25 for 25 – A Bedtime Story for the Damned

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I once was under the impression that movies can only ever be about the atmosphere and the visuals and that’s how I came to easily love Suspiria, Dario Argento’s colorful horror fantasia that’s remained one of the most iconic pictures in horror, Italian cinema, and cinema in general. It’s so easy to be into the stylistic overload of the picture with its austere set design covered in brash big primary colors when story is not what you’re coming in for. It’s what made me so appalled by a friend in my dorm building responding “unfortunately” when I asked if he saw Suspiria a long time ago. My mind was blanked into how utterly anti-logic Suspiria as a film seemed to be, to the point of aggression. It never crossed my mind to sit and think about the story by Argento and his then-wife Daria Nicolodi that seems so very far away from reality. But then I look back on all of the movie’s plotting, the way its substance doesn’t seem existent, the way it all just seems like context for the painterly elegance of its visuals and window dressing and I think it’s enough to forgive Suspiria its narrative transgressions.

The last two times I actually watched Suspiria (which were within weeks of each other), I had by then realized that film was a marriage of both style and content together and I had to square this with the horror film. And I actually ended up loving it more than already loved it as one of my favorite movies. Hell, I’d actually put Suspiria into the ballpark of possibly the BEST horror movie I’ve seen (though I’d throw my favorite hat on Night of the Living Dead). I mean, around that point a line I had always dismissed as nonsense “I’m blind not deaf, you understand that?!” suddenly clicked with other lines of dialogue and revelations and the movie started making more sense as I moved along.

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It’s not that Suspiria doesn’t have its plot or that the plot doesn’t make sense, but two small keys about it that if you can’t meet halfway, you’re going to be hanging by the edge of its aesthetic: the first being that the movie is heightened into some sort of nightmare atmosphere provided by the colors and design and especially by the underlying sinister score by Italian prog band Goblin (with a theme song that sounds like 70-year-old Mike Patton trying to cough up cigarettes he accidentally swallowed while singing the theme to Rosemary’s Baby; I also think it’s the inspiration for Coheed and Cambria’s “Domino the Destitute“), all already dizzying and hypnotic and blanketing the viewer. But the script follows suit, where Argento claimed to be inspired by the essay on dreams by Thomas de Quincey that the film is named after “Suspiria de Profundis” and a dream itself by Nicolodi.

But then the second thing is that the entire plot seems seated exactly for children. We’re in a school – granted a ballet school, the Freiburg-based Tanz Dance Academy – all the women students have dialogue and moments that are immature like comparing names with “S” like snakes and sticking their tongues out. They are reactionary in a manner a child completely unable to comprehend what’s going on around them would be made uncomfortable and Suzy Bannon (Jessica Harper), our lead who is just arriving to the school from New York one dark and stormy night, is utterly naive to everything supernatural going on around the school – from the sudden and violent death of a woman she saw rush away on her arrival screaming about secret irises (and hoo boy is it violent. Argento gets right to the visceral point killing two girls with one glass stone.) to the inconsistency of the school’s head instructor Tanner (Alida Valli) and headmistress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) in being able to accommodate a room for Suzy or not on her arrival. It’s all uncomfortable and shady but apparently not enough until the school begins invoking – SPOILERS for a movie where I honestly don’t feel that matters – witchcraft into this and causing her to weaken for some cultish reason involving the Greek witch Helena Markos. Bodies start happening and creepy crawly overtly horror movie things happen in bold form such as maggots falling on girls’ faces and shadows appearing in red light with creepy labored breathing.

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It’s really nothing more than a ghost and witches story (very notably not a giallo, since the story is not about a psycho killer in Agathe Christie vein but a  and its imagery is devoted heavily to that, but without its feet in the ground so that the viewer can be able to have a solid idea of what’s going until maybe later on when Udo Kier appears solely to give a great long exposition about the background of Markos in the movie’s only boring scene. I can see how some viewers would find such a whirlwind of a narrative to be off-putting or antagonistic, but I find Suspiria to be exciting and sensational for this reason. Nothing is scarier than an ability to tell what’s going on and slowly being able to stem out a true narrative after all is said and done suddenly stops me from dismissing the writing of Argento and Nicolodi as “utter nonsense”. Everything comes back and has a logical explanation. Not to mention that when your protagonist is a child, that atmosphere of not knowing what to do will make you feel within Suzy’s headspace more than the amount of nightmare imagery Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovolli could supply, which they do over and over framing Suzy trapped in glass mirrors and windows, the garish colors of blood and night blues, the skeletons and bugs, haggard skin, bats. At one point a whole room full of razor wire with a poor soul trapped inside of it suffering. It’s all like a live-action version of that skeleton room scene from The Shining if that scene didn’t fall flat on its face.

The movie is baroque and artful about its horror in a manner that feels so very different in manner from its comic book splashes of elements, but that’s kind of what makes Suspiria so powerful to me as a movie that helped me decide what I look for in movies. Sometimes, the style becomes the true substance of the movie and everything you can gain from the images and sound can prove to be a lot more filling to the experience than the dialogue that comes out of the characters, even if the characters are brashly victimized like Suzy and her best friend Sara (Stefania Casini) or as leeringly predatory like Blanc, with Valli’s wide eyes and grin, or Markos, a complete creature half made of shadows and sickly green skin once we meet her. Suspiria opened up doors for that to me and every time I watch it further doors are blasted open.

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25 for 25 – Cage goes in the water, you go in the water. Shark’s in the water. Our Shark.

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We live in a good ol’ time 42 years later since Steven Spielberg’s Jaws‘ big successful splash of a release in 1975 that – together with George Lucas’ 1977 Star Wars changed the whole game on American cinema, heralding the form from the New Hollywood Cinema that producers would adopt for their summer blockbusters. Somehow, Jaws has proven to be so damn good that every shark movie that existed since feels like an utter knock-off of the beach thriller, no matter how different the premise or how good the movie is (and honestly I think only one good shark movie has been made in all those 42 years since, last year’s The Shallows). That’s how big and wide its footprint is in American cinema history and while the Hollywood popcorn movie has mutated into something like Jurassic World or Independence Day: Resurgence as these past few years are any indication, I’ve never felt like it reflected poorly on Jaws‘ quality one bit. When a movement is so good it started from the top (and I know calling popcorn cinema a “movement” is a heinous crime worthy of disqualifying me of ever watching movies but it is merely in the absence of better words to use. Please rectify that in the comments), it’s hard not to peak early and Jaws was simply that.

