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by Sean Axmaker

Contributor

Method, Madness, and Metaphysical Mysteries

If you’re reading this you’re one of us. You see the patterns that no one else does. You find the answers to questions too bewildering for others to comprehend. But the deeper you dig, the more confusing things get. And then there are the shady characters who keep weaving through your journey. It’s a conspiracy, but you’re the only one who can see it! That path can lead only to madness. Or a movie. We all love a good conspiracy thriller, but we are mesmerized by a conspiracy plot where the answers one seeks may not exist in the material realm.

Under the Silver Lake, the latest film to explore a mystery that seems to defy the logic of science and reason, has been pushed back from its original June release date to December. Ostensibly it’s to give filmmaker David Robert Mitchell time to recut the movie. But could there be another, more sinister reason behind this delay? What exactly aren’t they telling us? Just who is really pulling the strings here?

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of June 15

“Snyder and Gray would fold under questioning, ratting on one another, and subsequently go to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing; Tom Howard, a New York Daily News photographer who’d smuggled a camera into the death chamber strapped to his ankle, captured an image of Snyder’s body dancing in the grip of the fatal current. Their trial had been a phenomenon, bringing journalists and rubberneckers from all over to pack the benches in the Long Island City Courthouse. Among the spectators who passed through over the course of the proceedings were D.W. Griffith, Aimee Semple McPherson, Damon Runyon, and a 34-year-old crime reporter with an insurance background that gave him insight into the ins and outs of the case, James M. Cain.” A sensational trial that inspired Cain to write The Postman Always Rings Twice, the many film adaptations of which Nick Pinkerton traces, from Pierre Chenel’s 1939 French film, through Hollywood’s two big, flawed stabs at the material, to, from Hungary, “the bleakest version,” courtesy of director György Fehér and cowriter Bela Tarr.

“Let’s assume that in the ’70s, Ludwig was a film out of its time—sober yet lavishly appointed, forbiddingly old guard to the point of appearing laboriously academic. Today, it is still an anachronism—one can’t imagine a historical art film even again being made on such a lavish scale—and yet the very fact that it now seems so alien to us seems likely to give the film a new lease of life and attract a new audience more eager for this kind of measured pensiveness.” Of course one of the most successful adaptations of Cain’s novel was Visconti’s debut; one of his later films, Ludwig, receives some rehabilitation from Jonathan Romney, who doesn’t deny the film’s sometimes wearying pomp but finds it a striking portrait of history as a series of self-aware theatrical poses.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of June 8

“How far can a filmmaker push an awkward premise? What situations and complications can be extracted from it? What surprises and transformations can divert the seemingly stable course of the plot? Despite its humble appearance as a minor work made for television, The Man with the Suitcase is not short on answers to these questions. The film (which Akerman also wrote) turns its premise into a goldmine, cruising the full range of possibilities: from verbal implosion to gestural explosion; from ignoring the man when he’s present, to fixating on him when he’s absent; from controlled order to engulfing chaos.” Though its hour-long length and origin as a TV movie have tended to rank The Man with the Suitcase as one of Chantal Akerman’s minor works, Cristina Álvarez López finds it a thorough exploration of one of the director’s key themes, the value and hazard of routine.

“As the title implies, in its aggressive-casual way, A Very Natural Thing wants its viewers to share in the easygoing mundanity of gay male love. And though that title may make it seem like the film has been geared toward liberal hetero audiences as a kind of teaching moment (see this year’s “I’m just like you” normie-bullying in the narration and trailers for the otherwise sweet Love, Simon), A Very Natural Thing was primarily intended as a sight for sore eyes, a source of identification for gay viewers.” Christopher Larkin’s A Very Natural Thing has stayed off straight movie audience’s radar for the same reason it’s fairly central to gay ones, Michael Koresky argues: a casual, nonjudgmental insistence that all aspects of gay life are matter of factly, marvelously normal.

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Your 2018 San Francisco Silent Film Festival Preview

“True art transcends time” is the motto of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which opens its twenty-third edition at the historic Castro Theatre on Wednesday, May 30. What began as a one-day event over two decades ago has grown into the largest and most impressive silent film festival in the country. The twenty-three programs presented over the five-day event include twenty features (from forty-five minutes to three and a half hours in length) from nine countries, ranging from the avant-garde, to the experimental, and even 3D shorts. And all are matched with live music from some of the best silent movie accompanists from around the world.

