For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year project:
The majority of my viewing habits have been dictated by this project since September 2013. Jumping to a different decade each time, I pick weak years for me re: quantity of films seen and/or quality of films seen in comparison to other years from said decade. I use list-making to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-driven way. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on personal favorites, not any weird notion of an objective best.
10. The House That Screamed (aka La residencia) (Spain/Serrador) (available on Blu-ray/DVD from Scream Factory)
“None of these girls are any good… in time you’ll find the right girl… you need a woman like me!”
AIP’s American title and marketing for La Residencia (released in the States in 1971), one of only two films directed by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, suggest something altogether more sensational and cliched than what it is: an eerie and mournful psychosexual pre-giallo tale of female repression (aka my favorite things). By confining the dangers of disappearing girls and bottled up libidos in a secluded boarding school, it looks forward to films like The Beguiled and Suspiria.
Led by strict Headmistress Fourneau (Lili Palmer), the girls live in a rigid authoritarian system built on manners and obedience. The film’s lifeblood is the tension of girls unable to be girls. Even the purpose of mandatory ballet is amusingly described as a distraction from “morbid thoughts”. They ache for release in so many ways. You see it when bedtime approaches and everyone is finally left alone with new arrival Teresa (Cristina Galbó). The door closes, and in an instant a flurry of excited questions and friendly chaos bursts forth. Their repression is best illustrated when the girls spiritually feel and hear the laughs and moans of the lucky student chosen to sneak away and fuck the one man that comes around every month. They ball up their yarn and thread their needles (god, I live for overt sexual symbolism), the non-diegetic sound uniting everyone as they work themselves up into a frenzy, reflected in their soft-lit lips, escalating editing, feverish yearning, and quickening actions.
There is a form of release for some. Headmistress Fourneau, too fearful to rule her students or young son (John Moulder-Brown) with anything but an iron fist, exercises her authority and the sadistic latent lesbian archetype (think a much more humanized Mercedes McCambridge) by forcing the misbehaved into her dungeon. She and the student elite, led by svelte sadist extraordinaire Mary Maude (with eyes like actual fire and a suit-like dress that visually evokes fascism), unleash themselves by flagellating their prisoner and leaving her to rot for a few days. This punishment is the known threat. But there is an unknown threat, because something else is making the students disappear….
The house may not be haunted but it’s critical to the film. The tour given in the opening act provides a need-to-know sense of geography that solidifies our sense of the space as the girls know it, while still withholding the house’s mysteries. Shooting with wide-angle lenses, the painterly production design (and costumes) are a gorgeous palette of burnt amber oranges and clay browns, earthy tones that suggest dormant passions. Each time the film’s trajectory seems apparent, the story surprises by zigging a little when you expect it will zag. Thirty minutes in, we suddenly begin following a character we have never seen. Our protagonist is suddenly…not our protagonist. Our evil teen tyrant shifts into a more investigative role. And while the twist is not hard to see coming, the shock of it still lands.
Films set in all-girl boarding schools are one of my movie kinks, and they don’t get better than this. La Residencia plays off its decade of voyeurism and Hammer’s period Gothic scares, and, with its predictive essence of giallo, slashers, and twist endings, telegraphs the long-term direction of European horror and beyond.
9. Psychout for Murder (Salvare la Faccia) (Italy/Brazzi) (only available to watch on youtube, no official release on any format)
“Don’t you realize I’ll destroy you like I destroyed all the others?”
If you are one of the few familiar with Psychout for Murder, you’ll understand the post-viewing impulse to learn everything possible about its phantom sphinx star, Adrienne La Russa. Born in New York, she starred in a couple of Italian films in the late 60s, and briefly appeared on “Days of Our Lives” in the 70s. She’s in The Man Who Fell to Earth, but I cannot find one photo of her from it to spur my memory. In the 1980s she was shortly, apparently, Mrs. Steven Seagal. Yet not one picture of them is on the internet. The few photos branded as the married couple are actually of Arissa Wolf, another former companion. No footage from her other work (outside of the Italian ones) or her soap opera stint exist on Youtube. At some point she left acting and went into real estate. It’s as if she existed only in 1969, not before or after.
