The arrival of the Spaghetti Western in the mid-1960s might be credited as the major pivot point for the film Western on the whole, but a subtler shift began more than a decade earlier. American director Budd Boetticher was familiar with the genre in 1956, having helmed six or seven Westerns in the early ’50s, films starring the likes of Rock Hudson and Glenn Ford. By and large these fit the mold of what you’d expect from the era, right down to the leading man: young, chiseled cowboys with a strong moral compass and a way with horses. Typified by Hudson, Ford, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Joel McCrea and especially John Wayne, the Western Heroes of the time are jokingly (or not?) said to have had only two emotions on display: “hat on” and “hat off.”
The Spaghetti Western, of course, bucked that cleancut protagonist so far off the horse that he never really saddled up again. Sergio Leone introduced heroes that were as dirty as the villains, both literally and figuratively, first embodied by a snarling Clint Eastwood in the Dollars Trilogy. Leone would later cast Henry Fonda — the blue-eyed all-American known for playing Honest Abe and the least-angry man in 12 Angry Men — as the ruthless villain in Once Upon a Time in the West, solidifying the death of the unambiguous good guy/bad guy depictions that had defined the genre to date.
The 2021 Independent Film Festival Boston came to a close last night, having presented a virtual slate that included great films like Summer of Soul and The Sparks Brothers. The online format only left a lingering feeling of imperfection during those more raucous, larger-than-life entries, which Soul and Sparks certainly are, as the communal theatrical experience must bring out even more of the Big Joy in those films. I’m not sure that’s the case for How It Ends, the Closing Night film from Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, a movie so slight and lonely that screening it at home sort of fit the bill perfectly.
How It Ends follows Liza (Lister-Jones) as she tries to get to her last party before the world ends. A conspicuous meteor hangs over her citywide jaunt, scheduled for impact around 2am, and so Liza engages in much the same behavior as everyone else: she says “fuck it,” eats a stack of pancakes with a glass of maple syrup, and sets out to right a few wrongs with the people in her life before the apocalypse arrives. She’s accompanied by her Younger Self (Cailee Spaeny), who by turns keeps Liza in check and also spurs her onward into situations she might otherwise avoid.
I’m constantly being surprised by What Lies Beneath. On first viewing it surprised me that Robert Zemeckis, the Spielberg acolyte behind feel-good romps like Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, would direct this self-contained horror flick. Years later, I was surprised to learn that Clark Gregg — Agent Coulson himself — wrote the screenplay. When I revisited Beneath a few months ago, the thing that surprised me was how good it was, how it does a lot with fairly little, how the straightforward nature of the plot obscures nuances that you wouldn’t catch the first time through. And then, of course, I was surprised a final time to learn that I am not in a majority here, that the film received mixed reviews upon release and currently has a dismal 47% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and that the Pantheon of Horror Flicks may not hail What Lies Beneath as a genre masterpiece after all.
Doubtful, of course, that Beneath would ever really slip down the precipice into the Abyss of Forgotten Horror Flicks. It’s got Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford, and they and Zemeckis secured their places in film history long before 2000. And no, it’s not an outright masterpiece; it probably does little that Hitchcock didn’t do decades earlier. But one feels the need to defend it all the same, no? If not to reinstall it in the Pantheon or rescue it from the Abyss, perhaps just to feel better about being so endeared to it, as I am. We could touch on the film as a whole or dig into some of those criticisms from the mixed-review crowd…or we could sorta just talk about one single scene.
As a White Dude with a full deck of privilege and a shitload of unlearning to do when it comes to an effort at anti-racism, I acknowledge that there’s always going to be imperfection, at best, in my understanding of the Black Experience. Too many people like me use that as an excuse to not even try, of course, preferring the comfort of a bubble in which ignoring racism is hardly ever recognized in and of itself as a racist act. As a White Dude, part of me resides inextricably in this bubble regardless of my physical location. There’s quite an echo in here. And while I do recognize that ignoring racism is itself a contribution to racism — of course it is — I’m still undoubtedly one of those unthinking contributors. And admitting this puts me no closer to our aforementioned understanding. Nine out of ten attempts to place myself outside of the bubble are too weak to even perforate it, and the tenth is a noble failure.
Amongst those measures of not-enough is the discovery, experience, discussion and championing of Black Art. This is too easy and not impactful enough to be considered “putting in the work” for us White Dudes, or to count as allyship in any meaningful sense. So I’m gonna sound really, really desperate to make a grand point here when I turn heel to assert that it’s also not nothing, because not nothing is hardly the bar we should be striving to clear. But when discovering, experiencing, discussing and championing something as vital as Mangrove, even this most passive engagement can result in challenging questions of the sort that are typically drowned out in the din of the benighted bubble.
Time is not the type of documentary that could have been directed by anyone. Sure, it could have. Most documentaries are exactly that, and to be fair there’s something to be said for an unobtrusive, understated approach to nonfiction filmmaking. Here, the subject matter is so relevant and the central “character” is so compelling that the documentarian in the director’s chair could simply have flicked the camera on and pointed it at Fox. Time would likely still be an essential watch. But Garrett Bradley, in directing only her second feature, does so much more in bringing Fox and Rob Richardson to the screen.
