Tag Archives: Disney

Wonder Woman

Warner Bros. owns Wonder Woman and they need permission for every little thing you do,…Unfortunately, they didn’t want them stepping on the character that they own. – Lynda Carter

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In October, 2016, the character Wonder Woman was designated by the United Nations to be the Honorary Ambassador For The Empowerment Of Women And Girls. This was months before Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) had its domestic release, but this gesture on the part of the UN is clearly indicative of both the strength of Warner Brothers/DC Comics’ publicity machine as well as the discourse surrounding the film that this publicity machine perpetuated.

When Wonder Woman was released a couple of weeks ago social networks exploded with enthusiasm. Adjectives that have long been foreign to Warner Brothers’ productions were being bandied about right and left; “queer friendly”, “feminist”, “empowering”, “progressive”, “non-binary”, and so on and so forth. Words such as these are obviously befitting Patty Jenkins’ achievement with the commercial success of her film. Women directors rarely find themselves selected to helm these kinds of summer blockbusters, let alone open with the astronomical grosses of Wonder Woman. Even more incredible is that Patty Jenkins is returning to the commercial film format for the first time since her 2003 film Monster after a long spell directing for television. Though such a transition may be far more conceivable today it is still rather difficult for directors to move back into feature films from television that it is to do the opposite. But does the praise afforded to the film Wonder Woman on social media itself actually befit accolades the likes of “progressive”?

Wonder Woman is a film about a heroic, super powered woman whose strengths and determination single-handedly bring about the end of WWI. Wonder Woman is the first film of the “superhero” genre with a female lead since 2005. Wonder Woman is also a film that abounds in casual racism. Wonder Woman propagates social stereotypes concerning beauty. These points considered, does the progression of a female lead character necessarily excuse the racism and superficiality that color the narrative world of that character? What if one also considers the classically heteronormative relationship and attraction between Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Chris Pine’s Captain Steve?

Let’s address these concerns in their narrative sequence. The story of Wonder Woman’s youth on the Amazon isle of Themyscira is rather standard in its construction. This portion of the film moves with the grace and sentimentality of a Disney cartoon. Images Jenkins presents us with during this portion of sword and sandal bearing warrior women manages to just barely negate any visual reference to the Italian sexploitation films of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (a film like Terence Young’s War Goddess for instance)  while also never intentionally suggesting that there is any lesbianism on an island of women (an island de-eroticized by familial affections). Then, when Chris Pine arrives and the narrative of the film truly begins to move beyond the expositional un-ease of Themyscira a new aesthetic is introduced.

The romance between Wonder Woman, the naive do-gooder, and Steve, the charming but world-weary patriot, is derived from the classic heteronormative odd couple pairings found in the best romantic comedies, be it The Thin Man (1934), His Girl Friday (1940), Adam’s Rib (1949), The African Queen (1951) or Pillow Talk (1959). The tropes from these older films that have been appropriated over the years by action blockbusters, to great effect (beginning with Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark in 1981), seem only to be acceptable if the film sets itself prior to 1960. The elements preserved in the case of Wonder Woman are the opposition of the character’s world views, their degree of sexual experience, and their differing approaches to conflict (in the case of Wonder Woman, these conflicts are primarily physical) which are all indicated in the witty banter that Wonder Woman and Steve share.

The argument that Wonder Woman is a work of feminist cinema first runs aground soon after Pine and Gadot have linked up, when the film introduces its two main villains. Danny Huston has his traditionally campy turn as General Ludendorff and Elena Anaya as Dr. Poison is exactly everything one can find endearing in a villain out of a Hammer Horror film. However, the juxtaposition between beauty/good and ugly/evil is problematic in so far as it is a cliché that has been the source of perpetuating some unhealthy assumptions regarding beauty. Gal Gadot is classically beautiful as Wonder Woman while Elena Anaya is made to appear disfigured by cyanide (in the comic Dr. Poison is Japanese and is not disfigured). This implies, as I am sure most readers already know, that traditionally western views of beauty are inherently good, while all others are inherently bad or, at best, comical (Lucy Davis’ character Etta Candy also supports this antiquated view within the film). Wonder Woman goes so far as to state this explicitly in a scene where an undercover Chris Pine is flirting with Anaya to retrieve valuable information when Gadot’s entrance foils Pine’s sexual maneuvering.

Wonder Woman’s treatment of Pine’s ragtag team of “outsider” mercenaries is equally problematic. Eugene Brave Rock, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Ewen Bremner are never permitted to develop their characters beyond their function as signifiers, nor are they taken at all seriously by either Wonder Woman or Steve. This international “dirty dozen” exists for comic relief, and every member belongs to a singular racial stereotype (an approach better suited to the satirical works of Richard F. Outcault). The casual racism here does little service to the film, continuing to oppress presumably Middle Eastern, Native American and Scottish characters for the benefit of Pine and Gadot. This element of the film gets to the very heart of the hypocrisy of the argument that Wonder Woman is either a “progressive” or an “inclusive” work in mainstream cinema.

This brings us to an interesting issue regarding the choice to relocate Wonder Woman’s narrative from WWII (the comic book timeline) to WWI (the film). The possibilities offered by such a temporal relocation would have allowed the narrative to focus on the Eastern Front of WWI just as easily as the Western. Wonder Woman could have explored the theme of war from the perspective of the deconstruction of the Ottoman Empire by European Imperialist powers, telling a story that is more relevant today and also a more likely place to find Aries the God of War. But Wonder Woman prefers to continue the American tradition of killing multitudes of faceless German soldiers instead.

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By the time David Thewlis reveals himself to be Aries, audiences are primed for a white-knuckle showdown. It is to Jenkins’ credit, and that of the screenwriter Allan Heinberg, that we get something just a bit more cerebral instead. Cross-cutting from Pine’s sacrifice to Wonder Woman’s battle makes it clear that it is the power of “belief” or “love” in and for the human race that is ultimately Aries undoing. Regretfully, the moment after this climax the film cuts to dazed soldiers awaking in the rubble and embracing one another. This about-face in the film’s attitude to war as a grizzly, politically complicated affair smacks of late-sixties anti-war idealism, the kind associated with the cartoon Yellow Submarine (1969).

Despite all of this, I would not say that Wonder Woman is a bad film. It is just like any other PG-13 blockbuster of this last decade. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Patty Jenkins and what her role in Wonder Woman clearly means to women working in the film industry. The issue here is that Wonder Woman is being bought and sold as something it is not. Maybe it is a small baby-step towards a more inclusive mainstream, but it does not represent feminism as anything other than a superficial means to a capitalist minded end, nor does it do any service to the LGBTQ communities. The character of Wonder Woman, by simply existing, empowers women, and the LGBTQ communities seemed to never have appeared at all in the Wonder Woman film universe. Warner Bros’ promotion of the film and the ensuing debates surrounding the film put it into the contexts of feminist and queer discourses while the film itself has the same priorities as any multi-million dollar spectacle; to turn a profit.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Summer 2017

Putting A Year To Rest

“Cinema also made the power of America abroad, its conquest of the world since the Second World War being due not only to military, technical and economic supremacy but also to the power of its cinema.” – Jean-Luc Godard, CINEMA: the archaeology of film and the memory of a century, 2000

“In other words, the validity and vibrancy of this important cinematic tradition depends upon a workable compromise between art cinema and popular cinema; between generic tradition and formal innovation; between political intentions and social fantasies; between private investment and public funding; and between a real appreciation for the local and regional and a critical examination of the national as a new/old  category of cultural identity within an increasingly streamlined global media landscape.” – Sabine Hake, German National Cinema, 2002

Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge

Introduction & Hacksaw Ridge

I have seen a number of blockbusters this Autumn.  Some were decent, some were terrible.  But each was indicative of the state of American cinema today in its own way.  Together these films provide a survey of the strategies and tactics employed by producers, directors, and studio executives in the effort to fill seats and entertain.

