Category Archives: The Criterion Collection

January 1, 2020

97. Do The Right Thing (1989)

2001: 2019:

written and directed by Spike Lee

Criterion #97.

A vibrant, strong, eccentric piece of filmmaking; a shining example of what “independent film” can offer. For me it was also painful. Because it is ultimately wrong on a subject on which it is, to my mind, dangerous to be wrong.

I have been avoiding writing this entry for months because I dread having to put any of this on record. But I’m going to. Here’s how I see it.

Spike Lee is a born aesthete who feels obligated to pretend to be political. He has a compulsion to present himself as a maker of “statements” despite having no natural inclinations in that direction. His nature is emotional rather than critical, and his thinking tends to be muddled; he knows this is a liability, but rather than play to his strengths, he doubles down. And then as a defense against being found out, he adopts a posture of prickly righteousness, and a smokescreen of calculated provincialism. Ya dig? Sho nuff.

Let me please be very clear here: there is nothing wrong with being essentially a feeling person rather than a thinking person. That’s a good way to be. The thing that distresses me is the pretending otherwise, to the point where in service of the pretense you start disregarding your actual intuitions. That psychological maneuver is the source of all the world’s ills, and it upsets me to experience it in a work of art.

Do the Right Thing is instinctively compassionate to everyone on screen. The compassion is fundamental to the artistic vision; it’s apparent in the screenplay, the image, the color and sound. We get a portrait of a neighborhood — affectionate, whimsical, theatrical, wistful, Our Town — with specific attention to the fact that the life of the neighborhood, its day-to-day function, is dependent on delicate negotiations and compromises across social and racial divides.

The movie is about the fact that those underlying social fault lines are liable to split wide open and spew magma any time the human temperature rises. It says: society is fragile and our simmering resentments and prejudices are an eternal threat to it. Whether those resentments are fueled by big offenses or little ones, actual injustices or imagined ones — or some blend of the two, which, as the movie implies, is always the case — the anger itself is a destructive force, not a constructive one, and so for the sake of our families and neighbors, for the sake of the daily life that this movie celebrates in its every shot, that anger needs to be held in check by love and compassion. Or rather, anger itself deserves compassion, because it is human; it is us; it is the people in our neighborhood. Compassion for anger is the necessary antidote to anger.

That’s a really good message.

At the climax of the movie, Spike’s onscreen character, stirred to fury by a senseless death — and a lifetime of powerlessness — shouts “hate!” and incites a riot. The next day he’s cooled off again and his thoughts have returned to peaceable everyday concerns — getting paid, getting by. At this point, the message should be: his fury of the night before deserves compassion… but, obviously, not endorsement. It was, after all, purely destructive; it was a manifestation of the force of chaos that lives in everyone.

Everything about the movie has prepared us to parse the events this way. Everything about the movie has told us that “justice” is an elusive and subjective consideration compared to the absolute primacy of LOVE and HATE. An act of hate is unfortunate; an act of love is valuable.

And yet that’s not where Spike goes. He has his character be insistently, defiantly uncontrite, and then closes the film on paired quotes about violence, from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The King quote says essentially that violence is immoral and self-defeating. The Malcolm X quote:

I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.

There is no other way to read the movie than that Spike Lee thinks this quote, about “bad people” and “doing what is necessary” and “self-defense,” relates directly to Mookie destroying the pizza place. But it doesn’t; it can’t. That act was an explosion of rage — sympathetic rage, rage that deserves compassion, but rage. That is the opposite of what Malcolm X is talking about, if we take him at his word. He is talking about combating an oppressor. The movie has gone to some lengths to be clear that Sal, the owner of the pizza place, is not in any essential way “a bad person,” and that the pizza place is merely a locus for resentments, rather than a threat against which “self-defense” is “necessary.” Furthermore this is all a bait and switch; Spike has suddenly substituted “violence,” a word not used before, for HATE, the real recurring concern of the movie. Malcolm X isn’t saying anything about “hate.”

Mookie does not believe in change; he is not striving for change; he does not achieve change. He gets nothing good and he hurts nothing bad. He is not employing violence as a means to any end. He simply living out the anger that he feels.

I think what’s going on is: Spike wants to dignify and give voice to hate, to the deep fury that drives the riot; he wants the audience to know they can’t just scold it out of existence. It exists, it’s real, it merits attention and it deserves compassion. That’s all well and good. But at the critical moment he loses the courage of his convictions. He anticipates the audience withholding that compassion, and that makes him feel defensive, so he decides to start arguing back in his put-on “political” voice: “well, violence can be a form of protest action, and given the way things are in this country” blah blah blah. It’s non sequitur in service of an evil conclusion: “Actually acts of hate are valuable.” That’s a profound betrayal of everything this movie has been about.

This stuff matters. The heat is rising on all of us, and it makes an enormous difference to the world whether or not we know what to do with the feelings it stirs up. There is really no more vital issue. We all get angry, and we’re only going to get angrier in the years to come. Clinging to that anger because we don’t know how to forgive it, clothing it in a pretense of purpose, calling it “the right thing” because we don’t dare admit to having been hot-headed, is deadly.

This is the real answer. The movie offers it to everyone else but doesn’t know how to take it to heart.

When Radio Raheem talks about the opposing forces of LOVE and HATE he has it both ways. First he locks fingers and says that they’re “static,” and then he has them duke it out and says that LOVE wins the fight after all. Which is it, Spike?

The final image of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X shaking hands suggests some kind of yin-and-yang equilibrium. But that’s horrible! Just because something is a duality doesn’t mean it needs to be kept “in balance”! Between LIFE and DEATH, we can and should confidently throw in our lot with LIFE; DEATH will take care of itself. In LIGHT we can see what we’re doing, in DARKNESS we can’t. People don’t pray to the beautiful dyad of GOD and THE DEVIL; they pray to GOD. Christ didn’t teach LOVE and HATE, dude. What are you thinking?

Radio Raheem: “If I love you, I love you. But if I hate you…”
Mookie: “There it is: love and hate!”

“There it is: love and hate!” sums up Spike Lee: He knows there’s a topic here and he knows he’s putting it onscreen somehow, but he doesn’t know what he’s actually saying. And he’ll start any fight he needs to start to keep it that way. From a Roger Ebert piece:

Lee says he has been asked many times over the years if Mookie did the right thing. Then he observes: “Not one person of color has ever asked me that question.”

This is an utterly infuriating non-answer, because it’s demonstrably a lie — google “did Mookie do the right thing” for endless debates on the question by black writers, or just ask any high school teacher who has ever taught this movie. I actually found competing apologists for this quote: some that said “what he’s saying is that obviously burning down a pizza place is not ‘the right thing,’ but that goes without saying, and white people only fixate on it because they’ll do anything to avoid acknowledging the systemic injustice that the movie is really about” … and some that said “what he’s saying is that yes, obviously burning down the pizza place is ‘the right thing,’ it’s an appropriate act of resistance against an unjust society that only white people would want to defend.”

Whichever interpretation is correct, it’s totally obvious and you’d have to be pretty damn unwoke not to see it. But they can’t both be right! Or rather, they can only both be right if most of these words are just words, and the only thing that really matters is the emotion, the sense of frustration. I’m all for that kind of truth. I just want it to be honest about itself. Because the honesty is always the hardest part, and it’s the part that counts for the most.

I have dreaded writing this because we live in a time where anger — especially about racial tensions — has been granted enormous authority when it should have just been granted compassion. It’s not Spike Lee’s fault, of course, but it’s a form of the very thing I’m bemoaning. What seemed like an edgy provocation in 1989 is now such a commonplace that I live with a thousand useless worries in my head. Right now, for example: “Uh oh, might someone be angry at me for referring to Radio Raheem’s ‘senseless death’ rather than to his ‘murder by white cops’? Yes, of course someone might; very easy to imagine such a person. So should I change it? They’re the angry one, after all; maybe that means they’re right!”

I wish I didn’t live in that world. It’s not a world that knows how to improve itself.

I wish we weren’t all so enamored of things, like this movie, that purport to blow a whistle and “fight the power.” What power? The pizza place? Power is everywhere and nowhere. I want to hear who you’re actually helping, and how.

And for it to be this movie, of all movies! This glowing thing! Look at all those colors! Feel the air! The wonderful atmosphere! The obvious love for all the characters! It really hurts my heart that all this filmic joy ends with a fist, and does it seemingly only because it’s a convenient way to avoid saying “sorry.” For that he’ll promote HATE to equal status with LOVE. Whatever it takes.

What could be more depressing?

I started going through the bonus features last year, but there are a lot of them, and I’m now accepting that I just don’t have the stomach for it. I’m writing this up because I want to move on. I miss getting to watch these movies. Let’s do some new ones.

Here’s some of the music by Spike’s father Bill Lee. They seem to have had a falling-out after Spike’s first few movies — possibly to do with money, or drug use — or the fact that Spike disapproved of his father’s interracial relationship, which is a pretty juicy notion. But it may simply be that Bill Lee is difficult. His stubbornly not-quite-cinematic scores resemble, but don’t actually align with, Spike’s own stubborn not-quite-ness. Though in this particular movie, because of the crazy-quilt construction, it almost works: the music is just another voice on the block.

This is the music for the quotes at the end. Is it really grappling with their meaning? Or just playing you some music? “There it is: love and hate!” There it is.

June 29, 2018

96. Written on the Wind (1956)

2001: 96_box_348x490_original


screenplay by George Zuckerman
based on the novel (1946) by Robert Wilder
directed by Douglas Sirk

Criterion #96.

And the category is: “Things You Can’t Write On.”


Yeah, the screenplay’s got some problems, but cut the guy some slack! He wrote it on the wind!

More samples upon request.

It’s commonly noted that this movie is a precursor to Dallas and Dynasty and the like. Someone on the Criterion site comments that more generally, Sirk here establishes the style and technique of TV drama as a whole. That’s well observed, and it gave me some retrospective purchase on All That Heaven Allows.

Sirk’s on-the-nose sense of drama is easy for me to dismiss because I’ve had so much practice dismissing it on TV. But beyond that easy dismissal, I do understand how this stuff is meant to be ingested: as something too homey to be critiqued, too basic to be shaken off. TV is just there, so your guard goes down. It makes you feel safely superior to it: that’s how it gets you.

But the more subconscious the effect, the more subjective the value. A recurring theme around here is that different art is “for” different psychologies. I was moved to devote time to writing about the Twilight Zone because it felt potent to me, which is to say relevant to my personal baggage; meanwhile I can’t imagine watching more than one curiosity-teaspoon’s-worth of Dallas or any other soap opera. (Admittedly I did take in a fair amount of secondhand All My Children once upon a time. And Adam Chandler is only one degree removed from Marylee Hadley. Which makes Stuart two degrees.)

What I’m saying is that it’s not my psychodrama; it doesn’t resemble my private gods. Sex and alcohol and money and oil and power all stand in for emotions, I get it, but I don’t feel it because none of that is in my symbology. All that King Lear stuff about dissolute heirs remains abstract to me. So far as I was engaged by this movie — and I was! — it was by the sheer ritual spectacle of melodrama, the crazy artifice, the shapes and patterns. And, yes, I suppose that makes it sound like it got in below my radar. That’s what I’m saying TV does: it teaches you shapes and patterns seemingly without real emotional weight or consequence, and thereby indoctrinates you to expect them in life. I’m sophisticate enough at this point to slot things into categories according to what prejudices they play to, but that doesn’t mean I’m not also being led around by my subconscious. The same way that reading Twitter makes you feel the general agitas even as you place yourself in opposition to it. It’s entirely possible that I’ll be seeing these characters in a dream some day. Who knows.

