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by Sean Axmaker

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of April 28

The new issue of cléo is organized around the theme of “soft,” realized by such diverse analyses as Mallory Andrews on the ingenious costuming choices of 9 to 5’s Ann Roth (“Each woman leaves the office early to commiserate at a local bar. Judy and Doralee have covered their outfits in matching cream jackets, and the lapels on Doralee match those of Violet’s blazer. Any earlier animosity has been pushed aside, the cream colours acting as a uniform for a three-woman army.”) and Veronica Fitzpatrick’s admiring take on Ex Machina’s ambiguity towards machines, women, and rape (“Much of Ex Machina’s criticism has hinged on whether it’s a feminist revenge parable or an objectifying robot fantasy, but both readings threaten to flatten the complexity that we, like Caleb, are asked to feel without explaining.”). Elsewhere, Jaime Chu highlights the dizzying tactility in Jane Campion’s filmography (“In her films, Campion reminds us of what hands do: they clasp, they rub, they catch, they soothe, they kill, they possess, they hurt, they hold, they remember.”); Justine Smith praises the tensions between repression and erotic arousal in nunsploitation (“Somehow, the fusion of pain and pleasure made “sinful” desires feel more acceptable—the punishment was built into the act itself.”); and Sophie Meyer cuts through metaphor to assess the films that break the phallocentric norm by celebrating soft cock (“While early reviews drew attention to the unprecedented sex acts of the opening minutes, it is in the closing minutes that the film enters truly new territory, of a tenderness that is also explicitly erotic and embodied….”)

“The film’s history is a drama in itself, part thriller, part tragedy. It involves an American Army base, the late-night pilfering of film canisters, a screening that left Mike Nichols in tears and a fatal review. The long final act ends in redemption at the hands of Martin Scorsese (among others) and includes the film’s long-delayed television premiere, on HBO2 on Monday, April 24. This is the story according to the 89-year-old Mr. Ophuls, anyway, and he tells it—by phone recently from his home in Southern France—very convincingly, with frequent bouts of wheezing laughter.” With Marcel Ophuls’s Memory of Justice receiving a long overdue rediscovery, Mike Hale recounts the film’s troubled production and disastrous reception.

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Blu-ray: The silent horror of ‘Behind the Door’ restored

Behind the Door (1919) (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) was for decades a film known by reputation only. A good film, yes, but more than that a notorious one, for what lay behind the door was… No spoilers because the film, once known to exist only in incomplete form, has been reconstructed and restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and released on disc by Flicker Alley. Its reputation proves well-earned.

Flicker Alley

Hobart Bosworth plays Captain Oscar Krug, an American seaman of German ancestry who left the sea for life ashore for the love of a woman. But in the opening moments of the film he’s a haunted man returning to the ghosts of the past in his old taxidermy shop, now a ransacked ruin choked by dust and shadow. His story plays out in the shadow of this resignation, a sunnier time when he was in love with banker’s daughter Alice (Jane Novak) and respected by his New England community. A jealous suitor uses the outbreak of World War I to whip up anti-German hysteria (which, in 1919, was not that distant a memory) but the two-fisted patriot wins over the mob with a roundhouse of a brawl and a rousing proclamation to do his duty, as every American should. He bonds with his opponent, McTavish (James Gordon), over the brawl and a few cuts later Krug is captaining an American naval ship, the Perth, with McTavish as his loyal mate and friend. And Alice stows aboard, kicked out by her possibly-crooked, definitely-shady banker father, ready to do her duty as a nurse. Then the unmistakable conning tower of a submarine rises from the surface of the sea and German U-boat commander Brandt (Wallace Beery) torpedoes and sinks the Perth with far too much malicious glee. If director Irvin Willat makes a point of celebrating the patriotism of German-Americans, he brands the German enemy with the familiar stereotype of the bloodthirsty Hun.

The rest of the story is best discovered on your own because it’s a doozy of a portrait of war crimes and gruesome revenge.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of April 21

“I found a lot of prototypes of noirish images during my recent trawling through Library of Congress films from 1914-1918. In this era, it seems, filmmakers competed to create striking, even shocking, lighting effects. Later directors and cinematographers would adopt many of them as proven tools for boosting their scenes’ emotional power.” David Bordwell finds noir—both the visual cues of expressionist shadow and key themes—another of the many film styles presaged in the burst of creativity during the 1910s.