In a just world, her Licia, an editorial Aphrodite for the flower child era, would be a pivotal female icon of the time. Each brandished look (you better believe there are many) exhibits head-to-toe consideration, with a precision reminiscent of early Jean Seberg. Everything about her is cleanly symmetrical: wispy columns of straight hair that would be a constant nuisance to anyone else, vulpine doe eyes framed by eyelashes so striking she makes me miss mine, and a slight overbite that suggests she could have been Sharon Tate’s younger sister. She dons mostly mini-skirts and frocks of loud prints and swirling patterns, accentuated with just the right number of gaudy accessories.
The joys of Psychout for Murder come from watching this fashionable fiend wreak havoc on those that wronged her. Within the first ten minutes she is sacrificed by her family in the name of business and sent to an insane asylum after her lover uses her a pawn with which to blackmail her tycoon father (played by Brazzi). Returning home to her unfeeling family, she sets out to slowly destroy them.
Licia is shown to be unhinged, sexual, child-like and childish. She has temper tantrums, prone to rip up and toss paper in the air, stomp on flowers, or angrily run around the family pool. She is mischievous. Her plans involve wind-up toys and she sets up her contraptions with deliberate focus and light-hearted joy. Licia is both infantilized and sexualized in reductive ways (the cut from Licia’s childhood dolls to her pleasuring herself with a showerhead) but La Russa owns every frame of this movie.
Psychout for Murder is often mislabeled as a giallo precursor. It’s more of a loose psychedelic frolic. Sprinkled throughout are non-linear montages cut together by Armando Giomini with the progressive discontinuous editing rhythms of the time, fusing past to present and projecting a sense of Licia’s anarchic mischief. These are set to various riffs of Benedetto Ghiglia’s main theme, a harpsichord melody that has the soothing sweep of a melancholic fairy tale. Since Licia draws out her payback with elaborate fake-outs and long cons, everything major happens in the first ten minutes and the last twenty. Mostly we follow Licia as she seduces, schemes, and acts out. There’s a layer of class satire with lots of going on concerning “the factory”, but I’m here for the vibes.
This has never had a video release of any kind. Hardly anything has ever been written about it outside of a few blog posts. But there is a great looking version of it on youtube. Please watch it, and thank me later.
8. Last Summer (US/Perry) (not yet available to stream, rent, or on home video. $$$ VHS or download your only bet)
“I am absolute ruler over your world”
No piece of fiction disturbs me more than Roald Dahl’s short story “The Swan”, which my unsuspecting kid self read at a very young age. In it, two boys mercilessly bully and torture another boy, menacing him at gunpoint in various ways before slaughtering a swan, tying its wings to him, and forcing him to jump off a roof. I tend to struggle most with stories that portray youth newly cognizant of their ability to inflict cruelty and exclusion on their peers. They turn me naïve and physically shaken, as if discovering for the first time the bottomless savagery people are capable of.
Last Summer is this kind of story. It’s a story of pretty people in a pretty place that uses the free spiritedness of the era to expose the inherent hierarchies of bored privileged youth. It is Lord of the Flies in heat. A trio of teens that bond during a summer on Fire Island are left to occupy the endless days while their parents booze and schmooze. The boys, Peter and Dan (Richard Thomas and Bruce Davison), are average in their unremarkable handsomeness and callous charm, full of the kind of constant arousal that is unpracticed and itching for rushed blunt release. And then there is Sandy (Barbara Hershey), the girl with a high IQ and no empathy. She yearns to test her the boundaries of her control, playing people off of and against each other, giving and teasing just enough of herself to keep those around her in worship. None of the characters are written or played as villains. They are always eerily and banally human.
Sandy shapes the trio’s bond as a self-made myth, full of secrets and rituals, unshakable loyalty and pacts, and the unfilled potential for group love. Early on, Frank Perry takes a carefree tone with a narrative ease common for the forward-thinking filmmakers of the time. The three are crowded into frames as a super-force, or given free rein to streak and splash across the beaches. And then along comes Rhoda (Catherine Burns).
