Monthly Archives: July 2012

A black cat and a blue beard

Edgar G. Ulmer, one of Hollywood’s most eccentric and evocative film stylists, is mostly known for directing two films: the poverty row noir Detour (1945) and the Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi Universal horror The Black Cat, which screened twice at the Gene Siskel Film Center screening in a brand new print. The inky black-and-white photography of The Black Cat looks better than ever, but if you ask me, it’s not the Ulmer film that’s most deserving of such a thorough restoration.

Bluebeard

His 1944 horror-noir hybrid Bluebeard, which stars John Carradine as a murderous artist who paints portraits of women and subsequently strangles them once he’s finished, is readily available on DVD but in forms that range from egregiously bastardized to merely passable. The best of these can be found in a disc from All-Day Entertainment. Digitally transferred from an archival 35mm print courtesy of the Cinematheque Francaise,this version is, in fact, the complete film—bootleg versions courtesy of Roan Group Archival Entertainment and other such outlets are spliced to hell—but the sound isn’t quite right and the transfer is poor, giving the film a darker look than Ulmer intended

I realize that might seem like a nitpicky critique given Ulmer’s highly expressionistic style. Bluebeard does indeed benefit for a healthy dose of shadows, but it’s the elements of the frame that Ulmer baths in light that suffer the most from this lack of contrast. In particular, the film’s masterfully composed flashback sequence, which Dave Kehr suggests might be “the last full flowering of hard-core expressionism,” appears to suffer from a lack of grain and is certainly devoid of the sort of texture I’ve seen in actual 35 mm prints of Ulmer’s work.

In addition to Bluebeard, the Cinematheque Francaise possesses a number of Ulmer’s 1940s PRC quickies in addition to some of his Yiddish-language films, including The Singing Blacksmith. I’d love to see a retrospective of his work, with each print given the same attention as The Black Cat.

A lack of harmony: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild

In Behn Zeitlin’s debut film Beasts of the Southern Wild, his main character is a precocious, wise beyond her years 6-year-old named Hushpuppy, who spends much of the film detailing the ways in which the universe works. However, her persistent mantra of, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right” is as accurate as it is flawed: The universe—and by universe, I assume Zeitlin means society and culture—does require harmony in order to function perfectly, but the universe—indeed, society—can never achieve this harmony because of the many disparate perspectives, experiences, and opinions bouncing around it. The relativism that constitutes the human experience can never allow for such a nebulous quality as “perfect harmony” because one person’s definition of a perfection may well be vastly different someone else’s.

I think this conundrum also applies to the film itself and, by extension, the critical reaction to it. The film has been praised and panned with equal vigor, with some praising it “really wonderful” (Glenn Kenny) and “a passionate and unruly explosion of Americana,” (AO Scott) and others panning it for being “enraptured by [its] own imagery” (Richard Brody), or, simply “bullshit” (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky). Underlying the vast and varied opinions is a special issue, one that isn’t addressed nearly enough in current American criticism: What do we expect of our young filmmakers?

At the risk of sounding derivative, there seems to be two sorts of young independent filmmakers working today: Those who have embraced burgeoning technologies and are readily taking advantage of the wealth of resources currently available to them and those who venture outside of their immediate milieu in examination of more lofty themes Neither sect is making anything that I’d call daringly original; in fact, both are guilty, in one way or another, of a sort of myopia: one that narrows their focus to either masturbatory navel gazing or reductive postulation of arcane subjects. In other words, your Joe Swanbergs versus your Duncan Joneses.

The fact of the matter is there’s a line between the investigative and the self-serving, the ambitious and the pretentious. The unique problem with Beasts of the Southern Wild is that it’s each of these things in equal measure, which explains the polemic responses. When you consider their highly disparate opinions on the work of the aforementioned Joe Swanberg, it makes sense that Brody (pro-Swanberg) would reproach Beasts for being “enraptured by [its] own imagery” while Kenny (anti-Swanberg) would praise said imagery for being “striking, surprising and somehow never off-key.”

Beasts of the Southern wild is both exactly what we need in independent filmmaking and everything that’s wrong with it at the same time. The debate it’s inspiring will, ultimately, transcend the film itself and turn into something less categorical than whether or not it’s any good. It will soon become the watermark of where filmmaking is going in the 21st century, the poster child for Joneses or the whipping boy of the Swanbergs.

