Monthly Archives: August 2015

Häxan (1922)


*. The allure of the odd. At the beginning of his audio commentary on the Criterion DVD Casper Tybjerg describes Häxan as “a film like no other.” And it wasn’t just unique in its day; it’s never really been imitated.
*. Is it sui generis? Tybjerg spends some time discussing whether or not it can be considered a documentary (making it one of the first). I wouldn’t apply that label. It seems to me more like a historical drama with a scholarly introduction and other asides. But I’m not sure the labels matter anyway.
*. Writer/director Benjamin Christensen claimed he wanted to present “a cultural history lesson in moving pictures,” and I think he may have been sincere. In the early days of any new medium you’ll usually find expressed the dream of a popular form of entertainment that will be used to educate the masses. It is a dream with a long history: through radio, film, television, and now the Internet. We’re still waiting. The masses seem less interested in instruction than delight. They don’t look to a new medium for its potential to educate. They don’t want cultural history lessons.


*. Can we call it torture porn? That may be going too far, but it’s easy to forget how sadistic, violent, and even gory early films were. They were as nasty and shocking as they could be given the censors of the time and technical limitations. In the first dramatic sequence here, for example, we have a witch snapping a finger off the hand of a thief’s corpse (a scene that was cut from some prints).
*. The prurience is also undeniable. The meaning of the devil pumping away on his butter churn is kind of hard to miss. Christensen justifies showing nudity by saying it was the custom in the past to sleep naked in bed and for witches to travel about in the nude. So he’s just being historically accurate! As also when he points out that it wasn’t just ancient crones who were accused of being witches. Pretty young women were hauled before the tribunal too!


*. Apparently his other idea for a documentary at the time was something on hermaphroditism and sex hormones. One can scarcely imagine how that would have turned out.
*. Of course there are pitfalls when it comes to doing something a little different. A movie imagined as a mosaic, with no single coherent narrative, no heroes or heroines, no spectacle and no suspense, was going to have a hard time finding an audience.
*. I’m not sure how popular Häxan was, but I don’t think it made money. It was very expensive, but not because of anything you see on screen. According to Tybjerg there were massive costs associated with the Swedish backers buying Christensen’s old film studio in Denmark (where the film was shot) and completely refurbishing it for him. Christensen also had a nocturnal working schedule that required lots of overtime for his crew. Why he thought it was somehow appropriate for such a film to be shot at night when he was shooting in a studio anyway is beyond me. I think he probably just liked working at night.
*. It is a very dark film, visually. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t think Christensen makes full use of the frame very often.


*. So despite the big budget this is not a historical epic filled with massive sets and a cast of thousands, and doesn’t even feature much in the way of special visual effects (compare Murnau’s also very expensive Faust just a few years later). Instead it recycles the same handful of actors and small sets. That may have hurt it as well.
*. There’s Pazuzu! We wouldn’t see him again on screen until The Exorcist.


*. As already noted, some material was cut by censors. I’m not surprised. There are some pretty crazy scenes here, what with babies being tossed in stew pots and women lining up to kiss the devil’s ass. I think the freakiest bit though is the woman giving birth to the demons. It made me think of that maggot-birth scene from David Cronenberg’s version of The Fly.
*. It’s impossible not to see the influence on Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in all of the close-ups, particularly with the tear-streaked, uplifted faces of persecuted women. Tybjerg is good on the background here, pointing out how the close-ups were seen by the censors at the time as indecent. You just weren’t supposed to see faces that big.







*. Many people see the final section, set in modern times, as a let down. I wonder if that’s because we’re more familiar with the argument being made, that mental illness explains a lot of what was considered to be black magic in the bad old days. Psychiatry was still a new field in 1922.
*. The burning witches is an odd image to end with, isn’t it? It yanks us back out of time present into the demon-haunted world, with no explanation. Tybjerg doesn’t comment on it. Perhaps Christensen just wanted a strong visual and he couldn’t come up with a contemporary one. Or perhaps the burning figures are deliberately juxtaposed with the woman entering the healing shower in modern times.
*. Christensen aspired to do something different, but in doing so I think he also wanted to lay out a path to a different role for film than just cheap entertainment. No one followed his lead. Cultural history lessons are not best taught by moving pictures. You can always learn more from books.


