film fatales #67: paris is burning (jennie livingston, 1990)

This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 13 is called "New Queer Cinema Week":

The second in a series celebrating challenges from past seasons, this challenge comes to us from kurt k's Counterfeit Letterboxd Season Challenge: 2016-17. The original description:

"Pride season is finally starting! This is a week that I know a couple of people (including me) have wanted. New Queer Cinema is a movement that started mainly around the late 80's to early 90's, where a bunch of LGBTQ film makers started creating independent movies that often dealt with rejection of a hetero-normative and cis-normative lifestyle. These movies don't sum up every LGBTQ person's experience, but I would say that it speaks to us."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen New Queer Cinema film.

Paris Is Burning is a documentary about balls held by the LGBTQ community. It was filmed in the late-80s, and represents the ball culture of that time. To the extent it is an accurate representation, it serves as an important artifact of the culture. It is an artifact, though ... director Jennie Livingston was not part of the culture herself, although she was/is an out lesbian. She and her film are sympathetic to the people she shows us, but it matters for some that she's an observer rather than a participant, always the interviewer, never the interviewee.

Paris Is Burning celebrates the balls and performers. They are presented as artists who take pride in their work. Of course, the balls aren't the whole world, and when the outside world marks its spots, the film turns tragic, most specifically in the case of Venus Xtravaganza, who is one of the most disarmingly lovely people in the movie. She talks about her dreams, and also about the things she does to survive (prostitution being the main thing). We learn near the end of the film that she was murdered, a case that has never been solved.

Many of the people strive to emulate the straight world in their performances, which automatically has an ironic distancing effect. But Venus also says, "I would like to be a spoiled rich white girl. They get what they want, whenever they want it. They don't have to really struggle with finances, nice things, nice clothes, and they don't have to have that as a problem."

Livingston has never released another feature that she directed, although she has made shorts, taught, won fellowships, and was a consultant on the TV series Pose.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

a woman's face (gustaf molander, 1938)

This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 12 is called "Classic Performers: Ingrid Bergman":

A major name in both American and European cinema, Ingrid Bergman is often considered one of the greatest performers to have ever graced the screen. From notable American classics like Casablanca and Spellbound to her work with Roberto Rossellini in Italian neorealist mainstays such as Stromboli and Europa '51, Bergman filled the screen with emotion that is hard to be matched.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring Ingrid Bergman.

In 1936, Molander and Bergman worked together on the original Intermezzo. Two years later, at 23, Bergman was in A Woman's Face, a silly bit of nonsense, from a French play, about a woman with a scarred face who changes from a bad person to a good one when she receives an operation that turns her face into Ingrid Bergman's. You have to admire the dedication it took to make Ingrid Bergman ugly for a good portion of the picture.


Bergman does an excellent job of turning her ugliness (she was burned in a fire as a child) outward into a life of crime in a blackmail ring. She also does what she can to make her transition from bad to good seem believable ... it's almost matter-of-fact in the script, but Bergman makes the change gradual and she connects emotionally with the audience. It's also fun to see how Bergman is allowed to be physically big ... at times she seems like the tallest person in the room, and even when her face is disfigured, she commands the screen. It's interesting how the "ugly" woman is always trying to hide her face but uses her body to dominate.

Remade in English a few years later with Joan Crawford.

music friday/film fatales #65: who took the bomp? le tigre on tour (kerthy fix, 2010)

This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 11 is called "Oscilloscope Laboratories Week":

Initially, I had this week marked down as A24 week, yet I feel they already get plenty of attention, especially 'round these Letterboxd parts. So, I figured I would shine the spotlight on a smaller studio developing and distributing some lesser known, yet still quality films from creators in it for the art of storytelling.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Oscilloscope Laboratories film.

