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Blog Filmic Fits Reclamations

The Lost Boys’ Found Fashion

Of all the iterations and reinventions of the classic vampire narrative, there’s only one near and dear to my heart—Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys. Far from the cliches of the traditional Dracula aesthetic, this film ushered in a new age of the undead, in a full embrace of culture clash that defined the 80s. From the punks, to goths, to yuppies, to the new romantics, and valley girls, the microcosm of California coast culture in the 1980s America was the ultimate crucible to set this hyper-styled warped Peter Pan. One of the elements I love most about this movie and the meticulous curated environment it’s surrounded by is the fashion that distinctly marked this movie away from the cloaks and cravats of the Transylvanian origin story to reframe the machismo bad boy. Just as the universe of Santa Monica was stratified among social groups, Schumacher’s and costume designer, Susan Becker’s, influence on the costuming mimes this reality among the film’s varying cliques in the most iconic display of 80s garb to make any other vampire eat their heart out.

Perhaps the most underappreciated group out of all of this are the Frog Brothers, played by Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander. They fully embody the 80s action antihero in full Sylvester Stalone Rambo iconography. From the muscle tees to the dogtags and red bandana adorning Feldman’s forehead, their hypermasculinized aesthetic reeks of toxic machismo and identity conflict. One of the best clothing bits we get from the brothers is a shirt with almost an Araki flair. It reads, “Why waltz when you can rock & roll” with a machine gun partly obscuring the text. Ignoring the rhetoric of a shirt like that, it’s easy just to see the counterculture rebel hero the boys try to emulate in their style. In the iconic fight scene, both brothers gear up in an almost comical revolutionist uniform of berets, airborne shirts, and ill-fitting ERDL camouflage as the true expression of the kind of man that takes no prisoners and kicks ass according to his own rules despite the boys being about 14 in the film. The obvious parallel to draw from their military depot couture is the vicarious reappraisal of Vietnam heroes as a reactionary measure against changing gender expressionality in the 80s. 

Their embrace of ruggedness in respect to the lone wolf protagonist from the comics they read fully sets them apart from everyone else in the film, and most distinctly from Sam who represents the antithesis of their fashion’s ideology. Sam looks like he just stepped off a WHAM music video set with his visually assaulting devotion to the ‘mall fashion victim’ aesthetic of incoherent patterns clashing on top of each other. He’s a fish out of water in this new environment and is recognized in his own way for standing out. There’s definitely a queer reading to Sam who literally had a ‘Born to Shop’ t-shirt and semi-nude photos of men adorning his room, but we’ll save that for another time. I’d also go into more detail about a particular iconic outfit he wears in the film, too, but honestly, everything he wears is just some variation of a primary color abstract pattern button down which you can pick up at your local thrift store. Sorry, Sam 🙁

And then there are the vampires–the men that shaped my taste in boys and incidentally have left me disappointed ever since. First things first: those mullets are luxurious and voluminous which is a must when you need your hair to flow through the wind on your motorbikes as you terror your community. Kiefer Sutherland’s in particular stands out because of its peroxide platinum blondness almost as a signifier of the artificiality of the western coast atmosphere. More than what Sutherland’s character wears, it’s how he wears it. His outfit specifically is rather understated, opting for the all black, but nevertheless he has a distinct coolness in his long leather overcoat, leather pants, leather boots, AND leather gloves…I’m sensing a pattern here and I’m loving it. The contrast between his ultra white hair and his all black attire is such a bold contrast, and he has a definitive English Travelever look about him that’s ultra slick with a layer of grime, making his trashiness ultimately sexy.

The other vampires opt-in for more distinctive looks that speak more than the characters actually do.  Paul, Dwayne, and Marko definitely fit more into the West Coast Sunset Strip delinquents vibe, opting for the fitted ripped jeans, big hair, and jackets adorned with patches, studs, and safety pins. The tops underneath are something to behold in their own way; mesh tanks and crop tops under leather (my heart just can’t take it!). Just like Nic Cage in Wild At Heart, their jackets are a symbol of their individuality, and their belief in personal freedom–possibly; we honestly don’t know anything about these guys other than they’re hot and mean. Marko’s jacket in particular is alluring just because he himself has a Baroque style angelic face, and his jacket uses so many rich warm tones with all the patches and tapestry squares that look almost like an Italian church mural. Perhaps the best element of the vampires and their 80s makeover is the detailing of their blood. The special effects makeup artist totally transformed not only their faces but he specifically added glitter to the fake blood, heightening the glam element of these vanity vamps. This evokes a very new generation of expectations for the undead as they adapt to the world around them more than being isolated from change.


The Lost Boys presents the sexiest iteration of vampires of all time. Before the Cullens, before Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, there was Kiefer Sutherland with a cigarette behind his ear and my heart in his hands.

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Blog Reclamations

They Cum From Within – On Shivers

David Cronenberg’s filmography has given us some of the most horrific and nauseating body horror ever depicted from The Fly to Videodrome (long live the new flesh!), his work taps into this undeniable, visceral fear of the deconstruction of self as a tactile physical form but also as the site of conflict. It’s a dissociation of the human as a body and a deep dive as an exploration into the facets that make us who we are as entities coexisting but largely shaping each other with each interaction. Then it should come as no surprise that his first feature film, Shivers (1975), earnestly explores these concepts as an extended chamber piece within a consumer-friendly high rise apartment as parasites invade the occupants, turning them into sex-crazed fiends. Just imagine if the Tinder Google Doc for The Standard at Athens hadn’t been deleted and instead of everyone getting COVID, they gave each other massive horny worm parasites.

