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Pleasures Worthy of Guilt: A Cinephile’s Confession (2005), with Postscript (2009)

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Pleasures Worthy of Guilt: A Cinephile’s Confession (2005), with Postscript (2009)

Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is proud to reissue a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. The essay below was first published on 03/21/2005, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).

I was first introduced to the concept of “guilty pleasure” (one not related to the tribulations of adolescence or ruler-happy nuns thwacking out at the slightest transgression, at least) through the auspices of Film Comment magazine back in the late ‘70s. At that time the magazine ran, as a recurring feature, articles written by various luminaries of film—directors and actors, usually, with the occasional high-profile writer or cinematographer thrown in for good measure—who would recount the sodden treasures of their film-going pasts, ones that helped make them the artists they were or in some way retained particular personal meaning for them. Of course the whole point of the series was the revealing of their dirty little secrets, their love for films disregarded, ill-regarded, derided or otherwise forgotten by critics, audiences and film historians.

It was here that faithful readers first learned of director John Carpenter’s illicit appreciation not of the Howard Hawks of Rio Bravo (keen-eyed viewers of his Assault on Precinct 13 would have already connected those dots), but also the Howard Hawks responsible for films deemed too silly even for all but the most rabid auteurists, films like Land of the Pharaohs and Red Line 7000.

Paul Schrader elaborated on his guilty pleasures—the films of Bresson, Ozu and Ford. Certainly not the typical Hollywood B-movie or grind house fare usually cited, but instead films that spurred his loosening of the theological constraints of Calvinism and caused him to plumb the depths of guilt and despair left over from his religious upbringing and rechannel those impulses into a highly personal and controversial career as a screenwriter and director.

But in perhaps the single most well-known “Guilty Pleasures” article Film Comment would ever publish, notorious Baltimore resident John Waters, himself responsible for more intermingling of the concepts of “pleasure” and “guilt” than any other director up to that time (August 1983), would throw into stark relief the whole idea of what exactly might constitute the “guilt” in a guilty pleasure. Imagine, if you can, the filmmaker who unleashed Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble feeling guilty about anything. You can’t? Okay, for the sake of argument, say that you could. What would you imagine inspiring an old-fashioned bout of metaphysical hand-wringing within the not-so-tortured soul of the man who could gleefully stage a mind-twisting rape scene in which the victim (female) and the perpetrator (male) were played by the same actor (Divine)?

Certainly not the odd horror film or neglected film noir that might routinely pop up on most anyone else’s list. No, Waters shocked cinephiles worldwide with his admission that he was secretly a fan of, as he put it, “what is unfortunately known as the ’art film.’ ” Waters summed up his career as making low-brow films for high-brow theaters but admitted that until then he had only acknowledged the influence of the trashiest of films on his oeuvre. By the end of the article (subsequently reprinted in his book Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters), the director had braved the ire of those who might accuse his selections of being “purposely perverse” and revealed himself to be an art snob in love with Woody Allen’s Interiors, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema and Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom, Ingmar Bergman’s Brink of Life, and anything by either Marguerite Duras or Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

But the shock waves of Waters’ celluloid confessional would not stop within the pages of Film Comment. A scant four years later would see the release of a PG-rated film by the director, itself recently transformed into an equally family-friendly (not to mention Tony Award-winning) Broadway smash. Perhaps Waters’ “guiltiest” admission might have been the desire to, if not become a “mainstream” filmmaker (on his own terms, of course), then at least have access to more of a mainstream audience than would have even glanced at an ad for Desperate Measures, much less paid money to see it.

The 1980s welcomed John Waters’ Hairspray, but by the time of that film’s unleashing upon an appreciative public, forces like Saturday Night Live and, more importantly, David Letterman had already helped pave the way for a world in which the most shocking act a provocateur like Waters might perpetrate would be sneaking in the back door on something like a PG rating and subverting audience assumptions from within. The idiom of irony as epitomized by Letterman had become, for better or worse, even more pervasive and predominant in American pop culture as the 1990s dawned, and it was beginning to become difficult to find any rogue element of the cinema that hadn’t been embraced, accepted or written about in some current of the mainstream. (Even the dabbling by mainstream audiences in ‘70s porn like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, certainly a genuine, if momentary phenomenon, pales in comparison to the generally widespread acceptance of porn star celebrity and sensibility found today on sports talk radio, The Howard Stern Show, Maxim magazine and its multitude of imitators, the E! channel, and just about anywhere else except the Pax Network.)

Now when you see an actor like Jeff Bridges write about his guilty pleasures (as he did in an issue of Film Comment published last year), the very title of the series seems a misnomer. Bridges starts off his brief article promisingly with a terrific story related to his inability to shake certain images from John Boorman’s notoriously incoherent sci-fi epic Zardoz. But unfortunately the rest of the list ends up being not so much a tool to illuminate a particular sensibility as an opportunity to rattle off anecdotes about movies made by friends (director Matthew Bright’s Freeway) or featuring father Lloyd (Rocket Ship X-M), brother Beau (Village of the Giants), or himself (The Yin and Yang of Mr. Go, American Heart).

So what now, now that almost every new season sees the unveiling of a $100 million comic book adaptation and horror films that were once perceived as among the cinema’s most vile transgressions (Tobe Hooper’s 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) are remade by A-list Hollywood hotshots and gross ten times the original film’s budget in the first weekend? What now, when box-office grosses and Ashton Kutcher’s love life get more press ink than the movies themselves (unless, of course, that coverage consists mainly of sound bite-riddled junket sessions conducted by star-struck “entertainment reporters”)? Are there any films left to feel guilty about?

Well, certainly the answer has to be “yes.” But if the denizens of pop culture have become excessively forgiving when it comes to what can be embraced, then it’s time to shed the self-aggrandizing aspects of putting together such a list and get back to exposing the hard-scrabble nuggets at the bottom of the cereal box. Any attempt to justify one’s personal junkyard dogs of cinema can be agonizing and embarrassing, particularly if you’re keen on cultivating some measure of intellectual respectability or credibility among those involved in the conversation. So just forget the attempts to impress your film savvy friends, because they’re not likely to be impressed by much at this point anyway.

At this point on the chronometer of pop culture, better to just come clean. Regardless of genre, style or subject matter, the films that make up my “guilty pleasures” list are those that, like Waters’, might cause some genuine embarrassment on my part at their revelation during casual conversation; films that would expose me as an irredeemably pretentious fake if I tried to justify them on any level other than their basest appeal (no deconstructionist arguments in defense of The Love Bug, please); films that I like or enjoy despite the fact that they are, on one level or another, indefensible and/or plainly bad when held to any rational standard of taste or judgment.

Compiling my list, then, signifies a threefold purpose: 1) To identify those films that insist on a certain degree of genuine shame folded in with their appreciation, not just movies of ill repute that are actually wonderful but that everyone else is just too “stupid” to value; 2) To once again examine the guilt in the guilty pleasure; 3) To engage in a simple act of soul-cleansing admission. But let’s not get too heady here. The bottom line is, like most list-making processes, the very act of attempting to justify personal, irrational responses to largely impersonal cinematic artifacts tends to rather easily devolve into a somewhat indulgent and onanistic enterprise. So what better exercise, then, than harvesting (and perhaps exorcising) reel after reel of movie guilt?

Abyss-diving with Altman

Robert Altman is a director, I would say, with scant familiarity with guilt. He would score points for flying in the face of logic, demographic evidence and studio interference at just about any point in his long career. But when he cashed in the critical cachet he’d earned with 1990’s The Player and Short Cuts, he earned a place on the list of the most purposely perverse directors of all time. While not exactly replicating the artistically dubious incoherence of Quintet, a film which finds little favor even with the most ardent Altman cultist, the director returned to the large scale free-form canvas of Nashville, Brewster McCloud and O.C. & Stiggs and used it to create what plays like the most slapdash seat-of-the-pants train wreck of his career—the fashionista wet-dream comedy Prêt-a-Porter (Ready to Wear) (1994).

Filmgoers who seemed ready to participate in another big Altman party laced with the same kind of acid insider bite that suffused The Player seemed confused and put off, that is if they decided to attend a screening during the film’s short theatrical run at all (few did). As a card-carrying member of the Altman cult myself, I found myself enchanted by what most found undisciplined and unfocused in Altman’s approach, that is, his enjoyment of the people he shovels in and out of the frame and his tendency to let them play out their improvisatory strings until they teeter just on the brink of making fools of themselves (some, like Danny Aiello in an agonizing and apparently heavily truncated plot line that finds him in drag for no discernible reason, topple right off that brink while the director looks the other way).

To some this streak of indulgence comes off as a sly form of misanthropy. But Altman loves his actors and showcasing the unpredictable impulses of their behavior. And the misanthropy charge is too familiar and flimsy. At this point it registers simply as a convenient albatross hung around the director’s neck by lazy entertainment reporters who like to parrot familiar refrains rather than observe what’s right in front of them. And what’s in front of them in Prêt-a-Porter is without doubt a claustrophobic Parisian pile-up, a “satire” of the colossal vanity and gossamer relevance of the fashion world that at times barely seems to have a point of view itself. It’s easily the messiest film of Altman’s shaggy career, dogged perhaps by its director’s indifference to the shadow of folly and the whims of expectations.

But, like Brewster McCloud with its occasional visitations of raven doo-doo upon unsuspecting heads, Prêt-a-Porter is carefree enough to risk self-satire (not to mention a giggle over the sanitary standards of the City of Lights) by introducing the motif of its sophisticated actors continually trotting through dog shit. It’s also a lot more fun than its reputation suggests, although I’ll be damned if I’ve ever been able to convince anyone of it. The bottom line is, any film that finds an opportunity for Sophia Loren to recreate (with a twist) her lingerie-clad seduction of hammy-to-the-end Marcello Mastroianni from Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow could otherwise have completely collapsed on itself and would still get a round of applause for me.

Steiger, Peck and the other white meat

On the subject of cured flesh, the history of theatrical ham has many legendary performances that live on in the memories of those lucky enough to have actually seen them—Zero Mostel’s Tevye, Ron Leibman’s Roy Cohn, Quentin Tarantino’s Harry Roat—but largely their grandeur is preserved through first-and-second-and-third-hand accounts by writers striving mightily to perpetuate even a degree of the actor’s over-scaled achievements. Ham on film, however, comes packed with preservatives, and for every actor who has appeared on film, there is an actor who has, at one time or another, scaled that Olympian pork roast and lived to regret the non-disintegrating properties of digital film preservation and, of course, the DVD.