Of all of the films I have seen this Autumn, Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is by far the most indicative of America’s mass consciousness and how Hollywood chooses to address that mass conciousness.  Hacksaw Ridge is a return to form for director Mel Gibson.  Again he addresses the horrors of war, the morality of Christian duty and the circumstances that prompt Christian men to question their beliefs.  As always, Gibson does all of this at a fast pace, fast enough so that we the audience don’t have time to question nor ponder the significance of Gibson’s images.  Gibson’s film succeeds only in so far as it conveys his own Christian beliefs as well as serving up a violent spectacle so tantalizing to fans of Saving Private Ryan (1998) and video games that nothing else really does matter anymore.

That’s the issue at hand in American cinema today.  If a film conveys one articulate moral platitude and provides enough spectacle then nothing else really does matter.  This has been true of American mainstream cinema for sometime, though it has never seemed so blatant to me before.  The pretense of artfulness seems to have died in the wake of J.J. Abrams and Michael Bay.  Arguably the last really compelling mainstream commercial release with wide distribution in this country was Lee Daniels’ The Paper Boy (2012).  Since then, aside from some films released on the  “art-house circuit” (if one really can call it that), the best work available to American audiences is happening on television or online streaming platforms.  The cause of this jockeying in power and quality is inevitably born out of a competition between film, television and online streaming as well as a competition between the major entertainment conglomerates for successful branding or franchises (Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Marvel vs. DC, Harry Potter vs. Pixar, etc.).  Given this atmosphere  it isn’t any wonder why American media as a whole has stooped to pandering, placating and generally condescending to their audiences.

Blake Lively in The Shallows

Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe & Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows

In studying film history one tends to take it for granted that there can be innovation and controversy in B-Movies and exploitation films.  In the vein of exploitation films a number of remarkable filmmakers have cut their teeth.  One can often see evidence of this remarkability in the early exploitation films of such filmmakers as Jonathan Demme, Monte Hellman, Joe Dante, Robert Wise, and Abel Ferrara.  Regrettably, there is no evidence, as far as I can see, of any innovation or invention in either Don’t Breathe or The Shallows.

I saw both films at The Rave just off of UPenn’s campus with my friends Stephen and Virginia.  Virginia chose these films with our consent under the assumption that these films would somehow represent a contemporary manifestation of the kind of exploitative cinema that the three of us love (my expectations being set more specifically along the lines of Roger Corman’s productions in the eighties).

The experience of The Shallows certainly came closest to this.  As Virginia put it The Shallows was the first “serious shark movie” in a long time.  The Shallows was rather preposterous, a drawn out battle between Blake Lively and a CGI shark.  That was the film’s narrative; escape the shark.  The subtext of the film was that the love that Blake Lively’s character had for her deceased mother (a victim of cancer) could enable her to do anything.  This sentimental detail, designed to raise the stakes for the audience, really did nothing more than elicit a rather comical commentary from our fellow theater goers.

The true purpose of The Shallows though was to give the audience the opportunity to drink in Blake Lively’s body with our eyes for upwards of ninety minutes.  Don’t Breathe represents a similar impulse, though Alvarez seems to have run amok in creating images that sexually tantalize to the point that, due to the sheer volume and the inherent violence of these images, they become repulsive.

Don’t Breathe plays itself out as a sort of aesthetic marriage between Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs (1991) with a sprinkling of Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967) for good measure.  The narrative premise is wholly indebted to Craven’s film while the approach to sexual violence and retribution is that of Zarchi’s film.  However, unlike either film, though particularly I Spit On Your Grave, the phallic, and images representing the phallic, remain the brunt instrument of pain and sexual power.  The inverting of sexual dominance via castration that is the climax of I Spit On Your Grave is substituted in Don’t Breathe for a phallus in the control of a once female victim.  This is what was most troubling about Don’t Breathe.  The film lacked the audacity to empower the female protagonist on her own terms, thus subverting and disqualifying any claims to a feminist reading.

Tom Hanks & Aaron Eckhart in Sully

Cookie Cutter Perfection: Gavin O’Connor’s The Accountant & Clint Eastwood’s Sully

The Accountant is a troubling film.  It’s first act reads as the kind of genre-centric character study epitomized by Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) while the second and third acts are dreadfully typical post-John Woo action spectacles.  The protagonist’s autism, initially treated with a sensitive humanism, metamorphoses into a kind of superpower or mutant ability with regards to how the script treats this condition.  In this respect the narrative design of the film implodes upon itself.  The latter half of the film eclipses the former, wiping away all of the nuance and subtlety.  In fact, the highlight of the film is right before this aesthetic shift in a short dialogue exchange between Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick concerning painted portraits of dogs playing poker.  

Equally as generic, Sully represents the latest in a long line of films by Eastwood centering on a man fighting the system, though this time that man is played by Tom Hanks.  Hanks himself is no stranger to the “underdog” hero narrative as evidenced by last year’s Bridge Of Spies and The Terminal in 2004.  But Sully lacks the arbitrary whimsy and racism of Hanks’ collaborations with Steven Spielberg.  In the place of that whimsy Eastwood substitutes character.  The issue is that the script never really allows for the title character to exhibit more than one facet of himself, opting to play the same note over and over again.  The film can’t even bring itself to flirt with America’s post-9/11 paranoia or trauma concerning urban plane crashes, nor does it allow for the bureaucratic corruption to expand beyond three short sequences.

Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

 Derrickson’s Doctor Strange & Yates’ Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

I mentioned earlier how instrumental the successful franchise is to contemporary Hollywood marketing.  As a motivating factor as well as an aesthetic trend setter the franchise cannot be underestimated.  Consider the revival of the Star Trek, Star Wars, Transformers, and Power Rangers franchises.  Hollywood is franchise happy.

One such revived franchise is the Harry Potter franchise.  I have never read Rowling’s novels nor have I seen all of the original films.  However, I have been told that should not stop me from comprehending Yates’ Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them.

Immediately I was struck by a number of things in this film that are indicative of the Harry Potter franchise’s bankruptcy.  Firstly, another in a long line of nightmarishly awful performances by the acting atrocity Eddie Redmayne.  Secondly, the overwhelming number of jokes made at the expense of an overweight character.  Then finally the appropriation of the Marilyn Monroe type and of the early twentieth century period.  These first two issues speak for themselves.  The last two, at least in my perspective, represent an effort to establish familiar and marketable signifiers as well as lazy screenwriting on Rowling’s part.  New York of the twenties, as well as the twenties in general, have great currency with millennial audiences as they continue to fetishize the flapper era and its look.  The Monroe element is more elusive.  Typically an archetypally Monroe character is a sort of Janus.  The character will, to serve narrative needs, go from ditsy blonde sex object to an assertive and intelligent woman of the modern world.  This device has its root in the dispelling of the stereotype that Monroe was somewhere short of intelligence in the wake of her death and the thousands of ensuing biographies.  Popular films from the mid-sixties onward make use of this contradiction in a number of ways.  Rowling’s just doesn’t happen to be very interesting.

