DON’T THINK TWICE (2016, dir. Mike Birbiglia)

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(Left to right: Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, Mike Birbiglia, Tami Sagher)

Something funny about Don’t Think Twice: in an era when so many  seemingly scripted comedies utilize improvisation (and to *varying* degrees), writer/director/actor Mike Birbiglia has made a quite good scripted comedy that’s about an improv comedy troupe. Or, yes it’s about an improv group, and it’s about what happens to the group’s solidarity when one member (Keegan-Michael Key) says “yes, but” in order to go big-time and leave his mates behind who in all likelihood will languish in art-for-art’s-sake obscurity.

This insider showbiz scenario could have easily been played for nudge, nugde, wink, wink satire– which could’ve been tiresome– but Birbiglia grounds and elaborates it in a bittersweet, rueful, multifaceted manner. The result is not just a movie about envy but a humane portrayal of those who either don’t quite get what it takes to go far and/or have what it takes but have become so immune to failure that they fear success. As most movies about showbiz or the arts are about people who have succeeded or are succeeding, Don’t Think Twice is a rarity of its kind that might make some younger, wannabe artists change their priorities or raise their defenses (as well as inspire some to take an improv class.)

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Gethard

If people aren’t familiar with Key, Gillian Jacobs or even Birbiglia, then this movie will convert some to become fans of them as actors. But for me the stand-out revelation is Chris Gethard as Bill. As Gethard is an improv performer and teacher who has come very close to becoming a bona fide success in real life, he’s basically playing a version of himself in DTT but as I’m of the belief that an actor playing themselves can be the hardest thing to do, especially when it’s less-than-flattering and hits close to home. I don’t mean to sound backhanded because Gethard is very good here. He plays Bill in a low-key, natural and open way that conveys the characters’ struggles better than any of his cast mates. (Also, he has many killer lines during the improv comedy scenes.)

The only thing that doesn’t quite hit the mark is Birbiglia’s filmmaking chops. It’s as though he made most of his best decisions in pre-production than he did when shooting the movie. For instance: many ensemble scenes play as though they were shot but not necessarily blocked in any notable way, and the choice to film the improv performance scenes with a Steadicam as though the viewer is one of the performers on stage is a neat idea that is executed in a fairly monotonous way. So DDT isn’t nowhere near as cinematic as what Woody Allen could do in his prime or even what Louis CK does on his TV show Louie. Nevertheless, he captures some great moments (like when the rest of the improv group grimly watch Key’s performance debut on a show not unlike Saturday Night Live) and he has chops as an actor’s director.

<In a Gene Shalit voice> So think once about seeing… Don’t Think Twice.

GHOSTBUSTERS (2016, dir. Paul Feig)

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Left to right: Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kirsten Wiig and Leslie Jones, doing what makes them feel good: busting.

My young niece got into the original Ghostbusters when she was three, which is around the same age that I got into the movie. And way before this new movie was announced I had a phone conversation with her in which she asked me, “why aren’t there any girl Ghostbusters?” “I don’t know. That’s a fair question,” was my answer. Starting at that moment, I wanted there to be “girl Ghostbusters” for her sake.

So I was happy when a female-driven version of Ghostbusters became a reality just for the sheer principle of the thing. Even if the movie turned out to be subpar, I thought, my niece would be able to better identify in and participate with the same franchise that I engaged with as a boy. It could be an instance of both handing something off to a younger generation and feeling like there was a little more gender equality in the world.

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I’ve kept this in mind as the transparently sexist backlash against the movie’s existence has raged on in the hearts and minds of many online trolls. For almost every veiled or not-so-veiled misogynistic comment that has been flung at the movie that I’ve come across—and at this point “I’m not sexist it’s just that the trailer sucked” gets automatically translated into my mind as “I hate you, mom! I won’t stop playing with my Ghostbusters action figures and do my chores!”—I’ve thought about my niece and other girls like her getting their own version of a pop cultural phenomenon that has been virtually exclusive to boys/men. It turns out that, according to a profile article at Vulture, this is the reason why Paul Feig made the movie: “I wanted for little girls to be able to see themselves up on the screen,” he said.

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Feig (left) with original Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman

Well now I’ve seen the new movie and I’m of two minds about it. It’s entertaining, looks great and the lead actresses are quite likable. But it lacks the original’s deadpan demeanor that counterbalanced its absurd premise; in place of dry humor is an earnestness from its four leads that can be charming but doesn’t ground any ridiculousness in an audience-friendly, “we’re well aware of how crazy this is” way. Also, the movie is so eager to get its heroines up-and-running that it foregoes steady, cumulative story development in order to get to some action-packed supernatural mayhem quicker.

But these things could be indicative of Feig’s main objective, which is to make the movie fun and empowering for girls. Is there anything empowering about dry, winking sarcasm? No, not really, so that was dropped. (Also, I think audiences unfairly have a lower tolerance for sarcastic women then for sarcastic men but that’s for a separate conversation.) And does a movie depend upon sensible plotting or story development to be fun for kids/girls? Again, not really. I certainly didn’t care or appreciate how the first half of the original Ghostbusters is about the vicissitudes of starting-up a business when I was a tot.

So the two issues I have with the movie ultimately seem to be in service of Feig’s goal to make the franchise inclusive for little girls like my niece, which ultimately moots my qualms. Sure, there are some ultra-convenient things that happen in the story, but dissecting those things takes a certain type of detail-sweating seriousness that feels inappropriate to a franchise that’s about people capturing and containing ghosts with nuclear accelerators on their back as if they were exterminators or animal control services. This has always been silly, fun stuff, and treating it as an unimpeachable sacred cow feels beside the point.