If this Challenge is supposed to be a learning experience, than there may be no better example than this week, for I had no idea what Oscilloscope Laboratories was. The company was co-founded in 2008 by the late Beastie Boy, Adam Yauch. It seems to be best defined by a list of its productions, and it turns out, I had seen five of their movies: Wendy and Lucy, The Messenger, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Wuthering Heights (2011), and We Need to Talk About Kevin. The timing was good for Who Took the Bomp?, since I had spent the weekend attending Sleater-Kinney concerts, and Kathleen Hanna of Le Tigre was a charter member of the iconic riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. Who Took the Bomp? offers an intriguing backstage look at Le Tigre, as they took their final world tour in the mid-2000s. There is some strong concert footage, but what adds a special feel to the film is that Le Tigre, as a band and as individuals, are pretty funny. They are also dead serious ... this was a band rooted in left-wing politics, especially addressing gender and LGBTQ issues. It's a short, instructive, and entertaining film, and if it isn't much more than that, in the moment that feels like enough.

Here is one of Le Tigre's videos, "TKO":

And here, something from Who Took the Bomp?:

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

lessons of darkness (werner herzog, 1992)

This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 10 is called "Cinéma-vérité Week":

From Wikipedia:

"Cinéma vérité (French: [sinema veʁite]; 'truthful cinema') is a style of documentary filmmaking, invented by Jean Rouch, inspired by Dziga Vertov's theory about Kino-Pravda. It combines improvisation with the use of the camera to unveil truth or highlight subjects hidden behind crude reality. It is sometimes called observational cinema, if understood as pure direct cinema: mainly without a narrator's voice-over. There are subtle, yet important, differences among terms expressing similar concepts. Direct Cinema is largely concerned with the recording of events in which the subject and audience become unaware of the camera's presence: operating within what Bill Nichols, an American historian and theoretician of documentary film, calls the "observational mode", a fly on the wall. Many therefore see a paradox in drawing attention away from the presence of the camera and simultaneously interfering in the reality it registers when attempting to discover a cinematic truth. Cinéma vérité can involve stylized set-ups and the interaction between the filmmaker and the subject, even to the point of provocation. Some argue that the obvious presence of the filmmaker and camera was seen by most cinéma vérité filmmakers as the best way to reveal the truth in cinema. The camera is always acknowledged, for it performs the raw act of filming real objects, people, and events in a confrontational way. The filmmaker's intention was to represent the truth in what he or she was seeing as objectively as possible, freeing people from any deceptions in how those aspects of life were formerly presented to them. From this perspective, the filmmaker should be the catalyst of a situation. Few agree on the meanings of these terms, even the filmmakers whose films are being described."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Cinéma-vérité film.

OK, let's deal with the Challenge parameters first. I didn't notice that the movies were supposed to be feature length, and Lessons of Darkness is only 54 minutes. But I got it from the above mentioned list of Cinéma-vérité films, so blame them. Also, while even Wikipedia struggles to define cinéma vérité in an exact manner, it's not clear to me that Lessons of Darkness qualifies. According to the IMDB, Herzog "prefers to think of this as a science fiction film, not a documentary."

None of this is particularly relevant, except as a comment on the Challenge.

If you need a genre, Lessons of Darkness is a documentary presented as science fiction. Herzog uses beautiful/ugly visuals to construct Earth as if it were seen from another planet, and he provides no context beyond the suggestion that the movie takes place after a man-made apocalypse, a la Mad Max movies. In fact, it's Kuwait after the Gulf War, and oil is the predominant image. Oil is everywhere ... as Herzog-as-narrator says, "This was once a forest before it was covered with oil. Everything that looks like water is in actuality oil. Ponds and lakes are spread out all over the land. The oil is treacherous because it reflects the sky. The oil is trying to disguise itself as water." Oil is the ugly side of beautiful. Much of the film consists of long aerial shots of the terrain, and they are hypnotic.

This is not a hopeful movie. At times, it seems like Herzog is recreating the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth (one segment is titled "Dinosaurs on the Go"), only now, the dinosaurs are the big machines operated by oil workers. Without context, there is no telling how this apocalypse took place, or why it wouldn't take place again. Herzog finds beauty in the land, but it's hopeless beauty.

i am cuba (mikhail kalatozov, 1964)

This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 9 is called "ASC 100 Milestone Films Week":

Here, the American Society of Cinematographers have rounded up the films from the 20th century that stand out in terms of their achievement in the art of visual storytelling. So keep your eyes on the screen and be amazed.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from the ASC's list of 100 Milestone Films of the 20th Century.

