Death to Film Crit: Jacques Tourneur’s NIGHTFALL

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Nightfall | Columbia | Jacques Tourneur | 1957

This 1957 noir masterpiece by Jacques Tourneur stars Aldo Ray as a man fleeing a private investigator and Anne Bancroft as the barroom acquaintance who agrees to help him. Ray’s past is revealed gradually in a series of flashbacks, which are intercut with the couple’s flight and the investigator’s pursuit; by developing each narrative in a parallel space or time, Tourneur movingly articulates the theme of a character trapped by his history. The images have a smooth, almost liquid quality, the high-contrast lighting of most noirs replaced by a delicate lyricism that takes the natural world as the norm. Tourneur links this naturalism to Ray’s growing observational skills (“I know where every shadow falls,” he says), but it also contrasts with the story’s acute paranoia. ~ Fred Camper, The Chicago Reader

Fred Camper, ladies and gentlemen, one of those bridge trolls of cinephilia who writes in that blocky, formulaic style that treats film analysis as a series of automated inputs and outputs. Input: Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Output: masterpiece. Nightfall! Dinky mid-fifties Columbia noir par excellence, which might have been just as easily directed by Lewis Allen or Richard Quine. ‘Masterpiece’ is the most turgid word in film writing, bandied about as frivolously as a Parisian aristocrat’s mistress, and declared a priori as if by divine writ. It’s a word that should be as far from a critic’s vocabulary as ‘guilty’ from a judge’s mouth, submitted only after all evidence has been marshalled and thoroughly scrutinized. But writing, as with legal proceedings, is a grueling, time-intensive endeavor – if done well. And most film critics are nothing if not lazy. Pounce on the judgmental superlative first, then retrofit the evidence accordingly — that is what Camper has done here.

The plot summary, first off, is faulty. The private investigator is indeed pursuing Ray, but unbeknownst to Ray, who is actually trying to evade a couple of nefarious bank robbers. Mere pedantry, you allege? This isn’t a finer historical detail in Reds, you numbskull, but the synoptic bedrock of a 75-minute noir quickie. How do you fuck that up? Let us proceed. Camper applauds Tourneur for “developing each narrative in a parallel space or time,” by which I assume he means cross-cutting, one of the remedial building blocks of filmmaking. ‘Parallel’ here is meaningless. The flashbacks, the investigator’s pursuit, and Ray’s burgeoning romance with Bancroft, all of these converge to a fixed point. That fixed point? The climax! Again: storytelling 101. Camper, for his part, must have flunked geometry 101, as the defining characteristic of parallel lines is that they do not converge. But are the ‘spaces’ parallel? I don’t know what this is supposed to mean. Camper doesn’t either. The film is set in lots of ‘spaces,’ just like practically every movie ever made, and whether they are parallel or perpendicular or circumferential, I do not think he nor anyone else can say.

“Tourneur movingly articulates the theme of a character trapped by his history.” This is a gussied up way of saying that this is the umpteenth noir that uses fatalism to drive the narrative. And ‘history?’ The story proceeds from a chance encounter between an everyman and some sinister crooks. It’s a random act of fate used to drive a breezy crime thriller. There is nothing unique or multi-dimensional to Ray’s character, his interiority, his behavior, his ‘history,’ that sets the course of his doom-laden journey. Camper makes it sound like Out of the Past Redux, when in reality it’s a goofy David Goodis adaptation in which fashion model Anne Bancroft bemoans that married men aren’t interested in her and in which Aldo Ray uses ESP to track her down to her apartment after the zillionth escape from the clumsiest captors on planet Earth. There’s also Bancroft becoming the obligatory mouthpiece for ‘going to the cops’ and using America’s legal infrastructure to get out of a jam (the most perplexing thing about this movie is its repeated insistence that the Bancroft character is a paragon of naivete). I dunno, folks, from my vantage point it’s all pretty hackneyed and silly, albeit entertaining stuff. But Camper goes on.

