its way to virtual cinema engagements and, presumptively, a Criterion Collection physical release.
The film represents a welcome expansion to the genre’s then-overwhelmingly male gaze as it explores the experience of young Connie (Laura Dern in a breakout performance) as she tentatively probes the limits of her nascently blooming sexuality. Smooth Talk depicts the joys of self-discovery, sure, but it’s also uncommonly attuned to the accompanying pains and dangers. By expanding Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” Chopra and screenwriter Tom Cole grant refreshing dimensionality to Connie’s antagonists—both her conservative mother, Katherine (Mary Kay Place), and an alluring but menacing suitor, Arnold Friend (Treat Williams). It’s jarring to see a film from the ‘80s that adequately recognizes the thin line between male seduction and coercion.
I caught up with Chopra shortly before Smooth Talk began its exclusive virtual engagement at Film at Lincoln Center. Our discussion covered how she and Cole built upon Oates’ slender source text, the joys of rediscovery and reappraisal, and why she doubts John Hughes could believe in the universes he created on screen.
How does a film like Smooth Talk fall off the radar, and how did Janus Films and the Criterion Collection get involved with resurrecting it?
Criterion got involved at first through our producer [Martin Rosen]. He produced a film called Watership Down, an animated film. I think almost two years ago, he told me that Criterion was going to be restoring Smooth Talk. For the longest time, I didn’t hear anything, and then suddenly this year they got very active. I can’t honestly tell you more than that about it.
Why did it fall off the radar is a good question. Well, first of all, it [came out] 35 years ago. It went through different distributors. For streaming, it was on Netflix for a long time. Somehow, even that stopped, and I don’t know why some people couldn’t find it except by buying a DVD. I think what’s happened is just tremendous interest in Laura Dern.
Well, you’ve also gone through some reappreciation of your own with your documentary short Joyce at 34 getting revived at the Metrograph last year and now playing on the Criterion Channel.
A few weeks ago, a friend texted me to say go to the New Yorker website. Richard Brody had an article on 62 films that shaped documentaries, something like that. In the introduction, he listed Joyce at 34, which he’s included in that list. So, suddenly, I’m being revived!
What does that kind of reappraisal or rediscovery feel like?
It’s very pleasant. [laughs] I’ll tell you, the thing that I’ve gotten the biggest kick out of all, actually, was the New York Film Festival had us in their Revivals section. They showed it at a virtual festival where you could rent it, but they also showed it at a drive-in cinema in Brooklyn. I never in a million years imagined Smooth Talk playing at a drive-in movie theater.
The New York Film Festival is how I first encountered the film, which I found surprising because I’d just done a lot of research on the teen genre in the ‘80s this summer and Smooth Talk barely came up in my reading.
You’re kidding me! Let me ask you this, how old are you?
Well, that would explain a lot. No, seriously. It had tremendous attention, it got great reviews. I think people who are probably 20 years older than you—anybody starting in their mid-50s—would know the film if they were aware of films. Do you know Vincent Canby, then the critic for The New York Times? He loved the film. But then, a week later, he did an articled—Pretty in Pink had just come out. And he did an essay comparing the two films and why Pretty in Pink fit the fantasies of young girls. Smooth Talk would never do that! Teens didn’t want to go see the movie. They’d probably never even heard of it.
Funny enough, I watched Smooth Talk after I’d done a big rewatch of a lot of the John Hughes films and others from the era. Smooth Talk stands as such a contrast to that era where you’d see predatory male behavior either excused or sometimes even glorified. Were you at all conscious when making the film about how it was going to be in conversation with other films that portrayed adolescent sexuality that played into rape culture with their aggressive male characters?
I don’t think I was thinking about that. I wanted to make a movie, and my focus was entirely on how to do this, how to raise the money. I didn’t even think about what would happen after I made it. It was just a dream to do that. It’s so different from those films, my god. I got to work with Molly Ringwald after, years later in a film for television. It felt very strange to me because she lived in my mind as [those characters].
Looking back now, do you see the contrasts? Or at the very least, do you appreciate that Smooth Talk represents a perspective that was so rare and underrepresented at the time of its original theatrical release?
The Canby essay clearly represented what I think now, still think. Different universes completely. Tom [Cole], my husband who wrote the script, and I just wanted to create something believable about this girl. I don’t know if you read the short story, but it’s very brief. A large part of it the confrontation with Arnold Friend. We had to create a whole universe for Connie, who’s almost unreal in the story. She’s referred to, she has a name, but the first line is: “She was a familiar figure in the malls.” The story so frightened me when I read it, I read it years before we made it. What kind of world did Connie live in? Who is she? Could we believe that the confrontation with Arnold Friend would take place? And so with that, we just chose little hints in the short story. The father didn’t exist, and there were very undeveloped characters. We created a whole world that we wanted to believe in. I can’t believe that John Hughes believed in the worlds of the films that he made. I mean, that was part of his ambition.
To your last point, in so many ‘80s teen movies, the parents are such stock characters who really exist only to further their children’s journeys or to represent some sort of ideology or authority that they rebel against. Mary Kay Place as Connie’s mom, Katherine, in Smooth Talk, however, has such dimensionality.
I can see looking back on that why that wasn’t very popular. Why is it popular now? People are just much more open to it. I think things have shifted with so much more awareness of what women are going through and what they feel. And that’s a completely different world. There were hardly any women directors making feature films. We were rare creatures, exotic creatures. You’re so young, take my word: It was a very different world. I could see the film, were it released now, sticking more. I’m delighted Criterion is releasing it, it’s great.
Did you see Joyce at 34 ever?
Yes, I just watched it on the Criterion Channel!
That film has always remained…I don’t want to say popular, but it’s been shown in festivals over the years. The subject is still the same: How do you work and be a parent? It’s still out there, and I’m very pleased that Richard Brody posted where I always knew it belonged. I was the first to use documentary techniques to make a film [set during pregnancy] about a person, rather than a big event. That was shocking.
At Smooth Talk’s NYFF Live talk, Laura Dern mentioned that people take different messages out of it. Since ambiguous morals were very uncommon in teen movies at the time, did you ever face pressure to make it more explicit or instructive in either direction? Or was that a benefit of being outside of the larger Hollywood ecosystem?
Exactly. We did it for a program on public television called American Playhouse that lasted all through the ‘90s. They gave chances to first-time film directors, you could have been a writer, an actor, making documentaries. They didn’t interfere at all. It was the only film I’ve ever made where I didn’t have producers nipping at me.
Do you think it’s a success that people can have such polar opposite opinions about it?
Yes. I showed the film to one group, and half thought Connie had a dream about Arnold Friend. They thought the scene wasn’t real. That was the most extreme form of it. I still treasure, in a way, a review in The Village Voice by B. Ruby Rich, who excoriated me for promoting that I was saying, “girls, don’t venture out!” [She thought] I was moralizing, I was a throwback to a dark age. She also reviewed Joyce at 34 and said that I shouldn’t have been allowed to make the film because, clearly, I was able to afford a nice apartment. She’s a very extreme feminist.
Well, another thing that stood out to me is how Smooth Talk walks such a fine line of being timely and timeless. There’s the time capsule element of mall culture that’s very specific to the time that you made it. But the film also has something that transcends time in the borderline allegorical centerpiece confrontation between Arnold and Connie. How did you go about striking that balance and making sure that, when the film shifts, it didn’t feel too jarring?
Yeah, it was a problem, and some people have pointed out that it’s two stories. But I hope most people don’t feel that way. If we’ve done our job right, it shouldn’t leap out at you. We tried to create a situation so that it would be believed that when Connie stayed home alone, this could happen. But also, her flirting or just trying it out, she didn’t really know! Laura expressed it very well in that interview, [that her character] was testing the waters. So, to me, it was believable that this whole scene would take place. And this character, Arnold Friend that Joyce Carol Oates created [sighs]…there are a lot of lunatics around.
Every Kylie Minogue Album Ranked
To celebrate the release of Disco, we’ve ranked all 14 of the Aussie pop singer’s albums.
In the three decades since Kylie Minogue’s debut, the Australian soap actress turned international pop star has released 15 albums and racked up an impressive 34 Top 10 hits in the U.K., though her career trajectory wasn’t always assured. After her initial breakout success on both sides of the Atlantic, with a cover of Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion,” Minogue struggled to maintain interest among U.S. audiences. By the mid-1990s, she was eager to shake off her bubblegum-pop image, collaborating with the likes of Nick Cave and Towa Tei, and taking more creative control with the experimental Impossible Princess. The album flopped, but a turn-of-the-century renaissance found the singer embracing her dance-pop roots and cementing her status as a gay icon.
After a brief foray into country music with 2018’s Golden, Minogue makes a triumph, perhaps preordained, return to the dance floor with the pointedly titled Disco. To celebrate, we’ve ranked all 14 of the artist’s non-holiday albums.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article was published on April 5, 2018.
