Monthly Archives: August 2011

He Said/She Said Review: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
dir: Troy Nixey (USA, 2011)
MGS rating: 5.5
JM rating: 5.8

This “dialogue review” of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a joint-venture of White City Cinema and my wife Jillian’s feminist blog Exploring Feminisms. He Said/She Said will be a semi-regular feature on both our sites.

MGS: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was written and produced by our old buddy Guillermo del Toro but was directed by comic artist Troy Nixey. My first question to you is to what extent do you think it can be classified as a “Guillermo del Toro film”? In other words, where do you see GDT’s fingerprints on it and what do you think Nixey brings to the table? Also, how do you think the film might have been different had GDT actually directed it?

JM: Great question, and yes, I definitely do see GDT’s influence in this film, and that’s probably why I stuck it out for the while hour and a half. The first GDT calling card that stood out was featuring a child as the main character (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone and even possibly Geometria) and, further, telling the story through a child’s eyes. The difference between this film and his others is that with this film one of the adults begins to buy into the child’s fantastical story whereas in GDT’s own films the fantastical elements are usually exclusive to the child characters. A second aspect where I noticed GDT’s trademark – the creatures. The creature being a tooth fairy in Don’t be Afraid… is a direct throwback to the tooth fairies in Hellboy II. I know that we’ve talked about this many times, Mike, but to reiterate, GDT is in love with his monsters and makes them sympathetic (at least I know that we find them to be so), and in this film I don’t side with his monsters at all. One last GDT influence that I noticed was the blending of the child’s world (whether made up in his/her own mind or not) and the natural world. In this film, there’s a scene where Sally walks into a garden full of falling snow, but the snow almost seems to be floating around her. This is very reminiscent of the scene in Pan’s Labyrinth where Ofelia explores the labyrinth.

As for what Nixey brings, I think that answer can be summed up in one word: Hollywood. GDT brings in actors who are good for the part, not for their name (besides Ron Perlman). I am a fan of Guy Pearce but the film seemed beefed up with him and Holmes to make up for a bland and formulaic storyline, though I will say that the little girl who played Sally was great and I appreciated that she didn’t look like the typical American female child star. What kept me interested throughout the film was to seek out and identify those glimpses of GDT but having seen all of his movies, including Blade II, I feel that the overall direction of this film lacks the heart of a GDT project.

To answer your last question, I think that I’ve pretty much described what this film would be had he directed it but again there would have been more care paid to his creature-characters and more of a focus on quality as opposed to quantity – that is, the quantity of big name actors.

MGS: I agree that Guy Pearce was wasted. He should be getting the kind of roles that Brad Pitt, Viggo Mortenson and, now, Michael Fassbender are playing. He is just too good for this kind of thankless, one-note role. The Katie Holmes part had more substance but I couldn’t see past the “Katie Holmes-ness” of her performance, if you know what I mean.

You raise an excellent point about the creatures being more sympathetic in GDT’s own films. I suspect the fact that they aren’t depicted that way in this movie is one of the reasons he decided not to direct it himself and farmed it out to someone else instead. I don’t think he is capable of making a monster movie that doesn’t express a love of monsters! Also, it seems like GDT isn’t really interested in making “pure” horror films. The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth mix horror with the melodrama and war film genres and also have a lot of interesting things to say about history, politics, fascism and moral choices. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark on the other hand is just a simple ghost story – a kind of Pan’s Labyritnth-lite.

Speaking of the differences between del Toro and Nixey, something that bothered me about the visual style of this movie was the extensive use of moving camera. GDT loves to have frequent but subtle camera movements in his own movies; I think this lends them a sense of creeping dread and the feeling that he’s depicting a world that’s unstable. But Nixey’s use of elaborate crane shots was overkill. The camera was constantly swooping around the rooms of that mansion in such dramatic fashion that the movement ended up quickly losing its effectiveness.

But I would also like to say a few words in favor of the movie (I do after all think it’s slightly above average for a contemporary Hollywood horror film.) As you mentioned, Bailee Madison gives an exceptionally good performance as Sally. She conjures up and sustains extreme emotional states, such as terror and depression (as opposed to merely looking sad or scared), which child actors aren’t often asked to do, and she’s always believable. I also found the set design of the house impressively spooky. Finally, I would argue the best way to measure the success of any horror movie is in the effectiveness of its scares. I counted two good ones here: the opening scene where Mr. Blackwell obtains the teeth and the scene where Sally finds the monster under the covers of her bed.

Anything else you’d like to add?

JM: If I were to say anything in this film’s favor, it would be that GDT worked on it. Haha, only semi-kidding. But seriously, I did like Guy Pearce, though he wasn’t as sexy as he was in Ravenous.

MGS: Since you write a feminist blog I would like to know if you think Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which centers on the relationship between two female characters, lends itself in any way to a feminist reading.

