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Robert Aldrich (#110 of 7)

Berlinale 2014 The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Berlinale 2014: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Berlinale 2014: The Grand Budapest Hotel

At their worst, Wes Anderson’s films are mere showpieces. They’re meticulously stage-managed, lavishly appointed cross-sectional dollhouses erected as staging grounds for their director’s rarely not enervating quirks and obvious opportunities for Hollywood A-listers to recharge their thespian cache. (The idea that Anderson is an “actor’s director”—as if there’s another kind?—has always smacked bogus, given that to perform in a Wes Anderson movie is generally to perform in a self-consciously stilted, nouveau-Victorian, drained, and affectless pantomime that would play as totally unchallenging were it not so observably different.) And in the best cases, Anderson squares his paisley trick-bag of Godardian compositions and book of vintage carpet samples with a congruent thematic meaning. In 2011’s excellent Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s incurable nostalgia was a nostalgia for the lost summers of childhood. Here, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is either his best film or his best film since his last film, it’s the waning of historical memory, of the past slipping irretrievably beyond some distant horizon.

Night’s Black Agents Jean Rollin’s The Grapes of Death and Night of the Hunted

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Night’s Black Agents: Jean Rollin’s The Grapes of Death and Night of the Hunted
Night’s Black Agents: Jean Rollin’s The Grapes of Death and Night of the Hunted

The most recent Jean Rollin films to make their Blu-ray debut from Kino and Redemption Films mark a significant departure for the filmmaker. Forced by financial exigencies to eschew the timeless fairy-tale quality of his early-’70s vampire films, Rollin sets these more politically inflected (infected?) films squarely in the present day. Without entirely abandoning the atmosphere of off-kilter surrealism that dominated his earlier films, Rollin proves equally adroit at fashioning emotionally affecting and thematically resonant modern-day morality plays, films that bear comparison with the works of emerging genre visionaries like George A. Romero and David Cronenberg. With its high-rise setting and emphasis on sexualized violence, Night of the Hunted would provide an ideal double feature with Cronenberg’s Shivers, while The Grapes of Death is often compared to Night of the Living Dead, owing to its shambling hordes of pseudo-zombies, the Romero film it most closely resembles in theme and approach is in fact The Crazies.

Both films are linked at their most literal level. Each features a protagonist named Elisabeth, and taken together as a matched pair, the films provide a thoroughgoing critique of the dehumanizing and destructive forces unleashed by (post)industrial capitalism. The Grapes of Death opens with the mechanization of agrarian vineyards and prominently features that emblem of the Industrial Revolution: the locomotive. Night of the Hunted culminates by invoking the routinization of wholesale extermination during the Holocaust via cattle cars and incinerators. The creatures in these films aren’t Romero’s reanimated dead; they’re normal people slowly dying from an incurable disease, a fate that all too easily could befall any of us. The films derive their terrible poignancy from examining the ineluctable process by which their victim-killers’ humanity is progressively leached away.

The Merchant of Menace Dwayne Epstein’s Lee Marvin: Point Blank

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The Merchant of Menace: Dwayne Epstein’s Lee Marvin: Point Blank
The Merchant of Menace: Dwayne Epstein’s Lee Marvin: Point Blank

Shortly after seeing The Big Heat (1953), in which noir baddie Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) famously throws a hot pot of coffee in the face of Debby (Gloria Grahame), New York Times film critic Vincent Canby deemed Marvin “The Merchant of Menace,” given the actor’s stone-faced charm and propensity for playing characters that revel in more sadistic pleasures. As argued by biographer Dwayne Epstein, the description fits Marvin more than accurately, since his career, taken as a whole, helped to establish a new kind of post-WWII masculinity, particularly as it relates to a grittier depiction of violence and physicality. At least, such is Epstein’s claim. While his new biography goes into intricate details of Marvin’s childhood, career, and last days, his overall thesis—while likely true—is given short shrift by too workmanlike of an approach. Rather than produce a provocative work on a provocative man, Epstein manages to write a clearly admirable biography, though without the blood-pumping tenacity that gives Marvin’s filmic legacy such enduring cultural purchase.

