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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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Review: Chasing Portraits Is Welcome Personal Testimony, but Its Scope Is Narrow

Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

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Chasing Portraits
Photo: First Run Features

Before World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was the largest in Europe, numbering over three million. Afterward, only 10% of that populace remained. Although the current right-wing Polish government prefers to suppress this fact, the 300,000 surviving Jews faced continued persecution at the hands of gentile Poles—themselves the victims (though to a much lesser degree) of Nazi persecution. Today, when the number of Jews in Poland is well under 10,000, one can visit the old Jewish quarters in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, where street kiosks sell small plastic caricatures of Hasidic Jews. On the streets, though, you’re unlikely to encounter any actual Hasids.

In her trip to Warsaw in search of her great-grandfather’s lost paintings, Chasing Portraits director Elizabeth Rynecki stumbles across these figurines. As she observes in voiceover, there’s nothing overtly demeaning about the miniature, jovial, cartoonish Jews, but the image they project doesn’t feel right, given local history. And one must agree that there’s an undeniable aspect of minstrelsy to them: Unlike her great-grandfather Moshe’s textured scenes of Jewish life in Warsaw, they’re almost certainly not self-representations. Given the Jewish culture that was destroyed in Poland—and whose richness is embodied by Moshe’s few surviving paintings—the grinning trinkets seem all the more like frivolous kitsch.

Rynecki’s discovery of these unsettling souvenirs is potentially one of the most interesting parts of Chasing Portraits, given that she happens across them while on the trail of lost Jewish art. As a curator at a Warsaw museum observes to the filmmaker, Moshe’s work depicts traditional moments of Jewish culture in a distinctly modern sensibility, attesting to the robustness of the Jewish culture on the eve of its destruction. In this way, his paintings are the opposite of the post-facto plastic caricatures, and Rynecki’s confrontation with the mass-produced simulacra of absent Jews is a moment when her highly personal documentary almost extends toward a wider perspective. But she doesn’t linger for too long on what the Holocaust and Judaism mean in Poland today, as she’s on her way to ask a private collector named Wertheim about how his family managed to acquire some of Moshe’s works.

Rynecki’s insular approach works well early on in the film, when she, in conversations with her father, outlines who her great-grandfather was and what his surviving paintings mean to the family. Of around 800 works that Moshe painted before he was murdered at the Majdanek death camp, just over 100 survive in the possession of the family, with an unknown number in the hands of private collections and Polish museums. That much is a miracle, but Rynecki—more so, it seems, than her father, a Holocaust survivor himself—wants to discover more. In the film, we see her consult with historians, compose emails to private collectors, and read excerpts of her grandfather George’s memoirs, in preparation for her trip to Poland.

Chasing Portraits is about Rynecki’s investigative process rather than Moshe’s paintings themselves; in voiceover, she narrates each step of her process as she takes on the role of amateur historian. And in maintaining an intense focus on her investigation—how she reads out the emails she writes to institutions, and shows us footage from each flight she takes from one corner of the world to another—the film raises probing questions that it dutifully bypasses. Her encounters with the Wertheim family are a case in point: The first Wertheim brother claims the family own paintings by Moshe because they bought it from a farmer, but the second tells the more plausible story that they have the paintings because their parents, resistance fighters hiding in the Polish woods, raided them from a bombed-out train.

In Rynecki’s narrative, these conflicting stories become a personal conundrum: If the paintings were looted rather than bought, she may be able to make a claim on them. In the end, it’s Rynecki’s growth, her decision about whether or not to become a claimant, that structures the film. But this approach means skirting over other thematic threads that might have emerged from this project, such as the ethics of museum versus private ownership of recovered art like Moshe’s, the meaning of art in desperate times, the politics of remembrance in Poland. Chasing Portraits is thus valuable as part of an expansive mosaic of personal testimonies to the legacy of the Holocaust, but it’s a documentary of sometimes disappointingly narrow scope. Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

Director: Elizabeth Rynecki Screenwriter: Elizabeth Rynecki Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography

The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunningham’s achievements.

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If the Dancer Dances
Photo: Monument Releasing

More than once in Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if it’s trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest.