JM: Well let me just remind you that there are many feminisms, and I don’t claim to have the definitive answer. I just have my answer. That being said, I do find it to be a little tiresome that the female adult character (played by Katie Holmes) is the one who begins to believe Sally and her character is emotional and nurturing, even though she doesn’t have a child of her own. The male adult character (Guy Pierce) is pragmatic and reasonable, and even though he is Sally’s father, he doesn’t believe her that there are little killer monsters in the basement. Though I hesitate to discuss too much about what this film isn’t, I will say that it would be refreshing to see the male character/father sensitive to his child’s needs. I think it plays too much off of the stereotype that the female characters are inherently mother-like and are more susceptible to accepting the world of the fantastic. In Devil’s Backbone, for example, GDT subverts this normative gender assumption by making Dr. Casares, the elderly male teacher, emotionally available to his students and he himself buys into magical theories.

MGS: Good point. You also just reminded me of the refreshingly original and touching relationship in Cronos between the little girl and her vampire grandfather. Del Toro’s own movies always have those unique touches that make them so endearing and put them in a league of their own.

I had a lot of fun doing this. We should do it again sometime with a movie we totally disagree on!

JM: Like the sex/rape scene in A History of Violence? We’ll keep those worms canned up for now.

Me, Guillermo del Toro and my wife Jillian at the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. City Lights (Chaplin)
2. In the City of Sylvia (Guerin)
3. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (Nixey)
4. Basket Case 2 (Henenlotter)
5. Salem’s Lot (Hooper)
6. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
7. Save the Green Planet (Jang)
8. Cat People (Tourneur)
9. The House of the Devil (West)
10. Dead Snow (Wirkola)

CIFF 2011 – Twenty Two Most Wanted!

With the start of the Chicago International Film Festival only six weeks away, it’s time for my annual wish list of films I’d most like to see turn up there. This is a combination of movies that have generated buzz at other festivals throughout the year, movies by favorite directors whose production status I’ve been following in the press, recommendations from friends and even a title or two that may be nothing more than rumor. In alphabetical order:

Arirang (Kim, S. Korea)

South Korea’s Kim Ki-duk directed an astonishing 12 feature films between 2000 and 2008. The last of these, Breath, belatedly received its U.S. premiere at Facets Multimedia earlier this year and suggested that Kim’s wellspring of creativity had run dry, an impression seemingly verified by the 3 year silence that’s followed it. Arirang, Kim’s latest, is apparently a one man show/pseudo-documentary in which Kim himself examines this impasse a la 8 1/2. This premiered at Cannes where its supposed “navel gazing” quality drove many viewers up the wall. I say bring it on!

The Assassin (Hou, Taiwan)

When I put this on my wish list of films I hoped would turn up at CIFF last year it was nothing more than a pipe dream. Since then, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s long rumored martial arts film actually did quietly begin production. Tadanobu Asano and Takeshi Kaneshiro have apparently joined a formidable cast that has long had Hou regulars Shu Qi and Chang Chen attached.

Bernie (Linklater, USA)

Richard Linklater has intriguingly described this as his version of Fargo – a quirky true crime tale set in his beloved native Texas. Jack Black (reuniting with Linklater for the first time since the excellent School of Rock), Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey star.

Carnage (Polanski, France/Germany)

Roman Polanski follows up his estimable The Ghost Writer with an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s Tony award winning play about a long night of drinking and fighting between two married couples brought together after a playground fight between their children. Polanski’s talent for shooting in confined spaces and the sterling cast (Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet and John C. Reilly) make this a mouth-watering prospect.

A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, Germany/Canada)

David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play about the birth of psychoanalysis, which is depicted as stemming from an imagined rivalry between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). As someone who thinks Cronenberg’s recent Mortensen collaborations (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) are his very best work, my expectations for this could not be higher.

The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea)

Another character-driven Hong Sang-soo comedy/drama that premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar where it was universally admired, begging the question of why it didn’t land in Official Competition. This one apparently deals with the relationship between a film professor and a film critic. Expect the usual witty merry-go-round of booze, sex and self-deceit.

The Devil’s Church (de Oliveira, Brazil/Portugal)

A year after working with CGI for the first time, the great Portugese director Manoel de Oliveira continues to stretch himself by travelling to Brazil to shoot his first film outside of Europe (and his 57th overall). The Devil’s Church is based on a Faustian-themed short story by Machado de Assis, widely considered Brazil’s greatest writer. Ricardo Trepa, Oliveira’s grandson and favorite leading man of late, stars. CIFF’s fondness for Oliveira makes this a good bet.

Faust (Sokurov, Germany/Russia)

Speaking of Faust . . . I’m on the fence about Russian miserabilist Aleksandr Sokurov whose films frequently astonish on a technical level but fail to stir the soul in the manner of his mentor Andrei Tarkovsky. But this Russian/German co-production looks promising – a new version of Faust with Fassbinder’s muse Hannah Schygulla in the Marguerite role.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Fincher, USA/Sweden)

English language remakes of recent foreign language films are almost always a bad idea but since the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is directed by David Fincher, we can assume it will be an exception. At the very least, Fincher, whose best work has featured dark, twisty narratives involving serial killings, expert use of CGI and Boolean logic that seemingly puts this project in his wheelhouse, can be counted on to push the material in an interesting direction.

