Zine Peek: Top Ten By Year: 1978 – The Shout


Two weeks ago the Top Ten By Year: 1978 zine became available to purchase on my etsy page. It is a variety of collage, illustration, and celebration of the films of 1978, including write-ups on my ten favorites. For both this and my previous issue (1943), my plan was to rewatch the films and revise what I’d originally written years ago when I chose these years for my Top Ten By Year project (in which I spend 6 months to over a year with a particular year in film). What I quickly found was that none of it was nearly good enough to include. In the end, a handful of thoughts remained, but almost everything I wrote for both zines is entirely new.

I want to give people a peek at what I wrote, and hopefully, if you like it and would like to see more, you’ll consider picking up a copy. I’ll post three write-ups from each. Here is the second I’m sharing from 1978, on Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout. It is my #10 of that year.

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“Every word of what I’m going to tell you is true. Only I’m telling it in a different way. It’s always the same story…it’s always the same story but I…I change the sequence of events, and I vary the climaxes a little, because I like to keep it alive you see. I like to keep it alive”. 

Two men keep score of an asylum cricket game that unfolds with a kind of waiting-room menace, as if the world may end as soon as one team wins. One of the men tells the other a story, a story about aboriginal magicks in the English countryside, a story with unreliable layers of remove before we even begin. There is an air of Caligari to this framing device, the disturbed living in a limbo where the mix of delusion and reality exists in a beguiling muddle. Of course it’s a cricket game. Cricket makes no goddamn sense to the eye, but there is an order and logic to it we cannot see or know. I may as well be describing The Shout.

The central couple in Crossley’s (Alan Bates) tale are more placeholders than people. John Hurt is terminally aloof, and Suzannah York all-too soon becomes a symbol of sexual submission and the conqueror conquering. We meet them as they wake from a shared apparition of an aboriginal man in a tailcoat. The wife notices that her belt buckle is missing. They just woke up, and unbeknownst to them they’ve already lost the hearth and themselves. There are no clear motivations. Why them, why here? This is a reality where visions, the vessels of the inanimate, and especially the sonic, are what dictate will, power, and fate. Where everything may be a lie, or worse, everything may be true. Where people can be controlled as long as you have their belt buckle, or trap their soul in a stone.

Crossley claims to have obtained the “Terror Shout” from a shaman, a deafening scream that has the power to immediately kill anyone or anything within earshot. Anthony (Hurt) is a composer who spends his time experimenting with sound by manipulating electronics and everyday objects, unlocking what they hold within. An early sequence shows him recording various sounds, such as marbles and water rolling around together on an aluminum baking sheet. Throughout the film, there is an awareness of the potential for the extraordinary by what is put into and brought out of the ordinary. But in The Shout, the extraordinary uniformly manifests itself in the evils of the fantastic. We are thus trained to be more attuned to sound moving forward, to listen with a keen ear of curiosity and unease — to listen with the ears of a musician…or a wizard. The Shout weaves an aural tapestry for us, with an innovative 4-channel Dolby mix, one of the first of its kind, and an ambient and subdued synth score by Tony Banks and Michael Rutherford of Genesis.

There is a moment when, yanked down into position, Suzannah York recreates a Francis Bacon work seen on an inconspicuous clipping on Hurt’s studio wall. Director Jerzy Skolimowski doesn’t over-telegraph this recreation. He creates an uncanny familiarity, giving you just enough to know you’ve seen that pose somewhere before, and what the hell does it mean that you’re seeing it again? Is it part of Crossley’s power over the house that creates these mirror images, part of the film’s conveyances, or the inanimate’s surplus of energy? Any or all? These are the kind of patterns (this one more direct than the rest of the film) that make up the film. Watching it you feel first dislodged, then powerless. Even the opening credits, in which a man zig-zags his way through a shot grainy enough to be Bigfoot footage, are hazy and out of reach. The Shout leaves you engulfed in layers of suspicious supernatural uncertainty as you go off into the world acutely aware of your own corporeal limitations .

Zine Peek: Top Ten By Year: 1943 – The Seventh Victim


Two weeks ago the Top Ten By Year: 1978 zine became available to purchase on my etsy page. It is a variety of collage, illustration, and celebration of the films of 1978, including write-ups on my ten favorites. In February I released one for 1943. For both projects, my plan was to rewatch the films and revise what I’d originally written years ago when I chose these years for my Top Ten By Year project (in which I spend 6 months to over a year with a particular year in film). What I quickly found was that none of it was nearly good enough to include. In the end, a handful of thoughts remained, but almost everything I wrote for both zines is entirely new.

I want to give people a peek at what I wrote, and hopefully, if you like it and would like to see more, you’ll consider picking up a copy. I’ll post three write-ups from each. Here is the first from 1943: The Seventh Victim.

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The inescapable lure of death is a hell of a thing to make your movie about. The Seventh Victim‘s philosophy, which producer-auteur Val Lewton admitted flat-out, is to embrace death. It’s a shocking statement, for 1943 or 2019; one that RKO only got away with because the film wasn’t top brass enough for anyone to notice. The Satanists are not the enemy. They are an empty placeholder, an unsuccessful attempt for Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) to find escape from her melancholia (in fact, the cult is seen as similarly desperate – a mundane and lost group). Jacqueline dons a fur coat while her jet black hair frames her face with severity; a protective shield from the world. Her eyes are large lost pools of hope hanging on by a thread.

The Seventh Victim is existential horror packaged as a detective story. On the surface, the film is guided by Kim Hunter’s (in her debut) search for her missing sister, but she (and us) are actually guided by recurring images of hanging nooses, locked rooms, and staircases. Everything feels like it’s communicated, whether visually or through dialogue, with the weight of the forbidden. In a pre-Psycho shower scene, murder is not committed, but vital information and threats are passed through curtain and shadow while water drips off Hunter’s shoulders (side note: this movie is pretty gay, yet another plus!).

We are with Jacqueline through the final act. Hunter, the lame poet, and the inconsequential husband have been a means to an end. Her walk through the streets, as she flees a pursuer, is a walk of the mind. She resists and finds escape, but it’s futile. Her search for a light at the end of the tunnel is conveyed through the lighting, the unwanted bacchanal celebrations of a theater troupe her only out. And then there’s that profound exchange with Mimi (Elizabeth Russell), a dying specter who makes herself known in the final minutes. The scene stops me dead in my tracks every time. Mimi defiantly chooses to meet death through living. Jacqueline, once again without answers, limps resignedly towards hers. At that crucial moment they meet in the middle. Both headed towards the same fate (as are we all), which they’ll arrive at in very different ways for very different reasons. The Seventh Victim may look like it’s about missing sisters and Satanists, but it’s not. To Die or Not To Die: that is the question.

Zine Peek: Top Ten By Year: 1978 – The Fury


Two weeks ago the Top Ten By Year: 1978 zine became available to purchase on my etsy page. It is a variety of collage, illustration, and celebration of the films of 1978, including write-ups on my ten favorites. For both this and my previous issue (1943), my plan was to rewatch the films and revise what I’d originally written years ago when I chose these years for my Top Ten By Year project (in which I spend 6 months to over a year with a particular year in film). What I quickly found was that none of it was nearly good enough to include. In the end, a handful of thoughts remained, but almost everything I wrote for both zines is entirely new.

I want to give people a peek at what I wrote, and hopefully, if you like it and would like to see more, you’ll consider picking up a copy. I’ll post three write-ups from each. Here is the second I’m sharing from 1978, on Brian De Palma’s The Fury. It is my #3 of that year.