Now this isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t have any implicit politics in its subtext, which Matt Zoller Seitz has addressed better than I could. For example, SPOILERS there’s an interesting plot point where these female Ghostbuster receive a de facto, unsanctioned form of recognition whereas the original Ghostbusters got to become openly famous. This gums up the works of this new movie from a storytelling perspective—really, that would happen in this age of social media?– but it’s an interesting commentary on how women’s contributions to society often go unacknowledged while men get unabated credit. [1] END SPOILERS

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Yet back to the idea that this movie’s primary artistic purpose is to pass a franchise down to a younger, more gender-balanced audience: yes, there are a lot of callbacks to the original movies, and yes, one could cynically view the movie’s existence as another example of a Hollywood studio building/maintaining franchises for long-term profits but failing to foster more original ideas. But these things don’t really factor into how a kid thinks. They didn’t factor into my thinking when I was kid who once thrilled to Ghostbusters II, a movie that I now see as intrinsically flawed. (See my first footnote.) And, unless you’re an adamant, unflinching ultra-Conservative or Men’s Right’s Activist that I don’t agree with, the new movie isn’t ideologically egregious.

So my reaction to this new Ghostbusters is similar to my reaction to the most recent Star Wars: it’s not for me. But I don’t mean that in a dismissive, derogatory way; I mean that as a grown adult who enjoys media from any era but doesn’t really care to be personally nostalgic and wants younger people to feel like they have their own versions of things. I don’t need to relive my childhood ad nauseam like so many seem to have a protective need to do; I had mine and it was nice but it’s gone and that’s how it’s supposed to work.

What I’m interested in is talking to my niece about this new Ghostbusters. I hope she likes it, feels recognized and gets some inspiration from it.[2] That is what matters to me.

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[1] Then again, this plot development from a storytelling perspective isn’t even half as problematic as how the Ghostbusters became shunned between the original and its sequel despite the fact that they saved New York City and the world, which was done to setup a story that just rehashed the first movie’s. And by evidence of one moment that occurs at the end of this new movie, it seems that Feig is intent not to let that happen in another prospective Ghostbusters movie.

[2] Having said all that: I did feel a slight buzz from my past self as I watched Melissa McCarthy, Kirsten Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones wrangled ghosts with laser beams.

 

EXPLORATORIUM (1974, dir. Jon Boorstin)

Sound comes first: we hear the squeaks, whirrs, clicks of a machine that creates wave patterns onto paper that’s attached to a cylinder. Then we hear a handful voices say the title of the film, which is also the name of its subject The Exploratorium, the interactive science museum founded by physicist Frank Oppenheimer in 1969 at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.

Accompanied by an eerie electronic music cue, light comes next. After a partial establishing shot that pans over the structure of the museum’s ceiling, a shaft of sunlight bounces off a mirror on the roof and shines through a window. Then, it strikes another mirror and travels through a set of installed prisms. Refracted, and flaring through the camera lens, the light is projected onto an opaque wall and creates psychedelic streams of colors that could be in the finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey. A man in silhouette (presumably Oppenheimer) goes up to and touches the colorful light. This is a demonstration of Bob Miller’s Exploratorium art piece “Sun Painting” (that doubles as a summation of motion picture experience.)

Then, in quick succession, children create shadows in a room equipped with a flashbulb and walls made out of a photosensitive material. A woman and child dance in a strobe light that chops up the visible continuity of their motion. A rotating swirl graphic is shown in close-up and we hear a man and woman talk about how staring at it is trippy. Two boys horse around in a force-perspective room that makes them look further apart than they really are.

These vignettes, as well as others that follow, represent various exhibits at The Exploratorium, or at least their effects, in a paradoxical way. On one hand, these are observational snapshots that show different aspects of the museum. On the other hand, they are documentations of exhibits that create, invoke, simulate physical phenomena that make you examine the very nature of how you see and hear the world a la’ white light going into a clear prism to create color.

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Frank's Unique View of the World
Frank Oppenheimer. (Source: Exploratorium.edu)

As a part of The Manhattan Project in the 1940s and under the leadership of his more famous older brother J. Robert, Frank Oppenheimer helped to create the atom bomb. In the 1950s, he became a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee due to a passing association with the American Communist Party in the 1930s and was blacklisted from teaching at the University level. He retreated to Colorado to become a rancher and found his way back to physics by becoming a high school science teacher, which inspired him to create an educational science museum.

Oppenheimer was remarkable for his unerring optimism and lack of disillusionment. He, like many of his Manhattan Project cohorts, had profound doubts regarding the invention of nuclear arms and advocated, unsuccessfully, for their multinational control. Then he was nearly professionally ruined during the Red Scare. Nevertheless, he believed in education’s power to improve society and his teaching philosophy– which guided and allowed people to discover and understand science through their own volition—intrinsically trusted the capabilities of individuals.

Hence, The Exploratorium was designed as a series of interactive, semi-controlled, easy-to-understand and loosely organized science experiments that weren’t presented in any mandatory fashion and enabled people to discover determined principles through their own free will. In her book Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and His Astonishing Exploratorium, K.C. Cole writes, “Frank’s woods of natural phenomena would serve as a substitute—not actually teaching so much as providing a means to rewire the brain’s neural circuitry in a way that would come in handy when similar phenomena were encountered in books or on exams or in the everyday world. It would be a place where people could build their own person repertoires of images and experiences.”