Goodbye (Rasoulof, Iran)

According to reports out of Cannes Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof made this film under “semi-clandestine conditions” while awaiting sentencing following his highly publicized arrest and trial for “anti-regime propaganda” in 2010. Goodbye uses the story of the disbarment of a female lawyer to allegedly tackle the repression of Ahmadinejad’s Iran head-on.

The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong)

This made my wish list last year and, knowing Wong Kar-Wai’s glacial pace of shooting and editing (and re-shooting and re-editing), it could also make the list again next year. A film about the early years of Ip Man, best known as Bruce Lee’s kung-fu teacher, “built around one of the most exciting sets and fighting sequences that I have ever seen” according to Fortissimo Films chairman Michael Werner who came on board as associate producer earlier this year.

Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Miike, Japan)

Takashi Miike continues his recent trend of remaking chambara classics, this time in 3D, by taking a stab at Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri from 1962. But with Miike, you can always expect the unexpected, and this project boasts surprising collaborators like veteran art house producer Jeremy Thomas and A-list actor Koji Yakusho (the favorite leading man of Miike’s mentor Shohei Imamura and the star of Miike’s superb 13 Assassins).

Le Havre (Kaurismaki, Finland/France)

I’ve never really warmed to the deadpan humor of Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismaki whose “minimalist” films have always struck me as less than meets the eye. His latest, a supposedly sentimental tale of immigration politics centered on a French shoeshiner and an African refugee, was by far the most critically admired film at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Color me interested.

Hugo (Scorsese, USA/France)

Martin Scorsese throws his hat into the 3D ring with this Johnny Depp/Jude Law-starring children’s film about a little boy who lives inside the walls of a Paris metro station in the 1930s. This will obviously receive a super-wide release; if it does turn up at CIFF it will be as a sneak preview “Gala Presentation” (hopefully with cast and/or crew present).

In the Qing Dynasty (Jia, China)

Another improbable but intriguing-sounding concoction is the latest from Jia Zhangke, the important, formidably arty chronicler of China’s tumultuous recent history, who appears to be making his first big budget film with this historical epic. Produced by none other than Hong Kong gangster movie specialist Johnnie To.

J. Edgar (Eastwood, USA)

Clint Eastwood’s critical stock is at the lowest its been in some time following his poorly received (but in my humble opinion misunderstood) melodramas Invictus and Hereafter. Stakes are therefore even higher than they otherwise would be for this J. Edgar Hoover biopic scripted by Dustin Lance Black and starring Leonardo di Caprio and Armie Hammer. As with Hugo Cabret, this will only make it in as a Gala Presentation (not out of the question since this happened with Hereafter last year). Sure to make my CIFF wish list next year is the prolific Eastwood’s next film – a remake of A Star is Born starring . . . Beyonce?

Life Without Principle (To, Hong Kong)

This began life as a project titled Death of a Hostage when it started shooting (without a script) in 2008. Three years later, it’s finally complete and it sounds like Johnnie To’s most exciting in some time: a bank heist thriller starring the charismatic, enormously talented Lau Ching-Wan; the last collaboration between these two, 2007’s ingenious Mad Detective, was one of my favorite films of the last decade. Will Life Without Principle stack up? Is the title a reference to Thoreau? Is the above movie poster the coolest ever?

Night Fishing (Park/Park, S. Korea)

Park Chan-wook, the reigning innovator of the South Korean New Wave, caused a stir on the festival circuit earlier this year with this 30 minute horror short shot entirely on an iphone. This alone would justify the purchase of a ticket to one of CIFF’s notoriously erratic “Shorts Programs.”

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey)

Still photographer Nuri Bilge Ceylan made one of the great directorial debuts of the last decade with Distant, a deliberately paced, minimalist comedy about the growing estrangement between a professional photographer in Istanbul and his visiting country bumpkin cousin. If Ceylan’s subsequent films haven’t quite lived up to the promise of his debut, this film about a night in the life of a doctor living in the harsh title region (the gateway between Europe and Asia) should still be worth a look. Won the Grand Prix at Cannes.

A Separation (Farhadi, Iran)

Asghar Farhadi (Fireworks Wednesday, About Elly) is a CIFF veteran so one can only hope that this universally admired marital drama, which won three prizes in Berlin (including the Golden Bear), will turn up here – preferably as an in competition entry with multiple screenings.

This is Not a Film (Panahi/Mirtahmasb, Iran)

Like Mohammad Rasoulof, Jafar Panahi essentially made his latest film as a political prisoner in Iran. Co-directed by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, this documentary-style “diary” about the great director’s inability to work was smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick buried inside of a cake. The more attention that’s brought to the tragic plight of Rasoulof and Panahi the better.