I Am Cuba is a film about the Cuban revolution, sponsored by the Soviet Union with a Soviet director.

Neither Cuba nor the Soviets approved of film, as noted on the IMDB site:

Both the Soviets and the Cubans were disappointed in the film. In Cuba, it is referred to as "I am NOT Cuba". They never felt it was a portrait of themselves - but, rather a depiction of Cuba imposed on them by the Soviet Union. Soviet Union wanted to make a straight-forward propaganda film. They felt the director Mikhail Kalatozov made an 'art' film instead.

Both countries are right. The Cuban people in the movie never rise above stereotypes: the prostitute, the farmer, the student. And while there is plenty of "art" in I Am Cuba, it presents itself as a ironic contrast to what the Soviets probably thought they were paying for. America is consistently shown in a negative manner, but at times the Western style seems pretty darned cool. All of this is important because I Am Cuba got practically no distribution at the time. The Soviets didn't like it, the Cubans didn't like it, and the Americans were in the middle of a Cold War. It wasn't rediscovered (or rather, discovered) until the mid-90s.

I Am Cuba is a terrific example of great cinematography (Sergey Urusevskiy is credited) ... it it certainly a milestone. I only hesitate to include these clips because the quality isn't great, which does a disservice to the cinematography. But at least you get the idea. First, the opening of the film. Watch the long take that begins a little more than 2 minutes in. And watch until the end, keeping in mind this was the early 1960s.

And my favorite of all the long takes:

And if that isn't enough, Raquel Revuelta plays "Cuba" ... it is she who narrates, always returning to "I Am Cuba". #343 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

death bell (hong-seung yoon, 2008)

This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 8 is called "Horrors Crossing Borders Week":

Sometimes, the most horrifying things are those in the unknown. With the added disorientation from a different than usual location and/or language, foreign horror allows us to not only see what other countries and cultures might find horrifying, but to break free of the traditions of our own country's horror spectacles. And, ya know, Halloween.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen horror film from a country other than the one you originate from/live currently.

Not the finest hour for the Challenge. I figured I was safe ... Korean horror, 88 minutes. Comments suggested a blend of Battle Royale, which I liked, and Saw, which I have avoided and thus don't know the connection. Battle Royale was a violent, over-the-top Hunger Games, and not surprisingly was kinda silly. It was good. Death Bell is violent and over-the-top and silly, but it's not good. The basic setup is intriguing: elite students at a Japanese school must correctly answer quiz questions, with one of them dying for each wrong answer. But there is little suspense, the various students aren't individualized enough to care about them, and the "solution" to the crime is anti-climactic. Not the worst film I've watched in the Challenge, but close. Of course, there is a sequel. Bonus points for a novel use of a washing machine.

film fatales #63: daughters of the dust (julie dash, 1991)

This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 7 is called "Director Recommendations: Spike Lee Week":

Though some may consider Spike Lee divisive and controversial, his devotion and contributions to cinema cannot be denied. Though he does have quite a few words to say on different directors, usually on the critical side, he made it a point to make a list of films he deems important for anyone looking to make films, and that's what we'll be looking at this week.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Spike Lee's list of Essential Films All Aspiring Directors Need to Watch.

It's easy to see why Spike Lee finds this movie essential. It was the first feature film directed by an African-American woman that was distributed theatrically in the United States. Dash had a lot of trouble getting it made, eventually bringing it in for under a million dollars. The end result makes a case for independence ... Daughters of the Dust showcases a culture that has been mostly ignored in mainstream films, and Dash holds nothing back, playing with time/narrative, making the movie as authentic to the Gullah as possible, and foregrounding women characters without demonizing the men. Most of the people both in front of and behind the camera were African-American.