The symbolic captured seagull the boys discover Sandy training, and Rhoda, a plump outsider desperate for inclusion but not afraid to stand up for herself and others, illustrate the consequences of resistance. Rhoda is pliable, because the trio make an enchanting entity (and she loves Peter), and there is nobody else around. But she is also obstinate, and they exact escalating prices of vulnerability and submission in exchange for fleeting moments of inclusion. This is a smart girl, pathetic only in how obvious her loneliness and awkwardness are. You get the sense that she would not hang around these three if she had other options besides solitude. But between the two she continues to willfully, and heartbreakingly, compromise herself (usually after initial refusal) in the hopes of being permanently accepted.
She lays herself bare, telling the story of her mother’s death (in a shattering one-take monologue by Burns), even confessing she once spit on her grave. For this she is given a ritual hair-washing. She becomes their project, training her (seagull parallel alert!) to swim, but they are aggressive and impatient about her fear of water. They use her to play a nasty prank on a Puerto Rican man that Sandy places even lower on the food chain than Rhoda. There is a limit to what Rhoda will do for them. Her stoicism at the film’s climax is powerful. Sandy can no longer shake or shock her. Tragically, this mobilizes Sandy to sic her faithful dogs on Rhoda, and she will exit the woods forever changed.
To this day Last Summer registers as an unflinching work (initially receiving the X rating, it is downright shocking when placed next to the beach parties, juvenile delinquency, or Disney films on the menu up to this point), exploring the nastier sides of sexual awakening and moral decay within adolescents. It is only available on a very expensive and rare VHS, its meager available visual quality help support the sense that it could be the hazy glow of Peter’s memories. It’s a dark and disturbing film precisely because these horrors emerge out of fun-loving montages, folk-pop tracks, and a wistful glow. It is a stark portrait of teenage ugliness masked behind sun-drenched faces.
7. That Cold Day in the Park (US/Altman) (available from Olive Films & Masters of Cinema)
“….do you think I’m lonely? I am, you know, but, um…I don’t think about it”
The year before Robert Altman hit the big time with MASH (which would be the third highest grossing film of 1970), he made That Cold Day in the Park, a critical and financial flop that tends to be filed as a “for completists only” dry run for the small but essential collection of films he would go on to make about female identity and/or madness (Images, 3 Women, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean). It is easy to see why it was dismissed. It’s a beguiling film, and a great one. Its obliqueness actively rejects the molds one would otherwise ascribe to it. You could say it’s part of the psycho-biddy genre, or an aimless character piece typical of the late 1960s (think The Rain People), but it is neither. To the dissatisfaction of many, Altman actively eschews all threats of coded genre atmosphere, while the familiar archetype of unhinged Grande Dame is subverted and complicated by Sandy Dennis’s youth (though she fills the troubling Sexual Repression = Female Madness trope to a tee). A challenging and unnerving character study that burrows deep in the marrow, the film occupies a seldom approached space, not unlike Frances Austen’s (Dennis) apartment.
Sandy Dennis is remembered as one of the great eccentrics, both onscreen and off. Personified by vocal tics full of false starts and her New England yawp, she usually possesses a jumpy energy that threatens to sprint in different directions on a word-to-word basis (she was characterized by Pauline Kael as having “made an acting style of postnasal drip”). Altman said of her — “You don’t direct Sandy Dennis. You establish boundaries for your film and let her create the character freely within them”. And isn’t this the Altman dream? Doesn’t this describe the freeing collaborative space he was known for creating with, and providing for, actors?
The tension of That Cold Day in the Park comes from Dennis’s nervy energy being kept under an unshakable shroud of facial stillness, a cringy desperation and mounting awakening of her pitiable state of a life unlived. Altman uses this stillness as the crux he will shift and alter, viewing her through a multitude of warped reflections and off-kilter framings. Sandy Dennis’s tendency to defy age (she is 31 here) exposes Frances as a woman both too young and too old for her early thirties. Isolated by the circumstances of her class, temperament, and previous life as her mother’s caretaker, she is non-existent to the outside world, and alone and invisible (even more invisible in company) within hers.
