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Nicholas Ray Blogathon: Poet of Violence

The body of Ray’s best work reveals a laudable consistency of viewpoint, thematic cohesion, and aesthetic distinctiveness.

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Nicholas Ray Blogathon: Poet of Violence

“Violence is never an end, but the most effective means of access…[having] no other purpose than to blast away the accumulated debris of habit, to create a breach—in brief, to open up the shortest roads.” — Jacques Rivette, “Notes on a Revolution” (1955)

The films of Nicholas Ray, more than any other contemporary American director’s, were singled out by the up-and-coming Cahiers du Cinéma crowd (on the cusp of their own splashy Nouvelle Vague) as justification for their politique des auteurs—more a personal stance on critical practice than dogmatic superstructure, and long since codified and ossified by academic film criticism into hierarchy-happy “auteur theory.” What attracted critical minds like Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and others to Nicholas Ray and his oeuvre—bored stiff as they were by the risk-averse, respectable, and ultimately neutered “cinema of quality”—was the stamp of the personal and the element of danger they discerned in his films, whether that meant the improvisatory handling of actors with a touch deft enough to coax remarkable performances out of even non-professionals; the “superior clumsiness,” cited by Rivette in “Notes on a Revolution,” resulting in “a discontinuous, abrupt technique that refuses the conventions of classical editing and continuity”; or the purely visual flourishes Ray relished—ranging from the sweeping, vertiginous helicopter-mounted shots in They Live By Night to disorienting, subjective POV compositions like the “rolling camera” during a car crash halfway through On Dangerous Ground, its very title indicating the source of Ray’s critical appeal.

Considered in full, the body of Ray’s best work reveals a laudable consistency of viewpoint, thematic cohesion, and aesthetic distinctiveness. From first to last, Ray expresses a profound compassion for outcasts, outsiders, and marginal types—the conflicted and questing sort after whom Dostoyevsky titled one of his novels, The Insulted and Injured. Like Camus’s man in revolt, Ray’s characters often lash out unpredictably—yet, as Rivette suggests, these abrupt acts of violence always mask an attempt at communication. The film medium itself becomes the message—so that, even when (as in his ubiquitous Rebel Without a Cause) the manifest, didactic content of the work hits a trifle too on-the-nose (“You want to kill your father!”), the “pure cinema” of his framing, deployment of color and non-traditional editing style nonetheless conveys the yearning and soul-searching with aplomb. Like Thomas Wolfe’s George Webber, the archetypal Ray (anti)hero—and, one suspects, Ray himself—was always trying to go home again and discovering, often to his mortification, sometimes to his disgrace, that it simply isn’t there.

Raised in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Nicholas Ray was born in close proximity (five years and a hundred miles) to the other members of what I should like to call “The Unholy Three”: Joseph Losey and Orson Welles, writer-directors fated, like Ray, to run afoul of the Hollywood studio and/or American political system. In his early 20s (after serving an internship with architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose influence on Ray’s visual sensibility was to prove incalculable), Ray moved to New York and became involved in the Group Theatre, where he met director Elia Kazan and producer John Houseman. Throughout the 1930s and early ‘40s, Ray would collaborate closely with Houseman, a partnership yielding one Broadway musical, several radio programs centered on folk music (drawing on the lifelong love of jazz, blues, and other indigenous styles Ray developed while traveling the American South with musicologist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress), and an early TV adaptation of Sorry, Wrong Number. In 1944, Ray went to Hollywood, at the behest of Kazan, to observe the production process behind his first film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

One of the most auspicious film debuts in Hollywood history (not for nothing is Welles’s Citizen Kane regularly invoked for purposes of comparison), They Live By Night was, upon completion, shelved for nearly two years while the smoke settled from Howard Hughes’s hostile takeover of RKO studios early in 1948. In subject matter, as well as details of character and setting, the film is as much a product of the Great Depression and New Deal social policies as its director. Based on Edward Anderson’s 1937 novel Thieves Like Us (later filmed under that title by Robert Altman), They Live By Night is, alongside Fritz Lang’s ferocious You Only Live Once, one of the prototypical “criminal lovers on the lam” films inspired by the saga of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, in much the same way that Ray’s film (refracted through the perverse prism of Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy) was a significant influence on Arthur Penn’s 1967 biopic.

Unexpectedly, They Live By Night opens with its own trailer—a two-shot of Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), nuzzling and frisky as two overeager puppies, while in fancy cursive a subtitle informs the audience: “This boy…and this girl…were never properly introduced to the world we live in.” Ray deemed this self-reflexive introduction necessary to distinguish the film as a romance/tragedy, obviously patterned after Romeo & Juliet, from a myriad other gangster pictures and minor noirs. Within the space of 20 seconds, Ray lays out the major theme—doomed romance, an amour fou (beloved by the surrealists) mixing death and desire, played against the backdrop of social alienation.

Whereas Anderson’s novel glosses its title’s all-inclusive indictment of corruption and exploitation with reference to greedy bankers (“They’re just thieves like us!”), Ray’s film was forced, by the dictates of the Production Code, to rather more lightly limn a similar viewpoint; its chief representative is now the figure of Hawkins, owner of a pay-as-you-go wedding chapel (“Rings for rent or sale”), played by Ray regular Ian Wolfe. Hawker of honeymoons and stolen vehicles, Hawkins stands at the crossroads of Cupid and cupidity—or, as he puts it, “giving folks what they want…as long as they can pay for it.”

As Bowie and Keechie cross the street to Hawkins’s establishment, its garish neon sign beckoning throughout the previous scene where they discuss whether or not to tie the knot, traversing the same uncannily ominous RKO back-lot prowled a few years earlier by Val Lewton’s shadowy kind, the camera frames them from behind the neon sign, capturing them within its flickering letters. Ray shoots the long walk down the stone path to Hawkins’s front door from a high angle, trapping the would-be newlyweds against lugubrious swaths of shadow. Later, when Bowie returns to the chapel, looking for a feasible exit strategy, Hawkins refuses to help him, despite the large offering of money on the table between them. When your doom sets in upon you, not even piles of cold cash act as any comfort.