“The images have a smooth, almost liquid quality, the high-contrast lighting of most noirs replaced by a delicate lyricism that takes the natural world as the norm.” In what universe is ‘high-contrast lighting’ the inverse, converse, obverse, or reverse of ‘delicate lyricism?’ What Camper is trying to say here is that 40s-Siodmak expressionism is bold and/or crude, where Tourneur strikes at something more naturalistic and/or impressionistic. It’s a reductive dichotomy and overwhelmingly false. Tourneur’s film looks like a ton of mid-fifties noirs, particularly those made at Columbia, and it is no more ‘delicate’ or ‘lyrical’ than, say, Phil Karlson’s 5 Against the House. And if you want to watch a film with an actual liquid quality, might I suggest Million Dollar Mermaid?

Not sure if this is the Rio Bravado comeback post you’ve been waiting for, but I needed to get this out of my system, folks. This blog is a military outpost in the war against bad film writing, and the Campers of the world must be thoroughly skewered if progress is to be made in this campaign. But more writing will be coming down the pike, my friends! Till next time.

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Brownin’ Around: NATIONAL VELVET

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National Velvet | MGM | Clarence Brown | 1944

Clarence Brown has done it again! Putative schlock, which you’d think to be etched into the DNA of a story you can’t imagine in any other than a most saccharine channel. And it’s saccharine, sure, but more sugarcane than corn syrup. It’s what Meet Me in St. Louis achieved the same year: real, serious, honest-to-god sentimentality that perhaps bludgeons for effect at some times (and why not?), but then also subtly proceeds from nuances of character and direction, rarefied strains of pathos it takes a committed craftsman to distill. The family dynamic here depicted is a marvel unto itself – Donald Crisp and Anne Revere dabble in mock sternness, wisps of idiosyncratic warmth, and a kind of practiced marital sparring that has calcified into a reserved, playful wit lovingly passed around (the dialogue seems to waltz at times!). The would-be storybook didacticism of childhood faith and dreams-come-true is buttressed by a real literary treatment, mostly courtesy of Revere, whose every uttered word is a tonic for the soul. Choices are made with regard to color (a prose poem could be devoted to the way the color green is used here – captured in scenic saturated glory for the on-location shots and studio-lit to a twinkling emerald for some of the evening-set interiors) and production design (how the California-constructed town of Sewels comes to embody a rural England of the ripest imagination, I’ll never quite understand) that should justify the Hollywood studio apparatus to one and all! Even the world-cinema enthusiasts who treat Old Hollywood with a condescending shamefacedness, as some necessary evil from which was spawned their preferred ‘edgier’ or ‘artsier’ or ‘transgressive’ fare. All that stuff is fine, but movie magic of this caliber it is, quite frankly, not! I wish you all a love worthy of young Velvet’s for her cherished Pie! Until next time, Bravado Bros!

Evisceration Station: BEETLEJUICE

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Beetlejuice | Tim Burton | 1988

Arsenic and Old Lace cryogenically frozen, thawed out in the 80s – Cary Grant has degraded into Alec Baldwin, Raymond Massey upgraded to Michael Keaton, and the hack comedy has made a noble if futile (/impossible) stab at deteriorating even further. Riddle me this: if normativity is lunacy, but if lunacy is normalized, and if thin sheets of plexiglass ‘camp’ soldered on to a Reagan-friendly wireframe are the far gone postmodernist’s suboptimal substitute for subversion of suburbia, and if 1980s Hollywood is a black hole of so-cozy-it’s-asphyxiating astro-turf auto-nostalgia (phew) insidiously manufactured with disregard for the genuine article,* and if Catherine O’Hara’s genius is met with no rejoinder from a stuffed-animal cast and falls on the deaf ears of a multiplex crowd and just wastefully wafts away into the atmosphere with no one perceptive or talented or worthy enough to even hope to harness or intensify or even bottle it (leaving it at the level of firefly ephemera, when it should blaze about as once it did on a certain sketch comedy show that reigned over the netherworld of late-late-night comedy many moons ago…), then what are we left with? Utter meaninglessness masquerading as the cinematic equivalent of a dimestore knickknack, prompting a marginally less meaningless exercise in strangulation-by-language, as only a lowly loaf of mystery meat is capable of administering. The thrashing I just gave this shitfest is too good for it. 😦