The construction of Rowling’s plot is a little less troubling in that it is generally so formulaic.  The hero is lost in a strange environment where he makes friends who can help him accomplish his task, save the world, and improve their own moral character.  The base approach to this structure and its literally magical charms allow Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them to fill the void left by Don Bluth so many years ago in the children’s film market (Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them is a remake of An American Tale right?).

Unlike the world of Harry Potter, the world of Doctor Strange is one that I know and love.  Rintrah is by far one of my favorite supporting characters in all of comic books.  I have two copies of the Amy Grant issue in my collection, as well as original trading cards of Kylian and Irish Wolfhound.  Not to mention my admiration for Steve Englehart’s groundbreaking run.  That said, I could rip Derrickson’s film apart from a fanboy perspective in a prolonged diatribe.  But I won’t.  I will stick to the film itself, dealing exclusively with it on its own terms.

Marvel/Disney has set out to create a universe in film that mirrors that in the comics; and it has.  The studio has produced about a dozen films that cross-reference and relate to one another at an alarming rate.  And it is into this universe that they have, with this film, introduced Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange strives to inject hip and cool into the world of this often overlooked comic book character in the guise of visual effects lifted from Christopher Nolan’s Inception and the casting of Tilda Swinton.  Oddly, the film retains some of the jingoism of the comic.  The film’s structure itself is typical of the “origin story”.  The film is so remarkably mundane and familiar that there isn’t much to say other than that it looked better than Captain America: Civil War.

La La Land

Out Of The Theater And Back At Home

I opened this piece with two quotes.  One by Jean-Luc Godard and one by Sabine Hake.  I find both of their points to be valid and certainly true to an extent.  But are their ideas, their notions of what the cinema is and should be, applicable to the mainstream of Hollywood productions?  I don’t think so.  In the films I have discussed here there has been no evidence of a “workable compromise between art cinema and popular cinema” nor has the American cinema exhibited “power” as Godard puts it.  But I have seen such elements, components, and evidence in American films.  Though these films tend to be small, underground films playing regional film festivals.  Or, as is the case with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, an rare exception that proves the rule.  

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Winter 2017

The 20 Films That Influenced My Life

When Robert Curry asked me to write an article chronicling twenty films that influenced me, I wondered how I’d even go about such a large and almost impossible seeming task. On a piece of paper, I quickly made a list of twenty films, that list was never revised and several of the titles even surprised me. I decided to arrange the list in a chronological order based on when I had seen the film and where that film belonged based on my memory of when I saw it, and what impression it left. Some films are less obscure than others, some films are so associated with a time and a place I can barely separate them. Some films I would even hesitate to call my very favorite or ones that I would watch again anytime soon. What makes a film effective is what makes it memorable, that’s what an eighties blockbuster and a Swedish black and white art film have in common. From childhood to adulthood these are the films who made me what I am today as a person a writer and an artist.  

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  1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)

This was not only my first film, but my first memory. While a part of me resents the Disney Corporation holding such a heavy copyright over my childhood, seeing it at the old Dollar Theater with my Grandmother at age four taught me what a film truly was and should be. Its images of good versus evil, the blurred lines of beauty and ugliness left quite an impression on me, particularly the image of the Beautiful Queen drinking her own poison to turn into a hideous crone to take revenge on the innocent Snow White. I have never had the heart to see the film again as an adult, my vision of it as a child is entirely too perfect and can’t compare, which is perhaps why it’s so special for me.

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  1. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

While Snow White was my primer, The Wizard of Oz was my first serious gateway drug into film. Every obsession of mine has roots in Oz for me. Like many in a generation of little gay boys growing up in the nineties, the film’s transition from a beloved yearly television event to Video meant years of chaos and torture for my family, exasperated and annoyed by my constant viewing of the film like it were some ancient code I was trying to decipher, its influence rendering my father speechless when I promenaded down the stairs dressed as a starry eyed Judy Garland with red high heels.

Oz, for me and many, tapped deep into the psyche. It provided a myth that helped me cope with the everyday and subconsciously helped preserve my own individuality and self-worth against a background of trauma. For all that Dorothy and her friends believe are lacking, they learn they’ve had all along. It’s taken twenty seven years to understand what Dorothy meant when she tells Glinda that if she ever goes looking for her heart’s desire, ‘I’ll look no further than my own backyard’, but once you do well, that must mean you’re hooked as bad as I am.

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  1. The Shining (1980)

The first movie I was made to promise I wouldn’t tell my parents I’d seen. I remember the slight smell of marijuana, the giggly aura of babysitters and the VHS cover so old and frayed I could barely decipher the image of Jack Nicholson axing his iconic mug through the doorway. It was my first horror movie and still the only film that truly terrifies me to this day. Director Stanley Kubrick read Child Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment while researching his adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. Bettelheim ascertains that classic fairy tales are important to children’s development because they teach them to survive at all costs the injustices and confusion provided or rendered impossible to prevent by adults. While King’s novel focuses on a myriad of scenarios, in particular Jack Torrance’s alcoholism, Kubrick was wise to narrow the story in on Jack’s young son Danny, who must survive what, might be the vengeance of a paranormal hotel, but is most definitely the wrath of a father trying to murder his family in a psychopathic rage. Danny and his invisible, perhaps psychic friend ‘Tony’ is composites of a child navigating an adult world with a strong moral compass, and their example has helped me greatly.

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  1. Poltergeist (1982)

When I think of a film that best encapsulates the aesthetic of my childhood, this one fits the bill. Perhaps because we lived so far away, or my parents own errant decorative choices to blame, it feels like my childhood was still surrounded by the look of the late seventies and early eighties, much like the house our yuppie family is trapped in once youngest daughter Carol-Ann is kidnapped by evil spirits by way of a television screen. When I see the sometimes hilarious, often heartbreaking performances of Jo Beth Williams and Craig T. Nielson, I see my own mother and father. Most horror films, even ones with interesting enough premises, suffer from the utter lack of chemistry between actors with little to work with as far as any real or palpable drama is concerned. I think immediately of the scene where Mom and Dad sneak into their bedroom to smoke pot while the kids are asleep, and Mom tells a story about sleepwalking as a teenager. What horror movie at any time would think to evoke such loving, intricate details?

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  1. Hairspray (1988)

Like many, this was my first John Waters movie, I saw it in the late Nineties at a time where I was beginning to look through my family’s photo albums, in Hairspray I instantly saw the Sixties that my mother remembered, when Grandma had a beehive wig a mile high, where the next time you went to school you might get stuck in a race riot  and God, it sure was hard to get a white boy to take you to see James Brown on the other side of town. John Waters was the first director I became aware of who had his own persona through his films and interviews. Through him I learned a director could make a film and that within seconds of that movie, you could instantly recognize their vision, imagination and their philosophy.

