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“A Lioness on the Prowl”: Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin

April 22nd, 2014

I have an article out today on Jonathan Glazer’s new film Under The Skin in Film International.

As I write, in part, “Under The Skin is being sold on the basis of a simple premise, which is true on the face of it, but also offers just the merest suggestion of what the film is in its totality. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien inhabiting a woman’s body, who trolls through the Scottish countryside and cities searching for young men, enticing them with the promise of a sexual encounter, and then killing them for food.

In this, she is monitored by another alien, who takes on the form of a sinister motorcyclist (played by real life champion cyclist Jeremy McWilliams), who is there to make sure that Johansson’s character stays on track with her mission. That’s pretty much the plot, or as much of it as I want to give away, but there’s a great deal more going on here than this bare outline would suggest.

Firstly, there’s no real sex in the film, just the promise of sex. Although Johansson lures several men into her white van during the first third of the film, and then takes them back to her flat, ostensibly for sex, nothing really happens; the men strip off and approach Johansson, who backs away from them, as the men sink into some sort of primordial ooze that swallows them up, and then reduces them to fleshy pulp for otherworldly consumption. Indeed, there is more frontal male nudity here than female, and it’s clear that one of the many things that the film is interested in is the fetishization of sex; Johansson’s simulacric image has been created as nothing more than a stock male fantasy.

We get only one glimpse of the actual harvesting process, in which two men, both victims, are now in a sort of limbo, and desperately attempt to touch each other to make some sort of contact, and perhaps escape the trap they’ve fallen into. But no such luck; in an instant, one of the men is reduced to nothing more than a human husk, and the pulp of his body is sucked through a chute into a door of some kind, food for Johansson’s cohorts in a distant galaxy.

Although there are a number of scenes in the film in which Johansson is nude, they’re sequences in which, as an alien, she examines her new body, and wonders at its construction, and why it’s so alluring to her victims. In the opening third of the film, she is utterly without humanity, clubbing one man to death on a beach and leaving an infant baby to be swept out into the tide without even the slightest shred of remorse. But then again, she’s not human – she doesn’t understand the meaning of the word.”

This is a remarkable film, but you’ll have to seek it out; see it as soon as you can.

Oculus: Another Look In the Haunted Mirror

April 11th, 2014

I have a new review essay out on the film Oculus in Film International.

As I write, “Oculus is a rather pretentious title for a rather straightforward movie, but despite the assembly line nature of its’ construction, the film still has something going for it. At first it’s hard to say precisely what the film has to offer, because on the surface it deals with so many basic and time-worn horror conventions that it seems to be almost aggressively unoriginal. But as the film picks up speed, and accelerates its march towards death and damnation, it gathers a certain sort of peculiar power that isn’t without value. I’m not about to give away the ending here, or any of the major plot twists, because those are the main things the film has to recommend it. Yet having said that, there’s a certain Resnais-like fatalism to the film that reverberates in one’s memory, despite the workmanlike nature of the film as a whole.

Though released theatrically today, April 11, 2014, the film was shot in 2012-2013, and was first screened on September 8, 2013, at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s yet another of the Jason Blum / Blumhouse Productions, all of which are low budget horror films, and the best of which to date is The Purge. Blum has a deal with Universal under which he cranks out numerous horror films in the $3 million or so range, but many of them don’t even see the light of day in DVD or streaming format, much less get a theatrical release. His idea is to keep on cranking out as many films as he can, and then see if anything sticks.

Despite the fact that there are a number of cinematic corpses, so to speak, sitting around in Blum’s vaults, with the number of films Blum makes, some of them are bound to hit. The Purge is going into a sequel, which from the looks of the trailer seems a sort of knock off of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) – the premise being that for twelve hours all criminal acts are legal, which acts as a societal safety valve. In the sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, a group of people are left outside when the purge starts, and have to run across a city in lockdown to safety, but it lacks Ethan Hawke in the lead, and screams “knock off” in every department. But I digress.

Oculus is about a haunted mirror, a staple of cinematic fantasy since the days of Georges Méliès. It’s been used in countless episodes of television series, such as Thriller and Twilight Zone, though my favorite variation on this well-worn theme remains the episode of the classic omnibus British horror film Dead of Night (1945), directed by Robert Hamer, in which Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) buys an ornate, oversize antique mirror as a gift for her husband Peter (Ralph Michael), only to discover that the previous owner killed his wife in front of it in a fit of jealousy, and that Peter is now falling under the mirror’s influence, as well. It’s one of the great horror stories of the cinema, and remains the most effective version of this tale, but for all that Oculus still has, as I suggested, something to add to the subgenre.”

