1. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
2. Some Came Running (Minnelli)
3. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene)
4. The Naked Spur (Mann)
5. Save the Green Planet (Jang)
6. The Revenant (Prior)
7. May (McKee)
8. Cosmopolis (Cronenberg)
9. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
10. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
Monthly Archives: August 2012
1. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
Not to turn this place into a music video review joint or anything but I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t post my thoughts on Duquesne Whistle, the video for Bob Dylan’s newest single, which premiered exclusively on the website of The Guardian this past Tuesday. The Nash Edgerton-directed video has come in for much criticism from Dylan fans on social networking sites and internet message boards, most of it focused on the clip’s supposed “shocking violence” (thanks a lot, Rolling Stone!), while some others have expressed bewilderment at the allegedly confounding narrative and/or irrelevance to the song’s theme.
To address these criticisms in reverse order of ridiculousness: first off, the violence in this video barely surpasses the G-rated mark. A man is hit three times in the knee with a baseball bat and then punched twice in the face, causing a bloody nose. That’s it. Journalists who have drawn comparisons to Goodfellas and Tarantino are laughably off the mark; there is way more violence to be found in any cop drama on U.S. network television any night of the week. As far as the video’s imagery not “matching up” with the theme of the song, shouldn’t this be considered a good thing? Okay, this isn’t a work of art along the lines of Vardeldur (Edgerton is, after all, a stunt man, not an acclaimed experimental filmmaker). But I thought everyone knew that the worst music videos were those that attempted to literalize a song’s lyrics. Watch or watch again Paul Schrader’s truly cringe-inducing video for Tight Connection to My Heart to see what I mean. (Just make sure to hold onto your powder blue wig!) Honestly, what the hell were people expecting? A bunch of sepia-tinted shots of old trains?
But to get down to the real meat and potatoes of this video, the content of this thing is really not that bizarre. On the contrary, it actually makes perfect sense and I can’t believe the simple and lighthearted theme has seemingly eluded everyone who has written about it so far. The video for Duquesne Whistle is a deconstruction of the conventions of the romantic comedy genre. The “rom-com,” whether we’re talking about The Graduate, Say Anything, Chungking Express or Amelie, has long been predicated on the notion that its protagonists exhibit behavior that may look cute and charming in a movie (e.g., blasting a boombox outside of someone’s window, breaking into their apartment to rearrange their furniture, etc.) but that, in the real world, would come off as positively stalker-ish. Duquesne Whistle is nothing more or less than a humorous illustration of what the real world consequences of this behavior would be; thus we see an annoying hipster-stalker’s romantic shenanigans leading to him getting sprayed with mace, arrested and beaten up. Okay, so what does this any of this have to do with Bob Dylan you might ask? The video’s “love stalker” plot is intercut with shots of Dylan strutting around the streets of downtown Los Angeles, hilariously fronting a bad-ass, multi-ethnic posse, a “don’t fuck with me” look in his eye. Edgerton’s use of parallel editing invites us to see the stalker’s relationship to his crush as a metaphor for the relationship between that of a stalker-fan and the Voice of Every Generation (TM). This connection is made implicit at the video’s beginning (a glimpse of a billboard featuring John Lennon, who was, of course, shot by a “fan”) and end (Dylan and Co. stepping over the unconscious hipster-stalker without so much as batting an eye).
I should also point out that Duquesne Whistle bears an uncanny similarity to the plot and theme of the indie feature Love Stalker, which, in an amazing coincidence, will be returning to Chicago’s Portage Theater for a week-long run beginning next Friday, September 7th. Love Stalker also deconstructs the conventions of the romantic comedy genre by telling the story of Pete (co-writer/director Matt Glasson), a thirty-something player who gets a taste of his own medicine when he falls for and is subsequently dumped by Stephanie (Rachel Chapman), a beautiful relationship advice columnist. I interviewed the filmmaking team behind Love Stalker (Glasson and co-writer director Bowls MacLean) earlier this year when it made its Chicago debut as a one-off screening at the Portage. Any of my students who attend any of the upcoming Love Stalker screenings will receive TWENTY points extra credit if they write a one to two page response paper about the movie. Please note that you must save your ticket stub from the Portage and staple it to your paper in order to receive credit. Bonus points if you also compare and contrast it to Duquesne Whistle.
UPDATE: I will be introducing the 8pm screening of Love Stalker on Friday, September 7 and conducting a Q&A with the filmmakers afterwards. Come on out and buy me a green drink!
Ticket info for Love Stalker at the Portage can be found here: www.lovestalker.com
Duquesne Whistle can be viewed here: Duquesne Whistle
dir. David Cronenberg, 2012, Canada/France
The bottom line: long live the new New Flesh!
Now playing at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema is Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of the acclaimed 2003 novel by Don DeLillo. Cosmopolis premiered to mixed reviews at the Cannes Film Festival in May, proving even more divisive than Cronenberg’s previous movie, 2011’s superb A Dangerous Method, which had premiered to mixed reviews at the Venice International Film Festival last fall. Both films have been derided by critics for being too “talky” and “static,” and for failing to successfully translate their literary source material to the screen (A Dangerous Method was based on a play by Christopher Hampton). These criticisms however are incredibly misguided; Cosmopolis, like A Dangerous Method, is a profoundly cinematic film that just so happens to be about language. Where Cronenberg’s previous film illustrated the therapeutic possibilities of the act of talking itself (via Sigmund Freud’s revolutionary “talking cure” in the early twentieth century), the new film shows how language can be wielded as a dangerous weapon in the modern day world of international high finance. Cosmopolis also simultaneously and gratifyingly harks back to Cronenberg’s pioneering early work in the “body horror” genre, especially Videodrome, in its depiction of a world where human beings seem capable of merging with, and are thus ultimately in danger of being replaced by, technology. As Pete Townshend might say, “Meet the new New Flesh / Same as the old New Flesh.”
