Connect with us

Features

The Mystery of Screen Acting: An Interview with Author Dan Callahan

Most film critics have a pretty good handle on what it is a director does, what a cinematographer does, what an editor does. Acting, however, remains a little bit mysterious.

Published

on

The Mystery of Screen Acting: An Interview with Author Dan Callahan

Most film critics have a pretty good handle on what it is a director does, what a cinematographer does, what an editor does. Acting, however, remains a little bit mysterious. That’s why writers who know enough about the craft of acting to not just describe what they see in a performance but break down how the actor is doing it can be counted on only a couple of hands. The trick is to translate acting technique in a non-academic vocabulary, making it comprehensible to an audience of non-actors. You have to train your eye. You have to know what to look for, the “tells” of falsity or indicating, how to perceive a sketched-in performance as opposed to a full one.

It’s difficult to write about acting well. If it were easy, more people would do it. The rare writer who writes about acting really well, longtime theater and film critic Dan Callahan can home in on why and how a performance lands, or doesn’t. He pays attention to the actor’s technique, the actor’s tension, the prosody of the actor’s voice, all of these being “tells” as to whether or not the actor is truly engaged, or pumping up something artificial to fill in the blanks. This is tough stuff, but reading Callahan is an object lesson on how to do it.

Callahan’s first two books were biographies, the first on Barbara Stanwyck (Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman), the second on Vanessa Redgrave (Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave). In both, Callahan moves behind the confines of traditional biographies. Traditional biographies often lead us through the events in an artist’s life, giving us backstage stories, maybe a couple of anecdotes, maybe some description of how the artist’s work was received. Callahan gives us all that, but also gives us his analysis of the performances, leading us to an understanding of Stanwyck and Redgrave not just as subjects, but as artists. Why is Vanessa Redgrave so good? That’s not as simple a question as it might seem. One of the great gifts of Callahan’s writing is that he makes you want to re-watch movies you’ve already seen, hoping to pick up on all the things he’s illuminated.

Callahan’s latest book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, is made up of profile pieces and artistic analysis of the major figures from the silent era up until the moment before the collapse of the studio system. With chapters on Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, Louise Brooks, Joan Crawford, Cary Grant, James Cagney, Ingrid Bergman, Marlene Dietrich, to name a few, it’s a lush and complex look at the art of acting, and how it developed alongside the development of cinema itself. Callahan looks at the rupture represented by Marlon Brando, adding some necessary shadings to the almost universally accepted simplistic reading of Brando as an “improvement.” The earlier, more heightened style is still seen as “lesser” in many circles, or “over the top,” “heightened,” “phony.” In the book, and in our talk about it, it’s clear that Callahan is determined to set the record straight.

It’s perfect that Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn are on the cover of The Art of American Screen Acting. She was one of my early favorites. There was something about her that resonated with me. Maybe it was her tomboy thing. Maybe it’s the immaturity of some of her persona.

But she wants maturity, and Holiday is the perfect example of that. That’s why I put them on the cover, because I saw Bringing Up Baby and Holiday when I was eight, and I saw these two people who weren’t conventional. They were offering something other than the clichéd manly guy and feminine woman. Grant and Hepburn on screen together—no, they’re not going to have children, and whatever the sexual arrangement is, it isn’t going to be a conventional one, and it’s going to be friendship-based, by choice. They’re going to go see some shows, go to the nightclubs, have fun. This is what I was drawn to. And part of the appeal—as I say in the book—is their bisexuality. It’s impossible to say whether or not they were entirely gay, whatever that means. But this is why, on screen, they have such a very rich dynamic. They’re not putting themselves into a box. That’s what Holiday is about.

Tell me why you wanted to write the book.

The seed of the book came years ago when I was at acting school at NYU. If I would bring up a name from the classic Hollywood period, one of my teachers would dismiss them and say they were “pre-Brando,” that they’re artificial, they’re phony. And I would get very annoyed. When I was writing this book, I actually had a publisher who was interested in it, but then there was an editor who didn’t like the negative things I was saying about the Method actors, like Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. I was very close to getting a contract, and she rejected it. That was a good thing, in a way, because it showed how necessary a subject this is to discuss, if someone is getting so upset about it. But also, I was a little too negative, and so I trimmed and cut and improved the argument because of it.

What I wanted to do was highlight the positive aspects of the great Hollywood stars of the studio era. James Cagney, Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn. Those four people really stand for what I’m trying to talk about. And then I wanted to talk about the change that came with Brando, Clift, James Dean, and Kim Stanley. There were good things about that change and also bad things. I prefer the classic Hollywood actors, even though I make very clear what’s negative about them. I’m just as critical of them as I am of the Method actors. I wanted to upend this idea that was being propagated while I was in school, and everyone still accepts now: that Brando was an earthquake and that it was progress, that it was an improvement. It wasn’t progress. It was something different. It was a reaction and it was necessary at the time, but you need to understand what he was reacting against.

There are different kinds of acting. There’s the heightened theatrical style and there’s the more naturalistic style. What’s interesting about today’s filmmakers—particularly the ones making low-budget films—is that they’re all influenced by Robert Bresson. Bresson called his actors “models,” and that’s all anyone wants now. The young filmmakers are against acting. It’s like they’re afraid of it, they don’t want it. Let me just make clear: Bresson and what he did, Brando and what he did—they are extraordinary and valid, and their example was needed, but they were reacting to the heightened style, and if you do away with the heightened style entirely, then the naturalistic style doesn’t have anything to work against. We need both. We can’t reject one for the other. They should be in dialogue with each other.

One of the things you do so well as a writer is you teach people how to watch, especially the kind of person who thinks Marlon Brando invented “real” or “good” acting. So what you’re doing here is that you’re teaching. You’re not just telling us Lillian Gish invented the close-up. You’re teaching us how to watch her so we can learn from her discoveries.

Lillian Gish experimented. If the camera is really far back, should I go bigger? If the camera is right in my face, do I need to be different? And how? For instance, in Orphans of the Storm, when she’s calling to her blind sister and the camera is down the street, she had to throw her whole body into it so we could see it. It’s beautiful and it’s more like dance than acting. Gish couldn’t use dialogue in those silent films to communicate, and as I say in the book: If you’ve ever tried to communicate something to someone without using words, you know how big and exaggerated you have to get in order to be understood. John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, when he transforms into Mr. Hyde, it couldn’t be more extreme, and it’s so extreme it could get a laugh, but it doesn’t get a laugh because he doesn’t just do the surface transformation. He taps into an evil inside that animates him outwardly. And so we don’t laugh. Anyone can tell when someone is just doing the surface.

There’s a big problem where people think acting should only look one way, or that kitchen-sink realism is the only kind of acceptable acting.

I feel like it’s fear, in a way. Maybe it’s this American thing of “I don’t want to be phony, I want to be real.” But what is “real”? Everything is a performance. Quotation marks are around all of it, no matter what you do. If you realize that, you can go as big as you want. Now, if that’s all you’re doing, it can get boring. Like in the 1940s, when Ingrid Bergman got sick of everything being false and heightened, so she went away with Roberto Rossellini and tried out this new type of acting. That was very bold of her. She could do the big extravagant acting and then she proved she could do no-frills realism. That’s what’s so intriguing about her. I don’t think anyone else I write about in the book worked in such different styles. Put Bette Davis in a Rossellini movie and I think she would have walked off the set. Katharine Hepburn pushed herself when she got older, but she pushed herself in the opposite direction toward Shakespeare, toward the most challenging heightened way of doing it.

Define the concept of “indicating.” Actors understand this term intimately. Actors can clock indicating from a mile away. Critics, not so much.

Indicating is a kind of cheating. It’s a conventional response. What’s tricky about it is that that’s what reacting is though. An actor has to find the right look for a response. That’s what Lillian Gish did. But you can’t just have the right look for the response—like making a sad face during a sad moment—because the feeling has to be there too. For instance, yesterday I was watching Port of Seven Seas starring Wallace Beery. As I watched Beery, I thought: “He’s close to mugging here, close to indicating.” It’s a very big performance. But Beery gets away with it because it was coming from such a real source of vitality. You need to be connected to something real.

The chapter on Gloria Swanson was so much fun.

Unfortunately, so many of her films are lost. She’s very good in the movies directed by Allan Dwan. In Dwan’s Zaza, she’s very heightened, very detailed. With Sadie Thompson, she wanted to challenge herself, and she’s very good in it. It’s very different from what she’d done before, and she went through hell to get Sadie Thompson on the screen, to get it through the censorship restrictions. The movie was directed by Raoul Walsh. In writing about all of these actors, it was so clear how certain directors were very important for certain people, and one thing became very, very obvious: Walsh is the actor’s friend. He directed Swanson in Sadie Thompson and set her off beautifully.

Did Joan Crawford have a relationship like this?

Crawford was kind of on her own. She worked with great directors, of course. She worked with George Cukor three times and he did well with her. But when you think of Crawford, you don’t think of one director. Nicholas Ray, Otto Preminger, Robert Aldrich—they all saw her in different ways. Ingrid Bergman worked with Alfred Hitchcock, Cukor, Leo McCarey, Rossellini, Ingmar Bergman. She did it all. Of all the great stars, James Cagney is the one who doesn’t have enough great movies on his resume, unfortunately. There’s a lot of Cagney movies that aren’t worthy of him, and he knew it too.

Your observations about his curiosity about women, how engaged he was with them onscreen, were really illuminating.

Cagney is so alive. He’s so alert to possibility that when he interacts with people on screen he wants to get as much out of them as possible, and this is very sexy and very romantic if he’s dealing with an attractive woman. And with him, with an attractive woman, he soaks her up. He listens so closely.

He and Joan Blondell were a great team in all those Warner Bros. movies.

She’s so steady, she lets him be as volatile as he is. When he’s in prison at the end of Blonde Crazy and she comes to visit him, she’s got this fur jacket on, and he starts touching the jacket. I mean, you talk about Brando putting on Eva Marie Saint’s glove in On the Waterfront—Cagney was doing things like that in the 1930s and in a way that’s more all-embracing. Sexier. Cagney’s funny because, in real life, he was married and kind of a retiring, cautious guy. I think the difference between his real life and who he was on the screen was huge—especially in comparison with some of the other people I write about.

You also really dive into the difficult subject of Louise Brooks.

