The Miners’ Hymns (2011, Bill Morrison)

Slow-motion stock footage and photographs of miners and their mines, with slow-motion color helicopter shots of their present-day locations, accompanied by slow-motion music. The movie doesn’t tell a conventional story, allowing you to apply your own knowledge and bias to the visuals. In my case what came to mind was Harlan County USA, Ace in the Hole and every Freakwater song (plus some Mekons/Freakons, Johnny Miner). Anyway, nothing hopeful or positive. The helicopter shots seem to back this up, showing these sites erased by history, covered up with parking lots, shopping centers and housing developments, unmourned. But it ends on a happy note, a massive parade of Durham-area miners marching into a cathedral.

Since each is under an hour, you could easily double-feature this with Coal Money, or maybe more appropriately, Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999, Stanley Kubrick)

Thinking about this movie again thanks to Room 237. It’s nice to sit down with a “proper film” like Wolf of Wall Street, an austere classic like Winter Light, an idiosyncratic puzzle like Upstream Color, but in some ways, Kubrick knocks them all on their asses. From the start it has a commanding power and grace that seems unreal. It’s a motherfucker of a movie.

At a party, Dr. Bill meets his med school friend (Pianist Nick) and two hot babes, but he escapes upstairs to help save host Sydney Pollack’s prostitute from an overdose, while Bill’s wife Alice (for once, seemingly not a Lewis Carroll reference) dances drunkenly all night with a suave Hungarian.

That night, Alice accuses Bill of infidelity, mocks his total confidence in her by confessing an infatuation with a naval officer last year.

Called away because friend Marion’s father has just died, she confesses her love for Dr. Bill just before her boyfriend arrives.

After being pushed aside by rowdy homophobes, Bill allows himself to be taken inside with prostitute Domino (Vinessa Shaw of The Hill Have Eyes Remake), who has masks on her walls, foreshadowing many masks to come, but after a call from his wife he leaves.

Bill comes across the bar where his pianist friend (Todd Field of The Haunting Remake) plays, and wrestles the details of Nick’s next engagement out of him.

Fully flowing wherever this weird evening will take him, Bill goes to a costume shop to get a mask and cloak, awakens the proprietor (Rade Serbedzija, Boris the Blade in Snatch) who discovers his young daughter fooling around with a pair of Japanese men in wigs.

To the masked ball, where it turns out Bill is immediately suspected for having arrived via taxi. Much nudity, an actually-pretty-tame orgy, and taunting masks everywhere as Bill gets caught and kicked out.

The next morning things aren’t going too well for people Bill met last night. Nick has disappeared (according to hotel clerk Alan Cumming), the costume shop man has reached an “arrangement” with the wig men and offers to rent out his daughter to Bill, Domino got news that she’s HIV positive, and Pollack’s prostitute (who Bill suspects was his rescuer at the masked ball) has turned up dead.

Pollack has Bill over to talk him down, and Bill arrives home to see his wife has found the mask, so he tells Alice everything.

The next day they go toy shopping with their daughter. Alice: “Maybe I think we should be grateful – grateful that we’ve managed to survive through all of our adventures, whether they were real or only a dream.”

Cruise plays so overconfident that his character seems on the verge of being a huge asshole, flashing his doctor’s license all over town like a cop, but he also plays unhappiness and remorse so well that it’s hard to judge. Kidman spends too much of her screen time drunk or stoned, moving and speaking very slowly, but nails the last few scenes.

I enjoyed Rosenbaum’s article, and a detailed analysis of symbols on Vigilant Citizen. I knew I’d easily find such a thing, based on the level of Kubrick analysis/lunacy displayed in Room 237.