*Nostalgia (as defined by mystery meat, with some assistance from Terence Davies and Marcel Proust): the arbitrary sediment of lived experience that inexplicably, indefatigably rises to the surface of one’s memory — memory being the one thing that cannot be replenished at will or furiously bartered for or selectively destocked or customized according to our whims — such that whatever glints through its landfill of undrainable sewage can be nought but really and truly and purely and eternally treasured. To attempt to mass produce a generalized, commercially appealing on-demand nostalgia is the closest thing in our culture to a Faustian tampering with the cosmic order of things, and this particular cafeteria item emphatically rejects it!

The Mann I Love: DEVIL’S DOORWAY

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Devil’s Doorway | MGM | Anthony Mann | 1950

Anthony Mann made Devil’s Doorway under the same studio supervisors that oversaw his own Border Incident from the year before, as well as countless other envelope-pushing dramas – Stars in My Crown, The Bad and the Beautiful, Act of Violence, The Asphalt Jungle, Intruder in the Dust, The Red Badge of Courage. This was MGM under Dore Schary — vaguely liberal, slightly somber, a trek to the crumbly underworld of Culver City. The worst of these Schary-fostered movies channeled the white liberal do-gooderism that Darryl Zanuck was riding into the ground over at Fox. But the best were downright transgressive. If so much of MGM’s output under Louis B. Mayer could be symbolized by a parade-float Andy Hardy — sentimentality too factory farmed to even appear homespun, too pastry-fluff weightless for even a facsimile of flesh-and-blood reality — then a movie like Father of the Bride was the anchor clamped around ol’ Mickey’s marshmallow ankle, dragging the whole fantasyland enterprise back to Earth’s anxiety-charged postwar surface.

Devil’s Doorway is one of the unsung masterpieces of this fertile period of Cinematic Excellence, an Anthony Mann classic that seems to have slipped through the auteurist cracks. People are more likely to rhapsodize about The Glenn Miller Story — it’s Mann/Stewart collaboration after all! — than to treat this as anything more than Mann ‘warming up’ for his later, greater achievements. But how much greater are they? I’d take Devil’s Doorway over Bend of the River, God’s Little Acre, Men in War, The Far Country, and a helluva lot more. Just because Mann churned out at least three other great works in 1950 alone does not mean he wasn’t perfectly capable of a fourth.

So, get this. Robert Taylor is an Indian back from the Civil War, ready for well-deserved peace and quiet (the movie doesn’t just pay lip-service to pacifism – Taylor has plenty of room to articulate his desire to live harmoniously with all peoples and tend to his land). Louis Calhern is the grim specter of latent nativist evil — a sickly lawyer out West for the climate who gradually morphs into a proto-Judge Holden. Paula Raymond is the middling voice of the ‘let’s not be too reckless’ liberal — sympathetic to Taylor, but ultimately beholden to the racist homesteader laws. Sidenote: each character has a goddamn beautiful Western name — Lance Poole, Verne Coolan, Orrie Masters.

The movie begins at a reasonable scale for an eighty-minute Western — soldier returns to town, where some things are the same (Edgar Buchanan and other old friends reminisce over drinks) and others are different (a sharp tone of bigotry pervades the dusty air). Taylor is ostensibly in a good place — I mean, Jesus, the guy just won the Medal of Honor for his wartime service. But it isn’t long before racism becomes the (literal, figurative) law of the land. Old friends hope to shirk the label of Indian-lover in cowardly obeisance to the emerging right-wing order. It’s a cowardice with a very familiar stench — HUAC contemporaneously, but there’s also a tinge of The Mortal Storm’s domino-effect fascism. It’s this idea that interracial (inter-ideological, by extension?) camaraderie only lasts as long as the rallying cry of the right is in abeyance. But when it thunders (visually literalized to perfection, goddammit John Alton…), it has a way of exposing your ‘friends’ for who they really are — beleaguered backstabbing cretins. Unlike High Noon’s facile misanthropy — people are only cowards insofar as Gary Cooper can emerge as lonesome hero against a gestalt of crestfallen defeat — Devil’s Doorway gets at the honest-to-god ubiquity of moral cowardice. These people are otherwise perfectly ‘brave’ by traditional standards, quick to fight for a plot of land and for the well-being of their livestock. They’re just clinging to bigotry’s mast, more afraid of being accused of disloyalty to the ivory herd than they are to die.