But speaking on behalf of my conscious mind: this is mondo schlock from planet schlocko and I felt pretty damn immune to its meanings.

It was perfectly watchable, though. Which is the TV-iest form of praise.

Lauren Bacall gives a distinct impression of discomfort. In fact I’m not sure she’s even doing the thing the word “acting” usually implies, wherein one attempts to convey emotions held by a fictional character. She seems rather to be giving a series of professional line readings, one after another, without making any effort to disguise her own personal feelings. Am I wrong? The screenplay tells us that she falls for Robert Stack, but it sure looks to me like she hates him. Apparently when Humphrey Bogart saw the finished movie he told her it was no good and that she should never do anything like it again. Maybe he was just nervous that she’d find out about his flirtation behind her back with Bookstore Girl.

Bookstore Girl acquits herself very well here. Dorothy Malone has the knack for extreme exaggeration that the genre requires; she’s completely at ease with her own flamboyance and simultaneously wry about it, which helps to absorb the audience’s insecurity. Once she enters the picture, about half an hour in, I suddenly found that I knew how to enjoy this campy soap opera after all. That alone is an achievement worthy of the Best Supporting Actress award. Which she won. (She died just this January at age 93. RIP!)

Robert Stack on the other hand just locks in his stare and goes as crazy as he can. Not as much for the audience to latch on to there but you can’t help but admire the shamelessness.

Rock Hudson as usual does an excellent job continuing to be Rock Hudson. He nails “what a nice man.” I think I liked him a little better here than in the previous one.

Harry Shannon as Rock Hudson’s father is excellent genetic casting. When they’re onscreen together you believe it.

When Sirk turns up his style to its fullest force — as when Dorothy Malone is dancing out her debauched soul while her father tumbles down the stairs — the impression, to me, is not just of bold exaggeration but of actually missing the mark. I imagine John Waters et al love this sort of thing because it combines sincere artistic conviction about pain and tragedy with honest-to-goodness aesthetic error. The juxtaposition fundamentally doesn’t work, and the bellyflop makes a spectacular splash. It’s stimulating to watch because it’s not apt, not insightful. The equation hasn’t been balanced.

Similarly those leaves that blow in the front door in the opening sequence, just to make sure you know what “wind” is. They’re like a pun that isn’t actually a pun. The hallmark of the style is fervent commitment to devices that are so hackneyed and obvious that they actually stop functioning.

Here are the lyrics to the title song:

A faithless lover’s kiss is written on the wind
A night of stolen bliss is written on the wind
Just like the dying leaves, our dreams we’ve calmly thrown away
Now they’ve flown away, softly flown away

The promises we made are whispers in the breeze
They echo and they fade, just like our memories
Though you are gone from me, we never can really be apart
What’s written on the wind is written in my heart

Not only do these have approximately nothing to do with the action of the movie, but they also equivocate regarding what “written on the wind” means. Does it mean something that’s shallow bullshit, as in the first line? Or does it mean something that lives forever because it transcends the earthly, as in the last line? Maybe both? Let’s try both?

The only really important thing in this artistic universe is whether it’s delivered with passion. It doesn’t matter a bit to Sirk whether something is actually, as the trailer claims, “THE MOST REVEALING STUDY OF HUMAN EMOTIONS EVER ATTEMPTED ON THE SCREEN.” Clearly, in fact, it’s not, and he never thought it was. What matters to him is that it affects to be the most revealing study of human emotions ever attempted on the screen. He prizes that affectation and takes it very seriously indeed. And that seriousness in turn is entrancing in its guilelessness, as all true seriousness is.

Robert Stack says that after five weeks of marriage he’s “still up on cloud seven.

Here’s another thing he says:

This line comes as the culmination of a subplot in which he wants desperately to attend the royal ball but he’s mocked by the king’s courtiers for being too clumsy, so he prays to the tree spirit, who provides him with a pair of magic dancing slippers, but the jealous forest witch hears his prayer and covets the slippers, and though he runs as fast as he can, she chases him all the way to the gate of the castle and just as he’s about to enter, snatches the slippers from his hand.

Actually the funny thing is that what the line really means is: he’s just a moment ago been informed by a doctor that it’s his probably his fault he and his wife haven’t been able to conceive: he might be sterile. Then when his wife asks him to dance he self-pityingly says that unfortunately someone just stole his, ahem, “magic dancing slippers.” That’s someone’s 1956 idea of a semi-entendre of some kind.

The sexual content definitely tries to push the boundaries of the moment, and sometimes the strain shows. The golden statuette of an oil derrick that Dorothy Malone fondles tragically in the final shots is a full-fledged double-entendre. Congratulations to everyone involved in working that one out; I know it can’t have been easy.

The score is again by Frank Skinner — again an able co-conspirator in reckless intensity — but the above-mentioned title song is by Victor Young, and it drives the ship. In fact I couldn’t find a suitable excerpt from the score that was all Skinner, so I’m just embracing it and giving you the finale and end credits, which is basically a straight-up orchestral arrangement of the song:


June 26, 2018

95. All That Heaven Allows (1955)

2001: 095 box 2 2014: 095 box 3


screenplay by Peg Fenwick
based on the story by Edna L. Lee and Harry Lee
directed by Douglas Sirk

Criterion #95.

This and Black Narcissus have both forced me to confront my instinctive assumption that a film photographed with painterly distinction must therefore be a film of depth. Clearly not so!

Or then again maybe it is. It depends on where “depth” lies. In visual art, the literary idea of “depth” isn’t generally what’s at issue. A Renaissance painting is rarely valued for its subject (fruits on a table? The Martyrdom of Saint whoever?); the “depth” is within the domain of imagery itself. Film can be that sort of medium, where a simple or formulaic subject is just a framework for the exploration of sensory values. But it seems to me that All That Heaven Allows was not conceived that way; the dippy screenplay is dense-packed with dippy dialogue and dippy events: whatever deeper resonances it may have, the story does expect to be taken seriously at face value. All the visual richness seems to be an elaboration after the fact: it’s Douglas Sirk seizing an opportunity to explore his own aesthetic ideas on the studio’s dime. It’s a fundamentally insipid movie that’s been forcefed expressionism.

That makes it an interesting object, and it creates an interesting effect. I imagine that if I had come across this movie in full ignorance of its (and Sirk’s) reputation, I would have noted that it casts a very odd spell indeed. It’s simultaneously plush velvet and wet cardboard. It’s a bit like the magical, billowing, dreamy, inviting, obviously-fake, chintzy, disgusting, gooey chemical snow into which Rock Hudson gamely flumpfs.

Maybe such things are best recommended by word of mouth, film-lover to film-lover. “Have you seen Sirk’s color melodramas? They’re really quite something!” Unfortunately, we live in a time where scholars feel a compulsion to take up old films as causes and try to boost their reputations ever, ever upward, into The Canon Of Greatness And Significance — as though that’s the inevitable next step in a virtuous historical process of rehabilitation. It’s an addiction to the idea of giving things Their Due; in its overeagerness it amounts to a form of insensitivity. (Have you noticed the sort of thing the Library of America has been getting itself up to lately?)

Put another way: plain old everyday mediocrity is not something that Criterion is very good at knowing about or delivering. Their pomp and circumstance tends to obfuscate ordinariness rather than elevate it. What the heck is this thing we’re watching? How could it possibly be that this package, this luxe commercial fetish object, contains a half-baked lower-middlebrow romance novel? It starts to seem almost like a prank. The effect they want to achieve needs to be approached from the other side: “this particular half-baked romance novel… is actually rather suggestive and striking, isn’t it?”

The colors! The lights! Yes! The photography is glorious. The film is an exquisite piece of commercial graphic art, no denying. But Norman Rockwell’s work has more feeling and vision in it, seems to me.

I like to get lost in old book covers; think about the way they make me feel — good and bad books alike. I like to touch down, internally, on the time and place they represent, both in real history and in the parallel history of dreams, on which they are a window. If that’s all the Sirk game is, I’m glad to play. Sure, these rooms made me feel things. There’s a hushed, half-awake sensation somewhere in there that I might recognize. But my personal dream, the thing that it’s rewarding for me to explore, doesn’t have the slightest thing to do with the story or the themes of this movie. Deadening conformity vs. self-realization through romance? Pff. As if. I’m busy looking at the lamps, here!

And yet witness e.g. the commentary track. That’s the real Sirk game: let’s talk about the social repressions of the 50s. Let’s look for ways this film is secretly “subversive.” Ah well. We can do that if you want. If we must.

Yes, psychological subtleties of production, design, direction are legitimately there to be noted — “you see, now her costume is starting to match his environment” — but let’s not lose sight of the fact that intricate code is a symptom of repression, not an antidote to it. Critics tend to gravitate to the difficulties, the problem-solving, but problem-solving only arises as a result of problem-having, and is problem-having really such a thing to celebrate? Wouldn’t we benefit from celebrating the art that we aspire to resemble, rather than the art that strains to resemble us? Listening to the extensive appreciation for this stilted melodrama, I felt like I heard a kind of retro-condescension at work: “we like this because it has to marshal so much craft and effort just to hint at things that we all now find easy to take for granted. Look at the brilliant artist struggle against his sad sad era! Isn’t it noble!”

Music is by Frank Skinner, who does a fine job laying down the very thickest possible carpet. Or: making sure every event casts the longest, saddest possible shadow. The piano plays a bass note: oh no! alas! alack! He unabashedly makes Liszt’s Consolation No. 3 the figurehead on his ship, as you’ll hear in the main title below — very much in the manner that Brief Encounter draped itself in Rachmaninoff, and to similar effect. The “kitsch” quotient is obviously even higher here — but when have I ever begrudged kitsch its kitschiness? If art can make me cry about nothing, more power to it. I can’t say this movie or this music wrung any actual tears from me, but I wholeheartedly endorse the attempt. Have at me, boys!


December 28, 2017

94. I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)

2001: 094 box 2


written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

No trailer seems to be available anywhere; in its place Criterion has just uploaded the above scene. So that’ll have to do.

Criterion #94.

Spoiler: she doesn’t know where she’s going.

Another peculiar Michael Powell joint, this time in black and white. A romantic comedy with almost no comedy and very little romance. Wendy Hiller sets off toward a remote Hebridean island to marry a rich businessman — never seen — but her last little ferry ride is delayed for days due to inclement weather, and while waiting it out on the remote-Hebridean-island-but-one, she’s seduced by the realities of the land and the people and Roger Livesey. After putting up a desperate but futile fight against her inner desires, she finally accepts that she wants so much more from life than to marry a rich offscreen businessman: she wants to be with the guy who’s actually been in the movie with her. Fin.

That summary makes it sound like an entirely reasonable movie, but, as usual, in the execution, Powell’s impulses are eccentric. (Eccentricity being relative, this is to say that he’s eccentric to me.)

