- The Burning Hell / 1974, dir. Ron Ormond
With a name like “Estus Pirkle,” it has to be good.
I know that the civilized thing to do with a movie like this is to laugh it off, and the movie gives us opportunities to do exactly that. The makeup on some of these people, done by Ron Ormond’s then-wife June Carr, is very silly; some of the work on lesser demons reminded me of this Halloween safety video I am just old enough to have gotten in an assembly at public school. Speaking of Halloween, basically every opportunity they get in The Burning Hell to put people with those educated Deep South accents into some kind of costume meant to signify “B.C. Israelite” is just spectacularly strange. I remember reading about Dathan and Abiram and Korah in my McGee and Me Bible as a little kid and being captivated by the savagery of the story, the way that these people were simply swallowed up by the earth for challenging Moses and thus transitively challenging God. Even if the actors all looked and sounded kind of like Robert Duvall, the seriousness of the performances makes them linger. After all, it’s not as if Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, and John Carradine exemplified the look and sound of the Israelites either.
My movie history isn’t perfect, but this scene from the end of the 1956 The Ten Commandments has to be the most famous filmic interpretation of this event; in fact, I can’t think of another movie that tries to show it that’s not a DeMille Ten Commandments, either this or the one from the 1920s. In DeMille’s work, this is about finally getting rid of Dathan, long a thorn in Moses’s side, and an opportunity to showcase some glorious special effects yet again. It’s not Biblical in the way that The Burning Hell makes the event Biblical, since DeMille is mostly looking for a dramatic conclusion to this chapter of a famously long movie and Pirkle is looking for an object lesson about people being sent directly to Hell from once-steady surface of the earth. The Burning Hell focuses far more on human bodies (mercifully, we can tell they didn’t actually drop real people wherever they were dropping those bundles in costume) descending. Flame and smoke are part of the Ormond vision, but what rises up from beneath that all-too-thin crust is far less important than how we descend to it. Calling The Burning Hell a horror movie, which I know is how it’s often classified, is insufficient to describing what this movie is after. At one point in the film, Pirkle addresses a common critique of fire and brimstone ministers like himself. People say that you’re just trying to scare them into conversion, he says in more words than that. And not only does he not deny that charge, he says the ministerial equivalent of “Well, duh.” If you genuinely did believe in a Hell like this, and believed in this literal Hell down to the description of maggots, and believed that the parable about Lazarus and the rich man was a literal event, then like…that’s scary. Of course you would use this fear to try to bring people into the big tent, because if you really believed in this kind of Hell you would not want people to end up there. I was impressed with this aspect of Pirkle’s sermon, which is rhetorically tricky to pull off. He himself is terrified of the idea of Hell, which he’ll drop in quietly from time to time, but he’s not scared of it for himself. Hell is terrifying to him as a real place even if no one will ever make him go there, and that secondhand fear definitely comes across in a movie that I can’t imagine making rifftrax for.
- The Outfit / 2022, dir. Graham Moore
What makes The Outfit a perfectly anonymous movie is its insistence that its central character cannot be perfectly anonymous.
I’ve decided that barring some other ideas or whims, my general tack in this situation would be to go back and see what I’d watched on such a non-movie day in previous years, when, presumably, I would have watched something.
Goes downhill real quick after 2018! In fairness, the 2018 slate was delightful. The Adventures of Prince Achmed will turn 100 in a few years, and there’s a good argument to be made that no animated film has ever been so original. The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I’m afraid, will be the last movie that Lanthimos makes that isn’t understood best as Oscarbait—the daughter without use of her legs pulling herself by her arms downstairs is probably not one of the ten most disturbing things about Sacred Deer, but it’d be far and away the most unpleasant thing about The Favourite—but what a conclusion it draws to that stage of his career. I went into Jesus of Montreal and Age of Consent alike with high hopes and walked away from both really disillusioned. Jesus of Montreal oughta apologize to Jesus and Montreal alike for putting their names in the title of a movie that cluelessly smug; Age of Consent is proof that even Michael Powell could go to seed. To be totally honest, the January 13th movie I’ve enjoyed most from 2019 on is almost certainly Ant-Man, which was part of my chronological-to-the-MCU watch of late 2020 and early 2021. There are a lot of MCU stan favorites in my January 2021, including Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Civil War, but Ant-Man was the only one that felt anything like a breath of fresh air in that group. With the plot of a 7th Heaven arc (“Reverend Camden, I know I’ve done wrong and I’ve served my time for it. How can I get my daughter back?”) and the bones of actual comic timing (“That’s a messed up looking dog!”), I had some fun. Terminal Station, the film in this bunch I probably had the greatest anticipation for going in, is part of what’s turning into an ongoing war against Vittorio De Sica. It had all the possibilities of late-film Brief Encounter, which almost no film can say, but De Sica does not have the surgical control to rip your heart out in one big chunk the way David Lean had.