She did her best movies in Europe, but she remained very American in them. I also wanted to include her because she really came into her own as an older woman as a writer, and she wrote about a lot of the people that I write about in the rest of the book, so I was able to establish her as a character and in the later chapters I quote from her. She’s a key American actor. She herself said she never was an actress. But she’s the ultimate example of someone who is present. It’s like what I was talking about with these directors who don’t want anyone to act, they just want you to be a “model.” With her, in those three movies she made in Europe, it worked out exceptionally well.

There’s also an element of mystery about Brooks, and I tried very hard to get at what it is about her on screen, but words do fail at a certain point. You have to finally just experience it. It’s really interesting that she looks directly into the camera in Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. She looks right at us. Some of the other actors in the book will also look straight into the camera. Crawford doesn’t, because I think she was a little afraid of the camera. You’re not supposed to look at the camera. You’re supposed to pretend it isn’t there, but we all know it’s there. You know you’re being looked at. So the relationship with the camera gives us the feeling of who they are as a performer, if they can engage with it, with us. Brooks looked straight into the camera. Twice. And boldly. Those moments could not be more bold.

What is that about? Is it about charisma?

It’s about courage. It’s also about being reckless. It’s totally “I don’t give a damn.” In Dishonored, in Morocco, Marlene Dietrich kind of looks into the camera. Her whole thing was “I don’t give a damn.” And she really didn’t.

Let’s talk about Dietrich.

I had been working on a piece about Dietrich for many years. I wrote a draft of that essay when I lived in Chelsea after I graduated from school. I never could get it quite right, but I always kept it. For the book, I was like, okay, we have to finally address Dietrich and get this thing together finally.

I love how you call her “postmodern.”

Absolutely.

And her obedience to direction. The whole counting backward thing von Sternberg made her do.

It’s very hip. That’s the only word for it. She’s hip to the fact that the joke of the films is that the joke is on me: I’m spending my life, my whole career practically, trying to make meaning out of what she’s doing on the screen, and here’s Marlene Dietrich just counting backward from 100. If I didn’t know that, if von Sternberg hadn’t written that he made her do that in his memoir, I’d be coming up with all kinds of extravagant ideas about what she might be thinking and doing in those performances. She isn’t thinking anything, though, and it still works beautifully. This is why it took me so long to get the Dietrich piece together. She’s a hard subject in a context like this. If you see some of her early films, she was being treated as just a Berlin party girl. There’s one silent German film where she’s just getting felt up on the dance floor.

So von Sternberg “got” her because he was so obsessed with her?

Yes. He was madly in love with her. And she saw that he was madly in love. Dietrich was a very calculating person, and that’s fine. We have this thing, like, “Oh, the Artist, they put themselves out there!” Dietrich is the opposite of that. It’s all a game, it’s all artificial.

But you can’t deny the charisma.

In the movies she made before von Sternberg met her, Dietrich didn’t know what she was doing at all. There’s a silent film or two before The Blue Angel where she’s empty—an empty vessel. She has no idea what she’s doing, and she seems demoralized actually. If she hadn’t met von Sternberg, it wouldn’t have happened. She needed to meet him.

Let’s talk about Garbo. You wrote “Garbo works alone.”

That’s very true. Whereas Cagney doesn’t. Cagney needs other actors. Charles Laughton works alone, too, which is why he got screwed up later. In his worst work of the ‘40s and ‘50s, he indicates up a storm. He’s someone where it’s really true that it all has to come from inside, and the stimulus for him was a painting or a piece of music, it’s not the other actor who is working with him.

Part of the thing with Garbo is that when she came to America, she couldn’t speak English. She came with her director and mentor, Mauritz Stiller, and then he was sent back to Sweden. She still couldn’t speak English very well. Her sister died. She was isolated. She was a melancholy person, but still, she’s in a strange country, they send her mentor away, and all she had was her screenwriter friend, Salka Viertel, and she relied very heavily on her.

When you’re working in a language that’s not your own, it’s very difficult. Now think of Ingrid Bergman. What a joy it is to listen to what she does to the English language! With Garbo, though—you can see it particularly in Queen Christina, when she has a lot of long speeches. She isn’t as fluent as Bergman. Speech is an obstacle course for Garbo. Queen Christina was Garbo’s pet project and yet it has all these long speeches she has to plow through. The best moments she has in that are the silent ones. When she’s memorizing the room. Or the final close-up. Words aren’t Garbo’s thing. And that’s fine.

I hadn’t seen G.W. Pabst’s Joyless Street before, but I watched it after reading the Garbo chapter. She’s really something in it.

When I put up images for Joyless Street on Facebook, someone said that Pabst might have slowed down some of her close-ups, put them into slight slow motion, for whatever reason. Now, that’s not in any book that I’ve read, but if that’s true that might explain the strange quality of those close-ups.

It’s hard to say what exactly it is she is doing at times, but it’s similar to what Kristen Stewart does. She has a relationship to the camera that can’t really be explained. The scene in Joyless Street where Garbo tries on the fur coat and looks at herself in the mirror—it’s very natural. The moment has the same quality as Kristen Stewart looking in the mirror in Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper. But as you say, this is what’s so fascinating—in that moment in Joyless Street Garbo is by herself.

Some people are best by themselves. Cary Grant needs a partner. Katharine Hepburn needs a partner. Bette Davis doesn’t particularly need a partner, but she enjoys having one. Claude Rains, Mary Astor, Gena Rowlands—she enjoyed working with them. But Garbo was self-contained.

I rewatched Camille. It’s such an extraordinary performance.

It’s her best, I think.

The scene with Lionel Barrymore just killed me.

There’s that moment where he goes to her saying, sadly, “Oh Madame,” and she looks up at him and she looks angry. It’s such a great choice because it kills the sentimentality. There’s anger in her face and some resentment—but not too much of it. That’s great acting. To choose that? And to know just what the proportion should be? Irving Thalberg said to George Cukor, when he saw the rushes—“This is something else…she is unguarded.”

Could you talk about that great moment she has at the piano?

That scene at the piano with Henry Daniell is great partly because of the editing and pace, and partly because of the music that Daniell is playing. But it’s also because of her sense of irony. Greta Garbo uses irony a lot, just like John Barrymore uses irony to spice his work. Cary Grant has irony when he looks at a woman in that complicit way. Montgomery Clift has irony, but in a very different, campy way.

Joan Crawford has none.

Absolutely none. Bette Davis has some. Katharine Hepburn doesn’t have irony. I think she would think that irony is sick, and from her perspective she’d be right. She’d be suspicious of it. Who I want to be as a person is Katharine Hepburn as she was seen by George Cukor, I want to emulate the George Cukor-Katharine Hepburn model for living. I want to be like that.

When you were putting up all those screengrabs of Katharine Hepburn’s acting career on Facebook, the comments section was really lively. I was kind of shocked to see how many people just aren’t into her.

I was upset by the reaction to Hepburn on Facebook. If she was alive now, she’d know how to fix this perception of her. She’s not alive anymore, so we need to try to fix it for her. What needs to be done is that she needs to be recouped as a subversive figure. I feel like people are against her now because they feel like she lied to us. She was basically a lesbian, so they kind of have a point. There’s a kind of false quality to how she was promoted, particularly when she was an old lady.

This is trickier though. When I put up posts about Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando on Facebook, people went wild for them, and I feel like it’s partly because they’re so good-looking and sexy. I feel like the problem with Katharine Hepburn is a sex problem, and that was the case for her in the beginning too. People aren’t embracing her because she doesn’t care about sex on screen. And then she put together an act with Spencer Tracy where she became popular. The only movie where she plays sexual desire and sexuality in any way is Woman of the Year, and she plays it really convincingly and quite well. That’s the movie where she consolidated her comeback.

“Everything’s going to be all right.”

I end the book with that! I end the book with Hepburn saying that line in Bringing Up Baby as a kind of rebuke to Brando, Clift, Dean, and Kim Stanley. In the final section of the book, we have these three sexy men, but then we have Kim Stanley, who doesn’t fit into that at all. And so the question is: Where did the women go once the Method came along? Imogen Smith was at the book party for this book and she asked me, “Did you put the women first in your book because they were more important in that period?” I said, “That’s exactly why I did that.” And then, in the 1970s, the men take over. Clark Gable and Cary Grant and John Wayne—they enjoyed women.

This is what Molly Haskell writes about in From Reverence to Rape. In the ‘70s, women’s lib came along and suddenly—

The guys in movies just want to be with each other. They make buddy movies and women are either prostitutes or Nurse Ratched. I’m generalizing here, of course. Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty want to sleep with women on screen, but that doesn’t mean they like them or want to talk with them. The women are the most important thing in my book. James Cagney and Cary Grant and Charles Laughton are all important in my book, too, but if you notice, all three of them have a big slice of the feminine in their nature.

Bogart doesn’t.

Bogart doesn’t, which makes him a lesser figure. And Spencer Tracy doesn’t. Tracy’s a weird case. He had a big reputation, which he deserved, but then he started to coast. He didn’t stretch himself enough. Bogart was fairly easy to write about, but Tracy was a tough subject. He was interesting in that, when he was physically still, he was perfect. But when he starts moving, and tugging his ear and all that, he gets kind of false. It’s a little bit like Gary Cooper post-1936, when he got naturalistic in a very false way. He’s too aware of his own naturalism. Naturalism has become an act. It’s become a mannerism.

The thing about these figures from the studio era is that you would never mistake Davis for Stanwyck or confuse Dietrich with Hepburn. People who haven’t even seen a Dietrich movie could pick her out of a lineup. But now—every actress, talented though many of them are, looks the same. Everyone has the same hairstyle, with that long curl down the side. In what world is it okay to have Reese Witherspoon look exactly like Rachel McAdams on the red carpet? With interchangeable hairstyles? Whose bright idea was that?

I am going to say something negative that is going to get me into trouble.

I started it.

You did. It’s all your fault. If Reese Witherspoon were making movies in the 1930s, she’d be playing the “other woman.” Reese Witherspoon would be playing Gail Patrick parts. She would not be a leading woman, and the fact that she’s a leading woman today speaks to why this country is so screwed up. [laughs] Listen, this is tough talk. When Katharine Hepburn died in 2003, People magazine put her in an insert on the cover, whereas they had given Bette Davis the whole cover after she died. And who was on that People cover in 2003 after Hepburn died? It was Reese Witherspoon, and the headline was something like, “How Reese Just Had To Become A Mom!” If Katharine Hepburn hadn’t already died, she would have died all over again if she had seen that.

