Posted in: Film Noir, Film Reviews

Will Eisner, Frank Miller and “The Spirit”

“… I piped up with my own theories about the relationship between comic books and movies. Without realizing it, I’d essentially characterized comics as the poor man’s film, thinking each panel the equivalent of a frozen frame of celluloid. Will [Eisner] ripped me to pieces…. What counts, he told me, is panel content, the function of the individual panel to advance the story. Every panel must have story content, he insisted, despite my protests. If you want to make movies, go make movies. …

“(W)hat Will argued is at the very heart of the enduring appeal of The Spirit. And it’s one reason why, to this day, The Spirit remains not only a stunning body of work, but an essential lesson in what comics are, and what they can do.”

– Frank Miller, 2000, recalling a conversation with Will Eisner, in his introduction to The Spirit Archives Volume 4

Will Eisner's "The Spirit"
Will Eisner's "The Spirit"

Will Eisner was one of the most revered and respected creators in the history of comics. An innovator all his life, he is credited with coining the term “graphic novel” in the seventies for his landmark A Contract with God. The Spirit, which he created in 1940 and wrote/drew/supervised through the early 1950s, is his masterpiece, a mix of superhero comic, pulp fiction crime story and witty tales of the city, told in a deft and lightfingered storytelling style and drawn with a style bursting with color and energy and personality. He was as a short story writer in the medium of graphic storytelling, with cinematic visual style adapted to the graphic snapshot of sequential art. It’s the art of his work more than the durability of his character that made his stories so essential and inimitable.

Frank Miller was a fan, student and (later) friend of Eisner who incorporated the lessons of the master into his increasing stylized, post-noir pulp style, first exhibited in his hard, austere Daredevil comics and, to some degree, epitomized in the Sin City graphic novels and subsequent film, which Miller co-directed with Robert Rodriguez. He makes his solo debut with his adaptation of The Spirit, a labor of love that he took on because he didn’t want to see some director screw it up.

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Posted in: Essays, Faith and Religion, Film Reviews

In Praise of “Doubt” in the Certainty of Cinema

With every review I read of Doubt, I get the nagging feeling that I’ve seen a different film. It’s certain that I’ve had a different experience. Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s screen adaptation of his own play and the first film he has directed since Joe Versus the Volcano, continues to rumble through my mind because the ideas and conflicts left unresolved in the film. This is Shanley’s witch hunt play, his Crucible, with a very specifically American setting and the reverberations it carries. I never saw the stage production of John Patrick Shanley’s original play in any incarnation, let alone the Broadway run, and though I keep hearing the familiar chorus “It worked better on stage,” I wonder of having seen the stage play is preventing viewers from actually seeing the film.

Meryl Streep has her certainty
Meryl Streep has her certainty

While the cinema can be used effectively to express ambiguity, it is also a medium of concrete imagery and particular sense of certainty: it’s a mystery until the reveal, where we have the privileged view of seeing what happened, or at least seeing the evidence left behind and being provided an explanation that answers all questions. There is no such certainty in Doubt. It’s not Rashomon (everyone lies), it’s not Les Girls (everyone tells the truth in their own way, as Sarris so lovingly put it), and it’s certainly not The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris’ brilliant documentary that “recreates” various testimonies to illustrate how great minor discrepancies can be. There are no conflicting witnesses here, there is no forensic evidence to sift, there isn’t an accusing victim, merely the suspicion of a criminal act and one person’s drive for justice (or at the very least protective action) in a system that (as we all know too well given recent revelations) is more concerned with self-preservation than self-policing.

