Wanda (1970)


“I don’t have anything. I never did have anything. Never will have anything.”

Wanda is beautiful. It’s the strange, reflective film that seems lost in cinema’s history. It feels like a classic: the way it’s shot, the mood it creates, its feminist triumph, but Wanda is shrouded in mysterious obscurity. Its director, writer, and leading actress Barbara Loden died of cancer before she could make another film, and there’s a lack of breadcrumbs leading back to the movieIt has reasonable acclaim among viewers but is almost never discussed in 2017, though it demands as much discussion as any other great film. Maybe I’m still lost in the facade of this movie and of Loden’s life (particularly after reading Nathalie Léger’s A Suite for Barbara Loden on the subject), but I think there’s undeniable merit to not only the mystery but the movie itself: a tale of loneliness.

Wanda follows its titular heroine, a lower-class woman in her 30s in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania, through a sequence of tragedies that only highlight her obscurity to the world and her harrowing passivity. She hands custody of her children to her ex-husband, citing her inability to provide as a mother. She’s used as a sexual object and then promptly forgotten by the men in her life. She then finds strange comfort in being the accomplice and victim of abuse to a petty criminal whom she calls Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins).

There’s a lot of French New Wave to Wanda, so much that I often mistake the movie for a French-language film in my mind. The pacing and editing is very Godard, not surprising considering Loden was an outspoken fan of Breathless. There’s also a subtlety to how the film conveys its themes in a way Godard would (and perhaps does) admire. Loden gives herself no triumphant speeches, no sudden bursts of clarity. The story is ripe with despondency and aimlessness from the opening shot, and it only continues to dominate each frame in a deliberate pace. The editing is also experimental: how events jump forward abruptly while still giving time to sit and marinate on more personal moments in between. As Loden supposedly said, “it is easy to be avant-garde but it is really difficult to tell a simple story well” (Léger). Yet she does both in the French tradition.

It’s only fitting, given her triumph on the screen, that Loden’s auteurship be examined. Loden’s mystery, her charming but saddening passivity, translates magically from life to screen. The screenplay, not entirely clear in its intents, lays a framework that suggests only Loden had the vision to direct and star in the film. Not only her performance but the way she’s framed, how we’re able to identify with her world – it’s masterful direction. Wanda is as much evidence for auteur theory as any other film, and Loden is one of the most underappreciated auteurs of the 20th century for this single film which translates a sole vision confidently, proving that fewer cooks in the kitchen is often the way to go, particularly for a piece such as this one.

Wanda also plays on subversion, picking apart the masculine landscape of conventional cinema. Mr. Dennis is the film’s cruel hyper-masculine figure, but he seems weighed down by insecurity, reaching desperately for control. Even when he abuses Wanda, we identify with her as the more powerful figure. Dennis is a criminal, but a bad one, constantly making mistakes and proving himself out of his element while Wanda watches curiously, hoping passively that something good can come out of this. We also see Wanda not as a feminine or masculine figure, but as a dynamic blend. She rejects motherhood out of practicality for the lives of her children and herself, a progressive display even today. But she also strives for femininity in other ways, such as desiring to curl her hair or wear nice dresses, and she is shut down by Mr. Dennis for attempting to do so. Wanda seems to assert that women are often forced into passivity, into a zombie-like state as Loden describes it, no matter what changes they strive to make.

If ever a film demanded a Criterion release, it would be Wanda. History has glanced over the film, just as it glanced over Loden, and it deserves to be seen. I was entranced and inspired by this movie, and hopefully in due time, many others will have the same experience.

Films Left to Watch: 864

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The Thing (1982)


“This thing doesn’t want to show itself. It wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.”

Like most influential movies, John Carpenter’s The Thing was misunderstood at first. It’s hard to categorize, and it plays at all ends of the spectrum: paranoia thriller and zany body horror frenzy. As time progressed, of course, the film was granted cult status for reasons that become apparent with some context. It takes the camp of the 50s and 60s and transfuses the darker horror techniques of the 70sarriving at what still feels like a very modern film. I think The Thing is a triumph of horror that challenged the notion that quality terror can’t be wildly entertaining at the same time.

