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The Middlebrow Rebellion of Alex Ross Perry

Among his generation of late-millennial filmmakers, Alex Ross Perry is one of the hardest to get a read on. While his late-30s New York contemporaries often fall into neater categories, Perry is difficult to pin down because his influences are so broad, his style so unique, and his decisions so unpredictable that he resists easy labeling. Trying to follow the plot of his career is tricky- how exactly did the guy who made acidic no-budget comedies about nuclear war and [REDACTED]  write a movie about Winnie the Pooh? 

Perry is nothing if not an iconoclast, and his unashamed reference points are all over the map. The domestic dramas of Rohmer, Cassavetes, and Bergman, carry just as much weight as the literary worlds of Pynchon and Philip Roth; he’s spoken at great length of his love for both Nora Ephron and Paul Verhoven. Perry’s casts are eclectic- they include prestige TV stars, Wes Anderson favorites, Beastie Boys, and in one infamous example, himself. His dialogue is far from naturalistic, and the word salad he puts his actors through sits in opposition to the camerawork of Sean Price Williams, Perry’s DP on all of his films and a vital piece of his puzzle. Williams’ camera is usually hazy, soft, and close, keeping any of the heady verbal sparring from feeling too stately. 

Perry’s films often work in spite of themselves, both in the watching and in the making- Perry is notorious for touting his ability to work with small budgets, and even threatened to retire after the financial failure of his most recent film, 2018’s Her Smell. This dichotomy is the best summation of all that makes Perry fascinating- his rebellious streak is one that cries out for something traditional, lamenting the death of middlebrow mid-budget cinema and his place in it with the fervor of an arthouse zealot. It’s here that I find something exciting, and something to latch onto in his unique career- I can only hope that perhaps you’ll find that too. 

An Essential: Her Smell (2018)

All Parts: A Review of Alex Ross Perry's Her Smell | Newcity Film

Her Smell is the best Alex Ross Perry film by a good margin. This is not to knock any of his other films, but it would be silly to ignore this film’s power and its status as the culmination of Perry’s career so far. It’s a whirlwind story about a fictional grunge band helmed by Elisabeth Moss at her most unchecked, combining over the top scenarios with a neat five-act structure. The unraveling of an unwell woman becomes the undoing of a lifetime of pain and a career of success, as Moss’ Becky Something sucks everyone around her into a harrowing vortex. Perry’s best idea was to focus on a fictional band, eschewing the facts of any one person for the larger spiritual truth of a moment in time and the universal truths of damaged people with large stages. 

Moss gets to be both Courtney and Kurt, and she’s also tapped into a larger cinematic tradition as well, especially channeling Gena Rowlands in Cassavetes’ Opening Night. The film zooms in on individual moments, cutting away needless context or exposition in favor of letting us infer the painful events that occur between sections. The film bears a few similarities to Uncut Gems– both late-10s portraits of powerful and dangerous people, both intent on stressing you the hell out- but Perry diverts from the Safdie brothers by both redeeming the protagonist and setting it up so that you don’t want that to happen. Some critics asked what exactly was the purpose of the film, but if you’re intrigued by intimate character studies, bold acting, and backstage music drama, the overall experience of the film is nothing to question. 

Next Step: Listen Up Philip (2014)

Listen Up Philip review | Sight & Sound | BFI

Perry’s breakout starts out as a ridiculous farce at the expense of petulant intellectuals and New York City writer types before melting into a slow and somber look at emotional isolation and the danger of following your indulgences too far. The loaded cast (Jason Schwartzman, Jonathan Pryce, Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter) and sepia-toned visuals set the stage for brittle comedy and intrigue, while the structure undercuts the expectations of festival-friendly indie films, a favorite trick of Perry’s (more on that later). Eric Bogosian’s narration sets up a charming and spry little black comedy, but when the perspective shifts from Schwartzman’s Philp to Moss’ Ashley, the film morphs into something more emotionally curious and sentimental. 

A Deep Cut: The Color Wheel (2011)

The Color Wheel,' Directed by Alex Ross Perry - The New York Times

Perry’s second film is the only one to star himself, and the darkness and unlikeability of both his character and the film itself brings to mind a legend about why Martin Scorsese cast himself as the horribly racist freak in Taxi Driver– the answer being that he didn’t feel comfortable asking anyone else to say those lines. Perry and Carlen Altman, the cowriter and costar of the film, play a brother-sister duo who are completely unlovable, both abounding in casual racism, cruelty, and open disregard for social niceties. Perry creates a brilliant and caustic portrait of family bonds and emotional sickness that knowingly inverts the types of road trip rom-coms that get eaten up at Sundance, creating a transgressive and upsetting experience by doing what he does best- stripping the core from a well-trod exterior and replacing it with something broken. 

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I’m Thinking of Ending This Movie

Charlie Kaufman, if nothing else, is someone who consistently attacks universal themes in his films. We all want much of the same stuff; we are all driven by the same base fears. We want to be remembered, admired, romantically loved; we want to win. Likewise, we fear dying, we fear getting older, and we fear being forgotten. Kaufman knows this well. His most popular work, the script of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, was fixated on the memory of love and the search for emotional stability, and his first work as a director (Synecdoche, New York) strove to answer big questions about human frailty and the way we perform our daily lives. 

