Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Night Porter (1974)

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*. What a bizarre movie.
*. I don’t mean the concept is bizarre, or even particularly distasteful. But the way it’s presented . . .
*. First there are the two leads. Charlotte Rampling is an odd-looking woman who rarely seems to be having a good time. I guess you could call her sexy, but she’s not sexual (to adopt a distinction Paris Hilton once made). If you want a woman to look as though being objectified has damaged something inside her, permanently, then she’s well cast. But can we relate to her? She’s like an alien.
*. I guess it’s pretty widely accepted now that Dirk Bogarde was a closeted gay man. This by no means disqualifies him from playing a passionate heterosexual lead, but the thing is Liliani Cavani (who wanted Bogarde for the part from the beginning) injects ambiguity into his character of Max, suggesting some homosexual relationship with the ballet-dancing SS man Bert. Then his appearance, complete with noticeably rouged cheeks, recalls his ghoulish and grotesque appearance as the boy-worshipping Von Aschenbach in Death in Venice. And finally we have Cavani’s belief that “the SS was a homosexual cult.”
*. All of which makes us wonder just what the relation between Max and Lucia is. Does he want to fuck her, dominate her, or just take her picture? In the one scene of physical sex we see she is very much the initiator, riding him into the floor.
*. There’s nothing wrong with their relationship being ambiguous — people are like that in real life — but it does make this into a bizarre love story even beyond all the kinky games that are being played. In the conventional expression, Max and Lucia have no chemistry, and both seem clearly to be thinking of someone, or something, else when they’re together.

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*. Then there’s the muddle of what exactly is going on in the plot. Some information is so lightly glanced over it’s easy to miss. Cavani was upset that people didn’t get that Lucia wasn’t Jewish (she was rounded up for being the daughter of a Socialist), but it’s easy to miss where this is pointed out. Then the business of Max impersonating a doctor is just left hanging, as well as the question of whether he killed his “patients.”
*. A bizarre point that’s more central to the plot is the nature of these “trials” the ex-SS men are undergoing. Are they therapy? Revenge? Just a way of getting rid of witnesses? What?
*. If the SS club only want to kill Max and Lucia, could they not have found an easier way than blockading them in their apartment and starving them out? That’s bizarre too. I mean, especially as the result is that they end up gunning them down in public anyway.
*. Is this austerity Austria? The colouring defines the word “wan.” Everyone seems pale and anemic even before Max and Lucia start starving to death, and Lucia’s wardrobe in particular is a dozen different shades of off-white. This reinforces the sense of a perversely passionless affair. But who does austerity chic appeal to?
*. Compare, as I think you must, Daughters of Darkness (1971), another tale of alternative, decadent sexualities set in a luxurious and mostly empty European hotel. That film’s colours stabbed at your eyes and turned you on.

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*. Is it sexist? Lucia is on her knees or crawling around on the floor throughout most of the film. She is something feral, kept on a leash and eating jam from a broken jar with her fingers. She also doesn’t say very much, and out of all she does say only a few lines are of any significance. One of these is her assertion that she has chosen this fate, which I take it is a nod to feminism.
*. Overall, however, I think this is a movie that doesn’t like anyone very much. Are there any characters here, even the minor ones, that you could imagine staying in the same room with for more than a couple of minutes? That’s a bleak assessment of humanity.
*. So it’s a bizarre movie, but not in a good way. I find it dull, confused, and unemotional. I suspect Cavani wasn’t sure what she wanted to say and so went off in several different directions at once and never got anywhere.

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L’affaire Dreyfus (1899)

