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The 25 Best Albums of 2019

The more borders you cross, the more potential for discovery—and 2019, as eclectic a year as any, has demonstrated that.

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Lana Del Rey
Photo: Slate PR

U.F.O.F.

20. Big Thief, U.F.O.F.

The first of two stellar albums Big Thief released this year, U.F.O.F. is less immediate and rhythmic than the subsequent Two Hands. It’s all ambience and texture, unfolding like a reverie, with chiming acoustic guitar arpeggios and cooing melodies so natural and easy that they sound like they sprung up from the ground or out of the trees. Singer-songwriter Adrienne Lenker’s songs don’t so much progress as they circle mesmerizingly around themselves, and the best of them—“Cattails,” “Century,” “From”—seize on sing-songy melodic motifs with repetitious snake-like structures that become almost like mantras. Lenker and Buck Meek’s guitar work is sparkling throughout, with every pluck and strum sounding sonically optimized. This is an album as difficult to categorize as it is easy to listen to. Winograd


How Do You Love?

19. The Regrettes, How Do You Love?

Despite the challenges of finding something original to say about romance, the Regrettes’s How Do You Love? harnesses the band’s infectious enthusiasm for their material to make the familiar sound new again. Though it’s not driven by a cohesive narrative per se, their second album is conceptually orientated around the birth, growth, and collapse of a relationship, charting a romance as it moves from the first stirrings of love to its painful dissolution. By the closing title track, a rave-up with a shout-along chorus, singer-guitarist Lydia Night has been through the darkness and come out the other side. The message seems to be that love is difficult, but not impossible, and the rewards are sublime. Throughout, these songs depict human connection in all its messy glory, making the case that the glory is worth the mess. Wilson


Titanic Rising

18. Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising

On her fourth album as Weyes Blood, Natalie Mering bathes 21st-century dystopia in the ineffable glow of purpose and hope. Mering’s music feels familiar, as her soundscapes boast grandiose strings and rousing piano redolent of ‘60s baroque pop and her stoic contralto brings to mind the great Karen Carpenter. In spite of its pop nostalgia, Titanic Rising possesses an anxious undercurrent. Mering discerns how the postmodern age tarnishes precious values, from online dating’s commodification of love to the trivialization of the planet’s welfare as a partisan quarrel. “Everyone’s broken now and no one knows just how/We could have all gotten so far from truth,” she laments at the breathtaking climax of “Wild Time.” But even when staring down the chaos of our world, Merling refuses to cower in her smallness and instead revels in the miracle of existing in the precarious and fleeting present. “Don’t cry, it’s a wild time to be alive,” she advises, bravely marveling in the spectacle of the here and now. Sophia Ordaz


Help Us Stranger

17. The Raconteurs, Help Us Stranger

The Raconteurs were initially billed as an outlet for Jack White to step outside of the self-imposed sandbox of the White Stripes. But coming after a period during which White’s work—as both a solo artist and with the Dead Weather—has become increasingly untethered from his original no-frills ethos, the Raconteurs’s first album in 11 years, Help Us Stranger, feels like a robust return to form for the musician. But the Raconteurs shouldn’t just be viewed through a White-centric prism. There’s no better contemporary rock example of two halves of a songwriting duo, like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, uncannily counterbalancing the other’s strengths and weaknesses than White and singer-songwriter Brendan Benson. Almost every track here is another example of one that would never have reached the same heights without the contributions of each band member. Winograd


Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3

16. Todd Snider, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3

If Brad Paisley’s American Saturday Night is the definitive statement from conscious white America on the aspirational progressivism that greeted the Obama years, Todd Snider’s Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 is a comprehensive assessment of wherever we’re at in the Trump presidency. Snider shows just how long the writing’s been on the wall with a dozen mostly beleaguered-sounding acoustic songs whose magic trick is to seem tossed off, when they’re actually rigorous and literary. The pared-down arrangements intensify a never-unearned focus on lyrics: Snider starts one of his signature story-songs with “Well, come gather around and I’ll sing you a song of a crazy old world that was coming along/Until some fool made the decision to turn on the television” before threading the needle from Neil Armstrong to MTV and The Apprentice. And since Snider understands that only entertainers’ messages reach the masses, he invests the album with a wry sense of humor and makes room for a few earnest, impeccably tuneful sing-alongs. The showstopper is “Watering Flowers in the Rain,” about a roadie who says he used to work with Elvis, until things took a turn: “Nobody ever believes a word I tell ‘em.” It’s an ode to the sad guy with a rambling story who may have something true to tell you. Mac

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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.

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Smashing Pumpkins
Photo: Virgin Records

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.”

12. “Tristessa”

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.

11. “Eye”

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.

10. “Today”

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.

9. “Snail”

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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Interview: Garrett Bradley on Exploring Human Dimensionality in Time

Bradley discusses how the forces of collaboration and intuition inform her filmmaking process.

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Garrett Bradley
Photo: Amazon Studios

Garrett Bradley’s films assume grand proportions through their sweeping titles: America, Alone, Like, and, now, Time. Her work expands our notions of concepts and institutions central to contemporary life by interrogating the audiovisual imprints that define them in the public consciousness. These explorations expand the meaning of their thematic subjects by injecting Bradley’s deeply intentional imagery into the conversation.

The filmmaker’s latest, Time, is as much about the ineffable passage of its titular concept as it is about the cruel duration of a prison sentence. Through a delicately woven tapestry of decades-old home videos shot by self-proclaimed “abolitionist” Fox Rich over the years while her husband, Robert, was in prison and more recent footage shot by Bradley and her crew, the film captures time in all of its contradictions. When cut between commonplace scenes of Fox interfacing with the bureaucratic maze of the carceral state, the rushes of her past feel both tantalizingly close and also impossible to reclaim—all while her future with Robert appears indeterminate. Bradley’s frequent deployment of stirring piano solos by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou may give Time the aura of a fairy tale as Fox faces down a seemingly insurmountable system of oppression in the name of love, yet the film never loses grounding in the everyday realities and inhumanities made normal by mass incarceration.

I spoke to Bradley shortly before Time became available worldwide on Amazon Prime. Our conversation covered what the documentary might have looked like without Fox Rich’s video archives, why she didn’t feel the need to explain racism in the film, as well as how the forces of collaboration and intuition inform her filmmaking process.

I’m blown away that such a central component of the film, Fox Rich’s personal video archives, weren’t baked in from the beginning. When she gave you that archive on the last day of filming, was it a matter of her fully trusting you? Had she forgotten they existed? Did it just dawn on her that they might make a great addition to the film?

I had no idea. When you’re working with someone so closely for a period of time, it presents all sorts of interesting emotions and challenges. At least from a filmmaker’s perspective, you’ve got all sorts of reasons why, eventually, you have to walk away from production. What I can say is it was, to my knowledge, the last day of shooting. It was in the evening, and I just remember saying to her, “I’m going to come back and show you a cut.” She was on the phone with Robert, and I remember her saying, “Hold on a second, let me get you something.” She handed me this bag of all of these mini DV tapes that ended up being about 100 hours of footage. She had not seen or looked at that footage since she shot it. I remember getting in the car, shipping it out to get transcoded and being so incredibly nervous about the fact that there were no backups for it. It was a real testament to her to her trust. But why, at that moment, I can’t say.

Without these tapes that so poetically give us a glimpse into Fox’s own history, would your film really have been Time? I can imagine it’s tough to speak to a project that was never realized, but what form and shape would your film have taken without them?

When I initially started shooting, my intention was twofold. One was to think about this film, which I was conceiving as another 13-minute Op-Docs short, as an extension of Alone, a sister film to this other film that had already come out. The intention behind that was to say, “How can I extend the conversation around incarceration, from a sort of black feminist point of view, from a familial point of view? From a point of view that that illuminates the effects of the facts.” Fox is, actually, briefly in Alone. I met her in the process of making it. And she’s a very different person than Aloné [Watts] and was navigating the system in a very different way. She was 18 years into the process of navigating the system, whereas Aloné was in the very beginning stages of that. I think, at that point, my head was really about, again, extending the conversation in a way that showed the diversification of experience within the same issue.

But then also, uniquely to Fox’s own story, I really focused in on her daily life as a way of saying if there’s anything that I’m able to illustrate in this film, if I have to stop shooting tomorrow, it’s to show how deeply embedded the system puts itself in daily life. There’s no separation between your work life, your personal life, your home life, your relationship with your children, your mother, yourself, your partner. There’s no separation between that and the system. It really unequivocally embeds itself into every element of your day.

That was my initial intention, and a lot of the footage was there. Part of the challenge in the edit when looking at it was, wow, this actually feels really two-dimensional. It feels like we have no way of my proving as a filmmaker what I knew, which was the holistic nature of who we are as human beings. We are 360-degree beings. We have context, we have history, we have experience that informs how we maneuver the present moment. How do I show that? That’s ultimately the challenge of making films, you can only tell stories and say things one frame at a time, from one dimension. I think that the film would have focused in on one element of life. It would have been very different, that’s for sure.

The film talks about how Fox’s story demonstrates the power of love as a tool of resistance. How do you convey such a radical notion without coming across naïve?

That’s a great question. Basically, it’s like, how do you make something good or bad, right? I have to say, I think in my experience, it’s been making sure that vulnerability and intention are intrinsic parts of the process. Vulnerability on all ends, as a filmmaker, as a collaborator. That there’s trust. I think the bottom line of that and respect are the ingredients of making something that I think can live outside of the opaqueness of what you’re describing.

In everything from the title of your works to the images contained within them, you maintain such a focus on redefining the way we think about giant structures and institutions in our lives. Is this a goal that you consciously set out to achieve when embarking on a new project, or are you discovering the way in which your work interacts with these notions and ideas?

I think it goes back to this idea of the sort of cinematic challenge of trying to allow things to feel as they do in the real world. Context, history, and multiple dimensions are so intrinsic to that. I think the same can be said for the macro and micro experience. That’s what we live in. We have our individual lives, but we’re a part of a larger system. And depending on who we are and how we’re moving through space, that can become oppressively clear or something that one has the privilege to forget. I think I always enter a project first from the personal. I don’t think that’s a rule though. There are other projects that I’m working on or thinking about where I’m coming at it actually from a larger scale first. I think it changes from one project to the next. But you’re right, ultimately, there’s always going to be for me a conversation between the two. The great meaning comes out of the conversation between the two.

Did you feel a need to rescue or shelter Time from the tropes of social realism or the journalistic point of view that normally pervades stories about mass incarceration or the prison-industrial complex?

There were certainly questions in the edit around how literal we wanted it to be, how much we felt the film needed to explain the minutiae of the crime, the trial, the legal system, the sentencing. Myself and Gabe Rhodes, who edited the film, as we were talking through a lot of that, I found myself feeling that to really explain it was also then to try to explain racism in America. And I’m not really sure that the film is particularly obligated to do that. Because it’s for people, and made with people, who inherently understand that and live it every day. And so when we think about obligations around certain forms of explanation, or sort of a literal proof of an explanation of the why, it can also be coded language. This idea of universality becomes coded language for who we’re actually speaking to if a majority of the people in the country are, in one way or another, affected by this issue. So, I didn’t feel that we had to do that.