960_the_fury_blu-ray_08_The Fury is the best X-Men film ever made, and in an ideal world it’d be considered a model for what pop cinema can be. But as Brian De Palma’s follow-up to his masterpiece Carrie it was destined to disappoint, in part because of how much they have in common. Both are based on novels about a telekinetic girl. Both feature Amy Irving as an empath who tries and fails to save a peer-in-need. And both enjoy playing at an offbeat pitch; but while Carrie does so within an unmistakable horror designation, The Fury is an ice cream sundae of genres – a coming-of-age supernatural espionage government conspiracy horror-thriller. Got all that? Add an experimentally self-reflexive cherry on top, and you have a film that audiences and critics did not, and largely still don’t, know what to make of. But to De Palma devotees (and some film devotees) it is an essential work, and an irresistible opportunity for writers to intellectualize De Palma’s relationship with cinema through cinema. It’s an exercise that often, for all its worth, makes the film itself sound like a narrative thesis. There is often a clinical disconnect that obscures The Fury’s entertaining and emotional immediacy.

Watching The Fury, the main thing you notice is that even through its early slower section it is blisteringly alive, as if De Palma has some unspoken knowledge that this will be the last film he ever makes (spoiler alert: it wasn’t). It is so in tune with its own wavelength, and with the emotional stakes of its characters, that the preposterously schlocky story feels like it matters (this is greatly helped by John Williams’s momentous Herrmann-eqsue score, by turns eerie, epic, and playful. “For Gillian” is his Harry Potter before Harry Potter). It maintains the same two-fold hold on me every time I watch it — a mix of uncommonly strong investment in the characters and story, and a near-constant awe at its formal power. With an opening set-piece that involves a betrayal by way of (who else but?) John Cassavetes, a terrorist attack, a kidnapping, and a shirtless 62 year-old Kirk Douglas letting loose with a machine gun, an “all-aboard!” line is drawn in the sand. Either hop on or get ready for a long two hours.

That ice cream sundae also contains eccentric pockets of comic relief. Scenes open on oddball peripheral characters, whether it’s the cop who just got a brand new car, the little old lady who delights in helping out a trespasser, or the two security guards who pass the time by negotiating trades of Hershey bars and coffee (it also has the priceless reveal that the elderly Kirk Douglas’s ingenious disguise is to make himself look, wait for it, old!). All that Kirk and quirk gradually give way to the more sincerely executed dilemmas of the teenage Gillian (Amy Irving in a performance that belongs in my personal canon), a new student at the Paragon Institute coming to grips with her increasingly cataclysmic and all-seeing powers.

It’s trademark De Palma to toy around with the nature of cinema, and as The Fury unfolds it begins to self-engage, reaching back into itself in ways that are still hard to fully fathom. Gillian’s telekinetic link to the missing Robin (Andrew Stevens) is depicted visually, including us in the intimate and exclusive psychic link they share. Since Gillian’s visions are triggered by touch and experienced by sight, she acquires information by watching scenes play out in front of, or all around, her. She learns and we learn through her. She becomes submerged in cinema — part of the audience. Gillian experiences harrowing psychic access to Robin, and through the immediacy of the filmmaking we are given that same experiential access to Gillian. This is cinema as the ultimate form of communication, information (surveillance is a recurring theme here too, another De Palma favorite), and feeling, seen as capable of transcending the confines of the screen. As part of his brainwashing, Robin is even shown the first five minutes of the film. Cinema weaponized and all that jazz.

The tricks in De Palma’s formal playbook make all this possible. The editing (at times flickering in-and-out like a flip-book) and rear-screen projection are used to emphasize and envelop. Characters are brought together by overlapping space and sound. The camera often tracks conversation by circling around characters, knowing that the more an image changes, the more we can percieve. A bravura slow-motion sequence turns the notion of the escape scene into a cathartic reverie gone wrong. It isn’t until the end that we realize the slow-motion is in fact stretching out a character’s final moments. It is the perfect encapsulation of how De Palma, at his best, uses pure stylization to not only enhance, but become emotion. Gillian’s shake-ridden fright and confusion, Hester’s (Carrie Snodgress) heartache and longing, and Peter (Douglas) facing the consequences of his quest, are all deeply palpable through this fusion of performance and form.

The Fury carries the devastating punch of his most emotional works like Carrie, Blow Out, or Carlito’s Way, but without the ever-lingering bleak aftertaste. It hijacks the senseless loss that came before with a vengeful ascendance so absolute it can only be called the money shot to end all money shots. And it wouldn’t be The Fury if it didn’t replay from every imaginable angle — wiping our memory out with pure orgasmic vindication.

Zine Peek: Top Ten By Year: 1943 – The Gang’s All Here


Two weeks ago the Top Ten By Year: 1978 zine became available to purchase on my etsy page. It is a variety of collage, illustration, and celebration of the films of 1978, including write-ups on my ten favorites. In February I released one for 1943. For both projects, my plan was to rewatch the films and revise what I’d originally written years ago when I chose these years for my Top Ten By Year project (in which I spend 6 months to over a year with a particular year in film). What I quickly found was that none of it was nearly good enough to include. In the end, a handful of thoughts remained, but almost everything I wrote for both zines is entirely new.

I want to give people a peek at what I wrote, and hopefully, if you like it and would like to see more, you’ll consider picking up a copy. I’ll post three write-ups from each. Here is the first from 1943: Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (which partly inspired the cover!).

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In which Busby Berkeley enters the realm of Technicolor Playground, and Hollywood momentarily dips into the avant-garde. It is here his geometric extravaganzas and high-concept abstractions reach their creative apex. The women regularly rendered with conveyor-belt sameness for various kaleidoscopic shape-making now hold pink neon-lit hula hoops and phallic bananas and those create the shapes and drive the images. The body is often erased entirely (the film starts and ends with disembodied heads, reminding us of Gold Diggers of 1935). The crane shots are so ambitious that the camerawork is at times endearingly wobbly, unable to smoothly keep up with all the spectacle. Other times, as in “The Girl with the Tutti-Frutti Hat”, the camera disorients, constantly roving with curiosity, as if the camera were a Ferris Wheel, or just plain high. The objects make shapes in-camera. The camera makes new shapes by moving. In these key iconic numbers, the image is never still and is always changing.

And those are just the shape-based numbers. During one song, a pink-drenched stream of water is superimposed over a dancing duo, foreshadowing An American in Paris with its romantic use of colors that envelop dancers. And in “No Love, No Nothin”, Alice Faye’s sincerely felt sentiment is used to evoke the sacrifice and loneliness of wartime wives.

The perfunctory romance threatens to render the film derivative and, God forbid, human! But for Berkeley, it is always a means to an end – necessary breather moments before heading back into the fray. After all, who has time for story when there are polka dots to be had.

This is a world where the more heightened the better. So, basically, a world tailored to showcase Carmen Miranda. She spearheads the film’s camp and escapism, combating Faye’s far-off gaze by fusing the playful abandon of the musical numbers into the rest of the film. All angles and elongations, from her high hats to her diamond-cut midriffs (more shapes!), she is always vibrantly and hilariously on, with the English language locked-and-loaded as her plaything (notably restricted to fumbles of out nonsensical sayings). She is a cartoon, defined by broad South American stereotypes and used to bolster the government’s Good Neighbor policy. This historical context is important, and worth all the conversation you can throw at it, but this never takes away from Carmen. She may be a cartoon, but the whole film is a cartoon. With the alert showmanship (she makes Lucy Ricardo look chill) of an old-school entertainer, she works her lovable magic while co-opting the film’s kooky unreality.

Zine Peek: Top Ten By Year: 1978 – Coming Home


Two weeks ago, the Top Ten By Year: 1978 zine became available to purchase on my etsy page. It is a variety of collage, illustration, and celebration of the films of 1978. I’d written about my ten favorites in 2015 (the year of my 1978 deep dive), and my plan was to rewatch and revise everything to improve what was there. What I quickly found was that none of it was nearly good enough to include. There are a handful of thoughts that remain, but everything I wrote for the zine is entirely new.

