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Interview: Murray Lightburn Talks Dears, MASS:LIGHT, and More

Murray discusses creative limitations, breaking out as a solo artist, and the dark state of the music industry.

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Interview: Murray Lightburn Talks Dears, MASS:LIGHT, and More
Photo: Andrew White

As frontman of Canadian indie band the Dears, Murray Lightburn has managed to carve out a stable, consistent career that’s earned him a loyal following. In 2013, Lightburn is starting over, in a sense, with his debut solo effort MASS:LIGHT, a pseudo-concept album that boasts a dense electronic sound. I recently sat down with Lightburn in Toronto, and over a couple of pints we talked creative limitations, breaking out as a solo artist, and the dark state of the music industry.

Did you come at MASS:LIGHT with a certain sonic concept in mind? The album sounds as if texture, particularly your use of synths, took precedence over melodies and lyrics.

Well, in the Dears, we’ve always explored synthesis and electronic-type music; we’ve always had our fingers in that stuff sonically. But to me, [The Dears] is a rock band. You know, drums, bass, lots of guitars, face melters, jam sessions that go on for eight minutes. But there’s also this side of me personally, as an artist, who wants to explore these other textures. It wasn’t a rule from the outset, but I wanted to force myself to be more creative sonically, really push myself harder by creating limitations.

Limitations sonically?

Yeah, or budgetary. You know, I didn’t want to throw a lot of money at this record. So, whatever was in my studio, that was it. I did invest in a couple of toys along the way: a Moog Prodigy which is a big part of the sound of this record. I didn’t want this to be a “gear” album either though. I didn’t want to go to too many synthesizers. For me, this was about limitations, so even though there’s a wall of guitars in the studio, maybe I can try and express myself without using the guitar.

Walk me through a bit of the process of making this album then.

I was alone the entire time. I engineered everything myself. I was telling somebody yesterday that it was like two years of the opening scene from Apocalypse Now, like, everything from crying to…I probably drank like 50 gallons of whiskey over the course of two years. I was really wallowing in the loneliness, like the loneliness of a truly solo project. I wanted to make a truly solo album all the way to the end, including the artwork and making the videos, everything DIY. I had help here and there, but I was spearheading the whole thing.

Is part of that process a way of distancing yourself from the inherent collaboration of being in a band?

Yeah, I wasn’t relying on anyone for opinions, no one was telling me what to do. It’s like, I turned 42 this year, I have two kids, and I’m starting to get a clearer sense of who I am and what I want to achieve as an artist and I think this was the definitive work. Not that my music career is winding down; it’s more that my artistic career is winding up and I want to diversify and do a lot more things. This was a really good way to define who I am as an artist, how I want to work and how I want to refine that for the rest of my career.

How much of the DIY approach, of setting limitations on recording, comes from a fear of complacency after having been in the industry for quite a while?

I think it’s a safe thing to make the same record over and over. It’s easy for everyone—for everyone that’s working with you, for the business. To me, it’s incredibly boring. You know, there’s always a familiar bag of tricks sitting in the room when you make a record, and it’s hard not to reach into it when recording. With this record, I went in with nothing, no bags of tricks. I wanted to find new tools because I felt like I had been relying, as an artist, on those bags of tricks for the last 10 years at least. And then when you go out into the industry, everything is done the same. It’s hard to reach a lot of people outside of that system; I don’t have that power. If I did, I would completely reinvent the way people consume music. And then I wouldn’t have to rely on the system that exists.

How so?

Well, there will be people who like the system the way it is and want to squash anything I have to say about it, because they don’t want people to think independently; they want them to think homogenously. Homogenization is the corporate world’s best friend. As in, “We make a lot of money doing it this way, it’s a factory, get with the program.”

It’s a catch-22 in some ways, in that you have to be enough of a brand, you have to hold enough cultural capital to even get away with the slightest challenge to expectations and industry standards.

Yeah, but I’m not trying to make a big deal of it. I’m not writing essays about how shitty the music industry is. I’m still operating within the business, but at an arm’s length. Look at a thing like Kickstarter, which is coming to Canada now. Now Universal is harnessing Kickstarter to start Uvinyl, and it’s like, they’re taking something that’s meant for people who don’t have that kind of capital. Like, you fucking assholes! It sickens me. Now it’s going to happen all the time. You’ll see Bell is doing a Kickstarter for a new kind of phone, shit like that. And the worst part is that it seems like people are just kind of accepting it. It’s so fucking dark, dude. I have to be careful, though, because I want to be off the grid, but I know I have to interact with the grid.

I would think that having that kind of disconnected relationship to your audience and to the “grid” would perhaps have been easier when the Dears first started, whereas today the artist turnover is so fast that you’re almost forced to play the game.

Yeah, album cycles are really short. Like that Jay-Z album came and now it’s gone. You know, we’re all trying to keep up with the Joneses. We’re living in a weird time, but you can still scrape out a living in the industry. You can be different. But it’s a gamble; I’m still gambling stuff away. My first show in Montreal [for MASS:LIGHT], the first 200 ticket buyers get to bring a guest, and that really had a huge effect on the bottom line of the show. And I could be eating dirt by the end of it, but I just thought, nobody does that and if I didn’t know a band, I might be interested to check it out just because of that gesture. So, there’s a lot of greed in the business, everybody’s just grubbing for money—record companies, artists, agents—and it’s not pretty and I don’t really want to be a part of that. I can’t believe how much time we’ve spent talking about the business. It’s kind of sad.

But there’s a lot to talk about. Like you said, we’re living in a strange time of music distribution and consumption.

I remember even internally, around the time of [the Dears’ 2006 album] Gang of Losers, things were getting really weird and at the bottom of it was a pile of money to be grubbed at by all sides. Then we made Missiles and that was a really fragmented time, but what came out of it was so pure and I was worried that if we made another record in that environment it would have been all about money.

So did you go into recording MASS:LIGHT with the intention of blowing up that perception of art? Does the album have an intentional sound of disillusion or frustration?

If I did have any real intentions it was to really stick to my instincts, which I knew were pure. Everything I did, I was chasing something, and I only wanted to do that. So I spent a lot of time chasing things that were so lucid, things that came in the form of a dream, or I hear the music a certain way then I’m studying and studying it and turning these knobs until finally I had all my sounds lined up. Then I had trouble balancing it, and Adrian Popovich, who mixed the record, said, “Let me take a stab at it.” I had no money to pay him, but he was excited about the project. So I gave him the hard drive and he sends me an email a few days later saying, “I banged this out over my Cheerios this morning,” and I put it on and it fucking tore my head off. I got all emotional; he was just hearing the record, hearing what I did and helping me put the final thing together. He was amazing and kind of saved me from myself.

Your comments earlier suggest that making a solo album is a liberating process, but it also sounds like you’re more vulnerable and accountable and constantly critiquing yourself.

Constantly. There are some vocals on there that I literally sang like 80 times. On the lead vocals, there are no punch-ins. I sang it, and if I fucked up a part, I’d go all the way to the top. I just found if you’re not able to sing something from the beginning to the end then the audience is not getting the whole story. It’s too technical. I didn’t want to think. I’d literally drink until I couldn’t think anymore and then sing for three or four hours. I’d only keep one vocal and then trash the rest and hope that it works. It had to feel live, it had to feel alive.

And you spent two years on this?

I started it around 2011. I think I wrote some stuff in 2010, but 2011 was the first time I walked into a studio and started writing with my pen and paper and sketching out the songs and beats and ideas. Getting started was so, so hard.

Because it was a new, unfamiliar process and setting?

Because, it was like trying to build a house by yourself, holding a 2×4 here, and a 2×4 over there, and you’ve got your hammer and bunch of nails in your mouth and you have no one to lean on to get it started. With the Dears, you’re playing with each other; you’re listening to someone’s beat and hearing a lot of things at once. With this, you’re one person, you’re working on one thing at a time so you have to imagine what the accompanying part is going to work with. You’re building bit by bit by bit and it just takes so long.

You say you built this album a piece at a time, but MASS:LIGHT holds together as a unified concept and aesthetic.

I hope so. I went through a self-editing process and made a lot of key decisions about what to leave on there and what to take out. Making a record is a fucking crazy journey. I think it would be an interesting exercise for, like, music writers to, you know, be a fly on the wall during the journey. Because, I think, “you guys” come in at the end of it. I mean, I don’t expect the average consumer to want to know what it’s like, but it’s like a crazy emotional rollercoaster. The fact that you went and worked on something for that long and worked on every little detail until you felt it was right and had the guts to show it to people is the fucking scariest thing in the world.

So are you worried about how this album will be received? You can’t control how an audience consumes your album, or how a critic writes about it.

Anything where you work on the same thing, a big project with a crazy long journey, is scary. Have you ever seen the documentary Hearts of Darkness?

Yeah, for sure.

It’s crazy. I mean, you’re just in that place of chaos all the time. So I would just expect that if someone was going to write about or critique the album that they would at least put 1% of the effort into it that [I put] into the project, because the process is so deeply involved, so deeply emotional.

Does the anxiety about that influence the decisions you make about releasing and promoting the album?

I just like things to be real. That was the best part about the presale, having a sense, even if the numbers aren’t huge, just knowing that people are having blind faith in something, without being told to do it. I don’t like things to be manufactured. I remember the first time I realized certain aspects of the Dears’ success wasn’t real to me. One time we were playing a gig in Stockholm and we were told it was sold out. We get there and the first few rows are totally enthusiastic, with people who probably bought the record, invested in the project, and then beyond that was a lot of cool-dressed Stockholm hipsters. I remember looking out at them and thinking “I’m never going to see those people again.” I just kind of thought those people were probably told to be here, whereas the people who are right up front are here for real, and they’ll be here next time. With this record, it’s just about staying true.

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Every Janet Jackson Album Ranked

We took a look back at the icon’s catalog and ranked all 11 studio albums from worst to best.

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Janet Jackson
Photo: Janet Jackson

Janet Jackson’s music career can be easily partitioned into three eras, with her commercial peak (from 1986’s Control through 2001’s All for You) bookended by her early, pre-breakthrough period on one side and the years following her infamous Super Bowl performance in 2004 on the other. There’s perhaps no better testament to the power of Janet’s breakthrough album, Control, as a quintessential statement on personal and artistic self-actualization than the still pervasive misconception that it’s her debut, with 1982’s Janet Jackson and 1984’s Dream Street relegated to the singer’s “prehistory.” But while it should surprise absolutely no one that the quartet of albums that Janet released during her imperial phase handily top this list, her most recent effort, 2015’s Unbreakable, was an understated return to form, reuniting the artist with longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

Janet’s follow-up, Black Diamond, was scheduled for release this year before the Covid-19 pandemic dashed those plans. While we await word on the fate of Janet’s 12th studio album—and accompanying concert tour—we’ve decided to look back at her catalog and rank all 11 albums from worst to best.



Dream Street

11. Dream Street (1984)

Before Janet struck multi-platinum with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, she briefly partnered with another famous production pair, Giorgio Moroder and Peter Bellotte. With the exception of the title track, though, the legendary disco duo’s contributions to Janet’s sophomore effort, Dream Street, fell far short of their iconic work with the likes of Donna Summer. Janet’s least successful album isn’t without its pleasures though: Produced by brother Marlon, “All My Love to You” successfully apes Off the Wall-era Michael, while the sexy, nearly seven-minute “Pretty Boy”—courtesy of Jesse Johnson, who, along with Jam and Lewis, was part of the Time—provided a glimpse of things to come in Janet’s own oeuvre. Sal Cinquemani



20 Y.O.

10. 20 Y.O. (2006)

20 Y.O. was the first Janet album that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produced (this time only in part) after moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. As a result, their ice-cold beats melted into a lugubrious, lukewarm pudding (at under an hour, it still feels almost twice as long as janet. and The Velvet Rope). I don’t know what co-producer and Janet’s then-boyfriend Jermaine Dupri thought he meant when he said he wanted 20 Y.O. to sound like an old Human League record, but I’ll readily admit that the evidence on display suggests he was the only one with the foresight to come up with some new old ideas, even if none of them work to Janet’s advantage. The album’s desperation is that of a dance icon who once sent one hot track after another to the top of the charts and is now deciding she liked the idea of being at the top of the singles charts better than creating immortal dance music. The grindcore “This Body” brings the fugly with surprising abandon, throwing hissing industrial clatter atop an admirably tuneless dirge (you hardly realize it’s a way-late bid in the chopped n’ screwed sweepstakes until the 16 RPM guest rap drops in). “Enjoy” is a seamlessly smooth step groove aboard R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love” boat, but its presence here only makes the likes of “Get It Out Me” and “Roll Witchu” seem all the more opportunistic. Eric Henderson



Janet Jackson

9. Janet Jackson (1982)

If on its own terms Janet’s self-titled debut has nothing on what was to follow, it’s nonetheless a pretty solid snapshot of the post-disco boogie sound. At least, that is, for the duration of side one, where singer-songwriters René & Angela (best known for their steamy funk workout “I’ll Be Good”) serve Janet with three equally perky-cute dance-pop ditties, and one halfway decent ballad. Janet was clearly still finding her voice, but the snappy backing track of “Say You Do” could easily have slotted into the Jacksons’s 1980 album Triumph, and “Young Love” has the confident pristineness of a Patrice Rushen jam. Things get pretty generic on side two, but two or three deep cuts from an artist who came out of the gate only half-formed ain’t half bad. Henderson



Discipline

8. Discipline (2008)

The title of Discipline was encouraging for those who prefer Janet taking control and cracking the whip (both as leader of her rhythm nation and the boss of her bedroom) over the vapid, single-girl come-ons of her previous three albums. Disappointingly, though, the title track doesn’t hark back to the self-empowerment of Control, but rather the S&M of The Velvet Rope. Lyrics like “Daddy, I disobeyed ya/Now I want you to come punish me” invite all kinds of psychoanalysis that only grow more disturbing when you remember who her daddy really is, which would be fascinating if she hadn’t already written the sexier (and less creepy) “Rope Burn.” If one were to try to identify some kind of evolution in Janet’s latest bout of dirty talk, it might be sex with robots. Throughout the album, she talks to and interacts with a rather compassionate computer DJ named Kyoko, and her voice is robotic and synthetic on tracks like “Feedback” and the Daft Punk-sampling “So Much Betta”—not necessarily such a bad thing for an artist whose vocals often consist of unintelligible murmuring. Cinquemani



Damita Jo

7. Damita Jo (2004)

At some point during the afterglow of adolescent sexual discovery, most people realize that there are more important things in life than getting off. Like Marvin Gaye, Janet got it backward, spending most of her post-Rhythm Nation career searching for, publicly relishing, reflecting on, and then lamenting one giant, decade-long orgasm. The singer’s eighth album, Damita Jo, features a slew of the gooey, structureless sex ballads that had become her staple, including “Warmth,” three-and-a-half minutes dedicated to describing how Ms. Jackson If You’re Nasty gives a blowjob (and yes, she’s a method actress, whispering sweet nothings with her mouth full). Even the dance numbers don’t stray from her topic of choice. Janet’s infamous wardrobe malfunction is commonly cited for her career’s precipitous decline, but her inability to evolve beyond her sex kitten persona is more judiciously to blame. Cinquemani

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NewFest 2020: Dry Wind and Alice Júnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil

It’s a provocative juxtaposition for Dry Wind to stage its queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.

