film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Flaming Creatures (1963)

This is a shorter experimental film, so this is going to be a shorter review – at least, it will have less film discussion than usual.

Filmmaker Jack Smith made this experimental work on the slimmest of budgets, using nearly-expired filmstock and filming on the top floor of an abandoned theater and casting other avant-garde artists of the time, such as Piero Heliczer, Mario Montez, Judith Malina and Marian Zazeela. And what Smith asked them to do is…a bit chaotic. The film is a series of disjointed scenes, some of them barely visible thanks to the poor quality of the filmstock or the shakey camera; the only sounds seem to be some soundtrack music – opera, other film scores, and the song “Be-Bop-A-Lula” all make appearances – some occasional sound effects, and in one lengthy sequence, there is what sounds like someone reading a parody of advertising copy for a brand of lipstick. That narration accompanies a lengthy sequence of the entire cast sprawling around and putting on lipstick for a solid two or three minutes, before the shot is finally interrupted with another man’s voice asking:  “Is there lipstick that doesn’t come off when you suck cocks?”

For, yes – much of the film’s thrust (so to speak) seems to be creating sexually transgressive images. Much of the cast is in sexually ambiguous garb, or are clearly dressing in drag. And often, there are shots of nudity – closeups of a flaccid penis being fondled by a hand and then waggled at the camera, or closeups of a large breast getting the same treatment. Towards the end there are occasional tableaux of a topless woman lying down like an odalisque, facing the camera, as a man lying nearby presses her nipple with one of his fingertips. They don’t do anything further, they just….do that. There isn’t any actual sex, but sex is certainly suggested and mimed in several scenes.

…So it’s clear that Smith wanted to be sexually transgressive with this film; he wanted to play with gender conventions, especially as they were depicted in mainstream culture, and he wanted to turn them on their heads. But there’s one scene that…well, let’s just say that it landed a bit different for me these days. In an early scene, a woman dressed somewhat akin to a Spanish flamenco dancer is chased by a man dressed as a sheikh; when he catches her, they flirt for a couple seconds, but then he suddenly pushes her to the ground, and three other men crowd around to simulate gang-raping her as she screams and beats at them with a folded fan. It’s not “really” sex; there’s a fake staginess to the whole thing. But it goes on for a long time, and the woman’s screams as one man licks her kicking foot and another yanks a breast out of her dress are the only sounds we hear.

I watched this film two days after the highest court in my nation decided to strip me of some of my rights as an American Citizen. I am both an American and a woman by happenstance of birth; my constitution claims that I am entitled to several rights and freedoms. One such right is the right to bodily autonomy; including the right to consult with my own doctor, in privacy, about any medical procedure I may need. However, this court ruling has decreed that some of those rights can be taken away from me.

I personally will not be at risk through the outcome of this case. I live in one of the states which still protects reproductive rights; and, moreover, I am no longer capable of becoming pregnant anyway. But in the aftermath of the announcement, several politicians and other conservative leaders already started speaking of what they were going to do next; one politician even tweeted that the court should also look at the ruling which found that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional. One of the justices even mentioned, in his commentary supporting the ruling, that perhaps the Supreme Court should also reconsider the historic rulings which confirmed the rights to access to contraception, to consensual sexual activity outside of marriage, and the right to same-sex marriage.

Even more frustrating, though, was the response from many of the more liberal politicians – who started flooding every American with pleas for donations, urging us to give them money so they could beat back against the ruling somehow. The pleas left a sour taste in many mouths; news of this possible ruling was leaked nearly two months ago, and many of the leaders I voted for to preserve my rights largely did nothing. One young woman, when asked for her comments about the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling, was highly critical both of the ruling and of the left-wing response; “my rights are not a fundraising platform for you,” she angrily said.

My rights aren’t either. Nor are they conditional. Nor are they meant to be used to create an “edgy” moment in an experimental film. I know Jack Smith may not have had ill intent, but it will be a long, long time before I see it as anything else.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

8-1⁄2  (1963)

So I…think I may need to revisit this later. Apologies for the long silence – I kept meaning to give this film a rewatch, as I kept feeling I had missed some things, but that may take too long to coordinate; best not to leave you hanging.