John Waters’ couldn’t possibly have known that this film would not only be rated PG on its release, but that overtime it would induct him into the American Zeitgeist and make him a National Treasure in the process, thanks to a hit Broadway musical adaptation and a bloated Blockbuster remake with a disposable cast. While certainly without the edge or notoriety of his earlier films with Divine, in a way it is John Waters’ most radical film solely because of its popularity. To this day, it is still his most ambitious and personal film, tackling the heady and confusing early sixties of his beloved Baltimore head on, depicting everything from racism and classism, big hair and body issues as seen through the eyes of an ingenious main character, Tracey Turnblad, an overweight schoolgirl with a love for black music and bringing her racially segregated city together.

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  1. The Seventh Seal (1957)

Undoubtedly, the Mother of all Art Films.  At age twelve, we lived in a seedy neighborhood, its sole perk being a glorious, grimy old video store run by a cantankerous French woman and her far nicer employee. This place became my first film school and this was where I primarily learned everything I know today. The place was stacked with bootleg video tapes containing everything from Russ Meyer nudie flicks to Eastern European musicals with untranslatable titles. This place was quite the contrast to the world of Disney Videos and Cable TV I’d been subjected to and Ingmar Bergman was a hell of a place to start. This was the first film I ever felt I picked to watch myself, and the first time I discovered a film could not only be art, but be as complex and mysterious as life itself. It showed to me the importance of evoking a time and place. Never had I seen a middle ages so dirty and plague ridden, so wild, that one could actually believe that Death itself would appear to challenge a Knight to a game of chess. From The Seventh Seal, I learned that a film could be more than one thing. While at its core, a dark and probing drama on human existence and the inevitability of death, it is also darkly comic and ribald in the case of Death calmly sawing down a tree with an unwilling mortal in its branches. Bergman paid the price for making dramatic, unrelenting films, and it is often forgotten how humorous and versatile his filmography truly is.

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  1. Beauty and the Beast (1946)

One difficulty that often arises in the thousands of adaptions of fairy tales in film and television is the insatiable need to over-explain or in some cases, completely eliminate the unexplainable logic or disturbing elements of fairy-tales, Walt Disney being the main culprit. What keeps Jean Cocteau’s version so original and so fascinating to generations of audiences is its devotion to the original material, taking little liberty with Jeanne-Marie Leprince De Beaumont’s version of the story. Why does a Beast covet a rose? How could it throw a family into conflict? Cocteau doesn’t need to explain the logic of folklore, he merely follows suit and accentuates its inner poetry, asking us the audience of ‘…a little of this childlike simplicity to bring us luck.’  But this version of the tale reminds us that fairy tales at their inner core are never really child-like at all. Cocteau refuses to shy away from the violence and sexuality of fairy tales, showing us a Beast that even in the finest of clothes will not hesitate to devour a deer. When Beauty enters the domain of which she will stay in lieu of her father, her place in the Beast’s world is clearly a sexual one, one of rabbit fur beds that open by themselves, halls and rooms filled with lustful faces of stone, brawny human hands wielding candelabras in dark hallways. Beauty and the Beast is a filmic gift like no other, its influence extending to a myriad of film-makers from Jacques Demy to Spike Lee. This film is special to me because it shows the world of fairy tales that I grew up with, apart from the vapid cultural landscape of Disney, a sometimes depraved but always beautiful place filled with deep human truths and mystery.

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  1. The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter was the first film that made me weep. I wept for the child I was and the adult I had become. Its story expressed abstractly so many problems and anxieties of my own childhood. In almost mythic terms, The Night of the Hunter shows patterns, and cycles of abuse and trauma that occur in familial units anytime, anywhere and almost always going unspoken. Two children’s mother is seduced by a dark handsome preacher who happens to be a savage killer, convinced that the two children hold the secret to their dead father’s stash of stolen money. Perhaps what is so frightening about the film is its depiction of the decisive rift between adult and child that occurs, two parties helpless to understand each other. But perhaps what is so moving is the triumph of the children to overcome the monster so devilishly played by Robert Mitchum. Perhaps Lillian Gish sums it up best in the films ending as she gazes over a winter scene more ethereal than a snow globe, ‘Children are man at his strongest. They abide.’

Who knows how much talent was wasted when the great actor Charles Laughton died after directing his first and only film? It was pertinently clear that a persistent and unique visionary had emerged, influenced by such radical material as German Expressionist films and the work of D.W Griffith. In the puritanical mid-fifties, such influences went both unnoticed and unwelcome. What kind of film is The Night of the Hunter exactly? It’s poetic realism and stylized atmosphere doesn’t lend it to being considered a horror movie of its era, though its body count alone rivals The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It isn’t a children’s film but much if not all the narrative is seen through the eyes of children. Is it a fairy tale? Is it a drama? The Night of the Hunter is many things at once, and there is literally nothing like it.

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  1. Princess Mononoke (1997)

When I think of a film made from a singular, uncompromising vision, I think of Princess Mononoke. If any one director can be called an auteur, it would be Hayao Miyazaki. This film in particular is now legendary for Miyazaki’s obsessive overseeing the 144,000 cels that consisted of the entire film, re-animating over 80,000 of the frames himself, an unheard of feat considering both the excessive cost and time known to traditionally create a hand drawn feature film. Miyazaki brings fourth questions that other animated films seldom ask. Can nature be replicated in drawings? Is there such a thing truly as a hero or a villain? When do good intentions grow bad?  While Miyazaki’s career far from peaked after this; Princess Mononoke carries both an edge and a message completely unlike his later films.

When I’ve grown uninspired or discouraged while creating comics, I tend to refer to Miyazaki as something of an old master in the way that other artists would study and emulate the paintings of Michelangelo or Da Vinci, and more times than not, I feel the need to just throw out the towel and give up when I’m confronted with the intense beauty and nuance that makes up this entire film.

Singin in the Rain fellas I feel like this is my lucky day

  1. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

No other film encompasses such boundless joy for the medium of film and all of its possibilities. Singin’ in the Rain’s plot is in fact, about the making of movies, chronicling the various trials and errors of a fledgling movie studio and its frantic transition from silent pictures to talkies in the Golden Age of Hollywood. And no other film fills me with such happiness and optimism. People often tell me they loathe musicals, but almost every time I remind them of Singin’ in the Rain, their faces immediately change, ‘Oh no, that’s different.’ And it is different. It’s a musical not bound by the same lapses in logic or operatic fancy that turn off many a viewer from the genre. By its being about the making of musical films, it can break and re-make the rules at any time. A scene can break into song because they’re about to film a number, a scene from an entirely different film can start playing because someone is trying to pitch a producer a scene for a film within the film. A montage can appear and literally burn a hole through the celluloid, men can leap off of walls and dance through rain strewn streets because Hollywood in its heyday was  the center of the worlds imagination, anything could happen there.

