The Godfather of Gore: 34 Lucio Fulci films, ranked

The Godfather of Gore: 34 Lucio Fulci films, ranked

I’ve watched every Lucio Fulci movie except for some of his early comedies over the last couple of months (indeed, I watched many of them twice), and I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve always been more of an Argento and Bava guy, but no more: I am 100% onboard the Fulci train. I can’t get enough eyes getting stabbed, sinister cats, and awesome Fabio Frizzi music. My next move is to dig into Sergio Martino and various 70’s giallos by people other than Bava, Argento and Fulci. I may also go back and watch the Bava giallos in Italian. I’ve learned that Italian is usually the best choice for Bava. Fulci and Argento you can watch mostly in English, though I strongly prefer the Italian director’s cut of Deep Red over the edited English version. I’ve noted the few Fulci films that I think should be watched in Italian. Enjoy!

PSA: most of the Fulci on Amazon is in the wrong aspect ratio and in bad quality. Shudder is better. Also, as noted below, Conquest is on the Shout Factory app.

34) Silver Saddle (1978)

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This and Door to Silence are the only Fulci movies that can be described as “tame.” There are a few moments of inspiration, but not enough to overcome the annoying child factor.

33) The Sweet House of Horrors (1989)

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This and House of Clocks are two haunted house movies that Fulci made for a TV series that never aired because it was too gory. There are a few fantastic things in this movie but the production quality is abysmal and the kids are super, super annoying.

32) Door to Silence (1991)

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Great premise: business man gets stuck in traffic by a funeral procession… but is it his own funeral? The New Orleans setting is vivid. But again the production quality is terrible and this is ultimately toothless.

31) Touch of Death (1988)

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Late horror-comedy. It’s suitably nasty and the high points are high but it’s very repetitive.

30) Sodoma’s Ghost (1988)

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Haunted house movie where a group of Nazis are killed by a bombing in the middle of an orgy and then haunt a group of teenagers many years later. It’s pretty bad but it’s so perverse and bonkers that I give it a marginal thumbs up.

29) My Sister in Law [aka La Pretora] (1976)

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One of the two Fulci comedies I watched. This one is a fairly raunchy sex comedy starring 70’s genre icon Edvige Fenech. The premise is great: she plays an imperious magistrate who is about to send a crooked businessman to jail for selling dog food as goulash. But she has an identical twin sister who works as a prostitute, and the businessman and his conspirators hire the twin sister to engage in all sorts of indecent activities to ruin the judge’s reputation and force her off the bench before she can hand down a sentence. Things do not go as planned. It has tedious stretches but overall I enjoyed it.

28) The House of Clocks (1989)

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The other made for TV haunted house movie that was too gory to actually air. This one also has pretty lousy production quality but it’s so insane that it’s overall appealing. An old couple live in a house full of clocks. A gang of home invaders murders them. The clocks start running backwards and the home invaders get stuck in a time loop (the rules of which are incomprehensible) where they are terrorized by the couple they killed.

27) The Eroticist [aka The Senator Likes Women] (1972)

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The other comedy I watched. This is about a senator who tries to be chaste but who experiences an uncontrollable compulsion to grab every ass he sees (heads of state, nuns, priests, doctors, etc.). There’s a lot of material digging at the Catholic church where they try to manipulate the senator for their own nefarious purposes. This is about 20 minutes too long and the papal-political machinations grow tiresome, but the high points here are incredible (particularly the dream sequence).

26) New Gladiators [aka Warriors of the Year 2072] (1984)

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This was an attempt to capitalize on the success of Escape from New York and Mad Max in the Italian Exploitation milieu. It is completely batshit. The action scenes are incomprehensible and the movie drags for stretches, but there are enough insane Fulci touches to sustain interest. Like, there’s a scene where they meet the designer of a supercomputer. It could have been a pretty mundane scene but instead it’s like “MY MACHINE HAS A SOUL!!!!”

25) Challenge to White Fang (aka The Return of White Fang) (1974)

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Everything from here on up I really like. This sequel doesn’t stand up to the first one but it is a delight in its own right. Fulci turned White Fang into a fusion of a Spaghetti Western and family animal drama, balancing equal parts brutality and sentimentality. The great Franco Nero plays the Man With No Name/Jack London figure. This one doesn’t have quite as good a story or supporting cast as the first one but there’s a dog vs. eagle battle and lots of other delightful touches.

24) Voices from Beyond (1991)

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Delightful late effort featuring one of Fulci’s craziest dream sequences. This is about an asshole patriarch who is murdered in a manner that makes his death appear to be due to natural causes. But he is able to telepathically communicate with his daughter from beyond the grave and he leads her to investigate his murder.

23) Demonia (1990)

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Fulci does nunsploitation! An archaeologist has wild visions of an orgy cult of nun witches and is drawn to the ruins of a monastery where a group of nuns was crucified 500 years earlier. One of his better late efforts.

22) Aenigma (1987)

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Very campy mean girls 80’s boarding school horror. The popular kids play a cruel practical joke on the outcast daughter of the school’s cleaning lady, which leaves her in a coma. She telepathically murders them one by one. Tons of snails.

21) Zombie 3 (1988)

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This is a total mess, and that’s the whole point. Fulci was unable to finish this and it was completed by genre madman Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso, notorious screenwriter and the director of Troll 2. A zombie supervirus escapes from a military testing facility after a terrorist attack and infects an entire flock of birds. Mayhem ensues.

20) A Cat in the Brain (1990)

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Fulci’s 8 1/2. For Fulci fans only, and I recommend watching it only after seeing most of his horror films. He plays himself, driven mad by his own perverse imagination as he works on the films Sodoma’s Ghost and Touch of Death. He visits a therapist, who turns out to be a crazed murderer who frames Fulci for his own crimes. Fulci’s sense of reality breaks down and he’s not sure what’s real and what he’s imagining. The ending is oddly heartwarming if you love the man– it feels like a warm goodbye from the Godfather of Gore. Watch this one in Italian.

19) Murder-Rock: Dancing Death [aka Slashdance, aka Murder Rock] (1984)

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Campy 80’s ballet school giallo where the nicest slasher ever painlessly kills their victims with a hairpin after knocking them out. Fulci was forced to turn this into a musical to capitalize on the success of Flashdance, and the result is delightful.

18) Massacre Time [aka The Brute and the Beast] (1966)

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The earliest Fulci film of broad interest. This is an excellent Spaghetti Western starring Franco Nero and George Hilton. The script is by Fernando Di Leo, who wrote the first two parts of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, and his voice shines through clearly. This feels like a meaner, nastier, more lurid Fistful of Dollars. Highly recommended both to Fulci fans and Spaghetti Western connoisseurs. I recommend watching this one in Italian with subtitles (as for most Franco Nero movies, though I prefer the English dub for White Fang and its sequel).

17) White Fang (1973)

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This is totally excellent. Franco Nero plays a Jack London figure named Jason Scott who visits Dawson City in the Yukon during the Gold Rush. The sublimely creepy John Steiner plays the town’s resident robber baron, Beauty Smith. He bleeds the miners dry with the cooperation of a debauched priest played by the legendary Fernando Rey. Nero takes the side of an Eskimo family wronged by Beauty Smith and we get a classic Spaghetti Western war between the corrupt local power-brokers and the mysterious stranger. The twist is that he’s aided along the way by White Fang, and the movie is about 30% sentimental animal drama. I love it.

16) One on Top of the Other [aka Perversion Story] (1969)

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Fulci’s exploitation revisioning of Vertigo, starring Jean Sorel and genre icon Marisa Mel. In this version, the Kim Novak character (played by Mel) is an exotic dancer and prostitute. This and De Palma’s Obsession are the two great ultra-lurid Vertigo homages.

15) The Black Cat (1981)

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Very fun Poe riff with some giallo trappings. It’s not really a giallo, because we know all along that the killer is the cat, but there is a mystery about what the hell is up with this cat and its creepy psychic owner (played by Patrick Magee, who you’ll remember as the unfortunate writer from A Clockwork Orange).

14) Beatrice Cenci [aka The Conspiracy of Torture] (1969)

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Fulci does… um… historical drama. Beatrice Cenci was a real historical figure, famous for her bizarre murder trial. Fulci of course focuses on all the nastiest bits. The narrative is fractured and non-linear, with brilliant editing, and this film represents a big leap in the development of his style. I watched this in Italian and liked it that way. I’m not sure if an English dub exists.

13) Manhattan Baby [aka Eye of the Evil Dead] (1982)

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This one doesn’t have as much gore and it wasn’t as immediately appealing to me, but once I watched it a second time I realized how insane it is. An archaeologist enrages some spirits by defiling an Egyptian tomb, and his daughter is given an evil magical talisman by a blind woman in the market and brings it back to the USA with her. The vengeance of dark forces ensues.

12) The New York Ripper (1982)

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This is Fulci’s second sleaziest movie, after The Devil’s Honey. It’s a slasher flick set in grimy pre-Giuliani New York City. This is pretty gruesome, but it has a core of angry feminism: every single man in this movie is a disgusting creep, and the film’s horror is drawn from the inescapable terror of being a woman in a world full of men. The killer talks like Donald Duck (!).

11) Contraband [aka The Smuggler] (1980)

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Fulci’s one poliziotteschi, and it’s a doozy. Four words: sulfur pit knife fight. This is a super mean and nasty movie. I recommend watching it in Italian with subtitles. The overall quality of the English audio track is a little better but the voice acting on the English dub is just terrible, and it takes away from how badass this thing is.

10) The House by the Cemetery (1981)

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My least favorite of the Gates of Hell trilogy, but still amazing. Dr. Norman Boyle takes his family to live in an extremely creepy old mansion in New England. As others have pointed out, what makes this special among haunted house movies is that there’s nothing forcing them to stay there except Norman’s arrogant male confidence that he’s got it all under control. This is full of terrifying omens and crazy Fulci editing.

9) Four of the Apocalypse (1975)

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The most bizarre Spaghetti Western I’ve ever seen. Fabio Testi stars. An oddball group of four prisoners in a small town jail are sent packing. They are given peyote by sadistic bandit Chaco, which does not go well. They end up hiding out in a ghost town and things just get nuts.

8) The Devil’s Honey (1986)

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Softcore exploitation mayhem. You’ve got a saxophone player with an unhealthy dom-sub relationship with sultry Jessica. He dies. She blames his doctor, who she terrorizes, with the result that she finally becomes the dominant one. This is at the far extreme of sleaze in Fulci’s filmography, and it’s a blast. I liked the Italian audio track much better than the English dubbing but the subs I had were just a transcription of the English dub, so they didn’t always sync up with the Italian. When I watch it again I’m going to look for better subs.

7) Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)

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Excellent giallo about a series of child murders in a small village. Great cast includes Florinda Bolkan as a crazed witch and Barbara Bouchet as a rich girl from Milan lying low after a scandal. Bouchet teams up with a journalist to investigate the killings. This and the next two are Fulci’s three great classic giallos. They’re all high points of the genre.

6) The Psychic [aka Seven Notes in Black] (1977)

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The only Fulci movie I would describe as “classy.” This is a very tight giallo with a strong narrative and relatively minimal luridness. A psychic has visions of a murder in a country villa owned by her husband. She finds a corpse in the wall, and her wealthy businessman husband is arrested. She teams up with a paranormal researcher to try to exonerate him. Things get twisty. All of Fabio Frizzi’s Fulci scores are great, but his work here is particularly memorable.

5) A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)

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My favorite Fulci giallo (though I must say it was a difficult choice). Well-behaved rich wife of a philandering lawyer has kinky dreams about her hard-partying neighbor Julia. She dreams about murdering Julia, who is indeed murdered, and she investigates the mystery while fearing that she may in fact be the murderer. Lurid, twisty, and perfect.

4) City of the Living Dead (1980)

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Part of the Gates of Hell trilogy. The suicide of a priest opens up a gate to hell in a small town. A psychic makes contact with the priest during a seance and suddenly dies, but then returns from the dead. She seeks out the small town along with a journalist, and all sorts of mayhem ensues. This is full-on Fulci madness, with batshit editing and production design.

3) Zombie [aka Zombi 2] (1979)

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The titling is a little confusing: there’s a Zombi 2 and a Zombi 3, but there’s no Zombi by Fulci. Zombie is the American title of Zombi 2. It’s called Zombi 2 because it’s an unofficial sequel to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (itself a sequel to Night of the Living Dead), which was released in Italy as Zombi. This gory monstrosity connects the Romero universe with the original zombie masterpiece, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie. The roots of the zombie apocalypse are traced back to the transgressions of colonialism, which is vastly more interesting than the sort of sci fi explanation we often get in crappy zombie movies nowadays. This movie famously features the most incredible shark vs. zombie confrontation of all time.

2) Conquest (1983)

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One of my great regrets in life is that I did not discover this as a kid. This sword & sorcery flick was an attempt to capitalize on the success of Conan the Barbarian, but Fulci took it to an unsurpassed level of visionary madness. The entire film is shot through an aggressively foggy lens filter, and then he pumped as much fog as he possibly could into every scene. The result is like a transmission from another dimension. Handsome young adventurer Illias is given a magic bow by the god Cronos, which it turns out is the only weapon that can kill the evil witch Ocron. Ocron sends her army of werewolves to retrieve the bow, promising that she will take away the sun for all time. Illias teams up with an older misanthropic loner played by Jorge Rivero, and their relationship simmers with delightful homoerotic subtext. Things just get more and more insane from there as Ocron redoubles her efforts and performs all sorts of pagan rituals.  There’s an easy way to see this in the proper aspect ratio in good quality: the Shout Factory App, which I was able to download on my Roku player.

