When it comes to reinterpreting a classic Joan Crawford movie involving murder I just think—why mess with success? Todd Haynes has made a career out of deconstructing his campy pop cultural obsessions for his own films with pretty mixed results. Whether he’s aping Douglas Sirk, badly, as in the highly overrated Far From Heaven or making David Bowie and glam rock seem about as sexy and exotic as a night out with Adam Lambert (the atrocious Velvet Goldmine) he doesn’t pay homage to his influences and radically reinterpret their art so much as apply some critical theory ideas, slow everything down, and just kind of ruin what makes them fun in the first place. It has always been my suspicion that Haynes is rewarded more for his good taste than his skills as a filmmaker. He spends too much time focusing on things like “post-structuralism” and “the male gaze” when maybe he should think about things like “narrative cohesion” and “three dimensional characters.”
When the HBO mini-series of Mildred Pierce was announced I figured it would be lame. Haynes was going to take one of the great American novels of the WW2 era (which had already been turned into an immortal film in 1945) and do his graduate school thesis thing and, I figured, just flat out ruin it. The first reports about the project were not encouraging. It was going to be a 5-part miniseries, he was getting rid of the crime element (unique to the movie version), and it was going to star Kate Winslet—a good actress, admittedly, but wouldn’t it have been more inspired to get someone kind of nuts like Lara Flynn Boyle for instance? That would have been fun. Once again I figured Todd Haynes was going to needlessly cool down a prime slab of overheated melodrama into something “respectable.” But then I watched it and *shocker* but it was actually really good.
Less standard follow-your-dreams dancical than sleek spandex-clad killing machine, the movie Flashdance is as exhilarating as it is nihilistic. Jennifer Beals has a honeyed glow and a natural, sexy charisma in the role of Alex, the hot young welder who moonlights as an exotic dancer at a Pittsburgh dive bar. Her dancing is her “art” and though I think it’s supposed to be erotic it’s really more schizo-aerobic.
The girls who dance with Alex at the club all have some kind of new wave performance art aspect to what they do and the set pieces are hilariously elaborate. One girl goes for a zany kabuki new wave effect and, well, it’s just weird. For a movie about a dancer in the sticks hoping to make it big we don’t get much of a sense of dance as an art form revolving around the body. The dancing is really about the editing which is best described as epileptic while the film’s narrative goes forward at such a robotic, lockstep pace – with plenty of music video-like detours comparable to commercial breaks – that it’s not so much a movie that you see as one that you have done to you. In that sense, you might say it’s ahead of its time because the film provided a basic blueprint for the way Hollywood movies are made now. The characters’ emotions are signaled with delicious Giorgio Moroder-produced instrumentals and the clichés of the basic kid with a dream story who must “risk everything” are cheerfully, mindlessly, and ferociously utilized.
The Best Years of Our Lives
It's not a great movie but then perhaps it is still the best of its kind of film. There's an element of national catharsis that The Best Years of Our Lives channels, redeeming it from whatever middlebrow pretensions it uses to get there. In aesthetic terms it may be nothing more than a syrupy drama that presumes to show the "reality" that G.I.s from WWII faced when they returned home but, clunky soap operatics aside, it does fulfill a need for some kind of closing statement from Hollywood about the emotional toll the whole wretched thing took on average people.
Similar ground had been covered by the turgid Since You Went Away two years earlier but whereas that celluloid headache made you pine for the hours lost trudging through its "epic" pretensions, The Best Years of Our Lives has enough good stuff to make it worthwhile viewing.
The Flowers of St. Francis
Most films with religion as a central theme – specifically Christianity – are just awful. Even films with something original and authentic to say about religion can be overly pious, pedantic, and dull. But for every film on the subject that is too obvious or cowardly there are always films that manage to examine religion or use religion as a theme that are widely acknowledged works of art—Carl Dreyer’s emotionally pornographic The Passion of Joan of Arc, Michael Powell’s lurid fantasia of desire and self-denial, Black Narcissus, and Tim Robbins’s affecting denouncement of the death penalty, Dead Man Walking, are all good examples. But for every one of those there are quite a few stinkers. I think that unless a film challenges the assumptions of organized religion or audience biases then it’s not a subject worth going near.