The plot I understood just fine. Marcello Mastroianni is “Guido Anselmi”, a renowned Italian filmmaker at work on a sci-fi piece. At least, he’s supposed to be – he’s hit a creative wall, and is unable to finish casting the film or writing the screenplay, to the great consternation of the producers and investors on the project. In an effort to dodge them and concentrate to get some work done, he’s escaped to a tony health spa, dragging a movie critic friend (Jean Rougeul) along to help him with the screenplay.

But that plan blows up when the producer also books the whole rest of the production team there so they’ll be “ready” when Anselmi is. And then the critic hates everything about Anselmi’s existing script. And then Anselmi’s mistress Carla (Sandra Milo) turns up, hoping to either hook up with Anselmi or get a part in the film – or both. Soon after Anselmi’s estranged wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée) also shows up, with some of her friends, to watch the whole show crash and burn. Anselmi is all too happy to procrastinate on the film with either Carla or Luisa, but he keeps fantasizing about an Ideal Woman – and then meets her, in the form of aspiring actress Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) who turns up towards the end. Anselmi begs her to take a part – but Claudia senses that Anselmi has a lot going on in his personal life, and is uncertain; is Anselmi really trying to make a film, or is he just trying to hide from reality?

It’s an interesting enough story – the part that brought me up short is in the telling. Federico Fellini starts to step away from his prior realistic approach here, and includes a lot of sequences hinting at Anselmi’s inner turmoil – dream sequences, memories, sometimes a mix of both. In the opening sequence, Anselmi is flying through the air above a beach until his producers lasso him and pull him back down to earth. In another lengthy sequence, he is back in his father’s country villa, Lord Of The Manor, and overseeing a harem made up of all the women in his life – Luisa, Clara, Claudia, and a number of other lovers and crushes – who fawn over him for several minutes until one woman leads a sort of revolt and they collectively throw him out.

Some viewers were baffled by these sequences, and found it hard to tell which sequences were “really happening” and which were Anselmi’s fantasy. I could usually figure it out – but the whole film was so visually rich, I feel like those sequences were loaded with nuance that might enhance the story even more if I caught it.

I’ll likely put that rewatch off until later, but I am definitely intrigued enough to do so.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Shock Corridor (1963)

This one felt weird. Not because of the subject matter itself, and not because it took an experimental approach – quite the opposite, in fact, it was a lower-budget film that stuck so close to earlier conventions it felt like a throwback. But about midway through it went in some different funky directions and felt almost like the director had shoehorned a couple different short documentaries into this piece to fill things out – and made it work.

It starts out in a very film noir style. Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is an ambitious journalist looking for The Story That Will Make Him Big. He hears about an unsolved murder in a psychiatric hospital, and comes up with a scheme to Play Mad so he can get committed, leaving him free to investigate the murder, crack the case, and write a Pulitzer-worthy article. He enlists a psychiatrist, Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn), to coach him in how to sell his case, and enlists his very reluctant girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) to play his sister and file a police complaint accusing him of attempted incest. Cathy still sells her case, and so does Johnny, and in short order he is committed to the very psych ward where the murder took place. Spurred on by his Pulitzer dreams, Barrett easily keeps up his act, even when coping with unexpected and baffling hurdles like a roommate who sings opera all night (Larry Tucker) or getting attacked by a ward full of nymphomaniacs.

He also seeks out and bonds with the three witnesses to the murder in question – and this is where the film gets really interesting. The three witnesses are Stuart (James Best), who thinks he’s Confederate Army General Jeb Stuart; Trent (Hari Rhodes), a young black man who thinks he’s in the Ku Klux Klan; and Boden (Gene Evans), a former scientist who has regressed to the mental and emotional age of a kindergartener. In each case, Barrett first tries drawing them into more general conversation, to kind of bring them “back to reality” a bit so he can then ask them about the murder.

And while that did feel facile – Stuart and Trent’s “breakthroughs” seemed awfully convenient – the roots of all three men’s madness became a fascinating window on the anxieties of the 60s. Stuart had been brainwashed into working for the Communists during the Korean War, and was in turn ordered to brainwash another American POW – but was in turn “deprogrammed” by that prisoner, sent home by the Soviets and reviled as a traitor, which triggered his delusions. Trent, meanwhile, had been one of a handful of students sent to desegregate a college in Mississippi and cracked under the relentless pressure. Boden’s own madness seemed strangely deliberate – he had been pivotal to the development of nuclear weapons, and was so horror-struck and guilt-ridden by his contributions that he regressed to a childlike state.

