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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The Searchers (1956)


“”So we’ll find ’em in the end, I promise you. We’ll find ’em. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.”

I’ve always wanted to watch more Westerns, but something pulls me away. Maybe I’ve had a distorted view of them, because I always seem to picture the discount DVDs in the corner of Cracker Barrel gift shops. I think The Searchers felt a lot more “surface” than I was expecting while I was watching, but as it so happens with any movie you watch in a film class, you study it and read essays and have “greatness” shoved in your face until you can’t really deny an objective prestige to the movie (if only because you place such trust in your film professor’s judgment). I think the movie plays with the structure of the Western and its archetypes in a way I was able to reflect and really appreciate, but for a surface-level adventure, it still gives a really fun story.

The Searchers follows John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran and cowboy action hero who returns home to spend time with his brother’s family. Right away, however, most of them are killed or kidnapped in an attack by Comanche Indians. Disdainful of Indians and fueled a strangely focused sense of vengeance, Ethan is joined by adopted nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) on an adventure to find his niece Debbie who was taken by the Comanches and is rumored to be alive.

Ethan is an antihero, a bold career move for John Wayne who was known for less ambiguous but equally kick ass characters. Spectator theory and Western escapism would explain why we root for Ethan, but he’s still an amoral, selfish bull of a character. It’s an interesting contrast where all the gun-slinging and survival skills are given to the guy who is in the wrong wrong, and I like to believe the film’s central question (regarding the kidnapping of Debbie and the implications of taking her back), is answered correctly, viewing Ethan as a dangerous radical. It’s instead Marty, the bumbling sidekick, who shows compassion and brings humanity to the film’s darkest moments, and through him, the film gives us the moral answer we’re seeking.

The movie triumphs technically, with some really beautiful shots that help you get lost in the story. The first and last shots have great unity, and there’s a “legendary” status to the presentation, almost as if John Ford knew what kind of legacy this movie would have while he was shooting. I think the degree to which we can root for Ethan is also a testament to the film’s formal elements. He’s shot heroically, though his words are anything but heroic. I think Wayne is letting himself deconstruct the “Western hero” by playing him up in such a contradictory way, though the contrast can take away from what I think is a more brutal screenplay than we’re ultimately allowed to experience. (Wayne shooting the eyes out of a dead Native American comes to mind, forcing him to “wander forever between the winds.” Yikes.)

I think the literary elements of the source material also get to come through in a cool way. There’s a unity to The Searchers that you usually only get in book adaptations. Marty’s romance with Laurie (Vera Miles) and her strange use as a framing device indicate that the screenwriter was tinkering with a great story but was still willing to experiment to translate that greatness to the screen. This is also apparent in some detail changes from the novel, such as Marty’s heritage being Native American in the movie but not mentioned in the book. This kind of detail also seems like proof that The Searchers has an agenda and is more than just popcorn entertainment.

I think The Searchers fits snugly into film and American history, and in my limited experience with Westerns, it feels bold enough to challenge convention and make an argument that comparable movies never seem to manage. I look forward to rounding out my knowledge of Westerns and maybe returning to The Searchers for a more informed comparison.

Films Left to Watch: 870

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Mad Max (1979)

Mad Max.jpg

“They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes!”

It was with great anticipation that I finally watched the original Mad Max. Like most people, I was blown away by Fury Road a few years back, and I was even more blown away by Babe, the talking pig movie written and produced by George Miller. Maybe watching the Mad Max movies in the wrong order isn’t a good call, though, because from what I’ve seen (all but Road Warrior), they only get zanier as they progress, and with a story like Mad Max, that’s where the quality lies: in its chaos. However, I still enjoyed this movie quite a bit and consider it a valuable predecessor to a lot of movies that I adore today.

Mad Max features our titular hero Max (Mel Gibson), a highway patrolman keeping the peace in the outset of a dystopian future in Australia. Any sort of police force are spread thin, and indulgent hedonists seem to run things as the foundations of society collapse. Max is the antithesis: a morally virtuous action hero (at least at first), and he seems to be the film’s only savior in a lawless land abused by a savage motorcycle gang, the collective antagonist of the movie. As things get personal and Max’s wife and child are thrown into the mix, we see Max transition from an upstanding lawman to a cold-blooded killer in the pursuit of vengeance.

Similar to other films in the franchise, the original Mad Max wastes no time as it pulls you into its world, presenting a satisfying car chase in the first twenty minutes that jump starts the rest of the action. It’s a continuous film, and this is why I think it’s become so influential. Just like the car chases contained within, the movie seems fast and fluid with a steady progression of events that result in a satisfying showdown. This is where the movie works best: when it’s unapologetically heaps of fun.

