The theme of “the double” has exerted a complex and ambiguous fascination throughout the cultural history of the last century. Arguably, every form of contemporary art has been touched by this powerful theme and its many implications. Indeed, the double is more than a theme: it is a basic figuration, an archetype whose flexible structure can express multiple meanings and associations. In a sense, the double is, appropriately, a multi-faceted mental form.
The relationship between the double and the cinema is especially intriguing: we could say that the double, born mainly in literature and poetry, has found in cinema its natural medium of expression. The reasons for that are more structural than aesthetic: in fact, in film the double is often not only a theme or a form, but also a fundamental subtext directly connected to the particular nature of the cinematic experience.
The specificity of cinema is an expression of its inherent characteristics, its unique way of representing reality, its technologies, its implicit structure. The unique features that comprise filmic representation are powerful tools in the hands of a skillful director: for instance, the complexities of editing, the varied uses of sound and music, the control of cinematography, or the application of special effects. Perhaps the most peculiar and important of these filmic specificities is point of view, or more specifically, the manipulation of the camera, of its position and movement. Cinema is the only fictional and photographic medium over which the artist (in this case, the director) has total control of point of view, unlike painting, comics, and photography, that deal only with still images.
Another essential characteristic of cinema is its explicit formal boundaries. A film is a very delimited work of art: two-dimensional, it has specific boundaries in space (i.e., the screen) and time (i.e., a continuous experience generally of 1-3 hours), and is ideally experienced in a specific architectural space (i.e., the theatre). Furthermore, a film is a relatively fixed and reproducible object: we can see it as many times as we want, and, in one sense (but not every sense), it is always the same.
That’s why a movie is such a powerful tool for representing reality: it is, indeed, a finely delineated microcosm with a powerful tendency toward objectivity, yet is simultaneously open to various levels of subjectivity and vision. A movie is a mandala, a hologram of reality, of the artist’s vision and conception of reality. Like a miniature universe, it has a structure, a geometry, a continuous interaction of forms on an indefinite number of planes, texts and subtexts; and, above all, an insistent meta-commentary derived from its various points of view. As in Wagner’s Wort-Ton-Drama, in which the music realizes a meta-structure that comments and gives meaning to the theatrical action, so in movies the sum of the camera’s points of view and its movements provide interweaving levels of information, emotion, beauty and meaning. Not every director is able to exploit these levels to their full capacity; but those who can are certainly, if not the greatest, the most medium-specific artists: in their hands, cinema achieves its full stature.
In a sense, creating a universe means to create a double. The creator-creation axis is one of the most fundamental dualities, the most archetypal division of consciousness. Such an axis is similar, if not identical, to another important duality: the subject-object division between a consciousness that perceives and something else, the object that is perceived. And, becoming more specific, and getting nearer to the stuff of cinema, it is the same axis as the seer-seen, observer-observed, voyeur-objective world dualities.
In cinema, the director is the creator and subject, while the movie is the creation and object. Yet immediately, we can see that something very interesting occurs in this fundamental duality. Another, more ambiguous division occurs: the subject splits in two, the director-creator and the spectator-perceiver; the first one owns, in a way, the vision of the second.
This structure is complex, indeed. The ambiguity of vision in cinema—its being shared between and asymmetrically controlled by two “minds”—is a basic double in cinematic experience. The spectators are in a way “possessed” by the director’s mind; their vision is guided, their emotions manipulated, their perceptions molded and structured. At the same time, spectators actively become new creators, masters of the world that is lent to them: their consciousness, perceptions and interpretations are given new form, a new synthesis; and they become, in the ultimate sense, directors of their own experience of a movie. Thus, cinema and double are inextricably intertwined.
Brian De Palma’s movies are a beautiful catalogue of the possible methods by which the double can find its full realization in a filmic structure. Remember, for instance, the wonderful sequence in The Untouchables when Malone is murdered. The director’s vision is viewed, for the most part, through both the spectators’ and the killer’s eyes. We see through the killer, and we see through De Palma. Our consciousness is immediately and tragically split: our cognition is bound to the camera’s vision, (“owned” by the bad guy), while our heart and feelings are projected onto Malone, the “object” (and target) of this vision (indeed a loved and cherished object, the sum total of what a De Palma “good guy” can be). With our spirit and aesthetic sensibility fully awake and focused, we perceive the beauty of the scene, the meta-meaning that is beyond its images, as if through a premonition achieved in only a few instants, which is always the case in truly great scenes. And, beautifully, this vision that penetrates Malone’s house, that spies and hides, shifting behind a wall, dancing through space and time in search of its object with calm complacency, becomes immediately the best incarnation of a metaphysical voyeur, of our desperate observing consciousness. We are outside the scene, spectators, helpless, but at the same time inside, as accomplices, maybe as killers. And perhaps, in a sense, we are also, ultimately, victims. Only in the end of the sequence, when geometries converge and meanings collapse, our consciousness is reconnected to its primary object, to Malone’s body and mind: but only in death, the only possible singleness, and in the final sign of his blood, which will give meaning to his death and guide his friend Ness to the next clue, the next level of truth.
Consciousness and awareness
A significant ambiguity that results from splitting a consciousness in two (or, similarly, blending two consciousnesses into one) is the mirror game of comprehension, of conscious acknowledgement: how much one knows about the other, how much the other is aware of what one knows. In the ultimate sense, life itself, like cinema, seems to be a complicated game of relative awareness. The sensation of “being observed while observing” is a fundamental component of our state of consciousness. It influences our judgements and our emotions, and as we try to see ourselves through the eyes of all, and to be aware of their awareness, the cloning of vision stems from the cloning of identities, and the theme of the double naturally gives space to that of voyeurism.
The fundamental movie about voyeurism as a symbol of the human condition is Rear Window, as the fundamental movies about the double are Psycho and Vertigo (Hitchcock had indeed a very special sensibility regarding film archetypes). Especially in the first half of his career, De Palma has enjoyed re-interpreting these Hitchcock movies, deepening and enriching their themes and contents, interweaving them in new fictional structures. From the beginning, therefore, the double and voyeurism were main obsessions in De Palma’s cinema, and so strong is their connection in the powerful and complex vision of his individual films that, often, it is difficult to say if what we are seeing is double or voyeurism, or both.
In Body Double, for example, the importance of awareness is expressed with extreme power in the film’s condensation of De Palma’s themes. Here the protagonist’s voyeurism is the effect of complex manipulation: his “friend” puts him in the right place at the right time with the right suggestions, so that he can “peep” on a woman. The set up’s metaphorical similarity to a film’s spectator and director is almost perfect. We can identify with the protagonist, and be unconsciously reassured in our role as voyeurs of the film, mirrored in his role as a voyeur of a body. The friend-actor-manipulator lurks in the background, but at this point in the story, we still have little comprehension of his real purpose.
Then something crucial happens: Jake Scully sees something outside the frame of the scene he has been set up to watch: a danger, a menace, perhaps a mystery, in the form of an Indian working on a satellite dish and “peeping” on the same woman. His role becomes more active; he pursues, he comes in contact with Gloria Rivelle, the object of his voyeurism. When Jake stumbles, on the beach, to explain his identity to her, this moment is one of the most moving and perfect in De Palma’s work. The voyeur cannot explain himself. His role is, in some way, fraudulent, incomplete. Similarly, man cannot explain his role in reality. In a sense, we are incomplete, fraudulent. We can “peep” on the movie of reality, sometimes even try to possess it, to interact with it. But always, something is fundamentally lacking. We cannot really become its heroes, let alone its protagonists.
At the same time, in the scene on the beach, the hero-villain double is expressed with unusual beauty. Jake, the would-be hero, and the menacing “Indian” are each other’s mirror. When Jake at last speaks to Gloria to disclose that someone is following her, she readily agrees, suggesting that she understands that he has been following her. Which is, literally, true.
And then something else happens. Gloria is killed, while Jake, the “hero,” is watching, still unable to save her. And so another strange facet of the double is expressed: the voyeur, the would-be hero, becomes a witness. Which is, in a way, an intermediate state: one who can only perceive and not act, but whose perception can in some way define reality, create the truth. Or at least what appears to be truth.
