The City of Santa Ana invites you to a fantastic and FREE outdoor concert on Saturday, September 25th — and they’ve invited The Frida to bring a film along as well!! Join us at Plaza Calle Cuatro, right around the corner from The Frida, for a performance by Pacific Symphony’s Chamber Ensemble starting at 7pm! Then, what better film to complement an evening of outdoor classical music than Disney’s 1940 classic Fantasia!
Has it really been thirty-five years?
If there’s one question that gets thrown around more than others around The Frida, it’s “What’s your favorite movie?” And if there’s anyone that gets it more than others, it’s Trevor and myself, who dedicate ourselves to programming the films our cinema presents to you. If you know Trevor, that’s an easy one — he’s always ready to proudly tell you it’s Steven Spielberg’s classic 1975 adventure/thriller Jaws, and to break down the many reasons why. Similarly, I’m always more than ready share my own favorite film — which is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that it’s the only film represented twice in our lobby’s Tribute to Art House & Cult Cinema mural — David Lynch’s landmark 1986 mystery Blue Velvet. What hasn’t always been as easy is the Why…
I suppose it all started with ON TV. This was some EARLY subscription television, brought to you by a box that you would switch on when you wanted to watch…well, cycling presentations of The Cannonball Run, Condorman, Tarzan the Ape Man, Taps, The Pirate Movie, and The Elephant Man. Suffice it to say I had a lot of these movies memorized by a pretty early age, and in the case of The Elephant Man (and, okay, The Pirate Movie as well admittedly…) I was somewhat obsessed. Like many folks who grew up with that movie, I always assumed it was an “old movie,” shot in the “black and white” times, certainly a heralded classic from some golden age of cinema. I can’t remember quite what it was about that movie that affected me so much, but in retrospect, I think it’s quite likely that it was the first movie that made me cry. When I think back on the movies that really shook me emotionally as a kid — Testament, Terms of Endearment, The Color Purple, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, and of course those unforgivable traumatizing moments in The NeverEnding Story and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (poor, poor little shoe…), The Elephant Man was easily the earliest. Couple that with the film’s aesthetics — gorgeous cinematography and set design, that score that evoked the world’s saddest circus, and of course, that incredible makeup — and I was hooked.
When E.T. The Extra Terrestrial came out and became an instant phenomenon, it was hard to see or read anything about the movie without the mention of Steven Spielberg. You’d scarcely see a picture of the title alien on a magazine cover without Spielberg standing right next to him. That was my introduction to the idea of a filmmaker, a Director, a person “behind the camera” (not really — well, sometimes) who envisions the movie, puts the parts together, films it, makes it Be so we can see it. With the one-two punch of E.T. and Poltergeist in the Summer of 1982, followed by his name tied to everything from Gremlins to The Goonies to Amazing Stories and so on, this man quickly became my hero. And as I set out to learn the most I could about him, that led to a deeper understanding of the filmmaking industry in general, and I started to become interested in learning more about filmmakers in general, experiencing their entire body of work and trying to pick apart what ties the stories together, what aesthetics and tricks and approaches might I find across their body of work, might I have other filmmaking heroes that I didn’t even realize I had? I still marvel to this day, for example, that people don’t speak about Rob Reiner the same way they might speak about a Spielberg or a Hitchcock or a Burton or a Nolan or a Campion or a Landis or a Von Trier or anyone whose name pops up when we speak about filmmakers who’ve given us a celebrated, reliable body of work. Check out this run alone — This is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally…, Misery, A Few Good Men. With exception maybe to The Sure Thing, these are some iconic films. Is it just that they’re far too different film-to-film for Reiner’s presence to be felt enough to earn him more recognition as a filmmaker? Does one need to be an Auteur filmmaker to celebrate such notoriety?
Say nothing of the great Robert Zemeckis… But I digress.
SO… In 1986, hot off my mania of deep-diving into the works of the filmmakers whose movies I’d come to love, I heard that the man behind The Elephant Man was releasing a new film. So I begged my dad to take me to see it. And they way it worked with my dad is this — he’d take me to see anything I wanted to see, and he’d take me to see anything he wanted to see. No questions asked. My mom would take me to movies too, but she was of more discerning tastes: with her I was fortunate to experience great films like Amadeus, Nine to Five, Terms of Endearment, Mask, and the first movie I remember seeing in a movie theater — and still one of my all-time favorites — 1981’s Arthur. With dad on the other hand, it was The Terminator, Commando, Future-Kill, Runaway (a movie I love just far, far too much), pretty much anything that looked awesome to either a movie-obsessed pre-teen and his hyper-teenager-at-heart father. And so here was a new film by David Lynch, whose The Elephant Man had deeply affected me, and I had to see it. If memory serves, mom was intrigued that Ingrid Bergman’s daughter, Isabella Rossellini, was starring in it, so she came along. So it was off to the Bijou Theater in Hermosa Beach, a little two-screen movie theater that I would soon learn was considered an “art house” and that would soon by the first of what would be many home-away-from-home movie houses, to see David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
It’s important perhaps to remark here that I was ten years old. Blue Velvet was released in September, 1986, so in fairness to my parents, technically I was a month shy of turning eleven… Okay that doesn’t really make a difference, but no, my parents didn’t necessarily read up on these movies before they took their kids to see them. If they knew a film was Rated R, they figured okay, it’s got some cussing — our kids can handle that — it’s got some violence — our kids can definitely handle that — and if there’s nudity, we’ll do the whole hand-over-the-eyes shield thing. I remember seeing Cat People and The Entity with my mom, and her sitting next to me with her hands furiously voguing before my eyes the entire time, her hands seemingly figuring out their own trial-by-fire censorship system between scenes of sexual violence and those momentarily flashes of nudity therein, which of course where what I couldn’t see.
And then there’s a movie like Blue Velvet. Suffice it to say, none of us had seen anything like it. How do you prepare to shield the eyes and ears of a ten-year-old boy from a towering big-screen cinematic assault of violence, perversion, and explosive, obscene menace — especially when it’s packaged within an elegant, Mayberry meet The Hardy Boys package? How to predict that this dreamlike fable that opens with a vintage Bobby Vinton standard and idyllic shots of a white picket fence and waving firemen would ultimately reveal itself to be a cinematic Virgil taking us deeper and deeper into Hell? And how do you find the bandwidth to secure the safety mask on your child then the plane is going down and you yourself are holding on for dear life?
Fortunately for me, they didn’t try. Maybe they respected me enough at that point to take it in. This may seriously feel like hyperbole, but I really mean it — I shudder to think of how my life might be different today if they had stopped at “Now show it to me…” and pulled me right out of that cinema.
That movie marked me. It was, more than anything, my introduction to Art House cinema — and at so many levels. For one, it showed me a kind of movie I had never seen before: one that seemed less interested in presenting me a narrative to follow, and more interested in evoking ideas, moods, and emotions. And what’s more, mixing them up and letting them wage conflict in my head. The singular emotion of laughing at something that part of me feels I maybe shouldn’t be laughing at. The experience of hearing other people laughing at the same things around me, and wondering if they’re feeling just as odd about it. The experience of watching something that I feel like I shouldn’t be watching — and certainly not with my parents, or with a shared audience of strangers. A growing understanding of the value of a movie theater like The Bijou — at that time I’d only seen a handful of movies there, but they all had this thing in common: they all felt more creative, and more unique, than, say, Blue Thunder or Back to School. Or hell, even movies that were winning Oscars, like Out of Africa and Cocoon. I quickly became a regular at The Bijou, seeing every film I could there, and adding names like Pedro Almodóvar, Spike Lee, Wim Wenders, Allison Anders, Kenneth Anger, Lizzie Borden, John Waters, Jim Jarmusch, Penelope Spheeris, and later, Gregg Araki, Jane Campion, Todd Haynes, Mike Leigh, Todd Solondz, and Hal Hartley, to my growing list of filmmaker heroes whose new releases, and revival screenings, I’d never miss.
I immediately wanted to see every film like Blue Velvet, and set my life to it — which of course was a foolish and ultimately impossible notion, but boy was the odyssey worth it. Along the way I developed a mania to introduce my friends to films like Blue Velvet, and so many other auteur, avant garde films and filmmakers I discovered along the way. Along with The Bijou I made a home in neighboring Manhattan Beach’s Video Archives, a truly fantastic video store where film-savvy clerks introduced me to darker fare like Nekromantik, Der Todesking, and a particularly gruesome little film that no one near my age should have been allowed to watch called In A Glass Cage. One day I showed up to find the place completely decked out in celebration of the upcoming release of one of the clerks’ first feature films, but that’s a story for a different time. Point is — Blue Velvet set a path out in front of me that at the time I had no way of understanding, but that I took to like a train, never looking back, and still on thirty-five years later.
So what about the film itself do I love? So, so much, but I hope the point isn’t lost that these elements aren’t why the film is so important to me. And, in reverent consideration of what David Lynch’s take on such things, really, who cares? Watch it for yourself. Love it, or hate it, for yourself. You may find it hilarious, or you may find yourself wondering how anyone in their right mind would find it hilarious. You might find it jarring and offensive, or you might find it harmless compared to so many films that have come since. You might find it a work of art, or you might find it a work of self-indulgent trash. Or, you might find yourself marveling at the idea that a film can somehow manage to be both self-indulgent trash and a mesmerizing work of art simultaneously. Find our for yourself as The Frida Cinema presents David Lynch’s Blue Velvet on September 17th, 18th, and 19th, accompanied by a new Lobby Art Show that opens Friday, September 17th with our 7:30pm screening. Click here for tickets and showtimes.
Happy 35th, Blue Velvet, and thank you.
Executive Director, Founder
The Frida Cinema
EIGHT ANIMATED FEATURE FILMS — EIGHT CORNERS OF THE WORLD.
Are you an Orange County student who is currently in Grades 7th – 12th? If so, we invite you to register for our free 2021 World of Animation program! This FREE eight-title Film-viewing + Discussion program will take place Tuesday afternoons at 3:30pm, from Tuesday, October 5th through Tuesday, November 23rd!
With generous support from State Street Foundation, we are inviting 100 students to join us for our inaugural World of Animation program, conceived to provide younger audiences with an opportunity to experience, free of charge, eight acclaimed feature-length animated films from eight different countries. Screenings will be held online, and each film will be followed by a presentation and conversation with special guests in the fields of cinema, animation, and education. The films presented will represent works from Brazil, Belgium, France, Ireland, Japan, South Korea, Spain, and the US. Our objectives are to encourage younger audiences to seek out and embrace international, independent, non-mainstream cinema; to apply critical, analytical, and comparative thinking to their filmgoing experience; and to become accustomed to experience watching feature films in foreign languages with subtitles. Not to mention, to share some great works of art with future leaders in our community!
- Students must be: 1) Currently enrolled in an Orange County-based school; and 2) Currently attending Grades 7th – 12th (Junior High through High School).
- Students must make every effort to attend all eight sessions, which will take place every Tuesday at 3:30pm starting October 5th, and ending November 23rd.
In consideration of COVID-19 precautions, the course is open to a limited 100 participants, to provide opportunities for spacing in our auditoriums. We will be accepting the first 100 students who enroll, and who fit the criteria above! Hit button below to enroll!. We will be accepting the first 100 students who enroll, and who fit the criteria above! Hit button below to enroll!
“So, after all this, what do I think this show is about? I won’t say—that’s like putting the nose on the clown—but I will say the title is not ironic.”
– David Byrne, 2019
Broadway’s a long way from Brooklyn. Geographically and, if the recent data on theater attendance is any indication, then racially as well. Ever since his monumental debut film She’s Gotta Have It in 1986 (another superlative year for American indie film directors), Atlanta’s native son Spike Lee has been photographing New York City spaces in his work for decades. The latest joint (playing at the Frida Cinema for a special two night performance) is a concert documentary generously titled David Byrne’s American Utopia, and it finds Lee at the Hudson Theater on Broadway for a once in a lifetime collaboration with another essential New York artist: David Byrne of Talking Heads. It’s a match made in heaven, as the film keeps the unique proclivities of both its creators front-and-center without distracting from its central message of communion and integration. That it’s already the sharpest, most engrossing concert documentaries of this century is just sugar on the tongue. In the 15 or so years since his last album Grown Backwards in 2004, David Byrne has been staying busy: numerous album collaborations and world tours, grand openings at art galleries, writing a hit book called How Music Works, and even becoming a US citizen. Yet somehow, it wasn’t until the release of his newest album of original songs in 2018, “American Utopia”, that David Byrne began to be earnestly acknowledged as a true American Artist by the wider public, including, and especially, newer generations of music fans. Once derided as a figurehead of pretentious New York intelligentsia, Byrne has now graduated to a much more flattering cultural echelon that affords him the opportunity to sell out the Hudson on Broadway with an even more minimalist production than what had been seen in previous live shows. The enigma of history. Produced by Byrne and longtime collaborator Brian Eno, the American Utopia album is an extension of the pair’s studio experimentation with electronic loops and vocal distortions in the 70’s and 80’s. When preparing the songs for the Broadway stage however, Byrne devised new arrangements that are liberated from their digital composition so as to more complement the historic venue they would be performed in. This recontextualization of instrumentation in relationship to venue proves a creative intent that goes beyond simple transposition; Byrne’s trying to say something about the modularity of art’s purpose as well. The analog sequencing of popular cuts like “I Zimbra” are filtered through a living, breathing band with wireless instruments and amplifiers that offer complete freedom of movement. With an empty stage, all attention becomes focused on the company, the most minute shifts in their body, and the music itself; music as a celebration of community in crisis. The first images Spike Lee deploys for his depiction of this kinetic dance opera are of a curtain of illustrations by artist Maira Kalman that hangs from the proscenium. The colorful designs are eye-catching enough to stand on their own, and seem to keep the attendant audience members waiting for the show to begin in a trance. With its robust configuration, American Utopia channels the same gladsome energy of Jonathan Demme’s supremely influential west-coast companion film, Stop Making Sense (1984). Where Demme opted for a rigorously self-contained closed loop of Talking Heads’ avant-garde performance art (with audience members more or less excised from the frame), Lee broadens the scope of his camera to extend beyond the venue, and to include the literal world as context to the events onstage rather than a detraction from them. This newer, fresher paradigm of concert documentary integrates audience and performer in a profound way that stands in contrast to the strict stage boundaries seen in Demme’s film and films like it. Between songs, David Byrne will soliloquize to the audiences with anecdotes about the past and insights about the future; speaking with such grace and calm, it’s difficult to imagine him as the same Nervous Young Man twitching onstage in the Bowery at CBGB’s. The bald faced sincerity of American Utopia stands in deep contrast to Byrne’s dadaist, throw-anything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-works ethos that he cultivated with Talking Heads, but it’s also one of the primary charms of him as an artist. In the early days, Byrne’s commitment to irreverent and abstract expressionism supplanted the audience’s traditional need for music (and art) that was easily digestible, and with clearly defined authorial intent. Which makes the didactic messaging in American Utopia all the more indicative of a shift in Byrne’s artistic priorities. In an interview with Esquire Magazine for the release of this film in 2020, David Byrne was asked about the artists’ responsibility in questioning the status quo. He responded: “If you’re feeling [responsibility], you have an obligation to act on what you’re feeling. But it doesn’t have to be directly engaging with specific issues. There are people who, let’s say, just do comedy. They still allow people to see each other in a different way. They’re doing something.” For Byrne, that “something” seems to be confronting his own privileges for the sake of mitigating disharmony and building unity. In the most show-stopping number of the film, Byrne and company perform a rendition of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” wherein the names of victims of police brutality are recited. It’s in this moment where the creative sensibilities of all these magnificent artists are finally synthesized into an electrifying singularity, fleeting but powerful. Spike Lee allows the deceased this moment for catharsis, but for the gathered Broadway and film audiences, it’s a call to action as well. The eternal struggle for justice and equality is not solved merely with song, but with persistent active dismantling of oppressive structures by the body politik. This is, perhaps, a far-cry from the simple observations about apartment buildings and romantic love that dotted Byrne’s early songwriting, but it speaks to the ways in which we all eventually mature beyond our sophomoric tendencies for the betterment of the people around us. Lest all these passionate emotions not have anywhere to go, Byrne and Lee identify clear ways for the individual to make a difference in their neighborhood – the credits conclude with a phone number that can be texted for information on how to get involved locally. The greater message here however seems to be that we must also believe we can make a difference as well – a radically naive assertion in a post-Trump era, but Byrne’s confidence is infectious. Of course, his optimism is not his own. Following the Janelle Monáe cover, Byrne quotes author James Baldwin in a passage that, to use Byrne’s own words, puts the “nose on the clown” in the most elegant of ways. Baldwin says, “I still believe that we can do with this country something that has not been done before.” Utopia is not so fallacious to pursue, it is the desire for (and celebration of) progress. Progress derived from the actions of every single one of us. We can all do better. The heat must go on.
We begin to hear a sound before its opening shot. The torrential downpour of unseen rain, fading in through its opening white screen in a hazy lull. As we listen, onscreen we are told that the following film will intentionally be presented without subtitles. We are then led into the film’s opening shot–a static frame of Lee Kang-sheng sitting and facing a pane of glass reflecting the seemingly endless amount of rain from outside. The shot lasts long enough for you to potentially lose track of its length, and even more so of the subtleties in this sequence alone. The flickering of Lee’s eyes. The murky, clinical isolation of his minimal environment. The ache of his posture, both thematically and over time, very literally. If you’re even somewhat familiar with the work of Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang, these elements should ring equally as familiar, and if not, then perhaps it will be this opening alone that cements whether the rest of what follows will be to your liking or not.
Since his 1992 debut Rebels of the Neon God, Tsai’s work has been rooted in a very distinctive mode of stillness. The terms ‘liminal space’, ‘collective isolation’, or ‘emotional/ sexual catharsis’ have been used by many in attempts to analyze his filmography, and for the most part rightfully so. But where I personally have heard not as prominently is the honing of those conjoined traits into an entirely singular form of cinema; one that has belonged to Tsai only for nearly three decades. It only makes so much sense as to how his audience–this writer included–had grown exponentially since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. There isn’t a single one of his films that didn’t equally operate as an empathetic window into lives that any viewer can see their reflection in, especially in this very contemporary period. From the final operating hours of Goodbye, Dragon Inn’s rundown Taipei cinema drawing parallels to the closing of repertory/arthouse theaters all throughout the US, the erotically mournful release in the final moments of Vive L’amour, and to the close-but-still-isolated lives in the midst of a literal pandemic of The Hole.
It is filmmaking endlessly and inherently rich in humanity; despite its stillness, its muted ambience, and repressed emotion. His decision to curate screenings of his 2013 film Stray Dogs specifically in museums and galleries from his home country more than confirms his crafting of the kind of cinema that could very well double as art installation. Through his distinctive eye, we witness familiar elements continuously made new again, under different touches, different faces, different feelings. His wide-angle, marginally lonely photography remaining his most definitive means of expressing longing in a world that modernizes every day; changing without remorse, fully in spite of the lives within quietly scrambling for the faintest etching of connection. I couldn’t possibly have imagined being within the company of another person when it came time to see his newest film in a theatre. Something in me knew that it was an experience that called for limiting my own self to just that, and all it really took for me to know that my intuition was very much in the right were the theatre lights dimming to pitch-black, and the aforementioned opening sequence playing, somehow already making me feel safe. As if I was suddenly back home.
Days is the title of his beautiful, piercingly tender new film. It is a work that acts as a congregation of everything that defines Tsai’s body of work, yet simultaneously acts as a new phase for him. This would more than certainly apply to the essential contribution by his most prominent collaborator–lead actor Lee Kang-sheng, having been in every single one of his films since Neon God in his early 20’s, and now past 50 in Days, performing with such a stunning reaffirmation of his ability to utilize his body in ways that break the heart, but only well before mending it back together again. Tsai continues the documentation of his lead actor–often playing a version of his real self named Hsiao-kang–this time capturing the treatment of his supposedly real-life neck pain; not unlike the mysterious injury he receives in 1997’s The River. We follow him through desolate urban surroundings and dangerously elaborate acupuncture sessions, highlighting Tsai’s unique approach to this project, in which the film itself was shot over several years, highlighting not just Lee’s character, but as well as a separate character named Non (played by Anong Houngheuangsy) who spends his time preparing apartment meals in a Jeanne Dielman-esque fashion, evoking a parallel sense of longing within his own isolated lifestyle.
The film’s first half is spent keeping these two at bay; placing deep emphasis on the temporal mundanity of their ways of living. The time-spanning scope of the filming of the project isn’t necessarily ingrained in the story of the film itself, but rather conveyed through how Tsai simply just holds on the two and their juxtaposing of the spaces they inhabit. Apart from an extended handheld sequence, Days is entirely comprised of beautifully static frames that do nothing but hold. Until the second half arises from the sudden cutting of audio, with a wide shot spanning the exterior of an apartment building; its complete muteness allowing the cat seen from inside the windows to be its sole subject despite its framing as a speck within the grandiosity of its own space. In the most subtle of ways, Tsai performs a metamorphosis; transforming his film from one that explores the loneliness of bodies within spaces, to another that allows bodies to suddenly share a space, exemplified in its climactic scene that ranks amongst one of the most effortlessly moving sequences of his entire career. And despite its lack of subtitles potentially luring off viewers, Tsai substitutes the power of words with the ever-so-superior power of faces, bodies and gestures, simply allowing his mastery as a visual storyteller to be yet again proven without unease.
It is a film that calls for patience and a gentle sense of air, as well as one in which your engagement will be more-or-less contingent on your mileage for what constitutes as ‘slow cinema’. But where Days stops at the possible description of slow, it instead becomes something formless. Tsai’s minimalist approach evokes a feeling of the stage, as if watching a Broadway actor performing the same actions as Lee or Anong could incite no different a response. But with his textbook elemental approach of camera space, it comes back around to a yet another powerful exploration of how despite the ever-shifting gaps of distance, the words that cannot be said, or the lingering approach of your life’s halfway point, connection is a thing that sprouts. It is all we have to allow ourselves to extend to the hands of another. Our gateway to feeling like we are all capable to mattering to another person. That at some point, we’re being thought of, especially when we would never have even known it. It’s all built within the notions that Tsai has used as groundwork since the beginning, and with the dawn of his late-career period it feels as if he could very well possibly have said everything he wanted to say through film. Let’s hope not.
Not many newbie horror fans get to take in the fun that comes from seeing a horror movie for the first time. Being a newer fan of horror, slasher, and thriller films myself, I have found it hard to both go backwards into the history of horror to find key movies to watch and to see what new horror films are coming up. It’s a daunting task at best. Luckily for me though, and everyone else in the world, streaming services have made this easy. But what if you want to experience a horror movie so overwhelmingly crazy and nutty that even major horror heads are like “good luck bruh”? Well, you go see it for the first time at an art house theater right? Well that’s what I plan to do when it comes to Dario Argento’s 1977 classic Suspiria.
Like I said, being a new horror movie fan is very hard–at least for me–cause catching up on what was good back in the day makes for an interesting exploration of the various sub-genres within horror itself. Suspiria falls into a very specific genre of horror that was big in ’70s Italy called giallo films. This genre of film very muched focused on the mystery and suspense of earlier built up in crime thriller-type films but also added hints of horror and slasher films that were popular at the time in grindhouse theaters and drive ins. Giallo’s influence on the horror genre itself outside of Italy is expansive, which is why it made me want to explore deeper into Dario’s work itself. Several of my favorite horror directors I started watching when I was first starting to dig deeper into horror would talk about the influences that Italian horror and Dario Argento had on their work. Almost as if it was a calling card for the styles they wanted to imitate, Suspiria was mentioned every time for its dream-like sequences and off the wall kill scenes. To directors whose work I’ve loved like Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino, Argento was their horror guy and Suspiria was a muse for what they wanted to portray on the big screen when it comes to fantasy violence. It was from there that I decided to explore a little bit more.
I’m not going completely blind into Suspiria, so I dug up some reviews both good and bad to see if I should even waste my time. Digging deeper into it I found that a lot of the bad reviews were sadly based on the typical-but-trivial criticism so often thrown at horror films: this movie is bad cause the story makes no sense. It’s a tired and sometimes true sentiment escaped when a movie is hyped up beyond its initial release and early reviews. As I started to dig into the better reviews though, I saw some of the same “the story makes no sense” musings but the reviews also pointed out the good points of the film. Some attempted to make sense of the film, and others highlighted the visuals that helped build the atmosphere of the film. Though many did tend to focus on the violence towards women, the movie didn’t stray away from also empowering the lead actors, who put on such dazzling acts that it made the movie beyond surreal. It was at this point hearing all this that I was determined to go see the movie.
It’s lucky to know that when you work at a theater you will more than likely be able to see films you wouldn’t normally see if you were to stay home and watch something on Netflix or pop in your favorite DVD for the 100th time. Having the ability to see Suspiria on the kind of screen the way it was meant to be seen is a thrilling opportunity for me, especially after reading reviews and thinking deeply about Dario Argento and his work. I hope after seeing Suspiria my love for horror expands to new heights and I can have a deeper connection with the horror movies I’ve loved for years and new ones I might find to watch in the future.
“The stuff I say at the opening comes from Sondheim, which is why I thank him in the credits. He wrote a piece where he talks to the audience and presents the show. Then there was the coincidence where I talk about breathing and telling the audience to hold their breath, which seems appropriate now during COVID times.” – Leos Carax, Indiewire, 2021
While audiences are instructed not to breathe during Leos Carax’s arresting and palatial new film Annette, his marvelous cast of first time collaborators make exquisite use of their lungs in this all singing, sometimes dancing, musical production of cosmic proportions. Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard play their respective lead roles with breathless stamina, but the true star of the film is in the original music and story by art band Sparks–brothers Ron & Russell Mael–who also appear in the film. For both the director and his fraternal composers, Annette marks the trio’s first entree into the expressionistic and sometimes dusty genre of musicals, but its precise design carries with it the confidence of experience. Subversion of a form by way of acute familiarity with it.
As a musical, Annette shares more in common with the soapy, Technicolor recitals of Jacques Demy than it does with the showman-like choreography of Busby Berkeley. As a film however, it’s singularly Carax, with all the 4th wall breaking and genre blending that designation would imply. The infectious music and lyrics of Sparks featured in the film play like any one of their narrative-inflected albums about defiant, lonely, and suspicious characters seeking purpose. In this case: Ann Defrasnoux (Cotillard) & Henry McHenry (Driver), both successful performing artists operating in vastly different creative solar systems. The same sort of star-crossed romanticism we find in other classic musicals is unironically embraced in this story to a captivating degree.
When not singing for the plot, Ann rhapsodizes to her audiences as an opera singer: she’s world renown and beloved by all. Her much publicized unholy union with shock-comedian Henry McHenry (the self-proclaimed “Ape Of God”) represents a violation of clearly delineated entertainment and artistic stratas, but also a foreshadowing of danger in the context of the couple’s rapid love affair. The lush images of romance are undercut later by even more lush images of decay, as the film advances to its inevitable end.
No stranger to the interplay of form and content, Carax literalizes his musical thesis in Annette with a red waveform superimposed across the screen at the very start of his colorful film. It’s a majestic establishing shot that announces the bold visual style of this film, while also elegantly underscoring the use of sound as a form of cinematic doubling. How image and sound, specifically music, can intersect and combine to add unseen dimension to a given moment. In the liminal spaces of theater venues, recording studios, and highway tunnels Carax externalizes his character’s conflicted attitudes through operatic soliloquies baked within a musical number that’s baked within a supposedly unrelated onstage performance. The question of whether a song is part of the character’s “act”, or whether it’s for us, the audience, is one the film’s most stimulating and haunting qualities.
Indeed, Annette is a film teeming with ghosts, both real and imagined.In stark double exposures that emphasize colliding realities, the film often adopts the cinematic language of horror and suspense to tell its pulpy tale of love and betrayal in Los Angeles. With key scenes shot on location, the film begets the same haunted atmosphere that pervades the city itself. Stories of young stars disappearing overboard, acquitted husbands, and crimes of passion underscore the noirish depravity endemic to the system of show business. Annette invokes these elements as a matter of theme–the entropy of performance–but also as a means to allegorize the seedy urban history of Los Angeles, a history quite familiar to writers and Pacific Palisades natives Ron & Russell Mael.
The operatic and vulnerable depictions of Ann’s ovation-worthy arias at the Disney Concert Hall are captured with the same grace as Henry’s panned monologues on the Vegas Strip. This dichotomy of venue and performance, a product of the Mael’s lifetime spent touring internationally (“WE’RE TRAVELLING AROUND THE WORLD!”), situates our lovers as opponents on the spectrum of high and low brow art, but eventually too as competitors for spotlight and stages. As the old saying goes, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us…and it ain’t me who’s gonna leave!”
All this rich storytelling goes without even mentioning the miracle child of Ann and Henry, the film’s own wonder girl, Annette. Newcomer Devyn McDowell’s revelatory and out-of-this-world appearance in the film elevates this story of generational tragedy more so than any of her adult counterparts. Yet, all the performances from this small ensemble lend immeasurable weight to the stunning musical sequences that punctuate this imaginative, and often touching film about the cost of talent.
With an achievement like Annette, Leos Carax and Sparks prove without a doubt, that collaborations, even after 8 years, finally DO work.
Austin Jaye, Writing Team Member
Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy:
It’s bordering on impossible for me to choose a mere single option to recommend for the Criterion sale. But considering the plans I just made to drive up north next month, I’m thinking a collection of road movies is the one to single out, and it doesn’t get much better than Wim Wenders. His collection including Kings of the Road, Wrong Move, and Alice in the Cities—one of my very favorites of his—is to die for if you’re craving the kind of soul-searching escape that venturing out into the world can always provide you.
Streaming on Criterion Channel: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure:
Any opportunity I have to recommend a film by Kiyoshi Kurosawa is one I will gracefully leap toward. On the Criterion Channel is 1997’s Cure, which I will say with confidence is my very favorite horror film. A detective thriller in the vein of works like Se7en or Zodiac, there is a dread in Cure that is so innately palpable that it almost doesn’t even feel safe to watch it. I’d rather save the plot details for those who seek it out, but I can’t provide a higher recommendation than to say that the only thing more terrifying than the movie itself is the thoughts it leaves you with, lingering like the coldest blister. Tread lightly, folks.
Anthony McKelroy, Writing Team Member
The Complete Films of Agnes Varda:
Before her passing in 2019, Agnès Varda was as vital an artist as she had ever been during her staggering 70 year career. It was her penultimate film, Faces, Places (2017), that earned a nomination for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards—Varda’s first and only recognition from the institution. Though she would lose out to Bryan Fogel’s supremely forgettable Icarus, Varda would break an Academy record by being the oldest nominee in any competitive category, a record she maintains to this day.
With such a prolific career, it’s a marvel that Varda maintained such voracious originality in each of her films: Cleo from 5 To 7 (1962), Lions Love (. . . and Lies) (1969), Mur Murs (1980). With more than a few blind spots myself though, I look forward to this boxset and hope it will help fill in some gaps and see where those stylistic shifts emerge from. All the extras are exciting as well. I’m especially interested by the 2006 TV special about her visual art exhibition. I had no idea she painted!
Inside Llewlyn Davis:
As with Agnès Varda, Minnesota natives Joel & Ethan Coen are monstrously productive—18 features in 37 years with no signs of slowing down. While other Coen brothers movies might have funnier characters with more memorable wardrobes, none underscore their artistic idiosyncrasies (and capabilities) as directors better than Inside Llewyn Davis (2013).
Remarkable for its insights specifically about artistic collaboration between a duo, the movie suggests a crisis of creative identity after Llewyn finds himself working solo in the music industry. Now before I get too far, yes, I know this is a film about musicians and not filmmakers. And yeah okay, Llewyn’s former partner Mike isn’t his brother either. But there is a cynicism in this film towards isolation and loneliness that’s quite revealing in the context of the film’s co-authorship.
The happiest people in this film are in relationships, in bands. In a system that relies on them. I hope the conversation between the Coen’s and director Guillermo Del Toro that’s in this Blu-Ray explores that subject.
Criterion Wish List: The Love Light:
Despite having well over 100 screenwriting credits to her name, filmmaker Frances Marion took up the director’s chair on only 3 occasions: The Love Light (1921), Just Around The Corner (1921), & The Song Of Love (1923). Her well documented, trailblazing career in Hollywood led to many friendships with some of the most iconic players of the silent era, and yet these films, along with countless others, remain wholly inaccessible to modern audiences.
It’d be nice to see, at the very least, Frances Marion’s directorial works collected in one place. As far as extras go, you would HAVE to include the scripts for each one, or some approximation. It would be the perfect way to give silent cinema more tangibility for newer generations. Frances Marion also wrote plays and novels, which I would also love to see in a comprehensive box set.
Nicole Nguyen, Writing Team Member
Don’t Look Back and To Be or Not to Be:
I wouldn’t consider myself a collector by any means, but I do have some opinions about actually owning copies of media you like so as to not be at the fluctuating whims of streaming services. So, whenever I come across a film that I 1) would probably watch more than a couple times and 2) am interested in enough to want extras, I take it as a cue that I should probably get a physical copy. D.A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back (1967), a documentary that covers Bob Dylan’s 1965 England tour, was one of my first Criterion DVDs, if not the first. Then and now, I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a “fan” of Dylan, but it was and still is interesting to consider the divide between person/artist and celebrity. Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) was a more recent purchase. I first came across the film in the course of writing a paper on Lubitsch’s career. Since his films were more known for the kind of risqué humor that come into direct conflict with the Hays Code, it was interesting to see how Lubitsch adjusted during the Code era. Reception at the time of release was mixed, which is to be expected: comedy and Nazis makes for a risky combination. However, it was intriguing to consider the reasons that might have been behind why Lubitsch, being both German-born and Jewish, opted to make a mockery of Nazi-era Germany.
Criterion Wishlist: Gold Diggers of 1933:
The film I think I’d most like to see in the collection is Mervyn LeRoy’s Gold Diggers of 1933, a pre-Code musical comedy with numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley. Though this was relatively early on in Berkeley’s career, the musical numbers are kaleidoscopic and captivating. And despite the story being more or less what’s on the tin, Gold Diggers is surprisingly not as light as one might expect. Actually, it provoked some rather heavy questions. For example, what are young, unmarried women who need food and shelter to do during the Great Depression when their jobs are threatened? Realistically, what might they have to resort to? While on the surface Gold Diggers initially seems glitzy and frivolous, it demonstrates a marked awareness of the trauma of Depression-era poverty.
Sean Woodard, Writing Team Member
Dazed and Confused and The Before Trilogy:
Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater will be honored later this year at the Lone Star Film Festival, which means now is the perfect time to revisit their work. Criterion has curated six of Linklater’s films, including four that star Hawke.
While Dazed and Confused has also received a Blu-Ray release from Universal, the Criterion edition features the director-supervised film transfer and a treasure trove of special features. It’s pretty easy to see why this release receives top marks from me. This anti-’70s high school nostalgia film ironically evoked a sense of nostalgia for legions of its fans since 1993. Turn up the volume and revel in the rock-n-roll soundtrack and its myriad of memorable characters. Successfully launching the careers of many of its young stars, including Matthew McConaughey–hey hey, Dazed and Confused is “Alright, Alright, Alright.” Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy—Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight—has got to be the most romantic films about love ever put to celluloid. They never fail to create a lump in my throat and my eyes to water. Even though a sense of idealism frames Jesse and Celine’s developing relationship when you first watch the films, additional layers make themselves more apparent each time you revisit them as you age with the characters. Jesse and Celine face their share of problems (which are explored further in the third film, Before Midnight), but you can’t help but ache for them to be and stay together. You indelibly become invested in these characters as you revisit them every nine years by the natural chemistry between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Criterion’s boxset is the perfect way to visit and revisit these wonderful films with its 2K director-approved film transfers. Also, the box design and artwork is absolutely stunning. This Criterion release is a must-own addition to your film collection.
Criterion Wishlist: The Grandmaster:
Criterion’s World of Wong Kar Wai boxset was a much anticipated and hotly debated release by cinephiles for its revisionist color timing, re-edits, and framing decisions. While I understand people may have their preferences (and Wong Kar Wai has his), the set allows many fans of the director to have nearly all of his films in one place, especially since many titles previously released on DVD and Blu-Ray are out of print. To me, the one area this set sadly overlooked was its exclusion of 2014’s The Grandmaster.
The film remains in my Top Five Films list. Every time I watch it, I come away with something new. I view the film as a distant relative to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America in terms of aesthetic—from its elegiac tone and pacing to the camera’s lingering on facial expressions to communicate cannot be done through words, and the inclusion of Ennio Morricone’s “Deborah’s Theme.” While there is still that kinetic energy present from his earlier films, The Grandmaster is less concerned with being a movie a biopic of Wing Chung grandmaster Ip Man or martial arts extravaganza. It is more focused on matters of the heart and unrequited love, the balance between duty and honor, and fading legacy in the face of modernity. What some people may not know is that there are three authorized versions of the film—a Hong Kong cut, an international release, and the US Weinstein edit.
While most people have seen only the truncated US cut—which also reordered the narrative in chronological order and inserted additional contextualizing voice-over and subtitles for Western audiences—the two other versions feature the original fluid timeline. Each version is uniquely different with exclusive shots and sequences absent from its sister versions. Personally, I’ve tracked down Blu-Ray all editions of all three version from around the world and am thankfully able to play them on a region-free player. However, audiences deserve to see all three cuts and have them widely available. I hope Criterion is able to release a three-disc edition that grants The Grandmaster the same attention those in the Worlds of Wong Kar Wai boxset received. New 4K digital masters for each version and a plethora of new bonus features would be most welcome what I feel is Wong Kar Wai’s most mature work. Granted, releasing such an edition may be difficult due to securing distribution rights and other issues, but I can dream.
Reggie Peralta, Content Editor
The Wages of Fear:
The irony of me contributing to this list is that I’m trying to save up money at the moment and as such, will probably not be able to buy any Criterion movies this time around. That being said, if I weren’t saving up, then I would almost certainly buy Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. A tense thriller that was later remade by William Friedkin as the equally—dare I say even more?—effective Sorceror, it’s admittedly been years since I’ve seen it. But while the details of the plot and dialogue may escape me, I distinctly remember the anxiety-inducing suspense of the film’s centerpiece: the perilous journey of two nitroglycerine-loaded trucks through the South American mountainside. From an agonizingly delicate attempt to maneuver a truck over a rickety bridge to the endless drone of the horn at the movie’s end, it’s a film whose imagery and profound sense of unease have long lingered in the back of my mind.
Criterion Wishlist: Ken Russell Boxset:
For my wishlist pick, I’m going to cheat and say a boxset of Ken Russell’s films (several of which I discussed in a previous post.) A director whose movies are farcical, fantastical, and very often both, there are few filmmakers truly like Russell and so it’s only fitting he receive the honor of getting the Criterion boxset treatment. From his colorful classical composer biopics The Music Lovers and Mahler to his Roger Daltrey-starring rock opera duology Tommy and Lisztomania, and from the erotic sleaze of Crimes of Passion to the sci-fi spectacle of his metaphysically-minded masterpiece Altered States, Criterion has more than enough to work with. Plus, his early, relatively-restrained drama Women in Love is already in the collection, so clearly there’s room for Russell among Bergman, Kurosawa, and other such giants of cinema.
If ever there was evidence of DEVO-lution in our modern era, it would be in the recent proliferation of ahistoric, formulaic, and spectacularly inert musical biopics of artists teeming with life and ingenuity. I’m sure you know the ones: great marketing buzz and stunt casting, zero memorability.
Musical documentary cinema however, appears to be experiencing a golden era. Inroads made in digital restoration technology have made it far easier to sift through the archive of footage we call the 20th Century in order to construct a compelling documentary about a pop culture subject.
The primary criteria of this list requires that the films be about a specific musician or band, rather than a movement, era, or event. This alone ruled out so many other worthwhile documentaries that are also worth your time: Taqwacores: The Birth Of Punk Islam (2009), The Summer Of Soul (2021), and The Decline Of Western Civilization (I-III).
Any fictional films where actors perform a role are also disqualified. So no biopics, even if real musicians play themselves: 8 Mile (2002), Spice World (1997), or Rock ‘N’ Roll High School (1979)
What’s left are documentaries, concert films, and a compendium of different hybrids between the two. That most of these films are from the last decade or so is only a nice coincidence. In any case, the films on this list spotlight some of the very best musicians of our time making some of the very best music in the history of documentary cinema.
The Sparks Brothers (2021)
While at a Sparks show with director Phil Lord at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles, filmmaker Edgar Wright recounts wondering aloud, “Someone should make a Sparks documentary!” Lord almost dares him in response, “Why don’t you make it?”
And so, The Sparks Brothers. A brand new feature-length documentary about “your favorite band’s favorite band” that boasts lots of “firsts” for audiences. For long term and new fans of the art band Sparks, it’s the first opportunity to go “behind-the-scenes” on the music and its septuagenarian creators. For followers of the films of Edgar Wright, it’s a chance to see that same grandiloquent style channeled into non-fiction for the first time.
In a broad distillation of the band’s legacy, Wright appraises and reviews each of Sparks’ twenty-five studio albums made between 1971 and 2020. It’s a structure seen elsewhere on this list, but nothing quite to this scale. With clout to go around, Wright effortlessly summons interviews from a coterie of Sparks fans and collaborators, from Todd Rundgren to Thurston Moore, to gush endlessly about the band’s influence as the film dances through its heroic 140 minute runtime.
Wright intends for this film to be a flashpoint for general audiences that have never heard of the band before despite unprecedented modern access to their music. In calling attention to the possible obsolescence of the music documentary form, Wright provides dictionary definitions of words found in the band’s song titles that unfold as if being searched by a budding fan. It even resembles the iPhone font design, linking modern fanaticism to a decidedly analog and old fashioned band. The act of discovering a 20th century artist in the Information Age, personified.
For all its breadth and scope, The Sparks Brothers will be misunderstood as superficial and minor when compared to other musical documentaries of its caliber. Whereas this form lends itself to be revealing in a “tell-all” sense, it’s clear that Ron and Russell Mael resist this expectation, reframing the film’s purpose in a subversive way. Notoriously private people, it would be silly to expect the film to suddenly demystify the Maels’ musical career, now fifty years in the making. The film is lightweight in its revelations as a condition rather than a defect. A product of Ron and Russell’s awareness of their role as documentary subjects to be explored, and Edgar Wright’s awareness of his role as a documentarian that must depict his subject(s) accurately.
Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart? (2020)
Early on in Frank Marshall’s mournful and poppy How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?, Sir Barry Gibb of the Bee-Gees laments that he only has his memories of events in the band’s history. “My brothers would remember things differently,” he says.
On the surface, attempting to examine the works of a globally renowned trio without two-thirds of the members would appear to be a fool’s errand. The entire Bee-Gees catalog occupies such a specific cultural space in people’s mind, it would be tempting to ignore this disparity and deify Sir Barry Gibb as the one true Bee-Gee. Marshall intelligently sidesteps this with inclusion of a BBC interview from 1990 featuring all three of the brothers reflecting on their career until that point, giving voices to the voiceless. Working with these separate sources – the BBC interview, Sir Barry Gibb of today, and interviews with other renown musicians – Marshall crafts an oral history of sorts about the band’s early days as a skiffle band in Manchester, their fascination with R&B music, and their eventual transition to international pop stardom.
There is, of course, a fair bit of time paid to their breakout work on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. How it came together, how it was received, etcetera, etcetera. But by design the film never has time to answer the more granular questions like how it was written. We’re left with the impression that the brothers went in to record one day and these songs came out, which very well may be true. It just leaves a tiny bit of something more to be desired, especially considering the film’s insistence on the trio’s genius songwriting abilities.
With interviews from musicians like Noel Gallagher and Nick Jonas, How Can You Mend A Broken Heart also traces the tradition of music as a family enterprise, one where creative talent and biology intersect. But whenever the film cuts back to the Barry Gibb of the present-day, the subject of the film changes entirely; a rousing pop doc about a rousing pop band collapses into a portrait of an old man, telling cherishing stories about his younger brothers.
Ariana Grande: excuse me, i love you (2020)
Beginning with an upside-down camera that flips in molasses slow motion, Paul Dugdale’s backstage documentary, excuse me, i love you, announces itself as an object of fluid boundaries. Filmed during Ariana Grande’s Sweetner World Tour, the film documents a run of shows in London and Inglewood during the latter part of 2019 (we were all so young). Her setlist and stage performance are impeccably crafted, but Dugdale is curious about more than just what takes place between first and final curtain. What emerges from this behind-the-scenes access is a portrait not just of the titular popstar, but of the entire ensemble that makes live music possible.