1) The Beyond (1981)

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The greatest entry in the Gates of Hell trilogy, this is the apocalypse distilled down to 87 minutes of cinematic doom. The finale of The Beyond is arguably the most insane, abstract stretch of film in the entire horror genre. Roger Ebert wrote a famously vitriolic negative review of this, where he reveals exactly who The Beyond is not meant for: fuddy-duddies who think that narrative continuity matters and horror dialogue should aim to imitate generic prestige pictures. No, sir, you will not find much narrative continuity or MFA dialogue in The Beyond. What you will find is buckets of gore, virtuoso editing, and one of the greatest horror scores of all time.

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Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 5

Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 5

Featured image from City of the Living Dead

Amazon Prime is still the clear winner, though it drives me nuts how many titles they have in unwatchably poor quality. Everything I’m recommending has been vetted for quality and correct aspect ratio. Hulu has a few gems, and Netflix has some worthwhile stuff, but their app seems to be getting more obnoxious by the day.

Amazon Prime

The Terrorizers (Edward Yang)

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Edward Yang is best known in the west for his seminal masterpiece Yi Yi, but his entire body of work is extremely worthwhile. If you’re foggy about 20th century Taiwanese history, it’s worth brushing up before watching this (Wikipedia will do). The Terrorizers is a multi-narrative city symphony set in Taipei that uses themes of interconnectedness and coincidence to examine globalization. Antonioni’s Blow Up is a key point of reference. It traces the far-reaching consequences of a crank call.

City of the Living Dead (Fulci)

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I have been on a huge Fulci kick this summer. City of the Living Dead is part of his Gates of Hell trilogy, along with The Beyond (which is on my all-time horror top ten list) and The House by the Cemetery. These movies are among the most abstract in the horror canon, more concerned with creating an overwhelming feeling of impending doom than with narrative. In this one, a psychic and a reporter seek to close a gate to hell opened by the suicide of a priest. A word of warning: there’s tons of Fulci on amazon, but most of it is in the wrong aspect ratio and in terrible quality. Shudder is better, and a lot of Fulci has been restored and released on blu-ray the last few years.

Unsane (Soderbergh)

As I said in my last post, I loved it! It’s one of the best thrillers in recent memory, and I found it extremely stressful to watch.

The River (Tsai Ming-liang)

Extraordinarily depressing. Chronic pain: the movie, more or less. But it’s entirely worth engaging with if you don’t mind ruining your day.

The Ninth Gate (Polanski)

Have people seen this? I don’t really know. It’s long and deliberate, so be in the mood to be patient, but it’s also really great and I consider it essential. Polanski is the master of the slow burn. He has a unique ability to render all sorts of seemingly inconsequential details grim and foreboding. Johnny Depp (before he got terrible) plays a rare book seller looking for a satanic tome. The payoff is tremendous.

The Long Riders (Walter Hill)

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Awesome Jesse James western by the great Walter Hill, starring four sets of real-life brothers (Keaches, Carradines, Quaids, and Guests).

Frozen (Green)

Nope, not the Disney frozen. This is the one and only “stuck on a ski lift” horror movie you ever need to see. It’s trash, but I appreciate how thoroughly it mines its premise (even while being exceptionally dumb). Yes, there are wolves.

The Manchurian Candidate (Demme)

The Strohl brothers are longtime fans of this film. I think it’s one of the best remakes ever. It complements the Frankenheimer masterpiece beautifully. It’s aged well, and is more relevant now than ever. Great Denzel performance, and Meryl Streep lives up to Angela Lansbury. If you haven’t seen it, or if you shrugged at it when it came out, I recommend checking it out.

La Moustache (Carrère)

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I’ve long been a fan of this odd little absurdist gem. Vincent London stars as a man who’s worn a mustache his entire adult life. One day he shaves it, but no one notices, and indeed they all insist that he never had a mustache. Things go haywire from there. I haven’t rewatched this in a long time but I wonder if it would take on new resonances now that gaslighting is a mainstream concept?

The Forest for the Trees (Ade)

Maren Ade’s wonderful films Tony Erdmann and Everyone Else got quite a bit of traction in the US, but her first film is more of a rarity. I saw it back when it came out and really liked it, and I was pleased to see it show up on Prime. It’s about an awkward schoolteacher starting a new job and dealing with social alienation. It’s been a while, but I remember it being very squirmy-cringey and psychologically incisive.

 

Hulu

The Duchess of Langeais (aka Don’t Touch the Axe) (Rivette)

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Yes! Anyone who’s been reading my film writing knows how deeply I love Jacques Rivette. This is one of his most accessible films, and a perfectly fine place to start. It’s a Balzac adaptation, thematically concerned with unrequited love.

Johnny Guitar (N. Ray)

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Yep, Johnny Guitar is on hulu. One of the greatest westerns, and one of the most gender-subversive films of its time thanks to Joan Crawford’s iconic performance. If you haven’t seen it, you must.

Bastards (Denis)

Claire Denis’ bleak and nasty noir about a dark family secret. The major point of reference is Jacques Rivette’s masterpiece Secret Defense. I thought this was one of the two or three best movies of 2013.

Mad Detective (To)

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In the running for Johnnie To’s weirdest movie. It’s about a detective who can see a person’s inner personalities. He had to retire due to mental illness but is brought back to help with a cold case.

 

Netflix

Alexander: The Ultimate Cut (Stone)

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If you gave up on Alexander after the theatrical cut, you’ve missed out on a lot. This is the *fourth* cut of the film, and it’s Stone’s preferred version. I love it. If you have three and a half hours to spare, here’s a good way to spend it.

Man of Tai Chi (Reeves)

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Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut is frickin’ awesome. Excellent martial arts picture.

Lifeline (Johnnie To)

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Good place to start with Johnnie To. I think I recommended this once already, but it wasn’t on Netflix. This is a firefighter thriller (think “Backdraft but good”). There’s a little bit of story, but it’s mostly action. There are far greater works in To’s filmography (of course he’s best known for his crime cinema) but I wouldn’t skip this one.

Beyond Skyline (O’Donnell)

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Extremely weird and trashy sci fi B-movie. If you have an appetite for this sort of thing, it’s delightful. I watched it twice.

Enemy (Villeneuve)

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I love this movie! I’ve gotten the sense that not many others like it as much as I do, but I’m undeterred in recommending it. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a history professor who discovers that he has a doppelgänger. He starts stalking his double and things get weird from there.

 

The first three films of 2018 that I’ve loved

The first three films of 2018 that I’ve loved

Featured image from First Reformed 

First Reformed

First Reformed is easily the movie of the year so far for me. I’m pretty into latter day Paul Schrader, and I’m glad that he’s been able to get final cut for his last two movies (this and Dog Eat Dog). This one is extremely referential, and it’s helpful to be familiar with his influences. The biggest points of reference that I picked up on are Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and The Devil, Probably, Dreyer’s Ordet, Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, and John Huston’s Wise Blood. It’s also an important bit of background to know that Schrader was raised Calvinist.

First Reformed is very much of the age of Trump. In that respect it is *bleak*, but not unremittingly so. I want to be careful to avoid saying much about the ending, but it does have a degree of spiritual hopefulness. The basic set up here is that Ethan Hawke plays an alcoholic pastor with a traumatic past at a historic church in Upstate NY that hardly anyone attends. At the request of the man’s pregnant wife, he meets and counsels a suicidal environmental activist overwhelmed by despair at impending global catastrophe. Things spiral into insanity from there.

I admit that I cringed when the environmentalist theme first surfaced. There are few things that I find less interesting in art than didactic environmentalism. But whoa was I wrong to be concerned about where this was going! It turns out to be less Cowspiracy and more The Devil, Probably. Schrader is interested in a broad idea of jihadism as encompassing Trumpist Christianity and militant environmentalism (clashing amidst fire and brimstone over the fate of the world!), and he is interested in it from a psychological rather than a moralistic point of view. How does one live with the belief that the apocalypse is upon us? It’s seemed to me for a while that a lot people who are really hardcore about zero waste, maximum sustainability, etc. are partly motivated by existential dread. The ongoing ritual of making small, futile efforts to do a little bit less to hasten the apocalypse must do something to ameliorate despair. The focus on amelioration is what I find uninteresting about a lot of artworks on the subject. Schrader’s film, on the other hand, burrows into the underlying existential dread and looks it right in the eye. And it is fucking harrowing.

Unsane

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Unsane was incredibly stressful for me to watch. I have a phobia of involuntary confinement, and so I’m particularly vulnerable to thrillers about people getting locked up unjustifiably and falling under the power of malign forces. There are a lot of suspense moves out there concerned with involuntary confinement, and this is one of the best. The major point of reference here is Fuller’s Shock Corridor. Soderbergh shot this on an iPhone, which I was afraid would come across as gimmicky. Nope. It seemed to me like he did this because it was the best tool for the job. The virtue of the iPhone here is its mobility and compactness. Unsane is full of shots that couldn’t have been filmed with a more cumbersome camera. The mise-en-scène is on point throughout. I also thought Claire Foy was great in the lead role. This is the best thriller I’ve seen in a while.

Double Lover

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I’ve watched several of Ozon’s early works recently, and I’ve been looking forward to this. His early stuff has what my brother aptly describes as “an impish, De Palma-meets-John Waters quality.” His middle and later stuff is kind of all over the place. This new one gets back to his roots. If you’re into De Palma/Cronenberg-style luridness, then this is the movie for you. This and Verhoeven’s Elle are the only recent movies I can think of that really scratch that itch.

Double Lover gives no fucks about making sense. Expect lots of weird hallucinations, psychosexual twin fixations, cats, transgressive imagery, and explicit sex. Stay away if easily disturbed by this sort of subject matter.

***

In summary, I would say that First Reformed is the true masterpiece of the three, Unsane is a great display of genre craftsmanship, and Double Lover is just wildly enjoyable (at least for me).

Film Diary vol 6: Minnelli, Gosha, etc.

Film Diary vol 6: Minnelli, Gosha, etc.

Featured image from The Pirate

Alongside the May ’68 viewing project I posted about last week, I mostly went for very different sorts of movies that would function as palette cleansers amidst all the political radicalism. I watched a ton of Vincente Minnelli (classic Hollywood) and Hideo Gosha (Japanese genre fare) along with an assortment of other random stuff.

Favorites are highlighted in bold. 

Vincente Minnelli

During the last year, I watched Minnelli’s classic musicals Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and The Band Wagon (1953) and was completely blown away by them. I consider both to be among the very best American musicals. I had only seen a handful of Minnelli movies before and I resolved to do a deep dive into his filmography sometime in the near future. When I heard that Time Warner was putting the Warner Bros archive on Filmstruck, my first thought was “oooooooh I bet there’s gonna be a boatload of Minnelli.” Sure enough, just a few weeks later I logged in to find a 25 film Minnelli feature (I try to avoid reading what’s coming soon on Filmstruck so that I can enjoy the surprise when I log in). I had lots of plans for other things I wanted to watch, but I suspended most of them and dove in. Aside from Meet Me in St. Louis and The Band Wagon, I watched every movie in the feature except one. That one was The Reluctant Debutante, which I tried twice and could not get into (too many squealing British ladies). I’ll go back and watch it if I get to the point where I’ve seen every single other Minnelli movie (I think I have maybe 4-5 others left depending on whether you count titles that he only directed part of). I’m going to give at least a brief comment on every title:

Cabin in the Sky (1943)

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Musical about a murdered sinner who gets a chance to return to Earth and reform himself, with an all-black cast and Busby Berkeley choreography. There’s a delightful appearance from Louis Armstrong and a big number with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. It’s very good but not great.

The Clock (1945)

Much better than I thought it would be. It’s a sort of WWII Before Sunrise, where Robert Walker has 48 hours before shipping off and randomly meets Judy Garland in Penn Station. They have a whirlwind romance but accidentally get separated and need to figure out how to find each other. The energetic, stylized direction elevates the material, and Garland’s performance (her first without song and dance) is excellent.

Yolanda and the Thief (1945)

This one wasn’t on Filmstruck. Lucille Bremer plays a naïve heiress, fresh from the convent, while Fred Astaire plays a charming con man who poses as her guardian angel as a ruse to relieve her of her fortune (but eventually falls for her). I was shocked to learn that this was a huge flop, but now that I’ve thought about it more, I’m not so surprised. There’s a 16 minute surrealistic dance number where some of the dancing is in a different meter than the music. This movie was just too far outside the box at a time when audiences had fairly rigid expectations for musicals. Highly recommended.

The Pirate (1948)

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I love it, I love it, I love it. Judy Garland plays a sheltered young woman living in the Caribbean who fantasizes about being swept away by the legendary pirate Mack “the Black” Macoco. Against her will, her parents arrange her marriage to the repellent town mayor. Meanwhile, a traveling circus comes to town featuring Gene Kelly as a womanizing circus leader/hypnotist. He discovers Garland’s fantasy and launches a ploy to pose as the pirate of her dreams. Hijinks ensue. I haven’t investigated this suspicion but I have the sense that Renoir’s 50’s work was highly influenced by Minnelli. I see the influence of Meet Me in St. Louis in The River and the influence of The Pirate in The Golden Coach. 

