Monday, November 24, 2014

Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! (1989)

It all starts with a traumatic experience: it’s Christmas day and a family goes to visit their grandfather in an elderly home. One of the boys is told to watch out and this really shakes him up – for good reason. On the way back they see a drifter dressed up as Santa Claus, and as they stop to help him… Guess what he does? He shoots the father and brutally cuts the throat of the mother! This will be the traumatizing moment for the two boys who, luckily, get away. But, after all of this, they are put into a Christian orphanage and later on in life, when they are more grown up, this experience will come-up and haunt them, leading to some very violent consequences.

The Silent Night, Deadly Night series is a remnants of Eighties exploitation horror cinema. Do they provide scares? Yeah. Are they entertaining? For sure. But on a whole the premise is pretty far-fetched, the acting could be pretty bad, and by the time of the fourth and fifth film it’s not even worth trying to make sense of the plot. But of note is its third installment Better Watch Out!, which is directed by Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop, The Shooting). Bill Krohn, writing in Cahiers at the time, in his article Hollywood a l’Heure du “Déjà vu” (N.423) emphasizes its implicit critique of franchise films and sequels (the whole premise of the film is about resuscitating one of the near-dead killer sons) through one of the jokes in the film: “What do you call when you experience a déjà vu twice? Stupid.” Krohn also sees in Hellman, “the most important American director,” and Better Watch Out!, “the first contemplative slasher film,” through its use of framing and identification.

Maybe one of the best in the franchise, which is based on the original Charles Sellier film, Hellman’s installment feels a lot like a David Lynch film. Better Watch Out! is an exercise in filmmaking style and is very atmospheric. In it there are a couple of scenes where people are watching an old Roger Corman film that Hellman worked on, The Terror. And it is this low budget, direct-to-video filmmaking approach, which for Hellman goes back to Beast from Haunted Cave, which Better Watch Out! continues with, and which Hellman is loyal too, even today with his most recent neo-noir Road to Nowhere.

In Better Watch Out! a young blind and clairvoyant woman (Samantha Scully) – a protagonist that shares many similar traits with the one from Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 – after participating in a speculative medical study, leaves the city with her brother and his girlfriend to their grandmother’s house for Christmas dinner. Where Silent Night, Deadly Night II recycles over forty minutes of the first film before shifting its focuses towards the other younger brother as he becomes a sociopathic killer; Hellman reinvents the potential of the series' original traumatic premise as he gives Better Watch Out! an almost mythic quality with references to Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, Frankenstein, and Black Cat.

It’s less a film about a brutal murderer (the Santa Claus Killer from the previous one is incapacitated, with his brain outside of his head in a strange medical bowl) than one of an unfriendly and violent world. Better Watch Out! takes Hellman’s interest in the absurd and Becket to its logical conclusions. The whole film is a nightmare that has a way to unnerve and get under one’s skin. The psychic murderer builds on Oberlus from Hellman’s Iquana (which he just made the previous year) and the nighttime driving scenes, where the different characters discuss their existential philosophies, evoke Two-Lane Blacktop.

Brad Stevens even views it as an important feminist film, “Better Watch Out! is the point Hellman’s cinema had been inexorably moving towards. The earlier works’ feminist elements here solidify around an active-heroine, while the masculine viewpoint is unambiguously rejected.” Even though it was only a contract film (“A movie I did not want to make,” says Hellman) for a producer friend, Hellman was able to re-work the original script with Rex Weiner, Steven Gaydos, and his daughter Melissa (who has a small role as Dr. Newbury’s assistant) to tell the story he wanted to tell and to make it his own. And he’s still proud of it today as he discusses it in recent interviews.

But if Better Watch Out! stands out it’s for being a certain kind of horror cinema that is no longer made today. A lineage could be traced from Jacques Tourneur to Dario Argento to Hellman and to Lynch. But what are the new films or who are the new directors that are still carrying this psychedelic and eerie torch? None come to mind (except for maybe Refn). But it's worth connecting Hellman to Lynch a bit further, as Lynch’s European-financed productions and side-projects provide a general idea of other directions Hellman could have gone towards. There are many actors and actresses even in Better Watch Out! that would go on to work with Lynch (Laura Harring, Richard Beymer, Eric Da Re). The original popularity of Twin Peaks (regardless of its network failure and compromise) could be seen as the black hole of this surreal, psychedelic filmmaking style. And for more on this subject there is Andy Burns’ upcoming book Wrapped in plastic. Twin Peaks (ECW Press) which provides its history, reasons for its importance, and impact. It’s the book the series truly deserves.

