Blog Directory CineVerse: 2020

Painting on a celluloid canvas

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Innovative animation doesn’t start and end with Disney/Pixar. There are many filmmakers who have advanced the art of animation over the decades, with the last 10 years being no exception. For instance, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Weichman collaborated to direct a visually stunning work that celebrates the life – and probes the death – of genius artist Vincent van Gogh in their 2017 experimental cinematic treatise Loving Vincent. Our CineVerse group studied this work with the enthralled curiosity of an art collector hunting for hidden masterpieces and came away with these conclusions (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here):

What struck you as interesting, surprising, novel, or puzzling about this movie?

  • It looks like a living, kinetic work of art, and for good reason: It’s the first completely painted animated feature-length movie, containing over 65,000 frames, each an oil painting on canvas and made employing many of the same techniques that van Gogh used. A total of 125 painters from 20 different countries collaborated on this project, which took more than six years to complete.
  • The artists followed two different styles: a rotoscoping approach in which the actors were filmed and the animation copied their actions – as represented in the black-and-white flashback scenes; and an homage approach that mimics van Gogh’s style, in which his original paintings help inspire a shot or scene.
  • Interestingly, the movie’s characters were all painted by the artist, as demonstrated in the end credits scene that compares the film’s version of the character to the van Gogh original.
  • It’s easy to marvel at the meticulous craftsmanship on display here, although there is a risk that those with less patience or interest in the subject matter may find this animated approach to either be distracting or gimmicky.
  • The performances shine through, despite being rendered by artists. Consider that it would be easy for the actor’s performance to get lost in all that animation. Arguably, the film is helped by the casting, which includes familiar actors like Saoirse Ronan and Chris O’Dowd.
  • While the narrative is propelled by a mystery – what led to Vincent’s death and who is responsible – solving this riddle proves to be less important than discovering the man and the people who knew him.

Themes at play in Loving Vincent

  • The best way to understand an artist is through his or her art.
  • The impossibility of truly knowing someone else. We hear different accounts and opinions of Vincent from the people whose lives he crossed, with some who liked and admired him and others who thought he was wicked or worth ridiculing.
  • The mysteries of the heart: If Vincent was shot and didn’t try to commit suicide, it’s interesting that he would apparently not blame anyone and resign himself to this fate as the best outcome possible under the circumstances.
  • The allure of the quest for knowledge. Roulin is increasingly intrigued by the mysteries behind van Gogh’s death as well as his passions, interests, and motivations. The harder and deeper he looks, the more absorbed and obsessed he becomes.
  • Legacy, and what we leave behind after we die.

Other films we think of after watching Loving Vincent

  • A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, two innovative animated films by Richard Linklater
  • Citizen Kane, which shares the same narrative structure in which an investigator tries to learn more about a deceased person by interviewing those who knew him
  • Lost For Life, Vincent and Theo, and At Eternity’s Gate – three different van Gogh biopics
  • Frida, based on the life of artist Frida Kahlo
  • Amadeus and Immortal Beloved


Far from phoning it in

Monday, November 23, 2020

It may not be a major Hitchcock work, but Dial M for Murder is a thoroughly fulfilling suspense thriller to most watchers – even those less accustomed to Sir Alfred's penchant for pulse-pounding excitement and intrigue. A fresh watch reveals a precision clockwork-like script that impressively revolves around a minimum of characters and a flair for chromatic stylization. After a healthy discourse on this feature last week, our CineVerse group came to these observations (to hear a recording of that conversation, click here):

How is this film different from or similar to other Hitchcock movies you’ve seen?

  • Like Rope, it’s a film version of a popular stage play that primarily features one interior set, creating a claustrophobic environment for the audience.
  • This was the first film featuring one of Hitchcock’s favorite icy blondes – Grace Kelly, who also appeared in Rear Window and To Catch A Thief.
  • Dial M for Murder represents the one and only time the director attempted a 3D movie. This was an interesting choice or a three-dimensional film, considering how there are so few settings and characters and little opportunity for action, which would seem to limit the effect.
  • This story is not a mystery or whodunit but a supreme study in suspense, in which the audience is given more information than many of the characters and sequences are drawn out and extended for maximum tension. Hitchcock always preferred suspense to shock or mystery.
  • Lead actor Ray Milland exemplifies the clever and amoral Hitchcock villain who exudes debonair sophistication and superior intelligence. Interestingly, he is the lead despite being the antagonist.
  • As with Norman Bates in Psycho, Hitchcock brilliantly manipulates us emotionally by making us identify and empathize with both Tony and his killer-for-hire Swann when their carefully laid plans go awry and disaster looms. It’s easy to put yourself in Tony’s shoes when he realizes that his watch has stopped, the phone booth he needs to use is occupied, and Swann has shockingly been killed.
  • This is a rare example of a Hitchcock picture in which we admire and root for an officer of the law. Chief Inspector Hubbard demonstrates keen insights and shrewd instincts in trying to guess the scheming husband’s moves and motivations and he is capably played by John Williams.
  • While he uses interesting camera angles and points the camera exactly where it needs to be to focus our attention on key details, Hitchcock is, for all intents and purposes, simply shooting a stage play. Further proof that he’s keeping the proceeding simple is the montage we see of Margo on trial and being sentenced – with blank backgrounds surrounding the actors in that montage.
  • This was only Hitchcock’s third color film, but arguably it’s his first strong attempt to use color stylization. Proof of this is his emphasis on strong primary colors, such as red – donned by Margo to convey passion and sexiness when she is shown kissing her secret lover Mark.
  • It can be debated that the true star of this film is the intricate plot – if you can keep up with it. Blogger Tim Brayton wrote that this movie “consists of really just one thing, which is presented in a narrative structure that resembles an essay. First, the concept is explained, then we see the concept put into execution, then we see the concept re-explained, then the concept is deconstructed. It’s about a murder plot… And really nothing else.”

Themes crafted into Dial M For Murder

  • Voyeurism. We are given a privileged and intimate view into the private life of a husband-and-wife, including her adulterous affair and his conniving murder plot.
  • Pride comes before the fall. Arguably, Toni’s undoing is his arrogance and prideful conceit; he’s not afraid to cavalierly discuss details of his “perfect crime” with others, including Halliday, Swann, and the police inspector, not hiding his superior attitude.
  • Entrapment. Like a master chess player, Tony concocts a fiendishly brilliant blackmail scheme, an airtight murder plot, and an impressive spontaneous contingency plan on the fly.

Where can Hitchcock be spotted (his clever cameo)?

  • In Toni’s framed photograph, he is seated among the men attending the college reunion.

Other films or works that spring to mind after watching this one

  • Rope
  • A Perfect Murder, one of two remakes of this film
  • Gaslight
  • Knives Out
  • Match Point 
  • Sleuth


Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a fun podcast

Sunday, November 22, 2020

For Cineversary podcast episode #29, host Erik Martin and “All About All About Eve” author 
Sam Staggs crash the Sarah Siddons award ceremony to dish delicious details about “All About Eve,” directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, which celebrates a 70th anniversary this year. Erik and Sam explore why this film is worth commemorating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the picture today, how it has stood the test of time, and more. 

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotifyGoogle PodcastsBreakerCastboxPocket CastsPodBeanRadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at and email show comments or suggestions to


No crustaceans were hurt during the discussion of this movie

Monday, November 16, 2020

How can one begin to describe The Lobster, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ absurdist fantastical or futuristic take on romantic coupling in a world gone animal crackers? This is truly a film that has to be seen to be believed – and better understood, for that matter. Our CineVerse group took a stab (away from the eyeballs, rest assured) at appreciating and deciphering this cinematic text last week and came to the following conclusions (to listen to the recording of our group discussion, click here):

What did you find startling, unexpected, or memorable about The Lobster?