Madame Bovary (1949)

Not the most faithful Bovary adaptation, but entertaining as a Hollywood melodrama with Emma Bovary as a sort of femme fatale. The film ran up against the Hays Code, which Minnelli addressed head on with an obscenity trial framing device. This might have been intolerable, but Flaubert is played by James Mason, and I could enjoy listening to James Mason read instruction manuals.

Father of the Bride (1950), Father’s Little Dividend (1951)

Eh, I’ve seen these more than once before and they have a great cast (Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett, Elizabeth Taylor) but they’re pretty forgettable in the context of Minnelli’s filmography, which is full of much finer treasures.

An American in Paris (1951)

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An old favorite, with Gene Kelly as an American GI turned bohemian painter living in Paris and introducing ballerina Leslie Caron as the leading lady. Kelly’s dance choreography and Gershwin’s music are immensely pleasant, but the parts are greater than the whole and I would rank this solidly behind The Band Wagon.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Peak Lana Turner! Along with Two Weeks in Another Town, part of a pair of fantastic films Minnelli made with Kirk Douglas about making movies. Here Douglas plays a gifted movie producer (often taken to be a hybrid of David O. Selznick and Val Lewton) who gets closely involved with the creative aspects of his films but alienates everyone he’s close to and ruins his career. The movie looks back over his life when he asks a director, an actress, and a writer from his past to collaborate on a comeback project. Each of them tells the story of their relationship with Douglas’ character. They all claim he ruined their lives, but their stories reveal that they actually owe their current success to him. Lana Turner losing it in the car is all time.

The Story of Three Loves (1953)

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For an anthology film, this is frickin’ awesome. There’s a ridiculous ocean liner framing device and then three romance stories. The first is just incredible. James Mason plays an imperious ballet director and ballerina Moira Shearer (in one of her few film performances) plays a would-be professional dancer with a heart condition. You can probably imagine what happens (Rite of Spring-esque); it’s beautiful and heartbreaking and Mason and Shearer are so, so good. The second segment is the weakest of the three. It’s a really creepy antecedent to Big, with Ethel Barrymore stealing the show as a witch who turns a young Ricky Nelson into Farley Granger, who then proceeds to romance his governess (Leslie Caron). The third story stars Kirk Douglas in perhaps the most harrowing existential trapeze thriller of all time. Death drive, Holocaust trauma, no net. It’s really tremendous.

The Long, Long Trailer (1954)

I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch this Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz vehicle, but my concerns were entirely misplaced. It’s hilarious from start to finish. Basically, wife persuades her husband to buy an obscenely oversized mobile home and hijinks ensue.

Brigadoon (1954)

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Lovely Gene Kelly-Cyd Charisse musical (co-starring an excellent Van Johnson) about a mystical town in the Scottish highlands that appears only one day every hundred years. The premise strains suspension of disbelief but it works as a metaphor for the longing to stay in a magical movie world after the credits have rolled.

The Cobweb (1955)

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Mental hospital melodrama where the McGuffin is drapes. Many of the characters become embroiled in a conflict over who gets to pick the new drapes. It’s remarkable how much mileage is squeezed out of this conflict. The excellent ensemble cast includes Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, Lillian Gish, Richard Widmark and Gloria Grahame. This movie has a cult following, though I personally didn’t like it as much as some of Minnelli’s other melodramas.

Lust for Life (1956)

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Goofy, ridiculous, entertaining van Gogh biopic starring a very over-the-top Kirk Douglas. Anthony Quinn plays Gauguin!

Tea and Sympathy (1956)

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This is one of Minnelli’s finest films and possibly the best movie ever made about the way men are socialized. Deborah Kerr and John Kerr (no relation) star. The former brilliantly plays Laura, the wife of the headmaster of a boys’ school, while the latter plays Tom, a sensitive student. Tom is teased mercilessly by his peers and prodded to conform to gender expectations by the headmaster. Laura bonds with him and tries to protect and nurture him, and sexual chemistry develops between them. There is an unreconciled and extremely interesting tension between the subtextual implication that Tom’s character is gay and the forbidden heterosexual romance narrative.

Designing Woman (1957)

The worst Minnelli movie I’ve seen. Gregory Peck comes across as a poor man’s Cary Grant while Lauren Bacall does a halfway decent Katharine Hepburn. There is no chemistry whatsoever between them. The mean-spirited “punch drunk” jokes at the expense of a disabled character have not aged well.

Gigi (1958)

Gigi has not aged well either. Maurice Chevalier’s “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” musical number is unspeakably creepy. There are some redeeming moments but this is bottom-tier Minnelli for me.

Some Came Running (1958)

Excellent postwar melodrama (based on the James Jones novel), starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Shirley MacLaine. I recommend it heartily.

Home from the Hill (1960)

Another Cinemascope melodrama, starring Eleanor Parker, George Hamilton, and a phenomenal Robert Mitchum. Mitchum plays a wealthy, philandering, brutish Texas patriarch who tries to make a man of his mollycoddled son. It’s sort of a cross between Tea and Sympathy and Written on the Wind.

Bells are Ringing (1960)

Musical comedy starring Dean Martin and Judy Holliday. She works for an answering service; he’s a client and a struggling playwright; there’s a romance. I didn’t like it.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962)

This production was a disaster. Minnelli didn’t want to make the movie, and when he did agree to make it he wanted Alain Delon to star. He ended up instead with a terribly miscast Glenn Ford. Ingrid Thulin (who you may remember from many Ingmar Bergman movies) is quite good. It’s the story of a large, wealthy Argentinian family who are divided by WWII, as one son (with a German father) becomes a high-ranking Nazi official while the another (with a French father) reluctantly becomes a participant in the French Resistance. It’s overlong and a total mess, but it has redeeming qualities. Delon instead of Ford would have made a huge difference.

Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)

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This is absolutely fantastic. I would have trouble picking my favorite Minnelli movie but it might be this. It’s also possibly the best movie about the death of old Hollywood (as seen from the inside). Kirk Douglas plays a washed up alcoholic movie star recovering in a mental hospital after losing his wife (Cyd Charisse), getting into a near-fatal accident, and having a breakdown. Edward G. Robinson (!) plays a philandering director past his prime who is reduced to making low budget dubbed Italian movies. Robinson and Douglas had a falling out when Robinson had an affair with Charisse, but Douglas is so desperate for a comeback that he jumps at an invitation to fly to Rome and appear in Robinson’s new movie. I don’t want to say any more about the story, but it is intense. One should definitely see The Bad and the Beautiful first. Also, NB, Godard’s Contempt was a response to this.

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963)

Part light comedy, part heavy melodrama about a widower with a young son. Glenn Ford is extremely good in this one, but child star Ron Howard is mostly intolerable (he has a couple good scenes), and I didn’t like Shirley Jones as the neighbor. Ultimately, I felt like the movie’s insistence on being a comedy ruined it. It would have been much better as a drama.

Hideo Gosha

Sword of the Beast (1965), Samurai Wolf (1966), Tenchu! (1969), Goyokin (1969), The Wolves (1971), Violent Streets (1974), Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron (1978), Hunter in the Dark (1979), Onimasa: A Japanese Godfather (1982), Death Shadows (1986), Heat Wave (1991)

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Image from Goyokin

Gosha was a Japanese genre maverick who has long been underappreciated in the west but has grown in esteem since his death. I watched his first film, Three Outlaw Samurai, a few months ago and I’ve owned a DVD of Sword of the Beast for ages, but I hadn’t seen any of his other work. It’s still pretty hard to access some of these titles, but a good number of them are on Filmstruck. All of these are either samurai or yakuza movies. Gosha’s samurai movies are very dark, and will seem particularly so to people who only know the genre through Kurosawa. They feature unsavory lead characters (outlaw samurai!) and slow buildups to quick, brutal bursts of violence. Gosha is a consummate stylist who bears comparison in some respects to Sergio Leone (and pulpier spaghetti western directors like Corbucci) and Brian De Palma. He’s less meta than De Palma but he has a similar ability to never waste a shot and to present lurid material with maximum impact.

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Image from Death Shadows

Tenchu! and Goyokin are his two most acclaimed movies. Goyokin is my favorite. It’s about a plot by a regional lord to steal a shipment of gold from the shogun, murder an entire fishing village, and frame them for the theft. A ronin (Tatsuya Nakadai) with a guilty conscience tries to prevent this injustice. It’s gorgeous, operatic and brutal– one of the best samurai movies. Tenchu! is also extremely good. It’s about a ronin (Shintaro Katsu, who often played Zatoichi) who is enlisted by a group of imperial loyalists as an assassin and warrior. He proves nearly invincible in combat and the group rises in power on his back. He is fiercely loyal to the group’s leader (Tatsuya Nakadai), despite warnings that he’ll be betrayed when it becomes convenient. My other favorite Gosha film is the Yakuza saga The Wolves. Set in the 30’s, a yakuza (Tatsuya Nakadai yet again) who had assassinated a rival boss is released from prison early. His crime family has reached an uneasy truce with the rival family whose boss he killed, putting him in a difficult position. Chaos eventually breaks out, and the narrative is full of exciting twists and turns. The last honorable men, a score to settle, an encroaching railroad: it shapes up like a yakuza Once Upon a Time in the West meets Carlito’s Way. It’s one of the best yakuza movies.

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Image from Onimasa

Among the other Gosha samurai titles, Sword of the Beast is a must see, while Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron offers many pleasures but also has an impossibly convoluted narrative. I enjoyed it more when I just gave up on the narrative and let it wash over me. It has a great cast (Jo Shishido!) and it’s full of Feuillade-esque touches like trap doors and secret compartments. Matt Lynch called it a samurai Ocean’s 11, which is apt. Hunter in the Dark is similar but with a far clearer narrative. Death Shadows is very good. It’s about criminals who are forced to become assassins to avoid execution. The daughter of one ends up becoming an assassin as well, and it becomes a rare female-centric samurai movie. There are crazy non-diegetic dance sequences and an amazing fight scene that integrates rhythmic gymnastics. Among the other Yakuza titles, Heat Wave is also female centric. It’s not great but it has a doozy of a finale. Violent Streets and Onimasa have some very disturbing content but both are worthwhile, especially the latter. It’s a saga taking place over 30 years, starring Tatsuya Nakadai yet again as the leader of a minor yakuza organization who maintains the delusion that he lives by the old code of chivalry. The film focuses a great deal on his two daughters (one adopted) and the struggles they endure living amidst the brutally sexist yakuza culture.

John Frankenheimer

The Young Savages (1961), All Fall Down (1962), The Train (1964)

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Image from The Train

I hadn’t seen any of these. They’re all worthwhile and feature virtuoso direction. The Train is tremendous. I loved it with my whole heart. Burt Lancaster plays a railroad worker and fighter in the French Resistance who tries to stymie a massive Nazi art theft during the final days of WWII. It’s incredibly thrilling throughout and delves intelligently into the question of whether the preservation of art can justify the loss of human life. All Fall Down is a total hoot. Warren Beatty plays a very bad seed named Berry-Berry. Karl Malden and an absolutely terrific Angela Lansbury play his fawning parents (combine this with Lansbury’s work in The Manchurian Candidate and you have the all time most cynical portrait of motherhood). No matter how bad he is, all they want to do is love him and sing his praises. And he is very, very bad. He begins a love affair with tender-hearted Eva Marie Saint, with tragic results. They say the name “Berry-Berry” like a thousand times.

Jean Renoir cont.

Whirlpool of Fate (1925), La vie est à nous (1936)

Image from Whirlpool of Fate

I didn’t make much Renoir progress. I watched so many May ’68 movies that I didn’t feel like watching too many additional French movies on top of that project. Whirlpool of Fate is like a D.W. Griffith highlight reel with Hessling in place of Gish. It’s an immature work, but exhilarating and fun. La vie est à nous is a Popular Front propaganda film. Several directors (including Becker) contributed material while Renoir supervised. It has some great moments amidst the more banal material and is interesting to compare with the May ’68 stuff.

Takashi Miike

Ichi the Killer (2001), For Love’s Sake (2012), As the Gods Will (2014)

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Image from As the Gods Will

Ichi on blu-ray! I hadn’t seen it for a very long time. It’s still one of the most fucked up things I’ve ever seen. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s extremely juvenile but not in a bad way. It’s definitely not for everyone (if you have an upper limit on graphic violence, stay away). For Love’s Sake is a high school musical. It’s much too long but it has some inspired moments. I loved As the Gods Will. Basically, there’s a sudden divine event where high school kids are forced to undertake a life-or-death real world video game where they pass through a series of puzzle levels and the survivors of each level move on. For instance, in one level they face a giant cat (pictured above) who wants to eat them. Miike nails the high school politics and the violence is inventive throughout. It’s one of the most successful attempts to make a movie with a video game structure.

André Téchiné

I Don’t Kiss (1991), My Favorite Season (1993)

I know there was a point maybe 15 years ago when I watched a ton of Téchiné movies, but I can only remember like three or four of them. I’m not sure whether I had seen these or not. They’re both okay, but I didn’t love either of them. I Don’t Kiss is a clichéd story about a young man from the provinces who sets off for the big city and ends up becoming a prostitute. My Favorite Season (the better of the two) is a family drama starring Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil. It’s nuanced and of course the acting is very good.