These laboratory-created parasites spread like wildfire throughout this island resort condominium, infecting everyone with a literal ‘love bug’ with not-so romantic implications. What kicks this whole outbreak into action occurs in one of the opening scenes. After the advertisement slideshow that lured a wholesome young couple in to tour, the audience is berated with a horrifically brutal escape and avoidance scene between a young school girl and an older gentleman that ends with her death and dismemberment. This flagrant and excessive violence against a woman shocks the viewer into the darker underbelly of this middle class paradise facade. Nicolas’s discovery of the girl’s body sets the story into motion as the tacit incrimination of harm enacted on a female and the spread of her parasites into others shifts the film outside the normal paradigm of a low-budget schlock body horror piece and into a critical representation of weaponized female sexuality and brutality in a pre #MeToo-era cautionary tale.

It doesn’t feel like an accident that the ground-zero for this island epidemic starts with a young woman who’s revealed to have been a sexual preoccupation of one of the scientists. Her body was mutilated and mangled from the inside out by her former lover who had injected her with trial parasites for a medical experiment that he was experimenting on. A story of mistrust and abuse of power, this is really the only scene we see these characters throughout the film, but they’re integral in creating this backdrop based on a secret no one is willing to confess to publicly. When her body is discovered, the investigation of the circumstances leads nowhere as the woman’s involvement in the experiment had already been known by his colleagues, and the focus then shifts towards containment. Containment as a means to insulate the knowledge of the crime and the re-narrativization of the scientist as a martyr to public help really captures this story of concealment as a means to guard against an unpleasant truth about the reality of the situation. His involvement with her death faces no scrutiny nor does his serial preoccupation with younger women ever get highlighted in any real critical light.

Regardless, the initial spread from the young woman to Nicolas redirects anxieties to containment as the characters are unaware of what exactly has been happening under their noses the whole time. There’s a slow pickup of scenes as the contamination lurks in every interaction thereafter, staining the walls and floors with its hidden blood trails as infection sets in. The parasites act as a symbol with dualist meanings in the extended metaphor of the film as both a side effect of the original act but also a perpetuation of it forward unto the guests spreading it to one another. As a side effect of negligence on the behalf of those in the know about the parasite, its rapid progression through the floors and levels squirms and writhes just below the carpet silently lurks in each interaction without knowing it had even taken place at all until the insatiable sexual appetite had consumer everyone in its wake and by then it’s too late and the irreparable harm has been done.

On the other hand, the parasites could just be a physical manifestation of the perpetuation of the crime as it moves from person to person. In other analyses, the parasitic worms have been considered a predictive depiction of HIV. Along that same line, sexual misconduct in all its external and internalized effects do have a way of trickling down from the initial point of contact. Every decision and act after the initial murder of the girl can be traced and her presence is felt through each of the infestations as it progresses further until everyone ends up naked in the indoor pool–as horny worm contagions tend to go. Thinking of this in terms of the current Hollywood climate, it’s easy to see the way that certain executives’ interactions with stars and actors alter the layout and design for not only the final film but everything that succeeds it.

Women as perpetrators and the main driving force of sexual pervasiveness and the spread of the parasite definitely complicates this narrative in a lot of ways, but Cronenberg has a fairly consistent preoccupation throughout his films with women as vessels not just for plot but also for deeper sentiments of primitiveness as humans more intensely linked to their id. As Nicolas deals in restraint of his urges while the worms eat him from the inside, the veil of traditionalism of chastity and modesty is yanked away as the impropriety of lust takes hold. The female body becomes the site of danger and excess as actual incubation chambers that are absolutely bursting with eroticism–perhaps as a compensation for scarcity of satisfaction that normally characterizes these women’s intimacy.

Having a phallic shaped worm be the monster of the film coheres well with this idea as it’s grotesquely misshapen and persistently invasive that tends to speak to a larger issue of consent. The look of the worm as the means of creating body horror for the plot of the film is so genuinely impractical as a prop for a practical effect which makes its design so feel intentionally useless but still assuming in its probing movements. Using something like this to facilitate a mass orgy of lust defies the logic of reason but champions its practicality as a mutant penis meant to terrorize an unassuming prudish middle class into sexual awakening solidifies this as a Cronenberg film in its execution of not only being a body horror piece but also an exploration into the language of deceit and suppression to the underground world that has altered the visual world of film forever.

To understand the pure direction that went into something that looks so conceptually simple that guides the story in a remarkably pointed and mindful way is exactly what you’ll find with Cronenberg’s work. This as a first feature film for him really sets the tone for his body of work as a whole but moreover the personality that makes this movie a cult classic.

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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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I THOT I WUZ FREE

Petra Cortright’s i thot i wuz free is a video installation that is a minute and 23 seconds long.

Cortright exhibited her work at the Wellington City Gallery in 2017. The exhibit included the majority of her work, which consists of digital paintings created in Photoshop, as well as other films similar in style to i thot i wuz free. She conducted a very brief interview for the Gallery which was shown on their promotional YouTube page. In the interview, she bluntly explains the very simplistic hobbyism that provides the foundational process of her work. She said:

“I’ve been collecting very strange, weird webcam softwares, mostly for Windows-based computers, for like ten years, and I’ve always thought of them as self-portraits. I’m kind of like the director, the actor, the editor…everything in one take, because they’re always live. I can see what I’m doing.”

Cortright offers all of this almost lackadaisically, matter-of-factly stating that her work stemmed from a place of pure curiosity, not through happenstance so much as through genuine interest, but as in any authentic conversation, there are more profound truths shrouded across these simple statements. The idea of a self-portrait, the fact that she “can always see what [she] is doing”…there is subtle evidence of a stimulating ideological bridge that Cortright has crafted between herself, her perspective of herself, and the webcam’s input and output. The webcam is regarded as a mechanism for artistic expression, and even further, for deeper identification of (with?) the embodied self.

