Articles by

<Cullen Gallagher>

12/02/09 4:00am

James Whale

December 4-10 at Film Forum

A special case needs to be made for James Whale. Though not exactly forgotten—a pair of genre-defining horror masterpieces (Frankenstein and The Invisible Man) and two satires (The Old Dark House and Bride of Frankenstein) have kept him in circulation—he is certainly misremembered. Instead of the easily definable horror-auteur that history would prefer, Whale was an artist of many mediums (theater, cinema, painting, drawing), genres and sensibilities, but the unavailability of the majority of his body of work, either in theatrical revivals or on home video, has prevented audiences from fully understanding him. Encompassing the full range of Whale’s style, from gothic to modern and screwball to macabre, Film Forum’s 16-film retrospective will do much to restore the director’s lopsided legacy.

Born in the mining town of Dudley, England in 1889, James Whale got his start in the theater in the most unlikely of places: a German POW camp during World War I. While his fellow prisoners planned escapes, Whale honed his skills as a set designer and writer. (James Curtis’ James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters reveals a microcosmic society behind prison walls.) A touring production of Journey’s End brought Whale to Broadway where Hollywood, still recovering from the transition to sound, took notice of him. Whale was invited Westward first to assist with dialogue, and later made his directorial debut with an adaptation of Journey’s End in 1930. Film Forum’s series begins in the wake of that critical success with an adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s play Waterloo Bridge (1931). Deliciously and despondently Pre-Code, the film stars Mae Clarke as a down-and-out chorus girl moonlighting as a streetwalker who picks up a naïve soldier during an air raid. Whale and ace cinematographer Arthur Edeson (All Quiet on the Western Front) give the story a visual dynamism that belies its theatrical origins. In all, they would make five films together, including the expertly expressionistic Frankenstein (1931) and the pinnacle of “old dark house” horror spoofs, fittingly titled The Old Dark House (1932). The Impatient Maiden (1932), a Lew Ayres/Mae Clarke romantic drama hand-me-down abandoned by William Wyler, is redeemed by Whale and Edeson’s elegant tracking shots. The special effects of their final collaboration, The Invisible Man (1933), are still impressive today, and the film exemplifies Whale’s defiantly ambiguous morality, in which marginalized figures turn to violence in the face of a hegemonic (and often moronic) public.
In The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933), which paired Whale with the celebrated Expressionistic cinematographer Karl Freund, lawyer Frank Morgan is defending client Paul Lukas, who shot his unfaithful wife, in order to create a legal precedent for his own murder plans. The film epitomizes the meticulous grandeur of Whale’s direction, from seductive, secretive tracking shots of Gloria Stuart backlit against the night sky, to long shots of high-ceilinged sets that emphasize densely detailed décor and atmospheric lighting. Later that year, Lukas appeared in Whale’s lesser-known but utterly charming By Candlelight (1933), a screwball escapade of false identities and romantic runarounds concerning a crisscrossed group of amorous royalty and their equally flirtatious butlers and maids. Films such as these two show off Whale’s rarely tapped capacity for sophisticated social and sexual satires.

Whale’s films from 1934 onward were victims of the stringent Production Code. One More River (1934), with its story of a wife (Diana Wynyard) fleeing an abusive husband (Colin Clive), would have benefited from being made even one year earlier. Still, Clive (who got his start with Whale in the theatrical production of Journey’s End and screamed the iconic “It’s Alive!” in Frankenstein) manages to exude subtle sadism in his every gesture. Whale was, however, somehow able to sneak Remember Last Night? (1935) past the censors. Who would have expected Will Hays to approve a boozy, screwball murder mystery in which the characters are too drunk to notice a murder and too hungover to really care? I’ll raise a glass to this forgotten 30s gem any day.

Despite of the popular success of Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Show Boat (1936), Whale’s career began to suffer under studio pressure at Universal. The Road Back (1937) may have been an artistic triumph, an elegiac and solemn sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front laden with Whale’s own personal memories of the trenches, but it didn’t perform well at the box office. A brief stint at MGM didn’t fare any better, which landed Whale back at Universal with the castaway clunker Sinners in Paradise (1938) as punishment. Whale was clearly enjoying the elaborate sets and grisly dungeons of The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), an independent production that proved to be his last hit. Back at Universal, Green Hell (1940) wasn’t exactly the prestige that Whale deserved, but its hyper-masculine, colonialist fantasy is certainly entertaining today. At the time audiences didn’t buy it, and Whale was getting fed up with commercial filmmaking. All it took was one more film for him to call it quits from the movie business.

Whale spent 1941 to 1957 (when he committed suicide) still in Hollywood but outside of the industry, focusing instead on theatrical productions and painting. His last days were dramatized in Bill Condon'”s excellent Gods and Monsters (1998), with Ian McKellan playing Whale and Brendan Fraser as his boy-toy lawn-boy. The film valorizes Bride of Frankenstein and Show Boat as his best pictures, and certainly they do represent his most fully realized projects. However, an artist is more than just his masterpieces, and in the case of James Whale, the most idiosyncratic work may have the most to tell about the singularity of his vision.

11/18/09 4:00am

M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

Directed by Jacques Tati

Simply put, Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) is one of the most delightful cinematic experiences I have ever encountered, and it is now showing at Film Forum in a restored 35mm print. Like the film’s infectious, amiable theme song—whose breezy melody fluidly passes from saxophone to guitar to vibes to piano without interrupting the phrasing—Tati, his camera and his on-screen alter-ego Hulot flit amongst the beachfront tourists like a fellow vacationer. With his perennial floppy hat and a pipe protruding from his lips, Hulot putters into town in his rustbucket and proceeds to join his compatriots in an attempt to enjoy some rest and relaxation under the sun.