So let’s talk about Kim Stanley. I was so happy you wrote about her.

You’ve written about Stanley. Do you understand my ambivalence about her?

I do!

She’s kind of a cautionary tale. I love the fact that she played with Lillian Gish on stage during the tour of The Trip to Bountiful. They are polar opposites as actors. Gish is at the beginning of the book, Stanley at the end, but they did act together! I would give anything to ask Gish what it was like to work with Stanley. Stanley worked with Helen Hayes on Broadway, and Hayes said Stanley would have tried the patience of a saint, because Stanley was trying to give an opening-night level performance “even on rainy Thursdays.” But that’s Hayes, though. Gish might have understood that desire.

My thing with Stanley is: I trust the people who were there. Nobody gets reviews like she got for her live TV performances and her theater performances. She’s “lit from within,” she’s “translucent,” stuff like that.

You can see it! I mean, if you watch her in that TV film of A Young Lady of Property, you can see it. But the dark side is there in her two feature films. There’s this anecdote about her filming Seance on a Wet Afternoon. She walks through the kitchen, and she stops suddenly. The director, Bryan Forbes, had a whole shot planned, and he said, “What are you doing, Kim?” And she said, “I was relating to the oranges.” There’s too much “relating to the oranges” with Kim Stanley. If your whole performance is relating to the oranges, you’re not relating to the audience. For quite a while in the middle of the 20th century, there was some very fine work, but also some work which shuts the audience out. Lillian Gish was trying to communicate with people. Katharine Hepburn. Cary Grant. James Cagney. They’re giving it all, it isn’t about them.

I see Brando as a bridge figure, actually. There wasn’t too much excess with him. He had great technique.

I agree.

And with James Dean, we only have the three movies.

Have you seen him on TV in Something for an Empty Briefcase? That’s become my favorite Dean performance. It’s on YouTube. He’s just out of this world in it. Physically, he’s out of this world. His physicality can be too much. It’s like what I was talking about with Gish, throwing herself up with her body. He throws himself down, twists himself down. She’s healthy. He’s extravagantly unhealthy, twisted, a monster, practically. But he’s a sexy monster.

When he’s forced to play a strong objective—like in East of Eden when he takes Aron to see their mother, or when he wants to kiss Julie Harris on the Ferris wheel—he’s super engaged and active.

Those are his best scenes. He’s a sad case. What did he actually want? I don’t think even he could have told you. What I get from his body language is he shows you he’s available, but his availability is not something he can control. And he doesn’t like it too much. This is why Rebel Without a Cause is his best movie. You might think he’d be better for the Plato role that Sal Mineo did, but he doesn’t play the Plato part. He’s in a submissive position in East of Eden, he needs the father’s love. In Rebel, he’s the patriarch, but he gets to be the hip sexy patriarch, and he gets to have the girl and the boy.

And it occurs to me that this brings us back to where we started, this brings us back to Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Holiday. You know how in Holiday they go into that upstairs room, where they play and tumble and hide out from the rest of the party? In Rebel Without a Cause, Dean and Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo go into that old mansion and they create their own world together. The James Dean version of this story ends tragically, because it’s out of the closet. Whereas with Cukor’s version, you can have your fun as long as you don’t talk about what you do in bed. Different time periods. And so there’s a similarity between Rebel and Holiday. That’s where the two acting sensibilities meet with each other in a perfect utopia.

Rebel Without a Cause

Dan Callahan’s The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960 is now available from McFarland.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Advertisement
Comments

Books

Interview: Don Winslow on Broken and the Jazz of His Crime Fiction

The acclaimed crime novelist discusses his new collection of novellas, his influences, and more.

Published

on

Don Winslow
Photo: Robert Gallagher

Don Winslow is a testament to life as the best school of writing, as he’s as colorful as the characters who appear in his propulsive, sensual, political, and often brutal crime novels. An ex-private investigator, a rancher, a surfer, a hiker, a jazz enthusiast, and a journalist who’s studied the intricacies of Mexican drug trade for his acclaimed Cartel trilogy, Winslow is a man of vast experience, empathy, and curiosity who dramatizes all perspectives on the criminal ecosystem, from the hippie stoner to drug czars to all the cops, reporters, immigrants, and imperiled children who’re trying merely to get by.

Honing over the years a clipped-paragraph style, Winslow fashions novels that simultaneously suggest tabloids, op-ed pieces, and Norman Mailer-style epics. But his new collection of novellas, Broken, finds him working in more moderate and relaxed keys, after writing a handful of the biggest books of his career: The Cartel and The Border, the final installments of the Cartel trilogy, and the searing The Force, about a corrupt New York City cop.

Broken thrives on misdirection, opening with one of Winslow’s most violent pieces of writing—the title novella, about a New Orleans cop who hunts the drug dealer who tortured his brother to death—before seguing into mellower character studies that recall his earlier, chiller, more comfortably genre-based origins. In “Crime 101,” a jewel thief intersects with a rumpled yet calculating police officer; in “The San Diego Zoo,” a bizarre case of animal armament leads to unlikely romance; in “Sunset,” an aging bail bondsman, the titanic Duke Kasmajian, reflects on a vanishing way of life while overseeing a final chase, leading to lovely ruminations on scotch and West Coast jazz, among other things. The last two novellas, “Paradise” and “The Last Ride,” return the book to more violent and topical terrain: the American drug war and our government’s inhumane imprisonment of fleeing families on the Mexican/U.S. border.

These stories are all animated by Winslow’s ear for dialogue and feeling for place, particularly San Diego, which becomes a recurring symbol of a vanishing way of life, a paradise that’s gradually being commodified into nonexistence. The Pacific Coast Highway, an ongoing subject of reverie in Winslow’s books, serves as a kind of circulatory system in Broken—a route toward contemplation and healing. Throughout these stories, Winslow also rhapsodizes on the little elements of Americana that can offer transcendence, from the classic ballgame-and-hot-dog date to the ritualistic grilling of fish for fish tacos. Winslow’s juxtaposition of such details with this country’s slide into political sadism suggests nothing less than the internal war to remain decent in an age of sensationalized heartlessness. (On Twitter, Winslow is a mercilessly astute critic of Donald Trump’s lies, incompetence, and trademark callousness.)

Particularly given our current social calamity, Winslow’s Americana continues to haunt me. Ball games. Grilling with buddies with beers on the deck. Intoxicating sex with someone you’ve just met by chance. These are heartbreaking things to ponder as the COVID-19 epidemic forces us into isolation. In this light, these rituals become even more fantastical, even more poignant, even more seemingly lost, than Winslow could’ve possibly intended.

How are you doing with this thing personally?

I’m fine, thank you. My wife and I live way out in the country sort of north and east of San Diego on an old ranch, and it looks pretty much the same around here as it always does. It’s kind of quiet and not many people are around and we’re hunkered down. We’ll just see how this goes, I guess. I have to tell you, it feels a little weird talking about a book during all of this. “Oh, people are dying, people are suffering, let’s talk about me.”

I’ve felt the same way about writing movie reviews lately.

Right? But life goes on, I guess. I know I’ve been reading more and watching a lot of old DVDs and things, because we don’t get very good internet service up here. So, you know, I guess we serve our purpose. [laughs]

I was reading Broken while COVID-19 was creeping into Virginia where I live, and, I hate to call art an “escape” because I think that’s often a horrible reduction, but this book was an escape.

Well, I think escape is one of the purposes of art. I think it can be engagement and escape. I’m not insulted by that at all. If people are entertained and it takes them out of this thing for a little while, God bless.

Broken is a collection of novellas that’s arriving after a few of your weightiest and most political novels. Did you consciously think of it as a palette cleanser?

Well, it’s an interesting way of putting it. I’m not sure I’d put it exactly that way, but I know what you mean. These were stories that I had had in my head for a while with the exception of the final one. And I knew that they were too substantive to be short stories but they were certainly not going to have the epic bulk that you alluded to. If I may use a different analogy, I’ve been sort of running ultramarathons for the last 20 years, you know? And so it felt it would be refreshing to run a middle-distance.

There’s a clever structural misdirection in this book. It’s called Broken and fans of your recent work may have a bleak expectation. The title story certainly fulfills that expectation, but many of the stories are warm, comparatively light character studies. At what point did you begin to consider that pervading arc?

Pretty early on. The three middle stories [“Crime 101,” “The San Diego Zoo,” “Sunset”] I’ve sort of had in my head for quite a while. The titular story was a bit later. And then I thought that this collection really needed a bookend, a story that matches the feel of “Broken.” And so then that structure became apparent to me. I think a lot about jazz because I listen to a lot of jazz. And sometimes there’s that kind of opening statement, the melody that’s being written down, you know, and then you go off into this middle phase where people are improvising on that, which, sometimes, tonally, is very different from where you started, until you circle back to the opening theme. In the case of this book, we open and circle back to brokenness.

So you have the same interests as your character Duke then?

[laughs] Yeah, which comes in handy, you know? Jazz has been a big thing with me since I was a kid and I took an especial interest in West Coast Jazz, you know, though I like other stuff as well. And so that was just fun to write and kind of visit.

To continue this jazz metaphor, particularly the idea of riffs on a theme, the broken motif is certainly in the lighter stories, too, just expressed differently.

Yeah, exactly. Not to torture this metaphor, which is kind of fun, but you know there’s going to be a certain chord progression that you’re not going to completely depart from. Well, some jazz does, but the kind of jazz I really love doesn’t. And I know who I am as a writer and as a person; many of these themes are going to come out anyway. In terms of chord progression, I was always very clear about the order of the stories.

Did you write the stories in chronological order?

Not exactly. Again, I knew what the order was going to be, but I’d been working on some of these stories for a while. I’d been working on “Crime 101” for a couple of years and never quite “got it.” I had the opening line of “San Diego Zoo” in my head for literally years. But I didn’t know what it meant. It was a line that struck me funny.

When I read that, I thought, “This is a new Winslow. Where the hell is this going?”