Her instincts towards The Boy (Michael Burns) are that of a mother and a lover (the two dangerously meld and combust at the film’s climax). The Boy’s arrival triggers a desire she has no idea what to do with, and a suffocating awareness that the world outside and its individuals are permanently alien to her. The Boy himself is a curious leech, voluntarily mute. He is softly lit, his young undefined flesh and the fact of him as sexual being are emphasized throughout. Michael Burns has the expressive face of a trickster (you’ll find yourself saying “what a smug little shit he is”), helping to create a perplexing dynamic populated by observances, inquisitions, games, and anticipation, finding discomfort and suspense in apprehension and suppressed motivations.
She traps him in her trapped world. Her mental collapse is choreographed and performed as just legible enough, but ultimately elusive. But I love That Cold Day in the Park because I feel Frances in my gut. I understand her moment-to-moment in a way that feels intimate and rare. This never renders her simple or unchallenging; quite the opposite. The nuances in Sandy’s face are almost imperceptible but convey everything. She is so exposed and achingly untried we want to turn away but cannot. 1982 was the last year I did for this project and it finally got me to see Altman & Dennis’s other collaboration, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which became a new favorite. I am happy to say the same goes for That Cold Day in the Park.
6. Women in Love (UK/Russell) (DVD/Blu-ray available on Criterion)
“It was a complete experience. She’s a wonderful woman, but I hate her somewhere. It’s curious.”
Women in Love is one of the most primal films ever made about sex. It’s about bodies in relation to the pastoral, and plunging into the messiness of the natural, whether wheat, mud, water, grass, or snow. It is also about naked bodies and bodies entangled with one another. And it is a film about love. Spiritual love, emotional love, physical love, and the ways these often work against each other. These four characters have enough self-awareness to be crushed by their ultimately abstract philosophies and conflicting wants. It is about love, and decidedly not about romance.
Women in Love casts a spell in my inability to grasp its peculiarities and the psychologies defined by philosophies. Ken Russell’s filmmaking favors theatrical expressions of bombastic freedom and drawn-out cheekiness (oh, that fig!), momentarily getting at the fullness of these characters before they slip through his and our fingers. Make no mistake: he understands them. But his focus is on exploring ideas through a spectacle of creativity. Steady long shots are suddenly disrupted by crude handheld shots (the Gerald horse scene, the cattle, the sex scenes). The editing is so fluid, punctuated with sharp blunt cuts.
Always one to court controversy, Russell’s extreme instincts lie latent but unmistakable. It can be a jarring film, incredibly raw in its depiction of sex. There’s the wrestling scene (we’ll get there) but also other sexual encounters and explicit talk of sex, desire, and sexual acts that threaten to ignite the loins (“I want to drown in flesh. Hot, physical, naked flesh.”) Ken Russell was a risktaker in ways that left his films uneven. The latter half of Women in Love meanders, and tests our patience with our increasingly frustrating lovers. But all this is part of what makes them, and him, distinct.
Perhaps more than anything else, Women in Love is here because of Oliver Reed. I’ve written about him before but he is, to me, the most magnetic male screen presence there ever was or ever will be. Gerald’s doom is direct and transparent. He is physically different from the Gerald in the book, but he is the essence of the character, a “smiling wolf”, with a “strange guarded look…as if he did not belong to the same creation as the people about him”, with a “sinister stillness”, “the lurking danger of his unsubdued temper”, his blood seeming “fluid and electric”, etc etc. Who better to embody these qualities than Reed? There is a hushed tragedy to him here, and the dark animalistic sexuality he always embodies. His Gerald is heartbreaking; lost and coarse and unreachable.
I can’t end this any other way that discussing the justifiably famous wrestling scene. Nudity is par for the course, male nudity much less so. It’s not the existence of the nudity that shocks, but its thrilling and invigorating openness, and how the male nude body in motion is used to communicate a homoerotic connection that Rupert and Gerald are incapable of communicating and expressing any other way. Their fireside tumbling is a beautiful, sensual, animal, and cathartic thing. The same could be said for Women in Love.
5. Boy (Japan/Oshima) (available on FilmStruck)
“I’m a cosmic messenger of justice!”