Cosmopolis is also both the simplest and the most complex movie that David Cronenberg has ever made. The plot can be described in one sentence: A billionaire takes a limo ride from one end of Manhattan to the other in order to get a haircut. But, like the Jean-Luc Godard of Weekend (the ultimate traffic jam-as-metaphor film), Cronenberg believes that the journey is more important than the destination, and I’m not giving anything away by saying that Eric Packer, the film’s 28-year old protagonist and the limousine’s owner/chief passenger, does succeed in his goal of getting a trim. What’s more important to Cronenberg (and DeLillo) is using this basic scenario to comment upon the increasingly abstract nature of life in the 21st century. Eric Packer, played with chilling effectiveness by the blandly handsome teen-heartthrob Robert Pattinson, conducts business meetings, has sexual relations and even receives a medical exam (and the lines between these activities occasionally become provocatively blurred), all within the confines of the white stretch limo that serves as the film’s principal set. One gets the feeling that Packer could live his entire life inside of this car. Like the Alfred Hitchcock of Lifeboat, Rope and Rear Window, Cronenberg has set himself the challenge of making a movie mostly within a single confined space, a challenge that he overcomes through the technical virtuosity of his mise-en-scene. As the limo becomes deadlocked in traffic, Packer observes, on various touch screen devices, the dramatic appreciation of the Chinese yuan whose immediate fortunes he has bet against. The limo, soundproofed and sporting tinted windows, can be seen as both a cocoon shielding Packer from the outside world as well as an extension of the character’s own mind, and Cronenberg wrings a surprising amount of visual interest out of this location from his myriad camera setups. (The director has also said that one of the reasons he cast Pattinson was that he needed an actor whose face was conducive to being photographed from an infinite number of angles.)
One of the most common generic criticisms I hear about movies from my students (and this is particularly true after I screen New Hollywood films of the 1970s that center on anti-heroes such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Days of Heaven) is that they found it impossible to “care about” or “root for” the characters. This criticism has become so commonplace that I’ve developed stock replies of, “If you want to care about somebody, spend time with your family or friends” and “If you want to root for someone, watch a sporting event.” Then, coming down from my snarky high-horse, I more logically argue that it shouldn’t be necessary to like a movie’s characters in order to like a movie. In the final analysis, shouldn’t it just be enough to find the characters interesting? If it were a universal prerequisite to like a film’s protagonist in order to be able to enjoy a film, then absolutely everyone would hate Cosmpopolis because Eric Packer is the single most unlikable protagonist I’ve seen in a movie this year (and, remember, I’ve seen Killer Joe). Packer is impossibly wealthy, moves in the most rarified social circles, has access to technology and resources that 99% of movie audiences cannot conceive of, and also speaks a tech-heavy slang that nobody really understands. He is a man who has everything but is also dead inside. (I suspect many viewers will find the extreme stupidity of Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell to also be a stumbling block in appreciating Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which opens in Chicago next month. Freddie is the polar opposite of the genius Eric Packer; he’s the dumbest lead character I can recall seeing in a dramatic Hollywood movie, even dumber than Raging Bull‘s Jake LaMotta.)
The soullessness of Packer, of course, is precisely Cronenberg’s point. The specifics of Packer’s business, how exactly he’s “bet against” the yuan, don’t matter. Cosmopolis is ultimately a portrait of the alienating effects of wealth and technology. The most instructive way for Cronenberg to show this is to focus on a member of the 1%: a man who lives in a bubble, stares endlessly at computer screens and never sees any physical results of the kind of work he does. Appropriately, the film’s brilliant dialogue, written by Cronenberg but recycling a lot of the text of DeLillo’s novel verbatim, isn’t meant to be “understood” in the conventional sense. What matters is the emotion lying underneath all of the curiously cadenced technobabble. (For those in tune with what Cronenberg is up to, the climactic scene between Packer and a disgruntled employee portrayed by Paul Giamatti is going to come across as a particularly impressive high-wire act of writing/directing/acting.) A more naturalistic rendering of one billionaire’s personal financial crisis, even if it may coincide with the current financial crisis, would probably be deadly dull to watch. In the dream-like world of Cosmopolis, however, finance itself is only a Macguffin in much the same fashion as the “spy stuff” in a Hitchcock movie that nobody really cares about or remembers afterwards. As the always-articulate Cronenberg himself put it in a recent interview, “I think of (Cosmopolis) like a sci-fi movie where the intergalactic pilot is explaining the way his spaceship works. You don’t need to know what he’s talking about, you just need to believe that he knows what he’s talking about. Eric Packer understands when his Chief of Theory is explaining how the future connects with capitalism. It excites him, and that’s all you need to know.”