The previous critique could be modified to give praise for Epstein’s dedication to intimately examining the familial factors that shaped Marvin’s values and personality. Growing up in a blue-collar family during the Great Depression, with Marvin and his family “wondering where their next meal would come from,” Marvin eventually decided to join the Marines. Speaking later about both his military service and relationship with directors, Marvin admits that he has “never been able to accept any kind of discipline.” With that in mind, Epstein states an inextricable link in Marvin’s filmography and persona between violence and the cultures that create it. Nevertheless, the book’s duration is more outwardly concerned with heavily biographical information and cult-of-personality emphases, such as an entire chapter devoted to the letters Marvin wrote to his parents while at war. Although the letters help to explain the developing psychology that would lead to Marvin’s film career, Epstein provides only a cursory understanding of Marvin as cultural icon throughout. What’s lacking in the predominately biographical segments is a strong narrative sense; Epstein’s prose reads more like a string of Wikipedia entries than a fully functional take on Marvin’s relevance. Such banality is an ironic sin for a work that wants to engage a divisive personality.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Calum Marsh’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Calum Marsh’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Calum Marsh’s Top 10 Films of All Time

List-making is an exercise in futility, but as futile exercises go, it’s one of the best. Over 10 brief bullet points, one maps out a condensed history of personal taste, a cartography of the canon made one’s own. I found it taxing and, by the end, exhausting, struck at every moment with crippling self-doubt. I wondered: Is my list exhaustive? Am I a victim of my own myopia? My confidence in these choices—which, truly, I love with all my heart—began to crumble under the pressure of a (I think universal) desire to not only be, but to seem worldly and omnivorous, to appear to have taken in everything and to conclude, finally, that these 10 films are definitively the best of all time. Which isn’t to say, of course, that I felt compelled to trade out canonical classics for idiosyncratic curveballs (though in the end I included a couple of both), but that while thinking through my favorites I couldn’t help but criticize myself for what was surely missing. Doubt gnaws away at you always, often like so: How much did I know about African cinema? Why are none of these 10 films directed by women? (Vagabond was a late and regrettable cut.) Why are there no silent films on my list? Are these films generally too recent? Should I feel guilty—and I mean this seriously—that each of these 10 films is an English-language narrative feature directed by a white male? What does that say about me as a person? Should I trade one of these films out for, say, Close-up, Paris Is Burning, or A Brighter Summer Day, each of which came extremely close to making the final cut but, alas, did not? The truth is that I don’t know. Maybe it makes me a shitty white critic with blinders on. But what I do know is this: I love these 10 films more than any other films in the world. I hope that’s enough.

State of Nature: The Moralistic Nihilism of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly

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State of Nature: The Moralistic Nihilism of Robert Aldrich’s <em>Kiss Me Deadly</em>
State of Nature: The Moralistic Nihilism of Robert Aldrich’s <em>Kiss Me Deadly</em>

Calling Kiss Me Deadly one of the darkest detective thrillers ever made, or the ultimate film noir, doesn’t do it justice. Director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides’s 1955 version of Mickey Spillane’s novel—in which our thug hero chases a mysterious, all-powerful “Great Whatsit” in pursuit of fortune and glory—doesn’t merely exemplify those two genres and identify the places where they overlap. It defines the difference between cynicism and nihilism, then throws down with the nihilists, if for no other reason than to show you what it means to live in a world where nothing matters. Cynics expect the worst of humanity and are rarely disappointed, but in their hearts, they hope for some evidence that humans are innately kind and that morality is more than a sucker’s game. Cynicism is pre-emptive disappointment; you can’t be let down by anyone or anything unless you secretly nurse a kernel of hope. A nihilist, on the other hand, knows that the difference between cynicism and optimism is a matter of degrees. Like Neo in The Matrix blocking the agents’ bullets and then suddenly understanding, truly and deeply, that the world he’s long accepted as “real” is just an intellectual prison built of ones and zeroes, the true nihilist has had his moment of cosmic disillusionment, and his accompanying realization that democracy, religion, equality—hell, the Golden Rule itself—are all just scam jobs sold to sheep by wolves; that everybody’s mainly concerned with playing the angles and getting ahead in the here and now, even if they pretend otherwise. After realizing that morality and ethics, religion and philosophy, good and evil are illusions of various sorts, and that there’s no percentage in decency, guilt and shame vanish and life becomes a present-tense proposition, a zero-sum game played by beasts that wear suits and drive cars.