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  1. 3 Women (1977)

With the exception of several good movies, an ingenious film challenges everything you think you know about the medium. It came at an impressionable time, my teenage years and I still find myself wondering about exactly what happened when Millie and Pinkie moved in together. Robert Altman taught me that there was more to a film than just a plot-line, but that characters and the world they live in can be story enough. Shelly Duvall, Sissy Spacek and the ever mysterious Janice Rule give some of the best performances ever put to celluloid. All three bring us characters imbued with such nuance and complexity that we feel we truly know them. What happens is a purely organic experience that had virtually no real screenplay but scenes consisting of ideas where both actors and director worked together to create a universe of which these characters lived, breathed and became a part of the mystery, though no one actor or even the director himself quite understood what happened.

Only a director like Robert Altman could have made this film in such a fertile and confusing time as the Seventies, when the Hollywood Studio System was falling apart and giving way to a generation of new film-makers creating thought-provoking, genre defying films. It’s certainly a massive irony that 3 Women was released the same summer as George Lucas’ Star Wars, which would give way to a Hollywood Blockbuster Model the industry never recovered from, leaving small and abstract films like this in its wake.

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  1. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

What exactly was it about the Seventies that brought us so many films that broke convention and refused to give us easy answers? While the crash of the Hollywood Studio System was one thing, the era also gave birth to several new industries as vast as Independent films, the mainstreaming of pornography and in some cases, national film markets that never even existed. Enter Picnic at Hanging Rock, the film that brought not only the Australian New Wave but director Peter Weir to the forefront of World Cinema.

It’s about the mysterious disappearance of three girls on a school trip to the ominous Hanging Rock one sunny afternoon in 1900 and the aftermath that follows suit, leading only to more questions. What gives it both such a dream like quality and a permanent sense of dread are the events depiction as some distant, collective memory. The ethereal Picnic scene seems almost to be etched in gold, a permanent but objective place in time that cannot be penetrated or interrupted. The image of the illusive Miranda is a reminder to all of us how fleeting and beautiful youth truly is, a specter of times past and never regained.

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  1. The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

It’s the Gone with the Wind of cult films, a cult epic even. A bold example of the Sixties Polish New Wave, a beloved early Midnight Movie in Europe and the United States, a film treasured by fans ranging from Martin Scorsese to Jerry Garcia who both paid to have the film not only restored but re-edited to its original length. No other film lives so entirely by its own rules, truly feeling like a movie from another universe, beating later auteurs like Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam by literal light years in its nods to German Expressionism to its flights of flabbergasting absurdity.  To explain its plot would seem both impossible and pointless. It opens with the complexity of a Russian nesting doll spanning centuries as vast as the Napoleonic Wars to the Spanish Inquisition. We encounter Mystics, Quacks, Demons, Gypsies, Priests, Ghosts, Buffoons and Knights, but all seems to evolve around a mysterious book of which they all may or may not be a part of its contents. It would be impossible to watch the same movie each time, each viewing illuminates an aspect of the plot I’d never thought of before, some new and illusive detail you can barely decipher by the sheer overwhelm of beauty and surrealism in each frame.

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  1. An Angel at my Table (1990)

By the time I reached twenty one, I’d suffered a nervous breakdown that took me out of college, out of my home and into a situation I felt there was no way out of. When no doctor or person could give me solace or hope, I turned to film, to literature, to art for others who had endured the immense pain and fear I felt being alive. Janet Frame’s story appeared to me through this beautiful film and her own writing. I felt I’d found a good friend when I didn’t have one, and hope for myself.

An Angel at my Table is an adaptation of three autobiographies by New Zealand author Janet Frame, sprawling from childhood to adulthood with a seemingly effortless ease by Director Jane Campion, who finds poetic meaning and purpose in virtually every frame of its surprising 160 minutes. Janet Frame was hospitalized in an insane asylum repeatedly throughout the Fifties, enduring over two-hundred rounds of electro-convulsive therapy and was saved from a lobotomy when it was discovered her collection of short stories had won a literary prize. Overtime, Janet finds the confidence and recognition she deserves because writing was her only salvation. Besides eliminating Shock Treatments and Insane Asylums as the norm, not much has changed in our culture as to how mental illness is recognized and treated by doctors and society at large. There is much to learn and love from this film, it conveys not only a beautiful and tender portrait of an artist but tells us truths about our society, and ourselves.

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  1. Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

One of the few foreign films that played on mainstream Cable Television throughout the Nineties State-side, a film that’s special to me because it’s one of the few films I know my parents watched together and enjoyed. This was unusual since neither of them were even remotely fans of foreign film, let alone movies. I have no idea why they enjoyed it but I know I certainly did.

Sometime in Twenties China, teenaged Sònglián’s father has left her family bankrupt, deciding to marry into a wealthy family becoming one of four wives. Soon she discovers she has married into a bitter rivalry between all three wives, down to even her servants, all thanks to a philandering, abusive husband who quickly becomes her captor. She realizes she is unable to stand the rigid, exploitative life of a concubine and quickly begins to become a part of the house’s diabolical game of secrets, deceit and eventually murder. Zhang Yimou was one of the first champions of the Chinese New Wave, while the script was approved by the Chinese Government, the film was quickly banned when seen as the bold, feminist interpretation of China’s problematic past that it was. Politics aside, it is one of the best and most inventive uses of color in a Drama film. Yimou and his art director devised a color scheme that becomes a central part of the drama, each character and room is imbued with certain colors to define their psychological traits and their part of the tense, tightly plotted story. When Sònglián is given her room, it is aglow with red lanterns, treated to her favorite foods and foot massages, a perk that quickly goes away once her duties as a concubine become disturbingly clear. When her husband discovers her indiscretions, the red lanterns are covered in black silk, snow begins to fall. The art direction of a film is just as integral if not sometimes interchangeable from a script, a visual alone can tell the story or imbue the meaning of a film with something entirely different altogether. Not only do I remember well this tense, haunting story but it is synonymous with the atmosphere and its imagery.

DEVILS, THE

  1. The Devils (1971)

One of the most criminally underappreciated Directors in the recent Lovefest of Sixties and Seventies Cinema is Ken Russell. In his time, he was the most controversial Director working in the U.K. Not only that, his films made big money overseas, important for a then struggling British film market floating on Ealing Studio fare, Kitchen Sink Dramas and Hammer Horror flicks. Ken Russell wasn’t serious, he was at turns radical, flamboyant, controversial, offensive, thought provoking and sometimes downright pornographic. The Devils is to this day, one of the most controversial films ever made, and one of the few cult films that has never lost its notoriety or edge, perhaps because Warner Bros. has never been keen to release it uncut, or in any format.

Based on Aldous Huxley’s account The Devils of Loudon, a small town in Seventeenth Century France is taken siege by religious hysteria when town priest Urbain Grandier is accused of witchcraft by the hunchbacked Mother Abbess leading a convent of frenzied nuns, played brilliantly by a young Vanessa Redgrave. Ken Russell ingeniously turns this historical account into not a vision of the past, but of both past and present with sets influenced by everything from Hieronymus Bosch to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, designed by a young Derek Jarman no less. What appears is a bold, frenzied account of religious mania, paranoia, repressed sexuality and angst that is at turns frightening, hilarious and effectively dramatic. The Devils is an experience entirely by itself, a both brilliant and violent spectacle.

