All posts filed under: Cinema

Ray Russell’s Incubus: A Lost Gem from America’s Twentieth Decade

Hard as it might be to believe, the years that stretched from roughly 1967 through the bicentennial year of 1976 brought even more foment, outrage, unrest, and upheaval to America than the most recent decade has managed. The escalation of the Vietnam War, the student protests against that war, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., psychedelia and the sexual revolution, Woodstock, the political resurrection of Richard Nixon, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the moon landings, the Manson murders, second-wave feminism, the Pentagon Papers, the shootings at Kent State, Watergate, the fall of Nixon, the rise of the summer blockbuster film—it was an era of almost unprecedented social and cultural turmoil. Perhaps that explains why so many remain fascinated by that era today. All sorts of recent cultural properties have revisited it: the 2020 Amazon Prime TV series Hunters (set in 1970s New York City and starring 1970s icon Al Pacino), How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (the recent HBO documentary about the Bee Gees), Emma Cline’s 2016 novel The …

Tennessee Williams and Woody Allen: Kindred Spirits to Illuminate our Tragicomic Existence

One of the delights of Woody Allen’s recently released memoir, Apropos of Nothing, is its celebration (all too-brief, alas) of Tennessee Williams. “I always wanted to be Tennessee Williams,” Allen writes. “I grew up idolizing [him]. The movie of Streetcar is for me total artistic perfection… the most perfect confluence of script, performance, and direction I’ve ever seen.” I wanted to be Tennessee Williams, too, when I discovered his works at age 18. And I’ve been a Woody Allen fan since seeing the Jazz-age romantic fantasy A Purple Rose of Cairo when it was released a year later, in 1985. Yet only with Blue Jasmine (2013), his homage to A Streetcar Named Desire, did I realize how deep his love of Williams flowed. And only now, upon reading his memoir, do I discover how much Allen consciously strove to channel Williams’s techniques. “I don’t want realism, I want magic,” is how Blanche put it. Looking back on A Purple Rose of Cairo—in which Mia Farrow’s Cecilia so yearns to escape her dismal reality that she …

The Hustler and the Queen

NOTE: This essay contains spoilers. The surprise success of the Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit has brought me a great deal of delight—I’m a longtime fan of both the novel and its author, Walter Tevis. Just this summer, I wrote an essay about all the great American popular novels I wish I’d written myself, and the first book I mentioned was Tevis’s 1959 masterpiece The Hustler. But while The Hustler may be Tevis’s best book, The Queen’s Gambit has always been my favorite. I’ve never been anything but an incompetent at the pool table, but for a brief shining hour I was a chess prodigy. In July of 1968, a few weeks before my 10th birthday, I competed in a state chess tournament at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, and won the prize for Best Fourth-Grade Boy. This triumph—my first and only triumph at anything—survives online in the archives of Northwest Chess magazine. Usually when a high-profile film or TV series is adapted from the work of …

A Reasoned Judgment and a Reputation in Ruins

Well, now it’s not just the word of British tabloid the Sun, it’s also the rather weightier opinion of Mr Justice Nicol: Johnny Depp is a wife-beater who assaulted Amber Heard on at least 12 separate occasions during their relationship. Like many others who have brought libel actions to clear their names, Depp has found that using the law to defend your reputation is a very expensive way of shattering it—in this case, probably beyond hope of repair. A lot of his fans don’t like it, of course. #JusticeforJohnny has been trending, along with out of context—or simply invented—quotations from the judgment. There have also been lurid suggestions that it was “corrupt” for Nicol J to sit on the case because he once co-wrote a book on media law with Geoffrey Robertson QC, whose wife was friendly with Jennifer Robinson, a barrister who had advised Heard. That ground of appeal, I can confidently predict, will get him nowhere. Nevertheless, dubious or false allegations of physical or sexual violence are by no means unheard of, whether …

What We Owe to ‘The Boys in the Band’—and Other Classics of Gay Film

Ryan’s Murphy’s new Netflix production of The Boys in the Band is a time capsule of gay life in New York City, 1968. A group of friends, all but one closeted, get together for a birthday party that makes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf look like a strawberry social. Shame, guilt, fear, and self-loathing rip through a night of pills, alcohol, and panic attacks, ending with the lines, “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse,” and “If we could just not hate ourselves so much… If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.”  I was 18 when I saw the original production, alone, and 19 when I saw the 1970 film adaptation, also alone. I furtively entered and exited the theatre both times, terrified that someone I knew might see me at a show about gays. Would they wonder if I was gay, too? If they guessed, then what? I could end up like those characters, cast off by friends and family, no hope, …

