Lost in the Movies: October 2019

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a film inside of a film inside of a film. It encloses its various narratives, nesting them inside other narratives using a particular kind of dramatic twist - one that demolishes our initial context  - as a method of disorientation. Filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to M. Night Shymalan and David Lynch (who will definitely come up a couple more times in this review) walk the same crooked path this silent German Expressionist horror film paved. The power of the twist-trick, a gimmick at worst, an epiphany at best, is that nothing is the same afterwards: it doesn't only change our perception of whatever particular detail it skews, it makes us question everything - including the twist itself. Caligari is not the neatest use of the device, and at times it can feel clumsy, incomplete, or on-the-nose. But it is one of the most ambitious deployments of the twist (there are several twists, in fact) and one of the most deeply rooted in a profound historical moment.

Mad Men - "A Night to Remember" (season 2, episode 8)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review an episode of season two, possibly followed by each episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on September 14, 2008/written by Matthew Weiner & Robin Veith; directed by Lesli Linka Glatter): Betty's encounter with Jimmy has pushed her already shaky confidence in Don (and herself) over a cliff, so it only takes a relatively innocuous incident (a couple, perhaps) to trigger the Drapers' incipient marital crisis. When Betty hosts an "around the world" dinner party and selects Heineken as the drink of choice, Duck - the guest who almost didn't make it - chuckles. He and Don had a dispute at the office over whether housewives would be drawn toward a display highlighting the beer's refined aura, and he's amused that Don was proven correct in his own home. But Betty is offended that Don thinks he knows her so well (and perhaps more offended that he nailed it), and this insult finally pushes her to confront him with the Bobbie situation. Don, of course, adamantly denies the affair and after Betty fails to find even the slightest piece of evidence, she seems to agree with Don that they "don't want to lose all of this." The next day, however, sitting on the couch and watching sitcoms with her children, Betty encounters the Utz ad featuring Jimmy talking about "a night on the town turned ugly," and "Am I crazy? I don't think so!" It's the final straw. She calls Don to tell him not to come home and he spends the night at the office. This is clearly the most important plotline of the episode, but there are a couple significant shifts for other characters too. Peggy is pressured into crafting a pro bono pamphlet with a church dance; the blue-haired ladies don't like her tagline and Father Gill not only fails to back her up but, after taking advantage of her office space, obnoxiously presses her on spiritual matters. Joan, meanwhile, is enlisted into Harry's TV department, reading scripts for soap operas. She realizes that she loves the assignment before being disappointed to discover a not-nearly-as-talented young man filling her spot a few days later.

My Response: 

Get Out (The Unseen 2017)

"The Unseen" is a series in which I watch popular films for the first time (reviews contain spoilers). The list, which moves backwards in time, is based on the highest-ranked film I've never seen each year on Letterboxd (as of April 2018). Get Out was #1 for 2017.

The Story: When Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) leaves his comfortable city apartment, decorated with his own arresting black-and-white photographs, for the country estate of his hip girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), he is anticipating an awkward weekend. The genial, talented young man is reassured by Rose that her family will be welcoming - goofy perhaps, but well-intentioned. However, something inside of him knows better. She's white. He's black. It shouldn't matter, right? Chris tries to believe this ideal but after his first day at the estate, he's earned the right to shake his head, look Rose in the eye, and sigh, "I told you so." Rose's dad Dean (Bradley Whitford, a knowing reference to the pious liberalism of The West Wing) presents a curious mixture of overbearing gregariousness and barely-concealed resentment. Rose's brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) is some kind of Salingerian psychopath, whose jovially uncouth manner quickly slides into domineering threats of violence. Rose's mother Missy (Catherine Keeler) mostly scolds the male Armitages with an ominous serenity that suggests she's biding her time. And indeed she is. When she hypnotizes Chris that first night, it's the film's rawest moment of entitled aggression, veering from pushy invitation to rude castigation to shockingly invasive interrogation to...a genuine example of psychic abuse. Stirring a spoon against the edge of a teacup in a horrific take on ASMR, Missy sends Chris to the sunken place.

Chris wakes up in his own bed the next day, but he's been marked as prey and the wolves are circling. At an excruciating yard party, old white folks (and one inquiring Asian) verbally poke and prod Chris, fetishizing him with their racialized "compliments." The black servants and the one black guest are no better, speaking in a stilted manner and behaving awkwardly despite occasional flickers of recognition. Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield), whom we met as Andre Hayworth in the film's opening sequence (he's lost in a suburban neighborhood where a car stalks him and the driver knocks him out before dragging him away), breaks character when a phone-camera light flashes in his eyes. He grabs Chris and screams the film's title as a warning, before being dragged away. From a stilted reminder of racial difference to a more deeply alienating social experience to an increasingly unsettling dive into paranoia, the Get Out weekend finally reaches its destination: confirmation that Chris has been trapped by a racist medical cult that literally strips black people of their humanity, transplanting the brains of wealthy white individuals into the bodies of black ones, whose own consciousness sinks back into a "passenger" role. This is visualized as "the sunken place," a pitch-black void where Chris falls through space, while life unfolds overhead in a distanced screen he's unable to affect.

