Blog Directory CineVerse: 2024

It's alright ma, I'm only bleeding (through the floor)

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

In 2017, Darren Aronofsky opened a disturbing Pandora’s box he called mother!, a psychological and surreal horror film that delves into the life of a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence), residing with her husband (Javier Bardem) in a rural and secluded mansion. Their peaceful existence takes a tumultuous turn when an enigmatic couple, embodied by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, unexpectedly enters their lives. As tensions mount and the intrusive behavior of the visitors escalates, the woman's once-serene life descends into chaos. Complementing the leads are memorable supporting performances from Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, and Kristen Wiig.

The movie's provocative and polarizing nature has further contributed to its enduring reputation. While some viewers admire its audaciousness and thematic complexity, others find it polarizing, viewing it as either pretentious or disturbing.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, click here.

Aronofsky employs intense visuals to instill a pervasive sense of unease and tension throughout the film. But it’s a hard work to take literally, often employing dream logic and fantastical imagery (like the supernatural visions the poet’s wife sees throughout the house). Instead, it plays better as an allegory or parable for some greater lesson. After all, it’s pretty doubtful the director would subject his audience to (SPOILER ALERT) a literal killing and cannibalistic eating of a newborn baby.

Among the clues that this is a nightmarish cinematic metaphor removed from the real world? Consider how blood can dissolve wood and stone, the wife’s ability to sense a diseased heart hidden in the home upon touching the walls, the ridiculous escalation of intruders, and how the crowd so quickly devolves into brutality and aberrant behavior. Interestingly, the characters are never named. Speaking of characters, the house itself qualifies as one, often exhibiting human traits like that obscured cardiac organ or the bleeding floor as well as the exaggerated sound effects that enhance the domicile’s aliveness. The unnerving sound design, in fact, substitutes for a proper musical score.

The filmmaking choices ramp up the tension and claustrophobic elements of the misc en scene, as noticed by critic Brian Tallerico: “Aronofsky shoots the film with a stunning degree of close-up. We are on top of Lawrence and Bardem for most of the film, which not only amplifies the claustrophobia but allows Aronofsky and Libatique to play with a limited perspective. We stay close on Mother, and can barely tell what’s happening behind her or to the sides. The lack of establishing shots keeps us off the game when it comes to a typical horror experience. We often spend horror films looking for answers—Who's the killer? Who's going to die? Who's going to live? "mother!" changes the genre rules. It thrives on horror of confusion, which is the main currency of the film.” BFI reviewer Nick Pinkerton observed: “Save for two bookending scenes, the narrative is entirely filtered through her eyes; she is very often tracked in moving, choreographed closeups which recall Aronofsky’s treatment of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler; and more than once the camera’s point-of-view is aligned intimately with her own, as when she looks down in the shower at the swell of her pregnant stomach.

Major themes afoot in mother! include, of course, the abuse and destruction of the planet. The film can serve as an effective allegory for, as Jennifer Lawrence stated, “the rape and torment of Mother Earth… I represent Mother Earth.”

Mankind’s yearning to connect to an often uncaring and absent creator deity is also explored herein, as personified by the unnamed poet, who frequently abandons his wife and leaves her vulnerable.

Additionally, the film plays as a biblical metaphor, representing the Old Testament and New Testament. Lawrence further said: “Javier, whose character is a poet, represents a form of God, a creator; Michelle Pfeiffer is in Eve to Ed Harris’s Adam, there’s Cain and Able, and the setting sometimes resembles the Garden of Eden.” The poet’s wife gives birth to a Christlike messiah, who is literally consumed by the spiritually ravenous throng in a communion-like ritual.

Matt Goldberg, writer with Collider, wrote: “The movie is about the relationship between God, Mother Earth, the environment, and humanity, with Aronofsky coming down on the side of humanity being a plague upon the Earth…When (Ed Harris is) puking in the bathroom, we quickly see an injury right where his rib would be. In the next scene, his wife, representing Eve, shows up. They’re allowed to wander the house but are told specifically not to go into the poet’s office, but they do so anyway and Eve accidentally breaks the fire crystal. They’re then exiled and soon begin having sex elsewhere in the house, thus representing original sin and man’s fall from grace after eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden…The wake then becomes a chaotic party where, after numerous protestations to not sit on an un-braced sink, the sink becomes unmoored from the wall and water pours into the house. Thus we have humanity’s downfall following the slaying of Abel and eventually the flood…the Earth and humanity will die and at best God will simply do everything all over again because he needs to create and desires love from his creations.”

Mother! reminds us, too, of the threat of a patriarchal-dominated society and male ambitions to women and families, who are frequently ignored, neglected, minimized, and abused. Case in point: The poet is a powerful and creative man but he takes his wife and other female partners for granted, demanding their love and adoration without reciprocating it equally. Furthermore, it’s a film about the dangers of religious fanaticism, the cult of personality, entrusting your faith in an imperfect human being or belief system, and social media—with the often rude, imposing, possessive, and outspoken home intruders symbolizing the nameless followers and comment critics who populate social media platforms, chatrooms, and comment fields.

This movie is also a rumination on the unbalanced relationship between a vampiric artist and his exploited muse, or how the artist often sucks dry the vitality of his inspiration. Critics have compared the poet to a kind of Bluebeard figure who cycles through one female muse victim after another. mother! has also been referred to as a “self-criticism” narrative in which the artist (Aronofsky) indicts himself and his self-indulgent creative instincts, illustrating the destructive nature of artistry and creativity. The poet has to “burn down” his inspirations and create a lot of waste to produce a relatively small but beautiful jewel. Ponder that Aronofsky was dating Lawrence at the time of this production.

Similar works

  • The Apartment trilogy by Polanski, including Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant
  • Allegorical thrillers like The Neon Demon, The House That Jack Built, The Babadook, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Don’t Look Up
  • Home invasion horrors like Funny Games and The Invitation
  • Suspiria (2018)
  • Antichrist
  • Possession

Other films by Darren Aronofsky

  • Requiem for a Dream
  • The Wrestler
  • Black Swan
  • Noah
  • The Whale
  • Postcard from Earth


Universal thumbs up for It Happened One Night

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

They don’t come much more timeless or beloved than It Happened One Night, directed by Frank Capra, produced by Harry Cohn for Columbia Pictures, and released in 1934—90 years ago this week. The film follows the escapades of Ellie Andrews, a wealthy socialite portrayed by Claudette Colbert, who flees from her domineering father to elope with a fortune-seeking playboy. Along her journey, she encounters Peter Warne, a recently fired newspaper journalist played by Clark Gable. Recognizing Ellie, Peter offers assistance in exchange for an exclusive story, leading to a mismatched duo embarking on a cross-country adventure filled with comedic mishaps and burgeoning affection.

Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, the film was crafted during a challenging era for Columbia Pictures, a minor studio competing with Hollywood giants like MGM and Paramount. Despite initial reluctance from Capra, who ultimately secured creative control, the production encountered obstacles including budget constraints and artistic disagreements. Nevertheless, It Happened One Night triumphed as both a critical and commercial success. The memorable performances of Colbert and Gable, coupled with their on-screen chemistry and impeccable comedic timing, solidified the film's enduring popularity.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, click here. For the latest Cineversary podcast episode celebrating It Happened One Night’s 90th anniversary, click here.

This picture remains evergreen for delving into topics such as class privilege, socioeconomic disparities, and the universal quest for happiness—messages that particularly struck a chord with audiences of this hardscrabble era. Its examination of these themes, presented with both levity and depth, imbued the film with substance and raised it above the rank of frivolous entertainment expected from a romantic comedy for 1934.