Full disclosure: I loved i thot i wuz free on first watch because it was really cool, and it is. There was one day where I had just rewatched it, and I had written some rambling, topical words on Letterboxd about it. The next day, I got into a Zoom call to chat with some friends. As literally every person nowadays knows, Zoom gives you a prompt right before you join a call to “Join With Video” or “Join Without Video”, and it shows you what your webcam is seeing, presumably to help you test it but also to confirm that you don’t jump in with some stupid shit on the camera. Before you join a public group of people, it shows you a picture of yourself. There you are.

Seeing oneself processed into pixels and presented on the screen creates an unsettling flavor of distanciation. Especially when juxtaposed against the function of a mirror (which is technically identical to that of a webcam), there’s a puzzling and uncomfortable disconnect between what one is looking at and what one is perceived as. On a voice call, the feeling comes in waves. The conversation ebbs and flows, there’s laughter and discussion, but then I notice myself again, and for a moment, it all compresses my brain again. There I am. Is that what people see?

This question becomes even more complicated when the concept of spectatorship is introduced. It becomes slightly paradoxical very quickly when you investigate it: Am I seeing myself, or spectating myself? The answer is clearly both, but the boundary of the ego starts to take some poke and prod when the question is posed. In the webcam-produced image, I am both seeing myself and spectating myself. As I input a movement with my very own flesh, it is reiterated to my eyes for me to view at my leisure. For children entering the grocery store, this existential question breezes through their heads and quickly becomes a game; a silly face and a wild jump function as a test of the camera, to see if the thing they’re looking at really is the physical form that they happen to be controlling. Is that me? Well, sure it is! I’m jumping, and person on the screen is jumping too! Aren’t we the same?

In i thot i wuz free, Cortright’s casual behavior simultaneously emulates the youthful test of the CCTV and considers the ideological challenge that is offered by the webcam toward the corporeal. She sits and observes herself, the tacky first position of the livestreamed self. As Danny L Harle’s “Awake For Hours” flutters in bitcrushed joviality through the speakers, Cortright begins a naturalistic performance that can be likened to the way anyone behaves when they are home alone: she stares at herself on screen, then at the webcam itself. She smiles, and she dances, and she lip syncs to the music. She just does her thing. This behavior is almost too simple, an evocation of the silliness and selfdom that shines through in all of us when we know that no one except ourselves is there to spectate us.

While this is going on, the image on screen duplicates consistently until it reaches sixteen fragmented slices. The webcam captures Cortright, but the output shows the image flowing in fragments from left to right, so as the real-time editing shreds the moment into choppy ribbons, glimpses of the moment right before flash and decay toward the right side of the frame, fizzling across a wave, away into digitized nothing. Individual frames are sliced into sixteenths and carted off toward the right, and echoes of Cortright’s actions are all we can extrapolate from.

A consideration of digital physicality flows through i thot i wuz free. Cortright uses the dazzling, jittery webcam software and performs as usual, but her behavior is engulfed by digital effects, so that her complete, organic personage becomes warped by the jigsaw electricity she inflicted upon it. The film wonders, “Who is performing for whom? Whom exactly am I presenting when I offer myself to the screen? Who am I really seeing?” These anxieties looms over the keyboard and pierce through the screen. The lyrics of “Awake for Hours” frame the existential musings of the images: “Teardrops feel like showers / I thought I was free…Lying awake for hours / Time stands still around me.” There is a youthful freedom in Cortright’s joyous behavior on screen, but the boundaries of the digital frame still haunt it. She moves organically of her own accord, but the software works diligently to interrupt the humanity of her movement.

i thot i wuz free considers the subtle fractures in the relationship between the digital self and the physical self. It challenges the perceived balance between the spectator and the depicted. Audience is regarded as a vacillating institution, a delicate and meandering construct of personality that, through the webcam, is revealed to be inherently bound to whatever performer or performance is depicted on screen. The deterioration of Cortright’s performance by way of her webcam software elegantly explores the photographic image’s feeble imitation of one’s physical form. The bittersweet cybernetic nature of the webcammed self shows that there is no difference between spectator and spectated; everyone is constantly performing for themselves and everyone else, with themselves and everyone else in mind.

When Zoom asks its users to “Join With Video” or “Join Without Video”, all cards are laid on the table. One must decide if they are willing to offer a warped, pixelated version of themselves to the people waiting beyond the prompt screen. The screen functions as an oppressive barricade between the people with whom we interact and the selves that we offer to the camera. Even as we view ourselves in the top-left corner, the idea of the presented self splits between what we offer in our flesh and blood and what we offer to the looming eye at the top of the screen. i thot i wuz free fights almost desperately against this as a reclamation of the organic human form. Cortright’s personality bursts from beneath the generative software. Her intense gaze directly into the camera is defiant, a direct resistance to the digitization that is, according to the spectator, completely consuming her appearance. Her dance moves do not lose any of their ecstasy amidst the visual disconnect. As of this writing, the piece is four years old, but it displays a victorious, unified collision of the organic and the digital that will persist forever into the technological future. Richard Brautigan put it succinctly:

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

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On Masculinity as a Carceral Construct and Buffalo ’66

“[People] feel that I’m probably playing myself in the film. What I’m actually playing is, I’m playing my father or what I would have become if I let my father’s heavy impact stay in my life. And what I play in the last five minutes of the film is me on a really good day.”
-Vincent Gallo

