The Daily

On Film

Glutton for Punishment

November 18, 2015 | by

Fat City and the dark night of boxing’s soul.

From an Italian poster for Fat City.

Boxing and cinema are so perfectly mated that if the sport didn’t exist Hollywood may well have invented it. Its tropes—man’s internal struggle with his demons, his past, and his station, all externalized in a desperate fight against an opponent who could be a drinking buddy but who stands, right now, in the way of dreams, success, and validation—dates back to Homer, and they’re ready-made for the movies.

The reality of boxing is, of course, not so clean. It’s brutal, unforgiving, and easily corruptible; the runway to the ring littered with broken bodies, shattered lives, and buckets of blood. Redemption? That’s only in the pictures. Which is not to say boxing films avoid hard truths about the sport. Gangsters, hucksters, bums, schemes, and death abound, especially in the titles released in the forties and fifties. But Hollywood approaches the inherent danger and venality of the fight game cautiously, never staring too long into the abyss. To do so would be to stray too far from the formula: audiences should go home cheering, if not for a champion then for a guy who failed stoically and with class. No one wants to spend time—or, more importantly, money—on a downer. Read More »

The Battle of the Butt

August 10, 2015 | by

From the theatrical release poster for Cold Turkey.

Before he found success with All in the Family and its spin-offs, Norman Lear wrote and directed Cold Turkey, a cynical 1971 antismoking comedy that is, to date, his only credit as a film director. It’s showing August 13, 15, and 17 at New York’s Anthology Film Archives as part of their One-Film Wonders series, a collection of cinematic one-offs and also-rans.

Cold Turkey has the kind of stupefyingly ridiculous premise we need to see more often in our movies: in a bid for good PR, a big tobacco company promises twenty-five million dollars, tax free, to any town whose residents can stop smoking for a full month. (Their magnanimity earns them comparisons to the Nobel Peace Prize.) The 4,006 residents of Eagle Rock, Iowa, are up to the challenge, at least once their minister—played by Dick van Dyke, typically affable and guileless—goads them into action. Read More »

Seeing Red

June 2, 2015 | by

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 »

Special Effects

May 12, 2015 | by

 Sharia law goes to the movies.


From a District 9 poster, 2009.

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 »

The Death of The Dying Swan

May 1, 2015 | by

Ballet at the movies.

Dying Swan 2

A still from The Dying Swan, 1917.

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 »

Drunk in Love

March 26, 2015 | by

Sixty-four years later, The Tales of Hoffmann continues to delight and perplex.

a Michael Powell Emeric Pressburger The Tales of Hoffmann Criterion DVD PDVD_005

A still from The Tales of Hoffmann.

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 »