Link to an interview with Boots Riley:
Walter Reade Organization
Director: John Cassavetes
Johan Cassavetes’ Faces was his second independent production as a director. It is widely regarded as one of the most important American independent films. The film is a drama. Significantly, though, it is drama rather than melodrama. Theodor Adorno advanced a theory of the “Culture Industry”, which posited that standardized cultural goods — like formulaic Hollywood melodramas — encourage passivity and docility among the masses. It is immediately apparent that Faces is no mass produced, formulaic Hollywood melodrama! As one review succinctly put it, “Cassavetes’ gritty black and white drama analyzes the inevitable harshness of relationships (routine, jealousy, infidelity) through a rigid attention to complex emotions rarely seen in movies.” (Though one could question that review’s categorization of infidelity as “inevitable”).
The film centers around the marriage of Richard “Dickie” Forst (Marley) and Maria Forst (Carlin). Richard is an upper middle class corporate film executive — whose job seems to relate to financing in some way — entering late middle age, who has a posh suburban home, a predilection for boozing, and a womanizing “old boys club” male chauvinist attitude. The film opens with him at work, briefly, before he visits the home of a prostitute Jeannie Rapp (Rowlands) with his old friend Freddie (Fred Draper), where they carouse and make crudely cynical jokes. Maria Forst is introduced later in the film. She does not work, and the couple has no children. Her husband callously announces he wants to divorce after she refuses sex — with intended cruelty he immediately calls up the prostitute Jeannie in front of Maria. She goes out with friends to a nightclub and picks up a sort of hippie drifter Chet (Cassel). Much of the film consists of long, intense dialog-driven scenes that construct character portraits less through demonstrative action and sequential scenes that build on each other than through a series of emotive, confessional yet somewhat isolated dialogues (though of course there is more than just dialogue).
The film is often interpreted as an expression of dissatisfaction with the “American Dream”. And certainly there is something to that view. Faces draws a bit on the same sort of bohemian critique of bourgeois society as, say, Allen Ginsberg‘s beat poem Howl from a little more than a decade prior.
Richard and Maria each want something more than they seem to have, even as, materially, they have all the possessions they could want, and Richard at least commands corporate power and prestige at his job. In the film, though, the characters reach out to someone else, as if another person will provide a guarantee of meaning in their lives. And yet the film is somewhat cramped in its ambitions, in that the characters seem to at most jump from one misguided set of desires to another — if they really make any jumps at all.
The overarching narrative of individuals breaking free of social bounds and constraints that is reflected by the dissolution of the protagonists’ marriage in some ways anticipates the demise of the American New Deal coalition, which gave way to the so-called neoliberal era. Historian Jefferson Cowie‘s book Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class explored aspects of the phenomenon of individualism reflected in mass culture, drawing from the thesis of Christopher Lasch‘s famous book The Culture of Narcissism. Are the Forst’s really striving for no more than hedonistic narcissism? As captured in Michelangelo Antonioni‘s splendid commercial flop Zabriskie Point, was this hedonistic narcissism also the basic problem in what the so-called “New Left” of the late 1960s aimed for?
The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has explained how the post-modern ethical injunction (of the superego) is to “enjoy!” The message that people in American society are constantly bombarded with is the command to enjoy themselves, and those same people are thereby induced to feel guilty if they do not experience enjoyment. Žižek elaborates that the role of psychoanalysis is “to open up a space in which you are allowed not to enjoy.” In this precise sense, the obstacle is to get rid of the injunction to enjoy rather than to merely shed inhibitions to more fully enjoy whatever consumptive, sexual, spiritual, or other activities people engage in.
The Forsts are kind of like heralds of the post-modern society. In being affluent, they aren’t barred from enjoying themselves by material lack, because they can afford any amusement or living arrangement they wish. In being white and having high social status, they also experience an almost complete social/legal permissiveness to do as they wish. So, they are in this sense able to be considered true post-modern subjects. When Richard Forst seeks a divorce, it is not that his character has any sort of awakening, really. Rather, it is that his character experiences guilt by his failure to enjoy his lifestyle of power and consumption. His impulsive demand for divorce is merely a way to double-down on his existing desires, and to try to remove what he sees (in the moment) as obstacles to those desires. He simply wants to consume more — and his recourse to prostitutes is a classic example of sex-as-commodity consumerism. Actually, the scenario in which Richard wishes to leave Maria (he seems to deem it an unserious request later in the film) is close to a classic one for psychoanalysts in which a married (chauvinist) man wishes to leave his wife for a mistress, only to then have his relationship with his mistress also fall apart because he misunderstood that his true desire to have a distant and obscure object (mistress as mistress) about whom to dream.