Allow two further examples of Ray’s characteristic “meaning through mise-en-scène” to suffice: When Bowie kicks Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) out of his jalopy after Chickamaw’s attempted assault, the audience watches his dwindling figure recede in the rearview mirror. Moments later, we hear of Chickamaw’s death during an attempted liquor store robbery. And later, as an uncertain Bowie and Keechie make their way in the lashing wind and rain, the two-shot positions Keechie in the foreground, her face by turns shadowed and tremulous in the wavering light, with the window spider-webbed by Chickamaw’s wayward blow (seen behind Bowie’s head) providing mute testimony to the world’s mindless aggression.

They Live By Night provides the first of several significant scenes in Ray’s films where an on-screen performer (usually an African-American chanteuse) croons a song, the lyrics clearly related to larger thematic concerns. In this case, Marie Bryant—who had appeared in Houseman and Ray’s sole attempt at a Broadway musical, Beggar’s Holiday, an updating of The Beggar’s Opera with music by Duke Ellington—performs “Your Red Wagon.” The title, according to Ray, was an idiomatic Southern expression meaning “It’s your problem,” as the dapper gangster who gets the drop on Bowie in the restroom will let him know, dismissing him as a “trigger-happy hillbilly.” Even criminal society, business-minded as much as conventional society, refuses to the shelter the outcast couple (a distant echo of Fritz Lang’s M). The song’s title also served as one of several working titles for the film, along with The Twisted Road and I’m a Stranger Here Myself (always something of a mantra for the director). The latter would eventually find its way as a key line of dialogue in Ray’s perverse western, Johnny Guitar.

Betrayed in the end by their own families, Bowie walks into a police ambush—anticipating the bullet-riddled finale of Penn’s film, though here the action takes place in the dead of night. The tension-ratcheting scene just before his demise, paced at a purposeful adagio, shows him crossing the deserted motel court, intercut with brief shots of cops hunkered down behind parked cars and various outbuildings. Having reached their very doorstep, the cops blast Bowie as he fumbles for his pistol. In the haunting final shot, Keechie watches helplessly from the doorway, as the police cars turn off their lights and darkness steadily swallows the screen.

Next come the “prepositional noirs,” though—like They Live By Night—they’re really more hybrid assemblages than straightforward genre exercises. In a Lonely Place tosses noir, insider-Hollywood satire (in the same year as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard) and murder mystery tropes into the pop-cultural crucible, extracting one of the smartest, bleakest, and most adroitly nuanced depictions of a brittle relationship collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradictions this side of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage.

In a Lonely Place’s exemplary scene finds volatile screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) bringing home checkroom girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) in order to “tell him the story” of a lurid bestseller he’s just been hired to adapt for the screen. Every element in the mise-en-scène—every offhand line of dialogue, apparently unimportant bit of business (the girl’s constant mispronunciation of the novel’s title), disorienting shift in POV (a motivated shot seemingly from Bogart’s perspective turns out to be an “objective” setup as he saunters into the frame), and detail of set design (portentous wrought-iron gates, lending an aspect of confinement)—contributes to the sequence’s suggestiveness, so that Ray never has to tip his thematic hand. Discussion between Dix and Mildred about the pulpy “source material” doubles back on the process of the film’s construction (it’s another radically altered “adaptation” involving suspicions of foul play and utilizing voyeurism as a key plot point), but whereas we’ll never know what liberties Dix eventually took with Althea Bruce, we do know that, in the Dorothy Hughes’s novel, the protagonist is shown to be guilty from the outset and, equally as important, has nothing to do with the film industry. Ray and scriptwriter Edmund H. North hedge on Dix’s guilt or innocence, allowing audience suspicions to mount in tandem with alibi-turned-amour Laurel Gray’s (Gloria Grahame), delineating one of cinema’s most potent portraits of a man’s compulsion to destroy the thing he loves. Lending further amperage to the self-referential feedback loop: Ray and Grahame, to whom he was married at the time, quietly separated during filming. You can only imagine the tensions and hidden springs of inspiration at play while Bogart, Grahame, and Ray, putting their heads together at night on a closed set, hammered out one of the bitterest, most emotionally-hollowing endings in film history.

A study in contrasts, On Dangerous Ground modulates from the pitch-black mean streets of the Big City, expressive, as usual in noir, of post-war urban estrangement, to startlingly white mountain landscapes conveying another kind of desolation: solitude and its obverse loneliness. Alienated and unstable, detective Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan, in one of his finest roles) has reached his breaking point; the “garbage in, garbage out” nature of his work and persistent disparagement at the hands of the general public (a waitress laughs at the idea of dating a cop) have done a number on the man’s conscientiousness, shoving him over the line into outright zealotry. On the hunt for a gang of cop-killers, Wilson tracks one of the men to his grubby apartment. As he cowers like some cornered feral animal, Jim looms over him (Ray frames it so that Wilson’s eager fist assumes the shot’s focal point). Confrontation with this abject creature brings out the philosopher in Jim and he muses, “Why do you make me do it? You know you’re gonna talk! I’m gonna make you talk! I always make you punks talk!” before savagely beating the man into submission. (Ray and noir regular A.I. Bezzerides slyly hint that the man, who engages in “rough stuff” with his moll girlfriend, might be getting a bit of a charge out of the thrashing himself.) Consequent allegations of excessive force banish Jim to the “Siberia” of snow-clad boondocks, on loan to assist a country sheriff (Ian Wolfe again) with the investigation into a young girl’s rape and murder, where he encounters Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), the blind sister of the prime suspect.

Having concocted the entire city-set first act out of whole cloth, Ray and Bezzerides now follow the source material (a British rural-procedural titled, after a line in one of John Donne’s Elegies, “Mad with Much Heart”) with more or less fidelity, excepting a significant change in the killer’s mindset and motivation. Severely mentally impaired in the novel, the film’s Danny is a maladjusted “nature boy” (the Malden home is filled with his wood carvings, as well as a tree bole turned into a readymade sculpture that figures in several scenes), a tortured artist (like Dix Steele) who uses the same knife to carve his statuary and to commit murder. The anecdote Danny recounts, about two young girls who reject his fumbling attempts at friendship with laughter, strikes a chord with Jim, establishing Danny as a second self or secret sharer, in the same way that the single-minded father of the victim (Ward Bond), head of the local posse, determined to string up the killer, echoes Jim’s own avowedly violent nature.

