2023 Movie Diary (1/16-1/20): Heaven and Hell

January 16th

  • Soup for One / 1982, dir. Jonathan Kaufer
  • Crocodile Dundee / 1986, dir. Peter Faiman
  • The September Issue / 2009, dir. R.J. Cutler
  • Great Freedom / 2021, dir. Sebastian Meise

Jonathan Kaufer was a precocious guy in his mid-twenties when he wrote and directed Soup for One, and boy does this movie really feel like it’s the brainchild of a guy in his mid-twenties who saw Annie Hall a bunch when it came out. I don’t know that Soup for One has the kind of following to say that there’s a line on it, but if there is, it’s that this feels like Annie Hall worship. It’s bad worship, the kind of worship that Cain offered to God before he learned that God likes to see a little blood on the plate. (At one point Marcia Strassman calls Saul Rubinek’s Allan “Alvin,” which is either an enormous Freudian slip from Kaufer or a move that’s funny because of how much hubris it evinces.) Where Alvy Singer was self-loathing and goofy about it, Allan is merely bad at the whole sex thing. You can believe that Alvy’s humor and quiet murmuring, a white noise of deprecation, might actually work on some people. It’s impossible to believe that Allan’s attempts at spitting game can have any kind of positive effect on Maria, not least because all of them are just profoundly creepy. The movie’s attempts at sex-related jokes are puny in the extreme. As much as it’s fun to watch James Rebhorn (with hair!) complaining about an inferior product he’s trying to return to the stonefaced proprietor of the shop, the joke honestly gets less funny when it’s about him trying to return a whip sex toy. It’d be funnier watching him try to go back to a grocery store with a bruised mango than it is to watch him spout off some awfully contrived dialogue about a “cat o’ nine tails.” Kaufer got his start writing for Mork and Mindy, and I suppose it’s possible to see an episode of Mork and Mindy one wrote and say, “Gosh, I’m funny,” as long as one has absolutely no self-awareness and no concept of how funny Robin Williams could make anything.

Speaking of movies that I cannot find the humor in, Crocodile Dundee. When I was a freshman in college, Jersey Shore got big, and as a Jersey boy in South Carolina I found myself explaining over and over again that this was not, in fact, a good depiction of New Jersey, most of those people were not from New Jersey, Seaside Heights is not exactly the nicest place to go down the shore, etc. Crocodile Dundee is like Jersey Shore for Australia, and somehow it makes your Australian hanging around the Outback look like an even bigger idiot than the nationally hailed morons from Jersey Shore. Mick Dundee is an innocent, a man who has somehow never heard of cocaine or of prostitution, but he is also a worldly lover who woos fancy sheilas from Yankeeland. I don’t know who this is supposed to appeal to, precisely. It’s never interested in Australia’s land enough to be compelling on that front. Crocodiles are dispatched with well-placed knives and kangaroos have guns or something; it’s borderline fascinating to hear Mick explain the Aborigines with the same kind of reverent condescension that white people in this country save for demanding we keep team names like “Washington Redskins” and “Atlanta Braves” around. I dunno. Hogan is only charismatic compared to the other people acting around him, and even then it’s kind of a generous use of the word. The film isn’t shot in any interesting way. There’s literally nothing that this movie does that wasn’t done better by leaps and bounds and vine swings in George of the Jungle.

It just kept getting worse for me. The September Issue is utterly forgettable because it has no ambition. Anna Wintour, as I understood her before this documentary, is a tough person to work for who has become a monolith, and an occasionally unpredictable one, in her field. After watching this documentary, my general understanding of Wintour is that she’s a tough person to work for who is a monolith, occasionally unpredictable, in the fashion industry. The September Issue is not all that interested in trying to pry open this person who is ostensibly at the center of the film, and so it has to choose other targets (especially Grace Coddington, but also Thakoon, Andre Leon Talley, and a few others who flit in and out) in order to justify its existence. Coddington is actually a fairly interesting figure, but the movie still begins with Wintour, and returns to Wintour, and presents her as the center of this entire galaxy. Either the film is too awed and mystified by her to actually attempt to peel her back in any way that could educate someone who hadn’t seen The Devil Wears Prada, or it’s too dull to realize it’s not actually doing any analysis of its own. There’s this one moment in The September Issue where Wintour says that her siblings are involved in very obviously meaningful philanthropies, and they don’t really take her seriously. It’s the closest this movie comes to trying to find a person underneath Wintour, and yet this is such a shallow, rehearsed answer that it’s hard to grant it much seriousness. Wintour’s brilliance, as far as anyone in the film is concerned, is twofold. First, she realized that people would pick up Vogue if it had celebrities on the cover instead of models. Second, she has an aura of might that virtually everyone besides Coddington is struck down by. Surely the latter can’t just be from the former, but you’d never know it from The September Issue.

