A Touch of Evil – Orson Welles – It begins with a swooping long shot, over a darkened cityscape, and ends in a shadow creeping, ‘more noir than thou,’ double crossing climax. Orson Welles’ tale of police corruption and kidnap feels ‘packed’ – both in tone and narrative, comparable to one of the film’s many cramped rooms in which a babble of detectives argue and exchange quips.
Marlene Dietrich appears as a beguiling, slightly gypsy/slightly ‘queen bee of some unseen brothel’ character, named ‘Tanya’. Each of her, always too brief, scenes becomes manipulated by an effortless intensity and drama - courtesy of her uniquely seductive ability to portray infinite mystery and smouldering enigma with any and all eye contact. A breath-taking, scene-stealing, glance-mongering she-beast of voodoo glamour! As she welcomes the swaying Orson Wells (as an evident regular in her questionable bar) and the two screen giants share a scene, the film seems momentarily inflected with a noir enveloped ‘beauty and the beast’ scenario, brimming with damaged magic.
Janet Leigh plays the role of blonde damsel in distress, shown in casual states of undress and attacked in an ominous motel; altogether providing an uncanny and pre-emptive rehearsal for her, more famous, shower bound turn in Psycho two years later. Definitely also worthy of a mention is Dennis Weaver as the ‘night-manager’, who appears like some sort of Shakespearean clown amidst the shadows. However, like the trajectory of Orson Welles’ character, the night-manager makes a swift transition from slapstick nerves, to a more deranged anxiety (marking the same path of comedy to tragedy) – in a way which reflects the film’s sliding tone, from its early playful and humorous energy into something less clear, less comfortable: sliding off the barstool and sloping into the same bitter delirium that Welles’ character embodies with such frightening force.
Orson Welles’ role as the all American police Captain Hank Quinlain is at turns both hilarious and impressively grotesque. A duality predominantly down to his physical immensity in the role; the latter-day Welles here evokes a roughly shaven, enormous toad, staggering with characterful conviction in a sweeping trench coat. His immovable fridge-like form, lovingly fostered on a star spangled diet of shovelled doughnuts and coffee, could not be further from his light-footed scampering around in Third Man. From the moment he first emerges from a police car with comical swagger, to his later descent into alcoholism and a reckless neglect of the law he purports to uphold – his physical bulk slips from comedic caricature into an abject, almost nightmarish, figure of tragedy. 7/10
Belle de Jour – Luis Bunuel – Catherine Deneuve brings her impossibly pristine beauty to the role of Severine, a sexually reserved, quiet and refined bourgeois wife who is drawn into volunteering at a nearby brothel. Her interest in sex as business is sparked by a casual aside, and from then onwards a seemingly insatiable curiosity begins. While remaining conservative, to the point of inertia, in the bedroom of her marriage, Severine conversely pursues the bizarre fantasies of her clients in her own emotionally inscrutable exploration of desire. From an expansively bellied Chinese businessman – who carries with him a mysterious ornamental box (the contents of which are never divulged – but instead the expressions of reaction it inspires are teasingly shown), to a man whose fantasy involves a ritualised re-enactment of death… cue: Severine, passively waiting in a coffin…which begins to shake (implying, without certainty - this being Bunuel - the client’s over enthusiastic voyeuristic ‘enjoyment’ of her cadaverous submission). Throughout the film are various potential dream sequences that, often accompanied by the non-diagetic jingling of bells or sound of mewing cats, seem to constitute Severine’s burgeoning fantasies. All of which seem to involve her own debasement (being covered in mud/captured/whipped) or the notion of bondage; interludes of transgression, each one a momentary mirage that beckons and diverts from the stifled normality of the bourgeoisie.
Despite being able to appreciate the surrealist themes in Bunuel’s perpetual critique of the bourgeois (the rupturing power of desire, fond memories of the Bretonian heydays of l’amour fou, the role of religion, control and power, social expectations, the equal importance lent to dream life alongside waking life…etc etc), I cant help but always feel slightly disappointed in his films, that is, after the uniquely impressive nature of Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or. While it would be ridiculous to maintain that much of the ambition and dogma attached to early surrealism was not naïve and (often) deeply problematic…there is nevertheless sadness in seeing revolutionary energy ‘grow up’.
Although Bunuel continued to make films with surrealist preoccupations throughout his career and, in his brilliantly entertaining autobiography ( My Last Sigh) proudly proclaims to have always been true to his motivations in whatever he filmed – it is not so much the ‘surrealism’ that I miss, but the visual audacity that accompanied the youthful expression of that surrealism. Some may see maturity and control in his later portrayals, where dreams intercut supposed reality but remain measured in their service to narrative. I, on the other hand, wish there were more men flung up to ceilings, defying gravity and menacing expectation; more bleeding eyes and kissing toes; more abrupt Sadean endings and gleeful scalping; more scorpions and ants; more skeletal priests and kicked dogs; more donkeys draped on cumbersome pianos; more eye slicing provocation and more absurdist theatre! Bunuel had remarked on his own adversity to aesthetic frivolity for the sake of cinematic ‘beauty’ – but there was an inane joy in his early surrealist cinema for accident, irreverence and confrontation.