Her Last Fling (1976)


*. I saw this movie as the second half of a DVD double feature where it was included along with Carnal Haven. I guess they went together because this is another Carlos Tobalina production, with the man of a 1,000 aliases both directing (as “Bruce Van Buren”) and producing (as “Troy Benny”).
*. Of the two, Carnal Haven is much the better movie. This one is a real stinker.
*. In their Golden Turkey Awards, the Medved brothers have a category for “The Most Unerotic Concept in Pornography.” Her Last Fling doesn’t get a mention, though two of the nominees were also from 1976. I really think it should have been considered. The concept here isn’t as laughably bizarre as the movies on the Golden Turkey short list, but it’s a real buzz kill.
*. What is the concept? Our heroine, Sandy (played by a somnolent Sandy Pinney), is diagnosed with some unnamed but terminal disease. She only has a couple of weeks left, so she’s going to give up her “square” life, reckoning that she “may as well have some fun.” What this means is buying a Bicentennial Cadillac (that’s what they called them!) and driving to Vegas and then San Francisco to participate in some orgies.
*. She is, of course, a big hit among the men and the ladies on the orgy circuit. The guys are particularly impressed that she “moves her pussy like an accordion.” No further comment necessary.
*. I’ve heard it said that the plot was lifted from the 1950 Alec Guinness film Last Holiday, but the concept is actually pretty generic.
*. Anyway, that’s the idea, and you have to admit it’s a bit of a downer. However — spoiler alert! — Sandy doesn’t die. Her two weeks of group sex work a remarkable cure, leaving her with no trace of the disease. It’s like a carnal version of Faust, with the heroine being redeemed through the power of cock rather than the love of a good woman (though she gets some of that too).
*. You may think from this that Her Last Fling actually has a bit of a story, with a real character. But it doesn’t. Sandy is just another body in a room full of writhing bodies. There’s nothing wrong with that, but while porn doesn’t need a story or characters it does help if the sucking and thrusting is given a bit more context than it has here.
*. If you’re a fan of porn’s golden age, however, some of the writhing bodies will be familiar. Among the talent here are Paul Thomas, Candida Royalle, Annette Haven and Desiree West. It also is said to have an appearance by the legendary John Holmes (playing “John C. Holmes”). But I don’t remember seeing any actor named John Holmes (or any actor in the cast aside from “Sandy” having a name at all), nor do I recall seeing Mr. Holmes’s monstrous unit anywhere on screen (and reports are that it was rather hard to miss). Perhaps he got lost among all the limbs and foliage in one of the orgy scenes. Or perhaps 12″ (or 14″, or whatever its actual dimensions) doesn’t seem that big any more, in our supersized day and age. If so . . . ouch.
*. You can tell you’re in the golden age because of the hair (pubic, chest, facial), the slow tempo of the sex, the lack of facials (money shots are all deposited on the woman’s belly), and the way a single tattoo on a girl’s wrist stands out like an extra head.
*. The soundtrack for the Vegas scenes is truly bizarre. The music is at times overridden by what sounds like a chorus of dogs growling over a bone. At first I found this oddly apposite and interesting, but after a while it started to disgust me.
*. At the end of the film the words “FUCKING MAKES LIFE” appear on the screen before the credits roll. This is a claim that’s impossible to deny, but I’m not sure it’s meant to be understood in the obvious sense. Instead, I think the point is that fucking is what gives life meaning, which is pretty close to the sex-positive message of Carnal Haven as well. It may be a bit reductive, but as far as life philosophies go I’ve heard worse. How sentimental it all seems now.


Where Danger Lives (1950)


*. Screenplay by Charles Bennett, the long-time Hitchcock collaborator. It makes you wonder how much of Hitch was Hitch and how much was actually Bennett (something I’ve wondered about before, see my notes on Night of the Demon). There are so many Hitchcockian elements in this film, from the familiar set-up of an innocent fugitive couple on the run to the dominant tone of comic suspense.
*. How to make Robert Mitchum seem even dopier and more lumbering than usual? Have him suffering the progressive effects of a concussion. I’m not sure it makes sense, but they took the qualities they had in their star and ran with them. They also take the conventional soft malleability of the noir hero, who is putty in the hands of the femme fatale, to a new extreme, as Jeff finally collapses to the floor like a slug at Margo’s feet.
*. But . . . Dr. Robert Mitchum? I don’t buy it. You can’t change your trench coat for a lab coat that easily.
*. Mitchum’s present absence allows Faith Domergue’s Margo to take over. This is, of course, something that any good femme fatale is always itching to do anyway, and the role again plays to her strengths as she seems slightly off-kilter from the start. She is too bold and manic in her maneuverings.
*. She’s also an outlier as a femme fatale in that her psychopathy is the result of a mental illness. She can be both cold and calculating and then clingy and helpless the next moment, and leave us feeling unsure how much of her behaviour is an act.
*. I kept wondering when she was going to try and get rid of Jeff during their escape, and I’m still not sure if (a) she didn’t want to, or (b) she just hadn’t found the right opportunity. In the honeymoon suite scene you get an uneasy feeling something bad is about to happen when Jeff goes to get a cold towel for his head (we know what happened the last time he did that), but then later she flies into a rage at his mention of Julie’s name. Is she jealous? Does she really love Jeff?