The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzky, Hungary)

Hungary’s Bela Tarr took home the Best Director award in Berlin for this, his acclaimed final film. The premise is a fictionalized account of what happened to the horse Friedrich Nietzsche saw being whipped in Turin a month before the philosopher was diagnosed with the mental illness that left him bedridden for the rest of his life. Tarr himself has described this as his “most radical” work, a daunting claim from the uncompromising, austere maestro responsible for the seven and a half hour Satantango. I was fortunate to see Bela Tarr bring The Werckmeister Harmonies to CIFF in person in 2000. One can only hope he’ll see fit to do so again with this swan song.

The Official Website for The Catastrophe Has Launched

Production on my new short film The Catastrophe wrapped last Thursday morning. We are already deep into post-production in hopes of making the late deadline for the Sundance Film Festival next month. We have just launched an official website for the movie featuring a ton of content. New updates are being made daily so check back often:

The Catastrophe website

My Student Tomato-Meter

In the past three years that I’ve been teaching film history and aesthetics classes at the college level, I have typically given my students a survey on the last day of class asking them to rate each of the films they’ve seen on a scale of 1 to 10. I’ve done this out of curiosity more than anything; it can be maddeningly hard to predict how first and second year college students, most of whom haven’t seen movies made before they were born or outside of the United States, will respond to watching classic and important contemporary films. I tell them that signing the survey is optional and that giving a movie a low rating doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t show it in future classes.

Here are the aggregated results of all the surveys I’ve given to all of my students. The fact that only one movie has been “certified rotten” (i.e., scored below a 5.0) is, I think, pretty astonishing and speaks to how open-minded and attentive young people can be when properly introduced to the history of cinema. (Having said all that, the fact that The Searchers only has a rating of 6.8 is like a knife in my heart – some of these kids have no taste!)

The results are presented in chronological order:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1920) – 5.9
Nosferatu (Murnau, Germany, 1922) – 6.4
Our Hospitality (Keaton, USA, 1923) – 8.2
Sherlock Jr. (Keaton, USA, 1924) – 7.9
Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Soviet Union, 1925) – 5.4
Metropolis (Lang, Germany, 1927) – 7.8
Sunrise (Murnau, USA, 1927) – 7.2
Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, Soviet Union, 1929) – 5.5
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, France, 1929) – 7.4
L’age d’Or (Bunuel, France, 1930) – 6.2
Earth (Dovzhenko, Soviet Union, 1930) – 3.2
M (Lang, Germany, 1931) – 8.2
L’atalante (Vigo, France, 1934) – 6.2
The Awful Truth (McCarey, USA, 1937) – 8.4
Grand Illusion (Renoir, France, 1937) – 7.3
Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, USA, 1938) – 8.4
The Rules of the Game (Renoir, France, 1939) – 7.0
Citizen Kane (Welles, USA, 1941) – 8.2
How Green Was My Valley (Ford, USA, 1941) – 6.8
The Lady Eve (Sturges, USA, 1941) – 8.1
Casablanca (Curtiz, USA, 1942) – 7.6
Cat People (Tourneur, USA, 1942) – 5.5
Double Indemnity (Wilder, USA, 1944) – 8.0
To Have and Have Not (Hawks, USA, 1944) – 7.5
Brief Encounter (Lean, England, 1945) – 8.6
Detour (Ulmer, USA, 1945) – 7.2
Rome, Open City (Rossellini, Italy, 1945) – 6.8
The Big Sleep (Hawks, USA, 1946) – 7.0
My Darling Clementine (Ford, USA, 1946) – 7.3
The Lady from Shanghai (Welles, USA, 1947) – 8.0
Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947) – 7.4
Bicycle Thieves (de Sica, Italy 1948) – 7.8
Pursued (Walsh, USA, 1948) – 7.0
White Heat (Walsh, USA, 1949) – 8.3
Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, USA, 1953) – 7.8
Tokyo Story (Ozu, Japan, 1953) – 6.7
Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953) – 6.8
Rear Window (Hitchcock, USA, 1954) – 8.8
Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1954) – 6.0
Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Japan, 1954) – 8.8
Pather Panchali (Ray, India, 1955) – 6.4
Aparajito (Ray, India, 1956) – 6.6
A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956) – 8.0
The Searchers (Ford, USA, 1956) – 6.8
Touch of Evil (Welles, USA, 1958) – 8.0
Vertigo (Hitchcock, USA, 1958) – 9.2
Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, France/Japan, 1959) – 6.8
North By Northwest (Hitchcock, USA, 1959) – 8.7
Pickpocket (Bresson, France, 1959) – 7.3
Rio Bravo (Hawks, USA, 1959) – 8.0
Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959) – 9.2
Breathless (Godard, France, 1960) – 7.6
Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960) – 8.8
Le Doulos (Melville, France, 1962) – 7.4
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, USA, 1962) – 8.5
8 1/2 (Fellini, Italy, 1963) – 6.5
Le Samourai (Melville, France, 1967) – 8.4
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman, USA, 1971) – 7.0
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, Germany, 1973) – 8.1
The Long Goodbye (Altman, USA, 1973) – 7.6
Chinatown (Polanski, USA, 1974) – 8.0
Annie Hall (Allen, USA, 1977) – 5.6
Days of Heaven (Malick, USA, 1978) – 7.1
Raging Bull (Scorsese, USA, 1980) – 8.8
The Thin Blue Line (Morris, USA, 1988) – 7.7
The Player (Altman, USA, 1992) – 7.5
Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994) – 7.8
The Bird People in China (Miike, Japan/China, 1998) – 6.6
Audition (Miike, Japan, 1999) – 7.9
Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999) – 5.4
Ravenous (Bird, UK/USA, 1999) – 8.4
The Devil’s Backbone (del Toro, Spain/Mexico, 2001) – 8.7
The Tracker (de Heer, Australia, 2002) – 7.7
Save the Green Planet (Jang, S. Korea, 2003) – 7.5
Grizzly Man (Herzog, USA, 2004) – 8.1
Moolade (Sembene, Senegal/Burkina Faso, 2004) – 7.8
Offside (Panahi, Iran, 2006) – 7.4
Zodiac (Fincher, USA, 2007) – 9.0