The opening titles and our heroine’s initial train journey north are both put across with lively whimsy and cinematic puns — production credits are painted on the side of a passing milk delivery cart; a top hat seems to puff smoke as it crossfades to a train engine, et cetera. But once we arrive at the scene of the action, all that quirky charm flies away, for good, and Powell and Pressburger become intent almost exclusively on capturing “atmosphere,” something vague and homely and enveloping. They do okay. But they never really show how that atmosphere engenders any particular thought or emotion, how it constitutes a movie. We either feel its significance or we don’t, I guess according to how much we internally resemble Wendy Hiller’s character. She’s seen partaking in what looks like anodyne disinterested tourism to kill the time… and then subsequently in her hotel room, wringing her hands about having her life completely turned upside down by it all. If you say so!

This is Hiller’s second and final Criterion appearance. As in Pygmalion, she makes a admirably forceful impression, but owing to the way the movie is put together, the character isn’t entirely accessible to the audience. And the significance of Roger Livesey as a screen presence I must admit I don’t really understand. Some sort of a… fellow? With hair? To put their two unusual faces on screen together feels almost rebelliously un-Hollywood. Who are these people??

Who are these people and why didn’t we ever get to see them actually fall for each other? Did they fall for each other, really? If so, why? Isn’t that what the movie is about? Did I miss that scene? It’s all by implication, of course, and then the implication itself is by implication. The scenario determines the emotions, in a movie that is, not coincidentally, about the experience of one’s scenario determining one’s emotions. So it makes a kind of internal sense, but it’s intrinsically static. Stasis and preordination can be dreamy, and I can sort of imagine this film having a misty dreamlike effect, for those who are primed and susceptible. As I said last time: perhaps it benefits from repeat viewings, as it becomes less of a drama and more of a pattern. It seems to me to have been a mere pattern from the outset.

I note thematic similarities to Black Narcissus — a scenic location draws out repressed desires and eats away at the self-deceptions of propriety. Peeping Tom and The Red Shoes are also both more or less about the inner life emerging to disrupt the outer life. But Powell personally seems to have spent his life remarkably unfettered, freely pursuing pretty much everything that interested him, both artistically and romantically. So it’s not clear to me what these repressed desires were that he was constantly trying to work out. Maybe it’s just an English thing. These are exceptionally English movies, after all; maybe they only truly make emotional sense if you’ve grown up instilled with English social instincts.

Tilda Swinton, for example, says it’s her favorite movie, which sounds about right. An eminently unrepressed person, who nonetheless is (perhaps) inwardly in constant renegotiation with conventional societal repressions. I guess to be a free-spirited Brit feels like being in a Powell & Pressburger movie; one constantly has the sensation of being strangely exaggerated.

Finlay Currie from Great Expectations is in there too. Pamela Brown makes a conspicuously striking impression in a role where it’s hard to justify — another of the Powell’s many sometime relationships revealed on screen. And as the prim little rich girl: Petula Clark!

Two bonus features are on the DVD but aren’t currently on FilmStruck: “audio essay by film historian Ian Christie” and “the 1994 documentary I Know Where I’m Going! Revisited, by Mark Cousins,” but I managed to find the latter on YouTube, so I feel I’ve done pretty well with this one. There’s also some home movies of Michael Powell going on pleasure walks in the Scottish highlands, a scene from Powell’s earlier Scottish isle movie The Edge of the World — now available on FilmStruck in its entirety but from this excerpt I’m not really tempted — a slideshow of travel photos taken by Nancy Franklin, New Yorker critic, who seems very willing to stand up and be counted as this movie’s biggest fan — she appears in the Cousins piece, too. And then a few on-set photographs. As with most Criterion discs, the main thing it all gets across is that some people, somewhere, do in fact care a lot about this movie. I’m always affected by that sort of thing! Hey, these people seem nice enough, and look how much they like the movie; maybe I like it too!

Sure, maybe I do. Why not. But not enough to write about it anymore.

Oh right except for the music paragraph. Music is by “Allan Gray,” which is just another way of saying Józef Żmigrod. It has a few inspired touches and a few blatant miscalculations; on average I’d say it’s a bit obvious and old-fashioned. But if you’re in a misty dream maybe that’s plenty. Consider the clip embedded at the top of the page; maybe anything more dramatically precise would break the spell, assuming you ever fell under a spell in the first place.

Finding a piece to listen to was a little tricky; the opening titles have narration over them so that’s no good, and the end titles are an arrangement of the folk song from whence the film takes its name, which besides being a vocal seems insufficiently attributable to Allan Gray. In the course of the movie there are no musical showpieces that stand in the clear, so I’ve had to cheat a bit: this is the climax of the penultimate scene, when the leads kiss farewell (wink!) to the main theme of the score — it may not be the actual start of the cue but let’s pretend it is — and then to fill out the clip I’ve included the cue that immediately follows, the Scottish-ish tune that corresponds to “the cursed castle” (see below).

(Hey do you hear that, toward the end there? Sounds like maybe a woman’s voice got half-juxtaposed into the music somehow? Maybe the magnetic tape was stored badly, or some wires were touching when it was duplicated, or something? Well, I just double checked, and that’s in the movie.)


December 19, 2017

93. Black Narcissus (1947)

2001: 093 box 2 2010: 093 box 3


written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
adapted from the novel by Rumer Godden (1939)

Criterion #93.

A complete triumph of production and craft, in service of an oddity. That seems to be Michael Powell’s thing.

This is absolutely peak Technicolor, as good as color has ever looked in any film. Startlingly good. As good as Disney — which Martin Scorsese, on the commentary, points out as an influence. He says that when he saw it in a theater in the 80s, on a certain hard cut to brilliantly colored flowers, the audience actually gasped. I think I might have made some noise there too.

The painterly composition and palette control, the sensitive editing and music, the incredibly lush and precise matte paintings, the sets and costumes, on and on. The acting, even! All exquisite. An all-time beaut. One for the showroom floor.

And this is all to give us… what? A weird psychological drama about how nuns in the Himalayas have a harder time than usual resisting the call of the sensual. Why?

Not just “why,” in fact: I don’t even think the premise makes any sense. One of the nuns says something about how her devotion to her vows has been disturbed because of the view: “you can see too far.” That’s not how it works! When people are surrounded on all sides by purple mountain majesties they are more than ever inclined to think lofty spiritual thoughts. The idea of a monastery on a remote mountaintop is a cliche! Yet here we’re supposed to see it from the start as some kind of recipe for sexual disaster. How bizarre.

There’s almost an idea there that would make sense to me: that giving up one’s worldly life is actually dependent on pushing back against it, and when it recedes to the other side of the earth where it can no longer provide resistance, one is disconcertingly free to think about what one actually wants. But for that to be the point, this mountaintop convent would need to be depicted as a place where, indeed, the meditative peace is too complete. And that’s not how this movie plays it. Instead, it keeps reminding us that the palace they’re living in used to be a harem, and fills the space with earthy local characters who provide sensual distractions. The Himalayas, land of worldly temptation, is the idea. Pretty weird idea.

The distractions primarily take the form of David Farrar hanging around in tiny shorts. Sometimes shirtless too. Powell says several times on the commentary that Farrar had the goods to be a major star, he just didn’t want to be one — and that he was the kind of person who was pleased with himself for being disinterested in fame. That I think is also what gives him his star quality in the first place: that there is no career occupying the back of his mind and weighing him down. Just the charisma of purest self-satisfaction.

Meanwhile Jean Simmons as “sexy Indian teenager who never speaks” is problematic, not just for reasons of ethnicity — but, you know, for those reasons too. The movie is too peculiar to accuse of any clear colonial or racial arrogance; if you do the math it probably could be worked out as a fairly self-critical depiction of English people in parts of the world that aren’t properly theirs, produced in the year of Indian independence. That’s the case made by one of the essays in the Criterion package. But ultimately it’s all too weird and personal to take it as having conscious or coherent political ideas — it’s all psychological first and last — so I tried to simply ignore the crazy race-deaf casting. As best I could.

Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron look rather similar, especially when en-habited down to just their faces. I assumed the casting was meant to create a deliberate doppelgänger effect, as they come into conflict. Then I read that they were, respectively, Michael Powell’s ex- and current girlfriends. So… I guess Freud would say I was right? Maybe that bit of trivia accounts for the whole movie, in fact. In terms of explanation I’ll take what I can get. Both women do an excellent job, by the way. When Byron emerges as a screen-chewing force toward the end, it’s electrifying.

Basically we have here exactly the same creative DNA as The Red Shoes and the same screwy dramatic effect of obscurely motivated fervor. I certainly appreciate intensity for its own sake, even when I really can’t say where it’s coming from or where it’s going. That said, knowing where it’s going is always preferable. (Hopefully the next movie on the list knows where it’s going.)

Really, what was Powell’s deal? This is the guy who went on to make Peeping Tom. He was working things out through art that aren’t my things, and I continue to wonder whose they are. An extremely talented craftsman but I’m getting the sense that his psychological eccentricities put limitations on the work. On the other hand, the strong impact of the local effects — including some powerfully emotional ones, like the flashbacks here — is almost enough to carry one through. It’s the kind of stuff that improves on repeat viewings, when the overall pattern becomes a house to live in and take for granted. The crookedness only shows from outside; inside one can just enjoy all the wonderful furniture.

I wonder how much the original book jacket painting (by one Roland Cosimini) might have had to do with Powell and Pressburger’s enthusiasm for this material in the first place.

Commentary by Powell and Scorsese (recorded 1988) is fine — both are always interesting company. Scorsese points out shots and concepts that he stole for his own movies (i.e. “I did a whole sequence of that kind of shot in The Color of Money“), which, as it did with The Red Shoes, fascinates me for its dramatic incongruity: Marty Scorsese is obsessed with this nun movie? But his enthusiasm kind of points out why we don’t have to care much about the subject matter to be stirred by the craftsmanship. And I appreciated the encouragement in that direction.

I watched on FilmStruck, which lacks one of the three video pieces listed as being on the DVD, a 24-minute general behind-the-scenes documentary. Sounds interesting but, really, what can I do? This is the new reality. I’m sorry everyone, but I’m settling for what I can get with my subscription.

I got an 8-minute piece by Bertrand Tavernier about the movie — fine — and then a 17-minute interview with same. Since Tavernier is basically just speaking as a friend of Powell’s and an admirer of the movie, this is entirely a secondhand report, a little like listening to someone describe what they learned from the bonus features on a different, superior edition of the DVD. But he tells it well enough.

And then there’s this pretty-interesting piece about director of photography Jack Cardiff and the whole apparatus surrounding Technicolor. My main takeaway was that Cardiff made the color look so good because he was intimately familiar with the entire Technicolor process, so his thought processes extended all the way down to the technical roots — whereas cameramen who tried to just treat Technicolor as a consumer-ready tool — which of course is something the Technicolor Corp. was happy to sell it as — ended up using it to much feebler effect. This is the way with technology generally: it solves a problem but only in its own particular way, so the end-user is never really free to think beyond the original problem. Unfortunately computer technologies are now just too complex for the creatives to fully understand what they’re dealing with or why. That remains the burden on CGI and probably always will: the tool is too mysterious to be wielded with deep intuition. It has to be managed. (Cardiff talks a bit about how the usual Technicolor process was for Natalie Kalmus to show up on set and boss everyone around.)

As usual, watching a second time and then watching bonus features makes the movie seem more and more worthy. Yes, Scorsese is right, this is something “special” — his favorite word — so why, really, am I griping about its being weird? Heck, maybe it’s one of the greatest movies of all time! It certainly seems to have been influential — on special effects, not least. And I could swear I saw images from later Hitchcock in there. (Surely this is where the nun at the end of Vertigo is running in from.)

