Another episode of A Night at the Opera (Episode 8 in fact! If you missed anything before then, feel free to go on the anchor page to see all of the episodes available) and it’s a surprising blast as we Opera Boys go through our most pleasant pop culture surprises of the 2010s (something you can see a longer list of in the adjacent page) and some other stuff from there. In recognition of Norm MacDonald’s major contribution to comedy, we will of course include a content warning here for jokes about cancer and 9/11. Reminds me of those tragic things.
Also for your reference, the picture of Brian Robbins we were clowning on while talking shit about his promotion to head of Paramount is below:
And the top ten tracks of The Metallica Blacklist as per my statements on the episode are below:
Calling Days Tsai Ming-liang’s most accessible feature that I’ve seen doesn’t really say much in a lot of ways. This is partly because it’s not all that accessible in the broad scope of arthouse cinema, just in relation to the filmography of its writer and director. This is also partly because it does very little to change the usual modus operandi that Tsai utilizes in all of his movies (though the subtle changes that he employs are exhilarating to someone who is as a much a dyed-in-the-wool fan of his as I am). I guess when I call Days his most accessible feature, I mean it less as “this is an unchallenging movie that I would recommend off-hand to anybody” and more that it is the movie of his that is most direct about the sort of emotions it wants you experience and when.
Melancholy and loneliness are no strangers to Tsai’s cinema but it is something that usually has to be dug out of his patience static shots while Days has no interest in having you work for this experience, it hits you right in the face with it. There’s maybe a brief grace period with its first shots as it sits watching a man who just sits and watches the off-screen rain or still life in a garden with lengthy extensions between each shot, but that feels more as a function of Tsai Ming-liang wanting to allow the audience to adapt to how his movies are meant to be watched*. But from the moment that you are introduced wordlessly to two separate characters, one played by Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng (implementing his real-life neck injury that has been bothering him on- and off-screen since between Vive L’Amour and The River) and another played by newcomer Anong Houngheuangsy, you get the idea of the empty-feeling mood it’s meaning to place upon you while Tsai still finds room to allow real sucker punches deep into the film.
There’s not very much that goes on in Days to fear spoiling (though I will suggest that you may want to watch the movie before going on), but the most I can say is that Kang and Non begin the film at distant and pointedly separated areas and slowly the film brings their paths to each other for a very emotionally charged centerpiece sequence that introduces a musical cue that is devastating on arrival before moving right back on in different directions. I imagine it’s probably a different experience for those fluent in Mandarin Chinese (though given the very minute amount of dialogue that feels legible – probably less than 10 minutes worth – not that much), but for the rest of us, the movie is presented wholly unsubtitled to allow Tsai’s visuals to do the work themselves: taking each shot to the furthest in duration and minimalizing enough of the movement on screen so that the slightest turn from one of the two main characters – usually retained in some boxy composition – is something we’re hyperaware of. Not even strictly the movements of the characters themselves: the smoke from the needles in an acupuncture sequence and the gentle aftermath of rain dripping and flames licking are only a few of the textural elements in certain shots that keep it feeling in motion and detailed while nothing is actually occurring before our eyes. At one point, we are met with a shot filled with hazy windows reflecting the dawning sun and can just barely make out the motions of a cat behind that haze, taking a seemingly inconsequential shot and making it exciting in one go. There is another moment of breath-taking excitement in stillness just from a usage of shallow-focus. All of these moments of off-hand motion feeling monumental ends up giving a particularly intimate experience even before the characters’ meeting within the hour-mark and it’s something that probably couldn’t be possible without an excellent sound mix to maintain the room tone.
Because one of the best surprises of Days is how many times it lulls me into the silent rhythm of a near empty room or a mundane domestic activity like cooking vegetables and such before using the suddenness of those cuts to throw me into the chaotic hustle and bustle of urban Bangkok, like having water tossed onto oneself and interrupting the deep connection Tsai is composing between viewer and character. This is a trap I fell into more than once watching this movie and while I do hope to see myself rewatching Days in the distant future, I certainly hope it’s not frequent enough that I am able to prepare for that shock once again. It comes to a full circle to emotionally crushing point when that surrounding city commotion combines with a previously established and tender diegetic music cue in Days‘ penultimate scene, something to give adversity to the warmth felt between Kang and Non during their brief encounter and marking one of the movie’s two peaks of storytelling through sound (the other being the first appearance of that musical cue).
But while life goes on in Days and threatens to leave behind the beautiful moments one could have in the white noise of metropolis, the fact remains that those beautiful moments were still there and were still had, ephemeral as they are. Some of those moments will just enjoying the silence and the solitude and some of those moments will be pushing back against the loneliness with the physical touch of another, in both obligatory and passionate tones (I hope I am not burying the lede by only addressing now that this is a movie about gay men). And this is something that Tsai Ming-liang has always had an interest in communicating with his pictures (interspersed with other things), but Days feels like the most potent and streamlined version of that approach where every discipline Tsai has developed in shot duration, on-screen movement, and ambient sound over his 30-year career feels amassed to its ultimate emotional payoff. And that’s probably what made this hit my gut harder than any other movie by a filmmaker I already loved as one of cinema’s best living conjurers of slow, pensive humanity.
*To the point that my screening had one single walk-out very early into the film, I think within the third shot. Which to be fair is maybe 15 minutes into the movie and probably let the viewer know they were not in the right headspace for something so slow.
Not to open up with a bit of meta-blogging but after a far-too-brief extended leave of absence from my work for mental health, I am about to return to the office tomorrow (so to speak, I’m a remote worker). And I regret that instead of digging even slightly into my massive backlog of reading and movie-watching, I spent that time making a short film (one that should be completed in by next weekend – I have a few remaining pickup shots, but it’s been assembled chronologically so all that’s left is tightening, color correcting, and adding the piecemeal soundtrack of elements I’ve collected at this point). But even moreso, I regret that I spent none of that time truly writing a single review on this blog (and no new episodes of A Night at the Opera either) so as a hopeful place-setter, I’d like to lay down below a couple of 2021 reviews that I’m hoping to provide full-length reviews to over the upcoming months:
ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE (Zack Snyder, USA)
Obviously, this one is coming soon: you think I’d just drop a review of Man of Steel by itself? I promise, I’ll have this and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice up by the end of the month. In the meantime, suffice it to say that this was shockingly the fastest moving 4 hours I’ve ever experienced watching a movie. And if it is still something with massive problems – problems obviously expectant of Zack Snyder – and thereby not even close to my favorite superhero movie, it’s still absolutely inspiring to see the result have so much deep personality and come from a sincere place of love and awe for the superhero material. The sloppiness of its storytelling just adds to it, mixing well with the mythic and weighty visuals for a hero movie made by a human being and not an algorithm.
(What about the other Snyder release this year? It is a lot less likely – but not out of the question – that I’ll be dropping an Army of the Dead review on here but the gist of my thoughts: I was already deep enough in my love for Justice League that I was willing to play ball with Snyder’s bleeding-heart “that’s so cool” bro imagery, but it’s absolutely way too long and not swift in the way Justice League is and it is possible the ugliest work Snyder has ever done. It’s basically a feature-length rebuttal to how Snyder haters say he should be a cinematographer instead of a director: he is an AWFUL cinematographer and should retain Larry Fong, please).
PIG (Michael Sarnoski, USA)
My favorite release of 2021 thus far. Goes in a fully unexpected direction based on its premise (and its even more misleading marketing) that stresses the delicacy of its characters and their state of mind, lovingly uses muted visuals to the woods outside of Portland to juxtapose against the chilliness within the city, and uses a specific motif as a key to their woes and the answers that still might not be so pretty when they find them. Nic Cage’s quietest performance of his career and certainly among his best.
F9: THE FAST SAGA (Justin Lin, USA)
I feel like there’s definitely a thoroughline between these first three movies of very aching, sentimental movies coming from places you’d least expect them (though unlike the sloppy and sprawling and overlong Justice League and F9, Pig is – among its many virtues – a very tight and short picture). Nothing threw me more aback from F9 than its flashback narrative, which features strong acting from scary mini doppelgangers of certain actors and pumps straight through the heart of F9 to make it feel like the most sincere movie in a very sincere franchise and allows pretty much all of the boom and crash of its popcorn movie spectacle (the best of the franchise to date, which means this is the best movie outright from the franchise) feel rooted in one central family drama and make the emotions within it feel massive.
