John Frankenheimer’s “The Iceman Cometh”

I greatly admire Frankenheimer, a director often regarded by many critics and cinephiles as a stubborn craftsman with a few rather remarkable achievements (“The Manchurian Candidate” being the standard example), but whose body of work as a whole lacks the kind of stylistic consistency and personal commitment most often to be found in an authentic master or auteur. No other single Frankenheimer film I’ve seen would serve better to debunk such claims as this nearly forgotten masterpiece called The Iceman Cometh, which ranks very high in my account of the director’s filmography.

A recent experience of rewatching this cinematic rendition of Egene O’Neill’s play was for me so strong and memorable that I cannot help but write down some brief thoughts on it. This is basically a filmed play of overheard conversations (its model being clearly, I think, Wyler’s The Little Foxes); it’s just extraordinary how every single line of O’Neill’s text, even the most subjective sorrowful monologues, is strongly intertwined with their particular listeners: Frankenheimer’s framing and mise en scène take a lot of freedom with the source material precisely in obliging us to listen to characters through their peers, relying on the great skill for creating compositional tension that’s a signature of his visual style.

Frankenheimer’s greatest films are stories revolving around radical personal destitution in which the characters are reduced to the bare essential of their mere reactive existence with no more purpose than engaging in extreme dangerous activities; it’s not by accident that he is one of the first great (and unfortunatly often forgotten) modern action directors with a particular interest in a very archetypical form of action hero: the “emptied” anonymous outcast who reactes energically to extremely dangerous situations (The Train is quite a landmark in that respect). Even psychological “individuation” is in itself a form of imprisonment (Seconds, his most accomplished masterpiece, is all about that). I think Robert Ryan’s Larry Slade is just the ultimate incarnation of this type of existential outcast Frankenheimer was so fond of: in this case, a tired old ex-anarchist whose very disilusion might be paradoxically the utmost pipe dream of a ‘foolosopher’ ghastly scapegoated in the end, but not at all redeemed. I cannot help but ask “What’s left of this man?” when the camera closes to his face in the last shot of the film. I get no answer but the very last image of Robert Ryan ever captured in a movie before his own death.

Fernando Costa


Jesus Franco’s “Les Possédées du Diable”

Les Possédées du Diable (1974, Jesus Franco)[(013263)16-22-44]

It is incomprehensible how Jesus Franco could be seen as nothing more than a hack pornographer delivering shit movies specifically for the horny, braindead and decadent audience which consumed and sustained the lowest kind of sexploitation his producers were regularly dumping at that time, because all titles I’ve managed to watch from the hardcore side of his filmography are not far from this one, and it’s hard to imagine anyone expecting to be aroused ending up pleased with the experience the director provides them, not shocked with its thoroughly depressing tone and sex scenes way beyond an acceptable level of ugliness, of distastefulness, becoming downright grim at times. If Les Possédées du Diable is not Franco’s masterpiece, at the very least it’s his most troubling and disturbing work, and his crudest foray into horror.

The premise is basically another variation on the Faust myth trapped inside a cheap production of lesbian pornography, staged as a melodrama in a by-product from the distant worlds of Ken Russell’s The Devils and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. If there was some level of moral ambiguity to the obsessive images introduced and frequently reworked by the already prolific Franco (back in ’74), he finally resolves them from a decidedly pessimistic perspective.

Every ordinary activity, every yearning, every ideal is perverted. That is the unsettling slow-motion in the first and last encounters with Lorna; the desires and ensuing actions the characters believe could bring them some relief but always tie them closer to the invisible control of the stranger; parenthood and sexuality now symbols of inevitable insanity and death (the crabs, the incest, the sterility of all things, any relashionship or life resulting from a pact with the Devil); the life of the family mirroring the construction of a labyrinth ruled by Mephistopheles, where every value is corrupted and a simple walk through the modern city, or an attempted escape, leads to further entrapment in those very specific places and repetitive actions which protract the cycle.

