Film for a Friday: Woman Who Came Back

Yes, it is written like that in the title card: no article on Woman. Low budget offering from Western Television, Woman Who Came Back (1945) offers a tale of the past invading the present in the form of a witch burned at the stake who wants revenge. In New England — where of course no one was burned as a witch.

Criminy people: witches were not burned in the US, they were hanged (and occasionally pressed). Also EARLY MODERN ERA was the time of the  wild witch crazes: you needed the print era to really get propaganda going on a massive scale.

Anyhoo: this is a fun little no-budget film. Including great creepy vintage Halloween costumes.

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The story is simple: Lorna Webster (Nancy Kelly) on a bus returning to her hometown and the man she ran away from at the altar meets an old woman who claims to be Jezebel Trister (Elspeth Dudgeon – best name I’ve heard in a while), the witch who had been condemned by Lorna’s great grand pappy. Of course she’s back to curse his progeny and the bus crashes killing everyone except Lorna and the old woman’s dog who haunts her the rest of the film.

Her paternalistic head-patting fiance (Now Voyager’s John Loder) assures her everything will be fine and the epically old guy pipe-smoking Rev. Jim Stevens (Otto Kruger) agrees. Let’s just all forget this bus full of dead people and get on with our charming New England lives of small town paranoia: Shirley Jackson meets Grace Metalious.

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Of course weird things happen: everything Lorna touches dies and it spooks people, like Expositio her housekeeper (okay, her name’s not really Expositio but she does explain a lot of back story before giving notice presumably because the windows won’t stay shut and the curtains billow mysteriously in the ever-present wind).

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Naturally, Lorna discovers the truth about her curse from a volume in old grandpappy’s study that just happens to be in a mausoleum in the crypts under the church. The townfolk don’t like these goings on especially when her fiance’s niece falls ill and they react accordingly.

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Will they gather into an angry mob or will clearer pipe-smoking heads prevail to show they’ve all been Scooby-Doo’d? It’s only a little over an hour so you can watch and find out for yourself. Hardly a masterpiece, it’s nonetheless fun and goes on my list for the course on witch films I’m thinking about doing sometime in the near future.

I learned about this film from a terrific piece on the folk-horror of Powell & Pressburger’s Gone to Ground.

Review: Gimme Danger

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Music is life. And life is not a business.

When I came out of the theatre there was blood on the pavement and a guy whose face had been smashed by something. It seemed out of place on a quiet Albany afternoon, but not after this film.

The Stooges are a perfect meeting of the mind-bending exuberance of youth and the free-floating impotent anger that often accompanies it when that energy has no place to go. Surrounded right now by a cultural climate that has filled most of the women I know (mostly past that first exuberance of youth) with a rage that has few outlets, it was a good catharsis. It could have been many things — like an Iggy film — but it was tightly bound to the band. Jarmusch, too, stayed out of the way (I hate those big name doco directors who make it all about showing what good taste they had).

The film is stripped down, filling in missing footage with Iggy’s narration and found footage, crazy cultural references and even animation. I can’t even begin to tell you anything rational about it because I was so immersed in it that I wasn’t making mental notes. There was a point where all three of us in the theatre laughed out loud at something so unexpected I couldn’t tell you what it was because the movie clipped right along.

Things that stuck this first time around (because I will be watching this again and again as soon as I can get my hands on it): how weird it was to hear all these mid-Michigan accents I grew up with that now sound totally alien. Every time I hear Iggy talk there’s that dislocation. How the band all lived up to that hippie ideal of ‘communism’ — living communally, sharing everything, even song writing credits. ‘That was before we knew about intellectual property rights,’ he said drily. How the younger girls they met in Washington Square who were a[n unnamed] band were much better than them spurred the Stooges on to want to be better. How they saw the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame induction as crowning the coolness of losers. How visionaries like Danny Fields saw their promise and pretty much no one else did — until suddenly every band in the world seemed to be covering the Stooges.

Soupy Sales. James Williamson’s second career!

Near the end of the film, Iggy remembered bringing a bunch of guys from his high school back to his folks’ trailer, trying to get in with them and they made fun of where he lived and how small the bathroom was. And his avowal that he wanted to outlive them and show them and put them in their place (like Tori with ‘I want to smash the faces / of those beautiful boys’).

Anger is an energy, as that other guy said. Let it lift us.

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Tuesday’s Overlooked A/V: The Hudsucker Proxy

I haven’t had time to do a TOA/V in a while, but after some dissing of this film on Twitter, I decided it was a sign. I love the Coen’s films in general. Most of them I love a lot. I think Raising Arizona might be one of the funniest films ever made, Blood Simple is noir perfection, and the glory of Brother, Where Art Thou? and —

I could go on and on. After all I was rhapsodising about Barton Fink to my class this week. But this film often gets dismissed — as The Big Lebowski did when it first came out. Yeah, I remember your tepid responses to the film you now idolise. You can’t fool me.