I’ve never ever engaged in a count to find out what the movie I’ve watched the most times is, but I feel like the closest possibility to that title is Jaws. I’ve been watching it since I was a kid. I’ve been watching it as I went to college for film, with co-writer Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log as a filmmaking bible for a while (Peter Benchley, the author of the original novel which Jaws is based on, was the other writer for this film). I’m still watching it as an adult and I can’t imagine myself ever stopping. For a movie somewhat dedicated in that low-key New Hollywood style of focus on characters (indeed, the town of Amity Island is part of what keeps me coming back, it’s like a less cynical Robert Altman picture) and spending half of its time with men sitting in a boat in the middle of the ocean, this is seriously an accessible film for anybody. My whole family unanimously loves the movie, it may be one of the few things we can all agree on. It helps that it was one of the movies that pulled in the high-concept that could be hooking an audience in from the very start: “shark attack” is all you really need to say to summarize and attract an audience. And well, the brilliant opening scene on a beach at nighttime beautifully illustrates it from its opening shot of a perspective stalking in the water like an angry slasher to his unseen consumption of a helpless teen (Susan Backline), bobbing into the water violently as she’s shoved back and forth before being silenced under the water, the camera only remaining distantly on the surface. An early reflection of the talent of legendary editor Verna Fields, who had early in the release received most of the acclaim over the then-green Spielberg, but now she’s been unfortunately forgotten mostly for Spielberg’s accomplishments. Let’s bring that back over because Fields is probably the biggest reason the movie works despite its mechanical shark famously breaking down, with her economy in showing the shark’s appearance and ability to give a moment like that attack its own shocking abrupt rhythm without being dissonant to John Williams’ forever iconic two-tone score. Go on, play it in your head. You know it’s already there, I ain’t gotta say nothing, those horns already are slowly running in your brain.

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But then that high-concept hook would be ignoring the richness of the characters on Amity Island (mostly provided by character actors in their subdued zone or natives of the movie’s filming location Martha’s Vineyard): including the source of the main conflict for the first half of the film, Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), new enough in town that he has to put effort into sounding like an islander, is attempting to close the beaches off due to the opening attack. This is resisted by Mayor Vaughan (Murray Hamilton), who points out that Amity Island is essentially a summer tourist trap and closing the beaches will do harm to its main source of income. This power struggle only causes them to be ill-prepared when a young boy Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) is himself killed and eaten, leading to a bounty for the shark’s capture that causes an amateur frenzy for the money (Benchley stated that had he known the ill effect his novel would have in fear-mongering towards sharks, he might not have written it, and dedicated his life after to shark preservation. I think the bounty hunting scene is his way of illustrating exactly how horrific and destructive mob frenzy can be). It ain’t enough for veteran hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) who demands $10,000 and it isn’t satisfying for Brody’s requested oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) who quickly asserts that the tiger shark captured and displayed does not match the bite marks on the early teenager’s body, further infuriating Mayor Vaughn and getting them right back where they started and unable to help when another casualty happens in broad view of everyone. That last attack additionally puts Brody’s elder son (right in the proximity of the beast) in hospitalized shock, forcing him to take straight to the ocean after the animal with Quint and Hooper.

That all covers just the first hour of a movie a little over two hours and I’m sorry, I always forget how fast-paced Jaws is a-movin’ on a scene-by-scene basis (thanks again madly to Fields and Spielberg, for getting their storytelling skills focused on swift scenes like staircase steps, getting straight to the point and establishing how far along the town is to going crazy and how close Brody and the Mayor are to coming to blows). Nothing about it feels unearned or rushed and yet I simply feel almost as familiar with Amity Island as I would be the residents of Twin Peaks and it is enough to take up a whole feature film on its own, with Scheider and Dreyfuss (at his career pluckiest) as brilliant everyman anchors.

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And yet it’s all just in service of establishing the stakes of the sea adventure Jaws becomes in the second half where Spielberg, Fields, and cinematographer Bill Butler’s skill must truly come to the test: staying on one location – Quint’s Boat – the whole time and filling it with just as much momentum despite the limited setting and narrative beats. That also means the second half is where we spend the majority of our time with Shaw’s Quint and discover just how colorful and dangerous of a character he is, all crusty masculinity and insane Ahab-esque unpredictability. Quint is obviously the most memorable presence on-screen, but his being stuck in a boat with the practical Brody and hothead Hooper proves to be just as compelling an anti-buddy character study as anything in Amity Island (even a source of class conflicts with wealthy educated Hooper and rugged working-class Quint).

And that’s before the shark shows up in the famous moment that led to “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”, once the shark starts fighting on its turf things get much compact and heated and the movie goes to being an escalator of tension at this point. Before no time, the actual action takes place and… man, there’s literally no scene that gets my heart pounding as much as the calculated final showdown between the shark and the sinking wreck of a boat as Brody mutters “Smile, you son of a b–“. No matter how many times I watch this movie, knowing how it all turns out, I’m always at the edge of my seat.

Jaws is perfect. I won’t hear any of your complaints, sorry. I know there’s no movie that EVERYBODY loves, but the moment Jaws is dismissed from New Hollywood canon despite being no-less sophisticated or subdued or ambitious than any of the best of them, that’s when I just shut out all the movie’s dissenters. There’s not a frame or cut misplaced, there’s no performances that bother me, there’s nothing I can find bothering viewers beyond its successes that are absolutely not its fault except by way of quality. If I were Steven Spielberg, I’d be pretty full of myself for making such a success so early in my life (and of course there’s the famous “I can’t believe they picked Fellini over me” incident) because I can’t possibly find a way that a career so dedicated to popcorn cinema and summer movies can be improved upon after Jaws, no matter how good your movies are.

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25 for 25 – What a Story, Mark

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I don’t know if other cinephiles ever have these humbling moments where somebody out of any corner of film watcher-dom introduces a film or culture that has clearly made a bold and big impact on the cinematic world that I had no idea was in existence and makes me rush to find out what it is. They still happen often and often, but the biggest one in my life was right when I was starting college in 2010 and hours after my arrival to Phoenix, my roommate tells me about the already seven-years-old and long in the middle of its cult phenomenon (hell, by that point it already had a video game made of it) The Room, made by the enigmatic fellow of Tommy Wiseau. And man, my roommate was REALLY selling this movie to the point of going through a plot synopsis of the movie in the middle of dinner with my dad at IHop and making me watch the Nostalgia Critic review.

I have since seen the movie 3 times – first with friends indulging in the cult actions of throwing spoons and such, then with Wiseau present on his “Love Is Blind” tour, and then after finishing The Disaster Artist (the infamous book by co-star and line producer Greg Sestero that elaborates on the production history of the film) – and all with an utter and immediate fascination that promised I’d be watching it another time. This is quite unorthodox because The Room is widely known as one of the worst movies to ever be made.

And it quite frankly lives up to that reputation every time.

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Just by looking at the synopsis of the movie is a Herculean task to parse out a straightforward premise. You can get to the center of the film, being that writer Wiseau (who also is the director, producer, and star of the film, but more on that later) wanted to craft a love triangle in the center between Johnny (Wiseau), a successful banker who is beloved by everybody around him and surrounded by friends, his fiancee Lisa (Juliette Daniel) who is bored by the idyllic life that Johnny provides for her, and Johnny’s mysterious best friend Mark (Sestero) who begins an affair with Lisa despite his utter disgust with his actions. Soap opera stuff, not entirely the sort of thing that holds up a 100 minute feature.

