With one glaring exception – it was an incredible week of film viewing. From classics like The Big Heat and Titicut Follies to films from modern masters like Claire Denis and Bi Gan, this has been one of the most satisfying weeks of moviegoing I’ve had in quite some time.
As always, I’ve included links to help you find the films for yourself. Enjoy!
The Big Heat
I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to see Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat. Like the other Columbia Noir’s I’ve seen on the Criterion Channel, this one starts off like a standard police procedural (with a bit of the “righteous hero fighting corruption” thrown in for good measure) but takes an incredibly dark turn about a third of the way in. The narrative shift puts everything into high gear, raises the stakes, and makes all of the proceedings so much more personal. Lang’s camerawork is elegant and fluid, with his shifting compositions and use of shadow underscoring the film’s emotional subtext and reinforcing the ever-changing power dynamics. It’s another revenge film that interrogates our underlying assumptions about vengeance and justice, looking at the consequences for the innocent and the moral compromise it requires to see it through to the bitter end.
I’ve just started my journey into the films of Frederick Wiseman with his first documentary, the harrowing Titicut Follies. With his cinéma vérité approach, Wiseman’s camera serves as a patient observer of the inmates, guards, and doctors of the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Far for the passivity or dispassionate approach that can be problematic in a film of this nature, Wiseman proves how urgent and effective the vérité style can be when properly employed. With the camera an unobtrusive presence, the guards have no compunction demonstrating how sadistic and cruel they behave towards their charges. And while there are no talking heads to explain away or justify the inhuman treatment, Wiseman does masterfully crosscut between sequences to draw a direct line between the treatment of the inmates and their untimely deaths. It’s an incredible film, and I’m thrilled to be starting a rather epic journey with Wiseman into American institutions.
The Elephant Man
David Lynch’s The Elephant Man may be one of his most straightforward narratives, but the world in which it takes place feels just as surreal and grotesque as any of his more conventionally “Lynchian” films. Surreal imagery and Lynchian touches are threaded throughout the film – from the opening sequence that brings to life the legend surrounding Merrick’s deformity to the glimpses of menacing machinery and the eerie tonal soundscape – this is unmistakably the work of David Lynch. It’s fascinating to view in the context of the director’s other work. We see Lynch beginning to explore themes and ideas that will become so central to his later work, especially in the mirroring of Treves and Bytes, Merrick’s two caretakers – the sense that they are two halves of the same person prefigures the mirroring we see in much of Lynch’s later work. You can see him beginning to explore the ways in which narrative can be used as a framework in which to experiment, leading to his eventual use of the structure found in mystery and noir. But even though it feels like an outlier in his career, The Elephant Man is a thoroughly satisfying film in its own right, and it may be his most moving and emotionally resonant film besides The Straight Story.
Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues is a mesmerizing, exceptional piece of filmmaking that I’ll need to view several more time in order to fully appreciate everything that’s packed into its two hour running time. The film’s quiet rhythms are softly hypnotic, lulling us into a headspace and frame of mind in which past, present, and future can merge together into a single, simultaneous moment. The 40-minute tracking shot is an incredible technical achievement – one that puts the long takes of Ińárritu to shame – but it’s even more impressive that Gan builds up to this shot organically, as if it’s the only place left for the film to go. While the term poetic is liberally thrown around to describe films with a certain deliberate rhythm and lyrical quality to the camera movement, Kaili Blues is actually structured like a poem, with images and motifs from the first half rhymed and echoed in the second half. This first time through, I’m left pondering questions of loss and the longing to rectify the mistakes of our past. But I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this gorgeous piece of cinema.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Watching Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night immediately after seeing his previous feature was an incredible experience. As the lights came up in the theater and I removed my 3D glasses, it was like I was waking up from a dream and stepping into the morning sun. Like Kaili Blues, it will take time (and many more viewings) to gain a fuller understanding of the many layers and nuances embedded within the film. But even on a first viewing, I was so completely mesmerized by poetic echoes and visual refrains that Gan uses throughout the film. The hour-long, single-take 3D shot is a marvel to behold, and once again, Gan’s deliberate framing and precise camera movements early in the film prepare us for the techniques he uses later. It’s a stunning evocation of loss, memory, and what it feels like to be haunted by the past.
I didn’t expect Neil Marshall’s Hellboy to be good, but I did expect it to be a little bit fun. And sure, there are a handful of enjoyable moments and clever one-liners scattered throughout this franchise reboot that no one asked for. However, this film has possibly the sloppiest construction of any modern superhero film to date. Two of the leads are American actors with the worst British accents I’ve heard. The special effect are so poorly rendered that there are times you can practically see the green screen behind the actors. The film features five (FIVE!!??) different expositional flashbacks which blunts the narrative drive and dilutes any potential emotional stakes or character motivation. Taking a cue from other R-rated comic book films, they’ve ratcheted up the gore to the point where it all feels excessive and numbingly boring. I enjoy the dark fantasy world that Mike Mignola created in the comics, but the film seems more interested in franchise-building than storytelling, leaving this reboot an absolute mess.
Claire Denis’s High Life is powerfully visceral entry into the annals of science fiction – a rare film about space travel that manages to explore human psychology and relationships while never losing sight of the scientific realities that profoundly impact the individuals who undertake such a voyage. Denis’s elliptical storytelling and movement between past and present is masterful, giving us just enough information to remain invested while never weighing down the narrative with too much exposition. Her patient and deliberate camera, simple but effective set, and minimalist sound design all work together to create an overwhelming sense of dread. It’s powerful and horrific, a tremendously moving look at what it means to live without hope and what it might mean to reach the other side of despair. It’s one of those films that, as I ponder it, I grow to love it more and more. (Note: High Life does contain a scene of violence sexual assault that may be triggering to some viewers.)