Oppenheimer with writer K.C. Cole. (Source: Slate.com)
Oppenheimer with writer K.C. Cole. (Source: Slate.com)

Cole also writes, “…[The thematic thread of the museum is] a focus on perception. Since everything we know is filtered through our perceptual apparatus, all of science hinges on it one way or the other, and the subject offers a naturally interdisciplinary way of getting into almost any subject… Further, perception was an active field of science in which even fresh discoveries could be made accessible. No one entirely understands how our brains take bits of inadequate and ambiguous information and use them to compose what we take to be the real world.” [157]

By the nature of its subject—a site of spontaneous experimentation that mainly demonstrates the scientific yet abstract nature of perception—the short doubles as an experimental film of the synesthetic kind. Likewise, just as the Exploratorium is a free form museum, the film is a non-linear series of impressions that lack any traditional expository devices (i.e. voice-over narration or titles that explain everything what you’re viewing.) Beautifully photographed by Eric Saarinen and featuring excellent sound work from Peter Smokler, Peter Pilafian, Bud Grenzbach and John Wilkinson, it’s a documentary and an art film. Oppenheimer must have appreciated that Jon Boorstin’s short film isn’t prosaically “scientific” as he intended his museum to also be a place where art and science converged (i.e. Miller’s “Sun Painting”.)

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More so, this short-film resonates with me as I have a personal connection to the museum. Having grown-up in the San Francisco Bay Area, my parents, siblings and I often visited The Exploratorium and watching Boorstin’s film evokes many memories. For instance: I can remember being a five-year old, walking down the museum’s mezzanine stairwell, stopping to see my mom ahead of me at the base of the stairs, and being aware that I was forming a memory in that moment. Not the most exciting recollection, I admit. Nonetheless, it was an early moment of cognizance that’s etched into my mind.

This experience seems to dovetail with Oppenheimer reasoning behind the Exploratorium, as Cole writes: “[it would provide] a means to rewire the brain’s neural circuitry in a way that would come in handy when similar phenomena were encountered in books or on exams or in the everyday world. It would be a place where people could build their own person repertoires of images and experiences [149]…”

Museum floor in 2006
The old Exploratorium. (Source: Wikipedia.)

With many of its original exhibits intact, the museum moved from the Palace of Fine Arts to San Francisco’s Pier 15 in 2013. Even so, the Exploratorium as I knew it and as it’s portrayed in this film doesn’t really exist anymore. Yet thankfully, due to a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation, the Academy Film Archive has preserved Exploratorium and by extension the previous version of The Exploratorium. (Film and video preservation: the endeavor that maintains the time-machine a.k.a. moving image media.)

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So if Exploratorium could be seen as much a de facto experimental film as it is a documentary, and if the Exploratorium is Oppenheimer’s scientific playground that causes learning and curiosity through inadvertent means, then Boorstin’s short reminds me of what people often fail to see or acknowledge in the experimental (for lack of a better term) genre. Yes, the most accomplished or noted experimental films (and videos, for that matter) typically have strong aesthetic and theoretical underpinnings that often address or are influenced by cultural, economic, political and historical issues. And, yes, it’s not uncommon when they are visually and aurally unpleasant or abrasive.

Still from Dziga Vertov's "Man with a Movie Camera" (Source: silentlondon.co.uk)
Still from Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera” (Source: silentlondon.co.uk)

Still, experimental films and videos can be adventurous, subversive, enigmatic and yes-I’ll-say-it fun. They can disclose the moving image medium’s latent possibilities, similar to how science can reveal the invisible mechanics of nature and the universe. If you’ve seen them, consider Man with a Movie Camera, Un Chien Andalou, Meshes in the Afternoon, Bruce Conner’s A Movie, Scorpio Rising, Mothlight, La Jetee, Michael Snow’s Wavelength—these are all films that have the potential to open up the viewer’s mind and make them understand what cinema can do and how it can express different modes of perception. They demonstrate the power of play, just like Jon Boorstin’s short film, and just like the Exploratorium.

GOD HELP THE GIRL (2014, dir. Stuart Murdoch)

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(Source: Allmovie.com)

Twee. Twee, twee, twee, twee. TWEE. That’s the word that many use when discussing the Scottish indie-pop group Belle and Sebastian in a reductive and lazy way. Yet when evaluating the band, which is led by singer-songwriter and God Help the Girl director Stuart Murdoch, “twee” is one term you could to describe them; “pop-savvy” is another. Or “dry” or “tongue-in-cheek” are some others. You could even say that the songwriting is frequently shrewd in its depictions of human foibles (i.e. the youthful need to adopt possibly empty affectations, or the temptation to choose promiscuity over dedicated love.) Likewise, Belle and Sebastian’s music tends to be melancholic in way that’s symptomatic of someone who, from personal experience, is aware of how life can slip away and lie dormant. So a case for the band being something more-than-twee can be made to the pigeon-holers, who in all likelihood wouldn’t like God Help the Girl.

For the sake of accuracy, I should mention that GHtG isn’t a Belle and Sebastian project per se; it’s something  that began as a 2009 concept album produced by Murdoch (the concept being a series of songs about young women that are sung by female vocalists and would constitute a hypothetical musical) and has become the subject of this review: a movie musical. Yet, as the film is very much an idealized roman a clef about Belle and Sebastian’s formation, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to call GHtG “the Belle and Sebastian movie.”

Yet in spite of all of those potentially off-putting conceptual layers, I can say that “the Belle and Sebastian movie” is good. It avoids being like most film-debut vanity projects that famous musicians have made (i.e. inept, embarrassing, ill-advised.) and suggests that Murdoch may have a future as a feature film director.