I don’t think I denied, anywhere above, that this might be one of the greatest movies of all time. It might be! I’m just saying it’s also clearly not one of the greatest movies of all time. Exactly like The Red Shoes.

Basically, it’s a clear masterpiece of some sort — but only of that sort.

Again Brian Easdale delivers an extremely British score with upscale concert-hall manners. I find this sort of thing engaging just on its surface — hey, it sounds almost like “classical” music — and then beyond that, this is actually quite a well-scored movie. The use of chorus to represent things sensual is really strong — he brings it in to powerful effect at four or five different points in the movie; each entrance got me good.

The climactic sequence, when the action becomes more or less a horror movie, was apparently composed musically before shooting, and then filmed to match — but the music in question doesn’t take center stage; it’s still pure underscore, so the effect is less one of balletic synchrony than it is simply of consistently measured pacing. I guess P & P needed a metronome to keep them steady enough to be scary. Anyway, it worked. But there’s too much dialogue and sound and screaming and whatnot to use that as our excerpt, so instead we’re just going with the Main Title, which isn’t necessarily the most distinctive achievement here, it’s just the one in the clear. (Those are some onscreen Tibetan longhorns being blown at the start.)


June 4, 2017

92. Fiend Without a Face (1958)

2001: 092 box 2


directed by Arthur Crabtree
screenplay by Herbert J. Leder
original story (1930) by Amelia Reynolds Long

Criterion #92.

I guess there wasn’t enough money in the budget to pay for a face.

One of course is tempted to ask Criterion “why?” but I tend to think those are worms best left canned. As for asking myself “why?” the answer is of course “because it’s Criterion #92!” The buck stops there.

I had hoped to return to my Blob theme of “what makes amateur filmmakers tick,” but Fiend can’t really sustain it; its amateurishness isn’t nearly as striking or distinctive. In fact it’s just good and smart and commercial enough that I was able to feel embarrassed for it. Despite being British-made it’s hardly distinguishable from a standard American B: gawky and simple-minded and all too by-the-book.

Like many creature features, it consists of a bunch of dullards treading water until the last 15 minutes, when it’s finally time to reveal the goods. Usually the goods are a guy in a rubber suit or a puppet on strings, but in this case a modicum of care has been taken and we get something almost memorable: an animated horde of crawling brains, inchworming around by their spinal columns. An actor fires a gun offscreen and then we cut to goofy pixilation of a punctured brain belching out what seems to be grape jelly. This happens about 20 times. I guess for 1958 it was astonishingly bizarre and disgusting. Now it’s just odd and mildly grody. Oh well: I’ll take it.

The original 1930 short story, The Thought-Monster, is about as undistinguished and derivative a weird tale as you can imagine. But it’s flattered by the transfer to a cinematic genre where nobody expects any plot beyond “it’s from space and we need to kill it!”; in this context even limp secondhand ideas start to seem sort of interesting. Turns out these creatures aren’t from space: they’re the byproduct of psychic experimentation. They are, in fact, somehow the physical concretion of thought itself. Super-powering the brain gives it telekinetic control over external things, and then ultra-super-powering it gives it the next power beyond that, which turns out to be the power of self-projection — effectively the power of creation. A strange and dreamy and potentially disturbing idea that, rest assured, this movie does nothing with. The entire science-fiction content of the film, such as it is, is condensed into a single narrated flashback that lasts about two minutes. There’s almost a story here, but no storytelling.

Another peculiar sci-fi premise in the screenplay, which doesn’t come from the original story: the idea that a nuclear power plant can somehow beam its energy wirelessly throughout the atmosphere, to be picked up and used by distant planes. (This free-floating wireless energy turns out to be what’s sustaining the monsters.) Nikola Tesla isn’t mentioned, and the technological absurdity is treated throughout as though it goes without saying. Did the screenwriter think this was a real thing? Maybe it represents confusion about what nuclear “radiation” means.

Paraphrasing only lightly: “I wonder who’s committing all these murders.” / “I don’t know, I guess tonight at midnight I’ll go look around the cemetery and if I find a crypt there, I’ll go down into it.” Because naturally there’s got to be a scene in a crypt. So at one point the guy simply picks up a flashlight and we cut to the next scene and we’re in the graveyard. It could just as easily have cut to a haunted mansion or a mysterious bookshop or an abandoned factory and it would have made nearly as much sense. Genre sense.

I hope it’s clear that I’m not complaining. Anyone wants to go down in a crypt in a movie, it’s always fine with me. It’s never the wrong time.

The commentary track isn’t really a “commentary,” it’s just a feature-length interview with executive producer Richard Gordon questioned by Tom Weaver, a nerdy horror-magazine type. Each in his way seems to enjoy the occasion. It feels like it must surely be the definitive 75-minute conversation about Fiend Without a Face.

As with the The Blob, we learn that the producer started his career in distribution. I like this as a framework for thinking about drecky B-movies: they’re essentially movies made by salesmen. The sales rep has his own peculiar perspective on the product; this is what movies look like to people who deal them by the yard.

In one of the other bonus features, Gordon talks about setting up a motorized, noise-making brain in a glass case on a stand in front of the theater showing the movie in Times Square. The film itself comes from exactly the same place. B-movies are PR thinking treated as production thinking.

The action takes place in Canada near an American military base. In his interview the producer says that despite its being shot entirely in England, they decided to set it “on the American-Canadian border” so that it would have appeal in the American market. Little did he realize that the mere mention of Canada would immediately signal to viewers that this was not an American film. I mean, really.

Later in the interview he acknowledges that it’s set on the Canadian border as a hedge against any hints of Englishness that might have crept in. A funny thing to worry about, under the circumstances, but he’s probably right that very subtle cultural absurdities tend to disrupt the audience experience in ways that overt absurdities of dialogue, plot, performance, etc. do not. We all get that this is just a dream; what would really bother us is finding out that it’s not our dream.

In the commentary the apparent grape jelly is identified as: raspberry jam. Well, I was close.

Fiend Without a Face had the great good fortune to be picked up by MGM in what was apparently their very first venture into the business of distributing indie schlock. It was packaged as the second half of a double-bill with The Haunted Strangler (a.k.a. Grip of the Strangler) from the same producers, which had been made simultaneously on a joint budget. So it got rather a more luxurious launch than you might expect for such a thing.

The bonus features on the disc include a lot of period images like the ones I just linked to, as well as the trailers for these and three other Gordon films. Apparently Criterion thought, “no way we’re ever going to distribute the rest of these turkeys, so we might as well stick this stuff here.” Little did they know! Stay tuned for spines #364–#368. (Stay tuned, but don’t hold your breath.)

The last bonus feature is an onscreen essay by Bruce Eder, superior to but still redundant with the one in the packaging, which is by Bruce Kawin. Seems like maybe someone at Criterion screwed up and double-assigned this baby. Kawin never dares to state the obvious, preferring to leave it vaguely hypothetical: “If this movie is formulaic, it also goes beyond formula to a gravely determined and inventive stance of its own.” Eder, after many paragraphs of serious-minded historical hype, finally lets himself speak truth: “In some respects, the movie may seem a bit naïve.” Pretty weak, but at least he got there.

The trailer above notes that the girl “could be a spy.” The possibility isn’t actually raised in the movie, but it’s true that she could be! Anyone could be! If you’re ever bored by a movie that you’re watching, just add a little spice by considering: they could all be spies!

Gordon on the actress Kim Parker:

She was a very nice girl, but she tended to, um… be somewhat difficult in her conversation. And I remember an incident when — because we were shooting the Boris Karloff film Grip of the Strangler at the same time as Fiend Without a Face, and there were occasions when she and Boris Karloff went together by car to the location or studio, and one day Boris Karloff took me aside and said that he really didn’t mind sharing his car and driver with Kim Parker, and she was a very charming lady, but some of the stories she was telling and some of the language she was using he really found rather difficult to accept, and would I either have a word with her about it or perhaps I could arrange for him to pick up somebody else other than her.

And now for all you roiling tumult fans out there, we’ve got a special treat: it’s “Main Title from Fiend Without a Face” by Buxton Orr! Mercifully drowned out by jet engines, in the end.

Actually before we get to the clip I should warn that roiling tumult fans are going to be disappointed by the rest of the score, which mostly leaves the mayhem and monsters unscored — their presence is signaled by Telltale Heart sound effects. Orr is a proficient enough composer of stuff that sounds basically like movie music, but he doesn’t have much of an instinct for matching tone, or for spotting it in at useful moments. The score seems a little distracted, frankly. And who can blame it.

Anyway, get a load of this:


April 30, 2017

91. The Blob (1958)

2000: 091 box 1 2013 Blu-ray: 091 box 2BD


directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.
screenplay by Theodore Simonson and Kate Phillips
from an original idea by Irvine H. Millgate

Criterion #91.

In The Blob, newcomer Steven McQueen has a spectacular part — IN HIS HAIR — as a post-juvenile linquent known as “Steve.”

As in “Hey, Steve!” “Steve, what is it?” “Steve! Steve, help!” “I don’t think it can be killed, Steve!” and so forth. If you drink every time someone says “Steve” you will take at least 56 drinks. According to, the 5 most frequent non-trivial words in a complete transcript of The Blob are:

1. know
2. don’t
3. it’s
4. Steve
5. right

By the way, kids, I want to be clear that “drinking games” aren’t cool, and there’s really no need to drink alcohol to have fun watching The Blob, which is a wholesome movie, brought to you by your Christian neighbors at Good News Productions in Chester Springs PA, makers of 16-millimeter religious films. (In the commentary the producer calls them “a bunch of very nice monks.”) They’ve put together some good old-fashioned secular fun, suitable for the whole family. It’s the horror-movie equivalent of Family Circus. Sit back, enjoy yourself. We think you’ll get a few chills, you’ll chuckle, you’ll see a real sincere story with some exciting young people in it, you’ll go home feeling like you just had a fine soda pop. Then you’ll get some rest and be up and ready for church in the morning.

What works: Beautiful glowing color — Steve’s car must be the bluest in all moviedom — and black-as-indoors night skies, heavily cricketed. Feels like you’re at a nice low-key Halloween party. Investment in the good film stock and the good lab paid off. (From the commentary we learn that the film was substantially financed by the guy who owned the lab.) The bright red shiny Blob looks terrific on screen, and the goofy special effects are graphically pretty charismatic compared to most cheap-o movies. This stuff matters.

Because frankly if it weren’t for the delicious ice-cream-truck palette, this would be pretty hard to take. Every other scene aggressively, cheerfully wastes the viewer’s time. The script is the story of “The Blob” as I would have fleshed it out out in 5th grade. Dialogue a la The Young Visiters:

COP: Mr. Martin, Mr. Andrews, apparently Doc Hallen’s office was broken into by vandals tonight, and Steve and Jane seem to know something about it.

MR. MARTIN: Vandals? My daughter?

MR. ANDREWS: Well, you don’t think our kids were mixed up in it, do you?

COP: All we know is that they told us something had happened over at Dr. Hallen’s house. We’re not accusing anyone of what we found. Now, we can’t be more definite until we contact Dr. Hallen in Johnsonville.

STEVE: Dad, it isn’t vandalism. Dr. Hallen is dead, and he was killed by some sort of a monster! Now, I know, because I saw it, Dad.

