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Wolverine’s Swan Song

Logan & Laura

“This repression of the ‘non-serious’ aspects of pleasure, of a discourse of fun, is not, of course, a total exclusion. Notions of distraction, diversion, and entertainment have appeared with regularity in the academic discourse on cinematic pleasure. Yet, within that discourse, they are almost invariably positioned as negative terms. They are often figured as decadent – betrayals of truth, morally corrupt, politically incorrect – or, at best, as escapist or trivial. Indeed, it seems that the vast majority of the academic ‘discourse on pleasure’ has been calculated to distinguish between these ‘corrupt’ pleasures and more acceptable, ‘serious’ pleasures.”

-R.L. Rutsky & Justin Wyatt, Serious Pleasures: Cinematic Pleasure And The Notion Of Fun, 1990

Most of the films that American audiences see or hear about are designed to maximize public appeal, to gross highly, and to entertain. With this set of priorities, the mainstream, the most commercial of American cinema, cannot afford much in the way of serious artistic expression. If we accept Rutsky and Wyatt’s arguments, then the films that come out of the major studios enter into critical discourse as “corrupt pleasures” insofar as these films primarily represent distractions, diversions and entertainment.

James Mangold’s Logan (2017) fits within this niche easily. It’s a major blockbuster and an installment within a well proven franchise of movies that has been turning a healthy profit in cinemas for seventeen years now. However, unlike most films within a franchise, Logan dares to challenge the genre to which it was born (so to speak).  J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is a far more typical representation of how a franchise functions, evidencing how best to keep the grosses consistent: more of the same, again and again. Logan is not just alone in the X-Men movie franchise because of its rating, Logan is also a character study, and a film whose narrative devices have been absent from the superhero genre. In fact Logan has more in common narratively with Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World (1993), Luc Besson’s The Professional (1994), Takashi Miike’s Rainy Dog (1997), James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), and John Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980) than it does with any of the Batman, X-Men, Avengers, Spiderman, Superman, Ironman, or Guardians Of The Galaxy movies that have come out in the last twenty years or more.

Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart

The primary reason Logan does not fit within the aesthetic blueprint of the superhero genre is because the film prioritizes its three lead characters over the spectacle of violence. Mangold’s film is interested in the frailties of his superpowered characters, and populates his film with moments that allow these frailties to function as a direct counterpoint to the sequences of action-violence that the audience is expecting. The narrative of Logan is designed for this kind of investigation into character much in the same way as A Perfect World, Rainy Dog, The Professional and Gloria are. Every time the audience finds comfort in the familiar heroic antics of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and X-23/Laura (Dafne Keen) that comfort is in turn subverted. The scenes of Wolverine caring for Professor X are particularly adept at subverting the standards of superhero fare.

Logan is also unique for assuming that its target audience, comic book fans, will be in tune with the characters introduced in the narrative to a degree that Mangold can forgo the usual scenes of expository action. Besides, one does not need an in depth working knowledge of The Reavers, Dr. Rice or Albert within the context of the Wolverine comics to understand their narrative function. If one is familiar with this set of Wolverine #40, June, 1991characters, that is simply just another layer of pleasure that Logan has to offer. One of the great drawbacks to the superhero genre in film is that the authors of these films assume that the films will not work if they are not “all inclusive” in terms of their narrative accessibility. The best superhero films, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978), and Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) all operate on the assumption that an audience even vaguely familiar with the characters will be able to glean from the film an understanding of these characters and their respective narrative complexes in other media forms.

There has been a tremendous amount of hype surrounding Logan. If one were to read Kevin P. Sullivan’s article in the March 10th issue of Entertainment Weekly, one may very well assume that Logan was the greatest film of its kind ever made. However, Logan can never escape what it is, a “distraction, diversion, and entertainment”. And, for me at least, this isn’t a bad thing at all. 

