Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Winner Is Everybody!

So you're no longer reading the Criterion Contraption, a blog by Matthew Dessem. Say hello to the award-winning Criterion Contraption, an award-wining blog by award-winning blogger Matthew Dessem. That's right; thanks to your votes, the Criterion Contraption was named the Best Cult Blog in the www.totalfilm.com Movie Blog Awards, 2009. The official award logo will be up as soon as I'm back at a computer with Photoshop, but in the meantime, this will do:

Thanks for your votes! Next up: Kwaidan.

Friday, January 16, 2009

It's An Honor Not To Make The Obligatory Joke About It Being An Honor To Be Nominated

The Criterion Contraption has been nominated for a Totalfilm.com 2009 Movie Blog Award in the "Cult" category. So shave your heads, dear readers, and let's get ready for that sweet, sweet flying saucer to heaven. I'll make kool-aid. In any event, I'm currently running a respectable second place. With seven votes. If you'd like to be lucky number eight, you can vote here, until January 25.

As long as you're going to Total Film anyway, I recommend their roundup of the 17 worst movie posters of 2009. They're based in the UK,1 so I hadn't even seen some of the posters.

1Which raises the question of how their readers could watch Criterion Collection DVDs anyway...

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

#89: Sisters

Sisters, 1973, directed by Brian De Palma, screenplay by Brian De Palma and Louisa Rose, story by Brian De Palma.

When is a travesty not a travesty?

When it's a De Palma movie.

Actually, the right answer is when the travesty succeeds on the same terms as its model, no matter how over-the-top and exaggerated it is. That's what makes Starship Troopers a parody of dumb action movies and an effective summer blockbuster; that's what keeps the soundtrack to This Is Spinal Tap on the shelves. And that's what makes Sisters so enjoyable to watch, even if it's a travesty of Psycho: it's also creepy and suspenseful in its own right. Here's Brian De Palma on his obvious debt to Hitchcock, circa 1973:

I have found that people who like and are knowledgeable about Hitchcock also like Sisters—they know the references I am making to his films and they seem to appreciate it all the more for that. Which is good, because you could so easily be attacked as a tawdry Hitchcock rip-off.

The question isn't whether or not Sisters is a tawdry Hitchcock rip-off, the question is, why does De Palma think that's an attack? Sisters is certainly tawdry: it's about siamese twins, one of whom has the unfortunate habit of stabbing men in the crotch with a chef's knife.

And it may be that De Palma learned to hide his debt to Hitch a little better as he got older, but Sisters contains entire sequences lifted entirely from Rope, Rear Window, and most obviously Psycho. He even got Bernard Herrmann to score it. So a Hitchcock rip-off: sure. But that doesn't mean this nasty little movie isn't a lot of fun.

"Fun" is not the same thing as "subtle," though, and anyone looking for a delicate touch would be well advised to steer clear. The first sequence isn't from Hitchcock, but from Penthouse Letters: Lisle Wilson plays a man changing clothes in the locker room when a blind woman stumbles in the wrong door and starts undressing. As luck would have it, that blind woman is Margot Kidder, who has somehow managed to combine nurse and schoolgirl fetishwear in one outfit:

"I never thought it would happen to me..." But Penthouse Letters wasn't racially charged; and remember, this is 1973: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination was more recent than September 11th is today; the Boston bussing riots were still to come. Just as things are getting interesting, we pull back to reveal that we're watching a game show called "Clumsily Implicate the Viewer":

The show answers a pressing question we all face, many times a day: "What does a fella do when a pretty girl starts taking off ALL HER CLOTHES, right there in front of him?" It turns out the woman is an actress; the man is the victim of a Candid Camera type setup. The host introduces the couple (Philip and Danielle) to the audience and to each other and gives them their fabulous prizes: a set of cutlery for her:

And a free meal at an appropriate restaurant for him.

Danielle asks to come along for his dinner, and it is here that De Palma strays from the admirable subtlety he's displayed thus far. Here's the first shot of the restaurant's interior.

And in case that wasn't obvious enough, here's one from a little later:

Won't someone protect our vulnerable white women?