Ponder that this is likely the best comedy that Gable and Colbert, individually, have ever starred in and quite possibly their finest performances, as evidenced by the fact that It Happened One Night is the only film each ever won an acting Oscar for. Although it was already his 13th directed film in the sound era, It Happened One Night is also the feature that made the world take notice of Capra, his first in a successful run of crowd-pleasing movies that the filmmaker crafted in the 1930s for Columbia.

Moreover, the film is an important early benchmark in the screwball comedy subgenre. Three-Cornered Moon (1933), also starring Colbert, and Bombshell (1933) with Jean Harlow are often credited as the first screwball comedies, but this is the work that likely helped put screwballs on the map thanks to its superior quality compared to those earlier pictures, its immense popularity at the box-office in 1934, and its enduring legacy. It helped introduce several key characteristics of the screwball comedy, a subgenre known for:
  • Farcical stories and situations—where the film pokes fun at stereotypical characters, such as filthy rich fathers and spoiled rotten daughters (case in point: My Man Godfrey)
  • Themes highlighting the differences between upper and lower socioeconomic classes, with many of the settings taking place among the high society but involving a likable male love interest from the other side of the tracks (see Mr. Deeds Goes to Town)
  • A plot centered on courtship and marriage (The Philadelphia Story) or remarriage (The Awful Truth)
  • Often a strong-willed, determined, and sometimes tomboyish female lead, commonly depicted as stronger and even smarter than her male counterpart (Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Eve)
  • Fast pacing in the humor and repartee, direction, editing, and dialogue delivery (His Girl Friday)
  • Physical humor, including slapstick (Bringing Up Baby), pratfalls (The Lady Eve), and sight gags (To Be Or Not To Be), are often used to elicit major laughs and make dignified characters look ridiculous.
  • Quirky and colorful side characters also populate these stories, as evidenced by Shapely, Danker the singing thief, and the various motel owners in this film.
  • A story involving mistaken identity, misunderstanding, keeping of an important secret, occasionally involving cross-dressing or masquerading (Some Like it Hot and Bringing Up Baby)
  • A classic battle of the sexes between a man and a woman, with the male lead’s masculinity often challenged by a strong female love interest (The Awful Truth)
  • Colorful supporting characters with quirky personalities.
It Happened One Night helped advance several of these elements in the subgenre, such as silly characters, eccentric scenarios, and a comedic battle of the sexes theme. Its seamless fusion of humor and romance, as well as its contrast between the haves and the have-nots, established a blueprint that numerous films would emulate in subsequent years, including My Man Godfrey, Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story, and many others. Film scholar Molly Haskell remarked: “Films before (It Happened One Night), the romantic comedies, they really hadn’t been silly…here, (the leads) could be silly and also be incredibly romantic.”

This isn’t a wall-to-wall screwball, but certain scenes and situations employ the zaniness and physical chaos endemic of classic screwballs, such as when Peter and Ellie pretend they're married in front of the detectives, when he gives her the “piggyback” ride, and the hitchhiking sequence.

Aside from being a screwball influence, It Happened One Night made history by becoming the inaugural film to secure victories in all five primary categories at the Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Frank Capra), Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Riskin). This marked a significant milestone in Oscar history, establishing the film as a trailblazer in the annals of cinema. Consider that after It Happened One Night, only two other films have won all five of these major awards: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

Furthermore, it’s been recognized as among the first Hollywood films to portray a wealthy character undergoing a dramatic reversal of fortune and being romantically involved with an individual from a lower socioeconomic background. This narrative decision allowed the movie to delve into themes of class and privilege in a manner that was innovative for a film set in and released during the Great Depression.

Additionally, It Happened One Night set new standards and expectations for on-screen romantic relationships. The palpable chemistry between Gable and  Colbert elevated the film beyond conventional romantic comedies. Their natural banter and flirtatious exchanges set a precedent for on-screen chemistry that would influence numerous romantic films to come. “It Happened One Night has had an immeasurable effect on the romantic comedy genre, which has paid homage to and spoofed Capra’s picture countless times,” Deep Focus Review essayist Brian Eggert wrote. “Whenever a character uses their sex appeal to stop a passing car, whenever a sheet separates a room, whenever life on the road provides a life-altering experience, whenever a bride changes her mind at the last minute, and whenever two bickering adults fall in love, It Happened One Night is among the influences.”

Capra’s work was groundbreaking for its realistic portrayal of downtrodden settings, which was rare for Hollywood films of that time. Scenes depicting dirty country roads, bus stations, outdoor shows, and a run-down countryside, along with characters eating raw carrots and meager breakfasts, offered a stark contrast to the glamorous escapism typically associated with Hollywood productions.

The movie left a lasting cultural imprint, shaping not just future romcoms and screwballs but also popular characters and trends. Recall that Gable eats a carrot and is called “Doc” by Shapely, the rider on the bus, who is later frightened by the mention of a personality named “Bugs Dooley”: This movie is credited with inspiring animator Friz Freling in the creation of cartoon character Bugs Bunny. Additionally, rumor has it that sales of men’s undershirts tanked after Gable was shown taking off his shirt to reveal a bare chest; the film may have also popularized hitchhiking.

As proof of how beloved this film and its narrative was and is, consider the numerous remakes in its wake: Even Knew Her Apples (1945); You Can’t Run Away From It (1956); and several adaptations made in India between 1956 and 2007. It’s been spoofed and referenced, as well, in movies like Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West (1937), Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs (1987), and Bandits (2001).

This pre-code film was provocative in its time, too. For instance, the "Walls of Jericho" scenes were considered risqué in 1934 for their suggestion of an unmarried man and woman sleeping in the same room together, for Gable taking off his shirt, and for Cobert wearing a revealing undergarment. In her Criterion Collection essay, Farran Smith Nehme wrote: “What takes this setup from the cute to the ravishing is what happens when the lights are shut off and the full beauty of Joseph Walker’s cinematography takes hold. The rain outside makes the windows sparkle, and the light from them outlines Colbert’s form as she stands there in her slip, trying to calm her nerves. It’s a shot that, at the time, could have revealed more of Colbert’s state of undress, and indeed that’s how Capra had planned it. But Colbert objected, and Capra later said the scene was sexier in the near dark. It Happened One Night made the sexual longing unmistakable, but did it in a way that showed future filmmakers how to stay on the right side of the censors.”

Also, the film includes numerous instances of sexual suggestiveness, such as Colbert showing off her legs and fellow bus rider Shapely’s lines like “When a cold mama gets hot, boy, she sizzles,” and “Shapley’s the name and that’s how I like ’em.” Eggert continued: “Ellie…has a voracious appetite. Literary and early Hollywood symbolism often treated hunger as a shorthand analogy for sexual appetite, and It Happened One Night features no end of references to food and hunger…Coming from the vacuous high society, she finds herself drawn to Peter in all his earthiness—epitomized by his fondness for that most phallic of vegetable roots, the raw carrot. When, out of desperate hunger, Ellie resolves to try a bite, she realizes that raw carrots aren’t so bad, after all.”

Amazingly, we never even see Peter and Ellie kiss, nor does Capra give us a payoff romantic embrace at the conclusion—merely a clever shot of the Wall of Jericho blanket tumbling down, a cinematically potent suggestive image.

Capra's films often explore populist values and depict the struggle of the everyday common man against the machinery of politics, commerce, and corruption. They frequently portray rugged individualism as a myth or fairy tale created to maintain the illusion of democracy, as seen in works like Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Capra's characters are often conflicted by alternating realities, exemplified by George Bailey's internal struggle in It's a Wonderful Life as he grapples with his desires for personal fulfillment and societal responsibilities. Strong and charismatic female leads are also a hallmark of Capra's films, with actresses like Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck, and Claudette Colbert taking on memorable roles in movies such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe, and It Happened One Night.