Cosmopolis is not a film for everyone, although it will definitely satisfy a certain type of adventurous viewer (you know who you are). I think of it as the inverse of the last film I saw at the Landmark, and the most overrated movie of the year, Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Both films are literal and figurative odysseys that reference real world socio-economic turbulence (the Occupy movement in Cosmopolis, the fallout of Hurricane Katrina in Beasts) but remain a step removed from reality in order to better reinforce each filmmaker’s philosophical point-of-view. The crucial difference between them is the difference between abstraction and vagueness. Cronenberg is deliberately abstract on a superficial level in order to reach greater psychological truths about modern living whereas Zeitlin is deliberately vague when it should matter most in order to better sweep the viewer along in a sea of feel-good emotion. While Beasts uses its adorable moppet-heroine as a floating signifier to rewrite the tragedy of Katrina and charm audiences with a fictional interracial utopia, Cosmopolis intentionally disturbs viewers in its depiction of a chaotic world where a man with no soul hurtles inexorably toward an uncertain future with terrifying velocity. In spite of its surface topicality, Beasts could have, and probably should have, been made forty years ago. Cosmopolis, by contrast, is a film every bit as coolly alluring and unsettling as the twenty-first century it chronicles.
As with my Classic Latin American Cinema Primer, I had to do an extensive amount of research prior to writing today’s post. That’s because, although I was previously familiar with some of the key works of African cinema (such as Touki Bouki, Brightness and the movies of the great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene), it was necessary for me to watch many more in order to come up with something approaching a well-rounded overview. The following list of thirteen titles encompasses films spanning over fifty years and many diverse countries across the African continent, including Egypt, Senegal, South Africa, Mali, Burkina Faso, Tunisia and Chad. To delve into these wonderful movies is to realize yet again how much richer world cinema is than what American film distributors and the media would lead you to believe. And, while I fully acknowledge it is problematic to yoke together such disparate titles (some of which have nothing in common other than that they happened to be produced in roughly the same part of the world), this was nonetheless a great excuse for me to write about films to which I otherwise might never have gotten around.
Cairo Station (Chahine, Egypt, 1958)
Youssef Chahine’s remarkable film, a hard-to-describe multi-genre hybrid, tells the story of a crippled newspaper seller working in the title location who becomes obsessed with a blonde bombshell (Hind Rostom, the “Marilyn Monroe of Egypt”) selling soft drinks nearby. The blonde, in turn, ignores the vendor in favor of a brutish, virile union organizer. This romantic triangle plays out against the backdrop of a series of grisly murders, while scenes of labor unrest offer a fascinating peak into the Cairo politics of the time. But this is probably most interesting today as a surprisingly erotic vehicle for the awesome star power of Rostom who is doused with water in one memorable scene and dances to what sounds like an Egyptian-flavored version of “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” in another.
The Nightingale’s Prayer (AKA The Curlew’s Cry) (Barakat, Egypt, 1959)
Unlike Cairo Station, an art film that was banned in in its native country, The Nightingale’s Prayer was a mainstream hit produced within Egypt’s Hollywood-like studio system. Yet this awesome tragedy is no less startling in its artistry and penetrating insights into human nature. Director Henry Barakat adapts a novel by Taha Hussein whose key ingredients are a family forced into exile, adultery, rape and multiple murders. Amna (Faten Hamama, the real-life wife of Omar Sharif), a maid from the country, hatches a revenge plot against the engineer who brought “dishonor” to her sister, resulting in her death. But, in a plot worthy of Mizoguchi (and with camera movements that rival the Japanese master to boot) this plan only leads to more tragedy. Egypt clearly had a thriving film industry in the mid-twentieth century and the dearth of titles available with English subtitles is cause for bitter regret.
Black Girl (Sembene, Senegal/France, 1966)
This auspicious debut by the great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene was also the first feature film made by a black African filmmaker. The title character is a young Senegalese woman who gets a job as a nanny for a white French family. She accompanies them back to France where she experiences a subtle, insidious racism that inspires feelings of dislocation and loneliness, before returning to Senegal with tragic results. This is beautifully austere, vital filmmaking whose impact is all the more disturbing at a swift and compressed 65 minutes.
Touki Bouki (Mambety, Senegal, 1973)
A wonderfully colorful, vibrant and occasionally surreal lovers-on-the-lam crime/road movie (think of an African Pierrot le Fou), Touki Bouki was only the second of three feature films in the career of its great director Djibril Diop Mambéty. The story concerns the relationship between a female college student, her motorcycle-riding boyfriend and their various schemes to make some easy money and escape to the mythical paradise of Paris, France. Like Senegal’s other legendary filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, Mambéty loads this up with social criticism (in which both Senegalese and French characters are unspared) but, unlike Sembene’s more classical approach to narrative, this is a wild, experimental journey for both characters and viewer alike.
Alexandria, Why? (Chahine, Egypt, 1979)
Youssef Chahine created a scandal with this taboo-busting autobiographical epic that recreates, with impressive detail, his hometown of Alexandria during the outbreak of World War II. The story interweaves the lives of many characters, chief among them Yehi, a student and movie lover (and stand-in for the director) who nurses his first stirrings of creativity as an actor and director in local theatrical productions. But the personal story is always juxtaposed with a wider political and historical context, as Chahine uses stock footage of the war and depicts air raids, black market activity and interactions between Egyptian civilians and soldiers of the occupational British army, in this supreme masterpiece of world cinema.
The Gods Must Be Crazy (Uys, S. Africa/Botswana, 1980)
James Uys’ cross-cultural comedy became an unexpected international sensation after its 1980 release and it’s easy to see why; this good-natured, universally appealing story concerns a “bushman” living in the Kalahari desert who discovers an empty Coke bottle and believes it to be a gift/curse from the Gods. This event serves as the catalyst for a plot that sees the bushman come into contact with a bumbling scientist, a sexy missionary and a band of revolutionary political terrorists. Some critics have derided the premise as racist but they’re missing the point entirely – the very subject of Uys’ satire is first world perceptions of third world countries. If that isn’t funny enough, there is also a healthy amount of excellent silent movie-style slapstick, in which animals and machines are allowed to be as funny as the humans.