THE SPARKS BROTHERS (Edgar Wright, UK/USA)
Yet another movie that feels way too long and this time it’s not as endearing a trait as it is with F9 and Justice League. I’d be lying if I claimed Edgar Wright and the bottomless amount of talking heads he recruits haven’t made a compelling case for me to drive through the Sparks discography in anticipation of Annette (not to mention the sound clips and video clips he utilizes from their output), but it’s certainly not a case that needed to be 2 1/2 hours to be made and not a case that they use more than one argument to make. The storytelling becomes repetitive by the first hour (they make a masterpiece album, it doesn’t land, they fire band members, they go again) and at some point the filmmaking feels so much less energetic even.
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (Shaka King, USA)
Vanilla oscarbait (successfully so given Kaluuya’s win) and frankly I should have expected vanilla oscarbait to begin with, but Fred Hampton’s first mainstream picture absolutely deserved something more radical and urgent or at least two lead actors that – talented though they are, Kaluuya and Stanfield are two of the best actors working today – weren’t so grievously miscast in their roles. As a genre thriller, it is functional enough to get over my gripes about it but my gripes are still loud and clear 6 months after seeing it and if I get to writing this review, I bet more words will be spent on that than what the movie does well. At least it’s miles better than the other vanilla leftist oscarbait movie of that Oscar season, The Trial of the Chicago 7.
PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND (Sion Sono, USA)
Is Sion Sono’s first English-language film less weird than his usual output? Sure, I think that can be argued from the sample size I’ve seen of his extensive filmography. Does that make this feel any less wild an experience? Absolutely not and I just don’t get how the Sono faithful were being so hostile to this high key appropriation of the Western genre from the eyes of a Japanese filmmaker, resulting in a heady experience that still has something of a philosophical side musing upon the time that passes after you’ve made mistakes that cost others. Bursting with color and got the sort of energy you’d have to expect from putting Nic Cage and Bill Moseley in the same room.
PRESIDENT (Camilla Nielsson, USA/Denmark/Norway/Zimbabwe)
Starts out kind of a disappointing followup to one of the best documentaries of the past decade – Democrats – in its inescapably biased view of Nelson Chamisa’s campaign for presidency against ZANU-PF’s unchallenged administration, but it’s the latter half where every legal stop possible is brought out to interfere or challenge the means and results of the election that Nielsson provides us with gripping narrative documentary work. It’s a long wait to that battle, but it’s not necessarily a bad one: Nielsson still has a gift for fly on the wall storytelling that she brings to Chamisa that makes him a charismatic subject and it’s not even hard to agree with the sides the movie takes. But it doesn’t reach the heights of Democrats‘ dissection of democracy as an institution used to meat puppet seizures of powers until that halfway point.
EIGHT FOR SILVER (Sean Ellis, USA/France)
Honestly a miracle that I ended the film without many negative feelings, though the ones I do have are major weaknesses for a werewolf picture to have: a reliance on the exact same jump scare ad nauseum (and I mean EXACT SAME) and a set of werewolf CGI that simply was not ready for primetime in the slightest, resembling early video game graphics more than a flesh and blood monster (I hope that when this gets a wide release, this is amended). Plus it definitely wants to act like it has something to say about colonialism, but really has jack to say about it. Yet at the end of the day, the dedication of the cast to sell the moody tones of the situation (especially Boyd Holbrook who never occurred to me as somebody who would have been able to perform an English accent, but hey!) and the moments of genuine inspiration including a grisly autopsy of torturous body horror makes me feel like my time was not entirely wasted.
THE BLAZING WORLD (Carlson Young, USA)
If there’s a movie from Sundance 2021 where the hostility felt entirely alien to me and ensured that the Sundance regulars and myself are not on the same wavelength, it’s this one. It’s got color, it’s got atmosphere, it’s ambitious in a way that already would have slapped without the “it was made under the limitations of COVID” that one would not have been able to tell watching it or “it was a first-time filmmaker’s feature”. It’s got enough creepiness to land on that end and enough storybook attitude to land on the other end and Udo Kier’s right there as the perfect anchor to both. Look forward to when this gets a wide release to verbally slap y’all.
I mentioned earlier this month Suspiria– masterpiece that it is and superior to everything in Argento’s impressive (at least pre-1990s) career – is really not a great gateway to his opus, given how little resembles his early giallo works. Well, that’s what Deep Red steps in for. Not solely because it was his final word on the giallo, the last one he’d make before leaning more into supernatural subject matters with the likes of the Three Mothers trilogy and Phenomena, though the reasoning I’ll give is probably more symptomatic of how everything he throws into Deep Red feels like THE ultimate quintessence of the giallo formula and I don’t know if it had that weight in 1975 when it first released but it certainly did when I first watched it over 30 years after the fact and still retains it in my last viewings earlier this year (one in which I introduced it in its Italian cut for a friend and one in which I sampled its English cut hours before finalizing this post). If I were a cruel man, I’d probably claim this vibe of Argento’s giallo apogee is amplified by the fact that save for Opera, his late career attempts to recapture his salad days by returning to the giallo have been – by most accounts as I have only seen the forgettable 2009 film by that genre’s name with Adrien Brody – lamentable. But I am instead going with how of all the prime 60s-70s giallo pictures I have seen… Deep Red lands among my very favorite, doing everything you expect from that subgenre in such a perfect way.
But I digressed majorly from that secondary reason I would explain on Deep Red being someone’s best introduction to Argento’s work beyond it being among the best of the genre that most made his name. It is that Deep Red, in its placement as his final giallo, feels like a particular mid-transformation between that era of his career and his nonsensical supernatural tales that Suspiria would crystallize as his very next picture. Deep Red is certainly more visually grounded and narratively soluble as a picture than anything that would follow in Argento’s late 70s to 80s career with a clear understanding of plot, character, and motive, but it also throws itself wholly into the desire to look and act as baroque as possible and frankly that clarity of plot is perhaps something that is attained over several viewings rather than the one.
For in its function as mystery, Argento and co-writer Bernardino Zapponi throws out all the possible twists and diversions that can disorient the viewer from getting the right sense of things, beginning from before the credits even conclude as we are interrupted from the white lettering on black underscored by Goblin’s bouncy prog rock theme song (the first of their collaborations with Argento; I believe I’ve indicated in the Suspiria review that that film had one of my all-time favorite scores and you will excuse for indicating this film as well as their third work Tenebrae are not that far behind) to have a playful children’s la-la song butt in as a scream cuts through and we watch in a single static shot against a wall the shadow of somebody being stabbed to death, the bloody knife thrown on the tiled floor before us and a child’s dress shoes walking into the frame in view of the knife before it just goes right back to finishing the credits with that Goblin cue like nothing just happened. There will be a consistent sense of wrongness on that level throughout the atmosphere of Deep Red – not in the disregard for aesthetic logic in Suspiria‘s case, but because we don’t have all the pieces to the tale.
But I’ve gone this far without even elaborating on what a giallo is for anyone not as so informed on the Italian horror cinema, so I digress once more to provide that context. Giallos are basically murder mysteries in the narrative style of an Agatha Christie novel, vehicles for which we witness normally morally dubious men or beautiful women get killed by knifing or some other elaborate method as an outsider tries to hone in on who’s committing all these killings and why. They are essentially the precursor to the slasher movie of 1980s American and Canadian cinema (Deep Red comes in on the heels of one of the formative slasher pictures, 1974’s Black Christmas, and just before another one, 1978’s Halloween which openly owes an amount of its approach to Argento’s work*), with perhaps just a bit more respectability on account of being made for more money than the pocket change that many slashers are put together with and just having that European polish to its look and sound where slashers are happy to slum in poor video and sound quality all the time.
To return back to that premise of Deep Red and indicate what’s to be expected from a given slasher: once the interrupted credits complete, we are introduced to English jazz pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings, who between this, Barbarella, and Blowup, certainly had a habit of showing up in the Italian cinema back in the Groovy London times) as he rehearses with a Turin-based band before berating them for being too perfect for a musical genre that needs to feel loose and disreputable. Unless you’re watching off of the English-language cut, in which case you jump right to the following scene where the camera moves past a red curtain to a large auditorium where his neighbor, the German psychic Helga Ulmann, is discussing and demonstrating her powers. Unfortunately, one of those demonstrations happens to be learning that one of her audience is a murderer, broadcasting it to the entire room as well as her knowledge that the murderer will kill again! Poor Helga ends up being next in line for that act as Marcus witnesses from streets below her being brutalized by meat cleaver and jagged window glass and takes it upon himself to find the responsible killer.