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SIFF Diary – Week 1

There was a time when I threw myself into SIFF, seeing 50, 60, sometimes over 70 films between the first days of press screenings and the closing night gala (that’s still far short of some passholders who watch over 100 films over the course of the fest). Those days are over for many reasons, not the least of which is that San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which now plays out smack dab in the middle of SIFF and pulls me out of town for nearly a week. This year I expect to see something between 10 and 15 films scheduled between my day job and writing deadlines, and while that means I miss a lot of interesting films, the upside is that I treasure those films I do get to see and I have more time to ruminate over them. Here are thoughts on some of the films I saw the first. No press screenings for me this year. These were all seen with festival audiences.

Audiences split on First Reformed (US) but critics are raving and I think it’s Paul Schrader’s finest and richest film since Affliction. It also defies expectations of an American psychological drama by following a style more similar to his most beloved filmmakers: Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky among them. Keep Reading

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of May 25

“At the end of each day, the cast and crew convened at the hotel bar. ‘Everyone would sort of be sitting at different parts of the bar, and she’d walk in and it was, like, Shit! Claire’s here!’ [producer Andrew] Lauren recalled. ‘I saw a lot of people wanting to leave many, many times, but they stayed. They stay because they love her—even though they can’t stand her.’ Denis does not deny such behavior. ‘I can be the worst person, the meanest person on a set,’ she said. ‘Shouting, screaming, complaining. I don’t have a lot of respect for myself as a director. People accept me the way I am, because they know I’m not faking. Probably.’” Though it can be a little disorienting to read one of the world’s greatest directors constantly referred to as virtually unknown, Alice Gregory’s profile of Claire Denis captures the director’s mix of intellectual severity and overwhelming sensuousness that makes her telling any story from her life—of caring for her younger brother, self-indulgent frolicking on a South African beach, a terrifying sexual assault—as heady and unforgettable as her films. Vague spoilers for Denis’s upcoming sci-fi film High Life.

“By 1982, historically, transgender people were classified as mentally ill, if acknowledged at all; the term “gender identity disorder” first appeared in the DSM-III (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in 1980—incidentally the same year that Dressed to Kill, Brian De Palma’s more clinically curious Psycho riff about a “transsexual” murderer, was released. That satirical thriller’s villainous Bobbi functioned as a figure of shock, but Come Back to the Five and Dime’s Joanne, also disruptive, is perhaps even more cinematically unusual. Her presence is indeed as a catalyst, inciting soul-searching among the women, but, as embodied by a never sturdier Black, Joanne also registers boldly as her own person; she radiates a strength that feels especially earned considering that her younger self, played by Mark Patton, was the image of insecure, fey fragility.” Michael Koresky argues that Altman’s innate compassion for and curiosity about all walks of humanity and his just burgeoning engagement with theatrical formalism makes 1982’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, and its unapologetic admiration of a trans character’s self-worth, a key innovator in queer cinema.

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Women Who Take Revenge

If the revenge movie is a staple of American exploitation cinema, the female revenge film pushes exploitation to extremes. At its most gratuitous it makes a spectacle of sexual assault on a female victim for the gruesome entertainment of a male audience, then celebrates righteous vengeance on the perpetrators with additional spectacle. It’s a genre dominated by male filmmakers, which makes the new movie Revenge a welcome alternative to the male gaze. Director and screenwriter, Coralie Fargeat, making her feature debut, brings her own sensibility to these conventions.

Here are some of the films that paved the way for Revenge. No, these are not the pulp thriller answers to #MeToo—grindhouse exploitation and serious art film alike, they have their sexist blind spots—but they do offer a little more complexity to the formula and, sometimes, they empower women beyond simple violence.

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Review: Manhunt

“For a better tomorrow,” remarks one character in a rare moment of downtime in John Woo’s Manhunt, drawing a direct connection to Woo’s 1986 break-out hit. Not that he needed to drop so blatant a callback. Released in 2017 across Asian cinemas but debuting on Netflix in the U.S., Manhunt is a self-conscious throwback to the Hong Kong films that made Woo’s reputation among action movie fans around the world––a gleefully overstuffed thriller that races through the greatest-hits-of-Woo trademarks, right down to a hardboiled cop who bonds with his nemesis as he pursues him across the city.

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Review: Anon

Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) strolls down a city street, the anonymous faces in the crowds streaming past him instantly tagged with pop-up IDs. Frieland’s a cop in a future where every brain is connected to a central server, his hardwired Google Glass eyeballs giving him access not just to individuals’ data but everything they’ve seen and heard, all of it recorded for posterity and occasionally self-incrimination. Then, he’s called to a murder scene and finds the mind of the victim has been hacked––the culprit gone without leaving a digital footprint of any kind. Is this ghost in the machine a serial killer, an assassin, or something else?