14. Kylie (1988)
Then famous in her native Australia as Charlene in the soap opera Neighbours, Minogue became an unlikely pop star when her cover of the 1962 hit “The Loco-Motion” became an unexpected international smash. The 19-year-old was plopped onto English production trio Stock Aitken Waterman’s assembly line, where it sounds like she was forced to suck down a lungful of helium and sing along to their patented house blend of hi-NRG beats, Italo-disco synths, and Motown melodies. The resulting album, Kylie, is as lightweight and unsatisfying as cotton candy—and goes down just as easy.
13. Enjoy Yourself (1989)
There isn’t a whole lot to differentiate Minogue’s sophomore effort from its predecessor, right down to the oversized hat on the album’s cover. Released just over a year after the singer’s debut, Enjoy Yourself repeats the first album’s sonic template almost verbatim, including a cover of a classic pop song (in this case, the 1958 doo-wop hit “Tears on My Pillow”). Slight but much-welcomed diversions include the string-laden torch song “Tell Tale Signs” and the baroque-pop “My Secret Heart.” Notably, Minogue would later transform the album’s tonally incongruent lead single, “Hand on Your Heart,” into a poignant acoustic ballad on 2012’s The Abbey Road Sessions.
12. Let’s Get to It (1991)
On her final album for PWL Records, Minogue continued to peel herself away from the SAW hit factory that helped make her a star. New jack swing, hip-hop, and house are more prominently featured, though none particularly successfully. Produced by the first and last thirds of Stock Aitken Waterman, tracks like “Word Is Out,” “Too Much of a Good Thing,” and “I Guess I Like It Like That” feel like inferior facsimiles of the distinctly American sound being created by the likes of Clivillés and Cole, Jam and Lewis, Full Force, and others.
11. Kiss Me Once (2014)
Minogue’s first album not to spawn a U.K. Top 10 hit since 1997’s Impossible Princess, Kiss Me Once lacks a distinct sonic point of view, incorporating pop-rock, disco, dubstep, and R&B in equal measure. If there’s an overarching theme to the album, it’s sex and its various consequences: Minogue fantasizes about it on “Sexy Love,” she sweats about it on “Sexercize,” she struggles to define it on “Les Sex.” The sleek bonus track “Sleeping with the Enemy” seems to pay homage to Massive Attack’s sublime “Unfinished Sympathy,” while the Pharrell-produced “I Was Gonna Cancel” makes one wonder what an entire Kylie album of disco-funk might have sounded like. As it stands, Kiss Me Once is the most scattershot of Minogue’s latter-day efforts.
10. Rhythm of Love (1990)
From the disco-infused “Step Back in Time” to the techno-pop “Shocked,” the potency of Rhythm of Love’s singles alone makes it the strongest of Minogue’s PWL albums. With “Better the Devil You Know,” the singer had begun to shed her girl-next-door image, but the album also saw producers Stock Aitken Waterman developing their signature sound, which, by the end of the ‘80s, had reached peak saturation on both sides of the pond. The addition of outside producers, including frequent Madonna collaborator Stephen Bray, further expanded Minogue’s repertoire to include new jack swing and hip-hop, putting the artist somewhere near, if not in, the same league as her female chart rivals for the first time.
9. Kylie Minogue (1994)
After churning out four albums in as many years with Stock Aitken Waterman, Minogue parted ways with the production team’s label in 1993 and signed with Deconstruction Records. The pop star’s first album with the label resulted in a creative rebirth that’s reflected in the eponymous album’s title and embrace of club music. (Perhaps emulating classic 12” house records, a handful of songs—“Where Is the Feeling,” “Where Has the Love Gone,” and “Falling”—all run about two minutes too long.) But Kylie Minogue’s biggest surprise is its midtempo material. Minogue doesn’t have the vocal prowess to carry some of these songs—“Surrender” is a less sultry rendition of a song recorded by Tia Carrere a year earlier—but she admirably pushes her voice to its limits on the string-laden “Dangerous Game” and “Automatic Love.” The cautionary “Confide in Me,” with its hypnotic hook, Middle Eastern strings, and ominous guitar riff, calls for a sensual and understated performance—and Minogue delivers.
8. Golden (2018)
The Nashville-inspired Golden, whose title commemorates Minogue’s impending 50th birthday, is the singer’s most personal album since Impossible Princess. Both her anxiety about and joyful resistance to her mortality is apparent in songs like “Dancing,” “Live a Little,” and the title track. “Sincerely Yours” is a “love letter” most likely directed at tour audiences—“This is not the end, I’ll come back again/You’ll still see me, you’ll still hear me”—but it’s hard not to imagine Minogue singing it as penance to fans eagerly awaiting her return to dance music. While country signifiers abound, from foot-stomping to fiddling, the songs on Golden also smartly juxtapose contemporary pop elements like soaring synth hooks and pitched-up vocals. If nothing else, Golden further bolsters Minogue’s reputation for taking risks—and artfully sets the stage for her inevitable disco comeback.
The Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
These films show us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed.
“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by some of the imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.
Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles below (all presently streaming on Netflix) have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson
10. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016)
With Mud and Take Shelter, writer-director Jeff Nichols has already used withholding narratives to weave distinctly Southern tales about fringe believers, survivalists who could also be seen as evangelists. Nichols was forthright about the motives of his protagonists, but cagey about whether their causes were worth believing in. Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) is another in Nichols’s lineage of would-be prophets, but no one here doubts the world-changing potential of the child’s visions. If in Midnight Special is, at its heart, a work of science fiction, it rolls out like a chase film. With the help of his childhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Alton’s father, Roy (Michael Shannon), has kidnapped the child from captivity at a compound run by a Branch Davidian-like cult that once counted Roy as a member. Given its twilit suburban adventures and encroaching security forces, the story exudes a superficially classical sensibility, recalling Starman and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Nichols has an easy mastery of pacing and tension, employing a churning sound design (and a pulsing score by David Wingo) that allows moments of occasionally bloody action to arrive with a frightening blast or a deep, quaking rumble of bass, and the film moves with purpose to its final destination. Christopher Gray
9. Elizabeth Harvest (Sebastian Gutierrez, 2018)
The plot convolutions of Elizabeth Harvest conjoin with director Sebastian Gutierrez’s stylistic bravura—blasts of red and blue in Cale Finot’s cinematography that connote a spiritual as well as physical sense of ultraviolence—to create an incestuous atmosphere that’s reminiscent of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Henry is a memorable monster, played by Ciarán Hinds with a bravura mixture of smug entitlement and oily needfulness that’s weirdly and unexpectedly poignant. In one of the greatest mad-scientist speeches ever delivered by a character in a horror film, Henry explains that his cloned wife (Abbey Lee) is only real to him when he destroys her. This admission chillingly crystallizes the thin line, within the male gaze, between adoration and contempt. Bowen
8. Hardcore Henry (Ilya Naishuller, 2015)
The film’s first-person perspective is so ingeniously sustained throughout the lean 96-minute running time that you’re liable to swat at your face when a man covered in steel and wielding a flamethrower sets Henry (Andrey Dementyev) on fire, or hold on to the edge of your seat when he battles the telekinetic warlord Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) atop a skyscraper from which a free fall seems inevitable. The film’s singular ambition is to immerse the viewer in the thick of a frenzied drive toward the promise of a lover’s touch and a few more minutes of life. Our aesthetic perception is linked to our perception of Henry himself, so that the film becomes a study of empathy through aesthetics. It’s not for nothing that Henry is made to have no voice, as Hardcore Henry’s unbelievably precise choreography of action seeks to tap into a universal feeling of powerlessness. Gonzalez
7. Mad Max (George Miller, 1979)
The Mad Max trilogy is the work of a talented virtuoso who blended seemingly every trope of every movie genre into a series of punk-rock action films. The plots, which are nearly irrelevant, are always similarly primitive even by the standards of low-budget genre films: In a bombed-out future version of the outback, a vicious gang pisses off a brilliant highway daredevil, Max (Mel Gibson), and stunning vehicular mayhem ensues. Though the second film, most commonly known in America as The Road Warrior, is often cited as the masterpiece of the series, the original Mad Max is still the most ferocious and subversive. The 1979 film most explicitly riffs on delinquent racing movies and the kinds of crudely effective 1970s horror movies that would sometimes show a family being violated in a prolonged fashion, and there are sequences in Mad Max that could be edited, probably with few seams, into, say, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Mad Max also has a distinctly Australian masculine tension that’s reminiscent of other outback-set classics such as Wake in Fright, as it’s concerned with the pronounced sexual repression and frustration of a predominantly male population that’s all dressed up in tight leather with little to do apart from mounting their bikes and revving up their big noisy engines. Bowen
6. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
Spike Jonze’s Her begins with a love letter—a misdirect. It’s a billet-doux by proxy, ghost-authored, dictated to a machine. We open on the wide-eyed mug of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), seeming to speak from the heart, recalling fondly a first love that proves, with the reveal of an incongruous anniversary, to belong to somebody else. So the “handwritten letters” of beautifulhandwrittenletters.com are merely approximations of the form: our near-future’s phantom memorandum. But what matters here is that the love is real. Theodore’s letters, in a sense the film’s emotional through line, are never less than deeply felt, swelling with earnest affection. That he’s talking through and to another can’t reduce the depth of feeling in the sentiments. The genius of Her is that it doesn’t ask you to believe in the truth of its speculative science fiction so much as it does the truth of its romance, which is to say that Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) means more as metaphor—for a hard-won connection, long-distance or otherwise remote—than as a prediction of future tech. Her is about “the modern condition,” but not, importantly, in the strictly satirical sense: It tells us less about how we live than how we love. Marsh
5. Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1986)
Long before Robert Zemeckis re-envisioned the 1960s as the era America gave itself over to stupidity (to the delight of Rush Limbaugh’s dittoheads nationwide), he blasted the 1980s back into the 1950s with Back to the Future. Or, rather, he blasted the 1980s specifically for its return to a 1950s-reminiscent moral and political agenda. Looking back on it with the same sense of from-the-future assurance that informed the movie’s own creation, Back to the Future is a logistically beautiful but almost inhumanly perfect confluence of internal logic and external forces. It stands up on its own as a well-oiled, brilliantly edited example of new-school, Spielberg-cultivated thrill-craft, one that endures even now that its visual effects and haw-haw references to Pepsi Free and reruns seem as dated as full-service gas stations apparently did in 1985. Its schematic organization of what Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) need to accomplish and its steadily mounting series of mishaps demonstrating how they can go wrong represent probably the most carefully scripted blockbuster in Hollywood history, but the film’s real coup (and what separates it from the increasingly fluent pack of Spielberg knockoffs) is in how it subtly mocks the political pretensions of the era—not the 1950s, but rather the 1980s. Eric Henderson
4. The End of Evangelion (Hideaki Anno, 1997)
When Hideaki Anno ended Neon Genesis Evangelion, his elaborate analogy for his own untreated depression, with a moment of calming, redemptive group therapy, the backlash he received from fans who wanted a cataclysmic climax was overwhelming. In response, Anno crafted this theatrical alternate ending, in which he brutally and unsparingly gave fans all the nihilistic chaos they could ever want. If the anime series’s finale was a psychological breakthrough, End of Evangelion is the relapse, an implosion of self-annihilating revulsion and anger rendered in cosmic terms. Religious, sci-fi, and psychosexual imagery intersect in chaotic, kaleidoscopic visions of personal and global hell, all passing through the shattered mind of the show’s child soldier protagonist. Its finale is the most fully annihilative visualization of the Rapture ever put to screen, a mass death rendered as cathartic release from the hell of existence that, in a parting act of cruelty, leaves the broken, suicidal protagonist alive to bear witness to oblivion. Jake Cole
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
Introverted nice guy Joel (Jim Carrey) hears of an experimental procedure to erase troubling memories, and dives right in when his impulsive girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), washes her brain clean of their love-shattered relationship. Joel’s memories go backward in time from the last gasp of their love to their initial spark, but there are sideways detours along the way that take him to infancy and memories of his first childhood humiliation. James Joyce might have applauded this Phil Dick-caustic/Gnostic rendition of his Nighttown from Ulysses, with Clementine as Joel’s face-changing Penelope/Molly Bloom. Joel attempts to fight the erasure in his own mind, and the film admits early on that it’s a fight he cannot win. That he keeps on fighting anyway is the crux of Eternal Sunshine, and a breakthrough for Charlie Kaufman—writing about the human condition more than questioning our lives as self-made fictions. The fantasies of the film are more “real” than anything he’d written before, because they define who we think we are. Joel rediscovers his love for Clementine through fantasy, which is to say through his clouded memories of her. Such things are precious, and Gondry revels in that world in all its fleeting, flickering, ever-mutating joys. Jeremiah Kipp
2. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is about uninspired moral negligence, and about its hero tuning into violence as entertainment and institutions using violence and brainwashing as a means of control. It’s Kubrick’s most prescient work, more astute and unsparing than any of his other films (and he had more where that came from) in putting the bleakest parts of human behavior under the microscope and laughing in disgust. It was made right after his other high watermark, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as he returns to Earth from his mind-blowing brush with the cosmic, it’s a sort of sequel about our planet rotting away from the inside. As a drunk says to Alex (Malcolm McDowell) right before taking a vicious beating: “I don’t want to live anyway! Not in a stinking world like this! Men on the moon and men spinning around the Earth, and no attention paid to earthly law and order no more!” One could say this was ripped straight from the headlines, only nowadays one could argue there’s no attention paid to anything, be it outer space or earthly matters, just an endless feeding to audiences who have developed a voracious taste for, as Alex would say, “the [good] old ultra-violence.” Kipp
1. Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)
An imaginative expansion of the brisk Philip K. Dick short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” this film about fake memories and a real interplanetary crisis now stands redolent with nostalgia, both for its time, as well as for itself. Beneath its show of smoke and mirrors, mercenary babes, and treacherous holograms, Total Recall is a story about a man who must choose between two possible, contradictory realities. In one timeline, he’s an earthbound schmuck; in the far less likely one, he’s a hero who must save an oppressed people on a faraway planet. He can’t afford to waver, but it’s our privilege to do so. As viewers, we’re welcome to consider the persistent motif of walls collapsing, subterfuges dissolving, and rugs being pulled out from still more rugs. The film now exists in a twilight of an era in which factory-produced entertainment could still serve as a keyhole into a dimension of weird, through which we might glimpse the otherworldly, and contemplate fondling the third breast. Jaime Christley
The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
These great horror films are currently streaming on Netflix.
Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.
Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors and incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”
At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. And some of our favorites are currently streaming on Netflix. Budd Wilkins
10. Cam (2018)
When Wilhelm Reich developed the concept of “sex economy” in 1931, he had in mind something like the way societal expectations or advertising may compel someone toward compulsory masturbation. Almost 90 years later, compulsion is but one of an array of factors informing Cam, Daniel Goldhaber’s lithely satirical and startling take on the present state of online sex work. Based on screenwriter Isa Mazzei’s own experiences as a cam model, the film is neither plainly sex positive nor outright cautionary in its depiction of Alice (Madeline Brewer), an up-and-coming streamer whose account is hacked and stolen by someone appearing to be her doppelgänger. Even as Cam gives new meaning to “ghosting” when Alice watches “herself” online, the film’s strengths come from an intimate familiarity with the anxieties that accompany a life predicated on thriving in a gig economy still owned and operated by impenetrable customer service mechanisms and corporate channels of older, sweaty white men. Cam is also one of the first American films to grapple with the realities of being doxed to family and friends, further demonstrating its primary acumen as a check on the social pulse of a particular strain of U.S. conservatism that continues to think about and patrol sex work, and those who participate in it, in even pre-Reichian terms. Clayton Dillard
9. The Monster (2016)
In The Strangers, Bryan Bertino exhibited a masterfully lush style that owed quite a bit to the elegant camera pirouettes of John Carpenter. Here, the filmmaker utilizes his command of medium for more individualized purposes. By the time that The Monster reveals itself to be a horror film, we’re so engrossed in Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and Lizzy’s (Ella Ballentine) pain that the arrival of the titular menace strikes us as an authentic violation of normality, rather than as a ghoul arriving on demand per the dictates of the screenplay. The film has an eerily WTF arbitrariness that should be the domain of more films in the genre. Chuck Bowen
8. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)
The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Bowen
7. 1922 (2017)
In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen
6. The Invitation (2015)
The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan
5. Session 9 (2001)
As in real estate, the three most important factors in Brad Anderson’s brooding Session 9 are: location, location, location. The filmmakers have hit upon something special with the Danvers State Mental Hospital, whose sprawling Victorian edifice looms large over the narrative: A motley crew of asbestos-removal workers, led by matrimonially challenged Gordon (Peter Mullan), run afoul of a baleful, possibly supernatural, influence within its decaying walls. Anderson uses to brilliant effect a series of archived audio recordings—leading up to the titular “breakthrough” session—that document a disturbing case of split personality. While the film doesn’t entirely stick its murderous finale, no one who hears those scarifying final lines of dialogue will soon forget them. Wilkins
4. Before I Wake (2016)
Director Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake hints—in flashes—at a remarkably cruel psychodrama, physicalizing one of the worst and most common fears that orphans share: that they’re awful and unlovable, and therefore undeserving of parents. This fear is similar to the terror that parents have of inadvertently destroying or disappointing their children, and Flanagan unites these anxieties with a ghoulishly inventive plot turn that he doesn’t fully explore. Flanagan is deeply invested in Cody’s (Jacob Tremblay) welfare, to the point of rigidly signifying the various manifestations of the boy’s nightmares, pigeonholing irrationality into a rational framework so as to justify a moving yet literal-minded finale. Chaos could’ve opened Before I Wake up, allowing it to breathe, though Flanagan’s beautiful and empathetic film cannot be taken for granted. Bowen
3. The Evil Dead (1981)
The Evil Dead still feels like the punchiest horror flick this side of a Dario Argento giallo. Sam Raimi relentlessly fashions the film’s first half as a creepy-crawly sweat chamber with evil seemingly taking the form of an omniscient, roaming camera, gleefully poking fun at his five protagonists along the way. Despite the signs—the difficult-to-start vehicle, the fallen bridge—no one else believes the woods are alive. Ash (Bruce Campbell), horrordom’s most memorable wuss, and his girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker), share an intimate, peek-a-boo moment in which he gives her a necklace, and when he’s later forced to kill her, Raimi takes great joy in referencing this coquettish exchange of affection. Now infamous for its over-the-top gore and cheesy effects sequences, The Evil Dead is most impressive for Raimi’s unnerving wide angle work and his uncanny, almost unreal ability to suggest the presence of intangible evil via distant headlights, bleeding light sockets, and, in the film’s most awesome set piece, a simple game of cards. Gonzalez