MR. ANDREWS: Lieutenant, I want you to know that Steve is not in the habit of telling lies. If he says he’s not mixed up in this vandalism, you can be sure it’s the truth. Did you see this thing too, Jane?

JANE: Well, no, not exactly.

COP: Well, look, folks, we’ll all know more in the morning after we’ve called Johnsonville. I think the best thing now is for all of us to go home and get some sleep.

MR. ANDREWS: Maybe it’s a good idea, son. We can talk about this some more at home.

STEVE: Sure, Pop.


We start right in the thick of things at Make-Out Point, but after 15 seconds Jane pulls away clear-headedly. Whew! The whole movie is a series of feints toward “teenage delinquent” tropes, made by a bunch of Christians who love everybody and don’t actually believe in such stuff. Drag racing, sneaking out of the house, run-ins with the police — that stuff sells tickets, so we’ll show it, but we’ll also show that in fact these are all good kids… and, you know, come to think of it, they’re not actually causing any problems.

The amount of Blob — and even of Blob talk — is surely the least in any classic monster movie. There’s not even a scientist on hand to pontificate about life on other planets. Someone in the commentary implies that the Blob is red because of the human blood it’s ingested. Hey, interesting, that’s a perfect example of the sort of thing you might want to put as a line in the movie… oh, no? You’d rather show the cops hanging around in the station, going about business as usual? I see. A good half the run-time of this 80 minute movie feels like it isn’t even about the Blob. (Notice how the scene above could be slotted into any monster movie. Apart from the word “monster” it could be slotted into any movie, period.)

It’s just the school play, or rather the town play. A fancy one, mind you! Certainly this would merit a standing ovation from the parents of all involved. Ultimately the Blob is only a MacGuffin; the real agenda is a picnic celebration of suburbia by itself. Hey, we could shoot a scene in the grocery store! Yeah, and in the diner! Cozy.

Carnival of Souls is the closest point of reference, for many reasons. But I think also of Manos: The Hands of Fate, et al. The American hobbyist movie is by tradition a horror movie. Don’t ask the filmmakers why, or what it’s supposed to do. The only question they’re thinking about is can they build it? ACME Horror Flick, Assembly Required. Like my high school going through all the steps entailed in putting on “Lil’ Abner,” despite the show’s utter meaninglessness to all involved, simply because they bought the kit; tab A in slot B.

So why was this the ACME kit? Q: What do teenagers have in common with monsters?

Oh, you already know. A: They both dare to break moral law. Id, baby! What else are movies for? Bust out the popcorn and let your dreamlife have at it! The uses of enchantment.

That at least is what well-formed teen-horror movies tap into. The funny thing about The Blob is that it completely fails to offer any of the Freudian goods, because it’s so damn Christian. The teens and The Blob are safely isolated at opposite ends of the moral spectrum, with nothing left in the middle to serve as a scratching post for the audience. These teens only seem like they’re full of animal impulses, but really, doggone it, you’ve just got to get to know them and you’ll see they mean well and they respect their elders! Meanwhile The Blob, yup, kills people without any compunction… but luckily for us, it’s just a damn Blob! It has no features; it has no intentions. It’s as close to a non-entity as possible. It is “compartmentalization” embodied.

Here’s Id as good and depersonalized as a Christian can get it. It’s still a threat though. It can still gobble you up and turn you into more of it. The answer of course is to freeze it hard like a rock and ship it far, far, far away.

You’ll be safe “as long as the Arctic stays cold.” Hm.

Doesn’t really travel.

Bonus features. The movie is just, well, The Blob, but these commentary tracks are something special. As with Carnival of Souls, I’m grateful for the opportunity afforded by Criterion to contemplate the counter-intuitive relationship between a real-world American milieu and its pulp product. The Blob is to Pennsylvania as Carnival of Souls is to Kansas, in some sense. I only wish Criterion had included some snippets of the religious films from Good News Productions, like they included a sampling of industrial films on Carnival. (This is the only thing I could find online. Enjoy?)

There are two commentaries; one with producer Jack H. Harris (plus competent filler from Criterion stalwart Bruce Eder), and the other with director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. alternating with actor Robert Fields (after watching the movie you’ll of course know him as “blue shirt guy”).

I enjoyed both, but the one with Harris is a particular treat (and is the only one available on FilmStruck; I had to get the disc to hear the other one). Harris himself was not a countryside Christian; he was a seasoned schlock distributor, and his voice could serve as a reference recording for “Philadelphia Jew.” To my ear, his commentary track is a character study with one-man-show potential. Maybe I’d be the only audience member but I’d be into it.

His distributor’s-eye-view of film is fascinating and amusing. There’s obviously a real enthusiasm for the wacky product buried somewhere in there; it’s just always framed as a business consideration. In a sense, that filter keeps his enthusiasm all the more pure and naive. It’s all subconscious. A guy like this doesn’t think he’s ever thinking about meanings; he thinks it’s all about the market.

Here’s an excerpt to give a sense of his outlook.

I attended from time to time a meeting of announcements where our suppliers would get us together either in New York or in Chicago to discuss the coming program of films that we would be distributing. And there was a fellow named Bob Lippert who had a small company but was putting out about 12 pictures a year, and they were bread and butter to us. They were mostly Westerns, small Westerns in black and white, but each had a known name attached to it. That didn’t do me much good in my territory, which was very urban. But once in a while there’d be a goofy picture like King Dinosaur, which was made with a bunch of lizards, or Beast With a Million Eyes, which… I still don’t know what the monster was… and we would play around with that.

When I saw the upcoming program for 1954, I— everybody’s raving about how good it is, how wonderful, and I got up and I said “I think it stinks!” And I told them why, because of the— nothing but a bunch of English pictures and Westerns, with nothing for the competition— nothing to meet the competition, which was putting out science-fiction movies and delinquency movies and things like that, which were doing well at the box office.

So Lippert said to me — you know, I kind of embarrassed him in front of everybody; everybody’s patting him on the back, and he’s handing out cigars and congratulating himself — and I said— he said— I said to him— he said to me, “What’s your formula? What would you do?” And I said, “Well, I’d do a science-fiction movie, in color, give a sincere story, and make it for the price of two of these crappy pictures that you’re doing, and have something that the public would respond to.” And he said to me, “Well, if you think that’s so great, why the hell don’t you do it.”

I left the meeting determined to make a movie. I didn’t have a script. I hardly had an idea. But I knew that it had to be okay, and I knew I’d make it happen.

I feel like “make it for the price of two of these crappy pictures that you’re doing” really sums up The Blob. It’s bottom-of-the-barrel MST3K fodder times two. All the production value of two King Dinosaurs is here packed into one.

The movie being shown in the theater scene in The Blob is the extreme schlock oddity Daughter of Horror, which Harris had recently bought and revamped. Voice-over (“Yes…I am here… the demon who possesses your soul…”) read by Ed McMahon(!) and music by George Antheil(!). Clearly there are genuinely interesting things out there hiding in the world of very low-rent films, indies before there were indies. I don’t quite have the drive to explore that territory all by myself, and apart from very occasional dips like Carnival of Souls and The Blob, Criterion isn’t going to go there for me. Maybe someday I’ll find a trustworthy guide. For now I’ll settle for just getting a splash of it like this.

(Though stay tuned for the next selection.)

Hey, why not have a Jack Harris audio sample, too.

I can listen to this over and over.

He died just a few weeks ago, on March 14, 2017, at age 98.

Each of Yeaworth, Harris, and Fields spends a good deal of time reminiscing about Steve McQueen’s personality. “Difficult” is the consensus. You get a clear sense of him as one of these infuriating/magnetic troubled people whose every inscrutable action becomes an anecdote for the people around him. All three offer some variant of “We pretty much fell out of touch after The Blob, but this one time, a few years later, I ran into him and he acted kind of weird about it.” The fact that it feels like a story to them becomes the story to us.

For what it’s worth, in the movie Mr. McQueen absolutely does not stand out from the crowd of fellow no-names. He performs “teenager” by holding his arms like they’re made of wood; it’s a thoroughly unlikely “future megastar” performance. It’s equally easy to imagine an alternate reality in which any other one of the lunks onscreen went on to become, you know, Steve McQueen.

Meanwhile Aneta Corsaut as “Jane,” who spends pretty much the same amount of time onscreen as Steve McQueen, gets only the briefest acknowledgment from each commentator. Presumably this is because she wasn’t a pain in the ass. Her greatest claim to fame after The Blob was being the girlfriend on The Andy Griffith Show (and having an affair with Andy Griffith).

The only other feature is a slideshow; you can probably get your fill just by flipping through what’s available on Criterion’s site.

This box art is Criterion’s first commissioned illustration. (Sort of, maybe. It’s not clear what was going on with Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter, and Rushmore definitely had original art on the cover but it came from Wes Anderson’s brother so that’s kind of a special case.)

Apparently they didn’t think they could do anything with the original poster that didn’t look cheap. The art they got does the trick nicely of selling this as premium nostalgia junk rather than junk itself. They got so excited about it that they included it as a “special collectible poster” with the DVD.

Music is by Ralph Carmichael, who, like everyone else working for Yeaworth, is better known for his Christian than his secular work. The score is in the least-nuanced tradition of fervid TV shock-expressionism, executed professionally. (Which is in its way sort of impressive, for a composer who had never worked in this style before.) No sting is too strong for this kind of score; just hit every single beat with all you’ve got. We can laugh at this kind of movie and this kind of music, but I can’t deny that their marriage is occasionally compelling. Almost surreal, if you let it be.

There’s simply no satisfactory musical selection to be made here.

The obvious choice would seem to be the gleefully inapposite opening song, but a) I am trying whenever possible to avoid songs, and b) the song isn’t by Ralph Carmichael. It was stuck on there by Paramount when they picked up distribution, and is, in fact, by one Burt Bacharach, aged 30 and at the very beginning of his songwriting career, with lyrics (all 33 of ’em) by Mack David, brother to Hal. (Mack was a co-writer on “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and various other Disney songs from the 50s. I guess I might have seen his name in credits but I never made the connection to Hal David before.)

When we look through Carmichael’s actual underscore, there simply isn’t any meaningful stretch of music that isn’t covered with dialogue. There are a few places where up to 30 seconds of music are allowed to remain only mildly molested by sound effects, but they’re just arbitrary windows in the middle of longer compositions and not suitable for excerpting.

At the very very beginning of the movie, as we fade in on Steve and Jane making out, there are 16 seconds of absurd lovey-dovey music, which stands more or less in the clear. But it turns out that this sappy “Love Theme from The Blob” is in fact by music supervisor Jean Yeaworth, whom it may not be entirely sexist to point out also happens to be the wife of the director. The orchestration is by Carmichael, but that’s not going to cut it.

Ultimately the only thing that does cut it is the following cue, which is complete at 5 seconds long. This makes it the shortest selection in my Criterion soundtrack compilation, which I can accept because, you know, it’s The Blob. (Harris reports Steve McQueen’s assessment years later: “It ain’t Othello!”)

This cue was apparently entitled “Violent Bridge” by the composer, whose mostly generic titles (“Stress and Strain”; “Horror Bridge”; “Buildup”) suggest to me that this music might have been adapted from previously written material. But that’s just speculation. Maybe he just didn’t like thinking too specifically about Blobs. These titles stay closer to Jesus.

Anyway, it’s the music when Steve and Jane see the doomed old man lurching across the road and have to come to a sudden stop. Enjoy it while it lasts.