Yeelen (AKA Brightness) (Cisse, Mali, 1987)
Perhaps my favorite African movie ever is Yeelen, a hypnotic, deliberately paced art film that has all of the deceptive simplicity, power and beauty of a primeval myth. Niankoro is a boy living in rural West Africa who must undergo various rites of passage in order to become a man, which culminates in challenging his evil sorcerer father in a duel to the death. Western critics are fond of invoking Oedipus Rex when reviewing writer/director Souleymane Cissé’s masterpiece but all of this film’s potent and elaborate symbolism is apparently based on local folklore without being influenced by outside sources.
Yaaba (Ouedraogo, Burkina Faso, 1989)
A little boy living in a small town in West Africa makes friends with an old woman whom the rest of the townspeople believe to be a witch. When the boy’s cousin becomes sick, he claims that only the old woman’s medicine can save her. This is a simple, touching story about intergenerational friendship that also effortlessly paints a fascinating societal portrait of African village life. The sentence “She has her reasons” is uttered twice in the film by two different characters, a touching, Renoir-esque reminder of the importance of tolerance in any society. I could watch this beautiful movie seven more times.
The Silences of the Palace (Tlatli, Tunisia, 1994)
Alia is a female nightclub singer in the newly independent Tunisia of the 1960s. She revisits the imperial palace where she had grown up in the previous decade as the daughter of a servant when the country was under French colonial rule. The objects within the palace (a lute, the shards of a broken mirror, etc.) bring back a flood or memories for the time when Alia, as an adolescent, first became aware of class and gender politics. This tough feminist film, from first time director Moufida Tlatli, is of equal interest as an emotionally involving character study and as a lament for the silence of female suffering in a patriarchal Arab Muslim culture.
Faraw! (AKA Mother of the Dunes) (Ascofare, 1998, Mali)
The only narrative film of Malian poet Abdoulaye Ascofare chronicles the trials and tribulations of the strong, resilient matriarch of a struggling rural family who must provide for a mentally handicapped husband, disobedient sons and a daughter who has dropped out of school. The mother goes to great lengths to avoid having the latter become exploited by “foreigners” in this powerful allegory of self-reliance, a key theme of many African movies. Ascofare poignantly dedicated Faraw! to his own mother, the inspiration for the main character, who died while the film was still shooting.
Moolaade (Sembene, Senegal/Burkina Faso, 2004)
Collé is a Muslim woman living in a traditional village in Burkina Faso who incurs the wrath of her neighbors when she dares provide shelter to young girls trying to avoid “female circumcision.” Ousmane Sembene’s last film, and arguably his very best, transforms a frankly horrifying subject into a story that, without pulling punches, manages to be warm-hearted, humorous and inspiring – qualities that owe a lot to the performance of Fatoumata Coulibaly, who unforgettably plays Collé as a force of nature. The film’s final symbolic image, of an antenna on the roof of an ancient building, succinctly evokes the clash between modernity and tradition central to Sembene’s entire filmography and provides a fitting epitaph to his career.
Bamako (Sissako, Mali, 2006)
Abderrahmane Sissako’s provocative and angry satire combines documentary and narrative techniques into an overall essay-like form that is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. The “plot,” such as it is, details the city of Bamako (the capital of Mali) putting the World Bank and IMF on trial, which allows the writer/director to regale the audience with all manner of disturbing and eye-opening facts about third world debt. Interspersed with these scenes is the melodramatic story of the disintegration of a marriage between a female singer and her unemployed husband, a couple of spirited musical numbers and even a parody of the western genre featuring a cameo by executive producer Danny Glover. This fascinating and trenchant commentary on globalization is a must-see for adventurous viewers.
A Screaming Man (Haroun, Chad, 2010)
Adam (Youssouf Djaoro), a veteran employee of a posh hotel in civil war-torn Chad, finds his life turned upside down when the hotel’s new Chinese owners demote him from pool attendant to gate keeper and give his former post to his son, Abdel (Dioucounda Koma), instead. This begins as a story of social humiliation, a la The Last Laugh, before turning into a Claire Denis-style commentary on European colonialism in Africa — but one that is all the more impacting because it is coming from an insider’s perspective. “Our problem is we put our destiny in God’s hands,” one character wryly observes early on, which seems to spur Adam into making a rash decision involving Abdel that turns the whole scenario into one of shattering moral complexity. This third feature from the prodigiously talented Mahamat-Saleh Haroun deservedly won the Jury Prize at Cannes and marks the writer/director as someone to watch in the future.
1. Les Vampires (Feuillade)
2. The Brood (Cronenberg)
3. Cold Fever (Fridriksson)
4. Children of Nature (Fridriksson)
5. The Master (Anderson)
6. Cure (Kurosawa)
7. The Whistler (Castle)
8. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks)
9. The Cloud-Capped Star (Ghatak)
10. Ginger Snaps (Fawcett)
So far, the only films I’ve discussed in my Secret History of Chicago Movies posts have been those produced between the years 1896 and 1953, or roughly the first half of the twentieth century. The reason for this is simple: it’s easier to write about under-appreciated or unknown Chicago movies by digging into the distant past. I’m majorly shifting gears today however to write about an extraordinary new Chicago-shot short film that recently debuted on the web: Melika Bass’ Varðeldur, the latest music video in an ambitious anthology project engineered by everyone’s favorite ethereal Icelandic pop band Sigur Ros. The intriguing concept behind the band’s ongoing series known as the “Valtari Mystery Film Experiment” is that they have commissioned 12 different directors, including such luminaries as Ramin Bahrani, Alma Har’el and John Cameron Mitchell, to make music videos for the eight tracks on their latest album. According to the band’s website, each filmmaker was given the “same modest budget and asked to create whatever comes into their head when they listen to songs from Valtari. The idea is to bypass the usual artistic approval process and allow people utmost creative freedom.”