Maria’s situation is more complex than Richard’s. She lives a life at home, spending time talking with other affluent housewife friends. She resents her husband seeing her as merely there to serve (or service) him. When she goes out with her friends and brings home Chet, she is, in a sense, making her own choices, perhaps for the first time, and we might pardon the way those actions appear hedonistic at first glance. There is, though, a great scene with Chet at Maria’s house in which one of Maria’s older friends becomes indignant that Chet considers them dancing to be ridiculous, offended at the insinuation that she is too old for him. Then perhaps the oldest of Maria’s friends takes this further, trying to make herself the object of Chet’s desire by dancing with him then tentatively asking if he will kiss her, before she breaks down crying and asks him to drive her home. It is a moment of loneliness, the manifestation of social constraints of age and appearance, and an almost humiliating projection of desire. Chet soon returns to Maria’s for the night. This sort of undermines the aspect of Maria making her own choices — is the youthful Chet with her simply because she is the youngest of the women? She eventually attempts suicide, which emphasizes the difficulty in her conceiving a new way of life.
Jeannie and Chet are the characters with the most emotional honesty. Jeannie’s behavior, for her job, is self-evidently an act. The depiction of a prostitute as most authentic individual in a capitalist society fits quite squarely with many French films of the era. Chet is a character without much depth, deployed often as merely a prompt for Maria’s character, but Cassel is wonderful in the otherwise flimsy role.
Although Faces is a groundbreaking film, it is also in some ways a less satisfying Cassavetes feature. The two main characters for the most part begin and end the film as unsympathetic fools. There are only dead ends and endless misery in their lives. Cassavetes’ later films explored in greater detail interpersonal dynamics without the hedonistic baggage that Faces carries. Those later films frequently explore with sympathy emotional bonds that are forged without regard for “happiness” as such. A possible explanation for this is a sort of “sour grapes” autobiographical one: Cassavates vindictively made a film about the shitty, miserable life of a film executive (and his wife) after he was run through the Hollywood meat grinder by such film executives when trying to work as a director in the early 60s. And yet, such a view overlooks how this might have just been a coping mechanism for Cassavetes, whose real-life personal aspirations, and sometimes his behavior, bore resemblances to features of his Richard Forst character. So the ultimate limit of the film is that it gets caught in cynicism and ressentiment that hates what is all around it without quite taking responsibility for its own position within its society and how its desires are conceived as part of that very society. Though these limitations are minor in what is still an impressive cinematic achievement.
It would be good to pair a viewing of Faces with a self-consciously psychoanalytic film by Fellini or Jodorowsky like 8 1/2 or El Topo, or, perhaps more pointedly, Frankenheimer‘s Seconds, which metaphorically (and with a sci-fi twist) depicts the inability to change one’s desire.
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Faces International Films
Director: John Cassavetes
John Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands asked him to write a play with an interesting female character for her to perform. That play ended up being unsuitable for live theatrical performance and was instead re-purposed as the film A Woman Under the Influence. Rowlands plays Mabel Longhetti, a stay-at-home mother of three children. Her mental disposition is one that is inconvenient to modern society (there being no objective definition of a “normal” mental state). Her husband Nick (Falk) is a working class construction worker. Nick is a rather angry and occasionally violent doofus who genuinely cares for Mabel. The film examines the reactions of ordinary people to Mabel’s unconventional behavior, and Nick’s attempts to cope with it — and to try to control it (and her). Mabel’s eccentricities eventually lead to her being committed to a mental hospital for six months — of note, Nick’s violent outbursts at home and work do not lead to him being committed or imprisoned. Nick proves inept but well-meaning as a sole parent during Mabel’s absence. The film concludes with an extended portrait of Mabel’s return home from the hospital. Nick planned a welcome home party, though the presence of a crowd is questioned by his mother (Katherine Cassavetes) as being too stressful for Mabel. As the guests eventually are thrown out by Nick’s mother and then Nick, Mabel clumsily attempts suicide, and her children become distraught. In a fitting conclusion echoing the ancient myth of Sisyphus, Nick carries his children upstairs to their bedroom only to have them run back downstairs to their mother and the process repeats. Such a “punishment” is fitting for Nick, as a self-aggrandizing jerk whose children seem more genuinely connected to their mother as a person with her own free will than he is.
