With Los Olvidados (1950), Luis Buñuel reached the point where real life is more surreal than dreams. The two dream sequences in the film comprise the most “normal” images in the film. In one dream, a mother visits her son Pedro’s bed with her arms ready to receive him. Buñuel’s use of slow motion elongates every gesture, while their every word is spoken steadily, without even their lips having to move. The tenderness between mother and son manifests in the dream because it is unable to in real life: the dream is the last salvation for the overworked mother, and the street-raised son. Neither of them is capable for their lots in life, for she was too young when she was raped and bore the son who, now, passes his days with ruffians in the street, living a life in which he seems fated for poverty and crime.
Still in the dream, the mother approaches the son once more, holding a slab of meat, grotesque in its raw and enormous shape, yet symbolic of the prize neither of them will have: the wealth and comfort that allows for such a lurid luxury. From under the bed comes Jaibo’s hand, plucking the meat from Pedro’s hands.
Jaibo and Pedro are the central figures of the film, the former a parasite that bleeds the young and innocent dry, and the latter the young and innocent that seems fated to fail. Fated, because he lives in the slums of Mexico City, unable to read, write, or make a friend that is not out to turn a rotten deal and wind up on top. The course of the story is the natural infection caused by Jaibo, the pestilence that spreads until the entire community is diseased and dying.
This sickness is the reality of the film: a blind street musician beaten by Jaibo for wielding a stick-and-nail against a young protégée pickpocket who was working the musician’s crowd. Punctuating the destitution is a foot going through the man’s drum: the music is no longer, and only the horror—the image—remains. Other such images abound: the young hoods attack a leg-less cripple traveling on a wheeled cart; they rob him, remove his clothing, and kick his cart down the hill, far too far out of reach. In another, quite the Dickinsonian moment, Jaibo steals a knife from Pedro’s employers. The audience is all knowing; Pedro is not, and he cannot foresee (as the audience can) that he will be blamed for the theft.
This latter scene is characteristic of the audience’s position in the film: they are allowed a view of the cyclical torture of the impoverished. Throughout the whole film, I cannot help but feel the rudder some latent satire. Just in the way that Buñuel ridiculed the bourgeoisie mentality in Land Without Bread (1933) by making the narrator a bigot, Buñuel afflicts the spectator with a sense of “insight” by prefacing Los Olvidados with a disclaimer: “This film is based entirely on actual events and all its characters are real.” The opening narration, over images of New York and Paris, is doubly confiding in its nature:
“The great modern cities, New York, Paris, London, hide behind their magnificent buildings, homes of poverty, sheltering malnourished children without hygiene, without schools, breeding grounds for future delinquents. Society tries to right this wrong, but its success is very limited. Only in the near future, may the rights of the children and teens be upheld so that they may be useful to society… Thus, this film based on real events, is not optimistic and leaves the entire solution to society’s progressive forces.”
Buñuel, in essence, is stroking the “progressive” cockles of “modern society.” The Eiffel Tower, the New York skyscrapers—all of these are as much indicted in poverty’s illness as they are commended for rising about it. The surrealist portrayal of poverty of Los Olvidados—in all its demented sadism—is not the image of realism; rather, it is the reassuring gaze of a class that has always looked down upon the poor as dehumanized and morally, not only financially, impoverished.
When it comes to 19th century Britain – where Victorian mouths bite off more than they can chew (and so prudishly try to hide it – there is an undeniable element of humor and fantasy: adventure is as sophisticated and gentlemanly as croquet. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976), Herbert Ross’ production of Nicholas Meyer’s book (who adapted it himself), is cinematically faithful to these stylistics. There are no coincidences in the movie: everything is planned out ahead of time. Dr. Watson, concerned about Sherlock Holmes’ increasing addiction to cocaine, plots to get Holmes the help that he denies needing. Using Holmes’ paranoia about his old professor against him, Watson convinces the professor to flee to Vienna, knowing in advance that Holmes, still the great detective, would follow him there. Waiting in Vienna is Sigmund Freud, ready to treat Holmes cocaine addiction.
Concurrently, some up-to-no-gooders have been planning to abduct one of Freud’s ex-patients. Once again, Holmes finds himself on the case. The atmosphere is all pre-conceived: much like Watson’s set-up in the first half of the film, the second half exhibits a chess-board like configuration, with Holmes’ incessant commentary analyzing the situation as though he had written it himself.
Nothing is left to chance in the film. There is a decided lack of naturalism: this deliberateness, however, is part of the stylistic conventions of Victorian literature, and by association, cinematic adaptations of Victorian literature. Fidelity, however, should not disguise the fact that the story and characters are highly artificial. Artificiality, however, is not a cause for condemnation, especially when it is used so effectively, such as in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Everything plays into the fantasy so well: like Clue or Murder On The Orient Express, there is no pretense about logicality.