This is the point where you expect to hear someone behind you in the theater whisper "Perfectly dreadful!" in a voice that's just a little too loud. So, as with Wes Anderson, Caveat Emptor; you have to have a particular sensibility (in this case, a taste for over-the-top exploitation) or this won't be any fun for you. If that's your bag, though, De Palma has all kinds of sick sideshow pleasures in store. There's William Finley as Danielle's ex-husband, the sallowest man in the world:

There's Philip's fatal mistake; not that he has sex with Margot Kidder, but that he decides to buy her and her sister a birthday cake:

There's the fake red paint and bad prosthetics only found in the very best exploitation films:

There's an imaginitive use of split-screen while William Finley cleans up the murder scene as the police draw near, like the grossest Mr. Clean ad ever made:

There's a mini-version of Rope that makes imaginative use of a sleeper sofa:

And that's not even the best Hitchcock recreation in the film. That award goes to De Palma's version of Rear Window, where the role of Grace Kelly:

Is played by (who else?):

Charles Durning!

All that and I haven't even talked about the bulk of the film or introduced the main character, an intrepid girl reporter named Grace Collier, played by Jennifer Salt.

Her defining characteristic is a complete inability to get anyone in the world to take her at all seriously. Her mom is trying to marry her off to a veterenarian's assistant, her career has stalled ("I'm having lunch tomorrow with an 80-year-old ex-con who's just carved an entire replica of the Danbury Penetentiary out of soap," she complains) and her editor won't let her investigate the murder she's witnessed without hiring a private detective to babysit. Her counterargument in its entirety is "I know karate!" so you can kind of see where he's coming from; still, making her ride around in a van with Charles Durning solving mysteries seems a bit excessive.

There's no talking dog, at least. Anyway, cataloguing the film like a freakshow makes it seem like a much worse movie than it is, because here's the thing: for all its crudeness, just about all of this movie works. The split-screen cleaning sequence is stylish, well-made, and tense; as much as De Palma telegraphs his surprise ending, there are still some twists that aren't predictable, and De Palma brings some things to the table Hitchcock didn't. A darker sense of humor, for one thing: not just morbid but politically charged. And a taste for squick. It's hard to imagine that North by Northwest or To Catch a Thief would have been improved by adding Robert Melvin, the Man with Two Faces or Sealo the Seal Boy to the cast, but they're right at home in Sisters.

The optical effect used in that shot is a low-budget version of the central effect in Dead Ringers—I think Cronenberg owes De Palma more than is usually acknowledged. They share a Swiftian disgust at the body, and Cronenberg is the only other director I can imagine finding quite so much monstrosity in the Lennart Nilsson photographs that run over the opening credits.

There's a complicated case you can make for Sisters as an exploration of voyeurism and Nabokovian twinning, as Bruce Kawin does here, but I think any such argument is going to be more complex and elegant than the film itself. It may be the case that De Palma's later work either justifies or requires that kind of defense; I haven't seen any of his other movies in years. De Palma himself seems to have bought that hype: about ten years after making Sisters, he told Martin Amis, "I use Hitchcock’s grammar but I have a romantic vision that’s more sweeping and Wagnerian." Well, none of that sweeping Wagnerian romance is on display in Sisters: it's a blunt instrument through and through, despite its gleaming knives and scalpels. Finding depth beneath its surfaces is gilding the lily, so long as you accept that the lily is a crude, blunt, sick, and terrifically fun exploitation film. Here's to tawdry Hitchcock rip-offs.


  • De Palma, one-time science fair winner, comes at film from a perspective that's pretty alien to an English major/screenwriter like myself ("Unfortunately, most movies derive from a literary rather than a visual intent"). This probably explains why so few of his characters are three-dimensional. But it also means that there are a few scenes that would never work on the page, but succeed on film for strictly visual reasons. Here's one of the best: De Palma opens with this framing of Jennifer Salt being questioned by a police detective.

    She answers his questions kind of robotically, and then the camera starts tracking left:

    Go ahead: try to write that joke out on the page in a way that's as creepy as the filmed version.