You can read the entire essay here. Here’s looking at you, kids!

The Black Glove aka Face The Music (1954)

April 8th, 2014

The Black Glove is a 1954 British film noir directed by Terence Fisher.

For no particular reason, my mind turns this morning towards this underappreciated, but happily available on DVD thriller, set in London, as a Hammer Films /Robert Lippert UK/US co-production. A jazz trumpeter is involved in a murder mystery, and has to clear himself; the film is distinguished by its tough guy dialogue, excellent location shooting in the heart of London’s Soho district, and superb black and white cinematography by the gifted James Harvey. The lead is Alex Nicol, above right, a nice guy who never achieved super stardom, but whom I had the great pleasure of interviewing, and who told truly fabulous stories about old Hollywood; the woman is Eleanor Summerfield, who also never broke through to “A” level status, but who was a reliable leading lady in hardboiled melodramas in the 1940s and 50s.

The Black Glove, titled Face The Music in the UK, is one a of a group of noirs produced by Hammer Films in England during the 1950s, many of which – like this film – were directed by Terence Fisher, who would go on later in his career to become the foremost Gothic filmmaker of the second half of the 20th century with such films as Horror of Dracula (known simply as Dracula in the UK; 1958), the first Dracula film in Technicolor, with a career-defining performance by Christopher Lee as the title character. The Black Glove is certainly less ambitious than Fisher’s later work for Hammer, but it effectively captures the world-weariness of Post War Europe with such dialogue as “this didn’t look like a safe place to take your mother. In fact, it looked like a place you leave horizontally or not at all.”

All in all, worth a look; another film that seems to have been forgotten in film history.

Are We Already in the Post Internet Era?

April 7th, 2014

The dawn of the post internet era? A group of bleeding-edge artists in Bushwick, Brooklyn, seem to think so.

As critic Allison Galgiani, writing in the Bushwick Daily, notes, “earlier this week the art world was aflutter with talk of the artspace.com’s Andrew Goldstein’s interview with self-proclaimed super collector Stefan Simchowitz, and the equally popular rebuttal by Jerry Saltz. In the interview, among other inflated statements of his own Pinky and the Brain plan to take over the art world, it was brought up that many of  the artists that Simchowitz champions fall under the newly-minted term post-internet art. Aside from contemporary artists that fall under this category like Petra Cortright and Jordan Wolfson, Bushwick is notably on the map with net artists, such as the recent Internet of my Dreams show at Transfer Gallery, championing net and new media art. In a recent artnet.com article, NY art critic Paddy Johnson worries that what she deems our era’s greatest art movement’ has been almost entirely absent from the Whitney Biennials since 2002. This might be starting to change and the discourse has clearly shifted.”

Interesting to see what happens here; I, for one, would welcome this shift.

Advice for Living and Writing from Epictetus – The Enchiridion

April 6th, 2014

Here is a saying that has guided me for many years: “If you wish to be a writer, write.” Click here for more.

John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman

April 6th, 2014

Scott Eyman’s new book on John Wayne is the definitive study of the legendary actor and Western icon.

There have been lots of books on John Wayne – some celebratory, others taking him to task for his conservative views – but Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend is easily the best of the lot, because it transcends such obvious categorizing to bring to the reader a fully realized picture of both the man and the actor. Generous, impulsive, much smarter than people gave him credit for, a solid producer and script analyst, indebted to directors John Ford and Howard Hawks for the entire length of his career, and at the same time an architect of the Hollywood Blacklist, along with his longtime pal actor Ward Bond, Wayne deserved a book that would treat him honestly and fairly, highlighting his incredible work ethic and stamina, his loyalty to his friends, and the long, hard road Wayne climbed to stardom.

What’s so remarkable about Eyman’s book is that it isn’t only compulsively readable – a page turner in every sense of the word – but that Eyman manages to be “fair and balanced” in the truest sense of that often-abused phrase, combining a skillful narrative sense with truly prodigious research. It’s all here – the marriages, the divorces, the directors, Wayne’s passion to make a film on The Alamo (1960), which took him decades to get off  the ground, right down to the early “Z” westerns for Lone Star Pictures that Wayne worked his way through after his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930) failed to catch on the with the public.