  • This depicts a strange dystopian future in which couplehood is valued and even required over being single, which is punished. In this dystopia, human beings hide their emotions and emphasize like-mindedness and similar character traits.
  • This bleak future society offers binary, black-and-white choices without much differentiation or diversity. Everyone wears the same kinds of clothes, practices the same rituals and routines, and strives for normality in a paired or group setting.
  • Yorgos Lanthimos said the movie was influenced by his ruminations on the ways society views romantic couplings as a default state and considers single persons to be questionable or defective. He foresees a dystopia where values, customs, and trivial rules are required at the expense of emotions and individual liberties.
  • “The Lobster deals with extremes of human emotion by factoring most of the emotion out of the equation. Lanthimos wants to isolate human behavior from the feelings that drive it, the better to analyze people’s choices… His aggressively flat performances and spell-it-all-out scripts are distancing, but he operates as though the only way to see a situation’s absurdity is from a distance… This is the stuff of traditional fairytales: magical transformations, arbitrary rules, brought allegory, and the redemptive power of true love. But Lanthimos subverts the entire idea by turning love into a petty, complicated construct, and magic into a grotesque practicality,” wrote The Verge writer Tasha Robinson.
  • This movie seems to be espousing Albert Camus’ three means of coping with life’s absurdities: suicide, which we see one hotel occupant pursue; submission, which David chooses when he decides to pair up with the short-haired woman at the hotel; and rebellion, which is depicted by David running off to join the group of wild loners and, later, breaking free of the loners with the short-sighted woman.

  • · Interestingly, even the loners – who aren’t required to abide by the government’s rules – seem as cold, cruel, and emotionless as the Establishment. This suggests that human beings have been programmed to abide by sociocultural norms of this society, even if they are not enforced.

  • · The film’s conclusion is quite interesting. It is unresolved if David chooses to destroy his eyes or not. But arguably that’s not even the important point here. Of more significance, has David really learned what it truly means to love, and how love involves accepting your partner’s differences and not trying to conform to society’s expectations or rules for romance or love? Would he even be standing in front of the bathroom mirror with a knife if he truly embraced Camus’ idea of rebellion and the freeing notion of nonconformity?

Themes on display and The Lobster

  • Conformity versus nonconformity and the extent to which human beings are willing to surrender feelings, freedom, and personal choice in exchange for social acceptance.
  • What is true love? And is true love even possible in a society that values congruence and discourages isolation?
  • The ridiculous burden society places on us to date and find a significant other or soulmate can result in unhappy and disastrous outcomes.

Other movies and works that The Lobster reminds us of

  • Writings by Franz Kafka, including The Metamorphosis
  • Writings by Albert Camus, including The Stranger
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, which depicts an emotionless dystopia in which free will and choice is illusionary and our destinies are decided prior to birth.
  • Brazil
  • Advocates of “theater of the absurd,” a term first coined by Martin Esslin, a Hungarian dramatist. The theater of the absurd “attacks the comfortable certainties of religious or political orthodoxy… It aims to shock its audience out of complacency, to bring it face-to-face with the harsh facts of the human situation as these writers see it,” wrote Esslin.

Other films by Yorgos Lanthimos

  • Dogtooth
  • Alps
  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer 
  • The Favourite


French (un)dressing

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Avant-garde and New Wave-inspired French films can be challenging for some American audiences to understand and appreciate. But a French sex comedy should translate well on the shores, one would expect. However, Bertrand Blier’s Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, from 1978, has the power to shock and alienate more people today than it did 42 years ago due to its controversial subplot involving a romance between a married woman and an underage boy. Our CineVerse group discussed this angle and others last week, as summarized in the notes below (to listen to a recording of that discussion, click here).

What struck you as unexpected, interesting, or even downright shocking about Get Out Your Handkerchiefs?

  • It’s a rare kind of sex comedy. Here, the husband is willing to be cuckolded and supportive of another man’s intimacy with his wife. Strangers are brought into the couple’s bedroom and allowed to be intimate with a married woman. And a strange bromance develops between two like-minded men who think they can satisfy the same woman.
  • The film is dry and deadpan in its comedic sensibilities, but as a sex farce and social satire it still can conjure big laughs with the right audience.
  • Of course, for many the film stops dead in its tracks once it introduces a significant subplot in which Solange is seduced by and becomes intimate with a 13-year-old boy. For Americans and people in many countries, this crosses a disturbing line that makes it difficult to accept or watch what comes thereafter.
    • Many will consider this a completely inappropriate and unlawful relationship that involves child rape because the boy is of a nonconsensual age. But consider that, at the time this movie was released, there was no age of consent legally specified in France. It wasn’t until 2018 that France set the legal age of consent at 15 years old.
    • So you have to put this film in its proper historical and sociocultural context: This relationship between an adult woman and a 13-year-old boy would not have been as controversial in France in the late 1970s.
    • Yet 42 years later, it stands out like a sore thumb and ages the film considerably.
  • The film is replete with ironies.
    • Ironically, two adult men cannot satisfy Solange, yet she finds happiness and love with a much younger person – a boy whose IQ and emotional maturity are considerably higher than the buffoonish Raoul and Stephane.
    • It’s also ironic that the two men end up forming arguably a stronger bond together, despite being sexual rivals, than the bond between either of them and Solange.
    • Additionally, Raoul appears concerned about his wife’s welfare and happiness yet employs a male patriarchal approach, thinking he can cure her with sex or motherhood.
    • There’s irony in the fact that both men would appear to be sensitive, sophisticated, and intellectual by virtue of their expressed concern over Solange as well as Stephane’s impressive book collection and their love for Mozart. Yet, each is revealed to be a romantic fool.
    • It’s further ironic that, while it may seem to have the veneer of a feminist film, Solange as a character is given little to no agency; she barely speaks, and she seems to exist as a kind of sex object (often appearing naked) and matriarchal figure (knitting and acting subserviently).

Themes at work in this film

  • People aren’t property, and you can’t make someone happy just because you will it.
  • The inherent incompatibility of the sexes and the inability of men to understand women.
  • “Even when he seems to be submissive, (Raoul’s) feeling over Solange’s unhappiness stems from the too-familiar tendency of a man to assume responsibility for his woman’s emotions. Solange’s sadness is not hers to own; it’s a problem that he must have caused and therefore must fix. When a female passerby reprimands him, ‘When women cry, you never understand why,’ he fails to learn a lesson,” wrote blogger David Bax.
  • A bromance may be more satisfying for some than a romance between the opposite sex.
  • The unpredictability of love. Who would’ve thought that Solange would find her supposed ideal match in a teenage boy?

Movies similar to Get Out Your Handkerchiefs

  • Lolita
  • In a Wild Moment
  • Woody Allen films, including Annie Hall and Manhattan, in which the main character often plays a neurotic lover who questions his ability to please women
  • Stella Dallas, which has a similar ending

Other films directed by Bertrand Blier

  • Going Places
  • Buffet Froid
  • Beau Pere
  • Ménage
  • Too Beautiful for You


Devil in the DNA

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Happy Halloween, CineVerse followers!

When your directorial debut has been described as the scariest film since The Exorcist, you know you’ve got a lot of hype to live up to. But Ari Aster’s Hereditary doesn’t have to meet or exceed that high threshold of expectation to be a modern horror masterpiece, which many believe it is. This week, our CineVerse crew held up this film to the microscope and formed the following conclusions (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion).

In what ways did Hereditary surprise you, defy your preconceptions, or prove satisfying?