Even Rose erases her nuanced, empathetic "character" when it's no longer convenient to fool her boyfriend; she becomes a blank, ruthless killer with a closet full of photos of black men and women she entrapped with her "I'm one of the good ones" shtick. One by one, Chris kills his would-be captors, destroying the family as they attempt to destroy him (not only through direct physical attack but through manipulation of his psychological vulnerability: guilt over not protecting his hit-and-run victim mother when he was a little boy). Finally, he's saved by Rod Williams (Lil Rey Howery), a friend whose over-the-top conspiracy theories about a sex cult turn out to be closer to the mark than the skepticism and mockery of "sensible" characters. He's also one of the few other black characters in a film dominated by white people - every single one of whom has malicious intent.

The Context:

Mad Men - "The Gold Violin" (season 2, episode 7)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review an episode of season two, possibly followed by each episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on September 7, 2008/written by Jane Anderson, Andre & Maria Jacquemetton; directed by Andrew Bernstein): As "The Gold Violin" opens, Don stares with desire and discomfort at a Cadillac Coupe de Ville; the British salesman gracefully seduces the dapper Draper into taking it for a drive but his flattery backfires, especially when coupled with a memory triggered by the dealership. From the chic, upscale early sixties showroom Don flashes back to a cluttered, decidedly humble early fifties office. This time he is the salesman, no dulcet Anglo tone nor high-powered clientele to soften the blow as he pitches a father (Gareth Williams) and his letterman-jacket son (James Michael Lambert) on a used model. Worst of all, as they hold back from his slightly desperate enticements, a woman (Melinda Page Hamilton) enters the office and tells him he's a hard man to find. As horrified realization dawns on his face, she sighs, "You're not Donald Draper." Back in 1962, an agitated Don declines the Cadillac and flees the dealership, much to the salesman's confusion. Later, he will reconsider the invitation much to his benefit; on a picnic after taking the sleek new ride for a spin, Don's daughter asks her parents quizzically, "Are we rich?" and they smirk at one another. As a complement to this experience, Bert invites Don to become one of the "people who get to decide what will happens in our world" by joining the board of a folk art museum. The car and the museum, however, are the exceptions (thus far) to "The Gold Violin"'s rule; every other invitation - in an episode full of them - backfires.

Bert invites Harry to come up to his office for a morning meeting, and Harry worries that he'll flub the test of Bert's newly purchased artwork. "Two possibilities," he frets. "Either Cooper loves it and you have to love it, like in an Emperor's New Clothes situation. Or he thinks it's a joke and you'll look like a fool if you pretend to dig it." Jane matter-of-factly invites Harry, Ken, and Paul to take a sneak peek at the painting the evening before the meeting - a dare that almost results in her firing; or rather, which does result in Joan firing her, only for a beneficent Roger to undo the damage. Jane cannily exploits his attraction to her, and perhaps even suspects his previous relationship to the woman she defies. The illicit visit to the boss' office spurs another attraction when Sal enjoys Ken's thoughtful musings about the painting (not a real Rothko, by the way, perhaps due to rights concerns). Ken invites Sal to read a draft of his new short story, and Sal invites Ken to share dinner with him and his wife. The dinner is pleasant enough for Ken (despite a vague discomfort at Sal's forwardness) and an absolute delight for Sal (who proceeds to lovingly handle the lighter his co-worker leaves behind). On the other hand, wife Kitty - an old friend from Sal's hometown who sought him out after years apart - is heartbroken. Sal ignores her all evening and she cries when Ken leaves. Everyone in this situation can sense something is off, but none of them - even Sal - seems able to confront what that really is.

The most disastrous invitation of all is saved for last. Jimmy calls Betty to beg her and Don to attend a celebration for his newly-greenlit sitcom; at the event, he continues to lavish her with flattering praise. This time, however, the pretty talk is laced with an ugly undertone: "Look at us, over here at the kids' table... All I know is I know her and you know him and there they are and they don't care where we are." Betty's dawning horror pulls her away, but Jimmy is able to shred Don's confidence too before the Drapers go home. "You don't screw another man's wife," he growls. "You're garbage. And you know it."

