Friday, August 27, 2021

French Summer: LA PISCINE and MONSIEUR HULOT'S HOLIDAY


 

As we stagger out of August into an uncertain September, I'd like to report on the unintentional gift I gave myself this summer. I watched LA PISCINE (1969) a few weeks ago at the Music Box Theater, and it was the perfect mid-summer movie--sunny, sexy, and languorous. The film has just been released in a restored print, and it was a surprise hit this summer in New York, inspiring repeat viewings from enraptured audiences and a predicable high brow backlash from the NEW YORKER. Why a 52 year old French film should suddenly be thrust back into public consciousness and discourse is up for debate, though most people seem to agree that the carnal beauty of stars Alain Delon and Romy Schneider, both of whom are worshipped by director Jacques Deray's camera, is reason enough.

But back to me for a moment. The gift I gave myself wasn't just LA PISCINE at mid-summer, it was also a viewing of MONSIEUR HULOT'S HOLIDAY (1953) a couple of nights ago. Jacques Tati's film is a gentle comedy about a group of people vacationing at a seaside resort. It was Tati's first film featuring his greatest creation, Monsieur Hulot (played by Tati himself) a well-meaning bumbler who makes quiet comic havoc of everything he touches. The film, like all the Hulot films that followed this one, is nearly dialogue free. The comedy comes from smartly observed details and tiny gestures (the repeated creak of a door, the way an elderly couple go for a stroll as if on promenade) rather than big set pieces (though there is a fireworks display at the end). At the end, everyone says their farewells, packs up and goes home.

I didn't plan this French bookend to the summer, with Deray's sexy, sweaty thriller on one end and Tati's sweetly humanist comedy on the other, but the combination turns out to be perfect.

Try it next year.  

     

Thursday, July 1, 2021

VERDORRTES LAND


 The German addition of DRY COUNTY will be released in October, and I am in love with the cover. Love love love it.

Friday, June 4, 2021

DRY COUNTY at Southern Literary Review



There's a nice piece by Thomas O'Grady up over at Southern Literary Review that looks at my novel DRY COUNTY alongside Chris Offutt's COUNTRY DARK, contextualizing them both within the genre of "country noir." It's a smart look at both novels, so go check it out here.    

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

At the Movies In 2021


 

An ongoing list of what I've seen on the big screen this year:

1. Jaws (1975)- ChiTown Drive-In

2. Night of Kings (2021)- Music Box Theater

3. The Human Voice (2021)- Music Box

4. Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)- Music Box

5. Heat (1995)- Music Box

6. Ocean's 11 (2001)- Music Box

7. Rififi (1955)- Music Box

8. The Story of a Three Day Pass (1967)- Music Box

9. The Navigator (1924)-Pickwick Theater

10. The Lucky Dog (1921)- Pickwick

11. Shoulder Arms (1919)- Pickwick

12. Playtime (1967)- Music Box

13. The Amusement Park (1973)- Music Box

14. Jerry Maguire (1996)- Regal City North

15. A Quiet Place Part II (2021)- Regal

16. Summer of 85 (2021)- Music Box

17. Mama Weed (2021)- Music Box

18. Stillwater (2021)- AMC River East

19. The Return of Boston Blackie (1927)- City News Cafe

20. Black Widow (2021)- Logan Theater

21. The Green Knight (2021)-Music Box

22. The Suicide Squad (2021)-Logan Theater

23. La Piscine (1969)- Music Box

24. The Third Man (1949)- Music Box

25. Le Cercle Rouge (1970)- Music Box

26. Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)- Music Box

27. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings (2021)-Logan Theater

28. A Foreign Affair (1948)- Music Box

29. Greed (1924)- Music Box

30. A Corner in Wheat (1909)- Music Box

31. Dimland (2021)- Music Box

32. The Card Counter (2021)- Landmark Century Centre Cinema

Friday, May 14, 2021

Heist Films to Soothe the Troubled Soul

 


Man, it's good to get back into the theater. After averaging about two or three visits to the cinema per week for the last few years, 2020 was brutal for me. In March of last year, my weekly habit came to and end. Which was a bummer. I don't just like going to the movies. I don't just love going to the movies. I NEED to go to the movies.

I managed to piece together a few visits to drive-ins last year. I saw JAWS and A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. It was fun, but drive-ins are more about the experience of going to a drive-in than the experience of seeing a movie (if you follow my meaning).

