2023 Movie Diary (1/21-1/25): Tsars, Commissars, and Pezidents

January 21st

  • If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? / 1971, dir. Ron Ormond
  • My Demon Lover / 1987, dir. Charlie Loventhal

It’s too bad that I’m out of Ormond-Pirkle collaborations, because I was starting to develop a fondness for Pirkle’s sermons. They have a Homeric flavor to them, a use of Bible verses like epithets. Hector, breaker of horses has transformed over the centuries to Hell, where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. Even for someone who grew up in a house where learning Bible verses by heart was encouraged, it’s tempting to be really amazed by Pirkle’s command of the Bible. He has a facility with the verses that, over the course of a single film, one might find smooth and easy. Over the course of three films, you realize that the guy only has like fifteen verses that he pulls from, and the effect is less that Pirkle has a command of the Bible word-for-word and more that Pirkle can do “His name was Robert Paulson” with the best of the freshman dorm creatures. Over the course of this partnership between director and auteur, Pirkle’s sermons become more centralized and Ormond’s exploitation intentions get sent a little further into orbit. The Believer’s Heaven is responding mostly to the images that Pirkle tries to paint in his sermons; If Footmen Tire You has a life of its own outside of what Pirkle says. There are imagined characters, a commissar and his troops, rounding up Christians and leaving them as corpses with ooey-gooey drops of blood all over them. In one scene, a buck-toothed boy refuses to step on a portrait of Jesus and for his faith is decapitated by a communist with a machete. (What the crew dressed up for the boy’s head is a little confusing to me…was it a soccer ball or a volleyball bouncing away from the camera?) If Footmen Tire You feels the most like something grindhouse rather than something you’d get at a very special regional performance. I’ve seen local church performances of Godspell, the living paintings at Bob Jones University, and I’ve watched the passion play depicted in The Gospel of Eureka. For all the makeup and screaming in The Burning Hell and all the fake beards in The Believer’s Heaven, they never really rise above the level of those religious live-action performances. Only If Footmen Tire You really aspires to cinematic action, even if I don’t think it’ll linger with me as long as the other Ormond-Pirkle films. Happy trails, partners. You were the weirdo Andy Hardy replacement I didn’t know I needed.

To the tune of “Part-Time Lover,” by Stevie Wonder:

[1st Verse]

He cannot play the saxophone,

And on the subway, he’s alone.

Until he sees a cute dame: a demon lover.

There’s a nice girl in NYC,

She’s blonde, she’s sweet, she’s named Denny,

She doesn’t know she’ll have: a demon lover.


They’ve got chemistry, those two, but here’s the rub:

He’s basically Beelzebub! [imagine a really sick vocal run for “Beelzebub”]

He was cursed as a teen and now he’s lost,

It’s not said “possessed!” It’s said “pissossed!”

January 22nd

  • Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. / 2022, dir. Adamma Ebo
  • La main du diable / 1943, dir. Maurice Tourneur

Almost everyone’s favorite scene in Honk for Jesus is the one where Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall perform “Knuck if You Buck” in their SUV while they’re en route to a meeting. I don’t want to read too much into this, because people like Carpool Karaoke and a lot of that enjoyment is basically the “stars, they’re just like us” fantasy that people hang onto. Watching famous people rap in the car and being able to say, “Hey, sometimes I do that too!” is fun. On the other hand, it’s the only part of the movie where you believe in Sterling K. Brown as a charismatic figure, and it’s the only time you can imagine Regina Hall as someone who would want to hitch her wagon to him. I like Regina Hall. This is, for better or worse, an Oscar performance. Some of the best acting in this film is when she is in the North Dekalb Mall, which is just an absolute cavern of nothingness except for the cheap movie theater there that I like, but she’s pretending that she’s at Lenox Mall or Phipps Plaza or something. I almost believed it for a few seconds! I like Sterling K. Brown too, though I haven’t watched even a good performance from him since he was playing Chris Darden in The People v. O.J. Simpson. It was the last time he was acting. He’s spent a lot of time since then working his way into this loud silence bit, and it does feel like a bit. Waves is a bit about a demanding father. Honk for Jesus is a bit about a pastor brought low by a sex scandal. When he was Darden, Brown was working off of a real guy, someone he presumably saw on TV when he was in his late teens. I’ve been waiting for understanding in Brown like he displayed in Darden. He got the vulnerability in that guy, the awkwardness and fraught confidence and most of all the sort of fumbling demeanor Darden had. It was incredible; he’s almost certainly the best performance in a show where there are number of good ones. And in Honk for Jesus, there’s no sign that he’s gotten into character. I doubt very much that it’s entirely his fault, because the character he’s performing is meant to be recognizable as opposed to be specific. (The disease of expanding your short film to a feature has its germs all over this movie. In a short of twenty minutes, the past doesn’t matter that much; in a film of one hundred minutes, the past that Lee-Curtis and Trinitie had has to be more important than VHS tapes and a couple goofy talking heads.) We’re supposed to be able to think, “Oh, this is just another disgraced minister, I know this character,” and then enjoy Brown’s glowering or soft-spoken come on to a documentary crew member. There’s a wide gap, even an insurmountable gap, between those two things.

