It was such a sensory experience, I convinced a good friend to join me for a midnight screening. It’s no better the second time, but the visuals are decadent. Lush. I could watch it again and again with only Goblin’s soundtrack playing. Perhaps the secret is to watch it high?
“We must get rid of that bitch of an American girl. Vanish! She must vanish! Make her disappear! Understand? Vanish! She must vanish. She must die! Die! Die!”
— Madame Blanc
Dario Argento’s cult classic Suspiria is a perplexing film, and not because it’s scary. It’s pretty ridiculous, tongue and cheekiness aside.
Cowritten by Argento with Daria Nicolodi from Thomas DeQuincey’s 1845 essay “Suspiria de Profundis,” the plot is prosaic: American ballet student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) enrolls at “the most famous school of dance in Europe,” the fictitious Tanz Dance Academy in Freiburg, Germany. Suzy notices immediately that something about the place isn’t quite right — maybe it’s the two students who are murdered the night she arrives. It doesn’t take long for Suzy to discover that the school is a front for something far more nefarious. Except for a few good lines here and there, the writing is terrible. The acting is even worse. The two exceptions are Alida Valli as Miss Tanner and Joan Bennett as Madame Blanc, both of whom deliver fabulously campy performances as women of power at the school.
None of this matters, though, because this isn’t Suspiria’s raison d’être. No, Suspiria is a sensory masterpiece that places style way ahead of substance. In other words, it’s eye candy.
Argento expresses his vision through his imagery, and it’s unforgettably dazzling and unique. From the opening titles to the last scene, Argento shocks, thrills, and seduces with color, light, shadow, and surreal imagery. His sets are elegant and fake, and his blood is even faker. He lights the screen with bright reds and glowing blues (when it’s not all black from night), and he keeps the perspective distorted to create a trippy dissonance. Plus, he throws in a number of creepy psychological menaces, from maggots to a dog attack to a treacherous room-size wire dustbunny. Luciano Tovoli’s camera work perfectly articulates Argento’s vision.
This is what Suspiria is all about:
The soundtrack by Goblin is a nice touch, and it goes far in creating the mood here.
For all its flaws — and there are many — Suspiria is a memorable film. We caught a digital restoration of the original print, which is five or six minutes longer. A zealous audience member engaged us in a discussion as we left the theater. He told us that Suspiria is the first of a trilogy known as “The Three Mothers,” and he enthusiastically recommended the second film, Inferno. I’ll see it someday, but it’s not a priority.
With Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Barbara Magnolfi, Susanna Javicoli, Eva Axén, Rudolf Schündler, Udo Kier, Margherita Horowitz, Jacopo Mariani, Fulvio Mingozzi, Franca Scagnetti, Renato Scarpa, Serafina Scorceletti, Giuseppe Transocchi, Renata Zamengo
“Man, I ain’t poor. Look, I give away things to the Salvation Army. You can’t give away nothing to Salvation Army if you poor.”
Killer of Sheep has an unusually twisted history that kept it out of daylight — and the spotlight — until recently. His Master’s thesis when he was a film student at UCLA, director Charles Burnett shot it part time over a year’s worth of weekends on 16mm scraps salvaged from production houses. He used equipment borrowed from the university film department. He never intended it to be shown publicly, which is why he didn’t bother to secure licenses for all the music in it (https://mobile.nytimes.com/2007/03/25/movies/25kehr.html?referer=https://www.google.com/).
Relegated to obscurity because of copyright issues surrounding the music, Killer of Sheep was impossible to see for decades — not that that stopped the Library of Congress from adding it to the National Film Registry in just its second year of existence. A grant and a donation led to a restoration that finally placed it into the stream of commerce about ten years ago.
Burnett paints a fluid portrait of the American urban ghetto through the daily life of Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a poor black working class grunt at a slaughterhouse in Watts. His days, monotonous and uneventful, are loaded with small events like fixing the pipes under the kitchen sink, eating dinner at the table with his family, cashing a check at a liquor store, buying a used motor for a car, and getting a flat tire on a “trip to the country” only to find no spare in the truck.
While this is happening, different temptations like a job offer and a part in a crime are presented to Stan. His wife (Kaycee Moore), a weary beauty who waits for him with fresh makeup and a record on the turntable each evening, seems to be the reason he resists. Maybe it’s not her — maybe it’s because Stan simply doesn’t see himself as capable of doing any better.
Not a whole lot happens in Killer of Sheep, but that’s not the point. Like the Italian neorealist films it calls to mind, Burnett’s execution is beautifully simple: he uses non-professional actors (and children who aren’t acting at all), mundane settings and situations, and black and white film to depict the rhythm of poverty. His execution is also really haunting, as if we’re eavesdropping. It’s incredibly effective. For such a quiet and contained film, Burnett’s ultimate statement is pretty jarring.