Wechsler’s depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunningham’s shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunningham’s former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of dance’s unreplicable nature, the new RainForest’s choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that they’ll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.

If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the company’s rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechsler’s observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine that’s playing out in front of them.

Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunningham’s monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The film’s constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, it’s as if Wechsler is judging the company’s artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.

At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunningham’s explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronio’s choreographers discussing how to ape Cunningham’s aesthetic in precise detail—and often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunningham’s original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.

Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us

Netflix will release the series on May 31.

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When They See Us
Photo: Netflix

In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.

Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.

Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.

According to the official description of the series:

Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.

See the trailer below:

Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.

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Review: The Curse of La Llorona Is More Laugh Riot than Fright Fest

With The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring universe has damned itself to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

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The Curse of La Llorona
Photo: Warner Bros.

Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona opens in 17th-century Mexico with an all-too-brief rundown of the legend of La Llorona. This weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez) is quickly established as a mother who, in a fit of jealousy, drowned her two children in order punish her cheating husband. And after immediately regretting her actions, she commits suicide, forever damning herself to that liminal space between the land of the living and the dead, to snatch up wandering children to replace her own.

Flash-forward to 1973 Los Angeles, where we instantly recognize an echo of La Llorana’s parental anxieties in Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed mother of two who struggles to balance the demands of her job as a social worker for Child Protective Services and the pressures of adjusting to single parenthood. One might expect such parallels to be further expanded upon by The Curse of La Llorona, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in character development, narrative cohesion, or the myth behind La Llorona than in lazily transposing the film’s big bad into the Conjuring universe.

It’s no surprise, then, that La Llorona, with her beady yellow eyes, blood-drained skin, and rotted mouth and fingernails is virtually indistinguishable from the antagonist from Corin Hardy’s The Nun; just swap out the evil nun’s tunic and habit for a decaying wedding dress and you’d never know the difference. Even more predictably, The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily on a near-ceaseless barrage of jump scares, creaking doors and loud, shrieking noises as La Llorona first terrorizes and murders the detained children of one of Anna’s clients (Patricia Velasquez), before then moving on to haunting Anna and her kids (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou). But this family is so thinly conceived and their behavior so careless and illogical in the face of a known force of evil that viewers may find themselves less terrified by La Llorona than overjoyed by her reign of terror.

Once Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero whose healing powers promise to lift La Llorona’s curse, arrives on the scene, the film makes a few concessions to Mexican cultural rituals, as well as offers brief but welcome respites of humor. But after the man rubs down the Garcia house with eggs and protects its borders with palo santo and fire tree seeds, The Curse of La Llorona continues unabated as a rote scare-a-thon. Every extended moment of silence and stillness is dutifully disrupted by sudden, overemphatic bursts of sound and fury that are meant to frighten us but are more likely to leave you feeling bludgeoned into submission.

All the while, any notions of motherhood, faith within and outside of the Catholic Church, and Mexican folklore that surface at one point or another are rendered both moot and undistinctive in the midst of so much slavish worshipping at the altar of franchise expansion. Indeed, by the time Annabelle’s Father Perez (Tony Amendola) pays a house visit in order to dutifully spout exposition about the series’s interconnected religious elements, it becomes clear that the Conjuring universe is damned to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

Cast: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola Director: Michael Chaves Screenwriter: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch

Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.

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Reinventing Hollywood

The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.

Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.

As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.

While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”

Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”

Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.

Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”

Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.

The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.

Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.

One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.

The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.

Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”

A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.

Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.

The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”

But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”

This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)

Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.

Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”

Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”

Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.

David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.

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Film

Review: The Heart of Someone Great Is in the Details of Female Friendship

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman.

2.5

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Someone Great
Photo: Netflix

Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Someone Great presents a vision of New York that makes the bustling metropolis feel like a small town. The film’s setting is a utopian playground where everyone seems to know everyone else and bumping into friends and acquaintances on the street is a regular occurrence. Robinson exploits the narrative possibilities of this framework, as all it takes for three friends, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), Erin (DeWanda Wise), and Blair (Brittany Snow), to dive into another misadventure is to simply turn a corner.