I have no idea how Maurice Tourneur and company got this one through whatever Nazi censors there were picking at the French film industry. La main du diable does not mention the occupation, the war, the fascists, Hitler, Vichy, whatever, but any movie that is this pointed about making deals with the Devil has given up all pretense of subtlety. It’s a film in which there is a long chain binding the artist to the chef, and then the chef to the boxer, the boxer to the surgeon, and all the way back to a musketeer with a taste for victory in duels born of pique. The sins of the French are in their artists and entertainers, their sportsmen, their intellectuals, their soldiers, even their criminals, and they go back to the tail end of the Hundred Years’ War; the Teutonic accountant has infiltrated the French aficionado. When Maximus Leo, the holy 15th Century monk whose hand has been passed down for four centuries, shows up to chastise the Devil, he says something quite powerful. He does not own your souls, and he cannot keep what he does not own. The soul belongs to God, probably, but it seems more likely in the context of the film that the soul belongs to France and cannot belong to the Third Reich. Tourneur died in the same year that Adolf Eichmann’s trial began in Jerusalem, and Tourneur’s devil is an Eichmannian figure, a little man of nonthreatening mien who intimates “bottom-quartile salesman” or “henpecked student who flunked out of high school.” All the same he has enough dealmaking acumen and enough control over an adding machine to be a true menace to the middling painter who he spends his time tormenting during much of the film.

January 23rd

  • Ivan the Terrible, Part II: The Boyars’ Plot / 1958, dir. Sergei Eisenstein

During the Paleocene, giant carnivorous birds called phorusrhacids lived in South America. They had large heads with giant sharp beaks, were taller than men, and dominated their environments as theropods had dominated their environments during the Mesozoic. The vast majority of these birds were extinct 1.5 million years ago, and tens of thousands of years ago they were down to maybe a smaller species or two. The last of the phorusrhacids died in 1966, and had a human name. They called him Nikolai Cherkasov, and they put him in Soviet movies; his best role was as Tsar Ivan IV in Sergei Eisenstein’s aborted three-part epic. He blends in fairly well despite not being a human being but a bird. He speaks Russian, but haltingly. In a sea of people who wear rich clothes and have shining eyes, people with thick hair and languid movements, the terror bird Cherkasov moves precisely but slowly. His beak sticks out and he hunches over, weighed forward by the heft of his beak and the lean of his neck. Even if he were not the first tsar of all the Russias, Ivan would be marked as different from the crowd by the strangeness of his physique. The hair of the women is hidden for modesty, and the hair of the nobles is cut distinctly, shaved to a point to reveal the place on a neck where he might be decapitated for treason. Not so for Ivan. The avian Cherkasov has a long beard which is rigid with grease, and thin, lank hair falls in gross strands. He is of a race far older than humanity, and he looks it; he is not primordial but aged, withering in those terminal decades of life for this family which had been scooping up Eocene and Miocene rodents with relish for so long. Here, the rodents are the boyars who would steal Ivan’s throne from him, the ones who would wrest the power of Russia away from one who could wield it in order to sell themselves to Lithuanians and Poles and other men of little consequence. With the low, potent screech of an animal more giant than the scurrying prey which must be in his thrall, such a creature deafens the steppes. In some of the greatest close-ups ever put on screen he dominates us with his giant beady eye and his hooking nose, cruel mouth,v and savage mind. Like Cherkasov, Ivan was a solitary predator as well. One does not easily imagine two terror birds wing in wing with one another with cheerful countenances. His solitude ails him, and yet to give up his solitude would be to invite death and to scorn his natural course.

