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May 12, 2015 | by

 Sharia law goes to the movies.

District_9_vector_poster_by_butterflyka

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 »

Houellebecq’s Been Kidnapped—Good for Him!

March 24, 2015 | by

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From The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq.

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 »

Dismembrance of the Thing’s Past

March 4, 2015 | by

Running dog-Thing.

Running dog-Thing.

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 »

The Way the World Ends

February 5, 2015 | by

Being the last man on Earth.

From In the Mouth of Madness, 1981.

On a recent Sunday evening, trying to relax, I turned on the television and saw an ad for a new comedy series called The Last Man on Earth. It wasn’t clear how everyone else had died.

I had learned what I needed to know, or had remembered it: television does not relax me. I turned the television off, took an Ativan, and listened to The Teddy Charles Tentet, a terrific jazz record.

Phil Miller is the last man on earth—which makes him the world’s greatest handyman—world’s greatest athlete—[etc.]

The last man on earth.

But of course one is not the Last Man on Earth. There are other people, equal claimants to the Earth. It can be vexing to share it with them. Read More »