While Tati’s light-hearted jabs at bourgeois mannerisms (particularly hats and customary greetings), and the occasional kick-in-the-rear, pay homage to silent comedians like the French Max Linder (or any of his now-more famous American slapstick colleagues), there’s considerably less violence and animosity than in his predecessors’ work. Unlike them, Tati isn’t as interested in farce or satire, and one feels a genuine affection for the multitudes of odd body shapes, moustaches and hairdos to be found at the resort. Further distinguishing his brand of humor is his markedly un-vaudevillian pacing. One never gets the impression that Hulot, or any of the characters, realize they are doing something funny, or at all acting out of the ordinary. There is no theatrical timing worked in; in an age in which sitcom-y laugh tracks are omnipotent even when absent (think about how often even big-screen comedy films are filled with boisterous characters whose outbursts cue the audience when to laugh), Tati’s reticence is even more vital and should be treasured.

There’s something strangely ephemeral yet permanent about M. Hulot’s Holiday. So many of the scenes seem like stolen moments —brief glimpses of characters who soon pass out of the camera’s eye—yet there’s something purgatorial, Sisyphean, about them. Time goes nowhere (there are no hints as to how many days or weeks pass by) yet time is everything to Tati when it comes to rhythm and tempo. A mischievous little boy on the beach attempts to burn a sleeping man with his magnifying glass—but because the man never awakens, the prank is never consummated, and exists forever in an incomplete state. So, too, will the swinging door to the restaurant remain unfixed, endlessly emitting a plucked-bass tone. And then there is Hulot, perpetually obliterating tennis opponents with his jerky, mechanical serve; never able to escape his collapsed kayak, which doubled-over resembles a sea monster; and always on the side of the road, trying to get his derelict car up and running so he can get to where he is going. Thankfully, he never will, and will exist permanently in a cinematic limbo.

Opens November 20 at Film Forum

11/11/09 3:31pm


Samuel Fuller’s movies are equal parts street corner and gutter, a combination of two-inch-headline journalistic hullabaloo and pulp poetics. Andrew Sarris called him “an authentic American primitive,” while Dana Polan described him as “the opposite of graceful; his style seems to suggest that in a world where grace provides little redemption, its utilization would be a kind of lie.” This one-of-a-kind, immediately recognizable persona is on full display in Sony’s seven disc box set The Samuel Fuller Collection, which pulls together seven hard-to-find films that the cigar-chomping filmmaker was involved in, none of which were previously available on DVD.

Among the most coveted of Fuller’s works featured here are The Crimson Kimono (1959) and Underworld U.S.A. (1961), two stories of crime and society told from opposite ends of the moral spectrum: one from the cops, and one from the crooks. In the tradition of 1930s Warner Bros. gangster pictures such as The Public Enemy (1931), Underworld U.S.A. is a street-punk picaresque, beginning with a teenage Tolly Devlin rolling drunks in alleys. After witnessing the murder of his father by four shadowy figures, he begins a life-long quest to uncover the identity of the murderers and exact revenge. However, it isn’t until twenty years later that Devlin (now played by Cliff Robertson) gets his chance. Working for both the mobs and the cops, he ruthlessly plays both ends against the middle in a vigilante attempt at taking down organized crime.

Famously shot on-location in Little Tokyo, The Crimson Kimono follows two detectives (played by Glenn Corbett and James Shigeta) on the hunt for a killer who specializes in collecting rare East Asian artifacts. The opening sequence, in which a burlesque dancer is chased off-stage and into the middle of the street where she is shot, is among his most bombastic and sensational openings. The director later related to Eric Sherman and Martin Rubin, “We didn’t stage it. That was real traffic. If some idiot had pulled out all of a sudden, the girl would have gotten it. Most dangerous scene I’ve ever shot.” Fuller’s philosophical stand-in (a bourbon-swilling female artist) gets all the great lines: “Life is like a battle, Chris, somebody has to get a bloody nose” and “Smoking a cigarette is like drinking beer out of a thimble. A man is only a man, my dear, but a good cigar is a smoke.” What is most unique about the picture, however, is its handling of racial tension between the two main characters, one a White American and the other a Japanese-American, and their seemingly unbreakable homosocial bond that falls apart over the love of a Caucasian woman. Like anything Fuller has done, it is far from subtle, but for all his directness he never loses sight of nuance or complexity and, as the ending shows, he never offers easy, bow-tied answers.

While Fuller pulled triple duty as director/writer/producer on The Crimson Kimono and Underworld U.S.A., what distinguishes the box set from other auteur-centric collections is the attention devoted to films in which Fuller served only as a writer (often either in collaboration, or in adaptation) that predate his directorial work by as much as a decade. It Happened in Hollywood (1937), Fuller’s second credit as a writer, is one of the real “finds” here, a tale of the rise-and-fall of a silent Western actor (here played by Richard Dix, loosely based on real-life cowboy star Tom Mix) who refuses to alter his “goody guy” image to become a gangster once the talkies hit the screen. Arguably the film’s highlight, a procession of “fake” star look-alikes (Chaplin, Garbo, and the like) calls attention to the film’s preoccupation with stardom and the tension between image and action, as well as larger issues of cultural mythology that would distinguish Fuller’s work throughout his life. Adventure in Sahara (1938) is short on Fuller but full of sadism, sand, shooting, and sword-wielding Arabs. On the other hand, Lew Landers’ Power of the Press (1943) shows more of Fuller’s sensibility, with honest newspaper editor Guy Kibbee fighting against corrupt journalism and didactically declaring, “He that taketh the sword shall perish by the sword. So I guess that he that fakes the news is entitled to perish by fake news!” The film is also notable for its co-star, the underrated Lee Tracy, whose Depression-era cynicism and street smarts put him in the same league as James Cagney.