Phil Karlson

The Iroquois Trail (1950), Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953), The Phenix City Story (1955)

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Image from 99 River Street

Phil Karlson is a B-movie god! It’s awesome that so much of this stuff is showing up on streaming services (I watched these on Filmstruck; they’re gone now but some of them are on prime). Scorsese is a huge Karlson devotee and borrowed heavily from him, particularly in the way he films action. Kansas City Confidential and 99 River Street are my favorites. The former is a caper movie full of twists and turns while the latter is a boxing noir.

Bill Morrison

The Film of Her (1996), Decasia (2002), The Mesmerist (2003), Light is Calling (2004)

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Image from Decasia

Bill Morrison makes found footage movies from decaying nitrate films. I didn’t care for The Film of Her, but the others are awesome. Decasia is his magnum opus. It’s feature length and may be hard to take for some, but I really loved the music (original composition by Michael Gordon) and so it worked for me. If you struggle with abrasive music, you may want to start with Light is Calling and other shorts.

Safari Classics

Mogambo (Ford, 1953), Hatari! (Hawks, 1962)

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Image from Hatari!

I had never seen these. They’re both good, but I preferred Hatari! John Wayne leads a group that captures animals for zoos. A female wildlife photographer (Italian actress Elsa Martinelli) comes to camp and tries to change everyone’s ways. She encourages everyone to show greater compassion for the animals and ends up adopting a trio of baby elephants (which leads to some Hawksian screwball comedy). Hatari! is long and plodding, but that’s more of a feature than a bug. It’s not narrative driven: it’s more of an aimless sojourn at a safari camp, interspersed with thrilling, technically astonishing animal chases. Mogambo is a safari remake of Red Dust and focuses on a love triangle between Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and Grace Kelly. Can’t go wrong with that cast.

Late Chaplin

A King in New York (1957), A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

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I had seen Limelight but neither of Chaplin’s final two films. A King in New York is a very funny fish out of water comedy about an ousted monarch (played by Chaplin) who moves to New York and is sucked into the advertising business. Eventually it becomes a scathing indictment of McCarthyism (which Chaplin himself was a victim of). I enjoyed the jarring tonal shift. A Countess from Hong Kong was much maligned by critics at the time but Chaplin himself considered it his best film. From what I’ve read, it’s long had ardent defenders (notably Truffaut and Andrew Sarris) and has received favorable critical reappraisal during recent years. I think it’s a very fine film. Marlon Brando plays a wealthy diplomat while Sophia Loren plays a Russian countess living in exile in Hong Kong as a gangster’s mistress. She wants to flee to the west but has no travel documents, and so she stows away in Brando’s state room when he ships off. The effort to conceal her presence becomes comic (there is a lot of opening and closing doors) and a romance eventually develops. Taken as Chaplin’s swan song, it’s a very beautiful and moving film.

Star Wars: Despecialized Original Trilogy

I absolutely hate George Lucas’ special editions of the original trilogy. I won’t watch them, and so I hadn’t seen the films in a long time, because the philistine has refused to make the real versions available. I heard about the “Despecialized editions” a year or two ago: some tech savvy heroes put together the original cuts of the films in the proper aspect ratio along with 5.1 audio. I finally got around to watching them and it was glorious. What a gift. I liked the 1977 original film better than I remembered.

Frank Henenlotter

Basket Case (1982), Frankenhooker (1990)

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Image from Basket Case

Awesome exploitation horror. I remember Basket Case from when I was a kid. I can still see the cover of the VHS on the horror shelf in the video rental store I grew up with. It’s aged like fine wine. I realize now that it’s a psychoanalytic inversion of Psycho. Frankenhooker is very fun as well, especially the supercrack scene, which is all time.

By the way, Basket Case is now part of the permanent collection of the MoMA!

Marvel Studios

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts, 2017)

I tried to watch this last year but I hated it so much that I didn’t finish it. A couple people I know who are more into MCU told me this is one of their favorite Marvel titles, so I tried it again. I hated it even more than I thought I would. First of all, the opening is terrible. Several minutes of shaky iphone footage (presented in iphone aspect ratio) reminding us of all the clever ways the MCU set this movie up? This easter egg bullshit and continuity for continuity’s sake is one of the things I dislike most about Marvel Studios. Second, the half-assed John Hughes highschool stuff is terrible. I was cringing at how bad it is. Third, the action scenes are terrible, especially compared to the Sam Raimi movies. It just becomes an animated movie when the action scenes start, and there is no sense of gravity. All of the wonder and most of the suspense is lost (compared with the constant feeling in the Raimi action scenes that Spider-Man is falling and catching himself). Fourth, the ending is terrible. I would have trouble naming an uglier, less appealing stretch of film.

Avengers: Infinity War (Russo bros, 2018)

Hell no. I hated it (not as much as Spider-Man, though).

Black Panther (Coogler, 2018)

I did not like this. Michael B. Jordan is great (as always) but his Killmonger is the only three-dimensional character. My favorite part is the scene where he bests Black Panther in single combat. I had heard a lot about the cool peripheral characters but I found them disappointing. Awesome, the genius engineer character is a black woman… but she doesn’t get anything interesting to say or do. My biggest issue with the film is that the action scenes are generally illegible. I also found the production design to be overstuffed, as though they tried to cram a drum or an impala skin in every corner of every frame.

Given the progressive embrace of the film, I was surprised by how conservative it is. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—I can get down with some conservative filmmaking, as in the case of Clint Eastwood—but I am put off by the failure of most popular discourse to engage with the film’s politics beyond the most superficial level. Since I don’t relish the role of being the white guy who disliked Black Panther, I’ll close by linking the most interesting positive review I read, by K. Austin Collins: https://www.theringer.com/movies/2018/2/14/17011910/black-panther-film-review-marvel-ryan-coogler-michael-b-jordan-chadwick-boseman

New releases

The Commuter (Collet-Sara, 2018)

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Hell yes. Collet-Sara is the anti-Christopher Nolan (credit my brother for that phrase). We never have any idea where anything is in a Christopher Nolan movie. It’s all zoomed in confusion. Think back to the great chariot race in Ben-Hur. What’s the first thing William Wyler does? He takes us along for a slow trial lap around the race course, introduces us to all the players, and foreshadows obstacles the protagonist will face. This sort of clarity in action filmmaking is a dying art, and Collet-Sara is one of its greatest modern practitioners. Liam Neeson is supposed to find a person on a train but doesn’t know what they look like. The stakes are high. The first thing we do is walk all the way through the train not once, but twice. We meet every suspect, we get the whole layout, and we inspect all of the clues. (Compare Collet-Sara’s also great The Shallows and Non-Stop). This is like three “Liam Neeson is a secret badass” movies and an Agatha Christie novel all rolled into one.

Molly’s Game (Sorkin, 2017)

I hated this. Jessica Chastain is so bad! Aaron Sorkin directing his own material is a disaster. I can’t believe that no one stopped him from filming that ice rink scene with Kevin Costner. What a mess. On the plus side, Idris Elba is very good and gets to do an Al Pacino-style courtroom speech.

The 15:17 to Paris (Eastwood, 2018)

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I fucks with The 15:17 to Paris. It’s by far Eastwood’s weirdest movie. He reenacted the recent event when some American soldiers on vacation stopped a terrorist attack aboard a train from Amsterdam to Paris. He reenacted it WITH THE ACTUAL PEOPLE! They can’t act (of course) and the effect is extremely weird but also captivating. Eastwood goes full postmodernism at the age of 88! Thematically, the movie is most concerned with connections between American militarism and religiosity. It’s not as ambivalent and nuanced as American Sniper, but its weirdness is just so damn interesting.

Annihilation (Garland, 2018)

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Pretty cool Tarkovsky-riff/psychedelic freakout. Taken as an attempted neo-Tarkovskian masterpiece, it fails, but taken as weird sci-fi horror, it succeeds. I liked Natalie Portman.

ManHunt (Woo, 2017)

Eh…. Certainly not John Woo’s best movie and I hated the unnecessary dubbing but it has some pleasures to offer for heroic bloodshed fans.

Red Sparrow (Lawrence, 2018)

Overlong, trashy spy movie with Jennifer Lawrence doing a bad Russian accent. It has its pleasures, but I wouldn’t go out of my way.

Pacific Rim: Uprising (DeKnight, 2018)

So many nights I’ve uttered aloud the wish “what I want right now is to see Pacific Rim for the first time, again.” I was excited about a sequel but worried about the change in director. It’s ultra-ultra-stupid and not good, but I don’t regret watching it.

Beyond Skyline (O’Donnell, 2017)

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I watched this twice. It’s sooooooooo weird and more or less entirely successful relative to its low-budget, direct-to-video constraints.

Game Night (Daley and Goldstein, 2018)

Decent comedy rendition of The Game. One of the better recent comedies (a genre that’s really struggling).

Kidnap (Prieto, 2017)

Straightforward kidnapping thriller with a whole lot of Halle Berry screaming in her car.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Kasdan, 2017)

The Rock plays a low-confidence nerd stuck in The Rock’s body. Jack Black plays a narcissistic teenage instagrammer stuck in Jack Black’s body. Interesting acting challenges, well met.

Fifty Shades Freed (Foley, 2017)

I like these movies as camp. This one isn’t quite as ridiculous as the second one, but I enjoyed it.

Paddington 2 (King, 2017)

Several orders of magnitude better than the first one, which I hated. Hugh Grant is awesome but Brendan Gleeson steals the show.

American Honey (Arnold, 2016)

The whole thing about this movie is how long it is. It’s nearly three hours long, and there’s barely enough narrative for 90 minutes. For me, the length elevates the material. It presents the story of some hustler kids in middle America as a Great American Epic. I liked this a lot.

The Post (Spielberg, 2017)

Fun pop filmmaking, just don’t expect some great big insight.

It (Muschietti, 2017)

Eh, I liked the Goonies stuff but the CGI kind of ruined the horror for me.

Miscellaneous

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (Kim, 2003)

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One of the biggest 21st century critical favorites that I hadn’t seen. I hated it! I would have trouble naming a heavier handed religious allegory. A Christian version of this would never fly, but because it’s Buddhism it’s cool? I thought the first vignette had some appeal, but by the time the second spring rolls around (surprise, the narrative cycle begins again) I felt nothing but contempt for this movie. Give me a break with all the pretty pictures of the house on the lake—this is the shallowest, most uninteresting sort of prettiness.

Yeelen (Souleymane Cissé, 1987)

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Hell yes. This is the first film I’ve seen from Mali and from director Cissé. It’s about a young sorcerer on a quest to enlist the aid of his uncle in defeating his evil sorcerer father. Eat this, Lord of the Rings: never before has magic in film seemed more real to me. I completely love this.

Zorn’s Lemma (Frampton, 1970)

I’ve never really been interested in experimental film but I’ve been evolving on that front and ticking off experimental classics like this one here and there. The first part of this movie runs through the alphabet rapidly, with pictures of words starting with each letter, and then starts substituting non-linguistic images. Some of the letters are skipped and one finds oneself trying to keep track of the order but drifting into confusion about what happened to a missing letter. I took it as a way of making apparent certain cognitive phenomena related to the way we process films. We are trying to focus on everything, but one thing distracts us and then we miss a couple of other things, and then perhaps miss other things while trying to retrieve what we missed. It makes me think of the brilliant split screen scene in De Palma’s Passion where he shows us the ballet Afternoon of a Faun on one side while showing us the pivotal murder on the other. Crucial information is right in front of us but we don’t see it because we’re watching the damn ballet. The second part of Zorn’s Lemma shows us some figures progressing across a snowscape while 6 female voices alternate reading one word per second of On Light, or the Ingression of Forms by Robert Grosseteste. It’s basically impossible to follow when read this way and one notices occasionally that the figures (who are moving very slowly) have made a leap of progress while one was trying to focus on following the narration.

Perversion Story, aka One on Top of the Other (Fulci, 1969)

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Ultra-lurid Fulci riff on Vertigo, it’s a very solid exploitation movie starring cult icon Marisa Mell.

Easter Parade (Walters, 1948)

Fred Astaire-Judy Garland musical. I love both of them so much that I enjoyed this, even though it is a little Easter-forward for me.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

I’ve always loved it, though I admit it did lose a little bit of its luster by comparison to the Minnelli musicals (particularly The Band Wagon).

Rouge (Kwan, 1988)

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Ethereal 80’s Hong Kong ghost story about a suicide pact gone awry.

Ocean’s 11 (Milestone, 1960)

I had never seen the original Rat Pack Ocean’s 11. It is shockingly bad. It must have taken deliberate sabotage to overcome the natural charisma of the cast and make a movie this dull and drab.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Alfredson, 2011)

I saw this when it came out and was interested to revisit it. It’s aged well. Alfredson’s restrained direction suits the material nicely.

Spy Game (Scott, 2001)

This is the last Tony Scott feature I hadn’t seen and I was not disappointed. He’s nearly at the height of his powers here, though he didn’t totally let loose until Man on Fire.

Castle in the Sky (Miyazaki, 1986)

So good. One of Miyazaki’s best.

Dirty Dancing (Ardolino, 1987)

God, my dad made me watch this a million times as a kid, always reminding me that he visited a resort like this in the Catskills when he was growing up. Rewatching it with him 30 years later transported me right back to ‘88. He even reminded me about the resort again. This might be my most nostalgic movie. I remember gleefully dancing around the living room with my siblings but feeling embarrassed and a little tingly about Jennifer Grey in her bra. It’s a better movie than I thought it was, thanks largely to Swayze’s performance and the time warp 60’s-80’s weirdness. I didn’t realize when I was a kid that Swayze’s character and most of the music is clearly from the 80’s, and it’s just thrown into the 60’s setting without explanation.