The truth here seems simple. The killer is an Indian, a mysterious pursuer we have already seen before—and decidedly not Gloria’s husband, Alexander Rivelle, who should be the natural suspect. But, as the story unfolds, we realize that nothing is as it seems: the killer is indeed her husband, who is also “the Indian,” who is also “Sam,” Jake’s so-called friend who has orchestrated the entire scenario. Sam is the creator, artist, manipulator and bad guy all at once: a mise en abyme of doubles, a summa of role-playing.
Amidst the ingenuity of the plot, a single question arises that we may not think to ask after a single viewing: why is Jake’s role as witness so important to convincing the police that Alexander Rivelle is not the killer? After all, he is the killer, but was only disguised as an Indian when he murdered Gloria. Jake, after all, has observed a perfect truth: a husband who, in disguise, has killed his wife. The more important point is that, in the apparent reconstruction of the murder scene by the witness and the police, the killer could not be aware that he was being observed. Jake was observing him through a telescope, from a distance. How could the Indian know? And therefore, why would the killer wear a disguise, and bother to enact such a complex show? The conclusion is therefore “obvious” that Gloria’s killer is not her husband.
But once we understand the larger scenario, and realize that the Indian and Sam are both Alexander Rivelle, who knows that he is being observed, we recognize a perfectly reasonable motive for the disguise, for the show, with no alibi available for Gloria’s husband.
Therefore, the subtext of the plot suggests that the interpretation of reality and comprehension of its structure depend on shifting modes of observation. In a word, vision and awareness of vision are the two strongest determinants of truth.
The double is, ultimately, a selection of information. It is, in this sense, a choice. And, as a choice, it has a moral value.
In an existence made of infinitely plural universes (a reasonable theory of quantum physics, not merely a fabrication of science fiction), every thing and every body can be everything and everybody. But if all chances are equal, then there is no choice, no value, no purpose. In the poetic world of Borges, for instance, the infinite is only an accumulation of chances; eternity is only the death of any individual value and hope. Thus, a repetitive view of the infinite leads to a completely void vision of humanity. It is the void space of Mission to Mars, the purposeless chance in which human stories seem to fail or die.
Identity, instead, is the choice of a specified form, of specified information. It is a choice among possible meanings. If one adopts a specified identity, a specified role, the dice have been thrown. And such a choice, such a selection of information, such a deletion of all other possible occurrences, fractures reality. Choice gives birth to similar, but different, chances. It certainly gives birth to opposite chances: one can be good or bad, can love or hate, be faithful or betray, protect or destroy.
The disincarnate consciousness seeking a role (i.e., the voyeur) is constantly trying to comprehend a “reality.” But an uneasy rule applies: you can look, you can “peep,” but if you touch, everything changes (as quantum mechanics students certainly know). If you look, the many are in you. If you touch, you are in the many. You are someone, but you can also be (or become) someone else. You are no more alone. You have to confront yourself and your multiple reflections. You have to confront your opposite. You must fight. You can lose. You can be a victim. You, or some part of you, can die. In a word, you have become a body.
Such is the ambiguity, and the fascination, of the double. It invokes specification, and at the same time it casts the shadow of a doubt. You can no more be anyone and anything. You can be someone, or someone else, or someone else again. But in each case, there is meaning. And the meanings, although elusive, are always different.
Though the confrontations with the variations (or reflections) of one’s identity create a sense of uncertainty, meeting one’s opposite may be the cause of a moral crisis. In Snake Eyes, for example, Rick Santoro is morally superficial and ambiguous until he has to face his double-opposite, the good-guy-turned-bad-guy, Kevin Dunne. Likewise, in Casualties of War, Erickson is forced to become an “incomplete” hero when he confronts the “bad” Meserve and his accomplices.
Heroes are more or less ambiguous; fascinated by their own sense of duality, they split reality within themselves—good and evil, cognition and feeling, truth and power—and are never able to make an ultimate choice. Villains, in contrast, are fascinating. They seem to have achieved an attractive singularity; they act as though they really are simply a “body”, a permanent reality, an objective “truth,” as though they have found a seeming harmony with their physical role, and with the violence inherent in it. They have sex, and make a weapon of it (as Meserve clearly states in Casualties of War), while, for the voyeur-hero, sex is destined to be only a symbol, an impossible goal, the figuration of the failure to physically possess matter. Bad guys, instead, do possess things and people (or at least believe they do). In the words of Tony Montana, they have “balls.” But their ambition to own “the world and everything in it,” is a pitiful ideal, so similar to the voyeur’s ambition of knowing the world through vision alone. The negation of the double generates monsters, careless fighters doomed to destroy themselves and the things they (may) own. So in the end Montana is attacked, with tragic irony, by a baroque multiplication, almost a cloning, of a special, virtual double, a single-minded, powerful “metaphysical” killer: at the “excessive” ending of Scarface, Montana stands impossibly alive against crowds of repetitive enemies, while their leader, the origin and synthesis of all of them, easily destroys him with a single shot in the back. Thus, this “killer without an identity” becomes a perfect incarnation of the impersonal evil, which, in De Palma’s movies, seems to be the real substance behind the various villains, and is ultimately and completely triumphant over the physical, perishable bad guy.
Conversely, being in the many can also be an instrument of constructive choice, and sometimes of salvation. In Femme Fatale, for instance, the doubling of a consciousness and of a life becomes, perhaps, a useful tool to change destiny—to throw the dice a second time without coming up snake eyes. The way to freedom may not always require a moral recognition; instead, it may spring from the intuition of a pattern, from a reconstruction of reality with different space and time relationships, from a blinding ray of light. In any case, the result is all that matters. Freedom, salvation, these are the ultimate goals.
The double is always a mirror of the unsolved mystery of consciousness: if we are single, we are alone and helpless; if we are multiple, we are lost. The doubling and multiplying of vision in cinema is an extreme expression of a state of consciousness common to all: perhaps we are observing, perhaps we are being observed; perhaps we are not as simple as we like to think, not as lonely as we fear, not as free as we imagine. Perhaps good and evil are not so clear-cut, and yet they are not really blended either. As in the yin-yang symbol, black and white are separate and united at the same time, but in different ways.
This powerful figuration, this archetype so close to the very essence of cinema, is a form difficult to control. Not every director is able to manage its intimidating power, its deceiving complexity. When dealing with doubles, a director needs a very specific touch, a great mastery of his art; otherwise, he is bound to fail. He cannot be too explicit. He cannot be predictable. He cannot be moralistic, philosophical, or generic. The double is pure form, and requires absolute mastery of form to express its values.
De Palma has made the double (and voyeurism) a very private obsession. He is the best at dealing with the theme. His doubles live in the structure of his artistic vision; they are never too explicit, never vulgar, never contrived, never the same. Other great directors have incorporated the theme of the double in their work, with various results. Among the best examples are David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and David Lynch’s sublime Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.
Dead Ringers is more about the body than the double. Through the twin protagonists of Cronenberg’s movie, the body and the double are inexorably connected: they are identical; both are gynaecologists; in their physical being and occupation, the mystery of the body’s origin and duplication is passively and actively prominent: being twins, they share, in a sense, a same body while being physically separated; and by choosing to work and act on the generation of the physical body, they are trying to gain power over the same forces which were originally responsible for their condition. But the balance of this fragile gestalt is compromised by the love for one (single) woman; and the whole two-brothers-in-one system, once so efficient for sharing and compensating for all of life’s experiences, has to face a sudden crisis, and is ultimately destined to failure, madness and death. In a perfect scene, one of the twins, already aware of the fracture of the inner link between himself and his brother, hires a couple of twin prostitutes to recreate, by the power of names, his lost integrity: during their sexual intercourse, he instructs one of the girls to call him by his own name, and instructs the other to call him by his brother’s name. Thus, the fracture of a pristine symmetry—that is of the pre-existing, harmonious relationship between the twins—evokes the generation of new dualities on multiple sublevels. That’s how the structure of duality (or of the mind) evolves in new, (random?) branches, like a fractal image, or rather like a web.