The more instructive collaborations feature directors with more fully formed styles, sensibilities as equally distinct as Fuller’s. In Shockproof (1949) Douglas Sirk certainly lends his visual splendor to Fuller’s script (adding a touch of the “grace” Polan suggested was missing from Fuller’s own direction) about a female ex-con (Patricia Knight) caught between her parole officer (Cornel Wilde) and hoodlum lover (John Baragrey). Fuller may have thought Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet (based on Fuller’s novel The Dark Page) was “disappointing” (“It was a lesson in losing artistic control of my work that I wouldn’t ever forget.”), but the fusion of documentary realism and journalistic sensationalism seems more fitting than perhaps Fuller cared to have admit. And while John Derek might be too soft for the hardened newspaperman he was supposed to portray, Henry Morgan is pitch-perfect as the sidekick photographer with lines like, “You know, that wasn’t a bad looking dame. Too bad the guy used an axe on her head. Spoiled some pretty pictures for me.”

Fans of the director won’t want to miss out on this release, and while newcomers might be advised to start more canonic films like Pickup on South Street (1953), Shock Corridor (1963), or The Naked Kiss (1964), the back-to-back productions of The Crimson Kimono and Underworld U.S.A. give you as potent and defining a dose of Fuller as any of his more famous works.


Also on DVD this week:

Ballast (2008) (Kino, Region 1) – The best part of Lance Hammer’s story of desperation in the Mississippi Delta is the cinematography by Lol Crawley, shot on 35mm with all natural lighting. Emotional devastation has rarely looked so damn beautiful.

Lake Tahoe (2008) (Film Movement, Region 1) – The L’s Simon Abram really liked this one: “Lake Tahoe, Mexican auteur Fernando Eimbcke’s quietly assured follow-up to his equally satisfying Duck Season, is a tantalizing anti-bildungsroman which laconically follows a bunch of teens as they cope with grief and angst on a hot summer day.”

Near Dark (1987) (Lionsgate, Blu Ray Region ‘A’) – Before <em>The Hurt Locker and Point Break, Kathryn Bigelow made this reinterpretation of the vampire and Western genres, equal parts action and atmosphere. The film’s extended opening, which follows the slow, torturous, and uncertain “change” from human to vampire, is tremendous. Rarely has such an internal mutation been conveyed so cinematically.

11/05/09 1:05pm


A drifter, a prostitute, a priest, a miner, and his deaf-mute daughter walk into a South American jungle. It sounds like the start of a joke, but it happens to be the set-up for Luis Buñuel’s anti-colonialist adventure-satire Death in the Garden (1956), just out on DVD from Microcinema International. When Chark (Georges Marchal, of Buñuel’s Belle de Jour and The Milky Way) stumbles through a town square past a firing squad, he finds himself in the midst of a revolution. Martial law has shut down the local mine, but its workers refuse to leave without a fight. With violence escalating and Chark and the miner Castin (Charles Vanel, of Clouzot’s Diabolique and The Wages of Fear) wanted by the police, the disparate group takes to the jungle in hopes of escaping to Brazil.

Buñuel frequently uses stories of survival (or the lack thereof) as political commentary, and though his targets have spanned the gamut of social classes, his favorite victim by far is the bourgeoisie. Whether it is the party guests that can’t even manage to sit down to dinner in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) or the manage to leave the living room in The Exterminating Angel (1962), Buñuel makes clear their lack of resourcefulness even within the limits of their own domain. If they can’t survive in the deceptive comfort of their own homes, how could they possibly last out in the jungle, with no food, no guide, no map, and the military on their trail? Therein lies Buñuel’s straight-faced humor: taking the adventure scenario absolutely seriously adds to the subversive undercurrents.

If conventional adventure films privilege the characters’ ability to triumph over nature’s dangerous obstacles, in Death in the Garden Buñuel turns that notion on its head and delights in his characters’ submission to the laws of the jungle and gradual loss of propriety. His sadistic pleasure is palpable throughout—when Maria Castin (Michèle Girardon, Bakery Girl on Monceau and Hatari!) is unable to free her hair from branches, or in the group’s humiliating discovery of a fire which turns out to have been their own from the night before—but nowhere more noticeably than when the Father Lizardi (Michel Piccoli, Contempt) reluctantly tears pages from his Bible to contribute to the fire. Only adding to his impotence, Buñuel even denies him the privilege of contributing to the group’s survival by having the priest return the pages to the Bible unused.

Buñuel also subverts the typical use of the physical journey as a soul-searching expedition. Father Lizardi, Maria, and even Chark, revert to their old ways as soon as an end is in sight. Only Castin and Djin (the prostitute played by Simone Signoret) show any signs of long-lasting change, nor are these shifts necessarily positive. In an essay included with the DVD, Susan Hayward (not the actress) speaks of Djin’s polar characterization, which moves from “fetishized scheming femme fatale” to “the conforming, constrained, and fetishized exponent of 1950s haute bourgeoisie.” By the end, she may be the film’s last (and first, for that matter) symbol of humanity, but Buñuel’s cynicism runs so deep that he can’t allow sincerity to prevail. As we’ve come to expect from Buñuel’s inimitable worldview, it is always corruption and insanity that reign supreme.