The inevitable romance that develops between Jim and Mary, as often as it tips into the maudlin and platitudinous, maintains a tentative, even hesitant quality, rendered more palatable by the finely shaded performances from Ryan and Lupino. Jim’s eventual “salvation” (with much heart) after he turns his back on the Big City—signaled by a match-dissolve through Jim’s windshield between snow and shadow—proceeds quickly and without too much ado. Together with the frangible finale to Bigger Than Life, it stands as one of the most optimistic endings in Ray’s filmography. On the other hand, perhaps this is because it was shot several months later without Ray being present.

A matched pair of westerns followed, one a mournful modern-day ode to a vanishing way of life (a clear influence on Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner), the other a truly perverse “psychological western” or, the designation I prefer, “weird western.” The Lusty Men pits homeward-looking, aging rodeo star Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) against upstart wannabe Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy), positioning Wes’s wife Louise (Susan Hayward) as the upright angle in this acute triangle.

Continuing a trend glimpsed in In a Lonely Place, The Lusty Men juxtaposes patently false studio sets and process photography—even beyond, one feels, the usual exigencies necessitated by studio procedures—with a gritty verisimilitude derived from documentary-style location shooting at eminent rodeo events. The opening rodeo sequence succinctly establishes the mood: Jeff goes through the motions of his routine (a brief subjective shot from atop a bucking bronco is a stunner), never bothering to interact with the other contestants, before leaving the deserted, windswept, and paper-strewn ring through the livestock exit. Hitching a ride back to the old homestead, Jeff roots around under the porch, rifling through his childish things (a tobacco tin, a stripped-down pop gun). It’s never entirely clear what he’s after (access to some ineffable past moment when everything seemed clear and clean and easy), but at any rate it’s denied him when old-timer Jeremiah (Burt Mustin), who lives there now, barges in on Jeff’s jaunt down memory lane. Showing him around the dilapidated bungalow, Jeremiah remarks that for Jeff it must be like visiting a graveyard. For Wes and Louise, arriving on the scene soon after, the ramshackle ranch is a dream home, albeit one tantalizingly just beyond their fiscal reach.

Wes soon determines to learn the tricks of the trade under Jeff’s tutelage (Jeff trades on his experience for a percentage), figuring—over Louise’s levelheaded objections, naturally—that calf-roping, bronco-busting, and bull riding will earn him a “fat bankroll” sooner than more mundane work as a hired hand. The fast buck is, after all, the American Dream bound in a nutshell. Since he seems to possess natural aptitude, Wes’s success comes quick and easy—a little too, as the story goes. The attention goes to his head, he even attracts groupies, lasses eager to be lassoed and busted. The film literal-mindedly—not to mention raunchily—sets up an equivalence between horses and women. Fending off one of Wes’s female admirers, Louise quips, “Beat it, sister. He’s got a horse.”

Tensions come to a head at a wedding party. Ray articulates the relational geometry between the characters with a series of tracking shots that follow Jeff and Louise as they arrive on the scene, then Wes and lady friend Bev as they leave the bedroom together, tracing the vectors as they cross and re-cross the room; a floor-level shot of ladies’ legs, ice buckets, and discarded champagne bottles captures Booker (Arthur Hunnicutt) dividing his attention between these peregrinations and a folk singer strumming his guitar, singing a barely identifiable version of “Worried Blues.” (Bob Dylan later covered the song on his album Freewheelin’.)

“All you’ve been doing is dragging your foot in my stirrup,” Wes tells Jeff. But when Wes calls him yellow (think James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause responding to the “chicken” charge), Jeff knocks him cold. Jeff resolves to return to the rodeo, signing up for all the major events at the Pendleton Roundup. As he preps for the bull ride, Jeff and Wes have a moment of silent reconciliation—nothing more than a look and a swapped smile—shot in a brisk high-angle/low-angle interchange. Jeff’s foot gets caught in his stirrup—ironic, given Wes’s allegation—and the bull fatally tramples him. As Jeff lays dying among furled flags and saw-horsed saddles, Louise weeps over him: Though she elects to stand by her man, her capacity to love them both in equal measure is apparent, an understated touch mitigating the otherwise conventional posturing and routine double-entendre-laden exchanges between Jeff and Louise.

Despite its “heronymous” title, Johnny Guitar centers on saloon-owner Vienna (Joan Crawford), caught in the clash between the forces of social conformity—represented by resident cattle-baron McIvers (Ward Bond), who wants to snatch up Vienna’s land before the railroad comes through, and Emma Small (a fierce turn from Mercedes McCambridge), sister of the local banker killed in the film-opening stagecoach robbery—and the outlaw gang led by the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady). Conventional motivations, however, soon go out the window: McIvers morphs into a Joe McCarthy type, quick to resort to extra-legal means in his land-grab, while Emma would rather string the Kid up than admit her love for him. Into this maelstrom of repressed desire and lynch-mob mentality rides Johnny “Guitar” Logan (Sterling Hayden), gunslinger turned troubadour.

Johnny’s guitar-strumming sublimates an aberrant compulsion, a thin veneer of culture concealing a gun-craziness the film perversely links to a textbook-Freudian dialectic of sexual potency and emasculation. When Turkey (Ben Cooper) tries to prove his manhood to Vienna by shooting up her joint, Johnny responds by blasting the gun out of his hand. It’s clear, from Turkey’s abashed peeks at his dented firearm, that the insult is far more than instrumental.

Johnny Guitar’s dramatic tectonics may owe an outsized debt to Casablanca, but, as always with Ray, the devil’s in the details—first and foremost, the issue of a rather subversive gender swap. When star Crawford determined early on in the filming that she should play Vienna as though she were the male lead, Ray screenwriter Philip Yordan ran with the notion, dressing her in mannish garb and relegating the male leads to secondary, largely passive roles. Marking another first, the film climaxes with a shootout between two women, McCambridge and Crawford stalking each other around the Kid’s hilltop hideout until Vienna puts one in Emma’s brainpan and she tumbles down to the lynch mob’s feet.