Arguably of course, much of his later films are still confrontational – but, regardless of how controversial Belle de Jour may have once been, it now feels muted, unlike Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or, which continue to feel urgent and exciting. I am not berating a departure from surrealism, but instead mourning the more stilted sense of control which, alongside the prevalence of his social critique, seems to neuter the films of their conviction. Leaving one feeling as though each attack against the ‘bourgeois’ system is undercut by the safe and bourgeois style of its filmic presentation. I feel guilty, harsh and grossly misguided in criticising such a leviathan of cinematic genius…but, whether symptomatic of the jaded anaesthesia of a generation over exposed to violent transgression (be it intelligent…or be it The Human Centipede), or simply a result of my undying love for those first two early film explosions…I was left feeling unfulfilled…much like many of the men in his films…always waiting for that elusive, mystified, Aphrodite to excitably comply (to whatever chauvinistic, surreal impulse of libido is plat de jour). Instead, distinctly un-ravished, I feel the viewer is left in the chaste marital bedroom – lusting after the same ineffable thrill Severine is seeking…the same thrill Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or specialised in. 6.8/10
In an appropriate ode to the ‘surrealist Peter Pan syndrome’ (it’s a fairly common affliction in terminally adolescent males…I’ve heard…):
‘I am already twenty-six years old, am I still privileged to take part in this miracle? How long shall I retain this sense of the marvellous suffusing everyday existence? I see it in every man who advances into his own life as though along an always smoother road, who advances into the world’s habits with an increasing ease, who rids himself progressively of the taste and texture of the unwonted, the unthought of. To my great despair, this is what I shall never know.’ – Louis Aragon
Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life – Brothers Quay –The Brothers Quay find shifting worlds and tangible landscapes in the minutia swept beneath the carpets, the cutlery and napkin, or the trail of dust that settles in a corner: all become ritualised instruments, glimpsed mechanics or the visceral particles that escape the perspective of our limited attentions and common expectation. Freudian whispers mingle with the suggestion of a darkened fairy tale (Snow White takes a presiding influence), but ultimately it is the sensitivity to light and the intuition of image, in relation to sound, that develops this film’s unique and brooding world. Narrative becomes evasive, characters seem mutably symbolic and the varying themes of subservience and oppression, desire and labyrinthine dreams, feel ominously unknowable. Based on a novel by Robert Walser, the Quays bring their own meticulous vision and atmosphere to inhabit, explore and divert the source material. 7.5/10
…If scale and perspective were creatively warped and we became roving beetles who scuttled over omens sketched in dunes of skin, fabric, hair and dust… and if floorboards became the swept stages of unseen landscapes…then the Quays’ would curate, conduct and transcribe those mysteries…becoming the insect eyes to calculate those unsettling oddities…while, in the meantime, you suddenly realise (a la Kafka) that you are the beetle…and this is your world…it just took a certain shady hand, the sort that animates porcelain fragments of a broken doll, to guide you…
Scorpio Rising – Kenneth Anger – renowned avant-garde filmmaker, occult Crowley enthusiast and author of the scandalous testament, Hollywood Babylon, Mr. Anger is unmistakably an intriguing fella. Scorpio Rising is largely comprised of leather-clad bikers tending to their bikes, looking at their bikes…and riding their bikes. Motorbikes that is…we aint talkin’ a quaint celebration of basket bearing, bicycles …nope, this is firmly rooted in the mythic fog of a James Dean drenched Americana. Featuring a continual jukebox soundtrack of 50s/60s pop, Anger creates a fetishistic collage of Nazi footage, Christian iconography, what looks like a masked orgy, comic strips, death, glamour and a compulsive slab of burly, bike riding, homoeroticism.
Flaming Creatures – Jack Smith – Filmed on what seems to be virtually disintegrating film stock, the black and white glaring into an obliterating eclipse of white (also to do with the fact it was apparently filmed in the strong sunshine of a theatre rooftop…I think…). The imagery wanders from baroque gender ambiguous choreographies of desire, discussions of a fantastic ‘blowjob resistant’ lipstick, vampiric transvestites, and bountiful, exuberant nudity.