January 24th

  • The Pez Outlaw / 2022, dir. Bryan Storkel and Amy Bandlien Storkel

The Pez Outlaw makes us forget that its protagonist, a benignly free-spirited Michigander named Steve Glew and whose white beard is at least a couple consonants longer, is an internationally known smuggler. Real talk: Glew has the same basic job title as Ulysses Klaw from Black Panther. If the presumed silliness of a crime were actually meaningful in a court of law, then people would be running each other down with clown cars left and right in order to get the charge down to vehicular manslaughter. But this isn’t really a crime story, which makes The Pez Outlaw vastly more interesting than the other true crime docs that have descended from Stettin to Trieste on Netflix. Because the crime is not in the least sordid, the film doesn’t have to carry this false weight on its back of “woe are we” rubbernecking. Because the film is not sordid, it is open to being a pretty silly little movie where recreations, which I usually don’t like at all in a documentary, turn out to be charming and funny. Usually in one of these Netflix movies, these crimes are presented like we’re part of the thrill of the chase, like there’s nothing more important going on than the real-life importance we might ascribe to Basil of Baker Street. Steve Glew may have been smuggling Pez dispensers into the United States without the permission of Pez, which is not strictly speaking within the law, but come on, this is such a whimsical story that it’s obvious this is a victimless crime. Steve McWhinnie, the villain of the story, is such a light punching bag that there’s almost no use in swinging at him. He was the “Pezident,” the top man of a candy company like thirty-five years ago. Who cares if there’s a recreation of the Pezident raging about Steve Glew and Bubble Boy and whatever else? Is it really hurting the anonymous name of Steve McWhinnie so much? He and Steve and the collectors and the guys in Europe doing the selling and the rest of the people from the recreations are just goofy pantomime performers, acting out the roles that you could imagine characters in Saturday morning cartoons acting out before you got to the Pez commercials (squished between commercials for Power Wheels and Cabbage Patch Kids.) It’s a lightweight film, and if you’re trying to work your way through the new Sight and Sound list, it’s not like you need to put that on hold to watch it. But The Pez Outlaw is a truly genial movie, and even more importantly, this movie would lose something in translation to becoming a podcast. There aren’t that many recent docs on streamers you can say that about.

January 25th

  • Anubhav / 1971, dir. Basu Bhattacharya

A bold movie. I love how bold the music in this film is. It’s Bollywood, it’s got a few songs, and those songs are used so well, reprising Amar’s feelings after we’ve seen them represented more powerfully and beautifully by Meeta. Meeta could do it all by herself, washing herself clean after the cosmetic failure of her anniversary party. Amar has to be led to those moments and those feelings by his wife’s decisiveness, where she’s in the frame with him and eliciting his smiles. Bhattacharya chooses unusual visuals for these moments as well, using aqueous technique to ripple Meeta in her bath and Amar in his rejuvenation. But there’s also a reliance on the score by Kanu Roy, which is unafraid of exciting unpleasant feelings in service of putting us in the right headspace. There’s this demonic squeezebox sound underlining the anniversary party, one where an unidentified child wanders around the room and then begins screaming. Meeta picks the child up and tucks him into her bed; it is not until later that we learn that the child does not belong to her. Her marriage of six years has not brought forth a child, and based on the fact that Amar cannot be bothered to stay through the party because there’s some issue from work that interests him more, it’s plain that the failure lies with him. The signs are there before the music starts, but it’s the music that drives the anxiety. It’s not music that’s out of place, which makes its effect all the more anxious. Roy’s score for Anubhav does the work that people wanted Jonny Greenwood’s score to do for Spencer. Greenwood is too obvious, too orchestral and loud. Spencer doesn’t need him to create enormous droning in a moment where Di has to show off her fashion and her misery at the same time on Christmas. Roy keeps his score in check and in so doing makes it relentless, always appropriate to the moment. It’s unexpected, much like the structure of the film. Read the one-sentence synopsis of Anubhav—”a former lover winds his way back into the life of a housewife trying to straighten out her marriage”—and you get the sense that Meeta is going to fall back in with Shashi. Watch the movie and that’s not at all what’s happening. Shashi’s reappearance is a threat to Meeta. She does not want him. She has the man she wants and not the man she felt a connection to across brief hours, and where we have seen these stories before and watched her tempted, that’s not really what Anubhav is after. It’s a rich, surprising film, cognizant of what’s come before and disruptive in its approach to feeling. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen something quite like it.

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