Written by John Hartl in 2011, reposted in conjunction with 2023 SIFF showing of the film in tribute to the legacy of Hartl.
The Incredible Shrinking Man screens at the Egyptian at 1:30 pm on Sunday, May 14.
It’s always gratifying when a favorite film is discovered—or rediscovered in a way that creates a fresh perspective .
Such is the case with 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man, which was enthusiastically received in its time but continues to grow in stature. Last year, it joined the National Film Registry of significant American films. In late August, it will be released by Universal as a single-disc DVD.
The latest reappraisal may have begun in 2005, when Time magazine’s Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel listed it as a top guilty pleasure and proposed that “it is long past time for a cult to form around its director, the late Jack Arnold, an efficient maker of B-pictures.” While similar 1950s films dealt with insects turning into monsters because of nuclear misadventures, Time pointed out that “this radical variation on that theme was (especially if you are a kid, eager to grow up, not down) scarier and more profound than the competitors.” Around the same time, Steven Spielberg, in a Turner Classic Movies special called Watch the Skies, singled out the film’s “message about not outer space but inner space, and about the soul and where does the soul go, and what is infinity? Is infinity out there or is infinity in here?”
Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide had always given three out of four stars to The Incredible Shrinking Man. But recently Maltin added half a star and included a mostly new write-up: “Intelligent, serious approach, exceptional special effects for the period, and a vigorous leading performance (by Grant Williams) result in a genuine sci-fi classic, unsurpassed by later attempts.”
For years, the movie had been carried on DVD by only one chain (Best Buy), which included it in a couple of DVD collections of 1950s sci-fi movies, some of them directed by Arnold. Even the new disc will apparently be a bare bones release. Surely a Criterion release is in order.
While the Oscars remain the one artistic award show that really matters, it’s frustrating how flawed and exclusionary they remain. Still, only certain types of movies are even considered for nominations — sure, a horror film like Get Out or a comic-book movie like Black Panther can get nominated, but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule (and ones that would’ve received major backlash if snubbed). But even if a movie falls under the category of “Oscar bait,” it still requires a cash-back campaign targeted at voters to stand a chance. It’s a crummy system.
With that in mind, we threw any notion of standard Academy Awards qualifications out the window to nominate our favorite films of 2018 in some of the major categories (with entries marked with a * indicating our pick as the winner).
Black Panther BlacKkKlansman Bohemian Rhapsody The Favourite Green Book Roma A Star Is Born Vice
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs BlacKkKlansman Burning First Reformed Hereditary Leave No Trace The Rider* Roma Support the Girls You Were Never Really Here
This year, a coronation will be held during the Academy Awards ceremony. It happens periodically: An actor has waited an eternity to win an Oscar, and then a year comes when his or her performance is so undeniable (and, maybe, the competition not as strong as usual), and suddenly it’s the moment.
That’s why King Leo the First will be crowned at Sunday’s Oscar event. For years now Leonardo DiCaprio has worked his keister off in a variety of ambitious, ultra-serious roles. He’s been a pretender to the throne before, nominated for The Wolf of Wall Street, The Aviator, and a couple of other roles. But his physically exhausting stint in The Revenant will likely put a statuette up on his mantelpiece.
Aside from that sure thing, there are some toss-ups in the Oscar race this year. Best Picture remains a tantalizing guess: Will the Oscars go with the momentum of The Revenant, or reward the social-issue punch of Spotlight? Or does the political satire of The Big Short catch the mood of the moment?
[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]
Please forgive me if I begin with a rather farcical personal story, which will hopefully illustrate a point. A little over a year ago a friend and teacher of mine, the French critic Raymond Bellour, asked me to redo a piece (on a Howard Hawks film) which I had once written for him for a book on the American cinema he was to edit. It was to be an anthology on American film with a special section on close analysis of representative films, generally from a semiotic point of view. (I must apologize again; textual analysis of film is more or less my specialty—I have no excuse for this except that I find it rather interesting.) After much trauma and typing I produced a version of my text which, with a final set of revisions, was ready for the book—then almost a year behind schedule due to a particular disease known well among writers, procrastination. Most of the other people to contribute (the rest of them writing directly in French, hence burdened with fewer problems than I) were in various stages of work on their pieces when we all received a cheery little photocopied note from the publisher: due to economic difficulties the book would not, after all, come into being.
I have no proof whatever that when the final ballots were tallied, late at night at the Academy, and the prospect of a second year of the dreaded hashtag #OscarsSoWhite hung over the room, considerable thought was given to The Messenger of this news. Messengers.