The ever-evolving aesthetic of the show, in graceful lockstep with the shifts from ballads to bangers, revolve around this orb structure that floats over the stage. Sometimes taking the shape of a moon. As the camera gazes at the packed arenas of fans, the light up wristbands attendees wear make them resemble stars in orbit, stars in their own right. With a looping stage that flares out into the arena of spectators, the barriers between spectator and performer (and indeed, the barriers between audience and participant) are gradually removed over the course of this cosmic film.
Grande, understandably skeptical of media appearances in the past, is refreshingly candid here (she’s a fan of both Midsommar & The First Wive’s Club) but she’s never exactly “interviewed” per se. The most direct insight comes when Grande confesses her idolatry for Mariah Carey and the 90s pop sound, but with verite restraint, the film never presses much further. It’s a spontaneous moment, along with the impeachment of the former President, that insinuates itself into the fabric of the film spontaneously and cinematically. Narratively (insomuch as any documentary can be based in narrative) Grande’s low-key presence in this film underlines her role as part of a unit. A team of people, from dancers to lighting technicians, that make music more accessible to her all ages audiences.
Rolling Thunder Revue (2019)
An exhilarating experiment in narrative art posing as a traditional rock-documentary, Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese boasts loads of never-before-seen archive footage restored in beautiful 4K resolution, and new interviews with the notoriously reclusive Dylan himself.
A supposed in-depth look at the carnivalesque, beat mayhem of Dylan’s touring band “The Rolling Thunder Revue”, Scorsese synthesizes the raw materials of concert footage from the tour, and interviews with band members into a rhythm of fact and truth. Myth, and legend. Its jazzy form resembles the agitated poetry of Patti Smith, who performed with the ensemble and is featured in an electrifying scene near the start of the film. Appearances like Smith’s almost disqualify this film from this list, but in both its title and its creative spirit, this is no doubt a movie about Bob Dylan.
In response to the curiosity about the white face paint he wore for the tour, Dylan supposes all artistic acts are lies that are interpreted as truth. “When somebody’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth. When he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely”. Scorsese takes this credo to its natural conclusion by distorting the historical record of this tour, including scripted events, or otherwise decontextualizing actual occurrences so that they are thrown into doubt by the audience. Two artistic sensibilities merge together in competing mediums: sound and image. Beat poetry and cinema.
It’s a gamble that pays dividends by the final title card. Fans of Dylan’s music should be enthralled by the newly restored musical performances, while film fans will delight at the structural container of it all.
Gimme Danger (2016)
Another example of a primarily fiction writer/director/auteur trying their hand at the documentary form, Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger operates almost as anathema to Edgar Wright’s Sparks Brothers entree. The two bands exist on opposite ends of the punk spectrum, yes, but as films the two directors take vastly different approaches to achieve virtually the same goals: to extol the virtues of their chosen idols and make converts of us all.
Not unlike the structure of Wright’s film, Jarmusch takes an omniscient perspective on the life and origins of the so-called Michigan native Jim ‘Iggy Pop’ Osterberg. His humble origins as a drummer in the Ann Arbor scene is traced through each one of the 3 studio albums that he would record with The Stooges between 1969 & 1973. Jarmusch narrows in on this period as an explosive intersection of punk and youth culture as it invaded the mainstream, positioning The Stooges not merely as historic predecessors to punk music but also as the hardest, most chaotic band to ever do it.
In keeping with the pop art sensibility that pervaded the late ’60s period, Jarmusch punctuates the raw, exciting music the band was making with prominent middle-class advertising of the time. Commercial images and designs that Jarmusch, who grew up in nearby Ohio, would likely have been inundated with himself – no surprise then that they both wound up as counter culturalists. The elegance and prominence of the Ford Motor Company’s marketing gave young, politically conscious (and bored) kids something to react against. It’s not Jarmusch’s thesis, but it’s there. These montages of advertised reality and working class realities offer a glimpse at the unflinching disparities of the time that persist to this day in places like say, oh I don’t know, Flint, Michigan perhaps.
Despite the ferocity of his onstage persona, Osterberg is wildly lucid during interview portions of the film. Plenty of outstanding stories from his early life before The Stooges, and while on tour with the band are told with such aplomb, it’s no wonder that Osterberg has made a nice career as a character actor in film and television nowadays. His clarity of vision in life, and in his music, is what elevates Osterberg to that of a true American artist.
Some of the shaky but primal 16mm footage of The Stooges’ early shows underlines this, as scores of young people stand around a flailing Osterberg very politely, attempting to understand the history they were witnessing. No one doubted that there was something there, but like with most great art, no one also had any idea what to say about it. Jarmusch’s film is a step towards articulating that legacy and history.
A Poem Is A Naked Person (2015)
Suppressed for years by its subject – the folk-rock recording artist Leon Russell – Les Blank’s documentary A Poem Is A Naked Person received its first public screenings in 2015, two years after his passing.
Filmed across a two year period of writing, recording, and touring, Les Blank’s 16mm psychedelic portrait of Russell undermines perceptions of artistry as much as it does perceptions of the American South. Blank’s naturally lit panorama’s of Tulsa, Oklahoma provide as much context for the music as any interview could. In doing so, the film organically follows threads and plots that go beyond its subject activities, much to the chagrin of the subject.
“I paid for it and I own it but I didn’t care for it […] I’m not sure what the purpose was – it’s not my idea of a documentary.” This was Leon Russell’s response to a question about the possible release of Blank’s film. It’s this difference in expectations between documentarian and subject speaks to the tension that’s at the heart of each of the films on this list, and indeed every documentary made with ethics. For Blank, the story of Leon Russell does not begin and end with his music. He understands that cinema, and documentary in particular, can allow for greater expression than that.
Granted, there are lots of spectacularly photographed musical performances in this film that do capture the intoxicating effects of this particular flavor of folk rock blues. The high def restoration, giving immeasurable life to the previously unseen concert footage. Blank’s film honors the truth of these moments as much as he honors the truth of Russell’s less flattering and much decried moments, like when he swears or smokes cigarettes.
It’s a film about an era of music making, but the meta narrative around the film’s relationship to the rights of artists will remain as relevant as ever in this increasingly complicated world of intellectual property ownership.
As much a feat of editing as it is a primer on the subject it depicts, Asif Kapadia’s collage mosaic Amy, constructs its portrait of the late singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse out of a staggering amount of sources, from invasive paparazzi footage, to delicate and vulnerable home videos.
Coinciding with an increasingly widespread public image via nascent media platforms, Amy Winehouse’s ascendancy into global pop icon was thoroughly well documented, if grossly sensationalized. Her passing in 2011, still so fresh and so far away, was immediately met by the public with hateful stereotypes about addiction that are all the more insulting given the current opioid and narcotic epidemic in this country.
This is a film about Amy Winehouse the artist, but as it unravels in VHS, Digital Video (D/V), and then HD broadcast images, the film also becomes about our relationship to the camera as an object. Some of the recordings aren’t even that old, and yet their digital veneer appears almost prehistoric given the proliferation of 4K videos in our day-to-day lives. How slow time seemed to move back then.
In centering the film on these images of Amy, her digital ghost begins to emanate a measure of humanity that was denied to Winehouse when she was alive. The progression of these recording technologies developing in tandem with Winehouse’s increasing celebrity provides a thematic and visual structure if you need one, but mostly, the film is interested in showcasing the woman behind the celebrity. Even its title suggests a familiarity with the subject that seems integral to understanding Winehouse as an artist. The carefree, Jewish girl from north London who loved Tony Bennett records.
Kapadia’s access here is thorough without falling into the same exploitation of those around Winehouse. It’s an effecting, moving film that unravels in uncomfortable moments layered with moments of beauty that direct the audience towards the music that Winehouse left behind. As with most of the other documentaries on the list, what more could you want in a film about music?
It was once said by director Paul Thomas Anderson, who was paraphrasing from director Jonathan Demme (and whom I’ll paraphrase now), that ‘pure cinema’ is watching someone play music.
By the release of Junun in 2015, Anderson had directed nine music videos for four artists that would be (consciously or not) guided and informed by this ‘pure cinema’ sensibility that he learned from Demme. In reducing his canvas size from the 130-minute, widescreen magnum opi that made him famous down to the breezy length of a pop song, a new dimension of Anderson’s visual language would emerge.
In what Anderson has described as “home movies”, Junun is a synthesis of the director’s old-Hollywood inflected, operatic style and the pure cinema ideal that he had been honing till then with his music videos. On an invitation from longtime collaborator and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, Anderson would travel to India to make his first film about music. Israeli recording artist Shye Ben-Tzur and The Rajasthan Express Band would retreat to Fort Rajasthan (where the band takes its name) in order to record the album called “Junun”.
Operating an array of digital cameras for the first time (drones, GoPros, blackmagics), Anderson imbibes his musical palette with a sense of geography, and texture as well. A trip to the harmonium store is captured with vigor, and images of flying birds promote the liberation in creating and listening to music.
Despite the effortlessness of the actual performances by the band in the film, Anderson keeps in just enough of the stiching to show the lengths to which one must go to keep up the illusion of flawlessness. In this case, the Junun album. The studio-fort in Rajasthan repeatedly runs into electricity and power issues that threaten to upend the album recording, as well as the movie Anderson is filming. As he does in his fiction films however, Anderson absorbs these obstacles into the forward momentum of his story, allowing the flaws room to breathe character into the scene.
Shut Up And Play The Hits (2012)
The advantage that most of the filmmakers on this list have over directors Will Lovelace & Dylan Southern is their historical perspective on their subject matter. Sparks, The Bee Gees, Iggy Pop, each of these artists had been working professionally for decades and were already ensconced in the mainstream musical canon before a documentary was made about them. Which makes the restrained but socratic Shut Up And Play The Hits all the more curious a document of music stardom and artistic image.
At the time of the film’s release in 2012, recording artist James Murphy had been releasing music under the name LCD Soundsystem for only ten years. A resume not nearly as long as Bob Dylan, but longer than most for bands in this particular, amorphous musical space of indie electronica. It’s this brief tenure, and the incongruent attention paid to it by the musical public, that makes Murphy more than a little embarrassed to have a camera crew following him. As he tells it, the band was a lark, made with friends – there was no pretense of selling out arenas.
Unlike the other films on this list, the filmmakers interview Murphy via a proxy in author and critic Chuck Klosterman, who interviews Murphy for The New York Times in the hours before LCD Soundsystem’s final show. Klosterman, thoughtful as ever, banters well with Murphy as they piece together a legacy without overstating it. Murphy is careful to manage expectations about what he can offer from his unique perspective as the subject matter of the article, and songwriter in the band. Despite his protestations however, it’s clear that Murphy has thought a lot about Klosterman’s questions long before they were written.
Watching this film in 2021, after the band’s semi-reunion for another album and tour, it feels a bit quaint. A much ado about nothing for a band in an era where no one really breaks up. Musicians simply release music as they make it. Sometimes it’s with the same people, and sometimes it’s not. Much of the narrativizing about legacy comes from us, the audience, but that’s not to say that Murphy, as much a fan of music as anyone, doesn’t think about it constantly as well.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)
There’s an artful hope that turned to artful tragedy in September of 2019 when musician and songwriter Daniel Johnston left the Earth. As much a product of the Gen-X indie music boom as any of his DIY contemporaries, Johnston seemed the first to be transparently chasing dreams of greatness, or at the very least, likeability. Jeff Feuerzeig’s Sundance award winning documentary, The Devil And Daniel Johnston, suggests John Lennon as being a closer musical touchstone for Johnston than any 90’s alt-troubadour could.
In the tradition of other documentaries on this list, The Devil And Daniel Johnston offers audiences a chance to follow the artist as the filmmaker does, in an attempt to contextualize and demystify the “outsider artist” image cultivated in Johnston’s lifetime. Feuerzeig’s work is cut out for him, as Johnston provides not merely himself as collaborator on the film but also a monstrous archive of audio diaries and unreleased songs for use in the film.
This trove of recorded material captures Johnston at some of his vulnerable moments, but the effect is more awe inspiring than it is voyeuristic. Feuerzeig offers Johnston plenty of room to speak for himself, but it’s clear during certain moments (like when recalling his time in mental institutions) there are certain things not worth going over again for the cameras. More often than not however, Johnston is happy to vamp for the crew and talk about his love of music, comic books, and Jesus endlessly.
To date, this is the only documentary of the artist that exists for modern audiences. With some years between his death, one wonders how soon before this particular story gets a reboot for newer generations. No matter the audience for this film, the reason people will return to it is because they love the songs of Daniel Johnston, songs that speak to the artist and romantic in us all.
American Utopia, Spike Lee (2020)
A Band Called Death, Mark Christopher Covino & Jeff Howlett (2012)
Cobain: Montage Of Heck, Brett Morgen (2015)
Gimme Shelter, Charlotte Zwerin, David & Albert Maysles (1970)
Hardcore DEVO Live!, Keidra Bahruth (2014)
As part of our Filmmakers of Cannes 2021 series, we will be screening Malcom X this week, directed by this year’s President of the Cannes Film Festival Jury, Spike Lee. A visually striking biopic from the pioneering director, the film stars Denzel Washington as the revolutionary Black leader and thinker.
Washington, of course, is an icon of modern Hollywood, with his signature bold and passionate acting style. Just recently, The New York Times honored Washington as the #1 actor on its list of “The 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century (So Far)”. With the amazing array of acting roles he has created over the years with Lee and other talented directors, it can be tricky to decide which films/television series to watch first. These 6 roles are a marvelous introduction to the eclectic work of Denzel Washington.
#6 Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child
This HBO original animated series from the late 1990s retold classic fairy tales with racially diverse main characters in their cultural environments, featuring an array of famous celebrities like Washington. Through his roles as both a king and Humpty Dumpty, Washington displayed a playful yet strong performance showing that he is also a talented voice actor.
#5 St. Elsewhere – Dr. Philip Chandler
Washington’s first major television series role places him as Dr. Philip Chandler in St. Eligius, a Boston teaching hospital, where the lives and tragedies of the hospital staff are explored. As a doctor, Washington shows a bluntly honest yet caring demeanor for patients and is willing to go head-to-head with other doctors for them.
#4 Man on Fire – John W. Creasy
After the young daughter of a rich family in Mexico City is kidnapped, ex-CIA operative bodyguard Creasy goes on a journey of vengeance bulldozing his way through corrupt cops and seedy characters. Washington expresses the deep sorrow and guilt of a man who has been forced to kill but finds compassion and the need to nurture through his protection of the young girl.
#3 Glory – Private Trap
This American Civil War drama is based on the Union Army’s first African American regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, and their struggles for equality both on and off the battlefield. Washington won his first Oscar (for Best Supporting Actor) as Trip, an escaped slave who is embittered and trusts no one yet through time sees the 54th regiment as his family.
#2 Training Day – Alonzo
Washington won an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role as Alonzo, a seasoned but corrupt police officer who takes a rookie LAPD narcotics officer out on his first day, forever changing both of their lives. The controlled energy Washington escalates throughout the film gives Training Day its tension and power, with the powerful line “King Kong ain’t got shit on me” particularly lingering in viewers’ memories.
The Book of Eli
Devil in a Blue Dress
The Magnificent Steven
Remember the Titans
The Pelican Brief
The Manchurian Candidate
#1 Malcolm X – Malcolm X
A jewel in the cinematic crown of Spike Lee, Malcolm X follows the life of the iconic and controversial 1960s civil rights leader. Washington, who was received a Best Actor nomination for the role, channels Malcom’s spiritual intensity, while also showing the complexity of his journey and the Black experience in America. The legacy of Malcom X’s social justice activism and elevation of Islam, along with this film’s artistic style, still influences society today.
On July 5, 2021, director Richard Donner passed away at 91 years old. He left behind a massive legacy of films and television shows spanning from 1960 to 2016. His diverse work varied from beloved films such as The Goonies to the influential classic TV series The Twilight Zone. With so many projects, this list includes my favorite television episodes and films that Donner directed.
Top 5 Television Episodes:
#5 Wagon Train, “The Bettina May Story”
While on a wagon train from the East Coast to California, matriarch Bettina May (Bettie Davis) faces mounting conflicts between her three adult children and must reevaluate her role and influence in their lives. Davis shows her powerful yet compassionate acting style as she navigates through the multiple dramas that emerge with her family throughout the episode.
#4 The Twilight Zone, “From Agnes with Love”
Lonely and lovesick computer technician James takes love advice from Agnes, an A.I. computer that becomes obsessed with him. Though this episode was made in 1964, it’s an unsettling reminder of how our growing dependency on technology like A.I. could potentially destroy our lives.
#3 The Banana Splits Adventure Hour
A Saturday morning variety show for children, The Banana Splits Adventure Hour stars a fictional live-action band of silly animal characters and featured Donner as the director for season 1. I loved watching this show when I was little–not because it made any sense but because it was so over-the-top and fun.
#2 Tales from the Crypt, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”
An amateur ventriloquist (Bob Goldthwait) pursues his recluse ventriloquist hero (Don Rickles) only to learn his dark secret. Rickles, a comedic icon, shows his darker side in this role while also keeping his beloved signature comedic style.
#1 The Twilight Zone, “Come Wander with Me”
Floyd (Gary Crosby), a fame-obsessed singer, searches deep in the American backwoods for new songs and meets the beautiful, yet mysterious country girl Mary Rachael (Bonnie Beecher). The song heard throughout the episode, “Come Wander with Me”, has to be the most haunting one in the series, adding to the eeriness and isolation of the episode.
Top 5 Films:
#5 Lethal Weapon
Roger (Danny Glover) and Martin (Mel Gibson), two extremely opposite cops, must work together to capture a drug-smuggling gang. It is a fun take on the classic buddy comedy trope, filled with action and memorable lines from Glover.
#4 Superman: The Movie
Raised on Earth, alien orphan Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) uses his powers for good to protect the earth as America’s most beloved American superhero, Superman. Reeve is my favorite Superman because he is as strong as he is compassionate and caring.
#3 The Omen
Robert (Gregory Peck), an American diplomat to England, follows the paper trail of his adopted son Damien, as a series of tragic deaths and strange events following his family, leading to the horrific discovery of who Damien really is. Though not a very violent movie, the fear of how easy it is for evil to hide in plain sight, is the driving force of the film. The older I get, the more impactful the idea of hidden true evil feels.
A 1980’s metropolitan New York interpretation of the classic Charles Dickens tale A Christmas Carol, Scrooged focuses on Frank (Bill Murray), a successful but heartless television producer. He’s visited by three ghosts to help him re-evaluate his actions and change his ways. This uniquely dark and humorously SNL-influenced story takes on a timeless classic tale, making it one of my essential films to watch each Christmas.
One of Donner’s most underrated films, Ladyhawke combines the 1980s fascination with the medieval era, the supernatural, and a cast of great talents including Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Matthew Broderick. Gaston (Broderick), a career thief, escapes prison and meets Navarre (Hauer) and Isabeau (Pfeiffer), a couple under a devastating curse who desperately need his help to break the curse. My favorite ’80s movie, Ladyhawke is a campy, fun, entertaining, and sweet film that reminds us just how powerful love can be.
Fun fact: Donner met his wife Lauren Shuler while directing Ladyhawke, with the two falling in love with each other as they worked on the film.
In a mash-up for the ages, Paul Verhoeven has fully commandeered this month’s Frida After Dark programming!
Verhoeven’s first director credit in five years, Benedetta is set to premiere at Cannes 2021 and contend for the prestigious Palme d’Or. Co-written by the Dutch filmmaker, Benedetta is an adaptation of the novel Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, a title which succinctly reflects its premise.
Despite this being a medieval historical drama, it’s worth taking a look back on Verhoeven’s filmography and most well-known flicks. Most of which are… most definitely not that. This FAD we take a dive into the action-packed, titillating flicks featuring femme fatales, fun sci-fi and satire, explosion, boobs, and guns.
An idea conceived by writer Edward Neumeier on the set of Blade Runner and against the backdrop of Reagan’s America, RoboCop is the other side of the 80s sci-fi futuristic coin.
In the dystopian “near future” Detroit is on the brink of financial and social collapse when the city’s police force is taken over by mega-corporation Omni Consumer Products for funding. They begin to create automated law enforcement officers for a streamlined and higher-caliber crime-fighting process. Police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), who was murdered by a gang, is revived by OCP and made an agentless cyborg for their trigger-happy, tough-on-crime campaign.
Originally showed in theaters with an “R” rating, the director’s cut of RoboCop is even more bombastic than what audiences first saw in 1987. People are shot to the point of turning into a pulp, toxic waste turns a man into a melting pile of flesh… in other words, it’s definitely worthy of the rating, what with these classic staples of body horror and all.
Verhoeven has a very head-on cameo in a scene which takes place in a night club, where he dances like he’s crazed and looks directly into the camera. Maybe he took a hit from the literal cocaine factory featured in the movie? Regardless, thanks to the ability to pause and new high-def restorations we’re able to see him in all his unhinged glory.
By the way, has the delivery of the line “Bitches leave” haunted you as much as it has me? Well, it turns out it was a bit of an on-set inside joke. Verhoeven supposedly didn’t know that “bitches” was a pejorative, referring to the actresses/characters as such throughout filming: far from being insulted, the actors had a blast with it, taking the word and running with it. Sometimes, mistakes really do bring us the best gifts, don’t they?
Basic Instinct (1992)
The defining erotic thriller of the 90s, the interrogation and leg-crossing scene of Basic Instinct seems to live in the head of popular culture rent-free.
That scene. The one that comes to mind instantly when you say the words “Basic Instinct” to anyone who was alive and saw the film when it hit theaters in 1992. Even in 2021, Googling “Basic Instinct” prompts tons of autofill options offer: “leg cross” or “crotch shot”. Its reputation precedes the actual plot of the film for those of us watching it decades later for the first time. Many youngins find themselves watching and thinking just after upskirt shot flashes across the scene: “that’s it?”
The film opens on a man getting violently stabbed to death by the woman he was having sex with. It even became the blueprint for a horrendous murder and dismemberment of a young man in both its execution and cinematography. Yet, searching for “Basic Instinct opening” to search for the opening sequence, it also yields the suggestion: “Basic Instinct opening legs”.
But of course, as Sharon Stone herself said, “It’s about more than just a peek up my skirt, people.” Basic Instinct is an incredible neo-noir, lauded to some as “Hitchockian”. Though it certainly has more nudity, red blood, and consenual sex than Hitchcock would ever get to put in a film, and everyone pretty much knows who the murderer is from the get-go, lines truly begin to blur as the real main character of Catherine Tramell keeps pulling the strings and seducing people left and right.
A pretty dark and conniving character, Stone’s portrayal of Tremell was a cathartic release of female rage, from childhood abuse to prevalent misogyny and patronizing men in the film industry. That’s a much more interesting angle to view the film from this time around.
Oh, and that upskirt shot was done without Stone’s prior consent, as she was lied to about the intention of the shot and why she needed to be panty-less. As if she could ever run low, it was some more fodder for her performance at least.
Total Recall (1990)
Schwarzenegger? Properly emoting in a role? Acting?
Yep, in the only film he’s ever played a convincing every-man, Schwarzenegger turns out to be a secret agent spy. Leave it to Verhoeven to bring out the best in Arnold: action hero greatness, comedic chops, and an endearing protagonist role.
Classic sci-fi is looking more and more like real life these days, and Total Recall is no exception. In 2084, Mars is colonized by the American government and has its very own senator, and people have artificial vacations instead of physically travelling because only the elite can afford such excursions. Self-driving cars deliver pizza right to your door. Now that we have the United States Space Force and private corporate billionaires shooting cars into space just because they can, we’re just one step closer to bringing nightmarish doom beyond our planet and off to the next!
Total Recall from 1990 however, is much more fun than thinking about that. An interplanetary, action-filled thriller, the film is remembered fondly for its marriage of several genres, creative and charmingly aged special effects. And, of course– being a Verhoeven movie–sexy alien women who look like normal earth women, but with an extra boob, because men are cowards and wouldn’t let Verhoeven give them four.
Interestingly enough, Verhoeven found his Mars in Mexico City, Mexico. Anyone who’s been on the subway in Distrito Federal will recognize the metro station Arnold is chased through might find it oddly familiar. Because of the metro looking “futuristic” to the director, two metro stations were used: the Universidad and Chabacano stations; even the metro cars themselves were kept, though they were painted silver. Glorieta de los Insurgentes was also used for its interesting architecture, and shots of Nevada’s Valley of Fire’s aztec sandstone mountains enhanced the intricate sets built in Estudios Churubusco, one of the oldest and largest studios in Latin America.
Luckily, you can visit Mexico AND Mars, two in one, with this entry of Verhoeven’s filmography.
Starship Troopers (1997)
Speaking of Space Force…
From the outside (and trailer), Starship Troopers appears as if everything it’s actually satirizing: a glorification of the American military, (interplanetary) colonization, and facism. Thankfully, it’s actually a hilarious criticism of the over-militarization of America and how we Americans just love messing up life for everything around us– even in the 21st century and not the 23rd.
Provoked by the invading humans, an insectoid species fights back for their planet as the Mobile Infantry space soldiers move in to claim another astral body. Meanwhile, the United Citizen Federation enforces “peace” across the galaxy, recruiting brand-new high school students for military service, which is preferable to the lack of rights allowed to civilians by the UCF. Also, to play off of those feelings for sweet, sweet revenge against those disgusting “bugs”.
And somehow, the film is still a blast! The action is as awesome as it is thoughtful, and with leads such as Denise Richards and supporting roles from legends Clancy Brown, Dean Norris, and more, it’s truly an intentional throwback to famous pro-military and pro-cop movies that still saturate media, though in not nearly as much fashion.
Could this be the most “Frida After Dark” film to ever be played for Frida After Dark? Well, it’s certainly a contender!
Showgirls takes all the gritty elements of all the FAD entires of the month thus far and turns it up so much that it breaks the dial. It’s NC-17 for all the nudity, sex, drugs, and violence. It was a massive, misguided Hollywood bomb. It’s categorized as a “Gay/Lesbian” film on Rotten Tomatoes, most likely not just for its queerbaiting characters but its unintentional, overwhelming camp. It has rightfully developed a cult following for its embarrassing dialogue, performances, plot choices, and… well, everything else mentioned prior.
No one has described the phenomenon better than the film’s own leading man Kyle MacLachlan as he looked back and recalled the experience of watching Showgirls for the first time:
“It was about to première, I hadn’t seen it yet, and I wanted to. So I went to see it and… I was absolutely gobsmacked. I said, ‘This is horrible. Horrible!’ And it’s a very slow, sinking feeling when you’re watching the movie, and the first scene comes out, and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a really bad scene.’ But you say, ‘Well, that’s okay, the next one’ll be better.’ And you somehow try to convince yourself that it’s going to get better… and it just gets worse. And I was like, ‘Wow. That was crazy.’ I mean, I really didn’t see that coming. So at that point, I distanced myself from the movie. Now, of course, it has a whole other life as a sort of inadvertent… satire. No, ‘satire’ isn’t the right word. But it’s inadvertently funny. So it’s found its place. It provides entertainment, though not in the way I think it was originally intended. It was just… maybe the wrong material with the wrong director and the wrong cast.”
MacLachlan, a Verhoeven fan himself, saying it was “maybe the wrong material with the wrong director and the wrong cast” is pretty hilarious. Though ultimately he remembers it fondly, the same might not be said about what leading lady Elizabeth Berkley had to endure from the public before the movie became beloved. It’s the usual road for women in leading roles in “bad” movies, who get the harshest criticism and shamed.
Thankfully, there is a celebration of Berkley and the film as a whole: You Don’t Nomi, a documentary on Showgirls and its cult status made in 2019.
This is a screening that’s sure to be a hot one to close out the blistering summer month of July!
Join The Frida in its return to director-of-the-month series’, and relive all the wonderful ’80s and ’90s memories of watching them on the big screen! Whether purposeful schlock or accidental comedy, Verhoeven has definitely earned the honor of conquering the Frida Cinema every weeknight, all month long.
Now that you’re done reading: bitches leave!
1981 was a diverse year for cinema history, with such classics as The Evil Dead, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Time Bandits, and The Fox and the Hound hitting theaters that year. Among these films celebrating their 40th anniversary is the rebellious and radical punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization. Directed and produced by Penelope Spheeris, the trailblazing documentary filmmaker exposed the world to the artistic, social, and cultural significances of the Los Angeles punk music scene despite most of society at the time disregarding punk as worthless noise and violence.
For the 40th anniversary of The Decline of Western Civilization, it was my honor and privilege to interview Penelope. We discussed her influences, connection to the LA punk scene, the process of creating the documentary, and her connection with Orange County.
You spent your teen years and early 20s here in Orange County. What was that like for you?
When my father died, my mother married a guy in the army, and we moved to Southern California from Arkansas. We lived in different trailer parks near San Diego. Then she divorced the soldier, married a sailor and we moved to Long Beach to live in the cockroach-infested tenements. At one point she was able to buy a house and we moved to Midway City and then Westminster.
I went to Westminster High School and got in a lot of trouble hanging out with my lowrider friends. After a bad car crash, my mom screamed at me, slugged me in the face, and said I would never amount to anything in life. That really pissed me off. I think I was fueled by anger ever since then. I had something to prove.
Were you involved in the OC punk scene? If so, who were your favorite bands?
When I lived in OC, which was during the ’60s, there was no punk scene. That scene didn’t happen until the late 70s, but even way back then, we had our own version of disdain for suburbia.
One day it occurred to me that the oldest building in our neighborhood was a 7-Eleven. It’s weird living in a place that has no history. OC does have a history now though and so many awesome bands were created as a result of that suburban boredom.
Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?
I don’t know. Think it might be in my DNA if that is possible. I have a very prolific and respected Greek cousin, Costa-Gavras. He’s directed some amazing movies like Z. Costa’s mother and my father were brother and sister.
As the oldest of four kids, I was placed in charge of my two brothers and my sister because our mom always worked 2 jobs, 16 hours a day. We would save up money by cleaning people’s yards and go to Saturday matinees to see double features, usually comedies.
Who were the creative influences on you in your early filmmaking?
Ironically, when I was at UCLA film school, my favorite filmmakers were Costa-Gavras, John Cassavetes, and Frederick Wiseman. I was unaware at that time that I was related to Costa. I just loved the way he could make a scripted movie feel like a documentary. Same for Cassavetes. Frederick Wiseman’s work was so fascinating to me because he was incredibly objective with regard to his subject matter. My favorite of his films is Titicut Follies, made in 1967, right when I started studying film at UCLA.
What inspired you to make a documentary about the LA punk scene as your first full feature film?
I had always been a rabid rock ‘n’ roll fan. I had a massive vinyl collection back then. When the mid-’70s rolled around, however, I decided I couldn’t buy records or listen to the radio any longer. It was all Bee Gees and Doobie Brothers. Unbearable.
Then, when the punk scene started up here in LA, I went to all the underground clubs. I felt so compelled to document the scene because it was unique, like nothing that I had ever seen before or experienced before. I felt instinctively there was historical importance to it.
How did you get the title of the film?
All of us who worked at Slash Magazine were sitting on the roof of the office one evening drinking beers. I was about halfway through filming, and we started talking about what I would title the movie. We all agreed it had to have something to do with respect for entropy. We tossed around ideas about disorder and disruption of the mainstream.
As I was driving home, it occurred to me that it should be called The Decline of Western Civilization, which is a derivation of the book by Oswald Spengler titled The Decline of the West.
How were you able to get so many bands involved with this documentary?
Basically, they were just bands that I knew and had become a fan of. I went out of my way to film the Germs because they were banned from every club. I had to rent a rehearsal studio to film them. And I really knew I needed Black Flag because if you had to name one band that started it all in So Cal, it was them in Polliwog Park in Hermosa Beach, CA.
I am forever grateful to [singer] Keith Morris of Circle Jerks because he helped put together the show I filmed at The Fleetwood [a club in Redondo Beach, CA] in which he performed on the same bill as Fear.
What was the most memorable moment you had during filming?
I had a really hard time convincing Darby Crash (singer of the Germs) to do an interview. He was actually a very shy guy, believe it or not. Unless he was fucked up.
I think the most memorable moment was when I was finally able to do an interview with him. He would only agree to do it if I would bring breakfast over for him and Michelle (Darby’s confidant) because they both had hangovers. So, I went to Ralph’s Market, bought a bunch of breakfast stuff, and asked him to cook it while I filmed them.
What would you consider to be the most difficult scene or scenes to shoot?
Probably the part of the Fear performance when Lee Ving [singer of Fear] got in a fight with the girl on stage. I was very conflicted. I didn’t really know if they were doing it because the cameras were rolling, because they were just trying to be really punk rock at that moment or if someone was going to get hurt. I didn’t know how far the physical confrontation would go, but, at a certain point, I realized that nobody was going to get hurt and that it was all pretty theatrical.
What would you consider to be the most enjoyable scene or scenes to shoot?
I really loved filming the intro, “Please be advised” sections of the film, because each of the announcements were read in such creative and different ways. I still like watching those parts of the movies and I never re-watch my movies.
The film was banned in LA by the Chief of Police Daryl Gates. What caused this ban? Were you able to find an alternative way to show it? When was the film eventually played in LA?
After I finished the movie, I brought it around to the different theaters in LA trying to get a week’s run or at least one night, but everyone shut me down. I practically begged the Mann brothers who owned the Chinese Theater at the time, and they told me that no one would want to see a punk rock movie, especially a documentary punk rock movie.
I was finally able to book one night at a theater on Hollywood Boulevard. It was a midnight showing and so many punks came out that they were spilling into the street after packing the theater and the cops shut Hollywood Boulevard down. Then, to keep the rowdy crowd happy, they had a second screening at 2:00 a.m. The brilliant photographer Ed Colver has some great photos of all the kids and 300 motorcycle LAPD cops.
The next day, I got a letter from the chief of police that told me never to show the movie in Los Angeles again. Of course, I ignored it, was able to four-wall the Fairfax Theater and we had a pretty good run there. I noticed after our showings they were able to refurbish the theater!
How does it feel to have this film added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry next to such classics as Psycho and The Godfather?
It feels absolutely flabbergasting! When I think back on all the criticism I got for making the film at the time and how difficult it was to even get it shown, to have it inducted into the national film registry is quite an honor. It just proves that if you really believe in something, keep fighting for it. That’s what I did with The Decline and it has somehow managed to survive and even be given a respected place in history.
How does it feel to look back at a film you released 40 years ago?
It feels like I’m old. Ha!
What are your thoughts on modern punk culture?
Punk has been bastardized, homogenized, ripped off, and fucked over. Especially recently, all the posers have jumped on board without ever understanding the true principles and raison d’etre (the reason of being) of the movement. The shameless fashion industry has stolen elements of punk culture with despicable disregard.
Shameless musicians steal, like unrelenting bandits. They may toss it off as “paying homage”, but it is sad that most of them are not aware of where it all came from and why it happened in the first place. They don’t understand the true original purpose.
Are you still in contact with any of the people you interviewed for the film?
Yes, quite a few. My best friend from the movie is Keith Morris. I have such respect for him in that he has lived his whole life committed to that true punk ethic. He is so smart, so eloquent, so productive and one of the sweetest guys I know. And by the way, the only person who ever thanked me for including them in the movie. But the audiences have thanked me immensely, so that’s enough for me.
Exclusive from John Doe: When asked for comment for this article about his participation in The Decline of Western Civilization, co-founder and singer/bassist of the band X, John Doe, shared, “What an insane adventure those days were. Penelope was a warrior to undertake such a task. Even though most of the filming happened under extreme circumstances, I’m glad the document exists & hope the audience forgives any questionable behavior. We were doing our best”. X, like many of the bands featured in this documentary, became the backbone and icons of LA punk.
Latinos in Punk: Penelope also showed the Latino influence in punk, with Latinos as a part of the pioneering generation of LA punk, such as Alice Bag of the Alice Bag Band and Ron Reyes of Black Flag. With Latinos being the majority of punk fans today, especially in the west coast and southwest, it’s deeply moving to see Latinos as punk pioneers. Though Latinos are a major ethnic population in America (18.5% of the total population), the documentation or acknowledgment of our historical influence in America is still sadly underrepresented. Through this documentary, Penelope challenged the gender and racial/ethnic stereotype of who is a punk, while simultaneously showing another perspective of the American Latino experience.
To quote the one and only Elton John: the b*tch is back!
As a matter fact, Pride Month is The Frida Cinema’s first full month reopened, and we couldn’t be happier! What better way to celebrate the most colorful month of the year than returning to our most colorful program Frida After Dark!
Originally conceived as “Friday Night Freakouts” and sponsored by OC Weekly (R.I.P.), “Frida After Dark” extends the whackiest, culty-est, most not-safe-for-matinee screenings all weekend long! You want interactive, shadowcast and spoon-filled classics? FAD’s got it! You got a hankering for some artsy, all-time faves, from this decade and many’s past? FAD’s gonna give it to ya! Got a thing for camp, zombies, schlock, the macabre, AND rock operas? You don’t have to choose with Frida After Dark– we’ve done it, and we’ll do it again, but with an exciting new take since no two months are ever the same!
This month, we’re playing some underappreciated installments in the Pride canon, with the most hilarious, filthy, and rockin’ flicks reserved for your big night out with the boys, girls, gays, and enbies.
But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)
Gimme a “4”! Gimme a “k”! What’s that spell? The new gorgeous 4K restoration of the 1999 cult classic, But I’m a Cheerleader! Decades ahead of its time, the director’s cut from legendary lesbian Jamie Babbit is finally seeing the light of day; after being unfairly rated an NC-17 by the MPAA, Babbit made the hard decision to cut scenes to allow for an R-rating (though not without putting up a good fight). It seems the world’s catching up a bit, and can enjoy some truly honest, fun satire that resonates now more than ever.
The coming-of-age story follows Megan (played by a young Natasha Lyone), a plucky, goody-two-shoes vegetarian cheerleader who is totally, definitely straight! She loves Jesus, gazing at her fellow female squadmates, Melissa Etheridge, and her boyfriend– except the whole part where she has to kiss him.
But when everyone around her shows concern for her “homosexual” behavior, Megan realizes some things– and is quickly sent off to conversion therapy program called True Directions. There, she’s surrounded by other queer kids, including a rather rebelleous and unapologetic lesbian named Graham. With strict leaders and dumb, stereotypical exercises meant to engrain the heteronormativity in them the path to “ex-gay”-dom is far from easy. What ever will a bunch of same-sex attracted teens subjected to group trauma do together to pass the time?
Don’t forget the awesome indie-rock soundtrack and star-studded cast of minor characters! RuPaul Charles, the world’s most famous drag queen plays the camp’s reformed ex-gay boys’ coach named Mike in a campy performance for the gods. Even the ex-ex-gays and counselors alike are played by cult icons and TV legends like Melanie Lynskey, Joel Michaely, Richard Moll, and more!
Female Trouble (1975)
“If they’re smart, they’re queer– if they’re stupid, they’re straight.”
No Pride month or discussion of queer cinema would be complete without at least a mention of the endearingly called “King of Filth” John Waters. As the trailer declares, Female Trouble is “a new high in low taste”, and considered by many to be John Waters’ best film. Three years after the notorious Pink Flamingos, the power-duo of Waters and Divine return, with an even more solid narrative — one which was inspired by and dedicated to Manson Family member Charles “Tex” Watson, who Waters became acquainted with through prison visits (yes, seriously).
Divine’s shameless persona is front and center, as she plays a teen girl named Dawn, who goes off the rails when she doesn’t get her desired cha-cha heels for Christmas. According to her folks: “nice girls don’t wear cha-cha heels”! Big, beautiful, and BAD as the person who portrays her, Dawn goes on a rampage and runs away, gets picked up by a guy named Earl, and subsequently knocked up after they screw on an abandoned mattress in the local dump. She then takes up sex work when she reconnects with some high-school friends. Typical rebellious teen stuff, y’know?
Now with a punching-bag daughter named Taffy, Dawn doesn’t neglect her beauty or desire for a man fall to the wayside of her life of crime. In fact, she’s a regular at a salon, gets married, and then enticed into a brand-new scheme by the salon’s owners under the philosophy: “crime and beauty are the same”. Eager for the fame, money, and beauty most of all, Dawn spirals even farther into the depraved, cruel, and insubordinate.
John Waters’ less… conventional films certainly aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but you’d have to be hard-pressed not to respect the hell out of them. Counter-cultural, underground, and unapologetically queer as they come, Waters takes the “forbidden subject” and smashes through the “line” one shouldn’t cross. At a time when drag is becoming more polished and mainstream than ever while Pride is being commercialized and sold, it’s never a wrong time to remember that irreverence, filth, and activism are at the heart of queer culture.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
One weekend and one weekend ONLY: the musical stylings of Hedwig and the Angry Inch–a local band near you led by the gender-queer Hedwig Robinson from East Germany. She’s a glamorous, “internationally ignored” songwriter and front woman, outcast even in the dingy diners where she plays gigs. An all-original soundtrack and music video-like sequences tell her story, from her childhood as a rock ‘n roll-loving little boy born in East Germany to the botched sex change surgery which left her with the fleshy “angry inch” and a failed marriage.
Despite her past failed relationships, Hedwig dreams of finding her other half, the soulmate meant to complete her. Her own music illustrates her life, desires, and how she got to where she is though uninhabited, pure punk rock and heartfelt ballads. It’s a film that can make you laugh, make you cry, and have you streaming the soundtrack but the time you get back home from the theater.
Adapted from the musical of the same, the film adaptation is directed, written, and performed by the original Hedwig herself: John Cameron Mitchell, who proudly described it as a “post-punk, neo-glam rock musical”. A uniquely heartfelt, cathartic journey of identity and finding wholeness within oneself which transcends gender and genre alike, Hedwig and the Angry Inch‘s characters, humor, and aesthetics are just as addicting as the killer tracks.
This is one you definitely don’t want to miss on the big screen, especially since we’ll be playing its much deserved 4k restoration from Criterion!
Whilst getting some much needed sun, returning back to the theater, and supporting your local LGBTQ+ organizations and causes, do stay safe and courteous to those around you, regardless of where you go.
And remember, kids: the first Pride was a riot! As Marsha P. Johnson said: No Pride for Some of Us Without Liberation For All of Us.🌈
THANK YOU, FRIENDS AND FILM LOVERS!
Last month, inspired by a clever and successful fundraiser conducted by our colleagues at Sidewalk Film Center (thanks Chloe Cook!), we turned to 50 of our fellow horror fans to raise much needed funds to help us reopen The Frida. With the promise of an eight-title Nightmare on Elm Street marathon as the Grand Finale of a monthlong fundraising campaign, we launched our campaign on May 8th — and 462 donations later, we hit and surpassed our goal of $25,000 for a total of $25,760!
And we did it four hours, and two movies, ahead of our deadline! Not that this kept the vast majority (32!) of our intrepid fundraisers from leaving the marathon any earlier than the ultimate close of Freddy vs. Jason, just past 3am!
Thank you to each and every donor who contributed to our campaign; to our amazing event partners at 4th Street Market, Wursthaus, and Coffee Muse for keeping our Marathoners fed and caffeinated; to Yvonne Flores and Westcliff Properties, Laura Vasquez of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival, Chapter One: the modern local, and Desi Reyes of First Team Real Estate for their generous sponsorship of the event; to Ryan Cox and Yelp Orange County for their awesome Perk Bags and prizes; to Warner Bros. for embracing the concept and working with us on bringing eight iconic Freddy Krueger classics back to the big screen for a great cause; and of course, to our amazing Marathoners!:
John Carlos McMaster
Laura V. Vasquez
Dark Alley Productions
Alex Martinez of LA Arts Society
Max Matta From Horrorbuzz
Michael A. Aguirre
Crystal Arreola Martinez
Cody Chavez of Nostalgic Nebula
and Michael Hogerhuis.
The Frida Cinema celebrates the life and career of Clarence Williams III, perhaps best known as The Mod Squad’s Linc Hayes, with a special screening of director Rusty Cundieff’s 1995 horror anthology classic Tales from the Hood, featuring another instantly-iconic performance by the late, great actor.