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Winter 2017

Anticipating Dunkirk

The history of the cinema is replete with instances in which filmmakers have gone to extravagant lengths to establish a credible realism.  The most extreme ventures of this sort often form the basis of early marketing campaigns with the intention of tantalizing an audience’s impulses with the promise of a “real” spectacle as opposed to a fabricated one.  Through history these spectacles have varied from the Belgian Congo locations for John Huston’s The African Queen (1951), the rumored on camera intercourse between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), to the physical aging process as captured in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014).The lure of the “real”, while elusive, is undoubtedly fetishized for its perceived scarcity in narrative films.  That is not to say that the emotional lives of characters in films are artificial, or that the narratives of most films take place outside of our own historical and socio-political context, or even that a large number of films do not make use of actual locations.  It’s a matter of special effects.  The simulated versus the documented.

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A personal favorite example of this is the derailing of a steam locomotive in John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964).  The cooperation of the French government and the backing of United Artists afforded Frankenheimer the luxury to opt for the actual locomotive crash and not the simulated crash of miniatures.  What imbues this spectacle with the sense of the awesome is that it is allowed to interact directly with the film’s star, Burt Lancaster.  The gravitas of this sequence derives from the high stakes of Lancaster’s very real jeopardy; he could have easily been killed during shooting.  By releasing this information prior to release in the trade papers United Artists was able to capitalize on audience’s pseudo-sadistic desire to watch Burt Lancaster narrowly escape death.  

The sadistic voyeurism of audiences has been making hits out of unorthodox or simply unmarketable films for decades.  Once it was rumored that native people died during the shooting of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) in the Amazon, Roger Corman was insured of recouping his investment.  Alex Proyas’ The Crow (1994) is another such film, albeit the death of Brandon Lee was no rumor at all but a very real tragedy.  However what unites these films is the reality of a life in peril and the audience’s intrinsic desire to see their own shared mortality put to the test from the safety of the multiplex.

Now enter Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.  Nolan is a master of spinning technical innovation as marketing strategy.  Inception drew audiences for its digital effects more so than for its cast and certainly more so than for its incoherent script (Nolan’s most prevalent trademark in my opinion is that none of his plots make any sense).  With Dunkirk he has done it once again.  

behind the scenes of Dunkirk

Analog special effects are now mostly the province of memory for audiences.  Gone are the heydays of Cliff Wallace and Chris Walas.  There is no disputing that computer generated imagery quickly came to dominate American cinema in the wake of Jurassic Park (1993) and Pixar, culminating in a pastiche of the “actual” before the cameras and the generated images from a computer that are all unified in a single shot during post-production.  It’s this very context that gives Nolan’s latest publicity stunt on Dunkirk any claims for notoriety at all.

Slashfilm.com revealed not to long ago that Warner Bros. spent five million dollars on a WWII fighter to be used in Nolan’s Dunkirk.  Nolan, rumor has it, will crash the plane for Hoyte van Hoytema’s IMAX 65mm cameras.  That is to say that Warner Bros. potentially spent five million dollars on a single special effect (quite a lot more than they spent on the very “real” planejacking in Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises).  It’s a sum that clearly can be seen as an investment.  Why not spend five million on a special effect or even the buzz around that effect that will save who knows how many millions on advertising?  

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Summer 2016

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.

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  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.

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  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

Holding Out For A Hero

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When Bonnie Tyler recorded Holding Out For A Hero for the film Footloose in 1984 it’s certain that she had no idea that her song would epitomize the sentiments of the American people as we prepare to elect Obama’s successor to the presidency.  A “hero” is just what the U.S. needs.  However, none of the candidates in the running quite fit the romanticized description of the song.  Luckily we are fortunate that an answer to Bonnie Tyler’s song and our needs as a nation does exist in the cinema in the form of Harrison Ford.