I do know that it was really nice to see that Guillermo Del Toro and Ang Lee were given the first swath of nominations to read. The second list was handled by redoubtable Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and John Krasinski.
It was a gallant show of inclusiveness, before the truth was out and hellfire rained down from every side.
– Sylvester Stallone but not Michael B. Jordan? So, who was Creed about, an old, slow white guy from Philly?
– Idris Elba nowhere in sight, unless you count Netflix ads.
– Straight Outta Compton? Not exactly the screener that . . .ummm, mature Academy voters bring out to share with poker cronies.
– Women? Don’t start. Freud said it best, “My god, what do women want?”
– Spike Lee? Maybe no one could pronounce Chi-Raq. In any case, he just got an honorary Oscar. . . in November, at one of those ceremonies that happen way, way off-stage. Check out his speech, every last minute of it.
Don’t even want to think what he’s saying today. No, actually, I do.
[Originally published in Movietone News 35, August 1974, from the TRACKING SHOT column]
Parallax View doesn’t usually reproduce MTN ephemera such as the catch-all column “Tracking Shot.” Howsomever, this note of mine regarding the brief passage of Blake Edwards’s The Tamarind Seed through town engages an issue which, sadly, is anything but ephemeral. –RTJ
In the lead article of this issue, Kathleen Murphy confesses to some presuppositions that disposed her against TheTamarind Seed before she went into the theater. She did go into the theater, which a lot of generally intelligent and discerning filmgoers aren’t even considering as an option, given the plethora of signals surrounding the movie—the casting, the advertising, some of the damning-with-faint-praise “favorable” reviews.
As further evidence of what is keeping people from giving a chance to a film we frankly regard as singularly fine, we quote the following throwaway from a film potpourri column in a recent number of the new Seattle Sun: “The pathetic return of Julie Andrews (who sometimes wears a slip) and Omar Sharif (who always wears a smirk). If there was a prize for bad directing, Blake Edwards would win it with this.”
Set out to write about Academy Award upsets and right away the ground starts shifting under your feet. Oh, some neck-snappers we all remember—like Jack Nicholson coming out to present the award for best picture of 2005, opening the envelope, and saying, “Whoa.” Moments when the title of the movie everybody figured to win suddenly wasn’t the one being read aloud.
But those are ya-hadda-be-there moments. Looking back over Oscar history, you encounter what we might call upsets-in-reverse—instances when a movie or a performance that has long since become part of the racial unconscious did not, in its day, win proper recognition. Then you find yourself in a sort of “What did they know and when did they know it?” situation. How could they have been so blind? We’ve collected some of that kind of upset as well.
Upsets come in all valences, triumphant and appalling. Truly the ways of Oscar passeth understanding. But that needn’t spoil the party.
1939 It was Hollywood’s golden year. Stagecoach … Mr. SmithGoestoWashington … Ninotchka … TheWizardofOz … OnlyAngelsHaveWings … YoungMr. Lincoln … WutheringHeights … OfMice and Men … GungaDin … Midnight … Drums Along the Mohawk … Love Affair … The Four Feathers (OK, made in England, but still). Yet it was the making of one movie that obsessed fans all year long, and when it ended up with a then-record 13 Oscar nominations, no one doubted that David O. Selznick’s nearly-four-hour Technicolor megaproduction Gone With the Wind would take the brass ring. A lot of brass rings, including best director for Victor Fleming despite the fact that some half-dozen directors (preeminently George Cukor and Sam Wood) had worked on the film. Most of the major players were nominated (including Thomas Mitchell, albeit for Stagecoach, not GWTW); newcomer-to-Hollywood Vivien Leigh won best actress as Scarlett O’Hara, and Hattie McDaniel edged fellow cast member Olivia De Havilland for best supporting actress. Yet what was wrong with this picture? Although novelist Margaret Mitchell had written the book visualizing Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, Gable had to settle for a nomination merely (best actor went to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips; we’d have given it to Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith, Jimmy Stewart). The King took it like a man, of course. But watch GWTW today and try telling us all that Selznickean flapdoodle would be tolerable without Gable’s movie-star gravitas to center it.