In Lynch’s extraordinary movies, so similar and so different, a very radical double is displayed: two different persons with two different lives and stories tragically overlap, intruding one into the other. The way this is accomplished, at the plot level, is a true formal miracle, an aesthetic intuition that easily transcends any conventional treatment of space, time, causality and narration, following exclusively the inner, deep thread that only pure art can reveal. Thus, we see the body of one character simply substituted for that of another one (for example, the wonderful scene in the prison cell in Lost Highway), or rather, in Mulholland Drive, the cloning of one’s life story from another, through a very complicated web of totally irrational but extremely powerful connections. The films’ meaning, denied to the intellect, becomes a strong, chilling subtext that finds its devastating way directly to our hearts and souls. In Lynch’s movies, however, the double is only one of many doors to the ultimate mysteries of existence; and a surreal sense of subjective, unsolved tragedy takes the place of the objective failure of identity in De Palma’s classical, geometrical work.
Toto le Héros, from Belgian director Jaco van Dormael, is an extremely complex and rich work of art, touching on many deep subjects with inspiration and grace. A unique plot structure based in the double beautifully supports its themes.
Essentially the “birth-to-death” life story of Thomas, it is more accurately his “death to death” story (à la Sunset Boulevard and Carlito’s Way), as his death scene frames and colors the story as a grotesque and ironic film noir. The actual starting point of the plot is the process of birth: the protagonist, indeed, lives his whole life with the firm conviction (maybe justified, maybe not) that, as a newborn, he was exchanged with another baby during a nursery fire. Thomas believes he is living a life not his own, and secretly hates the other child, Alfred, who has supposedly stolen his destiny, and who happens to live nearby in a wealthier family. The consequence of this mental fracture is that Thomas lives with the feeling that he is not really living, that his story is only a pale double of what could and should have been, a void without value or justification. Over the course of the plot, however, the lives of Thomas and Alfred interweave in beautiful and unpredictable ways, and the ambiguity and irrelevance of Thomas’s basic assumption becomes evident: the two parts of the double reveal their total incompleteness, their personal failures, their mirroring diversities. Dormael masterfully creates a precious vision of love, loss, solitude, friendship and compassion. In the end, we are left with the astonishing evidence that Thomas’ life has been all but void: he has touched, lived and lost almost any deep value of life, without being able to acknowledge that value.
Again, the double is a powerful symbol of the basic dissociation in human life, but given a different perspective. In De Palma’s movies the voyeur lives in a disincarnate state, and tries, without success, to “grasp” and possess the objects of life, to gain an identity and a role. In Toto le Héros Thomas lives a full and deep life, while being deprived of any sense of possession, of any chance at identification. In both cases, the result is the same: dissociation, failure, suffering.
Le coeur fait bum
Suffering, in the end, is key to the double. Lost in a jungle of multiple meanings or the desert of their absence, consciousness fights and observes, splits and multiplies; meanwhile, the heart suffers. It suffers in the innocent victims of Casualties of War, of Blow Out, of The Untouchables. It suffers in the voyeurs, in Jack Scully of Body Double or Jack “the écouteur” of Blow Out, in their lack of resolution and dignity. It suffers in the bad guys, in Tony Montana and Meserve, in their stolid absoluteness, in their cold, meaningless cruelty. It suffers in the body of Thomas, and in all of us who are looking at him, who are his voyeurs and doubles. And in the end, it suffers even in his ashes, when, during one of the cinema’s most beautiful endings, Charles Trenet’s wonderful song reminds us that, while all other things in the world may find their sound and their expression, “le coeur fait bum.” The heart is bound to pulse, suffer, feel, blow out: it constantly burns, and its ashes are thrown everywhere, all over reality.
In movies such as Body Double, Casualties of War, and Toto le Héros, we witness a complete universe that is a perfect double of our own, so tragically similar, so fascinatingly different. Our search for meaning, feeling and truth in this precious mirror-world is, in the end, not different from the touching quest of its characters.
Giuseppe Puccio lives in Palermo, Italy, with a wife, two sons and a cat. He is a pediatrician and works as a neonatologist at the Palermo University, but cinema is one of his most important interests. He has harbored an insane passion for Brian De Palma’s cinema in dignified solitude, until, tired of simply speaking endlessly to reluctant friends, he started a website (Brian De Palma’s Split World) to express a few personal thoughts about his favorite director, realizing soon, to his great surprise, that there were a few people in the world who seemed interested. Other fundamental directors in his life are Lynch, Buñuel and Truffaut.
Review: We Summon the Darkness Coasts Lazily on an Empty Twist
The film’s cat-and-mouse antics play out with no sense of escalation or invention.1
Genre movies these days are rife with self-conscious subversion, and at the cost of cohesiveness. Into this climate strides director Marc Meyers’s 1980s-set Satanic-panic thriller We Summon the Darkness, which drops its twist inside the first 30 minutes and then aimlessly limps toward a rote conclusion for close to another hour.
Alexis (Alexandra Daddario) and her friends (Maddie Hasson and Amy Forsyth) attend a heavy metal concert, where they meet a group of boys (Keean Johnson, Logan Miller, and Austin Swift) and head to a remote location for an after-party. A satanic ritual ensues, except here’s the twist: It’s fake. There are no Satanists. There’s only Alexis and her friends, who are all Christian church girls killing headbangers and staging the scenes to look like murder-suicides, hoping to draw people to their congregation by scapegoating heavy metal.
Viewers are meant to write off some of the early red flags about the girls’ true intentions only to remember them in hindsight, as in how Alexis needs to be reminded of a prominent guitarist’s death. But if the film’s big twist seems to express the “fake fan” fears of dweeb gatekeepers the world over, even those anxieties remain underexplored. We Summon the Darkness struggles to conjure any discernible themes beyond a lot of too-easy jabs at religious hypocrisy, as in a scene about church donations being misappropriated.
The boys spend much of the film’s back half locked in a closet, which is still more engaging than the boilerplate scuffles in the dark that make up the final third. The cat-and-mouse antics play out with no sense of escalation or invention. Like many a film before it, We Summon the Darkness spends such a long time trying to subvert a concept that it neglects everything that might have been appealing even in a straightforward take on its premise.
Cast: Alexandra Daddario, Keean Johnson, Maddie Hasson, Amy Forsyth, Logan Miller, Austin Swift, Johnny Knoxville Director: Marc Meyers Screenwriter: Alan Trezza Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Sea Fever, Though Eerie, Delivers Body Horror in Half Measures
Writer-director Neasa Hardiman’s film is undone by earnestness.2
With occasional exceptions, humanism doesn’t benefit the horror film, which generally thrives under the inspiration of artists who exploit social vulnerabilities through various formal means. Case in point, Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever is undone by its earnestness. Hardiman is very fond of her protagonist, Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), and the writer-director is striving to make an impassioned point about the value of intelligence and rationality in the midst of a quarantine, an especially resonant theme in the age of COVID-19. In the film, a remarkable amount of time is devoted to the strategy of containing and combating a parasitic creature that invades an Irish fishing trawler, yet Hardiman has virtually no interest in goosing the audience, offering up a monster flick with no pulse.
At its heart, Sea Fever is another single-setting horror film in which an exotic animal systematically infects a blue-collar crew. Conscious of this tradition, Hardiman offers variations on a couple of the genre’s greatest hits: the misleadingly tranquil dinner scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien and the “testing for infection” sequence in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Filmmakers have gotten quite a bit of mileage out of ripping off The Thing over the years, but Hardiman stages this latter scene simply as a scientific inquiry, deriving no suspense from it, and delivering the punchline as an afterthought. Much of the trawler’s crew is the usual collection of burly, hairy studs who look so much alike that you expect a joke to be made of it, except that Hardiman evinces no sense of humor. Even the tension between the men and Siobhán—a student studying unusual sea creatures and therefore an intellectual who must maintain calm in a crisis, rising to the fore to become the next Ripley—often falls flat.