Music Box Theater opened up with reduced capacity earlier this year, and I saw a handful of films (NIGHT OF KINGS from the Ivory Coast, and Almodovar's new short film THE HUMAN VOICE along with his classic WOMAN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN). All of this was good for me, a nice gentle return to the warm refuge of the movie theater.

This week (ironically, the week that the CDC dropped their big announcement that vaccinated folks could go maskless in public) I returned to the Music Box for their series on heist films. I saw HEAT, OCEAN'S 11, and RIFIFI.

These were movies to soothe the soul, at least if your soul is as weird as mine. HEAT (1995) has achieved the level of beloved classic for a lot of people, a status it deserves. It's such a precise movie, so careful in its construction and deft in its execution that it is easy to overlook that it's a flawed film. Its handling of the love interests of the two leading characters is unconvincing and burdened with cliche in a way that the rest of the film is not. For most of its running time, though, HEAT is able to transcend the cops and robbers conceit by leaning into it, by seeming to gather the entire crime genre into its loving embrace. It's the modern crime film by which all others are measured, for good reason.

OCEAN'S 11 (2001) is a lark, a fluffy confection of handsome men (and one pretty woman) running around Vegas in nice clothes, exchanging witty banter, while the director sets up an amusingly convoluted switcharoo. Funny enough, the Vegas pastime that the movie reminds you of isn't gambling, it's magic. Watching the film is like watching a slight of hand trick. It takes you in, diverts your attention, and you forget about it as soon as it's over.

RIFIFI (1955) is about as far away from OCEAN'S as you can get, considering the surface similarity of their plots: an ex-con puts together a crew for one last big job. But OCEAN'S does what most big budget heist movies do these days: it sets up an impossible fortress to penetrate and then unveils vaguely explained technologies that make it possible to penetrate. (This is the plot of every MISSION IMPOSSIBLE movie so far.) RIFIFI on the other hand gives us hard work in place of gadgets. This gang of crooks has to do hard manual labor to break into a jewelry store, bypass the alarm, and break into a safe. (All done in a long masterful sequence with no dialog.) No one in OCEAN'S ever breaks a sweat. In RIFIFI they sweat their asses off. 

 RIFIFI is preeminent among heist films, for good reason. It does everything a heist film is supposed to do and does it better than most, but it also dramatizes the underlying ethos of the whole genre. Heist films are working class films. They're rarely about passion (the way, say, the femme fatale plot is always about passion). They're about people trying to earn a living, any way possible.

It was such a joy to be back in the theater, watching these films. Here's hoping we can all get safely back to going to the movies soon.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Joan Bennett and the Post-Sexual Femme Fatale: HIGHWAY DRAGNET (1954)

 


The main reason to see HIGHWAY DRAGNET is to get a glimpse of something you don’t see in a lot of classic Hollywood cinema, a great female movie star in her middle age. Many of the great male stars of the golden age were allowed to age onscreen. People like Bogart, Gable, Cooper, and Stewart did some of their best work in their forties and fifties. John Wayne didn’t really become John Wayne until he’d shed his youthful beauty and became an autocratic authority figure.

Actresses, however, had a tougher go of it. Even more than their male counterparts, they were valued for their youth and beauty. They were symbols, above all else, of vitality. Middle-aged actresses, on the other hand, were usually accorded no sexual identity. As they entered their forties and fifties, they were often turned into mothers or maids, even while their old costars like Bogart and Cooper were paired with younger and younger women. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford delayed this demotion longer than most, but even those two titans finally made some kind of peace with the grim reality that they’d lost their prized commodity—their youth—and became grotesqueries for hire in horror movies like WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?

Joan Bennett had a tougher time than most. She’d been a huge star in the early forties—and was particularly adept at playing bad girls in films like SCARLETT STREET—but when an adulterous affair ended with her husband shooting her lover, Bennett’s career came crashing down. A sex scandal and middle age were a bad combination at the box office. Bennett’s days as a star were over. She didn’t find steady work again until the late sixties when she nabbed a supporting role on the hit show DARK SHADOWS. (Later, she would take her own BABY JANE-like turn toward the grotesque in 1977’s SUSPIRIRA).

In 1954, however, Bennett appeared in an interesting little sunbaked noir called HIGHWAY DRAGNET. The film stars Richard Conte as Jim Henry, a Korean war vet who gets into an argument with a blond barfly (played by Mary Beth Hughes) in a Vegas casino. The next morning, the girl turns up dead. Implicated in the murder, Henry escapes the cops and hitches a ride with two women, a pretty young model named Susan (Wanda Hendrix) and a surly photographer named Mrs. Cummings (Bennett).