The Academy Awards were born in 1927, the brainchild of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, a studio head whose original idea for an organization to negotiate labor disputes and industry conflicts evolved into the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. The awards themselves were an afterthought and initially more public relations gimmick than egalitarian celebration of the arts. Every member of the Academy (then as now an exclusive organization where membership is by invitation only) was involved in nominations but a committee of five judges picked the winners and Mayer, of course, oversaw it all. If he didn’t actually handpick the winners, be surely put his thumb on the scales. By 1929, Academy members were voting on the final ballots themselves and in 1934 the ceremony moved from November to March. Additional categories were added and other refinements made over the years (Foreign Language Film got its own statue in 1957) but otherwise the Academy Awards as we know them today were born: a glitzy event that brought the stars out and handed out trophies.
That leaves practically the entire silent movie era out of Oscar history. Hollywood had reached a zenith in terms of craftsmanship, glamor and ambition when The Jazz Singer was released before the first awards were handed out. By its second year, sound films dominated the awards.
Let’s imagine an alternate history where the Academy Awards had been born earlier and (as long as we’re dreaming) with a more egalitarian purpose from the outset. What kind of winners might you have in an era when movies were more international and there was no such thing as a “foreign language film” when credits and intertitles were easily replaced for each region? What landmarks leading up to that first ceremony, where the twin peaks of populist blockbuster and artistic triumph—Wings and Sunrise—represented the Best of Hollywood, might have been chosen in the golden age of twenties cinema, or the birth of the feature film in the teens, or even the wild days of experimentation and rapid evolution in the decades previous?
Here are my picks for a few key awards in the imaginary Oscar history.
1928: Metropolis Best Picture, Cinematography, Production Design
Released in January of 1927 in Germany and two months later in the U.S., this landmark was just too early for consideration in the inaugural awards (handed out in May, 1929). So I’m giving this early 1927 release a clear playing field with its own Oscar year: Academy Awards Year Zero. Sure, science fiction isn’t a big player with the Academy, but otherwise it has all the hallmarks of an Oscar favorite: epic canvas, astounding sets, visionary visual design and the timely theme of man struggling to find his place in the rapid spread of technology and machinery, all under the firm control of filmmaker Fritz Lang. Hollywood had never seen anything like it before. The film was soon edited down for and the original cut was lost for decades. The 2010 restoration restores scenes, characters and story lines unseen since opening night and confirms just how grand Lang’s vision was.
I know, I know: old and slow. My only possible defense is that we have either been guests or had guests since December 23rd, a sojourn involving passports, dear distant family, dear semi-distant friends and a last emotional good-bye at the airport yesterday. The cats barely know what lap to turn to, while I’m summoning up all my reserves to turn up in two matching shoes.
To get to those Globes: they were just Sunday and I know I’m behind on the newspapers, but where’s the outrage? Or even the irony over the results of the Globes TV Movies or Mini-series category? I’m talking about the sublime OliveKitteridge, anchored by the unsparing eloquence of Frances McDormand, being beaten by the TV show Fargo. Let’s be honest,the initial good will of Fargo-the-miniseries would never have existed without our collective infatuation with McDormand’s singular character in, ummm, Fargo-the-film. (Just the memory of the actress’s back, squared in rectitude as she marched up to get her FargoOscar in 1997 is enough to kick off a smile.)
Kathleen Murphy: Plunging into the first volume of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, we’re drowned in cloacal darkness, straining to identify initially faint metallic sounds that rise in volume, odd plinks and whines and scrapes. When von Trier finally lets there be light, it’s dim, dirty looking, oppressive. Narrow passages cut through a maze of worn brick walls and rain-smeared pavement. Impossible to imagine that any sky overarches this dank “underground,” or that there’s any way out of these claustrophobic environs.
Von Trier then snapshots the “instruments” — an industrial fan, its turning retarded by rust; a loop of metal banging brick; a garbage can lid percussed by raindrops — in what we come to recognize is a symphonic overture, composed of the strange “musical” notes we could hardly hear in that original dark. Suddenly, heavy metal chords and grinding vocals erupt, the bellow of some cosmic machine. When the camera frames a closeup of a bloodied hand, outflung on wet pavement, the color comes as a shock. We hadn’t considered that flesh might exist in this dead world.
What a visual/aural downer, you may say — but undeniably exhilarating as well, in its masterly movement and design. Nymphomaniac begins in a post-apocalyptic cul-de-sac, as though its world has already ended. (Didn’t that happen in Melancholia?) But this is the embarkation point of a movie ostensibly about the sexual odyssey of a child-then-woman committed to nonstop, indiscriminate fornication. What does von Trier’s meticulously composed overture signal about Nymphomaniac’s itinerary and destination? Where can we go from here?