Eve (Emily Browning) is a Glaswegian twenty-something beaut who is a singing/songwriting savant but has some disabling psychiatric conditions that force her to reside in a mental institution. Luckily, she becomes self-sufficient enough to venture out on her own and make friends with two simpatico people her own age: James (Olly Alexander), a stylishly nerdy and opinionated guitarist who aspires to be a pop music mastermind, and Cassie (Hannah Murray), a bubbly gal whom James is teaching guitar. The three start band but trouble gets in the way, least of which is Eve engaging in a casual relationship with a lead-singer from another band despite James’s obvious romantic interest in her. Integrated into the narrative are musical sequences built around preexisting GHtG songs that reflect how the characters need to incorporate their pop music idealism into their reality, which can keep them grounded a little too much.

GHtG isn’t free from imperfection. Some parts are too languorous (particularly one sequence dealing with a canoeing trip), Cassie doesn’t figure much into the plot, spiritual matters (that are not unlike Murdoch’s actual ones) become a concern of the characters but remain too underdeveloped and vague to have any real importance. Some of the musical numbers feel obligatory, as if Murdoch wanted to use as many songs as possible in the movie but did so at the expense of structure. So, for a movie about characters who are sartorial to the hilt, it can feel loose, shaggy and untailored at times.

Nevertheless, GHtG is a jukebox musical from a distinct, well-curated artistic mind that has plenty of charm and panache. But the jukebox isn’t just loaded with previously recorded B+S songs. As he is clearly a devotee of 60s pop music, Murdoch also seems to be an aficionado of 60s cinema. There are moments in the film that are evoke the dance scene in Godard’s Bande a Part, or the opening of A Hard Day’s Night, or the harmonica-accompanied montages in Midnight Cowboy. Also, with by mixing real settings with a hyper-real and cinematic musicality, GHtG owes much to Jacques Demy’s cinema, particularly The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. There’s even a quick gag that references The Sound of Music.

Then there’s the personal component: Eve’s health issues are analogous to Murdoch’s real-life struggles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome during most of his twenties. Likewise, just as Eve becomes vital through her love of music, writing songs and starting Belle and Sebastian seemed to help Murdoch recover from his illness. Yet, even though Eve’s story ultimately doesn’t line-up exactly with Murdoch’s, the belief that art, as well as the act of collaboration, can restore a person is ever-present in GHtG. While this aspect of the film might be too veiled for any viewer that is unfamiliar with Belle and Sebastian’s history, I found it to be personally resonant as someone who was sidetracked by an illness in his twenties. At times it captures how it feels to put a handicap on your expectations and dreams at an age when you really shouldn’t but have to.

So I’m biased. But, like many great pop songs and albums, this movie is an expressive work that depends on specific personal biases that its audience may have in order to achieve its emotional intent. So if you’re someone who never felt and acted upon the need to fashion your life in an artful way in order to cope with the everyday, or if you’re someone who doesn’t know first-hand that all of the youthful privilege and promise in the world can be undone by premature inevitabilities, or even if you just don’t like Belle and Sebastian, then GHtG may not be your cup of “twee.” Then again, if it is something that might be in your wheelhouse, you could find it precious in the best and most meaningful sense of the word.

Likely to be my pick for most-underrated-despite-its-flaws movie of the year.

PILLOW TALK (1959, dir. Michael Gordon)

(Source: MovieArt.com)
(Source: MovieArt.com)

As they are about humorous, convoluted and un/likely courtships, Romantic Comedies also often function as lifestyle fantasies. This feature of the genre was a knowing, blatantly stated component of David Wain’s recent Rom-Com spoof They Came Together: in the film, Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler are modern day New Yorkers who live picture-perfect existences in spacious apartments but never seem to have any money issues (and this is downright odd in Poehler’s case as she runs a candy shop that gets no customers.) And it goes as far back as the 1930s and 40’s: films like It Happened One Night and The Lady Eve have upper-class protagonists for whom the audience could vicariously experience the high-life.

Landing somewhere between Hollywood’s Golden Age and the present moment, 1959’s Pillow Talk is a successful mid-century romantic comedy that most definitely works as a lifestyle fantasy. Doris Day and Rock Hudson star as Jan and Brad, apartment neighbors who have to share a party phone line, and that causes them to get on each other’s nerves. Jan is a smart, independent yet single interior decorator; Brad is a bachelor songwriter with an possibly-overactive love life. And while the audience knows from the start that these two should get together as Day and Hudson share a preternatural chemistry, Jan and Brad’s eventual union is prolonged through complication for the sake of comedy (most of which is still funny.) Tony Randall and Thelma Ritter co-star respectively as Jonathan, Brad’s rich friend as well as Jan’s other suitor, and Alma, Jan’s drunk house-keeper and confidant. And, of course, the film is set in New York and Jan and Brad’s way of life is consistently and contemporaneously posh.

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While Pillow Talk could seem old-fashioned or retroactive to modern viewers—its entire plot does hinge on a long gone aspect of telecommunication technology, after all—it becomes something else when understood within its historical context: a transitional film. For the talent involved, it was a Hudson’s first time in a comedy and Day’s first time playing an autonomous and sexualized woman. From an industrial angle, Pillow Talk’s sexually suggestive nature was a product of the loosening of onscreen moral standards in the 50’s that was primarily caused by an influx of postwar European cinema to American theaters and director Otto Preminger’s successful attempts to defy the Production Code by means of mature-content films like The Moon is Blue and Anatomy of a Murder. In a wider sense, the film’s sexual innuendo reflects the shifting mores of American society that would set-up the sexual revolution of the 60’s. Even if the film seems tame by today’s standards, it gently pushed the envelope in an acceptable and entertaining manner that rode the line so well that one audience member could interpret it as wholesome while another could interpret it as a movie about two people who really should boink each other.[1]

While its story is generic, Pillow Talk is distinguished by its visual style, which is more vibrant, dynamic and complex than the milquetoast appearance of most recent rom-coms. The film’s widescreen cinematography– which involves many novel-for-its-time split-screen shots that were accomplished through optical effects—and its elaborate, colorful and gleaming mise en scene work in tandem to present a fun, idealized version of 1950s urban life. Yet while the film’s aesthetic still pops on a surface level, it subliminally demonstrates that, while Jan and Brad’s lives may seem perfect, their hearts and identities are in a jumbled flux that to some extent has been caused by the Modern Era.