I want to give people a peek at what I wrote, and hopefully, if you like it and would like to see more, you’ll consider picking up a copy. I’ll post three write-ups each from the 1943 (which was similarly revised almost from scratch) and 1978 zines. I will also be doing this for the 1943 zine.

So, here is my write-up on Hal Ashby and company’s Coming Home. It is my #2 of 1978.

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Coming Home delivers its message by way of human texture and deference. 1978 marks the year Hollywood began to grapple with the atrocities of the Vietnam War (this and the harrowing collapse-of-camaraderie film The Deer Hunter were both nominated for Best Picture). But Hollywood didn’t decide to make Coming Home; Jane Fonda did. And she brought in collaborators (director Hal Ashby, stars Jon Voight and Bruce Dern, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, producer Jerome Hellman, etc) that, like her, were coming from a place of long-time activism and grievance. Together they came up with one of the most empathetic films ever made (Coming Home is full of one-of-the-mosts of mine), a film about the basic need for human connection in times of uncertainty and ruin. Their research on the stories and struggles of those who returned home held significant sway, and they shot at an active veterans hospital, incorporating the patients and their conversations into the film (Jon Voight and Robert Carradine are the only actors among the hundred plus credited). It is by some miracle (that miracle being the people involved) that they never feel like exploited window dressing. The film opens with patients playing pool and speaking unscripted about the war. Originally, Jon Voight was meant to chime in, but as they shot the only thing that felt right was to stay silent. Instead, he is seen listening intently with his head down, his real-life respect becomes Luke’s pain. This is what I mean by deference.

Hal Ashby’s camera was always one of sensitive objectivity: simply put, he can see. He’s often far away (because of the lenses he favors, even when he’s close he’s far), taking in the whole before finding the details. This sense of discovery with a documentarian’s eye – seen in, for example, every shot from the Fourth of July picnic – contains a decree that we also see, and become one with the camera’s discoveries. It is through this that the film finds its uncommon compassion, allowing the actors to seamlessly integrate themselves with the environment and each other.

Ashby’s hang-back approach (he and Altman really are kindred spirits) facilitates another crucial rarity about Coming Home: it’s one of the sexiest films ever made. I challenge you to show me anything as erotic as the way Jon Voight looks at Jane Fonda in this movie (Voight’s work here is critical to my love of Coming Home; a hugely important performance to me, one of rare lived-in emotional access). The two dance around that most charged of scenarios; the anticipatory zone before anything happen, when the tiniest touch, gaze, or exchange is liable to occupy your daydreams (“You know, I spend 95% of the time at the hospital thinking of making love with you”). The realm of unconsummated desire. Their desire functions as a kind of healing, as a way for the broken and abandoned to put themselves together again. The reason it’s so sexy, besides the chemistry between Voight and Fonda, is that nobody is in communication with the camera. Every touch, gaze, and exchange is caught or glimpsed. The camera is not a participant or a voyeur, but an observer, freeing up the actors to share space and immerse themselves with their characters and each other (for instance, the scene at the beach between Luke and Sally regarding Bob’s return was shot with an 800mm lens, placing the camera over 400 yards away from the actors). Their romance never feels constructed for us. Between the performances, and the camera’s unobtrusive and intimate observations, the intimacy we see and feel is amplified.

Hal Ashby is well-known for integrating music into his films, and in Coming Home it’s a throughline — a blank check catalog of the era (it may understandably read as Cliche City to some — there are 5 Rolling Stones songs. 5!), but it stitches together the frequent cross-cutting and provides structural cohesion for the observational filmmaking. Whether unassuming or front-and-center, the music always plays over the scenes. It never punctuates or syncs up with any individual moment or action (in general, this is how music used to be employed – it was much less in conversation with the onscreen moment-to-moment than recent decades). It is used as a blanket of meaning and subsiding impact. Through the music, Sally, Luke, and Bob are unified by the pain of their era and entwined fates. It is thus that “Out of Time” plays over the opening credits, as Bruce Dern’s straight able-bodied jog is cross-cut with an influx of clashing steel and wheels within hospital hallways. And it is thus that we close with divergent ends paralleled, as Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was” shelters the hopeful and the hopeless as they co-exist with overwhelming totality.

1st Annual 50 Favorite Actors list


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WARNING: The following contains heavy semantics. This is the equivalent of letterboxd users breaking down their dumb rating systems. OK, not as bad, but still! You have been warned!

I’m starting a new (and final) iteration of something I’ve done my whole life. A single list of my 50 Favorite Actors, covering the full scope of era and gender. I’ll make a new one from scratch each year as a kind of record. 50 doesn’t leave too much room for sudden or drastic evolution, but the long game is what I’m playing at.

All of my old lists (of any kind) used to be ranked. Frankly, fuck that. I’m all for ranking within narrow frameworks (Top Ten By Year, etc) but general lists like favorite actors and movies? Why do it? Numbers make the whole thing an arbitrary assessment, isolating the actors and films into a misguided hierarchy that doesn’t add any insight or clarity. Lists and rankings are such an oversaturated aspect of culture content as it is, and I’d like to avoid this feeling like just another ranking. The collective group is the thing, the totality of taste, interest, and meaning. Keeping this a singular entity (with one or two caveats) preserves this as a personal journal entry of sorts, a snapshot and not the end-all be-all. It’s a way of capturing my taste in film and the people in it. I’ve put a star next to my ten favorites, and I’ve got a separate long list of people I considered but ultimately didn’t add, and that’s the extent of it.

Growing up, I made favorite actor lists obsessively. When I was around six or seven I would play ‘School’. I was the teacher. My students? The likes of Tony Danza, Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, and John Travolta. I had pages and pages of any actor whose name I knew (the entire casts of Angels in the Outfield and Addams Family Values were represented). I took very careful attendance to make sure everyone was present, calling out each name and imagining that yes, they were there. Each actor received a little check in their row of squares (I made sure I had the checkered graph paper to keep everything orderly and precise).

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all of these were made at age 11

Then there were the dark days, the days when tween Katie made lists like Top Ten ‘Cutie-Patootie’ Actors (a reference to the Rosie O’Donnell Show, yes, the Rosie O’Donnell Show, seen above). As you can see, the kid from Dennis the Menace topped that one. I also had my constantly revised Top Ten Favorite Actors & Actresses. Five actors from the lists pictured above are also on this current one: Nicole Kidman, Jim Carrey, Winona Ryder, John Travolta, and Michelle Pfeiffer. They were major icons for me then, and they remain so now, 20 years after the fact. They are forever favorites.

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the four quadrants, from 2006 (age 18)

What followed were continuously updated versions of this, covering half my lifetime: Top Blank (at varying points it was 20, 30, and 50) Modern Actors, Modern Actresses, Classic Actors, and Classic Actresses (‘Classic’ accounted for the Hollywood studio era). They were always divided into those four quadrants. I can timestamp the years by who was on them. Simon Pegg at the top? Must be 2008. Katee Sackhoff near the top? I must have been watching “Battlestar Galactica” then. You can find the 2012 versions on this site: here and here.

These categories created considerable grey area, swaths of actors that never really fit comfortably in their group. Those who either featured in films from both eras (Jack Lemmon) or were technically of the ‘Modern’ era but with careers that didn’t really transition into the current (Faye Dunaway). And those ‘Modern’ lists were always much more about the now. I never made room for these actors who qualified as ‘Modern’ but who could be pinpointed to the past. I wanted to feature the up-and-coming, people whose careers I was excited about now! Filmographies I could follow along with as they progressed.

