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Review: Possession

Even with little prior knowledge of Possession, the viewer is informed of its potential as exploitation horror in Carlo Rambaldi’s opening credit.

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Possession

Even with little prior knowledge of Possession, the viewer is informed of its potential as exploitation horror in Carlo Rambaldi’s opening credit. A special effects designer, Rambaldi worked prior on Deep Red and Flesh for Frankenstein; here, he is ascribed as the designer of some ominous “creature,” his name emblazoned in serif type that extends across the composition, in the same motif used to report the director and cast. This seems superfluous, measuring from how little screen time said creature actually gets (which is substantially more in the bowdlerized American cut), and ultimately how dispensable it is in the film’s thematic trajectory. This harms the film, lending it a pretense of horror and violence in its opening minutes-elements that are subordinate to Possession’s principal theme of marital dissolution. This is also chief among the reasons appreciation for this film has been stifled since its 1981 release.

Possession debuted at Cannes, where it was received with notable press. It was nominated for the Golden Palm and Isabelle Adjani received honors for best actress; her rampant performance has received most of the film’s modest laurels. In the aftermath of Andrzej Zulawski’s prior film, the halted production of The Silver Globe, this is a redemptive gesture, but did little to ensure a proper release of Possession in the United States. This didn’t occur until two years later, and with some 40 minutes of the film cut. The truncated version remained available until the Anchor Bay restoration in 1999.

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As in most cases of censorship, the stigma functions to secure a film’s appeal, specifically as exploitation. Shortly after its release in Britain, Possession was among the first round of titles resorted to the Video Nasties, along with I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left—unpretentious exploitations with which it shares few similarities. This inference is incomparable to the American cut, with scenes shuffled in an arbitrary sequence, and with erroneous footage of the creature added. Horror being a profitable genre in the early 1980s, Possession was made to pronounce an aesthetic more visceral than cerebral, in turn more superficial than it was initially conceived to impart. This is not to say the overall enterprise in its intended form isn’t a grim experience, creature or no.

The central couple, Anna and Mark, is introduced at what appears to be the beginning of an estrangement. Their marriage already broken, neither party will allow the separation to be resolved without exerting some hardship upon the other. When one is in the other’s company, exchanges are delivered with great volume, and sometimes violence: late in the film, Anna conspicuously enters her old apartment, still tended by Mark and their young son, and is immediately confronted by him. Screams ensue. She operates a meat grinder, indelicately toying with its offshoot with an electric knife—this in the periphery of one of the couple’s active arguments. She screams at Mark, and holds the knife to her own neck, producing a gorge of blood before Mark removes the instrument from her grasp. My description synopsizes the scene as a climax; in fact, the violence is attuned to the film’s rhythm of irresolution, with one act of violence regularly subsequent to another prior. Shortly after Anna exits the kitchen, Mark sits and holds the electric blade to his forearm. The pain results in neither expression nor response; the communal pain will only escalate.

The most prominent damage is bestowed on the couple’s son, an involuntary fulcrum between the two’s heated exchanges. This is a more interpretive statement, as his character remains under-developed, though his presence at his parents’ arguments does elicit sympathy. The parents are harming each other in an effort to better themselves, but their son is the greatest casualty of the divorce. He is also a somewhat altruistic presence in the film, at least because his parents seem dictated by some emotion: Anna by a lust she cannot satiate, Mark by a hostility his frame inadequately supports. In Anna’s absence, Mark meets Helen, his son’s schoolteacher, who looks exactly like his wife, only with supernaturally green eyes. She is the latter’s replacement, at least sufficiently for Mark who proceeds to bed her. In the first night she stays over, Mark is awakened by his son, screaming for his mother, unfooled by her ostensibly perfect replacement.

It is at this point in the film that the creature is revealed. Mark hires a private investigator to trace his wife—who, along with a colleague, finds she escapes to an undecorated apartment she shares with it (revealed to be, in a gruesome flashback in which she gives birth, her own, tentacled progeny). She kills both detectives to satiate her incestual lover’s appetite. This portion of the film would be better told if it retained any revelation; unfortunately, you’re anticipating some grim, sensational beast in one of the sparse bedrooms in the dimly-lit apartment. To this end, however (and with some hypocrisy in my criticism), the revelation is absolutely obscene, despite the expectation: a body comprised almost entirely of phalluses, and Anna submissive to its more vile sexual enterprises.

This creature will evolve to resemble Mark by the film’s end, his replacement as identical as Anna’s. This evolution—which, I should note, is relayed with some haste—is crucial in de-emphasizing the creature; it’s an abstract manifestation of both party’s insecurity and obsession. Mark’s clone is more at ease, and capable of satisfying Anna in manners he can never aspire to. Anna’s is responsible (she is more affectionate toward the son), and much less neurotic. Each has fashioned an ideal, yet remain in their varying states of hostility because their endurances have changed them for the worse. At the end, the two climb a spiral staircase in fleeing from a team of policemen. It is an ascent toward the most justified fate for both, and they lock each other in an embrace before their final breaths exit their bodies.

