Screening Log: 2/3 – 2/10

The House of the Devil (West, 2009) – The slow burn of Horror, every shot precisely retrograded to brilliantly reference a menacing slice of voyeuristic nostalgia. West uses silence  like a knife, peeling away his protagonist’s safety one layer at a time. The stalking credit sequence is not only a throwback usage of freeze frames, but a stunning photo album of one woman’s grey, empty, and conflicted universe. It provides a wonderfully diverse parallel to the film’s bonkers ending, a scattered and messy piece de resistance against the devil himself. Guess who wins?

The Bicycle Thief (De Sica, 1948) – For my money the best way to introduce Italian Neorealism to a group of non-film majors. Maybe it’s De Sica’s masterful use of the roving medium shot, but I’m always drawn to Bruno and his crumbling facade of strength. Also, one of the most depressing endings in film history, and rightfully so.

Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954) – Hadn’t seen this in years, but decided to show it to my students for Hitchcock night. Still might be my favorite Hitch, the way his meticulously meandering camera scales walls and window panes like a thief in the night, subverting POV at every turn until we can’t trust anything we’ve seen. Basically a greatest/worst hits of martial bliss, with all the quiet and lovely moments in between. Still think each window represents a different future path Jefferies could take, as his reality slowly gets consumed by his perception of guilt, love, and responsibility. And has there been anyone more classically striking than Grace Kelly? Maybe the best American film of the 1950’s.

The Palm Beach Story (Sturges, 1942) – The best Screwball Comedy ever? Count me in. Sturges at his most charming and sublime, existing simply to hear wit seamlessly bounce back and forth like a tennis match in the clouds. Here’s another credit sequence that freezes, but this time to excentuate complex romantic history in all its zany glory. Sturges decides to end the film with another whimsical twist of fate, layering our perception of character times three. Brilliant in every sense.

Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)

Vertigo pic 4

When mining the Hitchcock greatest hits canon, I prefer Rear WindowStrangers on a Train, and The Birds, but Vertigo contains a blatant perversity and experimental subversion those films lack. These traits might explain the universal critical love bestowed on this shifting nightmare of calculating deception and jaded comeuppance, because the film creates a consistent mood out of such uneasy tonal shifts. The fact remains Vertigo is an oddity of massive proportions, unsettling, demented, layered, and brutal. This time around, the issue of fate vs. personal trauma burst from the seems, mainly because Hitchcock constructs the San Francisco locale as an elaborate minefield of historical manipulation, cramped space, and fractured identity. The ending still seems a bit tacked on to me, but Jimmy Stewart’s mental deformation in the last act stands tall as a truly disturbing metamorphosis, one of the most jolting in film history.

Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) vs. Psycho (Van Sant, 1998): Past Destroys Present

“We all go a little mad sometimes. Don’t you?”- Norman Bates  

Why? I guess that’s the first question one has to ask when considering Psycho and it’s remake. Why would someone as talented as Gus Van Sant attempt such a task? Easy. The ego of Hollywood has always been worn squarely on the sleeve (they’re remaking The Wild Bunch for god’s sake), and this particular instance has been widely maligned. What’s more interesting remains the reason why (so many questions!) a particular film, namely Hitchcock’s original, produces such dread and Van Sant’s remake such dreadful and unintentional comedy? Since Van Sant constructed his version almost shot for shot the same as Hitchcock’s, it’s important to look beyond camera or plot and obvious insult to film history. The main reason Hitchcock’s Pyscho works is it’s originality (no duh!), but it’s life force stems from performance, specifically Anthony Perkins’ ticking time bomb. Van Sant’s film fails because of it’s performances, all dull, cliched, and over exaggerated. This is nothing short of past vs. present, old school Hollywood magic vs. new school Hollywood and it’s bottom line, arrogance and lack of creativity. Now we have a discussion.The first time we see Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, his smile compliments the lanky frame, a shy figure eager to chat, but just a little off, seen primarily through the twitch of his cheek. Hitchcock frames Bates between stuffed birds, in the darkness, in cramped spaces like the peep hole, but always with a sense of his character in mind. Bates is a man child, a psychological powder keg waiting to explode, but to the average person he is nothing more than a passing conversation. Perkins never tips his hand, or Hitchcock never lets him, either way his seeming innocence lays the groundwork for the horror to come. Perkins’ performance revels in the uncertainty of a split personality, innocently compensating for the evil deeds his “mother” has committed. In short, his stare is lost, a gaze of blankness so monotonous, it’s easy to mistake for slow or disabled. Bates, unlike Marion Crane or her sister Lila, sees the world in a way the viewer can never understand, a place full of voices, hissing, screaming, and guilt. Hitchcock’s use of subjective voice-over gives the viewer a peak into this nightmare, wetting our taste-buds with the thrill and fright in trying to understand a madman. On the flip-side, Vince Vaughn’s Norman Bates laughs, slices, meanders, and exists much like every other Vince Vaughn variation, from Clay Pigeons to Swingers. Unlike Anthony Perkins, Vince Vaughn is a performer, not an actor. The main problem has to be Vaughn’s size. He’s so much bigger than Perkins, his presence instantly more ominous and in turn less interesting. These problems filter down to every other aspect of the film, whether it be the other stars playing bit parts, like William H. Macy’s lackadaisical turn as the Private Detective, or Christopher Doyle’s flashy and colorful images. Van Sant’s strategy to copy Hitchcock down to the smallest minutia rightfully failed, because for among many other reasons, you can’t duplicate unique, moments of spontaneity and craftsmanship, like Perkins’ memorable glance into the camera at the end of the film, or Hitchcock’s great pacing throughout. Psycho as an original, takes you into the mind of a special, haunting lost soul battling himself for supremacy. Trying to recapture such a landmark piece of art, and the context with which it was released, well you’d have to be mad to even try. Right Hollywood?