Several of Capra’s scenes in the film serve as poignant reminders of the Great Depression setting. For instance, the scene where bus passengers engage in a spontaneous singalong symbolizes a moment of hope and unity amidst adversity, allowing them to momentarily forget their personal struggles and come together as a community. Additionally, the sequence where characters selflessly give their last dollars to a hungry woman and child highlights the widespread economic hardship faced by many during this era. Furthermore, the scene where Ellie impulsively dumps a perfectly good meal on the floor reflects a sense of hubris and extravagance that contrasts starkly with the prevailing economic conditions of the Great Depression. We also observe Peter gesturing friendly waves to drifters riding the rails.

Indeed, class disparities are front and center in It Happened One Night. At the heart of the film lies the juxtaposition between Ellie, an affluent, sheltered heiress, and Peter, a rugged reporter. Their interactions serve as a lens through which the movie delves into societal class distinctions, challenging preconceived notions linked to affluence and privilege. This is also a narrative about the battle between two Kings: King Wesley and Peter, who is nicknamed “King” by his fellow inebriated reporters in the scene when he is introduced. The former is a King whose class, fame, wealth, and privilege make him a fitting suitor to an heiress, while the latter is a king with a lowercase "k" who, despite his lower socioeconomic status, rules Ellie’s heart.

Other themes explored include self-reliance, autonomy, self-discovery, and the importance of thinking for oneself and pursuing one's true passions. Ellie and Peter each pursue independence and freedom in distinct manners. Ellie flees from her domineering father to pursue her marital desires, while Peter, a tenacious and self-reliant journalist, seeks autonomy through his career. Their joint odyssey facilitates a deeper understanding of their individual aspirations and desires. Ellie and Peter both undergo significant personal growth and exploration throughout the narrative. Ellie learns to assert her independence and agency, while Peter cultivates empathy and compassion. Their collaborative journey serves as a catalyst for uncovering pivotal truths about themselves and their intrinsic values.

Recall how Peter lectures Ellie on how to properly dunk a donut, ride piggyback, and hitchhike. This becomes a running gag in which Peter asserts his assumed authority on these subjects until the student becomes the teacher in the hitchhiking sequence, which demonstrates that, like her, he’s learning important lessons in this journey—including the lesson that Ellie isn’t the dizzy dame or helpless brat that he imagines her to be.

This is certainly a “money can’t buy you love” tale. The film espouses that wealth and material possessions are insufficient for securing love or happiness, highlighting the significance of true affection and mutual respect. The movie conveys a message that love can serve as a great equalizer among different classes, suggesting that interpersonal relationships have the potential to transcend socioeconomic barriers. 

However, this message may be diluted when tracing the trajectory of Ellie's character arc, which ultimately challenges the notion of female empowerment and independence. While initially depicted as a strong-willed and intelligent woman resistant to patriarchal control, Ellie's reliance on Peter for protection and eventual acceptance of her father's wishes arguably undermine her agency and autonomy. Moreover, her ignorance regarding financial matters and her inability to fend for herself highlight the constraints imposed on her by societal expectations and gender norms. Thus, while the film may celebrate the spirit of the common man in certain respects, it reinforces traditional gender roles and power dynamics for the time.

Per Slant Magazine critic Chris Cabin: “If the film ultimately idealizes the morals of the middle class in terms of usable intellect and responsibility, the narrative builds off the friction between entitlement and self-reliance, both between the two leads and within Ellie. The filmmakers all but underline this early on when Warne’s colleagues christen him “King,” just like Ellie’s other suitor—one given as a sign of a family’s wealth and heritage, the other gifted by the common man for an act of careless, bemused defiance.”

It Happened One Night has a few greatest gifts it continues to bestow with every rewatch. First is its ability to make us believe in the spontaneity of love and how it can happen unexpectedly. Gift #2 is its reinforcement of the often implausible notion that opposites can attract. And gift #3 is its remarkable power to increasingly care about and root for two characters who often aren’t very likable or relatable—especially 90 years later when the dated gender politics and patriarchal values of this film can uncomfortably stand out.


The power of persuasion

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Fair warning: The 2014 film Diplomacy, a French historical drama helmed by director Volker Schlöndorff and adapted from Cyril Gély's play of the same title, is one of those “based loosely on historical events” dramatizations that can infuriate scholars and historians. Nevertheless, even if it fudges the facts, it’s a compelling drama that unfolds against the backdrop of Nazi-occupied Paris in 1944, chronicling the efforts of Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling, portrayed by André Dussollier, to dissuade General Dietrich von Choltitz—the German military governor of Paris, played by Niels Arestrup—from executing Adolf Hitler's directive to annihilate Paris before the Allies' arrival.

Dussollier and Arestrup deliver arresting performances, infusing their characters with depth and authenticity, while Schlöndorff's direction and the film's cinematography capture the tension and complexities of the narrative, effectively portraying the intricate negotiations and ethical dilemmas faced by the protagonists.

To hear a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this movie, conducted earlier this month, click here.

What’s interesting about Diplomacy is that it’s an antiwar movie stripped to bare essentials, featuring only two main characters, filmed primarily in a single room, depicting very little actual combat and not featuring any personalities from or scenes involving the other warring side. This is the rare war film less about action than about words. In their essay for, George Lellis and Hans-Bernhard Moeller wrote: “It is easy to dramatize war, but much harder to dramatize peace. In Diplomatie, Gély and Schlöndorff have pulled off the trick of making anti-war works because they have provided a largely non-violent resolution to the conflict at hand. The superiority of the choice of non-violence over destruction is reinforced by a closing caption that tells us that Choltitz’s wife and children went unharmed, putting to rest Choltitz’s fears that if he disobeyed orders his family would be killed… Diplomacy thus deemphasizes spectacle in favor of talk, drawing one’s attention to the subtleties of dialogue and performance.”

Interestingly, the filmmakers use archival black-and-white footage of, first, the destruction of Warsaw to quickly demonstrate how ruthless and mighty the Nazis are at destroying a city, and second the encroachment of the Allies into Paris and the street combat involving the French resistance, to lend the film a sheen of verisimilitude.

Although the outcome is anticlimactic, considering that we know Paris wasn’t decimated, Schlöndorff and company effectively tighten the knot and create riveting suspense toward the conclusion as we await the general’s decision and observe the fictional close call among the soldiers preparing to detonate the explosives. Nordling and Choltitz go toe-to-toe with intriguing contentions for why the city should be spared or not, with the diplomat increasingly serving as the general’s conscience as the film progresses and penetrating the Nazi commander’s thick armor of resolve and self-imposed ethical immunity. By administering Choltitz’s medicine in time—therefore resisting the urge to let him die—and by responding “I don’t know” when the general asks him what he would do in his place, Nordling earns his trust, respect, and convincible ear.

Indeed, Diplomacy serves as a memorable lesson on empathy, or putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. When Choltitz asks Nordling what he would do in his place, he’s posing the question to the audience, too. While it’s easy to argue logically that saving over a million French lives would outweigh saving your wife and children, the reality is that, if the decision were up to you it might not be so easy to make.

The moral conflict at the heart of the tale is palpable: If you are sworn to obey orders and do what’s best for your soldiers and your country, should you disobey those orders if they come from a leader you no longer trust and from a motive of senseless violence and brutality?

Here, we also have a classic battle of wills. This story pits one man—a neutral diplomat with cunning and persuadable powers—against a grizzled military leader who holds the fate of a major city and future postwar world order in his hands. The stakes are incredibly high, and both men prove that they can cogently rationalize their arguments and weigh the pros and cons of the impending decision. Although the general appears unyielding and determined earlier in the film, we see cracks emerge in his stony façade as well as physical and moral vulnerability.