*. On a related point, I was never sure what Margo’s plan was. She has some money salted away in Mexico (or so she says), but then what? Is Jeff going to start practicing medicine down there? Is this a worthwhile question, or do we just shrug and say “she’s crazy, she doesn’t know what she’s doing”?
*. Digging a little deeper: who is the guy who brings Margo in at the beginning? I originally assumed he was one of Lannington’s flunkies, but it’s left totally unexplained, as is Margo’s attempted suicide. At the end of the movie Jeff will say to her “You tried to kill yourself over the other one, didn’t you?” which I assume is referring to this character, but it’s not clear.
*. Yes, it’s typical of noir plots that they don’t bear much looking into. To take another example, why does Margo agree to (or arrange to) meet Jeff at Pogo Pete’s when she says she has to leave a couple of minutes after meeting him because she’s told her husband she was only running out to the drug store (in her mink and evening dress)? You could say she’s acting out like this because she’s crazy, but I don’t find that convincing. I think it’s indicative of Bennett’s Hitchcockian disregard for plausibility.


*. I’ve pointed this out before, but it’s worth repeating: when you see a woman driving in a noir, with the man in the passenger seat, you can be pretty sure it’s not going to end well. They’re taking someone for a ride. Of course Jeff really shouldn’t be driving here because of his injury, but anything’s better than letting Margo take the wheel.
*. The cat being locked up with the corpse may be a nod to Poe, but I initially wondered why it would start yowling after only a day of being left alone in a mansion that size. I missed the line when the cat is first introduced, explaining that it doesn’t live in that house.
*. Claude Rains is always fun to watch and I  only wish there were more of him here. Sadly, his part is left an undeveloped throwaway. Lannington isn’t a character but just a role, someone to show up, play his part in the plot, and then make his exit.


*. Mid-century service etiquette: when Margo picks up her plane tickets and thanks the woman at the counter, the reply is “Surely.” Does anyone say that any more?
*. The opening shot of the Golden Gate Bridge threw me. I don’t usually think of San Francisco as a noir town. But then, this movie has nothing at all to do with San Francisco and it seems as though they locate San Fran awfully close to the Mexican border.
*. What are we to make of Margo’s charge that nobody pities her? She says that Lannington pitied her “and look what happened to him.” Is that what she found unendurable about him? He doesn’t seem like a very sympathetic type.
*. How did the bewhiskered police of Postville get Margo’s picture? It’s said to be a “telephoto” picture, but did a technology exist for sending picture by telephone in 1950? Surprisingly, the answer is “Yes.” As early as 1924 AT&T had developed a system of sending photos through a telephone line. Another example of the kinds of things you can learn from old movies.
*. Why is Jeff so upset at the thought that Margo was putting away her husband’s money? She’s already said she married him for his money, and that she hates him. What’s so surprising about her setting up a personal account under her maiden name?
*. John Farrow’s use of long takes is indeed impressive, especially with that final scene in the hotel room. But he has another style point that plays awkward, even within that scene. He keeps arranging two shots with both actors facing toward the camera. This is hard to arrange so that it seems natural, and indeed there’s one moment in Pogo Pete’s where it’s jarring when we realize that Jeff and Margo aren’t even looking at each other. It seems like a continuity error in the editing.
*. That habit also underlies the lack of chemistry between the leads. They aren’t going to spend a lot of time looking deeply into each other’s eyes. And again we’re left to wonder at the ambiguity in their relationship. Jeff seems to finally realize that he never loved Margo, and I think we can understand him as subconsciously seeing in her a patient, someone he can take care of. But what are we to make of her final statement to the police: “Accomplice? Do you think he could kill a man?” Does she despise him for his weakness? Or is she trying to clear him, knowing that she is dying? Or perhaps she has bipolar feelings, running to extremes. She does try to kill him twice in the final ten minutes, after all.
*. I especially like the rogues’ gallery of sleazy predators, each kitted out in their distinctive tacky wardrobes: Honest Hal in his blinding checked jacket, shirt and tie; the pawnbroker Klauber in his vest and aggressive cigar; and Milo De Long (the guy who runs the Guadalupe Follies) in his suspenders and pin-stripes. They are all sharks and Jeff is “hot,” which means there’s blood in the water. They help dramatize just how helpless Jeff is in such a world.
*. There are a lot of little things that are done well here, but the big things let it down. Mitchum and Domergue don’t have any spark, and it’s just no fun watching Mitchum drag himself through the entire chase part of the film as he’s succumbing to progressive physical deterioration. I never had the sense that he was in a race against time so much as simply winding down, waiting for the rescue of a tidy ending.


Repo Man (1984)


*. Maybe the place to start is to say that punk was a joke. The music was a joke. The look was a joke. The rebelliousness was a joke. Everything about it was a joke. So a successful punk movie will, hopefully, be a joke too, which Repo Man is. And what helps a joke work, more than anything, is when the people telling it really believe in it.
*. It’s a cult movie, and part of being a cult movie is that same authenticity. I think it helps a great deal that Alex Cox believed in punk (and, for all I can tell, perhaps still does). And it’s a big plus to have Harry Dean Stanton along for the ride. If we are to trust Stanton (in a 2005 interview that’s included on the Criterion DVD) he wasn’t acting at all. If anything he may have had to tone things down a bit for the part of Bud. The real H.D.S. sounds more like Tracey Walter’s Miller than any of the other repo men.