Then there’s the hodge-podge of non-sequitors and tangeants that have absolutely no weight on that primary plot, from the infamous subplot of Lisa’s mother Claudette (Carolyn Minnott) famously declaring her diagnosis of breast cancer before never bringing the matter up ever again, to the childlike Denny (Philip Haldiman) getting in debt-related trouble with the aggressive drug dealer Chris-R (Dan Janjigian). Perhaps Wiseau felt these sort of random events are reflective of how real throws things at you (I once had an acquaintance suggest a movie with the same sort of narrative logic as The Room and have avoided him appropriately), perhaps he just wanted to fill 99 minutes, perhaps he just keeps forgetting to delete all scenes related to whatever subplot. In any case, any possible sense of reality, sense, or logic in Wiseau’s screenplay is vacuumed and leaves something like an unfunny Adult Swim episode. These characters and their dialogue don’t sound like anything other than what Wiseau’s concept of how humans behave, and given Wiseau’s presence on-screen as the lead, it’s easy to see how Wiseau has trouble understanding human behavior. His presence seems like a desperate attempt to mimic it and it is an utter failure on that front.

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Everybody else in the cast seems to be desperately trying to sell whatever nonsensical word salad Wiseau mandates for them to do and it’s admirable, although I’m not sure we would be having any great performances out of them even if the lines made sense. Some are overly intense and out of the zone of the movie like Janjigian or Greg Ellery (in his one appearance), some are kind creepy in their sedateness like Haldiman, the only truly relaxed and casual cast member seems to be Minnott without a real care in her life about being embarrassed by Wiseau telling her to demand her daughter get her “hot buns in here”. Is it truly fair for me to judge a cast forced in this position?

I guess not because in the end everything is controlled by Wiseau and I guess I may as well confront my attitude towards The Room here and now. It’s not only how utterly collapsed The Room is narratively or aesthetically (the movie went through three different cinematographers and they all supply the same flat lighting that wouldn’t run for a made-for-TV movie on chilly designed production of rooftops, flower shops – “Hi doggy!” – and apartments), but how it is the only lens we get to the mind and life of Wiseau, alongside a Hulu series he made called The Neighbors which I have no intention of watching. I am not the first or even the last person who will claim that The Room is one of the most auteur-driven pictures of all time and I can’t see how this is deniable to anybody based on Wiseau not only had his hands on every major lever of the production, but how he is the most involved person on-screen. I kind of hold that is irrefutable proof that while the auteurist theory is a sensible map onto reading the works of a film artist, it’s not the end-all be-all way to validate a filmmaker’s output as irrevocably good, as people tend to do these days with the works of “vulgar auteurism” such as Michael Bay or Zack Snyder, refuting flaws and tossing the words “masterpiece”. It makes movies worth talking about, not worth praise. For The Room is very much a movie worth talking about, but not remotely worthy of praise.

And to dig deep into that psyche of why The Room would be worth those things, for one thing it’s lonely. The amount of adoration Johnny is surrounded by and how he’s so very much a source of support and help to every single person in his life (see how he valiantly dispatches of Chris-R or how he lets Denny down gently when Denny expresses lust for Lisa), it’s unrealistic to the point of fantasy. It’s like a twisted version of the memories from the Rick and Morty episode with mind-worms acting as imaginary friends, there’s only happiness, no conflict except from those devious ones, which leads to my second declaration about The Room. It’s very misogynistic in a shallow way, a representation of the sort of nightmare “nice guy” MRAs picture when a woman is given oh so very much everything and yet still selfishly goes behind her significant other’s back because it’s fun. And look how much it ruins Johnny*, look how he l– wait, no he’s always looked like that sort of ghost with a oily mop on his head, but look at how much Lisa tears him apart and how callous she is to his pain and support. Together, it only paints a sad portrait of Tommy Wiseau only desperately wanting to be loved, even through all the footballs being flung and the inhuman visual and verbal language. The inability to represent human interaction in any realistic way only further shows how distanced Wiseau is from having that sort of interaction nourish his life.

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That’s the sort of desperation that sets a work like Miami Connection apart from The Room, despite both essentially being ego-trips. One is simply out of positivity and excitement, the other is negative and desperate. One is full of color and liveliness, the other is set in a catalog-ready apartment for the majority of its runtime.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Wiseau’s not that sad as a person. Maybe he’s actually had a rich and filling life (and I am avoiding Sestero’s recollections in The Disaster Artist in this dissection, I’m only pulling from The Room itself) surrounded by loved ones. But that’s kind of the thing about film, it’s an art like any other and so it functions really as an extension of the artist. It’s a two-way communication between the author (whoever that is) and the audience and this is the sort of Tommy Wiseau that the man has opted to introduce to us (my reading is hardly deep, I think. It’s not even particularly profound on my part). And that makes The Room only all the more interesting to me as a feature film, in a way validating the ability of film to unlock many of the secret thoughts or desires of a being even when everything else may go wrong.

And The Room is, in the end, the epitome of everything going wrong.

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*I wanna note something… that was the SECOND time I accidentally typed “Tommy” instead of “Johnny” and had to go back and fix it. Take from that what you will.

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25 for 25 – The Colour and the Shape

This thing is only 8 minutes long and I only realized after writing this that I’m gonna be overhyping the short film if you watch it after reading, so PLEASE watch it before going on:

I don’t have a source on which to plot my intention on reviewing avant-garde films. Especially not avant-garde animated short films. Nothing gives you a quicker shake than an object by which you know you are meant to read or respond to something without any real guide on how to deal with it. I know some viewers find that sort of work frustrating, like the hundreds of people trying to convince me Inland Empire is not the best thing in the world. And then I know there are a significant amount of people like myself who truly find such challenges exciting and exhilarating, the way such an unfathomable element of form and content forces your mind to craft answers and draw from the imagery an emotion at the least, a message at most. I don’t think any response is truly wrong, in the end, when it comes to the subjectivity of film-watching.

To be absolutely honest, I find myself a lot more comfortable to indulge with that in animation (and I do wonder if its easier to indulge in avant-garde work with animation than in live-action with the amount of control the artist has) and so when it comes to my idea of the relaxing kind of avant-garde work that can stimulate you without being aggressive in its challenges, Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambert’s Begone Dull Care is my immediate go-to. Hell, it’s one of my go-to for animation, given that Canada seems to put out the best kind. They’re the only industry that doesn’t seem to have a truly defined language due to the amount of experimentation they indulge in. French animation is sort of recognizable, American animation absolutely (that’s what happens when CGI rules the industry, although Canada broke through on that animation aspect before America did with Hunger), Japanese is possible the most recognizable national animation of all, but Canada goes from The Bead Game to The Cat Came Back to McLaren’s most popular work Neighbours (which is much less inscrutable than Begone Dull Care) and Canada has never seemed to abandon any true technique, still indulging in sand animation, CGI, stop-motion, pinscreen, and paint-on-glass liberally. This was all thanks to the National Film Board of Canada opening up an animation studio in the 1940s with McLaren and founder John Grierson’s involvement and their desperation to find talented animators who didn’t leave for the War in Europe, amongst them Lambart who would collaborate with McLaren in her early career before moving on to works focusing on ballet and inventing her own style of animation utilizing paper cutouts in lithographic form (my god, the creativity of these artists makes my eyeballs pop out).