  • De Palma got the idea for Sisters from a Life magazine article about Masha and Dasha Krivoshlyopova, Soviet cojoined twins. Here's the picture that got De Palma thinking:

    One of the twins looks relatively happy, the other, relatively insane. It pretty much writes itself from there!

  • De Palma tells the following story about working with Bernard Herrmann. After screening a rough cut, Herrmann complained:
    "Nothing happens in this movie for forty minutes!" And I said, "Yes, that's the idea. There is a slow beginning—you know, like Psycho, where the murder doesn't happen until about 40 minutes into the picture." And he shouted at me, "YOU are not Hitchcock; for Hitchcock they will WAIT!"

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Quick Personal Note

Many of you have been wondering where I've been—thank you for those of you who wrote with concern or just telling me I should get back in front of the computer. The short answer is I've been all over: I got a new job, a new apartment, some new furniture, wrote a couple of new screenplays, and on and on. Today is the first day that I've had a reliable internet connection that wasn't at my office since early December. And there may be worse places to try to write about movies than an office cubicle, but I've never been to them. But now I'm back, and here's the thing: the new place has space for me to write. So as soon as I get settled and stop living out of boxes, expect the pace to pick up. It's about goddamned time, right? Happy New Year to you all.

#88: Ivan the Terrible - Parts I & II

Ivan the Terrible, 1945–1946, written and directed by Sergei Eisenstein.

I was wrong about Sergei Eisenstein. What I'd seen of his work had led me to believe he was only of historical interest: a master of technical innovations that have since been so thoroughly absorbed into cinematic grammar that they no longer seem remarkable. The person who invented the wheel undoubtedly changed the world of transportation forever, but that doesn't mean you'd like to spend two hours cruising along in Caveman Ug's first cart. Watching Ivan the Terrible was a bit like discovering that, just before he died, Caveman Ug also built a Ferarri. So: I was wrong about Sergei Eisenstein. The Ivan the Terrible films are masterpieces.

Not all masterpieces are things you want to see every weekend, however, and I'd recommend not popping these in when you're looking for a bit of lighthearted fun. Ivan the Terrible is a claustrophobic nightmare, the biopic reimagined as horror film by way of Disney and German Expressionism. Usually when someone says "You've never seen anything like this!" they really mean, "I haven't seen any of the hundreds of similar films, and I'm hoping you haven't either!" I'm as guilty of that as anyone, but I'll say with some confidence that you've never seen anything like the Ivan the Terrible films. They don't seem to have been made by the director of Alexander Nevsky. Actually, they don't seem to have been made on this planet. The first adjective that comes to mind is diseased. Most viewers won't make it through the long, slow opening scene. That's a shame, because the second adjective that comes to mind is indispensable. There are more insightful films about the way power corrodes those who would wield it, or the dangers of giving oneself away to an abstract idea, or even Russia and other totalitarian regimes. But there's something about these two films; they burrow into your head and stay there. And I do mean burrow; the movement of the film is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into. Every frame the film advances moves its characters closer to a point of absolute malignant stasis. And in virtually every scene, Eisenstein undercuts the traditional tropes of heroic biography, creating one of the most unsettling movies ever made.

The first scene is as good an example as any; Ivan, Prince of Moscow, is being crowned Tsar of All Russias. It's a giant set piece of imperialistic pageantry, and Ivan, wearing the crown for the first time in his life, looks as idealistic and regal as we'll ever see him. It doesn't hurt that he's being portrayed by Nikolai Cherkasov, who audiences would be primed to think of as a straightforward hero, thanks to Alexander Nevsky.

This scene is in dozens of movies, in one form or another. But Eisenstein keeps cutting away from the ceremony to reaction shots of the crowd, of which a few examples will suffice. Notice how carefully composed these images are; the only other film I can think of where every shot is so visually striking is The Passion of Joan of Arc:

Beautiful photography, all in the service of making a viewer ill at ease. I'll go ahead and say it: this movie will make you paranoid. Or in my case, even more paranoid. Even Mikhail Nazvanov's Andrei Kurbsky, nominally one of Ivan's close friends, seems less than pleased by the ceremony.