This factor, which meant so much to me then, means nothing re: this new list. For one, I don’t follow current stuff to the degree I used to. 21st century film is less interesting to me (current TV far less so). But I’m really fond of a lot of actors working today, from relative newcomers to tried-and-true character actors to cemented A-listers. The group there was no room for, not by a long shot, were the relative newcomers. I’m an easy lay when it comes to loving actors. But with over a century of performers to choose from, it doesn’t leave much room for the young “oooh I love him/her/them, I can’t wait to see what they do next” ones.

But for the record, the fresher (2010 to present) faces that I’m most invested in are Adam Driver, Elizabeth Debicki, Tom Hardy, Lakeith Stanfield, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Plemons, Nicholas Hoult, and Jonah Hill (whose career trajectory I’m endlessly intrigued by, a man funnier than most of his peers, with the unstable depths of a Chris Penn, whose hyper-sensitivity about being taken seriously and joining the ranks of the prestigious show up on the screen).

The old lists, especially the 50-each ones that totaled to 200 actors, were actually more challenging than this list. Because with so much room, you’re fooled into thinking everyone can be represented. But they can’t; even those lists fill up quick. And now, with just 50 total, it gets down to essentials. There are the favorites, and then the ones who matter most. Oh, I love them? Cool, next! Oh, I love them a lot? Cool, next! Omgtheyaresoamazing? Cool. Next!

There are so many actors whose performances I consistently love or enjoy, that I always look forward to seeing and am often moved by. But there’s a difference between actors who frequently deliver great work, and actors who make something inherently more just by being there, that make me sit up in my seat because what they give either draws out extra engagement from me or they are so distinctive a presence that the fabric of the film/show is thereby altered. But none of this exists without the secret ingredient: that chemical thing that just draws you to one person’s talent and onscreen life more than another.

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The factors are endless. Above is my next tier of favorites, the ones that I didn’t go with but thought about and in some cases agonized (yes, agonized) over whether to include or not.

What do you do when a specific stretch of someone’s work means more to you than most people’s entire careers? Most don’t make it (Patty Duke, Diane Lane, Juliette Lewis, Marlon Brando, etc) But a few do: pre-Dick Tracy Warren Beatty, Eric Roberts in the 1980’s, and Sandy Dennis in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

What do you do with the actors who are still alive but not working regularly, at all, or at the same caliber they used to? Most don’t make it (Nancy Allen, Tim Curry, Kathleen Turner, Fairuza Balk, Sheryl Lee, etc). But a few do: Jim Carrey, Shelley Duvall, Theresa Russell (a spot that could have been occupied by many that mean just as much to me, but I went with Theresa this time because it felt right), Eric Roberts, and John Travolta.

What do you do with the actors who mean a lot to you but whose careers were so brief that it’s hard to justify adding them over others? Unfortunately, almost all of those actors didn’t make it (Linda Manz, Paula Sheppard, Laird Cregar, Zoe Lund, James Dean, Pamela Franklin, etc). One does: Louise Brooks.

What do you do about the actors you love watching more than most but whose work you aren’t familiar enough with yet? None of them make it (Natasha Lyonne, Yaphet Kotto, Silvana Mangano, Helmut Berger, Dagmar Lassander, Tuesday Weld, etc). There are plenty of films from the 50 I’ve yet to see, but I’ve at least seen enough.

Then there are all the others, the really tough ones. I think about James Gandolfini more and more as the years go by. Harvey Keitel’s performances resonate a lot more as I get older (those defiant eyes, I can often feel him). I can’t believe I didn’t make room for Christina Ricci. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the defining comedienne of my lifetime. There is only one Carol Kane, Donald Sutherland, Nicolas Cage, Joan Cusack, Parker Posey, Lily Tomlin, Crispin Glover. I get distinct pleasures from watching each of them. Some of my favorite immortals are Marlene Dietrich, Alain Delon, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Buster Keaton, Cate Blanchett. I’m pretty sure I talk about Jude Law all the time. I will, and have, watched Jean-Claude Van Damme in anything I can find. In recent months I’ve rewatched a lot of key Samuel L. Jackson performances (Jackie Brown, Pulp Fiction, Black Snake Moan, Django Unchained), and was newly reminded that he is one of our most compelling living actors. His pervasive and phoned-in presence in every imaginable franchise had led me to forget that. I’ve been hooked on Gene Wilder, Charles Laughton, Eva Green, Cillian Murphy, and still am. It goes on and on and on.

But this is the challenge of it, and the fun of it. My 50 favorites capture my fascination with stardom and long-range careers with eras & reinventions (ex. Crawford, Cruise, Fonda, Monroe, DiCaprio, Farrell, Taylor), physicality (ex. Chan, Ball, Phoenix, Reeves, Olyphant) & commanding physical presence (ex. Reed, Kidman, De Niro, Mitchum), blue moon charisma (ex. Pfeiffer, Russell, Walbrook, Cagney, Reed, Nicholson), the ones I feel a deep connection to (all of them but especially Carrey, Brooks, & Hoffman) & offbeat god-tier character actors (Dennis, Dourif, Roberts, Black, Duvall) I would take a bullet for.

I start to realize some of the people that aren’t even on this second list: Tilda Swinton, Kate Winslet, Robin Williams, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Katharine Hepburn, Michael Shannon, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Jeanne Moreau, Saorsie Ronan, Brad Pitt, Gena Rowlands, Dirk Bogarde, James Mason, Jeff Bridges, Ethan Hawke, Jeff Goldblum, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, Catherine O’Hara, Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Charlize Theron, Robert Redford, Julie Christie, Michael C. Hall, Michael Caine, Malcolm McDowell, John Hurt, Paul Newman, Anjelica Huston, Sigourney Weaver (every time I watch her in something I think about how much I love her. Her work in Alien 3 means a lot to me), Elliot Gould, etc etc etc. Hell, Peter Mullan is the only person on either list who appears in any Harry Potter film, and that franchise employed basically every British actor you can think of. Most of these actors have been on other lists in the past. Some you’d always be guaranteed to find there (Binoche, Deneuve, etc). As I type this I am realize I forgot Michael Stuhlbarg and John Hawkes in that second group. At the end of the day it just becomes about knowing who there was never any question about, and going with your gut on the rest.

But these 50 (ok, 52, I cheated, the truth is out!), the ones I ultimately chose, are the actors whose work collectively means more than the rest, my ultimate favorites: the ones I can lose myself in, and then find myself in. Who are yours?

Top Ten By Year: 1949 #1 – Bitter Rice (Italy / De Santis)


Previous Top Ten By Year lists:
1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, 1992, 1978, 1925, 1969
1930

Previous Top Ten By Year: 1949 Posts:
Top Ten By Year: 1949 – Poll Results
100 Images from the Films of 1949
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1949: A Love Letter
#10. The Queen of Spades (UK/Dickinson)
#9. Rendezvous in July (Becker)/Au royaume des cieux (Duvivier) (France)
#8. Too Late for Tears (US / Haskin)
#7. The Heiress (US / Wyler)
#6. The Set-Up (US / Wise)
#5. Caught (US / Ophüls)
#4. The Passionate Friends (UK / Lean)
#3. Puce Moment (US / Anger)
#2. The Third Man (UK / Reed)

For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year project:
The majority of my viewing habits have been dictated by this project since September of 2013. Jumping to a different decade each time, I choose comparatively weaker years for me re: quantity of films seen/quantity of films loved. I use list-making as a way to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-drive way. I was sick of spending too much time trying to decide what to watch, or watching films just to cross them off another dumb canon list. I wanted to engage. I wanted films to be enhanced by others, by looking at a specific moment in time. I wanted something that led me to seeing or revisiting things I might not have gotten to otherwise. Lastly, my lists are based on personal favorites, not any weird notion of an objective best.

