To tackle the current social climate through popular art is a delicate task. Any attempt to correctly render the mistrust, uncertainty and helplessness of daily life in a “post-truth” age runs the risk of coming off as too on-the-nose or condescending, content to simply list our woes rather than address them. Ticking off obvious boxes can be satisfying but falls short of being cathartic, and is hardly ever memorable. In times like this, one can get a more authentic view of our times through the works that appear as a result of them rather than attempts to explain them.
Category: Main Slate
There’s no doubt: Shadow of a Doubt (1943) was director Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite of his own films. I was surprised to learn this; I would have assumed it was North by Northwest (1959) because Cary Grant was his favorite actor to work with. But Hitchcock confirmed that Shadow of a Doubt was his favorite in an interview with talk show host Dick Cavett in 1972. But why was this film Hitchcock’s favorite? Hitchcock’s daughter, Pat, said, “this was my father’s favorite movie because he loved the thought of bringing menace into a small town” in the documentary Beyond Doubt: The Making of Hitchcock’s Favorite Film (2000). The film also held sentimental value for Hitchcock, as he injected many personal touches and also enlisted the help of his wife to write the screenplay.
Twenty-five years ago, in 1993, Allen and Albert Hughes (credited as The Hughes Brothers) took the American box office by storm with a jarringly violent urban crime drama set in LA titled Menace II Society. Released two years after John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society avoids much of the more familial melodrama of Singleton’s film – instead turning in a ferocious indictment of inner city violence, something that would then permeate the genre in the mid and late 1990s.
In adapting Joseph Kessel’s 1928 novel of the same name, Luis Buñuel’s 1968 classic, Belle de Jour, turned a deeply sexist tale of prostitution in the Parisian upper crust into a nuanced portrait of a woman at odds with her surroundings and herself. The story of Séverine – the quiet, young wife of a handsome doctor who fights her ennui and tests the edges of her sexuality by working part-time at a brothel – is a risky one; one that could benefit from sensitive characterization and detailed imagery or die at the hands of softcore exploitation.
Though Kessel considers it the “most human” of his novels, he fails to deliver the lived-in introspection required for this sort of material. His Séverine is a caricature straight out of Freud’s margin notes, unable to process complex thoughts clearly and whose sexuality exists solely because of a childhood molestation brusquely referenced at the start of the book. Her every action is painfully simple-minded – her constant near-fainting at the mere thought of prostitution, her inadequacy during her early days at the brothel and the catastrophe she causes after starting an affair with a dangerous client – and she is almost always punished for them. One can see Kessel wrote from a place that might’ve seemed to him genuinely human, but his obvious lack of understanding in regards to female sexuality cuts his apparent wisdom down into misguided misogyny.
Stanley Kubrick had never directed a comedy when he adapted Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita for the screen, but its farcical mechanics gave expression to a budding worldview. Nabokov’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert, presents himself as the consummate litterateur—a dandy whose attraction to underage girls is a matter of nonconformist élan. But, for all his preening, the character was born of a baboon: Nabokov was inspired by an ape in captivity that sketched the bars of its own cage.
Codirected by filmmakers Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, the 1930 silent masterpiece People on Sunday is a rare fusion of documentary and narrative genres. The film’s forerunners include the cinematic paeans to cities such as Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta, Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, and, of course, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. All of these films share a trailblazing curiosity for the idiosyncratic potentialities of cinema: the rapidly growing medium was as much a subject of these films as their actual content and imagery. By exploring what only film can do—with its indexical relationship to what it records and its ability to hop around in space and time, fluidly and otherwise, through montage—these films broke new ground in the world of cinema. But what makes People on Sunday stand out is the way in which Siodmak, Ulmer, and scriptwriter Billy Wilder, fuse this experimentation, the rigor of Soviet montage techniques, and grand portraits of sprawling metropolises on the one hand; with a fairly straightforward, joke-studded narrative about twentysomethings in Weimar Berlin who embark on a sunny double date to one of the lakes on the outskirts of the city on the other. This simple yet ingenious combination of the experimental documentary approach and a linear narrative mode sets the film apart from its predecessors. The combination has implications beyond discussions of filmic genre and stylistics, however. By merging these two forms, People on Sunday also bridges the particular story of the young friends with a more universal sensibility, represented by cityscape montages that appear throughout the film, a bridge that bears significance for a city and a country that were trying to find its identity in the wake of one world war as the seeds of another grew almost invisibly. The film spans the divide between the particular and the universal through free-associative montages that act as interludes in the friends’ trip to the lake, carrying the film away from the specificity of the double date and opening it up to the entire city in the throes of figuring out its interbellum identity. Blending together these elements, People on Sunday models a kind of collectivity rooted in wonderment and leisure, rather than one based on a perceived common threat or struggle.
Adolescence is a time of transition. Childhood slowly recoils in a cocoon and adulthood looms, almost threatening the child away. In Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, it is a transition so severe that it’s hard to know just what is about to emerge out of the cocoon and just what of the child will remain. The Fits is not only an allegorical poem about coming-of-age, but also a tale of becoming-a-woman. In the film, as in life, every girl goes through their own version of “the fits” to take their first step into adulthood (or more accurately, womanhood) seemingly unscathed, but forever changed.
Dmitri Kalashnikov’s The Road Movie – a found footage compilation assembled entirely from recent Russian dash cam recordings – is frequently concerned with the display of carnivalesque spectacle. Wild car crashes and road rage incidents intermingle in an often-surreal dance with windshield-views of police chases, animals darting into traffic, and strange weather conditions. An emphasis on spectacle privileges the hyper visible and the image captured on video with unbelievable timing and clarity. Despite this, I couldn’t help but find myself more so drawn to moments throughout the film that instead complicated such notions of vision. Rather than simply presenting carnage and calamity front-and-center (like an outlandish mash-up of America’s Funniest Home Videos, Ridiculousness, and Faces of Death), Kalashnikov’s documentary collage is often comprised of images that are quite difficult to discern or contextualize – the once legible suddenly rendered obscured or distorted by thick darkness, blinding light, precipitation, dirt, shattered glass, digital glitch, and the very limits of the dash cam itself.
It boggles the mind to think that nearly one hundred years have passed since the expatriate community in Paris set the literary, cultural and social world on fire in the early years of the twentieth century. Artists from every country on the planet stormed the city and made landmark changes and inventions in every area of culture and study: writing, painting, sculpting, fashion, and other media. In the years leading up to, during, and following World War I, a city changed the world.
The year of 1995 was esoteric for fans of genre cinema with a variety of sub-genres and trends brought to a boiling point: the buddy movie (Bad Boys, Money Train, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Tommy Boy, Friday, Top Dog), the revisionist western (The Quick and the Dead, Wild Bill, Dead Man), neo-noir (Se7en, Heat, Devil In a Blue Dress, Kiss of Death, Jade, Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead) all got their due but the most singular, and eerily prescient, sub-genre trend was the cyber thriller.