Eyes Without A Face (1960)

eyes-without-a-face

“My face frightens me. My mask frightens me even more.”

The uncanny valley is a powerful tool, one that I wouldn’t mind seeing explored a bit more in the horror genre. For me, the most unsettling figures have never been the mischievous ghosts or heartless serial killers, but I find that I’m most unsettled by the almost humans. The creepy thing about Eyes Without A Face, a terrific French-Italian thriller from 1960, is that its characters are human. There’s nothing too fantastical about this story; it’s just an eerie, heartbreaking piece of medical horror that leaves you both intrigued and disturbed.

The film tells of Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a toned down mad scientist type who is responsible for a car accident that severely damages his daughter Christiane’s (Edith Scob) face. Génessier engages in skin grafting research and becomes driven to restore his daughter’s beautiful features by whatever means necessary. The film explores various fascinating perspectives, mostly focusing on the doctor himself but also incorporating the struggles of the victims, the police, and Christiane herself, along with several other figures tied into the mess.

There’s nothing astonishing about the film’s presentation; it takes clear inspiration from the American horror thrillers and monster movies of the 50s, and it’s also disappointing to see how toned down the film can be at times, really playing it safe amid fears of censorship. Even so, the film sparked considerable outrage and didn’t find peak success until years later when prominent directors began citing it as an influence. The premise is really exciting, and the film hits a lot of high points, but I always felt it was a little constrained. There’s a lot to explore with this concept both morally and visually, and it just never feels complete enough to meet all of its promises.

That being said, there’s a lot of clear talent behind every scene of this movie. One of my favorite motifs was the twisted melody that foreshadows action. It drones on playfully like a twisted carnival procession, and it really sets the mood for the film. The film also hits a lot of clever thematic images, with Christiane’s mask being an endless source of fascination. You can’t get enough of Edith Scob in this movie, and all of her scenes mark a relative high point in the story’s progression. She look almost perfect with her artificial face, and you can see in her eyes that she knows it’s not quite right. There’s a lot of cliché directions this kind of story could take, but it always focuses on an honest, personal sort of focus that keeps a sense of humanity at the core of the film.

You don’t see a lot of horror movies about skin grafting, but this is just one piece of another element I really admire about Eyes Without A Face: its grounding in reality. I’ve hinted at this already, but this is one of the most honest horror movies you’ll ever find. The mad scientist archetype is brought down to size, driven by human desire instead of screenwriter necessity. The scariest villain isn’t the doctor himself but his assistant Louise (Alida Valli) who gives you chills with her cold, unwavering commitment to Génessier’s evil deeds that adds a quiet sense of danger to all of her scenes. None of these characters feel like horror tropes, and it helps you sympathize with the film’s victims in a way a lot of modern horror can’t quit manage.

It’s not going to top any personal favorites lists, but Eyes Without A Face is an impressive work of horror that was sadly restrained by conventions of its time and place. While I wouldn’t recommend a remake necessarily, I’d like to see some of these themes and situations recycled in something new. While it’s a piece I really enjoyed, there’s definitely potential here for something greater.


Films Left to Watch: 885

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Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

meshes-of-the-afternoon

Here’s another case where I happened to watch this movie a few months ago without even realizing it was on my list. Because it’s only 14 minutes long, I decided to give the film another watch this week and chronicle my thoughts. I think Meshes of the Afternoon falls in the tradition of a lot of recent experimental cinema in its mood and its composition, and its legacy really comes down to its release date, just a few years after Citizen Kane. I can’t say I was blown away by what would today be laughed away as a pretentious film school assignment, but Meshes offers some neat tricks that nobody had really done before that have nestled themselves comfortably into the experimental genre, so I’ll try and discuss those innovations.

Perhaps the most modern thing about the film is its dreamlike quality, a label that you could tack onto just about any experimental film today. The music disorients you into a strange sense of consciousness where you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the abstract quality of the narrative. You could make a case that there isn’t a narrative here, but there are enough story details and clues that I would most likely disagree. Meshes is playing with the uncertainty of which of its pieces are part of a dream and which are actually happening. Among these pieces are a woman walking around chasing after a hooded Grim Reaper figure with a mirror for a face, and various important symbols such as a key, a flower, and a knife which repeat throughout the film.