How did you conceive the film’s coda? There’s something both comforting and tragic in the notion that cinema—and only cinema—can both preserve and reverse time.

I wish I had a profound answer. I struggled with this question a little bit. Because it was really at a point in the editorial process where we were just working off of instinct and emotion. And there was, riffing off of your last question before, just not even needing to have a literal reason for why we ended it the way we did. It just felt right. It felt like we were able to work with the images in a way that directly responded to what the entire film was about without having to say it in any other way. I think for some people, it works. For some people, it doesn’t. I wish I could say something more profound than that, but it was just pure instinct.

So much about this film feels like it was almost fated to come together: discovering Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbro’s music through YouTube algorithms, Fox Rich giving you her archive and transforming the project, the cosmic parallels revealed in the edit between the footage you shot and her videos. Has this transformed the way you think about artistic ownership and authorship at all?

I think my work has always inherently been collaborative. My work always starts with a series of questions, and the answers come out of conversations that are happening with people in my community are what inform a lot of the aesthetic choices. There was another project, for instance, that I was commissioned for the Whitney Biennial 2019, called A.K.A. That was me really having questions about classic American cinema and race relations between women. My instinct was to go to women that I knew and to ask them questions that I myself had, and a lot of their answers literally shaped the scenes, the camerawork, the lenses. I think Time is an extension of that same love I have for working with people.

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The 75 Best Horror Movies of the 21st Century

These are the films from this millennium that have most shocked us by plumbing our deepest primordial terrors.

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The 75 Best Horror Movies of the 21st Century
Photo: Broad Green Pictures

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, to 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. Budd Wilkins

Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 10, 2018.


They Came Back

75. They Came Back (2004)

They Came Back is a triumph of internal horror, and unlike M. Night Shyamalan’s similarly moody freak-out The Sixth Sense, Robin Campillo’s vision of the dead sharing the same space as the living isn’t predicated on a gimmicky reduction of human faith. Campillo is more upfront than Shyamalan—it’s more or less understood that the presence of the living dead in his film is likely metaphoric—and he actually seems willing to plumb the moral oblivion created by the collision of its two worlds. Though the fear that the film’s walking dead can turn violent at any second is completely unjustified, the writer-director allows this paranoia to reflect the feelings of loss, disassociation, and hopelessness that cripple the living. It’s rather amazing how far the film is able to coast on its uniquely fascinating premise, even if it isn’t much of a stretch for its director: Campillo co-authored Laurent Cantet’s incredible Time Out, a different kind of zombie film about the deadening effects of too much work on the human psyche, and They Came Back is almost as impressive in its concern with the existential relationship between the physical and non-physical world. Ed Gonzalez


Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

74. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Jalmari Helander, 2010)

Santa is one bad mamma jamma in Writer-director Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a yuletide fable that’s equal parts sincere, silly, and scary. Helander’s direction is assured in a manner that inspires flattering comparisons: his softly lit scenes of adolescent fear and fantasy, and of father-son estrangement, recall early Spielberg; Pietari’s (Onni Tommila) trinket-adorned room and makeshift alarm clock (involving keys, sweater thread and a basin) resembles Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsies; his compassionate black comedy evokes Joe Dante’s work; and his eerie snowbound setting and premise harkens back to John Carpenter’s The Thing. This last comparison is also apt in terms of aesthetics, as Helander and cinematographer Mika Orasmaa’s widescreen compositions capture a sense of unsettling scale and unseen terror as well as, in domestic sequences, a warmth and intimacy that helps compensate for somewhat sketchy characters. Nick Schager


Monster

73. 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


Cam

72. 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


The House That Jack Built

71. The House That Jack Built (2018)

Like Bob Dylan in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Dont Look Back, Matt Dillon’s serial killer in Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built flashes cue cards to the camera while standing in an alleyway. If Dylan’s narcissism, and Pennebaker’s giddiness to capture it, suggested a cultural turn toward celebrity worship, then Dillon’s psychopath is the bizarre complement. He’s neurotic, self-obsessed, and as devoted to mythologizing his own “body of work” as he is psychologically impenetrable and unknowable. A house built of corpses is both a provocation and an invocation of documentary footage taken from Auschwitz and Katyn. It’s also yet another allusion, this time to Alain Resnais and Dušan Makavejev, who are perhaps the two European filmmakers most devoted to reckoning with manmade catastrophe through montage and the carnivalesque, which are von Trier’s chosen aesthetic modes here. Despite having nothing fashionable in either its politics or its preoccupation with the egotistical artist, The House That Jack Built is one of the most forward-thinking films of 2018 for how it proposes an unruly resurrection of the past, and one’s past self, in order to grapple with its significance. Dillard


The Blackcoat’s Daughter

70. 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


Unsane

69. Unsane (2018)

In 1959, Georges Franju’s masterpiece Head Against the Wall used a man’s confinement at a sanitarium as an analogy for the listlessness of French youth—a generation old enough to remember the degradations and traumas of World War II but now confronted with the promise of a passive, consumer-driven middle-class existence. Steven Soderbergh’s down and dirty Unsane functions in a similar way, using the experience of institutionalization to probe the mores around mental health in a privatization-mad America. Few if any Hollywood-adjacent filmmakers have put as much brain power into making the digital revolution work for them as Soderbergh has, and even Unsane’s most ridiculous moments coast on the sheer energy of aesthetic gamesmanship. Shooting on an iPhone 7, the filmmaker continues finding economical solutions in a pinch. Soderbergh remains a major artist at the peak of his powers, fascinated by the textures of the contemporary world—the actual one, not the one we usually pay to see at the movies. Even if he’s just flexing a new mode of production, the result is still 98 minutes of shredding, analeptic cinema. Steve Macfarlane


Suspiria

68. Suspiria (2018)

Luca Guadagnino knew that a successful remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria would need, at the very least, to take the material in a completely different direction. And he winkingly acknowledges that belief in an early scene from his remake when Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, err, Lutz Ebersdorf) underlines the word “simulacrum” in a notebook. The new Suspiria is, especially in visual terms, anything but a simulacrum, as its palette is more reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Walerian Borowczyk’s films than Argento’s neon-tinged original. Guadagnino’s remake is, above all, a film about the terror that lingers in a European city long after its been blitzed by various catastrophes. Guadagnino uses Argento’s original as a launching pad for interrogating how the old, whether in dance or politics, often corrupts the new. Heady though it is, the film also more than delivers the genre goods. It strikes a delicate aesthetic balance between hysteria and control, most evident in an unforgettable scene in which Susie (Dakota Johnson) dances for Madame Blanc (Swinton), much to the bone-breaking detriment of the Markos Dance Academy’s former star. Dillard


November

67. November (2017)

In André Breton’s writings on surrealism, he envisions, and prescribes, a mode of fairy tale for adults rooted in juxtapositions so poetic and strange that they seem only possible in dreams. Or in the work of Rainer Sarnet, who crafts the uncanniest of fables in November. Based on a novel by Andrus Kivirähk, this gorgeously shot film is an intrepid portrait of an Estonian village inhabited by greedy old men, wise toothless hags, ghostly lovers, and anthropomorphic creatures made out of human hair and metal coils. November respects the logic and temporality of the unconscious. As such, it’s difficult to tell if the story takes place in medieval times or some dystopian future. Its impenetrable storylines take shape like most of its dialogue, bearing the enigmatic sparseness of poetic stanzas or ancient spells. There’s more to be enjoyed if one gets lost in the bewildering rhythm between eerie sounds and the black-and-white imagery, instead of trying to detangle the various strands of the surreal narrative. Diego Semerene


Train to Busan

66. Train to Busan (2016)

When divorced of message-mongering, the film’s scare tactics are among the most distinctive that the zombie canon has ever seen. The zombies here are rabid, fast-moving ghoulies that, as Train to Busan’s protagonists discover, are attracted to loud sounds and only attack what they can actually see. This realization becomes the foundation for a series of taut set pieces during which the story’s motley crew of survivors manipulate their way past zombies with the aid of cellphones and bats and the numerous tunnels through which the train must travel. The genre crosspollination for which so many South Korean thrillers have come to be known for is most evident in these scenes (as in the survivors crawling across one train car’s overhead luggage area), which blend together the tropes of survivor-horror and disaster films, as well as suggest the mechanics of puzzle-platformer games. Gonzalez


In Fabric

65. In Fabric (2019)

Peter Strickland’s films are fetish objects that rue the perils of fetishism. The British filmmaker’s characters are walled off from others, channeling their longing into various acts of aestheticism, which parallels his own obsession with emulating the stylistics of the giallo, softcore pornography, and classic European chamber dramas. In Fabric finds Strickland doubling down on these qualities, mounting a gorgeous and lonely horror film that expresses emotion via a series of increasingly abstract motifs. Strickland allows his dreamy atmosphere to take over the film, as the characters are eaten alive by their hungers and uncertainties, though this free-floating reverie has a moralistic streak. Bowen


28 Weeks Later

64. 28 Weeks Later (2007)

28 Weeks Later rolls in like a poisonous dust cloud of nihilism. The everyman hero this time around is Don (Robert Carlyle), who thinks he and his wife (Catherine McCormack) are safe in their wee rural cottage when the rage virus transforms most of mainland Britain into shrieking, blood-vomiting zombies that sprint head-on at their victims. 28 Days Later is a tough and uncompromising horror film, but it’s all sunshine and laughter in comparison to the sequel. The thesis of 28 Weeks Later is that the War on Terror is ultimately a self-destructive one for all concerned, from the bullying authority figures to the demoralized combat soldiers to the fractured family units. Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo seems to place his empathy with the recently infected. Much like Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there’s an understanding for what it means to be human—and the magic that is lost when that humanity is stripped away. Jeremiah Kipp


1922

63. 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


Them

62. Them (2006)

Hoody-clad sadists attack a couple, alone in their country home. That’s all the setup that co-writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud need to dredge up some uniquely discomfiting chills. You won’t be able to shake Them is primarily set in seems to grow bigger with each new hole the film’s villains tear out of. To get the maximum effect, be sure to watch this one at night; just don’t watch it alone. Simon Abrams


Black Death

61. Black Death (2010)

Grim aesthetics and an even grimmer worldview define Black Death, in which ardent piousness and defiant paganism both prove paths toward violence, hypocrisy, and hell. Christopher Smith’s 14th-century period piece exudes an oppressive sense of physical, spiritual, and atmospheric weight, with grimy doom hanging in the air like the fog enshrouding its dense forests. His story concerns a gang of thugs, torturers, and killers led by Ulric (Sean Bean), a devout soldier commissioned by the church to visit the lone, remote town in the land not afflicted by a fatal pestilence, where it’s suspected a necromancer is raising the dead. Dario Poloni’s austere script charts the crew’s journey into a misty netherworld where the viciousness of man seems constantly matched by divine cruelty, even as the role of God’s hand—in the pestilence, and in the personal affairs of individuals—remains throughout tantalizingly oblique. Schager