So pretty much par for the giallo course: an unknown murderer (right down to their leather gloves) on a spree, very much vivid gore effects (as should be the case for a movie with a title that has the word “red” in it; this is a particularly lavish-looking movie without being as striking as Suspiria or Opera. There is very appealing color, but save for the bloody red it is not as conspicuous.), and an outsider looking to find out what’s going on. But the devil is in the details when it comes to how Deep Red stands out: starting from that interruption in the credits (which is sadly less impactful in the English-cut than the Italian-cut, it’s real deep into the credits when it shows up for the latter) and moving on to how openly unpleasant Marcus is as a protagonist where he treats virtually everyone with irritability with an added dose of sexism towards his romantic foil, the unflappable reporter Gianni Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi, who during this production started a 10-year relationship with Argento that produced the controversial actor Asia Argento). Then there’s the kills themselves which are more upsetting the more related to mundanities they are: an elevator turns into a steel trap, the corner of a shelf is used as a weapon, an ostensible drowning turns out to be a violent boiling where jump cuts force into stages of reddishness for the poor victim’s face. And there’s the aggressively modern design of the film: the exterior of Marcus and Helga’s apparent building features a bar that closely resembles Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks on one corner (to the point that it looks like the inhabitants are pantomimes performing stillness in shots) and a giant foreboding horizontal statue against a fountain on the other corner that lends to an excellent wide shot between Marcus and his drunk friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia).
But it’s specifically the energy of the movie that keeps whipping back and forth between languidness – watching Marcus chip through sheetrock for a particular scene, for example – and zaniness like Marcus’ nervous chemistry with both the laidback lead police detective Calcabrini (Eros Pagni) and with Gianni. The latter practically transforms this into a screwball romantic comedy everytime she arrives with wacky car rides, phone calls, and arm wrestling matches and for that and other reasons I find Gianni’s presence to be among the best unusual pleasures of this movie. Even one of the kills, a climactic one no less, accomplishes its function through a ridiculous set of slapstick contrivances but of course lands with an outrageous close-up of shocking gore effects. This energy never wavers in its sense of propulsiveness – even with the differences between the two cuts, where the Italian cut seems more willing to fill in the moments between moments while the English cut is more blunt-force – and feels like quite the perfect accompaniment to the wild rock stylizations of Goblin’s music.
While in the meantime, Argento sees fit to include the essential visual associations with the horror genre. Not just those aforementioned leather gloves or the image of a bloody knife up and down in the air or the regrettable appearance of animal torture (which, knowing the way Italian horror movies were made, I suspect are unsimulated and therefore unethical) or the camera moving with predatory smoothness that makes us recognize we are seeing from the killer’s eyes (phenomenally smooth for a movie that predates the invention of the Steadicam!), but the images we associate with horror movies in the broader sense: creepy dolls eventually broken up into porcelain machinery, a decrepit decomposed corpse hidden in the shadows, and those shadows belonging to a late haunted house where we watch from below opening gates as approach in the dead of night or step unwisely through a set of stairs with our way too courageous protagonist. The creepy visuals and the shocking kills together retain that grounded realism that distinguishes the picture from Suspiria and beyond in Argento’s career – a shambled mansion in cobwebs can exist in our world, the dolls are of course just presented in understandably prepared ways (one of them is hanging off the ceiling by string), we are meant to understand THAT is what scalding water does to a face and THAT is what a cleaver does to a torso – but they never stop feeling just a little wonky in how abrupt their arrivals are.
These are the things that stand out to me more than the pro forma plotting of Deep Red but of course that plotting is not something to scoff at. It is perhaps the most Hitchcockian in a very Hitchcockian genre – added moreso if you watch the English cut where you’d get that brief misdirect in terms of protagonist (one of the two elements I’d say the English cut has over my preferred Italian cut; the other is David Hemmings is an Englishman and is getting David Hemmings’ voice attached to his character) – with a very pivotal choice of sequence to continue hanging onto the further we get into the runtime, aligning us with the psychology of Marcus feeling like he just absolutely missed something and has to keep trying to visualize properly the moment he got mixed into Helga’s brutal killing. Basically through that setup, it delivers that same vibe that you forgot something very important and it is a niggling sensation that I hate to encounter in my day-to-day life but feel comforted by having a controlled context that delivers it. It is a move that could only possibly be done by filmmaking and more specifically by a confident casual arrangement of shots (credit to Franco Fraticelli on that merit) and the payoff is absolutely magnificent***. The clues are certainly given to us by Argento and Zapponi, but they’re banking on us not being able to catch them and the fact that I didn’t until the denouement is what makes Deep Red so addictively rewatchable as I go “ah that’s what that meant” and “oh that’s what we were supposed to be looking at” within the hallways and rooms and streets this explores.
So what to say of Deep Red at the end of this overlong review? It is what a movie looks like when it is at once typical and unorthodox. It is an effortlessly watchable thing that finds different methods to breeze through its thrills. It is the logical missing link between The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Suspiria, taking in the rational recognizability of the latter but imbuing hints of weirdness in tone, sound, and visuals to prime Argento up for the irrational in his future career. It is horrifying to watch and yet exciting to revisit. It is a set of contradictions and inexhaustible for that, a movie that has retained its space in my head ever since I first saw it and therefore ends up making the most of living in my mind over the many years to define itself as one of my favorite horror movies. It is – as I opened with – the last word on the central subgenre of Italian horror and a movie has to be a masterpiece to accomplish that.
*It also comes on the heels of fellow 1974 proto-slasher The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but as opposed to Black Christmas and Halloween, I can’t think of much that that movie shares with Deep Red. Maybe Bay of Blood but not Deep Red.**
**I have performed the disorienting act of giving a footnote within a footnote because I just figured maybe the one thing Deep Red and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre have in common is revolving most of their climactic action on a one intimidating looking isolated house.
***In fact, in the earlier watch this year, I was introducing the movie to a friend and he had quickly caught on to the specific image without prompt and asked me to rewind, a request I declined. Sadly, he ended up falling asleep halfway through (we started the movie at 1 am), but I guess the movie wasn’t talking to him when the end credits opened with “YOU HAVE WATCHED DEEP RED“.
The Video Nasties – a hysterical censorship phenomenon in the United Kingdom during the early years of the 1980s video recording industry that saw prosecutors determining the extent of cuts certain graphically violent movies would need to be deemed suitable for home viewing – do not have a one-size-fits-all aesthetic to them, outside of featuring graphic violence (which would often vary in amount still). It was an arbitrary motion made towards an arbitrary selection of films. So when Censor – the debut feature film by Prano Bailey-Bond – hardly resembles the Video Nasties which it takes as its screenplay’s subject matter (co-written by Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher), this doesn’t feel as much a failure as it seems certain people would like to pronounce it. No, there is no less of a huge amount of fascination with the movies that were subject to this certainly publicity-boosting act of committee on top of the minutiae regarding that process in itself.
The censor whose process we follow most closely is Enid Baines (Niamh Algar), who takes her job very seriously, spending long hours in a room watching violent grisly material and noting what must be cut before she and her colleagues can determine to allow the film to be exhibited on the streets or if the movie must be banned for the safety of the citizens. She seems mostly stable enough in the first few scenes, if still alarmist, as she argues on decapitations and eye-gougings to be removed from a film and if the introduction of her traumatic past very early on invites doubt, she’s still relatively well-adjusted to receive a bombast of gruesome images of murder and rape and maiming and treat the matter professionally. The traumatic past, as it were, is a young memory of watching her child sister Nina (Amelie Child-Villiers) disappear in the woods and it appears that Enid’s stability about 2 decades later is at risk from three sides.
First, Enid’s parents (Clare Holman & Andrew Havill) approach her with a death certificate finally created for Nina, despite Enid’s objection that she might still be out there. Then there’s a shocking domestic killing that imitates a violent sequence that was passed by Enid in her assessment, bringing a lot of public attention to the censorship office and Enid herself. And finally, while reviewing the latest submission by an elusive and notorious filmmaker Frederick North (Vincent Schiller), she spots the face of the lead actor Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta) and is so very sure that she has to be Nina, beginning an personal investigation towards North’s production that only promises an unstoppable spiral down to something beyond the limits of the television screen.