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*. It’s startling to note — at least I find it startling — that this is not a historical docudrama (films that went by the genre label actualitiés reconstituées). In 1899 the Dreyfus Affair was very much a still ongoing political scandal in France, and indeed at the time this film (or series of films) was made Dreyfus’s second court martial had yet to conclude. It’s really a dramatic newsreel of current events.
*. This is significant because much of what we see would be impossible to understand without some knowledge of the events being illustrated. For a modern audience this is even more the case. In the first episode, for example, it helps to know that Dreyfus is being offered a pistol so that he can honourably shoot himself, and that he rejects this. In Henry’s suicide scene we aren’t told what he’s writing, which was a note that included a confession. The reason Dreyfus is being shackled to his bed is because his jailors were afraid an attempt was going to be made to rescue him. Knowing this background helps.
*. As a sign of the temper of the times the film was banned in France, making it one of the first films (if not the first) to suffer political censorship. But if you look at it objectively, what was found offensive? We know that Méliès was a Dreyfusard, but how much of this could you tell just from watching these brief clips, which are presented without any editorializing aside from the labeling of the title cards?
*. That Henry killed himself in prison was accepted as a fact even by the anti-Dreyfusards, who made him out to be a martyr. Nobody denies an assassin tried to kill Dreyfus’s lawyer Labori (here played by Méliès himself). Dreyfus is presented sympathetically in the prison scene where he is shackled in leg irons to his bed and in the passage where he is reunited with his wife, but there is nothing said about his actual guilt or innocence.
*. Zola’s famous broadside J’accuse had been far more polemical, and this before much of the political (if not public) tide had turned for Dreyfus. Zola wrote, for example, before Henry’s forgeries had been established.
*. All of which is to say that though this is a timely movie about the Dreyfus affair, made by a Dreyfusard, it does not clearly take sides. It is not propaganda. That it was seen as propaganda, and treated as such by the authorities it made nervous, says something about their sensitivities to the power of the new medium.
*. It’s a serial, originally consisting of eleven single-shot scenes, each around a minute in length. Two of the scenes (2 and 11) are thought to exist in French archives but haven’t surfaced. The episodes were sold and often shown separately, but were sometimes presented together on the same program. This is simply a function of the limitations film had at the time, and I think it should be considered a single work.
*. Some attempt at historical accuracy has been made. I was particularly struck by how closely the palisade on Devil’s Island resembled photographs of the real location. Though Dreyfus’s hut looks a bit roomier, and cleaner, than it really was.
*. Of course when we think of Méliès today we think mainly of his special-effects fantasies like A Trip to the Moon. These movies used trickery and elaborate set dressing to conceal his very limited development of film’s potential (no editing, no camera movement). I find it interesting that in a film this early, however, Méliès was experimenting a bit, trying to expand on what he could do. Two shots try to work outside the frame, literally. In the Labori sequence we see Labori and his two friends appear out of the foreground, walking away from us. And in the riot episode the brawling journalists are chased toward the camera by the police (who are only revealed as the cause of the stampede when the room clears). For 1899 this was pretty progressive filmmaking. But ultimately it was a direction Méliès didn’t want to go in, opting for ever more elaborate, static, theatrical effects.

The Expendables 3 (2014)

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*. This is the terrible force a franchise has over us. I can’t really give you any good reason why I watched this movie other than the fact that I’d seen The Expendables and The Expendables 2 and thought I might as well continue with part three. And that’s not a good reason. Especially when you factor in how I felt about the first two.
*. But, anyway, I did watch it. It was more of the same. Much more. As I’ve mentioned before, comic book franchises (which is what The Expendables now qualifies as) can only keep getting bigger through a necessary process of accretion: tossing in more characters, more stars, more explosions, etc. as they go along, since they can’t mess with the formula and have to always add something more to the last film.
*. So what we have here is in effect two teams of Expendables (Expandables?): the Old Guard and the Young Turks. For some reason Barney doesn’t want to risk the lives of his buddies in risky battles any more so he enlists a bunch of young people to form a new gang because . . . young people are more expendable? Stupid? I’m not sure.
*. What this means is that the plot pairs a bunch of veteran stars with a posse of Hollywood up-and-comers. They get in fights, fire off thousands of rounds of ammunition, and blow things up real good in the best videogame tradition. There is, however, less bloody violence because they were aiming for a PG-13 rating (and got it, though Stallone later said that going this route was a mistake).
*. Is every line in this movie a cliché? It seems like it. And the structure is equally generic and predictable, without a single twist or surprise. I had to shake my head when Gibson gets sick of seeing his private army of cannon fodder being wiped out and finally says “If you want something done right . . .” just before setting off to take care of things personally. Then in the final showdown with Barney he tosses away his gun so that he can take Barney on mano a mano. Because that’s just the way it has to go down in films like this. They don’t need a script. They are the script.

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*. The curious thing about this franchise is that it insists on taking itself so seriously. The only life in this one is provided by Mel Gibson as the bug-eyed villain and Antonio Banderas as another incarnation of his Puss In Boots character. They both get hammy with their parts while everyone else acts as though the fate of the world really is in their hands.
*. Harrison Ford stepped in to take over from Bruce Willis when Willis asked for more money. Ford looks very old here. Still, at least they left Chuck Norris at home and Steven Seagal opted out. You have to be thankful for small mercies.

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*. I can’t say whether it’s better or worse than the first two. They’re all the same. This one is more crowded with faces and tattoos, and to be honest I lost track of all the different characters. Even many of the regulars, like Statham and Schwarzenegger, are left with little to do but fire their guns. I’m sure Randy Couture must have had some lines, but I can’t remember them now. Aside from Gibson and Banderas nothing at all stands out about it. A fourth film is reported to be in the works.

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The Phantom Carriage (1921)

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*. Sentimentality has a genealogy. It got its start in the eighteenth century as a heightened emotionalism grounded in an excess of empathy (then known as “feeling,” or “sensibility”). It had its merits as a literary movement, but always walked a thin line, in danger of slipping into mawkish, melodramatic tears and pity.
*. Today we live in a far harder-hearted world. We are deeply suspicious of tears, seeing them as a sign of weakness not to be indulged in an environment of constant Darwinian struggle. We look back upon the popular fiction, theatre, and film of yesteryear and smile and shake our heads. Do we cry over the death of Little Nell today? And Chaplin, isn’t he a little much?