One of the hardest things to do in screenwriting—I say this not from personal experience in writing movies, so feel free to take that with a grain of salt—is writing surprise into a story without falling into certain traps of vulgarity or inanity. Surprise or shock is obviously valuable in a movie: “No, Luke, I am your father.” But there’s such balance that’s required in creating that kind of shock, and it’s one that, for better or worse, I blame movies like The Usual Suspects for destabilizing that balance. Does it really matter if Verbal Kint is Keyser Soze? Probably not, but it makes for a neato cool ending, and you can still hear the gasps when the uninitiated watch the movie. This is an example of mere inanity. Ditto a movie like Primal Fear, which doesn’t really gain anything from its twisty ending besides a twisty ending. On the other hand, there’s Dear Zachary, which uses shock irresponsibly, perhaps even entirely for the self-aggrandizement of the otherwise anonymous filmmaker Kurt Kuenne. Great Freedom has shocking moments within it. Viktor’s actual crime is hidden from us for the vast majority of the movie, long after we’ve assumed that he’s in there for drugs. The fact that Oskar is not just someone Hans met in prison. The reason why Hans has four months left on his sentence in 1945 out of an original eighteen. The use of the long darkness that signifies solitary confinement, and the way that time changes after it’s used. There’s nothing inane about those reveals, nothing amoral about their usage. Great Freedom is surprising over and over again, and in a film that we’d call a chamber piece if it weren’t set mostly in prison cells, that’s so welcome. Never does the surprise or shock detract from the volatile tenderness of the picture. Finding out that Viktor and Hans are both in for crimes related to sex only makes the through line between them bolder. Finding out that Hans and Oskar were together before they were imprisoned only makes losing Oskar all the more powerful. This is one of the great prison movies, a film I’d put closer to A Man Escaped and Le trou and Hunger than not. It amplifies the boredom of prison life. It amplifies the pointlessness of so much of being in jail. The fact that only hairstyles can prove the difference between 1945, 1957, and 1968 signifies the timelessness of prison, and in that timelessness lies the strength of Great Freedom. A person outside of time does not easily understand a person for whom time has meaning; a person for whom time has meaning is as likely to understand a person outside of time about as easily as one understands a sperm whale.

January 17th

  • The Believer’s Heaven / 1977, dir. Ron Ormond

People don’t really dig on The Believer’s Heaven. Not like they dig on The Burning Hell, necessarily, but as of the day I’m writing this, The Burning Hell has almost three times as many views on Letterboxd as its spiritual sequel. (If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?, the first of the three Pirkle-Ormond films, and one which I feel obligated to watch in order to get the whole set, has about as many views as The Burning Hell.) There’s a delightful irony in the way that so many non-Christians approach the Pirkleian (yeah, let’s coin a word together!) approach to Hell. It’s distasteful to so many non-Christians, whose gorges rise at this idea that Pirkleians would try to scare them into believing in their faith system. The polite way of putting this is something like, “If the idea is so good, then why don’t you talk about it on the merits rather than the downfalls of not belonging to your group?” The more direct way to put this involves a middle finger and more vocal scorn saved for lib campfires. But…The Burning Hell has three times as many views on Letterboxd as The Believer’s Heaven. Like it or not, people are more interested in Hell! Even if you don’t much care for being lectured about where you’re going to end up, you are more likely to listen to and remember that message. Wherever Estus Pirkle is now, whether it’s Heaven, Hell, or none of the above, I’m sure he knew during his lifetime that The Burning Hell would resonate more than The Believer’s Heaven. He just seems less interested in this stuff; his heart’s not really in the minute-to-minute expressions of how wonderful Heaven is compared to his vigor in describing how bad Hell must be. The stuff that’s accidentally funny in this movie is really funny. The incredibly literal version of what “mansions” are, compared to a mansion belonging to some other preacher(?!), complete with a video tour like Jackie Kennedy gave of the White House, is hysterical. The number of angels with sideburns is absolutely ludicrous. The beard they put on Abram is just so splendiferous that it would make those pagan Santas die of shame. And all of it is just sort of sad window-dressing for a Heaven that looks like that scene from Everything Everywhere All at Once where Stephanie Hsu is dressed like an everything bagel.

