Monday, January 9, 2017

Movies, twelve of them

[No spoilers.]

Shadow of a Doubt (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1943). One of my favorite films. Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) comes to visit his sister Emma’s family in placid Santa Rosa. Emma (Patricia Collinge) adores him. Her daughter Charlotte, “young Charlie” (Teresa Wright), adores him. But young Charlie comes to know the terrible truth about her uncle, a truth she cannot share with anyone. The sexual undertone in the uncle-niece relationship is unmistakable: Uncle Charlie gives young Charlie an emerald ring as a present, placing it on her finger as if marrying her. He sleeps in her bed while she moves to her younger sister’s room. I think that in 2016 this film, which Hitchcock often called his favorite, looks more disturbing than ever — and that’s before we get to the terrible truth about Uncle Charlie.

[The two Charlies.]


La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle, 2016). Not as bad as the 2014 Whiplash (by the same director) but not good. No one in our four-person fambly liked it. No one. The opening expressway sequence has more energy than the rest of the movie, which feels like a musical for people who aren’t comfortable with the mastery of, say, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Though Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are middling dancers, their singing is amateurish. The story is predictable in places, predictably unpredictable in others, with an absurd overlay about jazz, “free” and otherwise. The protagonists, Seb and Mia, are ciphers. The city of Los Angeles looks deserted. The color scheme and other elements are pretty blatantly swiped from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (dir. Jacques Demy, 1964). But how many moviegoers will know that? Watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg instead.

My daughter Rachel adds that Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) is also an influence.


The Edge of Seventeen (dir. Kelly Fremon Craig, 2016). Is the word seventeen standing in for doom? Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is seventeen, a high-school junior, awkward, alienated, and sardonic: “There are two types of people in the world. The people who radiate confidence and naturally excel at life and the people who hope all those people die in a big explosion.” And: “I had the worst thought: I have to spend the rest of my life with myself.” Hint to Nadine: self-acceptance sometimes begins with accepting others. Three of us watched this film and loved it.


Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins, 2016). And all four of us watched this film and loved it. Another coming of age movie, with a boy named Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert) becoming a teenager (played by Ashton Sanders) and man (played by Trevante Rhodes). Chiron is growing up gay, in a world that makes no room for that human possibility except as a target of insults, threats, and beatings. Midnight is a story of African-American life, of family life, of mentorship and its dangers, of friendship, of love, of being or not being who one is. As one character puts it, “Who is you, Chiron?” Best scene: the restaurant, as Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger” plays. Best Picture: this one.


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (dir. Ronald Neame, 1969). I have always distrusted charismatic teachers. Miss Brodie (Maggie Smith) is charismatic. She is in her prime. She has opinions about aesthetic matters that allow for no disagreement: Giotto not Leonardo is the greatest Italian painter. Period. Miss Brodie adores Mussolini and Franco, men of action. Miss Brodie gathers a select group of students whom she calls the Brodie set. And she shapes those students’ lives in increasingly horrifying ways. Unlike, say, the sentimental Dead Poets Society (dir. Tom Schulman, 1989), this film is well aware of the dangers of charisma. I couldn’t help thinking of the monstrous teacher Robert Berman, the subject of a long New Yorker piece. He too had a strong opinion about Leonardo.

[Small world: Pamela Franklin, who plays the student Sandy, later married the actor Harvey Jason. He and Louis Jason, one of their children, own Mystery Pier Books in Los Angeles. We met Louis in 2014 when we visited the bookstore. He was an extraordinarily generous host to some self-confessed non-customers.]


Scotland, Pa. (dir. Billy Morrissette, 2001). A grimly hilarious retelling of Macbeth, set in 1970s Pennsylvania. Fast-food and murderous ambitions, as Duncan’s hamburger joint gives way to McBeth’s. With a funny turn by Christopher Walken as Lieutenant McDuff, a well-mannered vegetarian. My favorite lines are from Pat McBeth, at the drugstore: “I don’t give a fuck what you see or don’t see. Just get me the ointment, all right? And I don’t want one of those little baby shit-ass tubes. I need a vat of it. My fucking hand is falling off!”