The film is technically impressive for its time not due to its effects but because it dares to be cerebral with its editing. I thought the match cuts between the film’s motifs were clever: knifes turning into flowers turning into keys and so forth. It seems to create some spectral force behind the film that explains its experimental presentation. (Maybe this is the hooded mirror-faced figure?) Regardless, I really appreciate that Meshes isn’t simply experimental for its own sake. Directors Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid are going for a fresh narrative presentation that make the film visually and thematically engaging, though I’m not sure the film would be as tolerable if it were of feature length.

As already stated, I think Meshes of the Afternoon tapped into a mood that filmmakers hadn’t given much thought to before, and I think its effectiveness really gave a lot of credit to the experimental movement, a movement we still enjoy today. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had influenced other major filmmakers down the line (the editing makes me think of Godard at times). It’s not a technically astounding piece, but it’s technically creative enough to keep your attention, even when its derivatives have probably improved on its ideas.

This film is streaming on YouTube here if you’re interested.


Films Left to Watch: 886

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

snow-white

“Lips red as the rose. Hair black as ebony. Skin white as snow.”

I can’t say I’m eager to write about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, probably no more eager than I was to watch it again after 15 years or so. I had an idea in my mind of what this film looked like, the story and the themes it carried, an idea that turned out to be heavily distorted. All these visual upgrades and marketing ploys with the Disney princess franchise have probably shifted the image of Snow White so far from accuracy in the public consciousness that people are taken aback to see what the actual movie is like. This, too, raises an interesting question: why any regular audience member would need to see what this movie was like? Disney has been clinging to the same tropes for 80 years now, and this one doesn’t even have Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

This is coming out more cynically than I expected; I didn’t hate the movie. The early Disney quality is present, and the songs can be fun, but the more I think about it, the more this whole business just brings me down. If you think (as I did) that Snow White is about the evil queen and the mirror and the huntsman and the apple and so forth, you’re only about 20 percent correct. I’d estimate an entire hour of this 80-minute film features our protagonist, Snow White, hanging out with dwarfs. She cooks for them, teaches them proper hygiene, and they all become strangely infatuated with her as she inserts herself into their home with the help of a bunch of woodland creatures. Perhaps after seeing Moana this year, I was under the impression that these sort of movies taught powerful life lessons, but Snow White feels more like a propaganda piece compelling children to do their housework.

If you can place yourself in a more backwards time, I’m sure Snow White was a revolutionary experience: a sensation among audiences. The visuals are smooth and pleasing, and the music complements the story at a nice balance, but I can’t bring myself to excuse the laborious narrative and the regressive social message. If the American Film Institute is going to call this the 34th greatest American film, I would expect a bit more foresight. There are many other Disney films, some of which fall into the “princess tradition,” which I actually really like. Snow White just isn’t one of them, and how could it be? It’s undoubtedly innovative and lays a steady foundation for this type of storytelling, but it’s one of the most hollow things Disney has ever made, and I would rather heap praises on the finer products that have emerged from its legacy rather than the original for tradition’s sake.

Just to ensure I’m covering all bases and to convince you that I wasn’t absolutely miserable watching this thing, I should point out the really impressive things about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Structurally, I’m always enamored by early animation and its conservative approach to storytelling. Less is definitely more, and in a double-edged way, this works wonders for Snow White. I mentioned above the hollow, almost nonexistant plot, but this deviation from the three-act-structure does have a charming effect. You wouldn’t see a Disney film today that dares to meander this much, focusing on characterization and musical set pieces over the hero’s journey. This structure definitely makes Snow White one of the weirdest Disney movies you’ll ever see, but it’s refreshing in a cinematic sense that Disney was so focused on the magic of the film and its characters that they let conflict fall to the wayside for once.