Diplomacy further posits that the fate of nations and the outcome of major historical events often hinge on the mere choice of one flawed human being. Although this 11th-hour meeting between Choltitz and Nordling is a dramatic fabrication, it demonstrates how the decision one person can make in human history can be incredibly impactful. Director Volker Schlondorff said in an interview: “War places men in extreme situations and brings out the best and worst in humanity. These days a conflict between France and Germany is so unthinkable that I found it interesting to recall the past relationships between our two countries. If, God forbid, Paris had been razed, I doubt that the Franco-German bond would have formed or that Europe would have pulled through.”

This film also shows how words can sometimes be more powerful than weapons, and how healthy human dialogue and well-timed, carefully articulated arguments can defuse even the most volatile of situations. “The movie presents an argument between civilization and barbarism, between the pleasure principle and the death instinct,” wrote New Yorker critic David Denby. “But the filmmakers mostly avoid high-flown rhetoric in favor of the intensely practical give-and-take of negotiation. Schlöndorff…makes a case that diplomacy can solve the most intricately knotted problems.”

Similar works

  • Is Paris Burning
  • The Devil’s General
  • Winterspelt
  • Frost/Nixon
  • Downfall
  • Conspiracy
  • Thirteen Days
  • Shake Hands With the Devil
  • Fail Safe
  • 12 Angry Men
  • Secret Honor
  • Missing
  • Films with narratives restricted by limited locations, like Rope, Rear Window, and Sleuth

Other films by Volker Schlondorff

  • The Tin Drum
  • Death of a Salesman (TV)
  • Enigma (TV)


Cineversary podcast sends valentine to It Happened One Night for its 90th birthday

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Joseph McBride
In Cineversary podcast episode #67, host Erik Martin and guest Joseph McBride, a film professor at San Francisco State University and author of Frankly: Unmasking Frank Capra, send a valentine to It Happened One Night, directed by Frank Capra, which celebrates a 90th birthday this month. Erik and Joseph hitchhike across Hollywood history to examine how this granddaddy of the romcom and screwball comedy remains a classic, its influence on later films, what it reveals about Capra, and much 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 Cineversary wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Audible, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

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


Talking Reds

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Released in 1981, Reds is one of those “they don’t make ’em like that anymore” historical epics popularized in the 1950s and 1960s. Directed and co-written by Warren Beatty and featuring a star-studded cast including Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Edward Herrmann, Maureen Stapleton, and others, the film tells of the life and endeavors of John Reed—a journalist, activist, and author renowned for documenting the Russian Revolution in his seminal book Ten Days That Shook the World. The narrative follows Reed's radical journalistic pursuits and his immersion into socialist politics, culminating in his voyage to Russia to witness and report on the October Revolution of 1917, and delves into Reed's intimate relationship with fellow activist Louise Bryant, portrayed by Diane Keaton. Spanning several years in the early 20th Century and encapsulating significant historical events, Reds stands as a sprawling drama renowned for its grand scope and ambitious storytelling. The movie earned Beatty considerable accolades, including an Academy Award for Best Director.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, click here.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Reds is the fact that it was made at all, especially at a time when Reagan had come to power, the Soviet Union was still America’s bitter enemy, and Hollywood was dubious about funding bloated and costly passion projects epics like Heaven’s Gate and Apocalypse Now. Beatty’s considerable clout and unswerving belief in this film are primarily responsible for how it came to be made. Consider that Reds is one of the last movies with an intermission, and one of the last of the big-budget, three-hour-plus epics of the previous century, a type of movie that had gone out of fashion years earlier.

It’s also a genre mashup: a romance, a biopic, a period piece, and even a documentary thanks to its inclusion of “witnesses”—real-life talking heads who serve as a kind of Greek chorus, offering commentary on the characters and providing contextual counterpoints to the dramatizations we see. It’s been credited, in fact, as one of the best modern docudramas for this reason.

Beatty’s directorial choices are interesting: He weaves in the testimonies of these witnesses throughout the film, having them serve almost as introducers of new chapters within the narrative; yet, he never names them. Beatty also has a penchant for abruptly cutting away from a shot or scene, often refusing to provide closure to a particular sequence—such as when Reed runs from the train away from enemy fire. And rather than provide a soup-to-nuts account of Reed’s major life highlights, we are often given snapshots and brief snatches of an event, speech, or occurrence.

The film is divided into two sections, cleaved by the intermission. Part one plays more like a honeymoon and often ecstatic romantic and political coupling of characters, ending with exhilaration—for Reed and Bryant—of the Russian Revolution. Part two depicts trouble in paradise, as we witness arguments between Reed and Bryant and Reed and his fellow socialists, and observe the fraying of the optimism and idealism of Reed and other true believers who learn the hard way that communism has consequences.

Fortunately, Beatty navigates these controversial political waters deftly, being careful not to over-romanticize the allure of socialism/communism, presenting its promises and pitfalls in fairly equal measure. He embodies Reed as a flawed human being, as well.

At its core, Reds is a study of a personal relationship under pressure, and therefore, is regarded by many as more of a love story than a historical/political drama. Fascinatingly, Beatty and Keaton were a romantic couple during this production, and the filming put a major strain on their relationship.

That element of private tension, manifested in the performances, speaks to one of the film’s key themes: the toll a public/professional life takes on your private affairs. Reds is also about the risks and rewards of passionate idealism and commitment to a political cause. This biopic of Reed depicts his spirited support of communism and the lengths to which he was willing to advance it, ultimately dying young as a consequence of his tireless work ethic.

Perhaps most importantly, Reds is a treatise on how love grows and matures with time. Reed and Bryant’s on-again/off-again romance and eventual marriage are continually tested, but their unshakable love and bonds of affection prove stronger as the story proceeds to its climax. Even though Bryant has an affair with playwright Eugene O’Neill, she returns to Reed and stays faithful to him following the end of the tryst.

Reds espouses a carpe diem manifesto, as well, stressing the importance of seizing the moment and recognizing a seismic but fleeting event in history that you can be a part of by acting quickly, decisively, and intrepidly.

Reds also stands as a cautionary tale about disillusionment and the consequences of overinvesting in an unproven system of beliefs and unvetted political cause. Emma Goldman, Louise Bryant, and, to a lesser extent diehard believer Reed eventually realize that the idealistic Bolshevik revolution in Russia and its high aims have been co-opted by a relatively small group of soulless communist bureaucrats who defend their denial of human rights as good for the party. Goldman says: “Anyone even vaguely suspected of being a counter-revolutionary can be taken out and shot without a trial. Where does that end? Is any nightmare justifiable in the name of defense against counter-revolution? Nothing works. Four million people died last year. Not from fighting a war. They died from starvation and typhus in a militaristic police state that suppresses freedom and human rights.” Reed responds: “It’s not happening the way we thought it would.” 

Similar works

  • Historical epics like Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Gone With the Wind, Gandhi, and The Last Emperor
  • Controversial big-budget Hollywood risks like Heaven’s Gate and Apocalypse Now
  • Films about journalists or writers covering wars, revolutions, and social upheavals like The Year of Living Dangerously, The Killing Fields, Salvador, and Hemingway & Gellhorn

Other films directed by Warren Beatty

  • Heaven Can Wait (co-directed)
  • Dick Tracy
  • Bulworth
  • Rules Don’t Apply


Child is mother to the woman

Friday, February 2, 2024

Céline Sciamma, acclaimed director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, followed up that critical darling with another standout French work, Petite Maman (2021), which means “little mom.” Starring wonderfully precocious twin sister actresses, the movie has received acclaim for its emotional richness, subtle storytelling, and examination of intricate themes. Sciamma's skilled direction, along with compelling performances and a heartfelt narrative, has earned it kudos as a memorable cinematic text that connects with audiences through its genuine and poignant depiction of relationships.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week.