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of May 18

“With its flashback structure, intense low-key lighting, and the rich psychological portraiture of even the smallest characters, Crossfire has the look and depth of a signature ’40s noir, but it’s really a social problem picture in drag—like a Stanley Kramer picture with style or one of those instructively anti-fascist genre films of the era such as Brute Force. Because the movie is so direct in its messaging and pleasingly two-fisted in its delivery, it’s easy to sometimes overlook the central oddness of the narrative’s inciting event. If it seems like there’s something unspoken in the circumstances around the murder—i.e., why would an unassuming man invite strange men he just met at a bar up to his apartment in the first place?—that’s because there is.” Michael Koresky’s inclusion of Crossfire in his ongoing survey of queer cinema highlights how the subject of homosexuality was so controversial it was removed in the novel’s film adaptation as the reason for the victim’s murder, yet also so resonant that the movie can’t help a gentle homoeroticism from gleaming through on occasion.

“Travel has long been one of Kaurismäki’s favorite themes. Many of his early films center on Finnish men—often alienated from society—who find a way to escape to romantic or utopian destinations, frequently by ship, as in Shadows in Paradise (1986) and Ariel (1988). But these white men, even if they are outsiders on the bottom rungs of society, still possess freedoms that most of the world lacks. Starting with Le Havre (2011) and continuing with The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismäki switched course by associating travel not with native Finns but with migrants who are people of color. This has been a timely and apt choice on his part, given that we are in the middle of a global displacement crisis on a scale comparable to that of World War II.” Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope is, for Girish Shambu, both something old and something new, a continuation of the director’s recent concern with race and immigration as well as a fine addition to his career-long portraits of alienation, the hardships and rewards of labor, and dogs.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of May 11

New at Criterion, two highly individualized takes on genre that twist the formulas to very much their own thing. Amy Taubin sings the praises of Jarmusch’s “visionary” western Dead Man (“There are several ways to read the narrative that evolves from this setup. [….] It’s irrelevant which interpretation you prefer. Each has its own logic. What all of them point to is mortality as the preeminent existential condition of our lives. Nobody is baffled that Blake doesn’t know of his namesake, the English poet, or his work, which encourages us to acknowledge our death so that we can live fully in the present moment. Nobody encourages this in his William Blake, just as Dead Man does in the viewer.”); and Philip Kemp argues for Moonrise as Borzage’s last great testament, an infusion of his mystical optimism into the seemingly incompatible host of noir (“When a director’s basic instincts and the style in which he or she is working are at daggers drawn, the results can be disastrous—or paradoxically fruitful. Few films display this creative tension more effectively than Moonrise, the last—and some would say the best—major film directed by Borzage.”).

“But that, I think, is why I love it—why I keep returning to it. The anger, egotism, and paranoia lend themselves to a movie as rich and various as the country it’s about. The movie combines prison melodrama, domestic soap opera, ESPN-esque hype reels, and the monied aspirationalism of 90s hip-hop videos to bear on a plot that twines the moral redemption of a black American felon—and the reconciliation of a father and son—with a loaded racial critique of the commerce of basketball. It’s a sprawling but enduring snapshot of its era.” K. Austin Collins is aware how over-the-top and stacked-deck Spike Lee’s He Got Game is, but on the film’s 20th anniversary flips those flaws to strengths, a way to tear into the commerce of basketball that more “realistic” portrayals wouldn’t have managed.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of May 4

The latest issue of cléo is dedicated entirely to the maker of its namesake, Agnès Varda. In addition to Kiva Reardon’s interview with the director (“Looking at others is the first step of feminism—not being selfish, not being mirror-oriented. Looking at other people. Discovering what they do to make a living. Or how they behave.”), Sarah-Tai Black rehabilitates Salut les Cubains (“… her distinct ability to explore the curiosities and intimacies of the film image is no less apparent in Salut les Cubains than in her later, more critically attended work.”); Nouran Heshem explores the gendered take on cancer in Cléo from 5 to 7 (“Varda tackles the cancer taboo by illustrating the fraught connection between illness and gender”); So Mayer places Documenteur in a career-long trope of Varda’s reflections and teasing self-portraits (“Perhaps one of Varda’s answers, then, is that she is not alone: there are other women inventing and introducing themselves as well, observing and refracting each other.”); Joseph Pomp explores Varda’s experimental series of television shorts Une minute pour une image (“Surrealist wit consorts with a spirit of wanderlust and creativity in much of Varda’s filmography.”); and Eloise Ross finds Varda reclaiming the practice of flaneur from men in her short Les dites cariatides (“At a distance and in close-up, she films “women” who hold up balconies or the façades of buildings – all who do so without visibly bearing strain in their bodies or expressions”).