John Ford, until then Wayne’s champion, cut him dead, leading to Wayne’s upward struggle through several ultra-cheap serials for Mascot Pictures, a group of three-day (!!) westerns for producer Leon Schlesinger at Warner Brothers (made with copious amounts of stock footage), and even some singing cowboy westerns (as “Singin’ Sandy”) before Ford relented, and rescued Wayne from Poverty Row with Stagecoach (1939), the film that made Wayne an “overnight” star. And that was really just the beginning of his career, after a decade of hard work – Wayne never stopped climbing, and it’s clear from Eyman’s book that Wayne had to keep fighting to the end to keep his name before the public.

There’s also a lot of anecdotage in the book – including an amazing tale of Wayne drinking in a Hollywood bar, when an unsteady Humphrey Bogart shows up owing $600 to the management, which Wayne immediately covers, and then notices that Bogart has an apple corer stuck “up to the hilt” in his back, courtesy of Bogart’s then-wife Mayo Methot. Wayne tries to pull it out, but it’s in so deeply that he finally has to plant his foot in the middle of Bogart’s back, and pull the corer out with both hands, and then drive Bogart to the hospital – and thankfully, there’s also some detail, finally, about the role that Marlene Dietrich played in Wayne’s career, both as a lover and a person who put Wayne in touch with the right people to advance his career.

There are lots of facts and figures, as well, which some reviewers have complained about, as making the book a bit too complete, but I don’t think so; here’s a book that has all the budgets, release dates, box office figures, memos, and interoffice correspondence to really get to the heart of Wayne’s life and work. The most striking that about John Wayne: The Life and Legend is that even as he relates the least appealing aspects of Wayne’s life, you never get the feeling that Eyman is sitting in judgement. There’s the good, the bad, and the inexplicable, and Eyman covers it all, with skill and style.

This is Wayne, as he was, in complete and straightforward detail, along with the people he knew, loved, and worked with. While Eyman clearly respects Wayne’s work, he never goes overboard into hagiography, and with what appears to have been complete access to Wayne’s personal archives, creates a fully rounded portrait of John Wayne – or Marion Morrison, if you prefer – perhaps the most iconic star Hollywood has ever produced.

Scott Eyman has written a number of film biographies, including one on John Ford, but this is his finest work.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or, Nothing You Believe is True

April 5th, 2014

I have a new review out on this rather remarkable project in Film International; read it here!

As I write, in part, “I’m teaching a class right now in comic book movies, partly to trace the history of the genre from the 1940s on – when they began as Saturday morning serials – and partly to discover, if I could, why these films have moved to the mainstream of cinematic discourse. There’s no question about it anymore; Comic-Con rules the multiplex, and for the most part, I’ve avoided these films like the plague.

I remember sitting through Christopher Nolan’s interminable and interminably boring Inception (2010) impatiently looking at my watch throughout the film; there was nothing in it even remotely original, and plenty that had been “borrowed” from Cocteau, Resnais, and others, and at the center, it really wasn’t about anything.But at least the emptiness of that film was less offensive than the straight out class warfare of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), which Daniel Lindvall effectively eviscerated in the pages of Film International. And yet from the Iron Man films to Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011), emptiness, coupled with over-the-top violence, is all that’s on display.

Here, we have something different. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes on the CIA, hypersurveillance systems, killer drones, and the Snowden affair, and comes down on the side of the average citizen for a change, rather than the ruling elite. The special effects are absolutely non-stop, the violence is ramped up to hyperkinetic levels, with cutting to match, and the performances are all cardboard, but at the center of the film, giving one of his most effective performances in years, is none other than Robert Redford, who’s never done a comic book film before, superbly playing the villain of the piece.”

Read the rest of the review here now; it’s best in 3-D, on a big screen – who says I don’t like some mainstream movies?

Dorothy Arzner Gets A Retrospective

April 3rd, 2014

Dorothy Arzner, left, on the set of her last film, First Comes Courage (1943), with star Merle Oberon.

As John Hopewell reports from Madrid for Variety, “Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979), the first woman member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and still one of – if not the – most prolific of woman helmers in Hollywood –will be honored with a career retrospective at September’s 62nd San Sebastian Festival in Spain. Though not the world’s first woman director – that honor [goes] to France’s Alice Guy – Arzner was the first to carve out a career in Los Angeles during the golden age of Hollywood’s studios, first as an editor, where she is credited with working on 52 movies, including 1922’s Rudolph Valentino-starrer Blood and Sand, on which she also directed second unit shots of its bullfights. Her [directorial] debut, for Paramount, was 1927’s Fashion For Women.