The film is clearly pro-Taylor and anti-townspeople. But when Paula Raymond shows up, the film flirts with rearranging this dynamic for the worse, with Taylor and townspeople representing opposite but equally wrongheaded extremes and Raymond harnessing the objectivity of ‘the law’ to impart enlightenment to victim and victimizer alike. But nah, Mann neutralizes Schary’s milquetoast sermonizing instincts: Raymond is not his mouthpiece. But she is still part of the larger complexity, at times under the spell of law but at others privy to real moral sense – she is sympathetic in noting that the livelihoods of the would-be homesteaders are in jeopardy. But Taylor is sympathetic, righteous, and a few other things besides when he insists, “But do they have the right?” He is (I like to assume, but how can one be sure?) fine to share the fruits of his vast property so long as it’s his to share. But it’s not. Hence, his straightforward resolve: he and his people will not be erased, and if that resolution comes at the cost of a few sheep, then that’s not a problem.

So from the flint-rock of personalized emotions and tragic omens — wounded pride, incremental betrayal, a death in the family — Mann finally strikes at a Shakespearean eruption of epic violence, the only solution to a problem that the law fails (no, refuses) to solve (the anti-legalistic bent of the film is one of its greatest qualities). And God Almighty, it looks and feels like trench warfare (again, hats off to Alton). From a guy riding home from the war, Searchers-style, to the encroaching threat of actual genocide — that’s the escalated trajectory of this endlessly nervy Western. Run-of-the-mill prejudice is more or less equated to Calhern’s blood-curdling incarnation of diffident evil, and the liberal pretense of a fair trial is viewed as no different from an actual lynching. All of these are pathways to Native American erasure. Some are just a bit more polite than others.

It is this series of equivalencies that subsumes an initial bid for complexity into Taylor’s righteous fuck-everything fury. When you and your persecuted people stand the risk of being wiped off the face of the Earth and out of the annals of history, there’s no room to compromise, to take the path of least resistance. Compromise is teased in one glorious moment — a hard axial cut into Taylor’s and Raymond’s lips on the trembling precipice of a kiss — before Taylor backs away: “A hundred years from now it might have worked.” Sure, miscegenation was not going to happen in a 1950 Western. But Mann and screenwriter Guy Trosper play a game of inversion. The romance is unconsummated on Taylor’s terms. He’s calling the shots. He’s not going to compromise, because he’s not such a dope as to believe that Love is more important than the legacy of his tribe. And so Taylor dies and the film is classical tragedy at its best. It’s no wonder Mann made The Furies at about the exact same time.

So what’s, uh, wrong with the film? Besides Robert Taylor in red-face? I don’t really see anything. And speaking of Robert Tyalor in red-face, should that really deter anyone from what is otherwise a stone-cold masterpiece? I mean, I know Taylor wasn’t a great actor, but I think his stolid professionalism is what the part needs. Striving for nuanced, actorly greatness in this role would probably amount to some weird retrograde transracial posturing. Taylor’s just playing it straight. Before too long you don’t even notice the face paint. Western heroic archetypes may have been fashioned with white people in mind, but they ultimately proved more expansive than their makers counted on. Boring ol’ Robert Taylor as a righteous Indian fits comfortably in that mold. It’s a bit off-putting. But it’s also kind of harmonious.