Cast: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Margit Carstensen, Heinz Bennent, Johanna Hofer, Carl Duering, Shaun Lawton, Michael Hogben, Maximilian Ruethlein, Thomas Frey, Leslie Malton, Gerd Neubert Director: Andrzej Zulawski Screenwriter: Andrzej Zulawski Distributor: Limelight International Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 1981 Buy: Video

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Review: Never Fear Is Driven by Its Maker’s Personal Demons

If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Ida Lupino’s own.

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Never Fear
Photo: Eagle-Lion Films/Photofest

In a 1985 interview with DeeDee Halleck conducted at the Chelsea Hotel, filmmaker Shirley Clarke stated that she made films about African-Americans as a way of working through her own ambivalence about being a woman in a male-dominated culture: “I identified with black people because I couldn’t deal with the woman question and I transposed it. I could understand very easily the black problems, and I somehow equated them to how I felt….I always felt alone, and on the outside of the culture that I was in.” One can detect a similar tendency in the work of Ida Lupino, whose independently produced dramas of the 1940s and ‘50s tackled hot-button issues such as rape, bigamy, and unwanted pregnancy. These films are no mere homilies on contemporary social problems, but complex and deeply personal explorations of what it means to be an independent woman in a world ruled by men.

Lupino’s pioneering work is suffused with a profound sense of alienation and self-doubt. Her films are about people whose conventional middle-class existence is suddenly, sometimes violently, upturned, causing them to feel completely unmoored. No longer sure of where they’re going in life or what they truly want, these people find respite away from their old life, in an unfamiliar place with a new potential lover. And Lupino tells these stories with an empathy that’s striking for its directness and lack of condescension.

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Such is the case with the first film Lupino directed completely on her own, Never Fear, an emotionally complex drama about a young dancer, Carol (Sally Forrest), who seems to have it all, as she’s just gotten engaged to her partner, Guy (Keefe Brasselle), and their careers are on the verge of taking off. But then, all of sudden she’s stricken with polio, and everything changes. Carol, depressed and bitter, enters a rehab facility where she eventually makes strides toward walking again, thanks in part to the inspiration of a hunky fellow patient named Len (Hugh O’Brian). As Carol struggles with her own will to get better, she grows increasingly distant from Guy, urging him to keep pursuing his dancing career rather than settling down into a conventional job selling pre-fab “Happy Homes” as he waits around for her to recover.

Free of the noir-ish inflections Lupino brought to her other films—most notably The Hitch-Hiker, and the rape sequence in OutrageNever Fear is directed in a simple, straightforward style that bears comparison to the stripped-down neorealism of Roberto Rossellini. Lupino is captivated by the process of physical rehabilitation, offering detailed observations of Carol’s stretching routine, swim therapy, art classes, and, in one show-stopping sequence, a square dance featuring lines of wheelchair-bound patients twirling each other around in consummately choreographed synchrony. Carol is clumsy and awkward as she struggles to operate her wheelchair, a marked contrast to the film’s opening scenes, in which Carol and Guy move together with lithe sophistication as they perform a romantic swashbuckling tango.

Never Fear’s subject matter was personal for Lupino, who survived polio after an attack in 1934. But the filmmaker isn’t merely interested in the physical ailment itself, but also in the complicated pressure that recovery places on Carol. There’s a tension in the film, which was released at the height of the U.S. polio outbreak, between what Carol wants and what the men in her life want for her. When Carol begins to reject her own treatment, it’s in part because she’s rebelling against the expectations that her doctor, her fellow patients, and especially Guy have placed on her. “Be a woman for me,” Guy asks of her, but the demand is counter-productive, as Carol can only truly recuperate when she decides to do it for herself.

In Carol’s dilemma, one can sense Lupino wrestling with her own artistic ambitions, coming to grips with the reality that as the only woman director working within the Hollywood studio system in the ‘50s, she too would have to accept the guidance of the men around her, and in so doing she would be forced to bear the weight of their expectations for her—their demands, hopes, dreams, and pity. Unfortunately, Never Fear closes with a cop-out, a last-minute reconciliation that cheapens Carol’s hard-fought struggle to learn to live on her own terms by suggesting she’s fundamentally lost without a man. Almost as if the film is embarrassed by its own denouement, the final screen assures us, “This is not THE END. It is just the beginning for all those of faith and courage.” If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Lupino’s own. Never Fear wasn’t the end for her either, but merely the start of one of the most unique and pathbreaking directorial careers in Hollywood history.

