Friday, June 7, 2024



The title of Flannery O'Connor's 1960 novel THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY comes from the Gospel of Matthew (11:12), but as I reread O'Connor's book recently, I was reminded more of the Gospel of Mark.

Mark differs from the other gospels in being shorter, leaner, and less expository. It has no virgin birth. Indeed, starting out, it tells us nothing at all of Jesus's early life. In Mark, Jesus simply appears among the anonymous throng of people coming from Galilee to be baptized by John the Baptist in the wilderness. Upon being baptized by the prophet, however, Jesus is immediately driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. "And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan, and was with the wild beasts." When he returns, he begins a ministry of exorcism and faith healing that he tries, repeatedly, to keep secret. While the Jesus of Mark does some teaching (though far less than in the other Gospels), he is more a man of action. And that action tends to be confronting a world of demons (including the infamous demon collective known as Legion). At the end, Christ is crucified and dies alone uttering the final words "My god, my god, why have you forsaken me." The oldest copies of Mark didn't even have a resurrection appearance. The book ended originally at Mark 16:8, with women coming to the tomb, finding it empty, and running away. The final verse reads, "Trembling and bewildered, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid."

THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY is no Christ allegory, and I don't mean to imply that its story resembles the plot of Mark's Gospel. But O'Connor's second novel (like her first, WISE BLOOD) is obsessively focused on what she once called "the action of grace in ground held largely by the devil." One need only to read Mark again to see that this also happens to be the central thrust of that evangelist's narrative. 

O'Connor's novel follows Francis Marion Tarwater, a young man running away from his calling to be a prophet. The action of the novel hinges on the death of Tarwater's great-uncle, a wild-eyed fanatic who kidnapped the boy years before and raised him in a cabin the woods, preparing him to be a prophet. When the old man dies, however, the boy tries to shrug off his calling--getting drunk and burning down the old man's house--then heads into the city to see his other uncle, an atheist schoolteacher named Rayber. But Francis finds himself fighting the urge to baptize Rayber's young son Bishop, an act that itself was prophesied by the old man before his death.   

Although WISE BLOOD and THE VILOLENT BEAR IT AWAY share many characteristics--both are about young men attempting to run away from God, both are darkly comic, and both are unmistakably the work of a Catholic author filtering her vision through the lens of Southern Protestant fundamentalism--the second book more closely resembles Mark's vision of a demonic world. If WISE BLOOD is about a man tormented by God's grace, THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY is about a man tempted by Satan and his devil possessed followers. The ghostly 'stranger' who appears at Tarwater's side, whispering in his ear to forsake his calling to preach, takes a physical form in the book's penultimate chapter, when a hitchhiking Tarwater is picked up, drugged, and raped by a stranger in a lavender suit. In the dense symbolism of the novel--the stranger takes both Tarwater's prized hat and a corkscrew bottle opener given to him by the atheist schoolteacher--Tarwater is stripped of everything he has relied on and is left naked in the woods.

This last part reminded me of two of the strangest lines in Mark--indeed, two of the oddest lines in all of the Bible--verses 14:51-52. At the Garden, when Jesus is being arrested and all his disciples have abandoned him, we are told "And there followed him a certain young man having a linen cast about his naked body, and they laid hold on him. And the young man left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked." Who is this young man? Why is he the last one with Jesus, and why is he dressed only in a sheet? Why is Mark the only writer to report his existence? We're never told, but it bears repeating that Mark is a strange, cryptic book compared to the other Gospels. In this book, where secrecy is the coin of the realm, mysteries remain intact because the narrative is more about mystery than revelation.

Like the naked young man in the Garden, Tarwater flees, and he returns to the ashes of his great-uncle's burned down house. He hears a call to "GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY." Smearing himself with dirt from the old man's grave, he prepares to begin his journey "toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping."

In both O'Connor's novel and Mark's Gospel, the prose is pared down and spare, working in the service of a vision rich in dark symbolism and mystery. Neither author reveals all they know. Or, perhaps a better way to put it is this: for both Flannery O'Connor and Mark the Evangelist, the mystery is the revelation.    