McLaren’s specialty was drawing his works on the actual film stock to supply a sort of visual music, something to reflect the tone and mood of the music which would match the rhythm of the music playing. He had started it ’round 1940 with Boogie Doodle and then had some fun incorporating a character within the film stock responding to the scratches with Hen Hop (1942) before making Begone Dull Care at his most carefree (I mean, there is the title expressing it). The drawing-on-film animation style interests me most because of how it brings more awareness to the physical element of film, even when I’m just watching it on a crappy YouTube video and not some 16mm film projection, but the deliberateness behind every line and spot and the color changes makes a case that imperfections can be used as tools for emotional manipulation just as much as any other element of movies. ‘Course nobody these days is going to be buying film stock, especially just to mess around and vandalize the quality of the film, but there it is of a time.

Meanwhile, the ability of McLaren and Lambart to have such awareness of the music they’re working with – supplied by the Oscar Peterson Trio, thus appealing to the jazz lover in me – that they can match their visual representation to the music by understanding the frame rate and controlling it around that just… that astounds somebody like me who would get exhausted trying to calculate how to work that. Because keep in mind and remember that in this film’s case, the visuals work as the music’s accompaniment, not the other way around. It’s not like Begone Dull Care just sticks on one image for a measure before on to the next, it moves! It pops! It feels so alive.

And I know I started this by saying how I find avant-garde movies intellectually stimulating, but that doesn’t mean I can’t just have fun with some occasionally. Begone Dull Care is surrounded wholly by color and sound in a marriage that I don’t have to turn on my brain to really appreciate it. If I shut off the music (and I’d rather not because the Oscar Peterson trio is bouncy and vibrant), I still get a candied melange of shapes and hues that feel just as loud as the soundtrack. If I just listen to the Oscar Peterson trio musical score, I can sure as hell tap my feet and groove with it. But smack them both together and it’s a brilliant sensation that holds me down for just a few minutes so that afterwards I can’t listen to even a pop jingle without thinking about how I’d apply a visual schema to it (it’s probably unfortunate that almost every song I listen to, I start imagining a music video for it).

I don’t know how people can be so antagonistic to abstract art when it can be as exciting and moving as this.

Anyway, I hope you watched it on the link above before reading this because otherwise… overhype’s a bitch.

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25 for 25 – I Got a Girlfriend, That’s Better Than That

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There is something really positive about going to a live concert for a band you’ve never heard of or listened to and finding the energy within the crowd so exciting that you become fond of said band for at least those few hours spent right in front of them. It’s a discovery I was kind of blessed to experience when your college roommate was related to the owner of one of the local big music venues and while I didn’t exactly get introduced to any big names I didn’t already know, I found out how very easy it is to be a fan of any band when they’re right in your face jamming with the crowd and controlling your mood with the songs they’re playing. The last time this happened was when I was given by a friend tickets to Florence+The Machine last summer so it still happens but not as frequently or low-key as it once was.

I don’t get that vibe very much with concert films, even for ones where I already love the artist involved. The 2003 Led Zeppelin DVD release and The Last Waltz are all cherished in my collection, but they both feel significantly more like documents towards their subjects that happen to have pretty worthwhile performances in them. Maybe it’s that the visual element requires that I sit down and watch it rather than sway. And while the theater in which I watched The Big 4 livestream performance in Sofia, Bulgaria had a full-on moshpit during Slayer and Metallica’s set, I think that has less to do with the movie itself and more to do with the fact that Slayer and Metallica were playing and we metalheads are a very moveable and clumsy bunch.

Jonathan Demme is the only filmmaker I know who could give me that kind of energy from his concert films, which make up a fair enough amount of his filmography for a man who largely worked with feature films. But then Demme was a chameleon from the very get-go and such was that his skillset could be applied to so many different demands such as horror films, romantic comedies, domestic dramas, concert films and he could even dare mix them all together faultlessly.

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In this case, the demand was to make Talking Heads look and sound good. And the result is my favorite concert film of all time, Stop Making Sense, the only one that makes me want to get up and dance with the music until I remember this is my room I’m watching it in and I look pathetic. I do occasionally re-enact the lamp dance David Byrne lifts from Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding and applies to his performance of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”. Which happens to be one of my favorite songs of all time because of this particular performance, which also tuned me in real strong on Talking Heads. It wasn’t my first introduction to the band (that actually happened to be an earlier entry in 25 for 25 – Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon hence why I titled my review after a lyric) and I had already heard both Talking Heads ’77 and Remain in Light in full as a casual fan of the band, but something about actually seeing frontman David Byrne, bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer Chris Frantz, and co-guitarist Jerry Harrison (with the help of assorted member of Funkadelic) at work turned me hella on to their sound.

The visual flourishes to the three nights’ worth of footage at the Patanges Theater in Hollywood don’t come from the film technique themselves. Or at least, they don’t call attention to themselves as it is brilliantly edited by Lisa Day with a consciousness to their pacing and an ability to catch the elements of the screens behind the band to catch the scope of their performance and then get close enough to capture the mood and psyche of the band members while the legendary cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth of Blade Runner fame captures the concert lighting scheme in cinematic expressionism (though from what I understand, the lighting was Byrne’s idea). In addition, there are almost no shots of the audience so I don’t really have a sea of anchors to associate my excitement with.

The performance itself however is outrageous in a manner that immediately communicated to me how idiosyncratic and out-of-the-box the stylizations of Talking Heads funky 80s art-pop. It also frankly communicated how obvious it was that Talking Heads and indeed this film is more an extension of Byrne himself, for while the Tom Tom Club. There’s a real narrative that one could craft out of this movie that doesn’t really supply much except an order of performances, starting with how Byrne walks out with a drum track playing on a little radio and performs their most popular song “Psycho Killer” on an acoustic guitar before starting to stumble and straggle around before finding his footing as only Weymouth comes in to join him for “Heaven”, a lonely yet hopeful sounding song about a gay bar, followed by Frantz starting to pep him and everybody else up with his snare runs in “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel” and before no time it’s a goddamn party. I find it absolutely no coincidence that shortly after everybody, including the backup dancers and additional guest musicians are on stage, they get to playing “Burning Down the House”, a song so loud and exciting I’m willing to believe it literally burns fucking houses down. In no time, Byrne is using the stage as his own playground roaming around with shocks and slides with just enough time for reserved motions like Take Me to the River’s gospel zone or his pantomime with “Once in a Lifetime”.

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It’s just a given Byrne knows his music. He knows how to move along with it. And he lets us know how to too. When he takes a break for the Tom Tom Club (basically the band sans Byrne) to perform “Genius of Love”, it’s actually a pretty mellow and cool song in its own right, but it’s not as comfortable or fun without Byrne shaking like he got struck by lighting before he watched the movie. And when Byrne returns to the stage wearing a suit that would make Andre the Giant look small in it, it’s back to jam time one final moment.