April 25, 2017

90. 怪談 (1965)

2000: 090 box 1 2015: 090 box 2


directed by Masaki Kobayashi
original stories by Yakumo Koizumi [= Lafcadio Hearn]
screenplay by Yoko Mizuki

Criterion #90, Kwaidan.

怪談 = kaidan = weird tales.

Kwaidan with the W is today considered an “archaic transliteration” but continues to be the standard title of this movie. Please be advised that the W is not to be pronounced. (But try telling that to the guy who does the commentary.)

怪 = kai = mystery/strangeness/apparition/the supernatural/the uncanny
談 = dan = (as suffix:) story, talk, conversation

If you type “怪談” into Google Translate it gives you “Ghost stories.”
If you type “怪 談” it gives you “Strange stories.”
If you type “怪” and “談” on successive lines it gives you “Monster Consultation” which would be a great name for something, albeit not for this movie. More likely a Sesame Street skit.

If you trace each stroke of those two characters in the title screen above, you’ll get a sense of just how rough and ugly the brushwork is. We’re all used to the “lettering of the beast” effect in English-language horror typography, but we don’t necessarily know how it looks in other alphabets. This is the Japanese version: whoever or whatever it was that put that brush to that paper, it was something other than a master craftsman — what could be more disturbing? Something primal and scary is coming.

The credits that follow are exquisitely printed and laid out with letterpress fussiness, but they’re intercut with the unearthly billowing of ink falling through water. The civilized world cannot stand against the world of the senses. That which is wet, that which seeps under doors, devours all, silent. These gentle bells are going to keep ringing whenever they will, no matter what you try to do, no matter what order your credit sequence tries to impose. That’s the essence of horror.

Even if this isn’t a horror movie as such, it delivers the aesthetic spirit of horror. You may want to draw neat, rigid lines and “know” the world… but something with its own nature, something rough and unpretty, something from before, is coming.

(Namely: feelings.)

This is a fine movie to sit back and have a drink to. It trickles rather than pours. It’s steady, and if you’re sufficiently passive, it caresses you into being steady, seemingly for the sake of respecting the folklore, the careful Japanese tradition of it all. Then once your heartbeat is nice and slow, it uses that space to make you uneasy.

I got actual goosebumps at one point — not common for me as a moviegoer — and it made me think about how my goosebump response is down a slightly different path from direct horror. It’s the path of “suspense,” in the literal sense: the feeling that some unpleasant outcome is suspended, has begun but is nowhere near finished. It’s clear where it’s going; it just hasn’t gotten there yet.

Kwaidan absolutely refuses to speed up. If something eerie or ominous begins to happen, you’re stuck with it for as long as it takes. If a ghost-woman is going to swoop down toward you, that swoop is going to take several seconds. Here she comes: watch. That’s where the goosebumps come in. Your mind might know where things are headed but your body has to live with the present moment, and the present moment may be distressingly long.

The trance effect of the serene. I said something similar about Andrei Rublev. Some emotions can only be touched from within a trance. Both movies share an interest in evoking the national myth, the old world, the world from which the folklore arises. The lullaby quality helps get at primordial feelings. In Tarkovsky’s case the feelings were somewhere behind religious awe; here they’re somewhere behind superstitious fear. Fear in a trance is a whole other emotional territory from anxious, quick, jumpy fear. Rather than your life being at stake it’s your sense of life. Will things go on seeming like themselves?

Kwaidan is like a great-grandfather to modern “J-Horror,” though aside from the standard thematic elements — women’s hair, vengeful spirits, the sea — the connection is mostly in the underlying sense of the gradual and the inescapable. Stasis that exerts pressure, or very deliberate motion that becomes intensely pregnant. I imagine those are aesthetic techniques that extend back into the traditional Japanese theater arts. In cinematic terms it means a lot of crane and tracking shots, smooth, measured. The attention glides forward toward a mysterious figure with its back to the camera. It’s probably going to turn around and show its face now. That’s probably the next thing that’s going to happen. It’s certainly going to happen now.

At the same time Kwaidan is much quieter, more meditative and less purposeful, than a horror movie. It’s painterly, more concerned with the integrity of its own mise-en-scène than with the effect on the audience. It’s compelling because that kind of integrity has force, but the force is in the direction of no particular genre. It’s sui generis; for all its big-budget accessibility, it’s really an art movie.

There are four tales here, running about 40, 40, 80, and 20 minutes respectively. I found the first two the most effective; the long third segment gets the lion’s share of the attention in discussions of this movie but I found it somewhat more demanding on my conscious attention and thus less rewarding to my trance, which wants to remain pure and passive. The lightweight fourth segment has plenty of charm — M.R. James came to mind — but in this company, it doesn’t feel like it’s really given enough time to register.

Recurring theme: the past can’t be denied. The past is not to be trifled with; it’s no joke. In the climax of the first story this erupts beautifully right into the makeup of the protagonist. Existentially unnerving.

Japanese period movies have the fantastically awful tradition of tooth blackening to work with. They get this repugnant visual for free because it’s historically accurate! Hollywood can only envy such a gift. Yeah, sure, in a western, the old prospector can grin and be missing most of his teeth, but seriously, who cares? So what? That’s nothing next to the impact of a wealthy noblewoman coyly parting her lips to reveal a sickening horror.

The problem of “what to do with folk” is one of the major recurring themes in 19th and 20th-century art. Kwaidan is a difficult movie to categorize by genre in great part because it answers that question with such distinction. This is a genuinely original cinematic approach to the challenge posed by folklore and it results in a unique artistic product. The idiosyncrasy arises, in part, from Japan’s particularly acute sense of modernity fighting it out with tradition — note how the trailer assumes that it will be crowd-pleasing to brag that the movie is “the essence of the Japanese, revived here as a protest to modern society.” Hard to imagine an American movie ever playing that angle. Not overtly, anyway.

That said, the overall aesthetic vision here, of a traditional tale treated as raw material to be cranked through the mechanism of an archly stylized production, all shot on entrancingly artificial sets, reminded me of the Jim Henson Storyteller. And those color-saturated “exteriors” against huge surreal painted backgrounds, under studio ceilings unseen but felt, suggested the weird interior/exterior spaces of Hollywood dance or dream sequences. Those giant eyes in the sky are right out of Dalí’s work on Spellbound.

The whole lavish production is just a pleasure to take in. And Kobayashi’s fluid camera technique is consistently engaging. I’ll admit that there were moments when the deliberate pace left me without any real drama to savor, but I was never without something to see. And hear — see below.

But first the bonus stuff. I watched on FilmStruck, which offers all the supplements from the 2015 disc. Thanks, FilmStruck!

• New 2K digital restoration of director Masaki Kobayashi’s original cut, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray

The restored image looks spectacular; the balance of the 60s palette is wonderful. Apparently the Criterion edition that was available up until 2015 was a cut version of the movie and didn’t look very good. Just another reason to be glad I’m moving so slowly through this project.

• New audio commentary by film historian Stephen Prince

It’s okay for a one of those, but it’s definitely a one of those. Did Kobayashi have political allegories in mind when he put those eyes in the sky? Who knows. All I know is, Stephen Prince didn’t convince me that he did; he just convinced me that a film scholar type might try to say that he did. A lot of compositions are described as we’re looking at them (“The vertical tree bisects the image”). He talks a fair bit about “the Z-axis,” which just FYI is “the axis orthogonal to the picture plane.” Etc. And three hours is a lot, for that sort of thing. (Though I appreciate that Professor Prince also affords himself room to make sincere doofus comments, like pointing out that if the priests had shown “a little more hands-on attitude and follow-through” they could probably have saved Hoichi from his fate. It’s true!)

• Interview with Kobayashi from 1993, conducted by filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda

This is pretty good. Kobayashi is wearing his regulation “old man” hat and sunglasses, and you can really hear every smack and grumble in his throaty old man voice. He smokes a cigarette as he mutters in shop-talk mode about the production’s financial problems. We watch such interviews for a sense of the human encounter and I got that.

• New interview with assistant director Kiyoshi Ogasawara

Nothing particularly interesting to say, but he was there, and he was involved in the restoration process, so sure.

• New piece about author Lafcadio Hearn, on whose versions of Japanese folktales Kwaidan is based

This is the strongest bonus feature. The interviewee is Christopher Benfey, who has a very good enthusiastic professor manner and gives a nice miniature talk that actually feels relevant to appreciation of the movie. Recommended.

• Trailers • New English subtitle translation


• PLUS: An essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien

Not bad, actually.

Toru Takemitsu is a very big name as both a film and a “serious” composer, so I was looking forward to seeing what he’d do, but I had no idea just how much this movie was going to be The Toru Takemitsu Show. What he’s done here is highly conspicuous, and truly brilliant; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like it and indeed I wonder if there’s anything else out there that can compare.

“Music and sound effects by,” it says, and the brilliance lies in the fact that the two are made absolutely equivalent. The soundtrack is treated as a single continuous texture. Sometimes we hear the snapping of wood when we’re watching wood break on screen; elsewhere we hear the same sound simply as expressive percussion. The slight unreality of bad Foley work, subconsciously familiar to every moviegoer, the subtle gap between a sound effect and its purported source, is here pried open like a coffin out of which ghouls escape. At the end of the first episode, when the samurai is beset by horror and escapes over crumbling floorboards, we hear the expressionist musical equivalent of all his shrieks and stumbles, in electronically manipulated quasi-musical sounds, but we do not hear anything directly from his world. The effect is intense and terrific. Takemitsu tries variations on it throughout. A horse’s hooves remain onscreen but their reality is gradually submerged into dream-juxtaposition as their sound, already artificially rhythmic, is gradually replaced by the clack of a loom — or is it just the avant-garde thunking of the prepared piano? Or what’s the difference, really?

Part of what’s so wonderful about this approach is that it primes us to perceive an unearthly musicality even in scenes with no “musical” content. In the fourth episode when our protagonist waits by a ticking clock, the rhythmic ticking of the clock can’t help but take on a distinctly musical intensity. Or the girls playing paddleball outside the writer’s house. Clack. Clack. By that point the film has taught us that things are not merely themselves; they resonate in the spirit world, which may not always be visible but is always audible. All sound, in this film, is less diegetic than it might be.

As is the silence. This is the most carefully silent movie I’ve ever seen. I’ve always enjoyed the unexpected transcendence of the moment in Duck Soup when suddenly the audio drops to absolute silence for the mirror sequence. A true silence is a powerful effect, and Takemitsu and Kobayashi do more with it here than I’ve ever seen done. Just watch the opening shots of a spooky abandoned house, scored by a few clicks and a lot of pure silence, and immediately experience something special.

Takemitsu was an experimentalist in the broadest sense, which is to say that for him, avant-gardism like this was itself just an experiment. Some of his music is extremely conventional. The rest of it falls freely in the expanse between. He wrote some 100 film scores but I gather that he considered this one his proudest achievement in the medium. In a way this movie makes the best possible case for the aesthetic world of John Cage and musique concrète; the skeptical viewer immediately has intuitive access to ideas that would otherwise seem esoteric.

Our selection is the Main Titles. “Theme from Kwaidan” you can call this. (Yes, it’s playing. Give it at least 16 seconds!)

Given how vital silence is to this film, the comings and goings of the ever-present hiss — which are surely the byproduct of some kind of computerized attempt at noise reduction — are unfortunate. When I first listened I really believed that the title music consisted of bells and sounds of the ocean. But the soundtrack as released on record — the whole score tastefully condensed by Takemitsu into a 27-minute suite — makes clear that this is not the case. It’s just meant to be bells and silence.