Air Force One (1997) trades on the image of Harrison Ford in our culture as no other movie has.  His character, President James Marshall, exists in name only; his character is simply the accumulation of Ford’s career in the movies up to that point.  President James Marshall is capable of the charm of Jack Trainer, David Holloran and Linus Larrabee, the resourcefulness of Indiana Jones and Allie Fox, the traditional family values of Jack Ryan, Henry Turner and Dr. Richard Walker, the determination of Dr. Richard Kimble, Rick Deckard and Det. John Book, and the sarcasm of Han Solo.  President James Marshall is the idealized white heterosexual male of three generations of film goers primed to defend the American dream to the last breath.

And who better to helm a fantasy film of American politics and nail-biting action than Wolfgang Petersen?  Air Force One could easily be described as In The Line Of Fire (1993) reset within the world of The NeverEnding Story (1984).  A German, Petersen’s view of America and it’s fetishization of actors and Hollywood symbols is akin to that of Sirk and Fassbinder in that this plastic brand of the American Dream is as preposterous as it is frightening.  In many ways Petersen’s Air Force One revels ironically (consider the choice of music cues for one) in its own ability to offer Americans a unique wish fulfilled in seeing Harrison Ford as our Commander and Chief; a president who perfectly represents an amalgamation of JFK for the post-Vietnam America.  It was never anyone’s wish to see Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, Martin Sheen or John Travolta as our president anyway.

The passage of time has also helped to further fetishize Harrison Ford as the U.S. President.  Not only are Americans nostalgic for the wealth and power we enjoyed as a nation in the 1990s, but our feelings toward terrorism have also drastically changed.  In 1997 the World Trade Center still stood.  Today, however, Ford’s policy of literally going toe to toe against terrorists would seem too good to be true for most Americans.  Obama certainly hasn’t thrown any “bad guys” off of Air Force One lately (and I’m afraid Donald Trump might throw the whole country from a plane).

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Air Force One is so heavy-handed in its own self-awareness and desire to fulfill its audience that it escapes reality altogether.  If I were to compare it to Petersen’s The NeverEnding Story I would have to say that Air Force One is more representative of fantasy.  Yet I do not mean this negatively.  Air Force One is a tremendous fantasy that engaged a nation in 1997, representing desires en masse.  This is the power of the cinema and the ultimate goal of any Hollywood feature.  Yet, if one should ever find themselves too immersed in the fantastic escape of Air Force One, remember Harrison Ford’s words to Donald Trump, “Donald, it was a movie.”

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Winter 2016

LILI

for my friend Thomas

Lili (lobby card)

Lili is one of those anomalous films that was ostensibly made for children or at least young adults, like The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr.T (1953), during the latter days of the Hollywood system that manages to be suitable neither for children nor adults exclusively.  The film deviates consistently from the whimsy of the Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland films to the darker themes of Powell & Pressburger’s spectacles of dance.  It is therefore likely to assume that on a younger audience member the effect of the film, as well as the overall experience in general, would resemble my personal relationship to it.  Seeing Lili as a boy was an uncomfortable experience.  The puppets, in their “human form” as costumes worn by dancers in the film’s closing dream sequence, frightened me, particularly the moments each dancer transformed into Mel Ferrer.  Apart from this moment, few other images of Lili remained in tact for me over the years until I revisited the film earlier this week.

