In consideration of the incredible strain that the recent surge of Omicron cases has placed on our local Orange County hospitals, The Frida Cinema has made the difficult decision to temporarily close our doors effective tomorrow, Friday January 14th. As case numbers are expected to decrease in late-January, we hope to reopen on January 28th with a rescheduled run of Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers. Of course will be keeping an eye on local hospital patient rates to ensure it is sensible to do so, and we will keep you posted on our website and social media, as well as through our newsletters.
In the effort to continue to meet our mission in a safe fashion, and with deep appreciation to the team at Mess Hall Market in Tustin, we are happy to announce the return of our Drive-In screening series. We are also very excited to launch a new monthly series of free outdoor films, Classics on French Street, which will commence one week from tonight. Click here to see our schedule of upcoming outdoor and Drive-In events.
As you can well imagine, this ongoing pandemic, combined with our recent need to invest in a new projector, have deeply impacted the fiscal health of our organization. Please consider supporting us during these difficult times by making a tax-deductible donation in support of The Frida Cinema. If you are interested in making an Angel-level donation, or should you or your business be interested in sponsoring our outdoor series or any of our upcoming events, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me at email@example.com.
Thank you for your understanding. Please stay safe out there, and we look forward to seeing you at our outdoor screenings, and back at The Frida when we reopen.
– Logan Crow, Executive Director
The Frida Cinema is proud to annouce we have been approved for a $10,000 National Endowment for the Arts Challenge America award to support free community screenings throughout Santa Ana! Our project is among 168 projects across America totaling $1,680,000 that were selected to receive fiscal year 2022 funding in the Challenge America grant category.
Our project, Guillermo del Toro: Beautiful Monsters, will will commence in August 2022, and will feature twenty screenings featuring films by Oscar-winning Mexican director, producer, screenwriter, and author Guillermo del Toro, as well as films he has noted have influenced his work. An art show dedicated to del Toro’s films will also be hosted at the theater. In addition to screening some of the films at The Frida, we will also be presenting some of the films at outdoor locations throughout Santa Ana.
“The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support arts projects like this one from The Frida Cinema that help support the community’s creative economy. The Frida in Santa Ana is among the organizations nationwide that are using the arts as a source of strength, a path to well-being, and providing access and opportunity for people to connect and find joy through the arts.”
– NEA Acting Chair Ann Eilers
This free arts program will serve to both entertain audiences, and provide an accessible and culturally-affirming program to promote film arts and arts education. We are thrilled to be able to provide even more free film arts programming to the community thanks to support from the NEA!
Sidney Poitier, the deeply beloved trailblazing Academy Award-winning actor, director, political activist, and ambassador, passed away on January 7th. Poitier was one of the most iconic film talents and American cultural influences in the second part of the twentieth century. His remarkable career spanned over seven decades.
Before Poitier graced the silver screen, he began acting on the stage with the American Negro Theatre. Through the American Negro Theatre, he landed the lead role in a Broadway production of Lysistrata. Despite the failure of Lysistrata, he continued to pursue theatre, co-founding the Committee for the Negro in the Arts in 1947.
Making the jump from stage to film, Poitier gained his first major film role in the controversial 1950 racially-charged drama No Way Out. Poitier, as Dr. Luther Brooks, the first black doctor of the hospital, assigned to treat two injured white robbery suspects and racist brothers. This role launched Poitier’s film career, leading to other notable roles in Blackboard Jungle, The Defiant Ones, Porgy and Bess, A Raisin in the Sun, and Paris Blues.
1963’s Lilies in the Field starred Poitier as a traveling jack-of-all-trades veteran who helps German nuns in Arizona build a chapel in the desert. This role led Poitier to become the first black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. As dear friend, fellow actor, and civil rights advocate Harry Belafonte recalled in the Netflix documentary, They’ve Gotta Have Us, “With humor, I observed that achievement and felt sorry for my friend. He had a terrible task of having to maintain some sense of dignity and individuality, yet the system didn’t give him much space in which to wiggle.”
In the 1960s Poitier received criticism for his roles as the over-idealized African American, despite being the only major Black actor to cast in the leading roles of American films. Feeling conflicted about this issue, Poitier wanted diverse roles, but felt an obligation for his characters to challenge old stereotypes.
1967 was the year of Poitier, with the release of three monumental films starring Poitier: To Sir with Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Each film dealt with race relations including generational racism, systemic racism, and interracial love. These films have become three of Poitier’s most notable films, with In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being, “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Going behind the camera as a director, in 1972, Poitier directed and co-starred with Belafonte and Ruby Dee in Buck and the Preacher. Taking a notable perspective on the classic western, Buck and the Preacher follows two vastly different men, wagon master Buck (Poitier) and con-artist Preacher (Belafonte) who join forces to stop bounty hunters from kidnapping freed slaves and forcing them back to the South. This film later became a significant film in the Black western genre, following earlier Black westerns such as The Bull Dodger, Harlem on the Prairie, Harlem Rides to the Range, and Two-Gun Man from Harlem.
Throughout his career, Poitier strongly advocated for civil rights. Poitier was an early supporter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, whose first president was Dr. Martin King Jr. In 1963, Poitier and Belafonte were present, supporting the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. During the Summer of 1964, to show support for the volunteers of the Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi, Poitier and Belafonte took money to volunteers in Greenwood, Mississippi. As they drove at night to Greenwood, they were stalked and attacked by the Ku Klux Klan, who repeatedly rammed their car, until SNCC members and sympathizers were able to create a caravan around them, protecting them from further KKK violence.
Dr. King would later mention how, “[Poitier] has carved for himself an imperishable niche in the annals of our nation’s history.” He would go on to further state, “I consider him a friend. I consider him a great friend of humanity.”
Other notable titles, awards, and honors for Poitier:
1974: Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II
1982: The Golden Cecil B. DeMille Award
1992: AFI Life Achievement Award
1994: Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
1995: Kennedy Center Honor
1995 – 2003: Member of the board of directors for The Walt Disney Company
1997 – 2007: Bahamian Ambassador to Japan
1998: South Park episode “Mega-Streisand”, parodied as a hero that helped save the town of South Park
1999: AFI ranked Poitier as 22nd on their list of 25 greatest male actors of American film history
2000: The Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award
2002: An Academy Honorary Award by the Board of Governors of the Academy Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
2002-2007: Bahamian Ambassador to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)
2009: Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama
2016: The BAFTA Fellowship, a lifetime achievement award
Through his amazing body of work in film and civil rights activism, Poitier has and will continue to impact generations of actors, filmmakers, and audiences. As Denzel Washington shared with Poitier, in his 2002 Oscar acceptance speech for his Best Actor win for Training Day, “I’ll always chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, Sir.”
While the list of movies I haven’t seen is always growing, I thought I might also dive into another passion of mine and talk about music. Focusing mostly on the original music composed for films, I will point out notable features of the soundtrack track listing, the way the tracks are used in the movies, and a little history on their recording and production. Before we start however, I would like to ask you a question.
When you think of night, what pops into your head? Is it darkness, cricket noises, wind rushing, branches scratching against windows or breaking from the force of the rushing wind? How about synthesizers, rocking guitars, and heavy, steady drum beats?Now that’s a night-time sound I bet you didn’t think of. The music that comes to my mind with nighttime scenes usually evokes the long, cold, slow crawling hours that never seem to end and only makes you long for the sun or some kind of musical heat to snap you out of the creeping death that seems to seep from the night sky. The kind of creepy moody music that only seems to gather itself on sounds that are unnerving and ghost like.
Now, the synth-heavy night music I speak of has been snaking its way through a number of genre films that I think capture what nighttime should be very well. Not creepy, string music nighttime, but creepy, electronic music nighttime. You’ve heard it in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, but what about some of the earlier films that utilized such synth-heavy tracks and nostalgic city drive tunes? That’s where Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack to Thief comes in. Something of a lesser-known Michael Mann film from the 80s starring James Caan, its aesthetic oozes a crime drama that would seem seemingly lend itself to mostly soft and heavy bass lines with the occasional blast of strings and percussion, but Mann takes the road less traveled on this one unlike his later work and enlists the ambient prog-rock stylings of Tangerine Dream to work their magic. It’s with that we begin to dive deeper and ask ourselves, “Why don’t we just make it sound like a jam session done by a computer whose idea of night time is neon light and wet roads?”
The soundtrack starts off slow with the track “Beach Theme”, which does not appear in the film but whose presence on the album creeps up on you and pulls you into a world that you can only imagine. The back drop conjured by it suggests Hollywood Blvd. late at night with no one but a few homeless people curling up to stay warm and the bright pinks and blues glowing over the window shield as one drives past all the late night liquor stores and adult movie theaters. A variation of this track, called “Beach Scene”, plays during a point in the film which James Caan has some downtime from his professional thieving to enjoy the family he started, but honestly there isn’t much of a difference between the two tracks. However, this rearrangement does help propel the story along with its joyous guitars and piano lines signifying victory when James Caans triumphs in his attempt to leave his life of crime behind and enjoy his newfound life as a father and husband.
The big opening theme song for the diamond heist that actually starts off the movie doesn’t come up until later on the soundtrack album. The track is know as “Diamond Diary” and it really captures what the movie is all about. It builds up from the start of the movie with Caan driving off to what he hopes to be one of his last jobs keeps you on the edge of your seat. The song chugs along as the action moves to Caan expertly performing the art of lock-picking and cracking safes. The track not only flows well with one of the more innovative scenes of the inside of a safe’s locking system, but also fits right in with the suspense that is right there with the chance of getting caught. It’s very much a hard, dry, and scary scene to watch if you are easily scared of getting caught doing something wrong.
After the initial track were finished and mastered for the album as well as the backing tracks for the film, Michael Mann needed one last track for a sequence that was originally meant to be unscored. Deciding that the scene would indeed work better with music, Mann ended up calling upon Craig Safan to compose the track “Confrontation”. This track was used for the film, but was switched out with the track “Beach Scene” between several prints of the soundtrack. It wasn’t until 2014 when Perseverance Records released a full, 9-track version of the soundtrack with all the recorded music for Thief.
If you want a pretty interesting soundtrack to veg out to, I suggest the Thief soundtrack so you can see where Cliff Martinez got his best ideas for the Drive soundtrack and followed along the dotted line where Tangerine Dream left off.
I remember my gut sinking like a stone. All it took for me to know was to go on my phone during a brief work break, open Instagram, and see that various outlets and filmmakers had posted images and dedications to Peter Bogdanovich without much context. But the reasoning formed in my head as every post congregated into a shattering realization. We lost a titan, and a personal hero of mine was gone. It’s too easy for someone like me to fall deep into a dizzying internal labyrinth when a loss this substantial is confronted so point-blank, so unexpectedly, and it’s even easier for doubt to often take the place of natural grief. Why should I feel this way about someone who I not only didn’t actually know, but only managed to understand through their art? Is what I’m feeling more performative than I’d like to admit due to his major impact in mainstream American cinema, and that any other reaction more subdued couldn’t possibly do his name justice? But just minutes after finding out about his passing, I got a text from a friend who had also heard about it and wanted to ask how I was holding up. In a sudden flash, what I was feeling became validated. As if at some point I had made my adoration of not just his body of work, but his ingrained passion and endlessly bountiful dedication to the history and preservation of film, fully known and outside of myself. I had a reason to feel what I felt.
There was no one like him, not only as a natural-born filmmaker but as one well within the microscopic liminal point of Old Hollywood and the daring prospects of what would become the New. As the period between the mid-60s and early-70s dove headfirst into rapid economic and artistic progression – informed by a spectrum of different movements including the French New Wave and the blossoming freedom of the independent film scene – it seemed that the only way for cinema to move was into the unknowable forward. But Bogdanovich, having originated as a film programmer for art galleries as well as a writer for publications like Esquire, almost immediately marked himself as a filmmaking enigma by doing the unthinkable. He looked backwards. Having drawn major obsession with such Golden Age titans as Orson Welles, Howard Hawkes and John Ford, Bogdanovich tapped into a unique synthesis of two distinct eras in Hollywood to make works that used the harkening of long-forgone visual styles and sub-genres to tell new stories with faces fresh and old. He acted as a bridge between worlds, with an approach that can aptly be labelled as both conservative and progressive. With the assistance of Roger Corman, Bogdanovich’s first directorial credit (under his own name) would be the first of a consecutive four-film run that remains undefeated due to this approach.
This film was 1968’s Targets – a meta-textual thriller that juxtaposed the classical horror of monsters – represented by lead actor Boris Karloff in one of his final roles, with the surfacing reality of mass shootings just beginning to spread through the U.S. like disease. While an approach like this could potentially have been laughed off as heavy-handed, Bogdanovich lends the film a chillingly clinical air that has made it age terrifyingly well. Corman, having been responsible for starting Bogdanovich’s filmmaking career, was a jumping off point for Peter to branch off into the roots of his inspiration. Three years later, he would go on to collaborate with Larry McMurtry in adapting his novel The Last Picture Show to the screen, and the result was his big break. Nabbing plenty of Oscar nominations as well as two Best Supporting wins for Ben Johnson and featuring a devastating turn by Cloris Leachman, The Last Picture Show resonated due to its innate melancholy that used the aesthetics of the past to convey the heartbreak of time’s ravaging passage.
A gradual master of pulling directorial 180s, Peter followed that success a year later with a project near-polar opposite in tone that dared to ask the question, “What if Barbara Streisand was in Looney Tunes?”. The answer, ironically, was another question that asked, “What’s Up, Doc?” – a riotous hybrid of the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks with the comic escalation and near-defying of logic that was inherent in cartoons, in which its G-rating would insure itself as the secret weapon for why its all-ages appeal has made it stand the test of time as one of the absolute funniest movies ever made. It would be here in which Peter, having already established a near-untouchable pedigree of films, would follow it up with a tonal hybrid of his previous work – specifically the recollective sadness of The Last Picture Show and the infectiously comic energy of What’s Up, Doc?, as well as uniting a handful of past collaborators to go back into the past – specifically the Depression-era Midwest; pairing his What’s Up, Doc? lead Ryan O’Neal with his debuting daughter Tatum, and yet again capturing lightning in a bottle as if it was the easiest thing on the planet. Adapted from the novel Addie Pray by Joe David Brown, Peter would give the film another title that was supported by a former idol now-friend he had managed to make at this point in his career – Orson Welles, who had responded once Peter thought about naming the film Paper Moon…
“That title is so good, you shouldn’t even make the picture, you should just release the title!”
And thus, Paper Moon was released in 1973 and immediately skyrocketed to the status of a long-gestating classic. And of course his filmography had really only began, with a modest career in fictional and nonfictional work that spanned over nearly five decades. If he wasn’t venturing into untapped territories of genre, he was paying tribute to those of yesteryear with documentaries about John Ford and Buster Keaton. But it was with this run of films that had laid an indelible foundation. From the frequent crossover successes, to the major contributions made to each film by his then-partner Polly Platt – co-writing Targets and designing the productions of his following three films, and to his legendary status leading to not just consistently enjoyable appearances on The Sopranos as Dr. Elliott Kupferberg, but also in this writer’s humble opinion, directing one of its best episodes. To describe his life and career in the ever-so-intensely- evolving mass of Hollywood would be to flourish it to novelistic heights. Ripe with the success, failure, falling out and unthinkable tragedy that would be inappropriate for something I’d rather preserve as a clear-cut tribute. So I leave here with his artistic bowing out of sorts. In the mid-70’s, Orson Welles had cornered Peter to promise him that if anything happened to Welles then he would help to complete his project named The Other Side of the Wind – a feature that would become Welles’ last.
“I said, ‘Jesus Christ, Orson, why do you say such a thing?’ ‘Nothing’s going to happen to me, but if it does, I want you to promise me you will finish the picture.’ I said, ‘Well, of course I would.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s fine, now we can change the subject.’ And so he died in ’85, and I’ve been trying to get the picture together ever since.”
The Other Side of the Wind would be released in 2018 by Netflix – thirty-three years after Welles’ passing and nearly four years before Peter’s. In any case, the film’s completion couldn’t have acted as a better closing statement for what made him set off to his path. He was a man who had spent his entire life looking to the past in order to progress, in ways both creative and in living. And by using remembrance as an art form, he became the last of his kind. The collapsing of a bridge. Peter’s legacy was one rooted in the preservation of cinema’s roots, and it has been shared and passed onward by his fellow filmmakers who had also come about the same time he did. His loss runs deep and will forever be cemented as a reminder that sooner or later, it will only be left up to us to remember who came before us. Today, we add a new name to remember.
“. . . There was a reconciliation. In fact, the last conversation I had with Orson was a week and a half before he passed away. We talked for a while on the phone. And I said, ‘Jesus, Orson, I feel like I have made so many mistakes.’ And he said, ‘Well, it does seem to be impossible to go through life without making a great many of them.’ We both admitted we had made mistakes ― and that was the last time we spoke.“
– Peter Bogdanovich, Wellesnet.com, 2018
Fellow Lovers of Cinema,
First, our sincerest apologies to those who have been inconvenienced by our screening cancelations over the last two weeks. It’s certainly not the experience you’ve come to expect from us, and that we work hard to provide you.
Two weeks ago, our Sony SRXR515 projection system, which has served to present hundreds of wonderful films since we first opened our doors in 2014, projected its last film. Halfway through a screening of C’mon C’mon, the screen went yellow (ironic for a black-and-white film…), and as we would come to find out the next morning, a critical projector component had died out. Replacing this component would cost us just under the price of an entirely new system, so we’ve been advised to invest in a new projector.
Needless to say, a cinema without a projector is like a restaurant without a grill. An investment of this magnitude would normally call for a fundraiser campaign – particularly as we are still working to make up for the revenue we lost during our 2020-2021 closure – but in order to continue to serve as your community art house cinema, and to present you with the films we’d promised to close out your year with, we made the decision to apply a large amount of our resources to replacing our projector immediately. This led to a bit of a hunt, due to current industry-wide inventory issues caused by shipping delays, but thanks to the folks at Fountain Valley’s Moving Image Technologies, last Friday we welcomed a brand new 4K Barco system to our projection booth. Some last-minute installation issues caused us to have to cancel one more show yesterday, but as of today I am happy to report we are back and running in both auditoriums.
To complicate matters further — In anticipation of a busy year with further expanded programming, we had previously elected to invest in an off-site office where we can continue to develop our staff team and educational programming offerings. There is of course never a good time to be hit with the sudden and unexpected demand of a $65,000 technology investment, so as excited as we continue to be to move into our office space in January, and share news about our progress there, the loss our projector truly hit us at an inopportune time.
Please make a year-end contribution to The Frida Cinema. We truly need your help.
Contributions may be made by clicking the Donate icon below:
Or you can send a check by mail to:
The Frida Cinema
Attn: Charitable Contributions
305 E. 4th St. STE 100
Santa Ana, CA 92701
All donations are tax-deductible, and will allow us to restore and produce those projects whose budgets have otherwise been depleted by this unexpected development. Every dollar counts, and every dollar is needed. Please give what you can — we are committed to continue to do great things with your support.
Thank you so very much for your support. I wish you very Happy and Healthy Holidays, and all the best in 2022 and beyond!
Executive Director, Founder
The Frida Cinema
It seems oddly fitting for the cold season that I decided to look into one of the lesser known (but no less praised than any Sergio Leone film) Spaghetti Westerns, The Great Silence. Though I know it only from the trailers for the most recently released 4K restoration, I was intrigued just by seeing the images of ultra violence and the frozen landscape that breathes loneliness into the film’s setting and atmosphere.
Watching these trailers, however, makes me realize that despite the heavy influence Leone played upon Quentin Tarantino, The Great Silence‘s director Sergio Corbucci was obviously the puppeteer secretly pulling the strings inside Tarantino’s head when he started to make movies. Corbucci’s work on the Django films was nothing short of spectacular, with Tarantino’s decision to basically make a sequel to said movies saying a lot about the power Corbucci had upon the Pulp Fiction director’s subconscious. That’s not even half of what makes the movie worthwhile as a film to see though. With its grounded influence from what was happening in the world at the time, particularly the death of revolutionaries like Malcolm X and Che, The Great Silence appears to offer a promising take on the corruption and capitalism destroying anything worthwhile instead of giving power back to the people and destroying the evil that lives within the hearts of greedy men.
The film also fills a gap in my perspective of what was missing from Western films around the time. It has a dark tone that sets humanity up to be attacked and bruised with grim realism, with blood and guts spilling from wounds and bullets flying across the screen when the gun fights erupt between the characters. What strikes me as a strange set up within the movie though is the way the main character, Silence, has to wait for those he hunts down to shoot first before he draws his guns and executes his kills. He also provokes most of the folks he is hunting down and trying his best to keep the law off his back, even though he is simply taking out bounty killers for folks who want revenge for their family members who died at the hand of these same killers. Silence also has others explain on his behalf that the reason why he even waits for someone to shoot is to be able to claim self defense (though I’m not sure if if you could provoke someone to shoot first and be found entirely free of guilt event back then). Still, it’s interesting to see how he intimidates those he chases down by doing nothing and saying nothing.
As I gather more from some of the reviews and other international trailers, it becomes clearer to me that The Great Silence is a sort of remake of Yojimbo (not unlike Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars), with a silent yet noble hero making his way through the world just trying to make ends meet while still somehow doing right by those who hire him to avenge their loved ones. Knowing about these parallels gives me hope that the movie will be stunning in its storytelling since it apparently borrows influence from one of Japan’s greatest storytellers, Akira Kurosawa. The fact that A Fistful of Dollars was also made around the same time breaks a lot of ground for me as well. Two different directors in the same genre taking source material they both loved and creating two very similar but dramatically different stories pushes me to see the movie even more. It’d be interesting to pinpoint the various differences between the two movies in their unique retellings of Kurosawa’s classic.
While my final thoughts will probably come boiling down to which film is the better adaptation, I don’t think I’m gonna be able to choose between the two. A Fistful of Dollars is a major influence on movies in general and it’s sad to see that The Great Silence remains relatively unknown outside Western fan circles, but I like to think that Corbucci’s film will be vindicated in some small part if I end up liking it more than its iconic, rival Spaghetti Western.
This blog is a continuation of our series on directors Wes & Paul Thomas Anderson’s fashion styles.
After a decade of indelible films in the 2000s, Wes & Paul enjoyed a measure of mainstream validation for their work by the turn of the 2010s. A period of unyielding creative output, both directors released 3 feature films by decade’s end: 2012 saw Moonrise Kingdom & The Master; 2014 had The Grand Budapest Hotel & Inherent Vice; 2017 saw the release of Paul’s Phantom Thread, followed by Wes’ Isle Of Dogs in 2018.
As the decade progressed, each director also enjoyed the passing of their forties, and with it, the waning of comments about their boyish looks Both men were finally being treated by the public as truly unique artists instead of posturing charlatans that got lucky – the American Princes of indie cinema, now Dukes. It’s only right that they dress the part as well.
With awards season underway, Wes dresses to impress at the 67th Golden Globe Awards in January where Fantastic Mr. Fox is nominated for Best Animated Feature.
Wes wears a black velvet suit, red micro check pattern shirt, and black bowtie – the velvet material playing a key role in setting his suit apart from others at the event.
The Best Animated Feature category would be awarded to Pixar’s Up.
At the Paris premiere of Fantastic Mr. Fox in February, Wes poses with composer and voice actor for the film Jarvis Cocker.
Wes switches from his usual tweed to this beige, polyester looking trench coat instead. He wears it with a beige scarf, red sweater, red check tie, grey wool trousers, and his classic tan moccasin wallabees.
Also of note is a wool cap in Wes’ hands that he keeps off while indoors.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is nominated for two Oscars at the 82nd Academy Awards: Best Animated Feature, and Best Original Score. Pictured here is the composer for the film Alexandre Desplat, with his wife, violinist Dominique Lemonnier.
Fantastic Mr. Fox would lose both categories to the same film: Pixar’s Up for best animated feature, and best original score by Michael Giacchino.
Again channeling the fashion styles of his lead character, Wes rocks another orange suit at a photocall for the Italian premiere of Fantastic Mr. Fox. He keeps it simple with a light blue shirt, and pale pink knit tie.
In this additional photo we see Wes’ beige socks as well, albeit sliding down his leg a bit.
By May of 2011, Wes began principal photography on his newest film, Moonrise Kingdom. The behind the scenes featurette above offers a glimpse at what Wes wore during production.
Like every film since The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Wes wears different variations of a suit on set.
While directing this scene with Bruce Willis, Wes dresses in a lighter tan suit, blue sweater, and plaid shirt underneath.
Showing the versatility and interchangeability of a good garment, Wes combines his tan suit jacket and orange/green plaid shirt from the previous picture with a striped pair of seersucker pants, completely altering the look and vibe of the outfit.
Predictably, these are worn with a pair of tan wallabees, but at least they look like a new pair.