Among the distinctive, memorable, and surprising facets of Petite Maman is the fact that this could very well be a science fiction film. It’s easy to assume that eight-year-old Nelly is a lonely but intensely creative and imaginative kid who fantasizes these encounters with her mother, who has suddenly appeared as a playmate of the same age. But consider that we see her father interact with and acknowledge young Marion, and he allows Nelly to stay one more day at the house after agreeing to let the girls enjoy a sleepover. Also, recall that young Marion tells Nelly “I’m already thinking about you”; at the film’s conclusion, Nelly and Marion call each other by their real names and there seems to be an innate understanding by the characters, and the audience, that adult Marion has been positively affected by Nelly’s time travel experience.

The casual but direct way that the filmmakers suddenly introduce the notion of time travel and fantasy, without explaining how or why it’s happening, is remarkable. Without exposition, we and Nelly are unexpectedly thrust into the past, and visual cues—like the grandmother’s wallpaper and bathroom tile—inform us, without fanfare, that a magically impossible journey is occurring.

Regardless of how fantastically you interpret the story, this is one of the best family films and movies about childhood released in the 21st Century, a work that can appeal to any age but that can prove particularly relevant to adults who need to be reminded of the wonders and mysteries of childhood and what we can learn from our youthful pasts. “(Petite Maman) immerses us into the world of childhood where magic and dreams and the impossible are all still possible, before the world has beaten it out of us. It evokes the ethos of Supertramp’s 1979 “The Logical Song,” which is all about how the world doesn’t just expect, but demands that everything that is wonderful about childhood be left behind in favor of rigor and logic…(it) celebrates that space where everything is still wonderful, a miracle, beautiful, and magical,” said critic James Kendrick.

Fortunately, Sciamma isn’t sentimentally coercive. The picture doesn’t constantly shift into heartstrings overdrive mode by slathering on mawkish moments or excessively tender scenes designed to make our eyes moist. There isn’t even a score. “Petite Maman is full of scenes…that aim for a casual nonchalance that allows the viewer to absorb them without a telegraphed emotion,” reviewer Odie Henderson wrote. “It allows you to fill in the blanks.”

Consider how Petite Maman is similarly structured to Sciamma’s earlier Portrait of a Lady on Fire. NPR critic Justin Chang astutely observed that, “In both films, two female characters are granted a brief, even utopian retreat from the outside world and something mysterious and beautiful transpires.”

There are also hints that this is a narrative about nonconforming gender expression in a child. Remember that Nelly knows the location of her grandmother’s hidden closet, a word that carries all manner of connotations today, and that she asks her grandmother for help tying her necktie, an article of clothing normally associated with males.

“Child is father to the man,” poet William Wordsmith wrote, or in this case “mother to the woman.” Petite Maman demonstrates how our personality is significantly shaped by the behaviors and activities during our childhood, but it also suggests that we can live better as adults by remembering the truths we learned as kids.

Moreso than any other film in recent memory, this work explores how temporal perceptions change as we age. As children, time seems to crawl, but we also have more time to explore the world and our own imaginations. As adults, time goes by increasingly faster and we are continually reminded of the inevitability of death when our parents pass and our own mortality when our offspring mature. Petite Maman reminds us to slow down and recall periods in our youth when we were afforded the luxury of extra time—not only to dream and play but to sort and comprehend a gigantic world that shrinks with advancing years.

The filmmakers are also nudging us to trust our offspring and our own inner child. By reconnecting with our past younger selves and cherishing our formative memories, we can learn to better cope with the stress and challenges of adulthood. Additionally, Petite Maman encourages us to form stronger bonds of affection, understanding, and respect with our sons and daughters, especially when they are young, tender, and impressionable, and to remember that nurturing can go both ways in a healthy parent-child relationship: Ponder how Nelly feeds her mother and hugs her from behind in the car. “Petite maman races us into the future that is the “path behind” us, an ancestral reminder to do, together, what makes us feel happy; to say goodbye to the straight time that commands us to abandon childhood. To see it again,” Criterion Collection essayist So Mayer wrote.

Perhaps most importantly, this film is a portrait of grief and how a child tries to cope with the loss of a loved one. Nelly feels guilty for not properly saying goodbye to her now-deceased grandmother. But by traveling back in time, or fantasizing, she can both reconnect with her grandmother and forge a deeper, more lasting rapport with her mother.

Similar works

  • Curse of the Cat People
  • The Five Devils
  • The Quiet Girl
  • Ponette
  • The Florida Project
  • My Neighbor Totoro
  • A Little Princess
  • The Red Balloon
  • Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
  • The Spirit of the Beehive
  • Pan’s Labyrinth
  • Where the Wild Things Are

Other films by Céline Sciamma

  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire
  • Girlhood
  • Tomboy
  • Water Lilies


A gem of a jailbreak flick

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Released in 1963, The Great Escape abides as a timeless war film directed by John Sturges and produced by United Artists. Centered around a group of Allied prisoners of war during World War II, the film depicts their daring escape plan from a German POW camp, based on the actual mass escape from Stalag Luft III in 1944. Boasting a cast of renowned actors such as Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, and others, the picture is renowned for its iconic scenes, notably Steve McQueen's motorcycle chase, etching itself as one of the most memorable action sequences in cinematic history. The Great Escape also resonates with viewers worldwide thanks to its evergreen themes of resilience, determination, and camaraderie among the prisoners.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here.

The Great Escape offers an interesting compare and contrast from other war films, prison movies, and POW dramatizations. Many such works emphasize more explosive action, macho bravado, and impressive set pieces, as evidenced in The Guns of Navarone, Von Ryan’s Express, The Dirty Dozen, and Kelly’s Heroes. The Great Escape is arguably a more entertaining and emotional outing. For proof, consider how the filmmakers use sentiment, suspense, intrigue, tragedy, and light comedy to take our feelings on a roller coaster ride.

Criterion Collection essayist Sheila O’Malley touched on this approach: “The film is about a serious subject, told without self-seriousness. Because of this, it doesn’t date at all. It’s an ode to ingenuity and cooperation. Sturges was not at all a member of the counterculture, but The Great Escape’s spirit is pure up-yours antiestablishment, making it a forerunner of M*A*S*H, to Kelly’s Heroes, to The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, to all the deconstructing, demythologizing war films to come.”

Moreover, The Great Escape is, along with several of these comparative films, a fantastic ensemble piece with colorful and arresting characters and action-oriented actors popular in their day among male audiences. Interestingly, although he is top-billed, McQueen is on screen for a relatively small amount of time (mostly in the second half), which signifies that this is more of a group effort by the actors. Still, this is probably the best movie and role of McQueen’s career. 

“The Great Escape popularized the prison movie trope of an ensemble defined by emblematic handles. James Garner’s resourceful American who can acquire any number of forbidden goods goes by 'The Scrounger.' Donald Pleasance is 'The Forger,' despite his increasing blindness. Bronson’s claustrophobic digger is called 'Tunnel King'…The list goes on,” wrote Deep Focus Review critic Brian Eggert.

This is less a picture about “the madness of war,” like Bridge on the River Kwai, than an inspirational somewhat true account of collective sacrifice. Kwai is also more of a battle of wills tale pitting one commanding officer—Alec Guinness—against his enemy counterpart. Additionally, in this story, the POWs are all honorable, trustworthy men; in Stalag 17, a major subplot is the presence of a mole/secret agent among the prisoners.