So, hey, “new 2K digital restoration” restorators: that’s not really what I’d call top-quality silence. It’s not the kind of premium silence I’ve come to expect from Criterion.

Know what I’m saying?


April 9, 2017

89. Sisters (1973)

2000: 089 box 1


screenplay by Brian De Palma and Louisa Rose
from an original story by Brian De Palma
directed by Brian De Palma

Criterion #89.

Yeah! Now you’re talking! This is a piece of trash! Easy!

It’s lively trash, trash with gusto. It’s essentially a Psycho fan film made by a kid. This kid has also seen Rear Window and Rope, and a lot of B movies, and probably some pornos. He’s definitely watched the dream sequence from Rosemary’s Baby a bunch of times and gotten stoned and argued about it with his friends.

This kid loves these things, as only a fan can love, to the point where he feels like he’s in some sense their author. The way the boy in The Squid and the Whale tells people he wrote the Pink Floyd song he identifies with, because he feels like he might as well have written it: he could have written it, so essentially, he did. Well, this kid loves Hitchcock so much he wants you to know he might as well have been Alfred Hitchcock and made his movies. Maybe he is! Maybe he did! See? Look!

A kid who’s 32 years old and already a successful filmmaker can still be a kid. He can certainly still be a fan. All artists start as fans but some artists are more fans than others. Some never outgrow it. Quentin Tarantino is in the same boat. You can travel a long way in that boat.

Is Sisters a tribute? Pastiche? Homage? I strongly suspect that Brian De Palma had no such ambitions or concerns. This stuff was in his head; he just did the things that it occurred to him to do. Sisters is a pure and spontaneous product of his fandom. It’s fan art.

I want to be clear about the degree of scorn I am expressing: very little. Fan art is real art, can be valuable. I think of Robert Crumb (in Crumb) talking about how he and his brothers ran obsessive variations on Disney’s Treasure Island until it had been made to bear all their demons, became unrecognizable, took on a strange and convoluted life of its own. The transmutation of one artist’s work into another artist’s work is fascinating and vital. Sisters carries over its source materials mostly intact, but some degree of psychic digestion has occurred. The very same enthusiasm that drives De Palma to blithely re-enact entire scenes from Psycho and Rear Window also drives him to do some wacky experimentation with a split-screen, and to open with a kooky TV-show parody fake-out like something out of Monty Python. Why not? For him it all goes together. He’s just following his muse, doing his thing. “His thing” is 80% other movies he’s seen — but, you know, whose isn’t?

By the way, both of those experiments are… successes? They’re certainly not failures. They’re something. The audience says “why not?” too.

The idea that Brian De Palma is an auteur with a taste for deliberate “camp” and “deconstruction” seems to me dubious as always. It sure seems like he’s sincerely taking his best stab at it all. The result falls somewhere in the space between Mystery Science Theater 3000 and dignity. I’m happy to go exploring in that space.

De Palma is, at the very least, irrepressible, which is its own sort of charm. This is not a movie constrained by any sense of shame; that’s a good cheerful feeling and I appreciate it.

The hilarious grand clunker of a final shot wants you to think that you’re laughing with. I’m pretty sure I was laughing at. A De Palma fan would probably say that the important thing is that I was engaged. I can’t deny it! I originally intended just to get a taste of the opening of this movie, but ended up sitting through the whole thing in one go, in an unbroken chain of amusement. That’s a success!

I do not recommend Sisters! But that doesn’t mean I had a bad time. Not at all.

Hey, remember Dead Ringers? That makes this unsatisfying twin-horror movie number 2 for Criterion. (As soon as I’ve posted this entry I’ll go and change the number on the big board.)

Margot Kidder is clearly amusing herself doing her dinner-party impression of “french girl,” which is a reasonably charming thing to watch. She was involved with Brian De Palma at the time. Not widely reported but it does help explain the movie. Jennifer Salt was her roommate. They lived on the beach. De Palma and De Niro and Scorsese and Spielberg and the whole gang from Easy Riders, Raging Bulls used to hang out at their place, get high, hook up with each other, etc. Also helpful to keep in mind.

Featuring the youngest Charles Durning yet — for me, anyway — not doing a particularly good job, but I don’t blame him. His worthless character is a detective who announces that he’s a graduate of the “Brooklyn Institute of Modern Investigation.” I guess that might count as “camp”? It entertained me, at least.

I watched on FilmStruck, which offers no bonus features. The DVD has nothing substantial, no video or audio, only page-through stuff:

• Director Brian De Palma’s 1973 Village Voice essay “Murder by Moog: Scoring the Chill,” on working with composer Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Citizen Kane)
• A 1973 print interview with De Palma on the making of Sisters
• “Rare Study of Siamese Twins in Soviet,” the 1966 Life magazine article that inspired De Palma
• Excerpts from the original press book, including ads and exploitation
• Hundreds of production, publicity, and behind-the-scenes stills

Now, would I like to check that stuff out? Do I plan to get the DVD from the library eventually and do it? Sure. I’ll come back and post about it here when I have. But am I gonna let it stop me from proceeding onward for the time being? No. That would be silly.

Watch this space.

Bernard Herrmann — yes, the actual Bernard Herrmann — is on hand. He knows exactly what’s up and does an expert impression of his own greatest hits, cranked up to schlock-hundred-and-ten. He throws in some Moog synthesizers, mostly to make wailing theremin noises. Just in case you weren’t sure whether this was a thriller. Moog sez: it is.

One of the Moog players was composer Howard Blake. Quote:

“I played synthesizer for him on one appalling film called The Sisters. It’s about two siamese twins or something, and I said to Bernard: ‘This is absolutely garbage, Bernard. Why are you doing it?’ and he burst into tears — it felt terrible. He said: ‘I just want to work, Howard. I’ve got to work!'”

Our selection is the Prelude. Meant to accompany ominous close-ups of fetuses with a terrifying case of prenatal Friz Quadrata. You can knock the movie all you like but let’s not deny that these are some pretty great titles.

(Plus, psst: here’s a little bonus from the broomlet collection. Score readers will note that several details have been changed for the recording. Fascinating, right?)

Bernard Herrmann was a great man. I’m glad to have seen this movie because it meant I got to hear one of his scores that I’d never heard before. It’s good.


April 7, 2017

88. Иван Грозный (1944) / Иван Грозный. Сказ второй: Боярский загор (1946, released 1958)

2001: 088 box 1

written and directed by Sergei Eisenstein

Ivan the Terrible, Criterion #88.

= discs 2–3 of 3 in Criterion #86, “Eisenstein: The Sound Years.”

Ivan the Terrible consists of two separate films:

criterion88a-title criterion88a-title-alt

[Ivan Grozniy] = Ivan the Terrible. Referred to by Criterion as Ivan the Terrible, Part I. 1943–44, premiered 1944.

On the left is the DVD version. On the right is the FilmStruck version.

The DVD version is a restoration from 1987; the FilmStruck version is a restoration from 2014. Obviously the 2014 picture is far better, but the subtitles are burned in, and I wanted a clean image, so I went to grab the identical frame from the DVD version. Turns out there was no identical frame to be found in the DVD version; the smoke in the background was completely different smoke. Uh-oh! More on this subject below.

criterion88b-title1 criterion88b-title1-alt
criterion88b-title2 criterion88b-title2-alt

[Ivan Grozniy. Skaz vtoroy: Boyarskiy zagovor] = Ivan the Terrible. Part Two: The Boyars’ Plot. Referred to by Criterion as Ivan the Terrible, Part II. 1944–46, but suppressed upon completion. Finally premiered in 1958, and thus receives the misleading date “(1958)” in Criterion’s database.

(Here the smoke matches.)

A corny and unrepresentative American trailer (presumably from 1959).

A hundred times more rewarding than Alexander Nevsky, you’ll be relieved to hear.

Not to say that it’s any sort of fun. It’s more “really something,” as in “That Ivan the Terrible is really something!” If you’re susceptible to being mesmerized by creative fervor itself, there are genuine thrills here. I think again of Scorsese’s comment on The Red Shoes: that there’s something rare and special about artists being so wildly committed to their own vision, so “out of control.” Eisenstein could never be called “out of control” — control is his métier — but he is certainly far-gone in a strange and intense direction. The two Ivan films, especially the second one, seem to me a major achievement of the same species as the The Red Shoes: they engage the viewer independent of their questionable meanings. They impress by sheer aesthetic force.

It’s built from the same picture-gallery technique, but Ivan works where Nevsky didn’t because of the sustained human intensity. The signature image is ominous, tensed, anticipatory staring. All those intent tight-lipped bug-eyed stares keep each scene pumped with energy. I think this may well be the most bug-eyed movie of all time; really a minute doesn’t go by without someone’s eyeballs flaring melodramatically in tight close-up. In some sequences it’s every single shot for minutes on end. I’m not knocking it; those are the best sequences. As with Nevsky, Eisenstein’s strongest suit, his essential emotion, is for something to be impending. Here he papers the walls with it.

The Disney influence is no joke. The whole production seems to aspire as best it can toward cartoon-dom; grand opera via Pinocchio. And, as with Spielberg, we also sense that the director is a real “boys’ adventure” enthusiast; he likes comic books and pulp, anything that inflates the stakes and then zooms in hard on the object of interest. The attention caroms around the giant sets, gripping fiercely to one exaggerated image after another.

Or, in a slightly different aesthetic direction, Citizen Kane. The gigantic false shadow of Ivan’s profile (which jaws a bit when he talks, like Zoltar) is Snow White by way of Welles. Not to mention the general Kane overtones to the plot. I assumed Orson would have loved this. Turns out he sniffed a bit at it, called it “the worst film of a great cinéaste,” wrote: “Eisenstein’s uninhibited preoccupation with pictorial effect sometimes leads him… into sterile exercises, empty demonstrations of the merely picturesque.” Eisenstein apparently responded by sending Welles a 40-page letter defending his work, and the two took up a correspondence. Unfortunately I can’t quote from it because it was all destroyed in 1970. (Robert Shaw was renting Welles’ house in Madrid and somehow managed to set his office on fire. Drunkenly? Smoking in bed? Unclear. Quite a story.)

James Agee wrote that Ivan the Terrible was “on a scale as ambitious anyhow as that of Shakespeare in his political plays — and more politically knowledgeable and incomparably hotter to handle…” This is an apt comparison. The experience of watching Ivan actually helped clarify for me how to watch Shakespeare’s histories: of course the audience’s thoughts would immediately go to the current ruler. Historical drama can’t help but be a political metaphor for the present. It happens automatically; the writer doesn’t need to lift a finger.

The great unavoidable puzzle of this film is what, if anything, it’s saying about Stalin. Remarkably, the subject was Stalin’s own choice; the political metaphor was official. That he voluntarily self-identified with a notorious tyrant created a uniquely terrifying opportunity for an artist to play with fire. In Stalin’s own words: “Ivan the Terrible was very cruel. You can show how cruel he was, but you must show why he had to be cruel.” Does Eisenstein do that? Highly debatable!