Let’s not discount >Johnny Guitar’s formal and aesthetic distinctions either—the studied use of Republic Pictures’s patented Trucolor process, which renders the greens, reds, and oranges of the landscape in fitting painterly fashion. There’s also the blatant theatricality, traceable back to Ray’s time with the Group Theatre, down to costume changes cueing emotional states and even ethical relations. When the mob, on the hunt for the Kid and his bunch, barges in on Vienna, she’s tickling the ivories onstage, her flowing white hoop-skirt—the most feminine attire she ever wears—in stark contrast to their funereal black.

Fifty years of hoopla and hyperbole—owing, as much as anything, to star James Dean’s tragic death in a car crash four days before the film’s release—have encrusted and obfuscated Rebel Without a Cause’s uniqueness. You must have eyes to see it, lurking in the interstices between the youth movie—a genre it at once concretized, elaborating on a template established by the previous year’s Blackboard Jungle, and came to epitomize—and the “social problem” picture. It’s clearly on display in the geometrical precision with which Ray introduces the three main characters—Jim (James Dean), Judy (Natalie Wood), and Plato (Sal Mineo)—in the police station opener. Slight readjustments (modest pans, unobtrusive tracking shots) bind all three together within the broad CinemaScope frame. Ray came to prefer the CinemaScope format to the more confining Academy Ratio and quickly made it his own.

It’s also discernible in the scene that perfectly demarcates both the film’s formal daring and its thematic overindulgence: Coming home from the “chickie run,” Jim finds his old man (Jim Backus) asleep in front of the TV. Torn between the need to confide in someone and the desire to avoid causing a ruckus, Jim splits the difference on a bit of business with a milk bottle—revealing thought through action, a Ray specialty—and sprawls out on the couch. An upside-down subjective POV shot picks up his mother descending the stairs, then rights itself as Jim sits up to confront her. The ensuing imbroglio plays Method-y (“You gotta give me something!”), but the precise and off-kilter blocking and framing consistently undercut the too-explicit dialogue: on the staircase (also the scene of conflict in Johnny Guitar and Bigger Than Life), caught between mother taking the high ground and father down below (“You’re tearing me apart!”), Jim responds in typical Ray fashion with violence—dragging his father across the living room, starting to throttle him (shades of In a Lonely Place). Frustrated even in his Oedipal rage (the aforementioned “You want to kill your father!”), Jim exits stage right, but not before kicking in a frumpy framed portrait of his grandmother. The production history reveals that, after rehearsing and blocking the scene in his own living room before filming it, Ray had the art department copy the interior for the scene. Similarly, Ray patterned the exterior of the Patio Apartments, in the already-uncomfortably-personal In a Lonely Place, on his first L.A. residence.

Unjustly neglected, and often misunderstood as a cautionary “social problem” picture about the dangers of cortisone abuse, Bigger Than Life is a far rarer bird—a jet-black comedy-cum-demolition derby that uses its “message” as a Trojan horse to sneak a bewildering array of social-critical potshots at 1950s-era conformism and middle-class, middlebrow mentalities past its unsuspecting viewers, as well as gleefully taking a sledgehammer to nearly every cherished idol of Ozzie and Harriet complacency—PTA meetings, friendly neighborhood milkmen, and somnolent Sunday services all get it in the neck.

Schoolteacher Ed Avery (producer/star James Mason) works a second job as taxicab dispatcher so he can keep wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and son Richie (Christopher Olsen, soon to be seen as James Stewart’s kidnapped son in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much) in the style to which they’re accustomed. When he collapses from nervous exhaustion (clutching his doorbell, so that incessant buzzing serves as objective diegetic correlative to his discomfort and disease), he’s rushed to the hospital, diagnosed with an uncommon heart disease and prescribed the new “miracle drug” cortisone. Ray fills the medical test montage with garish swaths of red and black, after an almost Expressionist fashion, and groups the doctors in vaguely ominous twos and threes.

Abusing his medication unleashes a megalomaniacal sense of entitlement and superiority—its germs already evident prior to his breakdown, as in the scene where Ed scolds Richie for enjoying the dumb shows and noise of a TV western—long held in check by the self-professedly dull Ed Avery. This Janus-headed approach to the material allows Ray and his flotilla of screenwriters, among them playwright Clifford Odets and film critic-turned-novelist Gavin Lambert, to radically interrogate the very institution of the paterfamilias as well as use him for a mouthpiece in their devastating satirical attacks: An address to the PTA turns into a free-for-all when Ed informs the assembled parents that their children are on an intellectual par with chimpanzees, then goes on to outline a crypto-fascistic plan for educational reform. Holding a fabled high school football victory over his son Richie (the ball holds pride of place on the mantelpiece), he begins a harsh, incessant regimen of drill practices as a pretext to terrorize and berate the boy.

Bigger Than Life’s visual and thematic schema are also Janus-faced; hearkening back to the heyday of German Expressionism, it deploys portentous shadow-play and mirrored doublings to deepen its portrait of psychological disintegration, paving the way for the New Hollywood horror renaissance by locating the source of its horror—a father’s unabashed, uncontested desire to slaughter his own son—squarely within the nuclear family. The influence on Kubrick’s The Shining is inarguable.

Bigger Than Life boasts the ne plus ultra of staircase confrontations. Convinced of organized religion’s hypocrisy and negligence after taking a banality bath during the Sunday sermon, Ed realizes, as he puts it, he must “now take all that on too.” Striding down the stairs like some Old Testament prophet, Ed recites the story of Abraham and Isaac, leaving off where Abraham raises the knife to deliver the killing blow—holding aloft a pair of scissors he’s been using as a place-marker. When Lou urges him to continue, saying, “That’s not how the story ends, Ed! God stopped Abraham!” Ed proclaims, “God was wrong!” What other film—then or now—had the audacity, drug addiction or no, to call into question the reliability of the Big Guy Upstairs?

Turning on the baleful eye of the TV (the set shows an incongruous carnival scene, the raucous calliope music making do as soundtrack for the murderous attack to follow), Ed chases Richie upstairs, when something—a baffling wash of red across the frame—prevents him from striking. As he chases Richie back down the stairs, family friend Wally Gibbs (Walter Matthau) arrives, and a violent struggle between the two men ensues, shattering the stairway banister. Because the stairs lead from the public-access downstairs where parties and get-togethers are held to the private, domestic space upstairs, they represent the tensions between these two spheres, and the banister’s rupture signals the absolute collapse of the family unit.