I first saw Rod Steiger in No Way to Treat a Lady (1968) on the ABC Sunday Night Movie when I was perhaps only 10 or 11 years old, and I thought it could possibly have been one of the most terrifying movies ever made or that could possibly ever be made. Just the idea of a serial strangler who uses his craft as a stage actor to worm his way into the good graces of his potential victims was enough to stoke my movie-fed nightmares, and I was in awe of Steiger’s ability to warp his image into so many different configurations—a kindly neighborhood priest, a jolly German electrician, a dowdy transvestite barfly—all of which go from relatively benign to insinuatingly evil in a corrupt twinkle of the actor’s eye. Then, some 20 years later, I saw the movie again and was somewhat disturbed to find out it was, in fact, a slightly creaky, more-than-slightly black Oedipal comedy, and while Steiger was obviously in on the joke it clearly never occurred to him that modulation in the pursuit of actorly effects was any kind of virtue at all. For this is the Oscar-winning actor, never known for his subtle approach, pounding the pipe organ of his craft with all stops pulled and rattling the rafters at top volume. It wouldn’t be until his cameo role in The January Man, some 21 years later, that he would again come as close to blasting a capillary on-screen as he does in his wild death scene in this picture. Credit director Jack Smight for turning Rod loose on the scenery and letting him graze like the Tasmanian Devil, and credit Rod for gulping down as much at one time as he does, for his thespian gluttony here is truly remarkable to behold.

But what about a movie so populated with memorably bad acting that, no matter how hard I try, whenever it shows up on cable I simply have to stop what I’m doing and see it through to the besotted, bloody end? And given my inability to resist the rancid pull of The Boys from Brazil (1978), what am I to do now that I own a copy on DVD? Am I cursed to watch this bloated Sir Lew Grade international prestige production again and again until the very indestructible nature of the DVD begins making mockery of my increasingly enfeebled body and mind? And what responsibility should Sir Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, James Mason, or director Franklin Schaffner shoulder in furthering that enfeeblement? (Actually, this is probably not a question that would have bothered them much even when they were all alive…)

Mason provides the most grounded of the thrills here, mincing about the Amazonian hideaway of Dr. Josef Mengele (Peck!) in a very large scarf and fedora, insinuating many potentially negative things about the doctor’s prospects for continuing his loopy attempts to clone Adolf Hitler. “Your operation has been cancelleddddddd…” he hisses to Mengele at one point. “No!” comes the rather emphatic, curiously stilted reply. “Your…operation… has… been… cancelled!” Peck’s decision to have Mengele sound as if he’s speaking phonetic English instead of simply German-accented English, or of course just plain old German (this is, after all, a Sir Lew Grade international prestige production, where all English seems phonetic and overdubbed) lends a stodginess to his entire presence, a sense of his being uncomfortable in his own skin that adds layer upon layer of weirdness to the performance, but precious little credibility (I blame his shellacked hair and makeup too).

Peck was never what I’d call an actor of tremendous spontaneity, but the way he barks at an old biddy who screams for a doctor after he hurls her apparently traitorous husband to the floor during a ballroom celebration (“I… am… a doctor… you… idiot!”), or the way he woodenly attempts to cajole one of the little Hitler boys of the title into accepting his true ancestry, all while an angry Doberman waits impatiently poised to clamp down on his crotch, makes him seem the most ossified representation of Third Reich evil ever presented on screen.

As for Sir Laurence Olivier, suffice it to say that this is the pinnacle of his many late-career paycheck performances in which he basically let loose his inner imp and let it run wild with an accent (this time, a slightly sibilant Austrian one). His Nazi-hunting Ezra Lieberman will live in glorious testimony to a great actor’s desire to push the inherent silliness of his calling right up to the edge of the abyss and blow raspberries to those already plummeting into the void who had not the discipline to know how far to go or even how to get there (paging Danny Aiello!).

And while I’m at it, one final shout-out to Jeremy Black, the neophyte actor given the task of embodying at least four of the boys from Brazil, the little Hitler clones who would, if Mengele’s darkest machinations were to see light, each repeat the circumstances of the dictator’s youth and similarly flower into the charismatic power of his tyrannical adulthood. The Internet Movie Database assures me that this is the only time young master Black’s talents were ever put to use on film, and connoisseurs of Wretched Performances, Youth Division ought to mourn this particularly cruel turn of cinematic fate and regularly revisit his one lasting piece of acting fury. His may be the most astonishingly witless and thoughtlessly unshepherded performance by a child actor before or since, although Spencer Breslin (of Disney’s The Kid and Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat) seems to be gearing up for a career-long challenge to Black’s status as king of the heap. His nasally congested rejoinder to Mengele’s climactic delineation of the nefarious genetic goings-on into which he is inexorably entwined—“Oh, man you’re weird”—is a hallmark of the involuntarily deadpan, and the only sane response to someone who loves this movie as much as I do.

Friendly per-Swayz-ion

There are pleasures worthy of guilt in just about any genre you can name, and some, like The Boys from Brazil, are prime examples of strange genre subsets all their own—what other movie so clumsily and without conscience warps historical and political tragedy into the rich narrative manure of pulp science fiction and cheap suspense? (And I’m not merely posing a rhetorical question here—if anyone knows of another steaming pile of this ilk that satisfies and expands the boundaries of the big-budget/international cast/historically derived schlock thriller so thoroughly, please contact me.)

But the actor that can represent his own subgenre of crap classic is a find indeed. I’m not talking about your John Waynes or your Schwarzeneggers (or Seagals or Van Dammes or Dudikoffs) or any of the countless other actors who virtually defined the particular genres in which they succeeded at the box office. In addition to being identified almost solely within a specific genre or type of film, each one of these stars has at least one credit that could in most circles be recognized as a good movie—Wayne’s The Searchers, Schwarzenegger’s The Terminator, ahem, Seagal’s Above the Law, Van Damme’s (damn, I sense my thesis starting to fall apart here—gotta get out, quick), uh… Double Impact, and Dudikoff’s… okay, there is no good Michael Dudikoff movie.

However, few actors have challenged the time-honored requirements of comedy, domestic drama, romance and action with such woodenly consistent results as the inimitable Patrick Swayze, the man who would be, and I would suggest eventually became, the ‘80s answer to Jan-Michael Vincent. Swayze’s career often paralleled the blush of romantic folly embodied by Vincent films like Sandcastles, Buster and Billie and Baby Blue Marine with the likes of Ghost, Dirty Dancing, Three Wishes and Father Hood. Some were hits, some were flushed from popular consciousness in a little less time than it took to read their universally negative reviews. But all were attempts to cash in on the romantic soulfulness the actor’s handlers persuaded several tabloid TV shows and magazines that he had in spades back in the Reagan/Bush era.

Patrick was more per-Swayz-ive in action clunkers like Youngblood and Next of Kin. The latent hostility behind the actor’s vacant, vaguely bovine stare, a definite liability amidst the shameless suds of Ghost, worked better when he was allowed to wield a shotgun and swear occasionally. But two Swayze efforts from the late ‘80s-early ‘90s, both of which tread a path also taken by earlier Jan-Michael Vincent works, would set the bar inordinately high for what I’ve come to fondly think of as the Idiot Epic (known on cable as “Movies For Guys Who Like Movies”).

Swayze’s sleepy turn as the NYU philosophy major who works as a bouncer in a rough-and-tumble bar (you’ll have to insert your own joke here, because the movie refuses to) in director Rowdy Herrington’s relentlessly asinine Road House (1989) was the actor’s correlative to Vincent’s B-movie classic White Line Fever (1975). That movie, designed to quickly cash in on the trucking/CB radio craze that was sweeping the country at the time, had a down-and-dirty exploitation picture pedigree courtesy of director Jonathan Kaplan, a veteran of the Roger Corman school of creative low-budgets, and an unbridled energy that didn’t allow the viewer the time or the desire to contemplate the sillier elements of the story.

Herrington is a far less talented director than Kaplan—Road House is lumpy and lurchingly paced, whereas the more stripped-down Fever hurtles along with the unstoppable force of an 18-wheeler with no brakes on a steep downgrade. But it turns out the director wasn’t named Rowdy for nothing. He plops Swayze down in the midst of one spectacular fistfight after another, risking severe and mind-numbing repetition and virtually jolting his nearly somnolent lead actor into a constant state of agitation. And damned if Swayze doesn’t come alive (well, almost) as he pounds and punches and kicks and snaps bones in scene after scene. The movie, and the actor, finally take on a kind of shit-kicking glow, the radiance of which can reduce a viewer like me, who in the real world wouldn’t be caught dead (or more likely would be found dead) in the kind of barroom brawls staged here, to a state of gleeful yahoo-itis, where a kick in the groin is as good as a kiss on the cheek. Road House could be the best Idiot Epic ever made, and it must have made Hal Needham green with envy.

Swayze would seal his unspoken bond with Vincent just three years later in near classic form. JMV searched for the perfect wave (along with best buddies Gary Busey and William Katt) in Big Wednesday (1978), director John Milius’ ode to end-of-an-era male bonding among the surfer subculture. But Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (1991), cresting just ahead of the burgeoning popularity of the “extreme sports” movement, would take Swayze well past the rose-colored nostalgia and relatively sensitive bravado of Milius’ vision and straight through to the uncut adrenaline rush that would come to define an entire generation’s approach to fun in the sun.

Bigelow’s sensibility is serious, and the lean, spectacular set pieces she stages are among the best that can be found in modern action cinema. But her propulsive attitude toward the story, the narrative structure of which could be most generously described as ridiculous, is typically shaken up by her cast’s various ineptitudes, deficiencies and excesses. As Bodhi, leader of a band of bank-robbing thrill-seekers, Swayze, alternately stoic and loony, embodies the movie’s corruption of Milius’ macho-philosophic worldview. Cast mates Keanu Reeves (whoa-ful undercover F.B.I. agent Johnny Utah, who infiltrates Bodhi’s commune of crime), Lori Petty (Bodhi’s hard-as-nails girlfriend who, naturally, falls for Johnny), John McGinley (chewing scenery as few others could, or would, as Johnny’s apoplectic boss) and Gary Busey (again, chewing scenery as few others could, or would, as Johnny’s meatball sandwich-scarfing partner—“Gimme two!”) ultimately merely frolic in the shadow cast by Swayze’s somewhat ripe, sun-damaged baddie—Bodhi is a deceptively whirligig psycho best friend and mentor who justifies his violent crimes through his pursuit of the ultimate wave and, cursed practicality, the need to fund it. The actor revels in the extremes of the character and his director’s willingness to indulge them in his performance, and he has hardly a moment in the movie, right up through the deafening conclusion where Bodhi is not saved from drowning under the wave he’s been after all along, that he doesn’t look foolish. But it’s a foolishness armored by conviction. That may not be enough to keep me from cringing whenever I revisit Swayze at work here, but at least makes me believe it’s probably his finest hour on screen.