Williams plays eccentric mortician Mr. Simms, whose funeral home is visited late one night by three young drug dealers hoping to purchase some drugs from him. As Mr. Simms leads the unsuspecting trio to the stash, he regales them with increasingly strange — and cleverly satirical — stories of his newly departed patrons….
A unique experiment in anthology-style horror, Tales from The Hood combines supernatural elements with striking commentary on inner-city social and economic issues.
DISCLAIMER: The following contains major spoilers for A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
“Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild. For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”
He is perched on the very edge of a skyscraper; his feet hanging some hundred feet above the ground, long submerged by vast waters that have swallowed the buildings below. He may as well be the only remaining shred of life around. He utters the name of his only love before letting himself plummet. Another observes this from above the sky. Behind a reflection of glass, he sees him fall like a teardrop from his own eye, until sinking into the ocean below. He cannot drown, and can only afford to be carried through the lonely, raging current. His body is carried away by a school of fish, soaring through endless blue. He then floats still, and his eyes widen at the sight he gazes upon. His hands reach out, as if within the vicinity of his most precious desire, until he is forced away by something unknown and retracting. But he’s seen it. He knows where his search ends.
When Stanley Kubrick acquired the film rights to Bryan Aldiss’ short story, ‘Super-Toys Last All Summer Long’ in the late 1970’s, he knew that what he required of the project was far out of reach. From the budget required to explore such an existentialist concept as an android child programmed to unconditionally love–to say nothing of the idea of portraying the lead child actor via an actual artificial entity–Kubrick would spend two decades consistently returning to the project, until it would wind up in the hands of someone else. Four years before his death in 1999, Kubrick approached Steven Spielberg regarding the taking of his role as director, who then officially took helm after his death. It was here that the project would cement its own status as one with a far more heightened sense of passion than a fair share of both their filmographies, with Spielberg opting to embrace Stanley’s approach by keeping his original crew and a majority of the concept retained in his script; his second lone screenwriting credit since Close Encounters of the Third Kind. At this point, it’s hard to imagine that the only other time Kubrick and Spielberg’s names would be put together was on the song ‘Lost’ by Danny Brown.
I believe that we are all inherently passionate. The older we get, the more we allow to help us learn more about our own selves and where our best interests lie. Passion is what forms our drive, what gets us out of bed, and perhaps above all, what makes us love. But what exactly is passion good for if we have no drive, or can’t get out of that bed, or if the love you felt has become past-tense? Would we ask ourselves what the point of being passionate is if we merely end up lost in an abyss-like pit of memories that once brought warmth but now only provide its opposite? After all, it’s only so that the longer you engage in something, the more it’ll hurt when that something is erased without your consent. The feeling of being truly on your own can be staggering, especially if we’re raised with the notion that to truly live is to have one beside you. But what if that notion is the only trait hopelessly ingrained within us? What if we’re told that love is something that stays, even if those who say it to us leave? What if that notion was the only thing keeping us on our feet, hoping that one day, they’ll take us back to the only one who we know will make us feel wanted? If you watch 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, you will gradually realize that the only way to answer these questions is in the most monolithic way possible.
But what in particular makes A.I. the very best film that Spielberg has ever directed? To be particular is to still let in a multitude of reasons. You could easily start with the endlessly beautiful and unique approach to its depiction of a distant future – contributed by production designer Rick Carter and some of cinematographer Janusz Kamiński’s finest work, or you could acknowledge Haley Joel Osment giving the best child performance of the 2000’s with a character so layered and defined that it may as well have come from actors far older than him at the time. Even calling it a child actor performance feels like a step down, as his character of David is what makes the story of A.I. far more rich with universality and humanity than possibly any science-fiction film from the twenty years since its release. Spielberg’s approach in tone is familiar, yet his craft is honed within such a web of complexity that it manages to feel new all over again. It is an unrequited love story. It is an apocalyptic fairy tale. It is the loneliest bedtime story ever told. And between perhaps the two most prominent names in mainstream film, it’s a fond farewell to a friend.
It is within this point in the film in which David’s definitive component is activated by his “mommy”, Monica – played by Frances O’ Connor. These nine words allow an activation that cannot be undone, and it is followed by David embracing her in a way that only the most innocent and loving of children can. David is the prototype of a company named Cybertronics Corp; tapping into the potential of producing Mecha who can emulate emotions as deep as love. He is taken into the care of Monica and her husband Henry, while their biological son Martin is in cryogenic sleep due to a blood condition. But eventually, Martin returns, and it causes a domino effect of repercussions; from sibling rivalry, to Martin taking advantage of David’s protective systems by having him cut Monica’s hair while she sleeps. It winds up culminating in Henry forcing Monica to return David – who was initially a gift from Henry, back to Cybertronics for immediate destruction. But Monica, unable to do it, pulls over halfway through and abandons David in a remote forest, with his only companion being Teddy – a super-toy in the form of a teddy-bear, with the seasoned voice of Jack Angel.
Monica’s inability to succeed in returning David is only so because of the realness he had shown to her prior. She had read bedtime stories to him and laughed with him, but also took him to bed when he could not sleep, and cooked meals for him that he could not eat. Perhaps her decision stems from some semblance of love for him, but at the same time, a recognition of David’s limits as merely a simulation of that shared love. But David remembers a story Monica had read to him and Martin – the tale of Pinocchio and his search for the Blue Fairy, who he believes can turn him into a real boy. It is this memory, as real as the others in his head, that puts him and Teddy on the same path, so that maybe one day, he will return to Monica and be loved by her in the truest of ways. But soon, his path crosses with Gigolo Joe – a Mecha played by a plastic-faced Jude Law, who channels the tap-dancing spirit of Fred Astaire, at least whenever he isn’t selling himself for sexual encounters. After one of these encounters ends with a murder framed on him, Joe winds up on the run and just as isolated as David, and it is here in which these two artificial entities, each programmed to provide love in very different ways, set off into a place far bigger than the both of them. A place that may not even be, but perhaps could be.
“My brain is falling out.”
Joe and David encounter various other Mecha in their quest; the majority of them being sent to their demise at the hands of anti-Mecha crowds from demolition derby-like Flesh Fairs. Joe concludes later in the film that they are hated by those crowds because of the fear that those like him and David will have no choice but to outlive them. They have been designed to emulate something too real, enough to where they could hate themselves for their own limitations. But what David is limited to is the sheer will and belief in his uniqueness; that he will see through to his wish with success. But even that determination is but a mere surrender to his own programming, as his creator Professor Hobby (played by William Hurt), deems David as being not necessarily one-of-a-kind, but rather the first of his kind to realize his own limitations and provide himself a drive to change; only if it means earning the validation of the only person who can possibly give him the love he wants. But David’s world is opened with the realization that there are many more just like him to be delivered to loving families, and that his uniqueness is anything but; leading to his plummeting into hopeless waters that have submerged what remains of a Manhattan ravaged by climate change. But with the discovery beneath the watery remains of Coney Island, that sense of will returns, and both David and Teddy are taken underwater by Joe, in the midst of his capturing by authorities, to see for themselves the Blue Fairy – in the form of a glass statue, lying perfectly still and shrouded in seaweed. To David, she glows just enough to be real.
There is a ferris wheel that towers far above the Amphibicopter containing him and Teddy. As David guides it close enough to the Blue Fairy to where he is face-to-face with her, the rusted foundation of the wheel causes it to collapse above them both, trapping them firmly in place; mere feet away from the Blue Fairy. Teddy notes this, but David sees this as an opportunity to send her his wishes for as long as it takes. And then, he begins to plead. “Please, please, please, make me into a real, live boy”, David says. As he repeats this wish, the reflection of her face matches perfectly with David’s own. A simulation embraced by another. Spielberg’s camera begins to slowly pull away. He doesn’t blink. He knows there is nothing else to do but to repeat. In the aftermath of his abuse and abandonment, David’s determination hasn’t lessened, and despite not saying it, we know and feel that he will go as far as time will go before his wish is granted. Ultimately striving for something to make sense of the heartbreak he feels; that longing for something in which he, like any real child, could never possibly comprehend why it left him behind. His being at the bottom of the ocean because he only wants to be loved. He still hasn’t stopped. They have now disappeared beneath the wheel. Minutes become days, and days become weeks, until we crossfade, and pass 2,000 years onward.
It is perhaps the single most hauntingly mournful sequence from any film of this scale from the last two decades. We glide through what remains of the world; an endless landscape of white; layers of frost barely obscuring the remains of frozen buildings. Everyone that David has known, suddenly and completely erased by time and death. The only entities occupying this space of extinction being a group of Mecha after centuries of evolution; traversing through a ship rendered in abstract, geometric textures. They soar beneath the frost, through a pathway seemingly carved for themselves, until they find the Amphibicopter – still containing a frozen David and Teddy, and facing the Blue Fairy, still intact. They awaken David, and he immediately approaches her. His wish still to be granted. He puts one hand on a portion of her prone to shattering, and then the rest of her does; collapsing into shards in front of David, finally hopeless, and now surrounded. He doesn’t know it, but he has gone to the very end of the world for his love. But these beings have come to take him elsewhere. Their hands conjoin as one scans David’s memories, projecting onto their own faces. The memories end with a mother smiling.
“Teddy, we’re home.”
David’s eyes open into a tapestry of his own memory, enriched in oversaturated light and color. He and Teddy have suddenly returned to the house Monica raised him in, but it is now a space empty and still, and she nor anyone else can’t be found. Taking their place is the faint echoes of David’s name, calling and inviting him from afar. David walks into a dark corner, until emitting a gentle light is The Blue Fairy – restored and eloquent with life. In this moment, David finally sends his wish with confidence, but not only is it revealed to be impossible, but he is told that Monica has long perished and can never come home. The cruelty of David’s trek has reached its peak, and he can only process this in tears. Until the Blue Fairy – revealed as a surrogate for the observing Mecha, tells of their abilities in reviving the perished through a strand of their DNA. Teddy unveils a lock of Monica’s hair, and David holds it up to her, ever so driven. His wish is granted, and as he waits, a Mecha comes to him and explains how in their testing of this revival process, the humans weren’t able to sustain more than one day of life, and that if Monica is brought back now, David will never be able to see her again after the day passes.
“You are so important to us, David.”
He is ultimately left to choose – whether to continue and wait out the process until it allows for a longer lifespan, or have just one day with her. The time he has spent and traversed to get back to his mother can no longer be calculable. David has reached the end point of his world’s lifespan and can now only exist within memories that are now as fabricated as he is. As the Mecha comfortingly assures him that they only want for his happiness, David responds that if this is so, then they know what they have to do. After all this time, his programming is the only thing he can willingly return to. He can never be beyond a product made to service an owner who no longer exists. Unable to let go, he begins a new day. The sun rises and golden light flashes through the windowpane. He walks into a bedroom and finds her sound asleep, waking her with silent tears. David has the happiest day of his life, doing everything he can with her in one day and ending it with her affirming love for him. A love that has always been. She falls asleep, and he does too, and then light dimmers to nothing.
But it isn’t Monica. Her abandoning of David is the last we truly see of her. What the Mecha have created is an idealization of his every desire. A simulation of satisfaction. The day is spent by two artificial beings created solely for the gratification of the other, and the day ends with David comforted by an illusion covering up the fact that he had, and will never know the true embrace of the person he had waited 2,000 years for. It is an ending that leaves something as unbearably cold and bleak as the snow-laden apocalypse the world will inevitably become. But the brilliance of this ending lies within Spielberg’s decision to have it experienced through David’s eyes. Throughout his journey is an ingrained innocence; one that allows his determination to become real, or his volatility in destroying another copy of him, or the inherent selfishness in his wish, to be cemented within it. He is merely designed to strive and long for his mother, and once he has her, it is all he could ever want. David is allowed a catharsis, and yet the false foundation of it isn’t lost once given thought afterwards. It is all within a delicate, yet fully layered balance of tones that convey a masterful synthesis of the lingering existential dread of Kubrick and Spielberg’s poetic warmth. The lie is known, but the sincerity – in both David’s arc and Osment’s performance, allows it to coexist as something achingly real.
Professor Hobby modeled David after his deceased son. In the film’s opening, when Hobby is asked whether a parent could reciprocate a love towards a Mecha child, he responds, “In the beginning, didn’t God create Adam to love Him?”. The seeds of love and passion run all throughout A.I.’s thematic veins, and they sprout from the reasoning for David’s creation. How far someone will go to keep their loved ones alive, if not the love itself. Hobby extending his son’s image into something artificial. The reflections of faces, and faces within faces. The soft light glowing on the eyes of David and the Blue Fairy. It is a work elemental and monumental; somehow occupying that lonely, liminal space between Philip K. Dick and the fairy tale you would make your mother read to you every night because you couldn’t explain the tangible depression it would leave you with in the morning. A melancholy you somehow want to return to. No other film of this budget and from this century so far has contained such vast multitudes of feeling. And yet, for how it can manage to segue from tender heartache into the explosive depiction of Mecha destruction, it all manages to operate in the background of David’s journey; in which he simply wants to go back home. We observe the moralistic fears and devastating bleakness of an Earth on the verge of implosion; all in the sharpest possible contrast from the innocence of a child who will forever be stuck as one. But his hope and certainty remain more real than they could ever be, and by the time we take it in that David’s trek would always be one of fierce, unending darkness, we would be hard-pressed to not also share his eternal endurance. Against every odd, we believe in the falsity while acknowledging the truth beneath. And within that notion is a work among the most beautiful there has ever been.
The Frida Cinema is reopening — and we need your help!
Support our Reopening Campaign with a tax-deductible contribution by clicking here!
The much-needed funds we raise will support The Frida Cinema’s programming, operations, and reopening efforts after our 14-month closure due to COVID-19! We thank you in advance!
In honor of our upcoming June 5th A Nightmare on Fourth Street fundraising marathon–featuring eight films from the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise–we’re taking a look at 10 iconic kills from this beloved slasher horror franchise, examining the most unique, gruesome, and, at times, comical deaths of the original series
- Glen: Bloody Bed Geyser
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Unlike other victims on this list, you don’t see Glen (Johnny Depp in acting debut) die. Freddy’s claws come up from underneath Glen and drag into a hole in his bed. Suddenly, a gigantic blood geyser sprouts from the hole, overtaking the room. Though it was an extremely dangerous scene to shoot–with a crew member being electrocuted during production–it’s by far one of the most surreal deaths in a Nightmare film.
- Jennifer: The Television
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
This kill gives the most quoted Freddy line, “Welcome to prime-time, bitch”. However, this kill could also count as two kills in one. As Jennifer starts to drift to sleep, while watching a television interview between famed talk show host Dick Cavett and actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, Dick turns into Freddy, about to kill Zsa Zsa, but the screen goes static. Then, Freddy slams Jennifer’s head into the television, shocking her to death. A kill that worked perfectly with the bulky electronics of the era.
- Taryn: Overdose
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1985)
Taryn, a recovering drug addict that gets into a knife fight with Freddy, showing no fear as she stabs him. However, when Freddy reveals his fingers have turned into drug filled syringes, she slips into her fear, immediately giving him the power to transform her arm’s track marks, into little mouths hungry for the drugs. He injects her with the drugs, slowly killing her, leaving those with a fear of needles, cringing at the edge of their seats.
- Carlos: Hearing Aid
Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)
While many of the deaths on this list do contain an element of comedy, this is a funny scene overall. The hearing-impaired Carlos gets his hearing-aid back from Freddy, but it turns into a spider like creature clinging to his ear, amplifying every noise to an unbearable level. Acting like a Loony Toons cartoon character, Freddy taunts Carlos by dropping pins with cartoonish sound effects. Then, Freddy gleefully scratches his claws on a chalkboard, leading to Carlos’ head exploding. As irritating as that scratching noise is, the goofy way Freddy acts, makes it comical.
- Dan: Need for Speed
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)
As Dan tires to escape Freddy on a motorcycle, the motorcycle is really Freddy in disguise. The motorcycle takes over Dan, painfully stabbing itself into his limbs, face, and hands, absorbing his blood, and making him a part of the motorcycle. A kill so gruesome, it was heavily edited by the MPAA (Motion Picture of America Association) in the original film debut. However, this controversial kill can now be seen, unedited, in all its horrific glory.
- Phil: The Puppet
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
Taking advantage of Phil’s love of marinate puppets and his sleepwalking habits, Freddy rips veins out of Phil’s limbs, and controls him like a puppet. Seeing the veins close up, makes your skin crawl. Phil tries to resist, but is overpowered and taken to a high window. Freddy cuts the veins like strings, and Phil falls to his death, making it appear that he’s going to commit suicide. What makes this scene far more gut-wrenching is how helpless and unable the Dream Warriors are to stop Phil’s death.
- Freddy: Escaping Souls
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
Without a doubt the most visually complex and dramatic display of Freddy death. It’s a superb kill, combining the use of different effects, including live actors and radio-controlled limbs. With Alice’s help, the souls of Freddy’s victim destroy him from the inside out, breaking his jaw wide open, allowing their souls to escape. As gory as it can seem, it’s also a scene of triumph for the victims, as they are no longer under Freddy’s control. And, hearing the voices of the child victims, some laughing, while others cry for their mom, as they float away, also makes the defeat that much more rewarding and eye-watering.
- Ron: Door Stabbing
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
While sleeping in Ron’s room, Jesse suddenly wakes in unbearable pain. As Ron is unsure of how to react to Jesse, as Freddy slowly rips out of Jesse’s chest and kills Ron, by stabbing him through his bedroom door. It’s a stomach-turning Freddy entrance, with the lead up to Ron’s kill being far more terrifying than the kill itself. The terror is increased when it’s revealed that Freddy possessed Jesse to kill Ron and is covered in his blood. Freddy’s reflection can be seen in the wall mirror taunting and laughing at Jesse, making the kill that much more disturbing.
- Debbie: Roach Motel
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
Considered by many as the grossest kill of the Nightmare series, there are visual similarities between this scene and other iconic horror scenes. For instance, Debbie’s slow and painful transformation into a cockroach, resembles the werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London. Audiences cannot help but to feel Debbie’s pain and cringe, as her arms fall off, unveiling cockroach legs. Also, like The Fly, viewers see and hear an insects-human hybrid’s spine-chilling call for help, knowing that they cannot be saved. After seeing Freddy squish Debbie to death in a roach motel, you will not be able to look at bug traps the same away again.
- Tina: Ceiling Death
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Both the first kill for the Nightmare series and the most infamous. Tina is stabbed by Freddy in her nightmare. He drags Tina on her bedroom’s ceiling, before dropping her lifeless body on her bed. This iconic kill scene was filmed in a rotating set, without CGI, mystifying viewers. Fun fact, this scene was inspired by the classic Hollywood musical star Fred Astaire’s ceiling dance from Royal Wedding. It’s also listed by New York Magazine’s entertainment site Vulture as one of “The 100 Scares That Shaped Horror”.
In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we list the trailblazing Asian and Pacific Islander talents throughout Oscar history, highlighting the winners and nominees of each category. The films are dated by year of release in the United States.
2019: Parasite – Bong Joon-Ho & Kwak Sin-ae
2020: Nomadland – Chloé Zhao
1986: A Room with a View – Ismail Merchant
1989: Born on the Fourth of July – A. Kitman Ho
1991: JFK – A. Kitman Ho
1992: Howards End – Ismail Merchant
1993: The Remains of the Day – Ismail Merchant
1996: Jerry Maguire – Richard Sakai
2019: Jojo Rabbit – Taika Waititi & Chelsea Winstanley
2000: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – ang Lee, William Kong & Hsu Li-kong
2012: Life of Pi – Ang Lee
2005: Ang Lee – Brokeback Mountain
2012: Ang Lee – Life of Pi
2019: Bong Joon-Ho – Parasite
2020: Chloé Zhao – Nomadland
1999: M. Night Shyamalan – The Sixth Sense
2000: Ang Lee – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
2020: Lee Isaac Chung – Minari
1956: Yul Brynner (Mongols) – The King and I
1982: Ben Kingsley – Gandhi
2003: Ben Kingsley – House of Sand and Fog
2020: Riz Ahmed – Sound of Metal
2020: Steven Yeun – Minari
1935: Merle Oberson (Sri Lanka) – The Dark Angel
2003: Keisha Castle-Hughes – Whale Rider
Best Supporting Actor:
1957: Sessue Hayakawa – The Bridge on the River Kwai
1966: Mako Iwamatsu – The Sand Pebbles
1984: Having S Ngor – The Killing Fields
1984: Pat Morita – The Karate Kid
1991: Ben Kingsley – Bugsy
2001: Ben Kingsley – Sexy Beast
2004: Ken Watanabe – The Last Samurai
2016: Dev Patel – Lion
Best Supporting Actress:
1957: Miyoshi Umeki – Sayonara
1966: Jocelyne La Grande – Hawaii
2020: Youn Yuh-jung – Minari
1985: Meg Tilly – Agnes of God
1994: Jennifer Tilly – Bullets over Broadway
2006: Rinko Kikuchi – Babel
2010: Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit
Best Original Screenplay:
2019: Parasite – Bong Joon-Ho & Kwak Sin-ae
1986: My Beautiful Launderette – Hanif Kureishi
1999: The Sixth Sense – M. Night Shyamalan
2006: Letters from Iwo Jima – Iris Yamashita
2017: The Big Sick – Kumail Nanjiani
2020: Minari – Lee Isaac Chung
Best Adapted Screenplay:
Jojo Rabbit – Taika Waititi
Nomadland – Chloé Zhao
1955: James Wong Howe – The Rose Tattoo
1963: James Wong Howe – Hud
1938: James Wong Howe – Algiers
1940: James Wong Howe – Abe Lincoln in Illinois
1942: James Wong Howe – Kings Row
1943: James Wong Howe – Air Force
1943: James Wong Howe – The North Star
1958: James Wong Howe – The Old Man and the Sea
1966: James Wong Howe – Seconds
1975: James Wong Howe – Funny Lady
2010: Matthew Libatique – Black Swan
2018: Matthew Libatique – A Star is Born
Best Film Editing:
1977: Richard Chew – Star Wars
2014: Tom Cross – Whiplash
1975: Richard Chew – One Flew Over the Coco’s Nest
1999: Tariq Anwar – American Beauty
2010: Tariq Anwar – The King’s Speech
2016: Tom Cross – Lala Land
2019: Yang Jin-mo – Parasite
2020: Chloé Zhao – Nomadland
Best International Film:
1951: Rashomon – Akira Kurosawa
1954: Gates of Hell – Teinosuke Kinugasa
1955: Samurai, The Legend of Musashi – Hiroshi Inagaki
2000: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Ang Lee
2008: Departures – Yojiro Takita
2011: A Separation – Asghar Farhadi
2019: Parasite – Bong Joon-ho
1956: Harp of Burma – Kon Ichikawa
1957: Mother India – Mehboob Khan
1961: Immortal Love – Keisuke Kinoshita
1963: Twin Sisters of Kyoto – Noburu Nakamura
1964: Woman in the Dunes – Hiroshi Teshigahara
1965: Kwaidan – Masaki Kobayashi
1967: Portrait of Chieko – Noboru Nakamura
1971: Dodes’ka-den – Akira Kurosawa
1975: Sandakan No.8 – Kei Kumai
1980: Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior) – Akira Kurosawa
1981: Muddy River – Kohei Oguri
1988: Salaam Bombay! – Mira Nair
1990: Jo Dou – Zhang Yimou & Yang Fengliang
1991: Raise the Red Lantern – Zhang Yimou
1993: Farewell My Concubine – Chen Kaige
1993: The Scent of Green Papaya – Tran Anh Hung
1993: The Wedding Banquet – Ang Lee
1995: Eat Drink Man Woman – Ang Lee
2001: Laggan – Ashutosh Gowariker
2002: Hero – Zhang Yimou
2003: The Twilight Samurai – Yoji Yamada
2013: The Missing Picture – Rithy Panh
2018: Shoplifters – Hirokazu Kore-eda
2020: Better Days – Derek Tsang
Best Makeup and Hairstyling:
2017: Kazu Hiro – Darkest Hour
2019: Kazu Hiro – Bombshell
2006: Kazu Hiro – Click
2007: Kazu Hiro – Norbit
Best Production Design:
2017: Paul Denham Austerberry – The Shape of Water
1936: Eddie Imazu – The Great Ziegfeld
1956: Albert Nozaki – The Ten Commandments
1969: George B. Chan – Gaily, Gaily
2008: James J. Murakami – Changeling
2019: Lee Ha-jun & Cho Won-woo – Parasite
Best Original Score: None
Best Original Song:
2008: “Jai Ho” by Gulzar A. R. Rahman – Slumdog Millionaire
2013: “Let It Go” by Robert Lopez – Frozen
2017: “Remember Me” by Robert Lopez – Coco
2020: “Fight for You” by H.E.R. – Judas and the Black Messiah
2000: “A Love Before Time” by Tan Dun – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
2012: “Pi’s Lullaby” by Bombay Jayashri – Life of Pi
2013: “The Moon Song” by Karen O – Her
2019: “Into the Unknown” by Robert Lopez – Frozen II
2020: “Husavik” by Sawan Kotecha – Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
1999: Ren Klyce – Fight Club
2008: Ren Klyce – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
2010: Ren Klyce – The Social Network
2011: Ren Klyce – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
2017: Ren Klyce – Star Wars: The Last Jedi
2020: Ren Klyce – Mank
2020: Ren Klyce – Soul
Best Visual Effects:
1992: Doug Chiang – Death Becomes Her
1977: Greg Jein – Close Encounters of the Third Kind
1979: Greg Jein – 1941
1993: Ariel Velasco Shaw – The Nightmare Before Christmas
1999: Jerome Chen – Stuart Little
Best Documentary Feature:
1994: Maya Lin: A Strong Clean Vision – Freida Lee Mock
2010: Inside Job – Audrey Marrs
2015: Amy – Asif Kapadia
2018: Free Solo – Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin
1985: Unfinished Business – Steven Okazaki
1988: Who Killed Vincent Chin? – Renee Tajima-Peña
2014: Virunga – Joanna Natasegara
2018: Minding the Gap – Bing Liu & Diane Moy Quon
2018: Hale County This Morning, This Evening – Su Kim
2019: Edge of Democracy – Joanna Natasegara
Best Animated Feature:
2002: Spirited Away – Hayao Miyazaki
2005: Hayao Miyazaki – Howl’s Moving Castle
2011: Kung fu Panda 2 – Jennifer Yuh Nelson
2013: The Wind Rises – Hayao Miyazaki & Toshio Suzuki
2014: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya – Isao Takahata & Yoshiaki Nishimura
2015: Anomalisa – Rose Tran
2015: When Marie Was There – Yoshiaki Nishimura & Hiromasa Yonebayashi
2016: The Red Turtle – Toshio Suzuki
2017: The Boss Baby – Ramsey Naito
2018: Mirai – Mamoru Hosoda & Yuichiro Saito
2019: Klaus – Jinko Gotoh
Best Documentary Short Subject:
1990: Steven Okazaki – Days of Waiting: The Life & Arts of Estelle Ishigo
1996: Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien – Jessica Yu
1998: The Personals: Improvisations on Romance in the Golden Years – Keiko Ibi
2011: Saving Face – Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
2015: A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness – Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
2016: The White Helmets – Joanna Natasegara
1982: To Live or Let Die – Freida Lee Mock
1983: Sewing Woman – Arthur Dong
1984: The Children of Sooning Ching Ling – Paul T.K. Lin
1988: Family Gathering – Lise Yasui
1990: Rose Kennedy: A Life to Remember – Freida Lee Mock
1995: Never Give Up: The 20th Century Odyssey of Herbert Zipper – Freida Lee Mock
1998: Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square – Shui-Bo Wang
2001: Sing! – Freida Lee Mock
2005: The Mushroom Club – Steven Okazaki
2008: The Conscience of Nhem En – Steven Okazaki
2019: St. Louis Superman – Smriti Mundhra & Sami Khan
Best Animated Short Film:
2010: The Lost Thing – Shaun Tan
2018: Bao – Domee Shi
1968: The Magic Pear Tree – Jimmy T. Murakami
2011: Adam and Dog – Minkyu Lee
2014: The Dam Keeper – Robert Kondo
2015: Sanjay’s Super Team – Sanjay Patel
2017: Negative Space – Ru Kuwahata
2018: Weekends – Trevor Jimenez
2018: One Small Step – Bobby Pontillas
2019: Sister – Siqi Song
Best Live Action Short Film:
1977: I’ll Find a Way – Youki Yoshida
1997: Visas and Virtue – Chris Tashima
1982: The Silence – Michael Toshiyuki Uno
2004: Two Cars, One Night – Taika Waititi
2005: Out Time is Up – Pia Clemente
2013: The Voorman Problem – Baldwin Li
Academy Honorary Award:
1989: Akira Kurosawa
1991: Satyajit Ray
2014: Hayao Miyazaki
2016: Jackie Chan
2004: The Gordon E. Sawyer Award – Takou Miyagishima
I remember back when the Twilight series was all the rage (or all the disdain, depending on where you stood) and one of the major criticisms of it was “Vampires aren’t supposed to be sexy!” The fervor around Edward and his undead brethren drew the ire and derision of many. Did some of this ire stem from the run-of-the-mill misogyny that crops up whenever a piece of media owes its popularity to an audience of predominately young women/teenage girls? It’s an easy “yes” from me. But in hindsight, the insistence on emphasizing film and literature vampires’ monstrosity reveals something interesting about a thing we seem to have forgotten: vampires are supposed to be sexy.
I do have to put some qualifiers on “sexy,” though. I don’t necessarily mean that we’re meant to find them attractive—although that’s always a bonus, to be honest. No, I mean “sexy” as in “the function of vampires in much of Western literature and cinema is very closely linked to contemporary attitudes toward sex and desire.” An attractive vampire functions as an easy shorthand.
Where do I get the idea that vampires and sex are somehow related? After all, vampires and vampire-adjacent creatures have stalked through various cultures’ folklore for generations before they ever appeared in print. I can’t speak to how those tales connect to sex. However, Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula set much of the precedent for fictional vampires to come, and the novel is rife with allusions to and anxieties regarding desire. The novel’s protagonist, Jonathan Harker, leaves behind his fiancée, Mina Murray, when he travels to Transylvania in order help the mysterious Count Dracula purchase property in England. While perhaps Jonathan doesn’t feel Mina’s absence as keenly in the face of the bizarre things he’s witnessing in the castle, it does spring to reader’s mind when Dracula’s three unnamed wives enter the scene. “All three had brilliant white teeth, that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips,” Jonathan later writes in his journal. “I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.” In spite of his terror, Jonathan is overwhelmed with desire. And when he finally escapes Dracula’s castle, he sends for Mina and marries her as soon as he can…while convalescing from the ordeal in a Budapest hospital.
It could be argued that it was the near-death experience that prompted Jonathan to secure his and Mina’s relationship, but the Murray-Harker relationship continues to be under threat for the rest of the novel. The brides make one more appearance toward the end of the novel, while Jonathan, Mina, Professor Van Helsing et al. are on their quest to vanquish Dracula. They appear to Mina in the night, bidding her in “sweet tingling tones” to come and be their sister, Dracula’s fourth bride.
But even if we set the vampire wives aside, the Count’s influence still slithers its way into the novel’s romantic pairings. After Mina’s friend Lucy Westenra rejects two suitors in rapid succession and accepts the third, she quickly falls prey to Dracula’s supernatural charms. Undead, Lucy is “wanton,” a “devilish mockery of [her former] sweet purity.” She attempts to induct her fiancé into Dracula’s domain, but it’s the disgust for this new, overtly sexual Lucy that makes it easier for him and Van Helsing to dispatch her to true death. Dracula is far from deterred; in fact, he sneaks into the Harkers’ bedroom and forces Mina to drink his blood. He literally invades their marriage bed with Jonathan still in it, incapacitated. Most horrifically, the image heavily resembles an assault.
Overall, we can trace much of the horror in Dracula to Victorian sensibilities about relationships, marriage, and sexual desire. Specifically, carnality outside of relationships that are considered “proper” is a corrupting influence. Mina, who thinks of little else but Jonathan and their friends’ quest to defeat Dracula, is able to maintain her dignity and even win her purity back after dedicating so much time and effort into being helpful. Lucy, who was being courted by and proposed to by three men at once, can only be redeemed in death.
Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation of Dracula made some significant amendments to the novel, but sex and desire still remain relevant themes. My point still stands. Dracula’s trio of brides have an even smaller role in the film than the novel; they do little more than hover hungrily over an unconscious Renfield (who fulfills Harker’s role as Dracula’s solicitor and primary victim for a few scenes). But Dracula’s predation on Lucy and Mina carries over. Lucy falls prey to his charms and dies. Under Dracula’s sway, Mina breaks her off her engagement with John Harker and is slavishly devoted to her new master. She isn’t able to break free until Van Helsing kills Dracula.Dracula (1931)’s early 20th-century consideration of sexual anxieties is different from the Victorian context, but it still tapped into contemporary fears of desire and (in)fidelity. After all, the Hay’s Code loomed on the horizon.
Some might say that F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) goes against this mold, especially with Max Schreck looking…the way he does. However, I’m not sure if Nosferatu necessarily disproves my point, especially since it’s an unauthorized adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Nosferatu and Dracula (the novel) share some significant plot points. Nosferatu’s Thomas Hutter, like Jonathan Harker, is an estate agent who travels abroad to Transylvania to sell a property to Count Orlok. But where Stoker’s novel gives the titular vampire a range of victims (or presumed victims, in the case of the brides), Nosferatu has one victim: Hutter’s wife, Ellen. In a sense, Nosferatu gets straight to the point. Orlok takes up residence in the Hutters’ town, and the townspeople begin dropping like flies from what physicians presume to be an unspecified plague. Ellen reads in a book of folklore that a vampire can be defeated if a pure-hearted woman distracts him with her beauty and takes it upon herself to save her town—and, more immediately, her husband. She invites Orlok in, and he’s distracted for long enough to be caught in the sun. Orlok perishes, and Ellen lives just long enough to embrace her husband one last time. It’s a bittersweet ending but still meant to be an optimistic one. Try as he might, the outsider’s desire for the wife fails to destroy the couple’s fidelity.
With this history of fictional vampires in mind, it might be easier to see how we got from Max Schreck to a sparkly Robert Pattinson. My intention isn’t to blow the buzz around Twilight out of proportion; “it’s not that deep” is a totally valid argument. On the other hand, though, a craze this widespread and intense must speak to contemporary culture to some extent. If we continue on to Twilight in the vein of sexual anxiety, the fervor around Bella and Edward’s relationship begins to make sense. For young/teenage girls, encountering attraction and potential partners is fraught with very real dangers, as mundane as heartbreak and as major as actual violence. A vampire love interest fulfills the potential for both. Imagine all the ways this beautiful person could hurt you. Bella is in danger of losing the love of her life (or un-life, as it were) and of becoming prey to his desires—in more ways than one. And not only does the Twilight series utilize these real-life anxieties, it also spins them out into an elaborate adventure. Firmly couched in fantasy and with a rather happy finish, the series therefore functions as a space where viewers might take escapist enjoyment in this consideration of the dangers of sexual desire as it applies to young women.*
All this to say, one of the most significant ways fictional vampires function is by tapping into the sexual hang-up du jour. So, if we’re finding that vampires aren’t especially effective or interesting movie monsters anymore, maybe the solution is to have them fulfill a different purpose. What is the neurotic zeitgeist? How is our fear going to consume us?
*I’m aware that due to the construction of the original books and the films, the fantasy really only applies to a fraction of young women. For the sake of focus, I’ve chosen not to address that issue.
“It’s a remarkably accurate portrayal. Now, the only issue of course is they’re compressing six days into two hours – it is a two hour film. So in fact, they had to leave out many traumatic scenes. There are no scenes that were put in that didn’t happen in the real study. There were no scenes that had to be put in for the drama. If anything, they left out a lot of what I consider powerful scenes, which they actually had in and it just went too long so they had to cut it out. I’d say it’s roughly 90 percent accurate.” — Dr. Philip Zimbardo, 2015 interview
In fiction, we talk about the past as a means to invoke the present. Historical allusions are often too deliberately placed to be considered incidental to the story – very often they are the story. So because it’s a movie based on true events, it may feel easy to read Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s stunning and implausible third feature The Stanford Prison Experiment, as representative of some thematic whole. Your particular reading of the film, a litmus test all its own; perhaps this experiment signified the decay of capitalism in our institutions; signified the prevalence of apathy in our societies; the differences between men and women.
The ability to speculate wildly about art is one of its attractive qualities, and this film contains irresistible wonders in spades. Yet it becomes clear during the film’s magnetic opening scene that Alvarez is rejecting these accepted notions of historical didacticism in favor of something more absolute, more organic.
The film opens on an ad in the local Stanford newspaper. The letters and words are carefully and purposefully arranged on the print matrix. It looked like this:
“Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life. $15 per day for 1-2 weeks beginning Aug. 14. For further information & applications, come to Room 248, Jordan Hall, Stanford U.”
This simple request is cast in a relief, inked, printed, and delivered to folks all across the Stanford area beckoning someone, anyone, to make scientific history. This emphasis on language in the opening moments of the film confirms Alvarez’s staunch commitment to the realism of the story without the need for embellishment. The barenaked letters suggesting a much more focused version of the story then you may have heard in psych class.
In an attempt to observe the mechanics of penitentiary life, Dr. Zimbardo believed his experiment would lead to breakthroughs in inmate welfare, prison reform – it was a chance at justice on the smallest possible scale but justice nonetheless.
And yet, a noxious cloud hangs over the entire film. Its reputation and infamy as a failed research project undercuts each conversation about ethics that appear in the film. When, in response to a question about what the point of all this prison stuff is, Billy Crudup as Zimbardo delivers a line like, ‘This could be great.’, it’s hard to know if the movie means to satirize him or not.
Those familiar with research psychology can pinpoint the exact moment the experiment stops being an experiment – some may argue that use of the word ‘experiment’ is a misnomer altogether. Though you don’t have to be a professor to realize the degrading effects language has on the mind.
Even if the audience has no familiarity with the real-life events, taken at face value the film plays like any good thriller ought to. In its chiseled editing and merciless staging, the film needs to invent very little in this story to make an effective chamber piece. Part of this is due to the strong performances of the film’s young male ensemble, a who’s-who of modern indie darlings, and part of it is Alvarez’s voracious tenacity for specifics.
Interview dialogue, costumes, sets, hair & makeup, all finely tuned to the early ’70s period broadly, and the experiment subjects specifically. The attention to detail here feels then not obligatory, but rather conspicuously designed to elevate the delirium scene-to-scene. Real-time sequences, like the first lineup where all the prisoners learn their numbers, erode the psychology of the characters onscreen as well as the audience’s because they observe such strict banal detailing. The film need not worry about being believable when it hews so closely to the real-life events that it depicts.
More than mere re-enactment however, Alvarez uses cinema to fully express the essential subjectivity of the test volunteer’s experience that was nearly invisible to their test practitioners. At his most Kubrickian, Alvarez punctuates his scenes with shots from the POV of the prison “security” camera, highlighting the insulating effect the camera has on our interpretation of recorded events. When in the cramped “prison” environment, Alvarez instead lets the film play out mostly in close-ups. A necessity of the narrow environment, but psychologically it gives us a great view of each actor’s large noggin (a container of eyes and brains where these decisions of authority or submission take place).
The fifteen-buck-a-day stipend offered to Zimbardo’s test subjects equates to $98.10 in 2021 dollars. If the test went the full 2 weeks, a volunteer had a chance of walking away with nearly $1400 by the end of it. This financial coercion is, intentionally or not, the most crucial element of not just Zimbardo’s experiment but of Alvarez’s film as well. The intent to prove the decay of incarceral institutions inadvertently proves the decay of academic ones; as stated by Zimbardo in the film, “this is about how an institution can do this to a person”.
Other than its relationship to the severely broken American prison system, Alvarez makes no overt attempts to connect the story to the present-day of 2015. Instead, it’s clear that the triumph of The Stanford Prison Experiment lay with its unflinching commitment to reflect a story rather than prescribe one. What will remain long after endless thematic speculation will be this sculpted, well-oiled machine of a film whose technical brilliance is outmatched only by its historical fidelity.
“I can only see what’s in front, not what’s behind. So I can only know half of the truth, right?”
As much as I try to avoid hyperbole these days, it only feels proper for me to claim that Edward Yang’s Yi-Yi is probably the greatest movie ever made. Delving into Yang’s other work the past year has only made Yi-Yi – his final film before his far-too-untimely passing in 2007, feel like it had all led up to this. The Tolstoy-esque scope of A Brighter Summer Day and the beautifully-photographed spaces of Taipei Story and Terrorizers culminating in an endlessly rich tapestry of family life, and the contemplation of the lives within it. I could talk just as endlessly about what I love about it, and I’m already kicking myself for jumping the gun this early into writing about why I love it so much. Perhaps I only do so because as easy as it is to lavish over the film, it’s just as difficult for me to know where exactly to begin with it. So let’s begin elsewhere, because I’m thinking the wave of Taiwanese cinema that the film represents ought to have a far bigger spotlight.
Known officially as the Republic of China, the island of Taiwan has passed from Japanese to Chinese rule over the past century, but the art of cinema had been known to the area since 1901. Adopting the traits of Japanese cinema at the time, Taiwanese film would become more prominent as an exhibition market for Japan, rather than a means for production. But as Taiwan become decolonized and resurfaced from the end of the Chinese civil war between the Republic and the Chinese Communist Party in 1945, the overall production of films in Taiwan began to decline, due to not only lack of interest, but to its Nationalist government’s preference of language as Standard Chinese, as they would openly claim Taiwanese to be too coarse-sounding. Things wouldn’t change until Taiwan’s swift modernization in the 1960’s, as well as its introduction of home video in the early-1980’s, which would see the release of an anthology film titled In Our Time – with one of its four directors being a debuting Edward Yang.
Yang would go on to become a mainstay in what became titled as the New Taiwanese Cinema. Inspired by the Italian neorealism movement, this wave of filmmakers, including Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Chen Kunhou, emphasized stories rooted in a firm sense of reality of life in Taiwan at the time. These films delved into poverty, the island’s modernization, and the constant authoritarian strife spanning near-decades. These themes would culminate in 1991, with the release of Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day – a four-hour masterwork set in the 1960s, as well as a near-painterly recreation of Yang’s own origins. Widely known as the defining film of this wave, A Brighter Summer Day would go on to inform a second wave of this movement, spanning two decades and allowing legends like Tsai Ming-liang and Ang Lee to make their debuting marks in the 1990s. Throughout the 2000s, other Taiwanese filmmakers used films by these artists as inspiration to create works that would go on to embrace subject matter that would’ve been prone to easy censorship by its government just years earlier. To say that a guiding motif of this movement would be something akin to radicalism or revolution wouldn’t be too far of a stretch.
So what makes Yi-Yi – a reserved, gently-told epic of a normal middle-class Taipei family existing over a year, more effective of a work to me? The answer is really simply in the description I just used. Its power is the modesty within every single second of its 173 minutes. Yang’s crafting of compositions – with actions shown through reflections of glass, the frames of doorways & windows, and the vastest of distances, has gone unparalleled in its twenty years of release. It’s merely the work of someone so in-tune with his surroundings and creation of characters, with authenticity that branches them so far-outside the screen that you’re well-likely to observe your neighbors with the same thoughtful perception that the fictional Jian family provide for the people around them. Yang shows such an endless surplus of confidence in the story of Yi-Yi that you almost have no choice but to label it the work of a master, and although it was made well-before his passing, watching it now cannot help but provide me with the notion that Yang knew this was the end of the road for him as an artist. After all, what’s left to explore after something with this grand of a scope?