Another view of the plaid shirt without the jacket.
Here, Wes layers his plaid shirt in another stylish combo: beige sweater, dark brown suit, and a blue/green tartan scarf.
Wes’ dark brown suit and scarf from before goes over his blue shirt and beige sweater. The moccasin wallabees make an appearance as well.
For the exterior rain shoots at Fort Lebanon, Wes dons a yellow rain slicker over his dark brown suit. Fashionable and functional.
After some minor trouble finding financial backing for the film, production finally begins on Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in June of 2011.
A five year hiatus separated this film and his previous effort, There Will Be Blood, however, Paul seems to have found his director’s uniform in this rugged, frontier look.
He wears a brown linen shirt over some blue jeans and black bracelet, an outfit that is more or less varied during production of the film.
Paul in a white shirt, brown pants directing the “processing scene”. With the changing of technology, Paul also has white earbuds to listen to playback with rather than bulky headphones of the past.
Paul in a blue plaid shirt holding the Panavision 65mm camera the film was shot on.
Messy hair, messy beard, he’s almost the younger man from the Punch-Drunk Love days, but his grey whiskers are clearly that of an older, wiser director.
Paul has a cigarette break behind the scenes with his two stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman & Joaquin Phoenix. Paul’s standard shirt and pants combo is augmented with hiking boots and a sun hat.
Paul sets up a shot with his cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr. (kneeling, foreground) and camera department. Paul matches the white and blue checkered shirt with blue jeans and a white undershirt that is just barely peeking out the top.
After a rigorous post-production process, Moonrise Kingdom is finally ready for audiences by May of 2012. The film is selected to open the 65th Cannes Film Festival before its wide release.
Here, Wes arrives at the photo call with Bill Murray, both dressed to the nines. Like his lawyer character in the film, Bill Murray gets really expressive with competing patterns in his outfit.
Wes, meanwhile, opts for a tranquil cream colored suit, purple check shirt, and red/gold tie. Unlike most men’s suits, the pockets on Wes’ jacket are functional rather than decorative, letting him quickly ditch his phone inside.
In this fuller view, we see that, you guessed it, Wes has paired this outfit with his famous tan moccasin wallabees, a shoe he’s been wearing for the last 20 or so years.
Standing with him from left to right is: co-writer Roman Coppola, and co-stars Jared Gilman & Kara Hayward.
At the red carpet ceremonies, Wes and the cast attend in more formal wear.
Wes favors the black velvet suit, bowtie, and red check shirt again – a trademark red carpet look. But his most iconic accessory is in the form of what appears to be an iPhone 4S that he uses to record the event. By then the newest model of iPhone, the 4S was soon to be replaced with the [drumroll please] iPhone 5 the following year.
At the festival, the top Palme d’Or prize was given to Michael Haneke’s Amour, but Moonrise Kingdom did not go home empty handed. For the excellent performance by Suzy’s cat “Tabitha”, the film was awarded with the Palme de Whiskers for best feline actor.
Paul’s newest film, The Master, sits in a certain amount of mystery during its production until August 2012, when the film makes its world premiere at the 69th Venice Film Festival. Pictured here, Paul arrives at a photocall with his friend and star of the film, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Paul dresses as blue as his film with a linen chambray shirt and navy chinos. For footwear, he’s got grey New Balance sneakers with orange laces.
In the main competition, The Master won two awards at Venice: the Silver Lion for Best Directing, and the Volpi Cup for Best Acting. The highest “Golden Lion” prize was awarded to Kim Ki-duk’s Pietà.
By September, The Master makes its way to the Toronto International Film Festival in Ontario, Canada. Paul poses next to his star Amy Adams, and producing partner Joanne Sellar.
Paul again in his navy chinos and new balances, but this time keeps things a little more formal with a tucked-in white dress shirt.
The Master played in the “Special Presentations” category alongside Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines, and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers.
Paul and The Master star Joaquin Phoenix attend the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards in January 2012.
An extension of the wartime fashions in the film, Paul wears a navy peacoat as a suit jacket in this azure winter look. A lovely contrast to the black suits typically seen at these events.
The Master won four categories (including Best Director), and received Runner-Up designation for three others including Best Picture.
The 28th Santa Barbara Film Festival in February 2013 honored Amy Adams with the Cinema Vanguard award for her role in The Master. Here, she poses next to Paul with the award.
Paul’s dresses more casually for this event than the LAFCA awards. His orange-laced New Balances make another appearance in this mostly monochrome color scheme: a lovely tweed herringbone jacket, charcoal shirt, and black jeans.
Following the warm reception of Moonrise Kingdom, Wes begins production of his newest film entitled The Grand Budapest Hotel, which was shot between January and March of 2013.
The behind the scenes video shows Wes in variations of a tweed suit and sweater that changes based on where they are shooting.
Another angle on the tweed jacket.
The same outfit but styled with a dark red scarf. Also of note is the footwear: tan moccasin wallabees.
Outside, Wes wears an olive parka with faux fur lining and duck boots.
By May of 2013, Paul began production on his newest film, the first to ever be adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice.
Above, Paul directs Joaquin Phoenix on the Chryskylodon Institute set. He’s in a lightweight white shirt, pale brown shorts, and brown suede low-rise boots.
Paul chats with Martin Short between takes on Inherent Vice. He matches his blue chinos with two shades of purple: first as a pale top layer shirt, then as a scoop neck undershirt layer.
After some flirtations with hats in the past, Paul finally wears one on set, which is natural given the summer shooting schedule.
Here, the hat makes another appearance. This time with a blue shirt over the pale brown shorts, combined with his trusty orange-laced New Balances.
At the Topanga Canyon house, Paul’s purple scoop neck shirt is sighted again with his navy pants, only this time without any other layering.
Paul planning a shot with the viewfinder in another purple shirt. The classic white earbuds have officially replaced over ear headphones.
Paul posing with Josh Brolin behind the scenes. Paul in blue jeans, and finally tucking in his shirt for once.
Shooting in downtown Los Angeles, Paul walks with his cinematographer Robert Elswit (far right), and cameraperson for a tracking shot of Joaquin Phoenix
Paul pairs navy on navy with a brown belt and a black sneaker – possibly Converse.
British style magazine Port does a cover story on Paul about The Master in June of 2013. He’s dressed in a wrinkly white shirt and tan chinos as if he were on one of his movie sets.
The full interview can be found on their website.
By February 2014, The Grand Budapest Hotel premiered as the opening film at the 64th Berlin Film Festival. Wes and his cast pose here at the photocall. From left to right: Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, Willem Dafoe, Wes, Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, & Saoirse Ronan.
Wes’ “Star Portrait” from the event.
Wes’ tweed suit and wool tie are a big hit. At the moment of writing this, Wes’ Berlin ‘14 outfit is immortalized as his primary photo on wikipedia.com
At the actual red carpet screening, Wes takes the opportunity to break out his favorite black velvet suit. Even Bill Murray – the fashion clown – conjures a dazzling outfit in line with his character of the film, a respected hotelier in high society Europe.
Close up on the trio.
From this angle we see the red check pattern on Wes’ shirt, the clearly expensive fabric tufts on his white scarf, and the color of his bowtie which is a dark purple or aubergine.
The Grand Budapest Hotel won the runner up Silver Bear Grand Jury prize. The top Golden Bear prize was awarded to Diao Yinan for their film Black Coal, Thin Ice.
The Grand Budapest Hotel makes its US debut at the Alice Tully Hall in New York later that month. Wes poses in front of a mock Budapest Hotel with the cast. From left to right: Saoirse Ronan, Willem Dafoe, Tony Revolori, Wes, Adrien Brody, Harvey Keitel, Waris Ahluwalia, and F. Murray Abraham.
For the event, Wes channels the color scheme of his film with a purple velvet suit, purple check shirt, and black tie. Of course no Wes outfit would be complete without tan wallabees.
Wes attends the premiere of his friend and collaborator Noah Baumbach’s film, While We’re Young in September. Both are pictured here with fellow director Spike Jonze.
Wes continues the tweed look, but adds a dash of pastel in the yellow scarf and pale green tie.
Paul’s newest film, Inherent Vice, finally premieres at the 52nd New York Film Festival in October of 2014. From left to right: Paul, Owen Wilson, Joaquin Phoenix, & assistant director Adam Somner.
Once again, Paul is the least formal out of a group that includes Joaquin Phoenix. Although Paul forgoes a suit, the shirt he chooses is one of the more stylish ones we’ve seen him in. It’s navy blue with the top 5 buttons a different color than the others.
This full body shot features Paul’s trusty orange-laced shoes, and dark wash (possibly raw) denim jeans.
Inherent Vice screened as the Centerpiece Feature on the festival’s Main Slate of films, a slate that included the Safdie Brothers’ Heaven Knows What, Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye To Language, and Yann Demange’s ‘71 (a film we highlighted on the blog for its tactical use of a Barry Keoghan).
At the American Film Institute’s festival in November, Paul wears a dark grey jacket over a blue crew neck t-shirt. Like his hair, Paul’s beard is long and wild, an echo of the hippie stylings in Inherent Vice.
In December, Wes takes his velvet purple suit on tour to the 40th Los Angeles Film Critics Awards. He keeps his shirt a subdued purple check pattern so that he can balance out the particularly abstract tie pattern.
Details of Wes’ shirt and tie fabric.
The Grand Budapest Hotel won 2 awards: Best Production & Best Screenplay. It also received Runner-Up designation in Best Director and Best Picture categories.
At the same awards show, Jonny Greenwood’s score for Inherent Vice won Best Use of Music, however he did not attend.
For a late December profile in The Guardian preceding Inherent Vice’s premiere in the United Kingdom, Paul poses in a seemingly new blue fleece sweater. Armor against harsh British weather.
This other shot from the same profile shows Paul again in raw denim jeans, and a black high top shoe.
The 72nd Golden Globe Awards airs in January of 2015, with The Grand Budapest Hotel receiving 5 nominations. Pictured here on the red carpet from left to right: Wes, Jason Schwartzman, Jeremy Dawson (producer), Adrien Brody, & Roman Coppola (producer).
Wes wears his lucky velvet black suit and red check shirt. This time we see a white handkerchief in his jacket pocket.
Out of all the nominations, The Grand Budapest Hotel only needed to win one, the top award for Best Picture, Musical or Comedy.
This clip of Wes’ acceptance speech for Best Picture shows that he is NOT wearing his classic tan wallabees, but rather, a darker black pair instead.
Wes’ speech is succinct and clever and names more people than most can in a single speech.
Wes holding his Golden Globe.
Ahead of the Italian premiere of Inherent Vice, Paul attends a press conference with star Joaquin Phoenix.
Paul’s blue fleece sweater from the Observer interview makes another appearance.
This full body view gives another look at Paul’s black high top shoes.
Wes with his fellow directors at the 67th Director’s Guild Awards in Los Angeles. From left to right: Richard Linklater, Morten Tyldum, Clint Eastwood, Alejandro González Iñárritu, & Wes.
Wes wears a lightweight grey and white striped suit, blue check shirt, and heather grey sweater. The abstract black/white tie from The Grand Budapest Hotel’s premiere also makes another appearance.
For footwear, Wes finally does not wear a pair of wallabees. This time, he opts for a tan saddle oxford shoe that balances the rest of his monochromatic outfit.
Another angle of Wes chatting with fellow director Alejandro González Iñárritu.
At the Writer’s Guild of America, Wes is awarded with Best Original Screenplay. His acceptance speech above shows his orange velvet suit and tan wallabees.
Wes holding his Writer’s Guild Award for The Grand Budapest Hotel. His saddle oxfords also make an appearance.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is nominated for 9 awards at the 87th Academy Awards that year. From left to right: Wes, Jason Schwartzman, Tony Revolori, & Jeff Goldblum.
Wes wears a velvet black suit with a pale yellow check shirt, pastel green handkerchief, and black leather wallabees.
Inherent Vice is also nominated at the Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay for Paul. Here he poses next to wife, Maya Rudolph, in a classic black tuxedo – critically Paul chooses a black tie over bowtie for the event.
This full body photo shows Paul’s choice of black cap toe derby shoe. Standing next to Paul and Maya is director Bennet Miller.
Best Adapted Screenplay would go to Graham Moore’s script for The Imitation Game, based on the biography by Andrew Hodges.
Wes with producer Jeremy Dawson, and writer Hugo Guiness.
The Grand Budapest Hotel would win 4 out of the 9 categories it was nominated for, including Best Costume Design for Milena Canonero.
Best Picture would go to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (or, The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance).
In March, the Austin Film Festival hosted a panel that included Paul and his creative hero, Jonathan Demme. The Texas atmosphere has him dressing in denim chambray and dusty navy trousers.
The full conversation can be watched on YouTube.
In October 2016, Wes posts a video announcing production on Isle Of Dogs, and to promote a contest that would allow one lucky fan to voice-act in the film.
For the video, Wes wears a red and blue check shirt and a lavalier microphone.
Wes observing Isle Of Dogs in production. He wears a dark red suit and beige shirt/sweater combo.
With newfound creative energy, Paul moves quickly into production on his new film, entitled Phantom Thread, in January 2017. It would be his second collaboration with star Daniel Day-Lewis, and the first film shot outside the States.
Here, Paul emphasizes function over form, but is no less stylish for it. A black sweater over olive green trousers and boots give him a faux-military look that resembles the authority of his lead character Reynolds Woodcock.
And for the first time in nearly twenty years, Paul wears his eyeglasses to set, this time opting for a brilliant square tortoise shell frame.
Like Wes, Paul has a habit of dressing like his characters or dressing in the period during production of his films – call it “method directing”.
Above, Paul tucks his white dress shirt into wool slacks, but is nowhere near as neat as Day-Lewis next to him. Noteworthy however, is the silver watch seen on Paul’s left hand. Quite an upgrade from his old casio.
Seen at the far right, Paul stands in another white shirt and dark trousers, but this time he keeps things untucked. Unlike previous films where Paul used white earbuds, Phantom Thread sees Paul using the over ear headphones instead.
The moody black and white set photos taken by gaffer Jonathan Franklin.
At the countryside cafe where Reynolds meets Alma, Paul wears a heavy looking blue cardigan sweatshirt while directing Daniel Day-Lewis. His glasses, removed and placed on the table after laughing too hard.
When it’s warm enough however, Paul can easily switch back to SoCal mode with another of his scoop neck t-shirts.
Old school meets new school. Paul wears a blue shirt tucked into his wool slacks, brown belt, and silver watch, side-by-side with Day-Lewis in period specific evening wear.
In November, Paul screens Phantom Thread to an audience at the Director’s Guild of America.
He’s in brown shoes, brown socks, olive pants, white shirt, and an unstructured dark navy work coat in the style that Reynolds Woodcock wears in the film.
By December, Phantom Thread makes its world premiere in New York. Paul stands with his cast: Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day-Lewis, & Leslie Manville.
Being on the east coast prompts Paul to bundle up more than he did in London. He wears this multicolored scarf over a white dress shirt, black tie, wool trousers, and the same jacket from the DGA screening.
The premiere is quite an affair, with lots of celebs coming out to pay their respects to Daniel Day-Lewis’ final film performance.
Paul and actor Michael Shannon.
Paul and actor/producer Bob Odenkirk.
Let the press tour begin!
Vanity Fair hosts a Phantom Thread fashion show in January that features the original costumes in the film. Naturally, it seems right that Paul should dress up in a full suit. Next to him is star Vicky Krieps.
Paul with some of the models and costumes from the event.
Paul standing next to the costume designer on every one of his films, Mark Bridges.
Paul makes his return to television appearances on The Jimmy Kimmel Live show. For the appearance, he wears another unstructured navy blazer over a blue dress shirt, and olive slacks.
At the 33rd Santa Barbara Film Festival in February, Paul sits on a filmmaker panel with fellow directors: Christopher Nolan, Greta Gerwig, Guillermo Del Toro, & Jordan Peele.
Paul balances out the blue of his jacket with khaki slacks and brown boots.
Paul poses on a lavish couch for piece in the LA Times. His casual navy jacket and black jeans are underscored by his striped socks and brown sneakers.
In mid February, Isle Of Dogs opened the 68th Berlin Film Festival to much acclaim. The film earned Wes the Silver Bear prize for Best Directing, while the Golden Bear was awarded to Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not.
For the event, Wes wears his classic black velvet suit and black wallabees, only this time he combines it all with a pistachio green shirt.
Wes’ Star Portrait from the festival. A tweed suit, knit yellow tie, and a green/white check shirt.
Only able to stay casual for so long, Paul suits up again for the 90th Academy Awards in March. He’s pictured here on the red carpet with wife Maya Rudolph.
This is Paul’s most fitted tuxedo to date. No bagginess, just clean lines.
While Best Picture would go to Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape Of Water, costume designer Mark Bridges received his second Oscar for his work in Phantom Thread. Bridges also gave the shortest acceptance speech of the night, earning him a brand new jet ski along with the award for Best Costume Design.
Shortly after the Oscars, Paul attends the Texas film awards to do a panel with fellow director Richard Linklater.
The unstructured blazer makes a return, as do his brown sneakers from the LA Times photo. Both men forgo a tie for the event.
Isle Of Dogs travels to Austin, Texas as well for it’s South By Southwest premiere. From left to right: Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Janet Pierson, Wes, Jeremy Dawson, and Jeff Goldblum.
Wes’ hair is cut a bit shorter than it normally is, but still perfectly stylish. Isle Of Dogs would win the Audience Award at the festival.
Wes and his wife, artist Juman Malouf, attend the French premiere of Isle Of Dogs in Paris. Wes opts for the rare double breasted suit with a black knit tie, red check shirt, and brown wallabees.
Paul at the premiere of Paul Dano’s Wildlife in October of that year. From left to right: Paul Dano, Paul, Zoe Kazan, & Carey Mulligan.
Wes moves into principal photography on his latest project, The French Dispatch, in February. His tweed suit and checkered shirt are complemented by his textured scarf as well.
Set photos by Owen Wilson’s mother, Laura Wilson.
Super incognito set photo of the middle segment of the film that stars Timothee Chalamet and Frances McDormand. Wes is unmistakably visible as the one in an orange suit.
Paul on the red carpet supporting the release of Adam Sandler’s stand up special 100% Fresh in May 2019. His navy blazer has its collar turned all the way out, competing with (and losing to) Sandler’s immensely effortless cool and casual vibes.
Paul in his classic shirt and slacks combo shooting HAIM’s music video for “Summer Girl”.
The video was released online in July 2019.
For the A24 Podcast, Paul is recruited for a conversation with directors Josh & Benny Safdie in December.
Paul wears his trademark navy blazer with denim jeans, and brown oxford shoes.
Which brings us now to the 20s. At the start of this decade, both Andersons had new projects already announced. For Paul, it was a still untitled, coming of age period piece. For Wes, it was a similarly vague, untitled story set in period France. The best sources indicated that the films, though in pre-production, would be released before the end of the year in time to qualify for an Oscar run.
And then you know what happened.
Now, over a year later, both films have titles and both are making their way to the public. For Wes, The French Dispatch Of The Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun is a return to form since the stop motion animated sle Of Dogs.
Meanwhile Paul’s film, the 70s bildungsroman Licorice Pizza, is set for a Christmas rollout and January 1st debut at The Frida Cinema.
Shooting under strict COVID protocols, Paul doesn’t sacrifice style for safety. He’s wearing a simple grey t-shirt, blue trousers, and brown sneakers.
Notable accessories include: blue LA Dodgers hat, sunglasses, KN95 mask, colored wrist bands (possibly indicative of COVID testing), and a portable camera monitor so he can view takes.
Another angle of the Dodgers hat.
Paul directing in a blue shirt, with a twine bracelet on his right wrist.
A tabloid reporting on the film identifies Sean Penn and a “crew member” on set. Does this mystery crew look familiar yet?
Yes, the unnamed crew member was in fact, the director himself. Paul wears a white v-neck shirt and black jeans for this day of production.
The 74th Cannes Film Festival premieres Wes’ long-awaited The French Dispatch Of The Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. This photo of Wes and his cast went semi viral over the summer due to it’s clashing of fashion styles.
Wes wears another striped seersucker suit with white loafers, red socks, and tan necktie. His sunglasses are on his head, helping to keep his head out of his face.
In October, The French Dispatch had its Gala premiere in Paris. The film continues its rollout around the world.
Wes’ velvet magenta suit contrasts neatly with the red carpet.
Variety publishes a cover story on Paul’s latest feature film, Licorice Pizza. Photographed in his home, Paul wears another simple grey t-shirt and khaki pants.
November, The French Dispatch premieres in Italy. Wes poses in his current iteration of fashion style.
He wears a green velvet suit, yellow sweater, checkered shirt, and tan loafers.
Licorice Pizza screens to a private press audience in Westwood. It’s here we see Paul in his most current form: mature, but still with his trademark casual edge.
Paul wears a grey suit jacket over a black t-shirt, black trousers, striped socks, and brown sneakers. He’s also updated his eyewear with thinner rectangle tortoise shell frames.
Wes & Paul remain some of the most exciting American filmmakers today. Each of their films, an event. That they are also two of the most stylish filmmakers, is just a happy coincidence.
Whether on set, or on the red carpet, Wes & Paul continue to blend the best in modern trends and traditional standards. It’s no surprise then that each of their films would be fashion conscious as well…but that’s an article for another time!
So there’s Doc – perpetually stoned, and more than a little out of his element.
Like a Lebowski with a day job, Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello triangulates the whereabouts of his ex old lady, Shasta Fay Hepworth, through the Los Angeles of 1970 in Paul Thomas Anderson’s hazy, mystery through the past, Inherent Vice (2014). Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s serpentine novel of the same name, Doc’s daytime profession as a private investigator, and indeed most of his personal and spiritual philosophy, is informed by frequent entrées into altered states of consciousness.
Be it cocaine, laughing gas, or tequila zombies, Doc’s most complex case yet finds him stumbling through a myriad of slurring substances, and colorful characters in Anderson’s Oscar nominated screenplay.
Doc’s drug of choice however, like many California hippies, is, and always has been, grass.
Throughout his quest for love and missing persons, Doc is constantly smoking pot either as a means of personal recreation, or to otherwise enhance his subconscious, investigative prowess. His preferred method: the joint. Hand-rolled with thoughtful consideration, and easily summoned at a moment’s notice.
In this SPOILER-FILLED piece, we’ll look at each scene of weed smoking that happens in the film and calculate just how high Doc gets. Finally answering the question of, “How High Is Doc?”, or, “What’s Up, Doc?”
The very first scene of the film (while not featuring much in the way of drug-use) finds Doc reclined in between psycho-chemical states at his beach house at twilight. As he stares out at the fading sunset, Shasta appears in his doorway out of the blue, and, perhaps, out from his own mind.
“Thinks he’s hallucinating . . .”, Shasta says to him. A statement that epitomizes her familiarity with Doc’s frequent flights of fancy, and also, in the context of her homecoming, forms a symmetry with very literal and physical flights that Shasta takes from their relationship. Stoned or otherwise, Doc naturally has trouble adjusting to Shasta’s sudden appearance after an unstated period of time, hence his spaced out gawking. He’s still not sure he isn’t hallucinating yet, a judgement he’ll have to make throughout the film that is first announced in this opening scene.
As Shasta reveals her fears about her missing boyfriend, land developer Mickey Wolfmann, Doc’s as disarmed as he is motivated to help an old friend – the drugs ain’t got nothing to do with it.
After being told “change your hair, change your life” (and not to mention his encounter with his ex), Doc finds himself at home, curlers in his hair, doing what he does best: smoking pot and watching TV. He’s thinking about Shasta, and decides to call his Aunt Reet for advice.
This is the very first scene of onscreen pot smoking that occurs thus far, and it happens in the same moment that introduces the Nazis that creep around the perimeter of this California story. Doc, meanwhile, is flying through outer space, trying to figure out how Shasta fits into all this.
After the phone call with his Aunt, in Anderson’s first bit of hallucinatory cinema so far, Doc’s TV begins talking to him. A symptom of the drugs, and also his intangible bond with the person onscreen: LAPD Lieutenant Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen in bad hippie makeup.
Bigfoot’s breaking of the 4th wall in this scene is also his introduction to the audience, lending a mystical dimension to the story that will bend, and sometimes break, all reality of a given scene to suit the characters’ psychological states.
On suspicion of murdering Mickey Wolfmann’s bodyguard – Glen Charlock – Bigfoot arrests Doc, but releases him when a lack of evidence surfaces. At home, Doc tries to unwind when he gets a call from Bigfoot, who informs and teases him about Shasta’s sudden, inexplicable disappearance.
Frustrated and unable to do much else, Doc writes Shasta’s name on a rolling paper and smokes a joint to her safety. In a stunning, drug-addled moment of expressionism, the film double-exposes Doc with Shasta. An image that invokes the convergence of parallel moments, memories, and fantasies, instigated by the karmic properties of the dedicated joint.