From an amazing article by Tim Kreider in Film Comment (although note that he buys into the Room 237 theory of The Shining being about the massacre of the Native Americans):

The real pornography in this film is in its lingering, overlit depiction of the shameless, naked wealth of end-of-the-millennium Manhattan, and of the obscene effect of that wealth on the human soul, and on society. National reviewers’ myopic focus on sex and the shallow psychologies of the film’s central couple, the Harfords, at the expense of every other element in the film – the trappings of stupendous wealth, the references to fin-de-siecle Europe and other imperial periods, the Christmastime setting, or even the sum spent by Dr. Harford on a single illicit night out – suggests more about the blindness of the elites to their own surroundings than it does about Stanley Kubrick’s inadequacies as a pornographer. … Kubrick’s films are never only about individuals. (Sometimes, as in the case of 2001, they hardly even contain any.) They are always about civilization, about human history.

Return to Salem’s Lot (1987, Larry Cohen)

As Nathan Rabin might say, this film is quite poor.

But look who co-stars:

It opens, as all respectable horror films do, with a tribal ritual sacrifice. Maverick tough guy journalist Michael Moriarty (star of Q: The Winged Serpent) is called back to the States and saddled with his neglected son Jeremy. They head to the country where Mike has inherited a family home in a town full of vampires led by Judge Andrew Duggan (Merrill’s Marauders). Jeremy falls in with the vampires, is sweet on a very young Tara Reid (Bunny Lebowski). The movie’s specific vampire mythology seems unclear, especially where it concerns Jeremy and Tara, even though the Judge tries to explain it to us. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention cuz I was wondering where the blue rubber-mask demon had gone, when Sam Fuller would appear, and what was going on with Moriarty. Mostly he and the movie seem resigned to their crappiness, the straightforward genre plot, but occasionally there’s a spark of life, some Cohen attitude in the dialogue, some fire out of Mike.

Finally, Fuller arrives as a nazi hunter turned game vampire killer. The two guys pretty quickly and easily start slaughtering the townsfolk, killing bunches as they sleep before getting cornered. Fuller fakes suicide – I wouldn’t have advised laying bloody and prone in a room full of vampires, but it seems to work out for him. The kid awakens from his pre-vamp haze and stakes the judge with an American flag.

Bunny:

Shooting the judge in the head does not work:

Diary of a Country Priest (1951, Robert Bresson)

New priest arrives hopeful at his first parish, is immediately eyed suspiciously by a powerful man having an affair with his kid’s governess. Every day will be a new disappointment for this young priest until his eventual death. A neighboring priest tells him: “A true priest is never loved. The church doesn’t care a whit whether you’re loved, my son. Be respected, obeyed. Keep order all day long, knowing full well disorder will win out tomorrow.”

Adulterous couple:

But he’s hardly respected or obeyed – people think him a meddler and a drunk, as he stumbles around dying slowly from undiagnosed stomach cancer, tormented by students and threatened by their parents. He manages to reach one woman, but she dies the next day and his meeting with her is misunderstood by others. Finally he goes off to see a doctor, and soon dies at the house of a former colleague.

The priest gets bad news:

Young terror Serafita, who does the priest a kindness towards the end:

I thought of Winter Light when the priest gives a daily mass for only one attendant – the commentary mentions it too. Surprised to hear that Bresson was agnostic.

The local count is the one having the affair (with Nicole Maurey of Day of the Triffids). The priest wants to help the count’s daughter Chantal, whom he believes to be sadly neglected, and wife, who is a shut-in mourning the death of her son. He tries to convince the family not to send Chantal away for good, and convince the countess to open up – semi-successfully too, as the governess is sent away instead after the countess’s death.

Priest vs. Chantal:

More grimly serious than Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, sharing sympathetic doomed clergy as main character with Les Anges du Peche, and more austere than either of them. Won some awards in Venice, while top prize went to Rashomon. Based on a novel by Georges Bernanos (Mouchette, Under the Sun of Satan). Lead priest Claude Laydu later played Franz Schubert in a biopic.