But a great performance is one thing and a great movie is another and it shouldn’t be as much of a surprise that Demme would be able to craft all this into a wholly cinematic experience when many of his movies are so genius with their usages of music (Something Wild is probably the best example of this). It only makes sense that he know how to work with musical artists and concert films (Neil Young and him collaborated three times overall with Heart of Gold being another standout concert film) and that capture the heartbeat and energy of anybody he’s working with (which is also probably why he’s great and bringing out performances from musical artists in narrative films like Ricki and the Flash and Rachel Getting Married). I regret that I haven’t had the chance to see Justin Timberlake The Tennessee Kids (I’m waiting to buy a RokuPlayer because I can’t imagine watching a concert film on my laptop, sorry Netflix), but it seems all too fitting that his last work was in fact a movie inspired by his work with Stop Making Sense trying to take another creative musician and bathe him into an exciting onstage ball of energy. Demme had a very generous way of bringing out the best in actors and performers alike. And the full range of his career only promised that to be the tip of the iceberg in his talents.

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In Memory of Jonathan Demme
1944-2017


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25 for 25 – Life of a Repo Man’s Always Intense

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Summer 2013 was quite a formative time for me. It was the first summer I ever spent completely alone, or at least where it felt like I was alone (I certainly had a few people I could and did hang out with whenever the chance popped up). It was certainly the quietest summer I ever had. Prior to that, I’d spend every summer break from college returning back to meet up with my friends in Miami and from there things would be extremely eventful. That summer, though, matters required that I limited that visit to only one week and I remained for the time at the desert of Tempe, AZ working for the most part without anything else to do between except read and watch movies. That doesn’t really stop me from exploring the city or anything, but when there isn’t much happening there’s a lot more silence around you and that honestly endeared me to the city a lot more. It felt relaxing, I didn’t have much to worry or stress about, it didn’t feel all that lonely. It just felt life stopped and I was rudderless, which was good in its freedom and bad in the utter lack of momentum in my life.

It also endeared me to a lot of 1980s movie gaps I decided to fill myself full of, many of which bad enough to invite a friend and eat some pizza with, some unironically fun. Only one that I think has proven to be something with a lasting impression with an image that I sincerely saw a lot of myself in early on. That of punk rocker Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez) sitting on the floor of a dirty downtown Los Angeles railroad in the coming dusk doing absolutely nothing except throwing beer cans he just emptied shouting “TV Party” by Black Flag (which happens to be from one of my all-time favorite albums Damaged) to himself. An image that completely communicated everything about my feeling of having nothing but time and nowhere to go.

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Of course by this point into Alex Cox’s feature debut Repo Man, Otto has more of a reason to feel stuck in a rut than I did. He walked in on his ex-girlfriend Debbi (Jennifer Balgobin) cheating on him with his best friend Duke (the badassly name Dick Rude), something which also resonated with me in having just completely closed down a recent relationship to the point of helping her move out of the city (though my significant other hadn’t cheated on me). He just got fired at gunpoint from his entirely pathetic supermarket job with his friend Kevin (Zander Schloss shortly before joining the Circle Jerks, who appear in this movie). His fazed-out hippie parents (Jonathan Hugger and Sharon Gregg) used up all of his college fund, sending it to a televangelist. If my life was a dead end at that point (and it evidently was not, it just felt like one), Otto’s was a complete prison.

And yet Alex Cox’s script promised from the initial scene that eventfulness was about to come to Otto in the form of a radioactive Chevy Malibu ’64 that disintegrates any man who takes a look at what’s in the trunk, under the possession of insane one-eyed Dr. J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris) driving it straight to L.A. But the first man to reach Otto is a weird old man (Harry Dean Stanton) insisting his wife’s pregnancy is rushing him to the hospital and he needs Otto to drive his car behind them. Otto takes the car to a repossession agency and realizes he was just helping Bud, the old man, repo that car without being killed. The agency is so satisfied with Otto’s work that they offer him a job and, after briefly rebuking them, he decides to take it up for the money.

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And this is the absolute reason where I love Repo Man more than I probably should, but Otto finds himself loving the job. What’s not to love? The pay is great, he steals cars and gets to drive them around, Bud and Lite (Sy Richardson) show him the tricks of the trade. Sure, he gets shot at a lot and sometimes he finds himself beat up by rival repossessors the Rodriguez brothers (Del Zamora & Eddie Velez), but in the meanwhile Kevin’s working at a fucking burger joint. Hell, sometimes the cars are so nice he can pick up girls walking down the sidewalk, as he does with the UFO conspiracy nut Leila (Olivia Barash) driving her down to her workplace where she introduces him to all of this evidence of extra-terrestrial life.

Repo Man worked as a complete escape for me from brief mundanity at a point where it was this close to putting me into a depression. It mirrored my boredom at the start – aided by my affinity to punk rock since high school, listening to the Clash and Black Flag and Misfits and all – and Cox revs it all up to drive, introducing all these different strands of punk rock robbers, repossession adventures and the Code espoused by Bud (who seems very much dedicated to crafting verbal manifestos are the principles of capitalism and credit lines in America, while appropriating angrily the methods of Marxist relovultionaries), aliens, and radioactive disintegration. There’s no artful way to mash all these things up and Cox embraces the artlessness of his script happily by using the punk rock aesthetic of unpristinity in visuals and locations and unclassical acting to sell it. “Shaggy” is an inadequate word to use about Repo Man, this movie is a total mess in its hodge-podge of genre attempts and its contradictory elements and yet it works so well I want to claim it’s calculated. That doesn’t fly when you realize the production problems Cox would have (and continue to have, leading to a similar amount of energy in his subsequent films like Walker and Straight to Hell and so on), including an emergency rewrite that leaves the third act lagging when it should be intensifying, but nevertheless the cast rides it all the way, especially Stanton when his appearances start to dwindle due to fighting with Cox during filming. Which is a shame, since Stanton is easily best in show with how tuned-in he is to Bud’s mindset. It’s amazing to me that the same year he provided his underplayed and meditative performance in the Palme d’Or winner Paris, Texas, he could give such a teeth-gritting self-righteous assault as Bud and both of them ending up my favorite performances of his very accomplished career.

If this seems like I’m not really approaching it objectively, it’s because I can’t. It’s not a perfect movie and anybody with eyes can see that. It has weaknesses, it has flaws that I’m having trouble articulating beyond “artless” and “mess” and I’m not sure I want to. Some movies come to you at the perfect time in your life, everybody has one and hits you right in the heart and starts you up and that is Repo Man to me in every way. It was my biggest point of sloppy and beloved escapism via a film to a punk rock soundtrack with lo-fi effects (an arm is wrapped in foil and passed off as a robot arm, the rotoscoping of the skeletons being incinerated from the trunk, a glowing car, man!) and I will have an easier time trying to be objective with my favorite two movies (which will, needless to say, be the last reviews in this 25 for 25 series) than I can possibly ever have with Repo Man, possibly the movie that changed my life most.

The night before my birthday in that very summer when I was turning 21, I borrowed a car and drove 3 1/2 hours all the way down to Rocky Point, Mexico and spent the night there by myself. The next morning, I drove back up to Tempe, Arizona to continue my quiet slice of life. I didn’t tell anybody (except my friend who lent me the car and two people who wanted to hang immediately after), I didn’t bring anybody with me, I didn’t even plan it, I just went because I needed the break. I can not imagine the Salim Garami before seeing Repo Man doing that, but the Salim Garami after seeing Repo Man just went with it. Make life intense one more time.