Sortilege’s voiceover narration, a vestige of the highly prosaic source material, underscores Doc’s anxiety about things lost or things ending:
“Does it ever end? Of course it does. It did.”
Sidebar! A brief diversion from the drugs to highlight a funny scene that indicts the efficacy of Doc’s life strategy, while also asking questions that the people (read: writers like me) want to know!
As a favor to Shasta, Doc asks his current flame – Deputy DA Penny Kimball – for help locating information on Mickey Wolfmann’s whereabouts. Doc only smokes a cigarette during this scene, but the conversation inevitably steers towards his drug habit.
Doc: I’m only a light smoker.
Penny: How many joints have you had today?
Doc: I’ll have to check the log book?
Brilliant. Penny has trouble respecting Doc in a professional capacity given his hippie exterior, but it’s that same resentment that endears her to him romantically as well. His freedom, a true virtue in contrast to the phony bureaucracy of the Justice Department she works for.
After another day of being rudely interrogated by overreaching law enforcement, Doc smokes weed in the gyno stirrups of his medical office. It lends another funny image of Joaquin Phoenix in an exposed position, and precipitates the next seismic plot shift.
Doc’s receptionist, Petunia (Anderson’s wife, Maya Rudolph), calls Doc out of his office with a secret note from Jade (Hong Chau), the chick planet massage therapist from earlier in the film.
Having just left his hotboxed office, Doc is absolutely ripped as he reads Jade’s message. Consequently, Anderson layers an ominous music cue with a voiceover narration from Jade reading the note instead of Doc, expressing the competing boundaries of storytelling power in this film.
Sortilege is still the primary narrator, but in moments like this one however, the break from narrative pattern is an intention to highlight the psychoactive effects the drug is having on the scene.
From the haze of Doc’s office, the film dissolves into the fog of the San Pedro harbor outside Club Asiatique. After speaking briefly with Jade, a new but familiar face emerges from the evening fog: the presumed dead Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson).
Coy Harlingen is wanted by many parties: the police, The Golden Fang, but most importantly by his family, wife Hope and daughter Amethyst. Hope had contacted Doc for his services in order to look for Coy, but in a neat reversal, here’s Coy looking for Doc.
With possible “unfriendly eyes” watching, Coy splits a joint with Doc as a way of staying incognito amidst a sea of covert operators and observers. In this way, the consumption of the drugs is a sort of condition of the job. A means of access, and camouflage.
The “asian indica” they smoke mixes with the foggy atmosphere of the marina, and the criss-crossing lines of the plot. By the end of the conversation, Coy has slunk away, as if dissolving back into the smoky atmosphere from whence he came. There, and then suddenly, not.
Following his tequila zombie lunch with marine lawyer Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro), Doc learns that the boat Shasta was last seen boarding has now disappeared – whereabouts “not known”.
In triplicate, Anderson shows us a shot of this missing vessel – also named “The Golden Fang” – a shot of Shasta, and then a shot of Doc with his binoculars pointed out the window. He scans the horizon looking for any sign of The Golden Fang – the boat, or otherwise.
Knowing Doc is under the influence obfuscates the source of this sort of imagery. Is this a parallel cut showing Shasta in the same moment? A memory from a previous time? An imagined vision? Does it exist at all? And where on earth is that red light coming from?
The construction of this moment is key to the film, underscoring Shasta’s presence in Doc’s life and the plot, which is rapidly blossoming into a greater beast than previously thought.
Lonely and overwhelmed by a rapidly complicating case, Doc calls his girlfriend Penny Kimball to see if she’d like to come visit the beach.
Cut to: Doc and Penny, post-coitus, in the living room. On TV, the news reports on a graduate student radical that was arrested that Doc recognizes as Coy Harlingen.
Doc rolls a joint with casual indifference to the news, letting Penny reveal Coy’s identity as a police informant. Doc tries to get more information, but a stoned and uninhibited Penny instead blurts out, “Do you love me?”
The scene ends here, but it again highlights the misdirection of drugs that is crucial to the story. Doc blithely attempting his version of an interrogation while rolling a joint, is what allows him to withdraw this key bit of information from Penny.
Following an eerie visit with Coy Harlingen at a party in Topanga Canyon, Doc chats with Jade about the Golden Fang when dropping her off at home in San Pedro. He’s smoking the end of a joint when he asks why he should be afraid of a boat.
Just as the THC is flowing through him, Jade reveals to Doc that The Golden Fang is not just a boat, it’s a drug cartel that launders money through Chick Planet massage.
Another bend in this twisty narrative trip that Doc takes in stride, never showing any exasperation at all the impossibly connected plot points and characters.
With a seemingly unmetered access to laughing gas, Doc gets high and giggles to himself in his office. He’s nowhere closer to finding Shasta, Mickey Wolfmann, or the Golden Fang that might be keeping the both of them. Enter Clancy Charlock, sister of Mickey’s late bodyguard Glen, who comes looking for information on Glen’s killer. Doc has nothing to offer, except an inhale on the laughing gas mask, equalizing their psycho-chemical states.
Ever the diplomat, Doc presses Clancy further about Glen (and the Golden Fang he worked for) by offering a joint; they smoke and they chat. Clancy reveals Mickey’s plan to give away all his money, but the most remarkable moment comes during an intrusive jump cut as the joint is passed between her and Doc. A cut that interrupts sequential continuity of the scene, but perfectly mimics the creeping high of the substances currently mixing around inside their bodies.
Coming home that night from the office, Doc finds he had a visitor while he was gone. Taped to his front door is a postcard from Shasta, sending Doc into a trip greater than any drug could.
In the most tender moment of the entire film, perhaps Anderson’s entire filmography, Shasta’s postcard takes Doc back to the time “with the ouija board” (call it a weed-jee board).
A drought of drugs was beginning to have tangible effects on good intentioned hippies everywhere. Doc and Shasta consult a ouija board to see if the spirits will tell them where they can score dope. First a phone number, then an address sends Doc and Shasta running through the rain looking for their next high.
That Neil Young song carries them to an empty plot of land (shot on location in downtown Pomona), but no weed is ever found, no source of the mysterious answering machine that gave them the address. Doc and Shasta laugh to themselves, barefoot in the rain, realizing how silly this plan was all along. As Sortilege puts it in her narration: “Everyone was desperate, and suffering lapses of judgment”.
The entwinement of the hallucinatory and the supernatural in this scene gives as much insight into Doc’s relationship to his weed smoking as it does his relationship to Shasta. For many, the physiological effects of drugs have a way of distorting one’s thinking, but if you’re Doc, it’s a way of reaching a certain kind of nirvana that you otherwise could not. A way of accessing sense memories that have otherwise atrophied.
Doc returns to the scene in the rain from Shasta’s postcard, but this time he’s prepared. He smokes a joint walking up the same sidewalk he did with Shasta to find the once empty, fenced off piece of land has now been turned into a golden-fang shaped, modernist tower. Funny coincidence. He cranes his neck upwards, trying to see the very top of the high building, the camera hardly able to contain it all in one frame.
Doc knows his next clue will be in this building. Shasta wouldn’t have mentioned this moment otherwise. He consults with his right hand man Denis for backup, but Denis, stoned as well, thinks it’s better if he go look for a pizza. Even at the end of this joint, Doc feels confident enough to tackle the Golden Fang solo.
Inside the Golden Fang shaped building, Doc meets Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd D.D.S., who happily obliges Doc with an offering of high quality, pharmaceutical cocaine.
The introduction of this drug further distorts the scene logic. The score from Jonny Greenwood in this scene (appropriately titled “The Golden Fang” on the soundtrack) is melancholy and ambient, but, with its minor-key notes, gives the impression of danger as well.
Before leaving Blatnoyd’s office, Doc and Blatnoyd rush to the desk to snort a few more lines for the road. As they do, the film speed changes, giving the impression of Blatnoyd and Doc moving in fast motion – like in an overcranked silent movie projection
It happens for a few brief seconds, but the effect is clear. By the next scene, as Doc drives away with Blatnoyd, Denis, and Japonica, their paranoia has skyrocketed. A residual side effect of the drug that interrupts Doc’s investigation more than his weed smoking could.
Over an hour into the movie, Doc finally sits down with all the evidence he’s accumulated thus far, and attempts to diagram it all in the above scene. It’s in this same scene that Bigfoot calls to inform Doc of Rudy Blatnoyd’s apparent homicide.
Doc’s ability to bridge the connections between these seemingly unrelated plot threads is augmented by the psychoactive effects of the joint he smokes. Whereas others (like the LAPD), have no interest, nor the capacity to investigate such goose chases in this way, Doc belongs to an obsolete group of gumshoe do-gooders for whom no case is too small, no person(s) above suspicion.
In an echo of a scene from the beginning of the film, Doc is again stoned on his couch watching Bigfoot on TV. Instead of a hippie, this time Bigfoot plays a police officer on an actual TV show from the era, Adam-12 (1968-1975). Doc isn’t smoking, but is clearly under the influence, this time around scrutinizing Bigfoot without him breaking the fourth wall in return.
It’s at this moment that Doc has another trip – or is it real? Shasta Fay returns, out of the blue again (and apparently under some spell of her own). The trance-like sex scene that follows is teased out with another joint shared between Doc and Shasta, unifying their mental and physiological states. The Mickey Wolfmann plot, all but abandoned for this indulgence in another brief moment with Shasta.
But Shasta again reminds him, “This doesn’t mean we’re back together.”
Back to the case.
Doc pays another visit to Penny at the DA’s office in downtown, this time looking for information on one Adrian Prussia. While he goes through the city’s sealed file on Prussia, Doc casually smokes a joint, relying on the privacy that Penny has promised him to keep from being discovered.
The more Doc reads, and the more he smokes, the more the puzzle pieces begin to fall together. As in the cocaine scene with Rudy Blatnoyd, the film speed again changes, giving the impression of Doc’s accelerating mind and the plot running out of control. Even Sortilege’s comforting narration reaches a breaking point as she reacts to the LAPD’s endorsement of the for-hire killings.
Doc is mortified, but compelled to act. He has to find Prussia.
In Adrian Prussia’s office, Puck Beaverton offers Doc a joint while he asks about detective Vincent Indelicado. It’s in this moment that Doc’s vice catches up with him. His inability to refuse grass, even from a Nazi, leads to his incapacitation via PCP.
The film fades to black as Doc falls to the ground. The weaponization of drugs in this scene goes part and parcel with the thematic decay of hippie culture and the American Promise. In Inherent Vice, bad trips become reality.
After a suspenseful escape from Puck Beaverton and Adrian Prussia, Doc has but one final plot loop to close in this sprawling narrative. In exchange for their stolen heroin back (and absolute silence), The Golden Fang promises to release Coy Harlingen from his obligations to them, allowing him to return safely back home to Hope and Amethyst.
Doc and Denis smoke in the car outside a shopping mall, while waiting for the exchange with the Golden Fang. The joke here is in the image of Doc, the dirty hippie, contrasted next to the squeaky clean brady bunch family pushing drugs for the Golden Fang.
Doc finishes off the last bit of his joint as he double checks the trunk to make sure no heroin is left behind. He closes the trunk and drives away, the day again saved by hard work and dumb luck.
What better way to unwind after this entire saga than to spark up a joint in the comfort of your own home? Doc appears to be just beginning his ritual when Bigfoot kicks his front door down. Already succumbing to the drug’s effect, Doc makes no attempt to stop him or voice concern.
In this scene, the roles of Doc and Bigfoot finally converge with the assistance of the marijuana. After demanding a hit of Doc’s joint, Bigfoot and Doc apologize to each other at the exact same moment, using the exact same words verbatim.
The occupation of this metaphysical space by the both of them suggest an alignment of their identities in this moment, and elaborately concludes the pairs spiritual journey so far in the film. Each sees a little more of each other in themselves.
Then Bigfoot does this. . . .
In another reality bending flourish, Bigfoot exits the scene after eating Doc’s joint, and then his entire plate of weed. Doc is left stupefied, yet concerned. Bigfoot denies Doc’s offer of brotherhood, but Doc insists Bigfoot still needs a keeper.
This is the final moment of onscreen weed smoking in the film, bringing the total number of scenes to fifteen. Fifteen joints, fifteen trips, fifteen scenes of absolute psychedelia.
There is no smoking in the final scene of the film, but in Doc’s paranoid eyes and Shasta’s glazed expression, it’s clear that the two are riding out some sort of high together.
A joint hallucination, or a one sided one? Haziness is deployed here in twofold: first as an integral compositional element, then as a summary of the narrative. Hallucination or otherwise, if it means being with Shasta, then why not spark up another joint?
In the recently released docufilm, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, filmmaker Robert B. Weide captures the extraordinary life of the celebrated author. Its release brought to mind Vonnegut’s ideological inclination toward moral relativism, which altered my outlook on life as a young adult enthralled by what is possibly his second most popular novel, Mother Night.
The author introduces his novel by stating, “This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” In Mother Night, Vonnegut delves into real, historical events, illustrating the brutality of the Second World War in which he participated as a soldier. A protagonist of his experiences, his life is reflected in that of his characters.
Shortly after Vonnegut enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 20, he shipped off to Europe and was almost immediately captured by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. As a prisoner of war, he was a witness and accidental survivor of the Bombing of Dresden, which took the lives of an estimated 60,000 people.
To better understand the traumatic experience that marked Vonnegut, triggering his post-traumatic stress and depression, a brief description is entailed in the following paragraph; reader discretion is advised.
As accounted by William Rodney Allen in A Brief Biography of Kurt Vonnegut:
“On February 13, 1945, British and American bombers destroyed the city by dropping high explosives followed by incendiary bombs. The resulting firestorm turned the non-militarized city into an inferno that killed up to 60,000 civilians. Vonnegut and his fellow POWs survived by accident only because they were housed some 60 feet underground in a former meat locker and slaughterhouse… For several weeks after the bombing, Vonnegut was obligated to gather and burn the remains of those perished. It was this experience that scarred him for life and eventually resulted in his literary masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five.”
Vonnegut’s familiarity with death indisputably tainted his perspective on life, which manifests itself in the conclusive revelation that moral boundaries are irrelevant, having stated “I can’t believe that they mark the end or the beginning of anything of real concern to a human soul. Virtues and vices, pleasures and pains cross boundaries at will” (Vonnegut, Mother Night). To Vonnegut, the moral struggle isn’t between the undeniably evil and the absolute good; rather, the possibility that good people are capable of bad things, and vice versa.
Mother Night follows the story of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American man whom, after moving to Germany at age 11 with his parents, casts roots and decides to stay despite his parents’ return when Hitler rises to power. Leaving behind his national identity, Campbell marries a German woman and thrives as a popular playwright in the Nazi nation. The plot takes a turn just before the Second World War breaks out, when Campbell is contacted by an American agent who knew of his reputation and proposed he be a secret agent for the American forces. Throughout the story this agent communicates with Campbell through a series of codes that entail how he is to behave, acting as a sort of moral compass. However, Campbell’s primary occupation and true passion is playwriting. In fact, it was his way with words that promoted him in rising ranks and positioned him both as a powerful speaker for the Third Reich, and consequently, an undercover, American spy. The point being, it was all based on words, furthering the relativity of each individual’s morality and its role in identity.
To Campbell, being a Nazi propagandist, or an American spy, is merely a function – what one might do for a living – not a vocation, not a purpose. The very ambiguity of his purpose entails that his role is to continue doing what he’s doing, passing off as a Nazi of unquestionable conviction. Throughout the novel, he seems to effectively balance his duality — the charismatic fascist, and the American lover who couldn’t care less about politics: the facade, and the reality. Yet, by effectively carrying out his function as a propaganda spokesman on German national radio, Campbell is inherently responsible for indoctrinating Nazism, therefore guilty of indirectly slaughtering millions of innocent lives.
Addressing once more the moral of Mother Night, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be,” at what point is a façade reflective of an individual’s true self? Can an individual be condemned for their pretense if it was carried out under the impression that the cause was for the greater good? How accountable is an individual by moral standards if morality is, indeed, relative?
These questions are reflective of Vonnegut’s ideology on identity. A great satirist, a great prosaist, a great playwright, subject of the cruelty of life and the unfortunate events that marked him, Vonnegut’s carried on and his legacy teaches us that we are no more subject to the world around us as the experiences are subject to our perspective and our commitment to our truest self.
This blog is a continuation of our fashion series on directors Wes & Paul Thomas Anderson.
By 1999, much of the world was beset with a collective anxiety over the coming new year. What was seen as destructive in the abstract, was actually cleansing in the world of arts and fashion. An opportunity to reset the cultural router in The Year 2000. Fashion’s Web 2.0 update for the new Millenium.
In retrospect, much of the maligned trends of this era – the baggy silhouettes, the clashing of patterns – seem more quaint and creative than were given credit for. The looseness of the styles, prioritizing a carefreeness in the wake of all that Y2K (and eventual post-9/11) unease that is now sublimating as nostalgia for newer generations.
For directors Wes & Paul Thomas Anderson, the 2000s were a fertile period of creation that produced works tailor-made for indie runways, and ready-to-wear in mainstream multiplexes. The “wunderkinds” from Sundance were now firmly in their thirties, and desperate to out pace their infantile reputations with stronger (and stranger) films than they had ever made before.
This maturity too is reflected in each director’s fashion choices for this period, where both men aspire to be taken a little more seriously and little less boyish.
Grab your hitclips and your pooka shells, it’s the 2000s b—-.
With Magnolia finally out in theaters (and the Y2K apocalypse behind him) Paul returns to TV to promote the film.
For the interview, Paul’s dressed up a bit more than he did the last time he was on the show. A black suit and tie, hair cut a bit neater, and he loses the glasses altogether in favor of contacts.
Not a bad look to start the millennium. Does this mean we’ll see more formal wear from the promising young auteur?
No more than a few weeks after his TV interview, Paul attends an event for Magnolia at a Borders Bookstore (if you don’t know what that is, ask your parents).
This look is called: business on top, party on the bottom. Paul goes for broke with a white cotton oxford shirt, red Adidas track pants, and blue suede trainers. As ready for a film Q&A as he is jogging.
Once again, Paul forgoes his glasses in lieu of contacts, which he will do for the remainder of the decade. A pen is kept in his shirt pocket to satiate any sudden burst of creativity and, perhaps, to sign a few autographs too.
All of Paul’s interviews and guest appearances would pay off, as Magnolia would wind up with three Academy Award Nominations by Spring of 2000. Pictured here, Paul and actor Tom Cruise attend an Oscars luncheon in Beverly Hills.
Paul keeps things formal-casual with a red Lacoste polo underneath his charcoal suit (this is just the luncheon after all). His untailored trousers are billowy with a large, open cuff. For footwear, Paul wears a chunky, Steven Madden-like shoe instead of a traditional dress shoe. Old school meets new school.
A few short weeks later, Paul finally attends the 72nd Academy Awards show with Fiona Apple. Magnolia is nominated for Best Original Screenplay, so Paul puts his best foot forward in terms of dress.
Paul sticks with a timeless, black tuxedo complete with bowtie and cumberbund. His jacket this time around has a much baggier cut compared to the tux he wore at the ‘98 awards show, suggesting a shifting change in contemporary fashion trends on top of Paul’s own evolving taste.
The award for Best Screenplay would ultimately go to Alan Ball for American Beauty.
Emboldened by a rising star profile, Wes attracts multiple A-list actors to be in his next picture, an ensemble piece about family called The Royal Tenenbaums – seen here in the midst of production. In the new millennium Wes continues his aggressively smart-casual approach to dressing on set.
Here we see, again, his clear-frame glasses, a simple collared shirt, and a chunky, grey sweatshirt tied around his waist.
This other photo shows the rest of the outfit. This time revealing a black-and-white tartan scarf, grey trousers, and a pair of red New Balance sneakers.
Gene Hackman as Royal Tenenbaum listens along patiently.
Huddled in the trunk of the car for this traveling shot, Wes stays warm with a blue North Face jacket, beige sweater, and corduroy trousers. A camera monitor in his hands, the perfect accessory for any director’s outfit.
Not unlike the protagonist at the center of his fourth film Punch-Drunk Love, Paul also knows the value of a good blue jacket.
Pictured here (again with a shaved head), Paul’s jacket is worn over a green hoodie, grey pants, and Nike tennis shoes.
Unlike his protagonist Barry Egan however, Paul avoids wearing suits during the production of this particular film.
Here, Paul wears a loose short-sleeve shirt with a distinct triangular pattern. Again prioritizing comfort over style, but still achieving both.
Paul in a plain white tee and brown trousers while shooting outside of Barry’s office.
At the grocery store where Barry finds pudding, Paul wears cargo pants (with sides sticking out the pocket) and another polo shirt. Haircut about even with Adam Sandler’s now.
Wes arrives at the 74th Academy awards in March 2002. The Royal Tenenbaums is nominated for Best Original Screenplay – Wes’ first ever nomination! At the show, Wes begins to resemble the director we recognize today, exercising his right to more ostentatious styling for the event.
He wears a double-breasted coat with formal lapel in a luxury velour fabric, wrapped in a wool evening scarf, and topped off with an orange paisley bowtie that would make Royal blush. The same white frames he’s always had decorate his face, and his hair is a bit more tame (read: less vertical) than it was in his Bottle Rocket days.
The award for Best Screenplay would go instead to Julian Fellowes for Gosford Park.
At the Berlin International Film Festival in 2002, Wes poses for his polaroid “Star Portrait”. His film, The Royal Tenenbaums, played alongside Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday, and Hiyao Miazaki’s Spirited Away at the festival.
For the photo, Wes opts for a lighter color scheme. An off white collared shirt under a white shawl collar sweater, underneath a grey blazer. Simple, European, Wes.
To support friend and actor Jason Schwartzman, Wes attends the premiere of a film called Spun (2003). Both him and Schwartzman exude a particular flavor or early 2000s menswear that relied on large patterns, and textured materials.
In keeping with his formal casual predilections, Wes layers a green corduroy suit with a floor length tweed coat (with faux fur collar), a baby blue pullover, gold knit tie, and red gingham shirt. Slowly but surely becoming a more familiar Wes.
At the Cannes Film Festival, Paul stands with his cast for Punch-Drunk Love on the opening day’s press festivities. Given the beach setting, Paul is right at home. He wears his shirt untucked, keeps his hair messy, AND now sports a cool, European beard.
Which isn’t to say Paul can’t clean up when he needs to.
He’s pictured here, in another sharp black tux, with his cast again, this time at the end of the festival before the awards are given out.
Paul would tie for best director at the festival with Korean filmmaker Im Kwon-taek, for his film, Chi-hwa-seon.
The award was presented by Cannes Jury President that year, David Lynch.
By September, Paul would bring Punch-Drunk Love to the Toronto International Film Festival as part of their “Special Presentations” block.
In a continuation of his dress from the Cannes film festival, Paul wears nothing but a white shirt, beard, and flip-flops in spite of the Canadian weather. A true master of California casual wear, no matter the climate or locale.
A director’s relationship to their eyesight is the most sacrosanct of all sense relationships. It informs and guides all elements of the film production, from the writing to final color. So it’s important to note that for Wes’ newest film with Bill Murray, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, he ditches his glasses altogether in favor of contacts.
This change in eyewear comes with another fashion evolution for Wes that is unafraid of color and patterns. His hair also changes during this period, growing much longer than before. The result is a messy, voluminous helmet.
Wes in a purple shawl neck sweater with striped trousers and dark Wallabees.
A result of shooting out at sea, Wes layers up to stay warm. Pictured here, Wes dons a navy peacoat over his purple shawl sweater, white scarf, white tube socks, and tan wallabees.
Wes and partner Tara Subkoff at the premiere of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.
Wes’ hair is about shoulder length now, meaning he can institute a neater side part that exposes his face more. He dons the same tweed coat from the Spun premiere, on top of a simple white shirt, and blue tie with stars.
Paul behind the scenes of A Prairie Home Companion with its director Robert Altman. Paul served as an understudy for the film that would take over directing duties in the event of Altman’s sudden passing. The opportunity was invaluable for Paul who had been a lifelong fan of Altman’s work.
In the first photo, Paul wears a long sleeve t-shirt with colored accents along the seams. In the second, he looks bundled in a large black parka.
Wes on set shooting his newest film, The Darjeeling Limited. Taking a page from his filmmaking inspiration, Satyajit Ray, Wes directs in a white suit, tan scarf, and tan Wallabees. A lighter color scheme that recurs throughout production of the film.
Wes on the tracks. White suit and tan wallabees again.
Paul on set of his latest film, his first adaptation, There Will Be Blood. He directs Daniel Day-Lewis, who ruthlessly portrays the oil driller Daniel Plainview in 1890s California.
In the foggy exterior morning, Paul wears a beige fleece zip-up sweater over a white shirt, olive cargo pants, and brown boots. An outdoorsy palette in contrast to the muddy colored 19th century clothes of Plainview.