A Woman Under the Influence is one of the “mature” Cassavetes films, in which his style that blends intense scripted and improvised acting expands upon what he had done in earlier films like Faces and Husbands, notably improving upon the overall pacing, while also deploying a much less conventional narrative structure than Minnie and Moskowitz. Rowlands and Falk give tremendous performances. Cassavetes’ narrative examines the characters’ personal situations from a sympathetic perspective, with his iconoclastic film techniques offering a much deeper palette of complex emotions than is typical in movies. What sets A Woman Under the Influence apart from Faces is that, here, a couple is struggling to keep their family together, whereas Faces saw characters striving to break free of social constraints (while ironically and cynically doing so to seek social validation). The two main characters are each unusual for feature length films, in that middle aged, working class protagonists are usually portrayed only at the margins of Hollywood cinema and the industrial nature of film production prices out most would-be independent ventures that might otherwise show interest.
These characters are all flawed, but worthy of human dignity nonetheless. Nick’s struggle to control the people and situations around him — and his frequent inability to do so — is his most pronounced character flaw. Mabel is less a “flawed” character as much as one with a combination of inability and unwillingness to conform to social expectations. Cassavetes’ movies often featured a free-spirit “hippie” character (often played by Seymour Cassel). The Mabel character is sort of a twist on that theme. This prompts frequently draconian reactions. Mabel’s commitment might be compared to the real-life story of the feminist scholar Kate Millett. This is the “hysterical woman” motif:
“Remember what hysteria is? To simplify it, from a psychoanalytic standpoint, society confers on you a certain identity. You are a teacher, professor, woman, mother, feminist, whatever. The basic hysterical gesture is to raise a question and doubt your identity. ‘You’re saying I’m this, but why am I this? What makes me this?’ Feminism begins with this hysterical question. Male patriarchal ideology constrains women to a certain position and identity, and you begin to ask, ‘But am I really that?’ Or to use the old Juliet question from Romeo and Juliet, ‘Am I that name?’ Like, ‘Why am I that?’ So hysteria is this basic doubting of your identity.”
The sympathy that Cassavetes shows his flawed characters is unique. Unlike, say, Pier Paolo Passolini‘s underclass protagonists, like the titular character in Accatone, Cassavetes’s films often deal with characters situated away from class conflicts. The Longhetti family is working class, but we see them with a comfortable home and steadily employed without obvious want. This allows for a unique focus on the characters’ inner psychology, in which viewers can witness the characters questioning their own actions and pursuing changes in their lives while at the same time struggling to make the right changes and repeatedly failing to actually change their desires as reflected in their actions. While certainly many other filmmakers relied on psychology to inform their work, Cassavetes was unique in the raw, harsh and almost bleak realism with which he depicted these things. His films are largely free of simplistic symbolism. Surprisingly, it is an approach that shared some similarities with some films of the Socialist Realism genre, such as Béla Tarr‘s early short Hotel Magnezit, albeit with the freedom to explore subjects other than a critique of bureaucracy.
In the end, A Woman Under the Influence remains a “difficult” film filled with enough heart to remain engaging from beginning to end. This is another landmark of American cinema from one of its greatest writer/directors.
Pacific Rim (2013)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
First, a brief summary of the plot of Pacific Rim. Aliens have genetically engineered kaiju (Godzilla-like monsters) that they send to Earth through an intergalactic portal (the “Breach”) that opens at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, in order to destroy human civilization and eventually conquer the planet. Humanoid robots called jaegers are built to fight the kaiju. The kaiju become larger and appear more frequently over time. Eventually, humans realize the aliens’ plans and figure out a way to detonate a nuclear bomb in the portal in order to collapse it, saving humans from the aliens. Most of the film revolves around amazing special effects used to create action-packed fight scenes between robots and monsters. But what is most interesting — to me at least — is the backdrop against which the robots and monsters fights take place.