I did very little in that synopsis to hide how Censor slides into psychological thriller territory and if Censor does not resemble a video nasty in any particular way – sure, there is gore and violence in the film but much of it is backloaded or archive footage from infamous banned Video Nasties with ironic cutting at the most visceral moments to “leave it to the imagination” as Enid suggests – it does resemble the unreliable atmosphere of a giallo with its choice of colors and spacing between the office workplace and Enid’s boxy apartment home, in the modern homage fashion of Cattet & Forzani or more closely to fellow British arthouse horror stablemate of Bailey-Bond’s Peter Strickland. And certainly this has extratextual purpose as well in indicting the sort of hang-ups that somebody might have imposing their restrictions on art, even art as disreputable as these violent pictures.
Censor is a movie that’s easy to chop down into three acts that slide well into each other, though I will admit there is a distinct difference in quality or engagement for that middle half interrupting the regularity of Enid and her colleagues staring at dismemberments between notes, researching their filmmakers, and having debates about what could possibly be going out to the public in between slimey producers waltzing into the offices to discuss those results (the producer particularly showing up in pivotal ways being played by resident screen creep Michael Smiley, which is of course an excellent casting choice*). Anyway, everything up until Enid visits a video store trying to solicit a Frederick North picture to clerk’s reluctance despite it being obvious he stocks banned videos is transparently a conduit for Bailey-Bond’s love for the movies, their attached notoriety, and a close interest in the process that brought them that notoriety. But that sequence is far enough into the middle investigation once Enid sees Lee’s face on a work assignment that we’re already beginning to segue into aimless meandering that is brought by slack and less interesting editing and once she leaves that video store, it’s not coming back for a while.
But that’s all fair since editor Mark Towns is saving his best for last and that can be argued for the rest of the crew as that meandering finally leads to the climactic final third where Enid finally finds a direction to take on in finding Alice and finding out if she’s Nina and her tenaciousness starts to affect the visuals in a tremendously exciting way. The frames of the aspect ratio begin to close at a snail’s pace so you can hardly notice the walls closing in on Enid, the colors by Annika Summerson’s camerawork become more saturated than the more grounded hues within the first hour, and video effects slowly corrupt the visuals in a way that disguise the segue between Enid’s perspective on things and the camera’s without particularly telling us what is the truth until the very final minutes. It doesn’t take a deep dive to recognize the events in terms of narrative, but it remains the sort of translation between a subjective perspective and the cinematic form that makes me giddy when encountered in the wild. And it all just brings us back to the interest in that video nasty aesthetic with a moment that particularly seats us as viewers into watching something ostensibly artificial and beastly before Enid finds ways to disrupt it in shocking ways.
So there one has it. Deep in the midnight screenings of Sundance 2021 birthed a cryptic horror yarn on a moment in pop culture that come from a place of deep admiration. Censor, which I have to assume is a continuation of ideas from Bailey-Bond’s earlier short film Nasty (which I haven’t seen), is a fairly confident feature debut that presents the filmmaker’s personality with aplomb and it is very easy to see how Bailey-Bond’s interests and my interests align enough that I’m excited for whatever she comes up with next, genre or otherwise.
*I was also convinced for a minute that Matthew Earley, who plays a co-worker of Enid’s, was actually a cameo by Ben Wheatley at first glance. Apologies to Earley.
It is exactly how it says on the tin: Jacques Tati’s fourth feature Playtime is a means for him to play around with a scope of production hardly ever seen of a movie before. Sadly since as well, given that the amount of personal investment Tati put into it was not returned to him financially. But what he did have to show for it is an unexpected marvel and something that just as much engages with the viewer’s sense of play as it does with the director’s. Playtime has a sense of ambition and eagerness that I consider very few movies to matched up with, giving us a fleeting vision into a cold world that Tati certainly had a healthy amount of pessimism towards but still found a way to make the experience a buoyant one every minute we spend there.
That ambition is met on both Playtime‘s production design (by Eugène Roman) and the choreography of the cast populating that very same production design, a working city with electricity and roads and all practically created wholesale (with the help of some model work for certain shots) by Tati, Roman and the rest of the crew by the name of “Tativille” and certainly the raison d’etre of Playtime as a work of art. The Paris of Playtime is a cold and sterile geometric zone, one embodied by straight lines and a muting of colors only occasionally punctuated by color as a joke such as a lamp light blasting pink or such (the one exception – at least for the first half – being a flower stand relegated to a street corner and treated as quaint by certain passers-by). This is the case from the outside, with the two buildings in which the first half of Playtime takes place, a pair of business centers so indiscernible from each other to the point of one of our characters getting lost between them. This is the case from the inside, as in the middle point where we get to meet the quiet domestic life of another character in little glass squares alike his 3 neighbors in the building. Squares and boxes are in fact kind of a visual cue into what to look out into in this movie’s vast 70mm widescreen compositions by cinematographers Jean Badal and Andréas Winding, made up exclusively of wide shots with various foregrounded elements. And certainly the reflective surfaces are a basis in so many of Tati’s blunt critiques of this industrial future, providing invisible barriers between characters or sadly reflecting the Paris’ most iconic landmarks in more than once. But it’s not just the design and composition that meets Tati’s ambition.
It’s also the way that people move around in those between those lines just maintains the rigidness of it all. Tati, of course, is of the screen’s great physical comics and his control over these ecosystems in which we watch the movements of characters pass through angles and go through motions with synchronicity to the alienating environment is quite a miracle to see performed on such a large scale. And it seems like every single inhabitant of this world Tati’s crew built from the ground up is perfectly positioned to perform their tiny little gags in whatever corner of the screen they’re relegated to, whatever box they’re contained in whether their home, a cubicle, or a window. It’s like a perfect exacting dance between the lines of the screen. And there’s so much going on that it makes Playtime such an essential big-screen watch (and rewatch and rewatch, as my latest viewings that inform this review were two theatrical screenings within 6 days of each other) as it’s the best way to have the imagery send you every bit of information possible and let your eyes just explore the frame (as well as a proper presentation of the film’s 6-track stereo sound which delivers several of the gags on its own separate plane over the continuous dialogue laying out a sea of population. Gags are even made out of the incongruousness of the visual and the sound like a man walking down a long hallway and a character getting up expecting he about to approach because he hears the echoing footsteps or the distraction of where a baby’s cry is coming from).
There will of course never be a single viewing in which you will see every single joke that Tati and his collaborators have fit into this movie, which makes it all the more impressive where one single man was able to marshal the motions and behaviors of the actors with impressive business that feels human and natural in this inhuman and artificial environment (my particular favorite is a sequence where one man is sliding on a rolling chair along a long help desk for an ostensible travel agency – one that features posters of exotic locations focused on the exact same looking building in each location – and we see from behind a map that his legs are dancing and jittering from end to end to serve every customer at the desk and calling on the numerous phones. By the time, he gets to calmly walking from one end of the desk to the other with the chair slowly following him, I absolutely die).
And it is at this point I realize how much I’ve talked about Playtime without even feinting towards the screenplay and what it’s about.
But, to discuss Playtime in terms of plot is an exercise in futility: Tati, co-writer Jacques Lagrange, and satirist Art Buchwald (the latter recruited specifically to write the occasional English dialogue we catch) are clearly less concerned with the particulars of narrative in their writing. Certainly there’s structure and there’s characters we definitely recognize all throughout (although there’s also one specific character we keep misrecognizing, Tati’s famous character Monsieur Hulot, whom we lose track of among fellow bypassers in hats and mackintoshes). There’s even characters we enter this city with at the beginning of the movie and leave likewise with at the end, as is the case with a throng of American housewife tourists who land in Orly airport and waste no time exploring the central buildings that make up the film’s setting. But the real concern is allowing the perspective to flow naturally from one place to the next after hovering around and watching them run for a while. The closest we have to protagonists are Hulot or one of the housewives Barbara (Barbara Dennek) and they are more or less just amble into our view to follow before the camera determines there’s another point of interest to linger on.