I couldn’t possibly feel the need to use a synopsis to sell a film like this. To me, the essential method of viewing Yi-Yi is to go in cold, in front of the biggest screen and darkest room you have access to, and simply let it wash over you. But I’d like to cap this post off by devoting it to who I personally believe is the core character of this film. And while Yang provides enough care and coverage for each individual member of this family, I can’t help but lean closest, in terms of general empathy, to eight-year-old Yang-Yang – played by Jonathan Chang, who rivals Haley Joel Osment in A.I. as the single best child performance of its decade of release. Yang- Yang spends a portion of the film being isolated due to belittling by distant family, as least whenever it isn’t by his classmates and temperamental schoolteacher. But over time he develops an interest in photography, and it’s here in which Yang-Yang gradually reveals a personality so ceaselessly rich in perception and curiosity, yet it never feels like a surrogate for director Yang himself. This kind of awareness could only come from a kid this age, so willing to deepen his understanding of the world that he leaves school grounds to get film developed. He goes through these tasks alone, but his isolation never gets in the way of completing them, even if the tasks are as arbitrary as photographing the back of the heads of those around him. Why does he? So they can simply see the other side of the truth. Not only is this made far more significant by Yang- Yang being as young as he is, but it is also the most prominent trait of Yang’s exploration of what it means to use filmmaking as a mode of storytelling. It guides us back to the foundational elements of why we picked up a camera in the first place, yet it propels us further into understanding why movies will only become more essential with time. Over far above a millennium, we’ve been given an endless amount of different perspectives to get lost in, and it’s with Yi-Yi that Edward Yang, whether he knew it or not, completed his trek in conveying that message all throughout his career, and in an infinite amount of ways. The only way to come out of a film like Yi-Yi is to come out as someone different than the one who came in.
“My uncle says we live three times as long since man invented movies.”
“How can that be?”
“It means movies give us twice of what we get from daily life.”
Mother’s Day was just yesterday but if you’re still looking for a belated gift for her, try one of these films! Maybe watch it with her some time? How come you never call??
The layers of motherhood in Lorene Scafaria’s exhilarating Hustlers, unfolds with kinetic camerawork and luxuriously decorated set design fit for a KWEEN. Based on a true story written for a magazine, Scafaria’s film observes the Wall Street financial collapse from the vantage point of “Moves” Strip Club in New York pre-2008. Constance Wu plays Destiny, the green up-and-comer at the club while Jennifer Lopez plays Ramona, the resident veteran and sage elder of the ensemble.
The two share a palpable chemistry that is matched only by the film’s electrifying dance sequences. Other dancers at the club, not unlike Destiny and Ramona, are single mothers trying to support their children. Others have no children, but are supporting mothers and grandmothers of their own. Everyone just wants comfort for the people they love.
Scafaria’s screenplay was famously given to Martin Scorsese, then Adam McKay to direct. Perhaps the themes of capitalist corruption and organized crime seemed like a no-brainer for these two filmmakers, but the load-bearing relationships between these dynamic, female characters would surely have been minimized or otherwise unfulfilled. Both directors passed, opening up the path for Scafaria to direct herself and opening up a path for these characters to truly live.
“You should always say nice things to women, especially your mother.” Perhaps your mom appreciates the finer things in life, like dinner parties, analog photography, or young indie darlings making their directorial debuts. If so, look no further than Paul Dano’s Wildlife.
Paul Dano, Hollywood’s favorite troubled young man, adapts Richard Ford’s novel for the screen in this period tale about family and ambition under fire in 1960s Montana. Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal turn in wonderful performances as a strained married couple attempting to confront the end of their youth without losing sight of their future. And it doesn’t help that half of their small town is engulfed in a wildfire either.
A touching film that indicts as much as it expresses beauty. Your mom will be delighted to learn that the handsome, silent man from Little Miss Sunshine made it.
“Men are okay. My father was a man.”
A story of generation gaps, familial hierarchies, and sarcasm, Paul Weitz’ Grandma keeps its plates spinning with fabulous comedic performances from the ever great Lily Tomlin as the titular grandma, Marcia Gay Harden (Mystic River) as her daughter, and recent Emmy winner Julia Garner (Ozark) as her granddaughter.
Garner’s character, Sage, wants an abortion. She’s got the appointment already in fact, the problem is she cannot afford it. This financial obstacle guides the film into a “road” movie structure, as Sage seeks out her estranged grandmother Elle (Tomlin) for help scrounging up the last few dollars.
Sage and Elle take on a world of bygone memories as they confront relationships from their past in search of a better future.
“Trust me, you can understand communication and still end up single.”
Maybe your mom is #TeamHawkeye. Maybe your mom just can’t stop talking about HBO’s excellent Sharp Objects series from 2018. Maybe your mom, like Amy Adams’ character in this film, is a Professor of Linguistics, or a Scientist, or a Researcher. If any of these apply, then your mom will love Denis Villenueve’s alien invasion, linguist drama, Arrival.
Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a successful educator in a bit of a rut…or something. After teaching for the day, we see Louise falling into cycles of watching TV, staring pensively out her lakeview window, and drinking wine till she passes out. That is, until they arrive.
Before he went on to make Blade Runner: 2049, an expressionist neon collage of urban and temporal landscapes, Villenueve released this comparatively minimal film – minimal not just in narrative scope, but of course in its images as well. Arrival is no lesser film mind you. In fact, its leaner build allows its audience to be more drawn into the world as it so resembles ours (except for the aliens).
Her Smell (2018)
“Promise me mama, when I die, have the coffin arrive half an hour late and on the side written in gold letters: Sorry for the delay”
Does your mom dye her hair and have tattoos? Does she still have her ticket stub from that time she saw a show while she was pregnant with you? If your mom is a punk rocker at heart then she might like Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell – react to that title how you will, but we’ll see who’s laughing by the end.
Elisabeth Moss plays Becky Something, the leader of Something She – a riot band just on the edge of breaking big, if only Becky could get her act together. The film plays in chapters that open or close on the edges of a musical performance, withholding the musical scenes until the final chapter fortissimo.
Director Perry is no stranger to the music scene himself, which is evident in the sticky, smoky atmosphere he is able to capture when Something She is in their green room waiting to perform, or in the tedium of recording a song in the studio. What is surprising here, is Perry’s gentle writing of Becky’s paternal relationship with her daughter. So elegant and simple.
“I like being dead.”
Para Libo, para la raza. Alfonso Cuaron’s neo-realist masterpiece Roma unfolds in images of astonishing beauty and somber tones – these two poles creating a spectrum of latine experience in 1970s Roma, Mexico. Based on the director’s own experiences growing up, Roma underscores the social and political intrigue of the period while also creating an imaginatively surreal and insulated world all its own.
As a director, Cuaron has always emphasized scenic texture almost as much as he emphasizes emotional texture, and nowhere is that as clear as in Roma: A story about Cleo, a mixtec housemaid who works for an upper-middle class, white family. The film is also photographed by Cuaron in richly graded black-and-white, lending each scene, each image, with a hue of memory.
Clay cups will shatter. Luchadores will levitate. The earth will quake. As in Paul Dano’s Wildlife, there will be a transformational fire that challenges our characters. These images pervade the Roma of Cuaron’s mind, and others still might speak to you and your mom. Keep tissues handy.
Mamma Mia (2008
“Okay, now, the thing about the toilet… If it doesn’t flush right away, just go, and come back in a while, and it should… Nothing works around here, except for me.”
Phyllida Lloyd’s screen adaptation of Catherine Johnson’s stage play of the same name, Mamma Mia! hardly needs introduction. The film earned $27 million at the box office during its opening weekend, being 2nd only to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. For almost 10 years after its release, Mamma Mia! was the highest grossing film directed by a woman until 2017 with the release of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman.
It is also that movie with the ABBA songs! What’s not to love? Best enjoyed loud, and with a cocktail.
Freaky Friday (2003)
“Hamlet. He’s, uh… he’s one of the big characters. I mean, he’s Hamlet. He’s just… bopping around… doesn’t know which way’s up. I don’t think the guy’s got a clue.”
And now we got something for the Disney heads out there. Mark Waters’ Freaky Friday adaptation, starring Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis as a mother and daughter that swap bodies, turns 18 this year. Which means its old enough to date Jake, and you can’t do anything about it!
This high concept, sitcom like premise is the perfect synthesis of pulp and character that will make an enjoyable watch for all ages. That it’s a remake of a film from 1975 only underscores the timelessness of the story.
Nearly twenty years on, the story has been adapted again, this time in the form of a horror film (Christopher Landon’s, Freaky). The simple notion of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is ripe with cinematic possibilities. So we may as well get used to these remakes. Next up, “Freaky Alien”, starring Sandra Bullock as an astronaut who switches bodies with a Martian.
Practical Magic (1998)
“So you’re drugging your boyfriend to get a little shut-eye? Doesn’t that seem a little strange to you?”
There’s no problem that cannot be solved with a midnight margarita. Except maybe a generational curse from beyond the grave. Griffin Dunne’s witchy rom-com Practical Magic features Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as sisters with a magical upbringing.
They live in a charming cottage with their aunts and spend their days trying to fit in to their Massachusetts community without falling in love with the local residents.
Airy and playful, this film will tug at heartstrings of forbidden love, acceptance, and sisterhood.
“I am your mother! You understand? All I do is worry and slave and defend you, and all I get back is that fucking face on your face! So full of disdain and resentment and always so annoyed!”
This is the Frida Blog, so you know we got to have a horror movie on this list.
With pandemic time compressing our sense of memory, it may come as a shock to learn that Hereditary turns 3 years old next month. Oh how time turns.
The horror debut that announced a new generation of genre filmmakers, Ari Aster’s Hereditary is memorable for its variations on occult and demonic imagery. Like other films on this list, it is also a family drama. One that interrogates the true horror of resentment between parents and children.
If your mom can stomach horror and she still hasn’t seen Hereditary, then there’s no better time than the present.
Kajillionaire (2020), Miranda July
20th Century Women (2016), Mike Mills
Paris, Texas (1984), Wim Wenders
Grey Gardens (1975), Maysles Brothers
The Sound Of Music (1965), Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein
Last July, I prepared to say goodbye to the Frida Cinema. I’d been accepted into an English PhD program at The University of Texas at Arlington. I was awaiting word on whether I had to attend in person, depending on Covid concerns. I arranged a private screening at the theater with some of my closest friends and fellow volunteers. We watched my second favorite film, Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Legend of 1900. I had never seen it on the big screen before; it was a special moment to share with others.
In retrospect, my farewell was premature. Hours before we met up, I received an email saying my courses had all transitioned to online. Instead of packing up a U-Haul to head to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, I found myself a few days later stepping through the door of my childhood home in Visalia, CA. While trying to teach an introduction to rhetoric course and attend classes from a computer was initially difficult, I soon acclimated to the “new normal.”
That isn’t to say it wasn’t difficult. Remote learning comes with its own challenges. But I tried to spend my spare time with my family as much as I could. Still, being far away from many of my friends and my beloved cinema took an emotional toll on my heart.
I escaped down to Orange County whenever I could. I even attended two Frida drive-in events, Jurassic Park and The Exorcist. The occasions were bittersweet. It was comforting to see the Frida thriving, rather than just surviving, while other independent art house cinemas around the world were sadly shuttering their doors and switching off their marquee lights for good.
I remotely stayed on as a writing team member, contributing content to the Frida’s blog whenever I could. While we were all Zoom fatigued, it was nice to connect with everyone for an hour during our weekly meetings.
In celebration of the news that the Frida was reopening this month, I devoted my birthday to raising money for them to help with their reopening costs. With everyone’s help, I was able to raise $541 through Facebook alone, not including through donation links I sent via Twitter, Instagram, or text messages.
While the Frida’s soft opening was signaled by a screening of Dazed and Confused, perhaps the more relevant and appropriate film on the schedule is Giuseppe Tornatore’s beloved Cinema Paradiso.
For those who are unfamiliar with the film, the narrative revolves around a filmmaker (Jacques Perrin) who returns to his hometown for the funeral of his friend, Alfredo (Phillippe Noiret). During this time, he recalls his youth and his first love, but especially his bond with Alfredo, who was the projectionist of their tiny single-screen movie theater.
The film is no stranger to the Frida. Executive Director Logan Crow and Programming Director Trevor Dillon have previously screened it on Art House Theater Day.
But what is most important about Cinema Paradiso is the way it captures the heart of moviegoing, the nostalgia of youth, and the importance of cinema. Cinema Paradiso essentially serves as a testament to the power of movies, the people who create them, and the people who watch them. With its bittersweet nostalgia and Ennio Morricone’s emotional score, the film never fails to make me cry.
For the four years I served as a volunteer at the Frida Cinema, I couldn’t help envisioning how my life paralleled that of young Salvatore in the film. It seemed that the cinema occupied a large portion of my life. At one point in the film, Alfredo tries to make Salvatore understand that there are greater things for him to aspire to in life:
“It means that this isn’t your real work. Right now the Paradiso needs you . . . and you need the Paradiso, but it’s a stopgag. One day you’ll go on to other things. Things that are more important. Definitely more important.”
While a volunteer, these lines of dialogue would resound in my head, my mind replacing “the Paradiso” with “the Frida”. But it’s only now, as the theater reopens and I must move at the end of summer, that the weight of the words finally hits me with a sense of finality.
It is time to move on. That doesn’t mean I won’t visit the Frida as much as I can this summer or during return trips to California. But as I stand on the threshold of this next part of my life, Alfredo’s advice to Salvatore as he sees him off at the train station comes to mind:
“Whatever you end up doing, love it. The way you loved the projection booth when you were a little squirt.”
My heart aches and tears form at my eyes while I write these words, but Alfredo is right. I cannot live in the past. The Frida isn’t my whole life, only a defining part of it.
But I carry the memories it gave me. The laughter. The joy. The lasting friendships. Love.
The Frida remains, in my heart, my own personal Cinema Paradiso.
“From French Revolutions to Gaullist weekends, freedom is violence.” – Jean-Luc Godard, Week-end (1967)
The above quote is from a film that Godard released one year before director Norman Mailer began filming three underground films financed entirely on his own. His most expensive production was a film called Maidstone – a production without a script, as well as what would be revealed as a general sense of direction. Tied around a loose plot involving a chauvinistic filmmaker – played by Mailer himself, who decides to run for President, the film’s creation seemed to have run on a pedigree of chaos, which involved prodding his fellow actors to react to certain moments on camera instead of the usage of any line readings, at least whenever it didn’t involve consistent drug use. This proved to be more frustrating than experimental, which eventually culminated in co-star Rip Torn taking matters into his own hands and prompting an “improvised” fight against Mailer’s character. This involved Torn attacking Mailer with a real hammer, and biting a chunk of his ear off, all to the petrified screams and cries from Mailer’s real wife and children attempting to break up the fight. When confronted by his wife, Rip Torn only defended his actions, stating that Mailer’s character simply had to die. This would end up becoming the climax of the film, which would be released in just barely above two theaters in 1971, only to fade into obscurity for decades, and bankrupt Mailer before it was even complete. In that same year, Tom Green was born.
Born in Ontario, Canada, Green began stand-up comedy at the age of 15, but it wasn’t until college that he began a variety of different directions – including (but not limited to) talk radio and comedy rap; performing under such aliases as MC Bones and MC Face. But in 1994, Green began producing a non-paid public-access TV program called The Tom Green Show, that would eventually lead to MTV propelling the show down to the United States in 1999, in what would send tremors of shock comedy all throughout the nation. Green’s show was a variety-type structure that you’d only notice if it weren’t for the actual content displayed – including (but again, not limited to) the humping of dead moose, Green spray-painting lesbian porn onto his father’s car, or publicly vandalizing his own art that was hung up by Green himself without permission days before at the National Gallery of Canada. Such acts committed would go on to acquire whatever version of a national controversy they were capable of having in the late-90’s. Green was as celebrated as he was damned, most particularly by Eminem on ‘The Real Slim Shady’. But in 2000, being dissed on a rap track would only send you higher, as Hollywood executives began catching wind of Green and responded with roles in major features. Within one year, Green appeared as a cameo in Charlie’s Angels and prominently in Road Trip – the latter directed by Todd Philips, who would spend the following decade having actors like Green help mold his pre-Joker era of what I personally like to refer to as “Xbox Live Comedy”. If you know, you know.
I would now like to take a break from Wikipedia-scourging to ask a question. What makes us thrive in discomfort? Is such a question too subjective to even be answered? The sensations audiences found in Green’s antics only allowed him to find further success, when all it ould take for someone else to do the same thing and subsequently be labelled as an unfunny freak is the notion that somebody did it first. So what makes that somebody a genius? Is it that they single-handedly pioneered a dawning era in contemporary comedy that would embrace something akin to anarchy? Is it the ceaseless biting of the hands that feed you solely because you’re ‘what’s hot’ right now? Perhaps the best answer to that question is what would immediately end up happening to Green after his big Hollywood break; sometime before or after his appearance on the front cover of Rolling Stone that year. Yes, it would appear that you can never quite reach the top, as 20th Century Fox soon gave Green the creative keys to the city, which would normally extend to the lead role in a feature film. It’s not often that they’d go as far as to allow you the lead role in a film that you co-wrote and directed. But thus, history was made, and we have now approached our second decade ever since, lo and behold, Freddy Got Fingered.
Where do we go from here? How could I even begin? Providing a synopsis feels almost pointless. But for the sake of you, the reader, I’ll allow you this share of levity. Green plays an unemployed cartoonist named Gord, whose dreams are about to come true. He skates from his home, through a shopping mall, and into a bus depot to hop onto the next Greyhound to take him out of Portland, Oregon and into Hollywood to work full-time as an animator, where his parents and younger brother Freddy await to say their farewells. But his father Jim – played by Rip Torn, surprises him with a LeBaron; complete with “#1 SON” imprinted on the license plate. The love and pride between father and son couldn’t be stronger, despite the protest of Freddy, as Gord promises about four times to make his daddy proud. Within one minute into his stateside trek, he spots a horse and, uh . . . serenades it. I won’t be able to know for sure how far these scene descriptions can go on a platform like this, so feel free to go on YouTube to find out what happens next. But eventually, Gord does make it to Hollywood, but only to wind up working in a cheese sandwich factory, and his dreams as a cartoonist wind up dashed by the head of an animation company who concludes that Gord’s drawings, while good, make zero sense and lack any structure. He almost immediately goes back home, and his father’s demeanor changes overnight. I’ve already skimmed through a solid four scenes I’d rather not put into detail here.
But as soon as Gord arrives back home in Portland, a neighboring young boy comes to greet him before accidentally tripping and slamming face-first into Gord’s side-door. His father comes to escort him away as the boy screams in agony with a face gushing blood. It’s the foundation of the ensuing chaos about to erupt between Gord and his father. It’s also supposed to be a comedic running gag. Whether it works on me I’ll leave entirely up to you. But alas! Jim’s disappointment in his son’s failure to realize his dreams run through Rip Torn’s landscape of a face. His work on Maidstone thirty-two years ago, that had cemented him as less of an actor and more of an agent of chaos, slowly becomes more channeled over time. But Green – the star of his own film, appropriately leads this circus, occasionally in the form of animal disembowelment and swinging a newborn infant from its umbilical cord, then later taping the cord onto his torso for pleasure’s sake (presumably). Scene after scene and scream after scream lend way to what I believe is the film’s centerpiece, set during a family therapy session between Gord and his parents. As usual, things escalate as soon as Gord, marking permanent damage on his family unit, falsely accuses Jim of molesting Freddy, who that very night is taken away by CPS. At this point, this synopsis is really only being inserted here in case you were under the presumption that a film with the title ‘Freddy Got Fingered’ was one of taste.
There is no end to the depths found in Freddy Got Fingered. It is a comedy less eager to make you laugh than it is with wanting to throw you in a fire. It is a film that actively hates you. To say it has aged poorly would indicate that it somehow wasn’t produced in the worst possible age. So why do I write about it? Why did I just devote two paragraphs describing the story of a film as if insinuating it’s one worthy of its condemned legacy? Well, because it isn’t. A myriad of plenty have spent the past twenty years deriding the film as something among the title of “one of the worst movies ever made”, including the late Roger Ebert, who despite his illustrious history in elaborate film criticism, wrote a review tainted with ableist slurs to describe the film. But as much as I would feel compelled to slather this piece with the hate Freddy has received over the years, it’s not like you won’t find coverage of it on literally any piece of information about the movie. Instead, I’ll provide a moment of understanding. After all, hate tends to be most receptive to the hate that came prior. Perhaps when you’re beheld to the vision of a man whose idea of a running gag involves the masturbation of various animals, at least when it doesn’t involve the violent maiming of an innocent child, it may be easy for opinions to form in the way you’d expect.
But why do I admittedly cry from laughing at that innocent child being maimed? Why is it that every time I think about going to bat for Freddy Got Fingered, I feel equally compelled to attach self-critique to it? I write this piece under the self-conscious concern that my peers will think differently of me for now being seven paragraphs into this essay in which I have officially decided to defend this film. What keeps me writing is knowing that I’m not alone. The terms ‘radical cinema’ and ‘neo-surrealist art’ have often been passed around by the film’s loyal fans. But what I’ll say here instead is that in the 1960’s, Jean-Luc Godard helped establish the more notable traits evident in the French New Wave of filmmaking. Before his venture into directing, he and other writer-turned-directors would contribute to a French magazine called Cahiers du Cinéma, where Godard would often write about eschewing the traditional format of storytelling most prominent in films released at the time. With directing, he opted to engage in experimentation; something akin to a fine line between freedom and nihilism. And it was within the late 60’s in which his work would fluctuate between labels like ‘Maoist’ and ‘revolutionary’. Whether that period was informed by his arranging of the 1968 Cannes protests in response to France’s civil upheaval that same time, or the radical philosophies prominent in his work at the time (e.g. La Chinoise), could be not much beyond either-or.
Point is, as Godard progressed in his art and personal beliefs, he had also spent a lifetime growing his disfavor for American cinema and its refusal to bask even a step away from its own afety of conventional storytelling. The more his filmography went on, the more likely you’d be to find his criticisms through either his film work or writing. But what I ask here, is that should Mr. Godard ever find out about this blog and this post contained within it, would it be too much to consider the creative contributions of Tom Green as an objection? Could he find it within himself to give thought to the idea that it wasn’t necessarily the gross-out antics of Green’s TV show that granted him a budget of not one, not two, but $15 million, for a film that would contain a scene of Green’s character receiving a check of $1 million for a cartoon pilot, only to waste it all on a surplus of jewels, a helicopter ride, and for a construction team to relocate a portion of his parents’ house to Pakistan (with his father still inside), but rather it was the mere notion that the name Tom Green was just that much of a commodity. In 2001, the most openly radical American film of its decade was released into theaters nationwide, immediately became the most hated of its time, and no other American work has even come close to conveying its sheer contempt for the system responsible for producing it in the first place. It is a Trojan horse taking the form of a Farrelly-esque late-90’s sleaze comedy, but contained inside is the misanthropy you’d find in a Michael Haneke film. So perhaps if Mr. Godard ought to sit himself down one day and bear witness to a screening of Freddy Got Fingered, what are the chances of his reception to the visuals onscreen? Tom Green wearing the carcass of a deer and getting railroaded by a big rig. Rip Torn shaking and spanking his bare ass in a drunken stupor. Julie Haggerty in bed with Shaquille O’Neal. At what moment could it be that Godard realizes that at one point, American cinema saw a genuine risk-taker creating a work that couldn’t bask more in its hatred of both itself and those observing it? That at one point, the film of a truly free man was unleashed into the openness of the world, and that the only way to take it in would be to stare back at its hellish eyes; screaming banshee-like, perched in-between a shattered windowpane before jumping out into the other side, the world around you suddenly altered in a way that can never be undone. But yet, on the contrary, what are the chances of Godard pondering to himself, in the words of a sign held by an extra in the film’s final minutes . . .
“When the fuck is this movie going to end?”
“We are the other people
We are the other people
We are the other people
You’re the other people too!
Found a way to get to you”
– “Mother People”, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention
With the end of this pandemic finally within sight, life is starting to pick up and it’s looking safe for the Frida to open its doors again! COVID safety guidelines will still be in place, but I’m sure many will just be happy to watch movies in a darkened theater with other people once again. Though we’re having our official “soft” opening this week with screenings of Dazed and Confused, I like to think that the return of monthly The Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings (and with them KAOS, the Frida’s resident shadow cast) has been a fitting sign that things are getting better for our theater. Playing the second Friday of every month at our Tustin Mess Hall drive-ins since January, the madcap musical takes young lovers Brad and Janet on a wild ride through the castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a singing, crossdressing mad scientist who introduces the straight-laced couple to the pleasures of the flesh. Largely ignored by critics and audiences upon its initial release in 1975, the movie has since become a cult classic thanks to its devoted fanbase, who keep it alive with late-night, audience participation-friendly screenings across the country, if not the world.
Featuring LGBT characters and themes at time when homosexuality and other non-heteronormative activity was suppressed and even criminalized, the appeal of Rocky Horror has always been in large part due to its resonance with those who were perceived and treated as misfits or outcasts. Even as progress has marched on and society has become more accepting of LGBT people, the film still speaks to those who feel like they struggle with fitting in or relating to others. This is part of a long, storied tradition in musicals—that most polarizing of film genres—of taking stories and topics that viewers might be uninterested or even hostile towards and getting them to nod along as the cast sings and dances about those very things. It’s not particular to alternative productions like Rocky Horror: beloved classics that generation after generation have grown up on like The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof directly tackle such weighty issues as racial/religious prejudice and defying authority.
However, we’re not going to talk about any musicals that your grandma might have the soundtrack to today! We’re going to take a look at ones that elevate bombast over subtlety, style over reality, and the unusual over the mundane in their quest to subvert the audience’s expectations and worldview. So tell Rodgers and Hammerstein to take a hike, tell Julie Andrews that you love her, and let your freak flag fly as we embark on a tour of misfit musicals!
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Originally staged as a theatrical production written and produced by Richard O’Brien, Jim Sharman’s Rocky Horror Picture Show is a rocking and bopping love letter to Gothic horror and science fiction, particularly the films of Hammer Horror (which I previously discussed in another post.) Indeed, Oakley Court, the country house used as the exterior of Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s castle, was similarly used in a number of Hammer productions like The Reptile and The Brides of Dracula. Another less-commonly noted connection is the fact that Frank’s monster, Rocky Horror, has the appearance of a healthy, even attractive man, a twist on the Frankenstein legend already used to dramatic effect in Hammer’s The Revenge of Frankenstein. Though the Hammer references may not be as apparent to viewers raised on newer generations of horror, Rocky Horror remains an outrageously entertaining viewing experience (and even more so when viewed with a talented shadow cast like KAOS.)
As diehard Rocky fans will be sure to tell you, every cast member here is a star in their own right. Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon, of course, are pitch perfect as Brad and Janet, fully embodying the stereotypical qualities of this seemingly all-American couple before unraveling them as the movie goes on and things get weird. Similarly, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, and “Little” Nell Campbell are all delightfully diverting as Riff Raff, Magenta, and Columbia, the servants and groupies of Frank-N-Furter. Yet if everyone is equally a star in this film, then the first among equals is Frank himself, brought to luscious life by Tim Curry in his first film ever. Completely giving himself over to the role, the future Pennywise actor isn’t shy about using his sultry voice and playfully villainous charisma to entice the audience and win their affection.
Just as intoxicating as the cast are the songs, all of which were written by O’Brien, to say nothing of impossibly catchy. The obvious classics like “Sweet Transvestite” and “Time Warp” are fan favorites with good reason, what with their funky guitar riffs and unforgettable choruses. “Science Fiction/Double Feature”, the opening number, is a melodiously mellow paean to classic sci-fi films like King Kong and The Day The Earth Stood Still sung by O’Brien in a rather alluring falsetto. However, the tracks that tend to get overlooked are excellent in their own ways. Rocky’s song, “The Sword of Damocles”, is a short but lively ditty that evokes the sound of surf rock with its tremulous vocals and backing harmonies. Without a doubt though, the one everyone sleeps the hardest on is “Super Heroes”. Playing after the departure of the Transylvanians and cut from the original American release, it’s a dark piece describing Brad and Janet’s loss of innocence backed by dirge-like piano and a mournful guitar. To make things even grimmer, it’s played completely straight, meaning this previously funny, freewheeling movie wants us take this depressing moment entirely at face value.
“…if everyone is equally a star in this film, then the first among equals is Frank himself, brought to luscious life by Tim Curry in his first film ever. Completely giving himself over to the role, the future Pennywise actor isn’t shy about using his sultry voice and playfully villainous charisma to entice the audience and win their affection.”
With increased acceptance of LGBT people and expression in the past couple decades, it’s easy to forget just how transgressive Rocky Horror was when it came out. While Frank’s crossdressing and bisexual inclinations are hardly shocking to viewers’ today, his willingness to deceive people into having sex with him, verbally abuse others, and engage in cannibalism might snap them back to reality and make them realize that, for all how sad his death is supposed to be in the context of the film, Frank-N-Furter is a pretty horrible person. It’s an aspect of the story that complicates the carefree, “do what thou wilt” message that many seem to take away from the movie, and it’s undermined even further when you take “Super Heroes” into account. Explaining that, after all the hedonistic pleasure they got to indulge in, Brad and Janet are now “lost in time, lost in space… and meaning”, the song indicates that the two lost much more than they gained from their experience.
Nothing less than a cultural institution at this point, The Rocky Horror Picture Show still lives up to its reputation as both the original midnight movie and an unashamed celebration of LGBT identity.
Hedwig and The Angry Inch (2001)
It could be argued that John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch shares quite a bit in common with Rocky Horror. Adapted from an earlier musical by Mitchell and Stephen Trask in the way that Rocky was based on a stage show, both also feature rock music and explore issues of LGBT identity. But while Rocky Horror largely revels in its own decadence, Hedwig has a more melancholy tone, and understandably so. A survivor of a botched sex change operation that she only consented to out of desperation to escape from communist East Germany, Hedwig struggles to make it big as a rock singer and confront an ex who stole her music, all while trying to come to terms with her identity in a society that views her as neither man nor woman, East nor West. Truthfully, it’s a premise that does have the makings of a great farce, but there’s little that’s farcical about it thanks to Mitchell’s surprisingly sincere direction.
The heart and soul of this heartful, soul-stirring movie is Hedwig herself, played with astounding authenticity by Mitchell himself. Playing our heroine as catty and confident on the stage and in the bandroom but vulnerable and confused in her monologues to the audience, Mitchell is able to navigate the different layers of Hedwig’s identity and show the intense feelings of hurt that lie beneath them. He does affect an accent for the role but it’s done fairly well, indicating the character’s East German origins without reaching Mel Brooks levels of ridiculousness. As such, there’s little room for the rest of the cast to truly shine, though they all do turn in respectable performances. Actress Mariam Shor gets the most mileage out of the supporting players in a gender-bending performance as Hedwig’s husband and bandmate Yitzhak, but Cube’s Maurice Dean Wint also pops up here as Sgt. Luther Robinson, the duplicitous American soldier who sweeps Hedwig off her feet and then drops her like a hot potato.
Unsurprisingly, much of the music has a punk-rock bent, with songs like “Tear Me Down” and “Angry Inch” having the brash, frenetic energy so associated with the genre. Adding to the rough quality of the songs is Mitchell’s decision to record many of his singing parts live during filming, giving his vocals an added layer of rawness before mixing them in with the portions of the music that were recorded in studio. That being said, the movie has an equal amount of slower, softer songs, injecting healthy doses of both sorrow and tenderness to the soundtrack. Among these sorrowful, tender tunes is “The Origin of Love”, a tear-jerking performance from Hedwig about her desire to find her “other half”. Drawing from a speech by the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes, the song blends mythology-inspired lyrics with angst-ridden vocals to not only convey the immense sense of loss that Hedwig feels but make viewers feel it as well.
“Unsurprisingly, much of the music has a punk-rock bent, with songs like ‘Tear Me Down’ and ‘Angry Inch’ having the brash, frenetic energy so associated with the genre. Adding to the rough quality of the songs is Mitchell’s decision to record many of his singing parts live during filming, giving his vocals an added layer of rawness before mixing them in with the portions of the music that were recorded in studio.”
In contrast to the Angry Inch’s punk orientation, a colorful, almost-glam rock aesthetic pervades the film. Hedwig, for starters, is partial to flamboyant outfits and accessories like shiny tops, tremendous wigs, and a star-embroidered cape that reads “Yankee Go Home With Me”. The bars and restaurants she and her bandmates play in are often drenched in fluorescent, neon-hued lighting that covers the spectrum from pink and red to green and blue. But the most potent visual element of the film has to be the animated portions done by Emily Hubley for “The Origin of Love”. Relaying the song’s tragic story in simplistic, hand-drawn animation, Hubley’s work leaves us with a curiously cryptic message: the words “deny me and be doomed”, tagged on the Berlin Wall by a young man as a disembodied eye watches him. A striking image, it’s haunting in its ambiguity but also penetrating through the sheer power of those five words.
Ruminating on questions of identity and self-fulfillment, Hedwig and The Angry Inch is a powerfully poignant exploration of the human condition balanced by the beauty of its songs and brief moments of levity.
The Return of Captain Invincible (1983)
Strange by the already-generous standards of alternative musicals, Philippe Mora’s The Return of Captain Invincible might strike even viewers used to the antics of Rocky Horror and Hedwig as weird. An Australian musical from the 80’s, the movie is also a parody of comic books and superhero films to boot, presumably in response to the popularity of the Christopher Reeve Superman series around that time. Yet one can only wonder what all exactly the thought process was behind this production since it also throws in an origin story involving aliens, references to McCarthyism, and, as if to directly acknowledge influence from Rocky Horror, a brief instance of cross-dressing. This connection is strengthened by the fact that Richard O’Brien contributed a couple songs to the soundtrack, while one of the film’s screenwriters, Steven E. de Souza, would go on to direct Street Fighter, another film awash in action-packed camp. But as jumbled as the movie’s different elements and ideas are, there’s a half-knowing, half-earnest charm that holds the whole thing together.
Befitting its deconstructive approach to superhero lore, the movie casts its main star decidedly against type. Previously portraying Catch-22’s Yossarian (another high-flying captain who finds himself way in over his head) and later going on to play the grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine, Alan Arkin is an unconventional choice for a Superman/Captain America-style hero: with his nasal Brooklyn accent, harsh facial features, and slightly soft build, he isn’t exactly Christopher Reeve or Chris Evans but nevertheless shines as the offbeat avenger. Bringing humor but also an unexpected amount of pathos to the character, Arkin’s transformation from drunken schlub to all-American icon is both believable and deeply gratifying to ordinary, perhaps even broken people who dream of being heroes in their own way. Facing him is a most worthy adversary in the form of Mr. Midnight, a diabolical would-be genocidaire—who may or may not be the Devil himself—played to the hammy hilt by Hammer Horror fixture Christopher Lee, with Western movie regular Michael Pate also getting in some memorable moments as the American President.
A satire of American exceptionalism as much as it is one of comic books, it’s only appropriate that the film’s soundtrack lifts and borrows from various genres of American music. Naturally, rock is well represented with numbers like “Evil Midnight” and the peppy “Captain Invincible”, but other styles like country and gospel are also gently parodied with songs like the captain’s “Amazing How They’re Alike” and the President’s “We Need A Hero”. Arkin—again, he of the nasal Brooklyn accent—comports himself surprisingly well during the singing portions of the movie, even turning in a particularly powerful performance with the soothing crooning of the all too short “Into The Blue”. Stealing the show, however, is Lee (in his only live-action singing role after The Wicker Man) with Mr. Midnight’s showstopper, “Name Your Poison”. Written, of course, by Richard O’Brien and depicting Midnight’s temptation of Captain Invincible with his one and only weakness of alcohol, it’s a rocking good tune made all the more devious and debonair by Lee’s lush baritone.
“…Alan Arkin is an unconventional choice for a Superman/Captain America-style hero: with his nasal Brooklyn accent, harsh facial features, and slightly soft build, he isn’t exactly Christopher Reeve or Chris Evans but nevertheless shines as the offbeat avenger. Bringing humor but also an unexpected amount of pathos to the character, Arkin’s transformation from drunken schlub to all-American icon is both believable and deeply gratifying to ordinary, perhaps even broken people who dream of being heroes in their own way.”
With a measly budget of $7 million (Australian dollars, at that), the movie relies on its surreal humor and offbeat sensibility to overcome its confusing moments and wanting special effects. The limitations of the latter are plentifully on display during the captain’s flight scenes, with him “soaring” in place as a green screen rolls stock footage of New York, Sydney, or the sky behind him. Where the cinematography does land though, is the aerial footage actually shot for the film, particularly several of the establishing shots of the aforementioned cities. However, the most effective use of such footage has to be the opening credits, which sweep across the Australian wilderness as an inebriated Captain Invincible staggers around a mountaintop and sings bits of Leonard Bernstein’s “New York, New York”. From our lofty point of view, the captain appears to be a small, pitiful man, making his eventual return to the sky and herodom all the more grand.
While perhaps a bit scatterbrained in its narrative and a little too ambitious for a project of this scope and budget, The Return of Captain Invincible is nevertheless a superb superhero musical and, as of this post, still the best one out there!
Based on the life of the 19th century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, you’d probably expect Lisztomania to be fairly dry. Yet in the hands of director Ken Russell (whose avant-garde oeuvre I also covered in a previous post), it’s about as far from dry as you can get. Released the same year as Russell’s film adaptation of The Who’s album Tommy, Lisztomania is a spiritual sequel of sorts to that movie that manages to go even farther in its attempts to provoke a reaction from the audience. Creatively interpreting the facts of its protagonist’s life and career, the film takes tidbits of documented history and stretches them to wild, often anachronistic extremes. Liszt’s popularity as a concert pianist, for example, serves as a pretext for the movie to portray him as a literal pop star, pounding the piano as throngs of screaming girls—who probably wish that he was pounding something else—try to storm the stage (it helps that he’s played by Roger Daltrey, a real-life rock star as well as the star of Tommy.) Believe it or not, this is the least weird thing about the movie, and it only gets weirder from here on out!
One might argue that it’s a stretch to call what the cast is doing here “acting” since a lot of it is really them simply reacting to whatever onscreen absurdity Russell has devised, but truth be told there are some entertaining—if not intensely moving—performances here. Daltrey is in top form as Liszt, bringing a waggish appeal and a convincing level of musicianship to the womanizing pianist (it also helps that he kind of looks like the historical Liszt.) As likable as Daltrey’s Liszt is though, it’s his nemesis, Paul Nicholas’ Richard Wagner, who holds the audience’s attention in every scene he’s in. Reimagining the German opera composer as a foppish mad Nazi vampire scientist (yep, you read that right) bent on paving the way for the “Superman”—and he doesn’t mean Clark Kent—with his music, Nicholas plays Wagner completely over the top, making him a comically evil figure instead of a disturbing one.
There’s also some surprisingly familiar faces among the supporting cast too. Nell Campbell, Rocky Horror’s very own Columbia, appears in a bit role as “Mr.” Janina, an amorous woman who travels all the way from Ukraine disguised as a nun and beds Liszt at gunpoint. We see Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who also doubles as the film’s composer and would later work with Russell again on Crimes of Passion, as a robotic version of the Norse god Thor brought to stilted, stein-chugging life—yes, really—by Wagner’s music. However, the most noteworthy cameo has to be everybody’s favorite Beatle, Ringo Starr, as the Pope, bursting into Liszt’s chambers with movie star-encrusted regalia and cowboy boots before dispatching the hapless Hungarian to exorcise Wagner. It already sounds like a lot to take in, but it’s nothing compared to what else the movie has in store for unsuspecting viewers!
With Wakeman arranging a number of Liszt and Wagner compositions to fit the movie’s rock opera sensibilities, the result is a predictably kitschy score that probably hasn’t aged very well but certainly captures the silliness of the 70’s. That means we get to hear garish, synth-heavy renditions of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies and the immortal Ride of the Valkyries along with several more conventional arrangements of other pieces. While the silliness does carry over to most of the songs, there are exceptions, as seen in several sung by Daltrey. Wielding the full force of his legendary, raspy voice, the Who frontman brings a scratchily soulful quality to tunes (some of which he contributed lyrics to) like the guilty, regretful “Funerailles” and the longing, euphoric “Orpheus Song”, making these moments the closest the movie the gets to anything resembling serious emotion. Of course, it wouldn’t be a musical if the villain didn’t get a noteworthy number of their own, and Wagner definitely does with “Excelsior Song”, a brooding, bass-heavy song whose lulling vocals seduce but whose lyrics, describing a “messiah” who will one day drive “the beast” from Germany, chill.
“While the silliness does carry over to most of the songs, there are exceptions, as seen in several sung by Daltrey. Wielding the full force of his legendary, raspy voice, the Who frontman brings a scratchily soulful quality to tunes (some of which he contributed lyrics to) like the guilty, regretful ‘Funerailles’ and the longing, euphoric ‘Orpheus Song’, making these moments the closest the movie the gets to anything resembling serious emotion.”
Stimulating as the music is, what will likely stick most with viewers is the ludicrous imagery that Russell so lovingly conjures. Being the good Catholic that he is, Russell incorporates a healthy dose of religious iconography like crucifixes and portraits of saints that might play well to the family values crowd, but as he so often does, the Devils director subverts it with shocking displays of un-family-friendly material. Between topless women, fascist symbolism, and penises—if there’s one thing this movie loves more than boobs, swastikas, and classical music, it’s penises—there’s something that’s guaranteed to offend absolutely everyone here. It’s difficult to go into detail here, but one particular scene, depicting an erotic dream of Liszt’s that will, shall we say, leave any men watching with sudden, severe feelings of inadequacy, deserves special mention. Viewer discretion is most definitely advised, but those who can stomach the deliberate inanity and offensiveness are in for a gratuitously good time.
A profoundly absurd movie by any metric, Lisztomania avoids the blandness of way too many biopics by taking a potentially-dull subject, interpreting it in the most outlandish, most extravagant way possible, and inviting viewers to laugh their asses off at it.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
No list of offbeat musicals would be complete without Little Shop of Horrors, a timeless story about love, urban squalor, and singing, man-eating plants. Directed by Frank Oz (who, in addition to being a sorely-underrated filmmaker, was also the puppeteer behind Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster, and several other Muppets), the film is an adaptation of the off-Broadway play of the same name, which in turn was based on a now relatively-obscure B-movie by—who else?—Roger Corman. As such, the movie is a humorous homage to the low-budget sci-fi titles churned out by Corman and American International Pictures during the 50’s and 60’s in the way that Rocky Horror was one to Hammer and Gothic horror. There may be no crossdressing mad scientists here, but there’s more than enough quirky characters and flair to make it a cult classic musical in its own right.
Essentially revolving around a cast of stereotypes, the actors here are nevertheless able to breathe a refreshing amount of life into what, in lesser hands, could just as easily have been cardboard cut-outs. Rick “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” Moranis is impeccably nerdy as our klutzy, botanically-inclined protagonist Seymour Krelborn, Ellen Greene (in a reprise of her role from the original off-Broadway show) is amusingly ditzy as the lisping, sweet-hearted Audrey, and Steve Martin struts and scowls as the leather-clad, motorcycle-riding sadist Orin Scrivello (DDS). The true star of the movie however is Levi Stubbs, who—in an aside that anyone who grew up listening to K-Earth 101 will appreciate—was also the lead vocalist for the classic Motown group The Four Tops. Lending his richly-textured voice to the bloodthirsty Audrey II, Stubbs fleshes the conniving, sweet-talking plant out and makes her as lifelike a character as any of her human co-stars.
The early 60’s influence (a nod to the era of the original Corman film) extends to the soundtrack, which incorporates elements of the various rock and R&B subgenres so characteristic of the period. The opening number is sung in the style of Phil Spector-style girl groups by the appropriately-named Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon, “Dentist!” is a twisted send-up of teenage rebel songs, and “Da Doo” is straight-up doo wop. Additionally, there are not one but two showstopping numbers here. The first is “Skid Row (Downtown)”, a downbeat but infectious ensemble performance that captures the drudgery of the characters’ lives and their hopes for something more. The second is “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”, an irresistible, guitar-driven tune sung by Audrey II and penned by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (yes, that Alan Menken) specifically for the film. Where else are you going to see a giant, carnivorous plant sing about how much of a badass she is while trying to shoot Rick Moranis?
“The true star of the movie however is Levi Stubbs, who—in an aside that anyone who grew up listening to K-Earth 101 will appreciate—was also the lead vocalist for the classic Motown group The Four Tops. Lending his richly-textured voice to the bloodthirsty Audrey II, Stubbs fleshes the conniving, sweet-talking plant out and makes her as lifelike a character as any of her human co-stars. “
Speaking of that giant, carnivorous plant, it’s incredible how convincing the various puppets they use to render it are! With detailed textures and, in lieu of eyes, an unbelievably expressive range of lip and head movements, it’s a practical effects feat that’s made all the more impressive by the fact that the crew had to film all of Audrey II’s scenes in slow motion to make her motions more realistic. This forced Moranis and Greene to slowly lip sync their lines whenever they interacted with the plant so that they would appear to be speaking normally after the resulting footage was sped up, with audiences none the wiser. And yet, Oz and company somehow manage to top this with the infamous original ending where Audrey II eats Seymour and goes on to take over the world. Featuring marvelous model work by Richard Conway (who previously worked on Flash Gordon and Brazil) and well-crafted composite shots of the plants rampaging and people running for their lives, it’s a brilliant tribute to giant monster movies as well as a reminder that, sometimes, it’s more fun when the bad guy wins.