All Walshed Up: THE MAN I LOVE

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The Man I Love | Warner Brothers | Raoul Walsh | 1947

The rottenest people are the best people! Ida Lupino gets a lot of that “cheap hussy” flack, but it doesn’t stick (why would it when Wily Walsh is behind the camera?? No way he’s gonna endorse pejoratives lobbed at his lithe, loose-lipped ladies!). I mean yeah, she wallows in a mucky milieu of mobsters and flounderin’ floozies, but when the going gets tough, her brassy slick talk saves the day in a way that her chaste, snoozeball of a sister (Andrea King) never could! But hey, speaking of sisters, this movie has enough plot for three movies to munch on! Complementing Ida Lupino’s blowouts with Bruce Bennet and Bob Alda is this weird PTSD subplot involving King’s husband that’s so scarcely a story thread it can whip up an ice-cream sundae of a third-act twist without feeling cheap. Yeah, not cheap like that other sister, that Dolores Moran character! Walsh shovels her marital problems into the furnace so yet another, more noir-y subplot can take shape. But Walsh shovels with flair, and the little glimpses of this fucked marriage have some real-world oomph — I mean, not to get all auteurist on you fellas, but Walsh at Warners is all about filling in the cracks in his tough-guy foundation with some really lovely, sensitive stuff. And ya know, that’s why this movie can mélange a lot of prior Warners flicks and one-up every one of ‘em. There’s inklings of Mildred Pierce and Humoresque and even fuckin’ Casablanca, but the verve with which Walsh stirs it all up is what old Hollywood’s all about! Capiche?

Chronicle of a Slummer: LABOR DAYS Pt 2

Howdy folks! Here’s everything else I watched on my break, with artisanal, hand-crafted write-ups fresh from the oven! Enjoy!

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Made for Each Other | David O. Selznick | John Cromwell | 1939

Proto-It’s a Wonderful Life Stewart weighted down by financial difficulties and emoting pure anguish like he probably hadn’t done on screen much (at all?) up to that point (thanks a lot MGM!). Carole Lombard has great chemistry with him, but it’s Charlie Coburn who really steals the show, as always.

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Lessons of Darkness | Werner Herzog | 1992

This is my fav Herzog. Aguirre aside, his canonized fiction features are too…oblong? spacey? anthropologically curious to a conked out fault? Extrinsic conceits of steamer-hauling and hypnotized locals and Krazed Kinski Kalamity, with a bemused deadpan cosmic outlook withdrawing all stakes and facilitating the weird eccentricities that these movies were made to grenade-launch at your face (main offenders: Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde, Heart of Glass, and *gag* Even Dwarfs Started Small). I dunno fellas, I’m kinda iffy on this primitivism fetish, this grotesquerie. Err, I dunno I guess I see its place and enjoy it from time to time, but also don’t think what Herzog’s doing really necessitates feature length films a lot of the time? And maybe I have a preference as to how and when and under what conditions the human race should be gawked at? I dunno!

Lessons, though, was pure image-making with no freakshow anchorage…image-making worthy of its beautiful classical musical accompaniment, and the Herzog voice-over I was gritting my teeth to cringe at getting absorbed into the majesty with ease! Also, I guess I rarely venture into post-60s cinema, but man, helicopter shots are cool right? Feel like they’re aimlessly misused a lot of the time. Not here, though, this is like peak helicopter cinema!

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Satan’s Brew | Rainer Werner Fassbinder | 1976

This fuckin’ sucked! Fassbinder’s default is already sufficiently, naturally, twistedly nuts, I don’t need this try-hard ante-upping screwed ‘n’ balled screwball nonsense!

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The Nun | Jacques Rivette | 1966

Oh god this limestone aesthetic, splotchy textured swaths of gray/beige/cream interrupted on occasion by muted autumnal outdoorsiness that’s still too limited in its twilit gold ’n’ auburn to really puncture or offset those oppressive hues. Basically this is an opportunity to see Rivette accomplishing a certain set of goals that fall outside the out-on-a-limb shadow-conspiracy stuff he’s known for. And those goals are really impressive/ambitious ones, among them an attempt to (apparently? according to Rosenbaum?) channel a Mizoguchi-like camera style into a fittingly depressing story of soul-crushing institutionalism. Check it out!