R. Humanick in Slant:

Bresson sees spiritual disorder as a disease, not unlike the stomach cancer we suspect is—and is ultimately confirmed to be—plaguing our titular character. Likely to fall ill at the slightest exertion, he has taken to a diet consisting entirely of stale bread soaked with wine. This leads the unnaturally suspicious townsfolk to suspect alcoholism, and in a heartbreaking revelation, we learn that the priest was in fact born to alcoholic parents (“pickled from birth,” as someone tactlessly puts it). Wine drinking is seen less as a habit to be abhorred, however, than as a routine not unlike holy communion, although Laydu’s fasting during shooting adds immeasurably to the priest’s sickly appearance and the accruing tone of his death rattle, and there remains a subtextual suggestion that our physical and spiritual limitations are naturally entwined.

F. Bonnaud for Criterion:

So Robert Bresson’s film is above all the story of a failure, of a man who is completely incapable of leaving an impression on the world. It is the story of defeat, of a faint trace of spirit left behind and then erased all too quickly. It is a story about someone who tries his best to throw things off balance, and whose best efforts are finally squelched by the weighty order of things.

D’est (1993, Chantal Akerman)

A slideshow of filmed images from Russia and Eastern Europe, decontextualized, no voice-over or dialogue (though people notice the camera and speak to it). Generally quite long shots cut together, though the sound is mixed and faded nicely, not always simply cut with the picture. Camera is often moving, slowly gliding through a scene, and the photography is top-notch.

It’s probably my favorite Akerman film so far, at least the most lively and eventful (from what I remember of From The Other Side). Much of the joy comes from watching people stare back at the camera and crew. Chris Marker would approve. Mostly shot in public places, she also films some women at home, posing for a motion portrait or going about their day. Mostly it gave me a happy sense of peace, with vague anthropological and historical interest – not an intensely moving film, but much more enjoyable than any description of it could sound.

The montage has no discernable purpose, and I saw some complaints about how she almost ends with a long cello performance followed by the musician collecting roses from audience members, but then cuts to one more street scene, perversely denying the movie its obvious finale.

E. Henderson in Slant:

[Russia] was at a précis between history and future, and many of the individual frames in Akerman’s motion picture slideshow rumble with the juxtaposition of the Old World and the New. What Akerman does not do is offer exposition, commentary, or argument. Essentially, she eschews the tenets of documentary in order to avoid clouding her presentation up with, as she suggests in her explicatory notes, agenda.

As observed by Jonathan Rosenbaum, From the East is one of Akerman’s—and maybe cinema’—most fully realized attempts at existing as place, not setting. Rosenbaum notes that almost each and every human being caught by Akerman’s camera (some candidly, others in deliberately staged tableaux) appears to be waiting interminably for God knows what, standing and looking and breathing as Akerman pans to the right, pans to the left.

Rosenbaum also says (and I, too, was reminded of the Straub-Huillet):

The only other film I know that imparts such a vivid sense of being somewhere is the Egyptian section of Straub-Huillet’s Too Early, Too Late. Everyone goes to movies in search of events, but the extraordinary events in Akerman’s sorrowful, intractable film are the shots themselves–the everyday recorded by a powerful artist with an acute eye and ear.

Grunes calls it “a film populated by ghosts whose substantial reality provides an index of the depth of humanity that, metaphorically, has been lost,” and finds tons of deeper meaning in the shots.

Jon Jost liked it somewhat less (though it’s impossible to like it more than Grunes did):

Again and again the camera passes grim townscapes, and their equally grim occupants… Akerman in a sense gives very little, though what she gives provides enough suggestive power for the viewer’s mind to swarm with thoughts. . . Critics naturally scurry in to fill in the blanks with innumerable speculations, most of which show more about themselves than what is on screen. For those for whom guidance is a requirement a film such as this is doubtless quickly boring and pointless.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975, Peter Weir)

Set at a girls’ boarding school in 1900, shot with dreamy sunlit photography, scored with Zamfir panpipes, and run through with an inexplicable tension. Great mood movie, providing no answers at the end, made fifteen years after unsolved disappearance drama L’Avventura.