Eisenstein doesn't give us any context for these disconnected shots of malice and contempt at first, just plunges us into Ivan's landmine filled court. Ivan seems pretty indifferent to the hostility that surrounds him; he just stares off into the distance in the manner of someone who's above it all. Which is literally true, naturally. His first speech at the coronation ceremony has three main planks: he's going to end the "pernicious power of the boyars," he's forming a standing army and giving citizens a choice between conscription and taxation, and he's ending the church's tax-exempt status. Yep: it's basically how Hugh Hewitt imagines Obama's Inaugural Address. The point is not the specifics of his platform, so much as the fact that he's immediately asking his citizenry to sacrifice in the name of the Russian State. You can see in his eyes that he's the kind of person who dedicates himself to noble goals. Or at least that's what he tells himself. We get to see one more moment of pomp and circumstance for Ivan, his wedding to Anastasia Romanovna.

Once again, Ivan is surrounded by people who aren't even trying to conceal their contempt for him, with one exception, his cousin Vladimir Staritsky. Vlad doesn't have an evil bone in his body, mostly because he's a complete moron. Here, he's yelling "Kiss her!" to Ivan, with a mouth full of food.

Naturally, Vladimir is the patsy that the boyars want to put on the throne in Ivan's place. They're led by his charming mother Efrosinia, played by Serafima Birman as almost comically untrustworthy.

Ivan's wedding ends in classic Russian style: Moscow is burned to the ground, the peasantry storm his castle, Kazan declares war on Russia, and Ivan leads an army off to war. Presumably, the royal wedding planners were all beheaded. From here on out, everything moves downhill and inward, although the early scenes are actually relatively open and broad. The battle of Kazan features some large-scale exteriors that are positively sweeping:

Of course, what we're seeing there are the artillery and troops led by Kurbsky. The battle is won because Ivan relies, instead, on a team of sappers:

As elsewhere in the film, it's all about digging in. The leader of the sappers is one Malyuta Skuratov, who begins the film as a bit of a dunce, a man of vigorous passions and actions; he's always doing things like wiping the sweat off his brow, or enthusiastically rallying people to Kazan:

Ivan senses potential in Malyuta's dumb obeisance before power, and promptly employs him to run his intelligence-gathering operations. The work isn't good for his working-class vigor; by halfway through the first film, he moves through the courts like a wraith, just taking everything in.

Note that only one eye is in the frame: long before Sauron, Eisenstein had figured out the sinister effects of disembodied eyes.

I suppose living in a surveillance state makes one particularly sensitive to questions of observation, particularly when you're making a movie about another surveillance state. Eisenstein takes every opportunity to shoot his characters with one eye obscured, using props, costumes, and lighting to make cyclopean monsters of his cast.

The shots don't seem to have any significance to the film's internal mechanics: a one-eyed shot doesn't have much relation that I could see to a character's moral status at that point in the film. Instead, the cyclops shots are just a pervasive image that Eisenstein goes back to again and again, heightening the paranoia the films are steeped in. It's worth mentioning at this point that one of Ivan's signature achievements was the creation of the Oprichniki, Russia's first secret police squad. They're led by Malyuta, and they get the same faraway look in their eyes Ivan does when he talks about the Russian State. Here's Fyodor Basmanov, a representative sample:

He's looking pretty happy for someone whose father has just disowned him so he can join the Oprichniki. In the Ivan films (as in life), anytime someone's looking off into the distance, you'd be well advised to stay the hell away from them. When you're looking long-term, a little bloodshed in the here and now isn't worth losing any sleep over. Here's the trifecta:

There's exactly one character who doesn't become more and more corrupt every time we see her, and the narrative treats her just about as kindly as Efrosinia does.