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*. The Phantom Carriage is based on a novel by Selma Lagerlöf. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but is largely unread today (which is indicative of that shift in sensibilities). The Nobel committee praised her writing for its “lofty idealism,” which, by ours standards, would have really been saying something in 1909.
*. The screenplay, however, seems to owe more to Dickens’ Christmas Carol. And Chaplin thought it the greatest film ever made. So there’s the genealogy of sentimentality playing out. This is a pre-modern, nineteenth-century film despite its tricks and scrambled narrative structure.
*. Nothing dates like sentiment, not even the science of filmmaking. The technique of multiple exposures used here to present the ghosts was impressive at the time, but it soon came to seem an easy gimmick and clichéd convention.
*. The most sentimental works of art also contain their opposite, as the other side of the melodramatic coin. The Phantom Carriage is a movie filled with human evil and brutal squalor. The cinematography is beautiful, but it gives us interiors that recall the urban photography of Jacob Riis. And could you find a worse piece of wreckage than David Holm, who even threatens to infect his children with his tuberculosis as a way of getting back at his wife (and the world)? But then even his wife plans on killing the children when she takes her own life. Sentiment spreads its roots in the ground of dirty realism.

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*. I don’t mean to suggest by any of this that The Phantom Carriage is a bad film. In fact, it’s a great film. But there are reasons why it isn’t well known today. It describes an alien time and sensibility, one we feel little sympathy for. Just the notion that a monster like David Holm can be redeemed strikes most of us as false. Who really believes in his spiritual evolution/transformation? People like that don’t change. Of course the film is a fantasy, but its moral is fantastic as well.
*. Then there is the bizarre love triangle between David, his wife, and Edit. There’s no denying the sexual element here, and the psychic bond David and Edit seems to share only amplifies it. They belong together, and I don’t mean on a spiritual plane. This gives the ending a rather odd flavour, as it’s a let-down that David is reunited with his family. He should have moved on. He’ll be back drinking again soon.

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*. I think the other reason it isn’t watched as much today is that the things it does really well are things that are no longer that important. I think the performances are very good silent film performances, managing to be understated in a way you don’t often see. I think the fact that Victor Sjöström was such a large man helped. He didn’t have to play the role big because he already was: a big face on a big frame.
*. The other element that stands out is the photography I mentioned earlier. Not, however, the ghost effect, which I didn’t much care for (and which in the case of the drowned man is actually kind of funny). But the bedroom and tavern scenes are wonderfully lit and have impressive depth of field, shooting through doorways and such. I imagine being able to shoot at a brand new, state-of-the-art film studio helped, but all the various tricks of the cameraman’s trade are here invested with artistic and emotional weight.
*. It all adds up to a movie that I respect a great deal, but one that seems too much like a historical artefact now. Not all art is timeless.

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A Serbian Film (2010)

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*. A Serbian Film almost immediately gained a reputation as one of the most “disturbing” films ever made. I don’t know if this is significant. It’s certainly violent and depraved, and the sort of film that makes you wonder how much further things can go, but that’s a question we always ask ourselves until the next horrible thing comes along.
*. Do we have to take it seriously? Should we? Or is it just a hysterical yelp for attention from the European backwoods?
*. I was put off right from the start. Not because of the sexual content but because we’re supposedly watching a porn movie and it doesn’t look like any porn I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen my share). Porn is a fantasy, but this movie is a fantasy about porn, which makes it twice removed from reality.
*. I mean, it’s a sad fact but male porn stars don’t make much money. Even the best-known, award-winning cocksmen in the U.S. have to take day jobs to pay the rent. Yet we’re to believe Miloš is enjoying an early and affluent semi-retirement after a few years of making ghetto porn in Serbia?
*. I’d add to this how unrealistic a lot of the body effects are. In particular, most of the cocks we see are obviously rubber prostheses. They just look silly.
*. Isn’t it curious that Miloš never asks Vukrim if he is going to have to do anything illegal (involving children or non-consensual sex or snuff)? I would have thought these would be obvious questions.
*. Then there’s the over-the-top gross-out stuff. Aside from how little sense it makes (bull Viagra? really?), most of the “big scenes” seem to me like crude dramatizations of the sort of tasteless high-school jokes that were popular in the 1980s. Sex with a baby? Decapitating a girl while fucking her doggy-style? Skull-fucking a guy with an empty eye socket? These were all punchlines back in the day.
*. I’ll play along though and take it seriously. This leads me to ask what the point of it all is. Let’s consider some possibilities.
*. Porn wrecks families. It destroys marriages and hurts kids. Or perhaps the family itself is a demonically dysfunctional institution (this latter position is more in keeping with traditional horror-film norms).
*. Serbia is a victim country getting its revenge on . . . someone. NATO? The West?
*. Serbians are victims of their own government. This is the explanation (or at least one of them) offered up by writer-director Srdjan Spasojević: “This is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government. . . . It’s about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotize you to do things you don’t want to do. You have to feel the violence to know what it’s about.” Hm. Has  Spasojević ever had a cock in his eye socket?
*. It’s basically just another version of Hostel, with a financial elite who pay to play in the ruins of Eastern Europe: torturing and killing people for kicks. This isn’t satire or allegory, it’s how the 1% are fucking us over every day.
*. It’s the revenge of the voyeurs; of the Sex Negatives on the Sex Positives, to borrow the nomenclature of Café Flesh.
*. It’s a twenty-first century re-imagining of The Magus.
*. It’s a full-frontal assault on the canons of political correctness. This is another line put forward by Spasojević, who apparently thought he was attacking the boring conventionality of contemporary Serbian filmmaking. In this interpretation, Vukrim becomes “an exaggerated representation of the new European film order.”
*. I really don’t understand anything Spasojević has said about this film. I also don’t understand anything Vukrim says about blood, booze, sex, and victimization. It sounds like bullshit to me. I suppose something may be getting lost in translation, but I doubt it.
*. In fact, I don’t understand anything at all about Vukrim. How did he get so rich working as a child psychologist at a state orphanage in Serbia? What is it about the Serbian economy that places porn stars and child psychologists at the top of the income ladder?
*. Maybe it has something to do with their education. Miloš is apparently the only Serbian porn star with a degree. Miloš’s wife is a translator working in several languages. And Miloš’s brother tells him that he will have never worked for a more educated man than Vukrim. These people aren’t down and out, they’re intellectuals!
*. All of this is just throwing stuff at the wall. Personally, I don’t think there’s any deeper meaning to it than an attempt by a young director to make a name for himself by way of a succès de scandale. Mission accomplished. But it’s easier to be controversial than it is to be good.
*. I didn’t find it to be suspenseful, shocking, funny, or even all that interesting. It really says something that the horrifying big reveal at the end comes as a totally predictable yawn.
*. Trying hard to be nice, I’ll concede it’s a good-looking film most of the time (though I think this ultimately works against it), and Srdjan Todorović puts in a great performance as Miloš, a decent man gone down the rabbit hole like Alice into Pornland. I like him, even if I don’t believe in his existence.
*. Yes, it’s a movie that made its mark. But probably not in any lasting or memorable sense. The world of sensation keeps turning. Next stop . . .

