Her Smell just finished a run at the Nightlight, and it brought me back to a couple of very late 80s/early 90s moments. More thoughts below:
- I guess Moss (who I will watch in nearly anything these days) called this a passion project, and as such she must have listened to some of the bands of the 80s and 90s that this reminded me of. I saw L7, Babes in Toyland, and Hole in it, and Moss’s character Becky Something sure seems like a mix of Kat Bjelleland from BiT and Courtney Love.
- I’ve listened to people describe the film as a fictional biopic, and if so only because it defies the generic expectations. Biopics in my mind tend to follow the VH1 format – lots of focus on the rise and success of the band, a relatively brief wallow in the break-up and nadir, and then a sometimes sort of forced redemption narrative that it finishes with.
- Her Smell has almost nothing about the rise to fame – we see two or three songs played live and that’s it for the glory years, except for three or four home movie-type segments about collecting gold records and getting magazine covers and jokes about selling out.
- We spend an inordinate amount of time on the fall, and we see Something in some pretty manic and frightening states. The camera also spends a lot of time on the reactions of those around her, and less on the bad girl of rock n roll misbehaving in ways that are fucking stereotypes at this point.
- The redemption is also short, and full of anxiety and moments in which I for one thought she was going to blow it. The fact that the band doesn’t go back out for one more song made me happy – the encore-as-redemption-for-all-the-horrible-shit-I’ve-done-to-people theme is sort of played out I think.
- There is also very little justification of her behavior, and even part of that justification is ridiculous, such as when Something tells her ex-husband that she dreamed they were part of a Native American tribe and he killed all the children and that’s why she was so horrible to him. He just stares at her, the only response that makes sense.
- The film deliberately uses that scene to illustrate how tense the struggle to justify her own actions is, especially in contrast to moments when she says that she was horrible to people.
- (I’m always a little weirded out by how much punk rock stars wanted to get married – it makes me proud, especially in light of the alpha male wannabe culture of the hippies.)
- I think that if the film argues anything it argues that there is a fundamental difference in rock and roll stardom that comes from the female bands of the 90s, especially in contrast to the rise of the alt-rock movement that again was heavily male. Becky Something has to rely on her bandmates, even in the end, and they seem to depend on her for more than just a meal ticket.
- She also at least in part relies on motherhood as a way to connect, even in her least lucid moments. She has clearly ingested the cultural attitudes towards being a mom enough to at least voice regret about missing time, and her big moment at the end comes not from the crowd adulation (which she has clearly enjoyed earlier in her career) but from the fact that her daughter comes running to her.
The Field Guide to Evil is a crowd-funded horror anthology, and in my recent viewing at the Nightlight we went with some other horror fans who had decidedly mixed opinions about it.
- Being crowd-funded made some of the choices make sense, and it’s sort of hard to imagine a horror film these days that doesn’t use green screens or other types of digital effects. The old-fashioned types of trick camera work and stunts that they used were really cool and an homage of sorts to the films of the 60s and 70s that didn’t have access to digital camera effects.
- Each focused on a folklorish approach, but they treated all kinds of texts as ones worthy of producing folklore, including texts that are more recent. In particular, I liked one that the rest of the group found hoky – a story about big-headed children in the forests of California, children who are actually the product of a mad scientist (as we find out). The mix of genres felt like a particularly useful way to look at the ways that we create folklore.
- I think my favorite was one of the first ones, featuring a tinker who went from village to village and who was told by an evil spirit that if he ate the heart of corpses he would be all-powerful. He ends up in a jail cell, but the vignette finishes with him listening to the sound of troops marching off to war, as the emperor has obviously taken on the powers by doing the crimes that he has committed.
Us, directed by Jordan Peele, has already generated a ton of theory-mongering, which makes sense since Peele’s last film (Get Out) generated a bunch of its own. Those theories show a willingness to engage with the film’s content as well as simply enjoy a good scare, and they’re backed by the box office revenue the film generated in its first weekend – $70 million, according to Variety. My thoughts on the film are below the trailer:
- The idea of an entire underworld of doppelgangers evokes what I think is one of the ultimate fears of most of us living in a corporatist world – the ease with which we can be replaced.
- Few of the scenes in this film are made scary by effects. There are no greyed out screens or stop-motion photography (unless it’s done as an homage, of which more later). The fact that the film relies on its story to carry the fear is pretty cool.
- I lost track of the number of films that Peele references, but some of the clearest are the slasher movies, especially A Nightmare on Elm Street. Building on the filmic codes established in early films often saves director’s work, but this film doesn’t use the expectations generated by those common references as shortcuts – instead, it interrogates them.
- As an example, the killers in Us use scissors as their weapons of choice. The choice of killing implement in horror is iconic – it’s not the Texas Chainsaw Massacre for nothing, after all, and Freddie Kreuger’s knife hands still make me shudder.
- Peele though I think is using the scissors not just as icons – they carry weight, both narratively and visually. The gold color, the variety of purposes, the idea of matching pieces of metal joined by a bolt, implying duality and connection – that’s more than the average horror weapon.
- Using the idiocy of the Hands Across America is a beautiful metaphor for ridiculous corporate gestures made by an economic system that is about to run head over heels into extreme income inequality.
- The arguments about race are far more muted in this – My guess is that class is his focus. Still, it’s not a surprise that the black family surprises, and that mom has them immediately head to Mexico, a la Sarah Conner. And of course the assumption that this doppelganger phenomenon is not happening in Mexico is probably true – Mexico has its own problems, but this tethering-to-our-shadow is uniquely American.