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25 for 25 – Still a Better President than Trump

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I’m a socially awkward movie lover and that means that sometimes I lift my regular delivery of certain lines from movies. My favorite one to constantly use because a lot of people think I hate them is Casablanca‘s “If I gave you any thought, I probably would”. There’s a few others that my sleep-deprived brain isn’t bothering to think up right now but I know I wait with bated breath for the moment where I can liberally quote Mifune Toshiro in Yojimbo being a great big badass. Instead, I have to opt for being the sarcastic wit of Groucho Marx (born Julius Henry Marx) in Duck Soup, tossing off lines appropriate insults like “I bet s/he’s just using that as an excuse” if a person’s significant other doesn’t show up or “He may look like an idiot, he may sound like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He IS an idiot” if somebody’s an idiot. I may very well have plagiarized the image I gave to my friends who find me a charming bundle of sardonic humor from Groucho Marx’s antics, especially Duck Soup.

And yet, Groucho’s snappy statements are only the tip of the iceberg. He’s definitely the most readily recognizable of the family comedy troupe The Marx Brothers without even opening his mouth. All one has to do is recognize his greasepaint eyebrows and mustache with a cigar in his mouth. And yet, there’s also the dim Italian caricature of Chico Marx (born Leonard) and the boyish mute clown of Harpo Marx (born Adolph). And then there’s Zeppo (born Herbert Manfred), who I find somewhat underrated as a potential straight man (though whether or not that potential was reached… eh.) There’s also Gummo (born Milton)’s existence but that’s far before the Marx’s move from stage vaudeville to the silver screen. And for a time, they actually have been on top of the cinematic comedy world working with Paramount Studios in Astoria, where they were slowly gaining more and more creative control over their pictures until it came crashing down with Duck Soup finishing their Paramount contract and they were  in their own personal hell of ingenue romance subplots and diluted comedy in MGM Studios.

Which is a shame because I don’t think Duck Soup is the height of the brothers’ career, I think it is pound-for-pound the funniest movie I’ve ever seen. And here’s where I must humbly ask the reader’s allowance for what will almost certainly be the most subjective review in this whole subjective review series. Your mileage may vary on what you might find funny and all that jazz, but I’m not gonna let up on my review of Duck Soup, it makes me laugh. It makes me laugh so hard I have to catch my fucking breath. It made me laugh so hard I have reserve laughs for when I need them if I’m depressed. I’m sure there’s some kind of stone-faced people that might not find it even close to amusing but it’s a complete grab bag of gags and humor in all sorts of forms: verbal, physical, musical number (and oh I love the lyrics to the opening sudden musical number where he happily proclaims firing squad for chewing gum or losing a gentleman’s game), slapstick. It’s almost like Groucho, Chico, and Harpo felt themselves at their biggest hurrah and so pulled out any stop they could.

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Duck Soup is just a little over an hour. That doesn’t leave much time for anything but getting to the point and when you come to think about it there’s not that many plot points to the picture. For indeed, there is obviously a plot about Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho), the newly appointed “president” of Freedonia (despite not being appointed through any democratic means) being assigned to help the country out of bankruptcy, except he gets too distracted by trying to court the rich widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) who had him appointed in the first place. This gets him almost immediately in trouble with Trentino (Louis Calhern), the ambassador to the next-door country Sylvania. Trentino appoints Chico and Pinky (Harpo) to work as spies towards Firefly’s antics so that Sylvania can annex Freedonia and… y’know actually there is a plot. And not even one that really skips points very much, it’s all given some amount of narrative momentum by director Leo McCarey, an underrated master of 1930s filmmaking (his very Make Way for Tomorrow inspired Ozu Yasujiro’s Tokyo Story). Though I don’t think Duck Soup is a fair showcase of McCarey’s talent and ability. It’s entirely the Marx Brothers show. And I don’t think anybody’s watching Duck Soup for its plot, so very extraneous to the point that it’s pretty hard to call a movie based in politics to be a political satire in this realm of the upcoming World War II.

There is one great thing the plot provides other than a narrative anchor. In all of its irreverence and the ability of McCarey to allow it flow so naturally and coherently while stopping for lengthy brilliant cinematic vaudeville like the famous mirror scene (if you don’t laugh at this, you are dead) or Chico and Harpo bullying a lemonade stand salesman just because they can, there’s a very tight big bang of anarchy that runs its energy all the way through Duck Soup‘s 60 minutes up until the complete mess of its wartime finale where the Marxes spend the majority of the scene in one room shouting and making a fuss and acting like living Looney Tunes loud enough that you’d think they were simply at war with each other. It’s a shame MGM sobered them up because the Marxes were best when unleashed without oversight.

To end on an anecdotal note, when my friends and I attended Cannes 3 years ago, we had the damn movie playing every night before we went to sleep. You’d think that to be a sign of how much we loved it, but all four of us always fell asleep before the film had completed (given that we stayed up late). You’d think THAT to be a sign that we weren’t fans, except by the end of our two weeks at Cannes, we were are quoting Chico’s Italian accent liberally and saying “thassa goo, eh?” at any given moment. It’s like the film’s energy seeped into us via osmosis. Or we’re just entirely insensitive to the Italians. They ruined Italy after all.

Oh and one more thing: Tim Brayton on Alternate Ending opened his review of Monty Python and the Holy Grail with lamenting how that movie’s humor has been so ingrained into pop culture that the jokes aren’t as sharp anymore. Yeah, I bet that sucks.

Never had that problem with Duck Soup, but I bet that sucks.

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A Couple of Quick Words on Wonder Woman (and a Few Other Movies)

Obviously, I saw Wonder Woman. It was among my most anticipated movies of the year and I saw it earlier this week. And I’m gonna have to apologize to those of y’all who need me to validate your opinion and saying that my review will postponed until at most June 26 (it will literally be the next thing I write once I’m done with 25 for 25). 25 for 25 is taking all of my free writing time, time made extremely precious by the amount of school and work doubling down on me during the end of my semester. So, yeah, the Wonder Woman review will have to wait, but I might just make me apology by not only reviewing Wonder Woman, but the other two non-reviewed DC Extended Universe films – Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is significantly less movies to write about than the MCU when I was doing that retrospective in 2015, so that means less of a headache by all means.

I ain’t gonna apologize for being late on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Tell No Tales, because who the fuck is waiting on that?

In the meantime, I will take this time to acknowledge some of the movies I have seen over the past first half of 2017 with a bunch of brief no-more-than-3-sentences reviews (and might write full-length reviews for some of them if time permits over the summer) since my letterboxd has now just become the place where I make dumb jokes:

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Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins, USA)

Captain America: The First Avenger: “Who are you?”
Wonder Woman: “I’m you, but better in almost every way.”

(ok, I’m not above making dumb jokes here either, you guys should already know)

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (dir. Joachim Ronning & Espen Sandberg, USA)

Curse of the Black Pearl: “Who are you?”
Dead Men Tell No Tales: “I’m you, but worse in every single way.”
Curse of the Black Pearl: “Eh, you’re better than the rest of my sequels. You look as much like me as Brenton Thwaites looks like Orlando Bloom’s kid.”