All of this could be a confusing mess, and Dash does expect her audience to follow along at her pace rather than ours. But even if occasional instances are confusing, there is an overriding feel for the culture that brings everything together.

The actors are well-chosen for their faces, and Dash's ability to get the most out of those faces. The actors are not amateurs, though ... they may be unknown to me, but they are professionals who add to the documentary feel of some of the movie by blending in seamlessly with the ambiance.

This was Dash's first fictional feature, and despite the critical acclaim, she hasn't been able to make more. She is quite busy directing television, including a biopic about Rosa Parks and episodes of the series Queen Sugar. And Daughters of the Dust lives on within the people who have seen it ... Beyoncé was influenced by the film when she made Lemonade.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

elite squad (josé padilha, 2007)

This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 6 is called "South American Cinema Week":

In an effort to showcase films from South America, I have chosen three countries with rich and interesting film histories to represent the best of what the continent has to offer. I've boiled it down to these three to curate the selection, yet still leave it open for some fantastic film options.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Brazil, Chile, or Colombia.

It wasn't easy to predict how much I'd like Elite Squad. The primary script writer was Bráulio Mantovani, who got an Oscar nomination for the screenplay for the great City of God. The film was a big winner at several festivals. It was very popular in Brazil, enough so that Padilha and Mantovani put together a sequel, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, which became one of the greatest box office hits in Brazilian history.

But you know how I count on critics. And the Metacritic score for Elite Squad was 33 ("Generally unfavorable reviews"). (Manohla Dargis of the New York Times called it "a relentlessly ugly, unpleasant, often incoherent assault on the senses" ... that "wants to have its grinding violence and sanctimony too".) So I didn't know what to expect.

I'm glad to report that while Dargis is not inaccurate, I'm tempted to comment, "You say that as if it's a bad thing". It's hard to look away from the screen, and yes, often that just means you want to see what outrage comes next. Padilha effectively convinces us to accept the point of view of the cops. This is true in particular for the narrator, Nascimento, whose voice overs provide an ongoing commentary on what we see. Nascimento sees evil in the gangs, but he also sees what corruption does to the cops, himself included. He is the source for much of the relentless ugliness.

It isn't easy to figure out where Padilha and Mantovani stand on the events in the movie. The gangs are bad, the cops fight them by any means necessary, and thus we are glad for the cops who guard against utter chaos. But the cops are bad, as well, society is fucked in any case, and to the extent the cops are successful, Elite Squad plays like a primer for fascism.

Ultimately, while I could see the connections between Elite Squad and City of God, the comparison that came strongly to my mind was with Shawn Ryan's American TV series The Shield. The basics are the same: gangs ruining the city, bad-ass cops in the Strike Team the only barrier between crime and average citizens, practically everyone is corrupt. But, even though it takes seven seasons, Ryan makes sure that the head of the Strike Team, Vic Mackey, gets his comeuppance. Nascimento, on the other hand, has gotten a promotion by the time of the sequel.

I realize now that my review reflects the comments from Dargis: I'm often incoherent.

film fatales #62: a woman, a part (elisabeth subrin, 2016)

This is the sixth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is out of order ... I already watched the Week 5 movie, Craig's Wife. This is from Week 31, because it won't be available to stream after the 11th. Week 31 is called "Contemporary Women Directors Week":

Last Season Challenge, there was a weekly challenge that focused on women directors pre-1960's. But this year, I thought we should focus on the women creating films today. Its no real secret that the film industry has not offered a lot of opportunity to women, though that seems to be slowly changing. So, in order to support these women currently creating films, we're gonna spend this week watching films directed by them. And hopefully someday there won't be such a divide in the industry that we won't need to push for more women helmed films, it'll just be happening already.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by a woman released in 2010 or later.