Also on DVD this week:

Bela Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart (2008) (Docurama, Region 1) – Director Sascha Paladino follows the legendary banjoist to Africa, where he explores the roots of his instrument.

The Claudette Colbert Collection (Universal, Region 1) – Three-disc box set featuring six films from the unmistakable cherub face of Claudette Colbert. Of particular note are Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), which was scripted by the team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and No Time for Love (1943), directed by the underrated Mitchell Leisen. Other films included are Three-Cornered Moon (1933), Maid of Salem (1937), I Met Him in Paris (1937), and The Egg and I (1947).

Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Vol. 1 (Sony, Region 1) Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) is the obvious draw to this five-disc box set (yes, you do want to watch Gloria Grahame wield a coffee pot and smash it into some guy’s face), but the other films are also worth your while. Also included are Phil Karlson’s 5 Against the House (1955), Don Siegel’s The Lineup (1958), Irving Lerner’s Murder by Contract (1958), and Edward Dmytryk’s The Sniper (1952). [Hey, remember when the Lerner and the Siegel played as a double feature at Film Forum’s B Noir series? -Ed.]

The Dead (1987) (Lionsgate, Region 1) – Forget all those arguments about how “the book is always better than the movie.” James Joyce will always be there, but John Huston’s eloquent adaptation has been out of print for way too long, and until now was only available in America in a VHS edition from 1992 or a Region 2 DVD.

Food, Inc. (2008) (Magnolia, Region 1) – The L’s Stephen Snart described this as a “level-headed” doc that “distinguishes itself from social awareness ego-trips like Richard Linklater’s pedantic adaptation of Fast Food Nation and from the scores of fear-mongering documentaries that criticize without offering solutions.”

Law of Desire (1987) (Sony, Region 1) – Early feature by Pedro Almodovar about a filmmaker and his complicated life involving transsexuals, jealous lovers, actresses, and, of course, emotional overload. Co-starring a young Antonio Banderas.

Mother (2009) (CJ entertainment, Region 3) – Missed Bong Joon-ho’s fourth feature film at the New York Film Festival and don’t want to wait for its US theatrical? First, shame on you, and second, here is your chance to make use of your region-free dvd player. Forgoing sea monsters this time around, Bong returns to the crime fiction territory of Memories of Murder to follow a mother who must prove her son is innocent of murder.

10/28/09 11:56am

Machetero, which screens this Thursday, Oct. 29 at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, is a film whose guerrilla production matches both the film’s visual aesthetic and its narrative. It tells two stories concurrently: one in which imprisoned revolutionary Pedro Taino (Not4Prophet) is interviewed by a journalist (Jarmush regular Isaach De Bankolé, pictured), and the other about the political awakening of a young man (Kelvin Fernandez) on the streets of New York. As directed and written by Vagabond, Machetero‘s radical politics extend to the film’s non-linear narrative, and its use of on-screen titles, foregrounding the revolutionary literature passed amongst the characters, as well as lyrics from the soundtrack by the NYC-based band Ricanstruction (of which Not4Prophet is the lead singer). Recently, I spoke to Vagabond about the film’s intersections of art and politics.

Could you say a little about the word “Machetero,” where it comes from, and why you chose it as your title?
The direct Spanish translation of the word “machetero” is someone who works with a machete. However, there is a cultural definition to the word that is unique to Puerto Rico. The “Macheteros” were sugarcane field workers who fought against Spanish colonial rule, and when the US invaded Puerto Rico in 1898 during the Spanish-American war, they fought against the Americans as well. In the late 1960s, Puerto Rican independence leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios started a clandestine armed organization called “Ejercito Popular Boricua” (“Popular Puerto Rican Army”). Puerto Ricans throughout the Diaspora called them “Macheteros”.

The title of the film comes from a saying the Macheteros had, “¡Todo Boricua Machetero!” (“All Puerto Ricans Are Machetero!”) which connected Puerto Ricans to their revolutionary past. When I thought more about that saying, it seemed to me that what the EPB was trying to do was to create this idea of the Machetero as warrior and protector of the Puerto Rican people in much the same way that the Samurai is in Japan.

How did the revolutionary politics of the film affect your aesthetic approach to the film?
The film had to be radically unconventional in the same way that guerrilla warfare is radically unconventional. The reason revolutionaries use guerrilla tactics is because they don’t have access to fighter jets or tanks, so they make do with what they have. They become resourceful with their tactics in order to achieve their goals. It was the same with making Machetero. The structure of the film was devised in a way to make the shooing of the film easier. The use of voice-over in the film allowed us to shoot most of the film without having to worry or rely too much on shooting sync sound. The voice-over dialogue was recorded first so that we could juxtapose images against it. As a result, we could shift images and timelines around because the voice-over dialogue was the foundation from which the rest of the film was built on. As long as the voice-over dialogue had some sense of continuity, the images that accompany it had a freedom that could not otherwise be afforded to us if we shot the film conventionally. Since the film thematically is about finding a way to achieve freedom, it only enhanced the theme to have a certain freedom in the narrative structure to the film. The on-screen titles were also another way of playing with the narrative structure in the film, since many of them either allude to character and time or thematic issues the film raises. The subject matter of revolution doesn’t allow for conventional filmmaking or conventional storytelling.

How do you see your film fitting into the larger framework of politicized cinema? You mention Solanas and Getino’s essay “Towards a Third Cinema” on your website, but I was also reminded of Paradise Now.