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman; surely it’s no coincidence that a James Joyce poster hangs in the background of one scene. Set to an eclectic, almost perpetual soundtrack of songs, the film follows Jenny, Erin, and Blair as they float on a wave of spontaneity. The friends are gung-ho about having one last night on the town, and as the they make plans to attend a music festival on the eve of Jenny moving to San Francisco, the film makes a vibrant show of every fallout, every sharp turn in mood and behavior across this journey, which also finds Jenny grappling with her recent breakup with Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), her boyfriend of nine years.

In the world of Someone Great, a flashily decorated room is an extension of a person’s personality, every object a vessel of human memories. Jenny is wounded, and the film tenaciously homes in how everything around her feels like a totem of lost love. Robinson elaborates on Jenny’s pain as much through the young woman’s exchanges with her two best friends, each dealing with their own emotional troubles, as through the neon-dappled flashbacks to Jenny and Nate’s time together. But if Jenny, Erin, and Blair’s scenes together are marked by an infectiousness fueled in no small part by Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow’s incredible rapport, the vignettes of Jenny and Nate’s past feel comparatively inert—an almost steady stream of generic and often awkward articulations of how it is to fall in and out of love.

Someone Great also gives itself over to a needlessly somber tone whenever Jenny reflects on her relationship with Nate, and the effect is so self-serious that you’d think she’s the first person to lose a lover in human history. Her breakup certainly stands in sharp contrast to Blair’s own split from her long-term boyfriend (Alex Moffat), the fallout of which is treated as an offhand (and very funny) joke. Fortunately, though, Robinson is always quick to reorient the focus of her film, sweetly underscoring throughout the value of Jenny’s friendship to Erin and Blair, and how their bond is bound to persist regardless of the hard knocks these women weather on the long and often bumpy road to romantic fulfillment.

Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, LaKeith Stanfield, Peter Vack, Alex Moffat, RuPaul Charles, Rosario Dawson Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Screenwriter: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 92 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Festivals

Cannes Lineup Includes New Films by Terrence Malick, Céline Sciamma, & More

Perhaps as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t make it onto the lineup.

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Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

This morning, the lineup for the 72nd Cannes Film Festival was revealed, and just as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t. Most notably, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America and James Gray’s Ad Astra were nowhere to be found. Gray, whose had four of his previous films appear in competition at the festival, is still working on Ad Astra, which seems destined at this point to make its premiere at a fall festival. As for Tarantino, who’s still editing this ninth feature ahead of its July 26 theatrical release, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told press this morning that there’s still a chance that Once Upon a Time in America could be added to the festival lineup in the upcoming weeks.

Terrence Malick will return to Cannes for the first time since winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life with the historical drama and ostensibly mainstream-friendly A Hidden Life, previously known as Radegund. Ken Loach and the Dardennes, both double winners of the Palme d’Or, will also debut their latest works, Sorry We Missed You and Young Ahmed, respectively, in the competition program. As previously announced, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die will kick off the festival on May 14, and Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman will screen out of competition on May 16, two weeks before the film hits U.S. theaters. (The Director’s Fortnight and Critics Week selections will be announced at a later date.)

See below for a complete list of this year’s competition, Un Certain Regard, out of competition, and special and midnight screenings.

Competition
Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar
The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio
Wild Goose Lake, Yinan Diao
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Oh Mercy! , Arnaud Desplechin
Atlantique, Mati Diop
Matthias and Maxime, Xavier Dolan
Little Joe, Jessica Hausner
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach
Les Misérables, Ladj Ly
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Nighthawk, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu
Frankie, Ira Sachs
The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma
It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Sybil, Justine Triet

Out of Competition
Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher
The Best Years of Life, Claude Lelouch
Maradona, Asif Kapadia
La Belle Epoque, Nicolas Bedos
Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn

Special Screenings
Share, Pippa Bianco
Family Romance LLC, Werner Herzog
Tommaso, Abel Ferrara
To Be Alive and Know It, Alain Cavalier
For Sama, Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts

Midnight Screenings
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee Won-Tae

Un Certain Regard
Invisible Life, Karim Aïnouz
Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec
A Brother’s Love, Monia Chokri
The Climb, Michael Covino
Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
A Sun That Never Sets, Olivier Laxe
Chambre 212, Christophe Honoré
Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz
Papicha, Mounia Meddour
Adam, Maryam Touzani
Zhuo Ren Mi Mi, Midi Z
Liberte, Albert Serra
Bull, Annie Silverstein
Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng
EVGE, Nariman Aliev

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Features

The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory.