Some, like DVD Savant Glenn Erickson, posit that this is more of a caper/heist movie than a war film or prison escape picture. “The schemes, dodges, and con games used by the prisoners to carry out a huge tunneling operation are a caper far more elaborate than a bank job. They're also entertaining, funny, and credible,” Erickson wrote.

Although this is set during World War II and the Nazis are the easy-to-root-against antagonists, this is a war film that doesn’t give equal voice to their characters, nor does it mention or hint at the Holocaust. Yet we are reminded of their capacity for despicable acts, especially the cold-blooded massacring of the rounded-up prisoners on the hillside.

The value of teamwork, orchestrated collaboration, and group planning is a prime payoff message imbued herein. The Great Escape shows that solidarity among a group of individuals who accept pre-defined roles and responsibilities can create more successful and efficient outcomes. By assigning jobs to people based on skill and experience, following a chain of command, and maintaining discipline and self-control, even the most insurmountable of obstacles can be cleared.

This is also a movie that preaches the perks of turning lemons into lemonade. The resourcefulness and creativity of these men help them conquer one challenge after another, which proves that out-of-the-box thinking, improvisational skills, and on-the-spot ingenuity can make a huge difference in desperate situations.

The Great Escape certainly serves as a powerful grace under pressure narrative. Time and again, these prisoners of war must pivot, recalibrate, or start anew in their shared task of escaping and be willing to quickly adapt to changing conditions without panicking or quitting.

Arguably, the most important moral to the story is shared sacrifice. While Bartlett aims to get as many prisoners out of the camp as possible, his minimum objective is to complicate matters for the Third Reich by forcing Germany to devote men and resources to guard these highly elusive prisoners and capture any escapees. The men know that, even if they successfully escape the camp they may not be coming back alive, and many altruistically agree to help without any guarantee of escaping at all. The fact that they made a film about an incredibly impressive mass escape by 76 prisoners, but only three of them evaded capture or death, tells us that this is a narrative more about sacrifice and selflessness than man’s inherent need for freedom. Case in point: Recall the dialogue exchange at the conclusion. Hendley: “Do you think it was worth the price?” Ramsey: “Depends on your point of view, Hendley.” 

“The Great Escape cleverly turns a defeat into a tale of victory,” Erickson continued. “No matter how it's made to look, the bottom line of the mass escape is (that)…a lot of rebellious defiance mostly gets a lot of good men killed…we celebrate the protagonists as they dare to defy their German captors…We aren't bothered by the fact that their efforts had little effect on the war proper. But the trial-by-escape with its risk and sacrifice was a personal challenge for men otherwise unable to fight: civilized defiance.”

Reflect on how the German and English officers within the camp treat each other with basic dignity and respect even though the POWs are routinely defiant and will do everything in their power to break out. This dynamic of maintaining quiet mutual respect and abiding by an unspoken code of honor is a noteworthy facet of the film.

Alas, every person has his breaking point. We witness the stir-crazy Ives, desperate to escape, suffer an early demise. Even Danny, the toughest prisoner, suffers from severe claustrophobia and anxiety that can derail his hopes of escape; fortunately, he rises to the challenge and becomes one of only three POWs to flee and survive.

Similar works

  • Stalag 17
  • Grand Illusion
  • Bridge on the River Kwai
  • Von Ryan’s Express
  • The Guns of Navarone
  • Army of Shadows
  • Papillon
  • Soldier of Orange
  • Hart’s War
  • Escape From Sobibor
  • Films with a cast of assembled expert characters, including The Magnificent Seven, Oceans Eleven, Kelly’s Heroes, and The Expendables
  • Chicken Run, a CGI-animated remake of sorts

Other films by John Sturges

  • The Magnificent Seven
  • Bad Day at Black Rock
  • Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
  • Joe Kidd


Cineversary podcast celebrates 60th birthday of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Rodney Hill and Kenneth Turan
In Cineversary podcast episode #66, host Erik Martin heads to the War Room with former LA Times and NPR film critic Kenneth Turan and Hofstra University film professor Rodney Hill to decipher the top secret codes behind Dr. Strangelove, directed by Stanley Kubrick, in celebration of the movie’s 60th anniversary. Erik and his guests explore how this black comedy masterwork remains evergreen, Kubrick’s brilliant directing choices, and key themes underpinning this supreme political satire. Erik also chats briefly with Tom Lucas from Fathom Events, who unveils Fathom’s 2024 lineup of Big Screen Classics returning to theaters this year.

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 Cineversary wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Audible, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

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


Director Todd Haynes proved his mettle with Poison 33 years ago

Monday, January 15, 2024

In 1991, acclaimed gay filmmaker Todd Haynes garnered significant attention for his feature film debut Poison, an experimental drama written and directed by Haynes that stands out for its unconventional narrative structure, intertwining three distinct stories that delve into themes of desire, identity, and societal norms. The movie surprisingly won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival but quickly became culture war grist for right-wing detractors like Senator Jess Helms and Rev. Donald Wildmon, who criticized the film, which was partially funded via government grants, for being pornographic and homoerotic.

Indeed, the picture sparked considerable controversy and garnered both negative and positive attention due to its explicit content, unorthodox style, and thematic exploration, and quickly came to be regarded as an important work. The movie is credited with influencing other independent filmmakers, helping to launch the New Queer Cinema movement of the early 1990s, and inspiring other gay artists. This movement aimed to present LGBTQ+ narratives in ways that challenged conventional norms and departed from mainstream representations.

Poison also served as the launching pad for a talented director, laying the foundation for Haynes and a successful filmmaking career. Haynes went on to helm acclaimed films like Safe, Far From Heaven, I’m Not Here, Carol, Dark Waters, and most recently May December.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here.

Poison is particularly renowned for its inventive narrative structure, blending diverse styles and formats. Comprising three separate yet interconnected and increasingly intertwining stories titled "Hero," "Horror," and "Homo," this unconventional storytelling method proved influential. "Horror” is made to look like a low-budget drive-in horror flick in the vein of Carnival of Souls; “Hero,” mimics the tabloid documentary interview style employed by news programs and afternoon TV shows; and “Homo” adopts the conventions of a prison film but with melodramatic flourishes, stylized visual choices, and ample flashbacks.

This is a movie about the experimental nature of storytelling itself; instead of focusing on one main character and his narrative, or dividing the film into three distinct chapters played back to back to back, we crosscut between a trio of tales told chronologically. As the film progresses, the disparate characters and situations begin to overlap thematically and echo some of the same messages and ideas. For example, in "Horror," Dr. Graves jumps from a window just as young Richie does, in an attempt to end his horrific situation; we hear testimony from classmates, teachers, and neighbors of both Dr. Graves and Richie (from "Hero"), many of whom express shock, surprise, and disgust of these two characters; and we observe two young girls spit in Dr. Graves’ face, just as we witness a group spitting-upon of an ostracized boy in a flashback within the “Homo” segment.

Poison is a powerful text unafraid of making serious sociopolitical commentary on what it was like to be gay in the early 1990s, a time when the AIDS epidemic was still rampant, the politicians in power turned a blind eye to this suffering, and being sexually different often made you a pariah in society.

One prominent theme explored is sexual desire deemed taboo by the mainstream. The film probes various facets of desire and sexuality, presenting narratives that not only challenge societal norms but also delve into the intricacies of sexual identity. Particularly, the "Homo" segment emphasizes candid homosexuality and the hurdles gay men face in expressing their desires.