The girls go on a field trip to the base of a mountain, are “forbidden any tomboy foolishness in the matter of exploration,” except for mute Sarah who is forced to stay behind at the school, which seems to be a place where rich girls wear all white and learn poetry. During naptime, four girls get up and walk up the mountain, led by Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert of The Draughtsman’s Contract) and separately I think, a teacher also wanders off. One girl, complainy Edith, runs back screaming. The rest awaken, search until dark then return to the school.

After a days-long search party, rich Michael (Dominic Guard, the lead boy in The Go-Between five years earlier) and servant Albert (John Jarratt, baddie of Wolf Creek), young men who witnessed the girls at one point, begin their own search and come across one of the missing girls, who requires medical treatment and finally leaves the school, never speaking to anyone about what happened or where the others might be.

Albert wearing Michael’s hat:

Principal Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts of O Lucky Man) tells mute Sarah, whose best friend is still missing, that her bills haven’t been paid and she’ll be sent to an orphanage. Sarah commits suicide, which is the last straw in the school’s quickly failing reputation. Weird detail: Albert is revealed as Sarah’s long-lost brother, though I don’t think they ever meet. In postscript, the school closes and Mrs. Appleyard dies attempting to climb the mountain.

Sarah with Principal Appleyard:

Also in the movie: Jacki Weaver (who I just saw as a murdered aunt in Stoker) as a sexy maid.

V. Canby:

Horror need not always be a long-fanged gentleman in evening clothes or a dismembered corpse or a doctor who keeps a brain in his gold fish bowl. It may be a warm sunny day, the innocence of girlhood and hints of unexplored sexuality that combine to produce a euphoria so intense it becomes transporting, a state beyond life or death. Such horror is unspeakable not because it is gruesome but because it remains outside the realm of things that can be easily defined or explained in conventional ways.

E. Roginski for Film Quarterly:

The use of Gheorghe Zamphier’s Pan Pipes is insidious and mesmerizing. The notes from the pipes, echoing an ageless music of the hills begins early in the film to indicate the powerful presence of something primeval. It is played in counter-point to the sophisticated music of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, the music of the civilized world. These two strains of music, then, struggle for attention and dominance throughout the film.

John Dies at the End (2012, Don Coscarelli)

Feels like it’s trying too hard to be a cult hit, and the pacing is often weird, with our somnambulist hero Dave always moving and speaking slower than you’d expect, and its universe and logic seem simultaneously under- and over-developed (maybe since it’s an incomplete adaptation of the source comic), but overall a damned fun flick, unlike anything else out there, and a welcome return to weird-movie-making for Coscarelli ten years after Bubba Ho-Tep.

Attempts at plot summary would be ridiculous, but here are some people and things.

Tall Man as dark-eyed priest:

Basement meat monster summoned by Obscure Object snake girl, destroyed by Dr. Marconi phone call:

Paul Giamatti as viewer-surrogate reporter:

Good weapon:

Glynn Turman as evidence-destroying, hero-threatening rogue cop:

Church of Dave & John: clothing and masks optional

Dave nearly falls into pit of Korrok before monster is destroyed by humanity-saving suicide-bomber dog:

Winter Light (1962, Ingmar Bergman)

Set in one day, almost a real-time portrait of the failings of local pastor Gunnar Bjornstrand (bad father from Through a Glass Darkly). He gives his sermon to a sparse, unattentive congregation then has a series of disspiriting meetings in his office. Gunnel Lindblom (servant girl in The Virgin Spring) wants him to speak with her husband, a depressed Max Von Sydow, never looking more sad and powerless. Local atheist teacher, friend and off-again love interest Ingrid Thulin (Sydow’s secret wife in The Magician) writes the pastor a an attack/analysis letter, delivered as a speech to-camera.