2. The Guest (2014)
The Guest is carried by an intense and surprising mood of erotic melancholia. Adam Wingard leans real heavy on 1980s—or 1980s-sounding—music in the grandly, outwardly wounded key of Joy Division, and he accompanies the music with visual sequences that sometimes appear to stop in their tracks for the sake of absorbing the soundtrack. The film is a nostalgia act for sure, particularly for The Hitcher, but it injects that nostalgia with something hard, sad, and contemporary, or, perhaps more accurately, it reveals that our hang-ups—disenfranchisement, rootlessness, war-mongering, hypocritical evasion—haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s, or ever. Bowen
1. Poltergeist (1982)
Tobe Hooper is officially credited for having directed Poltergeist, but it’s co-scripter Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints that are all over this dark-mirror image of E.T. and Close Encounters of a Third Kind, about unseen spirits tormenting a suburban family. It’s structured as an escalating series of reveals, from the frisson elicited by inexplicably mobile furniture on up to third-act hysteria derived from birth imagery, child peril, and the eternal creep factor of video snow in a dark room. Hooper’s Grand Guignol flourishes are occasionally evident, particularly when a paranormal investigator pulls his own face off, but the technical proficiency is all Spielberg’s, as is the abiding interest in families and the influences (supernatural or otherwise) that disrupt them. Abhimanyu Das
Every James Bond Theme Song Ranked
From Shirley Bassey to Billie Eilish, we’ve ranked all 24 Bond themes from best to worst.
Each new James Bond theme is almost as eagerly anticipated as the films themselves. While the franchise’s producers have often thought outside the box when choosing singers to headline each film’s soundtrack, they’ve increasingly skewed toward newer artists like Billie Eilish, who joins the ranks of musical vets like Shirley Bassey, Paul McCartney, and Madonna to provide the theme for the newest installment in the series, No Time to Die.
A willingness to adapt to the times, straying from the established formula of bombastic orchestral pop, has produced both hits (Wings’s art-rock-inflected “Live and Let Die”) and misses (the adult contemporary schlock of Rita Coolidge’s “All Time High”). Occasionally, the producers have returned to the template established by Bassey’s “Goldfinger” with similarly mixed results, from Lulu’s campy “The Man with the Golden Gun” to Adele’s theatrical “Skyfall.”
The world’s most famous secret agent reaches a new milestone with No Time to Die, the 25th film in the official series, tentatively scheduled for release in April after being delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. To celebrate, we’ve ranked all 24 theme songs, excluding the original “James Bond Theme” and the instrumental title song from 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, both performed by the John Barry Orchestra. Sal Cinquemani
Editor’s Note: Listen to our Bond Theme playlist on Spotify.
24. Sam Smith, “Writing’s on the Wall”
Sadly, the writing was on the wall as soon as Sam Smith turned in this narcoleptic take on a Bond song, from 2015’s Spectre. Largely an excuse for the kind of self-loathing romantic navel-gazing (“How do I live? How do I breathe?/When you’re not here I’m suffocating”) and empty showcasing of Smith’s vocal range that have become the singer’s stock in trade, “Writing’s on the Wall” has no real hooks or interesting textures. Instead, Smith relies on generic regal horns to announce an adult contemporary star at their commercial height who drank too much of their own punch. Paul Schrodt
23. Rita Coolidge, “All Time High”
The unfortunately titled Octopussy was the first Bond movie since Dr. No not to have a title track, and understandably so. Its theme, “All Time High,” sounds like an ABBA ballad with the wind knocked out of it. While the song’s lyrics gesture toward triumph and passion, its style is so languid that it leaves little impact even after repeat listens. When Coolidge sings, “Let the flight begin,” she doesn’t conjure the image of a pilot preparing for takeoff, but of a passenger popping a Dramamine. Her voice is soothing and pleasant, but ultimately the song’s greatest fault is that it simply doesn’t feel like a Bond song. Eric Mason
22. Lulu, “The Man with the Golden Gun”
Lulu’s theme for 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun is a pale imitation of Shirley Bassey’s imitable Bond vocal turns. Where Bassey embodied the films’ mix of sex, sorrow, and violence, Lulu sounds like she’s doing a highly unsteady stab at a coquettish burlesque routine—which, to be fair, could also describe the general aesthetic of numerous Bond films. Her attempt at a guttural low range is unlikely to unnerve a house cat, while her backing players try to revive the golden-age Bassey music with results that are quickly forgotten. Schrodt
21. A-ha, “The Living Daylights”
After a sufficient opening in which moody strings swell over a dark, driving bassline, A-ha’s theme for the first Timothy Dalton Bond film falls victim to an irredeemable ‘80s musical trend: a noodling synthesizer riff that attempts “sleek and sinister” yet comes off as a show-offy try-out for an Emerson, Lake & Palmer cover band. “The Living Daylights” never recovers, mostly because A-ha—best known for the unabashed romanticism of “Take on Me” and “Crying in the Rain”—are lovers, not fighters, while Bond is, of course, both. When lead singer Morten Harket uses his upper register to belt the chorus (“I’ve been waiting long for one of us to say/Save the darkness, let it never fade away”), he sounds like a self-remonstrating lost soul, not a hardened international secret agent. Michael Joshua Rowin
20. Gladys Knight, “License to Kill”
The phrase “License to kill”—referring to James Bond’s legal right as an MI6 agent to end the lives of human beings, and serving as the title of one of the grittiest, darkest 007 films—doesn’t exactly evoke the name Gladys Knight. Not just because the legendary Knight’s style is anything but raw and brooding, but also because her theme (as written by Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen, and Walter Afanasieff) for Timothy Dalton’s second and final Bond film in 1989 is fairly forgettable. Sounding more like an overproduced slow-dance number than an evocation of Bond’s rogue mission of revenge, “License to Kill” is only memorable for nicking the famous musical motif from Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” and necessitating royalty payments to the writers of that far better song. Rowin
19. Sheena Easton, “For Your Eyes Only”
Sheena Easton’s soft-rock power ballad matches the glossiness of For Your Eyes Only to deliver one of the franchise’s peak-‘80s efforts—which is to say, forgettable even when it’s viscerally pleasurable. Easton gives her all like she’s trying to steal Pat Benatar’s career, and the hook is catchy, even when the bland come-hither lyrics sound like they’re more appropriate for a Palm Springs timeshare brochure than a major feature film about a guy who kills people for a living. Schrodt
18. Tom Jones, “Thunderball”
After the success of “Goldfinger,” Eon Productions sought to produce another eccentric orchestral pop song with “Thunderball.” In fact, Shirley Bassey was slated to perform the original Thunderball song, “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” which arguably was even more committed to the “Goldfinger” formula than “Thunderball.” However, in a rush to replace “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” with a proper title track, songwriters John Barry and Don Black left Jones with little in the way of compelling lyrical content. The 1965 song would feel like a pale imitation of “Goldfinger” were it not for Jones’s imposing vocal presence and impressive conviction (Jones reportedly fainted while performing the song’s final note). Mason
17. Sheryl Crow, “Tomorrow Never Dies”
Sheryl Crow remains a surprising and controversial choice for a Bond chanteuse. Crow is best known for VH1-friendly rock, and her voice isn’t exactly sultry or powerful, qualities possessed by k.d. lang, whose own contribution to the Tomorrow Never Dies soundtrack was relegated to the 1997 film’s end credits. For her effort, Crow received opening-title honors but also a ton of flak: While appropriately breathy in the verses, Crow sounds strained when reaching for the high notes of the bombastic chorus. Still, “Tomorrow Never Dies,” co-written with producer Mitchell Froom, is a somewhat underrated Bond theme, containing a complex yet classy orchestral arrangement that feels timeless compared to the other electronica-inflected themes of the Brosnan era. Rowin
16. Duran Duran, “A View to Kill”
Synth-heavy and melodramatic, “A View to Kill” is the most deliciously ‘80s Bond theme. Simon Le Bon’s piercing vocals imbue the song with invigorating urgency, elevating an otherwise nonsensical collage of fire and ice and fatal kisses to a new wave banger. Like its accompanying music video, which predicted the advent of drone cameras, what “A View to Kill” lacks in timeless elegance, it makes up for in its undeniable, danceable charisma. Mason
15. Matt Monro, “From Russia with Love”
Matt Monro’s “From Russia with Love” marks the first specifically tailored theme for a James Bond film, though with only two efforts under its belt, the franchise was still refining its trademarks in 1963: Rather than play over the opening titles, the song is first heard within the film and then over its end credits. It also doesn’t possess the qualities audiences would soon come to recognize in Bond theme songs, with a sound more in the romantic vein of Frank Sinatra than in the adventure-oriented vein of, say, Tom Jones. In that sense “From Russia with Love” (as written by Lionel Bart) is a proficient number that nonetheless leaves the listener craving something with a little more muscle. Rowin
14. Louis Armstrong, “We Have All the Time in the World”
If Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World” doesn’t sound quite like a James Bond theme, that’s because it isn’t. It’s actually the “love theme” for the most romantic of all 007 films, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and appears during a montage sequence within the film, not during its opening titles. That said, the jazzy ballad (with music by John Barry and lyrics by Burt Bacharach collaborator Hal David) is perfectly lovely and, due to ironically foreshadowing the doomed fate of Bond’s bride and one true love, effectively heartbreaking—a quality made all the more poignant by a tender vocal performance by the legendary Armstrong in one of his last major recordings. Rowin
13. Carly Simon, “Nobody Does It Better”
There are great Bond songs, and then there are decent tunes that happened to become Bond themes. From 1977’s thoroughly dull The Spy Who Loved Me, Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” slots firmly into the latter category, as the low-key singer shows no interest in delivering the jolts or theatrics of the franchise, and a perfunctory mention of a spy in the lyrics comes off as a contractual obligation. But her piano bar-styled, true-to-brand saccharine vocals are undeniably sweet. Nobody does it better, indeed. Schrodt
The 100 Best Horror Movies of All Time
The good horror film insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity.