A love story? A critique of unchecked consumerism? An ode to old school horror and sci-fi? Little Shop of Horrors is all three, wearing each of these hats and looking bloody great in all of them.
The unfilmable novel of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez’s life was first attempted in Gregory Nava’s sprawling, cradle-to-grave biographical drama Selena (1997). An anodyne film crammed full of the Tejano star’s music yes, but nervously avoiding her soul. Selena the film was, for a time, the only depiction of the artist available to the public for twenty-four years, and in the interim after her senseless murder the banal portrait it presented built an urgent connection with audiences that were (and still are) processing her tragic end.
Last December, the streaming giant Netflix debuted the first of a family authorized two-part mini series about the late singer: Moises Zamora’s ‘Selena: The Series’, which intends to elaborate on the rest of the Quintanilla family’s perspective that was more or less absent in the film. With the advantage of a contemporary episodic structure and significantly more time than a feature, this televisual entree may yet prove successful in further contextualizing the singer’s short life (the final episodes of the series premiere in May). Confoundingly however, the last quarter century of daring, insightful, and visually electrifying biographical films made between the two Selena projects, seem to exist in some other cultural planet.
For a piece posted to IndieWire in 2018, film critic and author Richard Brody stated that the Great Biopic is one “in which an idea of history is realized along with the dramatic portraiture.” To be unconscious of a particular film’s historic period, from a production standpoint, is a missed opportunity to augment and enrich your material with layered meaning. Nava’s film resists this style in lieu of something else altogether passable, if painfully conventional.
And he can hardly be blamed for it.
Had Selena not been murdered, her image and rapidly accelerating career would have remained under her father Abraham’s ironclad legal control – as was the fashion at the time for family-managed popstars and boy bands. The emotional honesty and radical expression present in Selena’s music would unsurprisingly and unequivocally have been diluted in any cinematic depiction produced under her father’s eye, for the sake of preserving the band’s “image”. Hindered with this vague notion of “preservation”, the resulting depiction in Selena is terribly diagrammatic and profoundly in awe of it’s own specialness – like someone trying to tell you a story but who keeps stopping to react to the craziness of it.
The allegory of the ‘Superstar as savior’ plot that filmmakers so often default to tends to flatten the personality of the Artist for the sake of perpetuating reverential legacy. This is so common precisely because it is so easy to flatter an audience that has come to the theatre ready to worship at the altar of their chosen hero.
Consider the recent Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) adaptation (because I do consider these films adapted material). Made under strict compliance by the surviving members of the rock band Queen, the film suffers tremendously for how it awkwardly contorts itself around any complicated storylines related to its lead character Freddie Mercury (lest the other band members not have enough screen time). As an audience in the present, with a clear picture of the facts-of-the-matter, the film’s insistence of historical untruths reeked of opportune exploitation and a clear ineligibility to deliver on the story’s complex, sensitive nature. And yet, the film was a huge box office success, earning over $900 million worldwide.
What does it say about the state of the industry when a clearly defective piece of biographical film like this can financially succeed so dramatically?
Part of why this was so discombobulating can be traced to the year prior when audiences were treated to Loving Vincent (2017), a revolutionary hand painted animated feature about Vincent Van Gogh that weaves its iconoclastic investigation of the artist using only frames from his paintings. The execution of this visual idea supplemented the ultimately bland characterization of Van Gogh himself, but more uniquely proved that the synthesis of form and content in biographical films (especially films about well known figures) have boundaries still to be crossed, with a rabid audience ready to indulge in something more experimental; see also, At Eternity’s Gate (2018).
The problem for Selena and the Quintanilla family is the degradation to ‘brand’ that these risks can accumulate if improperly done. ‘Selena Y Los Dinos’ had cultivated a family friendly, proto-Disney image not out of mere incidence, but, by all accounts, as an intentional albatross worn on the neck of Abraham Quintanilla to guide his children away from the corruptive nature of music stardom. Indeed the basic friction between Abraham and his son-in-law, Chris Perez, stemmed from the perceived machisto attitude of the young guitarist on account of his long hair and heavy metal predilections. Certainly no filmmaker would dare to impede on this reputation.
Selena nevertheless remains an object of persistent cultural relevance precisely because of its less-is-more approach that is warmer, and more inviting than, say The Color Of Pomegranates (1969) or Schindler’s List (1993) is to its audiences. In any attempt to dramatize historical reality however, the problem of how to depict the experiential power of meeting a Great individual remains.
William Wyler’s Ben Hur (1959) had an elegant solution to this by keeping it’s ‘Jesus’ character almost entirely off screen, but the same could not be done in a film about a person like Selena or Freddie Mercury who are so defined by their image. And while neither film suffers from a performance standpoint (I reject any suggestion that Jennifer Lopez might somehow be miscast), the incongruity of these iconic performances and the uninspired compositions they support largely overrides its well meaning ambitions.
The biographical filmmaker of merit will have to face a dilemma when pursuing these stories: to follow the story where it takes you, like an investigative journalist does uncovering an unknown known, or to simply tell the audience what is already known. The difference between these is the difference between reproduction, and dramatization; the difference between an actor on stage hitting marks, saying dialogue, and an actor acting. Because why go to the theater otherwise?
Why spend 2 hours watching any biopic when you could, in the same amount of time or less, receive a much more informative and well rounded education on the figure with an internet search, or by listening to their albums? What frontier is left to be revealed in movies like these, especially in the Internet age?
One hopes that the filmmakers are either sitting on a powder-keg of exclusive information – a result of their privileged access to an extant source – or are otherwise deploying a radical, and necessarily risky interpretation that means to transcend words. Such interpretations run the risk of obfuscating historical details for the sake of emotional truths, but so often this is exactly the thing we find missing in films famous for their historical fidelity. Facts, but not truth.
One wonders (and perhaps hopes?) that the Future will be kinder to Selena than these depictions have been. In the Future long after most of us have gone, there may be an exciting and risky depiction of Selena artist that actually gets after who she was on the inside. Likely in the Future, such a depiction would not even need to occur on movie theater screens to reach the same audience.
The month is August. It is a day soaked in London grey. Through the window of what looks like an extended Cadillac Escalade, a man waves at three young girls on bikes who wave back for the sake of politeness; one of them yelling, “Hi, Tom!”. As they drive off, Tom Cruise ponders to a person recording on their iPhone over how he can be recognized if he’s wearing a mask. Eventually, the car pulls over at the local cinema, to which Cruise excitedly leaps out and lumbers toward a giant poster display of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, towering well over his 5’7 frame. “Here we are …”, Tom says as he walks and then stops to gesture toward the poster in front of the person (hopefully) paid to record him. As he looks at the camera with brimming confidence, he simply says, “… Back to the movies.”
But we do not stop there. We are taken inside the auditorium, in which Tom Cruise and who I believe is his Mission: Impossible director Christopher McQuarrie await the starting of the film. Two merely masked faces in a sea of them, successfully blended in. And soon, they watch. We observe their eyes taking in this experience after presumably months of not being able to return to it, recorded in a way that may or may not be legal. Until eventually, like all experiences, they end, and the lights go back up. Tom immediately breaks his obscuring by clapping the loudest, happily declaring how great it is to be back in a movie theatre, to the support of everyone else inside. Tom walks out, reinvigorated by the communal power of movie-going, strutting outside in a way that indicates his confidence in knowing it’s a power that surely won’t go away again. Movie theaters in both the U.S. and U.K. would shut down again a month later.
It’s very easy to have your emotions inform your decision-making. Not even a billionaire actor like Tom Cruise could have expected such an outcome when a video of the above experience was posted on his social media. Months later, as he would go on to make sure his filming of two back-to-back sequels to his Mission: Impossible franchise would be completed in the midst of a global pandemic that had still not even reached its peak in cases and deaths, a secretly-recorded outburst from Cruise himself made the viral waves. Loudly damning select crew members for breaking COVID safety protocols, Cruise lambasted their risking of the entire production (financed in part by Tom himself) shutting down and causing hundreds to be out-ofwork without any feasible way to provide for their families. Today I can’t help but wonder about hypocrisy getting in his way of supposedly acting in the interest of others. After all, how can the same person who is willing to provide work for those under his wing during the worst economical crisis since the Great Depression also be the same person encouraging others to go into movie theaters in a world where there were only rising numbers in cases and approximately zero vaccines available or even conceived?
I don’t think it would be bold of me to say that a fair share of us have spent the past year feeling very scared and confused. Why didn’t the pandemic end after two months like some originally hoped for? What do you mean half of California’s population will likely be diagnosed with COVID-19 at least once? I had COVID in my system without even knowing it?! Many such questions like the above are well likely to have been asked, and oftentimes the most compelled response to the general feeling of doom lingering within myself has been to try and understand the fear of others. The realm of contradicting ourselves has been one we’ll always be certain to fall into, but I feel that tracing it down to why we’ve often felt hurt, or even betrayed, by those we personally know who weren’t as willing to take their safety as seriously as ourselves, would involve drawing a fine line between two reasons. Either we want this period to end as quickly as possible, or we want to maintain the illusion that it already has. But these reasons seem to conclude the same way: people are seeking pleasure in whatever form it takes, and it’s above all possible for others to feel that those eager to seek it during a pandemic are inherently privileged in doing so, and in no way would they be wrong in thinking it. It’s all very difficult to take in.
But back to the movies. If you engage in these blog posts, then I’d like to assume that you have a longing to support not necessarily just the Frida, but the plethora of arthouses out there that rely primarily on community. We have all experienced such a drastic disruption over the past year that most of our plans almost have no choice but to run on a near-improvisational basis. But against unfathomable odds, we’ve seen a bounty of success from the various drive-ins and Virtual Cinema selections programmed since initial action was taken to close our doors. As we inch closer to our first physical screening since then with Dazed and Confused on April 20th (that way you indeed have no choice but to see it with a bud), taking its natural course is recollection. How have we coped with these alterations? How did we survive our lowest lows? And can we ever reach those highest highs again? I personally believe we still have many ways to go before we can comfortably accept the feeling of normalcy, but I also think we are propelling through that path the only way I think is possible. Slowly, rockily, but surely.
The movie theatre has become but a memory to most. Like what you’d have with a former lover, there’s a special kind of aching you feel when you long for something you can’t return to. You ceaselessly romanticize the space you had, the otherworldliness you felt as the lights dimmed and everything that would tempt you as a distraction is obscured by a screen unloading before you with light and color. Before you know it, you’re absorbed into somewhere else, and if you’re moved in the right way, then it becomes a place you couldn’t possibly want to leave behind. There’s a reason why a filmmaker like Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-Liang has gained much prominence for quarantined film fans. With borderline masterworks like The Hole, Rebels of the Neon God, or Vive L’Amour, Tsai taps into such a specific element of collective isolation that couldn’t possibly resonate more with those who had only but themselves to seek solace in over the long year. But it’s with 2003’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn that cemented Tsai as seemingly the most seminal film artist of this period.
Set during the final screening at a Taipei movie palace, Tsai’s film conjures feelings that would otherwise be impossible to articulate. It’s a film drenched in minimalism, but the ghostliness permeating through dimmed, empty hallways and the lonely souls of its patrons is anything but minimal. As King Lu’s 1967 classic Dragon Inn plays onscreen, the atmosphere comes before anything else, even conventional narrative or dialogue. Everything you need to know and feel conveyed through spaces of an environment that may have seen much better days, but a strange beauty is nonetheless mined from beneath the surface. By the time Dragon Inn ends and the lights return, there is barely a soul left inside, yet taking its place is the notion that something is still there. We hold on a wide shot of the entire auditorium for various minutes, and it simply just holds still. With each passing second, the idea of knowing it will eventually cut sinks further within you. In a way, you almost don’t want to leave, but you know you’ll have to. But in its final moments, you’re left comforted with the feeling that it may never be fully abandoned. Each space left to itself is another ghost that stays behind.
On the opposite side, we should be endlessly grateful that the Frida will manage to resume operations in an era that has seen various businesses like it unable to survive. The most fruitful thing to consider here is that at the end of the day, and in some ways before others, people still care. And while it’s important to embrace community, one should just as equally account for the uncertainty of knowing that we’re still far from this fight being over. But steps have been taken that are too drastic to undo, and as long as more continue to hold on and put safety before themselves, whether it’s the continuation of mask-wearing or the protection of vaccination, perhaps the words of Tom Cruise himself will reverberate sooner and sooner into a time that is actually proper and just. After all, it helps to always put trust in scientists before
Throughout the history of animated film there has been numerous films that can easily described as influential to the medium as a whole; whether it be Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs being the first full-length traditionally animated feature film or even Toy Story for being the first computer-animated feature film. However, one film that that I feel is just as important as both of those I just mentioned, but also goes beyond the realm of animation by influencing pop culture and crossing international borders while doing it, is none other than Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 masterpiece, Akira.
Based on the 1982 manga of the same name, which was also done by Otomo, the film is set in a dystopian 2019, where it tells the story of Shōtarō Kaneda, a leader of a biker gang whose childhood friend, Tetsuo Shima, acquires incredible telekinetic abilities after a motorcycle accident, eventually threatening an entire military complex amidst chaos and rebellion in the sprawling futuristic metropolis of Neo-Tokyo.
To begin with Akira’s many influences, I think the easiest thing to start with is it’s overall impact on anime–in particular how it boosted anime’s presence in the West. While Anime is huge and way more accessible nowadays, the same really couldn’t be said back then, as it was far more obscure and elusive especially back in a pre-internet era. This is why when it started to gain a cult following via numerous theatrical and VHS releases, it was a important contributor to the eventual increase in popularity of Anime here in the West. In terms of why Akira in particular made it big, there’s two major reasons. One, there was really nothing else similar at that time aesthetically, as it created a world that was truly one of a kind. At the time of release, it was the highest budget Anime film of all time, with a budget of of 1.1 billion yen (approximately 8 million U.S. dollars). Akira is chock-filled with so many detailED scenes and fluid animation which no doubt wasn’t an easy task. It used over 160,ooo animation cels to create all of that, and put that into perspective, using cel animation essentially means that the animators had to illustrate the background, middle, and foreground of each scene on three different cels. While it’s no doubt a huge time-consuming process and such isn’t a practice that is used much anymore, it paves the way for so many iconic and downright beautiful shots that shows how much you can really accomplish within the animation. It’s truly is a work of art.
The other reason why I feel Akira developed a cult following is because it really redefined how the West perceives animation and especially was pivotal for the rise of adult animation in general. Before Akira, animation in the West was almost exclusively marketed towards children. The likes of Disney and Warner Bros. animation wasn’t necessarily considered appealing to anyone outside of children and thus animation was given a stigma that it’s only for kids which is one that while not as widely believed anymore is still one that the medium hasn’t been able to get rid of completely. But Akira changed all of that, it featured heavy topics like corruption, violence and secret experiments and the characters weren’t necessarily all that family-friendly as they were either rebellious teens, corrupted adults or strange kids with immense telekinetic abilities. Akira didn’t want to talk down to their audience, they instead wanted to transported viewers into a world that they’ve never seen before and something you never find from Disney in a million years, which at the time was something the animation industry especially in the west really needed as it’s one of the earliest and notable examples of adult animation alongside The Simpsons (1989-present).
However, it’s not just animation that Akira has a major effect in, it’s also incredibly influential various other fields of pop culture. There’s too many to name, so I’ll just go by some notable examples. It’s either been inspired or even featured in two different music videos, that being Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson’s Scream (1995), and Kanye West’s Stronger (2007). Both Looper (2012) and Stranger Things (2016-present) have been cited as being influenced by Akira by their own creators, Rian Johnson and the Duffer Brothers, respectively. This isn’t too out of the ordinary given that both properties feature children with telekinetic abilities with both of them following different aspects of Akira. But one cameo I find interesting is that in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2017), Kanedo’s bike is featured alongside many other pop culture icons. Spielberg, alongside George Lucas, were originally offered the distribution rights to Akira, but both passed on it as they thought the film was unmarketable in the US. I can only imagine that both of them have long since regretted that decision given the film’s impact, and at least in Spielberg’s case, this cameo seems to rectify that a little bit.
I hope now with all of this in mind, you can easily why Akira is as revered and respected as it is and why you should watch it if you haven’t already. It’s worth noting that it’s one of only three animated films to be a part of the Criterion Collection, and I wholeheartedly believe that it more than deserves its spot.
On Tuesday, April 20th, The Frida Cinema invites you to join us for a classic that invites you to flash back to a time when…well, you could watch a classic movie at The Frida Cinema!
WE’RE BACK!! And for our first screening in over a year at The Frida, we’re joining art house cinemas around the world in partnering with our colleagues at Alamo Drafthouse to present a special screening of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused — followed by a screening of a brand new Cast Reunion that the Alamo Draftouse will be conducting and sharing with participating theaters! Click here for tickets!
Ranking 3rd in Entertainment Weekly’s “50 Best High School Movies,” writer-director Richard Linklater’s classic perfectly captures the irreverence, angst, goofiness, and liberating hedonism of the high school years – this time, in 1976. It’s the last day of school at Lee High School, and students are celebrating accordingly with rituals including house parties, cruising, and tormenting incoming underclassmen. Highlighting the ensemble of rich characters is star athlete Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London), who is under pressure to sign a pledge affirming that he will not use recreational drugs; incoming freshman Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), who valiantly tries to avoid being hazed by next year’s seniors; cruel Darla (Parker Posey), who’s having way too much fun terrorizing freshman girls; and so many more memorable characters played by an impressive cast that includes Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Renee Zellweger, and an iconic Matthew McConaughey.
Dazed and Confused remains timeless as ever as its legacy continues to grow. It is featured on countless Best Of lists, including Entertainment Weekly’s Funniest Movies of the Past 25 Years, and Quentin Tarantino recently listed it in his top ten favorite films of all time for a Sight and Sound poll.
SAFETY GUIDELINES: We will be following CinemaSafe guidelines, which includes limiting capacity to 50% of capacity (which makes space even more limited than usual —get your tickets today!); ensuring social distancing in our lobby; and requiring our guests wear masks, with exception to taking in food and beverages at your seat. We will also be conducting temperature checks at entry — guests who register a temperature of 100.4° F (38° C) or higher will be allowed to re-test after a few minutes, but if fever persists, will not be admitted and advised to go home, and rest and fluid up!
$15 Special Event. Frida Cinema Film Club members save on tickets to streaming, drive-in, and in-cinema screenings; click here for information on joining The Frida Cinema’s Film Club!
(If you are planning to attend our The Big Lebowski Drive-In screening on the same night, worry not — we’ll be announcing encores of the Dazed and Confused screening + reunion in the days ahead!)
See you at The Frida!
We’re very excited to partner with KINO! Germany NOW! to present a handpicked selection of Germany’s most promising narrative and documentary films that premiered within the last year, many of them directed by women. (more…)
“Much more than an enigma to be cracked, Mulholland Drive takes as its subject the very act of solving: the pleasurable and perilous, essential and absurd process of making narrative sense, of needing and creating meaning. Whether or not they explicitly pose the question, Lynch’s late films ponder the role of story at times when reality itself can seem out of joint.” — Dennis Lim, ‘The Man From Another Place’, 2015
Though originally premiering in October 2001, the Frida Cinema will be holding a special 20th anniversary screening of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive on March 18th. The revolutionary masterwork will once again take center stage and beguile us with it’s serpentine mysteries before leaving us with only ‘silencio’.
If you’ve ever been to a Frida event, or are a fan of reading this Blog, then it’s likely you’ve seen the film or have at least heard about it. And since there is no print publication of this blog, I can presume that you are reading this via the internet. This means that you have unprecedented access to resources online to help make sense of the film – more so than the average person in 2001 might. If you’ve just seen the film and have come here looking for a breakdown then I must disappoint you, as this will not be that article.
For those uninitiated in the dark mystifying turns of Mulholland Drive, there can be almost no preparation. As a story, the film winds in, out, over, and on top of itself, retreading familiar territory with not so familiar characters. But these aren’t time loops, and this isn’t a philosophical statement. Lynch’s meta perspective on genre and storytelling in Los Angeles takes the shape of an epic, sprawling out larger than LA county itself to properly transcend his own cinematic tendencies as a director, and the expectations of narrative cinema writ large.
Many of the characters in Mulholland Drive will find themselves metaphysically trapped in the sun-shackled oasis of Hollywood: Naomi Watts as an actor desperate to be a movie star, Justin Theroux as a director for a major studio fighting for control of his picture, and Laura Elena Harring as a woman who cannot remember her own name, being chased by people she does not know. Lynch stages these incidents with all the flourishes you’d expect from a neo-noir mystery-thriller. The durational unease present in Blue Velvet and Lost Highway is similarly applied here in Mulholland Drive to dramatic effect.
I should acknowledge my reluctance to elaborate more. This has nothing to do with fear of spoiling the film – because what is there to spoil?! – rather, I don’t want to speak too much for fear of misrepresenting the film. The story is very unique and so well documented it would be redundant to repeat it beat-for-beat here. The images and scenes that Lynch constructs for this film are so much more evocative and intriguing than any description. In fact, like most jokes, art is better left without explanation.
If there is some way to ‘understand’ this film more, it may be in attempting to understand its source. Its idiosyncratic, multi-disciplinary, septuagenarian creator. And that may be more difficult than attempting to understand ourselves.
So just watch it. Be confused, be pissed off, or be enraptured by it.
One year ago today, Jordan, Martin, Trevor and I met at The Frida to update our marquee, shut down our machines, and close up shop for what we thought would be a few weeks. We’d had a last hurrah Friday the 13th-themed screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with the fabulous shadowcast K.A.O.S. , which opened with our announcement that we’d be temporarily closing our doors for a while. It was an incredible show, bolstered by an electric feeling of solidarity throughout the night. And that was that.
It’s surreal to look back at that day, and then reflect on the year that was to come. We truly have so much to be grateful for, and every one of these amazing and dedicated team members have so much to be proud of themselves for. We have more work ahead as we finalize the details our reopening plans, and we promise that all conversations continue to have the safety of our guests, our volunteers, and our staff members at the fore. Til then, our drive-in and streaming screenings will continue (and more than likely, beyond), and we will continue to keep you posted.
Thank you to everyone who has supported The Frida Cinema during this truly challenging year. Thanks to every volunteer, our amazing board, and all the venues and distributors we’ve worked with to continue to bring cinema to our communities, albeit on device screens and through windshields.
If you haven’t already – and even if you have – please visit thefridacinema.kindful.com and make a tax-deductible gift in support of a nonprofit art house that is determined to reopen its doors to the same level of cinematic programming and community collaboration that’s been our mission and our work since we first opened — and that kept both going even while our doors were closed. Your support makes our mission and our work possible.
Executive Director, Founder
Even in the most tumultuous points in my relationship with the “Twilight” brand–no matter how much I insisted I was over it, that it was stupid and I just didn’t know any better at the time– the love for first film never disappeared. Yet despite being into New Moon enough in 2009 to see it thrice in theaters, I didn’t revisit the latter on my own in the same way… until quarantine. “On my own” being the key phrase, as the opportunity to rewatch New Moon with my oldest friend who’d had the same “Twilight” journey never came up by the time I’d come around from the whole internalized misogyny thing. You see, while Twilight ‘08 is genuinely beloved by fans and criticized for some as a film where “nothing happens”, New Moon is the beginning of perhaps the most unintentionally baffling collection of heinous story arcs and characters, terrible CGI, hilarious performances and schlocky action. It’s a ride that can’t be truly experienced without other people joining you– and an actual drive-in midnight screening, ending at 3am thanks to the time change, is the perfect place to revisit New Moon or go nuts with your friends for the first time. And while I’m not here to persuade you of these facts (Twilight is unironically great, New Moon is, in a word: whack), the reasons behind why is worth exploring and reveals a whole lot more than we’d like to think.
There’s quite a lot to admire about Twilight ‘08 that one can see even in a first viewing. For one thing, it’s gorgeous, the distinctive blue hue an automatic stand-out and beautiful locations with grand shots which perfectly capture the vast landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. The close-ups and copious amount of staring is broody and intense, coming off silly to those a bit older, but are nothing but genuine towards the target audience and between the characters. I notice more and more with every re-watch that Edward is playful and teasing, Bella outspoken with him and clear in her determination and desires. Some moments are so romantic and tender and set up for wonderful things, it still makes 23-year-old me swoon. The most quotable, memorable lines are dumb in the best way, and the action just feels different– emotionally-driven by characters over the the sole desire for stunts. All these elements culminate in moments like a pivotal baseball sequence, which features one of the most legendary needle-drops in cinematic history that makes even those watching for the first time go a bit feral. New Moon beyond the initial bewilderment (which don’t get me wrong, is amazing in itself)? The soundtrack is objectively a better album than Twilight ‘08’ (but not the closest to my heart?), and complementary sequences such as Bella’s depression montage through the seasons is a very distinct, memorable method of way of visualizing entirely blank pages. The first 15 minutes are the most fun of the whole film, with an intriguing dream sequence, and the Cullens’ individual re-entrances– while more akin to Marvel movies’ “there he is, time to cheer” presentation– spark joy in those who liked them in the previous film. The handsome and kind father Dr. Carlisle Cullen, tending to Bella’s wounds and discussing grander moral dilemmas and the purpose of eternal life as a vampire humanitarian? Simply confirms the suspicions from Twilight ‘08 that he is the true catch of the series. Oh, and the entrance of the Volturi and Michael Sheen into the franchise via oil painting transition into a flashback is appropriately lavish.
Yet with all those cool shots and a near religious adherence to the book, all the personality of the first film and its characters severely dampens, clinging to life only by the talented cast and hard-working stunt people and SFX artists doing their damn best; everything else just feels wrong. Despite $13 million more in its budget, the new wigs on main characters are terrible and the styling of the Cullens a massive downgrade with cheap-looking contacts and clown white makeup. Somehow, despite requiring less work than simply leaving the actor’s natural skin as is, the sole vampire character of color is severely whitewashed to the point of looking like a new person. The leads don’t crack more than a smirk to each other, even in their “happy” moments, Edward instead coming off as chronically pained. The interesting concepts of aging with an immortal lover or the moral quandaries of vampirism and soul are shallow, quickly overshadowed by toxic “love” triangles and the most contemptible appropriation of a real indigenous group’s existence + history in recent memory. Edward launches Bella halfway across the room against the wall and into a table that couldn’t be any farther away from the rest of the scene if it tried. The majority of Bella and Jacob’s flirting revolves around half-jokes about their age difference, how weird it is for the 16-year-old to be physically appealing, and the actual bonding is largely told in a montage that features one of the worst attempts at a transition I’ve ever seen (no sane person would ever think of throwing a loose piece of pizza– note that Jake is solely human at this point and has no capacity to catch it like a frisbee). And oh, of course, Edward shows up as a ghost in what is admittedly a cool effect, but ultimately confusing to anyone unfamiliar with the book or the fact that it’s solely in Bella’s head– which, regardless: yikes!
What should be noticed is that the vast majority (though not all) of what is concerning about Twilight ‘08 is residual squick from Stephenie Meyer’s writing. The significant amount of new elements brought in through excellent filmmaking formed an adaptation not as close to the book as New Moon’s would be, but instead an elevated version of Twilight that stands completely on its own because of it. This past year of exploring neglected commentaries, deleted and extended scenes, and interview extras on my (~Borders exclusive~) 2-disc special edition DVD painted a very clear picture: nearly every commendable, interesting, and memorable moment in Twilight ‘08 and its creation comes back to Catherine Hartwicke in some shape or form. A true auteur, Hardiwcke’s ingenuity, dedication, and detail-savvy background as a production designer permeate every second of the film, with love in every step from talent-scouting to credits. Moreover, it is precisely the absence of a similarly invested, caring figure in New Moon to blame for one of the most severe drop-offs in quality in any similar film series, and the unfortunate president set for the remainder of the Twilight Saga.
Just a few minutes into Twilight ‘08’s commentary track, you’ll notice there aren’t very many out there like it– mainly in that the teenage lead actors are present as well, and feels more like eavesdropping on a group of friends who happen to work together professionally. Despite their embarrassment by talking about themselves or overall rowdiness (Rob’s lowkey always been a freak), there’s clear respect for each others’ craft and contributions, even in the casual setting. Hardwicke’s explanation and background information for how shooting played out as it did, what effects were used, and how got worked on until the last moment or on the fly, adds another bit to the surmounting pile of evidence that Twilight ‘08 was a diamond in the rough, formed under pressure in the director’s nurturing, compelling hand.
According to Rachelle Marie Lefèvre (Victoria), Hardwicke was shockingly hands-on with wardrobe from the early stages for a director, pinning, fitting and cutting fabric herself with a backstory and reasoning for every accessory and piece (Victoria collects “charms” from her victims as momentos, adopting them into her outfit). Hardwicke’s Twilight: Director’s Notebook is an extensively illustrated testament to this attitude’s presence in all areas, 176 pages of annotated insight on inspirations, concept art, storyboards, and on-set images to highlight the process of her and her crew.
CH shares in the director’s commentary that she personally did the research on the history of vampires which Bella pours over online, auditions and chemistry tests were held in her own home (like her previous films), some of the young actors even crashing on her couch after the film’s premiere; all anecdotes she shares quite fondly. Nearly every scene was rife with technical challenges, from dangerously cold weather and precarious terrain without proper structures. You’d really never know that the scene at La Push beach nearly froze all the actors in what “99% of the cast and crew agreed it was the worst day of filming they’ve ever been in”, or that the quintessential meadow scene— the dream imagery which spurred Meyers to write Twilight— was filmed on Griffith Park’s golf course in LA with the help of some creative production design and reshoots.
A stand-out part of all this is that not only was the film made, but it turned out incredible and the actors were taken care of. Stewart, still a minor during shooting, had on-set school sessions and could legally only so many hours a day. Rather than make her actors endure the horrendous weather or become frustrated at the need to constantly make scene-altering adjustments to accommodate for it, she made it work with the needs of the people on set in mind. Needing the actors to stay warm, she asked local surfers to borrow their trucks for the scene to replace the bonfire. The final result is laid-back, perfectly giving of the feel of a bunch of friends hanging out on the unpredictable coast that adds more character to the setting. While it’d be easy for anyone to focus on how exhausting it must be to film complex stunt sequences and effects shot in four or five days on a tight budget, she simply knocks it out of the park instead. She cried for 30 whole seconds in private (Robert “The Batman” Pattinson also cried on set, by the way) for a moment, then proceeded to create a fine piece of art and billion-dollar franchise as a bonus.
One of many trying sequences was the very first to be shot: the final vampire battle in a room full of mirrors, where Edward shatters the glass windows and blows into the floorboards, James is decapitated and burned. Both of these elements were Hardwicke’s idea, the latter she even storyboarded herself. The former she insisted on doing with practical effects, saying “if you can do it for real, it’s going to be better”.
Hardwicke rehearsed everything with the cast personally, in hotel rooms or with stand-ins for the many low-res references to allow the visual effect team to have a clear, coherent plan before the actual footage ever made its way to them. Her production design and first-hand knowledge of what it means to create environments around the characters shows with Edward’s bedroom, “a hundred years’ worth of journals” scattered; Bella eating veggie burgers, in a nod to her also being a vegetarian like Edward; even sneaking in the fact that footage of the previous sequence at the ballet studio are playing on the hospital T.V. and the in the painting on the wall to reflect the delirious state of her memories and reality blended together.
Yet with all this foresight, she also has an uncanny sense of what just works, unafraid with her “let’s just try it” attitude. There just happened to be apples in the
cafeteria salad bar Catherine wanted as mise-en-scene, which turned into the book cover’s cameo. The “kooky” kitchen scene with the Cullens cooking for Bella, was added the day-of, as were many of the best lines (“is she even italian?” “Money… Sex,,,Cat.” “that’s my monkey man”) directly from Hardwicke. Wherever dialogue was lacking, Rob added a line or two of his own, or would be asked to pick from a list written by Hardwicke the night before (spoilers: he chose “you better hold on tight, spider monkey”); Stewart thought of her “seatbelt” line on the spot, and Mike Newton shaking his butt at Bella through the window came out of actor Michael Alan Welch asking Hardwicke, “can I try something?” Her answer: “Who am I to thwart someone’s creative impulses”. This says so much about her work and herself as a person.
Something a lot of people might not know is that Hardwicke had her own admirable vision for what Twilight ‘08 would look like, even more so than she already accomplished by putting her spin on the “essence” of the books but changing what needed to go just enough that it would still get the green light. The Edward and Bella of the books were pretty unlikable and not necessarily endearing; Robert Pattinson describes in his own words being guided by Hardwicke, away from his “tendency of making Edward super depressed, desperate, and suicidal”, resulting in the sweet performance (the other sure sounds a lot like Pattinson’s performance through the entirety of New Moon). Hardwicke actively worked with screenwriter Melissa Rosenburg to make Bella less passive. She also wanted a multi-ethnic Cullen clan, and for the movie to represent the “diverse, beautiful people” of all “colors, size, shape, and age” that were fans of Meyers’ books; it didn’t sit right with the author, but Hardwicke fought for diverse actors in Bella’s school, friend group, and was just barely able to keep Kenyan-American actor Edi Gathegi as Laurent, who was described to have “olive skin” in the books (“‘I said [to Stephenie], there are black olives out there!’”). While ultimately, Hardwicke didn’t have to adhere to Meyers’ wishes since the rights were already acquired, the project was supposedly doomed to fail anyway, and Meyers was on set a total of around twice, CH did so with respect, saying “I’m bringing to life somebody else’s baby” and that everyone wanted her to feel “comfortable as much as we can”. Meyers understood that changes are necessary when adapting one media to another to a certain extent, and Hartwicke utilized this as much as possible whilst still honoring the author’s worldview; that’s incredible amicable and big of her as an artist and as a human.
Hardwicke never had the sequel in mind, as she “wasn’t inspired” by New Moon and wouldn’t do the rush job needed for the studio to churn out and cash in as fast as possible on the surprise hit. She would have required more time to tackle “a lot of issues” present in New Moon in favor of original ideas like before, where they “ended up doing a lot of scenes that were not actually in the book”. Meyers’ narrative certainly develops for the worse with Quileute characters (portrayed as genetically animalistic, aggressive, violent) as the antithesis to the white vampires’ “civilized” existence, and disturbingly unhealthy romanticization of mental illness and toxic abuse. Though I have no doubt that a direct sequel to the ‘08 film rather than an adaptation would be worth the wait, the amount of reworking necessary would leave the original texts as little more than distant inspiration. But she did it once, and could certainly do it again; anyone in the director’s chair theoretically could, with enough drive, creativity, and heart. Perhaps after seeing what Hardwicke had done with her first novel, Stephenie Meyers would further expand her capacity for changes from print to screen.
Director Chris Weisz however, would have nothing less than “the very best and most faithful version that can be brought” on film. The ghost director of Summit Entertainment’s previous biggest hit American Pie saw the (multi-million dollar) position with New Moon as an opportune comeback after the previous critical and domestic box-office failure, The Golden Compass (2007). Reportedly deviated and recut from the footage shot according to Weitz’s closely adapted script, the director says New Line Entertainment was afraid of “offending the right” due to the series’ themes (rejecting religion and critiquing religious institutions). It’s always sad to hear about ambitious projects butchered by cowardly executives who will do anything to follow their notions of what makes money, over the value of artistry or content. Most would sympathize with that, especially since Twilight ‘08 only happened thanks to Catherine Hardwicke’s own initiative and belief in the Twilight novel (a horrible script bloated with FBI agents and jet-skis brought back to romance and deeper themes after the director told Summit: “’You have got to throw that script in the trash and we have to start over’”). In a statement addressing the public concerning his appointment to the project and other various interviews post-production, Weisz emphasizes his dedication to the fans of the book series and his interest in the material despite his “Y chromosome” and the effort to come at things from the target demographic’s viewpoint. “I had this theory that if you stay true to the book, you would win… not only the fans, but other people will get what the fans care about. If the box office tells us anything, then it’s a win. It’s made more in its first day then the entire domestic run of Golden Compass. It’s extraordinary.”
While none of The Twilight Saga’s following films ever had a hope of being as quality as the first, even the smallest adjustments of dialogue or direction for the performers (or the makeup) would be massive improvements feasible making it to the final product. Clearly, the fans of the best-selling novel come through in droves for the first film, and the box office increase for New Moon came from the fact that millions became interested after the unique vision of Twilight introduced them to the property. I testify to this, as I’d never even heard of the books at age 11 before seeing the movie in ‘08 and became entranced in the time before New Moon’s release. Afterwards, I steadily lost interest to the point of not even bothering to watch Breaking Dawn Part 2 until years later (and with a friend). Still, there’s no reason to fault a director for doing what they believe in and truthfully, no one in 2009 would ever have expected a male director to care about the teen love story in the first place, or to abstain from the project in an effort to get a woman director the role– or even someone who cared in the first place. If the source material was his philosophy and it made fans happy, that was already more than female-majority fanbases had (and would continue to be) dealt to them. And anyway, I’d never heard Weisz’s director’s commentary or done much looking into the creation of the film before, so I knew the comparison wasn’t entirely fair, either. He’d get the benefit of the doubt from me, for just doing the best job he could at that place and time.
So imagine my outrage when, in my attempts to hear his own words as I’d heard Hardwicke’s, I came across an official promotion interview where he says the following in the most smarmy way possible: “it’s a challenge to portray something that is essentially terrible and uninteresting, and see what you can do with it visually”.
“Terrible and uninteresting,” he mumbles in the most disinterested, monotonous way. I had to rewind to make sure I heard him right. A “challenge” to make it the “best it can be”, because people are going to see the film no matter what.
Who should be more offended by that statement? That blatant insult? Stephenie Meyer, who created the IP and gave Weisz the green light, calling his film About a Boy one of her favorite of all time? Catherine Hardwicke, whose innovation and talent made the film that would lead to the sequel being made in the first place? Who was thanked by Summit for bringing them to the top 10 most profitable studios of the year with a mini cupcake, balloons, 0 studio offers, and numerous rejections for work? Or perhaps it should be screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg, who wrote the damn adaptation for both films and instead of dunking on the content, worked and thought critically to make Twilight ‘08 better? Which one of the women at the forefront of the franchise, save the Kristen Stewart of the “brilliant cast handed to” you by Hardwicke, are you belittling in particular, Chris?
Suddenly, all his other statements and drives are framed by what are apparently his true feelings. The effort to make an faithful, money-making adaptation of New Moon was for revenge, and its success a “dish served cold” Wisz was “ready to eat” his “status as a director” was “utterly violated” by botching of The Golden Compass, which he asserts is the “worst thing that has happened to [him] professionally”. Note his word choice: not his vision, ethics, the source material, but Chris’ “status” as a director. In his letter to fans, he assures that “emotions are universal”, and he’s worked with actresses before, so he can definitely capture the experience of fictional teen girl Bella. Oh, yeah? It seems emotions aren’t as apply-all though, because whereas he sees a character who nonconsensually films a female acquaintance as she undresses, pleasures himself, and distributes the footage to their entire school as protagonist material, I don’t. In an unfettered Chris Weisz film, a teen girl’s life being ruined by compromising images of her body and getting sent home from foreign exchange education through no fault of her own is the punchline, and the prom date-less culprit should be sympathized for.
Forgive me if I’m a bit concerned and upset that a male director can: publicly berate his previous employers and those he works with in a two-faced manner, whine about how “exhausting these big CGI films” are, and have a massively consequential bomb one moment and offered a massive franchise the next whilst Hardwicke fought tooth and nail from the very beginning, to not just make the movie happen but make it meaningful and with compassion on and off set. She got told: “girls don’t see movies”, that there would be at most, “400 girls in Salt Lake City blogging” about her film, and working in the interests of the buzzing fanbase of readers wouldn’t lead to ticket sales. CH strove to translate to film the feeling of a first love that feels like life or death, “an interesting impulse, this metaphor for adolescence and danger”, and succeeded on ¾ the budget. CW followed the easiest road possible with the books, hypersexualizing a 17-year-old brown actor (playing 16) with gratuitous shirtlessness and ogling of the camera. Morally fine with preserving and presenting a story in which Bella’s agency is nonexistent– where everyone but her decides her future and the fate of her body and soul, and it’s romantic, epic. (“Love interest” Jacob says “No, I won’t let you” when she shares her decision, the Cullens vote on Bella’s fate and Rosalie votes no because… she would have voted no if she had been able to choose? So defies Bella’s choice because… she was never given one? Huh?).
In a cruel way, it’s these low-expectations and misogyny that lead to the Twilight ‘08 as we know it seeing the light of day. Catherine Hardwicke states that had any studio known “Twilight” could be a billion-dollar action franchise, they wouldn’t have ever hired a female director. It tragically shows, as she was never got a movie deal, an “office at a studio”, but was turned down for action-packed scripts she showed interest in because they “need a man for that job”. Disgustingly, she was called “emotional”, “irrational”, and “difficult”, and had Hollywood say it was not her directing to admire for the film’s stylistic flair, but mostly the work of the director of photography and post-production editing.
It’s easy to get lost amidst the mountains of memes, and although the overall attitude of “don’t take things so seriously, but respect that I love garbage” is true, there is another key component of “Twilight”’s resurgence, of which I’ve been a happy participant since 2018. Accompanying this unapologetic enthusiasm to have fun after so many had become ashamed in their youth for ever doing so, is fueled by the critical looks at everything surrounding the “Twilight” period of pop culture. There is a revelation that so many people deserved better. The women and girls of the fanbase deserved better. Kristen Stewart always deserved better. The Quileute nation deserves justice, equity, and their land. But most of all, director Catherine Hartwicke deserves better, and knows it.
She is outspokenly fighting for this better future as she continues directing, and has collaborated with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and ACLU to investigate discrimination against women directors and hold accountability for diversity. All the while, she strives to be “all positive inspirational”.
It’s the Twilight Renaissance, babey.
It didn’t take long for me to realize how special watching Minari felt. I’m willing to admit that being in the grand vicinity of the Eccles Theatre during last year’s Sundance lended a fair amount of preciousness to the general experience, but I also know that to remove that experience is to in no way undo its impact. From the opening fade-in and very first note of Emile Mosseri’s heavenly score, writer/director Lee Issac Chung mines a story so personal and rooted from memory, yet provides so much empathy and universality on the other side of the coin that it almost feels as if his story could just as well be experienced by those who watch it. It also seemed to have not taken long for its role endowed by the media as “the film we need right now” to be firmly represented on the film’s own poster. And for certainly good reason.
Chung’s storytelling operates as an ocean of emotion. Its opening sequence sending echoes of the gentle sincerity of Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, but honing a craft that only could have stemmed from the most specific of recollections. With Minari, I could start from anywhere, whether it be the spellbinding acting work from everyone involved – particularly Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri as conflicting parents of a Korean-American family one decade into their emigration, or the warmly engaging atmosphere boosted by Emile Mosseri’s score, who after The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Kajillionaire, now establishes himself as one of our most essential modern film composers, or how Alan Kim is a bonafide star in the making. But with two of our drive-in screenings sold out (with tickets to an additional third still available!), I’m certain that audiences will be able to find for themselves what has made the film resonate this deeply since its Sundance premiere and subsequent winning of the Grand Jury Prize.