After a robbery they committed in desperation in the 1990s, wife and husband Fox and Rob are separated when Rob is sentenced to 60 years — without parole — for the crime. They already had one child at the time of Rob’s incarceration, and Fox was pregnant with twins at the time. In the ensuing twenty years, Fox not only raises her boys and makes a career of speaking publicly about her experience, but fights tirelessly to secure Rob’s release. Throughout it all, Fox maintains a video diary for her husband, charting the growth of their children and the struggle for their family’s reunification over two long decades.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire set the film world alight last year. It didn’t succeed quite in the culture-shock storm-the-box-office fashion of other non-English language features like Parasite, probably because Portrait‘s power wasn’t unlike that of a secret: it never relied on making a big splash (narratively or even externally) to make the intimate feel universal. Everything about that film seems secretive, not least of which, obviously, is the forbidden romance between its two leading women. Consigned to privacy in isolation together for a limited amount of time, the fragility of their secret lends a sense of doom to the film’s loveliest moments. Part of the brilliance of Portrait was this: these lovers are on a literal island away from the norms of society, and yet are still forced apart in the end by those very same norms.
The lovers of Rafiki have no such refuge, apart from the private moments they make for themselves amidst the Nairobi bustle. Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), in fact, lead individual lives that are likely more public than most. Kena is the daughter of a prominent politician seeking election in the coming days. She spends much of her time in the same haunt preferred by the vicious town gossip, who hardly even seems to recognize privacy as a concept. Ziki, meanwhile, is also the daughter of a politician — the one running against Kena’s father, of course — and spends much of her time dancing with her friends around town. Her floor-length multicolored braids are not those of someone who appears to shy away from the spotlight.
The Earrings of Madame de… is the English-language title for Madame de…, as it was released in France, which heralds the heart-shaped diamond jewelry — not its owner — as the star of the film. The earrings do indeed play a major role, significantly altering the lives of those who possess them, seemingly propelled by their own willpower from one owner to another and back again. With a pinch more malice this would be The Lord of the (Ear)rings, a fantasy tale about tempting jewelry that instills a deadly pride in those who dare purport to wield such power. But the passionately humanist Max Ophüls ensures that this is always really the story of Madame de…, not simply of her diamonds, and the themes of pride and ownership don’t necessarily involve the earrings at all.
That sleight-of-hand is one of the many reasons Madame de… stands as the most highly-praised work by Ophüls, whose career as a filmmaker was constantly capsized by the onset of World War II. A German-born Jew, Ophüls fled and became a French citizen in 1938, only to have to flee further to the U.S. There he failed to break into Hollywood until an admirer of his work recommended him to Howard Hughes; it helped that the admirer was none other than Preston Sturges. Ophüls directed five Hollywood productions before returning to Europe in 1950, where a new stage of his filmmaking career blossomed. Each of his final films — La ronde (1950), Le plaisir (1952), Madame de… and Lola Montes (1955) — is a masterful achievement in its own right, championed thereafter by the likes of Samuel Fuller, Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson.
Those with a dream to fulfill have a better chance of survival. This is the idea put forth to Diego Fairman, a once-famous film director, as he lies in his hospital bed. He’s dying of cancer at the moment, given only a few months to live, his body ransacked by the disease at every turn. Diego’s life outside his body has been ransacked, too, the cancer boiling within him such that deep issues in his marriage, his family and his work all bubble to the surface. The ailing artist knows he wants to survive, but he doesn’t yet know that this means more than simply “staying alive.” Even if you’re in perfect health, your chances of survival are better with a dream to fulfill.
My Hindu Friend unfurls the story of Diego (Willem Dafoe) methodically, with the mixture of matter-of-fact realism and dreamlike romanticism that one should expect from writer/director Héctor Babenco. The former finds grounding in Pixote, Babenco’s documentary-esque 1980 film about Brazil’s delinquent youth; elements of the latter can be traced to Kiss of the Spider Woman, Babenco’s transcendent 1985 endeavor to bring Latin American magical realism into the mainstream. It’s fitting that Babenco’s own art impact My Hindu Friend, as the film is based on true events from his life. Inasmuch as Diego is a stand-in for Babenco, the inextricability of art and “survival” is always at the forefront.
One of the best collections available on the Criterion Channel is one called Film Plays Itself, a self-reflexive assemblage of movies about movies. Here you’ve got your classics, like Sunset Boulevard and 8½. You’ve got your “out-there” stuff, like the experimental Symbiopsychotaxiplasm or Godard’s New-Wave Contempt. And you’ve got some modern triumphs like The Player and Adaptation. Each of these sort of screams CINEMA! in a not-so-subtle way, which is not a knock against them so much as a bit of a prerequisite for inclusion on the Criterion Channel in the first place. But the highbrow reek of such an overly-academic, carefully-cultivated program of thinkfilms threatens to become overbearing without any deviance — or at least it would, if not for Hollywood Shuffle.
In the mid-1980s, Robert Townsend saw the same problem that every black actor saw in Tinseltown: you either play a criminal, a convict, a slave or some combination of the three. Moreover, depictions of those figures were by and large stereotyped approximations rather than actual characters. Shuffle sparked when a white casting director turned Townsend down for a role because he “wasn’t black enough,” and Townsend recognized this as a brand of systematic racism baked into Hollywood itself. He only had to look to the local cinema at the time for evidence: the sole major studio production with black leads in the 1985-’86 movie season was The Color Purple, written and directed and produced by white men and a clear-cut case of overly-sentimental, stereotypical depictions of black men and women on the silver screen.
Rather than a standard film review, we’ve been compiling a visual glossary of likely inspirations in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master. Huge props go to Fandor, A Bittersweet Life and various others for compiling similar versions of this over the years. We’ll periodically update this article with new additions as we find them, so hit the comments at the bottom if you think you’ve spotted another visual cue.