The premise is golden. Grabbing the loose structure of the 1951 Thing from Another World but trimming the fat and introducing character-driven, groupmind elements from AlienThe Thing is a master class of sci-fi suspense from its screenplay alone. A group of researchers in Antarctica is infiltrated by an alien specimen that has been sealed in ice for thousands of years. The alien, or “The Thing”, can take the form of any living creatures it attacks, spreading into multiple organisms as it gains more victims. The film follows MacReady (Kurt Russell), a helicopter pilot who takes the charge in uncovering the truth behind The Thing and keeping it from infiltrating the entire camp, and in turn, the entire human race.

I was most interested, this recent viewing, in the duality to The Thing. It’s Alien, but it isn’t. There’s nothing slick and cleanly sinister about The Thing as there is with a Xenomorph. It’s certainly predatory, but it’s smarter and more of an enigma to the characters, paying homage to the campy sci-fi of the 50s and 60s when the primary plot question was “Well, what is this thing?” Carpenter smartly draws on both of these traditions. The Thing is perhaps most thrilling, most suspenseful, when it plays as Alien, but its homage to the “classics” of the 50s and 60s are equally critical to its identity: as body horror.

The Thing takes the body horror genre a step further, I believe, than Alien. While the latter film presents an infiltrating, parasitic foe, The Thing does more than devour and incubate. It imitates. The film gives us the timeless sci-fi trope of the disguised monster. How do we know, characters ask throughout the film, that we are who we say we are? There’s some really great game theory to the movie. The alien is outnumbered but possesses the skills to hide in plain sight and grow exponentially, raising the stakes as the crisis only worsens should the protagonists fail from the beginning. The Thing doesn’t just force us to think about a creature entering our body; rather, the creatures kidnaps us. It becomes us. While there’s definitely something campy and familiar about this concept (Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the clear inspiration.), Carpenter modernizes this idea. He asks us, as Scott does with Alien, to go there with him. Meet these characters and find out what would happen, pushing suspense where you would instead expect camp.

Is The Thing without its share of camp, then? Does it transcend the label entirely? If you look at the special effects and the manner in which the creature is shot, I would say not. I think this explains some initial hatred of the movie. Carpenter definitely tries to have it both ways, but his direction is so confident that it works. The effects are smiley and shown directly (as opposed to Alien which teases its creature and obscures its technical shortcomings), so some suspension of disbelief is certainly necessary. But what I think this accomplishes, should you let yourself go there with Carpenter, is a movie that is heaps of funThe paranoia and gritty character study is always going to be there, but the body horror draws on just enough camp to make The Thing not just terrifying, but also wildly satisfying.

Just as he did with Halloween, Carpenter showed confidence, artistry, and a mastery of horror with The Thing. It’s intrusive, chilling, but also an absolute blast of a movie, definitely worth a place on your Halloween watchlist.

Films Left to Watch: 865

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The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Rocky Horror.jpg

“Give yourself over to absolute pleasure. Swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh – erotic nightmares beyond any measure, and sensual daydreams to treasure forever. Can’t you just see it? Don’t dream it, be it.”

It’s easy to forget, as Halloween rolls around and my college campus is abuzz with Rocky fever, that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a movie. The movie itself and the live performances are one in the same. The call-outs, the newspapers on heads, and lastly the movie itself – it’s all one in the same. Rocky Horror is, in a way, less of a movie than any other movie. Subculture is critical in its discussion, as has always been true with this movie. For one night of the year in my town (on Halloween), all the freaks and weirdos get to come out of hiding, re-enacting every beat of this cherished film in a triumphant rebellion against normalcy. I attended last year, and while it was a fun time, I think there are some cinematic issues to the movie that I’m more interested in discussing: issues interspersed with some stylish triumphs.