Melika Bass, readers of this blog may remember, is an internationally acclaimed experimental filmmaker based in Chicago whom I interviewed in 2011. Bass has described her contribution to “Valtari” on her own website as a “film portrait of an unstable entity in a haunted vessel, drawn into and floating away from a siren song.” As that description suggests, it is less of a music video than a legitimate experimental short in which the images happen to interact with the gorgeous instrumental Sigur Ros song “Varðeldur” in ways both direct and oblique. The film, shot on good old Super 16mm stock (oh yeah!), depicts Croatian performance artist Selma Banich doing a kind of interpretive dance to the music in an interior location that looks simultaneously industrial, dilapidated, warmly lit and spartan. Banich, wearing a beige colored sweater and skirt and sporting red hair that curiously fits into an overall graphic pattern with what look like rust stains on the wall behind her, doesn’t dance in the traditional sense so much as explore the space around her by moving her body in an evocative and stylized fashion. At first her movements, like the film’s editing and the song itself, are slow and plodding. At one point, she extends her left hand and begins wiggling her fingers in a manner that seems to correspond to the song’s gently tinkling piano notes. Varðeldur‘s undeniable emotional high point comes later, in two consecutive takes where Banich shakes her head from side to side. As the speed of her head movements increase to a whiplash-like velocity, her image transforms into a sepia smear of shocking abstract beauty. In the film’s penultimate shot, Banich sinks languidly into a shadow in a corner of the frame like a character out of a German Expressionist movie. This is followed by an overhead shot of Banich slowly collapsing to the floor, an appropriate image of finality on which to end this mysterious and strangely poignant film.
I’ll be surprised and pleased if I see a more vital 6 and a half minutes of filmmaking anywhere else for the remainder of this year. You can check out Varðeldur in its entirety below:
As a postscript to my John Carpenter post from two days ago, below is an intriguing screen capture from the director’s 1987 horror film Prince of Darkness. I was struck by the fact that the creepy church that serves as the movie’s central location was named “Saint Godard’s.” Could Carpenter have a broader frame of cinematic reference than he has typically let on in interviews? Or perhaps he just had a cheeky production designer? Or should the fact that St. Godard’s contains a portal to hell mean that this homage should really be interpreted as an anti-homage? Or is it a humorous comment on the fact that, as far as many film critics are concerned, Godard is a saint while Carpenter is seen as the “prince of darkness”? I’m willing to bet that the first option I posited is closest to the truth; it’s probably just an affectionate homage from one master to another. After all, Carpenter’s mixture of 35mm film stock and video (the latter of which can be seen below) is quite Godardian and was unusual to see in a Hollywood movie at the time.
This director profile of John Carpenter is yet another joint-venture of White City Cinema and my wife Jillian’s feminist blog Exploring Feminisms. This is our first time discussing the body of work of a filmmaker rather than a single film.
MGS: So we just finished watching virtually all of John Carpenter’s movies together and I guess I’d like to start off this “director profile” by discussing how we got on this particular kick. When I was a kid in the early to mid-Eighties I remember that Halloween, Escape from New York and The Thing were all a big deal to me. Those movies ruled cable television at the time and I watched them over and over. Then, when Prince of Darkness came out in the fall of 1987, I saw it in the theater as a budding 12-year old horror movie aficionado, fully aware that I was seeing the “new John Carpenter film.” I also saw They Live the next year and loved that too. Then, I started watching serious art films as a teenager and kind of lost touch with what Carpenter was doing until a couple years ago. I think the motivation for our retrospective was when we bought Halloween on blu-ray. I hadn’t seen it in years and probably never in its original aspect ratio and I was just blown away by how great it is: the suspenseful, brilliantly edited set pieces, the elegant camera movements and, of course, that incredible, minimalist synthesizer score. It made me want to see and re-see all of his films. Do you remember your earliest impressions of Carpenter and what exactly hooked you during our recent retrospective?
JM: I can honestly say that growing up, I didn’t know who Carpenter was and though there was an awareness of his cultural presence, didn’t link his films together. I knew that I liked Halloween, but didn’t like, or really didn’t understand, They Live or Big Trouble in Little China, for example. I didn’t see a connecting thread or appreciate his abilities as a director until we began our Carpenter-kick, and that is where my interest snowballed. When you picked out movies for us to watch in our Netflix and Facets queues, I was constantly surprised at the films that I was aware of, but never knew that he directed. Do you see an interconnected thread throughout his films that is indicative of his directing style, apart from his often 80s-sounding synthesizer music?
MGS: Absolutely. The most obvious thread would be his mastery of (and unironic love for) genre filmmaking. The critic Kent Jones said the best thing about Carpenter, that he’s the last straightforward genre filmmaker in Hollywood and the only one who doesn’t look at genres as “museums to be plundered.” In other words, unlike, say, the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino, who self-consciously mash-up different genres or run genre conventions through a kind of post-modern blender, Carpenter plays the conventions straight and true, as if he were making his films in the 1950s. Obviously, the genre he’s most known for is horror. But, in a way, a lot of his films can be characterized as modern-day or futuristic takes on the western as well; virtually all of Carpenter’s movies follow one of two basic western-style plots: the group of people who become trapped in an isolated, claustrophobic location who find themselves being menaced by an enemy from without, or the group of people who are forced to enter a foreign, hostile territory and must battle their way out from within. It seems that most aspects of Carpenter’s visual style flow organically from these archetypal stories (the use of cross-cutting to generate suspense, an expressive use of Cinemascope framing featuring geometric groupings of actors, etc.)