January 18th

  • The Devil’s Eye / 1960, dir. Ingmar Bergman
  • All These Women / 1964, dir. Ingmar Bergman

One of the most boring Film Twitter prompts is the “Which director has the best [four to five] movie stretch?” Speaking as someone who has tried (badly) to rank the one hundred best streaks in English, it’s an interesting subject more than it is an interesting prompt. (What’s your favorite Twitter guy, the one who instantly names Francis Ford Coppola or the guy who says, “People won’t think about this, but Rob Reiner.”) This one’s been done to death, but one I don’t see as often is, Which director had the best ten-year period? I am, as they say, “a big idiot,” so I will probably try to do this someday.

One of the best answers and easiest to come up with is Ingmar Bergman, 1957-1966:

Eleven films, two of them absolutely revolutionary, all of them at least very good (we’ll get to All These Women), most of them transcendent. It’s a magical period, and there’s honestly as good a case to be made that the 1964-1973 decade is about as good as this one. (Some people prefer the Hour of the Wolf/Shame/The Passion of Anna loose trilogy to the Faith trilogy, and of course this gets you Cries and Whispers and Scenes from a Marriage to replace The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. I know, tempting!) I’ve been thinking about this general idea for years, since 2017 when I was struggling/tripping over my own feet working through what the 100 best American movies might be. Who had the better 1970s: the aforementioned Francis Ford Coppola, who made four pictures that would get an A or better? Or was it Robert Altman, who made Nashville, a film better than any Coppola made that decade, plus twelve other movies that range from “meh” to “almost as good as Nashville.” It’s not as simple as just quantity versus quality. because otherwise people like George B. Seitz would need to be involved in these kind of debates. It’s more like a pitcher who can throw 150 innings in a year with incredible rate stats as opposed to 215 with weaker rate stats; a lot of analysts would tell you to pick the guy who can give you forty percent more innings.

Whether or not you think Bergman’s 1957-1966 is the best ten-year run that any director has ever had, and I’ll reiterate that I’m not even sure I believe that, doesn’t really have to do with having Persona or Wild Strawberries or The Seventh Seal in there. It has to do with whether you think movies like Brink of Life or The Devil’s Eye are good enough to hold up the back end when you’re comparing them to someone like Akira Kurosawa 1954-1963. Can they hold up in the same way that Throne of Blood or The Bad Sleep Well hold up for Kurosawa’s case? The Devil’s Eye, probably the second-worst of Bergman’s pictures in this group, is most interesting because it is so theatrical. Bergman’s career points itself much more towards the confluence of his stage direction and his theater direction later on, not because he wasn’t already doing both but because he was still maturing even in 1960. (People my grandparents’ age were so spoiled. They had Bergman, and later they had Mike Nichols. People my age have what, Sam Mendes? I can’t fart loud enough to express my displeasure.)

The presence of Death in The Seventh Seal is not a theatrical moment but a cinematic one. To call it “dramatic” and attempt to bring in the connotation of live theater rather than focusing on the drama, the shock value of a personified and cloaked Death is a disservice to the moment. That’s not what’s happening in The Devil’s Eye, where Bergman isolates sets, especially those meant to be in Hell, wrapping them in black or using a very obviously false but still really effective moving image of flames outside the Devil’s office. Put that stuff aside and even consider Gunnar Bjornstrand’s role in the film, which is to speak directly to the audience not like he’s a narrator but like he’s the especially sardonic understudy for the Stage Manager in Our Town. It’s an unusual film because its heart is so obviously theatrical and yet its motions and performances are still informed primarily by the closeness of Bergman’s camera. The title of the film is a very literal image, which I was not expecting; he has a sty because Bibi Andersson has preserved her virginity despite being a charming beauty. Seeing the Devil in his nice white-collar outfit and with his swollen right eye is so important to the way we appreciate the film. It’s about his inconvenience, not about actual stakes, and his inconvenience is something you simply cannot see from the balcony. Jarl Kulle’s necrotic performance as a deflated and unpersoned Don Juan is similar. On stage he’s a used match, complete with a smudgy black tip at the top, but in the film his disinterest in the way of the Devil and his unfitness for the way of God makes sense. His reaction to the mission the Devil gives him is a little shy of indifference, but not much; his final words in the film, about how he chooses a way dictated neither by God nor by Satan, are about as good a summation of where Bergman was headed for the next three years as any I’ve ever heard.

