Ask someone to describe Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and the first thing they mention will likely be the colors. Suspiria’s film print was one of the last to be struck in the Technicolor imbibation process (also used by The Wizard of Oz, another famously colorful film about witches), and so its colors pop off the screen in a way that feels curiously alien. This has contributed to Suspiria’s status as a cinematic experience like none other, a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Lawrence of Arabia that begs to be seen on the biggest screen available. But Suspiria’s status as one of the most visually sumptuous of all horror films belies its pure, terrifying hostility.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is an uplifting film only insofar as it ends on an upswing for its hero, summing up a treatise against self-destruction. Even though Frank Capra’s Christmas classic is moral allegory, class conflict suffuses it, resulting in a less-than-cheerful socioeconomic conclusion underlying its wonderful, Christmassy closing: that money can force American citizens to their knees at the expense of faith and self-confidence. Frank Capra lionizes the entrepreneurial main character, George Bailey (James Stewart), into the protector of the American Dream and gladiator of the “battle of Bedford Falls” so that he may knock him down several notches and watch him writhe. This narrative progression is not so much sadism on the part of the director as portraiture. Frank Capra uses George Bailey’s story as a case study for class relations in America, portraying the difficulty of attaining the American Dream when the Mr. Potters of the country are actively out to get the average American. The Dream haunts as a Christmas Ghost in this rightly canonized Capricorn picture.
Slow, plodding xylophone mallets pace the viewer’s heartbeat as Suzy Bannion makes her way into the frame, shrouded in black, face bouncing off yellow light, mascara projecting her eyeball out of the celluloid. With bated breath, she spies on a witch’s coven performing the rites of its leader, the yet-unseen Helena Markos, queen witch of the hellish Tanz Dance Academy. Because her peers have already met unlucky fates, she remains an attractive victim—horror movie precedent does not excuse a protagonist from impending death. Dario Argento stretches the suspense, loosely protecting Bannion with curtain as she watches her potential murder unfold, replete with unheimlich doppelgangers, blood-streaked Nosferatus, and reptilian skin piercings. Suspiria boasts impressive pacing because there are no jump scares, just dread until it happens.
The epilogue demonstrates Dario Argento’s perverse understanding of a cooldown after the strange and confused climax. Suzy Bannion descends hallways and staircases to confront her final fear: that the dance academy does not need Markos to haunt and still bides its time to induct her into its body count. The implosion of the house during the last few minutes of the film boasts crystal explosions of vases, pots, doorknobs and chandeliers, flashes of red and deep blue and green, picturing a fractured debutante ball of a denouement—there is time yet that a shard of glass tack Bannion’s face to the wooden floor. As the final frozen frame of flames licks up the haunted house, the carved-up blue image of Bannion’s dead predecessor still sews itself into the screen as an irritating ocular sun spot.
Larry Cherkasov is studying English in his final undergraduate year at Harvard College, focusing on the literature of poverty in the early twentieth century.
Thirty years after director Kathleen Collins’ death, her landmark film Losing Ground finally received a wide release. Its belated moment in the spotlight is all the more astonishing as it flourished along the festival circuit. To people who are familiar with the film, it is known as one of the first feature films made by an African American woman, if not the first. It is also one of the first times audiences saw an all-black middle class cast on screen, as Nina points out in an interview. The significance of this achievement is easy to overlook in our age of media overstimulation and saturation but mustn’t be, because to do so would be to forget the enormous service that Kathleen Collins did by breaking ground for women filmmakers and filmmakers of color with Losing Ground.
Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep begins with a jolt. An office whirs and buzzes with talk of budgets, location scouting, and audition tapes. Immediately, the audience plunges into a meta-narrative with various Hollywood tropes. This continuous opening shot makes its rounds about the office before resting on Maggie Cheung, who plays herself. She is the perfect subversion of the French ingénue. She is an established actress while maintaining an innocent quality. She is young but mature beyond her years. As the narrative in the film reminds us over and over again: Maggie is from Hong Kong, much to the dismay of the obstinate traditionalists working on the movie who would have preferred a true French starlet.
One of the most inspirational rituals for athletes to partake in before a big game is turning on one of their favorite sports films. Hockey players turn on Miracle. Football athletes watch as Rudy overcomes all of his unimaginable obstacles. If basketball is the sport of choice, the options are limitless—Coach Carter, Hoosiers, Space Jam, White Men Can’t Jump, and He Got Game barely scratch the surface of the holy category of basketball movies that athletes of the same sport can watch. All of these films have huge stars at the helm—Samuel L. Jackson, Gene Hackman, Michael Jordan, Wesley Snipes, and Denzel Washington, respectively. As a ceremonious occasion, athletes turn on their favorite film the night before the championship and put themselves in Jordan or Snipes’s shoes. As Jordan defeats the Monstars in his intergalactic game of basketball, a blossoming basketball star dreams of slamming the ball through the hoop just like Mike. But what is a female basketball player to do? One film that holds a special place in many female basketball players’ hearts is the 2000 film Love & Basketball. Director-writer Gina Prince-Bythewood tells the story of Monica, a girl who loves two things equally: basketball and her childhood neighbor (and fellow basketball star) Quincy. A basketball player herself, Prince-Bythewood somehow manages to do the unfathomable: create a basketball movie not only about a female athlete, but also one who is black.