Kurt Russell, obviously, is the ultimate Carpenter actor and can be seen as the director’s alter ego: Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, R.J. MacReady in The Thing and Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China are all very similar and yet very distinct. They are all anti-authoritarian “lone wolf” types who nonetheless differ drastically in terms of personality and morality. Snake is Russell doing Clint Eastwood, Jack is Russell doing John Wayne (hilariously, I might add), and Mac is essentially Russell being Russell. This reminds me – it seems you and I agree that the real golden age for Carpenter was between 1978 and 1986. Everything from Halloween to Big Trouble in Little China is just incredible (with the partial exception of Christine, although that has its virtues too) and nobody really appreciated what he was doing at the time. After that, there’s a drop off in overall quality although he still does good work intermittently up through the present. So, my next question for you is what do you think Carpenter’s best and worst films are? More specifically, what do you see as Carpenter’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker?
JM: Without a doubt, The Thing is his best film, followed by Halloween, then The Ward.
The Thing: very much ahead of its time. It’s shockingly scary, even for today’s standards of visual and gore overload.
Halloween: one of the first extended scenes from a murderer’s point of view and, though it was only his third full length film, it’s difficult not to appreciate how steadfast his style has been throughout the years.
Village of the Damned: let me clarify by first stating that this isn’t in my top ten, but it does a great job of being a classic horror film by making you feel really uncomfortable, and it’s difficult to make an audience feel so consistently out of control.
The Ward: an awesome comeback after a few not so inspired films and like a few of his other flicks, such as Halloween, it has a really strong female lead.
Regarding what I consider to be his less than perfect films, I can’t criticize them too vehemently because I think they all have their strong points. Ghosts of Mars, for example, is missing a more fleshed out story, but how can you not love Pam Grier? Similarly, Christine falls into the same category where large chunks of information are left out, jumping from scene to scene when there should be some meat in the middle. However, the car, especially when it’s on a rampage, is terrifying.
Another film that had such potential but fell flat was Pro-life from the Masters of Horror television series, which featured one of our joint favorites, Ron Perlman. Though I am pro-choice and did work at Planned Parenthood, I do try to keep an open mind when it comes to anything even slightly anti-choice in art. Given that this is a horror film, I was hoping that whichever way it went, pro or anti-choice, it was going to be entertaining. All in all, the film had a lot of holes in it; some scenes were gruesome to the utmost, and other scenes made it obvious that it was a TV movie. As the movie ended, though it did slant towards a pro-choice point of view, I kept thinking of ways that it could have been made better.
Overall, I think he has two strengths that attract me to his films. The first is that he’s really good at scaring the audience through gore, the unknown, and even downright creepy music. Two: even though their butts are often hanging out, he has a good amount of tough female leads, i.e. The Ward, Halloween, The Fog, and Ghosts of Mars. I’m sure that you disagree with some of my picks, so what are some of your favorites and not-so-favorites?
MGS: Well, I agree Pro-Life is bad all around, which is interesting because it obviously carries the Carpenter stamp. It falls into that group-of-people-under-siege storyline that I brought up earlier. But, as Pauline Kael would tell you, just because a director’s signature is identifiable doesn’t mean the work is inherently valuable. I’m also in full agreement that The Thing is his masterpiece. Of course, we also saw it under the most optimum conditions imaginable: a 35mm ‘Scope print at a midnight show with a packed audience, which is not true of the other Carpenter films in our retrospective. And you’re right that the gore in that film is both shocking and unbelievably effective. I couldn’t believe how gory it still looks after all these years. A big part of that, I think, is realizing that you’re looking at good old-fashioned effects and make-up, which have a thick, heavy, moist presence on screen (in contrast to say, the thinness/cartoonishness of CGI). Halloween is also right up there for me, obviously. My other favorite is Starman. That’s a film I saw and liked as a kid but was just floored to realize how good it still is as an adult. I see it as kind of love story version of The Thing (in much the same way that Big Trouble is the comedy version of Escape from New York)! There’s a real sense of wonder to that film, a feeling of what it’s like to look at the world through truly innocent eyes that goes much deeper than the faux-innocence of, say, Steven Spielberg. The scene where Jeff Bridges brings the deer back to life made me want to cry and the ending of the film – the final interaction between Bridges and Karen Allen – is just sublime.
I’m surprised by your singling out Village of the Damned. I actually liked the first 30 minutes of it but, as soon as the children appear and the mystery becomes more concrete, I thought it became much less interesting. Also, Kirstie Alley’s performance strikes me as one of the weakest to be found in any Carpenter film. In general, I don’t think that he’s the best director of actors. I think he needs to work with strong actors who kind of already understand the spirit of what he’s doing, like, say, Kurt Russell. I’m glad that you like The Ward though. I too thought it was pretty great, a kind of b-movie version of Shutter Island centered on a female protagonist. I felt like he was really returning to his low-budget roots with that one and I think he directed the hell out of it. I’m also glad you brought up the female protagonists; Natasha Henstridge was a really appealing action heroine in Ghosts of Mars and I liked the chemistry between her and Ice Cube. But that script was so lame; it was just one endless shootout after another and the whole thing quickly became noisy, monotonous and irritating. For me, it’s a toss up between that and Vampires for the title of worst Carpenter film. However, having said that, we saw a few Carpenter films that were very pleasant surprises for me. Chief among them is probably Memoirs of an Invisible Man. I always assumed that would be one of the low points of his career but, after finally seeing it, I was surprised at how well it worked as a light comedy thriller. There are a few set pieces in it that are really excellent, like the scene where Chevy Chase as the invisible man uses the body of a passed out drunk to hail a cab and catch a ride across town. I think of it as Carpenter’s version of North By Northwest. Any last thoughts you’d like to add?