This is the first year I’ll be doing separate posts for each film. #9 will go up Monday. After that, one will go up each day until the end. Then I’ll post them all together so they are gathered in one place. There are a lot of films I loved that did not make the cut. In particular, Flamingo Road, Such a Pretty Little Beach, On the Town, Inspirace, The Reckless Moment, Reign of Terror, The Rocking Horse Winner, and Samson and Delilah are all films I thought at one point would be on here. Of all of these, Flamingo Road was a sure thing until it wasn’t at the very last minute. Please go watch it.

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#1. Bitter Rice (Italy / De Santis) (first-time watch)
Two women and two cultures intertwined.

There are two sides to Bitter Rice. One has neorealism, Silvana, and Italy. The other has film noir, Francesca, and America. When all is said and done these two women will have swapped places, for better and much worse. And when Italy’s other neorealist filmmakers see Bitter Rice, they will take it as a betrayal of truth and the political. In short, they hated it. In this time of crucial political upheaval when neorealism carried legitimate cultural cache, director Giuseppe De Santis had made something too slick, too tawdry, and too American. The message was tarnished by the method. But De Santis was a Marxist who happened to admire and study John Ford, King Vidor, and the visual patterns of Hollywood studio filmmaking. He saw mass appeal as a way to both entertain and denounce, and made a film in which neorealism is hijacked and reconfigured to be a noir melodrama.

Bitter Rice has a lot of recognizably neorealist markers; location shooting, a focus on labor and economic struggle, the tactile particulars of rice worker life, and the use of the specific cultural practices such as the choral Coralita. The sound of women wading through water, the way it would around their legs, and the strain of being hunched over day after day — it’s all made vivid. But it is easy to see why Bitter Rice would seem a betrayal. Its mutinous synthesis of “authenticity” and artificiality was a signpost towards neorealism’s end. Soon there would be stars, genre, production in the Italian film industry.

The synthesis is clear from the very first scene. The authenticity of the mondine (female rice workers) is introduced with grandiosity and sweep. There are no docu-elements here, but plenty of elaborate tracking and crane shots to go around, the kind of gradually encompassing images you’d be more likely to find in a DeMille epic. Watching the very first scene I thought: “Wait — what am I in for?”. All preconceived notions were immediately scrapped, and I realized my trip to the rice fields of Po Valley would be a very different one indeed. Then, a couple carrying stolen jewels are chased into the station waiting to transport the workers to the fields. Their arrival feels like an alien invasion, as if some freak chemical accident at the film lab spilled one film into another. This dichotomy plays throughout with electric and arresting cohesion, making it so distinctly unlike any other film from its movement.

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While De Santis was inspired by the Hollywood narrative format, he also uses American culture’s insidious postwar presence to illustrate the dangers of breaking from solidarity for hollow (the fake jewels!) individual gain. This is done using the two incredible and complex women of Bitter Rice‘s center. After Francesca the Moll (Doris Dowling, an American actress) is forced to assimilate in the rice fields, she finds purpose among the mondine. In order to stay in hiding, she has to advocate for the rights of her fellow non-contract workers. But this is never done as a means to an end. Francesca never schemes to stay on; she is always shown as sincerely leading the protests for the group. Life becomes bigger than herself, and she learns to stand both as her own woman, and as part of the mondine.

Francesca also begins to see her personal life more clearly. You get the sense that despite loving Walter (Vittorio Gassman), she is not blind to how reprehensible he is (I mean, in the first scene he literally used her as a human shield so….). But she had nowhere to go, and no strength to pull away. Life in Po Valley gives her that strength. The value of the collective is present throughout, with choral scenes, aerial shots showcasing the lines of working women linked together, and fragments of peripheral characters and their various troubles. They push themselves to the brink under oppressive conditions just to make it to the next job, and there is power in their (at times friction-filled) solidarity (I was also reminded of last year’s Support the Girls, also about a community of women united by unforgiving labor).

Then there is the shrewd but naive young Silvana (Silvana Mangano, who I’ll talk about later), a peasant that dreams of wealth. She is seduced by all things coded America and money (she should talk to Caught’s Leonora!). We first meet her doing the boogie woogie (she does a lot of dancing, employed for seduction and statement). In this group of women, where everyone is introduced as part of a whole, she immediately stands out as modern. She chews gum, loves big-band, and is seen reading photo-romances, the then-popular prepackaged fantasies that were read by lower and working class Italian women. Silvana wants out; she longs for adventure, riches, and a certain kind of romance. But the way out that presents itself is a different kind of way out, and she is too blinded by inexperience to understand it.


The camera links Francesca and Silvana all the time. Whether in two-shots or individual spaces, there is an invisible tether between them. Their lives and fates take part in a film-length body-swap. Silvana talks about fate a lot, but is seen making deliberate choices towards certain doom. She can’t see Walter for what he is — an exploiter and a monster. But Francesca gives her an out, replaying about her life with Walter and the terrible things he has done. She tries to take the abuse and hardship she lived through and save someone else from making the mistakes she did. But Silvana can’t see past the jewels and the suit. There is only the potential for excitement, for something that is not this. After all, Walter “looks like a gentleman” (aka a hotshot gumshoe); so he must be, right? While Francesca’s transformation is one of victorious camaraderie, Silvana’s (both actress and character) is altogether much murkier; one marked by punishment.

Silvana Mangano never wanted her body to represent the whole of Italy, but it did. Audiences were scandalized just seeing the unapologetically full female form (au natural, code for Armpit Hair), the kind that becomes sexualized simply by existing. She was the prototype of the “earthy women” that would cause such a stir overseas (later embodied by Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren). She started out by winning Miss Rome, a post-war contest that further enhanced the idea of body-as-nation, and an honor that became synonymous with future screen tests. Unlike Lollobrigida and Loren, Mangano didn’t cash in on overseas notoriety for a Hollywood career. She became resentful of her image, and of fame, eventually giving herself a drastic reinvention (her figure was now svelte and arch, her look cold) and starring in art films by Pasolini and Visconti in the late 1960s and 1970s (and Dune!).

The camera doesn’t ogle Mangano Tex Avery style; this isn’t Jane Russell in The Outlaw. But it aims to stay back, taking in the whole of her whenever possible. And you can’t help but take part in that — I love looking at her. She is the textbook case for why the male gaze is not an open-and-shut case. For all its appallingly absolute authority on the almost-whole of filmic language, women enjoy it too! One of the great joys of watching films is watching bodies, both male and female. I am hypnotized and, yes, completely turned on by Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice. The camera may not be that Tex Avery wolf, but I’ll admit that I am.

Critics felt her body, and Bitter Rice’s eroticism as represented by her, cheapened the film and nullified its political message. Yet a crucial part of its political message is the punishment her and her body endures for betraying the homeland (a tactic that opens up a whole other can of worms). She is eroticized, symbolic, made into a cautionary tale. Her final fugue march is just like Ann Todd’s in The Passionate Friends. Claude Rains gets there in time. Francesca cannot.

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(TW: rape, sexual assault)
She is raped. It is a rape that takes away her body. We don’t see much of it after that. In those last thirty minutes she is made up of haunted black pupils, lit like she’s telling a ghost story. She is immediately ostracized by the filmmaking, quarantined off in shots of the mondine in ways you feel more than see. It’s not obvious, but intrinsic and heartbreaking. The most startling example takes place immediately following her assault. It is pouring out (during these scenes a stunning rain shower falls right in front of the camera like a curtain) and the women have banded together, refusing to let the weather set them behind schedule. Silvana walks in a daze, confused and in shock. Ahead, a sick woman who shouldn’t be out in her condition begins having an attack. She howls out, and begins writhing in pain as the women surround her and hold her down. They begin to sing in an attempt to calm her (they are all one). Silvana looks on in horror. This is a mirror image of what she just went through, her trauma reflecting right back at her. She is watching herself. She begins to scream. She is drowned out, not part of the coralita, not part of anything anymore. Her cries go unheard.