We live out on an old ranch and brush clearance is a huge issue because of wildfires. I had a bunch of downed trees and somebody asked, “Why don’t you get a chainsaw?” And a buddy of mine, this old cowboy, was standing next to me and said, “Giving Don a chainsaw would be like giving a revolver to a chimp.” [both laugh] Which sadly is true. I’m notoriously clumsy and not very mechanical. And he was right: I probably would’ve cut my hand off, or my leg off, or something. Well, somehow that line evolved in my head into “No one knows how the chimp got the revolver.” It stuck in my head for years, and when I was committing to doing these stories and trying to figure out what was the next thing after “Crime 101,” I typed that line out and just made the rest of it up. I was playing that great game “what if?” I did not know how the chimp got the revolver until I typed the end of it.

What’s striking about “The San Diego Zoo” is that it’s genuinely, unforcedly sweet, especially coming after “Broken,” which is a bitter pill to swallow.

“Broken” is one of the toughest, harshest pieces I’ve ever done. It was fun to go to sweet, you know? And I agree with what I think you’re saying: that there’s a very fine line between sweetness and saccharine. But there’s not much chance of my crossing over into that. [laughs]

Did you consciously perceive a relationship between “Broken” and The Force?

Of course. I’d written that big cop book, and I knew there were going to be similarities here. But I also knew there were going to be important differences, and I very deliberately set “Broken” in a completely different location to help achieve that, but sure I knew the reader would say “this is kinda like The Force.”

The Force is one of my favorite books of yours. I think you have a daring, uncomfortable empathy with your antihero.

An uncomfortable empathy is a good way to put it. A little frightening. I spent a lot of time with cops in doing that book, but I have my whole life anyway, because I was a private investigator. I had a lot of cop friends, and I really did feel an empathy with Denny. I’m not trying to make moral judgments about my characters. I might have them, independent of the book, but it’s not my job to create good guys and bad guys; it’s to create as realistic people as I can, and get the reader close to them. I’ve sat down with a lot of objectively evil people: serial killers, psychopaths, drug folks—you name it. None of them define themselves as monsters. They have a point of view, we might loathe it, but they have a point of view.

“San Diego Zoo” is dedicated to Elmore Leonard and “Crime 101” to Steve McQueen, which makes sense when you read that story, though it feels very Elmore-y to me too.

Absolutely. And Michael Mann. I don’t run from my influences. I’m very happy to proclaim them, and one of the great thrills of my life was spending an hour with Mr. Leonard. We were in the same room one time very early in my career on my first book, and I was too shy to go up to him. And then later, I might’ve done a film with him, which didn’t work out, and he died, sadly, shortly thereafter. But I got to be on the phone with him for an hour.

Did he live up to your expectations?

Oh, even more. I don’t think I said five words. He got on the phone and said, “Don Winslow, you were two-years-old when I wrote 3:10 to Yuma.” Which was the most charming way of putting me in my place. And I said, “Yes, sir, but I tried to read it.” And he laughed and told stories for an hour, nonstop. It was me, my agent, his agent, and him on the phone. And I was standing in the rain. We were living down on the coast, and we didn’t get good cell reception in our apartment. In fact, if you stepped two feet closer to the beach you couldn’t get cell reception. So, I went outside, and it was one of those rarely raining Southern California days, and I stood in the rain for an hour listening to Elmore Leonard. I would’ve stayed there all day.

That’s got to be one of those moments you keep in your pocket.

Absolutely, man. Absolutely.

I’m not trying to blow smoke, but I think you’re playing on Leonard’s level these days.

Well, I wouldn’t say that, but thank you, I try. We all revere him in the genre. And he’s one of those guys you’ve never heard a bad word about. Or Michael Connolly, who’s terrific. Or Lee Child or Dennis Lehane. These guys, who’re so huge and so great, are genuinely nice people.

That’s great to hear. I’m a big crime book guy.

Yeah, apparently. [laughs] And you know I dedicated another story in Broken to Raymond Chandler, who’s the granddaddy of us all, and if I write for another hundred years I’m never gonna write as well as him.

Your Chandler story, “Sunset,” may be my favorite in this collection.

I have a fondness for that story, which I wrote from beginning to ending. I sat down, started typing and almost literally didn’t stop until it was over a few days later. I just knew the story.

To borrow an element from that story, to belabor another metaphor, it has the feel of scotch: It’s mellow, there’s depth there that doesn’t announce itself.

Well, thank you. I wanted to write a sunset story that was a little mellow and was a little mature, and talked about some older guys, you know? And talked about loss of a lot of things: loss of loved ones, loss of a hero, loss of a certain kind of life.

There’s an additional commonality to these stories that affirms the “broken” theme. In every one, there’s a decisive moment where a character essentially says, “Screw it, I’m going to act for decency, against the fabric of my surroundings.”

Yeah, frankly you’re the first person who’s picked up on that. I think the ultimate question of crime fiction has become the ultimate question for all of us in these times that we live in, and I’m not happy about that. For me the ultimate question of crime fiction has always been, for the characters: How do you to attempt to live decently in what’s basically an indecent world? Increasingly, we’re living in an indecent world.

To piggyback on that, this book offers a vision in which people must act apart from mass politics, divorcing themselves from the media maelstrom. Is that fair?

I think that’s fair. In some ways, in all these stories, there’s a return to older values. The last story, I’m sure you picked up on it, is a neo-western, quite obviously. And I thought it would be more interesting if I made that guy a Trump voter, a conservative.

Yeah. I follow you on Twitter and I know what your feelings about Trump are, which I share. But I like that you don’t editorialize the conservative at the center of “The Last Ride.”

It just struck me as a more interesting slant on it. And then this guy changes his mind, you know, and goes back to what I would think of as those older western values.

There’s an image in “The Last Ride” that I don’t think I’ve seen in a western before. That startling image paralleling the hero’s fate with that of his horse.

I went to college in Nebraska and worked on ranches. I’ve lived in Idaho, Montana, out in California. I’ve had cowboys all around me, and I’ve seen too many horses put down. It’s a terrible moment. And I thought that was just the right ending.

In some interviews, you’ve wondered if your style as a writer is too flexible. I find your voice distinctive though, with those short, machine-gun paragraphs. Do you achieve that structure in the editing phase, or do you compose that way?

Basically, I’m composing it that way, but I make it better, I hope, in the cutting phase. When I do first drafts I’m not thinking about the reader much at all. I just try to get it down, and then, with every subsequent draft, I’m thinking more and more about the reader. What is the reader hearing? What is the reader seeing? We sometimes forget that reading, though certainly an intellectual activity, is also a visual activity. I pay a lot of attention to what the words look like on the page, and if the look is achieving the effect that I want it to. So, in reference to that kind of machine-gun thing that you’re alluding to, sometimes I think words just need a lot of space around them so that they do stand out. But, other times, if you want to grab the reader and not let him or her go a while, then you want the page to look very dense, so that there’s no space for them to take a break. You want to control the ride that you take them on that way.

It’s funny to hear you describe this process. As someone who writes reviews, I often edit according to how I like the visual shape of a paragraph in a word document.

That’s exactly what I’m talking about, Chuck. This is going to sound really goofy, but sometimes I’ll step away from the screen to the point where I can’t make out the words, only the shapes.

It’s almost as if such abstractions allow you to see your over-writing.

I think that’s absolutely the truth, and it does sound crazy.

With jazz, crime novels, and other arts, there’s an East Coast/West Coast distinction. With your traveling, with your New York- and California-set novels, it seems that you can lay claim to both coasts. Do you have a preference?

I don’t think so. I come from blue-collar New England, not tweed New England. [laughs] My dad was first-career military. I’m from a fishing town. My old man used to take me to the fishing factory, where they rendered all that shit. From 500 yards you could smell it. And he’d say, “If you don’t buckle down and steady you’re going to spend the rest of your life shoveling fish guts.” I came from a Bruce Springsteen kind of town that’s now become a touristy town. All that has always been a big part of my life, and I go back there every year, and I probably do more surfing there now than I do here.

But when I came to the West Coast, which was in the late ‘80s, as an investigator, I just fell in love. There’s no other way of putting it. And I can remember like it was yesterday the first time I drove on the Pacific Coast Highway. I went, “My God,” and I’m still in love with it. I don’t know how many hundreds of times I’ve driven that road down here, and I never get bored with it, it always excites me.

I go back to New England and I eat fish and chips and chowder and out here I’ll have my beloved fish taco. The two oceans are also very different, very different kinds of personalities, if I can put it that way, and I love them both. I feel like I have the best of both worlds. You need to come out here when this blows over.

Broken is now available from Harper Collins.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

The 10 Best Albums of 1986

We take a look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades.

Published

on

Beastie Boys
Photo: Columbia Records

In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s, I noted that, while ‘80s pop culture is largely remembered for its frivolity, the social unrest that stirred beneath the decade’s brightly colored gloss and greed resulted in not just the guilt-driven good intentions of enterprises like the star-studded USA for Africa, but a generation of artists whose music genuinely reflected the state of the world. From political violence across the pond and the struggles and dreams of the American working class, to race relations, sexuality, and gender, no topic was left unexcavated by the pop, rock, and hip-hop artists of the Reagan era. As we enter the 2020s, an entire generation removed from the ‘80s, it seems as good a time as any to once again look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades. Sal Cinquemani

Honorable Mention: The Bangles, Different Light; Afrika Bamabaataa & Soulsonic Force, Planet Rock: The Album; Metallica, Master of Puppets; Talk Talk, The Colour of Spring; New Order, Brotherhood; Dwight Yoakam, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.; The Robert Cray Band, Strong Persuader; Throwing Muses, Throwing Muses; Randy Travis, Storms of Life; The Go-Betweens, Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express



EVOL

10. Sonic Youth, EVOL

Jittery and eclectic, 1987’s EVOL stands far apart from the later, more cohesive Daydream Nation; it’s a difficult album that’s nonetheless one of the best latter-day invocations of no-wave chaos. Full of sustained bursts of cathartic noise, the album kicks off with the jagged squeal of “In the Kingdom #19,” which employs Minuteman bassist Mike Watt over a spoken-word account of a car crash, months after the death of bandmate D. Boon in similar circumstances. Lydia Lunch contributes vocals to the blown-out wasteland “Marilyn Moore,” adding to the weird collegial air of one of the group’s strangest albums. Jesse Cataldo