Alien and The Thing are sadistic films whose power derives, in part, from how expertly they surpass our worst suspicions of what’s going to happen. In each case, the monsters are more awful than we expect them to be, continually growing stronger, more disgusting, and more primordial—more, well, alien. By contrast, Hardiman offers a giant, multi-tentacled jellyfish that’s barely in the film, suggesting a wan and naturalistic riff on the thing from Deep Rising, as well as sea maggots that yield one instance of respectable body horror. These are mild returns on over half a running-time’s worth of exposition and foreshadowing.
Yet Sea Fever does have an eerie setting, as the creaky, claustrophobic trawler and the misty water inform the narrative with the aura of an Irish myth or ghost story, which is revealed to be very pertinent. And Corfield gives a poignant and vivid performance, especially during the film’s unexpectedly moving ending, which finds Siobhán weirdly rewarded, as her desire for knowledge and personal expansion is gratified at the expense of disaster. The final scenes clarify Hardiman’s intentions, which somewhat cancel themselves out: an attempt to fuse a monster movie and a poetic myth with a coming-of-age character study.
Cast: Hermione Corfield, Connie Nielsen, Dougray Scott, Olwen Fouéré, Jack Hickey, Ardalan Esmaili, Elie Bouakaze Director: Neasa Hardiman Screenwriter: Neasa Hardiman Distributor: Gunpowder & Sky Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time
If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.
Zombie movies not only endure, but persist at the height of their popularity, neck and neck with vampire stories in a cultural race to the bottom, their respective “twists” on generic boilerplate masking a dead-eyed derivativeness. For the zombie film (or comic book, or cable TV drama), that boilerplate was struck by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and its subsequent sequels established a loose conception of the undead threat: lumbering, beholden to no centralized authority, sensitive to headshots and decapitations.
If, according to Franco Moretti’s “The Dialectic of Fear,” the vampiric threat (at least as embodied in Count Dracula) operates chiefly as a metaphor for monopoly capital, binding those English bourgeois interlopers to his spell and extracting the blood of their industry, then the zombie poses a more anarchic, horizontalized threat. In post-Romero, hyper-allegorized zombie cinema, the hulking undead mass can be generally understood as the anti-Draculean annihilation of capital. Flesh and blood are acquired but not retained; civilization is destroyed but not remodeled. If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories for this or that, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.
At their apex of their allegorical authority, zombies may fundamentally destroy, as attested by our favorite zombie films of all time. But that doesn’t mean their inexhaustible popularity as monster du jour can’t be harnessed to the whims of real-deal market maneuvering, their principally anarchic menace yoked to the proverbial voodoo master of capital. John Semley
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 21, 2019.
20. Night of the Comet (1984)
Night of the Comet’s scenario reads like the bastard child of countless drive-in movies, in which most of humanity is instantly reduced to colored piles of dust when the Earth passes through the tail of a comet that last came around—you guessed it—right about the time the dinosaurs went belly-up. Then again, just so you know he’s not adhering too closely to generic procedures, writer-director Thom Eberhardt irreverently elects a couple of pretty vacant valley girls—tomboyish arcade addict Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and her blond cheerleader sister, Sam (Kelli Maroney)—and a Mexican truck driver, Hector (Robert Beltran), to stand in for the last remnants of humanity. With regard to its bubbly protagonists, the film vacillates between poking not-so-gentle fun at their vapid mindset, as in the Dawn of the Dead-indebted shopping spree (obligingly scored to Cindi Lauper’s anthemic “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”), and taking them seriously as agents of their own destiny. Lucky for them, as it happens, that their hard-ass old man taught them how to shoot the shit out of an Uzi—and look adorable doing it. It also doesn’t hurt that Eberhardt filigrees his absurd premise with grace notes like the cheeky cinephilia informing early scenes set in an all-night movie theater. Budd Wilkins
19. The Living Dead Girl (1982)
In The Living Dead Girl, the gothic ambience that elsewhere suffuses Jean Rollin’s work smashes headlong against the inexorable advance of modernity. The film opens with the vision of bucolic scenery blighted by the scourge of industrialization: rolling hills sliced up by concertina-capped fences, billowing smokestacks visible in the hazy distance. When some dicey movers deposit barrels of chemical waste in the family vault beneath the dilapidated Valmont chateau, a sudden tremor causes the barrels to spring a leak, reanimating the corpse of Catherine Valmont (Françoise Blanchard) in the process. Despite the gruesome carnage she inflicts on hapless and not-so-hapless victims alike, it’s clear that Rollin sees the angelic Catherine, with her flowing blond tresses and clinging white burial weeds, as an undead innocent abroad in a world she can no longer comprehend. The flm builds to a climax of Grand Guignol gruesomeness as Hélène (Marina Pierro), Catherine’s girlhood friend, makes the ultimate sacrifice for her blood sister. It’s an altogether remarkable scene, tinged with melancholy and possessed of a ferocious integrity that’s especially apparent in Blanchard’s unhinged performance. The film’s blood-spattered descent into positively Jacobean tragedy helps to make it one of Rollin’s strongest, most disturbing efforts. Wilkins
18. 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
17. Zombi Child (2019)
Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child is a quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments in in the film where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper than race relations. Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. The film’s off-kilter mix of horror, historiography, and youth movie affords Bonello plenty of opportunity to indulge his pet themes and motifs. He spends much time lingering throughout scenes set at the academy on the sociality of the young women and their engagement with pop culture. In fact, Bonello’s fascination with the dynamics of these relationships seems to drive his interest in the horror genre more so even than the film’s most obvious antecedent, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie—as is indicated by a pretty explicit homage to Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Sam C. Mac
16. 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
Review: Nafi’s Father Is a Raw and Immediate Look at a Collison of Faith
The film vibrantly articulates all that’s lost when people are held under the draconian decree of warlords.3
Writer-director Mamadou Dia’s feature-length debut, Nafi’s Father, hinges on the contentious relationship between two brothers, each one devoted to an opposing version of Islam, and how their bid for primacy leads to rising tensions in the small Senegalese town they call home. For Tierno (Alassane Sy), who’s well on his way to becoming an imam, the religion is a justification for peace and self-reflection. And while his practices are largely traditional, he’s lenient about some of the more repressive rules that many other imams would blindly enforce. But for his greedy, duplicitous brother, Ousmane (Saïkou Lo), Islam is merely a stepping stone to achieving control over their town. As Tierno struggles to keep his followers on the path of righteousness, Ousmane repeatedly arrives on the scene with stacks of cash from a fundamentalist sheikh looking to draw supporters to his cause.
Dia delicately balances this depiction of the gradual arrival of more restrictive, fundamentalist forces within the town’s borders with a small-scale family drama that plays out after Ousmane’s son, Tokara (Alassane Ndoye), asks Tierno’s daughter, Nafi (Aïcha Talla), for her hand in marriage. Tierno’s fears for his daughter were she to become Ousmane’s daughter-in-law are legitimate, but his refusal to consent to the union is driven more by his lingering jealousy of his brother, who was favored by their parents, and a desire to keep Nafi from venturing out to the nearby city, where she wants to study neurosciences.
While Tierno sees through his brother’s nefarious methods and justly fears the terrifying sheikh, his own restrictive treatment of Nafi, who genuinely loves and wants to marry Tokara, lends the film’s central sibling rivalry a potent irony; no one here is free from blame in the tragic events that will follow. Just as Ousmane courts the sheikh for his own benefit, so does Tierno impede his daughter’s desires only to serve his own ego. Dia nimbly reveals how this battle of headstrong wills reverberates through both the entire local community and within Tierno’s own family. As the sheikh’s presence is felt more forcefully, we also see how even those with the appearance of authority and respect in such an oppressed society, such as Tierno and Ousmane, are ultimately rendered as helpless as those in their own flock when someone with money and guns arrives on the scene, licking their chops like a wolf at the door.