This is writer/director Elisabeth Subrin's first feature, although she has been making independent shorts for more than 20 years. Her experience means A Woman, A Part is missing the "first time out" problems that sometimes plague first features. This is a confident movie ... you never get the feeling Subrin isn't sure of what she's up to. I haven't seen her shorts, so I don't know how A Woman, A Part fits into her past work, but she offers an easy coherence to her story of a successful television actor, Anna, suffering from burn-out, and her attempt to get back to her roots in theater. The cast features several actors I know best from television: Maggie Siff (Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men), Cara Seymour (The Knick), John Ortiz (Luck), Khandi Alexander (The Corner, Treme). They are all great, which comes as no surprise. It's nice to see Siff in a leading role ... she's in virtually every scene, and she plays her part with a complicated balance of the character's uncertain neurosis about her profession and Siff's certain ability to make the most of this meaty part.

Subrin keeps things moving, and I suspect editor Jennifer Ruff has something to do with that. The film suffers from the dreariness of its main character ... Anna is mopey at times, she's coming off an auto-immune disease, she's abusing drugs, and she's not sure what she wants for her future. It's hard to complain, though. To properly give us Anna, Subrin knows she has to avoid any flashiness we might associate with a TV star. And Siff is so good, she gets us through the slower segments.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

what i watched

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920). This is the fourth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 4 is called "Horrors Beyond Words Week":

With this week's challenge, we see how filmmakers were able to terrify audiences with nothing but imagery (and maybe a little score). Be on the lookout for some fascinating early film making techniques present within needed to make a successful horror flick without words.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen silent horror film. Paul D's list can help you get started.

Right from the start, there were problems. The print was crappy (I watched on Amazon), the score was crappy. (The movie is in the public domain.) The story still intrigues, but the film didn't linger enough ... you got Jekyll, you got Hyde, you got Jekyll, you got Hyde. The theme of good and bad sides of the same person was always there, but for me, it didn't seem all that powerful.

John Barrymore was excellent, although you have to accept that it requires skilled overacting to portray the transformation from Jekyll to Hyde without trickery. (There is trickery, but the initial scene shows what I mean.)

The cast included a couple of interesting actors. Louis Wolheim was famous for having his face smashed during a college football game, making him unmistakable in his later career as an actor. And Nita Naldi's brief career was kick-started with her role here as the "bad girl". She is very effective. Naldi famously posed nude for pin-up artist Alberto Vargas, and is reported to have introduced herself to her Blood and Sand co-star Rudolph Valentino with "Howdy, Rudy! Wanna feel my tits?"

Barrymore was known as "The Great Profile", and sure enough, we get plenty of profile shots of the master throughout Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This isn't where I'd start if I were introducing Barrymore to newcomers ... I might go with Dinner at Eight, although that is admittedly an ensemble piece.

Asylum of Darkness (Jay Woelfel, 2017). A few weeks ago, I watched an awful movie called Demonicus. Thursday, the director of that movie, Jay Woelfel, left a comment:

Hello, Steven, I am Jay Woelfel, Demonicus was a work for hire that was re-edited before release without my involvement. If you, or anyone else, is interested in me and my films where I really had some control you can find out much about me on My most recent film came out in 2017/2018 and is named ASYLUM OF DARKNESS.

I was delighted to hear from him, and decided to watch Asylum of Darkness, which you can stream on Amazon. Woelfel deserved a chance to show what he could do with his own project.

Asylum of Darkness is a vast improvement on Demonicus. It featured one of the last performances by the late Richard Hatch. The film was shot in 35mm, which gave it not just a professional look, but the look of the kind of pre-digital horror movies it replicates. There are good makeup effects, and plenty of gore ... and by "plenty", I mean plenty.

Woelfel is up to something here ... I have no idea what, but he has a vision, and he pulls it off. It becomes one of those movies that isn't for me, but which probably accomplishes what the film maker set out to do. The plot is completely confusing, and only partly explained by the insanity of the central character. The acting is OK ... in fact, kudos to them, because the need for confusion means they have little to grab onto. It's hard to establish a character when the person you are playing changes every few minutes.

I'm glad I got to see Woelfel's work in a different, non-Demonicus, light. And if you are a fan of gory, good-looking but nonsensical horror, I think you'll like Asylum of Darkness.