That's Lyudmila Tselikovskaya as Ivan's wife Anastasia, the only character who seems more or less blameless (though like all women in the film, she's been kept from any real power—but leave the question of virtue without agency for another post). Anyway: Anastasia is the film's repository for positive values. She doesn't make it out of the first movie. She asks Ivan for water; he finds a conveniently placed poisoned goblet, and that's that. Efrosinia is to blame, although it should be noted that Malyuta, the "Eye of the Tsar," is looking in exactly the wrong direction when Ivan finds the poison.

The problem with surrounding yourself with people who worship you is that they'll kill your wife (or do nothing to stop her murder) if they think it will bring the two of you closer. And Malyuta, it should be remembered, quite literally kneels at Ivan's feet panting and slavering like a dog.

Things just keep getting grimmer, more constricted, and above all more paranoid. By the opening of the second film, Eisenstein has abandoned any pretense that he's making a biopic. Kurbsky's betrayal of Ivan and surrender to the Poles pretty clearly takes place in some kind of homoerotic fairy tale, not sixteenth century Europe.

Eisenstein had originally planned for his film to open with the murder of Ivan's mother and a lengthy sequence of Ivan's rule as a child, manipulated by the boyars. Mosfilm told him he had to start with something uplifting (the coronation), so Eisenstein used the footage he'd shot in the second film, which is where it belongs. Like Kurbsky's surrender, it's from the world of fairy tales, where parents are lost and guardians are wicked.

The film works better by slowly degenerating into a fairy tale; starting there would have been a mistake. The may be the only instance of a Soviet bureaucrat making a decision that improved art. Except for one other: they gave Eisenstein some Agfacolor stock that the retreating German troops weren't using any more. So at just about exactly the time the film hits the bottom of its moral abyss, Eisenstein gets to use color. He rose to the occasion, and so did Prokofiev: "Dance of the Oprichniks" is the best part of the score. Ivan the Terrible, Part II is the only film besides The Producers to feature a showstopping musical number with a chorus line of mass murderers.

It's not played for laughs. Like Lolita, Ivan the Terrible is filled with "travesties of familial feeling" (Martin Amis's phrase), and Ivan's revels are no exception. Here's the dancer the choreography is built around:

Fyodor in a mask is a pretty obvious example, but Eisenstein goes so far as to create travesties of earlier scenes in his own film. In doing so, he asks more of viewers than most directors. It's impossible to overstate the sheer visual craftsmanship on display throughout these movies. When you see Vladimir—drunk to the point of stupefaction—rest his head on Ivan's lap:

You're meant to think of an earlier shot of Vladimir and Efrosinia:

But that shot was already a travesty of the Pietà. See what I mean about knotting into? Does Eisenstein go all the way back around to sincerity? Well, shortly after Vladimir passes out, we get this:

That looks an awful lot like Ivan as a boy, down to the eye movement; which doesn't bode well for Vladimir. Eisenstein's not done with the Pietà just yet.

Beyond the painstaking visual craftsmanship and the relentlessly self-devouring narrative structure, the staggering thing about Ivan the Terrible is that it's only two-thirds complete. What could Eisenstein possibly have done in the third film to continue Ivan's decline? Well, the historical Ivan beat one daughter-in-law into miscarrying, tried to rape the other, and bashed his son's skull in, so Eisenstein had room to play with. Or rather, he would have, if Stalin hadn't decided that perhaps Eisenstein's portrait of a diseased survelliance state and its batshit crazy, megalomaniacal autocrat wasn't the kind of Russian mythmaking he was aiming for. But even incomplete, Ivan the Terrible is an unqualified masterpiece, a perfect union of form and function. Every scene, every shot, every frame presents a unified vision of humanity in which everyone is a jackal, an imbecile, or both. Happy New Year, everybody!


  • Ivan the Terrible, Part II features probably the best subtitle in the entire Criterion Collection. I'm not really sure how this even happened:

  • Eisenstein had clearly given some thought to the question of how to make the third film even more unsettling than the last, as a few surviving fragments make clear. For one thing, he'd cast Mikhail Romm, then the chairman of the Film Union, in the role of Queen Elizabeth. Cate Blanchett eat your heart out.

    I think it's safe to assume that Ivan the Terrible, Part III would have been as unnerving as its predecessors.