Ken Russell and the fine art of historical bastardization

Speaking of foolish conviction, it’s difficult to imagine a rival in all of cinema to approach the overripe, headlong, giddy and gasping pretense of the oeuvre of director Ken Russell. This British director, who never encountered a subject he deemed inappropriate for the excessive whirling-dervish fantasias that comprise his personal style, has made peculiarly entertaining mincemeat of a multitude of historical and biographical subjects—the ghastly horrors of religious and political hysteria in 17th-century France (The Devils); the flamboyance and emptiness at the heart of the life of a legendary screen idol (Valentino); the bombast and grotesqueries revealed in heavily fictionalized accounts of the lives of the composers Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers) and the titular Mahler. But these triumphs of questionable taste, impure testimony and narrative lunacy pale compared to the kaleidoscopic incoherence of Lisztomania (1975).

I can’t imagine another filmmaker who would even momentarily think that an outlandish “biography” of Franz Liszt (Roger Daltrey!) which posits the reluctant celebrity of the Viennese composer as a kind of pioneering instance of rock stardom was a good idea. But the brio with which Russell invests this bizarre enterprise made those few who took him up on his challenge and actually paid to see this madness genuinely question his sanity. If singular achievement is any director’s goal, then Russell, in a career filled with films that could not be mistaken as the work of any other artist or hack, truly came into his glory with Lisztomania.

Patchy details of Liszt’s life are intermingled with phantasmagorical musings on the roots of nationalistic evil—Wagner, Liszt’s chief rival, is depicted as a literally vampiric predator who claims Liszt’s daughter and whose Aryan musical ideals come lumbering to life in the form of a Hitlerian Norse god of a Frankenstein’s monster. When Russell tires of this theme, he flits off and indulges his predilection for treacle or otherwise clumsy sketches—Liszt’s romantic longings are cast anachronistically in the iconography of a silent Chaplin comedy, and the movie opens with an tryst interrupted by a jealous husband that devolves into pixilated parody of silent-era swashbuckling action. And then there’s the real showstopper, a one-of-a-kind sequence of grandiose sexual panic that encapsulates the movie’s recurrent phallic iconography—Liszt’s insatiable appetites and incumbent paranoia fuel a Busby Berkeley-inspired musical number beginning with our hero being engulfed in a massive vagina and culminating in his sprouting a nine-foot erection, which is promptly straddled and danced upon by a bevy of wild-eyed, high-stepping dance hall girls… just before it’s inserted into a guillotine.

I’m sorry—did I forget to mention that I love this movie? I’d be hard-pressed to think of another movie whose “ideas” are so supremely silly, so obviously the product of a sophomoric lack of discipline, whose “vision” is so robustly, ingloriously tawdry and downright ridiculous, yet which I find so unaccountably engaging. I also know of absolutely no one who will back me up in my fondness for this one-of-a-kind folly, and I think I prefer it that way. It’s a gigantic load, to be sure, but it’s my gigantic load. And of course Russell’s, who probably jettisoned for good what little of the cultural cachet he’d secured for himself with well-regarded films like Women In Love and The Boy Friend by unleashing this wonderful monstrosity on the world. And as willfully strange as this director seems through his films, he probably prefers it that way.

Somewhere Al Capp is smiling…

Finally, it’s time to admit my weakness for stereotypical representations of a particular social group with which I have a more-than-passing familiarity: white trash. I’ve always had a kind of nostalgic attraction to the (for me) primal pull of the rural fantasy of the Ma and Pa Kettle series. Though she resembled her not a whit, Marjorie Main’s Ma seemed to embody so many of the rough-and-tumble characteristics of my own grandmother that it was (and still is) easy for me to transpose the fictional woman with my memories of the real one and allow Ma Kettle to take on a kind of vitality that she might not necessarily have for anyone else. And Pa Kettle is only Pa Kettle if he’s played by Percy Kilbride, who turned the depiction of sloth into a down-home art form. Parker Fennelly, replete with anachronistic Pepperidge Farm-type accent, replaced Kilbride as Pa in the last film of the series, The Kettles on Old MacDonald’s Farm, but he never approached the kind of easy charm with which Kilbride so effortlessly imbued the character.

Regional filmmakers Ferd and Beverly Sebastian created product for the drive-ins of the deep South throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, their most widely hailed work being the sweaty vigilante programmer Gator Bait (1976). Swamp sexpot Claudia Jennings (and all of her pulchritudinous charms) made this ketchup-and-cleavage drama a huge hit nationwide, but the Sebastians’ little-seen sequel, Gator Bait 2: Cajun Justice (1988) is the one that, for my money, seals their status as nonpareil purveyors of bad behavior (and questionable breeding strategies), Southern division. Your bodacious heroine is killed in the first movie? No problem. See, she has a big, burly brother with a redheaded Daisy Mae for a wife, who can get sexually assaulted and otherwise tormented by every known variety of swamp rat and toothless gas station attendant until big brother has just… had… enough! GB2 is distinctive largely in its mise-en-scene, which makes the undeniably tacky Billy Jack look expansive and visually choreographed, and in its cast of apparently authentic local “talent,” which probably looked an awful lot like the folks who saw out the twilight days of outdoor picture shows in their pickup trucks watching incredible heaps like this one. If you’ve got a taste for it, it’s a little bit of redneck heaven.

When I’m feeling more introspective and I want to indulge in white-trash stereotypes couched in a base of reality, garnished with genuine talent and/or relatively serious intentions, two films immediately leap to mind. Few documentaries feel more whimsical, so honestly inquisitive, yet at the same time so back-door condescending as Errol Morris’s Vernon, Florida (1981). The non-fiction specialist’s curious visit with the citizens of a small backwoods town, highlighting their various eccentricities and downright oddities, is undeniably hilarious, moody and charming. But Morris also coasts on loads of smirking subtext, and his use of the camera and techniques of editing maximize the sense of an outsider (Morris, us) standing back far enough from these local yokels so that we can’t miss how not just eccentric, but downright weird they are compared to everyone else. Morris’s sense of empathy would expand profoundly by the time of Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1997), but this is his most complete journey so far into an actual community and if it yields fascinating, troubling results, the later work would prove out the lessons learned by the director during his time in this little town.

Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky followed up their devastating journalistic documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), chronicling the hysteria of an Arkansas town desperate to pin guilt for a triple murder on three local teenagers, with the even more disturbing Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000). The film depicts the teenagers bereft of the flippancy they displayed in the face of murder charges in the first film. Here they are behind bars, convicted of the crime and serving time, despite increasing evidence that points to the stepfather of one of the victims. In tracking events in the wake of their conviction, though, the film ends up raising serious questions about the imposition of the filmmakers into the very case they’re observing. Like Morris, they get seduced by the elements of life in this environment that play up to a sense of superiority on the part of the viewer. But unlike Morris, they have a truly charismatic, and possibly psychotic, person at the center of their inquiry in that stepfather, who often addresses the camera directly with his tortured observations, justifications and various attempts to discount the mounting suspicion swirling about him. This is one of several recent documentaries (including Capturing the Friedmans, any film by Nick Broomfield, and Berlinger and Sinofsky’s own Brother’s Keeper) that implicate the audience, and their own filmmakers, to an uncomfortable degree and make us believe we’re being given access to aspects of lives to which we have no right. Couple that with the skill and urgency of this film’s approach, its inexorable narrative pull and its (perhaps inevitable) emphasis on elements of a social group many non-Southern urbanites might find disturbing, and you have the very essence of a guilty “pleasure.”

The journey toward the restoration of the guilt in my guilty pleasures, though amply primed by the previous entries, can ultimately only be fulfilled by consideration of the two great experiences in the dissection of white-trash culture of my formative movie-going years. When I was 13 years old, I conned my dad into accompanying me to a screening of Deliverance at our hometown theater. By the time it arrived there, the movie had already been in release for about a year, and through the grapevine of locker room whispers and classroom chatter I knew full well what horrors it held when I began suggesting to my dad that we catch that new outdoors movie (the local movie calendar highlighted only the image of four men in silhouette carrying a canoe, so my attempt at reductive encapsulation of the film’s plot seemed to have some basis in reality). But I didn’t count on my mom coming along, and consequently having to sit between them for the duration of the feature. By the time Ned Beatty was forced to begin his pathetic porcine impersonation, I truly knew what it was to squirm with the helpless desire to be anywhere else, and I could feel the laser intensity of my mom’s gaze burning a tiny, white-hot hole through my temple. But even after all that, Deliverance was still a great movie, and I think so to this day—I just never mention it to my mom.

Greatness is not an accolade likely ever to be bestowed upon the film version of Kyle Onstott’s epically lurid sex-and-slavery page-turner Mandingo (1975). But my (non-Kettle) grandmother was a big fan of the book, and when I became interested in it because of what I’d heard about the movie, she inexplicably conspired to lend it to me so I could read it unbeknownst to my parents (who were probably still stinging from being taken on that whole Deliverance deal). I could lie and say I had some overriding sociological interest in the subject matter, given that the mid-‘70s of my youth were a time when the fruits of the civil rights movement of the ‘60s were being given a chance to either ripen or rot. But truth be told, being a fan of the idea of the blaxploitation explosion in American movies (I had yet only seen Super Fly and Shaft, but kept up with the latest developments in this particular phenomenon through the movie pages of the Portland Oregonian), and being a typical 14-year-old boy, it was, yes, the lurid aspects of the story that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

So imagine my surprise when the movie showed up at the local theater and my grandmother asked me if I wanted to go see it. With her. That surprise was topped only by my mom’s indifferent shrug when I floated the idea to her. “What the hell,” she seemed to be saying, “If you’re not already corrupt or otherwise warped by what I’ve allowed you to see myself, then I guess you’ll be okay—either that, or watching this stuff in the presence of your grandmother will be the back-breaking straw that sends you merrily on your way to a fulfilling career as a racially motivated sex criminal.” (Thanks, Mom!)

So we went off to the movies, Grandma and I. Those milling about the tiny lobby of my hometown movie theater, the Alger, who had an inkling of what the evening’s entertainment held in store offered us an assortment of odd, uncomfortable glances. Nonetheless, we marched right on up to our seats in the front row of the balcony and settled in for whatever the Motion Picture Association of America deemed inappropriate for children under 17 unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian. And Mandingo did not disappoint.

Turns out, the first time I ever saw a man simulate an orgasm on screen was right there with Grandma sitting next to me. It was Ken Norton, the impossibly muscled titular figure, lured upstairs for a vengeful tryst by and hovering over the lady of the plantation, played with prodigious teeth and gums perpetually and frightfully bared by Susan George. Norton groaned and shuddered like he’d just taken one in the kidneys from Muhammad Ali, and Ms. George seemed suitably impressed as well. Strangely, I never flinched with embarrassment (except perhaps a little bit for the actors), and neither did my grandma.