Odd Man Out (1947)

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*. I like James Mason. Is there anyone who doesn’t? He’s dreamy. But what is he doing in this film? Is Johnny MacQueen a character, a plot device, or just “a superb camera subject” (Pauline Kael)?
*. Most of the time he’s a silent and barely ambulatory piece of luggage, shuffling or being dragged around his various stations of the cross. Lukey must be painting him as Christ the Man of Sorrows, right?
*. Two problems. First, there’s no suspense since Johnny is obviously doomed for being on the wrong side of the law (so that there’s no chance he’s going to be allowed to escape punishment, however remorseful he may feel for killing the guard). Worse, there’s no connection between Johnny and Kathleen, so their liebestod at the end doesn’t resonate in the slightest. I think Lukey was more emotionally invested in Johnny, albeit less concerned for his personal welfare.

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*. Perhaps that’s being too harsh. I’ll walk it back a bit. Kathleen Ryan is very good here, and it may be that for the character she plays still waters run deep. She is, after all, living in a sort of police state. As a person of interest in matters relating to the Organization, she has cultivated a face that gives nothing away (as has her nemesis the Inspector). So I’m prepared to take it on faith that she has a passionate attachment to Johnny, however misconceived.
*. But how does Johnny feel about her? He seems to treat her almost as a kind of kid sister, the one who is always tagging along wanting to be part of the gang. The ending has a sting in it then, as Kathleen is clearly acting out her own solo romantic fantasy. Which, I suppose, is no different than the way everyone else is trying to use Johnny for their own purposes.
*. It’s set in Belfast, but the city is never named. I wonder why not. Perhaps Reed wanted to “universalize” the story. But we begin with an aerial shot of Belfast, and the Albert Memorial Clock Tower is used as a key landmark throughout so it’s not like they were trying to disguise where they were or present a truly generic city. Nobody in the audience could have been under any illusions about the location. So why be coy?

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*. I’m also a bit surprised that there’s no explanation (at least that I recall) given for Johnny’s dizziness before the heist. I believe he’s supposed to have a fever or something, but they could have made that clearer (shown him taking pills, sweating excessively, etc.). Instead we’re left wondering what’s wrong with him.
*. Robert Newton as Lukey got top billing after Mason, and has been routinely abused by critics (Pauline Kael: “a badly misconceived performance in a badly misconceived role”). Perhaps it’s the passage of time, but I enjoy the part. Lukey fits in with the structure of the story becoming progressively more surreal, rather as New York does in Scorsese’s After Hours. And how could Lukey not be a nut living in such a fantastic derelict mansion (which must have been a model for the apartment building in Blade Runner). Lukey belongs in a city like this, or more so than Johnny anyway.