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TCM Classic Film Festival
Photo: John Nowak

In 2014, on the occasion of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, even as I took the opportunity to raise a glass to an event that encourages audiences, especially younger ones, to acknowledge and embrace the past, I indulged in a little public worrying over the festival’s move toward including a heavier schedule of more “modern” films whose status as classics seemed arguable, at the very least. The presence of Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Goodbye Girl on the festival’s slate that year seemed geared toward guaranteeing that Richard Dreyfuss would make a couple of appearances, causing me not only to wonder just what constitutes a “classic” (a question this festival seems imminently qualified to answer), but also just how far down the road to appeasement of movie stars TCMFF would be willing to travel in order to bring in those festivalgoers willing to pony up for high-priced, top-tier passes.

If anything, subsequent iterations have indicated that, while its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.

Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of When Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond When Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger “I’ll have what she’s having,” if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics. Maybe it does. Because objections like that one were forced to fly in the face of the rest of the TCMFF 2019 schedule, populated as it was by other equally questionable attractions like Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Hello, Dolly!, and Out of Africa, all of which crowded screen space in the festival’s biggest auditoriums.

Speaking of amour, it was that most mysterious of emotions that was the biggest rationale other than filthy lucre for clogging the schedule with not one but two Meg Ryan “classics,” a weeper that’s broad by even the standards of borderline-campy weepers, a bloated musical nobody seems to like, a would-be epic best picture winner, and even the bromantic sentimental indulgences of the Honorary Greatest Movie for Men Who Don’t Love Movies. Because the theme of TCMFF 2019, “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,” virtually guaranteed that room would be made for some of the festival’s least enticing and overseen selections, under subheadings like “Better with Age” (Love in the Afternoon, Marty), “Bromance” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shawshank Redemption), and, in a love letter to not romance but instead a movie studio, “A Celebration of 20th Century Fox” (Hello, Dolly!, Working Girl, Star Wars). Of course, each of those subheadings had their glories as well (I’ll get to those in a second, after I stop complaining), but it’s worth noting these selections because they seem clearly representative of the sort of programming choices that have become more dominant in the second half of TCMFF’s storied and much appreciated existence, choices that may signal a further shift away from discoveries, oddities, and rarities and toward even more mainstream appeasement in its near future.

For all of the problems that seem to be becoming hard-wired into TCMFF’s business model, however, there was plenty to get excited about as well, even when one of the weaker overall schedules in terms of cinephile catnip made maximizing the festival experience a little more challenging than usual. If that “Love in the Movies” header seemed at first a bit too generic, it also proved elastic enough to accommodate some pretty interesting variations on a obvious theme, from dysfunctional relationships (A Woman Under the Influence, whose star, Gena Rowlands, had to back out of a scheduled pre-screening appearance), to erotic obsession (Mad Love, Magnificent Obsession), to habitual obsession (Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell), to romance of a more straightforward nature rendered in various shades of not-at-all-straightforward cinematic splendor (Sunrise, Sleeping Beauty, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tarzan and His Mate). Why, there was even a couple of straight shots of undiluted movie love in the form of François Truffaut’s Day for Night, adorned by an in-person visitation from the film’s star, Jacqueline Bisset, and a grand screening of my favorite film, Robert Altman’s Nashville, which Pauline Kael once famously described as “an orgy for movie lovers.”