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NewFest 2020: Daniel Nolasco’s Dry Wind and Gil Baroni Alice Júnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil
Photo: The Open Reel

Daniel Nolasco’s Dry Wind and Gil Baroni’s Alice Júnior, both screening in the international section at this year’s NewFest, are refreshing in no small part because they find two Brazilian filmmakers telling stories set in regions of their country that are cinematically underrepresented and largely unknown to international audiences. Dry Wind, for one, takes place in the rustic countryside of the state of Goiás, known for its cowboy iconography, livestock music festivals, and extremely conservative politics. It is, then, a provocative juxtaposition for Nolasco to stage his queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.

Dry Wind follows the routines of a community of factory workers in the rural city of Catalão, where sex between soccer-loving men who wouldn’t hesitate to call themselves “discreet” always seems to be happening or about to happen. These torrid trysts mostly take place in the woods, on bare soil or parked motorcycles, and involve piss, ass-eating, and face-spitting. Throughout, Nolasco’s frames are also filled with much hair—hairy faces, butts, and backs, suggesting a queer sexuality cobbled together with the coarseness of the men’s local environment, despite the clearly foreign influence of Nolasco’s hyper-stylized aesthetics. The film’s drama lies in the decidedly Brazilian-ness of the arid landscape, the provincial accents, and the scruffy faces framed by a mishmash of international visual references whenever horny bodies escape to act out queer desire: from Tom of Finland to Tom de Pékin, from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle.

Nolasco alternates between explicitly sexual, neon-colored sequences that veer toward complete dreamscapes and the kind of European-film-festival-courting realism that Brazilian cinema is known for. The contrast can be quite bewildering, so much so that viewers may wish that Dry Wind would remain in the realm of reveries. Instead, Nolasco often tries to reassert Dry Wind as a film with an actual plot. In this case, it’s one that has to do with jealousy, or the impossibility of intimacy in such queer configurations where sex is public only if it’s clandestine but affection must be refused for the sake of social survival. Apart from a needless plotline involving a homophobic assault, it all makes perfect sense. But the film’s most interesting moments emerge precisely when it surrenders to the presumably illogical strangeness of erotic fantasy.

For instance, when Sandro (Leandro Faria Lelo)—who regularly has sex in the woods with a co-worker, Ricardo (Allan Jacinto Santana), after their shift at the factory—happens upon what looks like a leather bar, the place turns out to be an empty construction site where queer archetypes—the harnessed master, the puppy slave, the drag-queen hostess—are there to perform for Sandro and Sandro alone, in a mix of silent performance art and interactive pornography. In another moment of poetic-pornographic license, an evident nod to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, a generically bearded hunk (Marcelo D’Avilla) with chained nipple clamps comes out of a man-made lake, ready to take Sandro into the water for an ecstatic drowning.

Significantly more comedic, Alice Júnior focuses on a trans wannabe influencer, Alice (Anne Celestino), and her perfumer of a father, Jean Genet (Emmanuel Rosset), who move from Recife to a small town in the south of Brazil. Subtlety isn’t Baroni’s aim, which is clear in the film’s social media-like sense of pace and aesthetic bells and whistles, as well as in the obvious trans metaphor built into the narrative premise. Alice and her dad have to move down south because he wants to develop a new fragrance using pine cones local to the region, whose fruit only comes out if the person blowing through the cone has discovered the pine cone’s real essence.

Alice Júnior

A scene from Gil Baroni’s Alice Júnior. © Beija Flor Filmes

One becomes accustomed to the film’s initially annoying incorporation of social media language into its aesthetic, such as the emojis that pop up on the screen whenever Alice does something or other, because it mirrors the interface through which contemporary teenagers animate everyday life. But Alice Júnior visibly struggles to differentiate itself from a soap opera. The over-the-top acting (the villains speak like Cruella de Vil) is technically in line with Baroni’s animated Insta-grammar, but it becomes a problem when the film tries to tap into something other than its cute flamboyance. The film reaches for pathos only to find tinsel instead.

As fun as Alice Júnior can be, it’s at its core a typical Brazilian kids’ movie, in the vein of on-the-nose fare about enjoying life but not doing drugs that Brazilian megastar Xuxa put out in the 1980s and ‘90s, except queered by its trans protagonist and the visual language of the times. It wears its pedagogical message on its sleeve but is betrayed by a lack of substance. Alice is at once a naïve little girl yearning for her first kiss from a boy and a queer activist with an arsenal of didactic one-liners at the ready. This means some of the plot doesn’t feel credible, as Alice masters LGBTQ resistance discourse perfectly in her interactions both on and offline, but prefers pissing her pants during a class exam, which naturally becomes a viral video, than demanding her right to use the women’s restroom. At times she’s a woke warrior, and at times she’s a helpless little girl.

Alice Júnior only manages to transcend its sparkling surface in a few sequences where it pitches itself at grownups. In one, Jean Genet gets drunk with Marisa (Katia Horn), the kooky mother of one of Alice’s gay classmates, and they start being a little too honest about what they think of their own children. The social media histrionics have nothing to offer in these incredibly entertaining scenes, which finally bring the film closer to Starrbooty than Clueless. These moments are fabulous precisely because they’re unfiltered—queer in attitude, not in wardrobe. Jean Genet and Marisa don’t toast to their kids because they’re decent human beings fighting heterosexual patriarchy, but for being the “devilish bitch” and “dirty-mouthed trans” that they are.

NewFest runs from October 16—27.

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The 15 Best Smashing Pumpkins Songs

The Pumpkins have transcended any one moment or movement, instead reveling in the entire tessellation of 20th-century art.

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Smashing Pumpkins
Photo: Virgin Records

As Greg Kot of Guitar World once quipped, “the [Smashing] Pumpkins remain an island unto themselves.” That was in 2001, when the band had spent a decade carving out an impressive art-rock niche, and long after a shortsighted music press had once smacked them with unenviable and laughably off-base label of “the next Nirvana.” But even to this day, the two bands are often clumped together as vanguards of the scathing, grungy brand of alternative rock that defined the early ‘90s. And yet, there’s little doubt that the group is much more than some also-ran grunge outfit chasing Kurt Cobain’s shadow. Indeed, with 11 studio albums and dozens of EPs, compilations, and soundtrack contributions, Billy Corgan and company have proved to be expert evocateurs, stitching together their melodic pastiche from a diverse litany of musical, literary, and visual sources. Armed with a mosaic sound that includes hat-tips to glam rock, art nouveau, psychedelia, goth, vaudeville, new wave, and Victorian romanticism, the Pumpkins have transcended any one moment or movement, instead reveling in the entire tessellation of 20th-century art.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article was published on July 21, 2013.

15. “Knights of Malta”

The sweeping opening track of 2018’s Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1/LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun bears the hallmarks of vintage Pumpkins: Bill Corgan’s melodic whine, Jimmy Chamberlin’s formidable drumming, and the intricate layers of guitar courtesy of Corgan, original guitarist James Iha, and Iha’s one-time replacement Jeff Schroeder. Everything about the song feels grand and triumphal—right down to the lyrics, in which Corgan sings, “I’m gonna fly forever/We’re gonna ride the rainbow,” as if he’s approaching the gates of rock n’ roll Valhalla.

14. “Set the Ray to Jerry”

As complex as the band’s arrangements and conceits often are, the Pumpkins frequently hit paydirt when relying on Corgan’s ear for crafting simple melodies. “Set the Ray to Jerry” is that principle in practice, as a two-note guitar riff and constantly rumbling snares come together with Corgan’s plain, passionate declaratives (“I want you” and “I need you”) to form a lucid, seductive nighttime jam.

13. “For Martha”

Corgan’s mother inspired plenty of animus throughout the Pumpkins’ catalogue, but none quite as conflicted and harrowing as the kind that fills the song sharing her name. Inspired by her passing, “For Martha” is an eight-minute dirge of gothic piano that bursts into a wave of crying, razor-edged guitars at its halfway point. At the height of it all, Corgan finally delivers his raw, teary-eyed eulogy: “Long horses we are born/Creatures more than torn/Mourning our way home.”

12. “Tristessa”

The riffs on “Tristessa” are some of the most efficient the Pumpkins have ever crafted. With four simple notes, Corgan and fellow guitarist James Iha lay down a bouncing, whiplash guitar hook that’s strong enough to carry the song through its shattering conclusion, proving along the way that the band had two other weapons in their arsenal besides panache: power and rhythm.

11. “Eye”

Serving as a kind of thematic unifier for David Lynch’s Lost Highway soundtrack, “Eye” was Pumpkins fans’ first taste of the band’s post-alternative offerings, where the remnants of their baroque, neo-Victorian rock tastes met Corgan’s new obsession with Pro Tools. While that formula would meet with mixed success on the subsequent Adore, “Eye” remains a sublime slice of electro-goth, pairing Corgan’s understated performance with a litany of chilling instrumentation—not to mention the wonderful angularity of that crisp drumline.

10. “Today”

In which the Pumpkins conclusively prove that great art comes from great pain. Purportedly on the verge of suicide, a desperate, perhaps somewhat deranged Corgan penned “Today,” a facetious, goodbye-cruel-world lullaby that, when draped in the band’s trademark cloak of mellow fuzz, becomes a triumphant middle finger to the crippling effects of depression.

9. “Snail”

There are many points on their 1991 debut, Gish, where the Pumpkins seem caught between their early metal influences (Black Sabbath, Judas Priest) and the art-rock band they ultimately aspired to be, but “Snail” isn’t one of them. The track is perhaps the most obvious foreshadowing of the ambitious plans Corgan had for his group: sweeping, unapologetically romantic, and cinematically paced, its verse, bridge, and chorus structured in such a way so that the ultimate catharsis—in this case, a climbing sub-melody full of unbridled optimism—comes bursting through quite dramatically in its final minute.

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Interview: Garrett Bradley on Exploring Human Dimensionality in Time

Bradley discusses how the forces of collaboration and intuition inform her filmmaking process.

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Garrett Bradley
Photo: Amazon Studios

Garrett Bradley’s films assume grand proportions through their sweeping titles: America, Alone, Like, and, now, Time. Her work expands our notions of concepts and institutions central to contemporary life by interrogating the audiovisual imprints that define them in the public consciousness. These explorations expand the meaning of their thematic subjects by injecting Bradley’s deeply intentional imagery into the conversation.

The filmmaker’s latest, Time, is as much about the ineffable passage of its titular concept as it is about the cruel duration of a prison sentence. Through a delicately woven tapestry of decades-old home videos shot by self-proclaimed “abolitionist” Fox Rich over the years while her husband, Robert, was in prison and more recent footage shot by Bradley and her crew, the film captures time in all of its contradictions. When cut between commonplace scenes of Fox interfacing with the bureaucratic maze of the carceral state, the rushes of her past feel both tantalizingly close and also impossible to reclaim—all while her future with Robert appears indeterminate. Bradley’s frequent deployment of stirring piano solos by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou may give Time the aura of a fairy tale as Fox faces down a seemingly insurmountable system of oppression in the name of love, yet the film never loses grounding in the everyday realities and inhumanities made normal by mass incarceration.

I spoke to Bradley shortly before Time became available worldwide on Amazon Prime. Our conversation covered what the documentary might have looked like without Fox Rich’s video archives, why she didn’t feel the need to explain racism in the film, as well as how the forces of collaboration and intuition inform her filmmaking process.

I’m blown away that such a central component of the film, Fox Rich’s personal video archives, weren’t baked in from the beginning. When she gave you that archive on the last day of filming, was it a matter of her fully trusting you? Had she forgotten they existed? Did it just dawn on her that they might make a great addition to the film?