Welcome to L.A. (Alan Rudolph, 1976)

I am planning to do an Alan Rudolph deep dive ASAP. I’ve seen a number of his films over the years and I’ve liked them all, but I’ve never approached his body of work in a systematic way. This was his first feature (after an apprenticeship as assistant director to Robert Altman). It’s extremely good, and I expect it will benefit from multiple viewings. Basically, Keith Carradine plays the son of a millionaire. He’s an itinerant songwriter who comes back to LA and has sex with everyone. It includes lots of wonderfully weird little performances, including Geraldine Chaplin as a housewife addicted to taxi rides and Sissy Spacek as a topless housekeeper. The excellent Robert Baskin score plays throughout the movie and gives the proceedings a sense of gravity (as a study of loneliness and alienation).

The Magic Flute (Bergman, 1975)

Meh, I love Mozart’s opera but this production and Bergman’s presentation of it didn’t do anything for me.

Angel Face (Preminger, 1952)

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Freudian noir with Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons. It’s very unconventional and full of hallucinatory compositions. Godard thought this was one of the best American movies.

Speed Racer (Wachowskis, 2008)

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It’s hard to believe that Speed Racer was a critical and commercial failure when it came out 10 years ago. I think of it as a modern cult classic (I was on board from day 1) and I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anyone who doesn’t love it. When it showed up on Netflix recently I watched it twice and enjoyed it tremendously. It’s an awful shame that the Wachowski fever dream of how to integrate computer animation and live action hasn’t caught on, as this is exponentially better than most of the multiplex CGI junk we’ve seen since.

Pollock (Harris, 2000)

I watched this with my aesthetics class. I got a kick out of Jeffrey Tambor as Clement Greenberg. Ed Harris’ understanding of alcoholism elevates this, but at the end of the day it’s a fairly ordinary biopic.

The Mad Monk (To, 1993)

Early To from when he worked as a hired hand for the Shaw Bros. This collaboration with Stephen Chow is a total mess and easily the worst To movie I’ve seen. I took a little bit of a break from the To filmography but I’m looking forward to getting back into it.

Dirty Ho (Lau, 1979)

Excellent martial arts comedy from the great Lau Kar-leung. I generally prefer more serious wuxia over the goofier stuff, but this one is undeniable. The action choreography is jaw-dropping, especially towards the end when Gordon Liu and Wong Yue start fighting in unison.

Bangkok Dangerous (Phat and Chung, 2008)

Super fun Nic Cage hitman thriller. High Cage factor, some great action sequences, and a hefty dose of darkness and cynicism.

Television update

Legion

Kind of jumped the shark? I was really excited for this season and I liked the first half, but the second half (up till the finale) lost me. The Don Draper pseudo-philosophical narration worked fine in small doses but they pushed it past the breaking point and at times it became unbearable (the Plato’s cave as a smug anti-smartphone lecture was the point where I admitted to myself that the show was getting bad). The last episode was good, however, and I think there’s still a chance for Legion to redeem itself.

The Americans

I wasn’t as excited for The Americans final season because I thought I knew how it was going to end. Boy, was I wrong. I will avoid spoilers here but I’ll just say that this is one of the best endings ever for a TV show. For me the only thing that clearly beats it is The Sopranos. 

Tokyo Vampire Hotel (Sono, 2017)

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Yes, that’s a vampire Last Supper.

Not for everyone, but I devoured this. It is a crazy 7-hour mashup of the last 10 years of Sono’s career with Emir Kusturica, M. Knight Shyamalan, Scarface, and so many other things. The tone is jarringly uneven (by design) and the narrative is a total mess, but if you are into this kind of thing this won’t be a problem for you. Expect a lot of vampire gore up front, this comes out firing.

Billions

This Billions season was awesome! The ortolan eating episode was something I’ve always longed to see (the ortolan is one of my favorite examples to support the idea that a negative moral valence can play a positive aesthetic role). Another high point is John Malkovich as a Russian oil oligarch/gangster (reprising aspects of his performance from Rounders). Also, Clancy Brown is amazing as Attorney General Jock Jeffcoat, who is an even more racist, hyper-masculine vision of Jeff Sessions as a Texan. The ending sets up a Season 4 that I can’t wait to get my hands on.

 

Film Diary vol. 5: May ’68 Cinema

Film Diary vol. 5:  May ’68 Cinema

Featured image from Regular Lovers.

I’ve watched more movies than usual the last couple of months, so this film diary installment was feeling pretty unwieldy. I decided to split it into two parts. I am devoting this post to the deep dive I’ve done into May ’68 cinema the last six weeks. In a few days I’ll post again with all the other stuff I’ve watched since early April (spoiler: so much Vincente Minnelli).

The events of May ’68 were momentous for French cinema. In honor of the 50th anniversary, I decided to undertake a survey. Before getting into it, some context:

In 1967, the first workers’ strikes in France since the 30’s took place, and there was a nationwide wave of unionization. At the same time, there was a climactic surge in leftist politics among students. The unions were primarily concerned to increase workers’ wages and quality of life, and they formed an alliance with the PCF (French Communist Party). The student activists included a mix of revolutionary Trotskyists, Maoists, and anarchists who had far more radical goals than the PCF, which favored incremental improvements for workers and an electoral path to power. For a brief moment in May ’68, students and workers staged massive demonstrations together and occupied factories all over France. Violent police responses to initial student demonstrations prompted sympathy from more moderate contingents who then joined into the fray, resulting in a remarkable display of anti-establishment unity. It was enough to shut down the government and national economy and force President de Gaulle to flee Paris. To many, it seemed like the revolution had really come. But it hadn’t. The etiology of the uprising’s collapse is controversial, but the government offered a substantial minimum wage increase and other concessions to unions while threatening military intervention, and the workers gradually gave up the strike and returned to work. The leftist contingents blamed the PCF (who they decried as Stalinists) for caving too readily and fracturing the movement, while the PCF blamed the leftists for unrealistic aims and violent methods that undermined public sympathy. Ultimately, the centrists consolidated power, but many workers did see appreciable improvements in their quality of life. Perhaps most significantly, the cultural and sexual revolutions of the time succeeded in transforming France where the attempted political revolution failed.

On to the movies. I included films that were made in the ’68 milieu by participants in the uprising, films that were made in years following ’68 documenting and critiquing the aftermath, and films that were made many later years looking back on the time period. I think the best films directly about May ’68 and its aftermath are Garrel’s Regular Lovers, Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, Godard’s Tout va bien, and Rivette’s Out 1 (which I did not rewatch, though I hope to when I get the chance). It’s broader in scope, but Chris Marker’s A Grin Without a Cat is also fantastic and essential. The worst May ’68 film for me is Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. I hate it. I also dislike Assayas’ Something in the Air, and I can’t stand Guy Debord, who made several relevant films and was a leading figure of the Situationist school of thought that was central for the student contingent of the movement.

My favorites are highlighted in bold

Zanzibar Productions

Zanzibar Productions is ground zero for May ’68 cinema. It’s a great story: painter Olivier Mosset spent a year at Warhol’s Factory and came back to France with the idea that artists working in different media should experiment with film. Around that time, Éric Rohmer’s La Collectionneuse brought together poet and critic Alain Jouffroy, sculptor Daniel Pommereulle, and editor Jackie Raynal. Together with Mosset and some other friends from the same underground scene, they started making films. Radicalized heiress Sylvina Boissonnas founded Zanzibar Productions and provided ample funding. Most of the films were made on expensive 35mm film with generous budgets. Pommereulle’s film Vite includes some extravagant shots of the moon filmed through a massive telescope in California (which Marlon Brando introduced him to!). Aside from those already mentioned, the Zanzibar group included Philippe Garrel, Patrick Deval, Étienne O’Leary, Serge Bard, Frédéric Pardo, Pierre Clémenti, Michel Fournier, Michel Auder, Caroline de Bendern, and Zouzou. Because the films didn’t need to make money, and because everyone was preoccupied with taking drugs, making art, and trying to overthrow the old social order, no one tried very hard to promote the films, and they were not screened widely. Many of them sat in a basement until they resurfaced in 2000 and were screened at the Cinémathèque Française. Sally Shafto brought attention to the group with her 2007 book The Zanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 1968, and many of the films are now available on DVD. A few Zanzibar films are still inaccessible; I watched everything I could get my hands on, including later films by members of the group.

Some of these films are not overtly political. They are all rebellious, but in many cases the rebellion is against aesthetic norms. The most overtly political of the bunch is arguably Bard’s Destroy Yourselves, which resembles Godard and is one of the better Zanzibar films. My favorite is probably Deval’s Acéphale. Without further ado, here’s a list of accessible titles with quick comments:

Philippe Garrel

Marie pour mémoire (1967), Le révélateur (1968),  The Virgin’s Bed (1969)

Image from Le révélateur 

Garrel made four Zanzibar films. La Concentration, with Jean-Pierre Léaud and Zouzou, is nearly impossible to see. He was only 20 years old at the time, and these films manifest his immaturity, but they also highlight how remarkably talented he was from a young age. He went on to have by far the most illustrious career as a filmmaker of any member of the group. These early films attracted critical praise from Jacques Rivette, who aptly described his work as the offspring of Godard and Cocteau. Garrel later cited Rivette himself as a major influence. His other primary influences at this point in his career were Murnau and von Stroheim, and this is especially apparent in Le révélateur, which is probably the best-known Zanzibar film. It’s completely silent, filmed in striking high-contrast black and white, and contains some extraordinary images, but I find the allegory (a child brings the older generation into the light) heavy-handed and I wouldn’t rank it as one of Garrel’s better films. Marie pour mémoire is his first feature. It stars Zouzou and comprises a series of abstract, interconnected vignettes where young people struggle against various forms of authority. The Virgin’s Bed is my favorite of the three, and is the easiest to access at the moment (last I checked it’s still streaming on Amazon through the MUBI channel). Filmed mostly in Morocco, it features the inimitable Pierre Clémenti as Jesus and Zouzou as Mary Magdalene and reimagines the story of Christ in the late 60’s political milieu (with the counterculture as the saviors of humanity, of course). It has the same issues with immaturity as the other two but it rocks so hard.

Jackie Raynal

Deux fois (1968)

Twice Upon a Time Screen

Raynal’s film is a bold and fascinating experiment, and one of the most important Zanzibar films. It’s considered a groundbreaking work of feminist cinema. It announces the end of all meaning and then proceeds through a disconnected series of scenes that are repeated two or three times with slight differences. For instance, she repeats a scene three times where she goes into a store to buy a bar of soap. Once she speaks Spanish (the film was made in Barcelona), once she speaks French, and once she speaks a combination of the two.

Patrick Deval

Héraclite l’obscur (1967), Acéphale (1969)

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Image from Acéphale

The former is not an official an official Zanzibar title, but Deval went to Tunisia around the same time to film this poetic short about Heraclitus. It definitely rang my Greek Philosophy nerd bell. The latter, which takes its name from Bataille’s journal, is a surreal work of anarcho-primitivism. I love it.

Serge Bard

Fun and Games for Everyone (1968), Ici et maintenant (1968), Destroy Yourselves (1969–though it was actually the first Zanzibar film produced)

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Image from Ici et maintenant

Destroy Yourselves (from the phrase “help us, destroy yourselves,” scrawled on a campus wall) begins by announcing that it was made in April ’68. It’s boiling over with the energy that fueled the May uprising. Alain Jouffroy lecturing to a nearly empty classroom is iconic.

The other two Bard films are even more experimental. I can’t say I recommend Fun and Games for Everyone, which is an ultra-abrasive collage of images and sounds from an Olivier Mosset gallery opening. Ici et maintenant is mostly ravishing black and white seascapes. There’s also some far less interesting material with Caroline de Bendern and Mosset sitting around not doing much.

Pierre Clémenti

La révolution n’est qu’un début. Continuons le combat. (1968)

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I love this Clémenti stuff (more below). His one official Zanzibar title is an acid-drenched collage of 16mm footage of the May demonstrations, his friends doing drugs, and lots of other late 60’s imagery. As psychedelic collages go, Clémenti’s are top notch.

Frédéric Pardo

Home Movie: On the Set of Philippe Garrel’s ‘Le lit de la vierge’ (1968)

This is mostly made up of footage Pardo shot while the Zanzibar crew was in Morocco making The Virgin’s Bed. It would appear that he was having a sexual relationship with actress Tina Aumont, as there is a preponderance of intimate footage of her. That stuff is all fantastic, and there are some truly inspired passages, but I felt like the first half of this could have lost some weight.

Olivier Mosset

Un film porno

It’s a 3 minute Warhol-esque snippet with a good punchline.

Étienne O’Leary

Chromo sud (1968)

This is a rather terrifying experimental film with extremely rapid editing, dark imagery, and dissonant ambient music. I don’t think most people would enjoy watching it, but if you’re into this kind of thing….

Daniel Pommereulle

Vite (1969)

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This is a beautiful film. It features the above-mentioned shots of the moon through a fancy telescope, and much of the rest of it was shot in North Africa. The director and a young boy spit at the West and make defiant gestures. The exterior of the telescope is compared to a statue of an elephant and there are some shots of mountains, and that’s pretty much it, but it all comes together nicely.

