This post is part of Nathaniel R’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series.
I’m probably underestimating the aesthetic value of these shots in William Friedkin‘s The Exorcist but I’ll start my entry with this scene because I did not know where it was going and when I did, it hit personal sides of me. Actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has exhausted many treatments for her daughter named Regan (Linda Blair, in the role that would make and break her career), who changed from being a nice girl into a cursing, welting, throwing, puking machine. The doctors and psychiatrists in white coats surround Chris and tell her that Regan needs ‘the best care’ in the latter’s situation.
And because this is an Ellen Burstyn movie, she says that she’s a strong woman and don’t you dare tell her how to raise her child and Regan is not going to an institution! This inquisition-like deliberation is reminiscent of methods decades ago where male doctors tell female hysterics how to be cured, which makes me wonder how that would subvert gender dynamics if the movie stuck to showing a possessed boy as opposed to the female characters in exorcism movies then and now. To ease the tension and since we already know that this movie is going in this direction, one of the doctors suggests an exorcism, explaining that –
It’s been pretty much discarded these days except by the…Catholics who keep it in the closet as a sort of embarrassment, but uh, it has worked.
He’s all hand gesture-y about it too. Chris responds with –
You’re telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor? Is that it?
Witch doctor? Screw you, MacNeil. Well, at least she’s never fully passive through this ordeal. I can’t say that I’m offended, with all the implications of the word ‘witch.’ But even from a ‘sinner’ who looks at the Church from an ambivalent standpoint I, as a believer, still feel targeted when people, fictional or otherwise, talk about religions as hocus pocus.
But then it’s an adage from Film School 101 that horror as a genre casts doubt on our technology-age, secular society and ironically makes us return to the original way of thinking that we and our ancestors doubted in the first place. The last resort, the one that might cure Regan, is the one that has no scientific proof at all. Even the priests (including Max von Sydow) are shocked that a practice they believe is archaic can heal the possessed.
The threat against an individual as a mirror threat against Catholicism arguably isn’t Friedkin’s intention, although there’s enough visuals to harp for that interpretation to be real enough. One of the movie’s opening images is that of the Virgin, carved from white marble. White, the colour of the civilized hospital words, is also the colour of worship. This movie, as well as David Lynch’s horror movies, uses white or bright colours a lot which is the opposite of the black or red in other movies of the genre. It starts showing Her with the dissolve from an urban American street, perhaps showing Her omniscience. But Her pristine texture can also mean that she’s passive to the world going retrograde and evil, as Justine from Melancholia would say. It even makes me uncomfortable to watch the vandalism against Her image – I almost posted it and decided against it, and it’s probably out on the internet somewhere already – her statue degraded like the ‘evil’ ones that the elder priest’s archaeological team finds in Niniveh in modern Norther Iraq (evil characters as Iraqis, how typical), the Virgin’s body transformed by the changes outside her cloistered church. It’s the same difference when it comes to Regan, we the audience are taken each step towards her transformation into this outlandish creature, making us finally believe that the devil has invaded her.
Just like Regan’s slow changes, we can also feel this ‘threat’ or ‘dread,’ a particular requirement in the horror genre, especially in the other introduction sequences, like the one where the rock picks surround the priest get louder, more menacing and invasive. Or when Chris walks around Georgetown during the autumn and there’s already something suspicious in the way the wind blows and the leaves fall around her. And when Father Karras encounters that ‘former altar boy’ in the New York subway.
And since the demon-populated, pre-Christian beliefs represent human’s innate primeval side, the titular exorcism and thus, the Catholic Church is a force of civilization ironing out humans’ former kinks. Regan’s exorcism reminds me of a well-orchestrated theatre piece where three entities have physical and verbal beat downs, the movie finally going into the shadowed darkness to battle the evil out.
- E is for The Exorcist (nettiethomson.com)
- Tip of the Scalpel to The Scariest Movie of All Time – The Exorcist (dreadcentral.com)
The Second CAST Awards were announced like four months ago and I’m only posting about it now because I had to catch up on my 2011 movies. Or more appropriately, I said ‘Eff it, I’m going to list my top ten even if everyone’s clamouring about The Raid and no one cares about 2011 anymore.’
I’m also using this news because I always take advantage of any opportunity to make fun of Nicolas Winding Refn‘s overrated movie Drive. Because the other CAST voters placed it as their top film. Or maybe, give it a second chance, since the hype of the movie is the reason I started listening to Kavinsky and College (both bands’ instrumental songs are better than the ones with lyrics), which got me thinking about how I don’t tolerate the soundtrack’s use in the movie while Sofia Coppola’s use of anachronistic music is more palatable in her movie Marie Antoinette from five years ago. In a way both movies have us as an audience are layered on top of themselves as audience members, skewing the narrative and interpreting it as their own.