On a warmer day of production, Paul sticks with the “old west” theme of the film and wears a chambray denim shirt, tucked into grey pants, with a brown belt.
Paul also maintains a beard during this period, unlike in earlier film productions where he seemingly shaved on a regular basis.
The same outfit from before, but with a sun hat as well.
Wes and his cast of The Darjeeling Limited. Wes keeps his white suit, but this time he Miami Vices it up with a blue shirt, and no tie. Some pens line his shirt pocket as well.
The film finishes production in time for a September premiere.
At the 64th Venice Film Festival, The Darjeeling Limited makes its world premiere. Wes poses alongside his stars Adrien Brody & Jason Schwartzman for a photocall.
Wes continues his “white period” with a cream seersucker suit, yellow tie, and brown suede loafers.
This close up reveals the fabric in greater detail. A micro grid pattern on his shirt, and the blue striping on his suit. Like Wes’ films, the devil is in the details.
Wes and his cast attend the red carpet opening night before the film screens. From left to right: Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, Wes, Roman Coppola, & Bill Murray.
This close up reveals the hidden detailing on Wes’ outfit. The straight formal label on his jacket is more visible, and the burgundy bowtie appears to be of a fuzzy velvet material.
At the festival, The Darjeeling Limited played alongside Joel & Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men, and Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud’s Persepolis.
Audio recording sessions for The Fantastic Mr. Fox began in October of 2007. In the above video, we see footage of these sessions that include a bevy of Wes outfits during this period that solidify his predilections for collared shirts and ties when directing.
There are other standout moments, like when Wes acts for the camera to give animators an idea of how the movement and blocking will be.
At a press conference to promote There Will Be Blood, Paul poses with his star Daniel Day-Lewis at the Four Seasons garden in Beverly Hills.
Paul again keeps it casual with a brown cotton shirt, two buttons open, and blue trousers. A casualness almost rivaled by Day-Lewis’ green flannel, tattoos, and wrist accessories.
Kicking off the awards circuit, Paul and Daniel Day-Lewis attend the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards where There Will Be Blood is nominated for seven awards (including best picture and best director).
Where Day-Lewis opts for a striped suit-solid shirt scheme, Paul inverts it with a solid suit-striped shirt combo. No tie, obviously, since there’s no use trying when you’re standing next to Daniel Day-Lewis in that suit – even Wes would blush.
This close up gives greater detail on the chocolate suede suit that Paul wears for the event. We also see the blood red and black oil striping of his shirt as well.
There Will Be Blood premieres at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City in December of 2007. Pictured here is Paul with his wife Maya Rudolph, power-coupling it up on the red carpet.
They both wear matching black pea coats in a mostly monochromatic color scheme, complementing both the shadowy images in the film and on the poster behind them. Paul finishes off his red carpet look with some casual brown shoes, and an olive tie. Simple and spartan, not unlike the main character of Daniel Plainview himself.
With the awards season underway, Paul attends the American Film Institute Awards Luncheon in January of 2008 with the producing partner on all his films, JoAnne Sellar.
There Will Be Blood is included on AFI’s Top Ten list along with Jason Reitman’s Juno and Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
The casualness of the event finally overlaps with Paul’s preferred sartorial speed, and yet he still manages to be even less formal than that by wearing this indescribable red hat.
A closer look of the red hat. Is it a beanie? Is it a trilby? Who knows, but it’s Proto-Paddington sheik.
At the 60th Director’s Guild Awards “Meet the Nominees” conference, Paul takes a page from Wes’ wardrobe and scarfs up for the event.
The scarf is layered over a v-neck sweater, red/blue flannel, and navy shirt underneath. For bottoms, he’s wearing stonewash denim jeans and a brown belt.
Paul stands with his fellow director nominees: (from left to right) Paul, Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell & The Butterfly), Joel Coen (No Country For Old Men), Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), Ethan Coen (No Country).
Director and Q&A moderator Jeremy Kagan photobombing. His bald head blessed with the touch of Paul’s finger.
This image from the Q&A offers a glimpse of Paul’s footwear: a pair of brown/tan casual boots.
A press conference before the DGA awards show holding his nomination plaque for Best Director.
This time, Paul has dressed in suit and tie for the occasion. Navy blue with pinstriping, white grid patterned shirt, and black tie.
The award for Best Director would go to Joel & Ethan Coen for their work on No Country For Old Men.
Paul at a luncheon photocall for the 80th Academy Awards. There Will Be Blood is nominated for seven awards, including Best Director.
Paul stands with his fellow director nominees. From left to right: Joel Coen, Paul, Julian Schnabel, Tony Gilroy, Ethan Coen, & Jason Reitman (Juno).
Close up on Paul. The same red flannel from the DGA nominees event is dressed up more with a black suit jacket.
Also of note, is the name tag showing the categories that Paul himself is nominated in: Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Director.
Before the Oscars, Paul detours to attend the Berlin Film Festival in February of 2008 where There Will Be Blood has been accepted in the main competition.
He wears a pale navy military-style coat, striped sweater, dark wash jeans, and a simple brown leather shoe.
Paul’s “Star Portrait” from the festival.
A shot of the striped sweater without the coat.
At the actual awards show, Paul wears a simple black suit and tie instead of a tuxedo. There Will Be Blood would win two Silver Bear awards, for Best Directing and Outstanding Artistic Contribution in Music.
The Festival’s top Golden Bear prize would go to Tropa de Elite by José Padilha.
One short week later, Paul and Maya Rudolph attend the red carpet of the 80th Academy Awards show. There Will Be Blood is up for seven awards, including best director for Paul.
This being Paul’s third time attending the Academy Awards, he solidifies his status as a tuxedo guy with yet another classic penguin suit look. However this tuxedo is clearly a product of the changing cultural tastes around menswear. The jacket is cut far closer to the body than previous tuxedos, and the trousers have a more distinct break in the cuff. No fuss, no muss.
There Will Be Blood would win two Oscars that night: Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis & Best Cinematography for Robert Elswit.
Best Picture and Best Directing would both go to Joel & Ethan Coen for No Country For Old Men.
Shortly after the film’s release, Wes is approached by clothing designer APC for a branded merchandise collaboration for The Darjeeling Limited.
Two designs were made and sold in limited markets.
Wes premieres Fantastic Mr. Fox at the 53rd British Film Institute Festival in London in October of 2009.
In an uncanny resemblance to his Mr. Fox puppet, Wes wears an orange corduroy suit, beige sweater vest, and blue shirt.
At a photocall, Wes poses with the rest of his cast and crew from the film. From left to right: Wallace Wolodarsky, George Clooney, Wes, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Jarvis Crocker, & Wes’ brother Eric Anderson.
Visible in this photo are Wes’ matching orange wallabees.
For the red carpet premiere, Wes switches to a velvet black suit, pink, and matching velvet bow tie.
Here, Wes poses with Felicity Dahl, the widow of “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”’s author Roald Dahl.
Close up of shirt and bowtie details. What looks to be pink from afar, is actually a red micro grid check pattern.
Wes and his brother Eric at the west coast premiere of Fantastic Mr. Fox at AFI Fest. Clearly the suits and bowties run in the family.
This time, Wes keeps his color palette more subdued with a grey wool suit, green micro check shirt, and green tie.
This full body shot shows Wes again in his tan wallabees in lieu of traditional formal shoewear – another piece of his prep-casual armor.
Fantastic Mr. Fox would open in theaters by Thanksgiving of 2009 to much acclaim; its animation and musical score would be recognized with two Academy Award nominations. Not a bad way to end the decade.
In the next decade, both Andersons would enjoy a certain creative freedom based on the success of their films in the 2000s. This creative freedom would bring with it a new freedom of style as well, one that will be looked at in more detail on the next installment of The Fashionable Andersons.
1990s Paul Thomas Anderson was a generational talent. Growing up in Studio City, Los Angeles with an actor and talk show host for a father, he began making films at the age of eight on a Betamax camera. Upon encouragement to write and direct, he eventually made The Dirk Diggler Story (1988) and Cigarettes & Coffee (1993), two short films accomplished as a film school dropout that gave us a promising preview of his first two features. By 1994, he debuted his first feature Hard Eight at the alarmingly young age of 24. With 1997’s Boogie Nights and 1999’s Magnolia, he cemented his stature as a supremely confident wunderkind director, wearing the influence of Robert Altman’s humanism and a streak of Scorsese-style virtuosity on his sleeve. Cheeky, a bit disheveled, and annoyingly unpretentious, young PTA could do no wrong.
Looking back from the now third decade of his oeuvre, there is a significant shift from the 90s to his 2000s work. Consecutive releases There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master (2012), and Inherent Vice (2014) are sweeping and increasingly cryptic American stories. What begins with the nation’s birth of modern industry picks up at postwar, white-picket-fence Americana’s eerie advance into repression; and culminates in the peace and love era’s promises resigning to convention. This thread of films released 2007 through 2014 spins out an inadvertent trilogy, channeling a thematically cohesive study of the American psyche in the 20th century.
PTA marked a change of intentionality with the anomalous and charming Punch-Drunk Love (2002). Developed in earnest to be an entertainment picture, it broke momentum from the freshman album hits comprising his 90s filmography. The romance starring Adam Sandler coincided with Anderson at the onset of a relationship to his eventual wife. A five-year gap between the release of Punch-Drunk and the next film involved the beginnings of fatherhood. PTA’s work to follow would be less overtly autobiographical but echoes of the San Fernando Valley and a father-son complex would still persist.
2007’s There Will Be Blood arrived as an undeniable PTA original and a classic for the ages. Loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, the film is an ominous, archetypal telling of America’s original sin at California’s turn of the century oil boom. It is infrastructure built upon greed and lies, disguised as virtue. It is birth of a modern nation, witnessed through the first sales pitch. It is a story of creation in which religion succumbs to industry. Daniel Day Lewis stars in his most iconic role as Daniel Plainview, a conniving and plainspoken businessman who forgoes his soul (and son) in the name of progress. TWBB’s two-and-a-half hours strikes an exquisite balance of intuited storytelling across memorable, charismatic scenes.
If TWBB is a sort of Great Gatsby spiritual prologue, 2012’s The Master follows the lineage of the American saga to its postwar condition. Set in 1950 and starring Joaquin Phoenix as Navy veteran Freddie Quell, the film is an utterly daring piece of enigmatic narrative. Quell is an often indiscernible figure, navigating scenes of postwar society with a violent, sexual energy akin to a feral stray animal. He makes his way onto a yacht in which the leader of a philosophical movement called “The Cause” holds court. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is his name, and he insists upon his own philosophical authority and intellectual humility. Naysayers suggest “he’s all making of this up as he goes along,” a truth too haunting to consider.
Despite what journalistic provocations suggest, the film is not some coded Scientology exposé. The Master is a Freudian likeness of a nation undergoing collective spiritual PTSD. In the wake of civilization’s most destructive impulses being exposed, prior notions of divine morality proved inadequate. The postwar American animus was a beast, yearning for a cage to call home. Freddie is the era’s Id, Dodd its Ego. His wife Peggy (Amy Adams) is Superego, intent on enabling The Cause sway in the world. They are proxy stewards of a generation lost at sea, actively repressing its Atomic Age anxieties as a corrective to past trauma. Americana as it was being rolled out appears a contrived and strained concept.
It’s this tightly wound period in American life that is succeeded the peace and love era of 2014’s Inherent Vice. While The Master was inspired in part by the 1963 Thomas Pynchon novel V., Inherent Vice is an adaptation of the author’s 2009 novel of the same name. IV is more food for vibes over thought. It’s a mellow extension of The Master in the experimental and stoner noir haze through which the “plot” unfolds:
In the fictionalized Los Angeles seaside village Gordita Beach, private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) passes through its psychedelic underbelly of surfers, stoners, and cops. He attempts to make sense of a kidnapping case, fueled by hippie paranoia of power structures conspiring in the name of something. The shadow of an international drug syndicate, a stone-faced LAPD lieutenant, and the FBI at large signal an old order of things creeping into the frame of a decade-long fever dream.
Like Fear and Loathing before it, Inherent Vice is a cheeky, wistful portrayal of an iconic crossroads in the American canon. The film appears an almost redundant visit to that most endlessly mythologized decade. Says PTA, it’s “about the ex-old lady who still has you wrapped around her finger”. That thrilling eruption of miscellaneous humanity in just a few places over a few years was perhaps doomed from the start. It was provoked to cave in on itself, dragged away in the dark by the old forces of law and commerce. Doc stumbles about in 1970, at the tail end of it all, grasping for the everlasting wisdom of a sixties ideal on the cusp of defeat.
Doc eyeballs the camera at the end of Inherent Vice, bookending a panoramic canvas of over 7 hours of film with an ellipsis. It’s a knowing look with a hint of despair towards the sobering reality ahead. The America to inherit would relinquish a utopian vision whose spoiled promise artists and dreamers still cannot shake. Doc will not be getting back with his girl. And it’s with this longing feeling across three films that PTA strings together the story of America coming of age in the 20th century. From Daniel Plainview clawing towards civilization is painful childbirth. In Freddie Quell, defiance of trauma towards purpose is adolescent angst. Through Doc Sportello’s undermined search for truth is surrender to adulthood.
If you’ve only experienced them on streaming or home media, a fresh experience of PTA’s projections of modern American selfhood in a dark theater will likely prove to be a stirring and revealing affair. Repeat viewings are essential, always.
To me, Nobuhiko Obayashi is a one in a million director who is due for a very much needed reevaluation of his work. His style speaks for itself when you see the images and listen to the music of his movies, and his sensibility is not too far from what some might consider childish (in the best way possible, of course). This is seen in his penchant for gross potty humor and loud, naive notions of masculine and feminine traits. For these reasons, Obaysashi’s work isn’t much out of place with modern teenage comedies and crazed slapstick horrorfests. Yet when it came to his overall body of work, you can see how his work in commercials and art film blended together so well. He had such a good eye for taking things to their goofiest limit yet still remaining grounded in the real world. This eye for the avant-garde and knack for putting together outrageous storytelling was fully on display when House came onto the scene. Though audiences in his native Japan didn’t much care for the movie, it became a cult classic across the pond here in America, gaining devoted fans for its zanily innovative use of editing effects and frantic pace. Oddly, it was his first real jump into filmmaking that brought him recognition and put him in prime place to be an unsung hero of Japanese film. He wasn’t Kurosawa, he wasn’t Mizoguchi, but he was still his own widely recognized brand of arthouse film maker.
Unfortunately, his work beyond House is a lot harder to find in the this side of the Pacific. Luckily, there are ways both legit and otherwise that you can pick up his work. What’s also interesting is that Obayashi was probably one of the more prominent directors of live-action manga adaptations. I discovered this myself looking through his work beyond the widely-available House and found that his filmography included adaptations of popular horror drama series Black Jack, the creepy and otherworldly manga The Drifting Classroom, and last but not least the high popular science fiction novel The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Each one of these adaptations fits nicely into Obayashi’s style of crossover arthouse and commercial work that he did to pay the bills. His early commercial work would help pave the way for a lot of the more absurd styles of commercials we see nowadays, with the products being sold needing a boost of non sequitur images which are in turn spliced together with recognizable actors shouting the product’s name into the ether in order to jolt you into needing the random items. This commercial work also helped to give Obayashi’s adaptations a clear-cut shine that makes them worthy of watching for any fans of the original material in America.
Starting off with his adaptation of Black’s Jack‘s story The Visitor in the Eye, Obayashi takes the madcap adventure of a ghostly unlicensed genius surgeon Black Jack and turns its into a dramatic, angst-filled mystery that follows the unfortunate love story between a substitute college tennis coach and one of the students. It blends surgical drama tropes along with creepy mystery thriller bits as the student finds herself seeing a ghostly figure following her around (the curious result of receiving an eye transplant after getting into a freak tennis accident at the hands of her substitute coach/love interest). What unfolds is a crazy, ghostly thriller that takes Obayashi’s love for editing tricks and camera work to create a slow woozy burn of a movie that would make Paul Thomas Anderson blush. The twist at the end is typical but worthy of the watch if you get a chance to watch it.
Next up, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time wears its science fiction teenage drama style on its sleeve proudly. Obayashi’s cinematography is on par with the still imagery that is presented in a lot of mangas and still paintings. Obayashi’s go-to cinematographer Yoshitaka Sakamoto brings his almost page-turning filmmaking skill to the table. Some would call it TV movie filmmaking but it works for it is, with Sakamoto placing scenes in the center of his camera through the tried-and-true rule of thirds to bring a more fly on the wall perspective to high school life. The film is well-developed through the cinematography and the editing, utilizing both to build up to the science fiction parts of the movie. It also falls back on the more goofy and strange ideas that wouldn’t be out of place in House, showing how comfortable Obayashi is with adapting a fish out of water story of someone coming to terms with their new found ability to travel in time. Again, a movie worth sitting down and watching so one can see how successful an adaptation can be and how it can be done right without having to water it down to appeal to more mainstream tastes.
Drifting away from adaptations, I Am You, You Are Me sees Obayashi jumping into another teen sci-fi drama that takes on the Freaky Friday switcheroo premise. Having high school teens take on the gender norms of ’80s Japan is an idea ripe with it merit. Though standards of how these types of movies are written and made has obviously changed, Obayashi handles teenage bullying and what is expected of young high school students in a way that would make Disney blush with its track record of body swap movies. Obayashi doesn’t pull any punches with how the male character takes in the newfound change of being in his old child friend’s body, moving forward like not much has to change in order to continue living his life in a way that’s comfortable for him. What he comes to realize is that his friend’s body comes with expectations of being proper and able to take care of a husband in the future, while his friend finds that, in his body, that she is expected to tough and able to handle teasing despite wanting to tap into her sensitive side by talking about her problems and learning from them. Obayashi wasn’t looking to create a straightforward teenage comedy sci-fi film: he wanted to convey that one can be comfortable being open and defending themselves against an indifferent world that will always push expectations on those it feels should be a certain way. All in all, it’s a great movie that takes on strict views of gender roles that needed to be challenged at the time and should still be challenged to this day.
Obayashi had a very sound idea of what film can be, with just the tiniest bit of surrealism spliced into everyday life problems and showing how even the most mundane things can be made interesting with the right kind of arthouse filmmaking.
Saturday the 14th: Interview with Producer Julie Corman
The cult classic horror-comedy Saturday the 14th, celebrates its 40th anniversary, as a zany love letter to classic 1930s and 1940s horror films.
Directed by Howard R. Cohen, and produced by Julie Corman, Saturday the 14th follows a family who inherits an old home, unknowing that it hides a powerful book, wanted by monsters and monster hunters alike.
Julie has been a film producer for nearly fifty years. She began her career producing films for the distribution company she and her husband, Roger Corman owned. Her first credited producing role was as an associate producer for Boxcar Bertha, the directorial feature film debut of Martin Scorsese. She went on to also produce The Dirt Bike Kid, Brain Dead, Chopping Mall, The Nest, Night Fall, and A Cry in the Wild.
In this extensive interview, Julie shares with us the responsibilities of producing, her memories of Saturday the 14th, and her inspirations for filmmaking.
Justina Bonilla: How did you become a producer?
Julie Corman: In the early 70s, my husband Roger asked me, “I’m making three films now for our distribution company. I wonder if you would take one on and just watch the money on it?” Not knowing what that meant, Roger explained, “Just make sure that the money is spent appropriately.” I replied, “Well, I learned how to balance a checkbook in fifth grade. So, I think I could do that”. Roger continued, “Now, you’re going to need a cameraman, a gaffer, and a grip”.
None of this made any sense to me. I expressed my concern with Roger, “Roger, I can’t produce this, I have no idea what I would be doing”. He assured me, “I’ll be here if you have any questions”. Little did I know, this is Roger’s sort of standard way of operating. Unfortunately, he really wasn’t available. However, everything went well working with the production manager, the equipment houses, and the postproduction houses.
I’m probably the only woman in show business who didn’t want a career in show business but has one.
Bonilla: What was one of your earliest memories as a producer?
Corman: Either a couple of days before shooting or on the first day, the cameraman mentioned that he was going to need a hi-hat adapter. Of course, I had no idea what a hi-hat adapter was. I called the equipment house and asked, “Does he really need this?” I was told, “If you want the camera to go up, down, back, and forth, he needs it.
For technical support, I came to rely very much on a position in the crew that you probably don’t hear about a lot, the key grip (a senior role responsible for camera equipment, supervising grip technician crew members, and collaborating with cinematographers/directors of photography).
Bonilla: How was your experience as a producer for Night Call Nurses?
Corman: I was on edge for the entire shoot of Night Call Nurses, which was 15 days. I realized how many things could ruin the day shooting, like an actor not showing up, or an inappropriate prop. Thankfully, at the end of the day, when Roger asked, “Did you get the day’s work?”, we did.
I like doing research. I loved finding Boxcar Bertha. I’m happy to look for projects, but I thought, “No. I’m not doing this again. The amount of tension. This is insane!”
Bonilla: After producing Night Call Nurses, what lead you to continue producing films?
Corman: Night Call Nurses came out and made a lot of money. Now, the pressure was on. Jonathan Kaplan, the director, wanted to go again. Then, of course, Roger wanted to go again. I reluctantly agreed, “Okay, one more time, but that’s it. Right?”
Then, Francis Doel, who had worked with Rogers for many years, was married to actor Clint Kimbrough, who wanted to direct. Clint asked if I would produce his film The Young Nurses. I was adamant, “No, I don’t ever want to do this again.” Then, Clint revealed, “Julie, you’re the only one I could trust. I know you’ll have my back. I know you’ll help me.” I agreed.
Bonilla: What do you enjoy about the filmmaking process?
Corman: I really enjoy developing a script. I had been an English major at UCLA. I also love working with actors and trying to put actors at ease. I saw what they went through and how difficult it was.
Bonilla: You produce a lot of films that are family-friendly or comedies. What draws you to these genres in particular?
Corman: My children. I had three children in two years and three months.
I went looking for the perfect nursery school and ended up taking the one that was closest to the home in the Pacific Palisades. It’s an area that has grown and changed over time, but it had a kind of small-town flavor. It almost seemed like a Midwestern town.
Around the corner from the nursery school was a hot dog shop. They famously had a little train on tracks that ran around the place and my kids loved that. Little did I know it was the drug drop place for the high school kids, in the afternoon. One day, we drove into town for nursery school and there was a big sign up in front of the hot dog shop that it was going to become a savings and loan business.
Based on that experience and the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, I wrote a treatment for The Dirt Bike Kid. It’s a comedy about a boy with a magic dirt bike, which he gets using money his mother gave him to go buy groceries. He saves the hot dog shop from becoming a bank.
Bonilla: What was the initial reaction to The Dirt Bike Kid?
Corman: Rogers as the distributor was concerned, “A family film? I don’t really know about family films. I’m really not so sure about this.” I emphasized that I really wanted to make this film. He suggested that I get some outside financing. So I did. I wrote this story, developed the script, got the outside financing, and made the film. Roger distributed it to theaters, but it lost money. I was so convinced that this would be a successful film.
Bonilla: How did home video impact The Dirt Bike Kid?
Corman: During the time we were out of distribution, home video reared its head. We were only vaguely aware of it but didn’t think of it as a big source of revenue. However, The Dirt Bike kid went out on home video and sold 100,000 video cassettes. It was our most successful film of the year. That was my introduction to family films.
Bonilla: What lead you to produce the script for Saturday the 14th?
Corman: The screenplay was written by Howard and the story was by Jeff Begun. They brought the project to us. I thought, “This is a lot of fun. I’d like to produce it.”
Bonilla: Who were some of the key people you worked with behind the scenes?
Corman: My normal way of working on a film, is to work with the director to get the cast and crew together. Daniel Lacambre, the film’s cinematographer, had worked with Nestor Almendras and my husband when he made some films in France. Then, I worked with Daniel on a few films here in the US. The editors were Kent Beyda and Joanne D’Antonio. The music was by Parmer Fuller. Parmer is married to a godchild of mine. He runs a music program at USC, and he’s a very talented musician.
Bonilla: With stars Paula and Richard being married, how do you see their marriage influencing their roles as a married couple?
Corman: Anytime actors know and are familiar with each other, it can be very helpful to their performance together. They had very individual ideas about their characters. I didn’t get the feeling that one dictated to the other.
Dick was generally in charge of presenting a message that maybe I wouldn’t like to say to Paula. For example, Paula, who’s supposed to be a vampire in the movie, didn’t want to wear fangs. I thought, “How can I tell Howard that Paula says she’s not wearing these fangs?” Dick assured me, “Trust me, you will believe she’s a vampire.” He was right.
Generally, if actors ask for something, I try to give it to them, because you don’t know why it’s important to them. But you can bet at some level it’s important, and it will have an influence on the performance.
Bonilla: How essential was it for Paula and Richard to play their parts as straight as possible?