Skylarking

9. XTC, Skylarking

The story behind the recording of XTC’s Skylarking is that the band absolutely hated working with producer Todd Rundgren, whom they found overbearing and snide, but none of that behind-the-scenes tension translated into the finished product, as joyous and buoyant a pop album as has ever been recorded. The songwriting is balanced between Andy Partidge’s more twee impulses and Colin Moulding’s grounded, dry wit, while Rundgren’s on-point production splits the difference between the band’s Pet Sounds inspiration and new wave’s bounce. Even when the band explores headier themes, such as the working-class disaffect on standout “Earn Enough for Us” and the potent defense of atheism on minor-hit single “Dear God,” their melodies are outsized and sunny. Skylarking might not have been fun to record, but it’s still a blast to listen to. Jonathan Keefe



Raising Hell

8. Run-DMC, Raising Hell

It wasn’t the album that made hip-hop “safe” to white, middle American audiences (that didn’t come along until M.C. Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em), but Run-D.M.C.’s landmark Raising Hell was the album that truly gave a broader pop audience an entry point into hip-hop music. That Run-D.M.C. were able to break through on such a massive scale without sacrificing their aggressive sampling of harder-edged rock music or their inimitable lyrical flow speaks to the skill, unrivaled at the time, that they displayed on Raising Hell. Thanks to producers Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, the fans who were initially hooked by the group’s cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” discovered the depth of sound, purposeful use of samples, and razor-sharp wordplay that made the mid-’80s rap music’s golden age. Keefe



True Blue

7. Madonna, True Blue

Sure, some of the production choices on True Blue sound chintzy and dated in comparison to those on Madonna’s other ‘80s releases, but there’s no getting around the fact that five of the album’s nine tracks are among the strongest individual singles of her career. More importantly, though, True Blue was the album on which it became readily apparent that Madonna was more than just a flash-in-the-pan pop star. It’s when she began manipulating her image—and her audience—with a real sense of clarity and purpose and made sure she had quality songs to back up her world-dominating ambition. Keefe



Lifes Rich Pageant

6. R.E.M., Lifes Rich Pageant

In which the college (rock) kids graduate and head into the real world, ready to take over. And, in R.E.M.’s case, they came pretty close to doing just that. Lifes Rich Pageant stands as a nearly seamless transition between the band’s formative period and their commercial dominance. The ragged, frenetic energy of R.E.M.’s early work is captured on “Just a Touch” and “These Days,” while “Fall On Me” and their cover of the Clique’s “Superman” showcase a newfound emphasis on pop hooks. In striking that balance, Lifes Rich Pageant is a template for how the “alternative” music the band was largely responsible for originating would, less than a decade later, become the dominant narrative in the music industry. Keefe

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time

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

Published

on

The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time
Photo: Well Go USA

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

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

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

Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 21, 2019.


Night of the Comet

20. Night of the Comet (1984)

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


The Living Dead Girl

19. The Living Dead Girl (1982)

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


They Came Back

18. They Came Back (2004)

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


Zombi Child

17. Zombi Child (2019)

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child is a quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments in in the film where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper than race relations. Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. The film’s off-kilter mix of horror, historiography, and youth movie affords Bonello plenty of opportunity to indulge his pet themes and motifs. He spends much time lingering throughout scenes set at the academy on the sociality of the young women and their engagement with pop culture. In fact, Bonello’s fascination with the dynamics of these relationships seems to drive his interest in the horror genre more so even than the film’s most obvious antecedent, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie—as is indicated by a pretty explicit homage to Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Sam C. Mac


Train to Busan

16. Train to Busan (2016)

When divorced of message-mongering, the film’s scare tactics are among the most distinctive that the zombie canon has ever seen. The zombies here are rabid, fast-moving ghoulies that, as Train to Busan’s protagonists discover, are attracted to loud sounds and only attack what they can actually see. This realization becomes the foundation for a series of taut set pieces during which the story’s motley crew of survivors manipulate their way past zombies with the aid of cellphones and bats and the numerous tunnels through which the train must travel. The genre crosspollination for which so many South Korean thrillers have come to be known for is most evident in these scenes (as in the survivors crawling across one train car’s overhead luggage area), which blend together the tropes of survivor-horror and disaster films, as well as suggest the mechanics of puzzle-platformer games. Gonzalez

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

The 10 Best Albums of 1985

We take a look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades.

Published

on

Kate Bush
Photo: Rhino

In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s, I noted that, while ‘80s pop culture is largely remembered for its frivolity, the social unrest that stirred beneath the decade’s brightly colored gloss and greed resulted in not just the guilt-driven good intentions of enterprises like the star-studded USA for Africa, but a generation of artists whose music genuinely reflected the state of the world. From political violence across the pond and the struggles and dreams of the American working class, to race relations, sexuality, and gender, no topic was left unexcavated by the pop, rock, and hip-hop artists of the Reagan era. As we enter the 2020s, an entire generation removed from the ‘80s, it seems as good a time as any to once again look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades. Sal Cinquemani

Honorable Mention: LL Cool J, Radio; Talking Heads, Little Creatures; John Cougar Mellencamp, Scarecrow; Lizzy Mercier Descloux, One for the Soul; The Velvet Underground, VU; Husker Du, New Day Rising; Grace Jones, Slave to the Rhythm; Various Artists, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto; The Smiths, Meat Is Murder; The Mekons, Fear and Whiskey



Fables of the Reconstruction

10. R.E.M., Fables of the Reconstruction

Thematically, Fables of the Reconstruction is one of R.E.M.’s most cohesive albums, drawing heavily from Southern iconography and folklore. Bands like Drive-By Truckers have, in recent years, taken up the cause of reconstructing and deconstructing the mythology of the modern South, but R.E.M.’s take on the subject is, unsurprisingly, far less literal. Southern myths are often preoccupied with mysterious, hermit-like older men, and many such characters serve either as protagonists or sources of inspiration on the album. “Life and How to Live It” was famously inspired by the life story of Brev Mekis, a schizophrenic man from the band’s native Athens, GA, who bifurcated his home into two completely distinct dwellings. “Maps and Legends” is a complex tribute to Reverend Howard Finster, one of the most famous figures in the “outsider art” movement. What makes Fables of the Reconstruction such a rich, deeply rewarding work is that it isn’t simply a retelling of these myths or a hagiography for these men, it’s that the album is a pointed, thoughtful consideration of what these stories mean and, specifically, of how the band perceives them. Jonathan Keefe



Rum, Sodomy & the Lash

9. The Pogues, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash

Landing chronologically and stylistically in the Pogues’s discography between the extremely drunken revelry of Red Roses for Me and the extremely drunken but more refined If I Should Fall from Grace from God, the also extremely drunken Rum Sodomy & the Lash may well be the quintessential Pogues experience. These rowdy drinking songs, both traditional and original, are of course tremendous fun. But it’s the album’s (relatively) sober laments—“The Old Main Drag,” the historical ballad “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” and “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day,” featuring lovely gender-bending vocals by Cait O’Riordan—that proved the band’s Celtic folk-punk wasn’t just a novelty, but a rich and inventive new form. Jeremy Winograd



Low-Life

8. New Order, Low-Life

If Movement was the funeral and Power, Corruption, and Lies was the haunting, then Low-Life was the exorcism, the moment when New Order fully freed themselves from the ghost of Ian Curtis and set in motion their second life as the U.K.’s finest purveyor of electro-pop dance-floor fillers. Even the song that’s about Curtis, the funereal “Elegia,” isn’t overly indebted to the band’s post-punk roots. From the galloping opener “Love Vigilantes” to the glitchy “Face Up,” Low-Life is the product of a band whose members are deeply in sync and pushing each other in new directions. Bernard Sumner is still finding his voice here—lyrics were often New Order’s Achilles’ heel, and this album features some cringey turns of phrase—but the band’s musicianship has been honed to a razor’s edge. Bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris are locked in with each other, and Gillian Gilbert’s synths pair dramatically with Sumner’s spare guitar lines. The highlight is “The Perfect Kiss”: When that keyboard part picks up, Thatcher is in 10 Downing Street and it’s midnight on the Hacienda’s dance floor. Seth Wilson



The Head on the Door

7. The Cure, The Head on the Door

The Cure’s The Head on the Door is a cheery pop album as envisioned by a goth-rock master. And weirdly, it works perfectly. Monster hooks flow effortlessly out of Robert Smith, and notably, none of them sound much alike. The speedily strummed “In Between Days” is easily the album’s catchiest song, but nearly every other track is of the same melodic caliber. The joy of The Head on the Door is the dizzying array of different styles Smith manages to cram into easily digestible pop packages. From the high-drama guitar riffs of “Push” and the driving flamenco rhythms and Arabic accents of “The Blood,” to the plinky atmospherics of “Kyoto Song” and the hopped-up minimalism of “Close to Me,” each new element is as surprising as it is hummable. The Head on the Door isn’t as sprawling as some of the Cure’s other beloved albums, but that’s exactly why it’s one of their most essential: It cuts right to the gooey melodic center at the heart of Smith’s songwriting. Winograd



Songs from the Big Chair

6. Tears for Fears, Songs from the Big Chair

In which an attempted primal scream ends up coming out as an incredibly pitch-perfect crying jag. (Boy, am I glad the word “emo” wasn’t around in 1985, though Richard Kelly’s use of the dreamy “Head Over Heels” in his frowny sci-fi teen-angst epic Donnie Darko paid back that particular favor with interest.) British synth-pop act Tears for Fears’ follow-up to the critically acclaimed The Hurting may have seemed a sellout at the time, but heard anew today, the cathartic, shuffling hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” seems like one of the great indictments of the materialism and false triumphalism of the decade. Eric Henderson

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

The 100 Best Westerns of All Time

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

Published

on

The 100 Best Westerns of All Time
Photo: United Artists

The classic western was conceived from an undeniably Euro-centric, colonial perspective, with white characters upholding their supposed birthright of freedom and property. In the western, the immense country beyond the Mississippi River figures at once as the sublime object that exceeds the human grasp and as a quantifiable possession. And the prototypical cowboy straddles these paradoxical poles: at home on the dusty, timeless landscape, but also facilitating its incorporation into a society marching toward the Pacific. In 1925’s Tumbleweeds, the herder hero played by William S. Hart reluctantly makes way for the newly arrived homesteaders; in 1953’s Shane, Alan Ladd’s eponymous character rides off after making the West safe for the American family; and in Sergio Leone’s 1968 opus Once Upon a Time in the West, Jason Robards’s Cheyenne sacrifices his life not to end the expansion of the American empire, but to facilitate a more just one.