Gunnar and Ingrid:

Then Von Sydow is back (mentioned: “a spider God, a monster”, direct callback to Through a Glass Darkly). He is feeling suicidal and the pastor so completely fails to help (“I’m no good as a clergyman,” he even admits) that Sydow promptly wanders outside and shoots himself in the head. Ingrid goes with Gunnar to inform the widow, and along the way he discusses their lack of a relationship. “I don’t want you. Once and for all I have to escape this junkyard of idiotic trivialities. And I don’t love you, because I love my wife. When she died, so did I.”

Widow Gunnel:

Off to the next church service in another town, joined by the hunchbacked sexton, a thoughtful man and the best character in the movie. Each tormented by their lives’ lack of meaning, Gunnar begins the service, which is attended only by Ingrid.

Sexton Allan Edwall, later in Fanny & Alexander and The Sacrifice:

A strong contender for Most Depressing Film of All Time. Made the same year as Frantisek Vlácil’s The Devil’s Trap (“an allegory regarding science, religion and secular power”) and The World’s Greatest Sinner, in which Timothy Carey renames himself God and defies the other God to show himself. Max von Sydow would follow this up by playing Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told.

The ending, in Bergman’s words: “Irrespective of everything, you will hold your Communion. It is important to the churchgoer, but even more important to you.”

P. Cowie from the DVD extras:

When it came out, I remember certainly being very shocked that this did not look like a Bergman film. It didn’t have that spectacular technical expertise which we associated during the 50′s with Bergman. But looking back I think it was very deliberate on his part. It wasn’t a budget problem or anything like that. He just wanted something very, very wintry and very, very severe.

P. Cowie:

Film buffs who know Bergman’s earlier film Through a Glass Darkly will note the organist’s scornful dismissal of that work’s conclusion: “God is love; love is God.” Indeed, Winter Light stands as a bridge between Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence, as well as Bergman’s farewell to his own religious upbringing. Some might call it an exorcism.

Ebert:

The sexton, the little twisted man, alone has a face that is alive with wonder at the mystery of faith. He has been reading the Gospels, he says, and thinks the emphasis on Christ’s suffering on the cross is all wrong. Christ only suffered a few hours, he says, while he, Algot, has suffered more and longer, and it is not so bad. No, the real suffering of Christ came when his disciples betrayed him at Gethsemane, and when he cried out to a father who seemed to have forsaken him. He suffered because he feared no one had heard or understood his message. Christ suffered because he, too, was dismayed by the silence of God.

Upstream Color (2013, Shane Carruth)

I guess it’s about two people with traumatic pasts who try to track down where their lives went wrong – but as I could tell from the trailer, it’s hard to say exactly what it’s about. One thing I wasn’t expecting: it opens with Swanberg/Wingard regular Amy Seimetz being kidnapped and force-fed a mind-control worm by a patient abductor who takes her home and gets her to sign over all her home equity, which he cashes and disappears.

In her shabby new life working at a signage shop, Amy is relentlessly courted by divorced ex-junkie Shane (our writer/director/etc) who tries to help her come to terms with her life. He has his own identity problems – she tells him stories and he fashions them into his own memories and tries to re-tell them to her. During the mutual-paranoid-freakout scene in a bathtub the movie started to remind me of Bug.

Elsewhere in the world, a pig farmer is somehow involved with the worm-brainwashed abductees and possibly the harvesting of new mind-control worms. Also he seems to be a sound recordist. Amy pieces together enough details to discover his farm and kill him, upon which they find documents on all the other kidnappees, and invite them all to the pig farm.

And I haven’t even mentioned these guys:

The above is a silly description of an entrancing movie.
This was a long time coming after Carruth’s great Primer.
Co-edited by David Lowery, whose Ain’t Them Bodies Saints made waves the same year.

Cinema Scope has an excellent interview with Carruth:

From a writing perspective, I don’t want these people to wake up and have a normal resolution. That’s impossible for me because that means that I understand all of this and have a morality lesson to explain to the audience. And I don’t. All I have is an exploration. So the characters can resolve their story in their own way, but that doesn’t stop the exploration for me.