Tom Hanks’ directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, is a sleeper hit in the actor’s filmography. The film chronicles the meteoric rise of The Oneders, a suburban Pennsylvania based band who score a surprise #1 hit in the summer of 1964. While the film didn’t make a huge impact on its 1996 release, its winning story, appealing performances, and pitch-perfect soundtrack have raised its profile in the 20 years following its premiere.
The careers of the alternative-rock bands who recreated the garage-rock sound of the LBJ era mirrored that of the Oneders. Like the garage bands of the mid 1960s, Fountains of Wayne, the Gigolo Aunts, and Mike Viola were making music in the years after a revolutionary rock band had cracked the genre open, leaving a young audience hungry for new music.
Joe Dante’s distinctly American genre career has focused on the horror of suburbia: Gremlins, Small Soldiers, The Hole and, even in title, The ‘Burbs all concern what can happen in our very neighborhood—be it supernatural, science fiction, or just plain ol’ crazy neighbors. Not to be confused with the primarily 80s and 90s staple sub-genre of the Domestic Thriller (such as Poison Ivy or The Babysitter), Dante’s Suburbia Horror almost always positions families, rather than a sole individual, as victim or perpetrator, at the center of the terror. At the center of The ‘Burbs is a family…or two.
Wes Alwan: Good evening everyone. Thanks for coming. Thank you to the Brattle for asking me to do this.
I am here to talk to you about damn dirty apes and after that some philosophical themes. So I think that this is a really good film to be watching the day before Halloween. I actually wanted to find a good Planet of the Apes costume for Halloween tomorrow but I couldn’t find one. Even if I did, of course it wouldn’t come close to what they did with the make-up in that film, which is a kind of famous story in its own right. The movie almost wasn’t made because of the technical challenges in doing the make-up and presenting the apes as these humanized apes that really would just get a laugh out of the audience. One of the screenwriters, Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, really early on was asked to do some initial drafts of the screenplay and he went through like thirty or forty drafts. But, before he was convinced to go through all that work, he said he couldn’t be associated with the movie. He just didn’t think it was plausible. He thought everyone would laugh. The studios initially felt the same way. It took years for the producer Arthur Jacobs to convince them to do the film. To do that, he had to do a strength test where he had people in make-up. The make-up artist John Chambers actually ended up winning an Academy Award. The film actually spent the most money adjusted for inflation on make-up of any film in history. Twenty percent of the Planet of the Apes budget was spent on make-up.
Why do I mention all this? I think the greatest challenge and accomplishment of the film is to not to make humans convincingly apelike but to make these apes convincingly human. To do so, you need not just a mask. Chambers adapted techniques used during World War II to help disfigured soldiers. He used latex prosthetics in addition to make-up so that the actors could still make emotional facial expressions. They could use their eyes to act, they could wrinkle their noses, and they could convincingly speak underneath the latex and make-up. It’s still not perfect, however. Planet of the Apes has a very campy reputation because of that. There’s still a mask-like effect to the make-up, but I think that works better than full-blown CGI. There’s actually something important about the fact that the make-up is not perfect and there’s still a mask-like quality to it.—I think of it almost like a semi-mask or almost a Venetian half-mask. I’ll talk more later about why I think it’s so important that the make-up is done like that.
The scene from Max Ophuls’s The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) begins with the General (Charles Boyer): “But I’m warning you: she’s an incorrigible flirt. She’s an expert at asking men’s hopes. You know, torture through hope.” Through cheeky glances, the General warns Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica) of his wife, Louisa’s (Danielle Darrieux) serial flirtations. Interestingly, this is one of the only direct characterizations we get of our protagonist. We do not know much about her—where she comes from or how she ended up in her deadlocked marriage to a man she seems to have never loved. The film itself plays on the anonymity and opacity of its protagonist by using an anticipatory framing device every time her name is shown. The viewer always just sees ‘Madame de…’ and never the full picture.
And yet, in this scene, an earnestness emerges from Louisa as she dances the night away with Baron Donati. Ophul’s masterful editing and meticulous construction weaves a sequence of image into one continuous moment. They twirl through the frame and their clandestine romance ensues, obscured from the viewer by a busy foreground and background. Indeed, we are barely able to see both of their faces in frame at the same time. One moment we see Louisa’s serene expression and before we know it she has flipped away, substituted with the Baron’s visage, gazing at her with unadulterated affection. They twirl too fast for the audience to indulge in their emotions, for they are too enraptured in their love affair to pause for the camera.
Ophuls uses extravagant wardrobe changes and dissolves cued on downbeats of diegetic music to effortlessly mark the passage of time. And as the two spin around frame, moments spent dancing turn into days, then weeks. The two characters fall in love gradually and all at once. Their extended frolic is forced to an end as servants extinguish candles and orchestra members pack up their instruments. And finally the camera zooms in on a black drape placed over the harpsichord, and with that, the scene dissolves to black, marking the end of the height of their romance. Indeed, in this scene Ophuls masterfully builds their romance while simultaneously suggesting its steady unraveling. The ballroom scene marks turning point in Louisa’s character that she does not recover from. Her dance with the Baron is a moment of absolute bliss that she is never able to inhabit again. Immediately following their prolonged waltz, Louisa begins her retreat from society and spirals out of control, entangled in a web of her own lies.
Chase Sui Wonders is studying Film Production in her final undergraduate year at Harvard College. She writes for the Harvard Lampoon and makes short films.