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*. The movie is often noted for its “objectivity” or qualified sympathy for the Organization (that is, the I.R.A.). I think this is putting it mildly. Reed really turns Green’s novel on its head. The book was set during the war and the I.R.A. are suspect because they might be collaborating with the Nazis. Here, however, it’s the authorities who are the Nazis, with Denis O’Dea (looking as tall as the Albert Tower), looming over everyone in his long trenchcoat and threatening them with his staff of office (which he uses in a quite demeaning and suggestive way on Kathleen). This is darker even than Hollywood noir, where the cops are at least accorded some respect.
*. Meanwhile, the politics are entirely erased. It’s not just that political issues are never discussed, it’s even left unclear who is with the Organization and who isn’t. We can understand the different motivations of the people whose paths Johnny crosses, but not what side they’re on.

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*. The photography is pure noir, taken to another level. I’m thinking in particular of the large shadows that are so conspicuous in the night streets, seeming to climb the walls like carnivorous vines. Who is it who kills Johnny’s crew when they leave the brothel? The cops? No! They’re gunned down by a gang of shadows (another sign that the police aren’t getting a fair shake). And at the end the constabulary will come at Johnny and Kathleen out of a veil of falling snow, set in silhouette against the headlights of their patrol cars. More faceless, sinister shapes.
*. We aren’t experiencing Johnny’s hallucinations in either of these scenes, but it doesn’t matter because Belfast is in the process of becoming a surreal place full of walking shadows. Proyas’s Dark City perhaps?
*. The shadow play also emphasizes the vagueness of the proceedings. The religious angle doesn’t work on any specific level, and I’m not sure in the end what significance Johnny’s epiphany has. Since the political situation is entirely elided, Johnny’s Catholicism doesn’t have any bearing on what’s happening either. Given the unnamed city and all the rest of it, one starts to wonder why Reed even bothered with the source material.
*. In the final analysis I think it’s a movie that has to be seen as a parable or allegory. Johnny can be interpreted as a Christ figure, or the wounded traveller who fails to find a good Samaritan, but ultimately he’s just the outsider, successively ejected from the getaway car, the cab, the house the two ex-nurses live in, and the bar. If Reed has a political point to make it’s here, in his depiction of the native of the place who is nowhere at home, an exile in his own country. But that country could be anywhere, at any time.

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A Boy and His Dog (1979)

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*. When translating from page to screen a lot of information is going to be lost. There’s an art to keeping just enough of the text so that nothing essential is left unexplained. Though sometimes the producers don’t care. For example, in Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange there is no explanation of what the hell the title means. Which is rather high-handed, when you think of it.
*. This movie begins with Blood (the dog) calling the Boy (Vic) “Albert.” There is no explanation in the movie for why he is doing this, since Albert is not Vic’s name and it seems like Blood is doing it just to bug him. In Harlan Ellison’s novella, however, it is explained right away. “Albert” is a reference to Albert Payson Terhune (1872-1942), an American collie breeder who wrote a bunch of books about the adventures of one of his dogs.
*. Should they have left this out of the screenplay? I suspect that today few first-time viewers of this movie will have read Ellison’s story, and very few among those who have will have any idea who Albert Payson Terhune was. So on that level keeping the reference would be pointless, and perhaps a bit confusing. It still registers as Blood calling Vic a slightly silly name instead of using his real name, so I think audiences just see it as harmless needling.
*. While on the subject of moving from print to screen it’s worth mentioning a couple of other points. Ellison didn’t do the screenplay because he was suffering from writer’s block at the time (as strange as that must sound for such an incredibly prolific author). L. Q. Jones kept the general structure of the story, but there are at least two differences that may be meaningful.
*. In the first place, the “downunder” town of Topeka looks and functions a bit different on screen. To start with the most obvious thing, the citizens have their faces plastered in make-up.
*. What does the make-up mean? Is it a nod to the degenerate townspeople in the second part of El Topo? Is it meant to cover blemishes on their skin caused by radiation damage? Or hide their sickly pallor?
*. I take it as having thematic significance: they are clownish happy faces for a society that is false, sanctimonious and hypocritical (much like every other latter-day portrayal of 1950s American innocence). But I still have to wonder if the woman Mez’s look was inspired by Batman’s Joker. Her face seems a direct reference, plus she’s wearing a purple jacket over a green blouse.

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*. In Ellison’s story there is no punishment farm in Topeka for transgressors to be sent to. Was this an idea taken from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, or the de-urbanization of Pol Pot’s regime? Perhaps the former, but not the latter, as Pol Pot didn’t come to power until 1975.
*. In the novella Topeka’s police force is a small green box with arms on it, whereas in the film it’s a big robot guy named Michael. This change probably has no meaning at all but was done to save money.
*. A final difference with the screen Topeka is that the movie makes up the artificial insemination angle. In the novella Vic really is going to get to ball all those chicks. In the film he isn’t going to enjoy himself nearly as much (though some guys are in to that machine action, or at least so I hear).
*. In all of these changes we can see the creation of a more visually striking Topeka, a more surreal and deformed kind of place. In addition, its lifelessness is emphasized by the fact that it is always night, the mannequin/corpse-like make-up, and the mechanical breeding. This is a point I’ll come back to.

