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Lightning Bolts and Subliminal Whispers

Ninón Sevilla in Emilio Fernández’s Victims of Sin (1951)

A new 4K restoration of Emilio Fernández’s Victims of Sin (1951) opens today at New York’s Film Forum, and when Imogen Sara Smith caught it at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2018, she found it “gobsmacking from the get-go.” A “tumultuous product of Mexican cinema’s Golden Age,” writes J. Hoberman for Artforum, “the movie is a perfect storm, the confluence of three huge talents: It was directed and cowritten by the nation’s most macho filmmaker, given to boasting ‘There is only one Mexico, the one I invented’; it was shot by Mexico’s greatest cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa (an even tougher Communist than his mentor Sergei Eisenstein); and it stars filmdom’s ultimate rumbera, a thirty-year-old bolt of lightning, the Havana-born, sensationally uninhibited dancer Ninón Sevilla.”

Sevilla plays Violeta, a nightclub singer and dancer tossed out of the Cabaret Changoo in Mexico City when she refuses to give up the abandoned baby she’s rescued. As Farran Smith Nehme wrote in the Village Voice in 2018, her “smile of maternal tenderness has a heat-lamp intensity that threatens to give the baby a fever; her anger could crack a building’s foundation; her despair is like floodwaters engulfing a city. But that’s what this kind of melodrama requires, and when Sevilla takes to the floor to dance, it’s one of the most electrifying sights any musical has to offer.”

In this week’s 4Columns, Beatrice Loayza notes that “appraisals of Sevilla by Western critics tended to exoticize her . . . Titillating as Sevilla was when she hit the dance floor, I’m not sure her skills communicated merely a transcendental kind of sex. Her movements exposed the inequities of the world around her, the trifles of the many weak and corrupt in her midst, and reconciled the division between one’s raw physicality and the nobler will to integrity and justice.”

This week’s highlights:

  • Production designer Jack Fisk is probably best known to industry outsiders for meeting his wife, Sissy Spacek, on the set of Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973). He’s since worked with Paul Thomas Anderson, his old friend David Lynch, and most recently—and for the first time—with Martin Scorsese on Killers of the Flower Moon. “A former painter and sculptor,” writes Noah Gallagher Shannon in a fantastic profile for the New York Times Magazine, “Fisk considers his job not merely the designing of authentic period backdrops but the creation of a film’s visual language, a series of subliminal whispers to thematic elements: a character’s taste in home décor, the personal history that selects a bedside photo, the temperament that informs a paint choice. He thinks of his art as one of believability: a nearly invisible composition of landscapes, buildings, paint, and props that, when projected onscreen, absorbs the audience in a world that they know—instantly, intimately—is real, though they’ve never seen it before.”

  • If you followed Cinema Scope’s Toronto coverage, you’ve likely already seen much of the new issue, which includes interviews with Radu Jude, Eduardo Williams, Atom Egoyan, and Kleber Mendonça Filho. Until this week, though, we hadn’t seen Chuck Stephens’s appreciation of the late William Friedkin. Starting out with a riff on Friedkin’s penchant for, to put it kindly, stretching the truth while giving interviews, recording commentaries, or making casual conversation, Stephens writes that “when the doubt gets so ripe you can smell it, and the ambiguity so delicious that you can’t help but dig in, that’s the very essence of Friedkin’s cinema. The French Connection’s whimpering-bang, enter-the-void ending; the ever-multiplying murderous midnight ramblers of Cruising; that classic gender-rending cheat-cut at the heart of To Live and Die in L.A.—this is the stuff that makes his movies sing.”

  • For Interview, Christopher Meloni talks with Ellen Burstyn, who starred in Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) and Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). “With Marty,” she says, “we rehearsed everything the night before and did improvs, and the improvs were turned into script. We had a real understanding of the characters and the reasons they did what they did. It was a time when it seemed like an art form more than a corporate business.” The Exorcist is “possibly the most iconic and influential American horror movie of all time,” writes Adam Nayman in the Ringer, and as for appearing in David Gordon Green’s The Exorcist: Believer, Burstyn tells Meloni that “I don’t know if anybody in the history of filmmaking has ever recreated a character they did fifty years ago. It sounds like a first to me.”

  • “I was born ‘crowned by the intensity of destiny,’ said the midwife who put me, a newborn, in my mother’s arms,” Isabelle Adjani tells Luke Goodsell with a laugh. For CR Fashion Book, Goodsell asks Adjani about her new album, and of course, about Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981), but the conversation also touches on an unrealized project with Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. In 2019, Adjani appeared in a theatrical adaptation of John Cassavetes’s Opening Night (1977), and next week, she’ll return to the Crossing the Line Festival to perform in a play she’s cowritten, Marilyn’s Vertigo. “You can’t play two actresses like that, Marilyn [Monroe] and Gena [Rowlands], by imitating them or measuring yourself against them,” she says. “My relationship with them is a secret, and it’s only on stage that I reveal that secret.”

  • After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Ahmad Jorghanian became a sort of Iranian Henri Langlois, stashing away his vast collection of thousands of 35 mm prints in secret storage vaults. “I have never seen fetishism and obsessive cinephilia morph with such intensity into a type of cultural resistance,” writes Ehsan Khoshbakht in the Guardian. In Celluloid Underground, his follow-up to his first feature, Filmfarsi (2019), Khoshbakht tells the story of chasing Jorghanian down in the mid-1990s and eventually gaining his trust. “We often rightly celebrate people like Langlois,” he writes, but “we need to open a new chapter about those who kept the flame of cinema burning in the heart of tyranny.” Celluloid Underground premiered this week in London and screens again on October 14.

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