The editing does not assemble spaces, but deliberately increases geographical alienation, with some shots that even appear recycled, relocating one action or expression to an entirely different context (another great example of the director taking advantage of poor resources), even if we recognize that the characters are nearby the main location, their steps seem perpetual, without any direction…

Typical of the the director’s work in that period, this is aesthetically pretty rough and unpolished (and the opposite would be a mistake, really), as if he could not shoot more than one take and had to reduce every scene to the bare minimum of camera set-ups (which most of the times leads to numerous jump cuts), but if this gives you the impression of lazy filmmaking, just watch the entire flashback explaining the pact  (the casino sequence, the deal in the bedroom), the masterful moment when all its loose ideas start to fall into flace. Kudos to Gerard Kikoïne for making sense of it and presenting a comprehensible work out of Franco’s usually messy material, without taking away any nuances his bizarre camera work tends to achieve.

Even resources that can appear completely gratuitous or irritating at first, as the constant zooming followed by racking focus on seemingly unimportant elements, they make sense here, with characters staring at empty space, searching for something and hoping it materializes, before that outside influence gains any actual power over them. The most untrammeled one comes right at the start: credits roll over a panning shot of fruits that go in and out of focus, maybe without purpose, then followed by the prohibited encounter, by snapshots of images that will grow more and more sinister as the story progresses. If I remember well, every character has one of these moments, the mother above all, with the strange and unflattering zooms in her genitalia, yes, a Franco trademark from that point on, but the shot here is deformed, far from fetishistic, it is a film about perverted parenthood and damned fates after all, and the vagina transforms into a symbol of death.

That approach also makes the subjective shots in the asylum weirder and build a distinctive relashionsip between Lorna and the unknown woman. Likewise, and it appears they were intended as fades, the jarring cuts of Lina Romay’s obsessive look to a wall and then to Stanford’s face bring a whole different meaning to their scenes, and there’s just something about that unreadable last scene, in Romay’s performance… Something Zulawski and Trier were aiming for and never quite achieved, talking about darker, disturbing looks at the modern world through the frustrations and madness of a female character, maybe that is the price you pay for distorted notions of artistry. Don’t take me wrong, I admire Possession and Antichrist, but the impact of such respectable movies are fairly attenuated in comparasion to Les Possédées du Diable‘s coarse, sordid, sheer insanity.

It’s incredible how much the director can extract from such a limited project, especially being as unpretentious as Franco is, getting developed ideas out of crass technique, managing to create more clear rhetorical pieces than anything the vulgar intellectualism of José Benázeraf (though a good filmmaker) and Jean-Claude Brisseau (not at all) coud ever dream of achieving (what stays in those works is only the ambition for something greater), with probably no intention to deliver better than efficient, moody genre fare. It’s the same case with Jean Rollin and his muddled ideas becoming something far more profound through his unquestionably sincere presentation. For many years I had doubts about Franco, but now I need to admit he was one the greatests.

Christofer Pallú

Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath’s “The Pact 2”

The Pact 2[13-47-40]

Certain acclaimed horror films from recent years (and most of the others, less fortunate ones who go with the tide), supposedly character-driven, turn every ellipsis into a jump to the next plot-point, annoying scream or old and tired scary effect, while suppressing anything that could happen to people who, you know, do not live inside a movie, according to the necessities of the writer. This is the exact opposite.

Not that it manages to avoid old and tired scary effects, and if we are looking only at the screenplay, this is just another example of the genre with a thin narrative and little character development (whatever that means), but what makes all the difference though, is that filmmakers Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath, like anyone who actually cares about genre films, remember they are never about the story, about the design on the page, the important (schematic) actions, but the gaps between them. If most directors today rush through the character moments to get to the scares as a way to compensate for their bloated narratives, The Pact 2 goes the opposite direction and rushes through the scares themselves, and although some of these scenes are quite good, they are not the most important aspect here.

It got my attention because it’s rare today to watch a movie of its kind interested in finding tension in the way two bodies relate spatially, in brief words that say little by themselves but are handled with impressive control of tone and tempo (with one exception, the performances are very good), even more apparent because a lot of the dialogue comes from the necessity of explaining the limited plot while the directors refuse to focus on the facts, the informations we are given are more subjective, also predominant are calm situations, silence, slow movements, long shots with resolute photography that turns shadows, colors and highlighted details into narration, instead of the ridiculous current mania of overtly post-processed images decorating flat compositions, which are happy showing only the most basic elements with deformed saturation and contrast, combined with nonsensical fast cutting, unbearable noise in the soundtracks and presenting characters in a way that makes you celebrate their deaths.