I admit I have a hard time engaging with Nagisa Oshima. His particular combination of stony remove, political purpose, and stylistic aggression often keeps me at bay. Boy has all of these things, but Boy is different.
Japanese New Wave filmmakers often turned their attention to the underbelly of post-war Japan, in this case a ripped-from-the-headlines family who survive by drifting from town to town, faking car accidents and scamming anxious dupes into out-of-court settlements. Boy is stark and sociopolitical to be sure, but it’s also a deeply felt and compassionate film. Its emotional devastation is achieved through its matter-of-factness. Forcibly kept from society so he can fulfill his life-risking family obligation of playing victim, Oshima commits to externalizing the alienation and distorted world the “Boy” (Tetsuo Abe) is brought up in. This approach gives us direct emotional access to the child.
The family, consisting of a disabled veteran father, a stepmother, and infant named PeeWee, are themselves framed as societal outsiders. They can often be found shunted to the side, in the back, lurking around the edges, or confined from everyone and everything, even each other. Where other filmmakers might’ve used shallow focus to illustrate the separation between family and society, Oshima does the opposite. As the nomadic family travels all over Japan (eventually ending up in snowy Hokkaido) he wants to make sure we see the world they inhabit. Astonishing color Cinemascope compositions with a powerful depth of field suggest the slightly dulled blush of an old postcard. We feel the isolation because Japan is not abstracted.
Visually, the boy is even further splintered from this remove. The framing often separates him from his family. Even in shots where the family is blocked as one, the film isolates him with its narrative focus. We are afforded his interior experience and nobody else’s: perspective creates remove. And finally, he is isolated as he is formed by falsehoods and misdeeds. He is taught the monetary and emotional currency of lying because it feeds and houses them. Going through the make believe ruse of injury is the only way he can be cared for by his family. He talks to his little brother of aliens. He is not enrolled in school. He is loyal because there is nothing else to be. He is told his grandparents don’t want him. He is used as a pawn in the petty power plays between husband and wife. And so on and so on.
Oshima externalizes the boy’s alienation and upbringing as unearthly by using sight and sound to disorient us. Without warning the film stock will change. And without warning, the film stock will change back. Hikaru Hayashi’s score is essential. It uses the xylophone, horns, wood, and string instruments to create a slow scrawl of repetitive dissonance both unnerving and foreboding. It has a dread that reminded me of the score on the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari DVD I grew up with. And its particular harshness reminded me of Jonny Greenwood’s score for The Master (also used to externalize a kind of post-war alienation).
A rare outburst of pent-up anger occurs when the boy destroys a snow mound he built for PeeWee. It represents the marriage of his escapist alien fantasies and his guilt over being responsible for the death of a young girl. The shot gradually drifts into slow motion, and a profound sense of poetry emerges. This scene demonstrates Boy as an unsentimental film capable of exhibiting surprising poignancy.
Within the worldview of Boy, the film does a radical thing by caring about him. Like Sandy Dennis in That Cold Day in the Park, he is alone even when he isn’t. His family doesn’t care for him. Society doesn’t care for him. But, in his most humanistic work, Oshima sees and cares for him. And now we see and care for him.
4. Cactus Flower (US/Saks) (available on DVD)
“Well…I am no sex goddess, but I haven’t spent my life up a tree!”
Cactus Flower is based on one of the sexless sex farce Broadway hits, common in the fifties and sixties, about the spousal trials and tribulations of a city cad in over his head with the women in his life (except the central conceit here is there is no spouse!). Cactus Flower is also one of Hollywood’s creaky attempts to demonstrate how contemporary they were after the studio system’s collapse, appealing to the broadest possible masses by folding the hippie lifestyle into old-fashioned films populated by seasoned icons.
Its vision of New York hippies is endearing. It reminded me of the way beatniks are portrayed in Bell, Book, and Candle, if perhaps a little less self-aware. There is a vibrant and brightly lit Greenwich Village record store called Stereo Heaven, and a happening club called The Slipped Disc that plays variations of “I’m a Believer”. Hippies are romanticized, and as represented by Toni (Goldie Hawn), full of unwavering ideals revealed as hopelessly naïve. Flower stickers too childish for a grade-schooler and a single psychedelic poster with the words “Flower Power” awkwardly adorn her apartment. There are lots of indoor sunglasses, amorphous dancing, and the frequent show-and-tell of beads.