Lili opens with the film’s title character, played by Leslie Caron, arriving in Paris to seek employment with a baker who had been a friend of her recently deceased father.  The Paris Lili arrives at in the film resembles remarkably the Paris of An American In Paris (1951).  Immediately the picturesque and the fantastic elements of Vincente Minnelli and Arthur Freed’s film are conjured up in one’s expectations.  And, as with any good fairytale, the possibilities for Lili’s adventures seem boundless.  However, Lili has very little to do with An American In Paris aside from Leslie Caron and a similar set design.  In fact, Lili immediately charts a much darker narrative course.  At age sixteen and an orphan, Lili, rather naively, allows herself to be taken in by a shopkeeper who has informed her that her father’s friend, the baker, has also died.  After luring Lili into the back of his shop with the promise of food, the shopkeeper attempts to rape Lili.  Keep in mind that the film has sold itself as a musical coming of age story framed around the relationship a young girl forms with the puppets at a carnival.  For the film to turn in the all too real direction of innocence and virtue exploited for sexual gratification is unfathomable.   Luckily for Lili the filmmakers cannot permit Lili’s virtue and innocence to escape her so early on in the film, so she is saved by a carnival magician named Marc (Jean-Pierre Aumont) who happens to have wandered into the shopkeeper’s business.  It is from here that the film launches its narrative.  Lili follows Marc and his friends to their carnival where she seeks employment so that she can remain close to Marc whom she has idolized since the moment of her rescue from the hands of the shopkeeper.

Before exploring the dynamics of the love triangle that will form the axis of Lili‘s narrative structure it seems prudent to better contextualize what sort of film Lili was in its moment of release.  An explanation of the film’s production and its values may help to pin-point the effect the film manages to resonate today, far beyond the times of the Hollywood studio era.

Lili's first day in Paris with Marc

Lili’s first day in Paris with Marc

In 1953 MGM produced its film adaptation of Paul Gallico’s novel Love Of Seven Dolls.  MGM contracted Helen Deutsch to write the screenplay after her success with adapting Golden Earrings (1947).  To head the production, the studio assigned the picture to producer Edwin H. Knopf, a capable producer trusted to churn out quick commercial pictures on budget.  MGM’s film of Love Of Seven Dolls was intended to be one of their smaller pictures designed to fill out the studio’s program as well as to meet the demand for musical fantasies.  More prestigious productions with greater star-power of this genre would have inevitably fallen to the Arthur Freed unit.  To ensure the efficiency of the film’s production, Knopf and MGM selected director Charles Walters, a veteran of the musical genre whose best-known credit as a director is for Easter Parade (1948).

The film of Love Of Seven Dolls was re-titled Lili, after the film’s protagonist, and was incorporated into the lyrics of Deutsch’s The Song Of Love.  Lili also made use of Walton & O’Rourke’s renowned puppeteering act, allegedly the only time these puppeteer’s talents were ever committed to film.  To round out the human players in the film were Mel Ferrer as Paul Berthalet (appearing as King Arthur that same year in Richard Thorpe’s Knights Of The Round Table), Jean-Pierre Aumont as Marc, Zsa Zsa Gabor as Marc’s wife Rosalie, and Leslie Caron as Lili.  Lili was, in many respects, MGM testing the waters to determine if audiences would flock to see Caron in her own vehicle after the success of her previous film An American In Paris (1951).

As with most “test” films, MGM chose a narrative that had been proven time and again to please audiences; the love-triangle.  In the case of Lili that triangle is formed by Caron’s Lili, Aumont’s philandering magician Marc, and Ferrer’s lame dancer turned puppeteer Paul.  Going with convention it is no surprise that much of the conflicts in the film derive from the archetypes assigned each character comprising this love-triangle.  Lili, in all of her doe-eyed innocence loves Marc so intensely that it borders upon obsession and helps explain why she is so ignorant of his true character.  Paul represents the inverse of the Lili character.  After wounding his leg in WWII Paul had been forced to give up his promising dance career and pursue a living as a puppeteer, growing more bitter and distant with every passing day to the point where he can only express his affections for Lili through the puppets in his act.  This alignment primarily brings Paul into conflict with Marc, distancing Lili from Paul and drawing her closer to Marc; a case of the “right man” versus the “wrong man”.