*. Was punk political? I didn’t think so at the time, and looking back on it I’m even less inclined to give it that much credit. Nevertheless this movie is invariably described as political, as somehow being a reaction against or satire of the despised “Reagan ’80s.” Asked during a roundtable discussion with his two producers if he thinks such a movie could be made today (this was in 2005), Cox replies that you couldn’t make a film “so political, you’d have to take out all the political references.”
*. Huh? What political references? A brief television clip of something going on in Central America? Some scenes of inner city decay? The mention of a neutron bomb? That’s political?
*. I think Cox is a politically-minded guy (he did make Walker). And I think it’s possible he thinks this is a political movie that has something to say about Reagan. But it’s not and it doesn’t.


*. I don’t mean to suggest by any of this that Repo Man is a bad movie. In fact, I think it’s very good: funny, original, and very light on its feet. It struck a note that would set off a resounding echo, most notably in the work of Quentin Tarantino.
*. What makes me say Tarantino? The script, mainly. There’s a lot of talk. There’s a lot of talk that’s lifted from other sources. It’s no coincidence that we’re introduced to Kevin singing a 7-Up jingle, or that later that night Otto gets drunk and can only scream out the names of ’80s television shows.


*. It’s also like a Tarantino script in being built around a bunch of odd, highly quotable, “cool” lines: non sequiturs that pose as a kind of dark wisdom. And there’s also the structure: a bunch of parallel plot lines that intersect on a “lattice of coincidence.” Then of course there are the more obvious cues, like the foregrounding of the car’s trunk and the way Sy Richardson’s Lite clearly prefigures Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules.


*. But if this movie led to Tarantino, what led to this movie? Did it come out of nowhere?
*. Nothing comes of nothing, and there are clear borrowings. The glowing secret in the trunk comes from Kiss Me Deadly, the smoking boots from a movie called Timerider, and (though this isn’t mentioned on the commentary) the flying car, while it has several antecedents, probably comes from the opening of Heavy Metal (1982).


*. As far as genre is concerned, it’s a road movie. The opening credits even appear over a road map, and I can’t think of another movie that has so many conversations taking place inside cars. What makes the fact that it’s a road picture especially interesting is that it’s almost entirely set in Los Angeles, and “the road” is really the freeway system. Nevertheless, the freeway becomes the thread that holds everything together, with the different plot lines cutting into each other’s lanes.


*. I’ve seen arguments over what’s actually in the Malibu’s trunk, which tend to run along the same lines as asking what’s in the briefcase in Kiss Me Deadly. I guess it doesn’t really make a difference. And perhaps this is what Pauline Kael meant when she criticized it as a film without a center. There’s nothing there.


*. I was particularly impressed by how deftly little touches of serendipity were worked in. Some of these are so subtle I didn’t even notice them the first few times through. Among other things there’s the plate o’ shrimp sign on the window at the diner that seems to fulfil Miller’s thoughts on synchronicity, the derelict who points to the Malibu while wearing a Repo Man baseball hat, and the doctor in the hospital who is wearing a smiley face button before Otto steals his coat.
*. It’s fitting that so much of this seems to have been accidental. The derelict was wearing some promo swag that had been handed out to the extras and was pointing to the Malibu because he knew it had some relation to the film. The Christmas tree air fresheners were among the only products given to the filmmakers to use and they had hundreds of them so they stuck them everywhere. I suspect the happy face button was put on the doctor’s coat because they knew it was going to be worn by Otto later (thus making it a kind of continuity error). But in a conspiracy film there are no coincidences, and we’re left to wonder if maybe the doctor is really in with the UFO cult.


*. There are obvious mistakes as well. I was particularly bothered by the way the glowing Malibu’s license plate is reversed at the end. How did that get through? Someone must have noticed.
*. After thirty years it’s a movie that still holds up pretty well, with the punk stuff dating the worst. But it’s not cool any more. Sometime in the twenty-first century cool became ironic, and then became hip. This movie is now hip, and was certainly well ahead of the curve in this regard. But the wheel turns. Things don’t stay hip forever. I suspect that before too long we’ll be describing this movie as cute, which seems a decent final resting place.


The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra (1928)