Also:

Zanzibar (Raynal, 2005)

Short documentary catching up with some of the Zanzibar crew many years later. You’ll find it interesting if and only if you are interested in these films. It’s pretty superficial but there are some nice tidbits and it’s cool to see everyone all grown up.

Philippe Garrel continued

Garrel is for me one of the most interesting filmmakers of the last 50 years. I watched through most of his films over the last couple months. The only features I didn’t watch are La Concentration, which is inaccessible, and three of his 70’s experimental films with Nico (Le berceau de cristal, Un ange passe, and Le bleu des origines). I have access to the three 70’s films but in terrible VHS rips and a cell phone video someone shot of a theatrical showing. I can’t bring myself to watch these beautiful films in such terrible quality, but I inspected them and I’m especially eager to see a proper version of Le berceau de cristal. All four of the features I haven’t seen have screened theatrically in NYC over the last couple years, so it’s not hopeless.

Garrel’s career can be roughly divided into three stages. His father, Maurice Garrel, was a successful actor and Philippe started making movies from a young age. First, from the 60’s up till the late 70’s he made non-narrative films that ranged from the political provocation of his Zanzibar work to the pure interiority of Les hautes solitudes. Starting with the 1979 transitional work L’enfant secret, he shifted towards autobiography. His work during from this point on reflects the strong influence of his friend Jean Eustache, particularly his iconic post-’68 film The Mother and the Whore. His autobiographical films are typically fairly abstract and generally have experimental narratives. He often casts his father as his father, his children as his children, and his lovers as his lovers. Sometimes he plays himself, but more often he casts another actor. His son Louis Garrel developed into an excellent actor, and later in his career Philippe often casts his son as a stand in for himself. For me, Garrel hit his peak in the 90’s, making a series of lyrical, Proustian autobiographical films. In 2005 he made his magnum opus Regular Lovers, which is his most direct later statement on May ’68. His middle period closed with 2009’s Frontier of the Dawn, the last of his many films addressing his relationship with Nico and its aftermath. Since then he’s continued to explore some of the same themes as during his middle period but his narratives have gotten more straightforward. He’s still working, and 2017’s Lover for a Day is very solid.

Garrel is arguably the filmmaker who has most deeply and extensively explored May ’68. A common theme of his middle-period work is the defining role the event played in the lives of many of its participants. For Garrel, May represents an irretrievable nexus of hope and possibility that cast a lifelong shadow. The worst films about May (I’m looking at you, Bertolucci) look back on the time with shallow nostalgia. For Garrel, May is more like a ghost that haunted the revolutionaries and drove many to kill themselves (either directly or by means of heroin abuse). Eustache’s 1981 suicide looms large, as does Garrel’s own history of heroin abuse (which he and Nico fell into together during their ten year relationship).

Les enfants désaccordés (1964)

Garrel’s first film (he was 16), about young runaways who squat in an abandoned mansion.

Actua 1 (1968)

Short newsreel documenting the May ’68 demonstrations.

Anémone (1968)

The actress who took her name from the film’s title plays a young poet struggling to get out from under her father’s influence. The father is played by Maurice Garrel, who was a hell of a good sport about playing sinister father figures in his son’s films. Not crazy about this one.

The Inner Scar (1972)

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This one is batshit and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There’s a shepherd with a flock, Nico plays a queen on a journey, and a naked Pierre Clémenti rides around on a horse wielding a bow and arrow. It’s a little like Jodorowsky, but much more lyrical. There’s a lot of walking through the desert.

Les hautes solitudes (1974)

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I consider this Garrel’s first masterpiece. Most online summaries make the bizarre mistake of describing it as a documentary about Jean Seberg. That’s just false. The concept here is to compile a series of outtakes from a film that doesn’t exist. Four performers appear in the film at least briefly (including Nico), but it consists almost entirely of shots of Seberg feeling emotions. It couldn’t have worked as well with anyone but her. It’s utterly mesmerizing.

L’enfant secret (1979)

Garrel’s transition to narrative cinema. Before her relationship with Garrel, Nico had a child with Alain Delon, who refused to acknowledge paternity. The child grew up with Delon’s parents. This film is about the effect this separation from her child had on Nico, and the resultant effect on her relationship with Garrel. The narrative is elliptical, and the child just shows up every now and then without explanation. It’s a remarkable film, and absolutely essential for anyone exploring Garrel’s filmography.

Liberté, la nuit (1984)

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Garrel’s tribute to his politically radical parents and his one film directly about the Algerian war. It’s quite abstract, and Maurice Garrel’s performance is astonishing. Emmanuelle Riva (as the mother character) is not in the movie as much but she has some incredible scenes.

Rue Fontaine (1984)

A devastating short (part of the omnibus film Paris vu par… 20 ans après), starting Jean-Pierre Léaud and Christine Boisson.

She Spent So Many Hours Under the Sun Lamps (1985)

Garrel’s dreamy reckoning with Nico’s death, and the first of several films evoking Proust’s The Fugitive in their portrayal of his inability cope with her loss (even though they had parted ways years earlier and he had since married Brigitte Sy and had a child with her). Godard’s ex-wife Anne Wiazemsky plays the Nico stand in, and directors Jacques Doillon and Chantal Akerman appear in small roles.

Emergency Kisses (1989)

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This is autobiography-core. It reflects the influence of Rivette’s L’amour fou. Garrel himself plays the film director, his wife plays his wife, his father plays his father, and his son plays his son. It doesn’t get much more meta: the director is making an autobiographical film, and casts an actress other than his wife (namely, Anémone) as his wife, which strains his marriage. Like in many of his films from this period, Garrel portrays himself as kind of a piece of shit. It’s bold and unsettling.

I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (1991)

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This is just perfection. May ’68 is always under the surface in Garrel’s autobiographical films, but here it is made explicit. He works in color here for a change, with stunning cinematography by Caroline Champetier. The narrative is very elliptical and was surely a major influence for Claire Denis. The film shows us glimpses of a man’s life over the course of many years, including episodes resembling Garrel’s relationship with Nico, his heroin addiction, his marital infidelities, and his lifelong post-’68 hangover. Many consider this to be Garrel’s masterpiece, and I think I agree.

The Birth of Love (1993)

Lou Castel and Jean-Pierre Léaud play two middle aged friends from the ’68 generation living in Paris. The former is haunted by his one true love while the latter is discontent with his relationship and perpetually unfaithful. It seems to be an attempt by Garrel to negotiate the conflict between his own romanticism and perpetual discontent.

Le coeur fantôme (1996)

I get the sense that this one is pretty neglected. I really don’t see why: for me this is one of Garrel’s best. This is the point where the depth of his Proustian sensibility became apparent to me. It’s about a painter who takes up with an unstable younger woman, and delves deeply into the role of jealousy in grounding attachment, the way that our sense of self can be bound up with connections to others, and the way that the loss of a relationship can be a sort of death.

Le vent de la nuit (1999)

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The most potent of Garrel’s many films about suicide and a masterpiece of post-’68 cinema. Daniel Duval plays a suicidal sculptor who has post-traumatic stress due to enduring electro-shock therapy as a consequence of his May ’68 activities. Duval’s character meets a young sculptor who uses recreational drugs and lives for the moment and brings him along on a couple long drives. The young sculptor is the lover of an older woman played by Catherine Deneuve—another suicidal member of the ’68 generation—and eventually he introduces Duval’s character to her and they share a brief but extraordinary connection. This totally wrecked me.

Wild Innocence (2001)

A bizarre foray into high concept filmmaking, I consider this to be one of Garrel’s weakest films. A filmmaker who has lost a lover (another Nico stand in) to heroin abuse seeks to make an anti-heroin film. To fund the film, he ends up getting roped into smuggling heroin, and the innocent, inexperienced actress he casts as the Nico character ends up becoming a heroin addict in the course of making the film. This is the first film where Garrel’s daughter Esther appears (she’s still a child at this point). Like his son Louis, she’s become a successful actress.

Regular Lovers (2005)

For me, the single most poignant moment in all of May ’68 cinema is the scene in Regular Lovers when the police show up to discuss some trivial matter and the protagonist’s terror at encountering law enforcement fades into the crestfallen realization that he’s no longer an outlaw. Filmed in rapturous black and white by the great William Lubtchansky, this three hour epic feels like a summation of Garrel’s entire career up till this point. The abstract early scenes portraying the May unrest highlight what a disgrace the ending of The Dreamers is. This is how you do it, Bertolucci. The structure of the film is relatively straightforward: we start with May, and then we follow the protagonist (Louis Garrel standing in for his father) as he tries to sustain the freeness of the revolt while he goes on with life, but loses himself as he becomes consumed by a romantic relationship and by opium addiction. Godard recently said at Cannes that this is the greatest ’68 film, and he would know. I can’t believe I hadn’t seen this before. It immediately gets a spot on my top ten list of the millennium so far. It’s a tremendous shame that The Dreamers is the film through which most Americans of my generation are acquainted with May ’68. It should be this.

Frontier of the Dawn (2008)

Again featuring cinematography from Lubtchansky, this is yet another evocation of The Fugitive, but more abstract and less directly autobiographical. Last I checked, this is on Hulu. It’s an excellent film.

A Burning Hot Summer (2011)

This title seems to be less critically successful than most of Garrel’s other work, but from what I’ve read the complaints seem pretty off base. I really like Neil Bahadur’s take on this one. As he aptly points out, the key points of reference here are Godard’s Contempt, Rosselini’s Voyage in Italy and Rivette’s Don’t Touch the Axe (aka The Duchess of Langeais). I also noticed several Mulholland Drive references. The dancing scene is one of the greatest things Garrel ever filmed. Monica Bellucci is excellent.

Jealousy (2013)

The first in Garrel’s recent trilogy of ~70 min films about relationships. Blake Williams points out that this seems to be about Garrel’s father’s infidelity decades earlier. My sense is that people who don’t like Garrel tend to like this better than his other films, while many Garrel fans find it to be Garrel-lite. I’m in the latter camp.

In the Shadow of Women (2015)

Better than Jealousy but not as good as Lover for a Day. Like A Burning Hot Summer, it examines a selfish man (surprise, a filmmaker) who refuses to be faithful but who is extremely jealous of his partner.

Lover for a Day (2017)

An older philosophy professor has a relationship with a student his daughter’s age. The daughter is played by Garrel’s actual daughter Esther. This is a slight film for Garrel, but it’s extremely well-realized. I thought it was easily better than the other two parts of the trilogy.

Pierre Clémenti continued

Visa de censure n° X (1967), New old (1979), In the Shadow of the Blue Rascal (1986), Soleil (1988)

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Image from In the Shadow of the Blue Rascal

Pierre Clémenti is best known for his acting work (you might remember him from Bunuel’s Belle de Jour), but he was also a hell of a filmmaker. Like his Zanzibar film mentioned above, Visa de censure n° X is a psychedelic collage with an acid rock soundtrack. This is not the kind of thing I’m generally into, but Clémenti hits it out of the park. Lots of shots of his friends enacting pagan rituals. In the Shadow of the Blue Rascal is his only feature length film, and it’s a sort of surrealist, dystopian sci-fi low budget masterpiece. It’s hard to describe, but think B-movie Blade Runner on acid meets post-colonial nightmare. It’s set in a place called Necrocity and Jean-Pierre Kalfon plays a Mabuse figure named Captain Speed. The music is amazing. The ’68 connection with the later stuff is more tenuous but it’s there—in the portrayal of sinister, omnipresent, oppressive authority.

Godard

I’ve been chipping away at my many Godard blind spots pretty steadily over the last six months or so, and my stamina for his more challenging work is improving. I finally got through A Film Like Any Other after trying and failing a few months ago. He made a lot of films that are relevant to May ’68. Some of them were covered in previous film diaries, and there are a few I haven’t watched yet, but I’ve seen all the most directly relevant stuff. He collaborated with Jean-Pierre Gorin (a student of Foucault, Althusser, and Lacan) on a lot of these titles. I won’t bother to note exactly where, since Gorin isn’t always credited and it’s confusing.

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967), La Chinoise (1967)

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Image from La Chinoise

Godard made three films in 1967 that anticipate May ’68. The third is Weekend, which I watched a few months ago and didn’t revisit for this piece. It’s still my favorite Godard film and I’d highly recommend it as an initiation to his radical period (it’s far more accessible than what came after it). These two are both essential. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is a broad indictment of sorts of problems with modern life that animated the May revolt. Like several of Godard’s other films, its presents prostitution as a metonymy of consumer culture. La Chinoise depicts Maoist students incompetently attempting to be terrorists. Godard was generally quite critical of the student movement for its frivolity and faux seriousness, but here he acknowledges that the students are at least on the right track, and encourages them to keep trying.

Sympathy for the Devil (1968)

Much of this movie documents the Rolling Stones in the studio recording the eponymous track, and then there is some very confrontational material portraying the Black Panthers and a fascist book shop (some images of Marvel comics ironically implicate Captain America) where customers are allowed to slap Maoist hostages. A lot of descriptions of this movie suggest that Godard is celebrating the Stones’ creative process. No one who’s seen the other stuff he made around this time would make this mistake. The Rolling Stones scenes evoke his approach to filming the “capitalist means of production” in works such as British Sounds. Godard is certainly not celebrating or glorifying the creative process of The Rolling Stones, he is comparing it to industrial production. One of his central interests in this period is the way you can change the meaning of images and sounds by juxtaposing them with other images and sounds. He first shows us the Stones commodifying and commercializing black musical influence, and then he shows us black revolutionaries. Much like the critique of student resistance in Struggle in Italy, this juxtaposition points to the way in which the Stones’ co-opted form of ‘rebellion’ actually reinforces the grip of bourgeois ideology.