One of the most common claims made about horror films is that they allow audiences to vicariously play with their fear of death. Inarguable, really, but that’s also too easy, as one doesn’t have to look too far into a genre often preoccupied with offering simulations of death to conclude that the genre in question is about death. That’s akin to saying that all an apple ever really symbolizes is an apple, and that symbols and subtexts essentially don’t exist. A more interesting question: Why do we flock to films that revel in what is, in all likelihood, our greatest fear? And why is death our greatest fear?
A startling commonality emerges if you look over the following films in short succession that’s revelatory of the entire horror genre: These works aren’t about the fear of dying, but the fear of dying alone, a subtlety that cuts to the bone of our fear of death anyway—of a life unlived. There’s an explicit current of self-loathing running through this amazing collection of films. What are Norman Bates and Jack Torrance besides eerily all-too-human monsters? Failures. Success also ultimately eludes Leatherface, as well as the socially stunted lost souls of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse. What is the imposing creature at the dark heart of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu? He makes for quite the presence, but his hungers ultimately lead him to oblivion.
So many films, particularly American ones, tell us that we can be whatever we want to be, and that people who don’t achieve their desired self-actualization are freaks. The horror film says: Wait Jack, it ain’t that easy. This genre resents platitude (certainly, you can count the happy endings among these films on one hand), but the good horror film usually isn’t cynical, as it insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity. Which is to say there’s hope, and catharsis, offered by the horror film. It tells us bruised romantics that we’re all in this together, thus offering evidence that we may not be as alone as we may think. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: Click here for a list of the titles that made the original 2013 incarnation of our list.
100. Raw (2016)
As in Ginger Snaps, which Raw thematically recalls, the protagonist’s supernatural awakening is linked predominantly to sex. At the start of the film, Justine (Garance Marillier) is a virgin who’s poked and prodded relentlessly by her classmates until she evolves only to be rebuffed for being too interested in sex—a no-win hypocrisy faced by many women. High-pressure taunts casually and constantly hang in the air, such as Alexia’s (Ella Rumpf) insistence that “beauty is pain” and a song that urges a woman to be “a whore with decorum.” In this film, a bikini wax can almost get one killed, and a drunken quest to get laid can, for a female, lead to all-too-typical humiliation and ostracizing. Throughout Raw, director Julia Ducournau exhibits a clinical pitilessness that’s reminiscent of the body-horror films of David Cronenberg, often framing scenes in symmetrical tableaus that inform the various cruelties and couplings with an impersonality that’s ironically relieved by the grotesque intimacy of the violence. We’re witnessing conditioning at work, in which Justine is inoculated into conventional adulthood, learning the self-shame that comes with it as a matter of insidiously self-censorious control. By the film’s end, Ducournau has hauntingly outlined only a few possibilities for Justine: that she’ll get with the program and regulate her hunger properly, or be killed or institutionalized. Bowen
99. A Bay of Blood (1971)
Compared to the other giallo films that comprise most of Mario Bava’s canon, A Bay of Blood (also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve) represents a more stripped-down and economic filmmaking from the Italian master. Notably absent are the supernatural undertones and fetishistic sexuality, and Bava even suppresses the vigorous impulses and desires that drive his characters to exteriorize their feelings in vicious bursts of violence by offering no valid (or convincing) psychological explanation. Despite being one of Bava’s simpler works, or perhaps because of that very reason, A Bay of Blood has proven to be the foremost progenitor of the slasher film, the one in which the Jason Voorheeses and Ghostfaces owe their blade of choice to. But it’s only the basic tenor of a psychopath slaying victims one by one that’s remained intact within the subgenre in the 40-plus years of this film’s existence. It’s in this film’s elementary plotting that Bava, by withholding information and leaning more on animalistic themes dictating bizarre character motivation, unveils a deceptive depth that the film’s acolytes can’t discern among the copious amounts of blood spilled within its frames. Wes Greene
98. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
Throughout Alice, Sweet Alice, Alfred Sole paints a rich and febrile portrait of how society enables dysfunction on multiple fronts, from the domestic to the religious to the psychiatric. (The police are shown to be restorers of order, though they serve that function almost inadvertently.) The filmmaker also invests his narrative with references to classic horror films, most notably Psycho, though his own direction lacks Alfred Hitchcock’s polish, which in this case is a blessing. In the film’s best sequences, particularly the moments following Karen’s (Brooke Shields) murder, Sole allows for tonal inconsistencies that reflect the true shock of violence. In such instances, Alice, Sweet Alice turns momentarily shrill, with actors screeching their lines almost directly to the camera—a device that expresses pain and refutes the fashions with which many horror directors rush through the grief process haphazardly in order to move the narrative along. In other moments, though, Sole’s directorial control is magisterial. Annie’s (Jane Lowry) near murder, when she’s stabbed on the stairway, is framed in a prismatic image, with a mirror reflecting the assault back on itself and suggesting, once again, the intense insularity of this world. Bowen
97. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
“See me. See me now,” Gary Oldman’s undead vampire intones, so as to magically compel virginal Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) to turn his way on a crowded London street. The two wind up at a cinematograph, “the greatest attraction of the century.” The intersection of vampire and victim in front of a labyrinth of movie screens is telling, as Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the classic Bram Stoker material winds up collapsing history and cinema together. Coppola shunned budding CGI technology in favor of in-camera techniques such as rear projection (as when we see Dracula’s eyes fade in over the countryside, overlooking a callow Keanu Reeves) and forced perspective (such as trick shots using miniatures of castles, which seem to loom over the full-sized actors and coaches in the foreground). However flagrantly artificial and constructed, the whole film feels uniquely alive. Dracula has “crossed oceans of time” to find Mina, and Coppola shows how the cinematically preternatural similarly finds and seduces audiences—how movies offer their own sparkle of immortality. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is noteworthy for how un-scary it is, and yet Coppola’s fanciful movie tool-box conceits, in perfect sync with Oldman’s deliciously over-the-top performance, exert an overpowering sense of the uncanny. Like the vampire, the film infects us and offers an illusory respite from death. Niles Schwartz
96. Blood for Dracula (1974)
The horror of Blood for Dracula derives in part from director Paul Morrissey’s unique ability to meld social critique, gonzo humor, and gore into a genre piece that’s ambivalent about the passing of eras. Udo Kier’s Count Dracula, unable to find virgin blood amid the sexually active women of a 19th-century Italian family, finds himself quite literally poisoned by change. As Dracula vomits up non-virgin blood like water from a fire hydrant, Morrissey films Kier’s convulsing body not for campy laughs, but to highlight its anguish and deterioration. The opening shot, set to Claudio Gizzi’s tragic score, holds on Dracula in close-up as he delicately applies make-up. The film, far too strange to be flatly interpreted as a conservative lament for lost sexual decorum, convincingly focuses on the body as the root source of all humankind’s tribulations, whether in pursuit of pleasure or gripped in pain. Clayton Dillard
95. Martyrs (2008)
Writer-director Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs leaves you with the scopophilic equivalent of shell shock. The gauntlet that his film’s heroine, a “final girl” who’s abducted and tortured by a religious cult straight out of a Clive Barker novel, is forced to endure is considerable. Which is like saying that King Kong is big, Vincent Price’s performances are campy, and blood is red. Laugier’s film is grueling because there’s no real way to easily get off on images of simulated violence. The film’s soul-crushing finale makes it impossible to feel good about anything Laugier has depicted. In it, Laugier suggests that there’s no way to escape from the pain of the exclusively physical reality of his film. You don’t watch Laugier’s harrowing feel-bad masterpiece—rather, you’re held in its thrall. Abandon hope all ye who watch here. Simon Abrams
94. Night of the Demon (1957)