Impotence of government – The film’s plot is heavily dependent on a view of the impotence of government. The first kaiju attack is described (but barely shown on screen) as having taken convention military forces six days to win, leaving extensive devastation. The idea that the government is unable to act to stop the kaiju is a theme carried throughout the film. The jaegers are created as an official (multi-)government program, but after one jaeger is severely damaged in a battle with a kaiju, world governments disband the program and instead build protective walls (the jaeger program is then carried on by some sort of independent [private] organization whose funding and organizational structure is never explained). The walls turn out to be easily breached. In response, world governments take no action whatsoever. In other words, governments throw up their hands and apparently decide that the kaiju should win!
Individualism – Most of the film dwells on individual action, and valorizes the motif of “great individuals”. The jaeger pilots are all hot-shot “cowboys”, just like, say, Tom Cruise‘s “Maverick” pilot character in the film Top Gun (1986). As governmental impotence provides no response to the kaiju threat, the fate of humanity is left in the hands of these “cowboys”. Although there are many individuals that take part in the jaeger program, the film presents them less as a team than as an ad hoc assemblage of individuals. This stands in marked contrast to Shin Godzilla (2016), which responds to a similar program of governmental impotence with an explicitly team-based response. And, of course, the film pays almost no attention to collateral damage to civilians. In a way, all this reflects filmmaker David Lynch‘s comments about how President Donald Trump — even if Trump fails to do a good job himself — creates an aura of disruptive greatness that reveals the ineffectual nature of opposition politicians who can’t get anything done.
Destructive industrial growth – The film never entertains any notion of peaceful negotiations with the aliens sending the kaiju through the Breach, some kind of barricade right at the outlet of the Breach, or even permanent depopulation/dispersion of large urban coastal cities. Humanity focuses instead on building giant robots — their humanoid configuration serving no clear purpose — and a coastal wall — which is so obviously inadequate to the task and so burdensome to normal human activities. There is a casual acceptance of industrial growth, and not any palpable concern about its consequences or any alternatives.
The film as a whole is strangely entertaining. That is partly due to the special effects and extensive use of action scenes, but also due to the preposterously comical interactions between the characters, not a single one of which is realistic.
Bonus links: Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies and National Security Cinema: The Shocking New Evidence of Government Control in Hollywood and Hollywood and the CIA: Cinema, Defense and Subversion and Guts and Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film and “Modern Art Was CIA ‘Weapon'” and “Booting a Tramp: Charlie Chaplin, the FBI and the Construction of the Subversive Image in Red Scare America”
Link to an article by John Sbardellati & Tony Shaw:
Bonus Links: “Woke Hollywood? The Marketing of Black Panther” and “The Politics of Batman” and War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century and “Making Greater Possibilities Inconceivable: Another Thought or Two on the Logic of Lesser Evilism” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War”
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
This is the best new(-ish) film I can remember seeing, a fact bolstered by watching the horrendous Star Wars: The Last Jedi at a second-run theater shortly after it. This autobiographical work draws from the second part of The Dance of Reality: A Psychomagical Autobiography (2001), and chronologically follows Alejandro Jodorowsky’s previous film La danza de la realidad [The Dance of Reality] (2013), which also drew from his autobiography. This is not a conventional, “accurate” or “realistic” autobiographical picture. Some scenes are altered from their historical sources, and most of the film represents stylized exaggerations of real-life events for artistic effect. While this can definitely be called Felliniesque — Amarcord, Satyricon and 8 1/2 being perhaps the closest counterparts — everything here is unique to Jodo and nothing can really be said to be copied from Fellini or anyone else. Jodo’s predilection for combining psychoanalysis and shamanism completely and irrevocably marks his own style. But perhaps it suffices to say this is about as good as Fellini at his best.
The film opens with Jodorowsky in his teens, still living in Tocopilla, Chile. Jeremias Herskovits reprises his role as the young Jodo. But his family relocates to Santiago. He develops a love of poetry. Eventually he runs away from home and is taken in by kindred spirits at a kind of artist commune. There he works on his poetry and begins making puppets for a puppet show he presents with a friend. He cultivates relationships with local poets and spends time in bars recreated here with surreal decor. He then is given a loft apartment, by chance, where he comes into himself as a young adult. A particularly moving scene is the very end of the film. This is where Jodorowsky decides to leave Chile for France. His father meets him at the port as he is leaving. In real life, he never saw his father or other family members again. But here, as a kind of narrator, he steps in to ask his younger self to forgive his father and insist on a different interaction with the father character. The film is historical, but also a dialog with the director’s own past, as a kind of quest to confront and overcome his own mistakes. Numerous scenes depart from the way Jodo described them in his earlier book The Dance of Reality. While sometimes that means the filmic depiction is exaggerated, in some instances things are toned down to be more presentable on screen.