I had no idea. When you’re working with someone so closely for a period of time, it presents all sorts of interesting emotions and challenges. At least from a filmmaker’s perspective, you’ve got all sorts of reasons why, eventually, you have to walk away from production. What I can say is it was, to my knowledge, the last day of shooting. It was in the evening, and I just remember saying to her, “I’m going to come back and show you a cut.” She was on the phone with Robert, and I remember her saying, “Hold on a second, let me get you something.” She handed me this bag of all of these mini DV tapes that ended up being about 100 hours of footage. She had not seen or looked at that footage since she shot it. I remember getting in the car, shipping it out to get transcoded and being so incredibly nervous about the fact that there were no backups for it. It was a real testament to her to her trust. But why, at that moment, I can’t say.

Without these tapes that so poetically give us a glimpse into Fox’s own history, would your film really have been Time? I can imagine it’s tough to speak to a project that was never realized, but what form and shape would your film have taken without them?

When I initially started shooting, my intention was twofold. One was to think about this film, which I was conceiving as another 13-minute Op-Docs short, as an extension of Alone, a sister film to this other film that had already come out. The intention behind that was to say, “How can I extend the conversation around incarceration, from a sort of black feminist point of view, from a familial point of view? From a point of view that that illuminates the effects of the facts.” Fox is, actually, briefly in Alone. I met her in the process of making it. And she’s a very different person than Aloné [Watts] and was navigating the system in a very different way. She was 18 years into the process of navigating the system, whereas Aloné was in the very beginning stages of that. I think, at that point, my head was really about, again, extending the conversation in a way that showed the diversification of experience within the same issue.

But then also, uniquely to Fox’s own story, I really focused in on her daily life as a way of saying if there’s anything that I’m able to illustrate in this film, if I have to stop shooting tomorrow, it’s to show how deeply embedded the system puts itself in daily life. There’s no separation between your work life, your personal life, your home life, your relationship with your children, your mother, yourself, your partner. There’s no separation between that and the system. It really unequivocally embeds itself into every element of your day.

That was my initial intention, and a lot of the footage was there. Part of the challenge in the edit when looking at it was, wow, this actually feels really two-dimensional. It feels like we have no way of my proving as a filmmaker what I knew, which was the holistic nature of who we are as human beings. We are 360-degree beings. We have context, we have history, we have experience that informs how we maneuver the present moment. How do I show that? That’s ultimately the challenge of making films, you can only tell stories and say things one frame at a time, from one dimension. I think that the film would have focused in on one element of life. It would have been very different, that’s for sure.

The film talks about how Fox’s story demonstrates the power of love as a tool of resistance. How do you convey such a radical notion without coming across naïve?

That’s a great question. Basically, it’s like, how do you make something good or bad, right? I have to say, I think in my experience, it’s been making sure that vulnerability and intention are intrinsic parts of the process. Vulnerability on all ends, as a filmmaker, as a collaborator. That there’s trust. I think the bottom line of that and respect are the ingredients of making something that I think can live outside of the opaqueness of what you’re describing.

In everything from the title of your works to the images contained within them, you maintain such a focus on redefining the way we think about giant structures and institutions in our lives. Is this a goal that you consciously set out to achieve when embarking on a new project, or are you discovering the way in which your work interacts with these notions and ideas?

I think it goes back to this idea of the sort of cinematic challenge of trying to allow things to feel as they do in the real world. Context, history, and multiple dimensions are so intrinsic to that. I think the same can be said for the macro and micro experience. That’s what we live in. We have our individual lives, but we’re a part of a larger system. And depending on who we are and how we’re moving through space, that can become oppressively clear or something that one has the privilege to forget. I think I always enter a project first from the personal. I don’t think that’s a rule though. There are other projects that I’m working on or thinking about where I’m coming at it actually from a larger scale first. I think it changes from one project to the next. But you’re right, ultimately, there’s always going to be for me a conversation between the two. The great meaning comes out of the conversation between the two.

Did you feel a need to rescue or shelter Time from the tropes of social realism or the journalistic point of view that normally pervades stories about mass incarceration or the prison-industrial complex?

There were certainly questions in the edit around how literal we wanted it to be, how much we felt the film needed to explain the minutiae of the crime, the trial, the legal system, the sentencing. Myself and Gabe Rhodes, who edited the film, as we were talking through a lot of that, I found myself feeling that to really explain it was also then to try to explain racism in America. And I’m not really sure that the film is particularly obligated to do that. Because it’s for people, and made with people, who inherently understand that and live it every day. And so when we think about obligations around certain forms of explanation, or sort of a literal proof of an explanation of the why, it can also be coded language. This idea of universality becomes coded language for who we’re actually speaking to if a majority of the people in the country are, in one way or another, affected by this issue. So, I didn’t feel that we had to do that.

How did you conceive the film’s coda? There’s something both comforting and tragic in the notion that cinema—and only cinema—can both preserve and reverse time.

I wish I had a profound answer. I struggled with this question a little bit. Because it was really at a point in the editorial process where we were just working off of instinct and emotion. And there was, riffing off of your last question before, just not even needing to have a literal reason for why we ended it the way we did. It just felt right. It felt like we were able to work with the images in a way that directly responded to what the entire film was about without having to say it in any other way. I think for some people, it works. For some people, it doesn’t. I wish I could say something more profound than that, but it was just pure instinct.

So much about this film feels like it was almost fated to come together: discovering Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbro’s music through YouTube algorithms, Fox Rich giving you her archive and transforming the project, the cosmic parallels revealed in the edit between the footage you shot and her videos. Has this transformed the way you think about artistic ownership and authorship at all?

I think my work has always inherently been collaborative. My work always starts with a series of questions, and the answers come out of conversations that are happening with people in my community are what inform a lot of the aesthetic choices. There was another project, for instance, that I was commissioned for the Whitney Biennial 2019, called A.K.A. That was me really having questions about classic American cinema and race relations between women. My instinct was to go to women that I knew and to ask them questions that I myself had, and a lot of their answers literally shaped the scenes, the camerawork, the lenses. I think Time is an extension of that same love I have for working with people.

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The 75 Best Horror Movies of the 21st Century

These are the films from this millennium that have most shocked us by plumbing our deepest primordial terrors.

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The 75 Best Horror Movies of the 21st Century
Photo: Broad Green Pictures

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. Budd Wilkins

Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 10, 2018.


They Came Back

75. 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


Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

74. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Jalmari Helander, 2010)

Santa is one bad mamma jamma in Writer-director Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a yuletide fable that’s equal parts sincere, silly, and scary. Helander’s direction is assured in a manner that inspires flattering comparisons: his softly lit scenes of adolescent fear and fantasy, and of father-son estrangement, recall early Spielberg; Pietari’s (Onni Tommila) trinket-adorned room and makeshift alarm clock (involving keys, sweater thread and a basin) resembles Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsies; his compassionate black comedy evokes Joe Dante’s work; and his eerie snowbound setting and premise harkens back to John Carpenter’s The Thing. This last comparison is also apt in terms of aesthetics, as Helander and cinematographer Mika Orasmaa’s widescreen compositions capture a sense of unsettling scale and unseen terror as well as, in domestic sequences, a warmth and intimacy that helps compensate for somewhat sketchy characters. Nick Schager


Monster

73. The Monster (2016)

In The Strangers, Bryan Bertino exhibited a masterfully lush style that owed quite a bit to the elegant camera pirouettes of John Carpenter. Here, the filmmaker utilizes his command of medium for more individualized purposes. By the time that The Monster reveals itself to be a horror film, we’re so engrossed in Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and Lizzy’s (Ella Ballentine) pain that the arrival of the titular menace strikes us as an authentic violation of normality, rather than as a ghoul arriving on demand per the dictates of the screenplay. The film has an eerily WTF arbitrariness that should be the domain of more films in the genre. Chuck Bowen


Cam

72. Cam (2018)

When Wilhelm Reich developed the concept of “sex economy” in 1931, he had in mind something like the way societal expectations or advertising may compel someone toward compulsory masturbation. Almost 90 years later, compulsion is but one of an array of factors informing Cam, Daniel Goldhaber’s lithely satirical and startling take on the present state of online sex work. Based on screenwriter Isa Mazzei’s own experiences as a cam model, the film is neither plainly sex positive nor outright cautionary in its depiction of Alice (Madeline Brewer), an up-and-coming streamer whose account is hacked and stolen by someone appearing to be her doppelgänger. Even as Cam gives new meaning to “ghosting” when Alice watches “herself” online, the film’s strengths come from an intimate familiarity with the anxieties that accompany a life predicated on thriving in a gig economy still owned and operated by impenetrable customer service mechanisms and corporate channels of older, sweaty white men. Cam is also one of the first American films to grapple with the realities of being doxed to family and friends, further demonstrating its primary acumen as a check on the social pulse of a particular strain of U.S. conservatism that continues to think about and patrol sex work, and those who participate in it, in even pre-Reichian terms. Clayton Dillard


The House That Jack Built

71. The House That Jack Built (2018)

Like Bob Dylan in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Dont Look Back, Matt Dillon’s serial killer in Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built flashes cue cards to the camera while standing in an alleyway. If Dylan’s narcissism, and Pennebaker’s giddiness to capture it, suggested a cultural turn toward celebrity worship, then Dillon’s psychopath is the bizarre complement. He’s neurotic, self-obsessed, and as devoted to mythologizing his own “body of work” as he is psychologically impenetrable and unknowable. A house built of corpses is both a provocation and an invocation of documentary footage taken from Auschwitz and Katyn. It’s also yet another allusion, this time to Alain Resnais and Dušan Makavejev, who are perhaps the two European filmmakers most devoted to reckoning with manmade catastrophe through montage and the carnivalesque, which are von Trier’s chosen aesthetic modes here. Despite having nothing fashionable in either its politics or its preoccupation with the egotistical artist, The House That Jack Built is one of the most forward-thinking films of 2018 for how it proposes an unruly resurrection of the past, and one’s past self, in order to grapple with its significance. Dillard


The Blackcoat’s Daughter

70. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Bowen


Unsane

69. Unsane (2018)

In 1959, Georges Franju’s masterpiece Head Against the Wall used a man’s confinement at a sanitarium as an analogy for the listlessness of French youth—a generation old enough to remember the degradations and traumas of World War II but now confronted with the promise of a passive, consumer-driven middle-class existence. Steven Soderbergh’s down and dirty Unsane functions in a similar way, using the experience of institutionalization to probe the mores around mental health in a privatization-mad America. Few if any Hollywood-adjacent filmmakers have put as much brain power into making the digital revolution work for them as Soderbergh has, and even Unsane’s most ridiculous moments coast on the sheer energy of aesthetic gamesmanship. Shooting on an iPhone 7, the filmmaker continues finding economical solutions in a pinch. Soderbergh remains a major artist at the peak of his powers, fascinated by the textures of the contemporary world—the actual one, not the one we usually pay to see at the movies. Even if he’s just flexing a new mode of production, the result is still 98 minutes of shredding, analeptic cinema. Steve Macfarlane


Suspiria

68. Suspiria (2018)

Luca Guadagnino knew that a successful remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria would need, at the very least, to take the material in a completely different direction. And he winkingly acknowledges that belief in an early scene from his remake when Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, err, Lutz Ebersdorf) underlines the word “simulacrum” in a notebook. The new Suspiria is, especially in visual terms, anything but a simulacrum, as its palette is more reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Walerian Borowczyk’s films than Argento’s neon-tinged original. Guadagnino’s remake is, above all, a film about the terror that lingers in a European city long after its been blitzed by various catastrophes. Guadagnino uses Argento’s original as a launching pad for interrogating how the old, whether in dance or politics, often corrupts the new. Heady though it is, the film also more than delivers the genre goods. It strikes a delicate aesthetic balance between hysteria and control, most evident in an unforgettable scene in which Susie (Dakota Johnson) dances for Madame Blanc (Swinton), much to the bone-breaking detriment of the Markos Dance Academy’s former star. Dillard


November

67. November (2017)

In André Breton’s writings on surrealism, he envisions, and prescribes, a mode of fairy tale for adults rooted in juxtapositions so poetic and strange that they seem only possible in dreams. Or in the work of Rainer Sarnet, who crafts the uncanniest of fables in November. Based on a novel by Andrus Kivirähk, this gorgeously shot film is an intrepid portrait of an Estonian village inhabited by greedy old men, wise toothless hags, ghostly lovers, and anthropomorphic creatures made out of human hair and metal coils. November respects the logic and temporality of the unconscious. As such, it’s difficult to tell if the story takes place in medieval times or some dystopian future. Its impenetrable storylines take shape like most of its dialogue, bearing the enigmatic sparseness of poetic stanzas or ancient spells. There’s more to be enjoyed if one gets lost in the bewildering rhythm between eerie sounds and the black-and-white imagery, instead of trying to detangle the various strands of the surreal narrative. Diego Semerene


Train to Busan

66. 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


In Fabric

65. In Fabric (2019)

Peter Strickland’s films are fetish objects that rue the perils of fetishism. The British filmmaker’s characters are walled off from others, channeling their longing into various acts of aestheticism, which parallels his own obsession with emulating the stylistics of the giallo, softcore pornography, and classic European chamber dramas. In Fabric finds Strickland doubling down on these qualities, mounting a gorgeous and lonely horror film that expresses emotion via a series of increasingly abstract motifs. Strickland allows his dreamy atmosphere to take over the film, as the characters are eaten alive by their hungers and uncertainties, though this free-floating reverie has a moralistic streak. Bowen


28 Weeks Later

64. 28 Weeks Later (2007)