Rocky Horror is a musical, and a good one at that. It finds its way into your earbuds as does any great collection of show tunes. While the film subverts and ridicules a lot of things, it doesn’t ridicule great songwriting, one of the film’s high points that accompanies the story of Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon). A traditional, conservative pair of newlyweds, Branet stumbles upon the manor of Dr. Frank N Furter (Tim Curry) when their car breaks down in the rain. A transvestite mad scientist hellbent on creating life, Frank N Furter brings about a wild sexual awakening over the course of the evening in which he awakens his latest creation: Rocky.

The film was based on a musical of several years prior, a cinematic translation that works fairly well given the musical’s goals. Rocky Horror has two big ideas: satirizing B-movies and bringing about sexual revolution. It marries these ideas without apology, playing off clunkiness for comedic effect. As a result, the movie has a lot of blind spots, and it’s easy to poke holes in Rocky Horror if you’re so inclined. And sure, I feel inclined.

It’s an uncomfortable thing, though, to criticize Rocky Horror. While I think it’s a cop out to claim that a movie “doesn’t care about being good,” I also think it’s unfair to critique a movie as something it’s not. Is this a spectacle? Yes, and it works best as one. That much is clear. Fans of the film will also defend its story, but this is where things get murky for me. I feel like standard B movies problems are still present here, regardless of how much they’re satirized. Rocky Horror runs out of steam for me. Everything that works about the first half hour, the passion and creativity – it all seems to fade as the movie only tries to top itself. I felt a John Waters sort of disdain at times, as if choices are sometimes made for the sake of themselves. If you take it as fact that Rocky Horror does take a shot at sci-fi storytelling, which I think it does, then the movie fails spectacularly. But if I’m wrong and it’s more about dressing up and putting newspapers on your head, then I think that’s a disservice too.

What separates Rocky Horror from Pink Flamingos, aside from being tamer, is that there’s a thematic agenda. The set design, the visual contrasts, the social rebellion that the movie puts forward – it works. It accomplishes what few movies manage with such assurance. Rocky Horror is undoubtedly an important piece of history and culture. The satire is biting, and there’s a love for science fiction of the mid 20th century that comes through in ways big and small. I wonder how many Rocky Horror fans are also fans of the movies referenced in the opening number (Science Fiction/Double Feature), probably less and less each year. I think the movie is celebrated today as a manifesto of identity and is often discredited for its honest adoration of B-cinema, which is sad, because that stuff really works as well.

Rocky Horror always cycles back to its legacy. The midnight shows aren’t going away any time soon, so maybe that’s where its discussion belongs. If you’re gonna watch Rocky Horror for the first time on your laptop screen, maybe don’t. But if you find someone who loves this thing and let them take you down their rabbit hole, you’ll probably have a much better experience. Happy Halloween.

Films Left to Watch: 866

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Blue Velvet (1986)

Blue Velvet.jpg

“It’s a strange world.”

It’s a special time when I can crawl away from my responsibilities to enjoy a strange, entrancing work of cinema. Blue Velvet is one of David Lynch’s most beloved films, though often discounted as a precursor to Mulholland Drive. I saw it for the first time today, and I thought it was absolutely mesmerizing in a more accessible, focused way that I’ve never seen from Lynch before. It plays like a dark mystery while also providing a sensual, reflective breakdown of a common Lynchian theme: seeing.

The film starts like a Scooby Doo episode. Kyle MacLachlan plays Jeffrey Beaumont, a young man returning to his hometown after he father suffers a mysterious stroke. Jeffrey finds a severed human ear in the grass off the road and takes it upon himself to find the truth. What makes Jeffrey such a fascinating character is his unflinching desire to know more straight from the start. He ignores the police’s request to back away from the investigation, and he follows his own set of clues to the apartment of Dorothy Vallen (Isabella Rossellini) where he gets what he bargained for and far more. Events escalate absurdly until Lynch arrives at some fascinating conclusions about scopophilia, power and submission, and the darkness lurking beneath suburban life.