Kaufman’s newest film, the Netflix-backed adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things, again looks at massive issues of our interior lives- failed relationships, broken families, aging and death, the quest for knowledge. Unfortunately, he still doesn’t know how to deliver on these ideas in an interesting way. Kaufman is surely an architect, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things is yet another arthouse Tower of Babel, boring into the sky and boring me out of my mind. 

From the beginning, there is something amiss in this world. Jessie Buckley’s unnamed character wants to break up with her boyfriend Jake, and the grueling car ride to his parents’ house makes a pretty compelling case that their loveless relationship needs to end. Her thoughts serve as the narration, which Jake (portrayed by Jesse Plemons trying his best) constantly interrupts with asinine questions. We finally arrive at the country home, and Jake’s reticence and discomfort around his parents and his childhood home is obvious. Plemons conveys this unspoken unease well, and here’s where Kaufman makes his first mistake- a well of character dynamic, rich with backstory and intrigue, and yet he keeps it elusive and out of reach.  

Suffice to say, the dinner does not go well, and things spin out of control; Jake’s parents, portrayed by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, are shifting in and out of some liminal space between awkward doting parents and non-sequitur approximations of real people. Collette especially is going for something unhinged, shifting into Hereditary mode for about five minutes in order to sell the dream logic of this semi-haunted house and her own ghostliness. When the young woman eventually wanders around the house, she begins to slip in and out of moments in time, seeing Jake’s parents at both earlier and later moments of their lives. We see them as both lively young parents and dementia-riddled seniors as the young woman travels through their lives. Here Kaufman makes another wrong turn, creating an interesting dreamy comment on the way we imagine and inject ourselves into the timelines of other people, and yet he depicts it in a way that is simultaneously overlong and laughably half-baked. 

After this is where the real pain begins, and I’ll be brief- there is another 30 minutes spent trapped in the car with the unhappy couple, they stop to get some repulsive looking ice cream, and when they stop at Jake’s old high school to find a trash can, they enter in to find yet another mysterious physical manifestation of his past. I won’t give away the ending, but it illuminates basically nothing, a trait many people see as a good thing or a brilliant trick. 

Unsatisfying endings, elusive themes, and vague truths are not a bad thing; they often find their way into good films in one way or another. But having these things is not a marker of quality, and the extent to which I’m Thinking of Ending Things uses its ambiguity as a driving force attempts to cloak the fact that it has nothing to say. There is no insight to offer, and there is very little to be wrung from this that isn’t completely obvious. Getting old is scary; breaking up is hard. We know this- why doesn’t Kaufman trust us enough to go any deeper than that?

Kaufman goes out of his way to call out, by name, two different directors from two very different fields of cinema. We see the mysterious janitor figure watching some schlocky feelgood picture on TV that we find out was directed by Robert Zemeckis. In the second car ride, the young woman puts on a transatlantic accent to recite Pauline Kael’s infamous pan of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, inspired by her own frustration with Jake and her finding his book of Kael’s reviews in his childhood bedroom. 

In both scenarios, Kaufman wants us to think he’s funny, but he only seems jealous. Taking a shot at a Hollywood blockbuster builder like Zemeckis seems like punching down for an esteemed and arty man like Kaufman, but he only reveals his shallowness. He decries overly sincere and maudlin mainstream films in favor of flaunting this film’s lack of either sentiment or plot like some sort of achievement. He steps further out of his element when he quotes Kael. If he’s using these old reviews to mock Cassavetes, then he’s a coward who should use his own words; if he’s bringing them up to create a layer of intellectual distance between the characters and the audience, then he’s an overbearing tryhard, showing up to a party with a head full of memorized facts but unable to hold a conversation. 

Kaufman strains against these two polar opposites because he can’t achieve what either has done. He’s convinced himself he’s too smart to engage in the broad pop culture joy of well-made popcorn movies, and he’s too focused on some sense of magical realism and distancing to scratch the surface of emotion and realism that Cassavetes offers, leaving him in the self-involved paint-huffing purgatory of this convoluted and disastrous film. Perhaps he’ll eventually make his way out of his Sisyphean quest to conquer his own mind, but for now we’re left with the collateral of this big dumb boulder, more of a cautionary tale than anything resembling a good movie. 

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“I Like You Guys Better”- Nihilist Male Bonding in Cassavetes’ Husbands

There’s an indelible image immortalized on the Criterion release of Husbands that struck me when I saw it in context: we see our three men fighting and clowning in the street from a distance, and the camera makes them look like aliens, shimmering in focus while the world around them looks like it’s melting. And as alien and strange as these guys are, they also seem like the only real thing in this film. 