And, in case you were wondering, here are the top ten highest rated films:

10. Brief Encounter (Lean, 1945) – 8.6
7. North By Northwest (Hitchcock, 1959) – 8.7
7. The Devil’s Backbone (del Toro, 2002) – 8.7
4. Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980) 8.8
4. Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954) – 8.8
4. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954) – 8.8
4. Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) – 8.8
3. Zodiac (Fincher, 2007) – 9.0
1. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, 1959) – 9.2
1. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1959) – 9.2

So, what, if anything, can be gleaned from these results? For one thing, I think the films with the highest ratings tend to be the ones that are most similar to the kinds of films with which the students are already familiar. For instance, plot-driven genre films (especially suspense/thrillers and comedies) tend to do particularly well. The Seven Samurai? Great action movie. Brief Encounter? Dude, it’s like The Notebook of the 1940s.

I hasten to add however that this doesn’t necessarily mean the highest rated movies were the individual favorites of most of the voters. All it really means is that the films rated 8.0 and above tend to be the ones that no one didn’t like. Conversely, a lot of films that have scored in the 5.5 to 6.9 range (L’age d’Or, Man with the Movie Camera, Tokyo Story, 8 1/2, Hiroshima Mon Amour, etc.) are movies that I have been specifically told were among the greatest movies ever seen by individual students. It’s just that their enthusiastic votes of 10 were frequently counterbalanced by an equal number of low votes. In the end, I’ve found that the films that produce these “mixed responses” tend to also be the ones that provoke the best class discussion.

As for Earth? I’m sorry, Mr. Dovzhenko, but I will try again someday . . .

Filmmaker Interview: Monte Hellman

2011 has already seen an intriguing share of idiosyncratic and highly personal American movies coming from all directions – from the made-for-television (Mildred Pierce) to the animated (Rango) to the experimental (Shoals) to the works of high profile Hollywood auteurs on scales both both large (The Tree of Life) and small (Midnight in Paris). However, no American film has impressed me as much as Road to Nowhere, the new mind-bending neo-noir from legendary director Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter).

Road to Nowhere is Hellman’s welcome return to feature filmmaking after a 21-year hiatus. It tells the story of the making of a movie, a true crime thriller also called Road to Nowhere, in which multiple planes of reality continually intersect – an intellectually provocative “meta” conceit that is always perfectly balanced by Hellman’s overall mood of romantic longing and a cast of terrific, highly charged performers led by the soulful, exquisitely nuanced Shannyn Sossamon.

Road to Nowhere recently ended its theatrical run at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago but will be released next week on DVD and blu-ray. In many ways it is a film ideally suited for home video, where individual scenes and shots can be paused, studied and endlessly re-watched. And besides, it also cheekily begins with a character watching the movie-within-the-movie on a laptop computer, an image guaranteed to blow the mind of anyone who also first views it that way. For those who have not yet seen it, I can heartily recommend a “blind buy.”

I recently interviewed Hellman about his new film:

MGS: As someone born and raised in North Carolina, I’d like to start by saying I’ve never seen my home state look so beautiful in a movie. It was breathtaking to see the backdrops of those green mountains and low-hanging clouds on the big screen. How did you find the locations and how did you manage to capture them with such painterly beauty?

MH: We had a great local location manager, Michael Bigham, who led us to some amazing places, as well as secured permissions to shoot. The capturing was the work of our brilliant DP, Josep Civit.

MGS: Road to Nowhere has all of the elements that we associate with film noir – the archetypal characters, the mystery plot, the nocturnal settings, etc. – and yet I think the real pleasures of the film lie outside the realm of following a “story” in the traditional sense. Do you think it is possible to make a conventional movie mystery in the manner of, say, an Alfred Hitchcock or a Howard Hawks today?

MH: The only thing preventing it is the lack of a Cary Grant or James Stewart. (In Road to Nowhere Cliff De Young plays a movie star named “Cary Stewart”. – MGS)

MGS: When Mitch Haven, the director of the movie-within-the-movie, says that he won’t cast stars just in order to raise the budget, he seems very idealistic. How much do you identify with this point of view?

