June 2, 2015 | by Willie Osterweil
Anticommunism at the movies.
You’re trying awful hard with all this patriotic eyewash.
—Skip McCoy, Pickup on South Street
If you’re feeling polemical, you might argue that all Hollywood cinema is anticommunist: as the central commodity of the culture industry, big studio movies are designed for nothing so much as circulating and producing capital. But if we want to talk Communist with a capital C—you know, where the C stands for USSR—then Hollywood’s anticommunist films are a special and specific genre of flops and farces, a cinematic tradition featuring such classics as I Married a Communist, The Red Menace, Assignment: Paris, and My Son John. (Spoiler: John’s a goddamned Bolshie!)
The fifties saw the heyday of anticommie popcorn flicks. True, the silent era had its Bolshevism on Trial and Red Russia Revealed, and the eighties met with Soviet invasion in Red Dawn and some serious anti-Vietcong violence in the later Rambo movies. But when you wanna see a square-jawed U.S. American call a sweaty creep a commie and slug him in the mouth, it’s the postwar period you turn to. Though most of the era’s anticommunist films were too vulgar and outlandish to survive as anything other than hilarious artifacts—or as evidence of the ever-imperialist, state-serving agenda of the Hollywood apparatus, depending on which side of the bed you woke up on—a few, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly and Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street among them, are truly great works of cinema. (Granted, 1982’s Rambo: First Blood—if you excise the last four minutes, when Sly gives a speech crying about how hippies, those “maggots at the airport,” spit on him—is also pretty great.) Both are tense, pulpy noirs, both center around the sale of nuclear secrets, and both take anticommunism more as a genre then a narrative drive. But only one, Pickup on South Street (1953), is being revived this week at Film Forum, in New York. Read More »
May 12, 2015 | by Scott Beauchamp
Sharia law goes to the movies.
In 2009, halfway through my second deployment as an infantryman in Iraq, I was made company armorer. Instead of spending days in the field or going on patrols at odd hours, I had a set schedule repairing our company’s guns and night vision goggles—a normal nine-to-five, in many ways, except that I was stuck on a military compound in the Diyala Province and my office was a shipping container. As a newly ordained soldier of leisure, I decided to reconnect with American culture by watching a couple of new movies.
I chose The Wrestler and District 9 for arbitrary reasons: friends back home had mentioned them and they were for sale in stacks at my base’s knickknack shop, run by locals. The Wrestler, I discovered, is a Darren Aronofsky film starring Mickey Rourke as a washed-up professional wrestler haunted by his past fame, torn between focusing on building a new life outside of wrestling and rekindling some of his former glory. The film crackles with the dark intensity of the knowledge that Rourke’s character will have to make a choice—the violence of the wrestling ring or domestic tranquility. I thought The Wrestler triumphed in the end by leaving the character’s fate up in the air; the film culminates in a poignant hospital scene where the broken wrestler’s love interest pleads that he not agree to a reunion matchup with his old rival, the Ayatollah. Read More »
May 1, 2015 | by Madison Mainwaring
Ballet at the movies.
In the 1980s, Hellman’s launched an extensive campaign to rebrand its mayonnaise products as health conscious. Between shots of garishly pink salmon and luxuriant folds of Romaine lettuce were ballet dancers: “Without a choreographer,” the voice-over says, “there is no ballet … Without Hellman’s, there’s no salad.” (Maybe the copywriters were drawing from Yeats—“How can we know the dancer from the dance?”) Dancers are superimposed onto vegetables—one in orange twirls into a carrot—and a note in small type at the bottom says that Hellman’s “can help slimming or weight control.”
The ad only makes sense in light of the “tradition of morbidity,” as the former New Yorker critic Arlene Croce once called it: a certain subtext associated with the ballerina in popular culture. Movies, in particular, have over the course of a century misrepresented, if not outright disfigured, her. She’s a delicate, overwrought creature who shuns all material desires (including dessert, sex, and probably mayonnaise, too) for her craft. If you’re trying to sell a fat-laden emulsion of oil and eggs typically eaten on a red-checkered tablecloth with the WASP-ish anemia of the upper class, you’ll find no better spokesperson than the ballerina. Read More »
March 26, 2015 | by Jeff Seroy
Sixty-four years later, The Tales of Hoffmann continues to delight and perplex.
Lovers of the recherché have flocked to see Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1951 Tales of Hoffmann at Film Forum, where it’s still showing for one more day. In a newly restored print, the film’s fantastical mise-en-scène and extravagant polychrome glory assault viewers head on for a hundred and thirty-three minutes. At each screening, Martin Scorsese introduces Hoffmann in a videotaped homily, during which he confesses to an “obsession” with the film, having first fallen for it, strangely enough, when it aired in black-and-white on Million Dollar Movie. Most critics rave or rant, or both, about this odd work. The amiable William Germano, the author of a smart, slim volume about the film for the British Film Institute, spoke at the screening I attended, and his was one of the more measured, sanguine appreciations: “Whatever Hoffmann was, there had never been a cinematic creation quite like this one.” Read More »
March 24, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
In 2011, when Michel Houellebecq failed to show up for a book tour in the Netherlands, his three-day absence fueled ridiculous rumors: Had he disappeared? Was this an act of international terrorism? In fact, Houellebecq says, he’d just sort of forgotten that he had stuff to do.
Guillaume Nicloux’s The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, which opens tomorrow at Film Forum, riffs on this hysteria and the cult of personality around the author, imagining a scenario in which Houellebecq—who plays, of course, himself—really is abducted: he’s ambushed in his home and taken to an undisclosed location outside Paris, where his kidnappers await a healthy ransom. But this is not the stony, philosophical world of, say, Mao II; there are no connections drawn between art and terrorism, no meditations on the dangerousness of writers as a class. That’s because there’s no danger, period. Houellebecq’s capture is a perfect non sequitur. Read More »
March 4, 2015 | by Dave Tompkins
The Thing scampers across the Antarctic tundra in a dog suit. A Norwegian helicopter gives chase with bad aim and incendiaries. It’s in humanity’s best interest to kill the dog before it transforms into a “pissed-off cabbage” made of twelve dog tongues lined with thorny dog teeth. (Taking over the world requires imagination, psychedelic detailing, and a little hustle.) The dog, referred to by Thingsplainers as “Running dog-Thing,” is smart; it will go on to perform incredible feats. Like helping oatmeal cowboy Wilford Brimley build a spaceship. Like sticking Kurt Russell inside a fifth of J&B. Like replicating the frailty of the human mind in conditions of paranoia and subzero isolation. All of these, unbearable likenesses. Running dog-Thing has earned its customized bass lurk, composed by Ennio Morricone, which, in fairness to your ears and mine, could be an expensive John Carpenter imitation.
This opening sequence for Carpenter’s The Thing prompted cheers at BAM last month, as part of a retrospective of the horror director’s work. I whooped for my own dread, maybe rooting for the thirteen-year-old version of me who saw The Thing with my dad in 1982, after my parents’ divorce. I relished those early quiet moments at U.S. National Science Institute Outpost 31, before the dog exploded and everyone started side-eyeing each other’s ratty long johns. Before, if you’ll forgive me, things got messy. Read More »