A Blueprint for Murder (dir. Andrew L. Stone, 1953). Joseph Cotten and Jean Peters, back from Niagara (dir. Henry Hathaway, 1953). An odd story of strychnine and suspicion, shifting between psychodrama and police procedural. Did she, or didn’t she? And can he allow himself to think she did? And did she, really? And besides, what proof is there? And could she have, really? Joseph Cotten never looks exactly happy to be here, not because he suspects his sister-in-law but because he knows he’s caught in a less than great film. (Running time: one hour, seventeen minutes.) Baffling at first (a good thing), then weakened by some too-quick exposition, but overall, surprisingly good, and well-designed to keep an audience guessing. Jean Peters, whom I also know from Pickup on South Street (dir. Samuel Fuller, 1953), was an actress of considerable range.


Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (dir. Werner Herzog, 2016). Our digital world, past, present, future. The perspectives are at times extreme: a pioneering computer scientist calls the UCLA room from which the first ARPANET message was sent “a sacred location,” “a holy place.” A mother whose family has suffered greatly from online cruelty calls the Internet “a manifestation of the antichrist.” We also hear from Internet addicts, a famous hacker, and futurists who prophesy glibly about robot companions and trips to Mars. (An unasked question: what if the robots like other robots better?) The film’s brief closing scene leaves little question as to what Herzog thinks about it all. Missing from this film: the everyday joys of the Internets.


Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things (dir. Matt D'Avella, 2015). Elaine and I chose it with genuine interest but ended up hate-watching. The trouble begins with the sanctimonious title. One could conclude that the important things are bare white walls, blonde hardwood floors, skinny jeans, hair gel, and almost no furniture. (Got privilege?) Endless pieties and generalizations: “Everyone is looking for more meaning in their lives.” And did you know that owning one car leads to dissatisfaction with it and a craving for a second car, and a third? There must be something wrong with me, or with my Prius. The film focuses on Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, The Minimalists, so-called, as they undertake a ten-month book tour. It’s curious that in a movie about the folly of consumption, most of those onscreen have something to sell. From the headnote to a Wikipedia article about The Minimalists: “This article contains content that is written like an advertisement.” Yep.


The Witness (dir. James Solomon, 2016). Bill Genovese, brother of Kitty Genovese, pursues a private investigation of the circumstances of his sister’s murder, tracking down and talking to surviving witnesses, a prosecutor, a newspaper editor, newspaper and television reporters, even the killer’s son. “How can anything be believed about this story?” Bill asks. The post-truth world has been with us for some time now: the The New York Times editor A. M. Rosenthal was instrumental in promulgating the story that thirty-eight people watched from their windows and did nothing as Kitty Genovese was killed. What’s most moving in this film is its presentation of Kitty Genovese as more than a victim known from a single photograph. We learn about her as a daughter, sibling, high-school student (the class cut-up, according to her yearbook), bar manager (not “barmaid”, as the press called her), neighbor, friend, and partner (from the woman whom the family knew only as a “roommate”).

[Kitty Genovese, in a photograph shown in the film. The photograph of Genovese that everyone knows turns out to be a (cropped) mugshot, taken when she was booked on a misdemeanor charge for carrying bar patrons’ bets to a bookie.]


Whistle and I’ll Come to You (dir. Jonathan Miller, 1968). “Who is this who is coming?” A short adaptation of a supernatural tale by M. R. James. A nervous, frumpy professor (here, a professor of philosophy, and clearly one who does ordinary-language philosophy) goes on holiday, discovers a strange object, quibbles about what it means to believe, and learns that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy. Beautiful cinematography by Dick Bush, with long shots and unnerving perspectives that make the ordinary eerie. I was reminded of Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls.