The literariness of the plot is essential to the experience: everything is supposed to be “read.” After all, it is a mystery, and someone has to figure it out. The Victorian mannerisms, then, are very much part of the rules: they give the audience certain expectations. They know, for instance, that characters must never lose face, and have to preserve their dignity in public. This allows for characters indignant and coy. But it also pervades the atmosphere of the film: if there is something safe about public spaces, it is interminably a façade, obscuring the possibility for the perverse and malevolent.
Meyer’s script is aware of all these conventions, and this is why his film plays so well as an homage to Holmes: he is more aware of style than Doyle was. Holmes, coked out in ways that even the 1980s couldn’t live up to, is ever aware: his magnifying glass picks up on rug fabrics left from the killer’s shoes. Immediately, he knows they are from a Turkish rug. Holmes’ intellect is caricatured, but never treated with condescension.
The film is saved from absurdity by its literary writing, stylistic directing, and intelligent reading. The actors, ultimately, pull through. As outrageous as the story may be, or how super-human the characters might seem, they play it straight, as though unaware of the tributary nature of their roles. The irony, however, is that to be so convincing, they must have been aware.
Mystery Street (1950) is a film noir about “the other side” of the other side. A b-girl picks up a guy at a bar and they drive off to Cape Cod for the night, only she drops him half-way there and drives off for another rendezvous: expecting to meet her lover, she meets her death. After this seedy introduction, the film steers into the story of a young detective, played by Richard Montalban, giddy over his first murder case. Much like He Walked by Night (1948), Mystery Street demystifies police investigations, though it feels more the product of naïve idealism than gritty reality.
At one point, a Harvard professor walks through how he reassembled the bones of a skeleton, and then determined that the victim was a girl, aged 24, 65 inches tall, and danced on her toes frequently. He is the real hero of the film, the professor who reconstructs the crime, not the police officer in doubt of his capabilities, nor the martyred innocent who was falsely accused. The killer also defies the typical anti-hero nature of so many film noir: he is peripheral, and largely ignored. There are no psychological or any –ical sides to him at all, save for the logical basics: he killed his pregnant girlfriend so his wife wouldn’t find out.
Killing the girlfriend is timeless. It's just not deep enough, or dark enough, to carry the movie all alone.
Tod Browning isn’t the subtlest director around, and the intensity of his vibe stems directly from his tendency toward over-saturation. That means that in Freaks (1932) there’ll be no shortage of midgets and dwarfs: they form an omnipotent force in that film. But it also means that in The Mark of the Vampire (1935) puppet bats and synthetic cobwebs are in no short supply, nor is there any lack of dense fog (that fails to cover up the artificial studio locations). The story is steeped in vampire rhetoric, with a strict pre-Freudian feel. Victims describe the vampire attack as an almost dreamlike state, where they succumb to some “unknown” – repressed – urges.
A man is found dead one morning, slumped over his desk, with the only signs of attack being two bite marks on his neck. The town suspects vampires but the police, of course, refuse to believe in such superstitions. Enter Lionel Barrymore, the aged vampire hunter. The victim, however, returns from the dead along with a dead ringer for Dracula (played by Bela Lugosi) to cajole his daughter into joining him as an undead.
Three-quarters into the film comes a plot twist that invalidates almost everything that came before. Since the film is so ridiculous, this is of no concern: anyone who made it thus far has already forgone any sense of rationale. The twist turns the film from a vampire flick into a Banquo’s Chair-esque story about catching a criminal by toying with his subconscious. The vampire plotline is revealed to be a gimmick in order to trick the suspected murderer into reliving the night of the crime. In the end, however, the murderer is hypnotized into re-committing the crime, and the whole vampire sub-plot becomes unnecessary.
But still, there are those puppet bats, flying about the rooms, coming in through windows, bobbing up and down like the spoon in your mother’s hand that she wants you to believe is an airplane… There is no explanation sufficient to explain them. Thank goodness.
Somewhere deep in the subconscious of The Cobweb (1955) there is a giant joke just waiting to emerge, but no matter how much psychoanalysis is given to this film, the joke that it wants to be just won’t come out. As much the victim of repression as The Cobweb may be, it is more the victim of a lost memo, one that decided whether it would be a comedy, a love story, a drama, or a socially conscious expose of psychiatric clinics. The latter is decidedly inapt (considering how inept the film’s handling of psychoanalysis is) but, nonetheless, as the film nears its conclusion and the morals come out of the closet, there’s a lesson to be learned about analysts as well: sometimes they, too, tend to “lose it.”