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John Wick: Chapter 2 (dir. Chad Stahelski, USA)

Much much shallower than its predecessor and yet I’m not entirely sure it’s not better? It absolutely looks great and it ramps up the amount of action to an unfathomable amount.

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A Cure for Wellness (dir. Gore Verbinski, USA/Germany)

This movie is too fucking long. That’s that. And the places it decides to go within its last twenty minutes are unacceptable to me, even if it already had set up its trashiness from square one. But… I think it does haunted asylum super well and in such a non-bloody but still uncomfortable to watch way. Verbinski is a natural born horror filmmaker and all he has to do… is learn… to cut. Picturesque landscape shots of the Swiss Alps and creepy cold setpieces can only go so far.

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Your Name. (dir. Shinkai Makoto, Japan)

Remember when I mentioned how The Lego Batman Movie did some astonishing things with capturing lighting via animation? Well, Your Name. stepped right to the plate and told that movie “You’re Adorable!!!”

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I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (dir. Macon Blair, USA)

It was expected that Blair was going to pick up a lot of stylistic elements from his friend and director, Jeremy Saulnier, but Blair feels a lot warmer towards his characters than Saulnier could try to be. And who could blame him, Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood are great together. Pretty aimless, but I’m not sure that wasn’t the point.

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Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, Germany/UK/USA/France/Canada/Australia)

The worst of the franchise because holy crap that editing is bad. It’s one thing when Neveldine/Taylor do it, it’s entirely another when Paul W.S. Anderson does it after Retribution already had was a brilliant effort in video game adrenaline. Still, it’s also the most dignified way to end a series that’s always been a guilty pleasure for me with Milla Jovovich being her most physically impressive as an action hero AND giving her most interesting performance as Alice. The world only revolves around her in these movies and I love it that way.

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The Great Wall (dir. Zhang Yimou, China/USA)

Honestly, I’m kind of mad this isn’t made a part of Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse. It’s not all that great, but it’s better than Kong: Skull Island. Yimou’s costume epics are not always hits (House of Flying Daggers is still my least favorite movie of his), but they’re always interesting and The Great Wall has a color-coded metallic Power Rangers feel that made it fun to look at even when it started to drag in the middle.

Not a movie, but…

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Twin Peaks (crea. David Lynch/Mark Frost, USA)

The Return’s pretty damn great so far. Lynch gets pretty male-gazey though and one of the best characters from The Secret History of Twin Peaks is turned into bland eye candy because of this. MacLachlan is amazing in a frustrating way. Wally Brando is the best character in the history of television.

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The Bye Bye Man (dir. Stacy Title, USA)

This was the second movie I saw for #52FilmsbyWomen (which you can follow on letterboxd) and it’s so bad it almost made me hate them.

25 for 25 – Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

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Carl Theodor Dreyer is, in my opinion, one of the greatest filmmakers of silent age, an era in cinema history that has absolutely no want for great filmmakers. In an era where many of his fellow European artists were indulging in the arch stylings of Expressionism (which Dreyer himself took a dip into with the 1932 Franco-German horror film Vampyr), Dreyer maintained a much larger interest in grounded realism and focusing on more rigid ways to bring out emotion in the audience. And that is not to say Dreyer’s storytelling isn’t arch, but it has to come in other forms beyond shadow and angular sets. Such as, in the case of The Passion of Joan of Arc, a steadfast focus on close-ups and the natural corners of walls and a powerful central performance, one that Pauline Kael herself called possibly “the finest performance ever recorded on film”. She’s hardly the only one to have that sentiment about Maria Falconetti as the Maid of Orleans herself and I would have to stand alongside that hyperbole. Falconetti’s performance is exactly the kind that earns the hyperbole.

Mind you, we almost wouldn’t be able to see that performance or this movie. The negative was destroyed long away in a fire and with it the only copy of the original version, before canisters of Dreyer’s original cut were discovered in a Norwegian sanitarium (OF ALL PLACES!) and maintained in the Norwegian Film Institute. This wouldn’t be the first time the original copy of a Dreyer film was lost given the unfortunate state of the German and French negatives for Vampyr and all of its copies. Film has to be preserved y’all! We’re losing great movies here!

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But let us not weep over what we lost (ok, weep a bit), but instead celebrate over what we still have with us: The Passion of Joan of Arc stands highly as a picture where every frame invokes drama and the very title implicates the kind of passion play waiting for us within the silent film. Except instead of Christ being the subject of judgment and execution, it is Joan of Arc (Falconetti) after her many victories for the French against the English in the Hundred Years War. Captured and brought to Normandy, Dreyer subjects her to eyes of the audience within his fixed lens and the leering aggressive eyes of her judgers: the infamous Bishop Pierre Cauchon (Eugène Silvain) who condemned her to death, a prosecutor (André Berley), the Dean of the Normandy province they preside in (Antonin Artaud), and several other inquisitors and judges that outnumber and surround Jean in such an overwhelming manner that the close-ups feel like an absolutely mercy. When Dreyer and his co-editor Marguerite Beaugé indulge in rapidly moving from several angry or self-satisfied faces during the first part of the film’s trial, it’s disorienting enough that Falconetti’s face barely feels like an anchor from all the accusations flying at her (David Bordwell noted the negative space around the close-ups – an element of Dreyer neglecting the allegedly magnificent sets constructed for the movie – adding to that dislocation, by not allowing us to know the actual spacing or distance between the characters).

I feel like I’ve waved enough into the direction of the close-ups without truly recognizing what makes them work so well, which has to be the intimacy towards Falconetti’s entranced performance to me. Dreyer denied make-up for the actors, which leads to more defined facials and contoured shapes from the hard lighting (much much softer on Falconetti herself for obvious reasons) and while it’s not as expressive as a more controlled aesthetic, but it is definitely a lot more human and the actors’ intensity carries the viewer. Most intense of all is Falconetti’s wide-eyed daze, all provided in different shades of strong emotions like sorrowful melancholy for her mother, fatigued persecution when the questioning becomes so much more overwhelming, solemnly tragic resignment when her jailors dress her up in a mock crown and make fun of her “Daughter of God” claim (and for a filmmaker as religious as Dreyer, God – despite being a source of contention in Joan’s trial – has no presence in this film), inner conflict (eyes dashing around) as she grapples with choosing between her physical safety or her spiritual convictions, subtle reservation at her confidence against her tormentors as she is immolated. It’s an unfortunate fact that Dreyer had been cruel to Falconetti for the performance, but the morality of that aside, Falconetti demands our alignment with her through the simplicity of her face and she earns it in so well that Dreyer could have made a boring visual film (and yet he didn’t – The Passion of Joan of Arc doesn’t get enough credit for how inventively it uses zoom progressions, how it inverts shots, and frames things off-center) and it still would have been full of drama. It’s completely alien to me how people can claim The Passion of Joan of Arc‘s little amount of incident makes it boring, but there they are. It’s so ready to burst with that titular passion before halfway its brisk 82 minutes that it barely gets mentioned how the film ends on its most incendiary note, not only with the execution of Joan by fire but a riot breaks out (the biggest dramatic liberty made with a film that’s not all that historically accurate) by the inhabitants of Normandy, moved by Joan like we have been.