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  1. The Life of Oharu (1954)

When many think of the titans of Japanese Cinema and their effect on the world landscape, one would not be blamed if they thought immediately of Akira Kurosawa or even Yasujirō Ozu. Perhaps it’s a shame that Kenji Mizoguchi has a tendency to get lost in the wash. Though he made Samurai epics like Kurosawa and small modern-day dramas like Ozu, it was his old fashioned adaptations of classic Japanese Literature and folklore that gave him international acclaim. What Mizoguchi has, and what Kurosawa and Ozu both somewhat lack, is a very real empathy for his characters and the society of which they are born, and often mistreated, in particular women. It is said that Mizoguchi felt a great debt and empathy for women because his older sister was sold into Geisha-dom by their bankrupt father; it was apparently she who arranged with her clients in the freshly starting Japanese film industry of the Twenties to get Mizoguchi’s foot in the door.

The Life of Oharu is a sprawling epic tragedy set in the time of the Floating World, beginning with a haggard old woman who is asked by the other prostitutes who roam the dark streets to tell the story of her life, and what a life she has. After her family is denounced thanks to her affair with a page-boy, Oharu manages to bare the emperor a son but is banished again. She drifts from one misfortune after another, from becoming a Courtesan thanks to her bankrupt father, becoming a widow overnight, a denounced nun, and ultimately a prostitute, never giving up hope that one day she will see her son.  Mizoguchi manages to make the film both simple and complex. Simple in that he tells the story so straightforwardly, with a sense of honesty and morality which is unique for any film-maker of any time.  Kinuyo Tanaka gives a spellbinding, trans-formative performance playing a teenager, to an elderly woman without hesitating a beat. I have seen the film only once, but have never forgotten it, the sign that it works.

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  1. Scorpio Rising (1963)

It wasn’t too long ago that seeing a movie could put you in jail. Maybe that’s the true power of Kenneth Anger’s gay magnum opus and the jewel of Queer Cinema, Scorpio Rising. When the film premiered in California, the film was denounced and the print seized, soon becoming a case that went all the way to Supreme Court, helping become one of the many cases for Freedom of Speech throughout the Fifties and Sixties. Scorpio Rising is a devoutly experimental film with no plot or dialogue, it is a host of images that helped establish and cement a Gay/Queer visual language and rhetoric. Its parade of fetishized pin-up boys fixing motorcycles, clips of Jesus from old educational films, genitalia shots and clips from Sunday Funnies is a mesmerizing tapestry of subculture when that really meant something. Kenneth Anger is finally getting credit for being the first Director to effectively use pop music as a part of film soundtracks, an influence to everyone from John Waters to Martin Scorsese.

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  1. Jackie Brown (1997)

Say what you will about Quentin Tarantino, I pick this film because it encapsulates what I feel is the greatest performance by an actress of all time, the legendary Pam Grier. She was as enduring an actress and bombshell as Marilyn Monroe, except she could whoop some serious ass. In her heyday as the undisputed Queen of Blaxploitation Flicks, she was just as popular as Bruce Lee and tougher than Charles Bronson. Jackie Brown picks up where the Pam Grier mythos left off, now she’s an air stewardess involved in small-time drug trafficking, busted by the feds and on her big-time drug boss’s death list as a possible informant. Jackie devises a Swiss watch plan to get her revenge and her hands on a heist that could make her finally hit the big time. Pam Grier gives a heartbreaking, tough performance as an older woman with nothing left to lose. How on earth was she not even nominated for an Academy Award or offered five starring roles that year? It’s a film that would literally never exist without her presence. Underrated is the fact that this was such an important film for Tarantino, fresh off the heels of the game changing Pulp Fiction, shocking the film world with the fact that yes, he could make a brilliant, restrained character piece using little of the excessive violence his last two films made him legendary for. Tarantino made one of the last great character pieces in the style of many a Seventies classic, while finding relevance and currency in the shifting Nineties.

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  1. Goodfellas (1990)

Back when I had television, this was one of maybe two movies that I would stop everything I was doing to watch. Though my list wouldn’t show it, I adore a good mob movie. While I’ve sat through maybe three or four dutiful viewings of Coppola’s The Godfather I and II, it pales in comparison when I think of what to me is the most wildly entertaining, enthralling crime movie ever made. ‘As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster’ begins Henry Hill, big-time mobster who with the Lucchese Crime Family helped manage one of the biggest bank heists of all time but that’s not all. He did jail-time, became a big time drug dealer, an FBI informant and ultimately was thrust into the Witness Protection Program. Scorsese directs it’s almost two and a half hours at a lightning pace that never stops, borrowing everything from the French New Wave to Donovan’s pop opus Atlantis. Goodfellas proves that main characters can still be engaging but at turns mostly despicable, even homicidal but they are never not interesting or unrelatable. Whether they’re stabbing a guy in the back of a car trunk or throwing bags of coke down the toilet, a part of you understands these peoples own version and expectations of the ever shifting American Dream.

by Thomas Lampion

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Filed under Summer 2016

The Singing Ringing Tree

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book Cinema Homosexualis by Thomas Lampion.  Part Hollywood Babylon, part Movie Journal, Lampion’s anthology of well researched essays offer a unique glimpse at some of the cinema’s most obscure and misunderstood films.  What unifies these essays as well as these films is their adherence to fantasy; the fantastic.

The Singing Ringing Tree (1957) is one of the most important fairy tale films, second only to Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast as one of the crown jewels of Europe’s legacy to Fairy Tale Cinema. It is a film that rivals, or perhaps matches the psychological pathos of even The Wizard of Oz. What makes The Singing Ringing Tree so original in comparison to its more famous cousins are its very conflicted but intriguing roots. The Singing Ringing Tree is from the world of the Brothers Grimm, the decadent, technicolor product of a rigid Communist Film Industry, the ghosts of German Expressionism and the most primitive but enchanting theatricality.

The Singing Ringing Tree

Walt Disney’s contribution to the genre of fantasy was all prevalent after the silent era had closed, practically inventing the world of fairy tales in a cinematic environment that was inevitably leaning to the guiles of technological advancement in color and sound. After the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937, a question was aroused, could a fantasy be fully evoked and depicted in live action, incorporating color and sound to the fullest possible extent? Could it be just as endearing and engaging as Disney’s cartoons which seemed to have been made from the most potent of magic? Whatever attempt to gage Fairyland were done in response or retaliation to the set norms that Disney had invented and perfected. The Wizard of Oz in 1939 is certainly the first challenge to rise to the occasion, but outside of the Hollywood Studio System, the question still pertained, particularly in the East.

How the communists loathed Walt Disney, with his decadence, his instilling of American Morals in the most European of Folklore. The cinematic factories of the Soviet Union and Communist East Germany could only retaliate by controlling film distribution, only the most advanced in the cogs of Soviet Russia could win a chance at seeing Disney’s films, the Soviets had their own factories rival Disney’s output. With a bevy of their own intrinsic folklore, they were able to churn out hundreds of both animated and live action fairy tale films that seeped into the communist sub-conscious. Some imitated Disney’s inclinations, but the films that survived and endured evolved from a nationalist identity and a left field originality. East Germans perhaps had an easier time travelling beyond the wall to see Disney, but the problems were still the same. The East Germans had inherited the land of the Brothers Grimm, a world filled with its own morals and symbolism, ones that even the most left leaning could hardly gage or agree with, making The Singing Ringing Tree’s existence even more astonishing.