“It’s filmed from behind Godard so that we only see the back of his head, with Miéville facing the camera and answering questions. But she is not under interrogation. She disputes some of his claims, turns the questions back around, attempts to untangle his thorny philosophies. She is an audience surrogate, certainly, but she is also revealing her importance to the work they make together, allowing herself to come out of her partner’s shadow and sit in the center of the frame. At any moment she might look right at the camera—and by proxy right at us. Who is soft and who is hard?” Craig Hubert considers the films of Anne-Marie Miéville, which have much more to offer than mere satellites of her collaborations with Godard.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of April 14

“A meeting—formal or informal, routine or hastily gathered, tedious or contentious—amounts to a Wiseman signature, like a shootout in a Tarantino movie or a dirty joke in a Judd Apatow comedy. When a group of people gather in a room, the business of the world is being done (or postponed or discussed or avoided, which amounts to the same thing). More crucial, it is being witnessed, by the camera and the audience, so that essential information can be imparted about the workings of law and order, art and politics, knowledge and power.” To celebrate a Film Forum retrospective of Frederick Wiseman, A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis trade off mini-essays on his methods and the glorious films that result.

“The experience of walking through this entire exhibition is not unlike that of watching a Scorsese film: the rapid-fire barrage of information and images, of textures and sounds, seems to replicate his style. (So many materials clustered so close together can even have the effect of making you move through the exhibition faster, in an attempt to take it all in in one trip—thus also giving your visit the rhythm of one of his films.)” Bilge Ebiri takes a walking tour of MoMI’s Martin Scorsese exhibit, a collection of movie memorabilia either taken from the director’s productions or from his personal collection (including Vertigo’s bouquet of flowers) as ramshackle and far-ranging as you’d expect when such intense cinephilia is distilled down to a few measly floors of museum space.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of April 7

“When he did turn his attention to the ladies, he showed no preference for blondes, brunettes or redheads. He had a warm, wry, unpretentious way of making children feel older and the elderly feel younger; he made all women feel beautiful and all men feel—if not his equal in all ways—at least worthy of his friendship and the love of a woman the King didn’t mind losing. No man ever looked upon Elvis with jealousy.” For Tim Lucas, Elvis movies—all of them, not just the handful of critically respectable joints—chart a Cambellian hero’s journey put over by the something-like-universal charm of the lead. Fun in Acapulco is celebrated by Lucas as the real deal, but even the ill-starred Clambake has its charms for his eyes (less, he admits of the notoriously bad soundtrack, for his ears).

“Like jazz, film noir could be hot or cool, and often it managed to be both at once. The complex formula evolved over time. In the forties, the hard-boiled style valorized masculine reserve—Bogart’s dry, parrying skepticism; the haunted stoicism of Dana Andrews; the nonchalant underplaying of rough-hewn men like Mitchum and Sterling Hayden, who suspected acting was phony and effeminate. These defenses walled off psychological horrors that erupted in surreal nightmares or surging melodramas. In the later fifties, darkly romantic dreamscapes gave way to fractured portraits of a dehumanized, explosively violent world (Touch of Evil, Blast of Silence). Instead of a lacquered surface that hides corrosive anxiety or aching loss, there is a frenetic burlesque of action concealing a freeze-dried hollowness.” Attempting to define the iconic tough guy performance in noir, Imogen Sara Smith considers turns by Lancaster and Widmark that embody the poles she identifies, then hones in on one that merges icy distance and expressionist fury: Ralph Meeker, natch, in Kiss Me Deadly.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 31

“For Rubin, working with Ramis and Murray wasn’t intimidating as much as reassuring: It felt like Hollywood had recognized him for who he was, like it had realized what he could do. ‘It was like, Finally,’ he says now. ‘This is where I belong.’ And then it never happened again.” S. I. Rosenbaum profiles Groundhog Day screenwriter Danny Rubin, who’s managed to repeat in real life the movie’s wringing of a happy ending out of eternal recurrence, following decades of rejected scripts with a decampment from Hollywood and a Broadway musical based on the film.

“Earlier in the week, the cast and crew had been shooting pyrotechnics-heavy action scenes in Maple Ridge Forest. The scenes mainly involved stunt guys repeatedly leaping out of the way of explosions. ‘No accidents,’ Boll reported happily. He was wearing a gray wool sweater and a Dungeon Siege baseball cap. ‘Well, a few people in hospital, but that’s usual for me.’ He laughed, and proffered a packet of biscuits. ‘Cookie?’” Visiting Uwe Boll on the set of what he claims is his final film, Darryn King finds the worst director in the world still fuming at critics, albeit in a more philosophical mood than when he pummeled them in a boxing ring.

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Why ‘Bones’ Was One of the Most Interesting Love Stories on TV

After 12 years and 245 episodes, Bones is coming to an end. I know that will come as news to some of you. I mean, that’s the show with Zooey Deschanel’s older sister and the guy who played the brooding vampire on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, right? It’s really still on?