The film sits us with a group of men who hold everything in contempt. The central trio of writer/director John Cassavetes, Peter Faulk, and Ben Gazzara are standoffish and aloof to the point of being surreal; it’s tough to imagine someone going out of their way to be this cruel, and yet we’ve all met people who are willing to go there. Husbands is a film where the limit of what’s funny is stretched to the breaking point, and anyone who’s been on the wrong end of someone committing to the bit will feel the residual sting. 

What’s the worst way to experience this cruelty? Is it in the aloof, above-it-all attitude the three actors brought to their late night press tour? Is it the sarcastic doting that notorious Husbands detractor Pauline Kael experienced from Cassavetes, who she described as lifting her in the air sardonically declaring his love for her while she “felt that he wanted to crush every bone in my body”? Or perhaps it’s in the direct, searing attention that the three onscreen friends pay to the women they encounter. When the trio fix their attention on a woman they’ve implored to sing at their table, they turn unsettlingly petulant and demeaning. When Gazarra’s Harry returns home to abandon his wife, it’s violent and unsettling. And when the men all try to find someone to sleep with on their London getaway, they’re pathetic- their lack of connection, both to other people and reality, is on full display while these men debase themselves in shaky close-ups, clawing madly for the smallest victory they can find. 

Cassavetes gets at some very uncomfortable truths about male friendship and the bonds between people who are better off without each other. The schoolboy dynamic has all the things we see but don’t know how to articulate in masculine friendships- a boorish leader who can’t offer the sensitivity they crave; a defensive screw-up constantly bickering with the leader; the affable middleman trying to keep peace. The two more submissive men form a pair that’s ready to talk behind the leader’s back; there’s the cycles of alternating abuse and encouragement that are needed to maintain these sickly bonds. There’s also something you don’t see often, which is the distinct closeness that comes from men mocking other people. It’s not an accident that Cassavetes and Gazzara start to snuggle while torturing a woman with their laughter. 

And my goodness the laughter is torture. Cassavetes has a distinct lift in his voice that I love, but it translates into a grating, painful sharpness in his smoker’s cackle. This laughter bookends the constant confusion and seemingly improvised dialogue, and it’s the laughter that also serves as the film’s Greek chorus. Three pitiful men in a house of mirrors, laughing only at themselves, without another soul to rest on. They begin as they end- sad and confused, at first by the loss of their pivotal fourth member, and now by the seeming loss of their security in anything. It’s haunting in an old tragic sense to see their line of credit run out and for the bottom to fall out. The joke isn’t funny anymore, and the laughs have all dried up. 

Could Husbands have been a riotous comedy? The film was originally cut without Cassavetes present, and it was modeled after the shooting script; when the original studio comedy version of the film played for test audiences, they loved it. While the film as it exists bears basically no resemblance to what it once was, it’s not hard to picture in a modern context. K. Austin Collins addresses the link between Cassavetes and Judd Apatow in his essay about the film, and there’s so many modern comedies with moral tales at their center that you could loosely adapt the premise of Husbands and it wouldn’t feel out of place. It’s easy to picture someone in the Ed Helms or Kevin James realm waxing poetic over gooey piano chords about a deceased friend in between fart jokes and ironic needledrops; the film’s themes of strained relationships and dashed masculine dreams is not far off from Dennis Dugan’s modern classic Grown Ups

But what this film actually became is so much more jarring, so much scarier, and so much closer to our own lives. We often leave important things unsaid, and we hurt our friends as much as we help them. Husbands is extremely haphazard in the ways it chooses to speak these tough truths, but the ending is calibrated perfectly. We don’t see Gus make up with his wife, but we also don’t see him get torn apart for his absence. Cassavetes ends on a wary humanist note, giving us Schroedinger’s character arc where the future of a relationship hinges on the things it always hinges on- real people’s emotions and decisions, without the ability to ignore or deny the real hurt and strain we cause each other. There’s a hope that these men can choose to be better, and the people in their lives can choose to forgive them. There’s a hope that any of us fellas can do this when we return from our benders, whether real or not; that we can make amends and move on. As stilted and awkward as the film’s presentation often is, I’m thankful Cassavetes trusts enough to leave us with something that feels like the truth. 

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“Squint against the grandeur!”- The Pop Spiritualism of the Coen Brothers

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve seen one or more films by Joel and Ethan Coen. This isn’t to shame anyone who hasn’t, but let’s be realistic here- the Coens and their films inhabit a very large space in the popular consciousness, and with good reason. Their creative path is both envious and precarious, a story with as many ups and downs as one of their own films. They were able to parlay early indie success into decades worth of distinctive studio cinema, and their mid-2000s critical stall-out set them up to rebound with some of their best work yet.

Given their popularity, it’s easy to think there isn’t a ton of fresh ground to cover. Attracting all this attention the way they do, the Coens have been called a lot of different things that are untrue. In various articles, reviews, tweets, Letterboxd comments, etc, I’ve seen them referred to as: secretly racist, secretly right-wing, hacks, the best filmmakers of all time, the most American filmmakers, etc etc. I’m not really going to engage too much with these claims, as I don’t see them as either the saviors of cinema nor the downfall of it, and honestly, I’m not super concerned about what their politics are (although they are pretty transparent about them).