The first woman in Hollywood to direct a sound film, 1928’s Manhattan Cocktail, Arzner is said to have invented the boom mike when, on Clara Bow’s first talkie, box office hit The Wild Party, she had technicians hang a mike onto a fishing rod to give it more mobility. From Party, she shot a string of movies, comedies or melodramas – Anybody’s Woman (1930), Honor Among Lovers (1931), The Bride Wore Red (1937) – which often championed strong femme characters, helped consolidate the early careers of Katharine Hepburn – with whom she quarreled -  and Lucille Ball, and sometimes suggested – think 1933’s Christopher Strong – lesbian sub-texts.

The retrospective will be accompanied by the publication of a book that, it is hoped, will clarify why Arzner’s directorial career abruptly ended with 1943’s First Comes Courage. During the 1960s and 1970s, she taught directing and screenwriting at UCLA, her students including Francis Ford Coppola. In 1975, she was honored with a DGA Tribute, which, in an anecdote collected by IMDB, included a telegram from Katharine Hepburn: ‘Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?’ The text admits multiple readings. The 62nd San Sebastian Festival runs Sept. 17-26.”

The Hepburn telegram really stings; was this dig really necessary? Arzner deserves a box set of her work, and I’d love to read the book that accompanies the festival. Much of Arzner’s work simply isn’t on DVD, though more and more is coming out every day, but I have to wonder – how long is it going to take for Hollywood historians to put Arzner in the rightful place in the directorial pantheon, and how long is it going to take before she does get that box set of DVDs, complete with a history of her work? Not that it was ever easy; as she said of working within the Hollywood system, “when I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.

Ida Lupino – who started directing in 1949 with Not Wanted – also deserves the same treatment; a comprehensive set of her films, properly mastered, so future generations can see the importance of their work.  Hopewell doesn’t mention it above, but in addition to the work he lists, Arzner also directed a stack of television commercials for Pepsi Cola, at the suggestion of Pepsi board member Joan Crawford, who worked with Arzner in the 1930s, and also directed training films for the WACs during World War II.

Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn forced Arzner out of the director’s chair on First Comes Courage, a feminist tale of a Norwegian resistance fighter, Nikki, played by Merle Oberon. When Arzner became ill during filming, rather than waiting for her to recover, Cohn pressed Columbia contract director Charles Vidor into service to finish the film as quickly as possible; when she recovered, Arzner discovered that Columbia no longer required her services. Nevertheless, the film is still a standout, and one can readily see where Arzner left off and Vidor began; the film is entirely hers, and a fitting last project for her career. If only, however, she could have done more.

Dorothy Arzner – another figure who deserves more attention than she gets.

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s L’Immortelle Finally Released on DVD and Blu-ray

April 2nd, 2014

Click here to read my review of the DVD of L’Immortelle released yesterday, a full 51 years after the fact.

As I note, “L’Immortelle was shot in 1962, and released in France on March 27, 1963, but despite the enormous success of Marienbad, L’Immortelle was deemed too difficult for American audiences, and resolutely uncommercial – which it is – and with a rough negative cost of $100,000, the producer and distributor of the film deemed a United States release more trouble than it was worth. And so it was not until six years later that L’Immortelle made the rounds of screening rooms in Manhattan; after that, I think it might have played at a few art houses for a week or so, but then it vanished from sight completely.

L’Immortelle itself has a curious genesis; it was made with blocked funds in Turkey that couldn’t be taken out of the country, and so shooting in Istanbul was a given, though Robbe-Grillet had ties to the city and knew it well. The producers even went so far as to say that they didn’t even really care if the film made money, just so long as they could get something out of Turkey. Thus, Robbe-Grillet and his wife, Catherine, who appears in the film as the enigmatic Catherine Sarayan, scouted locations and had the entire project ready to go, when a revolution interrupted their plans, and shooting had to be put off for two years before a new regime was installed, and some semblance of order restored. Then the film was shot quickly and efficiently, in richly saturated black and white.