I actually read Solanas and Getino’s “Towards A Third Cinema” toward the end of making Machetero. I came across the essay and immediately thought that this is what Machetero is. For those not familiar with Third Cinema, First Cinema is Hollywood commercial film and Second Cinema is the European art film or the European auteur film. Third Cinema is a response from the third world to create a cinema that would reflect the reality of poor and struggling people and inspire them to extricate themselves from whatever situation oppresses them. When the essay was initially written, it was calling for third world filmmakers to create a cinema that was reflective of their reality. Although I was born in Brooklyn and have lived in the US all my life, and a majority of Machetero was made here in the US, the colonial condition that Puerto Ricans have lived under both on the island and in the US has been one of third world proportions, so I felt comfortable relating Machetero to Third Cinema.

I made Machetero to raise questions about the way in which the labels like “terrorist” and “terrorism” are used and what that means to people who may feel that the only means to free themselves from these oppressive situations is to use violence. That violence is often described and defined by the state and its media apparatus as “terrorism”. One of the ideas that I’m trying to put forward in Machetero is that violence is a language that oppressors choose to use and that those who struggle against it and respond in kind are speaking the same language as their oppressors in an effort to get them to use another means of communication. However this decision to use violence as a means of communication is not a decision that oppressed people come to easily. This may be where you see a parallel to Hany Abu Assad’s film Paradise Now, which was definitely a source of inspiration for Machetero.

In recent years there has been much controversy surrounding rights of filmmakers to shoot on the streets of New York. As an independent filmmaker, what was your experience like?
One of the things I do to make a living is provide location services to production companies, so I know what I can get away with and what I can’t get away with or at least how much of a risk I’m taking if I do decide to work outside “the regulations” or “the law.” I shot everything but one scene in Machetero without permits or permission. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have problems with the police. There were five different encounters with law enforcement that varied from simply hiding from the cops to being arrested. Before I made Machetero I wrote a manifesto called “Illegalist Cinema: The Cinema of Cine-automatic” that put art before legality in the filmmaking process.

Over the years I’ve seen the tightening restrictions that the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting has put on independent filmmakers. It used to be easier to make a film in this town but lately it’s been getting harder and harder. That being said the Mayor’s Office still needs to make it easy enough for larger productions to come to the city and shoot, and as an independent filmmaker it’s important to exploit some of those incentives to our own benefit.

10/22/09 8:58am


AnimEigo has replaced the murky, faded, and long unavailable DVD of Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain (Kuroi ame) (1989) with a new edition boasting superior image and sound qualities, annotated subtitles (providing brief cultural context in certain scenes), and a wealth of extras (including a never-before-seen, 19-minute alternate ending). It seems grossly obvious to lump adjectives like “haunting” and “harrowing” onto Imamura’s narrative about Hiroshima survivors dealing with bodily and psychological strain in the aftermath, particularly when the film is most affecting when it is least direct. The opening sequence of the bomb dropping is undeniably powerful, but the simple shot of black rain landing on a young girl’s face is even more so. Restraining even reticence, Imamura cuts the shot short, limiting the possibility of catharsis through the symbolic image. What is shown on the surface is never so important as what is not, Imamura suggests throughout the movie, and that the most devastating wounds are those beyond visibility.

Most of the film takes place in 1950, five years after the war ended. Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka), the young girl from the opening sequence, is living with family friends Shigematsu (Kazuo Kitamura of Sailor Suit and Machine Gun) and Shigeko (Etsuko Ichihara, also in Imamura’s The Eel), all of whom were exposed to “the flash” and, despite the false comforts of doctors, are awaiting their death. Meanwhile, Shigematsu and Shigeko are trying to find a husband for Yasuko, whom no “healthy” family will consider because of circulating rumors about her radiation-induced sterility. Yasuko, on the other hand, alternates between wanting to start her own family and staying with her surrogate parents; so anxious is she about the possibility of her own illness that she can only be comforted by others with the same condition.

If this narrative about the marriage process reminds of Yasujiro Ozu, perhaps it is because Imamura got his start as Ozu’s assistant on such films as Early Summer, The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, and Tokyo Story (all of which deal with, in some form or another, matrimonial issues). Since Imamura had been vocal about his disagreements with Ozu’s style (consider the perverse voyeurism of his The Pornographers versus the formal congruity of Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon), perhaps his overt insertion of post-war politics into the archetypal Ozu scenario can perhaps be seen as a criticism of his mentor’s films, and what he perceived as the latter’s avoidance of crucial, timely issues. As the director intimated in James Quandt’s book Shohei Imamura:

“I show true things using fictional techniques but maintaining truthfulness—that’s where my approach differs from Ozu. He wanted to make film more aesthetic. I want to make it more real. He aspired toward a cinematic nirvana. When I was his assistant, I was very opposed to him but now, whilst still not liking his films, I’m much more tolerant.”

While Ozu’s visual style emphasized patterns and repetition in order to convey a sense of universal fatalism and a circular trajectory from life to death, Imamura’s is at once realistic and delirious. Nothing expresses the illogic of his style more than the final shot of the movie, in which a character’s hope rests upon the specific colors of a rainbow—seemingly an impossibility in a black-and-white film such as Black Rain. The failure of cinema to fully contain a chaotic world, however, is one of Imamura’s enduring themes. Some people, and some events, can’t help but defy the limits of the movie screen. In approaching these subjects, Imamura smartly left a little bit of mystery still intact, just enough so that the last word is never spoken, but still lingers on after the film is over.

Also on DVD this week:

Fados (2007) (Zeitgeist, Region 1) – Carlos Saura has build a career out of evocatively capturing dance and music on film in such films as Blood Wedding (1981), Sevillanas (1992), and Flamenco (1995). His latest film investigates the Portugese genre “fado.”

