Friday, December 15, 2017


In grad school, a boyfriend and fellow cinephile was fond of saying that the reason we go to the movies is to see "rich people having fun." (The above opulent funfest is from Baz Luhrmann's version of THE GREAT GATSBY.)  Despite this, on our first date said boyfriend had taken me to a midnight showing of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (a fortuitous choice, because he didn't yet know I used to love 50s and early 60s horror films as a kid.) 

But I could see his point, because as a pre-teen I'd loved watching Delmer Daves movies for their cool production design, and specifically for classy people living in stunning houses like the Frank Lloyd Wright Walker house in Carmel above, from A SUMMER PLACE, or Connie Stevens' Japanese-style guest house in SUSAN SLADE. Coming from a blue-collar family and living in "rents," I lusted after those lifestyles--I loved those movies because they showed me another way to live.

Yet these were not urbane comedies; despite showing how the other half lived, the stories had their requisite tragedies.  In SUSAN SLADE, Susan's rich secret fiancĂ© is killed in a mountain-climbing fall, leaving her pregnant and--the horror!--single.  Reflecting the times (1961), in the film Susan's parents whisk the family off to Guatemala (her father's been offered a job there, conveniently), where Susan has her baby; when they return, Susan's mother passes off the child as her own.  Susan and the baby secretly reside together in the Japanese guest house on the property.  One day in the main house, the baby catches fire (no, not spontaneous combustion; the kid was playing with a lighter) while Susan and potential new flame (pardon the pun) played by Troy Donahue are in another room, but all ends well because he's a struggling writer from a lower class working as the stable boy (very D. H. Lawrence, no?), and he's a stand up guy as well as dreamy, so, when he finds out Susan's the mom, he wants to marry her anyway. 

This is the awesome climactic scene in the hospital waiting room when the doctor comes out and says that the baby will live, but only the mother can go in and see little Rogey at present.  So that's when Susan gets up and makes the Big Reveal to Hoyt (Troy) and family friends--including the new rich guy (to her right) who's proposed to her but subsequently drops her like a hot potato.

Cut to the present.  This week I was at a screening of writer-director Scott Cooper's  latest film, 
HOSTILES, starring Wes Studi and Christian Bale, pictured. Cooper introduced the film (with a little help from T-Bone Burnett!), commented on Doug Jones winning in Alabama, and said that he felt cinema has always been about bringing people together.  

In HOSTILES, Bale plays a captain who has brutally killed a ton of Indians and is loathe to escort a cancer-ridden chief (Studi) and his family back to his homeland to die, per the orders of President Harrison (the times they were a changin').  The mostly white soldiers, the Native Americans, and Rosamund Pike, whom they come across on the way, are forced to work together in order to survive their journey.  I won't say more so as not to spoil the plot, but it's a revisionist Western that very much reflects the current racial and gender divides in the country.  Cooper uses genres (48 HRS., any Western, the hero's journey) to craft a minimalist, eloquent film that also makes a quietly relevant humanistic statement.

This year, movies seem to be more political, reflective of, and reactive to the alt-right zeitgeist than ever.  To wit, Jordan Peele's GET OUT, above, a mashup of horror and social/racial drama, with a soupçon of comic relief (not all that different, really, from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD). 

Guillermo Del Toro's THE SHAPE OF WATER takes the creature-feature genre and melds it with fable, romance, and Cold War paranoia in a stunning and profoundly affecting piece of pure cinema.  It promotes peace, love, and understanding better than any other film this year.  It's the ultimate anti-MOTHER! movie.

And then there's Luca Gudagnino's CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, with a final scene that's so compassionate, empathic, and forward-thinking that it will blow you away.

I don't think anyone would argue that there's something wonderful and holy about the communal experience of watching a film with a full audience in a (hopefully quiet*) theater.  As Noah Baumbach said in a recent Vanity Fair interview, "That vulnerability in a theater is so important.  At home, you don't get that.  No matter how good your viewing system is, you're distracted, no matter what."

That vulnerability fosters receptivity, I believe, reinforcing cinema as a subversive/transformative art form that, at least for a couple of hours, can bring us together literally and figuratively.

* There are acceptable exceptions to silence, natch.  I recall seeing the original HALLOWEEN with a packed audience, and after Jamie Lee Curtis had finally killed off Michael Myers, she collapsed on the couch and tossed the knife on the floor in disgust.  We were all thinking NO!! when a woman behind us called out, "Don't even give him the benefit of a doubt!"  The entire audience burst into laughter at the same moment as Myers sprung from behind the sofa and tried to kill our heroine again; our laughter turned to screams and then laughter again.  It was exhilarating in addition to being cathartic. 

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