In addition to the pan quoted above, Orson Welles apparently wrote another column (I can’t find the actual text online) in which he compared Ivan to Wilson — which is its contemporary, bizarre as that is to contemplate — and complained that both films gave their protagonists too many political excuses in the form of would-be humanizing detail. To my mind, it seems like given the Soviet circumstances, the movie gives Ivan impressively few excuses. He grows a devil’s beard and goes around raging paranoiacally and basically acting like Jafar; not generally considered sympathetic character choices. Of course Orson was only writing about Part I; the sense that things are coming off the rails really accelerates in Part II.

I don’t possess the historical awareness necessary to untangle the official metaphors from the subversive ones. Maybe that’s the point. The subtlety and complexity of the game is suggested simply by the title: “Terrible” how? What degree of “terror” did Stalin consider flattering? How much villainy was he willing to admit? Dictators want people to cower before them; they also get offended when accused of wanting people to cower before them. It’s a fine line. Knowing what’s at stake for the artists, the whole thing gathers an unsettling intensity for the audience by the end. It feels like the whole thing is “The Mousetrap,” designed to catch the conscience of the king. It’s creepy. The Wellesian ghostliness of it all, the surreal dreamy intensity, becomes the excuse for very gradually turning the proceedings from Stalin’s fantasy to Stalin’s nightmare. One imagines a Ghost of Purges Past leading him through one tableau after another, toward the harrowing red room at the end.

It’s as though after Alexander Nevsky, Eisenstein swore to himself that he would never again be an artistic coward. When e.g. Philip leans right into the camera and growls “justice must be done against the Tsar!,” the sense of high stakes — of the whole production being complicit in something dangerous — is thrilling and distressing. No wonder Eisenstein had a heart attack on the day he finished Part II!

In that state of intensity, I found myself laughing a huge loud honest belly laugh when Ivan says “From now on I will be just what you say I am! I will be… TERRIBLE.” and then looks straight into the camera and raises his eyebrow. I’m laughing again now. It’s so great. I’m not mocking it. Just laughing.

Of course Stalin condemned it.

Eisenstein’s technique just wasn’t well-suited to doling out drama itself. There’s a rhythmic problem: the actual events take up absolutely minimal screen time and are staged with efficiency, while the reactive tableaux are prolonged as long as the visual holds Eisenstein’s interest. I guess that was Welles’s complaint. But from my perspective, it simply means the artistic emphasis is elsewhere. The visual intensity is so strong and the significance of the plot is so ambivalent and obscure that the film plays as though it has some secret meaning, somewhere in the subconscious, beyond the text. These are pure archetypes going through ritual motions, some kind of pantomime mystery play.

Toward the end of Part II one almost wants to turn off the subtitles and just drink it in as pure emotional pattern. The devil-man and the child-man and the man-woman, all staring, staring. It could be done with masks. Claustrophobia accumulates, a surreal underground feeling from all these weird windowless rooms. The wicked aunt strips from black to white and then sings a full-fledged aria/lullaby of skin-crawling creepiness. Unreality sets in. The staring into the camera starts to get really uninhibited and crazy, as we near the end…

And then suddenly, good god, it cuts to color! (Spoiler alert.) The effect couldn’t be more shocking. It’s really one of the most intense and disturbing things I’ve ever seen in a movie: it’s like the very premise of black-and-white film, the premise of the dream at its foundation, gets nauseated. The sleeper rolls over in bed and the dream suddenly lurches feverishly into a different part of the brain. Here are the same actors, pale in their black-and-white movie makeup, in a new hellish red world, looking suddenly modern and present, like they’ve traveled through time. It’s a horror.

After hearing that, you’re probably curious to sample it, but the impact can’t be reproduced by linking straight to the moment. You have to have watched 2 1/2 hours of black-and-white first. In The Wizard of Oz, it’s a striking effect when the color floods in, but it comes at exactly the juncture where one wants it to, emotionally. In Ivan it’s just the opposite. It couldn’t come at a more upsetting time. It’s the last thing you need. (Also it has much more impact in the new restoration, which isn’t linkable online.)

(Fine, if you must: you can watch the clip on Criterion’s site. That’s still the old version.)

• Nikolai Cherkasov is still just some guy, but he gives a much better performance here. Maybe it’s that he has better makeup and costumes to work with. Someone on YouTube compared him to Charlton Heston. I can see that too.

• Intriguing scene where the lead character dies and everybody proceeds to betray him. The audience knows that despite all appearances, he can’t possibly be gone; there’s a sequel, after all! These creates an interesting kind of suspense. Kind of a ghost story in advance: yeah, he sure does seem to be dead, but all the same, these poor fools had better watch themselves! Christ’s giant painted eye watches from the wall to drive home the point.

• Important vocabulary:

boyar: a member of the old aristocracy in Russia, next in rank to a prince
Oprichnik: a member of a special police force organized by Ivan the Terrible, infamous for terrorizing the citizenry

I watched on FilmStruck but the bonus features aren’t available online so I got out the DVDs too. No commentary, but a bunch of other stuff:

First of all there are “Drawings and production stills,” which in this case are actually rather interesting. Eisenstein sketched everything out in thick black pencil, in a friendly, eager cartoon style with strong lines; it looks sort of like Robert McCloskey or Bill Peet or someone like that, and gives a fascinating alternate angle on a film that can sometimes seem overbearingly serious. The drawings have an innocent spring in their step and help one to recognize the ways the film does too.

Then there’s “Deleted scenes,” which includes the complete original childhood “prologue,” including a whole Prokofiev song that was cut from the final version, as well as the one surviving scene from the never-completed and otherwise lost “Part III.” I don’t like quoting the Criterion Contraption guy (who blogged his way through this stuff 8 years ago), but he’s right in pointing out that this orphan scene — which can’t have been very widely seen, prior to the release of this DVD — is restaged almost exactly with Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi. Coincidence? Anyway, this was all worthwhile viewing.

And then finally there are two half-hour video essays by scholars. The first is on “The History of Ivan the Terrible” by Joan Neuberger, which is acceptable if a little forced and dry, with an emphasis on the autobiographical element of the film, apparently well attested by Eisenstein. The second is on “Eisenstein’s Visual Vocabulary,” by Yuri Tsivian. This one I thought was quite excellent. He observes a few recurring visual motifs and uses Eisenstein’s sketches and notebooks to show how deliberate everything was, to the Nth degree.

Like I said: Eisenstein is the academic’s dream auteur. Unlike nearly every other director, he actually planned every element of his films with over-analysis in mind; he directed for close-reading. One feels what one never does: that academic commentary, full of cross-references to the artist’s notes and lectures, is an absolutely vital tool in appreciating the scope of the achievement. Tsivian ends with a quote from Eisenstein’s diaries, responding to the accusation that his film was “overburdened with shadows.”:

Overburdened with shadows? Too much imagery stuffed in? But it is too much only for those who do not read images but merely rush after action. Too much for those who go to the movies for telegraphic syntax, rather than for poetic writing with repetitions, illustrations and music — for those who look for the anecdote alone.

Nowadays, in the era of DVDs and beyond, this begins to seem like a viable technique; any detail can always be paused and rewatched at leisure. What’s odd to me is that he was already disdaining those who go to the movies just for “telegraphic syntax” in an era when hardly anyone in the audience would have the opportunity to see a given film more then once or twice. Who was this audience he imagined that would be consciously weighing every hidden complexity? And yet within a few decades they undeniably existed. In some ways it feels like Eisenstein called them into being by writing and thinking the way he did.

I guess the way I usually feel about the academic constellation surrounding a work in this case is how I feel about the work itself, since it’s a willing participant in that constellation: it manages to be right on its own terms… but what about the audience’s terms? I feel like those should be the terms that matter. I sound like a Soviet censor, don’t I.

Assuming the gawky Lieutenant Kizhe never enters the Criterion Collection, this is the last we’ll be seeing of Sergei Prokofiev.

There’s at least a ballet’s worth of music here, mostly of high quality, but not always ideally matched to the action. It seems like the timing element was underemphasized in the collaboration between Eisenstein and Prokofiev. It’s pretty clear that Prokofiev just wrote music to descriptions of each scene, not to a particular pacing. The cues all vamp to fill the time, and almost every significant cue comes back again and again verbatim.

Frankly there could stand to be even more music. Given the way it plays, I wanted this thing to be wall to wall. It’s such a stage show already.

Prokofiev never did his own suite or adaptation of this music (which constitutes his Op. 116); others have taken a few stabs at arranging the thing for concert use as an oratorio or the like, but without daring the degree of recomposition necessary, so it’s something of an awkward fit. Unlike Alexander Nevsky, the film is probably still the best way to experience this music. It also gives a sort of immediate aesthetic insight into the spirit behind the style. Watching Ivan spurred me to re-investigate some of Prokofiev’s scores that I’ve known for years, because of the feeling that I had fresh access to the artistic world from whence the music came. (I note that, for example, essentially every single re-recording of the Ivan the Terrible music takes most of it significantly faster and nervier than the original recording. With this in mind I wondered if maybe some of Prokofiev’s other music was generally being played faster than it should be.)

Before I embed any music I have to address the restoration. With Nevsky it was clear that the 80s restoration had resorted to excessive interference in the form of resetting titles and rerecording music, whereas the newer version seemed basically faithful and reliable. In the case of Ivan the situation seems… reversed? Muddier, at least. The 1987 version from the disc has a far inferior image to the 2014 version, certainly, but as I mentioned above, the titles for Part I seemed to have been completely recomposited in the new version, making one wonder just how invasive the restorers allowed themselves to be across the board. The restored color sequence looks truly rich and spectacular, which means I have to wonder how much of that color is authentically recovered and how much is wishfully imposed. With all that digital power it can be very easy to get carried away.

In the case of the audio it seems clear that the 80s version is more faithful. The music in the recent version has received heavy artificial sweetening apparently sourced from a modern recording. In several places this has clearly been done without reference to the score, and instruments that aren’t supposed to be playing turn up. Plus the whole thing has been run through some kind of tasteless auto-normalization that makes quiet moments gradually get louder until the hiss is overwhelming, then suddenly drop away when someone starts speaking. There are also places where the dialogue has obviously been re-recorded, I guess to eliminate clipping. Doesn’t seem like a good policy.

For example, in the eerie lullaby, the performance is all chopped up. In the original, the singer hums along with the accompaniment, a beautiful and creepy touch that isn’t done in any of the rerecordings because apparently it wasn’t in the manuscript score, and in the 2014 restoration, about half of the humming has been wiped away. Unacceptable!

Anyway, it’s tempting to believe that think the version on the DVD is the original recording, intact. And yet at the end, the same restoration-specific credit appears as in the Nevsky disc, identifying Emin Khachaturian as conductor. So, with nothing else to compare it to, I have no way of knowing what we’re really hearing. My gut tells me the following audio, sourced from the DVDs, is at least mostly the original 40s soundtrack recording, overseen by Prokofiev. But consider this all a big shrug of a disclaimer.

So here’s some Prokofiev for you.

From Part I: the Overture.

Part II reuses the same Overture, so our second selection is the “Dances of the Oprichniki” — which in Prokofiev’s score is divided into the “Chaotic Dance” and then (at 0:41) the “Orderly Dance.”

Here ends the box set. That’s more than enough Eisenstein for me at the moment (and that’s all for The Criterion Collection). Writing about movies that aspire to be texts, that want to be written about, is kind of a drag, and throws me off my game. I feel like Eisenstein and a thousand scholars got there first and are watching me as I react. That’s a burden.

We’re about to go through a wacky, pulpy patch in the list. Just in time.