A Film Like Any Other (1968)

This is rough to get through. It’s mostly the backs of peoples’ heads for two hours as they sit in a field and discuss the divergent goals of the workers and students involved in May ’68. At least—unlike Debord (see below)—Godard takes the workers seriously and grasps that a proletarian revolution can’t be achieved by ideologue students seizing the role of paternalistic puppeteers to a childish working class who don’t understand what’s in their own best interests.

Le gai savoir (1969)

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Godard called this his last bourgeois film, presumably because it’s got reasonably high production value and stars well-known actors (Jean-Pierre Léaud and Juliette Berto). It’s a transitional work, where he tries to destroy his old ideas to make way for new ones. A common theme between this and the Dziga Vertov group films (esp. Struggle in Italy and Wind From the East) is that Godard doesn’t know how to make anything but bourgeois cinema and is trying to free himself from the snare of his cinephilia. There’s an ironic humility in this approach from the characteristically arrogant Godard: his films from this period all announce themselves as failures. He can’t stop making films, that’s the only thing he knows how to do, but he can’t make films that succeed at what he’s trying to accomplish, which is to create a revolutionary cinema. Again, I would highlight the contrast with Debord, who thinks he already has all the answers.

Struggle in Italy (1971), Vladimir and Rosa (1971)

Dziga Vertov Group films, probably not appealing to most people. They are not supposed to be enjoyable. The former is a critique of an Italian student (standing in for students in general) trying to make the class struggle a part of her daily life but ultimately collapsing back into bourgeois ideology. Godard is often accused of misogyny, and this is a good bit of evidence for the charge, as he seems to be especially contemptuous of the character in virtue of her gender. Vladimir and Rosa is a gonzo reenactment of the Chicago 8 trial, with Godard as Lenin and Gorin as Rosa Luxemburg.

Tout va bien (1972)

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Godard and Gorin with a real budget (which they explain at the beginning they got by selling out and casting Jane Fonda). I’m not hardcore enough to prefer the other DVG films over this. I’m happy to see Godard let himself be cinematic again, particularly in his Tati-esque imagining of a revolt breaking out in a grocery store. This film is concerned in general with the way that the ’68 movement was reassimilated into bourgeois ideology. It’s also an exhortation not to give up.

Every Man for Himself (1980)

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Not really a May ’68 film but I’m including it with the rest of the Godard I watched recently. This is the first movie Godard shot on film after a long stretch of low-budget video experiments. He called it his “second first film.” It’s extremely good and rather crass. It returns to Godard’s frequent theme of prostitution, and draws some brash connections between film and television direction and sexual exploitation. Awesome performance from Isabelle Huppert.

Guy Debord

Fuck Guy Debord. I hate this guy. Just read this shit: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord.films/refutation.htm

Debord was a leading figure in the Situationist movement, which was immensely influential for the student contingent of May ’68. Very roughly, the Situationists were concerned to critique the omnipresence of consumer capitalism in everyday life (particularly the way that representation replaces direct experience—The Spectacle) and seeks the creation of Situations (I know, very helpful term) that somehow break through The Spectacle and achieve (poorly defined) authenticity. One of the key ways of accomplishing this is detournement, where The Spectacle is turned against itself and used to reveal its own nefariousness. Basically: Debord hates movies, and he makes movies that reuse bits of other movies to show how all movies not by him are part of this oppressive consumerist Spectacle.

I was particularly irked by the Situationist screed against Godard: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/10.godard.htm

Debord adopts an utterly condescending tone regarding workers. He wants a proletarian revolution where the proletariat stays out of it and narcissistic intellectuals call all the shots. It’s hard to find a more dogmatic philosopher with fewer arguments than Debord. There are some interesting observations here and there (particularly the stuff about Stalinism and bureaucracy), but mostly it’s profound-sounding obscurity that fails to address even the most obvious and basic objections. By contrast, Godard’s radical period is the opposite of dogmatic. It’s exploratory and characterized by humility and self-reflection. He can come across as ultra-didactic, but he’s always undermining and rejecting his own didacticism. Debord is very sure about already having everything figured out.

Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952)

This is a prank film. It’s mostly just a black screen, and then there are bits of white screen with some narration about love in the time of revolution or “hurray de Sade!” and then it’s cut off and there’s more black. It ends with like 20 minutes of black screen and silence. The point is supposed to be that cinema is dead, meaningless, blah blah blah. I think it sucks.

On the Passage of a Few People through a Relatively Short Period of Time (1959), Critique of Separation (1961)

Blah blah blah there’s no authentic connection between people under capitalism, movies are bad.

The Society of the Spectacle (1973)

Here he reads from his influential book by the same title over a montage of images from other films. In his response to all judgments of this film (linked above) he basically says that you’re only capable of liking it if it’s the only film you like. That should tell you everything you need to know.

Jean Eustache

The Mother and the Whore (1973), Mes petites amoureuses (1974)

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Image from The Mother and the Whore

These are the only two narrative features Eustache made, and they’re both masterpieces. The Mother and the Whore is a 3.5 hour autobiographical post-May ’68 epic. Cahiers du Cinéma named it the best film of the 70’s. Jean-Pierre Léaud plays a revolutionary turned man of leisure who lives off of his girlfriend (Bernadette Lafont) while bumming around cafes. He begins an affair with sexually liberated nurse Veronika. I won’t give the rest away but the film is concerned with the downsides of the sexual revolution, which is not to say that it regrets the sexual revolution. It’s sometimes read as a very conservative film, but I don’t think this is right. It’s much more ambivalent than that. Anyways, it’s a very hard movie to blurb and you should just see it. Due to issues with Eustache’s estate it’s not easy to access, but it’s a mainstay in repertory theaters and there’s a perfectly acceptable rip circulating online (beware: some versions are cropped, but there are good ones out there. They all share a source with a single isolated glitch, which is annoying but shouldn’t be a deal-breaker).

Mes petites amoureuses isn’t really a May ’68 film, but it’s not unrelated, since it deals with the plight of the working class. It’s also autobiographical, and relates the story of a young boy who is raised by his grandparents but then has to move to the city with his deadbeat mom and work for no pay at a repair shop owned by her boyfriend’s brother. He becomes more interested in girls and has his first few clumsy sexual encounters, marked by increasing boldness on his part. This film could be seen as the third part of a sequence that began with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and continued with Pialat’s L’enfance nue (note that Pialat appears here in a small role). It is separated from the other two by its austere Bressonian style (in its acting, blocking, and framing especially). It’s extremely different from The Mother and the Whore, but they are both truly great films.

Chris Marker

A Grin Without a Cat [Le fond de l’air est rouge] (1977)

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Marker’s three hour documentary is an exceptional compendium of global political turmoil from the late 60’s through the mid 70’s. It covers a lot of grounding, including the Vietnam war, the Cuban revolution, Che’s death in Bolivia, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, May ’68, the Prague Spring and subsequent Soviet invasion, violent suppression of pre-Olympic protests in Mexico city, and the 1973 Chilean coup.

Marker is concerned with three struggles that characterized the time: reactionaries vs. revolutionaries, guerrillas vs. incrementalists, Stalinists vs. reformists. Perhaps the highlight of the film is a remarkable interview with Castro, who sides with the Stalinists but appears conflicted.

Note that there are three versions of this. The original version is four hours long. Marker later edited it down to three hours, and then this three hour version was dubbed into English. Avoid the dubbed version!  The narration is terrible compared to the original three hour cut. I’m curious to see the four hour version.

À bientôt, j’espère (1968, with Marret), Class of Struggle (Medvedkine Group, 1969)

The first of these documents a strike at a textile factory in Besançon in March 1967. It was the first workers’ strike in France since the 30’s. One gets a clear idea of what the workers’ concerns were. It’s not primarily about money, though money is part of it. It’s more about making work compatible with a full and balanced life. To return to my tirade against Debord: his denunciation of unions, which he saw as a way for workers to pursue contemptible bourgeois goals, feels especially nauseating when one relates it to this film. He’s purportedly interested in restoring authentic experience but passes judgment on workers for wanting to be able to spend time with their families? The second film revisits the same factory after the events of ’68. A mild-mannered woman we met in the first film has become a leading labor organizer and now has a poster of Castro on her wall at home. We learn about her efforts and how the factory has punished her for them.

Miscellaneous

1968 (Rocha and Beato, 1968)

Unfinished newsreel footage of protests in Brazil.

Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (Tanner, 1976)

Swiss ensemble film about people who were involved in May ’68 and have since settled into disappointing lives where they try to keep the revolution alive in small ways (even just in daydreams). This was a little tepid for me.

Grands soirs & petits matins (Klein, 1978)

Remarkable fly-on-the-wall footage of the uprising, including meetings, protests, debates, etc. This was screened in a few theaters for the first time with English subtitles earlier this year but it’s still not possible to see it with subtitles at home. I watched some of it, but my French isn’t good enough to understand people shouting over each other and talking really fast in angry tones about the bourgeoisie. Some familiar faces show up, including Resnais and Rivette. Perhaps the most telling moment in what I saw shows a female student being shut down by the endlessly ranting male rhetoricians when she tries to speak up.

Half a Life (Goupil, 1982)

This also includes footage from the uprising. It’s framed as a portrait of the filmmaker’s friend Michel Recanati, a militant student leader during May ’68 who later committed suicide. This true story lends vividness to the sort of arc that we often see portrayed in Garrel. What I found most interesting about this movie was how forthcoming it is about the lack of intellectual rigor of the movement. Think Bernie bros. Student militants were happy to just make things up or distort history. The point was to be loud and persuasive and stir up revolt, not to think things through carefully.

May Fools (Malle, 1990)

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Delightful comedy from Louis Malle, starring Michel Piccoli and Miou-Miou. The elderly owner of a dilapidated estate dies just before the events of May ’68 and the whole family gathers to bury her and execute her will while protests flare up in all over France and close in around them. One of the sons shows up fresh from the Paris barricades with tales to tell and everyone starts flirting with each others’ significant others. It becomes a Smiles of a Summer Night-style sex comedy and the family becomes convinced that the revolution is about to show up on their doorstep, with hilarious results. Of the more frivolous ’68 movies, this is my favorite.

The Dreamers (Bertolucci, 2003)

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I saw The Dreamers in the theater when it came out, but hadn’t seen it again until recently. I’ll give it one thing: Louis Garrel is aight. The other two leads (Eva Green and Michael Pitt) are remarkably bad. The cinematography is like a shitty William Lubtchansky imitation with none of the grace. The writing is in the running for worst of all time.

“I was one of the insatiables. The ones you’d always find sitting closest to the screen. Why do we sit so close? Maybe it was because we wanted to receive the images first. When they were still new, still fresh. Before they cleared the hurdles of the rows behind us. Before they’d been relayed back from row to row, spectator to spectator; until worn out, secondhand, the size of a postage stamp, it returned to the projectionist’s cabin. Maybe, too, the screen was really a screen. It screened us… from the world.”

I can’t believe someone sat down and wrote that and then thought, “yeah, that’s good, I’m going to go with that.”

“I’ve always wanted to make love to the Venus de Milo.”

I can’t even. The situation is just so false in every way. This brother and sister who live in a two-person intimacy cave meet a random American and immediately invite him and only him to join in? Because he’s a cinephile? There are no other cinephiles around? It felt like grotesque fantasy pandering: just show up at the cinema in Paris and a busty, hypersexual, virgin will recite Garbo dialogue and invite you to unceremoniously deflower her on the kitchen floor.

The May ’68 backdrop highlights how vapid the whole thing is. This movie does exactly jack shit to illuminate the historical moment.

Something in the Air (Assayas, 2012)

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Also vapid, but much better than The Dreamers. I like Assayas in general (especially Demonlover, Boarding Gate, and Carlos), but I was very disappointed by this. There are a few Molotov cocktails but mostly it’s Assayas reminiscing about girls he slept with. It opts for shallow romanticism and nostalgia where Garrel—who is ten times the filmmaker Assayas is—finds an existential abyss.

In the Intense Now (Salles, 2017)

Sort of like a shorter, more personal and less accomplished Grin Without a Cat from a Brazilian perspective. It features footage of the Cultural Revolution from the filmmaker’s mother. The most interesting thing here for me is the footage of the counter-protests held by members of the bourgeoisie during May ’68 after a speech from De Gaulle. They actually turned out in larger numbers than any other single demonstration during May.

 

Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 4

Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 4

Image from Kansas City Confidential.

I’m visiting family in New York this week and the whole Strohltopia crew is hanging out together. I wrote this together with Josh. We decided to shaft Netflix this time, because it sucks, while Amazon Prime is amazing and Hulu is pretty decent. We looked around on Netflix and didn’t really see much good stuff that we haven’t already recommended. They have the new John Woo movie Manhunt (we haven’t watched it yet), their proprietary Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel is a solid rendition of the Dragon Inn formula (though I’d rather just watch Dragon Inn again on Filmstruck), and I’m interested to watch Beyond Skyline on the basis of an intriguing recommendation, but mostly their film selection is a joke.