A perfunctory epilogue supplies the resolution, rendered tentative by stressing the fact that Ed’s recovery may well be provisional, the likelihood being that eventually he will relapse. (This major revision to the source material—wherein the teacher was simply prescribed a different medication—imposes a “No Exit” baseline existentialism on what otherwise might have become mere melodrama.) The road to Ed’s provisional recovery is free-associational; a dream about Lincoln (“I dreamed I walked with Abraham, he was as big and as ugly as in life”) segues into the memory of his attempted murder. The family unit comes together for a group hug, but it may only be a matter of time before madness descends upon them again.

More or less finished with the Hollywood studio phase of his career (only the interfered-with The True Story of Jesse James and for-hire Party Girl remained), Ray moved to Europe, where his films were already attracting lavish critical praise, and two international co-productions followed. Both films—dominated by enormous vistas (shifting Saharan sands, barren Arctic tundra) captured in CinemaScope and, in the latter case, the even-more-expansive Super-Technirama 70 format—exemplify what Herman Melville called “the deadly space between” differing human natures, as well as between man and the indifferent, even hostile, natural world that surrounds him.

Ostensibly, Bitter Victory is a WWII film set, and partially filmed, in Libya, but instead starts off more like a chamber piece, another triangulated love affair, when Major Brand’s (Curd Jürgens) wife, Jane (Ruth Roman), turns up at Western Desert HQ on the eve of an important mission. When he introduces her to rival and second-in-command Captain Leith (Richard Burton), it soon becomes apparent they have a prior history. Before the war, Jane and Leith had been lovers until he abandoned her for archeological work in Libya: “You always seemed to prefer stones to people,” she says. Brand senses something between them, but opts to curry favor with his superiors, rather than confront his wife, providing Leith and Jane with the convenient opportunity for a farewell scene. She talks of love, he deflects the emotion into a pessimistic appraisal of the “futility” of history: “The Romans built beautiful cities in Libya: dead bones sticking out of the sand. War rolled over them. It’ll be good to see them again.” Already Leith’s death wish, a desire to return to the inorganic state, to be one with stone and mineral (as Freud would have it), rears its head.

The scene shifts to a virtuoso set piece—the nearly 10-minute, virtually silent commando raid on Benghazi—that allows Ray to flaunt his architectonic compositions and syncopated editing rhythms. Though the mission is a success, things begin to fall apart later that night, as the men make their way through the desert to the rendezvous point, when a convoy of Germans sneak-attack their encampment. The following day, Brand decides to leave Leith and the native guide, Mokrane, behind with wounded soldiers from both sides. With excruciating slowness, some of the men die, while Leith weighs his alternatives. (Burton is wonderfully expressive here, having to do nothing more than gaze dolefully into the desert wastes to register Leith’s internal warfare.) Deciding to put the men out of their misery, Leith levels his gun at a German officer, who pleads for his life, appealing for mercy by holding up a family picture. Leith fires anyway. The British infantryman, on the other hand, wants to die. Leith attempts carrying him to safety, over the man’s agonized protests. He doesn’t get very far before Mokrane stops him. The soldier is dead. “I killed the living,” Leith says with abashed irony, “and I saved the dead.” Human endeavor, it seems, may also be futile in the end.

Reunited with Brand and the rest of the men, the company must traverse the desert on foot. The low contrast photography blurs the line between sky and sand (compared to the earlier nighttime German raid), increasing the viewer’s impression of aimless wandering, an almost bibilical exodus mood, even perhaps a kind of sand-blindness. The animosity between Brand and Leith grows: Brand’s suspicions about Jane and Leith are confirmed, Leith needles Brand relentlessly about an act of cowardice committed during the Benghazi raid. Brand sees, but does nothing to prevent, a scorpion crawling up Leith’s leg. When he’s stung, Mokrane kills and disembowels a camel, so Leith can drink ammonia from its bladder—anticipating a similar moment in The Savage Innocents. But the ironic reversals aren’t quite over yet; directly following, a ghibli (sandstorm) blows up. Leith throws himself across Brand, saving his life, his dying words paraphrase Whitman, “I contradict myself! I always contradict myself!”

The apotheosis of a tendency within Ray’s work, taken to nearly Surrealist lengths, The Savage Innocents was filmed for the most part on soundstages in France and Britain, but with second-unit footage shot above the Arctic circle, and some principal photography involving the lead actors, haphazardly cut in—and the integration of these wildly disparate scenes from time to time skirts camp and on occasion imparts a certain Brechtian “alienation effect.” Also contributing to the mood, the fact that a young Peter O’Toole, in only his second film role, had his voice re-dubbed by the Italian producers. (An admitted fan of the film, Dylan wrote “Quinn the Eskimo [The Mighty Quinn]” to express his admiration.)

Inuk (Anthony Quinn) is indeed an “innocent” who spends practically the entire first hour cavorting and giggling with his Inuit kind; it’s no coincidence that the film suggests “to laugh” as the Eskimo circumlocution for carnal knowledge. Resembling not so much Flaherty’s Nanook of the North as Welles’s Touch of Evil in its racial politics (none of the actors are actual Eskimos, of course; at best the film settles for vaguely “Asiatic” types like Yoko Tani, playing Inuk’s wife Asiak), The Savage Innocents exudes sympathy for this band of outsiders. When the plot eventually does kick in, the narrative focuses on Inuk’s quixotic interactions with “civilization,” as represented by a trading post ruled over by a lone white trader and staffed by a gaggle of Americanized Inuit. The White Man is a prude (and, of course, a bigot), refusing to interact with any of the natives save his right-hand man. Ever the patriarch, the trader even pulls the plug on the natives’ innocent fun—doing the twist to a tune called “Iceberg” playing on an old-fashioned jukebox—and sends them all to bed.

Sensibly enough, Inuk and Asiak run away. But now civilization won’t leave them be. An unctuous missionary turns up at their igloo, looking to introduce them to his “friend” Jesus (they imagine he means a real person), and when Inuk offers to let him “laugh” with Asiak, the man starts crowing “It’s a sin!” until Inuk cracks his head against the ice-wall. The following spring, two troopers flying in to investigate wreck their seaplane. One drowns, while the other’s (O’Toole) hands are terribly frostbitten trying to save his partner. Inuk guts a sled dog, forces the trooper to shove his hands in. “It hurts!” the man cries. “Good,” Inuk replies. “Means life is coming back. Only death is painless.”