A mash-up of broad screwball comedy with a knowing wink at its excesses and a subtle skewering of capitalism and marketing, the Coens take the dash of Preston Sturges and a love of fun and make pure delight. Jennifer Jason Leigh must have studied every Rosalind Russell picture out there. Robbins is the embodiment of the small town witless optimist, and Newman the cynical executive. As in all Coen films, the magic of the details is so perfectly chosen (and look for cameos from Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell). It makes the whole thing sing, like this scene:

“He don’t look wise…”

Watch it again — or for the first time — and see if you don’t catch its brilliance. I’d stake my Pulitzer on it!

As always, see the round-up of TOA/V over at Todd’s.

Why I Didn’t Love Skyfall

[N.B. This isn’t really a review so much as an analysis, so it’s chock full of spoilage. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to wait to read this. Or not! But just so you know what you’re in for –]

This is not timely: as much as I love Daniel Craig as Bond, I actually saw the last Twilight film before it because Bertie insisted we go (and it ended up being a lot of fun because there was big werewolf/vampire carnage with heads rolling). The day after I finally saw Skyfall I heard the news about the death of 832F, the alpha wolf of Yellowstone. Described by some as the “rock star” of wolves, this grey lady’s importance lay in her clear demonstration of the fact that the alpha female led the pack, not the alpha male as so many scientists had assumed. Apart from all the issues her shooting raises about the hunting program in place now that’s once more eroding the endangered wolf packs, it also marks the end of her providing information about the daily lives of these creatures from her electronic tag.

Her death also resonated because that’s what really irritated me about Skyfall: let’s kill off the alpha female. In fact, let’s kill off any chance of an alpha female. One of the delights of the most recent Bond films has been the tough leadership of M as embodied by Judy Dench. I don’t know if she wanted to leave the series, but her exit from it is so irritating I still scowl thinking of it. And it’s so unbelievably Freudian that I can’t help seeing it as the product of someone who’s had some therapy (but not enough). I don’t know which of the ‘&’ and ‘and’ screenwriters who might have had the greatest effect, but with those designations, it could be anyone or meddling from above — it’s difficult to know how the process works.

But the theme of belligerent masculinity seeking to destroy the feminine (especially mother) is pervasive: it’s not even subtext in parts. The oozing abjection of Bardem’s Silva! He spells it out: mother did this to us, so she must die. In the opening sequence, Bond has seen this is true, because the prize is more important than him, so M tells the dithering Moneypenny to shoot. Mommy doesn’t love me best! And of course it highlights the incompetence (and even more, the lack of confidence) of his female colleague who eventually and presumably rightly ends up behind a desk (and probably back to the fawning Moneypenny of old in future films) because ‘field work’ is for boys.

Silva seems to offer the example of what happens if you love Mommy too much; his feminised monstrosity is the real danger; Bardem’s over the top homoerotic shenanigans contrast with Craig’s confidence. He can play along without it affecting him, as in the nude torture scene in Casino Royale. It’s like the Pegg-Frost dynamic: we’re so cool and hip and masculine that ‘we can pretend to act gay because you will never believe that we’re gay’ ever.

But the message comes across: there’s been too many women around this place! This is why we need Daddy Fiennes to come in and set things right again. He’s suspect at first because they’ve been living in the feminised world too long. He ‘used to’ do field work, but is he up to it any more? Of course he proves himself sufficiently manly in action, although with a slight wounding to make sure he’s not really a threat to the son’s masculinity.

There’s an anxiety about field work that seems curious coming from the cosseted world of big budget Hollywood. These perpetual adolescents who imagine they’re doing hard work that’s somehow comparable to, you know, hard work have a skewed sense of their own importance. Just the same is their glamourising of a narrow sort of masculinity in the endless explosions of all the big budget thrillers; the trailers before the Bond film were an endless parade of brainless gun fests from yet another Die Hard (all about father-son bonding) to some Arnie film that seems to make  heroes of wacko trigger-happy gun nuts and like most films, seems completely devoid of women.

The most telling moment of gender politics: when M receives her dressing down in the Parliamentary hearings, they make sure to have an Iron Lady (Helen McCrory) attacking her. You can practically hear the meetings: “We have to have a woman attack her, because if a man does it, it will seem misogynistic.” Gaah! It’s the same reductionist thinking that goes into equating a “strong female character” with “give her a big gun”! It shows a complete inability to see women as people. Instead they’re all not-men.

This is the main issue: the Hollywood problem in a nutshell.

