Editor’s note: On June 27, 2018 Keridwen Luis, lecturer on studies of women, gender, and sexuality at Harvard University, introduced The Rocky Horror Picture Show, part of the Brattle’s Elements of Cinema program. These are her introductory remarks. –Jessie Schanzle, Film Notes editor
Thank you so much for the lovely introduction, and thank you for everyone at the Brattle for inviting me to this. This is lovely and exciting, and it’s been delightful trying to think, what can I say about The Rocky Horror Picture Show? I mean, what is left to say about this film? Actually, there’s a lot I could say about this film, but I’m not going to say it all because I’m sure we’d all rather be watching the film.
This is the most classic of what we call the “cult films.” It is a timely commentary and a cultural touchstone. It is supremely dated, and yet, it exists in this weird eternal present for us. It’s a classic, but why is it a classic?
The genius of All About Eve (1950) is that it does not drag out its fairly obvious premise that Broadway star Margo Channing’s enthusiastic, young super-fan, Eve Harrington, is deviously plotting her own career rise at Margo’s expense. Barely a quarter of the way into the film, Margo (Bette Davis) has already deemed Eve (Anne Baxter), whose fandom and sycophancy she’d rewarded with a personal assistant job, a threat to her career and boyfriend. In true theatrical fashion, Margo unleashes her first wave of retaliation by drunkenly making a scene at her own party.
Frustrated by her boyfriend Bill’s refusal to coddle what he views as unchecked vanity, Margo’s mood is set to high voltage by the time her first guests arrive. If she had been banking on her friends’ support, her hopes are dashed as her they immediately fawn over Eve. Playwright Lloyd extols Eve’s “quiet graciousness” (in contrast to Margo’s brash grandeur), producer Max comments on the feminine new tidiness Eve has brought to the house, and best friend Karen puts the final nail in her ego coffin, saying, “Nothing you’ve ever done has made me as happy as your taking Eve in.” These attacks on all fronts set Margo down an increasingly childish – and hilariously witty – path, one to which her friends are all-too accustomed, ultimately setting up one of the great lines in cinematic history.
There are few films that I’ve seen that epitomize classic Hollywood as well as 1944’s musical hit Cover Girl. Starring an effervescent Rita Hayworth as Rusty Parker, a vaudeville-style dancer, and a typically earnest Gene Kelly as Danny McGuire, her manager/boyfriend, Cover Girl thrives on the pair’s dynamic charisma. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine this film being enjoyable without either of its principal actors.
The main issue with the film is that its plot is rather cliché – a discerning viewer will be able to map out the story within the first ten minutes of the movie. Hayworth gets a bit of a raw deal with Rusty, who is written as a humble but beautiful dancer who is easily swayed by others. Fortunately, her lively presence alone is enough to keep the audience invested in the film. Kelly’s McGuire isn’t an especially original character either, but like Hayworth, he has the talent to transcend the film’s uninspiring writing and gives the audience a treat of a scene near the film’s end. Despite Cover Girl’s flaws, the star power and unforgettable dance numbers make it a must-see film for viewers looking for a classic Hollywood experience.
In Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014), nothing is as simple as it seems. “I’m going to high school,” Marieme (Karidja Touré), our careful, introspective protagonist says to her mother one evening. In truth, she has dropped out of school after being told – despite her protestations – that her only real educational future lies in learning a trade at a technical school. Instead, she has joined up with three other neighborhood girls, who soon become her sisters-in-arm as she navigates life in the banlieues of Paris. We know she is lying and, we suspect, so does her mother, though she doesn’t come out and say it. Some of the film’s most effective exchanges have no dialogue. Every gesture, every facial expression is charged with a sense of urgency that feels eminently appropriate.
Nineteen thirty-nine was a golden year for movies. A record number of films were made, more than 20 of them considered now to be classics of cinema, including Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and many others.
Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings (1939) did not fit the mold of movies being made at that time. Angels did not possess the maddeningly indefinable allure of Garbo in Ninotchka, the unwavering idealism of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the melodramatics of Dark Victory, or the unbearable tragedies of Wuthering Heights. Nor did it have the over-the-top fantasy world-whirl of the beloved Wizard of Oz, or the searing romanticism of Gone with the Wind, both made by Victor Fleming that same year.
The Green Fog (2017) is a mind-bending walk through the iconic narrative arc of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Commissioned for the closing night of the 2017 San Francisco Film Festival, director Guy Maddin (with co-directors Galen Johnson and Evan Johnson) pays a wonderfully subversive tribute to Hitchcock’s San Francisco-centric film by stitching together footage from movies and tv shows filmed in the Bay Area. Through the scrim of cut up and reworked scenes, the emotional peaks and valleys of Vertigo’s plot materialize. However, this approach never turns into a trivia game for cinephiles. Indeed, a particularly precocious cineast could spend the entirety of The Green Fog recalling the classic films that appear on screen (over 100 in total), pulling each title from the recesses of her mind. However, in traditional Maddin fashion, a more conceptual and active level of movie watching is required.
Vertigo (1958) remains the top contender for the best film of Hitchcock’s impressive oeuvre. In the film, John “Scottie” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) suffers from vertigo after pursuing a robber over rooftops and plummeting nearly to his death. After his near-fatal accident, he is hired to investigate Madeline (Kim Novak), the wife of an old college friend, who is acting strange, almost possessed. As Ferguson pursues Madeline, he not only saves her from drowning, but ultimately falls in love with her. But his vertigo prevents him from saving her life a second time when she appears to throw herself from a church tower. The second half of the film follows Ferguson as he recovers from a mental breakdown and meets Judy, a woman with such a striking resemblance to Madeline (Judy is also played by Kim Novak) that Ferguson becomes obsessed and remakes her in Madeline’s image.
At a press conference on March 22, 1971, Melvin Van Peebles read aloud a letter written to Jack Valenti and the Motion Picture Association of America. In it he stated:
“As a black artist and independent producer of motion pictures, I refuse to submit this film, made from Black perspective for Blacks, to the Motion Picture Code and Administration for rating that would be applicable to the black community. Neither will I “self apply” an “X” rating to my movie, if such a rating, is to be applicable to Black audiences, as called for by the Motion Pictures Code and Administration rules. I charge that your film rating body has no right to tell the Black community what it may or may not see. Should the rest of the community submit to your censorship that is its business, but White standards shall no longer be imposed on the Black community.”
Nine days later, on March 31st, 1971, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song would open at the Circus Theater in Detroit and within five days would gross a staggering $45,534.00 – an all-time house record. And only two days later it would smash the house record at the Coronet Theater in Atlanta. Black cinema, independent American cinema and, perhaps, cinema itself would never be the same.
Three Colors: Red (1994) is not only the last film of brilliant Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s acclaimed Three Colors Trilogy, but also his farewell gesture to the art of cinema. It is fitting that a film marking the end of a great cinematic career should be about connection, truth, fate, disappointments, and passing of lessons learnt. The compassionate, naïve, and optimistic Valentine (Irène Jacob) and the jaded and cynical retired judge Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant) are two halves of the same apple, that is to say, two opposing sides of the aging filmmaker Kieslowski.
“My novel The Dead Zone arose from two questions,” writes Stephen King in his superb retrospective On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, “Can a political assassin ever be right? And if he is, could you make him the protagonist of a novel?” King worked backwards from there, arriving at the supernatural premise of a man granted dark visions of the future. Such a premise could have easily supported a novel without treading into such murky political waters, but that was where King’s interest lay, and what the story marches toward with an air of grim inevitability.