Corman: It was essential for them to play their characters straight because everybody tends to get a little wacky. I noticed how they constantly kept like the straight man position. They understood comedy well.
Bonilla: Who were some of the memorable supporting cast members?
Corman: Severn Darden was the guru for The Second City comedy group. I didn’t know the history of Severn with Second City. It was a feather in Howard’s cap to get Severn to be in his movie. Stacy Keach Sr., I believe had been in a film with Roger. Stacy’s comedy chops are well known. And with Rosemary de Kamp, the same thing. Rosemary was the kind of person Howard was happy to have in his film. Roberta Collins had been in some of our other films. Howard wanted Paul Garner, the character actor. He was great. The comedy team Howard put together, with input from me, works well together like a family.
Bonilla: About how long did it take to film?
Corman: It was about three weeks to film. Generally, my schedules were somewhere between three and four weeks, with the early ones in three weeks.
Bonilla: What techniques on set save time for the filming schedule?
Corman: One of the ways that we were able to film in three weeks, was from Roger’s playbook to make films in such a short amount of time. It was to have a second unit, who would go off and shoot.
Let’s say, there was a sequence that called for you to see a horse riding up a mountain. Well, to lug a whole crew up, with maybe 20 people, with the cars, the wagons for the equipment, the lunches, and everything else, would be hugely expensive. But, to get that shot or shots, you send two or three people, to get some shots of the horse running up the mountain. Generally speaking, the second unit would not use the principal actors, because then you have to take sound, and that made it more of a deal than just second.
In this case, because we were mostly contained in the house, it was difficult to get a second unit schedule that didn’t include Dick and Paula.
Bonilla: Did the second unit have any issues while filming?
Corman: So, the first line of resistance was Dick telling me, “I must tell you, we will not work with a second unit.” I sat down with him and showed him the schedule. I told him, “If you and Paula do these four scenes with the second unit, there are days that you’re not working with the main unit. You can spend all day shooting them, and if you don’t like the results, we can reshoot it.” They agreed.
On the first day that they were going to shoot with the second unit, they came out of their trailer. Dick announced, “B team, we’re here!” Making it all fun, he continued, “We’re all together and it’s gonna be great!” This is like the kind of thing that could only happen in a comedy. They made what could have been an issue with drama and negativity into lemonade.
Bonilla: Where were the two houses featured in the film located?
Corman: I’ll tell you a funny story about this suburb one. I don’t remember where the suburb one was. It was maybe somewhere in the Hancock Park area of Los Angeles. But I do remember two things about it.
First, there was a Jacaranda tree in the front yard. Nancy Nuttall, my assistant had been a biochemistry major. I asked her, “Nancy, you got one assignment for the week. That Jacaranda tree is not scheduled to bloom until our shoot is over, get it to bloom.” She found that if you watered it with hot water, it would fool it into blooming.
Second, we shot the scene of the family at the end, in front of the door, with the Jacaranda tree. Everything was fine, but Billy, the son, was wearing a plaid shirt. Something didn’t go right, and we needed to reshoot it. Later, it was discovered that Billy was wearing two plaid shirts, one red and one yellow in the reshoot. In the editing room, nobody noticed that he switched shirts, because our dailies were in black and white. When we switched to color at the end no one noticed the shirt switched colors. we were home free.
The old house, as I recall, either belong to or was related to Mount St. Mary’s, a Catholic women’s college. For some reason, they owned this old house, down by USC. I love location scouting. That’s the first thing I ever did in film. I’m always looking at everything when I walk in a place. I’m always thinking if the ceilings are high enough for the lighting equipment, and how many extras we need to fill the space, etc. I remember just thinking this house was great and making the deal with the nuns to use this house.
Bonilla: What was an unexpected funny moment on set?
Corman: Paula had a scene with Severn. For one reason or another, he could not hold onto his lines. So, Howard did many takes with him to get the lines.
Then, it was Paula’s turn. As usual, Paula was great. Howard printed her first take and was ready to move on. Paula screamed, “No”, with a scream that filled the whole house, because she wanted another take as Severn had had. I was there with the whole crew. They just went into a collective silence. Then I laughed. Paula got another take, and all was well. I don’t know why I laughed.
Bonilla: How do you see this film influencing other horror comedies such as Gremlins?
Corman: Joe Dante, who directed Gremlins, worked in our editing room. He worked as an editor, and he had a lot to do with the marketing of our films. Since he worked as a trailer editor, where you’re looking for the best shots to sell the film, he would have been very much aware of this. Now, in addition to being a top director, he has an online site called Trailers from Hell.
Bonilla: This film has gained a devoted cult following. What do you think has contributed to that?
Corman: The appeal seems to be from people who understand film history. That was definitely intentional from Howard and Jeff. They were aficionados of horror films and would get a kick out of putting in references to previous horror films. It’s also a horror film that kids can watch. People are still buying the DVD of the film.
Bonilla: How does it feel to have Saturday the 14th celebrating its 40th anniversary?
Corman: Forty years went by in daily increments for me. I have a poster for Saturday the 14th outside my office. Every day for however many years, I would look at the poster and it would give me a little lift every day. I fondly remember Howard. Unfortunately, he’s no longer with us. Howard was a very good cosmic mind, an intelligent, thoughtful, and inclusive man.
A man sits at a lone desk inexplicably positioned at the corner of an industrial space, the blue of his suit nearly blending into the blue stripe along the wall behind him. It’s quite a melancholy scene, like that of a muted Edward Hopper painting. He’s on the phone with a customer service agent, looking to clarify a discrepancy in the policy regarding a frequent flyers promotion on Healthy Choice pudding. A guy with too much time on his hands, it seems. A car comes crashing down the road outside like a pebble skipped across a pond. A van skirts up to the middle of the street and unloads a little piano before abruptly taking off. After a few apprehensive peeks, the lone man rushes towards the piano to take it inside, as if to avoid persecution.
It’s into this hushed cold open that director Paul Thomas Anderson unfolds his most unassuming film. In the comedown from his sprawling, three-hour long 1999 epic Magnolia, Anderson was intent on a scaled down feature, more approachable to its audience for the next project. If the heart pouring of Magnolia emerged out of PTA processing his father’s death and his Gen-X art-kid twenty-something power coupling with singer Fiona Apple, his next film would be a neat and tidy 95 minutes. It was inspired by the comfort entertainment of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ wartime-era films, and the burgeoning romance of a relationship to his eventual life partner. 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love is PTA’s rendition of a boy meets girl love story at its most guileless and manic.
It’s also arguably Adam Sandler’s greatest performance. Sandler’s Barry Egan is an emotionally inarticulate plunger salesman prone to violent outbursts and whimpering. His nighttime phone sex excursions in his featureless apartment provide relief to his uneventful life.
“I don’t know if there is anything wrong because I don’t know how other people are,” he confides to his dentist brother-in-law. A doctor, but the wrong kind. Barry can hardly come to terms with what he is: lonely, often pathetic, and dealing in falsehoods to dodge the brutal verbal slights from his seven overbearing and dismissive sisters. Barry Egan is a clever deconstruction of Sandler’s usual man-child comedic persona: a bare ego.
Anderson went on to add, “I loved the movies he was making at that time. Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison, and Big Daddy. When he would flip out, it appeared to me to be a guy who was really flipping out.”
For me, Anderson’s assessment rang true. I had never seen such a thrilling, authentic depiction of boyhood anger as Barry’s episodes of impotent rage. His pressure cooker eruptions are appropriate in marking stretches of nervous, jittery energy caused by a lifetime under the thumb of his unrelenting sisters. That the plungers he trades in are novelty items with shatterable glass handles is fitting. Barry’s tensions are unresolved. He is emotionally constipated. Jon Brion’s pulsating score effectively conveys the Inside Out neuroticism of Barry’s inner hemisphere.
There are, however, signs of momentum in his development. He is at least partially functional as a business owner with a number of employees under him, including the loyal and charming Lance (played by Luis Guzman). The Barry we’re introduced to dons a blue suit throughout the entire film, a sort of uniform (and nod to Anderson’s proclivity for dressing up more in his early thirties); hinting at intentionality with how he carries himself. His pudding inventory for promotional flyer miles, too, is an instinct for a vague grasp towards selfhood. There’s a winning industriousness here for the otherwise timid Barry, as he’s paid enough attention to the details to exploit a gap in the fine print. A win for sensitivity and having little else going on. He’s a man with nowhere to be, stockpiling miles for a special trip to Somewhere, Someday, just on a hunch. Holding love to give. This optimism I find endearing and relatable, even. A Healthy Choice, indeed.
The equally peculiar Lena, with her Technicolor red dress and large, non-judging blue eyes, comes into his life as jarringly as the little piano dropped off in front of his warehouse. Her mysterious presence coincides with Barry grappling with the device itself. Operating it involves reaching into its lower compartment, with its analog push-pull handle, to facilitate noise in conjunction with pressing upon the keys on top. There is no sound when pressing on keys alone. Attending to both is a lumbering yet graceful act. It emits a childlike sound, like that of a toy piano. It’s a poetic as above, so below play on Barry tapping into his inner world to express himself outwardly. Of course, it’s Lena who points out that the piano is, in fact, called a harmonium. A name to a promising, rudimentary mode of expression. A man is given definition.
And it’s across the film’s palette of red-blue-green over sterile tones, analogous to the emotionally confining world Barry occupies, that Jeremy Blake’s visuals briefly flash across the screen as story bookmarks, vibrant and soothing. They are Bewitched and Tom and Jerry and Johnny Carson’s curtains. A latent nostalgia for a more innocent era emerges through richer hues and patterns. Barry’s blue notes come to life.
Screwing up the basics, fibbing as a survival mechanism, cripplingly afraid of being found out. Barry Egan is an everyman of our innermost neuroses. His triumph in finding love and confidence is a genuine feel-good tale that reaches deep like no other. I had never seen such an empathetic rendering of social anxiety onscreen before watching Punch-Drunk Love, with all its discrete ailments and victories. Nor had I seen such an oppressive and universal sibling dynamic, or an unabashed portrayal of the intoxicating power of love itself. The film is an oddity in PTA’s canon of 90s Robert Altman Jr. wunderkind-director films and the more sweeping 2000s American character films. 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love is an utterly tender ode to the sensations of feeling too weird and broken to be loved. There is not a single line of dialogue, an actor’s mannerism, a note of music or streak of color that is out of place in its gracefully composed hour and a half. Every time I watch it, I delight in every one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s sensitive and knowing turns of cinematic phrase.
The train siren. The blood dripping over Lena’s right eye. “It really looks like Hawaii here.” The fluorescent lighting in the grocery store. “Did you just say chat?” Barry’s self-hating mumbles after leaving Lena’s apartment. And who could forget, “I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine”?
Full disclosure, I’m a Paul Thomas Anderson freak. I love his movies so much that it hurts sometimes: my favorites by him include Hard Eight, with its slow, somber burn that builds up to dramatic twists and turns that could make a grown adult cry, and Punch Drunk Love, which showcases a dark dramedy side of Adam Sandler that we don’t get to see often. His movies are just this profound sort of uncanny yet still rooted in a reality we all know too well. They often feature everyday folks who may or may not be very quiet and introverted underneath the skin they pretend to be so comfortable wearing. It is here in Anderson’s movies that I enjoy being because, at times, it feels like something I’m familiar with.
That being said, I haven’t seen two of his movies: Magnolia and Phantom Thread. The latter in particular throws me for a loop with its uses of fashion to dig deeper into the essence of its characters. Most of Anderson’s films are set in America and deal with slice of life kind of scenarios that wouldn’t be out of the ordinary, and I don’t even give much thought to fashion despite it being a heavy part of American culture. With Phantom Thread though, I see Paul tackling something I never even imagined he would, with the way he comes across in interviews never hinting at so much as a passing interest in exploring post-war Britain or high fashion. Looking back at the rest of P.T.A.’s filmography however, I did notice that he does have an eye for costuming and using fashion to help advance characters’ stories and even to help develop their personalities. I guess Anderson has been utilizing fashion to flesh out characters and themes alongside the storytelling and dialogue for much longer than I might have thought.
With Phantom Thread specifically though, I see fashion being super emphasized and used to the point of making the fashion itself a character in the movie. I picked this up just by watching the trailers: every image, despite being muted in colorization, pops and brings depth to the characters that Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps play as well as the clothes that they wear. The two are shown to inhabit opposite ends of the class hierarchy and still end up having an almost-equal level of colorization between the both of them.
If anything, my relative unfamiliarity with P.T.A.’s strategic use of fashion will put me in prime position to revisit his other films and see what I missed with regard to the costuming and fashion choices in them. One that will certainly be interesting to rewatch with all this in mind is Inherit Vice, which is a good example of an era where fashion could serve as a calling card for countercultural sensibilities or a no-BS attitude towards what might be going on in the world. I’ll be happy enough to just enjoy the movies again in order to take in all the little details that might have escaped me the first time.
To me, the little I’ve seen of Phantom Thread so far comes across as P.T.A.’s Gosford Park, which was directed by his mentor Robert Altman ( and whose last film, A Prairie Home Companion, included Anderson as a “backup” director.) The similarities between Altman’s work and Anderson’s are so great that it makes me want to watch Phantom Thread even more than I already do, to say nothing of curious to see what P.T.A. has in store for the future. If anything, Phantom Thread is a chance to see if Paul Thomas Anderson can fill the shoes that were left behind by Robert Altman, with me ready to take a deep dive into this metaphorical fashion drama.
Later Days, the upcoming independent comedy film, features local film teacher Sandy Sternshein as a co-director and co-scriptwriter alongside Brad Riddell.
A Gen-X love letter to 1980s comedies, Later Days follows a married middle-aged couple, Mike (David Walton) and Pam (Majandra Delfino), with Mike planning a surprise 1980s prom-themed birthday party for Pam, with their friends and former classmates attending. However, the intended happy nostalgia-fest turns into an unexpected rollercoaster ride.
Sternshein originally from Long Beach, has had a lifelong passion for film. After attending USC film school, he took the path of indie filmmaking. Eventually, he became a popular film and media teacher at the local community colleges, Santiago Canyon College and Santa Ana College, as well as the popular arts charter school OCSA, Orange County School of the Arts.
In his classes, Sternshein encouraged students to follow their writing strengths in a variety of genres, whether it be comedy, action, or horror. He also exposed his students to a wide variety of filmmakers and films, including obscure documentaries, foreign, and classic films, to challenge the way they interpreted film, the filmmaking process, and inspire creativity.
Sternshein shares with us his path from becoming a film teacher, to making an indie movie, and the knowledge he inspires to pass on to others along the way.
Bonilla: What is your connection to Orange County?
Sternshein: I was born in Long Beach, but I grew up in Seal Beach and Los Alamitos. I’ve mostly lived in Orange County, even when I went to USC, I lived in Seal Beach. Jen and I, when we first got together, lived in Hollywood for a couple of years, when we were working in production. I’ve always felt like this is my home and I am much more productive here than I am in LA.
Bonilla: What led you to pursue an education in film?
Sternshein: I went to Whittier college as a religious studies major. The truth is, I wanted to go to NYU as out of high school because Spike and Martin Scorsese went there. It was the school of schools. But I ended up at Whittier. Whittier didn’t have a film major, but I think they had a minor.
I took a class called “Religion and Cinema”. We didn’t have a great film department at Whittier, but this class was life-changing. We’d watch Peter Sellers and Hal Ashby films.
That class exposed me to the idea that to create good films, you have to know things about the world. You have to read everything you can get your hands on and watch everything you can. That class changed it for me. I liked this class so much I decided to become a religious studies major and not a film major.
I ended up going my junior year to Israel, studying in Tel Aviv. I saw the world and the experience opened my eyes.
In 1999, I went to graduate school at USC, right after my wife and I got married. She went to law school and I went to USC’s film school.
Bonilla: What led you to go into teaching?
Sternshein: I knew I wasn’t going to make a million dollars right away at being a filmmaker. If I got an MFA, I could teach film. I had taught before in the Whittier City School District. I knew how to teach and was good at it. So, I could have a career as a screenwriter and make some money.
Bonilla: What film classes did you teach?
Sternshein: At OCSA, I taught screenwriting, production one, production two, and a web series class.
For Santa Ana College, I taught postwar cinema from 1945 to the present day, mass media, introduction to film production, directing/producing from film and television, and all three screenwriting classes, beginning, intermediate, and advanced.
At Santiago Canyon College, I taught mass media and the three screenwriting classes, beginning, intermediate, and advanced.
I’ve taught pretty much everything film-related.
Bonilla: How did you become affiliated with OCSHA?
Sternshein: OCSA started at Los Alamitos High School when my wife was there. My son is at OCSA in Santa Ana. My wife Jena and I both taught there. My kids went to El Sol, a dual immersion school across the street from OSHA, on Broadway, in Santa Ana.
I re-connected with Ralph Opacic, who had been a teacher and friend, who also founded OSHA. Then, I started teaching film classes and screenwriting there. Later, I taught at Santa Ana College and Santiago Canyon College.
Bonilla: How did you approach film writing when you were teaching?
Sternshein: Like great literature, I wanted to introduce my all students, to this way of telling a story, this personal, independent way of making movies of writing stories. Though they’re small, little stories, they say something about us, about life.
I recently spoke to a class of aspiring filmmakers. I told them, “I know you’ve been through a lot of struggles in your life. Honestly, you can’t be a screenwriter, without some adversity”. I guarantee you’ll come out of it a better writer, because you understand.
You have to go through suffering and pain to tell a story with empathy. When you come across people on the camera, or when you’re interviewing them, you have some empathy and bring some of that to the page.
Bonilla: What inspired you to go from teaching to full-time filmmaker?
Sternshein: In my class, at the end of the semester I would tell my students to, “Go out there. Tell your story. Don’t wait for the gatekeepers. Don’t ask for permission”. This is a pitch that I’ve been giving for years. But, I wasn’t doing what I was saying. The more I gave that speech, the less authentic I felt.
Finally, I did two things. One, I went to my wife and I shared, “I’m thinking about getting out of teaching, so I can go make a movie”. It wasn’t her favorite idea, but she agreed, “If your miserable and that’s gonna make you happy. Then absolutely”. And so I did.
Second, I went to Brad, who had moved to Chicago as a tenured professor at DePaul University. He ran the screenwriting program there. I asked him, “I want to try to raise some capital and make a little movie, at one location. What do you want to do?” We threw some ideas around and I pitched this movie.
In 2017, I pretty much walked away from teaching to make this movie. Here we are four years later and it’s finally coming to the screen.
Bonilla: Which film and/or filmmaker inspired your filmmaking?
Sternshein: Spike Lee for sure. I remember seeing Do the Right Thing and it changed me. This idea that the hottest day of summer where everything comes to a head was amazing. Ernest Dickerson‘s cinematography was so warm.
Then, I saw a flyer at McDonald’s that Spike was going to be at Cal State Long Beach. My mom, a teacher, let me take that day off from high school to see him. I was probably a junior in high school. Jungle Fever was coming out and he was beginning Malcolm X. It was life-changing just to hear Spike speak.
As an undergrad at Whittier college, I was in charge of the speaker series. We got Spike to come and speak to at Whittier. Then, I got to have dinner with him. He was so cool. At the time, his production company 40 Acres and a Mule West. He hooked me up with one of his creative executives and was really supportive early on in my career.
Bonilla: How did you meet your filmmaking partner Brad Riddell?
Sternshein: My film partner Brad Riddell and I went to USC together. In our last year, in a scriptwriting class, my screenplay ended up on the first year of The Blacklist and his screenplay ended up becoming a part of American Pie Presents: Band Camp. Brad went the studio route, while I went the independent route.
Years later, we became friends again, and we wrote some comedy together, including a web series.
Bonilla: Where did the inspiration for Later Days come from?
Sternshein: 10 years ago, I threw my wife an 80s prom at the Orange Elks Lodge. She’s an overworked corporate attorney and works hard to support the family. I was home with the kids. At night when she gets home, we’d high five, and I go teach till 10 p.m. Then we’d finally get to bed together and immediately fall asleep. We were like two ships crossing in the night.
For the party, I got everyone in costumes. I thought it was going to be a fun night. But, what’s crazy, is when we put on those costumes, we realized that everyone diverted back to their high school self, and the cliques formed.
Brad had a band camp-like reunion. That didn’t go well. People had issues and all this stuff surfaced.
We thought, “What if the people on your Facebook feed, where everybody’s getting along, liking your photos, who you haven’t seen since eighth grade, all ended up in the same room for a night, and it all goes horribly wrong?”
Bonilla: How did you and Brad delegate the responsibilities of co-writing and co-directing?
Sternshein: We work well together and don’t fight a lot. We also had basic rules with the cast and crew, creating a nice environment on set. Somedays I’m working with the camera and he’s working with the actors. For the most part, we’re both weighing in on things, with one person delegated to speak to the cast and crew.
It was our first directed feature. We’ve been around a lot of movie sets, so it went well. I think in a lot of ways it went better than usual because there were two heads. Usually, a director is frantic since he’s constantly having to make multiple decisions in the same second on set. We still have chaos, but there were two of us making sure everything was going as planned and we weren’t missing anything. I would work again with Brad. I really enjoyed it.
Bonilla: What lead to the decision to film Later Days in Chicago?
Sternshein: We got a tax incentive to go shoot in Chicago, getting 30% of our budget back to shoot in Illinois. It was a huge deal. Even though it’s supposed to be set here in the city of Orange. It ended up making it a Chicago story.
We raised all the money ourselves. Brad and I went to Chicago and pitched to the CMA, the Chicago Media Angels. We were also selected by the SAG/IFP Table Read Series. Also, in Chicago, they had a series where they were reading scripts publicly. They chose ours and we were able to get more financing there.
We did all this about March 2019, before we shot that September. Everything was done in 19 days. We got everything edited by January/February 2020. But, in March, COVID happened.
The good news is that during that time, we worked on the soundtrack and everything else. We needed an authentic 1980s soundtrack. So, we have about eighteen well-known 80s songs on it. It’s pretty cool.
Bonilla: Later Days has a John Hughes feel to it. Was Hughes an influence on the film?
Sternshein: The John Hughes influence is huge. We’re going on 50 and were 13 when Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and all those movies were coming out. We love these movies. Brad also teaches a class at DePaul University which is a John Hughes film class.
When we sat down to write, we thought about The Breakfast Club, wondering, “What if Anthony Michael Hall was the CEO of Facebook?”, or, “What if what if Emilio Estevez, who was the big jock was a stay-at-home Dad?” Also, “How would those guys come to a meeting?” Imagine Anthony 25 years later, with a chip on his shoulder, wanting to everybody that he’s the man.
Since, Hughes’s films took place in Shermer, Illinois, a fake city, in his honor, our movie is set in West Shermer. Also, Audrey Francis who plays Karen in Later Days, is wearing Haviland Morris’ dress from Sixteen Candles.
Bonilla: How else did you inject the 80s film style into Later Days?
Sternshein: This film was shot to look like an old film, using a process to make the film look a little grainy. We really wanted that party to look like something out of the 80s.
The costumes were handmade by Sarah Albrecht. They’re amazing. Sarah did an amazing job. I’m so grateful for her. There’s a couple of Easter eggs we put in the film through famous-looking costumes and stuff in the background.
Bonilla: What does Later Days mean to you?
Sternshein: Later Days is a very personal story. It was how I felt coming out of raising my kids with my wife. Adulting is hard, especially not seeing your wife all day. When you get this age, our parents are getting sick and dying, and all of the sudden, you feel mortal. You have to deal with that now.
Bonilla: How have audiences reacted to the film so far?
Sternshein: Everybody says it’s a sweet movie. Though it’s an R-rated movie, it’s wholesome. I’m kind of a sarcastic and edgy guy. So, when people I know see Later Days they say, “I didn’t think you have that in you”. It surprises them.
Bonilla: Do you have any upcoming projects?
Sternshein: We’re excited to continue to make more films and produce films. We’ve optioned the award-winning book called The Kindness of Strangers by Katrina Kittle. It’s a dark, but award-winning book. Currently, Dominica Scorsese is attached to direct and we’re producing that.
Brad and I are writing a skateboard comedy called Back to the Grind. Tony Hawk is producing it, with Troy Miller attached to direct.
Bonilla: What do you hope that audiences take away from this film?
Sternshein: I hope people walk away thinking it’s a sweet and funny little movie, with a great soundtrack. I’m excited for people to see this and meet the characters. These are characters that we’ve been thinking about for a long time.
Overall, I wanted to make a movie for my wife to enjoy when she’s tired on a Saturday night, as she asks me to put something funny on. I feel like we made this movie for her and Brad’s wife, Tina. A movie that they could curl up on the couch, laugh to, and be distracted from all the complications of the modern world.
Later Days is now playing at select theatres nationally, TVOD, and digital platforms.