Friday, January 12, 2024

At the Movies in 2024


A running list of what I've seen on the big screen this year:

1. House of Psychotic Women (1973)-Music Box Theater

2. The Giant Behemoth (1959)- Doc Films

3. Psycho (1960)- Doc Films

4. All That Jazz (1979)- Doc Films

5. Closed Circuit (1978)- Music Box

6. American Fiction (1923)- AMC NewCity 14

7. Blow Out (1981)- Music Box

8. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2023)- Regal City North

9. Night of the Living Dead (1990)- Thalia Hall

10. Night of the Creeps (1986)- Thalia Hall

11. The Strangler (1970)- Music Box

12. The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971)- Music Box

13. My Bloody Valentine (1981)- Hollywood Blvd (Woodridge, IL)

14. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)- Facets

15. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)- Facets

16. Belle de Jour (1967)- Gene Siskel Film Center

17. Blacula (1972)- Facets

18. Messiah of Evil (1974)- Music Box Theater

19. Jeanne Dielman… (1975)- Gene Siskel Film Center

20. Dream Scenario (2023)- Facets

21. Dune 2 (2024)- Music Box Theater

22. Drive-Away Dolls (2024)- AMC NewCity 14

23. Love Lies Bleeding (2024)- Landmark Century Cinema

24. The Untouchables (1987)- Music Box

25. Problemista (2024)- Alamo Drafthouse 

26. Days of Heaven (1978)- Music Box

27. Beetlejuice (1988)- Music Box

28. Seconds (1966)- Music Box

29. The Wizard of Oz (1939)- Pickwick Theater 

30. Frogs (1972)- Facets

31. The Devil’s Rain (1975)- Facets

32. Street Trash (1987)- Facets

33. Killing Them Softly (2012)-Music Box

34. Civil War (2024)- Regal City North

35. Augure (2024)- Gene Siskel Film Center

36. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)-Music Box

37. The Fall Guy (2024)- Regal City North

38. Walkerville (2024)- Chicago Filmmakers

39. Landscape Suicide (1987)- Doc Films

40. Mother! (2017)- Music Box

41. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (2024)- Regal City North

42. Wildcat (2024)- Music Box

43. Furiosa (2024)- Regal City North

44. The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)- NEIU -Chicago Film Society 

45. Handling the Undead (2024)- AMC River East

46. The Bikeriders (2024)- AMC Village Crossing 18

47. Horizon: Chapter 1 (2024)-Regal City North

48. Chinatown (1974)-Pickwick Theater

49. Destroy All Monsters (1969) w/Svengoolie-Music Box

50. First Blood (1982)- Music Box

51. Cemetery Man (1994)- Hollywood Blvd. Cinema Woodridge

52. The Church (1989)-Hollywood Blvd. Cinema Woodridge

53. Kinds of Kindness (2024)-Music Box

54. Janet Planet (2024)-AMC NewCity 14

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

2023 at the Movies - In Review

I haven't really been on the blog this year because I've been busy with various projects. This blog itself, of course, is a relic of an older age, not just for me but for the culture at large. Online movie and book discourse loooong ago gravitated to places like Goodreads and Letterboxd, and personal blogging is more likely to be found on popular sites like Substack. Maybe I'll make it to those places one day. (I put the 'late' in late adoption.) For now, this blog is little more than a place where I track my moviegoing (again, yes, I know about Letterboxd). 

I'm not tracking my movie *watching* which would require a whole other list. This is all about seeing movies at the theater, in person, with an audience of (mostly) strangers. After the long drought of the pandemic, I've nearly bounced back to pre-Covid levels of moviegoing. My peak was 2018, when I saw 126 movies at the theater. During lockdown, of course, that shrank to next to nothing, and then slowly crawled back as theaters reopened and Hollywood started production back up. In 2022, I saw 85 films. 

In 2023, I saw 108 movies. That's a lot. That's more than two movies a week.

As always, it's a spread of classics and new stuff, art house and megaplex.