We giggled into our popcorn at some of the lines given to James Mason as the old massa, whose physical deterioration—he seeks respite from the tortures of rheumatoid arthritis by setting his bare feet on the belly of a slave boy laying at the foot of his rocker—is echoed by the rotting, unkempt condition of his plantation house. We reacted with appropriate revulsion at the fight staged at the auction site between Norton and another slave who ends up with a large chunk of flesh missing from his shoulder. And we had the same reaction upon Norton’s flogging at the hands of his master, Perry King, while hanging upside-down in a barn. The twist of the scene comes from the knowledge that King has been somewhat respectful of and relatively friendly with Norton’s character up to this point, his savagery tempered somewhat by his ambivalence. No such respect remains, however, when King realizes the color of his newborn son, connects the dots between Norton and George, and promptly forces the slave into a boiling pot of laundry water before he fatally perforates him with a pitchfork.

When the lights came up, Grandma and I were, for the moment at least, ashamed to be white, ashamed to be implicated in the perpetuation of attitudes that once enabled and endorsed such atrocious crimes against human beings, and we discussed with some seriousness the ghastly tragedy of slavery as we drove home. In the almost exclusively Caucasian confines of my little hometown, this constituted some sort of revelation, a vivid experiencing of some degree of truth that had only been abstract or textbook in nature before. I expected to groove on some sex and violence during Mandingo, and I’d be lying if I said those expectations went totally unfulfilled (I can’t speak for Grandma on this point, God rest her soul). But what I didn’t expect was to be moved by it in any way, serious or not.

I saw Mandingo again in my early 30s, and I was able to appreciate the attempts by the screenwriter Norman Wexler to inject some allegorical wit into Onstott’s narrative, some threads that might lead the viewer to connect a time when American society openly dealt in the enslavement of a race of people to a period some 110 years later when much lip service was being paid to the easement of race relations with little actual progress on display. And though the actors and Richard Fleischer’s direction are little better than pedestrian (that may be a generous assessment of Norton’s acting talent), and though the movie may at heart be simply a piece of exploitation (it was certainly marketed as such), I was struck by the fact that it comes off as pointedly, and powerfully, anti-racist as it is lurid. The more permissive context of a theatrical film allows the cauldron of Mandingo’s concerns, both violent and sexual, to boil at a more confrontational temperature than decorum might otherwise allow. As a result the movie, despite the participation of Anglos Wexler and Fleischer (not to mention Onstott, whom I’ve always rather presumptively imagined, with no prior knowledge or available research to confirm it, was also white), is much closer to the unchecked anger of blaxploitation, particularly Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song, than to the sober mainstream TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots.

As a white adult reflecting on Mandingo in 2005, I wonder about the basis of the emotions that inform the movie. It certainly displays some of the uncut anger of the urban blaxploitation cinema of its time. But I suspect it also sometimes tip the scales toward a sort of reverse-racism laced with extra added heaping teaspoonfuls of white liberal guilt, a rage much different from the kind born of firsthand oppression in which van Peebles’ film trafficked. By fueling the fires of such potentially contradictory emotions with campy performances by the likes of Mason and George, while simultaneously existing as a politically correct and morally confused satire of the ongoing tragedy of race relations, Mandingo defines itself, for me, as the guiltiest pleasure of them all.

The challenge of the guilty pleasure

Film critics routinely complain about the lopsided ratio of bad films to good in any given season. And whenever asked, most usually claim that writing about good films is more challenging. The critic’s ability to document his own responses to a film, evoke the intangible elements of the viewing experience, and use language and imagery to express what it is that the writer found remarkable, is what often elevates criticism into an art form of its own. Often those same critics will suggest that writing about bad films is, conversely, not as stimulating, either for the writer or the reader, because there isn’t as much to say about an abject failure or a filmmaker caught in a cycle of repetition and self-parody. As a result, they end up resorting to wisecracks and condescension to deal with bad movies in an expedient manner, all the better to flush them if not from the cultural consciousness, then at least from the critic’s purview.

But it seems to me that approaching bad films with intent equal to the way one approaches good films is the more appropriate attitude. This is not to say that critics should abandon their senses of humor. Instead, they should recognize when that humor begins to exist for itself rather than to expand upon the experience of a film in a way that is enlightening to the reader. If not, then writing about bad films becomes exclusively about showing off to readers just how clever the writer is, and how superior he is to that about which he is expending so much personal creative energy. There are cinematic pleasures worthy of guilt, if guilt is an emotional response that is to be taken at all seriously, and it deserves consideration within the context of that which inspires it. For me to write off Mandingo or Lisztomania with a couple of flip comments would be to deny considering what it is about them that I find compelling, beyond recognition of their status as films that register as “failures” based on some unknowable “objective” standard of taste and achievement. It ought to be as great a challenge for a writer to illuminate that which is complex, contradictory and, yes, insufficient or offensive about “bad” films as it is to wax rhapsodic about the good ones.

I hope I’ve achieved some measure of that approach here. The challenge of the guilty pleasure is not simply to acknowledge the guilt, shrug one’s shoulders and laugh it off, but to determine the source of the guilt, understand it, and begin to find ways to redefine the parameters of the pleasure that the guilt inspires. Hopefully, for the critic and the thoughtful cinephile, that process becomes its own pleasure, perhaps a more profound one than guilt over any one movie could ever be.

Postscript (2009)

When I read this article again, I realized there were several things about the way it was written that I would have approached differently—I would have tried, for instance, to scrub it of some of the Entertainment Weekly-style snark that seeped into my sensibility, even when I wasn’t necessarily aiming for it. When Keith proposed reprinting the piece in the 24 Lies a Second series I was initially skittish about it for this reason. But I finally decided that it would be better to see the piece as it was written, without close to five years of fresh writing experience, than to open a Pandora’s box in trying to gussy it up. Besides, the writing style is, to me, the less important element about what’s different now than when the piece was first written. The one thing that has really changed for me in regard to the movies mentioned in this article, and indeed to movies in general, since I wrote “Pleasures Worthy of Guilt” back in 2004 is that my concept of guilt as it relates to movies has almost entirely evaporated. For me the notion of the guilty pleasure has become, even more than it was when I read Jeff Bridges’ Film Comment article, outdated and irrelevant. The “guilt” I may have felt about admitting to enjoying, on any level, movies like Pret-a-Porter, Lisztomania or The Boys from Brazil was never all that overwhelming to begin with, and certainly shame is far too strong a word altogether.

If anything (and I think this is clear from reading the article through eyes about to switch over to their 2009 model) the twinge I feel upon mentioning these movies, either in general conversation with “regular” folks or in the relatively more erudite circles of cinephilia to which I’m more privy than I was in 2004, is more closely akin to a kind of perverse pride than anything else. It’s the kind of pride that comes from having grown up in a small-town culture which did not share my enthusiasm for movies (or the arts in general), where I learned to enjoy the peculiar pleasures of eagerly promoting movies I knew would cause the pupils of the unwashed to roll back and disappear into their sockets. The difference I see as an adult is that the movies I talk to people about may sometimes elicit that reaction, but not because I’m throwing the titles out there for their shock value. (Well, maybe Pret-a-Porter…) One does not have to crawl away in embarrassment as a result of talking about these pictures, even if I think it would still be wise not to try to make cases for them as a collection of masterpieces. In any case, if you, or I, or someone insists, then a slight degree of embarrassment is a far more honest and valuable frame to set around movies like this than one constructed of guilt. Honestly, I don’t feel any guilt over enjoying Point Break or Road House, even if I recognize their bedrock silliness. And in the years since I wrote this piece I’ve offered up guilt-free appreciations of bastard stepchildren like 1941, New York, New York, and even “disreputable” fare like Seed of Chucky and Revenge of the Cheerleaders, which sprung purely from the unique pleasures these movies and others like them have to offer.

Indeed, the pleasure I deemed most guilty back in 2004, Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo, has in my estimation undergone an almost complete transformation out of shame and into the ranks of one of my very favorite films, and in the most sincere fashion imaginable. It retains, for most people, its reputation as a schlock camp classic, what I deemed a pleasure worthy of guilt four years ago, but I can no longer endorse that point of view. For me Mandingo is probably the most potent and unflinching look at this country’s history of institutionalized racism and the reality of slavery, blessedly free of Margaret Mitchell-style adornments, that the American film industry has ever or is likely ever to produce. Even the performances, from James Mason to Ken Norton, no longer inspire guilt-spawned giggles as they intone the linguistic arcana of the Confederate South’s rotting soul; that language, however odd or offensive, sounds genuine to these ears, and the actors well-grounded in their attempts to represent a slice of history that might seem exaggerated to supposedly enlightened audiences who would feel more comfortable if the movie’s plantation masters referred to their stock in trade exclusively as blacks, or if the movie had traded verisimilitude for political correctness and said “N-word” instead of that other nasty epithet whenever the occasion arose. Mandingo is no guilty pleasure; it’s a movie landmark dressed up in exploitation rags, and it deserves better than to have its reputation as worthless junk perpetuated even in an article like mine, which denigrated it even as it tried to seriously deal with its repercussions, even as it ignited the spark of an interior monologue in this writer that would result in a major reassessment. There was another result that arose from revisiting this article as well: the realization that for me there is no more guilt related to the movies. There are only the movies themselves and the conversation that should—must—ensue, even when the movies themselves don’t seem worthy of serious consideration.

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Interview: Nadav Lapid on Synonyms and Our Conflict with Existence

Lapid discusses how he sought to confront audiences with questions about belonging, nationalism, and identity.

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Nadav Lapid
Photo: Kino Lorber

Nadav Lapid is one of the most exciting Israeli filmmakers to emerge in recent years. His first two features, Policeman and The Kindergarten Teacher, are hypnotic studies of the nature of power and resistance. His latest, Synonyms, tackles similar issues, but Lapid’s approach to his material here is almost as obfuscating as it is illuminating.

Tom Mercier, in a phenomenal screen debut, plays Yoav, a twentysomething Israeli who exiles himself to Paris, refusing to speak Hebrew or return to his homeland. Yoav is intense and enigmatic, whether sharing stories of his military experiences or practicing a form of wordplay while walking, head down, through the streets of the French capital. Whether he wants to or not, everyone is drawn into his orbit, from the young couple (Quentin Dolmaire and Louise Chevillotte) who finding him naked and helpless in the bathtub of an apartment adjacent to theirs, to the various men who work security at the Israeli embassy.

At this year’s New York Film Festival, Lapid sat down with me to discuss Synonyms and how he sought to confront audiences with questions about belonging, nationalism, and identity.

While there’s a narrative to Synonyms, it feels deliberately very episodic, creating emotions and moments of high drama but also ambiguity. What was your approach or purpose to tell this story in this way?