“The Evidences of Spiritualism,” the 1885 essay our professor reads in his room, is by the philosopher F. H. Bradley, whose work strongly influenced T. S. Eliot. (Eliot wrote a dissertation on Bradley and quotes his Appearance and Reality in “Notes on The Waste Land.”) Bradley is a denier:

“Spiritualism, if true, demonstrates mind without brain, and intelligence disconnected from what is termed a material body. . . . It demonstrates that the so-called dead are still alive; that our friends are still with us though unseen. . . . It thus furnishes that proof of a future life which so many crave.” The present article may be taken as a denial of these theses.
The Bradley essay is at Google Books; the film, at YouTube.

Fresca recommended this one. Thanks, Fresca.


The Act of Becoming (dir. Jennifer Anderson and Vernon Lott, 2016). A documentary about John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner. I think of words from W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”: “he became his admirers.” There are a great many admirers of Stoner in this film, nothing but admirers, and far too much reverence. (Mark Moskowitz’s documentary Stone Reader, about Dow Mossman’s novel The Stones of Summer, is a similar effort.) Missing from this film — literally — is John Williams. Not even a photograph. All that we hear about him is that he and a fellow writer were drinking a lot when they first met. I know that Williams was married four times, founded the Denver Quarterly, and ran a creative writing program: none of that comes into the film. Nor does the rest of his writing. What I found most interesting in the film: the tracing of recommendations, from a writer to a writer to a bookseller to a publisher who put the novel back in print. The film is available to rent or purchase at Vimeo.

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)
Fourteen more films : Thirteen more : Twelve more : Another thirteen more : Another dozen : Yet another dozen : Another twelve : And another twelve : Still another twelve : Oh wait, twelve more : Twelve or thirteen more : Nine, ten, eleven — and that makes twelve

comments: 8

Frex said...

Ooh--an exceptionally juicy round-up.
I want to see several of these. (So glad someone else already told me to skip La La Land--they totally agreed with you.)

NOT Minimalism---I've met enough puritans.

Herzog can tip toward sanctimonious---what do you think? Would I like Lo & Behold? (I almost feel it's my duty to see it, but am wary.)

Yes! To Shadow of a Doubt--it just gets better. Hitchcock's best female character, or maybe just best character.

I'd admired Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit--I'm glad she's making her way.

And I'm glad you enjoyed Whistle as much as I did!

Michael Leddy said...

My guess is that you wouldn’t like the Herzog, or more accurately, the people in it.

I think I may have enjoyed Whistle even more, because I came to it with “What do you mean by ‘meaning’?” fresh in my head. :)

Matt Thomas said...

These are among my favorite of your recurring posts. Invariably, you include something I've seen but need to re-watch (here, Shadow of a Doubt), something I haven't seen but have been meaning to, and something I will probably never watch but am grateful to learn about.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Matt. I will keep going.

Fresca said...

MICHAEL: Your guess confirms my guess. The last Herzog I saw was this panegyric to the people of the Taiga, waxing on about how authentic it is to live without electricity, etc.

What do you mean by "penguins are late to the dentist"?

Michael Leddy said...

And what do those penguins mean by showing up late all the time?

Chris said...

Last night I watched I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007), which creates riffs on the legend of Bob Dylan by using six actors (including one woman and one African-American) to portray him, or more accurately, to portray figures who have some kinship with him in some alternate reality (not all of the characters are even musicians). It's eccentric and messy but I also found it very enjoyable and refreshing. (I certainly wasn't expecting the giraffe.) There are lots of well-chosen Dylan tunes, a few of which are performed, fairly well, either by the cast or off-screen singers (I couldn't always tell). Hard-core Dylanologists (of which I'm not one) will no doubt pick up a fairly large number of in-jokes. Dylan authorized it and apparently liked it, to the extent that his cryptic utterances can be read at all, though it's hardly flattering. I guess at a certain level of myth you're above all that. My only complaint was that I found the audio on the dialogue to be poor. Maybe it's our TV but I had trouble following a lot of the conversation. It probably would repay a second viewing, if only for that reason.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for describing this film, Chris. I’ve thought about watching it, though I have to admit that my interest in Dylan has been set on Low for a long time.

So many DVDs are encoded with poor sound — maybe this is one of them. We sometimes end up backtracking and putting subtitles on just to be sure of what someone said.