I saw 54 films at Music Box Theater, one of the best movie theaters in the country and the crown jewel of Chicago's robust cinephile community. I saw 14 films at Facets, Chicago's charmingly quirky hole-in-the-wall cinema/video rental collective. Through a work schedule fluke this year, I spent a lot of time in Skokie and ended up doing a lot of my new movie viewing at the AMC Village Crossing. I saw 11 films there. In Park Ridge there's an excellent classic film series at the historic Park Ridge Theater, and I saw 7 films there. The rest of my moviegoing was spread out among different theaters: Regal City North (6 films), the Davis Theater (4), Siskel Film Center (3), the Logan Theater (3), Regal Webster Place (2), Doc Films (2), NEIU-Chicago Film Society (1),  and Landmark Century Cinema (1). 

As is always the case with me, I saw more old movies than new releases, but I did see a lot of new releases this year. I saw 27 films released in 2023 (as well as 3 films released in 2022).

The other films I saw were spread across the decades. (The only decades unrepresented were the 1910s--which doesn't surprise me--and the 1930s--which shocks me. How did I not see a film from the 1930s this year? Odd.) Here's the breakdown decade by decade: 1920s (3), 1940s (14), 1950s (11), 1960s (9), 1970s (10), 1980s (13), 1990s (10), 2000s (3), 2010s (4), 2020s (4), 2023 (27). 

In terms of repertory, this might well have been one of the greatest years I've ever had as a moviegoer. It was great year for Orson Welles movies: I saw THE TRIAL three times, and I saw CITIZEN KANE, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, and FALSTAFF. I got to see HIGH NOON, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, PAPER MOON, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS and VERTIGO. I saw a lot of noirs at Noir City Chicago (including RAW DEAL and CRY OF THE CITY). Through the influence of my horror-fan wife, I've seen a steady increase of horror movies the last few years, and this year included highlights like RE-ANIMATOR, BLACK CHRISTMAS, and CURTAINS. 

As for new releases, with the caveat that there are still things I want to see (like THE IRON CLAW and ALL OF US STRANGERS), I do not think 2023 was a great year for movies. Certainly, I didn't see a lot of new releases that I'm convinced will stand the test of time. There are some big exceptions: POOR THINGS was the best film I saw this year, a fierce, hilarious moving work of art. I don't how Yorgos Lanthimos or Emma Stone will ever top it. (Or Mark Ruffalo, for that matter.) THE HOLDOVERS was the other big highlight of the year, a film that's perfectly balanced between humor and pathos, between wit and humanity with a trifecta of excellent performances by Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da'Vine Joy Randolph. I think it's Alexander Payne's best movie since ABOUT SCHMIDT. 

I loved KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON, and I really enjoyed both OPPENHEIMER and BARBIE. One largely unheralded film I loved was the touching (but unsentimental) French drama LES ENFANTS DES AUTRES. And I really adored the cynical Jennifer Lawrence romcom NO HARD FEELINGS. I liked and almost instantly forgot THE CREATOR, enjoyed the uneven NAPOLEON, had a lot of fun watching the grisly THANKSGIVING on Thanksgiving, was delighted by the charming THEATER CAMP, and really liked the Willem Dafoe performance in INSIDE. 

That's not a bad run of movies. But the disappointments were many, especially on the blockbuster side. The new MISSION IMPOSSIBLE was the weakest entry in the series, which is a bummer for a big M:I fan like me. INDIANA JONES had a depressingly lackluster final chapter (after the *previous* lackluster final chapter; there's a series that should have gracefully bowed out in 1989 when they stuck the perfect landing with LAST CRUSADE). The superhero movie is out of gas, and I'm pretty much done with John Wick at this point (I felt my interest flip off, like a switch, about halfway through CHAPTER 3, and nothing that happened in CHAPTER 4 regained it. At this point you can more or less predict the action beats in those movies before you even see them.) While auteurs like Lanthimos, Payne, and Scorsese all had a triumphant year, elsewhere things were rougher for the big name directors. Ari Aster's BEAU IS AFRAID had a fantastic first act, a muddled second act, and a root canal of a third act. Paul Schrader wrapped up his Man In A Room trilogy (following his career-best FIRST REFORMED and the excellent THE CARD COUNTER) on a low note with the lifeless MASTER GARDNER. David Fincher's THE KILLER, a film I hustled to the theater to see during its ultra-brief theatrical, was hardly worth the trip.