So instead I’ll cap off this post with a poem. Lately I’m finding myself more easily able to emulate how I process and respond to works that I know will stay with me. Minari presents itself as a film radiating with confidence, yet never willing to let it overshadow its understated approach, going as far as to let the physicality and actions of its performers speak more volumes than an abundance of dialogue ever could. Its muted approach often allowing emotion and expression to inform the growing distance between certain characters, and a tethering closeness between others. As a film about identity and cultural assimilation, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate occasion for it to arrive in the midst of. But it’s only a mere portion of what Chung provides to his script, allowing for the film to be, above all, one that transcends into the universal understanding of family dynamics, the tensions of environments strange and new, and how to move forward in that environment as a whole, rather than as one. It’s a film for everyone, and for anyone seeking something to offer a relieving sense of clarity, which can only come as much-needed these days. In the past year since watching it, certain images and moments continue to come back around to my brain. It’s around here where I’ll try and convey them as fluently as I can. In any case, if a film makes me compelled to write a poem, it’s normally one that I would recommend. So I hope you enjoy, and perhaps compelled to attend a drive-in.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
green green green
down low i see below
the mud that makes things grow
up up and away i look
clouds still and grey
i run through endless patches
the green ends and turns brown
i slide downwards through earth
into a realm of forestry
known by only me
secrets lie down below
the smell of streams and bark
hides the world i grow beneath
i kneel and wait for it to swell
there’s always time to grow
there’s always water running
sprouting to the core
in my head i ponder
will you still be around
when i am as old as you?
one day i’ll run the other direction
into territory untouched
i’ll grow more worlds than one
i’ll tend to their needs
i’ll embrace every fiber of them
give me time and give me years
and i will forget where i ran
but i will know where home is
it will move and it will stay still
today it will move with wind
In 1990, Madonna released “Vogue,” to massive popular acclaim. The same year, Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning greeted the world at LGBT film festivals in New York and San Francisco. While Madonna brought voguing to the forefront of popular (meaning “mainstream”) attention, Paris Is Burning presented a thoughtful exploration of 1980s New York’s ballroom scene and Black and Latinx gay and trans communities. Not only did the documentary address issues that affected black and brown LGBTQ people at large, it also amplified the voices of the individuals whose lives and deaths gave shape to LGBTQ+ history at large.
Today, Paris remains one of the most valuable and illuminating pieces of LGBTQ-focused media that exists. At a time when being gay or trans was still extremely taboo in the majority of American society, the very people who were facing this oppression spoke candidly of both their troubles and their aspirations. Voguing has been intermittent in popular fascination, but concern for LGBTQ+ issues is relatively novel. Paris was an opportunity for New York’s ballroom scene to define themselves, their culture, and their concerns on their own terms. Unlike the mainstream, voguing and drag was more than a fad; balls and Houses were modes of banding together against the violence and cruelty that the world harbored for Black, Latinx, gay, and trans people. (“[Gay people] just wanna be together… Just like a community.”)
It’s important to note that there has been progress in public regard for black and brown trans people in entertainment. In 2014, actor and activist Laverne Cox became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in any acting category, for her role in Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. In 2018, Pose premiered on FX, boasting the largest ever transgender cast for a scripted series. Heavily inspired by Paris, Pose follows a cast of Black and Latinx trans and gay characters in the ballroom community as they navigate life in 1980s-90s New York City, grappling with friendships, family, and the HIV/AIDS crisis. “I believe that there’s a big future out there,” said model and educator Octavia St. Lauren in Paris, “with a lot of beautiful things.” And Pose is beautiful, not only for its groundbreaking cast but also for the Black and gay/trans creatives behind the scenes. It’s hard not feel hopeful for progress when one sees the wealth of critical and popular acclaim the series has earned.
But progress is only a part of the picture. One young, gay, Black man in Paris recounts advice he received from his father: “If you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna have to be stronger than you ever imagined.” Unfortunately, the current state of the world renders this advice still necessary. Black and brown LGBTQ+ people, especially trans women and gender non-conforming individuals, are in particular danger of violence and death. CNN reported that at least 37 trans and gender non-conforming people have been killed in 2020 alone, a record high. According to the Human Rights Campaign, about 66% of these victims were Black trans women. Simply being aware has long since ceased to be enough. Not for the art and beauty the world has been given but for the unadorned fact that they are human beings, current and potential victims of racist and trans-/homophobic violence and cruelty must be actively supported. Paris Is Burning may be many people’s introduction to LGBTQ+ history, but it doesn’t need to stop there. See this article for a list of ways to donate and support Black trans lives.
I’m not gonna lie: after six years of doing something special at our home for cinema every February 21st, this past Sunday was a little rough. But while our doors may still be closed, this year’s birthday arrived with so much to celebrate and reflect on with deep gratitude — topped off by a truly wonderful couple of weeks. Starting with our Rocky Horror Picture Show drive-in screening on February 12th, programmer Trevor curated seven nights of outdoor cinema to ring in Year Eight with a bang — and among them, our 100th drive-in event! All but one of these events sold out, highlighted perhaps by his genius pairing of new cult-classics-to-be Willy’s Wonderland and Psycho Goreman, where he treated our audience to the surprise appearance of Willy’s Wonderland writer G.O. Parsons, director Kevin Lewis, and cinematographer David Newbert. On Saturday the 20th, while a sold out crowd enjoyed Frida audience-favorite Donnie Darko at the drive-in, The Disaster Artist author Greg Sestero joined me for a live viewing of 2003’s The Room, which was accompanied by a lively live-chat by over 100 audience members with a truly impressive variety of burning questions (all of which you can still rent and experience now through Sunday, February 28th!). Exactly one year ago today, neither our drive-ins nor our live-stream would have even been possible.
Your support continues to open doors to new possibilities — and particularly during times like these, such possibilities can truly be magical. We invite you to share in our celebration of our 7th anniversary, and reflect on a year brimming with bittersweet victories, incredibly generous host venues, wonderful new community and industry partners, unforgettable nights at the drive-in, and a community whose support of our programming continued beyond the theater to the drive-in and home cinema. Because of you, we are able to ring in Year Eight with two of the greatest gifts we can hope for — a profound sense of accomplishment, and a sense of tremendous hope for the coming year.
“I was not alone when I was in Goofy hell.”
It has now been twenty minutes since I sat down on my desk to write. What I plan on writing, I’m still relatively unsure. I know there’s an idea residing just beneath the crevices of my subconscious. I navigate back and forth between ambition and writer’s block, unable to keep still; not unlike a particular stop-motion monkey high off the energy of certain sexual hormones. You see, whatever abstraction lies within my head is practically begging to be unleashed, but what will come of it? What will hath God wrought, these images? They come in bursts, like a cluster of icepicks to the brain. SNL alum Chris Kattan as an acrobatic corpse. Whoopi Goldberg as the very personification of Death. Giancarlo Esposito with goat legs. And finally, Brendan Fraser literally deflating on a hospital bed before our very eyes. It has now been twenty years since these images have come about my head in the most uncalled-for of ways. Whether I’m at work, doing laundry, or trying to reconnect with family. It is the burden, or perhaps complicated blessing, I have with Henry Selick’s 2001 mystery of a film–Monkeybone.
So we have a paragraph. Where do we go from here? Perhaps I may trace things back a little in this case. The films of my youth always lend themselves back to the work of Henry Selick – perhaps my very favorite director of animation working in the US. For me, it’s the bounty of little riches to find and feel in Selick’s work. The beautifully fluid camera movements in The Nightmare Before Christmas, or the warbled audio of Randy Newman’s score on my VHS copy of James and the Giant Peach, which perhaps was only due to my overusing of the tape. From his early MTV shorts to the recently uncovered footage of his 2011 Disney project, The Shadow King (whose production was tragically and infuriatingly cut short by the company), it’s the kind of work that feels specifically rooted in the hazy fantasy of 90’s animation. Nostalgia always feels inherent with Selick’s work, even with 2009’s Coraline.
So perhaps it’s appropriate to carry this over to my personal history with Monkeybone. Being four going on five, I was most prone to being kept at bay whenever I wasn’t in preschool by having a parent insert a DVD at random in our brand-spanking-new DVD player. And with formative memory just barely operating inside of my tiny head, the trailer for Monkeybone played like the kind of dream state you’re in when you have to wake up early but you haven’t drank coffee or showered yet. I barely knew anything about anything, but I knew what I felt was disbelief. Drawing back to this memory makes me remember that it may not have necessarily been The Nightmare Before Christmas – a film I watched obsessively as a kid, that informed my preference for stop-motion animation, but rather the trailer for an early 2000’s 20th Century Fox comedy that would turn out to be one that closes out with a rap-rock track. And so it goes.
Based on the graphic novel Dark Town by Kaja Blackley, Monkeybone is the horny odyssey of a cartoonist named Stu Miley – personified by Mr. Brendan Fraser. He has just premiered an episode of an animated series featuring his beloved original character, the titular Monkeybone. As he approves merchandise deal after merchandise deal, there’s a reservedness to Stu in regards to the exploitation of his creation. He can only voice this to his partner Julie, played by Bridget Fonda, who had helped him channel the imagery of his nightmares into canvases by changing his drawing hand. As Stu is on the verge of proposing to her, consumerism quite literally suffocates the couple, in the form of a giant inflatable Monkeybone setting off in their car and forcing them to back their way into an accident that renders Stu comatose. It’s here where Selick’s visual pastiche begins to surface. As Stu is put into a coma, he literally sinks below the ground and into some other realm of being, propelling downwards into Down Town, a vision of purgatory with the look and feel of an episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog. It’s a wondrous creation; a mishmash of stop-motion critters and hideously elaborate physical costumes, with a mere sprinkle of dated CGI. Down Town is occupied by the creations of those who end up there, which is revealed by the appearance of Monkeybone; the rapscallion himself, voiced by a helium-inhaling John Turturro.
At this point, it may be difficult to ponder how Selick, who at the time was nothing but celebrated for his first two features, would wind up with a project seemingly gone awry, especially with such a distinctive set-up. Because by here, we’re witnessing filmmaking that is, more-or-less, exactly akin to what Ray Harryhausen was doing in the 1950’s. The conglomeration of live-action and stop-motion-animated subjects; both technically physical entities, sharing the same space and screen, immediately recalls Harryhausen’s groundbreaking Dynamation technique that’s most prominent in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. There’s clearly care and fascination in these images and creations, even if what it’s revealed to amount to is the story of an immensely gifted artist gradually losing control of his own creation. Does this regard the story of the film or Selick’s removal from the film itself? Why not both?
What’s most frustrating here is that you can’t jot down the exact moment watching the film when his firing becomes clear. For the whole duration, Monkeybone is a movie seemingly at internal war with itself. For every ball-dropping “humorous” moment of dated raunch and masturbation innuendo, there are sequences that channel something inspired. These sequences are often carried out by the implementing of “Oneirix”, a chemical substance that gives violently nightmarish hallucinations to whichever creature it comes in contact with, even dogs. These sequences make the film responsible for its resemblance of a Farrelly brothers x Lynchian fever dream caught on early-aughts celluloid. It technically wouldn’t surprise me if people, besides myself, were reminded by the visuals in season 3 of Twin Peaks; desaturated, warped 50’s-kitsch textures somehow illuminated by said dated CGI. Time has only made Monkeybone more of a standout of its corresponding decade of release, which ends up causing me more pain to say that the movie is technically not good.
It is a confounding, frustrating, mostly cringeworthy affair. It reeks of interference from studio executives and unconfident producers who found it easier to remove its risk-taking creator from the equation, rather than let him see it through without compromise. At this point, it’s redundant to say that the film really only works when Selick is clearly behind-the-camera, yet it’s ironic how the story of his firing is equally, and unfortunately, as redundant. It’s very easy to jot down the various studio releases from that decade in which its production is just as fascinating as the product itself, but one can’t help but shift gears when the case regards Monkeybone. Because what we see on screen is something so unlike its contemporaries that it does nothing but ache when I think about what could have been if Selick was allowed to do his job. Many may consider how easier it seems nowadays to get the more “out-there” film concepts realized to their potential, whether it be crowdfunding or streaming deals, but the system does nothing but acclimate, and to draw it back to Monkeybone, that system is not unlike what we see through the commodification of Stu’s creation, but also the channeling of nightmares into product.
I won’t unravel the entirety of the story, for the sake of the morbidly curious, but through a vast series of events, Stu awakes in an altered state of mind, grows a soul-patch, and is immediately eager to further extend the branding of his art. As he meets with rows of executives, we almost forget that Stu creating Monkeybone was only founded on his ability to channel his fears (and to an extent, his fetishes) into his art. And over time, it’s mirrored in Down Town, where nightmares are revealed to be as much of a commodity and resource. Not unlike Monsters, Inc! But there’s not much beyond there to give it thought after watching. What you do get consistently, however, is a film gone Monkey Mode. A 100%-committed Brendan Fraser eventually shakes his ass and sings Brick House to a full house. A cat-like Rose McGowan murders a humanoid mouse. Stephen King is trapped in a limbo prison. The film is chockfull of appearances, some welcome (Chris Kattan and Bob Odenkirk in a wonderful subplot) and not-so (Harry Knowles…if you know, you know), and is just as bountiful with such a fascinatingly 2001 energy, regardless of its troubled lifespan. So if you have any recollection of that period, then you may just owe it to yourself. Bear witness to the nightmare juice.
“[…] but I think I’m trying to mess with the ideas of “What is radical?” And money to me is always a good…a very familiar colloquial holder of feelings, like shame, and anxiety, aspiration. Every family loads up money with all this stuff, and they do it in this particular and extreme way. But I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have weird issues around money from their family, you know?”
— Miranda July, interview with RogerEbert.com, 2020
With all the radiance of a California sun, the splendiferous treasures held within Miranda July’s latest feature film Kajillionaire, flare and rage against the menacing infinity of our observable universe. Terrestrial anxieties are captured with wondrous imagination and equally infinite compassion, daring to defy the fatalist trap of predeterministic thought that July’s characters find themselves colliding with during a particularly quakey spring in Los Angeles.
July’s camera lands on the Dyne Family: Robert, Theresa, and their only daughter Old Dolio. A three-piece of small time con artists that perform elaborate schemes just to remain only three months behind on rent rather than four. Robert Dyne tries to reason with their landlord, “We may need to pay in installments.”. “Rent is installments.”, he is reminded. In a film so conspicuous with its ideas about class, Kajillionaire also functions as a tender coming of age story for an era marked by distracting misinformation and untruths by the powers that be. Where the suffocating umbilical cord of overwhelming family ties is rightfully questioned, and eventually confronted for the sake of personal liberation.
With the energy and plotting of a heist movie, Kajillionaire is a story about intentions becoming actions, and how the persistent unpredictability of reality can interrupt these actions. For Old Dolio, that reality is revealed in magical ways that unlock her sense of self, but in turn distance herself from her parents. The plot mirrors the fallacy of the American Dream – an endless parade of laborious efforts for the mere promise of something greater. The Dynes will attempt grift after grift, scraping dollar after dollar, and wait out The Big Score. A job so big that they’ll finally be caught up on their debts, and maybe have some leftover. This is not to say the film is an expose of economic institutions — far from it. July instead focuses her story on the interior life of Old Dolio, brilliantly understanding that the first casualty of poverty is childhood innocence. This idea underscored with each utterance of Old Dolio’s name – the origin of which must be seen to be believed.
Not unlike Miami-born director Kelly Reichardt, Miranda July is also drawn to the emotional stasis endemic to the working class routine. How living paycheck to paycheck allows little time for things like culture, openness, or feelings. Evan Rachel Wood’s performance of Old Dolio as she wrestles with her newly discovered agency is as poignant as it is effervescent. Grunts and groans become syllabic truths, revealing more than words ever could. Certain filmmaking circles will tell you that it’s always better to show an audience something in a film, than to tell it to them with dialogue – always. In considering characters like the Dynes however, to simply articulate a feeling (except when in character for a con) is a task nothing short of miraculous.
Though painted with chewy, pop colors, Kajillionaire avoids infantilizing Old Dolio’s journey for an identity beyond fight or flight. July’s images for most of the film are staid and conventional, but intoxicating during the briefest moments of ecstatic movement. Saccharine lessons about self-acceptance and interpersonal relationships appear radical when contrasted with the stunted worldview of Old Dolio’s parents, and doubly so when compared to the entropic mandates of the planet itself; the inevitability of solar destruction, of earthquakes.
For all its celestial grandeur, Kajillionaire is a film that values the tiniest, most abstract pleasures. The jewels of Life that bridge our waking moments like monthly installments. In Miranda July’s cinema, simply being able to wonder is priceless.
Harold has committed fifteen suicides. He tells his psychiatrist that it’s at least a rough estimate. While these suicides are staged, he was nonetheless forced into an office by his mother, who has gradually progressed from no longer wanting to bear them, to what is now a hefty passiveness. The psychiatrist asks him to try and find a solution, and whether he does anything to relieve himself of this presumed dread. Harold – proper in his wording, simply says that to do just that, he goes to funerals. One of these is where he will meet Maude. She is almost seventy years older than him. By the time this story ends, one of the most memorable, beautifully bittersweet screen romances will have blossomed. And this year will be the fiftieth in which it has continued to thrive.
It’s difficult to truly put into words the weight of Hal Ashby’s classic; arguably the finest that gallows humor has ever been in 20th century media (and certainly an all-timer in cinema’s great middle finger moments). I’ve spent two Valentine’s Days seeing it alone at the Frida, but that loneliness couldn’t possibly be felt under the warmth provided by Cat Stevens’ sunny, acoustic melodies and the gradual surfacing from the utter blackness enveloping Harold – boldly performed in every facet by Bud Cort; all with the hand of his beloved Maude – personified with the natural grace of Ruth Gordon, clearing 100% away from the Satanic psychodrama of Rosemary’s Baby just three years prior, and into somewhere far more empathetic. Ashby’s film is one that has absorbed itself in me over time. I knew it was love at first sight, but having my viewings of it come at a time where I was beginning to understand my own shortcomings in wanting to live, and how to fix that, cemented a place for it inside my own self. With heavy inspiration taken from the wonderful poem very recently written about Argento’s Suspiria by our own Sean Woodard, I feel that the best way for me to properly go about what this film means to me is to take it to the stanzas. I hope there’s something in these lines that help others convey their own feelings on the film. And if the feelings aren’t ones you have, then perhaps a trip to Tustin’s
Mess Hall Market to catch a drive-in screening of the film on Sunday, February 14th (yes, Valentine’s Day!) will take you on the road to find out yourself. And now, a little something.
the one i cry for
is the one who has drifted
a ghost rendered yellow
plucked from the jaws of life
granted a bounty of air
and still upwards
i hear your sadness out there
i hear the sky moan
passing through cemeteries
and hospital corridors
i hold myself out
and i only wait
for air to swallow me
i find myself collapsing
beyond the veins of earth
and worms and rot
it is air pulling me down
what i want to pull me down
the direction i choose
i feel its end
i feel the car crashing
my bones colliding with metal
descending into bits and pieces
percolating through the ground
becoming scattered and seed-like
and then we breathe
leaves grow and bind
green and young
we rise as we connect
we reach air
protruding through soil
becoming a multitude of suns
pricked and together
you’re still not here
yet you’re why i am
your words travel through my ears
ringing like chimes of gold
to be still is to let yourself float
through air and endless seas
to float is all we have to do
For 45 years and counting, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has existed as a load-bearing cultural object of fringe, arthouse weirdness just outside of the mainstream.
The Frida Cinema is honored to bring this film to our drive-in audiences, and to continue participating in the long held Rocky Horror tradition of arthouses everywhere.
Did you miss out on the SOLD OUT event this Friday, February 12th? No worries, it’ll be back in March!
Describe The Rocky Horror Picture Show to someone who’s never seen it, in two words.
- Logan Crow (Founder, Frida Cinema): absolute pleasure.
- Anthony McKelroy: Susan Sarandon.
- Isa Bulnes-Shaw: Pulp-tastic fun!
When did you lose your Rocky Horror virginity?
- Logan C.: 1991 (I’m old.)
- Anthony M.: September 1st, 2013 according to my notes app. I would have been 18.
- Isa B.: I attended the Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights Rocky Horror Picture Tribute Show when I was around twelve before I watched the movie. I thought it was going to be something scary, but wasn’t too taken aback because I’d heard some of the music before. But it was funny to have Magenta greet the crowd saying “put on your party hats!” and then hold out a condom.
Which theater did you attend your first live cast performance of the film? How was it?
- Logan C.: The South Bay Galleria in Redondo Beach, CA! Good times…it was an absolute blast, and my first real opportunity to surround myself with a community of like-minded bohemian souls, if only for a few hours per week.
- Anthony M.: My first live cast was at the Phoenix 15 Cinemas in Corona – this was when it was still called the Phoenix 15. It used to be at the Dos Lagos shopping pavilion, but has since been converted into a Starlight Luxury Cinema. I had no idea what to expect, no knowledge of the historic traditions of the live cast screenings – I loved it. It was truly discombobulating to walk to be bossed around by the actors onstage, and to try to follow the plot of the film while people are shouting lengthy dialogue of their own. It was a new energy I’ve yet to feel replicated by any film in a theater…
- Isa B.: I actually don’t remember! Somewhere in LA or Orange County. This was before The Frida Cinema’s showings were around, so I just Googled where the next one would be. It was… bad. It was a special outing with my friends, but we were all minors in high school still and none of us could drive, so we had to go with my dad and another person’s parent. I’d watched the movie with my dad before, but the nature of the midnight screenings was more aggressively sexual than either the film or the Universal Tribute show combined. It felt vulgar and gross rather than carefree, and the staple call-out lines are still something I don’t always like very much or think are funny. But I still loved the music, so it was fun to dance during those moments in the aisles.
What’s the best song from the film?
- Logan C.: “Science Fiction Double Feature” — always a thrill to hear so many classic genre films name-dropped!
- Anthony M.: Can I say “Science Fiction Double Feature”? It’s popular for a reason.
- Isa B.: They all genuinely shred, but Hot Patootie is one of my favorites. I also like Rose Tint My World because one of the most fun things is singing in the voice of the characters, and this number has the whole cast from Columbia’s nasal whine to Rocky’s Elvis-y deal.
Who has the best outfit in Rocky Horror? (picture links appreciated, but not required if its an easy outfit to identify)
- Logan C.: Columbia! That hat! That bowtie!
- Anthony M.: Frank-N-Furter has the market cornered on good outfits. But their sequined dinner shirt is clearly the best.
- Isa B.: Frank-N-Furter’s dinner party outfit (with or without the party hat) is severely underrated. The bodysuit is beaded and sparkly, with these cute little toe-showing boots. It’s sexy yet elegant, and gender-defying.
Pitch your idea for a Rocky Horror sequel/prequel film
- Logan C: I’d love to follow Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s years through med school. What did his dorm room look like? Who did he have lunch with?
- Anthony M.: The sequel: Frank-N-Furter returns to Transsexual, Transylvania and attempts to cultivate the same community there as he did on Earth – but it doesn’t work. Their parties aren’t the same as they were on Earth, it’s missing something. The film would be a really introspective study on alienation and not a musical. My version would be directed by Gus Van Sant.
- Isa B.: I want to see Eddie and Frank-N-Furter’s fling before they broke up. Maybe an alternate universe where Magenta and Riff-Raff don’t turn on Frank, and some of Brad and Janet’s loved ones come looking for them after they went missing. Worlds collide again, and now Brad and Janet help bring more people over to the Transylvania way.
What kind of car would Dr. Frank-N-Furter drive if he went to a drive-in?
- Logan C.: 1963 Jaguar E-Type SI – OTS. Sexy as hell, and appropriately phallic.
- Anthony M.: Frank-N-Furter would be driven to the drive-in by Rocky, but both are wearing chauffeur’s hats. They’d arrive in a convertible hearse, with a portable TV to watch in case the movie gets boring.
- Isa B.: Something long and sparkly.
“Damnit…” (fill in the blank with anything except Janet)
- Logan C.: 2020
- Anthony M.: irreversible human damage to this planet!
- Isa B.: Hamlet!
Who would you cast as Frank-N-Furter in a stage revival of the show?
- Logan C.: Lee Pace
- Anthony M.: Mya Taylor. And if she isn’t available then Janelle Monae, I guess.
- Isa B.: I’d want to see an open call for LGBTQ+ performers, but if I had to pick…Michael Sheen as Frank-N-Furter? He looks so good in a dress, stockings, and heels. He has the range, darling.
Riff Raff or Magenta?
- Logan C.: Magenta.
- Anthony M.: Riff Raff. Because I slouch a lot.
- Isa B.: Riff Raff whomst?
What film would you pair with Rocky Horror to make the perfect late-night, double-feature, picture show?
- Logan C.: Phantom Of The Paradise (1974)
- Anthony M.: Spice World: The Movie (1997)
- Isa B.: Another cheesy, iconic musical– maybe Flash Gordon (1980)!
“Suspiria is my baby” is a phrase that identifies me at The Frida Cinema. I could wax poetically* all day about Dario Argento’s 1977 supernatural horror film**. It was the subject of my Masters thesis. But rather than write another analytical piece about it, I’m in the mood for some fun. And since I’m taking a graduate poetry class, here’s a list poem to show why Suspiria surely is my baby:
Ooh, pretty colors!
Goblin’s bitchin’ prog-rock score
Major crushing on Jessica Harper***
So many fairy tale references****
A Strong Heroine
Written by a Woman*****
Laughably poor dubbing
Did I mention the pretty colors?
All of them witches
Eastman Color & 3-Strip Technicolor******
Jarring camera angles
Random reference to The Exorcist
Over-the-top murder set pieces
Florescent fake blood
All the wine
Baby-faced Udo Kier*******
The most fake bat ever
Wire that looks like a twisted Slinky
Random cigarette smoking
PS Suspiria is my baby.
*No, it is not an Italian giallo film. Fight me! (Actually, don’t . . . that might hurt. A lot.)
**Gotta love the ironic pun of me writing a poem after speaking about waxing poetically about Suspiria.
***Sorry, Saoirse Ronan, you’re still my main bae. I love you.
****My Masters thesis examined the intertextual references Suspiria makes to Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis and classic fairy tales, including Hansel & Gretel, Snow White, and Bluebeard. (Wait, nobody cares. Getting off my soap box now.)
*****RIP Daria Nicolodi (June 19, 1950 – November 26, 2020)
****** Even more gushing over pretty colors.
*******But they don’t use his actual voice in the dubbing. Sad face.
Richard Kelly’s New Millennium Psychological Thriller Donnie Darko (2001) celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. We sat down with film and television actress Jolene Purdy about her iconic performance as Cherita Chen, and the enduring appeal of this daring film.
Frida Cinema: Jolene, thank you for doing this. Having a background in musical theater, Donnie Darko marked your first appearance on camera. Since then you’ve amassed an impressive resume of character roles in multi-camera and single camera television. Take us back to the year 2000 and your audition for this film.
Jolene Purdy: I was an undisclosed age when I auditioned. [laughs] I was like two but I looked old for my age. It was funny because we were all in the same “class” right? But the entire cast were insanely different ages. Like, Jake was twenty, twenty one. Joanie, she was like 4 years younger than me. I was closest to Jena Malone’s age.
F.C.: And closer to your character’s age too…
J.P. Yeah. Which, the characters I play today are vastly different ages than what I am.
F.C.: Is that true for Wandavision? Does your character even age in that?
J.P: I don’t know. I don’t know what I am. I can’t say anything about Wandavision. So many NDA’s have been signed.
F.C: How did the role of Cherita Chen find you?
J.P: I stumbled into it, honestly. I grew up doing musical theater and I wanted to be represented by this musical theater agent that I took a workshop with. I asked her to represent me and she said “Uh no. You’re like a weird ethnicity, and you’re overweight. There’s no way I’m gonna be able to find you work.”
F.C: She told you that?
J.P: Oh yeah. And then a year later, my friend’s mom was helping, like as an assistant to that woman. Then I learned she had sent me out for Donnie Darko. So she called me, the agent, and said “hey so we submitted you for this thing. You can use our name and go in on it,” blah-blah-blah. And so I like, I was doing musical theater in high school at the time. So I sent in my high school photo as a headshot and got an audition. So maybe that got me the job because they were like “Wow she’s so authentic”.
F.C: What did you know about this role before you read the script, and how did that change as you read the material?
J.P: My character didn’t have a lot of material. It’s the same phrase repeated. What I did know was that she was bullied. She wore ear muffs to drown out the bullying, so I got this vulnerability of what it was like to be bullied. And growing up, I very much had those experiences to draw from.
F.C: What was the casting search for Cherita Chen like? Were you being considered alongside lots of other actors?
J.P: I think it was pretty extensive. I mean, Donnie Darko was one of the first indie films that became a festival darling, at the beginning of that era where that was a thing. So not a lot of high profile actors were doing these small films like they are today. I mean, they looked everywhere.
F.C: How many shooting days were you scheduled for?
J.P: I think it was 10 days over a two week period. They were shooting fast. So 9 days, but I ended up doing 10.
F.C: This is your first, and to date, only film appearance. It must be difficult to form an opinion on something you did once when you were a teenager, but do you find you prefer one medium or the other? Film or television?
J.P: I love television. It’s my jam. Every week you get a new script and get to grow the character. The writers are creating the story, so as an actor you go through the journey without knowing the ending, the same way the character does. With a film you know beginning, middle, and end. And you design the performance to fit. But on TV, you can’t know what’s happening in two weeks and tweak your performance to compensate. The writer’s know. We’re just their puppets. I just really enjoy tv. Multi Camera. Comedies.
F.C: Tell me about “chut up”. Was that line written on the page like that?
J.P: Yeah. it was written “chut up” with a “c”. So, she had a speech impediment. When I spoke with Richard Kelly about what that was, he told me it was based on a girl he went to school with who was bullied for her speech impediment. And it wasn’t clear which ethnicity she was, if that had anything to do with it.
F.C: When you design a character like Cherita Chen who has so few lines, how do you differentiate between each line reading? Mentally, how were you attempting to differentiate each performance?
J.P: Mentally I was going through a breakdown being that close to Jake Gyllenhaal [laughs]. Cause in the script it was like “he pulls her face up to his” and I was like, “nonononnononono”. This was the second day of shooting–
F.C: The scene where he tells you things are going to get better.
J.P: Yes the second day. And I was underage at the time, so my mom had to be on set. I told her “Uh, I think this is when I quit. I think I’m done, mom.” And she goes, “Cool. You signed a contract, so when you finish this you can be done. But right now you kinda just gotta like…you gotta just do it.”
F.C: Good advice that worked out.
J.P: Jake was just so kind and gentle. And just caring and supportive. And everyone knew I was nervous. Of course I couldn’t hide that. But everyone knew it was my first camera audition for anything, so they were all kind…Going back to your question about how to say the same thing but have a different emotion every time. For Cherita, she didn’t have a way to communicate. She had this speech impediment she was terrified about, so this was the phrase that she knew would help with that fear. So as they’re bullying her, she’s saying “chut up” to get them to stop because she’s protective of herself. But with [Donnie], she’s saying “chut up”, but it’s more along the lines of “I can’t hear this anymore”.
F.C: There’s a montage of all of the characters in bed, some are waking up from a bad dream. Cherita seems to be laying down with a book, waiting to fall asleep. What do you remember Richard Kelly telling you about that scene?
J.P: I feel like the book was “So You’re Going Through Puberty”. Or something like that. It had to have been in the script. Richard’s thing was, and I’m totally paraphrasing, he said “You’re at peace knowing that Donnie has fulfilled his destiny, and in fulfilling his destiny he has saved other people”. That’s just what I remember.
F.C: Who did the choreography for your Sparkle Motion dance?
J.P: Marguerite Derricks. She’s actually a huge choreographer. Everyone has worked with her. I was kind of like, “I hope she knows she’s not working with a dancer”. Some of the other kids were dancers who could pick it up quicker. But I remember her being surprised like “Oh, oh. You got it. Oh you can, you got it”. It was fun. It was shot in this auditorium and I think when I shot there was no audience.
F.C: Was that easier?
J.P: No, I think it would have been easier with people there because I come from stage. But I think it was fine. Richard said “You’re trying to win them over. This dance is supposed to win them over. You think this dance is the thing to make them go *gasp* we were wrong about her”.
F.C: Tell me about your first time watching the film all the way through.
J.P: It’s funny. When I’m acting it, when I’m being bullied, or I’m crying, or I’m doing a dance, I am the character. I was so into it that when I went to go see the movie as Jolene, and everyone was laughing at my scenes, I had to go “wait, this is kinda funny”.
F.C: It never felt like a comedy on set.
F.C: What were your conversations with Richard about this character? Did he clue you in to how Cherita fit into this broader sci-fi narrative?
J.P: So, Richard Kelly shopped this around all over for years. He wanted to direct it. He didn’t want any big studio to water it down or turn it into a blockbuster. He wanted the message, his message, to be clear. He fought for me to stay in it, because the studio wanted to cut my character because it was so long.
F.C: Cut you out entirely?
J.P: Entirely. And he fought to keep me in. which I’m so grateful for. He told me “you’re integral to this. And I don’t care if people don’t understand it. You’re an integral part of this
F.C: How much did you and cast interact during downtime?
J.P: Sparkle Motion was sparkle-motioning in downtime. So I just watched them. And I wasn’t old enough to be engaged with like Seth Rogen and Jake. So I was with the kids mostly.
F.C: Cherita doesn’t seem to fit in with her fellow students, but she also doesn’t seem to identify with the adults and faculty either. When or where is Cherita most comfortable?
J.P: At home in bed, reading. That last shot. Unlike most kids in high school that aren’t comfortable sitting in themselves because they don’t know who they are and they don’t like who they think they might be, I think Cherita was very comfortable with who she was. She was just less comfortable and felt unsafe in the world which was so unlike her.
F.C: Any fond memories on set with Drew Barrymore?
J.P: There was a scene that I had with Drew where I’m eating oranges. Time was running low and since I was a kid I could only shoot for so long. They were like “oh we may need to cut this” and Drew goes “no no, we’ll move my thing, I want HER to be in this. I want her to be my eyeline for this.” She was adamant about me being there for her coverage.
F.C: Coverage you’re offscreen for.
J.P: Yeah. So she’s over there acting and I think “what am I going to do?” So I’m like, literally just eating oranges in that scene.
F.C: Fear and love is a major topic in the film. What did you think about the Fear and Love videos that were in the film? What did Cherita think?
J.P: I thought it was hilarious. I thought the videos were so funny. “Im not afraid anymore!” I mean that’s funny. But, as my character, I think she was taking it in very seriously. She was learning things. Like, yes I have a lot of fear, but I want to act out of love, so how do I? Y’know. It’s school, so she’s following the protocol and the rules, the program. She’s learning, she’s not judging it at all. I was [judging], because I thought it was funny. But she wasn’t.
F.C: It looks like it was fun to shoot.
J.P: So fun. I remember them saying “Wait till you see this, this is hilarious”
F.C: How often do you get recognized for this movie?
J.P: I remember when I first started getting recognized for Donnie Darko. I was at a diner, maybe eighteen at the time. And there was this adult couple, and they were looking over at me, looking over at me. They were like rocker kinda people and, I’m musical theater [laughs]. But I have an edge. And so, I was telling my friend with me “what are they looking at”. So I just look over at them and I’m like [makes face] “What are you looking at? What?” So the girl comes over and she’s like “Were you in Donnie Darko” and I started laughing and I go “Oh yeah. I thought I did something and you were mad at me.” She’s like “No I just couldn’t tell that was you. That was so cool.” And I was like “Oh, so that happens.” It still happens all the time.
F.C: In addition to an impressive supporting cast of film actors, Donnie Darko features a standout performance from the late Patrick Swayze as motivational speaker and pedophile, Jim Cunningham.
J.P: On set, you get a call sheet everyday, right. With your sides on it. My mom looks at the call sheet and goes “P. Swayze. Hm…if that’s Patrick swayze I’m gonna die.” Cut to, we open the trailer door and he’s walking by. And she goes “I think I’m gonna watch today”. We watched Dirty Dancing growing up, so for her it was a big *gasp* moment.
F.C: Did she get to meet him?
J.P: No, he just came in, did his thing. very nice. I got to see him dance, that was fun.
F.C: On set?
J.P: Yeah so when he’s doing his speech thing the stage he was on was shiny black, and he had to wear medical booties on his shoes – this was before covid. So it’s kinda slick. So he’s sliding around, doing pirouettes and I was like “this is amazing”
F.C: Did you ever get to talk to him about acting?
J.P: No. He kinda kept to himself. I think things are different now with how communal actors are. But then, most actors just went, did their thing and went to their trailers.
F.C: He probably was in a weird headspace considering his character.
J.P: Right. He did not want to do jazz hands with Sparkle Motion if he’s playing a pedophile. So he stayed away from us kids [laughs].
F.C: This film premieres at the dawn of a new Millennium and almost immediately finds a cult audience. Twenty years later that cult following is beginning to crystallize into a fixture of mainstream culture. What do you hope people take away from this movie, twenty years on?
J.P: I feel a bit disheartened by social media and how this generation has taken to instant gratification and popularity of things without substance behind it. I think this film has substance and is enduring. And I just hope that future generations are as focused on having substantial messages as they do lots of likes…oh, that was mean [laughs]. But just the underlying message of when you’re watching someone else be bullied, you yourself are too scared. You’re living in fear. And it doesn’t allow you to love that person. So that’s the fear and love. It’s scary to love people. It’s sacrificing yourself…The coolest thing was the last day when I wrapped. Jake came to me and said “You have to think about the message that you just created. It’s so much more than a movie. There’s gonna be a kid that’s sitting there and they’re gonna identify with your character and feel seen and feel represented by you. And not feel so alone because they see it happens to other people. But even more so there could be a bully that hasn’t even fathomed the repercussions of their actions. And maybe it might make them question the next time they bully someone. So your reach has so much more than a credit. And of course it was Jake who’s so wonderful and nice. He said it way more eloquent than what I just said.
Donnie Darko plays Saturday, February 20th at 7:30pm at The Frida Cinema Pop-Up Drive-In.
“‘Operator, I’d like to call America…Yes, A-mer-i-ca!’”
- Ho (Wei Ping-ao), The Way Of The Dragon (1972)
This Friday, January, 29th, in collaboration with Ghost Party, The Frida Cinema will be celebrating the Life of Bruce Lee with a Fiftieth Anniversary double-feature of two of his finest screen performances: Fists Of Fury (1971), and Bruce’s directorial debut The Way Of The Dragon (1972).
Much has already been said and speculated about the legacy of Bruce Lee; the extent to which his abilities were exaggerated or not; doubts of his cinematic contributions; the running tab of aggressive interactions with strangers. True, that the supra level of fame in which Bruce Lee occupies makes his celebrity worthy of discussion. It merely becomes impossible, then, to escape these sensational details in order to discuss the true merits of Lee as a filmmaker, who debuts in the early seventies alongside a superlative roster of directors that would go on to become cultural fixtures in their own right: John Waters, Gordon Parks Jr., Sidney Poitier, Wes Craven, Chantal Akerman.
Born Lee Jun-fan in 1940, the year of the Dragon, Lee entered the Earth an American by way of San Francisco. Lee’s parents were on tour with a traveling stage act in the United States when Lee’s mother went into labor. They named him “Lee Jun-fan”, a name translating homophonically in English to “return again”. A prophecy of Lee’s eventual return to the United States after his birth, but also a koan demonstrating the discipline of repetition. Nowhere is this discipline more on display than in The Way Of The Dragon, Bruce’s first directorial effort.
After the success of his first two films with Golden Harvest Productions in Hong Kong, Bruce Lee negotiated a new deal to write and direct a third film for the studio. With an increased budget and new creative life, Bruce exercised all his creative muscles to flex out a didactic film that is somehow expressive, exhilarating, and irresistibly charming all at once. Though one of the tenets of Lee’s martial art Jeet Kune Do argues for a degree of minimalism in its application, the cinema of Bruce Lee, including and especially The Way Of The Dragon, are remembered for their thrilling, over-the-top depictions.
Consider an early scene where Bruce Lee’s character Tang Lung eats lunch. It’s a comedic ordeal of montage-like cuts and snap-zooms that communicate hunger, sure. But it also shows an amateur filmmaker wrestling with a scene that has no observable action. In interviews, Lee has expressed his high regard for the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, and in some scenes this influence is abundantly clear. In other scenes, such as the lunch scene, the operatic atmosphere that Lee attempts feels tonally at odds with the Chaplin-esque material.
As the film progresses however, Lee’s kinetic camerawork will finally compliment the dynamic fight choreography he has plotted in this story of intersecting cultures and fighting styles in Rome, Italy. Threatened by a group of thinly characterized international thugs, Bruce Lee stages his fight scenes as competitions of spirit and style – the film essentially existing as a proof of concept for Gung-fu martial arts. That Bruce Lee’s character Tang encounters a variety of opponents is no accident. Lee wanted to position the rigidity of his opponents fighting style as their weakness, and the fluidity of Tang’s style as a superior trait – I’ll let you guess who wins every fight. Lee would revisit the drama of competing styles in Enter The Dragon (1973), and his unfinished Game Of Death screenplay where the main character fights a pagoda of enemies with increasingly deadly combat styles.
With the simple tracking moves and tableaux-like compositions of The Way Of The Dragon, Bruce Lee captures baroque images of ferocity and spirituality that cement him as a visionary filmmaker. The journey of this confidence is observable in the extant ~30 minutes of footage that Bruce shot for Game Of Death, whereby the same kinetic techniques we see in The Way Of The Dragon are deployed with more overlap with narrative and character development. If given a longer life, Bruce Lee may have developed an even more sophisticated cinematic palette, but would no doubt retain the core philosophical values on display in both films on this billing – the righteousness, the anger. An anger explored to a more explicit degree in Fists Of Fury (1971), where Bruce Lee’s character Chen Zhen confronts a rival Japanese dojo during the Occupation of Shanghai in the early 20th Century.
A case can be made on behalf of directors Lo Wei (The Big Boss (1972), Fists Of Fury (1971)) and Robert Clouse (Enter The Dragon (1973)) that their positions as director should receive a greater level of credit for the final product than the star actor. Author Laurence F. Knapp describes this relationship between film auteurs and film stars in his comprehensive analysis of the films of Clint Eastwood, but it feels crucially relevant when parsing the legacy of Bruce Lee.
Knapp refers to Eastwood as a “starteur” (star + auteur), a phenomenon of homogenized film production that obfuscates the individualism inherent to all art:
“Starteurs have a self-reflective relationship to their work; their films are an extended dialogue with their screen personae, an attempt to shape, reshape, and break the mold that gave them their initial creative and commercial independence […] With great delicacy and insight, they are capable of making successive films that deconstruct or circumnavigate their personae without reducing them to bathos, parody, or caricature. Their longevity and singular status comes as a result of a direct understanding of themselves, their craft, time period, and archetypal appeal” (1996)
While the contributions of Lo Wei and Robert Clouse cannot be understated, the essence of each film can only be attributed to the persistence of Bruce Lee’s personal vision – his creative, spiritual, and ethical vision that goes beyond cinema. Indeed whole scenes would be rewritten or blocked out by Lee, much to the chagrin of his collaborators who are used to dealing with passive actors. Bruce Lee’s long standing career in show business since he was a baby, offered him a far greater insight to his relationship with an audience and how to cater a performance to it than his directors could
Both Wei and Clouse resort to smash cuts in editing to highlight aesthetic details during the action – cuts to a close up of a fist as it is thrown, a close up of a torso as it is kicked – but ultimately avoid showing any fight as a dramatic event. When in the hands of Bruce Lee, fight scenes are framed in long shots with minimal cutting, making effective use of the popular widescreen format at the time, and precipitating a demand for verite realism in films that would reach maturity before the end of the decade with the rise of “New Hollywood.” A generation of films with little action, but no shortage of emotional content.
Nearly fifty years after his death in 1973, the mania over Bruce Lee burns as brightly as it did when he was alive. Last year, Cinemax aired its second and final season of The Warrior, a television program based on a treatment Bruce Lee pitched to ABC in 1970. ESPN also recently produced a 30 for 30 Documentary with cooperation from the Lee Estate about the life and teachings of the Jeet Kune Do Master. Just as it was before he passed, Bruce Lee remains to this day, the most recognizable international figure associated with martial arts cinema or nunchucks. A tragically short but humble life, the images that Bruce Lee leaves behind will continue to inspire generations across cultural boundaries in times of refracted instability and anxiety. The oneness we feel as audience members underscoring the oneness between all things.
Give yourself time to sit down and close your eyes for while. Now imagine you’re back in the late 2000’s. The age of Hannah Montana, Xbox Live, and the Plain White T’s. Say you were in middle school during that period, and as you get dropped off by your mom who blasts I Gotta Feeling with windows wide open, you start to hear murmurs of vampires and werewolves as you walk to your first class. Perhaps Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney pop up in your head if you’re familiar with the movie monsters of old, but there’s a good chance of you slowly noticing a certain cultural shift in how your peers view those monsters. As you play Line Rider on the library computers during lunch, you see your crush from algebra reading a book by one Stephanie Meyer. On the cover is a delicious-looking apple being held by two very pale hands. Suddenly, those murmurs you heard in the morning of who is Team Edward or Team Jacob suddenly begin to add up, and bellowing deep in your gut is the realization that she may always find herself luring after those fictional heartthrobs before ever even knowing your name.