The power of this film lies in its chimeric atmosphere, at times disturbing and simmering with violence, at other times wilfully playful and absurd. This is exemplified by the film’s central crescendo of flesh – what seems to be a rape (or could also, confusingly, be a particularly intense orgy?) in which flopping breasts are waggled and cocks are left to perch over shoulders, peering like inquisitive slugs…or being slapped heartily around, revelling in the genital hilarity that biology has fashioned for us excitable humans…eccentric creatures. The film veers from frightening and primal camera shakes that intimate wild involvement or panic, to burlesque slapstick…which, together, create quite a delirious fog of thrills, confusion, comedy and anxiety…at the same time, looking like it was filmed with a make-shift, improvised vision to emulating a decadent Arabian Nights set, but without a budget…and on the alchemical scratch, fuzz and shimmer of decaying film.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky – An introverted boy starts college and begins on the, inevitably rocky, path through adolescent turbulence. Such is the classic, workable because endlessly relatable and entertaining, core to this successful coming of age story. Based on the novel of the same name, adapted and directed by the novelist – some have criticised the ‘busy’ nature of its narrative, entertaining a fairly comprehensive list of teenage issues. However, I would argue that while it may not have the space or time (devoid of events/transition/exposition) to develop its own memorable atmosphere or tone, lacking the visual agency (from simply ‘fitting it all in) to foster something truly cinematic, it does nevertheless offer an engrossing and well acted example of change and experience in the ‘coming of age’ domain. Ezra Miller is unrelentingly and effortlessly charismatic; Emma Watson is (despite the temptation to scrutinize a post-potter performance) successful in her relatively unexciting role, and the central receptacle of angst is triumphantly convincing throughout. 7/10
Fata Morgana – Werner Herzog – A film that revolves, literally (with plenty of 360 pans), around and along a travelogue of deserts. A voiceover warbles on, describing the Mayan Creation myth (from a text that Herzog himself wrote) in an account that aims for aphorism but is always more fun when it opts for the simply baffling. Meanwhile the camera ambles through dunes, the wreckage of a plane, the dried out emaciated carcasses of animals, candid shots of villagers and the most entertainingly bizarre musical performance I’ve seen in a while…a man at the drums and a woman on the piano… both do battle with a god awful microphone, an apparently (at least audibly) non existent audience, and an inspiring lack of talent…all the while they soldier on, pounding and crashing through their limited repertoire with admirable and stoic commitment. One of the few moments of dialogue heard (excluding the mumbling Mayan myth) is a man who regales the camera with his lizard hunting techniques…while grappling with a large, captured lizard. Truly Herzog-ian. 6.5/10
Milk – Gus Van Sant – A powerful political biopic that documents the life of Harvey Milk, and his struggle to lead a gay rights movement, be it through brave and dogged activism or the legitimacy of office. All the performances are terrific, from Sean Penn and James Franco, to the simmering psychosis of Josh Brolin (as Dan White). Gus Van Sant handles the trajectory of events with competence, often switching between news footage (incorporating a 70s grain into the film palette) and his film, to seamless and fascinating results. The decision to frame the film with Harvey Milk’s pre-emptive memoirs recorded on tape, works effectively to meditate on the gravity and imminent tragedy of Milk’s vulnerable position. They also provide sobering moments of calm, melancholy stillness, which build subtly towards the film’s inevitable and brutal end. 8/10
Coraline – Henry Selick – After moving into a new house, disgruntled by her parents’ neglect, Coraline begins to discover a dream reality that runs in parallel to her dreary existence. However, the ‘other’ reality, in which everyone has buttons sown in place of eyes (corresponding to a doll she was given, by a neighbouring child), does not retain its magical sense of sanctuary for long…soon Coraline is trapped in a soured fantasy that grows increasingly and restlessly threatening.
Firstly, the stop-motion animation is inventive (managing not to recall or lean on any recognisable visual tropes…it’s neither Aardman nor Pixar, instead Selick’s animation – A Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach has its own vibrant and uncompromising take on ‘children’s film’) and secondly it is consistently entertaining. Faces and figures are rendered with often grotesque exaggeration, whether spindly or bloated, conjuring often macabre and fascinating portraits. It is so refreshing to see a children’s animation that can also appeal to a more adult audience, not by whoring half-hearted innuendos and lazy pop culture references…the crossover 'family' film that has long grown tired...but through artistic ingenuity, thrilling imagination and a convincingly unsettling ‘darkness’ that refuses to patronise its audience.
Originally a book by Neil Gaiman, Coraline bounces with riotous energy from various cultural sources and themes. The film has several surrealist mementoes, a reappearing praying mantis, an ominous giraffe, the dark and powerful garden, and the uncanny doubling of worlds – playing with Freud’s uncanny. The uncanny also resurfaces in the Gothic re-working of The Sandman tale, where instead of simply being blinded – eyes are replaced: recalling the toy doll that entraps the children, stitched eyes become cruelly ironic symbols of the childhood ‘play’ that tempted them into the world, and which, now, is an imprisoned forever. The film also clearly enjoys engaging with a resonance with Alice in Wonderland, growing up and tumbling through mirrors, crawling through tunnels, all being uncertain passages of identity that trouble the transition from childhood into adolescence. This is, all in all, a carnivalesque, innovative exploration of growing up and the troubled dreams we escape to, and often, try to escape from. 9/10