When pursuing an artistic appraisal on the corpus of Vincent Gallo, it seems almost impossible to separate the art from the antics. A creative mind of mythic origin, Gallo fashioned himself as the renaissance man at the end of history — acclaimed painter, musician and bandmate of Jean Michel Basquiat, heroin chic heartthrob, essayist, prestige actor, sneaky real estate mogul, and actor-director all count themselves among his achievements. But much like his films, for every positive, there seems to be an equal negative. Outspoken conservative, spiteful and petty to his artistic peers, Trump Tower resident, and general provocateur. From 30,000 feet, Gallo’s artistic output seems to be at direct odds with his personal statements — a firebrand fueled by personal spite against anyone richer or more famous colliding against radically vulnerable films fixated on the collateral damage of performing the abrasive masculinity he cloaks himself in offscreen. His semi-autobiographical directorial debut, Buffalo ’66, encapsulates this perfectly. A self-described musical that operates in a fairy tale framework more than the arthouse modus operandi, Gallo makes his grand statement on masculinity as a carceral construct through a thoughtful exploration of male survivorship under the same abusive structures they perpetuate, presenting radical vulnerability as its panacea, and in the process creating the zenith of 90s American independent cinema. 

While containing multitudes, the film’s general framework is remarkably simple — recently released convict must make his homecoming, produce the fictitious wife his parents have been sold on, and keep up the facade of a confidential government job used as an alibi for absence. In spite of its premise approaching screwball sensibility, Gallo’s radical stylistic choices and penchant for emotional intimation provide depth. From frenetic jump cuts in its opening scenes, its breaking of the 180 degree rule throughout the homecoming, to strip clubs rendered in schizoid, Francophilic color palettes, Gallo’s love of cinema and general chops begin to show through. His insistence to shoot the film on reversal stock, attempting to recreate archival NFL footage, saturates every frame, providing high color contrasts and making every composition striking despite the purposefully drab settings of Buffalo. This commitment to reverse stock mirrors the world of its protagonist: obsolete in form, volatile and unpredictable, seeing the world in saturated extremes of expression. Although credited to cinematographer Lance Accord (known more widely for his collaborations with Spike Jonze), Gallo’s painterly background is unmistakably behind the film’s aesthetic preoccupations, recalling David Lynch’s Eraserhead in images having more in common with carefully constructed tableaus than cinematic compositions. 

At the center of it all is the film’s protagonist Billy Brown, an embodiment of masculinity’s faults, a vat of rage constantly boiling over, with the film’s first act reading more as horror than the working-class Wes Anderson whimsy that follows. The opening frame of the film is Billy as a young boy, spelling out his name, birthdate, place of birth, directory information that reads more as inmate intake than biography. As this is digested, soft guitar leads pluck away as Gallo’s pubescent voice creaks out “all my life I’ve been a lonely boy”, communicating the literal prison Billy will be released from is not the primary concern — but rather the metaphysical prison of loneliness. No matter where he goes, he cannot be offered shelter from the storm. The antidote to this loneliness is Christina Ricci’s eminently charming turn as Layla, emerging radiant and sprite-like, making the film function as a children’s fairytale with her full embodiment of love and acceptance. 

Despite Billy’s placement as the protagonist of Buffalo ’66, it is Layla that allows the film’s thesis to cohere. At the other side of the dialectic, she fulfills both the role of anthesis and spirit guide, his Virgil on the journey to self-acceptance. Layla finds herself drawn to the things Billy hates, and vice versa. An avowed vegetarian forced to stomach tripe in the promises of being “my best [Billy’s] friend”, this imagery finds a match in her love for hot chocolate — a substance her captor has the strongest of allergies to. In this exchange, Buffalo ’66 reveals its central statement on the radical possibilities of domesticity, forging a kinship with the American modernism of William Carlos Williams, a vision where “the business of love is cruelty/ which/ by our wills/ we transform/ to live together.”

While it may be easy to dismiss Billy’s flaws as a digestion of the gospel of misogyny (with a dash of homophobia thrown in there too), a more apt reading of the film is that of survivorship, with Billy reeling from a lifetime of abuse and an inability to achieve bodily autonomy. Upon homecoming, he is immediately triggered, reduced to a sniveling child crying out “Don’t touch me!” and taking on a defensive posture. This remains a refrain for the rest of the film, always in moments of vulnerability that suggest drifting into the sexual. Billy’s father begins to complete the puzzle with his Elektra-in-law fixation on Layla, wooing her with Sinatra renditions (lip-synced to recordings of Gallo’s own father, reminiscent of Dean Stockwell’s “In Dreams” routine in Blue Velvet) and doting annunciations of “daddy’s little girl” arriving home, put in context by Ricci and Gallo’s mutual expressions of discomfort. A flashback, rendered as a tableau vivant exploding from Billy’s head (one of the cleverest stylistic choices in a picture chock full of them) given life, we see his canine companion murdered for urinating within the house. This symbol of prelapsarian beauty destroyed for refusing to control its urges, a vulgar metaphor begins to form, intimating the abuse and loss of bodily autonomy that formed the broken man we meet at the film’s start. He is not alone in this exercise of repeated exposure, finding a compatriot in his mother. She refuses to live in the realm of reality, clothing herself in the same Starter jackets Billy dons in flashback, pacifying herself with photo albums of Bills memorabilia, a surrogate family to mask the failure of her own. On the living room television, footage of Wood’s missed field goal repeats on a tape loop, sending her into dining table hysterics, a parallel drawn with Billy’s lingering traumas, never knowing when the next reminder will make itself known.