Luckily this story is fictional. I personally preferred to wait to get my heart broken until after high school. But perhaps this is a narrative shared by those who spent that period hating the Twilight Saga with the utmost, often-homophobic fury. After all, the idea of vampires that sparkle and feel burdened by the emotional weight of living for an eternity while stuck in a teenage form, instead of, y’know, sleeping in coffins or turning into a little bat that flies around, was probably too new of an idea for those insecure enough to dismiss the saga in the most immature of ways. The kind of people who probably spent way too much time playing Modern Warfare 2. But as Susan Sontag wrote, “Time eventually positions […], even the most amateurish, at the level of art”. I don’t have as big a gall as I would hope to say that Twilight now qualifies as high art, but there’s a preciousness to it all that has certainly grown with the flow of time. To be among an age group that experienced the peak of their adolescence alongside the annual release of a new film in this series now feels like something akin to a once-in-a lifetime privilege. There’s no feeling quite like it, even if the indifference I initially had with the series was still very much there. But with Twilight, I think of middle school courtyards, sitting at lunch with your friends who recommend anime that you will never watch, and the all-nighters I would have to myself on weekends. For me, a link to those memories becoming far more tangible rests on the soundtrack for each film. Running through the veins of them is pure unfiltered adolescent angst, and with those sounds is a tether that can immediately transport me to a time where you were merely confused, emotional and pimply, yet somehow reassured that being an adult was still the farthest possible thing. But now, there’s no better time to look back and see what made each one work; from the least to the most. Cue Paramore. Because who else?
5) BREAKING DAWN – PART 1 (2011)
As petty as it may be to start the lowest choice in a ranked list with “nowhere to go but up”, I unfortunately can’t help but apply that here. In the vast realm of Twilight soundtrack openers, Endtapes by The Joy Formidables is a melody too derivative to truly latch onto, and the leeway into the rest of it isn’t too strong either. Love Will Take You, its second track provided by Angus and Julia Stone, is above all very pretty folk, but not quite enough to tell it apart from anything I could hear from The Lumineers or Mumford and his fraudulent sons. Ultimately, it’s too lightweight of a collection, with an uninspired single from Bruno Mars seemingly made only for radio play. But Christina Perri’s A Thousand Years is the single that’s closest to saving the day here – in the form of a chamber-folk ballad that bleeds itself well into the story of the newlywed couple found in Bella and Edward, and their animatronic infant soon-to-come. The only other noteworthy song is one that was originally within the soundtrack of the first film. Iron and Wine rework the gorgeous Flightless Bird, American Mouth into an even softer version of itself for the opening where Bella and Edward tie the knot. But y’know, highlighting a song that was from another soundtrack isn’t quite a testament to the rest of it, which only amounts to what feels like a bridge to a better collection of songs in Part 2. Hopefully by now, you can guess what the next one will be.
4) BREAKING DAWN – PART 2 (2012)
You can imagine in some way that the music supervisor for these movies may have attempted to steer a metaphorical ship in a more proper path before this franchise ended. Where Breaking Dawn – Part 1 comprised mostly of pop-oriented singles that sounded disposable enough to sound nearly the same as the other, Part 2 would nearly work as a return to the more out-there’iness of the first three soundtracks, if there wasn’t like, a mere 12-month wait between each film. But man, remember synth-pop? Passion Pit is certainly there to show you if not, in the form of its opening track Where I Come From. It is potentially the brightest sound you’ll get on any of these soundtracks, with cheery synths, bouncy beats, and Michael Angelakos’ trademark howl. But suddenly, you hear Ellie Goulding’s Bittersweet possibly begin what may be a mostly electronic affair this time around, and then surprise! Green Day shows up with The Forgotten. You may think of it as an unexpected 180 if it weren’t for hearing Billie Joe Armstrong’s vocals alongside melancholy piano and strings, which winds up a welcome detour from the processed beats that came before. Feist brings a callback to that familiar Twilight angst with Fire in the Water, and St. Vincent shreds onto the scene with a bluesy track called The Antidote. It ends up becoming a soundtrack tonally at war with its own tender moodiness and rowdy rock; all-the more appropriate considering the climactic war of the film itself. I’ll have to assume that’s a deliberate decision and that the music supervisor is more than likely a genius.
3) ECLIPSE (2010)
It’s right around here where we start to reach a perfect middle ground between the more radio-friendly vibes of the Breaking Dawn soundtracks, and the more eclectic variety of the first two. From the start, if you’re anything like me, you’re a tad bit taken aback by how Metric has only contributed one song to any of these movies. I’d certainly say that between Eclipse and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 2010 had to be the year that Metric’s floodgates burst with a surplus of new fans. But Eclipse (All Yours) provides a heavy lead-in for the bombast that follows, in the form of Muse’s Neutron Star Collision (Love Is Forever), but it’s the double-decker combo of Florence + the Machine and Sia that really hits. Heavy in Your Arms and My Love, consecutively – both such achingly romantic ballads that are able to really extend themselves to the story. Like,
will Bella truly allow herself to become a vampire by marrying Edward? I personally don’t know. I stopped at New Moon. But alas! It’s in the second half where we go for some genuinely out-of-left-field appearances from Jack White, The Black Keys, Vampire Weekend, UNKLE, and Cee Lo Green himself with What Part of Forever. There’s a far more energetic pacing to be found here, compared to the softness that truly complements the moodiness of this saga, but for what it’s worth, there’s still enough here to imagine yourself in those Washington woods, in a tense love triangle between vampires who climb trees and werewolves who ride motorcycles.
2) TWILIGHT (2008)
At first glance, I had nearly zero engagement in the story of Twilight when I accompanied far more eager family members to see it on opening weekend, but somehow I felt just a glimmer of resonance with 15 Step, the opening track of Radiohead’s In Rainbows, being the very first song we hear as the credits rolled. I didn’t quite fully delve into Radiohead until I was in high school, but I knew there was something to latch onto with that song choice, which may have informed the obsession I’d have with them later on. In an unexpected discovery, it seems to be that 15 Step is not on the actual soundtrack, but that doesn’t at all obscure the inherent bangers to be found here. There’s no better way to say “welcome to 2008, baby” than opening your soundtrack with Muse, who continues their apparent outer space fetish with Supermassive Black Hole, which plays during the film’s (in)famous baseball scene. Following that is Hayley Williams – a most prominent mainstay of late-2000’s emo, popping off on Decode by Paramore. And Linkin Park stopping by in-between inserting theme songs for two consecutive Transformers movies with Leave Out All the Rest. It’s a collection to truly get lost in; from the melancholy loudness of Mutemath, to the gentleness that Iron & Wine brings to Flightless Bird, American Mouth, and a reminder that the legendary Carter Burwell scored not one, not two, but three of these movies. The only thing more iconic than that is including an additional Paramore song in your soundtrack, in this case I Caught Myself. The cherry on top, of course, which really cements this soundtrack as more of a capsule of those late-aughts vibes than any of its companions.
1) NEW MOON (2009)
We made it, folks. And to be honest, for me at least, it wasn’t even a close call. This baby is a bounty. A full relic of what ultimately summarizes the sound of these films; from brooding alternative to the up-and-coming indie rock that Pitchfork would throw themselves at in 2009. If getting hit with an opening triple-decker combo of Death Cab for Cutie, Band of Skulls, and the sinister synths of Thom Yorke doesn’t do anything for you, then perhaps some wonderful collaborative tracks between the finest of that era certainly will. The Twilight saga seems ingrained in a feeling one gets during the time of autumn, and above all, that feeling is strengthened here to a high degree. Even in the hardest tracks is an airy melancholy that suits the general vibe, if you will, but the beauty is best found in the softness. Specifically, Done All Wrong by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Possibility by Lykke Li bring their own sense of intimacy to the melodrama of it all. Though two other tracks in particular ring especially effective, to where they could easily exist apart from the world of Twilight, but just as much as they do service to it. Rosyln – a collab track between Bon Iver and St. Vincent, is one such track. In this song are two artists, fresh off their own breakthrough success, channeling a beautifully muted folk sound; all with a sincerity that feels nothing but aching. Following near the end is Slow Life – a song by Grizzly Bear with vocals by Victoria Legrand of Beach House fame, who lends a bold, dreamy closeness to round out the entirety of what came before in a very perfect way. Songs like these come as reminders that in spite of the brooding heartthrobs, the high school drama, and at times the general silliness that this franchise has become known for, within its core are the building blocks of a love story, which more than anything was put together by the musicians who lent it a heart that very much bleeds.
This year might’ve been the Year of the Rat in the Chinese zodiac, but for myself, it was certainly the year of the cat. Because of the quarantine, I’ve spent more time with my own kitties than ever, which has been both a blessing and full of challenges to which I’m sure anyone with senior pets or working from home can with attention-seeking furballs can relate. Despite this, I seemingly will never have my fill of the creatures, because last month’s ridiculously fun drive-in screening of Tom Hooper’s nuts adaptation of Cats bumped the film up into the winner’s circle for my most watched movie of 2020. I’m not the least bit surprised.
You see, Cats 2019 kicked off my year, being one of only two films I saw in a theater other than The Frida. It became the soundtrack of my bustling commute days for everything from late-night food deliveries and afternoon freeway jams. Though the superior 1998 film soundtrack isn’t available on Spotify, the majority of the original Broadway tracks made it into my most listened to songs of 2020. There are far more listens that didn’t even register, as the ultimate Scottish iteration of Skimbleshanks could only be found on YouTube played non-stop for weeks in what is indisputably (and unsurprisingly) my most listened to song of the year. It filled my days with joy, especially during quarantine when I needed the pep-boost and sunshine offered by the orange tabby cat whose passions arise from something as quaint as “working” on a train to keep the crew and conductors company. Funnily enough, it’s also connected to one of my other loves, as the most huggable version of Old Deuteronomy is performed by Ken Page, a.k.a. Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The early months of 2020 feel like eons ago, yet simultaneously like it was just yesterday rather than a year’s past, even more so looking back and remembering that those first few days of January, I hadn’t thought much of the “Cats” musical at all. Though I hadn’t thought about “Cats” too much before that infamous trailer dropped threatening its Universal arrival during the Christmas season way back when it was far from my first experience with the Andrew Lloyd Webber property. I’d actually had the fortune of seeing a local stage production in person way back in 2012 and found it enchanting as a display of music and dance to be felt and not completely understood at first glance. I do feel a bit sorry for the folks whose first encounter with the musical was the 2019 studio abomination.
Despite enjoying that initial experience enough to watch the 1998 filmed version of the musical and declaring my next cat would be named Rum Tum Tugger or Mr. Mistofalees, I continued to endure an overall Cats-free life aside from the occasional soundtrack listen or YouTube rounds. I knew the new film would be a trip, so I was actually very excited to see Cats 2019 with my bestie for a good laugh and to make fun; unfortunately, our theater wasn’t completely empty, as a whopping three other old folks were there to seemingly watch the film unironically. I think one of them left the theater halfway through. But neither my friend nor myself were prepared for what the experience would do to me in the coming weeks; with the bad taste left in my mouth, I returned to the 1998 film and soundtrack to re-discover what I knew I’d loved about the source material and came back as a complete fanatic. It was non-stop Cats music in the weeks that followed, and seemingly never ceased.
Thanks to The Frida and Tom Hooper, Valentine’s Day 2020 was the most memorable February 14th I’ve ever had– and I spent it dressed as a cat, belting out Broadway classics and laughing with the crowd until I was dizzy. Leave it to The Frida to propose a “Valentine’s-Spay” benefit event for a local cat rescue to give the people what they’d craved for months: the opportunity to witness Cats 2019 and laugh and scream without reservations! Any event that has a line out the door past showtime tells you it’s going to be absolutely outrageous.
The lobby that night was filled with Frida staff, cat ears, and the motion picture soundtrack playing as incoming guests bought booze and were gifted posters of Mr. Mistoffelees for the Segerstrom production (mine is currently gracing my wall). Hilariously, there were folks in line for the other screening of the night as well, and people attending for both Cats and the following screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the group behind me curiously asked what the heck was going on. This would be a recurring sentiment throughout the night, especially from those in the theater who actually came to watch Cats.
There were two types of audience members there that night: “Cats” stans who may or may not have seen the Universal film before, and unsuspecting Cats newbies. The stans were outspoken, leading the sing-alongs to the numbers while the folks who knew nothing of Cats beyond its existence likely left the theater that night in a stupor.
Once the first creepy carnivalesque notes began, it popped off. Already in disbelief, the uncanny CG humanoids creeping in and out of the shadows drew screams of horror which only grew as the uncanny figures kept being introduced and ominous lyrics continued, each seemingly worse than last. Having had the song stuck in my head nonstop for a month, my face already hurt from smiling by the time the chorus of “Jellicle Cats” hit and folks began clapping along. Meanwhile, the couple to my right was stunned silent, their jaws literally dropped as they tried to take in everything in front of them. It was hilarious and not a unique reaction in the theater; I asked if they were okay. They informed me that they’d never seen or heard Cats before, and I informed them that it was going to be a hell of a ride, so they’d better strap in.
Anyone who’s been exposed to the real thing can see that Tom Hooper’s Cats is even more of a bizarre disaster through a first impression. I’ve never had such a blast making fun of the horribly misguided attempts of major studios, actors, and musicians with no self-awareness to rake in cash and Academy Awards. There’s nothing quite like saying “you’re welcome T.S. Eliot” out loud and having the crowd laugh at the guy’s expense, or being reminded that both Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellan were both in Hamlet as the knight himself laps at a bowl of milk. It was therapeutic, commenting on how somehow they managed to make even the designs of the cats racist and taking the two good-natured and admired chubby cats and turning them into fat-phobic failed attempts at humor.
While the movie itself manages to disappoint by getting the music wrong along with everything else, ruining what was a joyful and triumphant finale into a fizzling nothing, it became fun again with a crowd. Everyone cheered Mr. Mistoffelees on like he was Tinkerbell; others kept yelling “where’s Rum Tum Tugger?!” and yelling “HE’S GAY, TOM” at the shoe-horned hetero romance forced upon a character who literally lit up and manifested rainbows. By the end, a whole row of what had to be theater kids stood in the front left row and started doing a kick-line, and other improvised choreography followed among the rest of us. Literally, everyone in the theater lost their minds when Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat appeared for his number, because whether a longtime fan or casual moviegoer, Skimble is the part of Cats 2019 that everyone agrees was unironically awesome. I screamed way too loud, but I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm for the best character and song in any version of the show.
Pretty much everyone was astonished at the choice to have snot dripping from Jennifer Husdon’s song during what was meant to be her Oscar-moment, and many could relate to one moviegoer’s “about two hours ago” response to “Memory” asking if we remembered a time when happiness was. True solidarity shined as the vocal musical fans yelled at the screen when their favorite character appeared: “look how they massacred my boy!”
Before The Frida Cinema elected to shut down for everyone’s safety, another semi-regular screening of Cats was planned to make the rounds, and I was eagerly awaiting the chance to see it with others once again. I got to thinking, “what items or lines can be used to make this a real midnight movie experience”? It was the potential to create new traditions, which is an opportunity rarely available– I’d already started looking for a train whistle and considering what would be a good alternative to glitter that could be thrown. Although I wouldn’t have ever guessed a drive-through screening to be the follow-up this winter season, it was a delight in a different way.
Even through closed car windows, laughing fits and screams could be heard throughout the experience, and even a few clap-alongs from the folks in the bed of their trucks despite the cold December air. You could tell the majority of audience members were true fans much the same as before, cracking up at demands for “Mr. Mistofalee’s boyfriend”. Headlights and honks replaced cheers, though there were plenty of those as well in the form of hands waving out the windows. I made sure to take advantage of what’s definitely better than a train whistle and honked for Skimble, who I’m very pleased to share once again got the biggest reception and drove ‘em wild.
Perhaps, like the very poems which created the cast of Cats, there’s some poetry to be found in ending 2020 with Cats as well. Since the actual movie didn’t understand a single thing about what makes “Cats” work as a musical and what people genuinely love about it, it’s only natural for the public to take back what both T.S. Eliot would burst into flames at the sight of even more than before, and Universal wishes they could make everyone forget. Here’s hoping that every year from now on we can have a Jellicle Ball to add a bit of feline magic to the holidays.
Happy New Year!
On behalf of our board, staff, and volunteers, I hope 2021 finds you well, in good health, and hard at work on those New Year’s Resolutions!
What a remarkable year to look back on. We opened 2021 with a retrospective of films by director Bong Joon-ho, whose exceptional Parasite would go on to make history as the first foreign-language film to win the Best Picture Oscar, among its four awards. To follow this series we lined up a collection of neon-lit films to complement our opening of Chinese neo-noir thriller The Wild Goose Lake, as well as a retrospective of films to commemorate the great actor Max von Sydow — only to find ourselves suddenly canceling months’ worth of programming. On Friday, March 13th, we hosted a sold-out screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the next morning our staff met at the cinema for a quick meeting, collected our work tools from our desks, put a sign up on our front door, and locked up for what we thought would be weeks, maybe a month. We could never have imagined that The Frida had just held her last screening of 2020.
Thanks in large part to your support, the story didn’t end there. Trevor Dillon, our amazing Programmer, quickly held the first of three 10-Hour Stream-A-Thons to help us raise money to keep our staff paid and insured while we worked on identifying new avenues to keep our mission going. On March 27th, just two weeks after closing our doors, we partnered with Kino Lorber Films’ streaming service Kino Marquee — itself a brand new platform in response to COVID-19 — to host our first virtual premiere and run of an art house film, the sensational Bacurau. Then on Saturday, May 23rd, we hosted our very first drive-in screening, The Princess Bride, on the lawn at Fullerton’s Muckenthaler Cultural Center. The event sold out in less than two minutes, which led to two more sold-out encores that Memorial Day weekend. And the calls and emails began to flood in for more.
I am proud to announce that in 2020 our organization presented 83 drive-in events, for approximately 17,716 guests. And we provided you with 161 diverse titles on our streaming platform. We thank the many wonderful host venues and film distributors who partnered with us to make this possible, and we thank every one of you who purchased a ticket, rented a film, made a donation, shared a social media post, or simply told their friends about our organization and events.
It’s still such a surreal thing to look back to just nine months ago, when neither drive-ins nor a streaming art house platform were part of our forecast. I’ve said it twice already in this email, and I’ll say it once again — we couldn’t have done it without your faith, advocacy, and support. Allow me also to express my gratitude to our amazing staff members — Trevor Dillon, Jordan Djahangiri, and Martin Nguyen — for their dedicated work and gracious adaptability throughout the year.
Thank you for helping us ensure that The Frida Cinema wouldn’t see its last days in 2020, as so many wonderful independent businesses and non-profits unfortunately have. To be sure, we still have a long way to go to ensure we will be able to not only sustain ourselves, but to ultimately reopen and return to presenting you with the opportunities to experience the extensive variety of films and events that The Frida would regularly present, month after month. But we’ve made it this far, as we look back at a difficult year, there is so much we have to celebrate.
We wish you much joy, health, and cinema in 2021. Please stay safe out there.
The Frida Cinema
Continued support is vital in our ongoing commitment to provide our community access to diverse art house cinema. Please make a tax-deductible contribution today in support of The Frida Cinema.
In a year defined by fear, isolation, and an unhealthy longing for a trip to see anything at a movie theater, we asked our Frida writers how they got through 2020, and what they’re looking forward to in the new year! Warning: the following blog shows an unusual amount of optimism for the future of the film industry going forward. You’ve been warned!
What was the first film you watched in 2020?
- Austin Bittner: Chain – an amazing documentary from 2004 that delves into the mundanity of retail culture. A relic of mid-2000’s strip-mall architecture that set a pretty high bar for what I’d watch this year.
- Anthony McKelroy: It was me. I watched Tom Hooper’s Cats in theaters on 1/5/2020. I paid full price. I started the apocalypse. God have mercy on us all.
- Bradley Burke: Parasite.
- Isa Bulnes-Shaw: Klaus (2019).
- Miquela Davis (Frida Volunteer): Greener Grass on New Year’s Eve. Technically 2020.
Prior to COVID, what film(s) were you most looking forward to seeing in 2020?
- Austin B.: The new Wes Anderson of course looked pretty tight, and so did the new Edgar Wright. Hey, look at me rhyme! But for me, the biggest casualty couldn’t possibly top After Yang, the new film by Kogonada. I suggest anyone reading this to watch Columbus as soon as they finish to see what I mean.
- Anthony M.: First Cow, Dune…are there other movies besides those two?
- Isa B.: Get Back – The 50th anniversary release for The Beatles documentary film Let It Be (1970). Not only is it an HD restoration of footage we’ve had for decades, but it’s a reveal of more than 55 hours of footage, and 140 hours of audio from the ‘Let It Be’ recording sessions that have never been seen by the public before.
The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run – I’m a Spongebob fanatic, and although there are definitely things to criticize (not the least of which regards Nickelodeon’s treatment of the franchise after its creator’s passing), I’d seen the previous two movies in theaters, so why not this one? The style of the CG is also a major upgrade, it looks fantastic visually.
Steven Universe: The Movie – My favorite show for seven years and one of the things dearest to my heart, Steven Universe’ epilogue series ended in March. As a send-off before the finale, theaters planned screenings of the epic movie from late 2019, and I was going to attend with my oldest friend who’s watched with me from the beginning. Instead, I bootlegged it right before the final episodes dropped and cried with her over a Discord call.
Trolls: World Tour – The McElroy Brothers, my fave podcasters/entertainers, are minor voices in this movie cuz they campaigned for years that they WOULD be in Trolls 2 one way or another, somehow. The crazy bastards did it, and I was going to pay $7 to see their 3 seconds of collective victory.
- Miquela D.: The French Dispatch
How did you watch movies in isolation this year?
- Austin B.: Chromecast became my best friend this year, pretty much by default. 99% of what I’ve seen this year has been through there, and considering the speakers of my laptop now making everything playing on it sound like distorted farts, Chromecast has now become my only friend these days.
- Anthony M.: Like some streaming service Voltron, I was able to lean on lots of friends’ login info to watch movies at home this year. Though I was mostly using Criterion Channel, and Netflix + netflix DVD’s to watch things.
- Bradley B.: Through streaming services via Netflix, Hulu, HBO etc. or through films I own on Blu-Ray.
- Isa B.: On my tiny laptop by myself mostly, or at the drive-in pop-up screenings. Streaming, digital rental off of YouTube, and DVDs.
- Miquela: Drive-ins, but mostly streaming in the living room.
Which film(s) from 2020 would you still like to see that you haven’t yet?
- Austin B.: I’m still eager to catch Days – the new Tsai Ming-liang, as well as Nine Days – a film from Sundance I was pretty peeved on not being able to catch. Lots of rotations around the axis of Earth.
- Anthony M.: Minari is pretty high on the list. But I’m also eager to catch up on all the great TV that came out this year: I May Destroy You, We Are Who We Are, The Undoing.
- Bradley B.: Tenet.
- Isa B.: Honestly, other than the ones that haven’t been released yet, just the ones previously listed. I’ve seen the ones I’m most interested in already, and there wasn’t too much sadly.
- Miquela D.: Minari, Nomadland.
What movies did you see at a drive-in?
- Austin B.: None, unfortunately. To be frank, I’ve let many depressive episodes prevent me from engaging in any events that didn’t involve the occasional distant get-together at a park or something. I was happy to help set up a screening of A League of Their Own a few months back! For Madonna!
- Anthony M.: I think the first drive-in movie for me was a Beanie Feldstein joint, How to Build a Girl. Since then I’ve only been to two Frida events: Stop Making Sense, and Fire Walk With Me. Both phenomenal experiences.
- Bradley B.: Unfortunately, I have yet to experience a movie drive-in. Hopefully I can change that soon.
- Isa B.: I watched 27 of The Frida’s Pop-Up Cinema films, and volunteered at even more!
- Miquela D.: How To Build a Girl, Stop Making Sense (1984), Fire Walk With Me (1992).
Which movie did you watch the most this year? How many times?
- Austin B: Managed to go for round two with Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Uncut Gems (2019), Cure (1997), Popstar (2016), and I Know This Much is True (2019) – all wonderful.
- Anthony M.: I watched Arrival (2016) twice this year. In three thousand years, I will watch it again.
- Isa B.: It’s a four-way tie. These films all had three watches:
Help! (1965) – The Beatles’ films and music are some of my ultimate comfort/nostalgia content, and boy did I need it! Was also the 55th anniversary, and I started my Beatles on Film blog series.
Yellow Submarine (1967) – Ultimate serotonin generator
Cats (2019) – ¯\_(=•́ܫ•̀=)_/¯
**Julio Torres’ My Favorite Shapes (2019) – Watched this three days in a row. Isn’t so much stand-up as it is one-man show / TedTalk / performance art. There’s absolutely nothing like it, just blew me away and busted my gut.
Which film(s) did you watch this year that most surprised you?
- Austin B.: I was very much caught off guard by the sweetness of Hubie Halloween, the astounding last half hour of Da 5 Bloods, the line of reality and fiction blurring into the chaotic beauty of Bad Trip, the Mulholland Drive-esque wild ride of Black Bear, the neon energy of Ema, and just how much Oz Perkins’ Gretel and Hansel actually kicks ass. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.
- Anthony M.: Got around to Vox Lux (2018) this year and found myself unexpectedly exhilarated for the entire runtime. The images of defiance, hubris, and ostentation in the film have replayed in my mind while watching the Eggheads completely fumble the COVID relief effort.
- Isa B.: Birds of Prey was the only 2020 release I saw in theaters and it was SO refreshing both story-wise and aesthetically — colorful, fun, women-oriented. A damn good action flick.
- Miquela D.: Sound Of Metal, Arrival (2016)
What was the most disappointing film you saw this year?
- Austin B.: Easily i’m thinking of ending things. Charlie Kaufman having the nerve to juxtapose his self-indulgence with John Cassavetes is now officially starting to annoy me.
- Anthony M.: Wild at Heart (1990). What an ugly film. Even worse, people will try to justify the ugliness as a creative technique. It’s not, it’s ugly and aesthetically superfluous.
- Isa B.: I guess The Love Witch (2016). I’d been wanting to watch it for a long time, and I anticipated it as being one of my new favorites, but it just didn’t go deep enough into what it seemed just on the edge of and it dragged in several parts. Aesthetically though, it is truly marvelous. Also, I had no expectations for Puppet Master (1989), but there were barely any puppets in it despite the bare minimum criteria.
- Miquela D.: Contagion because it was such a fantasy of how governments respond to a virus..
Favorite film about new years?
- Austin B.: Those five minutes of Phantom Thread (2017)
- Anthony M.: Passionate Friends (1949)
- Isa B.: High School Musical (2006), Snowpiercer (2013)
- Miquela D.: When Harry Met Sally (1989)
How many movies do you think you watched this year?
- Austin B.: According to Letterboxd, I have reached a mere 358! Almost a year’s worth of cinema, baby!
- Anthony M.: ~106
- Bradley B.: 15-20
- Isa B.: According to my Letterboxd: 261 total, with rewatches and short films. Without either, about 164.
- Miquela D.: 102.
What do you recommend for people to watch while stuck at home? (preferably something accessible via streaming or the library)
- Austin B.: The big 5 (in terms of streaming) for me are Kanopy, HBO Max, Criterion, MUBI, and Prime Video (only for the shocking surplus of sleazy 80’s horror they have).
- Anthony M.: For a good documentary, look no further than The B-Side on NETFLIX. A story about an artist trying to capture happiness on large format instant film.
- Bradley B.: Klaus on Netflix or Parasite on Hulu.
- Miquela D.: Enemy (2013) – on Netflix
What is the best film you saw this year for the first time? Doesn’t have to be released in 2020 to qualify.
- Austin B.: I fell in love with Peter Bogdanovich this year. From his unreal streak through ’68-’73, his recurring role on The Sopranos, and subsequently directing an episode of it to my utmost surprise! But the peak of that love came with The Last Picture Show. The almost ghost-like loneliness of that Texas town, dying more and more each passing day, resonated with me far more deeply than I could ever have expected. A perfect COVID watch. Just narrowly edging it out are Unbreakable, Dancer in the Dark, and Rosetta.
- Anthony M.: Streaming on Amazon Prime, as of writing this, is a little film called Thank God It’s Friday (1978) starring the one and only, DONNA-FREAKIN-SUMMERS. I don’t care if you don’t like “musicals” or whatever, if you like movies then you’ll love Thank God It’s Friday (1978). Its exaggerated 70’s design aesthetic has aged beautifully, and the film’s depiction of a night out dancing couldn’t be more needed in this age of social isolation.
- Bradley B.: Probably Parasite, although Akira and John Carpenter’s The Thing also come really close.
- Isa B.: Rocketman (2019) was fantastic! I also loved Xanadu (1980) so much, it was a delight.
- Miquela D.: Arrival (2016)
Did you get into any new, non-movie related hobbies while in quarantine?
- Austin B.: Been mostly doing this thing where I have five books I have only gotten halfway through with and now keep on a bench near my couch. Will probably get to two or three more by the end of the month.
- Anthony M.: I’m afraid that’s classified information.
- Bradley B.: I’ve definitely been getting more into reading graphic novels and manga as well as listening to audiobooks, which is helpful for someone like me who isn’t much of a reader personally, especially when it comes to traditional novels that only have text.
- Isa B.: I started learning how to edit, design, and draw in programs like Photoshop and Illustrator!
- Miquela D.: Making a book of drawings, making comics, teaching (virtual) art. Crafting shelves, baking. Standard quarantine hobbies.
Which films are you looking forward to in 2021?
- Austin B.: I would just like the new Paul Thomas Anderson already. Would preferably want it injected into my bloodstream. And to have the title actually be Soggy Bottom. Also, the new Apichatpong!
- Anthony M.: Dune for sure. And to be clear, I will only be seeing it in a movie theater (when it is safe to do so).
- Isa B.: Get Back, Guillermo Del Toro’s animated Pinocchio thats been a life-long passion project of his, Candyman will be interesting.
- Miquela D.: FRENCH *clapping emoji* DISPATCH *clapping emoji*….and the new Paul Thomas Anderson. *fingers crossed emoji*
1960 was a monumental year for the horror genre. Considered as cinematic classics, heavily influencing and setting the creative standard for subsequent entries in the second half of the 20th century, and well into the 21st century, here is a list of 10 films every horror fan should see.
10. Blood and Roses
A lesser-known French and Italian collaborative film, known for its stunning visuals and cinematography, Blood and Roses is cited as a paradigm of early European horror.
A bitter heiress, jealous of her cousin and best friend’s engagement, becomes obsessed with a vampiric ancestor, while a series of murders occur around them.
9. 13 Ghosts
The King of Gimmicks William Castel developed a unique style of publicity and camp, which left an indelible mark on filmmakers such as Joe Dante and John Waters.
A family inherits a mansion from a mysterious relative, soon discovering that it’s riddled with restless, ghostly occupants wanting to kill one of them.
A Mexican classic escaping traditional horror conventions, Macario is a visually stunning tale centered around The Day of The Dead and death.
Macario, a poor Mexican peasant, makes a deal with death, only to find that their deal is more than he bargained for.
7. Peeping Tom
One of the earliest influences on the modern slasher genre, sparking controversy at the time of release, Peeping Tom permanently damaged the career of director Michael Powell.
An aspiring filmmaker lives a double life as a serial killer, who captures his victims’ painful last moments before death.
6. Village of the Damned
A staple of classic British sci-fi horror, fraught with tension, creepy emotionless children actors, and an eerie sense of isolation, Village of the Damned follows a group of children, born under mysterious circumstances, as they use their mind-control powers to hold the inhabitants of a small village hostage.
5. Hanyo (The Housemaid)
Inspired by true events, Hanyo is remarked upon as the magnum opus of early South Korean horror films, highly inspiring Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 Oscar-winning film Parasite.
A middle-class family hires a young female housekeeper, whose presence turns their little home to a living nightmare, as she becomes obsessed with murdering the family.
This essential Japanese arthouse horror film broke new artistic ground with its graphic images of torture, inspired by the Buddhist interpretations of hell.
Several interconnected tales of sinners, whose devious behaviors lead them to suffer, torment in hell beyond their wildest nightmare.
3. Black Sunday
The cinematography of this landmark Italian horror film transformed gothic cinema internationally.
After a vampiric witch is executed by her brother, she returns centuries later to exact her revenge on his descendants.
2. Eyes Without A Face
One of the most important and bone-chilling French horror films of all time.
A mad doctor, who obsesses over fixing his daughter’s deformed face, kidnaps unsuspecting young women to graph their faces onto hers.
House of Usher
Circus of Horrors
Little Shop of Horrors
City of the Dead
The Ghost Cat of Otama Pond
The Virgin Spring
The crown jewel of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography, Psycho defied expectation with its innovative plot twists.
When a secretary vanishes after embezzling $40,000, it’s up to her sister and boyfriend to investigate her disappearance at her last known whereabouts, the eerie Bates Motel.
In the 46 years since its release, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas continues to conjure up nightmares and make skin crawl in moviegoers. If it doesn’t, as the tagline goes, your skin is “on too tight…”
What sets this horror staple from the slew of slasher films that it inspired are the well-defined characters. Although the narrative takes place in a sorority house over the Christmas holiday, each young woman stands out with their own personality quirks and set of problems. Two of the most convincing portrayals are those by Margo Kidder and Olivia Hussey. Kidder’s Barb is a foul-mouthed alcoholic—see her hilarious exchange in the police station and the uncomfortable conversation she starts at dinner later. Hussey’s Jess, on the other hand, is strong willed and holds her own when her boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) rages when she says she wants to abort their child. The film is populated with other interesting characters, including the duplicitous housemother Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman) who hides bottles of booze around the house, the airheaded Sergeant Nash (Douglas McGrath), and the focused Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon).
The audience’s emotional connection to these characters make the murder sequences more shocking. When the unseen killer sets his eyes on Claire Harrison (Lynne Griffin), who is packing to go on a trip home for the holidays, the onslaught of violence feels ripped from the plot of an Italian giallo film. Claire is suffocated with a plastic garment bag. The disorientating camera movement shows the act from both the killer and Claire’s perspective. After she is killed, the murderer hides her body in the attic.
When Claire’s father (James Edmond) arrives the next day to pick her up, the audience cannot help but feel sympathy for him. Not only is he confronted with the fact that his daughter is missing, but also with the fact that the daughter may have been living a lifestyle while on campus that is antithetical of the traditionally conservative upbringing she received at home. As he tells Mrs. Mac, “I didn’t send my daughter here to be drinking and picking up boys.”
Also interesting is the trajectory of Margo Kidder and Olivia Hussey’s acting careers at this point. Kidder had recently garnered acclaim and controversy for her role in Brian DePalma’s psychological thriller/horror film Sisters (1972) before taking on the role of Barb in Black Christmas. She wouldn’t receive mainstream recognition until her roles in Superman (1975), The Amityville Horror (1979), and other films would catapult her into stardom. Hussey, on the other hand, had achieved early acclaim at the tender age of seventeen because of her Golden Globe-winning performance in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet (1968). Even though Black Christmas can be construed by some critics as standard horror fare, both Kidder and Hussey deliver strong performances that are a far cry from their previous work. In fact, Kidder won a Canadian Film Award for Best Actress for her role in Black Christmas.
While Jess manages to survive as a “Final Girl,” the other sorority members aren’t as lucky—particularly Barb. Her death comprises of one of the most visually and diegetically stunning sequences in the film. As Jess answers the door to reveal a group of carolers, the killer sneaks into Barb’s room. The killer grabs a crystal unicorn figure and stabs her repeatedly with its pointed horn. The act is captured in slow motion, the visuals distorted as the camera lenses the scene through the other glass figures on her nightstand. The relatively bloodless murder intercuts with the carolers outside as they sing “Silent Night.” Extreme closeups of their faces and open mouths, along with medium shots of Jess at the door bathed in the red glow of Christmas lights, create a mirror of the attack upstairs. The choristers proclaim the sacred birth of Jesus Christ in the lyrics through the beauty of their prepubescent voices, while upstairs an unholy act of menace occurs. The red blooming lights changes into the specks of crimson that flash before the screen as Barb’s hands knocks over other crystal figures. With each downward stroke, the unicorn horn reflects the blood forming on Barb’s body offscreen. As Jess claps at the end of the performance, Barb’s hand goes limp upstairs.
The sequence, through its indelible editing, becomes one of the most shocking montages ever seen in cinema. It elicits a perverse sense of attraction (and horror) to the violence in viewers, while also forcing them to reconcile the blasphemy of witnessing a Christian carol underscore such an act of depravity. This clashing of the sacred and the profane arguably propels the scene into the category of art; It not only causes the viewers emotionally react, but also conjures up a myriad of interpretations on how to view the scene. Because of this, the scene is chillingly effective.
While Black Christmas contains other memorable death scenes—many occurring offscreen in order to heighten the viewer’s imagination—Barb’s death remains the standout sequence in the film. Because the script takes the time to introduce viewers to these characters, their deaths hit harder. In Barb’s case, she earns sympathy. Yes, she’s brash and promiscuous to a certain extent; but take away the alcohol and see through the defenses she puts up, and you’ll find a person aching for connection. She’s not a bad person. And she definitely did not deserve the death fate dealt her. None of these girls did. Unfortunately, the killer’s identity and motive remain ambiguous. Perhaps knowing these particulars would provide better closure for the audience. But a sense of reality permeates the horror in the film, and the reasons for each of the deaths dissipate just as leads in unsolved true-crime cases go cold.
With all its mystery and horror, Black Christmas continues to frighten new generations of fans. A 24-hour marathon of Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story may be the safer option, but Black Christmas remains his more engaging film. And if you’re like me, it’ll be a film you return to every winter season.
The responsibilities of the CIA are known to be vast and never-ending, in ways that tend to involve foreign intelligence or government spending. But whether it be preventing terrorism or a covert military operation, the tasks are normally in favor of supposedly governing this American nation. And while it may be a stigma for the CIA to be shrouded in mystery, you may be surprised at how they tie to Jim Carrey. Fresh off his portrayal of Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon, Carrey immediately followed such a performance that supposedly “drove him psychotic” perhaps way too soon. Because this was a performance calling for something even more, including a makeup process quite difficult to adore. And even with famed makeup artist Rick Baker at the helm, for Jim Carrey it did nothing but overwhelm. Nearly suffocating in a costume of yak hair dyed green and a wrinkly latex facial sprawl, the frustration was enough for Carrey to kick a hole in his trailer wall. He found it impossible to thrive, and compared the makeup process to being “buried alive”. Until producer Brian Grazer sought up an unlikely friend who happened to be a specialist for the CIA, who immediately got himself on a plane that very Friday. It was there in which Carrey was locked in a room with him and another official, who taught him methods unconventional yet beneficial. Explaining to Carrey how CIA agents would frame their thinking in the midst of torture or hostile interrogation, this helped him create an almost Zen-like state of mind that would occupy his head during the makeup’s duration. It’s unclear whether Carrey himself was ever tortured in that room, but the performance that caught the eye of audiences that following year would probably make that easy to assume. Because with that much facial contortion and nearly-inhuman physical activity, you too would had to have found ways to relieve yourself of such captivity. Perhaps twenty years later you may roll your eyes or even cringe, but Carrey’s performance is somehow just a faint peep into the nihilistic madness of Ron Howard’s The Grinch. Or How the Grinch Stole Christmas if you had wanted me to ruin a perfectly good rhyme, for which I definitely do not have time.
Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel – author of the beloved book of the same name, had passed nearly a decade before the film came. But his widow Audrey had spent an arduous process selling the film rights, to which Ron Howard and producing partner Brian Grazer took to tremendous heights. Over time and through various script revisions (including from writers of Seinfeld), the final product can only be compared to the experience provided by a mind-melt. From the moment we soar into the microscopic world of a snowflake, there is no undoing of the path you will take. Through prosthetics used to create the Who citizens of Whoville that seemingly came from a bad dream, and a surplus of asymmetrical Dutch angles that would make Wes Anderson scream. It is borderline impossible to jot down Howard’s adaptation to a few lines, as its relentlessly energetic pacing only further, and strictly, confines. Yet to this day it maintains its existence as a product of pure curiosity with much strength, whether it’s the film’s underlying critique of commercialism, or of course the nearly two-hour length. The film’s decision to draw itself directly from Chuck Jones’ 1966 TV special is obvious with nearly each scene, including the cementing of the Grinch’s color as a rich green. Did you forget that The Grinch had no color in the original book? Perhaps that fact may leave you, as the kids say, shook. But that’s for another time, as we haven’t even fully delved into Jim Carrey’s contribution under the color of lime.
Giving a character known for an arc as simplistic as hating Christmas then eventually coming to embrace it allows for it to be easily expanded, but to witness the Grinch not only be given a nearly-tragic backstory but also see him as an animatronic infant raised by a gay couple may not exactly be what fans demanded. But even before he grows into the curmudgeon we know him to be, we witness Carrey inhabiting a take on the character that is so animated that even the Chuck Jones special can’t compare to this kind of degree. You may buy this a load of crud, but as far as the 2000’s go, the way Jim Carrey completely disappears into The Grinch can only be compared to Daniel Day-Lewis turning into Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. In a way that even if you never doubt that underneath the character is that very actor, the transformation they undergo is enough to never be a distractor. It’s enough effort on his part even in spite of the humor that is so bluntly crass, from The Grinch flying directly into the bosom of Martha May Whovier, to him luring a sleeping Jeffrey Tambor into kissing his dog’s … uh, [redacted]. But the jokes that are nothing but juvenile is only for his performance to outweigh. It is a mere sight from which you couldn’t possibly look away. And Ron Howard knows this with utmost grace, literally dropping frames in shots just to emphasize how much Carrey is willing to stretch his own face. Yet he still allows the character to over time become more hearty, especially throughout the chaos involving the fact that the Whos literally throw a key party. It’s a performance that quite honestly should’ve swept award shows completely clean; even knowing that it’s the second time he has played a live-action cartoon with a face colored green.
Howard’s camera refuses to stay still. Tilting and spinning so often that to hope for some kind of levity takes as much effort as pushing a sleigh up a hill. Perhaps there’s more to this direction than simply keeping the audience engaged like I initially thought, as if maybe the aggressive commodification of the Christmas season each year is bound to leave some in an energetic drought. In this particular mood is Cindy Lou-Who, played by Taylor Momsen and slightly older than the original character’s age of 2. Her character becomes fleshed out enough to be the one responsible for bringing the Grinch down to the Who’s, where he delivers a scathing monologue with the light of a fuse. It’s here where the film’s thematic dancing around of commercialism becomes crystal clear, as the Grinch revels in how each year is an endless cycle of excess that should deprive every Who of cheer. The gifts that are used and then immediately disposed, said with an honesty that is bluntly exposed. And despite the irony of this being a $150 million product released by a major conglomerate, for anyone it shouldn’t take very long, to simply realize that he is nowhere near wrong. At times we all must feel the weight of the season crushing our spirit, and as it gets closer to Christmas, our responsibilities to keep ourselves and our loved ones happy may as well cause us to fear it. This year in itself could potentially be the worst in causing that kind of oppression, as a still-raging pandemic continues to cause massive spikes in depression.
Which is where comfort lends itself in as a desire. Some people may find that in baking, or snuggling up near your hearth in front of a fire. For me, watching movies became my comfort over the last year, with enough seen for my senses to approach degrees I never thought they would come near. Recently I’ve come back around to familiar films in which I should feel that I’ve very much outgrown, but feelings change when you’ve spent this much time living alone. Although with The Grinch I’m not necessarily reminded of my own youth, but rather how a film like this could only have been made in the year 2000…. and uh, that’s the truth. Through the efforts given to bring life to a world rooted in cartoon law, the results still bring some faint glimmers of awe. The idea of filming a big-budget blockbuster on the Universal backlot should feel so dated by this point, and yet the energy Howard brings to each physical set built makes it impossible for the artificiality to disappoint. Of course there are signs everywhere that cause the age of the film to bounce back, like… of course Smash Mouth is on the film’s soundtrack. But age is a word that often leaves people with insecurity and harm, so the word I would rather use is ‘charm’. To which that can be found in nearly every crevice of the production, where the blink- and-you’ll-miss-it energy and Jim Carrey’s once-in-a-lifetime performance converge into Ron Howard’s go-for-broke attempt to entertain through his entire conduction. It’s an exhausting yet arresting work of film art, and getting to see Clint Howard is somehow not even the best part. It’s been a long, long year, so perhaps sit down, open up a can of Who-hash, and let in that infectious early-2000’s cheer.