The film is also über-American: British gets reduced to the kitschy tat of the little bulldog statue and the ‘estate’ which has to be destroyed because, you know, it’s re-enacting the national teenage rebellion (I guess — whatever!). And the film is suffused with the same outraged alarm that also permeated the Republican elite this past and seemingly endless election cycle: Who are these people who question our privilege?! And how do we stop them?

“In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” Sayre’s Law

As the differences between the status of men and women narrow, Hollywood seems determined to make the most of exploiting the tiny gap. As Sayre observed, “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” The stakes are very high in Hollywood: the politics may not be the most bitter, but they have the most guns and explosions. It’s an awful lot of sound and fury — does it signify anything but a fading type of masculinity?

Judging by its astronomical success, it’s one a lot of people are clinging to —

TOA/V: New Shorts from Alan Moore

This week’s entry for Todd’s round up of overlooked audio/visuals is the first two bits of a new project from Alan Moore. Not content with forays into comics, novels, music, magic and publishing, he’s teamed up with Mitch Jenkins to work on a ‘Northampton Noir’ series. Because of course Moore has discovered that NoHo ‘practically invented noir’ as he claims to the Film Programme (with his tongue firmly in cheek). Complaining that films start out as fodder for computer games, products, and a television programme, so they’ve started at the end and worked back to the film. While the second part has received the lion’s share of the attention from the fan boys and press, the project begins with Act of Faith.

The simple prelude follows Faith (Siobhan Hewlett) as she readies for a big night out — or is it in? She ignores calls from her posh sounding father and puts off a co-worker’s invite, then gets ready for her evening. Hints appear everywhere in the scenes: the exposé of a cult figure she’s written who seems to also be a family acquaintance; the very in-jokey Tunguska Vodka, the saturated colours against a jet black background. The lighting is really terrific. The music by Crook & Flail is quite wonderful throughout. As the camera watches Faith get ready, the discomforting acknowledgement of the scopophilic eye of the camera is unavoidable. The voyeuristic caress became annoying to me because it was so blatant; I started thinking about how gendered the gaze was — and how wrong certain aspects of the ritual were. Not showering or at least washing her hair?! For a dress that swanky, surely she would. I liked how they showed it’s very difficult to attach stockings to the fussy little fasteners. It gradually dawned on me that this wasn’t just the voyeuristic camera: this was indeed ritual. Sure enough, Faith had a particular little ritual and a partner for it — but then something goes awry. It’s awful — and just a bit blackly humorous.

Jimmy’s End picks up not long after. Jimmy (Darrell D’Silva, who looks just a bit like George Clooney mashed up with Giancarlo Giannini [not a bad combination!]) wanders along the wet streets of Northampton, seemingly having lost his way on a night out on the lash. At the invite of a burlesque dancer (or so she looks to be) he steps inside a club — and feels as if he’s stepped back decades. The surrealistic touches begin to shed light on the world he’s entered, from the disconcerting jangle of the telephone that continues off and on to the odd clown painting, even the cigarette smoke and the golden light — all presaging things to come.

There’s a sigil on the wall painted opposite the poster trumpeting the club owners: a pair of magicians (perhaps?) Mettatron & Matchbright, “For One Night Only” although it looks like no one’s ever left this place. No surprise to find that Mettatron (or is that Metatron) is Moore and hmmm, Matchbright — surely suggestive of Lucifer. There’s a puppet beneath the poster, too, that seems to be dressed rather like Jimmy. He stares at the sigil uncomprehendingly but continues on to the lounge where he finds a tearful Faith with Matchbright (Robert Goodman who looks like Pete Townshend’s evil brother [no, not Simon!].

“I didn’t even know this place was here,” Jimmy says gaping at what seems to be a vintage cartoon of a drunk man falling down a stair (perhaps a hint of what’s happened).

“Yes, you did,” the bartender says as she hands him a drink.

Curioser and curioser: things continue to get odder as they go along, the ambiance of menace is palpable. There’s been oodles of attention to the set dressing and costumes. I hope it’s more than just some sort of Faustian hell story (I have a lot of theories, only hinting here). I do like the double-act-who-hate-each-other traditions getting built into the story (ha! the soap!) and the whole film looks and sounds so good. It may be the only time I have ever actually laughed at a clown. Look for Melinda Gebbie!

I’m not sure what I think yet, but I’m looking forward to more.

UPDATE: Behind the scenes of Jimmy’s End.

TOA/V: Sita Sings the Blues

I’ve neglected TOA/V for far too long, but I have the excuse of being really really busy. And adjusting to the fact that I am really really busy. That year of idling went to my head. I’m not fit for regular work that includes talking to lots of people. I prefer the voices in my head for sure (I can tell them to shut up; doesn’t work so well outside my head).