The witty script and breezy, if not brisk, direction by comedic stage-to-screen expert Gene Saks give the film a leg up, but this should still have rendered it ultimately forgettable. Instead, Cactus Flower is a testament to the power of performers. The three leads, Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman (taking the role Lauren Bacall originated on the stage, in her first time on American screens in over a decade), and Goldie Hawn in her Oscar-winning debut, separately and collectively elevate this into one of the most charming and infectious romps ever made.
Nearly anyone else in Walter Matthau’s role as a scheming dentist and the film goes bust. He made a career out of playing inherently likable louses, paradoxically because it never seems like he gives a damn what we think of him.
You completely fall in love with Goldie Hawn’s daffy waif. Her eyes are so big and inquisitive you could fall into them, and her every word is overenunciated like a girl who just learned how to assert herself. As Toni’s screwy quest for a clean conscience becomes a series of earnest ultimatums, Hawn stakes her claim as the “It” girl of the era.
And finally, Ingrid Bergman. Who would have thought my performance of hers would be in a late career sex comedy? She fully inhabits Stephanie Dickinson, the frigid late-bloomer spinster, with no-nonsense comic timing, instilling equal parts deadpan conviction, wit, and longing. She is so clearly above the shenanigans she is pulled into. Watching her find vigor and agency within the scheming and outside of it is a privilege.
There’s also a fourth character played by a wannabe Jimmy Stewart type, but let’s not waste our time on him.
1969 films are chockful of extended dance scene detours, halting suddenly to give its characters room to groove. The many dated pleasures of Cactus Flower culminate in five of the most exuberant and joyous minutes in cinema, the dance scene to end all dance scenes! As Quincy Jones fills The Slipped Disc, all our players unknowingly convene on the dance floor. While Goldie’s cartoonish jives pre-date Martin Short by decades, Ingrid finally lets loose, absolutely glowing as she invents a new dance move called “The Dentist” and prances through the crowd with jolly abandon. It’s hard, yet increasingly necessary, to find things that exhibit and provide this kind of jubilation. This scene, and this film, do.
3. A Married Couple (Canada/King) (available on FilmStruck, Criterion Eclipse set)
“But what I really felt…was that I was really sorry that I said this morning that I loved you. I thought, you gotta be the biggest schmuck in this world”
Direct cinema, the fly-on-the-wall approach to documentary filmmaking developed and popularized in the 1960s (as well as legitimizing the documentary as theatrical experience), captures the hybrid of reality and truth that gets summoned into existence by a camera’s presence. A Married Couple puts us uncomfortably up close and personal in the lives of its subjects; husband, wife, friends of filmmaker Allan King, and new Toronto residents, Billy and Antoinette Edwards (plus son and dog). Nearly forty years before the reality TV era, King broke ground by peeking behind the curtain of domestic privacy that society at one time saw as sacred.
Inviting a camera into your home is an indulgent act. And Billy and Antoinette are indulgent people. Described by King as “lapsed bohemians”, this project presented an opportunity to participate in something wild and unconventional. The more you watch, the more it feels like a performative act of masochism. Unlike reality TV, the situations and scenarios here are not manufactured. But they are goaded on by the unspoken elephant in the room: if a camera is on you, you must provide material. There are times conversations or moments start stilted; you feel the couple warming up to the filming sessions (done with an unobtrusive barebones two-person crew) and trying to act natural. But once they get into it and things get ugly, as they so often do between these two, the reality of this marriage and its adjacent layer of performative awareness become inextricable.
A key scene shows an interpretive dance between the two set to The Beatles “A Day in the Life”. It’s a special moment in its communion and improvisation, but you can’t help but know deep down it wouldn’t exist if not for the camera. This does nothing to sully what we see; it enhances and helps define the film by considering what it means to share yourself with a camera.