What I do think is true about the Coens is that they are mean as snakes. Their films are populated by morons of such magnitude that you could make the argument the Coens have complete contempt for all humans. I don’t think they have contempt, I just believe they’re pragmatic in showing how inept and evil people can really be. The cruelty that befalls most of the characters in their films often feels completely excessive yet utterly appropriate, whether at the hands of man, God, or circumstances.

I tend to view the Coens films through three different lenses- farce, mystery, and tragedy. If you’re new to the Coens, I hope this guide gives you a good path to enjoying some of the better pop films of the last 30 years. If you’re well-versed, I hope this gives you a new prism to look through when evaluating these films.

Farce: The Big Lebowski and Hail, Caesar!

Being the great screenwriters they are, the Coens are often looked at as examples for how to craft tight and straightforward scripts. However, their comedies are generally exempt from this. Their two best comedies feature big ensemble casts, esoteric references and constant cultural landmarking, and loose odysseys through moral tests.

The Big Lebowski is just as shaggy and confused as its central character, Jeff Bridges’ The Dude. A movie so dense it’s inspired philosophical treatises and so convoluted that the plot falls apart as soon as you try to explain it, this is for my money the best Coen brothers comedy and one of their best movies. They decided to follow up the minimal battle of good and evil of Fargo with a rambling two hour excursion through Los Angeles that takes the model of decades of noir and flips it inside out with stoner logic and incredibly rich side characters.

Twenty years later, Hail, Caesar! came along with an even bigger cast and an even more disconnected set of vignettes to riff on old Hollywood and the way we portray God on screen. In the protagonist Eddie, the Coens explore their well-trod ground of monotheism and the general struggle with it, with maybe the funniest exploration of it in one particular scene with three preachers and a rabbi. Eddie’s own inability to experience God through anything other than the films he helps create drives home the central idea behind the film itself- that Movie Magic can be a saving force all its own.

Mystery: No Country for Old Men and Blood Simple

In 2007, the Coens bounced back from a couple of unsuccessful studio pictures with their most resounding success. No Country for Old Men is their only film to win either best picture or best director, and its place in the canon was immediate. The stark, dry noir makes the Texas desert look like a foreign planet, and Javier Bardem’s savage performance elevated the film from a typical literary adaptation into the realm of modern masterpieces.

But the Coens were no strangers to noir- in fact it was really more a return to form. Their first film, 1984’s Blood Simple, lays the groundwork for their love of mystery and cat-and-mouse thrillers. Frances McDormand (frequent collaborator and Joel’s wife) is running from her abusive husband, and the film contains the same blend of horror aesthetics, silent stretches, and the creeping bleakness of certain death that made No Country an instant legend. There’s few debut films that so clearly contain the seeds of everything to come for a director, and if you’re more interested in smart and earthy mysteries, Blood Simple is a stellar step into that space.

Tragedy: Inside Llewyn Davis and A Serious Man

In their tragedies, the Coens allow the violence and insanity of the worlds they create to inspire confusion and angst in their characters more than they are played for laughs or dramatic effect. These films feel more like being beaten down slowly, and they steer clear of any easy resolution.

Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen film I was most personally affected by on first watch. Tracing the story of a middling folk singer in early-60’s New York, it’s tough for me to not see myself and the people I work with in this story of busted dreams and washed up music careers. Shifting away from the neat lens of usual cinematographer Roger Deakins, Bruno Delbonnel paints the film in inky grays and smeared visuals. Oscar Isaac sells the film with a performance that mostly smolders, increasing the power of his outbursts. The film loops back on itself at the end, using more abstract storytelling devices than typical for the Coens. The punishing end hammers home the film’s thesis- there’s no escaping your fate.

If there’s any film where fate is utterly inescapable, it is A Serious Man. It seems hard to top the absurdity of their minor comedies like Raising Arizona or Burn After Reading, but A Serious Man goes there, and with entrancing results. It’s become a meme in a way that a straight comedy typically would not; the film’s humor is only because it portrays all the unrealistic bad fortune as completely serious, and Michael Stuhlbarg’s confused gaze is the film’s anchor- there’s not much sense to be made of it. The film also engages with the Jewish faith the most explicitly of any Coen film. They approach their heritage with a questioning eye, lambasting religious institutions for their lack of answers and the way the Rabbis refuse any meaningful assistance.

The Coens’ tricky relationship with God and man animates much of their films, but I don’t want you to leave thinking of them as simply cynical. Even the biggest cynics have a soft side, which the Coens prove over and over again. As obsessed as they are with death, they’re equally concerned with the beauty of life, specifically new life that’s brought into the world. Some of their best characters beam with an honest glow, and they constantly argue in favor of doing what’s right over what’s easy. Even the death and violence that occurs always leaves room for the characters to mourn; nobody dies without leaving an impact on someone. It’s this belief that keeps me coming back to the brothers. As absurd as they think everything is, they’re even more committed to a deeply humanist method- if the people are interesting, it’s always a story worth telling.