Ichi the Killer (2001) (Tokyo Shock, Blu Ray Region ‘A’) – Takashi Miike was the assistant director on Black Rain. Perfect excuse for a double feature.

The Moon in the Gutter (1983) (Cinema Libre, Region 1) – Jean-Jacques Beineix directs this adaptation of David Goodis’ masterfully bleak novel, which stars Gerard Depardieu as a dockworker haunted by the murder of his sister.

The William Castle Film Collection
(Sony, Region 1) – Just in time for Halloween, a five disc box-set from one of the legends of horror cinema. Includes 13 Frightened Girls, 13 Ghosts, Homicidal, Strait-Jacket, The Old Dark House, Mr. Sardonicus, The Tingler, and Zotz!

10/16/09 12:00pm

Last month, the Museum of Modern Art embarked on one of its most ambitious and exciting film series in recent years, An Auteurist History of Film. Curated by Charles Silver, the two-year-plus series takes as its organizational principle the Auteur Theory (which posits the director as the primary author of a film), and aims to cover pre-cinema (such as “magic lanterns” and other early visual and photographic technologies) all the way to the present day. The breadth of its programming is highly promising, with opportunities to revisit and reevaluate more canonical works, as well the chance to see long-neglected and often non-commercially available films (such as Benjamin Christensen’s The Mysterious X from 1914). Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Charles Silver about the guiding principles of his latest series, as well changes in the New York City film scene over the past several decades.

The L Magazine: What was the motivation for doing this series now?

Charles Silver: It seems like as good a time as any. I’ve been at The Museum of Modern Art for almost 39 years now, and I’ve been going to the movies for close to 60 (or maybe more) and I thought it would be good to go back and survey our film archive (which begins in the 1890s and goes up to the present day) and try to define the Auteur theory through the collection. There have been, in the past, other film history cycles at the museum, so it is not totally novel, but I thought that approaching it from the Auteur Theory would make the most coherent expression of film history, at least up until the point that the studios broke down, and we had films really by committees and computers. It is hard to argue that a lot of current movies could be the expression of individual artists although I think there are many exceptions.

How do you begin to navigate 100+ years of cinema?

I’m limiting myself to films we have in the collection. There are certainly gaps that I hope this series may go a way towards filling by pointing them out. We’ve been upfront that this is only one approach to the subject. And no, I haven’t seen all of the 22,000 films the museum has in its collection, or the millions of films that have been made, so there is always an element of prejudice and personal inclination. You have to live with that. But there’s also a problem in that since we’re starting with very early film, something like 85% of silent films no longer exist, so we’re inevitably going to be unsatisfactory in commemorating some people whose entire careers have been wiped out by deterioration of nitrate film prints. You do the best you can with what’s available, but I think we’re being honest about the fact that we’re not saying this is “the” entire, official history of film.

10/14/09 4:14pm


The story behind Marlene (1984), just out on DVD from Kino, is one of those fortuitous disasters of cinema lore. It’s 1982, and actor/filmmaker Maximilian Schell arrives at Marlene Dietrich’s doorstep in Paris ready to make a documentary about the legendary actress. Dietrich, however, has an unexpected surprise: regardless of whatever agreements were made before, she now refuses to appear before the camera. Nor will she even allow Schell to film her apartment, or even any of her belongings. “Why?” Schell demands to know. “Because I’ve been photographed enough,” answers Dietrich. “I’ve been photographed to death.” Nonetheless, she does allows Schell to record their conversations, and it is this audio that forms the basis of the documentary.

Marlene is not your typical non-fiction celebrity portrait—and really, how could it be when your “star” refuses to appear on-camera? Dietrich herself admits that “Documentary is a thing that connects the voices that are talking,” so what happens when that seemingly crucial connection is severed? Schell uses this disjunction between sound and image to explore the star persona of “Diectrich” to see what, if anything, it reveals of the “real” Dietrich that she so desperately tried to hide from the camera.

Mixed in with archival footage from stage appearances and movies such as The Blue Angel and Witness for the Prosecution are self-reflexive shots of Schell and his crew rebuilding Dietrich’s apartment on a soundstage, as well as sitting at an editing table going through footage in consideration for the finished film. “What is real?” Schell narrates. “The editing room, the table we are working on. Not the flat—it’s reconstructed from memory… The tape recorder. We can take that as our reality.” Inverting what is typically construed as “reality” by privileging fiction over fact, Schell constructs what could be called an anti-biography. Birth, childhood, family, education, career—Dietrich bluntly refuses to discuss any of these in any depth. Instead, she mostly rebuffs Schell’s attempts at getting her to open up, claiming that audiences won’t be interested in his questions, or that the answers are already available in her own autobiography or one of the other “55” books available on her. (That is the number she continually refers to.)

Diectrich’s hostility is one of the key fascinations of the film. “You are giving me questions that cannot be answered in two minutes” and “It really doesn’t interest me, and it won’t be in the documentary either. It has absolutely nothing to do with me” are two oft repeated sentiments. At once offensive and defensive, Dietrich doesn’t try to hide who is controlling the interview—but Schell doesn’t give up so easily. The battle seems primarily concerned both with Dietrich’s audience (which one knows better what they will want to know?) and the authorship of her legacy. She becomes especially defiant when Schell attempts to apply critical theories to her performances, flat-out denying any personal or autobiographical connection to her characters or any attempt to give them psychological depth. Dietrich would want us to believe her old movies were naïve and have had no cultural or political currency then or now, except on the most superficial level.