For the sake of being demonstrable, here’s a mosaic of all the split screen shots, which includes one screen-in-screen shot, from Pillow Talk (click to enlarge):[2]

PillowTalkMosaic


The way that this nifty technique breaks up the frame in order to present the battle-of-the-sexes conflict between Jan and Brad while maintaining an important story component (Jan and Brad only really interact via phone in the first two thirds of the film) is pretty self-evident. Similarly, it symbolizes the communication gap that they’ll have to bridge so that they can get together by the end. And while the technique can be hit-and-miss in other films, it works well here because it creates simultaneity between Day and Hudson as performers, which establishes their essential chemistry even though their characters won’t really interact with or see each other until the film’s half-hour mark. It’s also attests to how, although each side of these scenes must have been shot separately and non-continuously, the rapport between Day and Hudson was so strong that it transcended the limitations of space and time even as Pillow Talk was being filmed, let alone watched.

Furthermore, the split-screen technique creates an effect that’s somewhere between Modernistic and Post-Modern. It divides the image into smaller geometric shapes, thereby making the basic form of the widescreen, CinemaScope frame more apparent, and it overtly collapses space and time. At the same time, it turns the image into a living panel of a romance comic book, and an ironic one to boot. Intentional or not, there’s something “Pop Art” about this usage of split-screen.

But the mise en scene works in a more subtle way. Many if not all of movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood feature depth cues that give an illusion of dimensionality to the film image’s intrinsic flatness, and these cues were often accomplished through formulated and theatrical stagings of people, physical action and things (also known as “blocking” or “blocking for the camera.”) And in the hands of more talented storytellers and image-makers, staging was a means to create compositions for the camera that could portray or convey a film’s intangible elements (i.e. theme, conflict, psychology.)

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Pillow Talk has no shortage of this technique. If you look at the two screen-captures above, they’re both from separate moments in which both Jan and Brad each realize things that are conveyed through internal monologue voice-overs. Obviously, showing a subject looking into a mirror by means of an angled shot doubles a depth cue, so these shots are solid examples of how cinematography and mise en scene can be combined to enhance a visual. Likewise, these shots are in-camera “split-screen” shots that mimic the film’s actual split-screen shots. Yet, each shot symbolize the dual-nature of both characters (a dual persona does figure very much into the plot) and telegraphs their arcs in which they will stumble upon self-discovery. And in the case of the Doris Day shot, it also represents her doubts about foregoing any romance in order to fulfill her idea of being a modern woman.

There’s also the scene in which Jan and Brad encounter each other in-person for the first time while on separate dates in a nightclub. Initially, they sit back-to-back and unbeknownst in parallel booths. (See below.) This is another visual dichotomization that plays-up the irony of situation.

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There’s an adjacent wall-mirror that gives more compositional depth to the shots while creating visual triangulations between Day, Hudson and one of their mirror images (see below.) This gives the scene a slight tension that draws attention away from its coincidental and fairly absurd nature.[3]

NightclubParallel


Likewise, in the two medium shots, the real image of Jan or Brad blocks out the mirror image of Brad or Jan’s inconsequential dates (Tony (Nick Adams) and Marie (Julia Meade)), which implicitly does what the plot is about to do: disregard them after they’ve served their narrative purpose. And symbolically, it parallels what Jan and Brad do in this scene: as she’s on a date, she is adopting a different, more fetching persona, and he adopts the Texan persona of Rex Stetson in order to seduce Jan without having her learn his true identity. It’s a clever means of representing the dualism of the characters without being too obvious.

Moreover, the mise en scene is stylized according to a specific and well-known aesthetic that’s in the midst of a comeback. As Deborah Sorensen explains in “Bachelor Modern: Mid-Century Style in American Film”: “Looking at film from this time period, one can see that it is almost exclusively single men and women who are associated with mid-century modern design. Dozens of films from the 1950s and ‘60s feature independent men and women living in modern environments… [and] it is the exuberant Pillow Talk that encapsulates the variety of mid-century modern styles available to both men and women—from Tony Randall’s sleekly modular office, to Hudson’s wood-paneled but electronically-controlled bachelor pad, to Doris Day’s pastel paradise of an apartment.”

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(Left to right: Randall’s office, Hudson’s bachelor pad, Day’s apartment) (Click to enlarge)

Along these lines, it’s advantageous to the film that Jan is an interior decorator as it gives the almost-too-perfect mid century look of Pillow Talk an internal logic. And as Sorensen stated, the aesthetic defines the characters and their statuses but, as it has an emphasis on literal compartmentalization, it also reflects Jan and Brad’s psychological compartmentalization, which sustains the nature of their private lives. In other words: even if their lives are sleek, chic and functional, they may be a little too empty, like their apartments.

Speaking of interior decoration: there’s a moment early in the film in which Jan directs some movers as they install a painting in Jonathan’s office. At first the place the painting horizontally but Jan corrects them and they turn it 90 degrees to properly situate the artwork. (See below, click to enlarge.)