28 Weeks Later rolls in like a poisonous dust cloud of nihilism. The everyman hero this time around is Don (Robert Carlyle), who thinks he and his wife (Catherine McCormack) are safe in their wee rural cottage when the rage virus transforms most of mainland Britain into shrieking, blood-vomiting zombies that sprint head-on at their victims. 28 Days Later is a tough and uncompromising horror film, but it’s all sunshine and laughter in comparison to the sequel. The thesis of 28 Weeks Later is that the War on Terror is ultimately a self-destructive one for all concerned, from the bullying authority figures to the demoralized combat soldiers to the fractured family units. Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo seems to place his empathy with the recently infected. Much like Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there’s an understanding for what it means to be human—and the magic that is lost when that humanity is stripped away. Jeremiah Kipp


1922

63. 1922 (2017)

In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen


Them

62. Them (2006)

Hoody-clad sadists attack a couple, alone in their country home. That’s all the setup that co-writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud need to dredge up some uniquely discomfiting chills. You won’t be able to shake Them is primarily set in seems to grow bigger with each new hole the film’s villains tear out of. To get the maximum effect, be sure to watch this one at night; just don’t watch it alone. Simon Abrams


Black Death

61. Black Death (2010)

Grim aesthetics and an even grimmer worldview define Black Death, in which ardent piousness and defiant paganism both prove paths toward violence, hypocrisy, and hell. Christopher Smith’s 14th-century period piece exudes an oppressive sense of physical, spiritual, and atmospheric weight, with grimy doom hanging in the air like the fog enshrouding its dense forests. His story concerns a gang of thugs, torturers, and killers led by Ulric (Sean Bean), a devout soldier commissioned by the church to visit the lone, remote town in the land not afflicted by a fatal pestilence, where it’s suspected a necromancer is raising the dead. Dario Poloni’s austere script charts the crew’s journey into a misty netherworld where the viciousness of man seems constantly matched by divine cruelty, even as the role of God’s hand—in the pestilence, and in the personal affairs of individuals—remains throughout tantalizingly oblique. Schager


The Neon Demon

60. The Neon Demon (2016)

Nicolas Winding Refn puts his monogram on his film’s title card. So did D.W. Griffith. The Neon Demon is about narcissism as a form of artistry and, girl, is it ever. Boasting color that would make Mario Bava blush and proffering hilariously conceited exchanges that oscillate between farce and bone-dry awkwardness, each successive scene loudly announces Refn’s turn of the screw. Refn finds the fabric of hidden cultural demons, and not the sorts of spirits that can be dismissed by an exorcist. Check the wallpaper behind Gigi (Bella Heathcote) after she barfs up an eyeball; it’s covered in swastikas. The appropriative and racist legacies of Los Angeles and Europe find women as only food or sex while in the crosshairs of these wide-eyed, well-dressed hounds. The lure of lights, the bass of electro, the will to power, the kino eye—what hath this delight in pleasure and knowledge wrought? Dillard


The Hole in the Ground

59. The Hole in the Ground (2019)

Quite a bit of the fun of The Hole in the Ground resides in guessing how Lee Cronin’s shopworn signifiers fit together, as he offers a smorgasbord of portentous elements that include a crone by the roadside, the aforementioned hole and the woods, a pointed reference to Sarah’s (Seána Kerslake) medication, and Chris’s (James Quinn Markey) newfound sense of inhuman formality. There’s also, of course, a past atrocity that haunts Sarah and Chris’s new residence. Yet the film gradually becomes something more than a mixtape of horror gimmicks, as it homes in on a frightening real-world subtext. Chris’s changing behaviors, which include chillingly crawling on the floor of his room like an animal and eating a large spider, are rooted in the distance that comes between Sarah and Chris after they leave Sarah’s abusive husband. There’s an unspoken sense that Sarah’s arising revulsion with her son may be rooted in how he reminds her of his father, and there’s a particularly moving scene where we see Sarah’s disgust with Chris as he eats spaghetti, which Cronin frames in a cruelly unflattering close-up. Bowen


Neighboring Sounds

58. Neighboring Sounds (2012)

Of course this upstairs-downstairs portraiture plays out with the tenor of horror. The class war is an inexhaustible source of terror—particular here, in Recife, Brazil, an affluent coastal town whose middle-class comforts are quite literally built up and around its history of poverty and oppression. Less social critique than abstract deconstruction, Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Neighboring Sounds is very much about the power of the cinema not to deliver, but to portend, and to that end its gears are always turning. Its sublime sound design, emerging at the intersection of ambient noise and musique concrete, offers a case study for how to suggest the existence of horrors we never see. Filho understands that an atmosphere of palpable dread sustains tension better than more sensational explication, and his commitment to withholding is, without exaggeration, worthy of Hitchcock. That it more or less forgoes the spectacle of an anticipated resolution is a necessary consequence of its methods; in other words, for Filho, process rather than payoff is the point. As Recife’s idle rich flaunt their privilege as lowly laborers circle them like sharks, conflict seems a guarantee. But the bubble of complacency in which these characters live doesn’t need to be punctured by violence. The status quo is damning enough. Calum Marsh


The Invitation

57. The Invitation (2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan


Mulholland Drive

56. Mulholland Drive (2001)

David Lynch’s meta noir Mulholland Drive literalizes the theory of surrealism as perpetual dream state. Told as it is using a highly symbolic, ravishingly engorged language of dreams, this bloody valentine to Los Angeles naturally leaves one feeling groggy, confused, looking forward and back, hankering to pass again through its serpentine, slithery hall of mirrors until all its secrets have been unpacked. Whether Mulholland Drive anticipated the YouTube Age we live in (and which Inland Empire’s digital punk poetics perfectly embody) is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that this movie-movie will continue to haunt us long after Lynch has moved on to shooting pictures using the tools of whatever new film medium awaits us—tools that he will no doubt have helped to revolutionize. Gonzalez


Hereditary

55. Hereditary (2018)

The first half of Hereditary establishes Annie’s (Toni Collette) grief and decades-long mental illness to set up the arrival of Joan (Ann Dowd), a Caligari-like figure who preys upon Annie’s vulnerability. Although Joan seems like an honest and empathetic woman, she’s actually a deceitful minion of Paimon, an avaricious king whom Annie accidentally helps to conjure from the dead. Hereditary is chock-full of citations to other classic horror films (most notably Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining) that take as their themes the manipulation of women as mothers and wives. When Annie, deep in the haze of misbegotten conviction, tells her son, “I’m the only one who can fix this,” she’s trying to rectify the sense of maternal guilt she feels for her daughter’s death. She’s also invoking Donald Trump’s claim from a July 2016 rally, when he said in reference to law and order: “I alone can fix it.” Fallen prey to the circumstances of her own deception, Annie speaks the self-defeating logic inherited from her manipulator. Dillard


Sinister

54. Sinister (2012)

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Marsh


Maniac

53. Maniac (2012)

Made in collaboration with Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, and with the sort of fearless artistic freedom often allowed by European financing, Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac begins with a psychopath’s synth-tastically scored stalking of a party girl back to her apartment, outside which he cuts her frightened scream short by driving a knife up into her head through her jaw. The film deceptively delights in capturing the mood of an exploitation cheapie before latching onto and running with the conceit only halfheartedly employed by William Lustig in the 1980 original, framing the titular maniac’s killing spree—this time set in Los Angeles—almost entirely from his point of view. A gimmick, yes, but more than just a means of superficially keying us into the psyche of the main character, Frank, an antique mannequin salesman played memorably by a minimally seen Elijah Wood. As in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, this approach becomes a provocative means of sympathizing with the devil. Gonzalez


Depraved

52. Depraved (2019)

What does a Frankenstein figure look like in 2019? According to Larry Fessenden’s Depraved, he’s a guy with war-addled, once-noble intentions set adrift by male ego and shady benefactors. He’s a white man grasping for control in a world coming apart, a cog in a machine who hasn’t broken free so much as changed the machine’s function—from that of war to that of the pharmaceutical industry. The film, Fessenden’s first feature as both writer and director since 2006’s The Last Winter, paints multiple psychological portraits that are sad, angry, and strangely beautiful. It shows us the mind of not just PTSD-afflicted field surgeon Henry (David Call), but also that of his prototypical sewn-together “monster,” Adam (Alex Breaux), and his assistant and Big Pharma bankroller, Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Throughout, the film it remains firmly focused on its thesis of Frankenstein as a lens for examining modern society. Fessenden catalogues what personalities and power dynamics have shifted and what hasn’t changed at all. He diagnoses the rot of our era through these solipsistic men that pour their prejudices and their insecurities into Adam, an open book eventually read back to its authors with a violence they cultivated themselves. Steven Scaife


Us

51. Us (2019)

Jordan Peele’s Us suggests C.H.U.D. for the Trump era. Even though it’s not as tidily satisfying as Get Out, it’s both darker and more ambitious, and broader in its themes. This film’s African-American characters also come under assault not in the inner cities of the white imagination, but in supposedly safer upper-class suburban spaces. But Us also moves past such racial themes. The shadow vengeance meted upon the Wilsons is in fact a plague, and it’s one that touches every family in Peele’s film. In Us, Peele is less concerned with blackness than he is economics, as the howling, homicidal doubles that torment the Wilsons represent an avenging under class. “What are you people?” Gabe (Winston Duke) asks when the terror begins. “We’re Americans!” his wife’s double (Lupita Nyong’o) hisses. It’s tempting to read these Americans as the embittered Trump base, rising up to destroy the false idyll that was the comfort—for some, at least—of the American status quo. Henry Stewart

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Interview: Cooper Raiff Talks Shithouse, Nostalgia, and Being There for Others

The filmmaker discusses how Shithouse reflects the specifics of a certain life experience.

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Interview: Cooper Raiff Talks Shithouse, Nostalgia, and Being There for Others
Photo: IFC Films

“Bet you won’t click on this link and then email me,” read the tweet from college student Cooper Raiff to indie film maven Jay Duplass that began the journey of Shithouse. Raiff had directed and shot a film about a homesick freshman and a savvy RA called Madeline & Cooper over spring break with $300, two friends, and stolen equipment from his college. Duplass responded, both emotionally to the film and literally to the message, and helped mentor as well as support Raiff through making a more professionalized iteration of the film linked to in the fateful tweet. That new film, Shithouse, won Raiff the grand jury prize at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival at just 23 years old.

Tempting as it might be to ascribe a master plan to Raiff’s rise, the Shithouse multihyphenate—actor, writer, director, editor—evinces no evidence of being a calculating wunderkind. Raiff remains as affable and easygoing as his film, a leisurely but lofty college-set tale of two young people coming to terms with the personal baggage that weighs on them. Madeline and Cooper from the original scrappy feature become Maggie (Dylan Gelula) and Alex (Raiff), who navigate similar emotional terrain but within a larger personal and social framework that encompasses fellow students as well as Alex’s family at home in Dallas.

Shithouse recalls the best of Richard Linklater, not only because Raiff already proves his adeptness at mastering the director’s trademark “walk and talk” two-shots. He also shares an appreciation the unique window provided by the collegiate experience to focus on self-actualization. Raiff’s film recognizes the ability for extended conversations to soften characters’ emotional guards and expose real vulnerabilities, and it’s all conveyed with a distinctively Texan sense of casualness and compassion.

I spoke with Raiff over Zoom the week prior to Shithouse opening in select theaters and on demand, a scale of release that thrilled him but by no means felt inevitable. Our wide-ranging conversation covered why he doesn’t think about cinematography when envisioning a film, how writing makes him a better person, and where he wishes he’d been more precious in editing his personal but not autobiographical character. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to start our time by raising a personal connection: Raiff and I both attended small high schools in Texas that played against each other in the same athletic conference. Recognizing that bit of shared kinship led to Raiff revealing a number of ways in which Shithouse reflects the specifics of a certain life experience in addition to the story’s broader applicability.

Alex in the movie is wearing a Greenhill Wolves sweatshirt. But if I recall, the real Greenhill is the Hornets. I’m betting that Greenhill didn’t lend you the mascot?

No, I just wanted to have the stuffed wolf. I had this thing where I wanted it to be Alex’s dad, but for it to be a wolf dad. I really cared about it being a wolf, but it’s really funny because a lot of people think it’s a dog, so it doesn’t even matter. I also wanted it to tie back to high school. I wanted it to have that mascot. I think, at the end of day, I could’ve gotten permission, but I didn’t have the time to ask. I made a sweatshirt instead and made it so that if I said something…there’s actually a scene where I talk about Greenhill, and not that I shit on it. I say really nice things about it, but I just didn’t want any kind of legal thing to get in the way.

In terms of developing a passion for film or movies. I’ve heard you say that you don’t consider yourself a filmmaker. If watching movies wasn’t pushing you into making them, how were they acting on you and influencing you?

When I was directing for the first time, I realized just how deep into my bones movies are. I don’t watch a ton of them. I’ll also turn a lot of them off because I just know when one isn’t going to land with me. But when they do, I can’t stop thinking about them. It wasn’t a stretch to figure out how I was going to film Shithouse, because even if I direct a ton of movies moving forward, I like coming from this place of always just caring about these characters and themes that are coming from these characters. Where I come from is always: I’m obsessed with these two people, and I want to write scenes where these two people are gonna have the most fun. At the end of the day, the most important things to me are what their personalities say about life. The way that Maggie and Alex are such perfect foils for each other, I think, says something pretty universal about the way that two different people look at the way we relate to each other and our interconnectedness.

At what point did you did you know that the story that you were working on would have resonance for other people?