King has been open about the limitations of presenting a decade-old marriage in ninety minutes, that the Billy and Antoinette seen are not the Billy and Antoinette of reality. But that’s precisely what makes the film so endlessly thought-provoking. Because documentaries, just like narrative features, are, brace yourself, full of deliberate decisions! What are we shown? What is the story being told? Out of the 70 hours of material shot, why were these scenes chosen, compressed, and arranged this way? Is there a specific truth or a sense of truth that Allan King is trying to reach? The result is exhaustingly spiteful, surprisingly funny (“Tough titty!”, “I’m going through a period where I’m destroying my feet”), and unbelievably engrossing.
We feel the familiarity and history within marriage that can’t be replicated, and we witness the toxic patterns between two individuals with very specific offenses and defenses, living through the advent of woman’s lib. We sit in on arguments all the more unsettling because you just know they’ve been over this shit a million times. Billy is kind of the worst; dismissive and condescending, often wearing only a pair of ghastly red briefs that will forever haunt me. Antoinette is sly, instigative, and persistent (I love her, her strengths and weaknesses, all of it, she is so entertaining and alive), stuck in the age-old conundrum of marriage that requires wifely submission and financial dependence that can be turned against her when she wants anything, be it a say or a harpsichord.
The loaded sexual, gender, and power dynamics just beg for endless discourse. Having lunch with a friend, Antoinette says that she needs strong men who put her in her place. The realization that she is superior to them, that they are “weak” and controllable, is the death knoll. She also says that she worshipped and looked up to Billy, who is over a decade older than her, and that when they married, he had never told her he loved her. She never felt wanted, turning self-loathing into exhaustive efforts to look better for him. She uses the threat of flirtations and flings against him on a semi-regular basis. Yeah, chew on all that.
Their son, the normality of their dysfunction, and that financial dependence keep her hanging on. Her only pastime seems to be riling up Billy so he can say something awful (which he always does very quickly), thereby inciting her actual anger and giving her something to do. The two laugh and are capable of sharing an array of positive moments, but it collapses so quickly (at least via the way the film compresses time) that it’s hard to find anything sustainable left between them. It’s abundantly clear Billy doesn’t respect her as an autonomous other half.
Coming in at the tail end of their union means we only get glimmers and hindsight into what once was. And thanks to Allan King, we are compellingly thrown into the deep end of what’s left.
2. Femina Ridens (The Laughing Woman) (Italy/Schivazappa) (DVD from Shameless)
“I’ll give you any wild order I desire and you would obey me, won’t you?” “Yes”
There’s nothing like the blue moon instance you discover a new DNA film. Those few films that help define you; that appeal, speak, and connect on a level that can’t be quantified. More than anything I’ve seen in years (the last time this happened was seeing Valley of the Dolls 3 years ago), Femina ridens is that film for me. It syncs up in every conceivable way with my sensibilities and interests, with the things I jive with and am drawn towards.
It’s a wickedly bizarre and outrageous treat that could only have been made in Italy in the late 60s. It falls into the “Continental Op” category, films of the late 60s and early 70s defined by highly stylized retro-futuristic production & costume design, encapsulating the era’s various modes of pop art, mod, camp, kitsch, and psychedelia. Dr. Sayer (Phillipe Leroy) has a Space Age Bachelor Pad. A reproduction of Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Hon-en katedral”, a funky sculpture of a woman’s bottom half, is used for a cartoonish vagina dentata metaphor (have I mentioned how much I love overt sexual symbolism?). Between this and a feline web-weaving dance scene primed for Tarantino apeing, Femina ridens is full of surface pleasures all the better because they couldn’t belong to any other film.
Its deliciously perverse battle of the sexes is less a battle and more a sly transfer of power (but of course it’s more complicated than that). The Sadean sexploitation of it all is bracketed by all sorts of artificial fantasy, from its absurdist execution to Dr. Sayer’s over-the-top misogyny to what we learn of our two protagonists. It openly tries to grapple with the growing self-sufficiency of women in a narrative switcharoo that satisfyingly attempts to have its cake and eat it too. Its quasi-feminist slant is amusing, constructed within a world of utter outrageousness and executed with a ruthless triumph. The whole thing feels like Kubrick Goes Kinky(er). It’s hard not to think of A Clockwork Orange with the cheeky deviousness of its perils and the lady-leg prominence of their production designs.