*. Mr. John Jones (he does have a name before the studio gets hold of him) arrives in Hollywood with a letter of introduction from the Almighty. He “would like to become a motion picture player in Hollywood.”
*. The term “player” had a more innocent meaning back then. Mr. Jones only wants to be an actor. In Altman’s movie a player refers to something else, as does our modern admonition to not hate the player but the game. And yet even in a film from this period there are some of the same negative associations. Poor 9413 may be talentless, but the Star is a vacuous figure who just seems to understand the game better.
*. The Crash and the Depression were still a year away. This was the last good year of the roaring ‘twenties. But the feeling is nevertheless one of gloom. The original title was The Suicide of a Hollywood Extra, and with those bills sliding under the door we get the sense of a man being ground to dust by the system, unable to find employment or self respect.
*. Hollywood was not a town of skyscrapers in the 1920s, but the buildings were symbolic of the commanding heights of the entertainment biz. They also looked good as cut-outs.
*. It has the superficial appearance of a morality play, with 9413 as an Everyman seduced by Vanity Fair before reclaiming his soul. But that’s not how it feels. 9413 is too empty a vessel, with his wide staring eyes and his lips moving like a guppy making baby noises. Do we care what happens to such a creature? And what would be the difference between the vision of heaven here and what’s shooting in the studio hangar next door?
*. Shot by Greg Toland (who would go on to bigger things) and made for under $100. Prints were over half the cost. It’s a mere curiosity, notable for how quickly cynicism and even despair came to Hollywood. What are those twisting cut out shapes in the background? They look like origami scorpion tails.


Annie Hall (1977)


*. Like a lot of movies that have come to stand for a particular time and place, Annie Hall has dated. But does that make it any less enjoyable today?
*. Of course its brand of humour (postmodern, “neurotic” or “Jewish”) has had imitators, legions of them, with such popular later avatars of Alvy Singer as Garry Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld. So by now we’re very familiar with the shtick.
*. Then there’s been the long, miserable afterlife of Woody Allen, which I’ll try and sidestep here. But it’s hard to watch him today and not find him creepy in hindsight.
*. Recognizing all of that, I was surprised at how fresh this movie still seemed. It’s a film that was made through its editing, which changed not only the story’s focus but also must have impacted the pace considerably by cutting nearly an hour from the running time. At 93 minutes this is one of the shortest movies to ever win an Academy Award for Best Picture, and I’m always surprised at just how quick it is. It feels like it should be so much longer because it moves so quickly and packs so much in.
*. Sticking with the editing, it’s interesting that this wasn’t the movie Allen wanted to make. “When Annie Hall started out, that film was not supposed to be what I wound up with. The film was supposed to be what happens in a guy’s mind . . . Nobody understood anything that went on. The relationship between myself and Diane Keaton was all anyone cared about. That was not what I cared about . . . In the end, I had to reduce the film to just me and Diane Keaton, and that relationship, so I was quite disappointed in that movie.” So . . . another happy accident?


*. Breaking down the fourth wall wasn’t new in 1977. What the opening here immediately makes me think of is Patton (1970) and The Godfather (1972), with a character directly addressing the camera. I wonder if Allen had those movies in mind.
*. I don’t like the “mental subtitles” because they’re too obvious. We can tell from the actors what they’re thinking (that Annie is nervous and worried about seeming ditzy, and that Alvy is only interested in having sex with her). Why gild the lily like this? What they’re thinking isn’t very interesting, and it’s not at all necessary to spell it out for us.
*. David Thomson: “The whole thing is very hip, very American New Wave, and disastrously empty.” I wonder if we’re wrong though to try and read too much into it. Sure this was Allen’s first serious or “adult” comedy, but that doesn’t mean it was trying to be profound. To leap ahead again to Seinfeld, it’s a bit of a movie about nothing.


*. What do Annie and Alvy see in each other? Not much. Think about it: they’re not together very long. She is insecure (not stupid or airheaded but only anxious over appearing that way) and initially feels attracted to someone she thinks may be an intellectual. Alvy is attracted to someone who puts him on such a pedestal. That wasn’t going to last.
*. They aren’t necessarily incompatible but they are an awkward fit. Annie is one of those people that you just instinctively like. She’s happy, outgoing, friendly, natural, and a snappy dresser. Alvy is just the opposite, being someone who is both put off by other people and offputting himself. And he knows it, which makes it all worse. Annie makes him feel angry, selfish and possessive.
*. Does Alvy want to “improve” Annie in a sincere way, or does he want to infect her with his neuroses? He’s the one who sends her to a therapist, something which would turn into a rite of passage in this genre. This may have been Allen’s biggest, most successful trick: to make us think of Alvy as an Everyman, to make us believe that this was our life he was talking about. So eventually we would all need therapy.


*. There are a lot of very nice, careful little touches. I like how as the movie begins we see Annie and Alvy arguing over going in to see a movie that’s already started. Alvy doesn’t want to enter a movie in the middle, but in fact that’s exactly what is happening as he begins the story of his romance with Annie in medias res, in the middle of things.
*. One of the things that has stayed fresh is the frankness in talking about sex. Even by today’s standards it’s remarkably adult. Or should that be “especially by today’s standards”? Movies haven’t grown up much in the past forty years. Perhaps they’ve even gone backward, regressing to early childhood fantasies.
*. What makes this even stranger is that Alvy isn’t a grown-up himself. It doesn’t even seem that weird to see him as an adult sitting in his old school classroom, or with his parents in his old home under the roller coaster. What he mainly wants from women is an audience. He leaves us with an old joke about going through the craziness of relationships because we need the eggs, but could we imagine him ever having kids of his own?