There’s also the usual noir-ish melodramatic stuff going on – Barrett trying to hold on to his own sanity while playing mad, Cathy wringing her hands outside and fretting about her sweetheart’s safety, and the actual murder mystery itself. But compared to the scenes with Stuart, Trent, and Boden, the rest of the film almost feels secondary. The three witnesses’ stories even briefly use color footage to represent their own flashbacks and recollections, while the rest of the film is in moody black and white.

This approach made for a serious shift in my response about midway through – before we met any of the witnesses, I was getting ready to write this film off as a B-movie noir throwback, but now I see it as a scrappy indie filmmaker’s Comment On The Times.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Birds (1963)

I have seen bits of this Hitchcock classic before. And then, as now, there is one small detail which still rubs me the wrong way – but I’ll save that for the end. Because there’s a good deal else about the film which is similarly odd, but somehow works.

The script is a weird hybrid – it starts out as a romantic drama, but then takes a hard left into an environmental disaster story. Socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) are the “lovebirds”, so to speak – ironically meeting when Brenner enters a San Francisco pet shop to get lovebirds for his kid sister. Daniels is already there in search of her own pet. Brenner – a prosecuting attorney – has an existing grudge against Daniels, the high-spirited daughter of a media mogul who uses Daddy’s money to buy her way out of trouble (and the public eye) when she does things like break picture windows or jump into the Trevi Fountain. Since Daniels dismisses her hijinks as “pranks”, Brenner decides to pull his own prank on her – pretending to mistake her for a pet store employee and grilling her with questions about bird behavior for a few minutes before calling her out and then leaving.

Instead of being ashamed or confounded, though, Daniels is intrigued – and decides to step up the prank war. Since Brenner left without his lovebirds, Daniels buys them – using Daddy’s connections at the newspaper to find Brenner’s whereabouts – and sets off for the small town of Bodega Bay to the north, where Brenner’s on a visit for his sister’s birthday. She rents a boat so she can sneak in from the back and “mysteriously” leave the lovebirds. But Brennan spots her as she leaves and races to the boathouse in town to meet her there. …So he’s watching as she’s approaching the dock, and sees when a seagull swoops out of the sky and bites her on the head.

Brennan leaps to the rescue, cleaning her up in the local diner and insisting she come to dinner that night and stay in town overnight to recover. Why, she can even stay with his ex-girlfriend Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), the town schoolteacher. Brennan’s sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), dazzled by her surprise lovebirds, also asks Daniels if she can stay for Cathy’s birthday party the next day, an impulsive invitation which Mitch and Mitch’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) grudgingly accept. Daniels is just as dubious as Lydia, but agrees to the invitation; so she’s there when another gull dive-bombs Annie’s front door later that evening, and when a flock of crows starts attacking the kids at Cathy’s party the next day. And when Lydia discovers their neighbor, a chicken farmer, has been pecked to death.

This is where all the really memorable stuff about the film kicks in, as the rest of the town notices the birds are acting really weird and scramble to figure out what to do. And this is where Hitchcock’s work really starts to shine – there’s the slow build of suspense when Daniels, sitting on a park bench, is oblivious to a whole flock of crows gradually building on the fence behind her. Or the fantastic sequence where Daniels and Brennan are crowded in the diner, discussing the latest attack, and everyone present has their own unique reaction – the nervous mother frets over her kids, the birdwatcher tuts about the fuss (“their brain pans are not big enough for a massed attack like you say”), and the town drunk keeps quoting apocalyptic passages from the Book of Ezekiel. Or the chaos when a bunch of birds do attack a group of kids trying to sneak away from school and get to safety.

Again, this film isn’t perfect – but very few of the “flaws” bothered me. Hitchcock leaves it an open question as to the cause of the birds’ sudden attacks, save for a few throwaway comments in that diner scene suggesting that it’s revenge for eons of mistreatment. But…that didn’t bother me, nor did the vague ending, where Daniels joins the Brennans in a drive off to an uncertain future. The special effects fall a bit short, but only when you compare them to 21st-Century technology; in the climactic scene where Daniels is cornered by hordes of gulls and crows, there’s some obvious use of double-exposure work, and it looks like Hedren is being pecked by handpuppets once or twice. But Hitchcock only used those kinds of “action” shots sparingly, preferring to stick to either the aftermath or to the power of suggestion, which always makes things all the creepier. Hitchcock’s masterful use of suspense and his close read of human nature also more than make up for it.