The Neon Demon

60. The Neon Demon (2016)

Nicolas Winding Refn puts his monogram on his film’s title card. So did D.W. Griffith. The Neon Demon is about narcissism as a form of artistry and, girl, is it ever. Boasting color that would make Mario Bava blush and proffering hilariously conceited exchanges that oscillate between farce and bone-dry awkwardness, each successive scene loudly announces Refn’s turn of the screw. Refn finds the fabric of hidden cultural demons, and not the sorts of spirits that can be dismissed by an exorcist. Check the wallpaper behind Gigi (Bella Heathcote) after she barfs up an eyeball; it’s covered in swastikas. The appropriative and racist legacies of Los Angeles and Europe find women as only food or sex while in the crosshairs of these wide-eyed, well-dressed hounds. The lure of lights, the bass of electro, the will to power, the kino eye—what hath this delight in pleasure and knowledge wrought? Dillard


The Hole in the Ground

59. The Hole in the Ground (2019)

Quite a bit of the fun of The Hole in the Ground resides in guessing how Lee Cronin’s shopworn signifiers fit together, as he offers a smorgasbord of portentous elements that include a crone by the roadside, the aforementioned hole and the woods, a pointed reference to Sarah’s (Seána Kerslake) medication, and Chris’s (James Quinn Markey) newfound sense of inhuman formality. There’s also, of course, a past atrocity that haunts Sarah and Chris’s new residence. Yet the film gradually becomes something more than a mixtape of horror gimmicks, as it homes in on a frightening real-world subtext. Chris’s changing behaviors, which include chillingly crawling on the floor of his room like an animal and eating a large spider, are rooted in the distance that comes between Sarah and Chris after they leave Sarah’s abusive husband. There’s an unspoken sense that Sarah’s arising revulsion with her son may be rooted in how he reminds her of his father, and there’s a particularly moving scene where we see Sarah’s disgust with Chris as he eats spaghetti, which Cronin frames in a cruelly unflattering close-up. Bowen


Neighboring Sounds

58. Neighboring Sounds (2012)

Of course this upstairs-downstairs portraiture plays out with the tenor of horror. The class war is an inexhaustible source of terror—particular here, in Recife, Brazil, an affluent coastal town whose middle-class comforts are quite literally built up and around its history of poverty and oppression. Less social critique than abstract deconstruction, Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Neighboring Sounds is very much about the power of the cinema not to deliver, but to portend, and to that end its gears are always turning. Its sublime sound design, emerging at the intersection of ambient noise and musique concrete, offers a case study for how to suggest the existence of horrors we never see. Filho understands that an atmosphere of palpable dread sustains tension better than more sensational explication, and his commitment to withholding is, without exaggeration, worthy of Hitchcock. That it more or less forgoes the spectacle of an anticipated resolution is a necessary consequence of its methods; in other words, for Filho, process rather than payoff is the point. As Recife’s idle rich flaunt their privilege as lowly laborers circle them like sharks, conflict seems a guarantee. But the bubble of complacency in which these characters live doesn’t need to be punctured by violence. The status quo is damning enough. Calum Marsh


The Invitation

57. 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


Mulholland Drive

56. Mulholland Drive (2001)

David Lynch’s meta noir Mulholland Drive literalizes the theory of surrealism as perpetual dream state. Told as it is using a highly symbolic, ravishingly engorged language of dreams, this bloody valentine to Los Angeles naturally leaves one feeling groggy, confused, looking forward and back, hankering to pass again through its serpentine, slithery hall of mirrors until all its secrets have been unpacked. Whether Mulholland Drive anticipated the YouTube Age we live in (and which Inland Empire’s digital punk poetics perfectly embody) is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that this movie-movie will continue to haunt us long after Lynch has moved on to shooting pictures using the tools of whatever new film medium awaits us—tools that he will no doubt have helped to revolutionize. Gonzalez


Hereditary

55. Hereditary (2018)

The first half of Hereditary establishes Annie’s (Toni Collette) grief and decades-long mental illness to set up the arrival of Joan (Ann Dowd), a Caligari-like figure who preys upon Annie’s vulnerability. Although Joan seems like an honest and empathetic woman, she’s actually a deceitful minion of Paimon, an avaricious king whom Annie accidentally helps to conjure from the dead. Hereditary is chock-full of citations to other classic horror films (most notably Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining) that take as their themes the manipulation of women as mothers and wives. When Annie, deep in the haze of misbegotten conviction, tells her son, “I’m the only one who can fix this,” she’s trying to rectify the sense of maternal guilt she feels for her daughter’s death. She’s also invoking Donald Trump’s claim from a July 2016 rally, when he said in reference to law and order: “I alone can fix it.” Fallen prey to the circumstances of her own deception, Annie speaks the self-defeating logic inherited from her manipulator. Dillard


Sinister

54. Sinister (2012)

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Marsh


Maniac

53. Maniac (2012)

Made in collaboration with Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, and with the sort of fearless artistic freedom often allowed by European financing, Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac begins with a psychopath’s synth-tastically scored stalking of a party girl back to her apartment, outside which he cuts her frightened scream short by driving a knife up into her head through her jaw. The film deceptively delights in capturing the mood of an exploitation cheapie before latching onto and running with the conceit only halfheartedly employed by William Lustig in the 1980 original, framing the titular maniac’s killing spree—this time set in Los Angeles—almost entirely from his point of view. A gimmick, yes, but more than just a means of superficially keying us into the psyche of the main character, Frank, an antique mannequin salesman played memorably by a minimally seen Elijah Wood. As in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, this approach becomes a provocative means of sympathizing with the devil. Gonzalez


Depraved

52. Depraved (2019)

What does a Frankenstein figure look like in 2019? According to Larry Fessenden’s Depraved, he’s a guy with war-addled, once-noble intentions set adrift by male ego and shady benefactors. He’s a white man grasping for control in a world coming apart, a cog in a machine who hasn’t broken free so much as changed the machine’s function—from that of war to that of the pharmaceutical industry. The film, Fessenden’s first feature as both writer and director since 2006’s The Last Winter, paints multiple psychological portraits that are sad, angry, and strangely beautiful. It shows us the mind of not just PTSD-afflicted field surgeon Henry (David Call), but also that of his prototypical sewn-together “monster,” Adam (Alex Breaux), and his assistant and Big Pharma bankroller, Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Throughout, the film it remains firmly focused on its thesis of Frankenstein as a lens for examining modern society. Fessenden catalogues what personalities and power dynamics have shifted and what hasn’t changed at all. He diagnoses the rot of our era through these solipsistic men that pour their prejudices and their insecurities into Adam, an open book eventually read back to its authors with a violence they cultivated themselves. Steven Scaife


Us

51. Us (2019)

Jordan Peele’s Us suggests C.H.U.D. for the Trump era. Even though it’s not as tidily satisfying as Get Out, it’s both darker and more ambitious, and broader in its themes. This film’s African-American characters also come under assault not in the inner cities of the white imagination, but in supposedly safer upper-class suburban spaces. But Us also moves past such racial themes. The shadow vengeance meted upon the Wilsons is in fact a plague, and it’s one that touches every family in Peele’s film. In Us, Peele is less concerned with blackness than he is economics, as the howling, homicidal doubles that torment the Wilsons represent an avenging under class. “What are you people?” Gabe (Winston Duke) asks when the terror begins. “We’re Americans!” his wife’s double (Lupita Nyong’o) hisses. It’s tempting to read these Americans as the embittered Trump base, rising up to destroy the false idyll that was the comfort—for some, at least—of the American status quo. Henry Stewart

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Interview: Cooper Raiff Talks Shithouse, Nostalgia, and Being There for Others

The filmmaker discusses how Shithouse reflects the specifics of a certain life experience.

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Interview: Cooper Raiff Talks Shithouse, Nostalgia, and Being There for Others
Photo: IFC Films

“Bet you won’t click on this link and then email me,” read the tweet from college student Cooper Raiff to indie film maven Jay Duplass that began the journey of Shithouse. Raiff had directed and shot a film about a homesick freshman and a savvy RA called Madeline & Cooper over spring break with $300, two friends, and stolen equipment from his college. Duplass responded, both emotionally to the film and literally to the message, and helped mentor as well as support Raiff through making a more professionalized iteration of the film linked to in the fateful tweet. That new film, Shithouse, won Raiff the grand jury prize at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival at just 23 years old.

Tempting as it might be to ascribe a master plan to Raiff’s rise, the Shithouse multihyphenate—actor, writer, director, editor—evinces no evidence of being a calculating wunderkind. Raiff remains as affable and easygoing as his film, a leisurely but lofty college-set tale of two young people coming to terms with the personal baggage that weighs on them. Madeline and Cooper from the original scrappy feature become Maggie (Dylan Gelula) and Alex (Raiff), who navigate similar emotional terrain but within a larger personal and social framework that encompasses fellow students as well as Alex’s family at home in Dallas.

Shithouse recalls the best of Richard Linklater, not only because Raiff already proves his adeptness at mastering the director’s trademark “walk and talk” two-shots. He also shares an appreciation the unique window provided by the collegiate experience to focus on self-actualization. Raiff’s film recognizes the ability for extended conversations to soften characters’ emotional guards and expose real vulnerabilities, and it’s all conveyed with a distinctively Texan sense of casualness and compassion.

I spoke with Raiff over Zoom the week prior to Shithouse opening in select theaters and on demand, a scale of release that thrilled him but by no means felt inevitable. Our wide-ranging conversation covered why he doesn’t think about cinematography when envisioning a film, how writing makes him a better person, and where he wishes he’d been more precious in editing his personal but not autobiographical character. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to start our time by raising a personal connection: Raiff and I both attended small high schools in Texas that played against each other in the same athletic conference. Recognizing that bit of shared kinship led to Raiff revealing a number of ways in which Shithouse reflects the specifics of a certain life experience in addition to the story’s broader applicability.

Alex in the movie is wearing a Greenhill Wolves sweatshirt. But if I recall, the real Greenhill is the Hornets. I’m betting that Greenhill didn’t lend you the mascot?

No, I just wanted to have the stuffed wolf. I had this thing where I wanted it to be Alex’s dad, but for it to be a wolf dad. I really cared about it being a wolf, but it’s really funny because a lot of people think it’s a dog, so it doesn’t even matter. I also wanted it to tie back to high school. I wanted it to have that mascot. I think, at the end of day, I could’ve gotten permission, but I didn’t have the time to ask. I made a sweatshirt instead and made it so that if I said something…there’s actually a scene where I talk about Greenhill, and not that I shit on it. I say really nice things about it, but I just didn’t want any kind of legal thing to get in the way.

In terms of developing a passion for film or movies. I’ve heard you say that you don’t consider yourself a filmmaker. If watching movies wasn’t pushing you into making them, how were they acting on you and influencing you?

When I was directing for the first time, I realized just how deep into my bones movies are. I don’t watch a ton of them. I’ll also turn a lot of them off because I just know when one isn’t going to land with me. But when they do, I can’t stop thinking about them. It wasn’t a stretch to figure out how I was going to film Shithouse, because even if I direct a ton of movies moving forward, I like coming from this place of always just caring about these characters and themes that are coming from these characters. Where I come from is always: I’m obsessed with these two people, and I want to write scenes where these two people are gonna have the most fun. At the end of the day, the most important things to me are what their personalities say about life. The way that Maggie and Alex are such perfect foils for each other, I think, says something pretty universal about the way that two different people look at the way we relate to each other and our interconnectedness.