It is only when Billy is in control of his bodily functions we ever see him able to control his emotions and perform vulnerability. Throughout the film, bathrooms serve as a cathartic oasis for Billy, providing the viewer a brief glimpse into his psyche (something that repeats throughout the Gallo auteur project). After a tear of violence that results in Layla’s abduction spurred by denial of a bathroom (that very space blocked off by a corral in the shape of small children, touching on childhood trauma being a rub on the path to vulnerability), he finds roadside relief by a tree, reestablishing his control over his own faculties before the tenderness underneath surfaces. Gallo constructs his Garden of Gethsemane moment in a diner bathroom, breaking down after encountering an unrequited love whom recounts his past, delivering incantations he “do[esn’t] want to live anymore” between sobs (it becomes irresistible to make biblical parallels when Gallo himself bears such a resemblance to the anglicized Christ). On the other hand, the viewer is treated to Billy’s worst tendencies whenever this autonomy (in his perception) is denied. An unfortunate encounter with a urinal gazer sends Billy off on a tirade to “get your face out of my pants” peppered with homophobic slurs and rhythmic stamping. It is this loss of privacy that sets off this invective, less an expression of pure hate than it is a triggering in what was thought to be a safe space (the rhetoric inexcusable all the same). Combining this with the film’s phallic fixations, encompassing Billy’s red rocket boots, the “blue bird” bus that shuttles him from the prison, the inability to handle the masturbatory performance of a manual transmission, and a mission to murder Scott “Wood” for ruining his life, this motif finds its way into every crack of the narrative. 

Within its final act, the focus moves beyond that of singular suffering, of triggering experiences, to a screed finding beauty in connection, loving the ugly and the mundane, digesting the tradition of Whitman repurposed to post-industrial exteriors. Finding himself in a run-down hotel room, he finds himself in a possibly intimate situation for the first time with Layla. His response — to decry the dirtiness of the bed and flee into the bathroom to clean himself. Unlike other instances earlier in the film, Layla joins him. He winces at the mention of resembling a “little boy in that tub,” met with pleading whines of “don’t look at me,” Billy afraid to bear his shame, that he was victimized by the very same construct he finds himself trapped in. In this union, bringing her into Billy’s safe space, their romantic etiolation occurs. With this newfound trust, symbolically disclosing his trauma and struggle to regain autonomy, Billy can face his fear — masculine performance. He enters Wood’s strip club (the film’s first foray into explicit sexuality) with a comically undersized pistol, intended as a tool to reclaim his pride from the masculine ideal (strapping athlete, rich man, prolific philanderer) in Wood. However, the ideal is far from the reality. Wood is a pudgy schlub, an emperor wearing no clothes save for a gaudy bow tie. It is only with this newly discovered vulnerability he can see the futility of his sacrifice, the violence brought on by the phallic substitute destroying his own life, rendering his face unrecognizable in suicide. Toxic masculinity warps Billy into a completely different person in the literal sense, and leads him only to destruction.

Once this pentecost falls, Billy is Lazarus risen, uncorrupted by the leprosy of anger and hate that once ate away at him. Like the fool in love his father so tenderly sang, Billy rushes in. Gallo portrays this rebirth with a puerile joy, his hissing anger turned manic logorrhea, running to acquire the hot chocolate for Layla he once loathed with all his being. The ideological project of the picture comes together in its final moments as he is mystified by a heart cookie, knowing that after a lifetime of alienation and othering, he encounters a totem of shared experience. For all the horrors and aesthetic wonders that proceed this moment, it all leads to this. No matter what follows you, a choice to be open and loving can be your salvation, all you have to do is make a little room in a cramped bathtub, and over time maybe your heart can too. 

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Under the Silver Lake: Nihilism in the Golden State

Spoilers From Under the Silver Lake and Vertigo below

The phrase, “Beware the Dog Killer” painted on a store-window is what opens up David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake (2018). The shot, however, is framed so the audience reads the words backward, turning the word “dog” into “god”. Sam (Andrew Garfield) meets three people at an indie film screening. The screening is located in a Los Angeles graveyard populated with dead movie stars, directors, and musicians. The gravestone that the three are leaning on, however, is no other than Alfred Hitchcock. This symbolism presents itself as David Robert Mitchell’s thesis of the film on the disposable and nihilistic attitudes of Hollywood and life in general.

Sam (Andrew Garfield), as the noir protagonist in Under the Silver Lake, is a great choice because he is the trope of the womanizing detective of the classic Hollywood noirs. However, instead of existing in the fantasy-world that those characters do, he exists in the real world. He is not seen as a cool, suave Bogart-esque detective, but as a depressing, sex-obsessed loner that spends his days engaging in voyeurism and playing video games. Despising and hating the homeless, even though he is close to losing his apartment for not paying rent. Sam can be seen as a twenty-first-century version of Johnny (Jimmy Stewart) in Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958). The man who spends all his time searching for a woman that is unattainable in many ways but their egos can not let that be the case. Believing that it is their duty to protect and look out for the women they have attached themselves to, for their own selfish reasons. The fragility of Johnny drives him to force Judy (Kim Novak) to alter her appearance to look as close to Madeline as possible. Dying her hair and buying Judy the same clothes that Madeline wore. Johnny’s obsession with Madeline and the sudden realization that Judy and Madeline are the same people drives Judy to fall to her death from the bell tower. Like Sam, his obsession brings him nothing but misery and a feeling of abandonment. 