On the ride home, Betty throws up all over the nice new Coupe De Ville.

My Response: 

Mary Shelley

We meet her, of course, reading a book while hunched up against a tombstone. This is an instantly evocative image, juxtaposing the freshness of youth with the finality of death to convey a mood (the pleasingly Gothic milieu out of which the famed novel arose), a theme (the haunting presence of death in the young woman's life), and a particular context (the grave belongs to Mary Wollstonecroft, a feminist trailblazer who died giving birth to our heroine). Mary Godwin (Elle Fanning) is not yet Mary Shelley - in fact, incongruous if obvious title aside, she won't be until the film has nearly ended - but we can already see the author of Frankenstein foreshadowed in this imaginative, rebellious young woman, skipping chores to read ghost stories. She races home where she struggles alongside her stepsister Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley) under the caring but aloof tutelage of her father William Godwin (Stephen Dillane) and her much more malevolently down-to-earth stepmother Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggatt, just twelve years older than her onscreen daughter Powley). This dreary domestic portrait suggests a quite typical workaday milieu of impoverished English life early in the nineteenth century, but in many ways Mary's life is extremely atypical - her weary father and late mother not only brushed shoulders with titans of the age, but were themselves incendiary radicals.

There's a sense in which this recent past seems both fresh and faded; Mary's mother feels like a ghostly presence that's only just left the room, whose traces can still be sensed in disturbances of the atmosphere - and her still-living father smolders like a candle only just extinguished. But if the curtain has only just fallen on one epoch, it's already opening on another - and Mary herself will play a starring role. She meets, falls in love with, and runs away with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), disowned even by her liberal-minded father as society both scorns and celebrates the young rebels. She births - and loses - a child, racing from residence to residence as her husband publishes his work and she struggles to find her own voice. Eventually - along with scientific breakthroughs of the time, Mary's grief surrounding her dead baby, and the confusion of her status in this tumultuous world - it will be Claire's fling with (and eventual, agonizing rejection by) Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) that leads Mary to discover this voice at a certain Swiss chateau on a very famous dark and stormy night.

Mad Men - "Maidenform" (season 2, episode 6)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review an episode of season two, possibly followed by each episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on August 31, 2008/written by Matthew Weiner; directed by Phil Abraham): Rarely has an episode's theme been so pronounced, even schematic. "Maidenform," in which Sterling Cooper attempts to spin a brassiere account in a new direction, is all about how men view women and how the women under that gaze feel about how they are seen. Playtex, trying to chase Maidenform's sexier campaign, pushes Sterling Cooper to redesign their approach and Peggy is put in charge. Unfortunately, she keeps getting undercut as the men talk amongst themselves, in the office, at the bar after work, eventually even going to a strip club with the clients (who've graciously turned down the Jackie/Marilyn artwork to stick with their more conservative instincts). Flustered by the way work blurs with socializing, and knowing that as the odd woman out she can't cross between those worlds with the same ease as her peers, Peggy seeks advice from Joan, who offers a similar message to Bobbie's last week: you can't be a man (Joan dismisses Peggy's attempt at a professional uniform as "dressing like a little girl"), so use your femininity to climb the ladder instead. In her final scene, Peggy shows up at the club dressed (and presenting herself) in a completely different fashion, and the men - who earlier refused to assign her Jackie or Marilyn, settling on Gertrude Stein or Irene Dunne instead - are surprised but welcoming (this role they know how they accept her in). As she sits on the aged client's lap, Pete looks on with a mixture of jealousy, admiration, and desire, and she avoids his gaze.

If the women are confused and overwhelmed by what the men around them expect, the men are often all mixed up as well - albeit in different ways, and with the complications of greater power on hand. Pete cheats with a model who was turned down for the Playtex mock-up (she takes him back to an apartment she shares with her mother), and the next morning he conducts an awkward conversation with Peggy at her desk. Her confusing place in the professional/social arrangement of Sterling Cooper is even more complicated by her long-ago fling. While Pete is pleased enough with his own extramarital excursions, Don's attempt to regain his old confidence through infidelity backfires. Tying Bobbie up and telling her not to talk, he gets rattled when she won't shut up - especially when she tells him she knows about his reputation. He's already become unnerved whenever she mentions her adult children, but it's his own child who ultimately breaks him down. Early in the episode, Sally gazes admiringly at her daddy as he and other veterans stand for applause (I love the shout-out to the aged Spanish-American War veteran in the back), triggering a discomfort that sends Don out of the country club luncheon to call Bobbie. And near episode's end the little girl enters the bathroom as Don shaves and tells him, "I won't talk" - a jarring reminder of the encounter with his lover. Don freezes while staring in the mirror, sends Sally out, and sits on the toilet in his towel wondering who the hell he is and what he's doing. When Bobbie asks where comes from, he answers with a chuckle, "You don't want to know;" clearly, neither does he.