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Vivacious Lady | RKO | George Stevens | 1938

More early Stewart! Kinda bummed that neither this nor the other JStew I watched for the break — Made for Each Other — were made at MGM, his home base at the time. But based on how much better these movies are than, like, Of Human Hearts, that’s more than okay! Here Stevens/RKO knows to foil his bashful blueblood prissiness against Ginger Rogers’ red-hot cat fight-ready sauciness, and Stewart knows to do this droopy, weary, exasperated thing with his eyes that sets a better tempo for the comedy than any spastic collar-tugging shit you can imagine a lesser actor directed by a lesser director would do. He’s super square but he’s still in the know! And that’s why Rogers love him, by golly. And, whoa! More Charlie Coburn! and Franklin Pangborn! and Beulah Bondi! Grrrrrrreat cast!

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Lady for a Day | Columbia | Frank Capra | 1933

I don’t know why I put this off for so long. Ensemble dexterity twirling in carousel merriment around a wrenching lead performance, with AMERICA as this rose-tinted razor blade of (on the one hand) class pliability and the on-a-dime implosion of uptight officialdom and a confetti-swarm of infectious, liberating good cheer…and (on the other) lots and lots of sadness, self-loathing, class-based psychological terror. Subliminally devastating? Basically, I’m not convinced that May Robson’s (masterfully performed) stop-the-music confession speech, had it arrived at its endpoint uninterrupted, would have gone over as swimmingly as it might have in the typical class-traversal wish-fulfillment fantasy of the era. The glorious sentimentality of everyone coming together to play-act for the benefit of her artificially elevate social standing is, I believe, offset by the sobering realization that this phoniness really and truly is her only option, that, yeah, her fear that her daughter will disown her in the event that her precarious high society jenga tower comes crashing down is absolutely well-founded. There’s something pointedly unsatisfying here, and I think it’s written on Robson’s face at the end (speaking of which, like Westward the Women, this one was another bawler 😦 ).

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Fear | Roberto Rossellini | 1954

Hey, I liked this! I like Rossellini a lot more now that I’m not trying to play auteurist games with him. Like I think analyzing and codifying and Tag Gallaghering his “style” dilutes him so much, even more so than most auteurs. Cuz his approach is so intuitive/organic, with a pungent flavor that can’t be replicated in a lab! And speaking of labs, I like how the scientist husband kinda looks like Rossellini and the irony that Ross himself would prob be threatening to drunkenly drive one of his fancy racing cars into a tree were these events to unfold in real life. Anyway, I like the melodrama, the pacing, the simplicity, the miraculousness and the themes of justness/punishment vs. rightness/mercy, but I HATE how dumb it is that caging movies into thematic trilogies leaves works like this out in the blistering cold.

Wake to Westness: WESTWARD THE WOMEN

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Westward the Women | MGM | William A. Wellman | 1951

This…this…THIS is a Western! I mean, jesus. It started out cute and fun, like “oh this is a clever idea for a Western” and “yeah, Wellman’s good for this chummy collective stuff [e.g. Wild Boys of the Road, The Lady of Burlesque, Battleground]” but this went beyond chummy into wrenching tests of character and bravery hovering above little private personal anxiety-ridden solo-stories determinedly sublimated to the collective effort! the mass journey! Wellman is so cool about capturing rock formations and dust clouds and creaky wagon wheels and even the tatteredness of pioneer garb and the battered physiognomies of his no-stars-admitted cast of women that the whole movie is pure texture, with no bold chiaroscuro compositions privileging handsome human forms against the surrounding wilderness. it’s all pain, it’s all grit, it’s all WESTNESS. And unlike most movies of this nature, there’s a very real palpable sense, by the end, of having traversed an impossible divide, of having risked it all, of having sidled along the ramparts of hell itself, so that the payoff — the matchmaking en masse and turnstile weddings, with a lot of maybe-disappointments cloaked in the quietude of maybe-discomfort that, in one perfectly timed instant, scatter to the wind while the merry men and women get to minglin’ — this payoff, weird and antiquated and progressive but most importantly gloriously deserved and smile-inducingly cathartic — THIS PAYOFF GOT ME A CRYIN’. That’s right, pardners, i said a bawlin’. It was beautiful beyond words!

Credit to the hirthological imperatives for inspiring this viewing! Yee haw!