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*. The second change worth noting is in the final lines. Ellison objected strongly to the groaner of a joke that ends the movie, with Blood talking about how Quilla June “had marvelous judgement, if not particularly good taste.” Specifically, he called it a “moronic, hateful chauvinist last line, which I despise.”
*. I don’t understand his outrage. The novella makes clear that Vic is chauvinist, and not very bright. It’s also the case that the story ends in exactly the same way, with Vic killing Quilla June and serving her up to Blood in order to keep Blood alive. Given what he actually does, who cares if Blood jokes with him about it?

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*. I thought the print on the DVD I watched looked terrible, in desperate need of a restoration. But they did at least manage to return to the original widescreen picture, unlike earlier video versions that were panned and scanned (the process of cropping a widescreen image to fit television screens). Widescreen works well in wide open spaces like the post-apocalyptic desert, but also in the large areas below ground here. Topeka is not a cramped place (much of it was shot in a park), and most of the other sets are quite spacious (a ruined gymnasium, a church).
*. I like how everyone seems so bored when they’re watching the old porn movies. This is another difference from the novella, where the audience are openly masturbating. Of course, they couldn’t show that in a movie.
*. I was relieved when L. Q. Jones says on the commentary that Vic should have been suspicious of Quilla June’s shiny white bra. It seems pretty unlikely that a girl in such a place would have a clean face, much less clean underwear. But Vic is clearly thinking with his dick.

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*. It’s surprising Susanne Benton never went on to do much. She’s really very good here, selling a character who is both smart and sexy, and ultimately too romantic (or idealistic) for her own good.
*. What I think has helped the film last as a cult film, aside from the more shocking or transgressive parts (like the semen-milking apparatus), is its series of mythic inversions.
*. The first of these is the inversion of the human and animal realms. Traditionally, humans have been ranked higher than the beasts, though lower than angels, on the great chain of being. But here Blood is the more evolved — erudite, articulate and above sexual matters — while the humans we meet are just so many rutting animals. As Jones points out a couple of times during his DVD commentary, “the only human being in the picture is the dog.” “Tiger” is the real star of the movie.
*. The other inversion is of what I call the myth of the Morlocks, after the H. G. Wells novel The Time Machine. In Wells’s story society is divided into above-ground and subterranean classes, with the beautiful people living the good life up top and the brutal mole people doing all the grunt work underground (where they also represent a violent proletarian-revolutionary force that literally feeds off the Eloi).
*. You’ll find this myth of the Morlocks repeated throughout a lot of science fiction, and it has both political and psychological underpinnings. The Morlocks are the Freudian Id, our animal minds with their instinctual lust for blood and sex, while the Eloi are the angels of our better nature, representing art, culture, and civilization, frolic above. The individual vs. the social self, id vs. superego, brute vs. angel.
*. A Boy and His Dog flips this around. It’s in the downunder of Topeka that we still have an advanced civilization and its false face. Topeka is also associated with death, being a place that has lost its Strangelovian “essence” or vital principle. Meanwhile, above ground, in the waste lands, are predatory gangs of animal spirits, living for sex and the hunt.

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*. Such an inversion poses an interesting question. Who is more fully human: the rovers or the Topekans? I think the first response of most people would be to say the rovers because we sympathize with them more easily and because they don’t seem quite as grotesque and repressed. But a boy and his dog aren’t going to breed together. They are eventually just going to go “over the hill” and die. Vic doesn’t even have any friends aside from Blood. It’s easy for a healthy young man to be such a lone wolf, but how human is that? Is that what we are really like as a species? Loyalty is important, but is it everything?

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*. Then also notice another inversion of the usual above/below imagery. In the perpetual night of Topeka everything is green and leafy. In the sunlight above there’s nothing but a dirty desert where nothing grows. Which is the garden? Which is our natural home?
*. Personally, I think the one really human character is Quilla June. She has all the right ideas, and is independent enough not to want to live in Topeka but also concerned about the future and the need to start a family. In her end don’t we see a re-eneactment of the opening shots of nuclear armageddon, the loss of all hope for the future of the species? In the final shot, aren’t Vic and Blood turning their back not only on her smokey remains but on all of us?

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The Virgin Spring (1960)

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*. I’m not a big fan of Ingmar Bergman, or at least early Bergman. Not because I don’t think he’s a great filmmaker but because I’m not that sympathetic to his moral-spiritual vision.
*. Though perhaps my real problem is a niggling sense that he doesn’t believe in that vision either. What is the message of The Virgin Spring? It may be even more Christian than the 13th-century source (which, and this is significant, didn’t contain any juxtaposition of Christianity with a pagan past). In the twentieth or twenty-first century can we really identify with Töre at the end, and despite our doubts about the wisdom/goodness/power of God decide to build him a church anyway?
*. Does it matter that Bergman didn’t like the ending, indeed didn’t like the movie much at all? This leads me back to wondering why he made it in the first place (a question that I think also exercised Pauline Kael).