I arrived at the conclusion that I might be a strange person, because people find unusual and irregular things in the way I construct my movies. Policeman was divided into two parts, which was normal to me, but people found that strange. I try to be as close as I can to what I see as existence. And existence, as I see it, is composed as a series of events, and these events are composed of one single melody. Synonyms doesn’t have a classic narrative line, though its narrative is simple: Yoav gets to a place that he thinks will be his salvation and he’s disappointed. But even if the narrative structure isn’t classical, the film is one movement, or melody, even though it has a thousand variations.

I admire how deliberate the film is in its depiction of and ideas about storytelling. Yoav narrates photos, and he gives—and takes—stories from Emile, Quentin Dolmaire’s character. How do you find meaning in art, or inject meaning into it?

When we create art, there’s this desperate attempt to create stories that, on one hand, are full of beautiful storytelling moments. They may be the only way we have to communicate ourselves, our essence, and our past. On the other hand, there’s something very artificial in the way art and life tell stories. It’s as if we treat the world as if it has suddenly stopped and nothing is happening except for the stories we tell. The other person is only the ears. As we know in real life, everything is mixed, so we can tell a story with only words. Our body will deconstruct it, or reconstruct it, or give it another meaning. There’s something artificial in this desire to detach this moment of storytelling from the person.

In cinema, there are stories, but they have a peculiar relationship with the actual moment. Maybe this is also true of the storytelling of my film. It’s a classical narrative: Yoav arrives in the big city, tries to find success, and in the end is rejected. Maybe this is the peculiar, unique, singular thing, and it’s the film interfering with this simple narrative line? It spoils this naïve attempt to just tell the story. There’s something naïve and interesting that movies that are applauding their own stories. It touches only a thin layer of life.

There’s a specific emphasis on language, words, contrasts, and meanings in Synonyms. How did you land on the specific words you incorporated into the film.

I think that I tried to keep a certain balance between accidental and instinctive choices. I had this picture of Jackson Pollock hitting a painting in an accidental, or automatic, way, like the surrealists. I was also interested in the texture of words. Words have bodies and organs. I was walking, and talking to myself, and I can’t imagine how people looked at me! But I tried to feel and let my tongue lead me. And at the same time—and this is the nice thing about words—you can’t only reduce them to syllables. They have meanings, and the meanings have choices.

Are you into wordplay? Do you do crossword puzzles or other word games?

No. I read, and when I read books, I’m fascinated by words. I can’t bear the idea that people say that art cinema should be without words, and that words aren’t cinematic. There are films of acts and films of words. I think it comes from the fact that people treat words on a content level, and their only role is to mean or represent something. If you detach words from the story, or don’t want to say something by using words, then life changes.

Do you, as Emile suggests in the film, drink before writing to ward off the fear?

I drink when I write my shooting plan. I encourage myself to be courageous—to not to fall to convention.

I loved the dancing in the film. The women outside the bar, the nightclub scene with Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam,” and even a scene of Yoav dancing alone in his apartment, though he almost looks like he’s fighting. A scene of Michel and Yaron fighting is like a form of dancing, too, no?

I like when people dance by themselves for the audience in films. They come to the camera and say, “Here I am, look at me!” On another level, Synonyms goes further; it dances by itself with complicated mise-en-scène and trashy music. You cannot classify me! I am this and I am that. I’m fancy mise-en-scène and “Pump Up the Jam.”

Your film is, of course, erotic, not just because of Yoav’s often naked body, but his relationship with Emile is homoerotic, and his passion for Louise Chevillotte’s Caroline is palpable. She’s so sexy just sitting on the couch looking at Yoav or playing her oboe. How did you approach this element of desire?

When I think about desire, I’m guided by the idea that we all have a body. I’m trying to create movies where the existence of sex and the possibility of sex is in each and every second—rather than creating a film where there are sex scenes. There are sex scenes in my films, but they’re not the hottest scenes in my movies. There’s a permanent existence of the body, and that has a sexual potential. I sound like a new French philosopher! I’m not like this at all!

Speaking of bodies, how did you work with Thomas Mercier on the role of Yoav? Was there guidance you gave him to elicit this remarkable, full-bodied performance?

Tom was like a miracle. The work was intense but easy once he was cast. I bought him a French dictionary and I wanted him to study five new words each day and five new synonyms for each word. That was the work. He understood it so well. He prepared for a year because he was the thing itself. He was a judo champion and then became a dancer. He had a tenderness and fragility, and was very sexual, but he also had a violence and fury. You feel it. He could explode at any second. He was limitless.

All of your films address issues of desolation and madness. Why are these such key themes in your work?

I think my films are about people that take themselves very seriously—not in an ego way, or a stupid way, but in a way where they feel as if they understand or grasp something and follow these things until they find hell in paradise. They follow it until they recognize the deeper truth. But when you follow a principle to the end, it puts you in conflict with existence. And in odd moments, you lose your sense of humor and why life has humor.

You also explore issues of identity and nationality. There are ideas here about birth and corruption, the individual versus the masses, citizenship and rights. It seems like you deliberately set out to make viewers puzzle over lots of things.

I think Synonyms is broadly a political film. For Yoav, his national identity and Israel is like a dragon that he should kill and destroy and fight against—this mythological enemy. And, as you know, these mythological enemies are always yourself. Like Rosemary’s baby—the devil is inside you. But the film is attracted and seduced and fascinated by all the elements of nationalism. I read somewhere that Synonyms is anti-nationalist, but I wouldn’t define the film so easily. The moment in the metro where Yaron is humming the Israeli national theme—it creates a polemic in Israel, but [Yaron] has his problems. At the same time, it’s a powerfully charismatic, embracing moment. He’s humming the hymn of a nation that was annihilated. Whatever it means, I’m on the opposite political pole. I think the film has a right to flirt with nationalism while condemning it. You can’t hate a country if you’re not attracted to it.

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The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time

If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.

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The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Zombie movies not only endure, but persist at the height of their popularity, neck and neck with vampire stories in a cultural race to the bottom, their respective “twists” on generic boilerplate masking a dead-eyed derivativeness. For the zombie film (or comic book, or cable TV drama), that boilerplate was struck by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and its subsequent sequels established a loose conception of the undead threat: lumbering, beholden to no centralized authority, sensitive to headshots and decapitations.

If, according to Franco Moretti’s “The Dialectic of Fear,” the vampiric threat (at least as embodied in Count Dracula) operates chiefly as a metaphor for monopoly capital, binding those English bourgeois interlopers to his spell and extracting the blood of their industry, then the zombie poses a more anarchic, horizontalized threat. In post-Romero, hyper-allegorized zombie cinema, the hulking undead mass can be generally understood as the anti-Draculean annihilation of capital. Flesh and blood are acquired but not retained; civilization is destroyed but not remodeled. If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories for this or that, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.

At their apex of their allegorical authority, zombies may fundamentally destroy, as attested by our favorite zombie films of all time. But that doesn’t mean their inexhaustible popularity as monster du jour can’t be harnessed to the whims of real-deal market maneuvering, their principally anarchic menace yoked to the proverbial voodoo master of capital. John Semley


Night of the Comet

20. Night of the Comet (1984)

Night of the Comet’s scenario reads like the bastard child of countless drive-in movies, in which most of humanity is instantly reduced to colored piles of dust when the Earth passes through the tail of a comet that last came around—you guessed it—right about the time the dinosaurs went belly-up. Then again, just so you know he’s not adhering too closely to generic procedures, writer-director Thom Eberhardt irreverently elects a couple of pretty vacant valley girls—tomboyish arcade addict Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and her blond cheerleader sister, Sam (Kelli Maroney)—and a Mexican truck driver, Hector (Robert Beltran), to stand in for the last remnants of humanity. With regard to its bubbly protagonists, the film vacillates between poking not-so-gentle fun at their vapid mindset, as in the Dawn of the Dead-indebted shopping spree (obligingly scored to Cindi Lauper’s anthemic “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”), and taking them seriously as agents of their own destiny. Lucky for them, as it happens, that their hard-ass old man taught them how to shoot the shit out of an Uzi—and look adorable doing it. It also doesn’t hurt that Eberhardt filigrees his absurd premise with grace notes like the cheeky cinephilia informing early scenes set in an all-night movie theater. Budd Wilkins


The Living Dead Girl

19. The Living Dead Girl (1982)

In The Living Dead Girl, the gothic ambience that elsewhere suffuses Jean Rollin’s work smashes headlong against the inexorable advance of modernity. The film opens with the vision of bucolic scenery blighted by the scourge of industrialization: rolling hills sliced up by concertina-capped fences, billowing smokestacks visible in the hazy distance. When some dicey movers deposit barrels of chemical waste in the family vault beneath the dilapidated Valmont chateau, a sudden tremor causes the barrels to spring a leak, reanimating the corpse of Catherine Valmont (Françoise Blanchard) in the process. Despite the gruesome carnage she inflicts on hapless and not-so-hapless victims alike, it’s clear that Rollin sees the angelic Catherine, with her flowing blond tresses and clinging white burial weeds, as an undead innocent abroad in a world she can no longer comprehend. The flm builds to a climax of Grand Guignol gruesomeness as Hélène (Marina Pierro), Catherine’s girlhood friend, makes the ultimate sacrifice for her blood sister. It’s an altogether remarkable scene, tinged with melancholy and possessed of a ferocious integrity that’s especially apparent in Blanchard’s unhinged performance. The film’s blood-spattered descent into positively Jacobean tragedy helps to make it one of Rollin’s strongest, most disturbing efforts. Wilkins


Messiah of Evil

18. Messiah of Evil (1976)

This debut feature from future Lucasfilm writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz stars Mariana Hill as Arletty, the emotionally vacant daughter of a disappeared artist (Royal Dano). There’s a hushed quality to Messiah of Evil, all the better to hear the waves crashing in the distance. Nobody shouts until they’re about to die, usually at the hands of cannibal mobs. A super-chill dandy, Thom (Michael Greer), and his two girlfriends, Laura (Anitra Ford) and Toni (Joy Bang), join Arletty in an attempt to unravel the mysteries afoot in this secluded, unfriendly location, and as Thom busts a move on Arletty, the girlfriends disappear into the ominous blackness. Among the film’s more haunting elements: photorealist faces peering through windows and a wall weirdly painted with a full-size escalator. At any moment, this empty house seems as if it could warp into a nightmarish shopping mall—one of many bizarre evocations of a film that cannily mixes Lovecraftian dread with Antonioni-esque alienation. Erich Kuersten


They Came Back

17. They Came Back (2004)

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


Zombi

16. Zombi (1979)

Zombie lacks Romero’s allegorical undercurrents and horror-comedy hybridization, substituting instead a streamlined narrative that owes a substantial debt to H.G. Wells’s Island of Doctor Moreau and an all-encompassing mood of claustrophobic desolation. Taken on its own terms, it works quite agreeably as a visceral blow to the breadbasket, with one of the most outrageous and apocalyptic final scenes in the entirety of the subgenre. Some of the film’s most inventive shots are from zombie-cam POV, as the dead rise, shake off clods of dirt, and slouch toward the mission church. Attacks come fast and furious now, setting a frenzied pace that later zombie films like Evil Dead II and Dead Alive will utilize to infinitely more comic effect. By film’s end, only one couple remains, fighting their way back to a crippled ship. Adrift on the open sea, they catch a radio broadcast from New York. As it will in every mid-period Fulci film, hell has broken loose, and zombie hordes have overrun the outlying boroughs. In the fantastic final shots, as the panic-stricken newscaster narrates the zombie invasion of his radio station, a mass of zombies cross the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. Wilkins

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Review: Downtown 81 Celebrates a Bygone New York’s Creative Energy

This time capsule of bohemian New York distorts its representation of the city for reasons more loving than lazy.