Like, a couple months after SXSW when more people started watching it. I think I knew that it was universal, but I didn’t know if I communicated that well enough. You never know until people see it. But I knew that I would love it. I knew that my family members and my ex-girlfriends would love it. On set, being in the scenes and watching Dylan play Maggie, I just knew that all the scenes were working so well, and it had the magic that I wanted. It felt special in the way that I wanted it to feel special. I knew that I was going to always love the movie. But it’s so small and quiet, so I didn’t know how many people were gonna really meet it. Because, and here’s the thing: Shithouse requires you to meet it where it is. It’s a movie that you have to really go there for it in a way. Most great movies are just there, like you don’t have to work hard to immerse yourself in it. And Shithouse is very comfortable with not being seen by a lot of people, it just comes across that way. I think it’s been so nice hearing that more than 10 people went there, enjoyed it and felt it the whole way through.

Interview: Cooper Raiff Talks Shithouse, Nostalgia, and Being There for Others

Dylan Gelula and Cooper Raiff in Shithouse. © IFC Films

As someone who’s not all that different from Alex, I didn’t feel like I had to travel far. It was very much kind of like, “How dare you make this biopic of my life freshman year?”

Yeah, but even then, because Alex is such a specific character that I didn’t know how relatable he would be. Because Alex is myself stripped away a ton. I have, way deep down, this really huge, massive caring bone in my body. I just want to love and like taking care of people. I think realizing that people are relating to that part of Alex is awesome, and it feels really cool.

Are you someone who needs to parse the events of your life through art, writing, or creating something to feel some sense of closure or finality in the experiencing of it?

No, I never thought of this movie as cathartic while writing it. Honestly, when I was acting in it, it was pretty cathartic because there were certain scenes where I had never really gone there. I don’t think of my writing as therapy in that way. But I will say that as a writer—I think I realized this recently because I’ve been writing a ton again—it does make me a better person. Naturally, obviously, because it’s about trying to understand and have empathy for people. I don’t go to a script saying, “I have to figure this shit out.” But I am realizing that it does inform my life in the biggest way, where I didn’t think that before. I thought it was just something that I was doing and meant a lot to me, but it was a separate thing. I think it really informs who I am because I’m spending all day just thinking about other people and getting their interior lives. I think that’s who I am is someone who just moves about that way.

How did movies both prepare and fail you for college? Movies set at school, and college in particular, don’t really make a ton of space for stories like this about someone who’s feeling very alone and isolated.

I haven’t really seen a lot of college movies, honestly, but I’ve seen many movies that do little scenes from college. It’s always just written from a place of nostalgia. I think writers see college as a playground for them to write whatever they want. But, for me, when I knew I was gonna make a movie about college, there was really only one thing that I could write about, and it was the pain of leaving home and growing up. Just the fact that no one prepares you for how hard it is to fall asleep that first night under a new ceiling. Also, the pain of your parents dropping you off and driving away and leaving you there, it’s just horrendous.

But I think movies always fail people because they’re trying to be good instead of trying to say something. I’m not even saying entertaining, because I want everything to be entertaining, but I wanted to communicate something while being as watchable and entertaining as possible.

Even though the film feels very loose, it’s my understanding that Shithouse is highly scripted. How do you write for college students? Because, on the one hand, sometimes the way they talk seems very on the nose. But, then again, they’re all kind of taking their cues from movies or the idea of what it means to be in college.

Yeah, I totally agree with that. So, Alex is very much based on me, Maggie’s very much based on someone I’m with right now. Her name is Madeline, and the movie’s based on our relationship, so I know exactly how she talks. I know exactly what she’s gonna say, always. My mom, even more so. The roommate was a combination of every single guy friendship that I’ve ever had. I just picture them talking. I write a lot of like’s, and I write a lot of um’s. But with the script, I always tell the actors that they can rewrite whatever they want to rewrite. I never want something to sound false or feel uncomfortable coming out of their mouth. I don’t say, “You have to say the like right here, or you have to say the um right here,” but the like’s and the um’s in a line will just signal to the actor that it’s not as well thought out. He doesn’t exactly know what he’s saying here. That’s why there’s a lot of like’s and um’s. I always want my actors to know that I’m not precious about any of the lines or anything. I just wanted to get across that there’s gonna probably be some like’s and um’s in this one this big line.

As actor, director, and editor of Shithouse, how do you keep yourself from getting too precious in your performance? I was recently talking with Kirsten Johnson, the director who did Cameraperson and Dick Johnson Is Dead

[eyes light up] I am obsessed! If you look on my Facebook page, a still from Cameraperson is my cover photo. I’m obsessed with that movie.

So good! She mentioned an exercise she does with her students at NYU. She will have them film each other talking about their fears about their thesis project and then edit both themselves and the other person in the conversation. She said, inevitably, that the edit of the other person is so much more interesting because they can just see something in these little moments. The version of themselves they present is so sanitized or watered down that they become boring. I caught so many little moments of Alex in Shithouse that made me think you really didn’t fall into that same trap.

It’s really tricky because I think there’s a story that the character is so close to me, but it’s really not. I don’t feel like Alex at all. I mean, obviously, that’s a slippery slope. I did have another editor who came on to make sure I was seeing everything. But so many people have talked about not having another perspective. And because I think there’s this thing where people think there’s four different movies: the movie that’s written, the movie that’s on the set, the edited movie, and the movie that the audience receives. And I think being in charge of all the things really collapsed it in a way that I really liked. Even with the editor, I wasn’t just coming in and saying, “Hey, do whatever you want.” I was trying to communicate, “Hey, this is exactly what I want. I want you to help me out with getting this certain thing and this certain quality.” It didn’t feel like the barrier that I think a lot of people think it was.

To answer that specific question about not being precious with the character, I always did feel like I was acting as Alex. If I could go back, I think I probably would have been more precious. Just the response that people are giving, it seems like they just think it’s me. If I had known that’s what would have happened…I just didn’t think this movie would have a big audience at all. And not that it does, but I thought it was just going to be my friends and family who all know that I’m certainly not so much like Alex. But experiencing so many people kind of even just talking about it in terms of “this is the filmmaker,” it’s like, “No, I’m not writing emotional propaganda!” I did write a character, and I drew upon my life in a major way as everyone does writing something personal and original. But I wasn’t precious with it at all.

Throughout Shithouse, a lot of the characters opine about the nature and meaning of college. I don’t want to assume that the characters speak for you, but did thinking through these questions give you any clarity on the questions?

Yeah, I mean, I still don’t really know what the thesis of college is, but I know the arguments. I think what I wanted to say about college was that it’s the first time for me without a safety net. I was so dependent on my family members, and they were so rock solid that I got to college and felt like I was without oxygen for the first time. And then you have Maggie, who’s been without a safety net for a long time. That’s just how she was raised. I think that’s why she’s crushing college. But I think what I wanted to say was that going to your second home, it’s kind of the most selfish time of your life. You’re really trying to figure out who you are separate from the home that you were raised in for so long.

But the other thing I wanted to say is, yes, I think we should be looking out for each other, and I talk about that so much in Shithouse. I hope people get that in order to take care of people and look out for each other, you have to first take care of yourself. Figure out your shit, make your bed, take responsibility for your actions in a way that you’re moving or not moving. I think Maggie’s line is, “Just because your life’s shitty doesn’t mean you can make other people feel like their life is shitty.” Alex is so harsh about the way that people are just trying to survive because he’s not doing a good job of surviving. But he thinks, “Oh, everyone should be having this hard time, you just need me to help you out.” Where it’s like, “No, no, I don’t need you.” But then there’s like that whole thing where, yeah, you do. You can’t not depend on people.

I remember an older friend of mine told me in my first year at school, “I think your biggest problem is that you are over college and you are already a freshman.” But at the same time, I was still 19 and immature. Holding those two thoughts in your head about how equipped you are to handle the experience is definitely challenging, and I think it is a very unique struggle that Alex goes through.

Have you seen the movie Liberal Arts?

I have, but it’s been a long time.

There’s a line in there where [Elizabeth Olsen’s character] is talking about how she can see herself in the future, and she feels like a rough draft version of herself. But she has the wisdom to know that she’s not there. You just have to live through certain things and experience certain things—and also experience certain pains—in order to get there. I think the people that don’t have that wisdom, it’s not a bad thing. They’re just turning on that part of their brain because sometimes it’s not useful to have that knowledge too soon. That’s Alex, and I think a lot of people probably deal with that. But they choose to drink instead.

You’re having such a strange version of the rising star director narrative: Your debut feature wins SXSW but you never get to experience the film play before that crowd, you do the “water bottle” tour of Hollywood, but it’s all over Zoom. Where does that leave your mental state and how you want to move forward making something else?

I was just talking about this. I’ve had a lot of Zoom meetings. I’m young and don’t know anything, so I’m not good at not doing the scrappy, singular thing. I’m having these Zoom meetings with [people asking] like, “What do you want to do?” I have these ideas, and I have literally scripts where I’m like, “Here’s what I want to do.” The reaction is always, “That’s small.” And I’m like, “Yeah, it’s small!” I don’t think I’ll make a big leap after this at all. I’ll probably do a very similar thing. But in terms of the Zoom thing, it’s been really nice because I don’t have to drive in a car to go all these places.

It’s just weird to be in a lot of interviews or Zooms where people are asking you to talk about yourself for so long. I hope to God I’ll never stop thinking about how weird it is. Like, no wonder people get so self-absorbed because all it is is me talking about myself. I’m trying to keep telling myself that. It sucks that it didn’t premiere at SXSW, but I wasn’t expecting much. I’ve never been to a film festival, and I didn’t have all these dreams and hopes for it. So when it got cancelled, it was kind of like, “Oh.” But everyone’s response to it getting canceled was so nice, and people really wrapped their arms around the movies in such a kind way.

When I saw your background when reading about Shithouse, I thought the odds were low that you’d be able to talk to someone on a press tour who’d be able to talk about both the film and the specific Texas private school background it comes from.

Yeah, it’s been so nice! The thing is, I’ve just been talking so much about how it’s universal. Everyone leaves home, because not everyone goes to college, but never would I think about someone connecting to the very specific private school to college [journey] and just how special that small school makes you feel. Not special in terms of you’re the one or something, but special in terms of like, we’re just like such a community. I think a good example is if someone’s sitting down crying at Greenhill, no matter what, in five seconds tops someone would be over there making sure they’re okay. But if you go to college, even Occidental, and someone’s crying, no one is going over to say [something]. It’s just understood that people are going through their exorcisms, and you leave them alone. And with Greenhill, I think there was this constant sense of like, no, I need to be there for my fellow peer or my fellow students.

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Starring Joan Crawford on the Criterion Channel

The myth of Joan Crawford’s life and career is inseparable from what she did on screen.

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Starring Joan Crawford on the Criterion Channel
Photo: Warner Bros.

The myth of Joan Crawford’s life and career is inseparable from what she did on screen. Though she worked with many fine directors across her career, all of Crawford’s films are essentially about her, and they need to be seen in terms of her unending thirst for publicity and attention, which still bears fruit and fans more than 40 years after her death. Crawford arouses sympathy and repulsion by turns, and the hilarious tunnel-vision focus that made her the ultimate camp totem is also what makes her lovable, in spite of the increasing warrior-hardness of her face, her often-monotonous intensity, and the sometimes off-puttingly aggressive way she offered her psychic battle scars to the camera.

Staring October 11, the Criterion Channel celebrates Crawford’s work with a career-spanning, 25-film retrospective. The earliest film in the series is Tod Browning’s still-potent silent horror classic The Unknown, in which a beautifully striking Crawford, then around 20, stars as a neurotic carnival girl who Lon Cheney’s circus freak is obsessed with marrying. By the time you get to Ranald MacDougall’s 1955 noir Queen Bee, in which Crawford delivers one of the greatest slaps in the history of the movies, that big-eyed, hopeful girl from Clarence Brown’s 1934 pre-Code drama Sadie McKee has been completely buried in the granite of obsessive self-preservation. Crawford went from shop girl’s delight to Queen of the Zulus in less than 20 years, a rags-to-riches American dream turning into a vodka-soaked, paranoid nightmare.

Crawford, born Lucille Fay LeSueur, was brought up in shady circumstances that are still shrouded in mystery and conjecture. Rumors that she made a few stag films before 1925 have never been verified, but sex was clearly the weapon that Crawford used to pull herself out of the gutter she came from. She made her first impact at MGM as a loose-living jazz heroine of silent films like Harry Beaumont’s Our Dancing Daughters, dancing clunky Charlestons in her scanties and all but broadcasting, “I’m the easiest lay in the world!” Such sexual abandon never really left her, and she had to pay for it time and again on screen in the ‘30s and beyond.

Crawford was sometimes cast as society girls, but usually her characters started out in a factory or a department store or a kitchen. In Sadie McKee, a highly refined bit of trash that stands as an archetypal ‘30s Crawford vehicle, the actress’s kitchen maid sticks up for herself against a snobbish family and remains true throughout to a wayward man played by Gene Raymond. Crawford’s films are filled with funny contrasts and incongruities, and Sadie McKee is no exception: Even when Sadie is so down and out that she can’t afford a decent meal, she wears a stylish black suit with fur cuffs, and when she gets angry, Crawford drops her piss-elegant, strained diction and suddenly sounds like a tough broad trying to run a laundry.

In Frank Borzage’s Strange Cargo, from 1937, we get a very tough Crawford facing off against the elements, Peter Lorre, and one of the actress’s best screen partners, Clark Gable. Her tense performance as a cranky cafe entertainer and prostitute in a town near a French Guiana penal colony is tiresomely one-note until she tries out that certain glamorously de-glamorized look out in the jungle, but the spiritual regeneration angle of the script does not suit a woman whose supposed last words were, “Don’t you dare ask God to help me!” Crawford’s image as star and woman is a matter of carefully nurtured bitterness; she’s as unforgiving as Ingmar Bergman and just as narrowly preoccupied with slights and sexuality.