Snow White is a pivotal film for our culture, and I think I’m less cynical about the movie itself than I am about its reputation and the lessons Disney has learned from it over the years. While these movies have thankfully distance themselves from the sexism, the strange social agendas, and the paint-by-numbers plot devices (Prince Charming ex machina, for example) in recent years, I’d still like to see a full rejection of this Snow White storytelling tradition. What worked, and what captivated audiences, was the magic: the intangible sense of wonder and love that went into making the movie, and when Disney can recapture that, those are the movies I want to see. Also, if they have The Rock in them, that helps too.


Films Left to Watch: 887

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Fantastic Planet (1973)

fantastic-planet

“These savage Oms, they’re dirty. They reproduce at an alarming rate.”

I was fortunate enough to catch a midnight screening of Fantastic Planet at my university, preceded by several other short films from director René Laloux. After said experience, I’d definitely recommend a late-night screening of Laloux’s work on the biggest screen you can find. The mesmerizing visual style and the thoughtful subject matter build a dreamlike sense of soft immersion that make for a unique cinematic experience unlike any other. Fantastic Planet is considered Laloux’s masterpiece, and it definitely stands out as one of the most refreshing films I’ve seen recently.

An allegorical tale set in the distant future, a giant blue race known as Draags have captured humans from Earth and brought them to their home planet. The Draags have attained many technological and spiritual advancements, and they treat humans (which they call Oms) as pets, mere companions to their way of living. When this hierarchy is threatened, the Draags must rethink their treatment of the Oms in an attempt to preserve their own species, which reproduces at a much slower rate that of humanity. A complex sci-fi tale with distinct parallels to the world today, Fantastic Planet is a vibrant, endlessly fascinating story.

What immediately captivated me about the film was its mood. It would be tempting to categorize Laloux’s work as “absurd” or “abstract,” and perhaps those labels more easily define his short films which are more open to interpretation, but Fantastic Planet boasts an air-tight narrative that would dispel this kind of categorization and place it confidently in the straight science fiction genre. What does persist throughout all of Laloux’s work, however, is the mood. There’s something deliberate about every moment in the film. It comes from the stop motion style, but it persists in the dialogue, the color palette, and really every piece of this beautiful creation.

When the Draags move, for example, they don’t seem guided by a strong sense of urgency. Their limbs almost float into place when they take an action. A character may show strong emotion in a scene, but this emotion is undermined, danced around by the slow, graceful presentation that builds a mood of cosmic indifference. Just as the Oms feel confined and are treated as play toys for the Draags, even the Draags themselves feel like a small part of a greater, more fantastic universe that cares little for their struggles.

The film’s themes are also well worth discussing. Somewhat reminiscent of Brecht’s “epic theatre,” Laloux makes no apologies for the allegorical nature of his film. The distorted landscapes and unsettling creatures help you distance yourself from the film, reminding you that it’s merely a work of cinema. This is what I mean by “soft immersion.” You can enjoy the atmosphere and the plot that the movie puts forward, but you never allow yourself to get too lost in it, or you might miss the point. It’s no secret that great science fiction is always about the present, and Fantastic Planet follows this tradition precisely. The Draags’ treatment of the Oms and the societal structure of their planet may seem familiar to the one in which we live, and Laloux asks us to question these facts of life that we’ve come to accept with a clever bit of role reversal that elevates the film from simply entertaining to profound and insightful.

While Fantastic Planet may be the only work of its kind on my formal watchlist, I’m already itching for more Laloux, and I plan to explore more of his filmography in the near future. Not only his incredible talent in worldbuilding, but his astute sense of storytelling and endlessly entertaining art direction have placed him on a high pedestal in my thoughts. Fantastic Planet may not be the most conventional film, but it’s undoubtedly worth your time.


Films Left to Watch: 888

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On the Waterfront (1954)

on-the-waterfront

“Hey, you wanna hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him before he does it to you.”

I spoke of my adoration for Dustin Hoffman last week, viewing him as a prominent cultural figure of his generation. Marlon Brando is another name which has always caught my attention, though I’m sorry to say that I’m far less familiar with his work. I’ve always hoped to be more aware of Brando’s discography, but his prominent roles (save for a few) have all seemed to escape my viewing. This week, I finally acquainted myself with one of the Brando-est roles of them all: the acclaimed crime drama On the Waterfront. With several big names, an engaging story, and driven by profound emotion, this movie has clearly solidified itself as an American classic.

Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, a dockworker (and pigeon enthusiast) living on the waterfront, where operations are controlled by a ruthless mob to which he yields his allegiance. Malloy was a promising boxer in the past, but his career was ruined when he was pressured by the mob into throwing a crucial fight, selling out his ambitions. When a group of resistance begins to develop on the waterfront, Malloy must decide whether to stay true to the system he knows or to stand up against the oppression that has always haunted him. Gripping, honest, and profoundly emotional, On the Waterfront is a tale of redemption, morality, and corruption.

 Brando is a champion of the Stanislavski style of acting in this movie, and it’s a great example of “The Method” in its proper place. A textbook example of his training from the 40s, his portrayal of Terry Malloy is one of the most natural performances you’ll find from this era. He never comes close to crossing the line into “acting,” but there’s still an energy about Brando – a reserved sense of power that works beautifully for roles such as this one. This type of acting seems out of place in some films, and I think it’s just a matter of direction and the reality of the film world, and On the Waterfront really hits it home in those areas. I was also charmed to find Eva Marie Saint play a prominent role in the film, differentiating herself from her later role in North by Northwest which I really enjoyed, though she’s given far less to work with in this movie.

I’m not entirely convinced that On the Waterfront holds up as well as it did upon release. You’ve seen bits of its story in a lot of places over the last 60 years, often being perfected to heights that the original film never reached, but there’s something triumphant about this movie that continues to set it apart. Not every scene is the most exciting, but it has an honesty to it that you hardly find today. Brando’s “I could have been a contender” speech is still moving and passionate without ever trying too hard, and director Elia Kazan proves that he knows how to get the most out of “Method” actors, building an honest story and placing them in just the right conditions to flourish.

I wouldn’t say I’m eager to watch On the Waterfront again any time soon, but its legacy gives it a weight that probably suggests I should give it another shot eventually. I enjoyed the film quite a bit, and the moments that worked were really something special, but I found myself fatigued with a lot of its scenes. The final 20 minutes are really powerful stuff, along with a lot of moments spread throughout; it just takes some time to get there. Either way, On the Waterfront is a really great film that I would still recommend on the merit of many of its phenomenal parts.


Films Left to Watch: 889

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Tootsie (1982)

tootsie

“I was a better man with you, as a woman, than I ever was with a woman, as a man.”

I must have some sort of fascination for Dustin Hoffman. Just short of Rain Man (a film I’ve seen and enjoyed several times) and Midnight Cowboy (which I’ve yet to see), I believe I watched all of his movies which I ever plan to review over the last year alone. I’ll admit that I’ve always been drawn to his acting, a nuanced style which I’ve always found humorous and convincing. For obvious reasons, Tootsie is often hailed as his greatest performance. While I’m not sure that I agree, it’s definitely one of the finest films he’s ever been a part of (though, again, not the finest). Hilarious, heartbreaking, and a lot more insightful than you’d first expect, Tootsie is an American classic years ahead of its time for a wide spectrum of reasons.

It starts with a fairly standard premise that ends up reaping a great deal of payoff. Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) is a talented New York actor, popular among his friends and known for his skill as a performer. Nobody will hire him, however, for his perfectionist attitude that makes him hard to work with. He decides to dress as a woman, “Dorothy Michaels,” and audition for a trashy but popular hospital soap opera. He ends up cultivating feelings for his co-star Julie (Jessica Lange) while drawing the affection of Julie’s father Les (Charles Durning). Michael also becomes a role model for women across the country due to his feisty, often off-script portrayal in the soap in which he rejects the misogyny that he finally comes to understand due to his time as Dorothy.