At what point did you did you know that the story that you were working on would have resonance for other people?

Like, a couple months after SXSW when more people started watching it. I think I knew that it was universal, but I didn’t know if I communicated that well enough. You never know until people see it. But I knew that I would love it. I knew that my family members and my ex-girlfriends would love it. On set, being in the scenes and watching Dylan play Maggie, I just knew that all the scenes were working so well, and it had the magic that I wanted. It felt special in the way that I wanted it to feel special. I knew that I was going to always love the movie. But it’s so small and quiet, so I didn’t know how many people were gonna really meet it. Because, and here’s the thing: Shithouse requires you to meet it where it is. It’s a movie that you have to really go there for it in a way. Most great movies are just there, like you don’t have to work hard to immerse yourself in it. And Shithouse is very comfortable with not being seen by a lot of people, it just comes across that way. I think it’s been so nice hearing that more than 10 people went there, enjoyed it and felt it the whole way through.

Interview: Cooper Raiff Talks Shithouse, Nostalgia, and Being There for Others

Dylan Gelula and Cooper Raiff in Shithouse. © IFC Films

As someone who’s not all that different from Alex, I didn’t feel like I had to travel far. It was very much kind of like, “How dare you make this biopic of my life freshman year?”

Yeah, but even then, because Alex is such a specific character that I didn’t know how relatable he would be. Because Alex is myself stripped away a ton. I have, way deep down, this really huge, massive caring bone in my body. I just want to love and like taking care of people. I think realizing that people are relating to that part of Alex is awesome, and it feels really cool.

Are you someone who needs to parse the events of your life through art, writing, or creating something to feel some sense of closure or finality in the experiencing of it?

No, I never thought of this movie as cathartic while writing it. Honestly, when I was acting in it, it was pretty cathartic because there were certain scenes where I had never really gone there. I don’t think of my writing as therapy in that way. But I will say that as a writer—I think I realized this recently because I’ve been writing a ton again—it does make me a better person. Naturally, obviously, because it’s about trying to understand and have empathy for people. I don’t go to a script saying, “I have to figure this shit out.” But I am realizing that it does inform my life in the biggest way, where I didn’t think that before. I thought it was just something that I was doing and meant a lot to me, but it was a separate thing. I think it really informs who I am because I’m spending all day just thinking about other people and getting their interior lives. I think that’s who I am is someone who just moves about that way.

How did movies both prepare and fail you for college? Movies set at school, and college in particular, don’t really make a ton of space for stories like this about someone who’s feeling very alone and isolated.

I haven’t really seen a lot of college movies, honestly, but I’ve seen many movies that do little scenes from college. It’s always just written from a place of nostalgia. I think writers see college as a playground for them to write whatever they want. But, for me, when I knew I was gonna make a movie about college, there was really only one thing that I could write about, and it was the pain of leaving home and growing up. Just the fact that no one prepares you for how hard it is to fall asleep that first night under a new ceiling. Also, the pain of your parents dropping you off and driving away and leaving you there, it’s just horrendous.

But I think movies always fail people because they’re trying to be good instead of trying to say something. I’m not even saying entertaining, because I want everything to be entertaining, but I wanted to communicate something while being as watchable and entertaining as possible.

Even though the film feels very loose, it’s my understanding that Shithouse is highly scripted. How do you write for college students? Because, on the one hand, sometimes the way they talk seems very on the nose. But, then again, they’re all kind of taking their cues from movies or the idea of what it means to be in college.

Yeah, I totally agree with that. So, Alex is very much based on me, Maggie’s very much based on someone I’m with right now. Her name is Madeline, and the movie’s based on our relationship, so I know exactly how she talks. I know exactly what she’s gonna say, always. My mom, even more so. The roommate was a combination of every single guy friendship that I’ve ever had. I just picture them talking. I write a lot of like’s, and I write a lot of um’s. But with the script, I always tell the actors that they can rewrite whatever they want to rewrite. I never want something to sound false or feel uncomfortable coming out of their mouth. I don’t say, “You have to say the like right here, or you have to say the um right here,” but the like’s and the um’s in a line will just signal to the actor that it’s not as well thought out. He doesn’t exactly know what he’s saying here. That’s why there’s a lot of like’s and um’s. I always want my actors to know that I’m not precious about any of the lines or anything. I just wanted to get across that there’s gonna probably be some like’s and um’s in this one this big line.

As actor, director, and editor of Shithouse, how do you keep yourself from getting too precious in your performance? I was recently talking with Kirsten Johnson, the director who did Cameraperson and Dick Johnson Is Dead

[eyes light up] I am obsessed! If you look on my Facebook page, a still from Cameraperson is my cover photo. I’m obsessed with that movie.

So good! She mentioned an exercise she does with her students at NYU. She will have them film each other talking about their fears about their thesis project and then edit both themselves and the other person in the conversation. She said, inevitably, that the edit of the other person is so much more interesting because they can just see something in these little moments. The version of themselves they present is so sanitized or watered down that they become boring. I caught so many little moments of Alex in Shithouse that made me think you really didn’t fall into that same trap.

It’s really tricky because I think there’s a story that the character is so close to me, but it’s really not. I don’t feel like Alex at all. I mean, obviously, that’s a slippery slope. I did have another editor who came on to make sure I was seeing everything. But so many people have talked about not having another perspective. And because I think there’s this thing where people think there’s four different movies: the movie that’s written, the movie that’s on the set, the edited movie, and the movie that the audience receives. And I think being in charge of all the things really collapsed it in a way that I really liked. Even with the editor, I wasn’t just coming in and saying, “Hey, do whatever you want.” I was trying to communicate, “Hey, this is exactly what I want. I want you to help me out with getting this certain thing and this certain quality.” It didn’t feel like the barrier that I think a lot of people think it was.

To answer that specific question about not being precious with the character, I always did feel like I was acting as Alex. If I could go back, I think I probably would have been more precious. Just the response that people are giving, it seems like they just think it’s me. If I had known that’s what would have happened…I just didn’t think this movie would have a big audience at all. And not that it does, but I thought it was just going to be my friends and family who all know that I’m certainly not so much like Alex. But experiencing so many people kind of even just talking about it in terms of “this is the filmmaker,” it’s like, “No, I’m not writing emotional propaganda!” I did write a character, and I drew upon my life in a major way as everyone does writing something personal and original. But I wasn’t precious with it at all.

Throughout Shithouse, a lot of the characters opine about the nature and meaning of college. I don’t want to assume that the characters speak for you, but did thinking through these questions give you any clarity on the questions?

Yeah, I mean, I still don’t really know what the thesis of college is, but I know the arguments. I think what I wanted to say about college was that it’s the first time for me without a safety net. I was so dependent on my family members, and they were so rock solid that I got to college and felt like I was without oxygen for the first time. And then you have Maggie, who’s been without a safety net for a long time. That’s just how she was raised. I think that’s why she’s crushing college. But I think what I wanted to say was that going to your second home, it’s kind of the most selfish time of your life. You’re really trying to figure out who you are separate from the home that you were raised in for so long.

But the other thing I wanted to say is, yes, I think we should be looking out for each other, and I talk about that so much in Shithouse. I hope people get that in order to take care of people and look out for each other, you have to first take care of yourself. Figure out your shit, make your bed, take responsibility for your actions in a way that you’re moving or not moving. I think Maggie’s line is, “Just because your life’s shitty doesn’t mean you can make other people feel like their life is shitty.” Alex is so harsh about the way that people are just trying to survive because he’s not doing a good job of surviving. But he thinks, “Oh, everyone should be having this hard time, you just need me to help you out.” Where it’s like, “No, no, I don’t need you.” But then there’s like that whole thing where, yeah, you do. You can’t not depend on people.

I remember an older friend of mine told me in my first year at school, “I think your biggest problem is that you are over college and you are already a freshman.” But at the same time, I was still 19 and immature. Holding those two thoughts in your head about how equipped you are to handle the experience is definitely challenging, and I think it is a very unique struggle that Alex goes through.

Have you seen the movie Liberal Arts?

I have, but it’s been a long time.

There’s a line in there where [Elizabeth Olsen’s character] is talking about how she can see herself in the future, and she feels like a rough draft version of herself. But she has the wisdom to know that she’s not there. You just have to live through certain things and experience certain things—and also experience certain pains—in order to get there. I think the people that don’t have that wisdom, it’s not a bad thing. They’re just turning on that part of their brain because sometimes it’s not useful to have that knowledge too soon. That’s Alex, and I think a lot of people probably deal with that. But they choose to drink instead.

You’re having such a strange version of the rising star director narrative: Your debut feature wins SXSW but you never get to experience the film play before that crowd, you do the “water bottle” tour of Hollywood, but it’s all over Zoom. Where does that leave your mental state and how you want to move forward making something else?

I was just talking about this. I’ve had a lot of Zoom meetings. I’m young and don’t know anything, so I’m not good at not doing the scrappy, singular thing. I’m having these Zoom meetings with [people asking] like, “What do you want to do?” I have these ideas, and I have literally scripts where I’m like, “Here’s what I want to do.” The reaction is always, “That’s small.” And I’m like, “Yeah, it’s small!” I don’t think I’ll make a big leap after this at all. I’ll probably do a very similar thing. But in terms of the Zoom thing, it’s been really nice because I don’t have to drive in a car to go all these places.

It’s just weird to be in a lot of interviews or Zooms where people are asking you to talk about yourself for so long. I hope to God I’ll never stop thinking about how weird it is. Like, no wonder people get so self-absorbed because all it is is me talking about myself. I’m trying to keep telling myself that. It sucks that it didn’t premiere at SXSW, but I wasn’t expecting much. I’ve never been to a film festival, and I didn’t have all these dreams and hopes for it. So when it got cancelled, it was kind of like, “Oh.” But everyone’s response to it getting canceled was so nice, and people really wrapped their arms around the movies in such a kind way.

When I saw your background when reading about Shithouse, I thought the odds were low that you’d be able to talk to someone on a press tour who’d be able to talk about both the film and the specific Texas private school background it comes from.

Yeah, it’s been so nice! The thing is, I’ve just been talking so much about how it’s universal. Everyone leaves home, because not everyone goes to college, but never would I think about someone connecting to the very specific private school to college [journey] and just how special that small school makes you feel. Not special in terms of you’re the one or something, but special in terms of like, we’re just like such a community. I think a good example is if someone’s sitting down crying at Greenhill, no matter what, in five seconds tops someone would be over there making sure they’re okay. But if you go to college, even Occidental, and someone’s crying, no one is going over to say [something]. It’s just understood that people are going through their exorcisms, and you leave them alone. And with Greenhill, I think there was this constant sense of like, no, I need to be there for my fellow peer or my fellow students.

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Starring Joan Crawford on the Criterion Channel

The myth of Joan Crawford’s life and career is inseparable from what she did on screen.

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Starring Joan Crawford on the Criterion Channel
Photo: Warner Bros.