Movie logic dictates that one of these three people is the killer. Since we know it’s not Conte, and since Wanda Hendrix exudes a purity as fresh as newly fallen snow, that pretty much leaves us to watch Bennett. The plot twists in the final act of the film are outlandish, but Bennett remains as fascinating a presence as ever. What’s most striking about her here is how she operates outside of the sexual arena she used to dominate. Writing for the journal NOIR CITY, the scholar Foster Hirsch pointed out that she “is cast here as a post-sexual character, a woman pushed to crime because she has been romantically ostracized.” What Bennett brings to the role is the cumulative weight of her screen persona—the danger she embodied in her Fritz Lang films, the world-weariness she exuded in HOLLOW TRIUMPH when she told Paul Henreid “It’s a bitter little world.” In HIGHWAY DRAGNET we get to see that persona further down the road, the post-sexual femme fatale, a little worse for wear but still pissed off and still defiant.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Movies Before 1975


 

Poor Rick Rojas. A couple of weeks ago he was just a reporter for the New York Times. Then he made the mistake of going on Twitter to trash CITIZEN KANE. By itself, taking a shot at the Orson Welles classic isn't really such a big deal, of course. Ever since it was enshrined as "The Greatest Movie of All Time" by cinephiles back in the 60s and 70s, it's been fair game for iconoclasts and contrarians. But Rojas went on to say that he had a policy of not watching any movie made before 1975. Reaction, as it often is on Twitter, was swift, fierce, and completely out of proportion. Even TCM dunked on this guy. And keep in mind, Rojas isn't even a film critic. He's just a dude who tweeted out something goofy.

What do I think about the goofy thing he tweeted? Well, I have a few thoughts.

1. Old movies are my life. I mean, they really, really are. I honestly can't imagine life without Orson Welles, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, Olivia de Havilland, Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Lizabeth Scott, Robert Mitchum, Jean Arthur... I could keep listing famous names, but you get the point. 

2. But no one is obligated to like anything. You're not obligated to like an Orson Welles movie. And I'm obsessed with Orson Welles. Orson Welles isn't just my favorite filmmaker, I think he's my favorite subject. But because of that, because of the twenty-something books I've read about Orson Welles, and the thousands of words I've written about Orson Welles, I can tell you that he would have been horrified by the idea that one of his films had become so calcified in consensus that it become above rebuke. No one is obligated to like anything. 

3. Why 1975? I'm a big fan of 1975 because I was born that year. Big fan. But even if you're the kind of person who thinks you don't like movies from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, why dismiss the first half of the 70s? I mean, THE GODFATHER was released in 1972, and GODFATHER II was released in 74. Those are pretty good flicks... You know what was released in 1990? GODFATHER III.

4. But I'm assuming 1975 was an arbitrary date. Again, we're talking about a random tweet by a guy who probably didn't anticipate the shitstorm of movie geek outrage he was unleashing with his hot take. So why does it matter? Well, it doesn't actually matter, of course. But...

5. This IS part of a larger discussion about movies. No one knows what the future of movies looks like. Even pre-Covid the movie business was experiencing massive shifts and facing major challenges. But the history of film is there for all of us. Human beings have been making movies all over the world for well over a hundred years. There is so much to experience. Which isn't to say that it's for everyone. Again, no one is obligated to like anything. But watching an old movie can be a fascinating experience precisely because they're made in a style that isn't the current vogue. They contain different ways of telling stories, featuring different acting styles, and are photographed in ways that simply don't exist anymore, even when modern day filmmakers do their best to imitate the old studio look. Nothing looks like CASABLANCA. It's a foreign object. (And this is to say nothing of silent movies, which play like artifacts from another planet.)

I think of classic movies like classical music. Not everyone likes Beethoven. And, hey, you don't have to. No one's obligated to like anything. But, man, Beethoven was pretty amazing. 

And so, by the way, was Orson Welles. 

P.S. It's worth adding that when we have these kinds of discussions in the West we tend to have a Hollywood-centric view of things. Thus, the failures and sins of classic American films in terms of representation (both in the general omission of people of color both in front of and behind the camera much of the time, and in the commission of racist, sexist, homophobic stereotypes) tend to overshadow an important point: "classic cinema" is world cinema. So when we talk about movies made before 1975, we're also talking about the work of African and Asian filmmakers, we're talking about the work of women around the world, and we're talking about the history of queer cinema, a legacy that extends back to the silent era. The world of pre-75 cinema is a world that is rich and large and virtually inexhaustible. Go get you some.