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.