JM: Now that our Carpenter-thon is over, I am left with a profound sense of respect for him as a director, writer and cheesy synthesizer musician, and possibly as someone who may even stick his toes into the feminist pond.
Jill’s Top Ten John Carpenter Films
9. Escape from L.A.
8. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
6. The Fog
5. Escape from New York
4. Someone’s Watching Me!
3. The Ward
1. The Thing
MGS’ Top Ten John Carpenter Films
10. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
9. In the Mouth of Madness
8. They Live
7. The Ward
6. Assault on Precinct 13
5. Big Trouble in Little China
4. Escape from New York
1. The Thing
1. The Seagull’s Laughter (Guðmundsson)
2. Inside (Bustillo/Maury)
3. Unforgivable (Techine)
4. Johnny Guitar (Ray)
5. Rio Grande (Ford)
6. Kon Tiki (Heyerdahl)
7. Certified Copy (Kiarostami)
8. Cross of Love (Tulio)
9. Jar City (Kormákur)
10. A River Called Titas (Ghatak)
It’s time for my annual wish list of movies that I hope will turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. Even if you’re not a Chicagoan, I hope you will find this to be a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-sounding movies that will hopefully be coming soon to a theater near you in the not-too-distant future. I’m deliberately not including Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmasters and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Assassin, both of which made the previous two installments of this list but which I have now given up hope of ever seeing in my lifetime. I should also point out that some of my most anticipated releases of the fall, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Clint Eastwood’s Trouble with the Curve, are scheduled to drop before CIFF kicks off on October 11.
Caesar Must Die (Taviani, Italy)
I’ve never seen anything by Italy’s esteemed Taviani brothers whose long-running co-director act dates back almost 60 years. Their latest sounds fascinating: a documentary about real life high-security prison inmates performing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for a public audience. This won the top prize at Berlin earlier in the year from a jury that was headed by Mike Leigh.
The Catastrophe (Smith, USA)
Yep, I submitted my most recent short film to CIFF and I’m still waiting to hear back. I’d be lying if I didn’t say this is the film I would most like to see at the festival. Fingers crossed!
Django Unchained (Tarantino, USA)
Could Quentin Tarantino’s much-hyped, southern-fried Spaghetti Western turn up as a gala presentation or closing night film? Well, he did bring Inglourious Basterds to Chicago in the summer of 2009, a few months before its official release, when CIFF gave him some kind of Lifetime Achievement Award thingy . . .
Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy)
Another old Italian maestro, Marco Bellochio, returns with an Isabelle Huppert vehicle about an actress caring for her comatose daughter. Bellochio’s 2009 feature, Vincere, which played CIFF, was superb, and Huppert (will she be speaking Italian?) is one of the world’s greatest actresses, so seeing this would be a no-brainer if it should turn up.
Drug War (To, Hong Kong)
The prolific crime film specialist Johnnie To made one of his very best films with 2011’s mind-bogglingly good dramedy Life Without Principle. This raises my expectations even more for Drug War, which sees To re-teaming with long-time collaborators like writer Wai Ka-Fai and actors Louis Koo and Lam Suet. Plot details are scarce but still photographs show a lot of men pointing guns. Intriguingly, this is also To’s first film to be shot entirely in mainland China in over 30 years.
Gebo and the Shadow (De Oliveira, Portugal/France)
Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira, one of the world’s best directors, assembles a heavyweight cast of European talent for this adaptation of a 19th century play by Raul Brandão: Michael Lonsdale, Claudia Cardinale and Jeanne Moreau join Oliveira stalwarts like Ricardo Trepa, Leonor Silveira and Luis Miguel Cintra. Described as the story of an honored but poor patriarch who sacrifices himself for his son, this is the latest chapter in one of cinema’s most storied and freakishly long careers; at 103, Oliveira has already embarked on pre-production of his next film.
Holy Motors (Carax, France)
My most anticipated film of the year by far is Leos Carax’s long awaited follow-up to 1999’s Pola X. Holy Motors stars Carax’s perennial alter-ego Denis Lavant as an actor who constantly shuttles between multiple parallel lives. Or something. The rest of the formidable and diverse cast includes Edith Scob, Michel Piccoli, Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes. This wowed audiences and critics alike at Cannes but went home empty-handed come awards time due to an unusually conservative jury headed by Nanni “Middlebrow” Moretti.
In Another Country (Hong, S. Korea)
Another year, another Hong Sang-soo movie that plays to acclaim at Cannes with uncertain prospects of ever turning up in Chicago. Only one of Hong’s last seven films, including five features and two shorts, has played here (The Day He Arrives recently had a few screenings at the Siskel Center). One would think that the presence of Isabelle Huppert in the lead role and the fact that the majority of the dialogue is in English would improve In Another Country‘s chances but one never knows. It seems U.S. distributors like their Korean movies to carry the “Asian extreme” tag, and their witty and intellectual Rohmer-esque rom-coms to be spoken in French – and never the twain shall meet.