My own obsessions this year ran, as they usually do, toward the unfamiliar. Six of the 11 films I saw were new to me, including the obscure, ultra-cheap film noir Open Secret, which pits John Ireland against a secret society of small-town Nazi sympathizers; the deliriously racy and surprisingly violent adventure of Tarzan and His Mate, entertainingly introduced by Star Wars sound wizard Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, whose pre-film multimedia presentation electronically deconstructed the Tarzan yell; and James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, starring Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Also among them were two major surprises: Dorothy Arzner’s romantic drama Merrily We Go to Hell, a gloriously cinematic roller coaster of love, codependency, and betrayal starring Fredric March, forever testing the audience’s tolerance for the boundaries of bad behavior, and Sylvia Sidney, who displays a range that will surprise younger audiences who may only know her from her later work; and the rollicking, hilarious, fast-paced snap-crackle-punch of All Through the Night, in which a gaggle of Runyonesque Broadway gamblers headed up by Humphrey Bogart develop an uncharacteristic patriotic streak when they uncover a Nazi conspiracy brewing in the back alleys of the neighborhood.

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory. My two favorite experiences at the festival this year were screenings of F.W. Murnau’s almost indescribably gorgeous and primally moving Sunrise and a beautiful DCP of Nashville, with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and actors Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and Ronee Blakely in attendance. (At one point, Blakely held court like Barbara Jean in rambling pre-meltdown mode and innocently gave away the ending of the film.) The joy contained in the five hours of those two films wasn’t necessarily matched by the gorgeous restoration of Anthony Mann’s powerful Winchester ’73, the exquisitely expressionist delirium of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, or the revelation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, with its roots in the music of Tchaikovsky, as the partial fulfillment of the ambitions of Fantasia, the studio’s great folly. But then again, it didn’t have to be. It’s enough that those are all movies worthy of and inspired by true movie love, which is precisely what they were received with by TCMFF audiences.

Of course, the obsessive, orgiastic nature of movie love is itself the underlying subtext of any film festival, but at TCMFF that subtext is consistently resonant enough that it seems inextricable from any given moment during the long four-day Hollywood weekend over which it unspools. Some festivalgoers get dolled up in vintage clothes and five pounds of customized TCM-style flair to express it. Others rattle on endlessly about their irrational devotion to Star X and Director Y, or how some obscure B noir blew their goddamn minds, and they’re usually surrounded by a pack of fans with similarly hyperbolic stories to tell. And still others just tilt their heads down and barrel through the long lines, breathlessly scurrying between theaters in pursuit of something they’ve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. (I’ll let you speculate as to which category I belong, though I will say I have never worn a fedora or brandished a silver-tipped walking stick in public.) A good friend and former TCMFF regular once told me that the best way to be cured of a particular obsession is to suddenly find yourself surrounded by those whose individual enthusiasms match or exceed your own, and sometimes it seems that the first-world trials of the TCMFF experience as they have accumulated over the past five or so years, and contrasted as they have been by the multitude of peaks the festival has offered its most ardent fans, have been devoted to road-testing that theory.

However, no matter what TCMFF devotees do or say in between programming slots, the movies remain, providing a constant opportunity to either plumb the depths of cinema history or to simply go for the good times. With all intentions pitched toward continued prosperity, the greatest challenge for TCMFF as it enters its second decade might be finding a better balance between those deep dives and the allure of skimming the perhaps more lucrative shallows. And if genuinely great films and even greater chances to experience films one can only experience in a setting like TCMFF keep getting slotted out in favor of familiar dreck like When Harry Met Sally and Steel Magnolias, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that TCMFF 2029 might, to its inevitable detriment, look and feel considerably less classic than it does now. No, it’s not time for sackcloth and ashes just yet when it comes to this beloved fest. But I’d be lying if I said, to purloin and repurpose the concluding sentiment of one of this year’s big TCMFF attractions, that the ultimate resolution of that dilemma don’t worry me just a little bit.

The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 11—14.

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Film

Review: Instant Dreams Intimately Ponders a Casualty of the Digital Age

Willem Baptist’s film is a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital.

2.5

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Instant Dreams
Photo: Synergetic Distribution

Throughout Instant Dreams, director Willem Baptist returns to footage from “The Long Walk,” the 1970 short film in which Polaroid co-founder Edwin H. Land pulled from his coat a black device that bears an uncanny resemblance to an iPhone. Land envisioned a day in which instant photos could be taken by a device the size of a wallet, which we would use to document every moment of our lives. This dream came spectacularly true, of course, beyond even Land’s wildest fantasies, ironically paving the way for Polaroid’s irrelevancy. Polaroid stopped manufacturing instant film in 2008, an event which Baptist rues as a symptom of our increasing impersonality as a globalized culture that’s grown to take its information overload for granted. “The Long Walk” haunts Baptist’s documentary as a kind of death prophecy.