San Quentin (1937)


*. I’m not a big fan of this movie, but then I’m not a big fan of prison movies. That’s not to say there haven’t been some good ones. From The Big House and early Warner classics like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Each Dawn I Die the genre has gone on to give us such notable titles as The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great EscapePapillon, Escape from Alcatraz, Midnight Express, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and The Shawshank Redemption. But whenever I watch these movies I can’t help getting an itchy feeling, as though I’m as trapped as the protagonists. Empathy becomes an enemy. If Hollywood movies are meant to be a form of escapist entertainment, what’s with all this confinement?
*. Part of my itchiness may also be due to the prison-house of conventions. Characters type like the sadistic head guard and the fink or snitch, and plot points like the endless plans being made for escape, are all boxes that need to be checked.
*. Then there is the fact that prison films in the 1930s have a hokey flavour to them. We don’t feel we’re among a lot of really bad characters so much as people, like Red Kennedy here, who are down on their luck or who have had some bad breaks.
*. I wonder how much of this is due to a difference in public attitudes. We’ve become used to the notion of a “war on crime,” with a criminal underclass demonized as the enemy. In the 1930s there was more of a belief in the power of rehabilitation and reform. It was the end of the Depression, after all, and there may have been a sense that a trip to the Big House could happen to anyone. In an age of affluence we are less tolerant of those who break the rules.
*. As a corollary, authority figures are far more likely to be questioned or thrown in a darker light in these older films. There’s usually at least one “turkey” who is a corrupt bully (the part played by Barton MacLane in San Quentin).


*. Another curious point bearing on all of this: the one overtly Christian figure goes by the name of “Dopey” and is mocked for being slow, with his Book of Common Prayer kicked and tossed around in a game of keep-away (a scene cut by British censors). Later, this drives him into a murderous frenzy that lands him in the psych ward. In today’s more sensitive political climate I’m not sure this would be acceptable.
*. Maybe people back then just weren’t as incorrigibly bad as they are assumed to be today. Or, another alternative, it may simply be that as movies have become more realistic they can get away with showing us more. I mean, you’re not going to see scenes of rape or drug use in these early prison flicks (though Chaplin got into the blow when he went to prison in Modern Times). We’re not in Oz yet.
*. Of course, there was always something going on in the dirty ‘thirties that had to be covered up in euphemisms. Like sex. I like it when May Kennedy (Ann Sheridan) tempts Captain Jameson with her “home cooking.” She even gets a wink out of him the second time she trots that one out.
*. But all that said in its defence, I’m still not overly fond of San Quentin. It’s a fairly obvious genre pic, with only a couple of things to recommend it.
*. The first is Bogart. He’s fun to watch, and as with Cagney in Each Dawn I Die the camera just loves him. Unlike Each Dawn I Die, however, there is no George Raft for him to play off against. Pat O’Brien, the star, and a bigger name at the time than Bogie, is no match for him when it comes to screen presence.
*. It’s ridiculous that Bogart is playing Sheridan’s kid brother. He was sixteen years older than her at the time. And even without a big sister he’d be much too old to play Red, who is supposed to be 25 (Bogart was pushing 40, and looks it).
*. The other highlight of the movie is the car chase and all of the stunt driving. This is actually quite impressive, as they really put the vehicles through their paces. There are also a number of convincing crashes and spills, especially when the first car drives into a cliff. It didn’t look like anyone was wearing seatbelts there. Come to think of it, I’m not sure they even had seatbelts in those days (yes they’d been invented, but I don’t believe they were customary until mid-century).
*. Alas, once the ride is over the denouement ties itself into a clumsy knot: satisfying the production code while forcing a resolution to the action. It’s too preposterous for words, but is another part of that earlier, more innocent time.


Under the Skin (2013)