One recurring effect is the presence of stage hands dressed entirely in black, including gloves and full-head hoods. These stage hands take things from the actors’ hands and hand them other things. Familiar in theater productions, here the effect is to consciously direct the audience to the symbolic significance of characters’ actions on screen and to heighten emphasis on the characters’ emotional states. Another device used repeatedly is the active unveiling and movement of life-size black-and-white posters of buildings and a train. These convey the past in a kind of distant echo, real yet unreal. They allude to the past while recognizing that events can’t be fully re-created, only conjured up from vague memories from a new perspective. Then the end of the film features a crowd, half dressed in skeleton costumes and half dressed in red devil costumes. The skeletons appear elsewhere in the film too. These images are striking and indelible.
Jodorowsky’s wife Pascale Montandon-Jodorowsky provides lighting, color and costume contributions. All of these aspects are particularly striking and effective. His son Aden plays his teenage self, and his oldest son Brontis reprises his role as his father. Pamaela Flores reprises her role as his mother, again singing all her lines in an operatic style, but she also portrays the poet Stella Díaz Varín, Jodo’s first girlfriend.
This is a somewhat smaller-budget film. Moviemaking is an industrial art, demanding substantial funds. It is simply not possible to realize certain things without money. Jodorowsky is quite open about his outsider status as a filmmaker, and his acceptance that his quest to make art for art’s sake places him squarely in opposition to the profit-focused Hollywood machine. He ran out of funds mid-way through filming Endless Poetry, and raised the remaining funds through a “crowdfunding” campaign. While there is the potential to see his efforts as self-aggrandizing, taking Jodo’s mysticism — drawn from zen buddhism, the tarot, and elsewhere — at face value, he doesn’t hesitate to work on his own personal “inner” growth, or to use himself as an example — good or bad — for others. This attests to some sort of more noble purpose. Returning to the Last Jedi comparison, this film presents a much more worthwhile exploration of a master/apprentice framework, particularly in the way Jodo appears directly as a kind of narrator. The Last Jedi is sub-moronic in that respect, when you get down its anti-zen “striving” narrative. These elements become even more pronounced in later parts of Jodo’s real life.
Jodo is still only part way through film adaptations of the book The Dance of Reality, and that isn’t even counting his other memoirs about episodes of his adult life like The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Supposedly he plans a five film cycle, of which this is the second. Though it does seem that the third installment is underway in some form.
Being more about Jodo’s inner struggles to “become himself” when he a teenager, rather than being about his father, makes this just a bit more interesting than its predecessor The Dance of Reality. The visuals are also more extravagant and memorable here. This is why movies are made!
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)
Director: Alan Rafkin
Here is a rather mediocre film that nonetheless features a rather great performance by its star Don Knotts. The basic premise loosely resembles the story “A Fairy Tale About a Boy Who Left Home to Learn About Fear” from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, about staying in a haunted house to win the affections of a girl. Knotts plays Luther Heggs, an inept man working for a newspaper with aspirations to be a photojournalist. Another reviewer aptly described the protagonist as having “delusions of adequacy.” A recurring gag is that as Knotts fumbles about awkwardly and timidly some unidentifiable person in the back of a crowd yells, “Atta-boy Luther!” Knotts’ finest moment comes when the small town he lives in presents a luncheon in his honor and he gives a speech. This speech manages to include a practically exhaustive collection of every inept mistake a nervous presenter can make. Knotts opens speaking in a whisper no one can hear. He talks mostly about writing the speech, without actually saying much beyond that, other than to briefly pander to the audience by expressing support for the military — a complete non-sequitur. His hands tremble uncontrollably while holding his notes. The speech just kind of ends abruptly, without ever having made a point. Knotts is positively brilliant in the scene. As a whole, the film is one of those stiff Hollywood set-bound films that is only slightly more advanced in production values than a television sitcom of the day, and there just aren’t quite enough jokes/gags. But, it is watchable and Knotts shines through the merely passable filmmaking and writing. This also perhaps influenced Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?