Dietrich may control the soundtrack, but Schell controls the image. As Dietrich goes on a tirade against “women’s lib,” Schell reminds us not to take Dietrich’s words at face value. On-screen we see hyper-sexualized, androgynous images of her in a tuxedo tossing Gary Cooper a flower and coyly kissing a girl in Morocco (1930), as well as a hip-to-hip line of undulating women and Dietrich’s notorious gorilla costume from Blonde Venus (1932). Any claim for naivety is thrown right out the window: these were, and more importantly still are, provocative images. Blurring the lines between feminine and masculine, Dietrich’s on-screen persona was a powerful force for female agency and sexual liberation. So half a century later, what is is that she was so afraid of? What was it she was trying to hide?

Neither she nor Schell flatly answers the question. Such is the strong presence of historiography in the film, in which the very notions of “biography” and “documentary” come under close scrutiny. One of the things Dietrich is so concerned with is the re-writing of history in light of new trends, be they cultural, artistic, or political. Despite Schell’s attempt to cast Dietrich as an actor-as-auteur, or forge connections with post-Method realism, her own discussion of her career never betrays the context in which the films were made. And therein lies one of the great contradictions of cinema: a film may have been made seventy years ago, but the projector casts the images upon the screen as though every screening is the first. Perhaps it was just that Dietrich couldn’t understand the longevity of her image and, as she settled into a life off the screen and out of the limelight, she feared her public would abandon her. Seventeen years since her death in 1992 at the age of ninety, it is clear that she is far from forgotten. The silver screen still bears her imprint, deep and everlasting.


Also on DVD this week:

Drag Me to Hell (2009) (Universal, Region 1) – After a decade filled with Katie Holmes, Kevin Costner and three Spider Man movies, Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Army of Darkness) returns to the horror genre. It’s never too early to get in the Halloween spirit. And watching movies doesn’t rot out your teeth the way candy does.

Eclipse Series 18: Dusan Makavejev- Free Radical (Criterion, Region 1) – Yesterday was Yugoslavian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev’s birthday, so since you can’t buy him a drink in person, pick up this box-set instead, which includes Man is Not a Bird (1965), Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967), and Innocence Unprotected (1968). Expect radical politics, radical aesthetics, and totally “rad” movies.

10/07/09 2:28pm


I first saw Lee Isaac Chung’s Munyurangabo (2007) at New Directors/New Films in 2008, and was struck both by the film’s reticent morality as well as by Chung’s subtle yet perceptive direction. Considering its political context (the cultural memory of genocide in Rwanda), the film could have easily flown off in the direction of heavy-handed earnestness. Instead, Chung managed to reign in “the message” and focus more on a narrative that is hauntingly empathetic in its exploration of cultural clashes, without giving in to easy answers or reductive symbolism. For the work of first-time filmmaker working with non-professional actors and improvising scenes based on a brief scenario in a language he doesn’t speak, it’s extremely impressive that Munyurangabo is as nuanced and discerning as it is, in both its political content and cinematic sensibility.

The film, newly released on DVD by Film Movement, opens with a swift montage in a crowded street. There’s a fight going on. Nearby, a young man, Munyurangabo (often called “Ngabo,” and played by Jeff Rutagengwa), catches sight of a machete. As fast at it appears on screen, he grabs it. Next we see him on a street corner staring at it. A close-up reveals it is covered in blood. The camera pans up to his face, and by the time it goes back to the blade, the blood is gone. That is the last we see of the machete for quite some time, yet even in its absence the specter of potential violence underscores his every movement and action. The vanishing machete is at once a symbol of memory and prophecy—of crimes past and still to come—and of the power of something beyond our vision to hold so much influence over us.

Mysteries pervade the first third of the movie. What is the machete for? Why are Ngabo and his friend, Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye), traveling to Sangwa’s home under false pretenses? Once there, the questions only continue to pile up, particularly concerning the tension between Sangwa (who hasn’t been home in three years) and his father (supposedly reformed from his abusive, alcoholic past). Well before these questions are answered, Chung offers hints through the careful, telling placement of actors within the frame. Whether arranging father and son at opposite ends of the shot, cramping mother and son within a doorway, or using an extreme long-shot to cover the reunion of old friends, miscommunication abounds. Everyone is aware that certain truths are being withheld, and Chung’s compositions highlight the distance between characters even within close physical proximity.

Though the film begins with Ngabo, the story seemingly shifts to Sangwa’s attempted reconciliation with his parents. Soon, however, this narrative departure becomes a central conflict. Ngabo’s marginalization within the film is emblematic of his status within Sangwa’s community: they belong to different tribes with longstanding feuds. And therein lay the roots of this whole journey: family. Sangwa visits his folks, and Ngabo seeks revenge for his father’s murder. Personal and national histories become fused in a complex moral dilemma in which the roots of conflict are hard to find, and possible resolution even harder.

Reflecting on the language barrier he faced during production, Lee Isaac Chung says in his director’s statement that it “forc[ed] me to work as an outsider. This guards against the conveyance of any personal ideas and truths that are relatively minor, allowing, instead, for an exploration of more universal matters that can connect a Korean American with a Rwandan.” Chung negotiates this cultural divide with great sensitivity, remaining respectful of his actors (who brought their own life experiences to the story) while also underscoring, but not overplaying, a more wide-reaching sympathy.


Also on DVD this week:

Audition (1999) (Shout! Factory, Blu Ray Region ‘A’) – As if the lady with a very large needle on the cover wasn’t frightening enough when you saw it on DVD, now you can watch her inflict pain and torture in Hi-Def. Squirm in your seat like never before.