Add all of that together, though, and it adds up to a hell of a year at the movies. Here's hoping 2024 is even better.          

Monday, May 15, 2023

Live Event in Chicago

Hey Chicago people, this Thursday I'll be in conversation with the author Simon François about all things noir at The Alliance Française de Chicago. Come check it out.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Architects of Illusion: Noir Greatest Art Directors

A film noir obsession usually starts out with a focus on movie stars. When it begins to deepen, the obsession starts to focus on the director. When it gets bad enough, it spreads to an obsession with below the line talent, the names most people have never heard of. The writer, of course. The cinematographer. The producer. My own particular obsession is at the point now where I'm fascinated by the Art Director, the studio craftsperson during the classic era of noir who was in charge of designing and overseeing construction of the sets. They were as responsible as anyone for the unique visual aesthetic we call film noir. I spent a lot of last year researching and writing about these artists, and the result of my labors is a sprawling article in the new issue of NOIR CITY. It's another great issue--with a fun lead piece on "Stoner Noir" and a nice overview of the making and resurrection of one of my favorite films, Orson Welles's THE TRIAL. I'm proud that my art director article is in such fine company. 

Thursday, January 12, 2023

At the Movies in 2023

 A running list of what I've seen on the big screen this year:

1. The Unknown (1927)- Pickwick Theater

2. Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight) (1965)- Pickwick Theater

3. Ball of Fire (1941)- Music Box Theater

4. So Sweet So Perverse (1969)- Music Box

5. The Fabelmans (2021)- AMC Village Crossing 18

6. Roman Holiday (1953)- Regal City North

7. Tar (2022)- Facets

8. Ace in the Hole (1951)- Music Box

9. Bound (1996)- Facets

10. Nekromantik 2 (1991)- Music Box

11. Marlowe (2023)- Regal City North

12. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)-Music Box

13. Les Enfants des Autres (2023)-Gene Siskel Film Center

14. The Trial (1962)-Music Box

15. The Trial (1962)-Music Box (2nd time)

16. The Trial (1962)-Music Box (3rd time)

17. Creed III (2023)-Regal City North

18. Inside (2023)-Music Box

19. The Doom Generation (1995)-Music Box

20. John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023)-AMC Village Crossing 18

21. The Hunchback of the Morgue (1973)-Davis Theater

22. Beau is Afraid (2023)-Music Box

23. Runaway Train (1985)-Music Box

24. The Crow (1994)-Facets

25. Return to Seoul (2022)-Facets

26. The Conformist (1970)-Music Box

27. Citizen Kane (1941)-Doc Films

28. From Russia with Love (1963)-Pickwick Theater

29. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023)-Regal City North

30. Master Gardner (2023)-AMC River East 21

31. Vertigo (1958)-Doc Films

32. You Hurt My Feelings (2023)-Logan Theater

33. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)-Regal City North

34. Sanctuary (2023)-AMC Village Crossing 18

35. Lynch/Oz (2023)-Music Box

36. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)-Music Box

37. Killer Clowns from Outer Space (1988)-Music Box

38. Alice in Wonderland (1951)-Music Box

39. Pour Don Carlos (1921)-Music Box

40. The Flash (2023)-AMC Village Crossing 18

41. Paper Moon (1973)-Gene Siskel

42. Red River (1948)-NEIU CFS

43. If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971)-Music Box

44. The Burning Hell (1974)-Music Box

45. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023)-AMC Village Crossing 18

