Tag Archives: Drew Hunt

The Films of Val Lewton: Cat People

[My father] was a kind of hack, but he enjoyed the challenge that came with turning hack work into something special, to take an impossible thing and do something with it. There is a sort of pride in being a whore. He saw a certain honesty in being able to make a living.” —Val Edwin Lewton, Jr.

Despite years of marginalization and an unfortunately brief body of work, Val Lewton—born Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon in what is now Ukraine in 1094—has become key figure in America cinema. He began his artistic career as a novelist before entering filmmaking, his first credit coming in the form of “revolution sequences arranged by” in MGM’s A Tale of Two Cities. From there, he became the head of the horror unit at RKO Radio Pictures, where he amassed a truly unique body of work.

Save for two pseudonymous writing credits on Bedlam and The Body Snatcher—for which he assumed the name Carlos Keith, a moniker he often used when writing pulp novels for Vanguard Press in 1932—Lewton was credited solely as producer on each of his films. Of course, historical record and years of critical analysis prove Lewton was no mere producer; but there remains a unique relationship between Lewton, the key author of his films, and his directors, who, in any other circumstance, would be considered the key author.

Val Lewton

The first three films Lewton created for RKO were in collaboration with Jacques Tourneur, a director who belongs in the annals of cinema history but who has only recently received the sort of critical evaluation reserved for the greatest of filmmakers. Together, Lewton and Tourneur made three films: Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and the The Leopard Man (1943). Collectively, these films signify a certain way of thinking about and creating horror films. As a producer, Lewton was never concerned with making movies that relied solely on cheap and predictable B-movie gimmickry. Psychological nuances exist below the narrative of each film and reveal themselves in ways that are at once disarming. He understood that genre cinema, though seemingly conventional given its instilled guidelines, was capable of eliciting real emotion and tackling pertinent social issues.

Cat People, aside from being grade-A entertainment in lieu of its B-level status, is a watershed moment for Lewton in addition to being a key text in the Tourneur oeuvre. For Lewton, the film marks the beginning of a superlative if pithy producing career, as well as the introduction of the imperative “Lewton Bus” technique (more on that later); for Tourneur, Cat People is a sort of thematic harbinger for his later work—the hero’s aversion to European customs in Berlin Express; the gap between art and fashion in Nightfall; the actual appearance of cats in Way of a Gaucho, Stranger on Horseback, and others—in addition to being a crystalline summation of his early short films, incorporating aspects of The Face Behind the Mask, The Ship That Died, and the What Do You Think? serials.

It tells the story of American man (Kent Smith) who marries a Serbian-born fashion artist (Simone Simon). Their idyllic relationship is put to the test by Simone’s belief in an ancient curse she’s carried down from her ancestors, which causes her to turn into a evil panther whenever emotionally or physically aroused. This puts an obvious strain on their marriage, but Smith makes matters worse when he assumes Simon is simply delusional. Before long, he falls for his more conventional co-worker (Jane Randolph), sending Simon into a jealous furor.

Lewton’s films were often poorly advertised and rarely represented what the films were actually about.

Lewton possessed great savvy as a producer. Considering the restrictive nature of working in B pictures, he made any would-be limitation work for him rather than against him. When literally forced to make a film about people who turn into cats—RKO demanded he make a movie called Cat People before a script had even materialized—let a lack of funds and resources fall by the wayside and instead created mood and intrigue via clever imagery and ambiguous narrative technique. With the help of Tourneur, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and editor Mark Robson, Cat People became a veritable clinic in mood and tone, incorporating elements of sound design, expressionistic lighting, and elliptical editing as means to avoid actually having to show scenes of Simon turning into a panther.