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Downtown 81
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Todd Phillips’s Joker takes place in 1981, in a Gotham City meant to evoke the New York City of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s: garbage-strewn, violence-ridden, institutionally broken, on the brink of anarchy. But this vision of New York as a place where people live in perpetual fear is a cliché, a detail-absent caricature derived mostly from other movies, with Taxi Driver its most obvious reference and inspiration. Ironically, though not surprisingly, Joker can only simulate pre-gentrified Manhattan in its quest for “authenticity.”

The real New York of 1981 is the setting and subject for Downtown 81, a low-budget time capsule of bohemian Manhattan that distorts its representation of the city for reasons more loving than lazy. Like the city then, the film’s history is messy and beleaguered. The brainchild of French designer Maripol and her Swiss-born photographer husband, Edo Bertoglio, the film was written by cultural critic Glenn O’Brien and conceived in order to document the vibrant New York avant-garde scenes of the time. With a hip locale and cast, which included a pre-fame Jean-Michel Basquiat and several post-punk bands, it seemed primed for underground success, but post-production funding dried up and the film, originally titled New York Beat, was left incomplete until 1999. Unfortunately, in the intervening years the original dialogue recordings were lost, and since Basquist had died 10 years earlier, Saul Williams was hired to dub his voice, and the film was released to the public in 2000 as Downtown 81.

Downtown 81 frequently mythologizes its time and place. The “Once upon a time” prologue establishes this with a dreamy glide through the clouds and a female narrator intoning, “Any resemblance between the characters and the events depicted here and reality is purely magical.” The action occurs on a Lower East Side of demolished buildings and boarded-up windows that Jean accurately characterizes as looking “like we dropped a bomb on ourselves,” but while Jean is clear-eyed about the perils of the concrete jungle (“You can get anything you want here if you try,” he explains in voiceover, “You can get plenty of what you don’t want, too”), his adventures are often depicted as a series of urban whimsies through which he saunters as insouciant flâneur and DIY artist. He wakes up in a hospital for reasons unknown, gets evicted from his apartment, and encounters muggings, robberies, and hustles, viewing it all with utter nonchalance. The city takes care of its own, the film seems to say, and its moral and architectural degradations merely create occasions for reappropriative creativity, especially when Basquiat applies his absurdist graffiti to already heavily tattooed walls.

Like its occasionally wonky dubbing, this fairy-tale aspect of the film is sometimes endearing, sometimes irritating. Much of Downtown 81’s charm rests on having captured the thrill of art being created by like-minded weirdoes in their natural, incubating habitat, which means viewers get to see a Fab 5 Freddy rap session and a scintillating performance by James White and the Blacks, with White doing his best James Brown-by-way-of-Richard Hell routine. (Also performing in the film are DNA, the Felons, the Plastics, and King Creole and the Coconuts.)

But that charm fades in several frivolous asides, including a silly ending that has Debbie Harry transforming from bag lady to fairy godmother in order to provide Jean with a suitcase of money. This is supposed to resolve the film’s underdeveloped conflict—in which Jean must come up with roughly $500 to pay his rent, all while chasing a European model (played by Anna Schroeder) who might be his romantic and financial salvation—but it also marks the point where Downtown 81’s devil-may-care exuberance slides into a preciousness, and a sidestepping of reality, that’s no less juvenile for being 38 years old.

Other episodes work better, including one in which Walter Steding, of obscure No Wave band the Dragon People, recounts, in satirically mopey fashion, the indignities of life on the fringes of the music industry, vowing to never play again just before getting roped into another show moments later. And of course, there’s Basquiat himself, whose commanding presence as a neo-Beat wanderer and perceptual genius pervades every frame he’s in. As our guide, the easygoing yet street-wise Jean allows us to see the early-‘80s New York that’s been both romanticized and abandoned for its ubiquitous danger as a place where actual people lived, worked, and even thrived, his run-ins and shit-shootings with artist friends proving that New York City is more ragtag community of guarded aspiration than despair-plunging cesspool.

Ultimately, and despite its blind spots, Downtown 81’s gritty optimism in the face of unpleasant surroundings is a welcome reminder that, to quote Kurt Braunohler (which I admittedly learned from an NYCLink kiosk), “a true New Yorker doesn’t get ground down—he gets polished.” This is also a New York of the imagination—but a creative, not destructive, one.

Director: Edo Bertoglio Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 75 min Rating: NR Year: 2000

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Review: The Kill Team Seeks to Dispel the Illusion of a Clean War

This battlefront thriller has a clearer moral sense than other cinematic attempts to cope with the War on Terror.

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The Kill Team
Photo: A24

Based on true events from 2009, writer-director Dan Krauss’s The Kill Team suggests that the war in Afghanistan—America’s longest by an unhealthy margin—long ago reached the state of a self-perpetuating feedback loop. The story concerns a group of soldiers whose frustration and rage at the death of colleagues was channeled into a campaign of terror in the Kandahar countryside. Led and allegedly manipulated by a rogue commanding officer, the unit executed randomly selected villagers, framing them after the fact as insurgents by planting weapons next to their bodies and concocting false battle reports.

The Kill Team opens with the death of the team’s commanding officer, Sergeant Bruer (Zackary Momoh), who’s killed by an IED while offering candy to children. Throughout its telling of this and other events, the film sets up Private Andrew Briggman (Nat Wolff) as the audience’s surrogate, an eager and sensitive recruit who observes his fellow soldiers’ actions almost from an outsider’s perspective. He doesn’t smoke hash with his fellow soldiers, and he doesn’t, like them, begrudge the locals their differing traditions and language. He also doesn’t relish the opportunity to fight and kill. After Bruer is killed, his unit is assigned a new commanding officer, Sergeant Deeks (Alexander Skarsgård), an imposing, stone-faced figure who begins cultivating insecure attachments with the men under his command, bestowing and withdrawing favor at a whim in order to make them dependent on his approval.

While Krauss’s film examines the way that the young men’s subsequent embrace of an amoral warrior’s mentality leads to inhuman consequences, its reflection on both the inherent violence of war and the loss of a sense of mission among the occupiers remains incomplete. This battlefront thriller has a clearer moral sense than other cinematic attempts to cope with the conflicts formerly known as the War on Terror, such as Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, but it achieves this clarity largely by finding confining itself to a scenario with a clear moral dichotomy: that between the relatively innocent Briggman and the icy madmen Deeks.

In Deeks, the fictionalized version of the real commanding officer convicted of encouraging the young men to view all Afghans as animals, Krauss captures the sociopathy of a truly committed warrior. To play a killer who entices young men to join him in almost ritualistic slaughters, Skarsgård deploys the coldly attractive moral nonchalance familiar from his role as the vampire Eric Northman on HBO’s True Blood. “We kill people. That’s what we do,” Deeks explains softly and plainly to the uncomfortable Briggman at one point. Briggman averts his eyes, attempting to square the apparent truth of Deeks’s warrior philosophy with the “hearts and minds” mission his unit has often been sent out on.

Deeks turns missions into hunts, compelling the men under his command to find an Afghan man to be shot. In these scenes, which frequently cut away from the actual act—to, say, Briggman coming across the men discussing their cover, or to the body of an Afghan man lying on the ground behind them—we can see one end of a thread tying together American forms of authoritarian violence. The murder scenes captured from Briggman’s perspective on the margins, or just after the fact, strike an overtone that resonates with the police shootings and cover-ups that have triggered unrest at home while our Mideast wars have been raging.

The Kill Team gives us snapshots of a rural Afghan population whose hearts and minds are, as of 2009, very much not won over. Men and women alike shout fruitlessly in Pashto as their loved ones are pulled aside by the American soldiers. The trembling, battered face of a man picked up from the road outside the U.S. base, and whom Deeks attempts to convince Briggman to torture, is a powerful image that could stand as an indictment of the war itself. But the story limits its perspective to the experience of Briggman as he struggles internally, and in messages back home to his father, with what to do about the situation. The film’s focus on the private only becomes more acute as the circle around him tightens, the group of killers growing concerned that he will rat on them. The lives of the villagers killed becomes of secondary concern, as suspense in The Kill Team is increasingly driven by the question of whether Briggman will survive or be betrayed and murdered by his compatriots.

Krauss’s evident outrage at the commission of war crimes is something that’s sorely lacking in what meager public discourse about our continuing wars exists, but it doesn’t follow this outrage to what seems its logical, if radical ends. As the sergeant not entirely inaccurately asserts, the Army is there to kill. Given such a directive, perhaps liberal fantasies of a “clean war” are untenable. Warfare breeds bloodthirst; it produces people like Deeks. But despite glimpses of a larger critique of the American project in Afghanistan, and of the psychological and social sicknesses cultivated by two decades of continuous warfare, The Kill Team lets us escape from the horrors of war before it finishes demolishing the illusion of a clean one.

Cast: Nat Wolff, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Long, Jonathan Whitesell, Brian Marc, Rob Morrow Director: Dan Krauss Screenwriter: Dan Krauss Distributor: A24 Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Black and Blue Provides a Quick Fix of Action-Movie Catharsis

The film’s command of action defuses concerns about whether it offers a thorough social critique.

2.5

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Black and Blue
Photo: Screen Gems

Deon Taylor’s Black and Blue is an intensely political, niche thriller that, if it generates much mainstream discourse, will likely spark angry boycotts from those on one side of the aisle and searing hot takes from those on the other. Step a few feet back from its fast-paced saga of a valiant solitary policewoman hunted through the streets of New Orleans as she attempts to return incriminating body-camera footage to her precinct and you’ll see a narrative that construes a cop as a Black Lives Matter hero simply for using her mandated body camera as she should. This is a major-studio film that may go further than many others, including Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, in implicating police forces as systemic perpetuators of white supremacy, but it’s also one that handles the representation of poverty clumsily at best.