Shooting in a small town in northeast Senegal, near where he grew up, Dia counters the film’s central tragedy with an emphasis on the region’s sparse beauty and its cultural mores and artifacts, from its marriage rituals to the vibrantly colorful, intricately designed costumes. The richness and cultural specificity that Dia brings to Nafi’s Father lends it an authenticity that helps articulate all that’s lost when such towns are held under the draconian decree of warlords. The film’s pacing is quite deliberate, and while it could perhaps use some tighter editing in the middle stretches, it’s the acute attention paid to how seemingly trivial acts of greed and selfishness can, over time, lay the tracks for an outright takeover by violent fundamentalists that gives a familiar subject such a gripping, raw immediacy.
Nafi’s Father had its world premiere last year at Locarno and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact JoyeDidi.
Review: Days of Cannibalism Bears Witness to a Culture War, Western Style
The film ultimately depicts a world in which people are left with no other option but to devour their own.3.5
A frontier story about the tension between settlers and natives, director Teboho Edkins’s Days of Cannibalism may technically be a documentary, but at heart it’s a western. Filmed in and around a small cattle-herding community in Lesotho, where Chinese immigrants have recently begun to settle and open up various types of stores, the film is packed with mythopoeic vistas of men on horseback roaming through fearsome yet spectacular mountain landscapes—shots that feel like they could’ve been cribbed straight from an Anthony Mann oater. There are scenes of cattle rustling, banditry, and frontier justice, as well as a Leone-esque vision of a town riven by suspicion, resentment, and racial hostility.
Edkins’s artistic project here isn’t simply to make a documentary that feels like a genre film, but rather to use the trappings of the western to explore the power dynamics at play on the extreme margins of global capitalism. Edkins’s former film professor at the dffb Film Academy in Berlin, Valeska Grisebach, has described the western as “a film about a space in which the rules are still in flux, and the balance of power is in negotiation.” And that struggle for authority and dominance is precisely what Days of Cannibalism explores.
Edkins casts the local Basotho people as “indians” and the Chinese migrants as the “pioneers,” but he then spends much of the film problematizing these distinctions. The Basotho are neither the bloodthirsty savages of early westerns nor the forlorn, eternally wronged victims of the genre’s revisionist period. Rather, they’re basically just ordinary people struggling to find a sense of equilibrium in a fast-changing world that seems to be leaving them behind.
The spiritual significance that the Basotho impute to cattle—cows are even referred to as the “wet-nosed god”—may at first seem like superstitious animism. But the belief turns out to also have a ruthlessly economic basis, as we see when some local men, who’ve turned to cattle rustling after being unable to find work, are hit with a lengthy prison sentence for the crime of stealing a couple of cows. Their crime isn’t a spiritual one so much as a social one: As the judge informs them, to steal a cow is to steal a community member’s livelihood.
Days of Cannibalism reveals the Chinese immigrants’ unwillingness to understand the Basotho people’s cow-herding practices as one of the major sources of resentment between the two groups. The immigrants make money by setting up small shops, as well as Walmart-like “wholesale stores.” “The Chinese have no idea how to take care of cattle,” one Lesotho herder angrily laments. Another more rueful local—the host of a radio show that interweaves pop music with thoughtful discussions of issues impacting the community—wonders why the Chinese immigrants can’t teach the locals how to set up shops in exchange for the Lesotho training them in the ways of cattle-herding. Instead, the two groups remain hopelessly alienated from each other, rarely interacting outside of business transactions.
But this isn’t a clear-cut tale of settler colonialism. The Chinese people who come to this underdeveloped corner of the globe don’t do so with any grand scheme of displacement and exploitation, as they’ve also been shunted aside by the savage machinery of globalization. In Lesotho, which is surrounded by South Africa, they simply seek to carve out some kind of life for themselves. With its microcosmic focus on this one particular community, the film exposes the brutal dynamics that undergird a globalist system that pits not only nation against nation, but people against each other. The violence of the system simmers beneath the surface of Days of Cannibalism until it finally boils over in a scene, captured in security camera footage, of an armed robbery at a wholesale store. As its title suggests, the film ultimately depicts a world in which people are left with no other option but to devour their own.
Days of Cannibalism had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Indie Sales.
Director: Teboho Edkins Screenwriter: Teboho Edkins Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
The 100 Best Westerns of All Time
The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition.
The classic western was conceived from an undeniably Euro-centric, colonial perspective, with white characters upholding their supposed birthright of freedom and property. In the western, the immense country beyond the Mississippi River figures at once as the sublime object that exceeds the human grasp and as a quantifiable possession. And the prototypical cowboy straddles these paradoxical poles: at home on the dusty, timeless landscape, but also facilitating its incorporation into a society marching toward the Pacific. In 1925’s Tumbleweeds, the herder hero played by William S. Hart reluctantly makes way for the newly arrived homesteaders; in 1953’s Shane, Alan Ladd’s eponymous character rides off after making the West safe for the American family; and in Sergio Leone’s 1968 opus Once Upon a Time in the West, Jason Robards’s Cheyenne sacrifices his life not to end the expansion of the American empire, but to facilitate a more just one.
But this standard narrative mold, to paraphrase John Ford’s 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, only represents the printed legend. The historical American West was more diverse and less male-dominated than the one Hollywood imagined for many years. Life in the Western territories demanded just as many determined women as it did men, and suffragettes had their first major victories in the West: Wyoming was the first state to grant women the vote, and the first to have a woman governor. A third of all cowboys herding cattle on the Great Plains were black—a fact that’s only surprising until you consider which groups were most in need of self-reliant vocation and freedom from the long arm of the law in the wake of the Civil War. Every once in a while, these historical realities break through the filtered screen of the Hollywood western: Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich play no-nonsense saloon owners in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar and Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, respectively, and Sidney Poitier’s often overlooked Buck and the Preacher from 1972 is one of the too-few films that are centered around black frontiersmen.
When Europeans, influenced by decades of dime novels and Hollywood flicks, got around to making westerns, the resulting films would be part of this swing toward revisionism. By this time, European filmmakers were coping with the aftermath of the most devastating conflict in human history, and Italian westerns like Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence and Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly are infused with the lived-in existentialism of postwar Europe. In them, the American West becomes an otherworldly wasteland of pure brutality and diminished—rather than heightened—agency. Europeans’ estrangement of western film tropes would help spur a revisionist take on the standards of the genre that infuses films produced to this day.
However, for all the observations that such “postmodern” westerns are about the end of the West—in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales and elsewhere, represented by the arrival of new technologies like the Gatling gun—the western has always been about endings. It’s no coincidence that the genre’s proverbial image is that of a figure “riding off into the sunset.” The American frontier was declared closed after the 1890 census, a decade before the first western on our list (Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery) was produced. Right-wing New Hollywood directors like Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel, and Eastwood have tended to identify this perpetual fading of the West with the decline of a virile and violent, but honorable masculinity.
The bloodbaths that end films like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch arguably represent what Freud would have called “screen memories,” a compromise between repressed memory and images we’ve invented to defend ourselves against terrible truths. The true bloodbaths in the West were the military campaigns against Native Americans, genocidal conflicts that many big-budget westerns keep on the margins, with natives appearing as stereotypical noble savages or town drunks. Ford’s films, as often as they rely on racist characterizations, were often the prestige westerns to look most directly at these wars: The Searchers and Fort Apache explore, in their own flawed fashion, the morally degrading racism in their main characters’ hearts. Some decades later, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves became the paradigm of a post-‘70s cultural sea change: When it comes to “cowboys versus Indians,” the cowboys are no longer the automatic locus of our sympathy.