As for that structure I’ve referred to, there are essentially three major movements to Playtime outside of the prologue at Orly Airport (in which the third plays as a sort of how-to instruction on watching the film, beginning with a nearly empty hallway and slowly introducing characters and sounds and gags so that we’re eased into the rhythm of all the stuff that’s going to be going on for the rest of the movie) and an valediction. Those three basically being the exploration of those maze-like business center interiors, the voyeuristic viewing of the apartments where the television-esque presentation of all the spaces gets played with by the observative behavior of their inhabitants and the attempt to use angles hiding the presumed wall between these homes (and in a movie that feels like a lot of its themes are developed from Tati’s musings in his previous film Mon Oncle, this one feels the most vestigial from that picture while still more belonging in this one), and the third and undeniable high-point of Playtime:
The climactic dinner at the Royal Garden restaurant, ostensibly on its opening night as we first watch it while construction workers and electricians are still putting on their finishing touches to the place and then rushed off to the kitchen out of the view of the first of the posh guests arrive, regardless of if the dining room is ready or not. Obviously, it’s very much not, initially communicated to us by a wonderful visual gag that has a black negative spot on a white tile floor (the warm browns of the walls are perhaps an early indicator of how different this will be from the scene’s virtually colorless predecessors). But then, the more movement starts coming in as guests flood the dining room and waiters start dancing around the table, everything just gets more and more chaotic to the most frantic track of Francis Lemarque’s jazz-infused music and frankly the building starts to collapse all around them: short circuits, demolished ceiling fixtures, and shattered glass doors all in between the ruining of suits from faulty chairs or waiters’ uniforms from hectic movements. It is the dizziest and most engaging part of the movie, the moment where Tati’s criticism of modernity just lets the faults of modernism speak for themselves and includes an arched eye towards classism (I am most impressed by a gag where the maître d vehemently refuses a black man entrance, which the man takes in stride and turns around to leave revealing the suit that the house band is expected to wear and forcing the maître d to shift gears to hospitality), a barrier that is broken down by the very destruction of scenery which invites all sort of “unrespectable characters” like drunks and bohemians and teenagers and the growing gregariousness of a particularly loud American businessman (Billy Kearns) who begins to hold court and invite all the possible misfits in this place.
That sequence is a jolt of electricity alike the neon signs throughout (including one in a pharmacy/bakery next door that looks hilariously too sickly in its green lighting to feel particularly comforting or appetizing) to the point that before we know it, the final minutes of Playtime in the wake of the party feel more relaxed and it’s probably not for nothing that its final major sequence is literally a makeshift carousel in a roundabout (Lemarque’s music once again giving according score to that mood) as we follow the housewives en route to the airport, doing away with the rigidness of when we entered and focusing on the smoothness of the circle and featuring the strongest colors in the whole movie. The movie has become looser and at ease, less anxious over this previously alien landscape we saw. And I think it’s this final playful beat that causes me to assume that there’s maybe the slightest optimism in Tati that we can make it work as long as we’re willing to embrace humanity and its flaws and let it overpower the need for things to be perfect and orderly. It is one of the few elements that I think prevents this from feeling like a work of cynicism.
There are plenty of movies that demand the audience work with it to create their own story in between the moments and many of those ambiguous works make for some of my favorite watches. But none of them make it nearly as fun and inviting as Playtime and the true joy of watching this is how much of it is just inexhaustible on an aesthetic level, inviting us to revisit Tativille as many times as we like and pick and choose what we’d like to see from it. Jonathan Rosenbaum has said that Playtime (his favorite movie) is a different movie depending on where you sit in the theater and given the two differences between my theatrical viewings… I get it! But you will always receive Tati’s sense of glee at creating this world, his consideration of how the future of things looked circa 1967, and his desire to make sure no matter where this world goes, we never forget to find room for play.
I wonder if I can credit Robin Hardy’s 1973 cult horror film The Wicker Man for initiating my interest folk music, given it constantly stops its own narrative investigation in order to indulge in a festive performance of traditional songs arranged by Paul Giovanni. It’s present to the degree that Hardy himself called the film a musical during production. It’s either that or Yusuf Islam back in his “Cat Stevens” days that brought this in me, but I was more or less exposed to both of them around the same time in high school and The Wicker Man seems the work of art that made a more significant impact on me. For The Wicker Man also initiated my interest in storytelling that focuses within an isolated location or community, particularly when the resultant development is a suspicious eerie atmosphere hidden underneath surface pleasantries with its inhabitants. And it is in that particular aspect that I think it was tough for me to figure out what I meant when I used “cult” to describe The Wicker Man.
You see, The Wicker Man is of course a film that explores the existence of a pagan culture within the fictional agronomical society of Summerisle that sits in the Hebridean Archipelago, based in Celtic history, as police sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is sent there to investigate the sudden disappearance of a little girl named Rowan Morrison. So “cult” describes the subject.
But “cult” also describes the object. The film has only slowly developed more and more of that status than the already low-key but unanimously positive reception it had as a rough horror classic in the late 2000s when I first saw it and both of those elements – the reception and the version – are based in the same thing: a mind-bendingly convoluted set of rights disputes and poor handling of the print (sometimes apparently deliberate spite by producer Michael Deeley who famously hated the film, sometimes incidental) that led to the 102-minute cut that Hardy was satisfied with being turned into an 88-minute compromised cut that was released (as a double feature with fellow horror masterpiece Don’t Look Now) and most commonly seen. Meanwhile, a 99-minute version closer to Hardy’s preference was sent to Roger Corman to later be used as the basis of Hardy’s restoration to a Director’s Cut that was a bitch to find back in the day up until a Blu-Ray in 2013 was released of one more attempt by Hardy – whose previous decades of optimism that his original cut was still existent had now been disabused – into a 91-minute Final Cut from all the surviving resources.
I told you it was convoluted. All that combined made The Wicker Man a tough enough find in worthwhile quality to turn it to cult semi-obscurity.
Having seen the 88 minute, 99 minute, and 91 minute versions, I do feel most qualified to say that any version will easily get you to a significant amount of brilliance. For no matter which cut one watches, you’re still going to get the abnormal slow boil of the Anthony Shaffer’s mystery script coming together real nicely in any arrangement, probably thanks to Hardy being involved in each cut (even in reluctance) and so having an idea of where to deal with whatever’s removed or moved around. And while the Final Cut is my preference – it’s the one where the pacing feels tightest and confident in where it slips away, while also spreading the musical numbers spread enough (with the addition of the brilliantly dreamy “Gently Johnny” to truly pay off in Hardy’s attempts to create The Wicker Man as a musical – I particularly love the idea the theatrical cut had about opening right when Howie arrives on Summerisle in a seaplane without any foreplay in the mainland as in the other cuts. It gets us on quite the disoriented foot with the setting. Though I must say the original opening with Howie performing mass does so much to establish what position he is entering this conflict from.
The second of which he steps out of the plane, he’s given a hard time by the smiling harbor master just for requesting a dinghy. The harbor master tries to deflect as much as possible by claiming the harbor is closed until Howie insists long enough. And so the majority of the movie is witnessing Howie’s fluster as he is continuously directed around in a circle by several individuals or authorities, including being told by the mother and classmates of the child that Rowan never even existed. Howie’s a dutiful and thorough investigator who pushes through the continuous lies and mishandled records – all delivered in the most bothersomely polite manner and off-putting brightness – to find proof of her existence and evidence suggesting a misdeed of some sort. It’s often just enough clue at the end of a scene to augment the frustration out of every interaction Howie is involved in and understand why he must push his bemused way through every misdirect he’s given.
The direct obstruction of his policework is not the sole thing that takes Sgt. Howie aback. His firm appeals bring him eventually to the leader Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) who charmingly informs Howie of the island’s pagan philosophies, rooted from his grandfather, as well the fruits of which the island bases its economy and why these two elements are intertwined. And even before Lord Summerisle lays it out for him, Howie has already witnessed strange unorthodox things happening around such as an open air orgy in the night (including an naked woman in a graveyard whose weeping over a grave resembles quiet orgasms), and the attempts of the innkeeper’s daughter (Britt Eklund, dubbed in an excellently weird way by Annie Ross) to seduce him behind the door by singing and dancing naked in a waking trance.