Additionally, Poison posits thought-provoking ideas about identity, otherness, and alienation—scrutinizing matters of self, individuality, and the pervasive sense of estrangement and societal rejection experienced by its characters. The film vividly portrays the emotional and psychological struggles faced by males who find themselves on society's fringes due to their sexual orientation or unconventional behaviors. The exploration of marginalized identities, including queer experiences, contributes to a broader commentary on societal expectations and the ongoing struggle for self-acceptance.

This work disrupts traditional societal norms and delves into the repercussions of being different and unaccepted by straight society, examining the classic conflict between conformity vs. nonconformity. Each of the three narratives presents characters who resist or deviate from established norms, resulting in conflicts and rumination on conformity’s limitations. “(Poison illustrates) that the real disease of our contemporary culture—beyond AIDS…or environmental allergies or child abuse, or even a botched serum cooked up in a sci-fi lab—is a social rot formed by fear, bigotry, intolerance, and persecution,” wrote Criterion Collection essayist Michael Koresky.

Haynes himself said: “…the poison that the film describes is not necessarily one that any of us can avoid, living in the culture that we live in . . . The poison is our culture. The film is about laws and what happens when people break them or transgress them…I think what makes Poison really work for some people is that it gets under your skin and makes you feel something … very sad or disturbed.”

Poison further teaches us to fight fear with fearlessness. “Poison is about the power of refusal, of embracing exclusion, and of admitting that queerness can be a threat to the norm. It refuses integration, acceptance, and co-optation. It seeks to be a ragged outsider. It is a film about ruin and rot, how pleasure and degradation become intertwined, how transgression becomes transcendence. Cycles of violence are ended, pride overcomes the shame of illness moments before death, and showers of spit turn into rose petals,” wrote Sundance Festival blogger Nick Joyner. “Perhaps a portion of Poison’s notoriety lies in its unwillingness to “play nice” and construct “good” representation for the gay community… Haynes was not interested in making films about simple victims who fell prey to the violences of a homophobic society. Here are characters who are imprisoned but not broken, abused but not powerless, cast aside but not ashamed. They could name their suffering and learn from it without losing track of their desires to revisit or re-enact these sources of violence or punishment. The film is not about surrender, resignation, or quiet disobedience. It’s about transforming oppression into something far more fantastical, pleasurable, and ostentatious: power.

Similar works
  • Films regarded as part of the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990s, including Tongue Untied, The Living End, Go Fish, Swoon, The Hours and Times, and The Watermelon Woman
  • Halloween (1978) and its subjective camera sequences; and Eraserhead (1977) with its disorienting black-and-white photography
  • Intolerance (1916), which also intercuts different stories into one shifting narrative
  • Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which also features a somewhat similar outdoor dining scene


How I learned to stop worrying and love Dr. Strangelove

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, released in January 1964, remains perhaps the greatest black comedy and political satire ever filmed. The film's central plot—with a screenplay authored by Kubrick, Terry Southern, and Peter George loosely inspired by Peter George's novel Red Alert—centers around a mentally unstable U.S. Air Force general who commands a sudden nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, setting off a sequence of absurd and chaotic events. The movie delves into the potentially catastrophic outcomes stemming from human error, political and military miscalculations, and the peculiarities of Cold War-era nuclear policy.

Dr. Strangelove adeptly and bravely combines humor with a profound critique of the nuclear arms race and the risks of accidental nuclear warfare. Its release coincided with a tense period in the Cold War, amplifying its impact and relevance. The film's importance extends to its pioneering narrative style and technical accomplishments.

Click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion of Dr. Strangelove, conducted last week.

Why and how does Dr. Strangelove remain one of the most cherished and respected films of all time, especially as a black comedy? Why is this movie deserving of celebration 60 years later? It’s arguably the finest political satire and black comedy ever made, and one of the most distinctively original and emotionally conflicting movies of all time—conflicting in how it can consistently conjure laughs with its absurd characters and comedic situations while also shocking and horrifying us by depicting an Armageddon scenario and the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation due to human error and stupidity. By cleverly using humor and parody, it can entertainingly address a nightmarishly realistic scenario that could result in the death of untold millions and the end of mankind—subject matter that is otherwise terrifying to contemplate.

Dr. Strangelove also represents a winning collaboration of several top talents at the heights of their skills, especially brilliant director Kubrick, chameleonic performer Peter Sellers, acclaimed actors George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden, and satirical novelist Southern.

This picture boasts some of the most colorfully ridiculous characters in movie history—among them General Jack D. Ripper, General Buck Turgidson, Major Kong, President Muffley, and Dr. Strangelove himself—as well as eternally quotable comedic lines, among them: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”, “Mein Führer, I can walk!”, “You're gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola company,” “Shoot, a fella' could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff,” “The whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you keep it a secret—why didn't you tell the world, eh?” and “I can no longer sit back and allow communist infiltration, communist indoctrination, communist subversion and the international communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”

Roger Ebert wrote: "Dr. Strangelove's" humor is generated by a basic comic principle: People trying to be funny are never as funny as people trying to be serious and failing. The laughs have to seem forced on unwilling characters by the logic of events. A man wearing a funny hat is not funny. But a man who doesn't know he's wearing a funny hat ... ah, now you've got something. The characters in "Dr. Strangelove'' do not know their hats are funny.”

Consider how the film endures as an exemplary work that ranks high on several lists. It places #3 on the AFI’s list of the funniest American films and #26 on the AFI’s best American movies list; on various greatest films of all time lists, it has been named #5 on the Sight and Sound Poll of 2002; #14 by Entertainment Weekly; #26 by Empire magazine; #24 by Total Film magazine; #42 by the BBC; #47 based on a Time Out readers poll in 1998. And its screenplay placed as the 12th best ever by the Writers Guild of America.

Despite its 60-year vintage, the picture remains a timeless and cautionary tale because we continue to live by the tick-tock of the doomsday clock and under the constant fear of nuclear destruction, even decades after the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Even elements that threaten to date the film, including the presence of only one female character—a lusty and male gaze-amenable type at that—chauvinistic attitudes among the male personalities that dominate the story, and references to mid-1960s military concerns like the missile gap, reinforce the movie’s key themes and its satirical stylings.

Dr. Strangelove exhibited innovation and groundbreaking elements across various aspects. For starters, the film effectively employed satire to tackle the weighty and delicate subject of nuclear war. It critiqued the political and military establishments of the Cold War era, offering a sardonic perspective on the arms race and the potential for catastrophic outcomes. By fusing two subgenres—black comedy and political satire—it demonstrated that humor could effectively address serious geopolitical issues, challenging conventional expectations regarding the treatment of such topics in film.

The movie also proved to be suspenseful, dramatic, and scary, despite its absurd and chaotic treatment of events linked to nuclear war. Viewers bite into an apple with a surreal comedy outer skin obscuring a rotten core underneath and must digest an unsettlingly realistic depiction of an event that could trigger World War III and the end of civilization. There are taut moments in Strangelove that make it a topically relevant thriller, not a wall-to-wall funny fest. Kubrick’s work presents a disturbingly plausible situation that was top of mind for many Americans at this time, capitalizing on the all-too-real fears of the Cold War, only months removed from the Cuban missile crisis and the 1961 Berlin crisis.

Kubrick's choice to cast Sellers in multiple roles highlighted the actor's versatility, which was earlier demonstrated in the films Lolita and The Mouse That Roared, two other works featuring multiple Sellers characters. Sellers adeptly portrayed three distinct personalities, including the titular Dr. Strangelove, President Merkin Muffley, and Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake. This inventive use of a single actor in diverse roles likely inspired later thespians including comedians Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, Lily Tomlin in The Incredible Shrinking Woman, Eddie Murphy in Coming to America and The Nutty Professor, and Mike Myers in Austin Powers.