The meat locker finale is one last compare-and-contrast session. Both women have guns. Both women have a man beside them. One is shaking and shaken. The other is determined and resolute. Francesca is still trying to save the other end of the tether. There is something so moving and uncommon in Francesca’s committed efforts to protect Silvana despite the harm she causes and rivalry she insists on. It’s hard to put into words how much I love these women, these characters, these performances. Bitter Rice pays such close attention to how women communicate with each other (in both speech and body language, the silent glares and stares may as well be full conversations), and to the breadth of female experience, struggle, and loyalty. We see how hard it is for Francesca to break away from Walter. We see that Silvana’s sense of right and wrong are muddied by what she wants out of life. We see that Silvana’s actions are not unfeeling; there is such pain on her face as she undoes the mondine’s hard work. The list goes on as more layers are pulled back.

Watching Bitter Rice is that all-too rare sensation of not knowing where a film is headed, or what story it will tell (unless you’ve read this before watching). Francesca and Silvana are often hard to read. By the end, that body swap trajectory is clear, but only at the end. And despite the larger-than-life symbolic statuses they represent, they are two of the most layered and human women I’ve ever seen onscreen. They don’t fit into any neat box — not within neorealism, and not within noir. Francesca and Silvana are with me now, and I’m the better for it.

Top Ten By Year: 1949 #2 – The Third Man (UK / Reed)


Previous Top Ten By Year lists:
1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, 1992, 1978, 1925, 1969
1930

Previous Top Ten By Year: 1949 Posts:
Top Ten By Year: 1949 – Poll Results
100 Images from the Films of 1949
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1949: A Love Letter
#10. The Queen of Spades (UK/Dickinson)
#9. Rendezvous in July (Becker)/Au royaume des cieux (Duvivier) (France)
#8. Too Late for Tears (US / Haskin)
#7. The Heiress (US / Wyler)
#6. The Set-Up (US / Wise)
#5. Caught (US / Ophüls)
#4. The Passionate Friends (UK / Lean)
#3. Puce Moment (US / Anger)

For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year project:
The majority of my viewing habits have been dictated by this project since September of 2013. Jumping to a different decade each time, I choose comparatively weaker years for me re: quantity of films seen/quantity of films loved. I use list-making as a way to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-drive way. I was sick of spending too much time trying to decide what to watch, or watching films just to cross them off another dumb canon list. I wanted to engage. I wanted films to be enhanced by others, by looking at a specific moment in time. I wanted something that led me to seeing or revisiting things I might not have gotten to otherwise. Lastly, my lists are based on personal favorites, not any weird notion of an objective best.

This is the first year I’ll be doing separate posts for each film. #9 will go up Monday. After that, one will go up each day until the end. Then I’ll post them all together so they are gathered in one place. There are a lot of films I loved that did not make the cut. In particular, Flamingo Road, Such a Pretty Little Beach, On the Town, Inspirace, The Reckless Moment, Reign of Terror, The Rocking Horse Winner, and Samson and Delilah are all films I thought at one point would be on here. Of all of these, Flamingo Road was a sure thing until it wasn’t at the very last minute. Please go watch it.

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#2. The Third Man (UK / Reed) (rewatch)

How corny and obvious to say, but it’s true; every time you watch The Third Man you think “Wow, people made this and now we have it and it’s a thing that exists, how beautiful is that?” It humbles you, bringing you back to the basics of discovery. Every time you watch it’s hard to leave it. The sum of its particulars transcend genre or any other label it might be tempting to assign it. Its time and place feel far too specific for noir; noir is The City, a monolith of shady affairs and shadier alleyways. But this is the post-war Vienna film, belonging only to itself.

Because The Third Man doesn’t quite feel like anything else. Anton Karas’s jaunty and iconic zither score is gleefully intrusive, forcing the film to pace itself off a merry-go-round bemusement. The music keeps everything in brisk forward motion, nudging its characters to move along now everyone, move along (Reed completely forgoes the score in the sewers, opting for echoes and trudging footsteps). This is made clear in the opening off-the-cuff narration, which runs down an expository list of black markets and post-war zone layouts against footage that insists on hopping away every other second.

The unorthodox soundtrack joins forces with the canted angles; World War II has knocked the Earth off its axis. The Third Man reflects that by adopting a cocked camera, a permanently raised eyebrow. Question everything but do it with a twinkle in your eye, that’s the spirit of this film. Repartee is currency while shifty characters commingle with shifty characters and everyone knows more than you do. This vision of Allied-occupied post-war Vienna is an alienating place of sectors and disparities. It’s overrun and the frames are often packed in. But the streets are empty. This labyrinth of ruined decadence. The milky-glow of the cobblestones and crumbled angles (courtesy of Robert Krasker who, no big deal, gifts us with arguably the most beautiful black-and-white film ever made) make up a city in the process of picking up its pieces but not yet able to put itself back together again.

When I think of Holly Martins, I hear Dennis Hopper in action masterpiece Speed, exclaiming to Keanu: “You’ve got blinders on to the world!” This penniless dimestore novelist has a case of the chronic misreads. He enters into a world he isn’t part of to see the best friend he’s barely been in touch with for “some sort, I don’t know, some sort of job” the narrator tells us. And yet he is positive that old chum Harry Lime couldn’t possibly be mixed up in nefarious dealings. He has assigned himself the role of Hero, Major Calloway the Villain, Anna the Love Interest, and Harry the Wrong Man. The only problem is that not one of these matches reality, and that is the hard lesson that awaits him. Graham Greene’s all-timer script denigrates Martins without making a joke of him. We simply wait for him to catch up with us. Joseph Cotten makes Holly’s lowkey haplessness and buffoonery (“a parrot bit me”) satisfyingly human.

Meanwhile, Harry Lime’s iconic entrance is even better when you register that he never even meant to be seen and had seamlessly pivoted into the moment for the theatrics. It’s a moment so perfect that it manages to stand out even in this film (hell, there’s even a kitten!). There’s nothing new to say about Orson Welles’s Harry Lime (or, let’s face it, The Third Man) except to reiterate that I’ve never seen a man make ego more appealing. The effect of seeing him onscreen is that he is so obviously up to no good, but his accelerated charm is so completely infectious that he becomes a one-man obstacle course towards activating the moral self. He becomes inconcievably larger-than-life because every scene, every conversation in the film is about this unseen (supposedly dead!) man. Then he shows up long enough to make a series of viciously flippant remarks about the value of human life before skedaddling off (the urge to shout “no, wait, don’t go, you just got here!” is strong), and all you think is how much you love this guy despite the things coming out of his mouth. I had forgotten about the chipper “ok byeeee” nature of Harry Lime’s exit (“So long Holly!”) immediately following the cuckoo clock speech. It’s in sync with the way he delivers all his lines, his baritone rumble spinning out its own rhythm so that you can’t tell where sentences end or begin.

Lastly, there is Anna (Alida Valli). Convention dictates that Anna is a woman of many secrets. But she isn’t; there are some fake passports but that’s about it. She simply loves Harry. Even though he has left her in the lurch, she is committed to staying loyal to him no matter what she learns. There is no affair. She simply cannot return Holly’s love. The Third Man ends with Anna’s forthright walk through the autumnal street; past Holly, past us. Through two funerals, she shuns the living through her loyalty to the dead. And then there’s Holly, alone but newly aware, left to realign himself with a world off its axis.