Cast: Sally Forrest, Keefe Brasselle, Hugh O’Brian, Eve Miller, Lawrence Dobkin, Rita Lupino, Herbert Butterfield, Kevin O’Morrison, Stanley Waxman, Jerry Hausner, John Franco Director: Ida Lupino Screenwriter: Ida Lupino, Collier Young Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 1950

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WATCH: Stylish Queer Short Film Stay Makes Its Online Premiere

Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay debuts for free online.

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Stay
Brandon Zuck

Writer-director Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay made its premiere on the film festival circuit back in 2013, but the L.A.-based filmmaker is finally debuting it for free online. The short film, which Zuck claims is loosely based on events from his past, follows Ash (Brandon Harris) and his ex-boyfriend, Jacks (Julian Brand), on a road trip to the Florida Keys where the pair get mixed up in a fatal drug deal.

“I think maybe I was holding onto the film because it’s such a part of me,” Zuck says about his decision to release Stay on YouTube, which has been criticized by queer creators and organizations like GLAAD for ever-changing content guidelines that appear to target content made by and for LGBT people.

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“YouTube started age-restricting my other LGBT films and—to be totally honest—I got furious. YouTube is this faceless behemoth and there’s nothing someone like me can do to fight any of it directly. Really the only thing I could think of was just putting more queer content out there. And Stay was sitting right there on my desktop where it’s always been. So I just hit upload. And it got age-restricted. C’est la vie. Next.”

Watch Stay below:

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Review: The Resonant Tito and the Birds Wants Us to Reject Illusion

The Brazilian animated feature offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture.

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Tito and the Birds
Photo: Shout! Factory

In several ways, Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, and Gustavo Steinberg’s Tito and the Birds offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture. Instead of the sanitized, disposably “perfect” computer animation that gluts children’s TV shows and films, Tito and the Birds weds digital technology with oil painting, abounding in hallucinatory landscapes that casually morph to reflect the emotions of the narrative’s protagonists. This Brazilian animated feature has the warm, handmade quality of such adventurous modern children’s films as Henry Selick’s Coraline and Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince.

Tito and the Birds’s artisanal tactility is also inherently political, as it invites consumers or consumers-in-training not to mindlessly gobble jokes, plot, and branding opportunities by the yard, but to slow down and contemplate the sensorial experience of what they’re watching. For instance, it can be difficult to recall now that even middling Disney animated films of yore once seemed beautiful, and that the studio’s classics are ecstatic explosions of neurotic emotion. These days, Disney is in the business of packaging hypocritically complacent stories of pseudo-empowerment, which are viscerally dulled by workmanlike aesthetics that deliberately render our consumption painless and unmemorable.

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In this climate, the wild artistry of Tito and the Birds amounts to a bucket of necessary cold water for audiences. Throughout the film’s shifting landscapes, one can often discern brushstrokes and congealed globs of paint, which are deliberate imperfections that underscore painting, and by extension animation, as the endeavors of humans. And this emphasis on the humanity of animation underscores the fulfilling nature of collaborative, rational, nurturing community, which is also the theme of the film’s plot.

Like the United States and much of Europe, Brazil is falling under the sway of far-right politics, which sell paranoia as justification for fascism, and for which Tito and the Birds offers a remarkably blunt political allegory. The world of this narrative is gripped by a disease in which people are paralyzed by fright: In terrifying images, we see arms shrinking and eyes growing wide with uncomprehending terror, until the bodies curl up into fleshy, immobile stones that are the size of a large knapsack. Characters are unsure of the cause of the “outbreak,” though the audience can discern the culprit to be the hatred spewing out of a Fox News-like TV channel, which sells an illusion of rampant crime in order to spur people to buy houses in expensive communities that are fenced in by bubbles. Resonantly, the network and real estate are owned by the same rich, blond sociopath.

Ten-year-old Tito (Pedro Henrique) is a bright and sensitive child who’s traumatized by the disappearance of his father, a scientist who sought to build a machine that would reconnect humankind with birds. Like his father, Tito believes that birds can save the world from this outbreak of hatred, and this evocatively free-associative conceit underscores the hostility that far-right parties have toward the environment, which they regard as fodder for hunting grounds, plunder-able resources, and parking lots. In a heartbreakingly beautiful moment, a pigeon, a working-class bird, begins to sing, and its song resuscitates Tito’s friend, also pointedly of a lower class than himself, from a frozen state of fear and hopelessness.

As the birds come to sing their song, the landscapes lighten, suggesting the emotional and cultural transcendence that might occur if we were to turn off our TVs, phones, and laptops more often and do what the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver defined as our “endless and proper work”: pay attention—to ourselves, to others, to the wealth of other life we take for granted and subsequently fail to be inspired by. Inspiration has the potentiality to nullify fear, but it doesn’t sell as many action figures as the frenetic velocity of embitterment and violence.

Cast: Pedro Henrique, Marina Serretiello, Matheus Solano, Enrico Cardoso, Denise Fraga, Matheus Nachtergaele Director: Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg Screenwriter: Eduardo Benaim, Gustavo Steinberg Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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