Stage Fright (Hitchcock, 1950)

Stage Fright is a strange Hitchcock film, technically superior, but drowsy and bland as a narrative. None of the characters, including Jane Wyman’s quaint amateur sleuth and Marlene Dietrich’s guilty actress, establish a connection with danger or suspense, or comedy (all Hitchcock themes). Instead, the film rests in a frightfully safe place in between, a common story with not much to say about anything dynamic in human nature or the psyche (strange for Hitch during this period). There’s a brilliant long take that starts the film off with a bang, a meandering swagger into a mansion, up a steep staircase, and ending on a dead body. Too bad nothing else in Stage Fright compares to this opening virtuosity.

Suspicion (Hitchcock, 1941)

Cary Grant plays a charming dirt-bag money grubber and possible murderer and Joan Fontaine (she won Best Actress for this?!) plays his suspecting and rattled wife in this Hitchcock thriller. After a few close friends and family members get knocked off under mysterious circumstances, Fontaine’s Lina begins to suspect Grant’s Johnnie of meticulously clearing his way toward a fortune. Is Johnnie playing mind tricks on Lina to make her think she’s crazy, or is she making this all up out of fear and doubt? Good setup, but it’s forever before the film takes shape, leaving the viewer with countless scenes of Fontaine falling hopelessly into Grant’s arms after he’s lied to her for the hundredth time. Hitchcock is his usual brilliant self when it comes to master shot interiors, but the story is far too flimsy and the acting far to repetitive for any sort of lasting impression. Suspicion has little danger within it’s narrative corridors, more obsessed with the hidden psychological nuances than the actual breakdown of it’s protagonist. Even worse, Fontaine and Grant have little chemistry, so the words coming out of their mouths never ring true. It’s hard to believe Hitchcock made this film directly after his excellent American debut, Rebecca, also starring Joan Fontaine in a much more haunting and memorable performance. Suspicion, with it’s slow, fledgling plot and minor payoff, stands at the lower rung of Hitchcock films. But then again, it is Hitchcock, and he’s always a cut above the rest.

The Wrong Man (Hitchcock, 1958)

“You’ve had a lot of bad breaks that could happen to anyone.”- Vera Miles telling her accused husband Henry Fonda his plight is universal.

The irony in this quote brilliantly taps into the darkness and supposed randomness within the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock. His film The Wrong Man begins with an amazing sense of normalcy, where everyday life coincides with hard work and routine. When Henry Fonda’s every-man Manny Balestrero is accused of robbing a number of local liquor stores, his stasis and ideal life quickly shifts toward the horror of mistaken identity. Equally devoted to his roles as a father, a husband and musician, Manny is uprooted by these hurried accusations and thrown into a realm of doubt. Hitchcock’s restrained visual technique compliments the narrow scope of Balestrero’s POV, a hindered glance into a collapsing ideology. We see what he sees – a slow and scary descent into an existence without control or expectation. This progression marks a difference in style and tone from almost every other Hitchcock thriller. The Wrong Man is a sly and intelligent break toward an earnestness not often associated with Hitchcock’s work. Unlike the fantastical intent of many other Hitchcock hero’s, Balestrero’s situation is one based on a failure of memory of his peers, not out of spite or angst, but simply out of coincidence. Balestero’s resemblance to the real robber is frightening and one can see why the scared business owners felt like they were doing the right thing. However, the plight of this situation has ramifications that reach into the core of Balestrero’s family, causing his wife to go insane and his children to become increasingly non-existent. Hitchcock brilliantly simplifies Balestrero’s story down to the most personal level – a cringe, a prayer, or a smile at a validation of innocence. Only after all has collapsed does Hitchcock return his hero to a state of happiness and even then hardships remain supreme. While many of his other film’s harbor flashy pacing and glamourous chases, The Wrong Man is a disturbing and incredibly timely expose of rushed judgment and human error based with a sense of realism. While the film ends with a disappointing halt, the process is a complicated study of human nature attempting to regain some semblance of peace within normal life, a motif Hitchcock as successfully transmitted throughout his filmography.