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Caped Wonder Stuns City: The Cinematic Death and Rebirth of Superman

Justice League (2017) opens with a shot from a camera phone of Superman (Henry Cavill) rescuing people from a burning building.  It’s daytime, and Superman’s costume looks conspicuously like a Halloween costume, its airbrushed textures and fake muscles clearly evident.  He’s about to fly away when a child, the one filming this, asks if he could answer some questions.  Superman begins to give him a polite brush off when the child explains its for their podcast.  “Well, if its for your podcast…”  The little boy and his friends proceed to ask Superman a number of questions – “Does that ‘S’ really stand for hope?”, “Have you ever fought a hippo?” – before finally asking what Superman’s favorite thing about the human race is.  Silently, Superman thinks.  Then he smiles.  Cut to black. This opening shot, about a minute long, is easily the best part of Justice League, and is probably the best Superman movie since 1981.  

Henry Cavill

Justice League is a mess of a movie, a Frankenstein monster resulting from hasty reshoots, studio meddling, conflicting artistic visions, tight deadlines, and shoddy special effects.  It’s sloppy, stupid, cheap-looking, and a lot more fun than it has any right to be.  And one thing it gets absolutely right is Superman.

Despite being one of the most iconic fictional characters of the twentieth century, filmmakers and studio executives have struggled to understand the Man of Steel.  No one can seem to wrap their heads around what makes Superman work, operating under the conviction that this is some corny, irrelevant piece of pop culture ephemera that must be radically retooled in order to be popular.  But Superman is already popular.  People love Superman; they have his insignia tattooed on their bodies, adorning their cars, their shirts, their underwear.  All over the world, children are still tying blankets around their necks and jumping off the stairs pretending to fly.  Words like “kryptonite”, “Bizarro”, and “Brainiac” are part of the common English vernacular.  People discuss flight and x-ray vision in everyday conversation.  We don’t need to be sold on Superman; we’ve already bought in, and anyone who hasn’t isn’t going to be swayed by seeing the character brood and get blood on his knuckles.

In a way, Justice League marks the first appearance of Superman in the “DCEU”, Warner Bros’ shared “cinematic universe” for the denizens of DC Comics.  This continuity began in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) but it would be hard to mistake the protagonist of that film for Superman.  Snyder’s character is a bully and an idiot.  He makes out with his girlfriend in a pile of human ash before snapping his opponent’s neck and encouraging the audience to join the military.  Superman’s defining characteristic, more than flying or super-strength or changing in phone booths, is that he always does the right thing.  As soon as the character stops doing the right thing, he stops being Superman.  Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer are either wary of or uninterested in this.  It’s too simple.  It isn’t cool.  The fantasy of power abused is, on the surface, more compelling and relatable than power used righteously.  But that’s not the story of Superman.  Superman represents a kind of apotheosis of humanity, human flaws discarded in the Daily Planet storeroom so that human virtues may be elevated to godhood.  Superman is devoid of human flaws like doubt, jealousy, and anger.  Those are Clark Kent’s problems.  Superman is all-encompassing good, selflessness with the infinite capacity to commit selfless acts.   This is something that many of the older cinematic adaptations understood.  The Fleischer animated shorts of the 1940s, the film serials of the same decade, and the classic 1950s television series were all in close enough proximity chronologically to the character’s creation to not really questions any of this, to not feel the urge to deconstruct or retool the formula.  Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz , the creative minds behind Superman (1978) grew up on these adaptions and the comics of that era, and consequently, Superman understands the character perfectly.   Beautifully portrayed by Christopher Reeve, this Superman is kind, chivalrous, charming, polite, friendly, while Clark Kent is awkward, shy, bumbling, uptight, and also charming.  This was more than just the Superman from the comics.  It was like the character had stepped out of our shared cultural imagination and understanding of who Superman is.

Poster for Superman: The Movie

It would be unfair to expect as shaggy a dog as Justice League to pull all of this off, and it doesn’t.  But it does manage to give us the best cinematic version of Superman in decades.  Here, Superman smiles.  He actually laughs.  A great, big belly laugh.  His big entrance line is “I believe in truth…and I’m a big fan of justice!”, delivered by Henry Cavill (who had previously been confined by scripts that had him sulking in front of green screens) with the kind of cornball conviction that would do Kirk Alyn or Buckaroo Banzai proud.  The line got a big laugh.  It was ridiculous, but in a sincere, joyous way, and this was the biggest, happiest surprise – and achievement – of the film.  Superman radiates joy, not just fun or entertainment.  Joy.  It’s something that’s missing from most other modern superhero movies, including many that are much better than Justice League.  But that small, simple quality is worth celebrating.