We saw the film version of this text at the Nightlight Cinema in Akron (full disclosure – it’s an amazing place, and you should check it out), and loved it.
- I read the novel a million years ago, and now I want to re-read it. James Baldwin gets smarter the more I rethink his legacy, and I’m guessing I’d have a much different take on it now.
- As part of what I don’t remember, I’m guessing that we spend a lot of time in the characters’ heads. The filmmaker – Barry Jenkins – spends a lot of time in extreme close-ups of the two main characters, moving back and forth between them in ways that enabled the actors to communicate mental states through facial expression. Those reactions are even more powerful as the camera moves between the two lovers in powerful ways.
- And make no bones about it – this is a love story, both between Tish and Fonny and within their families. The sacrifices that the family members take to try to get Fonny out of jail (on a charge for which he is clearly innocent but ends up agreeing to a plea on) are enormous, even if as Tish’s dad says “we have never had money, so why are we going to worry about that now?”
- The subtext of making this child a wanted, loved child is also powerful, and one that makes me wonder if – as in Moonlight – Jenkins is saying a bit of a screw you to white portrayals of black middle class life.
- I’m also fascinated by the portrayal of Fonny’s mom and sisters, people so desperate (I guess for white acceptance) that they turn their noses up at two kids who are obviously deeply in love, trying to survive despite a culture that tries to crush them at every turn. The representation of the good is not subtle in this film, and it’s interesting that this film (along with Black Panther, BlackKkKlansmen, and Sorry to Bother You) all did well at the box office – perhaps Hollywood’s avoidance of films that its execs don’t like doesn’t translate to actual attendance numbers.
- Finally, with the emphasis on voice in the films I mentioned in the last bullet, it’s nice to have a film that doesn’t have to dub over its characters speech patterns to make a point that white audiences hopefully get.
I’ve waited to blog on this film, because, well, it’s von Trier, which means that usually after watching one of his films I want to curl up in a fetal position for a few hours and sob, quietly, to myself. If you’re wondering about that, I’d say check out Melancholia and Dancer in the Dark, films that for von Trier are relatively accessible, and tell me if you don’t feel the same way.
That was not the case with this one, and I’m not exactly sure why. Thoughts below:
- So, Jack builds a house. Or tries, several times. He’s a talented architect who also happens to be a serial killer with zero empathy for his fellow humans (or animals, for that matter). We saw the director’s cut, but I can’t imagine how the theatrical release is different, since this film felt like it very little wasted space.
- It’s also a film that speaks to a lot of different texts, and serves as a meditation, and asks us to imagine how we’re culpable in atrocities, and asks us why we are silent, and argues that pretending that the presence of art makes us transcend our physical, animal hard wiring, and asks us to think about the big concepts of religion (heaven and hell, physical and spiritual), and, well, I’m sure you get it…
- One short blog post clearly is not going to suffice for an examination of it…
- What stuck with me the most, perhaps, is Jack’s descent into ever-increasing layers of horrific behavior. At every point along the way he invites us (through both his actions, his reflections on those actions, and the conversation he has with his own personal Virgil as von Trier makes his not-very-subtle point) to step away, pretty much telling us that the next thing he will do will be even more terrible than the last. von Trier’s point is that only rare individuals among us actually do step away, and sometimes we even try to call that impulse (to observe the horrific spectacle) art.
- Jack, throughout, is both oblivious to the pain and terror he causes *and* willing to call us, the audience, out on our own depravity. His actions are pretty open for a serial killer, and von Trier even plays them for comedy, with a Benny Hill-like speeded-up camera that observes Jack carry a body up and down the stairs of an apartment building, or has Jack encourage his victim to scream (and he even screams himself), knowing that no one will help them.
- Every time I thought okay, that’s as nasty as we can get, von Trier made sure to take us one step further…by the end of the film Jack is deliberately recreating Nazi execution methods, even while the police finally start breaking down the door of his horror chamber. They, of course, are only there because Jack has left a stolen police car, with the siren running, immediately outside his lair.
- I haven’t spoken about his horror chamber, but von Trier makes clear that Jack has no qualms about evidence of his crimes piling up. Jack isn’t a member of a crime family, trying to get rid of evidence. Instead, he builds a small house that consists solely of the corpses of those he has killed.
- And that house covers the entrance to hell, an entrance that Jack’s own Virgil leads him through.
- In this film von Trier is ridiculously not subtle, especially in the context of all of his other films, which are often subtle to the point of obtuseness. As odd as this seems, I wonder if this is von Trier commenting on the rising tide of anti-empathy that has engulfed the US with the rise of Trump, various South American countries like Venezuela, and of course most of western and central Europe.
- And the fact that Jack never gets made to answer for his crimes (with the eventual fact that the criminal gets his deserved fate, thus justifying our own bloodlust in watching these films in the first place) is simply yet another way that von Trier sees us as inculcated in all of the atrocities committed in art as well as in reality.
- Early in the film Jack’s internal monologue invokes the idea of catharsis (I think) as a justification for our own fascination with bloody and horrific spectacles. Jack for his part doesn’t buy this theory – he speaks in much more fundamental terms of heaven and hell, first principles that don’t allow us to use art as an insulating layer that keeps us from acknowledging our own depravity.
- von Trier can take this approach (I think of this film as a meditation and reflection, on both his own complicity and ours) *because* his career has been built on his willingness to push all kinds of edges, in both craft and theme. His films comment relentlessly on these borders, and he has constantly toyed with what it means to be an artist (or to be called one), so he has earned this right.
- I actually felt sort of exhilarated at the end, and I’m not sure I’m all that happy about my own immediate reaction.