MH: I’ve said the same thing many times, but I’ve never had the chance to test my resolve.

MGS: Shannyn Sossamon’s dual performance as the actress in the movie and the woman her character is based on is phenomenal. I think she deserves to be a big star (and probably would already have been had she been born in an earlier era). How did you find her?

MH: Steve Gaydos saw her reading lines with another actor in a restaurant. He thought they were students, but that she looked the part. He asked her to call me, and was surprised when the call came from her manager. He had no idea she’d starred in so many movies.

MGS: I’ve read that the actors were responsible for coming up with a lot of their own dialogue in the film. How exactly did this process work?

MH: It wasn’t a lot of dialogue, but the few lines they did come up with were, to quote Jimmy Durante, “cherce.” They would sometimes vary a line or two after multiple takes, just to keep it fresh.

MGS: You shot this movie on the Canon 5D, an incredibly small and lightweight digital camera. How different would the film have been if you had shot it on 35mm?

MH: I don’t know that the finished product would have been different, just more difficult to obtain. The camera made it possible to shoot in tight quarters that would normally have involved shooting on a set, or knocking out a wall.

MGS: Thanks and best of luck with the film.

Road to Nowhere Rating: 8.4

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. My Winnipeg (Maddin)
2. Roxie Hart (Wellman)
3. Intentions of Murder (Imamura)
4. Troll 2 (Fragasso)
5. Road to Nowhere (Hellman)
6. Deathdream (Clark)
7. 13 Assassins (Miike)
8. A Girl Cut in Two (Chabrol)
9. The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (Kuleshov)
10. Boy (Oshima)

The Secret History of Chicago Movies: The Hearts of Age

“I warn you, Jedediah, you’re not gonna like it in Chicago. The wind comes howling in off the lake and gosh only knows if they ever heard of lobster Newburg.”

– Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, 1941

In 1934, seven years before he set the film world on fire with Citizen Kane, a nineteen-year old Orson Welles made his proper directorial debut with The Hearts of Age, an experimental short shot during downtime while he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. Ostensibly a parody of classic avant-garde movies he had seen while on trips to New York City (in particular Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou), the seeds of Welles’ visionary genius are already evident in this formative work; it is yet one more example of a fascinating film, and the story of its making, that are both rooted in Chicago and yet too little known.

Young Mr. Welles shot The Hearts of Age entirely in suburban Woodstock, Illinois, on the campus of the Todd School for Boys where he had graduated from high school three years earlier. Welles was living in Chicago at the time but frequently returned to Highland Park to direct theatrical productions for the Todd School. It was during one such trip that he made The Hearts of Age with a team of close friends including producer/co-director/cinematographer William Vance and actors Paul Edgerton and Virginia Nicholson (also his future bride).

While the resulting eight minute short film is unquestionably the work of an amateur, fans of Welles’ feature films should find it especially interesting; the entire movie relies on rapid-fire montage editing, which Welles would eschew in his early features a few years later in favor of the deep-focus/long take style so beloved by the French critic Andre Bazin. Intriguingly, Welles would return to montage-based filmmaking towards the end of his life, primarily out of necessity due to budgetary constraints. From The Hearts of Age to F for Fake nearly forty years later, Welles’ film career truly came full circle.

The Hearts of Age begins with shots of a well-dressed woman (Nicholson) wearing old age make-up sitting atop a giant bell on the second story of an anonymous-looking building. On the first floor below her, a man in blackface and Colonial dress (Edgerton) pulls a rope that rings the bell. At one point, the woman waves her umbrella at the man and seems to chide him into ringing it harder. It is impossible to miss the disturbing psychosexual implications while watching the woman pleasurably rocking back and forth astride the bell with what appears to be a black servant toiling under her. But the ringing of the bell also seems to have an unintended consequence: it brings a series of strange-looking characters out of a door on the floor above the woman, all of whom acknowledge her as they walk past her on a nearby fire escape. One of these passers-by is a sinister-looking dandy (Welles), also wearing old age make-up, who repeatedly passes the woman and politely tips his top hat to her each time in the process.

Then things get really weird: the man in blackface hangs himself and we see shots of a gravestone with a beckoning hand superimposed over it and shots of a human skull in negative (à la Nosferatu). The sinister-looking dandy enters a room holding a candelabrum. He sits down at a piano and begins to play only to find that one or more of the keys don’t appear to be working properly. The old man, whom the viewer now can infer is Death, opens the piano to find the lifeless body of the woman inside. The film ends with Death holding up a series of gravestone-shaped title cards reading: “SLEEPING / AT REST / IN PEACE / WITH THE LORD / AMEN.”