So, bring your kids to see Justice League.  They’ll probably love it, warts and all.  And they’ll finally get to see Superman on the big screen.

-Hank Curry

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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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Wrapped In Plastic

Twin Peaks (1990-91), the brainchild of creators Mark Frost and David Lynch, has, in the last decade, risen above cult status.  In part this is due to Lynch’s Oscar nominated Mulholland Drive (2001), and part to the various DVD releases of the show and its streaming on Netflix.  Only a few weeks ago plans to revive the show were announced via Twitter by Lynch himself.  Indeed, almost all of the success of the show, be it when the show originally aired or today, is attributed to David Lynch, and occasionally Mark Frost.  But in the interim, between Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and the release of the Twin Peaks Gold Box, it was the fanzine Wrapped In Plastic (1993-2005) that nurtured interest, merchandising, and critical debate around the show and its creator’s other projects from Lost Highway (1997) to Storyville (1992).

back issues of Wrapped In Plastic

Phenomenon like the Twin Peaks resuscitation is rare in film and television.  Perhaps the greatest example of a fan motivated revival is the franchise Star Trek, whose initial six features were the result of a decade long campaign by fans to bring the original television series back.  It’s too early to tell whether Twin Peaks will spark the sort of fan base and coinciding franchise that Star Trek did, but it is undeniable that the responsibility for any “rediscovery” of Twin Peaks by the public is due to Wrapped In Plastic and its readers.

Wrapped In Plastic was not an iconoclast of its genre, nor was it that consistent in its writing.  It did, however, fill an unlikely niche by bringing Twin Peaks to its fans in print for 75 issues.  Typically the format was quite standard for a fanzine; a cover story, an essay or two, some brief reviews on projects by Twin Peaks’ cast and crew, and then the letters section.  Wrapped In Plastic also covered Chris Carter’s X-Files, linking it thematically and aesthetically to Twin Peaks a number of times.  By incorporating articles and occasional cover stories on X-Files the fanzine was able to broaden its fan-base.  It is essential to put into context the function of the fanzine at the turn of the 21st century when such periodicals were primarily found in the then obscure comic shop and therefore had to compete with fanzines for Star Trek, Star Wars, Charlie’s Angels, Vampirella, Battlestar Galactica, James Bond, etc.  The already insular nature of those frequenting such shops provided a tight sense of community to the Wrapped In Plastic reader, prompting events designed to mirror Star Trek and comic book conventions but aimed at Twin Peaks.

Wrapped In Plastic No. 60This end of the Twin Peaks culture, its true “cult”, has not yet broken onto the social media platforms of the show’s newest fans.  In fact it is hard to get a handle on its function and very nature outside of the back issues of Wrapped In Plastic.  This gets to the very heart of “cult followings” in the age of cyber-space.  Fanzines like Wrapped In Plastic have been replaced by blogs, much like this one.  But these blogs do not come with the built in distribution direct to a niche audience that a printed fanzine comes with.  Thus communities like those built up by Wrapped In Plastic are slow to transition to social media, often suffocated by legions of new fans posting and blogging about the same subject.  This also furthers the novelty sensibility of a conference or festival held by fans beyond the reaches of the internet.  Consider the anarchist free-for-all of Twin Peaks blogs on tumblr in contrast to Radiohead and Sonic Youth blogs which function with a clear cohesion and sense of community.

There is simply something intrinsically communal about picking up a fanzine, an immediate sense of belonging, reassuring one’s self that there are other people in the world with like-minded interests.  The power of print, in this fashion in particular, is largely responsible for the hardcore punk scene of the eighties that sparked bands such as The Minutemen, The Replacements, Beat Happening, and Sonic Youth.  Personally, it was this sense of belonging that I felt when I bought my first issue of Wrapped In Plastic from Steve’s Comic Relief in 2002.  And, for me at least, that notion of Twin Peaks as a wider community of fans is absent from blogs.  So the benefits of Wrapped In Plastic have been two fold.  Firstly it provided a communal platform for fans and, secondly, breathed new life and interest into the landmark television show.