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*. This is a problem that’s exacerbated by the film adopting such a preachy stance. Everything is made to seem symbolic, an emblem of some higher meaning. The toad in the sandwich, the goats in the forest, the raven in the tree. And the dialogue is much the same. It will be a dull viewer indeed who doesn’t get the significance of Karin’s mother warning her about how the devil likes to destroy innocence.
*. The action is just as heavy-handed, with the evildoers being dispatched in almost ceremonial ways (one appears almost to be crucified while the other is tossed on the fire like a sacrifice). Even the rape scene is awkwardly choreographed so as to implicate both of the adult brothers. I mean, just what is the vocal one doing? Dry-humping his brother’s back? The way the three figures are stuck together suggests Bergman was just trying to find some way to get them all into the frame at the same time.
*. Some of this can be attributed to the source. Medieval ballads aren’t known for their moral complexity, so we shouldn’t be surprised if an adaptation plays out like a moral fairy tale. But I think Bergman wants us to see it as having contemporary relevance.

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*. Of course Wes Craven saw the commercial potential right away, and re-made it as The Last House on the Left. In doing so, did he grasp the real essence of the story? Or, in eschewing any spiritual considerations, did he just make it more a film for our time?
*. That’s a point worth expanding on. There’s a whole school of art criticism that looks to evolutionary psychology as providing a great code for interpreting fiction and film. A film like this one, or any from the rape-revenge genre, illustrates their point clearly (a subject I touched on in my notes on Straw Dogs). Looked at from this perspective, the religious message is just a superfluous, and meaningless, overlay. Which it may be, and which takes me back to that “niggling sense” I mentioned earlier that Bergman doesn’t really care about any of this.
*. Another element that adds to the abstract quality the movie has is the silence. I don’t recall any musical soundtrack, and even the dialogue is kept to a minimum (two of the three brothers have no lines at all). In particular, note the two big action sequences. Both Karin’s rape and Töre’s murder of her killers are conducted entirely in silence. Karin doesn’t plead with her attackers or cry for help. Töre never says anything to the three brothers, and they say nothing to him. This gives the proceedings a sense of taking place at some remove from reality, almost in a ritual vacuum.

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*. The photography by Sven Nykvist is fine, but one thing that bothered me was his penchant for shooting through some prominent foreground object (bits of set decoration, flames, branches, etc.). This is something that I notice a lot of inexperienced, or just plain bad, cameramen do because it’s an easy way to show off. I don’t see any point for it here, or at least doing so much of it.

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*. Is it too staged, too posed, too pretty? The outdoor photography is beautiful, but it’s the interiors (which were all shot in a studio) that bother me. I suppose medieval homes and kitchens were kept as clean as could be, but I didn’t buy how spotless the floors and whitewashed walls were. There’s even an early shot where Ingeri walks across a very wet and mucky yard, but when she enters an outbuilding her boots are clean and don’t leave the slightest mark on the floor. Karin’s nightdress is another example of clothes that are just too clean to be believed, but in her case you have to take it as symbolic of her purity and innocence.
*. More staged abstraction: that bright diamond-shaped light behind Karin and her mother in the bedroom scene. That struck me as so artificial that all I could think of when I was watching the scene was where on earth it could be coming from. I suppose it makes sense with the placment of the window in the roof but you just know it’s there because Bergman wanted it as a backdrop.

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*. What about Karin? Peter Cowrie notes “a dangerous hint of vanity and sanctimoniousness” in her, but it may go further than that. Birgitta Pettersson was 20 at the time the movie was made, and it’s hard to deny her sexuality. How innocent is she? Is her naivety only a dangerous act?
*. But then everyone here feels guilty about something. Ingeri blames herself for directing ill thoughts in Karin’s direction, but it’s hard to see where she has much to reproach herself with. She tries to keep Karin from going into the woods, and there was nothing she could have done to rescue her from the brothers. Märeta also blames herself at the end, and of course Töre takes it upon himself to do a special task of atonement. This may be one of the most striking moral differences between then and now. Today, the assessment of moral responsibility is a game of evasion. We are used to thinking of responsibility in terms of liability, a fate worse than death in some cases.
*. So your response to a film like this may boil down to a matter of temperament. It has a stark simplicity, beauty, and power, but also comes across as staged, meticulous, and artificial, with a heavy-handed moral that just doesn’t mean anything in the twenty-first century (or likely would have meant anything, I would argue, from roughly the eighteenth century on). As I began by saying, I don’t think it meant anything to Bergman either, which is probably why he gave up on this kind of material moving forward.