My Response: 

Twin Peaks Unwrapped - The TV pilot version of Mulholland Drive (w/ Mya McBriar and John Thorne)

What if Mulholland Drive had been an ABC series competing for viewers in the fall of 1999, rather than an uber-cinematic art film quickly acclaimed as the best movie of the 21st century? This and other questions animate my discussion with Ben and Bryon, hosts of the most prolific Twin Peaks podcast, Mya McBriar of Twin Peaks Fanatic, and John Thorne of Wrapped in Plastic and The Blue Rose Magazines, who brought knowledge of several different cuts to the table. Four years ago, we spoke about the finished film when it was incorporated into the Criterion Collection and now we've reunited for a round-table about the TV pilot version of the movie. Though I've long been aware of what was and wasn't in the rejected version David Lynch presented to the network, it was startling to actually watch this familiar footage in fuzzy VHS quality and a boxy aspect ratio - not to mention the subtle additions and subtractions scattered throughout this version of Mulholland Drive. And it made for a great conversation.

This is the first of three appearances I'll be making on Twin Peaks Unwrapped this fall, so keep an eye out for my contribution to a Season 1 Finale rewatch and another "Madness" session, this time eliminating and elevating the various episodes of the truly mad Season 2.

Mad Men - "The New Girl" (season 2, episode 5)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review an episode of season two, possibly followed by each episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on August 24, 2008/written by Robin Veith; directed by Jennifer Getzinger): Who is "the new girl"? The obvious answer is Jane Siegel (Peyton List), Don's new secretary. She attracts the attention of some of the office's hornier employees, and while the newly-engaged Joan initially appreciates Jane's compliments, she eventually scolds her for what she perceives as showing off. However, the deeper meaning of the title seems implicit in Don's continuing, surprising dalliance with Bobbie Barrett - especially since the two of them have a run-in with Don's previous mistress Rachel Menken, long back from Europe with a husband in tow. Don totals his car while driving Bobbie out to Long Island, and he calls Peggy to pick him up at the station. Bobbie stays with Peggy until she's fully recovered, and an uneasy tension develops between them until, finally, Bobbie interjects with a bit of advice that builds Peggy up and cuts her down to size simultaneously. "You're never gonna get that corner office until you start treating Don as an equal. And no one will tell you this, but you can't be a man. Don't even try. Be a woman. It's powerful business when done correctly."

"The New Girl" also features a flashback to Peggy in the immediate aftermath of her pregnancy. Her mother and (pregnant!) sister visit, and then Don himself shows up at the hospital bedside. His beleaguered demeanor reminds us that, at this point in the timeline, he had just undergone his own trauma recently, forced to confront and then re-bury his own haunted past. He tells Peggy to do whatever she's told and then advises, "This never happened. It will shock you how much this never happened." (As a side note, Peggy's baby daddy has his own childbearing concerns this episode as he and Trudy discover that she, not he, is the hang-up in their plans for pregnancy - although he seems more relieved than disappointed to confirm that there is indeed a hang-up.) When Peggy returns to the office after several days away, Don scolds her for not completing her work. She almost takes this as meekly as she usually does but pauses when her co-workers have left the room and reminds him (apparently he's all too ready to set aside what "never happened") that he owes her the fine money. When asking for the cash, she calls him "Mr. Draper." When receiving it, she returns his gaze and says, simply, "Thank you, Don."

My Response: 

Devil's Bride

In the spirit of Halloween, all Wednesday reviews/updates for October will be horror and/or thriller themed (which isn't to say they'll all be neatly categorized horror and thrillers)...

Knowing the subject of the film, or perhaps just sensing where things are going based on the title and eerie atmosphere, we are immediately nervous for Anna Eriksdotter (Tuulia Eloranta). The sixteen-year-old servant girl, who lives with the wise midwife Valborg Magnusdotter (Kaija Pakarinen), seems just a bit too free-spirited and reckless for her time and place. Interested in magic and embracing her own sexuality, she provides an inherent challenge to the kind of patriarchal order represented by the new magistrate Nils Psilander (Magnus Krepper), and yet both he and almost everyone else tolerate or even encourage her youthful vigor; indeed, more than one of their interactions suggest he is, pardon the pun, bewitched by her presence. As witch hunt fever sweeps the island, Anna is actually one of the women who seems safest from it, and her own role in this terror may end up surprising us - more than once (necessarily, this review will spoil some plot developments but not the ending).

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