“In a tradition ranging from the kitchen-sink realist films of the late ’50s and early ’60s to the contemporary works of Mike Leigh and Andrea Arnold, English movies set among the working classes have tended to have fatalistic trajectories and miserabilist aesthetics, underlining their drabness to reflect their characters’ sense of hopelessness and to visually convey a lack of upward mobility. But there’s that rainbow in Beautiful Thing, and it’s unmistakable. Years before the “It Gets Better” movement, Macdonald’s film hinted at a bright future in the most cinematically improbable of places.” Michael Koresky’s survey of Queer cinema gets to 1996, Hettie Macdonald’s Beautiful Thing, and the underappreciated subversive power of joy.

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SIFF 2018: Stop me before I screen again!

The 44th Annual Seattle International Film Festival opens on Thursday, May 17, with the opening night gala presentation of Goya-winning feature The Bookshop with Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, and Bill Nighy from Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet. As in previous years, it launches at McCaw Hall and is followed by the opening night party.

24 days later, it closes on a local focus with Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, adapted from the memoir of Portland cartoonist John Callahan (played in the film by Joaquin Phoenix) and directed by Portland-based filmmaker Gus Van Sant, at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian on Sunday, June 10.

In between, 248 features (including 66 documentaries), 164 short films, and 21 VR/360 works from 90 countries are scheduled to screen across 12 venues in Seattle, Bellevue, Kirkland, and Shoreline. (These numbers are subject to change as additional films may be added at the last minute, and in rare cases films may be withdrawn or cancelled).

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Blu-ray: ‘Basket Case,’ ‘Ichi the Killer,’ ‘Macon County’ justice, and ‘The Hidden’ with Kyle Maclachlan

Basket Case (Arrow, Blu-ray)
Ichi the Killer (Well Go, Blu-ray)
Macon County Line (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)
The Hidden (Warner Archive, Blu-ray)

Arrow Films

Basket Case (1982), the debut feature of filmmaker Frank Henenlotter, is a gruesome little cult indie-horror drama of brotherly love and righteous vengeance shot on location in the seedier sections of New York City.

Henenlotter was reared on the cheap horror films of Herschell Gordon Lewis and other independent exploitation directors of the 1960s and 1970s and this is in many ways his tribute to the grindhouse horror films he loves, a low-budget monster movie with a creative twists and an embrace of the grotesque. The monster effects, a mix of puppets, models, and stop-motion animation, may look amateur today but there’s a loving B-movie attitude and a genuine sense of character and tragedy to the misshapen, fleshy, snaggle-toothed Belial, who sees Duane’s growing guilt and desire to connect to other people (notably a girl he’s fallen for) as a betrayal of their bond. A cult classic with an inspired twist on Cain and Abel.Kevin VanHentenryck shuffles through the low budget exercise in grotesquery and gore as Duane, the “normal” brother sent by his deformed, formerly-conjoined twin Belial to take revenge on the doctors who separated the two and left the blobby, grotesquely misshapen brother to die. Most of the effects are shrewdly just off screen, with spurts of blood and gnarly hand dragging the character out of view to feed our imaginations, and a few bloody corpses left in the aftermath (an exception is a pre-Freddy multiple impalement with scalpels).

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of April 20

“In the middle of this backstage scene, a typically Chytilován, anarchic outbreak takes place: a rebellious girl refuses to go on stage with a tulle hat that she deems horrible. At the last minute, this black hat will be put on Marta, who wears it without complaining, while her colleague is forbidden to parade. But, as we shall see, that Marta obeys here doesn’t mean she’s happy. In Chytilová’s films, each woman is irked or pleased at different things. Each woman has to find her own way to cope, resist, flee, or rebel. Each woman has to craft her own response, strategy, or escape. And there is no right decision for all, just as there is no single revolution that fits everyone.” The protagonist of Vera Chytilová’s student graduation film Ceiling, which chronicles a day in the life of a fashion model, doesn’t share the freewheeling rebelliousness of the director’s celebrated Daisies, but as Christina Álvarez López shows, she’s no less able to reclaim her agency in a world ever ready to control and punish women.

“Even those slapstick two-reelers that seem thrown together on the set by men who would never have called themselves artists were intuitively finding their way to a form. James Agee argues the case when he describes a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler directed by McCarey that was devoted almost entirely to pie-throwing: “The first pies were thrown thoughtfully, almost philosophically. Then innocent bystanders began to get caught into the vortex. At full pitch it was Armageddon. But everything was calculated so nicely that until late in the picture, when havoc took over, every pie made its special kind of point and piled on its special kind of laugh.” Replace custard pies with words—words as projectiles, soaring, tumbling, overlapping, collapsing—and you have The Awful Truth, right up to the Sennett-style chase that ushers in the ending of the film with a pileup of chaos and pure motion.” Molly Haskell offers sublime auteurist salute to Leo McCarey, finding a wealth of personal experiences, pet themes, and of course his luminous humanity folded into the effortless brilliance of The Awful Truth.

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