By Justin LaLiberty
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.
Editor’s note: Musical in cinema is generally considered an American genre. The very first feature “talkie” The Jazz Singer (1927) is indeed a musical, selling sound as a novelty on the big screen. While musical directors from countries other than the U.S. often admit to being influenced by big Hollywoodian spectacles, the impulse to employ the emotional agency of music in cinema as soon as sound became accessible is not unique to the Americans, as demonstrated by French director René Clair who made Under the Roofs of Paris in 1930. Throughout the history of cinema, non-American musicals have greatly contributed to the sophistication and nuance of the genre. To accompany our Elements of Cinema screening of Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, we picked 6 French musical movies that we think you should know, and watch.
Editor of Film Notes
Text By Tara Zdancewicz
Under the Roofs of Paris (Sous les toits de Paris) (1930) dir. René Clair
One of France’s first musicals was not very typical of the genre. With a somber tone, René Clair created a dismal representation of lower-class Paris that was very disparate from the cheerful, operatic musicals that were popular in France during the 30s. French moviegoers expected to be transported away from their problems at the movies, not reminded of them. The film follows a street singer named Albert that falls for Pola, a beautiful Romanian immigrant. However, two other men are also in love with Pola: Albert’s best friend Louis and the incredibly dangerous gangster Fred.
By: Victoria Large
Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 revisionist western Dead Man appropriately begins with a journey west. A fainthearted accountant from Ohio named William Blake travels by train to the distant town of Machine, where he’s been promised a job. En route, he looks bored and mostly avoids interacting with his fellow passengers, instead killing time by reading something called Bee Journal, playing solitaire, and drifting off to sleep. He appears visibly uncomfortable when he spies evidence of the violence of the Old West – destroyed covered wagons and teepees that look like skeletal remains – out his window. When the train’s soot-covered fireman visits Blake at his seat and delivers cryptic warnings about Machine, the accountant clutches his briefcase like a shield. Over the course of their conversation we learn that Blake’s parents have died and his fiancée has left him. He strikes us as a man with few remaining human connections and some hesitance to make new ones, at least with the rough-and-tumble men who fill the train when he gets close to his stop. Comparing him to the rugged characters that surround him, we can’t help but be aware of his vulnerability and seeming innocence.
By Christian Gay
Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski’s recent horror outing The Void might be more aptly titled The Cypher – the film is filled to the brim with winks and nods to horror and sci-fi masterworks, rewarding diehard genre fans while managing to deliver some wholly original horror imagery.
The film’s ultraviolent prologue, wherein the occupants of a country home are slaughtered in the still of the night, hearkens to The Amityville Horror (1979) before the film shifts to introduce us to rural police officer Daniel Carter, dozing in his patrol car. Carter soon discovers the bloodied man who has fled the prologue massacre and drives him to a local hospital that has been all but gutted by a recent fire. The hospital’s skeleton crew of four admit the man and begin treating his injuries. At this point, the film suggests a remake of John Carpenter’s Halloween II (1981): a small, ill-equipped rural hospital is besieged by a killer who picks off victims one-by-one. While the film more-or-less follows this trope, other horror references are quickly added to the mix.
By Bridget Foster Reed
Lynn, my grandmother, rescued a gray and white kitten from the docks of the Lewes Bay, subsequently naming her “Lewie.” I remember meeting Lewie; she was gently bundled up like a Danish. She unhinged her fangs and let out a giant hiss. In reality she probably sounded like a tire with a pinhole of a leak but I was ten and rather offended that this little teacup of a creature greeted me with such chagrin. Lewie drained the reservoirs of my cereal milk, in particular my Banana Nut Crunch cereal. My grandparents had all of the quintessential “old people” cereals to choose from. In short, Lewie vexed me.
Yes, yes I’ll confess. I’m a dog person. Bear, who resided at the same condo as that dynamite cat, was an instantly lovable blub. Bear tried to steal my pistachios as I sat on a tartan chair straight out of an Orvis catalogue. I thought it was precious, never malicious. I asked for a dog every year until my parents got me a…used rabbit. I would walk Snowflake the rabbit around the neighborhood.