Personally, I find this disheartening. I think there’s a lot of good in the film as well as in Zeitlin—the fact that he shot the thing on 16mm alone earns him brownie points. His inquisitive nature and aversion to homage is a welcoming beacon among the endless droves of complacency and intertextualism. But at the same time, Beasts of the Southern Wild is so awash with metaphor, so imbued with allegory that it ultimately says nothing of any real substance. I’m no Kaelist, but her infamous takedown of Malick’s Days of Heaven feels somewhat applicable here.

Is there a middle ground? I’d like to think so, but I’m increasingly doubtful. We’d need a perfect harmony, after all.

Magic Mike and the dismantling of heterosexuality

Yesterday, I read Amy Taubin’s insightful interview with Steven Soderbergh about his new film, Magic Mike. Early in the piece, Soderbergh reveals the film’s intention when he says “I felt that Magic Mike would be the way to build credibility for the final assault on heterosexuality in movies,” the “final assault” in question coming in the form of his forthcoming Liberace biopic.

Magic Mike and co.

The world “assault” is a tad strong, but the fact remains that Soderbergh takes strides in dismantling notions of heterosexuality in film. He achieves this in a number of ways in Magic Mike, namely the ways in which this supposed erotic dance is just about the most un-erotic thing imaginable. Soderbergh (with the aid of choreographer Alison Faulk) stages these dances as grade-school level performance art, equipped with hokey costume and loosely-assembled narratives. The experience seems to be the complete antithesis of what goes down at an all-girl strip club, where the mood is decidedly more lurid and far less showy. At the root of this dichotomy is gender expectation. As evident in the reaction of the women in the film—as well as the women in attendance at the screening I went to—male erotic dance doesn’t appear to be a source of sexual gratification for straight women. Between the incredulous shrieks of “Oh, my God!” and the incessant, nonplussed giggling, male strippers appear to be a novelty—making the plight of Magic Mike and The Kid that much more lamentable. However, the same can’t be said for their female counterparts, who are subjected to far higher degree of sexualization. The patrons at an all-girls strip club may cheer, but never at the spectacle—in other words: “Oh my God, I can’t believe that guy is taking is his shirt off!” as compared to “Fuck yes, that chick is taking her shirt off!”

A look of shock—not necessarily lust.

This conflict of gender expectations is at the center of Magic Mike much like it is at the center of his other 2012 film, Haywire. In both films, it’s the physicality of the human form that defines the character. Gina Carano’s Mallory Kane has a outwardly feminine frame, but as Soderbergh demonstrates both pictorially and thematically—seen in those jazzily orchestrated fight scenes and Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor’s exchange of “I’ve never [assassinated] a woman before” and “Oh, you shouldn’t think of her as being a woman. No, that would be a huge mistake”—her character is defined by far more than just her physical appearance. So if McGregor is right, and we’re not meant to think of Carano as a woman, her obvious femininity is at odds with her masculine ability to, well, kick people’s asses really well. The space between this conflict is Soderbergh’s chief concern.

Gina Carano grappling with, of all people, Channing Tatum

Magic Mike, meanwhile, poses similar question: Can a dude who strips for a living have ambitions that extend beyond just stripping for a living? It’s unwise—and just plain rude—to assume that strippers, male or female, have zero aspirations beyond taking their clothes off for money. Likely, many of them wish they could make money doing other things—Tatum clearly does. And yet here’s Cody Horn, who’s gradual warming toward Tatum is both the narrative’s emotional arc and Soderbergh’s frame of reference to gender expectations. She’s skeptic of his profession and the influence it has on her brother; as a medical assistant who works long hours, she feels as if she has the moral high ground. The lesson she eventually learns is that one can’t judge another based on their physical attributes. Tatum, aside from being a bit of a meat-head, is an artist: His handcrafted furniture is his true passion—one that requires a good amount pf physical excursion, an eloquent thematic touch from Soderbergh and writer Reid Carolin—but the country’s economic struggles keep him from fully realizing this dream.

Discovering these layers in Magic Mike amid its other themes of ambition, the commodification of sexuality, and the aforementioned economic crisis made the film all the more rich.