Dr. Strangelove is also replete with innovative visuals. The film's cinematography, employing wide-angle lenses and distinctive camera angles, contributed to its visual impact, as did the memorable special effects—including its depiction of the B-52 bomber and the nuclear bomb—and production designer Ken Adams’ inspired designs, particularly the iconic and expressionistic war room set design.

For proof of its influence, ponder subsequent works that have drawn inspiration from Dr. Strangelove, including Fail Safe (1964), released immediately after Strangelove and featuring a very similar story; The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1966); and numerous black comedies and political satires like Catch-22 (1970), Airplane! (1980), Brazil (1985), Mars Attacks! (1996), Wag the Dog (1997), The Pentagon Wars (1998), In the Loop (2009), The Death of Stalin (2017), and Don’t Look Up (2021).

Dr. Strangelove represented a turning point for Stanley Kubrick, a filmmaker who imbues the production with a strong vision and impressive skill at balancing its disparate tonal elements. Kubrick adopts a more objective and dispassionate approach to directing a film like Dr. Strangelove than many other filmmakers would have. Criterion Collection essayist David Bromwich wrote: “Kubrick looks on people as something other than the earnest strivers and helpers we like to imagine we are. In all of his films, individuals are photographed almost neutrally, without flattering close-ups. He would no more deliver these than he would enforce a pointed cut to elicit a predictable laugh or a groan. His is an abstract method, depopulated to the largest practicable extent, so as to approach a geometrical purity.”

The director cogently juxtaposes images and music in creative ways that add humor and irony to otherwise nonhumorous scenes. Case in point: He marries the footage of the aircraft coupling during the opening credits to the song Try a Little Tenderness, and he pairs footage of nuclear mushroom clouds with the Vera Lynn ballad We’ll Meet Again for a great non-sequitur. He would repeat this method in 2001: A Space Odyssey when he employed The Blue Danube Waltz and in A Clockwork Orange with the song Singin’ in the Rain.

Interestingly, Kubrick only used four primary sets/locations in this narrative: the War Room, Ripper’s office, the B-52 bomber interior, and the Air Force base perimeter. Additionally, he wisely chose to shoot in black-and-white, lending a documentary-like realism to the film that would have mimicked what viewers were used to seeing on their television news at the time.

The director encouraged improvisation and ad-libbing from his performers and often shot numerous takes of the same shot or scene to capture different elements and approaches from the actors, sometimes benefitting from happy accidents like the shot where Scott trips but gets up and finishes his line in more comedic fashion. And Kubrick was rightly praised for his attention to detail in this film; ponder how, despite no Pentagon cooperation, he and his crew were able to recreate the actual controls and design of a B-52 aircraft.

Curiously, the movie is brimming with numerous sexual references and imagery. Consider the suggestive names of many characters:
  • Buck is a euphemism for a “manly man,” and Turgidson plays on the word “turgid,” which means full of fluid to the point of hardness.
  • President Merkin Muffley has a name that is evocative of female pubic hair, as if to say he’s lacking in male machismo; his character is loosely based on politician Adlai Stevenson.
  • Jack D. Ripper is an obvious play on Jack the Ripper, a sexually sadistic serial killer; Ripper’s use of the word “essence” is a synonym for semen; he is depicted as an impotent character who blames his sexual dysfunction on a communist conspiracy.
  • Mandrake is the name of a mythical herb or root believed to increase male potency; Mandrake is also evocative of the prim and proper English officer played by Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai.
  • Colonel Bat Guano’s moniker can be interpreted as “bat shit,” slang for insane.
  • The titular character, who proposes an outrageous male-friendly strategy for perpetuating the species at the conclusion, is himself an amalgam of several people, including rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, nuclear physicist Edward Teller, RAND Corporation strategist Herman Kahn, and Rotwang the black-gloved mad scientist in Metropolis.
Examples of the rampant sexual metaphors, innuendos, and messages used throughout the movie include the refueling of the jets, which serves as an obvious symbol of sexual coupling; Ripper’s dangling cigar, an evident phallic object; the Coke machine spewing cola in a sudden, orgasmic burst; Buck’s girlfriend Miss Scott appearing as the centerfold playmate in the magazine being read aboard the B-52 bomber; the B-52 crew’s complex procedure that arms the bomb for use, suggestive of a “foreplay” ritual of sorts; the plane being rendered impotent at the last moment when the bomb doors fail to open; Major Kong straddling the nuclear bomb as if it were a giant phallus; Dr. Strangelove’s arm saluting gestures and sudden erect standing posture, further phallic symbols; the intended bomb target being the island of Laputa, which in Spanish means “the whore”; the pilot viewing an issue of Playboy; Plan “R” for Romeo, implying that war equals love; and the flight crew’s survival kits being stocked with ample quantities of chewing gum, prophylactics, lipstick, and nylons, intimating that having sex will be as important for survival as eating and breathing.

Despite its comedic sheen, Dr. Strangelove several serious messages and morals. Among the important thematic takeaways? The absurdity of nuclear conflict, the folly of the arms race and the Cold War, and the ironic fallacy of nuclear weapons being “deterrents” due to the theory of mutually assured destruction.

Front and center is the notion that man’s impulse to wage war is linked to his sexual drive; a man’s sexual dysfunction or frustration (in this case, Ripper’s) can have disastrous repercussions. Per Slant Magazine critic Clayton Dillard: “Nearly every scene features a scenario or line of dialogue that suggests a world where all men are perpetually on the verge of whipping out their dicks…Dr. Strangelove is unique as an American studio film in that nearly every scene addresses its alignment of military action with sexual impotence and bodily excretion. It’s possibly the filthiest studio comedy ever made, even though there isn’t a single gross-out gag, curse word, or graphic image in its entire running time.”

Kubrick’s cautionary tale is also a reminder of the paradox of being human, according to film scholar Michael Broderick. Man is technologically advanced, intellectual, and sophisticated, capable of creating machines designed to improve life; but deep down inside, man remains a primitive, utterly fallible creature whose perfectly logical creations can backfire on him and whose id-like tendencies and base instincts can prove his undoing.

The film also warns that bureaucracy, red tape, and established protocol can have disastrous consequences. For proof, consider how the B-52 bomber crew follows their orders at all costs; Mandrake has to humor Ripper to try to get the retreat code; Turgidson is compelled to cover his military ass and discourages collaboration with the Russians while the world is on the verge of meltdown; President Muffley attempts to maintain polite diplomatic banter with Russian Prime Minister Kissoff while on the hotline; and Bat Guano resists shooting the Coke machine because it’s private property. “The deep preoccupation of Dr. Strangelove is, in fact, not war itself but rather the political development of which modern war has been the largest symptom: the bureaucratization of terror,” Bromwich posits.

Lastly, Strangelove suggests that resistance to the inevitability of destruction is futile. “It is this contrast (in the final mushroom cloud shots)–this contradiction between the beauty of the images and what they represent – where the question of who exactly is this “I” who learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, is finally answered. It is the narrator – the camera itself – who has finally stopped worrying and beholds the images delicately, tenderly, lovingly. The duality and the anxiety that the camera, and we, have struggled with (rooting for Kong but hoping the president and Mandrake will save the world) are assuaged in the final scene. The camera has stopped worrying, has stopped resisting, and now loves. The “explosion” has happened and we must accept the post-apocalyptic, meaning post-coital, world. It is the camera that is the “I” in the title, and in this case that “I”…is most certainly, and very horribly, male,wrote Nafis Shafizadeh of Senses of Cinema.


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