At an open-doors psychiatric clinic, where patients are allowed to walk around town, take other patients to the movies, or attempt to drown themselves, the higher-ups are at odds over curtains for the library. Doctor Richard Widmark, in charge of the patients, pushes for a patient to design the curtains. Lillian Gish, handling the pocketbook for the whole operation, pushes for cheap cotton. Gloria Grahame, Widmark’s neglected wife, has her own fabric in mind. Somehow, this fuels a two-hour and fifteen minute drama/comedy.
Writers William Gibson and John Paxton had in mind an ensemble piece with only the barest threads holding the disparate stories together. The actors, more than the writing or Vincent Minnelli’s directing, give the film its flavor and its emotional direction, even if it does seem to be lacking a compass most of the time. If you ever wondered what would happen if Widmark, Grahame, Gish, Charles Boyer, Lauren Bacall and Fay Wray were like on screen together, this film with be the Cuisinart of your dreams. Widmark is his usual didactic self, off to save the world from another disaster: instead of the plague or Communists, this time it is your own subconscious. But for the rest of the actors (and, by association, their characters), the doctoral roles and clinical surroundings have had an adverse effect: more than ever, their personas have been anaesthetized to the point where they lack even the most surface level id.
Capote is at once intensely intimate, yet impenetrable and aloof. The contradiction is intentional, and asks the question, “How much can we truly know about why a man acts as he does?” It is the question that the audience asks of writer Truman Capote (a mimetic performance from Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who is in the process of researching and writing his non-fiction masterpiece In Cold Blood. The book focuses on two murderers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, who one evening in 1961 murdered a family on their Kansas City farm.
The film deliberates about whether Capote was truly interested in exploring these murderers, their lives and motivations, or whether it was just exploitation – a great story, something all writers dream of. Capote, himself, seems to be unsure of this. For much of the film he is their savior. He assists them in getting an appeal; a large part of his motivation, though, is to lengthen their life so as to get a fuller story. As the book nears completion, the writer Capote needs the case to be closed – for them to be executed – and the friend Capote seems to wane. Capote’s own motivations come under as close scrutiny as Smith and Hickock’s.
Structurally, the film is stripped down to this core conflict: is Capote writing his book In Cold Blood in cold blood? There are no extraneous sub-plots, or minor characters that allow for digressions. This is what makes the film so emotionally powerful: director Bennett Miller takes you through Capote’s own conflicting personal journey and never lets you off the hook. He presents Capote as he was: well aware of his own talents, but also recognizing of its burdens. In one scene Capote can be telling the name of his book to his editor William Shawn, and in the next tell Perry Smith that he hasn’t even thought of titling the book before he knows the whole story. Capote is a bastard, but he, like the audience, is aware of both the importance of what he is writing, as well as of the ethical complications that accompany it.
This is Bennett Miller’s second feature film as director, and his first fictional narrative (his previous credit was a documentary on New York City), yet Capote has more maturity than the most seasoned filmmakers. Whereas someone like Wes Anderson seems too caught up in his own self-admiration, with each new film a bigger tribute to his last effort, Miller’s unique newness to cinema allows him to create a film unperverted by his past successes and failures.
But as strong and modest as Miller’s directing is, and regardless of the convincing naturalism of the actors, photography and writing, Capote as a collective puts the cap on them all individually. If Hoffman stands out amongst the crowd, it is only because his character is peak of the mountain, the summit that everything worked toward. In Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994), there is a story of a bird that, if it touches the ground, it dies. In the end, it is a pervasive excellence, emitting from every nook and cranny of Capote, that keeps it from being a fielded grouse.
The close-ups of Capote, as essential as they are to Ingmar Bergman or Samuel Fuller, reveal so much more than just the actor’s face: they illuminate an intensely intimate, yet aloof, construction which is the contradiction that lies at the heart of Truman Capote’s struggle to write In Cold Blood.
Capote’s face is framed just above the eyebrows, and just below his mouth, expanding just the width of his glasses and nothing more. This tight-frame holds while Capote stares off-screen, below the camera. The focus isn’t centered on Capote's eyes (which are hardly present on-screen anyways), nor on his glasses, or on anything to do with what he is doing: it is on his nose. The shot is at once private and reserved, not penetrating like Bergman’s shots (where the actor stares back into the audience’s eyes), but expressing a completely different relationship between spectator and actor. It is much like the relationship between Capote and Perry Smith: the writer stares at the murderer, both as friend and as writer, but unable to do both at the same time, for they contradict each other. The ethics of the former step on the toes of the latter; the former invites privacy, and the latter presents the possibility of exploitation. In this way, we stare at Capote, filming his story as he wrote the story of Perry: we try not to judge, but are unable to do otherwise. That the gaze is unreciprocated provides us the necessary distance to think for ourselves, unsentimentally.
This movie gets a major Cineholla from the ‘holla himself.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.