ModernArtGag


Next to someone snidely saying, “my kid could paint that”, this minor gag is joke that’s been made often enough about Modern art. Nevertheless, it could be viewed as another visual metaphor for the events of the story: at first everything seems right in Jan and Brad’s stylish lives but– as they have modern identities that are relativistic and can allow for some non-compromising re-orientation—a topsy turvy readjustment will happen for romantic harmony in order for to occur.

The film’s final plot pivot is another example of how décor can be a storytelling tool. Jan angrily rejects Brad after finding out that he posed as Rex Stetson, but Brad has genuinely fallen for her and wants to win her over. So he seeks her services as an interior decorator and she accepts the job out of professional duty but enacts her revenge by decorating his apartment in an ostentatiously tacky manner. (See below.) Livid, Brad bursts into Jan’s place, picks her up, carries her through the streets, brings her to his apartment and vent his anger. While doing so, he admits his devotion to her, which wins her over and leads to them finally coming together.

BradsRedoneApartment


Admittedly, the gender politics of this climatic sequence could be seen as iffy and overly heteronormative. But it bears mentioning that this whole final sequence allows Jan to get her licks in and level the playing field before she and Brad become a true couple, thereby letting Jan retain her independence and point-of-view while allowing romance to enter her life. But it wouldn’t have worked if the set-decoration of Brad’s redone apartment hadn’t been so wonderfully awful or contradictory to the film’s other decors. Hell hath no fury like an interior decorator’s scorn.

While all of this analysis of Pillow Talk may seem too serious, I’m well aware that the movie is meant to entertain. And it should be mentioned that the film’s screenplay– accredited to Stanley Shapiro, Maurice Richlin, Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene—is a model of romantic comedy screenwriting that could still be emulated to great effect by current comedy writers. For instance: almost every one-liner or gag that “buttons” a scene still hits its mark.

Still, Pillow Talk’s imaginative cinematography and mise en scene augment the film’s story with cultural and narrative subtext, thereby imbuing it with a good amount of substance even as it fizzes and pops. And what is that subtext? A way of life is on the verge of something new.

Change may cause anxiety, but it has to happen, either on a micro, personal level, or on a grander, cultural scale. And although Pillow Talk is only about two people getting together after some silly, complicated and anxiety-fueled hijinks, it’s fitting that it was released three months before the start of the 60’s, a decade in which seismic socio-political shifts would happen in America. Under the film’s candy-coated surface, something big brews, and that must play into its long-lasting appeal.

ArticleEnd


[1] For the sake of transparency, I’d like to note that most of the contextualization in this paragraph has been paraphrased from the informative “Back in Bed with Pillow Talk” featurette that is on the most recent DVD release of Pillow Talk.

[2] This mosaic excludes a screen capture of the opening credits sequence that is very much a split-screen shot. But, as you may have noticed, that screen capture is the second image of this post.

[3] An unspoken rule of screenwriting is that a screen-story can/should only have one illogical coincidence that somehow benefits characters. Wisely, Pillow Talk’s screenwriters, who won an Oscar for the film, used-up their “big coincidence allowance” on a very integral plot point. Hence, the Oscar win.

THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE YEARS, aka AL-MUMMIA (1969, dir. Chadi Abdel Salam)

(Source: NYU Abu Dhabi)
(Source: NYU ABU DHABI)

Continuums are full of tension, and a large source of that tension is caused by the act of preservation. The links between the past, present and future can be fluid, but as long as we exist in an ever-present transition of space and time, there will be resistance. Survival is always a struggle, for instance.

Yet our species encounters the transcendent. Sometimes it’s human-made, caused by a grandiose desire to live beyond death. Whatever the case, the eternal causes awe or terror or both. And interfering with the eternal can result in disorder.

However portentous/pretentious these opening statement may seem, they are meant to encapsulate themes of The Night of Counting the Years, aka Al Mummia, an Egyptian film that was voted as the number one Arab film of all time[1] but has been virtually unseen in the West. Hopefully, due to it being restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, Night will find a wider, more international audience.

(Source: Nisimazine)
(Source: Nisimazine)

Playing like a more contained and terrestrial 2001: A Space Odyssey—which was released a year prior (something was in the air at the time)—Night’s story concerns a true event: the 1881 archeological discovery of a hidden trove of ancient Egyptian antiquities that included 40 mummies that belonged to a line of Pharaohs. Yet the story isn’t told primarily from the point-of-view of state-sponsored archeologists who retrieved the antiquities (i.e Mohamed Khairi plays Kamal, who is presumably based on the real archeologist Ahmed Kamal) but from the perspective of members of the Horabat tribe that both guarded and plundered the trove in the Deer al-Bahary Mountain.

Wannis (Ahmed Marei), the heir of the tribe’s deceased leader, has a crisis of conscience after his elders reveal the trove’s location to him. Should he maintain the secret while selling the antiquities to the black market so that his tribe may survive on the profit, as the elders encourage, or should he respect the tomb’s heritage by somehow stopping the desecration? Will he be a leader in the present or a preserver of the sacred, almost cursed, past?

Of course, the solution is obvious, but the dramatic conflict, as well as the story’s uncanny implications, is presented in a way that gets under your skin. Throughout the film, division is visualized as compositional tension occurs between characters, their surroundings and each other, particularly in scenes involving Wannis. In effect, spaces are seen but also felt. Also, characters often seem enclosed and dwarfed by the film’s atavistic and mysterious setting, as if the weight of time is holding them down and giving them little room to move. And, as lilacs are scattered on Wannis’s father’s grave in an insert shot at the beginning, the color of lilac selectively ornaments the film’s sparse and neutral color scheme, as though to remind him (and, subliminally, the audience) of his grief and hereditary debt.