  • This is another contemporary example of a prestige horror film, with known and talented actors and higher production values, that doesn’t resort to the predictable or cliché. We aren’t inundated with jump scares, gratuitous violence, or cheap thrills.
    • UK film reviewer Matthew Norman wrote: “…at no moment was I terrified. But terror and horror are different beasts, and Hereditary is unforgettably horrifying.”
  • The performances are uniformly outstanding, particularly Tony Colette is a mother overwhelmed by grief and trauma, as well as Milly Shapiro as her offputting daughter Charlie, Alex Wolff playing stoner misanthrope Peter, and Ann Dowd portraying the utterly believable Joan.
  • The point of view in this film is primarily subjective, and viewers are not given any more information than Annie, Charlie, or Peter. We discover the horror and insidious plot manipulating them concurrently, as they do.
    • Director Ari Aster said in an interview: “Essentially, the film is about a long-lived possession ritual that is seen from the perspective of the sacrificial lambs. So yes, we know what they know. We learn what they learn, and Ike kind of wanted to make a conspiracy film without exposition…we’re with them in their ignorance.”
  • The film kicks off brilliantly by sharing the obituary for Annie’s recently deceased mother.

Themes built into Hereditary

  • The real horrors in life are trauma and grief that is often linked to loved ones and blood relatives.
  • Family demons can be literal, not just figurative.
  • Are we a product of our environment or our hereditary?
    • Here, a possible takeaway is that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Charlie is artistic like her mother, and both she and Peter may be afflicted with some form of mental illness passed down from their mother’s side. Remember that Annie’s mother suffered from dissociative identity disorder (formerly called split personality disorder); her father, a psychotic depressive, starved himself to death; and her schizophrenic brother hanged himself. Recall, as well, that Annie admits to having attended a support group previously – possibly for the incident in which she doused her children in a flammable liquid and almost burned them to death during a sleepwalking incident. To her therapist husband Steve, Annie appears to be exhibiting perhaps obsessive-compulsive behaviors, bipolar disorder, and hallucinatory visions.
    • It’s possible to interpret what we’re seeing as visions inspired by mental illness. One reading of the film is that Annie, Charlie, and Peter all suffer from the same kind of psychological problems that cause them to see and experience things that aren’t really there except in their minds.
  • Do we have free will or is our life predetermined by fate or destiny?
    • If you take the film literally, there is a conspiracy afoot to manipulate this family to a cult’s evil ends, first instigated by Annie’s mother before she died. Her cult followers are playing the family like pawns in a game of chess.
    • Aster further said: “The (diorama miniatures) serve as something of a metaphor for the family’s situation. They ultimately have no agency, and they're revealed to be like dolls in the dollhouse, being manipulated by outside forces.”
    • “Hereditary asks if Annie – and her children – are predisposed to mental illness and doomed to experience repeated traumas, or if these tragedies are rooted in choice,” wrote blogger Britt Hayes.
    • Consider how Peter’s teacher is talking about the lessons of Sophocles, in which characters are oblivious to their lack of agency, serving as pawns to dark fate.
  • Voyeurism, and the feeling that we are secretly watching this family from a privileged and private viewpoint.
  • Decapitation, which can suggest perhaps that the headless person has no power or identity. Consider that three generations of women on Annie’s side: the grandmother, mother, and daughter, are all headless by the end of the film. A possible interpretation here is that females continue to be viewed as powerless in a culture or society that favors males and patriarchal dominance.

Other films this will remind you of

  • Rosemary’s Baby
  • Carrie
  • The Babadook
  • The Conjuring
  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  • Hour of the Wolf
  • Mother!
  • Possession
  • The Exorcist


CineVerse moderator appears on Monster Kid Radio podcast to talk old time radio

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Your friendly neighborhood CineVerse moderator, Erik Martin, made a guest appearance this week on Monster Kid Radio, a podcast that celebrates classic horror films of yesteryear. Erik and podcast host Derek Koch discuss the underrated pleasures of listening to old time radio (OTR), particularly horror and mystery shows, and Erik shares his favorite OTR mystery series and episodes. 

To hear this podcast episode, click here (scroll down the page and click the "play" button to hear it). Happy Halloween, everyone!


That witch does not kill us makes us stronger

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Robert Eggers’ The Witch has been hailed as among the finest horror outings of the past decade, and fittingly so: It accomplishes maximum dread and discomfort without succumbing to predictable horror film approaches. Our CineVerse group took a walk through the dark New England woods of the 17th Century to hunt for hidden truths concealed inside this film; here’s a recap of our analysis (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find different, unexpected, surprising, or satisfying about The Witch?

  • It avoids cheap frights, jump scares, fast pacing, and typical horror clichés that often plague modern scary films.
  • There is painstaking attention to detail and period authenticity, as ordered by first-time director Eggers, who conducted copious research in the writing and planning of this film. He enlisted the aid of craftsmen and artisans who were experienced in building and creating structures, costumes, and objects from the 17th century period or trade; he opted for nonconventional instruments in the score, including the waterphone and nyckelharpa; and he tried to light the film as naturalistically as possible often using merely sunlight and candlelight.
  • The story can be interpreted in two ways: literally or figuratively.
    • It’s possible that everything we see and hear is realistic, that there is an actual witch in the woods nearby and a goat embodying Satan who have caused all this violence and tragedy and cleverly entrapped Thomasin after eliminating her family. The proof is that the infant Samuel disappears quite suddenly under Thomasin’s nose, we see naked flying witches, there is blood on Katherine’s clothes suggesting that the vision of a crow pecking at her breast was not a dream, and we see and hear a finely dressed gentleman in black—presumably Satan himself—making a tempting offer to Thomasin.
    • Or, it’s plausible that this is a fable, campfire yarn, or something like a Grimm’s fairy tale. Consider that the subtitle of the movie is “A New England Folk Tale”; also, ask yourself who would have come into contact with this family living remotely in the woods to be able to pass this tale down to subsequent generations? If there was such a person, he or she likely embellished on the probable outcomes: that the family met with horrible misfortune and death, which the tale-teller blamed on Thomasin. Additionally, ponder that the crops failed and possibly the family succumbed to a non-supernatural threat, like starvation or in-family violence. There’s also a theory that the corn they have been growing is rotten, and certain species of bad corn can be hallucinogenic, which would suggest that the unholy imagery we see is a subjective account of the family under the influence of a hallucinogenic agent.
  • This movie reinvents common tropes associated with witchcraft stories. Instead of witches in black riding broomsticks, we see naked levitating and flying witches; instead of a devil with horns and a pitchfork, we get a handsome, well-dressed man of mystery. Instead of a Hansel-like boy character who eats candy and baked goods, we get a boy who eats an apple. And instead of virtue and goodness triumphing over evil in some kind of morality tale, the opposite is true here.

Themes woven into The Witch

  • The dangers of mistrust, especially among family members who suspect one of their own is capable of evil.
  • The sins of the father are visited upon the son – and the rest of his family, too. William and his family are cast out of their New England village because of the patriarch’s “prideful conceit.” The film continually shows us William’s ineptitude and inadvertently disastrous influence; he can’t seem to do anything right except neatly split firewood, which ironically ends up semi-burying his gored body.
  • Female agency and empowerment. This is somewhat of a feminist film in that, for most of the movie we see how Thomasin is taken for granted by her family (who consider renting her off as an indentured servant to another clan), objectified as a sex object by her young brother entering puberty, and blamed and scapegoated for disastrous events that happen. But by the conclusion, she is the only one who survives and is left to make a choice: likely die of cold or starvation or “live deliciously” as a supernatural female.
  • Temptation, guilt, and sin. The father has secretly traded away his wife’s precious silver cup, for which he brands himself a thief; Caleb is seduced by a beguiling witch; and Thomasin is given an enticing offer by Satan himself. And the parents and oldest siblings each feel guilt in their own way about the disappearance of baby Samuel.
  • Insidious sexuality, suggested by the nude witches, the way Caleb secretly lusts after his sister, the witch in the guise of a beautiful woman who seduces Caleb, the way Caleb returns home naked and sick, and Thomasin’s choice to strip enjoying the other unclothed witches.