The scenes between Quinn and O’Toole are key to the film’s refreshingly non-paternalistic subtext. Rather than applaud the wondrous advantages of material culture (the jukebox scene sets the tone at wryly bemused) or, on the contrary, simple-mindedly idolizing the simplicity of the native Inuit, Ray navigates a middle ground based on mutual appreciation and reciprocity. Or, as Asiak puts it, bidding farewell to the recuperated trooper, “When you come to a strange land, you should bring your wives and not your laws.”

Following two epic catastrophes funded by notorious producer Samuel Bronston (King of Kings and 55 Days at Peking, during which Ray suffered a heart attack and was replaced), Ray’s filmmaking career was, for all intents and purposes, over and done with. On the scene in Paris during the May 1968 student uprisings, Ray eventually did go home again (briefly), shooting footage for two documentaries, one on the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton, the other chronicling the 1969 anti-war protest march on Washington. From 1971-73, he taught filmmaking at Harpur College (SUNY Binghamton), overseeing production of an experimental split-screen work-in-progress, We Can’t Go Home Again, which had its provisional premiere at the 1973 Cannes film festival. From 1976 until his death in 1979, Ray and his third wife, Susan, occupied a loft in SoHo. He made cameo appearances in Wim Wenders’s The American Friend and Milos Forman’s Hair and, over the last few months of his life, collaborated again with Wenders on the documentary Lighting over Water (a.k.a. Nick’s Movie).

August marked the centenary of Nicholas Ray’s birth. The Venice Film Festival will be marking the anniversary by premiering a new documentary about Ray’s life and career, Don’t Expect Too Much, as well as a newly restored and re-edited version of We Can’t Go Home Again.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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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

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Days of Cannibalism
Photo: Berlinale

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

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The 100 Best Westerns of All Time

The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition.

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The 100 Best Westerns of All Time
Photo: United Artists

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


Drums Along the Mohawk

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


Tombstone

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


True Grit

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


Death Rides a Horse

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


The Violent Men

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


Westward the Women

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


The Gold Rush

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


Destry Rides Again

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


The Wind

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 Dorothy 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


Run of the Arrow

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

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Review: Vivarium Looks Aloofly at the Nightmare of Conformity

This a parable about adulthood boasts deeply cynical takes on home, community, and childrearing.

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Vivarium
Photo: Saban Films

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

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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

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Resistance
Photo: IFC Films

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

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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.

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Atlantis
Photo: Best Friend Forever

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

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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.

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Red Moon Tide
Photo: Berlinale

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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Review: Pushpendra Singh’s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs

The film speaks lyrically to a peoples’ determination to find a meaningful way to live in a rapidly changing modern world.

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The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs
Photo: Berlinale

Based on a folktale by Vijaydan Detha and further influenced by the life and poetry of 14th-century Kashmiri mystic Lalleshwari, Pushpendra Singh’s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs tells the story of a young nomadic shepherdess, Laila (Navjot Randhawa), who finds herself exploited by foolish, lustful men. Using traditional folk songs—each revolving around a central idea, such as marriage, migration, and attraction—Singh loosely divides the film into seven parts. Each of these musical interludes—some diegetic, some not—mark a transitionary phase in Laila’s spiritual growth and path to self-realization as she navigates a world that remains indifferent to her own dreams and desires.

After being taken as a bride by a spineless young herdsman named Tanvir (Sadakkit Bijran), Laila migrates, along with their Bakarwal clan, to a more populated area of Kashmir, where we get clear sense of the territorial conflict currently playing out between India and Pakistan. Border police and local officials badger the nomadic shepherds, asking for permits and identification cards that have never before been required of them. This rapid social change limits the mobility of the clan and threatens their way of life, but once they arrive at their destination, it’s talk of Laila’s great beauty that spreads rapidly throughout the land.

As the young woman is met by unwanted advances by the regional inspector (Ranjit Khajuria) and his goofy but somewhat charming subordinate, Mushtaq (Shahnawaz Bhat), she’s left to fend for herself by her feckless husband who constantly kowtows to their authority. Laila uses both her fearlessness and intelligence to protect herself, first pushing and slapping the inspector and, later, fooling Mushtaq time and again by setting up nighttime meetings with him, only to thwart his plans by showing up with Tanvir by her side.

These various nocturnal rendezvous with Mushtaq play out in a repetitious manner, like the episodes of a fable. While Mushtaq is relentlessly aggressive in his pursuit of Laila, Tanvir’s oblivious, overly deferential responses to the increasingly absurd manners in which the man shows up on his land in need of bananas or a sheep are threaded with deadpan humor. When Tanvir calmly says of Mushtaq, “What a kind man. He cares so much for us,” a look of resignation and frustration settles on Laila’s face as she realizes how vulnerable she is and that she alone must cope with the dangers and challenges of her life.

As Laila is further isolated and confronted with her lack of agency, the film draws parallels between her vibrance, toughness, and persistence in the face of oppression and that of the Bakarwal community, who’ve roamed the Kashmir region and maintained their cultural mores there for centuries. The forest is marked early on as not only a space that requires great fortitude in which to survive, but also a realm of potentially fantastical transformation. When Laila’s friend asks her when she began to fear the forest, she replies that she never has and that Lalleshwari “also discovered herself here” and “abandoned everything to find God.”

This proclamation foreshadows Laila’s own journey of self-discovery and enlightenment just as a gorgeous shot in which Tanvir, sitting on a tree stump below his wife, transforms into a sheep alludes to the brief flashes of magical realism that will creep into The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs from time to time. Such poetic scenes are more frequent as the film proceeds, and enhanced particularly by the cinematography, which features slow, roving camerawork that, as in Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, exhibits a reverence for and connection to the landscape and the protagonist’s deep connection to it.