 In Sam’s apartment, his walls are covered with movie posters of classic Hollywood films like Dracula (Browning, 1931) and Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954). When going over to Sarah’s house, the two of them watch How to Marry a Millionaire (Negulesco, 1953) and the poster is prominently featured in Sarah’s room. Pop culture and film encompass many frames of the film. This is the film for the QAnon and pop-culture-obsessed era that we now live in. Sam’s friend, (Topher Grace) comments that there is a “generation of men obsessed with video games and secret codes” and that “we crave mystery, ’cause there’s none left.” Characters, including Sam, look up to people like Kurt Cobain and James Dean because of the martyr-like status that these people have achieved. Dying tragically in the prime of their careers and leaving a body of work solidifying them as icons. When Sam is led to “the Songwriter” (Jeremy Bobb) he unveils that he has created many of the iconic songs and pop culture of the past decades. The rebellious music of Nirvana that Sam held so dear to his heart is just the work of a man that has no emotional connection to the music. Bringing into question, what is it that makes people appreciate art? Is it usually the finished product or is it the story behind that finished product? At the end of the film, when Sam finally manages to find Sarah, she has now been indoctrinated into a cult and will die underground in as bunker in exchange for an eternal afterlife. Sam’s main obsession, the woman he has was infatuated with, is going to die, most of the pop culture that he held dear to his heart is nothing but a lie, and he is to be evicted for not paying his rent. He does not have anything to show for all this time he took uncovering a mystery other than the belief that life is meaningless.

The main leitmotif of Under the Silver Lake is the song “Turning Teeth” by the fake band Jesus and The Brides of Dracula (played by the real band the Silversun Pickups). The band’s song foreshadows a few hints about the secrets in the movie. The lyric: “Tunneling beneath the skin of the city we live within” is an allusion to the underground bunkers of the cult in the movie that Sarah has joined. When Sam violently interrogates Jesus, the lead singer of the band about the puzzles and codes in the song. Jesus finally admits that he did not write the song, and “the songwriter” was the one who must have implanted the message in the song. Throughout history, have tried to find secret messages in religion, who knows if Jesus would even approve of the amount of over-analyzation the Gospel has been given over centuries and if Jesus was even conscious of these hidden messages or if they exist at all. Another song that explains a lot about the underlying plot of the film is the R.E.M. song“What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” (1994) which is played at a dance club that Sam goes to with the Balloon Girl (Grace Van Patten). In interviews when discussing the meaning of the song, R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe has said “I wrote that protagonist as a guy who’s desperately trying to understand what motivates the younger generation, who has gone to great lengths to try and figure them out, and at the end of the song it’s completely fucking bogus. He got nowhere.” That, in essence, is the plot of David Robert Mitchell’s film, the belief that there is a greater conspiracy or a greater question in life only to find out that whatever that greater puzzle is, it is unattainable. A comforting fact or a horrible truth that the things that you did care about don’t matter. Maybe the reasons why people don’t attempt to find this secret out is because the truth is too much to take.

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Same Mannequins, Different Maniac – On Maniac (2012)

If ever there were a genre that thrived on sequels and remakes, the slasher has to be the poster child of this system of filmmaking, with every nasty villain returning to terrorize more teenagers and print money for its producers until the audience surrenders, deeming the latest product droll or having lost the flair of the hallowed original. I found myself in the latter camp when approaching Franck Khalfoun’s 2012 Maniac, sharing the title and premise of William Lustig’s 1980 film. The main reason for my lower expectations being that the remake trades in the hulking, brute force of Joe Spinell for the demure, wiry build of Elijah Wood for the titular role of Frank Zito, but my fears were relieved with the narrative gimmick they employ of locking the entire film into Zito’s physical perspective . The reliance on the first person camera throughout the entire film would seem to be very disorienting or grating, harkening back to something like Hardcore Henry, but in the context of a slasher, it works well in portraying not only the outward brutality inflicted on the victims of Zito’s rampage but also the internal instability at the root of the film. Also, when placed next to the original, this first-person technique proves to be a striking commentary on the state of the slasher genre in the modern era.

Externally, the first person-view amplifies the horrific aspects of the film, as the camera locks our view on the disturbing acts taking place in front of us. We are unable to look away from the gore and violence, making it that much more disturbing despite its much lower profile compared to that of the 1980 original (A scene involving a shotgun is absent but not missed). Of course, these unadulterated views of violence don’t tread new territory for the genre, with some instances of the remake seeming to revel in the same sort of empty gore-fest that the original was, documenting a misogynistic madness without a solution, as most mindless slashers do. Only when these acts are placed against those of its predecessor does the worth of the remake become apparent as a new take on the genre in a markedly different time. The first inkling of this new dimension of the story appears as Wood’s Zito begins to search for his second victim of the film using a tool that Spinell’s version of the character would have never had access to, the Internet. In contrast to Spinell’s Zito, who stalked the dark, grimy corners of 1980 New York, Wood instead lures his prey into reach via seedy chat rooms and meeting at bars under the guise of an innocent and shy version of himself, an act that the lumbering Spinell could never accomplish. Wood’s Zito manages to be the very antithesis of the stereotypical slasher, who’s diminutive frame is a pale comparison to the monstrous forms of a Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. Instead this slasher gets close to the victim of their own free will before striking against them, which explains the need for a constant first-person camera. In other slashers, the Killer POV is used to denote when characters are in danger due to the fixed gaze of the psychotic killer resting firmly upon them, even though the audience is unclear as to the actual positioning of the killer. Maniac firmly relies upon this visual device to demonstrate that in a world where anyone can be a predator, every character is in danger.

Take for instance the aforementioned shotgun scene from the 1980 film. Spinell’s Zito stages a full- frontal assault against his victims, bounding onto the hood of the victim’s car before splattering the driver in a grisly display equal to that of Scanners. There is a gradual build of suspense as we see Zito watching his victims as well as showing himself to them before the fatal action, but it ends with a sudden, in-your-face, explosion of violence. In opposition to this, take the subway scene from the 2012 remake in which Wood’s Zito attempts to follow a woman off the subway before being spotted. In her dash to escape him, she and her pursuer wind up locked together in an impound lot. Wood’s Zito, instead of taking the opportunity to shock and brutalize, chooses to hide under an automobile and wait for his victim to walk by in search of an exit before re-enacting Pet Sematary. The scene goes on to set itself apart by diverging from the first-person perspective to show his blank expression during the act of killing, before returning to his perspective to reference the iconic poster of the original. This signifies that though these two interpretations of the character are markedly different, the danger posed by them has not changed but rather evolved to produce the same grisly results.