Howie, we learn extremely quickly, is Christian of a conservative and pious sort, establishing an impossible-to-miss battle of ideologies deep within the film. Shaffer and Hardy, to their incredible credit, deliver this fight in a difficult complex manner: Howie is there to investigate a potential murder and everybody in the island is throwing him the most uncannily suspicious sensation in all their twisting grins and lackadaisical attitude to learning of a child in danger. And yet Howie is also imposing of his Christian judgment onto the citizens of the island, at one point forcing a makeshift cross over a grave regardless of whatever religious beliefs the deceased may have had and outright calling Summerisle’s religion fake to the Lord’s face which is taken with the same unstressed casual receptiveness as anything else thrown to Lee’s face. Lee has long had glowing love for the performance he gave here, almost single-handedly keeping the film’s memory alive while it was essentially lost in the 1980s, and it shows with the clear amount of fun friendliness he exudes in perfect foil to Howie’s disgusted sobriety. It’s affecting to have the closest thing we have as a direct antagonist (as opposed to the entire community) such a welcoming air about him.
It’s off-putting to have such an intolerant character we are forced to align with by our moral sense of what he’s trying to do and yet this very island is so queer – personably as well as visually in flat focus, which is uncomfortably close for a setting so based in stone and trees dressed by a handicraft and populated by faces that look like they’ll squeeze your hand until you show them your teeth – that it’s just as much a natural orbiting to Howie’s point of view despite the aggressiveness of his rhetori. It’s miraculous that Hardy’s direction is able to frame Howie in such a way as to really pull out muted contempt for the character yet still treat his ultimate fate as utterly tragic (which I’d assume you know if you’ve even heard of the film, but if not I’m gonna go ahead and wave a big ol’ SPOILER WARNING up in here). It is indeed a strange land that the stranger has entered and sometimes what’s most familiar is what we’re going to gravitate towards.
About that strange land: I’m not sure, with a wide variety of Scottish Isles and cities in which it was shot, one can say The Wicker Man subscribes to Werner Herzog’s ideal of the “voodoo of location”, but for someone like me who was totally ignorant of the geography of Scotland at the time and to this day have never actually experienced the country firsthand, The Wicker Man feels transporting. Indeed, Lee in his autobiography Lord of Misrule appears to suggest that their experiences within those distinct areas of Scotland “stitched together a plausible island” and it’s believable enough to fool me. And what gives it that further out-of-place vibe as a setting is Harry Waxman’s vibrant whites making the place seem so overexposed in an eerie way. A visual approach that further provides menace and trepidation to how unfailingly cheerful Summerisle is as a community.
About the culture: well, the very handworn element of the costumes and the festivities leaning into the imminent May Day celebration that the film’s climax takes place (and of course, if you have heard of The Wicker Man, you know how it ends just about as well as you know how Planet of the Apes ends but I repeat SPOILERS once final time if you are of a lucky sort.) are of an uncivilized sort, even by the means of a culture portrayed as tying naval strings to graves and such. The costumes and instruments of their celebration are introduced in one of the latest montages of investigation, strewn together in earthy ways from earthy materials. But not least of all the Wicker Man himself, revealed to us at the last possible moment as a towering madness of straw that really calls attention to the inhumane sacrifice to be made inside of it. And when it dawns on Howie what their plans are for him and his helplessness, the film intensifies rapidly into a more unambiguous horror than everything that preceded it. In a way, the point of the ending of The Wicker Man is not what happens but how it happens and by the mood of Woodward and Lee in this climax is where the complex battle of ideologies has to introduce ambiguity to the final notes of their performances: Woodward as Howie goes through several modes of disbelief and terror in the knowledge of what waits for him and how easily he was manipulated for all his steadfast authoritarianism and trying to declare his faith with various levels of dubiety invited of the viewer, landing on a moment of truly cracking prayer before the flames that will take his life in seconds and undermine by the pained shrieks and cries of the animals dying with him. Lee as Summerisle, meanwhile, is confident and self-satisfied by his plan working as expected until Howie suggests a potential turn of events that knocks that perennial smile off his face and suggests his own level of ambivalence to the practices he mandates of the isle’s people. Shaffer as a writer pulls out all the possible stops with this final turn of events, amplifying the cheeriness of the people at their most religiously violent with their final chant “Summer Is Icumen In” battling with the cries of the animals for dominance on the soundtrack while this ends up being – now that the secrets are all spilled out – the moment that Waxman and Hardy opt for an overcast set of shots as we watch the titular construction burn and collapse to reveal the setting sun.
So yes, the staying power of The Wicker Man may be the loves it brought to be in folk music and quietly unsettling horror movie atmospheres. But it also delivers them in a remarkably intelligent package, mapped out by one of the best writers working in Britain in the early 1970s and executed by two terrifically polar performances by actors at the very peak of their abilities. It’s one of the earliest cases of a movie I watched truly sticking in my head and making me consider what I just watched beyond the hard genre shocks it delivers (it may be a foundational part of my atheism, if I’m being frank), in an unassuming way that does guide me on WHAT to think. And it’s probably based on that that The Wicker Man had the sort of longevity that get it being restored and worked on to be introduced by generations further on alongside me as I constantly engage with its rewatchability.
Like I said, it takes a really great movie to work wonders on people when the most popular thing about it is its ending.
I think I’ve been on record as feeling I did not exhaust Suspiria, Dario Argento’s 1977 supernatural horror film, when I first reviewed it ’round these parts. I’m not sure it’s a movie that CAN be exhausted nor should it: it gains its power from the inability to truly qualify what exactly is going on, like the best horror movies. If you come in desiring to leave the film with a sense of normalcy, you are going to leave the movie massively disappointed. Even when you put yourself in the mindset of Italian cinema ’round the time of its release, its very storytelling is a disruption of the standard giallo that dominated the country’s horror cinema within the 1960s and ’70s (one of several reasons I don’t recommend this as someone’s first Dario Argento – there’s a whole third of his career we associate as emblematic of giallo that Suspiria truly refuses to resemble), teasing at belonging to this genre in its initial murder scene. Of course even before we watch poor Pat Hingle (Eva Axen) and the friend kind enough to take her in for the night succumb to what starts as a gruesome kniving that escalates to an elaborate multi-colored sunroof breaking into several beautiful shards below her body that lodge into the skull of that kind samaritan below the hanging corpse of Pat, there is a superimposition of green bright eyes hovering in the darkness that simply has no place in real-world logic that giallo abides by.
But I get ahead of myself here. Even before we are introduced to that elaborate apartment building of lines cutting through shades of red and mirrored staircases, flattened by the direct wide angle Luciano Tovali shoots from, we are introduced to our protagonist Suzy Bannon (or Benner if you watch it with Italian audio, though I am not inclined to do so with the way that I am now used to Jessica Harper’s voice with the character… Harper also being the actor who portrays Suzy on screen) the moment she arrives in Freiburg, Germany to attend the Tanz Dance Akademie overseen by Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and Miss Tanner (an unrecognizable Alida Valli, who has an vicious wide-eyed demeanor the whole time that gives further authoritarian vibe to her masculine suit and straight posture). And as Suzy heads towards the exit of the airport in the first few minutes, we have the soundtrack of a busy terminal cut off by the sliding doors opening as the tinkling opening music box notes of prog rock band Goblin’s famous theme (as part of one of the all-timer of horror movies scores) peeks its head in and then shuts off as the doors close. Once again in that anticipating early steadicam shot heading to the door from Suzy’s perspective, the doors open and we hear those notes continuing where they left off and then they cut off as the doors close. And then finally Suzy goes through that doorway and into a blasting rainy storm and there is no way back from there as she manages to grab a taxi and reach the school in question, only to be rejected by a frightened voice on the call box and witness Pat’s fleeing from the school to her doom.
It’s a cliché to say this, but to discuss Suspiria in terms of plotting is a futile game. I feel like I have finally gotten the hang of elements ’round my tenth watch of the film but that’s missing the forest for the trees as the experience of Suspiria is not to rationalize what is happening to Suzy and her classmate Sara (Stefania Casini) as she learns just how shifty and untrustworthy and dark the matrons of this school are, but to lose our footing the same way Suzy does. On the narrative level, Argento and co-writer Daria Nicolodi have no interest in coherence as they create an experience of associative horror clichés (the violent murders, a sequence of creepy maggots dropping, blood-based imagery, etc.) based partially on a nightmare Nicolodi had while the two of them were dating and partially on Thomas de Quincy’s poem Suspiria de Profundis. That nightmare atmosphere is exactly what comes through in the final film with the sort of momentum that makes the viewer feel like its slipping under and the abstraction of Argento and his crew’s imagery refuses to give us any anchor through which to catch ourselves and maintain some stability.