With Night of the Demon, Jacques Tourneur pits logic against the boundless mysteries of the supernatural, focusing not on the fear of the unknown and unseen, but the fear of accepting and confronting the inexplicable. After asking Dana Andrews’s comically hardheaded Dr. Holden how can one differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind, Niall MacGinnis’s wily satanic cult leader conjures up a storm of epic proportions to prove to the pragmatic doctor that the power of the dark arts is no joke. But the warning doesn’t take. Later, when a man is shredded to pieces by a demon, onlookers debate whether the death was a result of a passing train or something more nefarious, to which Holden retorts, “Maybe it’s better not to know.” Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, sometimes the easiest way to deal with the devil is to pretend he doesn’t exist. Derek Smith
93. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Guillermo del Toro’s films are rabid commentaries on the suspension of time, often told through the point of view of children. A bomb is dropped from the skies above an isolated Spanish orphanage, which leaves a boy bleeding to death in its mysterious, inexplosive wake. His corpse is then tied and shoved into the orphanage’s basement pool, and when a young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), arrives at the ghostly facility some time later, he seemingly signals the arrival of Franco himself. A rich political allegory disguised as an art-house spooker, The Devil’s Backbone hauntingly ruminates on the decay of country whose living are so stuck in past as to seem like ghosts. But there’s hope in brotherhood, and in negotiating the ghostly Santi’s past and bandying together against the cruel Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the film’s children ensure their survival and that of their homeland. Ed Gonzalez
92. Let the Right One In (2008)
Not unlike Matt Reeves’s American remake, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In is, in its color scheme and emotional tenor, something almost unbearably blue. When Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a 12-year-old outcast perpetually bullied at school, meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), the mysterious new girl at his apartment complex, one child’s painful coming of age is conflated with another’s insatiable bloodlust. The film treats adolescence, even a vampire’s arrested own, as a prolonged horror—life’s most vicious and unforgiving set piece. This study of human loneliness and the prickly crawlspace between adolescence and adulthood is also an unexpectedly poignant queering of the horror genre. Don’t avert your eyes from Alfredson’s gorgeously, meaningfully aestheticized vision, though you may want to cover your neck. Gonzalez
91. Black Cat (1934)
Based loosely on one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most disquieting tales, 1934’s The Black Cat is one of the neglected jewels in Universal Studios’s horror crown. Edgar Ulmer’s melancholy film is a confrontation between two disturbed World War I veterans, one warped by an evil faith and the other a shattered ghost of a man driven by revenge, and the young couple that becomes entangled in their twisted game. It’s a fable of modernity darkened with war, obsession, and madness. Much like the other tone poem of the Universal horror series, Karl Freund’s gorgeously mannered The Mummy, Ulmer’s deeply elegiac film is a grief-stricken work, a spiraling ode to overwhelming loss, both personal and universal. Josh Vasquez
90. Brain Damage (1988)
Throughout Brain Damage, Frank Henenlotter’s images have a compact and gnarly vitality. He frequently cordons people off by themselves in individual frames, serving the low budget with pared-down shot selections while intensifying the lonely resonance of a man set adrift with his cravings. Bria’sn (Rick Herbst) degradation suggests the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and the threat and alienation of AIDS lingers over the outré, sexualized set pieces, especially when Brian cruises a night club called Hell and picks up a woman, who’s murdered by Aylmer (voiced by John Zacherle) just as she’s about to go down on Brian. The most hideous of this film’s images is a shot of the back of Brian’s neck after Aylmer—an eight-inch-or-so-long creature that resembles a cross between a tapeworm, a dildo, and an ambulant piece of a shit along the lines of South Park’s Mr. Hanky—has first injected him, with its cartography of blood lines that are so tactile we can nearly feel Brian’s pain as he touches it. Such moments hammer home the unnerving simplicity of the premise, likening drug addiction to volunteer parasitism, rendering self-violation relatable via its inherently paradoxical alien-ness. Bowen
89. Gremlins (1984)
Outlining his customary commentary on American society via an artistry informed by influences ranging from B horror films to Looney Tunes, Joe Dante satirizes our neglect of rationality under rampant commercialism through the nasty titular creatures. All raging id, the Gremlins want nothing more than to indulge in every vice that our increasingly corporatized culture has to offer. The resulting anarchy unleashed by the Gremlins during the yuletide season is appropriate, considering they were created when Zach Galligan’s Billy, like an official advocating free-market deregulation, ignored foreboding warnings that terror would occur if he had just stuck to the three simple rules of caring for Gizmo, the cutest of all Gremlins. Wes Greene
88. Angst (1983)
Gerald Kargl’s Angst is a 75-minute cinematic panic attack. Body-mounted cameras, high-angle tracking shots, amplified sound design, and a bone-chilling krautrock score swirl together to create a manic, propulsive energy that’s as disorienting to the viewer as the implacable urge to kill is for Erwin Leder’s unnamed psychopath. Angst elides all psychological trappings, instead tapping directly into this all-consuming desire for destruction on a purely physiological and experiential level. Kargl’s camera prowls around Leder’s madman like an ever-present ghost—a haunting, torturous presence that captures every bead of cold sweat, each anxiety-ridden movement, and the agony of all his facial expressions as he tracks his prey. Angst is as singular and exhausting an account of psychopathy as any put to celluloid, thrusting the viewer helplessly into discomfiting closeness with a killer without attempting to explain or forgive his heinous acts. Smith
87. The Devils (1971)
Ken Russell brings his unique sensibility, at once resolutely iconoclastic and excessively enamored of excess, to this adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s nonfiction novel The Devils of Loudun, which concerns accusations of witchcraft and demonic possession that run rampant in an Ursuline convent in 17th-century France. Like Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General, and set in roughly the same time period, Russell’s film serves as an angry denunciation of social conformity and the arbitrary whims of the political elite that effectively disguises itself as a horror movie. By brazenly conflating religious and sexual hysteria, and depicting both with his characteristic lack of restraint, Russell pushes his already edgy material into places that are so intense and discomforting that the film was subsequently banned in several countries and is to this day still unavailable on home video in a complete and uncut version. Budd Wilkins
86. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Before the flourishing digital age paved the way for social-media naval-gazing, YouTube, and selfies galore, The Blair Witch Project foreshadowed the narcissism of a generation, its success unsurprisingly paving the way for an army of imitators that failed to grasp the essence of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s terrifyingly singular and effortlessly self-reflexive genre exercise. The heartbreaking fall from sanity experienced by the trio of naïve filmmakers preys with ecstatic precision on our most instinctive fears, building to a rousing crescendo of primordial terror that’s arguably unrivaled by anything the genre has seen before or since. Rob Humanick
85. Who Can Kill a Child? (1972)
Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? takes its time building a mood of palpable dread, eking menace out of every social encounter faced by a British couple, Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunella Ransome), vacationing on the coast of Spain. When they charter a small boat and travel out to a remote island village, the streets are curiously empty and the only residents seem to be sullen, introspective children. Ibáñez Serrador methodically draws out the waiting game, and as the kids gather their sinister forces and close in on our unsuspecting couple, a moral conflict arises. The adults are forced to contemplate the unthinkable, doing battle with the little monsters and struggling with the notion that they may have to kill or be killed. Tom manages to get his hand on a machine gun, and he carries it around with him protectively as the audience wonders to themselves how he’ll answer the question posed in the title. Whether or not the answer surprises us during these cynical times, the aftermath is as disarming as it is disturbing. The closing 10 minutes come from a different era in filmmaking, when horror movies could spit in the eye of the status quo and say that good doesn’t always prevail, no matter how much we’d like it to. Jeremiah Kipp
84. The Haunting (1963)
Cacophonous knocking, inexplicable coldness, and doors that have a habit of opening and closing when no one’s looking—the horrors of Hill House are almost entirely unseen in Robert Wise’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s famous novel The Haunting of Hill House. But they’re nonetheless chillingly tangible, brought to life by The Haunting’s supercharged production values: Elliot Scott’s dazzlingly florid interiors; Davis Boulton’s swooping, darting wide-angle cinematography; and, most of all, a quiet-loud-quiet sound design that suggests the presence of the spirit world more forcefully than some corny translucent ghost ever could. The film’s oh-so-1960s psychosexual subtext may be slightly under-baked, but that only serves to heighten the verisimilitude of its supernatural happenings. After all, there are some things in this world even Freud can’t explain. Keith Watson