In its final minutes, the film becomes increasingly expressionistic, as Laila symbolically sheds her clothes and wanders from the forest into the rocky landscape of the Himalayas. There’s a remarkable visual play between darkness and light and aural juxtaposition of folkloric music (a song of renunciation) and the crashing sounds of thunder as Laila drapes a snakeskin over her shoulder and contemplates her position in life with a pensive stare into a mirror. It’s a stunningly beautiful and mystical passage laden with sorrow, uncertainty, and the inevitability of change. But it also speaks quite lyrically and evocatively to both Laila’s, and, by extension, her peoples’ enduring determination to find a meaningful way to live in a rapidly changing modern world that’s less and less inclined to ensure their survival.

The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs 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 Pascale Ramonda.

Cast: Shahnawaz Bhat, Sadakkit Bijran, Ranjit Khajuria, Navjot Randhawa, Mohammed Yassen Director: Pushpendra Singh Screenwriter: Pushpendra Singh Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Blow the Man Down Is a Sharp and Memorable Nautical Noir

The film never veers into wink-wink self-consciousness that its opening might have suggested.

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Blow the Man Down
Photo: Amazon Studios

Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s Blow the Man Down starts on a literally self-aware note. The opening sequence shows the fishermen of a coastal Maine hamlet not just hard at work netting, spiking, and chopping up their catch, but also singing a rousing rendition of the 19th-century sailors’ song that gives the film its title. Full-throated and haunting, the piece is sung right to the camera as though it were a music video for some Americana band. But even though what follows is shot through with a keen understanding of genre necessities and an impatience for wasting more time on them than is necessary, the film never veers into wink-wink self-consciousness that its opening might have suggested.

When we first meet the ghostly pale Priscilla Connolly (Sophie Lowe) and her anxious and messy sister, Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor), they’ve just buried their mother and are trying to extract themselves from the hole she left them in. While Pris takes the need to keep running the family store and the looming loss of the family home somewhat in stride, Mary Beth is furious. Hating their “shithole” town and eager to leave for college, she goes to a bar to blow off steam following their mother’s wake and makes a poorly considered connection with a scuzzily larcenous-looking guy named Gorski (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Many drinks, some bad driving, a baggie of cocaine, and one well-aimed harpoon later, Mary Beth has a body on her hands and a situation that suggests calling the police would be a poor idea.

Blow the Man Down’s first third or so moves briskly along the well-traveled terrain of the What Do We Do with the Body? genre. Savage Cole and Krudy seed their screenplay with somewhat stock elements, from the sack of cash that causes more problems than it’s worth to the small town rife with hypocrisy to the inexpertly cleaned crime scene with one crucial clue left behind that could send Pris and Mary Beth to prison. But even though some of these narrative beats are highly familiar, the filmmakers handle them with a light touch that keeps things fresh and entertaining until the film throws viewers a neat curveball.

At first, the three tsk-tsking women (June Squibb, Marceline Hugot, and Annette O’Toole) in matching pale Talbots-like outfits who drift through the film appear to be merely a decorative chorus of crones. They’re initially somewhat like the fishermen who come back in from time to time to deliver more bloody-minded sea shanties. But once the women start targeting their disapproval at Enid (Margo Martindale), the apparent proprietor of a cozy old bed and breakfast, the film opens up an entire secret and seamy underbelly to the town that the sisters are about to be pulled right into even if they manage not to be charged with murder.

In between the choral interludes, Blow the Man Down is layered with a discordant and eerie yet also slightly playful soundtrack that enhances both the setting’s chilly isolation and the sisters’ sense of panic and displacement. Overall, the performances are solid, if short of standout, with the great exception of Martindale’s. In her role as the town’s unapologetic scarlet woman, the character actress swings Enid through her scenes, balancing on a cane and fueled by whiskey and a white-hot sense of grievance. “Go back to your casseroles and crochet,” Enid tells the chorus of three old busybodies with a dry and spare tone that pushes the line from petty insult into veiled threat. Without Martindale, Blow the Man Down would be a sharp and tightly constructed nautical noir. With her, it becomes a memorable one.

Cast: Sophie Lowe, Morgan Saylor, Margot Martindale, June Squibb, Marceline Hugot, Annette O’Toole, Gayle Rankin, Will Brittain, Ebon Moss-Bachrach Director: Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy Screenwriter: Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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25 Underrated Movie Gems to Stream Right Now on the Criterion Channel

It’s worth taking a dive into the channel’s obscure but vibrant depths.

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25 Underrated Movie Gems to Stream Right Now on the Criterion Channel
Photo: Janus Films

It’s encouraging that, about a year after its launch, the Criterion Channel remains with us. Less encouraging—from an end-of-days perspective—is that most of us now have an abundance of time to explore it. If self-isolating to prevent the spread of a deadly pandemic has upsides, though, having time enough to poke around the varied corners and depths of the streaming service counts as one of them.

The selection of films on the Criterion Channel rotate quickly, making the films it highlights as “leaving at the end of the month” more vital than most other sites’ similar sections. In a sense, this makes the Criterion Collection’s streaming platform feel more alive than services that have more stable caches and their own in-house content. The new films that pop up at the beginning of the month—in March, the channel has included Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life and a number of German silents—are akin to special events. The shifting library of films functions like a vast, curated program available in our homes.

The sense that the channel is driven by curation rather than algorithm is no doubt intentional. If, with its esoteric film library and novel programming, the streaming service seems rather offbeat, this is in large part because we’re now used to receiving viewing suggestions from systems that emulate only in outline the mechanism of recommendation. We’ve grown reliant on the facile generic groupings (“drama,” “adventure,” “comedy”) typical of algorithm-driven services. Criterion pointedly ignores genre in favor of auteur, country of origin, or cultural context; a mainstay on the site for several months, amid the controversy over another male-dominated Oscars season, has been its prominent featuring of women filmmakers.

As the Criterion Collection continues to hold on to its niche in an arena dominated by Amazon, Netflix, Disney, among other hopefuls, it’s worth taking a dive into the channel’s obscure but vibrant depths. Many of the films below are rare finds—not only in the world of streaming, but in the era of home video. Pat Brown

Editor’s Note: Click here to sign up for the Criterion Channel.