The film is deliberate and entrancing in its pace, conveying a slow movement of time, and there’s the resonant Mario Nascimbene score, which is atonal, ambient and disquieting. While the camera and/or figures in the frame move laterally, presumably as a way to evoke the reading of a hieroglyphic passage, Night is also strangely holographic. It is multidimensional in tone.

(Source: Night in the Lens.)
(Source: Night in the Lens.)

It isn’t surprising that director Abdel Salam studied Architecture at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo as Night’s visual schema is as sturdy and magnificent as the ancient structures that appear in the film (even if there are some shots use a zoom lens, a too-prevalent motif of 60’s and 70’s cinema.) Salam also studied English literature at Alexandria’s Victoria College, which also fits as Night’s plot has a united, classical form. But that form contains a sense of historical perspective as the film is about people becoming overwhelmed by history. Furthermore, Night is a period piece made in the late 60’s. Hence, it’s made by and about people who are looking to the past for the sake of assessing cultural identity.

Yet the film implies these issues but does not provide any concrete answers. It intends to maintain the mystery, and change-disguised-as-stasis is the only thing that seems to proceed. Yet, as the final images in the film imply, memory can glide over time’s river like a buoyant vessel. Thus, our ability to create continuity is a means for us to reckon with the eternal while respecting its power. And as suggested by a quote that is superimposed over the film’s last shot, it may sustain us: “Rise for you will not perish, you have been called by your name. You have been resurrected.”

Highly recommend. Here’s to hoping that the Criterion Collection releases a second World Cinema Project DVD box set that contains The Night of Counting the Years. [2]

*******

[1] By a group of 500 prominent film critics, writers, novelists, academics and other arts professionals for the Dubai International Film Festival in 2013.

[2] Much of the information in this article came from the screening notes that The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences provided at their screening of Night that I attended. In turn, those notes quote Samir Farid’s book Cinema of Passion extensively.

DAWN OF THE DEAD (’78, dir. George A. Romero)

(Source: I-MoviesGuide.com)
(Source: I-MoviesGuide.com)

Adolescence is the apocalypse of childhood.

This dramatic, psuedo-Nietzschean statement may not be entirely true, but I think it captures a feeling one has when s/he is an adolescent. Besides acts of God or growing old, becoming decrepit and dying, becoming a teenager is a natural but traumatic development that we have to accept as commonplace. It involves a biological and psychological transformation that upends a person’s existence, and, despite the youthful vigor and optimism that comes with it, there’s a whisper of mortality to the adolescent stage that only gets louder as you get older. For many if not most, it can feel like the beginning of the end.

Now why do I start on such a sunny note? Well, I first become acquainted with the original Dawn of the Dead when I was a healthy yet moody and melancholic fifteen-year old and I found it very appealing back then. While the film’s effect on me may just be attributable to a callow hunger for sensationalism, George A. Romero’s apocalyptic, excessive and gory vision of a world gone to the dogs as a result of a zombie epidemic spoke to me as I was stuck in a cataclysm brought on puberty. Hyperbolic, I know, but most things are blown out of proportion when you’re a teenager, so much so that getting romantically/sexually rejected will seem analogous to or “supersede” a real tragedy like the death of a classmate. Therefore, I have an almost preternatural and likely imagined memory of watching Dawn, seeing a roving herd of the living dead in a shopping mall parking lot and thinking that the image had captured what I had been feeling about existence.

But as I got older and the zombie movie become more codified and commercialized, I put aside Dawn. Not that I ever considered it as less than great. But it was very much a case of guilt by association, as Dawn is a special, prototypical movie that happened to beget many “children” who often became mediocre to awful people. But also, I wondered if I had matured out of the feelings that made the film appeal to me as a teen. Transpose “Do You Remember Walter?” by The Kinks into “Do You Remember, Dawn of the Dead?” and, if you get the reference, you’ll know what I mean.

But, as it is relevant to a writing project I’m working on, I recently rewatched the film and recognized that it’s still a monumental horror film that can change according to where one is at in life. If you’re a teenager or an eternal teenager (God help you), it’s a thrilling genre film that will deliver you some depraved jollies. But it has legs—shuffling, rotting legs—that can carry things into your adulthood.

(Source: Bloody Disgusting.)
(Source: Bloody Disgusting.)

A sequel to Romero’s epochal 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, Dawn has seemed to make a bigger impact on the popular consciousness than its predecessor. This isn’t to say that Night was a lesser or less influential film, but its revisionist but bare bones depiction of zombie-dom was a MacGuffin within a chamber-piece horror scenario that reflected a rampant fear of social breakdown in late 60’s America. If anything, Night’s influence can be felt in the development of a) the notion of the independent horror film and b) a general, bleak and sometimes socially minded pessimism that has loomed large in the horror genre ever since the late 60’s.

Because it is an expansion of the zombie-dom that Romero introduced in Night, Dawn is influential in a different way: if the living dead were a means to end in the first film, the living dead are “the end” in the sequel. And with a more empathic expansion of zombie-dom comes more specificity to the nature of zombies and their effect on social structure.

Night demonstrated that zombies are the dead come back to life to feast on people and transmit some sort of zombie-causing virus through cannibalism. But there is no real suggestion of an overlap between what a zombie has become and who they once were in the first film. That’s provided in Dawn—it’s strongly suggested that in every zombie is an echo of the person that they use to be. This notion helps to increase Romero’s depiction of zombies with more uncanniness and metaphorical power.