Ever since it debuted on 2005 as yet another CSI lite, the series has flown under the radar of TV critics and the cultural conversation alike. It’s a breezy procedural most likely to be stumbled across while channel surfing daytime cable TV (where it seems to be in endless rotation on TNT), which means it gets no respect. And that’s a shame. Behind the technology geek-out, the horror effects played for gross-out humor, and investigations through quirky social subcultures, Bones quietly and slyly spun one of the most interesting love stories on TV.

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The Love Story of Bones’ Booth and Brennan in 12 Episodes

It took 12 years and 245 episodes to tell the story of Temperance Brennan and Seeley Booth on Bones, the Fox series that comes to an end tonight. For those who are curious but lack the time, patience, or commitment to take the journey in its entirety, we’ve put together a guide to the highlights and turning points in their relationship told in 12 episodes, all available on Netflix.

“The Man in the Fallout Shelter” (Season 1, episode 9)
The show’s first Christmas episode quarantines the team in the lab over the holidays. Along with the inevitable seasonal bonding between characters who are, at this point, barely more than colleagues, we meet (through a glass barrier) Angela’s blues-guitarist father (ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons) and Booth’s young son, Parker (Ty Panitz). The first is the coolest addition to the Bonesiverse (seriously, this guy becomes an enigma bordering on mythological trickster). The second is our first peek into the personal life of Booth and an introduction to the most important person in his world. The team’s chemistry really starts to bubble here.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 24

Like so many other film sites, the new Senses of Cinema is in a Golden Anniversary mood, looking back at the films of 1967. Unlike most, it casts the net well beyond the expected subjects. There’s the expected pieces on Accident and PlayTime, but also Alexia Kannas on Branded to Kill (“Suzuki’s explosive treatment of the crime genre assumes you understand the formula’s conventions already: it dispenses with clear narrative continuity in favour of fragmentary impressions that are electrified by the film’s formal style”); Kat Ellinger on This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (“As he gnashes his teeth, delivering diatribe after diatribe—all strongly aligned with Nietzsche’s philosophy on The Superman–it becomes clear [Coffin Joe’s] anger stems from a hatred of the human race in its present form, regardless of gender”); and Anton Bitel and Emma Westwood on, respectively, student films by Lynch (“And so a filmmaker was born, and the sick men of this debut would lead inexorably—after an even more elaborate short, The Grandmother (1970)—to the sick baby in his extraordinary first feature Eraserhead (1977), revealed under its swaddling bandages to be all insides”) and Cronenberg (“According to Mr Silent Type, they need not be concerned about what goes down the drain but what will come up from it. Given Cronenberg’s forthcoming propensity for the viscerally morbid, this serves as possibly the first instance of ‘Cronenbergian’ horror….”). In addition, Dean Brandum crunches the numbers from Chicago exhibitions to get a sense of why British cinema couldn’t sustain its popular momentum after that annus mirabilis.

Elsewhere in the issue Jeremi Szaniawski traces the connections between Sukurov’s “power tetralogy” and Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV (“In both Sokurov’s tetralogy and Serra’s unofficial sequel, the details (costumes and set design) are highly realistic, and serious research has gone toward documenting the facts portrayed (famous sources are quoted in the dialogues, etc.). But both directors also take poetic license in creating a universe of their own, giving us at once a compelling historiographic account, a pure work of auteurist vision, and a playful historical recreation, with touches of bizarre humour and an ineffable absurdist spirit interspersed throughout.”), Andrea Grunert salutes Toshiro Mifune (“Deeply rooted in the tragic hero narrative, Mifune’s heroes lack the general positivism of their Hollywood counterparts such as John Wayne, James Stewart or Gary Cooper. As Isolde Standish demonstrates, the tragic hero narrative, a well-known cultural pattern, provided Japanese cinema with a figurative context by means of which war and defeat and subsequent feelings of powerlessness and guilt could be explained.”), and Ventura Pons, Julien Duvivier, and Dennis Hopper get added to the journal’s Great Directors.

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Blu-ray: ‘Our Man in Havana’ on Twilight Time

Our Man in Havana (1959) (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is the third and final collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene. In some ways it plays like a sardonic post-script to their great success, The Third Man, in others a transition film between the gritty but heroic espionage thrillers of the forties and fifties and the far more ambivalent and skeptical work of John Le Carre, as seen in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold just a few years later. (Le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama spins an updated version of the same basic story of Havana.) The big difference is tone: Our Man in Havana is a lampoon of international espionage games and the gullible officers running Britain’s MI6 like an old boy’s club. Everyone on their honor and all that.