Chronicle of a Slummer: LABOR DAYS Pt 1

Labor Day Weekend, the time of year where any good system-gaming worker knows to shave some extra days off and reap the (in my case) five-day rewards! As you can see below, I have really and truly kicked it all off with a bang!

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The Garden of Women | Keisuke Kinoshita | 1954

My idea of cultural vegetables at this juncture of my filmgoing is all the so-called arthouse-tagged stuff outside the glorious Old Hollywood cosmos. When it comes to Japanese cinema I only know some of the basic constellations and so feel ill-equipped to really haggle about history or act authoritative or exude expertise. My response to this random Kinoshita that popped up on my Hulu watchlist and that I decided would be a nice blindspot filler for the evening basically boils down to its status as (maybe?) a precedent of sorts to Night and Fog in Japan (allowing, naturally, for many other leftist beads that might be threaded thru the postwar years that I have no idea about). As what it is — a movie about students at an all women college in righteous revolt against the authoritarian superstructure — it’s really good, methinks. There’s this first-act morass of stifling pedagogical fascism that withholds any characterization for a good fifteen minutes, which is just one structural ingredient in this perfectly strategically paced 2.5hr runtime whereby a nice slow simmering of braised tension is incrementally brought to an apoplectic boil. But what’s most impressive is the ambiguity, the pointed ambiguity, concerning the proliferation of faulthood, the privileged left hijacking the more incremental and actionable causes of the truly marginalized, and the inability for any of the film’s many sermons to win out against the others. Truly, this is one fine, fiery flick!

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The Patsy | MGM | King Vidor | 1928

This, on the other hand, is pure politix-less Americana! The social imbalances of family life are gnawing but hilarious, Marie Dressler’s bulgy mobility is like she’s made of plasma, or like the Fleischers’ squash-and-stretch animation was based entirely on her, and there are these great little drudgery-puncturing turning points in the story, like when it cuts from that snooty party to Mr. Speedboat veering into port. Oh, also, this is a good movie to watch to learn how great intertitles are. So witty! It’s like its own dual comedy channel bobbing and weaving with the slapstick. Love those silents.

I hope your Labor Day Weekend Movie Marathon is going as well as mine! Till next time, pals!

Jules Rules! — THE CANTERVILLE GHOST

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The Canterville Ghost | MGM | Jules Dassin | 1944

The irresistible prospect of Charles Laughton doing Oscar Wilde, bulldozed and pasteurized into…WWII propaganda? MGM, at its worst, was pestilential, a plague of sugar-stuffed locusts on the most promising material. Peter Lawford’s screech-voice opens the picture before passing the baton to Laughton’s blubbery sub-Ray Bolger antics. Robert Young’s trademarked personality-lessness wants to foil against but instead just droopily overlays the rest of his army cornballs to castrate and fabulize the very idea of military combat/heroism/existence so that it becomes the stuff of cozy fireside yuk-yuks.  Margaret O’Brien is the majestically infantilized proxy for the solipsistic audience who wants to believe in this no man’s fantasy land.  Who was the genius who came up with “Oscar Wilde–but for kids!….and with Nazis?”  Thanks be to God I quickly washed the taste out with Night and Fog in Japan!

THE NEON DEMON

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The Neon Demon | Nicolas Winding Refn | 2016

It’s like The Neon Demon grabbed a bouquet of lava lamp balloons, floated to peak neo-giallo stylization, but then (sadly) continued to float on into deep space and asphyxiation by atmospheric pressure. Strained Seriousness? More like Strobe-lit Strenuousness (a far cry from the PanthNEON (heh)). Nicolas Winding Refn is an egomaniacal dope, fellas, too much of a vacuous graph-paper conceptual artist to have anything to say about the showbiz vacuity that is the metaphorically bludgeoned subject of his film. It feels like he chipped off a shard or two of David Cronenberg’s vision for Maps to the Stars (a true masterpiece!) and just endlessly lacquered it in the fetishistic mediaphilic self-devouring aestheticism that is this dweeb’s specialty. It’s cinematic Pop Rocks, a gnarly sensory experience until the last crackle goes off and all that’s left is the taste of artificial sugary goop. No wonder wigwam loved this…