By Matt Hannigan
Prolific director Ben Wheatley followed up 2015’s High-Rise with Free Fire, another film about the disintegration of a boxed-in mini-society. Both efforts are similar in this sense, observing a group of strangers forced into close quarters, casting us as the voyeuristic witnesses on a direct descent away from normalcy. Both films begin methodically, High-Rise introducing a futuristic all-inclusive living complex and Free Fire peeping in on an arms deal in an abandoned warehouse. And both can only ever end one way: in chaos, loud and bloody.
By Tara Zdancewicz
~ Valley Girl & Real Genius
Armed with an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Martha Coolidge studied acting before entering the filmmaking world in Los Angeles. Her first feature length film, Not a Pretty Picture (1976), told the semi-autobiographical incident of a date rape. Coolidge found her most commercial success with a variety of comedies in the 80s; most notably, for the Romeo and Juliet inspired Valley Girl (1983), which sparked the career of Nicolas Cage. Coolidge also helped to launch the career of Val Kilmer, in the science fiction comedy Real Genius (1985).
Coolidge was lauded for her 1991 film Rambling Rose, a family drama set during the Great Depression, which earned two Oscar nominations. From 2002-2003, the director held the honor of being the Director Guild of America’s first female president. Coolidge continues to direct films and many episodes of television shows such as Weeds, Psych, Madam Secretary, and Angie Tribeca.
By Greg Mucci
Back in February of 1992, a ‘Saturday Night Live’ spinoff head-banged its way into theaters in the form of Wayne’s World, an ode to music and personal creativity that caused a “Schwing!” to be heard from around the world. It’s a sound that carried with it an affirmatively virile pelvic thrust, one that’s used to rate notable women – their photo enlarged to poster size –acting as its own gesticulating male gaze. With its sexual utterance, forever engrained in the pop canon, comes the sound of money – also brought forth into the cartoon cash lexicon by our film – its “Cha-ching” indicating a tremendous box office success. This so happens to play to the tune of both money and industry sexism, frequent collaborators that have been a discordant scratch on the records of female directors since the birth of Hollywood.
By Nadia Clare Smith
Director Susan Seidelman described Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) as “not an art film, but not mainstream,” which nicely encapsulates offbeat ‘80s American independent films, especially the deadpan comedies with their distinctive tone and sensibility. The film, starring Rosanna Arquette and Madonna, fits into multiple contexts besides ‘80s independent film, such as screwball comedy, women’s film, and stories of mistaken identity. Other directors working in a similar style at the time include Jim Jarmusch with Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki with his American-set Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989). Both Seidelman and Jarmusch had attended film school at NYU and set their first films in New York, and their early films share certain similarities. Besides the laid-back style, deadpan humor, and laconic dialogue, musicians rather than trained actors were given key roles. Seidelman cast not only Madonna but also Richard Hell and Richard Edson, while Jarmusch cast John Lurie (who also appears briefly in Desperately Seeking Susan), Richard Edson, Tom Waits, Joe Strummer, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in his 1980s films. The tone of their films stands in stark contrast with the excessive, melodramatic, unironically kitschy sensibility of many major ‘80s films. Some critics were receptive to the film’s style, praising Desperately Seeking Susan as laid-back, quirky, cool, ironic, unsentimental, and pithy. Seidelman’s film reappropriated earlier screwball comedy conventions such as amnesia, which allowed repressed characters such as Roberta to act out.
By Shayna Murphy
When, in Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982), Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh)–the young, sweet and hopelessly naive freshman who takes way too much bad advice from her friend about how to make boys like her–gets an abortion, this beloved ‘80s classic that helped launch the careers of many young stars of its era ceases to be just any coming-of-age teen comedy. The instantly quotable lines from class stoner Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn in his first and only likeable role) all slip away. Even the now-iconic pool scene between Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates) and Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold), which helped launch a thousand fantasies and gave a cringe-worthy, fly-on-the-wall view into how the male gaze really operates, becomes just another bit of scenery. Continue reading