Similar films and works that come to mind

  • Paintings by Goya including Witches’ Sabbath and Satan Devouring His Son
  • Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible
  • Certain films by Ingmar Bergman, including The Virgin Spring and The Seventh Seal
  • Witchfinder General
  • The Shining
  • The Blair Witch Project
  • Season of the Witch (2011)


A thriller with a cutting edge that never dulls

Monday, October 26, 2020

What can be written about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho that hasn’t already been dissected to death? While it’s difficult to suggest any important new insights or theories, summarizing the myriad ways in which this now 60-year-old magnum opus works brilliantly can remind us why Psycho is worth re-evaluating again and again. 

Why is Psycho worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It still matters because it’s an exemplary work of craftsmanship by a master at the height of his powers. The carefully planned visuals, inspired editing choices, all-time great score, brave storytelling, and precision-timed suspense combine to create an unforgettable cinematic experience.
  • It still matters because of the moral ambiguity and uncertainty we end up feeling. There is no calming moral resolution by the end of this film; yes, the villain is captured, but we’re left feeling unnerved by Norman’s interior monologue in the final scene.
  • It has stood the test of time because, despite its age and its creakiness around the edges, Psycho still feels modern and relevant. With its sudden graphic violence, creepy voyeuristic themes, and cynical worldview that suggests a random and cruel hand of fate, it still commands the power to shock, disturb, and unsettle.

In what ways was this film was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?

  • First, Psycho stands in stark contrast, both visually and in terms of production values, to Hitchcock’s previous work in the 1950s and subsequent pictures immediately following Psycho. Predecessors like North by Northwest, Vertigo, and Rear Window were bigger-budget, glossy color pictures with big-name stars. This was made to look like a cheap exploitation film in black-and-white—a longer version perhaps of one of his TV show episodes of the time.
  • It inaugurated a new era of increased graphic violence for intense shock value. It’s the first true slasher movie, the first horror film that brought violent murder to the mainstream. As director Peter Bogdanovich said in the documentary 78/52: “It was actually the first time in the history of movies that it wasn’t safe to be in the movie theatre, and when I walked out into Times Square at noon I felt I had been raped.”
  • Psycho broke down film censorship barriers by depicting casual sex between two unmarried lovers, showing extensive footage of a scantily clad woman, a peeping Tom, the violation of a naked woman in the shower, and even, for the first time in a Hollywood film, a flushing toilet.
  • It is also possibly the first movie to kill off its lead character before the midway point of the film—essentially making Marion a red herring diversion and Psycho a great practical joke played on us by Hitchcock.
  • It manipulated audiences into switching allegiances and sympathies from one innocent protagonist to another who turned out to be evil. Think of how you feel when Norman waits for the car to sink in the swamp, or when we hear him shockingly say to his mother, “Oh, mother…the blood!”
  • It usurped 1950s conventionality and repressive values, turning the Ozzie and Harriet generation on its ear. According to critic David Thomson: “Most films of the fifties are secret ads for the way of life. Psycho is a warning about its lies and limits.”
  • The score by Bernard Herrmann was extremely influential: a sparse, abstract arrangement of shrieking, unrelenting strings, later copied in films like Jaws.
  • Psycho became one of the first big buzz event movies thanks to a great publicity campaign and due to Hitchcock’s rule that no one be seated after the film started. The marketing campaign begged the audience not to reveal any plot twists; movie theaters soon initiated policies that set specific show times and didn’t allow audiences into the theater once a film started.

The shower sequence is often cited as one of the most innovative and important in the history of film. What’s interesting about this scene?

  • It borrows heavily from Soviet montage theory (espoused by Sergei Eisenstein and others) and New Wave filmmaking.
  • It wouldn’t be nearly as shocking/effective if Hitchcock hadn’t so masterfully developed Marion’s character beforehand and forced us to identify with her.
  • In fact, it becomes all the more shocking the first time you see it because we feel so much better about Marion right before it; she has decided to go home and give the money back, and she has a joyful look upon her face.
  • In the shower scene, you’re not actually seeing actress Janet Leigh’s naked body (that’s a body double in the nude), nor does your eye see a knife enter the body, nor is the blood real or red (it’s chocolate syrup); it’s the power of suggestion that’s at work here, and that’s how Hitchcock was able to appease the censors—a very clever solution.
  • From the moment Marion disrobes and steps into the shower, the pace and cutting of the shots quicken.
  • Also, the water shoots in contrasting directions to disorient us, as it did on her car windshield earlier, creating an anxious, out-of-sorts feeling.
  • The point of view during the shower scene shifts. Some of the shots are subjective, like Marion looking up at the showerhead and the killer stabbing the victim, while others are God’s eye points of view, like quick overhead shots, shots from an angle away from the killer and Marion, the famous shot of the water running down the drain, and the rotating shot zooming out of the dead woman’s eye.

What’s the moral of the story here? What themes or messages are explored in Psycho?

  • Duality, pairs, and split personalities. Consider how there are many parallels suggested between various sets of two different characters in the film:
    • Marion and Norman: You feel empathy for each early on in the film, even though both have committed crimes—Marion the crime of theft, Norman the crime of covering up for whom you think is the murderer (his mother). We perhaps exonerate Marion because she’s stealing the money for love and because she’s pilfering from a lecherous creep. And it’s easy to put yourself in Norman’s shoes when he’s trying to hide the body and the evidence.
    • Norman and Sam: Sam had what Norman wanted (Marion) but couldn’t have. Sam is honorable, handsome, and prepared; Norman is gangly, awkward, and unprepared; both were living a double life (Sam sneaking around to be Marion’s lover, Norman personifying his dead mother).
    • Marion and Arbogast: Both are victims of Norman, but the viewer hasn’t formed a subjective bond to Arbogast as they had with Marion.
    • Arbogast and Lila: Both investigate Marion’s disappearance, but Lila makes it further (upstairs and downstairs) than the private eye did and doesn’t pay the price he did.
    • Recall how, in the first scene Marion wears white undergarments, suggestive of a good girl but later wears black undergarments, insinuating a bad girl.
    • The Norman we first meet versus the Norman we later learn has been assuming the role of his mother, revealing a split personality.
    • Additionally, the extensive use of mirrors and mirror images throughout the movie possibly implies that anyone is capable of having a split personality or a different side to their nature.
  • There’s a hidden voyeur in all of us. Think about how often characters are watched by other characters throughout this film, and, for that matter, how often we watch characters watch others, making us complicit in this voyeuristic behavior. Examples include Norman peeping through the hole in the wall, Arbogast spying on Norman and his mother, and the opening sequence in which, like a peeping Tom, the camera brings us into the motel room where Marion and Sam have just finished an intimate encounter.
  • The universe is arbitrary, pitiless, and indifferent. Ponder how, for the first third of the film, we think this is going to be a story about Marion stealing the $40,000 and having a moral quandary about the theft, which causes her to reconsider the crime and try to set things right. But as she’s taking a shower, the moment when we finally see her smile and symbolically wash away the guilt and bad feelings of her actions, she is unexpectedly brutally slaughtered, which also kills that story of personal redemption. Immediately afterward, we are forced to identify with the only major character left in the picture, Norman Bates, who, at that moment, we believe is trying to cover up the crime his mother committed and is deserving of our attention and sympathy. Despite knowing that he is an accessory to the crime, we secretly root for Norman to succeed in this cover-up; when the car he pushes into the swamp doesn’t quite sink all the way, the audience tenses up, worrying that the vehicle will be discovered.
  • Isolation. Hitchcock carefully chooses to continually isolate and alienate various characters within a given shot from other people around them. We also see how characters can look and feel isolated and lonely, particularly Norman, who lives alone in a remote environment.