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Dance with the Devil- Unholy Cinephilia and Biblical Rage in Cape Fear

Much is made of Martin Scorsese’s religious fixations, as well as his affection for perverse blendings of the sacred and the carnal. Whether it be Harvey Keitel going from confession to getting hammered, The Last Temptation of Christ in general, or the spiritual reverence for obscene violence, Scorsese has made more ruckus about and at the expense of the Christian faith than most non-religious directors have, let alone any other professing Catholic filmmakers.

Cape Fear follows this thread of religious barnstorming, but it does it a little differently- the Catholic guilt is out, the fire and brimstone is in. Instead of subtle straining about purpose and goodness, Scorsese wrestles with the God of the Old Testament, finding a parallel in the tormented story of Job, a connection mentioned in the film that unlocks the film’s complicated moral code. The moral ambiguity of the text is supported by the tonal ambiguity and the garish style of the film; the true blasphemy Scorsese indulges in is how he tells the story in a way that bucks so violently at reverence. Just as Prince was known to blend his faith with the sexuality of his music, Scorsese elevates his secular cinephilia to a holy place in order to tell such a story.

Scorsese establishes his cinephile bonafides right off the bat with the brilliant Saul Bass title sequence and the Bernard Hermann score, recycled and rearranged from the 1962 version of Cape Fear. The film adheres to genre conventions and reference points that are in and of themselves linked together. The film’s style is just as much in debt to the 80s voyeurism of Brian De Palma as it is to Alfred Hitchcock, and Scorsese clearly delights in his dialogue with both the master of suspense and his most venerable remixer. The luxurious vibe comes from Vertigo’s production designer, while the split diopters, melodramatic performances, and fake fireworks are pure Blow Out. There are moments where the film is sent into negative, and while the effect is deployed to illustrate the mounting confusion and tension, it’s hard not to read it as a nod to Stan Brakhage or Godard’s Alphaville.

It is no accident that the first time that De Niro’s Max Cady and the Bowdens interact it is in the theatre. We see Cady interrupting the film with cigar smoke and loud, exaggerated laughter. The disturbance he causes and the Bowdens’ departure is awkward and a little embarrassing, and Scorsese wants us to sit in that discomfort- a family retreat to the cinema has been disturbed; there is an intruder in Scorsese’s holiest of holies. Perhaps the way Marty depicts this is overblown, but it’s potent because it’s familiar- anyone who has sat in a crowded theatre with too much of the wrong kind of noise (I’m thinking specifically of the man who kept darkly chuckling during a repertory screening of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) can attest to this unease. Scorsese introduces a man capable of horrid violence by showing him being unpleasant in a way we recognize- by invading the common sanctuary.

There is a worrying thematic thread that develops as the film carries on with regards to the morality of Max Cady and Sam Bowden. A decade earlier, Cady raped his girlfriend, and Bowden unsuccessfully represented him in court. During his sentence, Cady has taught himself enough about the law to realize Bowden did not represent him honestly, which Bowden admits to his confidants. Bowden buried relevant, potentially game-changing evidence because he felt it was wrong to see Cady go free, and Cady has decided to repay Bowden’s vigilante justice with his own blend of nihilistic righteousness.

Does this theme suggest that Sam and Cady are on level ground? There is room to interpret that the film is saying that Sam’s irresponsible behavior in the courtroom has caused his family to be threatened with rape and violence. After all, Bowden’s continuing attempt at fixing the situation not only makes it worse, but alienates everyone in the process. The police tell him to chill out, his wife thinks he’s overreacting, and his teenage daughter is manipulated into thinking Cady’s a suave romantic rather than a predator. Is this all Sam’s fault?

Despite these questions, the film does not posit these two men on equal moral ground- rather, they are shown to simply be guilty of the same hubris. Sam believed justice was in his hands, and that it was his job to punish Max for his actions. Likewise, Max believes that he has to make Sam suffer in order to reset the balance. Their shared broken mentality takes them places where they’re their most shady. But while they are similar in their mindset, the film does not suggest they are similar in their sin- at his worst, Sam is a jerk, a bad husband, and a hack lawyer; Max rapes, murders, and torments innocent people for fun. There is nothing about this film that suggests they are on similar moral ground, but simply that the moral ground is more complicated and less binary than Good and Evil.

At one point, Max implores Sam to read the Book of Job. Having read and absorbed much of the Bible while in prison, Max regularly spouts from it with self-assured moral authority, and he likes to use it as a tool against anyone who questions. Like anyone who misinterprets the Bible, Max sees himself as something he is not- as the moral arbiter.

But when he points Sam towards the story of Job, he gives both Sam and the audience a glimpse into his cracked thought process. In this Old Testament story, the Devil asks God if anyone really cares about Him anymore, and God points out Job, a humble man trying his best to please God. Satan decides to torment Job by removing his riches and his family, hoping to see a good man curse God. Through it all, Job is angry with God and his own misfortune, but he is rewarded in the end for his refusal to abandon God under pressure. In this film, Max sees himself as the Devil, ready to torture and destroy a man of justice, and ready to test the limits of Sam’s goodness.