“The word ‘ambient’ doesn’t ring a bell with me. It’s meant to mean something, but is, in fact, meaningless. It’s not relevant for me. My style is the only thing I can do well. I don’t think about genres. I don’t think about labels, they don’t have meanings.” – Harold Budd
There is an endless, gaping void that has been created in the world of music with the passing of Harold Budd. At age 84, the output of Budd’s gorgeous, otherworldly ambient music feels enough to last far beyond those years, even if he rejected the label of “ambient”, among any other genre. Having spent five decades creating unforgettable sounds with the likes of Brian Eno and the Cocteau Twins, Budd also took that time to establish his own style of melody that couldn’t possibly be imitated. Music that somehow exists without age; often as haunting as it is haunted. His final project was an LP he created with Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins named Another Flower. He passed four days later. His age would indicate that the reason could’ve been anything, but tragically he was revealed to have contracted COVID-19 after a stroke he had a few days prior, and succumbed to its complications. It didn’t take long for me to realize just how much longer he could’ve kept going, and how the lives lost this year can only leave me with a further feeling of defeat. But his death hit the hardest. There was no other artist whose work I delved into more since the beginning of quarantine, and the fact that we will only be getting past this period without him is a horrid thing to consider. To me, Budd’s music transcends itself into something akin to an escape. If his records were entire worlds, each track was just a glimpse into each individual abstraction the world contained. The kind of abstractions that are just as formless as his compositions. Since his 1978 debut The Pavilion of Dreams, his work has made it incredibly easy to allow anyone to see the world differently under its influence. It is music rooted in stillness, and with me I have brought two of his film scores that each provide a glimpse into how that stillness bleeds into both stories. It’s here where I hope more can provide themselves the peace they may have struggled to find in a year as tumultuous as this one. It’s only one out of a multitude of feelings his work can provide you with.
The results of Budd collaborating with a member of the Cocteau Twins are probably as dreamy as you would expect, but it merely accentuates the tone that Gregg Araki sets in his 2004 drama Mysterious Skin. A tale of two young men whose paths are further bound together by one tragic memory, in two different recollections, Araki utilizes the craft he’s been honing through his 90’s queer dramas into what I think is him at his best. His work tends to include a soundtrack that helps bring out his distinctive energy; including alternative/shoegaze bands that lend an inherent dreaminess. And while Mysterious Skin has its fair share of those (with so many Slowdive songs that a character is named after one of them), its closing out under ‘Samskeyti’, the gorgeous third track from Sigur Ros’ 2002 untitled record may be Araki’s best musical moment. But throughout the entire film is an original score by Budd and Guthrie that helps in contrasting the harrowing story with an airy tranquility. Reverberated guitars and droning ambient synths ring throughout the individual stories of Neil and Bryan – played by Joseph- Gordon Levitt and Brady Corbet at their very best, and the closer their stories intersect, the more that the music becomes a comfort to fall back into. Like the feeling upon waking when you realize the nightmare you had was only that. The way Araki refuses to pull punches in his climax, as it builds to a horrific realization, is made far more effective with the tenderness that Budd and Guthrie’s score gives prior to it. In a way, the score parallels the final moments, in which the two hold each other closely in the wake of understanding a trauma so deeply ingrained, that all they wish to do is escape. And the music does nothing but allow it.
Budd’s film scores seemed to have operated best with melodrama, and who else to muster up the best of that genre than Derek Cianfrance? His bleak-as-it-gets HBO miniseries I Know This Much is True (just let me count this as a six-hour film, for my own sake) at first seemed like it was to start airing at an equally-bleak time; in the midst of a global pandemic, among other slight inconveniences. But like Mysterious Skin, the score by Budd – a mix of archived tracks and new music made for the film, alleviate the pain endured by our protagonists – in this case two twin brothers both played by Mark Ruffalo, also very likely his best performance(s). From flanged drones to minor-key strings, the score is a work that hits a sweet (and sour?) spot between melancholy and soothing, at times highlighting the unexpectedly time-spanning scope that Cianfrance draws from the original novel by Wally Lamb. For every extreme close-up and traumatic moment, it’s all the more felt by the intimacy and gentleness that Budd provides. And by the time the film has gradually bloomed into a melodramatic epic of sorts, you can only be taken aback by the catharsis that comes near the end. It’s a project so relentless in its depiction of abuse, mental illness, and generational pain, yet what prevents it from becoming what is now popularly coined as ‘misery porn’ is a gorgeously tangible atmosphere, brought just as much by Jody Lee Lipes’ 35mm photography as it is with Budd’s music. The release near the end of the film hits so strongly that it helps cement its initial airing as rather the best time it could’ve aired. For as easy as it may be to feel an onslaught of uncertainty and hurt during this period, nothing continues to be permanent. Eventually, all recedes to make way for a clearness. A way out of the dark.
Harold Budd built a career out of friendship. Since first working with Brian Eno on his second ambient record The Plateaux of Mirror, Budd kept his future collaborators to a tight-knit group. The kind of closeness that can be heard in any of his work. In Budd’s music is an intimacy that should’ve called for a far bigger output of work within film or other visual mediums, and it kills me to know that it would’ve been cut short regardless of what could’ve been. The only notion I can consider as redeeming here is the fact that Budd only continued to create, no matter how often he considered retiring. Budd’s life and career is marked by that everlasting urge to do all you know how to do, until you no longer can. For now, I’m motivated to find warmth in the music I’ve still yet to hear from him, and to remind myself that pain does nothing but minimize with time, until we at least know how to control it. For a moment, we are allowed to breathe, and we are all capable of stillness.
“I wanted to be responsible for music that would change your life
…Because it changed my life, and it’s all I could do.”
– Harold Budd
1936 – 2020
“Take the serious side of Disney, the Confucian side of Disney. It’s in having taken an ethos … where you have the values of courage and tenderness asserted in a way that everybody can understand. You have got an absolute genius there. You have got a greater correlation of nature than you have had since the time of Alexander the Great.” – Ezra Pound
If you’re like me and are still processing the bewildering spectacle that is Cats, we’ve got some options to help you make sense of – okay, to help you move on coming up at the Frida’s Drive-In screenings! We’ve got Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire flying in to Zion Lutheran Church on Saturday, December 19th, a Black Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night double feature coming down the chimney at Tustin’s Mess Hall on Tuesday, December 22nd, and that darkly comedic Christmas classic, Gremlins, creeping in on Thursday, December 24th, also at Mess Hall! Before all that however, we’re in for a special treat in the form of Disney’s The Jungle Book, screening at Tustin Mess Hall in celebration of outgoing Frida Board member Tish Leon on Friday, December 18th! Based on the enduringly-popular children’s books by Rudyard Kipling, the film follows the adventures of feral boy Mowgli as he tries to navigate the travails of jungle life and find his place in the world. Hailed by critics and audiences alike upon its release in the 60’s, The Jungle Book is an animated masterwork that inspires warmth and cheer among children and adults to this day.
In some ways, it’s funny that The Jungle Book should remain as popular as it does considering how unusual it is for a classic Disney movie. Aside from the Indian setting and princess-less plot, the whole film basically revolves around a young boy facing and overcoming the dangers of the jungle, kind of a child endangerment-heavy set-up for a company that has long been caricatured as churning out G-rated, people-pleasing pap where nothing really bad or scary happens and they all live happily ever after. This caricature, of course, relies on selective memories of Disney’s princess films, the main source of such misconceptions: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, for example, has an extremely frightening sequence early on where she gets lost in the woods and perceives the trees as monstrous apparitions, and Sleeping Beauty has that one X-rated part where the devil-horned Maleficent claims to conjure “all the powers of Hell” before turning into a dragon and trying to kill Prince Phillip. If you’re curious enough to look past the fanciful animation and sing-along-ready songs, you’re likely to find something – shocking, profound, maybe even both – lying beneath them.
This isn’t to demystify the magic of Disney the way many try and (often fail) to do. If anything, it’s to argue that there’s more to these movies we watched and loved as wide-eyed kids than meets the eye – a different kind of magic, if you will. And so through the power of writing (that darkest of dark arts), I’d like to you take back to a time before The Force Awakens and Avengers when you could see elephants fly, orangutans scat sing, and fairies and demons alike frolic to Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky. With any luck, I’ll be able to not only make you look at these movies differently but also fall in love with them all over again!
The Jungle Book (1967)
The last Disney film to be produced by Walt himself, he tragically succumbed to a circulatory collapse in the midst of production and died before it was completed. Having shepherded the project from its earliest days as a dramatic, more straightforward adaptation of Kipling’s dark-minded stories and overseeing it to a far greater extent than the studio’s last few movies, Walt’s passing must have hit the members of the production team all the harder. Out of this great sadness however, director Wolfgang Reitherman and his colleagues were able to make one of the cheeriest and most widely-loved films in the Disney canon.
With a cast of characters who remain beloved to this day, it can’t be overstated how completely and utterly perfect each actor is in their respective role. The sloth bear Baloo is remembered as fondly as he is thanks to the smoothly avuncular intonations of Southern songman Phil Harris, but Sebastian Cabot (a British gent who would go on to narrate Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh) is just as commendable as Bagheera, bringing a breathy, fatherly quality to the paternalistic panther. The supporting players knock it out of the park as well: Sterling Holloway (Winnie the Pooh himself) schemes as the mewling python Kaa, All About Eve’s George Sanders commands attention and fear as the affably evil tiger Shere Khan, and jazz legend Louis Prima steals the show as the oobee dooing-orangutan King Louie, among other pitch-perfect performances.
Often praised for the high quality of its animation, the film features lush, hand-painted backgrounds that establish the size and majesty of the Indian rainforest. With enough diversity of scenery to create unique locations for each scene, viewers get a good sense of movement as the story moves forward and our heroes make their way through the jungle. Equally diverse is the Sherman Brothers’ soundtrack, a timeless staple of Disney musical fare that delves into everything from jazz with King Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You” to barbershop quartet with the mop-topped vultures’ “That’s What Friends Are For”. George Bruns’ instrumental, reed-heavy score is similarly masterful, with the overture in particular casting a strange but wonderfully enigmatic shadow (perhaps a holdover from the project’s early, darker days?) over the good-natured frivolity that is to follow.
“…it can’t be overstated how completely and utterly perfect each actor is in their respective role. The sloth bear Baloo is remembered as fondly as he is thanks to the smoothly avuncular intonations of Southern songman Phil Harris, but Sebastian Cabot (a British gent who would go on to narrate Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh) is just as commendable as Bagheera, bringing a breathy, fatherly quality to the paternalistic panther.”
Though the movie departs from Kipling’s source material in many ways, it retains its thematic preoccupation with questions of identity and belonging. Mowgli is a “mancub” and thus pressed by Bagheera to go live with other humans even though he wishes to stay in the jungle, the only world he has ever known. The threat of Shere Khan is invoked by the panther and others to impress upon him the urgency of rejoining his kind, but it’s ultimately a chance encounter with a girl from the nearby village that convinces Mowgli to leave his old life behind. Some interpret this as the logical conclusion of a reactionary conservatism said to be at the heart of the story, with its apparent implication that he had no choice but to accept a predetermined place in the world for himself. Yet crucially, Mowgli leaves the jungle not because Bagheera forced him or because Shere Khan drove him to do so, but because he chose to, an expression of free will very much in line with the freewheeling, hippy-dippy outlook of Baloo’s “Bare Necessities”.
Delightfully exotic with songs that are always a joy to hear, The Jungle Book is an unbeatably happy note for Walt Disney to end his inspiring, nigh-mythic career on.
Based on the children’s book of the same name by Helen Aberson-Mayer, Dumbo might have ended up as just a short film had Walt not decided that Mayer’s story required feature-length treatment. This couldn’t have been an easy decision for the up-and-coming studio head to make: the company’s last two movies, Pinocchio and Fantasia, had both flopped, putting extra pressure on the next feature to perform well. But Walt’s faith in the story about the little elephant with the big ears ultimately paid off for not only did it prove to be at the box office, it still remains regarded as one of Disney’s most heartrending films and one of its most heartwarming as well!
With supervising director Ben Sharpsteen specifically instructed to keep production costs down, the film’s restrained budget shows in the simpler, rushed style of animation. Characters like the Ringmaster and clowns look more cartoony compared to the relatively “realistic” humans of Snow White, and the watercolor-painted backgrounds – a technique rarely used in Disney movies – include less detail in their depictions of circus tents and countrysides. This isn’t to suggest that the animation is bad or uninspired. With its carnivalesque color palette and eye-catching character designs, the movie is undeniably stimulating on an aesthetic level. This is even without taking the “Pink Elephants on Parade” scene, the artistic highpoint of the film’s animation, into account. A fever dream experienced by Dumbo after accidentally imbibing alcohol (drinking? In a Disney movie? It’s more likely than you think!), the sequence is a Daliesque mix of shifting shapes, Latin-inflected jazz, and creepy pachyderms that alternately haunts and entrances viewers to this day.
The first Disney feature to take place in the US, Dumbo retains the distinction of being one of the few to have an American setting. From the distinct, regional accents of such characters as Timothy Q. Mouse and the crows to familiar imagery like trains and circus Big Tops, the film proudly wears its American identity on its sleeve. It is especially pronounced in Oliver Wallace and Frank Churchill’s score, the lively brass and percussion of which evoke jazz – that quintessentially American artform – as much as they do circus music. The songs show range as well, with the crows’ amusingly uplifting “When I See An Elephant Fly”, the inexplicably intense “Song of the Roustabouts”, and “Baby Mine”, the heartful lullaby heard while Mrs. Jumbo cradles Dumbo to sleep, demonstrating the variety of emotions conjured over the course of the film. If I may lift from the name of the exuberant piece that plays during Dumbo’s successful flight at the circus, the music here is nothing less than a “triumph” of spirit and structure.
“The first Disney feature to take place in the US, Dumbo retains the distinction of being one of the few to have an American setting. From the distinct, regional accents of such characters as Timothy Q. Mouse and the crows to familiar imagery like trains and circus Big Tops, the film proudly wears its American identity on its sleeve.”
Being so overtly American in character, it’s perhaps appropriate that much modern discussion about the film revolves around its controversial handling of race. While said discussion mostly revolves around the portrayal of the crows and the roustabouts and the racial stereotypes they invoke, there is a critical, little-discussed subtext to the story that changes the movie and the role of these characters in it. As anyone who loved elephants as a kid can tell you, big ears are not a physical deformity in elephants but rather a natural trait of African ones, in contrast to the small ears of Asian elephants. This means, of course, that Dumbo is an African elephant born and living among Asian elephants, with the abuse and rejection he faces reflecting the horrific discrimination visited upon black people in the US in general and mixed-race children in particular (parallels that writer Nicola Shulman thoroughly elaborates on.) This fact gives a new slant to Dumbo’s interactions with both the crows and roustabouts: while some understandably might still find these characters offensive, they appear to be intended as kindred spirits to our innocent, maltreated protagonist rather than objects of mockery or contempt.
A surprisingly subversive film for a company widely perceived as sensitive to potential controversy, Dumbo is a creative tour-de-force filled with emotion, ideas, and imagination.
The Three Caballeros (1944)
A sequel of sorts to 1942’s Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros was part of Disney’s effort to aid the Roosevelt administration’s push to lure Latin American countries away from the orbit of Nazi Germany and its allies during World War II. Dubbed the Good Neighbor policy, this background has led some to dismiss the movie as propaganda soft-pedaling the imperialism that America so casually engaged in – and not-so-secretly still does – south of the border. Geopolitical intentions aside, Caballeros has proven to be popular with its target demographic decades after its debut, so much so that Disney still uses Jose Carioca and Panchito Pistoles, Donald’s Latin, Speedy Gonzales-adjacent friends, in its media and parks from time to time (as opposed to the way it seems to have quietly disowned the similarly stereotyped crows from Dumbo.)
Starting off with Donald opening presents from Jose and Panchito on his birthday, the film uses this framing device as an excuse to visit different parts of Latin America and explore various aspects of its cultures and environments. While it opens with fairly conventional short subjects like The Cold-Blooded Penguin and The Flying Gauchito, the movie becomes weirder and weirder as the “plot” (if you can call it that) takes Donald to Jose’s Brazil and Panchito’s Mexico before outright abandoning the framing device and slipping into a strange, hallucinatory state where Donald desperately attempts to woo numerous women only to be denied every single time. It’s a brazenly shameless display of horniness for a Disney movie, but it does build up to a memorable climax (nudge nudge, wink wink) where our hot and bothered hero meets the live-action, charra outfit-wearing girl of his dreams (Golden Age of Mexican cinema star Carmen Molina) but is tragically foiled by some nosy cacti – cactus-blocked, if you will. All this to the accompaniment of a rousing rendition of “Jesusita en Chihuahua”, a Mexican Revolution-era polka and favorite of rebel folk hero Pancho Villa.
However, the threadbare plot arguably works to the movie’s advantage as it allows it to go in directions that a more straight-laced film wouldn’t be able to. Blending animated and live-action sequences as needed, we’re able to jump back and forth between the two without an elaborate, Who Framed Roger Rabbit-type explanation for how humans and cartoons can coexist with each other. This allows the fictionalized Bahia (or Baia as it spelled in the film) that Aurora Miranda (sister of Carmen) sings and dances through to jump from decently-crafted studio set to dancing, cartoon cityscape, and the caballeros themselves to cruise on a magic serape through documentary footage of Mexican landscapes and beaches. Though it’s decades away from the technical wizardry of Roger Rabbit, the animation itself is astounding in how expressive and downright surreal it can be, as demonstrated by cockfighting roosters turning into real men and then back during the Baia segment and a lovesick Donald dancing on stars of all shapes and colors and trying to pollinate blooming, Dora Luz-faced flowers (goodnight everybody!) in the final third.
“…a memorable climax (nudge nudge, wink wink) where our hot and bothered hero meets the live-action, charra outfit-wearing girl of his dreams (Golden Age of Mexican cinema star Carmen Molina) but is tragically foiled by some nosy cacti – cactus-blocked, if you will. All this to the accompaniment of a rousing rendition of ‘Jesusita en Chihuahua’, a Mexican Revolution-era polka and favorite of rebel folk hero Pancho Villa.”
Similar to how Dumbo shows its American character through its jazzy score, Caballeros expresses its Latinidad through its soundtrack of then-contemporary Latin American tunes as well as older folk songs. Several compositions like the romantic bolero “Solamente una vez” and the ranchera hit “¡Ay, Jalisco no te rajes!” are given a new, US audience-friendly spin, with the latter being reimagined with English lyrics sung by Donald, Jose, and Panchito over its original Mexican melody as the titular “Three Caballeros”. Others like the Spanish-language “Lilongo” and Brazilian Portuguese “Os Quindins de Yaya” remain in their respective tongues however, adding a layer of authenticity to them. “Yaya” particularly stands out, with its addictive, samba-style rhythm and equally-addicting chorus producing a high that nicely complements the scene’s druggier visuals.
Thin on plot and runtime but rich in atmosphere and imagery, The Three Caballeros is a festive, beautifully bizarre love letter to Latin American culture that might rub some of the woke among us the wrong way but enthrall pretty much everyone else.
Only the third movie to be made by Walt Disney Productions, the premise and production of Fantasia are ambitious even by the standards of today. Piggybacking off the idea of the earlier short The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (which, of course, appears in the final film itself), Disney envisioned an experimental, feature-length program of original animation introduced by a live-action host and accompanied by an orchestra playing classical music. With this avant-garde concept – to say nothing of the prodigious costs of setting up theaters to accommodate its revolutionary, stereophonic Fantasound system – it’s sadly no wonder that the film failed to even recoup its budget. Yet like Dumbo, it appears that time has vindicated Walt’s concert feature, with many young viewers getting their first exposure to the power of Western classical music through this one-of-a-kind project.
Disney films, much less animated films, should be engaging to look at as a rule but even so, it’s amazing that Fantasia, with all its stylistic and tonal shifts, is so consistently amazing to watch and take in. From the relatively naturalistic dinosaurs of The Rite of Spring to the more traditionally anthropomorphic hippos and crocodiles of Dance of the Hours, and from the mischievous, magic-wielding Mickey of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to the reveling demons of Night on Bald Mountain, there is always something interesting going on on-screen. Even the live-action segments are visually intriguing, with the superimposed shadows of the musicians and the changing, almost neon-hued lighting of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor proving to be just as arresting as the abstract animated portion that accompanies it.
It is the music, of course, that drives the picture, and while it’s a far cry from the popular, sing-along-friendly tunes that everybody knows and loves, Leopold Stokowski leads the Philadelphia Orchestra in a command performance of classical music pieces. Opening with the tense strings of Toccata and Fugue, the maestro and his players bring whimsy to the dances of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, mirth to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and a titanic sense of struggle to Stravinsky’s Rite. Their rendition of this last piece is especially impressive given that it was actually a rearranged, slightly-truncated version of Stravinsky’s original ballet. This upset the Russian composer so much that he outright denounced the film, but between their teetering brass, lowing reeds, and rolling drums, the orchestra nevertheless manages to realize the “primitive life” that Stravinsky sought to express.
“…it’s amazing that Fantasia, with all its stylistic and tonal shifts, is so consistently amazing to watch and take in. From the relatively naturalistic dinosaurs of The Rite of Spring to the more traditionally anthropomorphic hippos and crocodiles of Dance of the Hours, and from the mischievous, magic-wielding Mickey of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to the reveling demons of Night on Bald Mountain, there is always something interesting going on on-screen.”
For all Walt Disney’s reputation – warranted and otherwise – as a conservative, Fantasia is startling for how willing it is to entertain decidedly un-conservative subjects. For one thing, the Rite of Spring directly contradicts the creationist account of the origins of life, with host Deems Taylor even claiming “Science, not art, wrote the scenario for this picture,” as if to say “Sorry, them’s the facts,” (Walt originally planned to go even further and show the rise of mammals, but the idea was dropped precisely over concern that it would overly antagonize those skeptical of evolution.) On top of this, we not only get a brief shot of topless female centaurs bathing in The Pastoral Symphony (again, Disney initially intended to go further, leaving them topless the whole segment before censors at the Hays office demanded the animators add garlands to cover their breasts), but also the devilish Chernabog and his impish friends doing their infernal thing in Night on Bald Mountain. The inclusion of the latter over the aforementioned mammal section of Rite is particularly amusing in hindsight, implying as it does that Christian viewers are more likely to take issue with cartoons featuring evolution than ones with pagan Slavic gods.
A daring, visionary project by any measure, Fantasia is a visual and aural marvel that the Marvel-milking, safe-playing Disney of today would never even dream of attempting to make.
From acclaimed director David Fincher in his first film since 2014’s Gone Girl comes the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles’ partner in writing (or is he?) for the script of the legendary film Citizen Kane. The film stars veteran character actor Gary Oldman in the title role along with a supporting cast rounded out by Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, and Charles Dance as famous newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. With this talent, Mank sets out to recreate the Golden Age of Hollywood that influenced one of the men behind Citizen Kane.
The film’s direction and screenplay invoke the style and format that made Citizen Kane into the influential classic it is. Obviously, Fincher made the film blackand white to look like a 1940s film. A reoccurring technique that Fincher uses is a deep focus, as he frames his subjects from angles to make one look larger compared to another subject, a technique also commonly used in Citizen Kane. Unlike many modern filmmakers that will just make their film black and white and call it a day, Fincher uses similar lighting techniques of old black-and-white films in order to create striking visual images despite the lack of color.
Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher, wrote the screenplay for Mank in the late 1990s and he clearly structured his script in a similar way to Citizen Kane. Orson Welles’ original movie framed its story through an investigation and Kane’s life is told through a series of flashbacks. The framing device of Mank is Mank’s writing binge as he writes Citizen Kane and then flashbacks to various points throughout his career.
Of course, a unique story structure is nothing without a compelling subject to follow, and Mank is that subject to latch on to. Mank is an eccentric man who does not fit into a Hollywood in the movie’s world. He is an alcoholic and serial gambler, often getting himself into trouble with his colleagues. Yet, he’s incredibly witty and observant. He’s not afraid to challenge the status quo that his colleagues want to enforce, even if it damages his wallet and reputation.
So, the movie is not lacking a central protagonist for viewers to be fascinated in. It’s not hard to see why Mank went on to write Citizen Kane. Like Mank, Citizen Kane was outside the box for conventional Hollywood films, with its nonlinear narrative and use of multiple narrators. Mank was not afraid to share his unpopular opinions to the detriment of his career, like how Citizen Kane’s treatment of Hearst hurt its box office chances. So Mank seemed like the perfect choice to bring the unconventional and controversial story of Citizen Kane to life.
Not only does Mank inform viewers on what kind of man Mank was, but it demonstrates what 1930s Hollywood was like through its articulate recreation of the period. However, it does anything but glamorize it. Mank demonstrates the kind of men that controlled Hollywood: rich and powerful businessmen who cared more about their own profits than artistic and moral integrity. Mank discovered how they had too much influence in politics and manipulate the public, which lead him to turn on Hearst.
One gripe with Mank is that its side characters are not nearly as interesting as its main subject. Surprisingly, Dance is only in a handful of scenes as Hearst. Most of the other characters in the film are one-note and do not get enough screen time to get fleshed out. The notable exception is Marion Davies, the friend of Mank and mistress of Hearst, who is wonderfully portrayed by Seyfried. Davies is the only character with a lively
personality to match Mank and leave an impression on viewers.
Orson Welles fans may also not appreciate how the film portrays Mank as the primary writer of Citizen Kane. There is much debate among film scholars on whether Mank or Welles contributed more to the film’s script. Mank makes the argument that it was Mank whose life experiences and unconventional thinking influenced the script.
While Mank offers cinephiles a fascinating look into the world of 1930s Hollywood, casual viewers may struggle to connect with the subject matter. A common complaint about Citizen Kane is that the movie is cold and lacks a strong emotional core for viewers to latch onto, and this complaint can be leveled at Mank as well. Another issue with Mank is that even though it offers an insightful look into the era and the character, it struggles to justify why this story needed to be told. Viewers will learn history, but they may not take away why they need to know this piece of history. But for other viewers, just living in this world for two hours should be enough to satisfy their inner film geek.
Mank is masterfully made on a technical level, with superb direction from Fincher and gorgeous black and white cinematography that recreates the aesthetic of Hollywood’s Golden Age. While it may not be accessible to all viewers, it sure provides a pleasant and fascinating experience for cinephiles. Mank is now available to stream on Netflix.
“…the creative potential and possibility in this role was that [a hearing actor] would literally go through this experience of losing that comfort, losing that ability, and all of the things that come with that, and actually have to grapple with being a minority amongst and in Deaf culture…And if you were to take an already deafened person, they would be comfortable within Deaf culture, they wouldn’t be actually a minority, they wouldn’t be able to access that creative energy that only a hearing person can access because they are a minority, because it’s not a place that [hearing people are] used to. It’s not a place that they’re comfortable. And that’s very much where the viewer is put in this movie.” — Darius Marder, on casting a hearing actor in the lead role, 2020 CBC radio interview.
NOTE FROM THE WRITER:
While theatrical versions of the film are screened with open captions in accordance with the filmmaker’s intent to satisfy a mixed-hearing audience, this reviewer saw the film at home with closed captioning turned off. To hearing audiences that want to experience this film in its complete form, consider watching it with closed captions turned ON.
Delayed its original summer release due to the ongoing COVID pandemic, Darius Marder’s electrifying debut film Sound of Metal finally arrives on Amazon Prime streaming and drive-in theaters in all its stereosonic luster. It’s a story about music and sound, yes, but more precisely it’s a story about addictions and the transcendental healing power of silences. Nearly fifteen years in development, Sound Of Metal marks the third collaboration between Marder and fellow filmmaker Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond The Pines), another American director with an eye for the internal suffering of characters that gradually and inevitably self-destruct over the course of their stories.
In Sound Of Metal we meet Ruben Stone, a magnetic Riz Ahmed, and his partner Lou (just, Lou), the always talented Olivia Cooke. The pair make up a noise/art metal band that has been touring around the country for the last four years living noisy bohemian lives segmented by playing concerts, drinking blended smoothies, and slow dancing to jazz music. The film bounces through its opening moments with rosy insouciance, conjuring a dream romance unaided by phony exposition. Whether inside or out of the confines of their cozy Airstream van, Marder’s camera repeatedly frames Ruben and Lou within the same shot, deepening and empowering their intangible bond. When Ruben suddenly and inexplicably loses his hearing overnight, he never doubts his bond with Lou. “You’re my heart”, he tells her in an early emotional scene.
Lovingly photographed on 35mm film by Cinematographer Daniël Bouquet, large portions of Sound Of Metal are framed with characters in close up, allowing all their unspoken emotional states to resonate from their faces when sitting in silence or when attempting to communicate with one another. Aided by a cast of deaf or hard of hearing actors and consultants, Marder depicts Ruben’s deafness with an informed yet hands-off approach that strives for authenticity. Honest moments, from diagnosis to treatment, are captured with a verite immediacy that thrust the audience into the scene with Ruben and Lou – both attempting to reorient to a totally new reality on separate terms.
Reluctantly enrolling in a deaf sober living house, Ruben finds himself toeing the line between two worlds, two cultures. Deaf, not deaf. Isolation, community. Past, present. Lou, no Lou. Although Ruben’s history of substance abuse is hinted at with his anxious smoking, the film smartly avoids any predictable subplots about potential relapse – if Ruben has any stability, it’s certainly in his sobriety. Alarmingly however, an obsession for a new kind of “fix” develops while he transitions to life without sound. An empty obsession that might get him his heart back at the risk of total alienation from the people that understand him most.
Despite the tattoos and the uber-masculine “fuck you” exterior, it’s clear that Ruben is a scared young man when he’s not with Lou. It comes as no surprise then that the music Ruben makes, or the way he’ll sign his name on a whiteboard is disruptive and complex, beautiful in its multitudes yet difficult to decipher. A reticence to express that which is most personal because of self-imposed barriers. Ruben’s insecurities, his addictions, his codependency with Lou, all hinder him from loving himself. The deafness merely magnifies these problems he’s been hiding from for years.
By the end of Sound Of Metal, Ruben again finds himself between two worlds, only this time it has nothing to do with his ability to hear. For the first time in his life, we see Ruben at peace, without judgment or agitation. Whether or not he’ll have his heart intact is best left for the film to say.
Now Streaming at The Frida Cinema
As a darkly, suspenseful science fiction film, director/co-writer Eric Schultz’s Minor Premise presents an underlying dialogue on the larger topic of mental health and the “true self.” I was bound to the screen. If this were a book, it’d be a page turner. The unpredictability of the film parallels the uncharted territories of the human brain.
Dr. Ethan Kochar (Sathya Sridharan) battles his emotions surrounding his brilliant father’s recent passing by throwing himself into his work. He uses himself as a guinea pig, pushing away his former lover turned lab partner, Alli (Paton Ashbrook), in the process. His work exacerbates his already questionable mental state when he manages to isolate nine sections of his consciousness, each of which takes turns interacting with Alli, whose role evolves from girlfriend to lab partner as she aims to set boundaries with an increasingly unhinged Ethan.
Despite a slow start, Justin Derry’s creative cinematography (including a wormhole view!) and stylishly visual montages kept me glued, as did composer Gavin Brivik’s pensive, foreboding score, which mirrors Dr. Kochar’s psychological descent. The character is a very relatable person, dealing with death, overwhelm and guilt by attempting to avoid it or drown it. His devolution is a heartbreaking and realistic portrait of someone suffering a mental health disorder. I felt invested in the film, and dedicated to Kochar’s self-inflicted emotional whirlwind, because I could relate to most of the “sections” of his consciousness. The use of close-up camera angles make Kochar’s breakdown all the more intimately relatable.
Minor Premise was thought provoking and disturbingly captivating. Although most of the technical jargon may be lost on some audiences, the film is at its heart a character study. Rich and invested performances allow for empathy and understanding of the characters. Sridharan switches between the nine sections of his consciousness with awesome energy, matched by co-star Ashbrook. His role was demanding, and he does not disappoint.To top it all off, the soundtrack boasts some eclectic jams that have already become part of my own life’s soundtrack. Minor Premise is worth a watch, and is now streaming at The Frida Cinema.
Where do I even start? This is probably the only question one can ask when they have just watched Batman Returns for the first time only two hours ago, and it’s gradually becoming more difficult to imagine returning to the version of myself who had somehow spent 24 years unaware of the operatic, relentlessly Gothic, kink-laden masterwork that Tim Burton dove headfirst into creating. And yet, for its cosmic level of irreverence on full display– from Danny DeVito sailing through a sewage system on a giant rubber duck, to Michelle Pfeiffer exiting out of a scene by doing an endless amount of backflips, slowly rising through the drains of those snowy metropolitan streets is an undercurrent of tragedy and intersecting trauma. You only need to watch the opening minute of to realize that your preconceived notion of what a Batman film directed by Tim Burton would look like is probably far closer here than it was with his previous Batman film, which is 100% telling of just how much creative control Burton was given with the sequel.
From a production that took up more space of the Warner Brosthers studio lot than any other (at least at the time), to Burton personally hiring Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters to flesh out the character of The Penguin–played to iconoclastic and repulsive degrees by a pre-Frank Reynolds-era Danny DeVito. And in spite of the bounty of madness, it all comes together in a beautifully bizarre, expressionistic, and wholly singular piece of work. And yes, one is that absolutely bustling with an energy more horny than not just any superhero film from the 28 years since its release, but probably any Christmas movie ever made. I hope just about everybody had already accepted this as a Christmas movie, by the way. Because it is.
Waddling in the sewers beneath the citizens of Gotham City is a penguin, as well as an army of others. These penguins are led by Oswald Copplepot– the titular Penguin–who as an infant was abandoned by aristocratic parents that couldn’t bear his deformities. His fingers fused together until hands become flippers, a pale nose long enough to resemble an icicle, and the tar-like fluid releasing from his mouth with each raspy word spoken. In control of a circus troupe gone rogue named The Red Triangle Gang, Copplepot uses an ambush on ground level to kidnap the wealthy philanthropist/industrialist hybrid Max Shreck–played by one Christopher Walken–whom Copplepot blackmails to help redeem his status as an upstanding citizen. In the midst of this, Shreck has proposed to build a power plant which in actuality is a cover-up to drain Gotham City of its power. The fact that Shreck shares the same name as the actor who infamously played Nosferatu is but a mere indication of his sinister plans. But who discovers this? You’d think Batman, of course. But Bruce Wayne–played by Michael Keaton–doesn’t have a full scene of dialogue until nearly forty minutes into the film. Burton instead takes time to establish the arcs of the new (and honestly, far more compelling) characters, including Selina Kyle–played to an immeasurably risqué prowess by Michelle Pfeiffer–the awkward assistant who uncovers this evidence, and is subsequently attempted to be rid of by Shreck. But such an attempt only gives her a true sense of identity, and in the trashing of her pastel-colored apartment, and the sewing of skintight leather, Catwoman is born in the shattered neon lights of her bedroom, signaling that Hell is here, and revenge is to be had.
Such is the tale of three outcasts–Wayne, Copplepot, and Kyle. Lost souls searching for meaning in the vast grandness of an unloving metropolis. Can the answers to their individual traumas be found? Can you truly use love to redeem a corrupted soul? Can a penguin responsibly use a jet pack? These are only too little a fraction of the questions that Burton and Waters dare to ask. But within the brooding atmosphere and occasional bits of shockingly misanthropic violence is the overt amount of fun to be had in nearly every scene. From the camera that swoops across gorgeously elaborate miniature sets, to the city-street brawls that find Burton using his ability to render live-action through a vast cartoon logic to unreachable highs. Having all of this set during the Christmas season does nothing but highlight the opera beneath the pulp. As mistrust, pain, and disgrace further bind these three souls together, it all culminates in the possibility that what they desire will ultimately leave them even more alone than they already were. During a period of the year where unity and family are embraced at its peak, only their opposites are felt as the film climaxes with a battle of self-destruction that only leaves the three searching for something that can never be found. Fully aware that they are who they are, and can only tread onwards until the nearest thing to closure is felt. Batman Returns is an ode to the lives who are at their most broken during quote-unquote “the most wonderful time of the year”, under the faint guise of a grand-scale Gothic opera. It also happens to be a hodgepodge of utter insanity; chockfull of relentlessly Burtonesque imagery and shockingly blunt innuendo between a penguin man and leather-clad cat lady. It’s a beautiful thing to witness. And to imagine, this was the big Summer blockbuster of 1992. This will absolutely never happen again. So embrace it, strap on that leather, and chug that milk carton. Hell is here.
My favorite band in the world is, without a doubt, Queen. For as long as I can remember, I just love how they can produce music in multiple different styles and genres while still containing a familiar feel across it all. Not to mention their music is just very good in general. In celebration of the Frida’s Drive-In screening of the band’s biographical film, Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), I’ll be presenting my personal top five favorite Queen music videos:
#5 Bohemian Rhapsody (1975)
First up is the project that essentially created the modern day music video as we know it. While it’s definitely a bit primitive looking nowadays, and while it wasn’t the first one to exist out there, you have to give it credit. Just like the song itself, it’s definitely one of these experiences that just needs to be witnessed, as it’s such a ride through multiple different sounding verses of various different tones that somehow just clicks in really well by the end. I’m also a fan of the lighting choices and effects–they just add to the experience that the original song wouldn’t be able to accomplish on it’s own.
#4 A Kind Of Magic (1986)
In a mysterious and abandoned theater, we watch the iconic Freddie Mercury as some sort of magician-like character that encounters May, Taylor, and Deacon (playing a trio of homeless sleeping hobos) and uses magic to transform them into rock stars. What I really like about this is the interrogation of both the band members as well as the animated depictions of them from the album’s cover. As a bonus, we get some very classy backup singers with extremely striking designs. As you’ll probably see both in this video as well as in the entries, I really enjoy when different forms of media, in this case live-action and animation, can lead to some amazing results and I think this video is no exception.
#3 The Invisible Man (1989)
Two of my favorite things in the world are video games and retro 80s aesthetic. This video satisfies my love for both of them at the same time. I think what I really love about this video is just how the music not only works with the action itself, but it also sounds like it belongs in a retro game from that era. It’s a perfect time capsule. The bandmates appearing as nothing more than just simple silhouettes within the game also adds to the simplistic but retro feel of the video. I also just really like the setting of a kid’s room from the 80s, as it feels oddly nostalgic despite me not being born during that time. I guess what I’m trying to say is I just really like the 80s aesthetic.
#2 Save Me (1980)
Here we have one of the band’s more unique songs and videos. It’s definitely one of their most emotional videos, as it’s about the struggles of moving on from a past relationship that just didn’t work out. In the end, how do we move on from something like that? Do we hope that things can get better later, or is it just better to just start taking the tough path on trying to move on? All these questions are brilliantly displayed via the animation segment featuring a young woman and golden dove that represents what the theme of the song is while also giving it a nice dream-like vibe. This was accomplished via rotoscoping–a technique that fuses live action and animation. It’s the same technique that A-ha would use for their iconic music video, Take On Me.
#1 Innuendo (1991)
It’s pretty hard to explain why Innuendo is my favorite of Queen’s music videos, but I think what I love about it is the unique approach it decided to take. With Freddie being too ill to film, old video footage of the band was brilliantly morphed into stylized animation based on different artists – with Mercury drawn in the style of Leonardo Da Vinci, May in the style of Victorian etchings, Taylor in the style of Jackson Pollock, and Deacon in the style of Pablo Picasso. Alongside that is footage from multiple different forms of expressionism–dark baroque artistry and piling scary dolls to different historical moments via stock footage like WWII and the Gulf War while being showcase in a setting very much like the film adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s such a breathtaking experience that’s worth analyzing and experiencing for the masterpiece it is.
UPDATE: Congrats to Martin W. & Katie M., winners of today’s Batman Returns ticket giveaway contest! We received some great entries to our question “What’s your favorite cinematic comic book/graphic novel adaptation,” but far and away, the title with the most entries was Watchmen!
Has it really been 28 years since the second (and best?) Tim Burton contribution to the Batman franchise, Batman Returns?
We’ll be screening the 1992 classic this Friday as part of our Drive-In Dine-Out series at Tustin’s Mess Hall Market! Tickets are still available — or you can enter our contest below for a chance to win a free ticket to Friday’s show! We’ll be picking a winner at random for our entries on Thursday, December 3rd at 5PM, and emailing them to let them know they’ve won!
For a chance to win, tell us — What’s your favorite cinematic comic book / graphic novel adaptation?
Enter below for chance to win! Don’t forget to click on “Click to Submit” when done! Good luck!
1980 was an amazing year for groundbreaking and entertaining Horror films. In honor of the 40th anniversary of The Frida drive-in screening of The Shining on November 27th, we’re gonna highlight ten Horror films every fan of the genre should see.
10: Prom Night
The Slasher film classic heavily inspired the popular 90’s Horror franchise I Know What You Did Last Summer. A group of teens who accidentally killed a fellow classmate as young children are being stalked by a masked killer as they get ready for their high school senior prom. Over the years, this film has become a B-picture cult classic, especially for fans of 1980’s Horror.
9: The First Deadly sin
Though considered a Crime Thriller film, the intensity of the suspense and use of violence feels like a horror movie. Golden Age of Hollywood icon Frank Sinatra stars as a close-to-retirement New York City police inspector that is frantically following the trail of a serial killer. A unique aspect of this film is that the serial killer’s weapon of choice was an ice axe with serrated teeth.
8: The Fog
Co-written and directed by Horror icon John Carpenter, this was his second film starring Jamie Lee Curtis after the 1978’s Halloween. As a small California coastal town is preparing for their 100th year anniversary, mysterious events lead to an eerie fog engulfing the town, bringing fear and death. The plot was based on a true story of a shipwreck.
Considered one of the most violent Slasher films of the 1980s–its bold use of guerrilla cinematic style and gory special effects by legendary FX artist Tom Savini continue to be its legacy. A psychotic serial killer roams New York City, murdering young women and taking their scalps as a trophy. However, when he meets a beautiful photographer, will his bloodlust end, or will she become his next victim?
A visually stunning surrealist horror Hilm written and directed by one of the most influential Italian horror directors ever–Dario Argento. After a young poet goes missing in her New York City apartment building, her brother goes to investigate her disappearance and a series of brutal murders, caused by the magic of a powerful coven of witches. Another equally influential Italian Horror director, Mario Bava, also assisted with this film, such as shooting scenes of star Irene Miracle and creating the film’s special effects.
5: Cannibal Holocaust
Without a doubt the most controversial horror film on this list, this is credited as the first found-footage horror film. A university anthropologist goes to the Amazon rainforest in search of a missing American film crew and recovers their film canisters. As he views the footage, he is shocked by the stomach-turning brutality captured on camera.
4: Dressed to Kill
An Erotic Thriller by Brian De Palma, it was nominated for two New York Film Critics Circle Awards for Best Director and Best Film. After a prostitute witnesses a murder and becomes the prime suspect for it, she and her son must find the killer before the killer finds her. What Psycho did for showers, Dressed to Kill did for elevators.
3: The Changeling
A chilling haunted house Horror film, listed by Bloody Disgusting as #4 of its “20 Best Haunted House Horror Movies”. While relocating to a countryside Victorian mansion after the death of his wife and child, a composer deals with the raw pain of grief and a ghostly presence within the mansion. The story of this film is based on the real-life haunted house and its events, the Henry Treat Rogers Mansion, located in Denver, Colorado.
2: Friday the 13th
The start of one of the most influential pop culture Horror franchises from the 1980s, inspired by a real mass murder. As a group of camp counselors are in the process of reopening a summer camp with a tragic past, a mysterious presence stalks and murders them one by one. This film was part of the top twenty highest-grossing movies of 1980, alongside Prom Night, The Fog, Dressed to Kill, and The Shining.
City of the Living Dead
We’re going to Eat You
1: The Shining
Undoubtedly, one of the most influential and beloved Horror films of all time, The Shining brought American horror films to a new artistic level. A troubled family spends their Winter isolated in the sprawling Overlook Hotel, where sinister energy torments them at every turn. Starting with them seeing horrific supernatural manifestations, the film eventually spirals into a violent battle to the death. In 2018, The Shining was entered into the Library of Congress because of its historical and cultural significance.