Richard T. Jameson: An admirable keynote, on your part as well as von Trier’s. You don’t mention that that opening “shot” of total blackness must last a couple of minutes (I resisted reaching for my iPhone to check). How typically perverse yet surprising of von Trier to start off by denying us anything to look at, at the outset of a movie where we expect to be voyeurs.
The first thing we see is a view of snow falling straight down — a shock cut to beauty and, after all that cacophony, utter silence. The view looks (we assume) out of the alley where that bloody hand with body attached lies. It’s of a courtyard or a street, empty of people. Then there’s one person, a man (Stellan Skarsgard), on his way somewhere with a dainty little shopping pouch. And when he comes back, he appears to pass the alley without seeing the body. But something stops him just out of frame, and he comes back, and he looks, and after a minute he enters.
In the meantime von Trier has allowed the alley entrance to accrete architectural and textural complexity, become almost organic looking, acquire several layers of walls and angles lighted by the kind of ineffable glow that might seep out of a snowflake. Is it the most complex and beautiful setting we’ll see in this two-hour movie?
KM: Only an aesthete cursed by chronic despair could create beauty and complexity out of that stoneworks. But Nymphomaniac is the third entry in von Trier’s Depression Trilogy.
Pretty soon, the battered owner of that bloody hand (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is, Sheherazade-like, storytelling us and her sympathetic rescuer-cum-confessor Seligman (Skarsgard) out of the drear of those alleys and his drab apartment. Recounting colorful (in action and palette) and often very funny stories of her “shameful, sinful” life, Joe insists she’s a “bad human being.” Sipping restorative tea, Joe begins: “I discovered my cunt when I was two.” It’s not exactly “Call me Ishmael” or “Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies,” but Joe’s opening line recalls innumerable fictions about youngsters “lighting out” for adventure, finding, sometimes losing, themselves on the road — Candide, Tom Jones, Huckleberry Finn, Stephen Dedalus, et al.
RTJ: We can’t continue this palaver without noting that, in addition to von Trier regular Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist, Melancholia), Joe is played by several actresses at ages 2, 7 and 10. At age 15 Stacy Martin takes over, and she’s the main show whenever Gainsbourg and Skarsgard aren’t on screen. French-English, she was 22 at the time of filming, and this is her film debut. Von Trier insists he didn’t notice she bears a strong resemblance to Gainsbourg’s mother Jane Birkin at a comparable stage in life.
Gainsbourg’s fellow travelers include Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Connie Nielsen, Uma Thurman, Saskia Reeves, Bond villain Jesper Christensen, Subspecies‘ slobbering bloodsucker Anders Hove … and in Vol. 2 we are promised (wait for it!) Udo Kier.
KM: Stellan Skarsgard’s Seligman, Joe’s enthusiastic audience, seems a gentle soul, clearly late-middle-aged but strangely childlike in countenance, his faded features unmarked by experience. Joe may prefer an Old Testament reading of her sexual escapades, but Seligman’s some kind of secular humanist, consistently excusing, contextualizing, intellectualizing, and aestheticizing her sexual exploits. He frequently interrupts her flashbacks with learned allusions, empathetic observations. Is there something a little off about this Good Samaritan? (I admit I flashed back to Pandora’s Box and Jack the Ripper!)
RTJ: Cut him some slack, his son’s a thousand-year-old vampire stuck in Louisiana … but I digress.
One of the things that fascinate me about Nymphomaniac is that we can’t guess what we’re going to be looking at next. I don’t mean the varieties of sexual experience. I mean … well, the most startling and exhilarating scene in the film involves a character whose entry into the mix about two-thirds of the way in could not have been anticipated, and who proceeds to own the movie for what in olden days would have been a reel. An amazing performance, both the character’s and the actor’s, whom I will not name for the same reason I won’t say what the sequence is about: we don’t do spoilers here (unless I spoiled that cut to the snowfall — my bad).
Point is, there’s this dynamic tension in Von Trier, between near-minimal production resources and radical lurches into deeper, richer, more multivalenced, envelope-pushing reality than would have been possible in a conventional film, one with more sets and more breathing room in the cutting.
KM: Dynamic tension charges almost every aspect of the movie. As Joe begins Chapter One: The Compleat Angler, she claims that her tale is a “moral” one. Though this is a girl who (presumably) just wants to have fun — that is, unlimited sex — her experiences are relentlessly mechanical, boring, sometimes just plain funny. For a sexually explicit movie, full of screwing and sucking and galleries of male members, Nymphomaniac (so far) never seems prurient or particularly erotic (Skarsgard remarked to an interviewer that it would make a lousy “wanking” movie); the contes never come off as morality plays. Joe might as well be a sexual anthropologist testing a host of subjects, or an angler testing the efficacy of many different flies.