Me and my friend Sasha James of That Sasha James internet fame reenact or interpretation of Drive‘s dialogue of us just saying ‘Hey’ to each other. Since I have to play The Driver – boo ho me – I say my ‘lines’ with the Peter Fonzarelli accent that Gosling mysteriously has now (Hossein Amini‘s script is very descriptive by the way, making me wonder why that eloquence wasn’t used for the dialogue). And because I’m crazy I do these acting exercises to College’s music when it finally clicked, the sensitivity that’s difficult to catch when your mind is in the wrong place. But how does an actor express and externalize longing and loneliness through ‘Hey?’ I still think that the movie doesn’t do this successfully and I’ll probably never watch the movie again. I will also promise never to make fun of Drive again, but the terrible movies this year makes it difficult for me to find a movie to mock. I don’t like easy targets.
I also wanted to make my top ten post into some manifesto on what I like about movies, since the list may be that diverse. But then I got lazy. So here goes.
Blue Valentine – Because Grizzly Bear is that perfect dash to make Michelle Williams more beautiful.
Pariah – Because I like co-opting other people’s cultures.
Shame – Because it combines how good sex is and how frustrating it is to look for it.
Rampart – Because crazy cameraman are the best.
Tree of Life – Because understanding a movie emotionally should be enough.
Win Win – Because casts should also clown cars.
Jane Eyre – Because sometimes, the first few images are enough.
Essential Killing – Because dream sequences should always be in pink.
The Mill and the Cross – Because I’m a closet Catholic.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Because violence should always be presented with that sheen.
Now I’m going to wait for some more money, buy Carnage and Chronicle on DVD, watch Cabin in the Woods and whatever else that has a green Metacritic rating, do some laundry, go to the doctor and sleep. This emotionally shitty year is over, thank God!
Andy Hart from FandangoGroovers sent us an e-mail asking us what our best movie years are and instead just blurting out what years I chose, I opted for introducing my reasoning behind the chosen years.
Because I’m suicidal.
There have been other posts like this obviously, citing the year that saw the height noir as a style in 1941. It’s easy to assume that the year before, 1940, might be a weaker year but I don’t think so (what were you thinking, Paolo?). I already said that 1941 was the year of the noir and it was the beginning of stylistic achievements that will be influential for the next forty years. But no one wants to peak young Those arguments, I admit, are me trying to put both years under investigation before I declare them as banner years).
What 1940 has is diversity. What other year could boast an animated movie that has different yet complementary aesthetics and another movie that successfully convinces us that the all-American Jimmy Stewart is European and/or a man of class? What year will we find such comedy greats like Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell? It was also a great actressing year that followed 1939. Joan Fontaine being the light anchor in only Alfred Hitchcock movie that won an Oscar for Best Picture. Katharine Hepburn returns and makes the studios realize that her sense of comic timing can crowd the movie theatres. And Vivien Leigh simply haunts us. The movies: Fantasia, The Shop Around the Corner, Rebecca, The Philadelphia Story, Waterloo Bridge.
Because it was the year of (forgotten) classics.
1955 saw three movies so breathtaking that it almost makes me want to say ‘Revisionist Western,’ although it would be too anachronistic to use that phrase. But those movies subverts North American ideas of villainy, race and It was also the year of the blond.
Doing away with her Academy Award-winning de-glam, Grace Kelly has a career-best performance in another Hitchcock movie as a smart golden-locked woman. Shelley Winters plays victim to Robert Mitchum, too charming to be good, but she might not necessarily be dumb. Marilyn Monroe almost steals Evelyn Keyes’ husband and makes us think differently about the hot air on street vents. Julie Harris, a honey blond, steers the lost James Dean, in his best performance, into sanity and domesticity. But the brunettes represented too, James Dean also finding love in a hopeful teenager Natalie Wood. Jean Simmons making Marlon Brando fly her to Cuba and she still won’t give him the love that he doesn’t deserve yet. And Martine Carol, overshadowed by younger French actresses, gives us a 19th cnetury circus act that we should never forget. The movies: The Night of the Hunter, East of Eden, Bad Day at Black Rock, To Catch a Thief, Lola Montes.
Because I might be suicidal after all.
1974 saw most movies come back to the streets. Walter Matthau deals with a subway train gets high jacked in Manhattan, New York City by good for nothing British terrorists. Los Angeles saw its share of impersonators, near impossible water shortages and crazy ladies chasing for their children riding in school buses. In San Francisco, Gene Hackman and John Cazale do their job as many lovely yet suspicious conversations under wiretap. And the past catches up with the present as Michael Corleone does his best to escape chaos and brotherly betrayal in Havana, Cuba. But that doesn’t mean that the rural areas didn’t get some love, as a singer travels to find a job and a college student finds a crazy family.