What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?

  • Arguably the only blemish in this otherwise glimmering jewel of a thriller is the tacked-on psychologist’s diagnosis that explains Norman’s actions and psychosis, which probably goes on too long and softens the blow.
  • Yet, it makes the last scene of Norman’s internal monologue more effective, because everything we see and hear makes a mockery of what the shrink explains. It’s as if the filmmakers were telling us to forget the psychobabble – this guy is pure evil (so much so that you can see a human skull slightly superimposed over his Norman’s smiling face in the second to the last shot).

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • One of its greatest gifts is that, ingeniously, it leaves you feeling terrified, vulnerable, mistrustful, and conflicted, even on a subconscious level and for reasons that are not entirely obvious.
    • Because you are compelled to identify and empathize with the person who turns out to be an evil psychopath, you are forced to examine your conscience by the film’s end and ask yourself: Am I capable of committing these kinds of crimes? Do I have a bit of Norman Bates in me? Would I ever impulsively kill or steal?
    • Also, think of how the film starts, with the dateline: “‘Phoenix, Arizona. Friday, December the 11th. 2:43 p.m.’” Right away, this feels like a true-crime tale and suggests that this scenario could happen in any random life, in any random town—thus, it could happen to you.
    • Psycho brilliantly plants the seed that you can’t trust anybody. At different points in the movie, we fear or are suspicious of the police, an attractive young woman who’s been a loyal employee for 10 years, a would-be helpless old woman, and a seemingly harmless looking young man.
    • Consider, as well, the unspeakable horrors and unconventional behaviors suggested by Norman’s actions and his past: taxidermy of a dead person, transvestism, and possible incest and necrophilia.
  • Another greatest gift is the degree to which Hitchcock can manipulate and deceive us. The first time we watch Psycho, we are fooled by Hitchcock’s misdirection; we think the story is about the money theft, but it veers off into something completely different, by random chance. It’s this sudden turn of direction and arbitrary twist of fate that shocks viewers, even subconsciously. Hitchcock forces us to dwell on the $40,000 that Marion steals—which serves as the film’s MacGuffin (defined as a device or object that motivates the characters and fuels the plot but which turns out to be relatively insignificant to the viewer). We dwell on this loot up to the point where Norman throws it in the trunk and sinks the car. This becomes Hitchcock’s little joke: The money turns out to be insignificant by the end of the film, despite all the attention we’ve invested in it. In this way, the last shot of the car being dragged out of the swamp is Hitchcock’s final laugh. It’s his way of tacking on a happy ending to the problem about the money, as it's probably found in the trunk of the authorities.


Even podcasters go a little mad sometimes...

Monday, October 19, 2020

For Cineversary podcast episode #28, host Erik Martin celebrates the 60th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock's ultimate treatise on terror, "Psycho." Erik checks into the Bates Motel with Alexandre Phillipe, the director of "78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene," which deconstructs the infamous shower murder sequence from Psycho. He and Alexandre explore why this film is worth commemorating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the picture today, how it has stood the test of time, and more.
Alexandre Phillipe

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotifyGoogle PodcastsBreakerCastboxPocket CastsGoogle Play MusicPodBeanRadioPublic, and Overcast.

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Dance of the dead

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Horror is one genre where a paltry production budget doesn’t automatically equate to an inferior product. With a little ingenuity and creativity, fright filmmakers can fashion a movie that can be both unsettling and entertaining, despite limited resources.

Case in point: Herk Harvey’s study in disquieting dread, Carnival of Souls, originally released in 1962. Our CineVerse group laid out a case last week that acquits this B-picture nicely, based on the evidence (to hear a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What directors or movies might’ve been inspired by Carnival of Souls?

  • George Romero and his Night of the Living Dead (1968), which also features pasty-faced ghouls
  • David Lynch, whose films like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet are infused with the same spirit of existential dread, the decay and subversive elements found within small-town suburban or rural life, and haunted characters estranged from others.
    • Slant Magazine reviewer Chuck Bowen wrote: “Romero and Lynch took from Harvey a sense of how id and chaos comically and poetically reside underneath misleadingly placid surfaces.”
  • The Argentine director Lucretia Martel
  • What sources might Carnival of Souls have drawn from or been influenced by?
  • The Twilight Zone, which also featured stories about characters supernaturally alienated from fellow human beings, including The Hitch-Hiker
  • Ambrose Bierce’s famous short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
  • The works of European filmmakers, including Ingmar Bergman and Jean Cocteau, particularly Cocteau’s Orpheus from 1950
  • Hitchcock’s Psycho from 1960, which also depicted an independent-minded and attractive young blonde who is objectified by men and drives far away to escape from her past.

What did you find surprising, unexpected, memorable, or resonant about Carnival of Souls?

  • The filmmakers accomplish much on a paltry budget – in this case, $33,000, which afforded merely 3 weeks of shooting. This low-rent approach arguably works well for a horror film of this ilk.
    • Bowen further wrote: “Effective fantasy and horror films both thrive on a tactile sense of the reality from which they’re departing, underlining a divide between objective and subjective experience, implying that the distinction might be misleading or arbitrary. This is why micro-budget productions in these genres are often more haunting than their more elaborate and expensive counterparts, as they show the formal, and, by extension and implication, the emotional strain that’s necessary to taking irrational leaps from the established realm of the rational. Slickly produced genre films, particularly in the age of impersonal computer-generated effects, rarely produce such tension, as anything is possible and consequently taken for granted.”
  • The moody monochromatic cinematography and smartly framed compositions are particularly notable; typically, shoestring budget horror movies don’t showcase this kind of visual panache.
  • The consistent use of brooding pipe organ music creates an unsettling atmosphere, underscoring the scenes as a sort of unceasing funeral dirge.
  • Interestingly, much of this film is shot outdoors and on location, in Utah and Kansas, as opposed to on a fabricated set. Film reviewer
    • Film reviewer Richard Scheib wrote: “Most horror had existed in a stagebound European never-Neverland, while contemporary horror films rarely strayed outside the unreal confines of studio sets.”
  • While almost all the other actors are subpar and wooden or weird in their characterizations, Candace Hilligoss, in the lead role, gives a strong performance – often using simple and subtle facial expressions and believable reactions to make us believe in her plight.
  • This was a one-off by the crew and cast; director/co-writer Herk Harvey and the lead actress never made another feature film.
  • Many questions are left unexplained and unanswered, including how Mary survived the drowning, why she is inexorably drawn to the abandoned amusement park, and why she plays the discordant organ music that gets her fired. Likewise, the character of Mary is mysterious. We don’t know why she’s acting so strangely or what motivates her, unless she’s slowly losing her soul or identity in some way and passing into another realm of existence that is confusing her.

Themes prevalent in Carnival of Souls

  • Estrangement and alienation. Mary can’t connect with those around her. She acts aloof, icy, and indifferent, finding it difficult to display emotion, passion, or romantic interest. We see how she prefers to be alone, but her surrounding community isn’t accepting of this.
  • Bad omens. Mary is increasingly haunted and disturbed by signs that she is either losing her mind, her identity, or her soul. These signs include sudden appearances by the white-faced man and his minions as well as eerie episodes where she cannot interact with human beings around her.
  • The afterlife is enigmatic. Assuming the obvious interpretation – that Mary actually drowned and never emerged from the car alive – this is a story about experiencing some sort of after-death transformation to another realm of existence or a state of limbo, which for many can be as or more terrifying than the concept of hell.