Twilight Time

Alec Guinness is Jim Wormold, the meek British everyman in Batista’s Cuba and a single father trying to keep his pretty, spoiled teenage daughter (Jo Morrow) safe from the wolves prowling the streets of Havana. Reluctantly drafted by a British Secret Service agent (perfectly droll Noel Coward), he finds he’s a lousy agent but a terrific author and, failing any legitimate intelligence, he spins a doozy of a secret agent yarn, complete with a cast of supporting agents (all in need of generous expense accounts) and a secret installation worthy of a James Bond villain. It’s a veritable cash cow but it also brings unwanted attention from the head of British Intelligence (a dryly officious Ralph Richardson) who sense him a staff to expand his operations (including neophyte secretary Maureen O’Hara). The satire of gullible intelligence officers and corrupt politicians (an oily, somewhat sinister Ernie Kovacs as the soft-spoken terror Capt. Segura) take a darker turn when the fantasies spun by Wormold take root in the spy community, leaving real victims in its wake. Our man in Havana a target of enemy agents and his apolitical best friend and drinking buddy, the world-weary German expatriate Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives), gets caught in the middle of the intelligence turf war.

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Blu-ray/DVD: The Sicilian Clan

Three of the great icons of French crime cinema team up for The Sicilian Clan (France, 1969) (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD). Jean Gabin is Vittorio Manalese, the head of the Sicilian Manalese clan in Paris, Alain Delon the reckless, amoral French criminal and killer Roger, who hires Vittorio’s clan to spring him from custody, and Lino Ventura Commissaire Le Goff, the man who captured Roger. After Roger escapes, Le Goff struggles with is efforts to give up smoking.

The film opens with a terrific escape, not from prison but from prison transport in the chaos of a traffic snarl, in a nicely-engineered sequence crisply directed by Henri Verneuil. No guns needed here—the Manalese clan doesn’t kill during their capers—and Vittorio is wary of Roger, a loner who has killed more than one cop in his robberies, as he puts him up in a private apartment above the family home. But when Roger brings a big jewel heist his way, he agrees to partner up and proceeds to find a New York partner and case the target: an exhibition hall in Rome with state-of-the-art security. Vittorio meets up with distant New York mob cousin Tony Nicosia (played with dapper charm by Amadeo Nazzari), who he hasn’t seen for thirty years, and they slip into instant rapport and easy friendship as if no time has passed as they case the Rome exhibit. When they find the new technology impenetrable, Vittorio comes up with a new plan: hijacking the flight delivering the jewels to New York City in a genuine family affair.

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Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Mildred Pierce’ on Criterion

Is Mildred Pierce (1945) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) film noir or melodrama? I say why choose? Film noir is almost entirely associated with crime stories and life in the shadows and at night in the city and sure enough Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain, opens with death and darkness and the twilight of the soul. But there’s a subset of noir rooted in melodrama or the women’s pictures, as they were called in the 1940s and 1950s, films about the lives of women as they reach for their American dream, or at least the one promised them in love, marriage, and family. Mildred Pierce offers both, almost as two separate films that converge in the final act

Criterion

It opens squarely in film noir territory (not that there is anything square and simple in noir), with a point blank murder and grotesque dying convulsions of a man who, even at first glance, convinces us he’s an oily, unclean manipulator who surely earned his terrible death. It’s Zachary Scott in a lounge lizard mustache playing his trademark gigolo with weasely insincerity—almost too perfect for our opening victim. We’ll get back to the corpse but first we leave the beach house scene of the crime for a seedy part of the boardwalk and a woman in fur (Joan Crawford) gripping the rail with every indication of a suicidal plunge into the surf. There’s a gaudily colorful bar with a Polynesian theme owned by Jack Carson, appropriately attired in a white tux that screams new money and no taste especially next to the elegance of Crawford, a nightcap, and what appears to be a neat little frame for murder that sweeps all of our characters into the police station for questioning.

You don’t think of Michael Curtiz, the great house director of Warner Bros. spectacles and prestige pictures, as one of the great noir directors but the opening twenty minutes or so is a master class in film noir directing, in part thanks to stunning nocturnal images by cinematography Ernest Haller (his work earned an Oscar nomination, one of six that the film racked up).

