Category Archives: Film Reviews

Blind Alley


1939. Charles “King” Vidor (dir.) Starring Ralph Bellamy, Ann Dvorak, Chester Morris. avers  Blind Alley is “one of the very first Hollywood films” accurately described as noir, though the basic premise– a crew of criminals on the lam take a bourgeois family hostage– depends heavily on the gangster genre. In addition the film’s claustrophobic locale– the interior of a psychology professor’s lakeside mansion– tends to render the action fairly static. The primary conflict between the main antagonists takes the form of the pipe-smoking academic (Shelby) and a neurotic yet sadistic escaped convict (Wilson), who wrangle over the content of the latter’s  expressionistic dreams, which ultimately lend stylistic verve to an otherwise literalist interpretation of childhood trauma. The crushingly obvious Oedipal conclusion Shelby and Wilson arrive at– “every time you kill a man you kill your father”– disarms the gangster with self-knowledge, precipitating his sudden death. Ann Dvorak plays an appealing moll, not only devoted to her killer-lover but aroused by his spontaneous acts of violence.

On the Road (2012)

I’m watching Walter Salles’s adaptation of On the Road, trying to remember what exactly it felt like to read Kerouac’s novel for the first time when I was fifteen. There’s a nice little montage after Sal and Dean and Marylou leave Old Bull Lee’s farm in Louisiana that comes close. They’ve picked up two hitch-hikers, and a series of long shots showing the landscape they’re passing through counterpoints several close-ups. Thunderheads lowering down to the horizon, rain balling up on the windshield and slipping off, dust pluming out from the car’s rear tires. There then follows a shot of Marylou, striped in gold by late afternoon light slanting through the car window. She turns at the sound of one of the hitchhikers singing a mournful song. The actor who plays Marylou, Kristen Stewart, gives the singer a look which at first could be taken as irritation, but then gradually transforms: from interest to lips-parted absorption to a flicker around the eyes that verges on tears. The next shot is on the Golden Gate bridge, which is drained of color by a thick white fog. The driver, Dean, looks into the rear view mirror, where Marylou’s face is framed, her features blanched grey and white. Dean is going to abandon her.

The quality that Salles adds to Kerouac’s story amounts almost to an extra dimension: the subjectivity of women. In the novel women are relatively flat characters who function primarily as sexual playthings, romantic entanglements, and nurturing/suffocating maternal figures– in other words, the standard repertoire of female types culled from the masculine literary imagination. (The most gothic of these women is poor crazy Joan, who sweeps the trees at night with a broom, trying to dislodge the creatures her mind has put there.) Salles’s film improves upon Kerouac’s novel because it gives greater insight into the damage wrought by Dean’s charismatic psychopathy. Camille, Dean’s second wife, kicks him out when she realizes that regardless of many sacrifices she makes or how many obligations he accumulates, he cannot sustain empathy and concern for others. The last shots of the film resonate with anyone who knows the circumstances of the death of the historical personage, Neal Cassady, who inspired the character Dean Moriarty. The camera jolts along after Dean as he stumbles down desert railroad tracks. From the open road– which offers a sense of elation and freedom– to the tracks, which are always only going in a single direction.


Here’s a list of some of the films I screened this semester.

Oculus (2013): Pretty spooky in parts. The interwoven narratives are definitely confounding and the gore factor is relatively light. Writer-director-editor Mike Flanagan understands the primal magic of mirrors, which have the uncanny power of both doubling and distorting the world.

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003): Another “family” horror flick. I think it’s the intimacy of family relationships that make them prime terrain for disturbing films. Certainly the perversion of that intimacy and the violation of trust are linked to the gothic mode. Secrets, darkness, sudden aggression, the gap between perception and reality: all of these elements work to construct an off-kilter storyworld.

Gothic (1989): A Ken Russell film starring a very young Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley. A relentlessly batty, hallucinatory account of one of the most famous house visits in English literature, when Polidori, Byron, and the Shelleys told one another ghost stories and Frankenstein was born. The print that’s available on dvd is murky and awful but it’s worth watching anyway.

His Kind of Woman (1951): If you’re a fan of Robert Mitchum then you’ll likely forgive him this over-the-top crime drama with the wooden yet sultry Jane Russell.

Twixt (2011): This is a beautiful looking film that loses energy as it moves along, but has the virtue of imagining a lengthy conversation with Edgar Poe (Ben Chaplin) about plot and narrative.

Poklosi (2012): A better-than-average Polish thriller that is concerned with the crimes of the past.

Faust (2011): If you can get past the opening autopsy, you’ll find this adaptation of the Faust legend is very engaging. Sokurov’s Satan bears a passing resemblance to the figure hallucinated by Ivan Karamazov as he suffers from a virulent “brain fever” in Dostoevsky’s novel. Note also the role that Sokurov’s cinema art seems to be playing in Russia’s efforts to assert its cultural presence on a global stage.

Wolf Hall (2015): I am a huge fan of Hillary Mantel’s historical novels, particularly Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. This miniseries is a really well-executed adaptation of both of them. Clare Foy is just remarkable as Anne Boleyn.

App (2013): I actually enjoyed this film. Cultural anxieties about new tech are usually pretty interesting to consider, and if App is fairly ridiculous it does have something to say about the subsumption of human consciousness into “social” media.

Noah (2014): Initially I was wary of this film but then I realized it was directed by Darren Aronovsky, who basically treats a Judeo-Islamo-Christian myth as science fiction. Check it out.

Pontypool (2008): This original take on the zombie flick picks up William S. Burroughs’s conceit that “the word is a virus” and transports it to strange places.


Lagging the Popgeist: Paranoia (2013)

Post-crash cinema includes a few notable efforts to get to the root of the latest crisis of capitalism by exploring its human dimensions. Given its status as an abstract logic, ontological principle, or centerless system, global capitalism’s fundamental unrepresentability requires a framework that can provide some measure of proportion. Perhaps the most familiar method of introducing this necessary scale is to focus on characters caught up in the machinations of profit and exchange. Unfortunately, such a tactic usually results in a narrative which reiterates the thesis that our problems stem not from structure but from individual malfeasance– thus granting capital a false alibi. The gambit of post-crash films is to explore that which is inhuman by attending to the human and in doing so to effectively cede the possibility of showing capital in its totality.

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