I must say I did not expect much and was very surprised, specially because I have not seen the original and watched it at random, knowing nothing about it, and just confirmed that the formula to find good horror is to look only at stuff that got bad reviews and ended up with a cheap video release, at best, the most beautiful ones I have seen in a long time (Jean Rollin’s Le Masque de la Méduse, Tobe Hooper’s Djinn) didn’t even get a distribution.

Christofer Pallú

Peter Strickland’s “The Duke of Burgundy”


About 10 minutes into this thing I was hoping that with a premise already established the director would quit the bad and unconscious musical montage he was doing since the opening credits and start giving us a film, but no, it does not get better. What Jesus Franco would resolve in one shot, Peter Strickland breaks into ten, and manages to take any meaning away. There are no scenes, there are exhibitions of decór, numerous gratuitous details, in tracking shots (because why not?), and actors being framed as inanimately as any object (see the brilliant analogy?), and look, there’s Monica Swinn playing Lorna.

This is so fetishistic in its homage to an unprestigious type of cinema that makes Django Unchained-level Tarantino look better than a clueless fanboy, and it is worse that nothing distinguishes The Duke of Burgundy from the kind of student film I have to endure frequently, from the same apparent intention of filling every senseless image with artistry and professionalism, which means just using every tool you have at your disposal, regardless of purpose. So, if rack focus was a Franco trademark, a resource to overcome his lack of control in editing, putting all the necessary stuff into a minimum amount of shots and moving between these elements only through pans and zooms (because there was no dolly around to shoot insignificant bullshit), Strickland saw it and must have thought “well, that is a cool technique, but it’s a little rough, artless, let’s do it with some cool lighting, heavy color grading, in more decorated spaces and slow everything down, it must achieve a better effect”, and there you have it, what was once a perversion becomes cinematically cute.

Franco could not be clearer: “El cine, o es de género, o es una mierda.” And The Duke of Burgundy won’t be put alongside 70s pornography in video stores, that’s for sure.

Christofer Pallú

Tobe Hooper’s “Invaders from Mars”

Invaders from Mars[02-19-01]

One of my favorite scenes in Don Siegel’s sci-fi masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers happens when the characters are running away from the pods and hide in the protagonist’s office, for the second time in the movie they will take a look through the window and observe the center of the town, to know if they are safe, and it is the same shot we saw the first time, but it lasts a few seconds longer, and now, after their perception of the order has already been disturbed, they can finally see the workings of the aliens within the city.

I needed to mention this because what makes Hooper’s movie special among the Jack Finney adaptations and the original by William Cameron Menzies is its basis in a offbeat interpretation of the similar scenario given by the sight of a child. And I could not say this is derivative of the 1953 film, Menzies’ work was that of a set decorator, not a film director, all the estrangement was built from weird designs and the narration moved quickly from plot-point to plot-point with little regard to comprehend the kid’s reactions to what was happening around him. That pragmatism hurt the movie because I could never tell the difference of the proceedings (which should be enormous) in relation to Siegel’s superior treatment. The kid’s actions were not very distinct from the adults and the shocks were closer to the sequence I mentioned above.

Tobe Hooper’s Invaders from Mars, however, takes a peculiar route. Storywise, it feels a little predictable and stilted at times, resulting from its strict adherence to the boy’s nightmares, we know that every event will be shaped as part of his paranoia, as confirmation of the worst childhood fears, and the whole thing is beyond silly (“They’re huge, ugly, slimy, giant Mr. Potato Heads!”), but not sillier than being afraid of a clown toy and the odd shadows cast by lightning on a tree. This looks like an extension of the first part of Poltergeist (or what I liked the most about it), following the mundane interactions of the family before turning into a more conventional horror film.

It suffers from having less time spent with the adult characters, who act mostly as robots or other children, and the specific plot-oriented situations come since the very beginning, but that reduction of dialogues and small distractions from the horror grant the director more time to spend with each individual set-piece, and a big amount of it is given to the protagonist exploring his surroundings, observing the changes in behavior since they start and responding calmly to them, unlike the adults who only notice changes in routine and react almost hysterically. And the great thing about it is: Hooper’s camera loves the actors, it bends to the boy’s expressions like the story is bent to his obsessions, there is not a second of dishonesty capturing whatever absurdity occurs, and that results in the most gorgeous close-ups and two-shots, usually with an adult being contradicted by the boy, and inspired use of steadicam in more open spaces, where we are guided by him.