*. Overrated?
*. That’s a judgment that needs to be unpacked a bit. Under the Skin didn’t find much of an audience when it came out, and hasn’t found much more of one since. It does have a passionate fan base who consider it to be one of the best movies ever made, and this may ripen in time into a cult following, but that’s not what’s meant by overrated either. Overrated means overrated by critics, a large number of whom put this on their “best of 2014” lists, and many of whom named it their film of the year.
*. I’d call it overrated, but understandably so. There’s an audience out there — not a large one but significant — that is so hungry for something, anything, a bit different from the usual generic crap they tend to go crazy over stuff like this. Because whatever else you want to say about Under the Skin, an erotic SF horror film with odd special effects and almost no dialogue (or, for that matter, explanation of the plot) is at least something different.
*. But is it really that different? Writer-director Jonathan Glazer is probably best known for Sexy Beast, another movie I thought overrated. Both movies are genre flicks with a twist. But how much of a twist? Sexy Beast seemed to me to be just another conventional heist picture: the retired gangster getting pulled back in for one more score. Michael Mann, anyone?
*. Here, despite the fact that there’s little explanation of what is going on, the story is similarly clichéd. Scarlett Johansson is a zaftig sister from another planet who slowly becomes humanized, learning empathy the more she interacts with the natives. If you follow SF at all you’ll be very familiar with such a plot.
*. Perhaps the biggest twist is that we aren’t told what is happening. The dialogue for this film would probably fit on three or four pages. It’s a very quiet, very slow film, which in itself was probably enough to set it apart and make critics sit up and take notice.
*. And I like the mystery. It can be a thin line between ambiguity and obscurity, but I think Frazer stays on the right side. That reticence also fits with the cinéma vérité style, the camera as fly on the wall following the characters around. Would the aliens feel any need to explain themselves, even if they did communicate through some process of vocalization? Of course not.
*. I have a hunch that I wouldn’t care much for any explanation of what Johansson (the Female) and her biker partner (the Bad Man) are up to. Her victims are being turned into a slurry presumably as some kind of energy source, unless it’s just being flushed and the skin is the only thing worth preserving. Whatever. I have to confess this part made me think of Killer Klowns from Outer Space.
*. For what it’s worth, in Michael Faber’s novel she’s selling the meat to the folks back home.
*. Other elements that stand out are the eerie,  catgut-and-fingernails-down-a-chalkboard score by Mica Levi and the overall look of the film, especially its juxtaposition of a street documentary style, romantic natural settings, and the highly stylized scenes set on board the alien ship. Once again we see how visually impressive you can be without a huge budget but just a bit of imagination.
*. I don’t know what to finally make of Johnasson’s performance. She was given little to work with. I’m not sure she even knew what her character was, or her/its motivation. But I wonder if the role was a huge stretch. A beautiful woman is a kind of alien, perhaps even to herself.
*. That said, I was surprised at how clueless she seemed to be about human physiology. How could she not know the effect of trying to eat Earth food, or anything about sex? It also disturbed me how easily she was disposed of by a single horny woodsman. Was she drugging her victims with pheromones?
*. I guess they were going for a Goth-girl look for her, which had me thinking of how Clara Bow hooked up with Bela Lugosi after Dracula, leading to “vampire and the vamp” headlines. What we have here is the vamp on the prowl.



*. Thank heavens for subtitles. I couldn’t make out half of these Scots accents.
*. Where I thought things might get more interesting was with the female serial killer tracking down her lonely male victims and picking them up in her (white) rape van. But sadly nothing much is done with the sociology or psychology of this (are the victims drugged, or willingly offering themselves up to this intergalactic honey trap?). Alas, the unhappily single guy remains a mostly undiscovered territory in serious pop culture. None of the victims become characters except for the disfigured fellow, and despite a standout performance from Adam Pearson I kept wondering why he wasn’t asking Johansson how much this was going to cost him. His character must have been thinking he was being taken for a john.
*. The disco (or electronic funky-circus dance club) has provided a symbol of alienation for quite a while now, hasn’t it? It’s become a convention to see someone who is Very Serious walking with oblivious determination through all the flickering coloured lights.
*. Why have the aliens come to Scotland? There’s a suggestion of a connection to the migrant workers the Female meets, and the Czech swimmer who is there just to get away from it all and “because it’s nowhere.” Perhaps the aliens are lonely and disillusioned too. Only the Female seems a social animal.
*. It is a daring movie. Eschewing exposition doesn’t make you a lot of friends. And the morality is another strike against broad popular acceptance: the way the good and the innocent are slaughtered while the two vicious types we meet (the Bad Man on the motorcycle and the rapist woodsman) are the survivors.
*. A movie as blank as this leaves a lot unsaid. I think the people who like it the most are the ones who read the most into it. Most of their interpretations, however, seem questionable to me. I suspect there’s less going on here than meets the eye.
*. Perhaps I’ve just developed a knee-jerk reaction against movies that are so visually rich but underwritten, with little character development or drama. About half-way through this one I was starting to wonder what the point was.
*. The usual line about SF movies like this is that the perspective of a “man from Mars” provides a way of seeing humanity that is less prejudiced and culturally embedded, more “objective.” But instead of that, what this film highlighted, at least for me, was how alien all of us are, how separated and insulated from one another. The Female sees us with all-too-human eyes. In her world, as in ours, the erotic is not an emotion, and beauty is not profundity. Our altruism gets us nowhere and as a species we are nasty little insects who will sting anyone who gets too close. In feeling empathy, the Female has caught a social disease. She should have known better.