I mentioned that Blue Velvet is about seeing, and I found this taking on a number of forms. Jeffrey is the prime “seer” of the movie, borderline voyeuristic in his stalking of the dark, mysterious Dorothy Vallen. He seems to hold magical properties for sight, catching small details throughout the movie such as the severed ear in the grass or the hidden key in Vallen’s apartment that someone in the real world would never notice so quickly. There’s a charm to Jeffrey, as if some force is granting him this keen awareness of the world, reminding me of the character MacLachlan would go on to play in Twin Peaks. Sight is also explored in other facets, including the blind convenience store worker who astounds Jeffrey with his ability to see through other means. It’s a motif that drives both the story and themes in a fascinating way, as if we’re also stalking the intimate moments of the film ourselves.

Jeffrey is also granted sight into both of the movie’s worlds: the clean-cut, suburban world of his family and the seedy city nightlife. Lynch uses constant foils to highlight this contrast, the most significant being Dorothy Vallens and Sandy Williams (Laura Dern). Jeffrey is forced to decide between a wholesome life with Sandy or to continue his dangerous love game with Dorothy. These foils manifest in other ways, too, such as the use of dominating figures: the wily antagonist Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) violently controlling of Dorothy and the straight-laced Detective Johnson, overprotective of his daughter Sandy in a more wholesome, more fatherly sense.

This is a deceptively accessible work for Lynch’s canon. It boats some grounded mystery (and noir) elements that are only enhanced and deconstructed by Lynch’s twisted direction. This film certainly warrants future viewings for me, and I look forward to digging even further below the surface with Blue Velvet in the near future. 

Films Left to Watch: 867

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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

“If I have any more fun today, I don’t think I’m gonna be able to take it!”

I’m really learning to love exploitation cinema. It’s messy and sometimes only there to scratch an itch, but when it works, it pays off big. Texas Chain Saw Massacre hits every beat with perfection, scratching the itch like nothing else can. I hadn’t seen this movie in a good while, and it really overtook me in this viewing. It’s a standard slasher in so many ways, but it rises above convention with a gritty, uncomfortable premise that never lets you (or its characters) off the hook.

The film follows a group of friends on a trip to visit an old family homestead. They pick up a strange hitchhiker in a terrifying encounter that only foreshadows a night of darkness and suffering as the friends are picked off by a neighboring family of killers. The characters are boiler plate: some douchebags, an ignored voice of reason, and a final girl, but they play their parts perfectly and seem secondary to the experience Hooper is crafting. Rather than focus on character-driven conflict, Hooper distills the slasher formula to its core, focusing on atmosphere and commenting on the hollow arrogance of his characters.

There’s a neat documentary style in Texas Chain Saw, including a creepy opening narration that implies the film is a true story (which it’s not), a clever marketing ploy for 1974 that also shrouds the film in an unsettling sense of realism. The “murder house” feels dirty and inhabited. It strips away the aesthetic façade you find in a lot of horror movies that only serves to distract. Instead, Hooper is hell-bent on immersion. The set construction is detailed and impressive, and you see tons of its elements borrowed by the found footage movies of the 90s and 2000s. In a way, Texas Chain Saw paves the way for this genre, with its own camera working as a sinister observer, lurking in corners and relishing in the bloodshed.

On the topic of bloodshed, there’s really not much of it. I appreciate the straight-on method by which Hooper shoots the killings, and this blunt approach is what brings the scares rather than gushes of blood. The movie seems really interested in invasions of space: people being where they don’t belong, and most of the deaths in the movie (both heroes and villains) seem to embody this principle. The terror of Texas Chain Saw is people being out of their element, stepping into a world they have no business in. It’s a powerful motif that is still imitated in movies today.

I must also mention the cohesion of the film: how all of its elements fit snugly into place. I think “scene weave” is a really underrated aspect of a screenplay, and Texas Chain Saw masters its arrangement of plot events. This feels like one of the shortest horror movies I’ve ever seen, and I think that’s some of the highest praise a slasher can get. Every scene cranks up the momentum, and every detail from the first act is revisited. Even the cut-to-black at the end of the movie feels sinister and abrupt in a way that brings you chills of excitement, leaving you wanting more.

