It’s no accident that Agnes Varda’s Kung-Fu Master! has two forms of punctuation in its title; it’s at once concerned with the grammar of cinema as it is the merging of different cinema tropes/styles/modes of production, putting its hyphen to use and it does it with such aplomb that the exclamation point is apt – though adding another wouldn’t seem ostentatious when considering how much energy fits into its meager runtime. And that title almost feels like some sort of cinematic nom de guerre, tricking its late 80s audience into expecting a martial arts film and getting something much more complex, sweet and altogether Varda.
Author: Justin LaLiberty
By the time of the 1973 release of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, director Peter Yates already had two great crime films under his belt in the form of Bullitt and The Hot Rock. Like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, both of those were based on novels as well, creating a throughline of late 60s through early 70s pulp that was never equalled by another filmmaker – though folks like Walter Hill and William Friedkin certainly tried.
There’s a fleeting moment in Agnes Varda’s 2008 documentary The Beaches of Agnes where the filmmaker returns home sees her family of cats and bluntly states “I’m home. The cats are here.” And that moment summarizes the film as a whole – as a film that chronicles Varda’s life in cinema, as a woman and as a person aging – while staying as honest and playful as its subject and creator.
The Beaches of Agnes came at a point in Varda’s career where she had all but abandoned narrative cinema – her prior feature length narrative film, One Hundred and One Nights, was released in 1995 – and had spent the past two decades building a body of documentary work, something she had worked with in years prior leading to films like Mur murs and Daguerreotypes. But 2000’s The Gleaners & I brought forth a sea change for Varda, establishing herself as a subject worthy of the same attention she gave to anything or anyone else in front of her camera with the advent of small digital cameras allowing for an intimacy that she was unable to achieve until the new millennium.
If ever there were a year to cement the status of the oft-ignored yet highly profitable Domestic Thriller genre of the ‘90’s, that year would be 1992. The year kicked off with The Hand that Rocks the Cradle in January, and then had a solid summer slate with Poison Ivy in May, Unlawful Entry in June and Single White Female in August. All but Poison Ivy would become profitable in their initial theatrical runs, the most successful being the surprise blockbuster status of The Hand that Rocks the Cradle with an 88 million dollar gross, placing it above other, more high-profile, R-rated films like Patriot Games and Under Siege for the year. And this was only the beginning.
There’s a scene in Ken Russell’s long-controversial, rarely-screened-in-its-entirety film, The Devils, wherein Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) riotously exclaims, “Don’t look at me! Look at your city! If your city is destroyed, your freedom is destroyed also. If you would remain free men, fight. Fight them or become their slaves.” By the time this speech unfolds, we have seen Grandier become the victim of Otherness, a martyr to hypocrisy and the lies of men, and an image of what it means to push the limits of social acceptance. For a film that has been accused of various levels of indecency for over four decades – where The Devils now lacks in its ability to shock via its viscera or willingness to expose pubic hair to the masses, it manages to shock in its capacity to mirror both the ideology of the time in which it was produced, as well as our own. It’s not often that a film which takes place in the 17th century can be considered prescient.
Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout is book-ended by scenes of violence taking place in football arenas, time-honored spaces of an American pastime. In the opening sequence, a young player walks onto the field and opens fire – an ominous opener that seems especially bleak this far removed from 1991. In the showstopper climax, a sniper stationed high above the action on field is attacked by one of our leads, eventually gunned down by the police and – in the film’s Grand Guignol moment – then falls into the spinning rotor of a helicopter, rendering his body into a mere splatter of blood. In these moments, The Last Boy Scout feels most like Scott’s film, yet everything in between is explicitly from the pen of its writer, Shane Black. Only this time, Black’s war isn’t on Christmas. It’s on America.
By the time of the 1991 release of Poison, gay themes, though present, weren’t exactly expected in genre cinema. Within the confines of the horror genre, themes of lesbianism showed up (usually eroticized or rendered evil) in Hammer films like Twins of Evil (1971) or The Vampire Lovers (1970) or other sexually explicit grindhouse staples like Daughters of Darkness (1970). Male homosexuality tended to be even harder to see, unless portrayed explicitly – Curt McDowell’s hardcore opus Thundercrack!(1975) – or for laughs – Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985). But Todd Haynes’ Poison is the first gay themed horror film to not patronize or sensationalize its material – which is saying a lot considering that it earned itself an NC-17 rating.
John Frankenheimer’s genre bending, visually daunting 1966 film SECONDS defies both trends of the decade from which it came, as well as those that would follow. On its surface, it is genre cinema concerned with themes prevalent in most of Frankenheimer’s work up to and after its release: paranoia and isolation. But once into the nitty gritty of the tale it chooses to tell, it becomes about one thing: eternal youth.
In the final moments of Tony Scott’s ENEMY OF THE STATE, Will Smith’s character Robert Clayton Dean looks at his all-too-90s CRT TV set with its flickering analog signal and then: he shows up on screen ala some type of closed circuit technology. Scott’s ode to – or prescient telling of – America’s obsession with surveillance, encompasses a few running tropes of thrillers of the 90s, as well as establishes the filmmaker’s ultimate aesthetic going forward. For Scott – especially late 90s through early 2000’s Scott – surveillance and cinema co-mingle to the extent of becoming one, and it all starts with ENEMY OF THE STATE.
In the early 1970s, animation still reigned supreme as a storytelling mode for children. Disney was still a dominating force at the box office, with titles like THE ARISTOCATS (1970) and ROBIN HOOD (1973). Something started to change as the decade progressed, and the counter-culture started to take hold in live action cinema post-EASY RIDER (1969) and the success of American International Pictures. Animation became decidedly more transgressive, hip, geared towards an audience that had just seen the fall of the production code, and wanted content that embraced this new freedom and the excesses it may allow. Enter Ralph Bakshi.