- Sing Street / 2016, dir. John Carney
My first rewatch of the year, which is very possibly why I was cranky about this movie while I was watching it. This is one I’ve seen a handful of times in the past few years, and since my first watch back in 2017 my perspective about the two characters slightly older than Conor, his brother Brendan and his One True Love Raphina, has flipped. In 2017 I really liked Brendan and thought that the movie’s heart, with all the sarcasm I can put into that word, came from him; I thought then that Raphina was a basically empty signifier who never really attained personhood. In 2023, I still like Jack Reynor in this even if I think the character is this film’s very small version of Lester Bangs. The example of the self-assured loser with an artistic sensibility is important in Almost Famous and Sing Street, but where Lester is a polestar, Brendan is just an algorithm. Do you feel like this? Listen to this. Do you feel this other way? Listen to this. Have you considered that rock is about risk-taking? On this watch, Raphina still doesn’t seem quite like a full-fledged person, and Sing Street is not any more interested in what might be going on in her head than it is interested with Eamon or Barry. What stands out instead is the honesty in a sixteen-year-old’s insistence that she’s actually an adult, an adulthood imbued with mystique not because there’s anything that arcane about adulthood but because a teenager who doesn’t know what grown-ups are like will assume there’s something hidden about attaining that status. Brendan’s early-twenties slacker faithfulness isn’t something I know much about, nor do I relate to Conor’s belief in himself as a protagonist in his own video game, shifting his costume from level to level. But I remember those girls from high school who acted like they had the whole world figured out as a hedge against their own doubts and insecurities.
- Walking the Streets of Moscow / 1964, dir. Georgiy Daneliya
A film by Rychard Karolovich Linklater, though not for the obvious reasons. Like Before Sunrise, it ends with two young people who have known each other for less than twenty-four hours separating at a train station; like Slacker, it exemplifies the energy of a specific place at a specific time simply through the exercise of impromptu walking tours. It’s in the film’s guiding principle, unstated here but spoken in Everybody Wants Some!!: “We’re here for a good time, not a long time.” In Linklater, especially as he gets older, that translates to a sentiment that we’re only young once. In Walking the Streets of Moscow, a movie about young men made by a director who wasn’t even thirty-five, there is very little ruefulness in that statement. The ephemeral is the focus, not some past youth. It’s a sunny day in Moscow, even though the shadow of the Great Patriotic War lingers on the young and the old alike. A grandmother looks at a picture of her several sons, who wore the hand-me-downs she made for them. They’re all dead. One character loses his temper a little bit with a common workman performing as a well-known writer when he appears to denigrate the sacrifice of the victorious dead. The three young men in the film are products of that missing generation. Kolya the laborer is carefree and fey, tacitly aware that each moment is an opportunity for play and that further moments of play are not guaranteed. Sasha the military call-up is nervous and unsure, someone who might have been merely ambivalent in a different time or place but in early ’60s Moscow he is fairly fraught. And Volodya, the budding prose stylist, believes in a personal poetry, guided like what guided Wordsworth. All this makes Walking the Streets of Moscow sound very serious when it’s not really all that heavy most of the time. Kolya is too goofy, too impetuous, too vulpine to ever let the film sink into some kind of self-regarding quicksand. It’s about being young and alive enough to survive a day of ambulatory silliness on forty-three minutes of sleep and still having time to sing a song to yourself on the escalator for the heck of it.