The first truly memorable sequence that is born out of this ongoing conflict comes after Lili loses her job as a server in the carnival’s cafe.  Lili is so distraught that she cannot work or live around Marc anymore that she has resolved to kill herself by throwing herself off of a tall ladder.  It is in this moment that a shrill voice calls out to her, essentially talking her off the ledge, so to speak.  In this moment Lili begins to form her tight bond with Paul’s puppets, a mere extension of himself.  Lili, however, accepts each puppet as an individual, partly out of her own naive innocence but also partly due to her emotional desperation.  This scene climaxes with the song Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo, as well as with Lili procuring a job in Paul’s act, which ensures Lili’s proximity to Marc.  The unbelievable camp of this sequence is balanced primarily due to Leslie Caron’s genuine performance, the authenticity with which she gives her heart to Paul’s puppets.  In so many similar films sequences of this sort have failed in the absence of a performer capable of sustaining a rapport with non-human characters (an issue in many of Jim Henson’s feature films).  The attributes of Caron’s performance in this scene colored much of her characters in her subsequent films at MGM, culminating with Gigi in 1958.

Lili (dream sequence)

The next major sequence in the film highlights the attributes of Caron as a performer within the context of her role in An American In Paris where most of her scenes are played out in a kind of ballet with Gene Kelly.  In Lili this sequence is the first of two ballet dream sequences that highlight Caron’s abilities as a dancer.  Unlike other dancing beauties employed by MGM, specifically Anne Miller, Caron’s style is less sexualized and leans more toward the expressionism of the European schools of dance.  With Lili, this first ballet is highly sexualized more by its choreography, the presence of Zsa Zsa Gabor as a sex symbol, as well as with the narrative trajectory of the scene.  The contrast of the context of Lili with Caron’s portrayal of the character makes the scene more and more intense as the two styles square off.  In the scene, Marc is alone onstage while Lili, in a revealing waitress costume, mimes serving drinks to patrons at the carnival cafe.  Marc is entranced by Lili, abandoning his stage to pursue her only for Gabor to appear between them.  With the art of dance as a weapon the two women compete for Marc’s sexual attention (signified by the postures as well as by Aumont’s gaze).  When Lili wins, Marc rips a piece of her costume off (repeating a gag from his actual stage show seen earlier with Gabor).  At that moment the camera moves into Lili’s face whose expression is pure pleasure.  The scene, in this way, very abruptly interjects sex as a component to the otherwise innocent character of Lili.  In following scenes Lili’s gradual maturity will be commented upon, eventually prompting Paul to confront his own sexual desires for Lili.

The first ballet sequence is troubling in its glorification of female submissiveness but also for the very violent nature of human sexuality that it suggests as the ideal.  It seems out-of-place for a character such as Lili to delight in the sadistic sexual attitudes of Marc.  That Lili also preserves her role as a woman to being subservient to men contradicts the independence she hinted at when she first appeared in Paris at the start of the film.  However, both of these threads will come to bear as a sort if subtext running throughout the rest of the film, showing themselves again in abrupt and explicit spurts, making up the most memorable and unsettling scenes in the film.

The next major scene comes at a turning point.  By now Paul has realized his love for Lili and that Marc is standing in his way just as much as his own sense of unfulfillment as a dancer.  Marc, on the other hand, has gotten a booking as a headlining act at a famous hotel.  This scene takes place immediately after Marc informs Lili that his days of traveling with the carnival are over.  Sobbing, Lili happens upon Paul, who inquires as to why it should be that she is crying.  Once Lili explains, Paul hits Lili across the face, prompting Lili to quit the carnival and the puppet act.  Paul’s masochistic behavior suddenly becomes sadistic, then reverts back to a now more intensified kind of psychological self-torture.  What’s most disturbing is that Lili eventually returns to Paul and the puppets after considering why it is that he hit her, concluding that it must be because he loves her.  The relation of this scene to what follows clearly suggests a cycle of abuse in a relationship destined to end badly, evoking, in my mind, Goffin and King’s He Hit Me & It Felt Like A Kiss.