When it comes to the Oscars, Martin Scorsese directs a melodrama (he needs to do another one and if you say Hugo I swear I’ll…). Francis Ford Coppola created a kinetic magnum opus and lost Best Picture against himself. A frazzled married woman played by Gena Rowlands and a tough woman with a tougher lawyer in Faye Dunaway lose to determined single mother brought to life by Ellen Burstyn. The movies: The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, A Woman Under the Influence.
Because I’m a hopeless romantic.
2010 was the year I started blogging, the year culminating the plurality that independent cinema has worked for in the past forty years. Indie masters like David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky and Edgar Wright made movies with actors who will become Hollywood’s future and made hundreds of millions of dollars with them. I’m going to try to stop overusing the word ‘indie’ no, although I used it one last time to a movie so good that it doesn’t even need to be finished.
But in 2010, I surprisingly found sympathy within mopey characters aimlessly wandering the streets of Los Angeles. Or it could be London, where a reluctant king impersonates an Emperor penguin for the young daughters who themselves will make history. Boston also has its share of competitive brothers, both brothers and their entertainingly abrasive mother, sisters and wives. A brother and sister explore what we assume is Lebanon and learn a heart wrenching through, out of all things, mathematics. The fashionable Milan has a shy, Russian housewife learning what love is in its primal states, throwing her life away from him. And I learned how to love an overrated director since he created characters who can make the Parisian streets of their dreams shake and bend. The movies: Greenberg, I am Love, Meek’s Cutoff, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, The Fighter.
Other years under further investigation: 1927 – the year when the Academy started getting it wrong (Sunrise, Metropolis), 1939 – the height of the studios (The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind), 1966 – the year when we said terrible things to each other a lot (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Persona), 1988 – when he loved and hated the Germans (Der Himmel Uber Berlin, Die Hard), 1991 – genre versus genre (Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and 2001 – weirdest sexiest year ever (Mulholland Drive, Y Tu Mama Tambien).
The Bible is renowned for its simplicity but it’s more complex than Christopher Hitchens or most people give it credit for. I’ve ruminated about Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings, not to be mistaken with de Mille’s version. And it’s always been my obsession to know the differences between the four Gospels and its relation to the film adaptations.
I watched the movie when I still had TCM and couldn’t distinguish it from the other, overlong epic period movies at the same time. I didn’t give it a chance and I changed the channel, regrettably. Thank serendipity for the second run-in, when I saw Ray, through Orson Welles’ Godlike voice over contextualizing Jesus’ rise with Roman imperialism, infrastructure building and the burden of oncoming tribal hostility between Jews and Arabs.
I will say that the movie’s depiction of the historical figures somehow contradicts Biblical accounts and sometimes, one woman’s spirit is captured more so than the other. Mary (Siobhan McKenna) has a soldier-like loyalty to God, willing to ride an improvised steed to Egypt to run away from a Herodain onslaught, She also returns to Nazareth and showing to a Roman official named Lucius that Her young son is the only one who survives. The book and movie fork into the interpretations of the Virgin, as the Gospel of Luke already shows Her, in pregnancy, as an indoctrinated, militant woman poetically reciting Her knowledge of Her purpose in the Father’s master plan. Although the movie’s portrait of Her is delightful enough, the Mother learning from the Youth and His lessons of peace of love which counters the warlike ideology of the area and period. She shares these lessons with Magdalene, a possessed woman in the Bible but commonly depicted as a prostitute in adaptations.
Salome is also maligned as well as her family. In the movie’s first scenes, Herod Antipas ousts his ailing and genocidal father, the son having respect for his enemies like the unknown Saviour and His cousin who grows up to be John the Baptist (the interestingly cast Robert Ryan). Antipas marries Herodias, bringing her daughter Salome in tow. Salome dances her way into getting John beheaded, the texts portraying her as Herodias’ weapon. Ray’s version subverts these women’s characteristics. Salome becomes a lustful young woman, having her stepfather’s father’s violent streak, ending her dance by sitting on the same thrown that Antipas himself has stolen. It’s easy to joke that her similarities with Herod exposes Antipas’ subliminal lust for his own father. Herodias, on the hand, isn’t as scheming as she’s depicted in the Bible, the film actually placing her as one of the audiences on the Sermon on the Mount with Lucius, both authority figures attracted to the message that tries to destroy the system that makes them benefit.