Will we eventually learn that Nymphomaniac turns on the tension between storyteller and audience, the play between Joe and her enigmatic father confessor? Flashbacks — of both her and his childhoods — are embellished with playful animations, live-action, split screens, and a passel of screen superimpositions, invoking Peter Greenaway’s stylized “reinventions” of cinema. Von Trier accounts for Joe’s premeditated, ultra-mechanical defloration through superimposed addition: “3 [vaginal humps] + 5 [anal humps],” which in turn prompts the learned Seligman to note that these are Fibonacci numbers. In this bent take on “My Night at Maud’s,” consider the tension between posited morality and the banal couplings we actually witness, not to mention the whimsy and outright hilarity of some of Joe’s adventures. Then there’s the tale-spinner’s deadpan, know-nothing seriousness, so frequently countered by Seligman’s delighted digressions into metaphors of fishing, mathematics, science, mythology, religion. Joe’s readings of reality are largely narrow, unimaginative, while Seligman sees sex as a trampoline from which one may leap into humankind’s headiest creative endeavors.
RTJ: Yes, I was surprised by that — that the title character, as embodied by Gainsbourg in the present-tense parts of the movie, isn’t the saucy minx one might have anticipated beforehand. Of course, we don’t yet know what brought her to her abject state of mind and body at the film’s beginning. But you’re right, of the two, Seligman is the antic spirit bringing the film to unexpected life. Will he somehow succeed in doing the same for Joe?
KM: Or will he somehow be the death of her?
Just can’t resist fishing in one of Seligman’s/von Trier’s down-the-rabbit-hole streams of consciousness: During that Compleat Angler chapter, Seligman compares a “nymph” fly to Joe, who “runs the river” as she nets a train full of men; we’re even treated to live-action fishing scenes along with superimposed shagging scorecards. Keep running this river and you’ll surely free-associate from Izaak Walton (author of The Compleat Angler) to Isaac Newton, then remember that the fall of an apple famously helped Newton to “discover” gravity; Joe’s chapter is about a falling Eve, banging her way through a train for a bag of sweets. For further brain teasing, pursue the significance of Fibonacci numbers, the ash tree Joe’s dad loves so much, and medieval polyphony, a resonant metaphor for promiscuity and Nymphomaniac itself.
Whatever I expected of Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1, I didn’t anticipate its wonderful sense of play, the persistent pleasure derived from following this picaresque pilgrimage. More predictably — this is, after all, von Trier territory — there’s horror, and the film’s penultimate chapter, Delirium, provides that in spades. In this episode, Joe loses her mostly affectless reaction to love and pain and sex; and images of screwing to exorcise death and the awful decay of flesh deliver a gut-punch of meaning — perhaps the climax of the countless mostly passionless couplings that came before. I think it’s wildly off the mark to pretend that Nymphomaniac is about a woman’s sexual liberation, any more than that awful architectural dead-end at the beginning of the movie offers a room with a view. Rifling through a grabbag of genres, Nymphomaniac explores everything — genital lubrication and the Golden Ratio, the power of storytelling and ugly reality, Yggdrasil and Bach’s “Little Organ Book”— but we won’t know definitively where we have been or where we are going until Joe’s pilgrimage concludes in Nymphomaniac, Vol. 2 (due for April release).
RTJ: Assuming we know it even then. The wonderful and maddening thing about von Trier is that you never quite know what his game is. People harp on his misogyny, for instance, and yet how many — how few — filmmakers have imagined such transfiguring journeys for female protagonists to be on: Emily Watson’s character in Breaking the Waves, Bjork in Dancer in the Dark, Nicole Kidman in Dogville, Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia. Are his stylish embellishments, such as what you’ve called the Greenaway superimpositions here, just child’s play or means of hinting at a whole other dimension to what we’re watching? I still remember my astonishment, sustained throughout the film, at his feature debut The Element of Crime — this blasted black-and-white world served up in curry-sauce monochrome, with an obviously English detective making his way through an obviously not-English city trying to solve a series of crimes — a climate of crime, really — which as I recall never did reach any identifiable conclusion. And yet the calm arrogance of the film’s creator inspired a kind of faith.