Jimmy Picard (Desplechin, USA/France)
The last I checked, Arnaud Desplechin’s first American-set film was still shooting in Michigan but it’s conceivable he could have it ready for a Toronto premiere in September – and thus a local CIFF premiere the following month. Benicio del Toro plays the title character, a Blackfoot Indian and WWII vet, who becomes one of the first subjects of “dream analysis” under a French psychotherapist played by Desplechin’s favorite leading man Mathieu Amalric. The estimable director’s only other English language film, 2000’s Esther Kahn, is also one of his best.
Laurence Anyways (Dolan, Canada/France)
23 year old writer/director/actor wunderkind Xavier Dolan debuted his third feature at Cannes this year where it was well-received. Melvil Poupad stars as a heterosexual man in a long-term relationship who undergoes a sex-change operation. I was initially skeptical of Dolan purely because of his young age and his credentials as a former child star but after catching Heartbeats (whose English language title is a regrettable stand-in for the original Les Amours Imaginaires) at CIFF two years ago, I was completely won over; the guy is a born filmmaker and the two-and-a-half hour Laurence Anyways sounds like a logical and ambitious step forward for him.
Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Japan/Iran)
Abbas Kiarostami’s latest divided critics at Cannes, a lot of whom compared it unfavorably to his supposedly “shockingly accessible” Certified Copy from two years earlier. But it also had its defenders and a die-hard Kiarostami fan like me is chomping at the bit to see it. This is a Japan set story about the relationship between a prostitute and an elderly college professor. The ending is supposedly nuts.
Love (Haneke, France/Austria)
I’ve never warmed up to Austrian miserabilist Michael Haneke, who specializes in combining titillation and moralism in convenient arthouse-friendly packages. But his latest, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, sounds more actor-driven and appealing to me: it tells the story of a married couple in their 80s (played by French screen legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) whose relationship is tested when the wife has a stroke. The ubiquitous “La Huppert,” who appears in three films on this list, co-stars.
Mekong Hotel (Weerasethakul, Thailand)
A documentary/narrative hybrid from the terrific experimental filmmaker Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul about various characters congregating at the title location situated along Thailand’s Mekong River. Apparently pigs and Tilda Swinton are also somehow involved. Depending on whom you believe, this is either a minor diversion or a major masterpiece. Either way, count me in.
The Night in Front (Ruiz, Chile/France)
The great Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz passed away from liver cancer last year while putting the finishing touches on what he must have known would be his final film. The Night in Front, an adaptation of stories by Hernan del Solar, received a posthumous debut in a special tribute session at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Fittingly, it was shot in Chile, Ruiz’s home country, from which he had lived in exile for decades. If this swan song is anywhere near the league of Mysteries of Lisbon, the 4 1/2 hour Ruiz opus that preceded it, it will be essential viewing.
Something in the Air (Assayas, France/England/Italy)
Something in the Air has been described as a coming-of-age story set against the turbulent political climate of Europe in the 1970s with locations that include France, Italy and the U.K. This makes it sound like an improbable cross between my other two favorite films by director Olivier Assayas: Cold Water and Carlos. This was offered an out of competition slot at Cannes, which Assayas turned down. As with Jimmy Picard, the only way this will show up at CIFF is if it has a Toronto World Premiere first.
Stoker (Park, USA/S. Korea)
The great Korean director Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut boasts excellent credentials in an A-list cast (Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode) and crew (composer Clint Mansell and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon) and yet . . . the film seems to be languishing in Post-Productionland for a suspiciously long time. Stoker has been described as both a drama and a horror film and plot descriptions make it sound like a virtual remake of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. How could this not be great?
Tabu (Gomes, Portugal)
With apparently explicit nods to F.W. Murnau’s film of the same title, this Portuguese/African co-production tells the story of an elderly woman living in contemporary Portugal with her black servant and then flashes back to tell the story of a love affair she had in Africa fifty years prior. I’ve never seen anything by the young director Miguel Gomes but the diverse locations and unusual two-part structure also make this sound similar to Daniel Kohlerer’s recent (and excellent) German/African co-production Sleeping Sickness. Both films were produced by Maren Ade, who is a fine young director in her own right (Everyone Else).
To the Wonder (Malick, USA)
As someone who saw The Thin Red Line five times in the theater, I’ve certainly fallen off the Terrence Malick bandwagon in the wake of The New World and The Tree of Life. And yet I still wouldn’t miss a new film by him for the world. The plot of this Ben Affleck/Rachel MacAdams-starring love story sounds like it will continue the autobiographical vein of The Tree of Life: an American man divorces his European wife and then embarks on a new romance with a woman from his small hometown. This is essentially what happened to Malick while preparing The Thin Red Line.
You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France)
I used to be somewhat lukewarm on Alain Resnais’ post-1960s work until 2009’s wild Wild Grass brought me roaring back into the fold. This new meta-movie sounds like a typically provocative and fascinating Resnais experiment: a group of great French actors playing themselves (including Michel Piccoli, Mathieu Amalric and Resnais’ permanent leading lady and muse Sabine Aszema) watch a filmed performance of the play Eurydice, which transports them back in time to when they had all starred in the same play years earlier. Some critics derided this as “indulgent” at Cannes but I say that’s like criticizing Thelonious Monk for not playing the piano melodically.
Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA/India)
Kathryn Bigelow’s long awaited follow-up to The Hurt Locker sees her reteaming with journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal in adapting the true story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. This was well into pre-production at the time Bin Laden was killed, meaning Zero Dark Thirty received an 11th-hour “mother of all rewrites.” Details on this are scarce but the excellent Jessica Chastain apparently has a prominent role as a journalist.