Criterion’s series includes another Borzage film from 1937, Mannequin, which is notable for Crawford’s proletarian heroine’s opening walk up the stairs of her ugly tenement, reversing the logic of Seventh Heaven’s idyll: Sometimes there are staircases to hell as well as heaven. In the ‘40s, the actress landed at Warner Bros. and make the holy trinity of films—Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, and Possessed—that would cement her legend, after which she would quickly start to amp up the camp across a series of films, both high and low.

In Charles Walters’s Torch Song, Crawford was at her latter-day, bulldozer best as tyrannical musical comedy star Jenny Stewart. Throughout, Crawford’s emphatic way of talking makes even the most ordinary lines of dialogue sound like camp epiphanies. Throughout, Crawford dances stiffly and lip-synchs some songs, including one jaw-dropping number, “Two-Faced Woman,” that she inexplicably performs in blackface (which might explain why the film didn’t make this retrospective). It isn’t Al Jolson blackface either: Crawford retains her bright red lipstick mouth and even wears rhinestones in her eyebrows. Surrounded by side-splittingly listless chorus girls, also in half-ass blackface, and a bunch of adoring chorus boys who I hope were well-paid, Crawford goes through with this insanity as she did everything else, with completely oblivious chutzpah.

Such is Crawford’s deluded grandeur, however, that she has several scenes in Torch Song that are somewhat touching, especially when her eyes tear as Tye Graham’s rehearsal pianist tells her that she will soon become a “cheap, vulgar has-been” and eventually turn to “the bottle.” Crawford wasn’t a fan of self-awareness, to put it mildly, but surely she could feel the truth in those harsh words, and predict the final descent into Berserk! and Trog and all the rest of her contributions to the hag-horror genre. Crawford’s refusal to face facts from beginning to end makes her a quintessentially American icon. Dan Callahan

Below are some of our favorite films in the Criterion Channel’s retrospective.

Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932)

Why make a film with both John and Lionel Barrymore, to say nothing of Crawford and Greta Garbo, when you could make two films separately with each of them and, presumably, make double your money? This was the company line that Irving Thalberg found himself at odds with when he decided to cast all four (and more) in his adaptation of William A. Drake’s Broadway smash Grand Hotel. Thalberg’s revelation was one of decadence, allowing the audience to luxuriate in those monumental visages all at once, but the film only works because director Edmund Goulding gives his spaces the same power and art-deco glamour as his performers. Garbo and Crawford are patiently unveiled, as they should be, but the director frontloads the film with his male stars and their various plotlines in immediate and immediately engaging montage, only to further introduce the pulp of the film’s expertly weaved narrative with a bravura lobby sequence that makes stunning use of overhead crane shooting by famed cinematographer William H. Daniels. Chris Cabin

A Woman’s Face

A Woman’s Face (George Cukor, 1941)

The air of grievance that marks Crawford’s face in Borzage’s Strange Cargo is wonderfully used by George Cukor in A Woman’s Face, and even given a visual correlative: Crawford plays the first half of the film under ugly scar make-up covering one side of her face. This disfigurement really suits her, giving a context to her character’s anger. When she slaps around a mean, pretty woman (Osa Massen), Crawford looks like an enraged animal going in for the kill, yet Cukor gives her several close-ups where her vulnerability comes to the surface, and it isn’t the too-heavy, needy vulnerability we see in some of the actress’s lesser work. These real glimpses of her pain make Woman’s Face one of her most moving performances. It’s a film that explains who Crawford was better than just about anything else she did. Callahan

Humoresque

Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, 1946)

Humoresque is jam-packed with classical music recitals, the usual cultural sauce that Warner Bros. dribbled all over their ‘40s soap operas. During most of these programs, where Isaac Stern does John Garfield’s violin playing for him, we’re left to look at Crawford’s enraptured, sometimes sexual, always nakedly emotional reactions to her beloved’s playing (she even gives her program a hand-job while she stares at him). Never before or since has a player made love to the camera so blatantly, and cinematographer Ernest Haller’s lens seems to respond viscerally to Crawford’s shamelessly auto-erotic ardor as it creeps up closer and closer. Basically, Humoresque is a film about Crawford’s face, that marvel of early make-up call architecture and brutal star self-will. Dedicated to making drunken self-loathing as glamorous as possible, Crawford’s Helen, dressed in a glittering black Adrian sheath with football-player shoulder pads, eventually takes an awe-inspiringly silly 10-minute death walk into the sea, accompanied by Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.” Humoresque is overlong and artificial, but Crawford and Haller make it into a dreamy wallow in velvety masochism. Callahan

Mildred Pierce

Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945)

Distinguishing Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce from many noirs is its disarmingly and modernly casual sense of the reliable humiliation of life as a woman in a man’s world, particularly a woman determined to carve out her own niche in the work sector. The film represented for Crawford what Rocky later represented for Sylvester Stallone: a do-or-die stab at survival in Hollywood that subsumes the star’s autobiographical struggles metaphorically into the narrative. Mildred’s unexpectedly successful quest to reinvent herself mirrors Crawford’s transition from washed-up ingénue into one of the great powerhouse poets of the Hollywood melodrama. Crawford lets her work show, allowing you to feel her desperation to be iconic—her self-consciousness investing her super-stardom with weirdly relatable humanity. Crawford brings to light what a true star does: informing our weaknesses with operatic heft. Chuck Bowen

Possessed

Possessed (Curtis Bernhardt, 1947)

Crawford plays Louise, a chilly nurse who nurtures a fatal passion for David (Van Heflin), a wastrel engineer. Like a bad penny, David keeps coming back into her life and tormenting her. Eventually, she starts hearing noises in the night, hallucinating all over the place, chattering irrationally and breaking into laughter for no reason. It’s hard to care about Louise or David, but Possessed does have a few very good insights into the self-abasing aggressiveness of unrequited love. The film is at its best when it’s most subjective, putting you into Louise’s mindset, and at its worst when it slows its pace down to a crawl in back-and-forth dialogue scenes. Crawford went to mental institutions to meet and observe some patients before shooting the film, and this preparation paid off. In her best scenes, she shows her character’s illness subtly and accurately without going over the top. Crawford saw that mental illness shows itself above all in the eyes, in the way they seem to stare inward instead of out at the world, and she replicates this quite strikingly. Callahan

Autumn Leaves

Autumn Leaves (Robert Aldrich, 1956)

Robert Aldrich is always doing unexpected things with the camera. He often zooms in almost imperceptibly to create a feeling of imbalance, and he juts his camera up close to Burt (Cliff Robertson) and Millie (Crawford) when they kiss for the first time, not caring that the lens is getting wet. Burt pounds on the camera lens itself by the end, as if he wanted to bust out of Autumn Leaves. Though Aldrich is having a field day with his camera, he’s very attentive to his two outstanding lead actors. There are fleeting moments of camp in Crawford’s performance. However, perhaps because she’s reacting to someone else’s pain for a change, her narcissism doesn’t hold her back. Crawford sometimes comes through, but mostly we’re watching Millicent Wetherby. Crawford is sensitive, operatic, and quite touching, especially when Millie first lets her guard down. This is arguably her best performance. Callahan

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962)

It’s no secret that Crawford and Bette Davis envied and openly despised one another; there’s abundant anecdotal lore that testifies to the myriad ways these divas one-upped and punked each other during production. That undeniable off-screen friction only helps grease the wheels of the film’s compulsive forward momentum, supplying a crackling energy to scenes wherein, among other gothic horrors, pet birds are served up for supper with relish. But the torment on display isn’t exactly a one-way street: As relentlessly as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? at first positions Baby Jane (Davis) as the sadistic malefactor, later scenes sow seeds of pathos and even pity that will blossom just in time for the bitterly ironic finale. There’s an end in sight for Blanche’s (Crawford) longsuffering predicament, just as Jane finally finds her place in the sun. Emphasizing the quietly apocalyptic nature of this denouement is its placement: a rocky stretch of strand that supposedly supplied the surging surf against which Robert Aldrich staged the explosive conclusion of his gumshoe breakdown Kiss Me Deadly. Budd Wilkins

Strait-Jacket

Strait-Jacket (William Castle, 1964)

From a script by Psycho novelist Robert Bloch, Strait-Jacket stars Crawford as an ax-murderer returning home to her now grown daughter. The weird mix of pathos and gore and sentimentality and inanity are more of a piece here than in William Castle’s earlier Homicidal with Crawford at the center. One doesn’t have to go mining for subtext: Crawford’s murderer is the same somewhat self-martyred control freak she played in a number of more famous roles, and the horror-movie tropes bring her out further, seemingly completing her (she always seemed to be in a horror movie anyway and it tells you something about a film when an ax-murderer played by Crawford is its most sympathetic character). The Psycho associations would go further than anyone might have expected: Psycho II, nearly 20 years later, features a setup identical to Strait-Jacket. If there’s one regret here it’s that Crawford’s ego supposedly botched the ending, which now has her sobbing on a porch in the fashion of a woman’s issue movie from the ‘40s. The original ending, of Diane Baker screaming behind the door, is considerably harder to shake. Bowen

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‘70s Horror on the Criterion Channel

In the ‘70s, a new wave of horror film presented terror as a messy, brutally honest implosion from within.

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‘70s Horror on the Criterion Channel
Photo: United Artists

All American horror films that really matter can be separated into two time periods: before and after Vietnam, an event that epitomized an era and transmogrified the nation’s concept of “horror” forever. Whereas the horror films of yore would invariably depict true red-white-and-blue protagonists dealing xenophobically with foreign evil (vampires and cat people often represented all of Eastern Europe), a new wave of horror film presented terror in America as a messy, brutally honest implosion from within.

Vietnam seemed to be the cataclysm that ended the idea that America was the world’s “control group,” at least for a while. Typically, Psycho is referred to as the film that sliced horror history in half along socio-political lines, but for all its subversions of the rules of horror, the film still faithfully presents mainstream American society (as represented by Vera Miles) as the norm. No, it took a series of social uprisings, the gradual unraveling of a deceptive image that American soldiers were swaggering like pimps in Vietnam, and a seemingly endless cycle of political assassinations to fuel a new breed of scare-mongering films. And they exposed and subverted everything America held true—open spaces, machinery, industry, and country-gravy hospitality—and amplified the nation’s capacity for superior terror.

This month, the Criterion Channel celebrates this wild, weird, and far-out era of genre filmmaking with their ‘70s Horror series. In their words: “This tour through the 1970s nightmare realm is a veritable blood feast of perverse pleasures from a time when gore, grime, and sleaze found a permanent home in horror.” For more about the 29-film series, which collects some of the grimiest, goriest, and most inventive horror films from the decade, click here. And below is our list of our favorite films in the series. Eric Henderson


Ganja & Hess

10. Ganja & Hess (Bill Gunn, 1973)

Ganja & Hess is both a highly personal reconstruction of the vampire myth (many cite it as the “anti-Blacula”), as well as a Godardian broadside, allowing us to imagine that Bill Gunn was actually thumbing his nose at the way the industry was shaping up for African-American directors in the ‘70s, thanks to films like Gordon Parks’s Shaft. Blaxploitation, now responsible for whole forests’ worth of thesis papers, carries a dual appeal: Films that fall within the genre’s framework often have an insoluble blackness that white audiences can never completely absorb, which, paradoxically, is part of their appeal. Ganja & Hess, which has been retroactively, circumstantially cast as a berserk dash toward career suicide on Gunn’s part, is so singular, so opaque, that it doesn’t even have the draw of commerce-friendly exoticism. If Shaft is Barry White and Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is the Sex Pistols, then Ganja & Hess is John Cage. Jaime N. Christley


The Crazies

9. The Crazies (George A. Romero, 1973)

Like Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies concerns a plague that explodes America’s suppressive (and suppressed) tensions, though the monsters are left almost entirely off screen in this case, as George A. Romero foregrounds the sociocultural textures of martial law. The Crazies reprises Night of the Living Dead’s mercilessly propulsive editing while introducing a bold comic-book palette that would be refined in Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow. The film also abounds in inspired sketches of madness and infrastructural collapse, from the military’s dehumanizing uniform of black gas mask and white hazmat jumpsuit to an irrational image of an insane woman sweeping a battlefield with a broom. Even Romero’s self-consciously lyrical touches intensify the film’s textured canvas. The Crazies ironically understands fascism as being inherent in both the preservation and revolution of society. Chuck Bowen


Images

8. Images (Robert Altman, 1972)

Images might not immediately strike one as a genre exercise, as it’s a subjective dramatization of a fragile woman’s psyche, following a famous children’s author, Cathryn (Susannah York), as she seemingly loses her mind and commits murder. Utilizing a fractured narrative, the film proffers an unreliable reality that underscores the greater tenuousness and chaos of human existence writ large. It’s an art film that follows a codified set of traditions that were particularly in vogue in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Robert Altman is less interested in emotion and psychology than in emotional and psychological gamesmanship—in mind-fucking that has a rich tradition in the more obsessive and political films of Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman, Roman Polanski, and Joseph Losey, to name just a few of Images’s influences. Bowen


Deathdream

7. Deathdream (Bob Clark, 1972)

A grindhouse threnody for the Vietnam generation, Bob Clark’s emotionally overwhelming Deathdream is a raw nerve radiating pure shock and grief, as evidenced by the reunion of Faces’s Lynn Carlin and John Marley to play the parents of a young private who, after apparently dying in battle, returns to their doorstep. With echoes of “The Monkey’s Paw,” it gradually dawns on the initially relieved family that Andy’s purple heart may no longer beat, and yet he thirsts for blood, which would be horrifying enough if the film didn’t also seem to be suggesting that, whether soldiers return home from war decorated or draped by the flag, they never return as they were before. Henderson