This movie was famously dismissed as a lesser form of horror. It’s messy and indulgent and emotionally hollow, but that’s the only way Texas Chain Saw works. It’s a tight, timeless story that holds up today as a frightening October flick with some really smart ideas.

Films Left to Watch: 868

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A Place In The Sun (1951)

A Place in the Sun

“I love you. I’ve loved you since the first moment I saw you. I guess maybe I’ve even loved you before I saw you.”

I’ve been reading Steve Erickson’s fantastic novel Zeroville. It tells a strange cinephile’s story of chasing Hollywood in the 1970s. In an iconic image from the novel, the protagonist has an image tattooed on his head: Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor as they appear in A Place in the Sun. I was fascinated by this. I recently attended a screening of the film, and I was particularly interested in what made A Place in the Sun so special to Erickson to include the tattoo in the novel. There weren’t any surface answers, but I found that the film hits its mark with precision and feels like a jarring, if at times manipulative, remnant of Old Hollywood with a handful of lessons still relevant to cinema today.

The movie follows George Eastman (Clift), a blue-collar nephew of a white-collar businessman. George gets a low-level job at his uncle’s factory, where he falls for fellow factory worker Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). He soon strives for “even better” when he rises through the ranks at the factory and catches the eye of the beautiful high-society woman Angela Vickers (Taylor). George attempts to live a double life, chasing after Angela while appeasing the increasingly unstable Alice.

I have a hard time getting through some clunky censorship-rooted stuff from the 50s, but it’s neat to see how these issues manifest themselves in A Place in the Sun, and I’m glad to say they really put up a fight with this one. There’s a different expectation when you watch a movie from 1951. It’s anything goes in movies these days, but I was on the edge of my seat for parts of this movie wondering how far they’ll actually go with all of this. Most of A Place in the Sun lives in a dark place. Clift is a messy protagonist, and it’s hard to root for him (and against Winters) on paper, but the editing and performances really seal us in an uncomfortable dynamic as viewers. The movie’s most uncomfortable and most successful scene pays homage to Sunrise in a dismal turn I found myself rooting for, and several other scenes really toe the line on what you could put in a movie in those days; it’s something I really adore.

A tenant of Zeroville, which features a fascinating discussion of A Place in the Sun and its editing, is that all films are manipulative; some just do a better job at hiding it. I think that’s what interests me most about the movie. For a while, I thought that there were no likable characters and that Clift was only the best among them, but I still found myself won over by the end, holding on for some miracle to prevent his dire situation. Winters plays an inconsistent set piece (hot and cold at the flip of a switch), but she plays it so truthfully that we sympathize with her while subtly rooting for her death past the 30 minute mark. It’s a classic love triangle with less color in its cheeks. As far as manipulation goes, A Place in the Sun is as manipulative as it gets, but I think Zeroville has helped me accept that some movies can get away with it because they’re just so beautiful, and there’s no doubt that this movie is beautiful amidst the chaos.

I also think the movie has “legendary status” for its discussion of the American dream. This seemed like the easiest way to get your 20th century story to legendary status, and perhaps it was more relevant to the culture in those days, but I find it harder to get on board with this reading of the film. Some stories do the “American dream” narrative better than others, but it does seem hamfisted in this movie. I really like the characters, and the class issues are an integral part of those characters; I just don’t think A Place in the Sun has anything interesting to say about class. Clift doesn’t fail because the American dream is hard; he fails because he’s a jerk. In that sense, I think the movie is more about people than it is about America.

I’m really glad Erickson’s novel gives me a unique lens through which to watch this movie, and I’m also glad it seems to rise above conventions of its time and genre. The story isn’t completely cookie cutter, and it’s shot and performed with such elegance that you can still let yourself get lost in the facade of it all, just as Clift (and America) was lost in the facade of Elizabeth Taylor.