The myth of Joan Crawford’s life and career is inseparable from what she did on screen. Though she worked with many fine directors across her career, all of Crawford’s films are essentially about her, and they need to be seen in terms of her unending thirst for publicity and attention, which still bears fruit and fans more than 40 years after her death. Crawford arouses sympathy and repulsion by turns, and the hilarious tunnel-vision focus that made her the ultimate camp totem is also what makes her lovable, in spite of the increasing warrior-hardness of her face, her often-monotonous intensity, and the sometimes off-puttingly aggressive way she offered her psychic battle scars to the camera.

Staring October 11, the Criterion Channel celebrates Crawford’s work with a career-spanning, 25-film retrospective. The earliest film in the series is Tod Browning’s still-potent silent horror classic The Unknown, in which a beautifully striking Crawford, then around 20, stars as a neurotic carnival girl who Lon Cheney’s circus freak is obsessed with marrying. By the time you get to Ranald MacDougall’s 1955 noir Queen Bee, in which Crawford delivers one of the greatest slaps in the history of the movies, that big-eyed, hopeful girl from Clarence Brown’s 1934 pre-Code drama Sadie McKee has been completely buried in the granite of obsessive self-preservation. Crawford went from shop girl’s delight to Queen of the Zulus in less than 20 years, a rags-to-riches American dream turning into a vodka-soaked, paranoid nightmare.

Crawford, born Lucille Fay LeSueur, was brought up in shady circumstances that are still shrouded in mystery and conjecture. Rumors that she made a few stag films before 1925 have never been verified, but sex was clearly the weapon that Crawford used to pull herself out of the gutter she came from. She made her first impact at MGM as a loose-living jazz heroine of silent films like Harry Beaumont’s Our Dancing Daughters, dancing clunky Charlestons in her scanties and all but broadcasting, “I’m the easiest lay in the world!” Such sexual abandon never really left her, and she had to pay for it time and again on screen in the ‘30s and beyond.

Crawford was sometimes cast as society girls, but usually her characters started out in a factory or a department store or a kitchen. In Sadie McKee, a highly refined bit of trash that stands as an archetypal ‘30s Crawford vehicle, the actress’s kitchen maid sticks up for herself against a snobbish family and remains true throughout to a wayward man played by Gene Raymond. Crawford’s films are filled with funny contrasts and incongruities, and Sadie McKee is no exception: Even when Sadie is so down and out that she can’t afford a decent meal, she wears a stylish black suit with fur cuffs, and when she gets angry, Crawford drops her piss-elegant, strained diction and suddenly sounds like a tough broad trying to run a laundry.

In Frank Borzage’s Strange Cargo, from 1937, we get a very tough Crawford facing off against the elements, Peter Lorre, and one of the actress’s best screen partners, Clark Gable. Her tense performance as a cranky cafe entertainer and prostitute in a town near a French Guiana penal colony is tiresomely one-note until she tries out that certain glamorously de-glamorized look out in the jungle, but the spiritual regeneration angle of the script does not suit a woman whose supposed last words were, “Don’t you dare ask God to help me!” Crawford’s image as star and woman is a matter of carefully nurtured bitterness; she’s as unforgiving as Ingmar Bergman and just as narrowly preoccupied with slights and sexuality.

Criterion’s series includes another Borzage film from 1937, Mannequin, which is notable for Crawford’s proletarian heroine’s opening walk up the stairs of her ugly tenement, reversing the logic of Seventh Heaven’s idyll: Sometimes there are staircases to hell as well as heaven. In the ‘40s, the actress landed at Warner Bros. and make the holy trinity of films—Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, and Possessed—that would cement her legend, after which she would quickly start to amp up the camp across a series of films, both high and low.

In Charles Walters’s Torch Song, Crawford was at her latter-day, bulldozer best as tyrannical musical comedy star Jenny Stewart. Throughout, Crawford’s emphatic way of talking makes even the most ordinary lines of dialogue sound like camp epiphanies. Throughout, Crawford dances stiffly and lip-synchs some songs, including one jaw-dropping number, “Two-Faced Woman,” that she inexplicably performs in blackface (which might explain why the film didn’t make this retrospective). It isn’t Al Jolson blackface either: Crawford retains her bright red lipstick mouth and even wears rhinestones in her eyebrows. Surrounded by side-splittingly listless chorus girls, also in half-ass blackface, and a bunch of adoring chorus boys who I hope were well-paid, Crawford goes through with this insanity as she did everything else, with completely oblivious chutzpah.

Such is Crawford’s deluded grandeur, however, that she has several scenes in Torch Song that are somewhat touching, especially when her eyes tear as Tye Graham’s rehearsal pianist tells her that she will soon become a “cheap, vulgar has-been” and eventually turn to “the bottle.” Crawford wasn’t a fan of self-awareness, to put it mildly, but surely she could feel the truth in those harsh words, and predict the final descent into Berserk! and Trog and all the rest of her contributions to the hag-horror genre. Crawford’s refusal to face facts from beginning to end makes her a quintessentially American icon. Dan Callahan

Below are some of our favorite films in the Criterion Channel’s retrospective.

Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932)

Why make a film with both John and Lionel Barrymore, to say nothing of Crawford and Greta Garbo, when you could make two films separately with each of them and, presumably, make double your money? This was the company line that Irving Thalberg found himself at odds with when he decided to cast all four (and more) in his adaptation of William A. Drake’s Broadway smash Grand Hotel. Thalberg’s revelation was one of decadence, allowing the audience to luxuriate in those monumental visages all at once, but the film only works because director Edmund Goulding gives his spaces the same power and art-deco glamour as his performers. Garbo and Crawford are patiently unveiled, as they should be, but the director frontloads the film with his male stars and their various plotlines in immediate and immediately engaging montage, only to further introduce the pulp of the film’s expertly weaved narrative with a bravura lobby sequence that makes stunning use of overhead crane shooting by famed cinematographer William H. Daniels. Chris Cabin

A Woman’s Face

A Woman’s Face (George Cukor, 1941)

The air of grievance that marks Crawford’s face in Borzage’s Strange Cargo is wonderfully used by George Cukor in A Woman’s Face, and even given a visual correlative: Crawford plays the first half of the film under ugly scar make-up covering one side of her face. This disfigurement really suits her, giving a context to her character’s anger. When she slaps around a mean, pretty woman (Osa Massen), Crawford looks like an enraged animal going in for the kill, yet Cukor gives her several close-ups where her vulnerability comes to the surface, and it isn’t the too-heavy, needy vulnerability we see in some of the actress’s lesser work. These real glimpses of her pain make Woman’s Face one of her most moving performances. It’s a film that explains who Crawford was better than just about anything else she did. Callahan

Humoresque

Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, 1946)

Humoresque is jam-packed with classical music recitals, the usual cultural sauce that Warner Bros. dribbled all over their ‘40s soap operas. During most of these programs, where Isaac Stern does John Garfield’s violin playing for him, we’re left to look at Crawford’s enraptured, sometimes sexual, always nakedly emotional reactions to her beloved’s playing (she even gives her program a hand-job while she stares at him). Never before or since has a player made love to the camera so blatantly, and cinematographer Ernest Haller’s lens seems to respond viscerally to Crawford’s shamelessly auto-erotic ardor as it creeps up closer and closer. Basically, Humoresque is a film about Crawford’s face, that marvel of early make-up call architecture and brutal star self-will. Dedicated to making drunken self-loathing as glamorous as possible, Crawford’s Helen, dressed in a glittering black Adrian sheath with football-player shoulder pads, eventually takes an awe-inspiringly silly 10-minute death walk into the sea, accompanied by Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.” Humoresque is overlong and artificial, but Crawford and Haller make it into a dreamy wallow in velvety masochism. Callahan

Mildred Pierce

Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945)

Distinguishing Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce from many noirs is its disarmingly and modernly casual sense of the reliable humiliation of life as a woman in a man’s world, particularly a woman determined to carve out her own niche in the work sector. The film represented for Crawford what Rocky later represented for Sylvester Stallone: a do-or-die stab at survival in Hollywood that subsumes the star’s autobiographical struggles metaphorically into the narrative. Mildred’s unexpectedly successful quest to reinvent herself mirrors Crawford’s transition from washed-up ingénue into one of the great powerhouse poets of the Hollywood melodrama. Crawford lets her work show, allowing you to feel her desperation to be iconic—her self-consciousness investing her super-stardom with weirdly relatable humanity. Crawford brings to light what a true star does: informing our weaknesses with operatic heft. Chuck Bowen

Possessed

Possessed (Curtis Bernhardt, 1947)

Crawford plays Louise, a chilly nurse who nurtures a fatal passion for David (Van Heflin), a wastrel engineer. Like a bad penny, David keeps coming back into her life and tormenting her. Eventually, she starts hearing noises in the night, hallucinating all over the place, chattering irrationally and breaking into laughter for no reason. It’s hard to care about Louise or David, but Possessed does have a few very good insights into the self-abasing aggressiveness of unrequited love. The film is at its best when it’s most subjective, putting you into Louise’s mindset, and at its worst when it slows its pace down to a crawl in back-and-forth dialogue scenes. Crawford went to mental institutions to meet and observe some patients before shooting the film, and this preparation paid off. In her best scenes, she shows her character’s illness subtly and accurately without going over the top. Crawford saw that mental illness shows itself above all in the eyes, in the way they seem to stare inward instead of out at the world, and she replicates this quite strikingly. Callahan

Autumn Leaves

Autumn Leaves (Robert Aldrich, 1956)

Robert Aldrich is always doing unexpected things with the camera. He often zooms in almost imperceptibly to create a feeling of imbalance, and he juts his camera up close to Burt (Cliff Robertson) and Millie (Crawford) when they kiss for the first time, not caring that the lens is getting wet. Burt pounds on the camera lens itself by the end, as if he wanted to bust out of Autumn Leaves. Though Aldrich is having a field day with his camera, he’s very attentive to his two outstanding lead actors. There are fleeting moments of camp in Crawford’s performance. However, perhaps because she’s reacting to someone else’s pain for a change, her narcissism doesn’t hold her back. Crawford sometimes comes through, but mostly we’re watching Millicent Wetherby. Crawford is sensitive, operatic, and quite touching, especially when Millie first lets her guard down. This is arguably her best performance. Callahan

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962)

It’s no secret that Crawford and Bette Davis envied and openly despised one another; there’s abundant anecdotal lore that testifies to the myriad ways these divas one-upped and punked each other during production. That undeniable off-screen friction only helps grease the wheels of the film’s compulsive forward momentum, supplying a crackling energy to scenes wherein, among other gothic horrors, pet birds are served up for supper with relish. But the torment on display isn’t exactly a one-way street: As relentlessly as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? at first positions Baby Jane (Davis) as the sadistic malefactor, later scenes sow seeds of pathos and even pity that will blossom just in time for the bitterly ironic finale. There’s an end in sight for Blanche’s (Crawford) longsuffering predicament, just as Jane finally finds her place in the sun. Emphasizing the quietly apocalyptic nature of this denouement is its placement: a rocky stretch of strand that supposedly supplied the surging surf against which Robert Aldrich staged the explosive conclusion of his gumshoe breakdown Kiss Me Deadly. Budd Wilkins

Strait-Jacket

Strait-Jacket (William Castle, 1964)

From a script by Psycho novelist Robert Bloch, Strait-Jacket stars Crawford as an ax-murderer returning home to her now grown daughter. The weird mix of pathos and gore and sentimentality and inanity are more of a piece here than in William Castle’s earlier Homicidal with Crawford at the center. One doesn’t have to go mining for subtext: Crawford’s murderer is the same somewhat self-martyred control freak she played in a number of more famous roles, and the horror-movie tropes bring her out further, seemingly completing her (she always seemed to be in a horror movie anyway and it tells you something about a film when an ax-murderer played by Crawford is its most sympathetic character). The Psycho associations would go further than anyone might have expected: Psycho II, nearly 20 years later, features a setup identical to Strait-Jacket. If there’s one regret here it’s that Crawford’s ego supposedly botched the ending, which now has her sobbing on a porch in the fashion of a woman’s issue movie from the ‘40s. The original ending, of Diane Baker screaming behind the door, is considerably harder to shake. Bowen

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‘70s Horror on the Criterion Channel

In the ‘70s, a new wave of horror film presented terror as a messy, brutally honest implosion from within.