The now-famous pool scene featured in is perhaps the most sterling example of how Lewton could take simple scenarios and craft moments of pure cinema from them. In the scene, Randolph takes a dip in an indoor pool. Having already begun her courtship with Smith, Randolph is unknowingly being stalked by Simon, who follows her into the pool room. Here, Randolph’s fear of Simon and her supposed curse manifests itself in the film’s mis-en-scene. The waves from the pool bounce and radiate off the walls of the room, yet Musacara’s evocative and highly contrasted cinematography is never compromised. Additionally, the sequence features an intricate sound design that places the viewer deep within the scene. Each noise leads to second-guessing: what first sounded like a guttural growl is revealed to be a car in need of an oil change; the splashing of the water could just as easily be muffled footsteps.

The other key scene in Cat People is, of course, the “Lewton Bus” sequence. As Randolph makes her way home, here (justified) paranoia is again manifested in the intricate sound design and editing. What sounds like the low growl of an approaching predator is revealed to be the sound of an approaching bus, but the real kicker is the blending of a panther’s growl and the vehicle’s breaks. The primacy of sound in Lewton, even in his manipulation of it, renders it inseparable from his images, an inherently expressionistic stratagem he’d only perfect with subsequent films.

The atmosphere of the scene is a heightened version of what permeates each of the Lewton/Tourneur films. In other instances, the films are deeply psychological and play more like horrors of the mind. In Cat People, the character of Irena is deeply rooted in her past. As a result, many of the characters in the film are intimidated by her exoticness. These themes of cultural fear and distrust are expounded upon in I Walked with a Zombie, which flips the premise of Cat People and sees the milquetoast Betsy at odds with mysterious and bizarre surroundings. Additionally, the concurrent boundaries between rationality and skepticism seem to mar the characters and their ability to interpret the situations presented in the narrative. These boundaries are specific to each film, such as the space between human and animal (Cat People, The Leopard Man) and the living and the dead (I Walked with a Zombie), but each speak to Lewton’s preoccupation with the unknowable.

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Grappling with The Master

The general consensus of the initial reactions to Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master could adequately be summed up as, “I need to see it again.” Indeed, this story of an unhinged WWII vet named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Pheonix) who falls in with a cult and has his existence challenged by its enigmatic and charismatic leader (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is fiercely cryptic in theme and narrative. Between the allusions to L. Ron Hubbard and the birth of Scientology, the references to the shifting cultural conscience of America post-WWII, and the equivocal nature of the characterization, The Master doesn’t make for lite watching—it does, however, make for easy watching, which isn’t exactly the same thing.

By easy, I mean “easy on the eyes.” Ever the stern formalist, Anderson has officially joined the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky and Hou Hsaio-hsien as a master of the long take. Many of the best sequences in the film play out in a single camera track, which were made all the more stunning thanks to the film’s screening in the epic 70-millimeter format. (I share my thoughts on that over on the Bleader; while you’re there, make sure to read J.R. Jones’ nuanced observations of the film, in which he surmises that he, too, will need a second viewing). The crispness of the image and the tangibility of its contents were nothing short of remarkable. With any luck, the film may be the final word in the whole digital vs. celluloid debate—whoever runs the North West Chicago Film Society Twitter account said it best: “The characters construct a reality; the hyperreality of 70mm & the enormity of the big screen let us see through it. DCP? Hm!”

So if the narrative is impregnable, consider the visuals transformative. But in getting back to the narrative, Anderson has said the film is simply a story of a WWII soldier who falls in with a cult after the war—and I agree. Allusions to Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard are certainly present, but The Master is less concerned with the construction of a religion (or cult or following or whatever) and more concerned with the susceptibility of the human mind when faced with mass trauma. This theme ties The Master closer to 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love more so than Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood (2007), with which it shares only superficial similarities—both films are period pieces about larger than life figures framed in a historical context that they ultimately transcend, but there’s a deeper current of human behavior present in The Master. If Punch-Drunk Love reads like an examination of the Agitated Modern Man, then The Master depicts the birth of the Agitated Modern Man.