I’ll have to admit that I didn’t find myself completely invested in the story. Maybe I just wasn’t watching under the right circumstances, but I found the movie a little lacking in heart. Mel Gibson has always left a bad taste in my mouth, and while his portrayal of Max is slick, there’s no passion compared to what Tom Hardy would later bring to the role. You don’t get a lot of Max’s backstory, but Gibson seems to play the role accordingly: as a blank slate. Granted action movies (and cinema altogether) was wildly different in 1979, I couldn’t help feeling a little guarded with the movie. It examines the notion of morality and the need for heroes in a post-structure society, but it does so in a very surface way without any characters that really drive the point home. As is often the case, I think I’m just having a hard time clearing my mind to the conventions of the time (dull action heroes), but I think if the movie had been a bit more careful with its characters, it could have gotten me more on its side.

Regardless of my issues with the film, which I feel are circumstantial, a few other things really impressed me in the movie. I mentioned that the story ramps into gear quickly and continues to accelerate, but I think you could say the same about the world-building. Miller has a twisted but carefully planned universe that only continues to degrade as these films continue, and it’s really fun to plot the progress along the way. Other little details make this movie exciting in a fandom sort of way, such as the V8 Interceptors and even just the silly names of the bad guys which make their ultimate fates far more comical, also suggesting that Miller is never taking his work too seriously given its subject matter.

Mad Max may have some aging issues for me, but I think it’s a really entertaining ride. It’s got sharp details, well-shot action, and a quick and dirty story that leaves you satisfied and feeling like you need a shower (in a good way). I only wish it had a talking pig.

Films Left to Watch: 871

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The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

Sweet Hereafter

“We’re all citizens of a different town now. A place with its own special rules and its own special laws. A town of people living in the sweet hereafter.”

The Sweet Hereafter is a somber, reflective film. There are powerful moments, but its power comes mainly from its simmering, what many would call a slow burn. Its characters are in pain, but they press forward with an uncertain but resilient force that makes for truly compelling drama. This is my first encounter with director Atom Egoyan, and I look forward to exploring more of his work, as this was one of the most personal movies I’ve seen in a while.

The film follows a small Canadian town after a gruesome accident leaves fourteen children dead from a school bus run off the road. Lawyer Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) arrives in the town and starts knocking on doors, gathering support for a class action lawsuit. We see him not as a sleazy ambulance chaser nor as a compassionate advocate of justice. He’s somewhere in the middle, but he’s definitely an outsider to these people. Stephens’ daughter is a drug addict with no hope for recovery, allowing him to connect with the townspeople on a personal level, viewing his own daughter as dead in a sense, uncertain of who she is anymore. The film seems most interested in the town’s mixed feelings over Stephen’s lawsuit and how its residents hope to move forward with their lives following the tragedy.

Sad things happen throughout the movie, but Egoyan is keen on showing us the despair that occurs between these moments of action. The film doesn’t show the car accident until the middle of the film, and it’s not too dramatized in its depiction, because that’s clearly not the point. We spend time with a good number of the town’s residents who have been affected by the accident, and many of them become significant movers in the final outcome of the film. Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley), a young woman who survived the accident, is perhaps the film’s most dismal character, forcing the story into its conflicted conclusion with what I viewed as a triumphant decision.

The movie’s structure seems effective given its subject matter and muddled narrative. Events are presented non-linearly, but the film doesn’t dwell on this mechanic for any cheap effect. Events flow seamlessly, and the distorted timeline is only there to present character arcs in the most effective fashion. One character stands out as a villain, but he isn’t the antagonist, as Egoyan is far too interested in gray area than to give us a tangible conflict. Much of the movie is about placing blame, but a central problem is that there’s really no blame to place, and this generates frustration for a number of characters.

The structure also works with the visual aesthetic, a well-lit but mundane depiction of a quiet snowy town that could drive a person mad with its emptiness. (I was reminded of The Last Picture Show in this sense.) There are few attempts at humor, although when they land, they are spot on. Sarah Polley has a great line right at the climax of the film that serves as a much-needed release of tension. For the most part, though, The Sweet Hereafter is lulling and deceptively tragic, pelting you with small moments of despair as you search for some good fortune to cling to. Just as the snow seems to weigh down the roofs of cars and houses of the town, it weighs down its residents, only compounding their melancholy and rubbing salt in open wounds.

This movie was a unique, entertaining surprise, although a dark one at that. I probably won’t return to this movie for a while, but it’s a triumph of filmmaking nonetheless. Coupling small town mundanity with stinging personal tragedy, The Sweet Herafter really hits its mark, showing exactly how to handle gray area in narrative cinema, by embracing it uncomfortably and unflinchingly.

Films Left to Watch: 872

(The 1001 List has updated again, setting me back a few more films.)

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