The Flowers of St. Francis, Roberto Rossellini’s film about St. Francis of Assisi and his followers, is the rare film about Christianity that manages to say something new about the religion itself. Well, not new per se as it pretty much embodies the radical spirit of the teachings of Jesus, but new in the sense that it’s not a depiction of Christianity that people are used to seeing. Rather than rely on a straight biographical narrative to tell the story of St. Francis, Rossellini tells his story in several vignettes that each embody his intense joie de vivre for animals and nature, for his brothers of the cloth, and for God. There is something downright goofy about these men joyously preaching the gospels in their tattered cloaks so happy to be poor. Somehow it’s poignant and charming instead of ludicrous.
D.W. Griffith: Father of Film
I am somewhat ashamed to admit that, just like presumably every person born after 1928, I have a hard time sitting through a silent film. From the still surviving fragments showcasing a variety of short film subjects (train robbers to bathing beauties) to the masterworks from the twilight years of the silent film era by Josef von Sternberg it’s all similarly a bit hard to follow. This is what I would consider to be an annoyingly self-created barrier to my cinematic education because silent film is a whole exciting, if challenging, world unto itself and a vital tool through which to examine American history. Perhaps no American director presents such possibilities for revelatory discovery and, crucially, the worst kind of enduring cultural embarrassment as one D.W. Griffith, the “father of film.” Kevin Brownlow, the esteemed British film historian and recent honorary Oscar winner, directed this 3-part documentary on Griffith and it offers the quickest route to understanding the man as icon and tragic victim of his own belligerent hubris without having to sit through the entirety of his films.
Griffith was the proud son of a Kentucky Civil War colonel and a prolific short film director who worked for Biograph Studios in New York. Following the lead of DeMille and other film industry pioneers he headed west. Though he amassed a huge body of work as both a short and full-length film director he is singularly important for his film The Birth of a Nation (1915). Its dual legacy as both a pioneering work of film art and a grotesquely racist misunderstanding of the origins and aftermath of the Civil War will never truly be resolved. He is, in some ways, the American Leni Riefenstahl. Out of a shocking naiveté or a pathetically primitive world view he did not foresee the problems that would stem from his assault on the dignity of African American Southerners as lazy and childlike people who were better off as slaves under the care of their benign white masters. Just to put this in perspective, the heroes who ride in at the end are members of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s almost impossible to watch these scenes and keep in mind the ways in which The Birth of a Nation, with its inventive use of crosscutting, changed the art of filmmaking forever. Mostly one just cringes and thinks, “How much worse can this get?”
Three cheers are due for the unsung back lot maestro, John Brahm. His work is fairly ubiquitous; in his day he directed several major studio films and later countless episodes of several different TV shows, but his name isn’t found on most lists of great Golden Age directors. This is a shame because within a couple of years (roughly 1942–1947) he directed some superb thrillers for Twentieth Century Fox that gave producer Val Lewton, and directors Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, and Alfred Hitchcock a run for their murder movie money. Brahm, like the Warner Brothers’ in-house dynamo, Michael Curtiz, was a filmmaker so adept at the art of directorial craftsmanship that you remember his great films more than you remember his authorial imprint on them. Though his last name never became critical shorthand for a specific style (unlike the terms “Wellesian” or “Hitchcockian”) he was a director who, with the right project, was second to none.
Guy Maddin is one of the world's greatest filmmakers. He is an artist with a visual aesthetic and command of cinema surely derived straight from the heavens. His movies explode with fantastic imagery—strange sights that turn his memories and perverted sense of nostalgia into menacing fantasias of great beauty and power. His films always feel like critiques of history and cinema masquerading as tour de force spectacles. For example The Saddest Music in the World works as a critique of the capitalist degradation of art but it also works on such feverish imagery as Isabella Rossellini's strangely beautiful glass legs filled with beer. The plots, such as they are, seem to belong to a different era where "suspension of disbelief" was more bendable than it is now though there's no mistaking Maddin's postmodern sensibility for any time but now. He manages to blend the exclamatory cliches of Russian and German silent film with the camp melodrama of Douglas Sirk, the erotic nightmare quality of primo Noir, and his own offbeat Canadian sense of humor into something totally unique. The only other filmmaker I know of who seems to be a true contemporary of Maddin is David Lynch but even he doesn't seem to be as consistently interesting as Maddin.