Ever since the twin releases of Bottle Rocket and Hard Eight in 1996, gen-X filmmakers Wes, and Paul Thomas Anderson have made a name for themselves with richly textured films crammed full of memorable production design, and lush costuming.
While there’s no end to the amount of iconic outfits in the Fashionable Andersons’ oeuvre, in this blog series we’ll look at each director’s own wardrobes, and trace the evolution of their respective fashion styles in the last 30 years beginning with the 1990s. Each in their 20s by this decade, both Fashionable Andersons embody a youthful, carefree attitude in their fashion choices during this period.
Paul, a California casual king, keeps comfort at the highest priority during this period.
Wes, meanwhile, was born and raised in Texas, attending a private academy that enforced a dress code. A history that extends into dress as well.
Pictured here around ‘89-’90, is one of the earliest pictures of Wes posed next to his classmate and future collaborator, Owen Wilson.
Both men’s hair is cropped short around the sides and back, but spiked straight up on top. Even though Wilson is in a short sleeve t-shirt, Wes wears a long sleeve polo PLUS a turtleneck underneath. Meaning that Wes gets cold very easily, or is immune to heat.
Beyond that however, there isn’t much to remark on. No jewelry, no accessories (except a belt). It’s a pretty simple, collegiate look for any occasion.
When he was twenty-two, Paul Thomas Anderson was a PA for a CBS television movie called Secret Vows (later retitled Sworn To Vengeance). The above video filmed during production of the movie, shows Paul in this period, at a primordial phase of his fashion development (and already on the road to his coffee addiction). A rosetta stone from which all things descend.
Dressed like some hypebeast from 2019, Paul is layered up for what looks like a very cold, late November autumn. In the latter part of the video when Paul speaks to the hair and makeup department, he facetiously jokes about needing a trim, but his hair is still quite stylish. With the early nineties camera quality the colors are difficult to make out, but Paul seems to be wearing an olive sweatshirt underneath a similarly toned grey or olive shell bomber jacket. A small bit of his white shirt sticks out at the top. A great look then as it is now.
The angles of the video only ever show Paul’s top half, so the pants and shoes he’s matched with the outfit are never seen. However, the accessories he has on are paramount. The sunglasses have a burgundy tint (a la Jack Horner), but are decidedly NOT aviators. Still, the wide frames are complementary and evocative of the 70s in line with the 90s fashion trends.
Also of note, is the MAN RING on Paul’s right ring finger. It’s a simple, silver band from a trend that seems all but gone in today’s modern fashion culture. Even out of the half a dozen or so other men that Paul encounters in the video, he is still the only one seen wearing a ring for fashion.
Pictured here at the Sundance Lab, Paul Thomas Anderson directs the crew of his short film Cigarettes & Coffee. Clothing wise, he looks to be wearing denim jeans, a dark linen shirt layered with a white t-shirt underneath. Notable accessories include a trucker hat stuffed in his back pocket, a black casio watch, and his silver ring makes another appearance as well.
Paul is also wearing circular frame eyeglasses, giving the impression that his sunglasses in the production video may have been prescription?
The next January, Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson found themselves at the Sundance film festival as well, premiering the black and white short that would be the basis for Bottle Rocket.
The Utah winter prompts both Wilson and Wes to finally get on the same page about how to dress for the weather. In addition to a backpack, Wes is bundled in a turtleneck, scarf, fleece sweater, and wool coat. There is also a large white button on the front of his coat that is unreadable, but perhaps Sundance related.
Speaking of cold weather . . .
Finally on the set of his first feature length film, Paul directs his star Phillip Baker Hall in an exterior scene for Hard Eight. Given the Nevada weather, our California boy is bundled up in a large black parka, black scarf, leather mittens, and a beanie. He’s got the same wireframe eyewear seen from the set of his short film Cigarettes & Coffee, and headphones wrapped around his neck – director sheik.
Another set photo from Hard Eight. Paul sits in a classic director chair in between scenes. The weather isn’t as cold this time around, allowing him to wear a single layer: a short sleeve cotton shirt. He appears to be wearing the same watch as he did on the set of Cigarettes & Coffee (1993).
This time around, no specs.
Wes Anderson, with his hair perfectly coiffed and messy, catches the lens of the camera while on set of the feature film production of Bottle Rocket. He’s got on a large winter parka with faux fur fabric around the collar, and wrapped in a scarf.
New additions this time around are his eye glasses. Not quite rimless like Paul’s, but still clear see-through frames. Minimal and timeless.
The clear eyewear makes another appearance on set of the feature film production of Bottle Rocket. Owen Wilson takes direction while dressed as his character Dignan in a terribly retro shirt.
Wes meanwhile, wears a red fleece that gives him an uncanny resemblance to his character Anthony Adams (played by Luke Wilson in the film).
Another day on the set of Bottle Rocket. The interior shoot means Wes can lose the fleece sweater, and keep it simple with a purple plaid flannel shirt. The clear framed glasses make a return.
In a (perhaps staged) production photo for Bottle Rocket, Wes edits the film with co-leads and co-Wilsons, brothers Luke and Owen, in tow. Wes’ hair is more vertical than in the previous set photos. He layers a white collared shirt with a baggy cardigan.
Paul on set of his second film – an elaboration of a short he made in high school – entitled Boogie Nights. Next to him is the legendary actor Burt Reynolds, himself playing a film director from 1977.
Shot in the summer, Paul sports a buzzed haircut, and blue short sleeve linen shirt that’s both stylish and breathable. As far as eyewear, Paul is sporting some orange tinted sunglasses with some oval shaped frames seen elsewhere in production photos.
Another day on the set of Boogie Nights, same orange glasses as before. This time around, Paul is wearing an even more breathable, green shirt. Perfect pool fit.
From this angle it’s clear that these are not the same sunglasses from the 1992 video.
Pictured here in London for the release of Hard Eight in March of ‘97, Paul’s hair has grown since production on Boogie Nights wrapped a few months earlier. For the picture, he’s wearing his oval eyeglasses from before, but ditches a coat and tie, opting instead for a simple striped blue shirt and matching pants. For the first time, we see some footwear! Black dress shoes, and beige dress socks.
Variations on this look would persist until the release of Boogie Nights in October of the same year.
Paul interviewed on TV for the release of Boogie Nights in October ‘97.
Now in production for his second film, Rushmore, Wes returns to his prep school fashion roots. Untucked collared shirts, pleated trousers, no ties. He continues to wear the same glasses as he did on the set of Bottle Rocket.
In this color photo from the same baseball scene, we see the colors that Wes chose for his outfit. Brown Corduroy pants, light purple shirt, and navy undershirt.
On this day, Wes goes with the white on white shirt combo. Jason Schwartzman makes sure he’s cleared for landing.
Paul Thomas Anderson and Fiona Apple attend the 50th Annual Writers Guild Awards, where Boogie Nights was nominated for Best Original screenplay.
Paul has a plain black suit, blue tie, but the real stunner here is Apple, showing her support with a white Boogie Nights t-shirt.
The award would end up going to Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks for As Good As It Gets.
Boogie Nights was later nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars – Paul’s very first recognition from the Academy! He keeps his look low-key and classic with a simple black tuxedo.
The Oscar would go on to be awarded to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck for Good Will Hunting.
For Paul’s third film, Magnolia, a video production diary was made and included on the DVD. It documents the film’s complete development, from pre-production to first premiere, and shows first hand the director’s fashion choices in the final days of the 20th century.
For this film in particular, Paul tends to wear suits or sport coats during the production more than in any other. As he gives an inspirational speech on set before the first shot of the movie, Paul wears a black suit, white shirt, and no tie.
He substitutes his jacket with different sport coats throughout the film.
With Rushmore a certified success, Wes makes his debut TV appearance on the same program Paul was on the year and half prior. Since it would be televised, Wes dressed up for the occasion.
He forgoes a tie, but dresses it up with a shirt sweatshirt combo in two tones of blue. All topped off with an olive jacket. The glasses make a return as well. Slowly, but surely, turning more and more into the Wes we recognize today.
That was the 90s for these two directors: a little messy, and a little grunge. But by the end of the decade (and the millennium), both began a metamorphosis of sorts, paying a little more attention to their fashion choices on and off set.
This metamorphosis would continue into the 21st century, as each writer-director was on the verge of making their most mature and impressive works yet.
Stayed tuned for our next blog entry, where we’ll dive deep into the directors’ absolute best Y2K looks of the 2000s.
The Writer’s Room is a questionnaire about movies done with the entire Frida Cinema’s writing staff. Continuing our survey from last year, we look at the symbiotic relationship between horror movies and Halloween.
What is your favorite Halloween tradition?
Justina Bonilla: Making my own Halloween costumes.
Connor Davis: Watching a horror movie.
Penny Folger: Pumpkin seed eating.
Josh Green: Trick R Treating, and watching horror movies.
Austin Jaye: A good, aimless, miles-spanning walk through morning fog.
Anthony McKelroy: Jack-O-Lantern making is still as fun as it was when I was a kid–probably always will be.
Mick Nguyen: Disneyland, when it turns into Halloweentown.
Nicole Nguyen: Passing out candy and seeing everyone’s costumes.
Reggie Peralta: Probably watching scary movies. Granted, I watch scary movies all year long, but there’s just something special about sitting down to watch a good horror movie or two after a long night of Halloween fun.
What is your favorite holiday besides Halloween? Why?
Justina Bonilla: Christmas, because of its deep meaning for me culturally and religiously. I also love Christmas music, especially from old Hollywood musicals.
Connor Davis: Christmas, because it’s cold and everyone is–supposed to be, at least–happy.
Penny Folger: Dia de los Muertos. Also spooky, but perhaps a tad more meaningful.
Josh Green: Christmas cause it’s a time where I can give items to the people I love and care for despite me gifting occasionally before. Also the lights. I love the light displays and creativity people expel during Christmas.
Anthony McKelroy: Can I say my birthday?
Mick Nguyen: Christmas (as a kid, for the presents, movies, and school traditions, but the magic’s gone now); Now it’s Thanksgiving for the dim sum, and my nieces and nephews.
Nicole Nguyen: Lunar New Year! Just close enough to my birthday to liven up the beginning of the year but just far enough away from it to merit separate celebrations.
Reggie Peralta: This is probably a safe answer, but Christmas. It’s funny because I feel like I’m too old to get excited about it the way I did as a kid, but for some reason I still find myself getting into the spirit of the time. Maybe it’s the fact that there are still a lot of radio stations that play nothing but holiday music around the time, meaning there’s a good chance I’m subliminally programming myself into liking Christmas more than I otherwise would.
Do you believe in ghosts?
Justina Bonilla: Yes, without a doubt.
Connor Davis: I don’t know if I could handle it if ghosts were real.
Penny Folger: Just the feeling of weirdness in a room at rare moments, but nothing you can see or anything. Is it telling that it makes me nervous to answer this question?
Josh Green: Yes. Yes I do.
Austin Jaye: Not to sound condescending but how could anyone not? I’m a firm supporter of recognizing ghostly presences in any space I occupy. I love imagining how its past occupants must have utilized it and what they left behind of themselves in it. Not in a gross way or anything, but more of a general matter of feeling. Every night I pray to Zak Bagans and thank him for his services.
Anthony McKelroy: Sure. I just hope they like being called ghosts. Maybe there’s another term they prefer. Guess we’ll find out sooner or later.
Mick Nguyen: No, but I could under the right lighting.
Nicole Nguyen: I lean towards “yes,” but it’s really dependent on how dark it is outside and whether I’m alone in the house.
Reggie Peralta: Short answer, no. I’m a bit of a skeptic, so I’m not inclined to accept supernatural explanations for unexplained phenomena. That being said, I do know that there is a lot that we–that is, humans–still don’t know about this world or the next (assuming for the sake of argument that there is one), so I can only speculate what happens to us once we pass.
What are your favorite horror movie cliches?
Justina Bonilla: Ghosts, creepy music, and unknown creatures lurking in the shadows.
Connor Davis: Weird, deformed bodies.
Penny Folger: I don’t really like cliches, but maybe my annoyance is that nobody ever remembers how to turn on the lights when they’re frightened and/or being stalked by something? Or that if you’re sexually active in any way, or even sexually expressive — especially if you’re a woman — you must die. I guess that one is fun.
Josh Green: Surreal Hallucinations that turn out to be real.
Anthony McKelroy: Besides sexy co-eds getting into scrapes? Hm, let me think. I really love it when characters in horror movies don’t say the name of the monster, or whatever. Be it zombie, vampire, ghost, serial killer, demon, characters will just say “Some thing is after us!” as if we don’t have names for them already.
Nicole Nguyen: What else can top walking directly towards the danger/creepy noise/certain death?
Reggie Peralta: I don’t know if I have a favorite cliche, so much as a favorite recurring theme in horror movies. I’m really compelled by the idea of people encountering the unknown and struggling to make sense of it, all the while trying to come out of the experience in one piece. It might be the Lovecraft fanboy in me, but I’m a sucker for forbidden knowledge and its consequences (or at least, other people dealing with its consequences).
Favorite Halloween candy?
Justina Bonilla: Candy corn.
Connor Davis: Twix.
Penny Folger: I never ate my Halloween candy much. Just carefully catalogued it and then put it on a shelf, like it was a savings account. I was a strange child.
Josh Green: Candy Corn
Austin Jaye: The Wonder Ball! My favorite candy/choking hazard.
Anthony McKelroy: The pumpkin shaped Reese’s cups. So simple, but so ingenious.
Mick Nguyen: Whoppers and DOTS
Nicole Nguyen: Twix.
Reggie Peralta: I’m not big on Halloween candy specifically, but I definitely can go for some Laffy Taffy and Sour Patch Kids! On the chocolate side of things, I’m always good for Hershey’s Cookies N’ Creme and Reese’s Mini Peanut Butter Cups.
What are the main traits of a traditional “Halloween movie?”
Justina Bonilla: A Halloween movie is any film that makes Halloween enjoyable for you, whether it’s a sweet film like The Pumpkin Who Couldn’t Smile (1979), or The Exorcist (1973).
Penny Folger: Vincent Price? Christopher Lee. Peter Cushing…
Josh Green: Superhero costumes, random jump scares from main characters friends, and lots of blood.
Austin Jaye: Pumpkin destruction.
Anthony McKelroy: In the strictest sense, a significant portion of the film’s event’s need to occur on the actual holiday. Otherwise, the film needs to depict characters interacting with Halloween traditions: pumpkin carving, costume party, scary movie watching, etc.
Nicole Nguyen: Seasonal and spooky but not necessarily scary.
Reggie Peralta: Probably having the trappings of Halloween more so than any story or formal elements. Kids wearing costumes and trick-or-treating, decorations like jack-o-lanterns, and traditional markers of autumn time like falling leaves and brown or orangish hues.
What would you say are the main traits of a traditional horror film?
Justina Bonilla: Any film that gives you a scary good time. Like Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Blade (1998), or Hereditary (2018).
Penny Folger: Something going way beyond the control of the central characters that they’re in turn tormented by. Usually something they can’t see or grasp completely for a while. Maybe it kills them. Maybe it doesn’t.
Josh Green: Lots of blood, jump scares, and a psycho.
Anthony McKelroy: Much of horror is predicated on creating a recognizable reality, so that the introduction of the scarier elements are heightened. While the scares are important, it’s these more banal traits of horror movies that are as critical as the suspense.
Mick Nguyen: Mindf*ckery, nudity, and campy humor.
Nicole Nguyen: Provokes genuine fear in the audience, not necessarily beholden to a particular season or holiday.
Reggie Peralta: Kind of a tricky question since there’s a big difference between, say, a slasher movie and a Universal Monster movie. If I may piggyback off my early answer regarding the unknown however, I would say a key trait of traditional horror movies is introducing the fear of something unknown or unexpected into settings that might be familiar or at least known to audiences, whether it be campgrounds, Eastern European villages, or even suburban neighborhoods.
What are the scariest movies you’d recommend for an all night Halloween marathon?
Justina Bonilla: It depends on your definition of scary. If body horror chills you to your core, then Audition (1999), Hostel (2005), Hostel 2 (2007), The Fly (1986), Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), and The Human Centipede (2009).
Connor Davis: Hereditary (2018), Insidious (2010), Lights Out (2016).
Penny Folger: I grew up my whole life with my dad saying Les Diaboliques (1955) was the scariest movie he ever saw. So, I have to say that. (No spoilers, please.)
Josh Green: Audition (1999).
Austin Jaye: Not necessarily the scariest, but Bones (2001) starring Snoop Dogg turns 20 this year if you’re looking for an incredibly fun take on Lucio Fulci to watch with friends as much as you’re looking for a cause to celebrate. Also turning 20 is The Piano Teacher (2001), if you’re by chance in the mood to permanently scare your friends out of falling in love.
Anthony McKelroy: The scariest films are the ones that are real. Given the current cultural moment around true crime stories, why not watch some “horror” documentaries for Halloween this year? Prophet’s Prey (2015), The Act Of Killing (2012), and even the Oscar nominated Collective (2020) from last year are all chilling portraits of human tragedy that rival the scariest of fiction films.
Mick Nguyen: A Nightmare on Elm Street (I haven’t seen the classics).
Nicole Nguyen: Hereditary (2018). I’m not even sure I have it in me to watch it all the way through again.
Reggie Peralta: The movies that strike me as “scariest” tend to be atmospheric slow-burners, so they might not lend themselves best to marathon-viewing. That being said, I’d recommend:
- Willow Creek (2013), a Bigfoot mockumentary by Bobcat Goldthwait(!)
- Images (1972), a bizarre, rare dip into horror by Robert Altman of all people.
- The Wicker Man (1973), the original with Christopher Lee, NOT the remake with Nicolas Cage.
- And, of course, The Shining (1980).
Favorite original horror film score/theme?
Justina Bonilla: The theme from Panna a Netvor (Beauty And The Beast) (1978).
Connor Davis: Maybe The Shining (1980).
Penny Folger: Anything by John Carpenter and/or Goblin. And the organ music from The Ghost & Mr. Chicken (1966).
Josh Green: Paranorman (2012).
Austin Jaye: Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell’s score for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was genuinely ahead of its time and for some reason I never realized it until like a week ago. Completely nerve-shredding musique concrète with samples of slaughterhouse noises and everything, and I believe one of the earliest examples of the industrial genre to boot.
Mick Nguyen: The Shining (1980)
Nicole Nguyen: Suspiria (1977)
Reggie Peralta: I feel like this is the “correct” answer (in the way that Citizen Kane is the “correct” answer to the question “What is your favorite movie?”), but I really do love “Tubular Bells”, aka the theme from The Exorcist (1973). The funny thing is that my favorite part – the last five minutes or so building up to the final climax – isn’t actually heard in the film, something that I think really speaks to the power of the piece on its own.
Which horror movie character from the last year would make a perfect Halloween costume ?
Justina Bonilla: Nicolas Cage from Willy’s Wonderland (2021).
Penny Folger: I’m not sure I watched any horror films that came out last year, because the real life coming out in 2020 was horrific enough for me. Those two teenagers from The Vast of Night (2019) would be a fun one though. Maybe holding a UFO.
Josh Green: It wasn’t last year but The Babadook (2014) is a good one.
Austin Jaye: Hubie Shubie Dubois. This is your reminder to watch Hubie Halloween (2020) before the 31st, or else.
Anthony McKelroy: Do people think of Zola (2021) as a horror movie? It has the hallmarks of a good horror/thriller: danger, suspense, dread. Plus there’s simply too many good outfits in that movie for us not to see at least one costume.
Mick Nguyen: Everyone in Host for a lowkey zoom party.
Reggie Peralta: I’ve actually seen woefully few of this year’s horror movies, but I do have the perfect idea for a Halloween costume from an unlikely source. My brother and I watched The Boulet Brothers Dragula: Resurrection (2020) recently, and one of the queens, Saint, wore an outfit that absolutely blew us both away. Wearing a white gown and mask that evoked the traditional idea of female ghostly figures, she put a clever twist on this tried and true image by pairing them up with piercing green contact lenses and sharp fangs, staring and smiling from behind her mask. Truly the stuff bad dreams and wet beds are made of, and as such perfect for the Halloween costume treatment!
What other holidays need more movies made about them?
Justina Bonilla: Jewish holidays, Cinco de Mayo, Day of the Dead, Thanksgiving, and Black Friday.
Connor Davis: Easter. Some surreal, Easter Bunny kind of thing would be cool.
Penny Folger: Mexican Independence Day? I’d like to see that get more hype.
Josh Green: Thanksgiving slasher films.
Anthony McKelroy: Administrative Professionals Day. Office Space (1999) was over twenty years ago now. Surely in this world of remote work and virtual meetings, there’s room for a new 9 to 5 office movie.
Mick Nguyen: National Donut Day
Nicole Nguyen: This might just be indicative of a gap in my movie knowledge, but New Year’s has some potential to it. Promises made/broken/kept, intentions to change, goals to be met (or fail to meet), the passage of time, etc. A little vague, admittedly, but I think the broadness leaves room for creativity.
Reggie Peralta: Aside from Halloween and Christmas, I have a soft spot for April Fool’s Day so it would be fun to see more movies (particularly scary ones) about it.
Horror movie crossover you’d like to see?
Justina Bonilla: The Bad Seed (1956) and Audition (1999). It would be interesting to see what these unsuspecting homicidal leading ladies would do when fighting each other, or combining their forces.
Penny Folger: Maybe suffragettes as slashers? Does that count as a crossover?
Josh Green: The one that never was, which was Ash (Evil Dead), Freddy (Nightmare On Elm Street), and Jason (Friday the 13th).
Austin Jaye: Titane (2021) and Christine (1983). Vroom vroom beep beep!
Anthony McKelroy: The pig from Pig (2021), and the lamb from Lamb (2021). Paired with truffles and an aged merlot – delish.
Mick Nguyen: A24 turning Halloween into a story about a family coping with loss.
Nicole Nguyen: I want to see how long Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter (Silence Of The Lambs ) would last in a locked room with Black Phillip (The Witch ), for no other reason than I think the sheer absurdity might be kind of funny.
Reggie Peralta: The Thing (1982) vs. The Blob (the 1988 one)! I have no idea how the logistics of the story would work, but the idea of two amorphous, almost-unstoppable alien entities facing off each against other–with us puny humans caught in the middle–is one ripe with potential, to say nothing of one that appeals to my taste for cosmic horror.
Trick or treat?
Justina Bonilla: Treat!
Connor Davis: Definitely treat.
Penny Folger: I have no candy for you.
Josh Green: Yes darn it yes.
Austin Jaye: Smell my feet you rat’s ass!!!!
Anthony McKelroy: Can I just say how weird this “song” is? I mean, “Give me something good to eat. If you don’t, I don’t care. I’ll pull down your underwear.” Like, what?? Anyways, the correct answer is treat. Always treat.
Mick Nguyen: Trick!
Nicole Nguyen: Surprise me 🎃
Reggie Peralta: Treat!
There is a terror to witnessing the nigh-invisible. Cassandra-like, it is only a matter of time before isolation and powerlessness send the witnesses, already deemed crazy by their peers, spiraling toward insanity. A person can only go unheard for so long before they start screaming. And when everyone thinks you’re screaming over nothing…well, we can imagine how that plays out.
In recent years, there’s been a noticeable shift in the amount of attention we pay to less-represented demographics in our media. Audiences are paying more attention to how women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and other underrepresented minorities are treated onscreen and behind the scenes. It seems that filmmakers have begun to respond accordingly, as more and more films concerning and centering such characters begin to trickle into existence. But if practice makes perfect, and if Hollywood has had woefully little practice during its short existence, then issues are inevitable. In themselves, flawed portrayals are not an unforgivable sin; willful ignorance is much more difficult to brush off, especially when it seems that no one else is seeing what you’re seeing, even if you’re pointing right at it.
You’ve picked up on the doublespeak by now. When it comes to portrayals of disability, the dread of the nigh-invisible slips in. If you didn’t have the fortune to have come into the world with the disability built-in, becoming disabled is part and parcel of aging. And yet, considerations of the significance of onscreen disability is often made to feel like screaming over nothing, partially because it seems that ofttimes the only ones who pick up on such details are disabled themselves. And while in recent years the ridicule and accusations of exaggeration have begun to fade, they are not entirely gone. The doubt lingers. Meanwhile, the monster looms large over our shoulders, in our periphery.
All of this to say, I’m proposing a series that trains a disabled lens* on disability in film. My intention isn’t to poke holes or point out “problems” in representation. Any ruining of anyone’s fun is purely accidental. I’d just like to share what the view looks like through my disabled-colored glasses. First in the lineup: Ari Aster’s directorial debut Hereditary (2018).