But this standard narrative mold, to paraphrase John Ford’s 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, only represents the printed legend. The historical American West was more diverse and less male-dominated than the one Hollywood imagined for many years. Life in the Western territories demanded just as many determined women as it did men, and suffragettes had their first major victories in the West: Wyoming was the first state to grant women the vote, and the first to have a woman governor. A third of all cowboys herding cattle on the Great Plains were black—a fact that’s only surprising until you consider which groups were most in need of self-reliant vocation and freedom from the long arm of the law in the wake of the Civil War. Every once in a while, these historical realities break through the filtered screen of the Hollywood western: Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich play no-nonsense saloon owners in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar and Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, respectively, and Sidney Poitier’s often overlooked Buck and the Preacher from 1972 is one of the too-few films that are centered around black frontiersmen.

When Europeans, influenced by decades of dime novels and Hollywood flicks, got around to making westerns, the resulting films would be part of this swing toward revisionism. By this time, European filmmakers were coping with the aftermath of the most devastating conflict in human history, and Italian westerns like Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence and Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly are infused with the lived-in existentialism of postwar Europe. In them, the American West becomes an otherworldly wasteland of pure brutality and diminished—rather than heightened—agency. Europeans’ estrangement of western film tropes would help spur a revisionist take on the standards of the genre that infuses films produced to this day.

However, for all the observations that such “postmodern” westerns are about the end of the West—in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales and elsewhere, represented by the arrival of new technologies like the Gatling gun—the western has always been about endings. It’s no coincidence that the genre’s proverbial image is that of a figure “riding off into the sunset.” The American frontier was declared closed after the 1890 census, a decade before the first western on our list (Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery) was produced. Right-wing New Hollywood directors like Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel, and Eastwood have tended to identify this perpetual fading of the West with the decline of a virile and violent, but honorable masculinity.

The bloodbaths that end films like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch arguably represent what Freud would have called “screen memories,” a compromise between repressed memory and images we’ve invented to defend ourselves against terrible truths. The true bloodbaths in the West were the military campaigns against Native Americans, genocidal conflicts that many big-budget westerns keep on the margins, with natives appearing as stereotypical noble savages or town drunks. Ford’s films, as often as they rely on racist characterizations, were often the prestige westerns to look most directly at these wars: The Searchers and Fort Apache explore, in their own flawed fashion, the morally degrading racism in their main characters’ hearts. Some decades later, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves became the paradigm of a post-‘70s cultural sea change: When it comes to “cowboys versus Indians,” the cowboys are no longer the automatic locus of our sympathy.

Today, infusing familiar iconography with new meaning, such revisionist representations of the American West have helped to explode the boundaries of the genre, allowing filmmakers as well as critics to explore cinematic tropes about life on the frontier in non-conventional western narratives. In contemporary films like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Chloé Zhao’s The Rider—and looking back to ones like Victor Sjöström’s The Wind and John Huston’s The Misfits—we can recognize something like a western mode, a broader and more expansive cinematic language that has been suffused by the symbols of the American West. The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition—one that needs not be confined within the frontiers drawn by the Euro-American colonial imagination. Pat Brown


Drums Along the Mohawk

100. Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford, 1939)

If John Ford was, per Jonathan Lethem, “a poet in black and white,” he became a sharp impressionist in color. The finely calibrated stillness of his shots, occasionally ravished by the greens, reds, and blues of the colonial wardrobe, gives Drums Along the Mohawk a painterly quality, as if Ford had animated a William Ranney portrait. Each frame radiates rugged beauty, but this doesn’t soften the filmmaker’s no-bull directness when depicting the eruptive landscape of the Revolutionary War. Frontier man Gil (Henry Fonda) and his new wife, Lana Martin (Claudette Colbert), are without a home of their own for most of the film, their first cabin being burned to the ground during an attack, and when Gil and the troops return from the bloody Battle of Oriskany, the director details their immense casualties and injuries with unsparing detail. Chris Cabin


Tombstone

99. Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos, 1993)

Tombstone succeeds by re-appropriating the stylistic quirks of many a great western before it, from “the long walk” of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch to the candlelit saloons of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller, spitting them out in a spectacle of pure pop pastiche. It tells much the same story as John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, but it reinterprets that film’s mythical, elegiac sense of wonder through bombastic action and performances. There probably isn’t a western as quotable as this one, which also succeeds through its rogues’ gallery of memorable character actors and firecracker script. A drunken Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), when accused of seeing double, says, “I have two guns, one for each of you.” Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), as he pistol-whips Johnny Tyler (Billy Bob Thornton), belts out, “You gonna do something? Or are you just gonna stand there and bleed?” The lines between good and evil blur as the law switches sides to fit the plot. Cliché layers over cliché, exposing what the genre is all about: the foundations of American myth, told again and again to suit each generation. The ‘90s was the remix era and Tombstone fits it perfectly. Ben Flanagan


True Grit

98. True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969)

The Duke casts a large shadow in any instance, but especially here. Rooster Cogburn is one of John Wayne’s most identifiable roles, not just because he won an Oscar for it, or because his True Grit is popular, or because he played the character twice (the second time in 1975’s Rooster Cogburn), but mostly because Rooster’s personality is so intertwined with Wayne’s iconic persona. Wayne’s detractors often note that Wayne lacked range, and that, given his consistent trademark drawl, about the only way to distinguish one Wayne character from another is by observing his costume. But while that’s roughly accurate, it doesn’t mean that every character Wayne ever played had a similar effect. His Rooster is one of those special roles that seemed indelibly Wayne’s—because he wore that eye patch so well, because his inherent presence and stature made him a natural to play the “meanest” marshal around, because his inner softness allowed the bond between Rooster and Mattie (Kim Darby) to feel convincing and because Wayne was born to be the cowboy who puts the reins in his teeth and rides toward four armed men with a gun in each hand. Jason Bellamy


Death Rides a Horse

97. Death Rides a Horse (Giulio Petroni, 1967)

In 1967’s boldly cinematic Death Rides a Horse, Giulio Petroni fixates on the inextricable link between a man’s memory and his thirst for vengeance. In the 15 years since watching his entire family get murdered by bloodthirsty bandits, Bill (John Phillip Law) has carried with him a single physical relic of this trauma: a lone spur. His memories, meanwhile, are filled with haunting and vivid reminders of that moment when his life changed forever, but also with specific visual cues related to each of the bandits: a silver earring, a chest tattoo of playing cards, a skull necklace. Bill’s overwhelmingly obsessive quest for revenge takes on an extra layer of perverseness once he’s paired up with the mysterious Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an older man who playfully competes with Bill to hunt down and kill these same men first. Through an array of carefully crafted visual and aural motifs, and clever, judiciously employed narrative twists, Petroni weaves together these two crusades, building to an explosive finale that delivers equally cathartic doses of redemption and rage. Derek Smith


The Violent Men

96. The Violent Men (Rudolph Maté, 1955)

Polish-born filmmaker Rudolph Maté worked for a little over a decade as a cinematographer in Hollywood before starting to crank out potboilers as a director in the late ‘40s, many of them marked by a distinct pictorial flair. He was a mainstay by the mid-‘50s, and The Violent Men counts among his most ravishingly shot films, and indeed one of the unheralded Technicolor westerns of the golden era. The central California frontier, where the majestic flatland meets the imposing Sierras, has rarely been more reverently photographed, and a single montage of Glenn Ford’s John Parrish galloping from one range to another as Max Steiner’s strings howl on the soundtrack is stirring enough to validate the invention of CinemaScope. Fittingly, the land itself provides the conflict here, with Ford’s Union veteran-cum-landowner trotting out his old fighting spirit when the vicious owners of a neighboring estate—Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson in wonderfully belligerent performances—try to exploit his ranch for pennies. A cathartic war against greed ensues, and the result is finely wrought big-screen entertainment. Carson Lund


Westward the Women

95. Westward the Women (William A. Wellman, 1951)

Based on a story by Frank Capra, William Wellman’s Westward the Women shares the collective triumphalism of Capra’s greatest films but salts it with the grueling hardship and random cruelty that are hallmarks of Wellman’s storytelling. The premise is ludicrous on paper: A large farm in a California valley is suffering a shortage of the fairer sex, so it sends a wagon train headed by Robert Taylor to Chicago to haul back 150 brides for the workers—no short order in the middle of the 19th century. Several treacherous landscapes, bleakly depicted deaths, and a mid-film memorial service later, the plan is fulfilled in grandly hokey fashion, though not without a striking reordering of business-as-usual sexual politics. As the women prove as resilient, if not more so, than the men, ideals of male heroism fall by the cliffside (literally) and members of the ensemble who would normally be relegated to extras emerge as fully shaded and complex heroines. As a result, the film amounts to a portrait of hard-won joy that’s nearly spiritual in its belief in the power of cooperation. Lund


The Gold Rush

94. The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)

What’s surprising when one takes a fresh look at The Gold Rush is how serious it is about depicting the hard life of prospectors. The comic soul of the film is, in fact, quite black, even if Charlie Chaplin exploits every opportunity (beautifully) to transform the environment into a vaudeville stage. Lonely as the wastes are, the town in the film is sinister and lurid, full of sex and violence, despite the fact that Chaplin always seems to find a way to invest in it the personality and tone of his early one-reelers. He makes the town funny but retains its barbarism. Chaplin pursues deliverance not in the miracle of hitting pay dirt, but in the promise of a woman, and it’s this promise that Chaplin would keep after, well into his sync-sound period. Around the film’s midpoint comes a sequence that cuts between the townsfolk singing “Auld Lange Syne,” and the Tramp, alone in his cabin, listening, longingly. It’s as perfect a moment as any other in the great silent period. Some accuse the director of succumbing to sentimentality, but he’s never less sublime than when he reaches for ridiculous, grandiose highs in romance, coincidence, and naked emotion. Jaime N. Christley


Destry Rides Again

93. Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939)