That’s the main thing: Argento and Nicolodi’s script is good enough for a pretext of Suzy losing her balance in all the horrors that leave her wide-eyed, but Argento’s direction is what takes Suspiria to another level of wrong-headedness. Nothing about it makes sense on a film vocabulary level: starting from the soundtrack, which has the particular benefit of the Italian film industry’s of soundtracking during that time, where the post-synced ADR means that the sound is always untethered from the image no matter how close it gets. Suspiria is perhaps the one foreign-language film that gains a lot from how the dubbing does not feel natural to what we’re seeing on-screen (and this is something retained in the Italian audio thankfully, because again that’s how Italian soundtracks were put together). And of course, Goblin’s iconic music is the cherry on top, punctuating the disorienting sound design with its loud pumping dread-filled rock scoring.
Following up on that, the cutting of the film is not as bravura as the sound: certainly the general structural shape of events put together does not lend itself to clarity, only insomuch as “this is happening and then this is happening” but it does take subtle rule-breaking of film editing vocabulary to constantly allow Suspiria as an object to be part of the unreliability: sequences where the eyelines will not match, the abruptness of one moment moving to the next particularly once we’ve lingered on a dead body long enough, the refusal to establish spatial clarity particularly when it comes to the relative position one character has with another predatory character. How else can we be shocked when a gloved hand enters the frame out of nowhere to take a life? Indeed, when we do have some kind of establishing into the killer’s point of view, that’s when Argento and Tovali employ the still-then-new Steadicam, giving its inhumanly smooth surveying of a space the same kind of silent purposefulness as Halloween would bring to its opening scene a year later or the eerie expectation of something horrible (such as in the early airport shot I mentioned above) that The Shining perfected 3 years later. It is those moments in which editor Franco Fraticelli makes patience insufferable, whereas once things get truly maddening, he turns things up and takes us aback (a moment where a man has his throat ripped out from an unexpected assailant being the best employment of what Fraticelli brings).
But most of all – More than the angles it chooses to dizzy us with even at its most sedate late exposition scene. More than the ways that the movie finds framings of Suzy that make her feel isolated or trapped in various ways, particularly with a utilisation of reflective surfaces that either box her face in an off-center corner or use the translucency to make her look faint and barely present in the shot like her own ghost. – it’s the colors. The colors of Suspiria are at once why I love Suspiria deeply enough to be one of my favorite movies and at the same time why it works impeccably as a confusing dive into a world separate from ours with zero explicability. It is not just that its selection of colors with which to light its subjects or shape the interiors it takes place in are not logical by our own means, what with greens and reds and blues coming in deep vibrant tones shaping characters in their presence or assaulting the visuals completely until it numbs you up. It’s that the colors also doesn’t make any sense by the logic of Suspiria‘s internal world, constantly feeling like part of what takes characters aback and shocks them until it feels like a language towards the viewer more than the character that something bad is about to go down. Not that the colors individually have a specific mood assigned to them, but the intensity of their appearance and strength of their hue (aided by the 3-strip Technicolor process which the movie was printed off of, but not shot) is an emotional thing to witness. Besides which it makes Suspiria just absolutely beautiful to look at, pleasurable to the eye in spite of how alarming and inexplicable it all is.
In these ways, Suspiria works as a befuddling experience, a movie that fundamentally refuses to work itself, only get close to a clear picture before breaking down again in maddening ways and throwing us in a whirlwind of sound and color (something it curiously shares with another horror movie released around the same time, Obayashi Nobuhiko’s House. I really should remind myself to one day double feature those two). And there is a cause and motivation behind Suzy’s haunting in the wall of the school, the school belongs to an evil coven of witches (a spoiler certainly, but one that seems to be common knowledge on the film. I did use THAT review title after all) so they’re breaking down reality and Suspiria as a film is not just a window but a doorway for us sitting in the middle of that breaking unreality up until its explosive climax. The images and moments are themselves upsetting in context like a horrible shot of a face pressed violently against a window, a close-up of a throat slit from a poor soul trapped in a room implausibly filled with razor wire, a dead body risen to giggle as it approaches us with a knife, etc. but the violence is only a punctuation to the movements in this symphony. Within the context of the film, they are just stops on a spiraling descent through a nightmare, “a bedtime story for the damned” I appropriated* in the last time I discussed Suspiria ’round these parts. And in that same review series, I closed discussing another favorite movie Blade Runner as one in which “my best dreams take place”. I open this loose review series in the same vein that Suspiria‘s world is where my most memorable nightmares slip into, dazzling and inhuman and altogether alienating.
*From Stephen King and Blue Öyster Cult, as I only quote from the best.
I don’t want to say it’s been a while since I’ve shot out a regular spurt of reviews, but January’s John Ford retrospective is far back enough to consider it a minute and I don’t think it’s for nothing that I was able to shoot back-to-back-to-back reviews each day because all 7 movies I brought up were five-star masterpieces in my eyes. And I do recall way back a few years back in June teasing out a revisit of several of my favorite movies that had not yet been reviewed in a vein somewhat similar to 25 for 25 but not as demanding…
… and that was June 2019, a year that probably saw my least activity on this site, and all I had to show in that month was Raiders of the Lost Ark.
No matter, I am feeling somewhat good about trying to swing into it in this upcoming month. Like I am ready to just slot a good amount of time just to gush about whatever favorite movies I wanted to write about for a minute here and just talk about five-star movies. And my birth month is such a terrible reminder of the fact that I exist that it was no surprise I set it 25 for 25 there or that I was wanted to shoot for it again this upcoming month.
So that’s how it is: this coming June, I am set and slated to write about a major amount of my favorite movies. A review for the ones I definitely feel I missed and a couple of mulligans even that I feel were long overdue since I wasn’t too satisfied or exhausted by the previous review. Below is, in roughly scheduled order which may change, the titles of the reviews to come. Feel free to take a guess at what movie they may be.
Do you know anything about witches?*
All Work and No Play Makes Jacques a Dull Boy
Come, It Is Time to Keep Your Appointment with…
La Vie Boheme
Sic Transit Gloria
Sometimes, We Just Need the Eggs.
The Difference Between a Hawk and a Crop-duster
The Front Page
You Belong to the City
Tale of Tales
Everybody Has Their Reasons.
Positively the Same Dame
Every Leaf. Every Ray of Light.
A Night at the Opera
We’ll Always Have Paris
La Pucelle de Lorraine*
At the Fair
A Day in the Life or Three *Asterisked are the mulligans
With the possibility of some others if I find the time, but these twenty are definitely coming. They’re coming next month. Be prepared.
And just to prime… previous reviews of my favorites that were covered:
I’m not certain there’s a movie from the 2010s about which I have grappled so much more than Man of Steel. I’ve seen it about 5 times in the time since it premiered in the summer of 2013, almost all of which took place within those last two years of my time as a film school undergrad (2013-’14) for various social reasons. Which in some ways makes me grateful that I’ve waited so long to finally drop a review proper ’round these parts, which could have gone either way between mutedly negative or mutedly neutral throughout the years. I don’t know flicked a switch in me what about the rewatch of Zack Snyder’s Superman movies back in March in anticipation of HBOMax’s release of the long-murmured-about Snyder Cut for 2017’s Justice League, but something did the trick in this watch and I finally moved up to strong positivity.
It might have just been the retrospect of where popcorn cinema has gone in the past 5 years, particularly superhero blockbusters, being more and more muted in personality. In 2013, particularly in the wake of the ill-advised attempt at feminism that was Sucker Punch, a Zack Snyder picture was the most unappealing concept for me. A Zack Snyder Superman – especially in the wake of the massive misread of one of my favorite works of literature, comic book or otherwise, Watchmen – was especially an unappealing concept for me. And sure enough, the resultant picture is absolutely emblematic of all of Snyder’s indulgences as filtered by an interest to at least capture that same grounded atmosphere of the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, sharing the weaker link of that trilogy’s writers room in David S. Goyer and Nolan, Emma Thomas, and Charles Roven in the producers’ slate with Snyder’s regular producing partner Deborah. Those indulgences being slow-motion, color timing to the point of draining it away, and generally a sense of sound and fury that rivals Michael Bay.