It takes very little time at all for us to understand that 13-year-old Charlie Graham, played by Milly Shapiro, is an outsider. In fact, “outsider” might even be putting it mildly. No one ever explicitly uses the word “disabled” to explain Charlie’s facial difference, her atypical behavior, and her social isolation, but it’s evident regardless. In a film about familial trauma, Charlie’s alienation bolsters the degree to which she’s set apart from her family, her peers, and from us the audience. In a world made by and for the able-bodied/-minded, to be disabled—to grow up disabled—is to feel divorced from your own body and mind. You are not what the world had in mind, nor will there ever really be a moment where you can pretend that you are. Any and all efforts to meet disabled people’s needs, however necessary and appreciated they may be, take on a connotation of being supplementary, an extra step that no one else has to take. To be disabled is to be instilled with the belief that you are a burden that others must bear.
To be fair, there isn’t much evidence that Charlie’s family treats her with any active malice—Annie’s somewhat rough handling after Charlie refuses to go to Peter’s classmate’s party aside. But the idea of burden-bearing still looms large in the background, and only Charlie can see it. When she takes a bite of a chocolate bar, her father sweeps into the scene to make sure there aren’t nuts in it. “Who’s gonna take care of me?” she asks Annie later that night, after her grandmother’s funeral. As well-meaning as she is, Annie’s response is a dismissal nonetheless: “Uh, excuse me, you don’t think I’m going to take care of you?”
And when Charlie indicates that she’s talking about the long-term (“But when you die”), Annie is caught off-guard by this. There’s no real way to console Charlie; her fears are not only legitimate, but they must be considered an eventuality at some point or other as she grows up. As isolated as Charlie is, she’s still remarkably perceptive. In this scene, she makes it clear that she’s aware that she lives in a world inhospitable to disabled people and that she may be one of those disabled individuals who may need caretaking all their lives. But Annie can’t assuage this fear. She can barely even acknowledge it.
I find this parallel between Annie and Charlie intriguing. Annie’s life resounds with echoes of her mother even after her death. When she tries to communicate her fears to her husband, he dismisses her as unwell. The Graham family trauma rings louder and louder until Ellen’s cult chases the Graham family to its destruction. Charlie’s life is permeated with a fear that no one else seems capable of acknowledging. But unlike Annie’s fears, which ultimately prove true, Charlie’s concerns remain unacknowledged. As a vessel for Paimon, her female, disabled (read: inferior) body is “corrected” in favor of Peter’s. Credits roll. I am left with a lingering, persistent fear. Here I am, trying to point it out to you.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Milly Shapiro has a skeletal condition known as cleidocranial dysostosis, which can lead to collarbone and cranium deformities. (Stranger Things’ Gaten Matarazzo has a similar condition, cleidocranial dysplasia.) Since I’m unsure as to whether Shapiro ascribes to “disabled” as a social group or an identity, I’m refraining from referring to her as such. However, Hereditary did make much of her facial features as an indicator of her difference. One would be hard-pressed to deny that viewers aren’t supposed to derive an off-kilter tension from every facet of Charlie’s oddness, her isolation. Shapiro herself made a comment, albeit lightheartedly, about how she was deliberately made to “look [her] worst” in the film. With Shapiro’s own testimony in mind, it becomes somewhat uncomfortable to read pieces that describe Charlie as blank-eyed, “eerie,” and “sinister.” However, this is far from the first time that a dramatic production has utilized physical differences/deformity to connote something evil or other. We can look as far back as Shakespeare’s play Richard III for that. We can look at something as recent as the upcoming Bond film No Time to Die. In the court of public opinion, the conversation around the use of disability as a trope demarcating evil/bad is a long and ongoing. I don’t foresee an end to it anytime soon.
Whether I believe Hereditary is “good” or “bad” representation, I’m hesitant to say—not because I fear backlash to my opinion but because truthfully, I remain on the fence. I prefer not to adhere to such binary and restrictive judgments as “good” and “bad.” I think Hereditary dedicated screen time to an oft-unaddressed concern among disabled people, regardless of whether that was intentional on Aster’s part or not. It communicates a cultural anxiety surrounding disability, the value of a disabled body. When it comes to questions of representation, “good/bad” is a simplistic call that only gets us so far. It resembles racing toward a finish line more than anything else. “How do we get to the right answer so we don’t have to deal with this anymore?” It’s a mindset that cuts meaningful conversation short and thus isn’t conducive to worthwhile art. And hopefully in future conversations about media representation, “worthwhile” becomes the metric we turn to more often.
* I say “a disabled lens” because disabled perspectives, needs, and desires when it comes to media representation are as widely diverse as disability itself. I don’t claim to speak for any disabled person but myself.
“Years ago, people used to sit looking out of their windows at the street. Or on a park bench. They would stay for hours without being bored although nothing much was going on. This is my favorite theme in movie making–just watching something happening for two hours or so.”
– Andy Warhol, Vogue
What goes on in New York City in the 1960s is emblematic of a post-Atomic Age ennui that looks more than a little familiar to the nihilism of today’s climate-concerned youth culture. Sitting in the shadow of potential nuclear fallout in the mid 20th century feels not too dissimilar to the paralysis of climate catastrophe in this still-developing second millennium.
What goes on in the face of doomsday, as it turns out, is a primal return to form, and the safety of patterns that animates the American avant-garde scene from whence The Velvet Underground emerged.
Beginning with the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico, their hypnotic debut album, in the spring of 1967, the group began one of the most important sustained streaks of artistic output in American culture of the last century. Each of their four albums recorded between 1966 and 1970–The Velvet Underground & Nico, White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground, and Loaded–would leave a lasting impression on both mainstream rock gods and avant garde apostles for generations. That old Brian Eno quip–about how each of the 30,000 people that bought the first Velvet Underground record on its original release went off and started their own bands because of it–is perhaps more true now than ever before; today the album has over 30 million streams on Spotify alone (give or take a million).
While agreeable, it would be reductive to view The Velvet Underground as merely a great band. They (like their dadaist benefactor Andy Warhol) were not simply good at producing impressive works: they were also quite savvy at using the unique formal elements of an art medium to make their expression.
Synthesizing the classical conservatory training of viola prodigy John Cale with the bullish street poems of Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground embarked on exploratory sonic experiments that observed songwriting from a physical (tape) and durational (time) perspective. Many of their works, including the 18 minute epic “Sister Ray”, are driven by repetitive musical refrains and the hissing imperfections of a compromised medium; live recordings of the song have reached as long as 38 minutes, full of digressions and improvisations nearing on performance art.
In a radio interview with producer Tom Wilson to promote the release of the first album, Lou Reed articulated the band’s desire to integrate the tangible and the experiential elements of their music:
“What is the plan for The Velvet Underground?”
“We want to ultimately work on a tape that takes up every minute of every hour of every day of the entire year . . . It would just be one extremely long tape, and it would fit in your wall, and it would be personalized . . . . And it would go on all day. It would be like one of Andy’s movies . . . Going on all the time.”
This emphasis on duration reveals not only a desire to preserve, but to keep things going as well. To say nothing of the content, music and film share in common this unique element of time. The Velvet Underground’s proximity to Andy Warhol at the exact moment when he abandons painting in favor of filmmaking, offers them access to a rapidly maturing underground film culture that informed their own boundary-pushing music. This very notion of observing the physical attributes of a medium is in direct conversation with the aims of independent and structuralist filmmakers of the day. Filmmakers like Shirley Clarke, Hollis Frampton, and even Andy Warhol himself: that is, filmmakers who emphasize duration over action in their work.
Interviewed for the recent Todd Haynes documentary, The Velvet Underground (2021), is another of these film poets: the Lithuanian-born Jonas Mekas. In addition to a lifetime of daring, abstract filmmaking, Mekas shot many of the band’s rehearsals, and was the camera-person for Andy Warhol’s 8 ½-hour structuralist epic Empire (1964).
Walking out of the Empire State Building one day, Mekas remarked on the striking nature of the structure to Warhol, suggesting it might make a good image for a film. Composed of a single unchanging shot, the physical act of producing (and watching) the almost nine hour film transcends its content. The monumental commitment to scale creates a symmetry with the iconic New York landmark that would be tainted with the inclusion of even a single cut.
How Warhol described his use of long takes in his films:
“The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.”
Contrast this point-and-shoot minimalism with the algebraic designs in the work of Hollis Frampton, a filmmaker who saw cinema as a gateway to observing human thought.
Though born in Ohio, Hollis Frampton was teaching filmmaking in New York at the same time The Velvet Underground were writing their first hits. Older than Lou Reed but younger than Warhol, Frampton has called himself a child of the industrial age, primed to view filmmaking as a mechanical, assembly-line process that can be broken down into interchangeable parts. In many ways, he argues, his films are an attempt to remake cinema in the way it should have been “at the beginning” of film history.
In his unfinished opus Magellan, Frampton planned an elaborate system of films that would be screened, one film a day, for a full Magellan calendar year (371 days). A temporal circumnavigation around human consciousness, in parallel to Magellan’s physical traversal around the globe. Frampton would spend over 10 years on the project until he died of cancer in 1984.
Of all his completed work, the abecedarian Zorns Lemma (1970) is Frampton’s most conceptually realized. Inaugurating itself as the first ever “experimental feature” to play at the New York Film Festival in 1970 (the same year The Velvet Underground released their penultimate album Loaded), the film’s premise is simple–just like a hit pop song!
Frampton depicts the entirety of the English alphabet, one letter at a time, for precisely one second at a time (24 frames) for roughly 50 minutes. When the film gets to Z, it returns to the start and begins the process again with new images. This adherence to a fixed rubric results in an astounding film that is propulsive and engaging. Frampton finds the letters in store signs, street advertisements, and similar incidental locations that, consciously or otherwise, neatly aligns the film with the prevailing pop-art aesthetics of the American fine art scene at the time. The poetic connections between the words themselves, driven by the chronologic rhythms of the “script”, are remarkable all on their own.
The brutal rigor in which these structural modes of filmmaking are applied, follow in a documentary tradition that means to create an environment where a camera can capture the most authentic disposition of a reality and, therefore, articulate a truth, no matter how small or plain.
What goes on when The Velvet Underground effectively disbands after the release of Loaded, is a residual aftershock of musical influence that lends artistic legitimacy to the burgeoning first wave of punk rock musicians in the 1970s. Musicians like Jonathan Richman of The Modern Lovers, who, as revealed in the Haynes documentary, attended dozens of Velvet Underground shows as a teenager in Boston.
As the band’s influence travels further west however, their ideas of tangibility in art becomes further complicated in their construction.
At the same time that conceptual artist Chris Burden was earning his MFA at UC Irvine in 1969 (the city of Irvine itself, a postmodern manqué of municipal suburbia), The Velvet Underground’s west coast tour had brought them only as close as San Francisco. Though it’s not clear if they ever crossed paths, by 1975 the band’s influence on Burden’s work had manifested in a staggering performance art piece named after the title track of the Velvet’s sinister sophomore album, White Light/White Heat.
In the piece, Chris Burden laid atop a precisely designed triangular platform installed in the corner of the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York City, three miles away from where the titular album was recorded, and roughly one mile away from Andy Warhol’s Factory. The platform is high enough to keep Burden hidden from gallery spectators, where he simply laid silent for 22 days until the performance unceremoniously concluded.
The “white light” and heat mentioned in the lyrics are most often read as a drug reference, but in the context of Burden’s performance, it takes on a spiritual dimension as well. The white light, a symbol of the afterlife, dangling over a flat Burden in coffin-pose, bridges the themes of death and chemical ecstasy that recur in The Velvet Underground’s catalog. To say nothing at all of Burden’s monastic dedication to the extreme durational premise of the piece, invoking time’s decaying effect on the physical medium of performance–that is the human body.
The practical reality of embracing duration in art, necessitates a confrontation with the physical limits of the chosen medium. The avant-garde musician of the 1960s faces analog challenges with magnetic audio tape just as the avant-garde filmmaker does with reels of celluloid; the performance artist is always under duress of time and aging. This negotiation between imagination, and the limits of execution becomes entwined with the meaning of the work itself.
What goes on in New York City in the 1960s is only a fraction of what goes on elsewhere in the country and the rest of the world. It was a new generation of representative thought and critical processing. A desire to record infinity and observe vanishing points in a pre-digital age.
For The Velvet Underground and artists like them, what goes on goes on forever.
I’m not sure what to make of Titane since I feel my response is more emotional than analytical. It’s hard to describe exactly what I saw and how I interpreted it since I went in blind and only took it at face value: that is, as a serial killer movie in a similar vein to Psycho but—from what I could tell—the gender roles switched. What I discovered however, was something far more rooted in gender fluidity and how one wants to be identified and treated by others regardless of what gender they choose to identify as and how they wish to be interacted with. It’s something I wish I understood more going into this film knowing friends who deal with the continued barrage of those who are comfortable with their gender questioning how they feel about identifying as either gender.
The comfort levels that others push upon Alexia—the genderfluid serial killer with a metal fetish who gives Tetsuo the Ironman a run for his money—is always tested by the men and women they (to reflect Alexia’s ambiguous gender, this article will address them by singular “they” pronouns) interact with. They wish not to be treated as the kind of sexual object used to satisfy the traditional gender roles associated with being a sexually active male or female. The constant push to be a sexually active human is tested by Alexia’s minimal interest in truly engaging in a relationship with men or women. It’s something they push upon themselves in order to satisfy the wants and needs of others around them who want them to play male or female. This ties into the theme of not being able to be yourself in order to make others happy and plays into Alexia’s need to manipulate others in order to survive after their killing spree. Alexia goes from trying their best to be the sex object of men and women’s dreams at the car show they work at to pretending to be the long lost son of grieving fireman Vincent who, from the start of finding Alexia at a police station just a few hours from his station, is sure that his long-lost son has resurfaced after being abducted years ago. The struggle and push that Alexia feels from trying play the part of Vincent’s son shows they still wish to feel comfortable in their body and be able to choose their identity.
It’s not long before the lines are blurred further as we see Vincent dealing with the young men in his unit flowing between playing with gender expectations and, at times, being unwilling and uncomfortable with Alexia’s own expressions of their gender fluidity and identity. Rayane, the son of Vincent’s sergeant, goes from unflinching acceptance of Alexia being Vincent’s long-lost son to soon realizing that Alexia has adopted a masculine-presenting gender identity to hide from the police. While the film explores Alexia’s struggle with their gender identity, they also have to deal with their soon-to-be-born child of unknown human or machine identity. Alexia’s love for cars goes beyond just a fascination with speed, spiraling into a new form of sexual fetishism that shows them being for more comfortable with the company of a low rider with leopard print seat covers than the comfort of another human being. They have to come to terms with the one thing that one of the genders they choose to identify has to deal with more often than not: the unwanted birth of a child that may stem from rape or a one night stand. Alexia tries their best to hide this and deal with it in many unfortunate manners that women sometimes are forced to do when not given the chance to have affordable abortions or the ability to give their unwanted children to couples wishing to have children of their own.
The opportunity that arises from the grieving Vincent’s vulnerability and Alexia’s desperation for a safe place to hide out and give birth to their unwanted child gives the movie its strangest plot point of the movie as well as an ending worth holding out for. It’s foreshadowed by the return of Vincent’s wife, who uncovers Alexia’s secret leading to her telling Alexia to make Vincent happy no matter what. This leads to an ending very much in tune with what I believe is Julia’s biggest influence, the films of David Cronenberg. The ending doesn’t really go the way of, say, Crash or The Fly, but it makes you wonder how deep one’s connection with their inner two halves trying to coexist with each other is. The image of a metallic child being held by a man whose wish of having another child to take care of has been fulfilled is touching, to say nothing of the knowledge that Alexia finally found someone who didn’t run away when they were still trying to figure out their own identity and loved them for who they were and not what they could be to others.
All in all, Ducournau picks up the torch of body horror from Cronenberg and runs with it. Titane fulfills the promise of what we fear the most as human beings: having something unknown growing inside you as you’re trying to figure out who you are. To me, it is the best metaphor of what many have to deal with when they begin to understand that they don’t have to identify as what others perceive them gender-wise, demonstrating that we can all be comfortable within our own gender while still connecting to our feminine and our masculine sides. The movie may feel confusing at first, but I think with multiple viewings many can take comfort in knowing that, if you been through an experience similar to what Alexia has been through, you can understand and hope that those who may not understand can relate somehow to the struggles many face just trying to be comfortable in their mind, body, and soul.
The trailers screams at you, filling you with dread and confusion. Blood (though subtle among the few trailers I saw) plays a big part. The complete breakdown of a family is spliced together in fragments, conveying the psychologically thrilling melodrama that plays out amongst the chaos shown through small bits of imagery. We see Mark (played by Sam Neil) and Anna (played by Isabelle Adjani), a couple trying their hardest to keep their relationship together yet–somehow–it always manages to find a way to fall apart. It’s a blind pick for me, but if I had to name one movie that was able to disturb me just by seeing the trailer, it would be Possession.
The impression I get of the film before I see it this weekend is not one of horror or suspense, but more of the breaking down of one’s mental state after being away from their spouse for a long period of time. The sense that the one you loved and married, though still with you, is no longer the person you once exchanged vows with in front of a priest and family members. The lines spat and spun throughout the trailers are crafted to convey the deep-rooted lust for a once-promised connection that has been lost as well as a deep-seated fear of being abandoned, even if it might have been for the betterment of the family. It makes me wonder if director Andrzej Żuławski himself experienced a divorce or watched a loved one have a nervous breakdown as he devised the script with co-writer Frederic Tuten.
Despite all the unnerving, deceptive imagery that make it look like just a really tense family drama, bits and pieces of horrific surrealism pop out in quick flashes of graphic blood bags and white paint being smashed out of purses. Any metaphor escapes me since I’m still wondering if these might simply be hallucinations that feed into the slow break down of Isabelle Adjani’s character, but my guess is as good as fools gold. I just won’t know until I see for myself.
Even though the off-putting scenes shown in the trailers left me feeling cautious, I’m sure find I’ll something of value in the images, writing, and soundtrack. Possession is interesting in that it gets me wanting in on the avant-garde horror scene and explores the nature and truth of identity. The movie tackles its thematic content head on even as it runs with other narrative threads like Anna engaging in an affair while she tries to figure out if she wants to make things work with Mark.
What’s even stranger though is that Anna also is seen in one scene with different colored hair, making me wonder how it ties into the exploration of identity and what it means for someone to lose themself in a marriage. It’s not subject I’m too knowledgeable about, but I have seen people I know lose themselves to various social circles by trying to connect and become more accessible and acceptable to others at the cost of their own identity. I suspect that there’s a lot more going on in Mark and Anna’s relationship than meets the eye that will be explained over the course of the film and I really can’t wait to see how it all plays out amidst the chaos occurring around them.
With October being the spookiest time of the year, Possession is an excellent chance to go down the creepy rabbit hole while looking in on oneself. I know I’ll be taking a chance when I take my seat with a handful of other folks and try not to feel as uncomfortable as I did when I watched Climax for the first time but–strangely enough–I hope it does make me uncomfortable and get me thinking about what the meaning behind the story is. With any luck, some of you will join me and together we can sit in awe of Possession as it twists, turns, and leaves us scratching our heads as we try to figure out what we just saw.
The critically praised and fan-favorite horror documentary series Eli Roth’s History of Horror, from AMC, made its season three premiere on October 1, 2021.
The showrunner for Eli Roth’s History of Horror, Kurt Sayenga, is an established television documentary series director, writer, and executive producer, who’s best known for the science television documentary programs Through the Wormhole, Microkillers, Origins: The Journey of Mankind, and Breakthrough. Sayenga is a film buff and dedicated horror film fan, who, combined with the talents of horror master Eli Roth, created a program delighting both staunch horror movie fans and casual viewers.
Sayenga shares with us what it takes to develop a horror documentary series, the films that make the series, and the impact of horror cinema.
Bonilla: When you’re developing the episodes, is it the film topics, or the films of interest that come first?
Sayenga: It’s a little of both. We come up with general topics that fit into the template that we’ve established with the network, then think of films that will appeal both to film buffs and casual viewers, who mostly know newer or the most famous horror films. Then, we run about a dozen potential episodes past the network, and they tell us what works for them. We have a very long list of films we love and want to cover, and we’re steadily working our way through it.
Several episodes this season lean into relatively newer films, like the “Holiday Horror” episode, which has a lot of slashers. That genre did not exist until Black Christmas and Halloween.
The “Mad Scientists” episode has more classic horror and traces certain themes across time. For instance, you see that it’s a straight line from The Island of Lost Souls to Ex Machina. And in the case of Frankenstein, we focus on the doctor and not so much the monster, which right off the bat makes it unusual in the pantheon of horror documentaries. The Colin Clive Dr. Frankenstein is a very different man than Dr. Frankenstein played by Peter Cushing, in the Hammer films. Cushing is the star of those movies, and in many ways, he’s the real monster.
Bonilla: How did you pick the topics for the series, such as “Vampires” and “Nine Nightmares”?
Sayenga: The “Nine Nightmares” episode happened because somebody at the network had the idea of making an “Eli’s Top 10” episode. That was a problem because we had already covered a number of Eli’s favorite films in season one. And Eli, was not thrilled with the idea of doing a top 10 for many other reasons, partly because it’s very reductive. Ask him to just name his top 50 Italian horror films and he’d be frustrated because he loves so many of them.
We wound up putting together a bunch of films that he likes that would be hard to fit in any other category, like Cannibal Holocaust. There’s no way in hell you’re gonna get an entire cannibal episode on AMC, which takes advertising, but we could smuggle it in by making it part of the broader category.
Bonilla: What was one of the biggest challenges of filming during COVID?
Sayenga: Conducting the interviews. I thought that with COVID, nobody would come out. And then, if we were lucky, we’d get remotes. Before the vaccine when we started shooting, there was maximum fear, justifiable fear. But we were able to get a lot of great people as it went along, and things got slightly better. Most of the interviews were conducted on set under very strict COVID protocols, and several others were remote interviews, which is something I would ordinarily not condone. But went along with this season because there was no other choice since people weren’t flying and the borders were closed.
There is an element of the person-to-person interview that just gets lost when we’re communicating through Zoom. I was fortunate that I had already interviewed a number of these people, like Edgar Wright, who I talked to at a great length in season one and great length this season. Though he was in London at the time, Edgar and I had met before. So, we already had a connection. It helps to meet someone and sit there sharing some space. Overall, the interviews came out much better than I expected, despite the weirdness of COVID.
Bonilla: How are guests selected for the interviews?
Sayenga: We reach out to all the key creatives in front of and behind the camera, if they’re still alive, and we try to work it out with their managers and their schedules. That is a very challenging process, particularly with actors. We can usually get directors and writers on board for the show with no problem – if they’ve seen the show, they know we’re approaching it from the creator’s point of view. Once we’ve made those connections, the actors are more inclined to come in. For instance, Christopher Landon, who directed Happy Death Day, was one of the first people we lined up this season, and that helped get us Jessica Rothe, the star of Happy Death Day.
I’m not sure why, but we had trouble getting women, especially actresses, for interviews. This season was just the opposite – it’s very gender-balanced. Fortunately, Eli’s making a movie with Cate Blanchett and Jamie Curtis in it. Thus, we were able to get Cate and Jamie.
Bonilla: How do you decide which films to interview guests?
Sayenga: I interviewed 60 people this season and have a bed of another 160 interviews done for the first two seasons. There’s some material I can use from the earlier interviews, but not a lot. We cover about 80 or 90 films a season, and there are very few people who can talk about everything. We break it up – and usually, I will run the list of films past the interviewees, and they can tell me what interests them. I also have a group of people like Joe Dante, Mick Garris, Rob Zombie, Rebekah McKendry, and Quentin Tarantino, who has seen every film you can think of and can talk about them at length.
I am particularly happy when I run across actors who are also film enthusiasts. You would be surprised at how many of them aren’t.
I also listen to a bunch of podcasts to hear like who’s good at interviews. So, I poach a lot from the Trailers from Hell podcast, The Movies That Made Me podcast, and Mick Garris’s Postmortem podcast. They get a lot of good people on their shows.
Bonilla: What inspired the episode topics for this season?
Sayenga: The “Mad Scientist” episode is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve made a lot of science films in my career, and I think part of came from watching mad scientist movies in my childhood. I was fascinated by the figure of the genius rebel going their own way, no matter the consequences, perhaps going too far in their pursuit of truth.
“Infections” is a great episode, and I’m sure the inspiration for that is fairly obvious. Besides, where else would we get a chance to cut from Dustin Hoffman throwing his coffee against a whiteboard in Outbreak to Kate Winslet poking her finger at a whiteboard in Contagion?
“Psychics” gave us a good way to dive into some of the better Stephen King adaptations, Doctor Sleep and The Shining. That’s an all-star director episode with films like Scanners, The Dead Zone, The Fury, Beetlejuice, and The Frighteners. Also included, is The Gift, an underappreciated movie directed by Sam Raimi, starring Cate Blanchett.