Seen in stock footage—and in the famous photo on a 1947 cover of the New York Times in which he holds up a snapshot of himself, nearly appearing to have two heads—Land proves to be one of Instant Dreams’s most fascinating and enigmatic figures. In a contemporary light, pictures taken by Polaroid instant cameras have an eerie and poignant power, as their imperfections, such as their blotchy yet vibrant colors, evoke expressionistic art. These photographs reflect the frailty and subjectivity of time, while digital images are ageless, changeable, easily distributed ciphers. The power of Polaroid pictures resides in the effort they require to create, as people had to carry a bulky camera around and wait several seconds before producing a fully developed snapshot. Following several Polaroid cultists, Baptist shares their lament for an intimate and communal culture that’s potentially been forgotten in the wake of our ability to have pristine images whenever we want them.

Stephen Herchen is a scientist who helped to buy the last remaining Polaroid factory in the Netherlands, and he’s working with a group of specialists to revive the technology, as instant film was born of a complex chemical recipe that Herchen has yet to crack. (Baptist looks on as Herchen’s pictures take nearly 30 minutes to develop, rather than a few seconds.) Meanwhile, New York magazine city editor Christopher Bonanos, author of the book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, documents the growth of his son with his stash of Polaroid film, and German artist Stefanie Schneider takes photographs with the expired stock that she keeps in the vintage refrigerator of a trailer that’s parked somewhere in the California desert.

Herchen, Bonanos, and Schneider speak over the documentary’s soundtrack, which Baptist assembles into a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital. The filmmaker portrays analog as a kind of magic, born of a conjuring which he dramatizes with trippy images of photographic chemicals, while digital technology is represented by chilly metallic graphics that connote anonymous efficiency. (Instant Dreams exudes that simultaneously real and staged quality of an Errol Morris film.) It’s a sentimental vision, and one that provokes a question that Baptist doesn’t attempt to address: In a time of technological marvel, in which we carry what are essentially supercomputers around in our pockets, why are so many of us so miserable, so convinced that we’re living in a dark age?

The rage and ennui of our present culture is cultivated by the ease of modern media, in which we’re eternally plugged into stimulation that cancels itself out, leaving us feeling both stuffed and hollow, as well as interchangeable with one another as receptacles for corporate product. Our primary camera is now our phone, which can do hundreds of other tasks, while the Polaroid instant camera only takes pictures, relics which cannot be shared with the click of a button with other people. To long for the Polaroid, or for other objects of nostalgia such as VHS tapes, is to long for a sense of specialness and remoteness. The subjects of Baptist’s documentary seek disconnection from the cultural hive mind.

These meanings are often only implicit in Instant Dreams, and it’s a pity that Herchen and Bonanos aren’t more overtly in tune with their yearnings. They tend to speak in platitudes, which Baptist attempts to render mystical with hallucinatory imagery and a retro synth-y score that’s reminiscent of Vangelis’s compositions for Blade Runner. While Instant Dreams offers an appealingly nostalgic trance-out, it’s often short on detail, especially in terms of Herchen’s struggle to create the instant film technology, which Baptist reduces to exchanges of jargon in atmospheric laboratories. The film’s ruminations gradually grow repetitive and unfocused, especially when Baptist branches off into a fourth narrative, following a young woman who savors digital technology the way that the other subjects do Polaroids.

Schneider steals Instant Dreams from her co-stars, however, taking bold photos of young women out in the desert, cannily milking the limitations of the expired film stock to create mini canvases that suggest fever dreams. One scene is unexpectedly erotic: Schneider takes a bath in a tub outside with a beautiful model, their legs intermingling as the latter tells of a dream that suggests a metaphor for instant film. This image embodies the intimacy that Baptist’s subjects believe Polaroid stock to represent, merging the film’s emotional ambitions with its hypnotic aesthetic. In such moments, Instant Dreams truly comes alive.