Set in the church and Catholic school of a largely Irish and Italian neighborhood of the Bronx in 1964, the film embraces so much – racism and integration, the tensions between the old Catholic traditions and the modernization of the church and its public outreach in the sixties, the acts of pedophilia perpetrated by priests and covered up by the church, hypocrisy, faith, power, morality – without lecturing or hectoring, placing it all within the very human struggle of fallible people doing what they think is right. Or at least that’s what we hope. The crux is, no surprise, in the title. Sunny, optimistic idealist Sister James (Amy Adams), a young nun teaching history to junior high boys and girls, witnesses what is at best circumstantial evidence of an improper relationship between the friendly and warm Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the well liked priest whose sermons bring religion to earth, and the school’s first African-American student, the brunt of student bullying. Flynn has extended his protection and support to the boy, but the imperious Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the authoritarian principal who fulfills every stereotype of the officious Catholic school who wraps the knuckles of distracted boys, suspects something more. Or is it that she just doesn’t like Flynn, whose new ways collide with her strict standards? “You don’t have any proof,” Father Flynn says to her when she vows to see him removed from the parish. “I have my certainty,” she replies. Belief without proof. Faith, in other words. She has no room for doubt. We aren’t so privileged.

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Posted in: Film Reviews

“Un Conte De Noel” (“A Christmas Tale”): The Messy Joys of Family

“We’re in the middle of a midst of a myth and I don’t know what myth it is.”
– Henri (Mathieu Amalric)

In the opening of Arnaud Desplechin’s Un Conte De Noel (A Christmas Tale), a wily and knotty and unendingly inventive drama of family dysfunction stirred up over a Christmas gathering, the story of the long-ago death of the family first born to leukemia is dramatized as shadow puppet theater. It’s tender and lovely and quite delicate, an evocative way to suggest the theatricality of memory and the blurring of detail over time.

Two and a half hours later, as eldest sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) sits at her desk putting her thoughts of family and fears and sins she can’t forgive into a diary in the final shots of the film, a photo of the that very shadow theater can be seen on her desk. It’s the final shot of the film and it echoes the opening images in a whisper. It doesn’t explain everything, and it may not explain anything, but it’s the kind of detail that connects imagery and meaning, memory and emotion, past and present, life and death.

Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve
Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve: Midnight Mass

The shadow of that death hovers over the film: in the cancer that family matron Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has been diagnosed with, in the fragility of her teenage grandson Paul (Emile Berling), and in the volatile sibling dynamics that drove eldest Elizabeth to, in effect, legally separate herself from her brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric, in a mesmerizingly manic-depressive performance).

“Henri is the disease,” Elizabeth tells us in one of the film’s direct address monologues, but perhaps the disease is in the blood – the same blood that killed Joseph at age six, the same that will eventually kill her mother (even with a bone marrow transplant, which will only give her a few more years – they have the mathematical formula to prove it!), and maybe the same that haunts her son, Paul. For whatever reasons, Paul seeks out his outcast Uncle Henri and invites him to the family Christmas from which he’s been banished for five years. It helps stir up quite a holiday nog, complete with a brutal little brawl and a bit of adultery that may come some way to smoothing over a few emotional rough patches.

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Posted in: Film Reviews, Westerns

“Seven Men from Now” – A Cinema Masterpiece

The following essay, adapted from a review published in Queen Anne News (Seattle), appears in the new anthology from the National Society of Film Critics, The B List, edited by David Sterritt and John Anderson (Da Capo Press).

The making of Seven Men from Now was a modest enterprise. John Wayne’s old Batjac production company had a B-movie arm in addition to the main unit, which set up A-class vehicles for producer-star Wayne, and Seven Men From Now, which clocks in at a second-feature length of just under an hour and 20 minutes, was produced under its auspices for release by Warner Bros.

Randolph Scott in "Seven Men From Now"
Randolph Scott in "Seven Men From Now"

The screenwriter, Burt Kennedy, was a newcomer who’d been scribbling for radio; the director, Budd Boetticher, was a colorful fellow who’d started as a bullfighter in Mexico, made some trim B movies in the ’40s—and one distinctive, highly personal film, The Bullfighter and the Lady (produced by Wayne, as it happens) in 1950—and then reverted to only slightly more upscale Bs later in the decade. At the time Seven Men from Now went into production, Wayne was busy giving his finest performance ever in John Ford’s Western The Searchers, so the leading role fell to Randolph Scott, a fading star who’d been working in mostly unremarkable Westerns since the mid-’40s.