But the comparison falls apart pretty quickly because of Max’s own misunderstanding. The hero in Job is not the Devil, and the sadism is never rewarded. Cady positions himself both as the tormentor and the judge; he wears his biblical references like he wears his shoddy tattoos, blending old-world literature and philosophy with mixed metaphors. He masks his vengeful impulse with a veneer of godliness, and when he makes a failed attempt at speaking in tongues, he simply babbles instead. He is nothing more than a hack pastor, putting himself in God’s shoes and falling on his face.

Cape Fear would go on to be both a baffling success at the box office and a massive imprint on popular culture, immortalized in the classic Simpsons episode that remade it as farce. Perhaps that’s the darkest thing about the film, a bit of sacrilege that not even Scorsese intended. Maybe Marty doomed himself to being misunderstood when he used melodrama, split diopters, and absurd set design, just as the film’s descendant’s Body Double and Blow Out both spoke about the way people miss the point when it comes to depictions of sex and violence and also served as a prime example of that very phenomenon. A film that uses daring style to tell a tall tale of convoluted morals becomes a kooky punch line; a scene that depicts an explicitly pedophilic romance gets nominated for Best Kiss at the MTV Movie Awards. You can try as hard as you want to make something profound or earnest or from the heart, but your honest work is still going to end up getting laughed over by some schmuck with a cigar.

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Shirley – The Limits of Speculation

Josephine Decker’s newest film, Shirley, contains an impressive rap sheet- Decker won a director’s prize at Sundance for it, it gained a stamp of approval from Martin Scorsese and Neon, and it’s anchored by the second compelling Elizabeth Moss lead performance of the year. Moss portrays the titular Shirley Jackson, a real horror author in the 1950s, and the film marks her descent into personal madness and creative desperation, bringing her husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a young couple (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) down along with her. She’s experiencing writer’s block while adapting a novel from a story of a local girl who went missing, and she begins to mine both her own personal paranoia and the fear and uncertainty she senses in her new tenants. The film creates a web of creativity and personal trauma, but it doesn’t explore or answer anything as much as it conjures a thick mood.

The film’s strength is in its performances. Moss and Young are the film’s central pairing, and the film pulls off a neat trick by allowing Young to be the main perspective we see through. This means Shirley always seems mysterious and out of reach, and the demystification she undergoes throughout the film is something we discover together. Stuhlbarg makes a great heel to the two women, his acidic outbursts adding a lot to the general mood of emotional confusion. The only casting misstep is Logan Lerman as a scummy young husband. It’s jarring to see a short-lived cypher for troubled teens turn into an immature and boozy 30 year old, especially given his retained babyface. A small consolation: as far as young grad students living with a professor played by Michael Stuhlbarg go, at least it’s not Armie Hammer.

Lerman’s sweaty drunkenness adds to the film’s incredibly boozy atmosphere. The film, more than most films that feature constant drinking as both atmosphere and a plot device, is keyed into the bleariness and impotence that comes with late night drinking and unpleasant mornings after. The film lurches along, and its subjective and shallow focused imagery puts you in the haze the characters experience.

Decker has an interesting comment on the complications of being a creative and misunderstood woman, and the fraught nature of consuming real people in order to be inspired by them, but this only comes out in fits and spurts. There’s a moment in here where Stuhlbarg’s character tells Shirley that her writing and obsession with someone she didn’t know prevents her from doing good work as well as worsening her disconnection from reality. Her husband wants her to believe she’s crazy for trying to get inside the mind of a character, and it’s an interesting comment I imagine that Decker wants us to sit with, as I’m sure it’s a pressure she felt embarking on a convoluted thriller about a real person who she did not know.

There’s also an inspired sequence where Shirley begins to visualize Paula as both herself and Rosie, but lots of this movie struggles to live up to its hypnagogic highs. The build to the ending is frustrating, as it reverses the two women’s life roles pretty much on a dime, and the anti-climax squanders much of the tension that was suggested throughout- although I’m not sure this needed any of the slasher horror moments that sometimes felt within reach. The film does end on a smart move, and the final shot suggests that any neat happiness Shirley may have won for herself is only momentary, and the characters aren’t ever really liberated from anything. Shirley mostly fails to live up to its impressive credentials, but it works well when it commits to the ethereal character study it hints at.

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Blog Hot Takes

Kubrick’s Christmas Calamity- the confusing failure of Eyes Wide Shut

It’s easy to get bogged down when trying to form a genuine opinion on an old work from a revered master such as Stanley Kubrick. You are subject to so many different points of input- on the one hand, you see the OnePerfectShot contingency breaking everything down into knockoff Kogonada video essays about aesthetics; on the other you see memes about The Kubrick Stare, and you struggle to take it seriously. It gets even tougher when complex questions of abuse or troubling action from the director’s chair gets turned into “Um he’s actually kinda problematic :/” and dismissed as a binary moral judgement. Add in our current case of Epstein Brain affecting our ability to see this film without a conspiratorial element to it, and it’s easy to generalize or outright reject this film on extratextual grounds. Unfortunately, this both ignores an intriguing work of film and glosses over the real ways in which it fails.