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Blu-ray: Deluge

Deluge (1933) (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), the original end-of-the-world thriller, is a curious and often fascinating artifact. Produced in 1933, before the production code came down on Hollywood, on a relatively modest budget, it imagines not just the destruction of civilization in (unexplained) earthquakes and cataclysmic storms but life after the flood, so to speak. It’s based on a popular 1920s science fiction novel by the now forgotten Sydney Fowler Wright and can claim the title as the first disaster movie.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Scientists are in a panic as barometers plunge and reports of cities flooded in tidal waves and hurricanes are breathlessly reported in radio broadcasts. In these opening scenes, however, the only destruction we witness is the lavish house in the woods of Martin and Helen (Sidney Blackmer and Lois Wilson), crushed under trees blown over by high winds while Martin carries them off to safety. Then the real spectacle begins: New York collapses in primitive yet evocative miniatures that are more expressionistic than realistic, like an avant-garde short dropped into a science fiction thriller. Crude travelling mattes put people amidst the destruction, fleeing collapsing buildings or getting crushed by the debris, and a magnificent miniature gives us a God’s eye view of New York City swamped in a tsunami. By modern standards it’s not all “realistic” but it’s mesmerizing in part because it’s a cinematic imagining of something no filmmaker had attempted on screen before. It’s a first pass at the kind of disaster spectacle we now take for granted and these technicians create it all from scratch, not just the technical matter of the physical special effects but the very visualization of the end of the world.

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Meet the Trailblazers of Documentary Activism

We think of the cinema of activism in documentary filmmaking as a relatively modern phenomenon, something first awakened in the 1960s and 1970s and popularized by the likes of Michael Moore and Laura Poitras and Alex Gibney. But the success films like Bowling for Columbine (2002) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006), both Oscar winners and box-office hits, not to mention such devastating investigative documentaries as The Cove (2009), the Oscar-nominated The Invisible War (Independent Lens, 2012), which directly led to a change in policy towards the prosecution of rape in the military (2012), and The Hunting Ground (2015), were built on a tradition that goes back decades.

Here are some of the landmarks in the cinema of advocacy and activism: documentary as investigative journalism, as an educational tool, as exposé of injustice and inequity, and as a vehicle for political or social change. [Note: All these films are available on various streaming services and DVD rental, while the first two are in the public domain.]

The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) / The River (1938)

In The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, both directed by Pare Lorentz and funded by the U.S. Government, two currents of non-fiction filmmaking met: the educational project and the propaganda film. These were pro-New Deal films but they addressed the dangers of over-cultivation of American farmland. The Plow casts its lens to the Dust Bowl and The River on the Mississippi River, each documenting the specific conditions that caused the ecological devastation of the regain and offering a more sustainable approach to farming. Both films are in the National Film Registry, and Lorentz now has a filmmaking fund named after him. [Watch The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River]

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 10

“These tropes cumulatively function as what philosopher Robert Pfaller has termed “interpassivity”: they cynically perform our annoyance at seeing the same old thing again for us. We can walk out of these films feeling satisfied, refreshed, and maybe even a little superior for seeing how the mechanics of movies work. And yet, this facsimiled dissent does not result in movies with original ideas, but instead in things like The LEGO Batman Movie, or, say, Miller and Lord helming the forthcoming Han Solo movie. Not unlike a punk buying a T-shirt with an anarchy symbol on it from Hot Topic, we fool ourselves if we believe this humor to be as subversive as it pretends to be.” Along with the death of cinema itself, the death of comedy is a constant in the world of criticism; Violet Lucca offers the latest iteration, with at least some words of praise thrown in for those modern directors who know how to build a joke.

“Once united, Phelps and O’Gaffney propel a series of semi-discrete set-pieces, starting with an inevitable Great Escape from the camp, facilitated by the white-on-white camouflage of wearing the Arabic prisoners’ white robes in the German snow. From there, Two Arabian Knights features high-speed train stunts, a second adventure for our hapless protagonists as naval stowaways, a romance with a shipwrecked Arabian princess (who else but Mary Astor?), a palace invasion, a gun duel, and a third and final getaway. However discontinuous in action and ambience, these rarely feel like loosely strung vignettes, mostly because Milestone’s hold on tone and his connection with his game, jovial actors tie things together.” Staying at Film Comment, praise for one forgotten comedy comes from Nick Davis’s appreciation of Milestone’s Two Arabian Knights. While Mark Harris doesn’t exactly excavate a forgotten film, he does remind us that Persona played so badly commercially in its ’67 release at least in part from Bergman fatigue, however much a break the film made with his past efforts. (“As Variety’s critic succinctly put it when he got his first view of Bergman’s Opus 1, ‘big themes are still his forte.’ The severity and rigor with which Bergman attacked these issues and his complete lack of interest in packaging them ingratiatingly for his audience both dates the movie and makes it enduringly fascinating.”)

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