What’s more, Black and Blue’s action-movie tropes redirect its characters’ mistrust of authority into a narrative that tacitly approves of the militarization of the police and society at large. These same tropes, though, are part of what defuses such concerns about whether the film offers a thorough social critique. Despite its real-world trappings, Black and Blue comes off as fantasy, a story with the exaggerated features and simple satisfactions of a dream. Crooked cops will get their comeuppance, prejudices will be upended, and those not yet beyond redemption will be redeemed. Beyond the film’s spurious messaging about finding a middle ground between being black and being “blue,” its extended chase through New Orleans’s 9th Ward might offer simple, effective action-movie catharsis to those who’ve been outraged by this decade’s flood of videos of police offers shooting unarmed black people.

Perhaps unintentionally, Black and Blue’s setting and action reminds us that, with the advent of body cameras, the sci-fi dystopias depicted in various films from the 1980s and ‘90s have come true. Resembling the A plot of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, the film’s main action is jump-started by the mafia-style execution of a young black man by police, an explosive event that’s captured on video by a woman wearing a camera. And in Black and Blue, that woman, rookie cop Alicia West (Naomie Harris), is also the one tasked with delivering the footage to the authorities. The shooting, committed by narcotics detective Terry Malone (Frank Grillo) and his circle of drug-dealing police officers, takes place in a scummy, abandoned factory, and when the assembled perpetrators notice the wide-eyed rookie filming them, they repeatedly shoot her. West unexpectedly survives, and so the film also brings to mind Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, another sci-fi classic that hinges on a piece of incriminating video footage.

Mostly shielded by her body armor but grazed by a bullet on her side, West somehow slips away from the murderous cops. Black and Blue tends to solve such narrative impasses via the magic of montage: We see West stumbling away down a passageway but don’t see exactly how she escapes. Now pursued by the extensive cabal of officers, she makes it to a convenience store where a childhood friend, Mouse (Tyrese Gibson), reluctantly helps her patch herself up. Mouse and the tight-knit community of the nearby Kingston Manor apartment complex, the film makes clear, don’t like cops; an earlier scene has Mouse and his sister, Missy (Nafessa Williams), refuse to acknowledge that they know West, who’s recently returned from two tours in Afghanistan after growing up in their neighborhood. As seen from the perspective of West and her partner, Kevin (Reid Scott), this impoverished area is full of shifty-eyed gangsters, and Black and Blue veers into problematic terrain early on when it lays ominous bass notes under close-ups of black men slinking around in and out of the cops’ view.

The filmmakers, though, deploy such hammy racism mostly to undermine it. Deacon Brown (James Moses Black), an officer who saves West from one of the aforementioned black youth, is quickly revealed to be part of Malone’s conspiracy, and therefore complicit in the murder of unarmed men and the attempted murder of West herself. While Black and Blue indulges some of the worst stereotypes about black poverty, the dehumanizing practices of the police are portrayed as the truly pernicious social force. And West must ultimately reintegrate herself with the film’s black community: After skirting from place to place within the 9th Ward, her ultimate recourse is to bring the body camera to Kingston Manor and let the people there, including the hot-headed local kingpin, Darius (Mike Colter), see the footage for themselves.

What follows is a fun, if muddled, climax that upends some of the expectations set by the bulk of the film. While Black and Blue is much more comfortable dispatching the gangsters who are trying to kill West than the cops shown to be their moral equivalents, the intense showdown at Kingston Manor proves that the film’s typical action-movie ethos of violent retribution can also extend to figures of authority. And while it settles in a place that offers a less probing critique of the status quo than its makers might be intending, its over-the-top climax provides a brief, cathartic release from the real-world issues its story raises.

Cast: Naomie Harris, Tyrese Gibson, Mike Colter, Frank Grillo, Reid Scott, Nafessa Williams, James Moses Black Director: Deon Taylor Screenwriter: Peter A. Dowling Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

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

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The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
Photo: Focus World
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 10, 2018.

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. Budd Wilkins


Them

50. Them (2006)

Hoody-clad sadists attack a couple, alone in their country home. That’s all the setup that co-writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud need to dredge up some uniquely discomfiting chills. You won’t be able to shake Them after seeing it because it’s scary without being grisly or full of cheap jump scares. Instead, it’s a marvel of precise timing and action choreography. The silence that deadens the air between each new assault becomes more and more disquieting as the film goes on. Likewise, the house where Them is primarily set in seems to grow bigger with each new hole the film’s villains tear out of. To get the maximum effect, be sure to watch this one at night; just don’t watch it alone. Simon Abrams


Black Death

49. Black Death (2010)

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


The Invitation

48. The Invitation (2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan


Midsommar

47. Midsommar (2019)

Anybody who’s seen Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man or similar folk horror films will hardly be surprised by any of the plot turns in Ari Aster’s Midsommar. From early on, there’s no doubt that the pagan rituals at the film’s center will spell doom for the group of friends who visit rural Sweden in a quasi-anthropological attempt to observe a cult’s summer solstice festival. The film masterfully builds itself around the inevitability of a mass terror, aligning our foreknowledge of that with the anxiety felt by the main character, Dani (Florence Pugh), in the wake of a recent family tragedy. The result is a deeply unnerving film about the indissoluble, somehow archaic bond between self and family—one more psychologically robust than Aster’s similarly themed Hereditary. And it’s also very funny. Pat Brown


Mulholland Drive

46. Mulholland Drive (2001)

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


Sinister

45. Sinister (2012)

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


Maniac

44. Maniac (2012)

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


Depraved

43. Depraved (2019)

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


28 Days Later

42. 28 Days Later (2002)

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is a post-apocalyptic zombie movie indebted to the traditions of John Wyndham and George A. Romero, opening with its young hero wandering abandoned streets calling out “Hello! Hello!” into the void. A marvel of economic storytelling, the film follows a handful of survivors that evaded a deadly “Rage” virus that tore across England, the riots and destruction that ensued, and the legion of infected victims who roam the streets at night for human meat. A bleak journey through an underground tunnel brings to mind one of the finest chapters in Stephen King’s The Stand; similar such references are far from being smug in-jokes, but rather uniquely appreciative of previous horror texts. The Rage virus itself feels particularly topical in our angry modern times. But maybe the more appropriate metaphor is that anyone who’s struggled through a grouchy, apocalyptic mood during 28 days of nicotine/drug/alcohol withdrawal will find their hostile sentiments reflected in this anger-fueled nightmare odyssey. Jeremiah Kipp


Piranha 3D

41. Piranha 3D (2010)

Piranha 3D tips its cap to Jaws with an opening appearance by Richard Dreyfuss, yet the true ancestors of Alexandre Aja’s latest are less Steven Spielberg’s classic (and Joe Dante and Roger Corman’s more politically inclined 1978 original Piranha) than 1980s-era slasher films. Unapologetically giddy about its gratuitous crassness, Aja’s B movie operates by constantly winking at its audience, and while such self-consciousness diffuses any serious sense of terror, it also amplifies the rollicking comedy of its over-the-top insanity. Aja’s gimmicky use of 3D is self-aware, and the obscene gore of the proceedings is, like its softcore jokiness, so extreme and campy—epitomized by a hair-caught-in-propeller scalping—that the trashy, merciless Piranha 3D proves a worthy heir to its brazen exploitation-cinema forefathers. Schager

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Review: Zombieland: Double Tap Shrugs Toward the End of the World

Behind the film’s self-awareness and irony is a hollow emotional core.

1.5

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Zombieland: Double Tap
Photo: Columbia Pictures

“Double tap,” the belated Zombieland sequel’s namesake, refers to the rule of shooting a zombie more than once in order to ensure that it’s dead. Like the rest of the rules devised by the series’s dweebish protagonist, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), it’s spelled out in large on-screen text, an amusingly self-aware touch in the original 2009 film that has, a decade later into our irony-poisoned present, lost its luster.

Part of that is because the sequel highlights these rules more frequently and prominently, injecting them with flashy text effects that are more distracting than funny. But it’s also because self-awareness doesn’t feel nearly as refreshing as it did in 2009, with seemingly every big studio movie nowadays winking and nodding at audiences, trying to swaddle us in layers of protective irony (that writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick went on to script the vacuous Deadpool films is no accident). Zombieland: Double Tap effortlessly operates in the same groove as the original, but that’s less a compliment than a measure of a failure to evolve.

Revising the world of Zombieland feels like returning to a television program you gave up on watching; though the cast has aged, the character dynamics remain largely the same, if slightly more exaggerated and perhaps overly familiar. Boisterous gunslinger Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) is a little more cartoonish now, while Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) is all grown up. She’s more than old enough to drive, and thus old enough to run away with a pacifist hippie, Berkeley (Avan Jogia), prompting Columbus, Tallahassee, and conwoman Wichita (Emma Stone) to track her down. They’re a makeshift family now, despite still referring to one another by the city aliases that were meant to prevent getting too attached.

A newcomer to their group still goes by her real name, Madison (Zoey Deutch), and as a caricatured dumb blonde, she typifies much of the film’s easy, uninspired comedy. The supremely overqualified cast powers through tiresome, pop culture-laden exchanges via sheer charisma; Stone, though unfortunately reduced to playing a “jealous girlfriend” type, is particularly expressive. But returning director Ruben Fleischer, despite pairing with the usually excellent cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, too often shoots the actors in close-up, robbing much of the film of the chemistry that the actors display in wider shots.

Double Tap also plays unthinkingly into the zombie fantasy as survivalist gun porn, even going so far as to add a Gen Z commune of idiot pacifists who melt down guns into peace symbols. This sequel, however, is too mediocre for such an idea to register with more than a shrug. The film isn’t using the concept to make a point, after all; behind the self-awareness and the irony is merely a hollow emotional core, a lack of anything to say because saying something would require ambition rather than complacent winks and nods.

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, Rosario Dawson, Zoey Deutch, Avan Jogia, Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch Director: Ruben Fleischer Screenwriter: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Dave Callaham Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Transforms Thorny Folklore into Fluff

In transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product.

1

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Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Once upon a time…or perhaps twice upon a time, for you may remember this story,” begins the voiceover narration of Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. To its credit, the film opens by addressing the elephant in the castle: that we, as modern filmgoers, surely know this story well, through all its incarnations as old-fashioned fairy-tale romance and as insipid CG action-fantasy. But this sequel’s attempt to deflect attention from its own tiresomeness only highlights the cynicism of a corporation that insists on franchising the reboots of its adaptations—on repeating the process of filtering the imaginative irrationality of folk tales through layers upon layers of calculation.