Director: Willem Baptist Screenwriter: Willem Baptist Distributor: Synergetic Distribution Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Film

Review: Rafiki Is a Feat of Representation, If Familiar in Execution

The audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked.

2.5

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Rafiki
Photo: Film Movement

Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki is a salvo in an ongoing cultural war in Kenya over the rights of LGBTQ people, and as such, it’s difficult, and maybe even irresponsible, to judge the film in a vacuum. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya—punishable with up to 14 years in prison—and Kahiu’s film is officially banned in the country, though that ban was temporarily lifted for a week last fall so that it might qualify for an Oscar nomination. As a romantic drama, Rafiki turns out to be conventional in most senses except that its star-crossed lovers are two women—but then, particularly in Kenya, that makes all the difference.

Rafiki’s radicalism, hardly evident in its form or narrative structure, becomes more apparent when the film is situated in the context of state censorship and socio-culturally dominant homophobia. Adapted by Kahiu and co-writer Jenna Cato Bass from a short story by Monica Arac de Nyeko, the film takes its cue from that most over-alluded-to of romantic texts, Romeo and Juliet, complete with feuding families, illicit liaisons, and impossible love.

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are the daughters of two small-business magnates opposing each other in an upcoming city council election. They live on the outskirts of Nairobi, in an area characters refer to as Slopes, which Kaihu presents as a relatively secluded community. The story plays out over a limited number of distinctive locations—such as the church that Kena and Ziki’s families attend and consists of a purple-clad Anglican preacher leading sermons under a purple tent and a food stand where the young denizens of Slopes eat, with its nearby van on blocks where Kena and Ziki can have some privacy.

As young romantics are wont to do, the two women fall in love despite the immense familial and social pressure to avoid anything of the kind. And in addition to the mutual animosity of their respective families, they have the stigma that homosexuality carries among their friends to worry about. Kena hangs out with a pair of hypermasculine guys who routinely hurl epithets at the taciturn man everyone in the neighborhood knows is gay; when Ziki’s clique of friends start suspecting Kena is her lover, they react with a surprising outburst of violence. With its handful of locations and its small cast, Rafiki emphasizes the inescapable social gaze this queer couple is subjected to: The supporting characters are liable to pop up in any given place, making anywhere but the abandoned van a potentially threatening space for the two women.

In a country in which homosexuality is seen by a majority of the population as imported Western decadence, the audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked. Rafiki announces its intent with defiant opening credits, streaked with spray-painted neon colors and blasting feminist African hip-hop. But this rebellious energy also dissipates rapidly after the credits: While Christopher Wessels’s cinematography is drawn to saturated colors that recall the punkish animation of the credits, there’s a staid quality to the film that belies the intensity of the visuals. Major scenes play out with characters summarizing their feelings in sketchy dialogue, as when Kena’s mother (Nini Wacera) exposits Kenyan women’s motivations for being more homophobic than men in the midst of an argument.

While Kahiu proved herself a visionary filmmaker with her 2009 short film Pumzi, her visual ideas here are often sentimental short cuts: slow-motion close-ups of a smiling Ziki to suggest the character’s sexual longing for Kena, and slow-motion shots of birds in flight to symbolize the couple’s desire for freedom. Ziki herself, with her flashy, colorful braids and broadly sketched character arc, is little more than a romantic fantasy—and perhaps purposefully, as Kena is clearly the main character, drawn to Ziki at least in part because of her distinctive look. But it seems odd that a romance about two women should recapitulate a structure in which only one of the pair—the one in the position of looking—gets a full character arc. Regardless, Rafiki’s slotting of two African women into this familiar romantic structure represents a radical and important upending of contemporary Kenyan sexual mores.

Cast: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Neville Misati, Jimmy Gathu, Nini Wacera, Patricia Amira, Muthoni Gathecha, Dennis Musyoka, Nice Githinji, Charlie Karumi, Patricia Kihoro Director: Wanuri Kahiu Screenwriter: Wanuri Kahiu, Jenna Cato Bass Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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