We continue the Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist with two silent films: Body and Soul (Oscar Micheaux, 1925) and Borderline (Kenneth Macpherson, 1925). Micheaux’s work is a “race film” made independently in the US, and is one of only a handful of the director’s works to survive. Likewise, the wildly experimental Borderline is the only surviving work of Macpherson and his Pool Group of British and American outsider artists working in Switzerland. Both are fascinating in their own light, but Borderline in particular exhibits film technique that are rather mind-blowing to see in the silent era.
We have another boxset for October, but a marked change from our September Monsters and Madmen set. Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist is an exploration of singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson’s career from his start in the 20’s to his essential house arrest in the early 50’s when the US Government revoked his passport and refused to let him leave the country over his politics.
Criterion delivers the films to us in themed pairs on each Spine number, so we’ll be dealing with them in that division. First up is Paul Robeson: Icon containing Dudley Murphy’s 1933 adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones, which Robeson had been starring in on stage since 1925, and Saul J. Turell’s 1979 retrospective documentary Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist.
The fact that Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee are in Corridors for Blood may be the best thing about it, but also while Corridors of Blood fails at almost everything it thinks its doing as a horror movie or documentary about the creation of anesthesia — both of which are what the creators were trying to do —. it still succeeds in being the most ridiculous movie we’ve watched on the main podcast in years. Sure we’ve watched some weirder stuff on the Patreon Bonus episodes, but even in a boxset of the notoriously silly genre of late 50’s Sci-Fi/Horror, Corridors stands out as silly and last week’s movie had a amnesiac murderer and a bar called The Judas Hole.
Robert Day’s The Haunted Strangler kicks off a pair of British period horror films starring Boris Karloff. Neither are all that great, but this one particularly so after some executive meddling that replaced a supernatural horror plot point with improbable amnesia. Great.
The only entry into the Monsters and Madmen boxset that isn’t directed by Robert Day, Spencer Gordon Bennet’s The Atomic Sub imagines a world where submarines provide intercontinental shipping and passenger service under the arctic, at least until those subs start mysteriously disappearing. Come for the alternative future! Stay for the special effects! Leave before the sworn pacifist realizes war is good!
We kick off a boxset of late 50’s scifi/horror this week with The First Man into Space. Monsters and Madmen is dedicated to films produced by Richard and Alex Gordon, who also produced Fiend Without a Face which we watched five years ago. Things kick off here with Robert Day’s First Man into Space, the tale of an American test pilot who decides to jet into outer space and things do not go well on his return. Very spoopy!
Robert Bresson followed up au hasard Balthazar with an similar film, but this time focusing on a young woman instead of a donkey. Bresson calls the tale (and the writer’s other work — Diary of a Country Priest) “Catholic realism”, and like many applications of the terms Catholic and realism it is super depressing.
Allison Anders, Dean Lent, and Kurt Voss spent years making Border Radio and it shows, though often in weaknesses and incoherencies. But perhaps it is less interesting for its plot and more so for its snapshot of life adjacent to the LA punk scene of the era.
After pretty much everyone involved with the first project was dead except Jerry and during a weird renaissance of attention to the Beales and Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles recut unused footage from the 1975 original Grey Gardens into a new film that feels even more explicitly exploitative. Great job.
William Greaves’ 1968 Symbiopsychotaxiplasm puts the experiment in experimental film. The documentary inside a documentary inside a third documentary, shot in public, essentially boils down to the director seeing how far he can push his cast and crew before they revolt — not violent push, but still an antagonistic one. It’s fascinating and absurd and wonderful. And I suppose it could be all fake.
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s exploration of self The Double Life of Veronique is a subtly surreal and beautiful film, yet much of our conversation is centered around coming to terms with the essays included in the Criterion release, particularly the one written by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
We haven’t seen a lot of silent films in the Collection so far, and we have never seen a movie with a bigger left field ending than this particular film. GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box has a lot of problems, and a just frankly amazing last 10 minutes. It’s absurd, and I love it.
Graham Greene called his thrillers “entertainments”, which sounds dismissive of his own work but really it was an accurate contrast to the more heavy Catholic novels he apparently preferred to write. Greene himself adapted two of his entertainments to film for director Carol Reed, one being The Third Man and the other (and first) being this week’s episode The Fallen Idol (1948) adapted from a short story called The Basement Room, a significantly worse name.
Like our recent excursion with Clean, Shaven, Jane Campion’s Sweetie takes a fairly realistic look at mental illness in the real world. Though unlike Kerrigan’s film where the world ignores the main character until things get much worse, Sweetie’s protagonist is coddled by her loved ones…until things get much worse. Both are intense in their own ways, but Sweetie, true to its name, is a little easier to swallow. At least until the end.
The story of a corrupt businessman seeking office to better enrich himself while actively endangering the lives of others, the political party that supports him because they’ll get rich, too, and the political system so intent on absolving itself that it lets him get away with it.
Happy Fourth of July, America.
Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven is intense. It’s not entirely clear what exactly is happening within the film narrative and what is just the main characters auditory (and possibly visual) hallucinations. But one thing that is clear is that the public and the authorities do not know how to compassionately react to our main character. So quick point, however you feel about police as a group, it’s not their job to help people having psychological breakdowns, and don’t call the gun people when you need someone with different tools. In that regard see Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber’s documentary Peace Officer. It’s estimated that between a third and a half of people killed by police every year have a disability and that the majority of those are mental illness, autism, or developmental disabilities. You can save a life by finding an alternative to calling the police.
Alfonso Cuarón has made some really great movies, a few masterpieces, and at least one sex romp that may be a satire of an HIV awareness campaign for encouraging monogamy. Guess which one the Criterion Collection makes us watch this week? It’s the sex romp one. Ultimately the target seems more than a little misguided, but the movie’s still pretty good.
The Japanese horror films from the 60s that the Collection has served us have been nothing if not interesting. Stylistically, though, Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku (1960) blows everything else out of the water. Certainly Kwaidan is a great film, but Jigoku blows it out of the water with an acid trip through Buddhist hell. Unfortunately, the rest of the film serves to just get us to hell as quickly as possible, so what we end up with is a sort of negative Universalism, where no one is good enough to escape the Bad Place, so theologically and philosophically the film leaves a lot to be desired. But it’s still a trip.
This week we spend too much time talking about Franco to lay a floor for discussing The Spirit of the Beehive as a political film. Of course, even without that context it’s a masterpiece of a movie, visually stunning and stylistically perfect. Also it has Frankenstein.
Over a year ago we watched Divorce Italian Style and decided that there was ample evidence that film was an attack on Fellini, instead of the attack on Sicilian culture Germi maybe thought it was. This week it’s harder to ignore that Germi is decidedly punching down as he heaps a national issue onto a certain region. Still it’s a funny movie, so there’s that.