Angelina Jolie returns as Maleficent, once one of the most deliciously evil villainesses in the Disney canon, who now—like Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West—has been reduced to a mildly grumpy environmentalist. Disney has erected a mythos around the character to explain her malevolent deeds—or rather, to expose them as truly good. Channeling themes of historical revisionism and post-colonial white guilt, the Malefi-verse positions its title character as defender of the marshlands known as The Moors and its multifarious magical inhabitants, the Dark Fey, against the incursions and crimes of the late-Renaissance Europeans who live nearby. In the film, whose subtitle has virtually nothing to do with its plot, she’s supplied with an army of fellow Feys primed to resist the destruction of their native lands by greedy humans. The deviousness suggested by Maleficent’s occasional wry, sharp-toothed smiles and curling horns is hardly on display in her actions, which have thoroughly virtuous motivations.

Mistress of Evil posits a “true story” behind the official one recorded in the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, as rather than persecuting the princess subsequently known as Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent has adopted her and raised her. Aurora (Elle Fanning), though she’s grown up among the Fey, has fallen in love with Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). Throughout, we’re given little evidence of their mutual attraction beyond the fact that they’re both young humans, though Joachim Rønning’s film does attempt to elicit our sympathies for their union with an early scene that stages a YouTube-ready surprise proposal. Though she harbors doubts about this union, Maleficent initially tries to play the good mother, reluctantly accepting the match. But then, at the engagement dinner, Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), frames Maleficent for the sleeping curse that befalls King John (Robert Lindsay). Wounded in the subsequent confrontation, Maleficent flees and finds herself in an enclave of other vulture-winged, goat-horned Feys, led by Borra (Ed Skrein) and Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

As played by Jolie, Maleficent is less a character than a pose. Rather than suggesting potency and confidence, the character’s impassiveness conveys indifference, a disinterested neutrality that emanates from behind Jolie’s green contacts and prosthetic cheekbones. Neither Maleficent’s anger at the humans who framed her nor her muted concern for the oppressed Fey succeeds in selling the clichéd plotline concerning indigenous rebellion. As debate rages in the ranks of the outcast Fey regarding a prospective uprising against the murderous humans—the screenplay, of course, makes Conall’s plea for a moderate response to creeping genocide more appealing than Borra’s call for a revolution—Jolie’s perpetually cool persona fails to anchor our feelings in the fate of the forest’s denizens.

The rebellious Fey recruit Maleficent for the same reason that the humans fear her: the magical powers she possesses. Yet Maleficent’s powers are ill-defined, the magical green tendrils that extend from her hands little more than a reference to visual effects devised for Disney’s classic animated Sleeping Beauty from 1959. But aspects of the magic in Mistress of Evil still draw inspiration from its diluted source material: the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale classic that the animated film was based on. In that story, the wise woman’s curse not only puts the princess to sleep, but also freezes all life in the castle in place and envelops the structure in an impenetrable thorn bush. Many princes attempt and fail to forcibly enter the castle, hacking away at the bushes, but after a century, the brambles open up on their own, at last allowing a prince to enter the princess’s chamber, so to speak.

In Mistress of Evil, we see the character that Disney has dubbed Maleficent deploy similar magical effects to much less metaphorical ends: She freezes a cat in the air mid-pounce to protect her were-raven familiar, Diaval (Sam Riley), and she conjures up spindly thorn branches to shield herself and Chonall from a volley of crossbow bolts. The filmmakers, no doubt, see such references to the original tale as forms of felicitous homage, but in transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product. The film arranges a marriage between fairy-tale motifs and a CG-algorithm-driven plot that’s as bland and arbitrary as the one it stages between its nondescript human couple, processing thorny folklore into smooth, consumable pop culture.

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Ed Skrein, Harris Dickinson, Robert Lindsay, Warwick Davis Director: Joachim Rønning Screenwriter: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, Linda Woolverton Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: Tell Me Who I Am Feels as One-Sided as the Curated Lie at Its Center

By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the scope of their abuse.

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Tell Me Who I Am
Photo: Netflix

When Alex Lewis was 18 years old, he was involved in a motorcycle crash that left him with a severe case of amnesia. When he awoke in a hospital following the accident, he couldn’t recall where he lived or who his friends were. He didn’t even know his name. As for the woman babbling and pacing around the foot of his bed, he was taken aback to learn that she was his mother. The only thing Alex did remember was that the young man standing before him, Marcus, was his identical twin, and that they had a special connection.

Upon returning to their family estate, Marcus began the lengthy process of reacquainting Alex with the particulars of his life, as well as re-teaching him the basics, like how to tie his shoes. And through it all, Marcus did his best to present a rosy picture of their parents, assuring Alex that their mother, Jill, was “cool” and that they took nice vacations to France when they were kids. It wasn’t until after their parents’ death that Alex began to suspect that their upbringing may not have been as pleasant as Marcus suggested. And after Alex discovered a cabinet full of sex toys in Jill’s room and a photograph of him and his brother naked with their heads torn off, the horrible truth began to dawn on Alex: that he and his brother were sexually abused by their mother. Marcus would go on to confirm the abuse but refused to provide additional details, leaving his brother with questions that would haunt him for years.

Based on a book co-written by Alex and Marcus, Ed Perkins’s Tell Me Who I Am tells the brothers’ story with an Errol Morris-lite mix of expressionistic reenactments and interviews in which the subjects speak directly into the camera. Like the similarly themed Three Identical Strangers, the film parcels out disarming hints and shocking revelations at a steady clip, with a view toward maximizing the emotional impact of the material. It’s undeniably effective and affecting, escalating toward a harrowing confrontation-cum-reconciliation between the two brothers in which Marcus finally reveals the full horror of what they endured as kids: that, in addition to being abused by their mother, they were subjected to sexual assaults at the hands of multiple abusers, in what essentially amounted to an elite pedophilia ring.

In its richer, more rewarding moments, Tell Me Who I Am hints at the complex relationship between memory and identity. Alex relies on photographs to fill in the blanks in his memory, and yet, these seemingly objective recordings of the past, curated for him by his brother, are as conspicuous for what they reveal as for what they don’t. (As Alex muses at one point, “We take photos of weddings. You never take photos at funerals.”) But for a film about the power of getting a full and accurate accounting of the truth, it’s frustrating how little Tell Me Who I Am reckons with its own revelations. By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the sheer scope of the boys’ abuse.

Tell Me Who I Am hints at the brothers having been caught up in a seemingly extensive sexual abuse ring, one involving aristocrats and at least one well-known artist, all of whom remain unnamed. It’s a scandal reminiscent of recently exposed conspiracies of silence that surround wrongdoing, such as those involving Jeffrey Epstein, Jimmy Savile, and the Catholic Church. And while Perkins’s film wants us to believe that the brothers’ saga reaches a definitive conclusion when they tearfully embrace after Alex learns about what happened to him, it leaves the viewer with a host of unanswered questions. Who exactly was part of Jill’s social circle? How extensive was Alex and Marcus’s abuse? Were there other victims?

Even a cursory glance at news articles about the men and reviews of their book suggests how much Perkins has massaged the details of the Lewis brothers’ lives to craft his sleek, emotionally punchy narrative. From watching Tell Me Who I Am, one wouldn’t know that there was at least one other confirmed victim: Alex and Marcus’s younger brother, whose existence the film doesn’t even acknowledge. By forcing Alex and Marcus’s story into such a rigidly linear narrative of redemption, the film ends up losing sight of its subjects altogether, reducing them to mere representations of its core theme: the brother who wants to learn about his past versus the brother who’d rather keep it buried.

That’s why Tell Me Who I Am’s attempt to end on a note of closure—“It’s over finally,” Alex says, as the camera tracks away from the house where he was abused—comes off as phony. Perhaps Alex feels that he finally understands who he really is, but the film leaves us with so many unanswered questions, it’s hard not feel that the picture we’ve been given of these men is nearly as misleading and incomplete as the one Marcus provided to Alex all those years ago.

Director: Ed Perkins Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Gloss of Stuffed Is at Odds with Taxidermy’s Inherent Boldness

Erin Derham’s unadventurous aesthetic inoculates her from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

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Stuffed
Photo: Music Box Films

Erin Derham’s Stuffed opens with a montage of the various taxidermists she profiles throughout her documentary. This opening lays bare the film’s argument in unmistakable terms: that taxidermy is an art form, closer to the work of Tim Burton than that of Norman Bates. But it also exposes the film’s most unbearable flaw, as Derham supports her hagiographic argument by sewing together her case studies with a relentless, and relentlessly generic, score that speaks to her devotion to formula.

It’s an unadventurous formula at odds with the documentary’s attempts to establish taxidermy as a highly complex, anti-paradigmatic endeavor involving great amounts of scientific precision, as well as creative audacity and whimsical experimentation. Derham insists so much on taxidermists’ labor being more than the mere production of replicas that her refusal to adopt a more playful aesthetic approach as she portrays the quirky imagination of taxidermists feels like equivocation. It’s as if she approached the documentary’s making with thick rubber gloves, thus inoculating herself from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

This may be the result of a certain courting, conscious or not, of digital streaming platforms through the mimicry of impersonally glossy production values. In any case, it leaves the viewer in a position akin to that of the fussy eater trying to pick unwelcomed ingredients out of their food. We want to savor the taxidermists’ artistry, except the clichéd polish that envelops the film keeps getting in the way. It’s an artistry that’s bold by design, as the taxidermist utilizes dead matter not with the utilitarian goal of resurrecting it, but as raw material to sculpt something altogether new. If the Paris Museum of Hunting and Nature invited artists Sophie Calle and Serena Carone in 2018 to intervene in its collection of retired guns and taxidermic realism precisely because of the unusual juxtaposition of conceptual art and refurbished dead matter, moose in red gowns and all, Stuffed defines taxidermy itself as already marrying fanciful concepts with the illusion of beastly or avian resurrection.

Taxidermist Madison Rubin tells us she loves “seeing the insides and the anatomy of things” as she skins 11 ermines with the meticulousness of a sculptor, or a dollmaker. Others evoke the resurgence of taxidermy, which used to be particularly popular in the Victorian era, in these times of digital de-materialization. And some attest to the specificity of the medium—how no other art form can convey texture the way taxidermy does. Yet Derham seems more invested in glossing over the numerous chapters she’s divided the film’s narrative into than in exploring the depths of her story. Taxidermy and sustainability, taxidermy and climate change, the ethics of taxidermy, taxidermy and museums, taxidermy as a business, taxidermy in fashion—all of these get addressed too rapidly, sometimes in just a couple of minutes.

The rush feels particularly unfortunate when Derham turns her attention to rogue taxidermy, a Lynchean subgenre located at the intersection of dioramas, cabinets of curiosities, and surrealist art. Here, Calle and Carone’s red ballgown-wearing stuffed roadkill would feel right at home—that is, delightfully out of place in the world. Instead, Stuffed quickly continues in its quest of a happy, peppy denouement to match the pristine porelessness of its sheen.

Director: Erin Derham Distributor: Music Box Films Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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