-Robert Curry

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Wittgenstein, Bazin, & Godard

Reality: The world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them: “he refuses to face  reality”. – Webster’s English Dictionary definition

In 1921, Ludwig Wittgenstein published his most significant philosophical writing Tractus Logico-Philosophicus.  In his book, Wittgenstein does not argue on behalf of his beliefs as they pertain to reality, but instead presents his reader with a number of observations whose validity he believed to be self-evident.  The sum of Wittgenstein’s observations present the reader with a perspective of our shared reality that is designed to undermine the conventions and the stability with which man kind has always employed when grappling with the world around him.  In summation, Tractus Logico-Philosophicus presents a reality without any definite truth, where knowledge as we know it is nothing more than a human invention.  The components of this “human invention” consist of numerical labels and names that allow the human intellect to reason with his/her surroundings, to navigate a reality as subjective as it is believed to be objective.

Wittgenstein’s work has become one of the most influential philosophical studies of the twentieth century, and is, along with the works of Henri Bergson, essential to the development of film theory and criticism.  Consider that everything contained within a frame and the accompanying soundtrack of a film is a “reality”.  To navigate this reality, the filmmaker has broken it up into various shots.  These shots, aligned during the film’s post-production, allow a fluidity of experience, simulating the human experience of time or life.  The denominations of a film’s parts (shots, sequences, scenes, acts) are therefore synonymous with the numerical labels Wittgenstein attributes to man’s invention of a “shared reality”.

The parts of the film, assembled by the filmmaker, each represent a distinctly emotive signifier that the audience utilizes to navigate the film’s narrative.  Each member of the audience, with his or her own subjective perspective, will interpret these signifiers differently, though without much variation.  This phenomenon speaks directly to Wittgenstein’s observations regarding mankind’s experience of reality.  There can, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, be no definite reality if there is no universally uniform reaction or perception to an event, object or thought.

Film is the most illustrative medium of the arts when put in terms of philosophical translation. Yet, in an issue of Cahiers du Cinema published in December 1956, Andre Bazin and Jean-Luc Godard became embattled in an argument over the validity of film art and its ability to reflect or capture reality.

Bazin’s article, “Editing Forbidden”, advocates a cinema of long takes shot with a deep focus.  Bazin believed that it was the cinema’s responsibility to translate our reality as we see it to film, creating the illusion that we, the audience, are occupying the same space and time as the character’s of the film’s narrative.  This translation of reality is more literal than Godard’s interpretation, standing in direct opposition of the theories of montage originated by Eisenstein and Vertov in the twenties.  The films Bazin supported, such as the early films of Orson Welles and John Ford, present a perverted reflection of our reality, and therefore inherit the same non-truths as those outlined by Wittgenstein.

Godard’s article “Editing, My Beautiful Concern”, takes the opposite approach as Bazin’s.  Godard argues that the films of Nicholas Ray, F.W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang, with their use of elaborate montage in the tradition of Eisenstein, present a cinematic experience closer to our reality, and perhaps even closer to a true reality in general.  By breaking a narrative up into numerous signifying parts as opposed to a few, these films create a more powerful emotional and psychological reaction in the audience.  Though most of these films are highly stylized and melodramatic, their ability, through montage, to capture human emotion does represent a more accurate reflection of the human experience.  Despite the fact that these films are subject to Wittgenstein’s observations because they exist in our reality as works of art, within their own insular world they come closer to a true definite reality than those films advocated by Bazin.

For instance, a film by F.W. Murnau such as Faust (1926), with its expressionist and romantic tendencies, creates a world within the film that is entirely reflective of the emotional and psychological truth of its characters that is indisputable to the audience, though the audiences’ own reaction is subject to debate.  A less stylized film such as Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train (1951) presents a world so much like our own that the truths experienced by the film’s characters are just as ambiguous and artificial as our own.

Godard’s observations are nonetheless in direct opposition of the basic language of film criticism.  Godard’s film Made In USA (1966) utilizes cultural signifies constantly, just as it employs a complex editing strategy.  Made In USA presents its audience with more truth through these tactics than most films, but is labeled avant-garde or experimental.  Yet, a film like Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) that utilizes a number of long takes, and avoids using signifiers of any cultural significance is labeled naturalistic.  The paradox that exists here is the direct result of what Wittgenstein outlined to be mankind’s desire to make sense out of the chaos of his existence, to label and categorize what there is in the world.  I don’t mean this in terms of the titles avant-garde or naturalism, but in mankind’s desire to confront reality on the terms of his experience of his perceived reality.  That is to say, the reality of Last Tango In Paris is closer to our own in how it deals with the concept of reality as an aesthetic illusion whereas Made In USA avoids all confrontation with our perceived reality, preferring to manufacture its own world of truths.

