Blood for Dracula
This is the kind of film I love most—the kind I’m never really comfortable recommending to anyone. I can totally picture someone saying, “It’s awful,” and I’d be like, “Yeah. I see that.” Like, why is it so funny? And why, despite the constant silliness—an effete, vegetarian, sulky Dracula; Joe Dallesandro as a he-man socialist Brooklyn peasant; the jokes about finding young “wirgins”—is the overall effect so mournful and lonely? I think the answer has to do with the way the film never telegraphs its intentions. It modulates between horror, satire, spoof, porn, and tragedy, but imperceptibly. To catch the changes, you have to be in the flow of the movie, enthralled by it—and then everything works.
My personal theory is that the Hays Code didn’t just forbid certain behaviors and images, it also subtly suggested the way that they might one day be allowable. Eventually filmmakers and studios figured out it wasn’t so much that you absolutely couldn’t show homosexuality, drug use, prostitution, child abuse, and mass murder. They just couldn’t seem fun. Or even funny. John Waters joyfully violates this deeper unspoken code. That’s why his films, especially Female Trouble, burn with the raw power of a Public Enemy or Baby Face.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
A film that seems absolutely tortured by J. C.’s two contradictory impulses: a desire to give the audience and funders what they want, and bitter disdain for the kind of violent, sexualized entertainment that would entail (Cosmo Vitelli vs. Mister Sophistication). I think this is why the gun and fight scenes are so illegible, so badly staged. And while there are bare breasts, they’re never sexy in any way. He can’t bring himself to give us the money shot.
Because of this, I don’t know what to do with the film’s moments of pure pictorial beauty. Most of the time, you can barely see what’s going on, but then somebody turns on a light or opens the door, and the light itself is a shimmering, seductive presence. Is the ugliness the price we pay as an audience (or the technical precondition) to get those radiant images? Or is the pretty stuff a brief surrender, an embarrassing concession to the idea movies should be nice to look at? I think both. And it’s a personal question, because we light our films the same way.
Island of Lost Souls
Erle C. Kenton
As an anticolonialism fable it’s extremely on the nose, but whatever. Guys, just . . . Colonialism: Don’t Do It. What is totally unforgettable about this film is the photography: constant fogs, blooming white surfaces, and inky jungle shadows. There’s a shot of the hero and the Panther Woman reflected in a pool of rippling water, then her real foot dips into the frame—it makes me gasp. There’s Bela Lugosi’s imperious, rabbinical presence as the Sayer of the Law. And most importantly, there’s Charles Laughton, obviously delighting in the role, giving the British scientist/eugenicist a sadistic perviness that I’m sure wasn’t in the script. In one moment, in the midst of threatening the hero, he just sprawls his whole body across a table, like a happy fat cat.
As narrated in his highly entertaining autobiography, over the course of his life Preston Sturges had a long string of failed schemes, inventions, films, and affairs. And it seems like he had the great fortune to find it all funny.
The climax of Unfaithfully Yours, when every possible minor physical thing goes wrong in Rex Harrison’s murder plot, isn’t just perfect circus-like slapstick. It’s a downright celebration of the ways that record players, telephones, wicker chairs, and gloves are these ridiculous, weird contraptions we can barely use competently. We aren’t the masters of the physical world; it’s really a wonder we survive out there. This is the huge insight Unfaithfully Yours has over a film like Modern Times or any other techno-dystopia. Like, sure, sometimes machines crush the souls of humans into their perfectly calibrated gears. But most of the time, it’s a miracle if they fucking work.
Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé
Science, art, and philosophy are never separate. If they seem so, it’s because one has implicitly absorbed the ideology of another. I think we’re in a moment now that’s making our nature documentaries worse. With HD, HDR, and CGI, they seamlessly illustrate already decided-upon science, making the un-human world seem as knowable and digestible as a Pixar fable. This is why, as impressive as they can be, they’re disposable. We abandon the HD doc when the 4K one comes along.
In Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon’s aquariums, microphotography, and time lapses, you see how the scientists know, instead of a hyperreal demonstration of what they know. Rather than getting a God’s-eye view, you experience this other world as a limited human trying to figure it out. The visuals are murky and weird—they need interpretation, as much from background science as from poetic metaphor. There is a sense of discovery, humility, and mystery in these films, and for this reason, they convey something spiritual.
The American Friend
Déclassé doubles being kinda a Ripley thing, The American Friend has a trashy yet seductive sister called Ripley’s Game, which, if you haven’t seen it, has John Malkovich and a very GoldenEye vibe. I watch both on regular rotation. But it’s really so wild that The American Friend is the older film, because where Ripley’s Game is like a classic Hollywood cash-in, The American Friend is a radical reinterpretation of the material. It says all the loud parts quiet in a way that deepens the pathos and significance of the Ripley cycle.
Rather than being a social-climbing dandy, Dennis Hopper’s Ripley is a mumbling cowboy hipster—it’s maybe his most likable role. And Bruno Ganz’s Jonathan, who can so easily just be a pathetic sucker, is instead an existential hero. But for all its understatement and the arty languid pacing, when the film needs to be—as in the train scene—it’s as taut and calculated as Hitchcock. Oh man, and that stuff about the Beatles and Hamburg is so damn smart. It’s crazy that a director whose work is all over the place could produce a film so totally organic and emotionally satisfying. Honestly it’s not fair.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
There are a few different ways to experience the Twin Peaks franchise. One is as pure vibes—as Brenda Walsh puts it, “it’s not hippie witch, it’s Twin Peaks and it’s very in.” That’s easy to dismiss, but honestly it’s often what gets me to watch. Another way, and this seems to have gotten increasingly dominant lately, is as a puzzle-box mystery-mythology, a more arcane Lost. And that’s wonderful, if only because it encourages a communal conversation to untangle it.
But Twin Peaks is also about a teenage girl who was repeatedly raped and ultimately murdered by her father. About how the ongoing abuse shaped her whole world, creating desires and addictions that terrified and excited her, and drawing in a circle of men fascinated by the prospects of saving and/or exploiting her. About how the tortured energy she exuded made the other girls, even her best friend, jealous. It’s a scenario so human and awful that those people—or a viewer—might need a whole fantastic mythical framework just to be able to take it in.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me foregrounds this last aspect. And that’s why, to me, it’s the beating heart of the series.
I mean, all of them. I remember the first night my parents let me stay home alone I rented Metropolitan for the sexy VHS cover—I stayed up till morning trying to talk like those characters. And The Last Days of Disco is low-key brutal in its honesty about post-college party life. But man, everything really clicks into place with Barcelona—Cold War Spain, super early Mira Sorvino, prime Chris Eigeman, the stylish but not mannered cinematography, a broad eighties definition of “jazz.”
I’ve been thinking about what’s so liberatingly beautiful about Stillman’s dialogue. It’s how everyone is trying to be so precise—and hearing that thought process is very rare in films. And how that extreme precision generates its own excesses and poetic absurdism. Like the crystalline moment:
“Plays, novels, songs, they all have a subtext, which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind . . . So subtext, we know . . . But what do you call . . . what’s above the subtext?”
“OK, that’s right, but they never talk about that.”
Rewatching this film on the other side of my twenties, the overwhelming fact of everyone’s youth really hit me. They’re just eighteen! And suddenly, the whole movie is Degrassi. Suzanne is Paige, Guillaume is Spinner, Bertrand is Jimmy. And Spinner and Jimmy think it’s really funny to take Paige out on dates and make her pay the bills. Then Spinner takes the joke way too far and Jimmy’s caught in the middle, wanting more than anything to seem cool.
The final scene at the pool, the bathing suit competition so to speak—everything about it is casually devastating: the rhythm of the cuts, the lighting, the suntan lotion choreography. Bertrand (Jimmy) realizes he and Sophie (Ashley) aren’t superior to Suzanne, they’re just skinny. Man, that scene hits hard. Like Degrassi, Rohmer knows that the most interesting thing about teens is that they’re works in progress. Like, sometimes they actually learn a lesson.