Top Ten By Year: 1949 #3 – Puce Moment (US / Anger)


Previous Top Ten By Year lists:
1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, 1992, 1978, 1925, 1969
1930

Previous Top Ten By Year: 1949 Posts:
Top Ten By Year: 1949 – Poll Results
100 Images from the Films of 1949
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1949: A Love Letter
#10. The Queen of Spades (UK/Dickinson)
#9. Rendezvous in July (Becker)/Au royaume des cieux (Duvivier) (France)
#8. Too Late for Tears (US / Haskin)
#7. The Heiress (US / Wyler)
#6. The Set-Up (US / Wise)
#5. Caught (US / Ophüls)
#4. The Passionate Friends (UK / Lean)

For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year project:
The majority of my viewing habits have been dictated by this project since September of 2013. Jumping to a different decade each time, I choose comparatively weaker years for me re: quantity of films seen/quantity of films loved. I use list-making as a way to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-drive way. I was sick of spending too much time trying to decide what to watch, or watching films just to cross them off another dumb canon list. I wanted to engage. I wanted films to be enhanced by others, by looking at a specific moment in time. I wanted something that led me to seeing or revisiting things I might not have gotten to otherwise. Lastly, my lists are based on personal favorites, not any weird notion of an objective best.

This is the first year I’ll be doing separate posts for each film. #9 will go up Monday. After that, one will go up each day until the end. Then I’ll post them all together so they are gathered in one place. There are a lot of films I loved that did not make the cut. In particular, Flamingo Road, Such a Pretty Little Beach, On the Town, Inspirace, The Reckless Moment, Reign of Terror, The Rocking Horse Winner, and Samson and Delilah are all films I thought at one point would be on here. Of all of these, Flamingo Road was a sure thing until it wasn’t at the very last minute. Please go watch it.

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#3. Puce Moment (US / Anger) (first-time viewing)
(you can watch the film here. It is just over six minutes.)

Puce Moment is about that slinky diva from Singin’ in the Rain. You know the one — the vamp that never speaks. Every so often she can be seen skulking through the frame with her long cigarette & droopy posture that cries “Exotic!” Kenneth Anger’s short is about the Pola Negri’s, the Alla Nazimova’s, the Greta Garbo’s of the world. Just as Singin’ in the Rain was a love letter to Hollywood and the silent cinema, Puce Moment was about, in Anger’s words, his “love affair with Hollywood, silent film goddesses”, a bygone era where everything was etched in memory as performance and pose.

Bewitching garments of fabric shimmy towards us. A methodical pause is granted to each piece before it moves down the line. This is a fashion show without bodies. Whatever is happening, it’s as if it must be done. A close-up of a woman. She is fully made up, and blazingly modern. She holds fabric to her face. She looks up in ecstasy as the dress is lowered onto her, as if putting on a gift from the gods. Everything is deliberate and practiced. It is a ritual. After all, this is Kenneth Anger, and this was his ritual. This rack of pastel flapper frocks were artifacts belonging to Anger’s costume designer grandmother. When he was a child he would sneak up to her room and put one on in a similar fashion, going through them one-by-one each time.

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It becomes clear that Puce Moment is some kind of witchery. There is a shot of this goddess’s vanity and its compact pastel glamour. I think about playing “Pretty Pretty Princess” as a kid and how this image is exactly what I imagined those worthless pieces of plastic to be. Boudoirs were made for her, and she was made for her lair. She takes time to bask in the act of lounging, existing to exist in this space. Suddenly the couch moves. Then she is outside. It’s different. Being outside demands a purpose. Enter the Borzois! just as exotic as she. There are an irrational amount of them.

Though nothing can meet the process inside, she leaves her fortress in Mount Olympus. She is ready to meet the world with her dogs. It’s not night. It’s the late afternoon, but she must make something of this lazy hour. Who is this all for? For us? For her? Puce Moment is about the presentation of self as its own art form, as represented by the immortal celluloid siren. Today, Lady Gaga practices this publicly (calculated transparency and branding have supplanted mystery. Female pop stars are the only people who have preserved a small piece of what was). She is the diva walking her Borzois. Anger can’t imagine these women any other way. For him, the public self is also imagined to be the private self.

The woman’s movements are halting, as if she’s slightly off balance. While standing still, she wobbles. This is because Anger shot Puce Moment at 8 frames per second, evoking the silent period and planting the film firmly on its own plane of existence. There are other reasons the film feels out of time (but very much not out of place). The original soundtrack featured a piece by Verdi. But 20 years later, after falling out with soon-to-be Manson-ite Bobby Beausoleil over Lucifer Rising, he fled to London, got involved in the rock scene, and in 1970 re-released Puce Moment with a Jonathan Halper song attached to it. His psych ambience reverberates over those visuals as we hear him sing “Yes, I am a hermit”. A psychedelic sound added to a film from the 1940s, about the 1920s and its evocation of the no-longer, that already felt borne out of 1960s counterculture? No wonder the film feels like it exists in some far-off glitter dimension we can otherwise only hope to catch glimpses of in slumber.

Puce Moment is but a fragment, the only fragment, of an intended feature length project called Puce Women. The film would have been made up of different women representing different parts of the day. Instead we get one woman and a slice of something undone. Kenneth Anger uses the short film to go towards Hollywood while others working in this mode, avant-garde outsiders with limited finances, were doing the exact opposite. It feels fitting that Puce Moment is all there is. Its mysterious power remains absolute. It is a spell cast on the viewer, but one manifestation of Anger’s paganism. It is the luxuriant feminine eternally out of reach.

Top Ten By Year: 1949 #4 – The Passionate Friends (UK / Lean)


Previous Top Ten By Year lists:
1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, 1992, 1978, 1925, 1969
1930

Previous Top Ten By Year: 1949 Posts:
Top Ten By Year: 1949 – Poll Results
100 Images from the Films of 1949
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1949: A Love Letter
#10. The Queen of Spades (UK/Dickinson)
#9. Rendezvous in July (Becker)/Au royaume des cieux (Duvivier) (France)
#8. Too Late for Tears (US / Haskin)
#7. The Heiress (US / Wyler)
#6. The Set-Up (US / Wise)
#5. Caught (US / Ophüls)

For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year project:
The majority of my viewing habits have been dictated by this project since September of 2013. Jumping to a different decade each time, I choose comparatively weaker years for me re: quantity of films seen/quantity of films loved. I use list-making as a way to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-drive way. I was sick of spending too much time trying to decide what to watch, or watching films just to cross them off another dumb canon list. I wanted to engage. I wanted films to be enhanced by others, by looking at a specific moment in time. I wanted something that led me to seeing or revisiting things I might not have gotten to otherwise. Lastly, my lists are based on personal favorites, not any weird notion of an objective best.

This is the first year I’ll be doing separate posts for each film. #9 will go up Monday. After that, one will go up each day until the end. Then I’ll post them all together so they are gathered in one place. There are a lot of films I loved that did not make the cut. In particular, Flamingo Road, Such a Pretty Little Beach, On the Town, Inspirace, The Reckless Moment, Reign of Terror, The Rocking Horse Winner, and Samson and Delilah are all films I thought at one point would be on here. Of all of these, Flamingo Road was a sure thing until it wasn’t at the very last minute. Please go watch it.

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#4. The Passionate Friends (UK / Lean) (first-time viewing)

Playing image association with David Lean’s The Passionate Friends conjures up a jellyfish and its streamer arms floating weightless in the ocean. Maybe it’s because I cast the image of Mary (Ann Todd) out on the balcony, billowing curtain in the foreground as she says goodbye to a different life once and for all, over the whole film. But there’s more to it than that. That wind and those floating curtains are just part of the visual language Lean uses to represent the life Mary doesn’t choose. There is the gentle ripple of the water, the outstretched tree branches that create particles of shadow, and the impossible majesty of the Swiss Alps. They are all part of the sensuality and openness of nature, the choice not made. The jellyfish is a clumsy descriptor, but maybe it’s fitting that I struggle to describe a film that seems to exist in the ethereal.