It is not known when or even if The Hearts of Age was screened in the years immediately following its production. It was certainly an “unknown film” for decades. In the late 1960s it was unearthed by film critic and future Welles biographer Joseph McBride who discovered a 16mm print in the William Vance collection of the Greenwich, Connecticut Public Library. McBride published an article in the spring 1970 issue of Film Quarterly titled “Welles Before Kane” covering both The Hearts of Age and another Welles short, the lost Too Much Johnson. In McBride’s excellent bio What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? (The University of Kentucky Press, 2006) he writes, “Welles seemed bemused and somewhat irritated by the discovery . . .” before quoting Welles’ longtime cinematographer Gary Graver: “Orson kept saying, ‘Why did Joe have to discover that film?’”

In This is Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich’s indispensable book-length interview with Welles, the great director claims that The Hearts of Age was nothing more than “Sunday afternoon fun out on the lawn” and “a send up.” Of course it is entirely possible that Welles did not originally intend the film to be a light-hearted parody of the avant-garde but rather an earnest attempt to work in a mode that he had seen and admired as a young man – and his later comments may have been made defensively in hindsight. But if Old Mr. Welles was embarrassed by The Hearts of Age, he needn’t have been. Like the early sketches of a master painter, the film in many ways points the way towards the greatness that would come (in particular in Welles’ use of elaborate make-up and in how he blends techniques gleaned from the German Expressionist and Soviet Montage movements), which makes it an invaluable piece of the Orson Welles puzzle when viewed today.

The sole existing print of The Hearts of Age has been deposited with and preserved by The Library of Congress and is also readily available on DVD (featuring an excellent acoustic guitar by one Larry Morotta). Yet in spite of Orson Welles’ reputation as one of the greatest directors of all time, it seems that even Chicago-area movie lovers are unaware of his local filmmaking roots.

The Hearts of Age is available on Kino Video’s essential DVD compilation Avant Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and ’30s featuring an excellent acoustic guitar score by Larry Morotta. You can also view it on YouTube here:

A Silent American Cinema Primer, pt. 2

A continuation of last week’s list of essential silent American films. The thirteen titles listed here begin with Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven from 1927 and continue through F.W. Murnau’s late-silent swan song, the Robert Flaherty co-directed Tabu: A Story of the South Seas from 1931.

In chronological order:

7th Heaven (Borzage, 1927)

Frank Borzage’s best-loved film details the touching romance between Parisian sewer worker Chico (Charles Farrell) and waifish prostitute Diane (Janet Gaynor), unforgettably set against the outbreak of World War I. Borzage believed in romantic love as a kind of transcendental force and nothing, not even death, could keep his lovers apart. Borzage’s sense of the spiritual aspect of love is conveyed nowhere more memorably than in the remarkable crane shots that follow the lovers in 7th Heaven up seven full flights of stairs to reach Chico’s garret apartment.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau, 1927)

William Fox brought German Expressionist master F.W. Murnau to Hollywood in 1926 and gave him carte blanche to create this masterpiece, one of the most artistically ambitious silent films. The story is a simple “folk tale” about redemption concerning a farmer who very nearly murders his wife after being seduced by a wicked city girl. The low-key lighting and elaborate tracking shots changed the way films in Hollywood were made overnight (neither Frank Borzage nor John Ford would ever be the same again). One of the most influential films of all time and a kind of Citizen Kane for the silent era.

The Unknown (Browning, 1927)

Tod Browning is best known today for early sound-era horror classics like Dracula and Freaks but I think this dark and sinister tale of a love triangle set in a traveling circus represents the high point of his entire career; Joan Crawford (young and dishy) is the daughter of a circus owner who is torn between the affections of an armless(!) knife thrower (Lon Chaney) and the circus strongman (Norman Kerry). This singularly grotesque wonder unfolds with the terrible illogic of a nightmare and remains for my money the best of all silent American horror films.

The Crowd (Vidor, 1928)

King Vidor was the king of Hollywood following the boffo box office of The Big Parade and he admirably used that clout to realize this downbeat story of the dark side of the American dream: John Sims (James Murray) was born on the fourth of July in the year 1900 and dreamed of becoming President of the United States. Instead he ends up an anonymous office drone in a very impersonal New York City, which Vidor relates in a series of stunning (and hugely influential) tableau images. “The crowd laughs with you always but it will cry with you for only a day.”

The Docks of New York (von Sternberg, 1928)

Arguably Josef von Sternberg’s greatest film, this ravishingly photographed tone poem tells the story of a virile stoker (George Bancroft) who is tempted to give up his love ’em and leave ’em ways after saving the life of a suicidal prostitute (the revelatory Betty Compson). This sublime romantic melodrama is perfectly complimented by von Sternberg’s amazingly atmospheric mise-en-scene, which captures New York City’s dock-front milieu with an exquisite interplay of light, shadow and fog.

A Girl in Every Port (Hawks, 1928)

Louise Brooks’ most well-known American film is also Howard Hawks’ first notable directorial effort, although she is given a relatively thankless role as the “love interest” in what is essentially a homoerotic comedy about the adventures of two brawling sailors played by Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong. Nevertheless this is unmissable as an early example of the same plot, themes and even dialogue that the mighty Hawks would continue to rework for the rest of his lengthy career.