The Impossible Voyage (1904)


*. This is either a sequel to or a remake of A Trip to the Moon. Or perhaps we can just call it more of the same. As David Thomson critically observes, Méliès never developed as a filmmaker. In some of these later films there’s more colour (at least for the prints that got this special treatment) and more elaborate sets, but nothing else has changed.
*. That’s Méliès himself, again, as the lead magician: Professor Crazyloff. Does the good professor want to explore strange new worlds and civilizations? Further the bounds of knowledge? Well, not primarily. As with all of Méliès’s impresarios he mainly just wants to put on a show, in this case a tour of space.
*. There are plenty of dangers. No Selenites this time, but a fire on board the submarine that has to be put out, and an attempt to survive the heat of the sun by climbing inside an ice box. This latter incident made me smile. But it’s really just another version of the old magic cabinet trick: open the cabinet once to reveal what’s inside, close the door, then open it again and voila!
*. There was more to Méliès then just these féeries (French theatre known for its fantastic plots and elaborate scenery and stage effects), but they’re what he’s remembered for today. He was good at them, and he was good at them because they were where his heart was at. Even a trip to the North Pole would turn into a fantastic voyage to another world.
*. He seemed to believe that dealing with fantastic subjects was a more legitimate and sophisticated form of art than the usual vaudeville farce and brief melodramas. Perhaps it was. This gives you some idea of how low an entertainment form early cinema was. Appolinaire told him that they were both trying to lend enchantment to vulgar material.


*. As time went by he polished his effects of design and perspective, creating an increasingly lush and painterly visual space. In this regard The Impossible Voyage has to be considered one of his finest works. The various sets (the workshop, the train crash, the submarine) are among his most detailed and inventive, and the train being swallowed by the sun, while imaginatively of a piece with earlier films, takes the concept a step beyond the hungry planet in The Astronomer’s Dream and even the iconic image of the moon being poked in the eye in A Trip to the Moon.
*. But there was nowhere left to go after this. Very few artists, and perhaps even fewer filmmakers, who work in a form so dependent on technology are given much more than a decade to produce all of their best and most important work. That’s roughly what Méliès enjoyed. And after the devastation of the First World War France was a different place anyway.


A Trip to the Moon (1902)


*. Film restoration. It can be a marvelous thing. If you’re young enough you may have only experienced this movie in the fantastic restored hand-coloured version that premiered in 2011 to much deserved fanfare (the print had only been discovered in 1993). You can view it for free, in high definition, on the Internet.
*. That is not, however, how most people saw it in 1902. I’m not even sure if anyone saw it that way, or at least quite the same way, in 1902 (the colouring was a laborious process that took quite a while). The majority of prints in circulation were in black and white.
*. This is the thing about restorations: they’re often not restoring the film to anything like an actually existing earlier version, but rather transforming it into something new and improved. It’s like what George Lucas did to Star Wars, going back to digitally re-insert the Jabba the Hutt from The Return of the Jedi into a film where he was originally just played by a normal actor. Lucas didn’t have the money to do Jabba the way he wanted to do him in the first film, but later he could make the change through the magic of technology. But that’s not the movie anyone saw in the ’70s.
*. Or think of all the “director’s cuts” that you’ve probably seen. Do they improve on the “theatrical release”? In many if not most cases I would say they don’t, but my point is that they’re different movies. They “restore” material that was cut at some point in the process, but they aren’t really restorations.
*. So, to try and get back on topic, my point is just that when we talk about the HD version of A Trip to the Moon complete with all the bells and whistles, I think we have to recognize that it’s not a definitive version but more like an anomaly.
*. This is sometimes described as the first science fiction movie. It depends on how rigid your classification schemes are. Most hardcore (if not “hard”) SF fans I know would balk at calling it science fiction. It’s more fantastic than anything in Wells or even Verne.
*. The scientists are introduced as a bunch of wizards. Along with their robes embroidered with astronomical signs and pointed hats, those telescopes and umbrellas they carry may as well be wands. The French academy prefigures Hogwarts.
*. It’s a circus show, with Méliès himself as the head wizard/ringmaster Professor Barbenfouillis. The Selenites, or moon men, jump and do somersaults for no reason at all. It’s just part of the show. Frantic action and visual clutter would be Méliès’s way of getting around the limitations of a static camera.
*. How static? That famous moon shot isn’t a dolly in to the face of the moon — which, and this is the important point, would have been easier— but rather was achieved by bringing the moon toward the camera. When you’re that rigid you have to keep getting more elaborate with the tableaux.
*. And they’re certainly elaborate here (though they would become even more so in the sequel, An Impossible Voyage). The layered sets create an effect much like animation. Terry Gilliam must have been a fan.
*. With such a static frame, composition becomes very important, and it’s very well handled here. Note how in the opening scene there are a whole series of diagonals leading up to the moon, at the top center. It’s the same basic structure as in the opening shot of The Astronomer’s Dream (1898), but much more developed. The diagram on the chalkboard flows into the statue of a telescope affixed to the pillar, which flows into a giant telescope which ends with the moon itself. There are three different components to the one diagonal but they form a composite that ends at the same focal point.
*. The impression of animation is enhanced by the colouring, which gives the frame the appearance of a psychadelic paisley. Add in a journey to the land of mushrooms and we have a hallucinogenic trip worthy of 2001.
*. It’s not fair to write Méliès off as a mere magician with a camera. But he was an impresario still putting on what was in the end a very elaborate, very fanciful stage show. There were definite limits to what he could do — even, I think, to what he wanted to do — but what he did remains impressive in its own right to this day.