The Passionate Friends shows the ways time and memory play off each other in the psyche. Just as the properties of nature have the power to signal shifts in thought, atmosphere and objects can become tickets to elsewhere. The Set-Up uses time in the most confining of ways; the emotional lives of its characters are tethered to what is happening within those fateful seventy-three minutes. The Passionate Friends uses time as a structural and thematic bedrock; the subjectivity of its characters become inextricable from the past and the never-was.

The film confused some viewers when it was released (even for the flashback frenzy of the 40s, this was a lot to take in). We begin in Switzerland and travel back nine years, and then (for a brief time) another nine years. We then follow the same route back; nine years forward, and another nine to Switzerland for the final act. The structure recalls John Stahl’s The Locket, another 1940s film that uses to-and-fro flashbacks. The Locket gets more complicated by shifting perspectives as well as time. But The Passionate Friends not only forgoes most standard flashback cues, it even intercuts moments of imagined conversations and actions as characters traverse through humiliation and regret in the exact moments they are felt.

These forays into the internal both jolt and wash over the characters (and us), as inner lives and the autonomy of human emotion are wont to do. Lean always makes sure that the exterior communicates the interior. In an early scene, Mary sits in the carriage next to her husband, doused in darkness and boxed in by both the frame and the shroud of her veil. Barely visible, she is lost in reflections that hurt. Then we’re in the past, and we can feel the sensuality of nature everywhere. It is so bright; Mary and Steven are young and in love. Sunlight covers them, and branches shade them. Together they create a shimmering screen (seen above) that recalls the curtain of the first still (an image that comes much later in the film), and the veil that envelopes Mary in the carriage. In The Passionate Friends, images call back and signal to each other constantly. The veil is the curtain is the sun and shade. It is all of a piece.

All of a sudden there is a whistling screech as the carriage stops short. We are yanked back to the present the exact moment Mary is. There is no pomp and circumstance, no smooth transition. It is cruel, and we feel the loneliness of that carriage so much more. Compare this to how A Letter to Three Wives initiates flashbacks (also from 1949 with an advanced flashback structure); the autotune distortion of a repeated phrase hypnotizes us into and out of the past. There is the slow blur of the frame, a go-to sign that a flashback is coming our way. Lean doesn’t hand-hold. He wants to put you in the viscous of the emotional. The drift-in and shock-out of memory is faithful to Mary’s state of mind. We are with her — truly with her. The Passionate Friends is full of filmmaking that administers a psychic and emotional immediacy, a surprising early onset example of the discontinuous editing that would be en vogue in decades to come.

The Passionate Friends is a human drama rich enough for me to have seen drastically different takeaways on both its characters and its depiction of love and romance. The Passionate Friends is in that Daisy Kenyon class of “it’s complicated”, a sensual film about unsensual people. A film about repeating choices. There are no easy answers, just a lot of messy and contradictory feelings and desires. It’s not about the kinds of love we like to dream about, though it initially fools you into thinking it is. There is a different kind of love happening here, a sturdier love that sneaks up on both sides of the screen, borne out of epiphanies that have their own kind of beauty.

Mary knowingly gives up love for autonomy, money, and comfort with Howard Justin (Claude Rains). Their marriage is amicable, providing her with the kind of emotional freedom she needs and the finer things she wants. When we first meet her she’s on a plane to Switzerland. She sits in luxury, spoiled by “White bread. Butter. Cream!”. A big bowl of fruit even sneaks into the frame. She is, literally, in the clouds. One could argue this is the most openly passionate she appears in the entire film. This is the life she chose and the life she ultimately wants. There are no external forces preventing Steven and Mary from being together. Howard is not a tyrant. Freedom is always hers, including the choice to leave. She never does.

But every nine years she is destined to almost choose Steven (Trevor Howard), the pleasant professor of humble means. Mary’s trouble is the curse of knowing who you are, and knowing that the love you want isn’t the love for you (“I’ve always been a little hard”). Or thinking that you know that about yourself. Sometimes she seems to hold herself back, as if knowing this about herself has simply closed her off to what is possible. Mary and Steven can only exist in the “what if?”, but her self-assessment seems so absolute as to forbid any warmth in her life. For her, passion means first and foremost a loss of control and selfhood. She needs to belong to herself, an objective for a woman rarely understood today let alone then, and one that positions Mary as an outsider in the world.

How much is there really between Steven and Mary? As with so many romances, their feelings remain strong because they are left unprocessed. What could have been likely remains so much stronger than what would have been. Lean connects them metaphysically; dissolves erase the space between them as they think of each other in their respective solitude. Any time she is in the open air, the memory of Steven surrounds her (even if she doesn’t know it). Despite Lean’s lean (I’ll see myself out) into these romanticisms, The Passionate Friends is not a film about lost love. It’s more about mourning the type of person you long to be but aren’t (and can’t we all relate to that?!). Not being with Steven isn’t necessarily about not being with Steven; it’s about feeling passion and desire but not being able to live by that.

The juxtaposition between the life she chose and the life she didn’t can be seen at the New Year’s Eve ball (the scene always referenced in relation to Phantom Thread). On the ground floor she is seen catching up with her one-time soulmate. It is anarchy; they have to yell their pleasantries at each other, and there are Josef Von Sternberg amounts of balloons and streamers everywhere. In keeping with the spontaneous spirit of the event, they soon get split up. Soon after, we see her up in a box with Howard (Claude Rains is introduced looking like an old-school Count, beginning the film’s sly misdirect of his character). The prince and princess looking down on their subjects have such a different energy from the one below. Not cold, but congenial and removed. She looks down longingly, wanting to be part of the ruckus but knowing she wouldn’t know how. She defines herself as belonging to the lofty box that is lacking. It is not a longing that says “why didn’t I choose that?”. It is a longing that says “why can’t I be like them?”.

Steven may love Mary, but he doesn’t really know her. At one point Mary says to him “you don’t really know me at all”. At another point Howard says to him “you don’t know her”. Mary expresses this again later on, stating “we’re practically strangers to each other”. When he receives a letter from Mary in which she breaks off the relationship, he goes to Howard and accuses him of having made her write the letter. I mean, that’s how it always is in these love stories, isn’t it? The tyrant husband holds his wife prisoner or blackmails her into staying? Hell, that’s what Robert Ryan does to Barbara Bel Geddes in Caught! But there are no conventions of the Gothic or the Doomed Romance here. Just a woman making a choice — the same choice. It doesn’t mean she won’t think and dream of Steven on lonely nights. And it doesn’t mean she’ll never stop wondering about what could have been, and there will always be a sense of something lost.

But Howard does know her, and there are untapped waters between them. Claude Rains starts out as the cuckolded husband (we are teased with riffs on his Notorious character). Then, gradually, he emerges as the film’s true soul (Steven is never afforded much perspective while Howard increasingly is). Lean and Rains fully embody Howard’s intense humiliation and betrayal as he starts to reinterpret his own feelings towards Mary. As his pain turns to rage, hers turns to disorientation. He is driven to deliver two  shocking speeches in opposition to each other. She is driven to the brink by no longer belonging. It all crescendos in a spectacular whirlwind of emotional agony where absolute vulnerability and fate intervened reveal the power to reset. Steven is gone. This isn’t what we expected with who we expected. But like I said, The Passionate Friends belongs in that Daisy Kenyon category of “it’s complicated”.