I learned of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, his first feature length film, during my freshman year in college (thank you, U.D.). Somehow, seeing it escaped me until it screened at a recent Lynch retrospective.
The basic premise is easy to follow: Henry Spencer (John Nance, later Jack) is a schlubby factory worker who learns he fathered a mutant baby out of wedlock. At the insistence of her mother (Jeanne Bates), his freaked out girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart), moves into Henry’s tiny one-room apartment with the baby, who looks like a diseased E.T. wrapped in gauze. The baby cries constantly, driving Mary out of the apartment and leaving Henry to care for it. His neighbor, Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts), serves as an ever-increasing temptation and torment.
Really, it’s not the plot but Lynch’s presentation that makes Eraserhead unique. To be clear, it’s not his best film—not even close. It isn’t exactly representative of his work, either. Still, it’s interesting to see his trademarks in their infancy: a horrific and surreal atmosphere, bizarre imagery that here includes lots of spermatozoan objects and seemingly random scenes, spooky characters like the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), and of course Lynch’s dry and twisted wit. The sets and costumes are assembled with early 20th Century industrial junk. The soundtrack is essentially white noise in the background. Frederick Elmes and Herbert Cardwell’s cinematography is rich and textured, using black and white to create a look and mood that resembles a silent film. Their camerawork sets up a sense of claustrophobia that lingers for the duration of the film.
Like most of Lynch’s work, Eraserhead is open to interpretation. In simplest terms, it’s a horror story about the demands of the family on the individual, from small talk and dinners with in-laws to appeasing a partner to child rearing to straying from the family unit. In the tradition of great American playwrights like Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and August Wilson, Lynch focuses on the pains and dysfunction that often make familial burdens difficult to bear.
I didn’t quite grasp everything here—how pencilmaking fits into the big picture, for example. Regardless, Eraserhead is infinitely interesting. I didn’t find it particularly scary, but it definitely leaves an impression—I guess in that sense it’s a haunting tale. It’s a weird and original film. Here’s the weirdest thing about it: I actually felt something emotional for that mutant baby. Go figure.
With Allen Joseph, Jack Fisk, Jean Lange, Hal Landon Jr., Gill Dennis, Darwin Joston, Jennifer Lynch, Peggy Lynch
Production: American Film Institute (AFI), Libra Films
Distribution: Libra Films International (USA), Creative Exposure (Canada), Mainline Pictures (UK), Toei Yoga and Comstock (Japan), Chapel Distribution and Umbrella Entertainment (Australia), Eye Film Instituut (Netherlands), Potemkine Films (France)
“A relationship, I think, is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”
“You know, this guy goes to his psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, my brother’s crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken.’ And the doctor says, ‘Well why don’t you turn him in?’ The guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’ Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships: you know, they’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd, but I guess we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs.”
Classic Woody Allen is an acquired taste, kind of like gefilte fish: too weird and off putting to appreciate right off the bat, you find that you actually look forward to his annual appearance once you get what he’s about. There’s no way around it: Woody Allen is for the urban set.
Annie Hall is hands down my favorite Woody Allen film, at least out of the ones I’ve seen—and I haven’t seen them all. It’s everything that makes a Woody Allen film great: lots of nervous banter, self-deprication, uncomfortable situations (usually but not always related to sex), an obsession with manners and etiquette, and hilariously pointed observations on the absurdities of modern life. It sounds like Seinfeld, but Allen was first.
The plot is simple enough: Alvy Singer (Allen) examines his relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), an aspiring Manhattan singer and photographer. They play a cat-and-mouse game because neither wants to make the first move. Alvy and Annie are awkward and bizarre, but I still found myself rooting for both of them. The relationship doesn’t work out, but it’s really something while it lasts. Along the way are small, sublime parts for Carol Kane, Shelley Duvall, Jeff Goldblum, and Christopher Walken.
Annie Hall stands out even as a Woody Allen film, and for an obvious reason. Underneath its entertaining and brilliant storytelling, underneath its many bells and whistles—subtitled subtext, a cartoon segment, and cameos by Marshall McLuhan, Paul Simon, and the Evil Queen from Snow White? Fuck yeah!—is a poignant reality: people change. For all its warmth and wit, Annie Hall spends more time showing its protagonists fall out of love than in it. Rich and layered, it’s funny yet wrenchingly accurate. While we laugh out loud, it plays on our worst fears—none of us wants to end up where Alvy and Annie do.