Lili’s decision to return to Paul comes after the second ballet dream sequence.  But before getting into this particular sequence it will be important to note that between hitting Lili and her dream, Paul finds himself again and is released from his masochistic behavior with a prestigious booking and some high praise for his puppet show.  Again the film reinforces the notion that men are shallow, emotional opportunists with a barbaric approach to sexuality.  With that conveyed, Lili embarks on another dream ballet.

the puppets come to life

the puppets come to life

This scene was mentioned earlier as being the only one I could remember, and seeing it now the masks that the dancers wear to look like the puppets remind me of the masks of animals the townspeople wear in Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973).  I am also struck by the recurrence of transformation borrowed from Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948).  Just as in The Red Shoes, the transformations in this sequence of Lili are from fantasy to reality, giving a visual representation to the transition from Lili’s girlhood to womanhood, a love for Marc to a love for Paul.  The setting of this dream is also of interest given that it is the only scene in the film with a deep perspective.  This illusion of depth and space created on an MGM soundstage lends a ominence to the scene, as if the potential aimlessness of Lili were to be her undoing.  Again, the film strikes at female independence.  Just when all of the puppet dancers have transformed into Paul then vanished, Lili awakes, turns, and goes running to her true love, the man behind the curtain.

In the context of post-war America these kinds of fantasy films, for they are neither strictly musical nor drama, clearly have their function.  The illusions of these films, the fantasies they summon all offer a simultaneous hope and an escape from our reality.  Lili gets neither herself, but her story, and in a sense her martyrdom, grants the audience these two precious commodities of the cinema.

-Robert Curry

 

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Filed under Autumn 2015, Winter 2012

Five Dream Projects

In late 2009, just before winter break during my junior year of college, a professor asked my class to, while during break, compile a list of fifty ideas that would make good films.  Now, last week my brother and I began editing his film Hassle Magnet and I happened to stumble upon my list while making space on one of my hard drives.  This new list, of only five, represents the best of those ideas from 2009.  These are the projects I would still love to make.

Nixon and Elvis

1-In 1973, Richard Nixon recruited Elvis Presley [Nicolas Cage] to become the first TIME COP. In 1977, Elvis fakes his death, and [after 4 years of training] sets off on his first mission to stop Walt Disney of 2432 (now thawed out and cured) from killing history’s most important Jews. To do this, Elvis recruits Bruce Lee and Fatty Arbuckle to help him.

2-On a rainy night, Dirk and Paolo [Crispin Glover & Cillian Murphy] are called to a homicide. There they take prints and make the strange decision to take the woman’s dead body with them in their car. They take turns driving and having intercourse with the corpse, but their pleasure cruise is halted when the homicidal maniac [Nicolas Cage] goes looking for the body himself. While the three engage in a sadistic slapstick cat and mouse, FBI agent Dick Moses [Danny Glover] is on the verge of catching all three necrophiliacs and charging them as a gang.

3-Eric [Rip Torn] has built 30 two-inch tall women out of scrap metal. He keeps these women under his hat and has them steal from cash registers for him. Another cunning inventor [Ray Liotta] hopes to steal his secret. After several break-ins, the Inventor abducts Eric, and threatens his life for the secret of the little women. Eric refuses and is murdered. But that night, the little robot women creep into the inventor’s mouth and tear him apart from the inside out.

4-In Northern Ireland, circa 1948, Farmer Eric [Pierce Brosnan] has a cow that talks and tells the future. Soon, fame women and too much publicity are all theirs. In the mayhem, Eric’s cow falls in love with him. As the two embark on a strange romance, they usher in a perverse trend of bestiality not based on love at all but lust.

5-A romantic comedy about Phil [Alan Arkin] who runs a homeless persons shelter with his daughter [Winona Ryder]. One day, Phil falls in love with a woman in his soup kitchen line [Elaine May], only to discover another man is competing for her affections, a man only pretending to be homeless because he is cheap [Charles Grodin]. So Phil begins plotting with his friend Abel [Woody Allen], as to how to win the heart of the woman he loves.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Autumn 2015