But trying to be “creepy” may have led Hitchcock to make the one choice that nagged at me. Hitchcock did away with music in the film almost entirely and went all-in on the sound effects; but instead of using actual recordings of bird calls, Hitchcock enlisted the German composer Oskar Sala to generate a lot of otherworldly noises on the trautonium, an early synthesizer. And they were indeed otherworldly – so much so that they didn’t sound like they could possibly have been made by birds, and that distracted me from the movie at a couple of pivotal moments. I grant that’s a small nit to pick – but can’t help but think that a little more verisimilitude with the bird sounds would have terrified me so much more.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

O Pagador de Promessas (1962)

In 1960s Brazil, a poor farmer named Zé (Leonardo Villar) is desperate when his favorite donkey falls ill. He makes a vow to his patron saint, Saint Barbara, that if his donkey recovers, he will give half his land to the poor, and then make a cross and donate it to her cathedral in Bahia, thirty miles away. Miraculously, his donkey recovers, and Zé makes good on his word, carrying the cross on foot the whole way with his wife Rosa (Glória Menezes) walking alongside. They reach the steps of the cathedral where Zé explains himself to the pastor (Dionísio Azevedo), adding that he brought the cross to her cathedral because St. Barbara didn’t have a church any closer to where he lived.

But when the bemused pastor asks Zé why he didn’t just bring the cross to the church where he made that promise in the first place, Zé admits that he hadn’t gone to a church. Instead – he went to a local Candomblé meeting, and made that promise to the idol of Yansan there, because he’d heard that Saint Barbara and Yansan were kind of the same thing. So surely that must count, right?….The pastor, scandalized, disagrees strongly, and refuses to let Zé into the church. But Zé is a devotee of Saint Barbara and will not go back on his promise to her. So he sits down to wait, telling anyone in the gathering crowd his story and gathering a lot of attention in the process – and not always from people who understand his mission.

This would make for a good double-feature with Billy Wilder’s Ace In the Hole. Both stories have a lot to say about what happens when a small misunderstanding goes “viral”, with everyone responding not to the actual facts of the situation, but rather to their own perception of it – and maybe exploiting it for their own ends. A reporter (Othon Bastos) hears that Zé gave some of his land to the poor and dubs him a Communist in favor of land law reform. The local Candomblé practitioners see him as a champion for their own rights. The capoeira team sees the growing crowd as a captive audience for their performances, just like the local café owner who’s making bank off beer and coffee orders. And the local pimp (Geraldo Del Rey) senses that the tired, fed-up Rosa might be easily lured to his side with the promise of a hotel room to stay in, rather than sleeping on the church steps like Zé’s doing.

But where Ace In The Hole focuses on one of the people exploiting the situation, O Pagador de Promessas focuses on the heart of the storm – the innocent and faithful Zé, who’s got a simple and straightforward mission and doesn’t understand why people won’t let him do it. He doesn’t care anything about land reform, he has no opinion either way about Candomblé or capoeira – all he wants to do is bring his cross into the church, because he promised Saint Barbara he would. What’s the big deal?

The screenplay is sharp, but I was particularly impressed by a couple of lovely wordless sequences as well. Zé has timed his mission to coincide with Saint Barbara’s feast day, and the church has already planned a celebratory parade through town, with worshippers carrying their statue of Saint Barbara at the front. After the parade, as they reach the steps and start climbing, Zé picks up his cross and falls in alongside them, gazing up at the statue’s face. And for several seconds we see, in turn, shots of the awestruck Zé gazing up at the statue – alternated with shots of the statue’s own lifeless face. The statue isn’t alive and can’t look back. But Zé still follows her all the way to the door of the church, stopping only when the priest once again angrily turns him back.

Another sequence was even more expertly done. After giving into the pimp for one night, a guilt-stricken Rosa rushes back to Zé’s side and begs him to just give up and take her home. But Zé is stubbornly digging in on his cause – and the pimp has all the time in the world to hover on the edges of the crowd where Rosa can see him, all casual-like, so she can find him if she wants to come have another go. And at one point, she does step away from Zé towards the pimp – but then hesitates, looking back and forth between Zé and the pimp. But instead of just watching Rosa look between them – we also see the café owner and his buddy watching the whole scene, with the shots alternating between them looking at Rosa and then following her gaze as she looks between the two men. Rosa’s having a crisis of conscience – but the café owner sees it as just part of the whole spectacle.

O Pagador de Promessas has thus far been the only Brazilian film to earn the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.