This evolution doesn’t just lie on the external diegesis of the film but also delves into the realm of the psyche, giving us a more privileged view into the psychosis of the Zito character and allowing us to experience what was only hinted at in the original film. The mannequins of the first film are used to greater effect here in illustrating the nature of Zito’s reality and his inherent need to control women and his interactions with them on his terms. Both use the idea of the mannequins to show that the Zito character has no real power over women (due to a turbulent maternal relationship but Oedipus can wait for today), and must instead violently rip them out of reality and onto these plasticine bodies in order for him to interact with them, thus never giving them an opportunity to steal the phallus from him and take power over him in the physical world, leading to a complete mental break near the film’s climax. Of course, is this really a new frontier for a modern slasher, and what does this do regarding the inherent misogyny of a film involving the serial killings of women, even more so in the original 1980 version? The answer lies in the idea of the power dynamic created by the possession of the phallus.

In the original, there is little done in way of balancing the power dynamics between Zito and the women characters regarding possession of the phallus, aside from the final scene which is walked back in the stinger of the film. Spinell’s Zito remains in firm control of the power and even when it’s used against him, it’s shown to have no effect. The remake does something remarkable in changing the dynamic by eliminating the phallus all together, literally. During a scene in which Wood’s Zito is looking at himself in one of the many mirrors of his hovel, the camera pans down to reveal that the pants less Zito’s lower half does not sport the male sex, but instead the smooth androgynous bump of a mannequin. This along with a later scene at the climax, show that Wood’s Zito is nothing more than one of the same powerless mannequins he creates, and that no matter what weapon or instrument he wields, he will never control the phallus, and must work from the shadows to create plasticine women whom he can control. Thus, when the time comes for the victims to rise up and use the phallus against him, they resort to a much more vicious method of attack than the knives Zito had used, simply because those do not hold any power. In the end, this lack of power leads to Zito’s permanent destruction at the hands of his creations as they, working through his own psychosis, unmask him for the powerless shell of a human he is.

As a coda, I will say that no amount of theoretical explaining will wash away the disturbing nature of something like Maniac, but as an exercise in the genre it excels in attempting to fix the sins of the fathers while continuing the cycle. Whatever your moral inclinations toward the slasher film, Khalfoun’s remake is bringing something new to a table rife with staleness and troubles, and attempting to clean it up, even if the blood won’t come out.

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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.

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Wild At Heart – Missing an Open Three In Your Hotspot

   Twin Peaks’ southern-fried, hyper-sexualized cousin who smells bad.

A unique entry into the Lynch pantheon, Wild at Heart sees Lynch take on the great American road trip film trope with Nic Cage and Laura Dern starring as the fiery couple on the run from the police and a murderous mother. There is clear backtracking for Lynch with Wild at Heart’s echoing of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks’ motifs of putting a demented and trauma-fueled mystery underneath a classic American veneer. Additionally, Lynch steps forward with the less linear storytelling and the concept of a hit being put out. However, Wild at Heart does not capture the magic of either of these Lynchian staples. The explanation for this miss still eludes me, however I will attempt to explicate my thoughts and come to some sort of conclusion for this phenomenon. 

One major aspect which separates Wild at Heart from Lynch’s other films is the setting. The South may simply not agree with Lynch’s formula of presenting a pleasant exterior only to reveal the evil beneath due to the inherent flaws of the American South. The kooky South Lynch creates feels too silly at times of trauma while being unable to woo me with Lynchian charm in its softer moments due to the characters being icky. This makes the messaging of the film feel much more ham-fisted than other efforts from Lynch. It is simply an impossibility for me to feel the same way about a side character who wears a trucker hat with a Confederate flag than one who wears flannel (despite them likely voting for the same party). The lack of Lynchian magic in Wild at Heart brings to light how Lynch was truly at a crossroads with how he wanted to tell his stories because although it dips its toes into both types of Lynch presentation, it doesn’t fully commit to one or the other and is fair at best when it comes to plot. 

Another puzzling aspect of this film is the characters and the way they are performed. On paper, this is a dream lineup. Nic Cage, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe, Harry Dean Stanton-how could one go wrong? When breaking each performance down, things become a bit clearer. Nic Cage’s performance left me a little mixed. I loved the moments of pure Cage insanity, but they were so few and far between they started to feel unwarranted whenever they showed up. On top of that his accent was very funny but I’m not sure if that makes me enjoy his performance anymore. Laura Dern balls out though, no question. Even though she also sounds silly her moments of pain, grief, and suffering all come off as incredibly real. Willem gives an undeniably great performance, but his character is so forthrightly gross and sinister that he doesn’t captivate me the same way Frank from Blue Velvet does. Harry Dean Stanton’s performance is solid, but his character illuminates the huge lapse of great storytelling Wild at Heart suffers from. I can handle a subplot I barely care about in a TV show, but one in a two-hour movie feels cheap and truly useless. 

So, there you have it, a summation of all of my mixed and lukewarm opinions about David Lynch’s least important full-length entry in his filmography, yet I still feel hollow. It may just be that I’m not used to seeing one of my favorite directors let me down in such a unique way. This feeling which I am experiencing can only be likened to missing an open three in your hotspot. David has been stroking this shot all game, nothing but net. He’s lined up just how he likes it, he even spins the ball in his hand and takes a dribble. Lynch rises up like he has many times before and lets the ball fly, only to be met with a resounding CLANG from the rim and the shot not falling. David would go on to make many more shots from that spot, but I will always remember witnessing that strange miss from that strange man. 