This Lynch connection is important to stress. If the psychedelic qualities of the original Jack Nicholson-Hellman collaborations dissipated later on in the actor's career (The Shining excluded), it is the actors that would go from Hellman to Lynch and then Lynch outwards that would be the seed of a new found mysteriousness in film and television culture in the Nineties. With Better Watch Out! and then Twin Peaks these actors portray characters whose depth lies in their frightened, mysterious and evil qualities. Some other roles these actors participated in include Ray Wise in Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing, David Patrick Kelly in Mark Rappaport’s Exterior Night, all the way to the most recent appearance of Sheryl Lee in Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard. Before things can be normal again, they’ll have to be weird.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Imagining Crisis

“The salt of the earth, will inherit it.”

David E. James describes Salt of the Earth as the “unquestioned masterwork” of the Hollywood Ten, and as such, holds a special importance within the Red Hollywood canon (a clip from it is even prominently featured in the Thom Andersen and Noël Burch documentary).

Salt of the Earth, from 1954 and filmed during the height of McCarthyism, is one of the only films to be made by a largely blacklisted production crew. Four of its primary creators were blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Paul Jarrico and Herbert J. Biberman, to make the film, had to fund it with their own Independent Production Corporation, use non-IATSE union actors and technicians, and film outside of the traditional studios, filming January 1953, in Silver City, New Mexico. And it goes without saying that there were lots of difficulties that arose while filming, editing, and distributing it!

It’s necessary to highlight who these HUAC blacklisted individuals were. There is its producer, Paul Jarrico, who refused to testify after being given a subpoena, which led to his getting fired at RKO by Howard Hughes. The director, Herbert J. Biberman, one of the Hollywood Ten. Even though Andersen describes him as, he “might have passed as untalented in 1947,” Biberman still received a six months prison term, for the contempt of Congress, due to not naming any of the American Communist party members names. (Along with Salt of the Earth, he would direct Slaves (1969), which Andersen describes as, “the only intelligent Marxist film ever produced by a Hollywood studio.”) There’s Michael Wilson, who in 1952 received the Oscar for the screenplay for A Place in The Sun, who was also named an unfriendly witness. He wrote the screenplay of Salt of the Earth, and then got the actual Mexican-American miner community to go through it and make revisions. (There is the funny anecdote regarding the difficulty of the casting of the police and mine owners in the film: The characters were so despicable that none of the non-professional actors wanted to play them!) And then there’s Will Geer, who was blacklisted in the early 1950s for refusing to testify.

The plot of Salt of the Earth dramatizes a long and difficult workers strike that actually happened between 1951 and ‘52 at the Mine Mill and Smelter in Grant County (near Hanover), New Mexico against the Empire Zinc Company. (In the film, the company is identified as "Delaware Zinc," and the setting is "Zinctown, New Mexico.") The workers of Department 890, who were 97% Mexican, stopped working, for over a year. They were striking because of hazardous working conditions. The capitalist owners expected the miners to go into the zinc caves alone to light explosive sticks of dynamite, instead of in pairs, which would be the safer thing to do, as then there would be someone to look out for them. The workers were striking for three things: safe work conditions, proper hygiene for their domestic residences, and the abolishing of systematic discrimination so that they would get equal pay as their Anglo-Saxon counterparts from the other mines. The women in the community even picketed after the men left off, when the men eventually received a court order preventing them to picket. (It is also interesting to note, how the strikers march in a circle, which was done, due to how, in this period, the police could have arrested them if they were only standing.) In all of this the authorities held a neutral position, even in face of racist public reactions to the events, which at times, from what is described, recalls the violence of the earlier Soot Suit Riots (e.g. abductions, destruction of private and public property, attacks etc). The film, which was made with the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, and whose president Juan Chacon even acts in the film, experienced similar prejudices while making and releasing the film. For example, the lead, and only professional, the Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas, who plays Esperanza, would get arrested, sent back to Mexico and blacklisted right in the middle of the production.