The film uses tone as its playground, its chameleon-like playfulness supported and made possible by Stelvio Cipriani’s flexible and ultra-cool lounge score, filled with the ethereal bossa sounds so common in the era’s Italian scores. The threat and act of torture looming over many scenes, and Dagmar Lassander’s (who I want to see in everything now) attempt to escape Savoy’s summer estate, could be from a horror film. When sex is imminent, it is shot like a Spaghetti Western showdown (eye close-ups abound). One later section feels like a breezy romance, with smiles, skipping, and a composition you’d mistake for being in a Wes Anderson film. It’s all of these things while refusing to be any of them. It’s an outrageously stylish, alarming, groovy, psychological, zany, S&M flick that has left me out of ways to profess my love that don’t involve drooling and listing an endless string of adjectives.
1. Funeral Parade of Roses (Japan/Matsumoto) (available from Cinelicious & Eureka)
“What a mix of cruelty and laughter”
After watching Funeral Parade of Roses I stated, in a typical display of twitter hyperbole, that “movies peaked with this movie”. Yet there may be some truth to this. Thanks to its 4K restoration/release in 2017, this mammoth work from the Japanese New Wave is being discovered more than ever. Watching Toshio Matsumoto’s radical and anarchic avant-garde smorgasbord, it’s hard not to mourn how formally safe today’s films are, even when they strive not to be. Matsumoto crafts something like an unsullied document, borne from within its Tokyo LGBT underground scene (with overlap from neighboring hippie avant-garde cliques), incorporating a documentary flavor with its extensive street footage and meta-layers (a sex scene finishes filming, actors are interviewed about the parts they play and the lives they live, pre-dating Centre Stage by decades).
I’ve never felt cinema as alive and vital as it does here, with its “fearlessness on mixing registers” and “libidinous intensity” (Film Comment, Jonathan Romney). It shows a specifically Japanese gay and trans subculture, defined in refreshingly messy and culturally specific ways. And Peter, playing “gay-boy” Eddie, is a stunning star cut from Warholian cloth, capturing the interiority and disassociation of one whose past looms large over the entire film, beckoning our Oedipus Rex towards inevitable doom. It is at once dense and playful, reinventing itself every minute even as it weaves back through elliptical images and text. It is both immersive and probing, fusing pop art, farce, horror, erotica, and comic book sensibilities through an inviting and provocative avant-garde lens. It is propelled by an untamed punk spirit, unleashing the medium’s rarely seen range when freed of formality and convention.
Complete List of Films Seen in 1969: (bold = first-time viewing/italic = rewatch)
99 Women, Army of Shadows, The Arrangement, The Babysitter, “Bambi Meets Godzilla”, Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair, The Big Cube, Black Rose Mansion, Blind Beast, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Boy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cactus Flower, Camille 2000, “Carrots and Peas”, Cemetery without Crosses, Check to the Queen, The Comic, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, The Cow, The Cremator, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, The Damned, Downhill Racer, Easy Rider, Eye of the Cat, Femina Ridens, Funeral Parade of Roses, Une femme douce, The Girl from Rio, Go-go second time virgin, Goyokin, Hello Down There, Honeycomb, The House that Screamed, Invocation of my Demon Brother, The Italian Job, Kes, Last Summer, Law and Order, Le grand amour, “Lemon”, The Love God?, The Mad Room, A Married Couple, Medea, Medium Cool, Me, Natalie, Midnight Cowboy, Mississippi Mermaid, Model Shop, Mr. Freedom, My Night at Maud’s, One on Top of the Other, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Paranoia, Paint Your Wagon, Pit Stop, Portrait of Hell, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Psychout for Murder, Putney Swope, The Rain People, Several Friends, The Sterile Cuckoo, Sweet Charity, Take the Money and Run, Temptress of a Thousand Faces, That Cold Day in the Park, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Topaz, Une femme infidelie, Venus in Furs, What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, The Wild Bunch, “Winnie Pukh”, Women in Love