But Dawn has had more (perhaps superficial) influence on pop culture than Night because of its depiction of what a zombie epidemic would be like on a widespread scale. For starters, the primary location is bigger: Night mostly takes place around an abandoned and barricaded farmhouse in a rural area; Dawn mostly takes place within and around an abandoned and barricaded shopping mall in a Pennsylvania suburb.

The protagonists of Dawn in the Monroeville Mall. (Source: HorrorHotel.blogspot.)

There’s also the lead-up or journey to the mall in Dawn that provides a sense of scope to the zombie epidemic (while also introducing the four main characters—Stephen (David Emge), Peter (Ken Foree), Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and Francine (Gaylen Ross.)) A TV studio crew squabbles endlessly as they try to stay to keep a news program on the air. A SWAT team raids a tenement building that is in desperate need of being quarantined but is held hostage by dirt-bag criminals. Rednecks in the sticks convene to have zombie-hunting parties. A ghostly gas station contains a family of zombies that sneak-up on the protagonists.

Considering that all of the settings in the film are found locations that have a verisimilitude to them, these vignettes add-up to portray a very recognizable society devolving into believable chaos. [1] If Night is more reflective of its time, Dawn extrapolates common fears of a large-scale, societal breakdown in a manner that still feels relevant to our postmodern, postindustrial way of life. And, for better or worse, this is what makes Dawn an index case of clichés, so much so that I wonder/worry if those who first became familiar with things like 28 Days or Months Later, the Dawn of the Dead remake, World War Z, the Resident Evil franchise and The Walking Dead franchise would watch Dawn, considered it watered down and fail to see what’s the big deal. Romero’s zombie epic might just be a victim of its own influence.

What makes the macro-mayhem click on a micro level is the film’s editing, which is credited to Romero. Yes, there’s the elaborately gory make-up effects by Tom Savini, the story’s satirical edge and the effective/clever usage of real locations. But the piece de resistance or saving grace of many Romero films is their editing. As a young man Romero cut his teeth by shooting and editing industrial short films, commercials and even segments on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Despite any faults he may have as a director, the man has a well-honed understanding of montage. (See what I mean by watching the clip below.)

 

A part of this skill involves shooting enough coverage on set and, if they’re their own editor, a director has to be very good at knowing what to film so that things will come together properly in the editing room. Thus, it’s remarkable how Romero obviously wasn’t facile, indecisive or irresponsible in deciding what to shoot; almost every shot or edit is a well-timed piece in a mosaic. The movie really cooks as a result of the carefully thought-out footage and snappy cutting. There’s even expressionistic montage (i.e. the shooting of two zombie children near the beginning is conveyed pseudo-explicitly through rapid editing (similar to how a knife stabbing into flesh was conveyed in Psycho’s shower scene), not by crossing a line by actually showing children getting shot by an adult.)

Another notable aspect of Dawn is its mixture of tones. It’s violent, somber, suspenseful, fanciful (particularly in the sequences in which the protagonists go on a “shopping spree” a la Templeton at the fair in Charlotte’s Web), haunting (see the scene in which Roger finally transforms into zombie), deadpan, gung ho, legitimately epic, exciting and, yes, satirical. [2]

If there’s one major fault to Dawn, it’s that the acting is often amateurish, a problem that’s endemic to Romero’s body-of-work. I suspect that many of those who ghettoize his films are people who tend to hinge a film on the performances it features [3] as actors are almost always the audience’s primary source of connection. Fair enough. Yet, there have been notable performances in Romero films– see John Amplas’s work as the eponymous character in Martin—and I think that Foree and Reiniger’s performances in Dawn evokes a type of winking yet burdened machismo that would be at home in a Howard Hawks film. And who watches horror films expecting to see great acting anyway?

(Source: ThatFilmGuy.net)
(Source: ThatFilmGuy.net)

Nevertheless, Dawn can capture the imagination’s dark side and, like The Godfather Part II, it’s a sequel that builds upon and expands its precursor to the point of slightly overshadowing it. It’s a corpse-filled magnum opus that portrays the world becoming a darker, crueler and more complicated place. In other words, it’s reminiscent of adolescence, a stage of life in which blatant, adult truths reveal themselves to people who just got out of their prepubescent years as a result of hormones jump-starting.

Yet, Dawn can tell you something about life’s long-haul: even if you hole yourself up in a comfortable bubble that protects you from peril (i.e. an abandoned shopping mall), the chances that something will come along and displace your existence (i.e. a roving, pillaging motorcycle gang) are very high. And that’s okay, as a great thing about being a human either living or living-dead is that you can adapt and survive, and possibly with the help of a helicopter.

And if you die, you’ll be a meal. In that case, there’s nothing wrong with giving back.

 

[1] Romero’s 1973 film The Crazies covers much of the same pandemonic ground as Dawn. In fact ,it could be seen as a “dress rehearsal” film.

[2] Now I was reluctant to list “satirical” because I think the satire of Dawn—which is an ingenious commentary on things like gun culture, consumer culture and “culture wars”—is overemphasized by those who make a case for the movie’s greatness (i.e. horror fans who feel the need to un-malign the genre.) Yes, it’s a commendable aspect, but it isn’t easy to miss or in need of elucidation. It’s just one part of Dawn’s blunt, comic-book tapestry, and to highlight it just seems too cerebral and over-determined. This movie has brains, but it’s also based around creatures that consume them with gusto. (However, I will admit that Dawn’s satirization of consumer/mall culture did appeal to me as a faux-jaded teenager.)

[3] I doubly suspect that Danny Boyle, a very talented director of actors who disparaged Romero’s zombie films by deeming then as schlocky when promoting 28 Days Later, is one of these people.