The Singing Ringing Tree steps beyond being merely a product of its time, like so many German films of the 1950’s. According to Quinna Shen’s fantastic book The Politics of Magic, The Singing Ringing Tree was a deeply troubled production. The East German Film Industry had since its invention after the war, relied considerably on West German artists input, however, this notion became hotly contested among the powers that be at DEFA Studios once Francesco Stefani had been hired as a guest director. While the West Germans aesthetic tendencies meant appeal beyond the walls and into the international scene, by 1957, a real concern over the West German input’s lack of political ideology and what they perceived to be capitalist influence was beginning to bristle hairs. The production crew refused to accept any credit or responsibility for the finished product by the time it was released. Many on the film board were less than thrilled with the concept of a Princess as a protagonist, its old fashioned morals of kindness and inner beauty not meeting the changing standards of the studio’s political system.

Many East German Fairy Tale films were done in a droll, literal style, especially if closely supervised by the higher political powers. One aspect that likely crossed hairs was the films very real camp aesthetic, not from the influence of cartoons, but of two centuries of traditional children’s book illustration. While many Fairy tale films of the era evoked a pragmatic naturalism, The Singing Ringing Tree insists on a fantastic world contained in sets, matte paintings and miniatures. This world makes no apologies or concessions’, it is implemented with its own symbolism, setting the stage for emotions of love, jealousy, anger and deception, amplifying it to delirious heights, rivaling even the most American of fantasies. Visually, the film takes almost no real nods to Disney, but in fact, seems to invent its own alarming visual language. No Fairies or mushrooms, no wicked witches or evil step-parents. Maybe what is so alarming about The Singing Ringing Tree is how structurally unorthodox its characters are in comparison to other fairy tale films. One is often taught to believe that to keep a fairy tale film on the right path one must have relatable, endearing characters to engage an audience. This film does the very opposite. Nearly every character until the end is remarkably unlikeable, even despicable. The plot centers round the behavior of a wicked, selfish Princess and an initially fool-hardy Prince Charming. The Princess refuses to marry him, only under the condition that he brings back the Singing Ringing Tree. The tree not surprisingly, is in custody of a wicked dwarf, who turns the Prince into a bear, and the Princess into a hideous hag. We are endeared to these characters over-time, not by song and dance or by cuddly cartoon creatures, but by the very real, and often negative emotions we all feel as children and adults.

The Singing Ringing Tree

The film was a success on both sides of the wall and even around the world. Perhaps the film’s most notorious reputation was in Great Britain. Tired of American Programming involving Bugs Bunny and Westerns, the BBC’s Children’s Programming Division decided to buy the rights to a handful of East German Fairy Tale films as a sort of antidote in the late 50’s and 60’s. The films were so cheaply presented, that they were in fact not even dubbed or subtitled, but merely laid with a voice-over track, narrating the original audio, as if wicked dwarves and paper mache goldfish weren’t quite creepy enough, its well feared, and loved by a generation of British Baby-boomers much in the way The Wizard of Oz was in America.

-Thomas Lampion

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Filed under Autumn 2015

Sister Act & True Lies: Genre In The 90s Blockbuster

The mechanics of genre are as complicated in their motives as is their perpetual state of flux as these mechanics adapt to follow new trends in media.  The most obvious case being the Western, whose metamorphoses at the hands of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci indicated not only a desire for more sex and violence in the genre, but a more Freudian approach to the films’ characters.  In fact, most books dealing with an overview of cinematic history divide the progression of the Western into two distinct halves; before The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly (1966) and afterwards.  Despite the obvious differences between the Westerns of “then” and “now”, there are in the genre a set of unchanging aesthetic principles, and it is these principles that define the Western, justifying the very label of “genre”.  Westerns typically center on a protagonist finding redemption and overcoming his or her own inherent “evil” for the good of a community or a virtuous protagonist at odds with a massive “evil” force such as Apache, avalanches, sand storms, cattle barons, a gang, etc.  It is in these two basic character and narrative types that the Western attempts (and rarely succeeds) to construct an allegory for America.  But not all genres are as dynamically defined or as popular as the Western.  Some genres are so obscure that they exist only as sub-genres under the umbrella of larger and more abstract categorizations like “comedy”, “drama” or “horror”.

Sister Act

When The Walt Disney Company released Sister Act (1992) through Touchstone Pictures they sold the film as a family comedy and targeted parents with children between the ages of 8 and 14 as their primary demographic.  In part this was meant to cash-in on the built-in fan base for Nun comedies instilled in the parents by Sally Field’s The Flying Nun television show as well as to appeal to those who grew-up and were fans of Motown.  But to be fresh, new, and exciting Sister Act could not follow the formulas of The Flying Nun or other popular depictions of Nuns in the media like Lilies Of The Field (1963) and The Nun’s Story (1959) anymore than a Whoopi Goldberg vehicle could recreate the lack of success of Nuns On The Run (1990).  Instead screenwriter Joseph Howard and director Emile Ardolino returned to a tried and true Disney formula freshly imbued with the same nightclub edginess that made Pretty Woman (1990) one of Disney’s highest grossing films of the nineties.

The tried and true Disney formula I refer to first occurred at the height of Fred MacMurray’s tenure with the studio.  The basic premise, exemplified by Follow Me, Boys! (1966), concerns a protagonist who is forced to take charge of a group of misfits and imprint these misfits with the protagonist’s own personality traits, thus creating a surrogate family where the protagonist belongs.  Ironically this formulaic plot is the antithesis to popular culture’s preferred depiction of Nuns since the boom of the porn industry in the early seventies.  From Boccaccio’s The Decameron to Walerian Borowczyk’s Behind Convent Walls (1978) to Norifumi Suzuki’s School Of The Holy Beast (1982), Nuns have been portrayed as lesbian sodomites, a far cry from the sweet and familial Nuns under Maggie Smith’s care in Sister Act.  Oddly, Disney took it upon itself to project its typical family film plots into arenas where one would hardly suspect.  Where Sister Act puts Whoopi Goldberg into a Nunnery to rejuvenate the family film genre, Operation Dumbo Drop (1995) puts Ray Liotta, Danny Glover and Denis Leary in Vietnam with an elephant to keep up interest in their live-action family films.

In short, Sister Act is the redressing of a genre to perpetuate box office receipts.  This is not always a negative trend in the cinema, and in the early to mid-nineties it was a hugely popular approach.  Which brings us to James Cameron’s True Lies (1994).  What Cameron sets out to do, and does, is to make a genre film that is absolutely about its genre without ever being openly analytical or challenging.  The film’s star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, teamed with director John McTiernan on The Last Action Hero (1993) the previous year, constructing a film whose concern with genre mechanics is similar to True Lies but whose “on-the-nose” execution prevents the film from ever sustaining the suspension of disbelief for very long.