No one at Batjac or at Warners was expecting more from Seven Men from Now than reasonable profitability. Yet the three men’s talents blended uncannily, producing the best movie by far ever to sport the Batjac label. It’s not just a terrific Western but a cinema masterpiece—an ironical, beautifully spare bit of storytelling that became the ideal showcase for Scott’s sandy reticence.

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Posted in: Film Reviews, Horror

“Videodrome” – Long Live the New Flesh

Just a few years into the 21st century, Olivier Assayas wrote in The Village Voice: “Cronenberg’s visionary Videodrome is the most important film of this generation. Time has only reinforced its audacity.” It’s been 25 years since David Cronenberg’s first masterpiece drilled its mutant images into the minds of unsuspecting audiences, and Videodrome is as contemporary and relevant as ever.

"Videodrome" - love you television
"Videodrome" - a slave to the signal

You can trace David Cronenberg’s meditations on technology, disease, addiction, and mutation in the body human all the way back to his earliest shorts (Stereo and Crimes of the Future) and features (Shivers and Rabid). Like George Romero before him, Cronenberg’s earliest films brought horror out of the past and into modern life, breaking taboos and barriers of good taste along the way. He makes his ideas physical and visceral, in a way that you can see and almost feel. It only becomes sharper and more resonant with his remake of The Fly, where he charts the transformation in gooey detail that looks like some diseased attack on the human body (it’s been called a metaphor for AIDS) and eXistenZ, a virtual reality game made flesh, where the line between fantasy and reality doesn’t so much blur as dissolve and overpowering artificial stimulus comes back to effect physical reality.

Even his most recent films explore the same ideas, only instead of some outside agent, he focuses on the way violence and emotion play upon our minds and our bodies. In Spider, the human mind creates a reality for its main character because the truth of his actions are too much to handle: psychosis as a kind of evolutionary fail safe, and this reality created from within is as real to him as the physical world. In A History of Violence, the past that the hero Tom wants to ignore and deny, his repressed history of violence, emerges like a dormant virus when he and his family are under threat. And it emerges without thought — it’s pure instinct, like a hardwired reflex kicked into action with the surge of adrenaline. An essential part of Cronenberg’s genius is making his concepts physical, visceral, alive. It’s what makes his ideas so powerful.

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Posted in: Film Reviews, Horror

Together again for the first time: “Exorcist” prequel shows the franchise past its expiration date

[Originally written for Queen Anne News, 2004]

As long as I can remember, I’ve loved horror movies. Growing up in a family and a small town that buried all the bad stuff under silence, politeness and euphemism, I took guilty pleasure in stories about monsters getting loose in the dark, scaring all the pillars of community to death. Scared me, too, but deep down, I confess I was primally tickled when vampires, blobs, giant bugs, werewolves and aliens broke all the rules. What delight when some long-faced mayor/military officer/scientist/minister, confronted by nightmare, had to eat his platitudes!

The Beginning"?
Father Merinn facing his demons in "Exorcist: The Beginning"?

But even if her Peter Pan’s one of the beautiful and damned Lost Boys (1987), Wendy must grow up. And growing up means learning how few movie-monsters wear anything like the real face of evil. That’s because the most toxic spillage of evil, as Hannah Arendt tellingly observed, is often everyday, slow, banal, gray — so humdrum it’s the rule, not the exception. How can a movie express such an unremarked blight?

Exorcist: The Beginning reminds one, with a vengeance, that most mainstream films don’t tackle Arendt’s brand of evil — and the kind they do take on is generally silly, phantasms born of infantile imaginations. By their very nature, movies aim to make moral-ethical states visible, shaping the inner journey into palpable adventure. That’s especially true of American films, designed primarily for entertainment rather than epiphany.

Horrorshows like this prequel to 1973’s genuinely scary The Exorcist have become ever more literal and physical, dominated by a Grand Guignol fascination with the myriad ways the human body can be mutilated.