The only last word to give is to recognize how Dreyer and Falconetti together provided the strongest accomplishment in film craft and performance in my eyes. I can’t imagine how it could be bettered or improved. The challenge is out there, as far as I’m concerned.

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P.S. if you have a chance, I would very much recommend watching the film with the Voices of Light soundtrack on the Criterion Collection DVD (why is this not on Blu-Ray?!) composed by Richard Einhorn.


Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!

25 for 25 – Psycho Killer, Qu’est-Ce Que C’est

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I wrote a 6000-word essay on this blog on the history of the slasher subgenre in horror films. I don’t think I need to qualify my love for that genre to any regular viewers, but yeah, I adore that trashy subgenre as a wonderful guilty pleasure. And if you read that essay (Godspeed to you), you may recall I optioned to end it on the note of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon‘s release as a small gem in the ruins of the slasher genre’s popularity.

It’s more than just a singular event in the slasher genre… I mean, not that singular, given how Scream precedes it notably as a slasher parody and the careers of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett also attempt some amount of slasher commentary, but I universally am not a fan of either of those… so I guess singular in being a much beloved slasher parody gem that I actually love and admire and find a lot of intelligence in. But it’s also the only feature film credit to director Scott Glosserman (his only other two directors credits is a documentary on Wikipedia and an MTV tv film) and writer David J. Stieve, who have spent most of the time between Behind the Mask‘s 2006 release and now in trying to will the existence of a sequel to the picture. And this is absolutely unfortunate because goddammit, it’s not just that I think Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a great standout in 2000s horror, it’s also got a pretty loud enough cult following.

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The premise essentially functions as a 21st century version of the French serial killer mockumentary Man Bites Dog (though they’re distinctive in that BTM takes place in a movie world while MBD wants to live in the real world and thus comment more on documentaries and real-world serial killer fascinations than the horror genre itself), especially in being presented with that infamous 21st Century style of pseudo-documentary for the first 2/3: Journalism Graduates Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals), Doug (Ben Pace), and Todd (Britain Spellings) invited to the New England town of Glen Echo by a man named Leslie Vernon, who intends to embody a legendary slasher for the town akin to the in-film existence of Jason Voorhees for Crystal Lake, Freddy Krueger for Springwood, and Michael Myers for Haddonfield. When they meet Vernon (Baesel), it’s surprising to find he’s a young, energetic nerd who tries to make himself as personable and approachable as possible while elaborating on both his status within the town as a living ghost and all of the good ol’ prep stuff he’s getting into for the great big ol’ slash-a-thon with his selected Final Girl Kelly (Kate Lang Johnson).

Vernon is obviously Stieve and Glosserman as one person trying to show off everything they notice and love about all those big franchises, even to the point of Vernon getting to have his own little fan moment showing off his friendship to another legend Eugene (Scott Wilson; it’s a popular fan rumor that the character is Billy from Black Christmas but nothing in the movie implies that). Meanwhile, Vernon is proud to show off all the research and work he’s been doing and involve the team in his antics.

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And that’s more or less where Behind the Mask can actually flex its superiority in my opinion above Scream: the very premise of Behind the Mask demands that the movie call attention to so many physical leaps and inconsistencies like the ability of a stalker to catch up to running prey without breaking a sweat or the contrivances of a killer’s backstory and connection to his Final Girl. I’m imposing my own attitudes towards parodies in general, but you can’t just put a couple namedrops and an attitude of smug contempt for your genre (something BTM absolutely lacks and I love it all the more for it) and pass off your film as critic-proof satire. You need to have something to say about the genre, dammit, you need to dig real deep into it.

And Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon goes deeper than it even needs to. What at first begins as an invitation to join Glosserman and Stieve in their own little fake “behind-the-scenes” dissection of heightened slasher films, suddenly becomes an indictment of the genre writing new motivations for their characters and the arbitrariness of them (leading to one of my favorite jokes in the movie when confronted about Leslie’s newly concocted fiction: “A lot of what we use is CGI.”). Then there’s the really psychoanalytical stuff it jumps headfirst into in a manner that even Taylor herself feels uncomfortable with, the gender attitudes inherent in a slasher plot and Leslie insistence that Taylor needs to respect his orthodox conventions if he will allow her to continue asking him about this.

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And then there’s STILL the unsubtle callout about the amorality of the slasher genre (given a much headier divide from the viewer because they’re watching a movie while Taylor and the crew are witnessing real life) and how he could be as interested into this, but this is kind of flawed in how the movie earlier answers that question preemptively with “Well, it’s fun, isn’t it?” (and again, the fact that Taylor has to be more involved than the audience shoots itself in the foot). But BTM also makes up for that, kind of, by becoming its own slasher movie in a conventional shooting manner. The first-person camera is abandoned and now we are witnessing it with an objective third-person eye (and something fun about this is how Leslie’s explanation of his plan early on mirrors a lot of the subsequent moments). And there’s obviously only so much meta-commentary to dissect from such a third act shift, but I honestly enjoy it on the shallowest level more than anything: Glosserman and Stieve putting their money where their mouth is at the end of it all and indulging in a smartly-craftey, unexpected slasher movie all the way through its third act.

I mean, I did say I’m a fan of slasher movies.

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Plus, Baesel’s just a very captivating presence to be around. He’s got a casual yet off-beat energy that makes him constantly watchable and a twisted sort of subject/interviewer chemistry with Goethals that gets close to “oh boy, they’re into each other, aren’t they?”. I might go so far as claiming I prefer him to Benoit Poelvoorde in Man Bites Dog, which is a tall order as I love Poelvoorde as an actor and nothing in Baesel’s acting resume implies he’d ever do much of note again (editing, on the other hand…). And there’s such a home-crafted sense to the film that’s probably thanks to the limited resources… the New England town feels full and lived in and the area Leslie’s legend revolves around so decrepit and abandoned but still an obvious part of Glen Echo. The costume he makes for himself primitive and dusty and yet so obviously a costume that it’s all thanks to Baesel’s performance that he can actually feel like a killer underneath it (indeed one of his killings involves the literal mask being removed and it’s an understated character moment). The world within Behind the Mask feels like a slasher reality – haunting, isolated, small – guided by Vernon’s confident and eager smiles and showcases.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is the sort of fan-service I enjoy indulging in when I watch. On the surface, it’s all “isn’t this kind of great?” are horror movies with its own little allowances for visual references and callbacks and throwbacks (those who just look for visual gags will have a ball in the early first act). On the back end, just a great genre piece for night time watching. And on the inside, a pop culture inquiry on that genre for anybody who wants to unpack it all. That’s a lot to juggle and I’m not sure you CAN do so perfectly (alongside the “isn’t this kind of bad? But here’s a horror movie anyway” aspect, there’s the inconsistency in having Robert Englund act in a film where Freddy Krueger is acknowledged as a real person and really was 2006 the perfect point to comment on found-footage craze pre-Paranormal Activity), Glosserman and Stieve do it with such gusto that it’s unacceptable they don’t have more films under their belt to show for it.

At least we’ll always have this movie.

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