Today, infusing familiar iconography with new meaning, such revisionist representations of the American West have helped to explode the boundaries of the genre, allowing filmmakers as well as critics to explore cinematic tropes about life on the frontier in non-conventional western narratives. In contemporary films like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Chloé Zhao’s The Rider—and looking back to ones like Victor Sjöström’s The Wind and John Huston’s The Misfits—we can recognize something like a western mode, a broader and more expansive cinematic language that has been suffused by the symbols of the American West. The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition—one that needs not be confined within the frontiers drawn by the Euro-American colonial imagination. Pat Brown
100. Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford, 1939)
If John Ford was, per Jonathan Lethem, “a poet in black and white,” he became a sharp impressionist in color. The finely calibrated stillness of his shots, occasionally ravished by the greens, reds, and blues of the colonial wardrobe, gives Drums Along the Mohawk a painterly quality, as if Ford had animated a William Ranney portrait. Each frame radiates rugged beauty, but this doesn’t soften the filmmaker’s no-bull directness when depicting the eruptive landscape of the Revolutionary War. Frontier man Gil (Henry Fonda) and his new wife, Lana Martin (Claudette Colbert), are without a home of their own for most of the film, their first cabin being burned to the ground during an attack, and when Gil and the troops return from the bloody Battle of Oriskany, the director details their immense casualties and injuries with unsparing detail. Chris Cabin
99. Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos, 1993)
Tombstone succeeds by re-appropriating the stylistic quirks of many a great western before it, from “the long walk” of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch to the candlelit saloons of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller, spitting them out in a spectacle of pure pop pastiche. It tells much the same story as John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, but it reinterprets that film’s mythical, elegiac sense of wonder through bombastic action and performances. There probably isn’t a western as quotable as this one, which also succeeds through its rogues’ gallery of memorable character actors and firecracker script. A drunken Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), when accused of seeing double, says, “I have two guns, one for each of you.” Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), as he pistol-whips Johnny Tyler (Billy Bob Thornton), belts out, “You gonna do something? Or are you just gonna stand there and bleed?” The lines between good and evil blur as the law switches sides to fit the plot. Cliché layers over cliché, exposing what the genre is all about: the foundations of American myth, told again and again to suit each generation. The ‘90s was the remix era and Tombstone fits it perfectly. Ben Flanagan
98. True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969)
The Duke casts a large shadow in any instance, but especially here. Rooster Cogburn is one of John Wayne’s most identifiable roles, not just because he won an Oscar for it, or because his True Grit is popular, or because he played the character twice (the second time in 1975’s Rooster Cogburn), but mostly because Rooster’s personality is so intertwined with Wayne’s iconic persona. Wayne’s detractors often note that Wayne lacked range, and that, given his consistent trademark drawl, about the only way to distinguish one Wayne character from another is by observing his costume. But while that’s roughly accurate, it doesn’t mean that every character Wayne ever played had a similar effect. His Rooster is one of those special roles that seemed indelibly Wayne’s—because he wore that eye patch so well, because his inherent presence and stature made him a natural to play the “meanest” marshal around, because his inner softness allowed the bond between Rooster and Mattie (Kim Darby) to feel convincing and because Wayne was born to be the cowboy who puts the reins in his teeth and rides toward four armed men with a gun in each hand. Jason Bellamy
97. Death Rides a Horse (Giulio Petroni, 1967)
In 1967’s boldly cinematic Death Rides a Horse, Giulio Petroni fixates on the inextricable link between a man’s memory and his thirst for vengeance. In the 15 years since watching his entire family get murdered by bloodthirsty bandits, Bill (John Phillip Law) has carried with him a single physical relic of this trauma: a lone spur. His memories, meanwhile, are filled with haunting and vivid reminders of that moment when his life changed forever, but also with specific visual cues related to each of the bandits: a silver earring, a chest tattoo of playing cards, a skull necklace. Bill’s overwhelmingly obsessive quest for revenge takes on an extra layer of perverseness once he’s paired up with the mysterious Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an older man who playfully competes with Bill to hunt down and kill these same men first. Through an array of carefully crafted visual and aural motifs, and clever, judiciously employed narrative twists, Petroni weaves together these two crusades, building to an explosive finale that delivers equally cathartic doses of redemption and rage. Derek Smith
96. The Violent Men (Rudolph Maté, 1955)
Polish-born filmmaker Rudolph Maté worked for a little over a decade as a cinematographer in Hollywood before starting to crank out potboilers as a director in the late ‘40s, many of them marked by a distinct pictorial flair. He was a mainstay by the mid-‘50s, and The Violent Men counts among his most ravishingly shot films, and indeed one of the unheralded Technicolor westerns of the golden era. The central California frontier, where the majestic flatland meets the imposing Sierras, has rarely been more reverently photographed, and a single montage of Glenn Ford’s John Parrish galloping from one range to another as Max Steiner’s strings howl on the soundtrack is stirring enough to validate the invention of CinemaScope. Fittingly, the land itself provides the conflict here, with Ford’s Union veteran-cum-landowner trotting out his old fighting spirit when the vicious owners of a neighboring estate—Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson in wonderfully belligerent performances—try to exploit his ranch for pennies. A cathartic war against greed ensues, and the result is finely wrought big-screen entertainment. Carson Lund
95. Westward the Women (William A. Wellman, 1951)
Based on a story by Frank Capra, William Wellman’s Westward the Women shares the collective triumphalism of Capra’s greatest films but salts it with the grueling hardship and random cruelty that are hallmarks of Wellman’s storytelling. The premise is ludicrous on paper: A large farm in a California valley is suffering a shortage of the fairer sex, so it sends a wagon train headed by Robert Taylor to Chicago to haul back 150 brides for the workers—no short order in the middle of the 19th century. Several treacherous landscapes, bleakly depicted deaths, and a mid-film memorial service later, the plan is fulfilled in grandly hokey fashion, though not without a striking reordering of business-as-usual sexual politics. As the women prove as resilient, if not more so, than the men, ideals of male heroism fall by the cliffside (literally) and members of the ensemble who would normally be relegated to extras emerge as fully shaded and complex heroines. As a result, the film amounts to a portrait of hard-won joy that’s nearly spiritual in its belief in the power of cooperation. Lund
94. The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)
What’s surprising when one takes a fresh look at The Gold Rush is how serious it is about depicting the hard life of prospectors. The comic soul of the film is, in fact, quite black, even if Charlie Chaplin exploits every opportunity (beautifully) to transform the environment into a vaudeville stage. Lonely as the wastes are, the town in the film is sinister and lurid, full of sex and violence, despite the fact that Chaplin always seems to find a way to invest in it the personality and tone of his early one-reelers. He makes the town funny but retains its barbarism. Chaplin pursues deliverance not in the miracle of hitting pay dirt, but in the promise of a woman, and it’s this promise that Chaplin would keep after, well into his sync-sound period. Around the film’s midpoint comes a sequence that cuts between the townsfolk singing “Auld Lange Syne,” and the Tramp, alone in his cabin, listening, longingly. It’s as perfect a moment as any other in the great silent period. Some accuse the director of succumbing to sentimentality, but he’s never less sublime than when he reaches for ridiculous, grandiose highs in romance, coincidence, and naked emotion. Jaime N. Christley
93. Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939)
Destry Rides Again’s Bottleneck is essentially the same town as the one in “Drip-Along Daffy.” The opening crane shots of Bottleneck show the standard storefronts that western audiences are accustomed to seeing: feed and general stores, the jail, the Saloon. As the camera moves along the street, we see just about every possible vice happening all at once with bullets whizzing about the crowded streets—and all the while, Frank Skinner’s intense score adds to the feeling of utter lawlessness. Every stereotype of the wild western town is represented in George Marshall’s film: crooked gambling above the saloon, land-hungry town bosses, a hot dancing girl named Frenchy who can douse the fires of her rowdy fans with a shot of whisky, and killin’. Lots of killin’. Back when the western was really coming into its own in 1939, the genre had already been around long enough to warrant this satire. Bottleneck is a parody of the western town. Jeffrey Hill
92. The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1927)
So many late silent films are infused with a delirious energy, a sheer delight in the transportive powers of the cinema, and Sweden’s original film genius, Victor Sjöström, was renowned as a master of subjective, otherworldly moving images. With the hallucinatory The Wind, he delivered his most captivating visual play of subjective and objective realities, casting Lillian Gish as an East Coast virgin who’s tormented on an ineffable psychical (and ambiguously erotic) level by the overbearing winds of the Great Plains. After circumstances force her into an unwanted marriage, she’s left alone in the small cottage she shares with her unloved husband as the personified wind blows open doors, whips up dust, and…takes the shape of giant stark-white colts who buck across the open sky. In a career-defining role, Gish grounds the film, giving a performance that humanizes the sensational and sensual inner conflict of a woman left alone in a vast, empty wilderness. Brown
91. Run of the Arrow (Samuel Fuller, 1957)
Writer-director Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow stars Rod Steiger as Private O’Meara, a disaffected Confederate soldier who lights out for the western territories, only to wind up living among (and ultimately adopting the ways of) a Native American tribe. Fuller’s typically two-fisted tale essentially prefigures Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, absent all the bombast and self-aggrandizement. Granted, the film succumbs to the longstanding Hollywood tradition of utilizing a motley crew of decidedly non-native actors in pigment-darkening makeup to portray its Sioux tribe, including a young Charles Bronson and Spanish actress Sara Montiel, but it also endows these characters with a degree of respect and agency practically unprecedented in a 1950s American western. As the film comes full circle with the return of the man O’Meara shot and then saved in the opening scene, Fuller’s story reveals itself as a morality play concerning the destructive nature of hatred and bigotry, as well as a touchingly earnest plea for tolerance. Budd Wilkins
Review: Vivarium Looks Aloofly at the Nightmare of Conformity
This a parable about adulthood boasts deeply cynical takes on home, community, and childrearing.2
Lorcan Finnegan’s high-concept sci-fi mystery Vivarium is a parable about adulthood with deeply cynical takes on home, community, and childrearing. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a young couple who one afternoon tour a housing development called Yonder with its sales agent, Martin (Jonathan Aris), who dresses like a Mormon missionary. The colorless subdivision is startlingly homogenous, with identical homes in creepily neat rows (shades of Edward Scissorhands), stretching from horizon to horizon. Martin shows them house “number 9,” then disappears, and when they also try to leave the neighborhood, every road circles back to the house until their car runs out of gas. Yonder is, well, not quite even a maze, because there’s no way out. It’s a trap.