The Tenant

6. The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976)

The masterful final panel in Roman Polanski’s remarkable “Apartment Trilogy,” The Tenant surpasses even Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby in its portrayal of claustrophobia and dissipating sanity. Casting himself as Trelkovsky, a meek Polish wanderer whose new Paris residence comes equipped with sinister neighbors, mysterious hieroglyphs, and mystical intimations, the great director employs a comically escalating sense of dread to crystallize a worldview in which weaklings and barbarians jostle for power and everyone is an outsider, as powerless against bullying as they are to helping the suffering of others. A master class in ominous, insinuating mise-en-scène, this is the ultimate Polanski skin-crawler and one of cinema’s supreme paranoid fantasias. Fernando F. Croce


The Brood

5. The Brood (David Cronenberg, 1979)

The longing and the sense of tragedy that were beginning to peak through at the end of Rabid are allowed to blossom in The Brood. David Cronenberg’s interests aren’t quite as explicitly psychosexual in nature as usual, as he turns instead to the cycles of damage, repression, and abuse that originate in the nuclear family. The film marks the beginning of his career as a significant formalist, though it’s also as raw and primal as anything he’s made. The pent-up emotional turmoil suggests at times what Bergman might’ve done with a horror film, and it features one of Cronenberg’s most audacious metaphors: a group of vengeful mutant children who’re conjured from the rage of a deeply troubled woman. This woman passes her psychic torment on to everyone even peripherally in her path, most devastatingly of all to her young daughter, who may soon begin to grow her own creatures, born of inescapable, inexpressible anger that’s provoked by the seemingly predestined trauma of life with family. Bowen


Invasion of the Body Snatchers

4. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)

Throughout Invasion of the Body Snatchers, one of the subtlest and most extraordinarily fluid of American horror films, Philip Kaufman crafts textured scenes, rich in emotional and object-centric tactility, that cause our heads to casually spin with expectation and dread. Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter fuse paranoia, eroticism, and flippancy to arrive at their own distinctly flakey yet intense genre-movie style. The filmmakers have gone out of their way to devise scenes which are set in places that have rarely hosted a horror-movie set piece before, such as a dry-cleaner’s, a book store, and the creepy swamp-colored spa that provides their film with one of its shock centerpieces. The soundtrack is particularly unnerving when we get a prolonged glimpse at how the pod people hatch out of the flowers blooming all over the city, which Kaufman stages as a simultaneous birth and rape. Bowen


The Wicker Man

3. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)

A film that’s become synonymous with British horror, The Wicker Man follows a conservative Christian policeman (Edward Woodward) seeking a missing girl on a Hebridean island inhabited by pagans. The first half has an (intentional) air of the faintly ridiculous about it, embodied equally by Christopher Lee’s gloriously campy portrayal of the cult’s leader and the life-on-the-island sequences that are Pythonesque in their absurdist look at culture clash. But the film’s impish wit and soft, Arcadian glow belie its cruel streak. The gathering clouds of unease building into a shocking third act that’s aesthetically and structurally reminiscent of the end of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, possibly the highest praise one can give to the conclusion of a horror film. Abimanyu Das


Don’t Look Now

2. Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

Don’t Look Now is driven by a crushing sense of emotional desolation. The phrase “psychic thriller,” which was used to market the film, is technically true, but misleading, given that psychics are normally used by directors as springboards for action set pieces or as agents for ushering forth the explicit arrival of ghosts. There are certainly ghosts in Don’t Look Now, and maybe even the kind that populate traditional horror stories, but the prevailing specters here are those that people come to know through disappointment or tragedy as allusions to things lost or desired, which have a way of suddenly opening mental portals to the past, and, in the case of this film and quite a bit of supernatural fiction, the future. Don’t Look Now suggests a ghost story that Faulkner may have written, as it offers characters who’re at the mercy of their streams of consciousness. There’s barely a present tense here at all, as it’s swallowed up by what’s already happened and what will happen. Bowen


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

Opening in utter darkness illuminated by sudden, dreadful flashes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre begins with a police report describing a violated corpse as “a grisly work of art,” a term that also applies perfectly to Tobe Hooper’s legendary grindhouse masterpiece. A rough-hewn American Gothic canvas, the film charts the trajectory of a batch of youngsters from a clammy van to the dangling hooks of an abbatoir run by a cannibalistic clan. Materializing in the middle of the horror genre’s most transgressive decade, this is a cacophony of piercing shrieks, metallic clanks, and roaring machinery that looks back to Psycho’s view of ingrown monsters even as it outdoes the older film in sheer, visceral impact. Snapshot of Vietnam-era outrage? Indictment of all-devouring capitalism? Blood-spattered redneck Theater of Cruelty? Yes to all, plus the screen’s most grueling portrait of mushrooming terror. Decades of sequels, remakes, and imitators can’t take away its scabrous power. Croce

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The Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now

These films show us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed.

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The Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: Universal Pictures

“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by some of the imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.

Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles below (all presently streaming on Netflix) have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson


Snowpiercer

10. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-hoo, 2014)

Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is an angry and bleak film, as well as an old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes genre entry concerned with passé niceties such as atmosphere and spatial coherence. The premise also has an inviting bluntness: A few years into the future, global warming slips out of control, and humankind inadvertently initiates an ice age in its attempt to correct it. Soon after, all that remains of humanity are the passengers of an ultra-equipped, self-sustaining train that suggests Noah’s Arc as a speeding elevated bullet. Having predictably learned nothing from their travails, the train’s passengers quickly assume the flawed social structure of the first world that’s recently ended, with the entitled haves exploiting the enraged have-nots. The film is most notable for its evolving visual concept: Each car takes one closer to a representation of the world as it presently works. The first few cars are rendered in the distancing apocalyptic hobo ax-and-sword aesthetic that’s been a cinema standard since at least the Mad Max films. But the latter cars are lit in expressionistically beautiful club-rave rainbow colors that reflect the escalating social privilege of a lost generation. Chuck Bowen


Midnight Special

9. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016)

With Mud and Take Shelter, writer-director Jeff Nichols has already used withholding narratives to weave distinctly Southern tales about fringe believers, survivalists who could also be seen as evangelists. Nichols was forthright about the motives of his protagonists, but cagey about whether their causes were worth believing in. Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) is another in Nichols’s lineage of would-be prophets, but no one here doubts the world-changing potential of the child’s visions. If in Midnight Special is, at its heart, a work of science fiction, it rolls out like a chase film. With the help of his childhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Alton’s father, Roy (Michael Shannon), has kidnapped the child from captivity at a compound run by a Branch Davidian-like cult that once counted Roy as a member. Given its twilit suburban adventures and encroaching security forces, the story exudes a superficially classical sensibility, recalling Starman and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Nichols has an easy mastery of pacing and tension, employing a churning sound design (and a pulsing score by David Wingo) that allows moments of occasionally bloody action to arrive with a frightening blast or a deep, quaking rumble of bass, and the film moves with purpose to its final destination. Christopher Gray


Elizabeth Harvest

8. Elizabeth Harvest (Sebastian Gutierrez, 2018)

The plot convolutions of Elizabeth Harvest conjoin with director Sebastian Gutierrez’s stylistic bravura—blasts of red and blue in Cale Finot’s cinematography that connote a spiritual as well as physical sense of ultraviolence—to create an incestuous atmosphere that’s reminiscent of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Henry is a memorable monster, played by Ciarán Hinds with a bravura mixture of smug entitlement and oily needfulness that’s weirdly and unexpectedly poignant. In one of the greatest mad-scientist speeches ever delivered by a character in a horror film, Henry explains that his cloned wife (Abbey Lee) is only real to him when he destroys her. This admission chillingly crystallizes the thin line, within the male gaze, between adoration and contempt. Bowen


Hardcore Henry

7. Hardcore Henry (Ilya Naishuller, 2015)

The film’s first-person perspective is so ingeniously sustained throughout the lean 96-minute running time that you’re liable to swat at your face when a man covered in steel and wielding a flamethrower sets Henry (Andrey Dementyev) on fire, or hold on to the edge of your seat when he battles the telekinetic warlord Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) atop a skyscraper from which a free fall seems inevitable. The film’s singular ambition is to immerse the viewer in the thick of a frenzied drive toward the promise of a lover’s touch and a few more minutes of life. Our aesthetic perception is linked to our perception of Henry himself, so that the film becomes a study of empathy through aesthetics. It’s not for nothing that Henry is made to have no voice, as Hardcore Henry’s unbelievably precise choreography of action seeks to tap into a universal feeling of powerlessness. Gonzalez


Mad Max

6. Mad Max (George Miller, 1979)

The Mad Max trilogy is the work of a talented virtuoso who blended seemingly every trope of every movie genre into a series of punk-rock action films. The plots, which are nearly irrelevant, are always similarly primitive even by the standards of low-budget genre films: In a bombed-out future version of the outback, a vicious gang pisses off a brilliant highway daredevil, Max (Mel Gibson), and stunning vehicular mayhem ensues. Though the second film, most commonly known in America as The Road Warrior, is often cited as the masterpiece of the series, the original Mad Max is still the most ferocious and subversive. The 1979 film most explicitly riffs on delinquent racing movies and the kinds of crudely effective 1970s horror movies that would sometimes show a family being violated in a prolonged fashion, and there are sequences in Mad Max that could be edited, probably with few seams, into, say, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Mad Max also has a distinctly Australian masculine tension that’s reminiscent of other outback-set classics such as Wake in Fright, as it’s concerned with the pronounced sexual repression and frustration of a predominantly male population that’s all dressed up in tight leather with little to do apart from mounting their bikes and revving up their big noisy engines. Bowen


Her

5. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)

Spike Jonze’s Her begins with a love letter—a misdirect. It’s a billet-doux by proxy, ghost-authored, dictated to a machine. We open on the wide-eyed mug of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), seeming to speak from the heart, recalling fondly a first love that proves, with the reveal of an incongruous anniversary, to belong to somebody else. So the “handwritten letters” of beautifulhandwrittenletters.com are merely approximations of the form: our near-future’s phantom memorandum. But what matters here is that the love is real. Theodore’s letters, in a sense the film’s emotional through line, are never less than deeply felt, swelling with earnest affection. That he’s talking through and to another can’t reduce the depth of feeling in the sentiments. The genius of Her is that it doesn’t ask you to believe in the truth of its speculative science fiction so much as it does the truth of its romance, which is to say that Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) means more as metaphor—for a hard-won connection, long-distance or otherwise remote—than as a prediction of future tech. Her is about “the modern condition,” but not, importantly, in the strictly satirical sense: It tells us less about how we live than how we love. Marsh


Back to the Future

4. Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1986)

Long before Robert Zemeckis re-envisioned the 1960s as the era America gave itself over to stupidity (to the delight of Rush Limbaugh’s dittoheads nationwide), he blasted the 1980s back into the 1950s with Back to the Future. Or, rather, he blasted the 1980s specifically for its return to a 1950s-reminiscent moral and political agenda. Looking back on it with the same sense of from-the-future assurance that informed the movie’s own creation, Back to the Future is a logistically beautiful but almost inhumanly perfect confluence of internal logic and external forces. It stands up on its own as a well-oiled, brilliantly edited example of new-school, Spielberg-cultivated thrill-craft, one that endures even now that its visual effects and haw-haw references to Pepsi Free and reruns seem as dated as full-service gas stations apparently did in 1985. Its schematic organization of what Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) need to accomplish and its steadily mounting series of mishaps demonstrating how they can go wrong represent probably the most carefully scripted blockbuster in Hollywood history, but the film’s real coup (and what separates it from the increasingly fluent pack of Spielberg knockoffs) is in how it subtly mocks the political pretensions of the era—not the 1950s, but rather the 1980s. Eric Henderson


The End of Evangelion

3. The End of Evangelion (Hideaki Anno, 1997)

When Hideaki Anno ended Neon Genesis Evangelion, his elaborate analogy for his own untreated depression, with a moment of calming, redemptive group therapy, the backlash he received from fans who wanted a cataclysmic climax was overwhelming. In response, Anno crafted this theatrical alternate ending, in which he brutally and unsparingly gave fans all the nihilistic chaos they could ever want. If the anime series’s finale was a psychological breakthrough, End of Evangelion is the relapse, an implosion of self-annihilating revulsion and anger rendered in cosmic terms. Religious, sci-fi, and psychosexual imagery intersect in chaotic, kaleidoscopic visions of personal and global hell, all passing through the shattered mind of the show’s child soldier protagonist. Its finale is the most fully annihilative visualization of the Rapture ever put to screen, a mass death rendered as cathartic release from the hell of existence that, in a parting act of cruelty, leaves the broken, suicidal protagonist alive to bear witness to oblivion. Jake Cole


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

Introverted nice guy Joel (Jim Carrey) hears of an experimental procedure to erase troubling memories, and dives right in when his impulsive girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), washes her brain clean of their love-shattered relationship. Joel’s memories go backward in time from the last gasp of their love to their initial spark, but there are sideways detours along the way that take him to infancy and memories of his first childhood humiliation. James Joyce might have applauded this Phil Dick-caustic/Gnostic rendition of his Nighttown from Ulysses, with Clementine as Joel’s face-changing Penelope/Molly Bloom. Joel attempts to fight the erasure in his own mind, and the film admits early on that it’s a fight he cannot win. That he keeps on fighting anyway is the crux of Eternal Sunshine, and a breakthrough for Charlie Kaufman—writing about the human condition more than questioning our lives as self-made fictions. The fantasies of the film are more “real” than anything he’d written before, because they define who we think we are. Joel rediscovers his love for Clementine through fantasy, which is to say through his clouded memories of her. Such things are precious, and Gondry revels in that world in all its fleeting, flickering, ever-mutating joys. Jeremiah Kipp


Total Recall

1. Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)

An imaginative expansion of the brisk Philip K. Dick short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” this film about fake memories and a real interplanetary crisis now stands redolent with nostalgia, both for its time, as well as for itself. Beneath its show of smoke and mirrors, mercenary babes, and treacherous holograms, Total Recall is a story about a man who must choose between two possible, contradictory realities. In one timeline, he’s an earthbound schmuck; in the far less likely one, he’s a hero who must save an oppressed people on a faraway planet. He can’t afford to waver, but it’s our privilege to do so. As viewers, we’re welcome to consider the persistent motif of walls collapsing, subterfuges dissolving, and rugs being pulled out from still more rugs. The film now exists in a twilight of an era in which factory-produced entertainment could still serve as a keyhole into a dimension of weird, through which we might glimpse the otherworldly, and contemplate fondling the third breast. Jaime Christley

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Interview: Kirsten Johnson on Expanding Time with Dick Johnson Is Dead

Johnson discusses how the omnipresence of cameras is adjusting our relationship to the concept of memory.