Lonesome (Fejos, 1928)

Paul Fejos’ unjustly under-seen classic is a kind of smaller-scale version of The Crowd – though arguably an even better film. It begins by intercutting between the workday of a man who operates a punch press (Glenn Tryon) and a woman who works as a switchboard operator (Barbara Kent) in New York City. The two narrative strands become intertwined when these lonely people meet by chance at Coney Island and share a night of magic and romance. Tragically, they find themselves separated and realize that, since they never even learned one another’s names, they may never meet again. The plot is simple but the execution is passionate, capturing some universal and timeless truths about urban living.

The Man Who Laughs (Leni, 1928)

Director Paul Leni (Waxworks) and star Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) were major players and collaborators in the silent German cinema before migrating to Hollywood where they re-teamed for this influential Expressionist take on Victor Hugo’s novel. The plot concerns Gwynplaine (Veidt), the son of a Lord in 17th century England who, due to the sins of his father, is denied by King James II of the title that should be his birthright and has a hideous permanent smile carved into his face instead. He ends up becoming a popular stage performer (where his disfigurement is a source of morbid curiosity), but one day his past comes back to haunt him. This is similar to earlier literary adaptations/historical epics made by Universal like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, only it has the virtue of being directed by a real director; Leni, who started out as a set designer, makes the “period” truly come alive in this melodramatic quasi-horror gem.

The Wind (Sjostrom, 1928)

Letty (Lillian Gish in one of her finest performances) is a young woman who moves from the East to live with relatives in Texas. Once she arrives she finds that she must contend with a harsh, arid landscape, sinks into a depression and marries a man she doesn’t love (handsome Lars Hanson). The wind that is constantly swirling and blowing the sand into the air is a perfect metaphor for characters whose hearts are in tumult. The climactic sandstorm (shot, like the rest of the film, on location in the Mojave desert) is a thrilling piece of cinema, one of the highlights of the entire silent era.

Lucky Star (Borzage, 1929)

My personal favorite Frank Borzage film is this late silent masterpiece about a love triangle between farm girl Janet Gaynor and two World War I veterans – the duplicitous Guinn “Big Boy” Williams and nice guy Charles Farrell (whose war wounds have confined him to a wheelchair). Gaynor and Farrell made many films together and more often than not her fabulous acting is the point of interest. Here, Farrell is a revelation as a good-hearted man whose attempts to come to terms with his disability are heartbreaking. But, this being a Borzage film, the rural farmhouse setting is turned into a mystical, impressionist dream place where miracles can happen – and you’ll be very glad that they do. Originally released in a part talkie/part silent version, the lone print that survives today is completely silent and probably all the better for it.

City Girl (Murnau, 1930)

F.W. Murnau’s final Hollywood movie was lost until the early 1970s, then seriously critically reappraised when excellent quality DVD and blu-ray versions appeared in the 21st century. The film charts the relationship between a young wheat farmer (Charles Farrell) and his city girl bride (Mary Duncan) through blissful courtship, disillusion with meddling in-laws and the austerity of farm life and, ultimately, hard-won and believable reconciliation. As with all of Murnau’s best work, documentary realism is combined with breathtaking and poetic flights of fancy: Farrell and Duncan’s “run through the wheat” is probably my favorite 30 seconds in any movie ever.

City Lights (Chaplin, 1931)

Charlie Chaplin had more success than any of the silent clowns in transitioning to the sound era – in part because he delayed doing so for as long as possible. City Lights was his last true silent and the penultimate outing of his beloved “Little Tramp” character. Here, the Tramp falls in love with a poor, blind flower girl who mistakenly believes him to be a rich man. Alternately funny and poignant in the best Chaplin tradition, this film also provides the best example of Chaplin’s still relatively unheralded genius as filmmaker: the only close-ups that occur in the entire film are in the final moments, which make them all the more impacting.

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (Murnau/Flaherty, 1931)

F.W. Murnau teamed up with Robert (Nanook of the North) Flaherty for this independently produced, ethnographic excursion into the lives of native Tahitians. The documentary-minded Flaherty abandoned the project early, leaving Murnau the Romantic Artist to finish it on his own. And it’s a good thing he did: the story of a doomed romance between a fisherman and a young woman deemed “taboo” by the island’s Old Warrior in deference to the Gods – an exotic version of the Romeo and Juliet story – is a fitting epitaph for Murnau (who tragically died in a car accident on the way to the premiere) as well as the entire silent era. The film’s visually stunning images and Paradise / Paradise Lost structure would influence everything from Shohei Imamura’s Profound Desires of the Gods to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The French (Klein)
2. A Fugitive from the Past (Uchida)
3. Floating Clouds (Naruse)
4. Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (Shimazu)
5. The Ornamental Hairpin (Shimizu)
6. Everything Must Go (Rush)
7. Citizen Kane (Welles)
8. Rango (Verbinski)
9. CIMM Fest Shorts Program A (Various)
10. The Masseurs and a Woman (Shimizu)

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