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The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

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*. They didn’t waste any time starting the franchise machine up for this one. A sequel to The Purge was announced almost immediately upon that film’s release.
*. This is, however, a very different film, as it almost had to be. The Purge was a home-invasion thriller, a consciously self-contained, almost claustrophobic film. A sequel was going to have to take the basic premise in a new direction.
*. I was squirming through the introduction. It just made no sense at all that so many people, including our unfortunate married couple, would be out shopping, hoping to get home just in time before “commencement.” And then when the Purge actually started I found myself questioning the concept. Yes, it makes for a better movie, but if you were a Purger, or in a gang of Purgers, why would you go downtown? Especially downtown Los Angeles of all places? Wouldn’t you want to go crazy in one of that town’s many billionaire ‘burbs? Think about it: the only people downtown are other gangs of bad asses loaded for bear. So what’s the point?
*. After these initial reservations things settled down into a nice little dystopian action flick, with early vibes of Mad Max (Frank Grillo’s Sergeant drives a customized Deathmobile) and Escape from New York.
*. I was also impressed by a couple of decent bait-and-switch movements in the plot. I didn’t expect the masked gang to turn out to be what they were, and I was quite surprised by the revelation of what was really going on in Tanya’s apartment. They really got me on that one!
*. The point I made in my comments on The Purge was that it was the logical end point of the zombie genre, with people like us barricaded in our homes against homicidal maniacs who aren’t flesh-eating reanimated corpses or rabid carriers of a deadly virus but just our neighbours, revealed as the bloodthirsty animals they are.
*. This movie is quite different, belonging to another sub-genre in contemporary horror. This is murder and mayhem as entertainment, in particular for an affluent elite. The auction and hunt of the five survivors at the tony dining club looks exactly like the same set they used for a similar purpose in Hostel: Part III, and there are other echoes of the Hostel films as well.
*. It’s become a common trope, though its movie roots go back at least as far The Most Dangerous Game (and I guess you could say the cultural roots go back to the Coliseum). The Japanese film Battle Royale and its more class-conscious Americanized version The Hunger Games have the same interest in horrific forms of entertainment.
*. My difficulty with both of these Purge movies is that it’s such a rarefied blood lust shown being satisfied. Aside from the demented doorman Diego, the Sergeant is the only person who seems to really want to kill someone. Everybody else is purging as part of a ritual, a social duty, or in the case of the government stormtroopers, as a cull.
*. Perhaps this is also a way of responding to a commonly heard complaint leveled at these films: why do we only see people committing murder? Why aren’t women being raped? Why aren’t stores being looted? At least we do get a line here about how all the banks have been emptied pre-Purge, but that’s it.
*. Instead of cathartic mayhem there is only a crude exercise in de-population. Much of it seems politically motivated (the doorman who feels downtrodden, the stockbroker who stole the people’s pensions hanged over the door of a bank), but curiously there is a Black Panther movement afoot to stop the Purge. Logically, shouldn’t Carmelo’s fighters be killing the rich like the rest of the Purgers, engaging in a form of class war? But if those were the battle lines that were drawn, would the government allow it? Wouldn’t they have to shut down the Purge in order to protect property?
*. I guess it’s to this film’s credit that it raises questions like these. That doesn’t mean it’s a particularly original, profound, or well-made movie, but it’s not all brainless spatter either.

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Histoire d’un crime (1901)

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*. Directed by Ferdinand Zecca for Société Pathé Frères. A pretty simple and conventional tale of crime and punishment, made almost incomprehensible by the primitive state of the art.
*. A burglar kills another man and steals money from a safe. He is apprehended in a bar and put in jail, where he dreams about the train of events that brought him to this pass. He is taken from his cell and guillotined. Running time: a little over five minutes.
*. Apparently the film was based on a series of waxwork tableaux then showing in Paris, but even if you knew the story I think you’d have trouble following the events. Personally, I felt some confusion over where the first scene, the burglary, was taking place. A bank? The door says “CAISSE” on it, but if it is a bank why would the guard be sleeping, in a bed no less, by the safe?

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*. Then there is the matter of the inset dream visions (which were not original to this film, as pointed out by Kino’s helpful introduction). What is going on? From what I’ve been able to gather from other sources what we’re seeing is a man losing his respectable life (job, family) through drink. But that’s not clear from the brief tavern vignettes we see. Would contemporary audiences have understood better? On what evidence? What visual cues or clues am I missing?
*. The thing is, telling even a simple story like this is hard to do given the limitations in editing and camera placement at the time. For example, we’re too far away from the burglar to be able to identify his face so it’s hard to maintain any sense of continuity in his character. It’s just not clear if we’re seeing the same guy.
*. There was nothing new about the concept of a flashback — they’d been with us since Homer — but translating a flashback to the screen hadn’t been figured out yet. The dream inset was a clever idea, but it doesn’t really work (and hasn’t been used much since except in a humorous way). Just a couple of years later Porter’s Great Train Robbery would be a far more successful story of a crime that made no use of flashbacks, instead using editing to tell a single well-paced action narrative. That’s why you know the name Edwin S. Porter today and have probably never heard of Ferdinand Zecca.

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*. The perspective painting through the arch to the guillotine in the distance is quite convcincing until the priest raises his cross in front of it and you can clearly see the shadow being cast on a surface that should not be there. A shame, as the subsequent beheading is effective. Cutting heads off of dummies is something that film learned to do well right from the beginning, through the use of the stop trick.
*. Crime stories are perfect entertainments: sensational and exploitative, yet moral and didactic. A final judgement on the wages of sin is what we want to see, even if we can’t always credit it.

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