With My Winnipeg Maddin turns his usual subtextual critiques of history and memory into the actual theme of the film and so My Winnipeg is different from his other films in that we know what he is trying to accomplish upfront. It's a pseudo documentary and the subject is Winnipeg—Maddin's hometown and the source of most of his artistic fixations. He recreates events from his childhood with his mother (played by Detour actress Ann Savage). He details the nocturnal state that defines life in Winnipeg where sleepwalking is common. He chronicles the alternately traumatic and intoxicating lessons in sexual discovery that he received from hanging around the Catholic girl's school, swimming pools, and hockey rinks of Winnipeg as a youngster.
The Enchanted Cottage
If you are impervious to the charms of a sentimental love story beautifully told and with ravishingly romantic art direction then please click away at once! For who could deny the simple pleasures of a small film about love filled with such strange charms? The Enchanted Cottage is hardly a work of great art for the ages but by some mysterious combination of good acting, gorgeous cinematography, and just the right amount of bewitching weirdness it manages to transcend its Hollywood cornball trappings and become a minor kind of classic—one that says something profound about love as being both simple and eternally mysterious.
The film opens at an evening gathering of sophisticated middle-aged Waspish types in a Massachusetts mansion where the guests are all gathered in the living room of the host. A blind pianist with a beautifully cultivated accent (Herbert Marshall) is regaling the assembled guests with the story of how his two friends, Oliver and Laura, fell in love before he performs the new piece inspired by them. As he begins performing the piece we flash back to the first meeting of the two and the role that a cottage, an enchanted cottage, played in the story of their falling in love.
Bigger Than Life
The ‘50s weren’t all Bob Hope and Doris Day comedies. Quite a few American films from that decade were honest assessments of the psychic toll taken during an era where postwar consumer culture and an insidious conformism were coming to define the mainstream of American cultural life. This was the era of the Red Scare and the Hollywood blacklist. It was an era of rigid gender roles, Father Knows Best, and suburban sprawl. The angst of this era was beautifully captured in the films of director Nicholas Ray. He gave us Rebel without a Cause, In a Lonely Place, and Bigger Than Life—all iconic treatises on men at war with themselves and the people who love them.
Nicolas Ray knew something about men in crisis. He had a gift for getting inside the heads of men who were alienated from themselves as well as from those around them. Bigger Than Life ranks as probably his darkest examination into the mind of a man falling apart. To add subversion to the proceeding pathos the main character’s drug-fueled anger and paranoia are best understood as violent psychological manifestations of the quintisentially American obsessions with success, strength, and a patriarchal family structure in which both mother and child are rendered subservient to the whims of an angry, domineering, and vengeful father. In other words, Ray is taking on the 1950s themselves and painting a portrait of a deranged society confined by roles that leave no room for humanity.
Born to Kill
Born to Kill is one of the kinkier Noirs out there and it’s slightly ironic considering the director Robert Wise is mostly known for helping to butcher Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons at RKO’s request and directing The Sound of Music and West Side Story. Wise was not an iconoclast like Welles or Robert Aldrich. He was a director most famous for helming big road show musicals and Born to Kill is the polar opposite of such family friendly fare. It’s a fairly sordid tale of obsession, jealousy, and murder. Lawrence Tierney plays the cold blooded killer at the center of things but he’s no match for Claire Trevor as a steely society dame turned on by his brutish exploits. Tierney plays a thoroughly rotten character who kills for kicks but it’s Trevor’s high class vixen who really makes an impression because while she’s just as mean as Tierney’s numbskull thug she’s also got a brain which makes her involvement in his homicidal hi jinks that much more unsettling.
Tierney plays Sam Wild, a suit-clad psychopath who worms his way into the inner circle of a wealthy family, marrying Trevor’s half sister Georgia (Audrey Long) but maintaining a hot n’ heavy flirtation with Helen (Trevor) all the while. Sam shares a filthy apartment with his friend Marty (the personification of low rent sleaze, Elisha Cook Jr.) before moving into the family mansion. When Helen finds out that Sam is a deranged killer with at least two murders to his credit she finds herself protecting him and intimidating people who might be in a position to finger him as a murderer all stemming from the twisted logic of her own infatuation with him.