Anyone who’s seen Mrs. Doubtfire may come into Tootsie with certain expectations, perhaps somewhat skeptical of the film as I was. These fears are quickly extinguished, however, by a masterful screenplay and a razor sharp direction by the creative team. Sydney Pollack is at the top of his game, guiding the film’s humor not through low-brow gags or misogyny but through an intelligent approach to character. Michael Dorsey doesn’t just get frustrated with makeup and high heels (he comes to enjoy them), but he becomes keenly aware of societal issues surrounding gender. We rejoice as “Dorothy” confronts sexist directors and builds herself as a female icon not because it’s a man in a dress but because we’ve learned something, and the humor stems from this insight. The film also pokes fun at the Hollywood industry and the vanity that surrounds it, rounding out a satirical screenplay which that allows you time both to laugh and to think.

You may also be surprised by the impressive collection of names that appear throughout the film. I could never seem to accept that Bill Murray was in the movie, popping up unannounced as Hoffman’s roommate Jeff Slater and enhancing every frame in which he appears due to his trademark dry comedy. Jessica Lange and Teri Garr bring dynamic performances as Michael’s love interests, and they each allow themselves bold moments of independence and dignity which serve both a comedic and thematic purpose as Michael comes to understand the world from a woman’s perspective. Other standouts include Charles Durning, Sydney Pollack, and George Gaynes, who serve smaller but crucial roles for building the world of the film.

Tootsie is a movie of the highest quality, one in which the pieces fit perfectly to check every box you could desire in a movie like this one. The premise seems simple, and it is, but the story delivers on its promises and hits some central insights of the human experience that escalate it to greatness. Definitely give it a chance if you’ve been on the fence.


Films Left to Watch: 890

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The Sixth Sense (1999)

the-sixth-sense

“I don’t wanna be scared anymore.”

In celebration of M. Night Shyamalan pumping out a watchable movie this year, I found it fitting to revisit his most acclaimed work, The Sixth Sense. Perhaps the finest achievement of both Shyamalan, Bruce Willis, and just about everyone else who had their fingerprints on this movie, it’s a landmark work of its time. Though I’m still bitter that the ending was spoiled before I first saw the film, I still find it to be a wonderfully thrilling work which warrants multiple viewings for its compelling performances and textbook visual composition.

Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a child psychologist haunted by the failure to properly treat one of his former patients, resulting in the patient’s suicide. He attempts to redeem himself through his work with a new patient, a young boy named Cole (Haley Joel Osment) with a troubled home life. As they cultivate a relationship, Malcolm discovers that Cole can “see dead people,” and they must work together to vanquish their personal demons while understanding and overcoming Cole’s frequent visits from the deceased. Part horror, thriller, and mystery, it’s an exciting screenplay which set the formula for similar films that have since followed.

It’s easy to criticize Shyamalan for his string of failures over the last decade, but it’s important to note that most of them stem from a botched premise. But when he runs with a concept, good or bad, he always seems to demonstrate more technical strength than narrative talent. The Sixth Sense was fortunately a case where he managed to fair well with both, though the film’s visuals still overshadow the story in my opinion. Some say that the film is rewatchable for its mystery, particularly to see how the pieces fit together once you understand the ending, but my second viewing seemed far more tedious for this very reason. Setting up the twist (which was an impressive feat in 1999, though still fairly predictable if you know that one is coming) requires a lot of down time, a lot of plot points jammed into place if only for a payoff. Shyamalan certainly astounded audiences by structuring his story in this way; I’m just skeptical that they were the right choices on which to build a film’s legacy. It all seems heavy-handed.

In just about any film, however, Shyamalan hits his familiar high points. Color symbolism has been analyzed ad nauseam in The Sixth Sense, but it’s still worth mentioning for being one of the strongest things about this movie. This is a director that knows how to get the best out of his actors, and even more prominently, he knows how to structure a frame. The melodrama and the low lighting is an excusable product of its time, but the film otherwise feels a lot more modern than it is. It was well worthy of all the study and accolades it received if only for its composition, and it inspired a lot of directors into the 2000s to take more care in terms of framing, subtlety, and exploring theme through visuals.

I can’t say I’m on board with the “Shyamalan comeback” just yet, but his past few movies point to an upward trend that I hope continues. If he can just take more care with his screenplays, telling stories about people instead of conjuring silly shock endings (The Village…), then we’ll finally have one of our great cinematic visionaries back on the playing field. And if not, we still have The Sixth Sense to enjoy.


Films Left to Watch: 891

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