The year of too many movies

  • by Erin Blackwell
  • Wednesday December 27, 2017
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I've been reviewing movies for the local gay press for 25 years. Is that a boast or a confession? I started at The Sentinel under editor Chris Culwell, and with him moved to this hardy perennial. One of Nature's critics, I have cast my gimlet eye on other media, but film has a special place in my psyche. The dream factory of Hollywood was an arbiter of taste and even a guarantor of fact, growing up in Southern California. I've been watching films critically ever since Mom kept me out of school to watch Greta Garbo's "Camille" (1936) on TV, and wrote a lying note to the vice principal to excuse a half-day's absence. She was afraid I wouldn't like Garbo. Imagine!

The movies we see in childhood affect us as deeply as our actual childhood, implanting themselves in our brains not as discrete objects but as visually structuring models of time and space we ever thereafter navigate by. Thus it was that the chance to review "The Ministry of Fear" (1945) for this venerable rag plunged me deep into my hippocampus, or do I mean amygdala? There's no reason to watch and rewatch the Criterion DVD in order to inform you, Reader, about the Noir fest at the Roxie. But since it was Fritz Lang improving on Graham Greene, featuring Ray Milland, Hillary Brooke, and Dan Duryea, the exercise reconfigured my synapses.

Until very recently, I have believed without question that certain rooms exist, and with them certain people in certain clothes. They were the idols of my childhood, and they were false. I have looked for them everywhere all through my life and sometimes found versions of them, which kept me going. Now I encounter them less and less, and am beginning to think they never existed. They were merely images, wonderful and terrible, projected to distract me from Reality. I thought they were Reality. As Somerset Maugham argues so poignantly in "Theatre" (1930), they might be better than Reality, at least for the artist.

Those of us cursed with this need to adore images are at our wits' end with the decline and fall of Hollywood. The Harvey Weinstein debacle would never happen in a peak production cycle. He can be blamed now, because independent cinema is as dead as the studio system. None of it works anymore, so let's blame somebody! Which is not to say Harvey and his ilk don't have it coming. As a woman who had a brief acting career, I can attest to systemic predation by needy men. If women are to save Hollywood, they must first upgrade the status of women from sex slave to artist, and achieve parity as writers and directors. Otherwise, it's the samo samo.

I've seen too many soulless films this year, made cynically without love, technically proficient, with a decent budget, sans oomph. As if all you had to do was turn on the camera, go through certain motions, whittle it down, and get a distributor. Digitization has killed film the way film killed vaudeville. Be that as it may, filmmaking yet demands passion, obsession, and delusion. Subjectivity must transcend mechanics. Take "The Blob" (1958), please! This idiot cousin of "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) is still fresh, lively, and out of control. Although nothing like my childhood nightmares of the monster, it still thrills!

New films I reviewed in 2017 that pass the Blob test are the trickster "Banksy," the French peacenik "Frantz," the sexy Czech mermaid "Lure," the Frenchwomen's "Midwife," the English fetal "Prevenge," the Swedish aesthete's "Square," the existentially Russian "Zoology". Plus the self-obsessed biopics of Czech mass-murdering butch-dyke trucker "I, Olga Hepnorova" and white-trash champion "I, Tonya." Nearly all were shown at Landmark cinemas. Local curators served up anti-nuclear "Dark Circle" (1982), vintage French "Gibier de Potence" (1951), and Czechoslovak "Krakatit" (1948) at the Roxie; the silent "Lost World" (1925) and Italian "Monsters" (1963) at the Castro. Most were publicized by Bay Area independent film dowager Karen Larsen and svelte sidekick Vince. Thanks to editor Roberto Friedman for letting me think about film.

The immortal Greta Garbo in "Camille" (1936).