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‘70s Horror on the Criterion Channel
Photo: United Artists

All American horror films that really matter can be separated into two time periods: before and after Vietnam, an event that epitomized an era and transmogrified the nation’s concept of “horror” forever. Whereas the horror films of yore would invariably depict true red-white-and-blue protagonists dealing xenophobically with foreign evil (vampires and cat people often represented all of Eastern Europe), a new wave of horror film presented terror in America as a messy, brutally honest implosion from within.

Vietnam seemed to be the cataclysm that ended the idea that America was the world’s “control group,” at least for a while. Typically, Psycho is referred to as the film that sliced horror history in half along socio-political lines, but for all its subversions of the rules of horror, the film still faithfully presents mainstream American society (as represented by Vera Miles) as the norm. No, it took a series of social uprisings, the gradual unraveling of a deceptive image that American soldiers were swaggering like pimps in Vietnam, and a seemingly endless cycle of political assassinations to fuel a new breed of scare-mongering films. And they exposed and subverted everything America held true—open spaces, machinery, industry, and country-gravy hospitality—and amplified the nation’s capacity for superior terror.

This month, the Criterion Channel celebrates this wild, weird, and far-out era of genre filmmaking with their ‘70s Horror series. In their words: “This tour through the 1970s nightmare realm is a veritable blood feast of perverse pleasures from a time when gore, grime, and sleaze found a permanent home in horror.” For more about the 29-film series, which collects some of the grimiest, goriest, and most inventive horror films from the decade, click here. And below is our list of our favorite films in the series. Eric Henderson


Ganja & Hess

10. Ganja & Hess (Bill Gunn, 1973)

Ganja & Hess is both a highly personal reconstruction of the vampire myth (many cite it as the “anti-Blacula”), as well as a Godardian broadside, allowing us to imagine that Bill Gunn was actually thumbing his nose at the way the industry was shaping up for African-American directors in the ‘70s, thanks to films like Gordon Parks’s Shaft. Blaxploitation, now responsible for whole forests’ worth of thesis papers, carries a dual appeal: Films that fall within the genre’s framework often have an insoluble blackness that white audiences can never completely absorb, which, paradoxically, is part of their appeal. Ganja & Hess, which has been retroactively, circumstantially cast as a berserk dash toward career suicide on Gunn’s part, is so singular, so opaque, that it doesn’t even have the draw of commerce-friendly exoticism. If Shaft is Barry White and Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is the Sex Pistols, then Ganja & Hess is John Cage. Jaime N. Christley


The Crazies

9. The Crazies (George A. Romero, 1973)

Like Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies concerns a plague that explodes America’s suppressive (and suppressed) tensions, though the monsters are left almost entirely off screen in this case, as George A. Romero foregrounds the sociocultural textures of martial law. The Crazies reprises Night of the Living Dead’s mercilessly propulsive editing while introducing a bold comic-book palette that would be refined in Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow. The film also abounds in inspired sketches of madness and infrastructural collapse, from the military’s dehumanizing uniform of black gas mask and white hazmat jumpsuit to an irrational image of an insane woman sweeping a battlefield with a broom. Even Romero’s self-consciously lyrical touches intensify the film’s textured canvas. The Crazies ironically understands fascism as being inherent in both the preservation and revolution of society. Chuck Bowen


Images

8. Images (Robert Altman, 1972)

Images might not immediately strike one as a genre exercise, as it’s a subjective dramatization of a fragile woman’s psyche, following a famous children’s author, Cathryn (Susannah York), as she seemingly loses her mind and commits murder. Utilizing a fractured narrative, the film proffers an unreliable reality that underscores the greater tenuousness and chaos of human existence writ large. It’s an art film that follows a codified set of traditions that were particularly in vogue in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Robert Altman is less interested in emotion and psychology than in emotional and psychological gamesmanship—in mind-fucking that has a rich tradition in the more obsessive and political films of Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman, Roman Polanski, and Joseph Losey, to name just a few of Images’s influences. Bowen


Deathdream

7. Deathdream (Bob Clark, 1972)

A grindhouse threnody for the Vietnam generation, Bob Clark’s emotionally overwhelming Deathdream is a raw nerve radiating pure shock and grief, as evidenced by the reunion of Faces’s Lynn Carlin and John Marley to play the parents of a young private who, after apparently dying in battle, returns to their doorstep. With echoes of “The Monkey’s Paw,” it gradually dawns on the initially relieved family that Andy’s purple heart may no longer beat, and yet he thirsts for blood, which would be horrifying enough if the film didn’t also seem to be suggesting that, whether soldiers return home from war decorated or draped by the flag, they never return as they were before. Henderson


The Tenant

6. The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976)

The masterful final panel in Roman Polanski’s remarkable “Apartment Trilogy,” The Tenant surpasses even Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby in its portrayal of claustrophobia and dissipating sanity. Casting himself as Trelkovsky, a meek Polish wanderer whose new Paris residence comes equipped with sinister neighbors, mysterious hieroglyphs, and mystical intimations, the great director employs a comically escalating sense of dread to crystallize a worldview in which weaklings and barbarians jostle for power and everyone is an outsider, as powerless against bullying as they are to helping the suffering of others. A master class in ominous, insinuating mise-en-scène, this is the ultimate Polanski skin-crawler and one of cinema’s supreme paranoid fantasias. Fernando F. Croce


The Brood

5. The Brood (David Cronenberg, 1979)

The longing and the sense of tragedy that were beginning to peak through at the end of Rabid are allowed to blossom in The Brood. David Cronenberg’s interests aren’t quite as explicitly psychosexual in nature as usual, as he turns instead to the cycles of damage, repression, and abuse that originate in the nuclear family. The film marks the beginning of his career as a significant formalist, though it’s also as raw and primal as anything he’s made. The pent-up emotional turmoil suggests at times what Bergman might’ve done with a horror film, and it features one of Cronenberg’s most audacious metaphors: a group of vengeful mutant children who’re conjured from the rage of a deeply troubled woman. This woman passes her psychic torment on to everyone even peripherally in her path, most devastatingly of all to her young daughter, who may soon begin to grow her own creatures, born of inescapable, inexpressible anger that’s provoked by the seemingly predestined trauma of life with family. Bowen


Invasion of the Body Snatchers

4. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)

Throughout Invasion of the Body Snatchers, one of the subtlest and most extraordinarily fluid of American horror films, Philip Kaufman crafts textured scenes, rich in emotional and object-centric tactility, that cause our heads to casually spin with expectation and dread. Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter fuse paranoia, eroticism, and flippancy to arrive at their own distinctly flakey yet intense genre-movie style. The filmmakers have gone out of their way to devise scenes which are set in places that have rarely hosted a horror-movie set piece before, such as a dry-cleaner’s, a book store, and the creepy swamp-colored spa that provides their film with one of its shock centerpieces. The soundtrack is particularly unnerving when we get a prolonged glimpse at how the pod people hatch out of the flowers blooming all over the city, which Kaufman stages as a simultaneous birth and rape. Bowen


The Wicker Man

3. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)

A film that’s become synonymous with British horror, The Wicker Man follows a conservative Christian policeman (Edward Woodward) seeking a missing girl on a Hebridean island inhabited by pagans. The first half has an (intentional) air of the faintly ridiculous about it, embodied equally by Christopher Lee’s gloriously campy portrayal of the cult’s leader and the life-on-the-island sequences that are Pythonesque in their absurdist look at culture clash. But the film’s impish wit and soft, Arcadian glow belie its cruel streak. The gathering clouds of unease building into a shocking third act that’s aesthetically and structurally reminiscent of the end of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, possibly the highest praise one can give to the conclusion of a horror film. Abimanyu Das


Don’t Look Now

2. Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

Don’t Look Now is driven by a crushing sense of emotional desolation. The phrase “psychic thriller,” which was used to market the film, is technically true, but misleading, given that psychics are normally used by directors as springboards for action set pieces or as agents for ushering forth the explicit arrival of ghosts. There are certainly ghosts in Don’t Look Now, and maybe even the kind that populate traditional horror stories, but the prevailing specters here are those that people come to know through disappointment or tragedy as allusions to things lost or desired, which have a way of suddenly opening mental portals to the past, and, in the case of this film and quite a bit of supernatural fiction, the future. Don’t Look Now suggests a ghost story that Faulkner may have written, as it offers characters who’re at the mercy of their streams of consciousness. There’s barely a present tense here at all, as it’s swallowed up by what’s already happened and what will happen. Bowen


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

Opening in utter darkness illuminated by sudden, dreadful flashes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre begins with a police report describing a violated corpse as “a grisly work of art,” a term that also applies perfectly to Tobe Hooper’s legendary grindhouse masterpiece. A rough-hewn American Gothic canvas, the film charts the trajectory of a batch of youngsters from a clammy van to the dangling hooks of an abbatoir run by a cannibalistic clan. Materializing in the middle of the horror genre’s most transgressive decade, this is a cacophony of piercing shrieks, metallic clanks, and roaring machinery that looks back to Psycho’s view of ingrown monsters even as it outdoes the older film in sheer, visceral impact. Snapshot of Vietnam-era outrage? Indictment of all-devouring capitalism? Blood-spattered redneck Theater of Cruelty? Yes to all, plus the screen’s most grueling portrait of mushrooming terror. Decades of sequels, remakes, and imitators can’t take away its scabrous power. Croce

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The Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now

These films show us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed.