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Posted in: Directors, Essays, Film Reviews

Why Is This Film Called “Birth”?: Investigating Jonathan Glazer’s Mystery of the Heart

[Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is currently reissuing a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. Author Robert C. Cumbow is a member of the Parallax View collective and his essays are being published simultaneously on Parallax View. The essay below was first published on 23/01/2006, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).]

We aimed to make something robust in which every question leads to another. I’m not a Buddhist and I don’t believe in reincarnation; I don’t think I could do a film about it if I did. I was more interested in the idea of eternal love. I wanted to make a mystery, the mystery of the heart.

– Jonathan Glazer

You know you’re seeing something special from the very beginning.

In what you soon understand to be a prologue, but for now you take at face value, you hear the words “OK.” It’s a disembodied voice, a lecturer or an interview subject, apparently, but there’s no image, just a dark screen, so you don’t know who’s talking or why. “OK,” says the voice, “let me say this …” Potent words for the opening of a film. Maybe a little self-important, but let it go. For now anyway.

The voice goes on:

If I lost my wife and, uh, the next day, a little bird landed on my windowsill, looked me right in the eye, and in plain English said, ‘Sean, it’s me, Anna. I’m back …’ What could I say? I guess I’d believe her. Or I’d want to. I’d be stuck with a bird. But other than that, no. I’m a man of science. I just don’t believe that mumbo-jumbo. Now, that’s gonna have to be the last question. I need to go running before I head home.

Anything may be possible. But not likely. Class dismissed.

And now you hear music, an insistent repeating flute motif like the sound of a chirping bird echoes the bird-on-the-window metaphor of the lecturer. But these echoes of springtime are betrayed by the image that we at last see: Central Park in the snow, and a bundled, hooded man on his daily run. Bright light, cold air.

Setup 1 is a long following shot of the running man. This is a main title shot if ever there was one, since all we see is this man running in front of us. A good time to run the opening credits, but we don’t get them. Instead, all our attention is directed to the shot. Four dogs dart across the runner’s path. The runner enters a short tunnel and only then does the title appear: Birth.

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Posted in: Film Reviews, Horror

“The Descent”: In the destructive element immerse…

[originally published in Queen Anne News, August 2006]

I was telling my friend about The Descent, one of the most authentically terrifying horror movies I’ve seen in years, when she called a halt to my rhapsodizing about its scare tactics. She wasn’t kidding. Movie stuff that comes oozing up from the darkness behind the brain seriously freaks her out. So how come I’ve loved hair-raisers since forever? What’s in it for me?

Maybe it’s connected with going about as far as you can go into really bad places (we’re not talking dreck flicks here, but genre classics) … and coming back alive. A film like this breathtaking British stunner works like a nightmare trip, the darkside equivalent of a vision quest. Vicariously surviving The Descent into hell confirms your power over death. The best horror movies teach us that, rephrasing Dylan Thomas, we do not have to go gentle into that bad night.

"The Descent" - into the caves
"The Descent" - into the caves

The Descent opens with instant kinesis: a trio of women, high on risk and adrenaline, fighting their way down extreme rapids, while a man and a little girl watch from a nearby bluff. Director Neil Marshall clues you in from the film’s exhilarating get-go that his tough, resourceful heroines are larger than wives and mothers. Forget the sidelines: these women game hard, testing their physical skill and courage to the limit.

Scant time, after leaving the river, to chill out before what feels like a scene of riskless calm is horrendously shattered. You’ve hardly settled down from mastering those wild rapids before getting body-slammed by a terrible tragedy out of the blue. The movie nails down — in your nerve-endings — the difference between courting danger in extreme sports and the way everyday killing violence comes unbidden, without warning.