“Sequels (That Don’t Suck)”, was an idea that Eli and I were banging around for a while. It starts with Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and ends with Gremlins 2: The New Batch. There is much mayhem in between. I think that will be very popular and so does the network. They made it the season premiere episode.
“Holiday Horror” is another idea we’ve been wanting to do for a while. It runs from the low-budget holiday-themed slashers like Black Christmas, Silent Night Deadly Night, Terror Train, My Bloody Valentine, and Mother’s Day to slick modern movies like Halloween 2018, Happy Death Day, and Krampus.
“Apocalyptic Horror” gave us a way to cover some zombie films we couldn’t get into back in the season one “Zombie” episode, like Zombieland and Train to Busan. But it also has some of my favorite films, like War of the Worlds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I’m particularly fond of a segment on The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man and I Am Legend, which stars Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, and Will Smith. These films were all based on the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. It’s one of the most influential horror stories ever written, even though it’s never been faithfully adapted.
Bonilla: What is your favorite episode this season?
Sayenga: It’s tough to choose, but I’ll go with “Mad Scientists”. It’s probably the darkest of the six episodes.
Bonilla: After ‘History of Horror’, would you consider writing, producing, or possibly directing your own horror content?
Sayenga: Yes, of course. I’d love to do that.
Bonilla: What are your current go-to horror films?
Sayenga: Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, Psycho, The Haunting, Dead Ringers, Audition, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Bride of Frankenstein, The Silence of the Lambs, Cat People (1942), The Cabin in the Woods, Train to Busan, Godzilla (original Japanese version, 1954), and Quatermass II.
Bonilla: When you watch a horror movie, how does it engage you?
Sayenga: I’ve seen so many horror films and films in general that it’s difficult to watch them purely as entertainment. I’m very conscious of the craft, or lack of craft that’s going into the film. I am way too conscious of how special effects are created. Any movie that can get me past that is a movie I will return to because it made me put my dispassionate technical brain to the side.
But to be honest, a lot of horror films frustrate me, because the characters are rock-stupid and blind to their situation. I watch how people act in horror films, and think, “Don’t do that. Don’t walk into that room. Why are you not turning on the lights? What’s wrong with the lights in this house? Why are you staying in this creepy house where the lights don’t work? Why do you not pick up a weapon of some sort just in case a serial killer is on the loose?” I’m not a fearful person, but I am a person who believes in being prepared for the worst.
Bonilla: In Psychology Today, they are suggesting that Horror (horror) fans are coping better with the pandemic. Why do you think?
Sayenga: Yeah, horror fans are coping better with this. Anyone paying attention to horror films saw all this coming. If anything, horror fans were prepared for a much more worst-case scenario than what we just lived through. For some people, me included, horror is rehearsal and preparation. And ultimately, horror addresses our fear of dying and coming to grips with that.
I’ve made several films about pandemic diseases for National Geographic, including one that had a “what if” fiction component. It conjured up the crazy idea that there could be a zoonotic transmission of disease from a bat to a pig to a human in a pig market in China. We shot this with an actress in Hong Kong who then flies to London, and along the way spreads this highly contagious airborne virus everywhere she goes.
Contagion of course tells a similar story in a masterful way that tracks closely to reality. Things were worse in Contagion, as far as rioting and stuff like that. I’m surprised that it wasn’t worse here. But the virus in Contagion had a higher lethality rate, so that makes a difference in how people respond to it.
Bonilla: What can audiences expect for season three?
Sayenga: Season three is a big crowd-pleaser. It has a lot of ‘80s horror, classic horror, and modern horror. It has movie stars, brilliant writers, directors, and a new batch of film scholars with fresh takes on the genre.
By season three of anything, usually, everybody’s in the groove. They know what the series is and know how to make it work. That’s certainly been the case with season three. People seem to really like the second season and this season is very much in the vein of the second season. We know what we’re doing and we’re having a good time doing it.
“O Ancient World, before your culture dies, Whilst failing life within you breathes and sinks, Pause and be wise, as Oedipus was wise, And solve the age-old riddle of the Sphinx
That Sphinx is Russia. Grieving and exulting,
And weeping black and bloody tears enough,
She stares at you, adoring and insulting,
With love that turns to hate, and hate–to love.”
– “The Scythians”, Alexander Blok
September may be giving way to the spooky season that is October, but it’s already been an exciting month here at the Frida with our Soviet September series, co-presented with the South East European Film Festival! Including everything from philosophically-minded sci-fi films by Andrei Tarkovsky like Stalker and Solaris to Sergei Eisenstein’s landmark silent movie Battleship Potemkin and Elem Klimov’s harrowing anti-war epic Come and See, the series gathered a whopping nine movies from over the 70 or so years the USSR existed to give modern American audiences the chance to see them for themselves on the big screen. While communism may have gone the way of the dodo well before some reading this were even born, the ability of these movies to arouse emotion and compel one’s conscience remains long after the parting of the Iron Curtain.
But of course, it would be a mistake to think that the story of Russian film simply ends with the fall of the Soviet Union. Far from it, the Russian Federation has seen the development of its own distinct cinema, reflecting the increased freedom of expression that came with the end of the old communist censorship regime. This expression has given filmmakers in Russia and its near abroad—the USSR, it should be remembered, included 14 other countries across Europe and Asia besides Russia—the opportunity to honestly address any number of significant topics and issues in that region. With the alarming revival of Cold War-type tensions between the US and Russia in recent years, the invaluable insider’s perspective of films made in the post-Soviet space is all the more vital in informing and, often, correcting our perception of this much-misunderstood part of the world.
With any luck, the following selection of movies will help in some small part to advance such understanding and give readers a greater appreciation of not just Russian film, but also the rich, complicated history and culture of Russia itself.
Although Russian national cinema’s reputation doesn’t quite precede it the way that, say, French or Japanese cinema do, the Russians are no slouches when it comes to churning out critical darlings. Indeed, one of the most notable Russian films of the past decade, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, won tremendous acclaim abroad, competing for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in France and garnering an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film here in the States. Inspired by the story of Marvin Heemeyer (he of the “Killdozer” fame), Zvyagintsev also drew from the biblical Book of Job to weave a story about a man living in a small, seaside town who disputes the local authorities’—and in particular, the corrupt, booze-swigging mayor’s—claim to his property. With its frank, despairing portrayal of life in the Motherland, the film received a chilly reception from conservatives and the country’s Ministry of Culture (which, ironically, provided funding for the movie) but praise from others for trying to tackle the political and social problems of contemporary Russia.
In contrast to the cold setting and the detached feel of the film, protagonist Kolya is a hothead who brings emotional fire to his interactions with his family and his enemies. Blue collar and burning with zeal for his seemingly-doomed crusade to save his home, it’s hard to root for Kolya at first since he’s quick to anger and boorish towards his wife Lilya and son Roma. However, Aleksei Serebryakov puts in the necessary work to make the quixotic car mechanic grow into a better person and, consequently, grow on the audience. This growth is most observable in the scene where Kolya drops Roma off at school following the discovery that Lilya was having an affair with Dima, Kolya’s friend and attorney. When Roma brings the subject up, Kolya—in a warm, uncharacteristically calm voice and manner—simply tells him to forgive her and that she’s a good woman. Short but tender, it’s a moment that really humanizes our hitherto hard-to-like hero.
Set in the fictional northern town of Pribrezhny, Kolya’s surroundings are bleak enough to make you understand why he holds on so dearly to his house and land. Dominated by dull, gray buildings and bordered by the remains of wrecked ships, the atmosphere of depression and decay is amplified by Zvyagintsev’s predilection for long shots, providing panoramic views of the desolate landscape that Kolya and his family call home. As grounded in reality as the movie is, its dreary mood and the isolated environment it takes place in call to mind Tarkovsky’s Stalker. In fact, one scene—when the mayor has his goons rough up Dima—especially recalls the look of that movie, with the barren clearing and heavy fog almost making it appear that Dima and his assailants have driven out of Pribrezhny and into the enchanted, mist-filled “Zone” of Stalker.
“Set in the fictional northern town of Pribrezhny, Kolya’s surroundings are bleak enough to make you understand why he holds on so dearly to his house and land. Dominated by dull, gray buildings and bordered by the remains of wrecked ships, the atmosphere of depression and decay is amplified by Zvyagintsev’s predilection for long shots, providing panoramic views of the desolate landscape that Kolya and his family call home.”
Remote as the setting may be, there’s no handwaving the questions about power and its nature that the film raises as provincial concerns. The battle between Kolya and the mayor for the former’s land is a classic case of conflict between the individual and the state, a touchy yet topical subject in Russia under Vladimir Putin (whose face briefly appears in a portrait hanging on a wall in the mayor’s office). Even the title, Leviathan, evokes the 17th century political treatise by Thomas Hobbes as much as it does the Book of Job. Devising a state that not only has the might but the right to exercise total control over its citizens, Hobbes’ idea of unrestrained sovereignty echoes in the words of the mayor’s confidante—a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church—who tells his powerful friend that “All power comes from God” before imploring him to crush the little man who stands in his way. These disparate influences and references are neatly united in the form of a whale skeleton that Roma rests by after running away from home, embodying the sea-dwelling creature of Job, the Leviathan state of Hobbes, and the self-serving corruption of the mayor all in one image.
With a tone as frigid as the subarctic town that it takes place in, Leviathan is a heavy watch but one whose examination of the relationship between man and authority, family, and life itself will likely ring true even for viewers living in the West.
Prisoner of the Mountains (1996)
Having seen as much war as Russia has in the past century alone, it’s no surprise that many fine war films have come from that country. While it’s hard to pick, one of the most powerful of the post-Soviet era definitely has to be Prisoner of the Mountains, directed by future Mongol director Sergei Bodrov. Adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s short story “The Prisoner of the Caucasus”, Bodrov and writer Boris Giller updated the story to take place during the then-ongoing First Chechen War, in which rebels in the Caucasian, predominantly-Muslim republic of Chechnya battled federal forces in an attempt to secede from Russian rule. An immensely controversial and traumatic episode for the new, democratic Russia—with several generals and senior members of president Boris Yeltsin’s government even publicly resigning in protest over the war—Bodrov’s movie captures the frustration ordinary Russians and Chechens must have felt through its story of two Russian soldiers who are ambushed and taken prisoner by Chechen insurgents.
Erring on the side of realism, stars Oleg Menshikov and Sergei Bodrov, Jr. turn in rounded, naturalistic performances as prisoners Sasha and Vanya respectively. Tempting as it is to dismiss Bodrov’s casting as nepotism, he genuinely brings a quality of good-natured naivety to the young greenhorn. Experienced veteran Sasha, on the other hand, is given a wryly cynical personality by Menshikov, making him the source of many of the film’s humorous lines of dialogue. Yet it is their captor, the Chechen patriarch Abdul-Murat, who compels the audience’s attention the most. Played by Dzhemal Sikharulidze, the towering, black-clad rebel intimidates with his commanding gray eyes and low voice but accrues sympathy through his concerted efforts to turn the prisoners over—hopefully, unharmed—to the Russian authorities in exchange for the freedom of his son. In any other movie, he’d just be another heavy, but in this one he’s a heavy with a heart (maybe not of gold, but a heart nevertheless).
With filming on location in Chechnya out of the question due to ongoing hostilities, shooting took place in the neighboring republic of Dagestan. This doesn’t appear to have inhibited production at all, with Bodrov getting in some spectacular aerial shots. Most of these are scenic views of Abdul’s mountaintop village, but there’s also a literal helicopter shot from the POV of a Russian helicopter, with the pilot communicating over radio as it flies over the mountainside and surveys a herd of goats. Another noteworthy sequence has Sasha, tied back-to-back with Vanya after several failed attempts to exchange them, singing the patriotic march “Farewell of Slavianka” before a recording of the song fades in. Panning across, the camera passes over the village and surrounding mountains before returning to a close-up view of Sasha—who, up to this point, has mainly been making light of their predicament—struggling with all his might to contain an outburst of crying. In short, it’s an impeccable example of clever cinematography in the service of moving storytelling.
“Yet it is their captor, the Chechen patriarch Abdul-Murat, who compels the audience’s attention the most. Played by Dzhemal Sikharulidze, the towering, black-clad rebel intimidates with his commanding gray eyes and low voice but accrues sympathy through his concerted efforts to turn the prisoners over—hopefully, unharmed—to the Russian authorities in exchange for the freedom of his son.”
Equally of interest to Bodrov is the people who live in the mountains, with him demonstrating an ethnographer’s appreciation for his subjects. Between the lines of the main plot, we get to see how Abdul and his fellow Chechens live, whether it be him observing daily prayer towards Mecca or a group of rebels celebrating Sasha and Vanya’s deactivation of a mine with folk dances, Caucasian cultural costume, and that favorite pastime of the region, wrestling. Similarly, during a scene where Abdul’s daughter Dina gets teased by a couple boys for “waiting” on her dad’s Russian prisoners, we see a shepherd driving their sheep in the background. It’s not directly relevant to the action between Dina and the boys at all but it does help flesh out the world that said action occurs in, giving the illusion that Bodrov has caught life in the Caucasus on candid camera.
A plea for peace and understanding in the midst of a savage war, Prisoner of the Mountains balances its political messaging with refreshingly human performances and its slice of life depiction of Chechen culture and society.
Song from the Southern Seas (2008)
A drama dealing with the feud that arises between two couples, one Russian and one Kazakh, over the paternity of the Russian couple’s son, Marat Sarulu’s Song from the Southern Seas might have some wondering why it’s included in a list of Russian movies. Set in the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan—yes, the same Kazaksthan Borat is from—and shot in Sarulu’s native Kyrgyzstan, both countries were not just constituent republics of the Soviet Union but part of the old Russian Empire as well. As such, considerable influence has been exercised on the region by centuries of interaction between the indigenous Turkic peoples and their Slavic neighbors. It’s this unique blurring of cultural boundaries that Sarulu explores in this film, interrogating the idea of racial and national purity in a land whose inhabitants look East Asian, practice Islam, and speak Russian (which, neatly underlining this point, is the primary language spoken throughout the movie).
Although the movie revolves around the relationship between the two couples, it must be said that it does give more attention to the Russians, played by Vladimir Yavorsky and Irina Angekina. With more time to bicker amongst themselves and interact with other characters, you would think that they have an unfair advantage over the Kazakh actors, Dzhaidarbek Kunguzhinov and Ajzhan Ajtenova, at making an impression on viewers. And while Yavorsky and Angekina are indeed convincing as Ivan and Maria, it is Ajtenova as their neighbor’s wife, Aisha, who leaves the biggest impression. Though she gets the least screen time and dialogue out of the four, she brings such a presence to Aisha that you are still able to get a sense of the strong, quietly-resilient woman she has to be to endure the environment she lives in. It’s probably for this reason that the film’s DVD cover features Aisha instead of her husband Asan or the Russians, with the oblique, almost-determined expression on her face likely to pique the interest of curious viewers.
Without taking away from the talent of Ajtenova and her cast mates, the country they live in is a sight to behold all its own. Beyond the humble, run-down abodes the couples dwell in lie the rolling hills, amber fields, and vast steppes of the Eurasian wilderness, faithfully captured by Giorgi Beridze’s cinematography. Beridze often resorts to long shots of characters talking or going about their business, minimizing the actors but allowing the audience to get some incredibly picturesque views of the remote land they inhabit. Contrasting with the alluring seclusion of the film’s setting is the intimate enigma of its shadow puppet scenes, which tell the story of a young man searching for a “woman of the southern seas” who will free him from his “grief” and “memories”. With their dark hand-drawn puppets, hushed voice-overs, and folk-flavored musical accompaniment, the segments add elements of mystery and longing that suit the rest of the movie.
“Beyond the humble, run-down abodes the couples dwell in lie the rolling hills, amber fields, and vast steppes of the Eurasian wilderness, faithfully captured by Giorgi Beridze’s cinematography. Beridze often resorts to long shots of characters talking or going about their business, minimizing the actors but allowing the audience to get some incredibly picturesque views of the remote land they inhabit.”
That being said, there is thematic significance to the puppet scenes. In fact, the young man’s quest parallels both Asan’s ride out into the country to find himself and Ivan’s trip to his grandfather’s home to inquire about their family’s roots. While there are differences between each man’s journey, they are all ultimately seeking the same thing: a sense of identity and fulfillment. It also ties into the idea that people have more in common than artificial divisions like race and creed would have us believe, another overarching theme of the film. This is cleverly illustrated by the scene where Aisha and Maria—left to their own devices while their husbands search for themselves—forget the bad blood between them and share a dance and drinks together. It’s a simple scene with unembellished camerawork, but the sheer happiness of the women as well as the upbeat accordion tune they dance to gives it all the hearteningly cheerful energy it needs.
Modest in ambitions and unpretentious in presentation, Song from the Southern Seas is a stimulating snapshot of a little-seen corner of the world that gets its message of love and brotherhood across.
Night Watch (2004)
Of course, it would be a mistake to think that Russian movies are just dialogue-driven dramas and three-hour art films about spaceships where nothing happens. No stranger to the action-packed blockbuster, the biggest one to come out of the Motherland has to be 2004’s Night Watch. Based on the fantasy novel series by Sergei Lukayenenko, the movie tells the tale of a centuries-long conflict between two factions of supernaturally-gifted humans—one good (the Light Others), one evil (the Dark Others), but both vampiric—unfolding within the shadows of modern-day Moscow, the citizens of which are none the wiser. Making skillful use of its uniquely urban take on magic and vampire mythology, the film established screenwriter and director Timur Bekmambetov (now known for his work in Hollywood on Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer) as an auteur of action cinema and remains the highest-grossing movie to be released in Russia to this day.
In contrast to the more restrained acting seen in Leviathan or Song from the Southern Seas, the cast here embrace the fact that their characters live in an unnatural universe, turning in energetic performances that make viewers buy the eccentric premise and care about said characters. Konstantin Khabensky is likable and believable as unlikely hero Anton Gorodetsky, with his Michael Stuhlbarg-esque features and lightly-worn masculinity adding credibility to his role as an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. On the opposite end of the morality spectrum is Viktor Verzhbitsky as Zavulon, the haughty, video game-playing leader of the Dark Others whose shock-white hair and piercing blue eyes call to mind Roy Batty (less so the mesh t-shirt he often wears). Though he appears for only a relatively small amount of screen time, we do get to see him put those video game-fighting skills to use, facing off against Anton in a battle that can truly be described as spine-tingling.
Bekmambetov’s eye for action serves him especially well in this film, as seen in the slickly kinetic editing of many of its most memorable scenes. Using different cinematographic techniques like stable and shaky cam or live-action and CGI in the same movie is basic filmmaking, but the way he seamlessly cuts from one to the other in the same sequences is nothing less than inspired. The resulting effect is as immersive as it is thrilling, with the film’s creative sound design heightening the onscreen violence and movement even further through the visceral sounds of ethereal whooshes, punches landing, and cracking bones. We see a great example of Bekambetov’s dynamic editing style early on in the prologue, where the Light Others wrestle with a Dark Other as a young, naive Anton helplessly watches on. Jumping from slo-mo to fast motion and from close-ups to medium shots, the scene’s climax also has some of the most satisfying cuts on action I’ve seen in a movie—Russian or otherwise—in a long time.
“Bekmambetov’s eye for action serves him especially well in this film, as seen in the slickly kinetic editing of many of its most memorable scenes. Using different cinematographic techniques like stable and shaky cam or live-action and CGI in the same movie is basic filmmaking, but the way he seamlessly cuts from one to the other in the same sequences is nothing less than inspired. The resulting effect is as immersive as it is thrilling, with the film’s creative sound design heightening the onscreen violence and movement even further through the visceral sounds of ethereal whooshes, punches landing, and cracking bones.”
What’s also interesting to see is how the film—which, as a massive hit in its native Russia, can be said to serve as a reflection of the country and its mood at the time—portrays the city and society it’s set in. Far from the grim, inexplicably still-Soviet dystopia that we still see in Western depictions of Moscow, the Russian capital is shown here as a busy, bustling metropolis where people are too busy going about their jobs and lives to notice that vampires are fighting for the heart and soul of their city. This also extends to the way the two Other factions are presented: the Light Others appear more drab and civic-minded with their plain boiler suits, unwieldy utility truck, and the fact that their front organization is a power company, while the Dark Others drive spiffy sports cars, attend pop concerts, and are partial to tacky track suits (squatting, not so much), marking them as children of the chaotic, post-communist “Russian ’90s” and the materialistic individualism that came with it. Though the kleptocratic ’90s may have given way to the “sovereign democracy” of apparent-president for life Putin, the film remains an intriguing picture of that uncertain period when Russia was, finally, a “free country” but wasn’t sure what to do with that freedom.
Smart enough to not take its story too seriously but well-executed enough to make audiences feel invested in it, Night Watch is likely to continue its reign as the most people-pleasing popcorn flick to come out of the New Russia for years to come.
Ivan The Terrible (1944)
If you’ll permit me to reach back before the fall of the USSR—indeed, to the dark days of Stalinism—I’d like to raise Sergei Eisenstein’s two-part historical epic Ivan The Terrible as a critical exemplar of Russian cinema. Produced on the whim of Joseph Stalin himself, the Battleship Potemkin director was tasked with telling the story of the man who turned a then-divided Russia into a single, centralized state. Considering Ivan’s efforts to challenge the power of the aristocratic boyars, unify the country, and protect it from foreign invaders, it’s little wonder that Stalin saw himself in the movie’s portrayal of the 16th-century Tsar. Unfortunately, he was also sharp enough to pick up on other unflattering aspects of Ivan’s character and rule that could be said to reflect his own: namely, the character’s descent into brutality and paranoia. The Soviet dictator didn’t like these elements of the film one bit, and so he halted the release of Part 2 and barred Eisenstein from making a planned third film. Eisenstein died before the ban was lifted sadly but—with Stalin and the totalitarian superstate he helped forge dead and buried—viewers around the world are now free to see his masterful duology in full.
As with any good biopic, the movie lives by the portrayal of its title character, brought to forceful life by Nikolai Chersakov. Reportedly one of Stalin’s favorite actors as well as the star of Eisenstein’s previous epic Alexander Nevsky, Chersakov brings an intense sense of purpose and authority to Ivan. His deep, quintessentially Russian baritone commands attention enough as it is, but it’s his expressions and body language that make his Ivan so magnetic. Chersakov is particularly given to raising his head and staring off into the distance, whether alone or when addressing others. The resulting impression is that of a starry-eyed idealist, whose goals and ambitions for Russia extend far beyond anything his selfish, short-shorted enemies could imagine. Accentuated by Chersakov’s wide-eyed gaze—the gaze of a true believer? A madman? Both?—it’s a look we still expect to see in our men of vision.
Adding to the film’s power is the stirring score by Sergei Prokofiev, whose musical contributions are often as emotive as Ivan himself. Perhaps best remembered today for penning Peter and the Wolf, Prokofiev draws as much from pre-modern Russia and the Orthodox Church as he does the traditional orchestra, incorporating such textures as ringing church bells, liturgical chanting, and marching-style choruses into his compositions. There are a number of recurring themes throughout, but the most potent has to be “Ivan’s Tent”. Opening with an almost pastoral quality, the theme is carried by a calming combination of woodwinds and strings that are then intruded upon by slow, sulking brass and the roll of marital-sounding percussion. Heard in crucial moments like Ivan’s wedding and the battle of Kazan, it’s a beautifully provocative piece that captures the contrast between the noble aims of the tsar and the latent menace lurking underneath.
“Chersakov is particularly given to raising his head and staring off into the distance, whether alone or when addressing others. The resulting impression is that of a starry-eyed idealist, whose goals and ambitions for Russia extend far beyond anything his selfish, short-shorted enemies could imagine. “
Also amply on display here is Eisenstein’s storied ability to craft visually-striking imagery. From askew close-ups to awe-inspiring long shots, there’s as much emotion as there is thought behind the camera. Another trick Eisenstein makes the most of is using shadows to convey the relations between characters in a given scene. When Ivan walks across his room, for example, the shadow he casts on the wall grows until it looms over the room, dwarfing the measly figures of the treacherous boyars who refuse to support his campaigns against the Germans and Livonians. The visual highpoint of the film, however, has to be the Dance of the Oprichniki (Ivan’s secret police) scene from Part II. Clashing with the austere black and white of the rest of the film, the sequence is drenched in hellish-red hues that, in conjunction with the manic dancing and darkly humorous singing of the secret police, catapult it to the realm of Stalinist fever dream and put the ball in “secret policeman’s ball”.
Half-romanticized retelling of Russian history and half-thinly-veiled allegory for Soviet tyranny, Ivan The Terrible is as much a stunning work of art as it is a courageous act of defiance.
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 in-person, 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. Masks must be worn at The Frida Cinema, with exception to while taking a bite or a sip at your seat. Hit button below to enroll — new students are welcome any time throughout the series!
“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)