83. Häxan (1922)
Near the conclusion of Häxan, an intertitle asks: “The witch no longer flies away on her broom over the rooftops, but isn’t superstition still rampant among us?” Such a rhetorical question is in keeping with the implications of Benjamin Christensen’s eccentric historical crawl through representations of evil. Though the film begins as something of a lecture on the topic of women’s bodies as a threat, it morphs into an array of sketches, images, and dramatizations of mankind’s fundamental inability to conceive itself outside of power and difference. Contemporary footage of insane asylums and women being treated for hysteria confirms a truth that’s still with us, nearly a century later: that the horrors of the past are never so far away. Dillard
82. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
John Carpenter’s 1995 sleeper is a lot of things: a noir, a Stephen King satire, a meta-meta-horror workout, a parody of its own mechanics. Carpenter can’t quite stick the landing(s), but watching his film twist and turn and disappear inside of itself as it twists its detective thriller beats into a full-on descent into the stygian abyss proves consistently compelling. Perhaps the best tack is that of Sam Neill’s driven-mad investigator, pictured in the film’s final frames hooting at images of himself projected in an abandoned movie theater. Perhaps the best way to enjoy In the Mouth of Madness is to relinquish your sanity, losing yourself inside of its loopy, Lovecraftian logic. John Semley
81. Near Dark (1987)
The zenith of a career phase defined by sneakily subversive genre films, Kathryn Bigelow’s melancholic Near Dark remains a singular milestone in the evolution of the vampire myth. It’s a delirious fever dream grounded periodically by masterfully constructed scenes of carnage and the rooting of its mythology in the period’s twin boogeymen of addiction and infection. An excellent cast of pulp icons—Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen are particularly unhinged—bring restless energy to the story of itinerant vampires cruising the neon-soaked highways of a beautifully desolate Southwest. It’s Gus Van Sant through a Southern-gothic haze, thrumming with an urgency bestowed by Tangerine Dream’s score and thematic heft alike. Abhimanyu Das
Every Janet Jackson Album Ranked
We took a look back at the icon’s catalog and ranked all 11 studio albums from worst to best.
Janet Jackson’s music career can be easily partitioned into three eras, with her commercial peak (from 1986’s Control through 2001’s All for You) bookended by her early, pre-breakthrough period on one side and the years following her infamous Super Bowl performance in 2004 on the other. There’s perhaps no better testament to the power of Janet’s breakthrough album, Control, as a quintessential statement on personal and artistic self-actualization than the still pervasive misconception that it’s her debut, with 1982’s Janet Jackson and 1984’s Dream Street relegated to the singer’s “prehistory.” But while it should surprise absolutely no one that the quartet of albums that Janet released during her imperial phase handily top this list, her most recent effort, 2015’s Unbreakable, was an understated return to form, reuniting the artist with longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Janet’s follow-up, Black Diamond, was scheduled for release this year before the Covid-19 pandemic dashed those plans. While we await word on the fate of Janet’s 12th studio album—and accompanying concert tour—we’ve decided to look back at her catalog and rank all 11 albums from worst to best.
11. Dream Street (1984)
Before Janet struck multi-platinum with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, she briefly partnered with another famous production pair, Giorgio Moroder and Peter Bellotte. With the exception of the title track, though, the legendary disco duo’s contributions to Janet’s sophomore effort, Dream Street, fell far short of their iconic work with the likes of Donna Summer. Janet’s least successful album isn’t without its pleasures though: Produced by brother Marlon, “All My Love to You” successfully apes Off the Wall-era Michael, while the sexy, nearly seven-minute “Pretty Boy”—courtesy of Jesse Johnson, who, along with Jam and Lewis, was part of the Time—provided a glimpse of things to come in Janet’s own oeuvre. Sal Cinquemani
10. 20 Y.O. (2006)
20 Y.O. was the first Janet album that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produced (this time only in part) after moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. As a result, their ice-cold beats melted into a lugubrious, lukewarm pudding (at under an hour, it still feels almost twice as long as janet. and The Velvet Rope). I don’t know what co-producer and Janet’s then-boyfriend Jermaine Dupri thought he meant when he said he wanted 20 Y.O. to sound like an old Human League record, but I’ll readily admit that the evidence on display suggests he was the only one with the foresight to come up with some new old ideas, even if none of them work to Janet’s advantage. The album’s desperation is that of a dance icon who once sent one hot track after another to the top of the charts and is now deciding she liked the idea of being at the top of the singles charts better than creating immortal dance music. The grindcore “This Body” brings the fugly with surprising abandon, throwing hissing industrial clatter atop an admirably tuneless dirge (you hardly realize it’s a way-late bid in the chopped n’ screwed sweepstakes until the 16 RPM guest rap drops in). “Enjoy” is a seamlessly smooth step groove aboard R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love” boat, but its presence here only makes the likes of “Get It Out Me” and “Roll Witchu” seem all the more opportunistic. Eric Henderson
9. Janet Jackson (1982)
If on its own terms Janet’s self-titled debut has nothing on what was to follow, it’s nonetheless a pretty solid snapshot of the post-disco boogie sound. At least, that is, for the duration of side one, where singer-songwriters René & Angela (best known for their steamy funk workout “I’ll Be Good”) serve Janet with three equally perky-cute dance-pop ditties, and one halfway decent ballad. Janet was clearly still finding her voice, but the snappy backing track of “Say You Do” could easily have slotted into the Jacksons’s 1980 album Triumph, and “Young Love” has the confident pristineness of a Patrice Rushen jam. Things get pretty generic on side two, but two or three deep cuts from an artist who came out of the gate only half-formed ain’t half bad. Henderson
8. Discipline (2008)
The title of Discipline was encouraging for those who prefer Janet taking control and cracking the whip (both as leader of her rhythm nation and the boss of her bedroom) over the vapid, single-girl come-ons of her previous three albums. Disappointingly, though, the title track doesn’t hark back to the self-empowerment of Control, but rather the S&M of The Velvet Rope. Lyrics like “Daddy, I disobeyed ya/Now I want you to come punish me” invite all kinds of psychoanalysis that only grow more disturbing when you remember who her daddy really is, which would be fascinating if she hadn’t already written the sexier (and less creepy) “Rope Burn.” If one were to try to identify some kind of evolution in Janet’s latest bout of dirty talk, it might be sex with robots. Throughout the album, she talks to and interacts with a rather compassionate computer DJ named Kyoko, and her voice is robotic and synthetic on tracks like “Feedback” and the Daft Punk-sampling “So Much Betta”—not necessarily such a bad thing for an artist whose vocals often consist of unintelligible murmuring. Cinquemani
7. Damita Jo (2004)
At some point during the afterglow of adolescent sexual discovery, most people realize that there are more important things in life than getting off. Like Marvin Gaye, Janet got it backward, spending most of her post-Rhythm Nation career searching for, publicly relishing, reflecting on, and then lamenting one giant, decade-long orgasm. The singer’s eighth album, Damita Jo, features a slew of the gooey, structureless sex ballads that had become her staple, including “Warmth,” three-and-a-half minutes dedicated to describing how Ms. Jackson If You’re Nasty gives a blowjob (and yes, she’s a method actress, whispering sweet nothings with her mouth full). Even the dance numbers don’t stray from her topic of choice. Janet’s infamous wardrobe malfunction is commonly cited for her career’s precipitous decline, but her inability to evolve beyond her sex kitten persona is more judiciously to blame. Cinquemani
NewFest 2020: Dry Wind and Alice Júnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil
It’s a provocative juxtaposition for Dry Wind to stage its queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.
Daniel Nolasco’s Dry Wind and Gil Baroni’s Alice Júnior, both screening in the international section at this year’s NewFest, are refreshing in no small part because they find two Brazilian filmmakers telling stories set in regions of their country that are cinematically underrepresented and largely unknown to international audiences. Dry Wind, for one, takes place in the rustic countryside of the state of Goiás, known for its cowboy iconography, livestock music festivals, and extremely conservative politics. It is, then, a provocative juxtaposition for Nolasco to stage his queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.