How To Be A Man (Classic Educational Shorts Volume 1) (1949-1970) and How To Be A Woman (Classic Educational Shorts Volume 2) (1948-1982) (Kino, Region 1) – Still having trouble separating the birds from the bees? Grab a pencil and take notes! Among the most peculiar/promising titles included are Car Theft (from the Man’s disc) and Let’s Make a Sandwich (from the Woman’s disc). So I should be stealing cars rather than making sandwiches? I knew I made a life error somewhere along the way.

TCM Spotlight Collection: Esther Williams, Vol. 2 (Warner, Region 1) – I’m waiting for an Esther Williams revolution to happen. I hoped for it when Vol. 1 came out in 2007, but maybe it was premature. 2009 is the year when aquatic Technicolor musicals of the 1950s will be recognized for their modernist magnificence. This six disc box-set collects Thrill of a Romance, Fiesta, This Time for Keeps, Pagan Love Song, Million Dollar Mermaid, and Easy to Love.

09/30/09 3:43pm


UK-based distributor Salvation Films have just unveiled two new-to-DVD releases on their Redemption USA line: Daughter of Darkness> (1948) and Burke and Hare (1972). While both share a debt to Val Lewton‘s less-is-more B-horror productions (the former to Cat People [1942] and the latter to The Body Snatcher [1945]), neither is merely imitative. Instead, they diverge from their forerunners in distinctive, and often eccentric, ways, culminating in works that at once pay tribute to their roots but also stand apart.

Daughter of Darkness casts Jacques Tourneur-esque shadows across the farmlands of rural Ireland and England, distorting the pastoral landscapes into threatening ambiguity. Siobhan McKenna stars as a beguiling Irish maid whose child-like features (alternately coy, innocent, and devilish) have all the men in the village transfixed and all their wives jealous. At times she plays society’s scapegoat, at others the local priest must pull her out of an atonal organ-pounding trance, and still at others she allows men to escort her into the woods at night, only to slash their faces with her nails. Booted out of town, she makes her way to a small English farmhouse where she hopes to start life anew, but lustful men, resentful women, and a trail of corpses continue to haunt her wherever she goes.

McKenna’s uncontrollable status as both predator and victim (of her own sexual desire, and of other men and women’s) recalls Simone Simon in Cat People, who believes she is under the spell of an ancient curse that occasionally turns her into a homicidal panther. Daughter of Darkness diverges from this model, not only in that McKenna’s agency-and thus reprehensibility-remains uncertain. While her priest seems to think she is possessed by the devil, and the townsfolk think of her as “a brazen slut,” director Lance Comfort and screenwriter Max Catto (who adapted his own play) don’t seem tied to any one interpretation. Wellesian extreme close-ups of Siobhan’s wax-like face reveal slow transformations that fluidly morph between different expressions, each one seemingly aligned with a different interpretation for her actions.


These contradictory readings of McKenna’s character amplify the film’s complexity, particularly in terms of audience sympathy. While we are able to show both concern and trepidation over Simone Simon in Cat People, we also have her average-joe husband as our moral anchor. There is no such grounding in Daughter of Darkness, where even the seemingly rational townspeople eventually reveal their own darker tendencies. This complete breakdown of traditional dichotomies of good/evil and moral/immoral is what ultimately makes the film so unsettling.

The Victorian-set Burke and Hare, directed by Vernon Sewell and written by Ernle Bradford, shares with Lewton’s The Body Snatcher a certain focus on the snatching of bodies, but this time only partly in the name of science. There’s less of an interest in the doctor who uses the cadavers for research and education than in the bumbling duo—The Laurel and Hardy of “resurrectionists”—who provides them, as well as the doctor’s students, who frequent the local brothel for all manners of lewd and crude enjoyment. Like a burlesque written by Poe (complete with a magnificent “success” montage full of corpses, murders, sex and beer, set to the film’s rowdy rock n roll theme song [CLICK THAT LINK RIGHT NOW, please. -Ed.), the film’s morbid fascination with the human body is in complete accordance with its insatiable zest for life-and death, for that matter.


Also on DVD this week:

The Blood (O Sangue) (1989) (Second Run, PAL Region 2 DVD) – For someone as internationally revered as Pedro Costa, it is a constant source of irritation that his movies are as unavailable as they are. This marks the first home-video appearance of his debut feature, about two young brothers left without parents who are on the run with their teacher. Jonathan Rosenbaum described it as “gripping, even though I couldn’t follow all of the plot [and] its fairy-tale poetics evoking Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955).”

Frownland (2007) (Factory 25, Region 1 DVD) – In his debut film Frownland, director/writer Ronald Brownstein hits all the right, uncomfortable places again and again. His characters’ inarticulate neuroses make us squirm, because they so earnestly want to break out of their shells and have some sort of connection with other human beings. Watching a girl repeatedly rub her face in a pillow, even after realizing it is activating her allergies, is as endearing and painful a moment as any I’ve seen in a long time.

The Girlfriend Experience (2009) (Magnolia, Region 1 DVD) – The L’s Nicolas Rapold had this to say when Steven Soderbergh’s film, which stars real-life porn star Sasha Grey, was released theatrically earlier this year: “The accumulation of off-kilter fragments from a young entrepreneur’s life mainly conveys that—surprise—upscale prostitution is alienating, mercenary, catered to easily mockable tools, and metaphorically handy.”

The Wizard of Oz (1939) (Warner, Region 1 DVD and Blu Ray Region ‘A’) – I’ve heard this is a giant allegory for the Great Depression. Time to bust out those dusty books from Undergraduate history classes and try and decipher the code. I wonder how Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon plays into this whole political recontextualizaiton?