Destry Rides Again’s Bottleneck is essentially the same town as the one in “Drip-Along Daffy.” The opening crane shots of Bottleneck show the standard storefronts that western audiences are accustomed to seeing: feed and general stores, the jail, the Saloon. As the camera moves along the street, we see just about every possible vice happening all at once with bullets whizzing about the crowded streets—and all the while, Frank Skinner’s intense score adds to the feeling of utter lawlessness. Every stereotype of the wild western town is represented in George Marshall’s film: crooked gambling above the saloon, land-hungry town bosses, a hot dancing girl named Frenchy who can douse the fires of her rowdy fans with a shot of whisky, and killin’. Lots of killin’. Back when the western was really coming into its own in 1939, the genre had already been around long enough to warrant this satire. Bottleneck is a parody of the western town. Jeffrey Hill


The Wind

92. The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1927)

So many late silent films are infused with a delirious energy, a sheer delight in the transportive powers of the cinema, and Sweden’s original film genius, Victor Sjöström, was renowned as a master of subjective, otherworldly moving images. With the hallucinatory The Wind, he delivered his most captivating visual play of subjective and objective realities, casting Lillian Gish as an East Coast virgin who’s tormented on an ineffable psychical (and ambiguously erotic) level by the overbearing winds of the Great Plains. After circumstances force her into an unwanted marriage, she’s left alone in the small cottage she shares with her unloved husband as the personified wind blows open doors, whips up dust, and…takes the shape of giant stark-white colts who buck across the open sky. In a career-defining role, Gish grounds the film, giving a performance that humanizes the sensational and sensual inner conflict of a woman left alone in a vast, empty wilderness. Brown


Run of the Arrow

91. Run of the Arrow (Samuel Fuller, 1957)

Writer-director Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow stars Rod Steiger as Private O’Meara, a disaffected Confederate soldier who lights out for the western territories, only to wind up living among (and ultimately adopting the ways of) a Native American tribe. Fuller’s typically two-fisted tale essentially prefigures Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, absent all the bombast and self-aggrandizement. Granted, the film succumbs to the longstanding Hollywood tradition of utilizing a motley crew of decidedly non-native actors in pigment-darkening makeup to portray its Sioux tribe, including a young Charles Bronson and Spanish actress Sara Montiel, but it also endows these characters with a degree of respect and agency practically unprecedented in a 1950s American western. As the film comes full circle with the return of the man O’Meara shot and then saved in the opening scene, Fuller’s story reveals itself as a morality play concerning the destructive nature of hatred and bigotry, as well as a touchingly earnest plea for tolerance. Budd Wilkins

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

The 25 Best Horror Games of All Time

Our list is, in part, an attempt to reflect the broad spectrum of frights in the world of gaming.

Published

on

The 25 Best Horror Games of All Time
Photo: Playdead

When people think of horror-themed video games, their minds often go to the survival-horror conventions popularized by the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series. Of being stuck in claustrophobic and menacing places, of running low on resources, of limping from an injury as some ghastly being drags or stomps toward you, following your trail of blood. To survive in the world of these games depends as much on how players use their unique skill sets as it does on how they learn to manage their nerves.

Yes, sometimes the effect of a horror game is not unlike that of a schlocky jump scare-athon, but horror comes in many shades across all mediums. For one, there are the action titles, like Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and Bloodborne, that rely on the concepts of well-known horror stories, sinister and theatrical music, and well-above-average difficulty levels to intimidate and overwhelm players. And the terrifying logic of fever dreams, rather than the creaky old machinery of horror, can foist an otherwise non-gloomy series like The Legend of the Zelda into the realm of nightmares.

Our list is, in part, an attempt to reflect the broad spectrum of frights in the world of gaming. But more than anything, the following selections represent what we believe are the most provocative, well-executed, and timeless examples of horror in the medium. Jed Pressgrove


Paratopic

25. Paratopic (2018)

Breathe it in, the grime and the decay and the desperation rendered in Paratopic’s stark, lo-fi polygons. The game’s world is ambiguous and anonymous and empty, leading you through wilderness and concrete sprawl. It pulls you into garbled faces, pushes you down highways with no company but a suitcase and a distorted radio. You become disoriented as the game cuts away, throwing you into other perspectives and then back again. Are you in control? Is your fate truly your own? The long, still moments between cuts leave space for the dread of this world to seep in and build anticipation for something terrible. It seems inevitable. A short, experimental game from designers Jessica Harvey and Doc Burford and composer BeauChaotica, Paratopic is the nightmare version of so-called walking simulators, revealing the existential horror simmering just beneath their constraints. Steven Scaife


Castlevania: Bloodlines

24. Castlevania: Bloodlines (1993)

The gothic-themed Castlevania games have always featured a wide assortment of iconic scary figures, from Frankenstein to the Grim Reaper to primary antagonist Dracula. But it wasn’t until 1993, with the release of Castlevania: Bloodlines, that the series achieved a more chilling and disorienting brand of horror, with platforms that inexplicably drip blood, a boss that may arouse your unexpected sympathy when it begins to nervously clutch its beaten head, and a Leaning Tower of Pisa stage that imprisons the player in a state of hurried movement and vertigo. Visual tricks throughout the game ratchet up a sense of shock and confusion, culminating in a final level that defiantly cuts the traditional side-scrolling view into three uneven sections so as to scramble the positions of the main character’s body parts on the screen. A masterpiece of ambitious 2D game design, Castlevania: Bloodlines doesn’t need three-dimensional space to discombobulate one’s senses. Pressgrove


Parasite Eve

23. Parasite Eve (1998)

With its concise length, mixture of active time battle and survival-horror gameplay, and modern New York City setting, 1998’s Parasite Eve was a dramatic risk for director Takashi Tokita. Leaving behind the traditional adventurous spirit of the games that made Square famous as a company, Parasite Eve is marked by a melancholic and disturbing type of energy, as in its opening doozy of a scene, which starts with the Statue of Liberty looking as if she’s been struck by grief and ends with an opera performance that climaxes with its audience members bursting helplessly into flames. The game’s emphasis on gun resource management suggests a nod to the tension-building methods of Resident Evil, but the true terror in Parasite Eve lies in the emotional and psychological vulnerability of rookie cop protagonist Aya, who mourns her dead sister and whose source of supernatural power has an uncomfortably close connection to the evil feminine force that she must conquer.Pressgrove


The Last of Us

22. The Last of Us (2013)

Come for the zombies, stay for the giraffes. Dead Space fans will smile as they navigate claustrophobic sewage tunnels, Metal Gear Solid vets will have a blast outmaneuvering a psychotic cannibal, Resident Evil junkies will enjoy trying to sneak past noise-sensitive Clickers, Fallout experts will find every scrap of material to scavenge, Dead Rising pros will put Joel’s limited ammunition and makeshift shivs to good use, and Walking Dead fans will be instantly charmed by the evolving relationship between grizzled Joel and the tough young girl, Ellie, he’s protecting. But The Last of Us stands decaying heads and rotting shoulders above its peers because it’s not just about the relentless struggle to survive, but the beauty that remains: the sun sparkling off a distant hydroelectric dam; the banks of pure, unsullied snow; even the wispy elegance of otherwise toxic spores. Oh, and giraffes, carelessly walking through vegetative cities, the long-necked light at the end of the tunnel that’s worth surviving for. Aaron Riccio


Will You Ever Return? 2

21. Will You Ever Return? 2 (2012)

Jack King-Spooner’s singular vision of hell is grotesque and discordant, with bits of clay jammed together amid cut-out art, jaunty tunes, and squishy noises. Playing as the mugger from the previous game (which is bundled with this sequel in the Will You Ever Return? Double Feature), you take in infernal sights that, at first, seem impossibly goofy. There’s only one real jump scare in the whole game, yet the way this visual and aural assault oscillates between comedy, sadness, and ominous prescience accumulates its own disturbing, soulful power. Staring long enough at the jerky, claymation torture rooms sneaks beneath our usual resistance to traditional horror imagery, prodding at philosophical weak points we didn’t know we had. The mugger’s journey of self-discovery takes him through his own sins and fears, leading to a place of acceptance that emphasizes humanity’s ability to rob one another of the only things that truly matter. Scaife

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

The 10 Best Albums of 1984

We take a look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades.

Published

on

Prince
Photo: Warner Records

In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s, I noted that, while ‘80s pop culture is largely remembered for its frivolity, the social unrest that stirred beneath the decade’s brightly colored gloss and greed resulted in not just the guilt-driven good intentions of enterprises like the star-studded USA for Africa, but a generation of artists whose music genuinely reflected the state of the world. From political violence across the pond and the struggles and dreams of the American working class, to race relations, sexuality, and gender, no topic was left unexcavated by the pop, rock, and hip-hop artists of the Reagan era. As we enter the 2020s, an entire generation removed from the ‘80s, it seems as good a time as any to once again look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades. Sal Cinquemani

Honorable Mention: Minutemen, Double Nickels on the Dime; R.E.M., Reckoning; Meat Puppets, Meat Puppets II; Madonna, Like a Virgin; U2, The Unforgettable Fire; Laurie Anderson, Mister Heartbreak; Chaka Khan, I Feel for You; Run-DMC, Run-DMC; The Bangles, All Over the Place; Los Lobos, How Will the Wolf Survive?