Films Left to Watch: 869

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Raw (2016)


“Then we had our first kiss. And I understood…”

Pleasures of the flesh take on parallel meanings in Julia Ducournau’s Raw. Collegiate sexual awakenings are nothing new for indie cinema, but Ducournau translates this misguided time into a horror masterpiece that champions the re-imagining of a genre in desperate need of re-imagining. With a triumphant cast and a visceral visual flair, this could well be the most horrifying movie you see this October, but for freshly frightening reasons.

Raw follows lifelong vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) as she enters a prestigious veterinary school. In a clever early scene, we see the staunchly conservative, almost religious avoidance of meat on which Justine has been raised. This is embodied most passionately in her mother who seems horrified at the very notion of consuming a living creature, although more subtly in her father, who seems wisely conflicted on the subject. The rest of the film follows Justine’s rebellion against her upbringing: both sexually and carnivorously as she is hazed and humiliated by the upperclassmen at her veterinary school, most notably her older sister Alex (Ella Rumpf) who is also living out her juicy rebellion in its most extreme forms.

Sex and food are the driving forces behind Raw, and you find one theme at the center of both: meat. What is sex, the film would seem so suggest, but sacks of meat on sacks of meat. Justine poses a pivotal question throughout the movie: what makes us different than the animals we split apart and consume? Even genetically, one side character observes, pigs aren’t far off from humans. Just as a set of teeth grinds through meat until it hits bone, so this movie grinds into these questions both poignantly and horrifically.

If my friends on Twitter are any judge of what makes a great horror movie, they’ll throw out the biggest cliché in terms of criteria: jump scares. How many are there? Does the movie rely on them? Do they enhance the story? I wonder how many of them would correctly identify Raw as a horror movie, because there’s not one jump scare (in the traditional sense of the term) in the entire film. I had a stronger reaction to Raw than I’ve had to any horror movie of recent years, and that’s not just because it’s disgusting, (and man, it is disgusting), but because it offers you a different type of fear: something deep-rooted where the only thing going bump in the night is your own body. It’s a new spin on Cronenberg’s “body horror” that digs even further into us, capturing Cronenberg’s inner-to-outer style with a powerful sense of realism that I’ve never seen in a movie before.

There are movies that exist as a challenge. Pink Flamingos comes to mind, and eventually Salo when I get the nerve to watch it. It’s like those disgusting Internet videos you passed around in middle schoolHave you seen ____ yet? the children would ask with laughter, looking over their shoulders to make sure no teachers were around. It will make you throw up. I’d be curious how many people have thrown up seeing Raw, but despite its shock factor, Raw is a masterfully executed work of fine cinema that deconstructs these lesser movies, asking us why we find X and Y to be so disgusting? What can these impulses tell us about ourselves, and what are the consequences if we decide to reject these norms?

I regret not seeing Raw in a movie theater, though I hope to catch a screening someday. When you see It or Annabelle: Creation in a crowded movie theatre (as I did last month), you hear the reactions of its victims. These movies attack you, using suspense and surprise to elicit fear as classical horror movies have always done. It’s a math problem, one where we’ve got the formulas sheet memorized. Don’t get me wrong; I love some of those movies (not Annabelle particularly, though there are many others). But Raw isn’t interested in attacking you. It wants to invade you. It never pulls the camera away or lets your mind do the work (a mind where you’re in control.) Raw knows what you’re afraid of. It knows what disgusts you. It knows what you shut out of your mind when you find a hair in your soup or read a news headline about a killer cannibal. And then it delivers. That’s what horror should do. It’s not horror for everyone, but it’s horror about everyone, and Ducournau did it perfectly.

Raw is one of my favorite movies of the year and one of the finest horror films I’ve ever seen. If you watch it and don’t want to finish or don’t want to watch it again, that’s fair. But do yourself a service: carve out 90 minutes, start up Netflix, and try to stomach Raw. Then we can go out for a steak dinner and talk about what really scares us.

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