Dry Wind follows the routines of a community of factory workers in the rural city of Catalão, where sex between soccer-loving men who wouldn’t hesitate to call themselves “discreet” always seems to be happening or about to happen. These torrid trysts mostly take place in the woods, on bare soil or parked motorcycles, and involve piss, ass-eating, and face-spitting. Throughout, Nolasco’s frames are also filled with much hair—hairy faces, butts, and backs, suggesting a queer sexuality cobbled together with the coarseness of the men’s local environment, despite the clearly foreign influence of Nolasco’s hyper-stylized aesthetics. The film’s drama lies in the decidedly Brazilian-ness of the arid landscape, the provincial accents, and the scruffy faces framed by a mishmash of international visual references whenever horny bodies escape to act out queer desire: from Tom of Finland to Tom de Pékin, from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle.
Nolasco alternates between explicitly sexual, neon-colored sequences that veer toward complete dreamscapes and the kind of European-film-festival-courting realism that Brazilian cinema is known for. The contrast can be quite bewildering, so much so that viewers may wish that Dry Wind would remain in the realm of reveries. Instead, Nolasco often tries to reassert Dry Wind as a film with an actual plot. In this case, it’s one that has to do with jealousy, or the impossibility of intimacy in such queer configurations where sex is public only if it’s clandestine but affection must be refused for the sake of social survival. Apart from a needless plotline involving a homophobic assault, it all makes perfect sense. But the film’s most interesting moments emerge precisely when it surrenders to the presumably illogical strangeness of erotic fantasy.
For instance, when Sandro (Leandro Faria Lelo)—who regularly has sex in the woods with a co-worker, Ricardo (Allan Jacinto Santana), after their shift at the factory—happens upon what looks like a leather bar, the place turns out to be an empty construction site where queer archetypes—the harnessed master, the puppy slave, the drag-queen hostess—are there to perform for Sandro and Sandro alone, in a mix of silent performance art and interactive pornography. In another moment of poetic-pornographic license, an evident nod to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, a generically bearded hunk (Marcelo D’Avilla) with chained nipple clamps comes out of a man-made lake, ready to take Sandro into the water for an ecstatic drowning.
Significantly more comedic, Alice Júnior focuses on a trans wannabe influencer, Alice (Anne Celestino), and her perfumer of a father, Jean Genet (Emmanuel Rosset), who move from Recife to a small town in the south of Brazil. Subtlety isn’t Baroni’s aim, which is clear in the film’s social media-like sense of pace and aesthetic bells and whistles, as well as in the obvious trans metaphor built into the narrative premise. Alice and her dad have to move down south because he wants to develop a new fragrance using pine cones local to the region, whose fruit only comes out if the person blowing through the cone has discovered the pine cone’s real essence.
One becomes accustomed to the film’s initially annoying incorporation of social media language into its aesthetic, such as the emojis that pop up on the screen whenever Alice does something or other, because it mirrors the interface through which contemporary teenagers animate everyday life. But Alice Júnior visibly struggles to differentiate itself from a soap opera. The over-the-top acting (the villains speak like Cruella de Vil) is technically in line with Baroni’s animated Insta-grammar, but it becomes a problem when the film tries to tap into something other than its cute flamboyance. The film reaches for pathos only to find tinsel instead.
As fun as Alice Júnior can be, it’s at its core a typical Brazilian kids’ movie, in the vein of on-the-nose fare about enjoying life but not doing drugs that Brazilian megastar Xuxa put out in the 1980s and ‘90s, except queered by its trans protagonist and the visual language of the times. It wears its pedagogical message on its sleeve but is betrayed by a lack of substance. Alice is at once a naïve little girl yearning for her first kiss from a boy and a queer activist with an arsenal of didactic one-liners at the ready. This means some of the plot doesn’t feel credible, as Alice masters LGBTQ resistance discourse perfectly in her interactions both on and offline, but prefers pissing her pants during a class exam, which naturally becomes a viral video, than demanding her right to use the women’s restroom. At times she’s a woke warrior, and at times she’s a helpless little girl.
Alice Júnior only manages to transcend its sparkling surface in a few sequences where it pitches itself at grownups. In one, Jean Genet gets drunk with Marisa (Katia Horn), the kooky mother of one of Alice’s gay classmates, and they start being a little too honest about what they think of their own children. The social media histrionics have nothing to offer in these incredibly entertaining scenes, which finally bring the film closer to Starrbooty than Clueless. These moments are fabulous precisely because they’re unfiltered—queer in attitude, not in wardrobe. Jean Genet and Marisa don’t toast to their kids because they’re decent human beings fighting heterosexual patriarchy, but for being the “devilish bitch” and “dirty-mouthed trans” that they are.
NewFest runs from October 16—27.
The 15 Best Smashing Pumpkins Songs
The Pumpkins have transcended any one moment or movement, instead reveling in the entire tessellation of 20th-century art.
As Greg Kot of Guitar World once quipped, “the [Smashing] Pumpkins remain an island unto themselves.” That was in 2001, when the band had spent a decade carving out an impressive art-rock niche, and long after a shortsighted music press had once smacked them with unenviable and laughably off-base label of “the next Nirvana.” But even to this day, the two bands are often clumped together as vanguards of the scathing, grungy brand of alternative rock that defined the early ‘90s. And yet, there’s little doubt that the group is much more than some also-ran grunge outfit chasing Kurt Cobain’s shadow. Indeed, with 11 studio albums and dozens of EPs, compilations, and soundtrack contributions, Billy Corgan and company have proved to be expert evocateurs, stitching together their melodic pastiche from a diverse litany of musical, literary, and visual sources. Armed with a mosaic sound that includes hat-tips to glam rock, art nouveau, psychedelia, goth, vaudeville, new wave, and Victorian romanticism, the Pumpkins have transcended any one moment or movement, instead reveling in the entire tessellation of 20th-century art.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article was published on July 21, 2013.
15. “Knights of Malta”
The sweeping opening track of 2018’s Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1/LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun bears the hallmarks of vintage Pumpkins: Bill Corgan’s melodic whine, Jimmy Chamberlin’s formidable drumming, and the intricate layers of guitar courtesy of Corgan, original guitarist James Iha, and Iha’s one-time replacement Jeff Schroeder. Everything about the song feels grand and triumphal—right down to the lyrics, in which Corgan sings, “I’m gonna fly forever/We’re gonna ride the rainbow,” as if he’s approaching the gates of rock n’ roll Valhalla.
14. “Set the Ray to Jerry”
As complex as the band’s arrangements and conceits often are, the Pumpkins frequently hit paydirt when relying on Corgan’s ear for crafting simple melodies. “Set the Ray to Jerry” is that principle in practice, as a two-note guitar riff and constantly rumbling snares come together with Corgan’s plain, passionate declaratives (“I want you” and “I need you”) to form a lucid, seductive nighttime jam.
13. “For Martha”
Corgan’s mother inspired plenty of animus throughout the Pumpkins’ catalogue, but none quite as conflicted and harrowing as the kind that fills the song sharing her name. Inspired by her passing, “For Martha” is an eight-minute dirge of gothic piano that bursts into a wave of crying, razor-edged guitars at its halfway point. At the height of it all, Corgan finally delivers his raw, teary-eyed eulogy: “Long horses we are born/Creatures more than torn/Mourning our way home.”
The riffs on “Tristessa” are some of the most efficient the Pumpkins have ever crafted. With four simple notes, Corgan and fellow guitarist James Iha lay down a bouncing, whiplash guitar hook that’s strong enough to carry the song through its shattering conclusion, proving along the way that the band had two other weapons in their arsenal besides panache: power and rhythm.
Serving as a kind of thematic unifier for David Lynch’s Lost Highway soundtrack, “Eye” was Pumpkins fans’ first taste of the band’s post-alternative offerings, where the remnants of their baroque, neo-Victorian rock tastes met Corgan’s new obsession with Pro Tools. While that formula would meet with mixed success on the subsequent Adore, “Eye” remains a sublime slice of electro-goth, pairing Corgan’s understated performance with a litany of chilling instrumentation—not to mention the wonderful angularity of that crisp drumline.
In which the Pumpkins conclusively prove that great art comes from great pain. Purportedly on the verge of suicide, a desperate, perhaps somewhat deranged Corgan penned “Today,” a facetious, goodbye-cruel-world lullaby that, when draped in the band’s trademark cloak of mellow fuzz, becomes a triumphant middle finger to the crippling effects of depression.
There are many points on their 1991 debut, Gish, where the Pumpkins seem caught between their early metal influences (Black Sabbath, Judas Priest) and the art-rock band they ultimately aspired to be, but “Snail” isn’t one of them. The track is perhaps the most obvious foreshadowing of the ambitious plans Corgan had for his group: sweeping, unapologetically romantic, and cinematically paced, its verse, bridge, and chorus structured in such a way so that the ultimate catharsis—in this case, a climbing sub-melody full of unbridled optimism—comes bursting through quite dramatically in its final minute.
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