Zen Arcade

10. Husker Du, Zen Arcade

With 1984’s Zen Arcade, Hüsker Dü married their fast and furious brand of punk with swirling psychedelica, elaborate noise arrangements, and a newfound melodious side. Bob Mould’s cacophonous solos and treble-heavy riffing are raw and intense, while his sullen acoustic jams are gorgeous in their own melancholic way, and he even gets raise-your-fist anthemic with “Turn on the News.” With all this sonic shapeshifting, and an exhausting 70 minutes on the clock, Zen Arcade is something of an operatic frenzy, one where violent forays of rapid-fire punk are set to eccentric and elaborate structures. Huw Jones



Who’s Afraid of the Art of Noise

9. Art of Noise, Who’s Afraid of the Art of Noise

“In the nineteenth century, with the invention of the machine, Noise was born,” wrote Luigi Russolo in a letter to fellow Italian futurist composer Balilla Pretella. And in the late 20th century, avant-garde electronic-pop collective Art of Noise, who took their name from Russolo’s famous essay, was born, concocting cacophonous collages of digital beats and samples that would influence an entire generation of knob twirlers. The group’s 1984 debut opens with the proto-political “A Time for Fear (Who’s Afraid),” portions of broadcasts from the U.S. invasion of Grenada building to industrial beats and a minimalist sub-bass that informed the work of future pioneers like Björk and Tricky. Surprisingly, it’s the album’s least noisy track, the 10-minute instrumental chill-out “Moments In Love,” that truly veers off into some exhilaratingly strange, unexpected territory. Russolo would be proud. Cinquemani



Treasure

8. Cocteau Twins, Treasure

No, you still can’t make out a damn thing that Elizabeth Frazer sings on Treasure. But you don’t need to: Her rolling, ululating syllables impart the kind of feelings that verbal communication is notoriously ill-suited for, and besides, when she swoops between the extremes of her range on a devastating number like “Lorelei,” you’ll swear you’re speaking her language. Robin Guthrie’s hypnotic guitar playing, by turns majestic and muscular, is everything that dream-pop guitar should be—if not for My Bloody Valentine, maybe all it ever would be. Critics sometimes protested that the Cocteau Twins shouldn’t really be considered a rock band at all, and that’s fine by me: When “Donimo” closes the album with operatic splendor, it’s clear that they’re something far more special. Matthew Cole



Private Dancer

7. Tina Turner, Private Dancer

Like another mega-successful pop monster, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Private Dancer is a staggering display of self-affirming artistry and vocal expression. For Turner, who was 45 when the album was released, it also represented a kind of vindication, with songs like the gritty, powerful “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and the sultry ultimatum “Better Be Good to Me” all but destroying the false pretense that she was somehow only fit to play second fiddle to Ike. Both a personal liberation and sonic redemption, Private Dancer established Turner not only as a genuine diva, but a bona fide force of nature. Kevin Liedel



Stop Making Sense

6. Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense

Inseparable from Jonathan Demme’s concert doc of the same name, arguably the finest concert film ever made, and subject to endless hemming and hawing among Talking Heads’s diehards for the elisions made to said concert’s set list when the soundtrack was being produced, Stop Making Sense remains a divisive album. A 1999 reissue rectified many of the most common complaints about the original release, nearly doubling the length of the album and restoring some continuity to the band’s performance, but that takes nothing away from the fact that Stop Making Sense, even in its truncated original form, is a testament to one of the most compelling, forward-thinking bands of the rock era at the peak of their craft. Jonathan Keefe

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

Through the Years: Madonna’s Iconic “Vogue” Turns 30

From MTV to Madame X, the queen of pop’s ode to voguing continues to endure three decades later.

Published

on

Madonna, Vogue
Photo: Warner Bros.

Released in March of 1990, Madonna’s “Vogue” wasn’t just a hit single—it was a cultural phenomenon. Ironically, no other song better exemplifies both the singer’s influence on pop culture and the accusations of appropriation that have been lobbed at her over the years. The track, produced by Shep Pettibone, is at once a musical map of disco, shamelessly ripping MFSB’s “Love Is the Message” and Salsoul Orchestra’s “Ooh, I Love It (Love Break),” and an enduring prototype of its own, spawning countless copycats and spoofs in the early ‘90s and inspiring covers by more contemporary acolytes like Britney Spears, Rihanna, and Katy Perry. The queen of pop herself has even paid homage to her own hit, erupting into the song’s refrain at the end of her 1992 single “Deeper and Deeper” and sampling elements of the track on 2015’s “Holy Water” and her most recent club hit, “I Don’t Search I Find.” Like the Harlem drag balls that inspired it, “Vogue” is about presentation, and unlike, say, “Like a Virgin,” the queen of reinvention has found little need to fuss with perfection. Sal Cinquemani


Music Video (1990)

Look closely when that butler brushes off the bannister. Nope, no dust there; the finger pulls clean. Those who objected to Madonna’s co-opting two vibrant New York scenes—ball culture and the house underground—had every reason to cast any available aspersions once the instant-classic music video for “Vogue” hit the airwaves. Directed with diamond-cut precision by David Fincher long before he became the fussiest of the A-list auteurs, the already plush song became a plummy fantasia of Old Hollywood luxury, and an actualization of the sort of glamour Paris Is Burning’s drag queens and dance-floor ninjas openly longed for. And it came with a steep price tag. “It makes no difference if you’re black or white,” goes the familiar refrain, but it’s unclear whether Madonna realized to what extent the clip’s flawless, monochromatic cinematography would underline the point. To some, the video (like New York’s ball scene) represented the ultimate democratization of beauty. To others, a presumptuously preemptive eradication of the racial question entirely. Eric Henderson


Blond Ambition Tour (1990)

Compared to the spectacles Madonna would go on to stage for the song over the next quarter century, the premier live performances of “Vogue” were surprisingly quaint. Stripped down to the bare basics (aside from the dancers’ headdresses, even the costumes consisted solely of simple black spandex), the Blond Ambition version of the song came closest to capturing the essence of the gay ballroom scene the lyrics were inspired by: presentational, preening, and all about the pose. Cinquemani


Rock the Vote (1990)

Along with “Vogue,” this year also marks the 30th anniversary of Rock the Vote, the nonprofit organization aimed at mobilizing and registering young voters. In 1990, the group made its national debut with a TV spot featuring Madonna and two of her Blond Ambition dancers harmonizing to a cheeky, revamped version of her then-recent smash. In what might seem tame by today’s standards, the sight of the world’s biggest pop star draped in the American flag, comparing freedom of speech to sex, threatening to give non-voters a “spanky,” and name-dropping Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., all while dressed in red lace lingerie, twisted more than a few panties among the Moral Majority. And that was before it was revealed she wasn’t even registered to vote. Cinquemani


MTV Video Music Awards (1990)

Indulging in a cheeky bit of dress-me-up make believe, Madonna’s performance at the 1990 VMAs gracefully elided politics altogether in favor of lace-front cosplay. Borrowing liberally from Dangerous Liaisons, specifically costume designer James Acheson’s cleavage-crushing bodice, Madonna and regalia flitted around a rec room, taunting a bevy of eligible suitors in short pants, punctuating every tease with an audible snap of fans that sounded more like trashcan lids. Sandwiched as the song was between “Like a Prayer” on one side and “Justify My Love” and Erotica on the other, it was nice to see at least one performance of the song that revels in the simple thrill of innocent ribaldry. Henderson


The Girlie Show Tour (1993)

Not by any stretch the most iconic performance of the tune, and in fact very likely the most rote of the bunch, especially when you consider its place in context with the surrounding Erotica-heavy content, against which “Vogue” can’t help but sound just a smidge “Let’s All Go to the Lobby.” The Mata Hari headdress promises subversion that never really materializes, which is hardly a surprise given Madonna—clad in a boy bra and chunky platform military boots—has probably never looked more rectangular. This marked the last time she would perform the song in concert for more than a decade, and the vague sense that an increasingly doom-obsessed Madonna was vaguely bored with the song’s escapism is palpable here. Henderson

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

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

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

Published

on

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Adventures of Prince Achmed

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, 1926)

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


The Ascent

The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko, 1977)

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


Asparagus

Asparagus (Suzan Pitt, 1979)

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


Begone Dull care

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

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


Body and Soul

Body and Soul (Oscar Micheaux, 1925)

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

The 15 Best Björk Music Videos

One of pop music’s most forward-minded performers, Björk has always been at the forefront of the video medium.

Published

on

Björk
Photo: YouTube

Though Björk had enjoyed minor cult fame as the lead singer of the prog-punk band the Sugarcubes, it only took one solo album to solidify the Icelandic artist as a viable pop iconoclast. The plainly titled Debut and its accompanying music videos showcased the endlessly fascinating sides to Björk’s offbeat persona, from sweater-clad explorer (“Human Behaviour”) to trailer-hitch improvisational performance artist (“Big Time Sensuality”). Subsequent eras found the singer delving deeper into surrealism (“Army of Me”), technology (“Hyperballad”), and, occasionally, raw performance (“Pagan Poetry” and “Black Lake”). One of pop music’s most forward-thinking performers, Björk has always been at the forefront of the video medium, a true multimedia pioneer whose influence can be seen in the work of Arca, FKA twigs, and countless others who have followed her wake.


15. “Army of Me”

Directed by French filmmaker Michel Gondry, the video for “Army of Me,” the first single from 1995’s Post, is a surreal vision that complements the track’s call for self-sufficiency with a dreamlike, often nonsensical, narrative. On a mission to rescue a man from an art installation at a local museum, Björk drives a giant tank—a nod toward the film Tank Girl, in which the song is featured—through a cartoonish urban landscape, encountering a thieving gorilla-dentist who snatches a diamond from the singer’s mouth along the way. Sal Cinquemani


14. “Human Behaviour”

Björk’s very first music video as a solo artist was also the start of a fruitful professional relationship with frequent collaborator Michel Gondry. “Human Behaviour,” in which the singer is chased by a stuffed bear in a twisted nod to Goldilocks and the Three Bears, literally set the stage for both of the respective auteurs’ careers. Cinquemani


13. “Crystalline”

The eighth (and, to date, most recent) collaboration between Björk and Michel Gondry, 2011’s “Crystalline” boasts a charmingly and deceptively simple concept—Björk portrays a lunar goddess-cum-club-kid overseeing a meteor shower on the surface of the moon like a musical conductor—that nods to both A Trip to the Moon and early stop-motion animation. Cinquemani


12. “The Gate”

In the same sense that Stéphane Sednaoui’s interpretation of “Big Time Sensuality” stripped away everything extemporaneous to find more than enough in that essential Björkish energy, director Andrew Thomas Huang sees the spectrum of life itself within his muse and assigns it the only appropriate visual analogue. Dressed in a corrugated prism, Björk gets her groove back in a spasmic frenzy of pure, OLED fireworks. In “All Neon Like,” she promised to weave a “marvelous web of glow-in-the-dark threads,” and with “The Gate,” she’s delivered. Eric Henderson


11. “Mutual Core”

Eric Henderson calls this video “little tectonic plate of horrors.” The lyrics to “Mutual Core” sometimes feel like Björk is reading from a science textbook (“As fast as your fingernail grows/The Atlantic Ridge drifts”), but the video, a sort of sequel to the Gondry-directed 1997 clip for “Jóga,” brings the song to explosive life, with Björk, naturally, in the role of neglected Mother Nature. Cinquemani

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Trending