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Posted in: Essays, Film Reviews

Skolimowski: “Deep End”

[Originally written for the University of Washington Office of Cinema Studies Film Series “Love and Death,” November 15, 1983]

The original poster: hair turns to blood, or maybe just red

Jerzy Skolimowski. The name does not come trippingly to the Anglo-Saxon tongue, but it’s worth fixing in mind all the same, for Skolimowski is one of the sharpest filmmakers now living. He doesn’t get to make a lot of films, and none that he’s made has won wide or conspicuous release. But every time I see one of his best moves—Barrier, Deep End, Moonlighting, much of The Shout—I come away exhilarated and a little awestruck at the nimbleness and suggestibility of his cinematic imagination. Few films are so quirkily, relentlessly alive. Few succeed so vividly in evoking a distinctive vision of life, in which the abstract and the concrete, the accidental and the poetically inevitable, trade off and reinvigorate one another as naturally as the heart pumps blood.

Blood is the first thing we see in Deep End. Or it may be red paint. Or it may simply be (as Jean-Luc Godard had it in Pierrot le fou) red. One of the moments I always think of first when I reflect back on this movie is a daftly barbed encounter between Sue and the bathhouse cashier. Sue drifts into the cashier’s vicinity and begins lazily to consume a milkshake. The cashier, an older woman, less attractive, more desperate, and weight-conscious, does her utmost to ignore the provocation; she glares without glaring. As so often in the film, the architecture of the scene is fraught with tension and definition. Sue moves to a bench across the corridor and eases down onto it; the cashier sits, half cut off from view, in her window. Hold this no-(wo)man’s-land composition a moment. Then this disembodied hand seems to reach out of the wall beyond the cashier and paint a hot red streak up and down the background. The explanation is perfectly rational: we have had ample opportunity to notice that the baths are undergoing a token cosmetic renovation, and in this case a painter has simply been working his way down the hall that intersects our focal corridor at the back of the shot. (He steps fully into view a few seconds later, a wholly anonymous, dramatically irrelevant personage.) Still, that first shock of red bursting against the otherwise bilious environment is at once profoundly unsettling and giddily satisfying. One wants to laugh and gasp in the same breath: laugh at the outrageous obtrusiveness of this stylistic comment, and gasp at how directly it speaks to the derangement of this deceptively prosaic world.

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Posted in: Commentary, DVD, Essays, Film Reviews

Skolimowski: “Barrier” ( “Bariera”)

[Originally written for the University of Washington Office of Cinema Studies Film Series “Voices and Visions,” April 20, 1982]

Tight shot: a man’s back, naked, bent, straining; his bands tied behind him; his head, whether yearning forward or bowed in fear and trembling, unseen. The posture faintly evokes your basic bullet-in-the-back-of-the-neck, Darkness at Noon–style execution. The Latin recitation somewhere just offscreen imparts a suggestion of religiosity to the agony. The man strains harder, balances precariously, and tips out of frame — out of existence, we might as well say, for he seems to have been lost in the white, infinite void of the empty screen.

Jan Nowicki and Joanna Szczerbic in "Barrier"

Well, forget all that, because it’s wrong. Nobody’s getting executed or awaiting the zealot’s lash, and the infinite whiteness is just the bare wall of a room in a university dormitory shared by four premed students. They’ve also shared a ritual, over the years, of collecting their spare change in a piggybank, and now the time has come to see which of them gets to keep it. They could cut cards or play one-potata two-potata, but where’s the perversity in that? No, they turn it into a ritual ordeal, wherein each aspirant assumes the aforementioned position kneeling on the edge of a table, leeeeeeeans forward, tries to pluck up a matchbox, poised about two feet out, with his mouth, and (that’s not all, no, that’s not all, that would be too easy), having plucked it, seeks to resume his former kneeling-upright position as opposed to falling very painfully on his chin, nose, brow, or all three once they’ve been compacted into a single pulpy mass. First guy to succeed wins the piggy.

It’s that simple. In fact, quite often in Barrier things prove to be that simple, although we need a little time and a little looking-around before we can appreciate the fact. What seems weird, freaky, outré frequently turns out to be just the way things are in this neighborhood. That screaming of a soul in torment as the hero roves about a strange, shrouded white corridor? Well, you see, next door there’s a dentist’s office; and the shrouds, that’s no big deal — some students are supposed to come over later and clean the place up, and I mean, we wouldn’t want the antlers (huh?!) getting dusty….

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