Lastly, there’s Judas Iscariot, the Bible characterizing him as a thief and traitor. Contemporary interpretations of him have always wondered why Jesus would include Iscariot into His fold, most likely knowing that he needs someone to help Him sacrifice Himself. Norman Jewison has a black actor for Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and we can add whatever symbolism we can to the colour blind ensemble, keeping in mind the racial tensions in the 70’s. Ray also paints Iscariot as a Zealot but chose a different strategy in his casting. It’s already strange and absolutely typical of Hollywood to hire the all-American Jeffrey Hunter, who does his best as the quote-worthy preacher. For Judas he picks another dirty blonde, Rip Torn, showing these two men as mirror images, Iscariot’s double loyalties haunted by Jesus unwavering sympathy, a part of a complex, political rendition of the Saviour’s life and world.
I saw Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation after I wrote my Parenthood in 2011 Cinema post and I didn’t want to just write a sentence or two and ruin that post’s flow. And I’ll probably decide to discuss the movie outside its gender/familial dynamics. So voilà.
A Separation gives attention to how members of its society views and examines motherhood and womanhood, among the many complex topics upon which the movie beautifully touches. Nader (Peyman Maadi) deals with his father’s (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) incapacity by hiring working class Razieh (Sareh Bayat) as a daytime housekeeper and caretaker for his father while he leaves for work. After a dispute between them – some money is missing in Nader’s drawers and he of course accuses her of theft – he pushes her, possibly leading to her miscarriage.
If Nader is found guilty of causing the miscarriage, it’s murder under Iranian law. Nader’s pre-trial takes place in some bureaucrat judge’s office, where he has to bring witnesses like his daughter Termeh and her tutor to prove that he didn’t know – I also can’t help but point how as much as it’s perfunctory for both families to bring their children in to exonerate themselves, it’s still simultaneously hella classy and tragic, the daughters seeing handcuffs and Termeh seeing her father wearing a pair and being one of them criminals.
He has to prove that he couldn’t hear a conversation revealing Razieh’s pregnancy, etc. Both Razieh and her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) question Nader’s and the testimonies supporting him. How could he not have known? It’s obvious just by looking at her. I can’t look up Nader’s verbatim but he says something like how he couldn’t tell that she was pregnant because of the chador. I didn’t want to read it in a way that a first world perspective would, I coming from a third world background who sees the chador as a choice. Nevertheless, I still can’t help but hear this line as a critique of Islam, that article of clothing oppressively weighing her down.
I couldn’t see this movie any other way, as the chador is inescapably bound to Razieh’s character. It accentuates the waddle that she has as she goes up the stairs to Nader’s apartment, or her ghostlike running as she looks for Nader’s father or her hurried face and hands as she tells Hodjat not to take Nader’s money. Bayat’s award-winning performance fleshes out a woman whose duties as a mother and wife of a man drowned in debt is showing through her physicality, with or without that article of clothing. But that doesn’t mean that her words don’t matter neither, her Streepian revelation of ‘I have doubts’ contributing to the moral duplicity that the movie shows with sympathy and without judgment.
The movie can be seen as one with two halves. We spent the first half with Razieh while the second is where Nader’s wife Simin (Leila Hatami) dominates. A Western rendition of this story would have had to soften Simin up or villain-ize her. I don’t begrudge her for leaving home to move back in to her mother’s or being unable to take care of her father-in-law because she’s always at work although I know one or two wackos who would find a problem with that.
It is uncomfortable watching her push Termeh around, the latter reluctant to leave her father and Iran. Or that both husband and wife lock each other into a staring contest, waiting for the other to blink so he or she can blink back. She packs her bags into her car, waiting for Nader to agree with everything she wants. They’ve gotten to the point when compromise, an iomportant part in maintaining a family, is impossible, even if both can’t be seen as in the wrong. Both are proud, which I read as a masculine trait while neither character is ‘feminized.’ In the portrayal of their relationship, they’re even – their qualities and decisions aren’t divisible by stereotypes, Nader and Simin are the more ‘progressive’ yet flawed couple, unlike Razieh and Hojjat who are still bound by religion and patriarchy.
Let’s not forget that their separation occurs because she wants a better life for her family, their pre-trial being that electric Arthur Miller-like scene that sets the movie’s humanizing tone. She doesn’t have to prove anything as the story lets us know what her intentions are in the first place. And let me just say that my hesitation to view these characters’ tribulations as a critique of Iran’s theocracy and justice system. Every country sucks, every bureaucrat seen with disdain, especially ones who can sentence others although they don’t know the ‘whole story.’ Whether we’ve been struck by quandary like this, the movie still calls on our fears that we can be maligned. Either if it’s on a criminal standpoint, when people can get jailed for things they didn’t know were wrong – and you can’t get acquitted for ‘not knowing what you did was wrong,’ on a legal standpoint – or just under others’ piercing eyes of.
