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Sam Fuller (#110 of 3)

The 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival

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The 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival

TCM Classic Film Festival

The 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival

At the risk of invoking the spirit of the perpetually weary Lili Von Shtupp from Blazing Saddles, long before I ever hopped the red line train to Hollywood Boulevard in anticipation of the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival last Thursday night, I had already been beset by a heavy sense of festival fatigue. Such bemoaning might seem misplaced coming from someone who attends exactly one festival a year—this one. But after a noticeable slump last year, in my energy and in the level of the festival’s programming overall, I had begun to worry that after eight TCMFFs in a row the dip in enthusiasm I’d registered last year might blossom into a full-on festival hangover before this year’s fun had even had a chance to begin. However, as news of the specifics of the festival began to trickle out, there became apparent a reason to suspect, if not outright hope, that 2018 might provide a tonic to address the comparatively flat spirits which earmarked the previous gathering.

Hearth of Darkness Rob White’s Todd Haynes

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Hearth of Darkness: Rob White’s Todd Haynes
Hearth of Darkness: Rob White’s Todd Haynes

Perhaps the most salient point in Rob White’s auteur study of Todd Haynes comes within his discussion of B. Ruby Rich and her statement that Poison (1991), a pioneering film of New Queer Cinema, is “homo-pomo,” which involves appropriation, pastiche, and irony, among others. More importantly, she claims the movement’s films to be “irreverent, energetic, alternately minimalist and excessive…full of pleasure.” It’s an alteration of the last claim that defines White’s book, where he acknowledges that Poison is “witty and playful” (or pleasurable), “but it builds to an intense pathos.” That pathos—and its significance—is where White seeks footing within the oeuvre of a filmmaker who appears to operate with equal parts practice and theory in mind. After all, Haynes studied with prolific film theorist Mary Ann Doane at Brown University, which White sees as a potential influence on Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988), given the film’s preoccupation with “female subservience and the honorable authority of the medical profession,” which is a central concern of Doane’s classic monograph The Desire to Desire. Also on White’s agenda: navigating through the litany of cinematic influences on Haynes’s films and carefully investigating the various modes of transgression present throughout much of his filmography. Ultimately, the balancing act is an impressive mix of high and low criticism.

Low, in the sense that White has visibly reigned in the academic arsenal, making only glancing references to the likes of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari—names that will be (painfully?) familiar to anyone who’s logged hours as a grad student in cinema studies. In this case, the short shrift isn’t only welcome, but supplemental to the core of White’s analysis, as he refrains from bogging the films down in unnecessary theoretical explications. Though Haynes’s filmography is potentially riper for such discussions than others, White’s own delicate prose takes its place. For example, White states regarding Superstar that objects are “better described as deathlike than lifelike.” Such an acute approximation trumps paragraphs of theoretical examination. Moreover, the discussion leads to equally proficient conclusions; regarding Poison, the author states that “horror represents the politics of futile protest.” In stridently identifying these tendencies and qualities, White combines the best of critical and academic writing.

A Hostage to Fortune Barry Forshaw’s British Crime Film: Subverting the Social Order

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A Hostage to Fortune: Barry Forshaw’s British Crime Film: Subverting the Social Order
A Hostage to Fortune: Barry Forshaw’s British Crime Film: Subverting the Social Order

Barry Forshaw has made a career out of studying the dames, pistols, machismo, and glistening city streets that define crime fiction; with previous books such as Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction and The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction seeking to provide a comprehensive survey of the genre, he’s made himself, to quote the book jacket of British Crime Film: Subverting the Social Order, “the UK’s principal expert on crime fiction.” Of course, film ain’t fiction, so to speak, and his first book length effort on crime films is like a Webley revolver with a sticky trigger; it works, just not as fluidly or efficiently as one would like. With fairly cursory critical discussions, perpetual plot synopses, and adjective-driven lauding (“an acidulous commentary on class” or “a masterclass in film acting,” to name a couple) in place of detail-driven social criticism, Forshaw has placed himself between a Brighton Rock (1947) and a Kill List (2011), casting his historical net too wide for anything more than introductory textual assessment.

Forshaw is a straight shooter from his first sentence, a question: “Is it possible to read a nation through its popular entertainment?” From there, 15 chapters organized by theme and content rather than chronology attempt to map out British crime filmmaking’s genesis, essentially commencing with early Alfred Hitchcock thrillers (and Criterion Collection staples) The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) to demonstrate “that Britain’s long tradition of crime cinema may offer a more nuanced, intelligent and politically informed analysis of British society from the 1920’s onwards than more overtly respectable ’heritage’ cinema.” Serving as his thesis, Forshaw proceeds to discuss hundreds of films (the book is thoroughly researched) on the grounds of subversive elements, from politics (Basil Dearden’s The League of Gentlemen, from 1960), to violence (Peter Medak’s The Krays, from 1990), and homosexuality (Basil Dearden’s Victim, from 1961). The problem is that Forshaw spends only a page or two on each film; by the time he’s given a rough summation of the narrative, his attention to its subversive social qualities is short changed by his self-admitted “celebratory” stance on the subject matter.