A modern horror comedy you can sink your teeth into

Friday, October 9, 2020

Horror comedies can be hit (exhibit A: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein) or miss (exhibit B: Scary Movie). A recent example of the former is What We Do in the Shadows, written and directed by Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi. The colorful vampire roommates who populate this tale may suck, but the movie certainly doesn’t. Here’s proof, as summarized from our CineVerse group discussion this week (click here to listen to a recording of that discussion):

What did you find surprising, satisfying, curious, or interesting about this film?

  • It spoofs many classic vampire tropes, as you’d expect, including the need to find human victims, avoiding daylight, not having a reflection in the mirror, sleeping in a coffin, having to be invited in by someone to their dwelling, and being ancient/living forever.
  • But it also portrays characters and situations you wouldn’t necessarily associate with a vampire movie, including a boring side character named Stu who works in IT, roommate squabbles, practical matters like whose turn it is to do the dishes, selling goods on eBay, and getting into nightclubs. Blogger Richard Nelson wrote: “It embraces mundanity – putting these supernatural creatures in the same dull suburban lifestyles that we all know.”
  • This works as a true ensemble piece in which three primary characters share screen time fairly equally – much like This Is Spinal Tap – and there are several colorful smaller parts.
  • Despite being produced on a scant $1.6 million budget, there’s strong attention to detail throughout the movie, with commendable work done in the makeup department, special effects, and production design of the home the vampires share.
  • The picture doesn’t overstay its welcome, clocking in at a brisk 86 minutes and, apparently, utilizing the very best bits and takes (from more than 125 hours of footage shot).
  • What We Do in the Shadows can also be as touching and sweet as it is sharply satirical, comedically edgy, and irreverent. Consider how the roommates and friends can bond and reconcile with each other after squabbles and how delighted they are to see that Stu has survived his werewolf attack.
  • Ponder, as well, that each of the roommates represents a vampire archetype we’ve seen in other stories and films: there is a Nosferatu-like character in Petyr, a dandy in Viago who would fit nicely in an Anne Rice novel, a womanizing count in Vlad the Poker, and a bad boy rebel (perhaps like one of The Lost Boys) in Deacon.

Themes prevalent in What We Do in the Shadows

  • Social and cultural marginalization. Co-director Taika Waititi said in an interview: “I always liked the idea that vampires were a metaphor for marginalized groups; immigrants, homosexuals, anyone who’s had to live in the shadows of society.”
    • Film review blogger Joey Keogh wrote: “Much of the laughs – and it is a painfully funny film – come from the central trio’s inability to behave like normal people, and their desire to simultaneously blend in and stand out in modern society.”
  • Mid-life crises. Co-director Jermaine Clement was quoted as saying: “I think this film is a lot about middle age. Reflecting on regret, on your life, on not being able to get over things that you thought you’d be able to move past.”
  • The compromises involved with cohabitation. Each vampire roommate is unique in personality and mindset and from a different background, which inevitably leads to clashes and disagreements. Interestingly, the undead roommates learn to work things out, despite their differences.
  • Acceptance of outsiders. The housemates come to respect and admire Stu, even though he’s a mortal with a relatively bland personality.
  • The inability to escape our pasts and true natures. We see that Viago is still holding a flame for his lost love, whom he returns to wooing by the end of the movie; Vlad resorts to his torturing ways and rekindles a love/hate affair with his old girlfriend The Beast; and Nick can’t help but brag to everyone that he’s a vampire.

Like-minded movies

  • Mockumentaries such as This Is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, Take the Money and Run, and Borat
  • Horror comedies like Young Frankenstein, Shaun of the Dead, and Dracula: Dead and Loving It
  • Reality TV programs including The Real World


Up the creek without a censor

Monday, October 5, 2020

Many film fans assume that Hollywood in the 1940s avoided rocking the boat – and rocking the baby carriage when it came to promoting wholesome and upstanding family values. But an exception to that rule is Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, which depicted a sexually uninhibited woman possibly engaging in premarital relations and having a baby out of wedlock (sort of): topics rarely tackled for a 1943 picture that normally wouldn't have passed muster with the censors. Our CineVerse band performed a closer examination of this comedy gem last week; here’s a summary of our analysis (listen to a recording of our group discussion of this film here).

How would this film have been controversial and unique for a 1943 movie – one many wouldn’t have expected to slip past the censors?

  • Virtually no movies of this era broached the subject of sexual promiscuity with a stranger and pregnancy that could disgrace a family and a town. The Production Code strictly forbade these kinds of topics in Hollywood films.
  • The story serves as a kind of comedic spin on the immaculate conception/virgin birth. Consider that Norval plays a befuddled Joseph to Trudy’s formerly virginal hometown girl who is clueless as to the mysterious father’s identity. There is a nativity scene of sorts in which the Kockenlocker family has to leave town, where there is no room for them at the inn of social and moral acceptance, and at least one barnyard animal is present: a cow. Plus, the sextuplets (fitting that the director chose a number that would use the word “sex”) are born on Christmas day.
  • The name Kockenlocker itself is a double entendre word suggesting that Trudy is willing to entrap a man (Norval) to cover up for her mistakes.
  • The picture appears to be lampooning the conservative values of small-town America and its judgmental citizens.
  • Trudy’s sister Emmy is a precocious, streetwise character who seems to know a lot more than she should for a 14-year-old.
  • The movie takes swipes at women, marriage, motherhood, and the choice to have several children.
  • The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek even turns politically farcical when it showcases Mussolini and Hitler look-alikes.
  • Turner Classic Movies wrote: “The film was made at the height of World War II, with patriotic fervor running high, and Hollywood was busy extolling the virtues of brave soldiers overseas, faithful women on the home front, and the homespun values of Anytown, USA. Then along comes a movie skewering small-town life and attitudes, with a hapless lead character declared unfit for service and a fun-loving unwed mother with the last name of "Kockenlocker," all of it wrapped in a wicked parody of the Christmas nativity story (including a shot of livestock in the room with the pregnant heroine). And this at a time when film censorship was at its most rigidly institutionalized.”

What else from this film stood out as impressive or unexpected?

  • There is a variety of comic stylings at work, including slapstick, verbal wordplay, sight gags, and visual comedy, and social satire.
  • Actor William Demarest executes a lot of cringe-inducing pratfalls, without the use of a stunt double, even though he was 50 years old at this time.
  • This is a rare instance of a meta-movie in which characters from a previous film briefly crashed the party: in this case, the title character and “big boss” from Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty.
  • Impressively, the director shoots two long-form walking scenes in nearly uninterrupted takes.
  • The Sturges stock company of character actors is deep and memorable, including Porter Hall as the justice of the peace, Akim Tamirof as the boss, Alan Bridge as Mr. Johnson the lawyer, and many other familiar faces.

Other movies that share commonalities with The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

  • The 1958 remake Rock-a-Bye Baby starring Jerry Lewis
  • The Great McGinty, also directed (earlier) by Preston Sturges, which features characters that make cameos in this film
  • Knocked Up

Other films written and directed by Preston Sturges

  • The Great McGinty
  • The Lady Eve
  • Sullivan’s Travels
  • The Palm Beach Story
  • Hail the Conquering Hero
  • Christmas in July


Living (and dying) in the land down under

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Actor Mel Gibson was hot stuff by the mid-1980s. But few film fans are even aware that he starred in a number of Australian productions starting in the late 1970s, including Gallipoli (1981), an impressive outing by Australian New Wave director Peter Weir. Our CineVerse gang unpacked this coming-of-age/anti-war drama and found many merits (to hear a recording of our group discussion of this film, click here).