Don’t Listen to the Outrage. ‘Cuties’ Is a Great Film

If you’d asked me a month ago what could possibly break through a news cycle dominated by the biggest global pandemic in a century, the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the worst civil unrest in the United States since the Civil Rights Era, a diverse, French arthouse film about four 11-year-old girls trying to win a dance competition wouldn’t have crossed my mind. Yet since its recent release on Netflix, Cuties has broken through the noise, and how. I wish it were for the right reasons: For instance, because Senegalese-French director Maïmouna Doucouré has written and directed a brilliant, award-winning first feature drawn from her experience growing up as an immigrant kid caught between cultures. Or because it’s alive with tenderness and heartache: a grittier, cross-cultural Eighth Grade about friendship, the love of a parent and child, and our longing to fit in, no matter our age, no matter the price. Or because it’s alive to injustice without preaching or judgement. But no. Cuties has broken through because of grotesquely false …

Remembering Reinaldo Arenas and His Enduring Lessons on Repression, Torment, and Exile

In a scene from Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s iconic Cuban film Memorias del Subdesarrollo (1968), a man looks down from his balcony at Havana’s streets. Only a few years had passed since Fidel Castro had overthrown Fulgencio Batista’s regime, and the prisoners taken during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion had just been put on trial. Like many middle-class Cubans at the time, the parents of Sergio, the film’s protagonist, had fled the country. But Sergio decides to stay. He prefers to anchor himself to his present and watch the revolution play out from his apartment. He uses his telescope to watch people, ships in the bay, places where the Republican-era statues once stood. He contemplates the city’s landscape with a sort of contempt. Sergio wants to become a great novelist, but failing at the task. He lives off the accumulated rent his family earned before the revolution, and so is regarded by the state’s bureaucrats as a parasite. Yet the contempt is unrequited: Sergio is indifferent to the political climate in Cuba. He prefers to …

Thoughts on Longevity

Olivia de Havilland, the oldest surviving actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age, turned 104 last week. To live that long is in itself an act of generosity. She won Oscars for her leading roles in To Each His Own (1946), and William Wyler’s 1949 classic, The Heiress, in which she starred opposite Sir Ralph Richardson and Montgomery Clift. But she is probably best remembered for her role as Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind—a film that just narrowly avoided cancellation, and now carries health warnings on most streaming services for its outdated depictions of race relations in the ante- and post-bellum South. Its sexual politics are also likely to wrinkle a forehead or two. De Havilland may outlive it yet. Contemplation of such great age is intrinsically moving, perhaps because it releases us from the oppressive clamour of the moment. It restores our sense of time itself, and calms the shrill, neurotic demands of the 24-hour news cycle. “Man is the measure of all things,” said Protagoras, the pre-Socratic philosopher (though of course, he didn’t …

A Rainy Day in New York—A Review

In spite of a fresh round of uninformed press attacks, celebrity denouncements, and calumnies catalysed by the #MeToo movement, Woody Allen has remained an irrepressible creative force. Amid the kind of controversy that might have destroyed any other artist’s sanity, he somehow managed to produce a memoir and two new films. Getting his work in front of an audience, however, has proved to be more difficult. The long-discredited allegation that Allen molested his adopted daughter Dylan when she was seven was most recently revived by Allen’s former partner Mia Farrow and their son Ronan during the 2014 Golden Globe ceremony at which Allen was being honored. Ronan Farrow is now an investigative journalist whose star rose rapidly during the #MeToo era as a result of his Pulitzer Prize-winning articles for the New Yorker about Harvey Weinstein, and he has not hesitated to use his newfound celebrity and moral authority to pursue a vendetta against his estranged father. It was he who led the public condemnations of Hachette in March for agreeing to publish Allen’s book, …

Death of an Old-Fashioned Clown

When I recently discovered that Fred Willard had appeared as the ghost of Trump’s father in a skit on Jimmy Kimmel’s TV show, I must admit my heart sank. Not that there’s anything wrong with political satire, of course—traditionally, the comic has played the vital role of a jester whose job it is to send up pomposity and hypocrisy wherever they occur. But in the era of Donald Trump, a distressing number have preferred to simply become mouthpieces for progressive talking points and platitudes. Would Willard fall into this trap? I braced myself for disappointment, but I needn’t have worried. The laugh lines were predictable and the material was as charmlessly partisan as I’d expected, but Willard’s characterisation of Trump senior as a cheerful-but-damned sort of American soul in a Frank Capra three-piece suit effortlessly drained the sketch of whatever spite had animated its conception. But the Kimmel skits notwithstanding—he also appeared as Trump’s party planner and nickname-maker—Willard rarely concerned himself with fashionable politics. Few things are more dispiriting than much-loved entertainers contorting themselves to …