The sexual panic that plagues Punch-Drunk Love‘s Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is comparable to the sexual aberrations that plague Freddie, particularly in the way both afflictions inform virtually every aspect of their behavior. Anderson often harvests this maniacal and erratic behavior for humor: laughter filled the Music Box throughout the film, even during scenes that arguably weren’t designed to be comical. Like Punch-Drunk Love, whichis structured as a romantic comedy, this humor stems from a place of deep anguish. In spurts, both films occasionally resemble a sort of demented Jerry Lewis film, the psychological underpinnings rendering the humor uncomfortable and even a little disturbing. (There’s also the interesting parallel of Hoffman, who acts as Barry’s reckoning and Freddie’s, well, master.)

Furthermore, a desire for belonging and familial structure can be found in each of Anderson’s films, dating all the way back to his 1996 debut Sydney (aka Hard Eight), a riff on Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flembeur. The surrogate family of Boogie Nights (1997) appears most analogous to Dodd’s motley crew of wayward souls. Boogie Nights is yet another humanist examination an impressionable soul (Mark Wahlberg) whose behavior is governed by sex.

Placing the film within Anderson’s oeuvre at large is simple—placing it in a larger context, not so much. He’s always shown a penchant for sprawling stories, filled with diametric characters that exhibit inscrutable behavior. An Anderson narrative has come to be defined by the confusion and conjecture they inspire. This doesn’t speak to a lack of authorial control—no filmmaker as meticulous as Anderson would let anything fall by the wayside—but it is indicative of an author intent on requiring, well, a need to “see it again.” Like a good novel, The Master is likely to only grow richer with repeat visits.

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.

Polanski the classicist

Placing Roman Polanski within the parameters of the auteur theory isn’t the simple task it is for other directors. As Paul Coates suggests in his essay on Cul-De-Sac, Polanski may well belong to two separate definitions of auteurism: the kind of auteur that constitutes what Coates asserts is the modern era (where Polanski would find himself aligned with the likes of Antonioni, Godard and fellow Polack Jerzy Skolimowski) and the kind of auteur that is more akin to the original definition of the term, indeed the “classic” one as postulated by Francois Truffaut, the kind that applied to a director who “prided himself on his professionalism,” and “removed the indiscretions of autobiography…by turning them into stories that seem no longer to apply to him,” whose films could be “analyzed in terms of their symbolic concealments”

It was on the basis of this “classic” definition that permitted the Young Turks of Cahiers du Cinema to proclaim that Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks were true artists, on par with the likes of Gaugin and Degas. That Polanski had little regard for the nouvelle vague is evident in his disavowal of classic style. His first three films (Knife in the Water [1962], Repulsion [1965] and most notably, Cul-De-Sac [1966]) are distinct products of the European modern art style that, coincidentally enough, the nouvelle vague helped birth when Godard and Jacques Rivette supplied their films with avant-garde stylistics.

But things changed drastically when Polanski came to Hollywood, culminating in 1974’s Chinatown. Widely regarded as his masterwork and one of the great pieces of American cinema, Chinatown is Polanski’s stab at classic Hollywood filmmaking, co-opting the film noir genre and mirroring the techniques employed by the likes of Hawks and John Ford. However, as indicative of Hollywood classicism as the film is, there’s an air of menace in Chinatown that seems entirely preoccupied with dismantling the myth of Los Angeles. Screenwriter Robert Towne borrowed from William Mulholland’s construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct just before WWI. Much like the dam project in Chinatown, Mulholland’s scheme forced unbeknownst landowners to sell their properties for far less then their worth, thus paving the way for LA to expand. Mulholland pulled it off in 1905; Chinatown, however, is set in 1938. The film isn’t docudrama: it’s revisionist history.