What stood out as noteworthy, impressive, or unanticipated about this film?

  • Only the third and final act concerns World War I; unlike so many other war films, the majority of this movie is a relationship study between two friends and their journey to get to the battlefield, with several exciting, humorous, and exotic experiences along the way. The final battle in the trenches actually only concerns the last 30 minutes or so of the picture, and the inevitable violence is only depicted in the final minutes.
  • This movie is more focused on the bromance that develops between two young athletes – Archy and Frank. This is more a story about friendship, camaraderie, and maturing into adulthood.
  • Interestingly, the movie’s first act plays as a sports film. Luke Buckmaster, film critic for The Guardian wrote: “For the first 25 minutes, Gallipoli is an archetypal sports movie, the protagonist establishing his skills in against-the-odds challenges (he outruns a man on a horse then wins a race with mangled feet).”
  • This features a very young and fresh-faced Mel Gibson in only his seventh film role – one that earned him an Australian Film Institute Award for Best Actor in a Lead Role.

Themes on display in Gallipoli

  • Loss of innocence.
  • Disillusionment – the young men quickly learn that war is not a game or fun adventure that represents the height of male experience; instead, it’s a brutal, tragic, and cruel endeavor in which men are treated as a disposable commodity.
  • Coming of age: the journey from boyhood to manhood. Recall how Uncle Jack reads from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling earlier in the film, describing how Mowgli must leave his family of wolves and assimilate into humankind.
  • The power of friendship.
  • The athlete as warrior, and the warrior as athlete.
  • Larrikinism. A larrikin is an Australian English term defined as "a mischievous young person, an uncultivated, rowdy but good-hearted person," or "a person who acts with apparent disregard for social or political conventions.”
  • Patriotic pride. “One of the reasons the Gallipoli landing is so significant to our nation’s history and national identity is that our innocence and ignorance drove us to rush into a situation we had no comprehension of,” wrote Australian blogger Daniel Lammin.

Other movies we think of after watching Gallipoli

  • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • Paths of Glory
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • Das Boot
  • Breaker Morant
  • The Lighthorsemen
  • Platoon
  • The Water Diviner
  • 1917

Other films directed by Peter Weir

  • Picnic at Hanging Rock
  • The Year of Living Dangerously
  • Witness
  • Dead Poet’s Society
  • The Truman Show
  • Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World


A symphony of violence and vice that still plays perfectly – 30 years later

Friday, September 25, 2020

Plenty of films made within the last three decades have been memorable, entertaining, and resonant. But few have been as influential as Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which first hit movie theaters 30 years ago this week. To better appreciate this magnum opus on mafiosos, we held it up to the CineVerse magnifying glass and made the following discoveries.

Why is this movie worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It still matters because it has so many elements that combine to make for a great viewing experience: fantastic performances by a top-notch cast, a riveting episodic narrative structure that is constantly moving, brilliant directorial and editing choices, a wonderful soundtrack of carefully curated popular music, meticulous attention to detail of each year depicted, and quickly shifting tonality that takes us on a roller coaster ride of emotions; one moment we're laughing at the exploits of Henry and his friends, and the next we’re shocked by sudden violence and brutality, later feeling somber and melancholy at the unexpected deaths of even small characters we’ve come to appreciate.
  • The movie’s infinitely quotable lines of dialogue have certainly helped it stand the test of time.
  • It still matters, too, because it manages to tell multiple stories exceedingly well. There are two voiceover narrations and two points of view: Henry’s and his wife Karen’s. There are also two tales woven into this picture: the first tale, which introduces us to Henry’s profession and the people in his life, told in a nostalgic way that romanticizes his good fortune and privileges; and the second tale, which arguably begins when Tommy shoots Spider dead, which could mark a turning point for the audience by showing the negative side of this lifestyle and its violence and inhumane repercussions.

In what ways was this film innovative or influential on cinema and popular culture?

  • While this movie didn’t invent or introduce any new techniques, it is noteworthy for containing an array of memorable shots and cinematic approaches that collectively make for an exceptionally creative endproduct.
    • The film opens with a flash-forward that is later repeated – a scene where Henry, Jimmy, and Tommy stop their car in the dead of night, open the trunk, and reveal a victim of their violent vocation.
    • It contains two extended and unbroken tracking shots where the camera follows Henry into two different clubs, with each of the sequences demonstrating Henry’s clout, entitlement, and accepted inclusion among an elite group. The second unbroken shot lasts an impressive 184 seconds.
    • When Henry testifies in court, he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience briefly; the last shot of the film also shows Tommy firing a pistol directly at the camera.
    • The camera seems to be regularly in movement throughout this story; complemented by smart and sometimes daring editing choices, Goodfellas feels like a frenetic car ride that never stops, which is fitting when you consider the opening credit sequence by Saul Bass that features words and names that quickly zoom by horizontally like speedy automobiles.
    • Martin Scorsese briefly apes Hitchcock in the diner scene where Henry agrees to meet Jimmy; we see a glimpse of the disorienting dolly zoom Vertigo effect.
    • Helping to immerse us into Henry’s world, the film features several memorable POV shots, including the gun in the face, the upside-down view of the lion’s den, and the two tour de force tracking shots into the clubs.
    • Curiously, there are several close-up shots of smaller objects – some are weapons, like guns, and others are shown as additional tools of the trade, including keys, restaurant checks, and doorbells. 
  • The list of works this picture has inspired is impressive: Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction; Donnie Brasco; Casino; The Usual Suspects; Boogie Nights; The Sopranos; American Hustle; Requiem for a Dream; 54; Blow; Lord of War; and Black Mass, just to name a handful.
  • The soundtrack, lacking a proper original score and instead featuring a smorgasbord of pop tunes from the 50s through the 70s – 43 in total, including classic crooning by the likes of Tony Bennett contrasted with the punk rock caterwauling of Sid Vicious – would certainly have left a strong impression on many filmmakers who, after seeing Goodfellas, adopted a similar approach.
    • Interestingly, Scorsese often doesn’t play the majority of a song – instead opting to use only a section or snippet from a tune to punctuate a particular scene, such as the instrumental second half of the song Layla, used ingeniously as the musical bedrock to the melancholy montage of dead bodies discovered following the Lufthansa heist, and Muddy Waters’ Mannish Boy, which we hear suddenly after Henry does a snort of cocaine.
    • The soundtrack is also chronologically accurate; as the years pass and the characters age, so do the songs, many of which would have been popular around the time of the particular scene depicted.
  • Goodfellas also demythologizes our expectations for a gangster film, stripping away the operatic baggage associated with mob heavyweight movies like The Godfather and instead focusing on the common foot soldier in the underworld and the highs and lows they experience.
  • The immersive look deep into the lives of these underlings and the realism embedded into these depicted stories, thanks to the fine attention to detail given to wardrobe, culinary preferences, manner of speech, and other markers of authenticity, paved the way for many filmmakers to follow.
  • Unlike so many previous gangster pictures, women characters are provided more screen time. The fact that Karen is given one of the two voiceover narrations tells you that the female perspective is important in this story.
  • The narrative is also very episodic and elliptical, abandoning a throughline plot and choosing instead to feature vignettes of the characters that paint a composite picture of their lifestyle and choices. The several years Henry spends in prison, for example, is glossed over; unlike gangster heist films like The Killing, the film doesn’t waste time showing us the actual Lufthansa heist or how it was executed; and the courtroom scene isn’t milked for all of its dramatic impact like it could’ve been.
  • In pointing to influences on Goodfellas that may have inspired it, consider It’s a Wonderful Life, which also has a voiceover narration and a freeze-frame moment; the French New Wave, including films like Jules and Jim, with its edgy and innovative jump cuts, freeze frames, and editing style; The Great Train Robbery, which has an outlaw pointing and shooting a gun directly at the camera as Tommy does at the very end of the film; Howard Hawks’ Scarface; Fellini’s I Vitelloni; Force of Evil; Point Blank; and Once Upon a Time in America.