Kubrick’s final film, completed days before his 1999 death (although the details of its completion remain disputed by some of his collaborators) is a loose epic that scrambles to tackle marital strife, sexual paranoia, the occult, and the overarching power of the wealthy and well-connected in less than three hours. He recreated blocks of Greenwich Village on a soundstage in London, did a million takes, and generally exercised his perfectionism to its logical conclusions; the shoot was, after all, the longest ever. Then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman portray a married couple on the verge of cracking; Cruise is brilliant as Dr. Bill, a slow talking schmoozer, and Kidman as Alice steals every moment of her unfortunately small screen time.

The portrayal of a frayed marriage is where the film excels, with the long and anguished bedroom scene the film’s high point. Their shared fantasies of infidelity and Bill’s unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of her desires is compelling; their performances as dramatic, stoned yuppies hit a great middle ground between genuine profundity and the unhelpful, overreaching divulgement that can accompany substance use.

From there, Bill’s descent into sexual frustration and occult intrigue takes both him and the viewer places occasionally intriguing and often frustrating. He is unwillingly kissed by a grieved acquaintance, offered a young prostitute by a seedy businessman, and most infamously, allowed into the lair of a masked sex cult in a pristine New York mansion. Through all of this, Bill is mostly a blank face, and so much of the film puts us in his position; we bear witness together, and none of us can do anything about it.

To Cruise’s credit, he’s the perfect vehicle for this impotent and powerless character. His constant subservience to the powerful people in his work life and the holders of sexual power in his attempted nightlife render him unable to exert much of his own will on anything; this powerlessness, and the ways in which he then repurposes it to trap his own wife in boredom and joblessness, is maybe the film’s most interesting idea.

Kubrick’s dive into darker, weirder waters is where the film falls flat. In the year 2020, it is impossible to watch this film without thinking of what society has come to understand about the world of sexual exploitation, the ultra-wealthy, and the presence of the occult. There are familiar notes being played- promises of society’s most prominent behind the masks, the wanton solicitation of minors, and the very real danger that comes from interrogating these systems.

Sadly, these horrors are misused and applied as window dressing for the real terror, which is simply being Dr. Bill. When he interacts with sex trafficking and ritualistic abuse, it terrifies and almost kills him, yet he does little about it. He runs away when he’s threatened, he’s terrified when he finds his mask in his bed, and he confesses his sins (or potential sins) through tears when he’s brought to the end of his rope. Bill and Alice’s marriage problems are brought to the surface and eventually resolved, and while there’s nothing wrong with using outlandish underworld escapades as a device to explore realistic marriage struggles, it rings hollow when Kubrick uses the grand conspiratorial horror he dabbles in.

This is, admittedly, a distinctly 2020 perspective. We live in a time where we’re more aware of sexual abuse by those in power than we ever have been, so what the film uses to scare us feels too familiar to be alien. Unfortunately, we also live in a time where QAnon has a TikTok presence, where smart people we know fall for the Wayfair conspiracy, and where things like the Out of Shadows documentary can amass millions of views online. We’ve seen the facts of large-scale scheduled human suffering, and we’ve also seen those facts be weaponized to fuel the dumbest ideologies of the dumbest people in our society. It’s easy to be jaded about Kubrick using these ideas as spooky costuming for a film about divorce when looking at it from our social vantage point.

However, I think it falters in the larger cinematic context as well. Kubrick was no stranger to deep wells of dread and true fears, and he was capable of both attacking them straight on and weaving them into a simpler story thread. Throughout his work, he was adept at taking society’s greatest fears and paranoias- atomic war, the dangerous inevitability of human progress, our individual propensities for violence- and folding them into stories that grappled with these ideas.

The largest misstep of Eyes Wide Shut is how little wrestling it does with this conspiracy. Bill sees a pit of gross decadence in the house of the powerful, he sees a woman killed for helping him, and when he’s told to leave it alone and act like it never happened, he does. Perhaps in some sense, this is Kubrick’s critique- that the life of the wealthy Manhattan doctor can emerge unscathed from exposure to such madness; that ease and comfort can be rediscovered if you just confess all, make up with your wife, get your daughter a nice Christmas present, wink at the screen, and move on. It’s possible to claim that Kubrick indicts this attitude simply by showing it, but I don’t buy it.

Acknowledgement without critique feels hollow, and hinging what is essentially a crisis-of-faith story (where the faith is in the marriage or in monogamy itself) around underworld trafficking and sexual conspiracy feels cheap. The movie dazzles with its pretty lights, the impressive pastiche set, and the filmstock’s manipulated deep colors, but often I was reminded of things I couldn’t place. Did the sexual paranoia and deep blues remind me of Blue Velvet? Did the one night of lurching bring to mind After Hours? Were the silent walking montages an ode to Jimmy Stewart’s wordless drives in Vertigo?