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Too Old To Die Young is the Anti-Copaganda You Need Right Now

When Nicolas Winding Refn released Drive in 2011, Film Bros had a moment. Scorpion jackets. Irreversible-inspired face-smashing. A reaaall humaaan being.

The same film fans who foamed at the mouth over Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction, and The Dark Knight had a similar fervor for Drive’s blasé protagonist and stylized violence. The film displayed Refn’s talent for using a sleek neon style as a solvent for a violent masculine id, a rebloggable tableaux of shining violence. This violence isn’t of the jarring or shocking variety practiced by his contemporaries, as it’s aided along by an undeniable and inviting stylistic cool that accentuates rather than contrasts the violence it portrays. He doubled down on this in Only God Forgives, an arguably better film with much more stylistic ambition and moral ambiguity inflected by (but also critical of) noir’s Orientalist fantasies. Refn had created an almost self-parodically masculine work, tied up with mommy issues and kinks and phallic weapons.

Something changed, however, with The Neon Demon, a film which Refn made with a distinctly feminine perspective in mind, going so far as to say that he attempted to reimagine himself as a 16-year old girl for the project. He collaborated with two women (Mary Laws and Polly Stenham) to write the screenplay, as well as Argentinian cinematographer Natasha Braier to lens the picture, and the end result is a polarizing fairytale (I think it’s stellar—a reappraisal for another time, however). What makes it so special is that it takes Refn’s signature stylistic and thematic hinge and makes that unique experience accessible for perspectives beyond just his theretofore characteristic portrait of masculine id. Women in the film are allowed to be both the perpetrators and victims of the shining violence previously and exclusively carried out by Ryan Gosling at his most anemic.

I think that part of people’s qualms with The Neon Demon were in characterizing it alongside his corpus up to that point; auteurist perspectives of his work would consider it a detour, a misfire in a zeitgeist of representationally-conscious filmmaking (n.b. Moonlight came out the same year) that was perceived as the kind of patronizing insincerity I levy against the women Woody Allen writes into films. But even Allen had Interiors; misogynistic directors are like broken clocks and can churn out a one-off picture with dynamic and realized female characters. Mostly, these are flukes.

Refn’s next project proved that this wasn’t a fluke. Too Old to Die Young, Refn’s television miniseries on Amazon Prime, doubled down again: beyond just a feminine perspective, Refn’s sex and violence becomes open to queer, Latinx, and Black perspectives that become central to the show’s overall narrative. Much of the credit (Refn even said as much) goes to producers Lene Børglum and Rachel Dik, as well as writer Halley Wegryn Gross, who joined the project after Refn got a tarot reading in Paris that told him he needed women’s perspectives for creating the show. The violence and weird sex (one episode sees Augusto Aguilera make extremely creative use of a whip) depicted in the show are carried out by characters of diverse identities, opening that type of filmmaking up for audiences who were largely barred from that kind of cinematic catharsis. This isn’t to say that those audiences could not understand or appreciate those types of films, but rather that neither Hollywood nor European art cinema have been keen on making hypnagogic violence and sex in film something for marginalized groups, and especially those at their intersections, to enjoy.


But this is a reappraisal. Too Old to Die Young’s diversity was noted in its release, but I think that this series has a lot to offer presently because of its portrayal of police alongside this increasingly accessible violence. Even from the first episode, the film takes typical copaganda procedurals and complicates them. Miles Teller’s character, the show’s protagonist (that word is meaningless here but works prima facie for our purposes) is a police officer whose partner dies in the line of duty and moonlights as an assassin of pedophiles and abusers. However, all of this happens after he enables his partner’s attempts to coerce a woman they pulled over into sex and it’s revealed that he is dating a 17-year old.

The white male cop, the archetype with whom we have grown to empathize through years of procedurals (even my beloved Twin Peaks) is presented for his narrative utility as a protagonist and then immediately complicated by the realities of how police officers act. Where less daring shows have toyed with this idea of presenting their audience with one bad apple, Refn implicates the whole bunch, especially in this particularly memorable scene of the detective unit into which Teller’s character is promoted. And while I’ll avoid particulars as to the resolution of Teller’s character’s narrative, it’s nothing too revealing to say that the moral is clear: all cops are bastards. Too Old to Die Young routinely disavows police as a structure and the white male murder fantasies that have historically animated that profession and his own films. It does this by eclipsing that perspective with representation that avoids tokenism and window-dressing: female, queer, Latinx, and Black perspectives fill the protagonistic vacuum left by Teller’s character, a synecdoche of both white heteropatriarchy and the police state’s most moral facade.

Watching Only God Forgives was a special moment for me. I had tolerated and even enjoyed some films that made specific use of stylized violence for all kinds of reasons: cathartic release in The Piano Teacher, the pathological violence embedded in David Lynch’s suburban nightmares, Gaspar Noé’s utter provocations. That film was the first for me that created a true fairytale: mimesis is metaphorical, all is permissible, it is just a movie, and it’s okay for cinema to be a playground for the id. I’m also a white guy, so that film’s narrative and structure does privilege me as an audience. Too Old to Die Young is this effect at its most expansive and inclusive; representation in cinema isn’t just for positive portrayals or humanistic portraits, it’s also for weird ultraviolence and perversities. This show is deeply relevant given the current calls for the abolition of police and prison, and it deserves your time and attention. Obviously, prioritize content by Black filmmakers and focusing on uniquely Black stories at this time, like Criterion’s paywall-free programming centering Black narratives, but give Too Old to Die Young a watch if you’ve got the time. No text is more crucial to the death of the copagandistic protagonists who have infested our televisions for decades.

NWR: TOTDY: ACAB