I should say that comparing film to other arts is dangerous because it can deny particular and fundamental elements of each of them, but it is hard to explain in another way Hooper’s nearly operatic sense of composition, with notions of rhythm and scenic development that seem to come directly from Richard Wagner (this may sound like random name-dropping, but I mean it), based so much on precise and very dramatic use of intervals, with unusual consideration for instant (and integrally represented) action that does not have immediate narrative objective, but is charged with extraneous elements, sensations and ideas that materialize the past and give indications of influences outside the frame, and everything carried as an harmonious device for storytelling, never as whimsical and unnecessary exhibitions of the helmer’s talent. Maybe that explains the lingering and repetitive structures and obsession with sound in most of Hooper’s filmography. The experiment here is not nearly as radical as we saw in some of his other films, but the nature of the project (a family-friendly sci-fi blockbuster) makes it more perceptible, because there is nothing bombastic, no easy attractions in it, only a curious, patient imagining of what could happen in the gaps left between Menzies’ faithfully recreated tableaux.

It is a perfect example of something I wish all the perpetrators of “slow cinema” would learn, those who mistake movies for pedantic literalism and capricious pictorialism without any knowledge of how space and time have worked or at least theorized in films for more than a century, rendering everything descriptive and ultimately empty, un-dramatic. They are having a good time with critics, Hooper never had, that is why I learned to ignore good taste and started paying attention only to the movies themselves. Invaders from Mars is as beautiful and richly textured as any of the director’s best works and one of my favorite movies about childhood.

Christofer Pallú

Corey Yuen’s “My Father is a Hero”

Those 2 or 3 seconds Corey Yuen gives to the kid falling down while Jet Li stands frozen, staring in the direction of the villain he just shot, perfectly expose the concise artistry of his filmmaking, the whole final standoff could be put side by side with Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns and not be harmed in the comparison, even with all the balletic, melodramatic and bizarrely humorous fighting Yuen is known for (in the most well balanced form I’ve seen), there are no distractions from the narrative and character-oriented nature of his shots, and there is no need to interrupt tension and direct action with something else to adress the underlying emotions at play (he does cut to flashbacks a couple of times, but they are tastefully done, not just crutches), it flows with beauty in every movement, but always leaves space to manifest a darker edge.

Christofer Pallú

John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood”

Its worst part is the very beginning: text and sound dictate the overall atmosphere and present the big social issue, and the first image is a direct response, “STOP”, damn, this could be a ridiculously simplistic thesis film, but that expectation fortunately does not materialize. The following sequence sets up the neighborhood almost as a separate universe, a jump back in time to a rundown city from an old western where progress became impossible and only outlaws could inhabit, full of signs with promises for the future covered with gunshots.

Far from Spike Lee’s showmanship in service of the cause, Boyz n the Hood is credible because nothing seems too manipulated and coming from a desire to shock, it’s such a detailed and grounded portrait of various aspects of the troubled community and the kids’ relationships that is hard to doubt it comes from real experience, and Singleton’s professed love for westerns is transparent in every shot, his sight is very calm for a place dominated by hostility and fear, which is exactly what makes it scary, the ordinariness of violence and lack of sensationalism in presenting all situations that lead to tragedy, that consistency of tension in every corner and every second of the movie he certainly inherited from the masters of the genre, there are only small outbursts of emotion and aggressive action, and they are always comprehensible.

Also, the occasional drifts into message dialogues never seem forced, but contextually coherent with the characters that deliver them, it’s difficult to think of heroes and villains, everyone is just trying to survive, there is no moralizing from an extraneous element that comes up only to tell us what we are seeing is or isn’t right (I am looking at 12 Years a Slave and its kind). At the end, the cruel theater spawned from memory fades away with a friend, but the image of the neighborhood stays unchanged, it finds unusual balance between the personal and the political and becomes one of the saddest coming-of-age pictures.

Christofer Pallú