True Lies

True Lies essentially casts Arnold Schwarzenegger as the ultimate action hero, but subverts the trappings of the genre by pushing the extremes one associates with action films to comedic places.  For instance a chase scene that should be a motorcycle in pursuit of another motorcycle is transformed into physical comedy by putting the hero on a horse instead.  Likewise, True Lies has as its centerpiece the narrative arc of infidelity in which the spy (Arnold Schwarzenegger) uses his Bond-like resources to terrorize his wife’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) lover (Bill Paxton).  The subject of marital difficulty is not often a part of the action movie vernacular in this respect.  Typically, as is the case with Die Hard (1988), the male protagonist’s marriage is saved by the end of the film in the same way the world is saved.  Much of Cameron’s humor in dealing with infidelity recalls the oddball Alan Arkin comedies Chu Chu & The Philly Flash (1981) and The In-Laws (1979) in so far as the seriousness of the situation is undermined by the absurdity of the circumstance in which the situation has come to exist.  The absurdity, in the case of True Lies, is the very fabric of the action movie genre.

Listing all of these various components and stylistic tactics may give the impression that Cameron’s film is not so much reflexive with a sense of humor, but rather an incoherent mess.  This very well could have been the case if not for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s presence.  Arnold Schwarzenegger even being in this film becomes a means by which the genre is parodied and its hubris analyzed, almost in a parallel fashion to Tim Allen’s role in Dean Parisot’s Galaxy Quest (1999).

What both True Lies and Sister Act are indicative of is a desire to manipulate genre to re-sell narratives and celebrities all too familiar to audiences.  The degree of innovation, however successful or not, points to the possibilities that are often overlooked in favor of remakes or adaptations from other visual media.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Spring 2015

Supply & Demand In The American Cinema

            It’s widely known, just as it is widely reported, that the primary motivation of any financial endeavor is profit, and such is the case with Hollywood. Films of a certain cost are designed to recoup their expense not only from ticket sales, but also by franchising into other markets. Independence Day (1996) had toys, video games, and books, following a model popularized by George Lucas, who may have learned a thing or two from Disney’s Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier (1955). But these tie-ins and franchises have become so prevalent in our culture today that they go by almost unnoticed, and the effects these marketing strategies, and Hollywood’s approach to the cinema as a whole, are rarely analyzed for their effects outside of the market place.

The fathers of the blockbuster on the set of Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom.

The fathers of the blockbuster on the set of Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom.

            If one compares the cinema to other forms of art such as painting, one finds that the cinema is severely lacking in regional dialects or aesthetics. There has been, since the advent of the blockbuster, a unifying series of styles that have come in and out of vogue, essentially restricting audiences’ filmic literacy to these accepted aesthetics. These aesthetics themselves have found prevalence, and have therefore become stylish trends because of their marketability, due to the management of film studios and distributors as corporations and not curators of art. When audiences reacted positively to Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998), a slew of films were made that resembled that film in some way. Similarly, Miramax’s acquisition of In My Left Foot (1989) resulted directly in the acquisition of In The Name Of The Father (1993). Both instances represent this trend in American cinema explicitly. This is not entirely new, but as the internet spreads positive criticism of once hard to find films like Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970), why are so many movie goers allowing Hollywood to dictate which films are imported to this country?

            The Criterion Collection released a box set earlier this year that was curated by Martin Scorsese and represented the first instance that many of the films contained within were available in this country. Each film represents a unique cinematic voice indigenous to a world beyond our borders. This is nationalist or regionalist cinema, one a smaller portion contained within the other. Such imported expressions are almost verboten in the American theatrical market because their ability to fill seats or spark a franchise is as uncertain as it is untested. These circumstances are a testament to the ignorance of the American moviegoer, and perhaps every moviegoer in the Western World.

A once obscure Czech film has found a mainstream following.

A once obscure Czech film has found a mainstream following.

            Regional cinema is all around us. Filmmakers toil unrecognized in every corner of the world, yet their work is lost to the general public because of an inability to meet a marketing quota. Online streaming and distribution offer an array of options, but the industry is still primarily focused on the festival circuit. Like all businesses Hollywood and American film distributors will only meet supply with demand. As an audience the American public must therefore demand that foreign regionalist films and even domestic regionalist films find wide spread theatrical distribution.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Summer 2014

Coonskin

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In 1946 Walt Disney released Song Of The South, a musical adaptation of Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories.  The structure of Song Of The South, live action scenes of the storyteller bookending animated sequences of the stories told, provided the blueprint for Ralph Bakshi’s film Coonskin (1975).  But Bakshi’s purpose is to satirize the Disney film by focusing his narrative on three anthropomorphic principle characters (Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear, and Preacher Fox) in a uniquely contemporary setting.  This correlation between Bakshi’s film and an earlier work, which it is his intention to subvert, recalls the basis of Bakshi’s most accomplished film Heavy Traffic (1973).  Where Heavy Traffic satirized Mike Nichol’s The Graduate (1967) and the element of American culture it sought to represent, Coonskin endeavors to lampoon the Black Power movement of the seventies by way of Song Of The South.

Coonskin’s controversy stems from the crudeness of Bakshi’s social commentary, a crudeness that was, at the time of the film’s release, unheard of to be the perspective of a Jewish-American animator.  Bakshi does not even shy away from satirizing the Black Power movement itself if one recalls the “Black Jesus” scene.  Of course, this particular sequence ridicules the militancy of such radical groups as The Black Panthers.  Similarly Bakshi designs specific sequences that expose both the ridiculousness and the harmfulness of racial stereotypes such as black face, the exploitation plot device pitting Black gangsters against the mafia (prevalent in both Dolemite and Black Godfather), the rumors policemen used heroin to control African Americans in Harlem, and George Herriman cartoons.

The crudity of Bakshi’s satire was well established with Fritz The Cat (1972), but it is the grotesque nature of his character designs that could perhaps suggest racism on the part of the filmmaker.  The best argument against these allegations is that the film’s stars (Barry White, Charles Gordone, Philip Thomas and Scat Man Crothers) stood by the film long after it had been released and eventually buried.  Today, if one wants to get to the social and political heart of Coonskin, one need only look so far as the scene where Preacher Fox takes Brother Bear out to dinner.  In this scene, a live action white couple attempts to compliment Brother Bear’s girlfriend Pearl on how “nice it is that black people can really dress different, I mean we, we always have to dress the same”.  Just as Coonskin epitomizes the “Black Experience” in modern America, Heavy Traffic epitomized the Jewish-American experience.  To further dispel and clarify the misapprehensions associated with Coonskin, Bakshi’s even field satirization of so many social demographics (including his own) makes it more than evident that personal racism is not a motivating factor behind Bakshi’s films.

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However it would be the Coonskin controversy that pushed Ralph Bakshi away from socially conscious films and into the fantasy genre, spawning his two most popular films The Lord Of The Rings (1978) and Wizards (1977).  Coonskin’s producer Albert S. Ruddy, who began the seventies producing Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), would go on to strictly commercial fare such as the Burt Reynolds hits The Longest Yard (1974) and The Cannonball Run (1981).  By 1976 the milieu of exploitation films that sparked initial interest in Coonskin had dissipated as a result of absorption into the mainstream with films like the Shaft franchise (1971-74), thus ending the hey day of a distinctly American sub-genre in filmmaking.

-Robert Curry

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