46. Mission: Impossible -Dead Reckoning: Part 1 (2023)-AMC Village Crossing 18

47. Puppet Master (2018)-Facets

48. Hatching (2022)-Facets

49. No Hard Feelings (2023)-AMC Village Crossing 18

50. Oppenheimer (2023)-AMC Village Crossing 18

51. Barbie (2023)-AMC Village Crossing 18

52. Theater Camp (2023)-AMC Village Crossing 18

53. Body Melt (1993)-Music Box

54. Accion Mutante (1993)-Music Box

55. Kaboom (2010)-Music Box Garden

56. John Dies at the End (2012)-Music Box Garden

57. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)-Music Box

58. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)-Music Box

59. ET (1982)- Pickwick Theater

60. Key Largo (1948)- Music Box NCC

61. The Lady from Shanghai (1948)- Music Box NCC

62. Force of Evil (1948)- Music Box NCC

63. The Spiritualist (1948)- Music Box NCC

64. Road House (1948)- Music Box NCC

65. The Big Clock (1948)- Music Box NCC

66. The Naked City (1948)- Music Box NCC 

67. Chicago Deadline (1949)- Music Box NCC

68. Blood on the Moon (1948)- Music Box NCC

69. Cry of the City (1948)- Music Box NCC

70. Raw Deal (1948)- Music Box NCC

71. High Noon (1952)- Pickwick Theater

72. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)- Gene Siskel Film Center

73. The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)- Davis Theater

74. Re-Animator (1985)- Davis Theater

75. Black Christmas (1974)- Davis Theater

76. Horrors of Malformed Men (1969)- Music Box

77. Near Dark (1987)- Music Box

78. Winter Kills (1979)- Music Box

79. The Crow (1994)- Music Box

80. Angel Heart (1986)- Music Box

81. Bride of Chucky (1998)- Music Box

82. Waxworks (1924)- Music Box

83. Aliens (1986)- Music Box

84. Don’t Open the Window (1974)- Facets

85. Don’t Go in the House (1979)- Facets

86. Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)- Regal Webster 11

87. The Creator (2023)- Regal City North

88. The Tingler (1959)- Music Box

89. The Killer (2023)- Landmark Century Cinema

90. Big Shark (2023)- Music Box

91. The Holdovers (2023)- Music Box

92. Thanksgiving (2023)- Regal Webster Place

93. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)- Music Box

94. Napoleon (2023)- Regal North City

95. The Night of the Hunter (1955)- Music Box

96. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)- Music Box

97. The Seven Year Itch (1955)- Music Box

98. Camilla Vive! (2023)- Logan Theater

99. Curtains (1983)- Facets

100. 2046 (2004)- Facets

101. Batman Returns (1992)-Facets

102. All that Heaven Allows (1955)- Facets

103. Die Hard (1988)- Pickwick Theater

104. Inside (2007)- Facets

105. The Apartment (1960)- Facets

106. Christine (1983)- Music Box

107. Poor Things (2023)- Logan Theater

108. Rear Window (1954)- Music Box

Last Year at the Movies

Last year marked my full return to in-person moviegoing. My numbers didn't reach the heights of 2018 when I hit a personal best of 126 movies, but in 2022 I did manage to see 85 movies at the theater. That's better than a movie a week, which is nothing to be ashamed of. 

This was not a great year for the movies, I'd say. We continued to see the slow death of the midbudget film, the star vehicle, and the kind of bread-and-butter adult-skewing movies that used to keep Hollywood in business. My favorite new movies this year were mostly flops: I loved both TAR (my number one of the year) and THE NORTHMAN. I really liked BABYLON, a flawed film, sure, but the kind of flawed film that I go for--indulgent, over-the-top and fun. I also really liked smaller unsung films like RESURRECTION and SUNDOWN.

I didn't like EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE as much as other people did, and I thought BULLET TRAIN was mostly a waste of a good concept and cast. TOP GUN: MAVERICK was a lot of fun, though it's funny to see it touted as some kind of masterpiece. I'm more of an Ethan Hunt guy than a Maverick guy, I guess. (Very excited for the new Mission Impossible out this year.)

As is always the case, the best movies I saw at the theater last year were mostly old movies. Highlights included favorites like THE MALTESE FALCON, EYES WIDE SHUT, BLAST OF SILENCE, CAT PEOPLE and more. Last year also marked the return of Noir City Chicago, which was a delight. The highlight of that was a showing of FLESH AND BONE, my first time to see the movie in a theater since it came out back in the 90s. 

Here's a breakdown of my moviegoing last year by decade:

Total films seen on the big screen: 85

2022: 20

2020s: 4

2010s: 1

2000s: 8

1990s: 9

1980s: 9

1970s: 5

1960s: 6

1950s: 9

1940s: 8

1930s: 1

1920s: 5

1910s: 0