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The Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: Universal Pictures

“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


Snowpiercer

10. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-hoo, 2014)

Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is an angry and bleak film, as well as an old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes genre entry concerned with passé niceties such as atmosphere and spatial coherence. The premise also has an inviting bluntness: A few years into the future, global warming slips out of control, and humankind inadvertently initiates an ice age in its attempt to correct it. Soon after, all that remains of humanity are the passengers of an ultra-equipped, self-sustaining train that suggests Noah’s Arc as a speeding elevated bullet. Having predictably learned nothing from their travails, the train’s passengers quickly assume the flawed social structure of the first world that’s recently ended, with the entitled haves exploiting the enraged have-nots. The film is most notable for its evolving visual concept: Each car takes one closer to a representation of the world as it presently works. The first few cars are rendered in the distancing apocalyptic hobo ax-and-sword aesthetic that’s been a cinema standard since at least the Mad Max films. But the latter cars are lit in expressionistically beautiful club-rave rainbow colors that reflect the escalating social privilege of a lost generation. Chuck Bowen


Midnight Special

9. 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


Elizabeth Harvest

8. 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


Hardcore Henry

7. 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


Mad Max

6. 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


Her

5. 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


Back to the Future

4. 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


The End of Evangelion

3. 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


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

2. 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


Total Recall

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

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Interview: Kirsten Johnson on Expanding Time with Dick Johnson Is Dead

Johnson discusses how the omnipresence of cameras is adjusting our relationship to the concept of memory.

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Interview: Kirsten Johnson on Dick Johnson Is Dead and the Expansion of Time
Photo: Netflix

During a flight of cinematic fancy in her documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson reveals that the first movie she ever saw was Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. Perhaps it’s just a factoid, one seared into her brain based on how her childhood religion of Seventh Day Adventism forbid adherents from watching movies. But given how Johnson’s latest work cheekily tries to short circuit death by using technology to reanimate a body, maybe the film did more than merely “scandalize” her at a young age.

Johnson uses a full arsenal of artistic tools in Dick Johnson Is Dead to bridge contradictory, even paradoxical, ideas as her father slowly succumbs to dementia in reality. At the time of release, Dick Johnson is not, in fact, dead. For now, his death only exists inside the world of the film where he can collaborate with his daughter on exaggerated filmed scenarios of his demise. But when he does pass, the film will keep him alive in both the joyous and painful details of his declining health as well as in their participatory fantasies of life beyond earth.

It’s a complex illustration of cinema’s power to both memorialize and restore a person’s vitality, though the project never feels like an exercise in formalist iconoclasm. Kirsten Johnson leads with her empathy as a daughter and human in Dick Johnson Is Dead. As in her 2016 cinematic memoir Cameraperson, a self-portrait assembled from footage that she shot for other documentarians, Johnson’s curiosity and incisiveness as an image-maker and critical thinker serve to augment her vulnerability on open display.

I caught up with Johnson over the phone as she prepared for the worldwide release of Dick Johnson Is Dead on Netflix, a scale of distribution she found equally thrilling and anxiety-inducing. Our conversation covered the response to Cameraperson, how her teaching practice at NYU informs her work, as well as how she thinks the omnipresence of cameras is adjusting our relationship to the concept of memory.

What have the conversations with other craftspeople been like over the last five years after Cameraperson? Are other below-the-line artisans starting to see their own auteurist stamp in their collaborations?

There was just a flood of camerapeople who were like, “Ah, that was my idea, I’ve been dreaming of doing that!” There’s such a shared experience, we all put so much heart into this work. I know you do as a journalist, and everybody who makes a film—it takes more effort than we think it will. I think our efforts all feel unseen in certain ways. As a cameraperson, I was given this gift of a machine for searching, seeing, and observing. I do trace it in some ways back to both of my parents, but certainly my father. It wasn’t that he saw, he just expected there to be remarkable internal battles or conundrums inside of people. When he would ask questions, things would pour out of people. He’s the kind of person you see at a party, and someone’s in the corner telling him their life story. With Cameraperson, the sound people I’ve worked with a lot, I’ve spoken with both of them—Judy Karp and Wellington Bowler—about making things doing sound work. I’ve spoken with translators about doing movies about their jobs. So, yes, I would say absolutely, there’s a way in which everyone realizes how much is embedded in their work and that you can open it all up.

I don’t get the chance to interview craftspeople very often, but when I do, I love asking them if the Cameraperson thesis rings true for their own work.

Oh, is that true?! And people all respond, “Yeah, I’m there and there’s a lot going on.”

I actually get a pretty wide range of responses. The first person I tested it on was Frederick Elmes, frequent DP to David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch. He actually said he’d be offended if someone felt there was such a thing as “a Fred Elmes film.”

[laughs] That’s amazing. I feel like we should have a little hotline between you and me, and you just pass me that answer. Oh my god, I would love to hear all of those. That’s the thing where I just really believe in the aliveness of this, and that this is like a series of shared wonders. Cameraperson passed that to you, and then you’re passing it on in those conversations, and then they come back to me, I love it! That’s so cool. You just made my day.

Dick Johnson Is Dead

Behind the Scenes of Dick Johnson Is Dead. © Barbara Nitke/Netflix

You engage deeply with the nature of what cinema does in both Cameraperson and Dick Johnson Is Dead, but they never feel academic. You’re also an NYU professor, so how do you manage to find that sweet spot of overlap between theory and practice?

I love teaching, but I think of it more as we’re involved in excavation together with other people. The students I’ve had, and filming with so many different directors, has really encouraged me to be open to the idea that people are struggling with their own shame. The impulse to make and to create and to document is an impulsive struggle around shame. And that can be on the level of the shame we feel about the ongoing injustice of society.

I think we all feel this deep shame that the United States of America is such a racist project, and that we know it and then we forget it. Or that some of us have to live with it in ways that’s in our faces every moment, and then others of us can avoid it. There’s deep shame around that. So, sometimes we’re making films to address our position in collective shame. And then, other times, I think the shame is around the fact that some part of us is hidden, and we wish it to be revealed. Back to the sort of that unseen idea.

[There’s] an exercise we discovered at NYU which was pretty amazing. I asked two students to interview each other about their fears about their senior thesis project. Then, I asked each of them to cut the interview that they had filmed of the other person, and then to cut the interview of themselves. And then we played those back to back. The people who cut the interview of themselves, they left in what was smart, intellectual, and coherent. And they would cut out what was unsure or emotional. They basically made images of themselves that were pretty boring and uninteresting to watch, sort of self-righteous or pretentious. But then the people who had interviewed them would leave in a look in the eye that could not hide the fear. There was even one young woman who cut out a moment where she just stared at the camera, and you could just see all of her feeling. And she cut it out of her own edit of herself. I show students that we all have this internal shame that we struggle with, or we think we must represent something. We think we must represent our identity or our country, and [we fear] that we will fail this great block of people who’ve been failed so many times before by other people. Just shaking that around gives students just incredible liberty to go into new territory.

Nanfu Wang was a student of mine. When I look at what she’s done, it was obvious in class her willingness to reveal herself in her work. But it’s so remarkable, the documentarian she’s being. It wasn’t that she was my student. She was a co-conspirator in willingness to go into these areas of wondering. I have a lot of fun with the teaching because I’m encouraging people to take emotional risks, and in a certain way, I think it’s easy to ask other people to do that. And then I realized that I can keep doing that, I can keep trying to push the form, I can keep trying to take the emotional risks for myself. This film with my dad was deeply emotionally risky for me. But I was motivated by students as well as by filmmakers whose work I love.

There are a number of moments in Dick Johnson Is Dead where you’re operating the camera and a conversation with your father becomes so intense that feeling overpowers image. You drop the camera, leaving the audience to experience these poignant scenes from a messier angle. To your point about leaving in moments of potentially unflattering emotionality, are these shots an example of practicing what you teach?

Yeah, exactly. They expose your vulnerability, incapacity, impotency, doubt. I ask students to show me footage that they believe is the worst mistake they’ve made. Inevitably, it’ll be an incredibly emotionally powerful thing. Why they perceive it as their biggest mistake is because there was something really meaningful that was happening, and they blew it in some kind of way. It wasn’t in focus, or they weren’t steady, or they moved when they wish they hadn’t moved. Always with those pieces of footage, I can talk about the ways in which, wow, this is an incredibly powerful piece of footage. Yes, you may need to record new sound for it, and you can bring craft to it in post-production in the edit. But you actually have gold here, and why you perceive this as a mistake is that you’re so ashamed and sad that you couldn’t make something perfect of this really powerful thing. What I’m pushing against is that perfection is actually not what is possible as a human, nor what we trust. We trust the person who can’t quite focus it when bullets are flying or can’t quite focus it when the emotion is unexpected.

Then, when I became really interested in making this film, I thought about how I could play with that knowledge of that level of craft that happens in documentaries that you can’t control. “Can I create fictional situations in which I replicate that or push the thing that is the moment of failure up against the thing that is the moment of creation?” That was an active question and dynamic in making the film. We really conceived the process as this back and forth between failing and achieving, life and death, documented and invented, past and future.

In terms of the “heaven” scenes, they make such an intriguing blend of both heightening Dick’s real life and combining sublime cinematic flights of fancy like a Fred and Ginger musical number. Do these sequences reflect the way you think about the intersection of memory, fantasy and imagery?

Totally. I was looking for exuberance, life catharsis, euphoria, the pleasure of color. All of those things I kind of needed because my father’s world was shrinking. It felt like the dementia was making things smaller, but then I realized dementia is also expanding things, expanding time. Even though my father’s looping on these very small time periods—he’ll say a question and then say it again a minute later because he doesn’t know he just said it—cinema can get into that space and open it up. By doing slow-mo, we crack open that couple of seconds he smiles and turn it into three minutes. We enter his present time by doing slow-mo. That whole series of things is like, I have freedom here. None of us know what’s on the other side of death. None of us know what heaven is like. And yet we’re drawing on all of these imaginations that come from religion, that come from dreams, that come from cinema. How can we play with what’s palpable and what’s known, and engage it with what’s not yet known?

That was really active in the process of making it because we didn’t fully envision this. We just brought the elements together because I wanted it to function like a documentary shoot where it would come together in unexpected ways. We did the choreography, we thought about the costumes, we thought about the mask, we thought about the decor, but we didn’t know what my father would be able to do. Everything was sort of modular. We were prepared for different configurations, which makes it have that feeling of absurd lightness in some way.

I was reading elsewhere that you’ve said when the movie starts, your dad says he’s in heaven, no matter where his mental state might have been prior. Do you think there’s something to that word choice?

Absolutely. There was a moment when my mom, with her Alzheimer’s, said, “I really wonder what’s on the other side.” And it was the first time she had spoken like that. And I was like, “What do you mean, Mom? How are you feeling about it?” I was trying to engage her with this discussion about her wondering about dying. And then she looked at the placemat, turned it over, and she’s like, “Oh, look, there’s flowers on the other side!” I think each person’s dementia is different. I think it functions in relation to who they are. But the wondering they’re doing in their own mind about where they are, who they are, when will it end, am I safe, who’s taking care of me—those concerns often manifest in these metaphorical questions.

My father might wake up in the middle of the night and say to me, “When is this plane going to land? Are we headed south? When are we going home?” Those kinds of questions for me are definitely about a person wondering about death but also just about being in the literalness of the confusion of dementia. It’s like, “I am ungrounded, I am in an airplane, I don’t know where steady ground is.” All those plays with words that we can do with words themselves, or in a movie where an image can mean multiple things, I think that’s what’s happening with dementia often when someone is expressing these as questions of “what’s going to happen to me?” The loss of agency just creates all these question marks. What am I supposed to be doing? Where am I supposed to be? What do I do next?