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Interview: Kirsten Johnson on Dick Johnson Is Dead and the Expansion of Time
Photo: Netflix

During a flight of cinematic fancy in her documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson reveals that the first movie she ever saw was Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. Perhaps it’s just a factoid, one seared into her brain based on how her childhood religion of Seventh Day Adventism forbid adherents from watching movies. But given how Johnson’s latest work cheekily tries to short circuit death by using technology to reanimate a body, maybe the film did more than merely “scandalize” her at a young age.

Johnson uses a full arsenal of artistic tools in Dick Johnson Is Dead to bridge contradictory, even paradoxical, ideas as her father slowly succumbs to dementia in reality. At the time of release, Dick Johnson is not, in fact, dead. For now, his death only exists inside the world of the film where he can collaborate with his daughter on exaggerated filmed scenarios of his demise. But when he does pass, the film will keep him alive in both the joyous and painful details of his declining health as well as in their participatory fantasies of life beyond earth.

It’s a complex illustration of cinema’s power to both memorialize and restore a person’s vitality, though the project never feels like an exercise in formalist iconoclasm. Kirsten Johnson leads with her empathy as a daughter and human in Dick Johnson Is Dead. As in her 2016 cinematic memoir Cameraperson, a self-portrait assembled from footage that she shot for other documentarians, Johnson’s curiosity and incisiveness as an image-maker and critical thinker serve to augment her vulnerability on open display.

I caught up with Johnson over the phone as she prepared for the worldwide release of Dick Johnson Is Dead on Netflix, a scale of distribution she found equally thrilling and anxiety-inducing. Our conversation covered the response to Cameraperson, how her teaching practice at NYU informs her work, as well as how she thinks the omnipresence of cameras is adjusting our relationship to the concept of memory.

What have the conversations with other craftspeople been like over the last five years after Cameraperson? Are other below-the-line artisans starting to see their own auteurist stamp in their collaborations?

There was just a flood of camerapeople who were like, “Ah, that was my idea, I’ve been dreaming of doing that!” There’s such a shared experience, we all put so much heart into this work. I know you do as a journalist, and everybody who makes a film—it takes more effort than we think it will. I think our efforts all feel unseen in certain ways. As a cameraperson, I was given this gift of a machine for searching, seeing, and observing. I do trace it in some ways back to both of my parents, but certainly my father. It wasn’t that he saw, he just expected there to be remarkable internal battles or conundrums inside of people. When he would ask questions, things would pour out of people. He’s the kind of person you see at a party, and someone’s in the corner telling him their life story. With Cameraperson, the sound people I’ve worked with a lot, I’ve spoken with both of them—Judy Karp and Wellington Bowler—about making things doing sound work. I’ve spoken with translators about doing movies about their jobs. So, yes, I would say absolutely, there’s a way in which everyone realizes how much is embedded in their work and that you can open it all up.

I don’t get the chance to interview craftspeople very often, but when I do, I love asking them if the Cameraperson thesis rings true for their own work.

Oh, is that true?! And people all respond, “Yeah, I’m there and there’s a lot going on.”

I actually get a pretty wide range of responses. The first person I tested it on was Frederick Elmes, frequent DP to David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch. He actually said he’d be offended if someone felt there was such a thing as “a Fred Elmes film.”

[laughs] That’s amazing. I feel like we should have a little hotline between you and me, and you just pass me that answer. Oh my god, I would love to hear all of those. That’s the thing where I just really believe in the aliveness of this, and that this is like a series of shared wonders. Cameraperson passed that to you, and then you’re passing it on in those conversations, and then they come back to me, I love it! That’s so cool. You just made my day.

Dick Johnson Is Dead

Behind the Scenes of Dick Johnson Is Dead. © Barbara Nitke/Netflix

You engage deeply with the nature of what cinema does in both Cameraperson and Dick Johnson Is Dead, but they never feel academic. You’re also an NYU professor, so how do you manage to find that sweet spot of overlap between theory and practice?

I love teaching, but I think of it more as we’re involved in excavation together with other people. The students I’ve had, and filming with so many different directors, has really encouraged me to be open to the idea that people are struggling with their own shame. The impulse to make and to create and to document is an impulsive struggle around shame. And that can be on the level of the shame we feel about the ongoing injustice of society.

I think we all feel this deep shame that the United States of America is such a racist project, and that we know it and then we forget it. Or that some of us have to live with it in ways that’s in our faces every moment, and then others of us can avoid it. There’s deep shame around that. So, sometimes we’re making films to address our position in collective shame. And then, other times, I think the shame is around the fact that some part of us is hidden, and we wish it to be revealed. Back to the sort of that unseen idea.

[There’s] an exercise we discovered at NYU which was pretty amazing. I asked two students to interview each other about their fears about their senior thesis project. Then, I asked each of them to cut the interview that they had filmed of the other person, and then to cut the interview of themselves. And then we played those back to back. The people who cut the interview of themselves, they left in what was smart, intellectual, and coherent. And they would cut out what was unsure or emotional. They basically made images of themselves that were pretty boring and uninteresting to watch, sort of self-righteous or pretentious. But then the people who had interviewed them would leave in a look in the eye that could not hide the fear. There was even one young woman who cut out a moment where she just stared at the camera, and you could just see all of her feeling. And she cut it out of her own edit of herself. I show students that we all have this internal shame that we struggle with, or we think we must represent something. We think we must represent our identity or our country, and [we fear] that we will fail this great block of people who’ve been failed so many times before by other people. Just shaking that around gives students just incredible liberty to go into new territory.

Nanfu Wang was a student of mine. When I look at what she’s done, it was obvious in class her willingness to reveal herself in her work. But it’s so remarkable, the documentarian she’s being. It wasn’t that she was my student. She was a co-conspirator in willingness to go into these areas of wondering. I have a lot of fun with the teaching because I’m encouraging people to take emotional risks, and in a certain way, I think it’s easy to ask other people to do that. And then I realized that I can keep doing that, I can keep trying to push the form, I can keep trying to take the emotional risks for myself. This film with my dad was deeply emotionally risky for me. But I was motivated by students as well as by filmmakers whose work I love.

There are a number of moments in Dick Johnson Is Dead where you’re operating the camera and a conversation with your father becomes so intense that feeling overpowers image. You drop the camera, leaving the audience to experience these poignant scenes from a messier angle. To your point about leaving in moments of potentially unflattering emotionality, are these shots an example of practicing what you teach?

Yeah, exactly. They expose your vulnerability, incapacity, impotency, doubt. I ask students to show me footage that they believe is the worst mistake they’ve made. Inevitably, it’ll be an incredibly emotionally powerful thing. Why they perceive it as their biggest mistake is because there was something really meaningful that was happening, and they blew it in some kind of way. It wasn’t in focus, or they weren’t steady, or they moved when they wish they hadn’t moved. Always with those pieces of footage, I can talk about the ways in which, wow, this is an incredibly powerful piece of footage. Yes, you may need to record new sound for it, and you can bring craft to it in post-production in the edit. But you actually have gold here, and why you perceive this as a mistake is that you’re so ashamed and sad that you couldn’t make something perfect of this really powerful thing. What I’m pushing against is that perfection is actually not what is possible as a human, nor what we trust. We trust the person who can’t quite focus it when bullets are flying or can’t quite focus it when the emotion is unexpected.

Then, when I became really interested in making this film, I thought about how I could play with that knowledge of that level of craft that happens in documentaries that you can’t control. “Can I create fictional situations in which I replicate that or push the thing that is the moment of failure up against the thing that is the moment of creation?” That was an active question and dynamic in making the film. We really conceived the process as this back and forth between failing and achieving, life and death, documented and invented, past and future.

In terms of the “heaven” scenes, they make such an intriguing blend of both heightening Dick’s real life and combining sublime cinematic flights of fancy like a Fred and Ginger musical number. Do these sequences reflect the way you think about the intersection of memory, fantasy and imagery?

Totally. I was looking for exuberance, life catharsis, euphoria, the pleasure of color. All of those things I kind of needed because my father’s world was shrinking. It felt like the dementia was making things smaller, but then I realized dementia is also expanding things, expanding time. Even though my father’s looping on these very small time periods—he’ll say a question and then say it again a minute later because he doesn’t know he just said it—cinema can get into that space and open it up. By doing slow-mo, we crack open that couple of seconds he smiles and turn it into three minutes. We enter his present time by doing slow-mo. That whole series of things is like, I have freedom here. None of us know what’s on the other side of death. None of us know what heaven is like. And yet we’re drawing on all of these imaginations that come from religion, that come from dreams, that come from cinema. How can we play with what’s palpable and what’s known, and engage it with what’s not yet known?

That was really active in the process of making it because we didn’t fully envision this. We just brought the elements together because I wanted it to function like a documentary shoot where it would come together in unexpected ways. We did the choreography, we thought about the costumes, we thought about the mask, we thought about the decor, but we didn’t know what my father would be able to do. Everything was sort of modular. We were prepared for different configurations, which makes it have that feeling of absurd lightness in some way.

I was reading elsewhere that you’ve said when the movie starts, your dad says he’s in heaven, no matter where his mental state might have been prior. Do you think there’s something to that word choice?

Absolutely. There was a moment when my mom, with her Alzheimer’s, said, “I really wonder what’s on the other side.” And it was the first time she had spoken like that. And I was like, “What do you mean, Mom? How are you feeling about it?” I was trying to engage her with this discussion about her wondering about dying. And then she looked at the placemat, turned it over, and she’s like, “Oh, look, there’s flowers on the other side!” I think each person’s dementia is different. I think it functions in relation to who they are. But the wondering they’re doing in their own mind about where they are, who they are, when will it end, am I safe, who’s taking care of me—those concerns often manifest in these metaphorical questions.

My father might wake up in the middle of the night and say to me, “When is this plane going to land? Are we headed south? When are we going home?” Those kinds of questions for me are definitely about a person wondering about death but also just about being in the literalness of the confusion of dementia. It’s like, “I am ungrounded, I am in an airplane, I don’t know where steady ground is.” All those plays with words that we can do with words themselves, or in a movie where an image can mean multiple things, I think that’s what’s happening with dementia often when someone is expressing these as questions of “what’s going to happen to me?” The loss of agency just creates all these question marks. What am I supposed to be doing? Where am I supposed to be? What do I do next?

You contextualize the making of the film in the decline and death of your mother, who you express regret over not capturing more fully in the vibrancy of her life. Given the widespread availability of high-quality cameras in phones and the cultural saturation of videos, do you think we could be nearing a time when that worry of losing someone’s likeness to time will disappear? Or does there need to be more intentionality behind capturing those images for them to count?

I do think memory is fragile and unstable and fragmentary. I think the act of seeing an image of a person is almost like a hallucination. You may know they’re not there, but they’re also there. You’re experiencing seeing and hearing them, which is different than imagining them. It functions in a different place in your brain. I’m totally fascinated by the fact that I have shot tens of thousands of images of my children. One of their dads, Boris, does an annual video where he strings together video moments from a year. We watch them every year, and there’s a total shock because I’ve forgotten almost all of the things that he’s filmed. My memory of what happened in the year is attached to the photos that I’ve shot, and then suddenly his videos bring different things to life. I think we’re becoming different kinds of humans.

I think, in some ways, the camera made me differently human. I can see different things with a camera. I think memory is nurtured like a garden by different forms of watering it: paying attention to it, reading things, avoiding certain things that we don’t want to remember. All of this image-making is, I think, augmenting and shifting our relationship to memory. I don’t think of it in binary terms, I don’t think it’s good or it’s bad. I do think it’s radically different, and that we’re changed by all of these things in ways we can’t imagine.

I’m on the verge of the Netflix premiere where this film’s going to go into hundreds of countries. The thought that this very private thing is going out into the world on this kind of scale, I have not yet experienced that as a human. That’s new territory. It’s like the way in which plane travel changed my life compared to my parents’ life. I’ve filmed in almost 90 countries. But now, suddenly, my father is going to be traveling into more countries than that in a day. I do think we don’t understand the dimensions of it. And I do wish for more images that express individual voice as opposed to more images that mimic or aspire to machine-crafted ideas about what it is to be human. I’m really interested in the specificity and the mistakes. I don’t edit my photos, for example. I hope someday my children will come across the series of photos that I took of them in a moment where some of the framing isn’t as pleasurable as others, but they can see a sequence of what they lived through.

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