What’s the moral of the story here? What themes or messages are explored in Goodfellas?

  • The seductive nature of power, money, violence, and ambition. Consider how Henry’s life of privilege completely unravels because he decides to sell drugs behind Paulie’s back. Also, think about how, for a good portion of the film, Henry is on a great winning streak, suggesting that crime pays. “The rewards of honor and privilege are at the heart of Goodfellas,” wrote Roger Ebert.
  • Fall from grace. Scorsese has said that Henry’s life was akin to walking amongst the gods, but then he is cast from Mount Olympus after committing hubris and defying Zeus – or, in this story, Paulie.
  • There is no honor among thieves. We see how Jimmy becomes paranoid and decides to whack everyone involved in the Lufthansa heist to cover his tracks. Henry is also reminded not to break the two cardinal rules of the mob: Never rat on your friends, and keep your mouth shut; by the end of the film, he has violated those two Commandments.
  • Loyalty and betrayal. Henry cheats on his wife and betrays Paulie and Jimmy. Tommy, who thinks he is about to be a made man, is betrayed by his crime family. And Jimmy betrays most of his partners in crime on the Lufthansa heist by having them killed.
  • We are a product of our environment. Goodfellas is a lesson in how your culture shapes your values and lifestyle – for better and worse.

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Gift #1 is that the film satiates like a cinematic bouillabaisse, with the combination of multiple quality ingredients creating a thoroughly satisfying and lip-smacking experience. There are so many ingeniously interwoven elements of excellence on display here – fascinating characters galore, ultra-credible dialogue, a kinetic camera, compelling voiceover narration, inspired visual and musical editing choices, engrossing episodes that play like mini-movies within the movie, period and occupational authenticity, an emphasis on fine small details that enhance the personalities, settings, and situations, and infectious passion for the subject matter.
  • Gift #2 is its credibility as a plausible cautionary tale. This movie feels real and honest, not just because it’s based on true life people and events that actually happened but because the talents involved aimed for veracity, emotional sincerity, and superior storytelling designed to enthrall from the first frame to the last. This film may not surpass The Godfather, but it belongs on the Mount Rushmore of mob movies and, unlike that picture, it’s not a work of fiction.
  • Gift #3 is the array of colorful characters who get indelibly etched into our pop-culture consciousness, from the major players like Tommy, Jimmy, Henry, Karen, and Paulie to the unforgettable bit players like Billy Batts, Spider, Maury, Frenchy, Tuddy, and Sonny. What’s amazing about Goodfellas is that everyone is so perfectly cast – even the thespians in the non-speaking roles who blend into the background have time-worn faces and idiosyncrasies that make this underworld universe so believable. Gift #4 is the astounding sequence near the end of the picture that details the day Henry is arrested, relayed in a cocaine-infused rush of pressure cooker paranoia in which musical extracts, quick jarring cuts, timeline-stamped shots, and unpredictable compositions in constant motion coalesce into an unforgettable montage of increasing dread and tense anticipation. Some think this is the finest 10 minutes of filmmaking that Scorsese has ever conjured up.


The itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the spout again

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

What you get when you mix two mammoth movie stars with director Mike Nichols in the mid-1980s? Acid indigestion doesn’t come to mind but Heartburn does, which is the vehicle that first paired Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson and tore the sorted lid off the real-life breakup between journalist Carl Bernstein and author/screenwriter Nora Ephron (portrayed, respectively, by Nicholson and Streep). We popped a collective Alka-Seltzer and took a closer look at this film in our CineVerse group discussion last week. Here are the highlights of our conversation. (To hear a recording of that group discussion, click here.)

In what ways was Heartburn surprising, unique, or satisfying?

  • This was the first of two Meryl Streep-Jack Nicholson pairings (the other being Ironweed), which makes for a notable cinematic experience considering their titanic statures and heavyweight cache.
  • Interestingly, one could argue, as Roger Ebert did in his review of this film, that Streep and Nicholson don’t have much chemistry, despite charming scenes like when Mark breaks out into song while chomping on pizza and Rachel expressing several times early in the film how happy she is. But the possible lack of chemistry is kind of the point: these two characters ultimately don’t harmonize, which contributes to the breakup.
  • The movie could be interpreted as more of a rom-com than a relationship drama; in fact, there are more comedic elements in this picture than many would expect, including two hilarious bits where the television seems to be talking to Rachel and commenting on her life and suspicions. Of course, the comedy is in keeping with Nichols’ style and reputation.
  • It’s surprising how Rachel takes Mark back so quickly, and without an apology from him for his philandering, after their first split. We see how needy and vulnerable she is, waiting desperately for Mark to phone her; but it isn’t until the end of the film we observe her true agency, when Rachel decides to humiliate Mark in front of their friends and walk out on him for good.
  • This film plays out as a kind of “scenes from a marriage,” with vignettes, brief set pieces, and fragments of their relationship on display, but not necessarily key moments – except for the births of their two children. In other words, it doesn’t cover every pivotal moment in their courting, marriage, reconciliation, or post-breakup. But it gives us enough snatches and milestone moments to make for a composite experience of their flawed relationship.
  • The roster of actors showcased here is deep, boasting even Kevin Spacey (in his first role) and Mercedes Ruhl in small parts. Consider the other talents on screen: Stockard Channing, Jeff Daniels, Maureen Stapleton, Catherine O’Hara, and even film director Milos Forman.
  • This was also a very personal movie for Streep, as she was pregnant with her second child (in her first trimester) during filming, and her real-life first child played the toddler Annie. In fact, the film casts three generations of the Streep and Gummer family: Mary Streep (mother of Meryl and grandmother to Mamie), Meryl Streep (daughter to Mary and mother to Mamie), and Mamie Gummer (daughter of Meryl and granddaughter to Mary). Plus, Meryl’s brother Dana also plays a tiny unspoken role.

Themes evident in Heartburn

  • Structural flaws that never get fixed. There is plenty of foreshadowing suggesting that Rachel and Mark’s marriage will be in jeopardy, due to his cheating as well as her suspicions and anxiety about Mark’s behavior. This is mirrored in the house they purchase and are continually upgrading – it seems to always have problems, including leaks, remodeling challenges, and unfinished areas. Ebert wrote: “… The joke is that the renovations to the house will last longer than their marriage.”
  • The difficulty in trusting a significant other. This is the second marriage for both Rachel and Mark, and she goes into it with trepidation, as evidenced by her nearly leaving Mark at the altar. Throughout the movie, the audience is reminded that the divorce rate is high, marriages involve compromises and often acquiescence, and infidelity is always a possibility.
  • The itsy-bitsy spider climbs up the spout again. Rachel demonstrates – twice – that she won’t tolerate cheating and lies and, despite the repercussions of raising children in divorce, has the will and agency to move on, start over, and reinvent her life.

Other films directed by Mike Nichols

  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
  • The Graduate
  • Carnal Knowledge
  • Silkwood
  • Working Girl


As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a podcaster

Sunday, September 20, 2020

For Cineversary podcast episode #27, host Erik Martin wears a wire and goes undercover with film critic Glenn Kenny, author of the new book Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, to uncover the secrets behind perhaps the greatest mob movie ever made, “Goodfellas,” directed by Martin Scorsese, which celebrates a 30th anniversary this month. Erik and Glenn explore why this film is worth commemorating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the picture today, how it has stood the test of time, and more.
Glenn Kenny

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