You contextualize the making of the film in the decline and death of your mother, who you express regret over not capturing more fully in the vibrancy of her life. Given the widespread availability of high-quality cameras in phones and the cultural saturation of videos, do you think we could be nearing a time when that worry of losing someone’s likeness to time will disappear? Or does there need to be more intentionality behind capturing those images for them to count?

I do think memory is fragile and unstable and fragmentary. I think the act of seeing an image of a person is almost like a hallucination. You may know they’re not there, but they’re also there. You’re experiencing seeing and hearing them, which is different than imagining them. It functions in a different place in your brain. I’m totally fascinated by the fact that I have shot tens of thousands of images of my children. One of their dads, Boris, does an annual video where he strings together video moments from a year. We watch them every year, and there’s a total shock because I’ve forgotten almost all of the things that he’s filmed. My memory of what happened in the year is attached to the photos that I’ve shot, and then suddenly his videos bring different things to life. I think we’re becoming different kinds of humans.

I think, in some ways, the camera made me differently human. I can see different things with a camera. I think memory is nurtured like a garden by different forms of watering it: paying attention to it, reading things, avoiding certain things that we don’t want to remember. All of this image-making is, I think, augmenting and shifting our relationship to memory. I don’t think of it in binary terms, I don’t think it’s good or it’s bad. I do think it’s radically different, and that we’re changed by all of these things in ways we can’t imagine.

I’m on the verge of the Netflix premiere where this film’s going to go into hundreds of countries. The thought that this very private thing is going out into the world on this kind of scale, I have not yet experienced that as a human. That’s new territory. It’s like the way in which plane travel changed my life compared to my parents’ life. I’ve filmed in almost 90 countries. But now, suddenly, my father is going to be traveling into more countries than that in a day. I do think we don’t understand the dimensions of it. And I do wish for more images that express individual voice as opposed to more images that mimic or aspire to machine-crafted ideas about what it is to be human. I’m really interested in the specificity and the mistakes. I don’t edit my photos, for example. I hope someday my children will come across the series of photos that I took of them in a moment where some of the framing isn’t as pleasurable as others, but they can see a sequence of what they lived through.

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now

These great horror films are currently streaming on Netflix.

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: Orion Pictures

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



Monster

10. 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



The Blackcoat’s Daughter

9. 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


1922

8. 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


The Invitation

7. 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


Session 9

6. 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


Before I Wake

5. 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


The Evil Dead

4. 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


The Guest

3. 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


Poltergeist

2. 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


The Silence of the Lambs

1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Detective thrillers often concern contests of male ego, involving brilliant investigators who confront physically superior and equally brilliant psychopaths. Often lost among such face-offs are considerations of the lives that are destroyed and ruined over the course of the narratives, as these thrillers exist to evoke and satisfy our own fears and resentments. By contrast, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is grounded in the psyche of a ferocious yet unproven female protagonist, whose thoughtful fragility intensifies the film’s violence, invigorating it with a sense of dread and violation. The film is a strange and still novel mixture of coming-of-age character study, murder mystery, and Grand Guignol horror spectacle. Bowen

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Sofia Coppola’s Movies, Ranked

In conjunction with the release of On the Rocks, we ranked Coppola’s films.

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Sofia Coppola’s Movies, Ranked
Photo: A24

There are few modern filmmakers who possess Sofia Coppola’s gift for capturing how our idealized, movie-fed ideas of “night life” reflect our longing for adventure as well as our loneliness. Her latest, On the Rocks, has the same piercing, hazy, noir-esque beauty as Lost in Translation, Somewhere, and A Very Murray Christmas, as quite a bit of it is set in dimly lit hotels and bars that allow people to be anonymously captivating while getting loose on expensive cocktails.

Sitting across from one another, talking of their own relationship while pretending to speak of her marriage, Felix (Bill Murray) and his daughter, Laura (Rashida Jones), make for an enchantingly odd couple, their energies redolent of a classic movie duo, merged with the despairing yet droll preoccupations of a filmmaker who appears to be cutting to the heart of her own demons. Yet On the Rocks has a bounce—a swing and sense of hopefulness—that’s new to Coppola’s work. As Laura implies, endless passion is exhausting, expected only by the selfish. Somewhere on the sliding scale between combustible heat and resignation is something like grace, where communion is likely.

In conjunction with the release of On the Rocks, we ranked Coppola’s films. Chuck Bowen

Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on June 23, 2017.


8. The Bling Ring (2013)

As this film’s Bling Ringers raid sprawling manses for McQueen sunglasses, Alaia dresses, and Birkin bags, Coppola responds with a propulsive collage of modern pop iconography, filling the screen with paparazzi shots, step-and-repeat footage, mock Facebook pages, and breathless montages of red-carpet stars who strut through these teenagers’ hollow dreams. Like Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (of which this film is most certainly a piece, right down to a girl tauntingly sexualizing a pistol), Coppola presents a cautionary tale of aural and visual aggression, backing her vast buffet of all-corrupting merchandise with floor-shaking tracks like Sleigh Bells’s “Crown on the Ground.” But whereas Korine’s film left room for an eerie wealth of implication, The Bling Ring’s main thrust grows repetitive and hits a wall of E! True Hollywood Story blandness, forcing viewers to look to the fringes for points of interest. R. Kurt Osenlund


7. The Beguiled (2017)

The dollhouse restrictions that Coppola has set for herself cast a dirge-like pall over everything that eventually happens, combing the story—alongside her previous parables—into a kind of haunting collective feminist memory. Even held against the flashback-laden psychosexual hysteria of Don Siegel’s version, The Beguiled feels concise to the point of constipation. Lush with texture and atmosphere, each passing moment is opulently cinematic—and yet the overall assemblage comes off inorganic at best, taxidermied at worst. It would have been far riskier to ground the film’s narrative vantage with Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), Amy (Oona Lawrence), Alicia (Elle Fanning), or Martha (Nicole Kidman) and to keep it there. Instead, Coppola serves up a cautionary revenge tale told from multiple perspectives, and thus none at all. What results is her least audacious, and most conventionally respectable, work yet. Steve Macfarlane


6. Lost in Translation (2003)

Coppola’s follow-up to The Virgin Suicides is equally drunk on ethereal passages in time. Here, though, it’s not the difficult rift between adolescence and adulthood that her characters must reconcile, but a more expansive one between two cultures whose hang-ups are encoded in their respective pop landscapes. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), not unlike the emotionally disconnected characters of Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is It There?, see their every disaffection reflected (literally and figuratively) onto the sounds and landscapes of the city they inhabit. The film’s allure is a self-consciously hip one, emanating from Coppola’s own fascination from the culture she photographs. This transfixion initially feels naïve, but that’s because Coppola doesn’t pretend to know Japan any better than her characters do. All the while, she lovingly evokes the film’s many spiritual awakenings via a mod palette that increasingly color-codes her characters to their surroundings as the story moves slowly toward its sad but enlightening final moments. Ed Gonzalez


5. A Very Murray Christmas (2015)

Bill Murray has given many variations on defeated shells of men, but his work here is arguably most reminiscent of Lost in Translation’s Bob Harris. In fact, A Very Murray Christmas’s emphasis on the connection between strangers makes it something of a spiritual cousin to Coppola’s 2003 film. But it replaces Lost in Translation’s endless neon-encrusted cityscapes with a deceptively warm aesthetic and cramped hotel kitchens and bars. In so doing, A Very Murray Christmas takes subtle aim at pandering modern-day holiday traditions in which simulations of joy are the only form of currency. While some of the musical set pieces invoke classic Christmas songs, none have a particularly joyful vibe beyond the unspoken exchanges between characters that connect over their mutual loneliness. Nevertheless, A Very Murray Christmas doesn’t so much expose the Christmas season itself as fraudulent as it shines a light on the heightened sense of personal despair associated with the season that the manufactured holiday songs and television specials strategically ignore. Ted Pigeon


4. The Virgin Suicides (2000)

A faithful, vibrant Sofia Coppola adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel about the unfathomability of teenage girls, The Virgin Suicides captures the album-rock ambience of mid-1970s suburban adolescent purgatory with just the right quantities of fetishism and pity. Edward Lachman’s sourball-candied cinematography and Air’s languid musical theme were key ingredients in this smart, regretful fairy tale of the failed rescue of a quintet of Michigan Rapunzels from their repressive parents by a chorus of clueless, telescope-equipped local swains. (It did free Coppola of her Godfather III acting albatross.) Will Kirsten Dunst ever again approach the pathos she stirred waking up alone on the 50-yard-line? Bill Weber


3. On the Rocks (2020)

Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks opens with a series of gestures that establish the film’s entire emotional framework. In a voiceover against a backdrop of darkness, a man tells his daughter—playfully but with an unmistakable edge of seriousness—that she will always be his, even after marriage. As Laura (Rashida Jones) becomes convinced that Dean is having an affair, her father, Felix (Bill Murray), eases back into her life after returning from a trip to Paris. Laura and Felix work their way through New York, with a side trip to Mexico, in order to find out if her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), is cheating on her—a screwball adventure that Coppola invests with richly unresolved, contradictory undercurrents. Their adventure is dotted with lovely curlicues, such as Felix prattling on while recklessly driving a sports car around New York until he’s pulled over by police offers whom he readily charms with his hail-fellow-well-met routine. Coppola, Jones, and Murray capture how such charm is both real and fake, affirming and demoralizing all at once. Bowen


2. Marie Antoinette (2006)

Coppola is obsessed with Marie Antoinette’s pleasure, holding out her hand and contriving for her a series of mini revolutions (she claps, to everyone’s shock, after a court performance and, later, carries on an affair with a gorgeous and virile soldier) in order to hint at the girl’s desire to react against that which was preordained—to carve out her own space away from the busy hands of oppression. Cynics will reduce these moments to feminist fiddling, but they are, in fact, very humane considerations of the corset-like effect ritual had on Marie Antoinette’s will. The film is a great fashion show, but it also constitutes a great makeover—an elegy to frustration, where every color and sound evokes the longing and rapture of a girl who didn’t understand her adult responsibility. “Am I here?” the girl asks while playing the drinking game known to us as Celebrity. Her answer is implied later, when she bows to the barbarians outside her gate. It registers: “I am here.” Remarkably, Coppola doesn’t ask us to take Marie Antoinette as she thinks she was, but as she probably was: a little girl who didn’t know better. Gonzalez


1. Somewhere (2010)

Somewhere is a Hollywood film about Hollywood that completely ignores the rules of traditional narrative filmmaking, and of indie filmmaking: This experimental pop film stands on its own, peerless and without precedent, at least in the movies. And it’s only in relationship to music that I can position the film. With its sugar-pop harmonies created out of flowing waves of dissonance, Somewhere is like Nowhere, the 1990 album from the British band Ride that was a key work in the shoegaze movement—also known as “the scene that celebrates itself,” not unlike the criticisms often unfairly hurled at Coppola. The film kicks in with a hum; a low sound, like the sound of a car’s revving engine, rides underneath the rock song that accompanies the opening credits, enveloping and overwhelming viewers until they’re disarmed. Miriam Bale

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