The couple is thus ushered into a nightmare of conformity, emphasized by the film’s production design. The streetscapes, often seen from overhead, are vividly and uneasily artificial, suggesting a model town; even the clouds appear painted onto the sky above. The sound design is deathly quiet except for the echoes of Gemma and Tom’s footsteps, evoking a soundstage. Yonder is a windless place, the ultimate in featureless suburbs that young city dwellers fear, where the air is odorless and the strawberries flavorless. There are no neighbors and no friends, just forced isolation—an extreme form of social distancing.
The couple is coerced into this life in service of the next generation. After trying to burn down house number nine (which just reappears in the morning), they receive a box containing a baby and a message, instructing them to raise the boy in order to be released. It’s as if bringing up children were just a form of forced labor resulting from a mistake—in this case, having toured Yonder. The boy (Senan Jennings) grows at a rate faster than dog years, reaching about seven years old in just 98 days. He screeches when he’s hungry and is otherwise eerily precocious, like a tiny adult; suspiciously observant, he recites his adoptive parents’ spats and quarrels back to them verbatim. He’s terrifying, like some sort of alien spy, and Tom and Gemma despise him, becoming physically and psychologically abusive.
Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley strip away the comforts and niceties we associate with concepts of home and family, as the neighborhood here is a prison, the house a cell, and children are creepy invaders who torment their parents. It’s a fully nightmarish vision of adulting; Tom starts digging a hole in the yard, which consumes his daytime hours, keeping him from his family, as though it were his job—a jab at the meaninglessness of middle-class employment. Stuffing a lifetime into the span of less than a year, the film posits the nuclear family as something you have to submit to or go crazy should you fight against it.
As intriguing as this allegory can be to parse, it weighs down the storytelling. Vivarium, at heart, is populated with stock characters trapped less in a purgatorial suburbia than in a metaphor. Eisenberg invests Tom with his trademark arrogance, which here just makes the character flatly unlikeable. Tom comes off as a schlub, a rotten guardian and an irredeemable partner, yet the film suggests his wife loves him. Poots sells that with a rawer and more nuanced performance, making Gemma hateful yet decent, bitter but loving, trying yet fed-up. Her character is awful, like Tom, but she’s also sympathetic.
Gemma complains that all she and Tom wanted was a home, and she’s told she is home—as though this hellscape is all that a home could be. It’s an indictment of bourgeois living that stings less than it’s meant to. Vivarium is sad, but it’s too removed to be devastating, lost inside itself and its puzzles of meaning. It’s not a drama so much as an intellectual exercise.
Cast: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Senan Jennings, Eanna Hardwicke, Jonathan Aris Director: Lorcan Finnegan Screenwriter: Garret Shanley Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Resistance Is an Old-Fashioned Tribute to Marcel Marceau
The film is an old-fashioned and straightforward tale of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France.2.5
Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance is an old-fashioned and straightforward tale of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France whose most potentially intriguing angle becomes its least satisfying dimension. While featuring many familiar elements, including a sarcastically reluctant hero, a mentally unbalanced sadistic villain, and nail-biter last-minute escapes, it’s centered on a character who one doesn’t often see in World War II movies: a Nazi-fighting mime.
The mime in question is Marcel Mangel (Jesse Eisenberg)—he later changed his surname to Marceau—the son of a Jewish butcher living in Strasbourg, France. Tired of wearing a smock and cutting up meat in his father’s shop, he prefers putting on a Chaplin mustache and applying greasepaint to his face in order to clown around in cabarets. His more traditionally minded father, Charles (Karl Markovics), disapproves of Marcel’s creative life, while the audiences who Marcel performs for are clearly more interested in the dancing girls.
This light family drama might seem inappropriate following the gutting opening scene, in which Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey), a young Jewish girl in Munich, sees her parents gunned down during the Kristallnacht pogrom. But the comfortingly low-stakes nature of these early scenes skillfully illustrates the gently melancholic nature of Marcel’s clowning. At the same time, they also establish just how little the future superstar and his community appreciate the extent of the genocidal danger brewing just a few miles away in Germany.
Marcel’s call to arms comes with the arrival of a truckload of Jewish orphans, including Elsbeth. Ransomed from the Nazis, the orphans are put up in a nearby castle and watched over by a troop of somewhat adult-looking Jewish Boy and Girl Scouts. Guilted by his activist brother, Sigmund (Édgar Ramirez), into helping out, and eager to impress the willowy Emma (Clemence Poesy), Marcel uses his clowning to keep the kids entertained.
At this point, with its light comedy and rapturously beautiful Rhone Valley scenery, Resistance runs the clear risk of traipsing into Life Is Beautiful territory. But with the exception of one awkward scene, in which Marcel and Emma dress up as brownshirts and mug buffoonishly while trying to scare the kids into learning how to hide, Jakubowicz mostly steers clear of any unctuous sentimentalizing of responses to genocidal evil.
This determination to keep the story’s focus on the fight against the Nazis becomes clearer once war breaks out, France is occupied, and all Jews in the country have targets on their backs. Now responsible for even more orphans, Marcel and his compatriots relocate to Lyon and join the resistance. Heightening the stakes in Lyon is the presence of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer), a blithe sadist who likes to play the piano while executing people in the drained pool of his luxury headquarters at the Hotel Terminus. While Schweighofer’s portrayal of Barbie as a bright-eyed torture-happy sociopath who always looks on the verge of giggling veers close to movie-villain shtick, the character’s dark presence keeps the immediacy of Marcel’s mission front and center.
Jakubowicz’s strengths as a director become more clear in some of the set pieces staged after the action shifts to Lyon and Marcel’s group has to balance keeping themselves and the orphans alive in France or escaping to Switzerland. Showing a strong feel for crisply capturing the tense and buttoned-down panic of undercover operatives in occupied territory, Jakubowicz also leverages Eisenberg’s skill for simultaneously signaling vulnerability and resolve.