Salt of the Earth generally follows the classic Hollywood narrative style, but how it’s different, is in its break in representational conventions of class (showing a strike from the worker’s perspective, as noble and successful), ethnicity (the Mexican workers), and gender (giving the women’s perspective equal weight). The film builds on several different filmmaking traditions. First off, there are the American militant films of the 30s, which Edgar Fary in Positif (N.11) has done a great job contextualizing it within. These films were made in a society, before the communist witch-hunts, where, between the Great Depression and WWII, under Roosevelt, films could still be socially critical. In particular the films around Frontier Films, where worked the social photographer Paul Strand and the documentarian Leo Hurwitz, and films like United Actions (’39), Native Land (’38), and Strange Victory (’48). More on this, James writes that Salt of the Earth, “combined the two models of 1930s radical cinema, the collaboration between manual and cultural workers begun in the WFPI newsreels and the Hollywood Popular Front’s vision of a popular progressive feature.” James writes that Salt of the Earth was “the first feature since the WIR’s Passaic Textile Strike that was, as its producers point out, “of labor, by labor, and for labor.”” Other example of influences and affinities include the Soviet Constructivism of Dovzhenko and Eisenstein (especially its emphasis on nature and land, communal protest, and its use of editing and close-ups), the location shooting of Italian Neo-realism, the spirit of popular Mexican cinema, and the New Deal social realism of films like King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread (1934). As well, for its militant qualities, of conveying truth to power, and calling out for action, Salt of the Earth is similar to René Vautier’s anti-colonial film Afrique 50. And one can see the influence Salt of the Earth had an the radical independent American filmmaking tradition on directors as diverse as Robert Kramer, Charles Burnett, John Sayles, John Gianvito and Laura Poitras.

James in The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles focuses on Salt of the Earth in depth, through a formal and political reading of the film. James contextualizes Salt of the Earth within the avant-garde micro-cinemas of the greater Los Angeles area, which are themselves in opposition to the hegemony of Hollywood, through their emphasis on their unique geography and history. James argues, “Since Hollywood was the center of the medium that dominated global culture, cinemas located in Los Angeles counter to Hollywood were the most critical and the most fundamental of all forms of resistance to the cultures of capitalism.” Los Angeles is an anomaly, an agglomeration of separate communities, and these local spatialities, are linked to their own, and wider, cultural heritage. And, evidently, this division is based on income, class and ethnicity. One emphasis of The Most Typical Avant-Garde is how truly diverse the Los Angeles communities really are, and how their micro-cinemas, through the decades, reflect these disparate ethnicities, genders, and sexual politics.

James highlights the general positive reception of Salt of the Earth during its release with liberal newspapers and magazines, who generally agreed with its message of class, race, and gender equality. Though the film was still marginal since it only did get a very brief American release due to the black-listing of its creators. But the film did receive a good a reception at Cannes, where it played outside of competition, and then in Europe. The film would be rediscovered during the political turmoil of the Seventies, where, according to James, it would be rediscovered and, though its message of class would be overlooked, it was appreciated through the lens of race and gender. It would petty to accuse the film of just being blind communist propaganda, as a certain Pauline Kael would do, because it’s more complex and poetic than just that. Or complain that its good intentions reduce its efficiency, compared to the spectacle, drama and violence of other films that share its themes like Anthony Mann’s The Last Frontier or Joseph Losey’s The Lawless, as per Louis Seguin. So to conclude what Salt of the Earth achieves is a fight for liberty and personal pride, and it inspires hope for the future. For example, just pay attention to its motif and use of children. As its last intertitle beautifully states: “The salt of the earth, will inherit it.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Seafarers: Watch out for the Water

A little forgotten today, Stanley Kubrick’s The Seafarers (1953) is worth returning towards and closely studying for a better understanding of the director’s oeuvre. Made after his other short-docs Flying Padre and Day of the Fight, and even his first, and disowned, film, Fear and Desire, which is about a wartime invasion in an anonymous country; The Seafarers stands above the rest, by, along with being his first experiment with color, exploring many important themes that Kubrick would later develop. Where Padre and Fight build on his Look photography background, and then more explicitly his Weegee affinity and Dassin’s The Naked City (which he worked on as a street photographer) with The Killer’s Kiss and The Killing; The Seafarers stands out as an anomaly.