The film’s narrative is so slight as to be nonexistent; the official press synopsis describes the film as ‘an erotic, dream-like fantasy in which a despondent man meets a beautiful, secretive woman who may, or may not, be involved in using kidnapped women as prostitutes.’ This is as good a synopsis as any might be, because the real psychic and visual terrain of the film is memory, repetition, the impossibility of knowing another, the unreliability of the senses, and a circularity of narrative that keeps bringing the viewer back to one location after another with the stubborn insistence of a spectral tour guide who seemingly insists that we visit a room, a mosque, a nightclub, an antique store, an apartment and numerous other locations just one more time, until they are indelibly imprinted on our memory.

The leading characters, Françoise Brion and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, known only as L and N respectively, are not so much characters as situations; people frozen in time and memory who walk through the film with an air of complete detachment from any sort of reality, as if they are the principals in their own fantasy of Istanbul, and the few supporting characters who surround them behave in exactly the same fashion. Scenes are routinely repeated two, three times or more, sometimes exactly the same, down to the slightest detail, and other times with minor variations, seemingly in slow motion, as if actors are sleepwalking through the world they inhabit. Often, characters appear within a scene without explanation, as if they had always been there, and perhaps always will be there; timeless, unchanging, fixed and motionless.

There is a timelessness about the film, and for good reason; as Robbe-Grillet has acknowledged on numerous occasions, Françoise Brion’s character is already dead when the film begins, although she assumes a phantom corporeality for the purposes of the film, and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, for all intents and purposes, is in love with someone who no longer exists, if she ever existed – in fact, we can’t be sure if any of the narrative ever occurred, or if everything we’re seeing is a fever dream, something conjured up out of loneliness, isolation, or the sheer existential longing of one man’s need to be loved.”

This is essential cinema; get the DVD or Blu-ray now, and prepare to be astonished.

Graham Greene on Paris in Spring

April 1st, 2014

Here’s a charming musical that isn’t available on DVD, and should be.

A lot of people forget that writer Graham Greene was a prolific film critic in the 1930s. In addition to the fact that many of his short stories and novels were made into films, and he was a man of immaculate taste. Here, he discusses in a contemporary review the long forgotten film Paris in Spring, featuring a young Ida Lupino in a supporting part, which he smartly compares to the best of Ernst Lubitsch, the master of light romantic comedy. Yet, sadly, the film isn’t available on DVD.

It should be admitted, as Greene notes, that the film’s director, Lewis Milestone isn’t a name readily associated with a project such as this; Milestone’s most famous film, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), is a grim slice of anti-war realism, set during World War I. Yet so strong is the pull of Paris in Spring that having only seen it once, many years ago, complete with its highly stylized opening titles and location work at the Eiffel Tower, that I have never been able to forget it. Here’s what Greene had to say on the film, which was released as Paris Love Song in the UK.

“You wouldn’t think that [Lewis] Milestone, the director, was a Russian, so deftly has be caught the gay, the shameless Lubitsch Manner. It is a silly, charming tale of an Italian count [disappointed in love] who goes up the Eiffel Tower to pretend to commit suicide, and finds at the top a young woman who intends to commit suicide [for the same reason]. They agree, of course, to make their lovers jealous, and the lovers come together in the same conspiracy. Mr. Milestone mas made out of this nonsense something light, enchanting, genuinely fantastic.

Mary Ellis’s is the best light acting I have seen since [Kay] Francis appeared in [Ernst Lubitsch’s] Trouble in Paradise. She is lovely to watch and listen to; she has a beautiful humorous ease . . . only the cinema is able in its most fantastic moments to give a sense of absurd unreasoning happiness, a kind of poignant release: you can’t catch it in prose: it belongs to Walt Disney, to [René Clair’s] voices from the air [in À nous la liberté, 1932], and there is one moment in this film when you have it, as the Count scrambles singing across the roofs to his mistress’s room; happiness and freedom, nothing really serious, nothing really lasting, a touching of hands, a tuneful miniature love.”

As always, it’s the films that survive in circulation that have the best chance to being reevaluated as time passes by – but since Paris in Spring has been more or less abandoned to the Paramount vaults, and circulates only in bootleg DVDs, one either has to see a second rate copy of this first-rate film, or be content with memories. Complicating things further is a really vicious review of Paris in Spring in The New York Times by Frank S. Nugent from July 13, 1935, when the film was first released in the States – contrast this with Greene’s review, which is only available in a volume of his collected film reviews, and not on the web.

This is yet another film that deserves to to be on DVD; one more film where only the reviews survive.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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