Where Resistance is likely least effective for many audiences is its attempt to portray Marcel as a masterful performer. It’s hard not to think of Richard Attenborough’s pushy and unfunny Chaplin in some of Eisenberg’s energetic but flat scenes performing as a clown or a mime. A couple of these are fairly stiff, particularly one where Marcel clowns to keep the orphans quiet while German soldiers prowl nearby, and another of him miming for a rapt crowd of American soldiers after being introduced by General George Patton (Ed Harris). (While this latter scene is somewhat inexplicable, it appears to have actually happened, following Marcel’s work for Patton as a liaison officer—a phenomenal pairing of sunny-gruff personalities that seems worthy of its own film.) In most other aspects, however, Resistance functions as a handsomely mounted biopic that tells a little-known story with considerable passion.
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Clemence Poesy, Édgar Ramirez, Bella Ramsey, Géza Röhrig, Matthias Schweighofer, Karl Markovics, Ed Harris Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz Screenwriter: Jonathan Jakubowicz Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Atlantis’s Future Vision Grapples with a Past That Never Was
The film’s use of scale to drive home the absurdity of its characters’ actions recalls Werner Herzog’s tragicomic existentialism.3
The use of apocalyptic settings has become so prevalent in fiction over the past couple of decades, perhaps more than in any time since the Cold War era, that it seems difficult to find new ways to make the concept resonate. This is particularly true as the real world starts to resemble a uniquely mundane version of the most vivid renderings of dystopia. Atlantis, Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s fourth feature-length fiction film, succeeds in part because the situation it depicts is barely even fictional.
Vasyanovych was inspired to make the film by a visit to the Donbass region in the eastern part of his home country, which is the site of regular clashes between government troops and pro-Russian separatists, and which has been left environmentally ravaged due to the war there. Atlantis is set in an imagined 2025, five years after the war has ended, with the Donbass area no longer fit for human habitation—as will likely be the case in reality.
Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) and Ivan (Vasyl Antoniak) are PTSD-addled ex-soldiers who fought and killed for a place that wasn’t worth saving, and who are under no illusions of finding a better life elsewhere. They now work at a steel mill that’s about to fall victim to the same capitalist whims they were defending as part of the victorious pro-Western forces. A glimmer of hope is eventually offered by a volunteer group that drives around the region picking up the bodies of those who fell in the war, to identify them and provide them with proper burials.
Despite the film’s basis in current geo-political and economic realities and its obvious parallels with the broader climate crisis faced by the world, it rarely engages directly with these themes. Instead, it’s more interested in how people adjust to desperation and scarcity, showing a society where armed conflict and corporate neglect have poisoned the environment and devalued human life to such an extent that people aren’t even able to grieve their losses. Vasyanovych employs long takes with almost no camera movement, combining naturalistic lighting with pictorial framing and a relatively large depth of field. As well as affording the time and space to appreciate the routines of their hardscrabble existence, this striking aesthetic serves to distance the viewer from the characters, showing these stoical figures alienated from themselves as much as they’re dwarfed by desolate industrial landscapes.
The unrelenting bleakness of this situation often becomes almost cartoonish in proportion, and the film’s slow pace occasionally conjures a tone of deadpan humor. An early scene sees Sergiy and Ivan setting up a row of life-sized dummies in the snow for shooting practice, and the depiction of this task in real time, with their truck’s engine running conspicuously in the background throughout, draws out the childish inanity of their adherence to military discipline. Later, a 1984-aping scene of assembled workers being informed of their impending redundancy by a face on a giant projector screen, with an interpreter’s Ukrainian translation disrupting the flow of this British company executive’s ruthless corporate-speak, wouldn’t be out of place in a more straightforward work of political satire.
The film’s use of scale to drive home the absurdity of its characters’ actions sometimes calls to mind Werner Herzog’s tragicomic existentialism, as well as early silent cinema. In a feat of resolve and improvisation that would make Fitzcarraldo proud (not to mention Charlie Chaplin’s shoe-eating tramp from a similarly barren locale a century prior), Sergiy cobbles together a hot tub for himself in the middle of the wasteland, filling a large digger’s bucket with water from a hose and burning petrol-soaked timber underneath it for heat. His soak in this makeshift bath is Atlantis’s most indelible image, a sight gag that also underlines his stubborn but admirable commitment to making a home where few other people dare to stay.
Appropriately for a study of humans physically engulfed by their surroundings, Atlantis is bookended by shots apparently captured with a thermal imaging camera. Initially coming across as gimmicky, representative of a broader style-over-substance artificiality that prevents the film from reaching the heights of its cinematic forebears, its final use is still surprisingly affecting. It highlights two people merging together in the warmth of postcoital intimacy, finding a new sense of belonging in the ruins. They jointly refuse to mourn a lost Atlantis that, given the state of our current reality, likely never existed for them in the first place.
Atlantis premiered last year at the Venice Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Best Friend Forever.
Cast: Andriy Rymaruk, Liudmyla Bileka, Vasyl Antoniak Director: Valentyn Vasyanovych Screenwriter: Valentyn Vasyanovych Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Red Moon Tide Is a Haunting Elegy to Nature’s Supremacy
The film is predicated on such ineffable dread that the impact of climate change becomes a sort of Lovecraftian force.3
Lois Patiño’s Red Moon Tide is a work of unmistakable horror, one predicated on such ineffable dread that the impact of climate change becomes a sort of Lovecraftian force. Shots of flooded plains next to stagnant and drying reservoirs capture the contrasting, even contradictory ways that the world is being destroyed by the rippling effects of our hubris. The opening title sequence is a roving close-up of an ancient maritime map dotted with mythical, perilous creatures, and the hypothetical existence of a nautical monster pervades the entire film. Yet the true threats here are invisible, malignant forces of misery that cast a pall over everything, poisoning nature and rendering humans motionless.
Patiño’s extreme long shots conjure unsettling moods through their use of natural backdrops and light. Waves at moonlight crash onto a beach, the ocean as dark as arterial blood. And in a recurring image, we glimpse an inactive hydroelectric dam, its face shot at angles that turn the concrete into a frame-spanning expanse of blank space. The soaked floodplains, meanwhile, fill the air with so much mist that sunlight casts a spectral glow over the Galician countryside.
This is the perfect backdrop for the loose, haunted narrative of a local fisherman, Rubio (Rubio de Camelle), who becomes convinced that a monster is hunting the shores of his coastal town as he discovers more and more human corpses when he takes his boat out each morning. At the start of Red Moon Tide, Rubio’s boat has run around and the man himself is missing, making him a protagonist referenced more than seen as other townsfolk ruminate on whether or not the man’s hunch was right as they themselves sink deeper into malaise.
The town where these locals dwell is shot in even starker terms than the landscapes, evoking Hopper-esque portraits of stasis and alienation. The non-professional actors are arranged like mannequins and frequently silhouetted, distanced from each other and often looking in opposite directions. People rarely speak aloud, instead silently stewing in internal monologues heard in somber voiceovers in which they contemplate the monster, giving it mythological properties such as having its behaviors dictated by the wax and wane of the moon.
Mythology is a crucial element of Red Moon Tide, with a trio of witches appearing nearly a half-hour into the film in search of the missing Rubio. These women spend the remainder of the film roaming around the countryside and the seaside town, often the only people in motion in the frame. Eventually, the witches start to drape the stock-still townspeople in sheets, making them look like ghosts. Rubio himself, well before he appears on screen, becomes an unwitting Charon figure ferrying the dead when his nets turn up fewer fish than corpses of those slain by the monster, returning their bodies to land for burial.
Buried beneath this mythic text are contemporary anxieties about climate change that gives Red Moon Tide an underlying logic, but the film is at its best when surrendering entirely to its hypnotic imagery. Andrei Tarkovsky is invoked at several junctures, from a shot that studies grass waving like strands of hair in a gently flowing brook to an image that moves through silhouetted trees with mountains in the distance that fittingly reflects the last shot of 1975’s Mirror. The film thus ends with an apocalyptic intensity that gives a climactic confrontation with the lurking monster a feeling of meeting with destiny, of the creature embodying mankind’s accelerating self-destruction in the face of nature reclaiming its supremacy.
Red Moon Tide had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Lights On.
Cast: Rubio de Camelle, Ana Marra, Carmen Martinez, Pilar Rodlos Director: Lois Patiño Screenwriter: Lois Patiño Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
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