A bit of context, The Seafarers is a commissioned thirty-minute promotional industrial film for the Seafarers International Union, written by Will Chasan, and is filmed at the offices at the Atlantic and Gulf Coast District of the American Federation of Labor. It is generally seen as a minor work in Kubrick’s career (if it is even known), but, as Vincent LoBrutto writes, it is actually note-worthy. "In tone the project was an extension of the positive-spin material he had done for Look magazine," writes LoBrutto, but "if The Seafarers had been directed by any of the hundred of professionals working on these meat-and-potatoes films, it would probably be of little note to film history. But the short subject as directed contains the DNA to identify it as a Stanley Kubrick film." What exactly does this mean?

In The Seafarers Kubrick creates some very striking images. There are scenes of groups of men in high activity and at rest, a striking close-up of a photograph of a naked young woman in a barbershop, a bravura long-take in the cafeteria etc. The themes that emerge here are the conflict between humanity and technology, and self-interest against collective good. Kubrick even has a way to undermine the purely promotional value of the film through its subjects and editing. There is a reason why in Full Metal Jacket Joker plays a marine photographer! Something happened on this ship that Kubrick is trying to highlight. I suspect, if Laurent Vachaud’s brilliant thesis that Eyes Wide Shut is a critique of the Illuminati is correct - through its compassion towards the couple’s daughter (which he suggest might get abducted at the end) - then The Seafarers anticipates the marine that Alice Harford (Nicole Kidman) fantasizes about. Could all this be a reference to L. Ron Hubbard? What exactly happened on the ship? Not to get all The Crying of Lot 49 about this, but if one scrutinizes beyond the surfaces, there are also many connections between The Seafarers and other films like, say, the war-time USS Ship reference in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws or even the more direct critique of scientology in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.

And water actually plays an important role in Kubrick’s cinema. The Sterling Hayden general of Dr. Strangelove worries that the Russians are going to contaminate the American drinking water supplies and Jack Torrance gets frozen, stuck in ice, at the end The Shining. Take this as one Kubrick’s most devastating warnings: Watch out for the water and seas! Who knows what’s going there!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


The year 2014 might as well be Michel Ciment's as, along with his other activities at Positif and on the radio, he's at the center of film culture with his three new books: Jane Campion on Jane Campion, a republication of all his interviews with the director along with new texts and beautiful illustrations; Une renaissance américaine, a collection of thirty of his famous director interviews; and now Le cinéma en partage, a conversation autobiography with N.T. Binh.

It needs to be said that anyone that has followed Ciment over the years, or is just familiar with him, will already be familiar with a lot of what he has to say, his taste and views. But regardless there is still a lot of new writing and anecdotes that are really interesting to read, and so is his passionate and ever combative spirit and prose. Le cinéma en partage even comes with the rare Simone Lainé documentary of the same titles, which has been for too long inaccessible, which provides a fascinating inside look at his routine activities.

Le cinéma en partage is especially interesting as it reads like an audio-commentary to his illustrious career where through its near 400 pages, each of his activities, publications, documentaries, thoughts on film criticism and its culture is discussed at length. Even though Ciment talks about an early Truffaut and Rivette influence, he is situated more along the third generation Positif critics Roger Tailleur and Robert Benayoun (who get a dedication), who were returning to the more positive approach closer to Bernard Chardère, in contrast to the stricter Marxist second generation critics, Ado Kyrou and Louis Seguin. Having been a film critic at Positif since the early Sixties (cf. his first review of The Trial), Ciment is full of interesting knowledge about film history, cinephilia and French film criticism. And little hidden secrets are casually dropped throughout the book: an argument with Andrew Sarris about the merits of Scarecrow, Robert Bresson at public talk where he’s more affable (which appears in Bresson on Bresson), Truffaut’s regrettable early affinity with the Nazi sympathizer Lucien Rebatet, or Kubrick personally ordering 400 copies of his book from him …

Ciment, and many of the other Positif critics, offer a unique approach to cinema in their writing and through their activities. I think Antoine de Baecque and Philippe Chevalier are wrong for not including him in their Dictionnaire de la pensée du cinéma. At Positif cinema and its history is taken seriously and is an instrument of social protest, imagination, and is popular.

Michel Ciment will be in Toronto the weekend of November 8th to present a couple of Stanley Kubrick films at the TIFF Bell Lightbox to coincide with their new exhibition. Here at Toronto Film Review we wish him a giant welcome!