Well, frankly the last few years have made me more and more hungry for indulgent blockbusters, with that 800-lb gorilla that is Disney literally outlawing any semblance of personality in their output. And I do mean this review as a one of a trilogy of documents of my “come to Jesus” moment with Snyder’s Superman trilogy so in spite of all the mean things I just said above and certainly the grievances I do still have with Man of Steel as a picture, I come to praise the film and not bury it.
Starting with its best foot forward: the origin story of Superman begins literally with his birth on Krypton, portrayed as a pulp science fiction planet with flying Avatar dragons and floating Meteora-esque mountains above the clouds bronzed-up just well enough to feel like it comes from the mind of the director of 300 (thought thankfully cinematographer Amir Mokri doesn’t embalm the soaring visuals with that heavy color, especially in a very marine-color sequence during this prologue). Sober scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is explaining to the High Council the environmental doom that Krypton is headed for, except that happens to conflict with the coup that militant General Zod (Michael Shannon) had scheduled on that same day, barging in to kill every council member in the room and insisting on Jor-El’s allegiance. Instead, Jor-El retrieve the genetic codex by which Kryptonian children are bred and hides it within the same escape pod through which he ejects his naturally birthed son, Kal-El, prior to Zod’s imprisonment after the coup has failed and Krypton’s inevitable destruction.
From here, we watch through impressively fractured chronology largely driven by the investigation of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) trying to find out who this mysterious man (Henry Cavill) who constantly shows up to perform feats of bravery and mercy all ’round North America through physical marvels like holding a collapsing oil tanker in hellish heat long enough for the workers to escape. We learn expectedly that this is the same Kal-El, found in the pod by farmers Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) in Smallville, Kansas and raised as Clark Kent. And I think it’s particularly in this Rockwellian vision of Midwest Americana that Snyder and Goyer particularly excel. As Clark (who is portrayed as a child by Cooper Timberline and a teenager by Dylan Sprayberry) comes to learn the hard way that he’s not like other kids and his superhuman abilities like x-ray vision and incredible strength and speed, director and writer go all the way in on communicating just how depressed and alone this kid may be while his parents do what they can to ground him back to these earthy roots.
‘Round the time of Man of Steel‘s initial release, a lot of the criticism was to the treatment of Superman as something to be wary of, distanced in his godhood rather a point to aspire to like he is at his most beloved Golden and Silver Age comic book incarnations (there is another major criticism that we will discuss later on). And while I get the criticism, I’ve always found it a bit too closed-off towards a new approach to the character. We have the bright and optimistic Superman of the comics in Richard Donner’s 1987 Superman, which lest we forget is both one of my favorite comic book performances and my absolute favorite live-action comic book movie. If you need THAT Superman, it’s available. Even when I was not a fan of Man of Steel, I certainly found its decision to wonder “how would it feel to discover you are not of this world?” and to engage it in sincere melancholy to be genuinely interesting, even if Mokri and Snyder go a bit overboard on the color correction. Despite that color timing, they constantly find ways to frame Timberline, Sprayberry, and Cavill in emptiness so that the shots can do double duty in making him larger-than-life but also profoundly isolated, amplifying that emotional uncertainty and discomfort that one could argue Cavill’s lack of footing as the titular man of steel actually feels more appropriate to the journey Snyder and Goyer set out for him.
Just as appealing to me is the way that Snyder and Mokri openly ape Terrence Malick just as much as Nolan in their loving shots of wheat fields within that Kent farm that Clark would call his home and with such warm visuals, we understand how that’d be the case too. Malick-inspired movies are about a dime a dozen these days and I’m normally not fond of them (heck, we literally awarded Best Picture and Director Oscars to a Malick rip-off last month), but somehow Snyder’s diving into such a mode with full-on worship that bows its head towards nature similarly to Days of Heaven is very much impressive. Meanwhile, the Kent parents providing Clark with a bit more conflicted and morally dubious suggestions on what would make their son safe rather than fulfill his destiny as a protector of humanity which Costner and Lane successfully deliver as “parents trying their best to help and failing” rather than “adults who would rather see kids die in a bus crash”. Crowe, for his part, shapes this further by playing Superman’s birth father as clearly someone proud and invested in his child’s future but approaches it with chilly scientific interest in stone-faced delivery, like a more matter-of-factly Atticus Finch, and it pushes us to prefer the Kents as figures without disliking Jor-El.
I have made it about 1100 words in spending most of my time on the arguably the first third of the movie, largely because in my eyes… the first third of the movie is perfect. It sets up that grandiosity, that vulnerability, that humanity that makes Man of Steel feel so much more personal and engaged as a story of one guy realizing exactly what he has to be marvelously. But I have no illusions about Man of Steel being perfect and there did come a point in my rewatch where I had to acknowledge “OK, yes, this is why I wasn’t a big fan at first”. It creeps in slowly as the primary external conflict – General Zod’s arrival to Earth seeking conquest, which to Goyer’s credit, ties in well to Clark’s journey to Superman – interrupts Superman’s internal conflict with menace and the threat of 2010s popcorn cinema’s biggest bane, CGI explosion extravaganzas that have not an ounce of the quiet intensity that the Smallville sequences had.
And of course, those sequences pop their ugly head in and take up more space until the climax of Man of Steel turns out to be a colorless gray battle in the ruins of a city that brought up that second famous criticism of the movie, its ostensible lack of concern for collateral damage and the well-being of others (which we will indulge Snyder’s infamous response to on my next review). It not only deals with effects work that hasn’t aged nearly as well as we hoped (though certainly a good amount still survives), but it demolishes the structure of the movie as somehow Goyer determined that Superman vs. Zod was a second feature’s worth of material and added unnecessary further acts and it becomes the obvious point where Warner Bros. as a studio truly mandated Man of Steel resemble as much as any other loud and addle-brained summer blockbuster, especially that there Avengers movie except make it the dark version.
But it is not all bad: we get to witness a morbid vision of Earth as preferred by Zod, ostensibly action movie moments like Lois and Superman escaping Zod’s ship or Superman engaging the World Engine that actually lend themselves to further play with the classic Superman imagery (even if it is still annoying that Zack Snyder had conflated it with Jesus Christ imagery), and the most controversial moment of Snyder’s Superman ever really is one that I think plays extremely well in this character arc.
Most of all, I’ve saved the best element for last and it’s really telling that the weaker the movie gets, the more bravura it is to carry Man of Steel to the finish line. I am speaking of course of Hans Zimmer’s score for the film, which had already done brilliant work in the first few acts subtly seeding itself within the comforts of Clark’s upbringing but once we see him in the red and blue suit for the very first time… Zimmer’s compositions function as practically an ignition to the movie’s best sequence and the climax to all that wonderful character work it was doing trying to get Superman to become THE Superman, his first flight across the globe at high-speeds where Zimmer’s strings and horns soar along with him and feel so eager and elevating in their stirring bombast that we are right there with Cavill, rising in the skies and excited by our potentials. I wouldn’t dare call it superior to John Williams’ iconic march but it is a lot closer of a race than it has any right to be, possibly Zimmer’s career-best work (barring The Thin Red Line) and certainly a miracle of making us believe a man can fly just as the 1987 picture did.
As far as Zimmer carries Man of Steel, it turns out it doesn’t need to carry the movie all the way to the finish line. The final beats of the movie collect itself from all the brainless colorless anti-spectacle quickly enough to tie off the places Snyder, Goyer, and company all brought their new vision of Superman to and earn a sense of optimism to its final dialogue exchange that feel consistent with what we have seen (in fact, that same dialogue exchange makes me grin like a lunatic every time in its obviousness). Which just goes to remind us of where Snyder’s Superman comes from: it’s no less a figure of hope than Christopher Reeve’s beloved Boy Scout, just one that finds itself working harder to get there. Sure, this is a sad Superman, a depressed Superman even, but he is not a miserable Superman as all the biggest critics of the movie seem to claim and it took me a long minute to recognize that while it is cautious about a man of tomorrow standing among the people of Earth with a sense of apprehension and disbelief and distrust about the character’s presence, it is still no less awestruck at the miracle of him and gives exactly the sort of grand scope that such a character demands, just from a different perspective than we expected. A perspective that felt like the first step in Snyder becoming a lot more agreeable as a storyteller.