Here’s a lovely animated film with a mash up of the modern and the mythical: Sita Sings the Blues is a gorgeous film. It won or was nominated for a slew of awards. Its history highlights some of the corporate shenanigans that have made copyright a corrupt and cynical process. Yet Nina Paley has given her film to you. Meditate on that gift and why she has done so. Let’s have her tell you about it:

Dear Audience,
I hereby give Sita Sings the Blues to you. Like all culture, it belongs to you already, but I am making it explicit with a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. Please distribute, copy, share, archive, and show Sita Sings the Blues. From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes.
You don’t need my permission to copy, share, publish, archive, show, sell, broadcast, or remix Sita Sings the Blues. Conventional wisdom urges me to demand payment for every use of the film, but then how would people without money get to see it? How widely would the film be disseminated if it were limited by permission and fees? Control offers a false sense of security. The only real security I have is trusting you, trusting culture, and trusting freedom.
That said, my colleagues and I will enforce the Share Alike License. You are not free to copy-restrict (“copyright”) or attach Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) to Sita Sings the Blues or its derivative works.
Some of the songs in Sita Sings the Blues are not free, and may never be; copyright law requires you to obey their respective licenses. This is not by my choice; please see our restrictions page for more.
There is the question of how I’ll get money from all this. My personal experience confirms audiences are generous and want to support artists. Surely there’s a way for this to happen without centrally controlling every transaction. The old business model of coercion and extortion is failing. New models are emerging, and I’m happy to be part of that. But we’re still making this up as we go along. You are free to make money with the free content of Sita Sings the Blues, and you are free to share money with me. People have been making money in Free Software for years; it’s time for Free Culture to follow. I look forward to your innovations.
If you have questions, please ask each other. If you have ideas, please implement them – you don’t need my permission or anyone else’s (except for the copyright-restricted songs, of course).  If you see abuses, please address them, but don’t get bogged down in arcane details of copyright law.  The copyright system wants you to think in terms of asking permission; I want you to think in terms of freedom. We’ve set up this Wiki to get things started. Feel free to improve it!
I’ve got to get back to my life now, and make some new art. Thanks for your support! This film wouldn’t exist without you.
Love,
–Nina Paley
28 February, 2009

I love the people trying to reconstruct the Sita & Rama myth and the music (that caused so many problems!) and the evocation of the mythic in the animation style. Wonderful stuff! Drop by Todd’s blog for a roundup of gems you may have missed.

Buy the CD – or other goodies!

Tuesday’s Overlooked A/V: The Hitch-Hiker

Ida Lupino’s film noir debut, available free thanks to the Open Culture site. If you don’t know about them — well, there goes your productivity for the day. Books, audio and films galore. The RADA-trained English daughter of a stage comedian became best known for her increasingly dark films, no less than when she turned her own hand to directing. In a genre (still!) typically stereotyped as masculine, Lupino made her own assured way.

The Hitch-Hiker reflects this norm: it’s tightly focused on the three male characters. As the Wikipedia page tells us,

The movie was written by Robert L. Joseph, Lupino, and her husband Collier Young, based on a story by Out of the Past screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, who was blacklisted at the time and did not receive screen credit. The film is based on the true story of Billy Cook, a psychopathic murderer.

The plot is simple: two pals Roy Collins and Gilbert Bowen (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) go off on a fishing trip and out of the affable goodness in their hearts, pick up a hitchhiker named Emmett Myers (William Talman), who turns out to be a psychopath who has committed multiple murders, which the audience has seen unfurl at the start of the film. The rest is a taut game of cat and mouse between the two men and the sneering killer.

This is your classic MWW (Movie Without Women). There are a few in the background and in conversation: Bowen has left his wife and children behind, but they provide an anchor to his character. He wistfully lays his hand on a small girl in a shop, obviously worried he won’t be able to see his own again. It shapes the overall tension in a way that many might see as influenced by the choices of the female director (i.e. emotions = girly) but what Lupino brings out is an essential human desire for connection.

It’s a great metaphor for the current political polarity in the States: Myers has nothing but scorn for Collins and Bowen, both their desire not to hurt other people and their friendship for each other, which he sees as a weakness. As far as he’s concerned it’s every man for himself (remind you of Republican rhetoric?). His contempt when Bowen stops to help the injured Collins can hardly be contained. Collins rightly snaps back at him that the only security he has is the gun and when he doesn’t have that, he won’t have anything at all. He’s all alone.

For a film noir, there’s an awful lot of sunlight in this picture. Much of the fugitives’ time is spent on blindingly bright deserts. The visual juxtapositions show Lupino’s fascination with the power of the image frame to frame. Good stuff. Well worth your time.

See the roundup of gems over at Todd’s blog.

RIP, the legendary comedy goddess Phyllis Diller