All These Women is a movie I’ve put off for years at this point, fairly sure that it was a weaker Ingmar Bergman film simply because everyone says that it’s a weaker Ingmar Bergman movie. More than that, I put off All These Women because people have been saying that it is not merely not good compared to like, Winter Light, but that it is plain not good. With apologies to everyone, I think this is a pretty solid picture! I’ve seen this compared to Looney Tunes, which is not inappropriate. I’ve seen it called a friendly parody of 8 1/2, which came out the year before. (If Federico Fellini had never been born, then surely Ingmar Bergman would have been remembered as one of Europe’s critical carnival film fetishists? Sawdust and Tinsel and The Magician speak for themselves, but how about one scene in All These Women where Traviata and Cecilia get after it? Cecilia dumps her tea in Traviata’s hair, which Traviata sits there and takes because she’s planned a counterattack: a cake in Cecilia’s face. The rest of the scene goes on while Mona Malm, most of the way to pantomime, wipes whipped cream out of her eyes.) I’ve seen it called a rejoinder to critics, which I think is just a ridiculous misinterpretation; the artist, largely unseen and mostly horny, is no less a ridiculous figure than Kulle’s Cornelius, foppish and occasionally wearing a pink dress in order to seduce the maestro into an interview. My favorite interpretation of what Bergman is sending up is one I haven’t seen elsewhere just yet. There’s this point in the film where Kulle and Bibi Andersson are sealing the deal but which the film, through intertitles, says has been censored. In order to get around the censors, the screen says, we’ll show you an equivalent. The equivalent is a comedic black-and-white dance that the two of them share, more competent than what you’d see in like, La La Land, but not up to the standard of your average ’30s musical. (I had no idea that I needed a Bergman movie using “Yes! We Have No Bananas” as a repeated musical motif, and yet…it turns out I needed it.) It’s this delightful little nudge in the ribs for every time you’ve watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. It’s not sex. It’s not allowed to be sex. You know what’s like sex, though, is a dance number that takes its inspiration from ballroom.

January 19th

  • Dodge City / 1939, dir. Michael Curtiz

In The Aviator, Howard Hughes and company are at the wrap party for Hell’s Angels, a film that cost a gazillion dollars and made headlines as being something between a boondoggle and a farce. Howard pulls his finance guru/pre-balded major domo Noah Dietrich into a movie theater where people are listening to Al Jolson sing through the screen, and Howard says something that surely makes Noah’s blood run cold. We have to re-shoot Hell’s Angels for sound, Howard says. Not many of us can really say that we’ve been on the wrong side of history, known it, and felt shivved by it the way that Noah Dietrich would have felt in that moment, but I bet Michael Curtiz could have related. Imagine making Dodge City, which is genuinely a delightful picture. You’ve been reunited with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland; the Tasmnian Flynn playing an ex-Confederate soldier says “G’day!” at one point, which is hilarious to me, and de Havilland is about as pinkish and gorgeous as she may have ever been on screen. The cinematography is, and I don’t say this lightly, not that far away from the lush pastel quality that you’d be able to find in some scenes from A Matter of Life and Death. The story of a reluctant lawman is so much more interesting than the story of a gung ho lawman, and the story of how he cleans up a town riddled with vice through the will of a single malefactor is an obviously entertaining one. There’s nothing all that new in Dodge City, but it’s executing the standards of the western with wonderful beauty and undeniable entertainment. Dodge City is fun as hell. It might be the most I enjoy watching a movie this month. But can you imagine being Michael Curtiz and hearing from your pals on the Warners lot that Walter Wanger is producing a western made by John Ford which completely reinvigorates the genre? Stagecoach came out a couple months before Dodge City. I would love to know what Curtiz and Flynn and de Havilland and the rest of the gang thought of Stagecoach when they saw it.

January 20th

  • Smile / 2022, dir. Parker Finn

Sure, the movie sucks. But did it have a good trailer?

We’ve reached this really interesting point with elevated horror that is honestly not that different from the point we’ve reached with MCU movies. We feel like we’ve seen it all by now. It’s been the dominant mode of the genre for more than a decade. I think almost everyone but the true believer maniacs has basically had their fill of seeing superheroes fight villains in the same kind of mold, have even had their fill of “superhero but not a white guy this time” or “superhero but not somehow fighting Thanos this time.” Thor: Love and Thunder is a rehash of the truly meh stuff from Guardians 2 and Thor: Ragnarok. No Way Home just recapitulates characters people had the opportunity to like almost twenty years earlier. People still like superhero movies, I think, but they have stopped feeling essential in the way they did about ten years back. Smile, which feels like if you glued together the worst parts of It Follows and Midsommar (two movies I really don’t like!), is the least interesting two-hour foray I’ve had in New Jersey since the last time I had to run errands back home. The monster even starts to look like the most famous version of the It Follows monster at one point, long-limbed and giant and striding in that trademarked “creepy quadruped” fashion. An unremarkable little film, but congratulations to it on a marketing campaign that piqued people’s interest until they actually had to watch more than ninety seconds of the film.

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