-Robert Curry

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Mildred Pierce

Todd Haynes has tried his hand at a variety of styles and narrative approaches.  From Poison (1991) to I’m Not There (2007) his cinematic style has proven to be as versatile and as challenging as any filmmaker working in America today.  Last year he tackled the melodrama head-on in a six-hour miniseries for HBO, Mildred Pierce.  Borrowing heavily from the cinema of Douglas Sirk, as he did with Far From Heaven (2002), and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Haynes invigorates the genre by implementing the old and tried conventions within the context of a sprawling, character driven narrative.

First, I would like to point out how far HBO has allowed the television miniseries to come since its conception.  HBO encourages established and decidedly cinematic filmmakers to create what are essentially epic films that need not be inhibited by running time.  The funny thing is, such an approach has been the standard in Europe since the early seventies.  Why it took so long to catch on in the U.S. I do not know.

Working with this medium of epic story telling, Haynes and his co-writer Jon Raymond have crafted a script that remains much more faithful to James M. Cain’s novel than Michael Curtiz’s film.  Utilizing the scope of the miniseries, they have crafted a film that progresses at a slow pace, allowing performance to exist at the forefront of the film. Here, at the center of the film is Kate Winslet in the title role.  She doesn’t play Mildred for sympathy, preferring instead an organically objective approach that show cases both the good and the bad in her character with a visceral sense of the everyday, the mundane.  Evan Rachel Wood plays her daughter Veda, a spoiled and sociopathic upstart who serves as the catalyst for nearly every evil that befalls Mildred.  Guy Pearce plays Mildred’s second husband Monty, a charming opportunist and rake.  In the narrative, it is Veda and Monty who present the obstacles and betrayals which prevent Mildred from enjoying that which she has achieved (when her first husband leaves her, she starts a chain of restaurants).

Cain’s novel has all the trappings of classic Hollywood melodrama, and Haynes doesn’t shy away from incorporating old Hollywood styles into the film to reflect that.   Haynes doesn’t cut his shots to maximize narrative exposition.  The shots in Mildred Pierce linger, inviting the spectator into the world of the film, impressing upon us the smallest details of the lives of the characters.

Like Douglas Sirk, Haynes often frames his characters reflected in mirrors or seen through a window or some sort of glass.  As Sirk once did, Haynes carefully picks his shots in which he wishes to distort the audience’s view of the character.  Haynes also permits his actors to play their parts a little too “big” at times, pushing for a Wagnerian effect right out of the “weepies” of the 1930s and 1940s as much as for Brechtian impact.  The mood of these “big” moments, given their duration and the exaggerated posturing of the actors, at times feels less like Sirk and more like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s interpretation of Sirk.  Perhaps that is because, unlike Sirk, Fassbinder’s work made allowances for depictions of womanhood that were not predicated on the tastes of a Hollywood studio.

But Haynes does more than just imitate style and convention.  Mildred Pierce is a decidedly Todd Haynes film.  His obsession with sexual subversion is ever present and factors heavily into the lives of the film’s characters.  Even before Mildred discovers Eva’s affair with Monty, sex is used to manipulate and undermine different characters.  Monty is essentially Mildred’s gigolo after all.  The complex that exists in Mildred Pierce, in terms of sex and power, is derived from Fassbinder’s dramas post-The Merchant Of Four Seasons (1971). In combining Fassbinder’s strategies for “power-plays” within a narrative with Cain’s original novel Haynes is able to reincorporate the aesthetic of the classic melodrama into the contemporary character study as well as into the stylistic vernacular of the episodic television drama.

Mildred-Pierce-mildred-pierce-miniseries-26833378-796-527

Consider now the level of grief and shame Haynes gets from Winslet when she confronts Veda about faking her pregnancy to black mail a film director’s son is disturbing.  Winslet’s face twists and bursts with tears.  In the hands of another director, moments such as these would not be played quite so over the top for quite so long. In a scene where Mildred catches Veda in bed with Monty, there is a long 18 second shot of Veda naked, combing her hair after sex.  Haynes then cuts back to Mildred as her face slowly reveals her emotional pain.  The audience doesn’t need to see the sex act.  The perverse nature of the sex is clear enough in this juxtaposition of these shots that it would have been less effective to show it.

It’s rare to find a balance of convention and innovation in any film let alone a film that runs over three hundred and sixty minutes long.  But that’s what makes this Todd Haynes’ most provocative film.

-Robert Curry

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