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Review: Vertigo

Alfred Hitchcock’s rich and strange fable of love lost, and lost again, makes the case for him as a grand experimental artist who labored in genre cinema.

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Vertigo
Photo: Universal Pictures

“The gentleman seems to know what he wants,” deadpans a saleswoman in the final act of Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s rich and strange masterwork, as she observes James Stewart’s round-the-bend retired detective monomaniacally outfitting his shopgirl squeeze (Kim Novak) in high-end threads identical to those of a lost woman—the young lady’s spitting image—whose love and life slipped away from him. While the scene, echoing the Orpheus myth (plus a hint of Frankenstein) in its imagery of a man trying to revivify the dead, helps to qualify this morbid romance as perhaps the classiest fetish movie produced in Hollywood, Vertigo is greater than even the sum of Bernard Herrmann’s versatile, indispensable score, its evocative use of San Francisco locations, and Stewart’s earnest, anguished performance as the increasingly unhinged John “Scottie” Ferguson. Perverse, poetic, steeped in emotional desolation and destructive obsession, it delivers a fearlessly dolorous view of longing and betrayal in the guise of an acrophobia thriller, making through its classical ambitions (referenced by Herrmann’s swelling variations on Wagner’s “Liebestod”) and enduring fascinations a splendid case for Hitchcock as a grand experimental artist who labored in commercial genre cinema.

Freely adapted from a French novel written in homage to the director himself, the film’s dream logic has never cast a universal spell; mulish literalists, whom Hitchcock once bitingly dismissed as “the plausibles,” can endlessly pick apart its convoluted plot, but that’s to neglect the prosaic resolution of many of its enigmatic mysteries. Sidelined from police work by a fear of heights, Scottie reluctantly takes a private job from shipbuilder and former college chum Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore, an unsettling cipher) to follow his young wife Madeleine (Novak, a bleached, porcelain icon in her first incarnation). The problem is “not that,” but Elster’s suspicion that Madeleine is spellbound or even possessed by the spirit of her Mexican great-grandmother, a mid-19th-century suicide after a sorrowful affair, whose museum portrait and mission grave transfix the gray-suited blonde phantom Scottie trails across the city in long, hypnotic pursuits by car and foot. Once he has to pull his quarry out of the bay after she somnambulantly jumps in, Novak and Stewart share their first dialogue—after Scottie has stripped and dried the unconscious but corporeal specter whose unearthly aura he’s succumbed to.

The ensuing psychodrama is Scottie’s, as he attempts to find a “key” to Madeleine’s inchoate pain, suffers a traumatic blow when his vertigo paralyzes him on the stairs of a bell tower, and withdraws into mute melancholia before reemerging to find Judy, a forthright Kansas emigrant with Madeleine’s face but none of her finishing-school diction. As the most unreadable of Hitchcock’s femmes fatales, Novak’s limited range initially seems inadequate for the role of an idolized madwoman, but when the film solves the Madeleine/Judy paradox for the audience in advance of Scottie’s climactic awakening, her alternating currents of stiff passivity and overheated panic seem retroactively apt. And Stewart, going even further afield from his (now overemphasized) Middle-American everyman persona than he did as the voyeur hero of Rear Window, embodies helplessness, guilt, and in Vertigo’s astonishing final movements, a successive tour-de-force of mania, rage, and heartbreak that climaxes in his broken “Madeleine, I loved you so” upon returning to that fateful mission bell tower.

Stewart’s great performance doesn’t fully delineate Scottie anymore than Hitchcock attempts to tell a naturalistic story, and his elusive affliction(s) are a large part of what makes the film compelling on re-viewings. Is his vertigo a metaphor? For what? Barbara Bel Geddes, as his saucy and jealousy-prone friend Midge, gets a somber, eloquent close-up when Scottie reminds her that she ended their collegiate engagement, strongly indicating that she saw an impediment to their happiness in him then. Certainly Scottie’s ambivalent relationships with his two love interests suffer from an imbalance of power; he’s willingly lured by Madeleine’s beauty, danger, and seeming neediness, but as an insistent, nearly sadistic Pygmalion in transforming Judy, says of dyeing her hair, “It can’t matter to you.” (A minor character says that Madeleine’s 1850s forebear was discarded because men of the era “had the power” to do so; it seems undiminished when Judy’s beaming hairdresser tells Scottie, “We know what you want, sir.”) In genre terms, Scottie is played for a sap, but his downfall comes from within, after failing to heal Madeleine and treating Judy as merely an objet d’art. Left haunted, staring down from the edge of an abyss, Vertigo’s stunted antihero is a figure of pathos in need of benefit from its closing supplication: “God have mercy.”

Cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones, Konstantin Shayne Director: Alfred Hitchcock Screenwriter: Alec Coppel, Samuel A. Taylor Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 129 min Rating: PG Year: 1958 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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

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

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Never Fear
Photo: Eagle-Lion Films/Photofest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WATCH: Stylish Queer Short Film Stay Makes Its Online Premiere

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

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Stay
Brandon Zuck

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

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

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

Watch Stay below:

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

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

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Tito and the Birds
Photo: Shout! Factory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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