I was a little amused when I realized what was really on the tip of my tongue; in the end, I was left thinking mostly of Hallmark movies. It’s certainly an odd surface level connection, but the oft-recited meme of “Eyes Wide Shut is actually a Christmas movie” makes more sense as time goes on, and not for the right reasons. After all, Hallmark movies typically present simple love stories centered around a vague holiday season that can mean anything to anyone, but they tend to ignore the fighting, the angst, and the crass commercialism of selling good feelings. In that sense, perhaps Eyes Wide Shut is the truest Christmas movie- a genuine facsimile, masking rote family drama inside of vague gestures towards something that it promises is transcendent.

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Blog Reclamations

Stories Write Themselves – On Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place

Mild spoilers for In a Lonely Place below.

It begins with an orchestral flourish, the Columbia woman welcoming us in, and a haunting first image- Humphrey Bogart, his name in clear bold letters, while his face is shrouded and ghostly, reflected in a mirror to appear as if his visage is suspended in the night sky. Bogart’s Dix Steele looks out over the dark road, and you know there is something ominous afoot. We find out a few minutes later that the hapless screenwriter Dix is just driving to meet his agent for dinner, but the presentation suggests he’s driving toward some dark, sinister fate. In this opening scene we see Dix almost attack a man in the middle of the street for running his mouth at him, and for the next 90 minutes, you can’t really escape his violent temper and caustic attitude.

On the surface, In a Lonely Place is a solid classical Hollywood picture about a screenwriter who gets into trouble. This isn’t particularly remarkable- in 1950, it premiered only a few months before Billy Wilder’s legendary Sunset Boulevard, and the whole notion of Hollywood neurotically taking stock of itself was not novel.

However, where Wilder built his story around washed-up stars and dramatic crimes, Ray is interested in the people you don’t really hear much about. Dix, we learn, is known around town for his many women, his penchant for fighting, and his lack of success. All of his industry friends seem to take pity on him and want to bring him back to greener pastures; this belief in Dix is not afforded to Charlie, the old drunk who quotes Shakespeare and hasn’t gotten an acting gig in years. Dix’s constant defense of Charlie is both admirable and desperate- you get the sense Dix sees his own potential future in Charlie’s deadbeat lifestyle.

Dix is another cog caught in the machine of Hollywood’s grind- he can’t bear to sell out and write accessible movies, yet he can’t seem to find his own artistic stride. This all adds to the mounting suspicion that Dix is responsible for the murder of Mildred Atkinson, a young woman last seen in his apartment late one night.

Dix’s writer’s block gives way to a creative tear that starts after Mildred dies and he begins a whirlwind romance with his neighbor Laurel, played by Nicolas Ray’s wife, Gloria Grahame. His creative spell is both blessing and curse, and the film’s most harrowing moment comes when Dix explains how Mildred’s murder may have been committed by directing his detective friend to reenact it on his wife. Bogart is clearly reveling in the scene, and his eyes light up like a pair of stars, calling back to the opening scene as he seems to be conjuring the very evil the detectives are trying to find in him. He can’t control himself in this scene, or in many other scenes, which reveals Ray’s great ability to display compulsion in his films.

In Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean’s Jim is compelled to act out by forces of anger and confusion that he can’t understand. Dix, likewise, isn’t always in control of his actions or his mouth, fighting a losing battle against his past and his temper. These scenes of giving into anger or darker impulses are effective because they don’t allow for easy answers, and the lack of control that Dix feels clearly scares him just as much as it scares Laurel and the audience.

The unnoticed magic of this film is in its beautiful shifts, both between characters and perspectives. When Mildred Atkinson dies in the first act, Ray doesn’t allow it to feel distanced or anonymous, having given her several scenes to be a compelling comic foil for Bogart’s perpetually-annoyed performance. Her death lingers in the air for the rest of the runtime, and while the domestic bliss of the film’s middle section sort of suspends the tension in the air, it haunts everyone involved and serves as the catalyst for the final act’s downfall.

That gorgeous third act is what really sets this movie on a high place in my mind. Dix settles a few scores and rights a couple wrongs, and just as he moves into a place of calm and satisfaction, the film shifts to Laurel’s viewpoint, showing us her nervousness and apprehension. This is where the audience’s role and knowledge is utilized well. We are aware that Dix has made amends for his attacks and outbursts, and we know how excited he is to begin planning a life together for him and Laurel. However, Laurel’s growing doubt is starting to make more and more sense- she learns of the rumors about him hitting his past girlfriends, and we see how his affection towards Laurel becomes increasingly controlling, especially since we’re seeing it from her point of view.

In the end, Ray doesn’t give you a knockdown, drag-out film. There’s no gunshots, nobody getting dragged into court, none of the harrowing violence of movies like The Big Heat. There is something much more real at the end of the film, which was there in the beginning and in the very core all along- there is a profound sense of heartbreak, and of the real toll that love and lies and fear take on people. Perhaps the darkest joke of the whole thing is knowing that these two will wake up tomorrow and still be neighbors- there’s no easy way to escape this sort of pain when you bring it upon yourself.