If the mothers in this movie symbolize a the state of benig broken, Razieh transgressing by taking care of two fractured families while Simin being the point of one fracture, the fathers then posit themselves as the fortress of the family. Nader tries to teach Farsi words to Termeh, despite her protestations that her school system prefers Arabic words. But if that means that he’s the ‘conservative’ stronghold of the family, then I don’t know whether telling his daughter that it’s ok to, spoiler, lie in court is deviance or traditional self-preservation. Every scene with Nader and Termeh has this slight sense of danger that a jerk is raising someone who will be a jerk.
Hojjat, however, tries to keep his family afloat through his creditors, sometimes forsaking his wife’s religiosity for their much-needed money. He’s a a man, after years of unemployment and trauma, whose version of protecting his family is harming others. It’s this sort of personal dysfunction that provides us with the most nuanced characters whom we haven’t seen for a long time until now.
Friend 1: I want Casablanca to be my deathbed movie.
Friend 2 and I: You won’t like it the first time.
That’s because I didn’t. This also reminds me of that time I went to a public screening of the 2009/2010 Oscars when they were trivia-ing about the last year when there were ten Best Picture nominees, 1943 being that year when Casablanca won against nine other movies that no one remembers about and these two college-educated yet ditzy sounding girls behind me said ‘I HATE Ingrid Bergman.’ At that point of the night I wasn’t drunk enough to yell at her. But that’s also due to realizing that there’s a vocal minority that’s been maligned against Bergman and the other cast members because of their average performances in this movie. And I was one of those people. It took me the second time to realize that it was good and a third time to see its details while making fun of Drive on Twitter procrastinating on getting ready for a New Year’s Eve party that, no offense, could never have been as classy as the one I was watching.
Casablanca is a decidedly different background for a reunion for stars Humphrey Bogart, Hollywood’s first yo-yo dieter Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet or as I like to call it, this movie makes these ugly guys look good. Warner Brothers had the beat-up looking stars, Paramount despite of what we know has the hottest ones and MGM had the ones who could dance and sing. This summarizes our lecture on American Filmmaking in Studio Era Hollywood. Anyway, director Michael Curtiz turns these actors who, during the Maltese Falcon, looked scrappy with some disposable income, into white tuxedo, bow tie wearers who have more disposable income. His camera flattering them as they’re on ‘vacation’ – they might stroll on the streets and get a little tan and they look well rested despite their anxieties of exile and war and morality.
It didn’t start to impress me until the scene when Sam (Dooley Wilson) performs “Knock on Wood,” when I realized that the first seventy minutes here make up for the most fluid musical ever made. Two or three scenes of dialogue between songs in the right mix for the genre. And when the songs happen, Sam or the other performers have the same spotlight on them but they’re integrated with the bar/saloon’s patrons. Other musicals would have the performer and his spotlight dominating the screen, either forcing an externalized manifestation of their inner thoughts or the performer altering the world around him. It’s a kind of cheat that this ‘musical’ takes place in an environment where one can hear music but it’s more natural and we’re all the better for it.
I remember the second time I saw this, realizing that the reason for this movie is to make love to Bergman’s luminous, youthful face. As Ilsa Lund, she and her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) unknowingly enters her ex boyfriend’s namesake bar Rick’s (Bogart). Repeat viewings shed light on the familiar, also showing her maturity at 27, when actresses today don’t get taken seriously until they’re 31. She’s the most beautiful actress to beg Bogart for something and simultaneously break his heart. Acting wise she does all the work while Bogart, for what seems to be the first time in his career, is cool and collected. But somehow these opposite acting strategies work together. And as I’ve said before, he looks good here, blissfully enjoying Paris during the flashbacks.
The cinematography serves the leads as it does with Rick’s establishment, the glitters from dresses worn near the bar and casino and the darkness when the patrons have all disappeared. The symmetry of these deep shadows evoke noir techniques I’ve seen in British romance movies of the era, where the love can forbidden despite the lack of guns. And unlike noirs where the men’s silhouettes haunt the alleyways and doors, the chiaroscuro stays indoors and somehow the frame doesn’t make me feel cagey. These sequences also reminds me of Curtiz’ later work in Mildred Pierce.
I don’t know why I didn’t like it the first time and that would have made an interesting post. I thought that the lines were cheesy, perhaps? But all cylinders fired off in repeat viewings and I don’t know why it took me this long for me to love this movie.