The Adventures of Prince Achmed

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, 1926)

Now justly recognized as the first fully animated feature film, Lotte Reiniger’s masterpiece—composed of cut-out animation of silhouettes on monochromatic painted backdrops—transports us to dreamlike realm. Closely related to the contemporaneous experimentations in animation carried out by figures like Oscar Fischinger and Walther Hans Richter, The Adventures of Prince Achmed lends the orientalist fairy tales it recounts a rhythmic grace. As Prince Achmed journeys through various motifs from the “Thousand and One Nights,” the visual pleasure lies in the reverie of watching the cinema imbue mere shapes with life. Brown


The Ascent

The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko, 1977)

A World War II film in which heroism is a myth, Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent focuses on two Soviet partisans (Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin) who are left for dead in the snow-covered Russian countryside. Shepitko’s camera alternates between passages of realism and lyricism, entrenching her characters within a course of almost certain death. If Sheptiko’s soldiers experience only pain at the hands of their merciless German captors, it’s to better articulate the tragedy of their fundamental innocence within the war machine. Clayton Dillard


Asparagus

Asparagus (Suzan Pitt, 1979)

A Jungian psychosexual mescaline trip in the form of an 18-minute animated short, Asparagus is at once a vibrant blast of psychedelia and an unsettling journey into the depths of the subconscious. Suzan Pitt’s film was famously paired with Eraserhead on the midnight-movie circuit back in the late ‘70s, and it’s as equally resistant to interpretation as David Lynch’s classic. Proceeding with a dream logic that recalls the symbolist experimentalism of Maya Deren, Asparagus’s imagery ranges from the lushly verdant to the uncannily profane—often within the same scene, as in the film’s haunting climax in which a faceless woman robotically fellates an asparagus spear. Watson


Begone Dull care

Begone Dull Care (Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart, 1951)

If a jazz combo hired Stan Brakhage to direct their music video, the result might look something like Begone Dull Care. Set to the buoyant bebop of the Oscar Peterson Trio, Evelyn Lambart and Norman McLaren’s zippy animated short is one of the purest marriages of music and image in the history of cinema. Using lines, shapes, and abstract textures painted and drawn directly onto celluloid, the film grooves along to the jazz music—at times using particular colors to represent individual instruments, at others delivering a frenetic freeform visual accompaniment to the music, but always delivering a dazzling showcase of the animators’ inventiveness and dynamism. Watson


Body and Soul

Body and Soul (Oscar Micheaux, 1925)

Body and Soul, Oscar Micheaux’s melodrama about sexual violence within a southern black community, was controversial even among black audiences. Noted as the film debut of Paul Robeson, the film bucks expectations by casting the handsome singer as Isaiah T. Jenkins, a criminal masquerading as a preacher. Jenkins beguiles a local worshipper, Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert) into leaving him alone with her daughter, Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell). He rapes Isabelle and steals Martha Jane’s savings. As Jenkins palms the hard-earned cash, Micheaux inserts a woeful montage: Martha Jane’s hands ironing clothing, anonymous black hands picking cotton off the plant. Brown

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Review: Deerskin Eerily and Evocatively Reflects on a Man’s Fragility

In Deerskin, Quentin Dupieux mines the absurdism that is his signature with newfound forcefulness.

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Deerskin
Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

Underneath the absurdism and narrative mindfuckery of Quentin Dupieux’s films resides a sadness that the French writer-director mines with newfound forcefulness in Deerskin. The film has an eerie, evocative premise. Drifting through a mountainous town in France, Georges (Jean Dujardin) tracks down a vintage deerskin jacket. Smitten with the garment, Georges spends his entire savings on it, before then holing up in a nearly abandoned hotel and passing himself off as a filmmaker to the locals, especially to a young and attractive bartender, Denise (Adèle Haenel), who claims to be an aspiring film editor. We also learn that Georges is navigating a divorce, and that his wife has frozen his savings, which obviously leads one to believe that he’s in the midst of some sort of midlife crisis, electing to buy a jacket instead of, say, a Porsche, which he couldn’t afford anyway.

A little heftier than he was in The Artist, with an elegant graying beard, Dujardin bears a resemblance to Terrence Malick, and Georges, in his ludicrous way, even goes about pretending to make films in Malick’s register, shooting footage that Denise will shape into something free-flowing and subjective. Georges, like many a failure, is obsessed with the image of success above all, as a gratification of himself, and seems to have few passions or interests that might lead to its actual realization. An early scene suggests that Georges may have been a bored office drone, as he stops in a store and makes a ritual out of attempting to flush his old blazer down the toilet; he requires a more obvious totem of manliness, and he frequently references the deerskin jacket’s “killer style,” even talking to it on occasion.

These masculine symbols are somehow explicit and mysterious at once. If Dupieux had added any expositional dialogue, having Georges openly riff on his frustrations for instance, Deerskin’s spell would probably be dispelled. The film’s melancholic, comic charge springs from Georges’s commitment to his new reality, which comes to mirror the commitment of a real artist. The town is also visually resonant, suggesting a secluded village in a western; its landscapes imbue the film with a beauty that’s ironic—suggesting our addictions to the illusions of westerns and other masculine pop art—as well as wistful.

This beauty is also counterpointed with the crushing loneliness of the town’s citizens. Denise goes along with Georges’s schemes because she’s looking for direction, and there’s a brutally effective joke in which Georges is informed that a hotel clerk has killed himself—information that’s related with the sort of casualness that one might reserve for ordering breakfast. Georges walks into a room to steal something from the corpse, which is revealed to be a mannequin with a hole in its face. This is one of the great surreal flourishes of Dupiex’s career, the mannequin suggesting the desolation of people who choose to annihilate themselves.

Deerskin eventually takes a gruesome turn, as Georges decides that he must be the only person in the world with any jacket. As he begins a killing spree, the film, in its rhyming of the vocations of art-making and serial murder, recalls a lean and more playful version of The House that Jack Built, minus Lars von Trier’s laborious self-justifications. Dupiex, then, finds another macho totem to parody: the self-consciously intellectual art-house auteur who lards their fantasies with delusions of grandeur. But Dupiex also has a kindship with Georges, recognizing him to be the epitome of the toxic male as well as a lost soul in the tradition of men who are conditioned to play it safe with boring jobs, only to be self-shamed for that very dependency on safety. By killing others, Georges is announcing that he wants to die.

Cast: Jean Dujardin, Adèle Haenel, Albert Delpy, Coralie Russier, Marie Bunel, Panayotis Pascot Director: Quentin Dupieux Screenwriter: Quentin Dupieux Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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