Amazon Prime

Kansas City Confidential (Karlson)

Phil Karlson is a B-movie god on the order of Sam Fuller. This is an absolutely fantastic noir. The screenplay is delightfully unpredictable. It zigs where you think it might zag.

Opera (Argento)

Finally on prime! One of Argento’s best movies. Cursed Macbeth performance, black-gloved stalker, All About Eve, a shitload of crows, creative torture, and periodic thrash metal interludes.

Phenomena (Argento)

I remember vividly one afternoon many years ago I was sitting down with my dad to watch a movie. He’s a very difficult audience. The only things he ever wants to watch are My Cousin Vinny, The Shawshank Redemption, Shallow Hal and sword-and-sandals epics. I convinced him to watch Phenomena on the basis of the promise that Jennifer Connelly telepathically communicates with bugs. He was like “what, does she whisper to a bumblebee? Alright, I’ll try it.” He did not move, he did not talk, he did not complain. It was perhaps the only time I’ve ever seen him sit still for an entire movie. His review afterwords: “Hoooooooooly shit that was good. You weren’t lying. She talks to bugs.”

The Golden Coach (Renoir)

I would have a hard time picking my favorite Renoir movie, but this is right up there. It’s the gold standard for the great tradition of art-as-life spectacles, and Anna Magnani is all time. To quote Godard, “It’s one of the five or six films in the history of cinema which one wants to review simply by saying, ‘It is the most beautiful of films’.”

Memories of Murder (Bong)

This is the movie Zodiac is trying to be. It’s Bong’s masterpiece and one of the greatest police procedurals.

Rouge (Kwan)

A beautiful and devastating 80’s Hong Kong ghost story. I’m really impressed that this is on Prime.

K-19: The Widowmaker (Bigelow)

Damn good submarine movie. Damn good.

The Loveless (Bigelow)

Kathryn Bigelow’s 80’s update of The Wild One (co-directed with Monty Montgomery). Early Willem Dafoe performance is on fleek. It’s a very unsettling movie, in a way that sneaks up on you.

Married to the Mob (Demme)

“The best shit there is.” That’s my sister-in-law’s take. PEAK Michelle Pfeiffer. Demme’s virtuoso feminist mob comedy is a cornerstone of his glorious body of work. We all completely love it over here at Strohltopia. We are actually watching it right now as I write this.

The Naked Kiss (Fuller)

A precursor to Blue Velvet in certain ways, it’s a surreal look at the dark underbelly of suburbia. Edgy low-budget maverick shit.

Lifeline (To)

Johnnie To’s answer to Backdraft. His mature style hasn’t developed yet but this was his first film with the great cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung. There’s just enough story to make you care about whether the firefighters live or die and then it’s all action.

Tetro (Coppola)

We love late Coppola. This is a bold, inventive semi-autobiographical film by an aging master.

Intolerance (Griffith)

While Netflix is down to like 3 movies made before 1960, Amazon is serving up D.W. Griffith masterworks. If you haven’t seen this, absolutely watch it. The formal accomplishment here is staggering a hundred years later, and as usual with Griffith, the acting is astonishing.

Song to Song (Malick)

I know, I know, we never shut up about Song to Song. I keep watching it and I keep finding more to love about it. The most important revelation I’ve had revisiting it is that it’s Malick’s Faust. Give it a shot with that in mind.

Knight of Cups (Malick)

Malick does Antonioni. This is another one that just keeps on giving. It’s his most difficult film, and I still feel like I’ve only half digested it, but I find it intoxicating from beginning to end. The Los Angeles setting is vivid and dreamlike.

American Honey (Arnold)

The Florida Project by way of Harmony Korine, but good. I didn’t really like Fishtank and I was so-so on Wuthering Heights. This is at another level of ambition and it’s the first film from Arnold that’s made a big impression on me (Josh disagrees and slightly prefers Fishtank). It’s super long for what it is, but it wears its length well. It’s an odd sort of American Epic full of great performances and compelling details.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (Hodges)

Dark and disturbing revenge film from Mike Hodges (Get Carter), with amazing performances from Clive Owen, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Malcolm McDowell, and Charlotte Rampling.

Hulu

How to Be a Latin Lover (Marino)

Ken Marino is one of the funniest people. His directorial debut, starring the wonderful Mexican superstar Eugenio Derbez, is frickin’ hilarious. It’s a refreshing throwback to the Farrelly brothers’ style of sight gag comedy, before Apatow rolled in and ruined everything with family values, sloppy editing, sitcom direction, and endless improv. I watched it on an airplane with headphones, and I laughed so loudly and often that it was embarrassing.

Mom and Dad (Taylor)

Parents everywhere are suddenly possessed with the uncontrollable urge to murder their children, with Nic Cage doing a sort of Jack Torrance thing and Selma Blair doing her best Nic Cage. I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this, but I recommend it only to people who find the premise immediately appealing. This one isn’t winning anyone over who wasn’t already there. From one of the co-directors of my beloved Crank and Crank 2.

Kidnap (Prieto)

No pretenses here. Straight to the point and it delivers. You want a kidnapping revenge thriller, you got it.

The Hills Have Eyes (Craven)

An essential classic of the American Nightmare subgenre of horror, wherein the nuclear family meets nuclear fallout. See it if you haven’t and are at all interested in horror.

The Furies (Anthony Mann)

Superb western with an especially badass Barbara Stanwyck performance (not to mention Walter Huston). Everyone talks about Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar (deservingly so!) but Stanwyck’s gender-subversive turns in this and Fuller’s Forty Guns are comparably groundbreaking.

Manhunter (Michael Mann)

You’ve probably seen Manhunter, but if not, you must. Tom Noonan is unforgettable. The soundtrack is among the best of the 80’s. It’s one of the most visionary mainstream films of its era. That tiger scene tho!

Frontier of the Dawn (Garrel)

I actually haven’t seen this yet but I’m just really impressed that it’s on Hulu. I’m about three-fourths of the way done with a watch-through of Garrel’s available works (a few of his films are prohibitively rare) in honor of the 50th anniversary of May ’68. Very, very few of his movies are easy to find in the USA, so it’s really cool that Hulu has this. Garrel is the crown prince of sadboy navel-gazing (he made soooooo many movies about his torrid relationship with Nico and its tragic aftermath), but he has the chops to pull it off and a Proustian sensibility that renders the navel-gazing captivating and profound. Look out for a lot more on Garrel in my next film diary installment, but I just wanted to give anyone interested a heads up that this is on Hulu (it might not be there for long!).

 

Current Television

Current Television

I’ve cut back considerably on TV the last couple of years to focus more of my screen time on film. I think there has been a noticeable decline in the average quality of television since online streaming services started producing original content. Some of it is good, surely, but they just produce so damn much of it and almost all of it is bad at this point.

In any case, almost all of the shows I still care about are on at once right now, so I thought I’d offer a brief write up of what appeals to me about these shows. I also recently checked out the first episode of Lost in Space, mostly because of Parker Posey. I thought it was pretty bad but had some promise and we didn’t see much of Posey, so I’ll give it another episode or two before giving up.

Ranked by personal enthusiasm:

1) Legion

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Legion is certainly the second boldest and most unconventional show in recent memory (after Twin Peaks: The Return). It’s not so much that it’s original– it borrows heavily from Wes Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, and (Olivier Mathieu pointed out to me) Michel Gondry– but rather that the synthesis it achieves is inspired. The production design is delicious. Legion takes place in the X-Men universe, but doesn’t feature any of the well known X-Men aside from a few (mostly vague) references to Professor X. The basic premise is that David Haller was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age, but the symptoms are actually manifestations of his super power. I can’t really say more without spoilers. The show is full of narrative tricks. There’s time travel, an astral plane, inception, etc. I often feel like I have no clue what’s going on in Legion, then suddenly a lot of stuff will seem clear, but only for a minute and then I’ll feel like I have even less of a clue than before. S2 seems to have a slightly more lucid narrative than S1 but it could just be that it’s right about to pull the carpet out from under us. In summary: if you want something bold and bizarre, check out Legion. It’s not at all required to be a fan of the X-Men or comics in general. The show is barely recognizable as a Marvel property. It would help, but is not essential, to have very basic knowledge of the X-Men universe.

2) Homeland

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Homeland is the only show that I’ve seen deal effectively with Trump. Its approach (adopted before Trump was elected but ultimately perfect) is to imagine the inversion of the current political situation. In this season of Homeland and the previous one, the show speculates about how it would go if a female Democrat with Trump’s level of disrespect for political norms and the rule of law were elected in the current environment of dire polarization, mainstreaming of propaganda, global information warfare, etc.  It’s a brilliant approach. Trump is terrible for fiction because reality is so surreal and horrific already that there’s no space to exaggerate anything for satirical or dramatic purposes. And beyond that, most of us are just burnt out on Trump 24/7. By inverting the situation, Homeland finds a way of examining the political landscape without falling into the Trump trap. Claire Daines is better than ever in the new season. I saw a hot take somewhere complaining that the empowered female warrior is depicted as mentally ill. I find this criticism utterly misplaced. Homeland’s approach to disability is like Finding Dory: mania is Carrie’s superpower. The show does vividly depict the harms wrought by her mental illness, but it also emphasizes how it enables her to do things that other people can’t. Also, speaking as someone who has been very close to people with the same condition that Carrie has, I find Daine’s performance remarkably resonant.

Yes, there are a few bits of bad or incoherent plotting. I don’t care. If I know there’s a new Homeland episode, it’s like knowing that my favorite flavor of ice cream is in the freezer.

3) Ink Master

Ink Master is the greatest of all reality competition shows. It’s like Top Chef or Project Runway, but with tattoos. This is much more interesting, because unlike the food on Top Chef, you can evaluate tattoos for yourself from home, and unlike the clothes on Project Runway, tattoos have consequences. When something goes wrong on Ink Master, someone ends up with a jacked up tattoo on their body. Aside from the superior premise, there are two things that elevate Ink Master. The first is the judging, which is the best judging in all of reality TV. The judges are two tattoo luminaries (Oliver Peck and Chris Nuñez) and Dave Navarro from Jane’s Addiction. They are *brutal*. But they also do a fantastic job educating the audience about the standards they are using. By watching this show, one learns a tremendous amount about what constitutes good tattooing. If you have tattoos, be warned that you will become aware of all of their flaws. The second thing that elevates Ink Master is the way they change up the format to keep things fresh. This season, for instance, they brought back three past winners to coach the new contestants and engage in a side competition. The early seasons of Ink Master aren’t as good as the more recent seasons, but if you love the show, it’s all delightful.

4) Naked and Afraid

The other great American reality show. Naked and Afraid puts one man and one woman in a harsh environment with a couple survival tools and no clothes and leaves them there for 21 days. There is a camera crew and medical team on site, and the contestants do receive assistance in emergencies, but this shit is no joke. People are medically evacuated *all the time*. The contestants have some background and expertise in primitive survival, and they often are able to forage or catch *some* food (often gross food– and be warned that there is a lot of wild animal butchery), but mostly it’s starvation, struggle, and misery. They often have to deal with thousands and thousands of bug bites. The show is gruesome. But that’s not the primary thing that’s so great about it.

What’s great about it is its social experiment with gender dynamics. I’ve seen every episode (I think this is season 10) and taken together it’s a pretty substantial data set. Almost always, the male contestant seizes the leadership role and treats the female contestant with condescension, and almost always she broods silently about it for days before coming up with a strategy to address her concerns without creating a conflict. We get lots of asides from both contestants where they tell the camera their thoughts about the other contestant and the overall situation. We hear both the man’s side (typically “I really hope she doesn’t slow me down. I’m calling the shots, that’s for sure”) and the woman’s (“He doesn’t seem to realize that I have survival expertise and that I’m not some novice girlfriend tagging along on his camping trip. What an asshole. I have to be careful to hide my feelings, though, or else I’ll have to deal with an ego tantrum”). There are so many different ways it ends up going. Sometimes the woman confronts the man and he feels terrible about the way he made her feel and changes his ways and learns a lesson. Sometimes she confronts him and he’s like “I’M A MAN. And where I come from, the man hunts and the woman gathers. So why don’t you get some firewood together while I hunt wild boar.” Sometimes he catches no food and they are starving so she takes a try and immediately catches lots of food. There are some episodes where the man doesn’t seize the leadership role. Some men have a congenial approach from the very beginning where they’re like “first tell me what your thoughts are” and treat their partner with appropriate respect throughout. We get to see how much better it goes when this happens. Also, while the contestants are naked, sexuality almost never comes up. In some episodes they initially check each other out and maybe mention in an aside that they find the other attractive, but by day 3 or 4 these thoughts are totally supplanted by misery.

5) The Americans

My general opinion of The Americans is that it’s past its peak but still solid. This is the final season, and so far it looks like they’re going for fatalism. It’s entirely worthwhile but doesn’t get my blood pumping like Homeland.

6) Billions

I haven’t started Billions S3 yet but I have a couple episodes waiting for me and I’m looking forward to it. Paul Giamatti is fantastic in the show and I appreciate how anti-moralistic and subversively fun the whole thing is. The only sympathetic character is non-binary Taylor, whose introduction makes the examination of toxic cesspool masculinity much more interesting. Mostly we are rooting for the evil hedge fund manager against the corrupt federal prosecutor.