In terms of modernist tactics, this is far as Chinatown goes in resembling Polanski’s previous work, which had similar disregard for history. The rest of the film is the product of “classic” auteurship, with Polanski’s misanthropic view of Los Angeles materializing itself in the form of the evil Noah Cross. Had Chinatown been a work of docudrama, Hollis Mulwray (the obvious stand in for Mulholland) would have been the film’s central antagonist. Instead, Noah Cross is the almost cartoonish villain: he’s all-powerful, not only capable of committing heinous crimes but getting away with them, too. As an untouchable force of pure evil, Noah Cross likely personifies Polanski’s feelings toward the tragedy that befell Sharon Tate. That he insisted on re-writing Robert Towne’s ending so that the film ended on a note that can be rightly‑though perhaps understatedly—described as pessimistic provides insight into the bleak mind-frame he was occupying. Such an act evokes similar actions taken by the likes of Ford, Hawks, and Nicholas Ray, who often made numerous rewrites to the scripts they were assigned in order to inject more personal elements into the text.

That said, the entire film would have benefited from Polanski taking more liberties with Towne’s script, which is arduous and plodding, at best. It’s novelistic structure, though admirable in a formal sense, actively works against Polanski’s strengths as a filmmaker. His absurdist sense of humor, ability to amble between subjective and objective realism, and his sense of tone and atmosphere are all absent in Chinatown, given no room to prosper thanks to the script’s stranglehold. As Dana Polan correctly notes, there isn’t a single scene in the film that isn’t told from Jake Gittes’s point of view (116). This rigid, even oppressive narrative framework forces the viewer down a predetermined path, making Chinatown a far different‑and less enjoyable‑viewing experience than the likes of Repulsion, Cul-De-Sac, and even Rosemary’s Baby [1969]. Despite its scant narrative, the open-air playfulness of a film like Cul-De-Sac proves to be a more democratic film because of its lack of allegiance to a single character or theme. Similar tactics are used in Rosemary’s Baby, as the mystery of the narrative unfolds with objective suspense. While Polanski may have imbued the text of the film with any number of his trademark visual cues and thematic regularities, Chinatown’s abhorrent inflexibility suggests a distinct lack of authorial intent on his behalf. Polanski’s attempt at a piece of classic cinema only proves that his strengths as a filmmaker lie in more modernist techniques.

Blindspots—and why they’re okay

Earlier today, Indiewire posted a roundup of critics who each shared their assorted “blindspots”—films recognized as essential that, for whatever reason, they’ve yet to see. Some interesting tidbits include Ali Arikan, who’s never seen The Wild Bunch; Michael Sicinski, who’s never seen Erich von Stroheim’s Greed; and Adam Kempanaar, who’s yet to see anything from the Jean Renoir oeuvre.

Blindspots are interesting for a number of reasons. For starters, everyone’s got them. They’re simply unavoidable. This isn’t a bad thing, because for every blindspot, a cinephile likely has just has many (if not more) films with which they can claim not only to have seen, but know intimately. Owning up to ones blindspots is both an act of humility and a testament to the sprawling behemoth that is the history of cinema.

What’s worse is lying about them. On plenty more than one occasion, I’ve encountered a person who claims to have seen a certain film yet can’t seem to comment on any of its particulars—details that even the most passive of viewings should yield. Insecure cinephiles are quick to claim they have seen just about everything, but simple logic should suggest otherwise. Still, idle blindspots are the devil’s playthings. Make a point to check them off.

The moral of the story: don’t be a fink—embrace your blindspots.

Here are (some of) mine—some I feel guilty about, most I don’t:

Week End (Godard)
I Was Born, But… (Ozu)
Ordet (Dreyer)
Gone With the Wind (Fleming, Cukor, Wood)
Out: 1 (Rivette)
Madame de… (Ophuls)
Casablanca (Curtiz)
The Conversation (Coppola)
Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger)
Rebecca (Hitchcock)
The Godfather, Part II (Coppola)
Distant Voices, Still Lives (Davies)

Not to mention the entire filmographies of the likes of Satyajit Ray, Mikio Naruse, Maurice Pialat, and any Howard Hawks film not called Bringing Up Baby, The Big Sleep, Red River, Rio Bravo, or El Dorado.